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"Miss Watson, either you are going to be famous or you are about to die."
I blinked at the secretary of the chief editor of the Tea Party News.
"I didn't mean you were literary going to die, just your career," she amended in a perky morning person voice.
She was wrong though. My career as a journalist was my life. I didn't care for an elaboration on how my career, and thus my life, would end so I interrupted her mercilessly. "Miss Higgins, what are you talking about?"
"Oh, you know." She leaned forward as she said this in a stage whisper. She was old enough to be my mother and dressed as if she was the same age as me, namely eighteen, which didn't help to improve her credibility.
"No, I don't," I deadpanned.
"Of course, you know what I'm talking about." She winked at me conspiratorially.
"No, I honestly don't."
To my surprise Miss Higgins started to laugh. "You are such a good actress, Anne. I told Theodore you were perfect for the job."
I sighed. "Look, I really have no idea…"
My doomed objection was interrupted as the door next to Miss Higgins's desk was opened by our boss who strolled in.
"Anne, how good to see you. I've been dying to tell you some news. We are after all working for a newspaper." He laughed at his joke, while I smiled uncertainly back at him.
"So, you really don't know?" Miss Higgins looked at me in shock, before her expression changed back to the one of a meddlesome conspirator. "Soon you will know."
"Thank you, Miss Higgins." I said with a tight smile, before I followed my boss into his office.
He beckoned me to take a seat across from him, as I waited patiently for the big solution of this morning's mystery.
Today had started out normally enough. I got up, had breakfast and left for work.
But once I entered the editorial department of the Tea Party News, I knew something was up.
People were giving me strange glances; people, to whom I usually was invisible, started noticing me.
As if this weren't enough of a shock, after I had turned on my computer I realised I had received a mail from Miss Higgins informing me about my boss wanting to see me. It was the last proof I needed to know something was afoot.
I looked expectantly across the desk at my boss, a rather chubby and balding but caring, man who looked around fifty but was probably younger.
"Anne, the decision you make today will decide whether you are going to be one of the big, famous ones and will be admitted into the Olympus of journalists or," I wanted to roll my eyes, as he made a dramatic pause, "whether you are not meant to be a journalist."
I wanted to groan. Why was everyone making such a big deal about this…this…well, whatever it is this mystery thing was?
But since my boss was the one to sign my paychecks, I kept a big, fat and friendly smile pasted on my face.
"Today, Anne, I'm going to offer you a job of life-changing potential."
Hold on, was I going to be promoted and get a raise?
With much more enthusiasm I started to fire questions in true reporter fashion at him. "Are you serious? What kind of job? Will me being still on probation be a problem? When can I start? W-"
My boss chuckled. "Give me a second to answer, will you?"
I smiled sheepishly at him and kept my mouth shut firmly, waiting for him to explain.
"I have an amazing and yet risky job offer for you." I could see he was working himself up into another dramatic tirade. In an attempt to avoid being subjected to such a fate, I interjected with a polite smile. "Why don't you tell me what this job offer is about, sir?"
"Of course." His good mood seemed to falter for a moment before it changed back to excitement. "I need a kind of foreign correspondent." When my boss noticed I was about to interrupt him again, he forgot about his need for dramatic pauses and quickly continued. "I need someone to report from a boarding school in Ireland."
"Where's the catch?" I asked suspiciously, remembering the weird looks I had been getting all day.
"The whole reporting thing has to happen undercover. Nobody can know about you being a journalist, if you accept the job which I am sure you will."
"But how do you expect me to investigate then?" This morning was so confusing, and I hadn't even had my daily dose of coffee yet.
"It's very simple. You will go there as a student, a senior to be exact." My boss's glinted mischievously.
"You want me to go back to school?" Now, I was truly horrified.
"Yeah, is there something wrong with it?" It seemed ironic, since it was his time to be confused now. "You graduated at the top of your class. If you were valedictorian, why wouldn't you want to go back to school?"
Why? Did he just ask why I did not want to go back to a place, which was to me nothing more than a disguise for hell?
"I thought I was finally out of school." I answered diplomatically. It wasn't a lie. My last day of school was the happiest one in my entire high school career.
I didn't like school per se. I enjoyed the learning part enough. Actually, I loved it. The problem, however, were my fellow students. Being ignored and bullied were the main reasons why I loathed my high school time. Although there were also other things I loathed, like not being taken seriously because I was still a student.
All in all, I was glad it was over.
