Book Cover: Raymond
Part of the Growl and Prowl series:
Editions:E-Book: $ 3.99
ISBN: 9781773842295
Pages: 208
Paperback / Print: $ 9.99
ISBN: 9781773842301
Pages: 208

This avid gamer is about to discover love doesn’t mean game over.

As a hacker who rarely leaves the basement, Raymond’s chances of meeting Mrs. Right are slim to none until his hermit-lifestyle is jolted. A warning to stop poking into his past comes with consequences—and intrigues this curious cat.

Raymond’s only recently discovered he can shift into a lynx. He has questions, but the answers will require leaving his safe zone—and his comfy slippers—so he can find the one woman who can help.

A scowling and fierce woman who makes Raymond crave a happily ever after.

Whereas Lainey would rather he disappear.

She isn’t falling for his awkward charm. They must remain alert and never forget they’re playing a game with an enemy who will stop at nothing to win. The stakes are their lives.

Is it game over for this budding love?

Excerpt:

Prologue

Raymond’s List of Reasons To Stay Home, #9: Straight A’s in school brings bruises.

It broke Nana’s heart to see Raymond dragging his feet as he trudged up the driveway after the bus dropped him off. His clothes were scuffed. His glasses were crooked. His younger sister Jessie wasn’t with him, having pre-arranged an afterschool playdate. His older siblings, now in middle and high school, took a different bus home, meaning it was just the two of them.

Nana took one look at his dejected posture and sat him in a chair before placing in front of him some freshly made lemonade and a cookie. She said nothing. Just waited.

Eventually he said, “I had a bad day.”

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“I would have never guessed.” She tried to sound light, but inside, her heart ached. Smaller than the other boys, and introverted as well, Raymond struggled when it came to socializing. He was her quiet boy. Her shy one. Smart as a whip and wise beyond his years. A touch on the spectrum, but she didn’t medicate him. He didn’t need it. He just needed more quiet space than the other boys.

More than one night she’d seen him sneak out of the room he shared with his brothers to bunk downstairs on the couch. He didn’t fear the dark because her strong Raymond had survived it.

“We got our report cards today. But I kind of lost mine.” He nibbled on a cookie, having said his piece and told her without telling her exactly what had happened.

Those damned bullies again.

She wanted to drag him onto her lap and hug him, but Raymond wasn’t the type to want to snuggle. Even with his siblings he tended to often stand on the outside looking in.

“Want to talk about it?” Ten years of age, but already way ahead when it came to his schooling, he had a wisdom beyond his years. But emotionally? Still a little boy who had feelings that hurt even as he didn’t understand why he cared.

For a second, she thought he wouldn’t reply. He managed a soft, “Why does no one like me?”

“Of course, people like you,” she huffed. “You have friends.” At least one good friend since kindergarten, who she realized hadn’t been around in the last few weeks.

Raymond explained why in his next sentence. “Not anymore. Evan moved.”

The news halted her for a second. “I didn’t know.”

“His mom and dad separated. She took him to Nova Scotia.”

“I’m sorry.” A trite thing to say to the child who had a hard time making friends.

“It’s okay.” He lied for her. Her sweet boy. Her heart cracked even more.

“You’ll make another friend.”

He rolled his shoulders. “No, I won’t. The other kids don’t like me.”

Not entirely true, but with his anxious nature, he believed it. “That’s not true. You are plenty likeable. Just ask your family.” It sounded stupid, yet what else could she say? “Does Dominick know the boys are picking on you again?” In the past, her oldest child had stepped in.

Raymond shook his head. “No. And don’t tell him. He’ll get in trouble.”

As if Dominick would care. In that moment, she didn’t give a damn either. For all people talked about peaceful solutions, sometimes the quickest and easiest way to handle a bully was to sic a bigger threat on them. But she didn’t need Dominick to fight to be able to say, “Your brother would gladly accept the consequences if he thought it would help you. And why is that?”

Raymond grimaced. “I see what you did. You’re making me say he loves me, ruining my argument that no one likes me.”

“What can I say? I enjoy the rare occasion where I get to prove you wrong.” Because Raymond seldom made mistakes. A genius being held back by the school system.

“You just proved only family can like me and that’s because they have to. Those boys at school hate me.” His body sagged, and he had another tiny bite of his cookie.

“I can talk to the school—”

He gave her a horrified glance. “No. Don’t. Remember last time?”

At the reminder, she bit back a wince. She’d only wanted to protect him.

“Is there anything I can do?” she asked.

He said nothing, just gave another dejected shrug.

It killed her.

She wanted to march into his school and raise holy hell, but it would make things worse for her sweet boy. Not better. At the same time, she couldn’t not act.

The next day, when Raymond came home from school, the knees to his jeans ripped, she asked what happened. He lied and said he tripped.

This couldn’t go on, or she’d end up in jail for throttling the bullies.

Despite money being tight, because she had lot of mouths to feed, she went shopping that night. The next day when Raymond came down for breakfast, his face drawn and anxious, she said to him, “You’re staying home today.”

“I can’t. I have a test.”

“A test isn’t more important than your wellbeing. I think you need a break from school.”

“I’ll get one in two days on the weekend.” He began to grow agitated. Raymond might struggle socially, but academically the boy was a genius.

“Fine. Write your test. But after school, I want us to have a chat.”

While he went and aced a quiz, she used that time to finish her arrangements. Then she picked up Raymond and Jessie so they didn’t have to take the bus.

Once they got home, Raymond headed for the stairs. Before he could disappear, his face buried in a book, she snared him.

“Can you come here for a second? I got something for you.” That something was a second-hand computer and a stack of workbooks.

Raymond stared at it with its fat keyboard, the yellow casing matching that of the monitor, the body of the machine black metal. Not the newest machine on the market, but given she only had two hundred dollars, it would do the trick. She hoped.

When he said nothing, she prodded him. “It’s for you. To do your schoolwork on.”

His eyes lit with excitement before they dulled. “We can’t afford it.” Young and yet he knew they had a tight budget.

“Too late. I can’t return it. You’ll have to keep it.”

His brow creased. “But it’s not my birthday.” And Christmas was still almost two months away.

“This isn’t a present. It’s so you can study.”

“Study what?”

“Anything you like. Take a look.”

He sifted the pile of books and cast her a curious glance. “These are school workbooks.”

She nodded. “Yes, your grade, plus the next three if you’d like to get ahead. The seller also threw in a book on computer programming.”

“I read a book on coding,” he observed, moving aside the books to find the one mentioned. He immediately began to flip through it.

Her heart filled with warmth as she softly said, “I got this because I thought we could try homeschooling.”

At her words, he froze and glanced at her fully, his face cautiously hopeful. “No more going to class?”

She shook her head. “Not for the next little bit because we’re going to try learning at home. And sometimes at my work so we can save on having a sitter.”

He grimaced. “I don’t need a babysitter.”

According to law he did, even though mentally he was probably more responsible than most adults.

“Someone’s got to keep an eye and make sure you work hard,” she teased.

“I won’t let you down, Mommy.” The smile on Raymond’s face was worth the strain on her bank account balance.

Not all his siblings were as gracious. Dominick—just turned seventeen—was vocal about his displeasure. “How come he doesn’t have to go to school? No fair. I want to stay home, too.”

“Then just get suspended again,” said Stefan with a snicker.

“You little shit.”

“Boys!” Nana raised her voice and they both piped down. Stefan smirked, Dominick glared, Raymond hunched in on himself.

Later that night as she passed their door, open a crack for circulation, she heard Dominick ask his brother, “Who was it this time?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Tell me. I’ll kick their ass,” Dominick promised.

“I’ll help so they don’t bug you and you can go to school,” Stefan added.

Raymond’s reply: “Won’t matter. No one likes me.”

Her heart cracked and then burst as she heard Dominick whisper, “We like you, dumbass. And anyone who doesn’t deserves a knuckle sandwich.”

After that, the boys didn’t say a word about Raymond being schooled from home. He thrived. She’d worried he’d suffer at the lack of people interaction, that he’d change. He did, but for the better. He began joining the family more in the evenings and weekends. Even speaking up, which she was glad to see no one made a big deal about.

Her boy relaxed, lost that tenseness of before as he plowed through the books she got him. Passed the tests with ease and scored so high he had to redo them at a school while monitored by a teacher. He aced those as well.

As he got older, he kept moving ahead to the point she couldn’t afford the books and got him the internet instead. By fifteen, her boy graduated with honors and got scholarships but stayed local. He did his university while living at home, taking as many online options as he could. After, he got a programming job that didn’t require commuting and insisted she retire. She’d already gone to part time, as Dominick and Stefan also insisted on throwing help her way. More than she needed, but none of her boys would take no for an answer.

They’d turned into such fine men, but she still worried about her little Raymond who hated going out and socializing. All his friends were online or related to him.

Raymond only rarely left the house, and even more rarely dated. Nana knew he’d have to get out of the basement one day. The problem being, how to convince him the world—make that people—had something to offer that his machines couldn’t?

She wanted him to find love.

Chapter One

Raymond’s List of Reasons To Stay Home, #39: Can’t become a professional gamer without lots of practice.

Find love online by playing a game that matches you to your perfect partner.

The newest pamphlet with its bold claim sat beside the glass dome covering freshly made muffins. Mom might have moved out a few weeks ago, but she kept popping in with the pretext of checking on him.

He appreciated it because were it not for her and his siblings, he’d have no face-to-face human contact. Even his introverted ass realized that wasn’t healthy.

Still, despite almost feeling lonely, he had more reason than ever to be chained to his network in the basement. His brothers had been kidnapped not long ago. As in taken to the lab where Raymond and his siblings had been created by some seriously sick fuckers.

Their Dr. Moreau lab might have blown up and all the evidence destroyed, but Raymond couldn’t leave their past alone. He didn’t dare. There were people out there that remained aware of their existence. Knew he and his siblings weren’t entirely human. His family wasn’t safe, and while he might lack the brawn of his brother Dominick, or the acerbic wit of Stefan, or the ballsy courage that his sister Maeve enjoyed, he was smart.

While everyone else went on with their lives after the lab responsible for their creation was destroyed, Raymond used his brains for something other than gaming and coding. He began digging into their pasts for the first time ever. He’d never bothered before their secret came out. When Mom said she had no family, he’d believed her. She’d told him and his siblings that they had no parents, that they were abandoned without any clues, and he’d trusted her.

He’d never looked into his family’s past. And now that he was trying, he was getting fucking nowhere.

Frustrating as all hell. He was a guy who solved riddles, could hack into anything, find whatever he wanted. If it left an electronic trail. In this case, he had nothing.

The site of their creation—a secret lab that never officially existed and was never built according to any city permits—had burned to the ground. He couldn’t find any of the former employees. He had no names other than the uncle he didn’t remember, Johan Philips, who was a blood brother to their foster mother.

Oddly enough, Mom didn’t exist either under her maiden name. As if she’d been wiped out, too. It shouldn’t have surprised him given what the lab had been up to. After all, his uncle had been the doctor in charge of changing human embryos into something more.

Huanimorphs they called them, animal human mixes. A dumb name. Raymond much preferred the Valley Wolf Pack’s term: shifter.

Shifter made what they could do sound more normal, if that were even possible. He had a hard time wrapping his science brain around the fact that his body and skin, his very humanity, could transform literally into something else.

In his case a lynx. A handsome one he thought, not that he let anyone see it, especially after the incident at the barbecue. Someone had spiked the chocolate fountain, and he went furry for the first time.

He remembered nothing about it, which led to him doing a few controlled experiments in the basement where he’d fabricated a steel cage that required fingers to open. Once secured inside, he’d eaten catnip—the dumbest trigger ever—and became a feline.

Furry, four legged, with acute senses. Not that he remembered any of his time in his lynx shape. According to the wolf pack, and his brothers, who were also affected by catnip, the herb acted like a catalyst drug, forcing them to shift, making them literally mindless beasts.

Could shifting be done without the herb?

The wolves said yes. Even Stefan admitted that under duress he’d managed to change. Not Raymond or Dominick, though. As for Tyson, Mom warned them not to encourage the teenager.

Did Raymond care he couldn’t shift on demand? Not really. A lynx couldn’t play video games or hack secure databases.

But a giant cat could eat his brother when he came pounding downstairs bellowing, “Ray! When was the last time your lily-white butt saw daylight?”

Raymond whirled in his chair and glared at Dominick. With Mom having relocated close to the city, to save on rent, his brother had moved his shit back in with his girlfriend and taken over the master bedroom on the top floor. They were welcome to it. The basement with all the humming computers was Raymond’s domain.

But did anyone respect his space? Nope. Look at the piles of laundry on the floor, the heaps growing daily. Stupid machine was broken, and they were waiting on a new one.

“Daylight is overrated,” Raymond muttered, whirling back to his screens. They’d multiplied since his brothers were kidnapped. He’d also stepped up his security a thousandfold, installing dozens of hidden cameras around the property, even overhead surveillance to watch for drones.

He’d spent countless hours creating hacks that he tied to certain databases and knowledge streams. He needed to keep a better eye on his family and their new allies, the werewolves. So far, nothing had tripped any of his alarms, but paranoia had ridden him ever since he’d failed to protect his family before.

He should have seen the enemy coming. Never mind the fact he didn’t know they were in danger. He wouldn’t fail again.

His annoying big brother spun his chair around. “Come on, zombie boy. You need sunshine and fresh air to stay healthy.”

The claim brought a snort to Raymond’s lips. “UV rays cause skin cancer, and the air in here is filtered to be free of pollen and other pathogens. I have allergies.” To pretty much all of nature and dust. For a while he thought he was gluten intolerant, too, but that turned out to be a lactose thing. A kitty who couldn’t drink milk. The irony. Good thing these days he could replace the regular stuff with alternatives. He would die without his daily dose of chocolate milk.

“You need to exercise, or your ass won’t fit through the door,” his brother taunted.

“I get plenty of exercise.” He kept weights on his desk and curled them while waiting for his online gaming parties to load. He belonged to a few role-playing worlds. When waiting for a program to execute, he did pushups and sit-ups. He’d learned through trial, ache, and error that sitting too long hurt his body.

“Dude, you are making way too many excuses to stay down here. It’s not healthy.”

“It’s none of your business what I do.”

“Fuck yeah it is.”

Raymond glared. “Did Mom send you to bug me?”

“Mom didn’t have to. You need to get out from inside these walls once in a while.”

“I was in the kitchen an hour ago.”

Dominick uttered a noise halfway between a snort and a chuckle. “Anywhere inside this property doesn’t count.”

“I can’t leave. I have too much to do.” Raymond spun back to his screens to check, even knowing he had notifications set to ensure he wouldn’t miss anything.

“No, you don’t. You need to let this go.” Dominick’s tone softened. “What happened to me and Tyson wasn’t your fault.”

Damn his brother for thinking he could absolve him. “I should have seen it coming.”

“None of us could have. We all thought we were normal. How were we supposed to know we were a shaken cocktail made in a lab?” His brother tried to make it a joke.

It fell flat. It was a reminder that their lives were a lie, that their own mother had hidden the truth. And Raymond should have known.

Why hadn’t he dug deeper into their past? How could he have not seen the inconsistencies?

He knew the reason why. He’d never ever expected his mom to be a liar.

“I have to do this,” he said softly and with a tone that brooked no argument.

A heavy sigh left Dominick. “I know you do. And honestly, I understand the feeling. After Anika got kidnapped”—Anika being Dominick’s girlfriend—“I blamed myself. I should have been there. Protected her. When I told her, she ended up smacking me and calling me a few names.”

“Only a few?” Raymond had actually heard part of that yelling match.

“The point being, don’t let your guilt overtake you. Would have. Could have. Should have. We can’t keep looking back, only forward.”

“Exactly. Learn from my mistakes. We won’t get caught again.”

“Fine. You want to be psycho, be psycho, but I really wish you’d leave the basement. Doesn’t have to be for long. I’ll even watch your screens if it makes you happy. Go hit a bar, have a few beers. Relax for a couple hours and get laid.”

The idea of going out and looking for sex didn’t appeal. “I’m not interested in hooking up with a stranger.” He didn’t need sex that badly. He’d lost his virginity in university. The experience was okay. Since then he’d met up with a few women from the online gaming world, but in-person meetings tended to leave him underwhelmed. Might be why he’d not had sex with anyone other than his hand in a few years. And he was fine with it. He didn’t like people getting close.

“Everyone you meet starts as a stranger, dumbass.”

The conversation with his brother bored. Raymond would prefer to be gaming. “Stop worrying about me. I’m fine.”

“That’s debatable,” muttered Dominick.

“Don’t you have to go to work or something?”

“I just got home. You do realize it’s almost five in the afternoon, right?”

Actually, he paid very little attention to time. But he did enjoy one thing. “What’s for dinner?” The one good thing about having his brother and his girlfriend living here now that Mom had moved out was they made food and always offered him some.

“You’re on your own tonight. Maeve’s working late, and I’m taking Annie to dinner.” Maeve being their sister who lived there on and off. She’d been spending a lot of time at Mom’s, too.

A lack of dinner didn’t pose a problem. Raymond ordered himself a shawarma sandwich with garlic potatoes, paid online, and asked for contactless delivery. He loved that most places had kept it in place once the pandemic slipped off to where viruses hid once they’d ravaged the population.

As he waited for his food, he tossed a few lures onto the dark web, subtle requests for information about the project that created him and his siblings. Especially anything pertaining to the man who’d hired their uncle and kidnapped Stefan and Tyson, the mysterious Mr. X.

No one had yet pinged, but Raymond knew how to be patient. While he waited for an alarm to go off, he slid into one of his online personas. The VR glasses fit over his eyes and covered his ears. The gloves he wore would track their movement in the virtual world he entered.

Unlike the movies and their attempt at drama, he knew what he saw wasn’t real, such as the bustling marketplace, designed with a medieval appeal that included lots of wood, pennants, and hawking sellers. It had an old-fashioned appeal without any neon or flashing lights. That was his other game, set in space.

For this particular game node—a fantasy-type epic—he wore the body of a dwarf, about four feet tall, barrel wide, and stupidly strong, but slow. He also had no magic. However, his attributes included an ability to forge weapons that could be sold for large sums, and in a battle, he was the impervious ram that in a berserker rage could rampage through the opposition.

He strode through the market, not really eyeing the wares. He aimed for the guild to see what quests had been posted. He’d just left his last raiding party because of a power struggle between two of the members. He didn’t care which prepubescent gamer led them; he just liked the thrill of the quest and the strategy when taking down complex enemies.

Visually, the guild appeared as a stone building, two stories with only thin slits rather than windows. The massive door was guarded by tusked minotaurs who would give pause to anyone thinking to attack or rob the guild. Today, his business didn’t require him to go inside. While it might appear solid, if touched, the wall to the left of the entrance would turn into a digital message board showing available tasks.

First a question: Solo or group?

Solo. Next query. Difficulty level?

The harder the mission, the better the prize or favors he could accumulate. He particularly wanted some get-out-of-jail free passes. While he didn’t usually start fights, he never hesitated to throw his avatar into the mix. This particular rule treated the town and its laws like the real world in some respects. Cause trouble, go to jail and pay a fine. Or call in a favor and walk free instead.

Rescuing a princess or prince, depending on sexual preference, came with a supposed marriage and alliance. It also meant a virtual wife, and they could get rather demanding. Why haven’t you gone and conquered the nation next door?  He’d tried being the princess a few times just for shits and giggles, but that led to a whole new slew of issues with the prince. What do you mean you don’t want me to message you? I was going to send you pictures. Fool him once, shame on him, twice, and he choked as he beheld purple-eyed monster pics.

Dick pics were not cool. He was so traumatized and violated he put a subroutine on his sister’s computer that checked messages for penile images. He also usually gave the police tips if the perv’s online presence warranted checking into. Raymond might not leave the house often, but he still watched over his family.

He should be working on that task right now, but he needed a break. A mind wipe from all the stress he’d endured lately.

A nice easy quest would do the trick. Something in a cave with a monster that would require him whacking a few minions on his way to the big boss’s lair.

As he contemplated between two—mutant rat inside the sewers, which meant mucking in filth, or a troublesome bog wight, also wet and icky—someone in the virtual marketplace moved in close to him and cast a bubble. For those not familiar with this particular term, it meant encasing a party of two or more in a privacy cocoon where no other players could see or hear them. What he didn’t know was why.

Raymond turned and beheld a troll avatar, and an odd one. First, it had opted to go with pink rather than green skin. It sported curly white hair on its head and arms. Female judging by the pendulous breasts barely contained by the ivory furred vest. The sunglasses were also wildly out of place. The game didn’t usually allow for modern accessories.

The troll held a club over her shoulder and stared down at him.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

“Took your time before showing up.”

“I think you have the wrong person,” he replied as he turned away and, with a slash of his hand, broke the bubble.

The marketplace noise filled its spot, but he still heard the troll. “I’m not mistaken. You’re shorter than expected.”

“Whereas you’re freakishly tall. Is there a point to this?” He’d learned a long time ago that some people just liked to be twats online. He didn’t encourage it.

“I was curious about you.”

“Me? We’ve never met.”

“Not in person,” the troll admitted, her tone guttural and yet lilting with a strange femininity. “But from what I’ve discerned, you’re interesting.”

An odd choice of words. “Don’t tell me you’re the type to listen to rumors. I’m sure they’re grossly exaggerated.”

“Are they?” The bubble returned, encasing them in a zone of just two. “Because I heard a lot of interesting stuff about you, Raymond.”

Chapter Two

Raymond’s List of Reasons To Stay Home, #3: I don’t have to talk to anyone I know.

Raymond froze. The troll had said his name, the real one. He almost jumped out of the game, but hesitated. Who was this person? Could it be someone he knew fucking with him?

A swipe showed the name and stats of the avatar in front of him. Stats set to private, meaning he couldn’t see their game level or start date. Nothing. The only thing he was allowed to see was the code name PinkLlama5309.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“Who do you think I am?” The coy reply was at odds with the beast.

“Probably a sixteen-year-old boy with nothing better to do than be annoying. Don’t mess with me, little brother.” It had to be Tyson, his teenage brother. Raymond had set him up a few online gaming profiles a year ago. The kid hadn’t played in months, but he’d know how to find Raymond in here.

“I’m not Tyson. Or any of your other family members,” the troll taunted. “But I know all about them, and you, Raymond.”

The chill had settled into his bones. It occurred to him to deny, deny, deny. “You have the wrong person,” he lied as he then swiped to remove the bubble around them again.

PinkLama5309 didn’t stop him from taking it down, but her avatar smiled, showing off its teeth. “You are Raymond Hubbard in Ontario, Canada.”

Now he wasn’t just scared, he was angry. “And so what if I am? What are you going to do with that information? Dox me? For doing what?” He wasn’t an asshole online.

“You know exactly what you’re doing, and it will stop. Or the world will find out about you and catnip.”

Panic bloomed inside him. “Who are you?” How did they know of his weakness? His deepest secret?

“We’ve never met. We never will. Because this is your one and only warning, Raymond. Stop what you’re doing, or everyone will find out where you came from. You and your siblings,” the voice purred.

“We came from a mom and dad who couldn’t keep us,” he replied. He wasn’t dumb enough to admit anything where it might be recorded.

“We both know that’s a lie. You were made in a lab that I helped destroy so that its secrets would die with it. But you just can’t leave things alone. You’re stirring up trouble. And it needs to stop.”

“You’re threatening me?”

“Think of this as a friendly warning.”

Didn’t feel very friendly. At the same time, he was intrigued. He’d been losing hope before this conversation, close to giving up since he couldn’t find anything, and now…now he knew he was on the right track.

“Why do you care if I poke? After all, if the secret comes out, then it only affects me and my family.”

“Are you seriously that stupid?” PinkLama5309 snapped. “You and your siblings are not the only lives at stake. Stop digging and asking questions, or the next time there won’t be a warning.” The troll meant that quite literally. She swung the club right at his avatar’s head. Totally unexpected, especially since the marketplace was a neutral zone. Also it was against the law, however, in order to break a law. the ability to act had to exist.

His dwarf got knocked aside by the giant club, and then because that wasn’t enough, he got pummeled to the point he required a resurrection ritual in a temple. That would cost him.

Raymond hastily jumped out of the VR with a curse. “What the fuck was her problem?”

If it was a her. Could even be a him. An avatar didn’t have to reflect anything about its user at all.

But now he was the one who needed to find out more.

Exactly who was this PinkLlama5309? How did they know so much about him? His family.

For fuck’s sake, they knew about the lab. Claimed to have helped destroy it.

Didn’t that make them allies?

Given what happened, he didn’t see them joining forces that easily. Too bad. He wanted to thank PinkLlama5309 for lifting his flagging spirits. She’d indicated there were more of them out there.

More undiscovered brothers and sisters. Answers, too.

Raymond tossed his VR equipment onto a table. His dinner had arrived while he played. He took a second to reheat it before taking it downstairs.

As he ate, he checked his systems for any messages or pings. Nothing. He kept eating. Using a machine that was set to watch the stock market, he started a search on PinkLlama5309.

Nothing popped up on the net. Which didn’t mean shit. Could be the person  used that handle only in the game.

Logging in to the game server, he typed the avatar name in a search function. Blank. It didn’t return anything at all. He typed it again, leaving out the numbers.

Still nada.

Was the search function broken?

He typed in blue llama and got a few hundred hits. Pink Llama with a space. Zilch. How curious. As he debated jumping back into the game, he was logged out of it. Weird but not unheard of. Games glitched all the time.

He logged in.

Access denied.

He checked his cap locks. Off. Despite his stuff being saved, he typed his credentials in.

Access denied.

He refreshed his browser.

Still wouldn’t let him log in.

Argh!

He went to grab some dessert in the form of ice cream. He tried to not think of his brother’s remark about his ass. His ass was fine, and to prove he didn’t care, he would eat the entire half-carton of ice cream.

His next log-in worked, and he was inside his profile. He returned to the search menu and typed in PinkLama5309.

No results.

He retried PinkLlama and netted a return of over one thousand users with that in the name. 5309 had even more hits.

He tapped his lip. Had he misread the name? Possible. Could be they changed it to something completely different. But…he leaned forward in his chair. Even if changed, the history of that character followed, meaning the new name would have been logged as the person who beat the crap out of him in his statistics. He flipped screens to his character’s history.

A glance at his character log showed him going straight from the market to the temple. Dead of injuries but no recorded info on how he’d gotten that way.

It was as if he’d met a ghost. Impossible. Even retired characters never fully disappeared.

He poked inside the player hall of fame. He peeked inside some of the chat rooms, looking for PinkLlama. He didn’t find a single one.

Out of curiosity, he logged into other gaming worlds he belonged to. Went wandering around. Got into a few online fights out of frustration and completely lost track of time.

Not that time had much meaning to him.

He wasn’t a morning person and often kept odd hours. He slept in stints. A few hours here. A few there. Usually shortened because an alert woke him. He’d handle the notification, check on a few things, eat, then nod off again for a few.

Two days after meeting PinkLlama and no closer to finding that user or anything about the lab, he was awake when the text arrived in the middle of the night. It was addressed to him by his full name, and not his handle. It dropped into his mailbox on the dark web.

Raymond read it and arched a brow.

Raymond Isaiah Hubbard, I told you to stop poking. Last warning. Or else. Signed, PinkLlama.

He blinked. The mystery troll had returned and thought they could threaten him?

He replied. Or else what? Because any poking that caused a warning deserved even more attention in his books.

The reply came in the form of a full system shutdown, the kind that wiped his machines so that the only thing that appeared on his screen every time he rebooted was a pink llama wearing sunglasses and a grin.

Impossible. Yet not, apparently. Someone had managed to trace him back and then hack through his firewalls.

It fired his anger. Ignited his need for retaliation. Roused his curious kitty.

Game on.

COLLAPSE