An hour later, James’ long legs carried him quickly through the hospital lobby towards the elevator. From his right side, a blur of red hair and equipment hurdled a chair and dashed over to James.
“Varden, nice to be working with you again. By the way, press conference in ten minutes upstairs,” squeaked the mousy photographer.
“Likewise, Fuller, likewise. On your toes, as always!” said James, smiling and laughing to himself that Phil had assigned his two “pets”, as they were often called, to cover this story. Fletcher Fuller was a beanpole that stood about 5’11, with carrot hair, thick glasses that devoured his nose and nothing was ever able to slip past him. He seemed like he always was on a sugar high, jumpy and tense, but that was just Fletcher.
They had been working on and off together since they started at the paper a little over a year ago. Fletcher had won numerous awards for his photography, and James knew that soon Phil would hire him before another paper snatched him up. They reached the elevator, Fletcher pressed the button for the third floor, and quickly shared what little information they knew about Niall Wallace and the suicide with each other.
They headed down towards the conference room. Other reporters and news crews were visible already, and James snapped into what Eli called reporter mode. Gone was the care-free James, replaced by James Varden of the West Carlisle Herald. A large, beefy police officer walked up to the microphone as James and Fletcher walked in.
“Varden, I am going to go do my thing. I need a better angle for this.” Fletcher whispered.
“Okay Fuller, we’ll meet up in a bit.” James got out his tape recorder and notepad from his bag. The officer started talking, his voice low and gravelly.
“This morning at approximately six-thirty a.m., Niall Harold Wallace took his life by shooting himself in the head….” The man droned on, but James had stopped listening. He knew that officer…
The man in charge of his father’s murder investigation had been rather heavy, middle-aged cop with a low voice. Back then, he had been Officer Staub. Now, he was Chief Staub. He had more gray hair, his eyes were still shifty, and he looked like he had eaten one two many donuts. But that didn’t erase the face of the man had failed to catch his father’s murderer. In James’s opinion, that man had botched the investigation. James didn’t have any proof, just a feeling. His attention returned to his job, in time to hear Chief Staub say:
“Yesterday, Dr. Wallace was considerably distraught at work all day long, and it seems that he was suffering from depression when he took his life.”
James was puzzled. Dr. Wallace had been fine yesterday when he had treated Clara. James’s concern was growing by the minute. This was all to close to his sister, and Naira had been upset this morning. The increasing black hue of Narya’s scarlet stone flashed in his memory. Something is wrong, he thought, terribly wrong.
When the conference ended, James went out into the hall. Fletcher was nowhere to be seen. He glanced down the hall again, this time seeing a familiar figure. It was the nurse who had attended Clara the day before. James slid deftly through the crowd, and approached her.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but I need to ask you -“
The woman whirled to face him, her eyes consumed with fear. Gone was the kind woman of yesterday, she had been reduced to a terrified shell. Then, she recognized him. She seemed relieved to see him, and stepped closer so that only he could hear her.
“We can’t talk here, I am in danger. Follow me.”
She headed off down the corridor, and James followed at a distance. She got into an elevator, and James did as well. There were several other people riding in it already, and James stood on the far side from the nurse. Two floors later, she got out. James slipped out just as the doors closed behind him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her walk into a room down the hall.
He walked nonchalantly up to the door, and he was inside in a beat. The room was unoccupied, the bed perfectly made up and the lights were off. He could see her next to the window. Her arms were wrapped around her, trying to comfort herself. Her voice shook as she spoke.
“I recognized you from yesterday. I need to know how do you know Clara Varden.” she asked.
“She’s my sister, m’am.”
“My name is June Wetzel. Don’t call me m’am.”
“Alright, Miss Wetzel. Can you please tell me why you are so frightened?”
“He let her go!”
“My sister…” said James, his voice low and angry. “Clara isn’t very sick, she had a UT, and yesterday, Dr. Wallace treated her and released her. She – “
“But he wasn’t supposed to! There is something else wrong! He asked me if I knew what I had done, he screamed at me, he was scary. He looked like he had seen a ghost, then after I left, I saw through his window he was on the phone… But later, I heard him screaming! He was begging loudly for something, and then how he screamed! Who screams when they commit suicide?”
