Last call, p.46
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       Last Call, p.46

           Tim Powers

  He put it down carefully on the pebbled white plastic deck and after a moment remembered his cut side and reached for the backpack harness release buckle.

  Under the neoprene skin, blood had blotted down his leg nearly as far as the knee and had gorily soaked his crotch, but the cut itself, though long and ragged, wasn’t deep; when he tied the sleeves of his shirt around his waist, balling up the bulk of the shirt over the cut, the cloth didn’t seem to be absorbing much blood.

  He picked up the decayed gun and then dizzily groped his way forward and collapsed into the seat beside Mavranos. The lake breeze was wonderfully cool on his sweaty chest and in his wet hair.

  “That’s—that was their boss, all right,” he said loudly, “and I believe he is dead. The lake won’t contain a dead would-be King’s head. If I’d died down there, my head’d be poking out.”

  Mavranos glanced at him with one eyebrow raised over a squint. “You kill the other guy, too?”

  “I—yeah, I think so.” Crane was shivering now.

  “With what? Your knife?”

  “Uh…with this.”

  Mavranos glanced down at the rusted chunk of metal on Crane’s lap, and his eyes widened. “That’s a gun, isn’t it? What did you do, hit ’em with it?”

  Crane was pressing his side above the bump of his pelvis. His cut was starting to ache, and he wondered if Lake Mead water was particularly infectious. “I ought to try to eat something,” he said. “I’ll tell you all about it, over dinner back in Vegas. Right now let’s return this boat and get the hell out of these mountains. The wet suit’s too full of blood to turn back in to the shop, and the weight belt’s got a spear tear in it—I’ll tie the whole lot of gear together and sink it before we get in. The dive shop can put it on my Visa.”

  Mavranos shook his head and spat over the side. “The way this goddamn royal family throws money around.”

  As Mavranos backed the Suburban out of the marina parking space and clanked it into drive, he paused, then pointed ahead through the cracked, dusty windshield.

  “Look at that, Pogo,” he said.

  Crane shifted on the seat and stared at the opposite row of parked cars baking in the sun. Three were white El Camino pickups.

  “You wanna go see if the El C is busted off their emblems?”

  “No,” Crane said, wearing a souvenir Lake Mead sweat shirt now but still feeling shaky. “No, let’s just get out of here.”

  “I don’t think we need to check, at that,” said Mavranos. He drove forward and rocked the truck down the ramp to the road. A sign said that Lakeshore Road was to the right, and he spun the wheel that way. “I think you killed the King of the Amino Acids.”

  In the parking lot of the Fashion Show Mall across the Strip from the Desert Inn, the raggedy man watched the parked camper and tugged at the forefinger of his left hand and wondered when he would get something to eat today.

  He couldn’t get the free shrimp cocktails anymore at the Lady Luck up on Third Street by the Continental Trailways bus depot—a waiter there had given him five dollars and told him they’d call the cops if he ever showed up again, looking the way he did and smelling so bad—but Dondi Snayheever could still get plenty of free popcorn at the Slots of Fun on the Strip.

  And at the many cheap buffets and breakfasts all over town he had run into specimens that looked far worse than he did.

  He was good at begging, too, it turned out. The shadowy, mechanically moving people would often, if briefly, become real Persons when they approached him; and then it would be Strength with her humbled lion, or the Hermit, or the naked hermaphrodite that was the World, or the Lovers, if it was a couple, who dropped gold coins into the palm of his hot, lean right hand. The Persons quickly disappeared after that, leaving in their places the little shadow people, who even with their dim, papery faces managed to express vague puzzlement and distaste and surprise at what they’d done, and the gold coins turned into mere quarters and chips, but he could spend the stuff. Probably more easily than he could spend real gold coins.

  He knew what cliff face it was that he was destined to dance on soon, on this coming Friday, Good Friday—he had seen a picture of it, a postcard in a rack in a souvenir store—but he still had to find his mother.

  And kill his treacherous father.

