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His eyes wandered absently, tracing the edges of the dull ivory walls where bare wooden boards peeked through the paint. In the corner he noticed a delicately spun spider web, glistening in shafts of light pouring through a dingy window. Dangling below it on a fine silken thread was its maker, flexing its legs as it slowly lowered itself towards the ground.
"Dr. Ackart. Do I make myself clear?"
His attention snapped back to the man before him, seated at a wooden desk with folded hands and a commanding stare.
"Uh, yes, Mr. Emerson, perfectly clear," he responded.
"Good," said Mr. Emerson, "You may leave."
He hurriedly exited the room, coattails flapping, having no clear idea of what had just happened, but not caring to stay around to find out.
"What am I going to do, what am I going to do?" he muttered desperately, hurrying down a long corridor lined with gracefully arching ceiling-high windows, "I have three days to present results to the medical board and what do I have? A couple of mangy rats. You're in bad shape, Fulton."
A passing woman in a dark blue dress and a white, lacy hat gave him an odd glance but he didn't notice. He continued to mutter to himself until he reached his laboratory. There he closed the door quickly behind him and sighed. He strode forward to examine a long table covered in various bottles and beakers filled with an assortment of colored liquids. Selecting a deep burgundy one, he filled an eyedropper with it and carefully placed three drops onto the back of a rat in a wire cage labeled 'A'.
Fulton flopped down at his desk, and his battered wooden chair gave a squeaky protest. He pulled a thick, leather-bound journal out of a drawer. He flipped through the aged pages, which were littered with sketches and scribbles of writing, until he reached a page titled in a sideways scrawl, "The Black Death." In a small chart off to the side, he recorded his previous actions. A question written near the top of the page caught his attention. "Why does it strike cities?" He underlined the sentence with two quick strokes of his quill.
Fulton decided to take a break and get out of the Institute for a while. It wasn't as if he had any pressing work to attend to, he found himself thinking, almost viciously. He strode quickly down the cobbled streets of the city, carefully ignoring the glaring red Xs of warning slashed across the doors of houses. He ducked into a small dingy tavern he found nearby. It was midday, and the place was empty. He chose a table in the corner and sat down, sliding out of his overcoat. A serving wench asked him what he wanted to drink.
"Absinthe please," he replied wearily.
In two days time he would have no job, no income, and no life. His rat experiment was going nowhere and he knew it. He had known it since the beginning, but had chosen to maintain ignorance to the fact. Undoubtedly, he had thought, there was some simple solution he would uncover just in time, and the review board would smile graciously as he presented his case before them. This idealist vision had begun to waver as his deadline had drawn nearer. Fulton had begun to think perhaps this problem wasn't going to resolve itself. And now he sat alone, facing dark thoughts as he finally came to the realization there was nothing he could do. This was his first important assignment since he'd received his degree, and it was already botched, like everything else he did. People were dying every day…
She brought him a tall glass filled with a clear green liquid. He placed a slotted absinthe spoon on top of the glass, and put a sugar cube on top of the spoon. He carefully poured water over the sugar cube until it dissolved into the liquid. The drink turned an opaque, milky green. La Fée Verte: the Green Fairy.
"Min' if I sit with you?" asked the wench, "S'real excitin' around 'ere if you can't tell."
He gave her a wan smile.
"So whad'you do for a livin' sir?" she asked.
"Oh, it's Fulton. I work at the medical research center."
"You sirs doin' some researchin' on the Black Death 'en huh? My frien' Abbie's got it. She's real sick."
He nodded and took a sip of the potent drink, trying not to dwell on her words. A scrawny cat rubbed against the woman's leg and she bent down to scratch it. It purred affectionately.
"Poor thin', lives off table scraps en' garbage," she said, still stroking the animal. She started suddenly and shook her hand.
"Damned fleas," she muttered.
He looked up in surprise, and considered for a moment. An idea seemed to be forming somewhere in the depths of his mind, and he waited until it fully surfaced.
"Fleas…fleas… Fleas! That's it! Thank you, thank you!" he cried, reverting to his usual shield of cheerfulness. Patting her on the shoulder, he dropped two silver coins on the table and rushed out of the tavern.
"Interestin' man that un huh?" she said to the cat, who only flicked an ear in response.
Fulton hurried back to the laboratory and scratched down a word in his journal, "Fleas." Fleas would be a natural way for disease to spread. One person gets sick, a flea bites them, takes their blood, then bites someone else, transferring the disease to the new person. It was so simple! But how to prove it?
He dropped his quill on the desk and clutched his head. Only two days left, how could he possibly complete an experiment in two days? His only choice would be to request more time from the medical board. There was no chance of that happening. Still, he had to try…
He took a deep breath and pulled a flask out of a drawer. This was going to take more courage than he possessed. He took two quick swigs, shook his head, and straightening out his rather disheveled clothing, went to Mr. Emerson's office. He hesitated, then knocked on the door.
"Come in," came the man's booming voice.
