Last call, p.25
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       Last Call, p.25

           Tim Powers

  “You sensed it, did you?” panted Ozzie, pulling his head in.

  “No, I-I recognized her.”

  “All the way over there? You haven’t seen her since she was nine! That’s probably not her at all! Arky, go back around—”

  “I know it’s her,” Crane interrupted.

  The Mustang had turned right onto the street, and as Mavranos sped to the exit, Crane wondered how sure he really was. At least I’m sober, he thought. If it’s a mistake, it’s a sober mistake.

  Mavranos had turned right onto Maryland Parkway and accelerated after the Mustang, and in the next several seconds he changed lanes twice. “I think Scott’s right,” he growled. “She’s going like a scalded cat.”

  “Can you catch up, pull alongside?” asked Ozzie, his breath hot on Crane’s neck. “If she saw me, she’d stop, if I waved her over.”

  “I’ll be lucky to keep her in sight.” For once Mavranos had both hands on the wheel. His beer can had fallen onto the floor, and rolled against the door with each abrupt lane change. “What do you want me to do if we get a cop behind us with his lights on?”

  “Jesus,” said Ozzie. “Just keep going.”

  “Look for my phase-change cancer cure in jail, huh?”

  No one answered him. The only sound was the on and off roaring of the engine as Mavranos’s foot hopped from the gas to the brake and back.

  By the time she pulled to a stop at the curb in front of the white duplex on Venus Avenue, the woman obviously knew she was being followed; she hopped out of the car and took off at a flat-out run toward the front door.

  Crane leaned out his open window. “Diana!” he yelled. “It’s Scott and Oz!”

  She stopped then, stared at him and at Ozzie, who was leaning out of the back window and waving furiously, and then she sprinted back across the grass to the Suburban.

  “Do you know where my son is?”

  “No,” said Crane. “Uh…sorry.”

  Ozzie had his door open and stepped carefully down to the sidewalk. carrying his aluminum cane. “Let’s go inside,” he said.

  A pudgy young man with a scruffy beard was sitting on the worn living-room couch, his eyes closed and his hands waving as if he were conducting a symphony. “If we could all calm down!” he said loudly, on a rising note. “A tad of silence, if you please!”

  Everyone did stop talking, and now stared at him. Ozzie was frowning at him angrily, his wrinkled lip quivering with contempt. Crane imagined Ozzie had caught the scent of the young man’s cologne.

  “Who are you?” the old man asked.

  “My name is Hans. I’m Diana’s life-partner, and I care for Scat as deeply as if he were my own son, but he’s only fifteen minutes late.” He widened his eyes and looked around. “Di, I’m sorry I even called you. I’m certain he’ll be returning at any moment.”

  Crane looked at Diana, then looked away. She had grown into the beautiful woman he had always known she would become, tall and slim and goldenly blond, and there were twenty years of her life that he passionately wanted to know about, and if he and Ozzie were successful here tonight, he would never see her again.

  Diana turned to the chubby little boy who was standing by the fireplace. “Oliver, where did you last see him? How did you lose him? Didn’t I tell you to take care of your little brother?”

  The boy rolled his eyes. “Which question do you want me to answer first?” he asked, nervously defiant. “Okay!” he said quickly when Diana took a step forward, “We rode our bikes to Hebert Park, and I got talking to some…older kids. They call me Bitin Dog,” he added, glancing toward Mavranos and Crane.

  “You ditched him again, didn’t you?” said Diana.

  “Sheesh! He’ll be home in a minute, like Hans says.”

  “I suppose you’ve lost your job?” said Hans neutrally.

  Diana ignored him and turned on Crane, who flinched. “Does this have anything to do with that stuff you told me on the phone Friday?”

  “I—I don’t know,” Crane said. “So far I don’t think so.”

  “How’s your leg?”

  “It’s okay.”

  “Ozzie,” she said, crossing to the old man and hugging him, “it’s good to see you; it’s just a bad time.”

