Chapter 56

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The hot lights on the stage prevent Zandra from seeing much of the people in the audience, but she can still hear them. Their buzz dies down when they see her and Dvorak take their spots behind podiums at opposite ends of the stage. Zandra shuffles to hers with a clomp-drag as if she's towing an invisible ball and chain behind her.

A glance in Dvorak's direction shows once again how unfavorable her odds are tonight. A couple stagehands wheel computers, projectors, cords, tablets and other tech behind him on a cart while a large screen is lowered upstage.

Sloggins, looking as if his artificial face could melt under the lights, holds court from center stage. He paces back and forth with a microphone, looking more nervous than he should, and starts with the introduction. He calls Zandra a "renowned psychic with a history of incredible results dating back more than 25 years." Dvorak, or William as he's referred to, is, "a technology industry entrepreneur and, most importantly, a skeptic."

Zandra leans hard on the podium to give her ankle a break.

"And now we ask you, ladies and gentlemen, to kindly vote for your preferred point of view. Do you believe the supernatural can offer something technology can't?" Sloggins says, sounding like an upbeat politician on Election Day. "We'll retake the poll at the end of our event. The side that gained the most percentage points will be declared the winner. You may, of course, vote undecided in both instances."

Dvorak looks out at the audience with an arrogant smile. Dressed all in black, his freshly shaved head catching the stage lights, he looks like a funeral candle.


Zandra hacks into her sleeve while voting finishes up. It comes in fits now. She can't stop. A bottle of water inside the podium helps to soothe her throat.

"The results are in," Sloggins says, scrolling through a tablet computer on his podium. That he is using a tablet and the audience is voting with classroom clickers, items with functionality that would be considered supernatural not long ago, isn't lost on Zandra. "Twenty-two percent for supernatural, 49 percent for technology and 29 percent undecided."

That's surprising considering how religious Stevens Point is, especially with the Catholic presence. But they're not voting on their faith. They're voting on me. Never once met a priest who thought what I did is kosher, so to speak.

This audience isn't primed. That'll change in a minute.

"Per the rules you both agreed to, Zandra will go first. She has 15 minutes to demonstrate her claim to the supernatural," Sloggins says. "Let's give her a round of applause to start things off."

The audience responds with sparse clapping that dissipates into an echo as soon as it started.

People like to think of themselves as outliers, but almost no one wants to actually be one. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the real thing.

Zandra gives herself several seconds of silence to lure the audience's attention into her orbit and raise the suspense. Drama is her most potent source of energy. She keeps it up by cutting out the pleasantries.

"Johnson," Zandra says with a croak. "Is there anyone here with the last name Johnson or does anyone know of a Johnson who died recently?"

In a room with this many people, the answer will be yes.

The technique is called cold reading. Put enough people in one room and the odds are high whatever information the "spirits" tell you will apply to someone. Then it's as easy as focusing on the hits and ignoring the misses while the saps reveal everything you need to fill in the blanks. It sounds too simple, even too stupid, to work, but careers have been built on less in the world of celebrity psychics.

A murmur rolls through the audience. Someone in the back shouts something. Then another. And another.

"Can we get some microphones out to there, please?" Sloggins says to the stagehands from his podium.

The first audience member to speak sounds elderly and male.

Perfect. Lots of history and a willingness to talk.

"Yeah, I, uh, I know a Johnson who died the other day," the man says. "His name was Chester Johnson, but we called him Chet. Heart attack. Funeral was last week. Good guy. Played cards every Saturday. Went to the same church even. Worked with him at the mill until we retired. You know the one? It closed down back in '93, but it started during Prohibition, I think. Maybe before that even. But it's not there anymore is what I mean. So we worked together, Chet and me, and there's this other guy, too, who was with us, too. I forget his name, though. He ran the ventilation, because in a mill it gets dusty and there was always the risk of a fire. Imagine that. The air itself would catch on fire."

Are you sure you're not related to Herman?

The name doesn't ring a bell. There isn't much for Zandra to work with, and he's making it too easy. Claiming she's in contact with Chet Johnson's spirit isn't enough. She needs something more. Something with teeth.

"I'm sorry, child, but this spirit talking to me now, it's telling me the first name has an A in it. Does that match anyone else?" Zandra says, careful not to reveal whether the "spirit" or someone in the audience is supposed to be named that way.

Another person speaks up, this time a woman. "Yes, that matches."


"Please tell me more," Zandra says.

The woman pauses. "No. You tell me. You're supposed to be the psychic."

So you want to make this difficult, do you? There's a solution to that.

"It's important you tell me, child, because this spirit is also indicating heart problems. This either happened to someone you know or will happen to you in the future," Zandra says, remembering that heart disease is one of the top killers in the U.S.

This time the woman is more receptive. She says, "You must mean my grandpa, Al Johnson. He passed away from a heart attack, too, a number of years ago."

Start with Johnson. End with heart disease.

"This runs in your family, child. You must take care it doesn't happen to you," Zandra says. It's a safe bet.

"That's so strange you mention that. My name is Debra Johnson. There's an A in my first name, too," the woman says.

See what I mean about the saps doing the heavy lifting for you?

"Exactly," Zandra says. "That's the proof, the A that you both share. And now, unfortunately, you know that you share more than that. Take care of yourself, child."

The audience claps. This time it's more enthusiastic.

They're not all there, but they're primed enough for the next part. Start with safe "revelations" and work up to riskier ones, just like any other client.

Zandra glances at Dvorak. He glares back at her and grins.

"As Ms. Johnson will tell you, the two of us never met before," Zandra says into the microphone on her podium. "What you've just witnessed is more than coincidence. Since discovering I had these gifts, I stopped believing in coincidence years ago. I can't explain what this is, but I've come to understand this key point: Accept what is revealed to you through truth as the truth. Let me show you again what I mean. Keep in mind that everyone is capable of doing the same. You just have to believe."

Circular logic is my favorite kind. Keeps the saps dizzy.

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