En Prise

1

 

It began for Carl in the bar of the Students’ Union. Craigan was holding court, expansive and loud. The cider in his glass sloshed over the edges and spattered the floor. Carl watched, fixated by the glistening beads of cider that clung to the big man’s beard.

They were acquaintances rather than friends; classmates in a Renaissance Literature tutorial. Autumn semester was now over, and the afternoon’s exam faded into memory as alcohol performed its wonders on the mind.

Craigan’s monologue had begun as a recitation of his smart-arse exam essay: Fetish in the milieu of Shakespeare. The more he drank, though, the more he lost the structure of his argument, until it degenerated into a parade of lewd anecdotes he’d gleaned from the more arcane books in the library. He seemed not to notice the dwindling of his audience. When the crowd had thinned to such a degree that only he and Carl remained, Craigan stifled a belch and leaned in close.

-You can get away with saying anything in one of those exam essays. He spoke with the slow care of the truly drunk, and reeked of cider.

-As long as there’s something in the text you can argue persuasively – he gave the word six syllables – to back it up. The great thing about literature is that every phrase, every word, can have a whole world of meaning locked away for you to unpick. He pressed his thumb and forefinger tightly together. Do you know what else has such a characteristic? He asked, sibilants slurring together.

Carl shook his head.

-Chess, the big man growled.

-Chess?

Craigan nodded.

-The idea, he continued, that chess is played – no, fought – solely to result in the capture of your opponent’s king is as fallacious as the assumption that the ultimate purpose of sex is for the male to achieve orgasm.

-Right. Mental dexterity is it, then? Strategy?

-Mental dexterity, bollocks. It’s a weapon, Carl: a weapon.

-It’s an elitist pasttime.

Craigan’s face crumpled into a mass of frowns, like some cubist portrait. Frown upon frown.

-No. It’s a weapon.

-Not the way I play.

-You’re not listening.

-And you aren’t making sense.

-Apparently – Craigan leaned in close again, conspiratorially – in the olden days-

-“The olden days”? Did you use such a historically precise term in your essay?

-…in the olden days, there were rumours that it was possible to actually kill your opponent by means of a particular succession of moves on the board.

-Really? Using gold pieces you’d transmuted from lead that morning, I suppose?

Craigan stood back, suddenly diffident.

-Just sharing some arcane knowledge with you, he shrugged. He wobbled slightly, and seemed to come to a decision.

-I have a woman to see, he muttered, and walked away blinking as if into a new dawn. Carl drank up and headed home through the December night.

 

Carl thought no more about the conversation for weeks: indeed the memory was foggy by the following morning. He pieced it together, like half a jigsaw, as he sat in his tutor’s office with two police officers – one plain-clothes, one uniform – who eyed the towering bookshelves with evident suspicion.

Craigan was dead. Professor Easingwood stared into middle distance, fingers pressed to his lips, while the plain-clothes cop explained, in a Northern Irish accent, the details, as far as he was able.

Craigan had been found at his PC in his parent’s house, just south of Belfast. The post-mortem was inconclusive: a heart attack was suspected, though circumstances led the police to investigate the possibility of suicide. There was a note, of sorts. Not by the body, but in the body of an email which was open on Craigan’s desktop. University email addresses took the form of the student’s matriculation number – to minimise the likelihood of spam – and it had taken the police visit for the University to reveal that Carl was the intended recipient.

-Can you think of any reason why Lewis might want to commit suicide?

Carl shook his head. None of it seemed real: he never thought of Craigan by his first name, for a start.

-Did he seem troubled at all when you last saw him?

-He was drunk, and it was the end of term. We’d had an exam that day, but he seemed more confident than any of the rest of us. He was talking about fetishes.

-Fetishes? Both policemen held their pencils at the ready.

-In Renaissance drama. Volpone is full of it. Carl saw Professor Easingwood smile. What did the email say?

The uniformed cop unzipped a document folder and handed Carl a printout. “I was right about the chess. Cunego”.

-Is that it?

-It hadn’t been sent, which suggests he may have written it at the last moment and was maybe incomplete. It doesn’t mean anything to you?

-He did talk about chess the last time I saw him. Do you think he committed suicide?

-Any case of sudden death has to be investigated, Mr Stewart. We’re trying to establish a fuller understanding of his last few days.

-“More full”, muttered Professor Easingwood. The plain-clothes cop, misunderstanding, glared at him.

Carl read the text again, as that final conversation swam in and out of focus.

-You hear of people being urged to kill themselves online, said the Professor. In chat rooms.

-There’s no evidence he was a member of any chat sites, or any more email correspondence that might help.

-I can’t imagine him using chatrooms though, said Carl. He’d be denied the sound of his own voice: he liked being the centre of attention.

The Professor nodded. Carl held up the printout.

-Can I keep this? See if it sparks anything?

The plain-clothes cop passed him a card with his phone number on it.

-That’s what we were hoping.

 

“I was right about the chess.” Carl sat in a café in the basement of one of the University buildings, and read the note over and over. There was none of the nuance of handwriting: it gave nothing away.

Sex. There’d been talk of chess and sex. Sex, chess and …death. Of course. An unlikely trinity. What was it Craigan had said about chess being used as a weapon? Is that what he meant? That some medieval rumour had turned out to be true? The trouble with Craigan, Carl had found, was that you were never sure when he was taking the piss. The email could have been a joke, misconstrued because the perpetrator had since died. It hit Carl again, the one reality among abstractions: Craigan was dead. It didn’t seem plausible. He was too big, too loud, too full of energy and of himself. There was no way it could be suicide. Unless…unless… He presumed the police had talked to Craigan’s other friends. Perhaps they knew a different Craigan; like looking at two different sides of a Rubik’s cube.

Someone slid into the seat opposite. The bright orange of their fizzy drink caught Carl’s unfocussed eye. He became aware that whoever it was, they were waving to him.

-Jesus, said Scott. Midweek hangover: isn’t that a bit first-year?

-Sorry; miles away. You okay?

Carl and Scott had lived in neighbouring rooms in halls of residence. Scott studied History, and Carl English Literature, which meant they both had a lot of free time in the first year, much of which was spent in the Union bars. Scott opened his juice and took a long drink. He stopped and looked long at Carl.

-Yup. You?

Carl made a quizzical face. You know Lewis Craigan?

-Big guy, beard, very vocal?

Carl nodded.

-He’s dead.

-Really? Shit.

-The police have just been questioning me.

Scott leaned in, rapt. Why, what happened? Were you involved?

-No, but his last communication was to me. Not that I got it. Carl slid the sheet of paper across the table.

-And this is it? A bit cryptic. “Cunego”. What’s that?

-Search me. If its a nickname, it’s not one I’ve heard. He did try to explain it to me in the pub…do you know much about chess?

-I don’t even know how to play it: kings and queens and pawns, Scott shrugged. He pointed to the sheet once more, before passing it back. Google it. The internet knows everything. He glanced at his watch. I gotta go. He finished the rest of his drink. Give me a call sometime, we’ll have to meet up.

-Sure.

Carl stared at the paper. A burden though it suddenly felt, being left a message from the grave placed a certain obligation on you. Was it a clue, then? And what made Craigan assume Carl, the sceptic, even cared? But it was self-fulfilling. If – and it was a huge if – Craigan was serious, and he knew that he was about to die, then he was plainly asking Carl to investigate. To what end? The least Carl could do was check it out.

 

He went to one of the open-access PC labs, and hit a search engine. He typed “chess + killer” and got news stories about a Russian serial killer, caught as he tried to attack victim 61 of a projected 64: one for each square on a chessboard. He typed “Cunego” and found an Italian cyclist. So the name, if name it was, was Italian. He had a cursory look, but even without knowledge of the Italian for chess (scacchi, he quickly discovered), it was clear that this wasn’t where he should be looking. Craigan – an old-school student – had spent hours in the library, so Carl decided to do likewise.

He spent the afternoon on the top floor, digging through every book on chess for reference to “Cunego”. Finally, buried deep in a late-19th Century study was the phrase, in a footnote to a reference to a variation of the Marienbad opening:

and this, it is said, is the same as that used by Cunego.

 There was nothing else that seemed at all relevant, but however throwaway, this was something tangible. A glint among the stones. Indeed, the off-handedness of the remark was what intrigued. It suggested that certain readers might know what he was referring to. Perhaps ‘Cunego’ was an oral story – every other book had drawn a blank – told in the chess parlours and clubs but never written down. After all, until the internet, what rumour survived transmutation into print? Print was fixed, dead: a rumour printed was an exercise in taxidermy. But at least there was now something worth digging for.

Where better to explore the talk of the chess world than at the University’s Chess Society? Weekly meetings, he found, were held in a room of the Students’ Union, the door to which he must have passed a thousand times without noticing. But then he’d never joined any of the societies or clubs: they all seemed too self-consciously studenty – “The Dead Rock Stars’ Society”, “The Cult Film Club”.

 

The following Monday evening, he arrived early and hovered outside the room until some members appeared. He paid a guest’s entry fee and went in. Already, some games were underway. Other members either watched, impassive, or helped themselves to polystyrene cups of coffee from an urn in the corner. The hubbub of talk was entirely missing. The atmosphere was like those old men’s pubs where you went to drink, drank, and went away again. He joined the queue for coffee, and made an ice-breaking remark to the girl ahead of him. She laughed, louder than the joke warranted. Carl was aware of sharp glances in their direction.

-Are you new? Her dark hair was cropped to a fringe, like from a French New Wave film.

Carl nodded. A virgin, he confessed.

She introduced herself as Lorraine, and they sat down at one of the tables. Initials and football team names had long ago been scored into the wooden surface, and absent-mindedly inked over and over, like a homemade tattoo. Lorraine set up a board while Carl took a strategic sip of coffee, watching to see which way around she placed King and Queen. Lorraine, white, moved first. Carl realised, as she did so, that there would be method in her movements, and that despite having trawled through any number of chess books in the last week, he hadn’t actually learned any tactics.

-Did you know a guy called Lewis Craigan?

Carl sensed, rather than saw, the glances at his use of the name. His eyes were on Lorraine. She nodded.

-He used to come now and again. Unbelievable, isn’t it?

Carl nodded. Heart attack, they reckon.

-Really? Did you know him?

-We were in some of the same classes.

Lorraine pressed her lips together into that thin line people used to express sympathy.

It must have taken her only a few moves to assess the calibre of her opponent, because the expression reappeared every time she took one of his pieces. Carl had long since given up any hope of mounting an attack. Instead, he enjoyed watching the flick of her long, slender fingers as she whisked both his rooks into oblivion in successive moves. Her manner of execution was nothing if not elegant.

Finally, and with an exaggerated sigh, he laid his king down.

-Another? she asked.

-I’m just getting my eye in. He lined up his pieces, remembering this time what went where.

He copied her opening moves, until with her glances she seemed to be asking if he was mocking her. Then, with a flourish, he charged across the board with his knight on a brave but doomed offensive. Another piece was gracefully plucked from the board.

-Nice try.

-A heroic failure, he conceded.

She won again and, eager for more challenging play meanwhile, suggested they meet for a final game later. She found herself another opponent and began a long, slow battle, while Carl was steamrollered by a succession of silent partners. None of their hands had the elegance of Lorraine’s. They darted, they grabbed, mathematical in the exactness of their movements, and none of them gave him more than one game.

