Beth Perry is a professional author. She lives near the great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
DEBUNKED 2020 Beth Perry
In a city police station interview room Craig had provided two officers with his version of the incident at the studio lot and the events leading up to it. He had told them everything, leaving nothing out. He also let them know he wasn’t sorry. And most importantly, he urged them to check out the basement of Agee’s home.
That had been almost three hours earlier. Now at last the door opened again. Sgt. Valdez, who had been one of the officers he'd spoken with, entered with another man in plainclothes. The man introduced himself as Detective Mitchell Drummond.
To Craig’s surprise the detective informed him they had no charges to file against him.
“Not unless that Agee guy decides differently in the next forty-eight hours,” Drummond added. “But I think Mr. Agee has more to worry about right now.”
“What about the boy?” Craig asked anxiously, “Brent Price?”
“Your co-workers confirmed what you told us,” Valdez said. “They showed us the tape you spoke of. We watched it with agents from the California Bureau of Investigations. Afterward the agents went directly to Agee’s home. As this involved a child and they felt there were adequate reasons to warrant a search based on immediate danger, they entered the premises. About thirty minutes ago they contacted us with confirmation they had discovered Brent Price, alive in the basement. That woman was right, Mr. Herbert, the boy was hiding in a crawlspace behind the water heater. Very small opening, barely more than a crevice. The boy is dehydrated and hungry. But the agents told us he was on route to the hospital, and his mother has been contacted in Red Bluff.”
A wave of relief washed over Craig. “Where is Agee?”
“He’s in transport now from the emergency room,” Valdez said.
“And the bodies under the limestone?”
Valdez’s voice was reassuring as he said, “Agents are breaking the limestone floor even as we speak, Mr. Herbert. I cannot promise what they will find, if anything.”
Drummond took a chair beside Craig. “I hate to have to ask this, but are you sure this Betty Ann Crawford did not know Gerald Agee before she came here?”
“No. She had never met him.” Craig sighed. “And until today I believed she was a fraud. And Agee was sure she was. But she is no fraud. For that I owe her an apology. More than an apology. So much more than an apology, you know?”
There was a brief silence in the room. At length Drummond explained they would be in contact with Craig as soon as they heard anything else from the CBI.
“CBI has paid to extend Ms. Crawford’s stay at the Relax-o-Lodge,” Drummond said. “For although everything she has told us has been supported by the witnesses and the video tapes, investigators will have more questions for her.”
Craig walked out of the interrogation room to find Matt in the station’s waiting room. Matt explained Danny had informed him of what had gone down at the studio and that he’d come down to either find Craig a lawyer or drive him home.
During the drive Matt didn’t say anything more. But once they arrived at Craig’s place Matt told him sympathetically, “It is an awful thing, Craig. I don’t know whether to give my condolences or keep praying Kristophe is alive and well.”
Craig nodded mutely and thanked him. Once inside the duplex he felt the weight of the exhausting emotions he felt toward Agee. It was a mixture of immeasurable hatred and disgust, so cold and intense that it numbed his other emotions. But he felt absolutely no regret for attacking Agee. And he knew if the lowlife committed suicide in jail or was killed by another inmate, the world would be better off.
And yet Craig couldn’t help but wonder why he had never once suspected Agee? Why had he never even got a whiff of the guy’s perversity? Why had he never felt any hint there was something disturbing and unnatural about him?
He took a shower –hotter than usual- and afterward called Kesha. Without going into details (which he knew would likely hit the news soon enough) he explained she should return home the next day.
“Are you alright?” Kesha asked.
“Yes. But something has happened.”
He heard her take a deep breath. “Is it Kristophe?”
He choked back an unexpected sob. “We may have news very soon. And I need you here.”
Kesha said she would tell her friends at once. She told him she loved him and the call ended.
He was just about to call Heather as well when a knock sounded at the front door. It was Heather. Her eyes were red from crying, and the wretched look on her face told him that she already knew what had happened.
“Matt called me,” she explained. “He picked me up and dropped me by. I am so sorry, Craig!”
She threw her arms around him. Her tenderness shattered the strange numbness which had encased Craig since the security guards pulled him off of Agee. For a long while they stood in the open doorway, Heather holding him while he wept.
Heather stayed with him all that night. She even slept in the bed beside him. His sleep was deep; without dreams, without visions. He might have slept even longer had she not roused him early to say he had a phone call from a Detective Drummond.
When he answered the phone Drummond explained that CBI agents were on their way to the police station, and that they asked for Craig come in to look at some video. Drummond offered to drive over and pick him up.
Forty minutes later he and Heather were escorted by Drummond into a small, rather cozy room at the station. There was a couch here, along with a beverage cooler and snack machine. California Bureau of Investigations Agent Eileen Robards was here, too. Her voice was professional, though her tone was distinctively warm. As she gestured them to have a seat Craig noticed a large soft leather briefcase at the end of the couch.
Robards explained that through the night the CBI had worked on excavating Agee’s basement, and most importantly, the limestone floor near the hiding place Brent Price had been found. She had brought some images from what they had found so far.
