Last call, p.56
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       Last Call, p.56

           Tim Powers

  And then, he thought helplessly, what? Kill myself, I suppose, to keep Leon from taking me?

  “Let’s go,” said Newt.

  Crane felt a drop of sweat run down from his armpit and soak into his bra.

  Gotta just jump, he thought, and hope there’s deep water.

  He passed the shuffled deck to his father for the cut, and as soon as the Hanari body had taken off the top of the deck and laid the stack beside the bottom, Crane leaned back lazily and sang, “‘Whe-e-en there are gray skies…’”

  “‘What don’t you mind in the least?’” screamed Doctor Leaky in a grating falsetto.

  Crane almost whipped his head around himself, along with everyone else at the table, so abrupt and loud was the interruption—but he kept his concentration and dumped the cut cards into his purse and flipped the stacked deck up onto the table.

  “Damn,” he said, not having to fake a nervous tone in his voice, “what’s the matter with him?”

  The Hanari head was twisted around to look hard at Crane through the unswollen eye. “Why did you start to sing that song?”

  “I don’t know,” Crane said. “Is that what set him off? I’ve got a tape I was playing in the car—Al Jolson, you know? White guy that always wore blackface? It’s a song he used to sing.”

  Leon seemed jarred, and shook his head. “Deal the cards,” he muttered. “Get this over with.”

  Crane willed his hands to be steady as he skimmed the first cards across the table. Don’t want to screw up here, he thought, and have them declare a misdeal.

  Nobody really looked likely to, though. Get this over with was clearly the mood of the table.

  The animated, nearly invisible statues on the lakeshore seemed to be angular ectoplasmic balloons—when Nardie swiped at them with the edge of the chip, they tore and blew away like cellophane dandelion seeds, releasing hot, dry air and a smell of long-desiccated organic stuff.

  And though the nearly invisible substance of the things warped the glaring sunlight like rippling lenses when they all crowded in around the two women, forcing Diana to squint and bob her head to guess exactly in which direction the water lay, she was able to push the things aside as easily as if they had been big soft-skinned helium balloons.

  Their yielding skins were cold to the touch, and Diana’s hands were becoming achingly numb even as the sun beat down on her head and face.

  At one point the giant transparency that was the Circus Circus clown dropped one ludicrously big foot right over her, and she had a moment of fishbowl vision and felt as though she had been bathed in a shower of menthol.

  “Straight ahead, I think,” she gasped when it had lifted and freed her. “This isn’t so bad, you know?”

  Dinh had been keeping the things away from herself with the sweeping edge of the chip. “They’re getting tougher to cut, though,” she gasped. A moment later she added, “Especially the ones you’ve touched.”

  Diana realized that she was tired—sweating and breathing through her slackly open mouth—even though she was hardly doing anything more strenuous than walking slowly across the hot sand; and when she glanced around her at the crystal shapes she had pushed out of her way, it seemed to her that those ones were more substantial and were visibly tinted pink, faintly filtering the colors of the sand and the distant water.

  Every one of the figures, in fact, looked solider.

  Suddenly she was cold all over again, but from fear now, and she crowded in close to Nardie’s back. “God, Nardie,” she said tightly, “I think they’ve been draining me here, somehow, when I was pushing them out of the way, like eating me. Keep ’em off with the chip; I’m not touching them anymore.”

  “We got to get to the water.”

  Diana ducked and scampered away from a dwarfish crystal cowboy with long, flailing arms. “Soon,” she panted in agreement. The air was sour with a smell like broken old bones.

  “How come they would”—Nardie swiped at a grinning transparent Arab—“want to eat you, eat us?”

  “Maybe so we’d—take their shapes. Absorb us before we get to the water, while we’re still not—unpalatable, inedible.”

  Diana was sure she could see some of her own lost substance in the phantoms; their arms whistled through the air now, and their feet made indentations in the sand.

  They had weight now.

  Twice the giant Circus Circus clown had nearly stomped them before Nardie had danced in and cut its ankle; one towering leg was now emptied and gone, but the clown was hopping from one dune to another on its remaining leg, substantial enough to kick up real, stinging clouds of sand, and it seemed more likely than before to land a Volkswagen-size foot on them. And it looked as if it would be a pile driver blow now, not a menthol shower.

  The glassy pink figures were crowding up from the lakeside. Diana and Nardie were being slowly driven back, toward the highway.

  And now suddenly the figures had something like fingernails; twice Diana had narrowly ducked away from one of them, and her upflung arm had been raked by something that stung and raised blisters.

  Worse even than the very real possibility of physical death was Diana’s conviction that the things were capable of more, that they could somehow consume her and Nardie, render the two of them down into some basic psychic stuff that would fill their multitudinous, presently empty shapes.

  And then Nardie and Diana would be no more than unaware ghosts in the mannequins and effigies scattered all over the city, no longer any kind of threat to the King—just semi-sentient sacrifices to unknowable chaotic gods.

  Diana kept one hand on Dinh’s shoulder, and together they darted and retreated and advanced, step by step diagonally closer to the water, moving toward it in a slant to keep the two giants hedged back by the more normal-size figures.

  Nardie’s hand snaked out again, and a grinning two-dimensional figure in the apron of a dealer tore apart silently into translucent splinters.

  “Good,” said Diana tensely, “we’re nearly there.”

  “But it’s using up our chip,” panted Nardie as she cut one of the Caesars Palace Romans. “Look.” In the instant before Dinh swung the edge again toward one of the legs of the giant clown, making the shimmering figure hop mindlessly back, Diana had seen that the Moulin Rouge chip was thinned down to no more than coin-thickness now and was white as a bone.

  “The sword the turtle gave us,” Nardie said through clenched teeth, “is wearing out.”

  The wind was strong on the highway on top of the dam. Mavranos thought he could hear weeping and laughter on the wind but then realized that the sounds were in his head, resonating from the minds of the tourists who were rushing in all directions to get away from the induced madness.

  A man in a white leather jacket was leaning over the lakeside rail not far from Mavranos, waving one hand out over the long drop to the water. Mavranos saw blood on the man’s hand and realized that this must be Ray-Joe Pogue.

  Security guards were out on the highway directing traffic, having to shout over the wind at the drivers, who were simply intent on getting away. Even as Mavranos watched, one of the guards tossed his hat away and began running down the middle of the highway toward the distant Nevada side of the dam.

  Mavranos wanted to get back down out of these mountains to the plains. This was much too high up—the sun, which was glinting so blindingly in the chrome of the rushing cars, seemed too close overhead, and the gunning of the engines didn’t seem as loud as it should have, as if the air up here were less able to carry sound.

  Pogue is doing this, he told himself, having to think loudly over the shouting and weeping in his head. He’s shaking his blood into the lake, and somehow he’s got a psychic chain reaction going here—all the minds of these people are echoing and reechoing insanity.

  If I can knock him out…

  He could feel a whimper starting up in his throat, and he wondered how long he could hold on to his purpose in the battering of the induced passions.

bsp; Or kill him, he thought.

  Veils of pink fog spun in the wind. Mavranos stepped to the rail and looked down toward the water, and he saw that the wisps of fog were bursting into existence in the air below where Pogue leaned out over the parapet. The drops of his blood were apparently exploding into steam before they reached the water.

  He hadn’t yet succeeded in poisoning the lake.

  Mavranos summoned all his remaining strength in order to take the last few strides along the walk and approach Pogue. He tried to smile like someone about to ask for directions or a match, and he shoved one hand in his jeans pocket to keep his untucked shirttail from flipping up in the breeze and exposing the walnut grip of the .38 tucked into his belt.

  Pogue’s jacket was blindingly white, and glittering rhinestones on the high collar sent needles of rainbow light into Mavranos’s squinting eyes. Pogue was wearing a red baseball cap on the sculptured perfection of his pompadour, and when he turned toward Mavranos, glaring out of two blackened eyes past the white bandage on his nose, Mavranos saw the oversize card tucked into the band.

  It was the Tower card from a Lombardy Zeroth Tarot deck, and the picture of the lightning striking the Babel-like tower and the two men falling struck Mavranos’s mind like a blow.

  He staggered back and looked away, forcing himself not to simply surrender to the violation of his mind by the potent symbol. This must have been what was causing the mental racket—every tourist who had looked squarely at the card, breathing the steam of Pogue’s blood, would have got the psychic equivalent of a shock treatment, and even the ones who couldn’t have seen it were nevertheless in the fog and picking up the signal and stepping it up and re-broadcasting it.

  He clenched his fist and turned back to where Pogue stood—but the man wasn’t there anymore. He was farther away, though he hadn’t changed his rail-clutching posture. Mavranos wondered if his apparent nearness a moment before had been some kind of optical illusion in this thin, treacherous air.

  Mavranos locked the fingers of his right hand on the grips of the .38 and started forward. But even as he watched, Pogue became, without moving, farther away.

  It’s some kind of magic he’s doing, thought Mavranos. Playing with space and distance and scale. What the hell can I do against that? It doesn’t look like I can get to him, and I don’t dare shoot at him, not knowing where he really is. I might hit anything, anybody.

  A lean hand grabbed his shoulder and shoved him aside, and Mavranos saw the twitching figure of Dondi Snayheever limp past him and out onto the surface of the highway.

  Snayheever rocked free on the windy pavement, then raised his skinny arms, too long for his tattered corduroy coat, and opened his mouth. “I’m blind!” he roared up into the sky. “Blind as a bat!”

  Mavranos felt an echo of the words in his own chest and realized that his vocal cords were helplessly working in sync with Snayheever’s; and he’d heard Pogue barking out the words, too; and Mavranos’s vision darkened as if at the suggestion of the words.

  “Blind as a bat!” Snayheever boomed again. “Can’t fly with no hat, simple as that!”—and the chorusing volume of his voice was for Mavranos the worst thing about this whole top-of-the-world scene, as his own lungs ached with the stress of matching Snayheever’s bellowing.

  Mavranos found that he had sat down on the curb, the cold gun butt jabbing into his ribs. People were getting out of their cars now, not even bothering to turn off the engines or put the gearshifts into park, to flee this terribly amplified voice that had burst out of their own throats; abandoned cars rolled forward into the bumpers of others and, to judge by the screams, crushed the legs of a few suggestion-blinded pedestrians.

  Pogue was yelling now, though his voice sounded squeaky and shallow after Snayheever’s. “I’ve got to get my head into the water,” Pogue screamed. “An imperfect King’s head! I’ve got to stop the action!” He seemed to be addressing no one but himself, trying to order Snayheever’s forcefully obscuring nonsense out of his head. “As soon as the fucking blood stops boiling away!” He was shaking his hand furiously, and gusts of steam whirled up around him.

  Snayheever led Mavranos and Pogue in a dizzying hum.

  “How you say,” Snayheever went on, “feet like Antaeus can’t get off the pavement no way you can climb over and fly down to the water.”

  Mavranos remembered how Snayheever’s voice had come booming out of blind Spider Joe in the living room of that dusty trailer, and how compelling the imposed madness had been, and he realized that Snayheever was keeping Pogue from jumping.

  Good, Mavranos thought. Better you than me, Dondi. He sighed deeply against the jabbing resistance of the revolver and dared hope that he might not have to use it.

  He looked up when he heard a clatter and scuffling. Pogue had reeled away from the coping and stumbled off the curb, apparently blind but lurching toward Snayheever’s voice.

  And behind and above him the vault of the blue sky was stippled with fluttering spots of darkness.

  Noon was not far gone, but the sky was full of bats.

  The houseboat seemed to be listing, and the tired players leaned more often counterclockwise than not in their chairs, as though the boat were spinning in some unphysical clockwise whirlpool.

