6. The list of suspects

“Well, I’ll leave you to do whatever it is you need to do. Let me know when we can move the body.” Rodge frowned at the corpse. The flies had found it, and were beginning to buzz around it.

“Hold on, what do you expect us to do?” Ellison asked.

“Well, you know,” Rodge waved his hands. “Chalk outlines, dust for prints, I don’t know. What do detectives normally do?”

“Real detectives? They check the footage.”

“Nah, I’ve tried that before, for something else but the grid admins say they need to see a subpoena first,” said Rodge. “They figure stealing is just part of the game.”

“They turned over the tapes of Alfred’s death,” said Ellison. He hadn’t seen them, but he’d heard it was gruesome. Alfred’s great-granddaughter had strangled him to death, over and over again. It wasn’t all the murdering that killed the old man. It was the betrayal by the person he cared for the most. It didn’t take much for a returnee to lose their attachment to existence. Anything that made them feel out of place would weaken the bonds. Ironically, physical violence wasn’t an issue. If anything, most types of pain actually made returnees want to hang on to life even harder.

“You’re right,” said Rodge. “They turned over the tapes because the Krim board of directors sided with Lifeworks. After Elea convinced them to.” He rubbed his chin. “You’ve got something there. Elea’s on the board now. If you guys can’t come up with anything, I’ll ask her for a favor. But, frankly, I’d rather not ask her for help if I don’t need to. But back in the old days, before everything was recorded all the time — what did investigators do then?”

“In the 1500s? They tortured people,” said Ellison. “But if you want chalk outlines and fingerprints… I don’t know how much good that will do on Krim.”

“We wouldn’t have anything to compare them to,” said Matilda. “If anyone even suspects that we’ll be looking for that, they’ll just go and get a different avatar.”

Rodge huffed. “The whole reason I wanted to bring in you guys is because I heard you did forensics in your last case, and interviewed witnesses, and all that. Well, I want that here. All of it. I want the whole package.” He scowled at them. “So get to work.”

He turned away and went back into the guild hall.

“We’re going to need some real detectives,” said Matilda.

“No, I think we can do this,” said Ellison. “Go find us someone who can take notes for us.”

“You don’t know where those detectives went, do you?”

Ellison thought back to the team who’d helped them on their last case. Eggatha Crispie, Hugh Dunnit, and Earl E. Demise. Did they ever say where they lived? He couldn’t remember.

“We don’t need them,” he said. “Nobody on Krim can keep a secret. The thieves are going to be bragging about what they did. Probably in the bars tonight.”

“And they’ll be trying to fence the goods,” Matilda added.

“When we find them, we can ask them how they got everything out.”

For the next hour, the two of them, together with Donna, the young woman Rodge assigned them as an assistant, recorded all the details of the crime scene, of the armor abandoned by the drunk guests who left early, descriptions of all the missing items, and lists of all the guild members, staffers, performers, and miscellaneous guests and dignitaries who’d been at the party the night before.

Before they left, the reviewed the list of suspects with Rodge.

The guild leader swore that none of his mercenaries would have done anything like this.

“I know who they all really are,” he said, rather ominously.

Ellison wondered briefly whether Rodge would really go after someone in real life just because of the theft of some game item. Just because someone was rich and connected… Right. Rodge was rich and connected and a bit of a sociopath. Why wouldn’t he go after someone in real life?

“Focus on the servants,” Rodge said. “The oldies. The returnees. They’re basically savages.” He turned to the young woman who’d been taking notes for them. “How long were you dead before they brought you back?”

“I don’t know. A few seconds?” Donna shrugged. “It was hard to tell. I have memories of angels and bright lights. It felt like it lasted centuries. It was beautiful and serene and I felt I was at one…”

“So you’re not a returnee,” Rodge interrupted.

“No, I’m just a regular dead person.” She giggled. “Well, undead, now. I work as a waitress at the Barley Mow. I was here last night helping with the catering.”

Rodge pursed his lips. “So you weren’t vetted.” He turned to Ellison. “Focus on her, and on the returnee housekeeping staff. I’d bet that none of them know how to act around civilized people.”

Donna’s mouth tightened but she didn’t say anything.

“Maybe you’re the one who slit Two Teeth Tom’s throat and let the thieves in,” Rodge told her.

Donnar stepped back. “No, I would never!” She clutched her notes to her chest. “I believe that life is previous.”

Matilda looked down on the servant. “I don’t think she could have done it. She’s tiny.” Matilda pointed to Donna’s hands. “Look at how thin her wrists are. No muscle tone. It would have taken some strength, and a bit of skill, to cut Tom’s throat. Where is he, anyway? We can just ask him.”

“Hasn’t come back yet,” said Rodge. “Probably embarrassed to show his face after being killed by a little girl.”

Donna shook her head and shrunk back even further.

“She would have gotten blood all over herself,” Matilda added. “Has she had a chance to change?”

“No,” Rodge conceded. “But still, look at all the servants first. Then check the thieves’ guild, in case there’s someone bragging about how they managed to break in and get out again. My boys will be listening for any gossip, too.”

“What about the other guests?” asked Ellison. “Do any of them have a grudge against you? Or a particular interest in the artifacts?”

“All of them have an interest in the artifacts. That’s why they came to the party. To see the artifacts. But they all respect me too much to make a move like that.”

“What about Elea?”

Rodge laughed. “You got me there. She doesn’t care about the artifacts at all.”

“Could she have done it?”

“Why would she? She doesn’t want them. They’re valuable, but she doesn’t need the money.”

“Maybe she has a grudge against you?”

“Listen, if you find something, I’ll listen to you. But I’ve got to tell you, Elea is the last person you should suspect. I’ve got my reasons for saying that.”

Ellison had his reasons, too. Reasons that put Elea at the top of his suspect list.