Debunked - Part 6
DEBUNKED 2020 Beth Perry
Craig took lunch that day alone in his office. It wasn’t much of a meal, just the saltines and can of ginger ale he’d asked Jon to bring from the snack room. Slow chewing of the crackers settled his stomach. But he wondered if perhaps he was developing an ulcer? It was to be expected, he thought, his father and paternal grandmother had both developed ulcers by the time they'd hit their mid-thirties. Craig, however, would never have foreseen he might develop one because of his career. This was showbiz he was in, and a dream job compared to the bus driver’s job his poor dad had worked at for over forty years. And yet, the antics of a single guest had made him nearly keel over in pain. He told himself he should take a break after this week’s filming was over and Betty Ann Crawford was out of his life forever.
He knew the second Challenge was going to be filmed this afternoon. As much as he knew the prudent, adult thing to do was to simply return to the studio with his emotions checked. All the same, the thought of seeing Betty Ann again sent a splatter of bile up his throat.
“God, I’m letting that little fake get the best of me,” he scolded himself.
After finishing off the crackers he picked up his cell phone and gave Kesha a call. She was at the beach, she told him happily, at the moment enjoying a picnic with her friends. Craig asked if she'd seen the artist guy again? Oh yes, she answered. They were going to a movie later. How are you, big brother?
Craig wanted to lie but he couldn’t. “Was feeling a little rough earlier. Stomach acid. I probably ought to have a checkup next week.”
“Oh my,” Kesha said. “Are you sure it can wait?”
“Yes, yes,” he assured her. “I’m not sick. Just, well, I suspect I may be developing an ulcer.”
“Then you be sure to see a doctor,” Kesha said soberly. “If I have to make you an appointment when I get back, I will.”
Craig felt a pleasant jab of affection. “I know you would. Okay, then. Enjoy the beach. Enjoy the movie. I will talk to you tomorrow?”
“Of course! I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
He ended the call and regarded the phone. He really did miss Kesha. His love for her gave him the determination not to victimized by Betty Ann’s mind games. At nearly one-thirty he left the office again and returned to the studio.
Vint sat alone at the production desk when Craig entered the control room. He was smoking a cigarette, and noticing Craig, made a courtesy wave through the tendrils of smoke curling into the air.
“Don’t worry about it,” Craig assured him. He saw that the desk monitors were all black. “I thought they were going to film the second Challenge.”
Vint got up and moved to the table where the ashtray was. “Done and done already,” he said.
Craig didn’t know if he should feel relieved or angry with himself for missing it. “How’d it go?”
Vint stubbed the last of his cigarette into the ashtray. “Somebody came away not happy,” he replied with a note of sarcasm. “She may never grace our presence again.”
Craig felt his hope rise. “Really?”
“Yeah. You wanna see?”
At Craig’s nod Vint took his seat at the production desk. Craig sat beside him. Vint readied taping footage to be run through one of the output monitors. Suddenly it lit up and the beginning of playback footage illuminated the screen.
Craig saw that this second Challenge had been filmed in stage room C. He also noticed it had been set up similarly to when Brent Price had been brought in blindfolded to identify tattoos. Instead of five chairs, however, there stood a line of five pedestal tables. White, square boxes –all about the size of a microwave oven box- had been singularly placed open-side up on each table. Craig remembered giving official approval for this Challenge, and knew Betty Ann was expected to tell the judges what item was hidden underneath each box. Craig couldn't recall what these items were to be, though, or even if Agee had been specific about them.
“I can’t remember what Agee planned putting under those boxes.”
“That should make it all the more enjoyable for you to watch,” replied Vint.
“You’re not going to tell me?” Craig grinned. “That's mean, dude. I kind of work for this show, you know.”
Vint laughed. On the monitor Craig now saw the far right door of the stage open. The three judges entered and took their places to the sidelines. Next came in Katie Alberts (today garbed in a sequined black dress and high heels so that she reminded Craig of a game show model). Right behind Katie walked Betty Ann. She was still dressed as earlier; the image of guileless femininity. Craig had to stifle the urge to utter an obscene remark.
Agee sounded very upbeat as he said to Betty Ann, “Betty Ann, are you ready for your second Challenge?”
Betty Ann glanced at the boxes and nodded.
