Ellison expected Matilda to just kick down the doors but the 12-ten-foot-high slabs were formidable up close. Instead, two of her mercenaries pried the lock off with a crowbar and they were in.
Ellison followed the mercenaries in and, as they fanned out, stood for a minute to let his eyes adjust to the dark. He could see straight through to the far side of the warehouse, where the other team of mercenaries was coming in through the front entrance.
The central area was completely clear, just a stone floor under a high roof supported by heavy wooden beams.
“I found a body!” The mercenary with the crowbar poked at a suspicious object in the shadows. “Never mind! Just a pile of moldy blankets!”
To his left, another team of mercenaries was kicking apart several wooden crates. Judging by the moans of disappointment, they all turned out to be empty as well. He looked around and spotted an alcove that nobody seemed to be investigating yet. A tiny window above eye level cast a sliver of light onto a waist-high crate, with a smaller one next to it. Ellison guessed that someone had been using the smaller crate to sit on. There was an open newspaper still lying on the top crate with a half-full mug of liquid.
He picked up the mug and sniffed at it, then stuck a finger in. Warm chamomile tea.
“Someone was just here!” he yelled back. “The tea is still hot!” The date on the paper was from that morning, too.
“Everyone, look for a water kettle or a fireplace,” Matilda said. Her voice echoed around the empty space. “We’ve been watching both entrance and no one’s come in or out. There has to be something here somewhere.”
But there wasn’t. The entire warehouse was a single open room with a high vaulted ceiling. One of Matilda’s mercenaries threw up a rope and climbed into the rafters, just to make sure that nobody was hiding up there. There wasn’t.
The walls was all solid stone. Other than the front and back entrances, and the tiny ventilation windows inset with heavy iron bars, there were no other openings.
It was solid. Ellison was surprised that it was empty. The location was perfect, on a main thoroughfare, near the commercial gate.
He absentmindedly took a sip of the chamomile tea, then realized that he didn’t know whose lips had just been on it and spit it out.
Matilda walked over and took the mug from his hand. “They couldn’t have left more than fifteen minutes ago.”
She looked down at the crate that served as a table. It was open on one side and clearly empty, but she upended it then kicked it out of the way.
“How did we miss them?” Ellison asked.
“I don’t know,” Matilda said. She kicked at the smaller crate. It flew into the stone wall and fell apart. “But I’ve arranged for a specialist.”
She walked to the center of the warehouse. “Listen up, everybody! Check all the stones in the floor and walls. There’s got to be another door here somewhere.”
“Or someone wasn’t paying attention,” murmured one of the mercenaries.
“Or they slipped out somehow,” said another. “We didn’t have full line of sight all the time. There were people walking by, wagons piled up with stuff. Someone could have snuck out.”
“Why would anyone have a warehouse like this just sitting empty?” asked Ellison. “With the front doors wide open? And then sit inside drinking tea and reading the paper?”
Matilda swore. “It must have been a real-estate agent,” she said. “Griffin the Squint and his buddy could have been looking to rent it.” She looked around. “Anyone seen Shanwei? He was supposed to be here.” She walked to the front entrance. “The fool is late.”
“I’m not late.” A little weasel of a man sidled in.
Shanwei O’Griffy Lamusa, professional thief, cast a trained eye around the facility. “I just wanted to be sure I didn’t get in the way of any of the fighting. I’m more of a lover.”
“More of a sneak,” said Matilda.
Shanwei watched for a few seconds as the mercenaries poked and prodded stones on the floor and walls of the warehouse with crowbars and wooden slats from broken-up crates.
“It could be a dead end,” said Ellison.
“It probably is,” said Shanwei. “But a lot of these warehouses have hidden areas, where people store the more valuable stuff.”
“And you’d know,” said Matilda.
“Not really,” said Shanwei. “I specialize in relocating smaller items that are easy to carry. If something’s stored in a warehouse, it’s probably bulky. You need a whole crew to move it and it’s usually more trouble than its worth.”
He walked to the alcove where Ellison had found the mug of tea.
“Someone had just been sitting here, reading the paper,” Ellison told the thief. “What are you looking for? Is it smaller on the inside than the outside?”
“No.” The thief stood in the middle of the space and looked around. “Where exactly were they sitting?”
Ellison pointed to the large broken crate. “That was right in the center when I first came in. The smaller crate was right behind it.” Ellison pointed at a scuffed area on the floor, where the dirt and straw covering the stones was mostly scraped away. He walked over and stood on top of the spot. “I think the guy was sitting right here.”
“So he’d be looking that way?” Shanwei pointed out at the main area of the warehouse. Ellison nodded. He could see most of the warehouse from where he was standing, but not the front entrance. It was an odd place for a real estate agent to sit if he was waiting for a client to show up.
Shanwai edged Ellison aside and took his place.
“Did you know that there are catacombs under the whole city?” he asked.
“No,” said Matilda.
“Whoever created the grid thought it would be fun to have secret passages everywhere.” Shanwei stomped on the stone under his feet. “Used a standard, open source design. But they forgot about the physics engine. Most worlds, you put up a wall, and it stays there unless you specifically program it to move. On Krim, you’ve got water coming down every day, getting into the cracks, undermining foundations. Most of the catacombs collapsed the first year and people just filled them in with rocks or dirt. But if someone was very motivated, they could have propped them up. Kept them maintained.”
“So the guy sitting here could have been guarding a secret exit,” said Matilda. She looked around the alcove. “In one of these walls, maybe? Or the floor?”
“No,” said Shanwei. “Except right where he was sitting, the floor hasn’t been disturbed.” He scraped his boot along the surface of one of the stones near the wall. It took him a couple of tries to scrape enough of the dirt off to see the actual stone underneath. “But see here. He was sitting like this, facing over there.” He pointed to a matching alcove on the other side of the warehouse, where a mercenary was banging on the floor with his crowbar.
They walked over. “Does anyone have a lamp?” Shanwei asked. One mercenary did. He’d been using it to help through sort a pile of wooden slats, dirt, stone, and other rubble.
Shanwei took the lamp and held it close to the floor. In this part of the warehouse, the floor wasn’t just stone under a layer of dirt and straw, but had gravel on top of it as well. Shanwei kicked at the gravel. “It’s cemented in place,” he said. Using a crowbar, one of the mercenaries pried some of the gravel up, exposing a wooden slab underneath.
Matilda stomped on it, then stepped back. “Hey, Medium Dave!”
Matilda’s mercenaries were mostly all large, brawny men and women like herself, but Medium Dave was at least a foot taller still.
He must have dialed back all his other attributes to nearly nothing to get an avatar that size, Ellison thought.
Dave took a long look at the gravel-covered floor. “Is it all one piece?” he asked.
Melissa jumped up and down on it. “Seems pretty solid,” she said.
“Try to find any edges or seams.” Dave stepped back as the other mercenaries started scraping away.
“Maybe there’s a hidden lever,” said Ellison.
“With this amount of mass?” said Dave. “That would require some serious counterweight and would be likely to break if used frequently.”
“I found something,” said one of the mercenaries. It was a flat iron handle, the rusty top set flush with the top of the wooden slap and almost indistinguishable in color. The mercenary pulled up on the handle and a three-foot-wide piece of gravel-covered wood came right up. It had been set into the slab, resting on the stone rim of the main warehouse floor on one side and a heavy wooden beam on the other. “There’s a ladder down there,” he said.
“You’re the smallest,” Matilda told Shanwei. “You can go first.”
Shanwei knelt down at the opening and lowered his oil lamp so he could see what was below.
“It’s a tunnel,” he said. “About six feet down. It’s going to be a tight fit for some of you.” He jumped up and gave the lamp to one of the mercenaries to hold, then took it back when he was half-way down the ladder.
“We’re going to need more people,” he called up. “And more lamps. The place is a labyrinth.” He moved away from the bottom of the ladder then came back again. “I think this one tunnel might go all the way down to the docks.”
“You heard the weasel,” said Matilda. “We need lamps. Probably some more pickaxes and crowbars.” She poked Ellison in the side. “You’re skinny. Go down there with Shanwei and find out where the tunnel comes out.”