Note: I have not written any original fiction since Hurricane Ike, mainly because I was focused on finishing Jesus and then was reluctant to dive into anything big until the deal for Jesus was finally done. But I have been wanting to write something about my time in Saskatchewan for a while. This was supposed to be a short story with some fun stuff about an American discovering small town Canada. But it evolved into something much more. A spiritual awakening.
This has Vegas, gambling, witches, the mob (of course), small town Saskatchewan, redemption and dealing with the past, present and future of a person living multiple lives. As with everything I write, it is dark, and part of it is very graphic, and the language is rated R, so be forewarned.
These are all real places, both in Vegas and Saskatchewan. The characters are fictional, but some are compilations of real people, as are most of my characters.
For a variety of reasons, this will likely be the last time I am able to post something of this length and depth for free, and it will probably not stay up for too long, as I might easily expand it into a full-length novel. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope my Canadian friends think I did a good job of characterizing the Land of the Living Skies.
By FRED FAOUR
Don Singleton slipped into his first-class seat on United Airlines, a troubled man. He was dressed impeccably, a dark navy suit with a bright red tie, lizard cowboy boots and dark, handsome features that made him look far younger than 38 years old. He accepted his pre-flight drink without joy, swiftly downing his Jack and Coke. It would be the first of many on this trip.
Singleton was troubled because he had gotten himself in a real mess. And flying to Las Vegas probably was not the way out. He already knew the only way out. This flight was just a last-second Hail Mary.
Even that thought troubled him, because it was one of Aaron Rodgers’ last-second Hail Marys that helped put him in this place.
Singleton was a good man. He had been loyal to his wife Marla since they married in college. He had helped her raise three wonderful children, the oldest of which was about to graduate from Lamar High School with honors. He had built a strong medical supplies company that had thrived in Houston’s massive hospital community. He was the ultimate All-American boy living the American dream. Perfect wife. Perfect life.
But over the last three years he had gotten the gambling bug. Bad.
It started with some friendly poker games, then elevated into high stakes games with serious players. Then he started betting massive amounts on football. Horse racing. He would spend weekends at the casinos in Louisiana playing blackjack and Pai Gow.
And as much as he had been a winner at everything else in life, Don Singleton was a bad gambler. That he was on a plane to Las Vegas in a last-ditch effort to save everything was simply more proof of that.
He had run his company credit card nearly up to its $100,000 limit, all on gambling losses. He had cleaned out savings. He could no longer hide any of it. He had $5,000 left in his wallet, and that was going to solve everything, one way or another.
Singleton had found true desperation. The constant feeling in the pit of his stomach had consumed his entire being. A reckoning was coming, and he knew it. And he could not stop. So he embraced it, and knew he would leave Vegas even or in a pine box.
It was so hard to contemplate how he got to this point. High school quarterback. Everything he touched had turned to gold. Thriving business. He never even gambled until a company party one night at Sam Houston Race Park. He did not understand any of it, but he lucked his way into a few hundred bucks. And that’s where it started.
Now, here he was, slamming Jack and Cokes as fast as they could bring them to him, staring at the seat in front of him, with one last chance to get even.
The flight attendant smiled at him. She was very cute, unlike most of what he called the “flying waitresses.” Her eyes were inviting, and she tried to strike up a conversation. But he just smiled back, thanked her for the drinks and stayed focused on the task at hand. There had been hundreds of temptations over the years, none of which he ever acted on. As flawed as he was as a gambler, he was a loyal, loving husband. That was not going to change simply because a young blonde filled out her uniform to perfection and had smiling, light blue eyes that offered endless possibilities.
He could not get the feeling of desperation out of his gut, no matter how much alcohol he poured into it. So he closed his eyes, fell into a fitful sleep and hoped to forget for just a short time.
The hard bang of wheels on runway woke him up in a startle. For a brief second, in his alcohol-fueled sleep, he thought the plane had crashed. But it was merely a hard landing that had shaken him out of his slumber.
He was a little sad he had missed the approach and landing in Vegas for what would probably be the last time. He had the best parts memorized. First you flew over the grand canyon, then the Hoover Dam, then the strip, and as you landed, the dazzling hotels would fly by on the right side of the plane. It was especially exhilarating to see at night, with the brilliant lights of Vegas offering hope and excitement. He knew that wasn’t the case; there was a reason a new casino was being built every time he was here. Most people would leave with only broken dreams and empty wallets. He was not planning to leave with either.
The cab ride to the MGM never took long, but it was always too expensive, because as close as the airport was, they still had to take all kinds of loops to get there. He just wanted to get started. He somehow had to turn $5,000 into $100,000. And he had three days to do it.
As usual, the line to check in at the MGM was brutally long. It was a Thursday night, and there was a big boxing match that weekend, and everyone was getting in at the same time. He impatiently shuffled, watching the boxing fans in their Manny Pacquiao T-shirts waiting in line, the parade of prostitutes entering the lobby, wives barking at their husbands for losing money and husbands barking at their wives for losing money. The MGM lobby was a wonderful, shiny place with a boxing ring, golden Lions and hundreds of people from all walks of life coming and going, the constant noise of the screens above the check in line spouting commercials for the fight and other entertainment in the casino, and the constant bells from the slot machines in the casino just 30 feet away. And it was always packed, no matter what time of day it was.
After about a 20-minute wait, he checked into his suite — all on the company card, which was dangerously close to the limit — threw his one bag on the bed and decided to get to it. The room smelled suffocatingly of weed, so he called housekeeping and asked them to clean it up. Whoever had been there before had really gotten after it. He waited until housekeeping came up, told them do their worst and he took the long walk down the hallway to the elevators. It reminded him of The Shining, and not in a good way.
The casino was packed. The rows between the slot machines were filled to the brim with people ambling through, and the tables were all full and hopping. He decided to start slowly, playing 2-5 no limit in the poker room. His plan was simple. Grind it out. Turn 5k into 10. Then 10 into 20. And so on.
The session was full of wild swings, and the table was full of drunk tourists. He won a $1,200 pot early, then lost $1,500 two hands later. It continued for about an hour. Another big win, another big loss. After an hour and fifteen minutes, he was up $180. The Jack was kicking in. This was not going to cut it.
So he hit the $25 minimum blackjack table and tried his luck there. He immediately went on a $400 run, followed by a $300 loss. Each win was a massive rush. Each loss just deepened the feeling in his gut.
He was getting drunk now; the complimentary drinks were coming fast and furious. So he decided it was time to eat something. He stumbled over to Mandalay Bay, hoping to hit Burger Bar, but it had just closed. All he could find was a cheap sandwich place in the casino. He wolfed it down quickly, and decided to get a few hours rest. So it was back to MGM, dodging prostitutes, drunk bachelorette parties and wandering packs of loud, drunken bros looking to pounce on either of the former. He hit the pillow, the faint smell of weed still there, and immediately fell asleep. It was hard to sleep in Vegas; they always pumped way too much oxygen in the casinos so you would stay awake, and even with the blinds down the constant lights would find their way into your room. But in what was likely his last night on earth, Don Singleton slept. And slept.
When he woke up, it was 1 p.m. the next day. He immediately dressed and headed for the casino. A couple horse bets failed miserably, so he decided to hit Mandalay again, figuring he could grab a burger after a couple more hours of firing away.
Like the day before, it was hit and miss. Way down, way up. His emotions were starting to disappear. He would see stacks of chips and not think of them as money. They were just chips. For two hours, he rode it hard at the blackjack table. He had at least 12 drinks in that time, and was brutally drunk. After a couple nice scores, he had made it to $11,100. It was time. He pushed $11,000 on the table. The dealer hesitated, looking over to the pit boss, who called someone else over. They both nodded, and the cards were dealt. One hand. Double up here and move on. He had this immense feeling of hope, especially when he was dealt a 20. But it was fleeting. The dealer showed a 21, and Singleton watched all those black chips that did not seem like money taken away. At that second, they were money. All he had left.
The feeling of desperation now consumed him. It was over. His last hope gone in the turn of a card, his life, future, everything determined in 15 seconds. He smiled a wry smile, quietly got up and walked over to Burger Bar for one last supper.
He ordered a burger and a $48 bottle of beer from the cask list, and was happy to see his credit card actually worked. He slowly sipped the Firestone Walker, savoring each sip and each bite of his burger. They were to be his last, and he was going to enjoy them.
Then something flickered in the corner of his eye; a recognition. A deja vu. Something stirred in him spiritually, as if his soul had been touched.
And there she was sitting next to him, as stunning a figure as he had ever seen. She was a redhead, but her hair was a dark auburn that framed a near-perfect face, save for a nose that was a little too small. Her eyes were brilliant, dancing blue, also darker than most. Before she said a word, he felt something he had never felt before. A connection. Something ethereal. Something deeper than even his love for Marla. More than his love for his children. Maybe it was the alcohol, but this woman who had not yet said a word had touched him in a place he never knew existed.
It was…a connection. A deep, amazing connection that he somehow knew he had been waiting for his entire life. She smiled at him, as if knowing exactly what he was thinking, because she had felt the same thing. Her voice was like a symphony when she introduced herself. “I’m Lady Amber,” she said. “And I have been waiting for you for a long time.”
Just 30 minutes later, Singleton was back in his room, cheating on his wife for the first and only time in his life.
When he woke up the next morning, he had very vague recollections. Losing his money. Burger Bar. A redhead. Stopping at the little store in the MGM for a bottle of Jack. Had he had sex with someone? He did not remember. But then he saw her flawless form lying on the bed next to him, and noticed for the first time an incredible tattoo on her back of a snake curled around a broadsword, with several words written in Latin. It was familiar to him in some recesses in his brain, but he could not place it. The point of the sword stopped just a centimeter above what might have been the most perfect ass he had ever seen.
“At least I am going out with a bang,” he said to himself. Plan A had failed. Now it was time for Plan B. Then she awoke and smiled, and that connection from the night before came rushing back over him, deeper than ever. Suddenly, everything seemed possible. He stammered a little, and the first thing that came to his mind was not exactly poetic. “Um…did we use protection?”
Her face darkened a little, but then she smiled briefly. “I told you last night I can’t get pregnant again.”
He felt a little relieved, because the last thing he wanted to do was leave this world with yet another child of his.
He stumbled up, took a sip of Jack, and started pulling clothes on. “You have somewhere to be?” She asked.
“I kind of have an appointment…” he said, his mood darkening instantly.
She pulled her knees to her perfect breasts, her hair hanging all the way to the bed. He had not noticed how long it was last night.
“What if I had an alternative to your appointment?”
That deep pit of despair was back. What was her name? Lady…something….Amber! That was it! Lady Amber.
“Listen, Lady Amber, you truly are remarkable, and I had a blast…”
She interrupted. “I can fix your money problem.”
He felt like he had been punched in the gut. He must have said something last night….
“You did not say anything, Donny.” He suddenly felt cold that she had read his mind. Again. “You will have a hard time with this, but for lack of a better word, I am a witch. And I have a proposal for you that will solve your problem and mine.”
He was still drunk from the night before, and was about to scoff. But that connection he had felt…something inside him told him she was telling the truth. Or some kind of truth that resonated with him. Maybe it was just desperate hope.
He sat back on the bed and took a deep swig. “OK, I’ll bite. I don’t believe in witches, but I will listen. I really have nothing left to lose.”
She smiled. “No,” she said. “You don’t.”
Don kept drinking, rubbing his eyes in disbelief. Her story was so fantastic, so unbelievable, that he almost laughed. But something about it rang true. Something from his past…Something in her words. His brain told him it was a fantastic lie. Something else told him it was a truth of some kind.
Lady Amber had said she was one of the few remaining witches in the world. Oh, they called themselves something else, but their abilities closely resembled that of what conventional lore called witches, so they ran with that.
They were dying off, especially the males. She had explained about them being a separate race, one that had mingled with humans. But a pure bred witch could only be impregnated by a human with witch’s blood. And Don was the first man she had found since her daughter had been conceived with that blood. Apparently his mother, who had died giving birth to him, had been one as well. Childbirth was very difficult for their kind, she explained. Her daughter’s birth had ruined her, and no amount of “magic” could fix that. It was simple. She needed Don to put his seed in her daughter until a son was born. It might be the first time. It might be next year. But that was the deal. In return, for the next 24 hours, she would put an aura around him, and he could not lose a bet. That was it.
He turned it over in his head. He had already cheated on his wife, but at that point he thought he was committing suicide. This would be with the knowledge that he was going to go back to Marla having not only slept with someone else, but having at least one child with someone else.
But if Lady Amber was telling the truth…he could solve everything. He could save his life. He could save his marriage. Set his kids up forever. And if she was wrong? It was back to Plan B. Why not?
“OK,” he said. “What do I need to do?”
She smiled. “Just go play. I will text you an address in 24 hours. You will come there immediately. If you break this deal…all the money…everything you love…gone.”
For some reason, he did not buy the threat. Something about that connection told him she needed him more than he needed her. She looked older in the morning light, and the eyes had a hint of desperation. He knew she had come to him for a reason.
And he had no intention of breaking the deal. The only problem was after the whiskey and cigarettes he had bought the night before, he was down to $24.
He had a carefree pace about him as he strolled through the casino, past the buffet, past the poker room, heading to the race and sports book. It was one of his favorites in Vegas, but the seats were a little cramped, especially on the horse racing end, which was on the left side facing the TVs in front of the bar. He looked up at the board, and the first race at Tampa Bay Downs was two minutes away. The four longest shots on the board were 10-1, 12-1, 15-1 and 20-1. If Lady Amber was telling the truth, his last $24 would get him started. If not? Plan B awaited. He walked to the teller, got a $1 superfecta box (hitting the first four in order in any combination) with the four horses, and sat down as a waitress brought him a drink. He felt a pang of guilt, as he had no money left to tip her with.
He had already had his last desperate moment the night before. This just felt like an “all right, let’s humor the crazy woman and then check out…”
The gates opened, and the 20-1 shot went straight for the lead, opening up three lengths. His other three horses languished near the back. But as the horses entered the turn for home, he felt a faint glimmer of hope. The long shot on the lead kept getting farther ahead. His other three horses were all rallying from the back.
By the time they reached the eighth pole, he knew Lady Amber had told him the truth. They were running 1-2-3-4 with no other horse in sight. It was a pure, hopeless gamble on what should have been the worst four horses in the field. And it had won.
Suddenly, after taxes, he was back to even at $5,000. And it was just the beginning.
Over the next five hours, he hit four casinos. Blackjack. Roulette. Craps. A couple horse bets. Poker and sports were simply too slow. And he did not have time.
By the time he hit the Wynn for Pai Gow, he was up to $250,000. He was going to sit at the big boy table.
One time he had been at the Wynn, and saw a Whale — the parlance for the monster players — bet $2 million on one hand. Now he was at that same table.
He settled in, playing big, not losing a hand. Next to him was an Asian man who looked like Johnny Chan had sex with Jabba the Hut, and this was their kid. Jabba Chan was betting as much as $500,000 a hand.
Singleton sat out a hand here and there. Something in his head told him when to play and when not to. And three hours later, over $4 million chips sat in front of him.
Jabba Chan was sweating profusely, but not from nervousness. Two insanely hot Japanese girls hung at his side. He was down about a million, but seemed completely unfazed. He downed one Saki after another, and Singleton saw a strange truth. No matter how much Jabba won or lost, it meant nothing to him.
For the first time in his life, he knew that feeling. He was not going to lose. It wasn’t gambling. It had no thrill. He did not feel anything. The chips weren’t money. They were just chips. Stacked high, one upon another. And he realized there was no joy in it. Losing hurt. It brought misery. It made him alive. So did winning. He realized in the moment that knowing you were going to win brought no satisfaction. And he did not care.
This time, when it all went in on one hand, he knew he was going to collect. Lady Amber had told him so. And she had been right.
Now, sitting on almost $10 million, he had four hours to spare. And no reason to keep going. So he collected his money and headed to The Pub at Monte Carlo to enjoy some craft beer and decide what to do next. One thing he already knew: He was going to live up to his end of the bargain.
He sat in the pub, having gone through at least 10 high-AVB craft beers from all over the country. He was drunk. He also was not sure what to think. He never expected to leave Vegas alive. He knew he was a loser and had no chance. But Lady Amber and her strange magic had taken him to a place he never imagined. And deep down, he knew it was not right. Gambling was not gambling when you could not lose. But his staggered mind brought him to another truth: This was not gambling. This was a business deal. And his end was coming up.
His mind was so clouded he could barely read the text when the address came across. It was about a 15-minute cab ride away, closer to downtown Vegas. He slammed his last beer, closed his tab, and had to steady himself after his first few steps took him sideways. He was too drunk for this. And yet he had no choice. He barely mumbled the correct address to the cabbie, and kept his large briefcase under his arm, almost melded to his body. It never occurred to him how stupid it was carrying that much cash. But he was too drunk to care. And he still did not understand why he wasn’t celebrating. He had solved all his problems. Saved his life. Changed his world. And yet it seemed empty, false. And the drunker he got, the more he wanted to wait until that 24 hours was over and dump it all away again.
But he couldn’t. Damned he was drunk. He fell down trying to get in the cab, tearing a huge hole in the knee of his suit pants, blood running down his leg. He mumbled the address and passed out in the cab.
It was 20 minutes later when the cabbie shook him awake. He tipped $100, then stumbled up the steps to a small, stucco house he couldn’t quite picture in his head. He hoped it was the right address.
He knew it was when Lady Amber opened the door. She immediately looked disappointed.
“You are no good to us like this.”
He smiled, the world spinning, and held himself up in the doorway.
She led him inside. The place was dark. He made out shapes of plants and furniture, but all he could focus on was the dull, red lighting. It seemed odd, but then again he was drunk.
Lady Amber led him to a bedroom, where a young girl was tied up, legs spread. Candles were the only light. Red candles. Weird runes were scrawled on the walls.
Too young, he thought. The girl was plain, unattractive. Her legs were pudgy. She had a gut. She looked nothing like her mother. He was instantly sickened; not by her looks, but by the fact she could not be more than 12, 13 years old.
“We don’t live by your rules,” Lady Amber said, knowing his thoughts.
“How old?” he asked.
Lady Amber turned dark, angry. “She is old enough. She will be ovulating tonight.”
“HOW FUCKING OLD?”
She was taken aback. The girl was doe-eyed, and scared. But also determined.
Lady Amber whispered. “She’s 13. And you made a deal.”
He sobered instantly. He knew he had to get out of this. “You are right. I am too drunk. I need to sleep it off. And deposit this money. Can I have 12 hours?”
“No,” she said softly. “You had 24.”
He was cool. The old salesman was coming back. “That was to win. I need time to take care of all this. And sober up. I promise I will do what we agreed.”
Even he believed himself. Because of that, so did she. “OK, I will call you a cab. Take care of your business, and be back here in 12 hours. And for fuck’s sake sober up. If you back out, I will hurt you and yours, Don. Don’t forget that.”
“I will be back,” he cooed. He sounded sincere. Believable. Even the witch bought in.
So he stumbled out of the hallway, waiting to hail a cab. But he had a completely different plan.
Johnny Ovelski was a bookie and poker player in Houston. Don had lost thousands to him — a big chunk of that company credit card — and he knew Johnny would know someone who could help. His text was simple: “Johnny…In Vegas. World of Trouble. Need help in the worst way.”
The response was immediate. “What kind of help?”
The cab pulled up outside. “Protection. From really bad people.”
He crawled into the cab, still shaky, but his mind clearing. It seemed to take forever to get a response. The cab driver kept asking where to go. He finally mumbled “MGM,” and hoped the text would come before he got there.
Five minutes later, it finally arrived, with an address and a small note. “Tattoo shop. Ask for Vegas Jay.”
He gave the address to the cabbie, who angrily spun the cab around. “Wrong fucking direction, man,” was all he said.
The ride seemed to take forever. He noticed a Wells Fargo branch and asked the ever-more-angry cabbie to stop. He went in, pulled out 1.5 million and asked to deposit it. The manager had to be called over, and it took way too long. He had to explain more than once he had a great run at the Wynn. Calls were made. Finally, the deposit was accepted.
He stumbled out, back to a now-seething cabbie. No matter what happened from here, Don’s family would be taken care of. They could pay off the $100,000 and still have solid money for their future. He had a big life insurance policy, too, but that no longer mattered. He would hide out and reach out to them at some point. But for now, he had taken care of them.
The ride seemed eternal, but they finally arrived at a disgusting looking tattoo shop on the far end of the old strip, not too far from Circus Circus. It was an ugly area, with prostitutes openly screaming at each other over turf and desperate people all around. He clutched the case more tightly and hoped he had made the right decision.
The cabbie lit up when Don tipped him $100, suddenly offering to take him anywhere he wanted and handing over his card. “You need me, man, I can be here in 15 minutes. Just call.”
Don nodded not quite soberly, steadied himself and ignored the hookers, who started with sexy pleas that turned to profane anger when he rejected them. He walked slowly toward what was certain to be a disaster. Oh well. He had been prepared to die already.
The shop itself was dirty, too. A lanky, heavily tatted man stood behind a counter, smoking a joint. He had long, greasy hair, a full beard, a nose ring and too many tattoos on his arm to differentiate between them. His bemused look made Don realize how awful he must look, still sobering up, sweating like one of the hookers outside, dried blood on his leg and clutching a briefcase with all his strength.
“Vegas Jay?” He asked hopefully.
The look of bemusement turned to one of solemn knowledge. He nodded at a door in the back, and Don shuffled towards it slowly. The man pushed a button, a buzzer went off, and the door swung open into a world he never thought he would see.
The back of the parlor was completely different. A long, expensive bar with neon lights extended across one end, while the rest was old, heavily treated wood. Several lounge chairs dotted the room. The were leather, expensive. It looked like a high-end bar, as nice as any in the casino. Then it hit him — this was an almost perfect replica of Peppermill. A thin man stood behind the bar and poured two shots of whiskey, handed them to Don and motioned him to follow. They went through another door, where the decor was the same, but this was an office. An old wooden desk with only a computer on it and a large, serious looking man sitting behind it caught his immediate attention. The thin man motioned him to bring the drinks and sit down. No one had said a word. The only noise was from the wall of TVs behind him, showing every racetrack in America.
Don sat, pushed a drink in front of the large man, and kept one for himself. The briefcase stayed locked under his arm.
The man smiled. It was one of those, “I know everything about you, punk” smiles that Don hated. But he knew he was at the man’s mercy.
Jay nodded and extended his hand. “Nice to meet you, Don. I hear you have a problem.”
Jay had that old school Brooklyn accent. Don knew he was dealing with a mobster. Maybe it was because the man resembled a fat Robert DeNiro, and his mind made the connection to the movies.
“I need to disappear for a while.”
Jay smiled. “Yeah, I heard. You took the M Life casinos for about $3 mil. The Wynn for over $6. You won’t last long.”
It have never even occurred to him that he might be in danger elsewhere. Suddenly he felt nauseous and took a sip of his whiskey. It only made things worse.
“I thought the casinos were legit now. They are out to get me?”
The older man laughed, his fat juggling as he did so. He was wearing a too-tight T shirt around his massive frame, and warmup pants. He had dozens of gold chains around his neck, a gold watch and bracelets. He was a stereotype.
“The casinos aren’t your problem. They will never let you set foot in there again, of course, but that’s not it. Every two bit hood and thief on the strip knows you hit big. All of them are throwing money around to try to find out where you are staying. MGM, right? They are like locusts, buddy. They will be all over you.”
“How did word get out so fast?” He was legitimately scared.
Vegas Jay was stern, but his smile was reassuring. “It’s the strip, man. Word travels fast. There is an entire industry out there of people who make money off guys like you. But you are scared of someone else…”
Don nodded. He knew he had walked into a spider’s web, and telling the truth might be the only thing to get him out of it. “A woman. A Dangerous woman. Wants me to do bad things to her 13-year-old daughter. I can’t do it, sir.”
Vegas Jay took a deep sip of his drink. “Lady Amber. You are not the first one I have had to get away from her. First man, though.”
Don nodded, the comment not resonating with him. Jay turned to the thin man. “Bring us a bottle, Petey. And get ready to do some work.”
Jay finished his drink, staring directly at Don. He was so serious it gave Don chills. “One way or another, you are a dead man. I can help you, but it won’t be cheap. You do what I say, you pay what I say, and you will walk away from this. Got it?”
Don nodded, suddenly nervous. “”I have a question — why don’t you just kill me and take all the money?” There was a part of him that wanted it to happen. His kids were taken care of, and he knew deep down Lady Amber would find him again. Somehow.
Vegas Jay looked angry, and the glare scared him. “Is that what you think of me? I’m one of those strip rats? I am a businessman. You came to me in good faith. I help people solve problems, and I am damned well compensated for it.” He slammed his drink down. “Johnny said you were a stand-up guy. I don’t think we can do business.”
Don felt his skin crawl. He knew he had screwed up. He took a deep breath and went back into salesman mode. “Sir, please accept my apologies. I have been drinking all day. I’m scared, and now you have told me I have a whole world of other issues. I meant nothing by it. Please help me. Desperation can cause people to imagine the worse things. I am sure you deal with that all the time.”
Jay’s face seemed to cool, and then he focused on one of the screens behind Don and started muttering. “Just hit a nice one at Aqueduct. You do ponies?”
Don nodded, and the tension left the room. “Not very good at them, though.”
Jay laughed. “Me either. OK, let’s get down to business.”
“So,” Jay asked. “How much is in the case?”
Again, Don felt lying would do him no good. “Just over 8 mil. I deposited $1.5 for my family before I came here.”
Jay nodded. “Smart. That and the life insurance will be a nice score for them.”
Don felt that punch in the gut again. “I have to die?”
Jay laughed and took another swig. Petey brought the bottle in and he poured both men fresh drinks.
“Yes. You have to become someone else. I have identities all over the world. Bank accounts set up. Passports. Everything you need.” He smiled. It was clear he enjoyed his job.
“In your case, we can’t put you on a plane carrying millions of dollars. So that means we have to keep you in North America. Here, Canada or Mexico. We need a small town, too, so you don’t run into some old friend tourist. You are from Houston, right?”
Don nodded, suddenly scared with the realization he might never see Marla or the kids again.
“Mexico is out, then,” Jay said. “I’m leary of keeping you in the states, because we don’t have time for surgery. We can get a fake beard on you, and you need to grow a real one first thing. But Canada is our only choice.”
Everything was so surreal. One minute he was going to kill himself. Then he had solved all his problems. Then he created a new one. And now he was about to be Canadian.
“I’ve got four Canadians,” Jay said. “One in Quebec City, one in Vancouver, one in Medicine Hat and one in Swift Current.”
“Vancouver sounds nice,” Jay said. He had no idea where Medicine Hat or Swift Current were and had no interest in finding out.
“Too big,” Jay said. “Too many tourists. Quebec City is too big and you don’t speak french. So it’s Medicine Hat or Swift Current. Lots of small towns around there. Plenty of places to disappear.”
Jay nodded. “Where are they?” Don asked.
The old man butchered the pronunciations, but Don hardly notice. “Alberta and Saskatchewan.”
It came out as “al-beert-a” and “sas-kat-chee-wan.”
Don rifled through the memory files of his drunken mind. He knew nothing about Canada. He knew some people from Alberta in the oil and gas industry, but they were all from Calgary. They raved about it, but Jay was right; Calgary would be too big, too. He had barely even heard of Saskatchewan. He vaguely remembered playing poker with a man who talked about his wife being from a small town near Swift Current. Kyle. That was the name. Tiny place. He did not know why he was suddenly remembering this, but he recalled the man talking about something called Clearwater Lake, and how much he had loved visiting all the small towns. And how the people were great and he missed them, because his wife had been killed a year before in a car accident. Fucking Houston drivers. Then the man took a big pot off him.
It was a weird flashback, a snapshot deep in the far corners of his mind. And it brought him to a decision that would impact the rest of his life.
Then he remembered how often he saw Saskatchewan Rough Rider jerseys in the MGM. A Canadian football team. He had lost money on them.
“Saskatchewan,” he said.
Jay nodded and turned to Petey: “Get the Saskatchewan plates on the truck. We will need a body for his rental car in the MGM.” Petey nodded and left the room quickly.
Jay spun his massive body around and pulled a manila folder out of his drawer. “OK, first things first. My fee. 50 percent plus expenses.”
Don frowned at that, and figured he would take a shot at negotiating. He knew he had no leverage, but like Jay had said, he was a businessman. “25.”
Vegas Jay laughed. Something about him loved the fact that this desperate man wanted to negotiate when he had no bargaining power. So they settled right down the middle for $3 million, which Don carefully counted out.
He opened the envelope, and talked like a man who had done this many times before. And he had every detail covered.
“This is your Canadian passport. It does not expire for three years. You will only need it to cross the border to get there. It should work for that. This guy is in the system so you can renew, and you should as to not raise suspicion. But don’t use it to come back. Ever. Or travel. You stay in Canada…”
Don, nodded, suddenly realizing the desperation of his situation. “Here is a Canadian driver’s license for the province of Saskatchewan. We are going to shoot fresh photos of you and insert them. It will take about 20 minutes.”
He pulled out a couple credit cards. “This is a CIBC card under your new name. It has a $10,000 limit. We use it on occasion to avoid suspicion — just order stuff online, things like that. Same goes for your debit card. There is 10k in that account as well. Use them as much as you like but wait until you get to Canada. We don’t want to leave any trails. Use your U.S. cash before then.”
Don looked at the name on the card and laughed. “Claude Prosser? Do I look like a Claude Prosser?”
Vegas Jay bellowed out a big laugh. “You do now. This guy was 46, so that’s close enough in age. You will look older with a beard.”
Don finally smiled. “Do I want to know what happened to the real Claude Prosser?”
Jay poured himself another drink, and ignored Don’s expectant look. “He was never real. We created him out of thin air. But we have to do it years in advance.”
Don was amazed at how easy all this seemed. But he knew it wasn’t. “What’s your cost for something like this? And how often do you do it?”
Jay was kind of sorry he would never see this man again. He liked his boldness, and he had business sense. He could use a guy like this. “About 250k to set everything up. Another 10-20 a year to maintain. And this? Three or four times a year. We do a lot of other stuff. Ever see Pulp Fiction?”
“My all-time favorite movie.”
Jay snorted. “Think of us as The Wolf.”
The folder included bank account information, passwords, everything Don would need. There was also an address in Swift Current, and a pair of keys to the place.
“Not gonna lie,” Jay said. “Not sure what kind of shape the place is in. If it’s a mess, sell it and buy something else. You can afford it. The deed is in here.”
“Now, come with me…”
The walked through a room that was all security cameras, with a burly man watching them intently, then what looked like an operating room. It occurred to Don how big this place really was. He also suspected there were living quarters. He doubted Vegas Jay ever left this place.
They finally settled in a room with a camera, which Petey set up. The silent man handed Don a fake beard and motioned him to a mirror in the corner, where Don put it on. Jay had been right. He looked older. He looked like someone else. Only those piercing blue eyes were familiar. This was Claude Prosser.
They snapped passport and driver’s photos, and Petey then gave him a shot and started an IV. This threw Don off guard.
“What’s this about?” He asked Jay.
The big man smiled. “It will sober you up. You have a long drive ahead of you.”
Whatever it was, it started working immediately. Jay waddled to the corner and back, then extended his hand. “Congratulations, Claude Prosser. Today you were born. Now I need another 70k.”
The man explained that 20k was for the credit and debit cards, and the other 50k was to be placed in an envelope. He also took Don’s Fitbit watch, which he hated to give up. It had been a Christmas gift from his oldest. And his wallet. And everything that had anything to do with Don Singleton.
The worst was giving up his cell phone. Everything he knew, everything he was….all of it was in the phone. Pictures of his kids. Of Marla. His dad, who was no longer with us. Everyone. Moments that could not be replaced. Contacts he would never see again. His life was in that phone.
“An hour from now,” Jay said, “your rental car is going to explode in the parking lot with you in it. Some idiot is going to use too much C4, and it will blow the money we are planting in there all to hell as well. It will get leaked that someone saw you win, followed you to your car, rigged it but did not know what he was doing and destroyed everything. There will be just enough pieces of money left that they will never be able to figure out all of it. This amount should be perfect. The way we rig it will make it seem like a lot more. It will be an anonymous tip, and obviously they never find the guy.”
Don was coming back to his senses. “Don’t they have cameras in that garage? Won’t they see you put a body in there? And rig the car?”
Jay smiled again. “We have ways around the cameras. No one will see anything.”
He did not want to press it, but still felt it seemed risky. Then he assumed that was why he had plopped down $3 million.
“What about the body? Where does that come from?”
Jay laughed again. “You ask an awful lot of questions. Most people just do what they are told and get the hell out.”
“I just like to know what is going on.”
Jay sighed. “A lot of homeless die in the heat here. People from all walks of life. Another colleague collects them before it gets reported and keeps them stored for when we need to buy one. Happens more than you think, and he ships them all over the country. Morbid, I know, but it’s good business. He found one that is close enough for our purposes. And that’s another 100k. Expenses, remember?”
Don was starting to feel like the time he bought a house, and everything got more expensive at closing.
He handed the money over, and Jay waddled to another back door. Don had been right, there was a lavish bedroom they went through, then another lounge built to look like Peppermill. Then a back door, and parked there was an older, brown Ford 150 with Saskatchewan plates. The plates said “Land of the Living Skies.” He had no idea what that meant. Petey motioned him to the back of the truck, and opened a secret compartment in the bed. Don would have never guessed it was there.
Jay pulled out a gun, and for a second, Don panicked. “Put the money in that compartment. This gun, too. Don’t worry. It’s a gift. And it’s loaded. If you get caught with either at the border, it’s all over. They should be safe in there. Once you get to Canada, do not show that piece to anyone. Their laws against handguns are pretty strict. It’s only a last resort in case you get discovered.”
Don nodded, and Petey closed the hatch. Jay handed him the keys. “Drive. The truck has GPS so put in the address on your DL and get going. When you get to the border, you say yes sir, yes ma’am, whatever, and be as friendly as possible. Go through Montana, and if asked, you were supposed to visit an old friend in Billings but he never showed up, so you are going home. If you get red-flagged, cooperate. This truck has smuggled things in and of there before so you should be good.
“Now, once you get there, stay the hell away from the Internet. Don’t get a cell phone until you need to. No damned Facebook or Twitter. You need to be as invisible as possible.
“You got all that?”
Don nodded. Sadness was creeping in. He knew he would get there, get settled in, and figure out a way to get back to his family. “You are saving my life. I don’t know how to thank you, Jay.”
He laughed again, his fat bubbling everywhere. “You don’t have to. You already thanked me three million times.”
Don smiled. “Plus expenses.”
The old man laughed again and slapped him on the shoulder. “Plus expenses! Good luck, Claude Prosser.”
Don wanted to hug him, but just warmly shook his hand and said goodbye to a man he would never see again. A man who had just saved his life. Or maybe just extended it. He cranked up the Ford, put on some music and headed off to the Land of the Living Skies.
The drive itself took just over 20 hours. Jay had warned him not to speed or do anything to bring attention to himself, and he followed instructions to the T. He felt naked without his cell phone. The states seem to fly by him — states he had never actually visited or had any desire to see. Utah. Idaho. Montana. He stopped for gas a couple times, and grabbed some Five-hour energies and snack bars, but had no intention of stopping for any length of time until he crossed the border. As the sun came up, he approached the border, and noticed the beautiful mountains, and a light-falling snow. He had seen snow twice in his life; once on a botched ski trip in college, and one time in Houston. It had a silent beauty.
His heart was in his throat as he drove to the border, knowing this was his final major hurdle. There was no line here.
“Passport?” The young lady at the window was quite attractive. And quite cold. She had a heavy accent, and it sounded like Margie in Fargo.
“So what brought you to the States then Mr. Prosser?”
He had rehearsed his story, and it came out perfectly.
“Bringing back any produce or alcohol this trip?”
“No ma’am,” he said quietly. He was getting nervous. She had scanned the passport. Surely it would tell her his last crossing, and he would not be able to explain it. But she smiled a little and waved him through.
“Welcome home then, Mr. Prosser.”
And he drove into Canada. Like it or not, he was home. For the rest of his life.
It was still quite a ways to Swift Current, and the snow was falling harder. Everything was gray and flat. There were hills, but it was hard to tell the topography, because everything was covered in snow. He was wearing jeans, a Toronto Maple Leafs sweatshirt and a jacket. Jay had taken his old clothes, even his underwear, to go on the body of what had been Don Singleton.
Including the Fitbit. He realized his kids had probably found out or would soon find out their dad was dead. It hit him hard. He would reach out when he could, but not yet. First he had to settle in. He stopped to refill the tank just across the border, and was happy to see the credit card worked. He saw an A&W and stopped in for a burger and shake, and tried to get his bearings. It was cold. He needed a much warmer jacket, a warm hat, gloves, practical things. He missed his cell phone immediately, because he would have simply asked Siri for the nearest clothing place. But he saw a WalMart and knew all was well. WalMart was the same everywhere. He stocked up on clothes, blankets, a space heater, anything he thought he might need. He could not see anything about the town to make any judgements. It was all gray, all white. The snow had slowed down, but it was still steady. It was depressing as hell.
He hit the road, and made Swift Current by nightfall.
It did not seem like much. Snow was everywhere. He found a motel, checked in on his credit card, and went to his room. Even with the heater at full blast, it was cold. Everything was so cold. And it was only November. He pulled out a sleeping bag he had bought at WalMart, put it on the bed and then covered himself with the blankets on top of that. He was still so cold. But he was exhausted. He looked at the clock, and it said 7 p.m. When he finally woke up, it was 3 p.m. the next day.
He finally cleaned up, bundled up as much as he could, and drove to the address. At first, he was excited. It was near a small airport and very isolated. But he could not see much around him. It was still gray, still snowing. It was hard to tell where the ground ended and the clouds began.
But as he got to the place, he could see it was a wreck. He would not be able to stay here. He drove back to the motel and started making plans.
Over the next few days, he familiarized himself with the area. When the snow finally cleared, he saw what they meant by land of the living skies.
It was beautiful, the sun reflecting off the snow to a sky that seemed to stretch forever. It felt like you could reach up and touch the sun. He had never seen anything like it.
He also discovered Tim Horton’s coffee. It was a game-changer. So was the first time he ever ate poutine. It looked hideous. When they told him what was in it, it sounded hideous. But it tasted like heaven.
Over the next week, he contacted a realtor about selling his place and finding one in Kyle. There was one place available, near the school, and he told her to make an offer. He went to the bank and deposited $2 million, with lots of questions. His story was he had a huge run in Atlantic City. He was questioned thoroughly, but finally they accepted it. He was pleased to know that it was $2.6 million Canadian. Everything was more expensive here, but the U.S. Dollar was significantly stronger.
He spent the next month making $5,000 deposits ever so often. He hated carrying all that cash, but he also knew it would take forever to put it all in the bank without questions. He opened accounts at two more banks in town, got additional debit cards, and converted some more U.S. cash to Canadian.
He found a couple cool bars. The people were friendly, which surprised him. Canada had a reputation for friendly people, but some of the ones he had met in Houston had been just as big of jerks as Americans. Maybe they had been there too long. The people here were helpful. They smiled a lot, even in the infernal cold.
The Living Sky Casino was near his hotel, and he finally decided to go in. They had one poker table. He was told you had to reserve a spot at 4:30, then call back at 6:30 to make sure there were enough players for a 7 p.m. game. On this night, there were.
Any remaining magic was gone, however. He dropped about $400 playing 2-5. It was worth it, though. He met some really nice people — a school teacher, a farmer, a trucker passing through. He learned there was a local brewery called Black Bridge that had outstanding beer, especially the Milk Stout. He learned there was great fishing up the road in the Saskatchewan River. He learned that Canadian Tire was much more than a tire store. And he learned he had lost all interest in gambling.
After a month, he also learned his offer had been accepted. There were no bites on the Swift Current place, but he expected that. A closing date was set, and he was determined to buy “the old Potter place” without ever seeing it. He was probably making a huge mistake, but he also bought a laptop, and an I Phone 7 with service through SaskTel.
There was not much online about Don Singleton. He was killed in an explosion in Las Vegas. Foul play suspected. The funeral was a week later in Houston. He was survived by a wife and three children.
He created a fake Facebook account, ostensibly so he could check on them. It was odd looking at Don Singleton’s account, which was still there. Many friends had posted comments, R.I.P., we will miss you Don, etc. It seemed surreal. He created a former high school teammate of Don’s living in Seattle and posted a comment of his own. He also sent a message request to Marla, saying how sorry he was for her loss. When she accepted his friend request, he was ready to reach out.
But what he saw on her profile stopped him in his tracks.
“In a relationship with Dale Austin.”
Don had been dead six weeks. Marla and Dale had spent a lot of time together over the last year, and Don had never thought anything of it. But now a lot of things started making sense. The texts she hid from him. The way she had always kept her phone face down. Dale and his wife Kim had been friends of theirs for two years. He never really liked them, but Marla had always pushed the friendship. If he had any doubts, her Facebook post from a week before, complete with hundreds of nasty comments, sealed the deal.
“As many of you know, I lost my husband recently. It has been an awful time for myself and my children, especially John, who was diagnosed with Leukemia last week. But I believe the Lord makes things happen for a reason, and in this case it was for Dale and myself to finally be together out in the open. Our love is something truly special. I know many of you will think me terrible and unfriend me, and I accept that. And I apologize to Kim. We both wanted to tell you sooner. But this is where God has led us and I hope you will find it in your hearts to forgive us as He has and befriend our new family. We have many challenges ahead, especially with John, but the doctors have high hopes and together with God we believe we can get through anything.”
He read some of the comments, some supportive, some downright nasty. And he wondered when in the hell she had got so religious. He could not ever remember her mentioning church once. He was about to message her, but instead he deleted his account, turned off the computer and started crying. It all hit him then, and he could hear Lady Amber’s words. “I will hurt you and yours, Don.”
Don Singleton might not be dead, but he was gone. And everything he loved had already moved on. In just over a month.
So he put the laptop away. Went to WalMart and bought a bunch of books. Hit up Black Bridge for several growlers of Milk Stout. Hit the board store for several bottles of Jack Daniels and Canadian Club. He learned to like Rye, too. Rye was big in Canada.
And that was his routine for the next month while he waited for the closing date. Breakfast at Tim Horton’s. Go to the hotel, read, drink beer. Hit the gym. Skip lunch. Switch to whiskey, alternating between rye and Jack. Read some more. Pass out sometime around 6. Do it all again the next day.
It wasn’t much of a life, but he did not really care. He mixed in occasional trips to the bar when it wasn’t snowing like crazy. The storms could get serious, and he stayed inside for the bad ones, only coming out when the weather was mild, which was rare. The people were friendly enough, but he did his best to avoid them. Sometimes he would wander down and watch the kids play pond hockey. And the beard was coming in nicely.
This continued until closing day, when he met at the realtor’s office, and signed papers for what seemed like hours. When it was done, he took the keys, thanked everyone, and fired up the truck.
It was a glorious day. Snow was everywhere on the ground, but the sky was perfect, with no clouds at all. He headed straight up 4, north to a new home he had never seen.
It was a rare sober day since he had to drive, and he was enjoying it. The scenery — even covered in snow, was beautiful. Rolling hills. Farms one both sides. When he crossed Saskatchewan Landing, the hills — once carved out by glaciers, apparently, were both menacing and beautiful, surrounding the Saskatchewan River, which was almost frozen over. He had never seen anything like it. It felt like the hills had him surrounded. He noticed what looked like a golf course buried in snow and thought that was something to be investigated later.
The rest of the trip was one of wonder. Hawks sitting on fence posts. The occasional mule deer. And then a series of signs on the left side of the road, mostly covered in snow, showing off the businesses in Kyle one by one. It was everything he hoped for. Small, just a few stores on the highway. A gas station. A restaurant. A flea market. He turned next to the school, looking for the address. It was a block away, one of several small houses on the block. He pulled into the old Potter place, and easily slipped into his new life. The place was quaint, but furnished. It would do.
He spent the next few days walking around town. He saw the Wooly Mammoth statue at the park. He visited Kyle Bar and got to know some of the locals, including Bob and Old Red, who were always there. And he fell in love with the restaurant: Heidi’s Burger and Chinese Food Restaurant. The Chinese food was amazing. The burgers were OK. He spent his afternoons there.
And once again, he fell into a routine. Wake up, read a book. Lunch at the bar or the pizza joint near main street. He would wander to the library, get another book. Walk around town when the weather wasn’t bad. Then head home, a few drinks, and Heidi’s for dinner. Then home to drink and pass out, and try to figure out what to do next.
He did that for months, as spring came and the snow eventually melted. He got to know some people around town. Bob and Old Red were retired farmers. Nice old guys. Most everyone here was a farmer. Even the people who owned stores farmed. It was the only way of life.
And these weren’t farms like he knew from Texas. They were thousands of acres, with wheat the primary crop. Large operations. Big business but down-home people. And they helped each other, gave each other advice, believed in the community.
Of course, they were all curious about Claude Prosser, where he came from, why he was in Kyle. People rarely moved to Kyle. They grew up there. They came back. They married into it. But they rarely showed up out of nowhere, buying the old Potter place.
He had remembered something Vegas Jay had told him. Create a back story. It was like a perfect poker bluff. It needed details. It needed to be believable. So when everyone asked, the story was the same. He had been born in Toronto. His mother died in childbirth, so his dad moved them to Ft. Worth, Texas. He grew up there and had spent his entire life in the Ft. Worth area, working in oil and gas. He hated it. When his dad died, he left him a fortune. Claude went through a tough divorce and wanted a change. His dad had owned a small place in Swift Current, so he decided to get away. He fell in love with Kyle, and decided he would stay here. And no, he was no relation to those Prossers.
One by one, they bought it. Before long, he was just Claude, who bought the old Potter place.
When summer came, it brought new wonders. The lush, green and yellow fields gave the hills a new hue. The summer was paradise, other than the occasional monster storm. He always smiled and waved at his neighbors, especially old man Tom across the street. There was another lady next door, older, who lived alone. She had long, ratty hair. In Houston she would have looked homeless. She never spoke, but often stared at Claude with deep, dark blue eyes. Everyone said that was just crazy Sally. She never talked to anyone. Claude felt a connection with her immediately. There was something familiar about her. But they never spoke.
That summer, he discovered Clearwater Lake, an absolute Oasis a few miles — sorry, kilometers; he had to start thinking Canadian — away. The water was so calm, and most of it was shallow. You could walk halfway out and never get water above your knees. Cabins surrounded it, and people from all over both Saskatchewan and Alberta summered there. He fell in love instantly, and bought a cabin just off the water, on a small path that went behind the actual waterfront cabins. He drank often at the Lake Bar, making new friends, most of whom by now had heard of Claude who bought the old Potter place in Kyle. He spent days on a float on the lake, playing golf at the rugged old course, jogging around the two mile road around the Clearwater. It was a peace he had never known. And it began to consume him.
It was a life he could embrace. Occasionally he would drive to another nearby town — Beachy, Elrose, Rosetown…one day he drove to White Bear, population 13, and had an amazing dinner and drinks at White Bear Bar. Occasionally he would go to Marques Downs in Saskatoon to watch horse racing, but he never made a bet. Then there were trips to The Landing to fish, hike, and occasionally play golf. He felt so small in the hills that surrounded the river, as if they were massive sentinels. On one hike he saw some old native runes that reminded if of something that he could not quite place. Oh, of course back to Swift Current to reload his growlers. Once he drove all the way to Moose Jaw to see the tunnels.
Back in Kyle, he visited the Hutterites, a colony up the road. They were fascinating people. They essentially worked as a commune, and when the colony, got too big, they would split off into another one. He wasn’t a wine guy, but they made amazing, potent wine. He would visit, buy some wine along with eggs, and visit with the elders. Not everyone in the area liked them, but they were hardworking people who had amazing products.
It was like he was in a dream, where everything had slowed to a crawl. When harvest came, he wanted to help. He went from farm to farm, offering help wherever needed, never accepting pay.
In the back of his mind, he could never imagine Don Singleton living like this. And there was always the spectre of Lady Amber looking for him. But the more he stayed here, the more it disappeared into the recesses of his mind.
He rarely got online. He never checked on Marla, Dave or the kids. He enjoyed his conversations with the locals, learning about farming. The conversations were always about how much rain they had gotten and how the crops looked. And he fit right in. He also noticed he started saying “eh” at the end of every sentence.
Winter came, and he hunkered down in the Potter place, reading and drinking. The months started running together. By the following summer, he had made several friends at Lake Bar. A nice couple from Alberta. Another from Elrose. Still another from Rosetown. They all had built nice businesses out of farms or farms combined with something else. He found it amusing that many of them liked Donald Trump and seemed fascinated with U.S. politics. He had never really cared.
By the next winter, he had converted all his money. He started investing. He became a fan of the Saskatchewan Rough Riders, the CFL team. He bought five season tickets, giving away four to each game and making the drive down 1 to Regina for every home game. One time he even wore a watermelon on his head. And life never changed.
When the third summer rolled around, he started to realize he had a new family. He stopped and spent several minutes talking to whoever he ran into. But it was a small town, and they loved gossip. Talk too long to Mrs. Collins? “Those two are carrying on…” It was annoying, but he loved everything else. It was odd, but he was home. Claude Prosser was home. And he realized Don Singleton was dead and gone. He had truly become Claude Prosser.
And not long after, Claude Prosser fell in love.
It was just a standard Saturday at Lake Bar, and the Riders were playing at Montreal and he wanted to catch the game.
He was drinking Pilsner, a Saskatchewan beer that he found surprisingly good. He was hanging with his friends from Alberta, when a dazzling blonde walked in, a woman he had never seen before. She had striking blue eyes; striking because they were extremely light, a color he had never seen before. They were big, too, impossible to miss. She had cherubic cheeks. She wasn’t stunning, but she walked in with such a confidence, smiling broadly, like no matter who else was in the room, she was going to be the center of attention. He was instantly smitten. And he realized it had been a long time…. Since Lady Amber, in fact.
It did not take long to strike up a conversation. Her name was Olivia Gunderson, and she had grown up in Kyle. Her family was kind of Kyle royalty — her dad was very well known and liked and had a thriving farm. Her mom had passed from cancer three years ago. She lived and worked in New York, had just gone through a divorce and wanted to come home for the summer. Her business was thriving, she had people to run it, and wanted to get away and clear her head.
They connected immediately. They watched the Riders. They played shuffleboard. They drank themselves silly. They agreed to play golf the next day, and they drank a beer a hole. After 27 holes, they wound up back in his cabin, and he made love for the first time in three years.
After that, they were inseparable. She took him to meet her father, and it turns out it was the man across the street — Old Tom.
He did not realize Tom’s place near his was a winter home. Summers Old Tom spent on his farm. Claude realized he would not have known, because his summers were at the Lake.
When Olivia first took him to Old Tom’s Greensway Farm, he asked when they were going to be on her dad’s land. “We have been for 15 minutes,” she had laughed.
Old Tom was running a huge business. And he was smart. The farm had been in his family for three generations. And even though he only made it through the eighth grade, he was brilliant. He had the biggest, most successful farm in the area. He and Claude became friends immediately. They had talked a few times, always friendly, but now they had a bond.
By the end of the summer, Claude was spending his time on the farm, helping Tom. He and Olivia had fallen hard. She was a year or two older than Don Singleton, but still younger than Claude Prosser. But it was Claude who had found a new life, new love, and everything was perfect.
Until she had to go back to New York. He missed her terribly, but they skyped every night. And he spent hours chatting with Old Tom about crops, business, life. And it turned out Tom was a hell of a piano player. And the old man was lonely. He missed his wife. And Claude could relate. He missed the old man’s daughter. The year came and went; another wonderful summer with Olivia. Another year of acclimating. Another year of adding “ehs” to his conversations.
It had been four years since Vegas. And now he had to watch Olivia leave again, and he hoped for the last time. She was in a place where after one more winter she could turn the company over to someone else. And he had decided to ask her to marry him when she returned in June.
Until then, it was another winter of hanging out with Old Tom.
They would have a few at the bar, then go back to Tom’s and get caught up on Game of Thrones, Banshee or watch Law and Order marathons. And Claude Prosser had never been happier in either of his lives.
One night, he stumbled home in a blinding snowstorm, a bad one. When Saskatchewan had storms — winter or summer — they were brutal. The wind was always blowing. On this night, it was -25, and snowing so heavy he could barely see in front of him. The winter storms were so strange; the rage of nature, and yet dead silence, save for the wind whipping through the naked trees. The walk across the street seemed to take hours. The power had gone out, and all he noticed was a strange, familiar red glow at Crazy Sally’s place. He went in his own place, started a fire and slept on the floor in front of it, as content as any human who ever lived.
The next morning, the power returned. And he heard a soft knock on the door. He was expecting Tom, but deep down, he knew it was someone else. He knew it was Sally. He opened the door, and there she was, completely bundled up, with a full bottle of Canadian Club clutched in her right hand.
“Can I come in?”
It was the first time she had ever spoken to him. Or to his knowledge, anyone. And yet he had that weird feeling again. “Please,” he said. “I have been expecting you.”
And he had. She wandered in, and poured them both stiff drinks out of the bottle. “You are going to need this, Claude Prosser…”
She smiled. “Or should I say, Donny Singleton?”
His heart stopped. How had she known? And if she knew, who else did?
“Don’t worry, Claude,” she said. “Your secret is safe here.”
He downed the drink. He knew it was too early, and while he had been drinking every day, it wasn’t the same. He was not drinking himself into a stupor anymore. Just a nice, warm glow. But he knew today was going to be a stupor.
“Relax,” she said. “Have a seat. We have much to discuss. I have done you a great wrong, and I need to make amends.”
And oddly, he understood. “You are one of them,” he said.
She smiled. And he realized once upon a time she had been beautiful. “One of us,” she said. “One of us.”
And somehow, Claude Prosser knew the story before she started. She was indeed one of them, and she had suspected he was as well. She had run a spell to make sure. And she was right. But in doing so, she revealed herself to the others. And it was likely Lady Amber would know.
“Why didn’t you just ask?” a panicked Claude finally blurted out.
She cackled. “Because I am old. And my judgement is not what it once was. But now I know…”
“Shit,” Claude said. “I have to get out of here. Now. Maybe I can go to Olivia in New York…”
The old lady killed a full glass of rye in one swig and laughed. “No, my son. I have no power there. Here you have to stay. And there is much you need to know.”
The old panic came back, and he remembered how he had felt when the dealer hit 21 and that last $11k had briefly sealed his fate.
She took a deep breath, and started a bizarre story. “Once,” she said, “our people were in the thousands. We are not really witches — I hate that word — but more philosophers in tune with the powers of nature, the abilities the earth gives us. The natives understood this. We and the land are one. But ‘witches’ is a lot easier than all that, eh?”
She poured another drink. “But our people have been wiped out or dying for a century. So few of us left…”
She paused for a long time. “The price the Mother extracts is strong. For each one of us born, there is tragedy. Your mother had to die for you to be born. Lady Amber lost her ability to reproduce.”
Claude was scared. He knew this. He knew there was a reason he had picked this place. They both drank heavily and refilled the glasses.
“Are you my mother?” He knew he had to ask.
“No,” she smiled through broken teeth. “Your mother was my lover. Back then, that was not accepted. We had a connection you could never imagine.”
And Claude accepted this, because again, he knew.
“Your father impregnated both of us. Our Mother demanded it, and we accepted. We always thought we would bring you back here, to our place…”
“Your place of power,” he said, already knowing. It was like autocorrect. His subconscious was filling in the gaps in his lack of knowledge as she told the story.
“YES!” She shouted. “We all connect with nature, but we are all tied to certain places. Lady Amber’s is Vegas. Mine is here. Yours is here.”
He seemed suddenly puzzled. “But I am not one of you. I just have the bloodlines.”
Sally smiled again. “Yes, you are one of us. Your father was purebred, as I am. As you are. At one time, men had the same power as us. But now our people..the men have glimpses. You know you do. Connections. Moments. The women have the power to see and change the future.”
Which is how Lady Amber had made him so rich.
He was full of questions. “My father…”
She interrupted immediately. “Never wanted this. Never wanted you. It was why he was so distant. Most of our kind want to blend into ‘normal’ lives. Breed and love mortals. And run from that price. It’s what I did.”
It was all becoming clear to him. And she made it clearer. “Lady Amber is merely trying to preserve us. She has kidnapped several young girls and is keeping them, hoping you will impregnate them. Or more importantly, the son you were supposed to give her does.”
He thought briefly of Johnny, his own son, and as if reading his mind, Sally had an answer. “No. It has to be pure blood. We think there are under 100 of us left. And less than 15 are men, most too old to do anything. Which is why she needs you so much…”
Claude killed another drink. This all seemed so fantastic. And yet he questioned none of it. His mind accepted all of it.
“She is coming, isn’t she?” He asked, again, already knowing the answer.
“Yes, my son,” the old woman sad sadly. “I had to connect with the Mother. I had to know if you were who I thought you were. But doing that is like….well, giving someone an IP address to chase. I told her where you were. And for that I am sorry. Yes, you could leave, but you will be drawn to another place of power. And she will find you.”
He was glowing now, the rye taking full effect. He took another drink. “What do we do?”
She sighed deeply. “Give her what she wants. And hope the price isn’t too high.”
They sat in silence for a while, then he asked about his mother, and Sally’s face lit up. She told of how they grew up together, how they found out what they were, and how they explored each other’s bodies. Then something occurred to him. And he had a terrible feeling.
“Sally? You said he got you both pregnant. What happened to yours?”
She sat quiet for a long time. Then told him a truth he already suspected.
“Lady Amber is my daughter.”
He threw up. “I HAD SEX WITH MY SISTER?”
She was solemn, yet also mildly bemused. “Your half-sister,” she said. “And it is not uncommon with so few of us left. And our rules are different than yours.”
He threw up again, and immediately lost his buzz.
He tried to wrap his head around everything. But he understood all of it now. Why they had connected. Why Lady Amber would not hurt him. Part of him respected her, felt sorry for her, and in reality, lusted after her, as disgusting as that was. Even Olivia would never be what Lady Amber was to him. And yet he also innately knew that all he could do was wait for her to show up and do what he had agreed to do.
So his days changed little. Time with Old Tom, but now time with Sally. And he waited. And waited. Weeks went by. He would go to The Hilltop with Sally for ice cream, even when it was cold. Watch movies. Drink.
Until one day he got a call from Kyle bar. Two strange women were there asking about him. He told Jeffy the bartender to get them to wait, that he would be right there. And buy the older woman a drink on him. He would make good on it in a few minutes. And he revved up the truck and made the short drive to Kyle bar.
One thing he loved about these small town Saskatchewan bars — they all had to be attached to hotels. It made sense — truckers coming through, kids drinking too much — they should have a place to stay. He liked it. He knew they had already booked a room.
When he walked in, he saw Jeffy smiling, trying desperately to impress the two women, both wearing hooded cloaks. He tossed Jeffy a $20 for the drink, as Lady Amber and her daughter turned to face him.
He smiled and looked at his half-sister and one-time lover. “I have been expecting you,” he said. “For a long time.”
They piled into the old Ford, and Claude Prosser was in a different place. And it felt OK.
Lady Amber finally spoke. “We need you to come back to Vegas. I have no power here.”
He smiled. “I know. But I know someone who does. And we will get you what you want.”
They sat in silence for a while, and Lady Amber finally said solemnly. “My mother. She rejected our life.”
In spite of himself. He was grinning. For all he had been through, his connection with Lady Amber was just as strong as that first night. Maybe stronger. It did not feel wrong, as it should have. She was family, and he was fast running out of that.
“I know. But I also know why you needed me now. And so does she. And we are going to do the right thing. I am keeping my promise this time.”
They got to his home, and the three of them walked inside in silence, and there Sally was waiting. She and Lady Amber eyed each other warily. Finally, it was Lady Amber, regal as ever, who spoke. “What have you told him?”
Sally laughed. “Everything. You know that.”
Then the four sat down and had a drink. The girl had filled out some, but was still not attractive. She looked like she would be an excellent softball player, with too much lower body and not enough upstairs. But Lady Amber was as stunning as ever. And it occurred to him she looked like Melisandre from Game of Thrones.
Finally, it was Claude who spoke. “Lady Amber, I apologize for my behavior. I understand now, and will do whatever you ask. Please forgive me.”
She lowered her head. “Fulfill your promise. My daughter is almost 18 now. You have cost us years of waiting. I fear the Mother will make you pay a steep price. But all I ask is you do what you promised.”
He sighed. He knew what to do. “I just don’t want Olivia to ever know.”
Lady Amber was wistful. Deep down, she knew the price already. And she had probably seen it in her dreams.
And just like that, they began preparations.
Sally drew strange runes on his bed room walls, then called him over, and gave him a leaf to eat.
“It will help you perform,” she said. “It will go much quicker.”
It did not.
He noticed the same snake tattoo on her back as he tried to take her from behind. But it was awkward. Clinical. Wrong. Whatever Sally gave him, however, made it easier. It still took too long. He took no pleasure from it. It was just business. The girl clearly was struggling too, moving awkwardly, sideways at times. It made the task even tougher.
But in the end, he did what he had promised. Afterward, Sally placed her hand on the girl’s stomach, and said softly, “She’s pregnant. With a boy.”
Claude felt so strange. He had lost his children. Now he had another one coming. He pulled Lady Amber aside. “Stay here,” he said softly. “With me. With your mom. Let’s raise this child together.”
But she pulled away. “No,” she said sternly. “I have my girls. Girls your son will impregnate. Our race will come back.”
Claude Prosser already knew all of this. But he knew he had to try. Lady Amber turned to him in a moment of vulnerability. “Donny…” she said softly. “Thank you. Whatever happens? It’s not me. But we always pay a toll. I am sorry you are going to be the one that pays it.”
Then he got angry.
“What more can you people do to me? You are the one who chased my wife away, gave my son cancer…You do anything else to me and so help me…”
Now it was her turn to snap. “Your wife started fucking Dave because you were never there. You were busy losing all your money. And Johnny is in remission. And Vegas Jay…”
His face darkened, as if she had slapped him. What happened to Vegas Jay?
Now she was damned near screaming. “He was old. He was fat. He did not take care of himself.”
He grabbed her, blood boiling. “What did you do to him? WHAT?” He had known Vegas Jay for just a few hours, but the man had saved his life, and they had struck an odd friendship.
She pulled away, much stronger than he could have ever imagined. “Nothing. I did nothing. The Mother did not either. He had a heart attack. It was quick. I thought you knew.”
He knew she was lying. She was probably telling the truth about Marla and Johnny. But Vegas Jay had been HIS price for failing to live up to the bargain. How else would she have known who he was?
“You were trying to find me,” he snarled.
She nodded. “He gave up the girls for a few million. Other witches tracked them down. You he refused. But I did nothing to him. I knew I would find you. He just died. It happens to all of us.”
The silence was powerful, like a snowstorm. So much going on, yet so quiet.
The girl curled up and went to sleep on the bed where she had just conceived a son. The odd threesome finally sat down for a drink, two of them seething, the other silently entertained. An old witch. A young one and her witch brother, both believing they had been done wrong by the other. Finally, Claude Prosser said. “Hell of a family reunion.”
That broke the tension, and they spent the rest of the night filling in gaps, telling tales of the past and future. Sally and Lady Amber came to a pleasant truce, and while Claude believed Amber was responsible for Vegas Jay, he also knew deep down that he was really the one responsible. He had been warned there would be a price. He involved Jay. It was on him as much as her.
The next morning, he drove them back to the bar, where they had left their rental car. They were going to drive back to Swift, catch a private plane and return to Vegas.
She looked at him one last time, and there seemed to be a peace between them.
“I hate to leave you with bad news…”
He was starting to wonder if there would ever be good news between them. “What now?”
“The magic Sally did was powerful. Others will see it through the Mother. Others will try to find you.”
He shook his head. “So I am going to spend the rest of my life fending off witches who want me to get them pregnant?”
She smiled again, and he felt warm. “Perhaps. Not many have the drive to try anymore. Most want to just assimilate and let us die off. Which is why I am the way I am. And yes, I will be back, too, as soon as the next one is of an age you will accept. I will respect your limits, even if they are not mine.”
He shook his head. “You know I won’t.” Then he softened. “But I know you have to try.” They hugged warmly, and his half-sister, the greatest connection of his life, drove off in the snow. Claude went home and started drinking.
Little changed that winter. He spent time with Sally and Old Tom, who had developed a pretty good friendship of their own. It was funny; they had lived right next to each other for decades, and other than an occasional wave, they never spoke, because Sally never spoke to anyone. Claude finally understood. The price of her friendship was high, and she had simply unplugged to avoid paying it. He wished he could do the same.
That winter, he read everything he could find about witches and The Mother. Most was fiction or simply fairy tales, but he found elements of truth in some of it, and pieced as much together as possible. And that part of him that innately knew things was able to sort out what was real and what was fantasy. He would form a theory, then bounce it off Sally, who most of the time confirmed it.
What concerned him was The Mother. The witches believed it was merely a holistic connection with the earth, and their power came from recognition of this, but the enlightenment could only be passed down through bloodlines. This struck him as somewhat contradictory. He was starting to have a different view; that the Mother was some kind of cruel, tribal deity who demanded sacrifice for her gift of life. He began to wonder if this race should really continue, and understood why so many fled. They had pre-dated man, and now were being phased out. Like the dinosaurs. He suspected The Mother did not like that one bit.
He began formulating a plan, one that would start when Olivia returned in June. He would ask her to marry him, move someplace in upstate New York with her, and the two would retire. Maybe Niagara Falls on the U.S. side. Visit Old Tom on occasion, but get away from the Lady Ambers and her kind. Let them fight extinction on their own.
He was going to hate leaving this place. But he had started to understand his only hope, his only escape, was to go someplace else. Otherwise, he was left with embracing what he was, becoming part of the power source the place held, and living with the consequences. But his mind was made up. It was time to go. And it would all happen when Olivia came back. There was only one flaw in his plan.
Olivia would never come back.
It was early May. Something in the back of his mind reminded him he had missed the first Saturday in May — Derby Day. He had not paid attention in years, and this one passed without him as well. It was the Tuesday after. He had Skyped Olivia the night before, having playful computer sex, and settled in to start packing things for the Lake. It was a glorious day, and the sky went on forever. But he had a weird, queasy feeling. Sally avoided him. He wondered if a witch had found him. Or maybe Lady Amber had returned. Something was up.
He tried to take his mind off it with alcohol, but when Old Tom knocked on his door, tears streaming down his weathered face, Claude knew what it was.
The Mother had taken Olivia.
She had gone for a jog around Central Park, as she did every morning. She went home, showered, got dressed and started the eight-block walk to work, just one of thousands of New Yorkers doing the same thing. It was no different than any other day.
Only this day, a cab driver rushed through a red light, lost control of his car, flipped over several times and crashed into a light pole. But not before he hit seven people, instantly killing two. One of those was Olivia Gunderson, her cherubic face crushed under an engine block.
And just like that, everything was gone. Olivia had died because of him. Jay had died because of him. The Mother and this awful collection of creatures were tearing his life apart piece by piece. He hugged Old Tom, numb, and whispered only “I’m sorry.”
He crawled into bed and began bawling, and when he stopped, he started drinking. And he did not stop.
After the funeral, he did not go to the Lake. In fact, Claude never left the house. Every morning, Sally would come to the door. He would not answer. She would leave him a bottle of Rye. He would drink half in the morning, pass out, wake up, drink the rest and pass out again. He didn’t eat. He didn’t think. He didn’t read. He just drank and passed out, day after day. The only way Sally knew he was still alive is the bottle was gone each day. Once again, he was in a routine. One that had only one ending. One he was ready to welcome.
One night, however, there was a particularly bad thunderstorm. He only knew that because he had woken up once to pee. The lights were out, the wind was howling, hail was pounding on his truck and the roof above. Something told him he needed to go to the basement, so he did, and passed out again on the couch down there.
And he dreamed. First of his father. A striking man with movie star looks. A man who never really loved him, but never pushed him away, either. His father had remarried when he was four and started his own family. His normal family. Donny was not quite an outcast, but not quite part of it. Like young Jon Snow in the Stark household. Don was happy when he left for college, met Marla, started his own family…and then he saw his father’s funeral, and remembered he felt nothing.
He saw Olivia. Bold, sweet Olivia, dressed smartly in a business suit, smiling as always, confident as always, crossing the street like everyone else. And they he saw her beautiful body crushed under an ugly yellow cab, only her hand visible, with the Fitbit he had gotten her as a gift still attached.
Then something else entered his dream. Something sinister. Something weak. It called to him, first flirtatious and friendly, then profane when he rejected it. Like the cheap hookers in Vegas. And he saw the Mother for what she was. A weak, ancient creature, clinging to life behind a small group of believers. A parasite, something that did not belong in this world. An old, decaying life force, something that did not belong.
Like the last dinosaur.
When he awoke the next morning, he did not collect his bottle. Instead, he remembered something important.
He remembered the gun.
It was cold in his hand. He wondered if it would work. He had not cleaned it since he had fled Vegas almost five years before. He had done as Jay suggested — keep it hidden.
It was still loaded. And he knew there were few options left. The first was to sober up, leave, and hope to never find another witch or hear of The Mother again. But that would never work. He would always be running, always looking over his shoulder. That was no way to live.
He could wait for the witches, and kill them one by one. Bury the bodies in the hills. No one would ever know. Slowly kill the Mother. But he was no murderer. Even if the Mother had a physical form, and stood right before him, he doubted he could do it, even after what she did to Olivia. And his own mother. And Jay. And Don Singleton.
He could also stay Claude Prosser. Grieve like anyone else. Take comfort in his community. Rebuild his broken life. Refuse the witches. Start over.
But the gun in his hand told him the only answer. What should have happened five years before in Vegas. What he was planning before he met Lady Amber. And it all made sense. With one bullet, he would do more damage to the Mother than he could any other way, even shooting her himself. And he could be with Olivia again.
He thought gently to himself. I should have died five years ago…Olivia would still be proudly prancing around New York…
And he thought of all the near-misses and moments in life that defined everyone. An unplanned encounter stopped him from killing himself once. An out of control driver ended Olivia’s life in a second, on a walk she made five days a week for years. A drunk driver hits a family of four. A kid steps in front of a car accidently. An artery suddenly constricts. Life was full of near-miss moments, and moments that did not miss. A simple decision, like leaving five minutes later than usual, cost Olivia her life. It happened every day, everywhere. In all walks of life. It was all so fragile, and he saw that for the first time. Life was a series of decisions, lucky or unlucky moments that would shape an individual life, and then many others. And this “Mother” was slowly changing the dynamic by taking away the randomness of our lives. The chaos. The will. The luck. All the things that make us what we are. He was reminded of his 24 hour casino run. And he understoof why it felt so wrong at the time. It was not living.
And in his trembling hand he held the only decision left. He had done a will a month before Lady Amber arrived, just in case. He left most of his fortune to Sally, the rest to the community to build a state of the art skating rink. Everything had fallen into place for this moment. No one else would die because of him. He would do some good with his money. And he could escape this infernal Mother, who even now he felt in the room, trying to stop him.
He looked outside one last time. After the storm of the night before, it had become a beautiful day. He saw a tree down — the only tree in Old Tom’s yard — and branches all over the street. He opened the door, collected his bottle, and enjoyed one last long swallow of Rye whiskey.
He knew there was only one thing left to do; end the story right here.
Then he fell to his knees, put the gun in his mouth and started to squeeze the trigger.
It was a strange sensation. He suddenly felt himself out of his body, looking down on himself, a spectator for his soon-to-be suicide. And he saw out the window, Old Tom and Sally trying hopelessly to move the fallen tree. They were pulling as hard as they could, but it would not budge. And he saw the sky, moving, the clouds so close he could reach out and touch them.
And he knew it was time. But the sky seemed to pull him into an invisible embrace. There was something here, and it was not the Mother. It was a force like her, but new. Pure. Incorruptible.
It comforted him. Promised him. And he felt at one with whatever this was in the sky above his little home.
Then he suddenly snapped back into his body. He could taste the oily metal in his throat. He suddenly let the pressure off the trigger, took the gun out of his mouth and promptly threw up.
Don Singleton could have pulled that trigger. But Don Singleton already had. Five years ago.
Claude Prosser couldn’t. And wouldn’t. Don Singleton was a creature of the Mother. Claude Prosser was something else. And someone else. He was a creature of something exciting. Something magical. Something that would demand nothing, and give freely. Something that would always be watching over him.
He had no idea what was coming next. He would no longer think about the future, just be Claude Prosser. Whatever had embraced him in the sky while he was floating over his body told him do that and all will be well. And he knew this to be true.
So he got dressed, walked outside for the first time in weeks and went to help Old Tom and Sally move the broken tree.
He looked up, and felt the sky surrounding him, breathing life into him, telling him it would all be OK. The wind kissed his ears. Something had come to him, something beautiful, as if he and it had been born at the same time.
And Claude Prosser, who bought the old Potter place, for the first time understood why this was the Land of the Living Skies.