Maupin says that each time he tried to arrange to meet Tony in person, Tony's adoptive mother Vicki would say the boy's fragile health prohibited visitors. Maupin had to settle for pictures of the boy, sent out by Tony and Vicki.
Bernstein says Vicki told him that Tony was nearing "death's door." "[He] was so fragile that he couldn't see anybody because their germs could kill him."
One of the first people to suggest a hoax was Terry Anderson, Armistead Maupin's former business partner and former boyfriend. "I've not met Tony Johnson, because there is no Tony Johnson to meet," said Anderson. Anderson also suggested a shocking possibility: the voice they'd all been speaking with sounded oddly feminine because, maybe, Tony's mother was playing both roles.
"For six years, my brain was divided down the middle," Maupin said. "There were days when I would talk to Tony and think, 'this is clearly a boy, why would I ever doubt this?' and other days when I would think, it's her [Vicki]."
But in those six years, Maupin says he never asked the crucial question: are you a fake?
"How do you do that? Do you say, 'excuse me, are you fake, are you really a 40-year-old woman?'", asked Maupin. He says if he had questioned Tony over the phone, he would have been doing the one thing that he says you're never supposed to do: doubt the story of an abused child.
Maupin turned his agonizing personal debate about the suffering boy into a novel, "The Night Listener."
One day, ICM agent Ron Bernstein received "The Night Listener" in the mail. Until then, he says he had not known that Maupin had a phone friendship with Tony. "I read it because Armistead is a client. I was so stunned. I called Armistead and I said, 'Are you sitting? I was the agent for that kid. I sold his book to HBO. I cannot believe you had the same experience that I did.'" Bernstein said he and Maupin talked for an hour, both aghast.
Bernstein admits he never questioned if anybody was lying. "I was talking to two voices, Tony and Vicki." But Bernstein says he began to have his own doubts when the $125,000 deal to turn Tony's book into an HBO movie collapsed because Vicki said Tony was too sick to let anyone from HBO meet him.
As time went on, Bernstein took note that a boy on the brink of death kept hanging on for years with a bushel of ailments.
Maupin agrees that he found the number of ailments a bit unbelievable, too. "It did get more and more melodramatic, and as it did, my doubts grew."
But if Tony doesn't exist, then who wrote "A Rock and a Hard Place"? Could it have been Vicki Johnson? Either the mastermind behind a huge hoax, or the embattled guardian of a sick boy's privacy -- depending on whom you believe -- Ms. Johnson graduated from a Union City high school in 1975. Her real name is Joanne Victoria Fraginals.
Years after Tony's book was published, she moved to Illinois and married a child psychologist, Marc Zackheim.
The Zackheims declined to speak with "20/20." But faxes sent last summer by Dr. Zackheim insisted that Tony's story was true and had already been proven. He accused Maupin of spreading lies for commercial gain.