“Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32)
I hope I’m not the last to arrive, Jeremy thought as the Uber drove him towards the billionaire’s mansion. The orientation started twenty minutes ago, and while a delayed flight was no fault of his own, he detested the idea of being late. The consequence of his lacking punctuality was something Jeremy could handle; however, the awkward staring from people as he entered the room was less than ideal. But he was present, and would at the very least hear out the proposal.
Jeremy almost forgot that he was holding the letter from his parents. He switched hands, as not to moisten the envelope from his sweaty palms. The contents were likely trivial, but he hesitated to open anything written by his parents, and sometimes it took him months before he opened their letters. The trauma of his youth still weighed heavily on him, and if they were anybody but the two who brought him into this world, he would have severed them from his life long ago.
He looked at the letter one last time before shoving it back into his pocket. He would read it later.
“Are you sure this is the place?” the driver asked, as he pulled up to the wrought iron gates.
Jeremy looked at the address on his orientation letter. It was definitely Stefan Lauder’s property. “This is it.”
Jeremy noticed the security camera watching them, and somebody must have been watching, as the gate swung ajar, granting them access.
As the car neared the mansion, a regular citizen might have been impressed by the view – the massive garden, the mountain in the backdrop – but Jeremy had seen it all before. Ten years as a photographer for World Lens had opened his eyes to the wonders of the planet, and the beauty that inhabited it. An oversized mansion for a family of one did little to strike awe in the thirty-five-year-old. Even if it did have three garages, street lamps down the half-mile one-way, and a greenhouse attached to the side of the building. Jeremy could only imagine what the backyard looked like… but he did not strain himself over it.
The driver whistled. “You got friends in high places, eh?”
Jeremy was not so sure. He felt he was on the set of some gothic horror film, being sent away to some secluded house. He could be thrown in a dungeon to rot or be chopped up and served to the owner’s cult of cannibals.As the Uber weaved the winding road through the property, the manicured lawns and smiling landscapers, however, gave no hint of dark tidings. But Jeremy would not be fooled. Rich people had their secrets.
“I guess we’ll find out,” Jeremy said.
The whole thing was strange from the very beginning. Jeremy received a letter regarding the job offer and was expected to show in-person to the orientation. The flight was paid for – the primary reason Jeremy indulged in the invitation. He knew they would travel to Nepal and that he was required to operate as a photographer. But that was the extent of it. Imagine getting invited to a wedding, but not knowing who the newlyweds are. I suppose, regardless, there will be people who show up for the open-bar…
On the fence himself, Jeremy wondered how many others flat-out declined. Yet, despite the lack of information, here he was.
The driver parked at the front of the mansion, and got out to help with the luggage. Two sets of polished stone stairs rose to the entranceway. The building’s craft gave it a new-age Victorian appeal, and was more akin to a hotel than a civilian household. Jeremy half-expected someone to come out and collect his bags for him, and was disappointed when nobody came. Maybe if I’m lucky I’ll find REDRUM written on the walls tonight. Stefan’s mansion: haunted exhibit. Now that would make this a worthwhile venture.
Jeremy stowed his suitcase, equipment pack, and backpack stacked neatly at the stairs. He thanked the driver, tipped him on the app, and then proceeded to haul his equipment towards the landing.
Jeremy was prepared to decline the job offer, but he brought what we would need regardless. Packing light with all his equipment proved challenging: his tripod, his camcorder, his DSLR, and his laptop. Stefan Lauder eluded at the exact duration of the trip, but said to expect three to four weeks. Still, Jeremy thought he would humor the rich treasure hunter, and come with an open mind. At the very least, there was promise of a dinner party, and while Jeremy was not the most social person on the planet, he delighted in the idea of some fine dining.
Jeremy did his research on Stefan Lauder to prepare himself for whatever offer was laid at his feet. Stefan was a famed daredevil and treasure seeker. Yet somewhere along the lines he made a fortune and uncovered several rare artifacts from around the world. He was mentioned in over a dozen museums for his contributions, owned a line of high-end wristwatches, and did charity work on the side. But then there was the off-the-books information… if one looked deeper. Stefan had been involved in piracy scandals, though never formally charged. He had also been the center of controversy with some of his findings, including but not limited to desecrations of sacred sites and thievery of indigenous idols in South America. It seemed to Jeremy that Mr. Lauder had an interest in lost, religious artifacts and their history, moreso when there was wealth involved.
Jeremy struggled to carry his equipment single-handedly, and was relieved to place it at the steps of the looming double doors. He could see a bright chandelier hanging inside of the house through the French inserts. Just as Jeremy went to press the doorbell, a woman opened the door and greeted him.
