Last call, p.48
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       Last Call, p.48

           Tim Powers
 

  Crane pulled another beer loose and put it in the hand, then set the bag down on the hot pavement. “Where’s my old pal Wiz-Ding?” he asked.

  The man who had spoken looked up at him now. “That’s right, you’re the guy he hit last week, aren’t you? What’d you do, put a Gypsy curse on him?”

  Again Crane thought about the ringing pay phone. “No, why?”

  “He got the horrors real bad that night, ran out into traffic and dived under a bus.”

  “Jesus.” Crane tipped his opened can up to his mouth, making certain to do no more than wet his lips. “Uh,” he said as if it were an afterthought or a tactful change of subject, “how about that real old guy? Doctor Leaky?”

  The player’s attention had returned to his cards. “Hah. You’re hoping to score a big pot of flat pennies, right? He ain’t here today.”

  Crane didn’t want his next question to seem important, so he sat down lithely, scratching his hot scalp and wishing he hadn’t lost his Jughead cap. “Deal me in the next hand,” he said. “Does old Doctor Leaky play here steady?”

  “Most days, I s’pose. Buy-in’s ten bucks.”

  Resigning himself—and Mavranos—to an hour of wasted time, Crane suppressed a sigh and dug in his pocket.

  The full moon hung in the sky to the east like the print of an ash-dusted penny on indigo velvet.

  Finally the full moon, thought Diana as she glanced at it through the windshield. And our monthly cycles are matched, for whatever archaic, repulsive value that might have. Hold my hand, Mother.

  The blocks around Shadow Lane and Charleston Boulevard, north of the Strip and south of Fremont Street, all seemed to be taken up with hospitals, and Diana wasted ten minutes in circling before finding a parking space in the University Medical Center parking lot. She locked the rented Ford, pushed her sunglasses up on her nose, and walked swiftly toward the gray buildings on the far side of the lot. She was wearing a loose shirt—not linen—and jeans and sneakers, in case she might have to run, and she wondered why she had not borrowed a gun from Ozzie and Scott, or even Mike Stikeleather, when she had had the chance.

  Her steps were light on the radiant asphalt in her new white Nikes, and she spread out her hands in front of herself, as if surrendering to something, and tossed aside the cloud of her blond hair to look at her knuckles and wrists.

  All the old scars were gone: the crescent of a dog bite, the hard line where a jackknife had unexpectedly closed, all the tiny pale graffiti of the years. This morning, rousing from yet another motel pillow wrapped in the old yellow baby blanket, her forehead had been itching, and in the bathroom mirror she had seen smooth skin where the boy in fourth grade had hit her over the left eye with a rock.

  And of course she had been dreaming, for the sixth night in a row, about her mother’s island, where owls hooted in the tossing, bending trees and water clattered over rocks and dogs bayed out in the darkness.

  Like her skin, her memory was growing younger. On Sunday she had decided to visit Hans’s grave, but after getting into a taxi, she’d discovered that she couldn’t remember where he had been buried, nor even what he had looked like; and as she had sheepishly improvised some destination for the driver to take her to, she had realized with no alarm that the faces of all her long-ago lovers were likewise gone; and yesterday, after she had felt the death of the man who had been called Alfred Funo, it had occurred to her that she no longer knew anything about her onetime husband except his last name, and knew that only because it was the name on her driver’s license.

  But her son Scat was somewhere inside this building ahead of her, pierced through with drains and hoses, and her son Oliver was at Helen Sully’s place in Searchlight, and she could remember both of them perfectly, their faces and voices and personalities; and her abandonment of them, though she had had to do it to protect the boys, had bulked constantly in her consciousness like an infected splinter. She had talked to Oliver several times on the telephone, and though Scat hadn’t regained consciousness, she had called the doctor every day and had sent a cashier’s check to cover Scat’s treatment.

  And she could remember Scott Crane. He had been with her on her mother’s island in several of the dreams.

  She blushed now and frowned behind her sunglasses and quickened her steps.

  Three agitated old men sat at a table in the hospital cafeteria. They had been sitting there for an hour. Two of them had had to go to the men’s room, and the other was wearing diapers under his high-waisted polyester pants.

  Through the merry eyes of the Benet body, Georges Leon squinted sideways at his companions. Newt looked nervous, and Doctor Leaky, with his jaw of course foolishly hanging open, looked as if he’d just heard of some appalling impending threat.

  Dr. Bandholtz had called at dawn, his voice both resentful and scared, and told Leon that Diana Ryan had called the hospital once again and that this time she had asked what time today she could meet with Bandholtz and actually visit her son in person.

  Bandholtz was to meet her in the lobby sometime between ten and noon and, after Leon had reasoned with him, had reluctantly agreed to stop in the cafeteria first and then bring one very old man along with him when he went to see her.

  Leon stared at Doctor Leaky now and thought, Vaughan, where are you when I need you?

  Vaughan Trumbill had simply never come back from his last trip to go fetch Scott Crane. Leon had called Moynihan late Sunday night, but the piping voice of the Benet body had not been authoritative enough to get any information out of that damned Irish hoodlum. Moynihan had denied even ever having spoken to Benet before, and had just laughed and hung up the telephone when asked about Trumbill’s where abouts. Subsequent calls to Moynihan had gone unanswered or unreturned.

  If only that Funo person had not killed the Betsy Reculver body!

  Leon lifted his styrofoam cup and puckered his lips at the coffee, but it was still too hot. He put it down and sucked in a deep breath through his tension-narrowed bronchial tubes. He tugged his inhaler out of his vest pocket and took two puffs of Ventolin. It seemed to help.

  The time was nearly 11:00 A.M. by the cafeteria clock. Dr. Bandholtz should be arriving before too long.

  Leon hoped the police would somehow kill Doctor Leaky when they arrested him. The old body had a lot of sorcerous protections, but a hot .38 round would probably get through them.

  Newt had finished his own coffee and was shakily tearing shreds of styrofoam from the edge of the cup. “He won’t be able to do it,” he whispered, “any more than I can fly. I’ll bet you he’s forgotten again. And I ain’t gonna do it, Beany.”

  “Call me Leon, damn you.” Leon leaned toward the horrible old, emasculated body that was sitting and drooling next to him. “What is it that you’re going to do?” he asked once again, speaking very quietly.

  This time Doctor Leaky remembered. “Kill her!” he yelled shrilly, fumbling at the high waistband of his lime green pants for the little Walther .380 automatic.

  Leon jabbed his elbow into the belly of the old body that had once been his own. “Shut up, you imbecile.” Then, for the benefit of anyone who might have been looking over at them, he smiled and patted Doctor Leaky’s bald head.

  “It’s them!” Doctor Leaky choked, blinking around tearfully at the nurses and visitors. “The people in Doom Town!”

  Leon gave up any hope of being inconspicuous and began to play to the audience, shape what the eventual testimonies might be. “Stop it!” he said, speaking loudly. “Your wife shot you in 1948—it’s all over, she’s dead—you’ve got to stop brooding on it!”

  “My—my dingus!” Doctor Leaky exclaimed. “She shot my cock off!”

  From somewhere deep in Benet’s brain, not from Leon’s mind at all, came the thought that these people listening would assume she had shot some man of Scottish-Russian ancestry: Dingus McCockov.

  “Yes, yes,” Leon said, angrily suppressing the accompanying smile and hoping that his tone sounded soothing. “
It was a long time ago.”

  “That was real enough,” Doctor Leaky went on, finally speaking at just a conversational volume. “But the cards aren’t fooled by any of the rest of it. The people in Doom Town, and all the human-sacrifice statues around town. All your Fijis that died, too, they haven’t changed anything.” He smiled sadly. “It’s still just me.”

  Newt’s wrinkled old eyes were closed. “Beam me up, Scotty,” he said softly.

  The innocent cliché angered Leon. “Shut up,” he said through clenched teeth. “Just shut up.”

  Ray-Joe Pogue carefully backed his camper-laden pickup truck into one of the spaces in the hospital parking lot, then shoved the gearshift into park, turned the engine off and tapped an inch of ash off his cigar.

  The ash didn’t hit the upholstery. As before, it shattered to dust in midair and swirled into the three-dimensional outline of a small fat person sitting on the passenger side of the seat.

  Bloated and black and fermented, came the voice in Pogue’s head, ripped to bits by coyotes and covered with sand flies. What’s left of my belly looks like cooked bacon. The tattoos are a wreck, like a vandalized painting.

  “You already told me your body’s screwed up,” said Pogue nervously.

  He lied to me; he broke his promise.

  “A real bastard,” Pogue agreed.

  He had first met the ghost this morning; it had taken the form of popcorn and cigarette butts on the asphalt outside his camper door at dawn, its voice haltingly sounding in his head, and later it had tried, unsuccessfully, to animate a sheet of the Las Vegas Sun. After about ten minutes they had settled on cigar ash as the easiest medium for its physical appearance.

  I don’t care if my mom’s dead, said the voice in Ray Joe Pogue’s head now, just so they don’t call me Ollie like Hardy.

  Pogue held the door lever and stared uneasily at the churning fat person silhouette-in-ash. “I thought your name was Vaughan.”

  You can call me that. Or you can call me Bitin Dog. Our bodies were left in the desert. Our name is Legion.

  “Like in the Bible, huh?” said Pogue. “But anyway the King is here, at this hospital?”

  He is.

  Pogue had a gun under his jacket, but he hoped he wouldn’t need it. He took the brown plastic bottle out of the pocket of his white sequined denim jacket. “Inderal,” he read off the label. “I’ve known musicians who take this stuff—athletes, too—to keep from getting the shakes and jitters when they have to perform. You sure it’ll do, and not just mellow him out?”

  He’s asthmatic. It’ll close his bronchial tubes.

  “Asthmatic, right. Okay, you’re the doctor.”

  Your camouflage.

  “Don’t worry, I didn’t forget.”

  Before stepping out of the truck, Pogue obediently put on his Polaroid sunglasses and took off his shoes to tuck the newly bought water-filled plastic sole-liners inside.

  “And I’ll walk counterclockwise all the way to him,” Pogue told the dim gray ghost as he put his unwieldy shoes back on, “like what you said, a windshield.” Last he put on a baseball cap from the Tiara Casino, the logo of which was the best hand in Kansas City Lowball, 7-5-4-3-2 unsuited.

  Inside him, said the voice in Pogue’s head, there’s a—a skinny man waiting to get out.

  “Skinny man on deck,” agreed Pogue nervously as he opened the truck door and felt the heat.

  The ghost became just a pinch of grainy powder in his ear when he stepped through the doors of the hospital, and Pogue had to resist the impulse to scratch it. He hoped none of it had got into his long sideburns, where it would look like dandruff.

  The ghost’s voice was a buzz now, directing him down this hallway and that—and making him pause frequently to walk in a tight counterclockwise circle on the carpet—and when Pogue pushed open the cafeteria doors the ghost said, There. The man on the left at that table over there.

  “Are you sure?” Pogue murmured.

  The man on the left, repeated the voice.

  Pogue sighed, with both tension and disappointment. He had known that the King might be in any sort of body, but it offended him that this body was so short and round and red-faced and jolly-looking. Damn me, he thought, with a beard he could pass for Santa Claus! And that’s a cheap suit.

  An abandoned newspaper lay on a table near the three old men, and Pogue sat down and began reading it. The cafeteria smelled like macaroni and cheese. He could simply wait until the King left and then shoot him in the parking lot, but he didn’t know if he dared wait for that. The man hadn’t glanced at him yet, but Pogue was afraid that if the King were to focus his eyes on him, he would see him, see him, in spite of the fact that Pogue was in effect standing on water, and had neutralized any electromagnetic emanations from his eyes behind the Polaroid lenses, and wore a disguising poker hand on his hat.

  In his pocket he broke the cap off the medicine bottle and palmed one of the capsules.

  Just shoot him, said the voice in his head.

  Out of the corner of his eye Pogue saw the King look up, as though he’d heard the voice. Pogue’s face went cold, and he felt a drop of sweat run down his ribs. He watched for any sudden movement at the King’s table; if any of the three old men seemed to be going for a gun, Pogue would roll to the floor and draw his own gun. Come up shooting, and worry about getting away afterward.

  “Shut—up,” he murmured.

  No. Shoot him now.

  The King pushed back his plastic chair and stood up on ridiculous little bow-legs. He looked around the room, but his gaze swept over Pogue without stopping. Pogue’s hand, still palming the capsule, was sweaty on the grip of his gun.

  The King said something to his companions, and they got to their feet, too, and the three of them walked to the cafeteria doorway. They stood there, looking up and down the hall.

  Pogue’s back tingled with anticipation of a bullet as he stood up himself, still holding a section of the paper in his left hand, and strolled past the table the King had been sitting at.

  As he passed it, his right hand broke the capsule like a little egg and shook the tiny grains into the King’s coffee.

  He kept walking. The only exit in front of him was the twin metal doors that led to the kitchen, so he pushed them open and walked into the steamy clatter beyond.

  Go back and sit down, Your Majesty, he thought as he blundered between steam tables and people in white aprons, looking for another door out. Nothing’s wrong. Sit down and finish your coffee.

  Diana sat restlessly on the hospital lobby couch, and finally she put down the magazine she’d been trying to read.

  Scat had been transferred to this hospital last Wednesday, and though this was the first time she had come here, she knew what room he was in. This was where she was supposed to meet Dr. Bandholtz…who was probably the only person who knew that she was alive.

  Would he have sold that information? Or, more likely, would someone have learned from the police that only one person had died in the bombed apartment on Venus Avenue and then have exerted leverage on Bandholtz, who would be the likeliest to hear from her?

  Her heart suddenly beating fast, she stood up and looked around the lobby. The receptionist was writing in a file, and a young couple was talking intently to a very old woman on another couch, and the young Asian woman by the door was probably just blinking at Diana because she had stood up so abruptly.

  Still, she was not going to wait here obediently for Bandholtz and whatever companions he might arrive with.

  She walked quickly to the elevator and tapped the up button.

  Nardie Dinh waited until the elevator door had closed, then went to the one next to it and pushed its up button.

  She was blinking back tears. I can do it, she told herself firmly, and I will do it. In a way it’ll be self-defense, for if I’m not the Queen, I’m not anything at all. I wasn’t born for it, but my damned half brother carved me into it. It’ll be his fault, not mine.

  In th
e last few days she had managed to eat several meals—mostly spinach and beans and rice, with olive oil—and had drunk several cartons of milk. She hoped she would have the strength for what she’d have to do here.

  The doors slid open, and she patted the bulge under her jacket and stepped resolutely inside.

  And someone was right behind her. She turned, and as the doors sighed closed she recognized Ray-Joe Pogue grinning down at her.

  “I’ve got you!” he exclaimed joyfully. “You knew I was here? And I forgive you. Listen, Nardie, I just killed one of the King’s bodies! I just heard a nurse say that an old guy who was drinking coffee in the cafeteria stopped breathing and then died of a big heart attack, ventricular fibrillation, before they could do anything with him!” He touched her shoulder. “I’m going to win, Nardie. Saturday you and I can get married.”

  The elevator had started moving up. She could feel her weight increase.

  Nardie knew he had a gun. Well, so did she. But she doubted if either of them could draw a gun in here without being jumped by the other before the gun could be freed. And in a hand-to-hand fight he’d beat her.

  He doesn’t know why I’m here, she thought, where I’m going. Pretend to be giving in to him.

  So she sighed and nodded, looking at his feet. “I had to fight,” she said. “For my self-respect.”

  “And you fought well,” he said, laughing. “Once or twice I thought you were going to evade me and ruin us both.” He was brushing some kind of dust out of his ear.

  The doors opened on the second floor, and an old woman pushing an aluminum walker hobbled in.

  “I’m glad you found me,” Nardie said in a small voice.

  “I wasn’t looking for you,” the old woman snapped.

  Nardie glanced up and caught her half brother’s gaze. Both of them grinned—

  And Nardie realized that they were sharing a joke, and that she wanted to kill Diana now, and then leave with this man, whom, after everything, she apparently still loved. She opened her mouth to tell him why she was here and ask for his help—

 

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