After a time, Carl found himself with no further challengers, and waited until Lorraine had finished her game. He could tell from the body language that she knew her current partner well. They exchanged looks and gestures that to Carl seemed like another language: the difference between tourist French and fluency. She indicated Carl, hovering nearby.

-I think we’ve got another one, she said. Her opponent looked up, unimpressed.

-I’m not really the joining type, Carl admitted.

Lorraine made a small shake of the head and looked back to the board. The three of them stared in silence for a while before Lorraine’s opponent muttered:

-Stalemate.

They packed up and Lorraine looked at her watch. Almost 9pm, and the end of the meet.

-We could continue in the bar? Carl suggested.

-Are you like those pool players who become deadly when they’ve had a drink?

-Not quite.

Lorraine exchanged a few words with her partner, then she and Carl crossed the foyer of the Union and into one of the building’s three bars. It was quiet on a Monday night. Lorraine laid the board while Carl went to the bar.

-What made you come this evening? she asked, nudging a pawn forward two spaces.

-What do you mean?

Lorraine smiled. There aren’t any novices in the Society, and – no offence – you’re no demon.

-No, you’re right there. One of his bishops was picked from its place and added to the growing line-up by Lorraine’s tumbler. He didn’t have a prepared answer; had no real idea of how the evening would have unfolded. Lorraine was the only person who’d said more than a few sentences to him.

-It’s because of Craigan. He explained the interview with the police, the circumstances of his death, and the final, unsent, email.

-Do you know of a grandmaster called Cunego?

Lorraine chuckled.

-I mean, in the way football fans talk about players from the past; is he still maybe talked about? In reverential tones, perhaps?

She didn’t laugh; just smiled and shook her head.

-If Craigan was being straight, I think he believed a certain combination of moves could kill a man.

-Or woman.

-Or woman.

-And you think that’s how he died?

Carl shrugged. He seemed to think it was possible. Died suddenly while playing chess; no established cause of death.

-I thought you said heart attack?

-Sudden death: they have to rule out all possibilities. You’ve never heard a rumour like that, though; that such a thing was possible?

-I just like to play. She seemed to think a moment. There’s a lot of math theory around chess-

-You study maths?

She shook her head briskly. History. There’s supposed to be a series of moves the knight can make that describes this symmetrical pattern, but…not my area of interest. Check, by the way.

-Who could I ask? Carl nudged his king with a disinterested finger.

-That’s still check.

Carl knocked the piece over.

-No! There was a way out. Two moves open to you at least, and you could have launched a counter-attack from one of them.

-Which you, being aware of, would stop.

-You’ll never know, now. She drank the rest of her advocaat.

-Another game?

-No, thank you.

-Oh…

-But I’d take another drink.

 

A white bishop swung from between forefinger and thumb. Carl was entranced.

-There’s something very male about the bishop, Lorraine mused.

-Said the actress.

She sniggered. No, I mean it’s very single-minded. Back and forward – diagonally – never moving from its own colour. A very narrow breadth of experience.

-And that’s exclusively male?

-It’s a bit uncultivated. But not as bad as the rook. I could never date a man who built his games around his rooks: too much brute thrusting. No finesse. If a man wants to seduce a girl over chess, he has to make use – good use, mind you – of his knights. He has to have control over his horses. Or the pawns. They’re up for a bit of anything.

She seemed to sense she’d gone too far, and sank back into her seat.

-You were wondering about someone to ask, she said.

-Ask what?

-About “Cunego”, or was that just a ruse to get me drunk?

-No no no: I swear. It’s all I’ve been thinking about. Is there someone in the club worth speaking to? About this, I mean.

-There is. Lorraine swirled the rest of her drink slowly about the bottom of the glass. Ray: the guy I was playing at the end. He knows about chess, a real buff. He has his own website and everything. She suddenly became aware of her voice, and spoke more quietly. I’m not sure he’ll know, but he’ll know where’s best to look.

She finished her drink and began shuffling into her coat. They walked to the door of the Union together.

-Two questions, said Carl. One: will you help me with this? Find out about Cunego?

-If that’s your way of asking if I’d like to see you again, the answer’s yes.

-That leads me onto two: do you want to come back to my flat?

Lorraine raised herself on tiptoes and kissed his forehead.

-Not until you’ve learned how to control your horses.

She waved to him as she walked away, a rippling of the fingers he was still replaying in his head when he got home.

 

-You’re asking the wrong question, said Ray. He sat across a low, circular table from Lorraine and Carl, by one of the windows in the library. It was just before the hour, and the paths around the library thronged with students on their way to classes. Carl pictured the reaction if he were to pitch this irritating little prick through the window into their midst: a scattering, like pigeons.

-The question isn’t “does such a rumour exist?” It self-evidently does; you’re part of it yourself. The question is how much is truth and how much embellishment? That’s where the real answer would lie, same as with any rumour.

Carl couldn’t believe this boy was the same age as himself. He couldn’t imagine a childhood, either. No development, just built to a blueprint that had served the male line of his family for generations.

-I’ve looked all through this place.

-Have you tried the National Library? Or the web – I mean, really tried? Ray seemed to relax, satisfied.

-Do you think it’s possible? To murder someone through a game of chess?

-There are ten-to-the-power-one-hundred-and-twenty possible moves in chess. Ten-to-the-power-fifty – that’s a ten with fifty-

-I know what it means, thank you.

-Ten-to-the-power-fifty possible moves within a single game. It’s unlikely that every game of chess ever played could have exhausted every possible outcome. But even so, I don’t imagine that a particular series of moves could be so awful – the original sense of the word – as to have a physical effect upon another player. It’s like alchemy. Some elements are stable, others unstable, and there are any number of chemical reactions you might effect on a substance, not all of which may yet have been attempted. But even so, I doubt any of them could successfully change the atomic structure of lead to that of gold. The only possible explanation I can think of is…grand masters have terrific power of recall. They can remember the last dozen moves or more: some of them could even retrace an entire game. Now there’s a chess problem called the Knight’s Journey, in which the knight travels across every single square of the board – just once – in a route that, if you drew it on paper, would create an amazing piece of symmetry.

-That’s what I was trying to describe, said Lorraine. Carl nodded.

-I looked it up on the web.

Ray continued, unimpressed by such shallow research.

-Of course, the piece is always in motion: to fully apprehend the pattern, you’d have to remember each space it had touched. The image would be in your head. And perhaps there is a corollary to that. Something diabolical, for want of a better word. Some fluke that created an image which so horrified a god-fearing opponent that the shock killed him.

-Or her, said Lorraine.

-It’s possible.

 

-What do you think?

-Of him? grunted Carl.

-No; I can see what you thought of Ray, but he wouldn’t touch a fly.

-That doesn’t mean anything. He’s still a freak. “But even so…”. What lab did he break out of?

-Don’t be so nasty. What did you think of his hypothesis?

-Interesting, but flawed. I can imagine such a thing three hundred years ago, but this isn’t a god-fearing age, or at least a god-fearing society. I’m pretty sure Craigan must have seen too many horror flicks to be freaked out by some hideous design appearing on the board. And that’s assuming he had a good enough memory to suss out what was going on. Still, that was a good technique he reminded me of.

-What was?

-“The Knight’s Journey”. Is that the extent to which I have to “control my horses”?

-There’s nothing seductive about perfection.

 

2

 

The website was open before him, Lorraine’s most recent move displayed on the screen. Underneath it was the accompanying message: her assessment of his previous move, and alternatives that he should have considered. He made his own move, and shifted the appropriate pawn on the real chess board that sat beside the monitor. It was a travel-chess set, tiny, and the pieces were little more than plastic pins, but it was all he would allow his student loan to stretch to.

