Ellison walked away, not glancing back. If Usman was going to stab him in the back, Ellison wanted it to be a surprise. He didn’t want to see it coming. It was the anticipation that was the worst.
He was nearly at the door when it slammed open and a group of tourists walked in.
No, not tourists. Former colleagues. Bob, Linda, and Jake. Ellison hadn’t seen them in years. What were they doing here?
Bob was in the lead and recognized Ellison first. He stopped short and his jaw fell open.
Ellison braced himself and Bob lunged at him, grabbing him in a bear hug.
“Oh my God, Ellison! You haven’t changed a bit!”
Ellison wriggled free. “Hi, Bob.”
“Listen, I was going to come visit…”
“We missed you!” Jake clapped Ellison on the back.
“What are you guys doing here?”
“Pitching Elea Carlyle.” Linda normally had a large pair of wings that sparkled in the light, as did the rest of her. Now, though, she looked drab in her Krim default 16th-century peasant garb.
“What happened to your wings?”
“Oh, they wouldn’t let me keep them when I created my avatar,” she said.
“They wouldn’t let me keep my eyes either,” said Bob. Normally, Bob had diamond eyes, but now they were a normal muddy brown. Historically appropriate, maybe. But without his eyes, and Linda without her wings, and Jake without his reptile skin, well, they looked naked.
Then Bob glanced back at the fourth man with them, who’d been staring at Ellison as if trying to place him.
“Rodge, this is Ellison Davo,” Bob told him. “An old colleague of ours from way back. Ellison, this is Rodge…”
“Bannister,” Ellison said. “We’ve met.”
Rodge squinted at him.
“At Elea’s ball, two weeks ago. Right after you had me kidnapped.”
Ellison had been working on a missing person’s case. Someone hadn’t been happy about that and asked Rodge for a little favor.
“Oh, right, right.” But Rodge still looked blank.
“Ellison is famous,” Linda told him. “Didn’t you see the news? He saved a returnee’s life. He’s the best detective this world has.”
“I’m the only detective Krim has,” said Ellison. “But technically, not a detective. I’m a process server.”
Rodge snapped his finger. “Now I remember you. You worked on a missing person case. And you found the guy.”
“Ellison was always really good at finding people,” said Linda.
“Well, that calls for a drink!”
Ellison was dragged back to the bar, where Rodge yelled at the bartender that the drinks were on him.
“Wait till you taste this,” Rodge said. “You won’t believe how much better everything is when you’re living viscerally. You won’t be able to go back to modern life afterward. I swear, each time I leave Krim, everything is more plastic than I remembered it.”
Ellison’s old colleagues glanced at each other and Linda, out of Rodge’s direct line of sight, rolled her eyes.
“Yes, well, it’s certainly invigorating when they warn you about evisceration and dismemberment before letting you in,” said Bob.
“Don’t forget about the auto-cannibalism,” added Jake.
Rodge waved his hand. “Ignore all that. It’s just for tourists. Hardly anyone gets dismembered. Most of the time, you just get stabbed. Dismembering takes too much work.”
He raised his flagon. “It’s the risk of agonizing pain and imminent death that makes life worthwhile.”
“Right, right,” said Bob.
Suddenly, Rodge whirled at Ellison and stabbed him in the chest with an iron-hard pointing finger.
“You are a detective,” he said.
“You find people.”
“I need to find someone for me. A thief.”
“You want to hire a thief?”
“No, no. I want you to find the scoundrel who robbed my office last night.” Rodge held up a finger. “Right after I come back from the little murderer’s room.”
Rodge put down his flagon and headed off to the back, his bulk pushing other patrons out of the way. But the far end of the bar was empty. Usman was gone. Ellison glanced around the bar. The man was nowhere to be seen.
“So,” Linda waited for Ellison to turn back to them. “Is everyone here crazy? Or just him and Elea?”
“She refused to meet anywhere else,” added Bob. “We want her as a client, but honestly, if we don’t get the account I have to say I’ll be a little relieved.”
“No offense, but Krim smells like a pigsty,” said Jake. “If I never have to come back here again, I’ll be perfectly happy.” He tasted the ale and spit it back out into the flagon. “Horse piss.” He pushed it away from him.
“I haven’t stopped itching since I got here,” said Linda. “I have no idea how you could stand it.” She looked Ellison in the eye. “You’re not exactly a roughing-it kind of guy.”
“And everyone here looks like they’re miserable and in pain,” Jake added.
Ellison looked around. Yes, all the patrons of the King’s Arms looked like they were battling digestive diseases. Well, this was Krim, so they probably were. In fact, he realized with a start, everyone on Krim always looked unhappy. After five years in prison, he’d gotten used to sour faces. But, out in the real world, people’s facial expressions were usually calibrated to be as pleasant as possible.
“Don’t you get it? He’s doing a redemption arc,” said Bob. “It’s genius, actually.”
“I’m not…” Ellison began.
“Right, sure, you didn’t have a team of public relations consultants find this place for you?” Bob gestured around. “You’ve got the returnees, you’ve got Lifeworks, you’ve got Elea Carlyle, and when the media show up, they can see how you’re suffering.”
“You’re right, it’s brilliant,” said Linda. “Who did you hire to do the PR? Never mind, don’t tell us. You were drawn to this place because…”
“Because you felt the need to atone, and to give back to the returnee community,” said Bob.
“And you went and saved the life of that old returnee.” Jake slapped Ellison on the back again.
“The public loves a redemption story,” Linda nodded. “You’ll be back to your old job in no time.” She looked up. “Oh, Rodge is on his way back. Remember to smile, everyone.” Her smile looked fake. It was hard to look authentic when you had an AI help you with facial expressions for most of your life.
“So what do you guys think?” Rodge said loudly as the bartender topped up his ale. “Is Krim the best place in the metaverse, or is it the best place in the metaverse?”
“It’s amazing,” said Linda. “It really makes you feel alive. If we get a chance to work with Elea, it would be a dream come true.”
“It’s unique,” said Bob.
“It reminds you of what it feels like to be really human,” said Jake.
“You guys are all right,” said Rodge. “I’ll put in a good word for you with Elea.” He chuckled. “Hell, I’m probably the one who’s going to be paying your bills.” He downed his ale. “Another round!”
“Ah, no, no,” said Bob.
“We really have to get going,” said Linda.
“We need to get some preliminary research together for Elea,” said Jake. “She’ll be expecting it shortly.”
“Well, I’ll take you to the gate, then, just to make sure you don’t get too murdered,” said Rodge and threw a pile of coins on the counter, at least double what the drinks were worth. Then he turned to Ellison. “And you, you go talk to my housekeeper. Tell her you’re working for me, and that you have to talk to all the household staff, examine the crime scene, whatever you have to do. Just find my stuff.”
Ellison was going to turn him down but decided to wait until his colleagues were gone. No point in messing up the deal for them, even if they weren’t particularly enthusiastic about it.
He watched them walk away and thought about how typical it was that Elea Carlyle, the obscenely wealthy and world-famous philanthropist, was still spending other people’s money. But then again, that was probably how she got to be wealthy, and how she stayed that way.
He didn’t want to work for Rodge. Personal grudges aside, Ellison didn’t like roleplayers much and Rodge was a roleplayer through and through. He didn’t need the money that much either. Though Rodge did have a lot of it and, unlike Elea, liked throwing it around.
Ellison stepped out of the bar. It was damp and chilly and he shivered as he glanced around. Usman was nowhere to be seen, and neither were the half dozen or so other people who wanted Ellison dead.
He started walking back to his lodgings at the Barley Mow Inn. He was stabbed before he got to the end of the block, and he totally didn’t see it coming.