Last call, p.39
Last Call, p.39Tim Powers
Diana made herself walk slowly back toward the Nissan truck until the Dodge turned right at the corner; then she ran to it.
Traffic was light on Bonanza Road this morning, and she had to keep the truck well behind the Dodge in order to let other cars get between them; twice she feared she had lost him, but then well ahead of her she saw the Dodge turn right into a Marie Callender’s parking lot. She drove on past, then looped back, taking her time, and drove into the lot herself.
The Dodge was parked, empty, in front of a windowless section of the restaurant.
She paused only long enough to memorize the license number, and then drove out of the lot again and sped back toward Mike’s apartment.
Mike was pacing in the kitchen when she opened the apartment door. “Well,” he said impatiently, “where did he go?”
“I don’t know, he drove away down Bonanza. Listen, I got his license number, ’cause when I talked to him, he asked if you were Hans’s friend Mike, and he knows you’re a dealer. I guess Hans must have told him.”
“Hans told him that? Hans is lucky he’s dead.” Diana thought Mike looked both angry and ready to cry. “I don’t need this kind of bullshit!”
Diana crossed to where he stood and patted his spray-stiffened blond hair. “He doesn’t know your last name,” she told him, “and he doesn’t know which apartment is yours.”
“Still, I should tell my—the guy I—oh, hell, he’d make me move out of here.”
“You’ve got to be getting to work.” She smiled at him. “Tonight I’ll see if I can’t…distract you from your worries.”
Mike brightened at that. “You’re on,” he said. “Gimme my key.”
She handed it over, and after he had left and she heard his truck start up and drive away, she went to the telephone and called for a cab.
Then she hurried into the bedroom, looped a wire coat hanger around her wrist, and hauled out the briefcase. The bundles of cash she stuffed into her purse, and the Baggie of cocaine she emptied into the toilet, which she patiently flushed three times.
The toilet tank was hissingly refilling when she carried the empty briefcase out onto the walkway and locked the door behind her.
The Dodge was still parked in the Marie Callender’s lot. She was glad Funo wasn’t a man to rush through breakfast.
Now, she thought after she had paid the cab, you’ve got to work on sheer nerve for a few minutes.
Forcing herself not to hurry, she strolled over to Funo’s car, pulling the coat hanger off her wrist and untwisting the double helix of its neck. She straightened it out and bent the loop into a sharper angle, and when she got to the car, she worked the loop in between the driver’s side window and the window frame.
Her hands were shaking, but on the other side of the glass the loop was steady, and she managed on the first try to get it around the knob of the interior door lock button. She pulled upward, and the button came up with a muffled clank.
She looked around nervously, but no one was watching her, and Funo was not leaving the restaurant yet.
She opened the door and slid the emptied briefcase under the seat.
After she had relocked the door, she stepped around to the front of the car and popped the hood release. The hood squeaked when she raised it, but she made herself reach out calmly to the oil filler cap on the manifold of the slant-six engine and twist it off. Then she dug a handful of change out of her purse and tipped it all into the filler hole, hearing the dimes and quarters and pennies clatter among the valve springs within.
A moment later she had replaced the filler cap and lowered the hood and was walking away across the parking lot, breathing more easily as each step took her further away from the doomed man’s car.
She had saved a quarter with which to call another cab.
The ducks in the pond turned out to like cheese even more than they had liked the bread, and soon the entirety of Nardie Dinh’s meager lunch had gone into the pond.
She sat back in the shade of a cottonwood tree and looked past the duck pond, across the grassy hills of the park toward the office building where she worked during the day. Soon her lunch hour would be over, and she’d be walking back there, without having eaten anything.
She hadn’t eaten anything at all since a salad early Wednesday evening, nearly forty-eight hours ago, just before going to rescue Scott Crane from Neal Obstadt’s assassins.
And of course she hadn’t slept—except, briefly, twice during this last week—since the beginning of the year.
