Matilda stabbed Ellison’s steak with her knife and pulled the entire plate over to her side of the table. Ellison grimaced but instead of saying anything to her personally he just looked towards the entrance to the dining room. From where Ellison was sitting, he could see inn owner Quimby Plummer at the front desk. Quimby nodded at him. A second steak should be on its way soon.
“Their stakes are great,” said Ellison Davo, private investigator extraordinary and a man who could see deep into people’s souls. Well, not actually deep. Just far enough to tell what their real identities were, even of those people were just avatars in a virtual world. “The new cook is a master.”
“They’re okay,” said Matilda, talking with her mouth full.
Ellison averted his eyes. “It’s literally the best steak I’ve ever head in my life.”
“You’re only saying that because you’re stuck here on Krim and everything is so awful that something even moderately passable seems great by comparison,” said Matilda.
“In that case, give me my steak back,” Ellison said, then flinched back when Matilda growled at him.
“Fine, fine,” he said. “Let’s talk about work. I went to see Welton Layton this morning to talk about the gun smuggling and found out where all the gates were.” He paused and took a sip of his ale. “But I’m not allowed to tell you where they are.”
She glared at him.
“It’s just because Crewe Investigations is licensed and bonded,” Ellison quickly added. “It’s nothing about you personally.”
Welton did say that that he specifically didn’t want Krim’s mass murderers and psychopaths to know the information. He was probably referring to Matilda, but he might not have been. He might have been talking about, oh, say, Glad the Impaler. There were a lot of mass murderers and psychopaths on Krim. Welton could have been referring to any of them.
“I don’t care.” Matilda waved her knife in the air, a piece of steak embedded on the tip. “I know where all the gates are. There’s the main gate on Central Square. The commercial gate by the docks. The grid administrators have a private gate in City Hall that they don’t want people to know about but everyone knows is there. And Lifeworks has a gate for their staff and clients.”
“Mmhm,” Ellison said. She was missing two gates. One was roughly 700 miles away, to the east. It was another commercial gate. It could potentially be used to smuggle in guns, even though Welton said that no import-exported licenses for firearms had been granted. Maybe the smugglers had found a way to get around the restrictions.
The sixth gate was out in the middle of the ocean, more than six thousand miles away. Welton said it was a memory gate, but didn’t explain what that was. Given the distance, though, odds were that it had nothing to do with the smuggling.
“Lifeworks is our best bet,” said Ellison. “Elea Carlyle is a major funder, so she probably got one of their staffers to look the other way.”
“I’ll look into it,” said Matilda. “I’m still on retainer with them. I’ll pick up a few extra security shifts and see if I can get anyone to talk.”
Lifeworks brought people back from the dead, but not like a normal life insurance company. Normally, when someone got in an accident, they were immediately restored to life, online at least, from their most recent backup.
Lifeworks, and a handful of other retrieval companies, actually brought people back from the dead from before there was life insurance, or backups, or even computers. The long-ago-departed had a hard time adjusting to modern life, what with people teleporting and flying around and talking AI assistants and pop-up menus and advertisements appearing and disappearing with the wave of a hand. Basic-bio worlds like Krim were a great place to bring people back to because there was no modern technology to confuse anyone, and all the senses felt fully real. Out in the real world in places like Facepage, and in most other gaming worlds, if you stubbed your toe you wouldn’t feel the full impact. You could jump off a ten-story building with no ill effects. On Krim, all the pain was completely realistic — as realistic as if someone actually had a physical body and had their pain settings set at natural levels. That realism made Krim extremely unpopular with most users, but made it perfect for Lifeworks to set up a compound here.
“Thanks,” said Ellison. “And also, thanks for being understanding about the kidnapping thing.”
“Sure,” said Matilda. “You’re licensed and bonded and I’m not.”
Ellison raised a finger.
“And one of the victims you’re looking for has a restraining order against me,” Matilda added. “I know. I’m working on getting it lifted. Unfortunately, the courts want to hear from Finn himself before they make any decisions.”
“I’ll find him,” said Ellison.
Finnbogi Sturluson — also known as Barnaby Faremanne while on Krim — was Matilda’s cousin. He’d vanished while visiting Krim three years ago and hasn’t been heard from since.
“If it was even him,” Matilda said. “Wynefrede’s memory isn’t that great.”
Wynefrede Aumberden has been kidnapped about a week earlier and said that there had been another prisoner there, someone named Barnaby who matched the description of Finnbogi’s avatar as he’d been last seen on Krim. Barnaby was suffering from brain damage, which was probably how the kidnappers had managed to keep him for three years without Finn either escaping or killing himself.
“Her memory is fine,” said Ellison. “Well, most of the time. It’s her eyesight that was the main problem. But she’s got glassses now.”
“Didn’t have them when she was in that dungeon, though,” said Matilda.
“We’ve got Raphe’s description, too,” said Ellison.
“That coward? I’m surprised if he noticed anything at all, what with all the cowering he was doing.”
“Maybe the fear made him hyper-alert,” said Ellison. “Anyway, we’ve got a clue to go on. Lamacoln.” He paused. “Any ideas of where to start looking for it?”
“I thought you didn’t want my help,” she said. “But I’ll give it to you, anyway. Start by looking for people who travel a lot. See if any of them have heard of it.”
“I would never have thought of that,” said Ellison. “I was hoping you’d have something a little bit more concrete.”
“Sorry.” She finished her steak and pushed away the plate. “I’ll head out now and track down a few people I know who are able to find rare things for you.”
“Explorers and treasure hunters?”
“Fences. They might have a line on smuggled guns. Then I’ll head over to Lifeworks. I’ll let you know if I come across anyone who’s ever heard of Lamacoln.” She paused. “How do you spell that, anyway?”
“I don’t know. L-A-M-A-C-O-N-E? L-L-A-M-A-C-A-L-L?”
“I’ll keep it vague.” She stood up, wiped off her knife on Ellison’s shoulder, and put it away. “See you around, boss.”
She turned around and walked away. As she passed each table, the other diners pulled in their arms and legs and scooted their chairs over. But a man at the last table didn’t see her coming. He was turned around, waving at Quimby.
“This steak is dreadfully cooked,” the man complained. “There’s charring on the outside, and, on the inside, you can still see the pink.”
Quimby stepped out from behind the front desk, shaking his head.
“Maybe you can scrape off the burned bits and throw it some boiling water to finish cooking it?” said the diner.
Matilda put her hand on the man’s shoulder.
“Ouch.” He looked around, then up at Matilda. “That hurts.”
She squeezed harder, and tears appeared in his eyes. The other diners stopped eating to watch.
“I’m not going to kill you,” said Matilda. “I’ve been told if I keep leaving bodies around the place I won’t be allowed back. And I like the new cook.”
“Oww.” The man cowered down and tried to twist away.
“But if you don’t want the steak, I’ll take it.” Without Ellison even seeing any movement, her knife had reappeared back in Matilda’s hand. She stabbed the steak and walked off with it.
“I’ll bring you a boiled steak,” Quimby told the customer.
The man rubbed his shoulder and glared at Matilda’s departing back. “I liked it the way you used to cook it,” he said.
“I’ll boil it myself,” said Quimby and walked through the dining room towards Ellison’s table. “I saw you trying to get my attention earlier. I could tell exactly what you wanted.” Quimby took a piece of paper out of his apron pocket. “I totaled up your account for you.”
Ellison took the bill. “I wanted to order another steak,” he said.
“Sorry.” Quimby glanced over his shoulder. “That chap over there got the last one.”