Last call, p.17
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       Last Call, p.17

           Tim Powers

  Crane shrugged. “He wants to go.”

  Mavranos nodded, squinting off at the point where the highway disappeared into the eastern horizon. Then he looked down at his shadow on the asphalt, stretching away for yards in that direction. When he spoke, it was so quietly that Crane could barely hear him over the wind: “‘…I will show you something different from either/ Your shadow at morning striding behind you/ Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;/ I will show you fear in a handful of dust.’”

  Crane knew he was quoting Eliot again.

  Crane climbed into the passenger seat and pulled the door closed as Mavranos started the truck and clanked it into gear. Crane looked back at Ozzie. The old man’s head was leaned back against the top of the seat. His eyes were closed, and he was breathing through his mouth.


  What Would Your Husband Say to That?

  “Cannibal burger,” said Al Funo, smiling at the woman. “Very rare, with raw onions.” He took a bite of it and nodded in approval.

  “I never could eat rare meat,” she said. “I always like my steaks very well done.”

  Funo swallowed and wiped his mouth. “That’s probably because you grew up in the Depression,” he said. “In those days it didn’t pay to eat rare meat. Nowadays they say you can even eat pork rare.”

  “I did not grow up in the Depression,” she said. “How old do you think I am?”

  “I like women who are older than myself,” Funo said, frowning and nodding. “Ben Franklin felt the same way I do. I say you leave your car here and ride to Vegas with me, in my Porsche. What would your husband say to that?”

  She simpered. Evidently she’d forgiven him for the Depression remark. “My God, me pull up to the motel in a Porsche with a…sexy young man? It’d be World War Three all over again.”

  She was eating some kind of big salad. Probably she was worried about her weight. Funo could see that she was a little heavy, but he thought she looked good.

  He smiled and winked at her. She blushed.

  They were sitting at a table in the Harvey House restaurant in Barstow. Funo had stopped for a hot meal, and he’d noticed this middle-aged woman sitting by herself at one of the tables by the big windows that overlooked the early-evening desert, and he had carried his plate over and asked her if he could join her. He preferred not to eat alone—he enjoyed good talk with good people over good food.

  “And what are you going to be doing in Vegas?” she asked.

  “I’m going to look up a friend of mine,” he said. “I think he may be injured.”

  “A close friend?”

  Funo was still smiling. “Let’s just say I recently gave him a Dunhill lighter. A gold one.”

  “Oh,” she said vaguely.

  He took another bite of his cannibal burger and chewed thoughtfully. He’s alive, but you’re off this one, Al, Obstadt’s man had told him when he’d called in earlier today. We’ll let the guys in Vegas take it.

  Vegas, eh? Funo had thought. And there were Nevada plates on that gray Jag.

  Well, Funo wasn’t about to leave his friend to some damn strangers. He had taken one last assignment—one of the ones he called auto-assignments—and then had got right into his Porsche and taken off for Vegas.

  That last assignment had been an older woman, like this one. He had followed her to a 7-Eleven store and struck up a conversation with her about Danielle Steel’s novels. Funo could converse plausibly about anything, even things he knew nothing about. It was a gift. Out of sight of the checker he had given her an incapacitating electric shock with a black plastic stun gun, and then, after lowering her unconscious body to a sitting position on a stack of newspapers by the video games, he had taken a sharpened ice pick out of his jacket pocket and carefully stabbed her through the heart. He had left unhurriedly.

  An auto-assignment.

  Funo really did like older women. He wasn’t ashamed to admit that his mother had been the finest person he’d ever known, and he was convinced that years of experience, years of life, were what made a woman attractive. Younger women, he’d found, tended to be shallow. Al Funo had no time for shallow people.

  “I’d better be going,” his new friend said, getting to her feet. “Hours yet to Vegas, and Stu will be worried if I’m too late.”

  “I’ll walk you out,” said Funo quickly, pushing his own chair back.

  “No, really, thank you,” she said, picking up her purse.

  “I can check your oil and water,” he said, standing up. “Out on that desert you don’t want to—”

  “Honestly, I’m fine.”

  Was she…worried? Suspicious of him? “I’ll walk you out,” he repeated, perhaps a tad harshly.