She had celebrated Tet in Las Vegas, among the clang and honk and neon of the Fremont Street and Strip casinos, instead of the flower markets and firecrackers and tea-and-candied-fruit booths of remembered Hanoi, and the festive people all around her had been in cars rather than on bicycles, but in both places there had been the same sense of festivity in the shadow of disaster. Sunk into the sidewalks of Hanoi, every forty feet, had been little round air-raid shelters to climb into when the American planes were thirty kilometers away and alarm two sounded, and in Las Vegas she had her amphetamines to gulp whenever her wakefulness-spells began to weaken.
She was fasting just because the sight of any food, and particularly the prospect of putting it into her mouth and chewing it up and swallowing it and assimilating it, now revolted her; it wasn’t a consciously adopted measure, as the wakefulness was; but she was uncomfortably aware of a mythological parallel. In an English translation of the thirteenth-century French Morte Artu, the Maid of Astolat, who became the Lady of Shalott in the Tennyson poem, offers herself to Lancelot and then, when he refuses her, kills herself by refusing to eat or sleep. Her body is put in a barge and rowed down the Thames.
On Wednesday night she had offered herself to Scott Crane, and they had more or less refused each other. Could this involuntary starvation be a consequence of that?
With a sudden splashing and clatter of wings, the ducks all took to the air. Startled, she looked up at them in alarm to see which way they would fly, but they just scattered away into the empty blue sky in all directions, and in a few seconds she was alone beside the choppy water.
She stood up lithely. He’s here, she thought, realizing that her heart was pounding and her mouth was dry. Ray-Joe Pogue is here somewhere. He found me, way out here in Henderson.
Her gaze darted around the green hills visible from where she stood, but there was no one in sight.
I should run, she thought, but in which direction? And if he sees me, he’ll be able to outrun me, weakened as I am from hunger.
I should run, I should run, I should run! I’m wasting seconds!
The sky seemed to be bulging down at her, and she was afraid that just the sight of her half brother—tall and slim and pale, dressed like Elvis Presley, another King who was not allowed to be dead, striding over the crest of one of these hills—would rob her of the ability even to move at all.
Her back was against the rough bark of the cottonwood tree, and abruptly she turned around and hugged it—she had not realized that she meant to climb it until she found that she had shinnied several yards up the gray trunk, probably ruining her wool jacket and skirt.
The tree’s foliage was a dense mass of round yellow-green leaves, and she hoped that if she could get up onto one of the nearly vertical branches, she would be hidden. Hot, fast breath abraded her throat, and rainbow sparkles swam in her vision, but she didn’t faint, though she was afraid that even picturing any face card right now would land her back on the grass, unconscious and ready for him.
She got her scraped hands into the crotch of the lowest branch, and then she swung a leg up, tearing out the seam of her skirt, and got her ankle in beside her left hand, and with an effort that wrung a groan out of her she pulled herself up into the tight saddle. She didn’t rest until she had stood up and braced her back against the trunk and her feet high up against the branch, and then she
At last, though she still had to breathe through her mouth, she was breathing silently. She could hear the whisper of traffic on McEvoy Street, sounding to her now like nothing so much as suitcases dragging around the coping of a luggage carousel at an airport, and the leaves that surrounded her rattled faintly like a lot of very distant castanets. Through a wedge of space between the leaves she could see the yellow square of a Kraft Slice rocking gently on the surface of the pond.
She tried to believe that she had been mistaken, that he wasn’t here, but she couldn’t. And when she heard feet swishing through the long green grass, she only closed her eyes for a moment.
“Bernardette,” he said softly below her, and she had to bite her lip to keep from answering, from shouting at him the way a child in a hide-and-seek game might yell to end the terrible suspense when It was so close.
“No ham,” he said now. His words had been clear, she hadn’t misunderstood him, but the nonsensical statement made her want even more strongly than before to cry out. Surely he knew where she was hiding, and was only torturing her!
“Cheese,” he said. “And bread. That’s good, you’re still staying away from the meat, that’s my girl. Still hanging in there as Mrs. Porter’s daughter.”
Nardie remembered Ray-Joe telling her once about a very old song that still survived today—though in the current version “Persephone” had been phonetically debased to “Mrs. Porter.”
She looked down—and felt her earring fall out of her pierced earlobe. In the same instant she pressed her elbow against the tree trunk, catching the little ball of gold awkwardly between the trunk and the fabric of her jacket. She could feel it pressing into the flesh above the point of her elbow, and, almost objectively, she wondered how long it would be before the muscles of her arm would begin to shake.
“Then up he rose, and donned his clothes,” he said happily,
“And dupped the chamber door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.”
He was reciting some of Ophelia’s insane singing from Hamlet. He had read the play to her frequently during her imprisonment in the shabby parlor house called DuLac’s. In her head, rather than aloud, she recited a following couplet:
Young men will do ’t, if they come to ’t;
By cock, they are to blame.
She wondered if she would even be able to try to fight him off, if he were to see her up here.
He laughed. “Ray-Joe active!” he said to himself in a peptalk tone. “Ray-Joe Free Vegas!”
Nardie Dinh could see him now, below her, his duck-tail haircut gleaming over the big rhinestone-studded collar of his white leather jacket. He was holding an air pistol, and she knew what kind of dart it was loaded with, a syringe-tipped tranquilizer dart with the CAP-CHURE charge like the one that had brought her down on that December morning in the Tonopah desert, the bright red fletching of the tailpiece standing out like an eccentric decoration on the sleeve of her blouse.
Her arm, the same arm that had taken the dart, had now started to shake. Soon it would lose its awkward grip on the earring, and the earring would fall. Looking down, she estimated that it would land by his left foot. He would hear it, look down and see it, and then look up.
“I wonder if you can hear me, somehow,” he said quietly, “in your head. I wonder if you’ll come back here to this tree, if I wait. We both know you want to. You met him Wednesday night, didn’t you? The King’s son, the prince, the genetic Jack of Hearts. And you became trackable. And I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t be trackable if you’d screwed him. What does that tell you?”
That I’m saving myself for you? she thought. Is that what you imagine?
Her shoulder was aching powerfully. Am I saving myself for him? she wondered. Has all this—stabbing Madame DuLac, running to Las Vegas, using the powers he gave me to avoid sleeping—been nothing but a show of defiance, a gesture, a sop to my self-respect before allowing myself to sink into the secure zombie-Queen role he has planned for me? Maybe I was afraid that Scott Crane could still defeat his father, and I just seized a plausible excuse to run away from him.
Maybe I do want to give in to Ray-Joe Pogue.
No, she thought. No, not even if it’s true. Even if I’ve been living a pretense for the last three months, I hereby declare the pretense real.
She forced her elbow even harder against the tree, wishing she could press the earring right into her flesh.
A noise had risen from the traffic background—someone was driving a car nearby.
Below her she saw Pogue look sharply across the park, and she realized that the car must be driving right over the grass. Then she realized that it was more than one car.
“Shit,” Pogue said softly. He took a quick step away from the tree, and then she could only hear him walking quickly away through the grass. She raised her arm and let the earring fall, wondering, even as she did it, if she was doing it too soon, if she had meant to do it too soon.
She could hear car tires tearing up the grass, and she turned around, away from the pond, and pushed aside a cluster of leaves. For an instant she glimpsed a white car flash across the grass; it had been one of those sort of pickup trucks, what were they called? El Caminos. Then she saw another one, identical to the first. Had they followed Pogue here?
She didn’t hear any shooting or yelling…and then after several minutes she heard police sirens approaching. The sound of the cars on the grass diminished away in some direction.
When she heard the unmistakable sound of a police car engine approach and then stop and shift out of gear and begin to idle and heard the loopy sounds of a close police radio, she relaxed and began to climb down.
When those cars started tearing across the grass, she mentally rehearsed, I just went straìght up the tree, Officer. Bernardette Dinh, sir, I work for the insurance office right over there.
Got lucky this time.
Diana saw Mike’s truck pull up and park on the twilit street, and she reflected that she wouldn’t have to fake being scared. She only hoped that she was guessing correctly about what he would do.
Hours ago she had eased the sliding glass pane out of the apartment’s living-room window, and then she had gone into his bedroom and dumped out all the drawers and dragged all the boxes out of the closet and dumped them, too. She wished she had noticed a brand of cigarettes that Funo smoked so that she could have lit one and stomped it out on the tan rug.
The apartment door was open, and she could hear Mike’s heavy tread approaching along the second-floor walkway.
And here he was, smiling and patting his sprayed hair and reeking of Binaca even across two yards of evening air.
“What’s the matter, darlin’?” he asked, giving her what she thought of as a there-there-baby-doll look.
“The place was burglarized today while I was at the store,” she said tensely.
Mike’s smile was gone, though his mouth was still open.
“I didn’t know if you’d want to call the cops,” Diana went on, “so I’ve just been waiting here. I can’t see that anything’s gone, but maybe you can. They hit the bedroom pretty hard.”
“Jesus,” he said in a whispered wail as he started for the bedroom doorway, “you goddamn bitch, the bedroom, Jesus, make it not be true, make it not be true.”
She followed him and watched him shuffle straight to the closet. He stared at the unobstructed ski boots and then peered around at the floor.
“Jesus,” he was saying absently, “I’m dead, I’m dead. This was your friend that did this, Hans’s friend, that stuff didn’t belong to me, you’re going to have to tell Flores that it was your fault—no. No, I can’t say I let you stay here, a woman who—who led another dealer here. God damn you, you’ve got to get out of here and never come back, take any shit you brought with you.” His face when he turned toward her was so pale and scraped with fear that she stepped back. “Th
She recited it to him. “A white Dodge,” she added, “roughly 1970 model. His name’s Al Funo, F-U-N-O.” Remembering to stay in character, she gave him a heartbroken look and said, “I’m sorry, Mike. Can’t I stay here? I was hoping—”
He was walking slowly toward the telephone. “Go find a pimp; you’re out of my life.”
Diana had already shoved the little yellow blanket into her purse, and on the way out of the apartment she picked up the purse and slung it over her shoulder.
As she walked down the cement stairs toward the sidewalk and the street, she thought of Scat about to spend his fifth night in the hospital, wired to ventilators and catheters, and she hoped that what she had done would succeed in avenging the boy.
Just as the croupier had said, the little white plastic ball lay in the green double zero slot on the Roulette wheel. The man now reached out with a rake and slid the last of the blue chips off the mystical periodic table of the layout.
Archimedes Mavranos had now lost all the money he had won during his three days of gambling. It had taken him even less time to lose it than it had taken to win it. He reached into his coat pocket, and the croupier looked at him expectantly, apparently thinking he was going to buy more chips, but Mavranos was only palpating the plastic Baggie. The water was still cool; this current goldfish was probably still alive.
But Mavranos had not found the sort of phase-change that he hoped might slap the insurgent cells of his lymphatic system back into line.
He had found other things: the old women who played as obsessively as he did and who wore gardening gloves as they pulled the slot machine handles to fertilize a cold and stingy soil; he had seen players dazed by predawn winning who tipped the dealers nothing after hours of play and thousands of dollars won, or who absently toked cocktail waitresses hundreds for a glass of soda water; he had seen players so obese or deformed that their mere presence would elicit involuntary shouts of wonder in any town but this one, in which the facts of action made physical appearance genuinely irrelevant; and players who with no surprise had “got broke,” as the phrase was locally, and were scrambling to raise another stake, which they knew in advance, which they almost placidly knew in advance, would soon be lost—one of these players had confided to Mavranos that the next best thing to gambling and winning was gambling.
Last Call by Tim Powers / Fantasy / Horror / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes