The book is for sale at my Mendocino office (45051 Ukiah Street, above Mendocino Market), on the Think in the Morning website via PayPal, at Gallery Books and The Book Loft in Mendocino, and at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online outlets.

This is the first of a few excerpts we will be posting to pique your interest. 

 

Chapter 8: Penalt

Sacramento, California

May 1972

At the very moment he achieved the pinnacle of scientific success and recognition, Roger Penalt discovered that he wasn’t cut out to be a scientist. He worked in a sterile lab housed in a cement building located in a city like every other city. It was as if he woke up in a bowl of mush and discovered he was the lone nut on which a mouthful of giant teeth was about to crunch. He was brilliant. He knew he was brilliant. With that confidence, he was certain he could find a better gig.

One of his cohorts, someone he’d stayed in contact with since their wild days together as undergraduates, had become director of research at Yawnix Pharmaceuticals, a company that five years ago had been a not-too-promising startup. After a series of remarkable new drugs brought to market, Yawnix became the biggest and most powerful player in the exotic world of botanical pharmacology.

Over lunch with his friend, Penalt expressed his fear of spending thirty years in a room with four walls, no windows, and nothing around him but dead animals. “Research is so damned frustrating! It’s impossible to study anything as it is. First you change it in a way that defeats the whole purpose. Think about it. To figure out how a cat works you take it apart. What do you have then but a dead cat?”

Penalt’s friend raised his eyebrows. He was a giant of a man, the kind that could slap your back and send you across the room.

“You’ve been inside the lab too long, Roger. What you need is a job in the field.”

“What does that mean, a job in the field?” asked Penalt, who began to have vague recollections of the famous Smith Herbarium and visions of himself as a protégé of Richard Schultes, whom he had met briefly at Harvard when he’d first developed an interest in hallucinogenic plants.

His friend wore impeccable gray slacks, a light blue shirt, one of those flashy wide ties in the new ’70s style, and wide black suspenders. He pulled the suspenders out with his thumbs and let them snap back onto his chest sadistically. Penalt doubted his friend had been reading Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs,but he’d have fit right in.

“Most of our best drugs have come from the plants and herbs and animal compounds indigenous healers have been using for centuries. We’ve been working in Central and South America. Now we want to focus on the healers in Northern Baja. We could send you down there as our man on the ground. You’d send back whatever you can gather. It would be like a scientific holiday. We’ll have our chemists look at your finds to see if they can be replicated in the lab. We’re looking for profitable drugs. There’s millions to be made, buddy. You’ll be paid handsomely for your efforts. You’ll also have the enjoyment of working outside in a natural environment. No dead cats. If it works out, we’ll send you off on one expedition after another. You’ll live the life of Riley.”

Mephistopheles couldn’t have composed a better speech.

“Is that legal?”

“Of course it’s legal. Everything we do has to be according to the rules, buddy. No way around that. Don’t sit on this offer, we need to move fast. Our competition is circling like vultures. First come first served.”

It wasn’t a huge leap for Penalt. He had no family, plenty of money in the bank. He was hungry for a real challenge, and decided on impulse to go for it.

“I’m in!”

“I knew it! This is the perfect solution to your problem, Roger. We’ll get the papers in order. I’ll contact a local guide. You should be ready to leave in a few days. Pull your affairs together. Do you need an advance in pay?”

“No. I’m fine. I want all my pay deposited in my bank account here in the States.” Penalt was abstemious and careful with his money.

“Done!” As his friend raised an arm to slap him on the back, Penalt maneuvered out of the way and made for the door. He didn’t want to start his new job with a fractured spine.

“Thanks! This is going to be fun.”

For the first time in years, Penalt felt real excitement. He had nothing to lose and much to gain. On the way back to his studio apartment he bought a book and some tapes to brush up on his Spanish. He’d studied the language in grade school and had a basic foundation in vocabulary and grammar. Even his pet fish sensed that something was up and swam around the tank with unusual alacrity. Penalt wondered what the fish would think about his plans. He’d need someone to care for it while he was gone; probably best to give it away. Alex, the boy next door, was the perfect age. His dad had died of a defective heart not long after Alex was born. Penalt and Alex’s mom had been spending time together. Penalt would miss that, but he could still help her out financially while he was gone. He would make that clear before leaving.

A week later he met with his friend one last time to sign the contract and get his last-minute instructions.

“The people in the hills are independent and naïve to the ways of the world. They’re happy to share their knowledge once they trust you. Establishing trust is the key. Dress simply, nothing new or fancy. Don’t say anything about money or Yawnix or Western drugs. They have no respect for capitalism down there. Be inconspicuous, try to blend in. Use the same buses the local people use. Pretend you have a personal interest in the ancient methods of healing. Hell, maybe tell them you want to be a healer yourself—you know, become one of them. You’ve got to act the part so they’ll accept you. They have a natural distrust of outsiders, but you have a way with people, buddy. I remember how you were in college. Christ, you got me out of one jam after another with your sweet talk. Have you ever thought about politics?

“Are you kidding? I would hate a political career.”

“Oh, well, you know what I mean. We’ve hired a guide to help you with language and logistics. The ball’s in your court now, buddy. Any questions?”

“I’m not as confident as you about my communication skills. What if I can’t gain the trust of the locals? I’ve heard some of these healers can see into a spirit world. Of course, I don’t believe that, but I’m sure they’re very good at figuring people out. They’ll know right away if I’m not being honest with them. But I don’t have to lie—I do have an interest in the methods of these healers.”

Penalt had paid dearly for a life of deception, mostly deceiving himself. He wanted no more of it. If he was expected to gain someone’s trust, whoever they were, he wanted to gain it sincerely.

“Come on, Roger,” said his friend with a smirk. “You don’t really believe all that mumbo-jumbo, do you? These healers know which plants are good for which illnesses. They’ve experimented and tested just like the rest of us, and killed quite a few of their people along the way. The spirit stuff is strictly a show. It fits in with the kooky ideas of the New Age spiritualists who flock down there in search of gurus. Get on with it, buddy—do what you think is best, but don’t lose sight of why you’re there. Finding the right plants is where the money’s at.”

The black suspenders whacked away indiscriminately. Penalt pictured purple bruises on his friend’s chest.

Penalt didn’t like such a cold attitude. Despite some reservations, he did have respect for the healers he’d read about. The so-called spirit world wasn’t so far from science, was it? Science has its oddball theories that seem ridiculous until they’re tested. Had anyone actually tested these alternative methods? He’d studied all about plants. This whole thing excited him. To be out in nature in a new culture and to have the opportunity to learn, maybe even to discover, some new and wonderful medicines was something he looked forward to. Who knows? He might learn something truly fascinating—something beyond the mundane world of Western drugs. He’d do what he wanted once he got down there; satisfy his curiosity and let Yawnix pay for it. He didn’t tell this to his pal, who was big and stupid but very adept at shoving people around. Penalt had no intention of being shoved around.

As Penalt ruminated on these thoughts, his friend leaned forward with an earnest look. He put his hands on the table and his feet beneath his broad shoulders. He looked like Leo “The Lion” Nomellini, the retired tackle of the San Francisco 49ers. His mouth was slightly open, his teeth crooked, his eyes crossed. Looking into those eyes, dark and deep in their sockets, Penalt felt like a sparrow trying to face down a cobra.

“There’s a small village up in the mountains, Roger. That’s where we want you to go.”

His friend spoke almost in a whisper as if he wanted to make sure no one could hear but Roger even though no one else was there. “It will be tricky getting there, but we’ve arranged it. It’s the home of a famous healer, an Indian woman who’s known throughout the mountain villages as the oldest and wisest of, I don’t know, I think they’re called cure a deras.If anyone knows about this healing shit, she does. We think she may be the clue to what we’re looking for down there.”

Penalt’s friend raised his hands off the table and snapped his suspenders twice.

“This is the real deal, the reason we’re sending you down, but it’s strictly hush-hush, top secret. You gotta keep this to yourself, okay? Nobody gets the details, especially if you get interrogated by the authorities.”

“What do you mean, interrogated?”

Penalt felt a little squeamish, like he was being dragged into something not quite kosher.

“Well, the locals don’t exactly welcome us poking around in their business but, as I’ve said, you’ve got the skills. And then, you might run into our competitors. Mum’s the word. Got it?”

Penalt’s unease gnawed at him. He knew there were risks, but he hadn’t thought about how serious they might be until now.

“Rumor has it this healer lady has a renegade strain of Laetrile, you know, the purported anti-cancer compound made from apricot pits. The stuff is currently illegal in the States. We think Laetrile is just another quack remedy, but it’s very popular with cancer patients because everything else has failed them. The clamor for Laetrile is one thing that’s united the crazies on the right and on the left. The John Birchers and the New Age hippie-types are both fighting the government on this. The tests to date have been negative; however, we heard that one of the researchers over at Sloan Kettering got hold of an oddball sample that produced good results. This drove our competitors nuts. They buried the report. No respectable drug company wants to touch it. It’s all about money: the expensive drugs on the market are very profitable, and Laetrile could change that.”

Penalt’s friend stood up. He paced nervously as he spoke.

“We don’t have an anti-cancer drug on the market, so we have nothing to lose. We want a stake in the game. It’s a real competitive business. We think the initial results justify further testing, but we don’t want to look like a bunch of crackpots. That’s why we’re keeping a lid on our efforts until we have a chance to check it out. It’s a long shot, but if it proves out we could have a blockbuster on our hands, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We’d piss off a lot of our competition, which would be just fine with us, buddy. A proven cancer cure would be worth a fortune. Put a lot of our competitors out of business. A reliable source told us this oddball serum might be available at this remote mountain village. We’re putting all our faith in you. Do whatever you need to do. Find a way, but get us a sample. We’ll fund you. There’s a big bonus if it all comes together. But remember, this is off the record. We can’t tarnish the Yawnix reputation.”

 

The book is for sale at my Mendocino office (45051 Ukiah Street, above Mendocino Market), on the Think in the Morning website via PayPal, at Gallery Books and The Book Loft in Mendocino, and at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online outlets.