The door opened as Weldon approached and a harried Royal Season employee came out. “Well, that was a waste of time,” he told Weldon.
“Why…” Weldon began but the man had already started walking away.
The door opened again and Krim’s preeminent private detective, Ellison Davo, stuck his head out. “Are you next?” he asked. “You work for the Royal Season now? Or are you here as Elea Carlyle’s flunky? Never mind, come in.”
Weldon followed Ellison in to the room. Judging by the stacks of boxes pushed to the sides and mops leaning in the corner it was a repurposed supply closet.
There were two stools on either side of a card table with a stack of papers on top of it.
Ellison pulled out a clean piece of paper and a quill pen. “So. What does the Krim world administration know about yesterday’s mysterious disappearance of Wynefrede Aumberden and Raphe Faryndon?”
“Nothing,” said Weldon, sitting down across from him. “I only learned about it this morning.”
“Maybe you know them by their real names,” said Ellison. “Cassia Stylianou and Otagi Sirak Balian.”
“Is this the same Cassia Stylianou who heads up investments for the Stylianou Enterprise Group?”
“And doesn’t Otagi Sirak Balian do something for Balian Mining?”
“He’s the chief operating officer.”
“Why is it just you? I’d think those two companies would send armies of investigators here to find them.” Weldon leaned back in his chair. “Not to mention the media storm.” Journalists wouldn’t be allowed to report on anything specifically about the grid, due to the anti-spoiler laws. But there was still a lot they could do. If word got out that two high-profile corporate executives got lost on Krim… well, that would be fantastic for business.
“They both cleared their schedules for three months,” said Ellison. “Took personal sabbaticals to clear their heads, do some socializing, you know. Get out of the rat race for a little while. They left instructions not to be disturbed.”
“Is that normal?”
“Yes.” Ellison tapped the stack of papers next to him. “Apparently, the Royal Season recommends all its customers to this, so that they’re not tempted to deal with work emergencies when they should be enjoying themselves and getting to know their potential soul mates.”
“So we’ve got a couple of months before people start to panic,” Weldon said. That would give the grid time to put a marketing campaign in place. He would need to talk to the board about hiring a firm to come up with some slogans. Maybe they could do a “Disappear on Krim” tour for the media.
“I thought the Royal Season was just random people playing dress-up for a little while,” said Weldon. “And paying through the nose for it.”
“The paying through the nose part is right,” said Ellison. “My company, Crewe Investigations, did the background checks on all of them. It’s all trillionaires, celebrities, politicians. Big names. Apparently, half the fun of the Royal Season is figuring out who everyone really is.”
“A costume party for rich, spoiled people,” said Weldon. “That explains how they’ve managed to spend so much money on the grid.”
“What do you mean?”
“They’ve rented out every available mansion, plus several unavailable ones by giving the owners offers they couldn’t refused. They’ve got an army of servants and guards and drivers that they recruited from god knows where.”
“Everywhere, apparently,” said Ellison. “I’ve been interviewing their core employees and they are advertising heavily everywhere for staff.”
“This has been great for Krim’s economy,” said Weldon. “We’re getting people exposed to Krim who would never have come here otherwise.”
“And most of them hate it,” said Ellison. “Their turnover is incredible. Few stay for more than a week.”
“Still, some stay, and that’s more than we normally get,” said Weldon. “And if word of the disappearances gets out…”
“The Royal Season would really prefer that it doesn’t,” said Ellison. “And if we can find the two missing lovebirds before they’re due back, then it never will.”
Weldon put his hands in his pockets and felt the folded-up list of other potential victims.
“What normally happens when someone disappears on Krim?” asked Ellison. “Other than when I get called in to find them, that is.”
“Just good-old investigative shoe leather,” said Ellison.
“Right.” Weldon made a mental note to request another security audit. He’d told Pleasance Pratt that the systems were foolproof, but it never hurt to triple-check. Maybe Krim could get an external penetration testing company in. If the Royal Singletons stayed missing, and the media storm began, then it would be good to have everything as airtight as possible.
