Pawn to infinity by Fred & Joan Saberhagen

“Delightful,” said Kathy. “Well, rush on, then. I wouldn’t want to miss this. It might be my only opportunity to spend four days with an asshole millionaire and three losers.”

Peter said nothing, but he pressed down on the accelerator, and the Toyota plunged down the mountain road, faster and faster, rattling as it picked up speed. Down and down, he thought, down and down. Just like my goddamned life.

Four miles up Bunnish’s private road, they finally came within sight of the house. Peter, who still dreamed of buying his own house after a decade of living in cheap apartments, took one look and knew he was gazing at a three million dollar piece of property. There were three levels, all blending into the mountainside so well you hardly noticed them, built of natural wood and native stone and tinted glass. A huge solar greenhouse was the most conspicuous feature. Beneath the house, a four-car garage was sunk right into the mountain itself.

Peter pulled into the last empty spot, between a brand new silver Cadillac Seville that was obviously Bunnish’s, and an ancient rusted VW Beetle that was obviously not. As he pulled the key from the ignition, the garage doors shut automatically behind them, blocking out daylight and the gorgeous mountain vistas. The door closed with a resounding metallic clang.

“Someone knows we’re here,” Kathy observed.

“Get the suitcases,” Peter snapped.

To the rear of the garage they found the elevator, and Peter jabbed the topmost of the two buttons. When the elevator doors opened again, it was on a huge living room. Peter stepped out and stared at a wilderness of potted plants beneath a vaulting skylight, at thick brown carpets, fine wood panelling, bookcases packed with leather-bound volumes, a large fireplace, and Edward Colin Stuart, who rose from a leather-clad armchair across the room when the elevator arrived.

“E.C.,” Peter said, setting down his suitcase. He smiled.

“Hello, Peter,” E.C. said, coming toward them quickly. They shook hands.

“You haven’t changed a goddamned bit in ten years,” Peter said. It was true. E.C. was still slender and compact, with a bushy head of sandy blond hair and a magnificent handlebar mustache. He was wearing jeans and a tapered purple shirt, with a black vest, and he seemed just as he had a decade ago: brisk, trim, efficient. “Not a damn bit,” Peter repeated.

“More’s the pity,” E.C. said. “One is supposed to change, I believe.” His blue eyes were as unreadable as ever. He turned to Kathy, and said, “I’m E.C. Stuart.”

“Oh, pardon,” Peter said. “This is my wife, Kathy.”

“Delighted,” she said, taking his hand and smiling at him.

“Where’s Steve?” Peter asked. “I saw his VW down in the garage. Gave me a start. How long has he been driving that thing now? Fifteen years?”

“Not quite,” E.C. said. “He’s around somewhere, probably having a drink.” His mouth shifted subtly when he said it, telling Peter a good deal more than his words did.

“And Bunnish?”

“Brucie has not yet made his appearance. I think he was waiting for you to arrive. You probably want to settle in to your rooms.”

“How do we find them, if our host is missing?” Kathy asked dryly.

“Ah,” said E.C, “you haven’t been acquainted with the wonders of Bunnishland yet. Look.” He pointed to the fireplace.

Peter would have sworn that there had been a painting above the mantle when they had entered, some sort of surreal landscape. Now there was a large rectangular screen, with words on it, vivid red against black. WELCOME, PETER. WELCOME, KATHY, YOUR SUITE IS ON THE SECOND LEVEL, FIRSTDOOR. PLEASE MAKE YOURSELF COMFORTABLE.

Peter turned. “How…?”

“No doubt triggered by the elevator,” E.C. said. “I was greeted the same way. Brucie is an electronics genius, remember. The house is full of gadgets and toys. I’ve explored a bit.” He shrugged. “Why don’t you two unpack and then wander back? I won’t go anywhere.”

They found their rooms easily enough. The huge, tiled bath featured an outside patio with a hot tub, and the suite had its own sitting room and fireplace. Above it was an abstract painting, but when Kathy closed the room door it faded away and was replaced by another message: I HOPE YOU FIND THIS SATISFACTORY.

“Cute guy, this host of ours,” Kathy said, sitting on the edge of the bed. “Those TV screens or whatever they are better not be two-way. I don’t intend to put on any show for any electronic voyeur.”

