Last call, p.26
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       Last Call, p.26

           Tim Powers

  I should have got the kids out of town, at least, Diana thought, as soon as I got off the phone with Scott on Friday night. Anything, like Moses’ mother putting her baby son in a boat and just letting the river take him, rather than let them stay for this. That’s what a good mother would have done. At least Oliver is with his grandfather in the truck a hundred yards back.

  “Closed gas station up ahead,” said Scott.

  “I see it.”

  She slowed and signaled for a right turn—and then she saw something out of the corner of her eye, and gunned the engine and yanked the wheel around, and the car spun out in the roadside gravel and came to a halt on the shoulder, rocking on the abused shocks, pointing back the way they’d come. The engine was quiet—stalled.

  “What is it?” Scott whispered urgently. His hand was under his shirt, on the grip of the revolver.

  “A car—” Dust from the spinout swirled outside the windows of the rocking car, but she could see well enough to know that it had been a hallucination. “I must be going crazy. I thought I saw a car leave the road real fast and blow up—right over there.” She pointed at a half-demolished cinder-block wall on the south end of the gas station lot.

  Crane squinted in the direction she was pointing, and for just an instant he saw a blooming yellow fireball, curdling black at the edges, rising into the sky, in perfect silence—then it was gone, leaving nothing but a dark blur in his vision.

  “I saw it too, for a second—” he began. Then he paused, his mouth still open.

  He had seen it through his right eye. The plastic eye.

  “What’s the matter? What was it?”

  “I don’t know,” he said, opening his door and stepping out onto the highway pavement. The broken cinder-block wall at the south end of the lot was weathered and cracked, surrounded by windblown trash, and didn’t seem to have been even approached by anyone for decades.

  Diana had got out, too, and was standing on the curb. The night wind blew the stirred-up dust away across the desert.

  Crane looked at her and shrugged. “Maybe it was something that happened here a long time ago, and the Jack and Queen of Hearts arriving together stirred old images out of the ruins.”

  “Well, let’s get back in the car, the dirt road is—”

  The flat, hard pop of an outdoor gunshot interrupted her, and Crane heard the whine of a ricochet off the asphalt a dozen yards to his right.

  He hurried around the car, grabbed Diana and pulled her back to the highway side, and forced her down into a crouch behind the fender.

  “My father first!” came a call from the crest of a low hill behind the station. “My mother wait in the car, for just a minute. Everything’s fine! Everything’s fine!”

  Well, I guess you got a gun, Crane thought, echoing what Snayheever had told them in Baker two days ago.

  “Okay,” Crane whispered. “Ozzie and Arky are parked back there; you can just see the car with its headlights out, see it? If you hear another shot, run back and get them. They’ll have some ideas.”

  “But you’re not this guy’s father! Won’t he see that right away?”

  “It’s dark,” Crane said, “and he’s crazy. If I can get close to him and he’s not actually pointing his gun at your kid, I’ll kill him. I imagine he’ll have the gun pointed at me.”

  “So you’ll be killed.”

  “Maybe not. Anyway, I’m dead already, ask Ozzie.”

  He stood up and limped slowly around the car. Diana had turned off the Mustang’s headlights, so the moon was the only light, but its radiance was bright enough to show the dilapidated station and the lot and the dirt road that curled away behind it to the top of the hill.


  He looked back. Diana was standing up behind the car, and now she hurried to him and hugged him tightly. “I love you,” she said. “Come back safe.”

  “Two little lovebirds,” sang Snayheever up on the hill, “sittin’ in a tree, kay-eye-ess-ess-eye-en-gee.”

  “Christ,” Diana whispered, “get my son away from that man.”

  “I will,” Crane told her as he started forward again. “Get back behind the car and stay there.”

  Crane was sweating as he limped up the dusty, hummocky road, and the breeze not only chilled him but seemed to sting, as if he’d rubbed Ben-Gay all over himself. His bad leg stung and ached. Why hadn’t he got a beer from Mavranos as well as the gun?

  He wondered how much he might happen to resemble Snayheever’s father. Would the crazy young man simply shoot him from a distance when he saw that Crane was the wrong man?

