Pawn to infinity by Fred & Joan Saberhagen

The living room was awash with classical music when they descended the spiral stair. Peter didn’t recognize the composition; his own tastes had always run to rock. But classical music had been one of E.C.’s passions, and he was sitting in an armchair now, eyes closed, listening.

“Drinks,” Delmario was saying. “I’ll fix us all some drinks. You folks must be thirsty. Bunny’s got a wet bar right behind the stair here. What do you want?”

“What are the choices?” Kathy asked.

“Well, he’s got anything you could think of,” said Delmario.

“A Beefeater martini, then,” she said. “Very dry.”

Delmario nodded. “Pete?”

“Oh,” said Peter. He shrugged. “A beer, I guess.”

Delmario went behind the stair to fix up their drinks, and Kathy arched her eyebrows at him. “Such refined tastes,” she said. “A beer!”

Peter ignored her and went over to sit beside E.C. Stuart. “How the hell did you find the stereo?” he asked. “I don’t see it anywhere.” The music seemed to be coming right out of the walls.

E.C. opened his eyes, gave a quirkish little smile, and brushed one end of his mustache with a finger. “The message screen blabbed the secret to me,” he said. “The controls are built into the wall back over there,” nodding, “and the whole system is concealed. It’s voice activated, too. Computerized. I told it what album I wanted to hear.”

“Impressive,” Peter admitted. He scratched his head. “Didn’t Steve put together a voice-activated stereo back in college?”

“Your beer,” Delmario said. He was standing over them, holding out a cold bottle of Heineken. Peter took it, and Delmario—with a drink in hand—seated himself on the ornate tiled coffee table. “I had a system,” he said. “Real crude, though. Remember, you guys used to kid me about it.”

“You bought a good cartridge, as I recall,” E.C. said, “but you had it held by a tone-arm you made out of a bent coathanger.”

“It worked,” Delmario protested. “It was voice-activated too, like you said, but real primitive. Just on and off, that’s all, and you had to speak real loud. I figured I could improve on it after I got out of school, but I never did.” He shrugged. “Nothing like this. This is real sophisticated.”

“I’ve noticed,” E.C. said. He craned up his head slightly and said, in a very loud clear voice, “I’ve had enough music now, thank you.” The silence that followed was briefly startling. Peter couldn’t think of a thing to say.

Finally E.C. turned to him and said, all seriously, “How did Bunnish get you here, Peter?”

Peter was puzzled. “Get me here? He just invited us. What do you mean?”

“He paid Steve’s way, you know,” E.C. said. “As for me, I turned down this invitation. Brucie was never one of my favorite people, you know that. He pulled strings to change my mind. I’m with an ad agency in New York. He dangled a big account in front of them, and I was told to come here or lose my job. Interesting, eh?”

Kathy had been sitting on the sofa, sipping her martini and looking bored. “It sounds as though this reunion is important to him,” she observed.

E.C. stood up. “Come here,” he said. “I want to show you something.” The rest of them rose obediently, and followed him across the room. In a shadowy corner surrounded by bookcases, a chessboard had been set up, with a game in progress. The board was made of squares of light and dark wood, painstakingly inlaid into a gorgeous Victorian table. The pieces were ivory and onyx. “Take a look at that,” E.C. said.

“That’s a beautiful set,” Peter said admiringly. He reached down to lift the Black queen for a closer inspection, and grunted in surprise. The piece wouldn’t move.

“Tug away,” E.C. said. “It won’t do you any good. I’ve tried. The pieces are glued into position. Every one of them.”

Steve Delmario moved around the board, his eyes blinking behind his thick glasses. He set his drink on the table and sank into the chair behind the White pieces. “The position,” he said, his voice a bit blurry with drink. “I know it.”

E.C. Stuart smiled thinly and brushed his mustache. “Peter,” he said, nodding toward the chessboard. “Take a good look.”

Peter stared, and all of a sudden it came clear to him, the position on the board became as familiar as his own features in a mirror. “The game,” he said. “From the nationals. This is the critical position from Bunnish’s game with Vesselere.”

E.C. nodded. “I thought so. I wasn’t sure.”

“Oh, I’m sure,” Delmario said loudly. “How the hell could I not be sure? This is right where Bunny blew it, remember? He played king to knight one, instead of the sac. Cost us the match. Me, I was sitting right next to him, playing the best damned game of chess I ever played. Beat a Master, and what good did it do? Not a damn bit of good, thanks to Bunnish.” He looked at the board and glowered. “Knight takes pawn, that’s all he’s got to play, busts Vesselere wide open. Check, check, check, check, got to be a mate there somewhere.”

“You were never able to find it, though, Delmario,” Bruce Bunnish said from behind them.

None of them had heard him enter. Peter started like a burglar surprised while copping the family silver.

Their host stood in the doorway a few yards distant. Bunnish had changed, too. He had lost weight since college, and his body looked hard and fit now, though he still had the big round cheeks that Peter remembered.

His crew cut had grown out into a healthy head of brown hair, carefully styled and blow-dried. He wore large, tinted glasses and expensive clothes. But he was still Bunnish. His voice was loud and grating, just as Peter remembered it.

Bunnish strolled over to the chessboard almost casually. “You analyzed that position for weeks afterward, Delmario,” he said. “You never found the mate.”

Delmario stood up. “I found a dozen mates,” he said.

“Yes,” Bunnish said, “but none of them were forced. Vesselere was a Master. He wouldn’t have played into any of your so-called mating lines.”

Delmario frowned and took a drink. He was going to say something else—Peter could see him fumbling for the words—but E.C. stood up and took away his chance. “Bruce,” he said, holding out his hand. “Good to see you again. How long has it been?”

Bunnish turned and smiled superciliously. “Is that another of your jokes, E.G.? You know how long it has been, and I know how long it has been, so why do you ask? Norten knows, and Delmario knows. Maybe you’re asking for Mrs. Norten.” He looked at Kathy. “Do you know how long it has been?”

She laughed. “I’ve heard.”

“Ah,” said Bunnish. He swung back to face E.C. “Then we all know, so it must be another of your jokes, and I’m not going to answer. Do you remember how you used to phone me at three in the morning, and ask me what time it was? Then I’d tell you, and you’d ask me what I was doing calling you at that hour?”

E.C. frowned and lowered his hand.

“Well,” said Bunnish, into the awkward silence that followed, “no sense standing here around this stupid chessboard. Why don’t we all go sit down by the fireplace, and talk.” He gestured. “Please.”

But when they were seated, the silence fell again. Peter took a swallow of beer and realized that he was more than just ill-at-ease. A palpable tension hung in the air.

“Nice place you’ve got here, Bruce,” he said, hoping to lighten the atmosphere.

Bunnish looked around smugly. “I know,” he said. “I’ve done awfully well, you know. Awfully well. You wouldn’t believe how much money I have. I hardly know what to do with it all.” He smiled broadly and fatuously. “And how about you, my friend? Here I am boasting once again, when I ought to be listening to all of you recount your own triumphs.” Bunnish looked at Peter. “You first, Norten. You’re the captain, after all. How have you done?”

“All right,” Peter said, uncomfortably. “I’ve done fine. I own a bookstore.”

“A bookstore! How wonderful! I recall that you always wanted to be in publishing, though I rather thought you’d be writing books instead of selling them. Whatever happened to those novels you were going to write, Peter? Your literary career?”

Peter’s mouth was very dry. “I… things change, Bruce. I haven’t had much time for writing.” It sounded so feeble, Peter thought. All at once, he was desperately wishing he was elsewhere.

“No time for writing,” echoed Bunnish. “A pity, Norten. You had such promise.”

“He’s still promising,” Kathy put in sharply. “You ought to hear him promise. He’s been promising as long as I’ve known him. He never writes, but he does promise.”

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred