You think the astral projection machine is legit?"
At Dr. Liza Mancuso's question, Sandra halted on the concrete steps of the Psychophysical Research Institute, shaded her eyes from the Florida sunshine, and frowned at her best friend. "Do I think a machine can sling someone's mind into an out- of- body experience? Of course not."
Really, how could Liz even seriously consider the possibility? The chances of Sandra having an out- of- body experience were no more likely than bumping into her dream man as they approached the institute's front doors.
Setting down her medical bag on the steps, Liza wrinkled her brow in confusion. "Then why don't we just forget it?"
If only Sandra could forget it. This silly assignment was not at the top of her make- a-difference in the world list. Nor was it even on the page. But reporters had to work their way to the top within a hierarchy of corporate politics. Until Sandra was one of the lucky few who could choose their assignments, she had to take the stories her editor handed out.
As Sandra answered Liza she ticked off points on her fingers. "I'm a reporter. My boss believes that astral projection is newsworthy, if only for its quirkiness. He assigned this story to me. So here I am to uncover the facts, while you protect me from becoming a medical malpractice victim." She refrained from mentioning her boss was currently none too pleased with her after she'd taken a few risks while covering a celebrity murder trial last month. She'd gotten her story, but word had gotten back to corporate that she'd impersonated a book editor to gather background material and apparently that was a no- no. Of course, if one of her male colleagues had pulled the same trick, he'd be accepting free drinks in the bar for a month. Her reward after putting the follow- up to bed was this bizarre assignment, a definite comedown. "Come on." She glanced at her watch. "I'm on deadline."
Liza hesitated, her warm brown eyes filled with concern. "You're supposed to report the stories, not become the experiment yourself."
"A little risk comes with the job." Especially if Sandra wanted to get ahead. When she started as a cub reporter three years ago, she'd made up her mind to stand out from the others in the fiercely competitive world of journalism. An A student in college, she'd also worked on the student paper full time. When a slot opened at the Sun, a professor had recommended her. Sandra had made herself available nights, weekends, and triple shifts, determined to get ahead. And she refused to give up because of a minor setback. If she had to write soft news, she'd search for a different angle to make the story fresh and riveting. And if she had to try astral projection for the sake of her work, she was up for that, too.
Liza's tone had an edge of Southern- accented disapproval. "Was it your job to skydive out of that helicopter and break your leg?"
Sandra .flexed her limb. "You fixed me up good, doc." "Was it your job to volunteer as a hostage when those crazy kids robbed Citibank? I had to remove a bullet from your arm that time. Another four inches over and it would have been your heart. And remember when-"
"I'll be careful," Sandra sighed. It wasn't as if she had a family to worry about her. No parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles. Not even a lover. Being alone had advantages. She could do what she wished. What if she took risks to get ahead, prudent risks to kick her career into high gear? However, Liza worried so Sandra did her best to ally her fears. "If I put in another medical claim, my boss has threatened to demote me to writing classifieds." Yet, despite his annoyance and Liza's worries over the risks Sandra had taken, she recalled with satisfaction how her investigative pieces had made page one.
She enjoyed her career too much to turn down this assignment. Or to give it up for a family. Sure, someday she'd have a guy like the one in her dreams-but not yet. Nothing pleased her more than uncovering the layers to a story, learning secrets, and finding the truth. The sense of satisfaction as she gathered bits and pieces of a puzzle until she had the entire story kept her working long after her colleagues went home to their families. The only downside was she'd sacrificed her social life. She had a crazy schedule-it wouldn't be fair to ask anyone to put up with her eighty- hour work week. Plus, she was too young to make commitments to anyone since she yearned for her career to soar. Damn. She didn't need a shrink to tell her why her unconscious was inundating her with lusty fantasies. Three times this week, the same lover with the exotic serpent symbol had invaded her dreams, leaving an impression that splashed over into her waking hours.
"Here we go again." Rolling her eyes, Liza's words pulled Sandra's attention back to the conversation.
Sandra shrugged. "There's no real danger involved this time, because nothing's going to happen. The astral projection machine is a hoax."
"How can you ignore all those people you interviewed who claim they've left their bodies?"
Three years as a reporter had left her cynical. Sandra might still want to make a difference, but she was no longer dewy eyed and innocent.
"Maybe they're kooks. A few centuries ago, hundreds of people reported abduction by fairies. Or maybe they hyperventilated. Lack of oxygen causes hallucinations. Look how many people claim to have been visited by aliens."
"Maybe they have."
She winked at Liza. "That's why I need you. If anything does go wrong, you'll patch me up like always."
"Don't count on it. I'm a general practitioner, not a soul catcher-and this experiment is way outside my field of expertise. Perhaps-"
"Dr. Flores earned a Harvard medical degree and completed his residency at Johns Hopkins. I highly doubt he's going to harm me. Just make sure he doesn't slip me a hallucinogen or put me in a hypnotic trance, okay?" Despite Liza's reservations, she was obviously as curious to see the machine as Sandra-which is why she'd so easily talked her into taking the afternoon off from her busy medical practice.
They hurried up the steps to Dr. Flores's imposing steel building. A revolving door spun soundlessly, depositing them in a vast foyer, decorated with all the personality of a gloomy cave. The hushed air smelled stale . . . like the interior of the county jail. They crossed the foyer toward the elevators, the only sound the click of their heels on the black marble floor.
Surely the chilly air, not the idea of astral projection or the unnatural silence, caused the goose bumps to rise on her neck. They stepped into the elevator, and she jabbed the button for the top floor. They rose smoothly, but Sandra's stomach somersaulted like a gymnast's. According to her research many Eastern cults accepted astral travel as an everyday matter. Supposedly, the mind or astral spirit could separate itself from the body.
But then thousands of people believed in Roswell and little green men, too.
The elevator doors opened directly into a murky room with dozens of widely spaced reclining leather chairs with headphone attachments. Carpeting muffled the footsteps of attendants who checked blinking monitors above their patients, who lay with eyes closed, gentle music lending a soothing sound to the still atmosphere.
"What kind of laboratory is this?" Liza whispered.
Before Sandra could respond, a smallish man in a lab coat a size too big strode forward with an eager grin plastered across his cherubic face. His benevolent smile, his guileless eyes, and his rosy cheeks seemed so compassionate and out of place that Sandra found it hard to believe he was Dr. Flores, the head of the institute.
He pumped her hand enthusiastically, blue eyes twinkling behind a set of bifocals. "Thanks for visiting. Are you ready for the experience of a lifetime?"
"I have a few questions I'd like to ask first, please." Sandra almost hoped he'd refuse to answer. It would be a good indication he had something to hide.
No such luck. Instead he dismissed an assistant before leading them to his private sanctum, a surprisingly cozy office with oriental furniture and tapestries on the paneled walls. He offered sweetened ice tea with lemon slices and delicate sugar cookies. Sandra placed the recorder on Flores's immaculate desk, so she could quote him exactly. She might not believe in his theory, but as always she was determined to report the facts-not her opinion.
Leaning over his desk, his gaze directly on her, he spoke right into the microphone. "What would you like to know?"
"Tell me about your invention." She'd begin by accumulating background information with an open- ended question.
Resting his elbows on the desk, he propped his chin in his palm. "Very simply, my astral machine allows the mind to leave the body."
"Let me back up a second. Before my invention, it took years of study to attain the necessary level of relaxation needed for the mind to separate from the body. One must relax to the point of 'hearing' silence and 'listening' to the inner workings of one's mind."
Three years as a reporter made it easy for Sandra to keep her face blank, her disbelief hidden.
"To ensure the astral spirit is free to leave the body," he continued, "extraordinary relaxation is required. During the process a slow paralysis creeps over the body. However, fear of that very paralysis is a great deterrent to out- of- body experiences. Untrained people tense, stopping them from successfully freeing the mind from the body."
She raised an eyebrow. Was he going to claim in advance that it was her fault, her fear, if the machine didn't work as designed? "Go on, please."
"My techniques eliminate the fear, but not the paralysis."
Okay, he had the fear angle covered. But paralysis? Sandra exchanged a long glance with Liza, a silent urging for her to ask the medical questions.
Liza didn't disappoint. "Wouldn't a sedative take away fear?"
"Yes. Of course. But eliminating the fear is only the first step in the process." Flores popped a cookie into his mouth, chewed and swallowed. "Once the subject relaxes, my machine boosts the patient out of his or her body."
Sandra tried to keep the skepticism from her face. "Your machine works every time?"
"Every time." Dr. Flores beamed.
"Do you administer drugs?" Liza asked.
"Only a minor relaxant. My machines' vibrations do the rest. If you decide to go ahead and try the process," he said to Sandra, "your friend is free to observe the procedure."
Sandra nodded. "Have you had any difficulties?"
At the question, the happy expression on Dr. Flores's face dimmed, and he stood, drawing himself up to his full five feet of height. "Our past experiments are not a secret. There's someone you should see."
Sandra grabbed her recorder, and she and Liza followed the quick- stepping doctor to a curtained- off cubicle in the corner of the lab. At the hissing and sucking noises behind the screen, Sandra experienced a sudden twinge of apprehension and dryness in her mouth.
Doctor Flores yanked back the curtain. A handsome man lay in bed, hooked to a respirator. At their rude interruption, Sandra half- expected his eyes to .y open, but he remained completely still, the only indication of life being the rise and fall of his chest beneath a crisp cream- colored sheet. His unlined, pale face didn't so much as twitch a muscle- not his sensuously full lips, not his masculine nostrils, not his ultra- long eyelashes. If he'd been healthy, he'd have been as handsome as her dream man.
"You're keeping him alive with the machine?" Liza asked.
The hiss of air pumping oxygen into the man's lungs grated on Sandra's nerves. She fumbled and switched on the recorder. True, she wanted a story, but even she would only go so far. "What happened to him?"
"He didn't choose to come back."
He didn't choose? "Excuse me?"
"It's the truth." Flores tucked the blanket more snugly around his patient's feet. "After he paid for this entire wing, I saw no reason to refuse his request to try my machine. Before he astral projected, he made out his will, named an executor, and signed power of attorney over to his chief accountant."
"Does he have a name?"
"He's a wealthy Romanian prince. Telling you his name would violate doctor-patient confidentiality."
A wealthy Romanian prince? If Sandra were at her computer, she'd have his identity within a few keystrokes. Instinct prompted her next question. "There's more to his story than choosing not to return, isn't there?"
"He specified in a living will that if his mind didn't rejoin with his body, the institute was not to keep him alive by artificial means."
"Then why all this?" Liza pointed to the machines surrounding the patient.
Dr. Flores sighed. "Before he left on his astral journey, the prince turned over the day- to- day operations of his financial empire to others. Rather than accept new management and forfeit huge salaries, private jets, and luxurious yachts, his lawyers and accountants prefer to run the companies themselves. They overturned his will and as long as he lives, they can run his companies. A court order prevents me from shutting down the machines that breathe for him. There's nothing I can do."
Sandra studied the handsome prince in wary fascination. If only he could speak, what would he say? Had he really left? Or had the machine forced him into a coma- like state? And if he'd gone, why hadn't he returned? Or had he changed his mind and couldn't find his way back? Most important of all, could the same thing happen to her?
She inhaled deeply to steady her nerves. "How long has he been like that?"
"Several years. He's my only deviation from the norm. I assure you, Ms. Lowell, my machine is perfectly safe."
Sandra looked to Liza, who perused the monitors. "He's in a vegetative state-almost no brain activity. Sandra, I have a bad feeling. You should reconsider."
"Nonsense." Dr. Flores patted Liza's shoulder. "Your concern for your friend is admirable but unwarranted. At first, I blamed the prince's predicament on my machine, too. We stopped the astral projections, double and triple checked our data. But it wasn't our error or a technological malfunction."
"How do you know?" Sandra asked, still skeptical.
"We received a letter dated before the prince left, stating the unequivocal fact that he didn't intend to return to an existence trapped inside a body." He handed her a note. "This is a copy. Read for yourself. Experts verified the handwriting. It was his choice not to return, not any fault of my machine."
"And what's to prevent this fiasco from recurring?" Liza asked.
Flores didn't appear to take offense. "We screen our candidates more carefully now, and we also subject everyone to the same exhaustive battery of psychological tests Sandra took last week."
Sandra sighed. Flores had impeccable credentials. And the fact that he'd openly admitted one failure was to his credit. "Am I a good candidate?"
He didn't .inch. "You're perfect. Now come. It's time to experience my invention for yourself."
They followed Dr. Flores down a long corridor, and Liza whispered in Sandra's ear. "You don't have to do this. No job is worth ending up like that."
Sandra ignored her suggestion. "I have a few more questions, Dr. Flores. Why is the Romanian at the institute instead of a hospital?"
"If we move his body, the astral spirit won't know where to return-if he should so choose."
Since Flores's sincere tone reflected complete frankness, Sandra swallowed her disbelief. His spirit refused to return? She found it much more likely that the guy had had a mental breakdown. Flores had sent her a DVD of background material about astral projection. She'd watched a patient sit in a chair, his heart rate slowing a bit on the monitor. Breathing deepened. Then absolutely nothing happened for twenty minutes until the patient returned and made all sorts of unverifiable claims.
Perhaps the Sun's experts could discredit Flores's machine, if not his theories. "Could you describe the mechanism behind your invention?"
"Later. I'll explain everything once you experience astral travel for yourself." His tone implied she'd be more receptive later. Didn't he know reporters lived to poke holes in other people's theories?
Dr. Flores opened a door into a well- lit room. If not the same room, it was a twin to the one she'd viewed on the tape. A reclining chair in the middle of the floor eclipsed the rest of the equipment. Overhead, a brown box hung from the ceiling.
"Have a seat, please," he gestured to the chair, his tone confident. "Don't worry. I've done this thousands of times."
Sandra handed Liza her purse and ignored her friend's disapproving frown. Flores must have noticed Liza's dubious expression because he redoubled his assurances. "I'd hardly invite the press to a demonstration if I hadn't worked out the bugs, now, would I?"
"Of course not." Sandra settled back in the chair and grinned at Liza, reminding herself that the larger and more outrageous the scientific scam, the bigger the headline.
She took a deep breath. "I'm ready. Let's do it."
Excerpted from Beyond Magic by Susan Kearney, Elaine Cunningham and Kassandra Sims
Copyright © 2008 by Hair Express, Inc., Elaine Cunningham and Kassandra Sims
Published in September 2008 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.