There was no time limit to the game, but when his interrogator’s fingers started playing a polonaise on the tabletop, Xavier Marshall knew that he had better make his move. He castled his rook and king. The interrogator, whose code name Xavier knew to be Blue, gave him a surprised look.
“Two minutes, awful long time for a castling, fella,” Blue stretched out his hands until the joints cracked. “If you gonna take two minutes, you wanna do better than a castling.”
“It was a queenside castling,” Xavier retorted and rubbed the stubble under his nose.
“You ought to have a shave.”
“Your boys ought to have given me a razor then.”
Blue ignored the comment. He leant back on the kitchen chair and fixed his eyes on the game. He had of course given himself white, and Xavier knew that meant he was at a disadvantage from the very start, unless white made some silly error, unless white tried to attack too soon, to commit his queen to the action too early. But Xavier knew that was not Blue’s style. Blue liked to drag things out. He was like a well-fed housecat with a mouse. The enjoyment was all in the suffering.
“Pretty defensive move,” Blue caressed his wide jawbones lovingly. He was always clean-shaven. And he was always dressed in the same way: brown loafers, cream chinos, casual shirt, and light V-neck. He might have been a college professor on the side, a non-descript lecturer of American-English literature at one of those tall ivory towers across the pond. Xavier could picture him at the front of the theatre, slurping his cappuccino and droning on about realism and Hemingway.
“Queenside castling is not a common move,” Xavier stated matter-of-factly.
Blue got up from the chair, halted the whining of the espresso maker, and poured himself his sixth cup of coffee that morning. Xavier had been counting. Every odd was an Americano, every even was milky and frothed. The man had his habits. He placed the china mug down on the table but remained standing. Like an artist scrutinising an evening’s labour he inspected Xavier’s face, searching for that missing inspiration which would transform an ordinary work into a masterpiece, one for the ages. A left fist hovered like a wrecking ball between the two men.
“I don’t think a castling ought to take two minutes. I reckon that was a mistake, Marshall. Not your first.”
Outside Xavier could hear the waves lapping along the shores of Muizenberg. A mockery of freedom. There was no escape in the modern world; no iron curtain to run behind. It was every man for himself. Everyone was a businessman. From the hallway Xavier could discern the guttural mutterings of Joppie and Jappie, as he had christened the two henchmen for hire.
Blue moved his pawn down to D5, threatening Xavier’s knight. It would have to retreat. A wasted move. Blue smiled, “Playing defensively isn’t gonna win you any games. The noose just gets tighter and tighter, fella. Until it becomes too much, then…” Blue made what Xavier took to be a duck call.
“I’ve got a plan,” Xavier lied. He had not played chess since junior school. He had been the best in his class. But that was twenty-five years ago.
He had started the game slowly, because he had forgotten how to play—he had forgotten which pieces he should never move, he had forgotten about all the traps the opposition sets, and he had forgotten all the tricks he used to use to win. All he remembered was defence, how to make a bloody wall around his king to prevent the opponent from checkmating him. Xavier knew that strategy only worked against average to medium-skilled players. If Blue was exceptional, then it was only a matter of time until, as he said, the noose became too tight—unless Xavier could remember one of the blasted tricks he used to play, some kind of counter-attack. All you needed was one special move. Fork two of his pieces with a pawn, and go a piece up. When you were a piece up, most players would give up, subconsciously. Only very good players could come back and win from being a piece down.
Blue moved his queen to the centre of the board, commanding both wings. Xavier’s knight, now at A7, was being attacked again.
The singer was screeching out ‘Satin Doll’ like an old cat being drowned in a farmyard. “Thank God for the guitarist,” Xavier smiled, and took another sip of his apple cider. He had decided that apple cider was the only sensible thing to be caught drinking in Cape Town in January. “Plays like Montgomery… he was a famous guitarist from the sixties.” His companion shrugged her shoulders disinterestedly. “He only started playing quite late.” She didn’t care. But when Xavier Marshall started talking jazz, he was a hard man to stop. “What distinguished him from a lot of the others was the thumb. You see, he’d practice late at night, after work, when his wife was sleeping. The thumb is a lot softer, more mellow and dull than a pick, or even fingernails. I don’t think Joe Pass’ wife got much sleep at night.”
Michelle van Niekerk didn’t share in the pleasure of Xavier’s earthy chuckle. Her chin tightened like she was about to throw up, but instead she spoke, “The documents.”
Xavier looked rather mournfully across the table before volleying back, “The money.”
She opened the middle zipper of her purse and showed the head of a stuffed envelope. It was bursting with notes.
“How much?” Xavier queried.
“Eighty thousand rand.”
“How much is that in pounds?”
“I don’t know. I’m South African. We don’t bother converting to sterling anymore. Welcome to the fucking Third World, asshole.”
“I’d have preferred pounds.”
Xavier noted, for future reference, that the chanteuse had impressive thighs. And, whether or not it was on account of this, her rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’ pleased him more.
“Perhaps she grew up listening to Billy,” he thought out loud.
“Mister Marshall,” the blonde zipped her purse back up. “You’ve only got me interested for another two minutes. Then I’m gone.”
“Good choice of song for this country.”
“I don’t care about the music, Mister Marshall.”
“You care about politics, though, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course. Who doesn’t?”
“You don’t get more political than this song.”
“I don’t care.”
“You don’t care about black students burning tyres half a kilometre from here? What the fuck is happening to your country these days? Where did the bloody rainbow waltz off to?”
“I don’t care, Marshall. Someone else from the office is covering that today. Right now I only care about what you can give me.”
“So you’re going to print them?” Xavier smiled languidly. He had perfected the art of the languid smile through his love of whiskey and flirting.
“Of course not. I don’t have a death-wish like you.”
“I know my business,” Xavier straightened his tie. He had discovered that wearing a tie earned you instant respect in these kinds of quid pro quos, especially if your opposite number was dressed casually. Then he was really buggered. No—a tie, a white-collared shirt, simple black slacks, and a blazer. Of course you never did up the blazer. That would be a sign of weakness. “So you won’t print them?”
“What do you care? You’ll have your money.”
“I have a certain reputation to uphold.”
“I’m well respected in my line of work.”
“Just between me and you…”
“Don’t say it, love.”
“Are you going to give me the documents?”
“The money is adequate. Are you going to print them?”
Her freckled face jolted nervously behind them. The twilight of the club housed no demons.
“Yes. Not me. I’m passing it to somebody else who’s passing it to somebody else who knows somebody who’s going to come into possession of the papers, accidentally.”
“You’re really brave people, you journalists.”
“Brave? By that you mean we’re people who have husbands, wives, and children, and want to make sure that we return home to them every day, alive. Listen, Marshall, you tell me you’ve gotten hold of classified information here—correspondences which show that the most powerful government in the West knew all about the massacre in Burundi right from the start of that bullshit.”
“Not only knew about; they made a call to stay mum on the whole affair, keep it away from public attention, even when it got bloody as hell. That’s how they work their game—through you people—you do know that?”
“And you think that Cape Town was far enough to ply your trade? They’re going to catch you. Those kinds of people have contacts everywhere. You’ve already signed your own death warrant.”
“Just another day at the office, love. Trust me, I know how to stay ahead of the game.”
“You gonna move yet?” Blue started his musical tapping again.
“I’m thinking.” Xavier cradled his head in his palms. A knight and a bishop had been exchanged, and the game was at the pivot. Xavier Marshall knew that every chess game had a pivot—when each player had used up his allowable share of orthodox openings, when the few pieces which could be exchanged had been exchanged, and when every immediate attacking option was easily blocked. It was the time for a deeper strategy. You had to have some plan. You had to see ten steps into the future, and anticipate how your opponent would respond to each of those steps. And for that you had to know his style of game—and hope he hadn’t been bluffing.
Xavier understood Blue’s game. Blue had told him his game. The slow-steady-noose-game. The game where he would advance row by row, like a battalion charging for the next line of trenches. He would never go for a quick kill. He would want to be a king and pawn versus a king at the end, and to watch his opponent’s face as he slowly edged his prophet to promotion. To slurp on his coffee and to sit back in his chair and enjoy the loser’s face. Xavier understood Blue.
“You better move soon,” Blue recommended. “And none of those defensive, back and forth type plays. No playing hop-scotch with your knight there.”
“I told you,” Xavier reiterated. “I’m thinking.”
“I know all about your thinking,” Blue leant back in his chair and from behind, on the counter, he plucked a thick cardboard folder. The heap of papers was dropped mid-table, beside the board.
“I can figure out a lot about you. I understand the type of man you are, Marshall. You’re a whiskey-at-one-o-clock, easy-women, easy-living kind of guy. You’re the kind of guy who’s smart enough to know that you shouldn’t make a business out of being smart, but use smartness for business. That’s proper thinking, Marshall.”
Xavier couldn’t return Blue’s smile. He already hated the man too much. Blue continued, “And you’ve got a few other skills, too, I gotta say. You have a way of charming people out of all kinds of information. And that’s pretty damn useful in your line of duty. That’s all pretty good, Marshall. But there’s a problem. You got caught.”
“You don’t say.”
“You can be understated and English all you want, Marshall. You got caught. And I gotta tell you, if we really wanted to, we could have caught you a long time ago. Back when you were making only little ripples. But we never go after fish like that. What’s the point? You guys normally step on some foot a little too hard on the way up, and then—”
With a muffled grunt, Xavier shook his flattened wrist for signs of life. Blue held his fist high, triumphantly. “We’ve had a separate file on you for five years, and a few honorary citations before that. But it’s only recently that you’ve been attracting some serious attention, Marshall. And you got your own special colour assigned to you. We do that at the establishment. We give you your very own guardian angel when you become important enough.”
“Why couldn’t you stop me then?” Xavier caressed the blood through his veins.
Blue’s chair let out a distressed groan as its legs scraped over the stone slates. The heavyset man was leaning forward across the table, his hairy hands planted on either side of the board. And his lips barely moved when he spoke.
“Move that goddamn knight.”
The pier was deserted, but for the two solitary figures who were sheltered behind a small lighthouse at the end of the path. A south-easterly wind was sending five-metre-high waves crashing over the cement wall, their white crests leaping clean over the walkway and raining down into the harbour beyond.
“You must be mad if you think you’re going to catch anything in this hurricane,” said Xavier.
“I like it,” said the man next to him. “It’s quiet.” He had the weather-beaten face of a professional fisherman, and he might have been anywhere between thirty and sixty.
“You’re quite mad, Waseem,” Xavier shook his head.
Waseem returned to the whitened chunk of biltong which he had been working away at all afternoon.
“They’re getting close to you?”
Xavier rubbed the sleep away from his eyes, and gestured towards the water. “How’s business, anyway, Waseem?”
The fisherman shrugged. “You have to go further out to catch anything decent these days.”
“You were a big shot here back in the Nineties. I remember that.”
“Everything was better in the Nineties.”
“What the hell happened?”
Waseem spat part of the gnarled stick into the sea. All the good parts had come away and it was just like chewing rope. “You look tired.”
“They’re going to get you, aren’t they? How much time have you got left?”
“I didn’t think they’d be so quick.”
Waseem nodded. “How’re you going to get out of the country?”
“No chance.” Xavier scratched his cheeks. “All the exits will be watched.”
The fisherman extracted a bottle of sherry from his jacket pocket. “You had a good run, though, hey?”
“Waseem, I need you to look after something important for me. I need your help. I’ve got a plan.”
The fisherman pushed back against the wall of the lighthouse and slowly rose to his feet. “I’m just not catching enough fish. These big companies have stolen all the bloody fish.”
“I’m sorry, Waseem. I…”
“What do you need?”
Xavier Marshall wanted to smile, he wanted to smile badly. He had read somewhere that it took 120 muscles to exact a perfect smile. All one-twenty were now quivering with frustration. But he kept the hungry dogs at bay. He made his jaw rigid so that it jutted out square like Blue’s. He bit hard on the insides of his cheek.
Xavier was taking his time with his queen. He was making a show to Blue, a show of looking at all the possible places where his queen could move in preparation for an attack. He wanted Blue to focus on the queen so that he wouldn’t notice the black bishop in the bottom left-hand corner of the board. His bishop was going to checkmate in three moves. It was a beautiful line, an unexpected line, a line from heaven.
It was common for a queen or a rook to complete a checkmate, but there was something far more satisfying about achieving it through one of the lesser pieces, especially against a player like Blue. Xavier wanted to rub it in his face. He could see the checkmate now: the queen forming a cunning diagonal on the bottom right of the board, his rook blocking the king’s escape to the left, and his bishop moving in for the killer diagonal on the right, cuddling up beside Blue’s impotent pawns which would form the perfect cushion for their own king’s demise.
“Reckon your queen’s got me in some trouble there,” Blue made a show of biting his gums. Xavier nodded his head in compliance. He knew Blue wasn’t worried about the queen.
Xavier decided it was time to sow the seeds, “Are you boys sure I don’t have anything else up my sleeve?”
Blue leaned forward and looked Xavier hard in the eyes, “That was your magnum opus, Marshall. That was the best you could do.”
“Not very good PR for you guys, is it?”
Blue shrugged. Xavier could see he really didn’t care. “The guy at the top takes the hit. So what? There’s always another up-and-comer. We’ll back that horse, groom him real nice, give him the funding, get him to do something not-so-clever, tape it, let him know he’s our little toy, and, voila, we’re back in business.”
“Back in business,” Xavier smiled. “That’s important to you, isn’t it? But what if all the dirt hasn’t come out yet?”
