“There is a bomb in our kitchen!”
A frightened voice yanked me out of my thoughts. I lifted my eyes from the screen, where a long-awaited email in response to my Freedom of Information request was staring into my face, and saw Katie, our local news reporter, standing in front of my desk. Her perfect chestnut curls were now in dissarray, which made her wide brown eyes look even bigger that usual. She was clutching her tiny “Merry Christmas, sweetie” coffee mug in her hands, a present from a loving grandmother overseas which I secretly envied, and looked like she was about to start crying.
“What are you talking about?” My brain was desperately trying to put the disparate pieces of reality together. The endless stream of numbers from the Excel sheets I received were still floating in front of my eyes as my detective mind was working through the information, hoping (no, demanding) that there be a single sign of financial misconduct, which my whole story was currently built upon. An unwritten story, which I have been working on for several months now, was my ambitious shot at proving to the world that The Skeeter was not just another gossip outlet, surviving on the cat video clicks and dating advice, but a serious member of the Fourth Estate league bringing the corrupt power of this world to justice.
My wishful thinking put aside, though, we were still a local news and gossip paper, who people barely knew about, let alone planted bombs in our offices.
“There, in the kitchen,” repeated Katie. “The box. Eric found it about half hour ago and no one knows where it came from and - ”
“OK, show me the box,” I interrupted her before she would break down.
She led me to the kitchen where the rest of the team were gathered around the coffee table. Right in the middle of it, as if intentionally left there on display, stood a tiny red box. Eric and Reeta, our science and technology reporters, were circling around the table with some mysterious device which looked like an improvised metal detector.
“Everybody keep quiet!” demanded Reeta as Katie and myself walked in. I shut my mouth, keeping to myself the thousand questions running though my head while Katie sneaked behind my back and turned off the radio. The silence, that fell upon the room as the cheerful stream of Christmas songs was interrupted, was almost soothing. I always found Christmas playlists somewhat eerie and Mr Sandman did nothing to lift our spirits in the face of the mysterious red box.
“Aha!” The device in Reeta’s hand gave out a halfhearted beep and Eric triumphantly looked around the room. “It works!” He lifted his hand to Reeta for a hi-five but she returned him a freezing glance.
“So there is metal inside,” he hurriedly explained to the rest of us as if we were a group of kindergardeners on a tour to the science museum. “Which means that the device works,” he carefully glanced over his shoulder at Reeta, “which obviously is no reason for celebration since this means that we are most likely dealing with a bomb. A miniature explosion device, quite elegant if you ask me,” he threw another cautious glance at his geeky partner. “But nonetheless extremely likely to be dangerous and we therefore recommend an immediate evacuation of the building. And call the police, of course.” He exhaled in relief as Reeta gave him an almost undetectable but approving nod.
“What makes you think it’s a bomb?” I blurted out the question which was bothering me since the moment I walked in.
“Ehm, well,” he fixed the frame of his signature “I am a tech reporter” glasses on his nose. “Of course, we don’t know for sure if it’s a bomb but according to the witnesses,” he pointed at Reeta and the others, “the box simply appeared in our kitchen between the hours of 8 and 9am, when most of our staff were not yet in, indicating that whoever brought it did not want to be discovered. Plus there is no address on the box and our detector indicates the presence of solid metal parts inside it so - ”
“So maybe it’s a gun?” My lame attempt at a joke fell flat, as no one in the room smiled and Katie slowly lifted the coffee mug with shaky hands, trying to cover her face and hide the tears.
“Sorry,” I said. “We should probably call the police.”
“I did already,” said the familiar strict voice behind us. Our Editor-in-Chief, Sybil, stood in the doorway, her eyes glued to the red box on the table. We stared at her in relief, like a bunch of kids caught in the middle of a tsunami.
“I would like everyone to clear the room, please. I’ll take it from here.” For the first time since I’ve known Sybil, her mature and wise face looked genuinely frightened.
“Do you really think that it’s a bomb?” I asked quietly as I passed her on my way out. “No,” she said firmly. “But I think I know what it is.”
“Do you believe in aliens, Anita?” Eric stuck his head out of the office and was viewing Katie and myself with an excited spark in his eyes. We were making our way back to our desks, as Sybil texted everyone that there was no bomb and it was safe to return. She did not provide an explanation to the contents of the red box and I was careful not to bring the matter up again in front of Katie, who was still recovering from our morning adventure.
While the police were searching through our offices, I took Katie to our favourite coffee shop, where an extra large portion of cinnamon latte and a dose of Christmas songs seemed to finally bring her back to life. In the meantime, the rest of the team have been busy making up their theories.
“Aliens like the Martians or the Jupiteerians?” Katie promptly asked Eric.