So the thought of graduating again, after I had barely survived the first time, made me want to throw up.
Nevertheless I didn't say no just yet. "How long would this take? You know I was planning on going part-time to college this fall?"
My boss shuffled through his papers, deliberately not meeting my eyes. "Well, I don't know how many days exactly…"
"An entire academic year." He looked up from his files, looking guilty. "Look, it's one of the hardest assignments I have ever given out. You will have to leave everything behind you for a whole school year. But if you make it, this could be your breakthrough."
"Why did you choose me for this job?"
"You see, since such young journalists like you don't really make much money, we can spare you for a year." He said nonchalantly before he started grinning. "I am kidding. I chose you because I have faith in you. You are the perfect journalist for this job."
"You think?" I queried unconvinced.
"I know." He beamed at me. "Listen, I am going to finance you for a year in one of Ireland's finest boarding schools. This is an opportunity some people would kill for."
But I wasn't some people. I was me.
Okay, maybe at some point when I still had been in the hellhole called high school, I would have jumped at the opportunity and would have packed my suitcases without any questions asked. But now I had finally survived high school and was reluctant to go back.
"All right, let's go so far as to say I would accept this job offer. What would I be writing about?"
My boss looked happy, as if I had already accepted his offer for real. "This private boarding school I am talking about is called Panthera Academy. I have received hints from anonymous sources something big is going on there."
Oh, no. He had gone back to being mysterious and beating around the bush. "And what is this big thing?"
"It is exactly what I want you to find out." He winked at me cheerily.
"But… how am I supposed to know what I am looking for?"
He shrugged. "This is all I know. There is a secret society in the school which is sponsored by the alumni."
I frowned. "A school club which is financed by alumni doesn't sound suspicious to me."
"It is not an ordinary school club; it is a secret society." My boss's voice dropped to a stage whisper. "And the really important thing is what this secret society is doing."
"What is it this secret society is doing then?" It was unfathomable to me why I automatically lowered my voice as well.
My boss suddenly smirked as he leaned back in his chair. "My point exactly, I want you to find out the answer to this question."
This still sounded all rather mysterious so I tried gathering information from another angle. "What has a boarding school in Ireland to do with our newspaper here in Boston?"
"It is a great chance for our Tea Party News to improve our reputation and sell more issues. I am certainly the only one with this information thus making us the only newspaper, which will be able to publish anything about it. Uncovering scandals always brings in a lot of money. We will even be able to sell copies in Ireland."
If you asked me, we had reached the point where my boss had finally lost his mind. The newspaper was doing fine, although I didn't trust him to always make the best business decisions for the paper.
So, I asked. "Are you sure about this?"
"I am sure about this." He nodded encouragingly. "This is going to be your breakthrough, trust me."
I guessed he wouldn't give me any other details, no matter how long I continued asking. "Can I at least sleep on it?"
"Sure." He looked disappointed for a moment since I wasn't as happy to throw my life away for a year as he was. "But if you do not take the offer soon, I will have to give it to someone else. There is not much time until term starts."
"I understand." I agreed and stood up.
"Miss Higgins is going to give you information on the assignment." My boss rose and patted me on my shoulder. "I know you are going to make the right decision, Anne."
"Thank you, sir." I smiled at him.
When I opened the door, I almost ran into Miss Higgins, who had obviously been eavesdropping. She brushed back her long, blonde hair nervously, knowing I had caught her.
"Miss Higgins, can you give Anne the file on the top secret assignment? Thank you." And my boss had already closed the door behind him, leaving me alone with Miss Crazy Secretary.
"Certainly," she piped up. "Let's talk about it over a cup of coffee, okay?"
"Actually, if you would give me the file, it would be fine." I smiled at her uncertainly, scared she would attack any moment.
And attack she did. "Oh, nonsense. We are going to have so much fun together, looking at this file."
"But if it's secret, we can't talk about it, while we are out to get coffee and -" But all my protests were futile and doomed to fail. Once she started, there was nothing capable of stopping Miss Higgins, short of the news of her favourite movie star getting a divorce.
"Well, then we'll stay here and talk about it all alone in my office!" she announced good-naturedly, as she went off to get two cups of coffee.
I stayed right where I was, rooted to the spot, still in shock. This assignment better be good if I was going to spend an undefined amount of time with Miss Higgins in a confined room. Alone.
