Last call, p.23
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       Last Call, p.23

           Tim Powers
 

  He clenched his teeth and took a deep breath.

  Christ, he told himself, never mind, get the box in the water and moor the line somewhere where no goddamn drunk tourists will find it during the next two weeks, and get the hell out of here.

  He looked around among the rocks and the manzanita bushes for a good spot, and he noticed the flock of swallows out over the lake.

  He assumed they were swallows. They had the individual darting flight patterns of those birds, certainly—but something was wrong about their wings. And there were other flocks, he now noticed, lots of them, further away. He shaded his eyes to look at the flying things.

  Then his stomach went cold, and sweat sprang out on his forehead.

  They were bats.

  Bats, he thought dazedly—but bats don’t ever come out during the day. What’re they, crazy, rabid? Is something going on?

  He looked away, to see where they might be headed, and he saw that the sky to the south, too, was peppered with the same jiggling dots.

  They’re coming here. To this little island, from goddamn everywhere.

  He scrambled along the little shoreline to a cluster of rocks, and he tossed the gleaming box out over the water; it splashed in while he was tying the end of the line around a half-submerged rock.

  And then shadows were whirling around his feet like spots before his eyes. The bats were circling low overhead, silent except for the clatter of their leather wings, and more were coming in from everywhere. The battering wind of their wings disarranged his hair.

  He looked up in horror. The furry, toothy little faces flashing past, the bright round eyes were all staring at him.

  Something was splashing furiously in the water now, and in panic he swung his head toward it.

  The lake water was boiling where he had thrown the box in, and then, impossibly, the heavy box bobbed to the surface, spinning and glittering on the turbulence.

  The lake is rejecting it, he thought dazedly. Is that a bunch of fish doing that, or has the water changed its density to keep from enclosing the head?

  The clatter of the bats’ wings was louder, closer, and he thought he could smell them, a smell like death.

  Just run, he told himself.

  They’ve beaten you here today.

  Biting back bewildered sobs, he yanked the box back in to shore with one hand while shielding his face from the bats with the other, and then, with the shiny dripping box dangling from his fist, he blundered back down the beach and splashed out to the boat.

  When he had tossed the box onto the seat, climbed in himself and in neutral gear deafeningly gunned the big car engine under the Plexiglas hood behind him, the bats seemed to circle higher; and when he spun the wheel and slammed the shift into gear and goosed the boat out across the water straight away from the island, they didn’t follow, but broke away and dispersed across the sky.

  He let the engine fall back to idle then, and sat panting and shaking in the suddenly becalmed boat as he watched the creatures scatter away, back to the mountain caves in which, on any sane day, they’d have lingered until sunset.

  For the first time since the day in the school library when he had figured out the nature of this mystical western kingship, he wished he could break the regimen and drink—get really, thoroughly drunk.

  Eventually he got the boat moving, as slowly as the erratic throttle would allow, back toward the marinas of the Lake Mead Resort. Tears and sweat slicked his classically handsome face.

  I killed Max for nothing, he thought dully. The sacrifice was rejected, like Cain’s.

  How could that have happened? Did I disqualify myself by killing Max? No, worse things were done by the old kings. Should I have waited, or done it sooner? Is there already a king’s head in Lake Mead, and there isn’t psychic room for another?

  By the time he got back to the rental dock he had shaken off the passion of loss and hopelessness.

  I can still become the king, he told himself as he pulsed the engine and nudged the boat in toward the crowded dock. But I’ve got to find my damned half-sister—I’ve got to find Nardie Dinh.

  The westering sun was intensifying the orange color of the motel curtains as Crane shuffled the flimsy little deck and dealt out onto the bed five cards each to himself and Ozzie and Mavranos. It was too early to start searching the supermarkets again, and Ozzie had forbidden fooling around with real cards, so Mavranos had fetched from the Suburban a kids’ Crazy Eights deck he’d got at a Carl’s Jr. hamburger restaurant.

  Every card had a cheery, stylized picture of an animal on it, and as the game progressed and cards were discarded face up, Mavranos was amused by the selection of colorful, grinning birds and beasts tossed out across the motel bedspread.

  “You know why nobody could play cards aboard the Ark, don’t you?” he asked.

  Crane rolled his eyes, but Ozzie looked up suspiciously. “No,” the old man said, “why?”

  Mavranos took a sip of beer. “’Cause Noah was sitting on the deck.”

  Dry summer thunder boomed, out over the McCullough Range to the south.

  Oh, come on, thought Crane, it wasn’t that funny.

  CHAPTER 19

  A Skinny Man Trying to Get Out

  The micrometer looked like a monkey wrench for some insanely fastidious mechanic, and its gleaming precision seemed out of place amid the chip racks and adding machines and cigarette-burned desks of the cluttered casino office. Nardie Dinh dutifully held the tool up in the fluorescent light and read the number on the round metal sleeve.

  “This one’s right on, too,” she told the frowning floorman as she loosened the ratchet knob at the base and freed the second of the pair of dice he had brought to her.

  She held the translucent red cube close to her face and looked at the faint, tiny initials she had scratched into the one-dot face of the cube, and then she flipped it over and found the microscopic moon symbol she had delicately etched on the six-dot face. Both marks were, of course, exactly as she had scratched them in at midnight, when her shift as night manager of the Tiara Casino dice pit had begun.

  She put down the red cube and the micrometer and absently wiped her hands. “They’re good,” she told the floorman shortly. “He’s not switching in his own dice.”

  “How can he be rolling so many snake eyes then? The boxman says he’s been rolling them the right way, bouncing them off the table’s far wall every time.”

  Because, Dinh thought, tonight when I put my mark on the dice, I asked the Craps tables if I would succeed in my purpose, and snake eyes means Yes, if no others are involved.

  “I don’t know, Charlie,” she said. Her latest coffee was still too hot to drink, so she held up the Styrofoam cup and inhaled the vivifying steam. “Is he betting the proposition two, or the Any Craps?”

  Charlie the floorman shook his head. “No, he’s losing, playing the Pass Line with dollar chips. But other people are starting to play those bets, and one of ’em could be a partner.”

  “It’s got to be just chance,” she told him, “but let’s unwrap some fresh dice from the factory and I’ll mark them and we can just retire all the dice that are out there now.” And this time I won’t ask the tables any question, she thought.

  Charlie looked disconcerted. “All the dice?”

  “That last lot might have been funny. I like to err on the side of safety.”

  He shrugged. “You’re the boss.”

  When he had gone to get the boxes, she stood up from the desk and stretched. She had applied for this job because the Tiara was perhaps the last casino in town that still had the shift managers initial the dice, and she was so closely aligned with the moon that, with her moon mark on the dice, she had several times been able to get answers from the little cubes.

  This was the first time the answer had been so evident as to excite attention, though. I suppose, she thought, if I were to ask them anything next week, when the moon is full, every pair of dice in the place would come up identical, ove
r and over again.

  She stretched again, lifting her elbows and massaging her narrow shoulders. Four hours since I parked the cab and got out of the uniform, she thought, and I still feel like I’m bent behind a steering wheel. I’ll be glad when dawn rolls around and I can get out of here, drive down to placid Henderson.

  For a day job, she had found a little insurance office in Henderson that needed a bookkeeper. She was generally at her most lethargic when the sun was up, so the automatic-pilot work of adding numbers was ideal, and in the insurance office, eighteen miles south of Las Vegas, she was not likely to be recognized by any of the people who knew her from her night jobs.

  Which was just as well—they’d wonder when she ever slept.

  She frowned, remembering how unconsciousness had nearly caught her yesterday.

  Yesterday at exactly dawn she had almost fainted in the cashier’s cage while she’d been putting away the drop boxes for the next shift manager, and when the blurry dizziness had passed, she had hurried out onto the floor to the nearest table, where a desultory two-dollar Blackjack game was going on.

  For a couple of minutes, like the fading figures on a switched-off computer screen, she had seen the Jack and Queen of Hearts showing up more often than they had any statistical right to, and she had known that a powerful Jack and a powerful Queen had just passed very close to each other somewhere out there in the streets of the city.

  Dinh was determined that she herself was the one who would be wearing Isis’s crown come Easter, and she wondered now what she might have to do to prevent this mysteriously powerful Queen from beating her to it.

  She didn’t want to kill anyone except her stepbrother.

  The sound of a key turning in a lock.

  In the moment of waking up, Funo thought his own motel room door had been opened, and he snatched the pistol off the bedside table. Then he realized that he was alone in the room; the sound had come though the earphones he’d been wearing while he slept.

  “I bet she moved,” came a man’s voice, faintly. He must have been facing away from the wall between the two rooms. “I bet when she got Scott’s call, it spooked her into just pulling up stakes and moving to Ohio or somewhere.”

  Funo put down the gun, then sat up and began pulling on his pants, carefully so as not to dislodge the earphones. He looked at the little electric clock—seven in the morning.

  “I…don’t think so,” said another man, his amplified voice louder. “I keep getting…impressions that aren’t my own, little whiffs of worry and humor, and tastes, like yesterday I tasted a wine that I hadn’t drunk. I have the feeling she’s nearby.”

  “Well, probably one of those stores we hit was the right place, and they lied. Supermarkets probably have a policy against telling strangers the names of their employees. Especially strangers who look like they’ve been sleeping in their clothes.”

  “Nah,” came the voice of a third man, who sounded much older, “we’ve met three wrong Dianas, haven’t we? We’ll find the right one yet. She didn’t have the sense to at least work in one of the North Las Vegas places, so she must be in one of the ones down by the Strip. There can’t be more than a couple. We’ll find her tonight.”

  Funo zipped up his pants and, leaning as far as he could against the slack of the headphones wire, managed to grab a clean shirt from his bag.

  “What if she’s changed her name, then, Ozzie?” the first man’s voice went on. “I bet she would have, from the things you told her about this town.”

  “Then we’ll probably see her,” said the old man in the next room. “And yes, I will be able to recognize her, even after a dozen years.”

  “You don’t have to come, Arky,” said the second man, who Funo guessed was Scott Crane. “I mean, we can take cabs. You’ve been looking tired, and cash ain’t our problem.”

  “Me? What the hell do you mean by that? I ain’t been tired. Nah, one more night. You guys might get into a fight, and you’d need me. I can track my odds today, and tonight mess with the slots in the market entrances while you guys go in and ask your question.”

  “One thing for sure,” said Ozzie, “tomorrow we spring for a decent breakfast. One more of these dollar-ninety-nine specials is gonna burn its way right out through the front of my shirt. Boys, it’s bedtime. You wanna talk, do it outside.”

  A loud bumping came over the phones now, and Funo realized that at least one of the men in the next room must intend to sleep on the floor. Funo glanced nervously at the wire that disappeared into the hole he’d drilled in the drywall on his side, and he hoped whichever of them it was wouldn’t notice the little hole on the other side.

  After a few minutes he relaxed. All he could hear now was slow, even breathing.

  He took off the earphones and stood up, buckling his belt, then took the telephone into the bathroom and punched in the number that went with the gray Jag.

  The phone at the other end rang once, and then a tape-recorded voice recited the number back at him. Right after that came the beep.

  “Uh,” said Funo, rattled by the rudeness of it, “I know where the people you were looking for Saturday are in California. I mean, you were in California, looking for them. Scott Crane and Ozzie and Diana.” He waited, but no one picked up the phone. “I’m going to call this number again in three hours, that’s ten o’clock exactly, let’s say, and then we can dicker about how much my services would be worth to you.”

  He hung up. That should do something.

  As he went to the closet to select a shirt, he reflected that old Ozzie was right—a good breakfast was important. Maybe there was a Denny’s nearby. He could buy a newspaper and sit at the counter and maybe get into a conversation with somebody.

  Vaughan Trumbill had cleaned up the breakfast dishes and vacuumed the living room and hall, and now sat at the desk in his room, writing checks in Betsy’s big old checkbook. At a quarter to ten he figured up the new balance and inked the number at the bottom of the current page; then he closed the book and put it in the drawer.

  He crossed to the aquarium and allowed himself to net up a two-inch-long catfish; he held it carefully just behind the head and bit off the body. Chewing strongly, he lowered his hand into the water and uprooted an Amazon sword-plant, swirled it in the murky water to get the dirt off the roots, and then folded that into his mouth. The catfish head he wrapped in several sheets of Kleenex and tucked into the pocket of his white shirt as he continued to chew his snack.

  Live snacks, though of necessity generally skimpy, were always the most satisfying.

  The white walls of his room were uncluttered by any pictures, and his window looked out onto a flat expanse of gravel and a high gray cinder-block wall. As always, he stared around at the sterile simplicity before leaving the room, breathing the chilly, odorless air, imprinting it all in his mind—for the rest of Betsy Reculver’s house was a clutter of bookcases and overstuffed furniture and framed photographs, and these days she used too much perfume.

  LaShane came trotting up to him in the hall, and Trumbill absently patted the big Doberman on its narrow head. Before stepping into the living room, he automatically glanced at the television screens above the doorway to make sure that there was nobody in the back or side yards or the area around the front door.

  Betsy Reculver was sitting on the couch in the living room, staring at her hands in her lap, and when he entered the room she glanced at him blankly. “Beany,” she said, then went back to staring at her hands.

  He nodded and sat down in the only chair in the room she would let him put his weight on. He dug the Kleenex-wrapped catfish head out of his pocket and unobtrusively dropped it into a nearby wastebasket. He didn’t like having organic stuff in the wastebasket in his own room, even just for a little while.

  He looked around the living room, remembering times when there’d been half a dozen men sitting around waiting for Betsy’s orders. Trumbill had found her and started working for her in 1955, when he’d been twenty-six, newly hom
e from having learned the truth about the world in Korea. Some of the men working for her—Abrams, Guillen—had been with her since before 1949, when she’d still been inhabiting the Georges Leon body.

  That poor old Georges Leon body, which was now known as Doctor Leaky.

  Eventually, during the sixties, when she’d been Ricky Leroy, she’d had to kill all of them.

  Every one of them had eventually come to want the throne for himself, the immortality that could be had through assuming a succession of one’s own children. Trumbill knew that she…he, it, Georges Leon, really…had considered killing him, too, before finally realizing the truth—that Trumbill was not interested in any life beyond the life of his own body.

  A skinny man trying to get out.

  He knew all about the skinny man. He had seen him many times in Korea, the skeleton in the ditch, all the juices leaked or evaporated away, with only the flimsiest leathery remnant of skin to cover the intolerable bones—all the substance lost, gone to nourish other life: bugs and plants and birds and dogs.

  Emptied.

  In Korea he had formed the resolution to fill himself, to contain as much of all that other organic life as possible, to bury the skeleton as far below the surface of his skin as he could. And Betsy had sworn that when he eventually died, she would make sure that he was sunk in a block of cement before burial, so that nothing should be lost, ever.

  Reculver stood up now and walked to the bookcase and back.

  “Whew. I hope he doesn’t choke of asthma before he can get to his fresh inhaler,” she said irritably. “I didn’t let him take one break since that call at seven.”

  “Any signs?”

  “I had Beany in the Seven-Stud game the whole time, so as to see more cards. The goddamn Queen of Hearts kept showing up, so I think this Diana person is in town somehow. There’ll be other women around, wanting Isis’s crown, but she’s the one with the advantage of actually being a physical child of the old Queen, that Issit woman you folded in ’60. I wish to hell you’d got the baby, too, then.”

 

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