by Steve Allan

A drip of sweat dribbled past Michael’s ear and then raced down the slope of his neck. His attention wavered from the board in front of him. His move. He glanced at his opponent sitting opposite. The room was poorly lit with one standing lamp focusing light onto the table between them. This caused the other player to appear as a dark smudge against the wall behind him. No features were visible, his face inscrutable. Michael was aware of the other two people in the room, standing hidden behind the halo of light cast by the lamp. They were silent, impassive, waiting for the
outcome. The ticking of the time clock was unnaturally loud, each second counting down to the game’s conclusion.

Michael looked at the clock on the table. It showed four minutes remaining on his side. Not much time. His opponent had the advantage here, seven minutes. Michael’s chair creaked as he shifted his weight. The game was nearing the end but the outcome was uncertain. Michael had two linked pawns whereas his opponent had a knight. Most people would consider that about even taking the board position into account. Michael reached out a tentative hand, paused, then pushed one of his white pawns forward. He quickly pressed the button on the time clock, stopping his time and starting his opponents. He noticed with irritation that his hands were shaking.

His opponent moved forward in his seat and examined the board. The light still failed to highlight his face but the expensive suit came into view. Single breasted, pinstripe, with an immaculate handkerchief folded in the pocket. A hand came forward into the pool of light, bright rays catching in the ostentatious diamond ring on the third finger. Rapidly, the hand picked up the knight and slid it towards Michael’s king before reaching over and pressing the clock once more. Three seconds had passed. Michael paled. Was his opponent sure of his victory, having planned out the moves to precision? Or was he trying to further unravel Michael’s wits with time pressure? During his college years Michael had been a regular player in chess tournaments in his region. His coach had described him as a strong player, not brilliant but better than most. I should be used to pressure like this, Michael chided himself. The mantra of his coach came back to him now: relax, think, and move. Becoming flustered did not help his game, that much was certain.

Michael moved, reinforcing his advancing pawn. Stopped the clock again. The sound of his opponent’s sudden chuckling made Michael flinch visibly. “Don’t be in a hurry to finish this, Michael. There’s a lot at stake you know.”

“Your move.” Michael replied his voice feeble with fright. Michael’s studies had been in finance and accounting, where his success at academia lagged behind his playing ability. Taking five years to complete the four-year degree, Michael had emerged from university with the unshakable belief that wealth and prestige lay before him.  Two years later, with no money and large debts, Michael realised that life just didn’t
work that way.

Ultimately, his poor management of all things monetary had landed him here. The wrong people had over heard a chance remark to a colleague at a bar. Unobtrusive
surveillance had followed. Checks made into his financial and family background showed the possibility of recruitment. It was with a sense of excitement and prestige that Michael became a mid-level associate in an established crime syndicate. And so, against his better judgement, he had wound up here. Playing a game of chess against his employer, who was proving himself to be a devious adversary. This time his opponent took longer to make his move. He spent over a minute leaning back in his chair. Contemplating maybe, but Michael had the feeling he was simply staring straight at him, boring into his eyes with ill-concealed hostility.  It felt like forever but eventually he leaned forward again. The hand hovered over the board, the fingers waggling slightly. Then, very deliberately, he moved his bishop into position over a square and placed it back down with exquisite care. His head shot up and he looked at Michael. The move was a good one. Michael could feel the game slipping away. He had to focus, had to win this one game if it meant never winning at anything again. His opponent settled back into his chair. He was apparently satisfied that victory was coming.

“Isn’t it odd that we’ve never played before, Michael?” Michael wasn’t in the mood for conversation. Probably why he’s started, he thought. Move and counter-move swam before him. The multiple combinations of moves still available at this stage of the game were hard to pin down and evaluate. And then, while he was struggling to concentrate, one last desperate strategy rose to the surface. It was not too difficult to do but how to sneak it past his opponent? Michael screwed up his courage and played the last option open to him.

“Not really. I never liked being in the same room as you.” Michael replied. He felt rather than saw his opponent tense at the insult. He pushed his slight advantage further.

“People like you make me feel sick.”

The sense of anger grew to fill the room. Michael moved his rook. As he clicked the clock he saw he had only 2 minutes left. Was it enough?

“You should know better than to attack me Michael. Are you ungrateful for all I’ve done for you? My money was good enough when you were stealing it.” The voice was full of the violent menace that had lurked below the surface until now. Michael knew this man, knew his reputation. If he had ever walked a tightrope before, he was on one now. Time ticked away on his opponent’s clock. The next move was one of pure aggression. The black bishop sailed down to check Michael’s king. It seemed appropriate somehow. When he saw it, Michael tried not to smile. The relief was almost tangible at the back of his mouth. Rook takes bishop – check. His opponent scowled at the board. His knight removed the rook with such force that it bounced onto the floor.

With a quiet sigh Michael slid his advance pawn one more square closer to the back row. His opponent looked at the pawn in amazement. The black pieces were incapable of reaching it in time. A new white queen was certain. And with that firepower came victory.

He looked across at his opponent and waited. They both knew it was over. The hand with the gaudy ring stretched out across the board, open and inviting.

“Good game Michael. You win.”

With obvious relish Michael took the hand and shook it firmly. He felt the strength flowing back into him. Michael also felt the steady push at the back of his head. He hadn’t even been aware of the observer moving. His opponent stood slowly, pushing his chair back. The steel feet squealed over the bare concrete floor.

“You tried to play me, Michael, tried to take me for a fool. You know what happens to people who do that. But maybe this chess game is simply a metaphor for real life. Somehow you stagger through.” Michael tried to speak but nothing would come. The pressure of the gun at the back of his head increased.

“But I won.” Michael managed to whimper. “We had a deal. I win, I live.”

The dark figure turned and walked towards the door, the third person following him like a shadow. He turned and looked down at Michael. Was that pity clouding his face? Or contempt?

“You’re right, we did. And what kind of man would I be if I couldn’t keep a deal hey?” With a nod, he swept out of the room. Michael felt the gun push into the back of his skull, forcing his head down. Full of terror, he waited. Gently the pressure eased and the gun was withdrawn. The footsteps of the last henchman moved to the door and exited, closing the door behind him. Michael sat there for several minutes, unmoving. When he finally left the room Michael’s hands were still shaking.

Steve Allan:  I'm 29, living in Christchurch, New Zealand and am, as yet, an unpublished author. I write flash and short fiction for enjoyment and I am also working an action / adventure novel.  Contact Steve.