“Aliens like the yet undiscovered life form, which has finally made contact with the human race in times of utmost need,” proudly declared Eric. He opened the door wider, inviting us both to come in and we followed him into the office. The space was tiny, cluttered with pieces of half assembled scientific objects, and the white board on the wall was covered with formulas in indiscernible handwriting, which the rest of us believed was a secret code that Reeta and him used to communicate.
“Take a seat,” he offered to us, pointing at the dangerous looking chairs that he recently assembled from the office renovation leftovers.
“Don’t,” said Reeta gloomily, not taking her eyes of the computer screen. “You have heard it all before.” She was obviously still embarrassed that she let herself be dragged into Eric’s bomb theory and was now covering it up with irritated looks in his direction.
“Not this one, I bet you don’t,” this time Eric refused to let himself be swayed by Reeta’s disapproval. Katie took a seat on one of the risky chairs while I remained standing, looking for a reason to excuse myself and return to my desk to go through the Excel files one more time. The future of my career and, as far as I liked to think of it, the future of The Skeeter itself depended on the success of this story. If I could only find a single out of place transaction, which remotely indicated tax meddling, then the three months of my hard work and Sybil’s faith invested in my story were not in vain.
“What was the most remarkable event of the past year?” Eric peered at Katie and myself through the thick frame of his glasses. Standing next to the white board with a marker in his hand, he reminded me of my science teacher in the middle school.
“The Buckingham Palace robbery,” I offered. With over a hundred pieces stolen from the best guarded place in London overnight, this was by far the most unforgettable event of the year if not the whole decade.
“The fourth season of Money Heist on Netflix,” Katie was clearly more into the fictional robberies than the real ones. “And the Buckingham Palace robbery,” she added guiltily, glancing at me. “Oh and the Australian wildfires.”
“Wildfires, good,” Eric was pacing up and down in front of the white board. “What else?”
“Corona virus, obviously,” muttered Reeta from behind her screen. “That was by far the best time of my life as I did not have to spend my days listening to your wild theories.”
“The recent epidemic, thank you Reeta!” Eric’s eyes gleamed with excitement. “The biggest and the most unusual epidemic in the modern history, the vaccine against which we still failed to develop. And it is exactly the vaccine, or rather the perfectly suitable RNA sequence which will form the essence of the cure, that lies inside the red box. What made our friends from outer space choose our humble newspaper as the messenger of hope is still unclear, but I am sure we will find the explanation in their letter.”
“Didn’t you say there was metal in the box?” I asked, feeling somewhat confused.
“Metal, of course, there was metal in the box,” nodded Eric. “A progressive alien civilization would never harm their environment by sending a paper letter across space. Moreover, paper is not stable enough to withstand the harsh conditions of interstellar travel. So whatever it is they send us must be some sort of flash drive or a small electronic device that can hopefully be read by a human computer. Voila, my friends!” He looked triumphantly around the room. “We are about to be the first news outlet in human history to convey the message from the aliens.”
“Brilliant, Eric,” Reeta’s voice still dripped with sarcasm, although the ever good-natured attitude of her friend seemed to soften her. “You want to know what I think?”
“Of course we do,” Eric jumped on the opportunity to make amends with his partner in crime.
“I think this was a stupid joke from someone who I hope is about to receive a warning letter and a fine from the police.”
“I hope so, too,” sighed Katie. “Although the alien theory is really cool,” she quickly added noticing the disappointment on Eric’s face.
“Fine, I know that my theory is wild,” he agreed. “But whoever it was, my bet is that Sybil knows him. Did you notice the look on her face when she saw the box?”
“Of course we did,” said Marco from our design department, making his way into the tiny sci-tech office past the scattered artifacts. He handed me a cup of freshly made black coffee. “Decaf,” he winked. The good old Marco, dutifully taking care of my caffeine intake.
A thought occurred to me but I quickly dismissed it as wild. Sybil knew that I was working day and night on my story and if she had received anything, a tiny piece of information that could help me, she would have told me straight away. I quickly checked my phone by there was no sign of messages from Sybil. I re-read the email I received this morning.
“Dear Anita,” it read, “please find attached the documents that you requested. We sincerely hope that we could assist you in your research and look forward to reading your story. All the very best, Gregor Simpson.” The story that is never going to be written, I thought. The account balances that I received were clean and as far as I could see contained no clues or obvious gaps that could suggest illegal activities.
What was I thinking, an unknown journalist of an unknown newspaper, did I hope to miraculously dig up what the heavyweight outlets in the country could not? This was a well protected government agency after all, who survived a major PR scandal five years ago, when an anonymous whistleblower published a bunch of their transaction documents on WikiLeaks. They had long covered up their tracks and I was probably looking for proof that wasn’t even there. I imagined Gregor Simpson rubbing his hands in satisfaction at the other end.
