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Baby, I’m a Star: Behind “Handed, on a Gold Plate”

My brush with media stardom came in television. Okay, sort of in television. I was on television frequently–but fleetingly per star turn. I was a staff auditor, and I had to monitor the evening Kentucky Lotto dozens of times over several months. This was before the Internet resembled anything like it does today. This was live TV, baby. Me, bright lights, wide audience. I’m talking both the Louisville and Lexington TV markets, folks. Maybe even Nashville and Cincinnati. For three nights a week, after an hour or so of extensive machine and ball validation checks, the producer parked me stage left to stand there super-reassuring when the camera zoomed from wide toward the blower machines. We had an ex-model hostess, we had music and shimmery curtains, and for a heartbeat of intro time we had Bob so assured as Professional Auditor.

One time during this stretch, this young woman at a bar said she knew me from somewhere. She asked where maybe that could’ve been. Understand, women then as now didn’t hit on me at bars. This was a sincere question. Sure, it could’ve been small talk while we both waited for our next round. Or. Or it could’ve been that she played the Lotto and my burgeoning celebrity persona had planted itself subliminally into Kentuckiana’s minds. I recall saying something like, “I do get on TV some.” Well, she went her way, and I went mine. I bet she still tells her kids about the mystery auditor encounter. How she’d never before or since felt so strangely able to rely.

That was the kernel I wanted to explore with “Handed, on a Gold Plate,” out this month in Mystery Weekly Magazine. What if someone in that same evening Lotto situation believed a glimpse-by-glimpse fame path was real? That international celebrity waited if the right auditor persona snatched the chance?

Initially, I wrote it as a literary thing that embraced the premise absurdity. The first versions were flash fiction—but not very good. It’d all come out in a single burp one New Year’s Day. The wannabe auditor star—eventually Wade—tried and of course failed miserably to nail his first performance. Funny, very inner-focused, but lacking an story arc. Actual emotional stakes.

The thing had good bones, though. I’ve been writing long enough to sense a there when it’s there: fresh idea, interesting characters, a bam open and potential slambang ending. The strength of this story was its enclosed world. An off-kilter lens, behind-the-scenes drawing details, Wade’s star drive and what’s fueling that. If only it could be made to unfold on the page.

That too came in flashes, over several years and several rejections. I don’t think I’ve ever retitled a piece more. Bit by bit, the story grew to present a fuller and more sympathetic Wade, but the arc and character shift problems remained. Of course, Wade kept failing in his big moment. Success isn’t an option with so unrealistic a dream. This story was always about how he would fail. It took that time to realize that, instead of leaving in him defeated and embarrassed, he might get a little win. Not the one he wanted, but he hadn’t earned that one. Couldn’t. No, his dream might yet live on in a different way.

That was the inner fix. Also, external forces needed to work against him. The only external forces in this world were there with him in the studio. Would the crew hate Wade so much they chose to sabotage him? Makes no sense. But what if he disrupted a way of doing things there? What if there were a crime?

A mystery element. I could do that.

Wade’s character offered an interesting amateur sleuth – emphasis on amateur. He’s legit good at numbers and smart enough to muddle through college and score an auditing firm job. That is not an easy job interview, I assure you. Then again, he’s not the brightest guy, and he spends the entire story distracted and grappling with early-onset stage fright. He could miss a multi-person rigging conspiracy taking place right under his mustache-filtered nose. As he clues into something being wrong, now came stakes, pressure, a moral choice about what he might compromise for glory.

This Pick Four will grant him a brush with fame, sure enough. Perhaps the infamy kind – he won’t be asked back, let’s just leave it at that. Yet with modern cheap celebrity, his major Lotto fail could open doors as well as close them. My Lotto run may be years behind me, but good old Wade still has so much auditing fame left to chase.

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NUGGETS

  • Important: I never saw the least chicanery in my glory days of validating draws. The controls really are quite thorough, and I can only imagine how technology has improved the security. The real gap today is probably cybercrime or, as I tried for, a super-organized conspiracy.
  • I did research on past lottery riggings, Pennsylvania in particular, and on how pre-draw validation procedures work in this, our internet age. The main steps are much like I remember, with machine and ball case examinations, test draws, so forth. The security seems a bit tighter. In my day, I just sort of wandered into the studio and self-IDed to the Lotto officials. They knew I was coming, and of course, after so many draws, I was as much an evening draw institution as the ex-model, right? Right?
  • I decided against actually unveiling the conspiracy details. A cheat, you could argue, but this story isn’t about the conspiracy details. It’s about Wade and how he rises and shrinks from his long-desired big moment. To explain how (a) Lotto Jack and his crew had underground connections into a betting pool, (b) Robyn (a contractor) helped courier the pool’s desired numbers to bypass detectable suspicious contact with Lotto officials, (c) the Lotto crew was reaping their share of the winnings, and (d) how specifically the crew covers their tracks would’ve added major words unbalancing the story with explanation unnecessary for Wade’s arc.
  • I’ll grant any humbugs out there that such a rigging conspiracy is unlikely to get away with this. There are too many security cameras, too many computerized steps and database records. But I’ll remind said humbugs that well-organized conspiracies can get far if the circle is kept tight and avoids excess greed. This conspiracy has people in high places to cover their tracks, and they only pull their jobs intermittently on first-time auditors almost certain to miss the chicanery.

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