Last call, p.43
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       Last Call, p.43

           Tim Powers

  “May as well go right now, I guess,” Mavranos said. “I’m getting nowhere with my mystimatical cure.”

  Crane opened the door. “‘Maybe what you’re waitin’ for’ll be twitchin’ at the dance tonight!’” he said, quoting something Riff had said to Tony in West Side Story.

  Mavranos smiled sourly as he slapped his jacket pocket for his keys. “You remember it killed Riff and Tony.”

  When he drove the Camaro under the 93 overpass, Vaughan Trumbill picked up the cellular telephone and punched redial.

  Even with the seat levered all the way back, his belly kept getting brushed by the steering wheel, and the car still smelled of Betsy Reculver’s flowery old-lady’s perfume.

  “Yeah, Vaughan,” came Benet’s squeaky voice over the phone.

  “Bets—, uh, Benet—”

  “From here on in just call me Georges.”

  Trumbill realized that he never had called him that, in any of the man’s bodies. When Trumbill had first started to work for him, he was already in the Richard Leroy.

  “Okay, Georges. They’re heading out Fremont. Either they’re going back to where that kid got shot, or they’re going right on out Boulder Highway to the lake.”

  “Where the kid got shot.” For some reason Georges’s voice, even coming out of the Benet vocal cords, sounded stony. “Yeah, I remember that place. Some damned woman destroyed a nice Chevrolet of mine right there.” For a moment the phone Trumbill held to his ear was silent, and all he could hear was the muffled roar of the Camaro’s engine. “Okay,” Georges went on, “if they stop there, take ’em when they get out away from the truck, it’s good and private, and I don’t see why they’d take guns out with them. You still got Moynihan’s guys?”

  Trumbill glanced at the rearview mirror. The florist’s van was still there, a couple of cars behind him.


  “Right, well, kill the mustache and dart Crane. But if they go on past there, toward the lake—Why would they be going to the lake? Rhetorical question, I don’t need your guesses. I don’t like it if that’s where they’re going.” He sighed. “Catch them somewhere in the desert north of Henderson. Shoot a tire out or something and then just confront them.”

  “In the desert.” Trumbill forced his mind away from the recollection of having only three days ago seen Death itself, the obscene skeleton under the skimpy dress of dried skin, capering in the desert south of town.

  Confront them, he thought as he gunned the Camaro through the Desert Inn Road intersection and watched the dusty blue truck barrel steadily along on the bright highway ahead of him. I’m valuable to the old man, he thought, but when it gets down to the bone, I’m an expendable piece in his equation.

  As I’ve always known I was.

  He sighed heavily. “If they kill me out there,” he said into the phone that was wedged under his pendulous jowl, “you won’t forget your part of our old bargain.”

  He heard Georges sigh, too. “Packed tight in the center of a big cement cube within an hour of your death, Vaughan, don’t worry. But I hardly think these guys will take you. Blood pressure, a sledge-hammer of a stroke, is what’s going to take you out, my friend.”

  Trumbill smiled, his cold eyes still on the truck ahead. “Okay. I’ll call you after.”

  He hung up the phone and returned his full attention to the blue truck.


  Not the Skinny Man

  Neither Crane nor Mavranos spoke as the abandoned gas station swept past on their right.

  That’s where it all really started to go wrong, Crane thought. To think that we could have just killed Snayheever or broken his arms or something in Baker, if we’d known, if the goddamn cards had told Ozzie about it in the Los Angeles Poker casino. But instead here we are, Scat probably dead by now in the hospital, Oliver in some state home for orphans, Diana and Ozzie certainly dead, Arky and I not looking good at all—why couldn’t Ozzie have seen it in the cards?

  He hiked around in his seat and looked back. No Jaguar, he thought, but that green Camaro has been hanging around behind us for a while. Probably just tourists wanting to go see the dam—but if he doesn’t pass us before long, I’ll tell Arky to pull over and let him go on past.

  Crane looked out at the scrubby, baking dirt receding away to the distant mountains under the cloudless sky, and he remembered driving along this highway on that early evening in ’69, in a Cadillac convertible with—what had his name been? Newt—with Newt at the wheel, nervously explaining to Crane the rules of Assumption Poker. By that time Ozzie had probably already checked out of the Mint and had been gunning for home, to move Diana and all their stuff out of the house and tack the quit-claim up on the front door. It occurred to Crane now, for the first time, that Ozzie must have had the quit-claim ready in case the fact of Crane’s terrible father ever became a threat to young Diana. Well, it hadn’t become a threat, as it happened, Crane had made it a threat. Crane had almost certainly led the fat man to her.

  He looked over his shoulder again. The Camaro was still several car lengths behind them, its chrome trim winking in the sun. And behind it was a van that, it seemed to him now, had been in that position for a while.

  He popped open his seat belt and turned around, kneeling on the seat, to rummage in the back.

  “Change your mind about the beer?” said Mavranos.

  “I’m probably imagining things,” said Crane as he found his .357 and Mavranos’s .38 and wrapped them in a shirt, “but why don’t you pull over and let that Camaro and that van pass us, if they want to.” He sat back down in his seat and unwrapped the guns.

  Mavranos’s eyebrows went up when he looked at the items in Crane’s lap. “Pull over where? This shoulder’s just gravel. By the time I slowed up enough to pull off, they’d have either passed us already or come right up our tailpipe.”

  Crane was silent for a while, staring ahead; then he pointed. “There’s a slant-in cutoff for a dirt road up there, see it? You could turn in to it without slowing down much, if we hang on. And then if they’re bad guys, we should be able to leave them behind on the dirt road. Neither of them’s sprung as high as this thing.”

  “Shit,” said Mavranos, “I wish we’d sent Wendy another five grand.” He reached over and picked up his revolver and tucked it into his belt.

  The truck bucked when the big tires hit the unpaved track, and the jack and spare tire and toolbox all banged back down onto the bed after having been flung into the air, and Crane pitched forward against the dashboard, grabbing his bouncing .357 and squeezing the trigger nearly hard enough to fire it. The truck was shaking violently back and forth, and Mavranos was squinting furiously ahead and shouting curses.

  Crane held on to the back of the seat and looked back at the whirling dust cloud the truck had kicked up, and for a moment he thought the two vehicles had gone on past down the highway, and he opened his mouth to tell Mavranos to slow down; then he saw the nose of the Camaro plunging along after them through the dust.

  Again he almost spasmodically fired his revolver.

  “They’re after us!” He shouted to be heard over the cacophony of squeaking and banging. “Go!”

  Mavranos nodded and held on tight to the steering wheel. They were onto the dirt road now, some surveyor’s track, probably, and booming straight out into the desert at what seemed like breakneck speed.

  Crane glanced back again. The Camaro was falling back a little, its suspension not made for this kind of hummocky road. The van had left the highway too, he noticed, and was wallowing along farther back. A tall, three-legged plume of dust was streaming away to the south.

  A particularly rough bump threw Crane against the door, and he blinked ahead through the cracked windshield at the road. A gully paralleled the road on the left, with a low slope rising to the right. The road still stretched straight as a pencil line ahead, and he wondered if it could possibly go all the way to the 1-15. He and Mavranos would certainly have left their pursuers behin
d long before that, assuming this truck didn’t blow a tire or break an axle.

  Even over the racket inside the truck, he heard the hard boom of a gunshot.

  “Faster!” he yelled. He grabbed the window handle and started to crank it down, thinking to shoot back at the Camaro, but he could hardly brace himself well enough on the jumping seat to turn the handle, and it occurred to him that he would have little chance of hitting the car, shooting from such a shaky position, and he might need every bullet if the truck were to be stopped.

  And the next boom was simultaneous with an echoing slam from the rear of the truck—and then the truck, still thundering forward, was sliding around to the left, kicking and jumping on the sandy road, and Crane grabbed the dashboard with his free hand and braced his feet against the floor, thinking the vehicle was going to roll over on his side. Mavranos was fighting the wheel, trying to wrestle it to the right and turn out of the skid.

