A Challenge of the Unknown Story
by John L. French and C.J. Henderson
It started with a photograph. Not the usual bunk one found on the Internet, but a real, sharp-edged, glossy, hold-it-in-your-hand photograph. The black and white print was somewhat faded, blurry to the point where its subject might have been a snake, or perhaps a fallen tree. The far more easily identified writing on the back of the photo said that the image was of a monster. A lake monster, to be exact. Some creature called “Wally.”
Someone from Wallowa Lake, Oregon, had sent the old glossy to Marvin Richards, the anchorman and executive producer of the fledgling weekly program, Challenge of the Unknown, the world’s first network television news show devoted entirely to reporting on information of the occult, the preternatural, and the just plain weird. The sender’s idea was that the program might want to do a feature on the “creature of Wallowa Lake.”
For a moment, Richards thought doing so might not be a bad idea. Then he turned to his computer to do some research. When he saw how much coverage “Wally” had already received he sighed quietly and then returned the photo to its envelope. Dropping it into the “If I Get Desperate” file in the lower right-hand drawer of his desk, the producer muttered;
“Worry, Wallowa, but that’s not what Challenge is all about. We don’t cover old stories, we break new ones.”
“And… do we have a new one?”
The question came from the doorway, offered to Richards by an attractive young woman named Lora Dean, the producer’s newly hired assistant. Not bothering to turn his head in her direction, Richards replied;
“Not yet, Ms. Dean, but I’m working on them.”
“I know I’m new here, sir, and pardon me for saying so, but you might want to work fast. Mr. Gerber just called to say that the network liked the first three specials. Perhaps too much. Now—”
“Now,” interrupted the producer, “they want more and they want them soon. Close?”
“Yes, sir. Mr. Gerber said there’s a series slot opening up in the spring that Challenge has been earmarked for—if, that is, you have the product ready.”
“Thank you, Ms. Dean. Call Maxie back and tell him to put us on the schedule, that we’ve got sufficient shows in the can and that even now we’re preparing to go out to shoot new episodes.”
“In other words—lie.”
“No, Ms. Dean,” answered Richards, finally looking up. Fixing the young woman with his gaze, he told her, “if you use my exact words, you will not be lying. Lying is bad. Didn’t they teach you that in Sunday school?”
“Yes,” answered Dean, “but after I told my mother I got a job in television, she said I would probably be excommunicated, or whatever it is they do to Lutherans.”
“Well, that’s show biz.”
Something, the producer thought, we won’t be in much longer if we don’t come up with some ideas quick.
After Dean left to make her return call, Richards reviewed all the ideas he had for further episodes. What he had did not thrill him. There was the double murder in Fall River, Massachusetts, the “new” double murder he corrected himself. He rolled his eyes at that one, reviewing its spin which suggested that perhaps the ghost of Lizzie Borden was responsible. The leaps in logic he had used to tie the deaths into Cleveland’s legendary Butcher of Kingsbury Run slayings made him wince.
Witches in Salem were always popular, one side of his mind whispered, the other hissing that this Salem was in Virginia and that even an American audience might groan at the suggestion that evil had somehow migrated south.
He also had a sleep-deprived little village in North Carolina that had a train run through it every night at 2:15 a.m., its shrill whistle waking everyone. The place showed promise considering that no train tracks could be found anywhere near the town.
But that’s it, thought the producer. True, he had not yet gotten in touch with either of the supernatural investigators he had heard of in New York City who were supposed to have fought demons. Or the policewoman from Baltimore. And while there was the guy who claimed to have seen fairies, or leprechauns, or something, arrangements still had to be made with him. That could take time. Time Marvin Richards did not have.
Looking down at his bottom right-hand drawer, the producer wondered what Oregon might be like at this time of year.
“No,” he said loud enough to cause Dean to run back into the room. Looking up at her from his desk, he said, “If we’re going to hunt sea monsters, we need a new one. We need one of our own.”
“I thought you might feel that way, boss.” Approaching Richards’ desk, the young woman typed a web address into his browser. As a new site opened, she said, “So I did some research. Will this do?”
