Last call, p.53
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       Last Call, p.53

           Tim Powers

  “How are you girls doing?” asked the bartender.

  Diana picked up the glass in front of her and sniffed the inch of clear liquid in it; she could detect no smell at all. She cleared her throat. “Uh—what are we drinking?”

  The bartender didn’t quite roll his eyes. “Quinine water.”

  “Yeah, give us another round.”

  Diana’s heart was still pounding, and she had no peripheral vision; to meet Nardie’s gaze again, she had to look directly at her. The ashes in a nearby ashtray weren’t shifting at all, but Diana thought she could still feel the hot wind of her mother’s breath in her hair.

  Nardie was clutching the edge of the bar. “Are we,” she whispered, “going to stay here, do you think?”

  “Yeah,” said Diana, “I think we’re in a landing pattern.”

  Somehow a live turtle, its shell as big as a dinner plate, was walking along the top of the bar toward them, pushing glasses out of its way with stumpy, leathery feet.

  In its beak-like mouth was a Poker chip. Perhaps because of the artificial light, the turtle’s shell and skin appeared to be gilded. Nobody else seemed to see the creature.

  Diana forced herself not to close her eyes. “Um—turtle,” she said levelly. “Coming up behind you.”

  Nardie pursed her lips and nodded, then sighed and turned to look.

  The turtle was beside her drink now. It lowered its head and opened its jaws, and the chip clicked to the polished surface of the bar. Nardie slowly reached out and picked up the chip, and the turtle bowed again and—was gone.

  Both women jumped at the abrupt, noiseless disappearance, and the bartender, stepping up with their drinks, spilled a splash of quinine water out of one of the glasses. “What?” he demanded irritably, looking around.

  “Nothing,” said Nardie. “Sorry.”

  When he turned away, shaking his head, she held the chip out toward Diana on her open palm.

  The center of the clay disk was a grinning harlequin face, like that of the Joker in a deck of cards. Around the rim were imprinted the words “MOULIN ROUGE, LAS VEGAS.”

  “I thought that was in Paris,” said Nardie.

  “It was the name of a place here, too,” said Diana. She picked up her drink. “I think it burned down in the 60s. It was the first casino to let blacks in. See the harlequin pattern, checkerboard black and white diamonds?”

  “‘Ebony and i-vory,’” sang Nardie in a frail voice. “I get it.” The rim of her glass chattered against her teeth. “Guess who the turtle was.”

  “Touché Turtle. I give up, who was he?”

  “Well, I don’t know. But I grew up in Hanoi, okay? And there’s a lake in town there, where the post office is, called the Lake of the Restored Sword. In the fifteenth century a guy called Le Loi is supposed to have been out on it in a boat, and a golden turtle swam up and took back from him a sword that he’d been given to drive out Chinese invaders. Hey, excuse me,” she said more loudly.

  The bartender strode up to them again. “Can I help you, miss?”

  “Can I get a hamburger here? Fried, rare?”

  “Sure, if you like. Everything on that?”

  “Doesn’t matter. And a—a Budweiser, please.” She turned back to Diana. “I can feel the air conditioning now, and see things to the side of me.”

  Diana darted her eyes around and shivered. “Me too. I guess we’re all the way back.” She could smell the quinine water in her glass.

  “But when we were still circling in, the turtle gave me this.” She rolled the chip end over end across the backs of her fingers and then tucked it into her shirt pocket. “I guess I’d better hang on to it.”

  “You might have to call a bet,” Diana agreed.

  Within a couple of minutes Diana was comfortable in the gin-scented coolness, but Nardie was still shaking. Diana asked her if anything in particular was wrong and if she wanted to leave, but each time Nardie just shook her head.

  At last the bartender set the steaming hamburger and the frosty beer in front of Nardie, and she picked up the hamburger and took a bite of it. Diana looked away from the red-stained bun around the rare ground beef.

  “There,” said Dinh a few moments later, after taking a deep sip of the beer and clanking the glass back down on the bar. She was smiling, but tears shone in her eyes.

  Diana stared at her. “There?” she said, mystified.

  “You…raised me up, to your mother, to the goddess. You asked her to bless me, too, and she told us both to get cleansed in the lake. You’re not the first person to make me more than I was, okay? But you’re the first person to do it without standing to benefit from it—in fact, risking your own safety. I think I could have displaced you, after receiving that blessing.”

  “Okay,” said Diana cautiously.

  “But…damn, don’t you see?” The tears overflowed her eyelids and ran down Nardie’s cheeks. “I just now ate red meat, probably cooked on an iron grill, and I drank alcohol! I’ve unfitted myself for the queenhood! I’ve totally pledged my allegiance to you now; I’m of no use to my half brother anymore.”

  Then Diana did understand, and she leaned forward and hugged her friend, ignoring someone behind her who whispered, “Jeez, check out the dykes!”

  “Thank you, Nardie,” Diana said quietly. “And I swear, by our mother, that I won’t leave you behind. I’ll take you with me.”

  Nardie patted Diana’s shoulder and then they both sat back, a little self-consciously. Nardie took another sip of her beer and sniffed. “Well, you’d better,” she said. “Right now I’m an orphan, in a tiny boat, on a goddamn big ocean.”

  After they had walked back to the Flamingo and Diana had shaken Crane awake, he wearily got dressed and made coffee.

  Then, in the afternoon sunlight that slanted in through the unopenable hotel window, he sat down on the carpet and began laying out face up the cards of his father’s Lombardy Zeroth deck. Leon had taken out the twenty-two Major Arcana cards yesterday, and Crane tentatively began moving the remaining fifty-six cards around into four-card combinations.

  It was like slowly turning a kaleidoscope in which living faces fell into new patterns and alignments in the barrel instead of colored glass chips, and he passively let the razory identities resonate through his mind.

  Again he tried to arrange the cards so that he could plausibly buy his father’s hand and so that, after all the purchases and sales of hands, his King-high Flush would win at the eventual showdown. Twice he sat back and sipped his lukewarm coffee, confident that he had a lock on the hand, only to notice a rogue buy that would give one of the other players a Full Boat or Four of a Kind, and he had to break it all up and start again.

  In his mind, crystalline lattices of alien hatreds and fears and joys grew and were broken, over and over again, like ocean waves rising and then falling and shattering into spray.

  At last he was satisfied with the layout, and he carefully picked up the cards in the order in which they would be dealt.

  “Front!” he called as he tucked the stacked deck into his purse.

  It was Nardie Dinh who appeared in the connecting doorway. “What am I,” she asked, “a bellboy?”

  “It was a joke,” he said, standing up and running his fingers through his hair. “Sorry. Listen, could you do my makeup? Getting the dress on I think I can do by myself now.”

  “Sure, come in the bathroom,” said Nardie, leading the way; then she stopped and turned around, smiling. “Hey, Scott, congratulations on your upcoming wedding! Diana told me about it.”

  “Thanks.” His good eye was burning with fatigue already. “I hope we all live to be there. But right now I’ve got to get ready for…my bachelor party.” He waved her on ahead. “I suppose most guys don’t have their fathers along at their bachelor parties.”

  “Well,” said Dinh judiciously, “most guys don’t go in drag.”


  The Flying Nun

  An hour later Crane stood in his hig
h-heeled shoes in front of the million-dollar display in Binion’s Horseshoe Casino. Behind bullet-proof glass, a hundred ten-thousand-dollar bills were ranked together in five columns of twenty, framed inside the doorway-size arch of an enormous brass horseshoe. A pair of stout security guards were staring at Crane in sour disapproval.

  “Must be rough,” said someone by Crane’s elbow. He looked down and saw old Newt, looking withered and old and jug-eared in a wide-lapel plaid suit.

  Here the two of us are again, Crane thought, twenty-one years older and both looking pretty bad.

  “Hi,” he said to Newt. “Can I get a ride out with you?”

  “Looks like,” said the old man. “My other three haven’t shown—down with the nightmarey shakes, I bet. That happens. Let’s give ’em a few minutes for courtesy.” He looked at Crane’s purse. “No gun today, I hope. Throw it in the lake this time, and maybe you, too.”

  “No, not today. It looks like a peaceful bunch of players anyway.” He looked down from the height of his heels into Newt’s empty, bird-bright eyes. “What was it that you said ‘must be rough’?”

  “Shaving, with all that fruitcake makeup—sorry, pancake makeup. Jams up a blade, I bet, or the holes in an electric shaver.”

  “Well, I suppose it would, but I shave before I put the stuff on.” Crane was tired, and forlornly wished for a beer, the way beer used to be for him, and a cigarette, the way they used to taste. And he was thinking of the ghost of Ben Siegel, who had gone to some trouble to let him know that a fly might be tricked into eating a poisoned sugar cube if the poison face was concealed and the fly saw only the harmless face. “It’s a hassle,” he said absently, “but I do it for the Lord.”

  The little old man’s bushy white eyebrows were halfway up to where his hairline must once have been. “For the Lord, hey?”

  “Sure.” Crane blinked and made himself remember what he had been saying. “You don’t think I choose to dress this way, do you? I’m a member of a religious order, is what this actually is all about. Lots of religious orders have to dress weird.”

  “Huh. They ain’t gonna show, I guess. My other players, not your religious orders. Let’s blow.” Instantly he held up one wrinkled hand. “By which I don’t mean—”

  “Jeez,” said Crane, following the little man through the casino dimness toward the bright patch that was the open door onto Fremont Street, “you’re safe from me, Newt, honest.”

  “And no funny business in the car.”

  Everybody’s cautioning me against funny business, Crane thought. “You have my word of honor.”

  They were in the noise of the slot machines, and Newt mumbled something that sounded like Like applying none.

  Crane frowned. Applying none of what? Honor? Could this strange little man possibly have some intuition about Crane’s plan to dethrone his own father? And he leaned down as they zigzagged their way through the crowd. “What did you say?”

  “I said, ‘Like the Flying Nun.’ Religious order where you gotta dress weird. She could fly, remember?”

  Crane was oddly relieved; apparently they weren’t talking about honor after all. They were outside now, on the baking, sunlit sidewalk, and he had to shout, “Yeah, I remember!” to be heard over the droning of the picketer with the megaphone.

  “I guess that made up for it,” yelled Newt, “for having to wear that stuff all the time. At least she could fly.”

  “I guess.”

  Crane followed the little man across Fremont and down First Street toward the pay parking lot at the end of the block. This was where he had been shot at eight days ago and saved by a couple of shots from the gun of the fat man—whom he himself had killed four days later. He scuffed the toe of his ridiculous left shoe across the chipped curb, and rasped the painted nails of his right hand over the pockmark in the brick wall.

  Crane would have the deal next.

  The sky was dark behind the open ports, and the still-warm wind, smelling of distant cooling stone and sage, had raised the lake surface into choppy waves; the levels of the drinks on the green felt table were all rolling and uneven. The cigarette smoke was a mushroom cloud over the pot’s scattered bills.

  Newt sat to Crane’s right and was flipping out the last of the second face-up cards. “…and a Duck to the Seven,” Newt was chanting, “no apparent help, Seven gets a Seven, Sevens are cheap, the Flying Nun gets an Ace and a possible Flush draw, another Ten to the Ten of Sticks, pair looks good, and the Nine gets…an Eight toward a Straight.” He sat back. “Tens are the power.”

  Not wanting to consistently sit next to Leon, Crane had this time stacked the deck with the requirement that he sit two places to his father’s right, and he had succeeded in getting that seat. The man between Crane and his father held the pair of Tens, and he rapped the table to check. Leon bet two hundred, and everybody called it, and then the man with the Tens raised it another two hundred. All the other players called the sandbag raise.

  Crane’s hand was up for bid now, and he managed to sell it for the seven hundred he had in the pot. The man with the Tens refused a $700-bid for his own hand and then bought Leon’s hand in turn for $750.

  “All right,” the man said as he gathered Leon’s cards face up into his own board, now showing a Tens Up Two Pair, “I wanted that, thank you, Mr. Hanari. I figured I could buy it; I notice you always sell your hand, never wait and buy one.”

  Crane saw the Art Hanari face frown slightly under the bandage, and he realized that his father wasn’t pleased to have his Assumption strategy noticed. Leon made the Hanari lips smile. “I’ll have to start mixing up my play,” he said.

