400 Steps in the Darkness: Part Three
I had never seen Mr. Bench as angry as at that moment. His small wings were shaking with rage and little clouds of smoke rose from his nostrils. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had started spitting fire.
“Is it true that you’ve been planning on writing an article about Jerieme Pakers for issue 400?”
I gulped, my mouth suddenly dry, and whispered, “Yes, Mr. Bench, I-”
“Have you lost your mind? Are you completely crazy? What in Fyora’s name happened to your common sense?” The Skeith’s face turned red as though his head was about to explode. “Jerieme Pakers’s disappearance was the biggest scandal in the history of the Neopian Times. We had visits from the Defenders for months afterwards. Each time the newspaper was mentioned, pets only talked about the missing reporter.”
He took a deep breath. “Do you really think it’s a good idea to bring all this up again? To remind people of how one of our own disappeared? You can’t believe the rumours that circulated about us afterwards. People started blaming us, even if we had nothing to do with his disappearance. Zerenia, I want you to stop thinking about Pakers. Forget about him. Nothing that even contains his name will be published in issue 400.”
He paused. “Do I make myself clear?”
Sweat covered my body and my legs were shaking. I opened my mouth to talk, but no sound came out.
“Do I make myself clear?” Mr. Bench shouted.
I was not able to reply. All I could do was nod and pray that I would never see my boss that angry again.
* * *
My legs were still shaking as I left the Neopian Times office building. After the encounter with Mr. Bench, I needed a break and decided to take a walk. Who would have thought that a simple article could make my boss that angry? One thing was certain - I was never going to even think about Jerieme Pakers again.
It was only when I turned around a corner and the office building disappeared from my sight that my heart stopped racing. Even though I hated to admit it, I should have listened to Sconch. Having put all my effort into my idea, I was now back to square one. Sure, there were plenty of other important reporters I could write about. But none of them had been as interesting and exciting, and most important, none of them had inspired me.
Writing could be a painful process. When inspiration did not come, each word was difficult to find, each sentence I managed to squeeze out sounded clumsy. Putting together an article I did not feel inspired to write was excruciatingly slow.
I did not pay much attention to where I was going. My feet carried me past the busy main plaza, across the bazaar and past the Alstaf Poogle statue. When I looked up, my surroundings had changed from busy crowds and large shops to a run-down suburb of Neopia Central.
I had not been in this corner of the town before. Continuing on my way, I watched out for a street sign to gather my position.
Winding Wood Drive
My jaw dropped. This was the street where Jerieme Pakers had lived before he had disappeared. I stared at the sign for at least ten minutes while I considered my option. Either I went on and completely ignored that I was so close to Jerieme’s former place of living, or I took this chance to satisfy my own curiosity.
My knees were shaking as I turned left, whether from excitement or from fear of Mr. Bench, I did not know. If my boss found out that I had gone to see Jerieme’s house just after he had told me to never think about the reporter again, I would be in deep trouble.
Walking down the street, I told myself that there was no harm in continuing my research as long as I didn’t write about it. After all, Mr. Bench’s greatest concern had been that people would be reminded of the scandal, right? So as long as I never told anybody that I had gone to see Jerieme’s home, I would be fine.
Pakers had lived in a small house at the end of the street. A forest bordered the grounds from the back and the right side and even to the left, the neighbour was separated from Jerieme’s terrain by a line of pine trees.
Sun and bad weather had bleached out all colour from the For Sale sign in front of the house. From what I had heard, nobody had wanted to buy it after the reporter’s disappearance. Rumours said that Jerieme’s ghost had come back to haunt his home and that at night, he could be seen standing at a window and looking outside with a grave expression on his face.
I had never believed in ghost stories, but as I pushed the door open and stepped into the dimly lit entrance hall, I almost thought the rumours to be true. A layer of dust covered the floor and spiders had spun their webs in front of the paintings on the walls. I sneezed as dust tickled in my nose when I stepped closer to one of the drawings.
The Hissi on it stared at me as though he wanted to pierce me with his eyes. His old-fashioned clothes made me believe that he had lived long before my time. Was he one of Jerieme’s ancestors? In any case, the painting looked as though it belonged into a haunted mansion and not into the entrance hall of a small hut in one of Neopia Central’s run down neighbourhoods.
“What are you doing here?”
I whirled around with a squeak to see a biscuit Yurble leaning against the door frame.
“I just wanted to take a look,” I hurried to say. “I work for the NT and came across some of Jerieme Pakers’ articles and couldn’t help but wonder what had become of him.”
The Yurble stared at me.
I squirmed under his gaze. “Please, I did not want to take anything, or break it.”
He blinked and suddenly burst out laughing. “You should have seen the expression on your face. No need to feel guilty; you haven’t done anything wrong. Everyone is free to come and take a look at the house. It’s for sale, after all.”
Still laughing, he stepped closer to me and held out his hand. “I’m Kolan Wend, the neighbour.”
“Zerenia Smith,” I introduced myself.
He nodded and motioned at the picture I had been looking at. “Jerieme’s great-grandfather. He was some kind of noble, very rich. The family used to live in a mansion, until Jerieme’s father came and spent all their money. I don’t think Jerieme cared much about Neopoints, but he never forgave his father for driving the family into poverty.”
Kolan shrugged. “Anyway, that’s about all there is in this house when it comes to clues about his life. The rest looks just like anybody’s home, nice and clean. Well, it was clean when he still lived here, now it’s rather dusty.”
I stored the new information about Jerieme in my head. Each person I talked to gave me a new piece of the puzzle that I needed to place together to find out who he had once been.
“That morning, when he disappeared, did you see him leave the house? Did he tell you where he wanted to go that day?”
Kolan shook his head. “As much as I would love to help you, I have no idea what happened to him. I was busy with my daughter and didn’t see him walk past our house that morning. But I know that” – his voice dropped and he stepped even closer to me – “he went to Brightvale. One of the Defenders who researched his case told me. They found a witness who had seen him. But that’s more or less confidential, even though after all this time, I don’t think anybody cares about this piece of information anymore.”
Brightvale? What had Jerieme done in Brightvale? Instantly, Casille came to my mind who had told me that the reporter had wanted to write about the Aisha Enchantress. But the sorceress lived in Meridell and not in Brightvale.
“Are you sure that it was Brightvale and not Meridell?”
Kolan nodded. “Absolutely positive. I’ve been there myself after I got the information, but I never managed to find out more. It’s a useless trace. We do not know what Jerieme was doing there, if he wanted to meet someone, if he was researching an article or if he went elsewhere afterwards. Nothing.”
“Do you think it’s possible that he crossed Brightvale on his way to Meridell?”
“Of course.” Kolan leaned against the wall next to the painting of Pakers Senior. “But what would he do in Meridell?”
“Someone told me that he wanted to write an article about the Aisha Enchantress.”
The biscuit Yurble laughed, his voice sounding unnaturally loud as it echoed from the walls. “The Aisha Enchantress? Yeah, I’ve heard about that. But that’s just some crazy idea he had in his head. Jerieme might have been courageous and sought out famous pets in all corners of Neopia, but even he knew better than to seek out the Aisha Enchantress.”
He grew more sober. “I’m sure you’ve heard the stories. Nobody leaves the Aisha’s realm without her permission. You cannot even enter it if she doesn’t allow you to. No, whatever Jerieme was doing, he did not go to see her. And if he had, he would have returned because she would have sent him away.”
Kolan shook his head. “I do not know where he disappeared to, but it had nothing to do with that sorceress.”
To be continued...