Nepenthe

5 Jan

Despite fifteen years of work as a plainclothes agent, Jacques Bacin still felt like an imposter since arriving in Rougeville.

“This is the height of the tourist season,” said the calash driver as his old bayard trotted away from the steamship quay. “It is fortunate that you have a room reserved for you, sir.”

“I’ve planned my vacation for a year,” lied the passenger, in a bright yellow summer suit. He wore the wide-brimmed skimmer of a visiting sightseer.

But his trip to the delta fenland was not for pleasure. It involved serious, hazardous professional business of investigation.

The driver pulled his reins back, avoiding a gang of advancing, staggering revelers.

“Tourists,” muttered the cabman. “They can’t handle whatever it was they had.”

Jacques decided to do some probing.

“I understand it is easy to obtain medicinals of every kind here, even prohibited material.”

“Prohibited! Around here the illegal things are available to anyone with money cards. Look at how many apothecaries we have! Every kind of pleasurable is for sale. You name it, someone can provide it for you.”

“Yes, I have heard that conditions are wide open. The authorities are complacent and tolerant of human thirsts for escape.”

The driver spat an enormous hawker onto the cobble pavement.

“Our higher-ups get paid off, while the police are frightened sissies.” He started to slow the horse.

“This is the Fenmarsh Hotel, sir. Should you need a relaxer or a stimulant, all you need do is go into one of the numerous drug shops around. There is never any trouble getting what you want here in Rougeville.”

It was evening when Bazin left the ornate old hotel. He stopped a moment on the wooden causey, gazing westward at the bright lights along the noisy street. His maroon slacks and white jacket with purple orchid patterns on it gave him the look of a recreational ingestor of substance.

The agent decided to try a shop with a blinking gas sign that spelled out “Fleur Pharmacy.”

Shelves rose on three sides from floor to ceiling. A short, fat, bald man in a white coat stood behind a high counter, waiting for customers.

Jacques told him his prepared story. “I do not feel well. My head throbs and rings. It has gone on for days this way.”

The pharmacist recommended his special ptisan made of valerian, althea, menthane, and liquorice. Disappointed, the customer left, taking the package back to his hotel room, where he poured it down the bathroom sink.

I shall have to be more specific next time, he vowed to himself.

Two hours later, Jacques went outside again to make a second attempt.

Ribbons of stars lit the sky. The causey he walked on was packed with men and women out for a good time. Tourists wore gaudy colors and exhibited frenzied excitement. Raucous dance music blew forth from taverns. A group of obvious hop-heads on humulus lurched past him. Jacques could smell absinthium on their breathes.

All at once, the end of the street loomed ahead. Beyond it, the Rouge River reflected the glowing lights of the line of shops. He stopped and looked about. His eyes fastened on a flashing gas sign that identified “Anodyne Drogues.”

He rushed to the entrance and went in. There were no other customers present. By luck, he would be the only other person beside the supplier who sold the goods.

From a desk behind the counter, a woman with long flaxen hair rose and stepped toward the man who had just entered the place.

“Good evening,” she greeted him. “How can I help you?”

Jacques had a better look now at the pretty circular face of the clerk. She had a short, turned-up nose. Her large eyes were a watery baby blue.

“I arrived in Rougeville only this afternoon, but already terrible megrims are killing me. The pain grows worse all the time. It’s indescribable. I doubt that I will sleep a moment all night. My vacation is ruined unless you can provide me some strong, effective relief.”

He gave a pleading stare.

“Have you taken anything for it?” she asked him.

“Standard medicaments that do no good. Acetaminophen, for example. But I understand that there is a rich selection of materials in Rougeville. The apothecaries here, I am told, are free of official interference. The national bureaucracies are without power in this town. Anything in demand can be bought on the local market. Am I correct?”

She pursed her mouth. “You want something not obtainable at home?”

Jacques revealed what he was after.

“I have heard that there are nepenthean compounds that end pain for good, by erasing the memory of what was suffered.”

For several seconds, neither of them said anything.

“Come back into my workroom,” she surprisingly suggested. “I have an assistant busy there who can come forward and take charge of the counter while we hold a consultation.”

