Marta is playing with him; he’s sure of it.
Not literally. Well, yes, literally in the sense that she plays him at Go regularly but that’s just superficial, set dressing to whatever other long game she has going on.
Third Thursday of every month, like clockwork, Marta visits him, with a Go board. He’s not sure how she gets away with it. As much as he knows that he’s got a pretty cushy deal in this prison, there are very few of his fellow prisoners who are allowed to play board games with their visitors. (A couple of the old timers play dominoes or chess, but they’ve all been in for so long they’ve ‘earned’ the privilege.) She always brings the board, sets it out on the table and raises her eyebrow at him: a silent question. He always says yes. Not always straight away, but eventually, he can’t help but give in. She’s different when they play; the conversation flows better, easier somehow, when they play their game. Against his will, he likes her better when they play.
He suspects she’s trying to teach him something. At the very least, trying to tell him something. He’s damned if he knows what though.
Ransom and his mother play very different games. They always have. He won them more often before he went to prison because now she holds far more cards than she was since before he hit puberty.
It’s been a very long time since the last time Ransom couldn’t get what he wanted. Throw enough money at a problem and most people or objects could be obtained or disposed of, that was the joy of the stuff. Occasionally a woman will resist his charms, but mostly he’s got good enough at reading people to tell in advance if someone is susceptible or immune and adjusted his expectations accordingly. Most people disappoint him eventually, but generally by being too willing to do what he wants, rather than the other way round. It makes his life easier, but it is terribly boring.
Marta is not boring. Marta is incredibly, frustratingly, annoying.
Ransom had never much bothered with game theory when it came to Go. Most people he’d played the game against were little to no challenge, and really the only worthy opponent, the only one he’d ever cared to beat, had been his grandfather and that was a unique challenge. Harlan’s tactics had been his own and Ransom had always felt that only he had ever had a chance of figuring those out.
It’s not that Marta always beats him. It’s closer to 50:50 than he’d like and he knows she can tell when he’s not putting the effort in. She never says anything but she get’s this look that he can’t quite parse. It’s not quite that she’s disappointed in him, it’s as though someone had given her the impression he was more of a challenge and she’s unimpressed by the reality.
(Once, when he’d been annoyingly condescending – even by his own standards – about his own lack of effort, she’d increased the handicap in his favour for the next game. Despite it being his turn to have black.)
He doesn’t want to think about who might have talked him up to her. He needs to focus on the memories of yet another person being disappointed in him, of being disowned and disinherited. Spite and resentment are the only things getting him through this sentence.
So instead, he studies the game. It doesn’t help.
Harlan had also done Ransom a greater kindness than either of them had realised at the time. He’d taught Ransom to play in such a way that he’d be a challenge. His grandfather had loved a challenge, and he’d loved to win, but the real pleasure for him had been in the push and pull of it, the moment when victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat. Ransom could still remember the first time he beat his grandfather at Go. Really beat him, not let him win so he didn’t get discouraged. He remembers looking up from the board and seeing the surprise and delight flicker across that old face. Ransom remembers being proud of himself more for having surprised him than at the victory itself. He forgets what else was on the old man’s face, the rarer sight: he’d be proud of his grandson.
Harlan, on the other hand, had learned in that moment that sometimes defeat – if particularly poetic or cleverly crafted – could be just as satisfying as victory. The rare delight of encountering an equal. He’d tried to teach Ransom that too. Unfortunately that lesson hadn’t stuck.
It’s the third Thursday of the month. Marta is sitting at the table waiting for him. Carefully setting up the Go board as though they have all the time in the world. She looks up and smiles at him when he sits down. Her smile is serene and untroubled. Money may not make you happy, but it certainly allows you to be unhappy in comfort. Arguably if your greatest worry was that your mother and sister might get deported, that is absolutely a problem that money can solve.
His relatives, on their sporadic visits, mutter about her ‘magnanimity’ to certain people. Meg’s college fees, Great nana Wanetta being allowed to stay in the house – and Ransom suspects, probably still being looked after by Marta – these games with him, the windfall that allowed Fran’s sister to move to another town where the nasty accessory to blackmail rumours wouldn’t follow her.
What the rest of his family don’t get, and which Ransom is only just getting his head around, is that Marta doesn’t have an agenda or a grand plan. Not because she’s not smart enough for that – you don’t disguise being unable to lie as well as she did by being stupid - but rather because she has the common sense not to have one. She’s lived in close quarters with a master plotter and schemer for years, and not only seen them all come crumbling down, but had a back stage view of the toll they’d taken on Harlan. However good it might feel to always be the smartest in the room, Harlan proved that it was a pretty lonely place to be.
Ransom understands for the first time why his grandfather had really liked her so much. He may have needed a friend, but Marta was also exactly the kind of friend he needed.
“You really loved him, didn’t you?”
“He was my best friend,” she tells him, “I miss him terribly.”
“I’m sorry,” he tells her.
He means it, though not the way most people would think. He doesn’t regret Harlan’s death or killing the housekeeper. He doesn’t even regret framing Marta or manipulating her afterwards, not really. He is sorry he let her think she’d killed her friend though, that in doing so she’d failed in her calling, the job that had defined her identity.
Marta reaches across the board and takes his hand tenderly.
“When you really mean that,” she says holding his gaze, “then I’ll forgive you.”
He has to look away from her knowing look, and the only place to look is the board. Marta has made the most beautiful pattern with her pieces on the board and incidentally, beaten him hollow.