Last call, p.7
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       Last Call, p.7

           Tim Powers
 

  The old cowboy gave him a hundred-dollar bill in exchange for his hand, and Scott picked up his empty glass and made his way to the bar.

  Scott was leaning on the bar and sipping his new beer when Leroy walked up and tossed a stack of bills onto the wet wood next to the beer glass.

  “Congratulations!” Leroy said heartily. “You’re a parent.”

  Scott reached forward and fanned the bills. There were ten hundreds and three twenties.

  “The pot went up to ten thousand six hundred,” said Leroy, “and the old cowboy had a Straight Flush. Not all that uncommon in this game. Do you want to match that and cut the deck for Assumption?”

  “Uh, no,” Scott said, picking up his beer. “No, thanks, I’ll keep this. The next hand’s about to start then?”

  Leroy waved him forward. “Your throne awaits.”

  At the mating in the next hand Scott had a Two and a Six down and two Kings showing, and when his hand went up for bid, two players, each of whom showed a King, bid the price of it up to $2,000 before one of them finally dropped out.

  Scott pocketed his $2,000 and went back to the bar. He was already ahead by $1,860—his roll was now $9,360—and this had only been the second hand. And he hadn’t even won yet!

  But it was on the third hand that he really tied on to it.

  As Ozzie had taught him, he quickly scanned every one of the other twelve players’ up cards and then tried to watch as each of them peeked at his down cards. One man blushed slightly and began breathing a little faster, and another quickly looked away and began riffling his chips.

  They both scored, Scott thought.

  The first had a Queen showing; he almost certainly had a Queen and an Ace down, since two other Queens and three Kings were exposed on the board. The other man was showing an Ace; he probably had one of the other two Aces down.

  Finally Scott looked at his own cards. He had a Six and a Five down and a Seven showing. Unsuited. Hope for a Straight.

  He stayed, along with everyone else, through a bet and two raises. There was now ninety-one hundred in the pot.

  The room was layered with cigarette smoke, but it seemed to be thicker over the pot.

  The second up cards were dealt, but though he watched the players’ faces, he wasn’t able to glean any readable tells. He looked down at his own—a Six.

  The man to his left was white-suited Ricky Leroy, who showed a Six and a Five, and Scott decided to buy Leroy’s hand and hope for a Full Boat and not just a low Two Pair.

  The round of betting showered another twenty-six hundred-dollar bills into the pot.

  Leroy proved willing to let the hand go to Scott for twelve hundred dollars—and when the four cards were flipped to him, all face up as the rules demanded, Scott made sure that he only blinked sluggishly, as if he were too tired and drunk to have focused on them yet.

  The four cards were the Six and the Five that had been showing and a Deuce and a Six. Crane now had four Sixes.

  With a steady hand he lifted his glass and took a sip. So Leroy’s houseboat lists a little, he told himself when he noticed the tilted surface of the beer; so what?

  The rest of the mating seemed to take hours, but at last there were six players still in the game with eight cards each, two down and six up. Leroy had walked away to the bar.

  “Three Sixes bet,” said the man who was dealing.

  “Uh,” said Scott, peeking again at his down cards, “check.”

  The man to his left bet two hundred, the next man folded, the next two called, and the last man raised it another two hundred. The stack of bills in the middle of the table looked like a pile of green leaves that some gardener would eventually bag up and haul away.

  “That’s four hundred to the three Sixes,” said the dealer.

  “See the four,” said Scott, peeling six bills off his roll, “and raise it two.”

  “A check-raise from the Sixes,” noted the dealer.

  Everyone folded but the man who had raised. He stared at Scott for a long time. He was showing two Knights and two Tens and two worthless cards. “And two,” he said finally.

  He thinks that the three Sixes are all I’ve got, Scott thought, or that at best I’ve got a low Boat. He’s got a high Boat, probably Knights over Tens, and he knows the Aces and Queens and Kings are effectively gone.

  “And two,” Scott said, throwing the bills out onto the table.

  The other player didn’t move, but a glow seemed to go out of him. “Call,” he said, pushing two more hundreds across the felt.

  Scott flipped over his two down cards, and the other player bowed his head and tossed his hand into the discards.

  “The Four of a Kind beats the Boat,” pronounced the dealer.

  Scott started to reach out with both arms for the pile of money, but Leroy, who had left the table after selling his hand to Scott, had returned and now stepped forward.

  “Maybe not the houseboat.” He grinned, showing big, even white teeth. “There’s thirteen thousand six fifty in there, I believe.” He took a leather billfold from inside his jacket and carefully separated out of it thirteen one-thousand-dollar bills and six hundreds and a fifty. He leaned forward and pressed them down onto the heaped money.

  Hot, dry desert air sighed in through the open portholes, and Scott’s throat burned with the smell of hot stone.

  “I’m claiming the Assumption,” Leroy said.

  CHAPTER 7

  It’s All Yours

  Scott sat back, put his hands on the edge of the table and grinned curiously up at this new opponent. Somehow he had forgotten Newt’s telling him that Leroy liked this bet.

  Scott had sunk $3,050 into this pot, counting the $1,200 he had paid for Leroy’s hand. If he lost the cut, it would take him down from the more than $25,000 he had thought he had before Leroy had spoken—about three times what he’d walked aboard with—to less than $12,000. But if he won it, he’d be sitting on nearly $38,000. And at least the odds were in Scott’s favor.

  The dealer shrugged, gathered in the cards and shuffled them several times, handed them to another player to cut, and then slid the deck, solid as a brick, to the patch of felt in front of Scott.

  The cigarette smoke was a narrow, upright funnel in the middle of the table now, like a tiny slow-motion tornado.

  Still grinning, Scott slid his fingers halfway down the cardedges and lifted off the top half and showed the exposed card to the company—getting in return some looks of sympathy—and then he looked at it himself.

  It was the Three of Cups. There were only four cards in the deck lower than that, the Deuces, and only three that would tie it. Seven cards out of fifty-five. One chance in about eight and a half.

  Still holding the card up, Scott finished his beer, proud that his hand didn’t shake in this almost certain defeat. He didn’t have to tip the glass back very far at all.

  He laid the top half back down on the deck and pushed it across to the dealer, who reshuffled and passed it for the cut and then slid it to the place where Leroy had been sitting.

  Leroy leaned forward and curled his brown hand down over the cards; for a moment he seemed to be kneading them gently, and Scott was dully sure that the man was cheating, feeling for a crimp or an unshaved edge. Ozzie had taught him long ago that cheaters were to be either used or avoided, but never challenged, especially in a game with strangers.

  Then Leroy had raised a segment of the deck, and the exposed card was the Deuce of Sticks.

  There were sighs and low whistles from the other players, but Scott’s ears were buzzing with the realization that he had won after all.

  He reached out and began raking in and stacking the bills, glad of the revolver pressing against his hip-bone under his sweater.

  Leroy sat down in the chair beside him. Scott glanced at the man and said, “Thanks.”

  Leroy’s pupils were wider than normal, and the pulse in his neck was fast. “Yeah,” he said levelly, shaking his head, “I don’t know when I
m going to learn that that’s not a smart bet.”

  Scott paused in his gathering and stacking. Those are tells, he thought; Leroy is faking dismay.

  “You’re taking the money for the hand,” Leroy observed.

  “Uh…yes.” Again Scott was aware of the bulk of metal against his hip.

  “You sold the hand.”

  “I guess you could put it that way.”

  “And I’ve bought it,” Leroy said. “I’ve assumed it.” He held out his right hand.

  Puzzled, Scott put down some bills and reached across and shook hands with the big brown man in the white suit.

  “It’s all yours,” Scott said.

  It’s all yours.

  Now, twenty-one years later, driving his old Ford Torino north up the dark 5 Freeway toward the 10 and Venice, Scott Crane remembered Ozzie’s advice about games in which the smoke and the drink levels behaved strangely: Fold out. You don’t know what you might be buying or selling come the showdown.

