I first heard about psychic surgery from my hairstylist, George, a chatty, gossipy reservoir of obscure information. George and his friend Robert had undergone treatment from a Filipino psychic surgeon named Angel at a small nondenominational church in North Austin in February. A few weeks had passed, and George was happy to report that the neck and lower back problems he had previously experienced were much improved.

Except for a small amount of pressure when the surgeon’s hands penetrated his body, George said, there had been no pain. There had been some blood; a small scab formed, but it washed right away. The only time George was the least bit apprehensive was on this third visit, when Angel opened his chest wall and began to massage his heart. “I didn’t actually see my own heart,” George said as he snipped at my hair, “but I saw the opening and some watery-looking blood. I actually saw his hand go through the wall of Robert’s stomach. Robert was supposed to be watching my operation too, but he couldn’t see anything. Robert is the type who went to see 120 Days of Sodom and closed his eyes at all the interesting parts.”

George had been curious about psychic surgery since reading about it in Wet, and off-the-wall humor magazine. He was skeptical at first, but the experience with Angel turned him into a believer. Since faith healing was a fundamentally religious-in this case, Christian-concept and since I had never known George to concern himself much with Christianity, I expressed surprise. “There are a lot of unexplained, miraculous cures in this world,” he said, somewhat offended by my attitude. George had no difficulty whatsoever believing that a surgeon could run his hand though a person’s body, remove diseased tissue, and leave not trace of an entry wound. “That seems perfectly logical,” he said. What was patently illogical, in his view, was space travel. He considered the moon landing to be a fraud of mind-boggling proportions and was convinced that the whole episode was filmed in a television studio.

In the days that followed, I started hearing a good deal about the Filipino faith healer, Angel Domingo, who had been working around Austin, Houston, San Antonio, and Lake Whitney. At least two other Filipino psychic surgeons had worked in Texas fairly recently; this type of faith healing is indigenous to the Philippines, though a few American practitioners of holistic therapy have taken up the trade in the last few years. Austin, I learned, is a mecca of psychic activity—an “energy vortex” where healers, psychics, and other denizens of the Twilight Zone come to recharge their metaphysical batteries.

Thousands and maybe tens of thousands of Texans regularly pay for a variety of psychic therapies, the most exotic of which is psychic surgery, or “bloody operations,” as they are called. The operating room is usually in some off-the-beaten-path motel or private residence. The times and places are not advertised—advertising would be an open invitation to legal action—but word is passed along by an informal network of believers.

It didn’t take me long to tap into this network. Seek and ye shall find is one of the tenets of the psychic world. What surprised me was that the network included three of my oldest and closest friends—entrepreneur Segal Fry, Jerry Jeff Walker’s wife, Susan, and writer Bud Shrake. I learned that they all had been treated by Angel Domingo last February when the healer did a one-day stint at WillieWorld, as they call Willie Nelson’s Perdernales Country Club retreat west of Austin.

Of the three, Shrake was the only skeptic. He had asked Angel to treat a blocked colon and had seen a pool of coffee-colored liquid well up between the healer’s fingers as Angel removed what appeared to be a piece of hog tripe from Shrake’s abdomen. When Shrake returned an hour later for a second treatment, he asked Angel to work on his foot, which had been broken years ago but had never healed properly. “He pulled what looked like a chicken bone out of my left foot,” Shrake said. He experienced no pain, he told me—other than the pain of a foot that had been constantly sore for years—nor did he notice any relief. Shrake acknowledged that this was possibly attributable to his lack of faith.

Susan Walker had four sessions with Angel and said that the leg cramps and pain that had been bothering her for eight years became much less intense. Susan had watched while the Filipino worked on a friend’s liver. “I saw his hands go to her liver, saw this pulsing organ going around his fingers,” she said. Though her husband had gone to another psychic surgeon and had not been helped, Susan was convinced that the concept was valid. “I saw him take that bone out of Shrake’s foot, I frigging saw it,” she insisted.

Segal Fry was no less convinced. He also suffered from a colon blockage; there was a knot in his lower abdomen that caused constant pain. He has been to a couple of doctors and found no relief, and he had tried alternative forms of treatment, among them a fast of lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper. Angel removed something “gristly, nasty, and about the size of a thumb” from Fry’s abdomen. “I still have colon problems,” Fry told me. “He didn’t cure that. But the knot is gone, and the pain hasn’t recurred.”

