A Scent's Worth of Vengeance
Ellen Kuhfeld

Potiphar Pugh spent his childhood in the family mansion in Mendota Heights, on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi. He was solitary by choice, and loved to read about nature-lore and the physical sciences. Each summer he explored the riverbanks, and spent August roaming the woods around the cottage on the banks of the Wobegon River, part of his mother's inheritance. Winter vacations were spent camping in the northwoods, stopping by the family lodge on Lake of the Woods only for the occasional warm bath and Lobster Thermidor.

In college, Potiphar double-majored in biochemistry and natural history, and somehow found time to be one of the brighter stars in the men's gymnastics team. He was often seen with Innocenzia deMure, leader of the women's team and famed for her grace and beauty. He graduated in three years by doing extensive summer fieldwork on the ecology of the nearby transitional forests.

He killed two birds with one stone (only figuratively, for he had an absolute horror of killing!) by choosing an experimental area ten miles from the cottage. Each day he would breakfast on bacon and eggs, oatmeal and orange juice; then run to his studies in the slanting rays of dawn. Twenty miles a day did wonders for his energy and endurance, and he found the freshly-scented air of the woodlands a tonic to his spirit.

He graduated magna cum laude (his senior paper on pheromone communication among northwood animals was applauded by committees in both majors) and from eighteen offers chose a position with Jacques' Olfactory in the Wobegon River Valley he loved.

After several scents which were artistic triumphs but commercial failures (his Nuit des Mouches-volante was magnificently reminiscent of the romantic Minnesota lake country, but was quietly withdrawn from market when it proved to attract the dreaded Minnesota mosquito) he produced "Cri du Loon" and "Paul Bunyan". The first was a classic perfume which only one woman in ten could successfully wear, evocative of moonlight and loneliness, passion, and just a hint of madness; the second, the most successful aftershave cologne of 1978.

Amid triumph, catastrophe struck. His father had invested heavily in an oil-drilling tax shelter, and was forced into bankruptcy when the well proved a gusher. Accountants, drawn by the red ink, discovered that the rich Wobegon Valley farmlands his mother claimed were to be found on no official map. The family fortune toppled. Almost everything was gone: investments, bank account, the collection of statuary. His mother and father managed to transfer title to the Mendota Heights mansion and the Lake of the Woods lodge before they swallowed a well-known headache remedy and perished. Government agents tried to seize the Wobegon Valley cottage, but were frustrated when they discovered it was in the midst of the nonexistent farmlands.

Stunned, Potiphar asked for a leave of absence from Jacques and spent the winter deep in the Northern forests, the animals his only companions. In spring he shaved, and returned to the cottage. There was a great deal of mail waiting. He was astonished to find his bank account healthier by sixty thousand dollars. His scents were doing well, and Jacques believed firmly in the incentive value of profit-sharing.

But most startling of all, a letter from the family lawyer told him the agony had been unnecessary -- the well was dry after all. The FBI had falsified drilling records in a "sting" operation against Roxxon Oil.

A white flame of fury burning within his breast, Potiphar returned to the Olfactory and set to work. Lawsuits cost a great deal of money; and he was determined to bring the FBI to justice. Ergo, make money.

Late one night he was carefully guiding his distillations to a successful conclusion. He was producing the man's cologne to end all colognes. "Paul Bunyan" had been distilled from an entire summer's supply of sweat suits, worn by teams of undeniably-masculine French-Canadian lumberjacks as they toppled the mighty Northern Pine. It would be surpassed!

Potiphar had collected male pheromones from the fiercest and most potent animals in the world. From a famous cat ranch came the great Waldo, tomcat extraordinaire. Tantalized by a cageful of Omaha sex-kittens, in heat and out of reach, frustrated beyond measure, he had provided the Quintessence of Cat. The wild wolverine of the North, greatest member of the odorous weasel clan, steamed and raged within a glass retort. Forget the insipid civet-cat! He would distill the most powerful polecat within the reach of his deepest woods-lore! For a touch of the exotic, he had sent to Africa for the secretions of the great mountain gorilla.

A cry of triumph came from the next laboratory: Innocenzia. She had come to the Olfactory at the same time as he. But while he had spent his youth among the scents of Minnesota, she had grown up among the refineries and industry of New Jersey. Tired beyond belief of smells, she created deodorants. She was as famous in her field as he in his: her "Delicatto no. 9" had been chosen as the official crowd-control deodorizer for the 1986 Democratic National Convention, and had stood up well under the near-insuperable task.

She rushed into the room carrying a flask. "I've done it this time! If you poured this on a wart-hog, a bloodhound couldn't follow him!" And she tripped. She landed with a graceful roll and sprang to her feet, as the flask flew through the air and crashed into the distillation apparatus. The world's most powerful cologne met and mingled with the world's most effective deodorant; and there was a terrible explosion.

