Welcome Home, Brother: Episode 1 - By Howard Schneider

It was a little after midnight when the creaky antiquated bus pulled into the shabby village, the last stop on this little-used once-a week rural route. We six hours late due to an unexpected detour around a collapsed bridge over the Black River: we had to take a twisty lane that led to a shallow gravel-bed crossing eighty miles to the south that allowed the rickety vehicle to cross to the east bank. Then the old, bedraggled driver had to slowly negotiate a maze of narrow mountain roads northward to rejoin the two-lane dirt road we'd been traveling since early morning. But my actual destination was another ten miles beyond this desolate village, the castle of Baron Erik Lupo, a distant cousin of the infamous Count Dracula. Lupo, a man of unwavering resolve and feared throughout all Romania, still unexpectantly vigorous in his seventh decade, is said to be Romania's wealthiest citizen, as well as the unchallenged crime lord of southeastern Europe. His castle, an impregnable stone fortress set atop a remote peak in the western flank of the Carpathian Mountains, dates from the thirteenth century, a time when Romania was a powerful state amidst the floundering throng of ruthless despots, inbred royalty, and local bandits who controlled much of the southeastern wilds of the European continent. His family, along with the powerful Dracula clan, traced the foundation of their wealth and entitlement to adventures young knights who returned from the first crusade with immense ill-gotten plunder and treasure. 

I was on this journey because I'd been assigned the job of discovering the fate of two journalists who'd been sent by my newspaper to interview Lupo for an investigative series about the powerful families who controlled Romanian business and politics. I'd been chosen for this task for two reasons: first, before becoming a reporter, I'd been a police detective in Bucharest, and in theory should be able to solve a missing persons case; second, because I too was related to the Lupo family, albeit only remotely—my father was also a distant cousin of Count Dracula, meaning I too was, related to the Lupo lineage. And as far as my editor was concerned, those facts qualified me to confront Lupo and find out what had happened to my colleagues who'd been dispatched to do the job the previous year. 

There should have been someone from the castle to meet me in the village, but obviously because of the detour delay, I was met by nothing other than a deserted hamlet and a full moon. But with the aid of my flashlight and bright moonlight, and my determination to solve the mystery, I made my way to the castle by foot, arriving as dawn broke in the eastern sky. I was tired, famished, and angry—angry that whoever should have met me had not done so. But these annoyances were obliterated when the massive oak door swung open in response to the force of my banging the big brass knocker and I beheld the person who stood unmoving in the doorway. The sudden surprise displayed on his familiar face was apparently as great as my own astonishment which jolted me like a bolt of lightning. The man I confronted was none other than a copy of me. 

After a brief moment of numbing silence, the man stepped aside without uttering a word and motioned me to enter. Quickly recovering my composure, I realized that I was in a wide, dimly lit hall, the stone walls of which were hung with shields, swords, and other ancient weapons of war. He led me to a large, high-ceilinged room with a roaring fire in a cavernous hearth and directed me to a chair next to the fireplace and took the one next to mine. Then, without a word said, a servant rolled a trolly with food and drink to my side, then disappeared. 

"Eat. You must be hungry after your difficult journey," the man who was me said. But before I had a chance to pick up a piece of cheese, he added, "So. We meet at last."

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