Nineteen Forty-Six. Catadioptrics.

31 Dec

Why did a certain Manhattan private investigator drive up into Westchester County in the early fall of 1946?

Robert Vincent slowly entered the town of Flax, a wealthy community with wide streets and avenues. He passed first the wooden cottages of the lower middle class, then the Tudor apartment buildings for the middle and upper middle class, and finally the stone and stucco mansions of the rich.

As he rumbled along, Robert realized that these road surfaces had not been renewed since before the war. Through the windshield in front of him he read large signs of support for Thomas E. Dewey’s re-election as Governor of New York. He grinned, remembering that Flax was not a hotbed of support for liberal Democrats from the City. It was very much the contrary.

This was a different world from the one he knew and lived in on Manhattan.

The driver quickly turned into Hudson St. when he read the street sign. In no time he succeeded in finding the red brick building that held the office of the psychiatrist he was there to see, Dr. Henry Turnal.

He found space to park his prewar blue Buick and entered the premises of the therapist before whom he intended to impersonate a desperate patient.

The doctor was a tall, sinewy brunet with extremely light skin. He had no nurse or receptionist, but himself met and ushered Vincent to a consulting room in the rear. The patient noted how Turnal wore an ordinary, inexpensive blue suit with none of the signs of a medico.

As soon as the two were seated across a desk from each other, the doctor began with a question.

“Why did you decide to come so far to see me, sir? There are some of the best psychiatrists in the world around you in New York City.”

The pretended patient grinned a broad, disarming smile.

“My problem is a sensitive one that I fear to talk about down there. I have heard from friends that you use new, effective, methods that hold great promise for cases like mine. Yes, your reputation for innovative treatment as well as discretion has reached even people like me.”

He looked for signs that the analyst was buying his line and sensed that he was winning acceptance from him.

The doctor gave a small nod. “What I do is not considered ordinary, conventional psychiatry. I am accredited and licensed, of course, but I do not follow the pack or belong to it. My professional colleagues have not, unfortunately, caught up with my advances. I am out of step with them, and they are out of step with me.” He let out a slight, brief laugh.

Robert Vincent leaned forward over the edge of the walnut desk between them.

“Can you solve the problem of obsessive dreams that have terrible, terrorizing content in them?” he asked in an intentionally muffled tone.

Turnal looked him directly in the eye.

“What if I told you that I can? Would you believe such a claim from a stranger like me?”

The detective frowned. “I take it that you have had success with others who have similar conditions. Word of that reached my ears. Can you describe your method of treatment for me? No one says very much about how you carry out the cure for which you are known.”

The doctor drew in a large, long breath of air.

“What is the door into the human mind? The ancients identified that early on. It has to be the eyes, because they are the doors or windows through which light enters. All of our thoughts, whether good or bad ones, resemble beams and rays of light, both the visible and invisible. That is the simple, central concept in my understanding of what exists in the human mind.

“The light that enters through the visual organs is the fundamental factor structuring and shaping what we think and feel. Therefore, if reforming rays can be transmitted into the interior self, then a person can be changed in thought and behavior. Evil thoughts and troubling dreams can be erased and removed when the incoming light is modified. That is the function of certain special instruments I apply that, in a sense, purify the light that enters into the mind. I am able to reshape and restructure much that exists within the mind.”

“I have not heard the details of the treatments,” breathlessly said Robert, expecting the doctor to tell him what some of them were.

“This is not completely new. In Europe, optical devices have been used in medicine for centuries. There are references to mirrors and lamps in several ancient manuscripts. The method was long kept secret by its practitioners. Before the recent war, I went to Vienna to study psychoanalysis, but also delved deeply into optics and catoptrics. Mirrors and lenses fascinated me, and that interest overlapped with my work in psychiatry. My personal research involved the effects of reflected and refracted light upon the mind and its illnesses. When I returned from Europe in 1939, just before the war broke out, I brought back small devices and the plans from which I had larger ones built for me. These have become the central core of my present practice.”

“Can dream obsessions be treated using these instruments?” asked the putative patient.

“Yes, I can provide relief by finding and destroying the dysfunctional influence through projecting special light rays through the eyes. But complete erasure of the roots of the problem would necessitate longer treatment with more exact probing into the mind. It will all depend on the conditions of the individual personality. This is true in all cases.”

The two men stared at each other, each of them making evaluations and calculations of what to expect from the other.

“When can we start?” said the imposter posing as a neurotic dreamer.

“Immediately,” answered Dr. Turnal. “Come with me to the treatment room. I can make a quick preliminary probe through your eyes with a low beam projector. That is for the purpose of mapping out and charting for more advanced treatment later on. I cannot predict how many more times you shall have to travel up here to Flax.”

“You will be able to analyze me that way?”

“I will be asking you important questions while you are absorbing the catadtioptric rays. What you tell me will delineate and direct my further analysis of your mind. It will grow ever more precise as the light flows into your mind.”

“This will be safe for me to undergo?”

“Perfectly so,” Turnal assured him. “Let us go back there and begin.”

Sitting in a large, comfortable chair that resembled that of a barber or dentist, the New Yorker was surrounded by large metallic prisms and reflectors with which the therapists focused strong streams of white light from flourescent lamps into his irises. The pupils of the patient shrunk and receded due to the intense brilliance of the radiant energy being received. Yet Robert, as if hypnotized, continued staring into the glow in front of him.

Turnal, standing beside the gigantic light apparatus, held pen and notebook in his hands. He was set to lead this subject through his first psychoanalytic examination and questioning.

The doctor explained what was going to happen during this initial session.

“An unusually high amount of photons will be going through your eyes, all the way into your brain. It will not hurt or harm you in any way. It will build up slowly, so as not to frighten or alarm you to any degree. There is nothing to fear from the bright light, Mr. Vincent.

“I have come to the conclusion that our thoughts and emotions consist of mental beams or energy charges that resemble nothing else as much as simple light. Our ideas are arranged in waves, reflections, and focusing in the same way. The structure of the human mind consists of interwoven beams analogous to visual light. As a result, the rays that our eyes absorb from outside are at work shaping the thoughts and actions of an individual all the time. They are the basis of what we think and feel. For the blind, there is mental imagining and invention of the reception of light rays.

“Therefore, light is the foundation of all that we think and feel. By focusing and concentrating special streams of light, a psychoanalyst can explore the mind and hope to relieve it of pain and conflict. The treatments with light permit me to wipe away the bad memories or dreams that disturb those I treat. You shall experience the same process, Robert.”

The patient managed to pose a question as his blue eyes became flooded with the cool light.

“Will I become free of my evil visions at night?” he asked in a purposely desperate voice.

“It is impossible to predict how many more sessions will be needed until the nightmares that you suffer are gone for good. But I guarantee that they will be destroyed by these beams of light in time.”

“That is my hope, Doctor,” softly said the investigator posing as a mental patient.

“In a quaint caravan, there’s a lady they call the Gypsy…” sang the tenor over the car radio as Robert Vincent drove back to Manhattan. He was surprised that his eyes felt nothing from the enormous amount of light they had received. Turnal had assured him that special lenses had reduced the head and energy force of the radiation, making it safe and harmless. Pure light, cooled and made untroubling, had been transmitted through his eyes, all the way into the interior of his thinking mind. So the psychoanalyst had informed him before the question and answer exchange.

He had been prepared, having rehearsed a list of supposedly dreamed of lions, tigers, wolves, and wild dogs. The deception had worked. It had been swallowed completely by Dr. Turnal. There had been no suspicion of what was going on. The fictitious and pretended had been taken for real.

Robert smiled with glee. If dreaming is make-believe, then he had succeeded in the creation of a believable imaginary series of dreams.

He had scheduled a second session with the therapist a week ahead. As he drove back to the City, he formulated the report that was due the client who had hired him and was paying for his time.

Why was it that an underworld boss, a syndicate leader with connections to all the New York mobs, wanted to know about an unorthodox psychiatrist in Westchester County? Robert had several explanations, but they were mere guesses.