  Was Snayheever’s finger tightening on the trigger right now?

  Crane flinched, but kept limping up the hill.

  He tried to imagine being shot, in the frail hope that picturing it would enable him to face it and not stop right where he was and turn around and go hopping and sliding and whimpering back down to the car.

  A punch like a hammer, and then you’re down, he thought, and the place where you’ve been hit feels numb and hot and loose.

  It didn’t help. Each second was a hard choice between going on and running back to the precious penumbra of the car body.

  If he kills you, he told himself, you’ll just be joining Susan. But the only image of Susan that he could conjure up right now was of the thing that had been convulsing in his closet as he had climbed out of his broken bedroom window on Friday night.

  You’re going to die anyway, he thought desperately, for having stupidly played in that Assumption game. This way you die trying to save Diana’s son’s life. Purposeful instead of pointless.

  But the death by Assumption won’t happen tonight. If you run away, you can have breakfast tomorrow, a good breakfast with a big Bloody Mary in a nice place, with Ozzie. Would the old man hold it against me that I turned back here?

  Yes, thought Crane, despairingly and almost angrily, he would.

  He began taking longer strides, snarling at the pain in his stabbed thigh.

  “Dad!” called Snayheever.

  Crane rocked to a halt and looked up through sweat-stung eyes, but couldn’t see him. “Yes, son?”

  “You changed. You did the trick they’re all excited about; you got the cards to get you a new body!” The young man’s laugh was shrill with excitement. “Are you a brother of mine now, too?”

  Crane couldn’t apply logic to it, so he just called, “That’s right!” and kept limping up the road.

  “That was a gunshot,” said Mavranos, staring ahead through a rubbed-clean spot of the Suburban’s windshield.

  “Yes,” agreed Ozzie, “but Scott walked up the hill openly enough. Is Diana still by the car?”

  “Yeah, crouched behind it. How long you want to wait before we drive up?”

  “I don’t know.”

  From the back seat came the sneezy puff of a beer can being opened.

  Mavranos glanced back, then leaned back over the seat and took the can from young Oliver. “Thanks, kid—but from now on I’m the only one to touch the beers, okay?”

  “I drink beer,” said Oliver defensively. “Give me a gun—I’m small, I can sneak around and waste this motherfucker.”

  “Watch your mouth, Oliver,” said Ozzie sternly without looking away from the Mustang.

  “Call me Bitin Dog.” The boy seemed feverishly excited by the night’s events. “Really, I got the kid into this, ditching him, and I can get him out.”

  “Just sit, Oliver,” said Mavranos impatiently. “And if you get out of this car, I’ll catch you and whup your butt like I would a little kid, okay? Right here beside the road where everybody’ll see.”

  A white sports car had driven past them, and now its brake lights glowed as it pulled in behind the Mustang.

  “Who the hell’s that?” asked Ozzie.

  “Stranger, probably, thinks Diana needs help. I hope she can get rid of him.”

  “Be ready to get over there fast.”

  Diana half hoped this new car wa
s police, but when she saw the well-dressed young stranger get out and start walking toward her, she bit her lip and pretended to be looking at the lug nuts on her wheel.

  She smiled up at him. “I don’t need any help, thank you. My husband left a long time ago, looking for a phone. He should be back with a tow truck in a second.”

  “You shouldn’t be crouched in the road like that, Diana,” the stranger said. “A car could easily hit you. And if I know Scott, I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts he’s gone off to find a Poker game.”

  Diana stood up slowly, unable to take a deep breath. This must be a partner of the crazy man up the hill.

  “You and I can be friends, can’t we?” the young man asked. He was smiling, but his face was puffy and blotchy in the moonlight.

  “Sure,” she said eagerly. Apparently this man was crazy, too. Humor these people, she told herself.

  He exhaled as if in relief and put his arm around her shoulders. She forced herself not to recoil, to maintain whatever sort of smile was tensing her cheek muscles.

  “Tell me the truth,” he said. “Do you find me attractive?”

  Oh, God, she thought. “Of course, I do,” she said. He didn’t move—his head was still cocked down, listening. Apparently what she’d said had not been enough. “I”—she went on helplessly—“I can’t imagine any woman not finding you attractive.” What are you doing, Scott? she thought. Have you got Scat? Kill the nut up there and then come down here and kill this one.

  The man chuckled. “There are some weird women in this town, Diana, I kid you not. Scott can take your car back to town, can’t he? What say you and I get in my Porsche and go have dinner? Las Vegas can be a very romantic town”—he squeezed her shoulders—“if you have the maturity, the self-confidence, to let yourself be open to new experiences.”

  “I thought you…people…wanted to talk to me, both of you, I mean. What about my son?”

  “You have a son? That’s good, I like women who’ve had some experience of life. I—”

  “Do you know why I’m here?”

  “Car trouble, I assume. Probably something simple, something Scott doesn’t have the mechanical aptitude to deal with. After dinner we can—”

  Diana squirmed out of his half embrace and backed two steps across the pavement. “You’re just some guy? You’re not involved in this?”

  “I want to be involved,” he said earnestly. “Let me help you. I’m a good man in a crisis—”

  Diana was sobbing with fury. “Get the fuck away from me, you piece of shit! Haul your worthless little ass back to that jerk-off car and crank it out of here. Go!”

  He was backing away. “D-D-Diana, I don’t tolerate—”

  She opened the Mustang’s passenger door and got in and slammed it. “Clear off, queer bait,” she said.

  He ran back to his car, started it, and then sped past her so closely that she braced herself against the impact of a crash. Then he had narrowly hurtled past, and his white car was just twin red spots dwindling in the rearview mirror.

  “I ought to kill you, Dad.”

  Crane’s sweaty face was cold in the hilltop breeze, and he was panting, largely from the effort of having climbed up here to the crest. “You don’t know the whole story,” he said. He wanted to look back down the hill toward where Diana waited, but he made himself smile confidently into Snayheever’s eyes and peripherally focus his attention on the little automatic in the young man’s fist.

  “Have I seen your body before, this new one?”

  “I don’t think so,” said Crane, grateful that his sweaty hair was down across his forehead, and that he had been out in the parking lot of The Mad Greek during most of Saturday’s Go Fish game.

  For ten full seconds Snayheever kept the gun pointed at him, while the wind hissed in the sparse, dry brush, and then he turned and pointed it away across the desert. “Let’s go to the box. I’m glad you’re here, is what the truth is. I need to know more about my mother before I talk to her.”

  Crane knew he should pull out his own gun and shoot the young man right now—and his hand wavered up toward his flapping shirttail—but then Snayheever had swung the muzzle of his automatic back into line, aimed at Crane’s solar plexus.

  The moment was gone.

  “After you, Dad,” said the young man.

  Raging inwardly at his own indecisiveness, Crane shrugged and plodded forward.

  The box proved to be a low plywood shack. Crane had to stoop to enter. There was a skylight, and inside by filtered moonlight he saw a little boy sitting in a chair. Duct tape gleamed on his mouth, and on his wrists where they were held against the chair’s rear legs. The boy’s eyes were wide.

  Crane looked back at Snayheever, who had come in right behind him. Snayheever had the gun pointed halfway between Scat and Crane.

  Not yet, Crane thought. Wait till it’s pointed away, or at least fully at me.

  Trying to seem relaxed, he looked around at the shack’s interior. A box in one corner was covered with a flannely-looking cloth, and, startled by it, he looked up at the skylight. It was stained glass, though now it shone only in a spectrum of grays. He had dreamed of this place yesterday. In the dream there had been a cup and a lance head on the cloth-draped box.

  “Yup,” said Snayheever, nodding jerkily. “Yesterday I was caretaker. On Holy Saturday you all get to fight over who gets to hold them during the next cycle.”

  Snayheever was shaking and frowning. Crane mentally rehearsed pulling out the .357 and aiming it and firing it.

