Debunked - Part 7
DEBUNKED 2020 Beth Perry
At Heather’s place Craig was ushered to the little table in her kitchen. There she feasted him with pasta salad and grilled Tilapia. There was even homemade chocolate and mint pie for dessert. Craig was surprised Heather had prepared everything herself, and delighted by how tasty the food was.
“Being stuck at home has improved your cooking skills,” he teased.
“Have to fill the hours somehow,” she said. “Though I confess that I’ll never make chocolate and mint pie as well as my grandma.”
“It’s probably rare anyone cooks as well as their grandma.”
She nodded, yawning suddenly behind her hands. Craig was aware now how very tired she looked.
“Why don’t you prop yourself up on the couch while I take care of the dishes?”
Heather accepted the suggestion. “My eyes could use a little rest.”
As she rose from the table Craig noticed how huge Heather's belly had become. There was a very decided waddle to her steps, too. And if his calculations were correct, she was very near her thirty-eighth week of pregnancy.
She could go into labor any time now, he thought.
After she left the room Craig washed the dishes they’d used, as well as the dirtied pots and pans. He gave the counters and table a good wipe down. When he was finished he walked into the living room. Heather was laid across the couch with her eyes closed. She was not quite snoring, but her breathing was deep and regular so that he knew she was asleep.
Craig took the opportunity to hook her phone into the recharger kept on an antique table in the hallway near her bedroom door. He locked the back door which opened to the fire escape, and turned her television to a music channel she was fond of. He set the volume low, and then went to find a blanket from the bedroom closet. This he carried out to the living room and spread across her.
Kneeling beside her, he stroked her hair. “Heather? Heather, I’m going now.”
Her eyelids fluttered opened. Her lips turned up in a groggy smile. “Okay Craig.”
“You call me if you need anything, alright?”
“Yes,” she answered softly. Her eyes closed and the deep breathing commenced again.
Craig kissed her cheek. As he left he locked the front door behind him.
Nightfall had just settled in when Craig pulled into his driveway. It was a muggy night, and once inside the duplex he adjusted the air conditioning and then pulled off his shirt. He wanted to be in bed early so he could wake up fresh for the filming of Betty Ann's last Challenge.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t particularly tired and he found himself re-seeing what had appeared to be Betty Ann’s seeming triumphs during the first two Challenges. He wondered what she was doing at the moment – sitting in her motel room, laughing at Agee, laughing at all of them? And what was Pang’s detective discovering at this very moment?
He was also concerned about Heather. On the drive home he’d noticed the rising moon. It was big and buttery yellow that night, and he well recalled his mother saying that most babies arrived with the full moon. If that wasn’t an entirely full moon he’d observed, he knew it was very, very close.
Craig went to the kitchen and took a bottle of beer out of the refrigerator. He carried it out onto the front porch. Without a light on out here he was able to see stars glinting in the velvety sky. He looked for the moon, before remembering it would be awhile before it was visible from this western view. So he sat down at the top of the porch steps and opened the beer.
The traffic outside was rather light, and the whole neighborhood seemed particularly peaceful. Of course, most of his neighbors were youngish, with children that went to bed fairly early. The couple who occupied the other side of the duplex –Jason and Lynette- must have been out as their vehicle was absent from their driveway. Craig heard crickets chirping loudly from the trees and grass. From somewhere not far away music strummed out of someone's open window. He looked across the street and admired the scenery of the Hollywood Hills which stretched across the low horizon. The hills were only a few miles away, so Craig was able to make out the house lights that twinkled among the dark, sleepy foliage. Every little bit he saw a flash of headlights as an occasional car winded down Queens Road.
A refrain of faraway voices erupted from the north end of the neighborhood. A moment later Craig heard the sound of running feet –what seemed more like multiple feet- approaching along the sidewalk from that direction. Illumination from the street lights gave no indication of anyone coming, and yet the pounding footfalls grew more pronounced. Curious, he set the beer down and got up. Walking down the steps, he stood on the narrow flagstone path leading to the sidewalk. He looked down the sidewalk and across the street but saw no one. The voices quieted, even as the sound of runners continued to advance.
Suddenly he heard the mass of feet sprint across the sidewalk in front of him. Several bedim voices accompanied their footfalls. They moved too fast for him to make out any specific voice or precise word. The only thing he was sure of was that the voices belonged to children, and somehow they had ran past without his catching a glimpse of them.
Craig squinted and looked southward down the sidewalk. The echo of the bounding feet was still audible as were the youthful voices.
An uneasy chill spread over Craig’s limbs. He walked to the street side and stared down the sidewalk in either direction. But the sidewalk was empty, the street as well. He was alone except for the artificial illumination of the street lights, the chirps of the crickets, the music that continued to pulsate from an unknown household.
And the distant waning clops of running feet.
After several moments they faded away completely. Craig was now aware of his own quick breathing.
Only your imagination, stupid. If anyone had run by, you'd have seen them.
He turned to walk back to the porch. This was when he noticed something in the yard to the left side of the flagstones.
The ground appeared to be entirely denuded of grass.
“What on earth?” Craig muttered. He looked about for some unknown light source responsible for the illusion. None of the neighbors had flipped on their porch lights, there was no change to the street lighting, no cars approaching. He peered up at the sky. But there were no beacons up there indicating a passing airplane or helicopter.
He looked back down, realizing now this portion of the yard was entirely covered by some material of a dull yellowish color. He knelt for a closer look and stretched a hand over the ground where once there had been lush grass. The material appeared to be stony hard. He touched it, finding whatever it was rough and uneven.
Craig knew it was possible the landlady had ordered the grass to be limed, and that he'd just not noticed it earlier.