  So far the pattern of cards that lay on the table had not yet deviated from the one that Crane had set up.

  All the hands except for Crane’s and Leon’s and one other man’s had been mated, had been conceived, and now Leon’s hand was finally up for auction.

  “Mr. Hanari’s hand is up for bid,” Crane said hoarsely, “and the dealer will presume to make the first bid of five hundred and fifty dollars.” It was how much Leon had put into this pot so far.

  “I’ll go six,” said the pale young man whose hand was the other still-unmated one, but he seemed to be speaking automatically, with no eagerness. Since the incomprehensible syllables of the great voice had come booming across the lake like some lament from distantly shifting rock strata, the boat had seemed smaller, and the players had been stating their checks and calls and raises and passes more often with gestures than with statements, as if fearful of being overheard by something in the lake or in the sky.

  Leon was pale. His hands were trembling, but he gripped the cards as if they were a lifeline and he were drowning.

  The hot breeze through the ports was cold on Crane’s sweaty forehead, and he remotely wondered what his mascara must look like. “Seven,” he said stolidly.

  Doctor Leaky was not speaking anymore, but shifted furiously in his fouled clothes against the restraint of the safety belt.

  “Yours,” said the pale young man, pushing his chair back from the table and getting up to go to the bar.

  Leon flipped up the Six and Eight of Cups next to his showing Knight of Sticks and Seven of Swords and pushed the four cards over to Crane.

  “Deliver our child healthy, Mother,” said Leon as he, too, stood up and reeled away across the tilted red carpet, toward the wheelchair-bound figure of Doctor Leaky. Leon could be heard muttering in an urgently soothing tone to the very old man.

  Crane hoped he would be able to deliver the healthy child in question. Two of the players had bought the wrong hands, and now one of them, Crane knew, held an Ace-high Flush in Coins, which would beat Crane’s own King-high Flush in Swords if they both stayed in to the showdown.

  Crane pointed at that player, who was showing two Aces. “Aces are the power,” Crane said flatly.

  The player, a haggard young man with a two-day beard, blinked when Crane spoke to him and then fumbled in his stack of bills.

  “Aces are worth two,” he said, tossing out two hundred dollar bills.

  Diana hopped back away from a pair of life-size faceless mannequins, and she lost her footing in the loose sand and sat down heavily; before she could scramble back up to her feet and limp to where Nardie was slashing right and left with the chip, the two figures had managed to burningly claw her shoulder and side.
r />   The pair of mannequins were moving awkwardly, like newborn mechanical colts, and the eyeless fronts of their heads swept back and forth metronomically.

  Diana clutched the back of Nardie’s shirt and tried to take deep breaths of the stale, hot air and hold back the glittery haze of unconsciousness.

  There was no way she and Nardie were going to be able to fight their way through these things down to the lake.

  She wondered if they could even make it back to the highway now—the increasingly solid angular transparencies were crowding around on that side, too, so that the passing cars on the far side were just flickering blobs of refracted color in the incalculable distance—and she wondered bleakly if getting all the way back to that solid asphalt pavement would, in fact, help at all. What if the drivers of the cars proved to be just more hinged zombies?

  From the corner of her eye she glimpsed a couple of figures.

  “Behind you!” Diana yelled as the same two faceless mannequins came scissor-stepping across the sand.

  But they weren’t faceless anymore; their faces, though expressionless, were solid, and they were recognizably the faces of Nardie and Diana themselves.

  Nardie flinched back from the things, and Diana had to skip aside to keep from being knocked down.

  And Nardie hopped forward in a spasmodic lunge, sweeping the edge of the diminishing chip across the space where the mimic faces had been an instant before.

  The Diana-thing and the Nardie-thing had gone flailing and scuffling away backward.

  Then Nardie had turned her back on them and was slashing madly, gasping, and cutting a path through the phantasms as if the Moulin Rouge chip were a machete. She was crowding up, sliding her feet forward through the sand to claim every slack yard or foot or inch, away from the two figures and perhaps toward the water, and Diana limped along after her.

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