She reached for the briefcase, and opening it, took out a digital camera.
“We have not yet located every family we need to speak with,” Robards said, taking a seat beside Craig. “Nor have we yet converted all these digital images to physical photographs. We do, however, have the missing persons report details made when your brother disappeared, along with the report the photos you provided at the time, the eyewitness statements taken from your former housekeeper and so forth. So we have a detailed description of what Kristophe was wearing that day. If you think you can, Mr. Herbert, would you please take a look at a couple of these images? They were taken at our excavation site in Mr. Agee’s residence.”
At his nod she brought up an image gallery on the camera. Then she warned him to brace himself, as the images were disturbing.
“Let me will tap the first one,” she said, “take a look at this one and we will then move on to the others, okay?”
She handed the camera to him. As he looked at the display she tapped the key that brought up an image. It was a photo of something in a ratty plastic bag laid atop broken flooring inside of Agee’s basement. But the next series of photos were particularly horrific: the bag had been drawn off the contents, revealing a single small body. The body lay on one side in a fetal position. It was mummified, and the hair that clung to the scalp had turned to an ashen shade of orange. The clothing had considerably faded, but Craig recognized the cheerful zigzag pattern on the quarter-length shirt. He knew those blue jeans – he had hemmed them with his mother’s old sewing machine because the legs had been too long. There were no shoes on the body, just little white crew socks. And clutched close to the dead child’s arms, right against the breastbone, was the plush Tomato Head which Kristophe had loved so well.
Craig’s heart sunk, his limbs quaked. “It’s my brother Kristophe.”
“You are absolutely certain?”
He tried to utter an answer, but all he could do was mouth yes!
To his relief Robards turned the camera off and put it away again.
“That is all I need, sir,” she said apologetically. “I am so very sorry for your loss.”
A disturbing question rose to Craig’s mind. He did not want to ask it, but he had to. “Have you any idea how my brother…was killed?”
Robards bit her bottom lip as if reluctant to answer. At length she said, “We cannot be sure yet. But we did find a horde of drugs inside the house. Most of them are very strong sedatives.”
She told him Kristophe’s body would be taken to the CBI’s forensics office for a complete autopsy. She also let him know the remains of seven other children had been recovered from the basement.
“Ms. Crawford has given us names,” she said. “The same ones she named on camera. We are in contact with the presumed families.”
Craig remembered something. “And the others? She alluded that there were more.”
Robards nodded. “Yes. She is providing the names of those as well. The locations where she believes they are buried. We have contacted the FBI. They will be initiating their own investigations on those. If those names pan out, the FBI will be in contact with authorities in the respective States in which she says the victims died.”
Craig's whole body shuddered with rage and grief. He was so grateful to feel Heather’s steady hands on his arm.
“I am very sorry for having to put you through this,” Robards said. “And I thank-you for coming in today. I, or someone in my office, will contact to let you know when you and your family can claim Kristophe for burial. And on behalf of everyone at the Bureau, I extend my deepest condolences.”
Heather offered to stay at the duplex with him, and Craig was relieved to have her there. At a little after three that afternoon Zoe’s car pulled into the driveway. From a window Craig saw Kesha step out of the vehicle. He went out and helped carry her bags into the house.
Only once they were inside did Kesha say anything, and this she uttered in a shaky half-whisper. “Tell me, what have you heard?”
Heather excused herself while the two of them talked on the sofa. It was not the happy ending story either of them had always prayed to hear. It was ugly, it was enraging. Once Craig had finished and Kesha knew everything, they were both sobbing. But she took his hand, kissed it, laid it over her heart.
“He’s at rest, brother,” she said, the tears spilling down her face. “And at the very least now we know. Just promise me you will not blame yourself.”
Kesha knew him so well. But he did blame himself. Not once in all these years had he ever suspected anyone he knew of being monstrous enough to take a child, and certainly not the kind of monster who would kill a child. And he believed firmly now that had he been smart, or at least in tune with his perceptions, then somewhere down the line he would have picked up some kind of misgiving or hint about Agee's nature.
“I should have picked up some sense about Agee,” he said miserably. “You’d think that, right? We are human beings, we have instinct. But I didn’t pick up on anything. Not once in all these years. And here I thought I knew that man.”
Kesha was thoughtful. At length she said, “That is the secondary evil in all this, Craig. A person like Agee commits unthinkable acts, and gets away with it because he excels at deception. People like this not only labor to satisfy and cover up their wickedness, they corrupt their every relationship with their falsehoods. If he wasn’t so very contemptible, so very evil, one might even feel sorry for such a lonesome individual.”
She wiped her tears away with the back of a hand. “But don’t you dare take blame for what Agee's done,” she warned firmly. “He has already injured this family; I don’t want to see him using your conscience to carry his blame. Whatever you do, Craig, make him shoulder the responsibility. One hundred percent of it!”
Over the next few days news outlets were saturated with headlines about Brent Price’s rescue and the discovery of bodies at Agee’s home. The local District Attorney’s office charged Agee with felony imprisonment, child exploitation, molestation and illegal disposal of corpses. Federal murder and kidnapping indictments also loomed over Agee's future.
