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David Kauffman tried not to smirk at the melodrama. Honestly, the medium sounded like she was out of a bad 1950s movie. The only thing missing were some cheesy special effects. Then, sure enough, right on cue, the table candles flickered as if someone had opened a window. But of course no window had been opened. Nor door. Nor anything else in the lodge's spacious dining room of pine paneling and hardwood floors. Just the fan or whatever it was the medium had obviously switched on by hidden remote.
Still, it had its desired effect. None of the participants moved; they waited in breathless anticipation. This is what they'd been preparing for. What they'd traveled so many miles to experience.
A chill crept across David's shoulders. Apparently the medium hadn't turned on a fan but an air conditioner. He could literally feel the temperature of the room dropping. A neat trick that made an instant believer of the woman to his right.
"Is it ... him?" Her voice was thick and husky, cured from years of tobacco smoke. Savannah (she used no last name) was an ex-supermodel edging out of her prime-with thick blonde hair, complete with fashionable dark streaks, an indigo butterfly tattooed on her left shoulder, silver and turquoise jewelry, pink capris, and a silk camisole sheer enough to show off her lacy black bra. Nearby was the water bottle she took frequent drags from. In further efforts to kick her nicotine habit, she perpetually clicked and rattled sugarless candy inside her mouth.
"Ashton ... baby?" She gave a sniff and gripped David's hand tighter, her fingers damp and cold. "Is that you?"
There was no answer-except for the slapping candles against the air and the rattling of sugarless lemon drops.
Directly across from her sat a young man-Albert Sinclair. He'd barely met David before mentioning he'd sold his first software company at twenty-six, for 2.5 mil, and was working on his second. He sported a shaved head with fuzzy stubble, mandatory goatee, and casual khakis. In an effort to hide his nerdiness, he wore a black T-shirt just tight enough to indicate he'd been working out. He nearly succeeded.
"Man," he sniffed, "it's getting cold in here."
David fought off another shiver. The kid was right. It had dropped a good ten degrees.
"It often happens when one contacts those on the other side."
David shook his head. He'd written better lines than that in junior high. He turned to the medium, Rachel McPherson. She was in her midthirties and had that handsome sophistication that sometimes follows pretty girls when they grow up. Smart, personable, sensitive-the perfect combination for a con artist who bilks the grieving by "contacting" their dearly departed. Now if she could just do something about that corny dialogue. He had studied her bio on the flight up from LA. She had two books out, a syndicated TV show with a growing audience, and a PSI rating by the National Psychic Board of Level Three-a classification held by only a dozen or so in the country. A classification that to David meant she was simply good at not getting caught.
Ever since they'd started the séance some fifteen minutes earlier, he'd been silently evaluating her performance. Her eyes were closed in concentration, her head tilted to the side as if listening, allowing her shimmering copper hair to brush against some very bare and lovely shoulders. It's true, he'd been taken by her beauty the moment they'd met-which explained his immediate shifting to a cooler, more professional approach, a curtness that bordered on rudeness. He didn't enjoy it, not in the least, but it seemed to be necessary if he was to do his job.
She had offered her hand at the lodge's front door when he and his son had been dropped off by the chopper less than an hour earlier. "Good morning, Mr. Kauffman. We were beginning to wonder if you would make it." It was a good-natured barb, softened by kind eyes and the slightest flirt to her smile.
He nodded, glancing at the hand-carved beaver near the entrance, the beamed cathedral ceiling, the stuffed bobcat crouching on the table-anywhere but to her green, low-swooping, cowl-neck sweater. It was a clumsy defense, one he knew she saw through, but it was the best he could come up with on such short notice. He kept his answer simple and to the point: "Then let's not waste any more time, shall we."
"Don't you want to see your room? Get unpacked and settled?"
He shook his head. "The sooner we get on with this, the better."
That was it. No pleasantries. No apologies for missing the first day. Just his attempt at trying to be direct and professional.
The woman's smile remained, but it grew a few degrees cooler. Just as well. He may have been taken in by her looks and winning personality-but he would not be taken in by her scam.
Initially, David had declined the request to fly up to Washington state and take part in the séances. He was an author, for crying out loud-not some psychic ghost buster. But Savannah, widow of the famous rock and roller, Ashton Hawkins, had been very persistent ... the twenty-five thousand dollars she'd offered hadn't hurt, either. All she asked was that he attend the gathering with a couple close friends and the acclaimed psychic, Rachel McPherson. Savannah insisted that they had made several contacts with her dead husband over the past few months. And it was during those contacts that his spirit claimed again and again that David had seen him in hell. More importantly, he insisted that David could actually help him escape from it.
Far-fetched to say the least. And David would have written Savannah off as a nutcase-except for the gold pendant. The swirling gold pendant he had seen around the neck of an individual suffering and burning when he had visited the Lake of Fire. The very pendant Savannah had later sent him as proof that he had actually seen her dead husband during those awful minutes he'd spent in hell.
Even then, David had declined. Although a relatively new believer, he'd read the Bible's warnings against contacting the dead. Besides, according to his research, most were merely hoaxes and con jobs. A good friend of his, Dr. Gita Patekar, had made a career exposing just such frauds ... until she gave up her life to save him in a very different type of supernatural encounter, one that was anything but fake.
Unfortunately, it was this last argument that the widow turned on him and successfully used in one of her later phone calls. "If you're so sure it's not true, then you'd be doing me a favor by coming up here and proving it."
"I really don't-"
"You wouldn't believe the money I'm pouring down the drain on these people."
"I can appreciate-"
"Not to mention my emotional instability."
"I'm sure it's very diffi-"
"I'm a wreck, David-I can call you David, right?"
"I got this cool place all rented up in the Cascades. So deep in the mountains you have to charter a helicopter. You can bring the family. You got family?"
"I have a son."
"Perfect. Bring him up. Three days is all I'm asking. Make a vacation out of it."
"I'm afraid you don't-"
"Just think it over, please? 'Cause for me it's a real life or death thing. Not to mention for Ashton."
"Just think it over."
It took a few more calls to finally wear him down, though it was the offer to bring his son that had clinched it. Who knew, maybe a little father/son bonding in the wilderness would help heal their ever-widening rift.
The chandelier above their heads, the one made of intertwined deer antlers, started to rattle. All eyes shot up to it.
"Just a little tremor," Reverend Wyatt assured them. He was the last of the party-an elderly denominational pastor in his seventies. Savannah had brought him along as her "spiritual advisor." He was not at all the type David figured for someone of her lifestyle. Then again, by the way he constantly scrutinized and corrected her, maybe she felt he was exactly what she needed. Although he was a definite stuffed shirt, David felt the closest to him. Probably because they shared equal skepticism about the proceedings.
The shaking grew harder, accompanied by a low rumble.
"We are located upon some unstable geological plates," the Reverend calmly explained. "The same ones that created all that activity with Mount St. Helens and are currently creating the steam vents you may have witnessed while flying over Mount Baker."
David threw a look to his son. He was alert but showed little concern. And why not? After all, Luke was California born and bred. A little tremor now and then was only natural.
What was not natural was the icy blast of wind that suddenly exploded from the center of the table. It burst out in all directions, striking their faces, blowing their hair, their clothes. David squinted into the wind, searching the table for a vent, for some sort of opening. He saw none. He looked up at the ceiling, around the chandelier. Nothing.
"Rachel?" Savannah cried.
"We're okay," the medium shouted. "Everything's all right."
But things were not all right. The concern in the woman's voice made that clear. So did the shaking of her hands. The gold Tiffany bracelet on her right wrist, the one Savannah had ogled earlier, banged loudly on the table.
There was also the matter of the computer geek's chair. It started to move.
"What-what's happening?" Albert cried.
David dropped his head to look at the legs of the chair just as it began rising from the floor ... with the kid in it!
Albert screamed, immediately trying to climb off, but the wind pressed against him with such force that he could barely move. "Make it stop!" he shouted as he continued rising. Soon his ankles were level with the top of the table. "Put me down! Put me down!"
"Jump!" Rachel yelled.
"I can't!" He struggled, but it was no use. "I can't move!"
Savannah shrieked and David spun around to see her chair also rising. Eyes bulging in terror, she continued screaming, "Rachel! Rachel!" She tried moving, but like Albert she was pressed into the chair, her hair flying in all directions.
"Noooo!" Rachel cried.
David turned to see her screaming directly into the wind.
"They are innocent! I am the one who disturbed you! I am the one you-"
Excerpted from The Presence by Bill Myers Copyright © 2005 by Bill Myers. Excerpted by permission.
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