Last call, p.59
Last Call, p.59Tim Powers
“Scott,” Diana yelled, catching his other arm, too, and shaking him, “you’re in no shape to do this!”
He was hunched over, his chin on his chest and his knees shaking.
Then, abruptly, the pain backed off. Tears, and perhaps blood, were running out of the eye, but he blinked in sudden astonishment down at his knees and his shoes and the pavement.
He was seeing them as three dimensional.
He blinked both his eyes and realized, too numbed with shock even to be glad, that he had two eyes.
The new eye stung, and was involuntarily blinking in the unaccustomed light, but the savage pain had evaporated.
“What did you say?” he asked hoarsely.
Diana was still holding his arms tightly. “I said you’re in no shape for this!”
He took a deep breath, then straightened up and squinted at her. “Actually…I think I…finally am in shape for this.”
All four of his companions stared at him in uncomprehending alarm.
“You…put the fake eye back in?” faltered Diana, glancing down at the pavement. “I thought you—shouldn’t you—”
“He grew a new one,” said Nardie flatly. “You and Scott are both now…what, at your physical peaks, okay?—except for the wound in the side that the King always has.”
“Jesus,” said Mavranos softly.
Diana was still clutching Crane’s elbow, and now she tugged at him. “Come over here, Scott.” Crane and Diana walked a dozen steps away and stood by the coping of a dusty redwood planter.
“You grew a new goddamn eye?” she said. “Is that true?”
“Yes.” Crane was breathing rapidly. I’m not dying, he thought tentatively.
“Scott,” she said with quiet urgency, “what’s happening here?”
“I think—I think it’s going to happen,” he said unsteadily; his throat was quivering with imminent laughter or sobbing. “I think you and I are about to…become the Queen and the King.”
Both of them were breathing fast.
“What—today? What does it mean? What will we do?”
Crane spread his hands helplessly. “I don’t know. Get married, be fertile, have children, work, plant gardens—”
Diana almost seemed angry. “—get special T-shirts, print up some letterhead…”
Crane grinned at her, but took a deep breath and went on seriously. “If we’re healthy and productive, you and I, so will the land be. The land, and us, are going to be sort of voodoo dolls of each other.” He thought of the dull, constant pain in his wounded side. “Warning lights for each other.”
His fingers brushed her blond hair. “We may lose this honorary youthfulness in the winters, but I’ll bet we’ll get at least most of it back each spring. I hope it’ll be a good long time before those winters start to get too harsh.”
“You don’t figure this is…immortality.”
“No. I’m sure part of our job is to one day die, so another King and Queen can take over. Maybe kids of ours. In twenty years or so there’ll be jacks to watch for, and there’ll still always be disease, and eventually old age. The only way to get immortality out of this is to—well, become Saturn, eat your children.”
“I haven’t been a great mother so far,” Diana said shakily, “but I’d pass on that.”
“And I think we’ll—in visions and dreams or hallucinations—I think we’ll deal with the things the cards are pictures of, the Archetypes that subterraneanly drive people. We might even be able to…be diplomats, somehow induce the things to assume patterns for less terrible crap in the world. My father didn’t dare deal with the Archetypes face-to-face, so he went through the formal channel of the cards and used people like matches to light the things up. There’s power here—my father’s been using it just in a crippled way, like having a great car but only running the engine so you can cook on the hood.” He gave her a frightened smile. “I think we’ve got to learn how to drive it.”
“God,” she said quietly. “I guess we can try.”
They walked back to the others.
“Let’s hurry,” Crane called to Mavranos. “The sun’s going to be up soon, and he’s going to start.”
Mavranos picked up his bundled windbreaker, and he and Crane walked away down the street toward the dark boats.
They were challenged when they stepped onto the dock.
“Whoa, boys,” said a young man on the deck of Leon’s houseboat. Crane recognized him—it was Stevie, the Amino Acid who had been tending bar. “If you’re looking to play Poker, you missed it—and if you’re looking to steal cameras or fishing gear”—he stepped out of the shadows and let them see the revolver he was casually pointing at them—“you’ve come to the wrong boat.”
“I’ve come to talk to the owner,” said Crane. “I believe he’ll be awake already.”
“Jesus!” Stevie’s eyes suddenly widened and he held his gun up at arm’s length. “You’re the two guys that were in that boat on Lake Mead Sunday. You killed our King!”
Mavranos quickly stepped to the side, raising the wrapped shotgun, and Crane darted his hand up toward the revolver under his shirt.
But at that moment a deep voice shouted, “Freeze!” from the shadows behind Stevie, and everyone tensely held still. “Drop your gun over the side, Stevie,” Leon’s Hanari voice went on. “Do it!”
For a moment Stevie’s gun hand just shook, still extended, and Crane expected Leon to shoot the young man in the back. Then with a shaky curse Stevie tossed the gun over the rail.
Mavranos lowered the shotgun and exhaled harshly through his fluttering mustache.
Leon stepped forward into the brightening light, and he was smiling under the bandage on his forehead. Again Crane noticed the bulge in the tailored slacks, and he guessed that his father had had some kind of artificial implant put into the body. His notion of physical perfection? Crane wondered. A perpetual boner?
“You’re Scott Crane,” said Leon in a tone of cold satisfaction. He was holding a big-caliber automatic down by his thigh. “You seem to know something about all this, about what you and I did in the ’69 game. And you went and killed this guy’s candidate for King?” He was laughing now. “Well, thanks for saving me the trouble. Why have you…come here?”
Crane was glad nobody recognized him as the poor Flying Nun. He glanced past Leon at the lake, where he had killed the Amino Acids’ King with a magical .45, and he remembered the place that was the physical totem of the King.
“I’m going to assume the Flamingo,” Crane said.
Now Leon was laughing harshly. “Oh, really. You’re a fish, sonny, not a jack.” Abruptly his inflamed face went blank, and he glanced to the still-dark west; then his pistol was up and pointed squarely at the middle of Crane’s torso. “Stevie!” Leon barked. “Go up to him and look at his eyes!”
Stevie hesitated, then shambled across the deck to Crane and peered into his face. “Uh,” he said, “they’re blue…his eyes, right?…They’re bloodshot—”
“Bloodshot’s good,” said Leon cautiously. “Hold a lighter flame up to each of them—don’t burn him—and tell me what his pupils do.”
Crane’s new eye was dazzled by the flame when Stevie held it up in front of him, but he managed to keep both eyes at least squintingly open.
“Pupils both went narrow fast,” Stevie said.
Leon relaxed and started laughing again, clearly with relief. “Sorry, Mr. Crane,” he said, “it’s just that I once…knew someone else with your first name. An old friend of mine named Betsy used to worry about it, but she was getting paranoid.” He waved his pistol at Mavranos. “That guy’s got a rifle or something in the cloth there, Stevie. Would you take it from him?”
Mavranos looked at Crane, who nodded, and he let Stevie take the shotgun.
“Now,” said Leon, “Crane, you come aboard, you can be the first—you wrecked my beautiful Hanari. Your friend can wait out here on the dock. You’ll probably have some things to talk to him about when y
Crane walked up the dock to the section of the deck where the rail had been folded back on a hinge, and he stepped across the gap easily now that he was wearing sneakers.
The cards were spread out face up on the otherwise-empty green felt table, and in spite of the dawn light outside, the wall lamps threw a late-evening glow across the long room. Doctor Leaky was belted into his wheelchair again, but he was mercifully wearing a different leisure suit. Another armed Amino Acid stood alertly in front of the bar, puffing a cigarette.
The air conditioner hummed, and there were no smells in the cool air.
The Art Hanari body was still carrying the gun, and Leon faced Crane from the other side of the room, glaring out of the inflamed Hanari eyes. “Why did you come here? I really don’t think you know what happens now,” he said.
You take what you bought, Crane thought. May it please be the right one. “I assume the Flamingo.”
Again the declaration seemed to jar his father. “You sold the hand,” Leon said, his voice flat but louder, “you’ll become the King the way…the way his food does! I don’t have time for—”
“Why do you keep a wrecked old clown like that around?” Crane interrupted, nodding toward Doctor Leaky and blinking tears out of his new eye. “Hey, Doctor,” he called, “how’s your love life these days?”
Doctor Leaky began giggling and making fart sounds with his mouth. “Beam me up, Scotty!” he said.
The Amino Acid tossed his cigarette toward an ashtray and started forward.
Leon’s already purpled face went darker, and he stared hard into Crane’s eyes—lifted one hand—and then closed his eyes and inhaled.
And Crane was falling away into the darkness of his own mind, aware of the ancient, shifting gods so far below.
His last articulated thought was: It didn’t work. He won.
Like galaxies, the things turned beneath him, and though there was no light, he could see them by the images they rang into vibrant compulsion in his mind.
There was the Fool, dancing on the precipice, and the sphinxes that pulled the splendid Chariot, and Judgment calling human forms out of opening graves, and the Moon, with luminous rain falling into a pool, and, somehow closer, the hermaphroditic figure that was the World; and then he was able to look at himself.
His own form was the robed and powerful body of the Emperor, and he held in his right hand the looped Egyptian cross, the ankh.
He rose, and the other entities seemed to bow in repectful greeting, and he heard a chorus of singing and weeping and shouting that evoked, for all the bass roars of horror and rage that abraded the pure high voices, triumph and hope.
He continued to rise, up through the ringing, glittering blackness.
And vision came back to his eyes, and he was standing on the red carpet in the lounge of his father’s houseboat.
The Amino Acid’s cigarette hit the ashtray, and he took another step forward.
The Hanari body, suddenly expressionless, took a step backward to catch its balance.
“No!” screamed Doctor Leaky in sudden panic, “not this, I love life, my love life? Love wife? Burned up my Chevrolet, took my boy away from me, my wife did.” He was breathing deeply, with his eyes closed, and Crane could see that the old man had wet his pants again. “I won’t sink in this,” shouted the Doctor Leaky body, “I can gather my thoughts.” Again he was silent, and Crane was afraid Leon might actually be able to exert the broken, senile brain and jump back into the now blank-eyed Hanari. “I will gather the—the—I know what—the cards, I spilled them. Well, really I threw them.”
The Amino Acid was gaping around, his hand on the butt of his holstered revolver.
“Go sit down,” Crane told him. The young man nodded and went back to the bar and sat on one of the stools.
“You—I’ve got it, I’ve got it,” shouted Doctor Leaky, his eyes still screwed shut. “I can…push—” He grinned suddenly and blinked around, until he saw the Hanari body still standing across the room from him. “No, goddamn son of a bitch charged me, what was it? Two hundred dollars! For a used engine, in ’45, or wait, no, that’s right, ’45. I—I made my—my displeasure clear, I assure you. Of that.”
Crane stared at the frantic wheelchair-bound body, and he realized that this was the first time in more than twenty years that his father’s mind had been in his father’s body. This thrashing old man was his complete father, whole again.
Crane clenched his fists and forced himself not to run over to the wheelchair and hug the man. Remember Ozzie, he told himself. Ozzie was your true father. This man you still love so much killed Ozzie.
Doctor Leaky was subsiding into giggles again. “Do you think that boy cried?” He frowned suddenly and looked around, as if at a crowd of debaters. “Never! I cut the hook out of his finger and he never cried….”
Crane pushed past the blinking, mindless Art Hanari and crossed to the big round card table. Bending down, he reached out with both hands and swept the Tarot cards into one stack and turned the stack face down on the green felt.
“You’re not to touch those cards!” shouted the Amino Acid.
Crane looked over his shoulder. The young man had drawn his revolver and was pointing it at him. “Why not?” He smiled and jerked a thumb at the Hanari. “He doesn’t have any objections. Ask him.”
“I’m going to have to ask you to step away from the table,” he told Crane. “Mr. Hanari has told us to kill anyone who tries to take the cards.”