Fulton obeyed, treading as softly as possible on his worn leather boots. Mr. Emerson's large form was hunkered over his desk, deep in concentration.
"I see I've come at a bad time, perhaps I can come back later…" Fulton began to edge toward the door, hoping for any way to get out of the situation.
"Ah, Dr. Ackart. You're getting close to finishing your experiment, I hope?"
He looked up expectantly. Fulton was trapped.
"Um, actually that's what I've come to talk to you about sir. You see, I've had a new idea, and I was wondering perhaps if I could have just a little more time to—"
"I thought we'd discussed this before, Ackart. You were given three months to complete your little rat project, and then you would present the findings to the medical board. And now you're telling me you need more time?"
"Um, actually, uh….yes," Fulton practically whimpered.
"I see. Well, that settles it! Three more weeks for your new experiment. I'll send the medical board a lovely notice today saying that they have to wait another month because you can't get your act together in time."
The burly man's face quivered in a scowl. The ceaselessly wandering portion of Fulton's brain thought he looked rather like a strawberry with his ruffled lace collar circling his reddened face. Fulton gave a dry, nervous chuckle.
"Well, I guess that's not very plausible now is it? I'll just get back to work...in my lab…now..."
He ducked out of the room.
Fulton spent the rest of the day scratching for the tiniest idea; something tangible that the medical board would accept. If he presented them with solely circumstantial evidence, that would be the end of his career. The end to his chance to help stop this disease. Unwillingly, his mind recalled a memory from long ago, when he was just barely a man, with the hopes and dreams of a lifetime laid before him. He saw himself, kneeling at a bedside, leaning over the rigid form of his dying father, watching helplessly as clawed hands choked the life out of him. He drowned himself in absinthe that night, and went home to sleep; hoping the next day would bring inspiration.
Fulton stumbled into the lab the next morning, running a hand through his tousled hair and adjusting his wire-framed glasses. It had been a long night, filled with hazy green nightmares of begging in the streets for spare change, and dark winged monsters carrying off his body while his mind watched helplessly. He rubbed his tired eyes furiously and sat down behind his desk. He pulled out his journal and reviewed his notes. He had read the same lines a thousand times before he finally gave up. Cradling his head in his hands, he stared at the rats scratching around in their cages.
Suddenly an idea struck him. If he could expose two rats to fleas, and somehow keep the fleas off of one rat, when the other caught the plague it would prove fleas were the cause. It was a long stretch to say the least, and probably wouldn't work. Fulton glanced up at the clock. With a deep sigh he stood and pulled a book of herb lore out of his bookshelf. He had one shot.
After some research, Fulton discovered that pure oil of wormwood was used to treat a range of health problems, including tapeworm infections. It was also a flea repellant. He searched among the assorted bottles on the long table for wormwood oil. Finding it, he quickly administered three drops to the back of rat 'A'. Then, hoisting two cages into the air, he left the institute to find a place for the rats. He didn't stop to think about what he was doing, for he knew if he did he would never go through with it.
He soon found the perfect spot, a filthy alleyway behind the tavern he had visited the day before. It was filled with stray animals and, Fulton hoped, disease-carrying fleas. Grunting, he pushed a large wooden crate away from the wall and placed the two cages gently behind it. Hopefully no one would notice them. Giving an anxious backward glance, he returned to the institute, and brought along a green bottle. If this foolish plan didn't work, it was all over. The minutes passed, stretching into hours. He watched the hands of the clock drag across its face, like a prisoner awaiting his death sentence. He finished the bottle of absinthe and fell asleep at his desk. Finally, the sun slid down the horizon and night fell.
Fulton awoke at nine o' clock feeling groggy. Looking up at the clock, logic burned through the haze, and he raced, nearly running, to the alleyway. Thank God, the rats are still here. He lifted up the two cages and anxiously examined the creatures. They didn't look any different. He returned to the Institute and hastily lit the oil lamps in his laboratory. He picked up a bizarre instrument of his own design, a metal framework with dozens of small glasses on it. He snapped the correct combination into place and bent down to take a close look at the rats, scribbling down his observations in the journal.
Rat 'A' looked healthy and appeared to have no flea problems. He gave it a slightly moldy lump of cheese and it gnawed at it hungrily. He did the same for the other rat, but it would not move to eat. It scratched frequently and had tiny red welts on its skin. The flea repellent had worked…but the plague? The second rat didn't appear healthy, but there was no way to prove he had contracted the plague. Fulton would just have to wait.
The next morning he returned to the institute, full of apprehension. He stepped, cringing, into the laboratory, eyes squinted shut. He slowly opened one eye to look at the rats. There was the one, healthy and moving, but the other? He moved closer and opened both eyes. It wasn't moving. He grabbed his shabby quill and poked it through the bars. No movement.
Fulton danced around the room wildly, opening his mouth to start singing as he heard the door creak open.
"Dr. Ackart, the medical board is awaiting your presentation," said a man.
Fulton, frozen in mid-jig, blinked at him in astonishment.
