Balancing the Books
by Curt Ladnier
Note: Strictly speaking, this is not a piece of STRANGE PARADISE fan fic. However, astute readers may recognize some of the names it contains, so I thought I'd post it as a bit of Halloween fun. Enjoy!
Martin’s head swam as the glaring lights gave his face the urgent sensation of an impending sunburn.
Taking over as Metro Media Group’s assistant executive auditor when old Mr. Fox passed away had been a banner day in Martin’s life, if a bit of a surprise. He never thought the Executive Director liked him much, but the big man had conferred the position on Martin personally, with the mandate to “tighten up the ship.” And Martin had tackled the assignment with zeal, rooting out wasteful expenditures and eliminating several redundant posts within the company that had kept unneeded employees on the payroll for years. It was a position that Martin relished, and he was sure that his efforts were steadily propelling him up the corporate ladder.
But along with this new triumph came new headaches, and one issue in particular had become a thorn in Martin’s side. After repeatedly reviewing the books and ledgers for Metro’s various divisions, he had managed to rein in expenditures – with the exception of one persistent hole in their broadcasting group. Somewhere within that division a substantial amount of money was vanishing each quarter, but pinpointing it had proven a daunting task. In the overall scheme of Metro’s portfolio the quarterly loss was negligible, but consistent. Most would have eventually written the loss off as more trouble than it was worth to isolate. Martin, however, had made it his mission in life to unearth it.
Finally, after several painstaking late-night sessions examining hard copies of multiple yellowing balance sheets, he had succeeded in determining where the money was going. In each case, the expenditure was detailed only in an obscure footnote to the report, referenced simply as wevl, with no further elaboration or explanation. Initially, Martin suspected some form of embezzlement, considering how deeply the mysterious expenditure was buried in the accounts, but Mr. Fox had been beyond reproach. Not only was he a trusted member of the firm, but his modest habits and lifestyle evinced no hint of any illicit income.
Besides, as Martin dug deeper he had realized that this expenditure had been going on for far longer than Mr. Fox’s twenty-eight year tenure with the company. He had to plow back farther than the decades’ worth of computer records Metro had amassed, back into the crumbling paper archives, just to decipher the origins of the expenditure. Whatever wevl was, it had been siphoning off a relatively small, but consistent, sum from the company’s budget since 1956!
No one at Metro seemed to know anything about wevl. His bosses had given Martin blank looks when he inquired about it, but encouraged him to pursue the matter and report his findings at their next meeting. One old-timer in Project Development seemed to recall having heard the acronym (if that, indeed, was what the string of letters was) from a previous auditor some years earlier, but he had no idea what it signified. When Martin pressed him about the auditor, hoping for a source of further information, the fellow admitted he hadn’t seen or heard of the guy much after that conversation, which had been well over a decade ago.
Ultimately, it was a Google search, not Metro’s tangle of corporate records, which had led Martin to the truth behind wevl. A website on broadcasting history yielded a fleeting reference to Metro Entertainment’s partnership with reclusive southern entrepreneur Hank Creley in 1956 to establish a television broadcast outlet, WEVL-TV, in rural Georgia. The station was launched in May of that year with the intention of establishing an affiliation with the DuMont Network, but for some reason it only remained in operation for a few months before leaving the airwaves. The website offered no further details, other than speculating that WEVL might hold the record for shortest-lived station in history. By January 1957, it no longer held a broadcast license from the FCC.
The satisfaction Martin felt in finally unearthing some fragments of information had quickly turned to frustration over the new questions they raised. If WEVL had died in 1956, why was it still receiving money from Metro half a century later? Who was receiving the funds, and to what purpose were they being used? And why didn’t anyone in today’s regime at Metro know about this?
No amount of Google searching had turned up anything further on WEVL, but another few hours’ persistence from Martin yielded a few scraps on its operator, Hank Creley. Creley had been a successful doctor in New York, making a great deal of money before abruptly having to move south for unspecified reasons of his own health. He settled in rural Desmond County, Georgia, but his attempt to establish a new practice was cut short by either a family tragedy or a local scandal, depending on which source was to be believed. Eventually, he did settle into the community enough to try his hand at several non-medical business ventures when his health permitted. No specific information on his ailment was ever given, and the few references to the man which Martin was able to discover ended after the mention of his failed venture in broadcasting. Surely, after all these years he must be dead by now. Martin wondered what possible connection Dr.Hank could have to his own accounting puzzle.
Still, armed with this fresh information he had been able to attack the Metro archives anew. Now that he knew what he was looking for, it hadn’t been difficult to locate the company’s records on WEVL, what little there was of them. As he expected, the files contained the barest of information on the brief failed venture of more than fifty years ago.
However, Martin was surprised to note that there was no record of the dissolution of Metro’s partnership with Creley, nor of the termination of the WEVL project. Curious, but records of that vintage were notoriously spotty, and the documentation could simply have become misplaced over the decades.
More curious, though, was the reaction Martin had gotten from Metro’s corporate historian, Mrs. Feigel, when he inquired what she knew about WEVL. The elderly woman blanched, and muttered something about “that awful incident on the children’s show.” She didn’t seem to quite realize she’d been speaking aloud, and when he pressed her further she insisted he had misunderstood her. To the best of her knowledge, the station was no more than a footnote in the company’s history, an endeavor which folded almost before it began due to bad timing and poor market positioning.
He wanted to get up, but his arms and legs refused to cooperate, and the unrelenting lights all but blinded him.
At a loss to understand why a portion of the company’s assets was being diverted under the heading of a defunct project, Martin had decided to tackle the more immediate question. Where was the money going? He soon discovered that unlike nearly all of Metro’s other transactions, which were electronically conducted directly from one financial institution to another, the funds earmarked WEVL were sent quarterly via cashier’s check to a post office box in the township of Layton, Georgia. Martin had been unable to determine where the funds actually wound up after each mailing.
Finally, he decided to hire a confidential investigator to fly down to Georgia and find out everything he could about the owner of that post office box.
The man he selected for the job, an Irishman named Costello, had handled a number of discreet matters for Metro in the past, and Martin had every confidence that he would get to the bottom of the situation. Upon his arrival, Costello had checked in to report that Layton was little more than a backwater in the middle of nowhere. He intended to spend the day asking a few questions, but expected that his inquiry would boil down to a stake-out of the box to see who would retrieve its contents. Martin agreed with this course, and told him to make contact again as soon as he had anything to report.
It had been no surprise when Martin heard nothing the next day, but he was perturbed when there was still no news from Costello by the end of the week. The man was on an expense account; what was he doing down there?
After a few more days of calling Costello’s cell phone and hotel to no avail, Martin was fed up. He would just have to go down there himself!
His mouth was painfully dry - as dry as the dust covering the tangle of cables and equipment littered about him in the maddeningly silent room.
The flight south had been an unpleasant experience, with foul weather and turbulence the entire way, and upon landing at Atlanta’s ungainly airport Martin was not pleased by the thought that he had only completed the first leg of his journey. The rental car he had picked up for the remainder of the trip to Desmond County was equipped with a GPS system, but Martin had soon been discouraged to realize that Layton was so remote that it wasn’t even recognized by the satellite. By the time his trek forced him off the main highway several hours later and on to the state routes and dirt roads that led to Desmond County, he had been reduced to navigating by a map acquired at a rather less-than-appealing roadside visitors’ center.
The weather had not improved since his touchdown at the airport, and the downpour pounding his windshield made for rough going with poor visibility on the country roads. Eventually, with afternoon rapidly pushing into evening and no civilization in sight on the muddy dirt road, Martin had found himself forced to admit that he was lost.
He knew he couldn’t be too far off course though, because just before turning off the last paved road twenty minutes earlier he had passed a defunct structure whose dilapidated sign proclaimed “Desmond Motor Court.”
Surely this must be an indication that he had reached Desmond County.
Martin swore as he glanced at his fuel gauge for what must have been the eighth time in the last two minutes. If he didn’t find a gas station soon he would be calling AAA, though he had serious doubts about his cell phone coverage out here in the sticks. Getting stranded in the middle of nowhere, in the rain, with no phone was the last thing he needed.
Rounding a sharp bend, Martin felt a surge of relief as he spotted the dark shape of a structure set off from the road by a gravel parking lot. Desolate as the building appeared, a few lights glowed from its windows, and he thanked God as he coasted into the lot. At least he would be able to get directions and, if necessary, a lift to a filling station.
A brief flash of lightning revealed a bit more of the area to Martin’s gaze for a few quick seconds, and he was surprised to pick out the shape of a broadcasting tower looming behind the building before everything retreated back into the gloom of the storm. Without the benefit of an umbrella, he dashed to the darkened front entrance, dripping miserably and cursing as he pounded on the door. For a time no one responded, but soon a light over the doorway winked into life, giving Martin a better view of the structure. The cracked, peeling paint and general grime on the building’s façade bespoke years of disrepair, but that was not what astonished Martin as his eyes adjusted to the illumination. What drew his immediate attention was the large, scarred wooden placard hanging beside the door, desperately faded but still legible. WEVL Television – Desmond County’s Family Broadcaster.
“Can I help you?”
The dark-haired woman in the doorway wore a dress that was years out of fashion and a tarnished brass nametag reading “Lara.” Martin was startled by her sudden appearance and the odd ageless quality of her angular face. She peered across the threshold at him with a strangely vacant gaze.
“Uh … sorry,” he responded, as he realized he had been staring at her. “I may have run out of gas out there, and I was wondering if I could use your phone.”
“You’d better come in out of the storm.” Lara said in a monotonous tone as she ushered him into a dank lobby area whose state of neglect equaled the building’s decaying exterior.
“Look, this is kind of strange,” Martin confided to the woman as he swept some of his sodden hair back from his forehead, “but I’m from Metro Media Group. We owned this facility back in the ‘fifties, when the station was on the air, but I’m not really sure about our relationship these days.
What sort of operation is this now?”
With his mention of Metro, Martin was almost sure he had seen a flicker of something register in Lara’s eyes, but the vacant air had returned so immediately that he couldn’t be certain.
“Oh,” she responded quickly, with the barest trace of a smile, “I’d better see if the manager is still in. Let me put you in the conference room until I can locate him.”
Martin thanked her as she led him past reception and down a shabby hallway with several cracked plate glass windows. Behind the windows, he caught glimpses of a couple of broadcasting studios housing equipment that would have been considered antiquated decades ago. Why hadn’t this stuff been liquidated years back, when the station folded?
The conference room was a somewhat claustrophobic affair at the end of the hall. Lara deposited him there and, after producing a little coffee to warm him after his soaking, promised she would return shortly with someone who could better answer his questions. Martin waited impatiently, wondering just what was going on in this godforsaken place. The coffee was warm, but unusually bitter. Why would Metro still be sending this place funding? He loosened his collar and wrung water from his shirtfront.
Christ, but the room was stuffy. They couldn’t even maintain proper air conditioning. Martin felt a bit off-balance and sick to his stomach. The coffee really was awful. What was he even doing here?
Martin sat alone in the musty studio, in a rotting chair on a set that appeared to have once been part of a children’s show. Its moth-eaten backdrop represented some sort of clubhouse, with pieces of scenery painted on it in a comically stylized fashion. Why couldn’t he move? He heard a sharp pop followed by a warm humming, and realized that the two mammoth television cameras which he could barely make out beyond the range of the studio lights had been brought to life. What was happening?
Splitting the silence with a terrible suddenness, whimsical music blared crazily from the stage’s crackling sound system. The recording may have once sounded happy, but after years of improper storage and play on an impossibly age-worn turntable, its tempo alternately dragged and leapt, sounding like accompaniment for an insane circus clown. Unable to move, Martin strained to see the risers beyond the lights at the side of the stage, where a studio audience of excited children would once have sat.
Was it his imagination, or could he make out small shadowy forms fidgeting restlessly on those benches? Mercifully, the volume of the music slackened, and Martin heard Lara’s voice, no longer monotonous, but strident, announcing, “Hey, kids, it’s that time again! Time for DOCTOR HANK’S PLAYHOUSE!”
An oversized door at the far rear of the set opened, revealing a tall emaciated form in tattered and obscenely stained physician’s scrubs. The visible portions of the figure’s skin were mottled and gray, and the skintight cap fitting over the back of his head was oddly malformed.
Loping crookedly across the stage, the newcomer cackled, “Hi, boys and girls! Old Doc Hank is back to bring you another hour of fun, and today we have a special guest who is going to help us learn about the central nervous system.”
Feeling was just beginning to return to his limbs as the acrid smoke of the chainsaw irritated Martin’s nostrils.
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