Crane hadn’t anticipated this problem. He thought of the chilly gun in his belt, under the untucked shirt, and knew he wouldn’t be able to drag it free before the Amino Acid had time for at least two shots. And the young man was already aiming at him.
Crane sighed. “Why Amino Acids?” he asked lightly.
“How do you know that name?” The young man seemed grudgingly pleased that Crane did know of it, like a writer meeting a stranger who has read one of his stories.
“Bitin Dog told me.”
“Hah.” The young man waved the gun barrel. “Step away from the table.” Crane walked over and stood beside the Hanari.
“Our leader came up with the name,” the young man said. “We’re—we were a—a men’s club, all pretty hip to the New Age wisdom…though our leader got killed last week, and now most of the guys have split. Amino comes from the Greek Ammon, the name of the Egyptian sun-god, for your information—and there are twenty amino acids that are the basis of all proteins, such as DNA, which is the currency of sexual reproduction, which we were against.” He shrugged. “There were twenty of us. There are twenty cards in the Major Arcana if you throw away the Moon and the Lovers. We figured to be the psychic pool’s DNA and immaculately conceive ourselves a real Fisher King, no woman needed, in the person of our leader. And after our leader was murdered, Stevie and I found Mr. Hanari, who’s already that kind of King.”
He blinked and frowned. “And would you step away from Mr. Hanari, too, please. Further than that. Sit down in the far chair. I’m perfectly willing to kill you, sir. Mr. Hanari has given us specific instructions.” As Crane sat down in one of the farther chairs, the Amino Acid glanced at the slack-jawed, dully staring Hanari body. “I’m sure he’ll have instructions for me in just a moment, when he’s done…thinking.”
He’s empty, boy, thought Crane. He won’t be speaking ever again—unless my father can throw his mind clear of his old body with his broken old brain, which he hasn’t managed to do yet.
Crane glanced at Doctor Leaky, who was alternately frowning and chortling. But he might, Crane thought nervously, if we let him have enough time to try.
He remembered having once, while drunk, sunk in a vision down to the Archetype level below his mind and then come up through the wrong personality well and found himself in a woman’s body. Maybe he could do that intentionally now, and come up in the Hanari body, and order this young man to throw his gun into the lake and leave. Crane closed his eyes and let his mind descen
But he found himself instead in a vivid hypnagogic dream, in which he was sunk in the darkness of the lake’s deep water. He knew he was still sitting at the card table aboard his father’s houseboat, he could see the paneled walls and the glowing lamps and the Hanari body standing and rocking on the carpet, but he could also see now, dimly, the walls of Siegel’s Flamingo penthouse, and dark lake water beyond the aquarium-like windows, and the cupboard behind which had been concealed the shaft that led down to the basement tunnel.
Now, in the dream, the shaft led away upward instead. And a voice in his head, so faint that he couldn’t be sure he wasn’t imagining it, said, You’re too big now to fit. There’s only a little bit of me left. I’ll go.
Thank you for helping me, Crane thought, and a moment later he was afraid the deteriorated personality out there might have caught the feelings behind the consciously projected thought: doubt, and embarrassment, and repugnance.
But the voice seemed wryly jocular: Happy to. Be a good one, now, and one day help someone else.
I’m grateful to you, thought Crane, more sincerely. Thank you for my family.
There was a faint flicker of associations in Crane’s head: a slight bow, a touched hat, a smile.
Crane sensed the remains of the Siegel identity climbing or swimming away up the narrow shaft.
And the dream dissolved, and Crane was wholly sitting in the chair and staring at the Hanari—
—Which blinked and opened its mouth.
Crane darted a glance at Doctor Leaky, but the old man in the wheelchair was just staring at the blank television and drooling.
“Outside,” said the Hanari body slowly. “Both of you.”
Crane stood up and led the way out onto the breezy deck, closely followed by the Amino Acid. The sun was not yet visible over the Black Mountains, but a dazzling corona shone over the distant peaks.
Crane looked away from the brightness and saw Mavranos and Stevie sitting stiffly in deck chairs on the dock. Stevie was holding the shotgun across his knees.
Last Call by Tim Powers / Fantasy / Horror / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes