“Just for sport?” Zoyxaquitl asked, as he had before the two previous games, his voice rumbling over the roar of traffic.
“Sure,” said Weiskopf, inhaling cold autumn air and bus fumes. Pleasing smells, inextricably tied in Weiskopf’s mind with chess in Washington Square.
This dinosaur-thing from the Pleiades is good, thought Weiskopf, but I’m better.
“Play much chess on the Saurosapiens home planet?” Weiskopf asked, waiting for Zoyxaquitl’s clumsy huge claws to set up the pieces.
“I am the International Champion of Zox,” said Zoyxaquitl.
Weiskopf’s spine straightened. Nobody knew much about Zox. An explorer would have to travel saurosapiens ships, always in danger of being trampled by huge, Utahsaurus-size alien feet. And on Zox, humans would risk being challenged to one of the duels the saurosapiens were so fond of.
“Perhaps,” said Zoyxaquitl, “this should be a serious game.”
Zoyxaquitl answered Weiskopf’s queen’s pawn opening with the Budapest defense. Weiskopf quietly sacrificed the pawn, knowing this would give him positional advantage later.
When Weiskopf offered a queen exchange later in the game, Zoyxaquitl clapped his claws on either side of his head and thrashed back and forth, howling so loudly that players at nearby boards hissed at him. He finally accepted the trade, putting Weiskopf ahead positionally. But Weiskopf, distracted by the fragrance from a falafel cart, accepted a knight-for-bishop exchange that permitted Zoyxaquitl to create a mating net.
Chagrin. Weiskopf, beaten, smiled his sweet, round-faced smile at Zoyxaquitl.
Zoyxaquitl wore an avid expression, hungry, triumphant. “The challenge is finished,” he said, nearly blasting Weiskopf off his stool with meaty breath.
Weiskopf, alarmed, slid from behind the board and backed away.
Zoyxaquitl grabbed him with one huge forepaw, claws gouging Weiskopf’s neck. “Prepare to be incorporated.”
Weiskopf suddenly understood. The jaws gaped; the tongue, big as a side of veal, glistened with saliva. Zoyxaquitl jerked Weiskopf off his feet and dangled him above the chess board.
“Close your eyes, it’ll be over fast,” said Zoyxaquitl.
Better it shouldn’t be over at all!
“Now no one can say that the Earth-beings are smarter than Saurosapiens.” He swung Weiskopf above his head.
Weiskopf looked down in paralyzed horror into a cradle of teeth sharp and huge as axe-heads.
“No!” Weiskopf screamed. “I don’t admit defeat! King to e-2!”
Zoyxaquitl’s eyes squinted. He lowered Weiskopf, still grasping his shirt. “But at e-2, you’re in check from — ”
Weiskopf tore away, popping buttons, and ran, leaving his ripped shirt dangling from Zoyxaquitl’s claws. The subway! His short legs carried him like pistons across the square to the Fourth Street subway entrance, as he knocked over chessboards and leapt over an old lady dressed in pink crocheted pot holders.
The subway entrance, Weiskopf hoped, was too small for Zoyxaquitl. But it wasn’t. Weiskopf froze in the smelly, safe dimness, listening to discover which train was coming. Uptown! Down, down, hearing big feet thunder behind him. People shrieked as Zoyxaquitl pounded behind him, screamed as the big saurosapiens tossed them aside, hot for the kill.
The train screeched to a stop. Doors opened. Weiskopf glanced panic-stricken over his shoulder, to a nightmare vision of Zoyxaquitl, waddling to avoid hitting his head on the top of the stairwell toward the train.
Weiskopf leaped into the car, nearly knocking down a purple-haired teen couple linked by chains attached to matching nose-rings. Could the saurosapiens squeeze its huge bulk into the car? Weiskopf stood poised between cars.
Over the fragrance of greasy popcorn, stale human hair, perspiration, and ancient urine, Weiskopf smelled Zoyxaquitl’s anger pheromones, like blood, like a cauldron of boiling sweat.
Weiskopf dashed down the train, three cars, and out onto the platform again. Zoyxaquitl drew back, huge face radiating puzzlement, and sprang toward Weiskopf.
Weiskopf threw himself back into the train just as the doors closed.
Zoyxaquitl howled. People scattered. The car rocked like a swatted fly as the alien sprang to the top of it. For a moment Weiskopf saw nothing, then the saurosapiens’ blood-crazed eye glared in the window. Saliva frothed down the car as Zoyxaquitl clawed and chewed at the glass.
