400 Steps in the Darkness: Part One
Author’s Note: A huge thank you goes to Dommy (paradisio170) and Sammy (777spt777) who helped editing this story. You guys are awesome for having read through the whole series and caught my mistakes. THANK YOU!
I cringed as I recognised the voice. Only one person would call me by my full name – my boss.
“Zerenia,” he called again, leaving me no choice but to stand up and wave at him. With dread I watched as he came closer. I had been anticipating this meeting for a while and was in no way looking forward to it. My boss using my full name only furthered the feeling of apprehension.
People rarely called me by my full name. Zerenia was too long, too complicated to pronounce and did not exactly fit as a name for a brown Moehog. Even my boss called me Ze when he was in a good mood. It was only for meetings of the kind that I’d rather avoid that he preferred the full length of my name - maybe because it gave the encounter a more serious and professional touch.
“Mr. Bench,” I greeted the blue Skeith, trying not to let my wariness show on my face. “How can I help you?”
My boss looked at me and sighed. “The question should be ‘how can I help you’. Zerenia, what am I going to do with you?”
I did not reply. What was there to say in response to such a question?
“I still have not received your ideas for issue 400,” Mr. Bench continued after a short pause. “Zerenia, you know that there are only five weeks left and that we need to finish the first phase of preparations. I sent you a memo that all brainstorming should be done by now. Issue 400 is going to be special. We have anniversary issues only once a year, so it has to be epic. How do you expect me to plan what to include if I don’t even know what you’re going to write about?”
My stomach did a nervous flip at the mentioning of issue 400 and the word ‘epic’. How I hated those issues and the pressure that came along with them.
“Well, I was thinking of writing about...” I trailed off. Truth was that I had not come up with any decent ideas yet. I had known about the issue for weeks, and yet, each time something came to my mind, it was either unfitting, completely overdone or totally lame.
Mr. Bench sighed. “You were thinking of writing about nothing. Look, Zerenia, I cannot let any of my reporters get away with not participating in it. We need all the help we can get to make issue 400 special. That’s why I decided to pair you up with Sconch. He mentioned to me that he could use a helping hand on his project. I want you to go and talk to him and collaborate with him.”
I resisted the urge to groan. Of all the people in the office, why did my boss have to choose Sconch? The camouflage Scorchio was well-known for his laziness. It did not particularly surprise me that he did not succeed in finishing his project on his own. Chances were high that he hadn’t even begun yet.
Yet, as much as I disliked the idea of working with Sconch, I did not have a choice but to reply, “Yes, Mr. Bench.”
To my relief, my boss pulled up the corners of his mouth in a smile. “Good, Ze. Go on and find him then so he can tell you about his idea.”
* * *
As expected, Sconch was not working when I entered his office. Leaning back in his chair, his feet on his desk, he was busy staring at an old issue of the Neopian Times. When he noticed me, he looked up and arched up his eyebrows.
“Ze, what a surprise. What brings you to my office?”
I took a deep breath and swallowed down my anger. Sconch had known that I would come; after all, our boss had just told me that it was the Scorchio himself who had asked for help.
“Mr. Bench suggested that I collaborate with you on your article.” Since obviously you’re not able to finish it on your own. I kept the last thought to myself. Mr. Bench appeared to have taken a liking to Sconch and I didn’t want the Scorchio to run to him and complain about me.
“What a brilliant idea,” Sconch exclaimed, jumping to his feet. “I could use some help, you know? Look, the idea I had was to write about famous Neopian Times reporters of the past. The kind of pets who have made our newspaper what it is today and without whom we would not be the most read journal in all of Neopia.”
He placed the newspaper on his desk and walked over to join me by my side. I glanced at the page he had been looking at and noticed that it was a crossword. “Of course, such an article requires quite some research. But now, with you helping me, I’m sure that we’ll get it done in no time. Right?”
I cringed as I felt his hand on my shoulder. “Right.”
“Good.” Sconch clapped his hands. “Why don’t we get started then? My idea was that we search the old issues for reporters that have been published over and over again and appeared on the front page more than once. All we have to do is to go down to the archives and make a list.”
All we had to do. Right. It didn’t even sound that bad, but I knew that this project would be very time-consuming. After all, the work didn’t stop once we’d made a list of reporters. We would then have to research each of them and put the information together in an article.
Smiling broadly, Sconch picked up his crossword puzzle. “Maybe it is best if you already go down to the archives and get started. I still need to work on something here, but I’ll join you in a minute.”
In a minute. As if I was stupid enough to believe that. His crossword was not even half finished. Yet, what else could I do but walk down to the archives and begin the research?
* * *
Dust tickled in my nose. I quickly turned my head so I wouldn’t sneeze on the old newspapers spread out on the floor in front of me. In all the months I’d been working for the Neopian Times, I had only been to the archives once – and that had been to find a six-week-old article. What I had seen back then was nothing compared to the treasures that awaited me at the far end of the room.
A colleague had once told me that going down to the archives was like travelling back in time. It was only now as I sat here, cross-legged and surrounded by old NT issues, that I fully understood her words.
“Issue 7,” I read. My finger traced the number before I turned my attention to the articles waiting within. With my right hand, I jotted down names of reporters. Some of them, like Mr. Bench, rang a bell, but most were completely unknown to me. When I stumbled across a name I had already seen before, I noted down issue and page of their article.
Some pets appeared more often than others and some names only came up once. By the time I had finished the first fifty issues, I had compiled a nice list with one name standing out.
A shadow Hissi who had been very successful in his time. Nobody even came close to his number of publications and front page articles. I encircled his name while I searched for him in my memory. He had played a great role in the development of the Neopian Times and I was sure that I had heard of him before, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember under which circumstances.
I turned my head to the door, not surprised that Sconch had not shown up yet. Well, if he didn’t want to participate in the research, then he surely wouldn’t mind if I decided who to write about. A smile formed on my face. I already knew who was going to be the main focus of my part of the article.
* * *
The camouflage Scorchio did not even look up from his crossword puzzle as I entered his office.
“Sconch, I’ve put a list together of repeatedly published authors. I was thinking that maybe you could write about the ones here,” I held out a sheet of paper, “and I’m going to write my part of the article about the remaining ones.”
He had not taken the list of authors yet, so I put it on the desk just next to his feet. “I think I’m going to concentrate on Jerieme Pakers.”
Sconch mumbled another reply that I interpreted as approval. But before I had a chance to leave the office and the lazy reporter behind, he suddenly jumped up.
“Wait a second, did you say Jerieme Pakers?”
I narrowed my eyes warily. Sconch was not going to steal him from me. “Yes, Jerieme Pakers. I am going to write about him.”
The Scorchio sighed and ran a hand down his face. “Do you think that’s a wise idea?”
“Why not? I was thinking of researching what kind of articles he liked to write, naming the most memorable pieces and maybe getting an interview with him to-”
My sentence was interrupted as Sconch burst out, “An interview?” For a moment, he gaped at me with his mouth half-open. “Ze, don’t you remember the stories?”
I resisted the urge to laugh. Sconch acted as though Jerieme Pakers had been some kind of dangerous criminal, not a reporter working for the Neopian Times.
“Haven’t you wondered why he suddenly stopped writing, just when he made front-page almost every week?” Sconch continued. “You won’t be getting any interviews with him. Jerieme Pakers did not come to work one winter morning and has not been seen since then. He’s probably run away to live a comfortable life on Mystery Island – if he’s still alive, of course. There was a lot of trouble when he suddenly disappeared. Ze, it’s best to leave those things alone and not to disturb sleeping ghosts.”
My eyes began to gleam at the story. So that was where I had heard of Jerieme Pakers before. His name had been all over the newspapers when he had suddenly disappeared. “But Sconch, readers love mysteries. Such a story is exactly what we need for issue 400.” A grin on my face, I hurried out of the office before Sconch could call me back. I finally felt inspired to write for the dreaded anniversary issue.
To be continued...