James stood dumbstruck. The feeling that something was wrong doubled, his stomach knotting. The woman flailed her arms, screaming at the young man, “Don’t you care that he was murdered? I was the last person to see him alive, and I know that he did something wrong. He knew he was going to die!”
James walked closer to her, afraid they would be found.
“Please, Miss Wetzel, it is clear my sister is in danger. Is there anyway that you can get her files or find out who Dr. Wallace was on the phone with?”
She paused, thinking hard, before saying, “Give me five minutes.”
Nurse Wetzel walked across the room and into the hall. James tried to stop his head from spinning. Something was clearly wrong with Clara. Just how wrong, he couldn’t be sure.
In the meantime, Naira had showered and gotten dressed. She was wearing a khaki shirt and a cute shirt that wrapped around and tied in the front. She put on her favorite pair of sandals, which had a single thick leather strap across the top of the foot and a slight heel, and went to find Eli.
He was happily munching on toast, his homework scattered on the kitchen table.
“Eli, is there a wood or forest near here? I want to go for a walk.”
He answered as soon as he finished chewing his toast.
“There is a metro park a few miles from here. They have a stable that you can rent a horse from and ride around the park on. I’ll take you there this afternoon before my class.”
“Thank you Eli! That is perfect.” She hugged her friend, and floated up the stairs. Eli smiled to himself, and returned to chewing his toast.
Chief Staub was answering a few remaining questions when he caught sight of a tall young man slipping out of the conference room. He lost his train of thought, distracted by memories of the past. Varden was dead, he knew Varden was dead… he had seen the body…
“Excuse me,” he mumbled, walking clumsily after the young man. The hair was so similar, the bearing, everything. He was talking to a nurse now. But that was Wetzel, and that Nurse was off limits to reporters. Boss’s orders. The boss had already been disappointed once this week, he didn’t need another. I need to see what he’s up to, he thought. Chief Staub waddled over, watching the nurse and the boy like a hawk.
They got into an elevator, and he noted it went straight up to the fifth floor and then came back down. Might as well try that, he thought. A moment later, he walked out of the elevator. The hallway was deserted, but Chief Staub was a thorough man. He paced the hall, listening for voices in each room.
To his left, a door flew open and Nurse Wetzel trotted out, heading down the hall. The Chief of Police crept closer to the door which had shut itself again. It didn’t seem as though any lights were on in the room. He reached his hand out, hesitating to turn the knob. Who knew who, if anyone, would be in the room. I need to make sure, he thought. He turned the knob, the door swinging open.
The room was dark, and apparently empty. Staub waited for a second, his walkie-talkie suddenly beeped, and a voice started reporting a major car crash on the freeway. Darn it, he thought, and headed back to the elevator. Well, the room was empty, I knew that for sure.
James listened as the heavy cop waddled away before sliding out from under the bed. Thank God Staub had waited for a second before opening the door. But why on Earth was he on the fifth floor… was he following me? He heard footsteps coming down the hall again, and pressed himself against the door wall just in case someone opened the door. The handle turned again, quickly swinging open.
James held his breath, but relaxed when Nurse Wetzel came into view, a folder in her hand. She walked over to him, her eyes wild with panic.
“Take these papers and go. It is your sister’s file and everyone else that Dr. Wallace saw yesterday. Just go now! Take the stairs.” She pushed him out of the room before he could say thank you, and he headed in the opposite direction of the elevator. He jaunted down the stairs to the third floor, slipping the folder into his bag.
Once in the hall again, he began his search for his photographer again. He found Fletcher tapping his foot impatiently next to the elevator. He looked dismayed, but James played it off like he had just finished.
“Ready, Fuller?” he asked in a businesslike manner.
“That depends,” he said darkly, “are you?”
James shot him a look of warning as they headed into the elevator. James was busting at the seams to look in the folder he had tucked away moments before. If she is right, this is serious. Murder… but what does it all have to do with my sister?
