Pawn to infinity by Fred & Joan Saberhagen

“Phone the police,” Kathy suggested.

Peter looked around. “Now that you mention it, I don’t see a phone anywhere in this room. Do you?” Silence. “There was no phone in our suite, either, that I recall.”

“Hey!” Delmario said. “That’s right, Pete, you’re right.”

E.C. sat down. “He appears to have us checkmated,” he said.

“The exact word,” said Peter. “Bunnish is playing some kind of game with us. He said so himself. A joke.”

“Ha ha,” said E.C. “What do you suggest we do, then? Laugh?”

Peter shrugged. “Eat dinner, talk, have our reunion, find out what the hell Bunnish wants with us.”

“Win the game, guys, that’s what we do,” Delmario said.

E.C. stared at him. “What the hell does that mean?”

Delmario sipped his bourbon and grinned. “Peter said Bunny was playing some kind of game with us, right? OK, fine. Let’s play. Let’s beat him at this goddamned game, whatever the hell it is.” He chuckled. “Hell, guys, this is the Funny Bunny we’re playing. Maybe he is a Master, I don’t give a good goddamn, he’ll still find a way to blow it in the end. You know how it was. Bunnish always lost the big games. He’ll lose this one, too.”

“I wonder,” said Peter. “I wonder.”

Peter brought another bottle of Heineken back to the suite with him, and sat in a deck chair on the patio drinking it while Kathy tried out the hot tub.

“This is nice,” she said from the tub. “Relaxing. Sensuous, even. Why don’t you come on in?”

“No, thanks,” Peter said.

“We ought to get one of these.”

“Right. We could put it in our living room. The people in the apartment downstairs would love it.” He took a swallow of beer and shook his head.

“What are you thinking about?” Kathy asked.

Peter smiled grimly. “Chess, believe it or not.”

“Oh? Do tell.”

“Life is a lot like chess,” he said.

She laughed. “Really? I’d never noticed, somehow.”

Peter refused to let her needling get to him. “All a matter of choices. Every move you face choices, and every choice leads to different variations. It branches and then branches again, and sometimes the variation you pick isn’t as good as it looked, isn’t sound at all. But you don’t know that until your game is over.”

“I hope you’ll repeat this when I’m out of the tub,” Kathy said. “I want to write it all down for posterity.”

“I remember, back in college, how many possibilities life seemed to hold. Variations. I knew, of course, that I’d only live one of my fantasy lives, but for a few years there, I had them all, all the branches, all the variations. One day I could dream of being a novelist, one day I would be a journalist covering Washington, the next—oh, I don’t know, a politician, a teacher, whatever. My dream lives. Full of dream wealth and dream women. All the things I was going to do, all the places I was going to live. They were mutually exclusive, of course, but since I didn’t have any of them, in a sense I had them all. Like when you sit down at a chessboard to begin a game, and you don’t know what the opening will be. Maybe it will be a Sicilian, or a French, or a Ruy Lopez.

They all co-exist, all the variations, until you start making the moves. You always dream of winning, no matter what line you choose, but the variations are still… different.” He drank some more beer. “Once the game begins, the possibilities narrow and narrow and narrow, the other variations fade, and you’re left with what you’ve got—a position half of your own making, and half chance, as embodied by that stranger across the board. Maybe you’ve got a good game, or maybe you’re in trouble, but in any case there’s just that one position to work from. The might-have-beens are gone.”

Kathy climbed out of the hot tub and began towelling herself off. Steam rose from the water, and moved gently around her. Peter found himself looking at her almost with tenderness, something he had not felt in a long time. Then she spoke, and ruined it. “You missed your calling,” she said, rubbing briskly with the towel. “You should have taken up poster-writing. You have a knack for poster profundity. You know, like, “I am not in this world to live up to your expect—”

“Enough,” Peter said. “How much blood do you have to draw, damn it?”

Kathy stopped and looked at him. She frowned. “You’re really down, aren’t you?” she said.

Peter stared off at the mountains, and did not bother to reply.

The concern left her voice as quickly as it had come. “Another depression, huh? Drink another beer, why don’t you? Feel sorry for yourself some more. By midnight you’ll have worked yourself up to a good crying jag. Go on.”

“I keep thinking of that match,” Peter said.


“In the nationals,” he said. “Against Chicago. It’s weird, but I keep having this funny feeling, like… like it was right there that it all started to go bad. We had a chance to do something big, something special. But it slipped away from us, and nothing has been right since.

A losing variation, Kathy. We picked a losing variation, and we’ve been losing ever since. All of us.”

Kathy sat down on the edge of the tub. “All of you?”

