Last call, p.55
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       Last Call, p.55

           Tim Powers

  As he jiggled on the front seat of the barreling truck now, Crane tried to hold his head in a position at which the cracks in the windshield would not pick up the garish red of the hood. He didn’t like to see what seemed to be a metallic red spider flickering on the horizon.

  “Visions and dreams and a crazy man’s talk,” Mavranos said resentfully, squinting ahead and steering with the fingers of one hand. “We’re probably all crazy, too—look what they’ve done to my truck, Ma.” With his free hand he lifted his can of beer and took a foamy sip. “I knew a guy once who claimed he was a Martian. His TV set had told him he was. Makes just as much sense as any of this. Poor old Joe Serrano, I should apologize to him.”

  Diana stirred on the back seat. “That’s not a Martian name,” she said, “that’s a Mexican name. Who was he trying to fool?”

  Crane started laughing, and soon they all were, and Mavranos put his beer between his thighs to grip the wheel with both hands.


  Ahoy, Cinderella!

  At Boulder Beach, still short of the marina, Mavranos pulled over and stopped on the shoulder to let Diana and Nardie climb out. The beach was only a hundred yards away, beyond the ranks of colorful campers and RVs with their awnings flapping, and the lake was blue against the distant jagged brown mountains of the far shore.

  “By afternoon everything should be over,” Diana said, standing on the roadside gravel and leaning in through Crane’s rolled-down window. “Us girls will walk up to the marina after we’ve had our dip. There’s a hotel there, Scott says, the Lakeview Lodge. Let’s meet at the bar.” She kissed Crane, and he curled his fingers in her blond hair and kissed her fiercely.

  “And tomorrow,” he said when he had finally let go of her, “we’ll get married.” His voice was hoarse.

  “That’s what we’ll do,” she said. “Arky, Scott—both of you watch it, hear? And we’ll be careful, too. We need to have a bride and groom and maid of honor and best man. All four.”

  Mavranos nodded, then took his foot off the brake and gave the engine gas and in seconds had swung back onto the highway.

  “Drop you off at the marina?” he said, loudly over the wind in the open windows.

  “Sure, that’s close enough. I’m getting better at walking in these shoes.”

  “Couldn’t tell to watch you do it.”

  “I’d like to see you try it.”

  “I bet you would, Pogo.” Mavranos took another sip of his beer. “On the phone—she tried to talk you into ditching Diana and going with her instead?”

  “Yeah.” Crane shivered in his dress. “I talked myself out of it.”

  “Jawed from the snatch of defeat.”

  “Yeah, right.” He shifted around on the seat. “Arky, I—”

  “Don’t say it. You may be wearing a dress, but that don’t mean you can kiss me, too.”

  Crane smiled, feeling the makeup in the creases of his face. “Okay. Be there this afternoon.”

  Mavranos made a right turn, toward the marina, and at a red light Crane climbed out of the truck and straightened his dress. He rapped on the red hood the way a Craps shooter might blow on dice, and then the light had changed and the blotchy truck boomed on across the intersection.

  Crane walked slowly down the slope toward the gleaming white boats moored at the docks and slips, and he was not even aware now of derisive hoots from a passing car. He walked in the sunlight and the cool breeze and the smells of lake water and gasoline and sage, and he thought of all the people who were dead: Susan, and Ozzie, and the fat man, and probably Al Funo, too, considering the way Diana had said she’d set him up. And tomorrow night Crane and Arky and Diana and Nardie might be down in the black water themselves, down where the Archetypes lived. He wondered if in some dim way ghosts were able to talk among themselves, and, if so, what they would all talk about.

  “Ahoy, Cinderella!” came a call from ahead of him. He looked up, and saw one of the Amino Acids waving at him from the deck of the houseboat. Crane quickened his pace.

  “You wait till high noon,” the young man said, “and you’ll turn into a pumpkin left on the dock here. Skate your weird ass over, girl, and step into my metal detector, as the spider said to the fly. There’re a dozen aboard now already, and you’re number thirteen.”

  Diana stood in the hot sand in her Nikes and looked up and down the beach at the broad towels and beer coolers and scampering children.

  “I guess it would be a mistake to go to jail over this,” she muttered to Nardie.

  “I think they’re pretty conservative around here,” agreed Nardie with a nervous giggle. “Even in our underwear we’d probably get arrested. Fully clothed it is.”

  “I’ll ditch this, at least,” Diana said, unbuttoning her denim jacket and tossing it onto the sand. “The walk back might not dry us out, and the bar’s likely to be air-conditioned.”

  Dinh just hugged herself and shook her head. “I’m an as-is package.”

  Several tanned little boys were splashing each other in the shallows ahead of them, and after a few steps down the slope Diana stopped, staring at them.

  The boys’ faces were stiff, almost painted-looking, and their arms seemed to Diana to move as if they were hinged.

  Dinh was ahead of her, looking back. “Hmm?”

  “Let’s…go farther down the beach,” Diana said.

  The first thing Crane noticed was that old Doctor Leaky was aboard the houseboat, sitting in a wheelchair in the corner under the television set. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with him, aside from the fact that he had wet the pants of his sky blue leisure suit, and he kept fumbling ineffectually at the belt that kept him in the chair.

  “Pay no attention to the old man in the corner,” said Leon in his booming baritone. Crane looked across the red-carpeted lounge to where the host was already seated at his place at the green table—and Crane made himself just smile and nod.

  The Art Hanari body was looking bad. Red lines, apparently inflamed veins, curled and branched down the bad side of his face, and the high cheekbones and decisive shelf of the jaw were lost under puffy swelling. Crane imagined that Leon was yearning to flee into a new body as desperately as he himself had ever yearned for the escape of drink.

  The engines shifted out of neutral, and the carpeted deck shifted as the boat got under way.

  “Sit down, everyone,” said Leon. “We’ve only got three hours, and we want to get as many hands bought and sold as we can, right?”

  Right, Crane thought desperately. One hand in particular.

  He squeezed his purse, feeling the bulk of the once again agonizingly stacked Lombardy Zeroth deck, as he hurried to the seat he had selected for himself, the first position to Leon’s left this time.

  He had thought about buying a pack of cigarettes so that he could at least have one smoldering beside him, even if he couldn’t bear to puff on it; he’d forgotten to, but it didn’t matter—Old Newt was tremblingly stubbing out a Pall Mall in an ashtray already crowded with butts, having just lit a fresh one.

  Leon opened the wooden box and spread the terrible cards out across the green felt. A couple of yesterday’s players had not returned and had been replaced by newcomers, and these now shivered and looked ill.

  Leon turned the cards face down and began shuffling them. The cigarette smoke curled over the table, and it seemed to Crane that two almost inaudible sounds vibrated the levels of the drinks and made his teeth itch—one sound too low to hear and one too high—and he thought that the interference between them must be about to form words that would resonate unrecoverably deep in the minds of all present.

  The brown Art Hanari hands were steady as Leon passed the deck to the man on his right for the cut.

  Crane’s bad eye stung, and he wiped at it with the laceedged handkerchief the women had bought for him.

  The children had walked with mechanical stiffness out of the lake shallows and onto the hot sand. Beyond them their parents waved and nodd
ed, slowly, like the grasshopper heads of pumping oil wells.

  Nardie and Diana hurried away, carrying their shoes now, toward the empty stretch of beach to their right. Diana tried to slant toward the water, but through some trick of perspective, every sliding footstep through the shifting sand took them further away from the lake.

  It was in the bending of Nardie’s knees that Diana first saw the stiffness start to appear here; then her belly went cold as she noticed that her own arms were swinging metronomically, and that the very birds and waves and stalks of shore grasses were all shifting their positions with angular rigidity.

  “What’s—exactly—happening,” said Nardie, obviously struggling to make her voice come out as something besides a monotone quacking.

  Mother, thought Diana in panic, what’s happening here?

  A concept appeared in her head, and the image of a sword.

