Last call, p.13
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       Last Call, p.13

           Tim Powers
 

  Ozzie stood back and again gripped the rubber handle of his standing cane, and Crane could see how the years had withered the once-strong face, extinguished the evidence of all emotions except for anxiety and—maybe still—some of the old humor.

  “Assumption,” Ozzie said. “That guy, that Ricky Leroy, assumed you, put a lien on your body. A sort of balloon lien. Shit, son, I read up on this, and asked around, after I lost you to it—and I had known a good deal about the dangers of cards even before, all that stuff you thought was like step-on-a-crack-break-your-mother’s-back.”

  A car was making its way down the narrow street, and Crane and Ozzie stepped up onto the curb.

  “You’re still yourself now,” Ozzie went on, “looking out of your eyes, but after the next game on the lake it’ll be him, and he’ll have everybody else, too, that took money for the assumed hands in that game in ’sixty-nine, that series of games. Leroy’ll have you all like a collection of remote, mobile, closed-circuit TV sets. Don’t start reading no real long books, son.” The old man’s eyes were wet as he shook his head. “And don’t think it gives me any pleasure to tell you all this.”

  Crane clenched his fists, feeling the muscles in his palms with his tingling fingertips. “There’s—isn’t there anything I can do? Is it just over? Can’t I go…I don’t know, kill this guy?”

  Ozzie shook his head sadly. “Let’s go walk back to where your friend is. No, you can’t kill him. You could kill one of the bodies he’s in, or a couple even, but he’ll have at least one stashed somewhere that you couldn’t even hear of, much less get to. And besides, he’s already started killing you, looseningw your soul for the eviction. Dionysus has got his hand on your throat in the form of drink, and any family or pets you may have are going to start dying of the randomness illnesses: cancers, heart irregularities—”

  Heart irregularities, Crane thought.

  Heart irregularities.

  He kept walking. “That would be…caused by me?” he said as evenly as he could.

  Ozzie gave him a piercing look. “Shit, I’m sorry, that was damn thoughtless of me. Of course, it already has happened, hasn’t it? Who?”

  “My wife. She—” He was sitting on the curb suddenly. “Heart attack.” His body felt hollowed out, and his hands moved vaguely in front of him as though he were groping in darkness for something he didn’t know the shape of.

  One of the randomness illnesses, he heard Ozzie’s voice say in his memory. And then he heard his own voice: Caused by me?

  “Get up, Scott.” Ozzie reached down with his free hand and shook Crane’s shoulder, and Crane got slowly to his feet, not even wincing when his bad leg took his weight. “It’s—really, it’s no more your fault than if you’d been driving and got in a crash, and she died. But your hippie friend might be smart to…continue his friendship with you over the phone,” Ozzie said.

  Crane was blinking around. Nothing had changed—the people who had been walking past the shops further up the street were still walking—but there seemed to be a ringing in the air and a quiver in the pavement, as if some thing had just happened.

  Caused by me…

  He and the old man resumed their labored progress down the sidewalk.

  “My hippie friend,” Crane said absently. He yawned. “It’s, what, it’s too late for my hippie friend, he’s already got cancer. Had it before he ever found me.” Crane felt very tired—he hadn’t got any sleep last night—but his heart was pounding, and his forehead was cold with nausea.

  “I’d hate to see him eat through that mustache.” Ozzie was staring ahead; Crane followed his gaze and saw Mavranos sitting on a brick planter.

  “Yeah, it is a sight,” said Crane automatically. He waved, and Mavranos hiked himself off it and slouched forward.

  “You say he found you,” said Ozzie. “Why was he looking for you?”

  It was an effort to speak. “He thinks I’ll lead him to the place where randomness lives—” He paused to try and take a deep breath, “—and he’ll be able to trick randomness into undoing his cancer.”

  Still frowning, Ozzie laughed softly. “That’s not bad. Like raising to the limit and then throwing away all five cards for new ones. Stupid and hopeless, but I like the style.” The old man’s hand was still in the pocket of the windbreaker. “Why don’t you go explain to him about my gun, hmm?”

  CHAPTER 12

  To the Chapel Perilous

  All three of them sat on the coping of the brick planter. Ozzie was on the end, a couple of feet away from Crane, and he looked at his watch.

  “I can give you boys ten minutes,” the old man said, “and then I won’t ever see either of you again in this world.”

  Looking away, the old man reached over and squeezed Crane’s hand for a moment.

  “After Diana called me last night,” Ozzie said, “I got in touch with some friends, and they’ve been watching the cars that park, and the ferry, and they had you two down for doubtful as soon as you’d got out of your truck. If I don’t walk away from you within half an hour of when I first spoke to you, Scott, a couple of them’ll walk down here and escort me away. And if I go any farther than this here spot with you, they’ll kill both of you. And of course, if anyone else should authoritatively join us—and even a helicopter would have a time getting in or out of here easy—we’re probably all three dead instantly.”

  Mavranos stared past Crane at Ozzie for a moment, then laughed. “I like this old fart, Scott,” he drawled.

  Crane forced himself to think. “How did that game on the water, the game on Lake Mead, give Ricky Leroy a lien on my body?” he asked quickly.

  Ozzie ran his free hand through his sparse white hair. “Fortune-telling by cards works sometimes. But it’s prescriptive rather than descriptive. When it’s working, if you take money for a hand, you’ve sold the hand, sold the lucky-in-finances or unlucky-with-girls or whatever the cards may happen to represent. If you pay money, you’ve bought it, bought those qualities, bought that luck. And a hand of Poker is a number of qualities. The sum of the five cards may mean that you’re rich but impotent, or happy but gonna die young, or any other combination of factors. You buy or sell all five at once, or all seven if it’s Seven-Stud. This much I told you years ago.”

  “Yeah, I—”

  “Shut up. That’s how you can buy or sell…consequences with cards; with bodies it’s trickier. To buy a guy’s body, you’ve got to become his parent first. I don’t know how that works; it’s got something to do with genes and cards both being quantized things, discrete things, and the fact that it’s a random selection of ’em from two sources that defines the resulting individual. There was a hand that was a combination of two people’s cards, and that hand defined you, and then you took money for it. It was you, it was the makeup of you, as surely as the pattern of your genes is the makeup of you, and you let Ricky Leroy assume it. Have it. Buy your body. He’s let you run around with it for twenty years, but after this next game, when he’ll buy another lot of idiots, he’s gonna take possession of the ripe old ones.” The old man had been staring hard at the pavement as he spoke, and now he pressed his lips together firmly.

  “And there’s nothing I can do even to…slow this down?”

  Ozzie looked up and exhaled. “Oh, slow it down—sure. Don’t drink alcohol. Dionysus isn’t a nice guy these days—he’s also known as Bacchus, the god of wine—and he’s on Leroy’s side. A case could probably be made that Leroy is Dionysus. Stay by water—on it, if you can—though you’re gonna start hating the sight of water like a hydrophobic dog. Don’t play cards; he can sense you if you do. But after Easter none of it will have made any difference.” He shook his head. “I’m very goddamn sorry, son.”

  Crane took a deep breath of the chilly sea air. “I’m going to fight it,” he said wonderingly, realizing that he meant it. “Fight him.”

  Ozzie shrugged and nodded. “It’s good to have something to occupy your time.”

  Mavranos leaned for
ward. “Me ditching my cancer. Is there a chance of it?”

  Ozzie smiled gently, and though it deepened his wrinkles, it made him look younger. “Sure. A worthless chance, but no worse than playing the lottery. If you can be in a…place, a focus, where a heavy recurrent statistical pattern turns random, or vice versa…something like when the pattern of a Craps table changes from hot to cold, if you could be at a sweaty high-stakes game when it shifts…it’s practically got to be in Las Vegas, you need the odds swarming like flies around you real thick, a lot of games working…and they all of them at once shift from in-step to not-in-step, a phase change, with you participating, you could come out with your cells not remembering that they wanted to go cancerous.”

  “Like what Arthur Winfree did with mosquitoes,” said Mavranos. Seeing Ozzie’s blank look, he explained, “Mosquitoes eat and sleep in a regular cycle, and the—the timing gear is the sunlight coming and going every day. You can shorten or lengthen that cycle, readjust the timing, by keeping ’em indoors and changing the periods of light and dark; and the various possible patterns, if you chart ’em, contain a math thing called a singularity. If you hit the mosquitoes with a bright light at precisely the right instant, they lose the cycle, just sleep and fly and stand around with no sense or pattern at all. Another calculated flash will put ’em back into the cycle.”

  Ozzie stared at Mavranos. “Yes. Very good. That’s a better example than my Craps table, though I still think you’ll have to try it in Vegas. Freest possible flow of numbers and odds around you, and psychic factors, too, you better believe it. And it’d help to go in with a very conspicuously ordered thing or person or something, so that when the rearrangement wave collapsed, there’d be incentive for it all to fall out on the side of order. Like a seed crystal.” The old man yawned and shrugged. “I think.”

  Crane shook himself and dug in his pocket. “And what can we do to save Diana?”

  Ozzie was suddenly alert. “What does she need saving from?”

  “Look at this,” said Crane, passing the old man the photograph of Lady Issit. “I assume ‘fold’ means ‘kill.’”

  “Yes, it does,” the old man said, reading the note on the back after having glanced at the picture. “She’ll be all right, I’m pretty sure. They’d like to use her, some of them, or kill her, but she’s not conspicuous—she never played any Assumption—and even if they captured you and me right now and shot us up with sodium pentothal, it wouldn’t help, because neither of us knows where she is.” He handed the photograph back. “No, son, the best thing we can do for her is leave her alone.”

  Ozzie looked at his watch and got down off the planter. “Time’s up.” With a sort of unhappy formality the old man held out his right hand, and Crane took it. “Now I’m going to go away and enjoy what’s left of my life,” Ozzie said, in the awkward tone of someone reciting a memorized speech, “and I suggest you…two…do the same. As it stands, I look like outliving, uh, the two of you, and I’m honestly sorry about that. Scott, it’s good to have seen you again…and I’m glad to hear you were married. Sometimes I wish I’d got married. Archimedes, I wish you luck.”

  Crane got down, too. “Diana didn’t say where she was living, but she said she was…what was it?”

  “Flying in the grass,” said Mavranos.

  Ozzie’s eyes lost their focus for a moment, and his head lowered slightly. Then he inhaled and exhaled, and he straightened up and pumped his fist three times in the air.

  Somewhere up the street a car horn honked twice.

  Ozzie gave Crane a tense look. “That means ‘please confirm.’” Again he pumped his fist three times overhead.

  The car honked again, and now a boat in the channel behind them hooted.

  “Okay,” Ozzie said, his voice shaky for the first time since Crane had met him, “You’ve bought an extension on your time. Tell me everything she said.”

  After Crane had recounted everything he could recall Diana’s saying, with Mavranos reminding him of a couple of details he’d mentioned last night while he was getting his leg bandaged, Ozzie leaned against the planter and stared up at the blackening sky. After a minute or so Crane started to speak, but Ozzie waved him to silence.

  Finally the old man lowered his head and looked at Crane. “You do want to save her,” he said.

  “It’s…nearly all I’ve got left to want,” Crane said.

  “Then we’re going to have to go back to your telephone, and you’re going to have to stab yourself again, or something, shove your hand in the garbage disposal if that’s what it takes, and when she calls, I’ll tell her to get out of where she is. If she stays there, she’s had it, she’s dead or worse, especially since she’s so naïve about all this stuff, the cards and all. I thought she’d be safer that way, but look where the little idiot runs to. But I’ll tell her to leave. And I’ll tell her how. She’ll listen to me. Okay?”

  “Put my hand in the garbage disposal.”

  “Not literally, but whatever it takes. Okay?”

  “…Sure, Oz.” Crane tried to put some irony into it, but even in his own ears he sounded sick and scared and eager to please.

  Mavranos was grinning. “Before you start making sausage out of yourself, Pogo—before we even go back home—let’s call your number. No use even going there, much less chopping you up, if they’ve cut the lines or got somebody there.”

  “Good thought,” said Crane, wishing he had a drink.

  There was a pay telephone back up the street in the entry of the Village Inn, and Ozzie put a quarter in the slot and then tilted the receiver aside as he punched out the remembered number.

  After two rings there was an answer. “Yeah,” a young man’s voice said earnestly, “this is Scott Crane’s residence, he’s—listen, could you hold a minute?”

  “Sure,” said Ozzie, nodding grimly at Mavranos.

  They heard the clunk of the distant telephone being put down; a dog was barking somewhere in the relayed background, and a car alarm was hooting.

  After a few moments the voice came back on. “Yeah, hello?”

  “Could I speak to Scott Crane, please?”

  “Jesus, Scott was in an accident,” the voice said, “he—wait, I can see Jim’s car pulling up, he was off visiting Scott at the hospital, Jim’s a friend of his, claimed to be his brother to be able to get in to see him, you wanna hang on ’til Jim gets in here? He’ll be able to tell you what’s what.”

  “I’m just calling for the Orange County Register,” Ozzie said, “to see if he wanted to subscribe. Sorry to have disturbed you at a bad time.” He pressed down the hang-up lever.

  “Wow,” said Crane. “They’ve got a guy in my place.”

  “Don’t talk for a minute,” Ozzie said. He walked away from the telephone, staring out the window at the yellow-lit street under the black sky. “I could put an ad in the personals,” he said softly. “But I couldn’t even hope she’d see it or get it unless I used her name, and I don’t dare do that…and I don’t even know what her last name is now…” He shook his head, frowning and unhappy. “Let’s go outside.”

  Crane and Mavranos followed the old man out onto the Marine Avenue sidewalk and matched his slow pace south, back toward the water. Shingled roofs steamed in the sunlight on the houses along the street, even as rain silently made spots on the pavement.

  “I haven’t held a hand of cards since that game in the Horseshoe in ’69,” Ozzie said. “I couldn’t take the chance on being recognized, and word getting back to you. I was sixty-one years old, with a car and twenty-four thousand dollars and a nine-year-old foster daughter and no skill, no trade.”

  Crane had started, to say something, and Ozzie waved him to silence. “You already said you’re sorry,” the old man went on, “and it was a long time ago. Anyway, she and I went somewhere a person can live cheap, and after a while I got a job—first time in my life—and Diana went to school. I made some good investments, and for these last…say, ten years…I’ve been comfortable
. I know enough about how things work to get help like I had this morning, and if it’s only once in a long while, I can even afford it.”

  Ozzie laughed. “You know what I do for work now? I make ashtrays and coffee mugs and pots, out of clay. I’ve got a kiln in my back yard. I sell ’em to these boutique-type shops, the kind of place that’s mostly for tourists. I’ve always signed ’em with a fake name. Anytime the demand for ’em gets serious, I stop making ’em for a year or so, ’til people forget they wanted ’em. One time a local paper wanted to do an article on me; I quit making the damn things for about six years after that. Publicity I don’t want.”

  The rain was coming down more steadily now, and the light was fading.

  “You ever been in jail, either of you?” Ozzie asked.

  Both men nodded.

  “Tell you what I hate, that little toilet with no seat, and you got six guys who gotta use it. And I hate the idea of someday maybe living behind a dumpster, wearing four dirty shirts and three pairs of weird old pants at the same time…and the idea of getting seriously beat up, you know, where you can feel stuff breaking inside you and the guys won’t stop kicking. And I hate the idea of being in a hospital with catheters and ventilators shoved into me every which way. Bedpans. Bedbaths. Bedsores.”

  He sighed. “What I like is my house, little old Spanish-style place I live in, all paid off, and my cats and my Louis L’ Amour books and my Ballantine scotch and an old Kaywoodie pipe stuffed with Amphora Red cavendish. And I’ve got all the Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller and Bing Crosby on cassettes.”

  “That’s what you like,” said Mavranos softly.

  “Right,” Ozzie agreed, staring ahead at the water. “Diana I love.” His wrinkled old face was wet with rain. “But I wonder…if I can even do anything. Of course, that’s my cats and L’ Amours and cassettes talking: There’s nothing an eighty-two-year-old man can do about it—so, sad as it is, stay home, with us.”

  “What’s ‘flying in the grass’ mean?” asked Crane uncomfortably.

 

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