Asher was anemic, just a kid with dry lips and dark rings round his muddy eyes. He’d been following me around for days, and had finally cornered me on the patio of a coffeehouse on Hornby Street. That was where it all began. And now that I’m in on the joke, I don’t think the punchline could have been any different.
It was hard times when we met. I’d wagered myself into a corner, doing what all high stakes gamblers on a streak do, eventually – I’d crashed. Now there was only enough money in my pocket for a latte and a slice of chocolate cake, with a little left over.
Asher was a ghost, by the way. He told me he’d died when he was twelve, seventy-two years ago, 1943. But he’d never made it to the other side, whatever that meant. He’d been following people round ever since. I was his latest fixation. Sure, I’d tried to shake him, but he was a tenacious little shit.
“First I got sick,” he’d said, sitting across from me at my patio table. “I puked for a week, and my mamma was real worried, and the doctor came into my room and he was worried, too. I was trying real hard to hang on because of the war. Back then everybody was dying. My brother died in the Atlantic. I didn’t want to break my mamma’s heart, but I died all the same. When the moment came, I sort of stepped out of my body, and I saw myself there, on the bed with my eyes half open. The doctor shook his head, and my mamma cried, and I just walked away.”
Asher was pretty convincing as a ghost, being a little less than solid, and a little more than transparent. Bugs flew right through him, and there he sat barefooted in the grimy pajamas he’d died in. What else could he be?
“Who can see you?” I nodded to the surrounding patrons. “Any of them?”
“No,” Asher said. “Just you.”
I spoke to him with my deactivated iPhone to my ear, to keep from looking like I was talking to an imaginary friend.
“Just me, why?”
“Because I like you.”
“But why aren’t you in Heaven, or Valhalla or some shit?”
“Ralph says there ain’t no Heaven.”
Asher pointed across the street, at an unkempt crowd of semitransparent individuals, some with serious body traumas, others just pale and hopeless. I looked way, and took a gulp of coffee and a king size bite of cake.
“That’s very disturbing, Asher,” I said. “Please don’t show me shit like that.”
He shrugged. “Ralph is the one in the fancy suit with a hole in his head,” he said.
I risked another look, and saw a grinning man wearing a tuxedo. He waved. There was a bloody hole in his head. It had to be Ralph.
“What the hell does Ralph know about Heaven?” I said.
“He knows a lot of stuff.”
“He knows what horses are gonna win, place and show at Ex Park, and he knows the lottery numbers.”
Horses and lottery numbers; the story was taking on a compelling density. I did some desperate arithmetic.
“The lottery numbers,” I said. “Before they’re drawn, you mean? How’s he know that?”
“Can he come over?”
“He’s kinda scary,” Asher said.
“And you aren’t? C’mon, call him over.”
And then there he was, Ralph. Sitting across from me, dressed to the nines, with several spots of blood on his starched white shirt. His gaze was fixed. Clearly he wasn’t using those decomposed eyes to see with. Asher sat next to him.
“I love this goddamn kid,” Ralph said, ruffling Asher’s hair. “I knew a dame once, named Flo. She had a kid just like him. Flo did a lot of heroin, see? So the little fella was sort of at loose ends. I took him to see hockey games, and he ran a few errands for me.”
“Swell,” I said. We hadn’t even been introduced, and Ralph was telling stories.
“You know,” he said, leaning toward me across the table, pointing at my latte, every word a trashcan stinking exhalation, “I’d love to have one of them Italian coffees again. Somethin’ real strong. Somethin’ to straighten out the ol’ gonads.”
He was up close now, his mouth a slack, post rigor mortis sneer. He had a musty smell, and the blood on his forehead was still a little wet.
“What’s with the glad rags?” I said.
“Pretty sharp, eh?” He pinched the lapels and gave me a toothy yellow grin. His gums had receded considerably. Then he brushed some confetti off of his shoulder and swatted at a bright red streamer. “The Commercial Drive boys got me out back of the Hotel Georgia, New Year’s Eve, 1929. I was out back doin’ a little of the ol’ cocaine, when they came outta nowheres. Caught me flatfooted, and pop, right through the head. Felt like someone’d got me a good one, upside the skull.”
“Nice,” I said. I was starting to get a little queasy. Ralph simply oozed quease.
“Yeah,” Ralph said. “Life is hard, innit? And then you get iced by the wops, out back of the Hotel Georgia with a cocktail straw up yer nose. Ha! Waddaya gonna do?”
“They must have had a reason.”
“Oh that,” Ralph said, sitting back and throwing up his hands. “Let’s just say that some people can’t take a joke. So what if I had a few longshoremen on the payroll, always good for some marketable merchandise here and there. I had a couple of fighters, too, I gotta admit, training outta the Astoria, took the occasional fall. And so what if I was fixing the horses. The suckers lined up for that kinda shit. Vancouver wasn’t much back then, but there was enough to go round – I thought so, anyways.”
I looked across the street again. “What’s with your crowd of followers?”
“Them? That’s just a little pyramid scheme of mine.”
“What does that mean?”
Ralph spat out a short guffaw, and slapped a knee. “Just a little joke, innit Asher?” He gave the boy a none too gentle punch in the shoulder.
“Yeah, Ralph,” Asher smiled, rubbing his arm, “a joke.”
“Yeah, sure it is,” Ralph said. “But seriously….” And here Ralph got a little grim, as something brown dribbled out of the corner of his mouth. “What’s this I hear about you wantin’ to play the numbers?”
Asher leaned over, and Ralph met him halfway. The boy whispered into his ear.
“See?” said Ralph. “This is why I love this kid. He’s right. I meant the lottery. Jeeze, the more things change…, eh? The government takes it over, and the numbers become the lottery. Same goddamn crooks, different name. Now it’s all contractual agreements, church on Sunday and expensive aftershave. I can’t keep up.”
“What about them, then?” I pointed across the street again. “I still wanna know.” The gruesome troop watched us like dogs waiting for a bone.
“We just sorta wander round together, nothin’ better to do. I lead the way. I’m kind of a guide. Hell, they don’t know where they’re goin’. Most of them’re still suffering from the same shit they were suffering from when they were alive – broken hearts, bad decisions, unresolved tribulations, that kinda crap. They brought it all with ‘em to the grave, just can’t let it go.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
“Of course you don’t, and it don’t matter, neither. Now tell me, do you want help with the numbers, or not?”
The numbers. My foot started tapping. I had debts, I couldn’t pay. Now this spook was offering me a chance to cash-in, maybe big time. It was too implausible. It was a hallucination. But what could it hurt to play along?
Ralph’s musty smell was getting worse.
“Tomorrow’s Lotto Extreme is worth $25 million,” I said.
“That’s a tidy sum,” Ralph said, “a tidy sum. It’d clear up some of those gamblin’ debts. Oh man, it’d clear ‘em up with plenty of change left over.”
“What gambling debts? What do you know about my gambling debts?”
“Detroit versus Montreal, the other day,” Ralph said, suddenly refined and wise, despite the congealing drool. “That was your last bad last call, wasn’t it? Plenty before that. You were hot once, but that don’t ever last. You’ve worked your way down through the legit bookies to the bottom feeders, and the bottom feeders don’t use collection agencies, do they. I bet there’s some boys in town right now, looking to cut off one or two of your fingers.”
“How would you know?”
“Shit, boyo, if I can tell you the lotto numbers, don’t you think I know what’s what with you?”
There was silence now. The street noise had stopped. Ralph and I sat looking at each other like gunfighters. The one who looked away first, lost.
I looked away first.
“You’re a risk taker,” Ralph said, taking a slip of crumpled paper out of his pocket. “I appreciate that in a man.” He slid the slip of paper across the table to me. His fingernails were black. “Takes one to know one. I was a risk taker, too. It didn’t work out so well for me, of course. But maybe now I can do you a favour. Maybe it’ll make up for some of my own bad decisions.”
I stared down at the paper. It was folded in two.
“Go ahead, kid,” Ralph said. “Go buy a ticket. Use them numbers. After tomorrow’s draw, everything changes.”
Ralph was see-through, but the paper was solid. It slid across the table, caught in a breeze. I slapped my hand down, and caught it.
“We’ll talk later,” Ralph said, and vanished.
“Yeah,” said Asher, “later.” He smiled then and faded.
It’s hard to be cool standing in line, when you possess the winning lottery numbers for a $25 million jackpot. I was snapping my fingers like Sinatra to a song that wasn’t there. I’d written the numbers down on the chit in a frenzy. I didn’t even know what they were. The draw was the next day at 7:30pm Pacific Time.
Just ahead of me, in line, two old men were discussing the physics of trading on the stock market. It was the usual old fart drivel of lottery line-ups.
“I still say Gaussian models are the only way to go,” said the bald one. “It’s definitive.”
