Last call, p.28
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       Last Call, p.28

           Tim Powers

  They were directly across from the blazing Mirage volcano now, and Crane glanced to his left at the crowds of people standing along the railing beyond the sidewalk. His window was rolled down, and he could hear the roar of the flames over the crowd sounds, and even from way over here he thought he could feel the heat.

  He considered what Diana had said. This is all yours, Ozzie, he thought. I’m out of my depth here.

  For nearly a minute Ozzie just frowned at the traffic ahead.

  Then he said thoughtfully, “Christ. Move all-in. You’ve been getting penalized like a player in a tournament who oversleeps and automatically gets all the antes and blind bets deducted from his absentee buy-in, and those involuntary bets have—have cost you, horribly. Now you’re awake, though you’re under the gun with a Jack and a Four down and a Queen showing. But they’re suited.” He shifted around on the front seat. “Could you fish me a beer out of the ice chest there, honey? It’s okay,” he added to Crane, “the Four of Hearts is allowed to drink. The Jack’s still not, though.”

  After Diana had opened a can for him and handed it across the back of the seat, the old man took a deep sip. “Yeah,” he went on. “You’ve paid the blind, this latest involuntary bet, and now maybe the only thing you can do is move all-in, shove your whole pile of chips out there right now.”

  The old man’s chasing the white line again, thought Crane. Toward a game where they’re likely to kill us all.

  “They won’t expect alligator blood,” Ozzie went on, “in somebody who’s been playing like such a rock.”

  Crane remembered the term alligator blood—it was how old Johnny Moss had described the toughness of real Poker players. As far as Crane knew, Moss was still winning tournaments at Binion’s Horseshoe, and by now Moss must be…as old as Ozzie.

  “So what are the chips?” Diana asked. “And how do I push them in?”

  “Uh…you ought to consult the Queen,” said Ozzie, “but she’s dead. That was your mother.” The old man sipped his beer with a hand that he was visibly forcing to be steady. “Her…ghost will probably be rousing up lately, with this unholy Holy Week almost on us, and the moon is at the half and filling now, so she and you should be getting more powerful. And there will be other women in town now, trying for the queenhood, but you’re the daughter, you’re already standing where they want to be. They’re wanting to find you and get you out of the picture and then stand there instead. You’re the one the real Queen of Hearts would…give an audience to.”

  Crane was stopped at a traffic light next to Caesars Palace, and he stared at the crowds of pedestrians crossing the street toward the torches and imperious statues above the casino’s entrance temple.

  “So what do I do?” Diana asked. “Consult a Ouija board? Take acid and meet her in a hallucination?”

  “No, no. I’m pretty sure anything like that would just make you conspicuous, let your rivals know right where you are. And stay away from playing cards or any gambling. In fact, stay away from Scott—he’s to the King what you are to the Queen, and when the two of you are together, it probably shines like a road flare.”

  “No problem,” said Diana.

  Crane stared ahead through the cracked, neon-streaked windshield and didn’t respond, but his lips were pulled back from his clenched teeth. I stabbed my leg, he thought, to be able to warn you about all this, three whole days ago. If you’d run then, Scat would be fine. I walked up that hill. I got the nut to turn his gun away from your son, onto me.

  “Water, fresh water,” Ozzie was saying now. “It’s associated with the moon goddess. I think if you could bathe in the fresh, wild water of this place, and try to…think to her, your mother, Lady Issit, you might get something.”

  “Bathe,” said Diana doubtfully. “But Ozzie, I bathed in the water of this place just this afternoon, and nothing happened. I’ve been bathing in this water every day for eight years!”

  “No, you haven’t. Don’t you read the papers? They’re having a water war in Nevada these days. Las vegas is Spanish for ‘the meadows,’ it’s in an artesian basin, but even in the forties the wells had begun to run dry, sink-holes started to appear, as the water table dropped. It was only in eighty-two that the city got access to Lake Mead water, and now that’s not enough, and they’re after the water in central Nevada—Railroad Valley, Ely, Pioche. Las Vegas is supposed to take no more from those places than rainfall puts back, but the city has applied for the right to take more, what they call mining the aquifers.”

