I love New York. I have a Garden of Eden high in the sky on the terrace of my penthouse.
I sit each night with a glass of Shiraz and watch the sunset, or enjoy the storms—and if all else fails, I stare for hours at the jumbled mosaic of the New York skyline.
That's where I am tonight, enjoying the view, when suddenly my cell rings.
"Paul—I'm back from the land of Nod and wish to see you."
It's Astrid Simpson—already my foolish heart's racing.
"I'm on the terrace with a bottle of Yellow Tail—why not drop over?"
"Save me a glass. I'll be there in half an hour."
I flip the cell shut and lie back and stare at the one faint star I can see above in the purple haze. I hope it's part of the constellation Libra.
I admit, I'm enthralled with Astrid.
In my mind I associate her with Astraea, the deity who presided over the Golden Age—until men became violent and greedy causing her to flee to the stars and become the constellation Virgo.
Okay, I prefer to think of her cluster as Libra—but I have my reasons for that. I'm in love with Astrid—I think. My only chance is if she's not as chaste as Diana, or as distant and aloof.
A half hour later, the doorbell rings. I greet my goddess and visit with her in the stars, relaxing in my rooftop oasis.
"So Paul, what have you been up to since Tabriz?"
Her skin is still bronzed as it was on the desert when we were looking for the ancient Garden of Eden.
"Oh, the usual, unusual," I tease. "Jerrod at the Smithsonian has kept me busy."
Her violet eyes sparkle. "Jerrod Mason is always up for adventure—How about you, Professor Rutledge—are you game, or do you prefer to stay in your Arcadian retreat?"
"What do you have in mind?" I ask cagily.
"What would you say to an expedition to locate The Fountain of Youth?"
I groan inwardly. Tales of an eternal spring have circulated long before Herodotus—actually back to 3500 B.C. and they're just legends—fanciful fabrications with little archeological merit.
"You can't be serious, Astrid—surely you know the failed history of all these ventures."
"Oh, I'm familiar with it all—from Prester John to Ponce de Leon—but this is different, Paul."
The prospect of spending weeks with Astrid is definitely appealing, but the prospect of embarking on an archeological wild goose chase is not.
Astrid senses my reluctance and begins pleading.
"Look Paul, you trusted me before about Eden and it turned out I was right—Now, I've returned from the area and despite the devastation of the earthquake, we'll soon be able to go back and try again."
She was right. We found Eden—and then bad luck, or divine intervention produced an earthquake that swallowed it up.
I throw up my hands. "Okay, I'll bite. Where is this supposed spring—in Florida?"
"It's not the spring I've located, but the elixir itself."
"And where might that be?"
"At Eckernförde in Schleswig-Holstein—near the Baltic Sea."
"Northern Germany?" I scoff. "That location has never been mentioned as a possible site."
"Nevertheless, it is," she smiles winningly. "Just trust me one more time."
She looks for my approval, her eyes bright and expectant. As Jerrod often tells me, I suspend all judgment when staring into the eyes of a beautiful woman.
"How long will this misadventure last?"
She whoops with joy and hugs me.
"Not long—about a week," she hesitates and then adds in a lowered voice, "—unless , of course, you choose to stay longer."
I don't want to get my hopes up, but I'm pretty sure what she means, and like Portia's suitors I'm foolish enough to assume dessert.
Perhaps I'm being foolish, but to my way of thinking, the dreams Astrid lights in me are really the only dreams worth having.
A week later and we're driving in Hamburg, pulling up to the five star hotel where Astrid has booked ajoining rooms. She still hasn't told me how she chanced upon her information and how it ties into the ancient legend.
"We'll discuss it tonight over dinner," she promises.
I never underestimate Astrid and her ability to preserve a mystery while enhancing her mystique.
She's booked rooms at the Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten and we're dining tonight at the Wohnhalle—a dining room with a turn of the century country house atmosphere and a cheery open fireplace.
"Who's paying for all this opulence?" I ask.
"Jerrod Mason?" I croak, "He's sponsoring this?"
"Of course—did you think I could finance this on my own?"
My jealousy is piqued and I'm miffed at being left out of the loop—especially since Jerrod's a good friend.
"Oh, c'mon Paul—don't let my secrecy spoil the evening—it was a necessary precaution and Jerrod insisted upon it, until we set our boots on German soil."
I know what Jerrod's thinking. I've been beguiled before and allowed the priceless tablets of The Lost Book of Mormon to slip between my fingers—all the result of a pretty girl.
Still, I don't like being fluffed off.
"I'm not a child—I have a right to know."
"You do and I intend to enlighten you—right now—over a glass of Shiraz."
The waiter appears with a bottle of Yellow Tail and I'm somewhat mollified.
Once we clink glasses and sip, I insist she tell the full story.
"You're not going to believe this," she starts, and I feel misgivings begin to sour my stomach and rise like acid reflux.
"The Comte de St. Germain died near here in 1784."
"I'm sorry for your loss."
Her violet eyes flash. "Please Paul—don't be sarcastic."
I raise my glass in mock toast. She rolls her eyes.
"St. Germain became acquainted with Prince Charles of Hasse-Kassel—he was an occultist who was a mystic and belonged to several secret societies. Like St. Germain, he was also interested in alchemy and participated in the Magnum Opus—the great effort to discover the Philosopher's Stone."
"So, they were both searching for the elixir of life?"
"Correct," she smiles. "The Prince installed St. Germain in an abandoned factory at Eckernförde, where he was supposedly deveoping a new method for coloring cloth."
"—But that was a cover, obviously," I surmise.
"Right. What he was really working on was distilling the elixir of life."
"So, there's no exotic fountain or spring here—just a hidden laboratory?"
"Not quite," she frowns.
"No laboratory? Then what?"
"A vial of the elixir."
"A vial? You brought me all this way for a mere vial?" I'm vexed.
"Not just any vial, Paul—the elixir of life. A few drops will restore a person to health and cure any disease. If our scientists can analyze its contents, it'll be the greatest accomplishment in western medicine."
"Regardless of whether such an elixir works, what makes you think the vial is here?"
"St. Germain confided in the Prince. He told him he was already several hundred years old when he arrived here and needed to distill more of the elixir to continue living—but before the distillation process could be completed, St. Germain died."
"Oh, great!" I groan.
"The story doesn't end there. On March 2, 1784 his funeral was held at St. Nicolai Church and the Count was buried in a private grave on the site. The cost of the burial is listed in the accounting books of the church."
I stop her. "You're not proposing we dig up his corpse are you?"
She looks shocked. "Of course, not. On April 3, of the same year, The Mayor and city council issued a proclamation and the Count's remaining effects were auctioned off. The Prince donated the factory/laboratory to the Crown and it was turned into a hospital."
"Charming story," I applaud. "Can we leave now?"
"You are so exasperating!" The look in her eyes is enough to quiet me. "You don't get it, do you?"
"What's to get? The Count's dead and his secret's buried with him."
"You're such a linear thinker, Paul Rutledge."
"What am I missing here?"
"The Count's effects were auctioned off."
"Oh, I get it. The vial was sold along with his test tubes and lab equipment."
"Nothing that obvious," she snaps. "But among the Count's possessions was a very ornate grandfather clock.
"I see." I look at her blankly.
"The alchemists always insisted the elixir had to be stored in clocks to amplify the effects of immortality upon the user."
"Who purchased the clock?" I ask excitedly.
"The clock was purchased by a Hans Oberlein and passed down through generations of his family. It's being auctioned off today in an estate sale—and I intend to purchase it for the Smithsonian."
"But what if there's nothing concealed within its works? —afterall, the clock's three hundred years old."
"Then, the Smithsonian will acquire a very handsome timepiece, " she smiles, " but if it's been untouched and we find the vial—the discovery will be priceless."
The next day we're at the offices of Mullerhausen Antiquities bidding on the Oberlein family heirloom. It's an 18th century tall case which stands seven feet tall, but the clock face itself is detachable and can be mounted separately as a wall clock.
On the glass door of the clock case is a Latin inscription etched into the glass—Ars celare artem.
"Do you see that inscription?" she asks excitedly.
I smile. "The greatest art is to hide art—if the Comte was as clever as that proverb suggests, the vial may still be hidden in that clock."
She leans close and whispers:
"I looked inside the glass-hinged door and there are gold-leafed characters I believe to be angels in the corners of the clock's cavities. Angels were associated with bringing the souls of the dead to immortality. The vial could be concealed behind one of these."
"Seems appropriate," I reply.
The afternoon seems interminable. The clock is the last item to be auctioned off.
Astrid's very determined, however, and despite spirited bidding by others, she purchases the heirloom for 30, 000 Euros. I hope Jerrod's expense account can bear the amount.
We personally supervise the packing and shipping of the clock back to our adjoining rooms at the Vier Jahreszeiten. Once the movers depart, we search the clock and sure enough, behind one of the gold leafed angels we find a small glass vial.
It's not uncommon to find preserved liquids after hundreds of years—the oldest such case is a Roman glass wine amphora from 325 A.D. with contents still intact.
So, I'm not surprised to see a few milliliters of opaque liqueur.
Astrid, on the other hand, is ecstatic.
"This is incredible, Paul. If this truly is the elixir of life, then I have in my hand the solution to all humanity's ills."
I'm not sure why, but I feel less enthused. I watch as she carefully packs the vial, ensuring its safe passage back to the Smithsonian and its laboratories.
It will take a few weeks until the contents can be analyzed and its properties assessed—a lull in which I'll try to come to terms with my response to our discovery and my feelings toward Astrid.
She and I are both in our early thirties. Ageing is of little concern and our youth protects and insulates us from thoughts of decline.
Some day, perhaps, our discovery might mean something to me, but for now, all I care about is the future—Astrid's and mine.
Maybe I'm missing the greater implications—or maybe not.
Ultimately, it seems looking forward to longevity in an unknown future is not appealing, unless that future means something personally to me.
I think of Joseph Conrad writing his autobiographical work, Youth, and I think he would like my attitude—maybe even approve of it:
O youth! The strength of it, the faith of it, the imagination of it!
Only a moment; a moment of strength, of romance, of glamour—of youth! A flick of sunshine upon a strange shore, the time to remember, the time for a sigh..."
I'm hoping I can convince Astrid. To me, the real treasure we found was not in the sands of Tabriz or a glass vial containing an opaque liqueur.
I'm hoping she'll see the real treasure is the youth we have and that we can spend together, living and loving and finally growing old.
Maybe then she'll see youth is not something to be bottled and contained. It has meaning because it's fleeting.
It's precious because it's once in a lifetime, like this love I'm hoping we can have.