Definitive? Was that grammatically correct? Who gave a shit?
“And when it doesn’t work,” said the one in the I heart Stephen Harper tee shirt, “you blame chaos theory.”
“Of course. The universe is chaotic.”
“Then nothing’s predictable, nothing’s definitive, and that’s why you’re living off a pension cheque. Take the lottery for instance….”
Yeah, take the lottery. Holly shit. My foot began tapping again, and I checked my pocket for my last $5, the price of $25 million.
At the counter, I handed the five over to a smiling Pakistani man who moved like a machine, inserting my numbers into the slot, then pulling out my ticket.
“Good luck,” he said, handing it to me.
I wondered how many times he said that in a week. Again, who gave a shit? Then he said, “Do not forget to put your name, address and signature on the back – very very important!” This guy was all drama.
Now I was suddenly aware of the potential of a measly piece of paper. The ticket was nonnegotiable. Yet I trembled as I held it.
It was getting dark and cold, but going home was out of the question. Ralph was right, there were likely some of Philbin’s boys in town. ‘Las Vegas’ Max Philbin, that is, to whom I owed a little over a hundred grand. He might even be in town himself, for that kind of money. Max was a hands-on kind of guy. So I’d sleep at the bus station, sitting up. If they gave me the bums rush, it would be a back alley. But if all went according to plan, it would be the last time I slept with the rats.
The next morning I woke to a janitor running a mop over my shoes, as he washed the floor.
“Hey, fuck,” I yelped, jumping up. “These shoes are Allen Edmonds.”
“Then you should give them back,” he said.
“Oh, that’s a very funny fucking line for a janitor.”
He smirked as I tried to kick off the slop. Then I saw Asher standing a few feet away.
“What the hell do you want?” I didn’t bother with the iPhone trick. Who cared if a guy sleeping in a bus station talked to himself?
“Golly,” Asher said, as unsuspecting people milled round him, “this sure is a crummy part of town, even worse than when I was alive.”
“Yeah, well that’s 2015 for you.”
“You got the ticket, right?” he said.
“I thought I’d finally gotten rid of you.”
“I got nowheres else to go. What about the ticket?”
“I got the fucking ticket, okay? What’s it to you.”
He shrugged, but was that really a blank expression? What did he know?
It was raining the usual shitty Vancouver rain outside. I checked my watch. 8am, still a whole day to go. I put up my collar, and began to walk. The watch was a limited edition TAG Heuer, purchased after a big win at craps in Vegas. I considered pawning it, but thought any pawnshop unworthy. I found an awning over an abandoned storefront, and sat down. My stomach growled.
“Hungry?” Asher said.
“There’s a soup kitchen round the block.”
“Will you just fuck off?”
“My mamma and me got real hungry sometimes,” said Asher. “She drank a lot of wine, and didn’t wanna do war work. We went to a soup kitchen, the Franciscan Sisters. They gave us food and told us Jesus loves us.”
“Yeah? Well where’s Jesus now?”
“I guess he’s home with the funny papers.”
The guy ladling out the soup in the soup kitchen gave me the once over, then a wondering look. My jacket was wet, but it was still an Armani.
“Hard times, brother?”
“Temporary,” I replied.
“Me too,” he said. “But the thing about temporary, I’ve found, is that it can last an awful long time.”
“Can I just have some soup? Gawd, who the hell eats soup before noon anyway?”
“You do, bub.” He filled my bowl and handed me some bread. Then he said, “Do yourself a favour. Do whatever you gotta. Rob a bank if you have to. But don’t come back. You don’t belong here.”
The soup’s main ingredients were water, salt and a piece of carrot, and the bread was only minutes away from sprouting mould. Other patrons avoided sitting with me. Asher watched without blinking, from a far corner. Everyone but me ignored a tall grubby man at another table when he stood up and screamed for several minutes. All-in-all, it was a hideous dining experience.
As I left the building, a woman wearing a Jesus Rocks t-shirt handed me a pair of dry socks. They were red, and I was wearing taupe slacks with brown shell Cordovan loafers. It wasn’t going to work, but I took them anyway.
“Keep the faith, brother,” she said.
I would, absolutely. I felt the ticket in my shirt pocket.
I spent the rest of the day walking, my new socks soaked through. At about 7:25, I walked into the mall and up to the lotto kiosk to watch the numbers come in. It was the first time I’d actually looked at the ticket to see what mine were. 2 3 5 7 11 13 17. What the fuck? The first seven primes. My stomach knotted. What a ridiculous combination. It would never come in, all primes in sequence. It was impossible. I’d been played for a sucker by an apparition.
I was about to tear the ticket up when I heard Asher say, “Don’t do it.”
“But this is stupid,” I said. People began looking at me. I should have put my iPhone to my ear. “In all of the history of the universe, something like this has never happened, and never will. I hope you and your deceased pals had a good laugh.”
“Just shut up and wait,” Asher said.
Shut up? Poltergeist Jr. had just told me to shut up. The situation was worsening by the second.
Then the first numbers started to appear on the screen behind the counter. First came 2. Then the second: 3. The third: 5. Holy shit! The forth: 7. This was sick. Unbelievable. The knot in my belly rapidly changed from one kind to another. The next numbers couldn’t possibly be a match. But they were: 11, 13 and 17.
I checked it again and again.
“Holly hot bloody fucking goddamn shithouse motherfucker,” I said.
A couple of people looked over their shoulders.
“We gotta go,” said Asher.
“I’m stinking rich!”
“Yeah,” he said, “but let’s get outta here. You’re attracting attention. Someone’s gonna follow you out if you make too much noise. I can’t protect you.”
He was right. Some members of the normally zombie-like shopping mall crowd were starting to look at me like they were either going to eat my brains or hoist my ticket. I made for the exit, and walked out onto the sidewalk.
“You have to call the lottery office in the morning,” Asher said. He was walking quickly to keep up, his naked feet splashing through puddles.
“What do I do until then?”
“Lay low,” he said, and then vanished.
Lay low. Hell, it’d been hours since my bowl of salty soup, and I was freezing. I was a millionaire without a dime in my pocket, and no one to celebrate with. My smartphone was useless, I’d spent most of the day hiding under a bridge, and I couldn’t go home in case I ran into a homicidal bookie. There was no lower to lay.
I hugged the storefronts, weaving in and out of doorways and under awnings, to stay out of the rain. Then passing Dunn’s Tailors, I noticed that they were having a suit sale. I stopped and looked in the window. High end worsteds, nice lines. Snappy but dignified Italian ties. Dunn’s was my favourite tailor. It would be the first place I stopped after I collected my purse.
A few other guys must have shared my enthusiasm, because I was suddenly in the company of three men.
“Nice,” said one, looking into the window.
“Yeah Max,” said another. “Real nice.”
Max? It couldn’t be. What were the odds of him finding me here, now? But then, what were the chances of a sequence of primes being a winning lotto numbers?
“Fuck,” I said, quiet and resigned.
“How you doing, Lester?”
It was, indeed, ‘Las Vegas’ Max Philbin standing next to me. Rain streaming down his pale doughy face, illuminated in the dim store window light. He had boozy garlicky Eau de Vart funk hovering over him.
“I’m just fine,” I said.
“You really look like shit, though.”
“You know,” Max said, “there ain’t one goddamn decent restaurant in this whole toilet of a town.”
“You should have called ahead,” I said. “I would have told you as much.”
“You know why I’m here, Lester?” said Max. “Because you owe me money, and you’ve been avoiding me like it’s alimony.”
“You got a cigarette?” I said. He offered me a Camel and a light. It was mighty tasty, my first in over a twenty-four hours. “Give me until tomorrow morning. Things have changed for me.”
“I won the lottery.”
“Don’t get smart with us,” Max said, “you deadbeat son of a bitch.”
“Look, just give me until tomorrow. Have one of your boys shadow me. Lock me in a hotel room. Handcuff me to a chair. I tell ya, tomorrow I’ll pay you every dime.”
“You’re a liar, Lester,” Max said. “Which ain’t no business of mine, normally. Shit, I’ve told some real whoppers in my time, eh boys?”
The goons laughed and slapped Max on the back.
“But you owe me over a hundred grand, and lies will not be tolerated. Grab him boys.”
They pulled me round the corner, and into the alley. Then they threw me against a wall between two cars, and Max’s goons started kicking and stomping the hell out of me. They were good, and they were wearing me down. It wouldn’t be long before I received the final crippling wallop, so I struggled to pull the ticket from my pocket, and then held it up for all to see.
“It’s legit,” I spit through the blood. “Check it. Use your fucking phone and check it.”
“All right all right,” Max said to his boys, “lay off.” He snatched the ticket out of my hand.
“You got blood on it,” he said.
The goons snickered.
“Check it,” Max said, handing it to one of them. “It don’t seem impossible, I guess. You’ve been on one of the worst losing streaks I’ve ever seen. It’s gotta turn round sooner or later. Why not now?”
“It’s turned around,” I assured him.
“Holy shit!” said the goon with the Android. “Boss, take a look.”
Max grabbed the phone and the ticket, and there the numbers were, on the Lotto Extreme website.
“Twenty-five million?” he said. “That can’t be right.”
“It is,” I said. “I’ll call them in the morning and get the cheque. Maybe it’ll take a couple of days. I don’t know, but I can pay you then.”
‘Las Vegas’ Max Philbin stood there for a moment, flicking the very valuable piece of paper with a finger. There was a machine in his head that could calculate changes in the fabric of circumstance as easily as it did odds and percentages, and this calculation was an easy one. Then he turned the ticket over, and looked.
“Nah!” he said.
“Nah? What does that mean, nah?”
“It means I take the ticket, and we’re square.”
“No way, I only owe you the hundred grand.”
“Call the rest interest.”
“We should whack him, boss,” one of the goons said. “He’ll go to the cops, for sure.”
“And tell ‘em what?” Max said. He held the ticket so his henchmen could see the back of it in the yellow lamplight. “Look, the dumb shit hasn’t put his name or nothin’ on the back. I’ll just fill it in with my particulars, and badda-pow, I got twenty-five mill. If we wax him now, he won’t be able to spend the rest of his life cherishing this little moment.”
My life hadn’t been a bad one, mostly. And if it was a mess now, it was my own fault. But like most fuck-ups, I’d always felt a little like the world was awfully unfair. I figured it had a hate on for me, especially as I bled in the rain. Sure I’d made some bad bets, and taken some lumps, but I’d always lost and taken my lumps from better people than Max.
I guess that’s how the idea came to me. And what could it hurt, now that all I had to look forward to was a life of wondering, what if? So I deciding to follow through, and pulled back my knee until it touch my belly, and then let it go: my foot, heel first into Max’s junk. You could have heard him gasp and howl three blocks away, then he fell onto the ground, screaming like a little girl.
His gorillas were stunned. This was unforeseen.
“Boss?” one of them said. “Wadda we do?”
In a moment, after rolling around in the puddles, Max was able to form the last two words I would ever hear, that side of the eternal curtain –
Then I watched as both of his thugs drew and aimed. There were only a couple of muzzle flashes, that I saw. But I guess they’d kept shooting after that, because a few seconds later, standing over my body, I saw that they’d reduced it to hamburger from the waist up. Forget the open casket. They were going to sop me up and squeeze the sponge out over my open grave; yea, though I walk through the valley…, drip drip fucking drip.
“Glad you could make it, chief.” It was a familiar voice coming from behind me. I turned round and saw Ralph, with Asher at his side.
“I don’t get it,” I said.
“What’s to get?” Ralph said. “Like I told ya, it’s a pyramid scheme, the whole death by misadventure racket is. One dead guy enrolls as many other dead guys as he can, and they enroll as many as they can. Along the way a fella’s gotta learn how to recruit participants.”
“Yeah, participants,” Ralph said. He put his hand on Asher’s shoulder and said, “My little man here recruited you. He’s one hell of a recruiter, ain’t ya boy.”
“Yeah, I’m okay,” Asher said with a shrug.
“He even arranged for that Max fella to run into you,” Ralph said.
“Hell, I don’t know. It’s a lousy business model. You’re bound to be disappointed. Everyone is. I’m the first to admit that there ain’t no benefit to it. It’s kinda like the leaves falling in October. It just happens.”
“So now I’m dead,” I said. “And you used the lottery ticket as a scam to enroll me. Why didn’t you just have me run over by a bus?”
“Ain’t no fun in that.” Ralph laughed and clapped his hands. “Bein’ dead can get awful dull. A little bit of cabaret is always welcome. We got you a good one, eh?”
“Go to hell.”
“Been there,” he said, his eyes flashing a bright fiery red. “Shit, I even bought goddamn lakefront property.”
* * * * * * * * *
Death is weird. It’s like looking at the living through the bug splat on a windshield.
I swore the moment I heard about it, that I would never participate in The Pyramid Scheme, but Ralph was right, death is boring. So, I’ve caved-in, and I’m about to enroll my first participant. That’s why I’m here in Vegas, standing out front of the MGM.
Oh, hang on. I’ve got to go. Max Philbin just pulled up.