There was no way for him to get out of what he was involved in. It was too late for that. He was already engaged in major actions of fraud.

The driver took a puff from the Old Gold cigarette in his right hand, his left one holding on to the steering wheel.

There had to be some family member of a top mobster who was suffering from inescapable nightmares. That seemed the most logical conclusion.

The detective met his contact man at the Helicon Club in East 46th St.

Gus Cato was already there, waiting for him in a secluded booth at the rear of the smoke-filled night spot.

The pale, portly envoy of the underworld lifted his chestnut eyes and looked over Robert Vincent as the latter sat down opposite him. “How did it go?” asked the fat man paying for the services of the shamus.

“Good, so far. I now have a general idea what this bird is up to.”

“Does his treatment work? Can he cure anybody of bad dreams?”

“How can I tell?” replied the private eye. “Since I’m not a psychotic or a neurotic with that problem, I didn’t drive up to Flax for my health. I had to fake my problem and I’ll have to pretend that I’m feeling better without the old nightmares that I claimed were bothering my sleep.

“The doctor flashed his lights in my eyes and I told him that I was already feeling easier, with less pain and stress on my mind. This was only his starting therapy, so I have to go back up there a week from now.”

Cato had a sour grimace on his pudgy face. “You’ll have to find out a lot more than that for me,” he grumbled. “How are you going to get the guy to tell you what he is really up to?”

“I plan to show a lot of curiosity about the mirrors and lenses that he uses to focus the light he sends into me. It should be easy to ask him more questions when he’s busy and his guard is down. I noticed that the doctor is pretty proud of his method and his mechanisms and likes to boast about what they can do. The more we open up to each other, the more he exposes what he thinks and plans to accomplish. I will have much more to report to you after the next session with him. I am certain of that.”

Gus Cato looked the investigator directly in the eye. “It’s important that you don’t let any opportunity to uncover his secrets slip by. Understand?”

Robert nodded that he did, then left Cato to ponder the future course of the enterprise launched up in Westchester County.

The second trip north provided no chance to examine closely the equipment and devices being used in the therapy, but Turnal talked at length to his new patient about his original theory of the effects of light upon the mind and the personality.

“I have come to the conclusion that the result of every thought we have is to etch an impression on a series of interconnected brain cells. It is the function of these nerve chambers to store and preserve all of the many imprints that are made over the years. Then, whenever a beam of internal mental energy strikes that particular site, the idea is recalled and rethought.

“Does that make any sense to you, Robert?”

The patient twitched nervously as the catadioptric waves of light streamed through his eyes and brain. “Yes, it certainly makes sense,” he said. “But I still have a lot of unanswered questions.”

“Like what?” asked Dr. Turnal.

“I can’t describe the rays that are entering my brain, sir. What kind are they? Why are they able to calm me down and give me a little relief from those terrible dreams of wild beasts? I still do not understand the forces that are affecting my mind.”

The psychiatrist gave a small laugh. “I am only an early explorer of the structure of our thought and emotion. There is so much more that I and others must learn about the optics of the human mind. What has impressed me is the importance of the angular parameters of thought. There are almost an infinite number of sites and connectors, but the resulting reality depends greatly on the positions and trajectories of the beams and rays entering and crossing the mind. The locations and their ties are a prime factor in determining what the mind finally is able to create and accomplish.

“So, the angle at which my external rays of light hit the eye controls where the mental beams flow and what they achieve inside the brain. Out of such a theoretical framework I have constructed my optical psychology and psychiatric therapy.”

Robert sighed. “At first, most of this seemed incredible to me. But what you say must be true, because I am already feeling better and sleeping easier at night. These optical treatments with the lights are my last hope of ridding myself of the animal nightmares.”

“We shall succeed in curing you, my friend. I am a sort of dream-catcher who uses light to cast out the evil thoughts that have lodged inside your mind. I promise you a freer, happier life in the years ahead.”

Gus Cato did not hide his disappointment with the second trip by the detective to Flax.

“You have to find out exactly how these lamps and mirrors work,” insisted the heavy one. “That was the whole idea behind hiring and sending you up to Flax, pal. Is the treatment he gives a real cure, or is this doctor playing some crooked racket on his patients? That is the reason you are making these trips, to learn whether what the man claims to be doing is a lie or the truth.”