Zane Kraft took over now, “Betty Ann, you see five pedestals, upon which stand three boxes. An item has been placed beneath each box. For your Challenge, you are to tell us what you believe these items are. You may begin with whichever box you like; spend as much time as you need to form an image in your mind. When you have told us what you think the item is, Katie will remove the box so we may all see. Then you will move on to another box.”
As Betty Ann nodded, Barkley said in a tart tone, “Just remember, Betty Ann, you cannot touch any of the boxes. Do you understand?”
Betty Ann gave her a tight smile. “I understand very clearly, thank-you.”
Beside Craig, Vint folded his arms behind his neck to cradle his head. “I don’t think the little gal was much appreciative of Barkley’s condescending tone.”
“Condescending is as nice as Barkley ever gets,” Craig said.
They watched as Katie led Betty Ann to one side of the room. From here the unseen cameraman had a good front view of both women. Katie gestured to the pedestals and said in a graceful tone, “Which one first, Betty Ann?”
Without any seeming contemplation Betty Ann stepped to the table closest to the judges. She looked down at the box with a numb look on her face.
“Irises,” she said. “Purple irises, in a plastic vase with no color.”
Katie stepped forward and lifted the box. The item was a clear vase filled with six purple flowers. Craig wasn’t keen on names of flowers, but he was pretty sure they were irises.
“I’m sorry, Betty Ann,” Agee declared from the sidelines. “Those are bearded irises. And they are royal blue.”
Betty Ann glanced at him with a snicker. “If you say so.”
She moved to the next pedestal in the line. Katie set the box over the irises and quickly joined her.
“Slice of cherry pie on a white plate,” Betty Ann said.
Katie lifted the second box, revealing a slice of cheesecake on a small white plate. The top of the cheesecake had been artfully drizzled with a reddish glaze.
“Again, sorry to have to correct you,” Agee piped up. “But that is cake, Betty Ann. Cheesecake.”
Kraft groaned. “Oh, c’mon, Gerald,” he blurted out. “Pie. Cheesecake. No real difference.”
Agee did not reply to him. Katie covered the dish and Betty Ann moved to a third pedestal. Her eyelids fluttered a couple of times before she said aloud, “A dictionary. Brown cover.”
Katie picked up the third box. Craig saw that indeed there was a hardcover book there. The cameraman focused on the front of the dust jacket: there was an image of a stage magician and in bold title read, “Las Vegas Illusionists: A Magical History”. The author’s name “Zane Kraft” appeared at the bottom.
The cameraman got a shot of Kraft raise a disconcerted eyebrow. It was apparent he hadn’t been told his book would be used as part of this Challenge.
But Barkley smirked and asked Betty Ann to read the title of the book aloud.
“Mr. Kraft’s book,” Betty Ann responded. If she was embarrassed, it didn’t show. Instead she eyed the book curiously. At length she opened the front cover and ran the pads of her fingers down the interior flap of the dust jacket. Unlike ordinary dust jackets this one appeared to have been sealed or glued directly onto the front cover board.
“No,” she said. The cameraman focused in again as with a finger nail Betty Ann loosened the flap away from the board. She then turned the book over and did the same with the back flap. With a small tug she tore the dust jacket off completely and laid it to the side. The real book couldn't have been one of Kraft's. It was apparently very old; its green cover boards frayed, the pages yellowed.
Betty Ann picked the book up and showed the front cover to the camera. The title read in faded gold lettering, “Western Scholastic Dictionary”.
She turned and showed it to Barkley. “Dr. Barkley…”
The camera panned over and caught the crimson which darted into Barkley’s cheeks. She looked angrier than Craig had ever seen her. But Kraft burst out laughing.
“Impressive, Betty Ann,” he remarked. “Very good!”
Craig didn’t want to believe what he was seeing. It made no sense whatsoever. Agee had let it be known that neither of his fellow judges would know before the Challenge what items were to be placed under the boxes. Of course, Katie had known, as she'd been the one Agee trusted to oversee the props supervisor put them there.
Betty Ann stepped to the fourth pedestal. She peered dully at the fourth box. “A coffee box. Yellow, green ribbon artwork. There are beverage bags with strings inside.”
Katie lifted the box, exposing a small yellow carton. The green swirl design that decorated the sides did look like ribbon.