But why would Mrs. Delrutro have limed it? he wondered, and why just one side of the yard?
Craig walked into the duplex and found a flashlight from the kitchen drawer. As he ventured back onto the porch, he aimed the flashlight over the covered-over part of the yard. He pushed the button that turned on the light. The illumination revealed what indeed appeared to be a mantle of limestone spread over the grass. And now Craig saw more details: here and there across the limestone surface protruded what resembled to be clumps of twigs caked with dirt or maybe moss. Some of these clumps were dark, others somewhat beige in color. Craig walked onto the flagstones for a better look. He directed the illumination toward the nearest clump sticking out of the limestone, one rather tall and straggly in appearance.
His heart lurched in his chest.
This no clump of vegetation, but a human hand. The thing was small, knurled and desiccated, like something out of a mummy exhibit. For a single shocked moment Craig thought surely the thing belonged to some ancient corpse. With a trembling hand he directed the flashlight toward another clump. He squinted at what it he saw: another tiny hand.
On shaky legs Craig took a step onto the limestone. He directed the illumination of the flashlight here, there. With each turn he made he saw some tiny cadaverous hand or digits jutting through the porous surface. Craig was dimly aware how very fast his breathing had become, how his heartbeat thundered in his ears.
An ungodly vision, he told himself. None of this is real!
He made out something else at the very edge of limestone closest to the sidewalk –something that appeared fluffy and very tattered. Very carefully he stepped around the multitude of mummified hands until he stood right in front of the object. Taking a deep breath, he directed the light over whatever was wedged there.
The fabric was moldy, but the faded plush fabric was still recognizable.
Craig remembered dreaming of Tomato Head. Yet, this was no dream. He was wide awake.
“I’m not asleep,” he gasped. He turned away from the abominable thing and horrified tears scalded his eyes.
A child’s voice –no, several children’s voices- whispered in the darkness, “You’ve been here before, Craig!”
“Go to hell!” he roared. “Whoever you are doing this indecent thing, go to hell!”
Through misted eyes he saw shadows lope across the yard on the other side of the walkway. A figure there stopped straight across from him. He could not see it, but he felt it. Hellishly black, and emanating a phantom-like solidity that gave off a peculiar odor. Sweetly putrid, like flowers decaying in a vase.
He shone the light at the figure.
Betty Ann. She wore the same shorts and tee shirt she’d had on that first time he’d seen her. Her fair skin was the color of cream under the light; her blonde hair gleamed like golden ice.
“How the hell did you find out where I live?”
The guileless look on her face made Craig’s blood thicken. Shaking with rage, he strode over the walkway and grabbed her by the arms. How small and easily breakable those arms felt in his clenched hands. But he didn’t care. He shook her and let loose a feral enraged yell.
His chest felt like it would explode. He could not breathe. His feet, his legs, even his arms went numb. Black dots flickered before his eyes.
Craig perceived -but did not feel- his skull collide with the ground. The black dots scattered enough to allow a blurry view of the stars overhead. He snatched a thin gasp of air. Once, twice. He tried to sit up, but his head felt incredibly heavy, the back of his skull hurt. With a helpless moan he sank back to the ground.
Voices surrounded him. If these were passersby or neighbors he could not tell. And though he opened his mouth and tried to ask for help, words would not vocalize. All he knew was the sensation of hands passing under his shoulders, and of someone lifting his legs.
A dimness swept over Craig’s mind. He heard the ordinary sounds from the inside of his house. His heart rate leveled out. The pain in his head lessened to a dull throb. And whoever it was who had carried him inside had left.
How much time passed before he was able to move was only a guess. But eventually his consciousness fought its way out of the dimness. He made himself sit up.
The throb in his head was nearly gone, though he felt a goose egg at the back of his head. The lamp by his bed had been turned on. Throwing his legs over the bedside, he noticed the beer bottle and flashlight standing on the little table right beside the lamp. He had taken both these things outside, of this he was sure.
But who carried me inside?
He rose from the bed and stepped to the door. There was no sign nor sound to suggest anyone else was in the house. Except for the lamp light from his room the place appeared dark. He went back for the flashlight and switched it on.
“Hello?” he called into the lightless living room. “Who is there?”
When no one answered he did a walk through of the entire house. The only other light he found on was the overhead in the kitchen. The house had been this way right before he’d stepped out to the porch with the beer. Satisfied no one was about, he checked the back door. The French doors were locked, the curtains closed shut. At length he went to the front door.
He found the exterior light was still off, though the door remained open. Or left open, he thought.
Craig rubbed the tender spot on his skull. As he stared out into the darkness he wondered if it was possible he’d just been drunk and fallen? That he’d imagined someone else putting himself in bed?
He cringed to recall what had happened in the yard. Surely, it couldn’t have been real. He flipped on the switch for the porch light and walked out. With the flashlight illumination to guide him he proceeded down the steps to the walkway. He took a deep breath and directed the light over the left-side part of the yard.
Grass covered the ground. He knelt and fanned his fingers through it. Lush, dewy grass and nothing else. He stood again, spread the light over the other side of the yard. This portion was normal, too. There was nothing amiss, not a thing.
Craig turned off the flashlight and went back into the house. After closing and locking the door he returned to his room. He stood the flashlight atop the nightstand, and picked up the beer bottle to check the weight.
It was practically full.
So he had not been drunk. He wanted to call Betty Ann at the motel where she was staying. He wanted to hear her voice, to demand to know what she had done to him? Beg her, if he must, to just leave him alone. And if she laughed at him?
I will tell her I'll just end her sorry, useless life.
Craig took his cell phone from the dresser and searched the internet search engine for the Relax-o-Lodge Inn. Almost instantly a short description of the place popped up. There was a small photo of the inn, and as he touched this, he was led to a full details and ratings page. Below the street address was a phone listing for the office.
Craig touched the number link and held the phone to his ear. It was picked after two rings.
“Relax-o-Lodge,” a pleasant masculine voice answered. “Wayne speaking. How may I help you?”
“I’m calling for one of your guests, Ms. Betty Ann Crawford. May I please have the phone number for her room?”
“One moment, sir, and I will look that up,” Wayne said.
It was more like two hundred moments before Craig heard Wayne's voice again, “I apologize for the delay, sir. We don’t get many extension requests these days. If you will hold I will transfer that call?”
“Yes, thank-you, Wayne.”
As Craig discerned a muted click on the line his palms began to perspire. He was still angry –angrier than he’d ever been- and yet, he almost hoped Betty Ann would not pick up. For if she didn’t, it most likely meant she was still on route from his place back to the inn. And he would be happy to have that kind of confirmation.
He heard a ring on the other end of the call. A second ring. A third. An abrupt pop as the call was picked up.
“Hello?” Betty Ann answered.
Craig knew what he wanted to say, but the words just wouldn’t vocalize.
His breath caught in his chest. She is only guessing who this is, he told himself firmly.
“Craig, I know this is you.”
He took a deep, steadying breath. As it released he hissed, “I don’t know what your game is, Betty Ann. I don’t care if you really are a medium. I don’t even care if you take away the three million dollar prize. But if you ever come to my home again, if you screw with my head again, I will hurt you. Be very sure of that!”
There was a gentle sigh from the other end of the line. “You sound very upset,” she said in a sympathetic voice. “Look, whatever you think, I am not the one responsible for what you have been seeing. You need to look inside yourself, your life, if you want to find that out.”
Craig bit back the scream of outrage that sprang to his lips. The woman is insufferable! With a punch of a forefinger he pushed the button that ended the call. He tossed his phone to the end of the bed. For a few minutes he expected Betty Ann to call back. He glared at the phone, his skin lathered in sweat. But no call came.
After awhile his tension began to subside. At the very least, he told himself, he'd managed to tell Betty Ann how he felt. His only regret was that he had not done it before now. He should have called Fred Wagoner’s house days ago and told her then exactly what he had told her tonight.
But it was enough for now. Tomorrow evening or the morning afterward Betty Ann Crawford would be on a plane headed back to Tennessee. He returned his phone back to the dresser. He set the alarm clock for six-thirty in the morning. It was quite a bit earlier than he typically got up, but he wanted to be at the studio before filming of the last Challenge began.
He was smiling as he crawled into bed. Whatever perverse joy Betty Ann had taken in targeting him would be no more. He’d shown her he was not her plaything. And Pang’s detective would discover the identity of whoever was helping her ever since she’d arrived in California.
He closed his eyes and fell into a restful slumber.
In the morning Craig drank three cups of coffee and took a shower before heading to the studio. It was just after seven o’clock when he pulled into the parking lot. Except for a few maintenance people there was no one else to be found in the executive building. While waiting in his office alone he sent Kesha a message asking how she was. After this he shot one off to Heather to wish her a good morning, along with a reminder to call or message if she needed anything. At nearly seven-thirty he heard someone come into the outer office. He wasn’t sure if Matt or John was scheduled to come today. Either way, he really didn’t want to engage in much conversation or concern himself with paperwork right now.
The outer phone rang and Craig heard Matt pick it up. The conversation was mostly a blur to his ears. But a moment later Matt tapped at his door.
Matt peeked his head in. “I thought you got here early. Saw your car in the lot.”
“Yeah. I want to watch the taping for that Crawford woman's last Challenge.”
“Ah, her,” Matt said. “Just got a call for you from the Relax-o-Lodge.”
Craig was curious. With any luck they were calling to say Betty Ann was gone. It was very possible she had caught wind that Pang’s detectives were hanging around the inn.
Maybe, he hoped, she’s already decided to head back to Tennessee.
“What did they want?”
“It was the manager,” Matt explained. “He says they are raising their prices for the coming year. But wants you to know they’re giving us a twenty-five percent discount for any guests we book. If the studio signs a contract, that is.”
Craig hid his disappointment with a laugh. “Our business bringing them up in the world, huh?”
After Matt closed the door Craig bid his time until a quarter till eight. At that time he left the building and walked directly to the studio. Knowing where Agee was likely to be found at this time of morning, he made his way to the talent and wardrobe wing.
He entered the door which opened to the small foyer close to the wardrobe department. There was a kitchen island here, and the coffee machine was making bubbling sounds as it brewed a fresh pot. Craig heard some of the wardrobe people talking from behind doors down the hallway. But he kept by the window near the main door and peered outside anxiously for Agee to appear. After just a minute or so he saw the host. Another man walked alongside him – some tanned, smartly dressed guy Craig did not know. The two of them seemed to be arguing as Agee approached the door. Perhaps not exactly arguing, but it was apparent Agee was not happy. Before he got to the door he paused and made a dismissive gesture to the stranger. The man shrugged and turned while Agee entered the building.
The host slammed the door closed behind him. He was muttering under his breath as Craig stepped toward him.
“That was the detective, right?” Craig asked.
Agee was momentarily startled. “Oh, Craig. Good morning. Yes, yes it was.”
“I hope he gave you an explanation as to why he didn’t follow Betty Ann over to my place?”
Agee frowned. “What do you mean?”
“She was over at my place, Gerald. In my yard!”
Agee gestured Craig to follow him. “My mind is running on only one cup of coffee right now. Let me grab another and you come back to my wardrobe and explain what you mean? You’re making no sense.”
Craig felt an irritable chortle at the back of throat. “He was supposed to keep an eye on the Crawford woman last night, right? Well, she showed up at my place, Gerald.”
A couple of wardrobe women emerged from the hallway and stopped by the coffee maker. Agee tried again to coax Craig to his wardrobe room.
“No!” Craig protested. “I want to know what that stupid detective was doing last night. Because he very obviously wasn’t doing what he’s supposedly paid to do.”
He saw the women were staring at them. One of the women whispered something to the other. A moment later they took their coffees outside. Agee had noticed them, too, and looked embarrassed.
The host scratched his head and eyed Craig incredulously. “But Craig, Mr. Kouris did exactly what he's paid to do. He, his wife and their two electronic surveillance cameraman. That’s what we were talking about when I arrived. I suppose you saw him outside?”
“Look, Kouris was told I needed every bit of information they gathered last night by this morning. They set up at a little after four yesterday afternoon. They had to cough up a pretty penny to pay off the people at the inn, but they got everything they needed: free access to the halls, the breakfast dining room, the pool room, the laundry. Kouris and his people had surveillance film going on outside of the inn, too, both rear and front. They waited until the limo arrived to pick up the Crawford woman again this morning. And just a few minutes ago I was sitting in Kouris's car. He showed me all their notes and the videos they took.”
Craig sighed. “And?”
“They came away with nothing,” Agee said. “Crawford stayed in her room all night.”
“They’re lying to you, Gerald. Betty Ann Crawford was over at my place last night.”
Something akin to pity glinted in Agee’s eyes. “You actually saw her?”
Craig felt the beginning of a headache. Seeing Betty Ann in his yard had seemed so real; but looking back, maybe he’d just envisioned her standing there before he fainted? It could have been that simple. But whether or not, he had no doubt that he’d spoken with her on the telephone.
“I think so.”
Agee grumbled. “Think so isn’t much, you know? I’m sorry, but I just sat for over an hour watching all of Kouris's footage over fast-play. I read his team's notes. I talked to all of them. Crawford didn't come out of that room, Craig. She didn’t even call room service. She never talked to anyone.” A sympathetic look softened Agee’s features. “Believe me, no one wants to find out who that woman has helping her more than me. We were just a little late, I suppose. But I promise, we will keep digging, we will find out.”
Craig couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “No, no, this is bull! She did talk to someone. She talked to me. I called her after she left my place and went back to the inn!”
Agee grimaced. “Now why would you go and do that?”
Craig almost screamed out that Betty Ann had guessed it was him on the phone. But no; even with Agee being the professional skeptic he was, Craig wouldn’t take a chance on tainting his judgment during the last Challenge. It was paramount that Betty Ann was disgraced and disgraced with all professionalism intact.
He sighed. “You know, Gerald, it may have been just a stupid dream. I probably just drank too much before turning in.”
“Craig, dear boy, don’t let her get to you. We’ll discover whoever her plant is. And between you, me and the wall, there isn’t a chance in all of hell I'll let that piece of white trash get away with this.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“I promise.” Agee slapped his arm good-naturedly. “Besides, I’ve tweaked the Challenge for today. And I promise this time her fraud will be thoroughly exposed.”
Craig was surprised. “You changed it? From the approved script?”
“Yes,” Agee admitted. “I had no choice. Obviously someone got a copy of the other scripts in order to help her know what to prepare for. I don't know if it is my assistant or one of the production crew. It could be the make-up artist's errand boy for all we know. But Barkley, Kraft and I worked this one out over dinner last night. They are the only ones –besides you now- who know what this Challenge will involve. And those two aren't about to leak it. They like the generous paychecks too well.”
Craig saw the reason in what Agee planned. “Yeah, alright,” he said. “You’re the expert.”
“Yes, I am,” Agee chuckled. “Now stop worrying. I have to get ready for the taping. You going to watch from the control room?”
Craig nodded. Agee's plan did give him a great measure of relief.
“Good,” Agee said. “You head on over to the control room. I have like twenty-five minutes to get my powder girl to do her magic and make me look ten years younger.”
When Craig arrived to the control room Vint, Danny and Yvette the audio specialist were already seated at the production desk. Another woman was there as well, sitting on a stool in front of the table where Vint kept his collection of bobble heads. She was a gorgeous brunette wearing a halter top and denim shorts and high heeled sandals that showed off her long bronze legs. Craig vaguely recalled Vint once introducing her as his fiancée. Hildy? Hope? Harvest? Some name that started with H.
Danny greeted him with a little wave. Vint just nodded his head.
“Morning, Craig,” Yvette said.
“Hi Craig, how are you?” asked the leggy gal.
“Good, good..Harvest, is it?”
The woman laughed. “Harmony.”
Vint turned in his seat and said, “Okay darling, I don’t care if you vape in here, but stay off your phone until we’re done? If you just have to talk to someone please step outside?”
“Of course, sweetie,” Harmony replied. “I love you.”
Vint blew her a kiss. “I love you, snookums.”
Yvette shook her head with disgust. “You two. Geesh.”
Danny grinned. “You just jealous, Yvette.”
“Hardly,” Yvette countered. “I got my own man, more than can be said for you-“
“Quiet,” Vint muttered. He was looking at the monitors at the desk. “Looks like they’re about to start.”
Craig stepped up behind the three at the desk. From the image coming through the general viewing screen he saw this Challenge would take place in stage room C. It was the smallest, coziest of the stages. A wide table had been brought in and placed in the center of the floor. Craig noticed a length of solid plastic partition, about ten inches high, had been positioned horizontally across the center of the table. Barkley and Kraft were seated on one end of the table, and between them stood an unoccupied chair. Another empty chair stood at the other side of the table. From this set-up Craig guessed multiple cameras were planned to be used for the filming.
The audio for the little surveillance monitor was turned off, but the screen on. Through it director Maisey Henderson and her film team were seen moving about the room as they finished their set up. A visual streaming in to one of the monitor screens showed live footage from the team’s main camera. This camera silently witnessed the left hand stage door open. It was Agee. He paused and spoke with Maisey for a few moments before joining the other judges on their side of the table. Hal, a sound engineer assistant, approached Agee and affixed a small wireless microphone to the collar of his shirt. When Hal was satisfied he also checked the microphones Barkley and Kraft wore.
The door opened again and Katie Alberts came in with Betty Ann. Katie was dressed casually today, looking nothing like the glamorous hostess she had for the second Challenge. She gestured for Betty Ann to take the lone seat across from the judges, and then she quickly left the room.
“Goodness gracious, Katie must not want to stay,” Vint snarked.
“Can’t say as I blame her,” Danny said. “Considering last time.”
Craig noticed Betty Ann was garbed today in a frumpy dark green prairie-style dress, her blonde hair pulled back in a single loose braid. Dressed in this way would have lent most women a decidedly homespun appearance, and Craig suspected Agee had personally arranged this detail with the wardrobe people. Deliberate downplaying of a woman’s looks was a trick long used in television, as it was believed to play on the psyche of the audience and give them the impression the woman was dour, unsophisticated and/or less educated than her peers. But if this indeed was what Agee planned, Craig had to admit it failed. Betty Ann looked as intelligent and pleasingly sincere to the eye as ever.
As Hal affixed a mic to her dress Craig noticed Betty Ann idly finger something hanging at her wrist. It took a moment, but Craig recognized it as the same seashell pasta bracelet he’d seen her wearing before. He was reminded of Fred Wagoner, and all the gullible old people she’d duped back in Tennessee. And for a moment he felt a sliver of the same rage he had known the night before. But he managed to stifle the urge to dwell on this feeling, and instead concentrated on Agee’s assurance that none of Betty Ann’s tricks would work today.
One boom operator stationed himself as discreetly as possible behind the judges. The other did the same behind Betty Ann. The rest of the film crew moved close against the inner wall, out of shot from the cameras. The crew would be impossible to view in the control room monitors and just barely noticeable through the surveillance camera.
Maisey Henderson stepped in front of it and passed a palm in front of her face. Danny responded by flipping the audio switches on.
Vint punched a couple of buttons on the desk. With a hiss of electronic audio buzz blank screens popped up on two monitors. Yvette put on her headset and plugged it in.
Now Vint pushed the button for between-room conference. “We’re ready, Maisey.”
Maisey called the crew to roll and with a signal from her cameraman, she receded from view. The cameramen acknowledged they were ready. A moment later live feed began streaming from their cameras and through the two active desk monitors.
A loud snap! was heard from the slate of the clapperboard.
“Cameras set,” Maisey announced.
She must have motioned to Agee, for now he looked straight into the camera directed at the judges’ end and began his dialog.
“Welcome back to The Debunker’s Challenge,” he said. “So far this week, guest Betty Ann Crawford, has undergone a series of wholly unbiased and scientifically principled appraisal tests in the effort to prove her medium abilities. This will be the third and final part of her Challenges. After we are done here, our judges will convene in order to judge all three of Betty Ann’s performances. And, if we are convinced of her powers, she will be awarded the three million dollar prize.”
Agee gave a little nod to his fellow judges and bestowed Betty Ann a stoic look. As rehearsed as Agee was at hiding his emotions, Barkley was a different story. Her lips were drawn in a sharp simpering smile, while darts downright danced in her eyes. By contrast, Craig thought Kraft appeared not only relaxed, but in a very good mood. In fact, there seemed to be something akin to either admiration or fondness in the way he looked at Betty Ann.
“Hello again, Betty Ann,” Agee said. “Are you ready to begin?”
At her nod Agee continued, “Good, good. For today’s Challenge, we have designed something which involves a certain level of risk for the judges. The risk is not physical, but one where we are willing to allow some of our most personal life events be made public. This is, Betty Ann, if you are able to tell us what these life events are. We have chosen this particular Challenge as it occurred to us there is a possibility an insider has taken it upon themselves to help you. And by help, I mean feeding you information they were not permitted to share.”
The camera aimed at Betty Ann showed a slight purse to her lips.
“Of course,” she replied.
“Ms. Crawford,” Barkley said, “You don’t seem surprised.”
“Why should I be?”
Barkley’s tongue flicked cat-like over her upper lip, but she was content to say nothing more just yet.
“That is a good thing, I must suppose,” Agee said. He looked at Barkley and Kraft. "Don't you both agree?”
Barkley nodded and Kraft smiled blandly.
Agee reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out an envelope. Kraft drew out an identical envelope from his own shirt pocket, while Barkley removed one from a pocket at the front of her blazer. The judges placed these envelopes on the table in front of them.
“Betty Ann," Agee explained, "inside these envelopes you see are sheets of paper. Each of us has written out a statement on our respective paper. These statements briefly detail single events, events which have occurred in our personal lives, events which, until now, have never been shared with the public. Additionally, we have each put our signatures to our statements for validation purposes. You are asked to disclose what is written in our statements. After you tell us what you believe the first judge's statement reads, their envelope will be opened. The written statement will be revealed to the camera person filming behind us and the judge will read it out loud. After this, you will move on to the second judge in the same manner, and then the third judge. Is this clear for you?"
Betty Ann folded her hands together on the table. “Yes, it is clear.”
Craig noticed a fierce flicker in Betty Ann’s eyes, and there was a subtle yet notable strain in her serene composure. He had no doubt this was indication she wasn’t feeling as confident with this Challenge as she had with the others.
