Adult Fiction – Second Place
Paul awoke at 2:49 am fresh from the dream; not a dream, the dream. The same dream that had struck every night since he and his wife, Karen, had opened their boutique hotel in the Slocan valley. In his dream, Paul had moved out of a house where he had lived for a long time. The purchaser takes up residence and Paul’s life takes a bad turn. Invariably, he would remember a dead body buried or hidden somewhere on his old property. Sometimes the body was dry and shrivelled as if plundered from an antiquities museum. Other nights it was tumefied as if freshly plucked from a swamp. On some nights, the body was found in the flower bed beneath the picture window flanking the front door. Tonight, the new owner had decided to install a new bathroom in the basement and had discovered the desiccated corpse when he jack hammered the concrete floor for the rough-in. Most nights in his dream, by act or omission, Paul was somehow responsible for the victim’s death. Tonight, he was blameless but, through carelessness or neglect, had forgotten about the carcass pressed into the dirt where the new bathtub was slated to be installed.
Sleep was out of the question for the remainder of the night. Taking care not to wake up Karen, Paul went into the main, commercial kitchen and made a pot of coffee. Sitting at the stainless steel food prep table his thoughts flitted, like a swallow at the sand cliffs, between his chores for the coming day and his past life as a lawyer.
“Freshly retired couple from Calgary open boutique hotel in picturesque, rural setting.” The title of the article in the tiny local bi- weekly sounded like the elevator pitch for a Netflix comedy series. Paul and Karen had researched their business plan thoroughly before they purchased the property. Every room in the hotel commanded a dazzling view of the lake and the mountains, snow-capped for nine months of the year. They had determined that there was an unsatisfied demand for high quality accommodations in the area. Their guests were typically wealthy or, to be more precise, wealthier than their Slocan neighbors. The clientele was comprised of helicopter and back-country skiers in the winter and mountain bikers and fly fishers in the summer. Their self-assured customers sought the special type of luxury that comes only from hedonic amenities experienced after a physical day in a challenging environment.
By many measures, the project was a success. Construction costs had come in on budget and a mere six months behind schedule which, by Kootenay standards, where carpenters rarely worked on days when there was fresh powder in the back country, was considered timely. Now, only three months after the grand opening, the hotel was fully booked for next year’s winter and summer high seasons and it was assured that revenue would outpace projection. True, costs were higher than expected, but profits from the operation were set to exceed the business plan submitted to the bank.
Karen was over the moon. Back in their city life, Paul could not recollect a party that she didn’t want to attend. Here, in their very own boutique hotel, complete with timber framed porch and water colors by local artists, guests routinely praised the manifestation of her good taste. She could, and did, throw a tasteful, elegant soiree almost every night.
Some days, Paul chaffed against his new situation. He savored his time outdoors, especially the kayaking and hiking, activities that had drawn him to the area when they first sought out a retirement business. But, once indoors, he preferred reading to making small talk. He missed the high stakes and status of his former career as a litigation lawyer. He struggled to sound ardent when conversing with guests, inevitably, about the view or the osprey or what miracle the chef was to conjure that evening. As a lawyer, his clients had paid five hundred dollars an hour for his advice. Here, he was expected to sound interested in whether his clients had found good tracks in the fresh snow. He was accustomed to a small, close group of friends and, in his new situation, was weakened by the bloodletting of greeting and mixing with new guests every day.
Fatigued from hosting strangers, Paul looked forward to the arrival of two of his former law partners, Keith and Martin, who had reserved for a single night stay on their way to a wine festival in the Okanagan. Paul, Keith and Martin had practised law together for more than thirty years, moving lock-step through the stages of articling student, junior lawyer and partner. The three friends were now all retired but only two years ago had comprised the hard-pumping heart of the commercial litigation department of the business law firm where they worked.
Paul set aside the two best rooms for his guests’ late arrival and made sure that the quiet table with the best view of the Valhalla Range and Slocan Lake was reserved for them. Dinner that night was herb crusted rack of lamb, locally grown, and, as expected, the chef did a wonderful job. Paul reminded the new server to clear from the right, and only after ensuring his instructions were followed, joined his friends at the handcrafted butcher block table his wife had commissioned from the cabinet maker who lived in the village.
For the thirty plus years they practised law together, it had been their custom to share a nice bottle of wine when any of them enjoyed a significant win on a case. Paul came to the table waving a bottle of his favorite super Tuscan, a big red wine that he had been hoarding for just this occasion. Their conversation moved quickly through the niceties.
“Favoritewine niceplace greatjob beautifulview deliciousdinner”
Having expended the bloom of their careers working together in stuffy, crowded rooms set aside for discovery and trial preparation, Paul, Keith and Martin knew each other better than their own, current, wives. They compared notes about their old firm. It was, they agreed, indisputable that since their retirement the firm had lost some of its reputation among judges handling commercial cases. They concurred that while unfortunate this was not surprising given the shortcomings of Millennials. In this vein, they recalled with thinly concealed delight the embarrassing mistakes one of the current partners had made as an articling student.
“Called the Chief Justice ‘my lord’ and she was not impressed” recalled Paul.
“Anybody could see his problem ten years ago. Lazy and stupid. Now he’s fat, lazy and stupid” concluded Keith.
Fuelled by the super-Tuscan, the volume grew louder and the topic turned to how others had fared in retirement. Pancreatic cancer had cut short the office manager’s golden years. An unfortunate former competitor had suffered a stroke and been forced to move to an assisted living residence despite being only two years older than them.
“You can never assume good health, or for that matter, any health. You may be dead tomorrow” said Martin.
“Death comes like a thief in the night” agreed Paul.
Keith mentioned a lawyer who had come home one day to find that his wife had left town with her personal trainer, also a woman, and fifteen years her junior. The ensuing divorce had cleaned out his retirement savings and left him no option but to go back to the firm even though he now made less than the youngest partner and hated every single day.
“She was never that into him and she worked out A LOT. When she could do a hundred push ups; he should have seen it coming” said Keith.
“If not sooner” agreed Paul.
“He was boring. Now he’s old and boring and broke” said Martin.
Paul produced another bottle of wine, this time a middle of the road California Cab Sauvignon. It was, they all agreed, not as good as the first bottle but still worth drinking.
“Paul, what do you miss the most living out here?” asked Martin.
“I don’t miss the billing targets, that’s for sure. I miss being needed. I liked it when a client depended on me, sought me out and paid a lot of money for my advice.”
“Yeah I guess we are all men who used to be important. That gets some getting used to” said Keith.
“But, like low testosterone, do you ever get used to it?” asked Martin.
Their conversation moved on to different law suits they had worked on. Some files were memorable because the client was stubborn or demanding or perhaps dishonest. They took turns describing the rapacious demands of a multitude of unreasonable foes who had sued their clients and how they had, through hard work, guile and clever argument, safeguarded their clients’ interests.
“Paul, of all the cases you handled, when you look back over the years, which one are you most proud of? Which one left you with the sense of being at the top of your game?” asked Martin.
“Funny you should ask. I was up early this morning, way too early in fact, thinking about just that. Mostly, the cases were either ‘get the money’ or ‘keep the money’ if I was on for the defendant. But the case I feel the best about…it would have to be just before I retired when I acted on behalf of Jason Holt and we sued The Alberta Freedom Evangelical Church. The church ran that boarding school for boys just south of Calgary, near Spruce Meadows, the fancy horse jumping venue. Holt went there for grades eleven and twelve. He came to me when he was twenty. Even then he was small, about five- foot seven and slight, maybe one hundred and thirty pounds. He had shoulder length dirty blond hair and looked about fourteen years old except for a tattoo of Chinese letters on the inside of his forearm. Effeminate in appearance, Jason was a target at the boys’ only boarding school. Anyway, he had a beautiful voice, a tenor, and his refuge had been the school choir. Jason had grown close to the choir master, Sig Mason, who was also the music and drama teacher”.
Keith turned his wineglass upside down and placed it on his head to indicate that it was empty and that he wanted more. Paul fetched another bottle, and without a word, removed the cork and poured all round.
“Was that the teacher arrested with photographs of a naked boy on his computer?” asked Martin.
“The very same. It was when the pornography story hit the headlines, that Jason came to see me. The pictures were of him. He said he had been sixteen when they were taken but he looked much younger. The teacher hadn’t just taken pictures. It had started with Holt being asked to stroke his own penis. Then the teacher’s. Then oral sex and on it went.”
“How long did all that go on for?” asked Keith.
“April, May and June of grade eleven and all of grade twelve. He never told anybody about Mason until the day he came to see me. That day, in my office, he broke down and cried for an hour.”
“Was there any evidence other than what Holt recounted?” asked Martin.
“Not until the pornography bust and that is why he had been quiet for the three years since he left the school. He said that, at the time, he thought the sex was consensual. Jason said he liked Sig and wanted to please him. He said that in High School he was sure he was gay but when he came to see me he said he didn’t think he was. He presented as confused about who he was and what he wanted.”
“In the statement of claim, what amount did you ask for?” asked Keith.
“We claimed millions, of course. I hired three different experts to give evidence that the sexual abuse had resulted in my client suffering emotional damage, particularly as he seemed incapable of forming close relationships.”
“Hard to quantify what that is worth” said Martin.
“Thing is we never had to. The church didn’t want a trial. Mason’s pornography charge meant they didn’t think they could successfully argue liability. The only issue was the quantum of damages and the church was desperate to avoid a trial and all the publicity.”
“Whatever happened to Mason?” asked Martin.
“I heard he served a short sentence and now works as a conveyancing paralegal. Anyway, how much did you get out of them?” said Keith.
“Well, they started at $200,000 and a non-disclosure agreement and I started at $2,000,000 and insisted that Jason could sell his story. Almost without trying, I had the church up to $1,000,000 but they were stuck on the non-disclosure agreement. Then it all went a bit weird. Until that point, I had thought that Jason was pretty confused about what he wanted. When he came in to the office to discuss the church’s settlement proposal he was sure of himself. He said he didn’t want money and he didn’t care about signing a non-disclosure agreement. All he wanted, he said, was for the school to be closed and to never re-open. Not as a school or anything to do with that church.
“How did that go over with the other side?” asked Martin.
“They fought back for a few months but it became clear that the school had been caught in a down draft for a few years. To continue as a school, the existing building needed expensive upgrades. The church had secured another possible site where they could build a new school. They were planning to repurpose the old building for something else, a day retreat or something. Eventually they agreed to give Jason what he wanted.”
‘They must have been happy to keep their money and receive the non-disclosure” said Keith.
“I guess. Anyway, Jason was delighted. When he came in to sign the minutes of settlement he had undergone a metamorphosis. He was wearing an Armani jacket and had cut his hair. In two weeks he had somehow gone from slight to wiry. He shook my hand when he left and I could just feel the confidence radiating off him”.
“That land has been redeveloped. I saw a sign saying forty condominiums are to be built” said Keith.
“I heard that. I wondered what happened. The church said they would never sell it.”
“The story I heard, from a developer friend of mine, was that there was an old right of reversion created when the land was donated to the church in the forties. Apparently, if the land ceased to be used by the church it reverted back to the donor” said Keith.
“Could be, that would explain why the church resisted Jason’s counter-offer. If they could have sold the land and kept the money for themselves they would have jumped to accept the deal. And, now you mention it, at one point we searched the title and I remember the registered owner held it ‘in trust’ but there wasn’t any trust document filed at Land Titles”.
That night, despite the wine, sleep eluded Paul. He kept thinking: land redeveloped and Mason working in real estate. At 3am he gave up trying to sleep, quietly pulled on some sweats, made a pot of coffee and, wearing his fur trimmed slippers, shuffled to his office. He had maintained access to his old firm’s computer system because from time to time one or another of the lawyers would call and ask him about a file he had worked on. He logged on and went to the file: ‘Holt vs The Alberta Freedom Evangelical Church’. It took almost an hour, but he found the copy of the certificate of title for the land where the school had been. The registered owner was shown as First Alberta Trustco ‘in trust’. Then, using the firm’s account, he did an historical search of the title and found that the land had been transferred to First Alberta Trustco in 1947 from Bar Z Ranch Ltd. Today, the new owner was ‘Modern Times Developments Inc’. The affidavit of value on the transfer from First Alberta Trustco to Modern Times Developments showed a fair market value of $18,000,000. A search of corporate registry showed that Modern Times was the successor by amalgamation to Bar Z Ranch. Okay makes sense, Paul thought; that fits with the reversion clause they had talked about. Paul read on and felt a bolt of red wine acid reflux shoot up his gorge. The sole directors and shareholders of Modern Times Developments were Jason Holt and Sig Mason.
As Paul waited for the first sign of dawn to break free of the darkness, he found himself on the porch sipping his fifth cup of coffee. He noticed a crack in one of the dowels holding the timbers together.
Many months later and, now, rooted in the twilight of his life, Paul finds himself less anxious living in the Kootenays. The dream hasn’t been back since the night with Keith and Martin and some days he enjoys meeting customers. These days, he savors the time between day and night when the colors fade to grey. In June, he says, the disappearing act can last an hour; in December, a mere few minutes. As the evening approaches, he shows his guests how the lake, now emerald with spring runoff, will soon be a thick ribbon of graphite. He tells them how the cherry tree with its light pink blossoms will, before dessert is served, become a buxom silver bush. We are fortunate to live here, he says, we have the day, the night and the in between.