On Mountain High – Chapter Six

Chapter 6 – Kalliope

Five Weeks Earlier

I’ve always loved the click-clacking of my fingers typing swiftly and softly on a keyboard. The sound relaxes me, yet spurs me on to keep writing, keep creating. The steady beating of the keys and the way the words appear on a page transfixes me. The power words hold to create deep, beautiful worlds and vast meaning from absolutely nothing enchants me. This morning is no different.

I sit in my modest desk in the bullpen of The Order of the Departed Daily Gazette’s office. The desks are divided into cubicles with waist-high dividers, leaving my colleagues free to shout across the room at each other…essentially zero privacy. Just beyond the doors of the newspaper office is the Pearl, our city’s hub of activity. It was built into the side of a mountain many years ago, and it contains everything from low-cost housing and groceries to business offices and doctors. With endless streams of people milling about the Pearl outside of our newspaper doors, there’s seldom a quiet, peaceful moment. It’s a noisy, boisterous place to work, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Like most organized companies in our city, the newspaper is an affiliate of The Order of the Departed. The walls are adorned with digitally-projected faux paintings – much more cost effective than their oil-based varieties. The bright and vibrant colors dance as they play on the wall. We also have a private room for prayer, should one feel so inclined, per The Order’s regulations. But I don’t have time for prayer now, I’ve got to finish this story before deadline.

It’s early, and I am the first one in the office. This isn’t unusual – I’ve always been an early bird. For a moment I think of the old phrase my mom used to say, something about a worm, when I would wake up to sit with her while she drank coffee, before my sister and our father woke. I liked those quiet moments together. Now, I just like the peace and quiet of having the office to myself for a few quiet moments before whatever chaos awaits today erupts throughout the staff.

I’m almost done transposing an interview for my current story. Interviewing people is one of my favorite parts of my job at the paper – people are so interesting. This story is about a woman whose son was still missing five years after setting out on the Hunt; the woman swears her son is still out there, alive somewhere. Don’t ask me where, I couldn’t get a solid answer out of her. All she did was ramble on about “people in the forest” and say “they’re out there.” She’s not the first I’ve ever heard whispering such secrets into existence, but of course these words stand on a foundation of sand. Press for details, and the story collapses. I asked the woman who, who was out there? but she wouldn’t answer. It’s my job to report neutrally, or at least it will be when they promote me from my position as an intern, but I personally find such ravings to be lunatic, and The Hunt morbidly fascinating. I always have, actually. What would drive someone to volunteer? What really happens to all those who are lost? What is the origin of The Hunt’s infamous legend of being haunted, cursed? It’s all too bizarre.

This woman’s pain was evident during the course of the interview – she had lost her one and only son, a tragedy I couldn’t begin to imagine – but her hopefulness was inspiring. She was so sure she would find him again one day. People can withstand the most painful of torments so long as they have hope, no matter how unrealistic their hopes may be.

I reach into my oversized leather purse for the notepad I’d used to jot down a few thoughts surrounding this interview as well. The purse is so big that things get lost in there, and it takes me several seconds of digging to find it. It’s a beautiful rich caramel shade of leather, handcrafted by the same man who creates leather items for The Order’s Overseer and all the rest of its high-ranking officials. I’m not stupid, I know I get nice things because I work for the paper. Even though I know people are going hungry in the poor sections of the city, I don’t mind the special treatment; I’ve been used to it all my life.

My father used to work for The Order too, before he retired. My mom, sister and I never knew exactly what he did, his security clearance was too high to permit the sharing of his job details, but his job fell under the department of Extrasocial Recordskeeping. While that certainly sounds boring enough, he’d sometimes have to leave on lengthy trips on a moment’s notice. We never knew where he went, who he was with, or why the job of a records keeper should be so top-secret. It sounded fun to me, his job. He assured me it was anything but: “Business as usual,” he’d say as he rushed out the door to quell yet another emergency. Why so much secrecy if the work is that tiresome?

