Debunked - a Serialized Novel, Part 1
Craig Herbert is field producer for The Debunker’s Challenge, the hottest series on the Awareness Television Network. Each week the show’s panel of skeptical judges put their guests through a series of challenges designed to test alleged psychic or occult abilities. An award of three million dollars awaits the guest who successfully meets all their challenges. Thankfully for the network, not once throughout the show’s multiple seasons has any guest walked away with the prize money.
After booking an unknown medium to appear on the show strange incidents begin to transpire. A former guest suddenly vanishes. Bizarre coincidences happen during tape sessions. Disturbing visions plague Craig’s waking and sleeping hours. Despite his conviction there is a rational explanation behind these happenings, Craig soon learns that science and reason command no challenge against the ghosts of old transgressions.
2020 by Beth Perry
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, entities or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
With special thanks to author and friend, Betty Ann Harris, who lent me her lovely name
For my daughters, Evelyn and Autumn
It was a humid third Thursday in July and Craig Herbert was still a little stiff from plane travel. Except for three layovers his trip from LAX to the TricitiesAirport in Blountville, the journey to Tennessee had been uneventful. Craig had fallen asleep during the last leg of the trip. It had taken a couple of cups of coffee at the Tailwind restaurant before the fog left his brain. From there he took the brisk walk from baggage claims to the Airport Car Rentals. There he had paid for a two-day rental on a Pacifica Hybrid and asked for directions to the Brook View Hotel. To his joy the nice rental woman with the distinctive East Tennessean accent told him the hotel was conveniently located just across the highway. He drove there and was checked in by a middle-aged couple by the names of Josette and Lathan Ford.
The two were friendly but extremely chatty. As they ran his credit card they told him they were the owners, having inherited from Josette’s parents, and that their son Frank would one day inherit it. Frank had two daughters. Daughter-in-law Beverly was expecting a baby in October. The couple’s dog Rowdy usually minded the door but he had died some months back. Do you have a dog, sir? What’s the weather like in California? You know, Uncle Francis used to live in Apple Valley and he had a nice wife named Barbara. What brings you to Tennessee? Oh, you are an executive field producer for a television show? Why, cousin Andy met his first wife on some dating show out in Hollywood! That was back in the sixties and Andy is dead now. The wife, oh, she was nice enough though their boy ended up serving some years in prison for tax fraud.
By the time Craig made the way to his room door he guessed he knew half of the Fords’ combined life stories.
Only after entering the room did it occur to him that despite their gift for gab, the couple was nothing like the kind of people he had feared East Tennesseans to be. The Fords were decent folks. Neither did they seem to be alone in this – no one at the airport or at the car rental place had treated him discourteously or in any way different. He realized the expectation of finding the region filled with hostile rednecks who would hate him on the spot simply for being black had been without merit. Perhaps, at the age of twenty-six, he was just now learning the world and the people in it weren’t exactly what he’d been taught in college. This misconception was not one he was proud of. He imagined how disappointed his dad and mom would be by the presumption. His parents had taught him one could afford to assume the worst about anyone –no matter what they looked like or where they came from. To do this, they had warned, only betrayed the worst about one’s self.
Craig’s schedule allowed little time to waste on self-chiding. He dumped his backpack of clothes on the bed, adjusted the air conditioning to a comfortable temperature and set up his laptop on the desk in the room.
Less than fifteen minutes later he was back inside the Pacifica to start the search for the person he’d came to see. He had never been to this part of Tennessee (only to Memphis a couple of times, years ago, to visit his maternal great-grandparents). He hoped the next stage of the journey didn’t require him to travel too far from this semi-rural hub section of the Tricities. The idea of having to drive through Bristol, Johnson City or Kingsport –all places Craig had barely heard of- was not a prospect that appealed to him. He owned a Hybrid Mini Cooper which he’d left in Hancock Park for his sister Kesha to use. Kesha was a student nurse and did a lot of driving back and forth from classes as well as get to her part-time waitress job. Craig much preferred taking a cab or hitching a ride with his peers for his trips between home and his studio office at Awareness Television Network. Long drives were not his thing.
Now, after configuring the travel destination into his phone’s GPS, the system’s electronic voice informed him that Squirrel Hollow road was approximately ten minutes away.
Craig had expected this part of the state to be as mountainous as the nearby Smokies. To his surprise this area close to Blountville was more hilly than mountainous. The road he traveled took him past rolling pasture land and farm houses, little clusters of suburbs and several fishing ponds. The GPS directed him to the community of Indian Springs. This was a picturesque area, dotted on either side of the road with beautiful old homes, churches and the occasional small shopping center.
The electronic voice piped up with an alert the next right ahead would get him onto Squirrel Hollow road.