"I am back!" She announced cheerfully, as she shut the door to the office, cutting me off from my only means of escape apart from the window, which was out of the question, since we were on the third floor--I might have been desperate to get out of there, but not suicidal, before she set two cups of coffee on her desk and beckoned me to take a seat across from her.
"Miss Higgins, if I could just take a quick look, really only a peek, at those files, I-"
It was hopeless, a lost cause. So, I contented myself with drinking my cup of coffee, while I let her blabber.
"This is going to be so great. You can enjoy school without having to worry about your grades because you already have graduated." I almost felt guilty she was so happy for me. Keyword being almost. "Now, this private boarding school is called Panthera Academy--a great name for a school, if you ask me. A great name, for a place in general. Makes it sound so mysterious and romantic and -"
"What is it, dear? Oh, right, the school. So, it is located near Galway. It's supposed to be a really beautiful city. At least considering what I have heard. I have never been there, although I would love to go to Europe. Have you ever gone to Europe? I have--"
"Miss Higgins?" I interrupted her again. "I think your phone is ringing."
And I wasn't lying. Miss Higgins pulled out her cell phone, a rather new model, which was coloured neon pink, and blushed once she had looked at the caller ID.
"Um, I will be right back," she declared before she jumped up and vanished out the door.
The only thing I could hear was something along the lines of "Hello, Sweetkins. I missed you my Sugar Pie."
Ew… way too much information. But at least I was rid of her, and it sounded as if she was going to chat for a while with Sweetkins.
Without thinking about it for more than a second, I snatched the file from where she had left it and began leafing through it.
There were pictures of this Panthera Academy, and I had to admit it did look amazing. The school building was actually an old castle like Hogwarts in Harry Potter.
The campus of the school consisted not only of the castle and its respective gardens, but also of stables and a few hectares of forest where one could go riding.
Next there was a sheet with a short description of Panthera Academy. It looked as if it had been cut out of a brochure.
Panthera Academy--every student and parents` dream
Panthera Academy is a private boarding school near Galway. It has its origins in the beginning of the 17th century.
The 120 students are sorted into four houses (Vanora, Vala, Wren and Arwain), which are named after the two couples who founded Panthera Academy after their lengthy travel to Italy.
In their free time the students have the opportunity to enjoy the vast grounds surrounding the historic castle, which acts as school building and dorm for students and teachers.
The next section was obviously meant for the parents, since it was about the good reputation the school had and how much good manners mattered.
I skipped down the page. My eyes almost bugged out as I read how much a term would cost at this fancy school, let alone a whole year.
Oh boy, this story really had to be big if the newspaper was willing to spend so much money on a reporter who would spend their year doing no work except investigate this mysterious, secret society.
I leafed through the documents until I came across a list with subjects. Of course there were the normal ones like science and art. Having to relive trig class was only one reason speaking against going back to high school.
But there were also interesting subjects like Ancient History, Computer Design, Politics and Theatre Studies. What caught my eyes however, were the many languages being offered. I had always had a thing for literature and exotic cultures. The chance to learn Greek, German, Latin, French or Spanish was tempting.
On the next page there was a calendar of the school. The first day of school was on the third of September, not even a whole week away.
After a Christmas vacation, Easter holidays and a few other minor breaks, the academic year would end in June.
The rest of the file appeared uninteresting. I quickly sorted the documents and put them back into the folder, which I put onto the exact spot where I had found it. My secret manoeuvre was finished just in time. When Miss Higgins returned again, she put away her cell phone, before she took the file from her desk and opened it. "Where was I? Oh, right, the super-secret assignment. This is all so exciting, don't you think? I think so. Now, what have we got in this file? Ah, there it--"
"Miss Higgins, thank you for your time, but I think I have heard enough about it." She looked as if I had just kicked her puppy. "I need to think about this now. Alone."
She seemed disappointed but nodded and I left the office.
Back at my desk I decided to look up Panthera Academy on the Internet. But to my surprise I didn't find anything, no homepage or newspaper articles. Nothing. This only seemed to add to the mysterious reputation of this school.
The rest of the day I threw myself into my work. Only, when I was home, I started thinking about this extraordinary offer I had received.
Why in the world should I do this?
I didn't know anything about the school or this mysterious secret society and what it was about.
I couldn't just pack my things at a moment's notice and leave the country for a year.
This was madness, nothing but utter madness, even if the challenge and mystery were calling to me.
So, the next day I decided to phone my boss and refuse the job offer.
"Office of the chief editor of the Tea Party News, Miss Higgins speaking, how may I be of assistance on this exceptionally lovely day?"