When Potiphar awoke, Innocenzia was nowhere to be seen. The room was a shambles. All the animals had escaped into the night. The wail of mating cats came from a great distance. A paramedic knelt beside him, waving smelling salts beneath his nose - and he smelled nothing! He reached out in panic, and a table leg snapped within his grip. Then he fell again into unconsciousness.

In the hospital, the doctors Jacques had hired went to and fro, taking blood and muttering in corners. But for all that doctors could do, Potiphar would never smell again. His career as a parfumier was over.

Again he retired to the deep Northwoods. Fall came, and its colors washed over him; the snows fell, and the Northern Lights flamed above. A world of silence descended with the snow, bringing a kind of peace; Potiphar began to see that the world still held beauty, and the loss of his most precious sense was not the end of all. He had income to live on, and a mission of revenge. If he was not to be rich, he would simply have to take his vengeance personally rather than through the courts.

As time passed, his chores became easier. Chop wood? One swipe of the axe! Carry it home? One hand! He was growing fearsomely strong; he would have been frightened if his new strength were not so useful. After a while, he gathered wood by breaking off small trees, which he would snap into convenient portions over his knee.

The table-leg in his laboratory had been only a precursor. The powerful pheromones in his distillation had seeped into his very pores, lending him the strength of the gorilla and the wolverine; and as he learned from the wild animals about him, he had been rendered completely scentless by the deodorant. "And damn lucky it was," he thought bitterly. "With my nose burnt out, I'd never know when to take a bath, anyway." He put his fist through the wall of the log cabin, which was foolish. It let in the cold.

He spent the rest of the winter learning to move in a world gone fragile. Warm winds began to blow. The first skunk cabbages of the year peeked through the snow. He knelt and carefully gathered them up, then walked three days into Frostbite Falls, where he caught a bus for Twinopolis.

Two days later, a young FBI agent making his pilgrimage to the grave of J. Edgar Hoover was stunned to see that somebody had been DIGGING at the grave! And that a bed of wild skunk cabbage was growing there!

Potiphar, dressed in black save for a white shirt, was kneeling at the nearby grave of his parents; the horrified reaction of the agent was all he could have hoped for. Silently he swore to the memories of his mother and father that the FBI would be afflicted as fiercely as this, many times and more. No climactic trial and catharsis: the death of a thousand cuts!

He returned to the mansion, but found it silent and empty; and crowded with memories. The family servants were dispersed with the fortune. Only old Balthazar stayed as caretaker, retained by the court to tend the property during probate. Potiphar sold house and grounds to a private museum of natural history, where he became curator. The house again was alive, and he was a part of it. He kept the old carriage house, with its small apartment above.

He explored the riverside, in communion with his past. The bluffs of the Mississippi are honeycombed with caves, natural and man-made. Those caves have seen many things. The skeleton of the Pleistocene giant beaver has been found there; an excellent example is displayed in the Science Museum of Minnesota. Later they were the haunt of Indians and of voyageurs. Their unvarying climate was perfect for aging wines and cheeses. During the Roaring Twenties, some were used as speak-easys. Today, mushrooms are grown in them.

In 1941, something went terribly wrong in a cave full of Limburger. The cheesemakers tried, but the entire national output of gas-masks was being channeled into the war effort and they were helpless before the power of the cheese. They erected a stout cedarwood barrier and erased that particular cave from their records. The cedarwood, normally proof against decay, rotted in less than a year; a class-action lawsuit against the Bull Elk Limburger Company is still wending its way through the courts, more durable by far than the wood.

While the youthful Potiphar had visited the other caves, he had always given this one a wide berth. Now he could explore it with impunity. Lifting his powerful five-cell flashlight, he entered the cave's mouth.

The St. Peter sandstone underlying Twinopolis is a beautiful substance. It is of purest white, and very soft: tunnels can be bored in it with ease. This was a marvelous cave, deep and winding, with rooms excavated off to the side of the main tunnel; and Potiphar's unerring sense of direction, honed in the trackless wilderness, told him it led below his carriage-house. He wandered lost in wonder, points of light glinting and flickering from the crystalline particles of sand as the beam of his flashlight moved across them.

In one room he found the Cheese. Mounds of limburger faded into the distance. The upper cheeses were round and hard; further down the pile a soft blue fur shot with green began. From the base of the cheese a silent stream of shining blue flowed motionless to the entrance. The cheese reminded him that lunchtime was long past; and he turned to his knapsack.

There was a flicker of motion in the corner of his eye. A skunk. Of course! Skunks would have no fear of the Limburger!

Potiphar had always admired skunks and their debonair fearlessness; but he admired them from a distance. Now they held no more terror for him than the cheeses he had so long avoided. He knelt to offer a small sausage. Graciously, the skunk accepted.

That night in the carriage house, Potiphar lay in a steaming bath and mused. (He knew HE was scentless, but a natural sense of caution warned him that the smell of the cheese might linger.) "If I afflict the FBI, I shall be an outlaw. If I am an outlaw, I will need a hideout and a base of operations. What better hideout than a place everybody knows and avoids?"

He spent his evenings in the cave with pick and shovel. Even an ordinary man could burrow through the sandstone; and the more durable layers of shale and limestone yielded before his strength. He packed the excavated material into a remote chamber; then paused as his shovel scraped against the concrete floor of the carriage-house from below.

He returned to the tunnel, and dug a room in virgin sandstone. He installed an airlock leading into the cave of the cheeses, with powerful activated-charcoal filters to clean the air. He scooped a small pool in the floor and sealed the sandstone, then installed great tanks of tomato juice, purchased through a dummy corporation. He had salvaged the formula for Innocenzia's deodorant, which he used to purify this room of transition.

He climbed again to the carriage house, and raised the concrete slab from below; then prepared a sturdy foundation. No subtlety here, no secret buttons and levers! Visitors to his cave would have to personally lift the concrete slab. He made a great fuss about redecorating; but secretly carried his comfortable old furniture to the cave below, rather than sending it away in the departing furniture trucks. He installed a laboratory, and a small computer; then ran hidden conduits for telephone and cable television. He bought a trained bloodhound to live with him in the carriage house, to warn him of any lingering scent of cheese and thus ensure his lack of smell when moving in the everyday world. His lair was in complete readiness for the great venture.

Though strong, Potiphar was singularly ill-equipped for life as a master criminal. Most supervillains know useful disciplines: electronics, rocketry, computers, nuclear physics. Potiphar knew perfumes. What was he to do?

Often he took long moonlight walks to aid in thought. Trees were good, or water; perhaps a riverbank stroll would help? It was a crisp September evening; he put on an Icelandic sweater and set forth. The skunk he had befriended tagged along, darting off on little side trips and returning again to his side.

A fire glowed ahead, and voices were raised in drunken song: a fraternity kegger on the beach. The skunk trotted forward curiously. Shrieks and curses rent the air. There were thrashings in the bushes, and the sounds of running feet. By the time Potiphar reached the fire, it was completely abandoned. He picked up a large plastic cup and absently filled it with beer, then walked back the way he had come, sipping and smiling. He had the answer.

He knew the world of scents with a deep theoretical knowledge. Since his accident, he had been unable to work on perfumes, which demand subtlety and a balancing of nuances. But skunks? There was nothing subtle about a skunk!

It was the work of a week to devise a powerful air pistol. Small capsules of essence, under great pressure, could be shot out to burst against their target. It took but an evening to mix the chemicals and load the ammunition. He now had the best offensive weapon in all of crime -- and it was non-lethal, so he could use it freely and without compunction.

One thing bothered him: the FBI was not so scrupulous. Their weapons were quite definitely lethal. He wanted to avenge his parents, not join them.

He called in favors. He was known and liked in the fragrance and cosmetics industry, and his tragic fate had saddened many. From a friend he had once helped with a small vial of an obscure fragrance, he obtained an experimental vanishing cream. "We'll never put this on the market -- it's too powerful. Worse side effects than Nuit des Mouches-volante, if you can believe it." And they went off to a nearby bar to exchange tall tales.

The vanishing cream was improbably strong. A light touch of it rendered him invisible; a heavier dose and he became intangible. Potiphar set to work modifying his pistol so that it could fire backwards as well as forwards. He created a glove with hidden micro-circuits. If the hand holding the gun wore that glove, the backfire would be of vanishing cream and the holder would become intangible and quite immune to bullets. If somebody else tried to fire the gun -- it would fire all remaining charges of skunk-oil backwards instead. Potiphar did not intend to have this dread weapon out of his personal control!

The essentials were in place; but there were many minor details. Potiphar was thorough, and never went public prematurely. (He still cringed when he thought of those mosquitoes. How could his tests have missed them?)

He installed television cameras covering the approaches to his lair. Most were real; some were excellent imitations filled with pressurized stench, lurking in wait for those who would destroy his vision. He filled a large drop-front bin at the top of a rising section of tunnel with hard, round limburgers. If he pushed a hidden button, intruders would be buried under an avalanche of potent cheese. Above, a vat of liquid cheese waited. Near the mouth of the cave he placed a skunk-feeding station; soon the friends and relatives of his furry comrade set up housekeeping.

He purchased a shining black Corvette with white leather upholstery and white pinstriping. A multi-band police radio scanner was installed, as well as a radar detector with ECM circuitry to circumvent speed traps. A strobe light behind the grille was timed to trigger emergency-vehicle sensors on local traffic signals, ensuring green lights for his getaways.

He sewed a costume in black-and-white, with fake-fur trim: it would warn people not to interfere with his movements. "Brand recognition," he thought. "Skunks advertise this color scheme everywhere. I'll borrow it."

Now he lacked only a name. "General Nuisance? Major Annoyance?" They lacked that certain air. "Lieutenant Limburger" might call attention to his cave. In creating his weapon, he had relied heavily upon a class of chemicals called 'mercaptans' which are the chief advantage skunks have over the rest of us. "Captain Mercaptan" it would be, then.

And named, equipped, and provided with safe harbor, Captain Mercaptan sat down to plan his revenge.