Perfect Heroes #3
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The enemy stands at the border...
Ardra needs a strong warrior to save her fortress...
Neil needs a place to lick his wounds and heal...
he wishes he'd gone to Tahoe!
Stars moved through a midnight sky.
Planets converged, bowed to one another, and continued on
in their timeless journey. A small green figure, much like
a zucchini with arms and legs, appeared. A red question mark
bobbed over its head.
Neil Scott watched the creature as
it hopped about his computer screen, indicating stars and
planets with a pointed finger tipped in yellow. Across the
bottom of the screen facts about each heavenly body the creature
highlighted appeared and disappeared.
He punched in another search request,
then paused, hands poised over the keyboard and listened.
He heard only the rain's gentle beat against the roof and
the sounds of the computer processing his request.
The office of Virtual Heaven, his video
game shop on the boardwalk in Ocean City, New Jersey, was
chilly and dark except for the glow from his computer. The
clock on the monitor said 7:12 PM.
"What are you doing here so late?"
he asked without looking up.
"Damn. How'd you know it was me?"
Gwen Marlowe, his partner in the shop asked. "I was really
Neil swiveled around to face her. She
was a black silhouette against the shop lights behind her.
"You smell like roses."
She shook her head, flipped the wall
switch, flooding the small space with a stark glare. "What
are you doing here, Neil? I saw your car out back, but no
lights. I figured you were in here brooding--" She frowned.
"What's this? Astronomaniacs? Isn't that a computer program
Neil shrugged. He pulled off his tie
and looped it about the neck of the desk lamp, a habit he
knew Gwen hated. "The program may be for kids, but it's
really easy to understand--"
"This is a list of lunar conjunctions."
She shoved him over and leaned in to peer at the screen. Her
short blonde hair was damp from the misty rain outside. She
still wore the neat black suit from his mother's funeral that
"So what?" And so much for
distracting her with the tie wars. He quit the program, rose,
and strolled out of the office. Gwen trailed him into the
main room of the shop, weaving between aisles of computer
and video games.
"So, why would you be interested
in conjunctions? Lunar conjunctions in particular?"
"It was stellar conjunctions and
why not?" Neil sealed Astronomaniacs in plastic and then
tossed it into the used program bin. "Why aren't you
home with your husband?"
"Oh, I was, but this is the night
my sister tutors Vad. I got tired of hearing Vad's dissertation
on why he'll never use Algebra down at the restaurant. If
he spent as much time doing the problems as complaining .
. . oh, you don't need to hear this. Let's just say he never
bickers over his history lessons."
Neil kept her diverted. "So who's
baby-sitting little Natalie?"
"When I left she was in her usual
position, curled up in Vad's lap. She's cutting her three
year old molars and only daddy will satisfy her." Gwen
tapped Neil's shoulder. "You're not really interested
in Vad's education or Natalie's teeth, so what's going on?"
Neil could not help glancing at the
poster behind Gwen. It advertised the latest and hottest of
virtual reality games--Tolemac Wars III. She whirled around,
then back to him. "Oh, no. You can't be . . . you wouldn't
. . . you aren't thinking about going into the game, are you?"
Gwen reminded him of a wet hen ready
to chase a misbehaving rooster. He cleared up the service
counter to avoid eye-contact. "Why not? You did. Or so
He could almost hear her grit her teeth.
"You don't understand. I've told you this before; it's
a barbaric world, complete with slavery."
"So I'd have to make sure I went
as something other than a slave." Lying across the end
of the service counter in the front of the shop was the jacket
from his suit, a brand new suit purchased for today's funeral.
He planned to take it off and never put it on again.
Gwen shook her head. "Please.
Don't make me crazy."
"Then butt out." Neil pulled
a small box labeled "Salt Water Taffy" from beneath
his jacket and shook it. "This is all that's left of
my mom's jewelry. Did you know she gave away the stuff from
my dad? I never understood that."
"I know you're probably sick of
sympathy from this afternoon, but I'm so sorry about your
mom. She seemed to be getting it together there for a while."
He nodded and flipped open the box
lid. "Yeah. I did a great job, didn't I? Really took
care of her."
Without a word, Gwen wrapped her arms
about him and gave him a big hug. He stood it for about ten
seconds, then broke away.
She frowned at him. "You can't
blame yourself for what happened. You quit a fantastic job
in New York for her. You put your life on hold to help her."
"Yeah. Little good it did."
Suddenly, his head ached. "Why don't you go rescue your
sister before Vad reverts to warrior mode and trashes his
"Neil. You have to stop beating
yourself up. You weren't driving the car, she was."
"Yeah," he said. It was all
he seemed able to say today. Yeah, my mom drove her car into
a bridge abutment. Yeah, second time for that trick. Yeah,
she's dead this time.
Gwen examined the collection of jewelry
and then slowly draped all that remained of his mother's life
in a neat row. Except for two items, what remained was costly
and mostly bought in moments of depression--something pretty
to cheer herself up, she'd said.
As if to echo his thoughts, Gwen said,
"This is pretty." She held up a small chain with
a cross on it.
"Take it for Natalie," he
said, glad of the change of subject. "Mom really liked
"Thank you." Gwen carefully
wiped a tear from her cheek. "What's this?" She
held up a glistening object about the size of Natalie's thumbnail--a
tiny red rose. "Is this glass?" she asked.
He nodded and took it from her. "My
grandfather worked at the glassworks in Millville. He made
these earrings for my grandmother. There should be another
somewhere." He plucked it from a tangle of necklaces.
"I guess I should keep them together." He stirred
the pile with his finger until he found a simple chain. He
threaded it through the earring shanks and gave them to Gwen.
"Would you like them?"
"They're lovely, but I couldn't
possibly take them. If your grandfather made them, you might
want to give them to your own daughter one day." She
put all the jewelry into the box.
"No thanks. The last thing I want
is kids. No offense to Natalie, she's a doll, but kids are
a huge responsibility. The last thing I want is responsibility--of
any sort. I'd just screw it up anyway."
"Neil! You can't think like that."
Gwen slapped his hand.
He walked over to the game poster.
"So what do you think of this newest Tolemac Wars game?
Really a departure from the norm, isn't it?" Damn. He'd
brought the conversation right back to where he didn't want
Gwen stood in front of the Tolemac
Wars poster and tapped her bottom lip with a manicured fingertip.
"I can't decide if I like it. I'm used to a warrior as
the feature character . . . and this time it's a woman--"
"What about The Unknown? He's
"Yes, but he's so . . . spooky.
If you choose to play the Unknown Warrior, you're inside his
head when you're playing, you see what he sees, move with
him and so on, just like when you choose to be one of the
other characters, but you never really know whose side he's
on . . . he's . . ."
Neil couldn't help smiling. "Unknown?"
Gwen didn't smile back. "I don't
like him. He could so easily be on the side of evil."
"Sometimes it's good to be bad."
He wagged his eyebrows.
"I know you don't really believe
"It's a game, Gwen. Check the
stats on this game and you'll see the Unknown is the most
selected character to play, and let me tell you, the dozens
of men who line up to play him are not interested in Refrigerator
Gwen giggled. "Is that what you
Unlike the earlier versions of Tolemac
Wars that attracted flocks of women because they featured
a really ripped guy, this game poster portrayed a woman. She
guarded the ice for the Selaw.
The ice was the source of all the hostilities
between Tolemac and the Selaw and hence the reason for the
many wonderful outbreaks of war that kept the game series
Everyone wanted the ice and what may
lay beyond it--lands with fantastic weapons and great riches.
Gwen claimed she'd described Refrigerator
Girl for the game's creator, and Neil knew she was quite proud
of that accomplishment. Gwen also claimed the woman she'd
help create for the game really existed. The idea was tantalizing.
Neil leaned his back on the counter
and folded his arms over his chest. "She looks as cold
as her product. And too skinny."
"Yeah, she's a bit thin. I'd kill
to be that thin again."
"Again?" Neil stared at Gwen's
"Shut up." Gwen fisted her
hands on her hips. "She's beautiful, though, isn't she?
And in real life, not a bit icy."
"In 'real' life. O-o-okay,"
he said with a grin.
"Yes. In real life."
Neil held his hands out palm up. "Okay,
she's real and beautiful. Just in a boring way. Sorry."
"I suppose you like your women
with . . . ?" She held her hands in front of her chest.
"With a big rack? Sure. I'm as
shallow as the next man."
"I don't get why men are so attracted
to big breasts."
He shrugged and walked away from the
counter and stared out of the shop window. Only a few lone
souls walked along the Ocean City boardwalk on this misty
evening in November. Rain dripped down the large display window,
distorting the view, but he had it memorized. No matter where
he went, he could close his eyes and see the Atlantic Ocean
in all its many guises and smell the scents that were only
found near the shore.
The wooden boardwalk extended beyond
his vision. He could not see the nearby lights of Atlantic
City to the north.
It would be 8:03 in another twenty-two
minutes. "Why don't you go, Gwen? I'll set everything
up for tomorrow and lock up."
"You wouldn't really try to enter
the game would you?"
He saw her anxious face reflected in
the shop window. He shrugged. "Maybe one day. Don't worry,
I'll leave you the store in case I don't return."
"Stop it, Neil." She grabbed
His anger felt on the edge of control.
He turned to face her. "You did it. Or so you claim."
"Accidentally. If you went in,
it would be for all the wrong reasons."
"Wrong reasons?" He strode
to the service counter and picked up the taffy box, shook
it. "What reasons? This is all I have--"
"And the store." Gwen hurried
to his side, the staccato tap of her high heels echoing in
the empty shop.
"You don't need me here. Let's
face it. I've had it with everything and everybody."
His hands felt sweaty. She was going to screw it all up. He
forced his face to relax into a smile. "I just need a
vacation. Maybe I'll go to Tolemac or maybe . . . Tahoe. Why
don't you let me decide what to do with my life?"
"I know you gave up a lot to help
your mom, but was it that bad?" she asked softly.
He couldn't meet her eyes. "No.
It wasn't. Lots of it was good. Just go home, would you? I
need a vacation, that's all. I want to get the inventory together,
then I'll lock up."
She worried it like a dog with a bone.
"If you went into the game, I might never know what happened
"I'll send you a message no matter
where I go. Surfing in Maui, rafting on the Colorado, questing
in Tolemac. Satisfied? Now let it go, Gwen."
"Yes, but what if something happened,
you got sick or hurt or lost or--" She counted out the
possible perils to his life on her fingers.
"Or killed in a car wreck on the
Parkway? Anything could happen anywhere, any day." He
slapped her purse into her outstretched hands and had to physically
restrain himself from checking his watch.
"You're coming home with me. Right
now. You need company. I'll make some coffee, and you can
explain to my dear husband how you use Algebra in your daily
life. Come on."
Neil gave Gwen a hug, then quickly
released her. "Forgive me, Gwen. I didn't mean to upset
you. I'm just feeling a bit maudlin is all. Please, just ignore
me and go home." When she hesitated, he forced another
smile he didn't feel. "Anyway . . . I couldn't lie to
your husband. I never use Algebra." Her shoulders relaxed,
and he pointed at the shore outside the window. "We're
going to have more beach erosion if this storm escalates.
If the roads flood, you'll be stuck here all night."
And I'll miss the conjunction.
Then she sighed and nodded. "Okay.
But don't stay here too long. Go home. Maybe call that girl
who came to the funeral. Eve? Right?"
"Yeah. Eve." He'd never call
Eve. When he'd needed her most, she'd left him. She couldn't
understand how he could trade a place on Wall Street for a
place on the Ocean City boardwalk, hadn't really understood
the responsibility he felt for his mother. Eve, too, had said
he wasn't responsible for her. But both Gwen and Eve were
wrong. He had been responsible. And he'd failed the miserable
He accompanied Gwen to her car and
watched her drive off. When her tail lights disappeared around
the corner, he grabbed his suit jacket and the jewelry box,
then ran quickly upstairs to the apartment above the shop.
Only thirteen minutes remained.
The apartment was deserted, used only
for storage these days. He dumped the contents of a carton
labeled Costumes/Tolemac Wars Ball out onto a bare mattress
and rooted through the contents.
He rejected the warrior stuff because
the leather jerkins left the arms bare. Although he worked
out and ran everyday, warriors needed armrings and those he
didn't have. Finally, he found what he was looking for, a
linen shirt and a long scarlet robe, heavily embroidered with
gold. It was a generic costume denoting a man of wealth, possibly
a merchant or craftsman.
"Let's see if you can figure out
where I've gone, Gwen," he said aloud as he carefully
placed the empty carton so its label faced the door.
In a few moments, Neil had stripped
to his shorts. He continued his one-sided conversation. "You'll
probably be a bit pissed with me in the morning, but I figure
tonight's the night. As they say, it's written in the heavens--virtual
heavens, that is."
He slipped the linen tunic over his
head. It fell to mid-calf and struck a strange contrast to
his boxers but would conceal the tattoo on his arm. Next he
belted the long scarlet and gold robe about his middle with
one of his old leather belts studded with silver conchas.
It was Southwestern, not virtual-reality, but so what?
His old hiking boots which he pulled
over some ski socks didn't go with the rich robe, but he'd
buy more appropriate footgear when he got there.
There. An almost euphoric sensation
coursed through him. There no one knew him, and no one depended
He poured the box of jewelry into a
soft leather pouch which he suspended from his belt. "Sorry
for lying, Gwen. Except for the glass earrings, this stuff
is all destined for barter. I figure real gold and silver
are going to be just as useful a commodity in Tolemac as it
is in the good old US of A."
Especially if he went by the jewels
draped around the neck of Refrigerator Girl on the Tolemac
In case Gwen missed the costume hint,
he arranged his suit on the bed with one arm pointing to the
window. He took a final look at himself in the mirrored closet
doors. His hair was too short, but hair grew. There was nothing
he could do about the hole in his earlobe--or his tattoo.
He checked his watch. Time to go.
With a deep breath, he headed back
down to the shop and into the booth housing the Tolemac Wars
virtual reality game. It was four free-standing matte black
walls surrounding an inner room, also with black walls. The
inner room had a wide screen for spectators who wished to
watch a player's progress through the game. Players wore headsets
and lived the experience. It was expensive, heady, and very
He started the game and consulted his
watch. With satisfaction, he heard the close crack of thunder.
The storm was escalating right on schedule.
As the game warmed up, he felt sweat
prickling his neck and back. Despite his subtle and not so
subtle questioning, Gwen had only vaguely explained how she'd
come and gone from the virtual reality game. Conjunctions
were important to the process. So were the designs of the
ancient Celts--and a power boost.
The stars were in alignment. Almost.
The Celtic design he'd taken care of at Sid's Family Tattoos
(Walk-ins Welcome) on the night Eve had deserted.
The power, whatever it was, must come
from someone or something greater than himself. He didn't
really believe in any of it, but he didn't believe in anything
in his life in Ocean City either.
The hum of the game filled the room.
The words Tolemac Wars III flashed on the huge white screen
before him, filling the purple Tolemac sky like angry clouds.
The O in Tolemac was the flaming scarlet sun of the virtual
reality world. He felt as if he stood on a mountain, a distant
row of jagged peaks straight ahead. They were aglow in a wash
of violet, crimson and gold.
The title turned and twisted, blowing
in the wind across the screen over a landscape of mountain
meadows and towering pines. As the words twisted, the sun
faded and vanished, the O becoming the turquoise of a Tolemac
moon. The sky deepened to indigo.
A woman in green appeared by a stand
of pines. She was sweetly pretty, reed thin, gliding with
elegant grace toward him along the meadow. An uptight librarian
dressed for story hour. "Prissy, boring," he said
to the screen. "Go tend your ice."
The woman conjured a fire in her hands.
She turned in a circle casting small flames from her fingers.
A ring of candles sprang up, surrounding her. The flames lit
her face, touched her blonde hair with gold. Neil waited for
what he knew came next.
The Tolemac Wars title shredded apart
leaving only the turquoise moon behind.
Neil took off his wrist watch and set
it where he could see it on the control panel. When he looked
up again, three other moons rose slowly through a sky now
filled with stars.
The view shifted, spun, turned.
Terrain sped before him on the screen,
taking him deep into a landscape of forest, an ancient night-filled
forest, so dense, it looked like a maze. Finally, the dizzy
kaleidoscope of movement halted and he was back on the mountain
meadow, now bathed in the luminous greenish blue of the four
Tapping a few keys with practiced ease,
he chose the character he wished to play. The Unknown. A man
with no face, owing allegiance to no one, taking part in the
Tolemac wars if he wanted, fighting for good or for evil if
he wished. He could go either way. His choice. Not someone
Thunder reverberated overhead and he
smiled his satisfaction.
His watch said 8:03. Lifting the headset,
he put it on.
He pressed play.
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