To say the last few months have been interesting would be vague, but somehow detailing every little sneeze, sniffle, torn meniscus, and other woes seems downright boring. However, it’s probably best to say that 2015 has melted into 2016 without so much as a blink. Well, there was the ambulance ride to the local hospital. Unnecessary in my view but interesting if only because I’d never been in one before. And my two days in residence were not horrible. Good care and good food. We all love to complain about things like that, especially when out of our control, but truth be told, I chalk it up to positive.
None of that really excuses my lack of writing progress, but it does make me realize how easily we get distracted by daily life. Wake up in the morning with a great and witty idea and write it down or by noon it disappears into the chores of the day. I procrastinate, thinking that I’ll “write once I get (chore or phone call or whatever) done.” Hah.
So. No New Year’s resolutions here, just the decision to put my bad habits on notice and try to do better. I did move Mae along a little. She nagged ne until I got her in the same place as her brother. That woman is relentless…. March is here, and so is Mae.
I have to give that woman credit. Without missing a beat, she looked me up and down, shook my outstretched hand and smiled as if this happened every day. Or perhaps she wanted me to think it did.
“I’m not sure we are hiring, Miss….”
“Fitzgerald. Mae Fitzgerald. And…it’s Missus,” I added. “Widowed, you see.” I gave her me best smile and shrugged. “No extra money after all the medical costs, so I’m after a job to keep body and soul together. I saw your sign and…” I wavered just a bit as I stood there clasping her hand.
“Please sit down, Mrs. Fitzgerald. Let me get you some iced tea to cool you.”
“Oh no dear,” I protested, “I do not drink anything with caffeine in it. It’s the devil’s own drug. Water will be fine, thank you.” I sank back into the surprisingly comfortable chair. “And please call me Mae.”
“Well…Mae, my name is Camille and you don’t have to worry about any caffeine or artificial substances. We only brew our home blend of herbs and florals. It’s one of Begonia’s Heritage beverages. Let me get you a glass.” She hurried past the desk and disappeared down a narrow hallway. I took the opportunity to examine my surroundings. Pastel colors and lighting created a sense of relaxation for the visitor. Nicely done, I thought as I took in the bucolic landscapes and floral arrangements in the reception area. Several pamphlets rested on the small tab le next to me, each bearing the Begonia logo and address. So far nothing made me uneasy, but I had long ago learned that taking anything at face value was usually not the wise thing to do. So, I crossed my ankles and waited for my tea.
“And how was that, ma’am?” Camille had handed me a cool glass of ice and amber liquid and watched me take a long drink. Not that there seemed much for her to do but that.
“Not what I expected,” I admitted before I took another sip. The tea was mild, rather earthy in taste but not totally unpleasant. “What herbs do you use?”
“I’m afraid that has to remain a Begonia secret,” she replied with a smile. “We pride ourselves on using unique mixtures for different tonics and oils.”
“I only ask because I have an affinity for natural plants and flowers. And homeopathy. I was hoping you might need someone familiar with botanicals and barks to assist you here. Are you hiring?” Cut to the chase I reminded myself.
“I would need to check with our chief physician,” Camille said. “He tends to most of our clients himself. Our treatments are formulated in house of course, and…”
“My dear, I can give you my credentials if you like. I practiced in several cities in Scotland as a nursing sister. Although I have not worked in this area I did help in a small holistic clinic in Pennsylvania for a short time. It was time for me to move on…as I told you I am a poor widow…”I let my voice trail. Better to say a wee bit and allow Sylvain and Ray’s work to do the convincing. If I was rebuffed, then perhaps Begonia was indeed a place of healing. But I would’ve bet my best Earl Grey that a look at my papers would be too tempting to pass up.
Camille studied my face with more interest than I would have expected. Smart one, I decided. And not just window dressing. I took another sip of the concoction. No tea at all in the mix, but a rather interesting hint of… “Hyssop?” I wrinkled my nose at her. “Some anise too, I think.”
“Not many people notice the hyssop,” she said. “One of Dr. B’s favorite herbs, especially in tisanes.”
I peered at her over the rim of the cup. “It does blend well, although I admit this is a new use to me. My experience has been more in the areas of salves and such.” One more question. “And is the doctor in the clinic today, my dear?”
If you don’t mind waiting, Mrs. Fitzgerald, I’ll find him for you.” With a nod, she walked down a side corridor and headed into the building proper. She might bring him back or she might not. Her move, as Drum would say. I set the tea on a side table…..horrible stuff really but I suppose you could sell anything as a tonic….and walked to the front window. Except for the brightly colored sign, nothing seemed geared to attract attention from street level. And most clinics did have some kind of plaque or shingle. The airy reception space certainly spoke money…and the receptionist had more brains than most would recognize at a first glance.
“Mrs. Fitzgerald?” A somehow familiar voice broke my reverie. I turned and looked straight into the eyes of… “Doctor Francis Bannister at your service. Camille told me of your interest in our clinic. You have some background in the type of therapies we provide, I understand. Let’s go to my office and we can chat. Perhaps you’d like a tour?” The tall white-jacketed man took my elbow and steered me away from the windows down another corridor.
“Have we met before? At a conference maybe?” I tried to wrap my memory around the timbre of his voice as well as his unexpectedly amber eyes. “You seem familiar.” I gave him my best puzzled smile as we entered his well-appointed office. Old oak desk, comfortable wing chairs, and several tables showcasing what I though must be products hawked by the Begonia brand. The muted pastels and airiness of the outer area were evident here as well and a soft fragrance came from a mister on the bookcase by the door.
