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Bart Minnock, founder of the computer gaming giant U-Play, enters his private room, and eagerly can’t wait to lose himself in an imaginary world, to take on the role of a sword-wielding warrior king, in his company’s latest top-secret project, Fantastical.
The next morning, he is found in the same locked room, in a pool of blood, his head separated from his body. It is the most puzzling case Lieutenant Eve Dallas has ever faced, and it is not a game....
She is having as much trouble figuring out how Bart Minnock was murdered as determining who did the murdering. The victim’s girlfriend seems sincerely grief-stricken, and his quirky but brilliant partners at U-Play appear shocked as well. No one seems to have had a problem with the enthusiastic, high-spirited millionaire.
Of course, success can attract jealousy, and gaming, like any business, has its fierce rivalries and dirty tricks—as Eve’s husband, Roarke, one of U-Play’s competitors, knows well. But Minnock was not naive, and he knew how to fight back in the real world as well as the virtual one.
Eve and her team are about to enter the next level of police work, in a world where fantasy is the ultimate seduction—and the price of defeat is death.
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Nora Roberts is the number-one New York Times-bestselling author of more than 150 novels, including High Noon, Angels Fall, Blue Smoke, and Northern Lights. She is also the author of the bestselling futuristic suspense series written under the pen name J. D. Robb. There are more than 280 million copies of her books in print.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
While swords of lightning slashed and stabbed murderously across the scarred shield of sky, Bart Minnock whistled his way home for the last time. Despite the battering rain, Bart’s mood bounced along with his cheerful tune as he shot his doorman a snappy salute.
“Howzit going, Mr. Minnock?”
“It’s going up, Jackie. Going way uptown.”
“This rain could do the same, if you ask me.”
“What rain?” With a laugh, Bart sloshed his way in soaked skids to the elevator.
Thunder exploded across the island of Manhattan, midday commuters sulked under overpriced umbrellas bought from enterprising sidewalk hawkers and maxibuses spewed up walls of wet. But in Bart’s world the sun beamed in golden rays.
He had a hot date with the sexy CeeCee, which in itself was nothing to sneeze at for a self-proclaimed nerd who’d been a virgin until the somewhat embarrassing age of twenty-four.
Five years later, and largely because of the success of U-Play, he could have his pick from a bevy of eager women—even if the eager was mostly due to the money and media his company generated.
He didn’t mind.
He knew he wasn’t especially good-looking and accepted his own awkwardness in romantic situations. (Except for sexy CeeCee.) He didn’t know art or literature, didn’t know a good vintage from a bottle of home brew. What he knew were computers and games and the seduction of technology.
Still, CeeCee was different, he thought as he turned off the locks and security on his trilevel apartment with its four-star view of downtown. She liked gaming, and didn’t care about vintage wine or art galleries.
But even the evening with the sweet and sexy CeeCee wasn’t the reason for the whistling or the big, bright grin on his face as he reset the door locks.
He had the latest version of Fantastical in his briefcase, and until he tested it, played it, approved it, it was all his.
His in-house intercom greeted him with a cheery Welcome home, Bart, and his server droid—custom-made to replicate Princess Leia, classic Star Wars, slave-girl mode (he was a nerd, but he was still a guy)—strolled out to offer him his favorite orange fizzy with crushed ice.
“You’re home early today.”
“I’ve got some work to do in the holo-room.”
"Don’t work too hard. You need to leave in two hours and twelve minutes to arrive at CeeCee’s apartment on time. You’re scheduled to pick up flowers on the way. Will you be staying the night?”
“That’s the plan.”
“Enjoy. Your shoes are very wet. Would you like me to get you a fresh pair?”
“No, that’s okay. I’ll grab some on the way up.”
“Don’t forget,” she said with the quick Leia smirk that always tickled him. “Should I give you a reminder about your date closer to departure time?”
He set his briefcase aside, shook back the light brown hair that forever fell into his eyes. “That’s okay. I’ll set up a buzz in holo. You can just shut down for the night.”
“All right. I’m here if you need me.”
Normally, he’d have used his personal Leia for some conversational practice, might have had her keep him company while he unwound from the day and talked about current projects. There was nothing like a droid as far as Bart was concerned. They never judged, unless you programmed them to.
But Fantastical called him. He opened his briefcase, took out the disc, gave it a friendly kiss as he started up the stairs.
He’d decorated his spaces to his own whim and taste, so toys abounded. Props, weapons, costumes, and art from vids and games served as decor and amusement with every room on every level outfitted with various game systems, vid systems, screens, and comps.
It was, for Bart, a dream realized. He lived, as he worked, in a big e-playroom.
His second-floor office was a to-scale reproduction of the bridge of the galactic warship The Valiant, from the vid of the same name. His work on the gaming discs for the vid had given his fledgling U-Play its true start.
He forgot about changing his shoes, or changing his wet shirt, and went straight to the third floor.
Security on the holo-room required his thumbprint, voiceprint, and a retinal scan. Overkill, he knew, but it was more fun that way, and fun was always the name of the game. He might have opened up the space regularly for friends and guests, but he liked having the superspy aspects in place.
He reactivated them on entering, then shut down all outside coms. For the hour—okay maybe ninety minutes—he intended to play, he wanted no interruptions.
The whole point of gaming, to Bart’s mind, was the immersion of self in the fantasy, or the competition, or just the fun. And Fantastical would take that immersion of self several steps beyond what was on the market in mid-2060.
If the latest adjustments and enhancements worked, the businessman inside the gamer reminded him.
“They’ll work. It’ll be mag to the nth,” he muttered as he inserted the disc and ran through the startup. Once again he used his voiceprint, then his password. The new version was totally top secret. He and his partners hadn’t built U-Play on geek alone. He understood, very well, the cutthroat business in the gaming field, and actually found the corporate espionage kind of a rush.
He was a player, he thought. Not just in games but in the business of games. U-Play’s success provided everything he and his friends, his partner, had talked about, dreamed about, worked for.
With Fantastical, they’d be kicking it all up—and—fingers crossed—become major players.
He’d already decided on the scenario, a favorite, and the level. He’d practiced, studied, refined, and reworked this fantasy, the elements of it countless times during development, and now set for the game he code-named K2BK. He’d take the role of the battered and cynical hero, battling the evil forces of the beleaguered kingdom of Juno on the endangered planet of Gort.
The mirrored walls of the holo-room reflected him as the light began to swirl and dim, as his damp and wrinkled khakis and Captain Zee’s T-shirt, his wet skids transformed into the scarred battle gear and boots of the warrior king.
In his hand he felt the hilt, and the weight of the broadsword. And that rush, yes, that new rush of his embodiment of the hero, and the battle to come.
Excellent, he thought. Excellente primo. He could smell as well as see the smoke of battle, and the blood already spilled. He reached up, felt the bulge of biceps, the pucker of an old scar.
Twinges and aches throughout his body spoke of wounds barely healed, a lifetime of combat.
Best, he felt strong, bold, brave, fierce. He became the courageous warrior king about to lead his exhausted, wounded, and unnumbered people into battle.
He let out a war cry—because he could—and heard the power of his voice shake the air.
It rocked completely.
A scruff of beard covered his face, and a tangle of hair tickled his neck and shoulders.
He was Tor, the warrior, the protector and rightly King of Juno. He mounted his warhorse—on the second try, which wasn’t bad—and charged into battle. He heard the cries of friend and foe as swords clashed and fire lances spewed death. His beloved Juno burned so he hacked his way through the lines while blood splattered and sweat streamed down his skin.
At his partner Benny’s suggestion they’d added an optional love interest. In order to reach his woman, a brave and beautiful warrior courageously defending the castle walls, he had to fight his way to the front and engage in the ultimate battle—mano a mano with the evil Lord Manx.
He’d reached this level countless times during development, had gone beyond it only a handful as he programmed the challenge to the top of the scale. It took skill, timing, agility to fight through, to dodge the flames from lance and arrow, to deflect the slash of sword—or what was the point?
Any hit would lower his score, potentially send him into humiliating retreat, or a valiant death. This time he wasn’t looking just to beat the level, but to hit a new record.
His horse screamed in challenge as they galloped through the stink of smoke, leaped over bodies of the fallen. He braced and clung when the horse reared, and still was nearly unseated.
Every time that happened, he met Manx on foot, and every time he met Manx on foot, he lost Juno, the woman, and the game.
Not this time, he swore, and gave another booming cry as he broke through the smoke.
And there, the walls of home where the brave fought those who tried to destroy it. And there, the dark, fearful visage of Lord Manx, sword red with the blood of innocents.He felt a pang—for loss, for the happier times of his childhood before murder and deceit had sullied it.
“Your trap failed,” Bart called out.
“I would have been disappointed otherwise.” Manx grinned, his black eyes shining with death. “It was always my wish to meet you here, to end you and your line on this ground.”
“It will end here, and with your blood.”
The men charged; swords met. A snap of lightning Bart had added for drama spurted and sizzled from the cross of the blades.
Bart felt the impact race up his arm, and the bolt of pain in his shoulder had him making a mental note to lower the levels on the default. Realism was important, but he didn’t want gamers bitching because they’d programmed it too hot.
He turned into the next strike, blocking it, and he felt a wrenching pop in his shoulder. He nearly called for a pause in the program, but was too busy dodging a swipe.
What the hell, he thought as he struck out and nearly got by Manx’sguard, winning wasn’t winning until you worked for it.
“Your woman will be mine before nightfall,” Manx snarled.
“She’ll dance on your—hey!” His sword slipped, and his enemy’s blade sliced his arm. Instead of the quick jolt to mark the hit, the pain seared. “What the hell. Pause—”
But for Bart, it was game over.
Lieutenant Eve Dallas badged the shell-shocked doorman and breezed by. The sun and sultry heat left over from the night’s storms boosted her mood. At her side, her partner, Peabody, wilted.
“A couple months ago all you did was bitch about the cold. Now you bitch about the heat. Never satisfied.”
Peabody, her dark hair pulled back in a stubby tail, continued to bitch. “Why can’t they regulate the temperature?”
“Who are they?”
“The weather people. We must have the technology. Why not give us at least a couple weeks of steady mid-seventies? It’s not too much to ask. You could get Roarke to work on it.”
“Oh yeah, I’ll tell him to get on that, right after he buys up the last ten percent of the universe.” Eve rocked back on her heels as they took the elevator up, and thought of her husband of almost two years.
Actually, he probably could figure something. “If you want regulated temps, get a job where you work inside with climate control.”
“June’s supposed to be daisies and wafty breezes.” Peabody waved a hand in the air. “Instead we’re getting thunder boomers and humiture to kill."
“I like the boomers.”
Peabody’s dark eyes narrowed as she studied Eve’s angular face. “You probably had lots of sex last night. You’re almost perky.”
“Shut up. I’m never perky.”
“Almost. You’re verging on perk.”
“You’re verging on a boot up the ass.”
“That’s better anyway.”
Amused despite herself, Eve straightened her long, lean frame, then strode out the elevator when the doors whisked open.
The uniforms in the hallway came to attention. “Lieutenant.”
“Officer. What have we got?”
“Victim’s Bart Minnock, the U-Play guy.”
“You play what?”
“U-Play, sir, it’s the comp and holo-game company. The girlfriend found him this morning. He stood her up last night, she says, and she came to read him the riot act. House droid let her in, and when she got here he was locked in his holo-room, got the droid to open it up.” The uniform paused. “I think you’re going to want to see for yourself.”
“Where’s the girlfriend?”
“CeeCee Rove. We’ve got her inside, and an officer’s with her. Got the droid on hold.”
“We’ll take the scene first.” She stepped inside, scanned. What she could see of the first level struck her as a clubhouse for a very rich, very indulgent adolescent boy.
Bright, primary colors with more cushion than structure, walls of screens, games, and more games, toys—heavy on the war toys. Not a living area so much as a big playroom. She supposed, given his profession, it fit.
“Third floor, LT. There’s an elevator.”
“We’ll take the stairs.”
“It’s like a personal fun park,” Peabody commented as they started up. “McNab would weep with joy and envy,” she added, thinking of her main man. “I’ve got to say, it’s pretty frosty.”
“He might live like a kid, but he had very grown-up security on the door.” She detoured on the second level long enough to determine the master bedroom was another playground, the guest rooms equipped for plenty of entertainment. He kept a home office that reminded her of a small version of Roarke’s home computer lab, but with more fanciful touches.
“Serious about his work,” she murmured. “Lived his work.” She backtracked to the stairs and up to the officer on the door of the holo-room.
“This door was secured?”
“The girlfriend states it was, sir, and the coms shut down. The droid confirms. It had emergency bypass clearance. The log shows the victim entering, then securing the room at sixteen thirty-three. No other entry or attempted entry until nine-eighteen this morning.”
“Okay.” Both Eve and Peabody opened their field kits, sealed up.
“Record on,” she said and stepped to the doorway.
She wasn’t often surprised. She’d been a cop nearly a dozen years, and though she knew she hadn’t seen it all—you never did—she’d seen plenty.
But her long brown eyes widened briefly as she took in the scene.
“Now, this is something you don’t see every day.”
“Man. Oh, man.” Peabody sucked in a sharp breath.
“Don’t even think about booting.”
“Have to think about it.” Peabody swallowed hard. “Won’t do it.”
The body lay sprawled, arms and legs splayed in the bloody pool that spread over the floor. The head sat several feet away, the filmed eyes wide, the mouth in a gaping O.
“It must be said the victim lost his head, which is a pretty good guess for cause of death. Alone in a secured holo-room, no weapons. Interesting. Well, let’s have a look.”
She heard Peabody swallow again.
“Take the play board, see what he programmed,” she ordered. “And I want all security discs and logs, building and for this unit.”
“On that,” Peabody said, grateful for the reprieve as Eve crossed to the body.
For the record, Eve verified the fingerprints. “Victim is identified as Bart Minnock of this address, age twenty-nine.” She pulled out a pair of microgoggles. “From the on-scene exam, it appears the head was severed with a single, powerful blow. No signs of sawing or hacking.” She ignored the discreet gagging sound from Peabody’s direction. “In addition, the victim incurred a six-inch gash on his left forearm. There’s some ...
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Book Description Brilliance Audio, 2010. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M1423383680