  Crane thought about his vision of the vast entities deep in the psychic water table. He wondered if it, too, was low around here, depleted by some unimaginable use.

  “The bad king,” Ozzie went on, “has almost certainly encouraged all this. He doesn’t want any wild goddess power under the ground. He wants tamed water to serve as the counter-weight. Don’t you go near Lake Mead before talking to your mother.”

  Construction was going on at the Holiday Casino to the right. Crane frowned at the big neon-lit replica of a riverboat. The massive, balconied structure was facing north now, and he distinctly remembered it as having faced west the last time he’d paid attention to it. Was it revolving?

  “Like,” Diana said slowly, “a well? Rain?” In the rearview mirror the right side of her face was whitened by the electrically glaring words HOLIDAY CASINO emblazoned across the towering paddle wheel.

  Crane thought about how this road had looked when he had driven out here with his real father, so long ago. The Frontier had been a casual ranch-style place, the El Rancho Vegas up ahead had been a little Spanish-looking inn, and the Flamingo had stood in solitary grandeur far away in the darkness to the south.

  “Or the ice cubes in drinks that have been sitting around since the forties,” he told Diana.


  Go Ahead and Shape It into a Pig

  The carousel bar at the Circus Circus was on the second level, which was really a wide railed balcony that ran around the entire circumference of the vast casino, so that the banks of clanging slot machines were visible in the darkness below. The casino was, in fact, hollow; overhead, beyond wide-strung nets in the middle distance, acrobats in tight, sequined suits swung across the firmament on trapezes under the remote light-hung ceiling.

  The bar itself was slowly rotating, and as Crane followed Diana out onto the moving floor of it, hurrying a little to get through the gate at the same time as she did and not have to wait for the next gate to orbit around, he remembered wondering if the Holiday Casino was slowly turning in place.

  Mavranos was sitting at a booth with young Oliver. Diana slid in next to her son and hugged him, and Crane looked away from Oliver’s expression of disdain.

  “They think he’ll make it,” she said.

  Mavranos raised his eyebrows at Crane, who shrugged helplessly.

  “I’m going to take Diana and Oliver to registration and get them a room,” said Ozzie, putting his hand on Diana’s shoulder. “Let’s go, honey.”

  She stood up, pulling Oliver after her, and followed the old man to the central barstools, where he apparently told her to wait for him.

  Ozzie hobbled back to the booth, where Crane had now sat down across from Mavranos. “She doesn’t really blame you,” Ozzie said quietly. “She loves you, but naturally she loves the kid more, and right now she’s not thinking very far.”

  “Thanks, Ozzie. I love her, too. And you.”

  The old man nodded. “Check into a room together, and use Arky’s name if you can. I’ll be in touch with you boys if there’s any way you can help.”

  Ozzie turned and made his way back to where Diana and the boy waited, and together the three of them got off the turning surface and soon disappeared into the surging, chattering crowds.

  Mavranos swirled a half-drunk glass of beer. “You still want those two beers?”

  Crane shivered. He did want them, the two he’d mentioned back on the hilltop when the world was good, but he wanted about six others first.
Why on earth shouldn’t he get drunk now?

  Let the pay phones start ringing, he thought. I’ll almost certainly never see Diana again now, and Susan—the thing I’ll be able to mistake for Susan, if I’m good and drunk—has probably gotten pretty solid by now.

  But Ozzie had said that Diana still loved him, and that he’d call if Crane could be of any help. If he’d been drinking, he would only be bringing Dionysus to her.

  But I can’t be of any help.

  The carousel had turned halfway around now. He was facing away from the brightly colored shops of the second level, off across the clanging abyss. “Sure,” he said.

  Mavranos shrugged and waved at a passing cocktail waitress, and a few moments later two cold bottles of Budweiser stood, frosty and dark, on the table in front of Crane.

  Mavranos had ordered another Coors for himself, and took a sip. “How’d it go?” he asked. “I thought you’d be in jail by now.”

  Crane described his brief interview with the police officer. “I guess it was clearly self-defense,” he said in conclusion. “He did tell me to let them know where I’ll be staying.”

  “Huh. Listen, you should have heard young Bitin Dog on the drive here.”

  “Bitin Dog?” said Crane absently. “Oh, yeah, Oliver. What did he say?”

  Mavranos squinted at Crane and wondered how to explain it.

  The boy had smelled of beer, and Mavranos had realized that he must have got right into the ice chest as soon as Mavranos had grabbed the .38 and gone sprinting for the dirt road. That seemed an odd urgency, considering that his little brother was in danger over the hill, but Mavranos had felt that this wasn’t the time, nor was it his job, to yell at the kid about having sneaked a beer.

  But when Mavranos had started Diana’s Mustang and turned north on Boulder Highway, watching the lights of his Suburban recede away very fast ahead, the boy had laughed softly.

  Mavranos had given him a sharp glance. “Something funny happen out here that I missed, Oliver?”

  The boy had frowned then. “My name—”

  “Bitin Dog, I heard.”

  Oliver relaxed. “Something funny?” he said. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s funny that a kid could grow up in one night.”

  “Who did that? You?”

  “Sure. My friends told me that life and death are all in the cards, and if somebody close to you dies, you just shrug and keep playing. I didn’t figure they were right, until now.”

  Mavranos remembered the evening one of his daughters had been arrested in a local record store for shoplifting. She’d been fifteen, and when he went to the store to pick her up, she had been defiant, as if nothing now had remained for her but a life of crime, and she’d better start working on getting the attitude right.

  So Mavranos spoke gently now. “You aren’t responsible for this. You ditched him tonight when you were playing, okay, that’s bad, but this isn’t your fault—”

  “What’s done is done.”

  Mavranos was getting impatient. “Who are these friends of yours? These the great guys that named you Barfin’ Dog?”

  “Your name is Archimedes!” Oliver shot back. “You think that’s not a—a shitty name?” He took a few deep breaths, and again the strange calm descended on him. “But yeah, sort of. People were already calling me that, but tonight they made it my club name. It’s my persona, if you’ve ever heard that word. They ride around in white El Camino pickups, but they bust off the El and the C from the logo on the fender, so it says ‘amino.’ They call themselves the Amino Acids.”

  “They’ve all got cars? How old are these kids?”

  “They’re not kids, they—”

  Abruptly the boy had stopped talking, and when Mavranos looked over at him, he had seemed at first to be struggling not to cry. Then his eyes opened and rolled back, and Mavranos thought he’d have to follow Crane to the hospital, for Oliver seemed to be having a fit. A moment later, though, the boy was relaxed and staring sullenly ahead.

  “You okay, boy?” Mavranos asked nervously.

  “I’m not a boy.”

  They had not spoken again until Ozzie and Diana and Crane had joined them at the carousel bar.

  Mavranos described the conversation to Crane as the bar slowly turned, and he was absently curious about Crane’s not having yet touched either of his beers.

  “Your sister’s got a weird kid,” Mavranos concluded. “It was a little boy talking, but it was as if part of him had dried out, kissed off childhood and become an adult by default, like I’ve read they can remove a gland from some kinds of larvae, and they go into a cocoon way before they should, and the adult butterfly that eventually crawls out is stunted and horrible.”

  Crane was thinking about this Amino Acids club and the “all in the cards” remark, and he decided he ought to get word of this to Ozzie.

  Mavranos pointed at Crane’s two bottles. “You gonna drink those beers?”

  Crane picked one up and sniffed it; then he sighed. “No,” he said. “You can have them.”

  Mavranos picked one up and tilted it to his mouth—then choked and put it down again. Foam was running down his neck into his collar and surging up out of the bottle neck and puddling on the table.

  Mavranos coughed, then looked around in embarrassment. “I must have got some cigarette ash in it somehow. Ashes’ll make ’em foam up like that.”

  Crane nodded, but he suspected that Susan was responsible, angered by Crane’s rudeness. He had rebuffed her here, asking for the beers and then changing his mind and passing them on to a friend. “Let me buy you a Coors, Arky,” he said, forcing himself to sound unconcerned. “I don’t think you’re going to have any luck with the other one there either.”

  Getting a room with cash proved to be no problem, and after Mavranos had unlocked the room door, Crane crossed to the telephone. He called the Metro police and was referred to a Detective Frits, who noted the room number.

  “Oh, Mr. Crane,” Frits added, “a team of officers went out Boulder Highway and found that shed. They say there’s blood and broken glass and a chair with cut duct tape on it and a gun out in the sand, but there’s nobody there. Car tracks behind the shed indicate he might have driven away in a very small car.”

  “I saw the car,” said Crane quickly. “I forgot to mention it. It’s a boxy little thing like a British Volkswagen, called a Morris. Covered with dust, impossible to tell the color.”

  “Ah. That’ll help, thank you.”

  After Crane had hung up the phone, Mavranos opened the hall door. “I’m going out on the town, Pogo,” he said. “You got your key, right?”

  “Right. Have fun.”

  “Night like this,” Mavranos said dully, “how could I not?” He left, closing the door behind him and rattling the knob to be sure it had locked.

  Crane looked around the room. The carpet and chairs were bright red, and the walls were striped red and pink and blue. He turned off the light.

  In the merciful near darkness he got undressed, and crawled into the window-side bed, wondering if he’d be able to sleep. He had become a night person during these last hundred hours or so, but in this town it wasn’t supposed to matter.

  He did manage to doze, but some hours later he opened his eyes—and tensed, sweat suddenly springing out all over him.

  A rat, almost big enough to look like a possum, was clinging to the shade of the lamp across the room. Very slowly, its free paw turning and its head ducking and then coming up again so that the eyes glinted in the light from a slit between the drawn curtains, the rat was eating a big insect, one of those white beetles known as potato bugs or Jerusalem crickets, which the Spanish call niños de la tierra, children of the earth. The bug, too, was moving slowly, waving its long, thick, jointed legs in the air. No sound was being made.

  Crane just stared, his heart pounding, all judgment suspended.

  For perhaps ten minutes he lay, stiff as a statue and hardly breathing, and watched the rat consume the beetle; and
then the rat began to stop moving. First its head stopped its slow bobbing, and then the long tail, which had been flexing out in the air, curled around the body and disappeared. The bug was gone, and the rat’s forepaws folded and then there was no motion from the lumpy darkness on the lampshade.

  Moving as agonizingly slowly as had the animal combatants, Crane reached out and turned on the small bedside lamp next to his head.

  In the sudden yellow light he saw that the dark mass on the lampshade was nothing but his shirt, tossed there carelessly when he had taken off his clothes.

  Mavranos, he saw, had not yet returned. Crane got out of bed and walked over to the lamp. For a while he started at the shirt, and then he carefully lifted it away from the lampshade and tossed it into a corner.

  Still suspending judgement, he got back into bed, closed his eyes, and waited for sleep to take him.

  “I’ve seen her boyfriend going in and out,” Trumbill said patiently, “but so far she hasn’t showed.”

  He was sitting in a chair by the aluminum-frame window, wearing only a pair of baggy white shorts. Aside from the chair, there was nothing inside the stark apartment but a TV table, a telephone, two whirring fans, a Styrofoam ice chest, and the litter of used-up Ban roll-on antiperspirant tubes around the legs of the chair; he was rubbing a new tube over the vividly tattooed skin of his enormous belly.

  He had hastily rented this apartment at dawn, and though the landlord had managed to hook up a phone, the air conditioner wasn’t working; in spite of the antiperspirants, Trumbill was losing precious moisture.

  “I’ll keep on them about the air conditioner,” said Betsy Reculver, who was standing behind him, “but you’ve got to stay here. We can’t lose her, the way you lost Sc—lost Crane, in California.” The cheap carpeting did nothing to muffle the quacking echoes of her voice.

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