The phone had rung three times before the sound intruded on Eric's thoughts. He glanced at the clock radio. Six-fifteen. The call could only be trouble. His father had retired from his maintenance job after his second heart attack. His younger brother George, a dropout from high school, had already served two brief jail terms.
"Please listen, and listen carefully, Dr. Najarian."
The voice, probably a man's, was monotonal and distorted. A vibration machine, Eric thought--the sort held against the neck by a patient whose larynx had been removed. On one level, he felt certain the call was a prank. On another, much more primal level, he found the bizarre, emotionless tone chilling.
"Who is this?"
"We are Caduceus, your brothers and sisters in medicine. We care about the things you care about. We care about you."
"Dammit, who are you?" The chill grew more intense. This was no prank.
"In the days soon to come, we may call on you for help."
"What kind of help?"
"Do as we ask, and the rewards will be great--for you and for the patients you care for so well."
"Rewards? Would you please--"
"Our work is of the utmost importance, and we need you. We can also help you. There is a position in your emergency service. That position can be yours."
For the first time since the phone had rung, Eric felt some lessening of his tension.
"You're full of shit," he said. "The committee has already made its choice. They're announcing it this aftemoon."
"When we contact you," the voice went on, as if he had not spoken, "you may be asked to administer a certain treatment to a patient in a manner that is unfamiliar to you. Trust us, do as we ask, speak of this conversation to no one, and you will have what you wish."
"That's nonsense. I told you, the committee has already made its--"
The dial tone cut him short.
The Proctor Building, a thirty-year-old, ten-story monument to the monolithic architecture of the late fifties, held most of the research labs at White Memorial. The biochemistry unit filled the eighth and ninth floors. At one time, laboratory space--especially at WMH--had been at a premium. Now, Eric noted as he wandered off the elevator and down the dimly lit corridor, several of the labs were deserted.
It was nearly nine-thirty. Following the bizarre phone call earlier that morning, he had gone for a prolonged walk along the Charles, over the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge, and then back by the Museum of Science. Part of him still clung to the hope that the eerie call was part of some elaborate spoof. But he knew otherwise.
Caduceus. The staff and twin serpents symbolizing medicine. He had looked up the word, hoping that some aspect of its definition might give him insight. All he had learned was that in mythology, the staff was borne by Hermes, the wing-footed messenger of the gods, patron of travelers and rogues, conductor of the dead to Hades, known for his invention and cunning. How it had come to signify the healing arts, he had not yet learned.
Throughout the walk, just over four miles, he had played and replayed the brief conversation in his mind. It simply made no sense. Administer a treatment in a manner unfamiliar...What sort of treatment? To what end? How could Caduceus promise him the E.R. appointment when that decision had already been made?
He had entered the hospital though a side entrance and stopped by the speech pathology lab. The speech therapist, a bright, enthusiastic woman, was pleased to demonstrate for him the voice device known as an artificial electrolarynx. Pressed tightly against a "sweet spot" beneath the jaw, it transmitted impulses from the mouth and worked whether its user had a functioning larynx or not. The voice it produced when Eric tried it was virtually indistinguishable from that made by the therapist. On a whim he had asked her if anyone at the hospital had borrowed such a device or shown a special interest in it. Her response had been a predictable negative.
His size-thirteen sneakers propped on his desk, Dave Subarsky was sipping coffee as he pecked with one finger at his computer keyboard.
"Greetings, Doctor," Eric said "I've been sent here by the Nobel Prize Committee to check on what you're up to."
"I've been expecting you," Subarsky said, hitting the return key. "Convey my thanks to your committee, and tell them that I--and my trusty IBM here--are on the verge of proving, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that someone with no income, eighteen hundred dollars in monthly expenses, and three thousand dollars in the bank, cannot stay out of the poorhouse for more than two months."
"That bad, huh?"
"It's starting to look that way."
"Something will turn up."
"Maybe. But it ain't gonna be a grant from the Sackett Foundation."
"Uh-huh. This morning. The cupboard is bare. I tried telling them that a mind was a terrible thing to waste, but they didn't buy it. They said my work was too theoretical."
"They're nuts. That stuff you've been doing with progressive DNA mutation has tremendous clinical potential."
"Maybe," Dave said, his voice drifting off. "Maybe so."
"You'll find a way."
Subarsky flipped off his computer.
"That I will, my friend," he said. "So, today's the big day, yes?"
"I think so."
"I thought the committee was meeting this afternoon."
"As far as I know, they are, but...David, there's something I want to tell you about, but it's got to stay between us."
Eric hesitated, then recounted the eerie call.
"Does any of that mean anything to you?" he asked.
"Aside from suggesting that there's someone running around White Memorial with a screw loose?"
"David, I tell you, the guy who called may be crazy, but he--or she; I really couldn't tell--sounded like he knew exactly what he was doing. Any thoughts at all?"
Subarsky drummed his fingers on his ample gut.
"Only one. That stunt we pulled with the laser hardly went unnoticed."
"Tell me about it. Joe Silver was thinking about reporting us to the Human Experimentation Committee."
"Why didn't he?"
"Well for one thing, we saved the guy's life."
"And for another, I convinced my esteemed boss that the only danger of the procedure was that it might not work, and that my hand was poised with a cardiac needle, ready to drive it home, if that was the case. He made it clear, though, that if we ever felt the urge to try out our toy again, we had better have an okay from the committee and a release from the patient."
"As if that dude was capable of signing a release."
"What's the point you're driving at?" Eric asked.
"The point is that the whole goddam hospital knows what we did. This Caduceus may see you as someone who might be willing to bend the rules a bit in the interest of getting some stuff done around here, something that hasn't been approved by the H.E. Committee. Isn't that what it sounded
"Sort of. But that damn electrolarynx sure gave the whole thing a sinister cast."
"We'll know whether or not this guy is for real in a few hours."
"What do you mean?"
"Well," he said, "if Marshall gets that job in the E.R., I think you can safely say that Caduceus is a bag of shit."
"What if I get it?"
Subarsky lowered his skateboard-sized feet to the floor.
"In that case, my friend," he said, "I guess you won't really know."
From the Paperback edition.