The unconscious man, bound tightly to the wooden chair and blindfolded in the middle of the candle-lit warehouse, begins to stir.
Two men in white robes, stand before him, waiting, watching.
One of them steps forward to try slapping him awake, but the other restrains him with a gentle hand.
Three weeks earlier…
“So what are we going to do?!” Gerald shouts.
“Easy Ger, we’re drawing attention,” Phil says as he makes a hand-lowering gesture without taking his eyes off his phone.
Gerald looks around, sees the other bar patrons staring at the five of them, then, in a lowered voice, “What are we going to do? We’re losing our jobs here!”
Phil sets his phone on the table, pulls the orange slice from his empty drink, and puts the whole thing in his mouth.
The five of them, historically not the best of buddies or even likely allies, but since the news story broke about how almost all of the video evidence they had been pushing on their TV shows for years, ever since ‘paranormal’ became a household word, was faked, they thought it best if they come together in a spirit of solidarity. The culprit was the video signal processing SC5000 chipset that was found in almost every video camera in the world. The SC5000 chipsets all came from a Santa Fe based company called DigSemiCon.
And the chipset had been engineered with a little extra functionality. Extra processing power, more artificial intelligence, a library of ‘effects,’ autonomous, invisible connections to the real world via GPS and even the internet.
The chips were smart enough to detect which recorded footage might make the best footage to ‘doctor’ and mold into footage that might be perceived as paranormal.
A lot of that boiled down to the level of light of course. Night scenes, darkened rooms, were the bulk of what passed as the familiar terrain for the caught-on-tape paranormal footage that the five of them had
been pushing for years. The chips worked together to randomly, occasionally, unpredictably, alter the video it recorded into something ‘else.’ If it was night and the chips detected woods, the random footage might include a sighting of ‘bigfoot’ or some bizarre, alien creature might flash by. If the sky was feature prominently, the artificial intelligence in the chips might decide to sprinkle in a random UFO or six. If the user was recording a darkened room, there were no limits to the type of scary effects that could easily be manufactured on the fly. Closet doors that open by themselves. Sheets ruffled by invisible currents. Shadows that pass behind other shadows. The appearance of a disembodied face in a mirror. The video camera went from merely recording what was in its viewfinder to a special effects studio.
The fact that the enormously popular chipset was so powerful, so inexpensive, had made it quickly become the industry standard. The chipset only occasionally did the extra, special effects. If it had done it on every recording, the gig would have been up, as they say, long ago.
By rarely doctoring the video recordings with its powerful intelligence and its large library of spooky effects, the chips’ extra functionality had remained hidden, an open secret, for nearly fifteen years. These were the boom years for paranormal TV programs. And most of the footage that they, every single one of these people, had pushed on their programs, podcasts, and social media platforms had originated in the SC5000 chipset. When the story broke, DigSemiCon went into media lockdown mode. All employees that weren’t laid off, were required to sign strict NDAs. They issued a recall for the chipsets, but by that point, the damage had already been done. They shut-down four of their five production facilities, laid off hundreds, and were expected to likely file for bankruptcy soon.
When the story broke, all five of their shows’ ratings had plummeted. Gerald’s show had even been canceled. And he had grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle. A lifestyle only made possible only by the continued application of cash, income, royalties, etc. All of that was now in jeopardy for him as well as the four others.
“May I get you folks another round?” the sharply dressed waiter says as he begins collecting the last round glasses.
Phil picks up his phone, unlocks it, checks his email app, and sets it back on the table.
“Stoli on the rocks with a lemon twist please,” Lynette says as she slides her empty glass to the waiter and smiles at him.
“Glenlivet, neat,” Alexis says.
Gerald looks longingly at his empty Martini glass. Phil sees him and takes pity. “I’ll take another Negroni and another Martini for my esteemed friend here,” Phil says as he gestures charitably to Gerald.
Gerald is really tightening the belt when he has to consider skipping his second drink, Phil thinks as he picks up his phone and checks his email account again.
“No more for me. I have an early day tomorrow,” Steve says.
The waiter summarizes the order precisely then turns and leaves.
“Oh yeah? Anything promising?” Lynette probes.
