The day I got the invitation I was pretty shocked. As a Biology student, that opportunity was unique, exceptional. I had never been abroad before and the perspective of spending two weeks in the United States sounded like a fairytale. A fairytale. I shivered when I thought about the word. How many times had I pronounced it during our holidays? But, what holidays? It had all gone wrong. From the first time I stepped into that mansion I knew that things would go wrong. Call it intuition. I guess we women have a sixth sense, something that men don't have. We can perceive certain things, feel them in our guts, feel scared when there's no apparent reason and later find out that there was a reason. I had always trusted my intuition. It had saved me in several occasions and it was going to save me now.
He wanted me to help him with his research. The Count Adler. I should have known by then that it wasn't his real name. He was a famous scientist working on a project in the Rocky Mountains, in the Colorado area. He wanted to test the effects of high altitudes on trekkers who weren't used to climb high heights. I was a member of the University's trekking club and I guess he found me thanks to them. My professor handed me the invitation with a smile. I was his favorite student and he didn't bother to hide it in front of the others. Her red-flame hair, always tied in a pony tail shone under the fluorescent lights.
"I'm delighted to inform you that you've been chosen to help a prestigious scientist in the United States".
I remember that day very well. The surprise, the joy, the excitement. I didn't care anymore about the heavy rain and the strong wind outside, I zipped my coat and took the bus home in a state of... shock? Yes, I could say I was shocked. Professor García swore she didn't have anything to do with that, but I suspected she did. She knew how much I wished to travel abroad. I was twenty-one years old and longing for freedom. My parents weren't very supportive and didn't want me to go, but I was an adult and had a right to take my own decisions. All costs were covered, also the trekking gear was included. There was no information about the famous Count anywhere in the Internet but García assured me it was an apprenticeship offered via university, safely checked and controlled. I trusted her. Why wouldn't I?.
I looked at the clouds under my feet. It was my first time in an airplane. The feeling was awesome. My belly twisted with every turbulence, my ears clicked with every change of pressure inside the cabin. I was very familiar with the physiology of the human body and enjoyed analyzing all the little changes in my body.
I read the leaflet that García had given me:
The Rocky Mountains of Colorado beckon hikers from all over the world to come experience their intense beauty, alpine adventure, and world-class backpacking. Rocky Mountain National Park is the heart of Colorado's mountains, boasting many of the state's best hiking and backpacking trips. We've hand-picked the Park's most appealing overnight hiking routes for you to enjoy. Join us and experience Colorado's signature snowy peaks, clear mountain streams, alpine lakes and fantastic wildlife.
It sounded perfect, didn't it? I went on browsing all the information and reached the "Project Pages" about our trekking experience:
With its summit topping out at an elevation of 14,259 feet, Long's Peak is among the tallest peaks in the Rocky Mountains and is the single tallest peak in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park. You can easily see it for miles in every direction towering above the rest of the Park!
I frowned, trying to convert feet into meters, and whistled. Several heads turned around to watch me and I apologized. Never before in my whole life had I experienced such altitudes. Gosh, I got dizzy at 9,000 feet. Surely I was going to be a good guinea pig for my new boss. I went on passing the pages and got impressed with the beauty of the mountains. High scarped peaks, rivers, rocks and more rocks. A feeling of uneasiness invaded me. Would I be able to do that? Would I manage to reach the peak?
These trails are unmaintained or we're traveling off-trail. Expect prolonged, rugged hiking with very strenuous, difficult sections. Terrain can be steep, loose, rocky and/or exposed. A technical multi-day backpack with your clothes and personal items, a sleeping bag, pad, part of a tent, a share of the group food and gear, trail snacks and water.
I felt my heart sink. The highest peak I had ever reached was about 9,000 feet above sea level and the trail was soft and easy. I tried not to let my fear spoil my excitement and I told myself, you can do it!
I knew, deep inside me, that it was a very strange thing. The whole thing, I mean. To cross the Ocean without even knowing who that guy was, with just my passport and a suitcase and a a credit card to cover all the expenses. The only thing that gave it credibility was the stamp from the University. It was the only thing that had calmed my parents down. I tried to be rational and blamed the journey for my insecurities. After all, it was a whole new experience for me and it was just normal to feel nervous, right?.
I looked through the airplane's window, but all I saw was darkness. As we started to descend, the clouds became thicker and the plane shook fiercely. The flight attendant assured me that it was completely normal to experience strong turbulences when landing, especially when the weather was bad. A light rain beat the windows, and it soon became stronger. The airport lights shone in the distance, getting closer second by second. I grabbed my seat and felt my belly twist again. That mass of iron they called airplane landed safely and people clapped. I closed my eyes, feeling an overwhelming relief.
We landed in Denver late in the afternoon, after a long journey of almost one day and a half from my home country. Professor García said they would be waiting for me and that they would drive me to the mansion of Count Adler. I had to smile when I first heard that, as it all sounded like taken from a classic, horror story written by Bram Stoker. I took my suitcase and backpack and headed towards the exit, after passing all the security controls. A crowd gathered outside. I zipped my purple hoodie, wishing that my trekking coat was out of the suitcase. I slowly walked across the arrivals area, trying to see anybody who might recognize me. Those were the longest ten minutes of my life, until a guy dressed in black and holding a paper with my name on it appeared in front of me.
"Hello, I'm Lorena Rey". He looked at me and smiled, showing his white, perfect teeth to me.
"Hello, nice to meet you. I'm Alan, the chauffeur" We shook hands and he folded the paper, looking around. He was in his forties, strong built and with a light beard covering his face. "The others are already waiting for you inside the mini bus". He took my suitcase and I carried my backpack, following him. We crossed the glass doors and ventured into the rain. It was pouring and a strong, cold wind reached my bones.
"Lovely weather!" I shouted, but I doubted he heard me, as at the same time a loud thunderstorm began. We ran across the airport's parking and I finally saw a black, shiny mini bus with tinted windows on the other side. It didn't have any logo on it and it was parked under a street lamp that seemed to be spoiled, adding more darkness to the area. He opened the door for me and left to put my suitcase on the back. I removed the hoodie, soaking wet, and looking inside. Four faces stared at me with curiosity. There was only one empty seat at the back and I felt their eyes on me as I made my way to it.
"Hello" I said, and the replied, some lazily, some warmly.
"I'm Virginie" A blond girl turned around and looked at me with a critical gaze. She had the face of a porcelain doll: small nose, full lips and azure eyes under long eyelashes. Her long hair, perfectly straightened could fit for a shampoo commercial. Her French accent was very strong.
"I'm Lorena. Nice to meet you". She opened her eyes a bit when I spoke.
"Oh, you're from Spain, oh, la, la" She said, with a fake smile. I could tell she didn't like me too much, although I really didn't know why. "And here I thought I would be the only girl of the group" She said, coquettishly looking at our male companion. Three male faces looked at me.
"I'm Jan" A strong, blond guy in his early twenties greeted me. "I'm from Germany".
"Dimitri" I hear another voice on my right. Definitely Russian. "I'm your climbing guide. I've climbed the Everest twice, my first time I was twenty" He said, proudly.
"Wow" I really was impressed. Two rows in front of me sat the last person of the group. He turned his head, without smiling, but greeted me politely.
"I'm Aidan". He had American accent, undoubtedly. Short, dark hair and piercing blue eyes behind his glasses. He had athletic complexion, although he didn't seem to be much taller than me. Something in his expression made me feel both safe and on guard. I couldn't tell why.
"You're also a climber?" I asked him. I hadn't noticed that our chauffeur had started the bus and was already driving.
"Sort of. But I'm not an experienced climber. I would call myself a trekker" He answered, without looking at me.
"I'm sure you're very good at it", I heard Virginie saying, patting his shoulder as if they were friends. She gave me a sharp look before turning around and making herself comfortable on her seat. What was her problem?.
There was silence inside the bus now. We were just a bunch of strangers who had nothing to share at the moment. The silence wasn't awkward, but I couldn't help feeling uncomfortable. I didn't know there would be more people in this project, but it made sense. I actually didn't expect I would be climbing alone in this research. I looked at the group trying not to get noticed. Dimitri had his eyes closed. Although he couldn't be more than thirty, he looked older. Years and years of climbing the highest peaks in the world had changed his face. It was tanned and wrinkled. He was tall and strong, although slim. His arms were crossed over his chest and he seemed to be asleep. Jan was reading a magazine under the seat's light. It was in German, but I could see it was a cars magazine. Virginie was listening to music, browsing inside her designers bag and humming a tone. Jan gave her a look of adoration. I rolled my eyes. I couldn't see Aidan from where I was, only the top of his head above the seat.
We left Denver and the bus drove into the wild. There was no other way to describe it. I might have fallen asleep because we were now in an area without houses, just high trees and mountains on both sides of it. I checked my wristwatch. 40 minutes had passed. It was ten pm. I stretched myself and took a sip of water from my bottle. There was darkness outside. All I could see there the white lines of the road and hear the soft humming of the driver's radio on the front part of the bus.
I dozzed off and had a very weird dream. There was a castle. It was very old and built on the top of a scarped rock, and there was no light coming from it. Only the full moon gave me some visibility. I walked through a narrow path uphill. A cold breeze made me shiver. I was moving very fast, but I wasn't tired. It was as if I was floating. And then, I saw him. There was a man in the front yard, waiting for me. He was hiding under a black cloak. He was very tall. His lips where thin, his nose long and his eyes... his eyes... I couldn't describe them. They were the lightest blue, but when the light of his torch illuminated his face I could see green and brown in them. I felt paralyzed. The hairs in my arms stood, as if there was static electricity. I stopped. And waited. He smiled, slowly, and I felt an intense desire to approach him. And at the same time, I was shivering with fear. He smiled more, and when he opened his mouth, I saw...
"Hey, Lorena" Jan's voice woke me up and I started. My heart was racing. "Are you OK?", He asked. All the members of the group were looking at me.
"Where are we?". The bus was stopped and the chauffeur was taking our luggage out of it.
"We're here" Jan smiled and ran outside, while I collected myself and my belongings. The dream had been so vivid, so real, that I needed several minutes to finally calm down. Virginie had a smirk on her face.
"Sleeping beauty" She murmured, as she left the vehicle. Dimitri was already outside. I took my backpack and passed next to Aidan, who was checking his messages in his phone. He looked up at me as I walked by, but he didn't say anything.
Although it was the middle of May, the night air was cold and the wind quite strong. A full moon shone above us and a pine tree threw a shadow on the road. I swallowed, feeling uneasy. I told myself that it was just because of the situation, it had taken a toll on me.
"If you're so kind to follow me... this way" I turned around when I heard the chauffeur word's and opened my mouth, gaping at the mansion behind us. It definitely wasn't a castle, like in my dreams, but a luxurious kind of mansion-mountain cottage with glass walls, wooden facade, a swimming pool that threw an azure light over the facade and a huge garden that reached miles away, Alan said. Virginie jumped, excited. Dimitri yawned, Jan took pictures with his phone and I just hoped that my heart would stop racing. Aidan stood next to me. I couldn't read his face. He was calmed and showed no emotion at all, like usual. I noticed he was a few inches taller than me, but not too much. I was quite tall for a woman. He suddenly looked down at me and I blushed, clearing my throat.
"Nice house" I said. He nodded.
"I hope the Count is not as bad as they say" He commented. I was surprised to hear that.
"What do you mean?" His blue eyes met my gaze and I thought I saw a spark in them, as if he was trying to hold his laugh.
"Well, you know... Count Adler, living in the mountains, inviting five strangers to his sort of castle..." He was smiling now, clearly making fun of me. Before I could reply, the gates opened automatically and the chauffeur led us inside. I looked around, amazed at the beauty of the gardens. Someone could get lost in that labyrinth of trees, bushes and flowers. I felt something brush my hair as it flew by and I yelped. A huge bat lifted in the air, as if wanting to reach the moon. Virginie snorted.
The main door, made of dark wood and covered by an arched passageway opened slowly. I held my breath. I didn't know what I was expecting to find, but when the Count met us, relief flooded through me. I heard music coming from the house. Tori Amos' "Sorta Fairytale". I felt a chill, I didn't know why. The Count was now smiling at us (with perfectly normal teeth) and I couldn't hide a smile. Definitely the night, the tiredness and the spooky landscape had affected me a lot. The Count was dressed in jeans and a Ralph Lauren navy blue polo. He was wearing sneakers. He couldn't be less creepy. Or this I thought from the distance. And he was quite attractive too. As he approached us, shaking hands with each member of the group, I felt some sort of weird twisting in my stomach.
"Hi all, how are you? Nice to meet you, I'm Ivan" One by one, the group was being greeted and it was my turn. He stopped in front of me with the same smile and offered me his hand. I looked up at him. The porch lights threw some light over his face and my hand froze midway. His azure eyes were green and brown under the light. It was a strange optical effect and I wondered how could human eyes change colour like that. "Is everything all right?" He asked. His voice was low, deep, very nice. He was young, not much older than me. Maybe five or six years. I felt the eyes of my team mates observing me. I shook Ivan's hand and felt a shiver. Ignoring my uneasiness, I tried to smile.
"All fine, thank you. Just tired". He looked into my eyes for a bit more time than necessary. Or this was the impression I got. I was probably wrong, because he turned around and with a cheerful clap, he asked us to enter his home, have dinner and then go to our bedrooms to rest.
We crossed the door and I felt a whisper in my ear. I thought someone had spoken to me and I turned around. Jan was chatting with Dimitri and Virginie was holding Aidan's arm, commenting something about the vaulted ceiling and the chandeliers above us. Aidan met my eye and looked away. The hall was impressing. Two staircases on both sides led to the second floor. The walls were decorated with old paintings of castles, knights and dragons. I found the choice interesting for such a new house. You would see those paintings in the old European castles, not in the States. I walked around, admiring the decoration and the architecture of the house.
"Please, follow me to the dining room and make yourselves comfortable" said the Count, walking through a high door that led to the enormous dining room. The ceiling was as high as a two stories house. It had a wind rose at the base of the chandelier that hung over the long, wooden dining table. I came closer, checking the drawing on the ceiling.
"A wind rose" I whispered. It was showing Northern wind blowing.
"It's connected to a device on the roof" Ivan's voice came from behind. He stood next to me, hands in pockets. "I like to check the wind changes when I'm at home" He explained with a smile. Here, under the light of the lamp, he looked like a normal person. His eyes were azure, indeed. No green or brown in them. I blamed my imagination and the weird dream I had in the bus for the hallucination I had back in the porch.
"It's really interesting" I replied. His gaze was on me all time and I felt a bit uncomfortable. I looked away. Virginie sat at the table, delighted. A porcelain dish and a crystal cup were in front of her. Jan hurried to take the chair next to hers and she frowned slightly, looking for someone else. Probably Aidan. Aidan was now inspecting the view through the windows with Dimitri.
"Guys, please, take a sit" We obeyed. I took the chair in front of Jan and Dimitri sat next to me. Aidan doubted but as Ivan was on his way, he decided to sit in the nearest place, that is, next to Virginie, who smiled satisfied. Ivan sat at the head of the table. "I have to apologize, it's late and the maids are already in bed, so Alan will serve us dinner". The words brought ridiculous memories to me. I had read Dracula countless times and Ivan had just sounded like the Count when Jonathan Harker arrived in his dark castle late at night. I smiled, shaking my head. What was wrong with me?
"What's so funny?" Dimitri asked, kindly, as the rest of people chatted animatedly with the Count.
"Don't you find all this strange?" I said. Dimitri smiled, but the smile didn't reach his eyes.
"What, a rich man who wants guinea pigs for his experiments? That's not strange at all. The strangest thing is his choice of people". He commented, as Alan poured some wine in our cups. We thanked him and waited until he left to go on talking.
"Why?" I asked, taken a sip of the dark liquid. It burnt my throat a bit. Dimitri leaned a bit towards me.
"Guinea pigs are usually people without money. For money, they're willing to take risks. None of the guys here seems to have money troubles. Or, guinea pigs are scientists with a lot of money who put themselves in risky situations for the sake of science and fame". I let the words sink in. He was right. None of them were poor. None of us was one of those scientists. My heart skipped a bit when Dimitri spoke again. "The only one here who doesn't fit in the group is you".
"Me? I'm not rich, but I'm not poor either. My family is a middle class family like any other". I explained.
"Virginie's dad owns half of the vineyards in France. Jan's mom is the most influential business woman in Germany. I'm getting loads of money from sponsors whenever I announce my new adventure to climb another mountain. Aidan here comes from a family of doctors and lawyers from Boston. Their house in Martha's vineyard is worth a fortune. And you?". Silence followed that answer. It really didn't make sense. "You're getting paid for this, right?".
"Yes" I could barely speak. I was suddenly so tired.
"Well, so are we. But see? We don't need the money. Do you understand my point?". I did. It was indeed weird.
"Should we ask the Count?" I suggested. Dimitri laughed and some heads turned to look at us.
"What will you ask him, Lorena? Will you ask him if he plans something creepy? Will you ask him why you?" He had a point.
"And how do you know all this about us, Dimitri?" I asked, suspicious. He shrugged.
"I'll be your guide up there in the mountain. Conditions will be very hostile. I need to know all about you to be able to help you if the situation requires it. It's my job".
"Knowing about our private lives can save us?" I asked, skeptical.
"Yeah. I'm pretty sure you won't need the same kind comfort as Virginie up there. She seems to be pretty confident and self sufficient". Somehow, that irritated me.
"What do you mean? That I'm insecure and a coward?" I said, whispering. His blue eyes looked at me sympathetically.
"You're the one wondering if our Count is a Vampire, aren't you?" He said, with a smirk, and I blushed, humiliated. He was right. I was going nuts.
"Would you like to share your conversation with us?" The Count asked, still smiling. Alan served the dinner.
"I was wondering" I started, and I felt Dimitri's gaze on me. "Why did you choose us?"
"I was actually wondering the same" Aidan commented.
"I really don't care, as long as I can stay for a lifetime in this palace" said Virginie, dreamily.
The Count stared at me and, for a moment, I thought I saw something else in his gaze. But it was gone soon. He unfolded his napkin and played with his dinner, without touching it. I tried the chicken and it was delicious.
"It was actually a lottery. I selected five countries randomly, and then from all the students of each country a name was picked. No mystery and no special selection" He said, unconvincingly.
"But you want to experiment with the effects of high altitude with us. You knew we're all trekkers" I said. Virginie looked at me with a bored expression.
"Yes, I specifically chose trekkers for that lottery. Is there something specific you wish to ask me and you don't dare to?" Ivan's comment took me by surprise. He smiled kindly and suddenly, all my fears were gone. A soothing feeling invaded me and I felt dizzy. All from the sudden I didn't need to know more. Everything made perfect sense. And it seems my group felt the same, as we went on eating dinner happily. But I did notice that the Count didn't take his eyes off me.
It was bedtime and I went to my room after the Count said goodbye to us. I felt a bit tipsy, the wine was stronger than I had thought. We were all sleeping on the second floor. Virginie lingered under her door frame, chatting happily with Aidan, who didn't seem to share her enthusiasm. Dimitri wished me good night and closed his door behind him, Jan looked at Virginie like a hurt puppy and disappeared inside his room. I put the key in the locker but it didn't open. I cursed in low voice, trying again and again.
"May I help you?" I jumped when I heard Aidan's voice so close to me. Virginie was already inside her room. The soft lamps on the corridor illuminated our faces. The dim light and the dark walls decorated with all sorts of old paintings gave me the feeling that we were actually in a very old castle.
"Sure" I handed him the key and our fingers brushed. I took my hand away quickly. Aidan turned the key on the lock clockwise.
"You were locking it instead of opening it". My door was ajar now and the darkness inside made me feel uneasy.
"Thank you" I said. He nodded and opened his door, right in front of mine. I doubted, incapable of going inside. I felt stupid. Just turn on the lights, you idiot, I told myself. I found the switch on the left wall. The chandelier illuminated the room. I closed the door slowly behind me, impressed. A carpeted floor led me to a four poster bed, like that of a princess. The big windows with aubergine shutters faced the North side, towards the mountains. The dressing table had a big mirror framed by a riveted bronze arc. I touched it, it was as cold as ice. The heating wasn't connected, as days were warmer but I couldn't help feeling cold. There was a door next to me that led to a bathroom. To my surprise, the bathroom was completely modern, with all sort of products available: shampoos, creams, perfumes, salts... I suddenly felt safer. So far it was the only 21st century room I had seen in the house. The ceramic tiles, the modern shower, the sink and the lights reminded me of the toilets from the most expensive hotels I had been in. I decided I would take a shower in the morning, brushed my teeth, put my pajamas on and headed to bed. I found a night lamp on my bedside and turned the chandelier off. In the dimness I saw all sort of shades in my room and I tried to laugh at my childish fears. The door was locked, I was the only one in the room. I was just tired after almost two days without sleep and everything looked scarier at night. After a good night of sleep I would feel better. I was sure of that. Leaving the small lamp on, I covered my head with the warm blanket and enjoyed the softness of the silky sheets. Slowly, my fears left and I fell into a deep sleep.