Debunked - Part 4
DEBUNKED 2020 Beth Perry
Craig arrived early to the studio on Thursday morning. On this day the second set of Challenges for tattoo reader Brent Price was scheduled to be filmed.
Agee had previously indicated that since Price’s primary claim to fame was reading tattoos, the tests devised would be simpler but perhaps a little more creative than those regularly designed.
The first two Challenges had been performed on Wednesday. For the first one Agee had lined up over twenty people with tattoos for Price to “read” in the studio. For the second, the host had obtained printed photographs of tattoos from famous people. These photos were laid out across a display table, and Price had been expected to touch each and every photograph. The boy was then asked to tell the judges something about the person to whom the tattoos belonged.
Today’s filming would be for the third Challenge, as well as the judges’ decision segment. This last test for Price was an ingenious one. The young man would be blindfolded and guided through a room. Here, the guide would place his hands –and only his hands- to the tattooed limbs of five different subjects. Price would not be allowed to speak with the subjects, but expected to provide a physical description of the subject based on his psychic interpretation of their tattoo. What Price would not be told beforehand was that while the tattoos would indeed be real, none of the subjects on which they had been illustrated were living people. The tattooed “skin” was actually the outer surface of prop dummies. Each dummy was somewhat human-like in appearance, though the bodily proportions were different. The faux torsos and limbs were to be filled with a special liquid which was circulated by electronic components. This liquid enhanced the human-like suppleness of human flesh, while the warmth created by the electronic mechanism provided a steady surface temperature of 97.8 Fahrenheit. The reasoning for this deception was simple: if Price could truly discern personal details about human beings from touching their tattoos then ration dictated that he'd know when a tattoo he touched did not belong to a living person.
After today's filming was finished all the taped sessions would be turned over to the editing department. The editors generally spent the rest of a week and most of the following in post production. Their work entailed the trimming and collating of the filmed segments and making sure the end credits included the guest’s name. The editors were also responsible for the addition of at least a few deceptive bleeps throughout the audio of the final cut. This wasn't a necessary inclusion, but a few manufactured insinuations that a guest or one of the panel judges had become angry or annoyed enough to blurt out an obscenity was a sure-fire trick for galvanizing emotions in the TV audience.
Craig didn’t typically spend much time in the control room during filming. But he hadn’t yet met young Price with his unique alleged powers. At nearly eleven Craig finished up some conference calls and decided to visit the studio in the hopes of seeing the boy perform for the cameras and judges.
On arriving he found only two people in the control room: technical director Vint Hausner and his assistant, Danny Jackson. Vint was seated at the production desk, while Danny knelt on the floor beside a long side table standing against a wall of the room. Craig saw Danny was rummaging through a small cardboard box there next to the table.
Craig looked to the long table. It had originally been brought in for the tech crew to keep their drinks or snacks, but overtime Vint had taken it over for keeping some personal stuff. Vint kept an ashtray on one far end (no one was supposed to smoke in the room, but the tech director was so well-liked no one ever complained). The rest of the table was taken up by Vint’s collection of bobble toys. The man had all kinds of these wobbly things. There were cheesy representations of vintage vehicles and famous structures, to those rare toys highly desirable by the serious collector of film and TV memorabilia. There were even a handful of modern bobbles powered by little solar batteries (though their wobble ability was meager since the windowless room provided little light for the batteries to soak up).
Craig got a kick out of Vint's trove. The technical director was tall, quite muscular and sported a bushy beard. His ripped arms were covered with tattoos of skulls, serpents and Norse tribal symbols. Not the sort of man Craig would ordinarily think of as a collector of toys.
Danny pulled out from the box something wrapped in bubble wrap. He carefully peeled the wrap away to reveal a new bobble for the collection. It was a Studebaker of all things.
Craig watched with amusement as Danny stood up and asked Vint where he wanted it?
“Anywhere for now,” Vint answered. “I’ll find a permanent place later.”
Craig noticed Vint kept an eye on the taping presently coming through from inside cozy stage room B. Craig came up beside the desk. Vint glanced up and told him that camera woman Terri Blankenship was filming a segment bumper with Agee. The host stood in front of a blue drape background as the camera rolled. Craig couldn’t tell who the director for the segment was as they stood out of shot.
“When we return,” Agee spoke, “you will discover if Brent Price has convinced The Debunkers Challenge judges of his acclaimed ability to psychically read tattoos - and if he will go home three million dollars richer!”
The voice of Maisey Henderson (the show’s chief director) declared from out of view, “And that’s a wrap!”
The input monitor went blank, though by the main preview monitor Craig could see Agee loosen his collar and glance at his watch. Craig heard him tell Terri that he was famished.
Craig knew segment bumpers were typically the last things to be filmed. “Did I miss out?” he asked Vint. “The last Challenge and the verdict?”
“Sorry man, yeah.”
“Aw, too bad. I was looking forward to watching those.”
“The judges' verdict went par for course,” Vint said. “The kid failed big time during the two Challenges filmed yesterday. However, during the one filmed today...well, you'll probably regret not being here to see it.”
Craig asked him how so?
A smile crept over Vint’s face. “The darned kid guessed two of those fake skins for what they were. It didn’t help him with the judges' verdict, but I was impressed. Wanna see?”
Danny piped up, “I want to watch again, too.”
Craig took a seat at the desk and Danny stood by his chair. Vint flipped a couple of buttons to bring up the session. Clapper images sprang up on the output monitor.
“This is single angle,” Vint said. “I’ve got close-ups on the judges’ faces on the secondary footage.”
This piece of playback footage opened in stage room C. Five chairs were lined up toward the back. In each was one of the state-of-the-art dummies. These had been positioned in a way as to resemble sitting human beings.
The far right door in the stage room opened. Agee and the other two judges –Kraft and Barkley- entered. As they stood to the sidelines Agee’s personal secretary Katie Alberts came in. Katie was often brought onto the show for inconsequential parts, and today she was leading in the blindfolded Brent Price. He was a petite young man, noticeably small for his age.
“I thought he was in high school?” Craig commented.
“He is,” Danny said. “But smart. Skipped two grades back in middle school.”
The judges watched silently as Katie led Brent to the first chair. A blue and golden winged butterfly had been tattooed on the dummy’s right shoulder. Katie informed Brent that the person in front of him was Subject 1. She guided his hands to the dummy’s shoulder.
Brent’s fingers roamed gingerly over the fake skin. “This is a woman,” he said hesitantly, “or at least I think. Brown hair. Tanned skin. The tattoo is a rose?”
They proceeded to the second chair. The dummy here had a tattoo of an anchor on its thigh. Katie put Brent’s hands to the artificial flesh there.
Brent did not speak for a few moments. At last he said, “A man. Short, black hair. Olive complexion. He has a dragon tattooed here.”
The dummy at the third chair had a black panther illustrated on a forearm. As Brent’s finger pads caressed the fake skin he shook his head and gave a little snort.
“This is not a person,” he declared. “But someone has put an illustration of a wild cat here. A black one.”
Craig lifted an eyebrow. “Interesting.”
Katie led Brent to the fourth dummy. Its throat had been tattooed with an eyeball.
As Brent touched the inanimate flesh he made a little confused sound. “A tall man. Balding. He has a rune tattooed here.”
Now Katie guided Brent to the fifth and last chair. This dummy had a purple and green dragon at the inside of the thigh area.
Brent’s fingers glided over the tattoo. “A dragon. Green. Purple,” he said. Then with a note of exasperation, “But again, this is not a person.”
From the sideline Agee announced, “Brent, we’re sure you are anxious to see how accurate you were about these subjects and their tattoos. You may remove the blindfold now.”
Craig watched as the teen took off the blindfold and handed it to Katie. He saw now the teen’s features were very tender, and his deep blue eyes large and deep-set. The fragile skin under his eyes was dark, and his overall skin tone had a yellowish pallor. Craig strongly suspected the boy suffered from some health issue.
As Brent looked over the row of dummies no telling expression came to his face. He said nothing.
It was the Zane Kraft who ventured a comment, “You nailed two of them, Brent. You told us they weren’t people and you correctly identified their tattoos.”
Dr. Leslie Barkley shook her head and said in a snide tone, “Not exactly. He clearly said the third subject had a wild cat tattoo. That is clearly a panther. There is a distinct difference.”
“I’d have to disagree,” Kraft responded. “A panther is a big cat that lives in the wild. And that big cat, as we all see, is black."
Agee beamed benignly at Brent. “What do you think, Brent? Is two out of three a testament to your psychic abilities?”
Only now did Brent crack a smile. It was a hard smile. “I think this was meaningless,” he told the host. “I have never said I can pick up information from a tattoo on a dummy.”
Over the broadcast the unseen segment director called “Cut!” The playback abruptly cut off.
Vint observed, “The cameraman said he was glad they cut it off at that point. Barkley replied to the kid with one of her patented you should seek therapy remarks. She never learns; the last time she said that to a guest she got sued for malpractice.”
Danny said, “I think they ought to test Dr. Barkley. I don’t think she could have guessed any of those were dummies.”
Craig pushed the chair back from the desk. “How did the kid handle losing the Verdict?”
“Like a trooper,” Vint said. “He told them thanks for having me and wished them all a nice day.”
“I wonder what kind of effect this will have on his social media following? Fans can quickly turn into haters over something like this.”
“Maybe,” Vint mused. “But at least he’s found an unexpected fan of sorts.”
“What do you mean?”
“Agee learned from Matt Price’s mom that the kid’s got Cystic Fibrosis. Agee was kinder during the Verdict segment than I’ve ever seen him. He offered to take them out shopping for clothes for the boy, and to dinner before they leave for Red Bluff. And I overheard Mrs. Price tell your assistant that someone one here had made out a money order for her, to help with her son’s medical bills. A network cheque. She didn’t know who authorized it, but she was in tears.”
“Twenty-five hundred dollars,” added Danny. “It would have had to been authorized by one of the network executives. Though I imagine Agee was the one who requested it."
Craig was pleasantly surprised. “She and the boy having a rough time, are they?”
Vint nodded. “Yeah. The mom works two jobs, the dad is dead.”
“Well, the network can well afford it,” Craig said. “And it is a very decent gesture. Agee continually surprises.”
Vint chuckled. “Be nice if some of that decency would rub off on Dr. Barkley.”
“The beeyotch could sure use it,” Danny said.
“Yeah,” Craig laughed. “But viewers love to hate her. And that’s part of what keeps this show the network’s number one.”
The remainder of the work week went smoothly for Craig. On Friday he had drinks with some of the tech crew, then home for a great night’s sleep. Saturday was spent shopping for basics. That evening he took Heather out to dinner to one of her favorite seafood places. The pregnancy appetite was working hard on her; she ate three different appetizers along with a clam plate and two pieces of cake. After he got her home they watched a movie. Or, at least they started to watch a movie - less than half way through Heather fell asleep on the couch. Craig covered her with a quilt. Before leaving he wrote her a note saying he would check in with her the next day.
Sunday was rainy but relaxing. He caught up with some house chores and found a kickboxing event to watch. Kesha called during the broadcast. She reported that she and her girlfriends were having a wonderful time at Pacifica Beach, but also that he was often in her thoughts.
After a dinner of a sandwich and soup Craig called Heather. She sounded like she didn’t feel well, and when he asked about it she said she’d been experiencing some strong Braxton-Hicks contractions.
“Are you sure that’s all it is?”
“I’m sure,” she assured him. “Don't worry. When I go into real labor, you’ll be the first I call.”
“Better be,” he told her. “I’m going to be in that delivery room with you.”
He heard her make a happy murmur. “Between you, my mom, the doctor, nurses and possibly my sister, that freakin’ delivery room is going to be packed. But I will be glad to have you there, Craig. More than you can know.”
There was a steady rain outside when Craig turned in for bed. As such downpours often did, the sound lulled him quickly into sleep. His dreams were many and for the most part pleasant: visions of Heather holding her newborn baby…images of Kesha dancing on the beach with friends…half-memories of playing darts with some of his old high school buddies.
Then at one point Craig found himself walking across a great open field of thick green grass. The sky was clear, the sun above radiant. He saw a mountain in the distance ahead. It impressed him as the most peaceful mountain in the entire world. The craggy top was blanketed in snow that glistened beneath the overhead sun, and the entire ridge teemed with flowering lush trees.
He realized he was carrying a silver lunchbox. Curious about what kind of victuals were packed, he sat down in the velvety field to open it. There was a banquet of food inside: bowls of steaming spaghetti and long rolls of fresh bread, bunches of glistening grapes and slices of fresh pineapple. There was even a ceramic flask. He opened this and sampled the liquid, finding it the most exquisite of wines. Neither dry nor sweet it was, only a perfect blend of both. As he thought about which food to eat first he was overcome with a feeling of sublime contentment.
Just as he decided on a roll, he heard something like a distant voice from the direction to his left. He looked over saw a rickety old wooden fence. On the other side of the fence, not twenty yards away, stood a formidable-looking wall. Craig could not tell if the structure was made of stone or metal, only that he had the impression the material was something of both. He got to his feet and approached the fence. As he studied the wall he saw the surface was marred with cavities. The opening of every cavity appeared to be strewn over by decaying vegetation and debris.
There was a twitch of movement at one of the lower cavities. This particular cavity was located no more than two feet above the ground, and unlike the others the opening was unobstructed. Craig sensed anything could be lying in wait in that darkness…snakes, spiders, something inhuman, or something perhaps even worse.
A desire to act overcame him. He scaled the ancient fence and jumped to the ground to the other side. As he approached the cavity, however, every instinct told him to stay back, to avoid looking inside.
He stepped closer and peered inside. Nothing but gaping, fathomless blackness. For a moment he believed the twitch he'd seen before must have been a trick of his vision.
There is nothing here, he thought.
Just as the thought entered his mind he heard distinct breathing from inside the cavity. A moment later whoever it was let out a soft cry.
Craig shivered. He thought of turning away, but no, that would be cowardly, wrong.
Who is in there? Are you alright? he shouted.
Footfalls padded in the grass behind him. He heard a familiar voice: You know this place, Craig.
He turned to see Betty Ann Crawford standing there. She looked as he remembered her, in faded jeans and the tee shirt, the pasta shell bracelet at her wrist. A whisper of a breeze stirred her blonde locks and whipped it over her face. Craig knew now none of this was real. Just a dream inspired solely by the cruel influence of Betty Ann's real life mind games.
You’ve been here before, she said. Remember how it truly looks.
He covered his ears and shouted, I won’t let you into my anymore! None of this is real!
The vision of Betty Ann gave an accusing frown. Remember, Craig! See it as it really is.
He growled at the vision and shouted at himself to awaken. At once the overhead sky darkened, the green field shimmered like cold diamonds. A wink later these things disappeared altogether and he found himself standing in a room. He felt disoriented, and yet there was something familiar about this place. By the height of the single window he guessed it was a basement. The walls were solid, plastered. Limestone flooring. Florescent fixture lights burning sickly overhead. A large water heater stood in one nearby corner. A vintage soda machine at one close-by wall. As Craig turned, he noticed an open riser staircase. They led up to a sturdy grayish green door.
Craig knew this place, or at least thought he'd seen it before. And yet he could not recall where or when.
A choking sob sounded from behind the water heater.
He was too angry with Betty Ann to care who was sobbing or what anything here meant. He closed his eyes and shouted at himself again, I am waking up now! I am waking up!
The next instant Craig awakened with heart pounding and his body bathed in icy sweat. Gentle rain still pelted the roof over his room. The air conditioner hummed softly. He closed his eyes and turned over. The terrifying images and sensations from the nightmare began to dim. Only a faintly glowing image of Betty Ann Crawford clung to his vision. Whether he was wide awake or asleep, he understood the devilish woman’s lies had laid claim to his unconscious mind.
“I hate you, Betty Ann,” he muttered.
He closed his eyes, and let his hatred chase the last of the spectral image into oblivion.
© 2020 Beth Perry