A SACRIFICE FOR YOUTH
“I’m going out,” the woman affirmed as she put down her wine and started to walk away, without waiting for the man to comment about her leaving.
“Where are you going, Colleen?” her husband, Stephen Duncan asked.
“I’m going to visit a sick friend. I won’t need any dinner.” Colleen informed him.
“Oh, I had been hoping we could spend the evening together.” Stephen then quickly redirected the conversation. “So which friend is it tonight?” he asked curtly.
“Sandy. She’s the one with the bad case of psoriasis-remember? It just over took her suddenly and she’s really quite the mess. Why it’s all I can do to console her,” Colleen lied-badly.
“Surely you can stay for dinner. It’s your favorite, sesame beef with noodles,” he explained.
“Put it in the fridge, if I’m hungry when I get home, I’ll eat it then,” she stated brusquely and was gone from the room before he could reply.
Stephen slid the plates back from the edge of the counter, wiped his hands off on a dishtowel then grabbed the bottle of burgundy from the cabinet shelf next to where he was working. He poured himself a large glass of the red liquid, took a deep drink then sighed loudly, resigning himself to the fact that he’d made a terrible mistake.
“You do know where she is going, don’t you?” A young man spoke from the hallway leading into the kitchen. He had apparently been listening to their conversation.
“It’s not polite to eavesdrop and yes, I’m not a complete idiot, Peter,” Stephan responded, then took another large swallow of his wine.
“Dad, she is playing you for a fool. I don’t know how you can let her get away with it,” he berated his father. He stepped past him and picked a piece of meat off one of the plates and ate it. “Hmmm...good.”
“I’ll admit I was foolish when I decided to marry her. I gave her the freedom to do as she chose because I wanted her to be happy and because she is so much younger than I...”
“And you’re just an old man,” Peter snidely interjected.
His seventy-two year old father simply nodded.
“Why do you let her run rough shod over you? Why did you even marry her for that matter? It’s as plain as day she’s only here for the money.”
Stephen looked out the floor to ceiling windows of the kitchen’s dining area that overlooked a large expanse of manicured lawn leading down to the lake.
“I was lonely after your mother died,” he replied as he ran a hand over his balding head-nervous twitch he’d developed in the last year or two. “I had wanted companionship more than a sex partner and I thought Colleen was it. I thought I could make her happy. I thought she was happy when I asked her to marry me,” he whispered as he hung his head and slowly shook it from side to side. “I was wrong, so wrong. I was fooled by her talk of family and of growing old together. I can see now, she’s is just after the money.”
“So divorce her. You have the pre-nup, right?” Peter replied.
His father nodded. Then changed the subject. “This was supposed to be a back-to-college dinner for you.”
“Don’t sweat it, Dad. It’s probably for the best.”
Peter patted his father’s shoulder in a small attempt to console him. “Besides, I was hoping to catch an earlier flight. The one Melissa is on. You know, fly back together and all.”
A smile crossed the old man’s face, making his bushy mustache crinkle. “So how are you two doing?” Wedding bells soon?”
“Still hoping for grand kids sooner than later?” Peter chuckled.
“Can’t fault an old man for hoping,” his father retorted.
Peter hugged his Dad and said, “I’ll call you when I get in.” Then he added, “Don’t let Colleen destroy you, cut her loose as soon as you can deal with it. Then focus on the things that you’ve enjoyed in the past, like working with the library or the museum.”
Peter’s eyes lighted up. “Say, have you finished cataloging grandpa’s materials he left to the museum? If not, finish that up and try not to think about Colleen.”
“How’d I get such a wise son?” Stephen asked.
“His mother raised him right,” Peter retorted jokingly since they both knew dad had spent Peter’s formative years traveling the world on business.
“I wonder if I can ever find another woman like your mom. Stephen asked rhetorically.
“You might try talking with some of mom’s friends,” Peter suggested as he headed out the door.
Stephen finished his wine, poured another, and picked at his meal. He then headed down into the basement with a second bottle of burgundy, intent on sorting the materials his father had left to the local museum.
The museum had been more than patient and he knew it was time for him to fulfill his father’s wishes and get it over with. The issue of Colleen would still be there tomorrow.
Stephen’s father was Joseph Duncan, a noted anthropologist who had collected numerous antiquities over his many years of wandering around the globe. He was also an extremely smart man who had, while wandering globe, kept an eye open for investment possibilities and in doing so built a huge investment firm. He’d managed to successfully combine his two favorite pastimes, the search for man’s past and the need to be financially independent. This way he might have both the time and the money to continue searching.
Stephen had inherited his father’s drive in business but not his desire to traipse around the world looking for bits and pieces of man’s past. In fact, it seemed that life had passed so quickly that he hadn’t ever really developed a desire to do anything else but build a business.
His efforts had been rewarded though, for he was the CEO and Chairman of the Board of the largest private equities firm in the world. His son didn’t have to work a day in his life, though he had chosen to seek degrees with only modest help from his father. Peter’s self-reliant streak provided Stephen with a great deal of pride.
That train of thought brought him back to the issue with Colleen. How could he have been so foolish as to believe a forty-year-old woman could be satisfied with a seventy-year-old man? He had completely misjudged her, discovering only after the wedding that she was a selfish, self-centered woman-the epitome of a gold digger.
In a rare moment of clarity, his son had nudged him just enough to include a pre-nup in their marriage contract. The pre-nup precluded her from receiving more than a specified amount noted in the contract, a small percentage of Stephen’s pre-marital estate, upon his death with the bulk going to his children to split equally.
Perhaps it was the only thing he had done right in regard to Colleen. He knew he’d have to make a decision soon regarding her and it depressed him to admit he had failed so miserably. He had completely misgauged the age difference and despite his immense wealth, he could do nothing to stop the march of time.
His thoughts turned back to the task at hand and, to his surprise, the cataloging took him several hours and a second bottle of burgundy to complete. His father had left hundreds of small items that he had acquired while rummaging through dusty, godforsaken villages or caves, hundreds of miles and hundreds of centuries off the well beaten track of modern man.
As dawn was breaking, he opened the last small crate. It appeared empty except for the packing paper. Knowing there had to be something his father had sealed inside the box besides packing paper, he rummaged around until his hands bumped into a small object.
It was a book and not a very big book, either.
When it was finally released from the packing materials he was surprised, yet again to see it was a leather-bound notebook. There was a raised drawing or pictogram on the front of it. After looking at it for several seconds Stephen decided it was an abstract drawing of some sort. What it was meant to represent was beyond him. It looked almost like a flower with the head and shoulders of a man protruding from the center of it.
The pages of the notebook were yellowed with age and tattered along the edges. Just one look told him it was old. Very old.
