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Authors: Rich Wallace

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Perpetual Check

BOOK: Perpetual Check
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For Jonathan and Jeremy

ONE
Several Moves Ahead

They're barefoot, moving silently along the carpeted hallway, searching for some clue to which hotel room might be Jenna McNulty's.

217? 219? All of the doors look the same. What were they expecting to tip them off? Some definitive prep-school snore?

Pramod puts a finger to his lips—
Like I don't know enough to be quiet,
Zeke thinks—and kneels by a room-service tray someone had shoved into the hall. He lifts a silver-colored cover to reveal a sprig of parsley swimming in a congealed smear of steak grease and blood at the edge of the plate. He sticks his tongue from his open mouth and grimaces.

There's a half-full bottle of Heineken on the tray, recapped
and upright. Pramod carefully puts two long, nimble fingers on the neck and raises it from the tray.

Zeke gives him a look that says,
No way you're drinking that.

Pramod walks—with the beer—a few feet away, so he's equidistant between the doors of rooms 219 and 221. He leans against the pale striped wallpaper and motions Zeke over.

“He didn't drink from the bottle,” he whispers.

“Who didn't?”

“Whoever's in that room.” He points to the tray. “He used a glass, see?”

There's a clear drinking glass on the tray with an obvious trace of dried beer foam. In other words, the bottle holds untouched Heineken. Warm, certainly, and probably flat.

Pramod checks to make sure the cap is on tight, then puts the bottle in the pocket of his loose green gym shorts and starts walking toward the elevators. His T-shirt says JESUIT LACROSSE, and his straight black hair is badly mussed.

Zeke checks his watch. It's 1:09 a.m. The Round of 16 starts in less than eight hours.

The elevator floor is cool on their bare feet, and it takes a long time for the numbers to change from 2 to 3 to 4. They stop and the door opens and they walk along the hallway. Pramod takes his room key (actually, it's more like a credit card), opens the door, and they go in. Zeke reaches into his own pocket quickly and fishes around, then pulls out his empty hand.

Pramod unwraps two plastic hotel cups by the sink and pours about three ounces of beer into each. He drinks his in one swig and stands there waiting for Zeke to empty his.

“Tastes like crap when it's warm,” Pramod says.

“It's better cold?” Zeke immediately realizes that he's tipped his hand.

Pramod smirks. “Much better.”

“I mean, I never had Heineken before. I usually drink other brands.”

Pramod rolls his eyes. “Like apple juice?”

“Sometimes. Or vodka.” Zeke's never even tasted vodka.

“You bring any with you?”

“No. I forgot.”

“Sure you did.”

When Zeke was six, his father decided that he was smart enough to learn to play chess. He didn't go easy on him. After about two weeks of getting his butt kicked, Zeke asked, “Dad, when do you think I'll be able to beat you?”

Mr. Mansfield smiled and rubbed the whiskers on his chin. “Well, Ace,” he said, “if you keep learning and working at it, I think you'll probably be giving me a good game by the time you're fourteen or fifteen.”

Three days later, Zeke got lucky and beat him. Soon after that, it wasn't luck at all. He was simply better than his dad. He had the ability to plan several moves ahead. His father didn't.

Zeke always found it amusing that he could regularly beat someone so much older than he was. Until the same thing started happening to him.

Last year, Zeke was the top-ranked player on his high school chess team. You won't hear him bragging to his friends about it. He doesn't use it to try to pick up girls. He doesn't
have a letterman's jacket with an embroidered rook or a bishop sewn onto the sleeve.

But he likes the game and he's good at it, and the competitive chess season is basically all winter, fitting between his other sports of soccer and tennis.

The problem for Zeke is “my fat-ass little brother, Randy.” Randy is a freshman, so he's on the team this year. And he beats Zeke nine times out of ten. So that was the end of Zeke's top ranking.

The poker game had lasted about two hours, then a bunch of them roamed the halls for the rest of the evening. Just Zeke and Pramod were left by midnight.

Zeke's not surprised to see a chessboard on the table near the window in Pramod's room, set up as if in midgame. Most of these chess guys are constantly reviewing moves and tactics, reading about it, playing it online, practicing their openings and attacks over and over.

Zeke boned up a little this past week, but he usually doesn't even think about chess except when he's got a match. There's a lot on the line this weekend, though.

They're at the Lackawanna Station Hotel in Scranton for the Northeast Regional of the Pennsylvania High School Chess Championships. Sixty-four players got invited here, and they played two rounds earlier tonight, leaving sixteen to decide the regional title tomorrow. They gave the sixteen who advanced free dinner and rooms.

The regional winner gets a thousand-dollar scholarship. The overall state champion—to be decided next weekend in
Philly among the eight regional champions and runners-up— gets five thousand.

“We never did figure out which room was hers,” Pramod says, taking a seat on the edge of his bed.

“Who?” Zeke asks, though he knows Pramod is referring to Jenna McNulty. She's the top seed in the tournament and also the best-looking player, by far. And she knows it. About both things.

“Right. Like you don't know who I'm talking about,” Pramod says. “You stared at her between every move tonight.”

“And you didn't?”

“We
all
did. That's why she's so hard to beat. Instead of concentrating on our chess moves, we're dreaming about what other moves we could be putting on her.”

Zeke's face gets a little flushed, and he nods. If he wins his first match in the morning, he'll be playing against Jenna in the quarterfinals.

Earlier that night, Zeke forced a stalemate in his first game against a guy from Carbondale but beat him quickly in the rematch. And his second-round game was over in about five minutes.

His little brother, Randy, won both of his matches easily. Randy's ranked fifth overall. The tournament officials seeded the top eight based on their computer ratings, and the rest of the players were plugged into the brackets at random.

It's set up like a basketball tournament. If there were no upsets in the early rounds, then the quarterfinals would have the first seed against the eighth, second versus seventh, third against sixth, and fourth versus fifth. But a couple of ranked players have already been knocked out.

“You nervous?” Pramod asks.

“Nah,” Zeke says. “I've been through plenty of things like this before. We made it to the semis of the district soccer tournament. Would have won, but the refs blew some calls.”

“So it was their fault?”

“Partly. The game was dead even, then they called a penalty on us in the box. Abington got a penalty kick, and that took the steam out of us.”

“So it ended 1–0?”

“Well, it actually ended up 4–0, but only because we lost all our momentum. We could've beat ‘em… Last spring I qualified for the tennis districts.”

BOOK: Perpetual Check
13.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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