Earthquake Weather – Snippet 20
“In that game on the houseboat on Lake Mead in 1990. Assumption–it’s a kind of poker. He was dressed as a woman for that, and the other players called him the Flying Nun. Our mental bus navigator Flibbertigibbet was trying to win the job Crane was after, the job of being the king, which is why he had us there, playing hands in that terrible game; and he didn’t succeed–and he went flat-out crazy on Holy Saturday when Crane won . . . it, the crown, the throne.”
“Scott Crane. I didn’t know his name until we all got talking together today; I thought Flying Nun was, like, his name, it might be a Swedish name, right, like Bra Banning? He was a poker player in those days.”
“I remember another man who wanted to be this king,” said Armentrout thoughtfully, “a local man called Neal Obstadt. He died in the same explosion that collapsed Long John Beach’s lung, two and a half years ago. And Obstadt was looking for this Crane fellow back in ’90–had a big reward offered.” He looked at her and smiled. “You know, you may actually have killed somebody, ten days ago!”
“What good news,” she said hollowly.
“Whatever you did could be the cause of everything that’s been different since New Year’s Day–I thought you were just delusionally reacting, the way Mr. Cochran almost certainly is.” He held up one finger as though to count off points of an argument. “Now, you couldn’t have got through all of Crane’s defenses without powerful sorcerous help; you’d need virtually another king, in fact. Who could that be?”
“You got me.”
“I thought you said you’d be honest with me here. We can schedule another ECT tomorrow.”
“I–I’m being honest. I was alone. I don’t know whose idea the whole thing was.”
“One of you might have been acting on someone’s orders, though, right? On someone’s careful instructions.” He was sitting on the desk now, drumming his fingers excitedly on the emptied velvet box. “There was a boy around, a couple of years ago, living in Long Beach somewhere. He was a sort of proto-king, as I recall.” Armentrout wished he had paid more attention to these events at the time–but they had been other people’s wars in the magical landscape, and he had been content to just go on eating pieces of his patients’ souls on the sidelines. “His name was something goofy–Boogie-Woogie Bananas, or something like that. He could probably kill a king, or bring one back to life, even, if he wanted to. If he’s kept to the disciplines. Somebody, your man Crane, probably, brought the gangster Bugsy Siegel back to life, briefly, in 1990. You’ve seen the Warren Beatty movie, Bugsy? Siegel was this particular sort of supernatural king, during the 1940s. Yes, this kid would be fifteen or so now–he could be the one that sent you to kill Crane. Does a name like Boogie-Woogie Bananas ring any bells?”
Plumtree visibly tried to come up with a funny remark, but gave up and just shook her head wearily. “No.”
“His party had a lawyer! Were you approached by the lawyer? He had a pretentious name, something Strube, like J. Submersible Strube the third.”
“I never heard of any of these people.” Plumtree was pale, and perspiration misted her forehead. “But one of us went to a lot of trouble to kill Crane. Obviously.”
Armentrout pursed his lips. “Did you say anything to him, to Crane?”
“Sunday before last? Yeah. I wasn’t going to hurt his kid, this little boy who couldn’t have been five years old yet–God knows how I lured him out of the house, but I had the kid down on his back in this grassy meadow above the beach, with the spear points on his little neck–I suppose Flibbertigibbet would have killed the kid!–and when I found myself standing there after losing some time, I looked at the kid’s father standing there, Crane, and I just said, almost crying to see what a horrible thing I was in the middle of, I said, ‘There’s nothing in this flop for me.'” There were tears in Plumtree’s eyes right now, and from the angry way she cuffed them away Armentrout was sure that she was Cody at the moment. “And,” she went on hoarsely, “Crane said, ‘Then pass.’ He must have been scared, but he was talking gently, you know?–not like he was mad. ‘Let it pass by us,’ he said.”
“And what did you say?”
“I lost time then. When I could see what was going on again, Crane was lying there dead, with the spear in his throat, sticking up through his Solomon beard like a fishing pole, and the kid was gone.” Plumtree blinked around at the desks and the couch and the foliage-screened window. “Why did Janis leave, just now? You made her peel off, didn’t you?” Her expression became blank, and then she was frowning again.
“And she’s crying in her bus seat! What did you do to her?”
Armentrout held up the card. “I just showed her this.”
But Plumtree looked away from it. And when she spoke, it was in such a level voice that Armentrout wondered if she’d shifted again: “Strip poker, we’re playing here?” She looked past the card, focusing into his eyes, and Armentrout saw that one of her pupils was a tiny pinprick, as was usual with her, but the other was dilated in the muted office light. The mismatched eyes, along with the downward-curling androgynous smile she now gave him, made him think of the rock star David Bowie. “I can be the one that wins here, you know,” she said. “I can rake in your investment, or at least toss it out into the crowd. Strip poker. How many . . . garments have you got?”
Armentrout was annoyed, and a little intrigued, to realize that he was frightened. “Are you still Cody?” he asked.
“Largely.” Plumtree struggled up off of the couch to her feet, though the effort made drops of sweat roll down from her hairline, and she stumbled forward and half-fell onto the desk. She was certainly still Cody, who had taken the succinylcholine and the electroconvulsive therapy at dawn this morning. Armentrout hastily slid the delicate old tarot cards away from her.
She shook out a Gudang Garam cigarette and lit it.
“This phone is your mask, right?” she gasped through a mouthful of spicy smoke, grabbing the telephone receiver and holding it up. “Your nest of masks? What’s your name?” Armentrout didn’t answer, but she read it off the name plaque on his desk. “Hello?” she said into the telephone. “Could I speak to Richard Paul Armentrout’s mom, please?”
Armentrout was rocked by the counter-attack–she was trying to get a handle on his own soul! That handle! What personality in her was it that knew how to do this?–but he was confident that Long John Beach was psychotically diffractive enough to deflect this, and many more like it. “I t-took a vial of your blood,” Armentrout said quickly, “when you were first brought in here, because I thought I might put you on lithium carbonate, and we have to do a lot of blood testing to get the dosage right for that. I never did give you lithium, but I’ve still got the vial of your blood.” He was breathing rapidly, almost panting.
“That’s a big ace,” Plumtree allowed, “but you’ve lost one garment now, and I’ve only lost my . . . oh, call her one silly hat.”
Armentrout looked down at the cards under his hands, and his pelvis went quiveringly cold, followed a moment later by a bubbly tingling in his ribs, for he had no time here to squint cautiously sidelong at the distressing things, and was looking at them squarely. He snatched up the Wheel of Fortune card, the miniature Renaissance-style painting of four men belted to a vertical wheel–Regno, Latin for “I reign,” read the word-ribbon attached to the mouth of the man on top; the ones to either side trailed ribbons that read Regnabo and Regnavi, “I shall reign” and “I reigned”–and he shoved the card into Plumtree’s face as he took a cheek-denting drag on his cigarette.
The bulb in the desk lamp popped, and shards of cellophane-thin broken glass clinked faintly on the desk surface; the room was suddenly dimmer, lit now only by the afternoon sunlight streaking in golden beams through the green schefflera leaves outside the window.