James and Fletcher were within feet of the entrance, when James saw Chief Staub next to a squad car, talking to a small group of other reporters.
“I’m gonna go get a good quote, Fuller. See you later.” Fletcher nodded, and headed off in a fast pace to his own car. James sidled up to the others, deftly snatching his recorder from the inside of his bag. His hand swiped the side of the folder, reminding him of the information that he had in his grasp.
The Chief was talking, but not really saying anything. No details, really. James suddenly shot out: “Is there any possibility of foul play involved with Dr. Wallace’s sudden death?”
The Chief’s eyes grew cold as they saw who had spoken the question. Something about me rattles him, thought James. Why else would he hunt me down upstairs, and now he is at a lost for words.
“Of… of course not…” Staub managed to squeak out after a hesitant moment.
“Was there a suicide note? Any real indicators towards suicide?” James asked again, taking advantage of the panic in the Chief of Police.
“There was no note… and no, we have not found any evidence clearly supporting a suicide.”
“Then why are you so insistent to rule this a suicide? Dr. Wallace was a powerful man, not very flighty or overly impulsive. What is it that the Police are trying to hide?” James’s gray eyes were gleaming with triumph, the other reporters starting to ask questions that required more details than Staub had prepared. James was certain there was a cover-up, and Staub was behind it. Staub was trying desperately to fend off the questions flying at him, obviously flustered.
“Look, kid, who the hell are you?” he yelled at James.
“I’m James Varden from the West Carlisle Herald, Chief Staub. I was just in your press conference.” James tried to hide his contempt for the older man. How had a pompous windbag become the head of the Police department in West Carlisle? The man’s jaw dropped ever so slightly. His eyes shrunk into his head, a dry wheezing noise escaped his lips.
“Yes. James Varden.”
“You’re Charles’s son?”
“Yes, I am.”
Staub’s face lost all color. All of a sudden, James realized why it was. The Chief of Police was afraid of him.
Clara had been restless all day. She didn’t want to sit in her room, she didn’t want to watch television, she didn’t want to eat. Mom kept making her take the medicine, but it didn’t seem to really be helping. All Clara wanted was Naira. She fumbled for her phone, dialing James’s house. No one answered.
It was just about two in the afternoon. James had class now, and Naira didn’t have a cell phone. Maybe Eli could tell her where Naira was. After dialing a wrong number, Eli’s cheery voice answered.
“Hi Eli. It’s Clara.”
“Hey kid, how’s my favorite girl?”
Clara laughed. “Doing better, thanks. Look, is Naira at home?”
“Actually, I dropped her off at the park. She is horse back riding right now.”
“Oh…” Clara’s heart sank. “Maybe I could come over tonight? I miss you guys.”
“Sure doll, I know I’d love to see you. Listen, I am almost to my next class. But seven or so, alright?”
“Great!” she said, happier than she had been all day. Naira would make her better, Naira always made her better. She hung up the phone, and waited until she heard Grant slam the door. He thudded up the back stairs, and started to plod down the hall.
“Grant…” she called weakly. He stuck his head in the door, leering at her.
“Could you please take me to James’s tonight at six-thirty?”
“Why don’t I just take you over there now? Maybe I have plans tonight?” His voice dripped with sarcasm. Clara was too weak to try and argue.
“Please Grant! James and Eli are at class and Naira’s horseback riding at the park.”
Grant’s eyes narrowed, his pointy tongue running along his lips for a moment.
“She is? Well, I’ll take you at six-thirty. I…. have some errands to run… If you aren’t ready to go when I get back, don’t ever ask me for a favor again.” Clara didn’t notice the sinister smile on his face as she thanked him and he slithered down the hall. She set her alarm for five-thirty, and closed her eyes. She wanted to have enough energy for tonight.
Grant bounded into his room, looking for something. He checked his underwear drawer and the secret drawer in his desk. Then he remembered, he had put it in his nightstand. He darted his hand in the drawer and pulled out his hunting knife. The blade was long and jagged, but deadly. He slid it into one of the deep pockets of his pants. He knew where Naira was, all alone, and he was determined to find her.
“Screw being nice,” he thought, “screw James and screw Naira!” He ran down the hall, flew down the stairs, and peeled his tires as he backed out of the driveway.
The trees were dancing in the sunlight, their fragrance a perfume for the beautiful spring day. Naira’s heart sang as her horse, Clover, walked steadily along the path. She had changed into jeans and more sensible shoes, and it felt odd to be riding like a man. She thought of her horse, Amardil. His name meant “sun-friend”, his hue was golden and glorious.
Encaitar had taught her how to ride when she had been but a baby. One of her first memories was riding on the front of her brother’s saddle as he patrolled Lórien, his leafy smell making her feel safe. Encaitar had always been so gentle to her…. maybe he really did love her. And now, she would never see him again. For the first time, Naira missed Middle-earth.
But, James was here. She was here now, and Encaitar was in a world that she could not return to. A world that wasn’t supposed to exist. He was one of thousands of nameless creatures in a book. Her beautiful culture was not even the Elves, really. It was based off of human’s history, made up by one man. Had he even thought of her? A plain maiden that had found no joy in her immortality or love from those she loved, a warrior at heart forced to be dainty and delicate because she was considered the helpless daughter?
She had lost herself in the gentle sway of the horse and the sea of her thoughts. Clover wandered at free will, noting that her rider wasn’t steering. The horse chose long winding paths that led deeper into the forest. Naira was content just to wander. She had the horse all afternoon, and she was in no hurry.
An hour slipped away, but Naira felt nothing but the caress of the sunlight and wind on her fair skin. Ahead of her was a clearing, but something was wrong with it.
“Baw (whoa),” she said, halting the horse. Her Elven senses sprang to life as she nimbly dismounted. She tied the reins to a nearby tree before proceeding into the clearing.
Death seemed to hang in the air, every breath she took allowed a little more to seep into her lungs. The air grew heavy ahead of her, the world seemed to creep in closer to her, wanting to crush her graceful limbs. Not a bird sang here, no animal moved.
“Ú-henian (I don’t understand),” she whispered to herself, “ilyë lamni avánier nórë sinallo (all animals have disappeared from this land).”
Naira took hesitant steps across the clearing, wanting a closer look at the withered trees on the far side. Every fiber of her being wanted to run back to the horse and flee this accursed place. But she had to know what was destroying it. Six feet, five, four… then she was there. Her stomach reeled, nausea sweeping over her.
The trees here were decayed to skeletons of misery, their pain screaming into her heart. The soil was a pool of waste, rusted containers rising from the ruined earth. Naira’s face contorted with horror. She knew what this meant, and she retched miserably into the filth at her feet. This was pollution, this is what Charles Varden was fighting against. And now, miles of forest stretched before her, poisoned… murdered as he was.
“Pollution,” she whispered when she regained her comp sure. “Orndagnír, orndagnir…. (tree killer).”
Her long legs fought to hold her as she stood, tears of misery flooding her eyes. She walked slowly across the clearing, trying hard to not vomit again. She swept aside her tears, expecting to see the horse, Clover, tied where she had left her. But the horse was gone. Naira cursed inside, hitting her leg in exasperation.
She carefully put one foot in front of the other, exhausted by her horrid discovery. Just keep walking, she told herself over and over again. She crested the first curve in the road when her horse came into view. She had been tied up again to a different tree. Naira quickly glanced around her. Someone had moved her horse, but Naira was too shaken to really care. Whoever it was must have gone. She jogged over the horse, going as fast as she could. She tried to untie the reins, her hands shaking.
A wave of nausea swept over her again, the sickness of the trees had crept into her breast and was attacking her now. As an elf, her kinship with the trees was ancient and deep. The abomination, the rape, of that clearing would haunt her always, she knew.
As she heaved feebly, sick again, she felt a presence behind her. Before she could raise herself, white hot pain seared through her head. She fell forward, the ground rising up to catch her. As the white faded, the pain lessened and Naira was consumed by unconsciousness.