400 Steps in the Darkness: Part Two
Casille lived in a small hut hidden in the mountains of Shenkuu. The trek took me through dark forests, along rocks and cliffs and finally across a bridge swinging up and down dangerously. I tried not to look down as I crossed it, but the ravine below me magically attracted my eyes. Each time I caught a glimpse of the foam dancing on the rapids, my stomach lurched.
Under different circumstances, I would have turned around at the bottom of the trail. Climbing mountains and traversing suspension bridges were not exactly on top of the list of my favourite activities. But Jerieme Pakers’ last article had been about Casille, the famous surfer and I hoped that she could give me a clue about what had happened to him.
From the bridge, I only had to walk a few hundred metres to reach Casille’s home. I stood outside the hut, my hands supported by my knees as I tried to catch my breath.
Suddenly, the door opened and a white Lupe came outside. She chuckled as she saw me. “Quite a climb, isn’t it? If you do it every day, though, you’ll get used to it.” The Lupe extended a paw. “You have to be Zerenia, the brown Moehog reporter.”
“Yes, I... am,” I replied, shaking her paw. “Zerenia... Smith. I work... for the... Neopian Times.” I was still gasping for air. “And you are...”
“Casille,” the Lupe finished my sentence.
I nodded and turned my head to look the way I had come from. “So you walk down there... every day?”
“Nah, not down.” Casille grinned, motioning at a cliff behind us. “See that rope over there? It marks the beginning of a path down into the ravine. I can start surfing right in front of my house. I just have to walk all the way back up again. On good days, I do that maybe five or six times.”
The gasp I took in had nothing to do with a lack of oxygen. Five or six times a day – and I already felt as though I had done enough sport for a week after climbing up here just once.
“Yeah, Jerieme gasped like that as well when I told him about my daily exercise. But why don’t we go inside so I can tell you more about him?” The surfer motioned towards her house, the sleeve of her green tunic flapping in the wind.
* * *
“Your neomail surprised me. I didn’t expect anybody to come here again and ask about him, not after such a long time. How many years has it been? Five? Six?” Casille motioned at an empty chair. “Why don’t you sit down? Would you like some tea?”
“A tea would be nice,” I answered, taking a seat at the table. I counted ten chairs around it. In the small room, it looked too large, like a giant’s table in a dwarf’s house. Its surface wore the traces of many years of use and I couldn’t help but wonder who sat down at it regularly. Casille didn’t strike me as someone who received visitors often.
“It’s been six years since this here was published.” I took a copy of Casille’s front page article out of my pocket and unfolded it. “And a day later, Jerieme disappeared without trace.”
The white Lupe nodded. “I know. The Defenders have been here a few times afterwards. Jerieme’s friend as well.”
“A friend?” This was new to me. Not that the information surprised me, it just made me realise how little I knew about Jerieme Pakers.
“Yeah,” Casille answered, pouring water into two cups. “A camouflage Scorchio. What was his name again...” While she was trying to remember, she opened a black box and took out a spoonful of tea leaves for each cup. She then placed one of them in front of me and sat down at my side with her cup of tea.
“Sconch. Yes, his name was Sconch.”
Sconch? The lazy reporter who had told me not to write about Jerieme had once been his friend?
“Are you sure about that?”
“Yep. A Scorchio named Sconch.” The white Lupe grinned. “I already found that funny back then.”
Her smile quickly faded. “Not that I could help any of them. I wasn’t even the last one to have seen Jerieme. The article was published a whole month after the interview. If you ask me, it’s pure coincidence that it was out the day before he vanished.”
“A whole month. He didn’t by chance mention anybody else he wanted to interview, in the days after he was here?”
Casille shook her head. “No. He told me that he was working on an article that featured Balthazar and that he wanted to research the Aisha Enchantress, but that’s all I know about his plans.”
I had seen the article about Balthazar, but the Aisha Enchantress was a new piece of information. A shiver ran down at the thought of the mysterious High Lady who was told to never let anyone enter or leave her realm without her permission.
“He also talked to me about an interview with Mirsha Grelinek. You know, the brown Gnorbu, famous Yooyuball player,” Casille said. “But that one had taken place before he came to me. And he gave me lots of information about all the front page articles he had already written. Jerieme liked to hear himself talk.”
She stood up and walked over to a dresser. Opening the first drawer, she rummaged in it until she had found what she was looking for.
“That’s him,” she said, pushing a photo in my direction.
The picture showed a laughing Casille carrying her surfboard. Next to her, grinning from ear to ear, stood a shadow Hissi.
Casille laughed. “Yes, he was. Did not even reach up to my shoulder.” She looked at me, taking in my size. “He might have been smaller than you as well. But he was sly and he could talk. Jerieme managed to squeeze all the information out of me that I had sworn I would never tell anybody. I even mentioned the technique I use for my most special jumps. Good thing he never published that. If Bowe had found out, he would have been able to copy my best moves. Man, just imagine how awful that would have been.”
What she said did not surprise me. All reporters knew how to weasel information out of their interview partner. Some were better at it, and some still needed a bit of practise. But over the years, most gained enough experience to gain access to secrets that would never be told otherwise.
“Did Jerieme mention anything else that could be useful for me? Was he stressed, did he ever talk about giving up his job and leaving it all behind or did he maybe talk about an argument he had gotten into?”
Casille shook her head. “Nothing. I’ve told you everything I know about him. Maybe if it helps, I can still say that I don’t think he would have ever given up his job. He seemed happy with what he did. But that’s just a personal feeling, nothing he told me.” She shrugged. “Sorry I can’t be of more help.”
While I looked at the photo, trying to memorise as much of it as I could within a short amount of time, I thought about what Casille had told me about Sconch. The information I had gotten from this visit had been worth the climb. “You’ve already helped me a lot,” I said, smiling at the white Lupe. “Thank you.”
* * *
As expected, I found Sconch in his office. The camouflage Scorchio was still working on a crossword puzzle, although I suspected that it was already a new one. He seemed to have a secret supply of them somewhere.
“Funny how you failed to mention your friendship with Jerieme Pakers.”
Sconch startled and almost dropped his paper. The pencil he had been chewing on clattered to the floor.
“Didn’t I tell you to let that subject drop?”
I crossed my arms in front of my chest. “And didn’t I tell you that readers love mysteries? So why didn’t you tell me that you two were friends?”
“You never asked.” The Scorchio sighed. “Look, Ze, it’s been years since then. Jerieme’s gone, I’ve never seen him again. Why dig up old stories?”
His voice sounded weary and for the first time, it occurred to me that maybe he had asked me not to research Jerieme because he was tired of it all. I almost felt sorry for him. Yet, I was not ready to let the subject go.
“You looked for him, didn’t you? Casille told me that you had come and asked about Jerieme.”
“Casille...” Sconch’s forehead creased in a frown. “Oh, you’re talking about the surfer. Yes, I went to see her after Jerieme disappeared. It was a dead end.” He let out a bitter laugh. “Just like everything else I researched. Every person I asked proved to be a dead end. Ze, I’ve been looking for him for years without results. What makes you think that you’ll be able to write anything other than that his disappearance is still a mystery?”
I was about to tell him that no matter the result of my research, it would make for a good story, when the door burst open and a blue Skeith stormed in.
“Zerenia Smith.” My boss came to a halt directly in front of me. His eyes bored into me, fire blazing in them. “Zerenia, I demand an explanation.”
To be continued...