Professor Henry Martin was found dead in the middle of campus two days ago, and the entire student body hadn't stopped gossiping about it ever since. Normally this wouldn't cause so much commotion. While someone dying inside Xeistoria University is considered a rare event, it's not unusual enough to send this many people into frantic speculation. This is an eight hundred year old institution, after all. An accidental death or two every other decade is to be expected. Heck, in a particularly bloody century, forty random deaths wouldn't be out of place. Unfortunate and/or tragic? Yes. Mind blowing enough for everyone and their mother to develop an opinion? Doubtful.
Though slightly more intriguing, the fact that he was murdered isn't what made the students so curious either. He was a rather controversial figure among those in the engineering department; infamous enough for his name to be recognizable all over the school. A man as misogynistic and opinionated as Professor Martin didn't have many friends, only a small posse of bootlickers that he handpicked from his classes. The lowest pass/fail ratio in the department belonged to him. People estimated that he was responsible for at least thirty percent of all engineering dropouts. If anyone was getting murdered in Xeistoria University, it would have to be him. He was just that hated.
Still, faculty and students alike were completely perplexed with this death. Not because of its rarity or because it was a murder, but because of the seemingly impossible state in which his corpse was found. Pale, soggy, bloated, and secreting a frothy liquid out of his mouth, right in front of the student center on a Monday morning. A drowning victim, with no body of water nearby for at least two miles. It was ridiculous, it was unexplainable, and it was the perfect subject for a Xeistoria University Post article. At least, that's what Elizabeth thought as she waited outside her editor's office door.
Sitting on a plushy chair with wooden armrests, she bit her thumb's nail while staring at the floor. The faint murmurs of distant conversations and the clacking of busy keyboards were the only sounds present in the newsroom, but they didn't really register for her. It was a wide room, with a series of cheap desks lined up. Other writers were hunched over in groups, giggling every few minutes with one another. Elizabeth gazed at them with the corner of her eye. They had all been working in the paper for a few semesters together, so they knew each other pretty well. Elizabeth, on the other hand, had only started in the beginning of this semester, three months back. If she wanted to, Elizabeth could go and chat with her fellow student journalists until her editor's current appointment ended. It would be good for her to socialize, even if it's just a little. They did look like nice people. Elizabeth sighed and shook her head. She didn't feel like it at the moment. She was too tired from working on her article all night. Too busy thinking about her pitch to the editor-in-chief.
She had already sent him a first draft early in the morning, so he must have read it by now. Even if it needed a little polishing, she was sure it would get her the front page story she coveted so much. It was that damn good. All she needed to do was not mess up her pitch. Easier said than done, considering her previous attempts, but she had an inkling the editor wouldn't be so harsh on her this time. He always knew a good story when he saw it, and Elizabeth felt very strongly about the quality of this piece. Even if he denied publishing it at first, he could be swayed to do otherwise. A good argument was something he respected. He even encouraged people to fight for their stories!
The door next to her slammed open with a loud bang, causing Elizabeth to jolt upwards. A young man with somewhat spiky, messy brown hair then stepped out of the office and shouted:
"Oh yeah?! Well go to hell, you fucking asshole! We don't need this treatment! Me and my brother will do just fine on our own!"
"Ha!" replied a voice inside the office. "Good luck with that, you freak! If you're not homeless by the end of the semester, lemme know so I can give you a pat on the back!"
The young man's black hoodie fluttered when he turned around, walking through the rows of desks with a clenched fist. All the reporters in the room widened their eyes in surprise, but shrugged and carried on their business once he left. Elizabeth furrowed her brow with worry. Frank would not be in a good mood after that.
"Maybe I should wait a few minutes before meeting with him" thought Elizabeth. "He'll calm down if I just leave him alone for a while."
After a few seconds in silence, Frank shouted:
"I know you're out there, Elizabeth. Are you gonna keep me waiting or what?"
Elizabeth breathed deeply. "Y-yeah, sorry, I was just reading an e-mail."
"Well get in here! I don't have all day."
Elizabeth brushed back her blonde hair and stood up, edging around the door frame with a sheepish look on her face. Behind a disorganized desk full of loose papers, notepads and pens, sat Frank Greenfield, editor-in-chief of The Xeistoria University Post. His reading glasses reflected the light in the room brightly, obscuring his piercing gaze momentarily. This was the man Elizabeth both admired and feared. With a perpetual scowl and a strict personality, he was responsible for ushering in a new era of journalism to this newspaper. It was basically defunct a few years ago. Before he took over, readership was at an all time low, both online and in-print, and funding was about to get pulled by the student council.
