“Hold on,” Anatoly said, freezing up. “I think someone’s following us.”
“Who would be following us?” Florence asked. “Groupies trying to get your autograph?”
He was silent, listening to the night. Cars backed up, crickets buzzed, innumerable accents were muffled by walls.
“In England you’ll be able to charge people for it,” she said, as he hurried on. “Of course, they might want a refund when they see it’s all in Cyrillic.”
The upper stories were dark at the consulate, but the lamp over the door was enough to confirm that the night shift bureaucrats were on duty. Anatoly smiled as he knocked on the door, cast in shadows and light, on his way to freedom.
Then a gunshot split the darkness.
Florence had evacuated before her father was disappeared. His foes were phantom creatures, images she had constructed for herself as her accent left her, the traces of her childhood replaced by stark sunlight and fearful memories. The partisans she shook hands and posed with in the opening ceremony had seemed harmless mooks, hoisting their man upon pedestals as their system crumbled around them.
But this was different. These were people ready to inflame a cold war, to eliminate a potential troublemaker, or—worse—frame his death as the work of their enemies. Deny him a voice even in death.
She was not a child anymore, would not abandon him like she’d been forced to abandon her father. He had a life—a wife somewhere, new horizons unfolding before him—that would only be complicated by trying to define what she felt for him. Had felt. It didn’t matter.
“Go,” she said, reaching for the door, shoving him inside, as the attackers pushed forward.
The last thing she saw were the twin flags, colorless in the night, billowing outside the consulate.
Anatoly had thought chess journalists were repetitive, but they were nothing compared to the barrage of questioners trying to turn Florence into some kind of cause celebre.
“Why was Ms. Vassy accompanying you to the consulate?”
“To vouch for my identity and help translate in case of—” The word trouble died on his lips. “If need be.”
“Do you intend to resume the match once you’ve been granted asylum?”
“That will depend on whether my opponent and I can find an acceptable venue. I should think there will be plenty of choices.”
“Will you be seeking a new chess second, or has Mr. Molokov accompanied you into exile?”
“I’m not willing to discuss that at this time.”
Florence should have been his second, of course, and yet he found he could not imagine it. She was second to none—yes, she’d coached Trumper through his temper tantrums. But what Anatoly needed was a political advocate, a guide. Not someone who would disavow the brat she’d tolerated for seven years at the first sign of decency.
His dreams had gotten her killed, and the fact that it denied the petulant American his assistant was no consolation.
The consulate was too small to host a chess match or much of anything else. Anatoly spent his days in the hot upstairs, paging through outdated books and regretting his snappishness towards Viigand. Even the “machine”’s silent company would have been a gift.
What he got, instead, was Trumper, glowering and maintaining that the match absolutely would go on once they got suitable living quarters. “I’m earning too much to just give up.”
“Understood,” said Anatoly, grateful on some level that some things could never change.
“And don’t,” the American began, “you start pitying me about how my girlfriend had to go and get shot. She was a lot of things, but we weren’t—she’s not—”
“Of course.” The fewer mental images he had of Frederick Trumper’s sex life, the better.
“So how long they got you in here for?”
“Not sure,” Anatoly said, which was true.
“They keep you busy?”
“I fend for myself, mostly.”
Sometimes the truth was the strangest possible thing, bizarre enough to get nuisances off one’s back. “You ever summon a demon?”
Trumper paused as if he had to think about it, the same shrug with which he accepted exchanges over-the-board. “Not on purpose.”
“Not on purpose?” Anatoly couldn’t help but repeat. Maybe his English wasn’t as good as he thought.
“It was in Thailand, and it was one time,” he groused, as if that explained anything.
In the end he had to wait until he was moved to England, under a series of guards and through a series of busses and trains and vanishing landscapes, to have enough space of his own. Gathering candles and old books, salt and blades. He was left with nothing of Florence’s but memories, and a few annotations of Trumper’s games, which would have to suffice.
Svetlana would laugh at him, as she mocked her neighbors who spoke of demons and reapers and psychopomps. She had always considered herself too wise, too knowing for silly superstitions, yet foolish enough to remain with a dreamer like him.
On the kitchen floor of his small flat, he knelt between four squares, closing his eyes and seeing the pattern extend beyond him. Then he waited.
He felt rather than heard the darkness settle in. The visitor was not a caped man or a farmer or any sort of thing; it was a void, a ripple in space, bending two walls adjacent to each other where they should not have been, stretching out a formless hand and shifting objects under its touch. Or grasping the objects and moving the world.
“Why have you called me?” it asked. Its voice was a hiss, scarcely louder than the click of a clock, with all the permanence of a pencil scribbling down moves.
“You know why,” Anatoly stammered. He had managed that much, he told himself; there was nothing he could not face, even if the tremors in his voice betrayed his fear.
Without eyes or face or body, it stared at him, through him.
“It wasn’t fair,” he went on. “I want—to make things right.”
“And you think that I am bound by what is right and fair?”
“Yes,” Anatoly said. What did he have to lose?
The guest laughed—its laugh was bursts of color against the floor tiles, wind blowing from the center of the room in every direction, a plant on the balcony outside blooming when it ought to have closed. “Bold human. So be it.”
Then the board was before him, the same cheap one he had acquired upon arrival—it had seemed a waste to bring anything from Russia. And yet with every move he beheld a different set: crumbling stone towers, elegant bounding steeds, pawns with faces that came and went and left no imprint.
He had thought his opponent would have an identifiable strategy. Either something from before the romantics, moving staidly and not falling for dazzling sacrifices, or some inscrutable calculations from the future like those computing machines the Americans were supposed to be working on. Instead it was a mix of everything, one reply leading into the next counter, as if it had not thought far ahead. Or as if each move was against a different ghost, inheriting the confusion of what had come before.
Trade by trade, the board cleared, and the vanquished pieces took their places at his side. He knew they will not stay, not in their wild variance, and he wished he had been brave enough to take notation, too.
Maybe he would remember. Maybe the pattern would stay emblazoned on his mind until they next met. For all the strangeness of the match, his opponent was bound by rules. At least over the board.
He saw that he could not win. But the visitor had no human impatience; none of Trumper’s greed or Viigand’s boredom or—the memory overwhelmed him—Florence’s hope, her urge to write off a futile effort and move onto the next. As long as he was willing to persevere, Anatoly knew, the phantom would stay.
So he boxed himself in carefully, watching the rival pieces close him down, leave him with no escape on his coming turn. Stalemate.
“That counts,” he demanded. “It counts for something. Can’t we, I don’t know, trade my life for hers?”
“You think your beloved would agree to such an exchange? Has she not already made her position clear?” Laughter, again, but more pitying. A settling of dust on the floor, a swatch of new colors in the sunset.
Beloved, Anatoly thought. “I figured you wouldn’t give her a say in the matter.”
“Be careful, little one, that you do not assume too much of me.”
And then its voice gave way to another’s; invisible, beyond space, but real and human. “Tolya?”
She’d never called him that when she was alive. He began to weep, quietly, not taking his eyes from the board in case the set would vanish if he turned away. “Your accent’s better.”
“You have to live. Play, if you can. Win for yourself, for chess. Or if you do your best and lose, that’s fine too. And if you can’t bring yourself to, well, Freddie will get over it.”
“Freddie?” It didn’t matter; that wasn’t what he wanted to talk about. “I can’t—tell anyone about this. They’ll think I’m crazy.”
“Well, it’ll make a nice change of pace from all those other sane and down-to-earth chess types.”
Was she making fun of him? “Trust me, I don’t need any more notoriety.”
“There’s something you can do. Not now, but someday.”
“My father, I’d always—well, he’s not here, not yet. If you see him, give him my love.”
“I can’t imagine I’ll be welcome back in the USSR any time soon, but I’ll take it under advisement.”
“No borders last forever,” said Florence.
Then there was silence, and the room resumed its dimensions. The board was still there, nearly empty in the expanse of freedom.