"Hi, this is Anne Watson. Is the boss in?"
"Hello, Anne," she lilted. "Have you decided yet? If I were you, I would of course take this incredible chance at starting my career. This is all theoretically speaking of course. I am quite happy being a secretary, but if I--"
I took the first pause she made to breathe as an opportunity to interject. "I am kind of in a hurry."
"Oh, sure." Her disappointed voice almost made me allow her to continue her tirade, but I really was in a hurry. "I understand. I'll put you through."
"Yes?" a bored voice answered.
"This is Anne Watson, sir. I am calling about the assignment."
"Ah, Anne." His mood instantly improved. "I knew you would be brave enough to take this challenge."
"Well, actually--" Actually all I wanted to say was. I don't want the assignment, but he wouldn't let me.
"It is a hard assignment, but I know you are going to do a great job. This is going to be your breakthrough, trust me. Before you know it, you will be editor yourself."
"You are not going to regret this. Panthera Academy is a fine school. You will get to take courses you couldn't take before. You will be able to enjoy all the fun things about school without ever having to worry about your grades. It's every young person's dream. Heck, I would do this assignment myself if I was young enough."
"Sir?" I tried again.
"I am sorry, Anne, you wanted to tell me something?"
"Yeah, I did." I was about to open my mouth and tell him I didn't want to have anything to do with Panthera Academy when all of a sudden my mind shut itself off. Was it really so bad not to at least give it a try?
Sure, I had hated high school, but wasn't this the perfect possibility to have a wonderful high school experience for a change?
I was young. What was there to lose? I could always give up and start college next semester if Panthera Academy turned out to be as bad as my old high school.
"Anne?" My boss asked. "What did you mean to tell me?"
"I…" I took a deep breath and decided to go for my spur of the moment decision. "I wanted to tell you I am going to take the assignment."
"Of course you are!" My boss chuckled. "You would have to be stupid not to."
I had been about to be so stupid. Whether my current decision was the smart one, I would only know if I went through with it.
"I am glad you agreed to do this assignment." I could hear the smile in his voice. "However, I have to warn you. You shouldn't underestimate this. It could turn out to be rather dangerous, especially, when you don't know what to expect. Are you still willing to do it?"
I thought for a short moment. "Yes. Tell me everything you have heard about this secret society."
"Certainly, you will need all the information you can get, although I am afraid it isn't much." It sounded as if he was shoving around stacks of paper on his desk, rummaging around in them until he found the desired sheet. "Supposedly this secret society is almost as old as the school itself. It is big on cloak and dagger operations and meetings in the middle of the night to do god knows what."
This didn't sound as interesting as I had expected. "So what? A bunch of kids partying secretly doesn't seem like such a big deal."
"Where it gets interesting is the number of unexplained deaths and people who died in mysterious accidents has been uncommonly high ever since the school opened."
A shiver ran down my spine. "Are you saying there is someone at the school killing students?"
"In a way--yes." He hesitated for a moment. "It doesn't happen often and obvious enough to raise suspicion. There is always an explanation for the deaths. Whether said explanation is true is another question."
"These deaths are what you want me to investigate?"
I heard him shuffling around. "They are to be the main focus of your research."
He wouldn't have had to use a word like mission to make it sound dramatic. It was scary and exhilarating on its own.
This feeling of an adrenaline rush was why I had become a journalist in the first place. Sure, I could have also become an extreme athlete, but I also loved uncovering the truth.
This did indeed sound like the perfect breakthrough, a memorable start for a great career.
"Anne, are you still there?" My boss interrupted my thoughts.
"I'll do it." I repeated with more self-confidence than I thought I had.
"Glad to hear you are so enthusiastic." He chuckled again before he sobered a little. "I have faith in you, just be careful."
"Of course." I nodded eagerly even though he couldn't see me.
"Since you will still be a minor officially you will need a guardian," he began to explain.
"Don't worry about them." He cut in quickly. "A good friend of mine lives not too far away from Panthera Academy. His name is Colonel George O'Callaghan. He is going to act as your guardian."
"He is going to act as my father?"
For some reason the idea made my boss laugh. "Not at all. He is rather old, so he is going to play the role of your grandfather."
"Okay," I said, unsure of what to say.
"Don't worry. George is really nice. You will get along brilliantly."
"If you say so." It was strange how the possibility of a murderer at this school didn't scare me as much as having to pretend someone whom I had never met before was my grandfather.