Despite this, he managed to turn an irrelevant university newspaper into a regional juggernaut in the span of a year. Students and businessmen alike, even people outside Xeistoria City, subscribed to the paper now. And it was all thanks to Frank. His high standards for journalistic integrity, his hatred for low-effort content, and, most important of all, the sheer value he placed on discovering the truth are what allowed him to get as far as he had. Quite frankly, there wasn't anyone more qualified than him to critique Elizabeth's work.
Closing the door behind her and sitting on one of the two empty chairs, Elizabeth pointed back with her thumb and said:
"So… what was up with that?"
"Just some punk that wanted to advertise his business on the paper." Frank scoffed. "Paranormal investigations. Could you believe the nerve of that guy? Trying to promote his scam on The Post? He even gave me a sob story about him and his brother being broke!"
"I see." Elizabeth chuckled softly. "I'm guessing you called him out, then?"
"Of course I did! The minute I said he's a con-artist, he blew up on me." Frank shook his head sideways. "Whatever. I don't want to give much thought to that prick." He rested his hands on his desk. "On to your article. You know the drill, I've already read it, so," he gestured at her, "convince me."
Elizabeth nodded. "Professor Martin's death is the hottest topic of discussion in, not only the university, but the entire city. Even after our initial report on it, people are crazy for information on the case. They want more, and I can give it to them. Out of all the rumors and gossip, I haven't seen anyone discuss the angle I presented in the article. It's a new take on the case; a fresh look at the murder. Since it could contribute something meaningful to the discussion, its perfect for the current environment..." She hesitated for a moment. "…and for a spot on the front page?"
Frank remained silent for a few seconds. All Elizabeth could do now was avoid his eyes and twiddle her fingers. He then sighed and said:
"The article is great. It's very well written, structured perfectly, and it stimulates the reader's mind. Your word choice was brilliant. Not a single one was out place. Honestly, your prose is the best in this newspaper. Simply beautiful." Elizabeth felt a smile crawl on her face, until Frank continued speaking. "But I can't publish this opinion piece."
Elizabeth widened her eyes and said:
"What? Why? You just said it's great!"
"I know what I said. Look, it's not that it's a bad theory. The problem I have with it is that it's just speculation. It doesn't answer anything. Yes, I hadn't thought before about the way you presented it. It actually makes a lot of sense that it was done to send a message. If you drown someone and drag their corpse out into a public area, it's very likely that it's to communicate something." Frank leaned forward and interlocked his fingers. "But it doesn't prove that it was a social justice thing. Just because he was famous for hating women, doesn't mean this was done by a feminist with an agenda. The minute Tiffany Ethyris catches wind of it I'll have the entire student council on my ass. There's no evidence for it! Even if it's completely reasonable, you could still be wrong, and they're gonna grill me for it."
Elizabeth's shoulders tensed up. "B-but there's no other explanation! It makes much more sense than every other rumor around! Considering how many there are, that should say something about its likelihood to be correct."
Frank massaged his temples. "Let me ask you something. When you were thinking about this case and all the different possibilities surrounding it, did you ever go out of your way to prove yourself wrong?"
"I uhh… No. Of course not. Why would I want to be wrong?"
"I figured as much." Frank sighed. "Listen, you have talent. You're still wet behind the ears, but you'll eventually be a great journalist. I know you're hungry for that spot on the front page. You're working hard for it, and if you wait just a little bit, you'll get there soon enough." He leaned back. "Unfortunately, you're not interested in finding the truth here. You just want to be recognized, to appeal to the readers and make a name for yourself. I was the same way back when I started; I get it. But you need to change this if you want to improve."
"What?! Of course I care about the truth!" Elizabeth narrowed her eyes and squirmed in her seat. "It's the whole reason I want to be a journalist! What makes you think I don't care about it?!"
"The fact that you can't imagine a scenario where you're wrong." Frank raised his voice into a loud, stern tone. "The fact that you haven't poked holes into your own theory! If you really wanted the truth, you'd be trying to find everything wrong with your argument. You're more interested in proving you're right than in uncovering the truth!"
"B-but… But people will read it! If you liked it, why do you think people won't enjoy it?!"
"It's not that people won't enjoy it! But if I wanted to entertain, I'd be working on movies, not on a goddamned newspaper! When I took over, I made a promise to our readership with every single article I published. Not verbally, mind you, but through the tone of my my content. The reason I'm where I am now, is because I never broke it! Tell me, what are you promising with this article?"
