Last call, p.6
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       Last Call, p.6

           Tim Powers

  “You never play for money at home,” Ozzie had said. “You don’t want the cards to know where you live.”

  Scott had become known as Scarecrow Smith, because before about 1980 doctors couldn’t effectively attach glass eyes to eye muscles, and so it was more natural-looking for him to turn his whole head to look at something than to have only one eye move to the side; to some players this had made his eyes seem painted on and his neck appear unnaturally loose. And “Scarecrow” had fitted with his adopted father’s nickname: whenever Oliver Crane was asked where he lived, he had always just said, “Oz.”

  In fact, Ozzie had not let anyone in the Poker world know where he lived. He used the name Smith when he played and insisted that Scott do the same, and he always kept his car registered to a post office box.

  “You don’t want to take a chance on your work following you home,” he’d said. To make that even less likely, he had always bought new tires and had his Studebaker tuned up before setting out, and he never went to a game without a full tank of gas. And there was always a twelve-gauge pump shotgun under a blanket on the back seat to supplement the pistol in his belt.

  And he had made sure Scott understood when it was that you had to fold out of a game.

  That had been the advice Scott had ignored in the game on the lake in ’69.

  “If the drink in your glass starts to sit at an angle that ain’t quite level, or if the cigarette smoke starts to crowd in over the cards and fall there, or if plants in the room suddenly start to wilt, or if the air is suddenly dry and hot in your throat, smelling like sun-hot rock, fold out. You don’t know what you might be buying or selling come the showdown.”

  By the end of the spring of 1969 Ozzie had been sixty or so, and Scott had been twenty-six.

  Both of them had been wanting to get back home to Santa Ana—Scott had a girl friend whom he hadn’t seen in three months, and Ozzie missed his other foster child, Diana, who was nine years old and staying with a neighbor woman—but they had decided to hit Las Vegas before once again burning on home across the Mojave to southern California.

  They had got in on a Five-Stud game that started in the Horseshoe on Fremont Street in the evening, and at dawn they had moved it upstairs to one of the rooms, and in the middle of the afternoon, when all but Ozzie and Scott and a pudgy businessman called Newt had been eliminated, they had declared a sleep-and-food break.

  “You know,” Newt had said slowly, almost reluctantly, as he finally unknotted his tie, “there’s a game on a houseboat on Lake Mead tonight.” Newt had lost more than ten thousand dollars.

  Ozzie had shaken his head. “I never gamble on water.” He tucked a wad of bills into his jacket pocket. He had increased his roll from about twelve to about twenty-four thousand in the past twenty hours. “Even when they had the boats out there in the ocean, three miles off Santa Monica, I never went.”

  Scott Crane was down. He had had ten thousand when they’d driven into Las Vegas, and he had about seven and a half now, and he knew Ozzie was ready to declare the season finished and start for home.

  “What kind of game?” Scott had asked.

  “Well, it’s odd.” Newt stood up and walked to the window.

  “This guy’s name is Ricky Leroy, and ordinarily he’s one of the best Poker players in town.” The stout young businessman kept his back to them as he talked. “But for the last two or three days he’s been playing this game he calls Assumption—weird game with a weird deck, all pictures—and he’s losing. And he doesn’t seem to mind.”

  “Assumption,” said Ozzie thoughtfully. “Twenty years ago a guy was hosting a game of that out on a boat on Lake Mead. Different guy—George something. He lost a lot, too, I heard.”

  “My luck’s gone here,” Newt said, turning around to face them. “I’m going to drive out there tonight. If you want to come, I’ll be standing under the million-dollar-display Horseshoe at eight.”

  “You may as well just go,” Ozzie told him. “This was our last game of the season; we’re going to sleep twelve hours and then drive home.”

  Newt had shrugged. “Well, I’ll be there just in case.”

  Back in their own room at the Mint Hotel, Ozzie had at first been unable to believe that Scott wasn’t kidding when he said he wanted to go meet Newt and get into the game on the lake.

  The old man had kicked off his polished black shoes and lain down on one of the beds, and he was laughing with his eyes closed. “Sure, Scott—on water, tamed water, with a guy that always pays for hands, and playing with what obviously is a Tarot deck, for God’s sake. Shit, you’d win a few signifying hands, and a month later you’d find out you’ve got cancer and you’re getting arrested for crimes you never heard of and you can’t get it up anymore. And then one day you’d walk out to the mailbox and find your goddamn head in there.”

  Scott was holding a glass of beer he’d picked up on the way to the elevator, and now he took a long sip of it.

  Most Poker players had superstitions, and he had always conformed to Ozzie’s, out of respect for the old man, even when it had meant folding a cinch hand just because some cigarette smoke was moving in ways the old man didn’t like or someone had kicked the table and the drinks were wobbling.

  Ozzie had folded some good hands, too, of course—hundreds, probably, in his forty years of professional play. But Ozzie could afford to: He had made a lot of money over the years, and though he rarely played the very-high-stakes games, he was regarded as an equal by the best players in the country.

  And right now he had twenty-four thousand dollars rolled up tight in the hollow handles of his shaving brush and shoehorn and coffeepot.

  Scott had less than eight thousand, and he was going home to car payments and a girl friend who liked steak and lobster and first-growth Bordeaux wines.

  And he had heard that next year Benny Binion, the owner of the Horseshoe, was going to host a World Series of Poker, with all the best Poker players converging there to determine who was the very best. Scott could remember having met old Binion once, at a restaurant called Louigi’s on Las Vegas Boulevard. Scott had been only three or four, staying out late with his long-lost real father, but he remembered now that Binion had ordered the house’s best steak and had then shaken ketchup onto it.

  He was sure he could win this competition…if he could come into town with enough money to spread a good-size net.

  “I’ve got to go, Oz. My roll’s short, and the season’s over.”

  “Your roll?” The grin was fading from Ozzie’s face as he raised his head to look at Scott. “What you’ve got in your pocket is a hair less than twenty-five percent of our roll, yours and mine and Diana’s. We’ve got thirty-one and a half, and if that ain’t lavish to live a year on, I don’t—”

  “I’ve got to go, Oz.”

  Ozzie now wearily forced himself back up onto his feet. His gray hair was disarranged, and he needed a shave. “Scott, it’s on water. It’s Tarot cards. You want to play, take our money to any of the hundred games in town here. But you can’t go play there.”

  You can’t go play there, thought Scott, as the beer amplified his own massive fatigue. That’s what you say to a kid who wants to ride his tricycle to a park where there might be bad boys.

  I’m twenty-six, and I’m a damn good player on my own—not just as Ozzie’s kid.

  The cross-cut wooden grip of his .38 revolver was poking up out of the dirty shirts in the open suitcase on the bed. He pulled the gun free and shoved it into his jacket pocket.

  “I’m going,” he said, and went to the door and pulled it open and strode rapidly down the hall toward the door to the stairwell.

  And he was crying by the time he stepped out of the cool darkness of the casino into the brassy afternoon sunlight, because for at least several floors he had heard Ozzie shuffling in his stocking feet down the stairs behind him, calling and pleading weakly in his frail voice as he forced his exhausted old body to try to catch up with his adopted son.


  We’re Now Thirteen

  “Assumption,” Newt said.

  He was talking quickly, hunched over the steering wheel of his Cadillac as the hot dark desert swept past on either side. “This guy Leroy won’t play it unless there are twelve other people at the table with him. A hundred dollars ante. Everybody’s dealt two down cards and one up card, and then there’s a round of betting, two hundred a bet, and then one more up card and another round at two hundred.”

  Scott popped the cap off a fresh bottle of beer. “That’s fifty-two cards,” he said blurrily. “You’re out of cards, except maybe for a Joker.”

  “Nah, he won’t play it with a Joker, and actually there’s four more cards left, ‘cause there’s an extra face card in each suit, the Knight. And the suits are different, they’re Sticks and Cups and Coins and Swords. But anyway, no more cards are dealt.”

  The lights of the bars and brothels of Formyle swept past. The Cadillac was now four miles out of Las Vegas and must, Scott thought, be doing a hundred by now.

  “What happens then,” Newt went on, “is that each four-card hand in turn goes up for bid. The term is ‘the mating.’ Say you’ve got two Kings down and a Three and something up, and you see a hand with a King and a Three showing; well, you’d want to bid on that hand, ‘cause if you got it, you’d have a Full Boat in your eight-card hand—or, if one of his down cards turned out to be the case King, you’d find yourself with four Kings, get it? When you put the two hands together, yours and the one you bought, they say that the resulting eight-card hand has been conceived, rather than completed or something. With the bidding you usually wind up paying a guy, for his hand, a hundred or so more than what he’s got in the pot. A lot of guys never mean to stay for the showdown, they just want to sell their hands at the bid, at the mating. And when it gets down to the last three guys who haven’t bought a hand or sold theirs, the competition gets hot ’cause nobody wants to be left out in the cold holding an unsold and unplayable—unconceivable—four—card hand.”

  Scott nodded, staring out through the dusty windshield at the dim bulk of the McCullough Range denting the dark sky ahead. “So there might be as many as…six guys in at the showdown.”

  “Right. And even if you’re out of the hand, you’re still watching ’cause you’ve still got an investment in the hand you sold your four cards into. You’re called a parent of the hand, and if it wins, you get ten percent of the pot. That’s another reason a lot of guys just want to sell their hands and get out: they can clear a fair profit at the mating and then still have a one-in-six chance of getting a tenth of a pretty sizable pot.”

  Scott Crane drained his beer and pitched the bottle out the open window into the gathering night. “So have you played it yet?”

  “Sure I’ve played it,” said Newt, apparently angry. “Would I bring guys to it if I hadn’t played it? And I’ve played Poker with Leroy a lot.”

  Scott was suddenly sure that Newt had lost a lot, too, to Leroy, and owed him at least money. For just a moment he considered making Newt pull over to the shoulder and getting out of the car and hitch—hiking back to the Mint.

  Lightning made silent jagged patterns over the mountains, like the momentarily incandescing roots of some vast tree that carried the stars as buds.

  “And then there’s the Assumption option,” said Newt as he leaned over the big wheel and tugged it back and forth, sounding as tired as Scott felt. “If you’re the absentee parent of the winning hand, you’re free to put up an amount of your own money equal to the amount in the pot, and then have the deck shuffled, and cut the cards for the whole thing.”

  Scott frowned, trying to make his sluggish mind work. “But you’d already be getting a tenth of the pot. Why risk…fifty-five percent to win forty-five, on a fifty-fifty chance?”

  Scott couldn’t tell if Newt sighed or if the whisper was just the tires on the Boulder Highway pavement. “I don’t know, man, but Leroy is a sucker for that bet.”

  There were a lot of cars parked in the Boulder Basin marina lot, and the white houseboat at the dock was big and wide, and lit brightly enough to dim the emerging stars. The moon was dark—a day short of the newest sliver.

  Gravel crunched underfoot as they walked from the car toward the lake and the boat, and the wind from up the distant twistings of the Colorado River fluttered Scott’s sweatspiky hair.

  A figure who could only be their host stood on the lighted deck. He was a big, tanned man in a white silk suit; by his lined face Scott guessed him to be around forty, but his hair was brown and full with not a thread of gray, and at least in this light it didn’t look like a toupee. A big gold sun disk hung on a chain around his neck.

  “Here’s a young man wanting to play, Mr. Leroy,” said Newt as he led Scott up the ramp to the teakwood deck. “Scarecrow Smith, this is Ricky Leroy.”

  When Leroy smiled at Scott, it was absently, with the politeness of a distracted host, but Scott opened his mouth to ask the man How’ve-you-been?, for he was unthinkingly sure that he had once known him well. Leroy caught Scott’s look of recognition and raised one eyebrow curiously.

  Scott realized that he couldn’t remember where he knew Leroy from, and at the same moment he became aware of the open port beyond the tall white figure. Never talk about anything important in front of the cards, he thought. “Uh, beautiful boat you’ve got,” he said lamely.

  “Thank you, Mr.—I’m sorry?”


  “Mr. Smith. I hope you get a few beautiful boats yourself!”

  Newt led Scott across a couple of yards of deck and through the broad double doors. Their steps were suddenly muffled in thick red carpet.

  “You know him already?”

  “I don’t know,” Scott mumbled, looking around, ignoring for the moment the crowd of people standing by the bar in the corner or sitting around the long green felt table.

  He guessed that a wall or two had been knocked out to make the central lounge so big; the room was at least twenty feet by forty feet, and the dark rosewood paneling gleamed in the yellow light of the many electric lamps hanging on the walls.

  Newt was whispering to himself and bouncing a finger this way and that. “Just made it,” he said quietly. “We’re now thirteen. Grab a seat.”

  The engines started, and the boat shook.

  “I want another beer first.”

  The boat surged forward as he was walking toward the bar, and he almost sat down on the carpet. The person who caught his arm and steadied him was Ricky Leroy. “Can’t have you down yet!” said the big man jovially. “Smith, you said your name was? No relation to Ozzie, I suppose?”

  “Actually,” Scott said, taking another step forward and leaning on the bar, “yes. He’s my dad. A Miller, please,” he added to the obese bartender.

  “He couldn’t make it tonight?”

  “Thanks,” Scott said, accepting a tall glass from the fat man. “Hmm? Oh, no—he doesn’t like to gamble on water.”

  Leroy chuckled indulgently. “I guess he’s old enough to have picked up a lot of superstitions.”

  When Leroy fanned the deck out face up across the green felt, Scott stopped breathing.

  The vivid gold and red and blue images on the oversize cards seemed to intrude forcefully into his brain through the retina of his one eye, and to blow away all the memories and opinions and convictions that were the scaffolding of his adulthood, so that the cards’ images could settle into perfect-fit indentations laid down long before.

  The smells of hot metal and perfume clogged his nose, and it seemed to him suddenly that it was raining outside, and that someone had just been singing “Sonny Boy.” And he remembered for a moment the grinning face of the Joker staring at him, somehow, from out of a plate of lobster stew.

  Something in him was now unlocked—not opened yet, but unlocked—and he thought fleetingly of a night nine years earlier, and the infant girl he had held in his arms for eight hours as Ozzie drove the
m homeward across the Mojave Desert.

  He took several deep breaths, then with trembling fingers lit a cigarette and took a sip of beer.

  He looked at the other players around the table. They all seemed shaken, and one man was holding a handkerchief across his eyes.

  Leroy gathered the cards together, flipped them facedown, and began shuffling them. “The ante is a hundred dollars, gentlemen,” he said.

  Scott drove the old thoughts out of his head and dug into his pocket.

  Assumption was a game that promoted action. Nobody seemed to want to fold before the mating and thus lose the chance to sell his four cards or buy another advantageous four.

  By the time the first hand’s mating came up there were ninety-one hundred dollars in the pot. That was a fifth again as much as Scott had walked in with, and he was in for only seven hundred.

  He had a Knight of Cups and a Six of Swords down, and was showing a Knight of Swords and a Six of Sticks. When his four-card hand came up for auction, the bidding went up to eight hundred, but another hand out there was showing a Knight, and he decided to wait and bid on it. Sail out of this hand aboard a Full Boat, he thought.

  But the man holding the Knight bought a hand before the bidding came around to him. The man’s hand was now “conceived” and no longer for sale.

  There were five hands left to be auctioned, but none of them held any obvious help for Scott, and he wondered if he should have taken the eight hundred when he’d had the chance.

  And then he waited too long, until his was one of only three unconceived hands.

  “I’m willing to sell now,” he told the other two players.

  They both looked at him and at his two showing cards. “I’ll give you two hundred,” said one, a thin man in a cowboy hat.

  The other player smiled at the one who’d bid. “I’ll give you three for yours.”

  The man in the cowboy hat seemed to be considering the offer, and Scott said quickly, “I’ll take one.”


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