Is She a He?

“I want to know if my virtual girlfriend is really a man in real life,” Begonia Bittersweet told us.

It was the fifth meeting of the Avatar Dining Club and this time it was the turn of Rainy September to bring a virtual guest to L’Albero Verde, the Italian restaurant the group’s founder, Edward, had selected as our monthly gathering place. I noticed this time that I was recognised by the waiter, who took my coat on my arrival with a friendly smile rather than leaving me to hang it up myself, and who waved me through to our table without asking me if I had a reservation. Clearly, we were ‘regulars’ now, and being encouraged to regard ourselves as such. I approved, and I made a mental note to catch his name so I could greet him by it next time.

Rainy, I had decided, was the most judgemental member of the club. Whenever I thought of her, I imagined her disapproving of something. It intrigued me that she still attended these get-togethers. Unlike everyone else, she had no real ‘occupation’ in the metaverse. Mary-Anne Middlemarch, who sat to my right at the table for seven, was a fashion blogger; Raw Concrete, who sat to my left, was a builder. Opposite me, Jennifer Bit – a man in real life (though the rule was we went by our avatar identities for these meetings) – was a photographer, and to her right sat Indigo Williams who both owned a club and designed skins. That left Edward, who had introduced himself five months previously as a role-player. Rainy, however, had no real purpose in the virtual world, no passions, no loyalties. She explored. She shopped. She went out clubbing. That said, between the previous meeting and this one, she had got metaverse married to someone she’d met between the previous meeting and the one before that. When it was decided in the pre-meeting email that she would be bringing the virtual guest this time, I was certain it would be her new ‘hubby’ to show off to us all. But I was wrong. Whilst he was present in no small measure in the talk as she set up her laptop at the end of the table, it turned out that video interaction was not a feature of their relationship. Yet. “He says he needs more time,” she reported, with more than a hint of impatience and scorn in her voice, and I wondered absently if, for the sixth meeting of the club, we might find ourselves discussing metaverse divorce.

So we got Begonia. Rainy dialled up her distant virtual acquaintance on the laptop at the end of the table, and it was an outdoors backdrop we saw behind the blonde, middle-aged Australian wearing a bikini and a headset who appeared on the screen. “Hello!” she greeted us, raising a glass of something orange. “Oh my God, Bego,” shouted Rainy in an unnecessarily loud Skype voice, “is that a freaking beach you’re sitting on?”

“Waves and wi-fi, baby!” Begonia replied. “It’s a winning combination!”

Edward said to her grandly, his arms opened wide, “Greetings, Begonia, you are most welcome at our table.”

“Bego, this is Edward,” Rainy told her friend. “He’s the boss of this group I told you about.”

“Founder, my dear,” Edward corrected.

“Hello Edward!” Begonia replied in a slightly sing-song voice. We got the rest of the introductions over with and then got down to the business of ordering food. Our guest had brought a bacon sandwich with her to the beach and she started munching on it whilst we waited for our food to arrive. “I’m really sorry,” she told us, “but this is my breakfast and I’m absolutely starving.” Several times I caught Raw staring at the screen, but I couldn’t be certain whether it was at Begonia in her bikini he was looking at or her sandwich. When he called the waiter back over and ordered an extra topping of ‘bacon bits’ on his pizza, however, I realised I had my answer. I caught the waiter’s name: it was Enrico.

The conversation at first was the usual sort of thing, all about Begonia’s metaverse life. Like Rainy, it turned out, she had no virtual vocation to speak of. She described herself as a ‘professional shopper’ and laughed hard at this. A little too hard. She rented land in a private region and had a post-modern house there, a glass and rendered concrete build of four stories, right on the edge of the sea. “What can I tell you?” she declared, waving her arm in a broad sweep across the vista of sand and breaking waves behind her. “I’m a beach bum born and bred!” I wasn’t certain that beach bums commonly lived in four-storey houses; then again I wasn’t up-to-date on the latest definitions of the term.

And then, once our orders had arrived, she told us her problem. There was an awkward silence around the table whilst everyone tried hard not to look at Jennifer. “I know you guys solve virtual world problems,” Begonia continued, oblivious to our discomfort. “Rainy’s told me all about the mysteries you’ve cracked. I figure this one must be easy for you.”

“Easy?!” Raw retorted. “You must be joking – it’s impossible!” I could tell what his strategy was: dismiss the idea instantly and we wouldn’t have to go there. I added my support to his plan by nodding vigorously.

“That all depends on how skilfull you are,” said Jennifer, a twinkle in her eye, no doubt at our expense. She waved at the laptop. “I’m a woman in the metaverse.”

“Yes I heard,” said Begonia. “I suppose an expert is precisely what I need.”

“I did mention you,” Rainy commented to Jennifer. “I didn’t tell her your whole metaverse name, though.”

“Do you tell anyone that you’re a man in real life?” Begonia asked.

“Originally no-one,” Jennifer replied, “but recently I’ve confided in a couple of close friends.”

“And how do you manage the guilt?”

“Guilt?” Jennifer repeated. “What guilt?”

“About lying to people.”

“We all lie to people in some way,” Jennifer said.

Begonia looked like she was about to say something in reply to that and, meanwhile, the look on Rainy’s face suggested she’d just that moment tuned in to the notion that this might not have been the wisest of issues to bring before this particular group. She said quickly, “Why don’t you tell them about your suspicions, Bego?”

Begonia paused for a moment and then nodded. “Well it began as nothing more than a feeling, really. I started wondering about it maybe a month or so ago.” Whilst she talked, I glanced briefly in Edward’s direction. The sixty-something man looked unhappy. “Some of the things she was coming out with… well they just didn’t sound female to me.” She sighed. “So anyway, I asked her if she’d like to voice with me and she refused, so that really set my alarms bells ringing.”

“Why?” asked Jennifer. “Plenty of people don’t like voicing.”

“For five minutes? It wasn’t like I was insisting on it there and then. If she’d told me she’d do it in a week’s time or even in a month then that would have been one thing, but to flat-out refuse to ever voice with me? Now that’s just weird.”

“Um,” said Mary-Anne, “I’ve never voiced. It’s just not my thing.” Nervously, she pushed a piece of broccoli around her plate with her fork. Mary-Anne was the quietest member of our group. “I really wouldn’t know what to say. I’d be too self-conscious.”

“Have you ever partnered inworld, Mary-Anne?” Begonia asked her.

“Twice,” she replied.

“And you never got asked to voice verify?”

“Both times,” she said. “And both times I refused. The first guy ended the relationship straight away, more-or-less. The second guy accepted it. I’m still with him now, in fact.”

Begonia sighed again. “This is what I was afraid of. I just don’t get it. What’s the big deal with a few minutes of voice just to prove you are who you say you are?”

“If that was the rule,” Mary-Anne said, “then I wouldn’t have gone into the metaverse in the first place. Talking in text is what I like about it.”

“But you’re talking in voice now! What’s the difference?”

My neighbour glanced at Edward. “I know you said we were to stay in our metaverse roles here, Edward,” she told him, “but you know I’m much more like the real me when I’m here with you guys. I’m more confident and outspoken inworld. I’m a different person there altogether.”

“My dearest Mary-Anne,” our founder said, “please don’t worry yourself about it for a second. I also said that anyone could assume here completely made-up personalities. The rule is in place only so that our real-life identities are protected, and I find your company at our table most delightful.”

“The thing is,” she continued, “it’s not like I’m pretending. When I’m online I become that person. If I had to speak in voice then that person would disappear.”

“I understand completely,” he reassured her.

“So what did you do next?” Indigo asked Begonia. “Or did you dump her?”

“I didn’t dump her,” she retorted, “I love her! But I did start trying to catch her out here and there, and paying attention to what she said to me. Rainy, do you have the printouts?”

“I do!” Rainy said, and she reached into her bag hung over the back of her chair. She brought out a wad of folded paper and flattened it out on the table. There were seven sets, all stapled neatly in the top-left corner; one for everyone at the table. “I asked Rainy to print these out for me. I thought it would make it easier.” The printouts were handed round the table. I heard Edward sigh faintly as he put glasses on to look at his copy. They were transcripts of IMs: four pages in total showing excerpts from three separate conversations.

“The first IM is from about three weeks ago,” Begonia told us. On screen, I could see she had her own paper copy. “Read it and tell me what you think.”

We read in silence. It went like this:

16:24 Begonia Bittersweet: So what bra size are you?
16:25 Trace Williams: 34b. Why?
16:25 Begonia Bittersweet: Just wondering.
16:25 Begonia Bittersweet: What type do you wear?
16:26 Trace Williams: What ‘type’?
16:26 Begonia Bittersweet: What? You don’t know?!
16:26 Trace Williams: Lace
16:26 Begonia Bittersweet laughs.
16:26 Begonia Bittersweet: I didn’t ask what they’re made out of.
16:26 Begonia Bittersweet: What *type*?
16:27 Trace Williams: Well, it all depends.
16:27 Begonia Bittersweet: Just for everyday when you go to work.
16:29 Trace Williams: Semi cup. What else would I wear?
16:29 Begonia Bittersweet: IDK… maybe you’re a full cup girl.
16:30 Trace Williams: I’m not 80, you know.
16:30 Begonia Bittersweet: Padded?
16:32 Trace Williams: Absolutely.
16:32 Trace Williams: The air conditioning in my office is bloody freezing sometimes.
16:32 Trace Williams: I don’t want my coworkers to nickname me ‘pointy’.

Indigo laughed at the last bit. Raw said, “I don’t get it.” Jennifer scratched her head and rubbed her chin.

“What are we supposed to make of this?” I asked.

“Look at the timings for each comment,” Begonia replied. “It took her a whole minute to reply to my first question. What girl wouldn’t be able to answer that immediately?”

“You think he was looking it up?” Raw asked.

“We don’t know it’s a ‘he,’ Raw,” Jennifer said to him.

“If it’s a ‘she’ then there wouldn’t be a need to research anything,” he answered.

Indigo waved her hand a little dismissively. “The time could mean anything. Maybe she was in another IM with someone else and switching back and forth between your conversation and theirs. I do that all the time.”

“And then it took me nearly four minutes to get an answer to my bra-type question. And her first answer was lace! I mean come on!”

“I do sort my bras according to fabric,” said Indigo. “It’s just the way I’ve always done it.”

“As do I,” Begonia answered. “I’d still know what that question meant.”

“I agree it’s suggestive, but you’re talking about a question posed to a person who might be distracted and which could be open to interpretation in different ways than the one you assume.” Indigo took a sip of wine and added, “For me, the ‘pointy’ remark balances it out: that’s female knowledge.”

“He still could have seen that on a webpage,” commented Raw through a mouthful of pizza. “He had enough time.”

“Okay,” Begonia said. “Now have a read of the second IM.”

20:31 Trace Williams: Not in the mood?
20:31 Begonia Bittersweet: Oh baby, Aunt Flo is paying me a visit.
20:32 Trace Williams: She is?
20:32 Begonia Bittersweet: Most definitely.
20:33 Trace Williams: You don’t have privacy?
20:33 Begonia Bittersweet: Huh?
20:33 Trace Williams: Your aunt is staying with you?
20:33 Begonia Bittersweet: hahaha
20:34 Begonia Bittersweet: You’re so funny.
20:34 Begonia Bittersweet: Look it up.
20:36 Trace Williams: ahhhhh
20:36 Trace Williams blushes.
20:36 Begonia Bittersweet: Why the blush?
20:36 Begonia Bittersweet: We’re all ladies here.
20:37 Trace Williams: Blushing at my ignorance.
20:37 Begonia Bittersweet: Different people; different terms, I guess.
20:37 Begonia Bittersweet: No worries.
20:37 Begonia Bittersweet: When do you come on?
20:38 Trace Williams: Usually around the middle of the month.
20:38 Begonia Bittersweet: So last week?
20:38 Trace Williams: Yes yes
20:38 Begonia Bittersweet: I wonder if we’ll synchronise.
20:39 Begonia Bittersweet: That would be weird.

I kept my face steadfastly neutral through this, but Raw made no such attempt. “Eww,” he said, when it finally dawned on him what he was reading about.

“Oh grow up, Raw,” Rainy said. “Women have periods. It’s a fact of life.” She sighed. “Men are so pathetic.”

“So you’re showing us this because she didn’t know what the term meant?” Indigo asked.

“Well quite! What woman wouldn’t know about good old Aunt Flo?!”

“Different people, different terms?” she quoted.

“Oh come on,” Begonia retorted. “It’s not like I’m seeing an Indonesian. She’s from the states!”

“Still a cultural term, though,” I remarked, “and not one you’d commonly hear through the traditional media. It seems to me that that sort of colloquialism is probably propagated through word of mouth. If a different term was commonly used amongst your friends growing up, then that would be your euphemism.”

“Shark week,” Mary-Anne volunteered. “That’s what we called it in college.”

“The term ‘Aunt Flo’ is everywhere on the internet,” Begonia insisted.

“Not all of us girls spend our time online talking about our periods,” Indigo countered.

The distant woman sighed. “Okay fine. Let’s look at the last IM then.”

17:22 Begonia Bittersweet: Is everything ok, honey?
17:22 Trace Williams: Oh sure, everything’s fine.
17:22 Trace Williams: I’m just a bit sad because I heard a colleague of mine died today.
17:23 Begonia Bittersweet: Oh baby, I’m so sorry to hear that!
17:23 Trace Williams: Thank you. It’s just a bit of a shock. It was very sudden.
17:23 Trace Williams: He died of a heart attack.
17:23 Begonia Bittersweet: He died in the office?
17:23 Trace Williams: Oh no, at home last night.
17:24 Trace Williams: But I heard about it today.
17:24 Begonia Bittersweet: 😦
17:24 Begonia Bittersweet: Did you know him well?
17:24 Trace Williams: Reasonably.
17:24 Trace Williams: His desk was around the corner from me.
17:25 Trace Williams: It’s funny, the last time I spoke to him he was peeing nin the cubicle next to me.
17:25 Trace Williams: You never know when your last conversation with someone is going to be.
17:25 Begonia Bittersweet: Right.
17:26 Begonia Bittersweet: Wait… a *guy* was in the next cubicle?
17:27 Trace Williams: Oh right. I see your confusion. We have unisex toilets at work.
17:27 Begonia Bittersweet: Really?
17:27 Trace Williams: Yeah. It’s not as bad as you think.
17:27 Trace Williams: The walls and doors are floor to ceiling.
17:28 Begonia Bittersweet: Ah.
17:28 Begonia Bittersweet: How can you hold a conversation if there are no gaps?
17:28 Trace Williams: Well the walls are still pretty thin.
17:28 Begonia Bittersweet: Right.
17:29 Begonia Bittersweet: Even so, I think I’d hand in my resignation if they enforced that sort of thing on me LOL
17:29 Trace Williams laughs.

On finishing this, Indigo said, “Yeah I heard about arrangements like that.”

Begonia’s eyebrows raised. “Really? I wondered if that might be made up.”

“Nope. They use it in a new senior school near where I live. Boys, girls, men and women: everyone in together. It saves space and it cuts down on bullying. Apparently the staff made a fuss about it, but the head teacher insisted, and everyone was used to it within a couple of days.”

Begonia sighed. “Dear God. Stuff like this makes me feel so old.”

“Progress bears no responsibility for those that can’t keep up,” Edward muttered.

“Is that what it is?” asked Begonia. “Progress? If you ask me, it’s just political correctness gone mad.”

“There is nothing mad about political correctness, I assure you.”

“What’s the big deal with separate facilities anyway?” Jennifer asked. “What difference does it make?”

“The ladies is where you do girl talk,” Begonia replied. “You wouldn’t understand.”

That remark brought about another uncomfortable silence. It was broken after a few seconds by Raw, who was picking at the onion on his pizza and frowning. “The gents is where I go if I need to fart,” he said.

“Raw!” Rainy exclaimed. “If you please!”

“What?” The young man looked confused. “We can talk about periods but not about farting?”

“You go right ahead and talk about it,” Jennifer told him.

“Oh, and another thing that’s odd about this,” Begonia said, “is I thought guys hate having cubicle conversations.”

“That’s true, definitely,” Raw said.

“You hate it?” Indigo asked.

“Totally.”

“So do I,” I said, “but so what? Perhaps a new norm gets established if you become used to unisex toilets.” Begonia and her by-the-way attacks on Jennifer was starting to get on my nerves. I wasn’t about to let a stereotype lend weight to her argument.

“It’s a different rule when you’re at the urinal though,” Raw added, still frowning at his onions.

“I would have thought you’d be even less likely to talk if you there was a woman on the other side of the divide,” Begonia said, dismissively. “Oh well. That’s all I have, really. So you’re saying none of this is evidence?”

“None of it’s conclusive evidence,” Indigo stated. “Does she dress well?”

“Oh yes. A new outfit every week. She reads all the right blogs.”

“Again,” I commented, “so what if she doesn’t? Not all women follow the latest fashions.”

“Alright.” Begonia made no attempt to conceal her disappointment. “And you’ve got nothing to add, ‘Jennifer’?” She didn’t make the quote marks with her fingers or anything, but I could hear them in her tone of voice.

“No no,” Jennifer said, tight-lipped.

“Well don’t declare it a lost case just yet,” declared Raw. “We haven’t asked Edward what he thinks. He’s the one who always solves our mysteries.”

“This time,” Edward said gruffly, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint you all. I have nothing to add to this deliberation… except to say that perhaps we should not be pursuing it in the first place.”

Everyone went silent. Mary-Anne, asked, “Why not, Edward?”

“My dear,” he told her, “you told us yourself that you become a different person in the metaverse. That is one of its functions: to allow us to explore new identities and all the thoughts and actions which spring forth from them. It is not for any of us to judge which are the correct and incorrect identities for people to assume, nor their reasons for doing so.”

“I think I have a right to know if I’m being lied to,” Begonia said flatly.

“As a matter of fact, you don’t. Check those terms and conditions you ticked when you first signed up to the metaverse. No-one has a right to know anything. Disclosure of real life details is entirely voluntary. But even if it were the case, what exactly constitutes a lie? Is Mary-Anne lying when she becomes her avatar personality? Is Jennifer lying when she talks and thinks and notices things as a woman? What if those identities come alive when they are enacted? What if they are real things? I will say one thing about these messages we’ve read tonight: they show you two to have a close and caring relationship. Does anything else really matter?”

“I get what you’re saying,” Begonia replied. “But Edward, I’m a lesbian woman. If this is a guy I’m with then it’s a waste of my time.”

“Are you hoping to meet in real life?” Indigo asked.

“No way. I have a partner in real life and I have no intention of leaving her. Trace knows that. Real life is real life; metaverse is metaverse.”

“In which case,” Edward asked, “why not let love just be love?”

“Because it’s not that simple.”

“Isn’t it a shame,” he said sadly, “that it can’t be.”

After that, there didn’t seem to be much else to add. Begonia excused herself and ended the video call, and those of us who wanted it ordered dessert. The conversation was strained. Rainy in particular was very quiet. Eventually, she said, “I’m sorry, Edward. On reflection, I’m not sure it was all that sensible of me to bring Bego this evening.” Edward smiled in reply and said, “On the contrary, my dear; I formed this group for us to discuss metaverse matters and that’s exactly what we’ve done tonight. Disagreement is a bona fide conversational element, and sometimes quite necessary.” He wagged a finger. “Its presence alone shouldn’t be taken as some sort of indicator that the conversation should not have taken place.”

When we left the restaurant about twenty minutes later, I walked with him to the nearby multistorey where we were both parked. “Purely as an academic exercise,” I said, “do you think it’s possible to tell if someone’s a man or a woman in real life?”

“Thinking about plots for your latest novel, are you?” he asked with a chuckle. I replied, “I’m always doing that, Edward!”

“You know as well as I that it’s never a question of just one thing to look out for,” my white-haired friend told me. “It’s the details you have to be alert to when you suspect someone of constructing a falsehood. All of them! Most people will give themselves away in time. The question is, will anyone notice when they do?”

I stopped. “You know, don’t you? You did work it out!”

“Oh yes,” he said. “But it wasn’t the right thing to reveal it. If he will not say then that is his choice, Leonard. Begonia is quite free to leave him if she so wishes. He has no right to her love, but neither does she have any right to his details.”

“But how did you work it out?” Conveniently, we were beneath a lamp post. Edward took out and unfolded his copy of the IM transcript. “This is strictly between you and I,” he told me. I nodded.

He pointed to the following line:

17:25 Trace Williams: It’s funny, the last time I spoke to him he was peeing nin the cubicle next to me.

“Ah,” I said. “So you weren’t convinced by the unisex toilets excuse?”

“That is neither here nor there,” Edward replied. “It’s the error that gives him away.”

“Error? What error?”

“Look more closely. See here: he typed an extra n. ‘Nin’ instead of ‘in’.”

“A typo. How can that mean anything?”

“An edit, my friend. Not a typo, but an edit. He wrote something, then he edited it, and then he hit return. We do it all the time, don’t we? Except in this instance he didn’t quite edit it completely. So now we must ask ourselves, what was it he wrote in the first place?”

I looked at the sentence again. My mind was a blank. “I have no idea.”

“Well here’s what I think he wrote: ‘the last time I spoke to him he was peeing next to me.’”

“Oh my God!” I exclaimed. “Yes! You’re right, you must be!”

“And why did he edit it? Because he thought that might arouse suspicion. Except if he had left it as it was then that would have been just something else that could have been put down to the different ways in which different people talk about such things. ‘He was peeing next to me’: why shouldn’t a woman say that about someone in the next cubicle. Do you see? It is the edit which gives him away. It’s that which tells us he was actually standing side-by-side with him at a urinal. As young Raw remarked, conversation between two men there is nothing out of the ordinary at all.”

We walked on. “And you worked all that out from a single letter,” I remarked.

“Clues are rarely big and brightly coloured, my dear fellow,” Edward replied. “Sometimes, it’s just as well that they’re not.”

Written by Huckleberry Hax

Arianna – Chapter 3: First Insights

Arianna’s hometown seemed to be a peaceful, almost sleepy one. There was little the local constabulary seemed to have to do to maintain a modicum of order. The majority of criminal cases that were reported in the local press were victimless crimes, such as illegal gambling. Murder cases were few and far between, and were covered in a rather sensationalist manner. On the other hand, white-collar crimes and domestic abuse cases were usually covered up, often at the behest of local MPs, so that balances in the Town Hall and within families wouldn’t be upset.

“Inappropriate allocation of scarce police resources, my ass,” thought Stevens as he read Arianna’s suicide note again. “They never bother to investigate anything, unless a body riddled with bullet holes or brutally slaughtered is involved.” It was already ten o’clock in the morning and very little in the way of work seemed to be happening at the station. He asked McMahon to join him on patrol. It would be a good excuse for him to mingle and ask questions. After all, there were other officers to handle citizens’ bureaucratic needs.
“Have you contacted any of the schools Arianna went to?” he asked Sally.
“Yes. Some of her old teachers are still in town, one of them retired.”
“How come none of them spoke to the media?”
“No idea. Perhaps they’re wary of appearing on TV,” Sally replied.
“Can’t blame them.”
“So, where do we start?”
“St. Mary’s High School. It’s the last school she attended before leaving town for her higher education, so perhaps they can tell us more about her formative teenage years. It also seems its headmaster is still the same as when she was a student there,” said Richard as they fastened their seatbelts.
“Who’s that?” asked Sally.
“A man named Philip Hendricks. He also ran that school when Helen went there.”

Sally’s mobile phone rang. It was a journalist friend of hers from Dagenhull.

“Yes? Uh-huh. Yes. I see. Yes, yes, thank you Mike. I’ll tell my colleague. Perhaps this will give us greater freedom to act. Thanks again!”
“What did he say?” Asked Richard.
“Dagenhull aren’t ruling out foul play yet.”
“How so?” said Richard, surprised. “It’s as obvious a suicide as they come.”
“Obvious it may be, but are we sure she wasn’t driven to suicide by parties that wanted to silence her?” asked Sally. “Harassment, bullying, threats, intimidation… These things can drive someone to suicide, and it’s happened before.”
“Still, she wasn’t an investigative journalist. Who and why would want her silenced?”
“Even opinion columnists and non-investigative journalists can get in trouble. It happens often. Hell, it’s even happened to ordinary teenagers who’ve been bullied on the internet,” said Sally, as the car reached St. Mary’s.
Richard stopped the car.
“Arianna was known for her feminist perspective, and this caused her to be harassed by online trolls and MRAs,” she told Richard.
“MRAs?”
“Men’s Rights Activists,” replied Sally, her speech becoming quicker. “They’re loudmouth misogynists, usually posting on the internet about how women have all the power in the world and men are disenfranchised. Some of them, however, in collaboration with ultra-conservative circles and the far right, have gone beyond their usual whining and have orchestrated campaigns against women in various industry sectors, such as computing. Their attacks can get pretty nasty and obsessive. And they can keep it up for many years.”
“And what do these people want to achieve?”
“In a nutshell: They want women to shut up and accept being inferior to men. Among other things, they’re pushing the line that rape is acceptable and a way to show women how much they’re appreciated.”
Richard cringed.
“And there are people taking them seriously?” he asked.
“Apparently. There are many conservative pundits ready to pamper them.”
They exited the car and entered the school’s premises.

Back in Dagenhull, Sergeant Amanda Bennett and her partner, Police Constable Anthony Cavers had gone to the Dagenhull Herald’s offices in search of information. The Dagenhull Herald is a newspaper with progressive leanings and one of the few led by a woman. The Dagenhull Herald was the highest-circulation newspaper in its area, and even nationwide it was remarkably popular for a newspaper not based in the capital.

Arianna’s death was a great shock to everyone at the paper. Everybody in the offices had words of praise for her writing and her supportive, compassionate, but also determined personality. Her writing focused on gender issues and, in particular, how women from disenfranchised social classes were affected by central and local government policies.

Bennett was a seasoned police officer, who had successfully worked on numerous mysterious criminal cases in the past, including cases of sexual abuse within families. While it would seem odd that she, a policewoman whose main strength was solving cases where much was going on beneath the surface, would be appointed to investigate what was obviously a suicide, the chief inspector had not ruled out foul play. Arianna’s outspoken writing had attracted violent threats from various people associated with the far right and the MRA movement. Furthermore, while Bennett was politically more moderate than Arianna, she still admired her writing and shared her dream of a society that would be safe for women.

The Herald’s editor was an affable, balding man in his late fifties, with a round head, sporting a short, grey beard. His name was Henry Sanders. A veteran investigative journalist, with many successes under his belt, he was now running the Herald as Dagenhull’s largest progressive news source, and was quick to adapt to the capabilities offered by new technologies, from a full-featured portal to web radio, including a successful subscription model. Under his management, the Herald was going from strength to strength in the internet era, while other newspapers faltered.

“Arianna has been with us for six years until her death,” he told the officers. “She joined us as an intern when she was twenty-five and was an intern for… ” He paused for a bit to remember, and continued. “Five months, I think, and then she was hired as a regular columnist. Her death shocked all of us here, because she was one of our best contributors, she was deeply appreciated and we never thought she’d end up like this.”
“What did she write about?” asked Cavers.
“Gender issues, mostly. She wrote a lot about how various policy decisions made by the central or local administration affected the lives of women, especially those in more vulnerable situations. You know, single mothers, women working in low-income jobs, women in the LGBTQ community, domestic abuse victims, sex workers… Her advocacy pieces for sex workers and domestic abuse victims frequently caused the ire of the conservatives, but what can you do?”
“Had she ever received threats for her work?” asked Bennett.
“Yes, many times. Each time it happened, we advised her to ignore them and to not give the abusers the pleasure of knowing they can influence her actions in any way. She took our advice, but I think she was still affected. She often complained about how no one in the newspaper would say a word and how this gave others the impression that she was really alone and exposed.”
Bennett wanted to dwell on this subject for a bit.
“Were her feelings on this justified?” she asked.
“With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps they were. Each time these attacks on her person were happening, or resuming, she seemed depressed. Or, I should say, more depressed than usual.”
“More depressed than usual?” asked Cavers.
“Yes… Arianna was never a particularly happy person. She rarely smiled and I could see something was bothering her.”
“What was bothering her?” Bennett asked.
“I’m not sure. She never complained about her pay, so I’d say it must have been something personal, and it must have been running pretty deep.”
“Such as?”
Sanders took off his glasses.
“I’m not sure. Family matters? Personal issues? Clinical depression? She didn’t open up.” He paused for a bit, sighed and continued. “Whatever it was, it must have been eating her up from the inside for years. Now that I think about it, I’m beginning to wonder if her complaints and her requests for a few words of support when she was attacked were a cry for help that hardened investigative veterans like me didn’t listen to.”
“Did she have any support network that you know of? Anyone she could turn to?” asked Bennett.
“Here in the newspaper, she was closest with another columnist, Emma Rowlings. She handles music, theatre and movie reviews, and also writes on social issues occasionally. There were also rumours that they were together romantically. She’s also the one who wrote her obituary.”
“Can we talk to her?”
“Yes, she’s here. I’ll take you to her office,” Sanders offered.

Emma Rowlings was one of the Herald’s shining stars – in fact, she was the Herald’s most famous columnist and was considered as the leader of a trio of influential progressive writers, and Arianna was one of them. Her knowledge of music, cinema, theatre and literature was vast, and her reviews were extremely influential. Her collection of movies and books was a movie buff’s delight, and her personal library was always very well-stocked with fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and even included a sizable collection of scholarly books and articles on various subjects. She also wrote, from time to time, very poignant and well-received articles on social issues. She was admired by many, and Arianna never hid her own respect and admiration for her. Even in her own articles, she frequently referenced her with great reverence. Sanders led the two officers to Rowling’s office. He knocked on the door.
“Come in!”
Sanders opened the door and showed the officers in. Emma was sitting at her desk; she was a very elegant woman in her early forties, with a cosmopolitan air. Her hair was black, straight and cut shoulder-length, with two white streaks; intense, almond-shaped brown eyes gazed gracefully, if a bit distantly, at those around her. Her nails were cut short and featured a perfect french manicure. Her black, three-piece outfit was very elegant, and, although the furniture in her office was the standard fare purchased by the newspaper, she had brought her own style to it, with books on architecture, oriental culture, classical and jazz music, various decorative pieces from her travels around the globe, and mementos from friends and loved ones. Despite the rumours about a romantic liaison between her and Arianna, no picture of hers was to be seen anywhere; instead, there was only a picture of Rowlings with a pale-skinned woman with long, straight blond hair.
“Emma, the officers here would like to ask you about Arianna. Do you have some time?”

She rose from her chair and offered her hand. Introductions were made, and she asked the officers to sit.
“How may I help you?” she asked.
“Ms Rowlings, Mr Sanders told us that, of all the people here, you were the one who’s most likely to know enough about Ms Smith to help us in our investigation. Is there something you could tell us?” Bennett asked.
Emma sighed.
“Arianna was…” she paused for a few seconds, trying to consider her words. “A valued and trusted friend. She confided in me, and I did in her. We spent many hours together, discussing topics which later found their way in our articles. We also opened up to each other, sharing much of our life stories. She was by far the most intelligent columnist I’ve ever worked with, although there were many issues that got in the way. I wish I could have prevented what happened. To be more honest with you, I wish I could have seen it coming.”
“What issues are you referring to?”
“From what Arianna had told me, she was coming from a very dysfunctional family that never gave her the affection and support she needed while growing up. This made her extremely insecure and hesitant to reach out and make friends. As far as I know, in this whole newspaper, I was the only person she approached to befriend. Even as she gained acceptance and respect through her writing, she still didn’t believe in herself and her own worth, as a writer and even as a person. She didn’t have much of a social circle, either. She was known by many, but it seems I was the only one she ever got out with and, I dare say, the only one she felt close to. This, unfortunately, caused frictions between us.”
“There are rumours your relationship with Arianna went beyond the confines of a mere friendship.” noted Cavers.
Emma paused for a bit. She gulped, and continued.
“That’s true. Me and Arianna had shared some intimate encounters a long time ago. It was a rather stupid mistake on my behalf that I’d made when I should have said no. Afterwards, she kept wanting to get back to the way we used to be, although I tried to keep things as friends. But I’m not sure how information on this could help you.” She had started feeling more uncomfortable with the conversation.
“Were these intimate encounters just what one would call ‘one night stands’?” asked Cavers.
“What do you mean?” Emma asked, turning her annoyed gaze at him.
“Was there any emotion in these encounters? Were they just all about sex, or was there a deeper connection?” he insisted.
“I don’t see how this is relevant, or how it could help your investigation.” Her speech had become abrupt.
“Ms Rowlings, we’re trying to determine what caused her to jump off that bridge,” intervened Bennett to calm her, seeing that her partner’s upfront approach was angering Rowlings. “No one makes such a decision lightly. There are factors that lead someone to it. We need to find out what influenced her. What caused her to end her life. From possible harassment problems that may have been brought about by her articles to personal issues, we need to find out. You told us earlier that you valued her as a friend and a confidante. Don’t you think she deserves the truth to be told about her? Don’t you think you yourself deserve the truth about what caused your friend’s death?”
Rowlings paused for a bit, her lips slightly parted. Her stern expression slowly became softer, then what looked like a shadow of sorrow set over her eyes. She looked at the officers and reached to her calling card holder, picking up two of her calling cards. She offered one to each officer.
“I’m sorry for overreacting. This is my card. Please call me so we can talk in private.”
Bennett and Cavers thanked her and gave her their cards in return.
“Thank you. Also, please give us a call if you think of any information that might help us,” Cavers said.
“Oh, and… Before we leave. Since you seem to have been the closest person to Arianna in this city, I think we should give you this copy of her suicide note. The original has been sent to her parents,” Bennett said and, producing an envelope from her bag, gave it to Rowlings, who reluctantly took it with trembling hands.
“Th… Thank you.”
The two officers got back in their car to return to the police station.

“So, we have our first two leads. One: Smith was most likely trying to cope with depression. Two: She was romantically involved with Rowlings,” Bennett said as they were waiting at a traffic light.
“An unrequited love, if Rowlings’ words are anything to go by,” Cavers noted.
“Unrequited? To me, this looks more like a regretted affair that caught Smith off-guard and kicked her out of balance and deeper into depression, with other factors adding up and making her situation worse.”
“Could be. Now we’ll have to wait until we can compare notes with the guys that went to her place. And we’ll have to talk to her again, of course.”

In Sunford, Stevens and McMahon waited at the lobby of the headmaster’s office for about ten minutes before he could see them. The secretary stood up, went in the office and showed them in.
“Police Constables Stevens and McMahon,” said Stevens. “We are investigating the circumstances of Ms Arianna Smith’s suicide, and we would like to know if there is anything in her background that could perhaps help us explain what happened to her.”
The headmaster, Philip Hendricks, was a greying man nearing his sixties. Conservatively dressed, with tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses, he paused a bit and thought.
“Arianna Smith… Yes, I remember that name. She was a student of remarkable performance. She never failed a single exam or test, and her grades were always among the top three or four. However, she never participated in any extra-curricular activities at all. And several teachers also expressed concern about her complete lack of friends.”
“Let’s start with what you mentioned first. Why didn’t a student of such extraordinary performance participate in any activities?” asked McMahon.
“When asked, she used to claim her family couldn’t afford it, but that certainly wasn’t true,” answered the headmaster.
“How do you know it wasn’t so?”
Hendricks took off his glasses, opened their case, which was lying on his desk, cleaned them and put them on again.
“I know they could afford other things that were more expensive than a student-grade guitar or a melodica. And her older brother, Kyle, was always dressed in upmarket clothing, in stark contrast with Arianna, whose clothes always were on the shabby side and looked like hand-me-downs from other kids.”
“What did her parents do for a living? questioned Stevens.
“Her father was a farmer and gardener. Not the most successful one, but he never seemed to be in dire straits or have trouble finding clients. Her mother was a housewife.”
“So, at least financially, there was no reason why she would be unable to participate in activities. Is that correct?” Stevens wanted to confirm.
“Correct. While they were never particularly well-off, they had no problem keeping the wolf from the door. Or at least that’s what outsiders were allowed to see.”
“You also mentioned she didn’t have any friends. That’s very strange for a child anywhere, isn’t it?” asked McMahon.
“Oh yes. Very strange. She was very isolated. During breaks, she would just sit alone, either studying for her next class, or just waiting silently,” answered Hendricks. “We tried to get her to mingle with the other students, but it never worked.”
“Why?” asked Stevens.
“She was often ridiculed for her clothing by some of the richer, and more influential girls. You know how peer pressure works and how the ‘cool kids’ can influence others to isolate someone. We tried intervening when we saw it, but we didn’t get the desired results. She was further isolated, and I think we might have done more damage. And, even when we tried to introduce her to other students, we could feel she was uncomfortable. She soon reverted back to her isolation. I feel rather angry with myself and my school. We failed her, because we never managed to make her feel welcome here. We saw the signs, but we just failed to act accordingly.”
“What signs?” McMahon asked.
“Well, her parents never came to take her grades. They were ‘too busy’ or sick or any other excuse you could think of. They never had any time to come over and ask how their daughter was doing. If she had difficulties. If she had any problems. Nothing. We even called them from time to time when we saw she was given a hard time by other kids. They never seemed to care.”
“Have you ever tried to contact child protection services?” asked Stevens.
“I and a colleague had contacted them, but, with the laws being what they are, as long as a child is fed, clothed, doesn’t miss schooldays and shows no obvious signs of abuse, there’s nothing for them to do. Dealing with a kid’s loneliness isn’t part of their job description.”

After Bennett and Cavers left the Herald’s offices, Emma went to Sanders and asked to depart early, promising she’d continue working on her piece, which was scheduled for the end of the week, from home. She could barely hide her upset. He agreed, and she left.
On the subway route back home, she stared into the dark tunnels through the window, paying no attention to her surroundings. She almost missed her stop. She went on the street, and absentmindedly walked to her home.

Once there, her cat, a black-and-white moggy named Sonny, greeted her, wanting his lunch. “Oh Sonny…” she said, with her voice breaking up. She knelt, petted him, and proceeded to feed him. After feeding Sonny, she went back to the coat hanger near the entrance and opened her bag to take the envelope with Arianna’s suicide note. She opened it and began to read, walking to the living room. Emotions started overwhelming her. She sat on the sofa and tried to finish reading the note. She couldn’t. She let it fall to the floor. “Arianna… I’m sorry. I’m sorry… I’m sorry… I’m…” she said, sobbing, and burst into tears a few moments later, covering her face with her hands.

Back at the police station, Bennett and Cavers met with the officers who had gone to collect evidence from Arianna’s apartment. Among other things, they had brought back her desktop computer, an external storage system, two portable hard drives, six USB sticks, a few notepads, a careworn, leather-bound organiser, her tablet, and her laptop.

“We’ll need to have our personnel look for the passwords for these devices. Perhaps she’s written them down somewhere. Or we could have the passwords cracked, but I don’t know how successful that could be. In the meantime, would you like to visit her place, to see if you can find anything else now that you’ve been to her workplace?” one of the officers asked Bennett.
“Yes, I think we should do that. In the meantime, I want a warrant to have a look at her belongings, her email account and her computer in her office at the Herald. And witness summons to be sent to her blog’s ISP and to the providers of any webmail accounts she had,” she said.
“I’ll handle that,” said Cavers.

Written by Mona Okiddo-Eberhardt

This is the previously unpublished third chapter of Mona Okiddo-Eberhardt’s fictional story Arianna. The previous two chapters have been published in her Second Life© blog Living Virtually (Chapter 1 – Bridge and Chapter 2 – A Cold Response).

Alt Out

Wanted: Real Life drivers of virtual avatars for over dinner conversation. It was unusual for me to be reading a newspaper, far less a local one and much less still its personals; a delayed train, a weak phone battery and a discarded copy of The Record on the bench next to me, however – and no other reading material to hand – left me with few other choices. Are you local to Basingstoke? Are you active in the Metaverse? As it happened, I was both. I’m looking to create a dining club for six to eight residents, meeting monthly for good food and stimulating conversation. I liked the idea immediately. Ring Edward, it said; I made a note of the contact number on the back of my hand.

A day’s work later I noticed the fading numerals and the memory returned, as it had with each successive hand wash of the day (only then to evaporate as I stepped out of the mens’ room and let the business of the moment back into my thoughts). Two more washes and it would be gone for good. I rang the number and asked for Edward.

“Ah,” said a gruff, but sculpted voice at the other end. “You’re ringing about the advert. Very good. Now, before you say another word, there’s a very important rule that I intend all members should follow – always assuming, of course, that you choose to become one. The rule is, you must never refer to your real life name during conversation. That includes the conversation we’re having right now. Am I clear?”

He expanded on his rules at the start of our very first dinner, some three weeks later. Edward was an imposing man, tall and elderly, but with an ageless vitality. He sat at the head of the table and the six of us fell naturally into position, three to each side. Whilst the wine was being poured, he tapped his fork against an empty glass and waited with a smile for us to turn.

“My friends,” he started. “I’ve greeted each of you individually, of course. I wish to say just a few more words to mark the start of our acquaintanceship; after that, there will be no more standing to occasion, I promise.”

“He’s a bit egocentric,” the woman to my right whispered. We’d exchanged a hello of sorts when we’d sat down.

“I like egocentric people,” I murmured. “They don’t waste mental capacity worrying about what others think of them.”

“That must be nice,” she said.

The rules were established thus: Absolutely no real life information was to be shared; avatar names were to be used at all times, though it was up to individuals how much of their metaverse identity they shared (and pseudonyms could be used if they didn’t want to share anything at all); everything spoken at the table was in the strictest confidence; finally, it was recommended that none of us met up inworld to prevent the formation of cliques. These policies agreed, we next introduced ourselves. The woman to my right, Mary-Anne Middlemarch, was a fashionista blogger, as was the middle-aged man immediately opposite me, though he introduced himself in the first instance as a photographer. When pushed for a name, he winced a little and checked that everyone agreed on the confidentiality policy (we all nodded vigorously). “I appreciate the option to come under a false name,” he said, “but what on earth would be the point if I had to just make stuff up all the time? Very well. My name inworld is Jennifer Bit. I play a female avatar, and none of my virtual friends know I’m actually male.”

Edward rubbed his chin for a moment about this. Meanwhile, the man to my left who had introduced himself as Raw Concrete, furniture builder, asked Jennifer, “So what are you? Gay? Bi? Transgender?”

“None of the above,” replied Bit, a little stiffly. “You are most welcome here, Jennifer,” said Edward, before further comment could be made. “Please feel free to adopt whichever gender role you feel most comfortable with.”

That left club owner and skin designer Indigo Williams to Edward’s left, a young woman with purple hair, yellow lipstick and black fingernails (she actually did look like an avatar), and Rainy September to Jennifer’s left, who declared that she did nothing at all in the metaverse except explore new places and party. I, of course, introduced myself as a writer.

“And what,” asked Edward, “do you write about, Leonard?”

“Anything in the metaverse that takes my fancy,” I replied, hoping that sounded grandiose. In fact, I didn’t really want to go into the details because people’s eyes generally start to glaze over when a writer they’ve never heard of starts talking about their work. I consider it an important quality as a writer to recognise that.

“And what do you do, Edward?” asked Mary-Anne.

“I role play,” he answered. “Which makes me similar to Leonard, because role play involves a lot of writing. But it also makes me similar to everyone around this table, since we are all, are we not, remaining in roles we have meticulously created.”

“Right,” Jennifer said and nodded his/her agreement

“Speak for yourself,” said Rainy. “How I am inworld is no different from how I am in real life.”

“You’re an explorer in real life, then?” I asked her.

“Careful now!” said Edward sharply, pointing his index fingers at each of us. “That question leads to real life discussion. If that happens I will simply get up and leave, and it will be the last you ever see of me. Sorry to be dramatic. Rainy, my dear,” he continued, more gently, “I don’t doubt for one moment that how, for example, you treat people is no different in the metaverse than it is out here – I would hope that that’s broadly true of everyone around this table – but that’s not really what I mean by role. Perhaps… ‘identity’ would have been a better word.”

The food came and, for a moment, the conversation went quiet. Presently, Edward commented, waving theatrically as he did a forkful of roast beef in the air, “So what I want for us to do, friends, is to discuss metaverse issues; to chew the fat over its unique curiosities; to keep each other’s counsel.”

“A council of avatars?” I asked.

“A dining club,” Edward asserted, “nothing more.”

“Would that make us a fraternity?” said Indigo, speaking from the lip of her wine glass.

“It would make us a dining club,” replied Edward.

“In any case,” commented Raw, who was clearing his plate with alarming efficiency, “fraternities are men only.”

“Historically,” said Indigo. “There’s no reason I can see why a male-female organisation with similar aims couldn’t exist. Not today.”

“Maybe not,” said Raw, “but you’d have to call that something else.”

“What would you call it, Mr Concrete?” Jennifer asked.

Raw actually tore his eyes from his dinner plate for a moment to consider the question. “Framaternity? Framternity? Friternity? Biternity? I dunno.”

“Is that with an I or a Y?” Indigo asked.

“How the hell should I know?” he replied, his attention now well and truly back on the pizza he had ordered. “Ask someone who’s not dyslexic.”

“In any case,” said Edward, “it just makes us a dining club.”

Raw said, “Well, since the subject of identity came up earlier, I have a metaverse puzzler that’s been playing on my mind the last couple of days.” He flicked an olive to a gathering pile at the side of his plate and carved himself out an enormous rectangle of pizza, which he then proceeded to fold in two.

“Why did you order olives if you don’t like them?” Rainy asked him.

“By themselves they’re diabolical,” he replied, “but I like the way they make the cheese taste.”

“Share with us your problem, please,” said Edward. “Perhaps we might collectively be able to shed some light on it.”

“Well it’s not really a problem as such,” Raw said through his mouthful. “I just can’t figure it out. You see, I got outed as an alt the other day and I can’t work out what gave me away.”

“You have an alt?” asked Rainy.

Raw looked at her. “You don’t?”

“Absolutely not.” She looked down at her plate quickly and skewered a carrot.

“Well good for you. I do.”

“So who called you?” Indigo asked.

“A friend I have in both circles,” Raw replied. “But there are only four or five in that overlap. As Raw, almost all my time is spent building. My alt’s my ‘off duty’ avatar and I mostly mix with other people when I’m using it.”

“And your friend didn’t tell you what gave you away?”

“Nope.” He flicked another olive to one side. “She told me not knowing would be my punishment for not having told her who I was.”

“Good for her,” Rainy commented.

“Bad for me,” Concrete retorted, “It’s driving me nuts!”

“Why didn’t you tell her?” asked Mary-Anne, who I noticed at this point had hardly started her turkey salad.

“Why should I?” Raw demanded. “What I do in the metaverse is my own business. It’s not like I’m partnered or anything; who has the right to know?

“In any case,” he continued, “I don’t even have these people in my friends list in my alt account. They just happened to be in the places I visited as him.”

“But they were on your list in your primary account,” I said.

“Oh sure. And Lilly’s one of my oldest pals.”

“Why didn’t you just lie when she asked if it was you,” asked Indigo. “It’s what I would have done.”

“In the first place,” replied Raw, “she didn’t ask, she stated.” He paused to swallow. “In the second, not telling her and actively denying the claim are two different levels of lie. I could live with a lie by omission, but telling her she was wrong when she was right would be diabolical.”

“Even so,” said Jennifer quietly, “you still have the right to privacy.”

Indigo swirled her wine glass in the air thoughtfully for a moment. “Perhaps it was what you were wearing that gave you away. Do you shop in the same places for both your avies?”

“Yes, I was wondering the same thing,” Mary-Anne commented.

“I haven’t bought a new outfit for Raw in at least a year.” The builder carved up the remaining half of his pizza into three precisely equal slices. “What do I want clothes for?”

“And your alt?” asked Mary-Anne.

“I buy for him all over the place. I don’t ‘shop’,” he added, forming the air quotes with his temporarily foodless cutlery. “I think up what I want to look like and then I hunt the look down in web stores. I don’t care where I get it from, so long as it looks like what I want it to look like. I can’t bear all the standing around in metaverse shops just to see if there’s something I like there.”

“Typical man,” said Indigo, and got nods of approval from Mary-Anne, Rainy and Jennifer. Raw just shrugged.

“Okay, so forget about the actual clothing,” she continued, “what about your skin and shape? If you hate experimentation, did you just stick with what you knew when you created the new avatar and buy those again before you got going on creating an outfit?”

Raw thought about that for a moment, chewing whilst he did. “Now that you mention it, I think I did buy the same brand of shape and skin when I created him as what I was used to, though definitely not the same specific products. It doesn’t make any difference, though: I’ve changed both at least twice since then. I haven’t worn those for at least a couple of years.”

“Hairstyle,” said Mary-Anne. “Good quality hair in the metaverse is so much harder to find for men than it is for women. Do you use the same hair on both avatars? A woman would definitely notice that.”

“Well, you’re right about it being hard to find anything worth wearing,” Raw said. “But it’s not like it’s impossible. Raw wears blonde dreadlocks. My alt has four or five different styles he alternates between – none of which are dreadlocks.”

“Are they all the same designer, though?”

“I don’t think so,” he replied and shoveled more pizza into his mouth.

“I bet it’s your animation over-ride,” wagered Jennifer. “Guys use about three. You’re either a foot-to-foot or a jiggler or a crotch-clutcher.”

Concrete dismissed all this immediately. “In the first place, I dispute your claim: there’s loads of good AOs out there for men, though I know the sort of thing you’re talking about and the crotch one is diabolical.”

“I didn’t say there was an absence of choice,” grumbled Jennifer, “just an absence of choosing.”

“In the second place,” Raw continued, “I use completely different animation sets for my two accounts. My building avatar has to remain still whilst I work: if he moves in front of small things I’m editing it drives me mad.”

“Well then, it has to be something about the way you write chat,” I said, pleased to be owning the query concerning words, “the way you say stuff or the type of vocabulary you use.”

“Actually I did think about that,” Raw replied, waving his fork at me whilst he spoke so that a mushroom slice fell onto the table cloth next to my plate of ravioli (I generally tend to choose pasta when eating out with people I don’t know very well; it’s just the safer option). “The thing is, when I’m working as Raw I really don’t chat all that much. And when I do, I tend to talk technical stuff related to building: my building, my friends’ building, builds I’ve seen, and so on. It’s not that I never chat informally, but it just doesn’t happen all that much.

“Now in my alt, on the other hand, I’m much more sociable. Well, the whole point of creating him in the first place was to have more fun. I’d even go so far as to say I force myself to take part more in local chat. It’s a completely different interaction.”

“What about your emoting style?” Indigo asked. Chat is one thing, but emotes can reveal your style much more clearly. Unless you’re a writer-” she looked at me on this word and I could swear she was dangling almost invisible quote marks around it, “-it’s like a fingerprint.”

“Simple,” he replied. “I never emote as Raw.”

“I’m guessing you don’t voice in both accounts either,” said Mary-Anne. “That would be too obvious.”

“I don’t voice in either,” Raw said with a grimace.

I wasn’t convinced by his dismissal of my point about writing style and said so. “It has to be that,” I insisted. “It’s just something you’re not aware of.”

“Maybe you’re right,” he said, “but I’m telling you, I talk in two completely different styles in there.”

“Well I still think it’s something you were wearing,” said Indigo. “Maybe you don’t consciously shop in the same places, but you could still have ended up wearing the same label.”

“If so, then it was a complete coincidence,” Raw replied. “And in any case, what if I was? Plenty of guys must go around wearing the same designer as others. It’s too slim a connection, and she was definite.”

All the obvious ideas depleted, the conversation suddenly lulled. I looked at our host, who had been taking in the whole thing with a large, satisfied smile on his face. “What do you think, Edward?”

He leaned towards me. “What I think, my dear fellow, is that this little idea of mine has already exceeded my best expectations. We must make this a regular occurrence. We must.””

“Just a shame nobody could solve my problem,” Raw said and commenced his assault upon the final slice.

Our host put down his cutlery and dabbed at the side of his mouth with his napkin. “Well, perhaps I might be able to help you there.”

“Edward, don’t tell us you’ve gone and worked it out whilst we’ve all been making fools of ourselves,” said Indigo, smiling for the first time that evening.

“Hardly fools, my dear,” said Edward. “All very helpful lines of enquiry, I assure you. I must agree with Leonard, however, that the most likely clue would have to be something said.”

“Fine,” said Raw. “But what?”

“Something – a single word, perhaps – which you might use as the situation demanded in both social conversation and discussions about building.”

“Like I said,” protested the builder, “I can’t think of anything.”

Edward smiled. “We are so rarely aware of our own mannerisms. Did you know, my boy, that on three separate occasions this evening you’ve used the word, ‘diabolical’ to indicate your disapproval of something? One could just as easily describe a building as diabolical as a behaviour or predicament.”

Raw’s fork, with its final mouthful of pizza, stopped halfway to his mouth. “Diabolical,” he repeated. “I do like that word. Really? Do you think that could that be it?”

“Oh come on,” said Rainy. “That’s even more tenuous than the branded clothing. It’s not like he said it every other word.”

“Indeed,” said Edward, “except we’re not actually talking about a word that ever has been said in the metaverse by our friend here.” He removed a ball point pen from his jacket and handed it to Raw with an unused paper napkin. “Be a good chap and write it down for me, would you?”

Raw frowned. “Well,” he said, “I’ll have a go. You really should be asking someone who’s not dyslexic.”

“Ah,” I said, watching.

“The word itself,” said Edward to Rainy, “would indeed probably only arouse at best a mild suspicion. But if there was something else about how the person wrote that word…” He held up the napkin, on which was written, “Diabolicle”.

“That’s not how you spell it, is it?” Raw said miserably.

“I’m afraid not, my boy,” Edward replied. “But it would scarcely matter in the vast majority of contexts. And I have to agree with you completely that it is a very fine word indeed.”

Written by Huckleberry Hax