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Authors: Peter Philips

Field study

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Field Study by Peter Philips [ss]

 

"WHAT'S it today?" asked the neurotic Mrs. Francis Pake. "Overtime or that night out?"

"I can't tell you for certain, sweet. I'll phone you. I'm nearly sure, but — "

"This is it," said Betty Pake. She got up from the breakfast table. "Change your job or change your wife. Quite simple, Frank. I thought I'd married a man, not an accounting machine."

She said a lot more before Pake finished his breakfast. He sighed, missed when he pecked for her cheek, and left.

The Mitchell embezzlement which had kept him in the office all hours for the past three months had been finally straightened out yesterday, and full material for the indictment handed over. Tonight, dine, dance and drink with Betty — unless something new turned up.

She rated the break, of course, apart from the fact that her nerves, unsettled by a quiet life, played, hell with his digestion. Maybe she should have married a younger man, with time and money to spare for her idea of living.

He realized uncomfortably that he was half hoping something would prevent the date.

The assignment this morning, for instance. It was out of the ordinary. No books to examine or reluctant employees to quiz politely but inexorably. He got straight onto it before going to the office.

Early as it was, the waiting room in which he found himself was full. Forty patients at least. An obvious Parkinsonism stumbled to a bench. Every disease seemed to be represented there, from cancer to cretinism.

He recalled the chief's instructions: make no fuss, get in line with the others, take what he hands out and — bring it back.

"You have an appointment?" asked the dull-eyed, dull-voiced receptionist.

"No, but if this is an open session, I'll hang around on the off-chance. My time's my own."

"Name?"

"Shando. James."

Did those dull eyes light up? No reason to. So far as he knew, the quack had no reason to suspect a Federal investigation.

"Sit down, please."

What was it, Pake asked himself as she went into an inside office — faith healing? That wouldn't fix peritonitis. But that was only a report. He'd have to wait and ask careful questions. Careful, because patients don't usually question Doctors on their training and background.

He looked casually at the man next to him. A young Eurasian, drawn-in, huddled, gloved hands clasped together, as if in silent, fierce prayer.

"What ails, feller?"

The Eurasian seemed to shrink even further into himself, shook his head almost imperceptibly.

Please don't notice me. It was as plain as words.

Then Pake saw the patch of silvery skin beneath the ear. He muttered, "Hell," and jerked away.

"Sorry, sorry." The faintest of whispers. "Not contagious."

"Maybe not, but you shouldn't be here. You should be — " Pake stopped, uneasy. There was a world of misery in the man's eyes.

If the fake beyond that door was giving false hope to poor devils like this . . . But that didn't make it a government matter. It was up to the state, or the local branch of the F.M.A. He didn't call himself a Doctor, of course, nor did he advertise. But did that put him in the clear?

Pake cursed the brevity of his instructions. "If you question him," the chief had said, "make it simple. You can be normally curious, but that's all. And if he gets cagy, cut it out. You're not going as an agent. You're just an errand boy, Frankie, and you know as much as I do."

The receptionist came back, walked over to him.

"It seems you did have an appointment," she lied calmly. "This way."

A DOOR closed behind him. Pake, off-guard, found himself talking before he had taken in the scene. "This is good of you, Doctor, but I had no appointment. I don't like jumping the line."

"I am entitled to use my discretion. You are an interesting case. Sit down. And please don't call me Doctor. In the healing profession, that title is reserved for those who have taken the Hippocratic oath. My name is Trancore."

Pake shut his mind to a thousand questions and concentrated on one. "How do you know about my case? You've never seen me before."

"My receptionist," said the man behind the desk, "has intuitive diagnostic ability."

THAT settled it, Pake thought. A first-water quack. Heck, he'd never had a day's real sickness in his forty years. Mild post-nasal drip, maybe, but that was probably a penalty for over smoking. He felt the tickle of it at the back of his throat now. He blew his nose. It gave him a few seconds to think and observe.

The "healer" was quite unremarkable except for an almost unnoticeable Asiatic tinge of skin. His features might have been the compounded norm of a thousand faces flittingly seen during a subway rush-hour. He'd be lost in a crowd. No, put him in a crowd and he would be the crowd — The fantastic thought touched Pake's consciousness and slid away before he could examine it.

The office, rented furnished, was quite unimpressive. Old-fashioned wooden desk, cheap chairs, battered filing cabinet, empty, Pake was willing to bet.

