It had been a long day: an interview with the local paper, two lectures, a faculty dinner, a reading and then a signing that seemed never to end. Ray Briscoe was flipping through the little moleskine notebook he always kept with him and drinking slowly. The second bourbon tasted better than the first in the nearly empty hotel bar, and SportsCenter was nearly over when the man came up to him.
"Excuse me," the newcomer said.
"Yeah, I'm him, but not right now. Right now I'm a guy having a drink. If you'd like to have a drink and talk about anything but books or writing then you're welcome to sit."
Ray had sold enough books in a thirty-year career that he wasn’t worried about offending anyone. Ever since the internet had come along, he’d become even more famous for being curmudgeonish. So famous, in fact, he no longer spent time checking the wikis. He knew what they said and his wife had always told him to stop worry what other people thought of him anyway.
"All right," the man said and sat down. He held up a glass to the bartender and nodded, turned back to the writer. "I'm Frank."
"Ray," the writer said. "Nice to meet you, Frank."
"So what do you feel like talking about, Ray?"
Ray nodded at Frank’s repeating his name, a memory tactic. "How about astronomy? What do you know about the night sky?"
"My god," Frank said. "It's full of stars."
Ray laughed at the reference. "You might be all right," I said. I looked over at his glass. "What are you drinking?"
"Whiskey," he said. "One of the few things I really enjoy besides a good cigar."
"They've got a nice courtyard where we could smoke if you brought any with you."
Small talk between two older men, smoking and drinking: "God help me, I love 'em - read the box scores every day of the season. I realize there has to be a team at the bottom of the league every year, I just wish it wasn't mine, you know?"
"I’m not a big baseball fan, Ray. Never really into sports."
The old man shook his head. "Some good times to be had at and around sporting events, Frank. You've missed out. Best was when I went to the World Cup."
"Is that soccer?”
Ray nodded. "The energy of the crowds, the towns that had matches, the people on the streets," Ray said then puffed on his cigar. "There's nothing like it." He exhaled.
"Huge crowds aren't really my thing, either." Frank puffed his own cigar in the courtyard and sent the blue smoke toward the twinkling stars. "Nice night."
"Yeah," Ray said. They sat in silence, drinking and smoking.
"Can I ask you something about your writing?" Frank leaned forward in the wrought-iron chair.
Ray looked at him sidewise, suspicious. "One question and my answer has to be good enough, agreed?"
"Go ahead, then," Ray said. He flourished his cigar hand and waited.
"You wrote about a character or a thing, I'm not clear on which, called Rook #68," Frank said. "It's been bugging me because it seemed so important. Does it have meaning?"
Ray smiled. Puffing on the cigar, he laughed. "That's it?"
Frank shrugged and assented.
The old man, the writer, the famous curmudgeon, sat back in his own chair and held forth. "Before I answer, what's a rook to you?"
"A chess piece, a crow, a cheat."
"Are you a cop, Frank?" Ray's eyes narrowed, his face seemed to close up.
"I used to be," the younger man said. "I'm not any more. Haven't been for a while. Now I'm just curious. Kind of a seeker of truths. Retired."
"Not many people would think of the word rook in terms of cheating, is why I asked," Ray said. "But a rook is not a crow. It's an Old World bird that resembles a crow. Nests near the tops of trees and their noisy like crows. Crows gather in a murder, rooks gather in a building."
"Wait for it," Ray said. "It gets better.
"The rook is one of the more powerful pieces in the game, right? What does it look like?"
"A castle," Frank said then his eyes widened a little. "A building."
Ray smiled and nodded, stuck the cigar in his mouth. "Very good," he said around the smoke. "But it's powerful not just because it can move the entire length or width of the board."
"I was never very good at chess," Frank said.
"Nor am I," Ray said. "But that doesn't keep me from being fascinated by the game. The real power of the rook on the chess board is its ability to castle."
Ray saw the look of bewilderment on Frank's face. "It's when the rook and the king have not moved yet on the board, the king's not in check and can't move into check at the end of the move. It's important because it does two things: one - the king is moved into relative safety and two - the rook becomes more active. You follow so far?"
"I think so."
"Okay, then. So castling is something I never mastered, but I used to go to the park and watch the old men, heh, the old men play all comers. There were absolutely brilliant players there of all ages. I saw a lot of castling, a few knight's tours and a lot of excellent chess being played."
Frank sat back now. "Knight's tour?"
"Where the knight touches every square on the board and never gets taken."
"With me? So, I noticed that some players, of all levels and skill, did this little thing where they would take pieces and then put them as far away from the board as possible," Ray said. "Like they were taking them completely away from the game without the possibility of reclamation."
"Reclamation?" Frank's eyebrows went up. "I don't understand."
Ray swallowed a sip of his whiskey and smiled. "When a pawn makes the opposite side of the board, the player can get a piece back. Reclamation."
"I see," Frank said. "So what's Rook #68?"
"A rook that's way off the board," Ray said. "About four spaces off the board and not easily brought back."
"Where did that come from, that idea?"
"Same place all writer's ideas come from," Ray said, waving his hands, one with a whiskey glass, the other a cigar. "Plucked from the ether and filtered through our experiences."
Frank laughed. He stood up and walked past Ray, puffing on his own cigar. He looked up at the sky. "Some of what you've written about is real, isn't it? It's not all fiction."
Ray was silent, studied the other man. A drunken couple burst into the courtyard, stopped when they saw the smokers and giggled crazily. The paving stones in the short grass of the courtyard were steppingstones across hot lava to them as they noisily swerved a path to the opposite side.
Once the couple were through the hotel's door, Frank said, "Like chess pieces on a board, eh?"
"Leave the writing to me, son," Ray said.
"So? Not everything's fictional in your world, is it?" Frank turned to look down on the writer, he stuck the cigar in his mouth and waited.
Ray nodded slowly, looked away from Frank then drained the final drops of whiskey from his glass. "You’d know if I was lying to you, wouldn’t you?”
Frank nodded. "It's the training."
"Yeah," Ray said. "The castle story is real. It really happened."
"What was in the box at the end, Ray? You never mentioned it otherwise, in any of your writing."
"What are you, if you're not a cop?" Ray looked up at Frank, suspicious.
"You'll think I'm making fun of you," Frank said. "You'll say that I'm just a crazy guy who's read too many of your stories if I tell you now.
"I'm interested in what was in the box because I think it may help me find someone who needs to be found. I'll explain if that turns out to be true. If it's not, hey," Frank shrugged, "you at least had an interesting conversation, right?"
Ray considered, puffed on the cigar, blew the smoke out and clucked to himself. "Okay," he said. "It was a gift from Beatrice Chandler, for what I did at the castle."
Frank was impassive, watching Ray.
"It was a globe," Ray said. "Full of swirling gases and lights, it glowed when I held it. Made me weak and dizzy, too."
"Do you still have it?" Frank stepped forward, loomed over the old writer who did not shrink away.
"No," Ray said. "It was stolen thirty years ago."
Frank whipped away from Ray. "Damn," he said. Heaving a sigh of frustration and closing his eyes, Frank put his hands on his hips. "Any idea who took it? Where it might've gone?"
"None," Ray said. "On either count."
The door to the courtyard they'd come through opened again. The man who came through was well dressed, looked on the edge of exhaustion and as old as Frank and Ray put together. "Seeker," he said. "You're a hard man to track down."
His eyes rolled up white and the newcomer collapsed on the paving stones of the hotel courtyard.
Thanks for reading Reader.
©2010 By Jason Arnett.
Some Rights Reserved under a Creative Commons Attribution-
Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
You can buy the whole story, and any story from this website for 49¢ by clicking on the button below and I’ll send you a DRM-free PDF via email.