Because of the host's celebrity and legion of groupies, social media was hit by a firestorm of controversy. While most ordinary people were shocked and outraged, Agee’s fans were indignant. His long-time mainstream media supporters depicted Agee as a sympathetic old man. Liberal opinion writers, blog posters and video personalities vehemently defended him and alluded that he had been set up. Although Brent Price’s age kept his name from being published, these defenders argued that the “alleged” kidnapping victim had to have been a willing visitor to Agee’s home. They decried the evidence recorded on the studio tapes as unreliable. A few went to so far as to put forth the theory that the discovered corpses had been placed in Agee’s home by charlatans who had been exposed on The Debunker's Challenge. These conspiracy theorists angrily maintained that any legitimacy given the ordeal by legal authorities demonstrated an agenda against the entire skeptic community. Their favorite debunker was a victim, they maintained, singled out by a cabal of ignorant, superstitious people with a grudge against science and reason.
Jon gave Craig the heads up that the network had shelved production of The Debunker's Challenge until further notice. Craig also learned Betty Ann was interviewed several times by both State and Federal agents. But after ten days they were satisfied she had no previous relationship with Agee that could tie her in with his crimes. She did, however, provide the names and locations of the several victims she asserted waited outside of California. The FBI moved quickly to begin investigations and recovery of bodies in these other locales.
One morning Craig was in the kitchen when he heard a knock at the front door. Kesha was back at school and Heather was still sleeping, and though Craig wasn’t expecting a visitor, he opened the door. To his surprise he found Walter Pang standing on the porch, holding a smart leather briefcase in hand. Pang’s dress shirt was slightly damp from perspiration, but in every other way the attorney stood there as coolly poised as ever.
Craig asked him inside. Pang offered a condolence before taking an offer to sit down at the sofa. Craig was still trying to get used to condolences. He could only reply with a nod and asked Pang if he could get him a beverage?
“Oh, no thank-you, Craig.”
Craig took a seat in the old wing-back chair across the coffee table. “So, what brings you out this way, Mr. Pang?”
Pang opened the briefcase over his lap. “I do not know if either of your assistants contacted to inform you, Craig, but this morning the network executives decided to cancel The Debunker’s Challenge.”
Craig found the news darkly amusing. “Really? Well, what a shame."
“It is reasonable, considering the circumstances,” Pang said. “The studio has openings for the crew, so you need not worry about them having to look for work. And your assistants have been accepted into the studio's secretarial pool, so they will be put in new positions soon enough.”
Craig told Pang he was glad to hear this. But he admitted he wasn’t surprised by the network’s decision.
“I can assure you, Craig, it did not come with any cheer. But I know you understand a network cannot ethically continue with a series created by a dissolute person. To do any business with such individual would be irresponsible.”
“I know,” Craig replied. “And Gerald Agee was The Debunker Challenge.”
“Yes. But please know the network extends its deepest regrets to you and your family in this time of tragedy. It is for this they have asked me to come by.” Pang pulled an envelope out of the briefcase. “The network feels it is their obligation to offer what assistance they may to our company employees who have suffered because of Mr. Agee's actions.”
He laid the envelope on the coffee table. “This cannot possibly replace your family’s loss, Craig, but we hope it will help ease the burden.”
Craig reached for the envelope. Opening it, he peeked at the cheque tucked inside. Never in his life had seen so many zeros written out to his name.
Although he knew he should be grateful, there was something undeniably artificial about this seeming act of generosity. He remembered when Pang had informed him the network had nixed Brent’s episode on the heels of his disappearance. At the time the CEO's wanted to avoid scandal out of fear Brent’s failure to take home the prize money had made him depressed enough to runaway from home. Craig had no doubt that they now feared he and Kesha might blame them for Kristophe's kidnapping and death.
“This is more than a mere severance cheque,” Craig said stiffly. “Am I right to suspect your bosses are afraid I will bring a lawsuit against the studio? That they want to buy me off?”
Pang’s response was tactful, “Whatever for? The network is not responsible for Gerald Agee’s actions.”
Craig was not convinced the motive for offering him a small fortune had anything to do with altruism. “So I should accept this is just their way of being magnanimous,” he retorted. “I suppose you would want me to sign some kind of nondisclosure agreement?”
“The subject hasn't been brought up," Pang answered in his soothing tone. "Know simply that the network board is very disturbed by what has happened to a loyal employee.”
Pang’s words struck Craig as something foul and rotting inside layers of sanitized cloth.
And Craig was curious about something else. “How about Betty Ann Crawford? Will the network be sending her back to Tennessee with just a thank-you and a don’t let the door hit you on the way out?”
“This may surprise you, Craig, but I was charged yesterday to deliver the winner’s cheque of three-million dollars to Ms. Crawford. But she said she would not accept it.”
Somehow this did not surprise Craig. If he had learned anything about the intriguing Betty Ann Crawford, was that he had sorrowfully misjudged her.
He couldn’t help but grin. “She doesn’t want the money?”
“No,” Pang said. “Instead, she legally signed the entire amount over to Brent Price and his mother.”
Craig clapped his thigh and laughed. “How I wish Gerald Agee was here to have heard that!” He couldn’t help but smirk at the irony of it all. “But I suppose the nondisclosure clauses she signed before filming might be meaningless now that the feds are involved, huh?”
Pang closed the briefcase and got to his feet. His voice was amicable as he said, “Perhaps they wouldn't hold up in federal court. But if Ms. Crawford’s actual goal is fame, she would be foolish to use this experience as a vehicle toward that end. The network may see the prudence in taking The Debunker's Challenge off the air, but there are certain benefactors who will not allow the underlying premise of the show to be compromised.”
“Premise? Tell me, would that be the premise of sanctimonious reason or the one of fanatical skepticism?”
“I suppose one might construe such intentions being in your place, Craig. It is suffice in saying these benefactors have invested a great deal of time and resources into projects intended to educate people. To help lead the public away from the superstition so inherent in spiritualism, religion and other beliefs not validated by science. To show them the ignorance of such things.”
“In other words,” Craig said, “to shame people into believing what these benefactors want them to believe - a technique that has been practiced by institutionalized religion for centuries.”
Pang shrugged. “The irony is neither here nor there. My point is these benefactors wield influence over the media. They aren’t afraid to use that same media to invalidate any attempt Ms. Crawford may try to exploit from recent events.”
Craig shook his head in disgust. “This is the Worldwide Reason Institute you’re talking about, right? I know Agee was a disciple, perhaps even a card-carrying member.”
Pang smiled. It was a charming smile, though as devoid of warmth as the envelope he’d handed Craig. “I am not at liberty to say.”
“You don’t have to,” Craig replied.
Pang asked Craig to extend his condolences to Kesha. And with a thank-you the attorney left.
Later that day, after some consideration, Craig took the cheque to the bank. He deposited the money in the account he shared with Kesha. When he returned home Heather was awake and Kesha just getting back from school. He sat them both down at the dining room and told them about Pang’s visit –at least the part about him bringing the cheque. Then he showed them the receipt for the bank deposit.
Craig stood by Kesha’s side as she looked at it. She shook her head incredulously and passed it to Heather to see.
“My god, Craig!” Kesha said. “This is so, so generous!” She swallowed. “But it feels wrong somehow to accept such an amount. Our little brother was so horribly…” Her voice trailed away and she wept into her hands.
Craig put an arm around her shoulders. “Kristophe’s worth is priceless, sis. There isn’t enough money in the universe to make up for what Agee took away.” He remembered with bitterness the earlier conversation with Pang and said, “I suspect that among the network’s executives are those who knew or at least suspected Agee's inclinations. They will never come forward, of course. But, if as I suspect, it pains them to hand over some of their precious money in the hopes of making amends, then so be it. Let it pain them now. Let it pain them forever.”
Kesha nodded her head silently. As Craig rubbed her shoulders he caught the expression on Heather’s face as she inspected the deposit receipt. A deep wrinkle stitched her brow.
“Indeed, let it pain them,” she said.
That evening, while Craig dried the supper dishes and Heather washed, he noticed how distracted she seemed.
“Heather, you've been so quiet. Are you okay?”
Her mouth pursed while she scrubbed the plate in her hand. “You didn’t say it to Kesha, but I suspect the Worldwide Reason Institute has something to do with that money.”
“I suspect, too,” he confessed. “Though Pang would not confirm it one way or the other.”
“Aren’t you afraid they might look on your acceptance of that money as indication you’re just going to be another industry yes-man for their almighty causes?”
Craig shook his head. “They can think whatever they want. But I have absolutely no desire to be further associated with them or their colluding network."
“I have to tell you, though,” he said, “I am convinced now that one or all of the network heads knew what Agee was about.”
Heather placed a hand to the small of her back. As she massaged the area she said, “It wouldn’t surprise me if they did. Not that they’d ever come out and admit it. Oh Craig, do be careful. If you ever write a book or make a film about what happened…I dread to think what the WRI would do!”
“You worry way more than what is good for you,” he told her. “Don’t think about the WRI or the network. Instead, how about we talk about that property in Elk City? We can purchase that outright now, you know?”
“Is that something Kesha would want to do?”
“We will ask her, certainly. Not that I’m interested in buying anything more than that property. I want Kesha to have the rest of the money.”
Heather inhaled deeply. “Look, Craig, I have spent a lot of time here lately. I know you and Kesha would probably appreciate some time alone.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he corrected her. “I like that you are here. And Kesha likes you. Stay, please?”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. So please say you'll stay? Unless you'd prefer being back at your own place, of course."
“No, I don't," she said, smiling. "The selfish truth is, I'd rather be here."
Craig was delighted to see her smile. He was about to suggest they go check out the realtor’s website again when Kesha walked into the kitchen. Her eyes were wide and gleamed with an emotion Craig couldn’t read.
He grabbed the small linen towel from the drainer and dried his hands. “Is something wrong, Kesh?”
She pointed over her shoulder. “The local news. They just reported it on television.”
Her mouth spread into a weepy, radiant smile. “About an hour ago, Gerald Agee was found in his cell. The sicko hung himself. He's dead, Craig.”
Craig felt the towel drop out of his hands.
In less than twelve hours the circumstances surrounding the former host's death hit the media. The official report was Agee had been found by a federal corrections officer who had discovered him hanging from the upper bunk of his cell bed. As the details went, Agee had ripped the welting out of the old pillow on his bed, then tied one end to the mattress frame and used the other end as a noose. Agee had left no suicide note, even though his attorney proclaimed his client was adamantly helping prepare for his legal battles. The same attorney was already calling for an investigation into the facility and every officer who had been on duty at Agee’s floor during the believed time of his death. And while it seemed Agee had simply taken the coward’s way out, his fans quickly weaved together a conspiracy theory. They claimed he had been singled out for psychological torment by the correctional officers simply because he was an outspoken atheist. This torment, they insisted, had led him to end his life.
Craig would never be convinced Agee had committed suicide. Neither did he believe Agee had been killed off over some bias toward his beliefs. There were shadowy entities at work, yes, ones that worked under the protective umbrella of the powerful Worldwide Reason Institute. But Craig did not expect Agee’s defenders to actually come out and accuse the WRI of involvement. The organization was a sacred cow for every self-respecting skeptic across the globe.
On the other hand, Craig anticipated the public fascination with Agee’s death and the charges for which he’d never stand trial for to be fully exploited. The story was ripe fodder for crime books, conspiracy videos and documentaries. He also knew Agee's cultish admirers would do their best to ennoble his reputation for future generations. At some point they'd succeed in turning Agee into a martyr, and Brent Price and his other victims would be mere footnotes in their narratives.
In the meantime, authorities continued their search for the victims Betty Ann had said were to be found in other states.
One day Eileen Robards dropped by Craig’s home. She informed him that the local authorities and CBI were done questioning Betty Ann. The FBI might have questions for her in the future, Robards disclosed, but for the present the young woman was free to return to Tennessee.
Craig realized he should pay a visit to Betty Ann before she left. He was apprehensive to think how she might react to seeing him. Surely she knew the awful things he had, for a time, believed about her. He had insinuated the worst about her relationship with Fred Wagoner. He had pegged her as a charlatan. He had blamed her for his visions. He had threatened her over the phone.
But in the end the need to apologize and offer Betty Ann a thank-you was greater than his remorse.
Near sunset of the following day he made the drive out to the Relax-o-Lodge. The young man who manned the registry told him Ms. Crawford was still booked in room 8. Craig walked out of the office and down the first floor’s exterior gallery until he reached the right door. With a steadying breath, he raised his hand to knock.
The door abruptly opened. Betty Ann stood there, dressed in the same clothes she’d worn that first day he met her: the denim cut-offs, the old Boston tee shirt, the sandals with the rhinestone beaded straps, the little seashell pasta dangle at her wrist. The last rays of daylight now splayed over her loose blonde hair, giving it the luster of gold. And if he'd ever seen eyes as closer to the color of the sky he couldn't recall.
For a moment he was revisited by the near desiring reaction he’d felt seeing her that first time.
“Hello Craig,” she greeted him. “I’m glad to see you.”
Her friendliness was a relief, though Craig had no doubt her psychic abilities had let her know he was coming by,
“I should have come by sooner,” he said. “How are you?”
She told him she’d never felt better, then asked after him and his sister.
“We are good, thank-you. Would it be okay if I came in for a few minutes?”
She let him in and closed the door. The inn room was dark except for a slit of sunlight peeking between the window curtains. Betty Ann switched on the overhead light, and as Craig’s eyes adjusted to the illumination he was dismayed. Compared to an ordinary motel room this cheap room was cramped and unsightly, the ceiling stained from water damage. The colors of the striped wall paper were indefinable for age and wear. The bed itself was very hard looking, the coverlet shoddy. The one dresser appeared to be at least fifty years old. A little round sitting table –its veneer peeling down the legs- stood near the window along with two rickety chairs. A standard room telephone sat on the nightstand and a television, very banged up, was affixed to the wall much like those he’d seen in hospital rooms. Craig noticed the bathroom door was shut, and he could only pray it wasn’t as uninviting as he imagined. At the window was an air conditioner which produced a clunky, tortured sound as it ran. Noting the warmth of the room and the musty smell of the air, Craig guessed the fan was the only part of the ancient contraption still working.
The single cheerful item in the room was a cut bouquet arrayed in a crystal case standing atop the dresser. The flowers were lovely: brilliantly colored daylilies, purple alliums, shoots of ferns and a couple of other plants Craig couldn’t name.
“Those are lovely, Betty Ann.”
“Zane Kraft sent them.”
This was no surprise to Craig. Kraft was a decent guy and he had remained his unbiased self all through Betty Ann’s Challenges.
“That was very thoughtful. Kraft’s a nice dude.” Craig caught the shy smile that came to Betty Ann’s face. “I take it he likes you. Maybe you like him, too?”
