A short story by Farrell Kramer.
A cold splash of water awakened Daniel Silverman, who realized he was utterly helpless. He was seated in a beat-up wooden chair, with his wrists tied to its arms and his ankles tied to its legs. Stripped naked, Daniel’s nose hurt like hell and the back of his head felt like it had been smacked with a sledgehammer. He noticed dried blood on his bare chest and wondered where it had come from.
A large man with dark hair, a pointy nose and a faded scar running down his left cheek stood in front of him holding an empty bucket. He smiled at Daniel, revealing a set of gnarled teeth that would make even a veteran dentist cringe.
“I tell you sit … didn’t I? Now look what’s happened,” he said.
“Who are you, and where am I?” Daniel demanded.
“You listen. We ask. Understand?”
“Why are you doing this to me? This must be a mistake.”
“No mistake. You the chess player, yes?”
“Good,” the man said. He turned and headed out of the room.
As Daniel followed him out with his eyes, he noticed several things about his new surroundings. First, there was a large mirror on one wall of the small room, roughly 20 feet by 20 feet, which he knew had to be two-way glass. He could feel he was being watched.
Second, the contents of not only his fanny pack but his entire suitcase were on a folding table that stood against a wall adjacent to the mirror. Apparently, his kidnapping had been anything but an accident and had also involved the ransacking of his hotel room. Third, there was a chessboard, with the pieces set up for play, on a small table next to a filthy sink. Finally, there was a black leather bag on a low table just next to him. It looked like a medical bag and he could only guess at its contents.
The big man left Daniel sitting alone in that room for the next six hours. Nobody came. No sound. Nothing. He left him to look at the bag, the chess set, his possessions and the mirror, beyond which he knew were interested eyes.
At about the four hour mark, Daniel felt the urgent need to urinate and called his captors. They did not come. About 45 minutes later, he could resist no longer and urinated on himself, creating a small puddle on the concrete floor beneath him. He cried softly in his humiliation. Even as he did, though, he reasoned that this must be part of his captors’ plan. He was at their mercy. Exposed. Impotent. Yet, Daniel reminded himself to be calm and consider his position — just like any position he might encounter over the chessboard — and see if he could find a way to improve it. After all, these were just the opening moves in a game that was sure to go on for a while.
But not too long, he reminded himself.
Daniel could not have foreseen exactly how the opening moves of his final game would play out a day earlier, as he sat at the departure gate for his flight to Morocco eating a blueberry muffin and drinking black coffee.
To the world at large and to his friends and acquaintances here in New York City, he was Grandmaster Daniel Silverman, twice U.S. chess champion and currently the No. 2 rated player in the United States. Daniel’s ELO rating, a numerical representation of his playing strength calculated by the sport’s governing body, FIDE, was currently 2736, making him the No. 22 player in the world. Daniel’s speciality was positional play, in which a player looked not only at the tactics immediately available given the position of the chess pieces on the board, but long-term strategic designs. For example, though equal in value, did the position of the pawns on the board favor bishops, which moved on diagonals of a single color, or knights, which could jump about? If the position had many pawns locked in position and favored knights, a positional player would plan to exchange his bishops for his opponent’s knights. While this might seem an even trade, in the long term it created a small advantage. Such small advantages, combined over the course of a game, could mean the difference between victory and defeat.
Daniel thought about the trip ahead and reflexively reached into his pocket and pulled out a bottle of prescription pills. He took one of the little blue pills, washed it down with a gulp of coffee and followed with a bite of his muffin. His flight from New York’s JFK airport would begin boarding in about 10 minutes, a flight that would take him halfway across the globe for an international tournament that would pit him against 4 of the top 10 players in the world and one former world champion.
He ought to have had nothing on his mind but his preparation for the tournament, but this was not the case. Daniel had a job ahead that had very little to do with chess. He was going up against the most dangerous opponent he had ever faced.
The flight to Morocco had required one transfer and taken 14 hours. When he arrived at his hotel, a modern 12-story structure that catered to western travelers, Daniel was tired. True, he had slept on the plane, but he never rested well in flight and he now faced the daunting task of collecting himself, freshening his mind and body, and preparing for the grueling 10-day tournament scheduled to begin the next morning. Alas, this was the life of a professional chess player.
Daniel had been playing chess for most of his time on earth and had just turned 32. He still looked youthful, though not as young as some of the world’s top players, who were in their 20s, and his sandy brown hair was beginning to show a hint of gray around the temples. Daniel was lean and stayed in good physical shape by running about 25 miles a week, much more for chess than vanity. Most people did not understand that it took significant endurance to sit at a chessboard for hour after hour and not lose concentration. Professional players did, though, and as a result many embraced some form of physical training. Daniel had tried weight lifting and Pilates, but found them both rather tedious. For him, running was both exercise and a release.
Given the soreness in his legs and back after sitting so long in flight, Daniel decided to go out for a run. He changed into the sweatpants and black T-shirt he’d unpacked just 20 minutes earlier and pulled on his favorite pair of New Balance trainers. Daniel stopped by the bathroom on the way out the door, pulled another blue pill out of his bottle, took it with some water and placed the pill bottle in his fanny pack along with his passport, local currency and hotel room key. He headed to the elevator, rode it down to the lobby and walked out to the street.
Daniel started running slowly, keeping a comfortable pace. His plan was to do an easy 5 miles and see some of the city. Daniel’s hotel was in the most modern, downtown section, which looked a lot like many other cities he’d visited, but he planned to run into the old section, which would show him some of the famous Moroccan architecture he’d seen in movies like “Casablanca,” which he loved.
As he moved along, Daniel began to find his stride and within 5 minutes was feeling like himself again. He was running easily when an old man with a herd of goats pulled in front of him, blocking the street. He slowed, then stopped, then ran in place waiting for the man to shoo them along or do whatever goat herders do to get their animals in motion.
Distracted by the goats and the man, Daniel didn’t notice a white van pull up behind him. Nor did he see two burly men get out. One grabbed Daniel from behind, placing a hand over his mouth. The other picked up Daniel’s legs. Together, they carried him toward the van like a piece of furniture.
Daniel tried to cry out, but he could not make a sound, as his mouth was pinned shut. As he looked out onto the street, he could see the goat herder quietly moving his animals out of the way, ignoring his plight completely. Aside from him, the street seemed deserted. No help was coming, that much was clear.
The men deposited Daniel roughly on the floor of the van and slid the door shut. As they put duct tape over his mouth, he could feel the van begin to move with a jolt. He tried to sit up but they pushed him back down. He tried again, and the larger of the two, the one with the pointy nose and scar, warned him in broken English:
“Try again and you’ll be unhappy, dear. Please sit and quiet.”
“The hell I will,” Daniel mumbled through the tape, sitting up and leaning in toward the big man.
At that moment the second man clubbed Daniel on the back of the head with the butt of a shotgun that had sat beside him in the van. The blow sent Daniel’s head smashing to the bare metal floor, breaking his nose and releasing a stream of blood from his left nostril. It also knocked him unconscious.
Eventually, the big man came back into Daniel’s room, bringing a simple wooden stool with him. He sat down in front of Daniel and looked at him, saying nothing. Nothing at all. He continued surveying Daniel like this for several minutes, exploring every inch of his body with his eyes.
“What do you want from me?” Daniel asked.
The man said nothing.
“This must be a mistake. I’m here to play in a chess tournament. I’ll be missed.”
“You must have me here for some reason.”
With that, the big man smiled, exposing his awful teeth again. Then, he leaned toward Daniel, as if to whisper something. Daniel leaned forward and turned his left ear to the man to listen…
The man punched him hard high on his left cheekbone. Daniel slumped forward.
His right cheek took the next blow.
Whack. Whack. Whack.
Daniel was being pummeled now.
The beating went on for 10 minutes, but to Daniel it seemed much longer. By the end, Daniel’s entire face hurt dreadfully and he could feel it beginning to swell like overripe fruit. He had never felt pain like this, nor had he ever encountered such violence. He’d been in a few fights as a kid, based largely on being labeled a chess nerd at school, but nothing of this magnitude. He’d cried. He’d begged his captor to stop. But the man just kept beating him. It was his job.
That’s, perhaps, what made it surreal. The big man didn’t seen angry with Daniel. There was no malevolence. Just physical blow after physical blow. As Daniel sat sobbing in his chair, the big man got up, pushed his stool to the side of the room near the table with the chessboard, looked at Daniel and walked out.
His face bore no particular expression. He’d not asked Daniel a single question.
Several hours passed and Daniel was left alone with his thoughts and his pain. His right eye was swollen practically shut so he could only see out of the left. He was sure his left cheekbone was broken and his nose was bent at a strange angle. He was physically exhausted and could barely sit up in his chair. Had he not been tied to it, he certainly would have slumped down to the floor.
When the door to his room finally opened, the big man entered with another. This second man was smaller and not particularly muscular. He appeared older than the bigger man and was better dressed. He had a mean look to him, though.
The smaller man moved the stool so it was just in front of Daniel. Then, he walked over to the small table next to Daniel, opened the black case and removed a pair of surgical pliers. He sat on the stool.
Without saying a word, he reached for Daniel’s left hand, which was on the arm of the chair since his left forearm was tied at the wrist, and held it immobile. With his other hand he reached forward with the pliers, grabbing Daniel’s left index fingernail, and with one smooth motion ripped the nail out of the bed.
Daniel screamed in agony. His voice was hoarse from lack of water and the beating he’d received earlier, but he had never felt such excruciating pain before. He was amazed that a small thing like a nail could hurt this much.
When his screaming died down, he moaned and sobbed.
“Please … no more,” Daniel said, on the verge of collapse. “What do you want?”
“Please, don’t hurt me again.”
The smaller man opened the pliers and let Daniels’ nail drop on the floor, where there was still a small pool of urine that had not completely evaporated. Then, he replaced the pliers in the black case and closed it. After allowing Daniel a few moments to recover his composure, the man spoke.
“You tell me the truth, dear, and no more pain. Understand?”
Daniel nodded in affirmation.
“Any lies and I’ll open bag. Understand?”
Daniel nodded again.
The smaller man stood up and walked over to Daniel’s fanny pack and suitcase on the folding table by the wall. He reached for the fanny pack, which was already open, and pulled out the bottle of blue pills.
“Are you ill?” the captor asked.
“So, why these?”
“They’re for anxiety,” Daniel said. He could tell the man did not understand the word. “Nerves.”
“Ah,” the man replied. He walked over to the small sink and poured the pills down the drain. Then, turned on the water for a moment so they would be washed away.
“You won’t need pills anymore,” he said.
Daniel resisted the urge to smile.
The man walked back to the stool and sat down in front of Daniel. He leaned in toward Daniel to speak, but Daniel did not lean forward himself as he had before with the bigger man. That had not worked out well.
“We know who you are. We know why you here. We know everything.”
Daniel just looked at him.
“We know your father and brother were killed on September 11, 2001, when our brothers struck a great blow for Islam. We know you are still angry and vow revenge. Further, dear, we know that you come to Morocco not for chess but to kill the Lion. We know you blame the Lion for our attacks on September 11. You Americans killed Bin Laden and give yourselves a public victory. But we know, and you know, that it was the Lion who planned those attacks and that Bin Laden was just a figurehead.”
Revealing nothing with his expression, Daniel continued looking at the man.
“We know that your CIA approached you to kill the Lion. But now, the Lion has found you!” he said, spitting out each word.
“You will tell us the details of your plan. Or die, horribly.”
Daniel considered his next move carefully. It was not time to reveal anything to his captor. It was too early in the middle game for that. He would have to endure.
“I’m a chess player, nothing more,” he said.
With remarkable speed, the main opened the black case, removed his pliers, grabbed Daniel’s left thumbnail and extracted it as he had his index finger’s nail. Daniel screamed in pain.
The man moved on to his middle fingernail and ripped it free just as quickly.
Screams mixed with sobbing.
Then, he grabbed Daniel’s ring fingernail and pulled. Daniel screamed again and then, mercifully, passed out, slumping forward in the chair. He had said nothing of substance but had learned much.
When Daniel awakened this time, the room was full. Sitting on a stool across from him was an old man, perhaps in his late 60s, with long dark hair striped with gray and an unkempt beard of the same texture. The man who’d ripped Daniel’s nails out stood behind him, just over his right shoulder. The big man with the scar lingered by the back wall as did another large man, perhaps the second man from the white van.
Daniel noticed that the table with the chessboard had been relocated and now stood just to the left of the old man and the pieces had been moved. As he worked to regain full consciousness he thought he recognized the position on the board.
“Yes, that’s right. You know that position, dear, don’t you?” the old man said.
“It’s from one of my games.”
“Correct. It’s Silverman-Langdon from 4 years ago. One of your best games ever. Do you remember it?”
“Your positional play here was perfect.” Daniel noticed the old man spoke much better English than the others.
“Your opponent, though 150 ratings points above you at this point, is in zugzwang, still in the early middle game with almost all the pieces still on the board. It is his turn to move but he cannot move a single piece without weakening his position. The game is already won.”
Daniel smiled for the first time in what seemed like days. It truly was one of his best games ever and had been written up in New In Chess magazine. He was very proud of it. But to the old man, he said nothing.
“You are in zugzwang now,” the old man said to Daniel, and now he was smiling. “You have no good moves. Nothing you can do will strengthen your position. If you lie, you die. If you tell the truth, you die. Your mission has failed and you have nothing left. Only pain and death.”
He let Daniel think on that for a few moments.
“Who are you?” Daniel said.
“I’m the one you seek.”
“I seek no one. I’ve come to Morocco only to play chess,” Daniel said.
“Ah,” said the old man.
Daniel noticed a tightening in his chest and a bit of difficulty breathing, as if the air were extremely heavy. He also noticed his heart pounding in his chest. Not much longer, he thought. He coughed a few times to try to clear his throat but it would not clear.
“I see you’ve recognized the gravity of your situation. If you’ll tell me your plan…”
Before he could finish, Daniel drew his head back and with all his remaining strength, spit at the old man. The spittle landed on the old man’s face and hair and, almost instantly, the man over his shoulder stepped forward and punched Daniel in the nose, causing excruciating pain as his nose twisted even further off its normal axis.
“That was not very smart of you,” the old man said. “You still have six fingernails left, not to mention your genitals, which we will happily remove in the most painful manner.”
As he said this, the big main the back of the room, the one with the scar who had beaten Daniel when he first arrived, dropped to his knees and started wheezing and coughing. Blood began to run from his nose and eyes. He fell forward, unconscious.
“What is this?” the old man demanded.
“Checkmate,” Daniel replied.
He smiled a big smile.
“Explain yourself!” the man demanded.
“You are dead, Lion, and I have killed you as surely as if I’d put a bullet in your head. In fact, everyone in this room is going to die, including myself,” Daniel said. “You see, everyone who’s touched me has come into contact with a powerful and deadly virus that kills in 8 hours time. There is no antidote.”
“But how did you yourself not die? We’ve held you for more than 8 hours?”
“You did this yourselves. Do you remember the bottle of blue pills you washed down the sink? They held the virus in check. Once I stopped taking them, I became contagious and then, of course, ill myself.”
“You see, Lion, I’ve outplayed you,” Daniel said slowly and with great difficulty.
“I knew your fascination with strategy would draw you to meet me, and that would be your end. When I spit in your face, that was the final blow,” he said softly, his voice barely audible.
Daniel coughed hard and it was becoming exceedingly difficult to breathe. He felt something start oozing from his nose and eyes. It would not be long.
“I’m happy to die knowing I’ve killed you,” he said, his strength nearly gone.
“I’ve avenged my brother… and father… and all the… ”
With that, Daniel wheezed harder, his eyes rolled back and he slumped forward in his chair, his arms and legs still bound. His heart beat on for a few minutes more and then stopped. The grandmaster was dead.
As Daniel’s life faded away, a second old man, who looked very much like the one in the room with Daniel but about 10 years older, picked up his cell phone and dialed. He was standing in a secret room behind the two-way mirror facing Daniel’s room. Daniel was correct. He had been watched.
The old man in Daniels’ room felt his phone vibrate and picked it up.
“I’m sorry, my brother. I didn’t mean for it to end this way,” the old man in the secret room said.
“It is Allah’s will. I do not mind dying for this cause.”
“I will miss life without you. An older brother should never outlive his younger brother. It should be me. I know that now.”
“You are far too important,” said the old man in Daniel’s room. “After all, you are the Lion. You are our general. You will lead us to victory over the Americans.”
“You were brave to be my double. We were right to suspect something. The chess player was very clever,” said the Lion.
“Yes, he almost won.”
“What do you and the others want to do?”
“We will dispose of the bodies. Then, end our lives in our own way.”
“Goodbye, my brother,” the Lion said. Then he sat, head in hands, and contemplated what had just happened.
