AN EXCERPT FROM JACKPOT
GIGA-PRIZE SET TO EXPIRE OCTOBER 6TH
It’s the stuff dreams are made of. Last October, someone on Long Island purchased a Giga-Millions lottery ticket with the numbers 12, 17, 18, 34, 37, and 55. And, when those numbers all came up on lottery night, the ticket was worth $29,876,454.53.
A fairy tale, right?
The owner of the ticket has never come forward. By law, lottery winners have only one year to claim their prize. After that, the ticket becomes worthless, and the money goes back into the lottery pool. That’s what will happen to this $30 million payday when the lottery office closes at six p.m. on October 6th, three weeks from today.
So what’s the deal here? It’s easy to imagine a person buying a lottery ticket and forgetting about it, tossing it into the garbage along with old gas receipts and expired grocery coupons. Or perhaps we’re dealing with a crafty new millionaire who’s planning to wait till the last minute to redeem his windfall in the national media spotlight. Then there’s the possibility of a story-book ending – that somewhere out there is a giga-millionaire who simply doesn’t know it.
As the deadline approaches, a lot of Long Islanders will be checking their wallets, their purses, their pockets, and their junk drawers in the hope of finding that lost ticket to the Good Life…
Ben Slovak put the newspaper down on the cafeteria table. “You want to hear the kicker? They know where the ticket was bought – it was the convenience store by the train station in Green Hollow. That’s the next town past Cedarville! My Dad gets coffee there on his way to work.”
“Maybe you’re rich, and you don’t even know it,” Griffin suggested.
“Fat chance.” Ben broke off a piece of turkey from his sandwich and held it inside his collar. A small furry needle-nosed snout came up and grabbed it – the ferret Ben carried at all times under his shirt for medical purposes. “My father doesn’t believe in lotteries. He says the odds are astronomical, and it’s like flushing money down the toilet.”
“It wasn’t astronomical for the guy with the right numbers,” Pitch Benson pointed out. “Man, thirty million bucks! I’d take my whole family to climb Mount Everest! The mountain permits alone are like a hundred grand each.”
Melissa Dukakis agitated her head, parting the curtain of stringy hair that normally obscured her face. “Think of the computing power thirty million would buy! I’d be invincible!”
“You’re invincible now,” Ben reminded her. “Who’s better at tech stuff than you?”
“I’m good,” she conceded modestly, “just not invincible.”
Logan Kellerman sighed wanly. “If I had that kind of money, I wouldn’t waste it on any of that dumb stuff. I’d produce a movie, and cast myself in the lead role.”
“Good thing you wouldn’t waste it on dumb stuff,” Pitch agreed sarcastically. “What’s dumber than a movie starring you?”
Savannah looked disgusted. “You guys are so selfish. Big money like that – sure, you keep a little for yourself. But there’s only one thing to do with that kind of fortune – help others.”
“Well, you’re a better person than me,” put in Ben. “It takes a big heart to want to do things for people.”
“Who said anything about people?” Savannah demanded, outraged. “People can take care of themselves. I’d do things for animals.”
It got a big laugh around the lunch table. Savannah was legendary as Cedarville’s number one animal lover. Besides her dog, Luthor, she was the housemate – never say owner – of a menagerie that included a Capuchin monkey, rabbits (numbers vary), hamsters (ditto), a pack rat, and an albino chameleon named Lorenzo.
Griffin looked unhappy. “It’s great to give money to people, or animals, or charities. But I don’t think it’s so selfish to want a little extra cash for your family. It doesn’t have to be the whole thirty mil. But it would be nice to have something to fall back on if my dad’s latest invention turns out to be a bust.” The worry showing in his face, he told the others how the patent office had rejected the first application for the SweetPick.
“Don’t worry,” Ben soothed. “Your father’s inventions always seem totally useless at first, but they usually work out in the end.”
“Tell that to Vader,” Griffin said bitterly. “He stole the SweetPick prototype and woke me up last week. Crunch ‘n munched half the landscape. I got keel-hauled by my dad, and took all the blame for something Vader did.”