It was a narrow road cut and paved through a section of rural land that lay between two very lengthy hills. There were many single-wide trailers to either side of the road, most all spaced apart by vegetable gardens or private tobacco allotments. At one point he saw to his right a timeworn log cabin-type church. There was no sign on either the property or church itself to indicate what it was called, and the GPS system provided no address for it. Situated on the hillside between the church and the woodland was a cemetery. By the style of the thin slab headstones and the iron fencing surrounding the graves Craig guessed the cemetery was as old as or older than the church.
The road brought him through a series of tight curves flanked by denser woodland. He passed by several drive-ways nearly hidden by the overgrowth. At last the road straightened and Craig found himself traveling between two lengthy lots of cleared property. He guessed this had been farm land at one point, though now there was no sign of agricultural use, barns or cattle. As the road ascended slightly he saw a two-way intersection just up ahead. To the left side of the road was a large pond surrounded by dense thickets, though again no cattle, no sign of commercial farming of any sort. To the right-side of the road just before the intersection lay an entrance way to a modern-looking brick building.
The GPS said in its monotone voice, “Take the next right for the Indian Springs Senior Citizens Center.”
Craig slowed and turned into the entrance. Erected just inside stood a stone monument type sign. The welcoming panel read in dark verdant text, “Indian Springs Senior Citizens Center”. Just past this was a large parking lot close to the brick building.
There were only a few other vehicles in the lot. As Craig took one of the spots he noticed three elderly women standing and talking at a cement walkway which lead behind the center.
Craig turned off the engine and picked up his phone. He found the last message exchange he’d had with Heather Schaffer. Heather was the guest scout for The Debunker's Challenge (and aside from his sister, the person Craig felt closest to). It was on Heather’s recommendation that Craig had made this trip to Tennessee. This contact he was about to meet was actually Heather’s great-uncle. Reading back through the messages Craig saw the uncle’s name was Fred Wagner. As Heather recalled, Uncle Fred was in his eighties now. Uncle Fred claimed to have a good friend who was just right to be a guest on the show. Heather admitted she had not seen Uncle Fred in many years and had been surprised herself when he’d called her. Heather would have made the trip out to Tennessee in order to meet her uncle's friend, but she was stuck at home on maternity leave.
TDC was a popular series and for the season’s eighth and final episode the guest scheduled to be challenged was Brenda Lindt. This Lindt was a proclaimed clairvoyant from Indiana. She professed to be able to talk to the dead, and made a living from selling her talents to wealthy clients. Like other acclaimed clairvoyants Lindt had increased her fame by penning a number of bestselling books. She’d also done the psychic circuit, doing arenas show where her loyal believers could meet her and hopefully get her to use her alleged abilities to help them. But three weeks earlier Lindt had suffered a massive heart attack and her appearance for the show had to be cancelled. As field manager Craig knew this cancellation threatened to put a crimp into the tight production schedule. There was also the show’s creator and host of TDC to contend with. Gerald Agee was a psychic debunker by trade –having written prolifically on the subject, with a legion of diehard blog followers- and not, to put it kindly, a modest or patient man by temperament.
Although Agee preferred going after the big-name cranks and frauds, none of Lindt’s peers had shown interest in filling her slot. This was understandable, Craig conceded, as so many of them had been disgraced after failing to meet the variety of challenges faced on TDC. Not even the juicy possibility of impressing the judges and claiming the prize of three million dollars seemed attractive enough to get any in front of a camera.
But Agee demanded Lindt’s slot to be filled asap. So if that meant Craig had to book some psychic without national recognition or online presence then so be it. Agee and the studio had till the following spring to sign up better known charlatans for the ninth season.
Craig read Heather’s message: “You should recognize Uncle Fred by the fact he uses a wheelchair.”
Craig glanced toward the Center and thought wryly, in a place like this, I'm likely to come across a dozen old men in wheelchairs.
Heather’s message entry also informed him the person Uncle Fred wanted him to meet was some woman named Betty Ann Crawford. Craig slipped the phone into the pocket of his shirt, and taking the car keys, stepped out. After locking the doors he walked toward the center. As he reached the cement walkway out front he saw a man in an electric wheelchair moving along the walkway from the back area. Doubting he would be lucky enough for this to be Uncle Fred, Craig walked forward to meet him.
He was a very clean-cut old gent with thinning snow-white hair. Craig guessed him to be in his late seventies.
The man touched a button on the panel of the wheelchair's left arm rest. The chair came to a halt.
Before Craig could ask his name the old guy regarded him with a pleasant look. “Might you be Mr. Craig Herbert?”
“Yes, sir, I am. You wouldn’t happen to be Fred Wagoner?”
“Yes I am, Mr. Herbert. She told me you’d arrived.”
Remembering his manners, Craig extended his hand. Mr. Wagoner had a stronger shake than he would have guessed.