"Symptoms?" Trancore asked.

"Seems you can tell me," Pake said with a trace of belligerence.

"Let's say the recital is part of the treatment. I don't wish to guess."

It should be an "interesting case." Pake had spent an hour boning up on it at a medical library. An obscure disease, a complexus of symptoms calculated to faze the most expert diagnostician for a while. It would certainly defeat the snap diagnoses and miraculously swift cures attributed to this phony. And no Doctor could confirm it without the most exhaustive physical examination, which this fellow didn't go in for, apparently.

As Pake was talking, Trancore looked into a drawer of his desk. His face was without expression.

He looked up only when Pake finished, and smiled. "Prognosis, death within eleven months, eh? But you won't die. Take this in water." He put a plastic capsule within Pake's reach.

"But this is crazy! How do I know — "

"You don't. I make no claims. What did you expect, a long, obscure rigmarole? You can take the capsule or leave it. How many tokens — pounds — do you have with you?"

"But listen, Doctor — "

"I'm not a Doctor. How much?"

"Around fifty, I suppose."

"Give me twenty-five for the capsule, which you take on faith. If you take it."

"You say I'll die if I don't?"

"I said nothing of the kind. I have no intention of running foul of your laws. Please make up your mind."

Pake took it.

"AS MUCH personality as a boiled duck," Pake reported to his chief. "But somehow I couldn't get around to asking questions."

The chief tossed the capsule in his palm. "That doesn't matter. This is all we wanted."

The laboratories took five hours to break it down, make tests and come up with the final, head-scratching nonsense line: just a mess of soluble protein with no discernible physiological reactions.

"That was yours," the chief said. "These were brought in by the others, a plain-clothes man from Police H.Q., an employee of the National Medical Association, an official of the N.M.A., and a private investigator."

Pake leafed through the reports. "The same?"

"Yes. But here are three reports on capsules given to genuine patients and 'borrowed' for analysis afterward. The patients didn't miss a thing, even though the operative substituted similar capsules containing water and a vegetable dye. It took five minutes for the laboratory to discover that that's all the 'borrowed' capsules contained, also."

Pake began to laugh. Then he remembered the leper. "Can't Trancore be booked for fraud?"

"How? He makes no claims for the damned things. And in several instances, he's given them away. But don't you see the implication of these reports?"

Pake nodded. "Patients get water. Investigators get something just as useless — except for giving laboratory men a headache. So he knows who is what. I don't get it."

"You will. I'm turning the case over to you, Frankie."

"I'm interested. But how come it's on our level?"

"It's international. Come and meet the United Nations." The chief frowned as he rose. "I've been trying to put my finger on something since you came in. Now I've got it. Your voice."

"What's wrong with it?"

"Not a thing. Sounds clearer, somehow."

Pake stood very still. He swore, slowly, then cleared his throat. There was nothing to clear. "My post-nasal drip!" He blew his nose frantically, pointlessly. "It's gone!"

SIR Greville Gray of London, Luchaire of Paris, Frend of Berlin, Stawowy of Prague — Pake heard substantially the same story from each.

In Harley Street, London's specialist district, Trancore had rented a £50 a week consulting room, given free treatment to two cardiac cases, then pulled out when the waiting list grew unmanageable — or when he'd fulfilled his unknown purpose.

Gray, chairman of the English Medical Association, had interviewed him officially.

"Impudent little devil called me 'the chief witch-Doctor.' I nearly assaulted him." Gray squared his massive shoulders. "When I said we'd prosecute, he flatly denied that he practiced medicine at all. 'To arraign me,' he said, 'you would have to prove that I give treatment, that I charge for it, make claims for it, and that it may prove harmful. You cannot even prove the first accusation.'

I pointed out that he dispensed capsules and charged for them. He said, 'They expect something material, like the evil-smelling charms you give them. I offer them a capsule. They take it or leave it. It makes no difference. They pay or don't pay. That makes no difference, either. I prefer them to pay. It makes my stay shorter.'

"I asked whether he expected me to believe that his patients were cured no matter what course they took. 'They are not my patients,' he said. 'If, after they have visited me, a cure is effected and they claim my instrumentality, then that is not my responsibility.'

"In a word, he disclaims everything, even success. Two days later, when a newspaper followed up a tip about so-called 'miracle cures,' a reporter found a queue stretching out into the street — and an empty office. Ten weeks later, the fellow turns up in Paris, and the business starts over again."

"But not," said Dr. Luchaire gently, "the same man."

Sir Greville shifted uneasily in his chair. "A good disguise."

"Photographs?" asked Pake.

His chief, smiling a little, handed him two buttonhole camera enlargements. There was an elusive similarity, a strained family likeness; but neither was patently of the man Pake had seen that morning.

Pake said, "The norm of a crowd. If it's the same man, he's a human chameleon."

ATTEMPTS to get fingerprints had been curiously unsuccessful. Either he had had them obliterated through surgery or he put on gloves before touching anything. Maybe he made sure to touch nothing. The last idea was fantastic, but what wasn't about this case?

Pake asked, "Why has no effort been made before to collate available material, if this has been going on for so long?"

Dr. Frend of Berlin grunted. "The medical profession is not an international police force. There is fraternal exchange of information in periodicals, naturally, but no medical man would risk his reputation by lending credence to such a fantastic rumor as, for instance, the cure of an advanced leukemia."

"But that man was my own patient!" Dr. Stawowy of Prague was indignant.

"I'm not challenging your veracity or ability. Genuinely mistaken diagnoses are not unknown," Frend said coldly. "I was merely explaining to this gentleman why there has been such delay in instigating an international investigation. The matter was brought into the open only recently at a European congress, of which I happened to be chairman.

The feeling of the meeting was that these rumors should be traced to their source, as a professional and public duty. I agreed to act as coordinator of a small sub-committee appointed for this purpose. That is why we are here. Personally, I am not convinced that this man is anything more than a faker and an opportunist."

Michaels of the N.M.A. shook his head. "A man from an adjacent office was carried in to him a couple of days ago with every symptom of a burst appendix. This 'faker' protested at first, said he wasn't a Doctor. Then he asked to be left alone with him. Ten minutes later, that man walked out unaided."

"Nicely stage-managed," said Frend. "He was a stooge."

"We checked. It's difficult to believe there was collusion. The patient is a solid, decent citizen. He said the pain began to go when Trancore had been looking at him for a while. In his own words, he felt something moving in his guts, and then the pain stopped."

"I find it less difficult to believe that he was a stooge," repeated Frend obstinately.

Pake's chief intervened. "Gentlemen, my department has received instructions to give you every assistance in obtaining information about this man. Mr. Pake will be in charge. We are. not concerned with the medical side of the case, but only with its legal aspects."

HE paused, dropped diplomatic language. "Though why in hell it should be my department instead of the police, or the D.A.'s office, or the Bureau of Public Welfare, or the Bureau of Immigration is something I still haven't figured."

Sir Greville Gray said, "In every instance where a direct law-enforcement agency was about to investigate, even before his identity papers could be asked for, the man has disappeared. His nationality is unknown. He operates only for as long as he can escape wide-spread notice and police attention. That's why the few newspaper stories that have appeared are quite disconnected and based solely on speculation. Your approach must be very discreet."

"Seems it'll have to be invisible, too," Pake said. "He knows I'm an operative already. But he cured my — "

Pake stopped. Maybe his post-nasal drip had cleared up of its own accord. It was a comforting thought. He wished he could believe it.

IN HIS office— "I'm sorry, sweetkin," he told the phone. "Just can't make it tonight. I've got to stay on this case. It's — er — detective work. The police are helping me."

The nerve-edged vehemence of his wife's voice grated on his ear. He held the receiver an inch away.

"So you think you're a real G-man now, a big tough hero running around with a bottle of rye and a blonde. Well, listen, hero, I hope they shoot first. I'm through."

"It's nothing like that, hon. You're getting mixed up, anyway. Bureau men don't drink on duty. And you're pretty hard to please — you called me an accounting machine this morning. But look, lovesome, I'll be home around seven. It's just that I have to stay near a phone. We could play checkers. And I promise I'll grab me a day off— "

He held the receiver six inches from his ear. "I'm sorry," he said again loudly and lowered the phone, which was still angrily vibrating, to the cut-off.

There was a note on the kitchen table when he got home.

"An old school friend called. Anyway, that's my story, hero. And we're going places. Don't wait up."

Pake sighed. Hero ... He curled his lean body up in a chair by the phone with a book.

The call came at midnight: "He's skipped."

"I was waiting for that. I've seen the papers. Keep on it."