“He called to talk.”
“Really?” Craig grinned. “He wants to see you again, doesn’t he?”
She laughed lightly. “I told him thank-you, but no.”
Craig knew it wasn’t any of his business, so said nothing more on the subject.
Betty Ann motioned to the table. “Please Craig, sit.”
After they both took a chair at the old table Craig apologized for the condition of the room.
“Betty Ann, I am so sorry I had you put in this god awful place!”
She made a dismissive gesture. "I've been in worse places. Besides, I am going home in the morning.”
“Yeah, I heard the police and those CBI agents are all done talking with you.”
Craig’s throat felt thick, and he couldn’t tell if it was because of the stale air or just the deep remorse for having been so wrong about her.
“Betty Ann,” he said, “I want to thank you for what you did. My sister and I owe you more than I can ever say.”
“It must have been hell for you and your sister, not knowing what had happened to Kristophe. But I am sorry, too.”
“Gerald Agee,” she said with a little frown. “I knew all along he was involved with your brother's disappearance. And that of Brent Price. I could have said something then.”
“It would have done no good, Betty Ann. At that junction, no one would have believed you. Everyone thought you were just a fake…I thought you were a fake. It took the first two Challenges for anyone to realize…” Craig's throat tightened with emotion. “To realize you honestly know things other people don't. Things that some of us just hope to never hear.”
Betty Ann’s gaze turned remote, her face paled with tragic contemplation. “Such an evil man. He hurt so many.”
“Please don’t blame yourself,” Craig implored. “You went about it the smart way. And Gerald Agee had a long run doing what he did. From what the detectives and agents have determined, he started decades ago.”
He leaned over the table and clasped one of her hands. “So I thank you, Betty Ann. I owe you a debt that cannot be repaid. But I also want to apologize. I misjudged you. And for this I am deeply, deeply sorry.”
Betty Ann blinked, and the tragic look fled from her face. “I am not hurt by what doubts you had, so please don’t dwell on those? Just know I am forever grateful you gave me this chance.”
Craig told her he knew she’d rejected the prize money. He asked her why she would turn it down? And what were her plans for when she got back to Tennessee?
She offered a shrug. “We both know there are more important things than money. What I want is to just get back where I am needed. Where I feel loved. As long as we are needed and loved, I think we're where we are supposed to be.”
Her words were true. Craig understood now why Fred Wagoner cared so much about her; why all his old friends felt the same way. Betty Ann was the first real medium he’d ever met, perhaps the last one he would meet. But she was more than a medium. She was honest and selfless, both qualities sorely lacking in the world.
“I suppose,” he said, “that you’ve heard Agee is dead?”
Betty Ann said that she had. And though the important thing was Gerald Agee could never hurt anyone else again, Craig’s curiosity compelled him to ask, “Was it suicide like they say?”
With a slow shake of her head Betty Ann answered, “No. Agee had become a liability for his powerful benefactors. But suicide is the official story they'll work to have the public accept.”
“I see. That’s kind of what I figured.”
He asked if she wanted to get out of the room for awhile? “I’ll buy you a decent dinner,” he suggested. “Show you the sights by night if you’d like? I have a feeling you haven’t had much time to do that since coming to California.”
“You are sweet, but no,” she said. “One of those nice agents is coming early to drive me to the airport. And besides, I do believe Heather will need you before the night is over.”
Craig was perplexed. When the next moment he understood her implication the hairs on his arms tingled.
“Are you sure?” He grinned at the absurdity of the question. If Betty Ann said it, it had to be true!
She nodded. “You should probably head back home.”
“Oh gosh, alright!” He got to his feet and fished his car keys from his pants pocket. As Betty Ann stood up he knew with some sadness this might be the last time he would ever see her. He would always feel indebted to Betty Ann, and as much as this, he truly liked her. Very much so.
“Heather loves you, you know?” Betty Ann said.
The unexpected question took Craig off guard. “That makes me happy to hear, because I love Heather. I’ve loved her a long time actually.”
“She’s afraid to tell you, fearful you will think she clings to you out of fear or loneliness. It isn’t true, Craig. She loves you deeply, sincerely.”
This conversation was awkward, though Betty Ann probably had what she felt was a reason for telling him these things. “Well, thank-you," he said. "And I won’t forget. I will tell Heather how I feel as soon as I see her.”
Betty Ann beamed. “Good.”
For an instant he considered asking if she’d consider telling his future? But no, even if she had the ability to see into the future, he knew the journey of life couldn’t truly be savored if one knew everything that lay ahead.
“I will call you,” he told her. “Make sure your flight back to Tennessee went smoothly. And just to talk, if you’d like. I can reach you through Fred Wagoner?”
“I will never be far from Fred’s place,” she promised. “Now you go, Craig. And kiss that baby for me?”