"They…they are?" he stammered, "I thought the meeting wasn't supposed to be until this afternoon I—"
"I apologize. The board members are most anxious to hear your news of the Black Death."
"I see," Fulton replied, attempting to keep his voice even. "I shall uh…be there momentarily," he finished with a false grin.
The man nodded and left the room. Grabbing his hair in his fists, Fulton moaned softly. Panicking, he ran to his desk and pulled began furiously gathering all of his papers together, in an effort to get as much distance between him and the Institute as quickly as possible. He couldn't do this. His entire career was a fiasco; no one gave any credit to his halfway decent ideas, let alone foolish, silly, irrational ones…
Finally he stopped himself. His breath came in short gulps. Once again, his mind conjured up images he had attempted to smother for years. He heaved a heartfelt sigh, and covered his weary face with his hands. What choice did he have?
There were far too many variables, and it wasn't even a valid experiment. There isn't anything I can do about it now, he thought Someday I'm going to have to stop being such a coward and face reality. The review board seemed as good a place as any to start. Gazing longingly at the empty green bottle on his desk, he straightened his well-worn coat, adjusted his ruffled cuffs, and slowly picked up his journal. Gathering what remained of his scattered dignity, he went to face the board.
"May I present, Dr. Fulton Ackart, recently assigned to the causes and treatments Black Death."
Fulton stepped haltingly forward, his hands shaking visibly. He compulsively twisted the ring on his finger to keep himself occupied.
"Well, Doctor?" prompted Mr. Emerson dangerously, who was sitting in on the meeting.
"Well! The Black Death," began Fulton in a strained, high-pitched voice, "The Black Death is certainly very dangerous. And…contagious. And it spreads rapidly through cities—"
"Would you care to tell us something we don't know, doctor?" spoke up one of the board members, a severe looking man with a sharp, pointed nose and straight, dark hair.
"Oh, yes, right. Well, Fleas."
He stopped. The board members stared up at him expectantly.
"Fleas," he began again, "cause the plague."
They frowned in disapproval. The board member who had spoken earlier rested his thin hands on the table in front of him.
"Let me, let me explain. A person gets infected with the plague," Fulton gestured around wildly, his nervousness providing him with raw energy, "and a flea bites them and takes their blood. Then the flea bites another person, transferring the disease to them."
"And what proof do you have of this?" the dark-haired man spoke again.
He swallowed hard, and a lump rose in his throat that he tried to ignore.
"Well…well, it is known that oil of wormwood is a flea repellant. So, I administered some of this to a rat, and left it vulnerable to attract fleas. However, after one day of exposure it didn't. I also exposed a rat with no wormwood oil administered to it, and it was covered in fleas after the same amount of time. And here," he opened his journal hastily, "here are my observations on both rats after being out for the day. As you can see, the rat with fleas became ill and the other didn't."
"That doesn't prove he caught the plague, doctor," said another board member.
"Right!" replied Fulton a little too loudly, extending a slender finger, "However, this morning I found the rat was dead. It was healthy when I began my experiment and no other sickness could have killed it so quickly."
He passed his journal around to the board members who frowned at its scribbles in silence. Fulton twitched nervously as he waited for his end to come. After several minutes of conferring and examining his notes, the first board member spoke again.
"This experiment, while totally uncontrolled, highly un-scientific, and utterly mad," Fulton flinched with every word, feeling them strike him like tiny daggers, "has nevertheless opened a new door of possibilities as to the causes of the Black Death. Therefore, since your idea is a rough beginning, we have decided to let you remain at the Institute to continue your research on this harrowing disease," the man didn't seem too happy about this consensus, but Fulton hardly noticed. He opened his mouth to speak when another board member interrupted him.
"One more thing, doctor. Before you are allowed to return to your research, you must prove to us that there is some way to test out your theories on humans, rather than lab rodents."
Fulton started. That thought had never occurred to him in his preoccupations. He felt himself begin to sink as he desperately searched for an answer. He glanced over at Mr. Emerson, who was scowling.
"Oil of wormwood is poisonous, you realize," continued the board member.
"Of course, poisonous, it's poisonous." He gnawed his fingernails unconsciously and longed for this moment to magically conclude itself. There was only silence. His laced collar seemed too tight and he tugged at it fruitlessly.
"Well, there is a simple solution really…" he began.
His mind raced. There had to be a way to apply wormwood to people safely. He felt frigid waters begin to close over his head. Then he recalled something with a surge of relief.
"Excuse me for one moment please!"
He slipped out of the room, and returned quickly, clutching an empty green bottle. Grinning and holding it up before the board he announced gladly, "Absinthe! Main ingredient: Artemisia absinthum; wormwood."
"You seem to have uncovered a start Dr. Ackart, but we must examine the situation further," said the first board member.
"Thank you! Thank you all very much!" Fulton was stunned with disbelief.
He frantically shook hands with each of the startled board members, and hurried out of the room before Mr. Emerson got the chance to say anything. Throwing himself into his desk chair, and shuddering with relief, Fulton kissed the bottle and set it down on his desk.