Last call, p.30
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       Last Call, p.30

           Tim Powers

  Joshua was now unfolding a large square of purple silk from around what proved to be a polished wooden box. “Have you had Tarot readings before?”

  “I…don’t think so. Not really. Can’t you do the—the procedure with regular playing cards?”

  “In a crude way, yes.” Joshua smiled as he opened the box and lifted out a deck of oversize cards with plaid-pattern backs. “But it’s so imprecise that I wouldn’t take money for it or recommend it for any serious questions. The Tarot is the original instrument, of which playing cards are a simplified, truncated form made for games.” He wasn’t smiling as he looked at Crane and added, “This isn’t a game.”

  “I wouldn’t be here if I thought it was.” Crane leaned back in the chair, concealing his nervousness. This would be only the third time he’d been exposed to the Tarot deck, and the first time the cards would be speaking to him, responding to a question from him, and he wasn’t looking forward to it. “How does it work? I mean, how do the cards…know about me?”

  “I’d be lying if I told you I knew for sure.” Joshua had spread the cards out face down across the unfolded silk and was gently scattering them around with both hands. “Some people think it’s out-and-out magic, and I’ve got a foolish little booklet that will tell you that vibration rays from your fingers somehow combine with the oxygen in the room to direct which cards you touch.” He had gathered them up into a deck again and tapped the edges flush. “The fact is, they do work.”

  He steepled his fingers under his chin, leaving the squared-up deck in front of him. “They may be the surviving fragments of the Book of Thoth,” Joshua said, “supposedly composed by the god Thoth, handed down fugitively from the earliest Egyptian kingdoms. Iamblichus, the fourth-century Syrian, claimed that the mystery cults of Osiris locked initiates into a room on the walls of which were painted twenty-two powerfully affecting symbolic pictures—and there are twenty-two cards in the Major Arcana, the suitless picture cards that have been dropped from your modern playing deck. Whatever it is that the cards represent, they…resonate, strongly, with elements in the human psyche, the way a struck tuning fork can make a glass across the room vibrate. I think that, in some micro or macro way, there’s sentience behind them; they’re aware of us.”

  Then they’ll probably recognize me, thought Crane. Climb up on my knee, Sonny Boy.

  He wiped his palms down the sides of his pants.

  “Now,” said Joshua, “I want you to empty your mind of everything except the question you’ve come to ask. This is serious, so take it seriously.”

  Clear your mind for the cards, Crane thought. He nodded and breathed deeply.

  “What is your question?” asked Joshua.

  Crane suppressed a hopeless smile, and when he spoke, his voice was level. “How do I take over my father’s job?”

  Joshua nodded acknowledgment. “Can you shuffle cards?” he asked, pushing the deck toward Crane.


  Crane cut the deck and gave the cards seven fast riffle shuffles, instinctively squaring the cards flat against the table so as not to flash a glimpse of the bottom one. He pushed the deck back to Joshua. “Cut?”


  The old man quickly dealt the cards out into two piles, one twice as big as the other; the bigger pile was then dealt out the same way, and then the bigger of these piles was divvied up in the same two for one ratio….

  Eventually he had six uneven stacks, and he picked up the westernmost stack and began laying it out on the table in a vertical pattern.

  The first card was the Page of Cups, a picture of a young man in Renaissance-looking clothes standing in front of a stylized ocean and holding a chalice from which a fish head was peeking out.

  Crane relaxed with relief and disappointment. The drawing was a nineteenth-century-style line drawing, and was not one of the vividly colored quattrocento paintings that his father had used. Probably nothing will happen with this deck, he thought.

  The faint snap the card made as it touched the silk was followed by the patter of raindrops on the window beyond the curtains.

  When there are gray skies, thought Crane.

  The next card was the Emperor, an old king on a throne, with his legs awkwardly crossed as if because of some injury.

  Close thunder shook the window, and from out on the street came the screech and slam of a car accident. The rain was heavier, hissing on the pavement outside.

  Joshua looked up, startled, but dealt the third card.