Craig nodded. He started for the door, but paused. And walking back, he embraced her. She did not flinch or push him away; in fact, she hugged him back. Her arms were smooth and cool in his embrace. The fragrance of her skin filled his nostrils with a hint of exotic perfume. Like a combination of roses and sweet peas it was, and he knew he’d smelled this before though he couldn’t remember where. It didn’t matter. For one poignant moment he wanted nothing more than to luxuriate in that smell; to hold her and never let go. And in this instant he knew that had they met under different circumstances, perhaps at some other time, another place, it was very possible he could have fallen in love with Betty Ann.
But Heather was the one he knew for sure he loved. As dear as Betty Ann was, as deeply as he respected her and would always be grateful to her, he couldn’t envision anything more satisfying than to spend the rest of his life with Heather and her baby.
“I hope you will be happy,” he said. “You deserve that.”
She whispered in blithe tone, “I will be now, Craig.”
“Goodbye, Betty Ann.”
Craig deposited a little kiss to her cheek and left. Once he made his way to the end of the gallery his phone hummed inside his front shirt pocket. He pulled it out and saw it was Kesha’s number. He tapped the answer button.
“Hey sis. What’s up?”
“You need to come home, brother,” Kesha announced, her voice more buoyant than it had been for days. “Heather’s water broke. And I can’t get her to leave for the hospital without you.”
Craig said he was on his way. Before taking another step he looked for one last time at the door of room 8. And with a smile he walked to his car.
Three weeks later
Craig set up the first pot of coffee for the day. It was just after eight o’clock in the morning; the sun outside bright, the temperature mild. Kesha had left for class and Heather was still in bed. Craig vaguely remembered Heather getting up around three a.m. to feed the baby. He was proud of Heather; she was already proving to be a great mom. And little Teagan was adorable in every way a baby should be. As soon as she’d been born Kesha had claimed aunt status. Between his sister and Heather’s mom -who visited every day- Craig knew it wouldn’t be long before Teagan was properly spoiled.
On the day following her birth Craig had asked Heather to marry him. To his immeasurable joy she had accepted his proposal. Marriage was not all he hoped for, either. He told Heather he wanted to adopt Teagan and be her dad in every way. So Heather had engaged an experienced family attorney to track down Thad in Canada. Once he was found, she would ask him to release parental rights. Heather and Craig shared the belief the self-absorbed actor would happily relinquish his paternal claims and responsibilities. But even if Thad surprised them and balked at the idea, Craig would no plans to treat Teagan any less than his own child.
While the coffee brewed he thought about the day before. Agent Robards had called to say that the CBI was done with their autopsy and official report on Kristophe. She’d also filled him in on the grim details of the coroner’s findings: traces of a lethal drug cocktail had been found in Kristophe’s remains, most likely given to him at some point following his abduction. Craig did not have to ask who had given it to his brother. Robards had also informed him that preparations were being made to have Kristophe’s remains transferred to the funeral home of Craig and Kesha’s choice. He instructed her they wanted to use the Idyll Gardens Funeral Services as they'd decided to have Kristophe cremated. One day, in the near future, they would take his ashes back to Spruce Grove. It was there, years before, they had all grown up. It was there, too, their parents had been killed in a car accident. Following that loss Kesha and Craig had released their parents' ashes on the grounds of the little chapel where their mother and father had been married years before. For Kesha and Craig there was no more fitting place to say their final goodbyes to Kristophe as well.
With the pot finished Craig poured himself a cup of coffee. He carried it to the dining table where his computer was set up and sat down. As he sipped the hot liquid, he pored through the latest deliveries coming through the email server. Most of the items were junk, but he did notice one marked with the subject: Receipt for your real estate purchase. He opened it, finding it had been sent from the Elk City real estate agent he'd done business with the day before:
Mr. Herbert, attached you will find the receipt for your recent purchase of three lots and property on Gold Twain Road. I have also included a copy of my fee which was included with the purchase. It is advisable you make a hard copy of this document for your records. Another copy will be arriving to you via certified U.S. mail delivery. We thank you for trusting our company with your real estate needs. If I can be of further services or can be of assistance with your family’s upcoming move to Idaho, please contact our offices.
Regards, Helen Clark
Clark Family Land & Auction House
Craig set the cup down and saved a copy of the email to a file. He would have this printed off later, but at the moment he just looked forward to telling Heather about the purchase. It was the property she had found, and the future looked very promising for the studio they had talked about. They would build it right there in Idaho, something he was sure Kesha would be delighted about. They would be all the closer to Spruce Grove and their family roots just as Kesha wanted. Craig also thought it would be a much better place for little Teagan to grow up. It was removed from Hollywood and the studio that reminded them so much of Gerald Agee.
He looked up to see Heather standing at the end of the hallway. She was still wearing her night shirt, her hair tousled in a way he found very enticing.
“Good morning. Want some coffee?”
She stepped to him, covering a yawn as she did so. When it was over she said drowsily, “Maybe in a few minutes.”
Craig slipped his arms around her waist and gave her a gentle squeeze. “I love you.”
She cupped his face between her hands, kissed the tip of his nose. “I love you, too. So very much.”
“I expected you to sleep a little longer.”
A little scrunch crinkled her brow. “About that,” she said, “I was woke up by a phone call from my mom. She sent something you need to look at.”
