E.C., after a long and cautious appraisal of the board, seemed to reach the same conclusion. He reached out coolly and moved his knight, hemming in Bunnish’s lonely king once and for all. Now he threatened a queen check that would lead to mate in one. Bunnish could capture the dominating knight, but then E.C. just recaptured with a rook, and checkmate followed soon thereafter, no matter how Bunnish might wriggle on the hook.
Bunnish smiled across the board at his opponent, and lazily shoved his queen forward a square to the last rank. “Check,” he said.
E.C. brushed back his moustache, shrugged, and played his king up. He punched the clock with a flourish. “You’re lost,” he said flatly.
Peter was inclined to agree. That last check had accomplished nothing; in fact, it seemed to have worsened Black’s plight. The mate threats were still there, as unstoppable as ever, and now Black’s queen was under attack as well. He could pull it back, of course, but not in time to help with the defense. Bunnish ought to be frantic and miserable.
Instead his smile was so broad that his fat cheeks were threatening to crack in two. “Lost?” he said. “Ah, Stuart, this time the joke is on you!” He giggled like a teenage girl, and brought his queen down the rank to grab off White’s rook. “Check!”
Peter Norten had not played a game of tournament chess in a long, long time, but he still remembered the way it had felt when an opponent suddenly made an unexpected move that changed the whole complexion of a game: the brief initial confusion, the what is that? feeling, followed by panic when you realized the strength of the unanticipated move, and then the awful swelling gloom that built and built as you followed through one losing variation after another in your head. There was no worse moment in the game of chess.
That was how Peter felt now.
They had missed it totally. Bunnish was giving up his queen for a rook, normally an unthinkable sacrifice, but not in this position. E.C. had to take the offered queen. But if he captured with his king, Peter saw with sudden awful clarity, Black had a combination that won the farm, which meant he had to use the other rook, pulling it off its crucial defense of the central knight… and then… oh, shit!
E.C. tried to find another alternative for more than fifteen minutes, but there was no alternative to be found. He played rook takes queen. Bunnish quickly seized his own rook and captured the knight that had moved so menacingly into position only two moves before. With ruthless precision, Bunnish then forced the trade-off of one piece after another, simplifying every danger off the board. All of a sudden they were in the endgame. E.C. had a queen and five pawns; Bunnish had a rook, two bishops, a knight, and four pawns, and—ironically—his once-imperiled king now occupied a powerful position in the center of the board.
Play went on for hours, as E.C. gamely gave check after check with his rogue queen, fighting to pick up a loose piece or perhaps draw by repetition. But Bunnish was too skilled for such desperation tactics. It was only a matter of technique.
Finally E.C. tipped over his king.
“I thought we looked at every possible defense,” Peter said numbly.
“Why, captain,” said Bunnish cheerfully. “Every attempt to defend loses. The defending pieces block off escape routes or get in the way. Why should I help mate myself? I’d rather let you try to do that.”
“I will do that,” Peter promised angrily. “Tomorrow.”
Bunnish rubbed his hands together. “I can scarcely wait!”
That night the post-mortem was held in E.C.’s suite; Kathy—who had greeted their glum news with an “I told you so” and a contemptuous smile—had insisted that she didn’t want them staying up half the night over a chessboard in her presence. She told Peter he was behaving like a child, and they had angry words before he stormed out.
Steve Delmario was going over the morning’s loss with E.C. when Peter joined them. Delmario’s eyes looked awfully bloodshot, but otherwise he appeared sober, if haggard. He was drinking coffee. “How does it look?” Peter asked when he pulled up a seat.
“Bad,” E.C. said.
Delmario nodded. “Hell, worse’n bad, it’s starting to look like that damn sac is unsound after all. I can’t believe it, I just can’t, it all looks so promising, got to be something there. Got to. But I’m damned if I can find it.”
E.C. added, “The surprise he pulled today is a threat in a number of variations. Don’t forget, we gave up two pieces to get to this position. Unfortunately, that means that Brucie can easily afford to give some of that material back to get out of the fix. He still comes out ahead, and wins the endgame. We’ve found a few improvements on my play this morning—”
“That knight doesn’t have to drop,” interjected Delmario.
“…but nothing convincing,” E.C. concluded.
“You ever think,” Delmario said, “that maybe the Funny Bunny was right? That maybe the sac don’t work, maybe the game was never won at all?” His voice had a note of glum disbelief in it.
“There’s one thing wrong with that,” Peter said.
“Ten years ago, after Bunnish had blown the game and the match, Robinson Vesselere admitted that he had been lost.”
E.C. looked thoughtful. “That’s true. I’d forgotten that.”
“Vesselere was almost a Senior Master. He had to know what he was talking about. The win is there. I mean to find it.”
Delmario clapped his hands together and whooped gleefully. “Well yes, Pete, you’re right! Let’s go!”
“At last the prodigal spouse returns,” Kathy said pointedly when Peter came in. “Do you have any idea what time it is?”
She was seated in a chair by the fireplace, though the fire had burned down to ashes and embers. She wore a dark robe, and the end of the cigarette she was smoking was a bright point in the darkness. Peter had come in smiling, but now he frowned. Kathy had once been a heavy smoker, but she’d given it up years ago. Now she only lit a cigarette when she was very upset. When she lit up, it usually meant they were headed for a vicious row.
“It’s late,” Peter said. “I don’t know how late. What does it matter?” He’d spent most of the night with E.C. and Steve, but it had been worth it. They’d found what they had been looking for. Peter had returned tired but elated, expecting to find his wife asleep. He was in no mood for grief. “Never mind about the time,” he said to her, trying to placate. “We’ve got it, Kath.”
She crushed out her cigarette methodically. “Got what? Some new move you think is going to defeat our psychopathic host? Don’t you understand that I don’t give a damn about this stupid game of yours? Don’t you listen to a thing I say? I’ve been waiting up half the night, Peter. It’s almost three in the morning. I want to talk.”
“Yeah?” Peter snapped. Her tone had gotten his back up. “Did you ever think that maybe I didn’t want to listen? Well, think it. I have a big game tomorrow. I need my sleep. I can’t afford to stay up till dawn screaming at you. Understand? Why the hell are you so hot to talk anyway? What could you possibly have to say that I haven’t heard before, huh?”
Kathy laughed nastily. “I could tell you a few things about your old friend Bunnish that you haven’t heard before.”
“I doubt it.”
“Do you? Well, did you know that he’s been trying to get me into bed for the past two days?”
She said it tauntingly, throwing it at him. Peter felt as if he had been struck. “What?”
“Sit down,” she snapped, “and listen.”
Numbly, he did as she bid him. “Did you?” he asked, staring at her silhouette in the darkness, the vaguely ominous shape that was his wife.
“Did I? Sleep with him, you mean? Jesus, Peter, how can you ask that? Do you loathe me that much? I’d sooner sleep with a roach. That’s what he reminds me of anyway.” She gave a rueful chuckle. “He isn’t exactly a sophisticated seducer, either. He actually offered me money.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“To knock some goddamned sense into you! Can’t you see that Bunnish is trying to destroy you, all of you, any way he can? He didn’t want me. He just wanted to get at you. And you, you and your moron teammates, are playing right into his hands. You’re becoming as obsessed with that idiot chess game as he is.” She leaned forward. Dimly, Peter could make out the lines of her face. “Peter,” she said almost imploringly, “don’t play him. He’s going to beat you, love, just like he beat the others.”