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The Price of a Pawn
Depending on who you listened to, the story varied except for one thing: the payout was big. Unthinkably big. Mark had heard tales for months of the white van that would sometimes appear at back streets where other homeless people slept and take them away – some witnesses described it as an ambulance, some as a glowing chariot but that was probably just their medication (or lack of) distorting their perceptions. Rumours of why the people were taken ranged from pit-fighting to medical experiments to sheer philanthropy but in every telling the person taken was happy to be transported away from the squalor of the streets.
Mark huddled down in his worn old sleeping-bag on a layer of cardboard and fantasised that one day his “chariot” would come. He dozed lightly, part of his brain always monitoring background sounds for danger till the noise of an engine woke him. He was half-convinced he was still dreaming as he watched the white transit van reverse into the alley he was in. Two men in matching green-and-tan jumpsuits stepped out of the back of the van and approached him, smiling and unhurried. Mark realised his jaw must be hanging open and forced a smile in response. Both were above Mark's average height; the slightly taller one spoke first, “Greetings friend. How would you like to earn a vast sum of money for a single day's work?” Mark's heart soared with hope and he blurted out the first words to come into his head “Please take me with you!” He felt instantly ridiculous to be begging but the other two both laughed good-naturedly; Mark joined in, relaxing. The other one spoke now “Come with us and there will be both danger and great reward. Are you sure you want this?” Mark nodded and they waited while he bundled up his belongings then led him to the back of the van.
Two other people of obviously similar background to his own were there already. The two jumpsuited strangers got in also and closed the van's door behind them. “One more stop, folks,” announced the slightly shorter one. The van had no windows in the back but Mark felt it take a number of turns on the fifteen minute drive to their next destination. After a short wait, one more person – an elderly man but fairly well-dressed, at least by Mark's standard of judging this – was helped in to join them. They took off again and the taller “recruiter”, as he referred to himself, told his passengers that there would be a more detailed briefing given the next morning, but that for now he could tell them that some of their fellow recruits were homeless and some were terminally ill people like the old man. “People with nothing to lose but everything to gain,” quipped the other recruiter. When their journey finally stopped, the most part of an hour later, Mark saw that they were at a grand country house with five other white transit vans parked outside. He, with his three fellow recruits, where shown through to a dormitory where a couple of dozen people were already in beds. They were advised to get some rest and Mark gladly headed for the nearest vacant bed and collapsed into its comfort. Whatever happened tomorrow, he was definitely getting a good night's sleep out of this deal.
He woke, more refreshed than he had felt for a long time, to the sound of someone announcing “Breakfast is ready, come and get it.” Another couple of recruiters in those jumpsuit uniforms directed them all through to a great hall where a few more staff served up full cooked breakfasts. Mostly everyone there was digging in with gusto. A few, however, which Mark guessed were the terminal cases the man from the night before had talked about, picked at the food. There did seem to be a general buzz of excitement about the place. The staff treated everyone with respect and were full of smiles and enthusiasm. Sitting there, comfortably bloated, Mark could not have been happier. No matter what was in store for them, he could not imagine it would be any worse than his life of the last few years: scraping a desperate existence from state benefits and soup kitchens, buying what used clothes he could from charity shops and trying bitterly to forget the traumas of his past.
He was jolted from his thoughts when two gentlemen in very smart suits walked in to the dining hall and stood, surveying the happy scene before them. One was in his late fifties, the other one about thirty. The younger man cleared his throat and stated in a clear, cultured voice “Welcome, gentlemen.” (Mark realised he was correct, there were no ladies present, not even the staff.) “I am Mr Black and this is Mr White. We have invited you all here today for one of our very special events: a game of living chess. Each of you will receive at least one payment of £50,000 for participating, with a bonus payment of an additional £50,000 in the event of your demise. If the latter occurs, the full payment will be made to your designated next-of-kin.” Mr Black paused to let this sink in and there were quite a few nervous glances. One man put his hand up and asked, when Mr Black's older companion nodded to him, “Why would we die playing chess?” Mr White smiled and said in his slightly gruffer voice “This is why we are offering such high danger premiums. All of you will be encased in giant chess pieces – you would literally be chessmen – and would be instantly, painlessly euthenised if that piece is captured. Let me be frank, gentlemen: my colleague and I seek entertainment and you seek recompense. You each have a very good chance of walking away to set yourselves up in some comfort or, worst case scenario, to leave something worthwhile to those you care about. If anyone wishes to back out now, they can but would leave with nothing except a wild story no-one would believe. We will let you all think it over for the next hour but remember, folks: nothing ventured, nothing gained...”
With that, the two men in suits left the hall and the debates started. Mark listened for a few minutes to some of the wild theories being voiced – that this was some huge practical joke and there was no death for money; that the whole thing was a government scheme to get rid of undesirable homeless people; that the suits wanted dead bodies to harvest organs from; and so on. He found himself rapidly bored by their conjectures and settled back to musing on the proposal. Part of him felt, probably like most of the others, that nothing would happen to him – that innate human feeling of personal luck and invulnerability. Most of all, he thought about what he could do with the cash – he could repay all the loans his family had given him and mend fences there, he could put a deposit down to rent a flat and eat regularly, maybe even get firmly back on his feet and get a job. There was no hard decision to make – he had to embrace this chance. And, should the worst happen, he would at least leave something to his sister and his nephews.
Mr White and Mr Black came back in and the latter addressed the group again. “Has everyone made up their minds?” (There were nods of assent and a few Yeah's.) “In that case let's get everyone signed up and get your next-of-kin details taken. You will also sign a confidentiality waiver – not so much that we would take you to court if you talked, just that so we have an understanding. Please be aware though that we have friends in both high and low places and going public would not be a good idea. That unpleasantness aside, we want you all to have fun.” Mark shivered a little at the look of malevolent joy on the younger suit's face. Mr White explained further that any payments to the surviving chessmen would be from offshore accounts and any payments to next-of-kin would be from mysterious insurance policies. They all signed the waivers and filled in the forms under the watchful eyes of the jumpsuited recruiter minions. This done, they were led through the back of the house to a large garden where they got their first glimpse of the massive chessboard laid out on the lawn.
Giant chess-piece structures were wheeled out of an opulent summerhouse and each man was sat inside one and secured in. There were a few protests at this, but half-hearted ones. Everyone knew they had to comply or lose out on the biggest pay-day of their lives. As Mark was buckled in to a great black wooden pawn he prayed to any deity listening that he come through and that as few as possible of them lost their lives. The staff fixed an electronic device to his arm – this must be the potential agent of his death. The unit sealed around him, he realised he had a very good view from it, through a gauze section which from outside blended naturally with the rest of the exterior but which from up close inside was nearly invisible. He was wheeled into place on the left hand side of the black pieces. From what he could see and remembered of chessboard layout from his younger days, he knew he was in front of the black king's knight. As Mark waited on all the remaining pieces being put into place, a strange calm fell on him; everything now was outwith his control. He decided he would play the best homage he could to those who died by trying to understand the battle taking place and remembering as much of it as he could. He had never been a great chessplayer when younger, but he knew enough to follow the basic patterns and hopefully appreciate most of it.
Mr White, unsurprisingly, took position behind the White pieces and Mark could hear the cultured tones of Mr Black give commands from behind him. The game started, white's first move getting two jumpsuited recruiters to wheel a pawn forwards; black met this by sending a knight out past Mark to challenge the centre. Mr White responded with another pawn to grip the centre and then suddenly Mark heard “G6 please” and felt himself being pushed forward a square. This was it; he was part of the game! Development continued with white's knight coming out and a trundling behind Mark signalling the bishop coming to rest behind him. Yet another pawn entered white's centre and black moved to restrain it with a pawn of his own. So far so good thought Mark. Ahead of him the second white knight came out and Mark heard the instruction to castle being shouted by Mr Black. [(1) d4 Nf6 (2) c4 g6 (3) Nc3 Bg7 (4) e4 d6 (5) Nf3 0-0]
These moves were all called out fairly quickly by the two combatant generals and Mark was fairly certain they had both played this sequence many times. He had hopes that this strange pair would reach some sort of impasse early on and agree a draw with minimal bloodshed. Then he remembered the look that had been on Mr Black's face and knew they were masterminding this game for pleasure. After a couple of commands he saw to his horror that a pawn in the centre of the board took an enemy one and was recaptured in turn. Two lives gone, just like that. He was just glad he could not see the expression on either player's face from where he was. Reeling as the enormity of what was happening sank in, a large part of the game after that was a blur to him – nobody else was dying which was a relief and he could only see a limited part of what was going on. He heard the moves being called but could only see a portion of the board from his position at g6. Nonetheless, play was continuing and abruptly he heard a whoop of joy from Mr Black – it seemed another kill had taken place. Poor soul, thought Mark, but at least it was on the other side of the board. He felt guilty for that selfish thought but knew his reaction was only natural. [(6) Be2 Nbd7 (7) Qc2 e5 (8) de de (9) Bg5 h6 (10) Bh4 c6 (11) 0-0-0 Qe8 (12) h3 Nc5 (13) b4 Na6 (14) a3 Nd7 (15) Rd6 Nc7 (16) c5 a5 (17) Rhd1 ab]
Mr White called out his next move for the staff to carry out and it was indeed a recapture on the other flank; Mr Black paused here to think about what to do. From what Mark could see it was a complicated position. Finally a command went out and the pawn to Mark's right was signalled to be moved forward two squares; Mark heard the man inside it start to sob with fear as he was trundled into position – the noise was muffled by the chesspiece encasing him but Mark could hear it due to his closeness. Mr White gave the order for one of his pawns to capture the newly advanced wretch and the sobs escalated into yelps which abruptly cut off. The silence was if anything more unnerving but at least it confirmed that the death itself was instant and painless; the only distress had been in anticipation of his fate. Mr Black paused to savour the moment and then gave the command for Mark's pawn to recapture the one at f5. Mark felt a slight pang of irrational guilt that it was his pawn that was doing the killing this time but that was soon swamped with the realisation that he was now no longer a defensive pawn, far from the action, but a central pawn right in the thick of it. The electronic death-dealing device felt very heavy on his arm now – supposing it malfunctioned and killed him accidentally? The promised death-bequest to his family was starting to seem a small consolation. When the staff in their green-and-tan uniforms had moved him to f5 though, they had moved him at a slight angle and now he could see to his right and what he saw was unsettling: heavy pressure was being brought to bear on the centre of Black's position and more deaths seemed imminent. White's queen linked up with his rook and Mark had no idea what black was planning to do to get out of it without conceding space and material. He instantly cursed himself for seeing his fellow pieces as material and not lives to be shed. The pawn now on his right advanced and Mark was aware of the brutal open lines both sides had now. White's bishop utilised one of these to drive black's king to a safer position and then captured one of black's knights with a rook; Mark reeled – Mr Black was surely lost here....or was there a slim ray of hope? Black slammed a rook down to attack white's king and Mark realised with a flash of insight that if the king moved then after a rook exchange support would be lost to the rook that had so boldly ventured into black's territory. Mr White looked a little upset at this and ordered a knight back to block the check. Mr Black's calm voice instructed his bishop to trade for the rook in his second rank – this time allowing white's queen into the heart of the black position! Black seemed to have anticipated this as he immediately told his queen to move to the corner, linking up with his own rook. Mark gave up trying to follow what was going on – the attack certainly looked strong for black but it was above his level of understanding. [(18) ab f5 (19) ef gf (20) Qd2 e4 (21) Bc4+ Kh7 (22) Rxd7 Ra1+ (23) Nb1 Bxd7 (24) Qxd7 Qa8]
The older player looked panicked at this. He had exposed his king to gain ground and was suddenly looking into a gun barrel. He ran for the centre of his second rank to escape the mating web and was pursued by black's queen but in his flight he blundered and black was able to capture his knight with check by a pawn. Mark realised he was an isolated pawn now but did not feel endangered any more – Mr White was definitely on the back foot. Mr Black pursued his older opponent's king with a few queen checks, capturing the other rook in the process, driving him up the board to e3. Here, Mark was drawn into the action again, threatening the enemy king by advancing. Black chased his king some more, bringing his pieces onto better squares in the process. White attempted a spite check which Mr Black smoothly evaded. Mr White tried one final flight with the king but black's knight came to the centre, cutting his previously gloriously placed queen off from the action and it was all over, the older man crossing the board to shake hands with his opponent. Mark gave a huge sigh of relief, as did many of the others. It was over and they were alive. [(25) Kd2 Qa4 (26) Ke2 ef+ (27) gf Qc2+ (28) Nd2 Qxd1+ (29) Ke3 f4+ (30) Ke4 Qe1+ (31) Kd3 Ra3+ (32) Kc2 Qe5 (33) Bd3+ Kh8 (34) Kd1 Nd5 0-1]
The uniformed staff helped the twenty survivors out of the giant chessman structures and showed them through to the great hall again where soup and sandwiches waited. They hugged each other with that shared release of their tensions. Staff then called their names and presented each with banker's drafts for £50,000, payable to cash. Back in the vans again, they were taken back to London and dropped outside the bank where they could cash their cheques and start their new lives. The bank clerk did not even batter an eyelid when Mark handed over his cheque and he found himself on the street, feeling a little dazed. From today, he vowed, he would savour every moment of life and make sure he never found himself living on the streets again. The cash may be his but what he had truly gained was an appreciation for his life – this was the true price of a pawn.
White: Opponent Unnamed; Black: Stephen Riley; Glasgow League match 31/10/2011.
Thanks, top. Interesting thought lol. If I had had it, I might have used it....:)
very well written
Thanks, soldier. I mainly write for myself but it is very encouraging when people like it.
ive been following your chronicles of sekar series nicely written when is the next one coming out?
Thanks. I am not sure as although I have a rough idea what I want in each chapter I am trying to take some time between each one. My employer runs an annual chess tournament which is at the end of this month so I was going to wait till that was behind me before starting to properly write it. Not because I don't want to write it, more to keep my head clear otherwise I will have no interest in actually playing chess. There are a couple of technical difficulties also which I hope will iron out as it writes itself - for one I am not sure I have enough for chapter 5 - I have plenty of stuff I want to use in 6-8 but I am missing a key ingredient in 5. I hope by the time I write it that it won't show.
ok well good luck looking forward to reading it :)
Lol. I am not sure about the book, let alone a movie. Chess is a limited audience and all I ever write is chess stuff. Its just really for my own pleasure, no plans yet to try to get anything published - I did years ago with a few things but its a lot of trouble for little reward.
Such a brilliant story, made me realise the price of pawn... Thanks, waiting for more stories
Told ya it would be a gd story.
yes thanks for the link
Thanks guys. Not been writing for a while, few things going on in outside life. Wife in hospital but have been reading over the 8 chapter one I was working on and hope to be able to continue soon.
have faith in Lord, she will get well soon, our Lord is an awesome God
Hey, this was really really good!
That was a nice read :)
"Highlights: Anand vs. Carlsen - Game 11! IM Thomas Rendle & GM Melik Khachiyan"
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