Highly focused and arrogant, John Butler has little time for anything other than achieving his ultimate goal: to become a world champion chess player. He already knows he’s the best player in the world, but he needs the title to prove it. Now, with the most important competition of his life about to take place in Venice, John’s carefully regimented existence is suddenly thrown into chaos when the CIA asks him to take part in a different sort of match.
John’s opponent, Russian world champion Yevgeny Petroff, plans to defect, and the CIA wants John to be their point of contact. John would never willingly agree to such a distraction, but when he’s paid an unexpected visit by Petroff’s sister, he finds himself a pawn in a complex, dangerous game of deception—and only the greatest player can win.
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For a moment the young boy didn't think his burly opponent had heard him. Then Gligoric's cold grey eyes blinked and focused on his. 'Check, mister,' the boy repeated.
Gligoric's eyes dropped to the chessboard between them. He thought for a few seconds, then quickly interposed a knight between his king and the boy's bishop. Almost as an afterthought he reached out and pushed the plunger on his side of the chess clock. His clock stopped and the boy's began. Gligoric's movements were smooth and expert, belying his position on the board. The boy felt a surge of excitement. Certain that his opponent's move was a mistake, he leaned forward and began to study the board intently, looking for the correct sequence of moves that would lead to the checkmate he felt sure would be his.
Gligoric ignored him. The Russian leaned back in his chair and looked out over the hall where upwards of four hundred people were jammed together, huddled over their chess sets, waging a war of the mind in almost total silence. The world of the chess player was a classless society, Gligoric thought, with young and old, rich and poor, men and women, many of whom were neurotics, some psychotics, bearded street people and businessmen, all monumentally unconcerned with any characteristic of an opponent save his ability to orchestrate the movements of sixteen carved wooden pieces over a playing board with sixty-four squares. He hated the closeness of these patzers, the sweaty smell of bodies made unnaturally rigid by sustained nervous tension.
His gaze wandered to the front of the hall where a knot of fifty or sixty people stood three deep around a table set up on a special raised platform. Classless societies were for politicians, he thought; he had nothing but contempt for a would-be world champion who would subject himself to the common indignities of an American Swiss-style week-end tournament.
The object of Gligoric's contempt appeared to be oblivious to the crowd of people ringing the table where he played. John Butler's pale blue eyes were bright, focused like lasers on the board in front of him. His tall, rangy body was tense, coiled like a sprinter's; his feet were flat on the floor, his shoulders hunched forwards.
Only now was he beginning to emerge from the vacuum cocoon of concentration in which he had wrapped himself for the past four hours. An hour before, John had had only ten minutes left on his clock, to Victor Ratchek's seventy minutes. Then he had launched his combination, a brilliant sacrifice of a rook. Ratchek had had no choice but to capture, and the trap had snapped shut. Now it was the older grand master's clock that was ticking away the final minutes. John knew the game was over, and he allowed himself to relax slightly while he waited for the same realisation to come to Ratchek. These were the times John longed for, the moment of triumph when all things fell into place and a raw, troubled spot deep inside his mind became serene. It was the moment when, using only the power of his mind, he became another man's master.
Ratchek glanced nervously at the clock, then advanced his knight, threatening a check. He quickly punched his clock. John had anticipated the move. He retreated his king one square. He punched the clock, noted both moves on his score sheet, then leaned back and looked around him.
Tom Manning had returned from an arbitration dispute and was sitting in the chair reserved for him, making copious notes on the game being played before him. He brushed a shock of silver hair away from his forehead and glanced up. His face was expressionless, but his sharp eyes shone with approval. John wondered how Manning's analysis would compare with his own.
Henry Palmer was standing in the front row of spectators. He caught John's eye and gestured, indicating victory in his own match. The gesture was not needed; as usual, Henry's freckled, boyish face was an open window on his emotions. John gave a perfunctory nod and turned back to his opponent. Ratchek looked pale.
Somewhere in the rear of the hall a door slammed. Two sets of footsteps echoed with an ominous cadence, growing louder as they approached. John frowned. The sounds were out of place in the still hall.
Gligoric made his next move and looked up as the two men in tan raincoats and matching short haircuts marched down the centre aisle, ignoring the players around the hall who angrily shushed them. Gligoric recognised authority when he saw it. The men were too formal to be New York City policemen, too stereotyped to be the men he had expected. That left the FBI. Something that might have been surprise flashed for a brief instant in Gligoric's eyes. He scratched the back of his neck. In the corner of the hall a tall, dark-complexioned man who had been standing watching the games, walked over to a window and signalled down into the street.
The young boy was unable to suppress his excitement. His voice broke and ended in a squeal. 'You just left your queen hanging, mister.'
'I resign,' Gligoric said, reaching out and absently tipping over his king.
Special agents Burns and Draper reached the outer perimeter of the crowd ringing the table at the front of the hall. With Burns in the lead they began to push their way through.
'Excuse me,' Burns said brusquely. 'Let me through, please.' His voice was a harsh croak, as though someone had stepped on his larynx.
A young man with long, stringy blond hair and a greasy leather jacket turned and blocked Burns' path. 'Hey, man! What —?' The man nervously glanced around him. His voice dropped to a venomous whisper. 'What the hell do you think you're doing?'
'Let us through, please!' Draper said, shouldering the man aside. There was a chorus of muted curses, but the crowd parted. Burns and Draper moved forward until they flanked the table. John was waiting to move, his clock running. Neither he nor Ratchek had given any indication that they were aware of the disturbance, or of the two men standing over them.
Draper pulled a thin leather wallet from his coat pocket and opened it, exposing a shield and identification card. 'Are you John Butler?'
John and Ratchek ignored Draper and continued to study the position on the board between them. Henry Palmer had moved closer to Burns, the taller and heavier of the two men, and was openly glaring at him. Tom Manning rose to his feet.
Burns was flushed, his eyes bright. He had unconsciously balled his hands into fists. 'Look, Butler —!'
'Shut up!' a woman's voice called from the rear of the hall.
Draper shoved the wallet in front of John's face, blocking his field of vision. 'Mr Butler,' he said evenly. 'I'm Special Agent Draper, and this is Special Agent Burns. We would —'
Without looking up John absently pushed Draper's hand away from his face. He studied the position for a few more seconds, then made a move. He pushed the button on his clock and noted his move on his score pad. Burns and Draper exchanged surprised glances.
Burns had risen up on the balls of his feet, balanced like a prizefighter. 'Butler, this is official business. We want to talk to you.'
'Can't this wait?' Henry said angrily. 'You people are disturbing the next world champion!'
'Hey!' a man's voice bellowed. 'Can't you guys in the front shut up?'
Tom touched Draper's arm. The tensed muscles beneath the coat felt like bands of coiled steel. Draper jerked his arm away. Tom stepped around in front of him. 'My name is Thomas Manning,' he said evenly, meeting the other man's gaze. 'I'm the President of the United States Chess Federation, and director of this tournament. You're interrupting an important match between two grand masters. What is it that you want? Perhaps I can help you.'
'Sir, we're here on official business,' Draper said stiffly.
'Go do your business someplace else!' Someone shouted and was immediately followed by a chorus of cheers.
'They'll be finished soon,' Tom said softly. 'Surely you can wait a few more minutes.'
Draper looked at Burns and the big man shrugged. Both agents stepped back a pace from the table and stood with feet apart and hands folded in front of them, like soldiers at parade rest. The muscles in Burns' jaw were knotted, but the eyes of both men were veiled and cold.
The tempo of play increased as both John and Ratchek came under intense time pressure. The hours of tense, unflagging concentration had taken their toll, and fatigue was etched on the faces of both men. Each player now saw the position on the board through the emotional filter of his own elation or crushed hopes: John saw a physical arrangement of almost poetic beauty, while to Ratchek the pieces were suddenly grotesque and menacing, like strangely misshapen warriors on a checkered battlefield.
John moved his rook to the seventh rank and punched the clock. 'Check.'
Ratchek suddenly reached out and stopped the clock. 'I resign,' he said quietly, extending his hand toward John. John nodded and shook Ratchek's hand. There was a short burst of applause from the spectators, quickly stilled by the angry shushing of the other players. Burns and Draper stepped forward and stood over John.
'Beautifully played, John,' Ratchek said. 'I missed the combination. Very deep. Very deep.'
'Mr Butler,' Draper said impatiently, 'we'd like to speak with you.'
'It was set up as far back as the eighteenth move,' John said to Ratchek. He began to set the pieces up in their original positions. 'We'll analyse and take a look at it.'
Ratchek glanced up at Burns. It was the first time either of the players had recognised the presence of the agents. 'John,' Ratchek said, a nervous edge to his voice, 'I think maybe —'
'No!' It was almost a shout. The quiet place inside John was already roiled again, boiling, sending out fiery streams of anger that coursed through his body, stiffening his muscles and blurring his vision. 'I intend to analyse! If we ignore these creeps, maybe they'll go away.'
Tom and Henry exchanged quick, nervous glances. Burns sucked in his breath sharply, then reached out and grabbed John's arm. 'Now you just hold it right there, wise guy!' Burns said, his voice trembling with rage.
John pulled free from Burns' grasp. He unhurriedly swept the pieces to one side of the table, rose and brought the wooden playing board crashing down on Burns' head. The board split and the pieces fell to the floor. Burns, stunned, mumbled something unintelligible, staggered and fell backwards off the raised platform.
The crowd of spectators, which had tripled, cheered. All of the players in the hall were on their feet. John spun around and struck Draper a glancing blow on the jaw. Draper, unperturbed, moved with the skill and speed of a professional fighter. He rolled with the force of John's blow, shifted his weight and caught John in the solar plexus with a short left hook. John's breath exploded from his lungs and he doubled over in pain.
The cheers abruptly shifted in pitch to a uglier sound. A few of the spectators advanced on Draper. Draper glanced in the direction of his partner. Burns was sitting up, slowly shaking his head back and forth. Draper made a quick decision; he stepped back and drew his gun. 'Hold it!' he barked. 'FBI!'
Peter Arnett wore a pained expression on his face. He was sitting behind a modern desk, leaning forward on his elbows and cupping his chin in his hands. Behind him, a huge bank of windows looked out over Manhattan, thirty storeys below. It was one of those rare, clear days when the city — viewed from a great height — looked clean, beautiful, and awesome.
Arnett's sandy hair had two parts, one natural, the other a straight, pencil-thin line of white scar tissue left behind by a bullet. He was forty-six, and looked younger. His suit was ill-fitting and sagged on his trim, muscular body. At one time he might have been handsome; now his nose was crooked, as though it had been broken and never properly reset. His face was that of a man who has seen too much to care about appearances. His green eyes carried a hint of humour, and a glint of cruelty.
Across the carpeted office, John, his hands handcuffed behind his back, stood between Burns and Draper. Burns had a large gash on his forehead which he occasionally nursed with a large handkerchief. Draper stood stiffly, his hands thrust into the pockets of his coat. John pointedly ignored the three men, but his sensitivity to subtle shifts of mood in other men made him aware that Burns and Draper were angry and uncomfortable in the presence of the man behind the desk. John sensed that a new and different kind of game was being played. He now felt sure that he had identified the principal player, and he would wait to see what the rules and object were before deciding whether to do more than stand and stare straight ahead.
'Let him go,' Arnett said. His voice was soft, but with the hard edge of authority.
Draper's hands came out of his pockets fast. They tensed, then went back into the pockets like nervous animals ducking for cover. 'Not a chance,' Draper said tightly. 'I don't know what you want with Butler, and I don't know where you get the juice to be able to use FBI agents as errand boys. It doesn't matter, we do what we're ordered to do. What I do know is that this guy has problems. He assaulted a federal agent. Now, you go ahead and take care of your business. But when you're done with him, he's ours.'
Arnett tapped his index finger once on the desk. 'You'll do nothing except take the handcuffs off that man and get out of here,' he said evenly. 'You've done what you were supposed to do. Now get lost.'
Both Burns and Draper smelled of frustration and rage. Out of the corner of his eye John could see a dark blotch spreading under Draper's armpit.
'You have no jurisdiction!' Burns croaked.
Arnett didn't blink. 'I don't need jurisdiction. I could have you out on your asses, and you know it,' he said quietly. 'You do what I told you or I'll have you out in South Dakota shuffling file cards before dinner time.'
The FBI agents glanced at each other, but didn't move. For the first time John looked directly at Arnett. If there was any doubt in Arnett's mind that the two men would obey him, his his face didn't show it. A moment later his confidence was rewarded Draper removed a set of keys from his pocket and, with trembling hands, unlocked the handcuffs, John resisted the impulse to rub his numbed wrists. He slowly let his arms drop to his sides. He could feel Arnett's eyes searching his face. He met the gaze and held it, struggling to keep his face impassive. He was certain the man behind the desk was humiliating the FBI agents for his benefit. John felt his stomach tighten; it was the same sensation he always experienced before an important match.
Burns and Draper turned to go.
'One more thing, gentlemen,' Arnett said.
The two men stopped, but did not turn around. John could hear Draper's heavy breathing.
'Mr Butler is big news,' Arnett continued. 'By now, half the people at the tournament are spilling their guts to some very eager reporters. I don't want a word about what happened to appear in the newspapers. Not one word.' Arnett smiled thinly. 'Otherwise, you can say hallo to South Dakota.'
The force of the words spun Burns around. 'How the hell do you expect us to —?' 'I don't care how you do it! Use some imagination. Go wave a flag in front of the Daily News building. Promise The Times and the Post access to some secret documents. Threaten them, for God's sake. Just keep that story out of the papers.'
Burns swallowed hard and nodded. He turned to John and seemed about to say something, but didn't. Draper was already out of the office. Burns followed him, slamming the door shut behind him.
Arnett rose from the desk and walked across the office to a hidden bar. He produced a bottle of Scotch and two glasses. He poured two drinks and offered one to John. John ignored him. Arnett set the drinks down on a table, then went back to the desk and sat down on the edge, crossing his arms across his chest. 'I'm sorry about that,' he said at last.
'Who are you?'
Arnett smiled engagingly. 'My name is Peter Arnett. I'm a spy.'
'Is that supposed to impress me?'
'No. I was trying to be funny.'
'Does that mean that you're not really a spy, or that you're trying to be a funny spy?'
The smile faded. For a brief moment Arnett's face paled and his eyes glinted with anger. It quickly passed. 'It means that I'm a CIA operative,' he continued after a pause, 'and the CIA isn't supposed to work in the United States. That's why I had to send those two educated goons after you. This is still in the way of an apology.
Excerpted from "King's Gambit"
Copyright © 2017 George C. Chesbro.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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