The WILCO Project

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Prologue
Saturday, November 8 — 12:07 A.M.
Not much farther. She quickened her pace using the intramural softball field’s chain link fence to guide her to the woods directly beyond. The light over the equipment shed fifty feet behind did not reach this far, and the moon was new, little more than a sliver. With the tree line only a few strides away, she stopped, a shiver rippling through her body.

This is totally stupid. She knew an attractive female student should not wander alone in a remote corner of the campus—especially at midnight—but she had fought too hard to give up now. She swiped a forearm, prickly with goose bumps despite the muggy air, at the sweat droplets streaming down her face.

With trembling fingers, she pressed a key on her cell phone and studied its color display. The game screen glowed with a digital map of her immediate vicinity. The white icon positioned to her right on the map, just beyond the outfield fence, made her smile.

Good. No one figured it out and got here before me. This just might give me the power I need to win the game.

There were no red enemy icons on her screen.

Looks like no one is following me.

She rubbed the phone’s display with her shirttail. I hope this damn thing works.

She held her breath and listened for sounds of other players in the area. Nothing. She exhaled.

Okay, move, girl. A few more feet of chain link and then the woods. That’s where it is. You have to go into the woods to get it.

She reached the end of the fence, and a wave of panic overtook her, almost buckling her knees. Adrenaline surged into her bloodstream, her heart rate soaring. She dropped the phone and grabbed the fence post with both hands, holding on hard against the urge to turn and sprint back to the safety of the campus.

She took deep, even breaths and willed herself to calm.

Damn it—get a grip.

She pried herself loose from the fence and flexed her aching fingers.

I guess I already had a pretty good grip.

Somehow, she managed a smile.

Squatting, she picked up the phone and brought it to eye level. Thumbing the button on the keypad again, she scanned the phone display. The map was still clear of enemy players. She wrinkled her nose at the stench of body odor and sniffed her armpit. She reeked.

Is this stupid game worth it?

She stood for a moment debating her question. Estimating she would have to go no more than thirty feet into the woods to grab the prize, she gnawed her lower lip.

Yes, I’ve come this far, and I’m not turning back now.

She moved a dozen steps into the woods. Darkness forced her to navigate through the trees and sparse underbrush using the backlit display of her cell phone as a makeshift flashlight. She squatted next to the trunk of a large oak tree to rest and get her bearings. Surrounded on all sides by woods, it took a couple of seconds for her eyes to adjust. Twisting oak branches and spiky palmetto fronds, which moments before her panicked mind had identified as horrible monsters, focused into harmless trees and bushes. Her racing pulse eased, and she relaxed her grip on the phone.

This isn’t so bad.

She inhaled several deep breaths, the pungent smells of the earth and trees filling her nostrils as she listened to the rhythmic chirping of the crickets. She sponged the sweat from her face with her shirtsleeve and chuckled.

Twenty-one and still afraid of the dark, sheesh.

Studying the electronic map on her phone’s display, she determined that her current position placed her almost directly on top of the prize’s white icon. She smiled.

Only a few more feet to go, and the prize is mine.

Ready to push on, she stood. Her head whipped around when she heard a noise, like something rustling the fronds of a nearby palmetto bush. Halting, she listened as a fresh batch of adrenaline exploded inside her. Silence. She rewound the tape in her mind and replayed the sound.

Yeah, she nodded, nothing to worry about, that sound came from deep in the woods.

Seconds ticked by as she replayed the sound again and again until she convinced herself she didn’t know how far away the noise had occurred. She stood frozen for a minute, which seemed like hours, listening for further movements over the thundering sound of her beating heart.

Convinced a fallen branch must have caused the rustling, she keyed the cell phone and studied the map again to verify no other player had somehow managed to sneak up on her. The map still showed no enemy icons.

Damn it—stop acting like a paranoid wimp!

She drew in a deep breath.

This is just a silly game.

She exhaled and took a small step away from the tree, deeper into the woods toward the prize. Just before her foot touched the ground, a twig snapped behind her. Spinning around, she flinched as the vague outline of a human figure rushed toward her.

Paralyzed, she tried to scream, but before the sound left her throat, the lunging figure clasped the back of her neck and clamped a gloved hand across her mouth. Arms flailing, she kicked backwards but failed to connect.

The hand gripping her neck slipped down around her waist, pinning her arms and cinching her body tightly against her assailant. Not able to move or utter a sound, she was as helpless as a moth entangled in a spider’s web. The more she struggled or tried to scream, the tighter her captor squeezed her close. After thirty seconds of unsuccessful thrashing and kicking, she fell limp with exhaustion, guttural sobs backing up in her throat. No longer able or willing to fight back, the realization hit her—the game was over and she would probably never leave the woods alive.

Chapter One

Saturday, November 8 — 8:44 A.M.

Professor Steven Archer gazed out of his second-story office window at the deserted street and sidewalk below. The sleepy college campus had yet to come to life that warm Saturday morning. Beyond the street, in the center of a grassy courtyard, golden beams of sunlight filtered through the branches of an enormous oak tree that would later provide a shady spot for students to congregate and study. The clear blue sky, marred only by the fading remnant of a silvery jet contrail, signaled the beginning of a perfect day—the type of autumn day Floridians earned by surviving the unbearably hot and sticky summer when the temperature and humidity rose to well above the ninety-degree mark.

Longing for soft sand beneath his feet, the rhythmic sound of waves landing on shore, and the salty sea air that accompanied a jog down the beach, he sighed and resumed reviewing the thick stack of paperwork piled on his desk. He reminded himself that life would soon return to normal as his team of student programmers had nearly completed the software development project, one of the most technically challenging efforts he had ever attempted.

He scrawled a note on the project plan, pleased with the software testing to date. The student project team, some of the brightest computer programmers he had ever taught, had somehow managed to remain ahead of schedule and, barring a catastrophe, would finish the project on time. He smiled.

I am so proud of these kids and what they have accomplished. No one in the industry, let alone a bunch of college kids, has ever done a project like this.

Public game testing had been extremely successful and he anticipated the test game conducted the previous night had gone smoothly as well. He looked forward to the debriefing from his project manager at their lunch meeting later that day.

The ring of Steven’s desk phone interrupted his peaceful silence. He chuckled—the tranquility had been too good to be true. His eyebrows narrowed. If last night’s test game had encountered a major problem, he should have heard about it by now. He picked up the receiver.

“This is Professor Archer.”

“Steven, it’s Frank.”

“How’s my favorite detective?” Steven smiled—he had not spoken with Frank in several weeks.

“Not so good, my friend.” Frank paused, and then continued in a more somber tone. “A female student’s body was found in the woods behind the intramural softball field this morning.”

“A student? What happened?”

“We’re not sure yet, but we’re treating the case as a homicide. That’s all I can tell you over the phone.” Frank paused again. “Steven, I need you to come to the crime scene right away.”

“What? Why do you need me?” Steven dropped his pen, and the color drained from his face. “Oh my God, Jenny. Frank, is this about my niece, Jen—”

“Hold on,” Frank interrupted.

Steven swallowed hard, his insides revolted at the thought that this homicide might involve his favorite niece. In less than a second, the detective came back on the line.

“Listen to me, Steven. I know you’re concerned about your niece, but I can’t talk with you about this over the phone. Something urgent has come up here at the crime scene, and I’ve got to go. Meet me here as soon as you can, and do not speak to anyone about this.”

“Frank, is it Jenny? Is she okay?”

Instead of an answer, Steven heard a click and then dead air.

Steven grabbed his cell phone and bolted out of his office. He dashed down the stairs, taking two at a time and exited the computer center building trying to decide if it would be faster to drive to the crime scene or run.

Leaving his car keys in his pocket, he sprinted across campus toward the intramural softball field. He speed dialed Jenny’s dorm room on his cell phone and got no answer. Desperate to reach her, he tried her cell phone, and again, no answer.

Steven’s lungs burned, and a stitch gnawed at his side. He pumped his legs harder. Tears flooded his eyes. Jenny must be dead, and Frank had not wanted to tell him over the phone. He must have called him to come to the crime scene to identify Jenny’s body.

He slowed to a jog, unable to keep up the fast pace.

This is all my fault.

After all, he had convinced Jenny to attend his university. He had promised her and her parents he would look after her. How would he tell his brother about his precious daughter? Just an eighteen-year-old freshman in college, Jenny had her whole life ahead of her.

Walking now, Steven wiped his eyes and forced himself to replay the phone conversation with Frank. Frank had never actually said Jenny was dead.

Maybe Jenny’s not the victim, he reasoned.

She might not even be involved. There could be other reasons Frank had not revealed details about the body to him over the phone. Nearing the intramural softball field, he began to sprint again.

As Steven approached the woods behind the center field fence, Frank ducked under the crime scene tape and rushed to meet him. When they came together, Steven stared into Frank’s eyes, unable to speak as his lungs labored to repay the oxygen debt created by his sprinting. He clutched at his sweat-soaked shirt, while his other hand swatted at the gnats buzzing around his feet and wet sandals, drenched from running across the dewy grass. Still breathing heavily, he could barely speak.

“Is she—” Steven gulped a breath of air, “Jenny…is she dead?”

“Steven, you need to calm down and follow me.”

Steven thrust his hands on his hips and shouted, “Frank, damn it—”

“Keep your voice down and follow me,” Frank ordered.

Frank led Steven away from the uniformed cops patrolling the perimeter of the crime scene. They walked thirty feet to the thick yellow police tape tied to the outfield fence. The tape looped around the trunks of huge oak trees and then back around to the barrier. They ducked under the tape that formed a rough circle with a diameter of about one hundred feet. A smallish body, covered by a white sheet, lay in the center of the circle.

Towering oak trees blocked out the sunlight leaving the area in shade. Because of the thick ceiling of tree branches, the white sandy ground lay barren except for thin piles of dead leaves and twigs and clumps of knee-high palmettos scattered every few yards.

A few feet inside the yellow tape, they stopped. Still struggling to catch his breath, Steven bent down and placed his hands on his knees. Frank squatted and looked Steven in the eye.

“Steven, I know this might be difficult for you, but—”

“Detective Diaz, get over here, now,” said a crime scene investigator who stood over the sheet-covered body about fifty feet away. There’s something here you’ve gotta see.”

“Stay here,” snapped Frank, pointing to the ground at Steven’s feet. Before Steven could protest, Frank dashed toward the beckoning crime scene investigator.

Swearing to himself, Steven stood straight. He lifted his arms over his head, filled his lungs with oxygen and exhaled. Although his breathing had nearly returned to normal, his mind raced out of control.

Oh God, why Jenny?

With a shaking hand, he wiped the sweat from his eyes and scanned the scene, looking for clues, trying to make sense of the situation.

On his tiptoes, Steven looked past the half-a-dozen crime scene investigators in olive-green coveralls working at various places inside the yellow tape. Visually scouring the area, he strained to identify a piece of clothing or a shoe—anything to rule out Jenny as the victim. Nothing. He squinted at a forensic photographer who, at the direction of an older man in a suit, who Steven guessed to be a senior homicide detective, alternately snapped pictures and shot footage with a high-end video camera. Nothing.

He had purposely avoided looking at the white sheet, but now he forced himself to turn and stare toward Frank and the CSI, huddled over the body. A wave of panic hit him, and he fought off the urge to retch. The investigator stood and then pointed toward the trunk of a huge oak about thirty feet from the body.

Desperate to find out the fate of his niece, who might be lying only yards away from him, Steven opened his mouth to call out to Frank when the cell phone stuffed in his pocket rang.

An excerpt from THE WILCO PROJECT, a mystery/ thriller published by Solstice Publishing in Oct, 2010. The book won an Honorable Mention in the Florida Writers Assoc. 1995 Royal Palm Literary awards in the “Unpublished Novel” category and was selected as a Semifinalist in the 2008 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest. Shortly after release, THE WILCO PROJECT climbed to #1 in the mystery/thriller category and #11 overall on FICTIONWISE.COM. For more information please visit http://DanielSpringer.com.

Solstice Publishing ©2010

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