Peter nodded. “Look at us. I failed as a novelist, failed as a journalist, and now I’ve got a failing bookstore. Not to mention a bitch wife. Steve is a drunk who couldn’t even get together enough money to pay his way out here. E.C. is an aging account executive with an indifferent track record, going nowhere. Losers. You said it, in the car.”

She smiled. “Ah, but what about our host? Bunnish lost bigger than any of you, and he seems to have won everything since.”

“Hmmmm,” said Peter. He sipped thoughtfully at his beer. “I wonder. Oh, he’s rich enough, I’ll give you that. But he’s got a chessboard in his living room with the pieces glued into position, so he can stare every day at the place he went wrong in a game played ten years ago. That doesn’t sound like a winner to me.”

She stood up, and shook loose her hair. It was long and auburn and it fell around her shoulders gorgeously, and Peter remembered the sweet lady he had married eight years ago, when he was a bright young writer working hard on his first novel. He smiled. “You look nice,” he said.

Kathy seemed startled. “You are feeling morose,” she said. “Are you sure you don’t have a fever?”

“No fever. Just a memory, and a lot of regrets.”

“Ah,” she said. She walked back toward their bedroom, and snapped the towel at him in passing. “C’mon, captain. Your team is going to be waiting, and all this heavy philosophy has given me quite an appetite.”

The food was fine, but the dinner was awful.

They ate thick slabs of rare prime rib, with big baked potatoes and lots of fresh vegetables. The wine looked expensive and tasted wonderful. Afterwards, they had their choice of three desserts, plus fresh-ground coffee and several delicious liqueurs. Yet the meal was strained and unpleasant, Peter thought. Steve Delmario was in pretty bad shape even before he came to the table, and while he was there he drank wine as if it were water, getting louder and fuzzier in the process. E.C. Stuart was coldly quiet, his fury barely held in check behind an icy, aloof demeanor. And Bunnish thwarted every one of Peter’s attempts to move conversation to safe neutral ground. His genial expansiveness was a poor mask for gloating, and he insisted on opening old wounds from their college years. Every time Peter recounted an anecdote that was amusing or harmless, Bunnish smiled and countered with one that stank of hurt and rejection.

Finally, over coffee, E.C. could stand no more of it. “Pus,” he said loudly, interrupting Bunnish. It was about the third word he’d permitted himself the entire meal. “Pus and more pus. Bunnish, what’s the point? You’ve brought us here. You’ve got us trapped here, with you. Why? So you can prove that we treated you shabbily back in college? Is that the idea? If so, fine. You’ve made your point. You were treated shabbily. I am ashamed, I am guilty. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Now let’s end it. It’s over.”

“Over?” said Bunnish, smiling. “Perhaps it is. But you’ve changed, E.C. Back when I was the butt of your jokes, you’d recount them for weeks. Over wasn’t so final then, was it? And what about my game with Vesselere in the nationals? When that was over, did we forget it? Oh, no, we did not. That game was played in December, you’ll recall. I heard about it until I graduated in May. At every meeting. That game was never over for me. Delmario liked to show me a different checkmate every time I saw him. Our dear captain refrained from playing me in any league matches for the rest of the year. And you, E.C., you liked to greet me with, ‘Say, Bunny, lost any big ones lately?’ You even reprinted that game in the club newsletter, and mailed it in to Chess Life. No doubt all this seems like ancient history to you. I have this trick memory, though. I can’t forget things quite so easily. I remember it all. I remember the way Vesselere sat there, with his hands folded on his stomach, never moving, staring at me out of those itty bitty eyes of his. I remember the way he moved his pieces, very carefully, very daintily, lifting each one between thumb and forefinger. I remember wandering into the halls between moves, to get a drink of water, and seeing Norten over by the wall charts, talking to Mavora from the A team. You know what he was saying? He was gesturing with his hands, all worked up, and he was telling him, He’s going to blow it, damn it, he’s going to blow it! Isn’t that right, Peter? And Les looked over at me as I passed, and said, Lose this one and your ass is grass, Bunny! He was another endearing soul. I remember all the people who kept coming to look at my game. I remember Norten standing in the corner with Hal Winslow, the two mighty captains, talking heatedly. Winslow was all rumpled and needed a shave and he had his clipboard, and he was trying to figure out who’d finish where if we won, or tied, or lost. I remember how it felt when I tipped over my king, too. I remember the way Delmario started kicking the wall, the way E.C. shrugged and glanced up at the ceiling, and the way Peter came over and just said Bunnish! and shook his head. You see? My trick memory is as tricky as ever, and I haven’t forgotten a thing. And especially I haven’t forgotten that game. I can recite all the moves to you right now, if you’d like.”

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48

Leave a Reply 0

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *