Apple Boy the Soothsayer

Occult mystery, Oriental intrigue, and a fantastic feat of surgery combine in a most unusual story


Apple Boy the Soothsayer

Occult mystery, Oriental intrigue, and a fantastic feat of surgery combine in a most unusual story


Apple Boy the Soothsayer

Occult mystery, Oriental intrigue, and a fantastic feat of surgery combine in a most unusual story


IT WAS in the summer of ’38. I am telling a prewar story for reasons that will appear. I was an advertising and publicity man in New York. I was walking idly along Forty-second Street, picking ideas out of the air, so to speak, and I went into a nickelodeon to witness exhibits that, it was hinted by the spieler, would make the then current World’s Fair look silly by comparison.

There was a sword-swallower; there was a conjurer; there were two so-called leopard girls; and there was Momotaro, Soothsayer.

He was a short, heavyset Oriental, as much Chinese as Japanese in facial characteristics, thirty-five years old by my guess, with dark grave unspectacled almond eyes. Over an ordinary summer suit he was wearing a flimsy dragonembroidered kimono. A lock of blue-black hair protruded from under the edge of his cotton skullcap.

Momotaro’s specialty was telling the future. The audience was invited to put questions. A man in a palm-beach suit asked if he could trust his new business associate. Momotaro replied, with the faintest edge on his smooth voice, that the man could, provided he played fair himself. A tousled young man in shirtsleeves asked when he was going to make his first million dollars. I was much impressed by Momotaro’s answer. Looking at the nervously grinning young man, he said kindly: “Beneath your apparent frivolity, I know you are in earnest. You have done a piece of work on promise of a hundred dollars, which really seems like a million to you. Do not worry. You will get it all right.”

There was a pause. From the astonished look on the young man’s face, t here could be no doubt that the Oriental had hit the nail on the head. My curiosity was piqued beyond any further restraint. I put a question of my own and, having picked up a bit of Japanese in my travels, threw in a couple of words for the sake of the good neighbor policy we were then simple enough to believe in as a possibility.

“Ohayo, Momotaro-san!” I said. “Greetings, honorable Apple Boy ! Have you any news for me?” A flash of resentment appeared in his dark eyes. It was gone as quickly as it came, however, and he replied, smiling blandly:

“Yess, my friend. You are about to receive the offer of a new business account. By all means take it.”

I caught my breath. I had been dickering with the Takarazuka theatre chain of Japan, and was daily expecting an offer to manage the New York end of the coming American tour of the Japanese Chauve Souris troupe. Hiding my surprise, I said quickly:

“Well, am I going to take it or not? You claim to know the future.”

“Y-yes,” he replied, hesitating briefly. “I think you will. But I do not know everything,” he cautioned, smiling. “There is still free will in the world. You could turn down the offer you are about to receive. But you should not. You are on a fairly good thing.”

He smiled inscrutably, perhaps with a shade of triumph. The spieler began announcing the next number, and the crowd left. I still stood there, amazed, looking at Momotaro. He continued to smile.

“You—you are not Japanese?” I enquired.

“No,” he said softly, even affably, but with a sort of hidden steeliness in his manner. “No, no. I am Korean.”

“Momotaro is a Japanese name,” I reminded him. “Yess,” he smiled blandly, professionally. “Yess. But it is only my nickname.”

“It’s the name of a little boy in a legend, who came out of an apple,” I said, vain of my travel-lore.

Again that flicker of resentment. It broke through his suavity; it was like seeing the innocent-looking third rail of the subway throw a spark, and being reminded that it carried a deadly charge.

“You are very clever,” he remarked, and I thought I caught a hint of bitterness.

Even at that, I might have forgotten Momotaro. But next day I actually did receive the offer he had foreshadowed, and I wondered if he couldn’t

give me some inside tips on Japanese business habits. I went back to the nickelodeon. The manager blinked at my question.

“He quit,” he growled. “Say, what is this, anyway? A gag? Fella comes asking for him last night. Yella-faced strangler. Evilest-looking Jap I ever saw. Asks for Momotaro. Well, I looks round, but Momotaro ain’t there. He’s beat it quick outa the rear exit. And,” declared the manager, eyeing me with a growing antagonism, “he ain’t showed up since.

Say,” he frowned, “who are you, anyway?

A dick?”

I told him my business in a few words.

“Yeah?” he said, mollified. “Well, between you and me, you ain’t missing nothing. Guy you couldn’t get next to, was Momotaro. Used to butt in, telling me how to run my business. Said if I didn’t do like he said, I’d be bankrupt in a month. I didn’t like him.”

A month later the nickelodeon was still there, but a freshly painted sign said,

“Under New Management.”

SEVEN months passed. One evening I spotted Momotaro in a crowd in the Grand Central Station. I promptly nailed him, and invited him to take a cup of coffee with me.

“All right,” he smiled, his eyes lighting up. “How did you like, er—managing the troupe?”

I said, a little taken aback that he should know so much, that I had liked it very well. I added that I knew a pleasant sukiyaki restaurant. He broke in impatiently:

“I don’t like—sukiyaki.”

He said it so intensely that, walking along with him, I felt I ought to make light of it.

“I suppose,” I quipped, “that sukiyaki to a Korean is something like hog and hominy to a New Yorker? Or haggis to an Englishman?”

His almond eyes brooded. Then they lit up with deep, malignant fire. “My dear fellow,” he said, “it is casting swine before pearls.”

I have always been astonished at those rare foreigners who can turn handsprings in English, and I eyed Momotaro with increased respect.

We wound up in an English chophouse. He plied a good knife and fork, and was an excellent judge of roast beef and nut-brown ale. Beyond a staccato manner and a hissing of s’s, he had no particular foreign accent. His clothes were of the ordinary business sort, but for the curious fact that he wore a cotton skullcap and kept it on after he had hung his ordinary felt hat on the peg. I thought it might have something to do with his religion, or the etiquette of his country. It fell out in conversation that he was working for an import house.

“Doing business with Korea?” I suggested. “South America,” he retorted sharply. “Only the Japanese do business with Korea. I—I do not like them.” The way he spoke that simple sentence packed it full of all the adjectives of hate, scorn, and perhaps fear.

“But Korea is Japanese,” I objected.

He arched his thin eyebrows. “Alsace was once German,” he remarked. (That, of course, was before Hitler made it German again.) “But there were some Alsatians who did not like the Germans, all the same.”

I watched his eyes. They were full of hatred. I remembered his mysterious skirmish with a strongarm man, presumably Japanese, at the nickelodeon, but I hesitated to bring it up. I steered the conversation into easier channels, letting him do most of the talking. His rapid, resourceful speech and quick, intelligent eyes fascinated me. He was a man of uncommon learning. Yet it appeared he was eking out a bare living as an assistant to a struggling

Hungarian importer with a tiny office on the motley fringe of New York’s garment centre. Momotaro’s duties were not very clearly defined.

“I give him hunches about business,” he explained.

“You have an intuitive mind, Momotaro.”

“Yess, I sometimes see a little more than Mr. Ladanyi in the shape of the coming market.”

“Soothsaying, no doubt?” I chided him.

“Yess,” he said calmly.

“What is your trick?”

“I have no trick.”

“Oh, come. You can’t possibly know the future.”

“No. But—” He hesitated, scanning my eyes anxiously. “But some people see a little farther than others into the fog,” he said, with a burst of confidence.

“You mean to tell me you have a genuine gift of prophecy?”

“A kind of prophecy,” he amended quietly.

“But—” I had been going to repeat my flat denial of any such possibility. But I remembered what he had told me, and the boy anxious about his hundred dollars. “Look here,” I said, shifting my ground without giving up my attack, “how can you say there is such a thing as knowing the future? Why, if there were—” I shrugged uncomfortably. I felt like a stubborn yokel, but logic is a stubborn thing, and I stood my ground. “If a man could see even a little way ahead,” I protested, “he could become rich in no time. He could back the right horse every time. He could make a million dollars on Wall Street. He could outguess the

cleverest. Why," I cried, my mind’s eye looking down awe-inspiring vistas, “he could shake empires !”

“Not if he was without money," he said quietly. “Not if he had nobody to believe in him."

I understood that at once. My own scepticism must be all too common. Even if he had a real gift, 1 mused, it was still hard to imagine oneself persuading a board of directors to put a seer on the pay roll.

“Does anybody believe in you, Momotaro?"

“Mr. Ladanyi does. He says I’m a fool, but I have good hunches.”

“Do they always work out?"

“Not always," he admitted. “But my average is high. Oh, very high.” His eyes scanned mine again. “You know, of course, that there is no hardand-fast future? That was what I told you before."

I laughed amiably. “So your predictions hold good," I scoffed gently, “only provided nobody knows about them?”

“No. They are subject to—well, what you might call natural free will. You”—he blinked—“you are an educated man?”

“Well, reasonably so."

“Then you know about the Heisenberg principle of uncertainty. It is very modern and shiny and streamlined, but after all it was anticipated by our own ancient Zen cult, which points out that—"

“Just a minute,” I said hastily. Suddenly I felt very humble and immensely ignorant. “I’ve got a friend, a doctor, who’d be very interested in you.

May I phone him to meet us in my apartment in half an hour?"

DR. LAMMERMOOR and Momotaro became fast friends immediately. Gerry once made a world cruise and stopped off in Korea. He is a red-headed, hot-tempered, jovial Westerner of visible Scots descent. Gerry has seen too many marvels and dabbled too much in scientific magic to be a sceptic. He raised no barriers of disbelief, but after a preliminary chat on generalities of travel led Momotaro on a brisk excursion of conversation that developed in less than half an hour into a revelation of wonders.

Momotaro, so his own story ran, was a high-caste Korean, a student of philosophy and Occidental languages and literature at Seoul University at the height of Korea’s ill-starred upsurge of antiJapanism ten years before. He had got mixed up in a street riot. The gendarmes charged, and Momotaro was felled by a blow that perforated his skull at a point immediately above the pineal gland of the brain. At this detail Momotaro took off his skullcap and showed a silver plate, which Gerry examined attentively, commenting that it was good work.

“But not so good," ' Momotaro said, “as the work inside.”

“It beats me," Gerry observed, “how you escaped a brain injury. You’re incredibly lucky.”

Momotaro leaned forward. He looked at me, then back at Gerry. His dark eyes were luminous. He seemed to confer earnestly with himself before

speaking, and when at last he did speak, it was with the manner of one doing something desperate and dangerous.

“My brain was injured, doctor."

“H’m," Gerry said. If he had been a bedside doctor, he would have clucked sympathetically. But as a lab man he frowned and stroked his chin, like any other theorist confronted with a tough problem. “I don’t understand why it wasn’t permanent,” he said bluntly. “You might have been totally paralyzed. By heavens, you might have been stark mad.”

“I have been,” Momotaro said quietly, “both of those things."

There was something in his voice, in addition to what he said, that chilled my blood. I realized that Momotaro, without being insane, was different from ourselves in some uncanny way. It was connected, I felt, with his powers to predict.

Gerry frowned more deeply. He took another look at the silver plate. Then he nodded, as if to say, yes, I’m beginning to understand.

“A remarkable job," he muttered. “Who did it?"

“A very clever—fiend,” Momotaro said, laughing low. “It is more remarkable than you suppose," he said, and threw a triumphant look at me.

I could hold back no longer. “Mean to say," I demanded, “that somebody tampered with your brain?"

He blinked, childlike. “Yess.”

“That’s horrible !” I cried.

“No worse than the others," he remarked

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composedly. “They were not allowed to survive. I was lucky. A young surgeon took a fancy to my case. He was allowed to keep me as a sort of live cadaver.” He turned to Gerry, smiling. “You have read in biology how the scorpion keeps its meat alive, when it attacks large insects, by merely paralyzing them. I was paralyzed. Helpless. Senseless, too, fortunately. Unable to communicate, or even to think, but yet able to perform all the purely mechanical functions of living.”