I always liked to think of him as a super secret spy, like that character James Bond from the movies and comics dating back to before the war, all those hundreds of years ago. The city’s museum played one of the films once, my dad took my sister and me to see it when we were younger. I loved it. Whatever his job was, we lived on the same estate as the Overseer, the Temple and all of The Order’s most prominent employees. Though we rarely saw the Overseer – he is apparently deeply solitary – it was a location of great prestige. We always had things that other people didn’t – fresh apples and melons, meat instead of the grains and soy-based products the rest of the city ate, and clothing tailored specifically to our bodies.

I’m putting the finishing touches on my story when my editor arrives and takes a seat in the spare chair next to my desk. “Good morning Kalliope,” he says.

David has worked for the Daily Gazette his entire career. He is an extremely gifted writer, and a wonderful mentor. He’s helped me become a better researcher, writer, and journalist in the three years I’ve worked for him; I trust him more than most anyone.

“Morning,” I say with a smile. “I’m just wrapping up yesterday’s assignment; it will be ready for you to review in just a few minutes.”

“Great, thanks,” David looks distractedly around my desk, and my keen reporter senses tell me there’s something on his mind.

“Everything all right?” I ask.

“With me? Oh, uhh, yeah, everything’s fine. It’s just…” his voice trails off and his eyes dart nervously around the room. “I wanted to talk to you about something. But it has to be completely confidential. Meet me in my office.”

Swallowing hard and ignoring the nervous pit growing in my stomach, I wait a beat and then follow him into his corner office. He shuts the door behind me, and quickly moves to close the blinds so that no one can see in through the windows. He takes a breath, opens his mouth to speak, then closes it again. He is silent for several moments and I wonder what could possibly be so difficult to say. I’m growing more and more anxious by the second.

“Look,” he finally blurts out with an apprehensive breath. “I want to put you in the Hunt this year. Undercover. For the paper – to get the inside scoop.”

My face falls slack, and I am suddenly speechless. Me? Go undercover as a Seeker in The Hunt? A million thoughts race through my mind faster than lightning, each vying for my attention. I’ve never been undercover before. The Hunt is not only dangerous, but practically a death sentence. I’m no survivalist, I’m hardly even a hiker, I’m a reporter – I rarely leave my comfortable 10-block radius here in the city. How would I survive in the mountains?

For a moment I’m positive that David must be able to read my mind, because the words start to pour from his mouth, refuting every hesitation and fear my brain can conjure. “This could be huge, Kalliope. We as a city have never truly seen the Hunt from the inside, seen what it’s really like. All the other employees are too old to blend in, but you’re 18; the perfect age. It’d be the exposé of my career, and it would skyrocket yours. I’ve got some friends in Security, we’d get you all set up with a microphone – you could communicate with us and record everything you see and hear. We’ll get you trained with a handgun you can hide in your backpack. You’d have a wire – we’d be in constant communication, and you’d be perfectly safe. We could pull you out in an instant if things get dicey.”

I sit stiller than a statue, stunned by his proposition.

“Think about it. It would be the story of both our careers, Kalliope. We’d be famous; set for life. Your family someday, your children – hell, your children’s children. They’d have everything they could possibly want in this world. It’s that big.” His words begin to slowly sink in. “Just promise me you’ll think about it, okay?”

It is all I can do to force a nervous, too-fast nod of my head, ignoring my fear and thinking how proud my father would be of such success.

 

***

 

The rest of the day is a haze. I finish my story and then sit aimlessly, my mind racing in every direction. Could I really… but what if… how would we… I have lost even my ability to think coherently.

Deciding that a quick walk around the Pearl might clear my head, I grab my jacket and pass through the newspaper’s automatic doors. Twenty minutes later, I return equally as overwhelmed, but feeling less hysterical. I am placing my jacket on the back of my chair when I spy the small, folded piece of paper tucked under my keyboard. That’s strange, I think, picking it up and unfurling its folds to reveal the message inside.

 

Going undercover? What a brilliant idea. Groundbreaking, really.

But if you want the real story, if you want to find out the truth about the Hunt, I know who you need to talk to. A friend. Time is of the essence, I’m afraid she is in frail health. But her story is one that would prove useful to you. Think carefully, smart one. Don’t delay.

 

It is still warm in my fingers, whoever left it must have just been here moments ago. Then I feel the eyes on my back. Someone is watching me as I read. Subtly, so as to not spook the sender if he or she is in fact still here somewhere, I lift my eyes and scan my horizon. Nothing, no one, seems out of place. I note the name, phone number and address of the woman referenced in the note, and awkwardly try to act casual as I resume my daily tasks and routine.

Who sent this message? How do they know I’m going undercover? I haven’t even agreed yet. David’s the only one who should know, unless… Gods, no. Did someone spy on our conversation? What could this woman’s story be? How did this note find its way to my desk?

I tear into my desk. I pull open every drawer, every nook, every cranny. Papers flutter through the air, landing in a scattered array at my feet. What am I searching for? I have no idea. A wire, perhaps? Some kind of recording device? By the gods, how was I targeted as the proper recipient of the note? I rake my hands through cold strands of blonde hair in frustration, unraveling the braid that only moments ago was pristine. Thank gods none of my colleagues are here to see this.

Again deciding that productivity at my standard desk position is simply not in the cards today, I tuck the note into my jacket pocket, collect my purse and slip hopefully unnoticed out of the newspaper’s doors.

The address leads me to a very poor sector of our city, a slum in truth. I can hear the wheeze and sigh of the wind as it cuts through windowpanes adorned with broken glass. These old brick buildings crumble, cracks jutting up their walls from the ground and undermining the buildings’ attempts at appearing the quaint kind of outdated. Even rats don’t seem to want to live in this broken down place, I notice none as I walk. The sky above me is overcast, threatening rain at any moment. Gods I wish it would rain, and wipe away this whole mess of today. Drown out my fear, David’s expectations, the terrifying idea that someone has been watching me, and is leaving me personal notes, everything. Especially the Hunt.

But instead of waiting for a downpour, I ring the doorbell that leads into the decaying residential building. Instead of a melodious chime, I’m greeted by a broken-down, scratching electrical buzz, a sound heavy with effort and pain. The doorbell should have been replaced years ago. Along with the building itself, I think.

The door cracks a single inch. Inside I can just make out the silhouette of a petite woman in a bathrobe. I notice without statement the gaping hole in its fabric near her right hip, the frayed and tattered seam at its bottom. “What do you want?”

“I’m here to speak with the woman upstairs. It’s urgent.”
“You with The Order?”
What an odd question. Caught off guard, I stutter. “No, no ma’am. I’m with the newspaper. I’d really love to speak with her, it’ll only take a few minutes–”

“You writing a story about her? Well you can forget it, she doesn’t speak to anyone about that, you’ll have to leave. Go on, get outta here,” she begins to shut the door.

Stopping the door’s close with my hand on the outside knob, I try a different tactic. “Ma’am, please. This is important. It’s about…” I dart nervously around us and lower my voice, just in case the mysterious messenger may be watching. Listening. “It’s…it’s about the Hunt.”

The woman’s single eye visible through the cracked door grows wide. She opens the door slightly more ajar, and I can see that she is of middle age. A face that was once pretty, probably, now given way to age and tough times. Wrinkles line her forehead, perpetually frozen in an expression of skepticism, and her dark brown eyes are hard with distrust. “Who sent you?” She too begins peeking around outside, fearful of something unspoken. “Get in here before anybody sees you.”
In a single motion the door swings another foot open, she reaches through, grabs my shoulder and pulls me into the small vestibule, slamming and locking the door behind us.

“Who sent you, I asked, who sent you?” Her grip is tightening on my shoulder.

“I, I don’t know!” I cry. “Someone left a note saying that she could tell me things about the Hunt, about the gods’ treasure. That she was a friend, I could trust her. But to hurry because of her poor health.” The grasp tightens, as though the harder she squeezes the more truth I will spout. “That’s it, that’s all I know!”
The woman studies me for a long moment, eyes narrowed and mouth frowning. Finally she releases her vice-like grip and her sinewy fingers uncurl. “She’s supposed to be a friend, huh?”

I nod.

“And you don’t know who sent you the note?”

“No. It wasn’t signed.”

“You’re sure you’re not with The Order?” She eyes me from head to toe, seemingly attempting to see right into my soul. She peers into my jacket, gesturing for me to remove it so she can inspect me further. I do, and she invasively pats my body, checking for gods only know what. Weapons or recording devices, my guess. Something cold and wet drips onto my face from an unidentified leak above. After what feels like an eternity, she speaks with an air of suspicious understanding. I get the sense that she knows more than she’s saying.

“All right. You can talk to her. If your little letter says she’s to be a friend to you, then it’s not my decision. It’s not going in the newspaper though, no recording devices, no nothing. Just you listening while she’s talking. You got that blondie?”

“Yes.”

“Good,” she says and I begin toward the stairs, equal parts eager and anxious. The woman snatches my arm and yanks me back down. “Not right now, she’s resting. Come back first thing in the morning, seven on the dot.”

I sigh in exasperation. “Can you at least give me a clue as to the things she can tell me?”

She nods no. “Not my story. Not my place. Seven in the morning, don’t be late.” And with that she pushes me back into the crisp afternoon air. I hear a deadbolt thunder shut behind me.

My mind swims. What could this old woman possibly have to say that requires such secrecy? Why wouldn’t this woman tell me anything? Who was she? I don’t sleep much during the night, haunted by the unknown events to come the next morning.

I wake at six to overcast skies and dress, unable to stay in bed a moment longer, pacing until it’s time to leave my apartment in the city’s upscale district. The sharp air screams down from the mountains, ripping through the valley where our town lies, chilling me to the bone as I go. I ignore the chill and practically run through the city center, past what used to be called the 16th Street Mall all those years ago, down endless blocks. Somewhere in the night any fear or anxiety I felt over the mysterious note, its anonymous sender or the strange eccentricities surrounding the old woman I’m waiting to talk to vanquished.

Finally I arrive. I ring the tired doorbell once, twice, three times. No one answers. No one comes to the door. I knock, bang even, to no avail. After four minutes, I tentatively turn the knob, and luck is on my side – it gives way. Slipping into the building, I hear what sounds like sobbing coming from upstairs. Adrenaline takes over and all caution is thrown out the window. I take the stairs two at a time, finding a single door at the top. This must be where the old woman lives. The door is standing ajar, and at once I feel in my gut that something is not right. I push my way inside, calling out hello and being met with only louder wails. I take in the crumbling paint, the faded, sunken-in couch and the carpet that peels up from the floor in the corners. This place is a dump, how do people live here? Gods the wailing is loud. It’s beginning to feel like some sort of twisted nightmare. In a fleeting moment absent of adrenaline, I decide that I should feel afraid, though I can’t seem to summon any fear. Not for myself, anyway. All I can think is why is this person crying like that?

I hear the shuffle of footsteps, a few desperate sniffles and a choked back sob. The middle aged woman from yesterday greets me where I stand in the run down living room, wiping her nose. Her bloodshot eyes are rimmed with tears.

“What’s the matter, are you hurt? Do you want me to call anyone-” I am cut off by the woman’s continued sobs. Her hands cover her face and she drops to her knees on the hard ground.

“What’s the matter?” I ask impatiently, eager to speak to the woman who will tell me about The Hunt.

“She’s…. she’s…” the gnarled younger woman manages to let out only those garbled words before she sinks back into a fit of sobs. Well if she can’t talk to me, I’m going to take matters into my own hands. After all she did say seven on the dot, I’m sure she wouldn’t want me to disobey her own instructions. I step toward her, intending to pass her and into what looks like a bedroom beyond when those same claw fingers from yesterday clasp me again, this time around my ankle. I try to kick the woman’s hands off, now growing slightly more fearful.

“Get off, leave me alone!” I shout.

“You idiot, you have no idea what you’ve lost,” the woman cries.

What I’ve lost?

“She’s dead, don’t you get it?”

Dead? But…she was going to tell me what I need to know about The Hunt, about the gods’ treasure. She can’t be dead. Can she?

“Leave,” the woman whispers to the floor. Then, lifting up her eyes she lunges at my shock-frozen body and lets out a bloodcurdling scream. “LEEEEEAVE!”

My muscles take over and I run, not walk, out of the apartment. Ice-cold terror grips my heart and I begin to reconsider the legends of hauntings and curses that surround The Hunt. But as I go, my thoughts are drowned out by the despairing wails from behind me; all I hear behind me is the woman’s malevolent, chant-like keening, “She’s dead, she’s dead, and you’re going to be dead too, she’s dead, she’s dead, she’s dead…”

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