“Darren’s such a jerk,” Savannah commiserated.
They all looked across the cafeteria to where Darren sat in solitary splendor, his mouth open wide enough to drive a truck through, about to tie into a gigantic hero sandwich.
“I’m kind of amazed he’s at school today at all,” Ben put in. “I thought he’d be out there scouring the streets with a magnifying glass, looking for that thirty-million-dollar lottery ticket.”
“He probably hasn’t heard about it yet,” Pitch muttered. “Vader would trade his own mother for a free Happy Meal. Imagine what he’d do for thirty million bucks! The minute he reads this article, believe me, the search will be on.”
“No way,” Ben scoffed. “That ticket’s a year old already. It’s probably mush down some sewer, or smoke up some incinerator chimney. There’s no sense looking for it. Even Darren’s not that stupid.”
“Yeah, probably not,” Griffin agreed. All at once, a familiar thoughtful expression appeared on the face of The Man With The Plan. “Unless he has a little help …”
“Hold on there, cowboy,” Pitch said darkly. “I know the beginnings of a plan when I see one. And I’m looking at one right now.”
Griffin glanced around the table. “Every single one of us has been victimized at one time or another by that big idiot. Wouldn’t it be great to get back at him?”
Ben regarded him suspiciously, and even Ferret Face poked his beady eyes out to have a peek. “I don’t know. Would it?”
“Of course!” Griffin exclaimed. “We’re not going to hurt him. We just need to knock him down a couple of pegs, show the world what a money-grubbing creep he is. Who’s with me?”
“Oh, me,” said Melissa instantly. She was serious and shy, and had never had friends before becoming a part of Griffin’s plans.
Pitch was skeptical. “Let me get this straight. Vader insulted your Dad’s sugar slicer, so we all have to sign on to prove to the world that he’s greedy?”
“Look,’ said Griffin, “I was the victim this time. But Darren has gotten all of us over the years.” He looked from face to face. “Ben – how many times has he called you shrimp? Logan – he makes fun of your acting! Pitch – he’s as much your worst enemy as mine! Savannah – he’s mean to Luthor!”
“Okay,” Savannah assented. “For Luthor.”
In the end, they were all in, as Griffin knew they would be. He may not have the Nobel Prize for Planning, but his team was second to none, and loyal to the end.
“Welcome to Operation Treasure Hunt.”
Melissa’s room looked like the IT center of a large corporation. Just standing on the rug, you could feel your back teeth vibrating from the power hum of so many computers and other electronic devices.
Griffin, Ben, and Melissa watched breathlessly as the page came out of the printer.
“Why is it gray like that?” Ben asked, frowning.
“I used the same stock of newsprint as the Cedarville Herald,” Melissa explained. “It’s supposed to look like a real newspaper clipping, right?”
Griffin picked up the page. “It’s perfect,” he decided. “Better than perfect. You even put part of an ad for bananas on the back.”
Melissa’s pink face emerged from her hair to acknowledge this praise. “Plantains, actually. But yeah, I thought it would be a nice touch.” She took a scissors and snipped out the “article.” When she was done, all three were satisfied that it was indistinguishable from an actual newspaper clipping.
LOCAL WOMAN TOSSES MILLIONS
A Cedarville woman had thirty million dollars in the palm of her hand yesterday – until she threw it away. The woman, who asked that her name be withheld, became swept up in the lottery fever that has taken hold of Long Island ever since it was revealed that a Giga-Millions jackpot still remained unclaimed. She found the ticket in a jacket that had been misplaced by the cleaners for about eight months, and set it aside to be taken to the lottery office. The woman, who is 92, and suffers from short-term memory problems, was unable to find the ticket when her son came to drive her to cash it in. The two have been tearing the house and the trash apart since yesterday morning, with no luck.
“It must have gone out with the garbage,” she said sadly. “It was an honest mistake.”
An honest mistake, yes. But a very expensive one.
“It’s gorgeous,” Ben admitted. “But are you sure it’s obvious enough? Maybe we should add another line about how, if you go through every trash can in town, you’ll probably find it.”
“Don’t worry,” Griffin assured him. “If anyone can connect the dots, Vader can. The guy thinks about money, twenty-four-seven. If he believes there’s thirty mil out there for the taking, he won’t rest until he’s crawled around every dumpster east of the Queens line!”
Ben took Ferret Face from his shirt, and encouraged the little creature to walk across the clipping, making tiny claw holes, and wet spots from his cold moist nose. “You know, to give it the ‘broken in’ look, like people have been handling it.”
Melissa had a practical question. “How are we going to make sure Darren sees it?”
“The easy way,” Griffin grinned. “We’ll tell him he can’t see it. Then he’ll see it, or die trying.”
It was a role without lines, but Logan was ready to throw himself into it anyway. A true actor could communicate more with a gesture, a frown, a smile than most people could with a two-hour speech. The great Stanislavski said that – or was it Marcel Marceau?
He glanced up at Pitch, the lookout. The climber had taken her position in the oak tree by the school’s side entrance, where Logan sat on the tarmac, his back leaning against the wall. The signal was a bird call, but unfortunately, there were actual birds in that tree too. Logan had already suffered four false alarms. No matter. An actor was always ready to think on his feet.
The next time he heard the whistle he looked up to read Pitch’s lips – he couldn’t do that with the birds, since he didn’t read beaks. It was the real thing this time. He took out the newspaper clipping, and began to study it.
A moment later, Darren lumbered around the side of the building.
Getting into character, Logan looked startled, folded up the paper, and jammed it into his pocket.
“Hey, Kellerman, what’ve you got there?”
Logan just shook his head. He got to his feet and started away, looking furtive.
Darren caught up with him in three strides. “I asked you a question. What were you reading?”
In answer, Logan began to walk faster.
The much larger Darren grabbed him by the collar, spun him around, and reached into his pocket. Logan struggled, but was soon overpowered. The bigger boy pulled out the phony clipping.
“A pleasure during business with you, loser.” Darren started off, unfolding the paper.
Logan caught a glimpse of Pitch in the tree, shooting him a thumbs-up. Good reviews already. Very satisfying.
The first sign that Operation Treasure Hunt was working came when Darren didn’t show up for school the next morning.
“Does anyone know where Darren is?” asked Mrs. Selznick, their home room teacher.
“Maybe he’s sick,” piped up Griffin helpfully.
The team knew better, of course. Darren was out dumpster-diving in the hope of coming up with a thirty-million-dollar ticket. It was The Plan in all its glory, playing out exactly the way Griffin had designed it.
Ben could see the triumphant smile on his best friend’s face. And Ben was smiling too. Sort of. When an operation was in progress, there was always an underlying feeling of nervousness and even dread. Ferret Face felt it too. He was scrambling around under Ben’s sweatshirt, unable to get comfortable, his claws pinching at his owner’s chest. Normally, the little ferret was supposed to leave the skin alone unless he sensed that Ben was falling asleep. Ben suffered from narcolepsy, and sometimes dozed off in the middle of the day. It was Ferret Face’s job to keep him awake and alert by delivering a wake-up nip at the right moment.
“This is a very good day,” Griffin whispered as Mrs. Selznick began the lesson.
Ben nodded, and stifled his unease. It was a feeling you had to get used to if you were going to be best friends with The Man With The Plan. And as plans went, Operation Treasure Hunt was a lot less risky than most.
The first Darren sighting came at noon when the big boy showed up in the cafeteria.
“Figures,” muttered Pitch. “He blows off all his morning classes, but when it comes time to feed his fat face, he’s a diligent student.”
Darren’s rat’s nest of hair was even wilder than usual, and Ben was pretty sure he could see a few eggshell fragments amid the unruly curls. His clothes were rumpled too, and there was a big smear of something dark across his forehead. In addition, he didn’t seem to notice the orange peel hanging out of his hip pocket.
“I don’t know,” Savannah observed critically. “I was kind of hoping that he’d look – you know – worse.”
Then Darren tried to select a seat. There was a loud chorus of “Pee-yew!” and every single person at that table got up and moved as far away as possible.
Griffin was triumphant. “I think he smells worse.”
As they made their way to their table, Griffin sidled by his enemy. “Thought you were sick today.”
“Thought you knew how to mind your own business,” came a growled reply.
Griffin shrugged. “Nice cologne, by the way. What is it – eau de swamp gas?”
OPERATION Treasure Hunt – Plan Checklist
Garbage smell …………………………………………………………………X
Fruit rind on person……………………………………………………….X
Coating of vacuum cleaner fuzz………………………….……….X
Tomato sauce staining socks………………………………………..X
Eggshells in hair……(unconfirmed – possible dandruff)
Every day after school, Griffin and Ben rode around town on their bikes looking for the site of Darren’s current excavation. They always found him, waist-deep in refuse, searching, ever searching. His rubber gloves were practically shredded by the hundreds of twist-ties he’d undone. Whenever the clank of trashcan lids could be heard, Darren was not far away. The big boy had learned to hoist himself into a dumpster with the athletic grace of an Olympic pole-vaulter.
He sifted through coffee grounds, and apple cores, and old congealed spaghetti. He fought with caterpillars, pigeons, and angry raccoons. Any small slip of paper was pounced on. Was this the thirty-million-dollar ticket? Bitter disappointment followed as he encountered yet another business card, or laundry list, or Post-it Note, or cash register receipt. Worst of all was finding an actual ticket, and checking the date and numbers to discover that this was the wrong one. Again.
“You know what?” Ben ventured on day three. “I think we should tell him. He’s suffered enough.”
“Are you kidding me?” Griffin retorted. “He could suffer for ten more lifetimes, and it wouldn’t be enough!”
So Ben held his peace. There was no sense arguing with Griffin when a plan was in progress.
They were on their way home that afternoon when they looked down 9th Street and spied a man in his twenties diligently sifting through the contents of a garbage can.
Ben was mystified. “That’s not Darren.”
“Relax,” Griffin soothed. “You worry too much. The guy probably lost his wedding ring or something. Just because Darren isn’t looking for anything real doesn’t mean other people can’t be.”
But a few blocks later, it happened again. This time it was a mother and a daughter, ransacking the trash can at the corner of Honeybee Street.
Alarm bells went off in Ben’s head. “You don’t think people are finding out about this? You know – seeing Darren in the garbage, and putting two and two together?”
Griffin frowned. “That isn’t part of the plan.”
“Never mind the plan! What are we going to do if the word gets out that there’s a thirty-million-dollar payday just lying there somewhere in Cedarville? The whole world could show up here to dig through our trash!”
The next day, Griffin and Ben passed no fewer than six garbage hunters on the way to school.
The other team members were waiting for them at their lockers.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Savannah said darkly. “A guy was going through our trash bags last night. Luthor had to chase him away. You know how it’s not good for Luthor to return to his old guard dog self.”
“My mom thinks we have raccoons,” Logan put in. “Our garbage was all over the place this morning.”
“What’s going on, Griffin?” Pitch added. “How did all these other people get sucked into Operation Treasure Hunt?”
Griffin shrugged. “It’s just bad luck. Somebody saw Darren, and they figured out what he was up to. Everybody knows about the missing ticket.”
Shy Melissa peered out from behind her hair. “Do you think maybe we should tell Darren it’s all a hoax?”
“Absolutely not,” Griffin said firmly. “The only thing worse than regular Darren is blackmailer Darren. If we hand him ammunition, he’ll hold it over our heads forever. It’ll cost us our lunch money from now until the end of college, and mortgage payments after that!”
TOURISTS FLOCKING TO CEDARVILLE?
TRY GARBAGE PICKERS
If you’ve looked out the window lately, you’ve surely noticed a lot of fresh faces around town. No, they’re not here to visit downtown shops and restaurants, or our world class waterfront and marina. They’re here to go through the garbage.
A rumor has spread that the missing Giga-Millions lottery ticket that is due to expire in less than three weeks has been tossed in the trash somewhere here in Cedarville. People are coming from far and wide to join the hunt. So far the result has been garbage-strewn streets, odor problems, traffic congestion, and a two hundred percent increase in rodent sightings.
Also, the Cedarville Police Department reports dangerous sanitary conditions in and around the municipal dump as the searchers trace the missing ticket to the next logical step, from sidewalk to general disposal.
The source of this troublesome rumor is a mystery, but the police are treating it as malicious mischief.
“I suppose some folks might consider this a joke,” said Detective-Sergeant Vizzini of the Cedarville P.D. “But when you get fourteen citizens swarming on a sixty-foot-high mountain of trash, believe me, it’s not going to have a happy ending…”
“Malicious mischief,” Logan repeated. “That sounds bad. Something like that could get me blacklisted in Hollywood.”
“My mother can’t stop talking about this,” Ben added worriedly. “I mean, she can’t stop talking about anything, but this has turned into her favorite subject! She got a parking ticket on Main Street. And before she could pay it, some guy stole it! It’s like no piece of paper is safe in this town!”
Griffin tried to look unruffled. “I’ll bet the competition is driving Vader crazy. He’s probably up all night worrying that somebody will find the ticket before he does.”
“My dad’s the competition, Griffin!” Pitch complained. “He’s leaving work early to come home and sort through filth! And I can’t even tell him he’s wasting his time, because how could I explain why I know?”
“It’s getting away from us, Griffin,” Savannah added. “That’s a real newspaper talking about real cops.”
Griffin nodded. “I admit that I never expected it to go this far. But it’s bound to blow over. You have to have faith in the plan. No matter what happens, there’s absolutely no way anybody could trace it to us.”
It was the kind of situation they didn’t prepare you for at the Police Academy. The mid-September weather was hot, and the Cedarville municipal dump was plenty ripe. Handkerchiefs over their noses, Detective-Sergeant Vizzini and his fellow officers marched thirty-three would-be millionaires down the mountain of refuse to a line of police vehicles.
The interviews were pungent, short, and extremely belligerent. The interviewees all truly believed that the winning ticket might very well lie under the next moldy watermelon rind.
“What would you say,” asked Vizzini, “if I told you that there’s no evidence whatsoever that that ticket still exists anywhere, let alone in this town?”
“I’d say you’re trying to put me off the scent, so you can keep the money for yourself!” shrilled an angry woman.
“Well, exactly how did you come to the conclusion that the ticket was out here somewhere?” the detective persisted.
“Everybody knows that! It’s all over town!”
His policeman’s instincts told him that was the key. How had the rumor gotten its start? The searchers all told a similar story – that they had seen others searching, and thought they’d try their hand too. But someone had to have been first. He listened to endless tales of voices heard in dumpsters, and strangers peering into trashcans and slicing open green bags. And through it all, a theme began to emerge:
“… and then I saw that kid…”
“… a thirteen-year-old boy climbed out of the bin …”
“… big kid, probably in middle school …”
Vizzini’s eyes narrowed. In his career as a peace office in Cedarville, he had learned that it was never a waste to follow up on a lead that began with “that kid.”
“What kid?” he asked pointedly.
“You know, the son of those two lawyers. The Vader kid.”
Half an hour later, at the Vader home, Darren cracked almost immediately. “It’s no fair! I knew the ticket was in Cedarville before all those guys copied me! If they win the money, I should at least get half!”
“But you learned that the ticket was in Cedarville from where?”
“From the newspaper article,” Darren replied.
“What newspaper article?”
Hands trembling, the boy pulled a tattered clipping out of his pocket, and unfolded it.
It took a short telephone call to the Cedarville Herald to confirm that the article was a fake.
“All right, Darren,” Mrs. Vader told her son. “You’re not in any trouble, but you have to tell the detective where you found that clipping.”
“I stole it off of – uh – Logan Kellerman gave it to me!”
From there the investigation proceeded quickly — from the Kellerman house, to the Dukakis house, to the home of one Griffin Bing.