  It was the Fool, a young man dancing at the edge of a precipice while a dog snapped at his heels.

  The rest of the cards abruptly flew out of Joshua’s hand and sprayed at Crane, who ducked as they whistled and clattered past him. One had ticked against the surface of his plastic eye, and for one shocked moment Crane was a little boy again, stunned with injury and unbearable betrayal.

  But he forced himself to think, to remember who he was and why he was here.

  The cards, he told himself harshly, remember? Don’t cry, you’re not five years old now. You came to consult the cards.

  I guess any Tarot deck will work after all, he thought.

  His heart was pounding.

  He thought, But I don’t like, or understand, the answer.

  Crane let out his breath and straightened up, hearing the cards continue to rattle on the carpet behind him. He carefully hiked around in his chair. The cards were shaking back and forth across the carpet as though the building were in the grip of a big earthquake.

  Outside, the rain was thrashing down.

  Joshua had pushed his own chair back and got to his feet. “Get out of here,” he whispered to Crane. His face was white. “I don’t want to know who you are. Just…get out of here right now.”

  Crane was breathing fast, and his hands were nearly clawed with craving for a drink, but he shook his head.

  “I,” he said carefully, “still need an answer to my question.”

  The old man made an unhappy, keening sound. “Isn’t it obvious I can’t help you? My God—” He paused.

  Crane was suddenly sure the man had been about to say something like, Even so-and-so couldn’t help you!

  “Who?” Crane demanded. “Who is it that can?”

  “Go see the Pope, I don’t know. I’m calling the police if you don’t—”

  “You do know someone who can handle a no-limit game of this. Tell me who it is.”

  “I swear to you, I don’t, and I’m calling the police—”

  “Fine,” said Crane, grinning broadly and standing up. “If you don’t tell me who it is, I’ll come back here—no, I’ll find out where you live and go there—and I’ll—What would scare the old man?—“I’ll play Solitaire stark naked on your front porch with a deck of these goddamn things, I’ll”—he was shouting now—“I’ll bring a dozen dead bodies and play Assumption with them, and we’ll use Communion hosts as chips. I’ll be the goddamn one-eyed Jack and play for my eye!”

  He reached up to his face and popped out his false eye and held it out toward the old man in a trembling fist.

  Joshua had collapsed back into his chair during Crane’s outburst and was now crying. For a few moments neither man spoke.

  “It doesn’t matter anyway,” Joshua sobbed finally. “There isn’t any way I could dare stay in Las Vegas now, after doing that reading, that partial reading.” His blue robe was twisted around his torso, ridiculous and pathetic. “Damn you, and I’ll have to get some other job. I can’t possibly ever read cards again. They know my face now. Why in God’s name did you come to me?”

  “Luck of the draw,” said Crane, forcing himself not to care about this old man right now. He popped his false eye back into the socket and walked to the window. “Who is it?”

  Joshua sniffed and stood up. “Please, if there’s any humanity in you…what was your name?”

  “Crane, Scott Crane.”

  “If there’s any human compassion in you, Scott, don’t tell him who sent you.”
He wiped his eyes on a baggy sleeve. “I don’t know his real name; he’s called Spider Joe. He apparently lives in a trailer out on Rancho, the Tonopah Highway. It’s on the right side of the road, two hours outside of town: a trailer and some shacks, with a big Two of Spades sign out front.”

  The cards had stopped spinning on the carpet now, and Joshua knelt and was gingerly picking them up with the silk cloth, being careful not to touch them. “Would you do me one other favor, Scott?” he asked querulously. When Crane nodded, the old man went on, “Take these cards, my cards, out of here with you—and take your hundred-dollar bill back, too. No, I couldn’t possibly use it, and even if I burned it, it might call some more psychic attention to me.”

  Crane had pulled back the curtain to watch the rainy street, and now he shrugged and nodded. “Okay.”

  Joshua wearily unzipped his blue satin robe and took it off. Under it he was wearing shorts and a Lacoste polo shirt; he looked fit, as though he exercised conscientiously, and Crane was suddenly sure that his real name was something more mundane than Joshua.

  “I’ve heard that you’ve got to cross his palm with silver,” the old man said tiredly. “Get two silver dollars, real silver. He claims it keeps things from seeing him, blinds the eyes of the dead; it’s related to the old practice of putting coins on a dead man’s eyes.” He threw Crane’s bill onto the table next to the bundle of cards, and Crane leaned over to pick it all up.

  He stuffed the bill and the cards into the pockets of his jacket. “I’ll see him today,” he said.

  “No.” Joshua had walked behind a cash register by the bookshelves, and with a series of muted clicks the fluorescent lights began to go out. “He wouldn’t do anything while this same sun is up. It’s got to be a new day. Everything is too…waked up today.”

  Crane saw that tears were still running down the old man’s cheeks. “How about a—a different hundred-dollar bill?” Crane asked awkwardly.

  “I couldn’t touch any of your money.” The old man was pulling bills out of the cash register and seemed to be shielding them from Crane’s very sight. “Could you leave now? Don’t you think you’ve done enough?”

  Crane’s eye fixed on a shelf displaying “Floral Remedies” and unhappily he wondered what maladies flowers might need remedies for. He nodded, abashed, and started toward the door, but after a couple of steps he paused and then turned around. “Look,” he said harshly, “did you think there was no…teeth to this stuff? I mean, you do this for a living. Did it for a living. Was it all just a tea party for old ladies and college girls? Didn’t you know there’s monsters out there?”

  “I certainly do now,” the old man said. “And I think you’re one of them.”

  Crane looked around in the dimness at the innocuous paintings and books and jars of herbs. “I sure hope,” he said, and he walked out of the spoiled card-reading parlor and into the hammering rain.

  Though his day was two days gone, Snayheever was wearing his feathered Indian headdress again. The feathers were drooping in the rain.

  He was sitting on the wet grass of the narrow parklike area along the Strip side of the Mirage—in front of him, beyond the railing where even in the rain the dark silhouettes of tourists jostled each other and hefted video cameras, the choppy water of the lagoon stretched to the foot of the volcano—and though the night wind was laden with the smells of car exhaust and damp clothing, he felt as if he were far underwater. When the wind blew the wet feathers across his vision, they looked like fronds and sea fans.

  It kept back the pain of his ruined hand. When he had regained consciousness last night, lying on the plywood floor of the Boulder Highway box, he had looked at his right hand and just wept. The bullet had simply blown it apart, and one finger was gone, lost. He had tried to drive the old Morris back to Las Vegas, but it was too difficult to reach across with his left hand to work the stick shift, and anyway, he couldn’t see clearly—every approaching pair of headlights was doubled, and two moons hung in the sky. Eventually he abandoned the car on the shoulder and walked back to town.

  It had been a long walk. As his vision began to come back into focus, the pain in his exploded hand had grown to a red-hot throbbing, and so he’d forced his mind back down into the blurriness of the fading concussion.

  He had felt like a swimmer letting air bubble out of his lungs in order to sink, and he had dimly realized that it was something like his identity, his personality, his will, that he was surrendering, but he had never treasured those things anyway.

  And other people had never seemed to him to be really alive, but now they were diminished to angular mobiles jerking in some unimportant wind, all pretense of three dimensions abandoned. He now knew that people had seemed to have physical depth and volume only because they always faced him, and changed the appearance of their surfaces as he moved.

  Now that the people weren’t a distraction, he was able to see the gods.

  Walking down the rainy Strip sidewalk this evening, feeling as though he were swimming and using his clumsily bandaged hand as a flipper, he had seen them, and the irrelevance of apparent size made them seem at one moment to dwarf the tall casinos as they strode past, and at the next to mimic the hood ornaments on passing cars.

  In the open entry of the Imperial Palace he had seen the Magician sitting at a green felt table on which were a stack of coins, a cup, and an eyeball; and, on stilt-long legs of which the knees were the thickest part, mummied Death had walked down the center of the street, throwing a faint shudder through the crowds of stick figures; and the Hanged Man had swayed in the darkening sky over the Flamingo, the upside-down face placid as it stared down at Snayheever.

  The silhouettes in front of him were growing agitated now, and Snayheever got to his feet. Flames had begun to billow from the top of the volcano.

  But suddenly it wasn’t the Mirage volcano. It was the Tower, tall and vast and so old that its stones were eroded like a natural outcrop of the earth, and a dazzling bolt of lightning lashed down out of the sky to hammer at the breaking crenellations of its battlements; huge chunks of masonry turned in the air as they fell in slow motion, and a robed figure that could only be the Emperor fell with them.

  Snayheever turned and swam away into the relative dimness of the casinos along the Strip.


  And You’ve Saved Yourself for Me

  Out over the desert the thunderclouds gathered like vast tall ships, and the hard rain lifted hazes of dust and then filled the stream beds and washes with rushing brown water. The long, curving line of 1-15 darkened and soon shone with the headlights that moved along it like slow tracer bullets.

  On Fremont Street the wet cars glistened with reflected neon rainbows, and the children who waited for their parents on the carpeted sidewalks huddled in the casino doorways. The hiss of the rain was the dominant sound—it muffled the rattle and rapid-fire clang of the slot machines, and though the strikers in front of Binion’s Horseshoe kept on walking back and forth with their signs, the shouting of the young woman picketer was less strident without her electric megaphone.

  Inside the casinos there was only the occasional whiff of wet hair to let people know it was raining outside, but at the Blackjack tables face cards were being turned up about half the time, and actively played Roulette tables were hard to find, owing to the number of wheels that had been shut down for testing because they came up with the zero and double zero more often than they should, and a number of elderly slot machine players had to be led out in tears, complaining that the machines were glaring at them.

  Traffic was heavy south of Fremont Street—buses and old VW bugs and new Rolls-Royces and a procession of white Chevrolet El Caminos—and there were lines of people in gowns and tuxedoes standing patiently in the white-lit rain outside the wedding chapels. The big casinos to the south, the Sands and Caesars Palace and the Mirage and the Flamingo, were flares of lurid color in the wet night.

  On the roof of the towering pink and white edi
fice that was the Circus Circus, in among cables and conduits, below the forest of antennas and satellite dishes, Diana clutched her robe to herself and shivered as the rain drummed and rattled around her.

  The city, spread out below her in all its palaces and incandescent arteries, seemed as far away as the dark clouds overhead; the distant moon, not even visible now, seemed closer.

  She had called the hospital an hour ago, and Dr. Bandholtz had told her that Scat’s condition was a little worse.

  The boy had already been connected to a catheter that was inserted under his collarbone and somehow threaded through a vein and then through the “right heart” and lodged in the pulmonary artery—it was to make sure the blood pressure in the lungs didn’t rise, for the lungs would not be able to absorb oxygen if it did—but now he was breathing through an “endotrachial tube” taped into his mouth. If his breathing didn’t stabilize soon, they were going to put him on an IMV, which she gathered was some very serious kind of ventilator.

  After getting off the phone with the hospital, she had called her own apartment number.

  And she had sighed with relief and frustration when Hans had answered. At least he was still alive.

  “Hans,” she’d told him, “you’ve got to get out of there; it’s not safe.”

  “Diana,” he had said, “I trust the police.”

  She had waited wearily for him to tell her that if she had let the police handle the kidnapping last night, Scat would not be dying in the hospital. He had told her that when she’d called last night, and she had hung up on him, and she knew she’d do the same if he said it again.

  He didn’t. “Besides,” he said, “your foster-brother shot the guy, right?”

  “No, don’t you listen? The man who shot Scat is somebody else, and he knows where I live, and he’s probably still in town. Get out of that apartment.”

  “If you’re evicting me,” Hans said pompously, “I am entitled to at least thirty days’ notice.”

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