Agee cleared his throat. “Open it, Betty Ann.”
She deftly drew back the top flap of the carton. Reaching inside the carton, she pulled out three small bags. The attached strings had little cardboard tags on the ends.
Agee made a satisfied grunt. “What do the tags say?”
Betty Ann looked at the bags. “Tea,” she answered.
“It certainly isn’t coffee, is it?”
Betty Ann laid the tea bags down on the pedestal top. Turning the carton over, she pointed at the bottom.
She asked the cameraman, “You have this?”
The angle focused onto the cardboard, and to the small gold text that appeared there: Golden Mountain Coffee Co.
“Just a moment,” Agee countered. “It doesn’t count what the carton reads.”
Kraft said brightly, “She didn’t say there were coffee bags. She said there was a coffee box.”
Barkley snorted audibly. “Zane, you poor gullible man! She also didn’t say tea was inside of it, either. She described the content only as beverage bags.”
“Okay, okay folks,” Agee said in a calming voice. “Betty Ann has one last item.”
Betty Ann turned to the last pedestal. As Katie stood behind her Craig noticed anxious stitches stretch across her brow and the hesitant glance she shot the judges. It was apparent Katie wasn’t comfortable standing close to this pedestal.
A dubious twist came to Betty Ann's lips. “You don’t want this box taken up,” she announced. “Believe me.”
“Why do you say this, Betty Ann?” Agee asked.
She regarded him stonily. “You know.”
“Oh come on,” Barkley carped. “This is why you’re here, Ms. Crawford. Tell us what you believe is under the box.”
Craig noticed a slight clench of Betty Ann’s jaw. She looked at Katie now and whispered something the audio didn’t pick up. Whatever it was made Katie nod, and she backed up a few steps.
Betty Ann looked at the judges. “Spider. A big, hairy, ugly spider.”
Silence fell over the room. Craig saw beads of perspiration break out over Katie’s face.
“Katie,” Agee said, “please remove the box.”
Katie was frozen, her eyes wide and shining with terror.
Agee was clearly agitated now as he admonished, “Katie-”
Before the sentence could be finished Betty Ann reached for the box and snatched it up. On the pedestal stood a clear ventilated square container, and inside of the container was a live tarantula. It moved ever so lightly; its pedipalps brushing lazily across the section of container in front of it.
Katie sucked a gasp of air and stared at the creature. By her trembling Craig knew she was horrified. Betty Ann turned around, and seeing her distress, rubbed her arm comfortingly.
“I have to inform you, Betty Ann,” Agee hailed. “That is a tarantula. Not a spider.”
The camera caught Kraft facepalm himself. “Oh for god’s sake, Gerald. Tarantula. Freaking giant spider. Whatever, it’s the same damned thing!”
“No, they are not!” Barkley snipped.
Betty Ann placed the white box over the tarantula’s container. With it covered Katie gave a relieved exhale.
“You should have warned your assistant,” Betty Ann told Agee. “You knew how these things make her feel.”
Craig noticed Vint quake with laughter.
“Pardon me,” Vint explained. “I know it’s unkind, but my pity for Katie is lean. She keeps parking her Ferrari in my space.”
Craig understood now who Vint meant when he’d said she may never grace our presence again. But he was too flummoxed to comment. Betty Ann’s guesses been stunningly accurate. He could fathom no way she could have known what Agee had placed under those boxes before she was brought into the stage room.
He heard Kraft criticize Agee, “You know, my mother has a phobia of moths. Last time she saw one she suffered a stroke.”
"Don't be ridiculous,” Barkley groaned. “Phobias very rarely cause strokes. I should know, I’m a professional doctor.”
“You’re not a medical doctor,” Kraft shot back. “And hardly a professional.”
Katie gave an irritated grunt and threw her hands up. Craig watched as she marched across the room and grumble something toward Agee as she passed by. The next moment she disappeared from view of the camera. But the audio caught the sound of the stage door open, then slam shut.
Betty Ann stared silently at the judges and shook her head.
At this point Agee looked toward where the cameraman and director stood. “Maisey, we can call this a wrap,” he said.
Maisey Henderson called out, “That’s a wrap!” And with that the production desk screen went dark.
Vint moved forward in his chair and pushed the button that turned off the output monitor. “I have to say,” he remarked, “so far, this has been the most intriguing guest I’ve seen on the show. My guess is that if anyone has a chance to win the three million bucks, it’s going to be this Crawford woman. Kind of scary when you think about it; if the network has to cough up that kind of money, they might just cancel the show.”
Craig whipped up an assuring smile. “I wouldn't sweat it, Vint. Sure, Kraft may end up convinced of Betty Ann’s psychic abilities. There's a chance she even gets Barkley believing in them, too. And it is not beyond the realm of possibility Gerald ends up questioning his dogged faith in scientific reason. But this series is his baby. It’s what makes him the most celebrated skeptic on the planet. He won't let her walk off with a win. No way."
“As uncomfortably fishy as that sounds,” Vint said, “I probably should hope you're right. It's not like I'm up to looking for another job anytime soon.”
At the executive building Craig picked up a large carton of pineapple juice at the snack room before returning to his office. He didn’t speak to anyone and honestly didn’t feel like it. The fact was he hardly felt as optimistic as he’d tried to pretend with Vint. He was still trying to digest what he had seen from playback of the second Challenge. His guess was Betty Ann must have recruited some helpful flunkies throughout the studio. He couldn’t help but remember the disquieting insinuations she'd made about his little brother back in Tennessee. And he was beginning suspect that instead of wasting his energy hating her, he should pray her fraud was exposed asap.
A half hour later Craig sat behind his desk, finishing up a call with Heather. She told him to come by after work as she was making dinner for the two of them. After the call he chugged down the last of the juice and tossed the carton in the wastepaper basket. Just as he backed up from the desk and stand up, a knock sounded at the door. He started to ask who it was when Agee walked in. Jon was right on his heels.
It appeared his assistant was embarrassed about Agee getting past him without a courtesy announcement.
“It’s okay, Jon.”
Jon smiled and left, closing the door behind him.
“I apologize, Craig," Agee said. "I shouldn’t have just walked in.”
Craig made a dismissive wave. “No problem, Gerald. Have a seat.”
Agee took the chair across the desk. There was a little grimace in the host’s features as he said, “Vint told me you watched Crawford’s first Challenge yesterday. And that you saw the second on replay.”
“Yeah, I did.” Craig felt a twinge of apprehension. “Our guest is something else, huh?”
Agree snorted and said something vulgar under his breath.
“Gerald, I’m sorry,” Craig said. “Apparently there’s more to this woman than I guessed. If Barkley and Kraft end up believing her, it’s on me.”
Agee raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think for a moment there is any truth to that white trash woman’s claims. And I think we both know how Barkley will vote, don’t we?”
Craig was a little confused. “Yeah..? I guess so.”
“I only came here to let you know that gal won’t get away with it. Just got back from the legal department.”
“Yeah,” Agee said. “Talked with Pang and he immediately got hold of a detective. This guy will be following Ms. Crawford’s activities tonight. He and his team will find out where she spends her time between now and the taping tomorrow. Who it is she talks with, who it is she has got working for her here.”
“Good,” Craig said. But he had a feeling Agee was holding something back. “What is it? I can tell you have more on your mind.”
Agee’s voice registered reluctance, “Whoever has been helping her here will be terminated from their job. I just thought you should know.”
Craig guessed the implication was aimed at him. “Gerald,” he said with a tired laugh, “I have nothing to hide. But your detective will be able to tell you this himself.”
Agee shook his head. “You misunderstand, Craig. You are the last person I can imagine colluding with a con artist. But there are others here…and I hate saying it, but others I'm sure would be happy to help a pretty young thing get her hands on three million dollars.”
Craig felt a shiver of remorse. “I wish I had never met Betty Ann Crawford,” he admitted. “I have had bad dreams ever since meeting that woman.”
“For that, I am very sorry to hear,” Agee said. “You have to remember these fake mediums and their ilk have ingenious ways of messing with people’s minds.”
“I know, I know.” Craig exhaled wearily. He remembered then something Vint had said earlier. “Gerald, let me ask you something?”
“If the unlikely day was to come when one of our guests proved to possess psychic powers or healing abilities, or whatever, and they walked away with the prize money… would the show be cancelled?”
“I believe it would. No network likes losing money, and ATN wouldn’t take the chance on it happening twice.” Agee looked at him warmly. “You’re worried about everyone’s jobs aren’t you?”
“Don’t be,” Agee told him brightly. “I still have some pull with the Network; even more with their prestigious benefactors.”
For the first time Craig realized how much he owed Agee. He’d only worked as a producer's assistant on two television projects when he applied for an apprentice position with The Debunker’s Challenge. Nevertheless, Agee had seemed very impressed with his amateur college film projects and suggested him to the show's producers. After Kristophe had disappeared it had been Agee who had fattened the reward offer for information leading to the boy’s return. And despite Agee’s sanguine tone now, Craig knew The Debunker’s Challenge was the crown achievement of the man’s life work. Craig hated the prospect of him losing his show. It struck Craig as especially wrong if such a loss were to happen because of misdeeds perpetuated by the very kind of swindler Agee had dedicated his life to exposing.
Craig felt a fond lump in his throat. “Gerald,” he asked, “why do you do what you do? Discredit all these useless people, that is?”
"You wound me," Agee said with a jovial air. “Haven't you already read all the embarrassingly self-promotional bio stuff at my blog."
“I've read your biography, of course. All that stuff about when you were a kid who loved to solve mysteries nobody else could crack. About you spending years learning how stage illusionists performed their tricks. And how later you learned to see through the tricks of even the most experienced shyster.”
“Well," Agee replied, smiling. "I was too lazy to go into proper law enforcement and become a detective.”
Craig drew a thoughtful breath. “But you’ve never detoured from your one objective. It’s been your life’s work. I can’t help but think such motivation is rooted out of something more than showing the world how Blackstone pulled rabbits out of a hat. Am I right?”
Agee stroked his beard thoughtfully. “To be candid, you're right. Not that it's anything I want to bore my blog followers with. It's not something I even think about much anymore. And I doubt it’ll ever appear in a book of memoirs. But yes. There was another motivation. In the beginning anyway.”
“I’d love to know what it was," Craig told him. "I promise it won’t go further than this room.”
“Perhaps I should tell you,” Agee said. “It might help you understand why I advise so strongly against letting shysters work on your mind. The truth is, my friend, it was my mother who originally inspired my interest in debunking the frauds of this world.”
Craig was surprised. “Yeah? Your mom enjoyed solving mysteries, too?”
Agee’s eyes squinted and the corners of his mouth turned up in a stiff smile. “No. Mother liked believing in mysteries.” Seeing the confusion in Craig’s face he elaborated, “Mother was a very spiritual woman, you see. She was born in Ireland. Her family were all gypsies, or for your politically correct ears, Irish Travellers. As superstitious people as they come. Tarot readers, storm seers, star diviners, omen watchers and such. It was rather alarming as a kid to hear my mother mark down every change in the weather or run-of-the-mill mishap to some augury or sign or curse. And I grew up wanting to challenge her superstitions.
"Now, she also had this one cousin, Madge, who made a living as a so-called mind reader. One day I showed Mother how Madge did it. It was all a matter of studying people's reactions, and giving them leading questions. After this, I started taking Mother to magic shows. She always had an unhealthy affection for those things. I would explain her how the tricks she saw on stage were performed. I don't think she very keen about having her illusions broken, but she'd go; I think just in the hopes I was wrong.
"Then, when I was a teenager, I asked her to come with me to a tent show where a traveling minister had been performing for several days. You know the kind; those who claim they can make the paralyzed walk and cure the sick of cancer and such things. Mother had her own religious beliefs and wasn't an evangelical like this guy described himself, but she agreed to go. When we got there I told Mother to go ahead and take a seat inside. Meanwhile, I walked around to the back of the tent. The day earlier I had hidden a pair of crutches in the bushes there. I’d borrowed the crutches from my neighbor Luke, who had had a broken leg earlier that year. Anyway, I came back into the tent walking with the crutches. I must have put on a good performance as his audience had no idea I wasn't really crippled. Their dear preacher had already started his act, and he conveniently almost skipped over me. Then a couple of people in the crowd noticed and shouted out, here’s another one! So the quack had little choice but to call me forward. He pressed his Bible over my brow, started blabbering in his tongues bit. This went on a few minutes, when finally he yelled You are healed, little brother! I just looked at the man with a big hopeful grin on my face. I threw those crutches down and took a step. His crowd began to cheer and clap and praise their god. This was until I fell to my knees screaming. I cried and blubbered and told the preacher he hadn’t cured a thing! Oh, you should have seen the look on the faces in his audience! The preacher tried to save face, of course, and told me to come back that evening for a personal laying on of hands. I retrieved the crutches and limped out of there. And let me tell you as I walked through the sweaty throng, I saw more than a few doubtful glares aimed at that humiliated preacher.
