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Alastair Brandt was known in the academic world as one of the top scholars to translate and authenticate rare and ancient texts. He had procured several rare first editions over his years that could he was happy to lend to Universities or Museums for study. He would even lend them to people for the sheer joy of reading them for entertainment. This was the reason most books had been written; to entertain and enlighten. It was the masters that could enlighten the mind and enthrall a reader at the same time; think and reason while being entertained. But he also had several other books, tomes, and scrolls from millennia past that was of religion, politics, or history. Alastair had always thought that a day without learning five new things was a wasted day.
Alastair grew up in England and traveled the world as an interpreter during World War II. He was really a spy in that he could break codes of the Italian and German militaries. He was essential in helping Alan Turing break the German Enigma code as well as the Lorenz code. He always preferred to travel to where the intelligence was gathered to see it first hand, like a first edition book, before someone along the chain would make a minor change or overlook an important detail that appeared inconsequential. “Editorial control,” he would often say, “is the reason why we have so many arguments about the truth of religion. Always go to the source.” He would use the Bible as his main example as it differs from one version to another to shed partiality to what version of Christianity one worshipped.
With this belief in hand, he found that there were several firsthand accounts of major events in history written in journals or scrolls of apprentices and paid servants. He found troves of these works in North Africa and Southern Europe during the war. He was fortunate that both of his parents came from some money, not enough for a title, but enough to be respected in those circles. He would scour the world for the next 50 years looking for such valuable texts. At the same time, he did not want competition in his endeavors, so he made it a point to outwardly become a philanthropist with his time and some of his texts in the name of academia. He would gladly accept an invitation to small colleges and consortiums if it would bring him to a location that he had not yet explored for the written word. The older the history of the culture, the more he would go and spend a week at a time exploring.
He eventually bought a large manor in Ronda, Spain. The history of the small city and its location to Northern Africa was perfect for him. Of all the cultures he had explored, Spain was his favorite. The food, the language, the history. But no city more than Ronda. He especially loved the influence of all who had conquered the small city was still there to see; Roman Ruins of an amphitheater, Arabic Baths, Bull Rings, Castle Gates, and even Caves. This was the perfect place for a man just entering the golden years of his life. The grapes of this region were one of few that made wine that was imported into the Roman Empire. Every draught of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, or Grenache, was tasting history. Keeping to his theory of always going to the source, he would only get his wine from the local vineyards like Descalzos Viejos or Bodega Garcia Hidalgo. The first time he passed through, he knew he was home.
It was not until the new millennium was on the horizon, that Alastair realized the size of his collection had become enormous and his age had become an issue as well. Alastair would rather spend more time reading than maintaining his collection. He spent almost three years looking for the correct person who he could trust and had the same enthusiasm and meticulous attention to detail as himself. He found Lily Cohen.
She was perfect for him. Lily could not only handle the duties of overseeing the maintenance of his personal library, but most of his financial investments as well. She oversaw every detail of the construction of the new library to modernize the way the volumes were stored. She catalogued everything. She would even do the research to find undiscovered editions and journals to give him somewhere to explore and confirm. He sometimes thought she was a witch at how well she could find some items. None the less, he was always happy with her work and she was well paid for her services.
There was one part of his collection that she was not allowed to see or touch. She wasn’t sure how large a collection it was, but it had to be small as it fit in a safe he kept in his study. She used every argument she could think of to get inside that vault, but he was adamant that only he could see its contents until the time was right. Frustrated but stubborn, she would try for nearly twenty years to know its secrets and still not get in.
Alastair Brandt came home one evening after one of his forays abroad. This time it was China. It was late, but with the time change between China and Spain, he was still awake as though it was the early afternoon. He grabbed a snack of Manchego cheese, baguette bread, and a Bodega Joaquin Fernandez Garnacha that he had been saving for a special occasion. He went into his study, poured a glass of wine and started to snack a bit on the cheese as he caught up on his messages, mail, and email that had backed up during his two-week absence. As beautiful as China was, he was happy to be home. He would need at least two more lifetimes to explore the mysteries of China.
By the time he started on his second glass, he reached into his briefcase and pulled out a small, thin package that was wrapped in old paper. He carefully pulled back the ends to make sure the adhesive holding it together would not get into the delicate colored object inside. It was small piece of bark paper, very delicate with age. It had the Mandarin writing on it with very small pictures of an old man and a young man. It was gorgeous. He knew Mandarin well, so he started speaking out loud the characters on the paper. He tried saying the characters again in varying tones, thinking that the intonations may be off. After a few tries at this, the voice of a woman broke the silence of the room, “That won’t work for you.”
Startled and completely out of sorts, Alastair looked in the direction from where the voice came. “Who is that? Who are you? How did you get in here?” As he spoke, from the dark corner of his Study, the form of a woman took shape as though it was created from the background and then made into a figure. He was speechless.
“I said,” the voice continued as the figure moved closer, “that won’t work for you. I will admit your grasp of Mandarin should be awarded alone. But, never in eternity, will that work for you.”
“What do you mean? What won’t work for me?” Alastair was caught off guard. For the first time in his life, when he thought he was alone and safe, someone had caught up to what he had been collecting for decades.
“You know what you have there. You have a spell. One that can make an old man young again. I love the Chinese. Their artists always had a way with making spells so pretty. But you can not Sing. You must Sing to make the Art come to life. You are no Singer. Or a Poet. I would have thought that you would have learned the rules by now… my favorite little pupil.” By this time, she was in the light of the desk lamp he had on. She was breathtaking. Her long dark hair framed the face of a Mediterranean woman; big dark eyes, a protruding nose, and thick eyebrows. Her lips were deep red and contrasted her olive skin. Above all, she was intimidating. She was wearing a grey, pin striped business suit with a black button downed shirt. The silver jewelry that she wore looked like it had been made from another time. Her mere presence exuded power.
“Who are you?” Alastair could barely speak above a whisper. He felt a pressure on his chest that as though the air around him solidified and started to shrink. Breathing started to become a labor.
“I have been called many things over the years. You can call me Fey. I do love that name. I have watched you since you found your first sign that magic may exist. I have seen you search the Earth in every corner to find any sign of magic. I think you have collected a lot, have you not? Hidden it away. Made sure that no one could see your pretty little treasure but you. But you know the rules. If anyone could Sing, the world would have ended before it was started. Artists and Poets create the Art, and Singers bring it to life. Those are the rules. There are the rare few that can do both but you, sir, are none of them. So why try it on a spell that will make you younger by half? I understand the allure in mortals, youth. But the cost that comes with it is cruel. Whose years would you steal to make that happen?”
Alastair looked at her in surprise at the mention of this, “Whose years?” he was able to mumble again. Puzzled at the concept of stealing youth from another.
“Of course. That’s how it works with some Art. A trade of sorts. In lesser Art like this there is always something taken for what is given. It’s something that the apprentices and less talented Artists will use to create their Art. It is easier to exchange than to create pure life from a canvas. Only the Masters have that ability and they would never make something that petty. A pure canvas of Art that does not affect anyone or anything allows for a pure soul in heaven. What would you put on the value of that?”
Alastair could feel the air around him begin to compress a bit for him to be able to speak clearer. “What do you want Fey? If it is this spell, please take it and go. Forgive my vanity in thinking I can cast a spell myself- “
“SING! It is to Sing. If you are going to speak about what you obviously don’t know too much about, at least give it the respect. You Sing, like the Angels in the Heavens or the Demons of the Dark Council. There is no morality to Art but for the one who Creates it and the one who brings it to Life.” Fey quickly composed herself and looked at Alastair with an imposing stare again.
“My apologies, Fey. I meant no disrespect. But if you do not want this spe-… Art, then how can I help you. Please, Fey, and I will do what I can.” Alastair was sweating in fear at this point. He could feel his heart beating faster than it should. He had medicine for this in coat pocket that he carried with him for just such an occasion, but he could not lift his arms to reach.
“You found something a long time ago. Something very special. More rare than your entire collection combined. I need to know where it is before he comes.”
Looking bewildered, Alastair looked at her very intently, “Before who comes? Who is he?”
“He,” Fey said with exclamation, “is not coming for what I want. He is coming for an entirely different reason. But He will be here soon. So please tell me where you hid it before I extend your experience so much longer that you will beg for his arrival. Your life has been extended because of handling it. I can smell its effects on you. You should have died years ago with the rest of your friends. Only someone as strong as I with Creation and the Arts could make such a masterpiece and you will tell me where it is… now.” She clenched her hand tighter into a fist and the air around him squeezed tighter, where he was sure it broke a few ribs.