“Okay. What is it?”
She shook her head. “I’d rather just show you.”
Craig nodded and followed her down the hall to his bedroom, or actually what he now called their bedroom. Little Teagan’s bassinet stood by the wall close to the side of the bed where Heather slept. Diapers and other infant essentials draped the top of Craig’s dresser.
He noticed the baby appeared to be asleep in the bassinet.
“Is Teaggie okay?”
“She’s fine. Sleeping good.” Heather gestured to her laptop which she'd apparently opened on top of the unmade bed. Her phone lay on top of her pillow. “Sit down and I’ll show you.”
They crawled onto the mattress. Craig eyed the laptop; it was on, though the screen saver with its scenery of exotic fish swam busily across the display.
“Like I said, my mom called," Heather explained. "She had been woke up herself by a call from Uncle Fred.”
“Uncle Fred? Is he alright in Tennessee?”
“Yeah, he’s alright,” she said. “But he told Mom about something that broke headlines over his local news channel last night. It was uploaded in a video at their website. Uncle Fred said we would want to see it. And that you in particular would want to see it.”
Craig was perplexed. “And it’s just local news?”
There was an uncertain strain in Heather’s voice, “It is, yeah. But it's hard to explain. Let me just pull it up and you can see for yourself?”
He watched as she tapped the keyboard’s Enter button. A flash of light scattered the fish to reveal a webpage. At the top was a header that read WIJI Local News & Weather. Below this was a standard rectangular navigational menu, and inches beneath this the computer’s pointing-finger cursor rested over a headline in bold print:
FBI CONFIRMS IDENTITY IN 42-YEAR OLD MISSING PERSONS CASE
Heather scrolled down to a video embedded at the top of the article. She prompted the cursor and the video commenced to play.
A segment opened during broadcast of a television news report. A young male anchor sat behind the news desk, while the WIJI logo appeared on the green screen backdrop. Craig noticed the headlines moving across the bottom of the screen were all about sports events from Sullivan County, Tennessee. He remembered this was the county Fred Wagoner lived in.
The audio began as the anchor now spoke:
“The county coroner’s office has identified human remains retrieved earlier this week by agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. As viewers may remember, the search was commenced on Squirrel Hollow Road near Blountville, following a tip the FBI acted on in regard to a nationwide investigation of exploited children. Surprisingly, the coroner’s report has brought to close a local missing persons case that began in nineteen-seventy nine."
A shiver whispered up Craig’s spine. “That’s near your uncle’s senior center, right?”
Heather nodded. At that moment an image popped up on the green screen at the anchor’s shoulder. It was a photo of a child. He was an attractive white boy with glossy auburn hair. Craig had no idea who the boy was, though he couldn't help but feel there was something familiar about his expressive eyes.
“Mason Goforth,” the anchor continued, “was only six-years old when he was reported missing on August 15, 1979 by Cayo Fitzsimmons, the now-deceased fiancé of the boy's half-sister. FBI investigators have confirmed Mason was one of the children thought to have been assaulted and murdered by suspected child molester, Gerald Agee. Found alongside Mason Goforth’s remains were those of his half-sister, who had also been reported missing at the time of Mason's disappearance. The coroner’s report confirms young Mason suffered pre-mortem skull injuries prior to partial burial in a heavily scrub-covered local lot. This lot lies behind a local venue previously used to host traveling carnivals and other entertainment shows."
The photo of the boy disappeared, replaced by another photo. Mason was pictured in this one as well. It apparently had been taken in a wooded area, and the little boy stood in front of a taller figure, whose arms were laced lovingly around his shoulders. The two of them beamed for the unknown photographer. As the studio camera zoomed in on their features Craig’s blood froze.
“The half-sister sister, twenty-year old Betty Ann Crawford, suffered two gun shots to the head. She and Mason moved to the Tricities from Hawkins county shortly following their parents' deaths three years earlier. Ms. Crawford was known locally as a holistic healer and was young Mason's legal custodian. The two left behind no known living family members.”
Craig felt Heather’s fingertips at his arm. Her voice trembled as she asked, “Do you think Uncle Fred knew? Or his friends at the seniors center?”
“I don’t know,” he answered. “I really do not know.”
Through the tears clouding his vision Craig knew the answer was irrelevant. He only knew he would never again see Betty Ann in this lifetime. She had fulfilled her reason for reaching out to Fred Wagoner. She had succeeded in getting an invitation to be on The Debunker's Challenge. She had revealed what had befallen Kristophe and confronted the man who had hurt so many. She had even stayed long enough to help the authorities locate all the other victims. And she'd returned to that place she had alluded to while her blue eyes shone sweetly and the pasta bracelet dangled from her wrist. It was where she felt forever needed and loved; the place she was supposed to be.
© 2020 Beth Perry
Beth Perry (author) from Tennesee on May 23, 2020:
RoadMonkey, thank-you very much. I am sincerely happy you enjoyed the story :)
RoadMonkey on May 23, 2020:
Wow, what a satisfying ending and so surprising too. Very good story and well written.