"I… I don't know! The truth? Look Frank, I really look up to you, but don't you think you're being too esoteric here? I really doubt readers are thinking about things like implied promises when they read The Post. Plus, you've published tons of opinion pieces before!"
"Yes, after I proved that I could keep my promises. They might not be thinking about it actively, but I can assure you that readers can tell what you're promising at a subconscious level. It's what keeps them reading the next issue and what makes them anticipate whatever the author will publish next!" Frank lowered the intensity of his voice into an almost gentle tone. "This would be your first big article, okay? If you publish this, you're not only implying that you're certain about this theory, you're implying that you'll get to the bottom of everything and satisfy their hunger for closure. If the next thing you publish isn't about this, the few people who follow you will lose faith in your ability and write you off the next time they see your name. Unfortunately, most people just won't trust you enough because you haven't proven yourself yet. You'll shoot yourself in the foot before you even have a change."
"I can do it. I know I'm good enough! Please, just give me this chance and-"
"That's enough, okay? I'm not going to publish it; end of discussion." Frank raised his hand and gestured towards the door. "Now go. I have a lot of work to do for tomorrow's headline."
Elizabeth nodded in defeat and stood up, walking towards the door before Frank stopped her and said:
"Hey, wait! Could you do me a small favor?"
Elizabeth turned around. "Yeah, sure. What?"
"Could you grab that thing for me?" Frank pointed at a weird coin resting on top of the other chair. "That guy from before left it there. Probably forgot about it or something. Just throw it in the trash on your way out. This office is enough of a mess already."
Elizabeth went back and grabbed it, afterwards leaving the office in a hurry. Passing in front of the desks where her companions worked, she exited the newsroom with her eyes firmly on the floor. Once outside in the hallway, she approached a trash can and kicked it with all her strength, her eyes getting watery from frustration. This was supposed to be her first hit. She'd spent the last forty-eight hours working on that article. All that effort, all that thinking and isolation. It ended up being for nothing. Elizabeth's tears streamed down her cheeks, but she made an effort to keep her sniffing quiet. Why was she making such a big deal over this? It was just one article. Sure, she skipped a couple of classes to get it right, but it wasn't the end of the world.
Wiping her tears away and rubbing her face dry, Elizabeth took a deep breath. Thinking back on it, Frank was right in assuming what he said. She didn't really challenge her own point of view. She just wanted to be praised for being the one person who got it right. Anger then flared through her body, like a fire in her stomach that climbed up to her throat. She had been an idiot. She fooled herself into thinking she was after the truth, when really, she didn't even bother looking for it. Not only that, but declaring this murder the work of a crazed feminist only guaranteed the article wouldn't be published. The student council president was known for her passionate views on social justice and political correctness. Considering how much she and Frank clashed, the editor-in-chief was totally justified in worrying about President Ethyris.
Maybe Frank would publish her article if she actually worked on finding the truth about it, for real this time. If she didn't focus on getting that front page headline and tried to investigate every possibility, he might reconsider her piece. It was obvious she needed to prove herself now, to both the readers and Frank. She wouldn't put it past him this being a test of some sort. He was known to challenge his reporters to get the best story out of them. He probably wanted Elizabeth to keep working on it. To see if she could put her money where her mouth was. Elizabeth nodded to herself and straightened her posture. She wasn't going to give up on this story; she knew it had the potential to be incredible. It would be hard work, but no one ever said success came easy.
Elizabeth clenched the weird coin and tried to drop it in the trash can, but her hand wouldn't release it. Her arm then got numb until she retracted her hand back towards her body. Elizabeth furrowed her brow and looked at the coin. Its center was a wooden full moon, probably ebony judging from its color, and it was surrounded by seven metallic stars. The whole thing was about half the size of her palm. Big, but not gigantic. Even though the stars were jagged, its edges weren't sharp. Pointy enough to jab, but not enough to pierce skin. She shrugged and extended her arm to throw away again, when a strange, tingling sensation took over her body. It was like an invisible snake that wrapped around her arm and slithered through her body until penetrating her chest.
A sudden drowsiness flooded her mind, just as she felt a foreign chill. Her pupils then dilated, her limbs got numb, and she forgot what she was about to do. Elizabeth then squinted her eyelids, inspecting the coin again. This belonged to that paranormal investigator. It was his possession, and throwing it away wasn't right. She needed to return it as soon as possible