You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
Today's Wild Card author is:
and the book:
Soul Mate Publishing (April 4, 2012)
***Special thanks to Katy Lee for sending me a review copy.***
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Visit the author's website.
SHORT BOOK DESCRIPTION:
In a virtual reality game where she can fly, someone’s aiming to take her down.
Mel Mesini is a New York City restaurateur and an avid, virtual reality world traveler. But her successful life—both online and in reality—takes a swerve the night her father is seriously injured in a hit-and-run. To make matters worse, Officer Jeremy Stiles, the man who had once cut her deep with his harsh, rejecting words, is heading the investigation.
When Jeremy realizes Mel is the actual target, his plan is to protect her—whether she wants him to or not. What he wants is answers, especially about this online game she plays. Is it a harmless pastime as she says? Or is she using it to cover something up? As a faceless predator destroys the things that matter to her, Jeremy knows he’s running out of time before she loses the one thing that matters most—her real life.
List Price: $4.99
File Size: 2383 KB
Print Length: 289 pages
Publisher: Soul Mate Publishing (April 4, 2012)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
In just a moment, and with one little push, the game would begin. Every domino piece strategically set up would come crashing down, one after the other. A line of crafted maneuvers coiling around and around like a winding snake until the last piece lay flat.
White-knuckled hands tightened around the steering wheel preparing for that little push; anxious to get started—so the voices would finally stop. Cruel, taunting voices from cruel, taunting people.
These old, rejecting voices bounced back and forth against cranium walls, playing skull ping-pong to the point of near insanity. If only people weren’t so mean. But they were. They are, and enough was enough. After all, there was only so much cruelty a person could take before they gave some of it back.
A pinpoint of light bounced through the sheer, black forest.
The first domino had arrived.
With each step the old man took, the light from his flashlight grew brighter; his bull’s eye bigger. He strode out onto the paved road fifty feet away, oblivious to the game plan.
High beams clicked on, flooding the old man with their blinding light. He raised one hand to shield his eyes from the glare; a rifle filled his other. Too bad he wouldn’t get a chance to use it. The engine roared as the gas pedal hit the floor. It would be over for him in less than a second.
As for the game, it was just getting started.
With one nudge of her gaming controller, Mel concealed her avatar behind an immense African baobab tree. Its wide, silvery-barked trunk perfectly shielded her videogame character from her competitor’s eyes. Legend had it that the gods grew tired of listening to the baobab complain about not being slender like the palm and not bearing fruit like the fig, so they pulled the tree up by its roots, replanting it upside down to keep it quiet.
Now, from its gnarled, root-like branches, a green and gold snake slithered down this distorted tree of life. Mel’s lips twitched as the slender, virtual arm on her flat-screen monitor extended with a fluidity an experienced ballerina would envy. Her avatar invited the computer-graphic snake to coil around her hand and then slither down her side. Mel delighted in the fact her avatar’s ruby red smile never wavered. Not a trace of fear glimmered in the dazzling blue eyes of Mel’s virtual self.
She felt bad for the baobab, silenced because it wished for a better life. Mel didn’t see anything wrong with modifying your appearance if it made you a stronger being. She was living proof of how a makeover could help you stand a little straighter, and there would be no one shutting her up because of it.
Not in her new life anyway.
The baobab blurred around the edges as another tree from her past invaded her mind. A lone oak tree with a lone girl beneath it. Well, not totally alone. One person sat beside her. One person who didn’t laugh at the town’s outcast. At least, not until that last night.
Then the joke was really on her.
Mel squeezed her eyes to shove the image back behind its wall. Back to where it couldn’t hurt her. Not in her new life, and definitely not on this website where she’d earned the name Tough-as-Nails.
Nails. That’s what she called her steely-natured avatar. A name she lived up to by nailing every level in the online interactive game of Better Life Virtual World. And tonight she would reach the highest level possible.
As long as she stayed focused.
“Then stop digging up your dead-and-buried past and get focusing,” she scolded herself aloud.
A red flashing dot popped up in the corner of her screen. Her radar alerted her that her competitor closed in. He was here to beat her to the finish line. She could actually lose tonight. The idea of it made her grit her teeth. Her eyes narrowed. She would win. Tonight she would earn her rightful place in the kingdom. All she needed was the key to open the gates.
Mel scanned the side of the tree for the secret door that hid her prize. An opening, a handle, hinges—anything that might resemble a door.
Nothing. Not even an outline of one. She’d completed all of the tasks for it to be revealed to her. It should have been here. She bit her lower lip. Had she slipped up? Missed a step somewhere along the way? Perhaps back in the forest?
No. Nails didn’t slip up. Nails was perfect.
But even Nails’ perfection wouldn’t stop the clock from ticking away, taking Mel’s victory right along with it. Any second now, it wouldn’t matter how perfect Nails was if she didn’t find that key. Mel yanked her hair back in a death grip. “Where is it?” she demanded of her empty office.
The radar alarm blared through her headphones. If her competitor found the key first, the game would be over—and shewould be the loser. Again.
“No!” She sat up straight in her swivel chair, which creaked beneath her. Determination empowered her to find that compartment. “Not again! Never again!”
The gaming rulebook stated that the key could be found on the side of the tree where the afternoon sun shined upon it. Mel looked up and down the illuminated side of the trunk while Nails stood motionless beside it. Sunlight shined from behind Nails’ long, chestnut-colored hair, casting a warm glow on her, too. So Mel knew she had to be searching in the correct location. She brought Nails to a crouching position for a different view.
“Eureka!” Mel said on a rush of air. There was a contour, just a shade darker than the rest of the tree. In a crevice of one of the monstrous tree roots she found the hidden door. A missed opportunity to the untrained eye, but not to an avid gamer like herself. She moved her controller to bring Nails’ hand over the door.
Click. A shiny golden key beckoned for its new master. Mel touched the screen. If only she could reach in and grab it with her own flesh-and-blood hands.
Beep ... beep, beep, beep. The radar sped up. The game’s version of life support alerted her to the peril of her chances of winning.
“Time to zap out of here,” she said and typed the code that would teleport Nails out of the jungle and directly to the palace.
But the scene remained the same. Nails still crouched beside the tree, holding her key and waiting for Mel’s next move. Instant transport should have occurred. Nails should have been standing in front of the magnificent golden gates, taking her place with the “best of the best.”
“That’s weird,” Mel mumbled, and clicked the code again.
Still no change.
She went bug-eyed on a sharp intake of breath. “This can’t be happening.” Her voice shook. She couldn’t teleport. She couldn’t escape. And the radar showed he was here! She banged on the keys repeatedly, but to no avail.
“Well, hello, Nails.” His slick voice came through Mel’s headset, and her shoulders sagged in defeat. A leopard avatar with black spots and a shiny golden coat of fur stepped out from behind the tree. “What, are you going soft?” His beady amber eyes targeted her key. “That was almost too easy.” He chuckled. Two long saber teeth glistened on the screen.
“Something’s wrong with the game.” She rubbed her forehead furiously. Think. Think. She dared not take her eyes off him. At any moment she expected him to pounce. She moved Nails a step away before he took the opportunity.
The sleek cat closed the gap. “Yeah, right, you just don’t want to admit you’re losing your touch.”
“No, I’m serious.” She tensed, and the controller cracked in her hand. “I lost my teleportation powers.”
“I guess that means the game’s over for you. You might as well give up the key.” His sharp-clawed paw shot out for the key at the same moment Mel backed up Nails another space.
The phone intercom on her spotless desktop buzzed into the room. The feminine singsong voice of her business partner spoke through it. “Mel, you’ve got a phone call.”
Mel kept her eyes on the screen while she fumbled to find the intercom button. She hit it. “Not right now, Chris.”
“It sounds important.”
“Not as important as this.” She shut the intercom off to stop further interruptions.
She had to get away from the leopard. But without teleporting, her only other mode of transportation meant taking Nails to the skies. Nails had earned her ability to fly back at an earlier level, but Mel couldn’t be sure if leopard boy had. She doubted it, though. He tended to just show up and take what he wanted, rather than earn it.
“The game’s not over yet.” Mel broke Nails into a run before swooping her up to soar toward the puffy white clouds above. The leopard shrank as she left him behind. She’d been correct. They didn’t share the same skill in flying.
“If I were you, I’d watch your back!” he yelled. “This can be a cruel world, Nails.”
“But oh, so rewarding!” She waved her key in his direction as her flying skills put rapid distance between them. Nails gained altitude and speed, and Mel triumphantly pumped her fist, loving the feel of victory. “Maybe I’ll send you some chocolates from the palace, or not.”
Mel giggled out loud. If she still ate chocolate, she would have indulged in a piece herself. Besides, she didn’t need chocolate when victory was sweet enough. On the screen, Nails soared onward like an angel, floating through the air. Any thoughts of sweets vanished. Years of practice and control showed through each of her movements.
“The only things you’re missing are the wings,” Mel reflected, imagining an iridescent pair fluttering on Nails’ back. With the threat dispersed, Mel relaxed back into her chair. “I should create a pair for you. I’d say you’ve earned them more than any other celestial being out there. If they’re out there.”
Nails flew out of the jungle and over a shimmering body of water. Ahead, a city skyline of various buildings reached to the darkening sky, luring Mel to her online club and the number one destination in better Life—ClubCreare.
Blue and purple lights shined into the night, leading her, and all the other virtual world travelers, to its doors. They were a beautiful group of beings, people, animals, even a black snake coming up behind Nails, each living out their fantasy in a world of their own making.
People came to socialize, to network, to fall in love. Many were here to make it big, to find their fame in the online world. All they needed was the right person to like their artwork or music and they could carry that fame into the real world. And, being that she was the co-owner of a real-life restaurant and in charge of the entertainment, she just happened to be that right person.
Mel hit the down controls to swoop Nails in, but chaos in the streets below caught her attention. Avatars ran in every direction. She pulled Nails up short to hover over the group. “What’s going on?” she called out.
“Someone’s giving away great stuff,” a buxom blonde with a sparkling diamond necklace in her fist answered. Mel’s eyes narrowed. Was that one of her necklaces?
“Where did you get that?” There wasn’t another one like it. Mel had created it herself.
“It’s free stuff. Get down here quick before it’s all gone.”
She brought Nails in for a quick landing and immediately recognized more and more of her virtual belongings scattered about for the taking. One by one, her clothes were taken away; her jewelry hung from body parts; someone even drove off with her car!
Mel sprang out of her chair, sending it flying back. It clanged loudly against her metal filing cabinet, but her mind screamed louder. Her hands reached for the screen again. “These are all my things! Put them back!” Yelling, her only recourse.
“How do we know you’re telling the truth?”
Mel tore her gaze from her disappearing property to look at a man with bleached-blond hair tied back in a queue and blue-tinted glasses perched on a wide nose.
“I’m serious,” she pleaded. “These are my things! How did they get out here? I didn’t give anything away. How did this happen?”
Mel waited for the man to come to her aid. To help retrieve her belongings. Instead, a laugh burst from his lips. A great big belly-of-a-laugh that had him bent over at the waist, then flinging his head back in abandon.
The hair on the back of her neck rose. Her lips curled in revulsion, and trembled. He was laughing at her, like so many other people before him. This wasn’t supposed to be happening. Not in this world. Not in her new life.
Pain seared her palms, and she had to unclench her fists to stop her nails from further slicing through her skin. The laughter coming through her headphones echoed in her head, sending her back in time to when being the butt of jokes was an everyday occurrence.
No! She yanked back from the memories, refusing to go there.
“Dude,” he said, his laughing ceased. She focused on his voice. It sounded muffled and distant as her memories still fought for her attention. “Looks like you’ve been hacked.”
“What?” Mel retracted from the screen. Was that possible? Had she heard him correctly? “You mean someone broke into my account and stole my possessions?” Reality sank in. “And then,” —she swallowed—“just dropped them all out here for the taking?”
“Looks that way to me. You got any cyber-enemies out there?”
“No, I don’t think—” Her mouth gaped open. Did the leopard have the ability to take her possessions away? But if that were the case, wouldn’t he have taken the key, too? It couldn’t have been him.
“Well, someone’s having fun with you.” The avatar turned to walk away. “But hey,”—he stopped—“it could’ve been worse. They could’ve killed you ... virtually, anyway.”
Her throat tightened at the truth of his statement. This hacker could have deleted her whole account. Essentially “killing” her with the click of a button.
Dazed and numb, she stood frozen in her spot. Her skin crawled; she felt violated. These may have been virtual possessions, but she had worked hard for them. It would have been no different if someone had broken into her apartment and robbed her blind. “Why?” she squeaked.
“Why do any hackers hack? Because they can. It’s all in the joy of proving no wall is impenetrable.” He walked away, his chuckle rumbling through her headphones.
Nails stood motionless, her owner too stunned to move her. Her few rejected possessions littered the computer-graphic blacktop. Cars whizzed by, and Nails still didn’t move. Mel didn’t know what to do. What direction to move Nails in. What direction to move herself in. She stared at the screen and realized the laugh was on her. Again.