  That last was going to be hard, since his father could change bodies now. Snayheever had been watching the little figures on the trapezes in Circus Circus yesterday, and he had suddenly been talking to his father—gumby gumby, pudding and pineal—but the guards there had made him leave, and he hadn’t stayed in contact long enough to work out where his father actually, physically was.

  The fingers of his right hand were still in under the dirty bandage that wrapped his left hand, wiggling the cold left forefinger.

  He had seen a man leave the camper this morning, and he was pretty sure that it was his father. The man had been dressed in a white leather jacket with sequins on it, and high white boots, and his hair had been shellacked into an impressive pompadour, but before Snayheever had been able to come shuffling across the parking lot to him, he had got into a cab and left. And now he must be aware of Snayheever’s presence here, for he was staying away.

  He won’t come back until I leave, Snayheever reasoned. He thinks he can drive away then, and ditch me again. But I’ll put a homing device on his truck, so I can always know where he is.

  The finger popped free at last, with no pain at all but with a bit of a smell. He pulled it out of the bandage and looked at it, and saw that it was black. Perhaps I’m becoming a Negro, he thought.

  He shuffled over to the truck, cleaving his way through the thick air by making swimming motions with his hands, and he crouched by the rear bumper and wedged the finger tightly in behind the license plate.

  Free to leave now, he began swimming away across the parking lot in the direction of Slots of Fun.


  Bolt-Hole and Hidey-Hole

  On Monday morning Crane sat in a motel room off Paradise and stared at the telephone. He shivered in the breeze from the rackety air conditioner, and he pressed the bandage over his hip-bone, wondering if he should change it again.

  Nearly twenty-four hours had passed since the spear had cut his side, but the wound was still bleeding—not a lot, but every time he untucked his shirt and peeled back the bandage, he saw fresh red blood on the gauze.

  And his scalp and his scarred ankle itched, and his right eye socket throbbed—but while the muscles of his arms and legs should have been aching from yesterday’s exertions in the lake, instead he felt altogether stronger, springier, than he had in years.

  Mavranos was sitting in a chair by the window, rubbing a finger over the flimsy paper one of the Sausage McMuffins with Eggs had been wrapped in, and then he licked the recoagulating cheese off his finger. He swallowed, though he apparently had to rotate his head to do it.

  “Back of my throat feels like it’s dry, no matter how much I swallow,” he said irritably. “Even drinking water doesn’t help.” He looked at Crane, who was still pressing his side. “Cut still bleeding?”

  “Probably,” Crane said.

  “Well, it’s right where Snayheever’s bullet tore you. Place ain’t gettin’ a chance to heal.”

  Crane sipped his coffee. Mavranos of course had brought in the ice chest and was working on a beer. “The Fisher King’s supposed to be wounded,” Crane said. “Maybe this is a good sign.”

  “That’s a healthy attitude. If it ever does heal up, you can stab your leg again.” Mavranos looked at the clock radio on the nightstand. “Your man probably just wanted to get rid of you.”

  Since midafternoon yesterday Crane had been calling local Tarot readers and New Age occultist shops, and finally this morning he had been referred to a bookseller in San Francisco who specialized in antique Tarot decks.

  The man had at first tried to interest Crane in some of the decks that had been reprinted in Europe in 1977, which apparently had
been declared the honorary six hundredth anniversary of playing cards, but when Crane repeated the name of the deck he was interested in, and told the man some of the things Spider Joe had said, the bookseller had paused for so long that Crane had wondered if he had hung up. He had then got Crane’s phone number and promised to call him back.

  “Maybe,” Crane said now. “Hosin’ me, maybe.” He wondered if the man had given the motel room’s phone number to some terrible Tarot Secret Police, and if shortly there would be a hard knock at the door.

  The phone rang instead, and Crane picked it up.

  “Is this,” said the bookseller’s voice, “the gentleman who was asking about an old Tarot deck?”

  “Yes,” Crane said.