  Not quite yet, thought Crane, please.

  The betting went around again, and at the showdown the man who had bought Leon’s hand had a Full Boat, Tens Over, which lost to an Aces Over Boat.

  The deal was now Crane’s.

  He gathered in the cards, and then, as he tossed into the center of the table the hundred-dollar bill that was his ante, he hit the edge of his glass of soda water and sent it rolling across the table, spilling the water out in a series of pulses like a sine wave.

  It was a fine distraction, and Crane had the cards dumped into his open purse, and the stacked deck flipped up onto the table, while everybody was still in the first syllable of a surprised curse.

  “Sorry, sorry,” Crane muttered, reaching out to dab ineffectively at the stain with a paper napkin.

  “Stevie!” called the Hanari body to the Amino Acid bartender, “a towel here, quick!” Crane’s father gave him a wrathful glance out of his unswollen eye. “The Flying Nun doesn’t seem to appreciate the fact that these are hand-painted cards and must not get wet!”

  “I said I was sorry,” said Crane.

  The green felt in front of him was dry, and he began smoothly riffling the cards and doing the pull-through shuffle. The deck that was in his purse now was the one with the Jack of Cups card that had split his eye forty-two years earlier, and he wished for luck’s sake that were the deck he would deal from tonight.

  After seven riffles and false shuffles he passed the deck to Newt for the cut, and easily negated it when he recombined the cards under his fast-outswept hand. Everyone’s attention was still on the mopping-up of the spilled water.

  When the green felt had been blotted with a towel and then been painstakingly blown dry with a hair-dryer that one of the Amino Acids had had to fetch from the bathroom, and the game was finally allowed to proceed, Crane spun out the first three cards to each player, two down and one up.

  The first round of betting added fifty-two hundred dollars to the pot, and then Crane dealt out the second up cards.

  This time his father held the Ten and Eight of Swords down and the Knight of Clubs and the Six of Cups showing. Crane’s cards were the remainder of the hand Doctor Leaky had bought in the parking lot game the day before, the Nine and King of Swords down and the Seven of Swords and the Eight of Cups showing. Crane could plausibly buy the “Art Hanari” h
and now, seeming to be trying for the Six-Seven-Eight three-Straight.

  “And,” said Crane after the last bet had been called, “Mr. Hanari’s hand is up for the mating. What is he bid?”

  One man bid $500, and a woman raised it to $550, but Hanari just kept shaking his head.

  “I’ll go six hundred,” said Crane. And, he thought, if the rest of you bastards will just have the simple card sense to buy the hands I’ve laid out for you, I’ll win this with the King-high Swords Flush.

  “Uh,” said Leon through the lips of the Hanari body, “no.”

  “Six-fifty,” said Crane, concealing his impatience. He could feel sweat starting out under the makeup on his forehead; it would begin to look odd if he had to bid too much more for an apparent middle-size three-Straight.

  “No,” said Leon, “I think I’ll buy one this time.”

  He’s chosen this hand to vary his play, thought Crane, because of what that son of a bitch said in the last hand.

  “Seven hundred,” said Crane, trying to conceal his desperation.

  “No,” said Leon, swallowing the word so that it sounded almost like the French non. “The bidding is closed on these cards.”

  Crane’s heart was pounding, and he kept his chin lowered so that the pulse in his throat wouldn’t be visible. “Okay,” he said. “Then the next hand is up for auction.” He allowed himself a slow sigh. “What is he bid?”

  Crane had again lost the chance to buy Doctor Leaky’s hand and then let Leon buy it from him at the Assumption.

  Leon eventually bought the hand of a young man who had been playing very loose. Crane had to admire the tactic; if the conceived hand should happen to win, this was the one player aside from Leon himself who might choose to match the pot for the Assumption option.

  But Leon’s Two Pair lost to a Flush, and the cards were gathered and stacked and passed to the man on Crane’s left to shuffle and deal out another hand.

  Again Crane was left with nothing to do but play for mere money until dawn.

  To his intense annoyance, his Flying Nun nickname was picked up by everyone else at the table. At one point the announcement of “A pair of Queens to the Flying Nun!” drew such laughter that the betting was delayed for a full minute.

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