“You will help me, then?”

“If I can,” she replied, nodding to him.

The two sat facing each other on high stools, across a porcelain table.

“It is your good fortune to have come to the Anodyne tonight. There is something I can do for head pain. My specialty is compounding, creating complex combinations that bring back health and well-being. The goal is total destruction, once and for all, of the pain.”

“Is that possible?” asked Jacques, his breathing growing rapid.

The druggist opened a drawer on the work table and took out a small silicate bag, handing it across to him.

“Why don’t you try this compound tonight? You can brew the powder like a tea and take the vapors in through your nose.”

“Is it safe?”

“Yes,” she smiled. “Also expensive. That’s because of the cost of ingredients like eucaine, hobcaine, procaine, and phenacaine. It is not as cheap as ordinary intoxicants, inebriants, or exhilarants. It is an advanced compound, not a simple excitant or mitigant. The substance goes far beyond any levitive or stuporific now on the Rougeville market.”

“I can afford whatever it costs me.” He reached for his cardholder. “I forgot to ask your name,” he added.

“Mollie Ladoe, Doctor of Pharmacology,” she informed him, coming around the table and handing him the small bag. He handed her a money card. Then the two of them returned to the front of the shop.

She ran his card through an exchange box, then returned it to the new customer.

“Come back and tell me how it works for you,” called out Mollie. “It’s useful to know the results of the combination you will be taking.”

In his hotel room, Jacques placed the bag he had brought back in his suitcase. Then he lay down on the rubber bed with his clothes still on.

The contact made this first night could turn out to be a valuable one. Perhaps the woman with the long flaxen hair could lead him into the penetralia of the illicit drug life of Rougeville. When he had hinted at wanting nepenthe, she gave no sign at all of interest. But that could have been her supreme self-control, concealing what she knew or had available.

He smiled to himself. His investigation was not for anything small. The objective of his trip was the greatest breakthrough ever. Little was known in police circles about nepenthe and its potential hazards to health and sanity.

Could grave harm result if its use spread?

It appeared to be a novelty that might revolutionize both medicinal and leisure drugs in ways that were incalculable.

His superiors had bare hints of what nepenthe might bring with it.

The responsibility for discovering the truth fell upon him and no one else.

What was it he had told Mollie Ladoe? He had heard about the ability of nepenthe to end the memory of past and present pain.

Starting tomorrow, she had to reveal more about this new drug to him.

“I slept little last night,” Jacques lied. “The pain has not yet gone down. I don’t know what to do.”

Mollie bit her lower lip. Her eyes narrowed on him.

“My hope was that you would feel better this morning, Mr. Bazin.”

“Call me Jacques, please.” He scanned the workroom where she made compounds. “Perhaps a stronger combination is what I need.”

After thinking a moment, she stepped to a cupboard, opened it, and returned with a long, narrow gelatin vial.

“This is new and special, the most advanced form. It has the most potency.”

She placed the vial on the table, then opened a drawer and took out a small black case. Unzipping it, Mollie showed him that it contained a small syringe.

“Are you willing to inject this conglomerate?”

“Yes,” he said in a whisper.

“You must be careful with the dosage. As I said, it is powerful. Among the ingredients are codeia, atropine, and narcein. They can be dangerous, especially when combined.”

Jacques took a bold leap. “Could it have a permanent effect on me? How will my general memory function in the future?”

He noticed that her hand shook slightly for a second or so.

“This combination results in no mental damage,” she asserted. “I promise you that. It is perfectly safe.”

He decided to proceed and take the risk in order to advance his probe.

“If I get better, will you let me take you to dinner tonight? We can celebrate my recovery.” He looked at her hopefully.

“When your pain is gone,” she declared, “I will be happy to share your happy victory.”

Jacques started a campaign whose target was Mollie.

He reported his imaginary improvement and asked her out to dinner the next night. She would not be working and agreed to join him.

Pretending recovery, the investigator walked to her apartment near the river, escorting Mollie to an old-fashioned restaurant with traditional delta cuisine.

A jolly trio played music on accordion, harmonica, and catgut. Enticing spicy smells filled the small dining room. A joyous atmosphere prevailed here.

How many patrons of the place are on materials? Jacques wondered.

“I was not born in Rougeville,” revealed the druggist in a sleepy tone. “My original home was down in Revenant Bridge, way back in the fens.”

“It must be a swell place. I’ve never heard of it, though.”

“Hardly anyone still lives there, except my grandmama. My parents have passed on.” She was thoughtful for a moment. “Can you believe that I am descended from a line of traiteurs?”

“Folk healers!” said Jacques as if electrified.

“Grandmama first interested me in what I now do,” she murmured.

The waiter brought them their food. As the meal proceeded, Jacques reminded himself of his plan to stage a reversion to his simulated illness. As they were finishing their lagniappe dessert, he leaned forward and spoke to her.

“I think an attack is starting.”

She looked up to see his face was pale and drawn.

“I’m feeling worse by the second. What should I do? The compound you made for me is back at my hotel. Even if I had it now, it would not be of any help at all, I am certain.”

Mollie stared at him in alarm. “Let’s leave for my apartment,” she softly whispered.

For three hours, the pharmacist attempted to treat him with substances she had there, but Jacques succeeded in convincing her that his condition was worsening. The megrims became more painful and severe as he enacted them, laying on a rubber sofa.

As midnight approached, she kneeled down so that he could hear her words clearly.

“Only nepenthe can save you, Jacques. But I have none here. We will have to journey to Revenant Bridge tonight. Only Grandmama can heal you. I need to go out now and hire us a barouche to take us there.”

Jacques sensed a triumph when he heard these words from her.

In a short while, a driver helped Mollie lift and walk him out to the street where a four-wheeled covered carriage stood with two large horses in front.

Soon the vehicle left Rougeville and entered the region of swampland. Eerie hoots and screams created a mood of strangeness and dread. A thin, ghostly mist surrounded the dirt road on both sides. The barouche rolled with amazing speed into the gloomy fens.

“We shall soon cross the bridge for which our village is named,” explained Mollie. “It is very old and made of magnolia logs.”

All at once, the carriage began to rumble on a plank surface.

“I expect that Grandmama is still up. She is an all-night chouette who stays awake and reads books till dawn.”

The driver halted the two horses before a white clapboard house with a columned porch. Jacques climbed down to the ground on his own, holding the hand of Mollie.

As the carriage drove away, the pair climbed onto the elevated porch without a word between them. Mollie pressed a button beside the thick oaken door. In seconds a maid in antiquated servant uniform appeared, a young girl with white cap and apron.

“Is Mamou still awake?” asked the pharmacist.

“Yes, in the parlor, Missie.”

The two visitors entered a long, dark corridor and followed the maid to an open doorway.

In a soft gomme chair sat a withered, spare figure with a giant illustrated volume in her lap. Bright green eyes looked up in surprise, and then followed the granddaughter and the stranger as they entered and approached.

“I brought someone with me tonight, Gandmama,” announced Mollie, leaning forward and kissing the old woman’s wrinkled brow.

Introduction followed as Jacques felt the searching gaze of Mamou on him.

“I sense that you are sick and in great pain, Mr. Bazin,” whispered the one in the sofa chair. “Is that why you came to Revenant Bridge tonight?”

The pretender felt his head swim for a moment.

“I suffer profoundly serious megrim headaches for which there is no relief.”

Mollie described in detail her attempts to alleviate his condition and her failure at that. All the while, Mamou eyed the stranger closely.

“So. when I decided to use nepenthe, I had to come back here,” concluded the granddaughter.

Mamou asked the pair to be seated.

Her green eyes on Jacques, she addressed him directly.

“Nepenthe is the strongest drug we have in the fenlands, young man. It is rarely sold to anyone, for there are hazards connected to it.”

“My pain is too great for me to tolerate,” pleaded the visitor. “I am willing to take any risk, whatever it should be.”

Mamou studied his face for a time, making an appraisal.

“Nepenthe goes back a very long way in our tradition of medicine,” she told him. “It’s ingredients are secret and never revealed.”

The druggist then spoke. “I know of cases where criminal gangs have stolen small quantities of nepenthe and sold it in the big cities with fatal results.”

