Beth Perry is a professional author. She lives near the great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
DEBUNKED 2020 Beth Perry
On Monday Craig discovered that nearly half the production crew was out with a summer cold making the rounds. His assistant Matt called in sick, though Jon was able to step up as full-time assistant. Agee sent word through Katie Alberts that he was sick, too. This made for a slight inconvenience to the week’s schedule. But the draft for Betty Ann Crawford’s episode was already waiting on Craig’s desk when he arrived that morning. He took especial interest in reading over the nature of the Challenges Agee had devised for her. What he found was not unsatisfying. Dr. Leslie Barkley and Zane Kraft were again wanted for co-judges.
For once Craig was delighted to give his approval of the waspish Barkley.
One of the planned Challenges made him smile. It required seven people to be brought in to help test Betty Ann’s powers. Four of these people would be ordinary people randomly recruited off the street. The other three would be ringers of sorts – studio hands posing as people who had all lost loved ones. Betty Ann’s task would be to tell each person something significant about themselves. Field production assistant Tabby Alvarez was in charge of recruiting the four ordinaries while Agee would bring in the ringers.
At nearly four that afternoon Craig was in his office. He'd just finished a phone call with a local florist to confirm a bouquet of balloons he wanted sent to Matt. There was a tap at the door. He looked up to see Jon poke his head in.
“What’s up?" Craig asked, gesturing him in. "If you're sick, too, you can head on home for the day."
Jon shook his head. “I was wondering if you had heard the news about the Price kid?”
“His mom reported him missing on Sunday. The police in Red Bluff are still looking for him.”
“Geesh," Craig said. He sympathized with how Mrs. Price was surely feeling. “I hope he’s alright. But Brent’s a teen. He probably got into an argument with his mom and stormed out long enough to worry her.”
Again Jon shook his head. “Not according to his mom. She told the police they are very close. Nothing out of the ordinary happened before she found he'd left the house and hadn't come back.”
Craig remembered Brent Price was a very sick young man. “Well, I hope they find him soon. I know his health isn’t good. How did you find out?”
“Benita Shaw got a call from the Red Bluff police department. They wanted to know if the kid has been seen around here. She’s been calling all the offices. So if we see him we’re supposed to call his mom or the authorities in Red Bluff.”
Craig was glad the executive producer was concerned, but he saw no reason Brent Price would come back to the studio. “I will. Though honestly, there’d be no reason for him to come all the way here, is there?”
Jon offered a shrug. “None I can think of.”
Craig thought of something. “Oh, by the way,” he said, “I know Matt was supposed to go to the airport tomorrow evening to pick up the Crawford woman-“
“Already on my schedule,” Jon assured him. “And her room at the Relax-o-Lodge inn is already reserved. I’ll take her there myself. Oh, and I talked to Matt during lunch and he says this cold is a mild one. He should be back to work tomorrow. Hopefully you’ll have a full team in the studio, too.”
Craig forced a smile. As much as he looked forward to Betty Ann Crawford’s embarrassment during the Challenges, he couldn’t help but feel it might be dicey for him to speak with her. He couldn't ignore his bitterness toward her, and he didn’t want that bitterness tempting him to say or do something unprofessional once she got there.
“That’d be great,” he told Jon. “Thanks man.”
That evening Craig went home with a slight case of indigestion. It was no surprise, really; after Jon had told him the news about Brent Price he’d thought of little besides the teen and his likely very worried mom.
The indigestion subsided after a dinner of salad and baked pork chop. Later Craig took a lengthy run, followed by a cool shower. Then he called Kesha and they talked for awhile.
His sister sounded to be having a great time. Kesha told him about a quaint little gift shop that sold the nicest locally handcrafted jewelry. She also mentioned meeting a guy, an artist, who had taken her dancing the night before. Randy was his name, and he was originally from Los Angeles. Although Kesha tried to keep her voice neutral while she talked about this Randy, Craig could tell she was smitten.
He has pieces hanging in two galleries in the area, she gushed in her sorry attempt not to gush. We’re going out again tomorrow.
Craig was happy her trip was going well. By the time he said goodnight all thoughts of Brent Price had ebbed away from his thoughts. He slept very well that night. In the morning he woke up with all the clarity and energy to which he was accustomed.
At the studio Matt and almost everyone who had been out sick the day before were returned. It was an active morning for those preparing to begin the filming of Betty Ann's episode. Craig's schedule didn't feel so burdened; he only had a little paperwork to fill out and couple of phone calls to return.
At nearly ten o’clock there was a knock at his door. He opened it to find Walter Pang standing there. Pang was one of the junior members of the Awareness Television Network's stable of attorneys, a slender, staid guy who looked much younger than his forty-five years. Craig had only spoken with the man a few times (most memorably at the last Christmas party). Although Pang was technically employed as a legal consultant, the CEO's frequently relied on him to deliver board room announcements or seek answers from the various personnel working on their productions.
Pang apologized if he had interrupted anything.
“No, not at all,” Craig said. “What can I do for you, Walter?”
Pang made a little grimace. “It concerns the guest whose episode was filmed last week. I am so sorry, it is probably really nothing.”
Craig returned to his seat behind the desk and asked Pang to take the chair across from it.
“I heard about Brent Price’s disappearance,” Craig told him. “Has he come home?”
“I wish I could say yes,” Pang replied with a ring of sadness. “One of our secretaries called the mother about an hour ago. The young man is still missing.”
Craig felt seriously bad about this situation. “Do the police have any leads?”
“The mother says no.” Pang cleared his throat softly and said, “We have also learned some distressing information. It seems that the boy’s video-making partner, another teenager named Aidan Joyce, took it upon himself to do something which could potentially cause the network some unwanted publicity.”
“A mass email to all their subscribed followers. In it the Joyce boy apologized to their fans that it may be awhile for the release of their next video. He then told all those subscribers that Brent Price is missing. But this is not all.”
Craig had a grim suspicion he could guess what Pang was getting at. “So, what else?"
“Aidan Joyce let them know Brent Price had failed on the Debunker’s Challenge,” Pang explained. And with a little note of sympathy, “It is possible Aidan Joyce is not aware there was a clause to the contract young Mr. Price signed with us. A clause which prohibits him from discussing the episode until it is aired.”
Craig understood such clauses were customary practice; it was one of the papers he’d had Betty Ann Crawford sign.
“Well, Brent is a just kid,” Craig said. He saw a cold glimmer in Pang’s eyes. “What, are we supposed to do now, sue the kid? He has disappeared. Apparently he’s taking the loss badly enough already.”
Pang’s voice was chilly, “The network feels it is in everyone’s best interest that the Brent Price’s episode is never aired.”
Craig understood completely now. The CEO's and their legal team were terrified if Brent Price had sunk into depression, the public would place blame at the network’s doorstep. “That’s not up to me," he said. "You’ll have to take it up with-“
“With no one else,” Pang interjected. “It has already been decided.”
“Okay.” Craig wondered if Agee was fuming in his office at this very moment? “How did Agee take it?”
“Mr. Agee is fine with it.” The touch of a plastic smile turning up the corners of Pang's mouth. “But another season’s episode will have to be filmed to make up for the loss. We understand that as field producer, you were not expecting this. And for the inconvenience to you and your staff we apologize.”
Craig recognized the emptiness of Pang’s apology. But he did appreciate being told up front why his work schedule for the season –and that of everyone who would be involved making up for a scrubbed episode- would be extended.
“I thank you for letting me know, Mr. Pang. This might be more of an inconvenience for the editing department than anyone else. No biggie for me, and probably not the guest scout. I’m sure she can find someone else interested in coming on the show.” Craig suddenly remembered this was not quite the truth…Heather was still on maternity leave and he had no idea where he’d look for someone else to take the guest slot.
“Great,” Pang responded. “And I hope you don’t mind, but my wife is a big fan of the show. She took it upon herself to make a list of potential guests to invite.”
Craig knew this wasn’t the customary practice in finding guests, but he was relieved to hear it. “That may well be of help. What kind of guests are we talking about? Mediums, spoon-benders, finders of lost objects?”
“One woman who is a practicing Reiki,” Pang said. “And a man who claims to be able to levitate. And I believe there is another who works as a psychic pet therapist.”
Craig laughed. “Agee would like that last one.”
“Very well. I have taken the liberty of leaving the list with your assistant Matt.” Pang stood up and extended his hand over the desk. “Thanks so much for your understanding, Craig.”
Craig grasped his hand and shook it. He wished Pang a good day and watched as he let himself out. After the door shut, Craig was aware of a prick of irritation at his temple.
“A kid missing,” he grumbled, “and all the studio heads care about are protecting their own hides.”
Before going home that evening Craig headed over to Heather’s place. He picked up fast-food on the way -hamburgers, fries and half a dozen packaged apple pies. Heather loved the greasy things and he knew she’d regularly craved them over the last few months. As she let him into the apartment she looked at the paper bag in his hand.
With a sniff she said, “You brought me apple pies! Thank-you!”
As they ate at her couch Craig felt the tensions of the day slide from his shoulders. He was amused, though, for he could see Heather had recently gone on a cleaning binge. Not that she was messy to begin with, but today there wasn’t a mote of dust to be found and her appliances gleamed. He could even smell the lingering fragrance of the carpet cleaner she’d used.
“This place is almost too clean to be comfortable in,” he observed with a grin.
Heather was chewing but she nodded. He noticed now how radiant she looked. The very image of the proverbial earth mother he thought.
After swallowing she told him she was glad he was there. She’d found something on the internet she wanted him to look at after they’d eaten.
“I did most of the cleaning yesterday,” she said. “Today I mainly sat in front of my laptop. I was mainly bored when I looked for what I'm going to show you. I really didn't expect to find it. But I think you’ll be surprised. Pleasantly surprised.”
“Yeah? I could use a pleasant surprise today.”
At her inquisitive expression he explained about Brent Price missing and of the network’s decision Pang had come to him about.
“Gotta protect their own butts,” she quipped snidely. “I just hope the boy returns home soon. And that he’s alright.”
Craig nodded. “This means more work for our department, of course,” he told her. "Though Pang gave me a list of suggested guests. Made by his wife of all people.”
Heather snorted with laughter. “Jill Pang? Oh that woman has no stake in this, does she?”
Craig was confused. “What do you mean?”
“You remember Jill was a runner-up in one of those county beauty pageants, right? Well, the gal that took the title –Lily O’Keefe- is a professional psychic and house cleaner.”
“House cleaner? Why would Jill Pang bring us a house cleaner? “
“Not that kind of cleaner, silly!” Heather chuckled. “House cleaner, as in she cleans ghosts and ghouls and demons out of people’s homes.”
“Oh. So you think Jill Pang wants the pageant winner on the show out of revenge?”
“Check your list. If Lily O’Keefe isn’t at the top of Jill’s list I’ll be a monkey’s aunty.”
Craig had to admit he left the list at his office without even glancing at the names.
Heather shrugged and peeked into the paper bag sitting on the coffee table. She lifted out one of the packaged apple pies and peeled open the end. As she tugged the slim pie halfway out of the sleeve Craig caught a strong waft of apples and cinnamon.
“Forget the network anyway,” she said. “The only thing I want you to think about tonight is your future.”
Craig smiled curiously. He would have asked what Heather meant, but the next moment she’d sank her teeth into the pie.
Later Heather took Craig to her bedroom. After gesturing him to sit on the bed she picked up her laptop from the nightstand. She settled on the mattress beside him and balanced the computer atop her thighs.
“Ok, this place is about five miles outside of Elk City,” she said excited. “Used to be timbering property, until 2014, so the land isn’t just virgin forest. There’s a creek and warehouses –the timber guy’s son had a trucking company for some time. There is one hilly ridge, though most of the property is pretty level. Twenty acres in all. Oh, and there’s a small creek. With adjacent lots available.”
“Slow down,” he said. “Elk City? Elk City, Idaho?”
“Just outside the community,” she explained, opening the laptop. “The real estate agency representing it is located in Elk City.”
The monitor lit up. She passed the laptop to Craig, and he saw the page up was part of a real estate website. There were several images on this particular agent listing. The first was a photo of sprawling landscape with some industrial-like buildings. The second was a shot of a small but picturesque chalet. The third photo was a low wooded ridge. Below the images was a green arrow which Craig assumed would open more photos if he clicked it.
He looked at her uncertainly. “Are you trying to tell me I should buy this place?”
“I looked at the full details page,” she explained. “It has more warehouses than shown here. Big, clean warehouses. They could easily be turned into studios. It’s also at a price we can afford. I mean, if we both put our savings into it. And, it is in Idaho. Like you said you wanted, right? Idaho?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Twenty acres you say? Show me the price.”
Heather reached over and manipulated the key so the screen scrolled up. Right there atop the listing Craig saw the price: One-hundred and ten thousand dollars.
“Wow,” he mused. “I have more than eighty thousand in savings. If I play it right at the bank I’m sure I could get a loan for the rest.”
“I have the rest of it already.”
He winced. “The inheritance from your granddad? I couldn’t let you do that, Heather.”
A hurt furrow smudged Heather’s brow. “You said you wanted me to be your partner. I thought you meant that.”
“I did, honey. But I don’t want to take your money.”
“But I want to do this. It would be my investment, too.” She laid a hand on top of her pregnant belly and gave him a stubborn look. “And an investment for more than just me.”
Craig was impressed by her determination. “I suppose we can form a partnership. Sure…it could be our studio. Ours alone. Nobody to tell us who to hire or what kind of films or shows to make? It does sound very tempting.”
“Of course it does,” she said. “This is what you have always wanted. Let me at least contact the agent and speak to them? If it sounds promising we could fly out and look at it after this season’s episodes are all wrapped up?”
It was a daunting thought to move away from L.A. and take on such a venture entirely into their own hands. Yet this was indeed what Craig always dreamed of. And Heather was obviously thrilled at the prospect. He had a sense this plan of hers had potential.
“You weren’t kidding when you said you wanted out of this town, huh?”
She nodded. “I want something more than scrounging for mediums and psychics for Gerald Agee to humiliate. I want to be in business for myself.” Her eyes glistened and as she spoke again her voice softened with emotion, “And I want to be with you, Craig. You’re my best friend…and even more.”
The earnest strain in her voice made Craig afraid he hadn’t heard her correctly.
“I mean it,” she said. “You are much more to me.”
“You’re more than to me, too, Heather," he confessed. "You have been for a very long time. I just didn’t think you could possibly feel the same.”
Heather shook her head and laughed. It was a sweet, endearing laugh. One Craig cherished now more than ever before.
“Forgive me, Craig? I didn’t see the gem right in front of me.”
He set the laptop to the pillow and reached for her hand. It was small and warm and so very solid in his clasp.
“I treasure you, Heather,” he said.
She lifted her lips to his. Her kiss was gentle, firm and electric all at once. And now Craig was afraid he might start crying.
“And I treasure you, Craig,” she whispered. She threw her arms around his neck and chuckled. “Even more than apple pie!”
Craig was in one of the best moods of his life when he arrived at the studio Wednesday morning. Jon followed him into his office with a cup of coffee and set it on his desk.
“How is Matt?” Craig asked.
“He showed up today. Says he’s feeling much better.”
“Good to hear.”
“Wanted to let you know,” Jon told him, “I picked Ms. Crawford up at the airport and drove her to the Relax-o-Lodge. And a studio attendant let me know she arrived at the proper studio door at five till nine.”
Craig flinched at the mention of Betty Ann. “Oh yeah, thanks. I appreciate that.”
Jon puckered his lips thoughtfully. “Strange little thing, isn’t she?”
Craig had to laugh a little. “I guess most of these fake psychics are.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Jon said. “It was something in her demeanor. Not sure how exactly... but she’s different.”
“Dear lord, did she try to get into your head? Some of these freaks do.”
Jon waved his hand dismissively. “Not at all. She seems very nice actually. Just a feeling I got off her. Oh, and her luggage.”
“What about her luggage?”
“Lack of it. She had a purse, a cute denim shoulder-strap bag. Vintage, I imagine. I asked her if she had a suitcase or anything else to pick up at the airport carousel but she said no. Honestly, I don’t know how the poor dear managed to get any change of clothes in it. I take it Ms. Crawford is not the richest guest we’ve had on the show?”
“No,” Craig admitted without any sympathy. He couldn’t afford to care how poor Betty Ann was. When she got hard up enough she’d go find a real job instead of leeching off old folks like Fred Wagoner. “Not until she writes a bestseller or two, and opens her own psychic hotline.”
“Hm,” Jon answered thoughtfully. “Well, I think she’s in wardrobe right now, if you want to say hello.”
Jon left the office. As he closed the door Craig realized that despite his resentment toward Betty Ann, his good mood was still intact. He smiled. Perhaps he would go see Betty Ann. Or, more precisely, watch her reactions as she underwent Agee’s first Challenge.
When later Craig entered the control room tech supervisor Zed Ritchie was there standing near the table where Vint kept his bobble toys. Vint himself was seated at the production desk with his eyes on the monitor wall and audio board, hands ready at the switches and buttons. To Vint's right sat Danny, and to his left, audio specialist Yvette Moore. Yvette was very adept at her job and worked for a handful of television shows the network produced. She was here today for the filming of Betty Ann’s episode. The work required her to keep an ear open to the live stream. If her acute ears picked up any backwash coming over the film equipment from inside the stage she would immediately signal the director.
The filming today was taking place in stage room A (the largest of the stage rooms used for The Debunker’s Challenge). Craig saw three monitors active at the production desk. These provided different angles of the live footage streaming in. A smaller screen at the upper left side of the monitor wall provided continuous general coverage from inside the stage as well, though it was only for general surveillance and its camera. It could provide audio as well, but this was presently turned off.
Vint glanced back at Craig. “You made good time. Agee just introduced the Crawford woman to everyone.”
Craig stood beside Zed and saw one of the camera monitors revealed a group of seven people seated in fold-out chairs. A second camera was aimed at the panel judges –Agee, Barkley and Kraft- who stood watching in front of an interior wall. The third camera was directed toward Betty Ann Crawford. It panned out for a moment, revealing that she had been seated directly in front of the group in their folding chairs. Craig knew some of these people were the ringers Agee had brought in, and indeed, a couple of the faces looked familiar to him.
Craig noticed that wardrobe had fitted Betty Ann in a simple blue sundress with delicate flower print and ivory sandals. The makeup people had not gone overboard in the way of foundation, powder and mascara (not surprising, considering how young she was), and they’d applied a becoming light pink tint to her lips. Betty Ann's sun-streaked blonde hair had been brushed and pulled back from her face with a simple blue gingham headband. She looked very nice, noticeably fresher and more innocent in appearance than any of the other female guests who had previously graced this stage.
Visually deceptive, Craig thought to himself.
“Which of those folks sitting down were recruited off the street and which ones are Agee's ringers?” he asked Vint.
Vint shrugged. “Your guess is as good as ours. Nobody has told us much of anything this morning.”
The second camera focused in on Agee’s face as he addressed Betty Ann. “Alright, Ms. Crawford, as you’ve been told, these specially invited people are complete strangers to you. Are you ready to share with us what you can pick up about them?”
Craig watched screen three as Betty Ann nodded. She lowered her head a moment and blinked. Looking up again, she peered over the little group. Her face registered no anxiety, though, Craig suspected her heart was pounding like a hammer.
The mic pinned on her dress caught the single perplexed sound she made. It was such a soft sound Craig wasn’t sure anyone else had heard it.
She moved forward a bit in the chair and laid her hands together in her lap. Her attention seemed focused on someone among the seven people before her.
“Grace Talento,” she said.
From where he stood Zed quipped, “A full name? I thought these mind readers pulled letters out of thin air? Letters that could start the first of anybody’s name?”
In the stage room Betty Ann continued speaking, “Grace, you had an appointment scheduled this morning with your parole officer. But he was out sick and had to reschedule. Later you wandered up the street to an antique shop when you were approached by a young woman. Her name is Tabby Alvarez. She offered you fifty dollars to come to the studio and participate.”
Camera one revealed a woman raise her hand. She was a large-set middle-aged woman with a short mop of curly dark hair.
“Me,” the woman responded. “That would be me, Ms. Crawford.”
Betty Ann regarded her a moment. “Cal isn’t coming back, Grace. You know this. He was never good for you anyway. Listen to your children and move on with your life.”
Grace slapped a hand over her mouth, her eyes large and incredulous. “Are you sure, Ms. Crawford? But Cal promised-”
Betty Ann shook her head. “You’re clean, Grace. For the first time in over fifteen years. Stay that way and stop punishing yourself over what happened years ago with Rodney. You paid for that, and now you deserve better.”
Tears glistened in Grace’s eyes. “Are you sure?”
“Yes Grace, I am sure. You must accept that part of your life is over and done with. Forgive yourself as you have been forgiven by those who love you.”
At the control desk Danny piped up, “I thought these people just made vague references that could be interpreted as meaningful to anyone.”
Craig glanced quickly at the monitor showing the judges. Leslie Barkley rolled her eyes. Kraft had the look of someone fascinated. Agee’s face was unreadable as he just stroked his beard and continued to watch Betty Ann's performance.
Betty Ann lowered her head a moment. When she looked up again she said, “Carlos. Carlos Argonez. You were also approached by this Tabby. She found you asleep in a tent near the studio. She had given you food several times before, on her way to and from work. This morning she asked if you were interested in a paying job. You were grateful for the offer as you need medicine for that infection in your leg.”
There was no reaction from anyone in the crowd. But Betty Ann didn’t seem phased and continued, “Get to the hospital right away, Carlos. And…yes, ask to see the RN, Evana Paige. She’ll make sure you get the antibiotic you need and pay for it herself. And in the future, don’t go along with any plan Dewey suggests. He is bad news in the worst of ways. Being his friend can only bring you trouble.”
Someone in the group nodded enthusiastically. As the cameraman focused on this person Craig saw it was a swarthy young man around thirty years of age, dressed in filthy jeans and a tattered tee shirt.
“I will do that, Ms. Crawford,” Carlos said. “Can you tell me if I will ever find steady work?”
“Perhaps you should check back with the tire store you applied with last month. They are rehiring.”
“I will, Ms. Crawford,” Carlos said with a beaming smile on his face. “Thank-you!”
Craig heard Vint chuckle. “Appears Ms. Crawford was on the mark a second time.”
“Look at Barkley’s face,” Yvette remarked. “Looks like she could spit nails.”
A fireball formed in the pit of Craig's stomach. He didn’t know how Betty Ann had gained personal information about these people Tabby had brought in. But somehow she'd managed to do exactly this without Agee or his people suspecting a thing.
Betty Ann spoke out the name Amber Dirthick. She said this Amber was secretary for a doctor’s office. She even named the doctor. Then Betty Ann announced Amber had just got engaged to a guy named Lyle and that their marriage would be very happy. Lastly, Betty Ann suggested Amber to find her dog Muffin a companion. Muffin, Betty Ann claimed, was very high strung and became very depressed while Amber was away at work.
A buxom woman of about thirty years of age lifted a hand. “I’m Amber,” she said gleefully. “And Lyle and I did just get engaged! Now, should I go for another dog or would Muffin get along with a kitten? My friend Samantha’s cat has a litter.”
Craig was surprised when Vint suddenly shouted, “Kitten!”
“Dog, say dog!” Zed pleaded, crossing fingers.
“Cockatiel!” Danny put in.
Betty Ann gave Amber a recommendation for another dog. Zed gave the air a triumphant punch. “Yes!”
Vint looked at Danny and asked, “Cockatiel? Ain’t no dog gonna want to play with a cockatiel.”
Craig groaned silently. He watched as Betty Ann called out a fourth name: Buddy Myers. She told Buddy that the break pads on his car were just about to go and he needed to have them changed immediately.
In the audience a rotund young man with round-framed glasses shifted uneasily in his chair.
“My car is in the shop right now,” he told Betty Ann. “But honestly, I’ve been thinking of trading it anyway.”
Betty Ann gave him a kind look. “Just don’t drive it again, Buddy. Call a garage to come take it away. And Buddy...”
“Cheryl was the one who broke into your basement.”
Alarm registered in Buddy’s eyes. “But the police talked to all the neighbors, Ms. Crawford! Cheryl said she was sound asleep.” Buddy shook his head, disbelievingly. “Besides, she passed away two months ago.”
Betty Ann nodded. “She took your boxes of video games, the system and your collection of action figures. She auctioned them off online, but didn’t have the chance to mail them. Her seller name was silverysylvia1259.”
Buddy spurted now. “Ar-are you sure?”
Betty Ann nodded. “I’m sorry. I know you two were neighbors since you were very young. But ask Cheryl’s son Nolan about the website she used. He knows firsthand how his mother was. And he knows it wasn’t the first time she sold things that didn’t belong to her. One of the reasons he and she were not close.”
Buddy rubbed the back of his head. “Okay, Ms. Crawford.. Nolan’s a nice guy. I’ll do that, thanks.”
Vint said, “This young lady is good, I’ll give her that. None of that routine the spirit of one of your loved one’s is showing me this or that baloney.”
Craig looked at screen two. Barkley’s face had gone livid. An intrigued smile lit Kraft’s face. And Agee stood there, the look on his face a mixture of suspicion and something close to marvel.
Betty Ann closed her eyes a moment. When she looked back over the audience her tranquil composure gave way to what something resembling irritation.
“The rest of you,” she said, “would have me identify you by false identities. False families. False lives. You’re just here to try and deceive me.”
Awkward silence fell over the stage room, and the four people Betty Ann had already addressed eyed the other three suspiciously.
Agee stepped a few feet forward so the cameraman had to stay on his face. He addressed Betty Ann in a voice of practiced reason, “But Betty Ann, you agreed to tell us about every one of these people. It doesn't matter why they are here. If you are unable to tell us about them, your Challenge is already over.”
Behind him Kraft spoke up, “That seems hardly fair if what Ms. Crawford says is true.” He gave Agee a sharp look. “And do tell us, Gerald, were the rest of these people brought in and given fictitious identities and life stories?”
Barkley said in her icy tone, “Doesn’t matter if they were or not. She agreed to reveal details about each and every one.”
Craig grinned. Whatever devious means Betty Ann had used to collude with the four others, she couldn't know anything about the three ringers.
But still, he did wonder who had tipped her off about them?
If Agee was agitated with her obvious contrivance he didn’t show it. He simply reiterated to Betty Ann in his patient tone, “What will it be, Betty Ann? Continue by revealing what your abilities pick up about these others or forfeit here and now?”
Betty Ann’s head drooped slightly over one shoulder and her gaze fell on someone in the group. At length she raised an arm and pointed at a young man with a trim blonde beard and tight-fitting plaid shirt.
“Kevin Mottern,” she said. “Twenty-seven years old. Recently had a surf board accident. A tour guide for this studio. Lives with his dad and step-mom. Spent two weeks last year at the Beach House Treatment Center to get detoxed.”
The young man flinched. But before he could reply Betty Ann directed her finger toward a matronly woman wearing a printed sundress and thick eyeglasses.
“Grayson Oliver,” Betty Ann announced. “The studio's videotape librarian. Fifty-four years of age. Two children, Sean and Stephanie. Recently lost her mother Phyllis. Needs to follow her doctor’s orders on her diabetes diet or she will end up back in the hospital.”
The Oliver woman gasped. “Excuse me – how do you know what I eat?”
Betty Ann ignored her and turned her finger to the last ringer. It was a mild-mannered looking guy in dark dress pants and an overly starched white shirt and blue tie. For anyone’s guess he could have been a nice little door-to-door missionary or salesman. And yet, Craig saw apprehension in his face and sweat bead over his brow. Betty Ann lowered her hand to her lap as she looked at him.
“Pete Morales,” she said. “A groundskeeper here at the studio. You spent seventeen months in Mule Creek State Prison. You were found guilty for attacking your grandmother after she confronted you with pawning three of her rings and an antique necklace. You were granted early release because the parole board bought your lawyer's story you suffer from anxiety. Anxiety, you claimed, that resulted from abuse you suffered at the hands of the very same grandmother. The unvarnished truth is she took care of you after your parents died. And she never once hurt you. But you threw her into a wall, then cracked her ribs with your own fists.” Betty Ann glowered at him. “And even while the rest of your family wants nothing to do with you, Grandma still sends you money to this day, doesn’t she, Mr. Morales?”
Morales’ face turned crimson. He spun on his seat and threw a contemptuous look at the three judges. “You told me this wouldn’t get personal!”
The voice of Maisey Henderson boomed out, “Cut!”
The filming stopped and the three monitors turned black. But via the small screen providing surveillance coverage the tech crew could still see what was going on inside the stage room. It showed Morales rise from his chair and advance toward the judges.
“We have unexpected drama, folks,” Vint said. He reached over to the dial that adjusted the surveillance audio and turned it on.
Everyone in the production room now heard Morales complain to Agee, “You promised she had no idea who we really are!”
Grayson Oliver walked over to Agee and shook a finger at him. “Mr. Agee, I don’t want my personal life story told on television!”
Of the three ringers only Kevin Mottern didn’t seem angry. He leaned forward in his chair and asked Betty Ann pensively, “Ms. Crawford, can you tell me if Paula and I will get back together?”
Craig saw Betty Ann’s mouth move as she answered. But her words to Kevin were drowned out by Morales' and Oliver's shouts directed at Agee. A moment later the host threw up his hands and proclaimed in a booming voice, “I thank everyone who participated but this segment is over! Please exit through the door to the right side of the stage.”
“Oh no,” Morales said hotly. “If you think I’m going to allow you to air what she said you are sorrowfully mistaken!”
Director Maisey Henderson now stepped into view. Her voice was diplomatic as she assured Morales, “Pete, your section will be edited out, I promise.” And noting Grayson Oliver’s glare she added, “Yours, too.”
Zed poked Craig lightly with an elbow. "Appears we got our sweeps episode in this one, huh?”
While the fiasco in the stage room amused the tech crew, Craig was so angry tiny black dots swam in front of his eyes, and his stomach cramped as if he'd swallowed a ball bearing. With a hasty goodbye, he left the control room. After exiting the studio building he stopped on the concrete walkway that bordered the parking lot. The overhead sun seemed to scorch his head and he felt lightheaded. Without regard to who might pass by he sat down on the pavement and drew several slow draughts of air.
The door opened behind him and Danny and Zed appeared. Seeing Craig sitting on there they walked over.
“Craig, you okay?” Danny asked.
Craig nodded and drew a deep inhale. “I’m fine,” he muttered. The feeling of wrath was beginning to pass. His vision cleared and the knot in his stomach loosened, though he could taste bile at the back of his tongue.
He was more certain than ever now Betty Ann Crawford was a pure scam artist. He was just hoped Agee would discover whoever it was that had helped carry out the stage act he’d just watched.
"Hey, you want me to walk with you back to the office?" Zed offered.
Craig shook his head. And getting to his feet he walked with determination back to the executive building.
DEBUNKED will continue in Part 6
© 2020 Beth Perry
Beth Perry (author) from Tennesee on May 11, 2020:
DreamerMeg, so happy you are leeping up with this story!
DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on May 11, 2020:
Really great. Tension rife in this, you'ld wonder why he doesn't see what's happening, yet he is so bound up in his own way of seeing things that he is just unable to face up to it.