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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.
Categories
Crime, Mystery & Suspense This Whole Writing Thing

ForSleuth! I’m Onboard SleuthSayers.

 

I’m excited and honored as of this morning to join the SleuthSayers gang for a monthly blog caper. SleuthSayers is both a favorite blog I’ve followed and a well-respected collaborative of some seriously talented short mystery fiction writers. Special guests, crime fighters, the works. These folks are long-established across genres and with longer works, novels and non-fiction and such. It’s a big score, see, and my fingerprints will be all over it.

My slot is the second Saturday each month. I’m thinking to cover more than just fiction stuff. Healthcare fraud is what I’m opening with. Tennessee history and true crime. And yes, fiction topics, tied to my favorite works and some of my own humble offerings. I’ll add a few yucks, if I can manage it. 

I would be even more honored if y’all would head over and check out the blog. You’ll enjoy fresh posts from great folks daily.

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Humor

Captain of My Choices: An Essay

Life is a series of choices. They come at you bam, bam, bam from cradle to grave. We’re hard-wired for it. As little kids, we’re choosing a favorite rattle or middle-of-the-night wailing slot before we’re even aware a choice was involved. Parents know this via age-old wisdom, and though as adults they’re making horrible choices themselves, they try to get their kids choosing better.

There are countless choices at a supermarket. For example, store-brand Froot Loops always seem sketchy somehow, but they are fifty cents cheaper. The greenish state of bananas weighed against your banana-eating forecast. Then there’s the cat food aisle. The cat food aisle has a barrage of flavor combos, tuna and chicken and giblets. I don’t picture what goes into giblets. That’s a choice. Ignorance is bliss.

The cans come in delicate broths or cheese bits or some fondue-ish suspension. With test-marketed names like Gourmet Grill and Fresh Catch. It’s good fun choosing the flavors that your cats will decide they hate. But there’s one flavor that stops me cold there in the cat food aisle, muzak bouncing, stuck at some invisible crossroads.

Sea Captain’s Choice.

This cat food hypnotizes me. Can’t say why, which only deepens the allure. The can is simple and solid. A glimpse of two fish filets to keep us landlubbers grounded. No-nonsense, but no glitz either. And there’s barely a cat pictured on the label. Yet, that name–that name, Sea Captain’s Choice–that bluest blue label, the blue of tropical waters, island coves, buried treasure.

What I think it is, it makes me wonder about the captain. What kind of man is he? Or she, if the family’s daughters have taken the helm. A stern captain, to offer so consistent a pâté and so clean and tight a can design. A captain like this ventures through life with taut riggings and swabbed decks.

Our captain has made choices. It’s right there on the label. A cannonade of choices–and came to live with them. Like did they choose the sea, or did the sea choose them? The latter, I’ve grown to believe. Destiny surrounds anyone born who braves the oceans for the sole purpose of cat food.

More choices. Hard choices. Which fish are best among their catch, where to find them, why those primo selections remain unspecified on the label. It could be any fish, carp or marlin or even shark, caught or personally wrestled from the water anywhere. Cagey, my captain. Another choice, never to be pinned down as you ply the seven seas after a dream.

You need a crew for such an undertaking. A hearty crew, bosuns and mates. Another wave of choices, from who gets selected to how those brave sailors hired went to sea themselves. Some running from their crimes, some running toward cat food glory.

Maybe that’s why the Captain grabs me. I long for a captain. A steady hand to help chart my stars. Except, let’s be blunt, I couldn’t cut it in any sailing life, let alone under so formidable a command. Fact: I sunburn easy and prefer the shade. Fact: I like to sleep in. Fact: I have deplorable knot skills that I have chosen not to improve. Besides, if there is a call of the sea, I choose to hear it as a call to the Marriott swim-up bar. Sure, there was that time we went out twenty miles off Florida for gambling, but let’s be honest: That was about the craps table and complimentary drinks.

One day, the supermarket didn’t have any Sea Captain’s Choice. Not like they were out of stock. I mean, gone. The shelves had pushed the other cat foods together where Sea Captain’s Choice had always been, how supermarkets choose to fool the untrained eye into believing the shelves are super stocked. The captain, gone. I worried. Had the Captain gotten out of the cat food game? Had they made a disastrous choice, say to chase a school of cod into a furious nor’easter?

Or had they made a terrible choice? Captain, did you leave half your crew to the Kracken so that the rest were spared? Did you dump your catch to escape a grasping whirlpool? Captain, what drives you to take such risks? Or did you make the ultimate sacrifice? You’ve seen the movies: perfect storms, pirate clashes, megalodons. Anything can happen out there, when the sea chooses.

At whatever stage of the grief process, I began reflecting on why this Captain mattered so much. I hadn’t met them. I wasn’t joining their quest. I don’t eat the food. The cat does. Yet I stood there in the aisle, blocking the shelf guys and other shoppers, and slumped in unexpected loss.

A choice. A last choice.

My choice. I’d chosen to fill in certain rough-sketch details about this Captain and their quest, down to their final reckoning. And I’d chosen pretty well, if I might say so. It’s more fun buying from Captain, My Captain than from any old blue can slingers. In life, choose fun where you can. Choose adventure, even if it’s fiction.

Well, I’d overreacted. Sea Captain’s Choice soon returned to the shelves. The supermarket had just been out of stock and just chose trickery to keep panic from setting in. Be that way, supermarket. I choose the high road. The high seas and that Captain my Captain forever beyond the horizon, a built-up fascination I’ll never really understand.

In life, we don’t get all the answers. Only choices to make and the next questions each choice brings. Like, for one, why the hell do I have a cat anyway?

Her choice, I guess.

Categories
Humor Short Stories This Whole Writing Thing

Seconds: “First of a Fine Spectacle”

Did you know Russian empress Catherine the Great wrote operas?  She did, badly, or so goes her history. Anyway, back in my own when came an anthology call for Catherine the Great stories and here she was upon research having tried her imperial hand at librettos. I wrote it, a comic romp. Got a yes. So there I was, 2013, me and a Catherine the Great opera romp. Not everyone can say that’s in their locker, y’all.

I like this one. It’s imperfect in execution but wonderful for its tomfoolery. It appeared only then in Pure Slush‘s Catherine, Refracted. Today, our world is struggling. People could use a breather romp. So, here is that Catherine story. As published, all hindsight editing resisted to preserve its goofball spirit. I hope it brings a needed smile.

FIRST OF A FINE SPECTACLE

Katerina hooded her gaze. “La Harpe told you everything?”

Her footman intoning “Katerina the Second, Empress and Autocrat of All the Russians,” still dizzied me even after it no longer echoed through her salon. My endless bow had me near toppling over, blood pounding in my ears. I, the librettist known for his single glorious failure, had been dragged into a private audience with the Empress herself.

“I’d have us speak plainly.” Katerina said. “Mr. Nowicki, are you quite well?”

I was not. My business in Saint Petersburg, to discuss texts for the soon-to-open Bolshoi opera, had ended badly. Before I could present my tragedy Kristall-Herzen, a fortune teller in love with her destined murderer, La Harpe made clear the true commission: to supervise texts credited to Empress Katerina. We debated the matter, he considering it an honor and I a prison sentence to be shunted into a ghost-writer’s closet. In that sense I won the argument when imperial guardsmen hauled me away.

“Mr. Nowicki?”

Katerina stood beside the piano, her face a once-perfect egg now swollen by age, her dark blue eyes still dancing with intelligence. Her white gown glowed in the sunlight surging through the windows. Outside the river flowed oblivious to my plight.

“Mr. Nowicki, I am accustomed to having my questions answered.”