Fry had been treated by Angel previously at an apartment in the West Montrose section of Houston. It was Fry who invited Angel to bring his show to WillieWorld, at the request of Willie’s daughter Lana and other members of Willie’s entourage. Angel accepted, apparently because one of this Texas contacts assured him that Willie Nelson was a famous entertainer who would probably want to take part in the healer’s miraculous work.

Three months later Angel had again set up headquarters in a rented condominium at WillieWorld. He worked only two days, but at each session he treated between 150 and 200 patients, most of whom journeyed from Austin for the day. An operation took from three to four minutes, and Angel treat two patients at a time. There was no set fee for the healer’s services—as in the case of advertising, the collecting of fees could invite unpleasant encounters with the law—but patients were encouraged to deposit “love offerings” in a collection box just inside the door of the treatment room. The suggested offering was $30, and it was collected on each visit. Most of the patients made at least two visits to the treatment room, and some made four or five. One member of Willie’s staff estimated that the daily take exceeded $5000.

Angel’s presence at WillieWorld sparked some serious debate among the musicians, promoters, and show-biz-fringe players who congregated there. One musician observed that inserting a hand through a stomach wall seemed contrary to the laws of physics. “What the hell do you know about physics?” someone asked, and the musician said, “I’m not saying you can’t run your hand through someone’s stomach, just that it takes a lot more velocity.” Tom Gresham, a concert promoter from Austin, wasn’t impressed. “This is piddling stuff,” he said. “There are these two guys in Vegas that make an elephant disappear, and they do it every night.” The group members asked each other: “What do you think this psychic healing stuff is all about?” About $30 a minute, they decided.

Even Lana Nelson and the country club staff members sympathetic to the healer were not altogether sure that the bloody operations were real. Angel had removed a two-inch piece of gristly tissue form Lana’s stomach, and there had been a good deal of blood, some of which stained her panties. She had thought about having that stains analyzed. Some of the staffers were beginning to resent the healer and his assistants. The golf pro complained that the Twilight Zoners who came to see Angel felt no constraint about wandering aimlessly around the golf course; he kept chasing middle-aged housewives out of the club’s sand traps. One of Angel’s Austin contacts, a doctor of nutritional science named James Marlin Ebert, failed to endear himself to WillieWorld regulars, who thought he was pompous and overbearing. The staffers suspected that Ebert had convinced Angle that his main purpose in coming to WillieWorld was to cure Julio Iglesias’ good friend. Unfortunately, Willie was seldom around, so Angel never got to treat the celebrity.

It became clear that the presence of the strange Filipino was dividing Willie’s camp. Those who had faith stopped talking to those who did not. The believers thought that the nonbelievers were infidels, and the nonbelievers looked on the believers as kooks. After a while no one dared mention the subject of psychic surgery.

No More Bad Blood

On a Sunday morning in late April, the last day that Angel was at WillieWorld, I joined the horde of true believers in condo number 10. We sat around in our robes, waiting to be called to the treatment room upstairs. We could clearly hear Angel’s voice, praying or communicating with his patients. “Does it hurt?” he asked. “Can you stand the pain?” A girl squealed, or maybe it was a high giggle. Angel started to sing “How Great Thou Art.”

I was with another friend, Tom Athey, who had become intrigued with psychic surgery ten years ago, when a healer helped a friend who had been seriously injured in a parachute jump. Tom had read numerous books on metaphysics and was comfortable with the jargon of the Twilight Zoners—terms like “chakra” and “karma” dropped smoothly from his lips. We had made appointments for two separate morning sessions, two hours apart. A woman from a group called the Planetary Light Association, which acted as a booking agent for the healer, advised us that we would need a minimum of two sessions and that recovery time of at least an hour between treatments was essential. “You’ll be receiving so much energy your body can’t take it all at once,” she said. She also warned that Angel didn’t do cosmetic work. We assured her our complaints were not cosmetic.

There were about twenty people waiting when we arrived, and more continued to filter in and out all morning. At least half were older women who looked as though they had read a lot of books by Edgar Cayce, but some were young, holistic, New Age women with wholesome faces and startled eyes. I’d seen one of them recently at Austin’s Whole Foods Market. There was a handful of men too, including a bearded, bald-headed young man in a Japanese bathrobe who was so weak that two women had to assist him to the sofa. Judging from the red blotches on his thighs, I assumed that he had undergone chemotherapy. As the patients arrived, they were directed to undress in the laundry room. One young woman who had forgotten to bring a robe was given a blanket.

A pretty, overweight woman named Jann Weiss Peterson checked our names with her master list and had us read and sign a disclaimer saying that the treatment we were to receive was religious rather than medical and that the healer—the “minister”—made no promises. Jann is the founder and spiritual commander of the Planetary Light Association. She asked us to form a circle and hold hands while she said a nondenominational prayer emphasizing peace, love, and faith.

While Jann prayed, I studied the copies of ordination documents that were tacked to the wall behind the reception table. They were from the Lumerian Light Center and Our Church of the Garden and were made out in the names of Angel Estaco Domingo and Dr. Star Johnson. Star Johnson, I learned, lived in San Antonio and acted as Angel’s surgical assistant. Upstairs, Angel was singing “Spanish Eyes.”

I don’t mind admitting that the waiting made me uneasy. It was hard to explain, but I felt like a trespasser. I had vowed to approach this experience with an open mind, but everything I saw and heard was eroding that vow. Clients in the waiting room avoided eye contact or, worse, gave such all-knowing stares that I wondered if I had remembered to put on clean underwear. They spoke in whispers, those who spoke at all, and many appeared to be meditating or praying or both. A tall silver-haired Hispanic wearing a VA hospital robe had cancer and had been to Angel a dozen times. He sat rigidly in a folding chair, his vacant eyes fixed on the fireplace as his wife and teenage daughter comforted him.

Faith wasn’t my problem—I’m a Christian, and I pray daily for miracles, some of which come about. I profess little understanding of cosmic forces, and my life is riddled with questions for which I assume there are no answers. I fully believe that faith can heal or, for that matter, move mountains. So can laughter. Former Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins made a convincing case that he cured his own crippling ailment by watching Marx Brothers movies. But sitting there looking at the dreamy, innocent countenances around me, knowing that most of their wisdom came from reading tarot cards and casting the I Ching, I knew theirs was a faith I would never possess. God can do what He pleases, but I was already having serious doubts that the psalm-singing Filipino hillbilly upstairs could cure hiccups. As Angel burst into a rousing chorus of “Beer Barrel Polka,” even the hardiest of the believers and the wackiest of the zonies were compelled to smile.

Angel turned out to be a stocky little man with greasy black hair and a baggy, weathered face. He wore a flowery short-sleeved shirt with the tail out, like a Tijuana cab driver. A tall woman with brown hair (who I later learned was Star Johnson) watched closely as I deposited a ten and a twenty in the love offering box, then told me to strip to my shorts and lie down on the table. I caught a glimpse of the VA hospital robe folded away in the corner and realized that the naked body on the other table was the Hispanic veteran I had seen downstairs.

Another assistant, an elderly woman with a kindly smile, read a card I had filled out earlier and told Angel, “This brother has some kidney damage as a result of high blood pressure. Do you want me to do a scan?” Angel said yes, and she passed a small towel over my body. Then Angel held the towel to the light as though reading an x-ray and said, “Blockage.”

As his assistants rubbed my chest and stomach with an aromatic balm, Angel directed me to face the window—the light—while he prayed for my recovery. I then watched closely as he plopped a moist piece of cotton onto my belly and began to apply pressure with the fingers of his left hand. The fingers of his right hand fidgeted and probed, until one finger seemed to stab into my flesh and vanish for maybe two seconds. I didn’t see any blood—he blocked my view with the stationary hand—but the next thing I saw was a small, stringy piece of gristle which he exhibited for my brief inspection and tossed in the trash can behind the table. “See?” he said. “Blockage. No more bad blood.”

Tom Athey and I sat on a rock wall outside the condominiums after our sessions, discussing whether to blow another $30 on a second round. Tom’s experience had been more disheartening than mine, because he had expected so much. Nevertheless, we went back for a second treatment. It was more of the same. Angel said more prayers, sang more songs, and extracted more gray meat from our bodies. Neither of us saw any blood. It wasn’t even good sleight of hand. I didn’t feel energized—I felt depressed and a little stupid.

When I called Tom five days later, he told me his throat had been sore all week. “I blame it on Angel,” he said. “What a charlatan!”

“Have you changed your mind about psychic surgery?”

“No, I haven’t,” Tom said. “I still believe there are authentic psychic surgeons around.”

Mystic Masseurs

Arsenia dela Cruz, daughter of the legendary Filipino healer Eleuterio Terte, said in an interview a few years ago that 90 per cent of all psychic surgery is fake. Her father’s bloody operations were the real article, she swore—as are her own—but most healers are mere sleight-of-hand artists with nylon blood bags hidden between the palm and the thumb. Genuine psychic operations, she said, require tremendous amounts of magnetic power. Any healer who pretends to perform large numbers of operations in quick succession is therefore a proven fraud; so says the daughter of Terte, the man who in 1925 came down from the holy mountains and twenty years later, perform the civilized world’s first bloody operation.

Nearly every psychic surgeon in the Philippines claims to be related, directly or indirectly, to Terte and hence to each other. Their methods and beliefs are usually self-taught, and their jealousy and self-righteousness infamous. Though they all started life as Roman Catholics, their theologies have evolved into imprecise mixtures of Hinduism, Buddhism, voodooism, and maybe some other isms yet to be identified. Those who have visited Texas have definitely been exposed to zonieism, for example.

Some healers live aesthetic, saintly lives, but many raise hell at every opportunity. They get hangovers like everyone else. Their techniques are as varied as their personalities—some administer psychic injections from invisible syringes, some use spiritual x-rays, some even heal by long distance. A few limit their treatment to spiritual or magnetic massages—laying on of hands—but most accede to the wishes of the public and perform bloody operations. “Angel gives people what they want, the same as Willie,” said James Ebert, the Austin therapist who had accompanied Angel to WillieWorld. “He performs a service, like any other businessman. I doubt Angel could even tell you how he does what he does. He doesn’t have the time or the intellectual inclination to analyze it.”

Education and training inhibit faith healers. None of them have studied anatomy, nor do they have any interest in modern techniques of sterilization or anesthesiology. The material that they appear to remove from their patients’ bodies is merely the manifestation of an illness. The gunk that was removed in the operations that I saw looked like human or animal tissue, but in rural areas of the Philippines it is common for psychic surgeons to remove rusty nails, pieces of wire, or bloody palm leaves. The healers claim to be instruments of God: it is the Holy Spirit that diagnoses and cures. Almost all of them agree that the purpose of bloody operations is to help the patient have faith. “If you can heal a patient with a trick,” says Dela Cruz, “the trick becomes legitimate.”

There are about fifty practicing healers in the Philippines, and less than a dozen travel outside their country—usually under the sponsorship of groups like the Planetary Light Association or individuals like James Ebert. “People are literally throwing money at the healers,” says Ebert, who practices what he describes as holistic rejuvenation. When I visited him a few days after my experience with Angel, Ebert was making plans for Angel’s return to Austin in early June. He also has booked guided tours to the Philippines. His main business, Ebert made clear, is healing. “I do things for people, as opposed to to people, as is done by the medical establishment,” he said, an enigmatic smile creeping across his pale, slender face. The services listed in his brochure include “bodywork,” health and nutritional counseling, therapeutic massage, and spiritual healing. Ebert’s doctorate comes from the Life College of Science, a correspondence school that operates out of a warehouse in South Austin.

Ebert has yet to perform an unassisted bloody operation, but it is only a matter of time. He confided that he has been personally tapped for ordination by one of the best-known healers in the Philippines, the man reputed to have been Ferdinand Marcos’ private psychic surgeon before the rebellion. This illustrious psychic healer, whom I will call R., used to work out of Dallas until a couple of years ago, when (as R. later told a close associate) the cops raided a house and took R. away in handcuffs. He was never formally charged, but the experience was so unnerving that he hasn’t been back to this state since. R. continues to treat Texans, but only at various resort spas in Mexico.

Ebert told me of how he awoke one morning in September 1984 to an inner voice that said, “See a psychic surgeon.” In a matter of days, providence led him to Angel Domingo. In the months that followed, Ebert traveled to the holy mountains of the Philippines, where he also met R. A short time later, as Ebert was assisting R. in an operation, the healer went into a trance—“He went to the other side to consult his spirit guide, is how he explained it”—and when he returned, R. told Ebert the good news. “He invited me to return to the Philippines, to work with him, to go with him to the holy mountains, to learn how to do surgery,” Ebert said. “Unfortunately, the political climate hasn’t yet permitted me to go back.”

Though Twilight Zoners understand the marketing potential of bloody operations, many find it difficult to deal honestly with its gory particulars. They prefer to call the gunk that the healers appear to extract from their client’s bodies as “congealed energy” (zonies are big on words like “energy” and “vibrations”). Scientific tests of congealed energy are futile, they maintain, because the stuff will only dematerialize. Zonies love to bash the American Medical Association and indict Western culture for being too literal-minded, yet their driving passion is an attempt to explain the unexplainable—to reduce metaphysics, you might say, to a science. Jann Peterson’s husband, Art, an Austin chiropractor, told me that a healer’s ability to penetrate a patient’s skin without leaving a mark depends on the speed of the vibration of the electrons. “If you speed up the vibrations of the electrons in this table top,” he said, rapping his knuckles on the surface, “you could stick your hand through it.”

Zonies can explain away every doubt. The reason their number is growing exponentially, something they take as a given, is explained by the One Hundredth Monkey Theory—a monkey discovers that yams taste better washed, and by the time this piece of information has been discovered by one hundred monkeys everyone is in on it. The White Crow Theory is the zonies’ handy way of shifting the burden of proof to the nonbeliever—if you’ve never seen a white crow, how can you be sure one doesn’t exist? One of the missions of the Planetary Light Association is to raise the vibrations of the Earth in preparation for its arrival into the Age of Aquarius, which, contrary to popular opinion, is scheduled to start any day now.

Another of the association’s missions is to sell T-shirts, bumper stickers, “Be Your Light” buttons, mugs, and tapes in which a spirit named Anoah, borrowing the voice of Jann Weiss Peterson, advises the heartsick and wary. Jann, a professional medium or channel, is the only one who is in contact with Anoah. He is an old man with white hair and white robe who floats along, carrying a book titled Wisdom. Elaina, a sort of spiritual Joan Rivers who also uses Jann’s body, refers to Anoah as the Big Cheese. Elaina is always trying to get an archangel named Jeremiah to loosen up and tell a few jokes, but being unfamiliar with the ways of mortals, he finds that difficult. Jann’s more recent visitors are a group of ETs from the Octurian Federation. As Elaina explains it, the Octurian Federation can be reached by traveling to the belt of Orion, backing up a little, then hanging a left. The aliens are led by a little man with large eyes. At first, Elaina called him Whatshisface, but Anoah rebuked her for such irreverence, and now everyone calls him Joe. “He is always reminding people on earth to dig in and do it right,” Jann told me. Elaina, Joe, and the rest of the gang also appear on the Anoah tapes (for $4 each, or they can be heard live, so to speak, during a half-hour personal counseling session with Jann that costs $40).

Congealed Energy

I do not advertise it, but I too have psychic powers. I discovered this years ago in a tough beer joint on Fort Worth’s North Side, where to my astonishment I convinced four housewives who had stopped off for an afternoon cocktail that I could read nipples. “That’s right,” I said, “nipples. Laugh if you will, but it’s a God-given gift, and I’d sooner burn in hell than abuse it.” Before long, one of the housewives had produced a bare breast for my inspection. I had drunk just enough to really believe I could do it, and as I studied the ripples and ridges of the pink nipple, a voice I hardly recognized said, “You are an extremely intelligent and sensitive woman, but your husband doesn’t realize it. You alone see that by following your instincts you are discovering the true you.” I could tell from her reaction—from all their reactions—that I was on the right track. Two of the others were already unbuttoning their blouses.

I was thinking of the nipple-reading episode as I flew to Mazatlán, Mexico, to see R. Those housewives had trusted me because we were in a barroom rather than a carnival tent and because I seemingly had nothing to gain by deception. The rest was easy. People expect to see tricks at magic shows—trying to spot the deception is half the fun—but most of those who visit healers come with some sort of belief or at least hope. In a nation where as many believe in lucky numbers as believe in the theory of evolution, that shouldn’t be surprising. There were a lot of questions I wanted to ask R., but again I had vowed to keep an open mind.

For the first two and a half days I was in Mazatlán, R. managed to avoid me. Twice he agreed to interviews, and twice he failed to show up. “He’s very paranoid,” said Jann Peterson, who had been working with him there regularly for two years. “Just detecting a strange energy in a room causes him to freak out.” R. had not forgotten what had happened in Dallas. A similar raid in Puerto Vallarta had disrupted the powers of another healer. Being led off in handcuffs must play hell with concentration. I told Jann that my purpose was to write about R., not arrest him. As far as I could tell, no laws were being broken anyway. Let the buyer beware. Jann’s own psychic vibrations told her that I was okay. “If he agrees to give you an interview, will you agree not to use his name?” she asked. I agreed.

Jann was one of three psychics on R.’s staff in Mazatlán. The others were an astrologer from Connecticut named Lynn Files and Belle Shiplett, the elderly woman with the kindly smile whom I had seen assisting Angel at WillieWorld. Late one afternoon when R. had again failed to keep an appointment, I got the three women of his staff into a discussion of reincarnation. All zonies have experiences with reincarnation, or past-life regressions, as some call it. Jann told us of her life as a Mayan priest in the seaside city of Tulum. Belle had been the son of an Indian chief in Texas and had witnessed her own funeral near Fredericksburg. Though it was a warm tropical night in Mazatlán, I could see goose bumps rippling up her arms as Belle told the story. Lynn was reproachful. She said that Jann took herself too seriously, then told both of them, “Let’s face it. A lot of people remember being Indian princesses, but there’s only so many Indian princesses to go around.” Nevertheless, I coaxed Lynn into admitting her belief that she had been a young German soldier killed in the early days of World War II. She told us that one night, after numerous drinks, she stood up and sang an old marching song in perfect German—a language she didn’t speak. Despite Lynn’s reproach, Jann took another turn. Speaking in an extremely animated, almost agitated voice (the voice of Elaina, I imagine), she told of her experiences hiding Baby Jesus from authorities in Cairo. “I seem to remember changing his diapers,” she said serenely.

It was a Sunday, my last full day in Mazatlán, when I finally got to meet R. He was younger than Angel (who is a relative by marriage) and smaller—he looked like a jockey. His assistant healer, Dodo, looked like a Filipino bantamweight, bandy-legged and puffy-eyed. Dodo was much more relaxed and cheerful than R., and he offered all of us, including a woman dying of cancer, a Filipino cigarette. The brand name was Hope.

A large room with a balcony overlooking the ocean had been chosen as the treatment place. Sheets of clear plastic were spread over two beds—like Angel, R. treated two patients at a time. Unlike Angel, love offerings weren’t good enough. It was a straight cash deal, $80 U.S. for two sessions—no pesos, please. Ten patients were waiting this particular morning, including Belle, who would also be assisting. Expect for me and a young couple from Houston, all patients were New Yorkers. Grace, a woman with frightened eyes, was dying of cancer. Nick, her son, a pious young man who walked with his hands clasped and talked almost exclusively of faith, remained constantly at her side.

During orientation, Nick asked Dodo if walking on fire will increase faith. Dodo looked as though someone had dropped a cobra in his lap. “Walk on fire?” he said incredulously. “Me?” Lynn tried to clarify the question. “He means his own faith,” she told Dodo, pointing out that fire walking had become popular among zonies of the East Coast. “I happen to believe there is no limit to faith,” Nick added. “No, no,” Dodo said, waving his hands furiously. “No walk on fire. Burn feet.”

R.’s hands were much quicker than Angel’s had been; during my operation, he put on a good show. I had asked him to remove a small knot just above my wrist—my doctor in Austin had called it a ganglion and told me that the folk remedy was to hit it with the family Bible, which if done with enough enthusiasm, would cause the knot to vanish. Compared with curing cancer and blocked colons, removing a ganglion seemed the simplest task in the Christian world. R. rubbed oil on the knot, then shook his head—he didn’t want any part of an affliction that would still be there when he was finished. Instead, he fluttered his hands in the area above my kidneys and produced a piece of gray meat; it was the second time in less than a month that my high blood pressure had been cured.

Although Jann and Lynn tried to hustle me out of the room as soon as my treatment was completed, I resisted. Finally, R. nodded that it was okay for me to watch as he worked on Belle. I knew by now that I wouldn’t get an interview, but this was even better. In the dim light, I watched R.’s hands. His left pressed into the white flesh of Belle’s abdomen, creating a small pocket, and his right flitted about, distracting attention. Suddenly the pocket of Belle’s abdomen filled with dark fluid, and just as suddenly R. produced several slivers of gristle. “You see?” he said, dangling the meat just out of my reach. The operation had taken about five seconds. Dodo was already cleaning away the mess. There was no trace of an entry wound on Belle’s stomach. “Amazing,” I said dryly. The truth was, if R. had tried to pass off this act on a carnival midway in, say, Wichita Falls, he’d be leaving town on a rail.

Flying home to Austin, I experienced again the uneasy guilt of a trespasser. As fraudulent as I knew the bloody operations to be, the healing was another matter. Maybe it took displays of blood to trigger faith in certain people. On the other hand, I had sensed that beneath the conditioned reflex of faith, there was a deeper despair, a mute surrender to the inevitable. If the believers had indeed succeeded in damming up their fears and anxieties, it wouldn’t take much to break the dam. I just hated to be the one to do it. Nevertheless, I knew there was one more thing I had to do: I had to get a piece of that congealed energy and have it analyzed.

I stopped off at the laboratory of the Austin Pathology Associates, where a doctor friend gave me a bottle of formaldehyde in which to preserve the tissue. Then I telephoned James Ebert and made an appointment to see Angel, who was working that week out of a home in South Austin. I wasn’t sure how the zonies would react when I made my play for the meat, but just in case, I took along two big friends, Bud Shrake and Fletcher Boone, owner of an Austin restaurant called the Raw Deal.

Star Johnson was the first to realize what was happening. I was stretched out on the table, nearly naked, and Angel was humming and producing small pieces of gunk from the area of my kidneys, depositing them on my stomach. When I grabbed the gunk Star Johnson grabbed my fist, and we wrestled for control. Angel began to scream, “You’ll destroy my power. All the thousands of people I have healed . . . Give it back . . . I’ll pray for you . . . I’ll heal you.” All the color had drained from Ebert’s face. “You’re playing with fire,” he warned me. “This is like giving a loaded forty-five-caliber pistol to a four-year-old girl.”

All hell had broken loose in the waiting room too. Shrake and Boone told me that the woman at the reception desk covered her head with her arms and cried out, “Cover yourself with the white light . . . surround yourself with the light before it’s too late.”

Ebert was waiting for me by the front door, but I knew he wasn’t going to make any move to stop me. Instead, he said, “You’ll regret what you did for the rest of your life. It will follow you to your grave. It will haunt your karma. Something will happen.”

“I’d say in about three days’ time,” a voice behind me warned.

As I hurried out the door, I could hear Angel’s voice at the back of the house. He kept shouting, “Bullshit. This is bullshit.”

My fist had been clenched so tightly I wasn’t even sure that I had gotten away with the evidence. But I had—a piece about the size of a pencil eraser. On the way to the laboratory, Shrake and Boone told me that as soon as I was out the door, Angel complained of a sudden headache, grabbed the cash box, and split. “But he did give me my money back,” said Boone with a smile. I heard later on that Angel left town the same day.

The piece of meat didn’t dematerialize, as had been predicted, but it might as well have. The lab report was inconclusive. The meat was a piece of connective tissue, but nobody could say if it was of human origin.

I had about given up hope when Bud Shrake called a week later. While playing golf at WillieWorld, he had come into possession of new and dramatic evidence—the panties that Lana Nelson had worn the day that Angel opened up her lower abdomen. She had been saving them for four months, meaning to have the stains analyzed. “Lana has graciously donated her panties to your investigation,” Shrake told me. I sent the panties by messenger to the Bexar County Regional Crime Lab in San Antonio. The stain did turn out to be blood—bovine blood apparently diluted with water. Not that it will make any difference to the believers, but I had cow ranked third, behind chicken and goat. Cat was moving up fast.

When I called Shrake, he said, “I guess you knew all along it would turn out this way, eh, inspector?”

I didn’t deny it.