Last call, p.14
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       Last Call, p.14

           Tim Powers

  Ozzie blinked and looked over at him. “Hmm? Oh—it’s an old pilots’ term for flying very low, crowding the ground, to avoid showing up on radar screens. Scoot in around the hills and barely clear the power lines, and you’re just one more bit of the base-fuzz that’s the features of the terrain. You can be right under the enemy’s nose, but you’re keeping such a low profile that he doesn’t even see you.”

  They were back to the storm drain warning sign, and Ozzie led them to the right along the waterfront walk, toward the ferry. Mavranos, evidently impatient with the slow pace of his companions, was walking backward in a zig-zag pattern ahead of them.

  “What have you got in the way of travel necessities?” the old man asked. “I don’t think it’d be smart to go anywhere near your place.”

  “Actually,” said Crane, touching his pocket, “I’ve got about two grand on me.”

  “I’ve got some bucks, too,” said Mavranos, “and Scott’s got a .357 in the car, and I’ve got a .38 Special in the glove compartment, and I gather you’ve got a gun. A shotgun and ammo we can pick up on the way—and a locking box so we’ll be legal when we cross the border.”

  Ozzie was nodding.

  “Border?” repeated Crane. “Where are we going?”

  “To where your foster sister is,” said Mavranos impatiently, “to the Chapel Perilous in the Waste Land. Las Vegas.”

  Ozzie was shivering. “Yes. Back to Las Vegas.” He began walking faster. “Let’s step it up here, gentlemen,” he said in a brittle, nearly cheerful tone. “Do you have a heater in your fool truck, Archimedes? I probably forgot to say that being cold is also one of the things I hate.”

  “Got a heater that’ll hard-cook eggs in your shirt pockets,” Mavranos assured him. “But I got no air conditioner; that’ll be a factor when we’re out in the nowhere middle of the Mojave Desert.”

  They filled the Suburban’s gas tank and radiator and checked the tires, and then spent two hundred dollars at the Grant Boys on Newport Boulevard for a Mossberg shotgun and a box of number six shells. The shotgun was a pump-action twelve-gauge with a seventeen-inch barrel and no shoulder stock, just a hard black-plastic pistol-grip, and Crane winced at the thought of all that recoil slamming into the palm of his hand; Ozzie would probably shatter his old wrist if he were ever to shoot it. They also bought a four-foot-long gun-carrying case with an orange plastic finish molded to look like alligator hide; it had a piano-hinge down the long side away from the handle, and when it was opened out flat, the interior was two sheets of gray foam rubber knobbed with patterns of rounded pyramids. Mavranos said it looked like an electron microscope view of atoms in a crystal, and Ozzie said shortly that he had already gathered that Mavranos was smart, and didn’t need to be reminded all the time.

  Ozzie let the two younger men carry the purchases out to the truck—Scott moving slowly and favoring his bad leg—and then the old man climbed carefully into the back seat and got himself settled before Mavranos started the engine and turned right onto the boulevard.

  The interior of the truck was steamy, and Crane cranked down his window to get relief from the smells of motor oil and old socks and crumpled takeout bags from Taco Bell.

  Newport Boulevard had just broadened out into the Newport Freeway when Ozzie leaned forward from the back seat and tapped Mavranos on the shoulder. “Take the 405 north there, like you were going to the LAX airport.”

  Crane looked back over his shoulder at the old man. “I thought we were going to Vegas—straight up the 55 here to the 91 east.”

  “Do as I said, please, Archimedes,” said Ozzie.

  Mavranos shrugged and made the long turn northward onto the 405. He took a sip from a fresh can of Coors.

  “Uh,” said Crane. “Isn’t this…the long way to Las Vegas?”

  “You think your old man’s nuts,” said Ozzie tiredly, rocking on the back seat next to a battered tin Coleman stove. He sighed. “Listen, you wouldn’t sail to…Catalina, even, would you, without checking reports on the weather and currents and tides? And there’s nothing between here and Catalina that would particularly love to see you dead, and anyway, it’s only twenty-six miles. Well, boy, right now you’re aiming to drive more than two hundred miles, through all sorts of weather and tides you never even heard of, with a lot of bad guys watching for you.” He shook his head. “You gotta clock the tides first, boy.” He bared his yellow teeth in what might have been a grin. “We gotta check the weather, lick a finger and hold it up in the breeze, so we’ll know what kind of rigging to use. We gotta go to Gardena.”

  Mavranos squinted into the rearvie mirror. “Gardena?”

  “There’s legal Poker clubs in Gardena,” Crane said, “and in a lot of the other areas of L.A. around there.” He shifted around on the front seat. “But you always said not to play in those places.”

  “Not for money, no,” said Ozzie, “paying for your seat and playing with people whose betting habits you don’t know. But we’re not after money today, are we? And the worst thing about trying to make money at these big Poker emporiums, with like fifty or a hundred tables working, is that the fortune-telling effect naturally happens that much more often, and when it starts at one table, a lot of times it’ll spread.”

  “Like a seed crystal again,” said Mavranos.

  “Right. You’ll find the savvy players always have cigarettes burning even if they don’t smoke, so they can watch how the smoke behaves—it starts puddling above the middle of the table, they get out—and they’ll have some drink, mostly just Coke or water, so they can keep an eye on the level of it, same reason. But I’m gonna want to see the…tides of fortune. And I’ll get into some smoke-puddling games, and if the hands I get apply to us, I’ll try to buy us good luck, or sell bad luck to somebody else.”

  “What do you want us to do?” asked Mavranos.

  “You got cigarettes?” Ozzie asked.

  “Half carton of desert dogs back there. Camels.”

  “Well, you two can play if you’ll keep cigarettes lit and watch the smoke—and fold out when it acts funny. Now I think of it, Scott, it might be a good idea for you to play some; if they sense you, they’ll put you in L.A., which you’re not gonna be for much longer. Otherwise be railbirds—watch, have a sandwich, whatever.” Ozzie was peering out ahead through the cracked windshield. “North on the 605 here—catch the 5 and take it north, that should take us into the middle of it, and being close to the L.A. River won’t hurt, though it’s always dry.”

  Even after twenty-one years Crane knew Ozzie’s voice well enough to know that the old man was scared—taking risks he’d avoided even in the days of his prime, jumping out of his comfortable old man’s routine with no time at all to prepare, without even spare clothes or personal possessions or books or any idea of where he would wind up sleeping tonight, or the night after—but Crane could sense, too, the disguised excitement.

  The old man was chasing the white line again.


  Come Back Here on New Year’s Day, You See Nothing but Dirt

  Al Funo drove slowly past the old Spanish house that was 106 East Second Street. He had put the rear window back into the Porsche, and the heater was keeping him warm in spite of the chilly wind shaking the palm trees.

  He drove on past the house, and when he saw the old green Torino with its shot windows in the parking lot beyond the duplexes, he smiled. This was the guy all right.

  He had got the address from a friend who could run license plate numbers; it had taken more than twenty-four hours, but Scarecrow Smith—or, as his real name seemed to be, Scott Crane—apparently hadn’t gone anywhere.

  A blue van with tinted windows was parked on the other side of the street, and as Funo drove slowly past it, he noticed a faint, powdery white mark on the front side of the rear tire; that implied that a meter maid had chalked the vehicle recently, so recently that the driver had moved only a few yards before parking again. Was someone watching Crane’s house? Obstadt’s man had
warned him that this assignment might be contested.

  He looked more closely at the other cars parked along the street under the carob tree boughs, and noticed: an old pickup truck, empty; a Honda, empty; and a gray Jaguar, with a fat bald man sitting inside.

  Funo turned left onto Bush Street and then right onto Third. He drove for a block and then pulled into a Chevron station that had a pay telephone at the edge of the asphalt apron, out by the self-serve air and water hoses. He got out of his car, got Crane’s telephone number from information, and punched it in.

  The phone rang twice at the other end, and then a young man’s voice said, breathlessly, “Scott Crane’s residence, can you hold a minute?”

  “Sure, friend,” said Funo easily, watching the sweep second-hand of his Rolex. He had at least three minutes before anybody could possibly trace the call, even if they’d managed to get Pacific Bell security to put a trap on the line.

  “Sorry,” said the voice after only ten seconds. “Scott was in an accident, he’s in the hospital.”

  Nicked him after all, thought Funo. “Jesus,” he said in a shocked tone, “what happened? I was playing Poker with him Tuesday night!”

  “You were? Listen, he keeps asking for two people—he’s semi-conscious—two people named Ozzie and Diana. Do you by any chance know who they are?”

  “Sure I know Ozzie and Diana!” said Funo instantly. “Listen, what hospital is he in? I’ll bring them over.”

  A car alarm in the Norm’s parking lot started up, monotonously honking beep…beep…beep as a couple of shabbily dressed men walked hastily away down the sidewalk. Stupid bums, Funo thought.

  “It’s,” said the voice at the other end, “shit…I can’t remember the name. Jim’s the one who knows it, and he’s on his way back…right now, matter of fact. Why don’t you pick up Ozzie and Diana and bring them over to the house? Or just give me their numbers, sure. I—”

  “I can’t right now,” said Funo. “How about if I call back soon, when Jim’ll be home?” He spoke loudly, for he could hear the car alarm both directly and, more faintly, over the telephone.

  “Could you give me their numbers?” asked the agitated young man. “Where do they live? Diana he ’specially needs to see.”

  “I don’t know exactly, they’re friends of friends. When can I call and catch Jim?”

  “God, I don’t know how long either of us is gonna be able to hang around here. Uh—are you at a number where Jim can get hold of you?”

  Funo looked around at the gas station lot. “For the next half hour anyway, sure. Got a pencil?” He read off the number of the pay phone.

  “Okay,” said the voice on the other end, “got it. We’ll get back to you quick.”

  “Thanks,” said Funo. “I really appreciate it. I mean it.”

  He hung up the phone.

  Something was bothering him, and he always paid attention to his hunches. What was it? That noise, the car horn honking on and on…

  He’d heard it over the telephone as well as directly. Therefore, the young man at the other end had probably heard it both ways, too, and would know that Funo was calling from a nearby outdoor telephone.

  Funo quickly folded himself into the Porsche and drove across Third and parked behind a Pioneer Chicken restaurant, then walked inside and sat at a table from which, through the tinted glass, he could watch the gas station. If nothing happened within half an hour, he would drive to another phone and call again.

  Within five minutes the gray Jaguar had pulled into the Chevron station, and the fat man hauled his startling bulk out of the driver’s seat. He looked at the telephone, and then for several seconds looked around at the nearby cars and pedestrians. After a while he stumped over to the cashier window and talked to whoever was inside.

  Funo’s heart was thumping, and a twitchy grin bared his teeth. Pretty good, he thought. They could tell I was within earshot to the north. I wonder what they had for south—another car horn, in a different pitch or cadence? A barking dog? A realistic-looking street lunatic chanting about Jesus?

  Through the tinted window Funo watched as the fat man got back into the idling Jaguar, and for several minutes just sat there behind the wheel; then the car moved off, turning left onto Third Street, back toward Crane’s place.

  The Jaguar had a Nevada license plate. Funo wrote down the number.

  The Commerce Casino was the first one Crane saw, a gigantic cubical building that from the front looked like some ancient Mediterranean temple, with its arched entrance and gold pillars and expanses of windowless wall, and looked like a prison from around in the back lot, where they had to park. There was even a little guard tower back there. To the south side of the casino a dozen high-tension electrical cables hung from the skeletal silver shoulders of a line of tall towers that marched away to the north and south; on the long, narrow plot of land under the towers, as if nourished by the electromagnetic fields, knee-high pine trees grew in dense rows.

  Ozzie stared back at the cables and the trees as he and Crane and Mavranos slowly walked toward the building, and he muttered something about evergreens under hydroelectric power.

  Mavranos told him that land under power lines wasn’t good for much, and that a lot of such stretches were used as Christmas tree farms. “Come back here on New Year’s Day, you see nothing but dirt.”

