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Chess and Roses

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Somewhere on neutral ground


The flame from the cigarette lighter illuminated a wrinkled face. "You've come?" It should have been an observation, yet it ended like a question, as if the speaker was secretly surprised at this turn of events.

"Wasn't that our agreement?" the woman asked, rhetorically. She swept off her wide-brimmed hat to reveal shoulder length hair that was not as red on top where the hat had concealed it, as it was further down. "You could at least ask me to sit, John", she added in a voice that carried overtones of the archetypal school mistress.

"My name isn't John", he pointed out, exhaling smoke.

"I know that", she said patiently. "But it's what I've decided to call you. It must be the most common man's name in the West. A name borne by saints and crooks, and madmen of both persuasions. Absolutely noncommittal - it suits you. Or do you prefer - Will?"

"Why not Niccoló?" The elderly man found an ashtray and stubbed out his Morley cigarette half smoked. "The name of an interesting man. Italian Renaissance. Perhaps you've read his work? Yes, I thought you might have. A good name, were I to choose one. But what about you? What shall I call you?"

"What's in a name?" she asked lightly. "Just call me Director."

* * * *

Under St Gillen's Freeway, October 13th


Some areas are no man's land, because no man ever thinks of them. The windswept acres underneath St Gillen's Freeway were kept free for maintenance of the pylons supporting the seven-mile bridge with its constant load of traffic. A place where only rats, smugglers, and street gangs ever met. And if the very air should shimmer with inconsistency in such a place, who but the rats, the smugglers or the street gangs would notice?

* * * *

A chess game on neutral ground

The elderly man who would have liked to be called Niccoló, pulled out a chair for his guest. Gesturing at the chair, and at the small table where the board was already set up, he asked, "Shall we begin?"

She sat down at the white end. "I shall play White tonight", she announced. "I must say I feel quite aggressive." Boldly, she moved her queen's pawn forward.

"Ah, one of the standard openings, yet not the most common one", the old man remarked. He paused for a moment to light another cigarette, then he added, "Regrettably, it often leads to considerable slaughter."

The Director smiled. "I have great confidence in my queen."

* * * *

Under St Gillen's Freeway, October 13th


Indigent Willard Fuchs turned over on his bed of old news and glossy scandals. It was freezing cold tonight. Odd that, he didn't remember it being so cold when he turned in. The traffic soothed him, as it droned on and on above his head. In Paris, the clochards slept under bridges over the river. They had learnt to cope with the dampness. Willard for his part slept under St Gillen's Freeway, and he had learnt to cope with the noise. There had been a time when he used to phantasize about where all the cars and trucks were going, just before he fell asleep at night. Nowadays, he did not think they were going anywhere. Always on the road, never reaching their destination. Or if they did, they were almost certainly not where they wanted to be.

Willard turned over again, not cursing the cold, because Willard never cursed. It was one of his many little advantages over the burghers. The burghers always cursed. They did not know any better. They had not been taught right, like Willard Fuchs. Willard had taught himself mostly, and he had done it quite well, if he might say so.

A shot rang out, disrupting the music of steady traffic. It reverberated for a moment among the pylons, before being drowned out by the noise from above. An angry voice from another direction, then two more on the side from where the shot had come. Willard drew cautiously back into the comforting shadows of the freeway. So, the street fighters were at it again? Well, it didn't concern him, as long as he could stay out of sight. Pretty soon, they would all have killed each other or chased each other off the grounds, and it would be just Willard and the traffic again. Things would be back to normal. Sooner or later, they always got back to normal.

* * * *

"Hey, Melanie, catch!"

One of the youngsters made as if to throw his gun to a short-cropped redhead in a black leather outfit. She shook her head. "Keep it. You need it better than I do."

The air shimmered again, and this time snow was beginning to fall from inside the rippling effect. Small, cold flakes that did not stay on the ground for long. More young antagonists seemed to be pouring in with the snow.

The girl called Melanie did her best to chase them off, and she was a good fighter. She did not even pack a knife, but her infighting techniques were outstanding, and many of her opponents fled rather than being caught between her flying kicks and the guns of her allies.

Willard lay watching the fight, furtively. Best keep an eye on those youngsters, lest anyone see him and think him fair game. They couldn't hope to think he had any money, but they might want some fun, and he had come to really hate the sense of humour of young people like these.

The air kept shimmering like an all but invisible drapery. Willard assumed his eyes must be at fault, the cold was bringing tears to them. It wasn't just the rippling air, wavering as if with heat although the snow kept falling. Once, he thought he saw the Melanie girl defeat her current assailant by just looking hard at him. The boy clutched his head and screamed, then he fell, and Melanie started running.

But someone was trying to stop her. One of the youngsters ran after her, firing his gun twice without taking aim - perhaps he was just trying to get her attention, perhaps not.

Willard Fuchs had made it one of his principles never to partake in a fight - or any other event for that matter. Willard knew that a vagrant lived longer as a mere observer - and occasional informant to those who needed one - than by diving head first into the surfs of life. He also knew with absolute certainty that if he were ever found unconscious in the street, he'd be taken to a hospital where someone would rip all his organs out and store them in huge organ banks until they could be used for transplants. Willard had decided two things for himself: never get sick, and stay out of trouble.

But this young girl seemed so plucky, he wanted her to make it, to get away. It was almost as if he could hear her calling for help, calling to anyone who might listen, and yet he was fairly certain she had not uttered a word since refusing the gun she was offered.

He needed her to get away. Without reflecting any further, he leapt up from his hiding place and ran towards the pursuing youth. The boy must have seen him coming but obviously could not believe his eyes, for Willard managed to take him by surprise and knock him out. Shocked by his own actions, the vagrant immediately fell to his knees beside his victim, awkwardly feeling for a pulse.

"Leave him", said a voice behind him. Willard looked up; the Melanie girl had stopped running and come up to him. "And stop shaking", she added, "never been in a street fight before?"

Willard shook his head mutely.

"Well, I think this one was on my side", she casually informed him. "Or that's what I thought anyway. No matter, let's go." She pulled the tattered man to his feet. "You can't stay here. If they think you're involved, they'll be after you too."

"Who?", Willard asked shakily. "The organ mongers?"

The girl looked hard at him for a moment. Then she said, "I hadn't heard about that. But I wouldn't put it past them. They have quite a few sidelines." She tugged on his frayed coat sleeve. "Come, the sooner we're out of here, the better." She pushed him ahead of her, and so he did not see her reach inside her jacket for something which she then flung on the body of the unconscious youth. A flower. Thrown carelessly, as an afterthought, a thanks for good service in her little band.