Nine chimes sounded from the old clock in the steeple of Father Karl’s church, and Herr Zimmer did not appear.
Doctor Eckardt, who had been chosen again to hold the stakes, came forward and whispered for some time with Professor Baumeister. The professor (if the truth were known) was beginning to believe that perhaps Lame Hans had decided that it was best to forfeit after all—though in fact if anyone had looked they would have seen Lame Hans sitting at the bar of the inn at that very moment, having a good nip of plum brandy and then another, while he allowed the suspense to build up as a good showman should.
At last Doctor Eckardt climbed upon a chair and announced: “It is now nearly ten. When the bet was made, it was agreed by both parties that if either failed to appear—or appearing, failed to play—the other should be declared the winner. If the worthy stranger, Herr Zimmer, does not make an appearance before ten minutes past ten, I intend to award the money entrusted to me to our respected acquaintance Professor Baumeister.”
There was a murmur of excitement at this, but just when the clock began to strike, Lame Hans called from the door of the inn, “WAIT!” Then hats were thrown into the air, and women stood on toe-tips to see; and fathers lifted their children up as the lame Herr Zimmer made his way down the steps of the inn and took his place in the chair that had been arranged in front of the board.
“Are you ready to begin?” said Doctor Eckardt.
“I am,” said Lame Hans, and opened.
The first five moves were made just as they had been rehearsed. But in the sixth, in which Gretchen was to have slid her queen half across the board, the piece stopped a square short.
Any ordinary player would have been dismayed, but Lame Hans was not. He only put his chin on his hand, and contrived (though wishing he had not drunk the brandy) a series of moves within the frame of the fourteen move game, by which he should lose despite the queen’s being out of position. He made the first of these moves; and black moved the queen again, this time in a way that was completely different from anything on the paper Hans had given Gretchen. She was deceiving me when she said she did not know how to play, he thought to himself. And now she finds she can’t read the paper in there, or perhaps she has decided to surprise me. Naturally she would learn the fundamentals of the game, when it is played in the inn parlor every night. (But he knew that she had not been deceiving him.) Then he saw that this new move of the queen’s was in fact a clever attack, into which he could play and lose.
And then the guns around Kostrzyn, which had been silent since the early hours of the morning, began to boom again. Three times Lame Hans’ hand stretched out to touch his king and make the move that would render it quite impossible for him to escape the queen, and three times it drew back. “You have five minutes in which to move,” Doctor Eckardt said. “I will tell you when only thirty seconds remain, and count the last five.”
The machine was built to play chess, thought Lame Hans. Long ago, and they were warlocks in those days. Could it be that Gretchen, in kicking about… ?
Some motion in the sky made him raise his eyes, looking above the board and over the top of the machine itself. An artillery observation balloon (gray-black, a German balloon then) was outlined against the blue sky. He thought of himself sitting in a dingy little shop full of tobacco all day long, and no one to play chess with—no one he could not checkmate easily.
He moved a pawn, and the black bishop slipped out of the king’s row to tighten the net.
If he won, they would have to pay him. Heitzmann would think everything had gone according to plan, and Professor Baumeister, surely, would hire no assassins. He launched his counterattack: the real attack at the left side of the board, with a false one down the center. Professor Baumeister came to stand beside him, and Doctor Eckardt warned him not to distract the player. There had been seven more than fourteen moves—and there was a trap behind the trap.
He took the black queen’s knight and lost a pawn. He was sweating in the heat, wiping his brow with his sleeve between moves.
A black rook, squat in its iron sandbags, advanced three squares, and he heard the crowd cheer. “That is mate, Herr Zimmer,” Doctor Eckardt announced. He saw the look of relief on Professor Baumeister’s face, and knew that his own was blank. Then over the cheering someone shouted: “Cheat! Cheat!” Gray-black pillbox police caps were forcing their way through the hats and parasols of the spectators.
“There is a man in there! There is someone inside!” It was too clear and too loud—a showman’s voice. A tall stranger was standing on the topmost bench waving Heitzmann’s sweatstained velvet hat.
A policeman asked: “The machine opens, does it not, Herr Professor? Open it quickly before there is a riot.”
Professor Baumeister said, “I don’t know how.”
“It looks simple enough,” declared the other policeman, and he began to unfasten the catches, wrapping his hand in his handkerchief to protect it from the heat of the brass. “Wait!” ordered Professor Baumeister, but neither one waited; the first policeman went to the aid of the other, and together they lifted away one side of the machine and let it fall against the railing. The movable circuit card had not been allowed to swing back into place, and Gretchen’s plump, naked legs protruded from the cavity beneath the chessboard. The first policeman seized them by the ankles and pulled her out until her half-open eyes stared at the bright sky. Doctor Eckardt bent over her and flexed her left arm at the elbow. “Rigor is beginning,” he said. “She died of the heat, undoubtedly.”
Lame Hans threw himself on her body weeping.
Such is the story of Lame Hans. The captain of police in his kindness has allowed me to push the machine to a position which permits Hans to reach the board through the bars of his cell, and he plays chess there all day long, moving first his own white pieces and then the black ones of the machine, and always losing. Sometimes when he is not quick enough to move the black queen I see her begin to rock and to slide herself, and the dials and the console lights to glow with impatience; and then Hans must reach out and take her to her new position at once. Do you not think that this is sad for Lame Hans? I have heard that many who have been twisted by the old wars have these psychokinetic abilities without knowing it; and Professor Baumeister, who is in the cell next to his, says that someday a technology may be founded on them.
A bizarrerie of fires, cunabulum of light, it moved with a deft, almost dainty deliberation, phasing into and out of existence like a storm-shot piece of evening; or perhaps the darkness between the flares was more akin to its truest nature—swirl of black ashes assembled in prancing cadence to the lowing note of desert wind down the arroyo behind buildings as empty yet filled as the pages of unread books or stillnesses between the notes of a song.
Gone again. Back again. Again.
Power, you said? Yes. It takes considerable force of identity to manifest before or after one’s time. Or both.
As it faded and gained it also advanced, moving through the warm afternoon, its tracks erased by the wind. That is, on those occasions when there were tracks.
A reason. There should always be a reason. Or reasons.
It knew why it was there—but not why it was there, in that particular locale.
It anticipated learning this shortly, as it approached the desolation-bound line of the old street. However, it knew that the reason may also come before, or after. Yet again, the pull was there and the force of its being was such that it had to be close to something.
The buildings were worn and decayed and some of them fallen and all of them drafty and dusty and empty. Weeds grew among floorboards. Birds nested upon rafters. The droppings of wild things were everywhere, and it knew them all as they would have known it, were they to meet face to face.
It froze, for there had come the tiniest unanticipated sound from somewhere ahead and to the left. At that moment, it was again phasing into existence and it released its outline which faded as quickly as a rainbow in hell, that but the naked presence remained beyond subtraction.