“I have years of experience in carrying out investigations of all sorts,” claimed Robert with a pleading expression on his face. “Believe me, I know how important it is not to alarm the person involved. Patience is always necessary with someone like Turnal. He is not a dummy. I must have his total confidence if I’m to gain what I want. That can take time.”

Cato lowered his voice to almost a whisper. “This is not my baby alone. People high up in the Manhattan Commission decided to hire a shamus like you. There are family members of important individuals who are suffering night dreams that turn into nightmares. Their connected relatives don’t dare send sick people to ordinary psychiatrists. With all these relatives known, that could turn out dangerous.

“So, these commissioners want to find a treatment that they can trust and control, that the Manhattan District Attorney can’t use to get information from. They are hunting for a safe brand of psychiatry, but one that really works to rid people of bad dreaming.

“Doesn’t that make sense?”

The private investigator nodded yes, but at the same moment decided to take a hazardous, independent step on his own.

When troubled by his work, Robert did as many others and went to a theater to see a movie.

This afternoon he went to a matinée of “The Jolson Story” starring Larry Parks. The songs of Al Jolson provided him temporary distraction from his dilemma as a shamus hired by a syndicate agent.

He left the Roxy more determined than before in his decision to get out of what he was engaged in.

Robert was well acquainted with Captain Calvin Cook of the N.Y.C. Police Dept.

Both of them had grown up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood. From patrolman and then vice squad member, Calvin had worked himself up to a high position in the Rackets Division. His reputation was one of absolute incorruptibility. He was sharp and skilled at what he did.

Vincent knew he could be trusted to handle what he was about to reveal to his old buddy.

A red-faced Irish bulldog, Carr agreed over the telephone to meet him at a Chinese restaurant on the East Side, near Greenwich Village.

The two friends shook hands heartily, then sat down away from everybody else.

“I am working on something for Gus Cato, who you probably have heard of,” began Robert at once. “Let me explain to you what I got myself involved in.”

Carr listened with expanding baby blue eyes to the rapid narration of the adventure in Westchester County.

“It sounds like a serious matter to me,” said the officer in plainclothes when his friend was finished. “Perhaps I need to look into what all this business means.”

“What should I do next, though?” asked the anxious private investigator, eager for guidance.

“Carry on as if we never talked about this business,” advised the police official. “That is your best course until I get a clear view of what these racketeers are up to getting involved with psychiatry and light therapy like you described it to me.

“You can call me and report what happened at your next meeting with this doctor in Flax.” He made a wry grin. “Wouldn’t it be nice to know if anybody in the mob is having bad dreams? Or what relative of a gangster is in need of a mental cure?

“My squad needs all the information it can get on these characters, by any means available.”

Both men left the Chinese restaurant without ordering or eating anything.

At the third session, Robert had little opportunity to examine the lamps, prisms, or mirrors.

Dr. Turnal showed increasing frustration at the lack of further success reported by this patient. The early progress seemed to have struck a barrier. That, of course, was a means for Robert to continue the therapy longer. There had to be time to find out about all aspects of what was being done to him, the private detective decided. He knew that he had not yet satisfied the curiosity of Gus Cato and whoever he was representing.

The psychiatrist mentioned with pride the technical innovations he had invented and introduced into light therapy. “I am the one responsible for the v-shaped mirrors that perform a marvelous variety of reflecting, much better than simpler forms do.”

At another point, Turnal described the fish-eye lenses that had superior qualities for purposes of refraction. “I am not responsible for constructing it, but I saw the value of that as soon as it appeared.”

Robert listened with interest to what the therapist told him about how the mirrors rotated at a symmetrical speed under mechanized direction.

But as the treatment neared its end, the doctor voiced a sense of the failure he was feeling over Robert’s lack of progress after the first meeting.

“Human thought and feeling are more complicated than any of us in the field of psychology ever imagined,” he said with a frown. “Cures cannot be instantaneous, and are not possible in all cases. The form and structure of the mind contains a multitude of different dimensions, not just the three of everyday experience. These are in constant flux and change. In fact, the only permanent factor in the mind is time and its passage. It is the primary influence in all aspects of thought.  Without the dimension of time, our minds would not at all be what we have and live with. There would be no framework to hold the structure of thought together if time did not exist.”

The therapist paused and looked directly at the patient with such deeply rooted nightmares.

“I feel enormous disappointment that you continue to lack full relief in your night sleep,” he said with regret.

“Could something be wrong with your mirrors and prisms, Doctor,” boldly asked Robert when the session was over and he prepared to leave. “Is there some unknown blockage present?”

Turnal bit his lower lip. “No, it has to be something beyond the optics. There must be a twist in your thought that is obstructing my attempts to destroy the fears that are causing your wild animal dreams. We will have to continue with additional meetings. I will see you again next week, my friend.”

Soon after returning to Manhattan, Robert received a telephone call from Gus Cato.

“Hello there. How did it go this time? Did he tell you how his machine works?”

The detective decided to be vague and non-responsive. “No. I learned nothing of value or importance. The man talks only in generalities.”

“Didn’t he let you have a look at his mirrors and machinery?”

“No. I had no chance to examine anything on my own. Maybe next time. He watches me like a hawk.”

“You have an appointment for next week?”

“Yes, on Tuesday.”

“Good luck, then,” coldly said Cato, abruptly hanging up.

The mob agent thought a moment, then dialed the number of his superior in the syndicate.

At about the same time, Robert Vincent called the number that Calvin Carr had given him if there was anything to communicate. I must tell him about my frustration and why I want out of what I’ve gotten myself into.

Turnal seated his difficult patient in the huge barber chair, then turned on the brilliant flourescent lamps in the therapy apparatus. When everything was ready to focus the strong beams into the hazel eyes of Robert, he spoke to him in a voice reminiscent of cold, hard metal.

“I do not know if you have ever heard of it, but there can exist imagined mental illnesses. These are ones that patients believe they suffer from, but that in reality have no actual existence. The individual’s mind creates its own supposed ailment out of nothing. It is an invented disorder, a ghost in the mind. What a paradox!”

He stared fixedly at the detective who was investigating him.

Robert suddenly wondered whether the doctor suspected that his dreams were fictions he was inventing for some unknown reason.

“Is that what you think I have?” countered the patient. He felt a nervous fear now. “Is that what produces this terrible pain in me every night?”

“I don’t know for certain, Robert, but my suspicion of such an origin of your problem is constantly growing.”

It was at that moment that the door to the treatment chamber burst open.

Turnal and Robert turned to see what the noise was.

Three men in black suits, with dark fedora hats, were holding large revolvers in their hands.

Who are these intruders? wondered both doctor and patient. Are those real guns or some sort of props?

But then Robert recognized who the middle figure was.

Gus Cato made an explanatory statement to the detective he had hired.

“Our psychologist can’t wait any longer,” he mumbled. “We’re to take the machine and let him use the thing on the person he’s treating for us.”

Robert Vincent, attempting to rise out of his big chair, received a bullet from Cato, then one more from each of the assisting gunsels.

Then the trio shot Turnal before he could protect himself in any way.

One of the killers went outside and summoned a crew of husky strong men from a moving van.

All the lamps, mirrors, lenses, and prisms were disassembled and removed, to be loaded onto the unmarked van in the alley behind the office building.

The killers and the movers soon left the sleepy town of Flax, returning to the great metropolis and their professions.

The murders and the robbery had taken less than five minutes to complete.

The New York City newspapers were full of the strange event in Flax for several days, and then it became only a memory.

Captain Calvin Carr of the Police Department grew suspicious that the underworld had succeeded in taping his private home telephone. He recalled how he had talked to his friend Robert Vincent about the latter’s investigation up in Flax.

Was a lack of adequate precautions the reason for the double killing? he never stopped asking himself. Had carelessness brought about a disaster?

The incident remained an unanswered riddle, one of the unsolved mysteries of 1946 in New York City.

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