The leather cover had been sewn on by hand using what appeared to be thin strands of leather. The pages themselves were made of parchment. The notes inside were obviously made by hand. They were clear and distinct, elaborate and utterly beautiful. He had never seen writing like this before, so it was lucky that dear old dad had provided a detailed translation of the squiggly lines and ornate symbols. He thumbed through his father’s translation, which seemed to be instructions regarding a recipe of some sort.
Upon reaching the end of the translation, it was clear there was something missing-a final step and/or ingredient. He quickly thumbed back through the front pages and discovered he had missed something the first time through. The first two pages were stuck together.
He carefully tried to pull them apart, but stopped when it became apparent they would tear if he continued.
What to do?
He remembered his father had kept a toolbox that was filled with the instruments of an archeologist. After a moment of concentration he recalled where he had placed it.
He retrieved the toolbox from the bottom of a nearby pile and opened it up, only to stare into it as if he knew what he was doing. He hadn’t a clue. He needed something that would help him pry the two pages apart without destroying them. After a moment, he spied what looked to be a scalpel.
He quickly snatched it up and gently began slicing through the crud that had built up on the edge of the two pages. He worked slowly and methodically, just like his father had shown him many years ago. The pages popped open after his second pass and he was rewarded with more of his father’s translation notes.
This translation was different than the other pages. At the top was a title, ‘The Elixir of Youth’.
Was that the notebook’s title, or simply Dad’s interpretation of the book’s contents? He dismissed the thought since there couldn’t be such a thing. It was strictly the stuff of myth and fairy tales.
He knew his father believed that every myth was based in fact, something his father had made him memorize at a very young age. But Stephen had never believed it, as his father had, thus had no such illusions about life and the world. He was nothing, if not extremely practical and pragmatic.
He set the book aside intent on going to bed and getting a couple hours of sleep before dealing with the Colleen issue. But he found himself drawn to the book and sat staring at it for several minutes before giving in to his curiosity.
In addition to the title at the top of the first page of the translation, Stephen noticed a name and phone number to the left of the title that had faded nearly completely away. The lighting in the basement was fine for watching videos or playing pool but was rather dim for his old eyes to read by. He gathered up the notebook and the translation notes, and headed back upstairs to the kitchen.
He sat down at the snack bar and turned up the lighting so that a spotlight shown right down upon the notebook in front of him. Using the magnifying glass he kept in the drawer under the counter for reading the fine print on the contracts he frequently had to review and approve, he was able to determine a name and phone number in the upper left corner.
He carefully used a fine point pen to outline the letters and numbers. The phone number was a local number but he didn’t recognize the name. He made a mental note to have someone check it out later that day.
Then he turned his attention to the final translations. As he read it through, he was filled with wonder. It described several plants found in faraway places as being critical to the elixir and of a place that was surrounded by nearly vertical escarpments, but failed to name the place or the country it was in.
So much for finding answers in the final bit of translation.
It left him with more questions than answers. The biggest one being the final step, which his father stated he was unable to complete, but failed to elaborate, as to exactly what the step was. It didn’t sound like his father. His father was a bulldog once he had sunk his teeth into a mystery. He just couldn’t imagine him ever giving up on anything.
Stephen took several sips of wine as he watched the sun rise over the house and send forth its rays to sparkle upon the near glass smooth surface of the lake. It was early, too early to make the call that he was now anxious to make but wanted to know what had stopped his father, the unstoppable force of nature, in his quest for...for what? Immortality?
The words, ‘The Elixir of Youth’ crossed his mind as he picked up the book once more and fingered the raised pictogram on the cover. He could see it now. It was a symbol of being reborn. His father must have actually believed he had found a way to cheat death.
To become young again.
But he had abandoned his quest at the last moment. Why?
* * *
Stephen showered, shaved, and dressed for a successful day investigating his father’s final failed quest. He then had the cook make him some eggs for breakfast before placing the call. It rang several times before a man answered.
“Hello,” the man answered.
“Good morning, I know it’s quite early but I’m Stephen Duncan the son of...”
“Joseph Duncan,” the man stated cutting off Stephen in mid-sentence. “And you’re looking for Mr. Pine.”
“Why, yes I am, but how did you know?” Stephen asked.
“Then you’ve made the right call. I’m Mr. Pine,” the man stated.
“But how...” Stephen stammered.
“How did I know you’d be calling? It’s a long story. We should meet. I’ll give you my address and would Thursday...”
“I could come right now,” Stephen interjected not, wanting to wait to meet with the man.
“I can see the family resemblance from here. You are your father’s son.” There was a pause. “Of course, I have the morning open. Come right away,” Mr. Pine stated, then provided the address and hung up.
Mr. Pine lived near the university and it took Stephen almost an hour to cross-town and ring the bell at the stranger’s door.
Mr. Pine lived in one of the stone cottages in what had been the faculty housing section of the university, many years ago. It was quaint, but very small by today’s standards.
Stephen was nervous, which was so unlike him. He’d met with royalty and heads of state daily while working on his business, yet here he was about to meet a college professor and his palms were sweaty, his breathing labored.
The ride over had been filled with nostalgia, for as a child he had come to the university with his father on dozens of occasions, but he was never sure why they had come. Just that they had.
While father talked to one professor or another, Stephen would busy himself exploring the labs and libraries in which the meetings were held. He remembered his father saying that he should always go to the source rather than accept communication by letter or phone calls. He’d say you could learn a lot about the man you’re dealing with when you look him in the eye. Those axioms had served Stephen well throughout his life-business and personal.
Stephen rang the bell and waited. He rang it once again and was about to knock when the door opened. The old wooden door creaked loudly as a small frail man stood back a step or two. After a moment of silence between them the old man spoke.
“Well, don’t just stand there, come on in. I’d know you anywhere. You look just like your father, moustache and all.”
Mr. Pine turned and led Stephen into the living room. He took a seat by the fireplace that had a small fire burning in it, probably to burn off the chill of the late fall morning.
Stephen sat down in an overstuffed chair on the other side of the coffee table. He couldn’t help but notice that Mr. Pine’s hands were knurled with arthritis and he looked to be in a great deal of pain.
“I take it, you’re Mr. Pine, or would that be, Professor Pine?” Stephen asked.
“Did you take one of my classes? I think I would have remembered if you had,” he said, not expecting an answer. “I was the Dean of the Anthropology Department, way back when.”
“No. I never was a student here.”
“Oh. Anyway, your father was quite generous over the years in return for what had actually been minor services, on my behalf, aiding him in his quest for artifacts.”
“He was quite the explorer. So is that how you knew my father?” Stephen asked, trying to be polite, though he just wanted to ask his questions and go.
When Professor Pine didn’t respond immediately, Stephen spoke up again. “I was cataloging my father’s collection and I came across...”
Professor Pine interrupted Stephen.
“A small leather notebook. Inside you found a translation of the ancient text that your father wrote and you’re wondering what it is,” he stated succinctly.
“Yes, but how did you know? I mean, you said you knew I would call and now you know exactly why I’m here,” Stephen inquired. “How?”
“It’s no mystery, Stephen. I was the man who helped your father discover what language the notebook was written in and then I helped him decipher it. I was the man whom he came to when he met with bitter disappointment having found the final step was impossible for him to take. We kept in touch over the years and when he became ill, we both knew when you went through his things you would find my name and number. We knew you’d want to know why he was unsuccessful in his quest and that you’d turn to me for answers. I’m afraid though, I cannot help you.”
“You see, your father never shared exactly why he abandoned his quest. He’d followed the instructions to the letter and had gathered all of the other ingredients but when he had finally prepared it all and was ready to take the last step, he stopped.”
The professor began to reminisce about himself and his father when Stephen asked, “I don’t mean to be rude professor, but what can you tell me about the elixir?”
“Well, I can tell you that the ingredients came from around the world at great expense. Most were edible plants that your father harvested personally, at great risk. Even though he was unable to complete the transformation to ‘The Elixir of Youth,’ the mixture had surprising properties of its own. Both he and I took the mixture yearly and firmly believe that it is the reason we had both enjoyed such long lives. I’m eighty-nine years old. Most of my family died off in their sixties.”
“It’s sad, the elixir was used up five years ago and with no notes, other than the notebook from which to recreate the elixir, we started aging far faster than was natural, if only we hadn’t taken the elixir to begin with,” The old Professor stated remorsefully.
“Interesting, but where did my father go to find the last ingredient for the elixir?” Stephen pressed.
“That too I’m afraid I cannot say. You see, the last ingredient may have been a step to follow in the preparation. Both your father and I worked on narrowing down the field of choices as to the location of the great escarpment, the location of the final ingredient mentioned in the notebook. But it was he, alone, who traveled to each of the locations and finally discovered which one was the correct one. The only clue he shared with me, beyond the vague description of the area, was the rumor of a Sage who knew what the ingredient was and where it could be found. He never shared anything else with me. He felt it was far too great a secret to risk accidentally sharing it with the wrong person.”
“Do you still have the list of locations?” Stephen asked.
“No, your father insisted that I turn over every piece of the research we worked on in regard to the elixir and he then claimed to have destroyed it all. Again, because it was too dangerous to risk the secret of the elixir being discovered by the wrong person.”
Stephen pulled the notebook from his pocket and laid it on the table in front of the Professor.
Immediately the Professor stopped talking and stared at the notebook.
Finally Stephen, sensing the Professor’s tension, spoke up. “I was hoping that maybe seeing the notebook would help you remember something I could use to understand why my father failed to complete his quest and help me, perhaps, to complete it in his stead.”
“No!” Professor Pine snapped. “Burn the damn book! Your father was right. It is too dangerous. If you must know, it was me whom he wished to shield the secrets from. I am, according to him, the type of person who should not learn the final ingredient. Your father spoke of it as if opening a door to great evil.”
The Professor spouted, sounding half crazed and looking the part. “It was an obsession of your father to discover the secrets of the notebook. It took him twenty years and most of his first fortune to find the answers and only a moment to walk away. That was your father, pure of heart. I doubt I could have walked away and who knows where that might have led us all.”
“I’m sorry to have upset you, Professor. I only wanted to get a little help from you. I didn’t mean or intend to create such a reaction from you.”
“Its evil, I tell you, evil!” the old Professor screamed as he struggled to his feet and walked to the far side of the room, where he turned his back to Stephen, clearly distancing himself from the notebook.
“If you don’t care to help me, I guess I understand, but there’s no need for all this drama,” Stephen snarled, having taken offense at the man’s outburst and behavior.
The Professor waved his hand dismissively, without turning around.
Stephen then stood, snatched the notebook off the coffee table and walked out.
“Don’t pursue the secret!” the Professor yelled out as the door closed behind Stephen. “It is evil and will destroy you. Your father was right to hide the secret away. Don’t pursue it!”
Stephen sat in his car for the longest time. He was thinking about what the Professor had said and how his father had abandoned the search right when he’d discovered the final answer.
Why would he do that? There had to be a powerful reason why.
The Professor seemed to think it was because the elixir was evil, but Stephen didn’t believe anything inanimate could possess human qualities. It was more likely that mankind might try to use the elixir for evil purposes. But if he kept it secret, there was little chance mankind could exploit it.
The Professor’s warning had done little to dissuade Stephen from taking up his father’s quest. In fact, he was now even more curious as to what it was his father couldn’t bring himself to do to complete the elixir. He had succeeded in collecting everything else needed to prepare the elixir, so why not follow through?
That was when Stephen decided he had to know why his father had failed to complete the elixir. He’d simply follow the instructions, as his father had done, only he’d complete the final step.
Stephen pulled away from the curb making mental notes on what he’d need to prepare the elixir. The list was long and he realized some of what he needed could only be obtained from very dangerous parts of the world.
Then his thoughts turned to Colleen, his wife.
‘Wife’ was an interesting term. Although she was his wife, by title, she was hardly so in spirit. He needed to provide her with some sort of story to keep her focused on something other than what he was actually doing.
He decided to tell her he was working on a new endeavor that would make them both extremely wealthy. That should satisfy her greed and keep her from pestering him about what he was doing and where he was going. He’d give her small gifts of jewelry and gold coins when he returned from each trip to assuage her curiosity and foster the idea he was creating more wealth.
Who knows, perhaps he’ll discover the secret, be able to perform the task and extend his life indefinitely as a young and virile man. After all, it was ‘The Elixir of Youth.’
* * *
Immediately upon returning home, Stephen contacted his travel agent and began his quest. He gave Colleen his story of why he was leaving on these trips and she seemed to accept his small lie.
Colleen was still sleeping when he left on the first of a hundred trips he’d need to take. He left her a note telling her that he would be gone for many days.
It was while he was abroad that he had thought about the need for a secure, private work area. He thought about renting space away from the house but decided instead to truly follow in his father’s footsteps. That would be to use the old cottage at the far end of the property as his laboratory just as his father had.
In fact, his father had built the cottage specifically as a proper place to prepare the elixir.
Stephen no longer remembered if the cottage was even in useable condition or if it was still locked and secure as it had been the last time he’d been there, some twenty-five years ago.
He went to his father’s old desk in the basement and rummaged through it looking for the key. He found it buried in the back right corner of the lowest drawer under a hand written note stating the pool needed to be cleaned. He thought about the strange things you’d find rummaging around in an old desk and when you rummaged about the world as well.
When he arrived at the cottage, the place was clearly showing its age, however, because it was built mostly of stone, it still was quite habitable.
It was a struggle to get the door unlocked. Having been unused for years, the lock must have collected dust and dirt in the tumblers making their movement difficult, if not nearly impossible. After several minutes, he was finally successful and stepped inside the cottage.
He shined the flashlight he brought with him around the large open space. It had served as his father’s laboratory and, despite its obvious age, looked to be in useable condition with just a little cleaning.
His first task was to find the circuit breakers and switch them on. He wasn’t even sure if the power lines still ran to the cottage or if his father had them removed. He’d need power for the light and for the freezer in which he would store the ingredients until he was ready to prepare the elixir.
He found the circuit breakers in a closet next to the freezer and switched them all on. There were a few sparks and some strange popping sounds but after a moment everything appeared to be working. He quickly tucked his first collected and prized ingredient in the small walk-in freezer and turned his attention to the cottage’s condition now that he could view it better.
He could see the skylight was intact and, with a little cleaning, would make a perfect source of daylight illumination for cottage did not have overhead lighting. Only wall sconces. With the lights on he could also see several large tables his father had used. They were still in place and with a little cleaning would work just fine to prepare the elixir.
Over the next several months, Stephen had several large shipments of beakers, glass tubing, Petri dishes-as well as pots and pans-delivered to the old cottage. His household staff insured the crates were moved inside, but not unpacked per his instructions. All they knew was that he had some things shipped to the cottage.
During this time he made dozens of trips, some just overnight and a few that lasted for a week or more. Where his father had to ride horses or camels for days to reach the sites where he could acquire the special ingredients, Stephen simply chartered a helicopter and accomplished the same task within hours. Where his father had to search through jungles and deserts, guessing at the locations, Stephen searched satellite imaging and knew exactly where to go, before he even left on the trip.
After each trip, he dutifully provided his unfaithful wife with some valuable trinket from a far off land as a token of his affection for her. It soothed her ego and he knew it kept her complacent.
He thought he had diminished her curiosity, but he was mistaken.
She was even more curious then when he first began his quest. Despite his request that she not discuss any of his travels or purchases with anyone, she felt she had to tell someone or she’d just burst.
The person she chose to confide in was her current lover. He was a young, handsome, virile and sexually exciting tennis pro by the name of Josh Douglas at the country club. Josh was everything Stephen wasn’t. After having shared her husband’s secret, what little she knew, Josh Douglas began his own speculations as to what could possibly be in the crates piling up at the cottage.
While Stephen continued his travels, Josh Douglas began building what appeared to be a deeper relationship with Colleen. At his prompting, she agreed to finally break into the cottage to see what Stephen was hiding there.
After all, Colleen had said Stephen claimed it was more valuable than gold. As proof, Colleen showed Josh all of the trinkets made of gold, platinum, silver and diamonds that Stephen had given her stating, “It must be very valuable, far more then gold and silver, for he gives all of the gold and silver to me.”
Josh was very impressed by the volume of gifts Stephen had lavished upon Colleen. It was a small fortune and he was determined to make sure he got his share of it.
“So what has he told you about his travels?” Josh asked, trying to discover a clue about what her husband was up to.
“What could be more precious than gold?” Colleen asked.
“I don’t know, but we’re going to find out,” Josh stated confidently.
“How are we going to do that? He’s so secretive,” Colleen shared. “He hasn’t told any of the servants and he keeps the cottage locked up tight.”
“There’s ways to find out. The easiest would be to break into the cottage and open the crates. Are you up for that?” Josh asked.
“We’ll need to be careful. He might have security alarms on the cottage. He’d be real mad, if he caught us,” Colleen replied without directly answering Josh.
“You said he had you sign a pre-nup that dealt with his wealth prior to your marriage. What about the wealth he accumulates after the marriage?” Josh inquired.
“Oh, my attorney assured me that any new wealth he should acquire after the marriage, upon his death, would be mine alone,” she remarked greedily. “His damn children won’t get that. I wouldn’t be surprised if he spends all of their inheritance, at the rate he’s spending money on this new venture.”
“So if he is acquiring new wealth, it’s yours. But if you don’t know what it is or where to find it, he could keep you from getting your fair share.”
Colleen thought a moment. “Stephen is leaving for another trip tonight sometime. We can break into the cottage after the servants go home.”
“Then it’s tonight,” Josh agreed rubbing his hands together in anticipation.
* * *
Where his father had needed years to find and collect the ingredients to make the elixir, Stephen had managed to gather all of them, more than a hundred in total, within six months. Like his father, Stephen had spent a large sum of money collecting the ingredients and now he was ready for the final ingredient or step. The one his father had been unwilling to partake of.
As a precaution against losing the notebook, Stephen had it copied and he carried only the part of the book that dealt with the current item he went searching for. Not only did the copy help protect the book it helped protect Stephen in his travels. By having only the few pages dealing with the single ingredient, he could claim that he had no idea why he was looking for it. He was just a hired hand sent to find it by some guy at a corporation in the States.
The ruse had saved his life more than once over the six months he’d been searching. Many of his guides had turned out to be little more than mercenaries seeking an easy payday.
After retrieving the notebook from the fire resistant box he’d hidden in the floor boards of the cottage, he gathered up the pages dealing with the last ingredient, the final step, and then returned it for safe keeping.
The comment about the Sage was in the margin of the translation, but not in the original notebook. Apparently his father had discovered the information about the Sage from another source, but made no reference to it.
Further down the page in the margin was a second note. This one was about a small ancient kingdom in Southeast Asia. It gave no name. Just map coordinates.
Stephen checked the Google Earth he’d found in the closet and discovered the coordinates were deep in the jungle of Myanmar, formerly Burma. Further checking revealed that the area was very mountainous and heavily forested. There were no roads, no cities, no rivers of any size, basically no access to the area other than by foot. There were no specific pictures, just a general description of the area as reported by a Dutch explorer in the 1800’s. The man claimed to have been there and had met with the Sage, who was the de facto ruler of the area and claimed to be several hundred years old.
Stephen smiled broadly. The age was the key. The handful of other places that might fit the description in the notebook had no mention of a Sage. The fact that his father had written it in the margin and it was mentioned in the only report ever made by a westerner about the area had to be significant. He knew then where he would begin his search for the final ingredient.
But there was one major challenge. The area was embroiled in a civil war.
As he packed for the trip, he couldn’t help but continue wondering why his father would travel to such an remote place and then refuse to follow the instructions of the Sage and complete the elixir.
He was becoming obsessed with knowing why.
Everything he had believed about his father said he would never quit, never just give up no matter the hardship. By the time he had reached this point in his quest, he’d battled man and beast for twenty years. Perhaps he had killed to fulfill his quest. Yet he had walked away. Abandoned his dream at the moment he had it within his reach!
It was the chiming of the clock in the hallway outside his room, 6:00 a.m., that drew him back from his ruminations about his father, and Stephen felt an overwhelming need to be prudent on this trip. He was headed into one of the most dangerous corners of the world and he wanted to succeed in his quest-not die trying.
He planned to buy a dozen gold coins when he arrived in Hong Kong and pick up a side arm there for the trip. He’d sew the coins into the seams of his pants and field jacket for concealment and find a suitable handgun with enough stopping power for protection. A 40 cal. Sig-Sauer handgun with five extra clips would do just fine.
When he had finished packing, he stopped in Colleen’s room to tell her goodbye. Why he had ever agreed to her wish for separate bedrooms he’d never know. Perhaps it was his desire to please her or to just make her stop pestering him about it. She claimed it was because he was always getting up and going to bed at odd hours that interfered with her sleep. But he knew in his heart it was because she didn’t want him knowing when she got home on her nights out, and he didn’t really want to know either.
He leaned over her and kissed her cheek, whispering he was off again and this time he might be gone just a bit longer than usual. He told her not to worry and promised to give her another exotic gift upon his return.
She mumbled, “Be safe,” and rolled over pretending to sleep.
Stephen crept quietly from the room and closed the door behind him.
Alone again, Colleen rolled over and stared at the ceiling, contemplating the scheme she and Josh had worked out. The last of the servants left at 9 PM each evening and by 10 she and Josh would know Stephen’s well-guarded secret.
* * *
Stephen arrived in Myanmar two days late. He’d been delayed in Hong Kong when his first application for an entrance visa was turned down. It was only after he had the company’s attorneys contact the State Department and throw a little weight around that approval was given. It turned out all it took was a small contribution by the company to the ruling political party, and the visa was approved within hours.
The State Department official who delivered the approved visa warned Stephen of the dangers in Myanmar and suggested he postpone his visit indefinitely. Stephen ignored the young man and flew into Yangon, Myanmar the next day. He then took a helicopter to the village, Lashio, arriving at dusk-it was the closest to the steep valleys formed by the escarpments described in the notebook.
From there he had a two-day walk to the area of the escarpments--or it could be a month or a year-if he didn’t get good information to start with and a guide he could trust.
He was to meet his guide at the only hotel for a hundred miles in any direction. It was named the Long House Bar. Clearly an American had been here and left his mark upon the community. It was built like so many of the long houses that the local people had used as housing for centuries. This housed a fully stocked American-style bar and it sat on a small hill which dominated the village.
The man he was supposed to meet was Michael McMasters, a British archeologist.
"You McMasters?" Stephen asked to a man seated in front of the bar.
The Brit nodded and replied, "I assume you're Duncan."
"Yes I am."
"So what brings you to the armpit’s asshole? I don’t recall there being any worthwhile ruins to investigate within a hundred kilometers.”
“I’m here to explore the legend of the Sage,” Stephen stated and McMasters immediately became agitated.
“Whoa mate,” McMasters growled and then, in a hushed voice while nervously scanning the room, he said, “Let’s not advertise the fact, OK?”
“What? Why?” Stephen asked quietly, taking his queue from McMasters.
McMasters looked about the bar once more then waited for the bartender to bring Stephen his drink and move off before continuing. “The Sage is a touchy subject with the locals. They say he is very old and very evil. They say he lives up on one the cliffs around here somewhere and that every ten years he comes down and kills the first male he meets who is of the age of manhood. He kills them in the most vicious of ways. They say he chops off the heads and then drinks their blood. Personally, I don’t think he really exists. I think he’s just the local’s version of the boogeyman.”
“Well, that’s what I’m here to find out. To prove it one way or the other,” Stephen stated as he took a swig of his drink.
“That’s going to be hard to prove, right? How do you prove a myth? Do you have a camera crew?” McMaster’s asked.
“No, I’m the advance man. If I can find someone who will tell me where to find the Sage and he’s actually there, then a crew will be sent in to film it all for the Discovery Channel.”
“That’s quite the outfit. I’ve seen programs from time to time when I’m in the bigger cities. Of course you have to watch out for rebels..”
“Rebels?” Stephen questioned.
“Yes, rebels. The local tribesmen have rebelled against the government because they are letting outsiders into the area to search for gold and other precious metals. The mountains here are chuck-full of gold, silver, copper, and a half dozen other valuable minerals. The locals have mined precious metals for centuries as a way of life and it has always been their private concern. But now the government has been allowing multinational mining operations to come in and dig up whatever they want, wherever they want. The rebels have lodged complaints but they’ve fallen on the deaf ears of the politicians who are lining their pockets with money from the multi-nationals.”
McMasters stared in his drink. “It’s become a real blood bath as of late. I stay in town, myself, not being a local. I’m known around here but it’s just too dangerous. All it would take is one rumor about me scouting for some outside mining company and I’d end up with my throat slit. Rumors are as good as the truth around here.”
“I’ll have to be careful then, but I’m still going to look for the Sage,” Stephen stated in reply as he finished his drink.
“Know the language, do you?” McMasters asked sarcastically.
Stephen wondered if it would be prudent to lie, knowing he’d be found out in short order. “Actually, no, I don’t,” he admitted.
“For a few bucks I could ask around for you.” McMasters like everyone else in this backwater burg was angling for cash.
“How much?” Stephen asked.
“Say a hundred?” McMasters asked hopefully.
“And what will I get for my hundred?”
“The location of the Sage, if he is around here. There are several hundred villages that all back up to big escarpments and he could be on anyone of them.” McMasters stated.
“How did you know he was on one of the escarpments? I never mentioned that,” Stephen asked, wondering if he was about to be taken.
“It’s the legend. The legend states the Sage lives among the rocks on the escarpment, because when he was born that is where the people lived. They lived in caves up on the escarpments. They repelled down to their homes from the top and were quite safe from the marauding tribes that came into the jungle in search of slaves and gold like the multi-nationals are doing with their job offers and their never ending greed.”
“So is there someone I should be paying for the privilege of searching for the Sage?” Stephen questioned.
“I’m not sure who that would be but I’ll ask around just the same as for the location of the Sage. I’ll get back in touch say mid-morning?” McMasters suggested.
“No later than eleven. I want to get started on the search,” Stephen stated, knowing mid-morning around here could mean anything.
“I’ll try but no guarantees. The folks around here don’t work on any schedule that I can ascertain,” McMasters stated and then held out his hand for the money.
Stephen dug through his pocket a moment and pulled out a fifty dollar gold piece, handed it to McMasters and waited for his reaction.
“This is only half,” McMasters stated, plainly annoyed by Stephen’s action.
“Fifty up front and fifty when you get back to me,” Stephen stated flatly, not giving McMasters anywhere to go with his complaint.
“How do I know you’re good for it?” McMaster’s snapped.
“The same way I know you’ll follow through with your end of the deal. You’ll just have to trust me.”
“You’re killing me. Just plain killing me,” McMasters stated as he stood and walked away.
Stephen found his way to what was referred to here as his hotel room. It was a grass shack out behind the Long House Bar. Its amenities included a hammock and a wooden bench on which to set your suitcase or bag. There wasn’t a clock or a phone, so Stephen assumed rightly, there wouldn’t be any wake up call.
Stephen settled in after drinking a bottle of water and eating an energy bar he’d brought with him and was soon fast asleep. His watch had said it was after eleven in Hong Kong, but here he wasn’t sure if he was an hour or two hours behind Hong Kong. It didn’t matter and he set the alarm for eight a.m. Hong Kong time.
Stephen dreamed of his father sleeping in this same hut and soon he’d be trekking through the same jungle as his father had done nearly forty years ago. With luck he’d know the final ingredient by nightfall two days from now and he’d know why his father had abandoned his quest.
Stephen also dreamed of Colleen. She was in the arms of another man and laughing at him.
He really did love her but he’d been such a fool to have fallen for a woman so much younger. When he returned home and rejuvenated himself, he’d make one final attempt to convince her to change her ways. If she chose not to, then he’d divorce her and use his new vitality to woo another trophy wife.
One closer to his own age.
Suddenly, there was a loud bang and then another.
To a sleepy Stephen it sounded a lot like gun fire-which it was. Stephen jumped off the hammock and pulled the Sig-Sauer forty caliber from its holster, just as another round of loud bangs, as though issued from a machine gun, echoed through the night.
He was about to venture a step forward when he thought he heard someone breathing-and froze in place.
That proved to be a mistake.
Stephen felt something strike the back of his head-hard-and down he went to his knees, seeing stars and colored swirls. He wasn’t quite unconscious but close, that is, until the second blow landed on the back of his head and he blacked out.
Stephen woke to a bright light shining in his face and a headache that rivaled the worst migraine he’d ever had. He struggled to get fully awake for the longest time while listening to what he had thought was someone talking. But the more he listened the more it sounded to be just gibberish.
Finally he rolled on his side and opened his eyes. The room was spinning slowly and the edges of his vision were blurry. His first thought was, this didn’t look like his hotel room. The wall he could see was a stucco wall without any paint on it and he was laying on a wide wooden plank with tree trunks underneath it for support. The floor was gray dirt and there were ants crawling about on what appeared to be a dirty dinner plate. He thought that was strange because he hadn’t had any dinner last night.
He closed his eyes for what he had thought was a short period of time. However, when he opened them again, he was surprised to see the bright light had dimmed substantially, but someone nearby was still speaking the gibberish.
He decided to make a real effort to sit up this time. He pushed himself up with his right arm to a sitting position. That was a mistake. The room began to spin furiously. He felt nauseated and quickly laid back down on the bench.
Suddenly, there was a loud clanging sound and he whipped his head around, as best he could, to see what caused the noise. There, just beyond a row of iron bars, was a small Asian man banging what appeared to be a large metal cup on the bars of what was clearly a prison cell.
Over the din of the clanging, the man yelled, in an Asian accent but broken English, “About time you wake up. Thought maybe hit you too hard. Thought maybe you dead.”
From the man speaking, Stephen’s eyes wandered upward to the ceiling and he realized that there was a large hole there open to the sky. The hole was maybe twenty feet above his head and seemed centered between the cell containing the Asian man and himself.
“Where am I?” Stephen asked as he gingerly touched the large lump on the back of his head.
“You nowhere good my friend, nowhere good,” the man stated through a toothless grin as he continued to clang the metal cup.
“Could you please stop banging that cup?” Stephen shouted. When the little man finally stopped, Stephen asked, “Where are we?”
“But why? What did I do?”
“You come to town and you have money. You American, folks back home pay to save you.”
“Now I know I’m in trouble,” Stephen stated loudly, trying to think fast. “I’m on my own. I have no family, no employer. My address back in the States is a post office box.”
“You live in a box?” the man asked.
“It’s just a place where people can send me letters.” Stephen tried to keep it simple, and then changed the subject. “So how long have I been here?”
“Most the night, then all day. It be night soon again,” the man informed him.
“So why are you here?” Stephen asked.
“I got caught stealing food from them. I very good thief. First time I get caught. They say I have to work off what I owe them by stealing for them, otherwise they kill me. You have hard head. I try not to hit too hard because if you die, they get no money and things go bad for me. So I careful, hit just right, but you no go down, so I hit you again.”
“You were the one who attacked me in my hotel room?” Stephen asked, not sure how to respond to that revelation.
“You should thank me. I do a good job. I hit you same place twice so as not crack you skull. No kill. Just knock out.”
“Thank God for small favors,” Stephen stated sarcastically. “So how long have you been here? You know, locked up?” Stephen decided to clarify the question after the little man gave him a strange look.
“I’ve been here long time, long time. Days and days. But not so bad. They feed me, send me women. I get to sleep all day and at night, I go with them to steal from mining camps and other villages. No one sees me, I very good,” the little thief shared.
“Yes, you said that. Only been caught one time,” Stephen retorted sarcastically.
“Yes, just one time.” The thief smiled as though it was a major life accomplishment, then asked. “Why you come here?”
Stephen was quiet for several seconds as he debated whether or not he should share his mission there. He decided that if he were going to get out of here, he’d need help. So he told the little thief.
“I’m looking for the Sage. I’m told he lives on one of the escarpments in this area.”
“So I’m going to need a guide. But first I have to get out of here. Do you think I can bribe the guard?” Stephen asked.
“Cause you got to bribe me first."
“Why would I need to bribe you? You’re a prisoner just like me.”
“Not like you,” the little thief stated. He stood up, walked over to the cell door and pushed it open. He stepped out and smiled at Stephen. “I come and go sometimes, no problem. No like you.”
Stephen did his best to get up and stagger to his cell’s door. He pushed on it. It didn’t open. He turned and staggered back to the wooden bench and sat down.
Just then a large oriental man came around the corner and barked at the little thief in what Stephen could only comprehend as gibberish. The little thief bowed, spat a mouth of gibberish back at the guard and backed into his cell, pulling the cell door closed behind him.
The large guard turned and gave Stephen a nasty look, then walked back around the corner.
“He no like you. You really stuck.”
“I think I’ll be able to bribe him,” Stephen stated absently, as he leaned forward placing his head in his hands.
What he wouldn’t give for some aspirin, he thought.
“You need to bribe me. The guard no speak English,” the little thief stated again.
“I don’t think so. I’ll just show the guard the money and he’ll get the idea.”
“No. He hit you over the head and take money.”
“I don’t think so. I’ll get the message across,” Stephen stated confidently.
“You speak the language?”
“That was a language you two were speaking?” Stephen taunted him.
“Very old. All the local speak it. But outsiders not so much. The Sage speak this language,” the little thief stated, perking Stephen’s interest.
“Oh. How do you know that?”
“People see and he speak to them. He no educated in missionary school like me, so what else could he speak?”
Stephen found it hard to argue with the logic, so he didn’t.
“So how much of a bribe do you require?” Stephen asked, thinking he just might be able to use the little thief to get to the Sage as well as to escape prison.
“How much you have?” the little thief replied.
“I have enough,” Stephen said derisively.
“I don’t know. Guard very expensive. Me not so much.”
“How much?” Stephen asked again.
“How much you have?” The little thief repeated his question.
“Oh, forget it. I’m not going to argue with you,” Stephen stated tersely.
“What argue? I ask how much you pay and now you want to stay in prison?” Then spat out what had to be a curse word or two in the gibberish he called a language.
“Ok, I’ll pay you two hundred American to help me bribe the guard and another two hundred to take me to the Sage.” Stephen figured that would be more than enough.
“Paper no good here,” the little thief replied.
“I have gold.”
“Croogarands?" the little thief stated mispronouncing the name of South Africa’s collectible coins.
“Better. American Bald Eagle and Lady Liberty.”
The little thief sat down and thought about it for a while. Then a smile broke across his face and he chirped, “Deal.”
The bribing of the guard happened quickly. The little thief conversed with the guard in gibberish for several minutes before saying it was a deal. He would let them go for five hundred American gold dollars, and held out his hand.
Stephen shook his head and told the thief to tell him that he didn’t have the money on him. He’d hidden it back at the hotel.
This news didn’t set well with the little thief. He turned to the guard and explained they had to go to the hotel to get the money.
The guard shouted angrily at the little thief but eventually it was worked out. For fifteen hundred dollars Stephen bought his freedom and hired a guide to lead him to the Sage.
* * *
Once back at the hotel, Stephen had the little thief distract the guard for a few moments. He retrieved the gold from his clothing and then paid the guard his due.
Within minutes of having paid the guard off, Stephen and the little thief were following a well-worn path through the jungle that was supposedly leading them to the Sage.
“It best we not stay around village very long. We collect food to eat as we go. Lots of food out here," the little thief stated. He kept looking about as if concerned someone could be watching them.
“So how long will it take us to get there?” Stephen asked the little thief.
“That depend on you.”
“What does that mean?”
“You old man, maybe good shape, maybe not. It is long walk, two days at best time. We can stop and sleep or stop to rest now and then, is up to you. The more we stop, the longer it take. The more likely someone find us.”
“Who would be looking for us?”
“Boss of guard who let us escape. The soldiers looking for rebels might find you, shoot just the same.”
“You do know how to avoid them right?” Stephen asked feeling real fear for the first time on this trip. Everywhere he looked was jungle. Thick, lush and dangerous.
“Oh sure, can hide anywhere. But have to be careful not to become meal for tiger," the thief stated with a smirk.
“Do you have a weapon?” Stephen asked.
“I have my knives. I throw knives better than I shoot arrows. Plus I have this gun, big gun.” The little thief said as he pulled Stephen’s Sig-Sauer from under his shirt. "I think you can use this. I don’t shoot gun before," he stated as he handed it to Stephen. The little thief then reached in his pocket and pulled out the five extra clips that had been in Stephen’s travel bag.
Stephen took the weapon and clips and stuck them in his jacket.
They trudged through the jungle for two days and just before sunset, on the second day, they stepped into a clearing at the base of an escarpment.
The thief pointed straight up and said, “Sage, he live up there. Take path around and up in morning.” He was pointing off to his right, but wasn’t specific.
Stephen and the little thief made camp under a large leafed fern of some sort. When Stephen woke up he was glad they had, because it was raining fairly hard and the large leaves of the fern were keeping him dry.
He wished they could build a fire and could make a real breakfast because he was starved. All he had to eat was the fruit that the little thief had collected while they were walking yesterday afternoon. The fruit was fine but unlike the little thief, a couple pieces for whom made a meal, Stephen needed at least twice the calories simply because he was twice as big. The fruit was just a snack to him.
After what had felt to be at least an hour, Stephen sat up and called out for the little thief. “Hey, thief where are you?” He felt a bit strange calling him thief but the little man never shared his real name with him.
After calling out on and off for another hour, Stephen realized the little thief had abandoned him. A quick check of his backpack and Stephen discovered that the little thief had lived up to his name. He’d stolen half of his remaining gold and silver. The little thief was indeed quite good because Stephen had been using the backpack as a pillow and he never noticed anything.
Stephen also remembered what the little thief had said last night about taking the path around and up in the morning. He began searching for a path that would lead him up the side of the escarpment. By the time he found the path, the rain had stopped and the sun was out, baking the jungle once again.
He followed the path that led off to his right and gradually climbed the escarpment. The escarpment wasn’t quite as steep as it was where he had camped for the night, but it was taking every ounce of his strength to make the climb.
Finally, after three hours, he reached the Sage’s lair. He wasn’t sure what to expect but he was not expecting to see the large steel door before him with its huge steel hinges anchored in the solid rock surrounding the cave’s mouth.
Stephen waited several minutes to catch his breath before knocking on the door, for he had no idea what to expect next.
He pulled out his gun and held it slightly to his side and knocked again. This time he noticed the knocking echoed loudly in the narrow cave mouth. A few seconds later he heard what sounded like large chains being pulled loose behind the door. There was a loud creaking sound and then the door slowly swung outward. There, in the open doorway, stood a figure that looked surprising familiar.
“It is good to see you make it,” the little thief stated, as he turned and walked back into the cave.
“You’re the Sage?” Stephen blurted out.
“No, I had to interpret for you, remember.”
“But how did you get here?”
“I walk up path just like you. Now shut up and the Sage will see you.” The thief beckoned Stephen to follow him further into the cave. They made a turn along the pathway to the left and then a few yards further they turned right, ending in a large room. It was filled with artwork, paintings and drawings, and a few pieces of furniture.
Another smallish oriental man, with grayish brown hair was sitting on a large cushion on top of a big flat boulder off to the side of the room. He was dressed like most of the locals in loose fitting cotton pants and a white short sleeve shirt.
He had been reading something when Stephen and the little thief entered the room. He set his reading aside and looked up directly at Stephen. His eyes were dark and the look he gave Stephen made him nervous. After a minute or so the Sage turned to the little thief and said something in his native language that the little thief translated.
“Why have you come to see me, son of Joseph Duncan?” The little thief spoke for the Sage.
Stephen almost fainted. He’d told no one his name let alone his father’s name and yet the Sage knew both.
“I’ve come to see you,” Stephen stated, and the thief translated for the Sage, who looked Stephen over with a penetrating stare. Stephen thought the man looked wise and worldly, though he knew he had never been more than fifty kilometers from this spot. He wondered if he would look as wise a few hundred years from now.
The Sage spoke and the thief translated. “You are wondering just how old I am. I am more than 500 hundred years old. Your father wondered the same thing when he was here forty years ago. I was almost 500 hundred years old and he too carried a weapon.”
Stephen had absently kept the gun in his hand when he’d entered the cave behind the little thief.
Again the little thief translated. “I can assure you, Mr. Duncan, if I had wanted to harm you, you would have never been allowed to make the climb up the path. So put your toy away and ask me the question that has driven you to travel across the world to find me."
Stephen slipped his gun back in his jacket, eyed the Sage a moment and then eyed the little thief. “I wish to know the final ingredient for the Elixir of Youth.”
The old Sage grinned. Then he nodded his head several times before answering the thief with a flurry of gibberish.
The thief stood silent for several seconds after the flourish ended, as if he was struggling with how to translate the information just given him. “He says, you, like your father, have confused the language. For the last step or ingredient, as you call it, is not part of the Elixir. In fact, as he told your father, the wisdom of the elixir is in the arranging-not the mixing. The last step, as you call it, does not recommend that you do anything.”
Stephen made a face as the Sage's answer ran through his mind. He couldn't comprehend the meaning of ‘Not do anything.’ So Stephen turned towards the little thief and blurted, “I don’t understand.”
The Sage, in turn, blurted out another flourish of gibberish and the little thief once more appeared to struggle with the translation for a moment.
“He says, the book tells you to come on this pilgrimage and it tells you that a certain ingredient is needed but it does not say you have to actually obtain it.”
The little thief shrugged his shoulders and Stephen locked eyes with the Sage.
After a moment the Sage looked at the thief who then continued with his translation.
“The idea of a needed ingredient is of your own invention and the procuring of the ingredient is of your own assumption as well.”
The old Sage then leaned towards Stephen and, surprising Stephen, spoke in plain English. “Each process must go step by step. Here is the last.” Then the wise old Sage quietly spoke six words—in English with complete clarity.
Stephen recoiled in disgust. Now he knew why his father had forsaken his quest.
* * *
Colleen and Josh, were ready to implement their plan as soon as the servants had left. So, shortly after ten, they took the golf cart across the property to the old cottage. They circled the building, looking it over, running a flashlight over it searching for any security wires or cameras.
There were none.
Josh stopped the cart in front of the cottage and tried the door, but it was locked. There were no windows so Josh returned to the cart and gave the problem some thought. Just when he was about to suggest they go and get an ax from the gardeners shed, Colleen noticed there was an old ladder lying against the side of the cottage.
Josh nodded, grabbed the ladder and began to climb as Colleen stood and held the ladder steady at the bottom.
Once he reached the roof he hesitated. It was an old wood shingled type and there were plenty of broken and missing shingles. Tentatively, he put his first foot onto the roof and tested his weight by leaning into it. The roof creaked but it held his weight. Slowly he stepped forward, placing both of his feet on the roof, while still clinging awkwardly to the ladder. The roof creaked again, louder this time, but once again it held his weight. Slowly he worked his way across the rickety roof, doing his best to avoid the areas with missing shingles.
“What do you see?” Colleen called out.
“I’m not sure. I think I see a skylight.”
“Can you get in that way?” Colleen inquired.
“Give me a minute and I’ll let you know,” Josh replied.
Upon reaching the skylight, Josh called out, “The skylight looks to be hinged. I’m going to try and get it open.”
“Okay, be careful,” Colleen shouted in reply.
Colleen really didn’t care whether or not Josh was careful. She was too busy wondering exactly what they would find once inside. Any moment now she would know what her husband was hiding.
Suddenly, the sound of Josh screaming, “Ahhh...” followed quickly by the sound of breaking glass, abruptly ended her musing.
“Josh!” she called out. “Josh!”
She stepped back from the cottage trying to see what may have happened, but it was too dark. She walked around to the door again and tried it.
After waiting fifteen to twenty minutes nervously wondering what to do, she went back to the mansion where she rehearsed a story of the event, and finally called the authorities.
When the police arrived, they found the young man dead, lying in the center of the floor inside the cottage under the broken skylight. They questioned Colleen as to how she could have known there was anything amiss when the cottage was too far away to hear anything going on.
Colleen explained that she had seen lights flashing in the direction of the cottage as she looked out the windows on her way to bed. When they showed her a picture of the dead man, she simply shook her head and said she thought he might be one of the tennis pros at their club. The police assumed the young man might have heard something about all the crates being delivered there and thought he could make some easy cash by stealing and selling some of the stuff.
Because Colleen was the wife of one of the most respected members of the community and they could find no solid connections between Colleen and the dead man, they took her word for the whole situation. They closed the case and labeled it as a burglary attempt gone bad.
* * *
Stephen returned home, depressed and frustrated. He was such a fool to think he could cheat time and death. Only a real fool would believe there was any such thing as an ‘Elixir for Youth’.
All the time and effort he’d expended was for nothing. He had wasted millions of dollars all because he was a desperate old man. No wonder his young trophy wife was out fooling around all over town.
Upon returning to his home, his anger and frustration seething within him, he went immediately to the cottage. Although he was alarmed at the yellow caution tape draped across the cottage doorway, he hesitated only for a moment. He'd find out later about the tape.
Something more important drove him forward.
He burst into the cottage where he took the kerosene he had stored there to use in the heater for warmth as he worked. He poured it over all of the crates and the ingredients he had so carefully and expensively collected.
He paused and looked over the soon-to-be flaming sacrifice, then stepped outside the door and struck a match. He tossed it into the building and immediately, large flames burst through the door and the broken skylight. He hadn’t made any attempt to recover the notebook from its hiding place in the floorboards. He was more than content to let it burn too.
The servants were all-aflutter with Stephen’s behavior and had gone to Colleen with the news he was home and of his mood. It prompted her to hurry to the cottage, where she found Stephen standing outside the building watching the fire grow.
Upon realizing she was standing behind him, he turned towards her and spouted, “I was a fool. All that I have worked for is for nothing. I sought to keep my quest a secret from you, so that I might surprise you and win back your heart but since I have abandoned my foolish project, I can now tell you exactly what it was I was up to."
He paused a beat in thought, then continued. "I was trying to produce, from a book that my father had owned, an elixir that would have made me young again. My father had tried the same thing but failed at the last moment, just as I have done. The final ingredient when taken as instructed will indeed provide the recipient with eternal youth. I have seen the proof with my own eyes. But I, like my father, could not bring myself to perform the final task."
"Final task," she asked, knitting her eyebrows together. "What task?"
"The whole process was so abhorrent and perverse that no civilized man would do it. My father had labeled it evil and rightly so. So as a last gesture to him and to save our family name, I am destroying all of the ingredients and the equipment needed to prepare the ingredients as my father should have done, many years ago.”
“But what could possibly be so abhorrent that you would need to burn the cottage down?" Colleen inquired. "I don’t understand. What is it exactly that you were up to and what was the final ingredient or step that you could not take?”
Stephen sighed deeply and then took Colleen in his arms and held her close so as to whisper in her ear. He uttered the six words that the old Sage told him. “A young man must be sacrificed”.