“You seem familiar to me as well,” Bannister said, “although I don’t think we’ve met. I would remember I’m sure. Your hint of a brogue if nothing else. We don’t often hear that in New Orleans. Please, have a seat. Would you care for some tea?” Without waiting for an answer, he pressed a small button. “Camille, would you bring us a pot of Number 40?”
“Number 40?” Not more of the hyssop tea. I needed no more of a tonic than I’d already experienced. “Your teas are numbered?”
“Oh indeed. Camille told me you enjoyed the hyssop blend, but I think this might be more to your liking.” He waved Camille in and took the tray from her. “Close the door on your way out, will you my dear?” I watched as he poured a dark liquid into each of the two porcelain cups on the tray and waited until he sat behind his desk before I took a cautious sip. The delicate flavors of Earl Grey surprised my tongue and I stared at my host. He took a sip from his own cup and looked at me, his eyes serious. “What do you think of Number 40?”
“You know what I think,” I replied.
“That I do.” He sipped again. “That I do. What gave me away?”
“I could ask you the same thing,” I countered. “Dr. Bannister.”
“Well, I happened to see Drum earlier…”
“He’s here, then.” I put my cup down and started to get up.
“He is, and he’s just fine now, Mae. But he was in a poor way when the boys brought him in. My head nurse called me and we got him settled in…and yes we gave him what he needed to fight the bronchitis. Some rest and nutrients and Drum will recover nicely.”
“Nutrients? Like what, exactly?” No one was feeding me brother a bunch of herbs and roots without adding normal food.
“Vitamins, minerals, juice, green vegetables. Nothing dodgy, Mae. But to answer your question, once I saw Drum, I knew you’d be close by. And considering he was not a volunteer when it came to his visit here…”
“That’s putting it mildly,” I snorted. “Snatched off the street he was and…”
“Stay calm. You’re here looking for a job, not indicting me for fraud.”
“Don’t assume anything,” I said.
“Believe it or not, this is a legitimate clinic. You can pass that on to your partners in crime, especially your pal Sylvain.”
“You know Sylvain? “
“Let’s say we have a mutual friend. And I know he started digging into Begonia after Drum got picked up. In fact, I was told I could use his help if he was willing. You on the other hand…”
“I’m not going anywhere without my brother. And if you’re legitimate, so am I.”
“Morales told me not to underestimate you.”
“He’s right, as he usually is. But that still doesn’t tell me what’s going on here. And I want to see me brother.” I did get up this time and made for the door.
“Then Mrs. Fitzgerald, I suggest we take a walk around the gardens in the back. Very calming.” Dr. Francis Bannister, also known as Morales’ onetime partner Marcus Banning, took my arm and steered me out of his office.
“This should be far enough away from the building,” he said about ten minutes later. We settled on carved stone bench near a small fountain surrounded by varied greenery. “Herbs. Organically grown. No chemicals here. Of any kind. The owners of Begonia are true doctors of homeopathic medicine. Once we’ve finished our job here….”
“Morales reminded me how much you love questions. And interrupting people. So let me continue without any more questions and…”
“So what do I call you once I know all the details?”
“Dr. B will do just fine, since you’ll be on staff as soon as I can vet your credentials.” He winked.
“So I’m in,” I smiled.
“I don’t see how I could keep you out. Now, may I?” Without giving me a chance to take a breath, Dr. B. continued. “I wouldn’t expect you to know this, but there has been an increasing demand for human organs, both for transplant and for research. The campaign to encourage people to sign up as donors is a good one, but too many people end up waiting too long, or aren’t considered viable candidates for help. So, there’s a thriving back market in human hearts, kidneys, livers, corneas, even skin for grafting. Some are obtained by theft from medical facilities, some from robberies of ambulances, but there is one source so plentiful that it seems like ripe fruit just waiting to be picked. The elderly, especially the poor and homeless who have no ties or family, are prime prospects for…”
“In other words,” I interrupted, “there are packs of no good gobshites out there preying on people like…like Drummond. And no one has gone wise to this until now?”
“Someone has, Mae. FBI sources have given us enough information and contacts so that a special unit of ATF has been formed to take these ‘gobshites’ off the street wherever we can find them. And prevent them from harming anyone else.”
“And how do they find these ‘donors’? Drum was shoved in a van….even if it was your doing.”
“Not my doing, Mae. Our vans are meant for transport only. The men who grabbed your brother were acting on their own but got spooked when you fought them off. They drove back here, left the van, and took off. We know who they are. And we think the nurse at that clinic might be involved, but…” he put a hand on my shoulder to keep me from taking off after that witch of a woman…”we need to be sure. It takes time and you can’t go off on a tear. Drum is safe, and we’ve got eyes on the clinic. But there are vans that visit nursing homes and homeless shelters and ferry off the old and dying. We believe they work with centers like this as well, so we’re running a sting of sorts.”
“Con the cons, then. But it’s more serious than that, isn’t it?”
“People disappear, Mae. And sometimes no one notices. You and Drum know how easy that can be from your own travels. So….”
“So, if you let me see me brother, I’ll get myself back to my digs and let Sylvain know there’s a friend coming to visit late tonight.” I stood and brushed the wrinkles from my skirt and held out my hand. “Dr. B. you have yourself an expert in herbal tinctures and salves.”