“Well I’ll be dam… Miss Dean, you just earned every bit of the paltry sum I pay you. Get the Leakin’ Lena out of dry dock; we’re hunting sea serpents.”
“Right away, Uncle Captain, sir.”
Richards smiled. Anyone that got a reference that ancient knew their television. And people that knew their television were the kind he was going to need if he was going to make such a crazy idea work.
Six months ago Shelton had been just another small town along the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Before the Bay Bridge was built, it had hosted a ferry crossing. Tourists wanting to cross over to the Eastern Shore would stop and have a bite and maybe do some shopping before boarding the ferry on their way to Ocean City. Coming back from vacation, Shelton made a nice break in their journey back to Baltimore.
But that was decades earlier, before the Bay Bridge had propelled the area into the modern age, leaving Shelton to die a death of slow decay. Talk of reviving ferry service across the bay was heard constantly. But that was all it was—just talk. No one stopped in Shelton unless they lived there. Or knew someone who did. Or were lost and found their way there by mistake.
Until, that is, the sightings.
The website Richards was scanning told the tale. First, someone there in Shelton saw what they thought was a sea monster. No one paid much attention to them, however. At least, not until the thing was seen again. And then again. Still, the entire affair would have been dismissed as a local legend but for the pictures posted on the Internet. Suddenly, people once again had a reason to visit the small town—namely, Shelton’s Mystery Monster.
And, seven months, twelve days, and some fifteen hours after the creature which had come to be known as “Shelly” was first spotted, two more people who did not live in Shelton, knew no one who did, or who found their way there by mistake arrived in the town. They were Marvin Richards and Lora Dean, and they were determined that by the time they left, Shelton’s monster would no longer be a mystery.
“Tell me again why we’re a day early,” Dean asked as Richards pulled his rental onto the parking lot of the Shelton Roadside Motel. “Without the rest of the crew?”
Any other female assistant to a show business producer might have been suspicious, but not Dean. In truth, she was very new to the business. But, there was something about her boss that made her want to trust him. Besides, she had made their reservations, and knew they consisted of separate rooms with no connecting door.
“They’re coming tomorrow,” the producer replied. “I thought we’d scout ahead, get the feel of the place. Walk around town, see what we can see. People tend to act different when they’re being filmed. They freeze up, or worse, start getting creative with the truth to keep the camera on them. Let’s catch them being themselves before they start acting out the rolls they think we want to see.”
After checking in and getting settled, the pair drove to the town proper. Behind the wheel, Richards asked;
“Tell me what you noticed at the motel.”
“Besides the fact that you need new luggage?”
“Yes. Besides that.” Dean thought for a moment, then said;
“The parking lot’s been relined, there’s the new sign, the room I’m in still smells slightly of fresh paint…”
“So does mine. What’s all that tell you?”
“They’re suddenly expecting visitors—hopefully lots of them.”
“Correct-a-mundo, and on your first try. Keep your eyes open once we’re in town. Let’s see what other clues they have to offer.”
Dean did not have to pay much attention. Things throughout Shelton screamed “Welcome Tourists!” Besides an overall cleanliness the young woman had not seen since her last visit to the Magic Kingdom, a not-so-subtle sea monster theme had taken over every aspect of the town.
Of the two bars they passed, one had been renamed “Shelly’s Tavern.” The other, “The Serpent Inn.” Restaurants offered “Monster Burgers” with “Serpent Fries” while newly opened stores sold souvenirs of Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay, the town of Shelton and of course, the star attraction—Shelly the Sea Serpent.
“Want a tee?” Richards asked his assistant while they were in Shelly’s Oldde Gift Shoppe. He held up a shirt with an artist’s conception of the town’s monster winding its way front to back.
“No thanks, but they do have some nice sea creature bracelets.”
It took the pair nearly two hours to make their first pass through Shelton, seeing what could be seen, now and then stopping to pose touristy questions to the townsfolk like: “Is there a sea monster tour?” or “Where’s the monster been seen most often?” and “Where’s the best place to catch sight of Chessie?”
The last question earned Richards a five-minute explanation of how Shelton’s “Shelly” differed from the fabled denizen of the Chesapeake.
“Ours is real,” the woman lecturing Richards explained vehemently. “She’s been seen by most everyone.”
“Have you seen her,” Dean asked innocently. The woman paused between truth and lie, finally saving herself a trip to confession by admitting;
“Not yet, but I hope to soon.”
“All in all, a bit much,” Richards’ assistant commented on their way back to the motel.
“Maybe,” mused the producer, “Maybe not enough. They’ve got a draw, something to make people stop over on their way to someplace else. Old Shelly’s going to bring in more money than that town’s seen since its ferry days. She might even be enough of a draw to reopen the ferry crossing.”
Richards’ voice had begun to slip into the dream-like state Dean had already learned indicated that her boss was thinking of a new story, or a new twist to an old one.
“Yes, sir… that’s what I’d do… how I’d sell it.”
Glad she was doing the driving back to their motel, Dean took a quick glance over at the producer’s eyes, nodding unconsciously as she noted that they were indeed focused on something only he could see.
“A day spent in pleasant, neighborly Shelton, followed by a peaceful nighttime ferry ride to the Eastern Shore. And, who knows? You might even see… the monster. But, if you don’t, you can always try again on the way back. Catch the evening ferry, go sea serpent watching, followed by a superb seafood dinner and a night’s lodging in one of Shelton finest motels.”
A laugh told Dean the producer’s reverie had ended. “Yeah, that’s what I’d do; I’d milk that sea cow ’til she ran dry. I bet the other towns wish they’d thought of it.”
“Thought of what, boss?”
“Why, of creating their very own sea serpent, of course.”
“So, you don’t think that….” Dean paused, made sure none of the other patrons there at the Shelton Diner were listening, “that Shelly’s for real?”
“It would be nice,” answered Richards as he gave her a non-committal shrug. “Hell, it would be great if she were real and the divers I’ve got coming tomorrow with the crew could find a trace, even a hint that she is. Our ratings would be so high we could coast on them for the rest of the season.” The producer gave her a second shrug, then asked;
“But really, I mean, how long have the Scots been looking for Nessie? And is there any proof that this Chessie I asked about is real, or Wally from Oregon?” Richards took a turn, scanning the room to make certain they were not being overheard, then added;
“But do I think Shelly’s real? About as real as pixies and Orson’s men from Mars. However, we’re here to do a story. Which means we’ll talk to the right people, take some great footage of the bay at night, splice in some stuff about other lake and sea creatures and end it with a great big ‘There is, of course, no proof we can offer, but in the end, who can say for sure?’”
The next day the trailers rolled in, the Challenge of the Unknown production team taking over almost all of the Shelton Roadside Motel.
“We’ll shoot the locations first,” Richards explained to Dean, “the town, the bay, scenes of the divers going into the water, them coming out again empty-handed.”
“What if they do find something? Don’t we have underwater cameras?”
“On our budget?” Richards shook his head. “Besides, the water here is too murky, couldn’t get a good shot. On the off chance they do bring something up, we’ll fake it back in the studio. The stuff computers can do, it’s a wonder we even go on location anymore.”
Forty-five minutes later, Dean reported to her boss that all was ready for taping. Nodding, he answered;
“All right people, time to spread the word that there’s a big-time TV show in town so we can start our interviews this evening.”
“Why not start this afternoon?”
“Because, Ms. Dean, I want the Chesapeake Bay at night in the background.”
“What was that you said about computers?”
Richards thought for a moment.
“You’re right. This afternoon it is. Now, who’s number one on our list?”
Greg Sikora’s local claim to fame was as the first person to see Shelly.
“I was walking on the beach late one night, guess it was about five, six months ago, when this great big snake thing come up out of the water, at least, its head and neck, anyway. Must have been ten feet or so.”
“What did you do when you saw it?”
“Tell you the truth, Mr. Richards, at first I wasn’t sure I did see it. You see, I’d had me one or two beers, maybe a few more, kinda—you know.” Richards nodded that “yes, he did know” and motioned for Sikora to go on.
“But Natty Boh had never affected me like that before so after the surprise wore off, I figured it wasn’t the brews. Probably the brews that kept me from runnin’, ’cause next I just stared at it, just watched it as it looked around. Then, after a while, I don’t know how long, really, it just dove back under. I waited a good bit for it to come back, but it never did.”
“So, what did you do then?”
“Oh, just kinda went home and went to sleep.”
“And when did you report the sighting?”
“Next day. First thing I went straight into town and told Sheriff Chambers.”
“And did you believe him, Sheriff?”
“What do you think, Mr. Richards? Greg’s a good kid. I know he’s twenty-two but, that’s still a kid to someone my age. Like I said, though, he’s a good enough kid and all, but when he told me his story I didn’t believe no part of it. Not about him seeing a monster or about his being alone. I did believe him when he said he’d been drinking.”
“And do you believe him now, Sheriff? Do you believe in Shelly?”
“I’m a law man, and as such I’m trained to go by the evidence. Someone tells me a fish story, I take it for what it is—a story. More than one person tells the same story, then maybe there’s some truth in it.”
“It’s like I was taught at the State Police Academy, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. So I’m inclined to believe there’s something, some thing, out there. But don’t take my word for it. You want a reliable witness, one that wasn’t drinkin’, anyway… ask the preacher. He saw it.”
The Glassen family had been living in the area since long before there was a Shelton. They had a nice house on the water with a deck overlooking the bay. Which is where the Reverend Clarence Glassen was the evening in question.
“There is no doubt about it, Mr. Richards. That night as I was reading my Bible and preparing my Sunday sermon, it rose from the deep, clearly outlined in the moonlight, a veritable Leviathan as described in Job and the Psalms.”
“And how did you survive, Reverend?”
“What do you mean, Mr. Richards?”
“Doesn’t Job say of the Leviathan, ‘shall not one be cast down even at the sight of him?’”
“Why, you know your Bible.”
Richards nodded, his face filled with a humility calculated to keep Glassen from realizing the producer had memorized appropriate Biblical references in preparation for their meeting.
“But then, ‘even the Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.’” Having made his little joke, the Reverend added, “As to how I survived, I do not believe the great beast was sent here to harm me or anyone, but to bring prosperity to this town in its time of need.”
“So, Reverend, you believe there’s a sea serpent out there in the bay?”
“I believe in the evidence of my own eyes, Mr. Richards, eyes that the Good Lord gave me to use.”
Others interviewed recited their own version of the same story. Alone or with loved ones, they were walking the beach or out on the bay at night when something large and serpentine rose out of the water. Not all were townsfolk. A couple from Pennsylvania claimed to have seen Shelly as they travelled over the Bay Bridge on their way to visit relatives.
“We’d read about it on the Internet, right, so as we went across I told the wife to keep a lookout. Sure enough, halfway across she shouted for me to look to my left and there she was, just like in those pictures. Damn near wrecked the car but, hell, even if I had it would’ve been worth it.”
“Lots of interviews,” Dean said after two days. “Do we believe any of them?”
“It’s not our job to believe them, my dear, it’s our job to make our audience believe them. Did the dive team come up with anything yet?”
“Two old cars on the west side of the bay, one more on the east side. The usual number of refrigerators, bald tires and all the other junk people throw into the water. They thought they had a body but it turned out to be a headless mannequin.”
“Shame, still, we’ll make a show of bringing it up with my voice-over wondering, ‘is this the monster’s first victim?’ Good for a little suspense.”
“Hey, better than Capone’s vault. Anything else, though? Anything we can use?”
“Just the sheriff’s absence of evidence. What’s on for tonight?”
“Tonight, Ms. Dean, I’m taking you to a bar.”
The bar turned out to be Sean Caper’s Tavern, where the usual crowd was well represented.
“And no,” Caper insisted, “I’m not renaming this place just because the Mayor wants me to.” He then introduced Richards and his crew around.
“This here’s Fred Huntsman. And this here’s the guy who took the pictures. Mr. Richards, say hello to Tom Odom.”
“Hi, Tom, tell us about that night.”
“Well, Mr. Richards, I had gone night fishing, not in hopes of catching anything but with a house full of women—a wife and three daughters—I sometimes need a little quiet time. Just a few hours peace and quiet, now and then, you know what I mean. And yes, I’ll admit to having a Bud or three.” Tom paused, trying to decide if he liked the expression he had chosen for the camera. Deciding it was too late to worry about at that point, he continued, lowering his voice for effect as he said;
“It was quiet. The water was calm and you could see forever. Then, for no reason I could imagine then, the waves come up and my boat started rocking.”
“I can think of a reason,” Fred Huntsman cried out from the back of the room. “How many of those beers did ya have, Tom?”
“Not as many as I needed later, let me tell you. Like I said, both the waves and my boat were rocking back and forth, like a big ship was passing nearby or sumthin’. But it wasn’t no ship that come out of the water. It was something like you see down at the Smithsonian. Had a neck that went on forever comin’ up outta a small, round body. It looked right at me with greenish eyes and I thought, oh crap, this is it. I’m done. I’m gonna be a sea monster snack for sure.”
“And then, ummm, it just turned and swam away.”
“So, you’re saying that you might have seen Shelly?”
“No, Mr. Richard, I’m saying that I did see Shelly. And as you know, I did more than see her.” Taking out his phone, Tom proudly passed it to the producer. As the producer accepted it, there was no question about its contents for there, on the display screen of Odom’s cell, just as he had seen on the Internet, was a clear photograph of a sea monster.
“This is the original file?” Richards asked, handing the phone back.
“Sure is, transferred it to the minicard so I wouldn’t accidentally delete it.”
“Would you mind sending it to my phone?” Richards gave Tom the number. “Just so there’s no question that we used the original on the show—you’ll receive a check, of course.”
“No problem, Mr. Richards.” Tom punched in the numbers. “There you go.”
“Thank you, very much.”
“So,” asked Dean as she stood over her boss in his motel room, “I guess all that’s left is a night voyage on the Chesapeake Bay where we don’t see Shelly the Sea Serpent and then back to the studio to put it all together?” Richards did not bother to look up from his laptop.
“You guess wrong, my child.” As the producer continued to study the picture Tom Odom had taken of the creature, he added, “I believe our work has just begun.” Turning the cell screen so the young woman could see it clearly, he asked;
“What do you think?”
Dean studied the image—a head that looked something like a brontosaurus below which was the requisite long neck attached to a seal-like body. Her brow slightly furrowed, she asked;
“What’s wrong with it?”
“What makes you ask that?”
“Because if you thought it was genuine you’d look a lot happier than you do.”
“Very astute. And to answer your question, I don’t know what’s wrong with it. If it’s been ’shopped it’s a good job.” Richards pulled up some other photos on his laptop’s screen, pictures of Bigfoot, Wallowa Lake’s Wally, Nessie, the Russian woolly mammoth, and the Jersey Devil. Holding the cell phone’s image next to them, he asked;
“So what do all of these others have in common?” Not giving Dean a chance to answer, he said, “All of the so-called genuine photographs are poorly exposed, out of focus, and could be pictures of damn near anything. Yet somehow, someone with no photographic experience who admittedly had more than a few beers somehow takes the best sea monster shot ever, with—no less—a crappy, low-res cell phone camera. How do you explain that?”
“Someone had to get lucky sometime?”
“True, possible… but… damnit, we’re in television, Ms. Dean. It’s our job to entertain, to divert people from their dull and miserable lives by spinning hay into gold, by taking lies and fancies and turning them into all manner of believable dreams and possibilities. It is not, however, good policy to allow ourselves to be lied to.”
“Why not?” At first Richards thought his assistant was joking. When he realized she had posed her question in all sincerity, he asked;
“What do you mean?”
“Boss, the way I see it, it’s not like we ever believed in the sea monster in the first place. For us it was a story, a way of filling an hour by, what did you say, turning lies and fancies into possibilities. So they lie to us, we pretend to believe them and pass on the story to our viewers. Where’s the harm?”
“The harm, Ms. Dean, is to our credibility and ethics. Don’t smirk, just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean I don’t have them. It’s one thing to take a legend, even a new one like Shelly, and ask ‘what if?’ But to suspect the truth and ignore it, that’s against everything we stand for as reporters.” The producer let that much sink in, then added;
“That’s the noble side of the coin. On the other there’s the possibility that if someone else follows up on our story and finds out we’d been fooled, then—bamm—there goes your reputation.”
Richards smiled, “Of course. Didn’t you know that taking the blame is all part of an assistant’s job?” Dean smiled back, hoping that her boss was joking, then added;
“So, what do we do now?”
“What every good journalist does to discover the truth. We lie through our teeth. Now here’s what I want you to tell the crew.”
That night, a few members of the Challenge crew hit Caper’s tavern. Taking over a booth, they loudly celebrated the news that they would soon be going home. After seemingly having a few too many, one of them let slip that their boss had found proof that the whole monster thing was just a load of crap.
Similar utterances by other crew members were heard in Shelly’s Tavern and The Serpent Inn. The next morning, Richards’ well-planted lies had become truth.
“The new guy reported in, boss.”
“Which ‘new guy,’ Ms. Dean? Except for me, you’re all more or less new.”
“Thorner, the newest new guy. He said that he and the rest who didn’t go to the bar saw some cars heading out of town and followed them to a storage place across the Bay Bridge. They got close enough to take pictures.” The young woman plugged a photo card into Richards’ laptop.
“I told Maxie that night vision camera would pay for itself,” the producer said as he viewed the pics. “Let’s see—there’s the inflatable they used to fool the preacher. And that’s the mock-up and background that let Odom take such great shots. Yeah,” he said sadly, shaking his head unconsciously, “I thought he was in on it. Ms. Dean, call the mayor. Ask her, no… tell her we need to talk.”
The episode entitled “The Monster of Sheltonville” aired as the third segment of the Challenge of the Unknown summer series.
“The town’s name is Shelton, boss,” Dean had said when she first saw the title cards.
“I know, but ‘The Monster of Shelton’ didn’t have quite the same pizzazz.”
It started with Greg Sikora being interviewed, his face slowly dissolving to a shot of the bay where he first saw the creature. As Richards’ assistant watched the episode yet again, her mind went back to the last interview they had conducted in Shelton.
“I have to admit, Mayor Lambeth, you almost had me.” Winnie Lambeth sighed as she looked over the pictures taken at the storage facility. Feeling every bit of her sixty-some years, she shook her head and asked;
“What gave it away?”
Richards shrugged. “Does it matter?” His shrug was returned when he asked her;
“Why’d you do it?” After her own “Does it matter?” he replied;
“It might, but I think I know.” In answer to her raised eyebrows he went on. “Shelton’s your hometown, you grew up here and I’m willing to bet your parents and at least one set of grandparents did as well.” He waited for her nod, then continued.
“There were hard times after the ferry stopped running, but Shelton, like a lot of small towns these days, survived, just barely maybe, but it survived. Then the economy went completely to hell and you saw the end as clearly as the Reverend Glassen thought he saw Shelly. How am I doing so far?”
“It’s your story, Mr. Richards.”
“Actually, Mayor, I’m not certain whose story it is yet. Let’s find out.” As Lambeth gave the producer a puzzled stare, he told her;
“When Sikora reported seeing a sea serpent you saw a way to help the town, to bring in just enough tourists to get things back in the black, or at least a faded red. You gathered a few local subjects, got together everything you needed—and set out to make a monster.”
“And how would we do that?”
“Please, ma’am, you can buy anything on the Internet these days. I got a shrunken head for my office the other day, and search to sale it only took me eight minutes. Now, about your monster—”
“Yes, our Shelley. She almost saved Shelton,” Mayor Lambeth said wistfully. “But now, instead of being known as her home, we shall instead be exposed as frauds. You’re going to kill this town, Mr. Richards.”
Dean remembered the mayor’s voice—cold and even, containing no blame—just a string of words stating a simple fact.
The interview with the preacher was next. Thanks to the show’s director and his staff, the Reverend Glassen came across as the archetypical small-town Man of God, one whose word was not to be doubted. When he spoke of the Leviathan, with just the right lighting, and the perfect three bars of music underscoring the scene, America believed such a creature could exist.
Next came the teasing use of the mannequin’s discovery, just enough to generate some suspense before the attempts to sell cars, electronic tablets, allergy relief medication, sugar-filled drinks, two upcoming movies, and hair-coloring products. The orgy of consumerism was followed by the universal disappointment delivered to the home viewers with the news that they would not be treated to the mutilated remains of a human being after all.
Richards saved the moment, however, by first sympathizing with the audience’s frustration, then reeling them back in with a recreation of what the couple from Pennsylvania thought they had seen. A well-produced montage which covered every other available lake and river monster followed, and then the Odom photographs were announced as “coming up next” just before the next wave of commercials were flung outward at the weary public.
“One would think,” Richards said as the seemingly endless string of commercials finally faded, “that the photos Tom Odom claimed to have taken would have been more than enough proof for the world that Shelly, and by extension, other creatures like her did indeed exist. And they might have, if we here at Challenge had not taken a closer look at them.”
An on-air comparison of various photos of Nessie, Wally, the Jersey Devil, Bigfoot, and those of Shelly was made.
“Odom’s shots,” intoned Richards, “if one considered what has served as proof of the strange in the past, were almost too good to be true. And sadly, as we discovered, that indeed was the case.”
As photos of the items found in the storage facility were shown, the anchorman’s voice told the audience;
“When confronted with this obvious fraud, Shelton’s mayor had this to say.” Information which caused the scene to shifted to Mayor Lambeth’s office, as she said;
“Without Shelly, or something like her, Mr. Richards, this town would have died. We did what we had to do.” Which brought the anchorman back into the homes of America, wearing his most sincere expression.
“A sad story, but one too common in this day and age where lies and deceit too often take the place of honest effort and hard work. Or so we at Challenge thought. Then came our last night.
“We were filming location shots of the beautiful Chesapeake Bay. Out on the water, one could easily understand why some call this ‘The Land of Pleasant Living.’ Yet despite the beauty and peace of the area, we could not avoid the heavy air of sadness there. Even knowing what it would do to the town, we also knew it was our duty to expose the lies and deception surrounding this so-called monster. And then, well, let the following footage speak for itself—”
The shot then shifted to a night view of the Chesapeake, the Bay Bridge just barely visible in the background. As the jaded television viewing public found its collective interest stirring, the boat began rocking, gently at first, then harder and harder. Off camera, the voice of the pilot urged everyone to stay calm. Despite this reasonable advise, the Challenge crew could be heard beginning to panic. Suddenly the muted comments of those on camera were shouted down by one panicked voice screaming—
“What the (expletive deleted)! What the goddamned bloody (expletive deleted) is that?!”
A pointing hand blocked the shot for a moment, and then was cleared so all could see a watermelon of a head rising from the water, one followed by a neck—first five feet, then ten, fifteen and more feet in length. A mouth opened in the horrible head, exposing a terrible double row of jagged teeth.
“Oh my god, oh my god, oh crap ohcrapcrapcrap!”
A roar followed even as the cameraman managed to zoom in on the creature’s head, showing the world eyes that were old when mammals first crawled upon the earth. Then, having issued its challenge, the great beast slipped back under the water, leaving those in the boat to dissolve in terror.
“Did you see that?”
“Thought it was supposed to be a fake.”
“That weren’t no fake.”
“I think I (expletive deleted) myself.”
“I think,” came Richards’ easily recognized baritone, “the mayor and I need to have another chat.”
The scene shifted at that point back to the mayor’s office.
“You’re a good journalist, Mr. Richards. You don’t think that we really expected you to be fooled by those pictures Tom Odom showed you?” With no reply from the producer, Mayor Lambeth continued. “We also led your people right to the storage shed. Hell, our men had to drive slow so yours wouldn’t lose them.”
“So why the double deception?”
“When we, the town that is, started promoting Shelly as a tourist attraction, we didn’t think things through. It was only after you contacted us and told us about the story you were going to do that we realized what it all meant. It meant that there would be people looking for her, hunting her, maybe trying to capture her. And we couldn’t have that. We thought that if we could convince you that she wasn’t real, Shelly would be safe. So we decided to let you ‘discover’ the ‘truth’ about her.”
“Even if it meant hard times for your town?”
“Shelton is not equipped to handle hundreds of thousands of the curious. Trampling our river banks, camping in our parks and on people’s lawns once our few accommodations are rented. We were thinking only of a temporary boom, letting a little news out about Shelly. We didn’t… I mean… we don’t want her hunted. Dragged away, murdered for science—”
As the mayor’s haunting eyes, filled with fear and self-reproach, were shifted to the upper left-hand corner of the screen, Richards’ filled the right-hand side. Again with his back to the bay, he said;
“That sighting by our brave Challenge crew out on the water was the last anyone has seen of The Sheltonville Sea Monster. Is Shelly real, as this startling footage seems to prove, hiding somewhere below the waters of the Chesapeake as she might have for centuries? Or was her final appearance just another cynical attempt to convince us of her existence? That is a mystery that will take far more research before it can be unraveled conclusively.” The anchorman paused, as if overwhelmed by the drama of the moment. Then, stoically pulling himself together, he said;
“For now, it is a question each of us must decide on their own. As for this reporter, I was there. I know what I saw, and I know what I believe. As always, this is your host, Marvin Richards saying, the strange is out there, waiting to become the familiar. To be here when that happens, please join us again next week for another—Challenge of the Unknown.”
“So, what was all that happy gas you sold me about ethics, boss,” Dean had asked when she first saw the finished production.
“Well, as Kahlil Gibran said, ‘He who defines his conduct by ethics confines his songbird in a cage.’”
“Don’t get cute. We lied on camera, just to keep that town from going under. We’re as guilty as they are.”
“We did help them create a better monster, I’ll grant you that. But as for lying, you replay the tape and if you can show me where I said that Shelly was real I’ll triple your salary.”
Dean could not. Richards had chosen his words too well. Instead of bothering with something she knew was useless, she asked;
“But why? You had them cold on the fraud. That would have made a great story.”
“It would have made a good story,” the producer corrected. “One that should have aired on Sunday night after a ticking stopwatch.”
“Not our kind of story?”
“Not at all. But, your real question was ‘why.’ So I’ll tell you.” Richards took a moment, the look on his face making his assistant wonder if he had not actually thought about why he had done what he did until that very moment. His eyes suddenly filling with certainty, he told her;
“Because I liked the town and I like its people. And because, like any good American, I appreciate a good scam. I’m in television, Dean, there’s more than a bit of P.T. Barnum in me.”
“And so, this is going to be our way of doing business from now on?”
“No, I doubt it. One good deed a season for me. From here on in, it’s real monsters, or ghosts, or UFOs or whatever, or nothing at all. Unless,” added Richards, his eyes twinkling in a manner Dean could not interpret;
“We run up against a killer deadline, or we need to tie in the show to a particular sponsor’s product, or we get some great… if questionable… footage—”
“Will that be all… sir?”
“Oh, and sweeps week, can’t forget sweeps. And then—”
Lora Dean left the producer’s office hoping she had not been utterly corrupted during her first week in television. With a sigh, she offered up a small prayer that the fellow with the story about leprechauns might actually be legitimate, then decided to check and see if there was a church close enough to the office that she might be able to go to confession on her lunch hour.