"But my poor horrified Mother, she was anything but impressed by my performance. When we got home later she told me I was possessed by the evil one himself. She was going to call in her Uncle Max and have him exorcize the demon or demons! It was then and there I decided I’d had enough. I stuffed some of my things into a duffle bag and left. That night I found a job as roadie with a second-rate rock band that was passing through town. I left with them. Eventually they stopped in Las Vegas, and I found a better paying gig as a stage mentalist’s assistant. Cayo Fitzsimmons, that was his name. He played small theaters and venues throughout the fifty states. He never got rich from it, but he was doing what he felt called to do. Fitzsimmons was the first to teach me how to prompt people to believe I knew all about them…by reading expressions on their faces. The way someone’s mouth moves when they smile or frown. Their posture. The way their hands move. How often they blink. The subtle differences in tone of speech. Fitzsimmons also taught me the vital art of recognizing when someone else is trying to dupe me. And the rest, as they say, is history.”
Agee made a derisive scoff. “Not that even an experienced mentalist always uses common sense. That’s how Fitzsimmons ended up getting himself duped by falling head over heels over some tarot reader-slash-holistic healer. A real piece of work, that one. I tried to warn him about her, but did he listen? She made him doubt his life’s work, and he got interested in her metaphysical mumbo jumbo. To make a long story short, he allowed her to come between us. I finally got fed up with it and left. Last I heard Fitzsimmons eventually moved to upstate New York, where he opened an esoteric book store and later died a near pauper. But I was fine. I was still determined. I vowed never to allow myself to be hoodwinked by superstition like my ignorant mother; I remembered the lessons learned from Fitzsimmons before he took the plunge into loony lake. And I can proudly say I have kept that vow to this day.”
Craig shook his head sympathetically. “Pathetic. And I can understand why you’ve never written about or mentioned your mom to the public. It’s commendable, actually. But did her opinion of you change once you became a celebrity?”
“Oh no,” Agee answered with a faded smile. “The last time we spoke she begged me to open my heart and see what the eyes cannot. As if the poor old thing ever had a clue as to what was real and what wasn’t.”
Craig thought about Betty Ann again. He was still uneasy about what she’d managed to do so far in front of the camera. How long, he wondered, would her tricks continue to torment him? He knew that the first step to ending her hold over his subconscious mind lay in somehow putting her out of his conscious thoughts.
“Tell me, Gerald,” he asked, “how do you forget them? These charlatans and quacks? How do you cleanse your brain of the mind-foolery they’ve ridden your waking and dreaming thoughts with?”
“Ah, that part is simple,” Agee said. “When your thoughts stray to someone you don’t need to think about, instead of seeing them, imagine their features turning to nothing more than smoke. Billowy smoke that you can blow away with only the will of your mind’s eye. Practice doing this enough and it becomes quite easy. An associate who once worked as a criminal psychologist taught me the trick. It works, Craig, believe me. Train yourself to see people as mere smoke and in time you can forget anyone’s face.”
“Really? That nearly sounds too easy.”
“Let’s put it this way,” Agee replied, “if asked, I couldn’t describe to you my mother’s face.”
This was one of the saddest things Craig had ever heard. But he knew it was intrusive to ask Agee why he had chosen to forget what his mother looked like.
“Thank-you for the suggestion. I will be sure to try it.”
Agee rose from the chair. “Good to hear. You’ll be a much happier camper.”
“I hope the detective is successful. Keep me posted?”
Agee nodded. “I will, just as soon as I hear anything.” He took a step toward the door, then paused. Looking at Craig he asked, “Will you be watching the live taping of Crawford’s last Challenge?”
Craig felt much less stressful over Betty Ann now. “You couldn’t keep me away, Gerald.”
© 2020 Beth Perry