V 15 - Below the Threshold, page 1
File One: Monday Evening
The phone started ringing just as Dr. Jack Page settled down with a double Laphroaig before fixing himself some supper. With a sigh he put down his drink, careful not to spill any on his black-gloved false left hand, got out of his recliner and picked up the phone on the third ring.
“Page here,” he said.
“Dr. Page, this is Emily Velasquez. I’m sorry to disturb you but look, could we talk this evening?”
“Let me check,” he said, and took from his shirt pocket the slim appointment book he always carried. He’d love to talk with Emily, any time, but her tone of voice had implied she needed him as her therapist, rather than—otherwise. “I’m free right now,” he said when he found the right page. Emily had no idea of his interest in her, of course. He was too professional for that. “Want to tell me about it?”
“I’m frightened, Dr. Page,” she said. “Maybe I’m just imagining things again, maybe it’s just the dream I had last night, but even if that’s true, I’m frightened, and I don’t know what to do about it.”
“Now take it easy, Emily, try to calm down. I haven’t had supper yet, do you want to meet me at my office, say about eight?”
“Please, Doctor, I can’t stand it. I’ve got to know if what I saw was real or not. If 1 just invented it, okay, that’s bad enough, I thought I was getting better—”
“You are, Emily, you know that.”
“Yes, but then maybe it’s real, maybe—and I was right there, and I didn’t even know it, right there with them.” “With who, Emily, slow down and tell me what happened.”
“I’m sorry, Dr. Page, I—I don’t want to talk about it on the phone. I think I’ve stumbled onto some kind of conspiracy.”
“You want me to come over there?”
"No, not here, they may be watching— God, I sound paranoid, don’t I?”
“You do, and that’s not like you. All right, come down to the office, we’ll try to work this out.”
“No, you haven’t eaten yet, how about the Escapades, dinner on me.”
Jack sighed. He was not in the habit of accepting meals from his patients, though if Emily had just asked him, instead of presenting him with this inarticulate story, he would have been sorely tempted. As it was. . . . “Can you tell me anything about it at all?”
“I’m sorry,” she went on. “I can’t explain, I have to— Maybe it’s all in my mind, but if it’s real, it could be important, and I might be in danger. I have to show you something. Then you can tell me what I should do next—go to the police, take a tranquilizer, whatever.”
“All right,” Dr. Page said. “When shall I meet you?” “Seven thirty? Will that be all right?”
“That will be fine. I’ll see you then.”
File Two: Monday Evening
Jack Page drove up Garfield through downtown Freeport, toward the Escapades restaurant and his meeting with Emily Velasquez. The traffic was light, putting no strain on his artificial left hand. Encased in a black glove, it easily gripped the steering wheel in between the mechanical thumb and the rigid but naturally curved fingers.
He turned right onto Clyne, doing most of the work with his right hand. The neighborhood here was a bit rougher, and the hookers, he noticed, were already out, though it wasn’t yet seven thirty.
Emily had been seeing him for a year now, and he had thought that she was making progress in dealing with her schizophrenic tendencies. The phone call had not been like her at all, and had any of his other clients called him with a story like that, he would have insisted on a regular office visit. But Emily was different. Clinical psychologists and their patients should not develop relationships outside the office, but . . .
He turned left up Wade Avenue. Emily had better have a good reason for this meeting, he thought. But then, he had to admit that it was he who had yielded to temptation. In fact, if he could face the truth, he was falling in love with her. And that, he knew, was interfering with his objectivity in this case.
After another block he saw the restaurant ahead, and made a sharp left into its parking lot. He had to use the spinner on his wheel. His false left hand, as good as it was, could not grip the steering wheel strongly enough to make the turn unaided. The hand—and the arm above it to halfway between his elbow and his shoulder was a compromise between a more powerful but fully artificial metal hook, which might have disturbed his clients, and a purely cosmetic but totally useless plastic hand. He stopped by the attendant’s booth between the restaurant and the parking lot, got out, and gave his keys to the young man on duty.
The main entrance of the Escapades was directly opposite the parking lot booth. Jack adjusted his turtleneck shirt and went in. There were several other people in the little lounge area, but no Emily. When the Maitre d’ came over, Jack asked him about her.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the man said. “We have no reservation in the name of Velasquez.”
“I guess I’m a little early,” Jack said. “Can you give me a table, and tell her Dr. Page is here when she comes in?” “Certainly, Dr. Page. Please come this way.”
He was led to a small table at the back. When the waiter came over a moment later Jack ordered a Laphroaig on the rocks, and was gratified when the waiter knew what that was. Another moment later and he had the fine unblended scotch whisky and took a sip.
All right, he told himself, maybe he was overstepping his professional bounds a bit by coming here, but dammit, that phone call of Emily’s was not a part of her usual pattern. Either there was something real to worry about, or she was developing a new psychosis. In either case, it was best to get to the bottom of it at once.
Though his conversation with her had been brief, the sudden expression of paranoia she had exhibited was not uncommon these days. Indeed, many of his clients came to him for just that reason. Ever since the Visitors had come, three years ago, a large portion of the population had developed exaggerated fears about what the Visitors were and what they were up to.
That there was cause for concern only complicated the issue. Almost everybody had second-hand experience with Visitor violence, and many had felt the impact first hand, even here in Freeport. This was one of the few cities in the south, the zone in which Visitors could live without fear of the red dust, and which was, at the same time, completely controlled by humans. Oh, there were those “naturalized” Visitors, of course, ex-fifth columnists who, known as such to their own people, had come to this human-controlled city for refuge.
But it was one thing to be concerned about the realities of the Visitor’s presence, and another to be unable to separate imaginary fears from the truth. It was Jack’s self-imposed task to help those who could not do so, to enable them to be able to come to terms with Visitor influence and presence, even with Northampton so near across the bay. The human mind frequently over-reacted to the sudden strange, the alien, and the unknown. For many of Jack’s clients, this was keeping them from coping with the day-to-day world.
His glass was empty. It was ten minutes to eight. He signaled the waiter, ordered another, and asked the man to check to see if Emily had come in yet. After a few moments the waiter returned and said that she had not.
Emily might be schizophrenic, but she’d never before exhibited any of the Alien Anxiety Syndrome, as Jack called it. What had she said on the phone? Something about being afraid, a conspiracy, wanting to show Jack something, about ‘being there with them,’ whatever that meant.
I le wished he’d been able to draw her out more. From any of his other AAS clients, he’d just assume an intensification of their paranoia, but Emily didn’t fit in with that syndrome.
It was especially disturbing since, during the last month
And Emily was going counter to that pattern.
The waiter came back and asked him if he’d like to order yet.
“I’d like to wait a bit longer,” Jack said, “in case she’s just gotten hung up in traffic somewhere.”
“Another drink, then?”
“I’d better not.” He showed the waiter his artificial hand. “I have a hard enough time driving as it is,” he said. The waiter nodded and went off.
It was now after eight. Emily, Jack thought, might be schizophrenic,' and might even be developing a latent paranoia, but her strange call to him was more than a little worrying. He noticed the Maitre d’ standing beside his table. “Miss Velasquez has not come in yet,” the man said. “Are you sure you were to met her here, at this time?” “Quite sure,” Jack said. He could see, beyond the Maitre d people standing in the lounge. “Maybe I’d better wait in the bar.”
“That might be best,” the Maitre d’ said, and as soon as Jack got up from the table a busboy came over to make it ready for a paying customer.
The bar was opposite the lounge from the dining room. Jack went into the darkened room and looked for a seat at the counter. He saw an acquaintance with an empty stool next to him, so he went over.
“Lewis,” he said to the naturalized Visitor, “Naturals” as they were called in Freeport. “May I join you?” “Hey, Jack, sure, sit down.” He appeared to be in his late twenties, with a strong face and short, light brown hair and wearing chinos and a sport shirt, to contrast with the rest of the customers. “How are things doing?”
“Not bad. And yourself?” Jack had known Lewis for almost two years now, and though they didn’t often socialize, he had always liked the alien.
“Doing real well,” Lewis was saying. “Not much excitement, of course, but then I prefer it that way.” “Don’t we all,” Jack said as the bartender came up. Jack decided that he could handle a third Laphroaig, and Lewis ordered a refill on his red wine.
“You don’t look too cheerful,” Lewis observed.
“It appears I’ve been stood up,” Jack said. “You come in here often?”
“Every now and then. It’s expensive, but then, what can a Natural spend his money on, even here in Freeport? I can’t get a driver’s licence, so 1 don’t need a car. Don’t have enough to buy a house, and the better apartment buildings won’t rent to Naturals. Nothing to save my money for, so I might as well spend it.”
“How can you eat the food here?”
“Oysters,” Lewis said with a grin. “And at the Golden Carnation, sushi.”
“I guess that’ll waste your paycheck,” Jack murmured. “You don’t like to spend money on food?”
“Nothing to show for it but an increased waistline. I wouldn’t come here except the person 1 was supposed to meet offered to pay.”
“That’s too bad. I wouldn’t mind a few nicer things, but what the hell, I really like to eat. But you know, things are beginning to loosen up a bit lately. Clerks will wait on me now, more often than not. Of course, the hassles here are nothing like they are in say New York, or Chicago, or Sacramento. Freeport’s a good place for Naturals, relatively speaking.”
“It would drive me up the wall,” Jack said. “Freeport’s about the only place where a Natural can hold a regular job. So what if I’m only the head janitor in a rattail building, I’m working.”
“There’s Northampton, where your people are in control—”
“I’d be executed as a fifth columnist. No thanks. I never was very deep into it but as far as Northampton and the rest of my people are concerned, I’m a traitor. I’ll stay here, where I’m at least free.”
Jack wasn’t really listening. He was watched the LEDs on his watch tick off the seconds and minutes. It was now eight thirty, and Emily still hadn’t come in. He caught the bartender’s eye and asked for a phone. Lewis stopped talking while Jack dialed Emily’s home number. There was no answer.
“Not that you don’t have my sympathy,” Lewis said as Jack hung up, “but I don’t even have the opportunity to be stood up.”
“Surely you know some naturalized women,” Jack said.
“A few, but how many are there in Freeport? That don’t already have some sort of relationship, that is. I think that’s probably the hardest thing for me to deal with.”
“Believe me, Lewis, I know exactly how you feel.” He flexed his artificial hand.
“So who is this ungrateful wench?” Lewis asked, keeping it light.
“One of my clients, actually.”
“I thought you weren’t supposed to get involved with them.”
“I’m not. And I’m not tonight, either, she wanted to talk to me professionally.”
“But you like her a lot, anyway.”
“That I do, though I’ve never done or said anything about it.”
“So who is she?”
“An interior designer. She’s fairly successful. And an awfully nice person. I have to admit that lately I’ve been having difficulty keeping my attraction for her separate from my professional interest. That’s not uncommon, of course.”
“Can you do anything about it? Or do your professional ethics forbid any romantic entanglement whatsoever?”
“Well, I can’t be both her doctor and her lover. What I should do is tell her about things, and let her find another therapist. But . . .’’he flexed his artificial hand again.
“You’re afraid to tell her how you feel,” Lewis said. “Is that because of your professional concern, or because of your artificial arm?”
“That’s what I’m not sure about. Now, tonight has nothing to do with romance. She asked me here as her therapist. Which is why I’m not being quite as frank with you as I might be, though I’m probably saying more than I should.”
“Jack, you’re the psychologist, but you’re too close to this. If you could hear your voice, you’d know that you’ve got to come to some kind of an understanding with yourself.”
“I know that,” Jack said laughing. “Only, knowing doesn’t make it any easier. But thanks for telling me anyway. I’ve been reluctant to admit my feelings, even to myself.”
“About your arm.”
“About—yes, dammit, about my arm. Hell, Viet Nam was a long time ago. I thought I’d learned to accept it. I don’t have nightmares anymore, I don’t have ghost arm aches anymore.” He finished his scotch. “But I guess I’m not adjusted after all.”
“Has your friend ever shown any aversion to your arm?” Lewis asked gently.
“No. But dammit, that’s my problem, not hers.”
He tossed down the last of his scotch. The question right now was, where was Emily? She had said something at her last session with him about a big contract she was hoping to get. Maybe, he thought, she’s gotten tied up at the office. The phone was still on the bar, so he called her there.
He got only the answering machine. He left a brief message and hung up. Maybe she’d gone to see her client. But she had sounded so urgent on the phone earlier that he couldn’t believe that.
“Is she often late for appointments?” Lewis asked. “Never. She’s usually very prompt, very meticulous about things, a bit too much so, perhaps.”
“Maybe she’s really in trouble.”
“I’m beginning to suspect she is.” He called the bartender over and asked for his bill from the dining room. “I think I’d better do some checking,” he told Lewis. “She could have had an accident somewhere.”
The bartender brought his bill, and Jack paid. On his way out he spoke to the Maitre d’, giving him a tip and asking him to give Emily a message if she should come in after a
He pulled out of the Escapades’ parking lot and drove south to Marlin, then west toward Emily’s address. He’d never been to her apartment before, but he knew it was in one of the newer apartment buildings just outside the business district. There was no street parking when he got there, but the underground lot had spaces for visitors, so he pulled in and took the elevator straight up to Emily’s floor.
He knew her apartment number from his records. Her door was slightly ajar. He rang the bell, and felt a surge of relief when, after a moment, he heard someone coming.
The relief was turned to disappointment when a man opened the door. Emily had never said anything about a boyfriend. The man, dark and slender, smiled at him in a friendly way.
“I’m sorry to disturb you,” Jack said, “but I’m looking for Emily Velasquez.”
The man spread his hands in a kind of a shrug. “I can’t help you,” he said. “Do you have the right apartment?” “I think so,” Jack answered, and looked over the man’s shoulder at the number on the door.
“Maybe another floor,” the man said with a quick grin. “The halls in this building are all the same, you know.”
“I guess I must have made a mistake,” Jack said, feeling an alarm bell going off inside his head.
“No problem,” the man said, and firmly shut the door.
Jack stood there for a moment. He was sure this was the right apartment. He started to reach for the bell again, and then thought better of it. Instead, he went back to the elevator and took it down to the lobby.
He went over to the mailboxes and found Emily’s name. The apartment number was the one he’d just visited. Thoroughly alarmed, he went to the phone in an alcove off to the side. The man in Emily’s apartment could be a burglar, or worse, else why deny that it was Emily’s place? Jack turned to the front of the phone book and found the number of the police.
He reported a suspected burglary in progress, and the police said they’d send a car right over. But when he hung up, Jack wondered if that were really the case. A strange intruder, right after Emily’s concern for some kind of a conspiracy, was a bit too much of a coincidence. Jack didn’t believe in conspiracies, but this was not the time to argue about it.