The train creaked into motion, slowed by Zoyxaquitl’s bulk as if it had taken on a whole rush-hour load. It gathered speed, and Weiskopf wondered with new horror if the stupid alien was going to allow himself to be scraped off the roof by the tunnel.
Weiskopf squeezed his eyes shut. When he opened them, Zoyxaquitl was rolling on the platform. Then the alien lurched to his feet, shook like an immense dog, and glared down the track.
Weiskopf dashed to his flat, amazed that his short body was capable of such an escape. Thank God he’d never given the alien his card.
“You’re lucky,” said his mother when he called her later that night. “Don’t you watch the news? These alien guys, they eat people all the time.”
“All the time, Mom?” He had heard of only one case, and it seemed like tabloid material to him.
“So I exaggerate slightly, liebchen. The point is, they challenge people to these duels, then the loser gets eaten.” She paused to suck on her Camel. “So you’re lucky, you understand?”
“No, I don’t. Why doesn’t somebody arrest them?”
“Sweetheart, I’m just telling you what I read in the papers. This one alien, he challenged a boxer from Queens, even let the boxer have a baseball bat and a machete. And guess what? The alien got him. Ate him. You can’t beat an sappy saurian, David. Don’t even think of it.”
“Saurosapiens, Mother. I did read that. But then the story got a little weird, if you ask me. This boxer, they said, was still alive, his personality persisted. He spoke from inside the saurosapiens, sent messages to his family, tried to vote. They wouldn’t let him box, of course.”
“You want to live inside a sappy sauriens, go right ahead, liebchen. I’ll call you on your birthday.”
“Why didn’t somebody arrest the alien?”
“Diplomatic immunity, they said. Something like that. Anyway, who’s going to arrest a two thousand pound smart lizard?”
Weiskopf thought about this.
The same night, he packed, e-mailed his landlord, giving notice, and fled the city.
He had heard of bad losers in the history of chess, men like the Duke of Burgundy who murdered people over interrupting games, and even those who had attacked victorious opponents. But he had never counted on being eaten by an alien simply as a penalty for losing.
It gave him food for thought.
His ties to Manhattan were weak; his chess-playing friends had left the city, most without farewells. His last girl had left him because he mumbled “E-2 to e-4!” in his sleep, and occasionally “Checkmate!” during orgasm.
Weiskopf had been amazing as a child player, until his teens when the stress of competition proved too much. Chess had been his life; he felt lost. He took a degree at NYU and threw himself into teaching math.
Weiskopf was so short he had to shop in the boy’s department until he was eighteen; his fair complexion and round eyes made college girls want to tousle his hair instead of date him. Academically he did well, but was too shy to speak up in class. He was not built for most sports. He might have made a fair jockey, but he didn’t really like horses. He preferred knights, the wooden kind that moved two squares over and one across. Weiskopf had quit tournament play in his teens when doctors ascribed his ulcerative colitis to the stress of competition, but he loved the game and keenly missed the opportunity to show his superiority in the one thing he seemed best at.
Everything else seemed a waste.
Since he couldn’t stay away from the game, he played in Washington Square, which is where he had encountered Zoyxaquitl.
Now, as he drove, he fumed over having let the alien beat him. He was out of practice. Or was he a prodigy who had burned out young?
Cleveland would be a new start. Forget the lost chess career.
He got a job teaching math at a Jewish middle school and rented an apartment in Cleveland Heights. Soon, of course, he discovered the White Chess Collection at the Cleveland Public Library. And he played chess — on the internet, under a fake name, because he feared Zoyxaquitl might trace him.
Gradually, he forgot Zoyxaquitl.
One day, in the produce section of Heinen’s, he saw a fluffy head of hair a color which somehow reminded him of certain Pepperidge Farm sugar cookies. He glanced in the cart pushed by the curly-haired girl and, sure enough, there were two packages of Chessmen cookies.
“Larissa?” he said timidly.
The girl turned to him, her big chocolate-brown eyes behind thick lenses sparkling in surprise. “David! David Weiskopf! I haven’t seen you since chess club at NYU.”
Weiskopf blushed. “I forgot you lived in Cleveland. I’d have looked you up.” Actually, he wouldn’t have looked her up. He considered her shyer than himself, bashful to the point of pathology. His NYU roommate had once asked her on a date and she had refused with the vehemence of a mouse refusing a piggyback ride on a cat. From then on, Weiskopf put her in the category of chess-playing women, who, like whistling girls and crowing hens, were mysteriously fated for bad ends.
“So what are you doing in Cleveland?” She peered into his basket, checking his store-brand canned goods and Hearty Choice dinners.
Her focused interest tricked him into candor. “Running away from the Final Checkmate.”
She smiled her goofy smile up at him, an unusual experience for Weiskopf because he was shorter than most other women. “Hm. You always were wary of endgame.”
“You know me too well.” Clutching his basket, he walked beside her down the toiletries aisle, where she selected a box of bubble bath and some massage lotion. “Actually, there was this alien — ”
“Huh? Zachary Quilty is an alien?” Weiskopf remembered reading in Chess Life of the meteoric rise of this new player, an immigrant who had managed to get a rating above 1700 in very short order.
“Oh, yeah. I played him at the Vermont open.”
“Did he — did he say anything threatening?” He followed her to the dairy section.
“Oh, no. In fact, when we started playing, he said to me, ‘Just a game, right?’” Larissa selected whipping cream, eggs, and large dill pickles. Where in the world did she put all the food? She had a round bottom, but she was otherwise waif-like. Weiskopf said, “His real name is Zoyxaquitl. He tried to eat me.”
“Oh, my God! Did you go to the police?” Larissa’s eyes went round and concerned behind the big glasses.
“All the saurosapiens are diplomats. They claim this challenge thing isn’t murder because the person’s soul survives. I came to Cleveland because I figured he’d never trace me here.”
“Mmm. Well, I’ll never mention your whereabouts.” She hesitated, then reached for a jar of herring in sour cream. “You play chess anymore?”
“Just with the kids at my school. You?”
“Oh, yeah! I go to tournaments whenever I can afford it. Hey, you should play. You were really good. The best.”
Weiskopf looked mournfully at the drab contents of his shopping basket. “I guess I lost my nerve.”
“Well,” she said, “I um guess I’ll um see you round.” She glanced at him, big brown eyes suddenly evasive, then charged with her cart full speed to the checkout.
Larissa Goldov. Still weird.
Zoyxaquitl’s ranking continued to climb, and Weiskopf kept track nervously. To be safe, he called the National Chess Federation headquarters to make sure that his e-mail address would not be revealed to another player — especially Mr. Quilty.
Then one day Zoyxaquitl made his move.
Weiskopf’s phone rang one evening, late. Weiskopf didn’t get many calls; it couldn’t be his diminutive mother, who phoned on Wednesdays, nor his principal, who only called in emergencies.
“David! It’s me, Larissa! The alien ate somebody! Oh, it was awful!” She was sobbing.
“Who? Larissa, calm down! Who did he eat?”
“There’s this sweet biology prof. His chess-club students were here, and his wife, and his two kids. In front of them!”
She snuffled into the phone. “Kenneth Goviz.”
“I’ve played him. I would have put my money on him to win the tournament.”
“David, Goviz was playing black and he was two pawns down. He made a mistake and lost another pawn, and the saurosapiens had him three moves later. Oh, God, that awful monster, he used his claws, and these big teeth, and he tore off his head and there was all this blood. He even ate his clothes.”
Weiskopf became suddenly aware of his own puny size. And then of Larissa’s puny size. “Larissa, don’t continue in the tournament.”
“Oh, David, the tournament is over. That horrible alien won.”
“Surely the arbiters — ”
“You don’t understand! That was the final round! Zachary Quilty — Zoyxaquitl, is that his real name? — he won, and then he ate poor Kenneth Goviz.”
After Weiskopf hung up, he did a replay in his head of his own narrow escape.
The President of the National Chess Federation, Bev Belli, would not be in her office at this hour of the night, but Weiskopf had once had enough clout to feel entitled to call her at home.
After Weiskopf had explained, there was a long silence.
“Hm,” said the president, “you know, this fellow is a very talented player.”
“But he’s murdered Kenneth Goviz!”
“Hm. Goviz no doubt antagonized him.”
“I tell you, he tried to kill me, too, and I certainly never antagonized him.”
“Well. Ordinarily, feuds, you know, chess players are very temperamental people. I try to stay out of these things. You think Quilty might do something like this again?”
“I don’t know. I think you should warn people.”
“Tell you what. I’ll put a notice in the next issue of Chess Life.”
“That’s not good enough! I want him — I want him barred from tournament play!”
Again, a long silence. Weiskopf envisioned the president taking long puffs on her meerschaum pipe. The president had a whole set of meerschaum pipes, most in the shapes of chess pieces. Finally, the president said, “Don’t you think that’s a bit unfair? If the authorities don’t charge him, how can we bar him from the game? Especially when he’s such a phenomenal player.”
“Because, because — ” Weiskopf was at a loss for words.
“This is a matter for the legal authorities,” said the president. “If they allow Quilty at large, we can only warn. We can’t bar him from play.”
It was Weiskopf’s turn to be silent.
Weiskopf signed off, surly. Only after he had hung up did it occur to him how much he wanted to say that he himself had beaten Quilty soundly two games out of three. Phenomenal player indeed!
Weiskopf called four newspapers before he got a reporter from one to interview him.
“Oh, this’ll be great!” squealed Twixie Toombs, a young woman with huge blonde hair, Cleopatra eyes, and a build like a blowup doll. She was the Cleveland stringer for Straight Tips, a Cincinnati paper. “You got pix?”
Weiskopf squirmed. “Actually, no. I was hoping you could send a photographer to the next tournament.”
“No prob,” said Twixie. “We’ve got stuff in our files. Now, from the top, what happened when you played the lizard?”
Reassured by Twixie’s thoroughness, Weiskopf told the whole tale, though distracted by Twixie ‘s small pink nipples, visible through the lace body stocking she wore under her business suit.
But when the story appeared, it was illustrated with comic-book drawings of a Tyrannosaurus Rex eating a rook. It mentioned “an informant who wishes to be anonymous, but you resides in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.” So much for anonymity. It was on the fourth page, next to an article headlined: WALLA WALLA WOMAN WILL BEAR JOHN BELUSHI’S BABY; UFO DELIVERS SPERM EXTRACTED AFTER DEATH.
Weiskopf was so depressed that he threw the paper in the trash and went to bed early. His dreams were of Zoyxaquitl as a white queen, swooping down on him across a chessboard at least fifty squares long. But when Zoyxaquitl captured him (for his own dream persona, Weiskopf had become a knight), instead of knocking him soundly off the board, it banged away at his feet, which were apparently cemented to the black square on which he stood. Bang, bang.
Irritated, he reached for his own queen, only to discover that it had turned into the bottle of Tylenol beside his bed. The banging continued.
He sat up in the darkness, holding his head in fear that it might explode. BANG BANG. Then the doorbell, loud, insistent. BANG.
Every hair on his head and body stood erect.
BANG BANG. It had to be Zoyxaquitl!
Weiskopf was a dead puppy.
Don’t turn on the light. He pulled on his jeans and worn wing-tips, without socks. Heart hammering, he tiptoed to the back door of the apartment and cracked open the door to the fire-escape. No sign of Zoyxaquitl.
The fire escape did not go all the way to the ground, so he’d have to let himself fall. Oh, well, it beat being eaten by a crazed alien. The leather soles of the wing-tips were slippery on the fire escape steps, but he made it to the lower landing.
On hands and knees, he grasped the rusty grating. He should have brought gloves, he realized. He certainly hoped Zoyxaquitl would not follow the scent of his blood. He shivered in revulsion and fished a toe out into the darkness.
Do it! he told himself. He was afraid of heights and had never learned to dive despite being almost good as a swimmer.
He slid his legs out. Gasping for breath, his heart pounding so hard he was afraid Zoyxaquitl would hear it, he slid off the platform and tried to hang from the grating. Sharp edges cut through his palms, and he dropped.
Roll! he told himself. And then, Ahhhrgh. My ankle’s broken.
Despair washed over him. Zoyxaquitl would surely have heard the crash, and Weiskopf couldn’t run with a broken ankle. He rolled into a bed of prickly gas-plant his landlady had planted around the base of the building.
Mincing footsteps trotted up.
“David, what in Caissa’s holy name is wrong with you?” The woman looking down at him twisted her head to peer into his face. Her black-brown eyes, behind thick lenses, were alive with concern.
“Larissa,” he groaned.
Larissa assured him that she was the one banging on his door. She tried to get him to go to the emergency ward with his ankle, which now appeared only sprained. She wrapped it in an elastic bandage, made him Ovaltine, and settled him on his couch.
“David, this is getting out of hand. Dozens of chess players in Manhattan, Virginia, all over the east have disappeared.”
“How did you find this out?”
She opened her eyes wide behind the big spectacles. “I have friends, David. Once I knew what happened to you, and then to poor Kenneth Goviz, the pattern was obvious.” She shoved the heavy glasses up on her nose and delved into her purse. “Look, here’s a list of chess masters who’ve disappeared.”
“Basil Ferboten . . . Grimley Treacher . . . Archie Borodnik . . . . what are these dates?”
“Those are the last dates they were seen.” She took his cup and filled it with more decaf. “We should check them against Zoyxaquitl’s itinerary.”
“Check, shmeck. It’s obviously him.”
She sat still, her big brown eyes reflectively somber. “I also researched the saurosapiens. They’re supposed to challenge only once every three or four years. And Zoyxaquitl is unusual in challenging human beings. They usually duel their own species.”
“This has got to be illegal!” Weiskopf attempted to get up and pace the room, but his injured ankle gave way and he collapsed on the couch.
Larissa shook her head solemnly. “It’s not. I called my lawyer. He said none of the half-dozen saurosapiens who have eaten humans have ever been prosecuted. Diplomatic immunity, she says.” Larissa’s pupils dilated with outrage. “Ridiculous!”
“We could call everybody we know, and tell them to call everybody they know .
So they did. Toward evening, Larissa went out and got Pad Thai and lemon grass soup, and they called well into the night. “Oy, my telephone bill,” said Weiskopf more than once. Finally both fell asleep exhausted, Weiskopf on his sofa, Larissa looking ridiculously tiny in an armchair.
By the next afternoon, chess players they didn’t know were calling them. “Did you know there’s a saurosapiens who’s eating chess players?” a perfect stranger would say.
“It’s true,” said Weiskopf.
“But,” the perfect stranger would say, “the National Open is in just a few weeks. If we all chicken out, this Zoyxaquitl guy is going to be National Champion. And kill every other contender.”
“Too bad we can’t appeal to his sense of fair play,” said Larissa sarcastically.
Weiskopf picked up Larissa’s list of vanished chess masters. “Poor Archie Borodnik. The old fart loved that weird variation on the four knights opening.”
“That’s funny,” said Larissa. “Zoyxaquitl was playing that variation all through the Oklahoma tournament.”
Weiskopf had a sudden, nasty inspiration. “When did Archie disappear?”
But it was on the Larissa’s chart.
A week before the Oklahoma tournament.
“Larissa, he’s eating them so he can absorb their play.”
Larissa slapped her forehead with her small pink palm. “Oh my God, David. You’re right! He actually does incorporate their personality! Their souls!”
Larissa gathered her chess magazines, charts, and comforting paraphernalia back into her purse. Weiskopf was afraid for her to go home alone, but she said, “I’m not a good enough player. I’m safe. Zoyxaquitl doesn’t just eat people indiscriminately.” She looked at him appraisingly, her brown eyes sudden gone coldly thoughtful. “You’re the one who has the most to fear.”
After she had gone, Weiskopf realized she had paid him a compliment. Maybe he was still good enough to eat.
“Dr. Bliloblilly does not grant interviews,” said the sexy senior secretary. Weiskopf tried hard to keep his eyes away from her hair (strawberry blonde, elaborately frizzed to conceal its thinness) and her figure (sculpted by an iron-girt merry-widow corset, judging from the way the tops of her breasts jiggled, and the fact that the rest of her, tiny waist and big hips, was as rigid as a cheap china vase).
Weiskopf was astonished to discover that he was actually yelling at her. “Then why did you let me drive all this distance? I wrote for this appointment. I had to take a day off from work, and I have to drive eight hours back tonight!”
She rolled her mascaraed eyes, and the bags under them jiggled like her breasts. “I’m terribly sorry! Your letter said you wanted information about the aliens. Dr. Bliloblilly is an expert on Terrestrials, not on saurosapiens.”
“What? Terrestrials are not — ”
“Terrestrials are aliens to Dr. Bliloblilly.” She sighed and crossed her arms elaborately across the huge, cantilevered bosom. “Well, maybe you could go in for just a teensy moment while he eats lunch.” She pulled herself upright and teetered toward the door on four-inch high heels, the type worn by showgirls in 1940s movies.
Bliloblilly was hunched behind his desk. The desk was the size of a motor-home, but Bliloblilly was even bigger. Weiskopf could see now why Bliloblilly’s offices were in this warehouse. His saurosapiens head scraped the ceiling.
“He’s terribly self-conscious about his height,” the secretary hissed, “so don’t make any comparisons.”
