On May 13th, 2034, twenty-three-year-old Joy Ruiz disappeared. On July 19th, 2037, Cassie West sat at a table inside an encrypted Lockbox in front of the young woman’s grieving family, preparing to tell them how much their daughter’s life was worth.
Cassie was not responsible for Joy Ruiz’s disappearance, and, in fact, had known nothing about the crime until it gained notoriety as amateur detectives recreated the crime within Earth+, the three-dimensional virtual world previously known as the Metaverse, in order to locate either the girl or her killer. So far, neither had been found.
Over the past decade, the virtual world had replaced the disintegrating physical one, which had come to be known mockingly as Earth−. The growing interest in Joy Ruiz’s disappearance convinced Cassie and her superiors at Virtual Criminal Entertainment, or V.I.C.E, that the crime had tremendous licensing potential. Missing girls were, to put it bluntly, worth a hell of a lot of money. The revenue streams from unsolved disappearances could last for decades, and so the competition to license their crimes was fierce. Especially given the strange, riveting circumstances surrounding the disappearance of young Joy Ruiz.
In late 2033, Joy had hit it off with a young man named Jackson Rome at a Skatterbox concert at Virtual Madison Square Garden, or VMSG. Their early communications, which had been subpoenaed by the EPP, or Earth Plus Police, were flirty but chaste. At least in the beginning. In February 2034, Rome rented a Lockbox, a private, encrypted, hack-proof, virtual room within Earth+. Per testimony from Joy’s friends, once Joy and Jackson met inside that Lockbox, any pretense of chastity evaporated.
After seventeen Lockbox rendezvous, Joy Ruiz took a bus to Albuquerque to meet Jackson in Earth−. She told her parents she was going hiking with friends to get away from their virtual tethers for a weekend. She confided in several friends, and her brother Hector, that she’d met someone. Jackson was the love of her life, Joy said, and asked her confidantes to keep it a secret from her parents. They agreed.
Video footage from a ReVolt driverless taxi showed Joy Ruiz in the backseat, and then entering a bar called Carafe for her first ‘official’ date with Jackson Rome. At seven forty-nine p.m., Joy texted her friend Deondra Watkins: Here waiting for Jackson. I’m going to explode!
Deondra texted back: You have to tell me EVERYTHING.
Later, Joy replied. Or maybe tomorrow, depending on how it goes. 😉
It was the last text Joy Ruiz ever sent. And it was the last day anyone saw her alive.
It turned out that Jackson Rome was not, in fact, a twenty-four-year-old graduate student at the Virtual University of Austin, but rather a forty-four-year-old divorced father of three named Harold Waltermeyer who had illegally duplicated the Wrap, or avatar, of a Swedish fitness model named Anders Viklund, which he’d worn during his meetings with Joy inside Earth+.
Waltermeyer’s attorney successfully argued, in what turned out to be a landmark, precedent-setting case, that encounters between Waltermeyer and Ruiz were digital rather than physical. Ruiz’s Wrap was not, in fact, Ruiz herself. And while Wrap Fraud was a Class D felony, Waltermeyer did not face any charges of sexual misconduct.
Security footage from Carafe showed Waltermeyer entering Carafe at seven fifty-five and introducing himself to Ruiz. Within moments, Ruiz and Waltermeyer were having a heated argument, Ruiz clearly expecting Waltermeyer to look like a chiseled twenty-four-year-old and not a paunchy, balding, middle-aged man. Five minutes and forty seconds after arriving at Carafe, Ruiz wiped tears from her eyes, slapped Waltermeyer across the left cheek and left. Ruiz had been wearing an onyx ring, which left a slight laceration just below Waltermeyer’s cheekbone. Waltermeyer remained at Carafe for eight minutes after Ruiz left. In that time, he finished a glass of bourbon and dabbed at the cut on his face with a wet napkin. He then paid his tab and left the bar. Joy never made it home.
Harold Waltermeyer had been the primary suspect in Joy’s disappearance from the start. He was convicted of Wrap Fraud and given a three-month suspended sentence, barred from altering his Wrap inside Earth+ and fined $10,000. In the end, Waltermeyer, who had conned Joy Ruiz into both a sexual and emotional relationship, was fined 2.8 percent of his annual salary, spent no time in prison and kept his job.
Joy’s body was never found.
Excerpt continues after cover reveal.
As the investigation into Joy’s disappearance stalled, the public, believing Waltermeyer’s guilt, grew restless. But there was one large problem: despite being a world-class scumbag, Harold Waltermeyer was innocent of Joy’s murder.
Security cameras showed that upon leaving Carafe, Waltermeyer went directly to his car. The GPS confirmed that Waltermeyer made no stops prior to arriving home. The EPP subpoenaed Waltermeyer’s Earth+ activity log, which confirmed Waltermeyer’s testimony that nine minutes after arriving home, he rented a Lockbox where he engaged in virtual sex with an Augmented Persona prostitute named Laffy Taffy, for which he paid $500. Waltermeyer’s neighbor, Bernice Hopkins, testified to seeing Waltermeyer through a partially drawn window shade, wearing his Earth+ visor and nothing else.
And so, three years later, with no suspects and no leads, Cassie West sat inside a Lockbox with Joy’s mother, father and brother, all of whom had endured unimaginable pain not only to have lost their daughter but still to be waiting for closure that might never come. Having exhausted all their legal options and drained their savings, the Ruiz family was depending on Cassie both to keep the memory of their daughter alive and to throw their family a financial lifeline.
For the past nine years, Cassie had worked as a licensing agent for V.I.C.E., the preeminent licensor of true crimes for entertainment and multimedia within both Earth+ and Earth−. Billions of dollars were spent on true crime licensing every year. Nearly every murder, every disappearance, every notorious grift or tawdry swindle could be monetized, with revenues from the thousands to hundreds of millions, depending on earning potential and the cultural relevance of the case. Cassie believed Joy’s disappearance could spark multiple bidders across the crime entertainment spectrum. And both the Ruiz and the West families needed that money – badly.
All V.I.C.E. Lockboxes were coded to be soothing: neutral gray walls, white moldings, a crackling fireplace, windows overlooking a realistic stream. Angel and Carmen Ruiz held hands. Their son, Hector, seventeen, hadn’t said a word since they entered the Lockbox. Angel and Carmen looked hopeful. Hector looked angry.
‘So how exactly does it work?’ Carmen asked, gesturing at the tablet in front of Cassie. ‘Your company just . . . decides how much our family is worth?’
Cassie offered a sympathetic smile.
‘Life is priceless,’ Cassie said, with practiced sympathy. ‘But your NTPs all have a dollar value. The NTP—or Non-Transferable Persona—Act of 2029 gave every person exclusive rights to their life, likeness and biometrics for media and entertainment purposes. At V.I.C.E., we would like to be the exclusive brokers in charge of licensing everything covered in the NTP Act for your family. We want to license Joy’s story – your story. Our proprietary algorithm calculates what we might expect to earn in licensing fees over the first five years of our deal. Please keep in mind that this number is just an estimate. But we’ve licensed thousands of crimes, and our margin of error when estimating potential revenue is just five-point-eight percent. So the number we give you will be pretty much on the nose.’
Carmen nodded. Angel was staring off somewhere to the right of Cassie’s head. His eyes were unfocused. Cassie had been working the Ruiz family for months. Their credit scores were abysmal. When Joy went missing, they could barely afford the $11,500 mortgage on their eighteen-hundred-square-foot colonial. Now, after three years of legal fees and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars plastering Earth+ with interactive ‘MISSING’ billboards featuring photos and videos of Joy, they were on the precipice of bankruptcy. Angel and Carmen were ready to sign. But their son could throw a wrench in the whole deal.
Hector had refused to speak to Cassie during their preliminary Lockbox discussions and barely hid his anger towards his parents for even entertaining V.I.C.E. Cassie had spent enough time around grieving teenagers to know that Hector’s angry façade hid a vulnerable, anguished young man. Unlike his parents, Hector didn’t act towards Cassie like she was on their side. He acted like she was there to steal his dog.
Hector Ruiz was a handsome young man, with striking azure eyes, unruly hair and sharp cheekbones. Hector and Joy had been close. She had looked out for her younger brother, had helped him acclimate to the isolation of virtual learning in Earth+ after Earth− schools had closed their doors. In turn, Hector had worshipped his older sister. When Joy went missing, Hector likely blamed himself for keeping her plans from his parents. For the rest of his life, Hector would have to live with not just the grief but the guilt. And that guilt was clearly manifesting itself in rage.
‘So?’ Carmen said. ‘What’s the number?’
‘One million, five-hundred and forty-seven thousand dollars,’ Cassie said. ‘If you agree to let V.I.C.E. license Joy’s story, that’s your estimated earning potential from all revenue streams, in both Earth+ and Earth−, over the next five years.’
She heard Angel take a sharp intake of breath. He looked at his wife, cocked his head slightly and upturned his lip as if to say, That’s not bad.
‘Is that . . . all?’ Carmen asked Cassie, slightly disappointed. ‘I just thought it might be more. I’m not saying that amount is nothing, but this is Joy’s life. Her life. That figure would barely cover our outstanding legal bills.’
‘But it would cover them,’ Angel replied. Then he turned to Cassie. ‘Isn’t there a chance for more?’
‘The hard truth is that the middle ground for crime licensing has fallen off,’ Cassie said. ‘Companies will open their pockets for the most infamous crimes, the home runs, the blockbusters. It’s a buyer’s market for the rest. And Joy’s story is—’
‘One of the rest,’ Hector said. Cassie said nothing.
‘How exactly did your algorithm come to that figure?’ Angel asked.
‘Our estimate factors in the current true crime marketplace and the circumstances of Joy’s disappearance, then compares it to revenue earned from comparable crimes. Think of it like real estate. You’re seeing what other crimes in that neighborhood have sold for. I could definitely see one of the ninety-seven streaming services producing a series, scripted or unscripted.’
‘So they hire actors to play us,’ Hector said. ‘How much money will the suits who own those companies make? A lot more than Joy’s family makes, I’ll bet.’
‘Hector,’ Carmen said. ‘Please.’
‘So we pay off lawyers while other people buy homes made from real wood. Not the tissue paper our house is made with.’
‘Hector,’ Angel said.
‘Even if it does just cover your bills,’ Cassie said, ‘wouldn’t it be nice for your family to have a clean slate?’
‘We have been struggling,’ Hector said, both to Cassie and his son. ‘Clearing our debts would be a weight off our shoulders.’
‘Yes, it would,’ Cassie said, thinking about her family’s own mountainous debts. On the outside, Cassie was portraying effortless confidence. On the inside, she was terrified. She couldn’t afford to lose a commission. Not now. Not with—
‘How far along are you?’
The question from Carmen snapped Cassie to attention. She hadn’t even realized it, but she had been absently rubbing her stomach.
‘Twelve weeks,’ she replied with a smile.
‘Boy or girl?’
‘We want to be surprised,’ Cassie said. ‘I turned off the Gender Reveal settings on my OvuWatch.’
‘So what color are you going to decorate the nursery?’ Angel asked.
‘Right now, the living room is her nursery,’ Cassie said with a laugh. ‘Our house is barely big enough for my husband and me.’
‘I thought you crime agents all raked it in,’ Hector said, surprised.
‘Some do,’ Cassie said. ‘But it’s like the crimes we license. A blockbuster could set you up for life. Most of us are just trying to make ends meet.’
‘Well,’ Carmen said, ‘I hope your baby brings you a lifetime of joy.’
‘Thank you, Mrs. Ruiz.’
‘This is all such bullshit,’ Hector said.
‘Take it easy,’ Angel said. ‘Mrs. West is here to help us.’
‘No, she’s here to make money off of Joy. Off our pain. A million and a half dollars. That’s, what, like sixty grand for every year Joy was alive? And how much do you make? How much do your bosses make?’ Hector’s eyes bored holes into Cassie, venom dripping from his words.
‘It’s a way to keep Joy alive,’ Angel said.
‘You’re such a hypocrite,’ Hector snarled at his father. ‘If you’d shown the slightest bit of interest in Joy’s life, she would have told you about Waltermeyer. You could have found out who he really was before she met him and you could have stopped her. That’s how you could have kept Joy alive.’
‘Harold Waltermeyer didn’t kill your sister,’ Carmen said.
‘If Joy hadn’t gone to meet him, we wouldn’t be here talking to this vampire.’
‘I’m sorry, Mrs. West,’ Angel said. ‘Hector doesn’t speak for all of us.’
‘Speaking of Harold Waltermeyer,’ Carmen said to Cassie, ‘I know if we sign this, it gives you rights to use our likenesses and biometrics. But what about Waltermeyer? He surely hasn’t agreed to all this, has he?’
‘He doesn’t need to,’ Cassie said. ‘Statute 486-16 states that upon being convicted of a felony, even posthumously, the subject’s likeness and biometrics enter into the public domain. In short, we can use Waltermeyer however we want. And he’ll never see a dime.’
Angel looked at Cassie and said, ‘Look, we appreciate all of this. But other agencies have suggested we could get more.’
‘If other people have made you guarantees, they’re lying,’ Cassie said, trying not to let desperation seep into her voice. ‘Nobody has the connections or resources like we do.’
‘What about Past Crimes?’ Carmen said. ‘Wouldn’t it mean a lot more money if Past Crimes produced an Earth+ sim based on Joy’s disappearance? You say V.I.C.E. has all these connections, what about Crispin Lake at Past Crimes?’
‘Now that would change our lives,’ Angel said. ‘I’ve been a subscriber for ten years. I must have spent a hundred hours in the DeFeo house when Past Crimes launched their Amityville Murders sim. Having the chance to be inside that house, to find the bodies just like the police did. It was like I was trying to solve the crime myself. What if Past Crimes created a sim based on Joy’s disappearance? Can you make that happen?’
Every potential client asked this question. Cassie knew she had to respond delicately.
‘Past Crimes is the absolute gold standard when it comes to criminal entertainment. Everyone who thinks they have the next blockbuster crime wants to work with them.’
‘Have you ever worked with them?’ Angel asked.
‘I was actually part of the team at V.I.C.E. that put together the deal for the Gerald Boone murders sim.’
‘You licensed the Gerald Boone murders?’ Angel asked, awed.
‘Me and half a dozen colleagues,’ Cassie said. ‘But the fact is Past Crimes gets pitched a thousand crimes a day. And yes, if Crispin Lake decided to license a Past Crimes sim based on Joy’s disappearance, we’d be looking at eight figures easy, plus royalties. We’ll pitch them, as we do with most crimes. But I don’t want to get your hopes up, given how selective they are about the material they pursue.’
‘Material,’ Hector said. ‘You mean my sister.’
‘You really don’t think Crispin Lake would be interested in Joy’s story?’ Carmen said. ‘I mean, that would change everything. They have, what, a hundred million subscribers?’
‘A hundred and twenty, give or take,’ Cassie said. ‘Look, Past Crimes is the Harry Winston of interactive criminal entertainment. The Gerald Boone killings were national news for months. Past Crimes only produces sims for crimes that have achieved global notoriety. Cultural impact. Crimes that will be talked about for years. Think Bundy. Dahmer. Mills and Hall. With all due respect, I just don’t think Crispin Lake would consider Joy’s disappearance big enough.’
‘Fuck you,’ Hector said, bolting up and knocking his chair over. ‘You’re saying my sister doesn’t matter?’
‘That is not what I’m saying, and I apologize if that’s how it came across,’ Cassie said calmly. She had to be careful. She had so much riding on this . . . ‘My job will be to work for your family. But I will never lie to you. We pitch Past Crimes twenty times a day. We have a good sense of what crimes attract Crispin Lake. Hector, I know how much you love your sister.’ Cassie made sure to say love and not loved. She’d made that mistake before and it had nearly cost her a lucrative contract. ‘I can’t change what’s happened. But I can change the future for your family.’
Carmen smiled and put her hand on Angel’s arm. They looked at each other. Cassie knew they were sold.
‘So what do we do now?’ Angel asked.
‘If sign this agreement, I will dedicate myself to your family and put all of V.I.C.E.’s considerable resources to maximize the revenue of this crime.’
‘Maximize the revenue of this crime,’ Hector said acidly. ‘Fuck you, blood banker.’
Hector stood up and spat on the floor, and his Wrap disappeared from the Lockbox, leaving Cassie alone with Carmen and Angel.
‘I’m sorry,’ Carmen said. ‘Hector is in a lot of pain.’
‘I understand,’ Cassie said. ‘I can’t make his pain go away. But I can take some weight off your shoulders to help your son get the help he needs.’
Angel thought for a moment, then said, ‘Because Hector is a minor, don’t we have the legal authority to license his likeness and biometrics?’
‘You do,’ Cassie said.
Angel turned to Carmen. She nodded and said, ‘Where do we sign?’
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