  Diana tried to put words to it. “Crystallization,” she droned, unable to put a questioning lift at the end of the word. “Like—” She searched her mind for an image that would fit the idea. “Like pure silicon crystals—no good for—information transfer. Need—mix—doping of boron or—something. If it’s just one pure thing, it’s just a crystal—what this is.” She inhaled and exhaled jerkily.

  The image of a sword: Nardie had said that the turtle in the myth had taken back a sword. “Get out—your sword, your chip.”

  “Chip,” intoned Nardie. “Dip, slip, crip. Chip like in—silicon.” She reached up like a saluting robot, and her rigid hand hit her forehead. “Cannot—get it out.”

  “No,” said Diana, wondering how much longer she would even be able to speak. The air was so still it seemed almost to have jelled. “Poker—Poker chip.” Repeating the word was the only way she could convey emphasis. “Moulin Rouge.”

  Nardie nodded and then kept on nodding, but her spread fingers found the pocket of her jeans, and after some ungraceful wrenching she held out her hand.

  On her palm was the black and white chip, with its androgynous jester face grinning under the diamond checkerboard pattern of the fool’s cap.

  The air rippled over it, and Nardie seemed to encounter resistance when she moved her hand—she had to cup her palm around the chip and push it through the air.

  Diana sensed cracks spreading invisibly out from the space around Nardie; the field of rigidity was being broken up.

  Then the air shifted and seemed to spring apart, and Diana nearly fell as her joints suddenly loosened.

  “God,” said Nardie, wobbling sinuously and twisting her feet in the rounded sand, her freed voice running up and down the scale, “what in hell was that?”

  Diana sighed. “Opposition,” she said. “Let’s get into the water.”

  They turned toward the now-wide stretch of sand that separated them from the blue waves, then froze.

  The air over the sand was no longer glassy clear.

  A crowd of translucent figures and tall structures like oil wells wavered, insubstantial as heat waves over highway pavement, on the expanse of sand between them and the water.

  Diana looked closer, trying to see the misty forms in the glare of the sunlight, and she saw without comprehension that they were not living figures but were nearly-transparent moving statues, perhaps not standing at various distances but built to different scales. She strained her eyes to focus on the things and saw that several were dressed in Arab robes and headdresses, some in Roman togas, and a couple as cowboys or prospectors. One was a giant ape, though no more lifelike in its motions than the others.

  Then she looked up, and saw that the two tall structures were the clown from the front of the Circus Circus and Vegas Vic, the cowboy who perpetually waved over the Pioneer Casino on Fremont Street.

  For a long, stretched-out second she simply stared, her belly cold and her mind blank.

  Then she choked off a despairing wail and tried to think above the thudding of her heart. “It’s all the figures,” she said unsteadily, “from town. Or their spirits, I guess.”

  “Their shapes.” Nardie shook her head, now holding the chip tightly in her fist. “What do they care?”

  “I guess Scott’s father cares.”

  “Can they,” asked Nardie shakily, “hurt us?”

  “I doubt they’re here to escort us to the water.” The two women had stepped back. “This is his magic, the King’s. Male only—he doesn’t want a Queen.” Diana put one hand on Nardie’s narrow shoulder, and they stopped retreating across the loose sand. “My mother gave us the chip. It’s yin and yang,” said Diana tensely. “Mixed, linked opposites—the face on it is both male and female. His…things might not like it.”

  Nardie had been squeezing the chip, and now she gasped and opened her hand. There was blood on her palm.

  “It’s got an edge,” she said wonderingly.

  “It’d better have.” Diana held out her own hand. “Cut me, too, and then see if it will cut them.”

  Five miles to the southeast, the canyon-spanning concrete shoulders of Hoover Dam held back the lake.

  After Mavranos had parked his truck in the broad lot by the snack stand on the Arizona side of the dam, and begun the long walk through the heat back toward the arc of the dam where the tourists had been milling with their cameras when he had driven by, the first thing he became aware of over his own exhaustion was the crying children.

  The Arizona Spillway was a vast, smoothly curving abyss to his right, big enough, he thought dizzily, for God to take a roomy bath in or for ten million skateboarders to fly away down to their doom; but it was the agitated line of humanity, dwarfed to insect scale by the immensity of the dam, that commanded his attention.

  Everyone was hurrying past him, back toward the parking lot. Children wailed, and the wheels of rental baby carriages being pushed too fast rattled shrilly on the concrete, and the adults all seemed to be in shock; their faces were blank-eyed and twisted with rage and horror and idiot mirth. Their bright holiday clothes seemed to have been put on them by attendants who didn’t care, and Mavranos wished he had seen ranks of buses back in the lot, ready to take all these people home to some unimaginable asylum. Nut day at the dam, he thought, trying to smile and not be afraid, half price if you can bibble-bibble your lips and cross your eyes.

  He tried to walk toward the dam quickly, but he was soon sweating and panting, and he had to lean on one of the concrete stanchions of the rail.

  He peered ahead, at the curve of the dam. It seemed too imposingly big to be so far away. He could see cars moving slowly along the highway that was its crest, and he could make out figures moving along the sidewalks and the bridges that led out to the intake towers on the water. From this distance, at least, he could see nothing to have caused all the panic.

  But fear was in the wind like the smell of hot metal, like a vibration in the air, like a rat gnawing underground.

  He wanted to get back in the truck and drive away on the Arizona side, keep driving until he ran out of gas and then walk further.

  Instead he pushed away from the stanchion and walked on down the broad sidewalk, toward the cathedral arch of the dam.

  Crane sold his first four-card hand to a middle-aged man in a necktie and sport coat and then watched as the bidding started up for the next hand. It didn’t hold his attention; he was still a parent of the hand that would include the four cards he had sold, and thus he might still win a tenth of the pot, but he certainly wouldn’t be matching the total and claiming the Assumption.

  He glanced out one of the ports at the lake, dotted with scooting water-skiers, and he concentrated on breathing deeply. He had sat on Leon’s left this time, and the next deal would be his.

  The inaudible high and low vibration had receded away in both directions, and he couldn’t sense it anymore, but he thought that some of the others still could. Leon shook his head sharply a couple of times, and Newt had fumbled his first hand and exposed one of his down cards, and the Amino Acid at the bar had broken a glass while ge
tting one of the new players a third martini.

  The loud crack of the glass had so enormously startled Doctor Leaky that the smell in the lounge shortly went from smelling faintly of urine to smelling a good deal worse.

  A Straight Flush wound up beating a set of Trips. Neither Leon nor Crane was a parent of the winning hand, and after the winner had swept in the money with a nervous smile, Leon pushed the nearest folded hands to Crane.

  “Your deal,” growled the Hanari baritone. “Let’s snap it up here.”

  “Uh,” said the Amino Acid at the bar, “you want me to take the cap’n out on the deck, Mr. Hanari, and get his pants off him and hose him down?”

  “He’s not the captain,” said Leon loudly. “I’m the captain. No, he’s got an appointment with a surgeon on Sunday; this won’t kill him before then.” He waved irritably. “Open the ports, if you like—the breeze will be fresh, if not cool.”

  Crane thought that ordinarily most of the players would have objected to the smell and demanded that the bartender’s suggestion be followed, but today even the toughest of them seemed cowed and uncertain.

  The last of the cards were gingerly pushed across the green felt to Crane, who carefully stacked them and patted them square.

  Everybody’s looking at me, he thought, looking right at the cards. I can’t switch in the cold deck right now.

  He cut the deck that was in front of him and gave it a genuine riffle-shuffle. “Must be some nice-guy surgeon,” he said, smiling at Leon, “to see a patient on a Sunday.” With luck someone would agree, or disagree, and draw away the attention of the table.

  “S’pose so,” said Leon, staring at the cards. Nobody else spoke.

  “Say, sonny,” Crane called to the bartender as he gave the cards another shuffle, “what time you got?”


  Nobody had looked away.

  Crane shuffled the cards again. At the average rate of fifteen minutes per hand, the deal might not have time to come around to him again before the game was ended at three. He could wait, and hope, and try to hurry the game along, but at that rate he might well have to go meet his friends and tell them that he had not even got the stacked deck out of his purse.

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