Back on Banking Street, Ellison shifted Bella’s framed portrait from one shoulder to another.
He should have argued harder for removing the canvas from the frame.
He checked the list Bob gave him. Bella’s gallery was off to the south. But Matilda’s favorite bar was to the north east, and the Barley Mow Inn was directly to the east, down Leadenhall Street. But she could also be at her mercenary hall, to the north west, past city center and city hall.
Chances were, Bella was in a dungeon somewhere. Somehow, assuming that Bob wasn’t lying about the tapestry changing, someone had convinced Bella to buy that particular tapestry and bring it home, then broke into the house several times to replace it with a different one before kidnapping her. Why? To throw her husband off the scent?
Maybe it was all an elaborate stunt on Bob’s part to keep his wife from filing for divorce before the pre-nup expired, and Ellison would be called on as a witness in the ensuing courtroom drama to testify that someone else had kidnapped Bella.
He didn’t care. He’d be paid either way.
Bob did mention a very large bonus if Ellison were to find Bella soon. So either he was extremely confident that he’d hid Bella very well, or he honestly wanted Bella found.
Probably the first thing to do is to rule out the impossible.
Ellison went to the city hall first. It was on the way to both Matilda’s guild hall and to the King’s Armpit.
He was in luck. The Krim grid manager himself, Gilbert “Binkie” Dickson, was present, having a screaming fight with Chamber of Commerce merchant relations coordinator Osgar Cerdic Sigeweard. Something about dead bodies hurting business. It was a perennial argument on Krim, where dead bodies didn’t magically vanish into thin air, but stuck around, stinking up that air and attracting flies as well as bigger scavengers.
“We can’t afford to replace the physics engine!” Binkie yelled loud enough to be heard through his closed office door.
The door slammed open.
“Fine, if that’s how you want it.” Osgar stomped out into the main foyer. As other visitors and grid staffers looked on, he turned back and added, “Then we’re releasing the trained hyenas!”
The two guards stationed in the foyer escorted Osgar out. “Sorry, sir,” one of them said. “I’m sure we’ll figure something out.”
“Why don’t we save the hyenas for the last resort, once we’ve tried everything else?”
Merchants and creators were the lifeblood of Krim. Role players wouldn’t come to the grid if they didn’t have a steady supply of new weapons, armor, and fancy ball gowns. If the merchants and creators left, Krim would be forced to buy content or go out of business — and Krim’s owners were notoriously cheap.
While everyone’s attention was elsewhere, Ellison slipped into Binkie’s office.
Binkie himself was slumped in his chair, behind a massive oak desk. There was a map of Krim on the wall — a giant square broken up into squares.
“Hello, Ellison.” Binkie sat up in his chair and started rearranging the paperwork on his desk. From where Ellison was standing, it looked like financial reports. “Investigating another murder?”
“Probably not.” Ellison pointed to the map. “That’s a tapestry, right?”
Binkie looked at it. “Yes. Why?”
“Is it a magic tapestry that automatically updates to show Krim in real time?”
“No, of course not. There’s a stall selling them out near the gate.” Binkie gestured to the window behind him, which looked out over the central plaza. “It’s not accurate. The proportions are all off, and a few continents are missing. Why?”
“Someone told me that they have a magic tapestry.”
Binkie laughed. “Was it Norbert?” He shook his head. “We’ve got a priority list a mile long, and paying for a magic update is not anywhere on the list. Even if somehow got the money and added it in, our entire user base would leave.” Binkie tapped the top of his stack of papers. “Our entire income is from the hard-core reenactors. Magic worlds are a dime a dozen. We’ve run the numbers. There’s no way we could compete with grids like World of Battle.” Binkie shook his head. “I don’t understand all the people who come in here yelling about magic. If they want magic, why are they here?”
Ellison stood Bella’s portrait on Binkie’s desk.
“Have you seen her?”
Bnkie peered at her and frowned. “Maybe… a month ago? She was asking about magic too, wasn’t she? That’s why you’re interested.” Binkie leaned back. “I told her the same thing I tell everyone. Magic tapestries aren’t real. If she wants to, she can complain to the Chamber of Commerce and get whoever is trying to sell them fined for false advertising. Though frankly, they have bigger things to worry about.”
Binkie snorted. “Can you imagine? Packs of hyenas roaming the streets, tearing apart dead bodies? Does anyone really think that would be good for business?”
Ellison put the portrait back down on the floor, leaning against his leg.
“Everybody keeps complaining about everything,” said Binkie. “If it’s not magic, it’s coffee and tea.” He nodded at the portrait. “Her, too.”
“She wanted coffee?”
“Potatoes.” Blinkie sighed. “We might actually have to bend on that one. They didn’t have potatoes in England in the 1500s, but they were around elsewhere in the world. Coffee and tea, too. There was no reason that someone from that time period couldn’t have sailed somewhere and gotten some.”
“Krim’s owners finally had a change of heart?”
“More like they saw where the money was blowing,” said Binkie. “Lifeworks wants coffee for its staff and returnees and family visitors. Most of the returnees they’ve got now died in the 1900s, so they expert certain things.”
“Yes, but they’re more willing to forgo that than coffee. And cigarettes. If we don’t do something soon, they’ll start losing clients to places like the Fifties Grid.”
“So what did Bella want?”
“Bella.” Ellison tapped the portrait. “She’s the missing woman I’m looking for.”
And Ellison knew where she was.