Danny must have seen it, too, for he commented, “Your little medium looks a little tense, Craig.”
Agee spoke like a diplomat as he said, “Alright. And in the spirit of fairness, Ms. Crawford, you may choose whichever statement you wish to start with. After you have told us about the first one and it is revealed, you are good to go to the next. Does this sound fair to you?”
Betty Ann only nodded. Agee made an amicable gesture, “Then you may start as soon as you're ready.”
The camera leveled on Betty Ann showed her look momentarily from one envelope to another. Her eyes settled on Agee.
“Mr. Agee,” she said, “your statement regards a dog. You wrote that you had this dog when you were young. You tell us his name was King, a red setter-hound mix and your best childhood friend. You further write that one day you took King along when you went to fish at a local stream. King waded into the water and stuck his nose under the surface as if hunting for something. He pulled out a brown trout and laid it on the bank near you. He proceeded to catch two more brown trout. You write that not only were you amazed by King's success, his obvious happiness over it was contagious. You mark it down as one of the happiest days of your young life.”
Agee was smiling, though Craig guessed it was a poker smile. The host reached for his envelope and tore open one end. He pulled out a sheet of cream-colored stationary and unfolding it, laid it over the table. The camera man with his boom directed the camera so that it revealed what was written there. Agee read aloud the statement he'd written:
“When I was about fourteen I took my red setter hound King fishing with me to a nearby stream. While I sat there using my old pole and some fresh worms, King waded into the stream. He was excited by the fish darting in the clear water. To my delight King pulled out three of the fish with only his teeth. He brought his prizes one by one up to the bank where I sat and deposited them at my feet. They appeared to be brown trout. King was so thrilled by what he'd done, and I was overjoyed for him. I recall that day as one of the happiest of my life.”
Agee looked to Betty Ann and remarked in a cool tone, "I must concede that on the surface, your guess does surprise me."
Kraft threw him an incredulous look. “I’d call it a rather impressive guess.”
Barkley’s sniffed and shook her head. “Well, you are easily impressed, Zane.”
In the control room Craig was distracted by a waft of fruity aroma. A curl of light mist swirled around his right shoulder. Casting a look that way he realized the mist it was Harmony puffing on a slender vape. He smiled faintly and looked back at the monitors.
Agee was just saying, “Alright, Betty Ann, who is next?”
Betty Ann turned her attention to Barkley. “Dr. Barkley,” she said, “you have written about the first time you kissed a boy. You were sixteen years old. It took place during a trip taken by your school band to Six Flags Over Texas. The boy's name was Scott Hannity. He was a senior, and while you considered him a real nerd, you secretly thought he was very cute, too. A month after this Scott asked you to go to the prom. But your parents wouldn’t let you because-”
“Hold on!” Barkley blurted out. “That’s enough!” She crossed her arms tightly and shot Agee an indignant glare.
“Am I right, Dr. Barkley?” Betty Ann asked.
After a few tense moments Barkley tore one end of her envelope and drew out a sheet of stationary. The cameraman focused in on the words written there. Barkley grabbed the glass of water nearby and took a deep sip before looking at the text. There was a notable tremor in her voice as she finally read aloud, “When I was sixteen I went with the school band to Six Flags Over Texas. A boy named Scott Hannity sat on the bench beside me. Although Scott was a nerd and most of my friends didn’t even know who he was, I always thought he was as cute as he was smart. During the trip to the amusement park we got a chance to talk. Then, about an hour into the drive, while nobody else was looking, Scott reached over and kissed me. It was the first real kiss of my life.”
“That was certainly interesting,” Kraft said.
Barkley glanced at the main camera, her mouth drawn tight. “Yeah, alright,” she said with a dismissive motion. “Move along.”
At the production desk Danny asked, "Anyone else get the feeling Betty Ann was about to tell more than Barkley had written in her statement?"
“The doc did seem anxious to interrupt her" Vint granted.
In the studio the judges were now engaged in some light-hearted banter. Craig didn’t catch what they were saying as he was suddenly distracted by a sound. It was a tic-tock sound, and seemed to be coming from where the table with all Vint's bobble toys stood. For an instant he thought it had to be a running clock positioned on the wall. But then he was sure it was a double tic-tock he was hearing. He turned and looked. He saw Harmony standing by the table, and raising his eyes, realized there was no clock on the wall.
Tic-tock, tic-tock, tic-tock!
He glanced curiously over the other walls. There had to be a clock somewhere, even if he didn't remember where.
“They’ve got minds of their own today, huh?” he heard Harmony say.
She gestured to something on the table. “Those silly toys. Minds of their own.”
Craig's eyes pored over Vint's collection. There among the new and the classic figures two of the bobble head figures were moving. One of the figures was a little flower sitting in a green pot. It was in fact a plastic daisy with a smiley-face disk haloed by white fabric petals. Beside this bobble head sat a cube of smooth wood with a metal spring inserted vertically into the very center. The little spring held up a wooden placard –shaped and painted like a rainbow, with glittery sparkles all over it. The daisy bobble head gyrated in its plastic pot, while the wooden rainbow swayed back and forth atop its quick-weaving spring. Craig stared transfixed by the motion of the bobbles. For a few moments he didn’t quite understand why his own fascination.
Then suddenly he recalled something Betty Ann had said to him that evening in Tennessee: When the daisy dances with the rainbow you will learn where Kristophe is.
A sense of trepidation fell over Craig. It was as if some invisible entity had slinked into the room, and its unseen presence infused the air and pervaded the very pores of his flesh. He realized how irrational this feeling was. Yet it was so vivid, so intense. He flinched and felt his front teeth slice into his bottom lip.
“Hey Craig, you alright?”
It was Harmony. Concern reflected in her attractive wide eyes.
Craig gave her an assuring nod. Forcing himself away from the table, he went to stand beside Vint. He took a deep breath and wiped away a trickle of blood streaming down his chin. His eyes looked to the monitors. Only now did he realize the judges’ banter had taken a testy tone. He had missed the last comments made in the stage room, but he could tell by the way Barkley looked at Agee that she was irate.
Agee said, “Protest as you want, Leslie. But I believe there is credible reason for doubt.”
“We can discuss this later, Gerald,” Barkley grunted.
Craig saw a familiar clench in Agee’s jaw.
He thinks she’s colluding with Betty Ann, Craig thought.
Agee gestured to their guest. “Betty Ann, you might as well continue.”
Betty Ann turned her attention to Zane Kraft. Her gaze was soft, nearly sad as she regarded him.
“Mr. Kraft, you write that someone you recently had contact with has disappeared. You want me to tell you what has happened to him? You ask where he can be found. You also state you feel finding this out is much more important than ratings for this show.”
Barkley frowned in evident confusion. She glanced at Agee, who only looked impassively from Betty Ann to Kraft.
Kraft took a deep breath and opened his envelope. He laid his statement to the table and the camera focused in on his handwritten words as he read it.
“Someone I recently met has gone missing. Although I am asking you to tell us something not agreed to by the rules of this Challenge, if you can, please tell us this individual's location? Finding this person is much more important than getting good ratings for a mere television show.”
A very audible scoff broke Agee’s stoic demeanor. “Zane," he asked, "you didn’t happen to talk with Ms. Crawford before we gathered in this room, did you?”
A wounded look crossed Kraft’s face, but it was Barkley who said, “For god’s sake, Gerald. Moments ago you insinuated practically the same about me! Are you trying to say the two of us got together and colluded with Ms. Crawford?”
Agee replied in a crusty tone, “As a lifelong student of human behavior, nothing would surprise me.”
Barkley’s face beamed red. “Need I remind you I am a licensed specialist in human behavior?”
In her seat at the production desk Yvette muttered, “This is getting ugly.”
Craig fully expected the tension in the studio would lead Maisey to call a break in filming. At this point it was the only professional decision to make. He was also still keenly aware of the tic-tocking from the dancing bobbleheads. The incessant sound felt like a screwdriver plowing through his temple.
In the studio Kraft ignored Agee. “Betty Ann,” he implored, “will you tell me? Tell us? Please?”
Betty Ann shot a half-glance at the camera filming her reactions. At last she said, “Mr. Kraft, the one you are concerned about is not far. Neither is he alone. Close by are companions he cannot see.”
Agee made an exasperated look but he said nothing. Barkley appeared mesmerized. And Craig felt perspiration erupt over every inch of his flesh.
“Their names are unknown to you,” Betty Ann told Kraft calmly. “But they call out to be remembered. Some of them have gathered from long distances away, from places you have probably never heard of. Those who were taken from places in this vicinity will be found very close to the one you seek. Their names are: Evan Osteen. Brian Cho. Nicolas Leyman. Peyton Hemmer. Adam Pyle. Noah Garcia. Kristophe Herbert.”
Silent thunder quaked Craig’s insides. He was vaguely aware of the shocked look Vint shot him and how ashen Danny’s face turned.
“Craig,” he heard Danny ask, “Kristophe Herbert…isn’t that your little brother’s name?”
But Craig could only stare at the monitors in breathless anticipation. He saw Agee shake his head and gesture to Maisey.
“This is inappropriate, Maisey,” Agee bellowed. “Stop filming.”
Maisey must have disagreed because the cameras continued to film. Betty Ann addressed Kraft again, “These I have named lie beneath a blanket of hardened limestone. The others will be found elsewhere.”
Agee turned in his seat and smacked the camera of the boom operator standing behind him. The surprised man took a step back as Agee announced, “This deceitful woman is trying to get the network sued! Turn the cameras off!”
Maisey finally relented and ordered the cameramen to stop filming.
Yvette pulled off her headset. But via the surveillance monitor and its audio those in the production room continued to witness what transpired in the stage room.
Kraft wiped his mouth nervously. “Betty Ann, is Brent Price alive?”
Agee shook his stony face and crossed his arms. “They’ve stopped filming. You two can end the charade now.”
Betty Ann ignored him as she said, "Yes, Mr. Kraft, but Brent is injured. His abductor took him to his own house and after drugging him, led him to a small room in the basement. There Brent put up a fight and managed to elude his abductor by taking refuge in a small crawlspace behind a water heater. The abductor is not as small as Brent and so can't reach him. So this man decided to just lock the basement door. As the basement is well insulated the boy’s screams for help have gone unheard.”
Craig bit his bottom lip again, and his fingernails clawed into the back of Vint’s chair. He heard Harmony ask in a frightened voice if what was going on in the stage room was real?
Desperate tears shone in Kraft’s eyes. “Whose house, Betty Ann? Whose house?”
Just as Craig was sure his legs would buckle Betty Ann’s face glowed pale. “The only person here cold-blooded enough to have killed his own mother. Who burned her house down afterward and assumed another name. One who traveled far and wide working as first a circus carny, then a band roadie before he found himself lucky enough to be taken under the wing of a stage telepathist. The same person who escaped drug and sexual crime charges when he accepted a federal deal to help expose a securities fraud scheme...a second deal for infiltrating a notorious drug cartel. A man who has proved so valuable to federal agents they turned a blind eye to his molestation of little boys. The person who has not just molested children, but one who spent decades killing victims throughout seven different states. One who has elite, wealthy friends who have perversely and directly benefited from his knowledge of how to lure unsuspecting children.”
Betty Ann’s accusing eyes leveled on Agee. “The one who wrote about a dog he never owned and who has never cast a fishing pole in his life.”
Barkley gasped and covered her mouth.
Agee glared at the doctor. "It’s a lie, you stupid cow!”
Kraft was incredulous. “Betty-Betty Ann, what are you trying to do?”
“You will find Brent in his basement,” she told Kraft. “And the bodies of those children I named. Contact your local authorities. Contact them now.”
Betty Ann's voice echoed in Craig's head. It was only the memory of a shadow; something he’d dreamed she had said to him: You’ve been here before. Without trying another memory flooded back. A visit he’d once made to Agee’s house. He had gone there to discuss some trivial matter about a potential guest. And while he was there Agee had invited him to follow him to the basement to get a couple of soda pops from the vintage machine kept there. There was something else stored down there, too, something so common that Craig had forgotten it until now. A water heater.
He saw Agee shoot up from his chair in the stage room. The host tore the mic off his shirt and threw it to the table. “I am not listening to anymore of this!”
As Betty Ann spoke next she repeated something Agee had said to Craig in private, “Train yourself to see people as mere smoke and in time you can forget anyone’s face.”
Agee recoiled so hard every muscle in his face twisted. And Craig knew now that despite whatever logic and reason and Agee’s irate reaction argued, Betty Ann spoke the truth. The hatred he'd harbored toward Betty Ann vanished. A state of absolute lucidity claimed his conscious mind.
He watched as the host moved from the table. Agee stormed briskly toward the wing door.
“He’s going to leave!” Danny shouted.
“And no one in there will move to stop him,” Craig hissed.
Vint looked at Harmony. “Quick, give me your phone!”
Just as Agee left the stage Craig’s clarity propelled him through the control room door. He turned left and sprinted down the corridor, threw open the door there at the end. The daylight was blinding, but he ignored it and let familiarity lead him down the sidewalk. His running strides brought him to the studio parking lot and to the designated spot where Agee always parked.
The host had just reached his orange Jaguar coupe. He pulled the remote keyless system from his pants pocket and aimed it at the car. Craig heard a little bing! as the mechanism responded and the doors unlocked.
“Twenty-five hundred dollars of charity, Gerald,” he declared. “That’s how much you paid to gain that poor, sick boy’s trust!”
Agee glanced back at him, his face red with irritation. “Oh dear lord, Craig. Don’t tell me you give any credence to that charlatan!”
Craig bolted forward. He grasped the host’s belt with one hand, snatched his collar with the other and shoved Agee’s head into the side of the Jaguar. The impact made an ugly thud. Craig forcefully spun Agee around, and grabbing the man’s shoulders, pinned him against the metal.
Blood trickled from a wound just over the bridge of Agee's nose. As he threw up his hands defensively Craig realized he’d never seen Agee look so honestly his age. Absent was the imperious aplomb, the conceited glow. He was nothing more than a trembling, bleeding old man. And as strong as Craig’s urge was just to break his scrawny throat, he had to think of Brent Price.
“Gerald, I should kill you now,” he said. “But we’re going to call the police instead. You’re going to take them to your house, to the basement.”
“Listen to yourself,” Agee stammered. “You can’t believe some damned Appalachian hill witch!”
A frosty chortle rose in Craig’s throat. “Classic Gerald Agee. Denigrate someone in your high and mighty voice of reason, and expect the rest of the world to dismiss them as liars and charlatans!”
Agee writhed like a worm to free himself. Craig raised a hand and struck Agee so hard across the mouth that the back of the host’s head banged into the car.
“Everyone in that studio knows,” Craig growled. “We have the tape. We are going to call the police and you are going to take them to Brent Price, master psychic debunker.”
The mockery must have struck a nerve, for now Agee sneered back, “Do you have any idea who really controls the Debunker's Challenge? Who owns this studio? Who manages the whole damned network? They are my associates. MY patrons, Craig. And let me warn you, we don’t take orders from some mediocre, easily replaceable field producer.”
“Let your precious Worldwide Reason Institute do what they want,” Craig answered. “But it will have to wait until Brent is found. Even if that means I strangle you here and now and then tell the police where they can find that boy.”
“If Brent Price is at my house it is because he came to me willingly!”
Craig's hands clamped around Agee’s throat. His voice was hoarse with contempt as he asked, “Even my little brother, you depraved bastard?”
Feral contempt burned in Agee’s eyes. “They all come to me willingly.”
Craig’s restraint snapped. His fingers dug into the host’s wiry throat. Agee squirmed for breath; his hands flailed impotently at Craig’s face. Craig smiled at the look of utter disbelief shining in the old degenerate’s eyes. As his grasp tightened over Agee's windpipe the host managed to sputter a single unintelligible plea. But Craig did not hear it, only the resounding tic-tock sound in his head. He was not even aware when a pair of security guards flanked him.
The two grasped Craig’s forearms and wrenched him off Agee. As they held Craig back Agee crumbled to the pavement, gasping for air.
“Wrong guy!” The shout had come from Vint. He and Danny ran up.
Vint pointed at Agee. “That’s the one we called about!”
The guards exchanged confused looks. But they released Craig, and Danny helped Craig to his feet.
“It’s okay, man,” Danny said. “I contacted the CBI while Vint called these guys.”
Craig nodded mutely. At last the tic-tocking sound began to fade away. He saw one of the guards speaking to someone over a cell phone. The man’s companion knelt beside Agee, who was holding his bruised throat.
“Try not to move, sir. We’re contacting 9-1-1.”
Agee’s only response was a blubbering wail.
Questions & Answers
© 2020 Beth Perry