“I heard that, Desiree,” said the huge lump of flesh, stirring. “I don’t mind being short. Being short is an advantage in mating dances and challenges. You get to challenge females and larvae.”
Weiskopf shuffled into the room.
After Bliloblilly’s size, and the fact that he was obviously an alien, the next thing Weiskopf noticed was the smell. Something was dead. The something was obviously a large tray of canapés that Bliloblilly was picking at.
“Have one?” the alien offered.
The tray contained what appeared to be mangled mouse and rat parts, partially digested and clearly quite rotten.
Weiskopf wondered how he was going to get through this.
“I need your help in explaining the motives of one of your countrymen,” he began. “A — er, saurosapiens named Zoyxaquitl.”
Weiskopf’s heart sank. He didn’t realize Zoyxaquitl had a last name.
“The name Zoyxaquitl,” said the alien, peeling a bit of rat pelt off a gobbet of putrid flesh, “is not a common name in my country. Perhaps you should try the Quinzookin embassy.”
“Is that here, or in Washington?”
“My dear fellow,” said Bliloblilly, “the nearest Quinzookin embassy is back on Zox.”
Weiskopf sat crestfallen and, he increasingly realized, nauseated. He had heard somewhere that you must keep your eyes open if you want to fight nausea. He was afraid if he vomited suddenly, Bliloblilly might take offense and challenge him right on the spot. Suddenly, without really meaning to, he started gagging. When he had mastered himself, he said, “Please, no offense. You won’t challenge me, will you? Please?”
“My dear chap, a fellow my age only challenges once every seven or eight years.”
Weiskopf came alert. “What about Quinzookins?”
“Well, now,” and the alien steepled his claws, “I’m an alien specialist, not a student of foreign cultures, but — I would say the most savage ethnic group on Zox challenges perhaps once every other year. Maybe a bit more frequently if there is an information shortage.”
“You mean the challenge thing is to obtain information?”
“Not exactly. Say I work for a company that makes froxow sexers. Another company develops a better method of sexing froxows. I might challenge an engineer from that company, just to obtain an information avenue.”
“And you’d get all the engineer’s knowledge?”
“No! No! No!” The alien pounded on his desk. The tray of rat giblets rattled and jumped, gobs flying in the air. One landed on his necktie. “You aliens are so stupid — um, sorry, I didn’t mean that. No, we actually absorb the eaten person’s personality. Then, we can negotiate from a position of strength.”
Weiskopf feared he was never going to understand. “One of your race is going about eating chess players and forcing them to help him in tournament chess.”
“Forcing them!” said Bliloblilly. “He isn’t allowing his eaten opponents free expression of their personality?”
“In most cases, no.”
Bliloblilly’s eyes went cold, and he set his huge, toothy jaw. “I refuse to believe this. You are insulting my fellow Zoxian.”
“But you said you come from a different country — ”
“He’s still from Zox. Miss Mayhew! Show this gentleman out before I get REALLY ANGRY.”
Weiskopf didn’t wait. He tumbled out of the chair and dashed out. Bliloblilly threw the tray of rat guts through the door after him.
“You poor dear,” said Larissa. “Here, I brought you some nice shampoo and bath salts.”
“I should have taken a room and gotten cleaned up before I drove back,” said Weiskopf. His shirt stuck to him, and his hair and clothing were spattered with rat blood and mucus. He took the bag of sweet-smelling bath items, glancing awkwardly toward the bathroom.
“I’ll wait,” Larissa said. “I have some reading I want to do.”
Weiskopf felt a lot better when he emerged clean, dressed in fresh soft jeans and shirt. Larissa smiled.
“Mmm, you smell nice. Now, let me show you these ideas. See, he must be putting Archie in charge of openings — nobody else plays that weird four-knights variation, because nobody understands it like him. Then look how he uses forks. Who does that remind you of?”
“Ah. Grimley Treacher. And young Ferboten. My god, if he’s gone, what a loss! He loved to knight a promoted pawn, instead of queening it. He did it in several games.”
“Yes, and who does this mating net remind you of?”
They continued into the night, Weiskopf reading over Larissa’s shoulder. He became aware of her sultry, spicy perfume, so unexpected in a small, bookish-looking girl like Larissa.
“And that’s all I’ve been able to find. He’s eaten three grand masters and seven other assorted players. It’s ghastly.”
“It’s also very perverted, according to this Bliloblilly guy. But what can we do?”
She sighed and leaned back, accidentally pressing her shoulder into his chest. “If we could find a reputable saurosapiens who plays chess to beat him — ”
“Or convince somebody to ban him from tournaments.”
“I wish we could find more literature on this incorporation phenomenon,” Larissa said, automatically setting up a board to play chess. “If what Zoyxaquitl is doing is really abnormal for his species, perhaps the pressure of so many personalities will cause a breakdown. He might be stopped by that, without our intervention.”
“No, no.” Weiskopf automatically played out his queen’s pawn. “See, if you look at the dates, the appetite seems to feed on itself. The more players he eats, the more consultants he has for his own inner game, the more he wins — and he thrives on winning.”
They settled to play a game. Larissa played with her typical determination and quiet depth. She was a pawn down through most of the middle game, but suddenly attacked and had him after forty moves. “David, you’re not concentrating! You shouldn’t be able to beat me; I’ve never been in your class.”
She was right. His mind kept sliding away from the game, as it slid away from his teaching and every other concern, to the problem of the alien who was systematically destroying the great game of chess.
She left the bath salts and lotions in his bathroom and kissed his cheek as she left. She smelled nice, too.
Weiskopf fell asleep thinking about Larissa’s repertoire of lotions, shampoos, and soaps, and was jolted awake toward three a.m. by the telephone.
“Weiskopf? David Isaac Weiskopf?” A male voice.
“That’s what Mrs. Weiskopf named me, you with the manners. Do you know what time this is?”
“Sh!” said the voice. “He’s asleep! I called to warn you — ”
“Who is this?” Weiskopf was really irritated.
“This is Ken Goviz. I’m calling from inside — ”
Weiskopf sat straight up in bed, suddenly very awake. “Go on! Goviz is dead. The alien ate him.”
” — from inside Zoyxaquitl, Weiskopf. You understand?”
“You can stay awake while he sleeps?”
“Read my — well, I guess you can’t read my lips, even if you were here. Listen, stop arguing. Zoyxaquitl wants you. He thinks you’re the best chess player in America, and he wants to incorporate your personality before he goes on to compete internationally.”
“Look, this is very flattering, but — ”
“Think, Weiskopf. How do you think I located you?”
Weiskopf thought. “He has my number. You got it from his notes, nu? Oh God.”
“I’ll try to destroy it, but — ”
A deep, rumbling voice cut in. “WHO ARE YOU TALKING TO, INFERIOR HUMAN?”
Weiskopf slammed the receiver down. His heart beat like the bass line of a heavy-metal solo. Think quick!
He threw on clothes, stuffed a change of underwear into a Heinen’s bag, and as afterthought grabbed his address book.
Afraid of being followed in his car, he took a cab to Larissa’s.
She blinked, her smile silly and surprised. She was wearing a flannel gown, very soft, unbuttoned and showing the shadow between her high, small breasts. “Sofa,” she said. “I don’t wake up easy.”
In the morning, she made breakfast: bagels, cream cheese, and raspberry jam, with potent, milky tea. “I have to go to work. I don’t think Zoyxaquitl will trace you here, since you left your car back at your apartment. But it’s time to quit running, David. I mean, you have to do something to stop him.”
Weiskopf wrung his hands. “What, Larissa? What is this I should do?”
“You’ll figure it out.” She leaned over and kissed his cheek. “Look, here’s some protection.” She pulled a large handgun out of her purse.
God in heaven, thought Weiskopf, no wonder her purse is so heavy. “A little girl like you shouldn’t have a big — what is it?”
“It’s a .357 Magnum.”
“Get it away from me!”
Larissa looked aggrieved. “I’ll take you to the target range and teach you how to use it.”
“Guns won’t work. One of the early saurosapiens contacts had his head blown half off, and he recovered within days.”
She tucked it back in the purse, blew him a kiss and exited
Weiskopf called in sick and went back to bed. His brain had always been delicate, and when under stress he needed lots of sleep. When he woke up, he ate more bagels and jam, and explored Larissa’s apartment. Plants, soft upholstered furniture, uncluttered except for lots of chess books and crime fiction. No drapes on the window; late afternoon sunlight streamed in. The bathroom was fragrant and spacious, with huge soft, white towels.
He ran hot water in the big tub, and as an afterthought threw in some bubble bath. He checked that the apartment doors were locked, then climbed in.
Gazing at the ceiling from the tub, he allowed tears and sweat to mingle and fall into the steaming bubbles. It felt good to lie here, lost and lugubrious.
