M.D. Neu © 2017
All Rights Reserved
What is death?
I once believed there was only one definition: your body stops functioning, your soul leaves and what’s left turns to dust. That was what I thought, until it wasn’t.
I’ve discovered when you’re a nobody, the world can be an amazing place if you want it to be. Your life can change in a heartbeat and not make the least bit of difference to anyone but you, or so it would seem.
That was my case.
I’m by no means whining or complaining. I had a job, a small place to live, and friends, but no real family, and that was something I desperately missed and wanted. My life wasn’t bad and I was happy. However, I was just a random person, one of the many faces you see on the street and never glance at twice. It was dull. Of course, as with me, the majority of society didn’t know our world had hidden secrets, unseen by most.
The other important thing I want you to realize about me is that before I met her, I wasn’t a lucky man, not with money and certainly not with love. I made enough to live on, but never enough to take fancy trips. My idea of travel was staying at home and watching movies. That was my price range. And as for love, it was forgettable.
The day my life changed was like all the others, until it wasn’t. It was August 19. The year isn’t important. But we had finished celebrating the Olympics, and in a few short months, the country would be picking between the lesser of two evils for president.
I sat at an outdoor café in Santana Row. I’d spent the afternoon going on a tour of the Winchester Mystery House. Once my stomach had started to growl, I decided to grab a bite to eat.
I had come to San Jose, California for a vacation that I couldn’t afford and didn’t particularly want to take. Why San Jose? Why not San Francisco or Monterey or Vegas or Yosemite? To be honest, I don’t know, but it’s like everything inside and around me pulled me there. Out of the blue, I got emails from the San Jose Visitor Bureau. My dreams were filled with images of the city and the surrounding hills and mountains. It seemed that old song, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” by Dionne Warwick constantly played. Still, San Jose isn’t the place most people consider for a ten-day vacation, especially someone alone who had never been to the Bay Area before.
Despite my appreh, from the moment I arrived, I immediately felt at peace. I’d never been this calm or relaxed anywhere before, not even at home. There was another reason for me coming here, one I didn’t understand yet, at least not on a conscious level.
I would find out why soon enough.
I don’t want to get things out of order, so back on point. I sat at this Italian-style outdoor café watching people walk by, enjoying the scent of roses and vanilla that filled the air. The aroma tickled the back of my brain. I smelled it everywhere, which should have been my first clue that something was different.
After enjoying my Italian-style chicken marsala, and while I sipped my strawberry lemonade, I felt a sharp pull in my brain. It wasn’t like I heard voices—it was more like vague images filled my head: a house, a woman, gardens, a gate, hills covered in trees, and a pair of eyes. My hands shook, and my glass fell to the floor and shattered. An intense pressure grew between my eyes, and I pinched the bridge of my nose to ease it.
When the tug came, three things happened to me at once.
First, I had the realization that I had an important meeting in Los Altos Hills. I had never heard of Los Altos Hills and even had to look it up on my phone to see if it was real. I would have to check my GPS when I returned to my rental. I knew the address of the house and who I was going to meet. She had blonde hair and mysterious eyes. I knew her, but I didn’t understand how.
Second, the waiter came to my table.
“Sorry about the drink,” I said.
He gave me an odd look and informed me my meal had been paid for and to enjoy my evening. Flabbergasted, I stared at the server.
I glanced around the café and wondered who paid the bill and why. I wasn’t even done yet.
“Mr. Alexander, are you all right?” The waiter scanned me up and down. “Do you need me to call someone? You look pale.”
“No.” I shook my head. “I’m fine.”
How did the waiter know my name? Stranger still, when I checked the table, my drink sat there and nothing had fallen to the floor. I wasn’t sure what was happening.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Sorry. Just a headache,” I said.
“All right. I hope you have a pleasant afternoon.” He smiled and started to walk off but turned back. “Oh, I almost forgot. I’m supposed to remind you about your meeting tonight.”