“Welcome,” she said, warmly. “You must be Mr. Singer.”
“That’s me,” Jeremy said, trying to peek inside behind the tall woman. She wore heels despite her height and had long, brown flowing hair that was neatly kept behind her shoulders. Her sharp, pressed dress-suit made her fit right in along with the wealth of the property.
“I’m Vanessa, Mr. Lauder’s assistant,” she said. “Please, come inside. Don’t worry about your bags. I will have someone bring them inside for you.”
“I hope I’m not too late,” Jeremy said, following her lead.
“You’re fine,” Vanessa said, showing a carefree smile. “I believe they’ve only just begun.”
With the help of the massive twenty-foot chandelier, the mansion’s innards gleamed and radiated from every corner. Jeremy had to admit, he was impressed. Glass displays of artifacts and other curious items from Stefan’s findings were against the wall of the main lobby. There were two winding staircases, three stories high, that erected from both sides of the spacious room. It looks like a museum in here… I wonder how many people Mr. Lauder has on his payroll. This place is spotless.
Jeremy quickly made sure that he was not dragging any dirt in across the sparkling marble.
“Right this way, please,” Vanessa directed him, leading him to one of the three rooms on the left-hand side. She opened the door and moved out of the way for Jeremy, who cautiously entered.
The door closed behind him, and Jeremy was met with the stares of six others, all seated around a whopping board-room table. Mr. Lauder was at the head of the table, and behind him was a long, white screen used for overhead projectors. There were three other men, and two women, all spaced out equally.
“Mr. Singer,” Stefan said, “Thank you for joining us. I began to question whether or not you would show. Please, take a seat. You’ve missed the introductions, but not to fret, I’m sure you’ll get acquainted in due time.”
Jeremy nodded and sat down at the vacant chair across from one of the women. She was blonde and fair-skinned, quite possibly around his age, and very cute. She smiled at him revealing lovely white teeth and little dimples on her cheeks.
“Mr. Singer here is our photographer,” Stefan announced. “He had the perfect resume for our mission. Right, let’s get straight down to business, shall we?” He turned on the projector, went over to this laptop, and opened a PowerPoint presentation.
The room was comparable to a small university class, with the professor at the head, and a handful of eager or sleep-deprived students sitting around, awaiting their lesson. Jeremy took a moment to observe the others while Mr. Lauder prepared his lecture. The man closest to the front had a tall and lanky build, sporting a black dress shirt. He had thick, black-framed glasses, a bald spot on the top of his thinning dark hair, and an unshaven face. He also had a white collar under his dress shirt, and if Jeremy were to guess, he would suggest that the fellow was a priest.
Another man sat between the first man and the cute girl across from him. He looked to be around Jeremy’s age and of the nerdy variety. If the Big Bang Theory introduced a new character to befriend Sheldon and Leonard, this guy might look the part. He had neatly combed, short black hair, glasses, and a tense look that spelled social awkwardness.
The woman up at the front, on Jeremy’s side of the table, was well-dressed, as a professor at a prestigious university might be. Her chestnut hair was neatly kept in a ponytail, but Jeremy could only see the back of her head. Her hands were folded together on her notebook as she awaited the lecture.
And just like at university, Jeremy had left his own notebook in his bag. To him, taking notes always felt like a waste of time. Besides, this mission of Mr. Lauder’s needed to have two requirements for Jeremy to accept. Firstly, he desired fair payment, and he knew that Stefan would deliver on that, at least. It was the reason he was compelled to show despite the vague job description. Secondly, the job needed to have some semblance of security. Jeremy did not wish to suffer an experience like the one he had in Myanmar. He promised himself that dangerous jobs were a thing of the past.
The man directly in front of Jeremy was older, around the same age as the priestly gentleman. He attempted to dress well, with a patchy, fraying sports coat, and hair that looked like he had lost the battle with a comb. He had a brown, bushy mustache from the angle Jeremy could see, and thick, meaty fingers that tapped intermittently on the table.
The tapping tested Jeremy’s irritation.
Stefan dimmed the lights for a movie theater-like effect. On the screen before them was a backdrop of mountains, the sky barely visible at the top of the projection. Jeremy already knew the location belonged to Nepal.
“Pop quiz: does anyone know where this is?” Stefan asked.
“Everest?” the cute girl across from him asked.
“Wrong… but close,” Stefan responded excitedly.
Jeremy thought for a moment. There were dozens of prominent mountains in Nepal. “Manaslu,” he said when no one else answered. Might as well take a stab at it…
“Quite correct you are, Jeremy. Yes, Manaslu… also known as the mountain of the spirit. It’s the eighth highest mountain range in the world, situated in the west-central region of Nepal. And that’s where we will be going,” Stefan continued.
Jeremy had been to Everest once before in his early years, but mountains were not his specialty. Get on with it, Stefan.
As if reading Jeremy’s mind, Stefan said, “I will get straight to the point.” He cleared his throat. “I have been searching for something for over ten years… going through anything and everything that could have some clue to its location. Six months ago I found that clue, and compiled all the relevant information on the subject that I could.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, the reason we are going to Nepal…” Stefan delayed the punchline. Jeremy realized that he was tapping his fingers now in anticipation just like the other man. “…Is because hidden there somewhere in the mountain is a doorway… a gateway. It’s here, at the mountain of the spirit where I believe the stairway to heaven to be.”
The finger tapping stopped, and all Jeremy could hear was the creaking of one of the chairs as someone shifted in their seat. Stairway to heaven… is he nuts? If the man up at the front was indeed a priest, Jeremy now understood why he was hired.
“I could be wrong on this,” Jeremy spoke to break the uneasy silence. “But didn’t Led Zeppelin coin that phrase with their song at the start of the 70s? I don’t believe a stairway to heaven would have been referenced prior to that.” Jeremy had learned this fact after getting into a religious debate with a friend back in college regarding references to heaven in popular culture.
“That’s quite true – at least from what we know,” Stefan said. “So, it’s likely not a stairway at all, but since we don’t know yet, we can refer to it as such. Samagaun natives in notable villages believe that the mountain is cursed. And while there are public excursions and people who trek the summit, I believe that our destination is in another location… somewhere where people wouldn’t accidentally stumble upon it.”
Stefan brought up the next slide, which was another shot of the mountain, but included a small village. “There are more remote settlements… ones that conservationists and tourists have not mapped out as much. The natives in these parts refer to a certain pathway, and warn travelers of it, turning them away when they can. This is, of course, not common knowledge. I had to dig rigorously for this information.”
“How far up does this pathway go?” the man closest to Jeremy asked.
“Are you afraid of heights, Rus?” Stefan joked. “From what my sources tell me, the location of the passage is not a far trek from the Samagaun village. It’s nothing to fret over, friend.”
The man known as Rus nodded in contempt and started tapping again.
Stefan continued, “When I came across this information, I investigated deeper… searching for some clues to corroborate with the words of the locals at what exactly we might be dealing with. And then I found this,” Stefan pulled up the next slide, a news article that looked like it was from another era. “…Body of man finally discovered in the Nepalese mountains. John Everly and girlfriend Samantha Wright went out to explore the region in 1949. The couple went missing and it wasn’t until 1978, almost thirty years later, before they uncovered John’s body. Samantha’s remains were never found.”
“But here’s the interesting part: where they found John’s body they also found some of his belongings, including a bag that had a diary inside. Most of the belongings were ruined, and the diary itself was hard to dissect, but some entries were still legible. It included their journeyed days before finding the village, as well as what may have been John’s last days. In his diary, he wrote: ‘We are lost in the mountains. Samantha won’t talk to me. I suspect she is mad at my poor sense of direction. There is a presence here, however… something strange – I can feel it. The mountain is especially haunting at night. Samantha claims that she sees or hears nothing, but I believe she is in denial’.”
Stefan then inhaled deeply as if he were trying to contain his excitement and read on, “On another day he wrote: ‘I am not much of a believer, but after what I witnessed today… I can say that I now believe; the presence here is none other than angelic. As I write this I realize how ridiculous it must sound. They first came to me in my dreams, and spoke to me. But then, even while awake, I saw them for myself, moving as shadows along the mountainside. I fear Samantha won’t let us stay in these parts any longer, but I wish to pursue these angelic beings further’.”
Stefan turned the page on the projector and said, “Authorities pronounced John’s cause of death was due to falling, having broken nearly every bone in his body.”Stefan moved away from his podium and came closer to the table. “I won’t lie; the mountain terrain does possess some inherent danger, and we should not take it lightly. I will be hiring two guides who know the mountains inside and out. If at any point the expedition becomes too perilous, then we will withdraw.”
Jeremy remained unmoved. It was as he thought – Stefan Lauder was just a typical adrenaline junkie; an adventure seeker. But he would hear the rest of the proposal out, especially the payment portion.
Another slide came up on the screen, and Stefan said, “I have one more case here. This is more recent… in 2005 a man in his forties named Benjamin Simmons went on the Manaslu circuit and became lost. He survived for two weeks before he stumbled his way into a village, and was rescued. The officials who found him reported that he was suffering from delirium, and they, at the time, believed this to be the result of dehydration and starvation. However, it seemed to persist well after the fact. I came across this report last year and visited Mr. Simmons myself, and while he is still, should we say, unhinged, he told me that he came across a pathway and that it led him to Heaven’s Gates – these are his words not mine.”
“Do you have a record of the interview?” the girl across from Jeremy asked.
“Of course, Ms. Dawkins,” Stefan said. “It wasn’t a very… detailed conversation, but I recorded it all the same.”
“And where is Mr. Simmons now?”
“Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in New York,” Stefan answered.
Interesting… could be the ramblings of a crazy person, but it’s eerily similar to John’s account. Whatever this Ben guy found or saw contributed to long term mental instability.
“After we’re done with the meeting do you mind sharing those sources with me?” Ms. Dawkins asked.
Good call… despite the two sources having interesting grounds for review it’s not much to go on, and it’s certainly not the first time in history somebody thought angels were speaking to them.
“Absolutely,” Stefan answered. “I figured you would ask.”
“Also, how long do we plan on staying in the mountains?” Ms. Dawkins asked.
“My initial estimation of three to four weeks hasn’t wavered,” Stefan said. “Once we reach base camp in Nepal for supplies, we will outfit everyone with proper climbing gear and clothing. So don’t worry if you forgot your winter jacket.” The rich man chuckled at his joke.
Jeremy did not want to be the first one to ask about payment, but he was growing impatient. “How much are we earning for seeing this through?” His voice cracked when he spoke, and his face subsequently grew hot, making him feel like the adolescent of the bunch.
“Two-hundred and fifty thousand will be wired to each of your bank accounts for accepting the job,” Stefan explained, “and one million – each – will be granted after we return home.”
The same unsettling quiet from earlier took over the room again. Jeremy wrestled with the amount: a million and a quarter. It was a large sum of money… more than he thought it might be, but not so ridiculous that he was forced to accept. With that much money I could stop working for these big companies. I could settle down and do my own thing, jobs that I enjoy. Jeremy let the fantasy wash over him, but he remained unsure. Something still seemed off about the whole thing. He needed to know who all these people were and what their function on the team was. And then there was the inherent danger of traversing a mountain, one that even the locals steered clear of.
“Unless there are any more pressing questions, I’m sure you all desire some time to think about the proposition,” Stefan said. “I have preparations to make now. Vanessa will show you all to your rooms and give you the details about the dinner. Oh, and before I forget… the plane leaves tomorrow at 10 AM. We’ll hitch a ride to the airstrip at 9 AM. Hope to see you all there.”
Vanessa was already standing at the doorway, as if she had been there the whole time. She was smiling in a Stepford fashion.
Stefan left the room via the far door. Jeremy and each of the other guests followed Vanessa back to the lobby. “There’s a bar down the hall to the right if any of you grow thirsty.” Vanessa pointed down the hall, under the winding stairs. She then led them to the main hallway, running behind the staircases. The marble became a maroon carpet, and in the brightly lit hall Jeremy noticed paintings all the way down. He was no art enthusiast but he did not need to be to understand the value of them.
Jeremy overheard a hushed conversation between the older woman and the man with the black dress shirt. “…It’s the Last Supper. Do you think it’s the actual painting or just a copy?”
“We both know Stefan could afford it if it was real.”
Vanessa cleared her throat. “And just down here and on the left is where the dinner will be hosted. It’s now…” she looked at her watch, “…6:20. If you need to freshen up, feel free. Please meet back here at 6:45 for dinner.”
She led everyone onward up to the second floor.
The hostess showed each guest to their rooms down the long hallway, and handed everyone a piece of paper as she did. The upstairs looked like a hotel, with several rooms all spaced out. Jeremy was shown to his room, which was the furthest one, all the way at the end of the hall.
Jeremy opened the door and turned on the lights. The room was small but pleasant, with a king-size bed that was neatly made. He had a T.V. and a long writing desk near the window. Even the bathroom looked welcoming. Jeremy noticed his equipment along the bedside, and he sat down beside it and leaned back onto the large space. He observed the waiver in his hand. It explained the purpose of the expedition, albeit briefly, and all the legal jargon that accompanied such documents.
Stefan had given him quite a choice. The stairway to heaven… now that would be something. Jeremy felt inspired by the prospect. If he was a part of a team that found proof that such a thing existed – God, heaven, angels – he would be famous. It would be one of the biggest discoveries in human history. But Jeremy tried not to let that influence his decision. He had matured too much in his career to chase fame.
Jeremy looked at the digital clock on the nightstand to see 6:31. He still had a few minutes to kill before he would head down to eat, and socialize with the others. He placed the waiver on the stand, and closed his eyes. He had a lot to consider.