“We all love your alien theory, Eric,” reassured him our dating columnist Lee who couldn’t fit into the tiny overcrowded office and was now observing our gathering from the outside, leaning on the door frame. “But unfortunately for you, we have already figured it out.”
“Pray tell,” Reeta swung away from her computer. “No wait, let me guess. The solution to the mystery is of course love and the red box contains a surprise present for Sybil from her secret admirer.”
“Your sarcasm never fails you,” winced Lee. “But yes, in a nutshell, love is obviously at the root of all our deeds.”
“Sybil is getting married,” announced Marco. “And the red box contains an engagement ring.”
“That is the wildest theory you guys ever came up with,” Reeta looked over our gathering in bewilderment. “Does anybody seriously believe in this?”
“Sybil does have a boyfriend,” pondered Katie. “And sending her a ring for Christmas in a box without a name, that’s kind of romantic.”
Sybil’s boyfriend was a marine biologist who currently sailed through the Atlantic Ocean miles away from London and I as far as I knew, that relationship was “Complicated” according to Sybil’s Facebook status for months.
“The last time I checked social media, their relationship was officially ‘complicated’,” said Reeta, reading my thoughts.
“Exactly. That’s what makes the gesture so romantic.” Lee was not going to give up on her theory that easily.
“Moreover, Sybil has already changed her Facebook status since the box arrived,” added Marco.
“What does it say?”
“There is no status there anymore,” said Lee. “Which is to be expected since she is probably still ‘thinking about it’. But she’s already cleared off her desk so my guess is that she might even be retiring.”
“Yep. And you know what that means?” Marco poked me with the elbow.
“No idea,” I said, still digesting the information.
“That means that you are getting a promotion! Anita Hartmann, The Skeeter’s young and brilliant Editor-in-Chief. How is your story getting along, by the way?”
“It isn’t getting anywhere,” I sighed, dismissing the tempting thought of the promotion. “I have just spent three months of my life on chasing a ghost. Even if Sybil were retiring to join her boyfriend on an ocean boat, I doubt she’d entrust our paper to someone who can’t tell a difference between a real lead and an imaginary story.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure.” Sybil’s silent appearance at the office doorstep interrupted our fantasy. “Anita, can I see you in my office?”
I stepped out of Sybil’s office, clutching the red box in my hand. The words of my career-long mentor were still ringing in my ears.
“You know me well, Anita,” she told me as I took a seat. “And you know very well that I refuse to be intimidated.”
Her signature chaotic writing desk was now cleared and in the middle of it was standing the mysterious red box. The Christmas tree was blinking in the corner and despite the early December darkness, it was the only light that illuminated the place.
“In all the years I’ve known you, you were the only one who I could entrust with a story like this one. You are a brilliant writer and a talented investigator, and I am sorry if I disappointed you. The future of The Skeeter is in your hands now.” She handed me over the red box as she finished her long tale. I sat there staring at it and could not find the words to respond.
Somewhere on the tiny flash drive inside the box were the missing account documents, a non-disclosure agreement signed by the agency’s former PR manager and our current Editor-in-Chief, Sybil Wayne, alongside an investment transaction that Sybil’s new enterprise aptly named “The Skeeter” received in return for her silence. Our little honest and hardworking enterprise, built on the dirty money. Could The Skeeter possibly survive such publicity earthquake?
I needed to go home and think about it, I told her. She nodded in understanding.
The clock outside Sybil’s office was showing 6pm and most of the team have already left or were on their way out. I glanced over the room, imagining what it would look like tomorrow if I decided to finally publish my story. The smug face of Gregor Simpson crept into my mind. “Checkmate,” said the imaginary face and I felt sick to the stomach.
“I didn’t know you had a secret admirer,” the sound of Lee’s voice brought me back to reality. She settled herself comfortably in my chair and was sharing a glass of wine with Marco and Katie. Everyone’s eyes were fixed on the tiny red box in my hand. The radio was on and the three of them were humming along to Last Christmas.
“Neither did I,” I managed a weak smile. My head was throbbing with dull pain and I desperately wished that the red box were not real. All I wanted right now was to pour myself a glass of Chardonnay and sing along to the silly Christmas jingles with my favourite trio.
“Who is he?” casually inquired Marco. Was that a hint of jealousy in his voice?
“It’s a secret admirer, silly,” said Lee, noticing my hesitation. “That’s the whole point. Although I still expect to hear the whole story at the Christmas party tomorrow.”
“You will,” I promised, avoiding to look at Marco.
Tomorrow at the Christmas party I will reveal what was inside the red box. I just needed to decide what we all wanted to be in it.