A lump stuck in my throat, and I nodded. It was spooky, but I wasn’t scared.
The last thing: I got a text from my closest friend, Cindy Martin. Good luck tonight. I’m sure it’ll be you.
I remember thinking, What does she know that I don’t?
I’ve known Cindy for years, and for her to say anything that short and sweet was rare. In fact, I don’t suppose I ever got a message from her without any emoticons.
As bizarre as all of this was, I realized that no matter what, everything and everyone I cared about would be okay. Clearly, there was something more to this trip and my being here. I didn’t know what. But it wasn’t just some free meal. It was bigger than that. If I was selected for what? I had no clue. And if I wasn’t, then I would get to see them again. There would be no questions.
Part of me wanted to worry, but I wasn’t bothered, which in itself surprised me. I’ve been a pessimist for as long as I can remember. It probably had to do with the strange death of my father when I was a kid. A death never fully explained. So, for this not to make me worry was one more mystery. What was about to happen was something that would just be. Instead of freaking out and worrying, I was calm and accepting of whatever adventure or fate awaited me.
Even though I was short on time to get to the house in Los Altos Hills, I wanted to enjoy my lunch. Reflecting on it now, I’m pretty sure that was the cynical part of my brain trying to exert some kind of control. I took my time, finished my meal, and when I was done, I tipped the server and left.
I walked back to my rental car. I wanted to take in as much of the classical European architecture and lush landscaping of the outdoor mall as I could. I managed to get a few decent cell phone pictures of the place.
I stopped my lollygagging and got moving. I had someplace to be and what appeared to be no choice in the matter. Before you go crazy, understand this wasn’t like one of those stupid movies that you watch, shaking your head, yelling at the screen for them not to go into the dark forest or spooky house or whatever. It wasn’t like that.
I’d like to hope I’m explaining this well enough so you don’t sit there and think, “Oh this is stupid. I’d never do anything that dumb.” It wasn’t like I had a choice. I had to go—something compelled me to her. I had to meet this woman, calling me. It was hard-wired into me, no matter how much I tried to slow down or stall, I moved forward.
I moved toward her.
When I finally got in the car and took a breath, I wasn’t clammy or shaky, and my heart wasn’t pounding in my chest. I should have been anxious, but I wasn’t. I was fine.
Knowing without understanding what I had to do, I headed to the freeway.
If I had seen into the future, I would have taken a different route, but I didn’t. An accident backed up the freeway. Sadly, I found the onboard GPS wasn’t as helpful as I’d hoped. It led me straight into bumper-to-bumper traffic. It was a nightmare, and not something I was used to. I sat in four lanes of cars and not a single one moved. What should have taken no more than half an hour was going to take an eternity.
“I’m going to be late,” I chanted as I anxiously tapped along to “You and Me” playing on the radio.
A silver Rolls-Royce cut me off, causing me to stop abruptly. My heart skipped a beat. When my breath returned, I tried to find the Rolls, but it seemed to vanish into the traffic.
“Not possible,” I grumbled. The radio stopped for a news break.
I hated being late.
The drive along 280 had lush trees and green hills once I got out of the valley, with attractive homes scattered here and there. It was one of the nicer freeways I’d ever been on and nothing like what I saw in Reno. Well, not until you got into the mountains. I took the S. El Monte Avenue exit and headed up into the hills past a junior college. Who knew there’d be a college out this way?
The road curved and turned till I found the house. To call my destination a house is an understatement. Even from the gate, it was a remarkable size. At least two stories, possibly three. It was an architectural masterpiece situated on perfectly landscaped grounds unlike anything I’d ever seen, not even on TV.
At the massive security gate, I pushed the call box button and waited.
“Mr. Alexander, welcome. Please, drive through,” a female voice instructed as the iron gates lazily opened.
I briefly questioned how she recognized me, but I figured there was a camera embedded in the call box.
Before me lay a flawless, recently raked gravel drive hedged by lush beds of orange, red, violet, and yellow flowers, all manicured to perfection. Cherry trees lined the drive and added more color and height.
I drove carefully up the drive and pulled into a circular parking area that surrounded a giant fountain. Spiraling topiary shrubs in massive stone containers invited me to the enormous wood doors sheltered in the portico.
I got out, taking in the sight of the house. It was a cream-colored Tudor-style mansion surrounded by what I thought was an English garden filled with hedges and red and white roses. This estate’s upkeep had to be more than I made in a year.
There were several other cars parked near mine. It would seem I wasn’t the only one invited to this party. I sensed I was the last to arrive and that bothered me. A few cars had rental tags like mine, and the vehicles that weren’t rentals were older with dings and dents. Clearly, none of them fit the surroundings of the estate.
A part of my brain screamed at me, “Leave and run away. You don’t belong here.” But the rest of my mind and my body overruled this impulse and pushed me forward to the main door. I wanted…no I needed to be there.
I was examining the beautiful gold inlaid carvings, perhaps ancient writing with intricate shapes and patterns on the doorframe, when the door opened and a lovely woman stood there. I was awestruck. She had flawless hair and nails, no more than forty years old, and wore a big welcoming smile, revealing a dimple on her left cheek. She was dressed in an expensive, knee-length dark gray skirt with a light blue cashmere sweater emphasizing her breasts. All of it appeared to have been made to her exact measurements.
“Welcome, Duncan. I’m Amanda Sutherland. You’re the last to arrive. Please, follow me.” Her tone was gracious but tight. I found it annoying because of its implied attitude.
I mumbled an apology and followed her. My annoyance quickly vanished as I crossed the threshold and a wave of peacefulness filled every part of my body, as if I were a crystal glass.
Still, I wanted to redeem myself for being tardy.
I followed Miss Sutherland and was dazzled by what I saw around me. The floors were highly polished wood with marble inlays, and on the walls were old original paintings, not prints. I could see the brush strokes. They were amazing, like something from the middle ages. Very gothic.
They should be in a museum.
Subtle scents of roses and vanilla caused me to inhale deeply as I followed Miss Sutherland deeper into the house. We arrived at a large reception room where there were three men and two women, all of us about the same age and all wearing similar expressions of puzzlement.
Why are we here?
“Madame de Exter will be with you shortly. Please, enjoy some refreshments.” Miss Sutherland pointed to a tray of wineglasses held by one of the uniformed house staff. As the server moved around, she offered each of us a smile with the wine. When finished, she put the tray on the sideboard and walked out of the room.
Our reception room was at the back of the house and anything but simple. It would be like calling Hearst Castle another beach house along the California coast. This one room could probably encompass my entire apartment, bedroom and all. The floors were made of a polished stone I didn’t recognize, and the walls had wood moldings and trim. Of course there were more original paintings. The furniture appeared modern and comfortable, not the antiques you would imagine for the space. There was a wall of french doors that opened onto more of the perfectly manicured lawn and another fountain. Tucked away in the back of the yard was a smaller house of a similar style to the mansion along with a swimming pool.
It only took Miss Sutherland’s absence for us to start talking, trying to pump each other for information.
“Do any of you know why we’re here?” A petite Asian woman asked in a stage whisper as she held up her glass of white wine. Her gaze danced around the room and focused on each of us in turn.
I wouldn’t call her pretty, but she wasn’t ugly either. Then I noticed that the others were all of an average type.
“No clue,” a guy replied. He sniffed the wine and hesitated before taking a small sip. “I’m Doug, by the way,” he said with a polite nod to the others. Doug was a bit rough-looking with a scruffy face, and dull brown hair that was thinning on top. He was dressed more for manual labor than a party.
“Duncan,” I said as I shook his callused hand. He was definitely in construction work.
It’s funny the things you remember. How calm his voice was, and that he wore a blue and green flannel shirt, which seemed a little out of place for the time of year.