  “I know, honey.” Ozzie’s spotted old hand patted her back. “Listen, as soon as he comes home, you’ve got to leave town, understand? Tonight. Pack as little as you can—I’ll give you money—and then just go away, to some distant place, ditch your car as soon as you can and go on by bus, and give me a call and we’ll figure a way to get more money to you. Western Union would be quick enough; you could have the money and be long gone within ten minutes of calling me. I’m sorry about your life here, but you must have known this wasn’t smart, living here.”

  Her face was buried in the old man’s shoulder, but Crane saw her nod. “Okay, Ozzie,” she said, her voice muffled. “Wally, my husband, insisted on living here, and then after the divorce it just seemed too silly to leave.”

  “It’s still silly,” said Hans angrily, standing up. “What are you people talking about? We can’t leave Vegas; I’ve got the screenplay deal with Mike. What have you—you fellows been telling her?”

  Diana had stood back from the old man, and now Ozzie looked at Hans with widened eyes. “A screenplay deal? You know what, I think you’d better stay. You can meet another woman to be life-partners with.”

  Crane glanced at the little boy, who was calmly scuffing the carpet with the sole of his tennis shoe. The idea of leaving town, leaving these friends who called him Bitin Dog, didn’t seem to bother him. Crane wondered what the boy’s father, Wally, was like.

  Hans bit back a quick response, then said loftily, “I have confidence in myself—something I think some people around here should work on.”

  Mavranos grinned at him through his unkempt mustache. “I can see you’ve done real well with it.”

  Diana waved her hands. “Don’t fight. I always knew we didn’t belong here, and all I really own is the stereo anyway. Oliver, throw some clothes in your sausage bag, underwear and socks and shirts, and your toothbrush and your retainer.”

  The telephone rang. Hans waved dramatically for silence and turned toward it.

  “No,” said Mavranos sharply. “Let the lady get it. Scott, you listen in.”

  Diana looked at Mavranos as if he’d slapped her, but she let Crane walk her to the phone on the kitchen counter.

  “Hello?” she said when she’d picked it up.

  “Isis,” said a nervous young man’s voice on the other end, “I have your son.”


  Old Images Out of the Ruins

  “My name’s not Isis, you’ve got a wrong number—”

  Mavranos and Ozzie were both nodding at her. You are Isis, both of them mouthed.

  “You are so Isis,” said the caller. He giggled. “I’ve seen your face, Mother. On the Queen of Hearts card and in the lines on my maps. Otherwise, what would—would—be the pointing go?”

  Crane beckoned to Ozzie and Mavranos, and as they hurried to the open kitchen, he wrote with a pencil on the white Formica counter.

  NUT IN BAKER, he wrote. MAPS, GO FISH.

  Maybe we can help in this, he thought excitedly. Maybe we can rescue her son for her. For Diana, I can stay sober.

  “Mother, I need to talk to you,” said the caller. “I’m at a telephone right now, as you might say, but I’ll be going to my Las Vegas box, which doesn’t have a phone, which is where your son is, with tape holding him in a chair. It’s a Skinner box, like the bowling pigeons. It’s out of town on Boulder Highway past Sunset Road, go till you see a gas station on your right that’s boarded up, and there’s a dirt road that goes behind it. My box is, can’t see it from the road, just.”

  “Is my son all right?”

  “Scat, he tells me. His real name is Aristarchus. He’s fine, I didn’t tape his nose. I won’t hurt him if you’ll come and talk to me tonight; if you don’t, I
ll cut his head off and talk to you later.” He chuckled. “A man tried to sink a head in Lake Mead yesterday, can you imagine? The lake made the bats chase him away.”

  “I’ll come and talk to you,” Diana said hastily. Her phone-clutching hand was against Crane’s cheek, and her fingers were cold.

  “I know,” the caller went on, “exactly how long it takes to drive from your Isis temple, where you are, to the box, so don’t talk to police. If police are in our picture, I’ll kill Aristarchus. But you won’t call them, and we can talk. You’re bothered, by this, and that’s arctic should be. I don’t mean to—to get you bothered, but I had to do something to make sure you’d talk to me. At least I didn’t visit you yesterday, right? It was my day yesterday, and that would have been rude, visiting you with my feathers on.”

  Crane scribbled, HUSBAND. Above it he wrote, BRINGING YOUR.

  Diana nodded. “I—I don’t—I have to bring my husband. If he can’t come, he won’t let me see you ever.”

  There was a long pause, and Crane wondered if he’d ruined everything, if the young man would now simply hang up. Then, “My father’s with you?” said the voice on the phone.

  Crane bared his teeth in indecision, then shrugged and nodded.


  “Sure. You both leave right now. The clock has begun to tick.” There was a distant rattle, then the dial tone.

  Diana hung up. “Let’s go, Scott,” she said.

  “Right,” said Crane, tense with an excitement that was almost joy, in spite of the evident fear that had bleached and leaned Diana’s face. To Mavranos he said, “You guys can follow us, but way back. We’re going to take a dirt road by a boarded-up gas station out of town on Boulder Highway, past something called Sunset Road, on the right. I’ll have the .357 under my shirt.”

  “You’re crazy,” yelled Hans, “I’m calling the police! You always call the police with a kidnapping; they’re trained—”

  Ozzie’s lined old face was twisted, as if he faced a painfully bright light. “This guy knew who Scott was, Diana, and he knows who you are: the Queen of Hearts, Isis, her daughter at least. He might just be able to know it, too, if you called the cops. Anyway, the police would make you stay in town for a while. And I really think you’ll be killed if you stay. Your sons, too.”

  “What’s this, supernatural?” Hans squalled. “You think she’s Isis, the Egyptian goddess? Give me that phone.”

  “I’m the parent,” Diana said forcefully to him. “It’s my decision. I’m going, and the police won’t be called. And we’ve got to go now.”

  Hans was shaking his head and taking deep, whooping breaths. “Okay! Okay! You’re the parent, it’s your decision. But I’ll go with you, then, at least. I am your husband, practically, and I can certainly speak more effectively than this bum.”

  At the door Diana turned. “No. You’re nothing like a husband.”

  Ozzie pointed at the fat little boy. “Oliver there should come along with Archimedes and me.”

  Hans forced a shout of laughter. “Archimedes? Have you got Plato out in the car, too? Let him do the talking.”

  “Wait here,” Diana told him. “I’ll call you when I know anything.”

  Ignoring Hans’s continuing protests, the five of them hurried out to the cars.

  Al Funo’s teeth were chattering, and his face was puffy and streaked with tears, but he wiped his eyes on the sleeve of his silk shirt when he saw people hurry out of the duplex down the block.

  There’s Scott Crane, he thought, with a woman who must be the famous Diana. Mr. Mustache is giving Crane something from the other vehicle, and now Crane and Diana are in the Mustang. And Mr. Mustache and Ozzie and some kid are getting into the other vehicle. What a ridiculous, Jeepy-looking thing!

  It sure does scoot, though, he admitted to himself. I doubt that anyone less than a professional driver could have kept up with them the way I did, from that supermarket. I’m glad I noticed that they were chasing the Mustang and not trying to shake me, before I got a chance to pull alongside and shoot them. If I had, I’d never have got a chance to meet Diana.

  And she’s an attractive woman. I have no problem with that. I’m not one of these guys who feel threatened by attractive women.

  He started his engine and patted the wheel. And I can keep up with them this time, too, he thought. This Porsche can outperform anything. You don’t find unimportant people driving Porsches.

  Diana was driving, her blond hair fluttering in the night wind coming in through the driver’s side window. “Nut,” she said expressionlessly. “Baker. Maps. Go Fish.” She glanced at him. “Who is this guy, and how did he find my son?”

  “Well, his name’s”—Crane impatiently snapped his fingers twice—“Snayheever, Dondi Snayheever. I think he’s crazy. We met him in Baker, and he talks like—like a nut. He’s one of the people who’ve been…waked up, motivated, galvanized, by all the stuff that’s going on here right now, with the heavy Easter about to come ’round again, the game on the lake probably due to start up again next week, for the first time in twenty-one years. He’s not the only one we met, coming across the desert, and they’re probably coming in from other directions, too. In Baker he was talking about you—that is, the Queen of Hearts. He had a bunch of maps that he thought would lead him to you. We stole a couple, but I guess one of them did the trick for him.”

  “You didn’t lead him to me?”

  “No. We just arrived in time to help answer the phone. We’ve been looking for you in every supermarket in town since Saturday night. Barely found you tonight. I recognized you.”

  A rushing streetlight highlighted the planes of her face for a moment. “So is this all actually true?” she demanded angrily. “All this supernatural shit?”

  Crane thought of the thing that seemed to be the ghost of his dead wife. “I think it must be.”

  “God.” She took a deep breath and let it out. “I guess I didn’t ever really believe all of Ozzie’s warnings.”

  “Don’t feel bad. I didn’t either.”

  “What do you mean, don’t feel bad? You sound like that crazy man on the phone: ‘I know this must bother you.’ My son’s life is in danger because I didn’t do exactly what that old man said.”

  “Diana, my wife died because I didn’t listen to him. I didn’t mean to sound flip.”

  She glanced at him for a moment. “I know. I’m sorry. I sensed it, when she died. I meant to call you, but I didn’t know what to say, and then it was—it seemed too late.”

  “I would have pretended she was fine. I fooled everybody, even myself eventually.”

  “So what are we going to do here?”

  “Jesus, I don’t know. I think he does just want to talk to you, but he might just as likely want to kill you. I don’t think he’s got anything against your kid—Scat?”

  “Nickname for Scott. He’s named after you.”

  He remembered the way she’d written Scott on the crayon portrait of him she’d done when she was eight years old—with one bar through the T’s, which she had thought was very sporty—and there were tears in his eyes. “Diana, I swear to you we’ll get you and your kids out of this.”

  She didn’t answer, just kept her eyes on the cars ahead. She did reach over and squeeze his hand.

  It was the first time they’d touched in two decades.

  Waiting for a fare in front of the Four Queens on Fremont, Nardie Dinh fainted at the wheel of her cab. She was unconscious for only a moment, fortunately not long enough for any dreams to illuminate her unconscious mind and pinpoint her location for her brother, but her cab had rolled forward and clanked the bumper of the cab ahead.

  She opened the car door and stepped dizzily out onto the noisy, crowded, ripplingly lit pavement, hoping that if she fainted again, the pain of the fall might wake her up, and she fumbled a little plastic bottle out of her shirt pocket and chewed up two crosstops, amphetamine tablets.

  The driver of the other cab was standin
g by her front bumper. He had been cursing until he saw that the negligent driver was a pretty young Asian woman, and now he was just gruff.

  “Just a minute,” she told him. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

  She hurried in through the open doors of the casino and blundered through the chilly tobacco-scented dimness until she found a Blackjack table. The dealer was using a multiple deck, and two of the hands on the red felt table showed a Jack of Hearts next to a Queen of Hearts.

  “Shit,” she whispered, really frightened for the first time since escaping from DuLac’s.

  Dondi Snayheever waited in his idling car in the parking lot of the abandoned gas station until there were no headlights very close in either direction, and then he switched off his own lights and drove very slowly off the cracked old concrete and up the dirt road.

  His father had bought this land sometime in the early fifties, and might still own it. The old man had said that the place had strong vibrations, that it would be a good place for the boy to learn, that the cards would be livelier here.

  His father. His father was coming to see him, for the first time in nine years. With his mother!

  Snayheever didn’t seem to be able to hold on to any one feeling about his father. Over the years since 1981 he had sometimes missed the old man so badly that he had returned to the Baker box, crawled inside, and then just shouted for him until he was hoarse, thinking that he might that way turn back time, so that his father would not have disappeared yet; at other times he wanted to kill him for having left his son to deal with an incomprehensible world all alone.

  The little car lurched over the top of the low hill, and he could see his plywood box off to the left among a stand of yucca.

  It occurred to him that young Aristarchus here was his brother. Snayheever was treating him a little harshly, for a brother. He’d have to lift the kid up and put a cushion on the chair under him.

  Outside town the glow of the Mustang’s headlights on the rushing highway ahead of them was the only light besides the faint silvery glow thrown by the half-moon.


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