Back in Daniel’s room, as the old man spoke on the phone, deep within Daniel’s abdomen something came to life.
A device, surgically implanted two months earlier through a small incision in his navel, had been monitoring Daniel’s nervous system. Once his heart stopped, Daniel’s brain ceased to function and, as a result, his nervous system stopped transmitting its signals throughout Daniel’s body. Registering this, the device began emitting a high frequency radio signal. A signal that would pinpoint the exact location of the device itself.
Though Daniel was dead, he was playing his final move.
The command center for Operation En Passant kicked into a frenzy as soon as Daniel’s signal came in. Reginald “Reg” Mann, head of the operation, immediately had the coordinates fed into the orbital satellite that had been tasked to the operation. Within seconds an image appeared on the large screen at the front of the room.
From miles above, the satellite was fixed on a small, two story structure in the middle of the Moroccan desert. The image quality was remarkable, given the satellite’s altitude. There was no activity around the building. Two dusty Land Rovers had been parked outside.
“Feed the coordinates to our asset off the African coast and authorize immediate missile launch. Codeword is King,” Reg ordered.
“Yes, sir. Authorizing missile launch. Codeword: King,” repeated a young officer, who typed the commands into a computer terminal that sat in front of him.
“Let me know when missile is in the air,” Reg said.
Reg’s No. 2, Alex Bend, looked over at him and smiled.
“Looks like we got him.”
“I’m not so sure,” Reg said. “He’s escaped us before and there’s no guarantee Daniel was able to pass the virus to him. He may just be lying dead in that building with the Lion nowhere near.”
Alex considered that and frowned.
“That would be a waste, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes, it would. I really liked Daniel. If he weren’t so damned insistent, I never would have green lit this op,” Reg said.
Then, as if to answer their uncertainty, a figure appeared from a back door of the building in the desert. He was hard to make out at first, but one of the technicians zoomed and sharpened the image. The figure was an old man who looked to be in his 70s. He emerged from the building, stopped and stretched, as if he’d been sitting for a very long time.
“Put up our most recent known photo of the Lion. Now!” Reg ordered.
Almost instantly, a grainy head shot of the Lion appeared on the screen. It was a dead ringer for the man who’d just exited the building.
“Missile inbound,” the technician announced. “Time to target, 1 minute, 24 seconds.”
“Verify identity,” Reg ordered again.
The technician ran a computer program that compared the image from the satellite and the photograph of the Lion and within about 30 seconds pronounced its result on the screen. It was a match.
“Now, we’ve got ‘em,” Alex said, barely able to contain his excitement.
“Time to target?” Reg snapped.
“Forty-seven seconds,” the technician replied.
The Lion, not knowing what was about to happen, stood in the desert, looked at the two-story building and lit a cigarette. He seemed to be smiling as he smoked, as if he’d won a great victory.
“Time to target, 20 seconds,” the technical announced.
Reg guessed the Lion was celebrating the demise of Daniel Silverman, chess grandmaster and one brave kid.
“Go ahead, Lion. Enjoy yourself. You’re dead in 10 seconds,” Reg said aloud.
Just then, the Lion stopped. Something had caught his attention. He gazed upward and an expression of horror came to his face. As if he knew exactly where the satellite was located, he looked straight at it, raised his fists above his head and screamed. The men in the operations room could not hear what he’d uttered, but the look of hatred in his eyes said it all.
A second later, the picture dissolved into a blinding white flash.
When the image returned and the dust cleared, there was nothing left of the Lion or the two-story building or the two Land Rovers. Just a large crater the size of a football field, the inside blackened from fire.
“Target destroyed. Operation En Passant’s a wrap,” Reg announced to the room, which erupted in cheer.
“Congratulations, Reg. Well done,” Alex said, shaking his friend’s hand.
Reg smiled, but said nothing.
“Hey, one question. What’s en passant, anyway?”
“It’s a chess move. When a pawn moves two squares instead of one on its first move of the game, an opponent’s pawn attacking the square it has skipped over can capture it on the very next move, in passing. That’s what en passant means, literally. In passing.”
“Why name the operation after a simple chess move?” Alex asked.
“It was Daniel’s idea. A pun. You see, Daniel knew he’d have to die to kill the Lion. So the mission would be accomplished in passing.”
Copyright ©2011 Farrell Kramer. All Rights Reserved.