ExtractRead the first chapters of the novel Virtually

The kitchen had the same nip in the air as the bedroom, though at least there the power was on. He got his antiquated cooker to throw out a little heat by switching on all the rings on the hob, then cut some thick slices of bread and shoved them in the toaster, lashing them with jam when they were done. He hunted around for his watch - found it down the back of the sofa, and whoa, was it late - snatched up his coat, keys, briefcase, took his toast with him and ate it on the way in to work.

It was subzero outside. There was no snow, no ice. A sea mist was rolling in, a gauzy veil laid over buildings, streets and trees, people. By the time he reached his office block, the mist had thickened to a soupy fog, cutting the building down to size, with only two of its thirty-odd floors showing, as if nature had read the company's logo over the entrance - Virtual Enterprises - and given a warning: mess with reality, and reality will mess with you.

It was bristling with activity inside, his floor especially. He buttonholed one of the section leaders of his department and managed to get the lowdown from him.

"Bloody Reality Inc.," he muttered, in a hurry, not stopping, casting the words J.'s way as he executed a quick three-sixty. "Stolen a march on us again."

J. went to his office, shrugged off his coat and shut the door on the hustle and bustle outside, not in the least bit surprised. They had a new package out soon, VR that would knock the socks off their competitor's stuff. They had been plugging it for weeks, adverts everywhere, especially over the pond, Stateside - their biggest market. And so inevitably, Reality Inc., their only real rival, had pre-empted them. They always did. It was nothing to get het up about. Whatever they had brought out, it wouldn't be a patch on Enterprises' new package. It might put a slight dent in the sales for the first week or two and a crimp in the sales-and-marketing campaigns, but couldn't, in the long run, prove too damaging.

He flipped his computer on and logged on. An e-mail message flagged him at once. Heavy night? My office, when you get in. It was from Martin. He sent a curt return. Busy. Come here. Then he cued down, got an outside connection. The fat florid face of Mr. Sorensen, his repairman, appeared in miniature in the top left corner of the screen.

"Yeh?" he said. He was flailing about with his hand, as if bashing his terminal at the other end, a quick fix to a dodgy connection. It clearly didn't work. "Can't see you. Cam's up the spout," he piped - the sound was none too good either. "What can I do you for?"

"It's Mr. Wilby, Mr. Sorensen. From Kirkley Terraces? The broken heating unit?"

"Wilby? Ah yes. That really antiquated system, right? The Superflow Deluxe? What's the problem? Can't have packed in already."


"Can't have," he exclaimed. He puckered his lips in consternation, his fleshy jowls sagging miserably round the corners of his mouth, a look of disbelief and wounded pride all rolled into one. It dissolved in an instant, token resistance from a man used to failure. "I'll pop round later," he sighed. "Be okay?"

"What time?"

"Can't say. Sevenish, eight."

J. nodded, a weary, resigned nod. Then realized Sorensen couldn't see him. He said seven or eight would be fine. The connection was cut at the other end before the subject of money could be broached.

He called up the balance of his bank account. It was running low, though there was enough there to cover another costly repair bill if need be.

Shifting the cursor to his e-mail box, finger poised to open it, he froze. For a second. Something, in his mind, had been disturbed. The knot of darkness. Resurfacing. Unravelling.

What had brought it back? He pondered that for a while, thinking of things which almost made sense. The cold, chilling him through to the bone. The boarded-up room. But what room? The dream. But what dream? The answers wouldn't come.

He cued the cursor down and opened up the Music folder, scanning the list of works stored there in search of something to put on, low, in the background, mood music while he worked. There was nothing there that he particularly fancied. He wanted something dissonant, strident, to keep him awake and on his toes. He had only classically tonal works, Beethoven to Mahler, symphonies only. A spot of Bartok: that was what he had a yen for. His string quartets had been there, up until a few days ago, wiped to make space for something else.

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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