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Maybe tonight was the night he'd learn to believe in magic.
Not damned likely, Joe Bailey thought.
Over the years, he'd received too many calls that promised something extraordinary but never actually delivered. Why would tonight be any different? He unbuttoned his overcoat as he climbed the polished granite front stairs of a mansion on Habersham Drive. He checked his watch: 1:40.
The call had come only fifteen minutes earlier from Lieutenant Vince Powell, who headed the evening watch at the station. There had been a homicide.
"I'm in bunco," Joe told him. "You're sure I'm the guy you want?"
"I know who you are," Powell said. "You bust up all the phony seances, psychics, and witch-doctor scams."
"Among other things, yeah."
"Well, we got something right up your alley. It's scaring the shit out of the officers on the scene. You wanna take a look?"
No, he didn't want to take a look, but he was here anyway. He strode through the open door. It was a cold February night in Atlanta. Mid-thirties, he guessed. He could still see his breath in the air as he walked through the foyer and looked for the uniformed officer who usually secured a crime scene.
Probably upstairs getting the shit scared out of him.
There were voices echoing down the stairway. Not the matter-of-fact grunts he'd heard at the few murder scenes he'd visited; the words were the same but uttered faster and louder. A totally different energy.
But whatever it was waiting for him up there, he was sure it wasn't magic. He always tried to allow for any possibility, but in his six years on the bunco squad, he had yet to see the genuine article. He'd been a professional magician in his twenties and early thirties, so the smoke-and-mirrors stuff had quickly become his specialty. It was still only a small part of his job, but when the squad needed someone to pull apart spirit scams or sleight-of-hand cons, he was the man.
He'd never been asked to investigate a murder.
"Who the hell told you that you could be a real cop?" a voice drawled from the top of the stairs.
Joe looked up to see Carla Fisk, a detective he had once worked with on a beauty-juice investigation. The perp had been selling bottles of tonic that supposedly made its female users flower into beautiful specimens of womanhood. Carla, who cheerfully admitted that her face looked like the "before" picture of almost every beauty ad ever printed, had worn a wire and purchased a few of the bottles. She was no glamour girl, but she was one of the most beautiful people Joe had ever known.
He smiled. "It's past your bedtime, Carla. You're not working nights, are you?"
"Nah, I was down the street at Manuel's Tavern. Everyone wanted a look at this one."
"You'll see. How's that little girl of yours?"
"Furious. She wasn't happy about being woken up and shuttled to a neighbor's place so I could go check out a Buckhead murder scene."
"Maybe if I come back with Yo-Yo Ma tickets."
"You gotta talk to your kid about the music she listens to. People are gonna think she has a brain." Carla grinned, flashing yellow teeth. Then she cocked her head down the hall. "You'd better get down there. They're waiting for you."
He walked down the long hallway, feeling a sudden chill. Was it getting colder? No, it was probably just his imagination, fed by the nervous voices at the end of the hall.
What was in that room?
He stepped into the doorway and froze. He thought he was prepared for anything, but he was wrong.
Suspended high on the far wall, a man was impaled by a large spiked sculpture.
The sight was so odd, so out of the realm of belief, that Joe looked away, then back, as if another glance would help it make sense.
He was staring into a large room with a tall ceiling, perhaps fifteen feet high. There were grand bookshelves, two towering windows, a seating area, and a grand piano. The corpse was suspended at least eight feet above the floor. The chrome sculpture, a skyline of gleaming spikes, was driven downward into the victim's chest, sticking him to the wall like pushpins into a paper doll. A pool of blood had collected on the floor below, along with one of the man's shoes.
"Unbelievable," Joe murmured.
"Is that your professional opinion?"
He turned to see a tall, tanned, fiftyish detective standing next to him. The man didn't offer to shake hands.
"Are you Bailey?"
"I'm Mark Howe, Homicide. Have you ever seen anything like this?"
"How did this happen?"
"I have no earthly idea."
Howe clicked his tongue. "That's not the answer I wanted to hear. You've never investigated a homicide, have you?"
Joe shook his head. "No, I'm in bunco."
"Right. The Spirit Basher."
Joe sighed. "The Spirit Basher" was a nickname he'd picked up after several high-profile busts in which he had debunked phony spiritualists and psychics. The local papers championed the headline-ready nickname whenever he ventured into that territory.
"Yeah," Joe said. "Some people call me that."
Howe made a face as if he had just bitten into a lemon. "For the record, I didn't ask for you. It was my boss's idea to call you in."
"I'm glad we got that straight."
"No offense, but you spend most of your days breaking up insurance scams, gas station pump fixes, and auto repair con jobs, am I right?"
"And you spend most of your days investigating drug deals gone bad and domestic disputes settled at the end of a firearm. I'd say we're both in foreign territory here."
That shut him up.
Joe glanced around the room. Two fingerprint specialists were dusting every flat surface, and a medical examiner was walking from side to side, staring up at the corpse. A photographer was snapping pictures of the scene.
Joe studied the corpse's face.
It wasn't possible.
"Christ. I know this man," Joe finally said.
As if this weren't bizarre enough. "I know him. This is Dr. Robert Nelson."
"That's right," Howe said, surprised.
"He was a professor at Landwyn University. He co-chaired the parapsychology program."
"Friend of yours?"
"He despised me. I do some part-time work for the university. The head of the humanities department doesn't believe in that stuff, and he brings me in to debunk the psychics and spiritualists they study."
Joe couldn't take his gaze from Nelson. The professor had been in his early fifties, and his strong chin and cheekbones were tensed in a horrible grimace. It almost appeared as though Nelson were still feeling the agony of that sculpture rammed through his chest. Blood had run down his blue oxford-cloth shirt to his khaki slacks and dripped from the cuffs. Another bloodstain ran down the wall behind him, obviously from the exit wound.
"Who found him?"
"Girlfriend. Eve Chandler. She's in the next room. She let herself in around eleven and found him. She said there have been some disturbances here the past few nights."
"What do you mean?"
"Objects moving around, furniture shifting, and that piano tipping over. All by themselves."
"Did she see these things happening?"
"That's what she says. She's sure they were caused by the same person who made the statue fly into her boyfriend's chest."
"And who would that be?"
"An eight-year-old boy."
"That little bastard murdered him, I know he did."
Eve Chandler leaned back on Nelson's sofa. She was an attractive woman in her early forties, and she had obviously taken a heavy dose of sedatives. She was slurring her words, and her eyes were thin slits. Tears streamed down her face, and she occasionally wiped them from her neck with the back of her hand.
"Who is this boy?" Joe asked.
"It's a kid Robert was studying. His name is . . . Jesse Randall. He makes objects move with his mind."
"Even five-foot sculptures?" Howe asked skeptically.
"All kinds of things. Robert was very excited about him. He said this boy was like no one he had ever seen."
"Why would the boy want to hurt him?" Joe asked.
She stared at Joe as if he were suddenly speaking a foreign language.
Howe leaned forward. "Ms. Chandler, are you on medication?"
She nodded. "Valium. Lots of it. I have a prescription. Wanna see the bottle?"
"That won't be necessary," Joe said. "I know this is hard for you, but we need you to focus. It's important." Eve nodded, but Joe still wasn't sure she understood. He spoke slowly. "Can you tell us why the boy would want to hurt Dr. Nelson?"
"He and Robert had some kind of disagreement. I'm not sure what happened, but he didn't want to see Robert anymore. That's when the shadow storms began."
"What?" Howe asked.
"Shadow storms," Joe said. "Supposed psychic phenomena caused by angry or emotional dreams. While the telekinetic sleeps, objects will move around, flying off shelves and smashing against walls--that kind of thing."
She nodded. "It always started just after nine o'clock, which Robert said was Jesse Randall's bedtime. All hell broke loose after nine o'clock."
"You saw these objects moving around?" Joe asked.
"Mostly we heard them, but a couple of times we saw things flying through the air."
"Can you show me what you actually saw moving?"
"They were both downstairs."
"We'll go down with you."
Howe shook his head. "We have some other things to sort through first."
"Now," Joe said.
"I have a few other questions first," Howe said.
"They'll keep," Joe said. "This is evidence that could be tampered with, stolen, or otherwise compromised." He stood. "Please, Ms. Chandler, will you show us?"
She led them to a sitting room adjacent to the foyer, where she picked up a small decorative musical instrument made up of five bamboo reeds tied together by red twine. She handed it to Joe. "We heard this playing from the next room. Every time we went in to look, the playing stopped. Once, when Robert went to look, it flew out of the room and almost hit him."
Joe inspected the instrument, but there didn't seem to be anything unusual about it. "Did either of you see it rise from the shelf?"
"Hell, we saw it flying toward his head."
"That's not quite the same. Did you see it rise from the shelf?"
She thought for a moment. "No. He may have though." She wiped more tears from her face and neck. "Jesus, I can't believe this."
Howe offered her a handkerchief, but she waved it away. "Keep it," she said. "I gotta be pretty close to running dry."
Joe sympathetically pressed her arm. "Can you tell me what else you saw?"
She nodded. "It was in the kitchen. I'll show you."
They followed her into the large, magnificently decorated kitchen, which was centered by a ten-foot marble-topped island. A rack hung above it with dozens of pots and pans.
"Sometimes, during the night, these pans would swing by themselves and start banging together." She shuddered. "They'd make a terrible sound."
Joe pushed some of the pans, and the eerie, hollow clanging sounded like dozens of out-of-tune gongs.
"Imagine hearing that in the middle of the night," Eve said. "We came downstairs, and as we got closer to the kitchen, the pots started to bang together harder and harder. By the time we made it in here, a few of them were even flying off the hooks and hitting the island and floor. We watched them swinging and clanging into each other for more than a minute, making that horrible sound. Then they just stopped."
"You have no idea what caused it?"
"Robert had an idea."
"The little boy and his shadow storms," Howe said sarcastically.
"Yes." Eve's expression hardened. "Can you arrest him?"
Howe shook his head. "There's the matter of proof. We don't have any evidence that links the murder with Jesse Randall."
"How else could it have happened?"
Howe turned to Joe. "You wanna take that one?"
Joe faced Eve, but he was speaking to Howe as much as he was to her. "Ms. Chandler, in my experience, telekinesis does not exist. Part of what I do in my job is to expose con artists who try to convince others that they have paranormal abilities. I've never seen a psychic claim that couldn't be explained in another, more plausible way."
Her face flushed. "I know who you are and what your feelings are, Mr. Bailey," she said fiercely. "Robert told me how difficult you made his job. I loved that man, and his life's work was based on the fact that this phenomenon does exist. If you refuse to believe that, then maybe they should throw you off this case."
Howe put a comforting hand on her arm. "There's no need to get upset. I'm in charge of this investigation. We've just asked Detective Bailey to come here and see if he can help explain what happened." He turned to Joe. "Do you want to take another look at the scene?"
Joe nodded. Howe would obviously have better luck finishing Eve Chandler's interview alone.
He left the house and walked toward his car. It was colder now, and a harsh, biting wind had kicked up. He opened his trunk and pulled out a large black suitcase. Its leather finish was worn and scuffed, and the brass latches and hinges were tarnished. It was his spirit kit, which he used to inspect the scenes of seances and psychic demonstrations. Made up of an odd assortment of sophisticated test equipment and ordinary household items, he generally kept it in his car trunk, where it would be handy for both his police investigations and his debunking work for the university. The last time he left it at the station, some joker had plastered a Ghostbusters "no ghosts" insignia on its side, and the sticker had adorned the case ever since.
He carried it back into the study, where the police videographer was filming every inch of the room with a digital camera. The still photographer was now chatting with a few of the officers who came to gawk at the sight.
The nervousness among the officers had given way to morbid humor. Joe overheard cracks about Nelson's taste in decorating, and how a nice tapestry might have been a better match for the wall.
They were trying to be funny, but he could hear a slight edge in their voices. Lieutenant Powell had probably been right about his men getting the shit scared out of them.
Joe had just popped open the suitcase's lid, when Howe walked into the room. "Where's Eve Chandler?" Joe asked.
"Passed out downstairs. Between the Valium and you running her all over the house, she was wiped out. Thanks for neutralizing my witness, Bailey."