  He had not ever seen Ozzie again after the game on the lake.

  The old man had checked out of the Mint by the time Scott got back, and after Scott had rented a car and driven west across the desert to Orange County and Santa Ana, he had found the house unoccupied, with an envelope tacked to the front door frame.

  It had contained a conformed copy of a quit-claim deed giving the house to Scott.

  He had talked to his foster sister Diana on the telephone a few times in the years since, most recently in ’75, after spearing his own ankle, but he had not seen her again either. And he had not any idea where she or Ozzie might now be living.

  Crane missed Diana even more than he missed old Ozzie.

  Crane had been seventeen when he and Ozzie had driven out to Las Vegas to pick up Diana in 1960. The game on the lake had still been nine years in the future.

  He and Ozzie had been driving home from a movie—Psycho, as Scott recalled—and the radio was playing Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” when Ozzie had pulled the Studebaker over to the Harbor Boulevard curb.

  “What’s the moon look like to you?” Ozzie had asked.

  Scott had looked at the old man, wondering if this was a riddle. “The moon?”

  “Look at it.”

  Scott leaned down over the dashboard to look up at the sky; and after a few seconds he had opened the door and stepped out onto the sidewalk to see more clearly.

  The spots and gray patches on the moon made it look like a groaning skull. The bright dot of Venus was very close to it—about where the moon’s collar-bone would be.

  He heard dogs howling…and though there were no clouds that he could see, rain began pattering down and making dark dots on the sidewalk. He got back in the car and pulled the door closed.

  “Well, it looks like a skull,” he admitted. He was already wary of Ozzie’s tendency to read portents into mundane occurrences, and he hoped the old man wouldn’t insist that they go swimming in the ocean now, or drive to the peak of Mount Wilson, as he had occasionally done at times like this in the past.

  “A suffering one,” Ozzie agreed. “Is there a deck of cards in the car?”

  “It’s November!” Scott protested. Ozzie’s policy was to have nothing to do with cards except in the spring.

  “Yeah, better not to look through that window anyway,” the old man mused. “Something might look back at you. How about silver coins? Uh…three of them. With women on them.”

  The glove compartment was full of old auto registrations and broken cigarettes and dollar chips from a dozen casinos, and among this litter Scott found three silver dollars.

  “And there’s a roll of Scotch tape in there,” Ozzie said. “Tape pennies onto the tails side of the cartwheels. Copper is Venus’s metal, I heard from a witchy woman one time.”

  Envying his friends in high school who didn’t have fathers who made them do this kind of thing, Scott found the tape and attached pennies to the silver dollars.

  “And we need a box to put ’em in,” Ozzie went on. “There’s an unopened box of vanilla wafers in the backseat. Dump the cookies out in the street—not now. Do it when we’re crossing Chapman; it’ll be better in an intersection, a crossroads.” Ozzie clanked the car back into gear and drove forward.

  Scott opened the box and dumped the cookies out as the car surged through the intersection, and then he dropped the silver dollars into the box.

  “Shake ’em around, like dice,” Ozzie said, “and tell me what they say, heads and tails.”

  Scott shook the box, then had to dig in the glove compartment again for a flashlight. “Uh…two tails and a heads,” he said, holding the flashlight beside his ear and peering into the box.

  “And we’re going south,” said Ozzie. “I’m going to make some turns. Keep shaking them and reading them and let me know when they come up all heads.”

  It was when Ozzie turned east onto Westminster Boulevard that Scott looked into the box and saw three heads—three profiles of a woman in silver bas-relief. In spite of himself, he shivered.

  “Now they’re all heads,” he said.

  “East it is,” said Ozzie, speeding up.

  The coins had led them out of the Los Angeles area, through San Bernardino and Victorville, before Scott worked up the nerve to ask Ozzie where they were going. Scott had hoped to spend the evening finishing the Edgar Rice Burroughs book he’d been reading.

  “I’m not certain,” the old man replied tensely, “but it sure looks like Las Vegas.”

  So much for The Monster Men, Scott thought. “Why are we going there?” he asked, keeping most of the impatience out of his voice.

  “You saw the moon,” Ozzie said.

  Scott made himself count to ten slowly before speaking again. “What’s going to be different about the moon when we’re in Vegas than it was when we were home?”

  “Somebody’s killing the moon, the goddess; some woman has apparently taken on the—what would the word be—goddess-hood and somebody’s killing her. I think it’s too late for her, and I don’t know the circumstances, but she’s got a child, a little girl. An infant, in fact, to judge by how close Venus was to the moon when we saw it.”

  Here I am, Scott thought, holding a vanilla wafers box with three crumb-covered silver dollars in it with pennies taped to them, driving to Las Vegas and not reading Edgar Rice Burroughs—because Venus was close to the moon tonight. Venus is probably close to the moon all the time.

  “Dad,” said the seventeen-year-old Scott, “I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but—but this is nuts. For one thing, there may be a lady being killed in Las Vegas tonight, but you don’t know about it from looking at the moon, and if she’s got a baby, it’s got nothing to do with Venus. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to…and even if there was, what are we supposed to do? How is it the job of two guys in California and not the job of somebody in Vegas?”

  Ozzie laughed without looking away from the highway rushing up at them beyond the windshield. “You think your old man’s nuts, eh? Well, a lot of people in Vegas would like it to be their job, I can tell you. This baby is a daughter of the goddess, and so she’s a T-H-R-E-A-T to them, you bet. A big threat. She could bounce the King, if she grows up, which…certain persons…would like her not to do. And there’s other people who want her to grow up but would want to, what, be her manager, you know? Boss her, use her. Climb into the tower by means of her Rapunzel hair, yes, sir. Right into that tower.”

  Scott sighed and shifted on the seat. “Okay, look, if we don’t find a baby, will you agree—”

  “We’ll find her. I found you, didn’t I?”

  Scott blinked. “Me? Is this how you found me?”

  “Yep.”

  After half a minute of silence Scott said, “You shook coins in a cookie box?”

  “Hah! Sarcasm!” Ozzie glanced at him and winked. “You think your old man’s nuts, don’t you? Hey, I was swimming down in Laguna late one afternoon in ’48, and the surf was full of fish. You know how it
is when they’re bumping into you under the water? And you gotta get out ’cause you know it’s gonna attract barracudas? That’s how it was, and the sky was full of those cirrus clouds, like they were spelling something out in a language nobody’s got a Rosetta stone for. And Saturn was shining in the sky that evening like a match head, and I know that if I’d had a telescope I’d have seen all his moons disappearing behind him, being devoured like the myths say Saturn devoured his children. There’s a Goya painting of that, scare the crap out of you.”

  The signs along the side of the highway were beginning to refer to Barstow, but Scott didn’t ask his foster father to stop for dinner.

  “So I got me a deck of cards,” Ozzie went on, “and I started shuffling and drawing them to see where to go, and it led me straight to Lakewood, where I found you in that boat. And I walked across the parking lot to that boat slow, with my hand on my old .45 that I had in those days, because I knew I wasn’t the only one who’d be tracking you. There’s always some King Herod around. And I drove to Dr. Malk’s in a highly circuitous fashion.”

  Scott shook his head, not wanting to believe these weird and morbid things. “So am I the son of some goddess?”

  “You’re the son of a King, a bad one, an honorary Saturn. I grabbed you for the same reason we’re going to grab this little girl tonight—so that you could grow up outside of the net and then decide what you want to do, once you’re old enough to know the rules of the game.”

  When they’d got to Las Vegas at about midnight, Ozzie had made Scott shake the box and peek into it continuously as Ozzie steered the car through the brightly lit streets. The flashlight’s battery was getting weak when they rounded a corner and saw the whirling red lights of police cars by one of the side entrances of the Stardust.

  They parked and joined the crowd on the sidewalk around the police cars. The night air was hot, with a dry wind from the stony mountains to the west.

  “Somebody shot some lady,” said a man in answer to Ozzie’s What’s up?

 

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