Last call, p.51
Last Call, p.51Tim Powers
Nardie glanced at him sharply. “My half-brother has a card from that deck,” she said. “The Tower. He wants to use it to become King.”
“Swell,” said Crane. “I hope he looks at it cross-eyed and goes crazy.”
“He already did,” she said. “Are you…talking about the game on the lake?”
“You’re not going to play in it, are you? Again?”
She shivered visibly. “You couldn’t get me out on that boat.”
Diana turned around. “When are you going to do this, Scott?”
He didn’t look up from the cards. “The game’s going to be played tonight and tomorrow night and during the day on Good Friday. I’ll start tonight, and keep on playing until I get the trick done.”
“Is that guy you conked gonna be there?” asked Mavranos.
“Yeah,” said Crane. “In that body, if it’s not dead or in a hospital. He’s the host.”
“He’ll recognize you.”
“He would, but I’ll be disguised.”
There was a knock at the door then, and Diana walked across the room and let in the bellboy, who set the tray of Cokes on the table, and gave him some money.
“How are you going to disguise yourself?” Mavranos asked again when the bellboy had left.
Crane grinned worriedly at his friend and shook his head. “I don’t know. Shave my head? Wear glasses? Dye my face and hands black?”
“None of those sound very good,” said Diana.
“You could go in full clown makeup,” Nardie said. “I think they do it for free at Circus Circus.”
“Or you could go in an ape suit,” said Mavranos. “There’s gotta be a place in town that rents ape suits.”
“‘Each one volunteered his own suggestions,’” quoted Crane with a forced smile. “‘His invaluable suggestions.’”
“That’s Lewis Carroll,” said Nardie.
Crane looked at her, and his smile became genuine. “Right.” She and Diana had told him what her connection was to all this, but now he really paid attention to her for the first time, and he noticed her fine black hair and porcelain face. “I love that poem,” he said. “‘Neither did he leave them slowly, with the—’”
“A woman,” Diana interrupted harshly.
Mavranos raised his beer as if in a toast. “A woman!”
Crane frowned at her. “What?”
“Go as a woman. It’s the only disguise that will work.”
Crane laughed shortly—but saw that Mavranos and Nardie had raised their eyebrows as if considering the idea.
“No,” he said. “This is going to be tough enough without showing up in drag, for Christ’s sake. I’ll shave my head and wear glasses. That’ll—”
“No,” said Nardie thoughtfully, “your face is too distinctive. I haven’t seen you very often, but I’d recognize you bald and with glasses. I think drag is it—lots of makeup, lipstick, a striking wig—”
“Makes me hot,” allowed Mavranos.
“It wouldn’t work,” said Crane in a confident, dismissing tone. “What about my voice?” He pitched his voice falsetto and said, “Do you want me to talk like this?”
“Just talk normally,” said Diana. “They’ll all just write you off as a brassy transvestite.”
“Nobody’s gonna look hard at a queer,” Mavranos agreed. “If anybody starts to, just wink at ’em.”
Somehow, dwarfing his fear that he would fail, and that Diana would be killed, and that he himself would lose his body on Holy Saturday when his father assumed the bodies he had bought during the 1969 games, Crane felt light-headed with panic at this new suggestion. I will not do it, he assured himself. Don’t even worry about it.
Nardie touched his shoulder. “What if it’s the only way?” she asked softly. “Do you remember Sir Lancelot?” Crane shook his head stubbornly, and she went on. “He was riding to rescue the Queen, Guinevere, and on the way he had to ride in a cart. It was a horrible disgrace to ride in a cart in those days; criminals were paraded up and down the streets in them, so that people could jeer and throw things, okay? Lancelot hesitated for just a moment before climbing in, and afterward, when he had rescued her, she wouldn’t speak to him because of his brief hesitation, because for a couple of seconds he had put his personal dignity ahead of his duty to her. And he agreed that she was right.”
“God.” Crane stared down at the cards.
It would be the best disguise, he admitted to himself. And what do you care, really, if a bunch of strangers—and your father—think you’re a drag queen? They won’t know who it is. Is Diana’s life worth less than your—your raddled dignity? Your dignity, the dignity of a trembly old bum only six days on the wagon? Six days on the wagon and at most three days on the cart.
He looked at Diana, and she didn’t look away. “Let the record show,” he said hoarsely, “that I hesitated no longer than Lancelot did.” He turned to Dinh. “Did Guinevere forgive him?”
“That was in Chrétien de Troyes’s book, right?” said Mavranos. For a moment Dinh was clearly baffled by his barbarous pronunciation of the name, but then she blinked in comprehension and nodded, and Mavranos told Crane, “Yeah, she did eventually.”
“Hear that, my lady?” Crane said to Diana.
As if to punish them all, he pulled his father’s wooden box out of his pocket, opened it, and spilled the Lombardy Zeroth deck out on the bedspread. With a trembling hand he fanned them out.
“Ah,” sighed Nardie, her voice suddenly wounded and sad.
Crane was staring at the horribly affecting, morbid old miniature paintings, but he was peripherally aware that Mavranos had stood up and Diana had stepped closer. Suddenly sorry, Crane reached out to hide the cards.
“No,” whispered Diana, catching his hand tightly. “I need to…meet these things.”
“It’s done,” said Mavranos gruffly. “No use taking half a dose.” He bent down and spread the cards out more fully with steady, callused fingers.
The Fool and the Lovers and the Moon and the Star and the Emperor and the Empress stared back up at the four of them, and Crane found that he was holding Diana’s hand on one side and had clasped Mavranos’s on the other. Mavranos was also holding Nardie’s hand.
Though the cards on the bed didn’t move or change, in his head their patterns shifted like the scales on an uncoiling diamondback rattlesnake, and though the sun shone in brightly through the window, he fell away into the well in the bottom of his mind, down into the subterranean pool all such wells shared.
He didn’t know how much time passed before he began to float back up into his own consciousness.
Crane found himself focusing on the World card, a hermaphroditic figure pictured dancing within a wreath that was an oval with pointed ends. Gotta be male and female for this, he thought dazedly.
He found that he could sense the minds of his companions—Mavranos’s bluff front covering profound fear, Diana’s anxiety for her children and suppressed love for Crane, Nardie’s cocksure despair—and he knew that they could sense, too, whatever his own character was.
At last he released their hands and picked up the wakeful-seeming cards. “I’ve got to arrange these,” he said awkwardly. “While I’m doing that, maybe you girls could go downstairs and buy me some clothes and stuff.”
“I think you’d be a size twelve,” said Diana, moving away from the bed.
At no time during the taxi ride south to Lake Mead did Crane manage to forget the weight of the foundation and blush and powder on his face and the hair spray that was holding his eyebrows down smooth. To his own humiliation he had tried to speak in a falsetto voice when he told the driver where he wanted to go. It had been a failure; the man had started violently and then mumbled obscenities for the first few minutes of the ride, relapsing finally into outraged silence.
Crane spent the half-hour drive trying to read the prop Dinh had found for him, a copy of Poke
The stacked Lombardy Zeroth deck bulked in his white patent-leather purse like a chambered automatic with the safety off.
When at last the cab pulled into the marina parking lot, Crane looked at his new gold chain-link watch; it was only four-thirty. He hoped Leon was letting players come aboard this early, for he didn’t want to have to wander around. He could sit in a bar, but he shuddered at the thought that someone might try to pick him up.
“Fifty dollars, dearie,” said the driver. Crane paid him without speaking again and got out.
He walked past the grocery store and the bait shop toward the docks, resisting the impulse to hold his arms out from his sides for balance; walking in high heels on pebbly asphalt was as awkward as walking with ice skates on, and he could feel stage fright sweat rolling down his ribs under his cotton dress. Diana and Nardie had also had to buy a linen dress because Diana handled it, but he hadn’t been able to wear it because of the black marks where she’d touched it.
The long white houseboat was moored at the same slip it had occupied twenty-one years ago. Crane stood and stared at it, breathing through his open mouth.
Full circle, he thought. Back again, goes around comes around, dog to its vomit, criminal to the scene of the crime.
He flexed his chilly hands and breathed deeply.
Three grizzled old fishermen were carrying rods and tackle boxes up from the docks, and they stared at Crane as they walked past him.
“There’s your date, Joey!” one of them muttered.
“What’s the matter, Ed,” put in another, “don’t you say hi to your mom no more?”
Crane could hear them snorting with suppressed laughter behind him, and he started tottering forward on the clumsy shoes, his face burning under the makeup.
A white El Camino was backed up to the slip, and two young men were unloading open-topped boxes of liquor and soft drinks. Crane looked at the pickup’s flank as he approached and was not surprised to see that the El and the capital C had been pried off. Looks like the Amino Acids have found a new King to serve, he thought.
One of them looked up and saw Crane. “Jeezuss,” he said, almost respectfully. “Can I help you, Sweet-cheeks?”
Crane had always been good at doing a Brooklyn accent, and he put it on now. “I come to play Poker,” he said, waving the Caro book.
“That’s what this is all about,” said the young man, “and you’re in plenty of time. There’s only six aboard so far. Just step through the detector.”
Crane noticed the two upright plastic poles set up on the dock. “Is that a metal detector?” he asked.
Oh well, Crane thought, I’m not here to make a big bankroll that someone might want to hijack, and I can’t let them go through my purse and find the Lombardy Zeroth deck. He reached into his purse and carefully pulled out his .357 by the barrel and held the Pachmayr grips toward the young man. “I suppose this would set it off.”
“Goddamn.” The Amino Acid took the gun from Crane. “Yeah, that would, sister. What were you planning to do, exactly?”
“Just self-protection,” said Crane. “A girl can’t be too careful in these parts.”
“Well, you can have it back when you disembark. And if you come back again, leave it at home.”
Crane stepped through the metal detector and set off no alarms, then crossed slowly to the edge of the dock and took hold of the boat rail—cringing at the sight of his red—painted nails—and managed to step across onto the stern deck.
Footsteps sounded to his right, and he looked up to see his host standing outside the lounge doorway. Both men flinched.
Georges Leon was still in the body Crane had hit this morning. A thick white bandage rode above the left eyebrow, disarranging the perfectly moussed brown hair, and the eye below it was a glittering sliver between swollen, pewtercolored lids. His slim, muscular-looking body was wearing a tailored white suit, and the gold sun disk still hung over his heart, and Crane could only imagine how much the man must resent the gross injury that ruined the elegant effect.
And he could only imagine what the man thought of this newly arrived player. Crane had resolutely looked at himself in the mirror after Diana and Nardie had got through with him, and he knew that the dress and makeup and socks-stuffed bra were an effective disguise but did not make him look much like a woman.
“My name is Art Hanari,” said his host. His voice was a rich baritone.
Crane realized that he had not thought of a name for himself. “I’m Dichotomy Jones,” he said at random.
Leon was nodding, not happily. “You’ve come to play?”
“Yessir! Something called Assumption, I heard?”
“Yes.” Leon’s distaste for the spectacle that was Crane was evident in the curl of his upper lip. “It’s sort of Eight-Card Stud—”
“Somebody already explained it to me,” interrupted Crane. “I’m ready to play.”
“Go on in and sit down. Have a drink, if you like, and there’ll be a buffet soon. We should have thirteen players before long, and then we’ll get under way.”
Crane got a glass of soda water and lime from the young man—no doubt another of the Amino Acids—who was tending the bar, and he took it to a chair in the corner away from the big round table.
Now that he was here, sober and prepared at least to the best of his abilities, he felt relaxed, almost contented. Some sleight of hand would be required when he got the deal and had to switch the cold deck in and do the pull-through shuffle and the table shift to negate the cut, and these cards were bigger than normal playing cards, but Ozzie had taught the young Scott how to do those moves smoothly before he was ten years old, and he had no doubt that his hands remembered the skills; Ozzie had never recommended cheating, but had believed that a good Poker player should know all the ways it’s done.
The six other people in the lounge were younger than he was: a couple of out-of-town executive types in suits, several denim-clad men who might be professional players, and two young women sitting on a couch, watching the television set hung over the bar. Crane wondered what they thought of this battered old transvestite, and what they would think if they knew he was there, among other things, to save their lives.
He opened the Caro book and began absentmindedly reading about Five-Card Draw.
We’re Now Thirteen
Several more people arrived singly over the next hour, and then four came shuffling and mumbling aboard at once. Crane looked up, and recognized the one among the newcomers who was not young. The face was a hard couple of decades older, but was still recognizable…Newt, that was the name, the man he and Ozzie had played Five-Stud with at the Mint in 1969, the man who had then met Crane at the Horseshoe and driven him here on that terrible long-ago evening. Apparently Newt was a procurer for Leon.
Leon followed them in, and Crane heard the boat’s engines start up.
“We’re now thirteen,” Leon said, sitting down at the table and reverently laying a wooden box down on it. “Let’s play cards.”
The boat surged as it moved out onto the face of the twilit lake.
The way Crane had stacked his Lombardy Zeroth deck required that he sit at Leon’s right, and he got to that seat a second ahead of one of the young women. Leon gave Crane a cold look but let him sit there.
“Hundred-dollar ante,” said Leon, “and then it’s two hundred a bet, and then there’s the mating, at which time you can bid for a hand or sell yours. After that there’s another round of bets, still at two hundred.”
Same stakes as twenty-one years ago, Crane thought as he pulled his roll of bills out of his purse, peeled off a hundred, and tossed it into the center of the table. Very damned high ante, so that you’ve got an investment before you even see your first card and then no sharp increases to chase anybody out.
Though they did still start up a ringing wail in his head, Crane was able to look at the cards without flinching now; it was as if the sight of them had broken his identity so many times that his identity had finally begun to conform to them. The Hanged Man and Death and the Two of Sticks now seemed to stare up at him as if at a peer.
Other players weren’t so fortunate. One of the necktied executives bolted his drink and tremblingly crossed himself, and the two young women gagged, and no one at all looked happy. One man was suddenly crying, very softly. No one remarked on it.
Several people had cigarettes smoldering in ashtrays, and the smoke from all sides drifted in over the center of the table.
Leon separated out the twenty-two Major Arcana cards and put them aside. Then he flipped the remaining cards over, quickly shuffled them seven times, and began to deal out the first two face down cards.
Crane of course had to wait through twelve hands for the deal to come all the way around to him. During that time he never bought a hand, but managed five times to sell his own uncompleted four-card hands for a profit, and by the time it was his deal he had made a couple of hundred dollars. Several of the players seemed to be checking, and then either calling or folding, without subjecting themselves to the ordeal of actually looking at the cards they held.
When the deck was at last shoved across the green felt to Crane, he picked it up and said, with a little bit of urgency, “What time is it?”
During the moment when everybody was looking at a watch or craning to find a clock on the wall, under the cover of one spread hand he quickly spilled the deck into the open purse on his lap and flipped out the stacked deck.
“Eight and some change,” called the Amino Acid bartender from the other end of the lounge.
“Thanks,” said Crane. “I get luckier after eight.” He split the switched-in deck and riffled the two blocks together, but then, while the interleaved blocks were still at right angles, he smoothly pulled them through each other as though he were separating two meshed combs; he did this rapidly several more times, seeming each time to shuffle the cards thoroughly but actually keeping them in the same order.
Last Call by Tim Powers / Fantasy / Horror / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes