13. The Butcher of Banking

Mitchell rushed through the Krim main gate, through the central plaza, across the street, then paused in front of the King’s Arms to catch his breath.

Through the window, he could see Donna and another restaurant employee cleaning away tables. There were only a couple of patrons still eating. Lunch must be nearly over.

He leaned against the outside wall and waited for his heart to stop beating. As he relaxed, he noticed that the pain in his foot was back. He sat down on the restaurant steps and pulled off his boot. Norbert’s bandage was still there. He pulled it away from the back of his foot. The sore was still there. He still had the plague.

He should have switched to a new avatar before coming back to Krim. There was a fee for switching avatars, but in this particular case, it was worth it.

He pulled the boot back on. If he left, switched avatars, and came back, Donna might be gone and he might never find her again. He’d just have to be quick.

He knocked on the window to catch Donna’s attention then waved at her. She held up a finger, then carried a tray of plates somewhere to the back.

Probably a kitchen. There might even be a bathroom somewhere back there, too.

If it wasn’t for the plague, the aches and pains, and the constant risk of being stabbed…

The front door swung open and Donna leaned out.

“My shift ends in five minutes,” she told him. “I’ll be right out.”

“I’ll wait right here.”

While he waited, Mitchell tried not to think of his foot. Was he going to get gangrene? Was that what happened? Would it turn black and fall off?

He held the back of his hand to his forehead. That’s what people did in the period dramas. They felt a slight fever, then coughed, then died a slow, painful death.

He coughed.

By the time Donna came out, he was shifting anxiously from foot to foot. He was sure he was about to die.

“Your friend came by yesterday,” said Donna. “Matilda Scarletstrike. She was so nice.”

“That’s what I came to talk to you about,” said Mitchell. “I think you might have the crystal they’re looking for. You should get rid of it right away.”

“Oh, I got rid of it ages ago,” said Donna. “Remember how I told you it had a bad energy? I didn’t want to keep it around.”

“Thank God. I was worried about you.”

“But if it’s the same crystal, I should have kept it. They’re giving a huge reward for it. I could have had enough money to open my own shop!” She sighed. “Otherwise, I’ll have to keep working at places like this.” She gestured at the King’s Arms. “Where they don’t appreciate my artistic talents.” She started walking away from the tavern. “Come on, walk me home.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Well, I can always go back to my freebie apartment on Facepage,” she said. “I’m kind of between money right now, so I’d have to live with all the ads.”

“That might not be so bad,” he said, walking next to her. He looked over at her. “I could come visit you.”

“You could visit me here.”

Mitchell nodded, but with every step the pain in his foot got sharper. He didn’t want to die in front of her. “I have to get back…” he started to say, but she interrupted him.

“Look! The butcher of Banking Street!”

He spun around, fists up. “Where?”

“I know, I want to punch them, too.”

He turned back and saw that she was looking at an actual butcher shop, not referring to a mass murderer with a colorful name.

The shop had a large window facing the street, shutters wide open so that people could come up and get their meat without going inside. Michell could hear flies buzzing and smelled fresh blood.

“That is disgusting,” he said.

The butcher heard him and slammed a cleaver down on the table and came to the window.

“Get out of here! You’re annoying my customers!” He made a shooing gesture.

She put her hands on her hips and stared him down.

“Every day I walk past, and every day I have to look at the bodies of dead animals,” she said.

“For the last time, they’re not dead animals!” The butcher turned red. “They’re simulated! Simulated! They’re not real!”

Donna sniffed and turned away. “Just because someone is virtual doesn’t mean they’re not real,” she said. “I really should do something about this place.”

The butcher leaned out the window and pulled the shutters closed with a loud bang.

“What can you do?” Mitchell asked.

“I don’t know,” said Donna. Then her face lit up. “I do know what to do! And I did it!”

She walked around the side of the shop. Michell followed her just in time to see her reach between two stones in the building’s foundation and pull out a crystal.

“It’s still here!” Donna said. “I completely forgot that I put it here.” She held it up for Mitchell to see. “I thought that maybe its bad energy would drive the butcher away. Or, at least, give him some bad dreams.” She handed the crystal to Mitchell. “Do you think it’s the one they’re looking for?”

Michell stepped out of the alley and held the stone up to the light. It was the right size. It had the crack in exactly the right shape. It was probably the one.

But if he told Donna it wasn’t, she would put it back, and maybe move to Facepage. He could see her anytime without any pain or suffering.

He turned the crystal in his hand.

Donna’s face fell. “It’s the wrong one, isn’t it? I mean, what are the odds?” She kicked at the ground. “For a second there, I was really hoping.”

Michell gave the crystal back to her.

“It’s the right one,” he said, and she squealed. “Do you know where to take it?”

She jumped up and down, holding the crystal to her chest. “Yes, yes, the Armforge Guild. That’s all that everyone has been talking about.” She looked up at him. “Come with me! Then we can go out and celebrate.”

He flinched.

“No, no,” he said. “I can’t go there.” He flashed back to the memory of being on the ground, surrounded by the fighters, threatened with torture. “I have to, I have to go.” He shifted his weight, and felt a sharp pain again in his foot. “I’m contagious. I probably shouldn’t even be talking to you. I need to leave Krim.”

“I’m sorry.” She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. “Will you come back?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe you could come visit me, instead? Or we could meet half-way. Maybe some place on Facepage.”

“I don’t like Facepage,” she said. “It’s too commercial. Pretty much everywhere you go go these days, it’s all ads.” She waved her arm around. “I like Krim.”

Mitchell looked down at the ground. “I hope you get to open your shop,” he said. “It was really nice meeting you.”

He looked at her perfect, beautiful face, and his heart broke. If only there was something he could offer her.

“I really liked meeting you, too, Mitchell.” She stood up on her toes and kissed him on the cheek. “I’m going to go and see if I can get the reward.”

She walked away, then turned back to wave at him.

“Wait!” he suddenly yelled.

She stopped.

“Potatoes!”

She looked confused.

“Potatoes,” he said. “I know a place. They have French fries. They have baked potatoes. They have potato salad.”

Her eyes lit up.

“Potatoes…” She smiled at him. “Do they have curly fries?

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It was Wednesday, so Mitchell had the day off. For a while, he puttered around…

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Time of the Meatheads

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