Last call, p.45
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       Last Call, p.45

           Tim Powers
 
Again the man seemed to be in his thirties, with slicked-back brown hair and heavy-lidded, long-lashed eyes that made his faint smile secretive. A tailored pinstripe suit jacket was open over a white silk shirt with six-inch collar points.

  On the polished surface of the table between them rested a pair of wrapped sugar cubes, a can of Flit insecticide, a golden cup like a chalice, and a haftless, rusted blade six inches long.

  Crane remembered that Cups was his own suit in the Tarot deck, and he reached out a hand—he noted with no particular surprise that he seemed to be wearing a silk shirt, too, with onyx cuff links—and pointed at the cup.

  Apparently pleased, the man smiled and stood up. Crane now saw that he was wearing high-waisted pinstripe trousers to match the jacket, and expensive-looking leather shoes with pointed toes.

  “You’re you, still,” the man said. Crane noticed that the voice was not perfectly synchronized with the movement of the lips. “I was afraid you might not be.” From inside his jacket he pulled a shiny automatic pistol. Crane tensed, ready to jump at him, but the man took the gun by the barrel and laid it on the table in front of Crane. “Take it. Safety’s off, and it’s chambered. All you gotta do is pull back the hammer and pull the trigger.”

  Crane picked it up. It was heavy Springfield Arms .45 with wooden grips. He paused, wondering if the man wanted him to do anything with it; then his host turned away, and Crane shrugged and tucked the gun into the belt of the gray slacks that had replaced the black wet-suit pants.

  The man walked to an open sliding glass door at one corner of the pool-facing side of the room, and looked back and beckoned with a manicured hand.

  Crane got to his feet, noting that he was wearing shoes instead of rubber fins and that he didn’t seem to have the weight or bulk of the scuba tank on his back, and he walked across the carpet and followed his host out onto a small square terrace.

  Below them a green lawn dotted with palm trees stretched out to the concrete apron of the pool, and beyond the pool was the casino, painted pistachio green. On the far side of the casino, past the narrow highway, the desert stretched away to the horizon, and Crane had to lean over the terrace coping and look to his right to see the nearest building, a low, rambling structure on the highway’s far side half a mile north.

  He recognized it. He’d been there many times as a little boy.

  That was the Last Frontier, a sort of dude ranch casino and motel with western decor and a short “street” of transplanted ghost town buildings behind it to entertain children.

  It was later sold, reopened in 1955 as the New Frontier, and then was torn down in ’65. The Frontier Casino in which he had been playing Poker last week was built in ’67 on the same spot.

  And of course he knew where he was. He looked down, and shivered to see the remembered rose garden.

  He was on the penthouse terrace of the Flamingo Hotel as the place had been in early ’47, before the murder of Benjamin Siegel—popularly known as “Bugsy,” though the man had seldom been called that to his face. This was how the Flamingo had looked when it was still the only elegant casino-hotel in Las Vegas. With its fourth-floor penthouse, it was the tallest building within seven miles.

  Crane straightened and looked at the flashily dressed man standing beside him. He tried to say, “Mr. Siegel,” but only succeeded in blowing air out of the regulator.

  “You know what place this is,” said Siegel. Crane caught a trace of a New York accent, and he saw that the sound was now synchronized with the mouth.

  Crane nodded.

  “My castle,” Siegel said as he turned and walked back into the long living room. “Your father probably took you here, after he shot me up.”

  He paused at a narrow bookcase that was built into the wall; the lower section was enclosed, and he winked at Crane and lifted away the knee-level bottom shelf, spilling books onto the floor. Under the shelf, instead of the narrow box of a cupboard, was a rectangular shaft that receded away into darkness below, with a wooden ladder mounted against the far wall of it.

  “Bolt-hole and hidey-hole,” Siegel said.

  He tossed the shelf aside and strode back to the table and resumed his chair.

  “Sit down,” Siegel said.

  Crane walked back across the carpet and perched himself on the edge of the opposite chair, aware of the hard bulk of the gun under his belt. He reminded himself to breathe steadily and not hold his breath; back in the real, 1990 world, he might be rising or sinking right now, or even floating on the surface.

  “John Scarne showed me a gimmick for a proposition bet one time,” said Siegel, peeling off the paper wrappers from the sugar cubes. He put the bared white cubes out on the table and then unscrewed the cap of the can of Flit. “It’s called lamosca. That means ‘the fly’ in Spanish.”

  From below the table he lifted an intercom microphone. “Hey, chef?” he said into it. “This is Benny. Jack’s here, and we need one live fly.” He let go of the microphone, and it dissolved into smoke.

  Siegel dipped a finger into the can and then lightly touched the top face of each sugar cube. “I won ten grand off Willie Moretti with this, once, right here in this room. The idea is, you bet on which sugar cube the fly will land on. It looks like an even-up bet, right? But what you do, you turn the cubes so the one your man picked has the DDT face up, and the other is DDT down. The fly always goes for the unpoisoned face, and you win your bet.”

  A quiet knock sounded on a hallway door behind Crane, and Siegel called, “Come in!”

  Crane heard a door open, and then a figure in a tuxedo had walked up from behind and stopped beside his chair. Siegel pointed at the tabletop.

  Crane was able to keep from shouting through the regulator, but he did twitch back in his seat when he saw the room service waiter’s hand.

  It was the hand of a skeleton, the bones furred and strung with wet brown algae. The long fingers daintily set down a cardboard box with holes punched in the lid. A loud buzzing sounded from inside it.

  One of Siegel’s eyes was blank white now, with the sheen of pearl, but he smiled at Crane and turned one of the sugar cubes upside down, and then he lifted the lid off the box.

  The fly was a buzzing insect that seemed to be the size of a plum, and it was up and out and flying around the table in an instant, its jointed legs dangling loosely under its swooping body.

  Crane flinched away from it, but it was circling the sugar cubes now.

  “Say you’d bet five grand he’d land on that one,” Siegel said cheerfully, pointing at the one with the DDT face still up.

  The fly landed on the other one, its long legs seeming to hug the cube, its face working at the surface.

  The light through the windows was dimming; Siegel waved a brown hand, and several lamps came on, casting a yellow glow over the table. The motion had startled the fly away from the sugar, and while it was looping heavily through the air again, he picked up the cube the insect had spurned and tossed it over his shoulder, out the window.

  “That was for betting,” Siegel said. His voice was raspy now, and Crane looked up at him. The tan skin of Siegel’s cheek was peeling, exposing rough blue coral. “This is for…illustration.”

  Again the fly landed on the cube and began gnawing at it. Crane could hear a tiny grinding.

  “It knows there’s a poison one,” wheezed Siegel, “but it doesn’t realize this is the one. It sees the sweet edible face and doesn’t know it hides the same poison.”

  In the dimming light, dots seemed to be flickering on the cube, as if it were a white die; then the flickering marks seemed to be card suits. The fly was tossing aside fragments of sugar in its haste to devour the cube, and its bristly head was buried in a hole it had eaten into the thing.

  Then the fly shuddered and tumbled off. It lay on its back, its long legs working in the air and a muddy liquid running out of its face.

  “Too late,” said Siegel huskily, “it realizes its mistake.”

  The windows behind him w
ere closed now, and behind the glass rectangles, as if they were panels of an aquarium, churned the algae-fogged water of Lake Mead.

  The walls and furniture were dissolving, and the light was going fast.

  Siegel’s head hung in the smoky dimness in front of Crane. The hair was gone, and the skin was a mossy smoothness except where the coral showed through. “He killed me,” grated the head, “shot out my eye, cut off my head in the mortuary, and threw it in the lake! In memory of me, too, do this.”

  The rubber rim of the diving mask was suction-cupping Crane’s face again, and its sides blocked his peripheral vision, and he could feel the slick layer of water between his skin and the neoprene wet suit. When he kicked himself away from the head that sat on top of the spire, his fins propelled him well back, so that the head was now just the bumpy top of the column in the murky water.

  Breathing fast through the regulator, he thrashed spasmodically away through the dirty cold water.

  Okay, he thought nervously, think. What did I get out of that? I learned that my father killed Bugsy Siegel, who was apparently King before him. But what do I do now? Am I supposed to…what, put poisoned sugar in my father’s coffee or something?

  Whatever had happened here today, it was clearly over, and he turned and started to swim back the way he’d come. His left leg was feeling tight-strung, and every time he breathed now he could hear a ringing metallic broong in the tank, a sure sign that he was low on air.

  He arched his back upward, ready to ascend to the surface—and saw the silhouettes of two divers above him. Both carried spear guns.

  And both had obviously just now become aware of him; they curled downward in the water, extending the guns at him.

  Crane jerked in horrified surprise and started to thrash around, hoping to kick his way fast down to the deeper, darker water, but an instant later the spears punched him.

  One wrenched his head around as it tore off his mask, and the other had hit the buckle and heavy web fabric of his weight belt; he could feel that that one had cut him.

  Its barbs had caught in the skin of his torn wet suit, and he could feel it being tugged upward; if it tore free, the man would yank the tethered spear back, reload, and fire again. The other diver was probably already pulling in his own spear, perhaps had already retrieved it and reloaded.

  Crane fumbled at his belt and the shaft of the snagged spear, and then he found the spear’s tether and pulled at it, dragging himself up toward the diver.

  Crane’s eyes were open, but his mask was gone. He could see nothing in the murky water, and had to exhale through his nose like a novice. Over his panic he was peripherally aware of the music again, “Begin the Beguine,” and of laughter and loud talking.

  Then, even without a mask, Crane saw the blurry bulk of the diver above him, and at the same moment the tether went slack in his hands; the man had let go of the spear gun and would now probably come in close with a knife to finish Crane off.

  The man was close—only a couple of yards away.

  Without thinking, Crane dragged his hand back down through the water and grabbed again at his belt—and Siegel’s .45 was there. He pulled it free, thumbing back the hammer as he thrust it up through the water and pointed it at the looming figure whose agitation of the water he could now feel, and he pulled the trigger.

  The gun actually fired, though Crane saw no flash, and the underwater shot sounded like a loud, hoarse shout.

  Blurrily he saw the body above him convulse in the water.

  Christ, I’ve hurt him, maybe killed him, Crane thought dizzily. How could I have known a .45 would shoot underwater?

  He heard a muted crack then, and the mask strap tugged at his throat—the other diver had fired his spear again, and had again hit Crane’s mask, which was now broken and swinging loosely below his right ear.

  With his free hand Crane reached up and gripped the shaft of the spear. With his other hand he raised the automatically recocked .45.

  His eyes were straining through the cloudy water as the fast bubbles from his nose churned in front of his face—and all at once he was again seeing through his false right eye.

  From against a black background that might have been the night sky, a whitely luminous figure was moving toward him. Like a double-exposure photograph, it was a scuba diver with mask and fins but was also a robed, bearded King, and the object it held out before itself was at once a spear gun and a scepter.

  Crane raised his right arm, seeing it draped in a baggy sleeve as well as cased in black neoprene, and though he felt the grip of a .45 automatic, he seemed to be holding out a golden chalice.

  His tank was ringing with each breath—broong, broong—and it was taking effort now to pull air into his lungs through the regulator.

  You have to shoot, he told himself over the shrill, despairing wail in his head. You have to squeeze the trigger and kill another man—and maybe the gun won’t shoot a second time underwater anyway.

  The double-exposure figure was almost upon him. If the gun did fire, Crane could not possibly miss.

  He pulled the trigger, and again the water shook to the short, hard shout of the report—and abruptly he could see only the blur of cloudy water in front of his left eye.

  He kicked away, pulling the spear along with him; the only drag on the spear was the inertia of an unencumbered spear gun, and he felt safe in tucking the .45 back into his torn weight belt.

  His air was just about entirely gone, and the rented tank had a simple K-valve, with no reserve-air mechanism. He needed to get up right now.

  He looked up and extended the spear over his head and began to kick upward. Without the mask he couldn’t see how fast his bubbles were rising, and he had no idea how deep he might be, so against the urgency of his laboring lungs he made himself kick slowly.

  If there was any air at all left in the tank now, his lungs didn’t have the strength to suck it out—but he kept the regulator clamped in his teeth to help resist the increasing spasmodic urge to inhale lake water.

  He was exhaling steadily through his nose, but there wasn’t much air left in his lungs. Surely I can hold my breath now, he thought desperately. If the goddamn tank’s empty, there’s no pressure to pop a lung!

  But he remembered seeing a diver surface once with a ruptured lung, the face mask opaque with bloody froth, and he kept on exhaling.

  I’m going downward, he thought in sudden, pure panic. I’ve been kicking myself straight down. It’s the bottom I’m going to hit, not the surface.

  He paused, his heart pounding, and he stared down past his fins to see if the water was brighter in that direction—and suddenly his ears were out of the water.

  He yanked his head back, spat out the regulator mouthpiece, and for half a minute just hung at the surface and stared into the blue sky and gasped huge lungfuls of hot dry air. If there’s bad guys on a boat nearby, he thought, let ’em shoot me. At least I’ll die with oxygen in my blood.

  Nobody shot at him. After a while he fished up the BCD mouthpiece and inflated the thing enough so that he could float without using his hands or feet to tread water.

  When he reached up and peeled off the wet suit hood, he heard his name being shouted across the water. He turned around. There was Deadman’s Island, and there, perhaps a hundred yards away, was the speedboat, with Mavranos standing up behind the windshield.

  Crane waved his free hand. “Arky!” he yelled hoarsely.

  The boat roared, turned its bow toward him, and began to increase in size, rising and falling and throwing spray out to the sides.

  He hoped Mavranos could handle the boat well enough not to run him down—especially since Mavranos was looking off to the starboard and pointing at something.

  Crane blinked water out of his eye and looked more closely. Mavranos was pointing his revolver at something.

  Crane twisted his head around in that direction and saw another boat, further away, with a couple of figures standing up in it.

  Then
Mavranos had arrived and had spun the boat out in a spray-flinging halt, blocking Crane’s view of the other boat.

  “In, Pogo!”

  Mavranos had flung an end of rope over the side, and Crane grabbed it and pulled and kicked, and at the expense of all his remaining strength he managed to clamber aboard even with his tank and weight belt still on.

  “You take the gun,” Mavranos said, shoving the revolver into Crane’s shaking, dripping hand. “I’m getting us out of here.”

  Crane obediently tried to hold the gun up and aimed at the men in the distant boat. “Who,” he gasped, “are they?”

  “I don’t know.” Mavranos sat down in the pilot seat and shoved the throttle forward. “Their boss and another guy went in the water with spear guns a little after you went in,” he shouted over the roar of the engine, “and I looked at them and they looked at me, but neither of us had any real excuse to mess with the other—but they got real agitated just now when one of them, their boss, I guess, came back up.”

  He took one hand off the wheel to point, and Crane let himself glance away from the other boat long enough to see the hooded and masked head bobbing inertly on the surface of the water behind them. Mavranos’s wake rippled under the head just then, and it rocked as loosely as a floating basketball.

  “They don’t know if he’s dead,” called Mavranos. “We want to be well away before they make up their minds what to do.”

  The distant boat seemed to be moving now, but Mavranos had a good head start, and the men in the other boat would probably stop to pull the floating body aboard.

  Crane let his quivering arm lower the gun, and after just sitting and panting for a dozen bouncing jumps over the waves, he got up on his knees and popped open the release buckle of the weight belt…and then, though he could feel hot blood leaking across his skin under the torn wet suit, he stared for several seconds at the rough object the belt had been holding against him.

  It was recognizably a semiautomatic pistol, but the wooden grips were gone, and the slide was rusted solid with the frame, and crusty brown corrosion had narrowed the muzzle to a rough-edged little bore that a .22 round wouldn’t fit through.

 

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