Beth Perry is a professional author. She lives near the great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
DEBUNKED 2020 By Beth Perry
It was going on ten o’clock the following morning when Craig arrived at the studio. Thankfully, what he planned to do shouldn’t take long. He hadn’t seen Heather since getting back from Tennessee and was anxious to go see her. Saturday nights was their regular buddy movie night – or, at least until she and the father of her baby had become so close.
So he decided to get business out of the way. Like a couple other of the network’s reality series, the executive offices for The Debunker's Challenge were located on the ground floor of Building 3.
On entering the place he found it as quiet as most Saturdays. The only people he passed in the corridor on the way to his office were a security guard and a maintenance woman pushing a cart of cleaning supplies.
Once in the office he put his knapsack on the desk. A couple of papers had been placed there during his time away. He looked them over briefly, seeing they were notes from his assistant Matt. Just trivial matters: one, a quick explanation that the antique crystal Tiffany desk weight he’d ordered had suffered a delay and was not expected to arrive until the Tuesday after next. The other was about a cancellation of an upcoming meeting scheduled with the studio head of network accounting, Ross Martino. The note let him know Martino had been called out of town because his grandmother was ill. Craig was sorry about the grandmother, yet quietly relieved. He hated talking with Martino. The guy came from old Hollywood money and every meeting they’d ever had ended up in Craig spending two or more hours politely suffering Martino’s boasts about his newest acquisition or girlfriend, or both.
Craig reached into the knapsack and brought out what would be needed before the filming of Betty Ann Crawford’s episode. There were the papers she’d signed, which he now transferred into a large manila envelope. With a black felt pen he marked the envelope “Legal Dept.”, and this he slid into the outgoing side of the tray at the corner of his desk. On Monday one of his assistants, either Matt or Jon, would pick it up and make sure it got to the show’s executive producer, Benita Shaw.
There were also some notes he’d jotted down during the plane ride home. These were personal observations about Betty Ann, or at least perceptions he'd gleaned. In these he'd expressed his belief she was using a bunch of gullible old people as stepping stones to ill-gotten fame. He didn’t know if Heather kept such notes when she was doing the job, but he figured that if he forgot any detail that might be useful to Agee, it was best to have written reminders.
These notes he tucked away in the top left hand drawer of his desk.
All that was left to do was show Agee the video interviews made at the Indian Springs Senior Citizens Center. These he had earlier transferred over from his phone to a memory card stick. He located the stick at the very bottom of the knapsack. As he looked at it, he wondered if he should go ahead and turn over the interviews to Agee? The host would get a kick out of hearing the seniors discuss Betty Ann’s so-called powers. He knew Agee typically spent weekend evenings either alone at home or entertaining network bigwigs and sponsors. But he could only guess if Agee spent any weekend daytime hours at the studio.
He slid the memory stick into his shirt pocket and left the office. Agee’s much more spacious office was located at the end of the corridor. As Craig approached the front door he saw it was ajar. He knocked.
A cleaning woman pulled it back and smiled. A lady Craig recognized.
“Marisol, hi,” he said. “Is Mr. Agee in?”
“He may be back shortly,” she answered. “He went to the snack room to look for a spring water. But I am cleaning the windows, so knowing Mr. Agee, he’ll be gone awhile. He says the smell of bleach irritates his sinuses.”
Craig thanked her and headed back down the corridor. He walked all the way to the doors of the main lobby and entered. The snack room was located in an alcove past the currently vacant reception desk and directions kiosk. Craig noticed some little boys sitting on the floor in front of the kiosk who were talking among themselves. One was a plump black boy; another was a white kid with an old-fashioned mullet, while the youngest was a cute dimple-faced Asian child. While it was common enough for the cleaning staff to occasionally bring their children to work, Craig had never seen these kids before. As he passed by they looked up. Craig offered them a friendly wave.
Agee was seated at one of the small tables in the snack room. He was typing on the keyboard of his smart phone.
Agee looked up. “Craig,” he said cheerfully. “Sit down. Be right with you. I have some hilarious news, too!”
Craig took the seat across the table. A waft of heady fragrance stung the insides of his nostrils. It was one of Agee’s favorite pricey colognes, something made with cedar oil, ginger root and orris root. At least Craig thought the third ingredient was orris root. Whatever the formula was Agee must have loved the stuff as the pungent smell had become a running water fountain joke among the show’s crew.
Agee punched a last key. “There. All sent to corporate.”
Craig was momentarily distracted when the young voices over at the kiosk grew noticeably louder. He had to ignore the kids as he asked Agee about his news.
“Corporate just contacted to let me know that lawsuit brought by Frehley was thrown out of court yesterday.”
Craig had to search his memories a moment. “Larry Frehley? The dowsing guy?”
“Yeah, same loser. The judge didn’t buy his story of defamation. In fact, she told Frehley and his lawyers that we did a public service using our detective’s photos.” Agee cackled. “Oh, just imagine the hell he got from his wife after she saw those? It was worth a four-hundred an hour attorney fee.”
Craig didn’t know what to say. Even though Frehley had failed to prove his dowsing powers for Agee and other judges on the panel, Craig wasn’t comfortable when he learned detectives working for the network had got photographic proof of Frehley having an affair with some gal at his local water department.
“I guess. The network footed the bill?”
The host must have sensed his skepticism for he patted Craig’s arm. “Ah, that’s right; you thought Frehley was somewhat mentally challenged.” Agee shrugged. “Maybe he is a half-wit, but that is no excuse for duping his neighbors out there in Ohio. Besides, I have no doubt he was smart enough to locate and memorize old groundwater maps.”
“Yeah,” Craig said, “guess so.” The truth was, he preferred not having to think about poor Frehley.
Suddenly he heard the sound of running and juvenile laughter out in the lobby. He imagined the kids were growing restless.
“I’ve brought the video interviews on that Crawford woman,” he said. “The old folks avowing for her talents.”
Craig gave a grim chuckle. “Their stories are sometimes quite detailed and outlandish. This woman may be young and unknown as of yet, but she’s managed to dig her way into their hearts. I think these people would say anything she asked them to.”
Agee smoothed the length of his well-groomed white beard. “Sad. But there you have it. People cashing in on the trust and stupidity of others.”
“I wouldn’t exactly say cashing in,” Craig corrected him, “not yet anyway. But she’s taking advantage of them. Especially Heather’s uncle.”
A satisfied smile crossed Agee’s lips. “See, my boy? This is exactly why The Debunker's Challenge is so popular. And why I do what I do. We will expose and ruin this scuzz ball before she does any more damage.”
Craig felt a heedful twinge. “We need to bear in mind she’s very young, Gerald. We shouldn't endeavor to ruin her every opportunity to make a decent life for herself.”
“You know what I mean,” Agee said. He looked at Craig sympathetically. “But you can’t feel sorry for these con artists. That’s how history has seen civilizations fall since the beginning of time. When people start following charlatans like sheep they end up wolf food. That’s how religions are born.”
Craig hoped Agee wasn’t in the mood to elaborate on this. Everyone that knew Agee was aware of his steadfast antagonism toward any and all religions. Craig admired the man on many levels: he came from a poor background, yet had managed to educate himself. He was diligently health conscious, a talented writer, and attracted and moved in highly influential circles. Agee had always maintained he’d become a professional debunker for the sake of enlightening society. Despite Agee's commendable achievements and altruistic aims, Craig couldn’t help but feel he derived as much pleasure from denouncing what he termed the gullible suckers of the world just as much as from exposing those that worked to delude them. And while Craig hadn’t prayed or even been occupied by spiritual thoughts since he was a kid, he'd never cared for Agee going off on one of his anti-religion tirades.
He slipped the memory stick from his pocket and handed it to Agee. “I will leave this with you, then.”
“Thanks. You’re as efficient as Heather, my boy. And not fat and lazy.”
Craig cast him a frustrated look. “Geez, Gerald, Heather is very good at her job. She’s just on maternity leave.”
“Oh, don’t get bent out of shape,” Agee said. “I was joking. Though, I have to say if someone is going to engage in an irresponsible social life, they shouldn’t expect the network to give them time off to take care of the subsequent result. And certainly not expect the network to pay them for that time off. The farthest an employer should be willing to go is maybe paying to have the pregnancy terminated.”
Craig blenched. “Well, I have things waiting for me back to the office.” It was an exaggeration; all he needed was to pick up the knapsack and leave. But he’d had enough of Agee’s curmudgeonly comments for one Saturday.
Agee’s face lined with regret. “That was harsh. I am sorry for saying it. The truth may be I just came to depend on Heather.”
Craig sighed. “Yeah?”
“And I should remember the two of you are good friends,” Agee said. “Tell you what; Heather probably needs a little time out of her apartment. I’m throwing a dinner party tonight for the directors of the Benevolent Hands Foundation. Why don’t you and Heather come? Would love to have you.”
Craig was surprised. The Benevolent Hands Foundation, or BHF for short, spearheaded a lot of charity work for sick and disabled children around the globe. Agee had long been involved in promoting secular education, but Craig had no idea he was also interested in helping needy children.
“They are a charity for children. I’m sorry, Gerald. I had no idea you were a supporter.”
“We all have our soft spots. A few of our network heads will be there, too. I’d like to convince them to let our future end credits feature the organization’s website address or toll-free number.”
Two small dark figures flitted by Craig’s peripheral vision. A youthful giggle sounded from somewhere in the lobby. He wondered how long the boys would just be allowed to roam around without supervision. It was understandable that sometimes one just couldn’t find a sitter, but it seemed no one was keeping an eye whatsoever on these kids.
“What time?” he asked Agee.
Craig wasn’t sure Heather could be ready at this short of notice, but said he was willing to try her.
“It will do her good,” Agee said.
Craig promised he would ask Heather. Agee smiled broadly. As Craig walked through the lobby for the return to his office he felt ashamed for his momentary anger with the host.
On turning down his corridor Craig heard a pitiful high-pitched squeal echo from behind. It has to be one of those kids. Curious, he stepped back into the lobby. There was no sign of the little boys anywhere, not even near the glass entrance doors or in the arches overlooking entrances of corridors. He surmised whoever had brought them had finally arrived and left with them through another exit way.
It was a good thing, he thought grimly. He knew all too well that it only took a moment for a child to be cruelly snatched.
Before leaving the studio Craig messaged Heather and asked if she was up for a visit?
She answered quickly with a yes and asked if he’d be kind enough to bring a pizza over? She would pay him back, of course, but she had been craving a pepperoni and banana for days! He laughed and told her it would be his treat. Bananas on pizza seemed almost a culinary crime to Craig, but he was happy to help satisfy her craving.
After driving to Fountain Avenue and finding a parking space at her building, Craig ran to the deli across the street to order the pizza. While it was being made he found a bottle of Heather’s favorite brand of sparkling water. After the pizza was boxed and everything paid for, he carried the items to her building. There was a steep walk up the stairs to the second story apartment. Craig was relieved when Heather answered just after the first knock.
Her eyes lit on the pizza box. “Oh bless you, bless you! I’ve thought about pizza all day!”
While they sat on her couch to eat Craig thought Heather had never looked healthier. Prior to getting pregnant –and even up to just a weeks before- she had always struck him as a little too slender. The baby weight became her. Her fair complexion was radiant now, her shoulder length blue-streaked auburn hair all the more luxurious. She ate with obvious delight and thanked him more than once for the peach-flavored water.
“You’re so good to me, Craig!”
He told her about Agee's invitation. She swallowed the bite in her mouth and gave a little snort.
“Good god!” Seeing his confusion, she explained, “Oh, I'm sure Agee's motives are pure. He may be opinionated, but I think his heart is in the right place. But the BHF is a charity org under the direction of the Worldwide Reason Institute. You know that coalition of elite globalists that write the network a fat cheque every spring and fall? Their board members may label that money as an educational endowment, but it goes to help fund their agenda, however one spins it.”
Craig had had no idea the Benevolent Hands Foundation was part of the WRI, or that the network received such funding. But it sounded to him like a beneficial alliance.
