Ellison stepped out through the front gate of the Armforge guild, onto Knots Hollow Way, and debated about whether to head straight back to the Barley Mow for some dinner, ale, and a good night’s sleep, or to try to catch up with Matilda.
On the one hand, Matilda could be just about anywhere.
On the other hand, she was most likely to be at the King’s Armpit, the favorite hangout for the dregs of Krim.
Back on the first hand, The King’s Armpit was a longer walk than the Barley Mow. And it was already dark. He didn’t want to be caught outside in the nightly rains.
But on the second hand, both were in the same direction. He didn’t have to make a choice until he got to the corner of Banking and Leadenhall.
Or he could just go straight north on Knots Hollow until he got to the central square, leave through the gate, and go swimming in a warm tropical lagoon with sexy mermaids. The sexy mermaids would bring him tropical drinks with umbrellas in them. And some coffee. And maybe a side of fries. Also, some mashed potatoes, and maybe some potato salad. Potato soup. A loaded baked potato. Potatoes au gratin. Those spicy, curly potato things. Who needed mermaids? He could turn off notifications and go straight to his apartment, watch some videos, catch up on celebrity gossip, and just eat potatoes all night by himself.
Plus, Knots Hollow was reasonably well lit the whole way, while going back to the inn would take him down Butters Place, which was narrow and dark. He’d probably be stabbed several times over.
“Out of the way.”
As someone shoved Ellison to the side, he realized that he’d been blocking the exit.
“Oh, it’s you. The detective.” The shover held an oil lamp up over Ellison’s face. “Didn’t recognize you in the dark. I guess you’re busy thinking about clues and whatnot.”
Ellison squinted back.
“You were on guard duty, right?”
The guard stuck his hand out for Ellison to shake. “Two Toe Tom, pleased meet you and all that. Well, actually, it’s Clarembaut Emberthorn the Undying. But if you call me that I probably won’t even recognize it!” Tom guffawed. “So it’s easier just to call me Tom, which is my name, but there’s already another Tom, so they call me Two Toe because there was some frostbite a while back.” He stomped his feet. “Got my toes back. Tried to get them to call me something else, like Tall Tom or even Tiny Tom. Maybe Temperamental Tom, I don’t know.” Tom started to walk north down the street and Ellison automatically followed.
“Where were you last night, exactly?” Ellison asked.
“I was manning the back wall,” said Tom. “We’ve got a little watch tower up there. Best view of the fireworks.”
“See anything suspicious?”
“No, and I was on the corner there, and had a good view of the whole back wall and the north wall.” The guard turned left into the alley that ran along the north wall of the compound. “The south wall is where all the festivities were, so lots of eyes there. And we had a team at the front gate.”
“Could anyone have thrown anything over?”
Tom looked up at the wall. “It’s twenty-two feet high. And the computer built it solid.” Tom slapped his palm against the tightly-set stones. “Original construction, you know, from when Krim was first launched.” He stepped back from the wall and looked up at it. “I guess if you put some swing into it, or used a slingshot, and did it from right next to the stables, you could throw the smaller pieces over without me seeing it. But not the larger shields or the scepter. Rodge had a few guys try, too.”
Tom lowered his lamp and used it to examine the ground as he walked.
“Did you see anything of the crime itself?” Ellison asked.
“Nope. Stables were in the way.”
Tom bent down and picked up a shiny pebble. “Just a rock,” he said and threw it aside.
Ellison followed it with his eyes and saw that it landed next to a length of twine.
“Is that a clue?” Tom asked when Ellison picked it up.
“Probably not,” said Ellison. “Probably a million reasons for twine to be here.”
“Sure,” said Tom. “It could have come from a sack full of stolen jewels, or it could be from a hay bale.” He looked back up at the wall. “If it was from a sack of jewels, and they tossed it over the wall right here, they’d be right around the stable. They could hide in the shadows.”
“That wall is something like three stories high,” Ellison said. “And sacks of jewels can’t be that aerodynamic.”
“You’re right, I’d probably have noticed something like that,” said Tom. “At the very least, it would have taken a few tries, and I’d have heard the sound of it hitting the wall.”
Tom silently walked down the length of the alley, then turned left again when he reached the end of the wall and let out a started yell. Ellison caught just a glimpse of a fleeing figure before Tom stumbled back into him and both of them fell. By the time they disentangled themselves, whoever it was had vanished.
“I saw his face for a second,” said Tom. “Wasn’t anyone I knew.” He shook himself off. “He was holding a burlap sack, too. Probably full of jewels.”
Ellison looked back up at wall. At the top of it, in the little guard tower at the corner, he saw some movement and then it was gone.
“Who’s manning the wall now?” asked Ellison.
“I am,” said Tom. “I mean…” He shook his head. “Rodge has everyone out looking for secret tunnels. Oh, I’m going to get tortured tonight. I don’t suppose you recognized them?”
Ellison shook his head.
He’d never seen the thief before. Not his face, and not faint aura surrounding him. Ellison had a mild case of synesthesia. Normally completely useless but, on Krim and other private worlds, it was a good way to identify people who changed their appearance.
“No, I didn’t recognize him,” he said. “But I would, if I saw him again.”
“He’s probably halfway to the gate by now to change his avatar.”
Tom nodded. “Right, right, you’re a detective. You can recognize him by his body movements, right? And unconscious micro expressions and whatnot?”
“Something like that.”
“Listen, do you mind not mentioning to Rodge what happened here? I’m not in a mood to be tortured for letting the thief go. We’ll just show Rodge the twine, say that someone must have been throwing things over the wall.”
“They weren’t throwing stuff over the wall,” said Ellison. “They climbed up to the top, and tossed whatever it was down to their accomplice.”
“Let’s skip that part, too.”
“Sure.” Ellison wasn’t in a mood to be tortured, either.