“And you recovered!” Gerry marvelled.

“Oh, yess. Yess, certainly. You see, Dr. Tsuneo Takuna is quite an innovator.”

“Takuna?” Gerry echoed. “I’ve read translations of his papers. He writes on cerebral malfunction.” Gerry was visibly impressed. He passed around cigarettes, and began smoking rather quickly himself. He put a lot of questions that to my

layman’s mind seemed trivial and beside the point. He examined Momotaro’s ocular reflexes with a vest-pocket flashlight. “I hope you don’t think me too curious,” he said at length.

“At the Chichibu Clinic in Tokyo,” Momotaro said simply, “I answered many thousands of questions.”

“Do you understand the nature of your operation?”

“Of course. I did not at first, you understand, while I was unconscious, or later, while 1 was—mad. But afterward, when I was the exhibition piece at many quite interesting lectures, I naturally saw and heard everything.”

Momotaro explained, looking earnestly at Gerry, that the pineal gland or “eye” in his brain was injured beyond repair. Dr. Takuna invented a device to replace it. After experiments lasting a year, the device was trepanned in. For a further year, Momotaro was worse

than an idiot; he was a gibbering maniac. His eyes, ears, nose and sense of touch were unimpaired as transmitters of sensations, but the receiving end was ruined. Dr. | Takuna’s work consisted of installing I a sort of receiving set in the patient’s j brain. It was made largely of tissues, ; part human and part animal, with an insulating wall of molecule-thin mica, and as conductors gold wires drawn to the limit of fineness of that most ductile of metals.

Gerry spotted what appeared a flaw in Momotaro’s account, and plied him with questions. What he said, expressed in simpler terms, was that the brain is more than a clearinghouse for impressions. We receive messages, but they are useless until co-ordinated against our lifetime’s sense experience. No conceivable

mechanism can replace that.

Momotaro replied that in his case an entirely new set of experiences was patiently built up, mostly by Momotaro’s own will to live. A new sensual “myself” was evolved.

“Put it this way,” he said. “You, doctor, receive an impression, and you call it red. And you”-—turning to me—“do the same. But are your two reds the same? No one can tell. No one can enter another man’s brain. But still we may be sure that they are the result of interpreting the same section of the spectrum. In my case, it is different. I am not sensitive to your spectrum, but to electrical waves. I see quite different things from you.”

Smilingly, he lit another cigarette. Then he remarked, looking at me: “You have a headache.”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” I said. And then it dawned upon me. “You can see my headache?”

“Of course. A headache is in some ways an electrical disturbance.”

BUT MOMOTARO could not read print. He could read handwriting, however, and this irrespective of the language in which it was composed. Gerry went to some pains to find a language the learned Momotarodidnotknow.andpresently recollected some scraps of Gaelic he had picked up from his father. He wrote them down. Momotaro took the paper, looked through it rather than at it, and finally read it off correctly in English.

“I do not read black on white,” he explained. “I read vibrations.” He hesitated. “But you will think I am still mad,” he remarked, looking anxiously at me and then at Gerry.

“We know much better than that, Mr. Momotaro,” Gerry assured him kindly. “You are a very clever man. You are entirely sane.”

“Thank you. Well, then, I will explain that the printing press is a dead thing. It is impersonal. It has no knowledge of the characters ; it prints. It imparts no vibrations.

I But a pen in a man’s hand, ah, it leaves something on the paper, or rather in the paper, that your eyes cannot see. It leaves vibrations. Those vibrations—I see them.”

“But look here,” I cut in eagerly, “you must be able to read our thoughts, too?”

“Oh, yess.”

“And that’s how you foretell i events?”

“Just so. I can see what people intend to do.”

“That first day I met you—you couldn’t have told me anything I didn’t know already?”

“No,” he agreed.

I had him trapped. “But you told me that the Takarazuka troupe was going to make me an offer,” I cried triumphantly. “I couldn’t be sure of that myself.”

“Just so,” he assented. “I may have made a mistake. But you must remember that the future grows out of factors in the present. A farmer can predict rain, because he has gathered some knowledge of nature’s intentions. I couldn’t do that. But, my senses being different from yours,

I can gather some trends quite easily that are invisible to you.”

“But Momotaro-scm—

His eyes blazed. “Please!” he cried, waving his hand. “Don’t talk Japanese to me. I—I hate it.” “Sorry,” I apologized. “I was going to say, Momotaro, that the decision did not rest with me about the Takarazuka troupe. You had to read another man’s brain, not mine.” “But through yours,” he explained, sunny again. “That is possible. Believe me, that is quite passible.”

Gerry leaned forward. “That’s all very well,” he snapped. “But I’ve read a lot of Dr. Takuna’s papers, and I’ve never read anything that even hinted at your case. How was that? Our medical journals are very well posted. We have top-flight Japanese correspondents.”

“Because,” Momotaro said slowly, “there was an official ban on it. 1 was not a common exhibit. I began as a mere guinea pig, yess. But as I began to co-ordinate my senses, to come alive, so to speak, and Dr. Takuna began to think about telling it in a paper, the Intelligence Department stepped in. I was more than just a case. 1 was an instrument of the Son of Heaven.”

“So they wanted to keep you dark,” I observed. “An ace up their sleeve.”

“That is so.”

“Did they treat you well?” Momotaro’s eyes brooded. “Carefully,” he pronounced at length. ‘The way one treats a valuable piece of apparatus.”

“I see. As a useful slave.”

“We must give the devil his due,” Momotaro said. “All men are slaves —if you care to put it that way—in Japan, with its interlocking and superimposed caste systems. I was assigned to a definite and not too humble place, with duties to perform, but also a certain consideration to enjoy. I might have been won over to their way of thinking. But I must remind you that only my receptive faculties, not my memories, were destroyed. I had not forgotten the fate of my university colleagues.” He looked very distressed. “One cannot love Japanese officialdom. They are devils!” he exclaimed, his eyes flashing. “Fiends!” He shook his head, and produced the ultimate term of contempt. “Ronin/” he spat out, using a word that has designated, and greatly honored, Japan’s own terroristic Gestapo throughout the centuries.

“How did you escape from Japan?”

I asked.

He smiled wilily. “I outwitted ; them. I persuaded them to smuggle me into America to do espionage.” “But why did you have to make a nickelodeon exhibit of yourself?” Momotaro winced. I was immediately sorry to have put it so ; crudely, but he sensed my regrets j and anticipated my apologies.

“I understand your dismay,” he said softly. “But how else could 1 earn my living? I had no money. I had to hide from the only people who would have fed me, the Japanese. For a time 1 worked as a busboy in a San Francisco restaurant, saying I was a Filipino. To the Filipinos I met I said I was a Nisei—a Japanese born on American soil. And then”— he shrugged—“I got into the show j business.”

“Did the Japanese try to molest j you?”

“Their ronin persistently dogged 1 my footsteps.”

“Couldn’t you have appealed to ¡ the police?”

“I?” he scoffed. “An illegal; immigrant?”

“Couldn’t you have placed your abilities at the disposal of Washington, or the American Medical j Association?” I pursued.

“You do not realize,” he said ; sadly, “the difficulty of getting oneself believed.”

“You bet we do,” Gerry put in heartily. “You must have had a hell ; of a time. But look here, Mr. j Momotaro, you’ve fallen into good hands. We’ll put your case up to the right people. You’ll get G-man protection, and a retainer out of the Secret Fund. You’re worth something to our country, don’t forget.

I bet you know all the state secrets of Japan?”

“Most of them.”

“Swell. You’ll be perfectly well understood,” Gerry said grimly, j “when my findings have been put ! on record. It may take some time, j though,” he admitted reflectively. “I’ll have to put you through a lot of tests.” •

“You can stay in my apartment, Momotaro,” I promised.

Momotaro considered my offer mutely. After a while he nodded. “All right,” he said. “You are very kind. I—I will get my things from my room.”

“Don’t you go out,” I warned. “I’ll have your stuff sent for.”

He smiled. “You better let me go myself.”

“I’ll go with you,” Gerry said.

T WOULD have accompanied them, -itoo, but it was after midnight, and I still had work to prepare. An hour later Gerry returned alone. Disaster was written all over him. I leapt to my feet. He had lost his hat and his cheek was bloody. His shirt was torn.

“I lost him,” he said. “Lost him. Gangsters got him.”

“The devil you say!”

“We took the shuttle to Times Square. We were going to take the Seventh Avenue Express, his home being in the Bronx. I thought we’d take a minute out for a quick drink, and we were going out by an under-

pass when three plug-uglies crowded us.”

“Biggest Japs I’ve ever set eyes on. Gorillas. One of them got me in a jujitsu hold and threw me headlong. My face hit the wall.” He caressed his bloody cheek with his handkerchief. . “Nothing serious. But by the time I’d pulled myself together, they were gone. So was our pal.”

“Tell the cops?”

He nodded. “Radio squads are scouring the city right now. I’ve got a radio car waiting outside. We need you, too. By thunder, we’re going to get ’em.”

But where were we to look in a city like New York? We did our best. A general alarm went out, and all possible police precautions were taken. All Japanese and Chinese seen on the streets were questioned. Gerry and I talked to reporters. All the hospitals were tipped off. A cordon of plain-clothes police was thrown around Momotaro’s rooming house in the Bronx.

At five-thirty in the morning, just as we were admitting ourselves baffled, a phone call to police headquarters sent us both scurrying by radio car to Brooklyn where a man of Oriental type, answering Momotaro’s description, had been found—murdered. He had been pushed off an “El” platform in front of a train.

The body was unrecognizable. A wheel had passed clean over his head. His suit, however, was of the same shabby brown as Momotaro’s.

Nobody had witnessed the crime. The change-maker said he had passed four men, Japanese as best he could see, onto the plat form. But they had not returned, nor, the police were sure, were they on the train, which was stopped and searched between stations. I supposed that, good gymnasts, they had shinned down the girders. The street was not very well lighted at that point, and the theory was accepted by the police, pending further investigation.

A hue and cry went out. While I dealt with the reporters, Gerry went off to the morgue.

I met him again at breakfast. He said the man’s skull had been damaged beyond all reconstruction.

“I read the newspapers,” he remarked. “I see you didn’t tell them about the scientific interest we had in the man?”

“Huh!” 1 said. “Want us to he taken for a couple of nuts? There are limits to what even the tabloid readers will swallow. But I told them plenty. I told them about the nickelodeon.”

“Yeah. That was what they played up. That, and the sort of Japanese tong war angle,” he scoffed.

“What else could they do?”

We went to a bar, at that early hour, to sooth our feelings with stiff drinks. Gerry smoked in silence for a long time. Presently he said quietly:

“I don’t believe the victim was Momotaro at all.”

“Just what I say. Of course, I couldn’t be sure. I’ve been trying to dope it out. I told the police about the trepanning, and it seems likely,

with all the searching that they and everybody else did, that we would have found that silver plate. But there wasn’t a trace of it. I mentioned it to a medico-legal expert down at the morgue, and we did a pretty thorough job on what was left of the cranium, without finding any rivets or holes.”

“What do you suspect?”

“Oh, well.” He shook his head, and took another gulp of straight whisky. “Maybe I am nuts. I’ve got an idea those blackguards dressed up some poor Chinaman in Mr. Momotaro’s clothes and shoved him onto the track, just as a blind.” He pressed his lips tight, turning to look me

hard in the eyes. “No, I don’t mean shoved him off,” he corrected himself. “They went a step further than that. They made sure his head was on the rail. Maybe they blackjacked him first. But I think one of them jumped down with him and held him in a jujitsu hold. I saw the victim’s naked body. There were big bruises just where a jujitsu man would have squeezed.” He shook his head. “You know, Mr. Momotaro was too valuable a man to them to do in.”

“That would have been a most revolting bit of cold-blooded murder,” I said, shuddering.

“They are not a particularly squeamish people,” he said.