“Then I suppose Gerald should have no problem getting those end credits plug for the BHF,” he said. “So, you want to go?”
Heather took a swallow of her sparkling water and said she didn’t feel like it. “But please," she told him, "don’t let that keep you from going.”
“Nah. I'm not that interested. Just thought you might.”
Heather grinned. “Hey, how is my Uncle Fred? I should have asked as soon as you came in.”
Craig assured her Fred was fine. He couldn’t help but pry a little, “I am curious, Heather, if you don’t mind my asking...”
“Were you aware this medium is living with your uncle?”
Heather’s eyes widened. “Uncle Fred? That can’t be!” She snickered. “He’s like way old school proper and all that. Besides, he can’t even walk. How could he possibly be…no, no way.”
Craig realized he’d insinuated something not intended. “I meant he said this gal stops by his house and helps him out. And from the feeling I got, it is not infrequently.”
Heather seemed more amused than stunned. “Uncle Fred has been widowed a long time. I can’t fault the man if he’s lonely. Is she young…attractive?”
“Yes on both accounts.” Craig felt a shadow of the nefarious feelings toward Betty Ann that had started back in Tennessee. “My suspicion may be misplaced, but honestly, I was uneasy knowing she lives in the same house with your uncle.”
“You mean like Forensic Files uneasy?”
Craig shrugged. “It’s happened enough times. Some younger woman or man charms their way into an elderly person’s life, just to turn around and steal them blind.”
Heather frowned. “I know my cousin Michelle checks up on Uncle Fred every week. Tell you what, I’ll call her tomorrow and relay your concerns.”
Craig said he thought this would be wise. He also mentioned he looked forward to seeing Agee and his panel put the screws to Betty Ann Crawford.
Heather scooted to the end of the couch and eyed the rest of the pizza as if trying to decide if she wanted another slice. “She’s that blazing obvious is she?”
“Not really,” Craig admitted. “She’s a natural faker, I’ll give her that. The world will owe Agee another big thanks. He’ll have this woman exposed before she gets a chance to become the next Rosina Thompson or Miss Cleo.”
Heather lifted another slice of pizza and handed it to Craig. He saw a distracted expression on her face, and a noticeably sad expression shone in her eyes.
“Heather? Is something wrong?”
She laid a palm across her pregnant belly. Tears now glinted in her eyes.
Craig set the pizza to the table and rubbed her shoulder. “Tell me, please.”
She waved her hands as if commanding the tears away. But her voice was strained as she said, “I’m sorry. It’s just Thad finally returned my calls.”
Thad was the father of Heather’s baby. Craig had not been overly impressed by the guy. He had the requisite Hollywood good looks and fair acting talents, and he talked a good talk about whatever latest cause célèbre the bigger stars supported at any given moment. But Thad spent way too much time talking about himself and whatever auditions his agent, Daniela Fogerty, had lined up next.
Craig asked what Thad had said?
“Nothing helpful,” she answered. The tears spilled down her cheeks and she accepted the paper napkin Craig offered. “He says he’s still up in Canada. He’s done with summer stock. Daniela Fogerty managed to get him signed on to do two commercials next month. And he's also auditioning for a movie in a week.”
Craig held back his crude opinion of Thad’s priorities. “When’s he coming back?” he asked instead. “The baby is due in what, two weeks?”
Heather pursed her mouth angrily. “I asked, oh I asked! The a-hole never gave a straight answer, just kept talking like he didn’t hear the question."
Craig wanted to kick the bum. After Heather had told Thad she was expecting, he’d acted happy enough. Later, when Craig took him out later for a celebratory beer, Thad had surprised him by mentioning he was thinking of asking Heather to move in together. Then in Heather’s fifth month Thad suddenly split for Canada. Since then he'd managed to find time to message Heather only once. After this he ignored her calls and messages altogether. Heather had been left in worried limbo right up till this recent phone call. Sometimes Craig wondered how Heather, as bright as she was, could have fallen for such a douche bag?
But Craig knew that had he himself spent less time focused on work, Thad might not even be in the picture now. Over time since first meeting her his feeling of mere friendship had developed into something much stronger. Had he taken the initiative to tell Heather this, it may not have worked out between them. But now he was afraid he’d lost forever the chance of to find out.
“I’m sorry, Heather.”
She sniffed. “I finally found someone I thought cares so much about world problems, loves the environment, respects women, the whole nine yards. And it turns out he's nothing but a self-centered dick.”
“Yes, Thad is definitely a dick,” Craig told her. “But you’re going to have a beautiful baby to love, Heather. You are going to make a wonderful mom. And you got me. I’m not going anywhere. I promise, forbidding some catastrophe, I will be right there beside you in the delivery room.”
Heather’s face looked like it was about to crumble with emotion. “Really? You want to be there?”
Craig nodded. “You’re my best friend. I sure do want to be there.”
“I do not deserve a friend like you!”
“Hey, I’m being selfish, you know? I am secretly obligating you to me.”
Heather made an uncertain laugh. “What do you mean?”
“It means, if the day comes when my dream comes true and I start my own film company, I will need someone I can trust to help me start. And the only person outside of my sister I really trust is you.”
“You will start it. I have no doubt.” She looked at him thoughtfully. “Sincerely? You’d want my help?”
“Hell yes,” he said. “I’ve about decided to start it in Idaho. You know as much about the ins and outs of the business as I do. If I fail, I might as well have my best friend in Idaho to fail with me.”
Hope glimmered in Heather’s red-rimmed eyes. “I would love one day to get out of this place. Say goodbye to this phony baloney town. Have the opportunity to work at a place where originality is prized, and nobody is in bed with a major sponsor.”
“Then I vow I won’t go without you.”
She gave his shoulder a jesting smack. “Now you’re going to have me crying again.”
“Go ahead. Tears don’t hurt. But I mean it, Heather, I won’t desert you.” He grinned and lightly spread his palm across her belly. He was delighted to feel a tiny limb twitch under the pads of his fingers. “Or this one.”
She laughed and the sound of it was bliss to Craig’s ears. He almost felt sorry for the vain Thad. The idiot was somewhere up in Canada, missing out on something truly beautiful.
On Monday Kesha caught a ride to school with her friend Lucilla, so Craig drove the Mini Cooper to work. This day would see the commencement of taping for episode seven of TDC's upcoming season.
He spent a few hours in his office doing a little paperwork, and then in reading over and approving the last draft for the script. The contracted guest was scheduled to come in on Wednesday, when the official filming would begin. This guest was one Brent Price, a high school student who lived near Red Bluff. The young man had a reputed talent for being able to predict a person’s future by touching their tattoos and moles. Price’s mom served as his promoter, and it was she who had first brought her son to notice by renting him booths at various outdoor psychic fairs and other such events.
Price had since then written an e-book that described how he had first came to realize he possessed a “unique gift”. It had become an online bestseller. In addition to his fame as a tattoo reader, Thad and a friend hosted a popular Youtube channel dedicated to paranormal topics. In fact, it had been one of the channel's fans who had contacted Gerald Agee to boast about the teen’s ability and of his achievement in the writers’ world.
Agee had at once purchased and read the e-book, and followed up by watching several of the kid’s Youtube videos. Although Price was much younger than most guests that appeared on The Debunker's Challenge, he had an extensive fan base. And there was nothing Agee enjoyed more than taking down a celebrity hoaxer. So he had contacted Price and invited him to be a guest on the show. The boy’s mother had immediately accepted on son’s behalf.
In addition to okaying the last draft Craig gave his John Hancock for the inclusion of the two people Agee wanted as co-judges. These were familiar faces to the show: Zane Kraft, a stage illusionist who had worked the Las Vegas circuit for years, and Dr. Leslie Barkley, who held a Masters in Applied Behavior Analysis. Craig didn’t particularly like Barkley; she was a woman with a caustic temperament, and who regularly blurted out rude comments to the guests. But her personality played well with Agee’s low-key depreciating tone. By contrast, the attractive Kraft had affable personality. When Kraft sat on the panel, he judged each Challenge with an open-mind and he was very polite to the guests. Seven or eight times over the course of the series Kraft had even given favorable verdicts to a number of these guests. All this had endeared him to the portion of viewers who watched in hopes of seeing a guest prove their paranormal abilities. Of course, this naturally incurred for him the ridicule of the cynical base audience. The contrasting admiration and loathing felt by viewers toward Kraft made for desirably high ratings. And Agee –as much as he complained about Kraft being impressionable and stupid- liked having him on for this reason.
When Craig finally made a walk over to the studio stage he found himself breaking up a heated argument between a sound tech and the delivery guy from the studio bakery. He had just opened the door to the main lobby when he heard an exchange of obscenities flying from inside. As he stepped in he saw a small circle of production crew standing and watching the two men faced one another.
They pointed fingers at one another while they cursed. Both challenged the other to take a swing. Craig was sure neither had the courage (or stupidity) to actually throw a punch. Still, this was not the way for any adult to behave at work. He warned both they were close to getting their butts thrown off the grounds by security. They backed off from each other, and he watched as they exited the building through different doors. Only after this did Craig learn from the other crew members that the whole thing had started over a mix-up on an order of gluten-free cookies. Craig shook his head in disbelief and returned to his office.
By three o’clock Craig was feeling hunger pangs. He got a candy bar from the snack bar, but it didn’t much help to quiet the rumbling in his stomach. At nearly four-thirty his assistant Jon came in to tell him the production crew had invited him to meet them in a half hour for dinner over at the Ruddy Duck Cantina. Craig wasn’t a big fan of the over-priced restaurant but as hungry as he was, he'd be happy to sink his teeth into one of their infamously tasteless enchiladas.
“Why don’t you come, too?” Craig suggested. “My treat.”
Jon gave a shake of his head and politely declined. He said his boyfriend was planning a romantic anniversary supper at their place. After Jon stepped out Craig picked up his briefcase and headed out of the building.
Ruddy Duck Cantina was located six blocks away from the ATN studio. It wasn’t a fancy place, but the parking lot was ample. As Craig pulled in he saw a couple of his crew just walking in. He exited the Mini Cooper and followed them.
He saw the two being escorted by a hostess. Another approached Craig. She was a very lean young woman with long golden hair caught back in a ponytail.
“Mr. Herbert?” she said, pointing at him. “You and your people have been here before. You liked our peach margaritas.”
Craig read her name tag: Rose Dawn. Ah yes, he remembered, you spilled clam sauce on my jacket last time. But he only smiled sweetly as she told him his party was at a reserved table in the back. She led him to the cozy room where it appeared the rest of the party was already seated at the long rectangular table.
There was only one chair left available, and this situated between props master David Cross and the wardrobe supervisor, Amy Pursak. Craig had no problem with David. He remembered, however, Amy was a sloppy flirt after a few drinks. As he sat down he noticed the beer, margaritas and wine was already flowing.
The early evening dinner turned out more pleasant than he’d expected. The food had been prepared better than usual and unlike some company dinners there was scant smack talk directed at any of the show’s guests. This time the conversation was relaxed and friendly. There were some jokes, none of which were very politically correct, but they were funny all the same.
Amy did manage to inch her chair closer and closer to Craig’s, until he felt one of her knees knock roughly into his own. She was well into her fourth or fifth glass of rosé by now. The others were laughing at some witty story Agee had just told. Amy laced her long manicured fingers across Craig’s forearm. Her big hazel eyes were a little glassy over her pretty feline smile. Craig had often thought it was a shame the only time Amy was able to conjure up a conversation without vulgarity-peppered sentences was when she was drunk.
“So how are you, Craig?” she asked thickly.
“Doing great, Amy. Yourself?”
As luck would have it her answer was interrupted when a couple of the other women excused themselves to go to the restroom. Amy blew him a kiss and decided to go with them. Craig used the opportunity to give his goodnights and pay his share of the bill.
As Craig exited the restaurant the last glorious rays of daylight stretched across the sky. He was good and full and looked forward to going home and watching the evening news. He would call Heather, too, if just to see how she was feeling.