“Chui.” The Asian woman then sipped her wine.
I nodded at her politely. I don’t really remember anything more about her, other than her name, and that she was shorter than Doug and me.
“Janis,” the other woman said, glancing at the last two men, who hesitated.
Janis had the best looks and the nicest clothes. Her blouse was silk, and the bag she held was older but it had a Gucci label on it. I do remember her eyes, like pools of water that you could get lost in. Not that I did.
“Hi. I’m Juan,” a dark-haired, brown-eyed man said.
The last man was taller than any of us. He was also probably the best-looking guy in the room. Ruggedly handsome with a strong chin and perfect jawline. The rich dark tones of his skin made his eyes pop.
“I’m Erik.” He waved a hand toward us as his voice lowered. “If you don’t mind, where are you all from?”
Erik, it seemed, had noticed what I saw in our unique group. None of us were dressed in what one would consider proper attire for such a house… mansion… whatever.
“Reno,” I said, holding my wineglass but not drinking from it. Even though I felt safe and at ease, still part of me was a tiny bit suspicious. I doubted it was drugged, but I wasn’t quite comfortable drinking it.
“Here. The Bay Area,” Janis said in a tight voice. She continually scanned the room and the doors. That answer was deliberately vague.
“Morgan Hill. Just south of here,” Chui said. She didn’t seem to mind sharing or drinking the wine. Her glass was already empty.
“I’m from LA.” Erik sipped his wine and made a face, then put it down and didn’t touch it again.
“Portland.” Juan turned to Doug.
“I guess I win. I’m from Denver.” Doug smiled. He had an easy grin and perfectly straight and blindingly white teeth. Smiling seemed to come natural to him. “That still doesn’t explain why we’re here. I don’t recognize any of you, and I haven’t been to Reno, LA, or Portland.” He chuckled. “Hell. I don’t know anything about this place or our elusive host, and yet I feel like I’ve seen this house and this room before.”
There were a few nods from the others.
“We’ve probably all seen homes like this on TV. That’s why it seems so familiar,” Janis said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “There are a lot of homes like this in the area. It’s not that great.”
Erik rolled his eyes as he turned to me.
“I don’t know. This place is pretty impressive, and that wonderful scent of roses and vanilla…” I commented.
“The what?” Janis asked with raised eyebrows.
“That scent. I’ve smelled it all day,” I said, glancing around the room at the others.
“I can’t smell a thing,” Erik said.
Chui looked at me. “I think it’s the arrangements in the house. I’ve smelled it since I got here.”
Juan shook his head. “I don’t know. I have a bad sniffer so I don’t smell much.”
“I’m with Duncan here,” Doug said. “I started smelling the scent on the drive up here, and normally I don’t notice that stuff. It got stronger the closer I got to this place.”
“What’s that have to do with the house and where we’re all from?” Erik asked.
“Nothing, I suppose,” I said. “Anyway, I’ve never been to Denver, and this is my first time in San Jose.” I tried to figure out what connected us to this place. “Do any of you work in non-profits?” It was a shot in the dark, but one worth taking. I asked, because that’s what I did. It wasn’t a big non-profit, with only an annual budget of $8 million, but then Reno isn’t a huge area, not that it doesn’t have its problems. It does, and the need is great. Like everywhere.
Our group of strangers spent the next several minutes talking and trying to connect the dots. The only things we had in common were: we were all single, none of us were particularly important people when it came to our work or social circles—No CEOs or A-Listers among us, not even Janis— and none of us came from large families. In fact, most of us were only children whose parents had passed on. And lastly, we were all simple folk, meaning none of us were wealthy. Janis was the closest to being rich. At best, she was middle class, thanks to her executive assistant job in High Tech, and as I remember, she was fond of throwing around names of designer labels she enjoyed and made a point of pointing out her Gucci bag.
Why were Chui, Doug, and I the only ones to notice the roses and vanilla? Better question, why was I the only one who had smelled the scent all day?