Steve Delmario sat there, growing more and more agitated. With three minutes remaining on his clock, he reached out his hand, thought better of it, and pulled back. He shifted in his seat, gathered his legs up under him, leaned closer to the board, his nose a bare couple inches above the chessmen. His clock ticked.
He was still staring at the board when Bunnish smiled and said, “Your flag is down, Delmario.”
Delmario looked up, blinking. His mouth hung open. “Time,” he said urgently. “I just need time to find the win, got to be here someplace, got to, all those checks…”
Bunnishrose. “You’re out of time, Delmario. Doesn’t matter anyway. You’re dead lost.”
“NO! No I’m not, damn you, there’s a win…”
Peter put a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “Steve, take it easy,” he said. “I’m sorry. Bruce is right. You’re busted here.”
“No,” Delmario insisted. “I know there’s a winning combo, I just got to… got to… only…” His right hand, out over the board, began to shake, and he knocked over his own king.
Bunnish showed his dimples. “Listen to your captain, winner-boy,” he said. Then he looked away from Delmario, to where E.C. stood scowling. “You’re next, Stuart. Tomorrow. Same time, same place.”
“And if I don’t care to play?” E.C. said disdainfully.
Bunnish shrugged. “Suit yourself,” he said. “I’ll be here, and the game will be here. I’ll start your clock on time. You can lose over the board or lose by forfeit. You lose either way.”
“And me?” Peter said.
“Why, captain,” said Bunnish. “I’m saving you for last.”
Steve Delmario was a wreck. He refused to leave the chessboard except to mix himself fresh drinks. For the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon he remained glued to his seat, drinking like a fish and flicking the chess pieces around like a man possessed, playing and replaying the game. Delmario wolfed down a couple sandwiches that Peter made up for him around lunch-time, but there was no talking to him, no calming him. Peter tried. In an hour or so, Delmario would be passed out from the booze he was downing in such alarming quantities.
Finally he and E.C. left Delmario alone, and went upstairs to his suite. Peter knocked on the door. “You decent, Kathy? E.C. is with me.”
She opened the door. She had on jeans and a t-shirt. “Decent as I ever get,” she said. “Come on in. How did the great game come out?”
“Delmario lost,” Peter said. “It was a close thing, though. I thought we had him for a moment.”
“So what now?” E.C. said.
“You going to play tomorrow?”
E.C. shrugged. “Might as well. I’ve got nothing to lose.”
“Good,” Peter said. “You can beat him. Steve almost won, and we both know the shape he’s in. We’ve got to analyze, figure out where he went wrong.”
E.C. fingered his mustache. He looked cool and thoughtful. “That pawn move,” he suggested. “The one that didn’t give check. It left White open for that counterattack.”
“It also set up the mating net,” Peter said. He looked over his shoulder, saw Kathy standing with her arms crossed. “Could you get the chessboard from the bedroom?” he asked her. When she left, Peter turned back to E.C. “I think Steve was already lost by the time he made that pawn move. That was his only good shot—lots of threats there. Everything else just petered out after a few checks. He went wrong before that, I think.”
“All those checks,” E.C. said. “One too many, maybe?”
“Exactly,” said Peter. “Instead of driving him into a checkmate, Steve drove him into safety. You’ve got to vary somewhere in there.”
Kathy arrived with the chess set and placed it on the low table between them. As Peter swiftly set up the critical position, she folded her legs beneath her and sat on the floor. But she grew bored very quickly when they began to analyze, and it wasn’t long before she got to her feet again with a disgusted noise. “Both of you are crazy,” she said. “I’m going to get something to eat.”
“Bring us back something, will you?” Peter asked. “And a couple of beers?” But he hardly noticed it when she placed the tray beside them.
They stayed at it well into the night. Kathy was the only one who went down to dine with Bunnish. When she returned, she said, “That man is disgusting,” so emphatically that it actually distracted Peter from the game. But only for an instant.
“Here, try this,” E.C. said, moving a knight, and Peter looked back quickly.
“I see you decided to play, Stuart,” Bunnish said the next morning.
E.C, looking trim and fresh, his sandy hair carefully combed and brushed, a steaming mug of black coffee in hand, nodded briskly. “You’re as sharp as ever, Brucie.”
“One point, however,” E.C. said, holding up a finger. “I still don’t believe your cock-and-bull story about time-travel. We’ll play this out, alright, but we’ll play for money, not for one of your flashbacks. Understood?”
“You jokers are such suspicious types,” Bunnish said. He sighed. “Anything you say, of course. You want money. Fine.”
“One million dollars.”
Bunnish smiled broadly. “Small change,” he said. “But I agree. Beat me, and you’ll leave here with one million. You’ll take a check, I hope?”
“A certified check. “E.C. turned to Peter. “You’re my witness,” he said, and Peter nodded. The three of them were alone this morning. Kathy was firm in her disinterest, and Delmario was in his room sleeping off his binge.
“Ready?” Bunnish asked.
Bunnish started the clock. E.C. reached out and played the sacrifice. Knight takes pawn. His motions were crisp and economical. Bunnish captured, and E.C. played the bishop sac without a second’s hesitation. Bunnish captured again, pushed the clock.
E.C. Stuart brushed back his mustache, reached down, and moved a pawn. No check.
“Ah,” Bunnish said. “An improvement. You have something up your sleeve, don’t you? Of course you do. E.C. Stuart always has something up his sleeve. The hilarious, unpredictable E.C. Stuart. Such a joker. So imaginative.”
“Play chess, Brucie,” snapped E.C.
“Of course.” Peter drifted closer to the board while Bunnish studied the position. They had gone over and over the game last night, and had finally decided that the queen check that Delmario had played following the double sac was unsound. There were several other checks in the position, all tempting, but after hours of analysis he and E.C. had discarded those as well. Each of them offered plenty of traps and checkmates should Black err, but each of them seemed to fail against correct play, and they had to assume Bunnish would play correctly.
E.C.’s pawn move was a more promising line. Subtler. Sounder. It opened lines for White’s pieces, and interposed another barrier between Black’s king and the safety of the queenside. Suddenly White had threats everywhere. Bunnish had serious troubles to chew on now.
He did not chew on them nearly as long as Peter would have expected. After studying the position for a bare couple minutes, he picked up his queen and snatched off White’s queen rook pawn, which was undefended. Bunnish cupped the pawn in his hand, yawned, and slouched back in his chair, looking lazy and unperturbed.
E.C. Stuart permitted himself a brief scowl as he looked over the position. Peter felt uneasy as well. That move ought to have disturbed Bunnish more than it had, he thought. White had so many threats… last night they had analyzed the possibilities exhaustively, playing and replaying every variation and subvariation until they were sure that they had found the win. Peter had gone to sleep feeling almost jubilant. Bunnish had a dozen feasible defenses to their pawn thrust. They’d had no way of knowing which one he would choose, so they had satisfied themselves that each and every one ultimately ended in failure.
Only now Bunnish had fooled them. He hadn’t played any of the likely defenses. He had just ignored E.C.’s mating threats, and gone pawn-snatching as blithely as the rankest patzer. Had they missed something? While E.C. considered the best reply, Peter drew up a chair to the side of the board so he could analyze in comfort.
There was nothing, he thought, nothing. Bunnish had a check next move, if he wanted it, by pushing his queen to the eighth rank. But it was meaningless. E.C. hadn’t weakened his queenside the way Steve had yesterday, in his haste to find a mate. If Bunnish checked, all Stuart had to do was move his king up to queen two. Then the Black queen would be under attack by a rook, and forced to retreat or grab another worthless pawn. Meanwhile Bunnish would be getting checkmated in the middle of the board. The more Peter went over the variations, the more convinced he became that there was no way Bunnish could possibly work up the kind of counterattack he had used to smash Steve Delmario.