Alastair realized that He was death and she was someone he feared he would meet. She was Hecate, the Titan of Magic. One of only a few Titans that Zeus allowed in Olympus. She was magic incarnate. And she knew of his prize. He could not believe that in his last moments, he would meet an ancient. He had seen many a demon or angel in his dealings; always a minor player but enough to make him believe. But a Titan. He smiled, “Hekate.” He was able to get it out. The weight of the world seemed to have washed away. He was happy.
She was shocked for a moment and jumped to the safe behind his desk and easily threw open the door to find it empty but for a hand-written note to Lily, “The mystery in the mind is sometimes better than the reality in life.” She looked at him in anger by the sides of his chair, “Where is that Canvas!”
At that moment the house bell rang. Alastair felt the inclination to get up and go to the door. He was surprised at how easy it was for him to sit up from the chair and move to the entry of the Study. He tuned to look at Fey and she was standing there, glaring at him from across the room with visible anger and hate. He turned and walked to the front door as the house bell rang again. Noting the time of the visit and how late it was, Alastair slowly opened the door and peaked around the edge to see who it was.
Alastair saw a tall man with a black leather jacket and matching fedora. The man turned looked up to him and he lit up with a warm smile, “Alastair. Alastair Brandt. It’s me, Armando! Como estas? How are you, old friend?” Armando came closer to the door, and with absolute delight, Alastair opened the door wide and gave Armando a bear hug. Alastair couldn’t quite remember Armando, but he felt as though he had been lifelong friends with him was overwhelmed with happiness that Armando was there.
“My god, Armando, how long has it been. So great to see you, please come in. Can I get you something to drink? Brandy, isn’t it? Oh drat, I think I finished it before I left for China.”
“Check again, my friend. I think you may have a bottle of something special to drink for us. I know a strong drink could do wonders for us both. That is if this is not a bad time for you?” Armando looked at him with the smallest sign of a grin.
“No, not at all. I was just getting caught up on my messages. Your timing couldn’t have been more perfect. You see, I’m still on Mandarin time so a nice drink would be perfect. Let me check the Cellar.” Alastair showed Armando into the front parlor, “Let me take your coat and hat for you. Please, have a sit. The fire has finally caught. It should help you get warm in no time. I will be right back.” Armando looked around the room at the small pieces of history that were put on display to invite conversation. The room was set to entertain. Comfy sofas and a chaise lounge. There were two large leather chairs, side by side separated by a small marble cocktail table, that were facing the fireplace where he decided to sit. Armando couldn’t help but like a person like this. Intellect and taste, so few left to gather these days.
Moments later, Alastair came back from the Cellar with a huge grin on his face. He was carrying two snifter glasses and a crystal decanter of what appeared brown liquor. “Look, my friend. You were correct. I forget that I had my Valet decant the GlenLivet Scotch Whiskey. It’s from the 1940 stock, very rare. This is the perfect potent potable for this occasion.” Alastair measured and poured the Whiskey for the pair and handed a snifter to Armando. “I think a toast is in order. To friendship til’ death.”
“How about to life and all that one is gifted along the way?” Armando countered. Alastair smiled, they raised their glasses, and lightly touched the crystal snifters to the softest of taps. The both inhaled the aroma of the Scotch before taking a small sip to set the palate, and then a healthier swig to fully taste the rare beverage. “That is truly worth a life well lived. I can say the last time I have tasted something so perfect in every note. How does it feel drinking something younger than yourself? You were in the war when this was being bottled, weren’t you? I think that’s where we first met. Somewhere in Africa. Fort Capuzzo in Libya. Very nasty.”
“Quite right, it was in Libya. I recall you looking out for the wounded men. I was surprised to see you. They all seemed so happy to see you. You took such good care of them. You looked a bit different then, though, but not much. How well you have aged my friend.” Alastair looked at him for a long moment to look at his friend, almost to memorize the lines on Armando’s face, them quickly put his attention back to his drink.
“I was just as surprised to see you as well. You were always different from the rest. Always looking for things that no one else could find. You were a wealth of knowledge then, and a veritable library now. If you look back now, what do you remember most fondly?” Armando poured another glass of whiskey for himself and topped off Alastair’s glass.
“That… is a good question. I would say a child but I never had one. I never got married. I guess I looked at all of man… as my children. And it was my job to teach as many as I could for as long as I could. With that said, maybe finding one of my most prized pieces of history,” Alastair said as he blankly stared into the fire.
“No, my friend. Things can always be replaced. I speak of Experience. That is what man seeks the most, but so quickly settles for the thrill of purchasing appliances that become the chains of their existence.” Armando leaned forward in his chair and spoke more animatedly. “There is no price for the sight from the top of the Matterhorn or the aroma of a cherry blossom orchard after the rain. What did you like so much that when you look back now, you could consider it an achievement to life?”
Alastair looked at the fire a bit longer before answering. “I once stole a bicycle from a neighbor because my parents thought it was too dangerous for me ride. So, I hid it in the nearby forest way away from prying eyes. I just wanted to feel that joy of freedom that I had seen so many other children obsessing over. I spent an entire morning trying to find my balance on that bicycle. Many times did I fall over and I had the scrapes and bruised to prove it. I was trying to be careful at first but after the first tear in my breeches, I knew it was learn now or I would never get another chance. Time was now a factor. But then you have the one attempt where you almost get it, the balance… and you go for a bit before you fall. You know then, the next time you ride, it will be forever. That in between feeling that feel for the first time in life where failure meets success. Where you know when the reward will be. I got on the bike and all the little things I had worked out on my own just clicked and I was off. I could explore places that I had only imagined in my head without anyone to say no. This is when I discovered there was so much more to see and with the right effort, it was possible to see it. I rode that bike until I could not see anything in front of my eyes; I did grow up in the country, you know. When I came home that night, my parents were so angry. I had torn my clothes to shreds. I had also done a good job on that bicycle in learning that my parents had to purchase a new one for the neighbors. I think the kid next door came out ahead for being without his bicycle for an afternoon.”
Alastair looked deeply into his snifter of scotch as it was almost gone. “That would my favorite experience. I think I have chased that feeling my whole life to feel that again. That youthful sense of discovery. To conquer your own fear of falling by forever embracing it. Really, it is like falling forward until you will it to stop. Oh, I would love to ride that bike one last time. To feel that sense of childhood freedom. When it felt like the world was sting young and there was so much to discover. My dear Armando, thank you for that. I have not thought of that in so long.”
“I am happy for you friend. Mi amigo de la vida. It seems to be late and I must go. Would you be as so kind as to walk me out?” Armando stood and finished the last sip in his glass.
“Of course. You are correct. It is getting late. Let me get your coat and hat.” Alastair lead Armando to the front door and looked into the wardrobe near the door and could only find Armando’s coat. “I am so sorry my friend, I thought I had put it here with your coat. If you will give me a moment, I may have left it in the cellar.”
“No worries,” Armando replied with another warm smile. “I will come another time, during light hours, to collect my hat. It was so great to see you as I have been looking forward to this for some time.” As he walked out of the bodega and toward his car, he called out to Alastair. “Is this bike yours? It looks like someone just left it here after I came in.”
Alastair walked quickly down the stairs to see an antique bicycle with several scratched and dents. It had to be near 100 years old. Alastair went to the bicycle and delicately picked it up like so many ancient artifacts he had handled in his life. It looked exactly like the bicycle he had in his story. He felt an energy ripple through his body the longer he held on to the handle bars. He looked to Armando, “It’s incredible. It’s… the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. It’s not mine. Oh, this is amazing. Do you think I should take it for a ride? I haven’t done this in years. I just feel like I could do it now. I feel like a little boy. Maybe it’s the scotch, but I think I can do it. Will you help me?”
“Of course, my friend,” Armando spoke as he helped Alastair get on the bicycle. “That’s why I came.” Armando held the bike from behind as Alastair started to peddle for the first time in decades. After a few rotations of the pedals, Alastair was off on his own.
“I have it,” Alastair yelled like a child. “I have it.” Alastair kept peddling down the driveway. His laughter and enthusiasm became childlike in tone. Alastair did not notice that with every time he rotated the peddles, he became younger and younger. The energy and strength of childhood eventually crept through his every fiber as he rode into the light of long lost trail some 98 years ago. And just as soon as the light had appeared, young Alastair Brandt was gone. So has Armando and his beautiful black car.
The following morning, Alastair’s Valet found his body in the study with seeming smile on his face. As if Alastair had passed in the most pleasant of ways. Lily Cohen was called in immediately as it was her job to make all the funeral arrangements and to break down his estate. Lily would personally call all of his closest contacts and the heads of the top universities and museums to inform them of Alastair’s death. His funeral would be in a week at which point Lily would have to lock his estate so that no one would try to “acquire” something that was not going to them. She had been cataloguing his estate for the last twenty years so she knew where everything was and where it was to be shipped. The tricky part was to make sure the correct pieces went into the corresponding crates. The funeral came and went with many small request for private meetings to see if she could be “persuaded” to include certain books into private hands. Or worse, the academics hands’. They were the worst for her. Greed in the name of research. She looked at most of them as the leaches of academia.
Another week had passed since the funeral when she was able to put all of the books into the crates. There were so many books and small pieces of history that needed to be separated. With some help with the local museum, she was able to ensure what items were packed in its correct crate. Per the will, many libraries and museums would get a donation from around the world. As his executor, Lily did put aside a small box that she was going to keep for herself. There was nothing particularly interesting about the books that she wanted other than the fact that they were kept in the Lara museum, without her knowledge, to be spread out among all the donations. None of the books had any relative value except only to Alastair. These were the books he would not allow her to study. She saw the note that was left for her inside his personal safe at home. Lily took it more as an insult than good tidings, but Lily had never been accused of having a warm personality. She put them in a small box, not a crate, to make sure it would stand out among everything else being shipped. The crates alone were a small fortune as they were airtight to ensure they were water proof. These crates could withstand a bomb if need be. They were only to be in the crates for no more than 48 hours as all the beneficiaries had made arrangements to pick up their prizes at their respective airports.
During the last day of sealing up the crates, an old man came to the house to pay his condolences. He spoke with Lily for just a bit as he knew that she was quite busy. After a few minutes of small talk, the old man asked he she had come across a black leather fedora in going through the estate. He explained that it was his and had left it here before Alastair had gone to China. He would have come sooner but felt it was inappropriate. Lily actually had found that hat in the Cellar and knew where it was and would go fetch it for him. It took her a few moments, but she was happy to get for the old man. As the old man left, she forgot to ask his name.
“Armando. Armando del Muerto. Gracias mujer. Gracias. Tiene una larga vida.” And he walked away down the driveway. Lily thought he was a little strange and happy to be done with him. She finished her day with sending out the crates that would picked up and brought promptly to the airport to be promptly sent to each impending destination. With the last crate gone, she packed up her items and went to her Hotel in the heart of Ronda. Lily stopped at her favorite café in town and had some coffee and a panqueque con dulceleche. With her body rushing with sugar, she purchased a bottle of wine and went back to her hotel room. She would finally see what had been denied her for so long.
As Lily passed the front desk, she asked to pick up a package that should have been delivered that afternoon. The front desk attendant disappeared in the back and shortly came back empty handed. “I am so sorry Senora Cohen, we have had no deliveries today. Only letters. Were you expecting a letter?”
“No, it was a large box that was sent here special delivery this afternoon. It should have been here no later than 3:00. Go back there and check again.” Lily was feeling her blood pressure raise. She called the number of the Deliver Company and they told her that they had a record of her calling for a pick up, but it was cancelled at the pick-up.
“Si, mujer. I have the signed copy here. It was never picked up. It looks like an Armando… del Muerto? Este verdad?” the operator questioned as he read the name on the paper. “He signed and paid for the cancellation fee. Left a big tip, too.”
The blood drained from Lily’s face. She hung up the phone and grabbed the nearest cab and went back to the bodega, her heart pounding the whole way there. As soon as they reached the bodega of Alastair Brandt, she immediately went to the library hoping that she had overlooked the box. She searched the house until she went into the kitchen to grab a glass of water.
As soon as she walked in she saw the note left to her from Alastair stuck on the refrigerator door with sealing wax. Under the portion written by Alastair was another note to her as well:
Tsk, tsk, Lily. Haven’t you learned by now you have to play fair.
It was too late to put a hold on the crates to check them as they would all be airborne. She would have to politely check with all of the Universities and Museums and hope there was some honesty it the box was sent to them. She was livid. She bit her lip so hard that she drew blood. If it was not in one of the crates, Heavens knows where those books could be. Better yet, why were they so important.