The nighted fog pressed against the windowpane and now and again a little rain pattered. San Francisco was a London City and had its own resident great detective. One of Dashiell Hammett’s hobbies had been chess, even though there was no record of Spade having played the game.
From time to time Ritter studied the Morphy watch as it glowed and ticked on the table space he’d cleared. PM once more, he noted. The time: White Queen, ruby glittering, past Black King, microscopically emerald studded—I mean five minutes past midnight, Doctor. The witching hour, as the superstitiously-minded would have it.
But to bed, to bed, Watson. We have much to do tomorrow—and, paradoxically, tonight.
Seriously, Ritter was glad when the golden glow winked out on the watch face, though the strident ticking kept on, and he wriggled himself into his couch-bed and arranged himself for thought. The mental board flashed on once more and he began to play. First he reviewed all the best games he’d ever played in his life—there weren’t very many—discovering variations he’d never dreamed of before. Then he played through all his favorite games in the history of chess, from MacDonnell-La Bourdonnais to Fischer-Spasski, not forgetting Steinitz-Zukertort and Alekhine-Bogolyubov. They were richer masterpieces than ever before—the mental board saw very deep. Finally he split his mind again and challenged himself to an eight-game blindfold match, Black against White. Against all expectation, Black won with three wins, two losses, and three draws.
But the night was not all imaginative and ratiocinative delight. Twice there came periods of eerie silence, which the ticking of the watch in the dark made only more complete, and two spells of the man-eating lion a-prowl that raised his hair at the roots. Once again there loomed the slim, faint, man-shaped glow beside the mental board and he wouldn’t go away. Worse, he was joined by two other man-shaped glows, one short and stocky, with a limp, the other fairly tall, stocky too, and restless. These inner intruders bothered Ritter increasingly—who were they? And wasn’t there beginning to be a faint fourth? He recalled the slim young elusive watcher with shadowed face of his games with Martinez and wondered if there was a connection.
Disturbing stuff—and most disturbing of all, the apprehension that his mind might be racked apart and fragmented abroad with all its machine-gun thinking, that it already extended by chessic veins from one chess-playing planet to another, to the ends of the universe.
He was profoundly glad when toward the end of his self-match, his brain began to dull and slow. His last memory was of an attempt to invent a game to be played on the circular board on the watch dial. He thought he was succeeding as his mind at last went spiraling off into unconsciousness.
Next day he awoke restless, scratchy, and eager—and with the feeling that the three or four dim figures had stood around his couch all night vibrating like strobe lights to the rhythm of the Morphy watch.
Coffee heightened his alert nervousness. He rapidly dressed, snapped the Morphy watch to its chain and fob, pocketed the silver pawn, and went out to hunt down the store where he’d purchased the two items.
In a sense he never found it, though he tramped and minutely scanned Montgomery, Kearny, Grant, Stockton, Clay, Sacramento, California, Pine, Bush, and all the rest.
What he did find at long last was a store window with a grotesque pattern of dust on it that he was certain was identical with that on the window through which he had first glimpsed the barbarian Pawn day before yesterday.
Only now the display space behind the window was empty and the whole store too, except for a tall, lanky Black with a fabulous Afro hair-do, sweeping up.
Ritter struck up a conversation with the man as he worked, and slowly winning his confidence, discovered that he was one of three partners opening a store there that would be stocked solely with African imports.
Finally, after the Black had fetched a great steaming pail of soapy water and a long-handled roller mop and begun to efface forever the map of dust by which Ritter had identified the place, the man at last grew confidential.
“Yeah,” he said, “there was a queer old character had a second-hand store here until yesterday that had every crazy thing you could dig for sale, some junk, some real fancy. Then he cleared everything out into two big trucks in a great rush, with me breathing down his neck every minute because he’d been supposed to do it the day before.
“Oh, but he was a fabulous cat, though,” the Black went on with a reminiscent grin as he sloshed away the last peninsulas and archipelagos of the dust map. “One time he said to me. ‘Excuse me while I rest,’ and—you’re not going to believe this—he went into a corner and stood on his head. I’m telling you he did, man. I’d like to bust a gut. I thought he’d have a stroke—and he did get a bit lavender in the face—but after three minutes exact—I timed him—he flipped back onto his feet neat as you could ask and went on with his work twice as fast as before, supervising his carriers out of their skulls. Wow, that was an event.”
Ritter departed without comment. He had got the final clue he’d been seeking to the identity of the old Bait and likewise the fourth and most shadowy form that had begun to haunt his mental chessboard.
Casually standing on his head, saying “It threatens to catch your interest”—why, it had to be Aaron Nimzovich, most hyper-eccentric player of them all and Father of Hypermodern Chess, who had been Alekhine’s most dangerous but ever-evaded challenger. Why, the old Bait had even looked exactly like an aged Nimzovich—hence Ritter’s constant sense of a facial familiarity. Of course, Nimzovich had supposedly died in the 1930’s in his home city of Riga in the U.S.S.R., but what were life and breath to the forces with which Ritter was now embroiled?
It seemed to him that there were four dim figures stalking him relentlessly as lions right now in the Chinatown crowds, while despite the noise he could hear and feel the ticking of the Morphy watch at his waist.
He fled to the Danish Kitchen at the St. Francis Hotel and consumed cup on cup of good coffee and two orders of Eggs Benedict, and had his mental chessboard flashing on and off in his mind like a strobe light, and wondered if he shouldn’t hurl the Morphy watch into the Bay to be rid of the influence racking his mind apart and destroying his sense of reality.
But then with the approach of evening, the urge toward chess gripped him more and more imperiously and he headed once again for Rimini’s.
Rasputin and the Czarina were there and also Martinez again, and with the last a distinguished silver-haired man whom Martinez introduced as the South American international master, Pontebello, suggesting that he and Ritter have a quick game.
The board glowed again with the superimposed mental one, the halos were there once more, and Ritter won as if against a tyro.
At that, chess fever seized him entirely and he suggested he immediately play four simultaneous blindfold games with the two masters and the Czarina and Rasputin, Pontebello acting also as referee.
There were incredulous looks aplenty at that, but he had won those two games from Martinez and now the one from Pontebello, so arrangements were quickly made. Ritter insisting on an actual blindfold. All the other players crowded around to observe.
The simul began. There were now four mental boards glowing in Ritter’s mind. It did not matter—now—that there were four dim forms with them, one by each. Ritter played with a practiced brilliance, combinations bubbled, he called out his moves crisply and unerringly. And so he beat the Czarina and Rasputin quickly. Pontebello took a little longer, and he drew with Martinez by perpetual check.
There was silence as he took off the blindfold to scan a circle of astonished faces and four shadowed ones behind them. He felt the joy of absolute chess mastery. The only sound he heard was the ticking, thunderous to him, of the Morphy watch.
Pontebello was first to speak. To Ritter, “Do you realize, master, what you’ve just done?” To Martinez, “Have you the scores of all four games?” To Ritter again, “Excuse me, but you look pale, as if you’ve just seen a ghost.”
“Four,” Ritter corrected quietly. “Those of Morphy, Steinitz, Alekhine, and Nimzovich.”
“Under the circumstances, most appropriate,” commented Pontebello, while Ritter sought out again the four shadowed faces in the background. They were still there, though they had shifted their positions and withdrawn a little into the varied darknesses of Rimini’s.
Amid talk of scheduling another blindfold exhibition and writing a multiple-signed letter describing tonight’s simul to the U.S. Chess Federation—not to mention Pontebello’s searching queries as to Ritter’s chess career—he tore himself away and made for home through the dark streets, certain that four shadowy figures stalked behind him. The call of the mental chess in his own room was not to be denied.