  She was walking away, her head down. When she paid her bill at the register, the cashier girl looked over at him, not smiling. What had the old bitch said?

  Well, that put the kibosh on making her an auto-assignment. He didn’t need any kind of brouhaha. The thing about auto-assignments—the ones you took on all by yourself, for nothing more than the satisfaction of being important to strangers—was that they had to he done even more carefully than the business assignments because you wouldn’t be getting any protection. And of course, you wouldn’t be getting paid.

  He looked away from the cashier, forcing himself to breathe deeply and relax.

  He stared at the painting on the high wall above the kitchen. It was of a covered wagon leaving a little western town, but some trick of perspective made the wagon appear to be as big as a mountain, or else the town a miniature toy. The scale was impossible to judge.

  It didn’t upset him. Scales, the sizes of things, didn’t matter—people were people. There had been the woman in the 7-Eleven earlier today, and soon enough there would be Scott Crane.

  Al Funo just wanted to be important to people.

  The highway was a straight line in the twilight, a tenuous link between the dark horizon so far ahead and the red horizon so far behind. The old Suburban barreled along steadily, squeaking and rocking but showing a low temperature and a full tank of gas in the green radiance of its gauges. On either side of the highway the desert was pale sand, studded as far out as the eye could see with widely spaced low markers that looked like, but couldn’t have been, sprinkler heads.

  The ember of Mavranos’s Camel glowed as he inhaled, and half an inch of ash fell onto his already gray-dusted jeans. He exhaled, and smoke curled against the inside of the cracked windshield.

  “So what’s it like,” he asked quietly, “Vegas?”

  Crane inhaled deeply on his own cigarette. This section of desert was far bleaker and more humbling than the stretch before Baker had been, without even any broken glass along the shoulder, and the small smells and sounds and glows inside the truck were precious.

  “I haven’t been in twenty years.”

  “What you remember.”

  “It’s…pure,” Crane said. “It’s self-indulgence with no…no marbling.”

  “Sounds like a lean steak, no marbling.”

  Crane leaned forward to tap off his ash, but it fell to the floor. He leaned back. “Yeah. Yeah, did you ever read about that chicken heart that scientists took out of a—a chicken, and kept alive? The heart’s been alive for like fifty years now, and it’s grown to the size of a couch. Las Vegas is self-indulgence with every other part of life trimmed away, and it’s grown to a size that’s freakish. Not just grown like a city, you know, buildings and suburbs and all, but…grown to fill all the space, psychically. And what you get, the result—probably like the chicken heart—is—is blandness, with a kind of burnt aftertaste.”

  “How do they treat you? The casino people.”

  “Oh, everybody’s real cheerful, real helpful. The cops see you walking down the sidewalk with a drink in your hand, they just smile and nod. Everybody’s that way around the casinos, which is to say downtown around Fremont Street and out on the Strip. They don’t have to say ‘screw you’ because they already are sc
rewing you, in more ways than you know, and in more orifices than you knew you had.”

  Mavranos took a gulp from the can of beer that had been catching ashes between his thighs. “Sounds like fun.”

  For a while Crane watched the monotonous pavement rushing at them and tumbling away under the humming wheels. “It is, actually.”

  Ozzie had begun wheezing in the back seat, but now he coughed and shifted on the seat and resumed breathing normally.

  “Bother you,” Mavranos asked Crane quietly, “me drinking beer?”

  “Nah. I’m full of that damned tamarind stuff—couldn’t think of drinking anything.”

  “How you think you’re gonna do, being on the wagon?

  Crane thought of the beer he’d chugged in Baker. “I don’t think it’ll be any hassle. It’s just a habit I’ve got into, like coffee in the morning, or parting your hair on the left. I’ll probably just replace it with…I don’t know, Ovaltine, or Bazooka gum, or crossword puzzles.” He yawned. His cigarette had burned down to the filter, and he poked it into the ashtray and dug another one out of the pack.

  “You don’t figure you’re an alcoholic.”

  “I don’t know. What’s the definition of ‘alcoholic’?”

  Mavranos shrugged, staring at the highway ahead. “Can’t stop.”

