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Literature / Last Call

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Last Call is a 1992 contemporary fantasy novel by Tim Powers. The action takes place mostly in Las Vegas and revolves around a series of high-stakes poker games with more than mere material wealth at stake.

The protagonist is Scott Crane, a professional gambler who thought he'd won a lucrative poker game, but gradually discovers that in the process he lost something far more valuable — and the deadline for payment is fast approaching.

Shares a setting and some characters with two later novels, Expiration Date and Earthquake Weather, retroactively referred to as the Fault Lines trilogy.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Absurdly High-Stakes Game: The games run by the Big Bad, although most of them don't fit the "ramping up the drama" side of the trope since most of the players aren't aware of what they've got themselves into. That side does come in for the final game, at the climax of the novel, by which time Scott knows exactly what he stands to lose.
  • Abusive Parents: Dondi Snayheever was walled up inside a giant Skinner box by his father for virtually his entire childhood, surrounded by oversized paintings of playing cards and books about poker. His father was trying to condition his child to be the ultimate poker player, but lack of human contact left Dondi unable to judge other players' intentions, not to mention socially incompetent.
  • Archnemesis Dad: The Big Bad is Scott's biological father, whom he was separated from when he was a small child. Neither of them realize this when they first meet as adults; Scott is the first to realize, at which point it becomes very important to make sure his father doesn't, because it wouldn't give him any pause and would only offer him a new advantage that he would ruthlessly exploit.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: The backstory has Bugsy Siegel serving as the uncrowned emperor of Las Vegas while channeling the archetype of the Fisher King.
  • Body Surf: The Big Bad, Georges Leon, uses the Assumption games to claim people's bodies for his own, which he can then switch between at will after 20 years.
  • Creator Injoke: The obligatory-for-a-Powers-novel reference to the fictional poet William Ashbless.
  • Crippling Castration: The Big Bad gets shot in the groin in the prologue, leaving him unable to sire biological children. This is particularly problematic for him because he'd planned to use magic to commit Grand Theft Me on his offspring when he got old.
  • Death Dealer: The Big Bad uses a thrown playing card, backed with magical force, as a weapon in the prologue.
  • Disguised in Drag: Near the end of the novel, Scott dresses in drag to infiltrate a party being hosted by the villain. In defiance of the usual subtropes, nobody is in any doubt about his sex, let alone strangely attracted to him — but it serves perfectly as a disguise in as much as nobody suspects for a moment that it's him.
  • Electromagnetic Ghosts: Like in the rest of the Fault Lines series.
  • Eye Scream:
    • A character loses an eye in the prologue after it's punctured by a thrown playing card, and has to do without it for the rest of the novel. Until it magically grows back, which is also kind of unpleasant while it's happening.
    • Scott locates two people who once used their Psychic Powers for the Big Bad. The one who read Tarot cards had put out his own eyes.
  • Fingertip Drug Analysis: Used, getting it right about the identifying feature of cocaine being the numbness.
  • Fisher King: The legend of the fisher king is central to the plot.
  • Grand Theft Me: The Big Bad doesn't steal bodies, he wins them off their original owners in card games in a mystical variant of poker. He doesn't bother to warn his opponents that this is a possible outcome of the game, though, so technically it probably still is theft.
  • Groin Attack: In the prologue, the Big Bad finds out the hard way that if you use a five-year-old boy as a human shield you can't protect your head and chest without leaving other important parts vulnerable.
  • Human Shield: Used by the villain in the prologue, with incomplete success due to his chosen shield being five years old and thus not large enough to cover everything that needs protecting.
  • If I Do Not Return: Twice, and both times, the end of the sentence is some form of "assume I'm dead and get the heck out of here".
  • Immortality Immorality: The Big Bad has a method of regaining youth and prolonging his lifespan, but it's inherently at the expense of other people. He doesn't seem to care.
  • Incredibly Conspicuous Drag: Played realistically when Scott goes Disguised in Drag, as everybody who meets him can see straight away that he's a man in drag. He explains it as a weird Californian religion thing.
  • Lost Him in a Card Game: Scott Crane thought he won a huge pot in a game years ago... only to discover that he traded away his body and soul to the guy organizing the game. And now he's got to win it back before the guy comes to collect.
  • No Social Skills: Dondi Snayheever was walled up inside a giant Skinner box by his father for virtually his entire childhood, surrounded by over-sized paintings of playing cards and books about poker. His father was trying to condition his child to be the ultimate poker player, but lack of human contact left Dondi unable to judge other players' intentions.
  • Not Blood Siblings: Scott and Diana, who were raised as foster siblings, turn out to be destined parts of a mystically-significant couple (representing, respectively, the Fisher King and a syncretic moon goddess). For better or for worse, he was fifteen or sixteen when she was born and at the time of the novel hasn't seen her since she was a child.
  • Professional Gambler: Scott's foster father was a professional poker player, and Scott learned from him.
  • Psychic Link: Between Scott and Diana, which lets each know when the other has been injured.
  • Punny Name: The name of the gangster Neal Obstadt is a pun on "nihil obstat", the term used when a church censor examines a book and certifies that it contains nothing contrary to faith or morals.
  • Serial Killer: Al Funo makes his living taking money to kill specific people, but it's clear he'd be killing people even if nobody paid him. He even has the hallmarks of obsessive behavior and a pattern of giving his victim a gold lighter.
  • Shoot the Hostage Taker: In the prologue, the Big Bad uses his young son as a human shield when his wife threatens to shoot him, and finds out the hard way that holding a small child so that his head and chest are covered leaves his groin exposed.
  • Shout-Out: In addition to the Tarot motifs (or as part of, depending on how you look at it), there are a lot of references to T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.
  • Tarot Motifs: The book runs on this, combined with a poker motif.
  • Tarot Troubles: Scott goes to Tarot readers at two points for an answer of how to get out of the trouble he's in. The first reader, an amateur, gets three cards in before a sudden rainstorm descends on Las Vegas, then says he's quitting the business because he'll never be able to read the Tarot again, as the cards will now be reading him.
  • Trapped by Gambling Debts: Scott's actions are driven by the consequences of a high-stakes poker game he played as a young man. In a twist, he won all the money but lost something far more important as a result of the game being a mystical ritual in disguise.
  • Virgin Power: Played with; Diana was destined from birth to be the earthly representative of a moon goddess, which requires remaining a virgin to be able to access the goddess' power. However, everybody who might have told her this is killed when she's an infant, so when the time comes for her to fulfill her destiny, she's married and had a child, and another plan is required.