  “This is your fault, this shaking,” Snayheever said. “Tardive dyskinesia, from too much Thorazine they gave me.” He pointed the wobbling gun at the boy in the chair. “Mother’s here now, and I don’t really need any brothers. In my head sometimes my eyes roll up with this, and then Aristarchus would get loose and kill me, so not to share the mother.”

  The boy in the chair was wide-eyed now, humming shrilly behind the tape and tugging his bound wrists against the chair legs.

  Crane couldn’t shoot Snayheever now, not with the gun pointed at Scat; the shock of a bullet’s impact would probably make Snayheever pull the trigger.

  The blood was singing in Crane’s ears as he opened his mouth and spoke. “Look what I brought,” he said softly.

  Snayheever swung the gun toward him, and Crane reached up and yanked the .357 out of his belt.

  The little automatic went off, and as Crane fired his own gun he felt that hot punch in his side, above the point of his hip-bone; cocking the revolver for another shot, he jumped sideways and knocked the chair over and went to his knees beside it, blocking Scat from any more shots.

  His ears were ringing from the blast of the .357, and he’d nearly been blinded by the muzzle flash, but he could see Snayheever groping for the automatic, which was spinning now on a moonlit patch of the floor.

  Crane swung the revolver back over his shoulder and then slammed it down, hard, onto the back of Snayheever’s head.

  The revolver nearly sprained Crane’s unbraced wrist when it fired again, and as he tumbled forward across Snayheever’s body, he was showered with gleaming shards of broken glass.

  Crane sat up, grabbed Snayheever’s gun with his left hand, and flung it up through the shot-out skylight. Then he climbed to his feet, bracing himself on the altar box.

  Snayheever was apparently unconscious. Crane tucked the hot revolver back into his belt and, shivering violently, dug his hand into his pocket to get out his jackknife.

  The Suburban was already parked right behind the Mustang when Crane and the boy crested the top of the hill, and Mavranos was halfway up from the highway side, running in a low crouch with his .38 glinting in his hand. Ozzie was hugging Diana, perhaps holding her back, beside the Mustang.

  “It’s okay!” Crane yelled hoarsely. He swayed, his right hand pressed against his side. “It’s me, with the kid!”

  Then Mavranos had sprinted the rest of the way up the hill and was beside him, panting.
br />   “Damn, Pogo,” Mavranos gasped, “are you shot?”

  “Yes,” said Crane through clenched teeth. “Let’s get out of here before we deal with it. The nut’s back there in a shed, knocked out. I don’t think we have to go back and kill him, do you?”

  “Nah, nah, let’s just get out of here like you say. Diana and her kids can be in Provo or somewhere by dawn. You okay, kid?”

  Scat just nodded.

  “Your mom’s down there, go say hi.”

  The boy peered down the hill, then saw Diana’s Mustang and took off at a run.

  “Carefully, kid!” Mavranos yelled after him. He bent and pulled Crane’s blood-sopping shirt away from his side. “Aw, this ain’t so bad, man. Just grooved you, didn’t even touch the muscle layer, and the bleeding’s no more than what you’d get from a good cut, no arterial spurting. I can bandage this; it’s nothing compared to what you did to your leg.”

  Crane let his shoulders slump. “Good. You do that, when we get away from here.” During the hasty, agonizing walk from the box to the hill crest he had been imagining passing out from loss of blood, and then at best waking up in a hospital bed, his body picadored with drains and IV tubes and a colostomy bag.

  “Arky,” he said weakly, “when we get down there, I’m going to drink one of your beers, very fast, and then another one very slow.”

  Mavranos laughed. “I’ll join you. And if old Ozzie objects, I’ll sit on him.”

  Mavranos had his arm under Crane’s shoulders and was taking his weight as they shuffled down the dirt road. Crane could see Diana break away from Ozzie and come running across the gas station lot, past the wrecked cinder-block wall.

  “Here comes Diana,” Crane said, for the moment too happy to take a deep breath. “I saved her son.”

  “And got a battle wound,” agreed Mavranos. “Maybe I should let her patch you up.”

  Headlights were approaching on the highway from the south, and they slowed as they approached the two vehicles parked on the west shoulder. Crane made his eye focus on it; he hoped it wasn’t police.

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