They’ve all become both unified in figuring their way through this downturn in demand and paradoxically even more territorial about ‘leads’ for the meager list of platforms still willing to air their genre of programming despite the semiconductor chipset bombshell. Mildly restrained jackals cooperating with new developments and strategies but also poised to turn on each other, in an instant, if they see a way for individual gain.
“You don’t want to know,” Steve sighs.
“Ah,” Alexis says.
All four of them look at her expectantly. Clearly, Alexis thinks she knows what’s going on.
“So you know something or not Alexis?” Phil finally says as he checks his email account.
Alexis catches Steve’s eye, tilts her head meaningfully, as some nonverbal question passes between them.
“Sure Alex, let’s see how well you know me,” Steve capitulates.
“Steve has gone back, at least part-time is my guess, to real estate,” she says.
Steve smiles sheepishly.
“Well, aren’t you Sherlock effing Holmes!” Phil says. “I gotta say, I’m impressed Alex. You left that biz back, what’s it been, Steve? Twelve years ago?”
“Twelve years this December,” Steve says. “Right before I started the podcast. And then FOX picked us up two years later.”
That was about the same time they had all got onboard the paranormal series gravy-train. The faked video footage aside, each of them believed in the existence of ghosts, the supernatural, entities both celestial and infernal.
“Well folks this has been fun, but I think I’m going to call it a night,” Steve says.
The others start saying goodnight to Steve as Phil’s phone dings crisply.
He picks it up again.
“What is with you and your phone Phil?” Lynette says. “You’re addicted to it you know?”
Phil ignores her as he unlocks his phone and checks his email. He reads silently to himself, his lips moving as he reads the long-anticipated email.
Steve turns to go.
“Not so fast Steve-o,” Phil says.
Steve turns back to the table, catches Lynette’s eye.
‘Steve-o?’ Steve mouths soundlessly to her, she laughs into her fist.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Alexis here isn’t the only detective at the table. I too have been known to dabble in the rarified art of deductive reasoning,” Phil says theatrically.
“Oh boy! Here we go. Where’s that waiter? I think I will have another drink after all,” Steve says.
Phil shoots Steve his best ‘wounded’ look.
Steve looks up.
“Oh, my bad! Please proceed, Mr. Poirot,” Steve says and the others laugh.
“Okay, well, maybe that’s a stretch, I admit, but I did hire a private investigator in Santa Fe and …”
“Oh! Is this in regards to DigSemiCon?” Gerald blurts.
“Duh! Really Gerald? Isn’t it obvious that the two are connected?” Alexis says. Gerald, looks down at the table, embarrassed.
The waiter arrives and delivers their drinks.
“I’m sorry but I think I would like another shiraz after all,” Steve says to the waiter.
The waiter departs again.
“Okay, the floor is yours, Columbo,” Lynette says to Phil.
“Well, you know how DigSemiCon has refused to name the lead engineer on the SC5000 chips?” Phil says.
They all nod. He has them in his palm now, he thinks.
“Well I not only found the name of the lead engineer, he still lives in Santa Fe by the way, but I also have some very convincing eyewitness reports, corroborated reports, that indicate that ‘Pete’ was the one responsible for the whole thing!” Phil throws his hands up in a flourish and sits back in his seat.
No one says anything.
“Seriously folks? Is that it? I deliver you Judas Iscariot and I’m greeted with crickets?” Phil says, sitting forward in his chair again.
“Phil, you gotta work on that finish! Think of it as the penultimate segment in your show you know? Ratchet up the tension, slowly mind you, a bit first. Don’t just explode all over the table like that,” Steve
“Ew! Gross!” Alexis and Lynette say together. They lock eyes, laugh, and bump fists from across the table.
“So this, Pete guy? What about him? Does he still work at DigSemiCon, and do we care?” Gerald says.
“Um, excuse me, weren’t you the one yelling not three minutes ago, asking what were we going to do about all of this?” Alexis says.
“I was. You are right.” Gerald says.
“You know where he lives, etc,?” Alexis says.
“I do,” Phil says.
They sit for a beat and sip their drinks.
“So, … anyone feel up for a road trip to Santa Fe?” Lynette says.
“Could be fun,” Steve says.
The unconscious man, bound tightly to the wooden chair and blindfolded in the middle of the candle-lit warehouse, begins to stir.
Pete is thin, slovenly dressed in a wrinkled, dirty gray suit. He had had a five o’clock shadow when they picked him up four days ago, he practically has a beard now. But their preparations required some time alone with him before the show they had planned for him.
Gerald steps forward to try slapping him awake, but Phil restrains him with a gentle hand.
“Let’s give Pete a few more seconds to wake on his own maybe. For all we know those REMs he was having might have been from pleasant dreams and they will surely be his last for a while I guess,” Phil says.
Steve has finished drawing the large pentagram on the warehouse floor. Lynette and Alexis are double-checking his glyphs and sigils.
“You do good work, Mister Steve,” Lynette says.
“I agree. Your glyphs are powerful, accurate, AND artfully rendered. You don’t find many sorcerers who can manage all three!” Alexis says.
Steve rises from the floor, swipes the dust from his pant legs, and returns the chalk to the ceremonial table behind.
In addition to being producers and stars of the major paranormal shows, the five of them were also, and this wasn’t known to their adoring fanbase for obvious reasons, they were also semi-accomplished, expert sorcerers. Originally they had all hoped that they could convince, coerce, or threaten their regular entities to appear in their manufactured paranormal ‘scenes,’ but every single one of them had proven to be skittish about wanting to appear on camera, the ghosts were adamant about not being pets to be exploited. Ghosts and demons were notoriously defensive, moody, and paranoid.
So they had to rely upon the trickle of faked videos from the ‘defective’ video chipset. It was an enterprise sown with disaster from its inception.
Of the five sorcerers who have kidnapped Pete to seek revenge, only four of them have entities that will be participating in today’s ‘scared straight’ program. Phil’s main three ghosts had all refused to attend. He wished he had demons; demons have to respond to a summons. Of course, they are also capricious, duplicitous, and dangerous. Not many amateur sorcerers ever make the transition to expert because an early over-confidence, or just being played by a demon, has lead to their own grisly demise. Demons are highly manipulative and patient. They can long con a lot of promising rising stars in the world of magick and then surprise them with a violent ending.
“So who did we decide was up first for Pete?” Steve asks Lynette and Alexis.
Gerald and Phil are keeping an eye on Pete as he begins to come to. Five candles are placed around the pentagram and the protective circles, but the light levels are very low. Ironically this is the exact level of light that the SC5000 chipset would consider a ‘target-rich’ environment! Nevertheless, there are video cameras throughout the room.
“Roger and Beatrice will open our little custom show. But they, of course, will not agree to be filmed today,” Alexis says.
“Typical ghosts,” Lynette says.
“Right?!” Alexis laughs. “Such haughty, entitled primadonnas!”
“None of Phil’s ghosts are going to be here?” Steve says.
“That’s right,” Lynette says as she bends over and begins eyeing the cages of bunnies on the table.
“They’re so cute aren’t they?” Alexis asks. “I feel bad it had to be bunnies, but you can’t just waltz into town and buy a dozen sheep. People tend to ask questions!”
The demons always expected to be fed.
“Anyways, so after the ghosts, we have two demons that will be showing up, together mind you!” Alexis says.
“You know I’ve often thought about growing rabbits,” Lynette says.
“Oh yeah, why did you never follow through?” Alexis asks.
“I’ve heard growing rabbits can be a real hare-raising experience,” Lynette puns flatly.
Only Steve laughs, nervously.
The gravity of what they are about to do begins to settle upon them. But it is too late to turn back now.
Phil had masterminded the whole thing. The expose had ruined their livelihoods. Now they had come to exact vengeance. They would release their own anonymous expose. This one exposing the exposer. They had all laughed as they tried to work through the ethical ramifications of that irony.
“So today’s performance with Pete is going to be a ONE-time event only then!?” Lynette says and laughs. Then they all laugh their nervous laughs.
Their expose would end with footage of the demons appearing before a poor, physically restrained Pete. Ghosts had the power to reject appearing on cameras; demons weren’t so lucky; neither, the long afternoon would prove, was Pete.