Project-52 Preview Chapter

Two of Diamonds

Thursday, 10:53pm

The dead woman looked to be about 22 or 23.

She was a tall, thin redhead wearing a blue tracksuit with a volleyball team logo embroidered on the breast. Judging from the books scattered on the dewy grass by her feet, Jack Deckard figured she was studying Psychology and Physics. Her clenched fist still grasped her purse and he could see an iPad in a faux-leather case under the books; this wasn't a robbery.

The two stab wounds on her chest, one either side of the zip, were enough to ensure this case would be front page news. Even now, at nearly 11pm in a dark corner near the back of the campus, a sizable crowd had gathered, barely held back by a handful of campus cops and uniforms from the city.

Deckard figured some bozo would have snapped photos on a cell phone. Hell, they were probably already on Facebook or Twitter.

The two objects next to the body would really cause a shitstorm: a wicked-looking hunting knife stabbed through a blood-smeared playing card.

The knife was one thing – you don't often find a stabbing without a knife – but the card gave the case a sinister edge. This wasn't a simple crime of passion or robbery gone wrong, it fell more into the realm of the nutball psycho killer.

Crouching, Deckard used the tip of his own pocket knife to lift the blue-backed card a little – not enough to piss off the crime scene guys were just arriving in their SUV, but just he could see the face.

Ace of Spades.

Yup. The perpetrator wasn't just someone who happened to drop a Deuce of Diamonds or Six of Clubs from his backpack as he ran away; this guy wanted to send a signal.

At least, Deckard figured, it wasn't a Joker – the last thing he needed was a loony inspired by a Batman movie.

Whoever the perp was, he'd been smart about his choice of hunting ground. The body lay in some bushes just off the path between a late-night coffee shop and the main campus library. There were no security cameras nearby, and the only lamp was a good twenty yards away. By the time another student stumbled onto the body at – Deckard checked the notation he'd made on his PDA when first talking to the campus rent-a-cops – 9:55pm, the vic's body was starting to cool.

Both the campus guys and the first uniform on the scene assured him that, aside from confirming she was dead and fishing the wallet out of her purse to check her ID, they hadn't touched anything.

Up until this point, Deckard hadn't even glanced at the wallet. He always tried to take in a crime scene with no preconceptions, to draw his own conclusions.

Now he looked: a cheap vinyl billfold that the uniform had splayed open inside a glassine evidence bag, so the driving license and student ID were both visible. Neither of the two photos was particularly flattering, and the shocked look on the real girl's dead face was no prettier, but they all matched. The vic was Jewell McQueen, who lived in a student-dominated apartment block a twenty minute drive away.

She was 22 – it had been two years since Deckard had last investigated a homicide, or any crime with a victim in front of him, but he'd picked the age from one glance – he wasn't sure whether that made him feel happy or not.

"Jewell? Oh, shit! Jewell!" yelled a man from behind the taped cordon.

Normally, Deckard was able to tune out the random noise from looky-loos at crime scenes, but this guy caught his attention.

He stood out, partly because he wore a suit and tie amongst a crowd of kids in jeans and t-shirts, but more because of his attitude. This wasn't a nosey student with nothing better to do than look at some poor dead girl's body. This was someone who had arrived, breathless, and found the person he was looking for was now a victim. He was pushing against Sergeant Bishop, Deckard's partner standing at the cordon, trying to force his way through.

"Ok," yelled Deckard, his clear voice stopping everyone. "Let him through, Bishop. I want to hear what he has to say."

Three of Diamonds

Thursday, 11:00pm

"Is that… Jewell McQueen?" the guy said, straining past Deckard's outstretched hand.

"First things first, buddy. Who are you?"

"Uh, I'm Steve. Oh, crap, she's dead isn't she?"

"Ok, Steve, let's try for a last name."

"I'm Steve Hart. I came here tonight to meet up with Jewell McQueen, but I was running late and couldn't find her. Is that her?"

Deckard looked at the victim, whose head was turned right at them, then back to Steve Hart's own brown eyes. Deckard had been a cop for more than fifteen years, was used to stressed friends and families of victims, but they normally recognized the people they were upset about.

"We haven't made an identification. Does it look like Jewell McQueen?"

"I'm not sure. I've never actually met her."

Deckard raised an eyebrow. "Wanna run that one by me again?"

"I mean…" Hart stopped, took a deep breath and undid his suit jacket, revealing an R2-D2 tie.

"Jewell McQueen and I haven't met IRL, only on-line. I've been looking around campus for the last half hour and saw the commotion, so figured it was her. It is her, isn't it?"

"I-R-L?" asked Deckard.

"In Real Life. We both play a morpeg called FutureWorld 2071, both in the same Project-52 syndicate actually, and the Queen said she was in trouble, so I came to help."

Deckard looked at Hart as if the man was speaking Swahili. "Ok, Mr Hart, let's take a walk this way, so the Crime Scene boys can take a look, and then you can try that whole sentence again."

Hart nodded, walking unsteadily as he followed Deckard to a spot just at the edge of the crime scene tape. Deckard muttered a few words to the CSU guys, then tapped Hart's name into his PDA.

"Let's try again. How did you know McQueen?"

Hart ran his fingers through his short brown hair, took another deep breath and seemed to compose himself.

"Jewell McQueen and I both play an M-M-O-R-P-G, a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, called FutureWorld 2071."

"A massive online what-now?" asked Deckard, using his PDA to take some notes. "Treat me like a non-geek, ok?"

"It's like Worlds of Warcraft," tried Hart. "EverQuest? Farmville? Have you seen multiplayer Quake?" Hart could tell from Deckard's face that he'd have to dumb it down further – for a moment he thought of asking if the guy had heard of Pong, but figured that would be a mistake. "Look, there are hundreds of thousands of people around the world playing a computer game on-line, working together to fight bad guys in a sci-fi version of Earth."

"Go on."

"Jewell and I are in a syndicate, a group of gamers who play together. The game was popular a couple of years back, but people have been dropping out to try other things, so the organizers set up a thing called Project-52. The syndicate of four-to-eight players that does the best in missions over a 52 week period wins big – the prize pool is a million bucks."

"That's a hell of a lot of money for playing Space Invaders."

Hart had to laugh. "Gaming's big business. The FutureWorld guys rake in tons from $15 per month subscriptions, plus there's advertising within the game, so it's in their interest to keep people playing."

"Ok, so you and Ms McQueen played internet Dungeons and Dragons together. She doesn't look like much of a geek."

"Hey, gaming's bigger than movies these days. It's not just pasty dweebs in their parents' basement; lots of gamers are women."

"Why did you decide to meet her the night she was murdered?"

Deckard knew a lot more about MMORPGs, and Project-52 specifically, than he let on, but wanted Hart to keep talking about something he was familiar with to loosen him up before the hard questions.

"She PM'd me, saying she was in trouble and wanted me to help and could I meet her on campus, by the coffee shop."

"What time?"

"She sent the message about, uh 7:30, I guess. I was busy, flat out at work, so said I'd try to be here by 10."

Looking at his own watch, Deckard did the math. "But you got here half an hour ago? Didn't you just say that?"

Hart nodded, eyes flicking back to McQueen's body. "Yeah, I was tied up, couldn't get out as fast as I thought I would."

"There can't be many jobs that keep people out this late in a suit and tie. What do you do, Mr Hart?"

"Uh, I'm an engineer, work at Jones-Hiroshi Technologies. I, well, I guess you could say I design gizmos. We did a presentation for a big client today and then took them to dinner. I only just got out."

"So, why did you stab Ms McQueen?"

"I was…what?" Deckard's question had thrown Hart. "I didn't. I just got here."

Hart's face lit up and he reached into his pocket. Deckard took a step back, his own hand going to the grip of the 9mm on his hip, before he realized Hart was digging in his wallet.

"Look," Hart said, handing over two rectangles of cardboard. "This is the parking coupon I got when I arrived on campus – 10:28pm – and this was validated at 10:13 when I left my parking building across town."

Deckard looked at the tickets.

"I couldn't have done it," Hart went on. "But you thought I did, didn't you? Does that mean you don't know who killed her?"

The hint of panic in Hart's voice intrigued Deckard. The guy didn't sound guilty; the vibe he was giving off was fear.

"I've only just arrived myself, Mr Hart. I'm still taking things in. But we're always especially interested in people who arrive at crime scenes in an emotional state, such as yourself."

"Tell me," Deckard went on, "do you know anyone who might have had a reason to hurt Ms McQueen?"

Hart hesitated, with a facial expression that made Deckard think the next answer could be interesting – whether it was a lie or the truth.

And then a phone rang.

Not Hart's, nor Deckard's. The beeping came from the iPhone that the CSU guys had just put in an evidence bag.

Aha, thought Deckard, who could be ringing the murder victim?


Four of Diamonds

Thursday, 11:05pm

Deckard beckoned and the tech handed over the evidence bag.

Looking through the plastic, he saw the caller ID display "Dice" and a cellular number. The cop punched the number into his own phone before the ringing stopped and the call diverted to voicemail.

"Do you know any friend of Ms McQueen called 'Dice'?"

"Nuh-huh," said Hart, genuinely confused. "But then I only learned that Jewell McQueen was her real name last week – up until then she was just Queen of Diamonds."

That made Deckard smile. "The victim called herself a Queen?"

"It's a screen name, an alias. We all have them."

"And, Mr Hart, what's your alias?"

"Rimbaud," replied Hart, pronouncing it like the name of the French poet. It had started as a joke name for his tough soldier character. "It's spelled R-I-M-B-A-U-D," he added, noticing that Deckard was entering it into his PDA.


"Yeah, but you say it Ram-bo. Like Stallone."

"Ok, whatever. But you don't know a 'Dice'?" When Hart shook his head, Deckard pushed Send. "Well, let's see if she's finished leaving a message."

"Yello?" the voice answering the phone sounded tentative.

"Is this Dice?" asked Deckard.

"Who is this?"

"Detective Sergeant Jack Deckard. Did you just call Jewell McQueen's cellphone? Is your name 'Dice'?"

"Uh, like, my name is Tracey Dice. I just called Jewell a minute ago. Is she in trouble?"

Tapping her name into his PDA with one hand, Deckard continued the call. "Where are you now, Ms Dice?"

"I'm at the library on campus. Jewell left me a few hours ago to meet some guy and hasn't called back. What's happening?"

"I think you'd better come and talk to me in person, Ms Dice," replied Deckard. "We're on Evans Avenue – you can't miss the lights."

"Is she ok?" the voice sounded desperate now.

"I'm afraid not," Deckard said, refusing to give too much away over an open cellular connection. "Please come here and I'll tell you what I can."

Dice said she'd be there in ten minutes and ended the call.

"Mr Hart, do you know who Tracey Dice is?"

Hart had heard enough of Deckard's end of the conversation to understand what was going on. "No idea. But, like I said, I didn't really know Jewell or her friends; she was just a screen name to me."

"Ok. Hey, Bishop" Deckard called out. "You're gonna get a Ms Tracey Dice come up. Friend of the vic. Send her through, ok?"


"Now, Mr Hart," Deckard went on. "I'm going to get you to come down to the station tomorrow and give a formal statement. For now, let's do the basics."

Deckard ran through some standard questions: Hart's name, address and contact details.

"You asked about who might have a reason to kill the Que…, I mean, Jewell," said Hart, once the questioning was over.

"Yeah, I did, didn't I? Got some ideas?"

Hart hesitated, then figured it was worth expressing his worry. "What if, I mean, could it be because of the game?"

"What? Your little internet 52-Pickup?" asked Deckard, raising his eyebrows. "I doubt someone would kill a woman over a computer game."

"But there's money involved, lots of it. Our syndicate is in the running for a million bucks, isn't that a motive for another team to target us?"

That made Deckard hesitate.

"Is your team out of the game now that McQueen is dead?"

"Well, no, we've still got five of the original players. We only need four to stay in the contest."

"So killing McQueen doesn't achieve anything. Look, Mr Hart, the victim was stabbed - that's a personal crime, not a hit. I think we'll find it's a jealous boyfriend, a friend she pissed off, something like that."

But Hart ignored the end of Deckard's sentence, focusing on the implications of the first part. "Dropping down to five makes it harder to win. But, what if Jewell is only the first target? What if they come after others in my syndicate?"

"Ok, tell you what: we'll look into it. Here's my card, call me if you're worried, and if someone comes up to you with a knife, call 911 straight away, ok?"

"But…" started Hart.

"Excuse me, I think this is Ms Dice," said Deckard, turning away.

The woman who Bishop let past the tape was in her mid-twenties, tall and thin, with shoulder-length blonde hair that she was nervously twisting around one finger. Dice was dressed in jeans and a denim jacket.

"Oh, shit," she muttered, eyes wide. "That's what you meant? Jewell is dead?"

The cop nodded, watching the emotions on Dice's face. "I'm afraid so, Ms Dice."

"How? Why?"

"That's what I'm trying to find out. You said she was with you earlier tonight?"

"Yeah. Jewell is my friend. We met up for dinner about six, after my drama class. She left to meet some guy and told me she'd be back. I got heavily into studying, then realized it was eleven o'clock and the library was shutting. That's when I called."

Deckard pointed to Hart. "Do you know who this man is?"

For a moment, Dice and Hart's eyes locked, each searching the other's face for a sign of familiarity. Then she shook her head. "Nope,
never seen him before. Did he stab Jewell?"

"No!" blurted Hart, horrified.

"He's just another witness. Tell me, do you know anyone called Steve Hart?"

"Don't think so," Dice replied. "Unless, didn't he play for the Packers a few seasons back?"

Before Deckard could ask another question, Hart interrupted.

"Uh, Detective? Do you need me anymore? It's late, and if you're going to talk to me tomorrow anyhow, I'd like to go home."

The detective thought for a moment, then figured he'd got enough from Hart for this evening. The last person to see the victim alive would be a more fruitful witness than the guy who didn't get to campus in time.

"Go. But remember I'll be calling you."

"Sure," said Hart, ducking back under the tape as Deckard began asking Dice more questions.

I can't, thought Hart as he walked away, just leave this up to Detective Dickhead.


Five of Diamonds

Thursday, 11:11pm

Walking back to where his six-year-old, dark blue BMW was parked, a million thoughts raced through Steve Hart's head.

Someone had murdered the Queen of Diamonds – a vicious stabbing.

While he didn't want to get into it with Deckard – a local bozo who thought Jewell was stabbed by a pissed-off friend – Hart had a very good reason to think it had something to do with Project-52.

And that he might be in danger too.

He needed to get help, to warn the others.

In an ideal world, he'd contact them in-game, but it would take too long to get home. He needed a quicker way.

His own heart was racing as he turned the corner, easing his Blackberry out of his jacket pocket. Hart hadn't lied when he told the cop that his syndicate had never met face-to-face; they hadn't even talked to each other over the phone, but they lived locally and he had their e-mail addresses.

It took next to no time to address a message for all of them.


Subject: Queen Dead for real!!!

Queen of Diamonds murdered IRL. Contact me.



Hart pressed Send.

Now it was a matter of waiting to see if anyone would call.

He was at his car, about to beep the alarm, when his phone rang, belting out a few chords of Nirvana's Nevermind.

Hart checked the caller ID and saw the number was withheld. Was this a friend, a cop, or a threat?

"Hello?" said Hart.

"Rimbaud?" The voice was male, a little croaky, but Hart didn't recognize it. He didn't even notice that the caller pronounced his alias correctly.

"Yeah, who's this?"

"It's the Dealer."

Continued in Project-52 – an e-book murder mystery thriller with a tech edge

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