  “Shot out the left rear tire,” Mavranos gasped as he finally got the back end in line and then stomped on the brake, bringing the truck to a clanging, thudding halt turned sideways across the road, pointed up the slope and away from the gully.

  Mavranos threw the gearshift lever into park, and then he and Crane were out the doors.

  Crane didn’t know where Mavranos was, but he crouched up the slope by the front bumper, coughing in the stinging dust cloud, and squinted over the barrel of the cocked .357 as he swung it from side to side over the hot hood.

  Instead of the two recent shots, it was a shotgun blast from three days ago that was echoing in his mind. Bring me the fat man, God, he prayed, and you can have me.

  “Freeze!” came a harsh, choked shout from out of the dust fog. “Police, Lieutenant Frits! Crane and Mavranos, step away from the truck with your hands on your heads!”

  The wind was thinning the dust, and Crane could see Mavranos now—he was plodding slowly toward the gully, away from the back bumper, his empty hands raised.

  Crane had lowered his own gun and straightened.

  A vague silhouette was visible ahead, against the bulk of the Camaro. “Crane!” came the voice again. “Away from the truck, now!”

  Uncertainly Crane stepped around the front of the truck and took two steps along the slope. His gun was still in his hand, but by his side, pointed at the ground.

  A gust of wind cleared the air. The fat man, Vaughan Trumbill, stood in front of the Camaro, both arms extended forward, his left hand pointing an automatic at Mavranos and his right pointing a rifle at Crane. A white bandage bobbed on his spherical bald head, but his hands were steady.

  “Not really,” said Trumbill. “Drop it, Crane.”

  The van was rocking up into position behind the Camaro. Its windshield was opaqued with dust, and Crane could only wonder how many guns might be leveled at himself and Mavranos behind it.

  Right, Crane thought dully. Frits would have had sirens or a light, even in an unmarked car.

  Crane looked across the road at Mavranos. Mavranos’s eyes squinted at him almost humorously over the dusty mustache.

  “I’m okay,” Mavranos called. “I liked Ozzie too.”

  Trumbill was striding toward Mavranos, his tie and the tails of his suit coat flapping like banners on a ship. “Drop it or I kill your buddy, Crane,” he shouted, his pouchy eyes staring hard into Crane’s face.

  “Hah!” yelled Mavranos, stomping one foot in the dust.

  Trumbill’s head whipped around toward him, his automatic up—

  —And Crane, as aware of the imagined guns behind the van’s windshield as he would have been of a scorpion on his face, was grateful to his friend for making this easy—

  —as he snapped his revolver up into line and touched the cocked trigger.

  The full-throated bam rocked his head back and he let the recoil spin him around to fall onto his knees with the gun aimed at the windshield of the van.

  The van must already have been in reverse gear, for even as Crane was falling to his knees, its front end had dipped and it had begun to back away at full throttle, its front tires throwing up sand in two churning clouds.

  Crane swiveled his gunsight toward the rear of the truck, but Mavranos was standing alone in the road, his back to Crane, looking away from the receding van now to peer down into the gully.

  After one more tense, hard-breathing moment Crane raised the barrel and stood up.

  The van, which Crane could now see had a florist’s logo on its side, had reached a wide spot and backed around broadside; now it moved forward, turning back toward the highway, and drove away faster.

  Crane plodded down the slope and across the road, and he stopped at the lip of the gully a few yards away from Mavranos.

  Trumbill lay sprawled on his back in the sandy bed of the wash a few yards below them. His coat was open, and the white shirt over his belly was reddening fast. The rifle he had been carrying lay on the roadside near Mavranos, and the automatic rested upright against a stone halfway down the slope of the gully.

  “Good shootin’, Pogo,” said Mavranos.

  Crane looked at him. His friend hadn’t been shot, but he was weaving on his feet and looked pale and sick.

  “Thanks,” said Crane. He supposed he must look the same way.

  “Camaro,” said Trumbill loudly. “Take it to…telephone.” Speaking the words seemed to cost him a lot, but his voice was strong. “Medevac.”

  No, thought Crane. “No,” he said.

  I’ve got to kill him, he thought in sick amazement, finish him off. I can’t take prisoners here. Would the police jail him? For what? Ozzie’s body is gone, and even if the fat man left enough evidence to be charged with Diana’s murder—which isn’t likely—he would certainly be freed on bail. Of course he’d be in a hospital for a long time, but couldn’t he work for my father from a hospital? He wouldn’t let Scat and Oliver slip through his fingers, as he did with the infant Diana.

  And I’d be in jail, at least for a while. Maybe a long time. What the hell kind of story could I tell the police?

  I’ve got to kill him. Right here. Right now.

  “Mavranos,” Trumbill called now. “I can cure your cancer. You can…go back to your family…a healthy man. Decades.” He inhaled loudly enough for the men up on the bank to hear. “Trank darts—in rifle. Shoot Crane.”

  Crane turned and looked at the rifle that lay a yard from Mavranos’s feet, and then he looked up and met Mavranos’s gaze.

  Crane didn’t think Mavranos could get the rifle up before he could raise the revolver and shoot him—but he realized that he was physically incapable of shooting Arky. He slowly opened his hand and let the revolver clank to the dirt.

  “Do what you gotta do, Arky,” he said.

  Mavranos nodded slowly. “I’m thinking of Wendy, and the girls,” he said.

  Slowly he stepped over to where the rifle lay on the ground, and then he kicked it away, toward the truck’s front tire.

  “Wendy saved you.”

  Crane exhaled and nodded, then turned back to Trumbill and swallowed hard as he crouched down to retrieve the revolver.

  “Okay,” moaned Trumbill. His face was pale and gleaming with sweat in the harsh sunlight, and his pudgy hands were fists. “Last request! Call this number…tell him where my…body is. Three-eight-two—”

  “No,” said Crane, shakily raising the mirror-bright gun. “I don’t know what kind of magic he could do with your corpse.” He blinked tears out of his eyes but spoke steadily. “Best you rot out here, feed the birds and the bugs.”

  “No-o-o-o-o!” Somehow in spite of his terrible wound, Trumbill was roaring down there, and the fearful, jarring noise seemed to fill the desert and shake the remote sky. “Not the skinny man, not the skinny man, not the—”

  Crane thought of Ozzie and of Diana, both killed by this man.

  And he pulled the trigger.


  “—Skinny ma-a-a-a-an—”

  Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam.


  The hot air of the flat desert gave back no echoes from the shots. Crane lowered the emptied gun and stared, astonished, at the red-spattered body sprawled motionless in the sand of the dry stream bed.

  Then the dirt surface of the road was under Crane’s face, between his spread hands, and he was spasmodically vomiting up the dregs of the Coke he’d had for breakfast.

  When he was able to roll away to the side, spitting and gasping, he saw through his tears that Mavranos had opened the back of the truck and was lugging the jack to the flat tire.

  “I can do this, Pogo,” Mavranos called. “Why don’t you see if you can’t push that Camaro into the wash. I’ve got a couple of tarps we can throw over it and weight down with rocks. No harm if this goes undetected for a while, and I don’t think the boys in that van are gonna make any calls.”

  Crane nodded and got wearily to his feet.

  Fifteen minutes later they were driving slowly back along the dirt road toward the highway, Mavranos absently cursing the damage that he imagined had been done to the truck’s suspension. Crane rocked in the passenger seat and stared out at the broken stones of the desert, trying to feel a grim satisfaction at having avenged Ozzie, or to feel pride in having competently shot the fat man, or to feel anything besides the remembered horror of pulling that sweat-slick trigger again and again.

  After they had got back onto the highway and were again rolling south toward the lake, he looked at his right hand, and for a moment he hoped that his father would succeed in taking this body away from him.


  Combination of the Two

  “This don’t look much like Vegas,” Mavranos said as he steered the shaky, dusty truck through the quiet streets of Boulder City. Somehow the radio was playing what Crane thought was the best rock song ever recorded, Big Brother and the Holding Company’s “Combination of the Two.”

  Today Crane felt as though he’d lost the right, the ability, to participate in it.


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