Pake turned back to the midnight editions. There were few facts. Three patients had been interviewed. From the descriptions, one was the Eurasian with leprosy he had seen that morning.

The word-of-mouth snowball and the inevitable newspaper swoop had taken just two weeks this time. In Paris, Trancore had lasted a month.

One newspaper admitted that they had an anonymous call claiming a miracle cure, days previously, but had put it down to a cultist bid for publicity.

The phone rang again. The caller said, "If this guy doesn't come out of his office soon, these newspapermen will bust the door down. What shall I do?"

"You're on loan from the police, aren't you? If they try that, identify yourself and threaten to book 'em. You don't need to mention that Trancore isn't in that office anyway."

The phone spluttered disbelief.

Pake grimaced. "I know how you feel, sergeant. Maybe he flew out of the window. He was picked up as he came out of the front entrance, and I'm waiting to hear where he holes up. But spin those reporters some yarn and keep then there if you can."

Pake shook his head as he put the phone down.

He took a freshening shower. Past twelve was a fine time for newspapermen, police and miracle healers to be about their business — did Trancore ever sleep, or had he gone in for all-night sessions? — but Accountancy Branch men worked office hours.

Discreet investigation guaranteed, every cent traced through the best-cooked books. That was probably Washington's line of thought: if Accountancy could do it with embezzled cents, they could do it with elusive fake Doctors.

But these cents didn't add up. It didn't make sense.

Nonsense. A whole row of thaumaturgical non-cents.

Accountancy could trace a cent: So, logically, they could scent a trace. And sense a non-scent . . .

Uh-uh. Pull yourself together, hero . . .

Pake lolled his tongue at the mirror. Clean and pink, no fuzz or sign of civilized costiveness.

Constipation. Post-nasal drip. And leprosy.

He leaned forward until his forehead touched the mirror. His eyes showed red tracery beneath drooping lids. What did real Government men — not the office-bound type — do to stay awake?

Pake recalled Betty's crack about rye and a blonde. And he remembered a nearly full bottle.

He answered the insistent phone with a glass in one hand.

He jotted the address of a cheap rooming house, dressed and left, thoughtfully putting the bottle in a pocket.

THE man on watch said, "Room five. Going in?"

Pake shrugged. "I don't know. If I do, he'll probably float out of a back window: This kind of thing isn't up my alley."

The watcher looked surprised. "Why, you're F.B.I., aren't you?"

"Not so's you'd notice," said Pake gloomily. He shivered a little in the after-midnight chill.

Someone was emerging from the building. The watcher drew Pake into the shadow of an unlighted shop doorway. "It's him, anyway." Then he frowned. "No. Sorry. Same build, but — "

"For my money," Pake murmured, peering across the road, "you were right first time. The norm of a crowd."

"Hey, whadya doing?"

Pake shook off the restraining hand. "I don't know," he said again. "Ask him for a light, maybe. This can't be played according to the Detectives Manual. If there is such a thing. I wouldn't know. If he vanishes in a puff of smoke, call the psychiatric ward ambulance — for me."

Pake's lanky strides quickly overtook the slow-moving man.

"Pardon me — "

The man turned. "Good morning, Mr. Pake. I congratulate you on your acuity of perception and your imagination. How are your nasal passages?"

The world reeled a little on its axis.

"Walk with me," said Trancore, and took Pake's arm. "But first signal to your policeman that he needn't follow us."

Frankie Pake flapped a limp, dismissing hand at the watcher in the shadows, and walked on into a dream.

"Am I mad?" he asked simply, after a while.

"No. You're saner than most. Your higher cortical centers are momentarily dulled by fatigue and alcohol, giving full reign to intuition. 'Hunch' you term it. An endearing quality when allied with imagination. A saving grace, indeed, of your race."

"You're from India?"

"Trancore is a good Indian name. Incidentally, fatigue is a disease."

Pake said, "Don't cure me; I couldn't bear to wake up. When do we start running like hell to stay in the same place? Pardon me."

Trancore shook his head as Pake, still walking, upended a bottle to his lips. The side-walk was crowding up and the lights brightening in nagging neon as they neared Broadway.

Pake lowered the bottle. "You still here?"

"You expect me to disappear? I could, quite easily, by convincing you of my non-presence, as I did when I walked past those men outside my office. Or I could slip into a crowd and, within limitations, alter the apparent cast of my features to conform seemingly with an average. But don't you want to ask me some questions?"

Pake pondered this. "Maybe I do. Why do you want to answer them?" He was feeling less like a real G-man and more like an Accountancy Branch investigator every moment. "You figure I'm harmless, huh?" he added resentfully. "Like my wife?"

"By no means. If I weren't about to conclude my own particular investigation, I would say that you were most dangerous to me. Your imagination is quite highly developed."

Pake stopped. He grabbed Trancore's sleeve. "I can't walk and think," he announced. He dumped the empty bottle by a fire-plug.

THEY sat on high stools in the garish light of an open-fronted soft-drinks bar.

"If this is going to be a jag," Pake said, "I suggest we lay a foundation of milk."

Smells wafted in from the street, the delicate and the insistent intermingled: rubber, hot oil, burned gasoline, cheap perfume, sweat, dust, peppermint: astringent tang of warm steel, of leather, even of stone. It had been a hot day before the sun went down.

Pake sniffed appreciatively.

"It's a sense we abuse and neglect," he said as the milk was served. "You did cure my post-nasal drip, didn't you?"

Trancore had been watching him with a half-smile. "All those questions in your mind, yet you relish this rediscovery above all. I don't despair of you." Trancore sipped his milk. "The infection was cured by your body. I helped. I can't tell you how, unless you have five hundred years to spare."

"Hardly," Pake said. "I haven't twelve hours to spare, if I'm to save my job. Or my reputation. Which, or either, I'm not sure." He caught Trancore's amused eye. "All right, that's not true. But I need answers to a pretty lengthy questionnaire. Who, when, what, why, where — you know."

"You're convinced I'm a telepath?"

"Aren't you?"

"Not in your sense of the term, which is a semantic misnomer in any case. As a diagnostician, I sense abnormalities in physiological functioning. As a psychologist, I sense — difference. In purpose and function. When you came into my waiting room, I knew you were not there as a patient.

Your presence was a disharmony. The same with your colleagues. As for your name and your occupation, they are naturally blazed so clearly on the surface of your mind that even your native clairvoyants could read the information."

 

"That," Pake breathed, "takes a load off my mind. You don't, for instance, know what I'm thinking about that dark-haired ex-blonde who just served us those shakes?"

"The one with the excellent pectoral development? No. Your own muzzy picturafe and thalamic concepts are your own. I can't interpret them."

Pake said, "Fine. You know all about the aphrodisiac effects of alcohol, though. Are you too big for me to understand, or can I see you clear and self-explanatory against the background of Broadway?"

Trancore did not reply for a moment. He was looking at the other occupants of the bar. There was something like pity in his eyes. Not pity, though, Pake decided, searching hard for another word. Something bigger; less human, perhaps. Or more human. Compassion? Trancore said, as if to himself,

"The girl with the bright face laughing at the febrile witticisms of her unpleasant escort: three-quarters of her right lung has gone."

Pake felt he was overhearing something he shouldn't. But he said, "You could put her right?"

"I could stop the rot in that lung, Pake. But she would return to that back room full of smoke and dust. She would still travel on a crowded subway to an overheated office. She'd still starve herself to buy clothes to keep in fashion. I don't have a cure for those things."

"That's the first time you've admitted you have a cure for anything."

Frankie Pake felt confused, despite his acceptance of the situation — which still surprised him. And he felt grudgingly humble. He saw, as if for the first time, the face of the man who called himself Trancore.

It had been the norm of the crowd, a pale blur in a flash-light shot of a moving mob. Now it was individual, seen clear and not through a wavering mask. The underlying personality was revealed, strong, but with no desire for domination.

There were those once-precious pulps that Betty had scornfully banished to an out-of-the-way cupboard when they'd moved into the apartment. Clues there, maybe? Mutant superman in hiding? Spy from a far galaxy? — ouch! No rayguns, no squirming, tentacled horrors, no —

A little sanity, a little sobriety, little hero . . ,

"What are you, Mr. Trancore?"

"A healer. That is my profession."

"And now suppose you answer the question."

"Is your head clear?"

PAKE, remembering the rye, said, "Strangely, it is. But I'm a little drunk from the neck down, and the dream-state persists."

"I wish," said Trancore — and it seemed the most foolish, yet the most significant thing that Pake could remember hearing him say — "I wish sometimes that I could escape reality so easily, by imparting to it the patina of a dream. You all do that." He got up. "I'm going to work now. I have about eight hours. You will be my guide."

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