Blue slammed the flats of his hands hard against the table. “Marshall, you’ve played your move. You don’t get higher than a president. You just tell us who gave you the damn papers, and we’ll be done with this bullshit. You can take the rest of your cash and go on some holiday in the Aegean.”
“You think I believe that crap?”
“Make your move.” And Xavier could see the sadist coming out of Blue; the façade of the gentleman was fast retreating.
“Make your goddamn move.” Blue raised a fist again.
That was what Xavier wanted. He wanted Blue to think that he had rushed him again. Xavier hovered his right hand nervously over the board, wavering uncertainly to the right and left for several seconds. Blue coughed forcefully. And Xavier moved his queen to a strangely defensive position on the right flank, blocking a diagonal, but not attacking the king which Blue had left open as bait.
Blue chuckled, “Always defending, always trying to cover your back. You can’t keep running forever, Marshall. We have long arms in the government. You’re running yourself into a corner.”
Blue’s white knight created a fork on F7, taking a pawn and trapping both of Xavier’s rooks at the same time. Xavier cursed and Blue gave his broadest grin so far. “It’ll be like running a race with only one leg now.”
Xavier knew that he was going to lose one of his rooks. If Blue was clever, though, he wouldn’t take either, he would just leave his knight on the seventh rank and be satisfied with being a pawn up. But Xavier understood Blue. Blue would take the rook immediately. He would be well up in material then. Xavier Marshall didn’t care. He wanted Blue’s knight out of the way. He had seen the fork all along.
Xavier knew that he had to continue the feign of emotional distress. He bent his brow close to the board and continued swearing. He knew he’d have to move quickly. He didn’t want Blue to lose that confident swagger. Xavier then made the kind of move that was typical of an angry amateur, a reactionary move that seemed to be directed in pure, thoughtless fury against the perpetrating white knight. He shifted his queenside rook so that it attacked the knight directly.
Blue threw his hands up in mock dismay before clipping the kingside rook so hard that it flew off the table and rolled under the fridge.
“Now you can take my goddamn knight,” Blue commanded.
The white knight was out of the way, and Xavier’s surviving rook was now blocking an entire file, preventing any escape for Blue’s king to the left, nor was there any chance of flight for the monarch below—that had been blocked by the black queen. Xavier inspected the whole board one final time to be certain there was no avenue of escape for the king which he had overlooked.
“How sure are you that I don’t have more documents? How sure are you,” Xavier brushed back his hair, “that I’d get rid of all my best material in one go? Maybe, I expected to be caught. And, that being the case, what do you think would happen to those documents if, say, something unfortunate happens to me here?”
Xavier slowly lowered his index finger and rested it on his bishop; it was nestled harmlessly in a fianchetto in the bottom left-hand corner of the board. Xavier knew that Blue hadn’t thought about that bishop the entire game. He let Blue’s eyes wander to the piece, and he let the man play back the moves which had led to that point, to his defeat.
“What if your government wasn’t simply turning a blind eye to the lives of a million people? What if there’s evidence to show it wasn’t just bad diplomacy, but, actually, bloody good business for them? You sure you guys can ride the wave of public opinion if that gets out, Blue? Your bosses won’t be a little displeased with you? You know, I’d hate for you to get hurt.”
“Oh, and by the way, you can keep your goddamn knight,” Xavier Marshall stood up, threw his blazer round his shoulders, and ran the piece up the long diagonal, “Bishop to C3.”1
1. 1. e4 e5, 2. d4 d6, 3. f4 exf4, 4. Bxf4 Nc6, 5. Nf3 Nf6, 6. Nc3 g6, 7. Qd3 Bg7, 8. Qb5 a6, 9. Qd3 Bg4, 10. Be2 Qd7, 11. b3 0-0-0, 12. d5 Na7, 13. Qe3 Kb8, 14. Rb1 Bxf3, 15. Qxf3 Nh5, 16. Bd1 Nf6, 17. Ne2 Nh5, 18. Rg1 Nxf4, 19. Nxf4 Qb5, 20. Qg4 Qc5, 21. Rh1 Nb5, 22. Nh3 Na3, 23. Rc1 Qb4+, 24. Ke2 Qb5+, 25. Ke1 h5, 26. Qh4 a5, 27. Ng5 Qa6, 28. Nxf7 Rdf8, 29. Nxh8 Bc3#.
Hamish Filmer (Twitter: @FilmerHGD; Web: http://hamishfilmer.weebly.com/writing.html) grew up in South Africa and now resides in The Hague, where he lives with his wife, Ksenia, and two sons. He has had short stories published in Empty Nest (KY Story), The Cardiff Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and The Quill Magazine (forthcoming).