D. Paul Harrison, 07 April 2021
A man working at a telethon to raise money for childhood cancer finds out that the charity is more than it seems. NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2021 Honorable Mention.
“...she was 8 years old, and after taking her to the doctor, they said she needed some more tests. Eventually, we got a diagnosis. Central nervous system cancer. I knew that I couldn’t afford the treatments she needed to even have… have a chance.”
The lights in the studio get fuzzy as the tears well in my eyes.
“The next day, a man came to see me. He said he could help. I told him, ‘I can’t pay’, I told him, ‘I have nothing except my daughter.’ He said, ‘We got you. We’ve got her. We’ll give you everything you need.’”
I take another breath to steady myself, and continue,
“The Wide Arms Foundation moved Abbie to the best hospital, with the best specialists. They got me a hotel room near her hospital, so I could be with her. They helped me get back on my feet, I got to be there with her through every little success, every crushing failure, and I got to be there when she… when...”
I swallow, “When she died. I lost Abbie three months ago.”
I stare into the camera, thinking of everyone watching on TV.
“That’s why I’m here today. I’m here to raise money so that we can give other parents like me hope, so the Wide Arms Foundation can fund research into treatment, so one day, there won’t be any more Abbie’s.”
I’m wiping my eyes, and the host takes it from here, saying,
“This telethon is our biggest fundraising weekend of the year, folks, and we have just one single hour left here in the Wide Arms Foundation 1993 Telethon, and you can help us make this the biggest ever. Operators are standing by. And… thank you, Jack.”
I stand up and walk backstage, as the host is reciting the phone number for the millionth time.
When I get backstage, I get a thumbs up from Mr. Conner, the Foundation’s volunteer coordinator, who mouths, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” I nod back. I need a break, then back to taking calls. My pager, suddenly, goes off.
I don’t recognize the number that pops up. I step outside of the studio, and spot a payphone at the other end of the parking lot.
I walk up, throw some change in, and dial the number from my pager.
I look at the number next to the coin slot on the payphone, and it matches what is on my pager. The call came from here.
I hang up and retrieve my change from the return.
I hear a noise from behind me, I hear, “Don’t make a noise, and don’t turn around. I have a gun, and I need to talk to you, Mr. Laughton.”
I don’t recognize the voice.
He continues, “Walk away from the phone, and walk toward the alley between the buildings on your left. I’ll join you shortly, after I make sure we’re not followed.”
I swallow, my mouth dry, and say, quietly, “Okay.”
I walk to the grassy area between the two studio buildings, as instructed. I kept my eyes facing the same direction, not daring to turn around. I was considering making a break for it when the voice reappears and says, “You can turn around now.”
I do. I look over my mugger, and it’s a balding man wearing an expensive-looking suit, overcoat, and honest-to-god pince-nez glasses. Not a mugger.
He starts talking, “I do have a gun, but it’s safely tucked away,” he pats his left breast, “just accessories of my business.”
His face drops, and he continues, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thanks,” I reply, automatically.
“No, you don’t understand,” he shakes his head, sadly, “I felt your pain. I feel like because of what you went through, you need to know the truth.”
“About the Wide Arms Foundation.”
“It’s not real. Oh,” he starts pacing, ignoring the shocked look on my face, “there’s a registered charity, alright, and the telethon is being broadcast, and donations are rolling in, but the board, Mr. Svoboda, for them it’s about the Family, not the Foundation.”
“The mob. The mafiya. A criminal syndicate, looking for a place to park its cash.”
“This can’t be true.”
“I work for them. I’ve seen all the cash funneling into this charity, and I highly doubt they’re spending it on sick kids.”
I forget he has a gun, I get up in his face.
“Are you telling me none of the money raised this weekend is going to help one single child?”
He takes a step back from me, unruffled. This is somehow more threatening than if he had taken a swing at me, “I can’t prove that, and wouldn’t testify to it. But, I want out, because I can’t take the guilt of hurting these kids, anymore. Making sure Svoboda and the others go to jail is the only way I can do it with my life intact. I need leverage, Jack. And I think you can get it for me.”
“Have you been to the second floor of the Foundation’s offices?”
“No,” I say, remembering that there was a big under construction sign in the stairs when I was there last week, with the other volunteers, “it was off-limits to the volunteers.”
“It’s been ‘under construction’ the whole time we’ve ben there. It’s where Svoboda and our organization operate out of, and there’s a deal going down there tonight. The rest of the building will be mostly empty, due to the telethon.”
He pauses, “Let’s go. I’ll tell you more on the way.”
I hesitate. This is crazy.
“Don’t you want to know the truth, Jack? If what I’m saying is true?”
My mind is racing.
Could it really be true?
Could none of the money we’ve raised this weekend be going to help anyone?
Or, even worse, could they have helped Abbie, and didn’t?
“Alright. Let’s go.”
He walks us to a nondescript sedan and I get in the passenger seat. He passes me over a folder, and I open it.
“You should be able to get past the guard at reception, but if asked, just tell the guard Mr. Conner needed something from his office.”
“Okay.” I remembered Conner was the volunteer coordinator.
“Conner should have a key somewhere in his office that’ll get you access to the second floor.”
“Wait, Conner is in on this?”
I pull out a picture that looks like it was clipped from a newspaper.
He continues, “That’s Svoboda.”
He doesn’t look like a crime lord, he looks like a businessman in his mid-50s, wearing a nice suit, but the headline reads “FBI says Svoboda ‘Person of Interest’ in disappearance”
I’m shocked, “I never heard about this.”
“He owns most of the other papers, and this got buried. One of the ways he stays safe. Check in the glove box.”
I pull out a small tape recorder.
“Once you get to the second floor, it should be before the meeting starts. Hit the record button and leave it somewhere in the conference room. Don’t worry about getting it back, I’ll be able to get it later. I’m supposed to be in another state right now, and they’ll be suspicious if they spot me anywhere near there. That’s why it has to be you.”
He pulls up at the far end of a parking lot that is facing a two-story office building. Scaffolding covers the walls of the second floor, and the windows are blocked out.
“If anything goes wrong… just play dumb.”
“It’s the only chance you’ll have.”
“Why the rush? Why does this have to happen now?”
“The deal is related to the telethon, somehow. If we don’t get a recording of them talking specifically about that money, it’ll just disappear. And all those kids get nothing.”
“You understand? This is the only chance to not only catch them, but make sure that money people are donating isn’t gone forever.”
I get out of the car.
He says, “I’ll be in touch.” and drives off.
I look toward the building. This is crazy, and I know I’m not thinking straight. But if there’s even a chance that the money being raised isn’t actually helping anyone, I have to do something.
I stick the tape recorder in my pocket and make towards the door.
The reception area contains a single bored guard, behind him I can see the mostly-empty desks of the volunteer and fundraising workers, with offices along the walls in the back. The staircase to the second floor is marked off to the right of the back row of offices, a solid, closed door with a deadbolt. A sign that says “Pardon our Dust!” on top of it.
The guard looks up from the television he was watching, that has the telethon on it. There’s 30 minutes left.
“Yes? Oh, hey, Mr. Laughton! I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Thanks,” I reply, automatically, “Mr. Conner asked me to get something from his office.”
He seems convinced, “Gotcha. Go on ahead, let me know if you need anything.”
“Will do, thanks.”
I step past the desk into the bullpen. There’s only a couple people here, making calls, probably overflow from the telethon callers. I guess my story really made an impact.
I hope this all turns out to be some crazy lie.
Conner’s office is, luckily, right next to the door to the stairway. I enter the office.
Conner takes care of donations from all the high-value clients, and there’s pictures of him with politicians, business leaders, a couple with some sick kids.
I get angry all over again thinking of him lying to their faces.