  “Very good. Sorry for the delay—I had to wait for one of the employees to get back from her break, and I didn’t want to discuss this over the store phone. I’m in a phone booth right now. Uh—yes, I know what deck you’re talking about. It didn’t ring a bell at first because it’s not sought by collectors and isn’t even considered an antique deck. No versions of it that survive are older than the 1930s, though the designs do seem to go way back, possibly antedating, as the name would imply, the recently rediscovered twenty-three cards known as the Lombardy I cards, the owner of which chooses to remain anonymous. Mostly these cards are used now by a few avantgarde psychoanalysts, who don’t wish that fact to be known. Not exactly sanctioned by the AMA, hmm?”


  “So I am given to understand. Powerful symbols, you know, effective in reviving catatonics and so forth. Equivalent of electroshock therapy in some cases.”

  Over the phone Crane heard the booming rattle of a truck driving past the man’s phone booth.

  “Uh,” the man said when he could again be heard, “I gather you are not yourself a psychoanalyst, but that you know something about this deck, these so-called Lombardy Zeroth cards. Did you know that there is no one, right now, painting them? At one time there was a sort of guild of a few men who…could paint them, but since the war it has been a capital crime in several European countries even to own a deck. Nothing on the law books, you understand, but a capital crime nonetheless. Yes indeed. But I do happen to know of a source. You realize this would involve…a good deal of money.”

  “Yes,” Crane said.

  “Of course, of course. Well, if you could bring a deposit of half what I estimate it will cost, I can approach the owner—an elderly widowed woman in Manhattan, who keeps the cards in a”—he chuckled uncomfortably—“a lead box in a safe-deposit vault. I’d need…say, two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, preferably in cash. She owns twenty cards, from a deck painted in Marseilles in 1933, and—”

  “No,” said Crane into the phone, “I need a full deck.” And by this Wednesday, he thought.

  “My dear sir, there simply aren’t any. Even in the Visconti and Visconti-Sforza collections, for instance, there are no surviving examples of the Devil or the Tower cards. The…shock treatment was too severe, I suppose. I can say with confidence that if any complete Lombardy Zeroth decks are in existence anywhere, they would be in the hands of old families in Europe, and not for sale, or even acknowledgment, under any circumstances.”

  “Bullshit,” said Crane, “I’ve seen two different complete decks, one in 1948 and one in 1969. And I’ve talked to the man who painted one of them.”

  There was a long silence from the other end of the line. Finally the man said, quietly, “Was he all right?”

  “Well, he was blind.” Crane was silent now for a few seconds. “He, uh, cut out his eyes twenty years ago.”

  “Did he indeed. And you’ve seen the cards, a full deck. Are you all right?”

  Crane pressed his side and enviously watched Mavranos sip beer “No”

  “Trust me,” said the voice on the telephone, “it won’t help you to look at those things again. Absorb yourself with crossword puzzles and daytime soap operas. Actually, obtaining a lobotomy might be your wisest course.”

  The line clicked and went dead.

  “No luck,” Mavranos observed as Crane hung up the phone.

  “No,” Crane said. “He said he might be able to get me part of a deck for half a million dollars. And then he told me I should get a lobotomy.”

  Mavranos laughed and stood up, then braced himself on the wall and felt the bandanna around his throat. He looked angrily at his beer can. “These things just aren’t working, Pogo.”

  “Maybe you’re not drinking them quite fast enough.”

  “Possible.” Mavranos tottered to the ice chest and crouched to lift out another. “Your dad’s got a deck.”

  “Sure, but even if I could find them, he couldn’t use them if I had them, could he?”

  Mavranos blinked. “Guess not. Can’t have archaic and eat it, too—har-har-har.” He popped open the fresh beer. “But he had another deck once.”

  “The deck he cut out my eye with, yeah. He probably didn’t use it again, not with my blood on it.”

  “You figure he threw it out?”

  “Well, no. I wonder if you’d even dare burn a deck of those things. I suppose he…”

  Crane stood up and crossed to the window. Outside, palm trees waved in the breeze over the morning traffic.

  “I suppose he hid it,” he said softly, “with the other things that might otherwise be used to hurt him.”

  “Yeah? Where would he hide such stuff?”

  Crane remembered the last day he had spent with his father, in April of 1948. They had had breakfast at the Flamingo, but before they had gone inside, his father had put something into a hole he’d knocked into the stucco under the side of the casino’s front steps. Crane could still remember the rayed suns and stick figures scratched into the stucco around the hole.

  But that old casino wasn’t there anymore. That whole building, and the Champagne Tower at its south end, had been knocked down sometime in the 60s. A big glass and steel high-rise stood there now, with the present-day casino, much bigger, as the ground floor.

  Still, it was his father’s place, the old man’s castle in the wasteland—his tower.

  Crane shrugged. “Let’s go look around the Flamingo.”

  Al Funo tapped his finger against the cab windshield. “That blue truck,” he told the driver. “Follow it—I’ll make it worth your while, even if you’ve got to follow it back to L.A.”

  The Glock 9-millimeter, fully loaded with eighteen rounds of Remington 147-grain subsonics, hung in his shoulder holster, and the oblong jewelry box was in his jacket pocket. Time to settle Scott Crane’s hash, he thought. Give him the good news—he patted his jacket pocket—and the bad news—and he touched the lump under his armpit.

  “I can’t go outside the city limits,” said the cabdriver.

  “Then you just better hope they don’t go outside the city limits,” Funo said in a hard voice.

  “Shit,” said the driver derisively.

  Funo frowned, but forced himself to relax and watch the truck ahead. He would take a bus home to Los Angeles this afternoon. The Dodge he’d been sleeping in was no good.

  Saturday morning, when he’d started the car in the Marie Callender’s parking lot, the engine had made the most horrible clattering din he’d ever heard; it had quieted down, though, and he’d been able to drive it until last night—when he went over a speed bump in the parking lot of the Lucky supermarket on Flamingo Road, and the terrible noise chattered out from under the hood again, and the engine had simply stopped for all time. He had managed to push the old Dodge into a parking space, and he spent the night in it right there.

  And then this morning, while he’d been away for breakfast, somebody had broken into the car, had popped the lock right out of the driver’s side door! Nothing had proved to be missing. To judge from the scattering of dust bunnies, the intruders had groped around under the front seat, but Funo hadn’t been keeping anything there.

  Funo was bobbing slightly on the cab seat now, staring at
the blue truck ahead. Settle his hash, he thought tensely, pop a cap, drop the hammer, sell him the farm, hand him his ass, feed him his shorts.

  Mavranos parked the truck in the multi-story parking structure behind the old Flamingo buildings, and he and Crane got out and took the elevator down to street level and then walked around to the Strip side face of what was now the vast Flamingo Hilton Casino Hotel.

  North of the wide casino doors a new front was being added onto the casino building, and a chain-link fence separated the Strip traffic from the dusty raw dirt under the new glass facade, over the top of which marched a procession of two-dimensional pink glass flamingos, some still with the manufacturer’s stickers on them. Men in hard hats were hammering up wooden forms for concrete across the dirt, and Crane and Mavranos stood on the sidewalk outside the fence and leaned against the chain-link to let the streams of tourists walk past.

  “Where was it your daddy hid his secrets?” Mavranos asked. A fat woman sweating in an orange sunsuit stared at him as she swung past.

  “About where that guy’s setting up rebar,” said Crane. “But the ground’s been planed off. There’s nothing left from the old days.”

  Mavranos yawned a couple of times, frowning as if the yawns weren’t catching. “Well, it ain’t likely that any of the reconstruction would have caught him by surprise. Where would he have moved his hidey-hole to?”

  Hidey-hole, Crane thought.

  Bolt-hole and hidey-hole.

  He stepped back from the fence. “To some place that hasn’t changed since the old days. Let’s go look at the original Flamingo building—what they call the Oregon Building now.”

  They retraced their steps to the front entrance and went inside and threaded their way through the cold, dark, clanging casino, between the banks of slot machines and the closely spaced tables—Mavranos craning his neck to see cards on the Blackjack layouts and no doubt wishing he’d brought along some kind of goldfish—and out the back doors into the hot glare of sun on splashing water and bone white deck and oiled, tanned bodies.


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