“Nice to meet you, sir. That’s right, I left a message on Heather’s phone when my plane arrived to the airport. I appreciate her letting you know.”
A confused stitch shot across Mr. Wagoner’s brow. Then he smiled. “Oh no, I didn’t mean my niece. It was Betty Ann. She just told me some moments ago I’d find you out front here.”
Craig wondered how any of the women he’d noticed earlier could have seen him as he sat in the car? But he imagined this Betty Ann must have very keen eyesight for her age.
“Ah yes, Miss Crawford – it is Ms. Crawford? Or does she prefer Betty Ann?”
“She goes by Betty Ann around here.” Mr. Wagoner’s face beamed tenderly. “How is our Heather? She told me that her baby is due quite soon.”
“Heather is well,” Craig assured him. “The baby is healthy, and yes, due in a couple of weeks I believe. So, I should ask, does Betty Ann know why I’m here? I would hate for this to be an out-of-the-blue meeting for her.”
Wagoner made a little grunt. “Oh, she knows. It was Betty Ann who asked me to get hold of Heather,” Wagoner explained. “Apparently she knows all about your television show. She asked me to contact Heather. Of course, I advised Betty Ann against having anything to do with that kind of television nonsense. No offense intended, Mr. Craig.”
Craig let him know that no offense was taken. To make small talk he remarked, “This is nice out here in the country. Peaceful. A good place for a Seniors Home.”
“This is no home,” Wagoner said. “Fancy name, maybe. But it's more like a club. I used to own a nice dairy over near the original Holston elementary school. But my sons moved away as they are apt to do, and when I got too old to run the farm I sold it. I was born and raised here on Squirrel Hollow Road. Always loved it. So with the boys gone, I moved back to my family’s old property. I bought some other property, too, the lot here among it. And more recently, that open field across the road. I reckon you noticed the pond over there on your way here? It’s all grown up and woody on the backside now.”
Craig nodded and listened politely as Wagoner continued, “When I was a kid old Elmer Perkins owned most all this property. Perkins had inherited it and as he was a bricklayer by trade, he didn’t have much use for farming. So every year he’d lease it out. From early summer to the middle of fall you’d find the PTA, the Four-H, the Shriners and the livestock clubs holding their fundraisers and fairs and such. Passing carnivals, too. The carnival folk would set up across the road behind the pond. All that stopped when Perkins passed away. That was back in the early eighties if I reckon right. In fact, when I bought this portion I thought about leasing it out like Perkins used to. But then I got to thinking, I have lots of neighbors my age out here. Friends of the same age all round this area, too. And I figured it’d be real nice place to have somewhere we could all meet up and socialize in our golden years.”
Craig was impressed. “So you built this center?”
Wagoner nodded. “Yes.” He looked at Craig thoughtfully, and said in a no-nonsense way, “Mr. Herbert, everyone that regularly comes here is a person I consider my friend. The members, their families, the staff. And it wouldn’t sit well with me to find out any of my friends had been disrespected.”
Craig realized he’d just been given a diplomatic but firm warning by the old man. If it had been Gerald Agee who had received such a warning, Mr. Wagoner would have just been laughed at. But Craig valued civility. And the truth was he felt a twinge of remorse for coming here in the first place. He imagined how Wagoner’s elderly friend Betty Ann would feel once she realized how decidedly out of her favor Agee’s psychic challenges were designed. No one was supposed to impress Agee, his live audience or his panel of impartial judges. Everything was constructed to disprove the integrity of the guest, to expose them as frauds and to so as humiliatingly as possible.
“I understand,” Craig told Wagoner. “Of course.”
“They are good people,” Wagoner expounded. “You won’t find riff-raff hanging around.”
Craig found Wagoner’s attitude admirable. TDC was in dire need for a slot fill, but if this Betty Ann Crawford was anything like Wagoner, Craig would have to find some excuse to book somebody else.
He assured Wagoner again that he understood. The old man seemed satisfied.
“So you want to interview our Betty Ann?” he said. “I think interview is the word Heather used.”
“Yes, sir. You did tell Heather this lady is a medium?”
“I don’t know if that’s rightly the proper word, but once I told Heather about Betty Ann she told me it fit.” Wagoner gave a little disapproving sniff. “Applicable for what Betty Ann claims to be, that was what she said. But Betty Ann never claimed to be anything. I just know what she can do. So does everyone here at the Center. And I’ve caught a few episodes of your show myself, since, after all, my niece works on it. The Debunker's Challenge, right?”
“Uh huh. So when Betty Ann brought it up, I thought to myself who among use couldn’t use three million dollars? If the show is legitimate, I can see her winning. And one would deserve taking home that kind of money more than her.”
Craig was very conscious of the sun beating down on the top of his head. His scalp tickled with sweat, and for a moment all he could think about was the desire for something cold to drink. But he stifled it. He hoped to inquire more into about Betty Ann’s alleged medium abilities before they were introduced.
“Mr. Wagoner, how did you meet Betty Ann?” he asked. “And can you tell me more about her powers as you have witnessed them yourself?”
Wagoner shrugged. “She came here some months ago. It was right after I bought the property across the road. A few days before Easter it was. None of us had ever seen her before, but here she comes out back where we’re all eating barbecue. She brought a huge platter of deviled eggs. We were missing deviled eggs at the barbecue, so everybody was real happy to see them. And then we realized we were happy to see Betty Ann, too. Real sweet gal. She comes here practically every day now. She loves taking care of the plants. She still brings deviled eggs every Sunday afternoon.”
Craig smiled indulgently, but Wagoner wasn’t telling him what he needed to know. “When did you and your friends realize she has other talents?”
“Mr. Herbert, I realized Betty Ann was special the day after she first showed up. I had misplaced my wedding band. Had been looking for it over a week. Betty Ann came up to me and said I would find the ring in my back yard. It had slipped off, she told me, while I was pointing out to my grandson Justin where I wanted him to trim the hedges. When I got home I asked Justin to help me look for it. The ring was there alright, in the grass next to the garage door.”
Craig raised an eyebrow. He knew this story was one of pure coincidence. “Has Betty Ann personally advised or suggested help with any other problems?”
“In a way, I suppose you can say,” Wagoner said. “That would have been about my neighbor Charlie Mayo. Charlie thinks he’s too young to hang out here. But nice man. Works at the box factory in Johnson City. Anyway, yes, Betty Ann was real helpful for Charlie’s son and his family.”
Craig felt sweat trickling down the nape of his neck and inching slowly down the top of his spine. He reached to the back of his collar and pulled it away from his damp skin. With any hope a little air would dry the sweat and relieve the temptation to yank his shirt off. He tried concentrating on what Wagoner had just said.
“What did Betty Ann do for Charlie's son and family, Mr. Wagoner?”
“Well sir, Betty Ann was here that day. She was helping some of the other ladies plant Iris bulbs when she suddenly stood up from where they was working. This look came over Betty Ann's face –like something had her real worried. She came to me and begged that I call Charlie and have him to call his son Dean right away. Dean just had to check on his little girl, she said. Now remember, she’s never met Charlie, nor Dean and his wife Frannie. But Betty Ann insisted Frannie was asleep and that her eight-month old was locked in her car. So I called Charlie. Charlie called Dean. Dean was just getting off work when Charlie’s call got to him. The boy drove home and found the baby still in the car seat of his wife’s car. The door was stuck somehow, couldn’t be opened. Dean grabbed the tire iron from his trunk and broke the window to get to the baby. From what I’ve been told –and excuse me for repeating gossip- Frannie cares more about getting stoned than practically anything else. She was dead asleep in the air-conditioned house and had completely forgotten to take the baby out of the car.”
Craig winced. “Was the baby okay?”
Wagoner nodded. “Yes. But Frannie and Dean are separated now and he’s got the baby. I imagine that’s for the best. But we all have Betty Ann to thank for Dean getting to the baby before something unthinkable happened.”
This tale was indeed unsettling. And Craig was convinced now Betty Ann was more involved with the people Wagoner knew than the poor man suspected.
“So,” Craig said as evenly as he could muster, “I have to admit, a story like this might lend one to wonder if Betty Ann doesn’t possess some kind of sixth sense? Or perhaps Betty Ann has known Frannie for some time?”
Wagoner gave him an incredulous look. “Are you serious, young man? Even if by some extraordinary coincidence the two have met, Frannie and Dean live all the way in Texas.”
Craig was dubious, and now he asked more snidely than intended, “Seriously? This incident with the baby happened all the way down in Texas?”
The tone of his voice obviously annoyed Wagoner, for the old gent replied curtly. “Seriously, Mr. Herbert. All the way down in Texas.”
Craig did not want to insult Heather’s uncle a liar. But there was no way a human being could be aware of a baby trapped inside a car from thousands of miles away. For all he really knew the seemingly upstanding Fred Wagoner was just an old fibber, one who set up his niece on some lavish prank. The possibility also occurred to Craig that, more sadly, Heather’s uncle was simply as deteriorated of mind as he was of body.
Wagoner gave a weary smile. “Look, I’ll take you round back now to meet Betty Ann. It’s hot out here. Shall I get our staff girl Emily to bring you a glass of cold lemonade? I noticed Ida Johnson had put a big old pitcher of it in the fridge this morning.”
The offer was very appealing. “Thanks, that would be very welcome,” Craig said. “Before we go, you should know I’d like to speak to any of your friends here that believe they've also been helped by Betty Ann’s powers. And it would be useful if I can videotape what they have to say. Your eyewitness account, too. If this is alright by everyone involved?”
“I prefer not sharing that particular story since it involves Charlie’s family and none of them are here to ask. But I can ask the others. I’m sure most of them would be agreeing.”
Wagoner pressed a button on the wheelchair panel and it turned with a little whrr sound. Craig walked beside Mr. Wagoner as the wheelchair moved down the walkway. The motor of the chair produced a noticeable wheezing sound. Wagoner apologized.
“Motor is giving out,” Wagoner said. “I need to replace this old contraption soon. Had this one almost twelve years now.”
They followed the curve which led them to the back part of the Center. Here, a lattice-iron gate opened to an ample, nicely maintained enclosure bordered by a meandering stone wall. Fragrant sweet peas trailed profusely up the side of the wall. In the middle of the lawn were three grown tulip poplars (presently in full bloom). Beneath their boughs stood two wooden picnic tables. A dozen or more seniors sat at the benches, engaged in conversation and playing cards or checkers. Plots of flowering plants had been arranged all about the edge of the Center’s back patio. On this patio sat a very old woman in a wheelchair, and beside her was a slightly younger woman seated in a plastic lawn chair. Between the two women lay a roan haired Labrador retriever that appeared to be sleeping.
Wagoner steered the wheelchair across the patio. Craig half-expected Wagoner to stop and introduce him to his friends, but the old man continued onto a short piece of walkway. As they walked along Craig noticed a wall ahead, and before it a thriving mass of dark pink roses. A woman knelt on the ground. Her back was to them so Craig couldn't tell what kind of work she was doing. Wagoner stopped the wheelchair.
Wagoner spoke to her, “Betty Ann, this is the man from that debunkerin’ TV show.”
Craig watched as Betty Ann laid a small gardening spade to the ground. She rose to her feet and turned. He was surprised to see this was no elderly woman, not even one of middle years. She was quite young; Craig guessed somewhere between nineteen and twenty-five years old.
He thought this Betty Ann was not hard on the eyes, either. Her skin was very fair, her face youthful and her cheeks and nose sprinkled with golden freckles. Her eyes were a very light shade of blue, her shoulder-length fair hair shone like gold in the sunlight, kissed here and there with sun-bleached streaks. At Betty Ann's wrist hung a homespun bracelet of elastic band threaded through seashell pasta. It was cute, something an elementary school child might make for their mother. There were sandals on her feet, adorned with rhinestone-beaded thong straps. The cut-off denim shorts she wore (slightly sullied by dirt) showed off her lovely long legs. Craig noticed, too, the black shirt she wore. It looked well-worn and there was a somewhat faded image on the front. It took Craig a couple of moments to recognize the image as a spaceship. And only then did he realize the shirt was a classic Boston concert tee.
Craig thought this woman was not so much beautiful as she was fresh and naive in appearance.
And appearances, he remembered, were often deceiving.
Betty tilted her face ever so slightly and looked at him. Slowly, her lips spread into a timid smile. Craig was charmed by the touch of an overbite to her front teeth.
“Hello Betty Ann,” Craig said and extended his hand to shake hers. “Craig Herbert. You can call me Craig.”
At last she said to Mr. Wagoner, “Fred, would you ask Emily to bring Mr. Herbert one of the colas from the machine in the rec room? He’d prefer that over Ida’s lemonade. She can be stingy on the sugar.”
“Sure thing,” Wagoner answered. He turned the wheelchair and headed to the patio. As it moved off Craig was hardly aware of the motor’s wheeze. He was wondering if Betty Ann had just guessed Wagoner and he had talked about Ida’s lemonade. He didn’t want to mention this, though. He would give no hint he could think she actually possessed the gift of foreknowledge.
He put on his most professional smile. “Is there a place we can sit down to talk?”
Betty Ann eyed the yard.
“There?” she suggested, pointing to a grassy place in the shade just a few feet away. Craig hoped they could just go inside for this interview, but as he opened his mouth to make the suggestion Betty Ann walked into the yard and took a seat in the grass. She hugged her knees and gave him a patient look.
Craig felt awkward about sitting on the grass in perfectly clean and recently pressed clothes. And he was a grown man, here on business. He couldn’t help but wonder what kind of childish country bumpkin Betty Ann was not to take such things into consideration?
He looked at the seniors sitting at the tables and saw that only a couple of them even looked his way.
“Nobody cares if you do,” he heard Betty Ann say.
He decided the clothes he wore weren’t his best anyway. So he joined her in the grass, extending his legs in front of himself and liking the coolness of the shade. It smelled nice here, too. The fragrance of the roses was thick in the air, and it mingled with the various other pleasant smells of the countryside.
“That’s cute,” he said, gesturing to her bracelet. “Make it yourself?”
She glanced at the seashell pasta fondly. “My brother.”
“So, Betty Ann... you’re awfully young to be hanging out at a place like this.”
“You are not so much older, Mr. Herbert.”
“Maybe not,” Craig admitted. “I suppose you know quite a few things about me from my profile page at the TDC website? Maybe you've checked out my links there which connect to my other social media pages?”
Betty Ann gave him a confused smile and shook her head.
“Alright,” Craig said. “My page doesn't get a lot of hits anyway. Now, I know little about you; I hear you are a medium, right? A fortune teller of sorts?”
Betty Ann was eyeing a large yellow dandelion growing in the grass. She stroked the yellow petals gingerly with her fingertips and said, “I wouldn’t know.”
Craig felt a twinge of irritation. He really didn’t feel like having to drag information out of a woman who knew he’d traveled so damned far to see.
“Mr. Wagoner told me you knew where his wedding band was," he said. "And he told me about the warning you gave Charlie about his grandchild in Texas. Can we say this much is true – at least that you told him these things?”
“Yes. Of course that is true.”
“Alright. So would you tell me how you’ve helped other people in similar ways?”
Betty Ann looked up from the dandelion now. “Mr. Herbert,” she said reproachfully, “Unless it is asked of me or simply needs to be told, I don't tell it.”
The statement amused Craig. “Oh, really? I was under the impression that people with your sort of talent feel an obligation to humanity to tell the world about their abilities. So the word gets out, and that way they can help more people.”
Betty Ann shook her head. “Like I said, I don’t tell things unless they are asked of me by the person or if it truly needs to be told.”
“Fair enough. Do you think some of these people here can confirm that you have helped them out one way or the other?”
“Yes. They already said they will.”
He grinned. “May I assume that you’ve already let them know you want to be on the Debunker’s Challenge? And that you want to take your chance at being awarded the three million dollar prize?”
Betty Ann played with the dandelion again. “Mr. Wagoner told them.”
“But you were the one who brought it up with him? Being a guest on the show yourself, that is?”
“Yes, Mr. Herbert. I spoke to Fred about it.”
“He thinks very highly of you,” Craig said. “I could tell that right off.”
Craig was curious as to what fascination Betty Ann held for Fred Wagoner? Had she completely bamboozled him with her psychic claims or was she perhaps using her physical charms to entrance the old guy? He was just about to ask her about their relationship when a pleasant-looking plump woman approached them. The woman carried a soda pop in a frosty glass bottle.
“Here you go, young man. Fred said you’d like this. Do you want something, Betty Ann?”
Betty Ann told her no thank-you. Craig accepted the beverage with earnest thanks. As the lady walked away he took a sip. It was refreshingly cold, with tiny slivers of ice in the cola.
“Nice people here,” he said to Betty Ann. “How much do you charge them for your help?”
Betty Ann laughed. “Charge them? Listen to you.”
“You don’t ask for any money? Now that is difficult to believe.”
“They are nice people,” Betty Ann said. “Well, maybe not every one of them. I don’t care for Sylvia Coulter. She’s a gossip and busybody. And Evan Pike can go off on his fundamentalist tirades sometimes. But for the most part, they are very nice to me. Why shouldn’t I help them?”
“Fundamentalist tirades?” Craig chortled. “I thought people like you appreciate the religious hardcores.”
“And maybe, Mr. Herbert, the world is just a little bigger and not as easily defined as you feel comfortable with.”
Craig had to concede it was an intelligent observation; perhaps there was even a little truth in it. He yanked a blade of grass out of the ground and nibbled on one end.
“So you aren’t asking for their money,” he said. “But you want something, I am sure. Just hanging out here with old people –as nice as I’m sure they are- can’t be your life’s ambition.”
“Maybe I just dream of taking that prize money on your show.”
“That does make more sense. No one has beaten the Challenge yet. But I do see the temptation in all that money. If you did somehow succeed at every test challenge you would face and win the money, you would be set for life. Not a bad payout for any psychic.”
Betty Ann looked away from him again. The light tone in her voice drifted away as she said in a faraway voice, “Not bad for an Appalachian hill witch.”
Craig took a large swig of the cola. “That’s unique,” he remarked condescendingly. “Is that how you promote yourself?”
Betty Ann plucked the dandelion. She held the fluffy yellow head against a cheek and said, “What you really care about knowing is if I can be entertaining enough to please Gerald Agee’s love of theater? He lives and breathes for the moments he exposes psychic frauds, humbug faith healers and paranormal sham artists for what they are. But the network also expects a development of tension for the viewers. You need to know if I am able to glean enough vague information from people’s body language to pique the interest of your skeptical yet hopeful audience. Can I mystify and keep them secretly yearning for proof that maybe, just maybe, there is more to our universe than what we can discern with our five mundane senses? Can I keep them entertained this way throughout the series of challenges, all the way till that delightful final moment when Agee and his panel declare I have failed and that their brilliant, scientifically designed tests have proved that I am altogether a fraud? This is what you most need to know. This is why you are here.”
Craig could not dispute the accuracy of what she said. And he did need to have some understanding of her modus operandi, so if she did appear as a guest then he and everyone else knew what to expect of her in front of the cameras.
“So far all I know about your abilities comes from one old man,” he said. “Tell me something about me now?”
“I know you have two assistants," she answered. "One who works on network salary, the other whom you pay out of your own bank account. You don’t require two, but you felt bad for both men when you were interviewing for the position. Each were on the verge of being homeless, and they reminded you of yourself when you were their age. So you hired them both.”
Craig felt a threatening touch of amazement, and then Betty Ann smiled impishly. “I’m sorry,” she admitted. “Heather told that to Mr. Wagoner and he passed it along to me. But it shows how kind a person you are.”
“Ah, alright.” Craig said. “How about telling me something Heather doesn’t know and passed along to hell and half of Georgia?”
Betty Ann giggled. Then she fell silent, and slowly began to whirl the dandelion by the stem between her fingers. She gazed at the spinning yellow petals.
At length she said, “Kesha has always looked up to you. She feels indebted to you for paying her way through nursing school. But she wants to go back to Idaho after she gets her degree. Your father’s brother and his wife still live in Spruce Grove, and she misses them.”
Craig was sure now Betty Ann was a good online detective. She could have very easily gleaned this information off of any social media place his sister frequented. There was no other way she could have found out such a thing.
Betty Ann continued, “You told Kesha your job pays too much for you to go back yet. That you have important contacts in California; that it is the one place you can hope to pursue the dream of starting your own film studio. But that is not really why you won’t go back to Idaho with her.”
Craig was intrigued now. He knew there was no other reason that kept him in L.A. But it would be fascinating to hear this mysterious reason to which she alluded.
“Okay. Why don’t I want to go back to Idaho?”
The dandelion stopped whirling. As Betty Ann regarded the flower a somber expression came to her face.
“I’ll talk about that later, I promise,” she said. “But you should speak with the others right now. Ask your questions. Record what they have to say.”
Craig suppressed an unkind guffaw. “Alright. But I will hold you to it, Betty Ann I want to hear why I really don't want to go to Idaho.”
Craig rose to his feet. He approached one of the tables and set the cola bottle down. The seniors gathered here greeted him with smiles and hellos. He introduced himself, told them why he was here. They nodded, explained Fred had told them to expect him to speak with them. When Craig asked if they were up to some questions and record their conversation on videotape the seniors were happy to oblige. They even called over their friends from the other table. Every one of them was excited to share their experiences of how Betty Ann had helped them.
“Anything for little Betty Ann,” one of the ladies said.
Craig took out his phone and applied the needed video recording settings. He also noticed that Betty Ann had gone back to her work on the roses. She knelt on all fours there on the grass. It was as if she didn’t have a care in the world what these easily duped oldsters might tell him. It occurred to him that she in fact did care. He wouldn't be at all surprised if she hadn’t had these people rehearse whatever b.s. stories they were about to tell him.
The little group didn’t disappoint. Sixty-some year old Ann Holtzclaw asserted that Betty Ann had warned her that she’d left two stove burners on at home. (At hearing this Ms. Holzclaw had dashed home to find her kitchen safe, although two of her best pots were supposedly stuck to the cooking eyes). Donald Wyatt, a retired policeman, related the story of the morning he'd arrived at the Center to be met by a fretting Betty Ann. She had cautioned him to get a lift home when he left as there was a problem with one of the tires on pick-up truck.
Wyatt told Craig that by the time he left he’d forgotten this warning. He was half-way to his home in Muddy Creek when a tie rod broke. Wyatt said the broken rod had forced the truck off the side of the road, and that the vehicle did not stop rolling until collided with a large oak stump.
Becky Fields, one of the youngest of the group, informed Craig about the time she had misplaced a locket given to her by her daughter. Fields searched everywhere she could think of for the locket but without success. One day she arrived at the Center, forlorn over what she deemed a permanent loss, when Betty Ann suggested she should ask about the locket at the Lost & Found department at the Johnson City mall. Fields took that suggestion and sure enough, the locket had been turned over by a customer who had found it in the parking lot. Lee Perkins, a gent well into his seventies, shared the tale of Betty Ann informing him where he would find his mama cat and her new kittens.
Eddy Bo Richards recalled when Betty Ann had apprised him that his ex-wife Diana had died (supposedly all the way down in Ormond Beach, FL). This woman wouldn’t throw anything away Betty Ann had declared. As Eddy Bo's tale went she went on to inform him his daughter would find Diana’s handwritten last Will and Testament by looking in the center of a cabinet. This cabinet had been buried under numerous boxes of junk and old scrap metal in the hallway of Diana’s condemned house. This information panned out as well, and Eddy Bo’s daughter inherited the small fortune her mother had squirreled away in glass jars in the cellar of her house. Wanda Freemont credited Betty Ann for telling her what lottery numbers to play back in March. The $46,000 winnings had helped ease the pinch Wanda faced in the ongoing effort to pay for her blood pressure and diabetes medications. Bill Evans said Betty Ann had advised him to find a new attorney, telling him his present one was having an affair with his much younger wife. According to Evans, this situation was proven true after he hired a private investigator. Lastly, there was Mark and April Reynolds who were grateful to Betty Ann for advising them to install a video camera over their front porch. The couple insisted the camera proved invaluable in identifying a neighbor who had been letting her Shih Tzu poop for over six months in their immaculate lawn.
After videotaping these interviews Craig thanked every one who had lent their story. He walked away from the seniors, quietly amused. But he was grateful for the generous amount of contributed “eye witness” accounts. These were old people that Betty Ann Crawford was using. She was just the type of sham artist the TDC judges loved to challenge, and the kind their drama-loving viewers tuned in to see thoroughly humiliated.
Craig did feel some pity for the seniors. He believed they probably felt sorry for Betty Ann. Such an emotion was not only misguided, but wasted on a young woman who until a few months ago had been a complete stranger. There was the always the possibility some of them just sought a little attention; and appearing in a video that might be used as part of a television episode would provide that. But Craig also suspected some of the most elderly suffered from dementia or some other mind-debilitating condition. Betty Ann had surely picked up on this and had no qualms about using such infirmities to her own advantage.
Despite the angst he felt for her artifice, he had to credit her with enterprise. Not too many mediums and clairvoyants devoted such obviously meticulous work in prepping their gullible devotees.
All the same, it would all make for an entertaining episode. All Craig needed now was to see Betty Ann in action. He wanted to hear her tell him something about his personal life that wasn’t available anywhere on social media. She would have to rely on cold reading or subjective validation. All the charlatans relied on these techniques of psychological manipulation –granted, some with more melodramatic flair than their peers- and Craig was eager to know Betty Ann’s distinctive take on it. Knowing this would help Agee in personalizing her challenges for the show.
Craig found a trash can near the back door of the patio. He deposited the now emptied cola bottle and turned to look for Betty Ann.
He spotted her standing with her back leaning against a poplar tree. She had one foot propped behind her against the trunk, and she appeared to be lost in thought as she gazed through the thickly leafy branches above. A light breeze rustled her blonde hair, and for a fleeting moment Craig thought he saw gooseflesh ripple across her long flawless legs.
He blinked. No, there were no goose bumps. But they were gorgeous legs nonetheless. Craig hated that he could find this scam artist attractive. He didn’t want to be; in fact he couldn’t understand why he was. Most women he knew her age either took great pains with their make-up and clothes or did their best to downplay their femininity in the effort to conform to gender-neutral fashion ideals. By contrast Betty Ann’s allure was much more casual, yet demurely and distinctly feminine.
He was absently conscious of a motorized wheeze approaching from his right.
Wagoner’s voice startled him, “I think she’s got a young man already. Doesn’t say much about him, but I get the feeling.”
Craig saw Mr. Wagoner had parked the wheelchair right beside him. “I didn’t hear your chair,” he said apologetically.
“Did my friends give you enough of that information you were looking for?”
“Yes, yes they did.”
“Are you satisfied? Will you ask Betty Ann to be on your show?”
“We’re nearly there. I’d like to talk with her again before I sign her up. She promised to tell me about something concerning me.”
A thoughtful frown pressed over Wagoner’s brow. “Well, she promised to cook my supper and feed my dog. The caregiver hired to stay with me is out of town for a couple of days – her nephew just had a baby and needs some help. And I was wanting to head for home in a few minutes. You could follow us back to the house if you’d like?”
Craig was very tempted. But he was tired, too, and needed a shower and some dinner.
“Do you know where Betty Ann would be later tonight? I can just meet her there.”
Wagoner shrugged. “She plans to stay in my guest room tonight. She sometimes does when she knows the caregiver has to be away.”
Craig found this piece of information telling. He was convinced Betty Ann was somehow using her feminine wiles on the old dude. But he kept this to himself.
“Okay, Mr. Wagoner, why don’t I come by tonight? Heather happened to send me your address in one of her messages.” Craig glanced at his wristwatch and saw it was now almost four o’clock. “Around eight? If that isn’t too late?”
“I will let Betty Ann know to expect you.”
Craig thanked Wagoner and told him he appreciated the help and hospitality. As he started down the walkway he gave a last look to the poplar. Betty Ann stood there yet, regarding him with a gaze that was at once studious but unreadable. He nodded to her and began the walk back to his vehicle.
© 2020 Beth Perry