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Joe Bailey handed the bald man a crumpled fifty-dollar bill. "This will change my life, right?"
The man smiled and pocketed the fifty. "Only you can do that, my friend. But I can help show the way."
Joe nodded. He and Steve Muren stood in a packed coffeehouse in the Sandy Springs neighborhood of Atlanta. It was a few minutes past nine on a Thursday night, and the place reeked of incense, cigarettes, and burnt coffee. Most of the clientele were under twenty-five, Joe noticed. He was thirty-nine, but he liked to think that he didn't look too out of place among the college students and young artsy types who made it such a popular gathering place.
"Why here?" Joe asked.
Muren shrugged. "Manager's a friend of mine. Are you ready?"
Muren led Joe down a dark hallway past the pay phone and bathrooms until they reached a purple door. Muren pushed it open, and Joe walked inside to see five people sitting around a large round table.
"How is everyone tonight?" Muren said.
Everyone mumbled their "good"s and "fine"s while Joe sat down.
Muren jammed his hands into his pockets and paced around the room. His dark, penetrating eyes flicked to each person at the table. "I see that about half of you are return visitors. Good. I like that. It shows commitment and passion. If you don't have those two things, you're wasting your time here."
Joe glanced at his tablemates. Three men and two women. Muren had their complete attention.
"Each of us is born with a gift. My gift is helping others discover the power within themselves. It takes concentration and practice, but before you leave here tonight, you'll be amazed with what you're capable of. And, in the weeks to come, I'll help you refine and develop your gift."
Muren tossed a book of matches to a skinny woman with close-cropped hair. "Think you're ready?"
She bit her lip. "I'm . . . not sure."
"Not certain enough. Tell me yes. Even better, tell me hell yes!"
"Good." He sat down in the one remaining seat. "Tear out one of the matches and put it in the palm of your hand."
She did as she was instructed, then stared blankly at Muren.
"Don't look at me, look at the match. The key is to visualize your tool. Those who have been here before know what I'm talking about. Everyone has a different mental tool that works for him. One person might imagine a lever prying it from the palm of your hand. Another might visualize a powerful vacuum cleaner sucking it upward. Very often, only one thing will work for each person."
The woman wrinkled her nose. "Why?"
"I have absolutely no idea, but it works. Go ahead and try it."
She stared at the match, but nothing happened.
"Don't get discouraged," he said. "It may take a while to discover the right tool, but when you do, a new world will open up for you."
Again, she stared at her palm. The match wiggled. The woman gasped and held her hand out toward Muren.
"I see it," he whispered. "Work with it some more. Whatever you just did, do it again."
Joe watched her intently as she drew her hand closer. She concentrated on the match, and the end slowly rose into the air until it reached a forty-five-degree angle. The woman squealed nervously, "I'm doing it. Look, I'm doing it!"
"Maintain your focus," Muren said. "Remember what you're doing now, it'll help you next time."
Her hands shook, but the match end still levitated. The woman frowned as it began to droop. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong," Muren replied. "Just get your focus back."
The match finally came to rest on her palm. The woman gave Muren a disappointed pout.
"Don't worry. Your power is like a muscle that needs to be exercised. "We'll work on it a little more each week. Before too long, you'll be able to do this and more even without me around." Muren tore out another match and tossed it on the table in front of Joe. "Would you like to try?"
Joe nodded. "Sure. Can I leave it on the table?"
"Whatever you want. There are no rules here. If there's anything I want you all to take away from this, it's that you create your own reality."
Joe glanced at the match and it immediately jumped.
The others laughed in surprise and Muren clasped his hands together. "Excellent! You're a natural."
Joe smiled sheepishly. The match scooted a few inches, then stopped. He picked it up, examined it from every angle, and placed it into his left palm. The end of the match bobbed up and down. He placed his right hand over and around it, but that had no effect on its movement.
"You are exceptionally gifted," Muren said. "It would be my honor to help you nurture your talents."
Joe reached into his jacket pocket. "Uh-huh. For fifty bucks a pop?"
"We can work out an arrangement."
Joe yanked his hand from his pocket and flung hundreds of BBs across the tabletop. The others reacted in surprise as the round metal pellets shot in every direction, rolling toward the ends of the table.
"What the hell--?" Muren yelled.
Joe stood and surveyed the table. In front of each person except Muren, the BBs were clustered in tight circles.
"What was that for?" The spike-haired young woman brushed BBs off her clothing.
"My apologies," Joe said. He held up his police badge and pointed at Muren. "Atlanta PD. Move away from the table."
"Aw, man . . ."
Muren stood up. "I wasn't hurting anybody."
Joe turned toward the others. "I need your help. Please pull your chairs away and turn the table over for me."
Muren sighed. "Look, I'll give everybody their money back. Is that what you want?"
"Be quiet." Joe watched as the others turned the table upside down to reveal a crude network of wires connecting five round metal plates with an array of lantern batteries and a single control dial.
"What the hell is that?" one of the other men asked.
Joe put away his badge. "It's how he was able to cheat you out of your money. Muren used that dial to apply current to those metal plates and they became magnetically charged."
"Magnets?" another young woman said. "The matches were made from cardboard and, in case you didn't notice, they were moving away from the table."
Joe picked up the book of matches and opened it. "You can buy these matchbooks in packs of a dozen from all the mail-order magic retailers. They're cardboard, all right, but the heads are coated with a magnetic compound. Do you know what happens when you try to push two magnets together? They repel each other." Joe held up the open matchbook and tore out a match. "These are made for street magicians. They strap magnets to their arms, under their jacket sleeves, then hold a match in their open hand and pass it over the magnet." Joe turned the power knob and held his upturned palm over one of the metal plates. As his hand neared the plate, the match head rose. He glanced up. "You've been had."
A woman with a tongue stud turned toward Muren and lisped, "You goddamn bastard, I've given you over four hundred dollars."
Muren feigned a look of total innocence. "Are you really going to listen to this cop? He doesn't believe in the psychic powers within you, but I do. After I get this cleared up, we can start over. Have faith in yourselves, everyone, just visualize--" He suddenly grabbed a chair and threw it at Joe.
The chair back struck Joe's knees, and spasms of pain shot through his lower body.
Shit. Muren hadn't seemed like a runner.
By the time Joe steadied himself against the wall, Muren was out the door.
Set aside the pain. Get this bastard.
Joe leapt over the overturned chair and ran through the doorway into the coffeehouse. Muren was pushing through the crowd, elbowing his way to the exit. Joe held up his badge. "Police! Move! Move! Move!"
His command barely made a ripple in the crowded coffeehouse. Jesus. Still holding up the badge, Joe shoved through the crowd. "Muren, you're under arrest!" Police Procedures 101. Can't bust a guy for resisting arrest unless he knows for sure that he's being arrested.
Muren pulled over a tall table, knocking it into Joe's path. Hot lattes spilled onto the laps of nearby customers as he barreled out the door. Joe jumped over the table and came within inches of grabbing him by his nylon jacket.
Outside, Muren ran smack into a woman with short red hair. She gripped him by the back of his neck and shoved him facedown on the sidewalk.
Muren groaned and tried to wriggle free, but the woman was too strong.
Joe pocketed his badge as he pushed past a group of bystanders. Jesus, all he needed was for some well-meaning vigilante to beat the hell out of his suspect. "That's not necessary, ma'am. Step away, please."
The woman turned and glanced up, flashing him a crooked smile. "Hiya, Joe. Is that any way to talk to a Good Samaritan?"
Joe smiled as he recognized Detective Carla Fisk, his helper, who was one of the most popular officers on the force. She was one of the most homely--and most beautiful--women he knew. Despite her plain physical appearance, her warmth and sense of humor captivated almost everyone who crossed her path. He'd heard that she had rejected half a dozen marriage proposals in the past few years.
Carla stood up and planted her foot on the back of Muren's neck. "Something tells me this guy wasn't just skipping out on his check. Of course, the coffee is waaaaay overpriced here."
Joe cuffed the man's hands behind his back. "What brings you here, Carla? This doesn't seem like your kind of place."
"And what do you think is my kind of place?" she drawled. "Shirtless guys beating the hell out of each other while NASCAR races play on the TV and Travis Tritt songs play in the background?"
Joe shook his head. "Nah. Guys drinking shots out of your navel while the B-52's play in the background."
"You got me pegged, Spirit Basher."
The man on the ground moaned. "Spirit Basher? Aw, shit. Of all the people in this city."
Carla's face lit up. "Hey, you're famous, Bailey. This guy knows you."
Joe shrugged. The Spirit Basher nickname had been given to him by a local newspaper a few years before, after he'd busted several phony spiritualists in midtown. The paranormal fraud cases were only part of his duties in the Atlanta PD bunco squad, but they always attracted the most attention. Everyone was looking for a little magic in their lives.
Carla glanced around. "Where's your backup?"
"There's a patrol car behind this place. They thought he might go for the back door." Joe pulled a small radio from his pocket. "Miller, I got the perp on the front sidewalk, you copy?"
Officer Miller's nasal voice blasted from the radio, "Copy that, Bailey. I'm coming around."
Joe read the man his rights and put him in the back of the patrol car. He and Carla watched it disappear around the corner. "Good collar," Carla said. "Unleash the psychic power within, huh?"
Joe gave her a curious look. "How did you know?"
"Kurtz told me down at the station. I didn't just happen to be here. I was waiting for you."
"I'm on the Spotlight Killings. Have you been keeping tabs on that?"
"Yeah, who hasn't?" Six well-known citizens had been murdered in the past two months--an athlete, an attorney, a college president, a newspaper columnist, a PR firm owner, a former deputy mayor, and the only apparent link between the victims was their local prominence, hence the name Spotlight Killings. The department was taking major heat for its inability to find even a single suspect. "Having fun?"
"Oh, yeah. It's been a hoot. Between the media, the chief, and everyone else in town, I'm about to go out of my mind."
"I can imagine."
"A city councilman, Edward Talman, has been leaning on the chief to accept some outside help in the investigation."
"I wish. No, he thinks we should allow a psychic to join the investigation."
Carla shook her head. "Nope. Of course, these psychic detectives have been coming out of the woodwork, like they do on all the high-profile cases."
"Except this time one of them happens to be Monica Gaines."
Joe lifted his eyebrows in surprise. Monica Gaines was among the world's best-known psychics, due to her frequent talk show appearances, 1-900 psychic chat line commercials, and best-selling books. In the space of four years, she had built an amateur website into a multimillion-dollar media corporation. Gaines's syndicated talk show, Monica Gaines's Psychic World, was a ratings phenomenon, and her distinctive rectangular glasses and clipped speech patterns made her a frequent target for Saturday Night Live send-ups.
Carla sighed. "This councilman has been jumping up and down, yelling that we should take help anywhere we can get it, especially from the great Monica Gaines. I don't need to tell you that these people are usually a humongous waste of time. I worked on the Virginia-Highland killings a few years ago, and psychics came from all over. I had to chase down dozens of leads that went absolutely nowhere."
"That's the usual outcome," Joe said.
"Well, that didn't stop the chief from knuckling under. Gaines flew into town today, and me and my partner have been assigned to take her around and hold her hand."
Joe didn't need psychic powers to see where this was heading. "Just the two of you?"
Carla grinned. "The captain wants you to tag along. You know, to keep an eye on her and make sure she doesn't pull any funny business. After all, you're the Spirit Basher. You know all the tricks."
"FYI, Carla, I'm not too crazy about that nickname."
"Yeah, but when this kind of thing comes up, you're the guy. You used to be a magician, right? There's nobody more qualified than you to spot the phonies."
"But these psychic detectives don't deal in sleight-of-hand tricks. They conjure up feelings and impressions. There's not much I can expose there."
"We're taking her out to the most recent crime scene in Conyers tonight. You can catch a ride with me."
"Two-thirty in the morning, actually."
"She feels it's best to be there at the approximate time of death. In the case of Ernest Franklin, that's two-thirty. If you'll check your voice mail, you'll find a message from the captain. I'm afraid that it's more than a request."
Joe looked away. This was getting worse by the minute. "Listen, I have to go down to the station and write up the arrest I just made."