I start off running my hands on the underside of his desk, thinking about all the movies I’ve seen where the secret item was taped there. I guess Conner watches the same things, since I find the key pretty immediately.
This is the first bit of proof that something weird is going on, but I’m not sure. This could still be innocent, the guy who sent me on this errand could just be some psycho with a gun who made up a story.
I walk out of the office and turn straight to the second floor door, I don’t look around, in case that looks more suspicious. I put the key in the deadbolt and turn it, cracking the door open.
The stairwell leading up has some plastic sheeting covering the rest of the way, and I poke through it after making my way up. There’s another door at the top and I open it a crack.
This is definitely not under construction. The space is as well-appointed as the office below, but instead of a bullpen, I just see a wall. That must be the conference room. I step out into the hallway, closing the door behind me. On my left, I pass by two office doors. From the right, though, I hear, “You know I have more important things to do today than deal with you, Falcone. But here I am. We’re getting the money soon, and you start pulling this shit with the product? If I wanted to get baby powder I’d go down to the pharmacy. Explain yourself.”
I’m too late. They’ve already started.
I hurriedly pull the tape recorder out of my pocket and start recording. I manage to hit record. I hear a second voice, “Svoboda, listen, the person responsible for this has been dealt with. You’ll get the real stuff tonight.”
I can’t believe it.
I hear the door to the stairwell open behind me. In a panic, I pocket the tape recorder and duck into the closest office.
I can’t hear
I can’t get the recording. But, this must be Svoboda’s office. I see a picture of him on the desk with a little girl. If there’s any documents, they must be in here. I start looking at the top of the desk. It’s all telethon-related, the rental agreement for the studio, broadcast times, a copy of the schedule, the projections for the goals. What the hell did I expect, him to just leave incriminating documents lying around?
I open the right drawer on his desk, and I see a gun. I’m about to look around it when I hear someone at the door.
I freeze. I don’t know what to do. I’m still standing there when the door opens, and Svoboda walks in. He sees me there, and doesn’t look surprised.
I don’t respond.
“Hi, Jack. Good to see you.”
He walks in. Sits down in one of his guest chairs.
“Take a seat, Jack.”
I sit down in his chair, behind his desk.
“I was on to you from the start, you know. That traitor has already been taken care of.
“Is it true?”
“Is what true?”
I swallow, “Are you a criminal?”
He smiles, sadly, “Some might call me that. I like to think of myself as a businessman.”
“So it’s all true.”
I grab the gun from the drawer and point it straight at him.
I’m angry, “You’re stealing money from sick kids. You’re stealing money from parents like me, and you’re using it for drugs. Murder. For yourself.”
I’m seeing red. They could have saved Abbie.
“Jack, no, you’ve got it all wrong. Except for some… unexpected situations. This part of my life is separate from my business. You see that picture, Jack? The one of my with the girl?”
“That’s my daughter. She would’ve been 18 right now, but… but she died. Just like your Abbie did.”
I look him in the eyes. I see my own pain, reflected there.
He continues, “I’m a bad man, Jack. But I swear to you, I wouldn’t do anything to hurt people like us. Or kids like your Abbie, or my Francine.”
I believe him. God help me, but I believe him.
I put the gun down.
“I’m going to give you a choice, Jack. I’m going to let you walk out of here with whatever you’ve got on me. My boys, they don’t understand, they haven’t been where we are. But I promise you, this charity is legit. I even get donations from some of my… other associates. And it all goes straight into research. It goes straight into helping people.”
I don’t know what to do.
I stammer out, “Are you saying the ends justify the means?”
He smiles, sadly, “Of course. The question is, what choice are you going to make?”
I stand up.
As I walk out, he takes the picture of his daughter into his hands.
I know I should go to the cops, I know I should do something, but the moral outrage I had has completely left me. I know, despite what he says, he’ll probably be watching me.
But I don’t know what to do.