“Has anyone ever disappeared where it didn’t make sense?” Ellison asked.
Weldon thought back to the woman who used to come once a month to ask about her missing cousin until he’d finally threatened to ban her from the grid if she kept harassing them. And the painting hanging in Pleasance Pratt’s office. Would Pompas really have left it behind? He let go of the list and put his hands on the table in front of him. “No,” he said. “People vanish on Krim all the time. But that’s what they come here to do. It should be our slogan.” He put a smile on his face and chuckled.
“And you never worry about them?” asked Ellison. “Maybe they’re trapped in a torture dungeon somewhere. Suffering endless torment. A fate worse than death.”
“Well, it’s really hard to keep someone alive against their will.” Weldon waved his hand. “I mean, you’d have to keep them in a padded cell… it’s a ridiculous thought. Who would bother? It’s much more likely that people disappear for their own good reasons.”
“I heard a rumor that Krim had a secret prison where they kept people they disagreed with,” said Ellison.
“Why bother? If anyone is particularly annoying, we can just permaban them. It’s in the terms of service. We can kick anyone out for any reason at any time.”
“If you kept them in a secret prison, it would inflate your active user numbers,” said Ellison.
“Sounds like something that the Round Krim Society would say,” said Weldon.
“Yeah, it’s probably a long shot,” said Ellison. “It would be an impossible secret to keep. I mean, all anyone would need is a court order for any one of the disappeared people and the grid would have to turn them over and then news of the dungeon would get out.”
“It’s not just a long shot,” said Weldon. “We’re using an off-the-shelf basic-bio game engine for Krim. It doesn’t have the functionality to support a secret dungeon where users can be kept locked up indefinitely with no way to kill themselves. Even if we wanted to, we don’t have the budget for the custom coding, and it wouldn’t pass code reviews if we did.”
Ellison leaned back and tapped on the card table. “So what do you think happened to Wynefrede and Raphe?”
“Most likely? They went off on their own for some private time. Second most likely, they got kidnapped by some Krim criminal group. Even if people don’t know who they are in real life, the Royal Society has been throwing money around. They’re probably going to get a ransom demand any minute now. Kidnapping for money is a time-honored tradition in Krim. People agree to the risk when they sign the terms of service.”
“And if its not either of those two?”
“Then it’s personal,” said Weldon. “Or political. Someone has a beef against them, or against the Royal Season.”
“Or against Elea Carlyle.”
“That, too.” Weldon stood up. “Oh, before I go. You’ve been looking for the Nightingale, right? The newspaper gossip?”
“Not yet,” Ellison said. “We’re still working on it. Have you heard anything?”
“No, it’s not really a priority,” said Weldon. Well, it wasn’t a priority any longer.
As he was leaving, he glanced into Pleasance Pratt’s office. The door was open, and he could see Pompas Andrieu’s painting. He was even more sure that Pompas wouldn’t voluntarily have left it behind. Or abandoned all his potential investors just when they were getting ready to part with their gold. For a moment, he considered turning around and giving the list of disappeared people to Ellison. The man really did have an excellent track record of finding people. But maybe some people had their own reasons for not wanting to be found. And if Wynefrede and Raphe stayed missing until past the time they were due back, the publicity would be really good for the grid.
Weldon remembered how many new users showed up when the returnee was murdered. What was his name? Alfred Abel. Tortured by his great-daughter until he didn’t just die in-world, but died for real. Temporarily, at least. Ellison had solved that murder. Maybe he’d find Wynefrede and Raphe, too.
That’s what he would do, Weldon decided. Just let things play out. If Wynefrede and Raphe were found, and if it was connected to the other disappearances, and those other people were rescued — well and good. And if they weren’t, then Krim would get a lot of free publicity.
He hurried back to his coach. He had a security audit to organize.