ExtractRead the first chapters of the novel Virtually

"You've got that same look as earlier. The meeting. Glassy."

"What a fool I made of myself," he said, finding a smile to fix on his lips while in his mind's eye he imagined her beauty changed to mud, by bony Death and his hateful wizardries. It all made sense now. The suicide was what he had been striving to recollect. That was the nightmarish event hermetically sealed in his repressed memory, which somehow, somewhy, had bubbled up to the surface over the last couple of days.

And yet somehow, he didn't buy it. Something was off. It was neat, a fine explanation, but it just didn't quite ring true. It was as if his mind was once again diverting him from the truth, deflecting him from something too emotionally shattering to face. Instead of locking it away in a pokey room and hoping he wouldn't be curious, it laid it in plain view, flinging the door wide, saying, There! Are you happy now? Is that what you wanted to see? But it was all a charade. His mind had pulled a switch on him. This wasn't the right room; this wasn't what it had been hiding. What about the fire-filled sky? The scorched flesh dripping from the bone? It just didn't marry up. It was a swizz. He was being had.

"Awfully rude," she said, setting her glass down and rising abruptly, "but I've got to go. Fortunate, in a way. The meal I mean. Couldn't have stayed anyway. My son, coming down with something. Running a fever. I tried to call you up and cancel."

"Oh," he said, momentarily at a loss. "God," he muttered. He hadn't even thought of that. She was so young; her background was a blank. He had idealized her to a certain extent, free from any corrupting past. Ex-husband, a son: these were things he had never even imagined about her.

She glanced about, asking, "No vidphone?"

"I was disconnected last year. Very scatty when it comes to bills. Never used it much anyway."

"It was interesting, this evening. Bit brief - I really am sorry - but... some other time, perhaps?"

"Sure. Some other time."

Reacting to his tone - cool, dejected, thinking that this was it, he was getting the brush-off - she asked him brightly, "What do I call you, by the way? I tried to look you up on the company files, but there was nothing there, just an initial. J. Wilby."

"I deleted my Christian name from the system. Never liked it."

She smiled. "Very embarrassing?" she asked.

"It's not pretty," he admitted. "Just call me Jay. Everyone does."

"In that case," she countered, "I'm Anne. And don't tell me you prefer Anne-Yvonne."

He started to say that he did, of course he did, it was a beautiful name - but her playful scowl held him in check.

"It was my mother's name," she told him, with an intimate smile, a secret shared, quelling the last of his doubts. "Anne von Hepsburg. Austrian. That was my father's pet name for her, 'Annie von'. Liked it enough to give it to me. I prefer just plain Anne though. I look in the mirror and more and more I see my mother's face staring back at me. Don't like to be reminded more than I have to." She took her coat from him, slipped into it with another barely-disguised shiver. "Books too," she observed. There was a collection of them in an antique bookcase by the front door. She took one out at random, leafed through it. "I didn't realize they still sold them."

"They don't. Why would they?" he said, with the slightly bitter twist in his tone. "Any book you want and you can just hook up to the Central Library site and download it in a flash."

"Then where...?"

"There are some specialist shops. Same with the furniture and fittings. They can still be had, for a price. Wouldn't care to tell you what I paid for that paltry lot," he said, indicating the half a dozen books in the case.

She scanned the open page of the book for a second or so, flipped back, flipped forwards again. "I can't say I read much these days. Never seem to have the time. Used to though. Loved it, as a girl. But lost the craving. VR," she explained.

He nodded. VR: the ruination of every child in the Western world. But then, there had always been something, a way of escape. For him, it had been computer games. If she was a child of the VR age, that would make her... ten years younger than him. At least.

Available for purchase now

Buy the e-book version of Virtually online via Amazon.co.uk (UK readers), and Amazon.com (North America).

The paperback version is available in the UK from Amazon.co.uk and in North America from Amazon.com.


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