Peter frowned. “Wouldn’t surprise me if the house was bugged. Bunnish was always a strange sort.”

“How strange?”

“He was hard to like,” Peter said. “Boastful, always bragging about how good he was as a chessplayer, how smart he was, that sort of thing. No one really believed him. His grades were good, I guess, but the rest of the time he seemed close to dense. E.C. has a wicked way with hoaxes and practical jokes, and Bunnish was his favorite victim. I don’t know how many laughs we had at his expense. Bunnish was kind of a goon in person, too. Pudgy, round-faced with big cheeks like some kind of chipmunk, wore his hair in a crew cut. He was in ROTC. I’ve never seen anyone who looked more ridiculous in a uniform. He never dated.”


“No, not hardly. Asexual is closer to it.” Peter looked around the room and shook his head. “I can’t imagine how Bunnish made it this big. Him of all people.” He sighed, opened his suitcase, and started to unpack. “I might have believed it of Delmario,” he continued. “Steve and Bunnish were both in Tech, but Steve always seemed much brighter. We all thought he was a real whiz-kid. Bunnish just seemed like an arrogant mediocrity.”

“Fooled you,” Kathy said. She smiled sweetly. “Of course, he’s not the only one to fool you, is he? Though perhaps he was the first.”

“Enough,” Peter said, hanging the last of his shirts in the closet. “Come on, let’s get back downstairs. I want to talk to E.C.”

They had no sooner stepped out of their suite when a voice hailed them. “Pete?”

Peter turned, and the big man standing in the doorway down the hall smiled a blurry smile at him. “Don’t you recognize me, Pete?”

“Steve?” Peter said wonderingly.

“Sure, hey, who’d you think?” He stepped out of his own room, a bit unsteadily, and closed the door behind him. “This must be the wife, eh? Am I right?”

“Yes,” Peter said. “Kathy, this is Steve Delmario. Steve, Kathy.” Delmario came over and pumped her hand enthusiastically, after clapping Peter roundly on the back. Peter found himself staring. If E.C. had scarcely changed at all in the past ten years, Steve had made up for it. Peter would never have recognized his old teammate on the street.

The old Steve Delmario had lived for chess and electronics. He was a fierce competitor, and he loved to tinker things together, but he was frustratingly uninterested in anything outside his narrow passions. He had been a tall, gaunt youth with incredibly intense eyes held captive behind coke-bottle lenses in heavy black frames. His black hair had always been either ruffled and unkempt or—when he treated himself to one of his do-it-yourself haircuts—grotesquely butchered. He was equally careless about his clothing, most of which was Salvation Army chic minus the chic: baggy brown pants with cuffs, ten-year-old shirts with frayed collars, a zippered and shapeless grey sweater he wore everywhere. Once E.C. had observed that Steve Delmario looked like the last man left alive on earth after a nuclear holocaust, and for almost a semester thereafter the whole club had called Delmario, “the last man on earth.” He took it with good humor. For all his quirks, Delmario had been well-liked.

The years had been cruel to him, however. The coke-bottle glasses in the black frames were the same, and the clothes were equally haphazard—shabby brown cords, a short-sleeved white shirt with three felt-tip pens in the pocket, a faded sweater-vest with every button buttoned, scuffed hush puppies—but the rest had all changed. Steve had gained about fifty pounds, and he had a bloated, puffy look about him. He was almost entirely bald, nothing left of the wild black hair but a few sickly strands around his ears. And his eyes had lost their feverish intensity, and were filled instead with a fuzziness that Peter found terribly disturbing. Most shocking of all was the smell of alcohol on his breath. E.C. had hinted at it, but Peter still found it difficult to accept. In college, Steve Delmario had never touched anything but an infrequent beer.

“It is good to see you again,” Peter said, though he was no longer quite sure that was true. “Shall we go downstairs? E.C. is waiting.”

Delmario nodded. “Sure, sure, let’s do it.” He clapped Peter on the back again. “Have you seen Bunnish yet? Damn, this is some place he’s got, isn’t it? You seen those message screens? Clever, real clever. Never would have figured Bunnish to go as far as this, not our old Funny Bunny, eh?” He chuckled. “I’ve looked at some of his patents over the years, you know. Real ingenious. Real fine work. And from Bunnish. I guess you just never know, do you?”

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