DEATH BY SUGGESTION
He never thought of it as murder, since he never once touched his victims—at least not physically. He merely suggested behaviors to them, and those behaviors led to their deaths. He had long since reasoned away his guilt. After all, was it his fault their minds were weaker than his? If they were stronger they wouldn’t take his suggestions. He was merely a part of the continuing evolutionary cycle—new genetic characteristics giving an advantage to one subset of the species. He was meant to survive, and those who took his suggestions weren’t. He could live with the deaths of evolutionary dead ends and it looked like he might have to make another suggestion. Dr. Birnbaum was acting suspicious. He had taken over from his assistant, and had a determined look on his face.
He had been tested by the best ESP experts in the world, and none of them had yet figured out how he did it. Of course, the different researchers didn’t know they were testing the same person, he made sure of that. He also made sure he showed them just enough to keep them interested, but not enough to frighten them. Besides, they were always asking the wrong questions and looking in the wrong places. The eggheads at Ohio State University were typical.
Birnbaum and his graduate students had been testing him in a typical room for these kinds of experiments. He sat on one side of a table with a screen in front of him, while on the other side was the experimenter. This morning he had been working with a squat female graduate student named Sylvia. She wore wire-rimmed glasses and had a complexion problem. She was all business and totally serious, so he didn’t try to kid her along. The screen kept him from seeing her hands or the cards she had in front of her. She had been using a standard set of psi cards. Each card was printed with a different shape. There was a cross, a circle, a star, wavy lines, and a square. The experimenter would shuffle the deck and then turn the cards over one at a time, concentrating on the card. His task was to read the experimenter’s mind and indicate which card the experimenter was looking at. By chance anyone could get a match twenty percent of the time. If you could consistently exceed that twenty percent the experts assumed you had telepathic abilities. He made sure his percentage hovered around forty percent. Any more and he would become a sensation and there would be publicity. Any less and they would lose interest in him. At forty percent they paid him to be available for study, and at the same time he picked their brains, trying to learn more about himself and his ability.
He couldn’t read minds but he used his ability to convince them he could. It was easy. Parapsychology was a young field, but already rigid in many ways. They recognized only four categories of abilities: telekinesis, the ability to move objects with your mind; telepathy, the ability to send and receive thoughts; remote reviewing, which was perceiving from a distance; and prescience, the ability to see the future. He had none of these talents and that was why they were so easy to fool.
He always insisted that he be tested alone. He told the researchers it was to keep from being confused by the thoughts of others, but it was actually to keep from being found out. The experimenters typically started with a shuffle of the psi cards, and then they would turn them over one at a time and concentrate on the image. He would then either make a guess, which was wrong eighty percent of the time, or he would guess and then make a mental suggestion to the tester that it was a correct response. With just a gentle push the tester would record his response as right and move on to the next card. It worked like a charm and they tested him day after day, ever frustrated in trying to understand how he consistently beat chance.
Like most parapsychologists this tester was an easy mark. She wanted so badly to believe he had psychic ability that it took almost no push at all to get her to record a correct answer. All of the graduate students that had tested him were easy, but they seemed to be getting tired of him here, and he knew that his support money would dry up soon unless he gave them something to get them excited again. He had decided to show them a sudden burst of psychic activity and get seventy percent right. At other universities that had driven them into a frenzy, insuring weeks of continued support. He had worked the scam a dozen times and it worked well—until this morning. Sylvia had been flushed with excitement when she left the room to share her results. But a few minutes later Dr. Birnbaum had come in with that serious look. He was suspicious, and suspicious people were a danger.
Dr. Birnbaum showed no excitement over his burst of psychic power. Instead, he had asked him to be patient for a minute as he worked with the psi cards on the other side of the screen. He could hear the psi cards being worked, and he presumed he was shuffling them. He wished at that moment he could read minds, because he was sure Dr. Birnbaum was up to something. He might have gone too far with that seventy-percent success rate and cursed himself for being careless. He considered letting his performance drop to chance, but that might suggest he was hiding something. No, it was better to revert to his forty-percent success rate. Then, no matter the outcome, he would be leaving Columbus, Ohio, for good.
“OK, Carl. I’m ready now. Let’s begin.”
Carl was what he was calling himself now, and he had used his power to ingratiate himself with Dr. Birnbaum—just a suggestion and a push, and Dr. Birnbaum warmed up to him. He was an attractive man with a dark complexion and sharp features, and was generally affable, so with a little push he was everyone’s best friend.
Dr. Birnbaum began the test in the usual way, but he held back pushing thoughts into his mind, watching to see if anything was different. Guessing on the first few cards he answered “square,” “square,” and “ripples.” Dr. Birnbaum’s face showed no expression. He knew he couldn’t wait too long before making his suggestions or else he would have to run a string together right at the end to get his forty percent, and that wasn’t his usual pattern. He had no choice but to suggest.
“Card,” said Dr. Birnbaum.
“Cross,” he replied, and then he thought “correct” and pushed with his mind.
Dr. Birnbaum continued without response.
“Card,” Dr. Birnbaum said.
“Circle,” he answered and pushed again.
He let the next two cards pass without a push and then he guessed “star” and then pushed a “correct” thought at Dr. Birnbaum. No response. He finished the trials, getting his forty percent. Dr. Birnbaum thanked him and told him that would be all for today. He said his goodbyes and then left the lab and went out past the offices and into the hall. After a few minutes he retraced his steps to Dr. Birnbaum’s office. The door was partly open and he could see the crossed legs of one of the graduate students. He crept close and then leaned against the wall as if he were waiting his turn to see the professor. They were talking about him.
“If he’s not psychic then how’s he getting them right?” one of the students asked.
“That last series was phenomenal. He matched over seventy percent. You think he was reading my face?”
“No, I’m sure of that,” Dr. Birnbaum said. “You have a perfect poker face. The truth is I don’t think he is getting them right,” Dr. Birnbaum said.
His heart started to race. Dr. Birnbaum was on to him.
“No way. We’ve tested him a hundred times with ten different experimenters.”
He couldn’t see who was speaking and he didn’t recognize the voice.
“Ever wonder why he insisted on being tested alone, and with the simplest procedure?”
“He said other minds confused him. That would be consistent with a weak ability like his,” Sylvia said.
“Maybe, but it also makes it easy for him to fake it.”
“You think he’s cheating?” the male voice asked.
“Not in the way you’re thinking. Let me show you what I did in that last session.”
He could hear some rustling like Dr. Birnbaum was clearing off his desk. Then he heard the sounds of psi cards being shuffled.
“I presorted the cards before I went in.”
“You stacked the decks?” Sylvia asked incredulously. “Doesn’t that violate American Psychological Association standards?”
“Get serious,” the other graduate student replied.
“Listen!” Dr. Birnbaum commanded. “I sorted one of the decks by symbol and then set out a pile for each symbol on the table in front of me like this.” He heard the sounds of cards being moved around. “Then I shuffled the other deck and ran through the series in the normal procedure, except for one difference. This time whenever I turned a card over and concentrated I would reach out and pick up whatever card I heard him respond with and place it in a pile next to the first, and then I would record his answer as right or wrong.”
“To double check?” Sylvia asked.
“Yes, but look what happened. Let’s go back through the two piles and record the matches. He got forty-two percent, right? That’s twenty-one matches. Sylvia, you turn over one pile, I’ll turn over the other. Jack, you record the matches.”
He listened as they turned over the cards and Dr. Birnbaum called out either match or no match. He knew what they would find, of course, but waited to hear it played out. When they were done Jack added up the score.
“It doesn’t make sense. I get only nine matches. That’s . . .”
“Eighteen percent,” Sylvia finished for him.
“What happened to the forty percent?” Jack asked.
“That’s the mystery, isn’t it?” Dr. Birnbaum said.
He didn’t like the tone of Birnbaum’s voice. He sounded smug, like he knew something he was holding back.
“I still don’t get it,” Sylvia complained. “How’d we get it so wrong in the first place?”
There was silence for a minute and he knew Birnbaum was smiling at his graduate students. He did that a lot. He would sit with a smug smile on his face and let his students wrestle with a problem he could have easily explained to them. When he was sure they were convinced of his superiority he would explain it to them, dribbling it out in tiny morsels, like M&Ms used to reinforce children. He would be doing it to these two soon if he didn’t stop him. His mind raced to think of some way to interrupt the meeting, but was distracted when the department secretary brushed past him, and leaned into Dr. Birnbaum’s office.
“You’ve got your phone turned off again, don’t you? Well, Dr. Clark called, he asked me to remind you about lunch. You’re late.”
“Oh yes. Sorry about the phone, but this was important. We’ll have to finish this later.”
The secretary turned to go and he quickly walked down the hall ahead of her. When he turned toward the exit she called out after him.
“Were you waiting to see Dr. Birnbaum?”
He flinched at the volume of her voice.
“No. Well, I was, but I’ll come back after lunch.”
The secretary gave him a curious look but shrugged her shoulders and headed back to her desk. He sighed with relief as he left the office complex. Outside he waited by a fir tree for Dr. Birnbaum. A few minutes later the professor came out, still talking with Sylvia. He put his coat on as he walked and then left Sylvia at the bottom of the stairs, merging into the flow of students. He fell in behind the professor, mixing with the crowd, keeping himself within striking distance.
Dr. Birnbaum headed toward High Street and the many restaurants that ringed the campus. That was good—at least better than if Dr. Birnbaum had cut across the campus to the faculty club. You couldn’t cause accidents on footpaths. Dr. Birnbaum followed the path between Arps Hall and the parking garage and then turned left, following the sidewalk along High Street. The cars moved along at a good clip between traffic lights on High Street, and the situation had promise.
As Dr. Birnbaum neared the corner he ran the last few steps trying to make the walk sign so he could cross, but it switched to wait and he held back, standing on the curb waiting for the next light. Perfect, he thought. Now all he needed was the traffic. He came up behind Dr. Birnbaum but stayed well back, letting people fill in between them. He didn’t need to be next to him, but he did need to see him to work it. Having such a limited range was one of the things he wanted to change.
The light turned green for the cross traffic and the cars began to flow past, picking up speed with each shift. The timing had to be just right. Looking left, he saw a bus coming—it would make the light at full speed. He checked Dr. Birnbaum, who was standing on the curb with his head down, staring into the street, lost in thought. It couldn’t be a better setup. Sometimes if people were preoccupied, or emotional, it didn’t take.
The bus was still coming, and Dr. Birnbaum still stood staring blankly into the street. A few more seconds and he would make the suggestion. Then things went wrong. The bus suddenly swerved to the side and pulled up short of the light to pick up passengers, at the same time blocking the traffic in the curb lane. He cursed to himself—the light would change soon and he would lose his chance. Then to his left he saw a red sports car with two college kids in it zoom around the bus and cut into the curb lane. He didn’t hesitate. He thought hard of walking across the street, stared at the back of Dr. Birnbaum’s head and pushed with his mind. Without lifting his head out of his stare, Dr. Birnbaum stepped off the curb and took two steps. He was in the middle of the lane when he shook his head clear and looked up, realizing where he was. It was too late.
The timing was perfect and the sports car was on him before the kid at the wheel could hit the brakes. Dr. Birnbaum took the impact at nearly full speed, crumpling under the car’s bumper and disappearing under the wheels. The late braking locked the wheels but the car continued over the professor until he was kicked out the back. His body tumbled a few feet, leaving him nothing but a bloody pile of clothes. Screams went up from the crowd, and tires began screeching all over the intersection as bystanders rushed to Dr. Birnbaum’s aid.
He watched the crowd form and then turned back toward his dorm. This meant the end of his support, of course, and they wouldn’t let him keep the dorm room much longer. It didn’t matter. It was time for him to move on. But to where? He was getting nowhere with the parapsychologists. Somewhere somebody must be doing research that could help him develop his abilities into more than just making suggestions.
It was a pleasant fall afternoon and he couldn’t face being cooped up in his stuffy room. He decided to walk to the library. He’d found out about Dr. Birnbaum through library research; perhaps if he broadened his search he could find a new approach. Then the flashing lights of the ambulance appeared and he watched them glide along above the heads of the crowd to stop at the scene of the accident. As the siren changed from a scream to a dying whine, he turned and walked toward the center of the campus.