  “Well, look at me. I stopped…hours ago, and I’m fine.”

  “Settles that,” said Mavranos, nodding. A big HarleyDavidson full-dress bike roared past them, its wide, lightstudded rear end looking like the transom of a receding speedboat; in a few moments it was just a spot of red light in the darkness ahead, and its engine was a distant whine.

  Crane hadn’t slept for about forty hours, and he was very tired—he was thinking of curling up against the door and napping for a few dozen miles—and Mavranos’s truck had a constant background noise of rattles and slidings and clanks and squeaks, so he was sure that the voice he seemed to be hearing from the back was imaginary.

  …it all anyway, and if they want to borrow it, ask them what happened to the weed whip thing, or our forks, and you remember what Steve said about that plant he had in his front area by the door and they stepped on it…

  “What are we doing out here?” he asked sleepily.

  “We’re off to see the Wizard,” said Mavranos. In a piping voice he said, “Do you think the Wizard can cure my cancer?”

  “I don’t see why not,” said Crane in an exhausted soprano. “We’re going to see him about saving my foster sister from getting shot in the face like her mom, and maybe even to see if I can keep my real dad from stealing my body.”

  “Hey, Pogo,” Mavranos said suddenly, holding his right hand out from the steering wheel, “like the Three Musketeers, let’s form a partnership—one for all and all for one, you know? Birth to earth?”

  Crane shook his hand. He remembered the movie West Side Story, too, so he added, “Womb to tomb.”

  “The thing that’ll save me is statistics,” said Mavranos, grinning as he put his hand back on the wheel. “I say I’m trying to find its castle, so I’m personifying it, right? I’m looking for the vizard of odds.”

  “That’s mighty funny,” said Crane. He yawned so widely that tears ran down his cheeks. “I’m crowding fifty years old. How come I’m not…what time is it?…I guess it’s too dark to be playing basketball with a kid of mine. I should be turning the burgers on the hibachi, and…Christ, if I had a kid, he could be twenty or thirty. He’d be home playing ball with his kid. Well, I should be…”

  Cooking spaghetti for Susan and me, he thought; she’d be in the spare room playing some Queen tapes, or some of her Styx or Cheap Trick, and I’d be sautéing onions and garlic and bell peppers, taking a swig every now and then from the cold Budweiser on the sill of the open window. There’d be no coffee cup in the stove….

  Coffee in the morning, said the faint voice that seemed to come from the back of the truck, or combing your hair on the left. Ovaltine, Bazooka gum, crossword puzzles. Why do you run me down to your friends all the time?

  Abruptly wide-awake, Crane turned around and looked past Ozzie’s sleeping form to the piles of litter in the dimness of the back of the truck. His forehead was cold with a dew of sudden sweat.

  “What’s up?” asked Mavranos. “Hear something?”

  Crane forced himself not to breathe fast. “No,” he said levelly. “Nothing.”

  Nothing, echoed the voice. I’m good enough for a quickie in the truck while your friends are inside, but when they’re around I’m nothing.

  Ozzie’s head came up. He looked around quickly, frowning and wiping drool from his chin. “Who are you and where are you taking me?” he demanded.

  “Oz, it’s me, Scott, remember?” Fright made Crane speak too loudly; in a quieter tone he went on, “We’re going to Las Vegas to find Diana. She’s—what was it?—flying in the grass.”

  The old man sagged, all his imperiousness gone. “Oh, yeah,” he said faintly, and then he shivered and pulled his suit coat more tightly around his narrow shoulders. “Oh, yeah.”

  “Be across the border into Nevada soon,” said Mavranos without taking his eyes off the highway.

  Ozzie wiped his eyes and blinked out the window. “I’d like to have seen more of California,” he mumbled. In a firmer voice he said, “Over the border we’ll be on their turf, his turf. Play tight.”

  Mavranos lifted a fresh can of beer from the ice chest and swirled his hand in the water, bumping a few cans together. “How much longer?”

  “To Vegas?” Crane said. “Another hour or so.”

  Ozzie shifted awkwardly on the seat. “I’ve heard that there’s a casino just over the border now. Dirty Dick’s or something. Let’s stop there for a bit. I think I’m going to throw up my Baker cheeseburger, and then I should eat something like a—a tuna fish sandwich, maybe, or a bowl of soup.” His knobby hands found the rubber grip of his aluminum cane and held it tightly.

  “I wouldn’t mind a bite myself,” said Mavranos. “Something with some onions and salsa.”

  Ozzie shut his eyes and clenched his jaw.

  Are you going to leave me in the car again? Why don’t you take me inside with you? You used to love me. You used to—

  “What was it,” asked Crane loudly, “that you didn’t like about the cards I threw down, when I was playing with the nut back there, I think it was the Ace and Queen of Hearts and the Ace of Spades?” The disembodied voice seemed to have stopped, so he let himself stop jabbering.

  Both Ozzie and Mavranos were looking at him with expressions of puzzled uneasiness.

  “Well,” Crane went on in a more normal tone, “you didn’t look as though they were good news, Ozzie. I thought of it just now and wanted to ask before I forgot.” He knew his hands would shake if he gestured with them, so he clasped them in his lap.

  “Oh,” said Ozzie. “Huh. Well, it may not have counted for anything, playing for sugar and candy like that. And I didn’t notice any funny business with smoke or drink levels.”

  “I read somewhere voodoo gods like candy,” put in Mavranos.

  “Or sea monkeys,” said Crane impatiently. “But what was it?” he asked Ozzie.

  The old man rubbed his face. “Well, as I told you, Hearts is the suit of the—the King and Queen. The sun King and the moon Queen, you know. And the Ace of Hearts is the combination of them, like yin and yang. Your father doesn’t want any such combination, though, or at least not one that’s not contained in himself. And the Queen of Hearts is probably still Diana’s card in some sense, since she’s the daughter of that Lady Issit, who was the goddess.”

  Crane remembered the card that had covered the Ace and Queen of Hearts. “And what’s the Ace of Spades?” he asked.

  Ozzie waved one spotted old hand. “Death.”

  That reminded Crane of something, but before he could catch the memory, Mavranos was speaking.

  “I think this place up ahead here is what you were talking about—Whiskey Pete’s it
s called,” Mavranos said, and a moment later there was the click-click, click-click of the turn indicator as he signaled for a lane change, and the sound continued as, moments later, he slanted off the highway onto the exit ramp and began to press the brake pedal.

  “How many maps did you get?” Ozzie asked suddenly.

  “Maps,” echoed Crane without comprehension. It alarmed him that he didn’t know what Ozzie was talking about, and he clasped his hands together even tighter.

  “From the nut,” Mavranos said. “When you went out to his car.”

  “Oh, right. I don’t know—three or four. They’re under Arky’s windbreaker there.”

  Whiskey Pete’s was a tan-colored, spotlighted and neon-lit castle, with turrets and towers and arches, and crenellations along the tops of the walls as if for the emplacement of only momentarily absent archers. The caricature figure of a gold prospector sat on the highest wall, above the giant CASINO sign, and at the far ends of the lower wall were two figures of Parisian-looking dancing girls. Behind the glowing edifice the hills of the desert were black humps against the purple sky.

  “Jesus,” said Mavranos as he drove across the vast parking lot toward the spectacle. “It looks like something that aliens would catch people in and then fold up just before dawn and fly back to Mars with.”

  “Does your dome light work, Archimedes?” asked Ozzie.

  “You bet.”

  “Let’s look at these maps right here in the car. I don’t like the idea of looking at them inside that place.”

  Mavranos parked and turned off the engine and the headlights, then switched on the dome light as Ozzie carefully pulled the folded maps out from under Mavranos’s windbreaker. He began unfolding the top one.

  In the anonymous darkness and swooping headlight glare of the highway, the dusty little Morris droned right on past the Whiskey Pete’s exit ramp, heading east, toward Las Vegas.


  God, There’s a Jack!

  “Poland?” said Crane, staring at one of the maps. “She couldn’t be flying in the grass in Poland, could she? And shit, look at the caption: ‘Partition of Poland, 1939.’” He laid the map over the back of the front seat so the other two could see it.


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