Authors: Peter Philips
Tags: #Science Fiction
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."
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."