“My quest is for nothing beyond the end of my painful blue devils,” said Jacques. “I am not a seeker of drug-induced ecstasy.”

Mollie gave him a nod, then turned her face toward the old woman.

“We must rescue him from his affliction,” she pleaded. “Nepenthe is the last hope for Jacques.”

“You have done well to bring Mr. Bazin to Revenant Bridge, my dear,” said the old lady in a voice with echoing resonance in it.

Jacques decided to take a gamble.

“There are rumors about nepenthe everywhere. One friend told me he thought it came from sanguinaria, which is common bloodroot. Another person mentioned artemisia to me.”

“But that is only wormwood,” countered Mollie. “Neither can compare with nepenthe.”

He looked down at the floor. “It could be like codeia, from poppy heads.”

“None of those will be entering your bloodstream tonight, Jacques,” she assured him.

Once he was stretched out on a soft rubber couch, things moved swiftly.

He rolled up his sleeve so that Mollie could give him an injection of nepenthe. She stood over him, holding a gigantic syringe.

“Ready, Jacques?”

He nodded that he was.

Behind the druggist stood Grandmama, watching all that transpired.

“Here goes, then,” said Mollie, leaning down and puncturing the skin of his upper arm.

Unconsciousness hit quickly, as she pulled out the needle.

Mollie gave a start, for Grandmama was holding a second hypodermic in her hand.

The old woman moved past her, to the couch where the comatose visitor lay. It took only a second for her to bend down and inject the stranger with a second dose.

Mollie stared at her grandmother in awe.

“Do not be alarmed, girl,” calmly said Mamou. “I believe we have outwitted your new friend. Let me explain what I mean.

“I received an electrowave call this evening from an old source of mine in Rougeville. He told me that a new undercover agent had arrived in the city and was associating with you. I ordered him to contact our people in the capital and then call me back. An infiltrator we have had in the government for years confirmed the suspicion. This was a plainclothes operator who was sent to learn the secrets of nepenthe by posing as sick with chronic migraine.”

“Is he going to die now?” asked the granddaughter, fear shadowing her face.

“No, that will not be necessary. I plan to give him a shot of nepenthe every fifteen minutes, then every half hour. By morning, the injections will become hourly.

“You must stay here and continue with this schedule tomorrow.”

“But all of that will kill the poor man, Mamou!”

The latter’s face became a mask of confidence and placidity.

“There is a tiny amount of risk, of course, but I am sure that you can manage his condition skillfully. Our objective is to erase all memory, even his sense of identity. Nothing at all must remain of his past.

“His future will lie in your hands, Mollie.”

It was a month later that the two women held a conference on the amnesiac recuperating in Grandmama’s house.

“I have given up my position at the Anodyne and will return here permanently.”

Mamou leaned forward in her sofa chair. “You can stay with Jacques for good, then,” she said, beaming a knowing smile.

“He has no memory whatever,” continued Mollie. “No knowledge of his work as a spy and investigator. I have created a biography for him. In this fiction of mine, he is a native of the fens, a grower of plants used for medical materials.

Jacques has no desire to leave Revenant Bridge.”

Grandmama grinned with joy. “It is a new person we have shaped and molded. Let us pray that his new life will be a happy one for him.”

Indeed,  said Mollie to herself.

Jacques sat in a red osier chair on the rear veranda of the house, his eyes scanning the swamp that lay in the distance.The screen door opened as Mollie came out, then slammed shut. She took the chair beside him. Neither said anything for a time.

“I am moving back from Rougeville,” she began. “My work will now concentrate on herbals.”

His gaze still on the swamp, he grinned broadly.

“That makes me glad, Mollie. I will be seeing you every day, then.”

His left hand went up, then settled on her right one that rested on the chair arm.

“I have come to care for you deeply. Your grandmother, too. The two of you are all I have. You are my only family.”

Mollie spoke in a low, intimate tone.

“Nothing in life is as critical as the capacity to forget. So many horrors bedevil our memories. How can anyone survive without the gift of oblivion?

“What greater balm exists than that?”

As their hands clasped, both of them felt a certitude and confidence not possible unless they had met and joined together.

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