  Ozzie nodded, frowning.

  The inside of the casino was one vast room; when a person had walked in through one of the several glass doors, street level became just the level of a wide, raised, railed walkway that ran all the way around the acre of playing floor five steps below. Tables and chairs and couches lined the rails, and doors in the high walls opened onto a delicatessen, a bar, a banquet room, a gift shop, and even a hair salon. Mirrored pillars, square in cross-section, rose to the high mirrored ceiling.

  Mavranos sat down to have a beer, and Crane and Ozzie split up.

  Crane hopped down the nearest set of steps to the playing floor and then limped through the maze of tables.

  The games were quick, the house dealers shuffling low to the table and then skimming the cards out across the green felt, the players checking and folding and betting so inconspicuously and rapidly that Crane several times found himself unable to tell whose bet it was, or what the amount. Some of the players had hamburgers—or even full dinners, with mashed potatoes and gravy—on little wheeled wooden carts beside them, and they found a calm second or two now and then in which to bend over the food and shovel some into their mouths without taking their eyes from the table.

  Crowds of Asians stood around tables where some game was being played that involved dice in a brass cup as well as cards, and the chips being shoved back and forth in tall stacks were the black hundred-dollar ones. The hasty diners around these tables all seemed to be eating noodles with chopsticks.

  Under the frequent loudspeaker announcements—“JT, One and Two-Stud,” “DF for the one-three Hold ’Em”—were the constant click and rattle of chips.

  Crane gave his initials to the floorman who was working the five-and ten-dollar Five-Card Draw chalkboard, and while he waited for his turn to get a seat at a table, he leaned against the rail and watched the nearest game.

  It was as fast as the others he’d watched, with the white plastic disk that indicated the honorary dealer moving around the table at nearly the pace of a plate of food being passed at a Thanksgiving dinner, and he noticed that players had to chant, “Time…time…time,” if they wanted to consider their next actions without risking being passed over.

  For the first time since his teens, Crane felt intimidated by the idea of getting into a poker game with strangers. It’s like some kind of fast, complicated folk-dance, he thought, that I’m not sure I know all the moves to.

  “SC, five-ten Draw,” said the floorman into his microphone.

  Crane hopped down the steps and waved, and then walked to the indicated seat. The people at his table all seemed to have been there for at least hours, and
seemed to have grown old in this room or others like it.

  Crane bought a couple of stacks of yellow five-dollar chips and waited for his first hand. The dealer, an expressionless woman in the house uniform, shuffled and whirled out the cards. Crane was the first person dealt to, and he belatedly noticed that the dealer button lay in front of the bearded man to his right. I’m under the gun, he thought.

  Crane gathered in his cards and curled up the corners—and repressed a smile. In a textbook example of first-timer’s luck, he had been dealt a pat Full Boat, Tens over Queens. He passed, and then raised when the bet came around to him after someone else had opened; and when the draw came, he tossed out the two Queens, face up. “I know I can fill this Flush!” he remarked cheerfully.

  The irrational move got some raised eyebrows and muttering from the others at the table—but one of the two cards he was now dealt was the last Ten, giving him Four of a Kind. Five people besides him stayed, and two of them were still in for the showdown after three raises. There was complete silence at the table when he showed his hand and swept the stack of yellow and tan chips into his corner.

  On the next hand he had a Two, Five, Seven, Nine, and Ten, unsuited. Someone opened, someone else raised, and Crane raised again, and then raised again when the bet came around one more time. At the draw he threw all five of his cards away and asked for five more.

  This time a couple of players muttered angrily, as though Crane were making fun of the game.

  His new cards were a Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten, and Queen, again unsuited. When the bet came around to him, he shook his head and threw the cards down face up. “Almost caught the Straight that time,” he said, frowning thoughtfully.

  After this he played tight, staying only with a pair of Aces or better before the draw and only with a very high Two Pair or better after it, and the lunatic image he had established with the first two hands impelled at least one of the other players to call him every time he stayed.


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