SFReader 2005 Story Contest
Third Place Winner
“What is a man, If his chief good and market of his time Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.” — Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene IV
This world is subject to my will. Power, money, sex; all of the people in it are mine for the taking. I have no use for such things, however; I only wish to serve my master. The Turk.
I am nothing.
I know nothing of my birth, nor of my master’s. I know not how he became bridged across dimensions, nor how I became stuck in this one. None of these things matter. My existence is of little importance; my identity irrelevant; it’s only the tale I tell to which you must attend…
Jonas held her in his hand, caressing her elegant black contours with his fingertips. After a few seconds’ hesitation, he slid her across the board, toppling the white piece with a faint -tick-. He held onto the black Queen another few seconds, then let go, the fallen Bishop rolling at her feet.
“Your move,” he said, at two A.M., in Washington Square Park, in autumn.
“Interesting decision,” said Turk. “You know, you can learn everything you need to know about a person by watching them play chess. The mind’s link to this simple board and its pieces runs deeper than you realize. If we continue to play, I could strip you of your entire being, sixteen pieces at a time.”
And so the extraction began.
The Turk and I had roamed Europe, Asia, and the Americas for centuries, seeking out lives for him to devour. It was only a few decades ago that he became rooted to this place, this park. His newfound immobility matters little, though, since his lair is nestled amidst the richest source of lives on the planet. It also allows me to serve my master better. I am not confined as he is, therefore, I can search the city, utilize my sensitivities to find and lure the essence-richest beings to the park. Along the way, I convince them of their desire to play a game of chess against the Turk, to unwittingly serve up their minds for his conquest and consumption.
I’d discovered Jonas in a Greenwich Village bar, at an open jazz jam. His piano playing shone with such vibrancy, such vigor, that I nearly began to salivate for my master to taste him. The other musicians played their parts adequately or better, but the entire tone of the music changed, seemed to awaken, when the focus circled back to Jonas. His improvisations overflowed with life, with striking creativity. I had the sense that he was competing against his musical partners, so that to all who observed, there would be no question as to who was the best on the stage.
He opened his mind to me through his playing; his childhood, his memories, his insecurities, his desires… I knew I’d found my man.
Back to the park.
“You see, the game of chess has endured through the ages because of its deep-rooted connection to the human psyche,” said the Turk. “Everyone has inherent personal, emotional associations with the pieces when they look at the chess board; eight minor feelings for the pawns, eight more significant slices of mind for the Rooks, Knights, Bishops, King and Queen. These secret values and thoughts are exposed by the way a person plays the game.” He looked for a second at the Bishop that Jonas had just toppled, then slid it off the board.
“Fascinating. Will you take your turn now, please?”
“I have nothing much in this world. I am emptiness… Very good at chess, but not a master. What I am, Jonas, is a master of associations. I can see the links you have to every piece on this board. Hell, I know you so well now, just from watching your chess game, that I can create the associations for you.” My master then jumped his white Knight out to the center of the board. “Check.”
“sh*t, I didn’t even see that,” Jonas said. I was sitting on the low concrete wall at a slight distance, but I could still read the disappointment on his face. The two of them exchanged a few more moves, but Turk’s Knight had hopelessly compromised Jonas’s strategy. My master picked his defenses apart with ruthless efficiency, claiming valuable pieces with each turn.
Finally, he halted Jonas’s next move by catching his hand just above the board. “My friend, I’ve lost only my King’s Bishop and two pawns. You’re down to eight pieces left on the entire board. Let’s flip things around; you can play white and I’ll finish out with the remaining black pieces. Here, I’ll even grant you the Bishop back.” He let go of Jonas’s hand and replaced the Bishop in the unoccupied space where it had been taken.
Jonas looked skeptical. “For what stakes?”
My master grinned broadly. “I’ll wager a hundred dollars against your piano-playing ability.”
“Yes, if you win as white, with the board drastically in your favor, then you get one hundred dollars. If I still manage to win, using only your few remaining pieces, then you give up your ability to play piano – to me.”
Jonas laughed. “This is some kind of scam.”
“It would certainly appear to be, wouldn’t it? But I assure you, there’s no catch. I’ll even let you hold the money until the end of the game.”
Recognizing my cue, I withdrew a wrinkled hundred-dollar bill from my coat pocket and laid it on the chess board in front of Jonas. He furrowed his brow as he picked up the note and examined it, but then pocketed it. “OK, you’re on. A hundred bucks.”
“Versus your gift for the piano, yes,” said the Turk, and slowly began to rotate the board.
I couldn’t help but to smirk, watching all of the color drain from Jonas’s face.
As the board revolved, the eight major white pieces changed form into eight pale fingers. The pawns hadn’t altered appearance, only the white Rooks, Knights, Bishops and royals. The fingers stood crookedly upright in their spaces, each bent slightly at their knuckles. Jonas looked in horror at his hands to see only the two palms, with the thumbs branching off from the sides. There were eight empty, bloodless spaces where his fingers had been only a moment before.
He stood up quickly, his face a mask of revulsion, his chair toppling over backwards behind him. All of the park’s dealers, chess hustlers, and other various pedestrians and inhabitants paused to look in his direction. A strangled cry emitted from his throat, watching my master spin the board into place on the table. He blinked to see the white Rooks, Knights, Bishops, and royals resting in their squares, returned to their proper wooden forms. Jonas held his hands before his frightened eyes to see his fingers intact again and in their proper places. The hallucination had passed.
My master moved a black pawn. “It’s your turn.”
But Jonas remained standing. “There’s something going on here!”
My master looked in my direction; his unspoken order was clearly understood. I walked over and picked up the tumbled metal chair, using my subtle power to encourage Jonas to sit down and continue his game.
“Everything’s fine, just fine,” I said, as the man returned to his seat at the table. The attentions of the rest of the park’s dwellers had already turned back to their own affairs. Jonas settled uneasily into the chair again. The universe folded back down to encompass no more than the tabletop, with only its birdsh*t stains and the chessboard on top of it.
My master won the game soundly, claiming every last white piece before securing checkmate. Jonas threw the crumpled hundred-dollars back on the table, loudly accused my master of some unseen deception, and stormed away in disgust.
I saw him the following evening at the open jazz jam, struggling miserably, utterly unable to play even the simplest melodies on the keyboard. I’d have pitied him, if I were capable. Apparently, Jonas had doubted the legitimacy of the previous night’s chess wager. He seemed convinced now.
I watched him retreat from the stage following an embarrassing rendition of “Freddie Freeloader”; his demeanor exuding his deliciously ripe humanity. He sank into a U-shaped booth, into the comforts of a dark, attractive woman. I moved a few steps closer to absorb the emotions, poured out for this woman to soak up. Her residual vulnerabilities held their own brand of fascination; she was in no way attached to the ring on his finger, she was addicted to pills, she was filled with terror and awe of the city around her — but I pushed her emanations aside. My focus here was solely on Jonas.
I’d edged slightly too close; he glanced up from the pillow between her shoulder and bosom and spotted me watching from across the room. He was on his feet in an instant; I moved quickly for the door.
He caught up to me at the place I intended; the street corner just south of the jazz club.
“What the hell did you and your friend do to me?” he demanded loudly, grabbing my coat by the lapels. “Huh? What are you guys, hypnotists or something? Why can’t I play piano anymore?”
“That was the bet, sir,” I said, prying his fingers away and stepping back. A flatfoot policeman strolled in our direction, but I willed his attention elsewhere. “I’m certain the Turk will grant an opportunity for you to win your talent back.”
“Yeah? What would I have to ante up in that game? My liver?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Let’s go to the park, you can discuss it with him.”
“I’m not playing any more games with you guys. I just want my music back.” His new-found caution had built a slight resistance to my will, but I could feel his desire undermining his own defenses. He’d begun to truly feel the gaping emptiness of the loss of his craft.
The discussion continued like this as we walked along, until we’d traversed the six blocks to the street surrounding the park. I felt relieved to be close to my center again, to see my master sitting there in his usual spot, behind the concrete table, with the chess board set up and ready for a game.
Jonas saw him too; he turned his back on me and walked directly up to the table.
“Look man, I don’t know what you did… but… I’m not rich, you know, but I can give you three hundred; it’s all I can manage. I just want my blues back.”
Turk smiled up at him, “I did so enjoy your playing, Jonas. Elements of McCoy Tyner and Oscar Peterson, with a trace of Elton John pop sensibility thrown in. So very rich, it’s admirable how much of yourself you put into your music. It’s been many years since I’ve experienced anything so delightful.”
Jonas gritted his teeth. “What the hell do you want from me?”
“How about another game of chess? You can be white and go first. Each black piece will represent one sixteenth of what remains of your musicianship.”
“And what do I put up as collateral?”
“Your mind overflows with vibrant elements, Jonas; powerful, vivid, living pieces. Most of your species can’t summon so much ardor for even one thing; but you seem to find passion for nearly all of the objects scattered across your personal landscape,” Turk grinned. “My servant has truly found a gem in you, friend; you’re rich in quantity and quality. I have become imprisoned here at this park; I see in you the key to restore my liberty.”
For the first time, I saw fear in Jonas’s eyes. “My god, you’re the devil.”
My master laughed sharply. “No, I’m the Turk. Now sit down.” He brushed his fingertips lightly across the tops of the arrayed white pieces; a few wobbled but all remained standing. “Let’s play chess. See for yourself which elements I hope to win from you this time.”
I could see all of the conflicting emotions swirling in the man; his better judgment was telling him to just walk away, to take piano lessons and slowly rebuild his talent. But in his indecisive state, he glanced at me.
That was his downfall.
“All right, one more game, Turk,” he said, frightened but shoring up his confidence. “I won’t make any stupid mistakes this time.”
My master merely nodded, and gestured for Jonas to begin.
Jonas took hold of the King’s Knight pawn, prepared to slide it forward.
But as soon as his fingers contacted the polished wooden bulb atop the piece, I saw the concentration wash from his face. His eyes were suddenly distant and thoughtful, elsewhere, overcome by the sudden unexpected distraction in his mind.
“Pawns are nuances, usually random memories. It’s the back row pieces that will have the more solid, immediate connections,” Turk said. “That pawn in your hand there… That’s your stored recollections of your grandparents’ house as a child. The scent of pork chops frying, mingled with the sound of your grandfather humming softly to himself, news anchors speaking on television. And oh yes – the taste of the hard candies they kept in the glass bowl on their coffee table.”
He looked from my master to me, then back to the board, in speechless wonder. He touched each of the other pawns, summoning memories of his honeymoon at Disney World, the recalled taste of a stale pretzel eaten on the Staten Island ferry when he was 10, the unsuccessful struggle to withhold tears at his father’s wake, the sting in his tiny hands from hitting a baseball with an aluminum bat, the thrill of watching that ball soar over the outfielders’ heads, the dread and discomfort of hiding in bushes as a teenager, stoned and reeking of marijuana smoke, watching the police officers walk slowly past, the elation of his brand new Huffy bicycle, of riding it around that first day, of miscalculating its weight during a curb-jump, of the vicious scrapes on his elbows and knees, and…
“Ah, the loss of your virginity, with Sandy Zeliznak in her brother’s waterbed,” My master said as Jonas touched the King’s pawn. “The mingled scents, the awkwardness, the ecstasy, the sense of pride, the horror movie playing unnoticed on the room’s television; now there’s a rich memory. I’m looking forward to it.”
Jonas barely seemed to notice Turk’s words as he let go of the pawns and traced his fingers across the back row pieces. Here, he found deeper connections. Here, the fear showed more prominently in his eyes. His geographical roots and familiarity with New York embedded in the Rooks, his aptitude for computer games and programming languages locked into the Queen’s Knight and Bishop. The King’s Knight contained his bond with his fellow musicians and his circle of friends; the King’s Bishop held his connection to his music library, the thousand-or-so records, tapes, and CDs occupying one entire bedroom is his apartment.
His hand hesitated over the Queen; I could sense his reluctance to learn what she held.
“The white Queen is your connection to your ex-wife, Jonas, whose ring you still wear, for some reason. I’d be doing you a favor by capturing her.”
“I can’t risk all of these things,” Jonas said softly.
“The game is begun. You already have,” my master said. “If you walk away, then you forfeit everything. Your only hope is to beat me and keep it all.”
“You bastard,” Jonas said. He glanced at the white King, then set his jaw and slid a pawn forward. “Then I will win this game. That’s all there is to it.”
“We’ll see,” said the Turk, as he pushed a black pawn.
Jonas did indeed claim many black pieces, recovering a good deal of what little of his musical talent that my master had not already consumed.
But. He eventually lost all of the white pieces and the game, checkmated in a trap between the black Queen, a Knight, and the board’s edge.
“That was a very close match, Jonas. You’re quite a formidable chess opponent. Shall we play again?”
Jonas made no reply. He shed his stunned expression to glare hatefully at my master, who’d already begun setting the pieces back in their starting positions.
“If you win, you get everything back that I’ve won from you. All those memories and connections will be yours again. If I win again, then I claim sixteen more pieces of you.”
“Damn you to hell,” Jonas hissed, pushing a central pawn forward, shrugging off the memory it raised of his high school graduation.
In that game he managed to regain three of his mind’s fragments, but lost his memories of his Grand Canyon vacation, of dancing close to Stephanie Byrnes at the eighth grade dance, of the progressive rock band he’d formed with his college friends, of winning two thousand dollars during his last Atlantic City weekend, of accidentally discovering the note from his wife’s lover in her jewelry box… My master also extracted Jonas’s back row connections to his apartment, to the house he grew up in, his favorite foods, his all-time favorite movies, a smattering of his political opinions, along with a few other unique personality traits…
“I guess you’re not much of a Knicks fan anymore,” the Turk said.
“Fuck you!” Jonas shouted and stood up, looking distraught and confused. He abruptly flung the board off the concrete table, scattering all of its pieces across the park’s paved walkways. I flinched, but the Turk and his grin both remained fixed. The man turned and stalked away, ignoring the stares of the park’s other dwellers.
Neither my master nor I made a move to stop him; we both sat in our places and watched, watched as he approached the park’s perimeter. Watched as his footsteps grew heavier and heavier, until he’d fought his way to the curb, and was unable to step forward on to the street. Watched as his shoulders drooped, his livid energy draining, weighed upon by dawning despondency, his belated realization of the trap that had snared him. The same invisible cage that had kept the Turk now held him as well.
“Master…” I whispered.
“Not yet,” he replied. “Almost.”
After a few minutes on the curb, Jonas turned and walked back to the chess table, which had already been restored and set for a new game.
He didn’t sit down.
“Look, you’ve taken enough of me. I don’t know what you’re about, how you did all this… I just want to leave now. Please.”
I stood up, ready to persuade his intent, but my master stopped me with a gesture. I scanned Jonas’s mind; his fears and confusion had indeed become too strong a barrier, even for my influence.
“I can’t leave this park yet, why should you?” Turk said.
“Look! Enough, goddamn it. I’ll, I’ll make a scene. I’ll get the police in here to handle it. Just undo your voodoo spell or whatever and let me go.”
“I don’t think you’d want to cause a disturbance here; those gentlemen probably wouldn’t appreciate the police attention interrupting their business,” my master said, nodding in the direction of a few Rastafarian drug dealers. “One more game of chess is all I think I’ll require of you. Then we’ll be finished.”
“No way, goddamn it. I obviously can’t beat you, and you’ve already stripped me of enough of my life,” Jonas said. “What more do you need? My soul?”
“I know nothing about any ‘soul’, my friend. If you do possess such a thing, I have no use for it,” my master replied. “You see, I’ve gained more from you than just the elements contained in those white pieces. With each checkmate, you and I exchanged core chunks of our selves, from the deepest recesses of our beings. One more checkmate, and I think I’ll have acquired enough of your former identity to fool the barrier, to exit this park.”
“And then I’d be the one trapped here forever?” Jonas looked incredulous. “Now why would I ever play another game of chess with you, and risk being imprisoned eternally in Washington Square Park?”
“Well, you’re mortal, so nothing’s eternal for you. You’d eventually die here. But your real motive to play should be your lack of choice in the matter. I’ve taken enough of your core being that you’ve already begun to fade. The bits of myself that I’ve transferred back will never sustain you. Within two days, your body, your very existence will have disappeared completely. Remembrances of you will fade in the minds of all who ever knew you – except me, of course. Your only hope for survival is to beat me at chess and win your identity back. I’ll once again put up everything I’ve won so far as collateral.”
Jonas sat in the chair, but still had not conceded to another match. “I don’t trust you to pay up properly, even if I do manage to beat you.”
My master shrugged. “Your trust is entirely up to you. But I’m eager to play another game; I’ve associated some exciting pieces of you into the white back row. That King’s Bishop, it represents your love of gambling. And the Queen….” he grinned devilishly. “Go ahead and touch it, see what she represents.”
Jonas couldn’t resist. I think his strong curiosity was embedded in one of the Rooks. He moved hesitantly, then gripped the Queen’s wooden crown.
“No,” he whispered.
“Yes, your connection to that waitress at the jazz bar,” said the Turk. “My servant informs me that she’s quite rich in human components as well. I intend to pay her a visit, as soon as I’m free from this place.”
“You bastard!” Jonas lunged across the table, led by his fists, knocking down pieces on both sides of the board. His punch landed solidly, passing though my master’s trans-corporeal form, striking hard into the chair’s metal back. He stood, shaking his knuckles and looking angrily into my master’s placid face.
“The game is on now, Jonas. You’ve touched your pieces. There is only checkmate or forfeit remaining.”
Jonas’s anger wilted, leaving only the growing horror in its place. He sat, and looked at the scattered pieces he’d knocked down. He heaved a deep sigh, then restored them to their proper starting positions, learning their associations as he touched them.
I observed from my usual adjacent position. There was something troubling in his demeanor as he replaced the last black pawn, as if a flicker of hope had entered his mind. I scrutinized him closely, watching for further signs.
He made his opening move.
The game progressed uneventfully for a few turns. Jonas’s strategy this time seemed more aggressive than in previous games, almost reckless.
It soon came time for a trade of white pawn for black Knight in the center, which would set up a trade of a white Bishop for a black pawn. My master initiated the sequence by claiming the white pawn. He looked up suddenly, though, after the piece’s conquest. My disquiet was now confirmed; something was wrong.
Jonas quickly slid his Bishop and took out the Knight. He picked it up and held the black horse-head shape before his smiling face.
“Fascinating. Apparently, the largest pieces of our beings are replicated even in our smaller chunks. I seem to have picked up a small ‘mastery of associations’ from the fragments of your soul that you traded me during your checkmates, Turk,” He stuck the black Knight into his shirt pocket. “And oops, your ability to create associations is gone entirely now, embedded in this little black horsey.”
“You-” my master said.
“That’s right. I realized I could load that into your pieces as I was putting them back into place. I realized that you’d created the associations for my pieces in the other games by touching them. It’s a pretty simple process, actually.”
I was suddenly overcome with dread. I stood up and took a few steps toward them, determined to exert my will, to prevent the man from taking this any further.
“You sit down,” he said, pointing at me. “I might not be able to touch him, but I’ll knock your ass out.”
I tried to telepathically command him to forfeit, but still couldn’t touch his mind. It was now too closely mingled with that of the Turk’s. I sat back down on the concrete wall. Satisfied, he looked back to my master. “So what do you say? Let’s play some more chess.”
They went through a few more rounds, neither side saying a word. My master was still the superior player; while losing only one more pawn, he claimed three more white pieces. But, they were empty tokens of wood now, utterly devoid of any slices of Jonas’s being. He’d removed all of their associations.
A few turns later, my master leapt his Knight out to the center of the board. “Check,” he said quietly. I noted that Jonas had a few choices. If he used his pawn to take that Knight, then he’d leave his defenses open for a nasty exploit from the black Queen, giving her the run of his pieces on the left side of the board. The safer option was to move his King forward diagonally, out of check.
The man laughed and knocked the black Knight down with his pawn. He snatched it up and dropped it into his shirt pocket, where it clicked against the other black horse.
“That Knight,” he said, “Was your mastery of the game of chess, Turk. This one should play out very differently now.”
The helpless realization dawned immediately for me and for my master.
“No… no!” hissed the Turk. “This isn’t fair. I won’t let this go any further.”
“What, so you forfeit then?” Jonas grinned.
Scowling, my master attacked with the black Queen. But sure enough, he soon made an amateur error and lost her.
“Oh, look at that, my pain over my cheating ex-wife is back,” Jonas said. “Yes, I could have left that with you.”
Employing my master’s tremendous skill, Jonas swept across the board, reclaiming all of the black pieces, imbued with the lost elements of his life. At the end, he deliberately postponed victory in order to hunt down the black Bishop, my master’s only remaining piece, other than the King. He finally claimed it, heaving a great sigh of relief.
Checkmate soon followed.
“Good game,” Jonas said, his shirt pocket bulging comically with the black back row pieces that he’d claimed. He stood and took a step toward me, but I darted away in the other direction. After a few moments, I turned to see that he’d already given up the pursuit.
Jonas stood staring down at the top of the Turk’s head, but my master would not look up. His eyes remained fixed on the square grid of the chess board. After a few moments, Jonas turned and walked to the park’s border.
He stepped off of the curb without looking back.
Since his defeat at Jonas’s hands, my master, and I in turn, have grown very frail. Only the weakest minds will now respond to my commands. The Turk is listless and despondent, feeding primarily on the meager existences of junkies and homeless whom we can lure into the park. They quickly fade, and my master’s hunger remains unsatisfied.
We do regain our strength, though. Slowly but surely, through each meager life he drains, our power returns. I’ll eventually be strong enough to go out in search of more robust minds again. And in the meantime, my master continues to study chess books and to play against simpleton opponents. His game will reach mastery level again. We have an infinite supply of time to regenerate what we’ve lost.
The Turk will eventually be fully restored; he’ll eventually be freed of this square park prison. And we’re more cautious now; we’re taking steps to ensure that no mortal will ever weaken us so badly again. We won’t make any stupid mistakes this time.
Jonas has gone on to garner some renown as an international chess master. If he’s still alive when my master finally achieves his freedom, then we’ll find him.
There will be a rematch.Share