Slowly, like teaching a dog to fetch a stick rather than just career after it, she had taught him how to foresee opponents’ possible moves, and to consider the implications of his own decisions. In effect, to play the next few moves out in his head. The trouble was, there were so many possible combinations branching off every single decision, that he quickly got lost. Lorraine was still winning, of course, but at least now the games were taking longer to play than they did to set up. Sometimes, he’d submit a move if they were playing online, and when the response came she’d be castigating him. He didn’t always understand, and couldn’t comprehend how a short-term sacrifice could be for the best in the longer-term. He rarely reached the longer-term, anyway. He tried his best, though; a willing, if not glittering, pupil.

Once – just once – he had spotted what seemed to be a mistake on her part, exposing her queen. He hesitated, certain it was a decoy, but unable to see the artifice behind the trap, and then pounced. After that, though he knew she was better than him, and always would be, he no longer took for granted that her every move was tactically infallible. It gave him more confidence than all her hints and tips. That time, he phoned her to check she wasn’t just taking the piss.

-No. She sounded regretful. I spotted it too late. Well done: you’re coming along.

-You make me sound like a turkey you’re fattening for Christmas. He relished the sound of her laughter.

Now, he nudged his bishop across the board in response to her knight’s manoeuvre. As usual, the reply was almost instant. It was like she could read him. His knight was now threatened, and fell to her queen, who straddled the board in a commanding position. But the message she’d written and which appeared beneath the plan of the board shocked him more.

Silly boy. Remove one item of clothing.

He picked up his mobile.

-Are you serious?

-Deadly serious. Aren’t you?

-That sounds like a challenge.

-Well, let’s see what you’re made of.

-How do I know you’ll take anything off?

-You don’t. Isn’t that where the thrill lies?

His next move was a waste, a nothing move, but it did take out one of her pawns.

Your turn now, he typed. 😉

When her reply came through, it was with the capture of his bishop.

Do you want to win this game, or to picture me naked? Because you can do that any time. >-|

Just testing the water, he typed.

But he was stumped, now. He stared at the board, looking for a move that wouldn’t bring a rebuke.

Your time’s almost up…

Flustered, he castled his king: a defensive move, swapping it with his kings-side rook.

It took her seven moves to win, with no further losses. Carl finished the game in t-shirt and boxer shorts. His mobile rang.

-You threw that away.

-You changed the rules halfway! It disoriented me. And you only had to take one piece of clothing off.

-You don’t know what I took off, though.

-A rematch?

-Okay. Remember to think this time.

-I will; but let me put some extra clothing on first.

 

As he re-set the little travel chessboard, the image that the policeman’s description had created – of Craigan, dead at his desk – flashed into his mind. What had Craigan got into? He studded the holes of the board with the tiny pegs and wondered if this was how Craigan had died. He’d been found at his PC: had he been playing online chess? Had anyone checked his browser history? Maybe there was a clue there. Carl doubted the police would agree, but it would be useful to know. He raked through his belongings until he found the card with the policeman’s number on it. He dialled, nervous, knowing how daft his question would sound.

There was no reply, so he left a message.

-My name’s Carl Stewart. I’m phoning about the death of Lewis Craigan. You spoke to me a few weeks ago at the University. I don’t know if you remember. Of course he’d remember: the police remember everything. I’d just like to ask a question. I said he’d been talking about chess the last time I saw him, and of course the email mentioned it. I was wondering if his internet history had been checked; maybe he’d been at an online chess site. I’d be grateful if you could let me know.

He looked at the clock. It was late. He turned the phone off and pulled a ski hat from his wardrobe and put it on, then a pair of gloves, but they made it impossible to operate the keyboard, far less the chess pieces. He started the next game, wondering if Lorraine had a webcam.

 

His phone rang in the middle of a lecture on Marlowe the following morning. He killed it and waited until afterward to call back. It was the policeman.

-We ask the questions, Mr. Stewart. If there’s something you think you know, or suspect there’s a line of enquiry we’ve missed, you tell us and we follow it up. Is that clear?

-Yes.

-Now, I’ve looked at printouts we took of his browser history and he had visited a chess website. Would you mind telling me why you “need” to know?

-The email – you remember it?

-I do.

-It mentions chess.

-Go on.

-This will sound crazy, but I think playing online chess might have had something to do with his death.

-It does sound crazy. But what it really sounds is irrelevant. A second post-mortem has confirmed he died of a heart attack.

-Yes, but I think chess had something to do with his death.

-In what way?

Carl hesitated. What was the punishment for wasting police time?

-I’ve been investigating what it said in his email, about “Cunego”. I’ve not been able to find much about it. But there is a rumour that its possible to kill someone – remotely – by a particular series of chess moves.

There was silence at the other end.

-Like a ritual.

-You think this is part of a cult?

-No, no. What I’m saying is that if he was maybe playing online chess at the time of his death its possible that the actual chess moves – whether made by him, or by his opponent – killed him. I think that’s what the reference to Cunego is, but I’m not sure: someone who learned this trick, years past. Craigan did tell me that the rumour existed.

-You do know how ridiculous this all sounds? The Ulster drawl was soft but firm.

-I know, but-

-If you have any more brainwaves, leave a message. But remember that this is police business, Mr. Stewart, not Dungeons and Dragons.

 

When Carl told Lorraine he’d spoken to the police, she seemed alarmed. They sat, tight together in a booth in the National Library. A small pile of books that they’d pored over sat on the desk before them, with a larger pile beyond they’d yet to look at. Her whisper was harsh in the quiet of the reading room and she leaned away from him.

-Why did you involve the police?

-Somebody’s dead. That’s what this is all about. It isn’t about chess, not really. A guy I knew died, and he left it to me to investigate.

-And what are you going to do if you find an answer?

-You don’t think I should have told them?

-Not yet, no. Put it all together, in a convincing argument, if in the end you’re able to. Now it just looks like you’re messing them around. And they might move in themselves; chase you off.

-I didn’t get that impression. And I forgot to ask what the site was he’d been on.

-How would you prove all this? What’s your purpose? If the police don’t believe you, what are you doing this for? Are you going to tell Craigan’s family? Do you think they’d thank you for it? And if he was killed, how do you find out who did it? That’s all they’d care about. Otherwise you’d just distress them.

-We could find out who was on the website at the same time; maybe even who he was playing against. The police could get that info from the site owners, or the ISP.

She moved closer to him.

-If the police won’t listen, I’m wondering what the point is. If you just want to find out for yourself, fine, but how does that help Craigan?

Carl turned a page absently.

-I thought that if I uncover the truth…

-And do what with it? Publish it on the web? If there’s a formula for killing your chess opponent, putting a how-to guide online maybe isn’t a very responsible thing to do.

-I suppose…Carl turned another page. He stopped, his eye snagged on a single word. Lorraine’s voice registered in his ears, but his brain no longer processed the words.

 

…a technique favoured in the late nineteenth-century by the infamous Lombard, Cunego (Cunego v Kolobnev, 1894), and with less dramatic results, by the Flemish de Vlaeminck (de Vlaeminck v Ekimov, 1897)2.

 

-This is it! He flicked to the footnotes at the back of the book, oblivious to the irritated glances of other readers. 2Millar, 1938, p.54” He pointed to the reference, the flesh below his fingernail whitening with the effort.

-We’ve got to find this book. He thumbed a few pages back to find the first reference, and the full details of the quoted book.

-The library’s about to close. Lorraine peered at the clock on the far wall.

-Damn. We’ll have to come back tomorrow. This could be it! He scribbled down the details. I hope they’ve actually got it, he muttered.

-It’s a deposit library. It’s unavoidable.

-Let’s go to the pub and celebrate.

-I can’t, Lorraine sighed. I’ve got work I should really be doing right now. I’ll have to do some tonight. She saw the crestfallen look on his face. Tell you what: if I get it finished early enough, we can play online. I’ve a few tactics I think you’re ready to pick up, which might leave me…exposed. She widened her eyes. Carl grinned, and she leaned closer, whispering in his ear.

-And tomorrow night, you can let your horses do whatever you want.

 

On the way home he saw Scott some way ahead of him. He jogged to catch up.

-Not seen you about for a while, said Scott.

-No. Carl caught his breath. Remember I told you the police had spoken to me about Craigan?

-Yeah.

-Well, I’ve been investigating.

-Didn’t you get some cryptic email from him?

-Mm. He seemed to think you could kill someone by playing them at chess.

-While playing them at chess? Why not?

-No, not while. By. The chess moves themselves were fatal.

-And he believed that?

-And then he seems to have died while playing chess.

-No shit? I didn’t know that. So what have you been doing? You never answered my texts. Thought you were dead. Drop by some time.

-I will, I promise. I’ve almost done with this.

-You’re serious, aren’t you? This is what you’ve actually been doing.

-Yeah.

-Sounds dull as hell.

Carl forced a laugh.

-You had such a low profile I thought it was maybe a woman, said Scott.

-Well, there is one of those.

-Nice.

-You probably know her, actually. Lorraine. She studies History, same as you.

Scott paused, gave Carl a quizzical look.

-I always thought her and Craigan had some sort of thing going on?

 

I’m wearing eleven items of clothing, including a necklace.

Carl made a quick count and messaged back.

I have eight. Make sure the necklace is the last thing you remove.

It might be the only thing I remove. 😉 Lorraine sent her first pawn forward.

I was speaking to Scott in your class. I used to live next to him in halls.

Oh, right.

He thought you and Craigan had been an item.

Lorraine’s next move came with no accompanying message.

Is that true? He took one of her pawns, needlessly.

The next move, too, came without a message.

What’s going on? he asked.

There was a delay before her next move came through.

I can explain everything, she said. It’s complicated. I promise I’ll tell you all about it next time I see you.

Why did you never say anything? The whole time?

I promise; I’ll tell you next time. I’m not going to explain like this.

Phone me, then. He stretched out his arm, flexing the fingers to counter a growing stiffness.

No. Tomorrow night. Carl looked at the board. It was an odd move she’d made, almost without thought, as if she’d moved a piece because that was what was expected of her. She seemed to be inviting an attack. He wondered what she was thinking. He’d obviously thrown her concentration, but so what? He examined the state of play in detail to make sure he hadn’t missed something, and made what seemed to him the straightforward response.

That was a strange one, he typed. Have I crashed your train of thought?

Tactics have changed, came the reply.

She made another move, the sense of which was lost on him. He leaned across to the little chess board on his desk to update it with her new position, and cried out. A shock, like scalding water, rippled across his body. He shook his arm again to loosen the stiffness but it made no difference. The pain came again, and again, in waves.

Suddenly weak, he glanced at the monitor.

Is it starting to hurt yet?

No. Not that. He fumbled for his mobile, trembling. His vison narrowed to a tunnel, like a migraine, and he covered his eyes. The phone rang at the other end and someone answered, but it wasn’t Lorraine.

-Hello, Carl. It was Ray.

-What- Carl sank to his knees. His nerve ends seemed to transmit acid from neuron to neuron.

-Checkmate, in a manner of speaking. That last game: you were doing quite well, but this flat’s cold, so poor Lorraine has got goosebumps: all over.

His voice dropped to a whisper so low Carl could barely hear it.

-She played you very well. Games aren’t something to be taken lightly, Carl. I know it, Lorraine knows it, Craigan knew it, but I don’t think you do. Or maybe you do now?

He waited a while for an answer, and then the line went dead.

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