He was nearly to the Mini Cooper when he spotted a child standing at the driver door. The child was quite young, maybe three or four, with very short dark hair. He clutched what appeared to be a dark scarf to one cheek. Craig came toward him, looking here and there across the parking lot for sign of the kid’s parents. But he saw no one but people entering the restaurant.
“Hey buddy,” he said to the boy. “Are you lost?”
The boy cast him an uncertain look. Craig saw clearly now that the thing he’d thought was a scarf was actually an old baby blanket. The boy pointed in the direction of the restaurant with a plump forefinger. A disquieted frown crimped his brow.
Craig bent forward, hands on his thighs. He was worried for the kid and wondered if he should take him inside the restaurant to look for his mom and dad.
“Is Mommy inside the building?” he asked.
The boy answered with an indiscernible grunt.
Craig patted his little shoulder. “Don’t worry, buddy. We’ll go look for her.”
Craig reached for the boy’s hand. This was when he heard his name spoken. He saw it was Agee, standing just behind the next car.
Agee frowned. “Were you talking to someone?”
“Yeah, this little guy.” Craig gestured to the kid and was saw he had slipped away. He felt a note of panic to think the young child could be running around the parking lot. Quickly he gave a look over the whole place. He saw no trace of the boy. He walked away from his vehicle to the middle of the lot for a better look between the parked vehicles. But again, he found no sign of the boy.
“Did you see him?” he asked Agee.
Agee shook his head. “No. Just you.”
Craig knew he was probably overreacting, but he could not just dismiss the kid.
“I meant to return this to you inside,” Agee said. He took from his shirt pocket the memory stick Craig had given him on Saturday.
Agee snickered as he returned it to Craig. “Those interviews are something else. I got the feeling Ms. Crawford has promised these old fools some of the prize money she intends to win. Just can’t imagine any unknown medium finding that many gullible suckers –with that many creative stories- in one old folks home.”
Craig was still concerned about the boy. “Not an old folks home. A seniors center,” he corrected Agee in a distracted voice. He heard himself repeat Fred Wagoner’s description, “More like a club.”
“Oh.” Agee nodded. “Whatever it is, I will devise some very telling challenges for their Betty Ann. She’ll be so painfully exposed they won’t want her back in Whereverville, Tennessee.”
“Squirrel Hollow,” Craig said, stuffing the memory stick into his pants pocket. “In the Indian Springs community.”
He barely saw the curious pucker gave him. “I’ll see you tomorrow then? I’m going back inside.”
Craig said goodnight, but hardly noticed as the host made his way back inside the restaurant. He walked through the parking lot instead, searching for the boy between the vehicles and the cement pathway that led around the building. Having no luck, he got down on hands and knees beside each vehicle and looked underneath them. At length he decided it was useless. He’d have better luck, if any, inside the Ruddy Duck.
As he started to head back inside a new vehicle entered the parking lot. As the driver drove slowly past him in search of a space Craig heard voices piping up from the shrub-thicketed little divide between the Ruddy Duck’s property and the almost vacant vape shop next door. He stepped toward the divide and heard movement under the tree limbs. The next moment he eyed about twenty young kids walking across the parking lot of the vape shop. They were young, every one, and though their backs were all to him, he recognized the little one cuddling the old blanket to his face.
Craig also thought he recognized among the group the same three boys he’d seen playing near the kiosk on Saturday. He squinted for a better look, and looking again, was certain it was the same kids. He knew he should go after them; ask them where their parents were? But a twinge of uncertainty resisted the conscientious voice prompting him to follow.
He noticed one of the boys wore faded pajamas… hadn’t he seen this kid somewhere, too? And the little black kid walking beside him, there was something oddly familiar about the way he moved.
“Hey there!” Craig shouted. Almost at once he wondered if he should just mind his own business.
The group of children stopped. The little black boy who seemed so familiar from the back turned around. His dark blue eyes were bright, his smile sweet. And in his arms he held a plush Tomato Head.
Craig’s heart lurched. “Kristophe?” Ignoring the stone of ice in his gut, he ran toward the boys. Just as he reached them a late model silver car peeled sharply off the highway and into the lot right in front of him. The vehicle rolled right through the group of children. A horrified scream tore through Craig’s windpipe.
He was hardly aware he had fallen to his knees or that the car had come to a stop. A young couple emerged from the car and hurried to him.
“Dude, are you alright?” the young man asked.
He and the woman helped Craig to his feet. He dashed around the other side of their vehicle, the couples’ worried questions babble to his ears. To both his dismay and relief the children were not here. He looked up and down the lot. He peered into the street. Craig realized the children were not here. And he wondered if they ever had been.
Craig decided to spend the next couple of days at home. He wasn’t sick, though when Matt called to check on him, he said he wasn’t feeling well. The fact was the incident in the parking lot had left Craig doubting his own mental health. This concern, however, was one he didn’t plan to share with Kesha.
While they took dinner at the kitchen table that night, she observed, “You’re not sick, Craig. And not like you to skip work. What’s going on?”
“Nothing to worry about, Kesh,” he assured her. “Just don’t feel myself.” It was as close to the truth as he was willing to go.
Kesha made an unconvincing sound. “Alright. But if you want to talk, I’m here tonight. Lucilla and Zoe won’t pick me up till seven in the morning.”
He suddenly remembered the vacation Kesha and her friends had been planning for over two months ago. “Oh gosh, that’s right! The three of you are going to Oregon for a week. Zoe is driving.” He tried to sound light as he added, “Like California doesn’t have enough beaches to visit on your break. You girls better not have plans to stow away some guys.”
This made her grin. “Don’t need to. Zoe says Pacifica Beach is crawling with man hotties.”
He smiled and Kesha did no more prying into why he was home. They watched some television together before she turned in for bed. Craig fell asleep on the couch. Kesha was so quiet the next morning he only stirred when she roused him to say her friends were outside to pick her up.
“You need money?” he asked drowsily.
“Nope,” Kesha said and plopped a loud kiss to his brow. “I’ll call you when we get there.”
Craig heard her move across the room and then the front door close behind her. He was asleep again in moments and stayed that way until nearly nine.
He spent most of the day watching daytime television and catching up with bills. Kesha called him around four to let him know she and her friends had made it to Pacifica Beach without a hitch. He could tell she was having a good time, and he was glad to hear her friends laughing in the background.
In the early evening he called Heather. She reported she was tired but well. Her mother and a cousin had thrown her a baby shower that afternoon. He listened as Heather told him about all the infant stuff she’d brought home. Her mood was too giddy to even think of telling her about what had happened at the Ruddy Duck.
He enjoyed a dinner of ramen noodles, followed by a run through the neighborhood. After this he took a long hot shower. Having had a day with plenty of time to casually think about what had happened at the parking lot. He readied for bed with the satisfied conclusion his insanity was perfectly intact.
The problem had been he had been stressed out over little things at work, and Heather and her baby were never far from his thoughts. More pertinently, he still remembered the insinuations Betty Ann Crawford had voiced. It had been she who had made him think about Kristophe. Very rationally now Craig believed Betty Ann had used social media to delve into his past. She may have even ordered one of those paid background checks, perhaps even hired a private detective. Whatever she had resorted to get his story, she had used the info for the purpose of legitimizing her medium claims. Her callous invocation of Kristophe’s name and the allusion to his disappearance had succeeded in playing with his psyche.
But it was over now and Craig saw her for the fraud she was.
As he lay in bed and closed his eyes, he understood what he’d seen in the parking lot had been induced by the power of suggestion. If he indulged any nagging concern, it was the knowledge that only in a matter of days he’d see Betty Ann again. He had always managed to keep his temper in control, but he had never been as angry with anyone as he was with this quack medium. The truth was he hated her for the blatant, low-class misuse of his love for his brother.
He reminded himself that very soon Betty Ann Crawford would meet her karma. The Debunker’s Challenge would insure that.
Craig slept better that night than he had in days.
© 2020 Beth Perry