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Harker's Story


by tanikagillam

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The problem – one of them, at least – with owning the single copy of a rare, priceless, personal and dangerous item – was that Harker couldn’t tell anyone.

     He couldn’t ask the Defenders of Neopia to keep an eye out on the Trading Post. He couldn’t ask the auctioneer to inform him of any black market auctions.

     And he certainly couldn’t tell anyone in Neovia without the distinct possibility that the news would somehow make its way to Henry, his nosy neighbour across the street. That Techo had an unnatural knack for sniffing out gossip, and this was one story Harker was determined to keep out of the press.

     “Good morning, Mister Harker!” A friendly voice floated up from downstairs and the Krawk gave a slight start. He glanced at the antique grandfather clock in the corner of the room and blinked in mild surprise. He had been sitting in his library staring at the empty spot on the bookshelf for over an hour.

     “Mister Harker?”

     He relaxed, recognising the voice of his housekeeper.

     “In the library, Aren.” He called down. He heard footsteps ascending the stairs and a moment later the familiar, freckled face of the Lutari popped his head around the door.

     “Good morning, Mister Harker,” he repeated cheerfully. Aren was always cheerful. “What are you reading today?”

     Harker forced a smile onto his stiff face. The Lutari had been his housekeeper for several years now and was one of the few people the Krawk actually liked. He didn’t think it fair to take his bad mood out on him.

     “Good morning, Aren. I think I’ll leave the reading until later tonight. I might head into town for the day.”

     “Need me to pick anything up for you, sir? Your suit won’t be ready at the dry cleaners until tomorrow, but I’d be happy to do a run for you.”

     “Thank you kindly, Aren. But I won’t be running errands. I just feel like getting out of the house today.”

     “Sure thing.” The Lutari said amiably, with a slight quirk of his eyebrow. While his master wasn’t exactly what one would call a hermit – the Krawk did rarely leave the house. In fact, in the last five or so years, Aren could recount the number of times he’d left on perhaps two hands. Even Miss Petunia – Harker’s Godori playing friend – was always the one to visit the house for their weekly tournament.

     What he would be wanting in town on a day like today, Aren couldn’t imagine. But that was his master’s business, the housekeeper thought to himself, as the Krawk stood up and pulled his dressing gown more tightly around himself. It reminded Aren then of the weather report he had read in the morning newspaper on his way to the manor that day.

     “The Bureau has predicted a freak snap freeze today, sir. It’ll be mighty cold out there. I’ll press you some clothes, and warm your heaviest coat by the fire before you leave.”

     “Thank you, Aren.” Harker smiled gratefully at him. He was a kind and thoughtful lad. Harker looked at him more squarely in the early morning sunlight. “You look a little tired, my boy. Everything alright?”

     “Oh, yes, sir. My brother –” the Lutari made a slight face “ – paid me a surprise visit late last night, so I slept rather poorly. An early one for me tonight, I think. I’m absolutely shattered.”

     “Is that your twin brother? The one who lives in Meridell?” Harker wasn’t always the most tactful, but he thought it prudent not to mention that he remembered his housekeeper’s brother lived in the Meridell dungeons for crimes undisclosed to the both of them.

     “The very same, sir. I suppose he’ll be staying with me a while. We always kept in contact via letters, and I did visit him occasionally. I’m not that keen on having him move in with me, though.”

     “Family can be a burden,” Harker lamented softly, thinking of his own twin sister. Aren gave a rueful shrug.

     “I assume he’ll be keeping mostly to himself. He is my twin – but he’s always been the black Babaa of the family, if I may say so.”

     “We all have one of those. Please – make yourself comfortable in one of the guest quarters. I expect to be out for most of the day. Catch up on your rest.”

     “You’re too kind, Mister Harker. I couldn’t impose on you like that.”

     “Nonsense – I insist. You’re the best thing that’s happened to this old house in a long time. Please – make yourself at home.”

     “I will, thank you sir. I’ll get started on my morning rounds and perhaps have a rest around noon, if that’s alright.”

     “Perfectly.” The Krawk raised an eyebrow as the Lutari stifled a wide yawn with his paw. “I won’t be needing breakfast, although as always you are welcome to help yourself. I’ll take those clothes at your earliest convenience, and perhaps another coffee. I, too, had a bit of a late night.”

     “Right away, sir.”

     “Oh – Aren?” The Lutari glanced over his shoulder at his master enquiringly. “There was a strong wind last night. The kitchen window is broken. Organise to have it repaired, will you? And do tread carefully in there. I cut my toe something nasty earlier.”

     “Of course, sir.”

     ***

     His housekeeper’s wayward brother was lingering absently on Harker’s mind as he headed into town a short while later. He knew Aren wasn’t particularly fond of his brother, but Harker also knew that family loyalty often ran deeper than quarrels.

     The Lutari had been right about the weather that day – it was ridiculously cold.

     Harker was dressed comfortably in his heavy coat, thick gloves, and his favourite top hat. He had wrapped a soft woollen scarf around his neck and nestled his pointed chin into it – yet the frigid air still bit at him as he walked.

     He had taken a coach into town – not particularly fancying slipping over on the icy cobblestone road – and it was outside the Neovian Printing Press that the driver had dropped him off at, as requested.

     Despite the usual gossip column rubbish that all newspapers seemed obliged to print, the Neovian Times was a fairly reputable paper, with local interests and generally reliable sources.

     Far more reputable and reliable than Henry, at the least.

     Harker pulled open the door and stepped inside the building.

     There was a large fireplace burning merrily in the corner (somewhat perilous in a newspaper shop, in Harker’s opinion) and the air was warm and smelt of ink and coffee.

     “Mister Harker! A very good morning to you, sir.” The Elephante sitting behind the reception desk cast a guilty glance at the messy stack of papers littering the floor at the doorway beneath the Krawk’s feet. “I – ah – didn’t know you had an appointment here today. Do you – do you have an appointment here today? Oh my goodness sir, if I’ve forgotten to write it down I’ll be so embarrassed. Let me just check my –”

     Harker held up a gloved hand and stopped the stressed flow.

     “There was no appointment. You’ve forgotten nothing – well, nothing relating to myself, in any case. I was merely passing through town and wondered if I might have a quick word with Jane. Is she in?”

     “I – well – yes, she is. She has several meetings this morning though.” The Elephante chewed on her bottom lip anxiously. “I could try and squeeze you in. She’d probably fire me if she knew I’d turned you away. She’s been champing at the bit to hear from you. We’re a bit short-staffed today, and the Editor hates her meetings being rescheduled at the last minute, but I know she’d kick herself – and probably me, too – if she missed you today. Oh, what a pickle.”

     Harker gave her a patient smile – one of his best. She smiled nervously back before remembering herself with a start, and hastily bent down to scoop up the stray papers at his feet before hurrying into the back of the office towards a closed door that bespoke a small bronze plague reading “Editor”, bypassing several empty work stations on the way.

     Short staffed, indeed. It appeared to Harker that the entire rest of the newspaper team hadn’t bothered to turn up for work that day.

     Perhaps it was the cold.

     ***

     The Editor of the Neovian Times – one Missus Jane Clementine – had insisted on taking Harker out to lunch.

     He had politely declined, stating that he only desired a quick word, and an entire lunch would be unnecessary and would keep him in town much longer than he’d prefer – considering it was only ten o’clock in the morning.

     She had conceded to forgo the lunch, but maintained that he ought to accompany her for morning tea, at the very least. She’d buy him a coffee, she said. And a muffin.

     Harker realised it was probably going to be less taxing on him to simply agree to the morning tea if he wanted his quick word with her, rather than continue to try and minimise their socialising.

     They sat at a small booth inside the Crumpetmonger’s bakery, ordered coffee (Harker ordered a peppermint tea on account of being fairly well-caffeinated already) and a small basket of miniature muffins sat on the table between them.

     “Mister Harker, I am just delighted to see you. The last piece you sent in to us you had your servant drop into the office! You’re a rare creature to spot around town, these days.”

     “Housekeeper,” Harker correctly, eying off a small orange muffin. “I suppose that’s one of the benefits of working from home. I can remain in the comfort of my own lounge chair.”

     “Work! Bah!” The Eyrie gave an amused snort. “You don’t need to work. You’re the richest man in Neovia. We at the Times consider it our lucky year if you send us something to print.”

     “It’s true I don’t write as much these days.” The Krawk agreed, taking a tentative sip of his steaming tea. It tingled on his tongue.

     “Are you working on anything at the moment? Another short story – or a series, perhaps?” Jane Clementine tried – and promptly failed – not to look too eager.

     “Off and on,” Harker said, not untruthfully. He was working on something. It just wasn’t anything that he would ever want published in any newspaper.

     And certainly not in one that Henry would read.

     “But that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about.” Harker wasn’t really a fan of small talk just for the sake of it. He was already growing bored of their conversation. “I heard news from a friend that a rare book – thought lost many generations ago – has recently been sighted in Neovia. I assume it’s for sale, unearthed from some collector’s attic or something. Have there been any advertisements placed in the Times? Or anything in the gossip column? It’s a book I’d like for my collection,” he added, as Jane’s face brightened.

     “Oh, yes! We had someone in the office very early this morning. Very early. In fact – we hadn’t even opened for the day yet. I had only just arrived and they were waiting out the front, clutching a bag so tightly you’d think they had all the Neopoints in the world in there.”

     “They had the book?”

     “I assume so. He wouldn’t actually show it to me. I told him I couldn’t print anything so vague as “a priceless book”, and he’d be better off taking it to the Trading Post or Auction House. He left shortly after that, and I never even saw the book. He was being very secretive. Ordinarily, that would tingle my investigative journalistic senses, but there was something quite off about him. I doubt he even had a book in that bag of his.”

     Oh, he had one, alright.

     The cold rage was beginning to simmer inside Harker’s stomach once more. He forced himself to smile at Jane Clementine.

     “What was his name?”

     “He didn’t say, actually. And I’ve never seen him around before. But I’ll tell you who I did think he was at first – your housekeeper, that Lutari. They were practically identical. He could have been his twin brother or something.”

     To be continued…

 
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