Every so often he would let water out of the tub and run more, and it must have been while water was running that Larissa came home. The first he knew of her was when she called, “I’m home, David! Don’t get out of the tub.”
Two minutes later she came into the bathroom.
She was wearing a big towel, her small body swathed in it like a puppy in a blanket.
She dropped the towel and stepped into the tub beside Weiskopf. Her legs slid along his; she faced him, tantric style, small, high breasts bobbing in the bubbles.
“How can you stand the heat?” She soaped her hair, neck, shoulders, arms, breasts. She extended a leg and propped it on Weiskopf’s shoulder to lather it, taking particular care with the toes.
Weiskopf was speechless. His mouth hung open. Her soft, freshly washed crotch had to be inches away from his. He was afraid his erection would grow and breach the surface of the water.
Then she submerged — head and all — and came up eyes squeezed shut. With a corner of the towel, she wiped her face.
“Now you,” and she began to bathe him.
She lifted his right leg out of the water and laved it generously with the wash cloth. Up to the mid-thigh. Then the left. “Turn your back to me,” she said.
“Oh my God,” he said. But he did it.
“Oh. So much tension in these shoulders.”
He turned back around before she finished, and began kissing her, fragrant soap-bubble kisses, hands gliding over her neck and shoulders.
“Yes,” she said.
And he went on, feeling the rest of her, slippery, soft, warm. The tub was big enough for slippery coupling, and for once Weiskopf rejoiced in his short genes.
Larissa lay, half afloat in the remaining bubbles. She wore a beatific, sleep-like expression. He feared if he left her, she would drown, so he drained the tub, picked her up (thank God for her short genes), and wrapped her in the bedspread like the filling in a blintz. She made soft sleepy sounds, like a puppy.
By the time he’d finished making an omelet, she appeared, dressed and businesslike, glasses in place. “Well. What have you decided to do?”
Weiskopf ignored that question. “Why did you do that?”
“You did it, too. You mean, why did I start it?” She nibbled an Oreo. “I was afraid Zoyxaquitl would eat you, and I’d never get a chance again.”
“Oh. I thought — ”
“That I was trying to give you the courage to face him down?”
She looked at her plate. “Maybe that, too.”
“It worked. I’m going to beat that bastard at his own game.”
Larissa invited him to stay with her and accept her help. He needed to study not just Zoyxaquitl’s games, but the games of all the alien’s incorporated victims. She sent for records of games, analyzed them, considered eyewitness accounts of Zoyxaquitl’s mumblings during tournament play, for now they realized that Zoyxaquitl had been analyzing play with his incorporated victims.
Larissa had a photographic memory and incredible energy. She would come home from work with a pizza, steaks, or other quick food, and work with Weiskopf until bedtime.
Weiskopf commuted to work on the bus; until one day he was summoned out of his classroom for a phone call.
“WEISKOPF,” boomed a voice. “I KNOW WHERE YOU ARE AND I WANT YOU.”
Weiskopf walked straight out of the principal’s office to the bus stop. He went directly to Larissa’s house and put the deadbolt on the door.
After he reported what had happened, she said, “It’s possible he thinks he has the right to eat you now, without another match.”
“He has no right! We were just playing a friendly game; I had no idea what the stakes were.” He paced the kitchen, nibbling on a Pepperidge Farm Chessman (a bishop, in fact). The more he paced, the faster he ate cookies. His mother was right; you could get high on sugar. His anger sparked and flared.
“I’m going to call that bastard and tell him he’s a cheat! You aren’t allowed to consult secretly with other players. He didn’t beat me by himself; he had already eaten Stephan DeMay. I bet that was why he was so crazy to avoid exchanging queens. Stephan had panic attacks over queen exchanges.”
“Yes. And Stephan disappeared about a month before your infamous match with Zoyxaquitl.”
Weiskopf felt tears spring up. Stephan had been a clever, sweet madman who played chess with all comers in Washington Square despite a disabling anxiety disorder. How anybody could take advantage –
“I’m going to call him and issue a challenge,” said Weiskopf, standing up to his full five foot five.
Finding the name Zachary Quilty’s home city and then his telephone number was easy. Larissa listened on the other extension.
“You and me, Reptile,” Weiskopf spat into the receiver.
The alien sounded overcome with delight. “I beat you once, insignificant terrestrial, and I have the right to eat you tonight, if I wish. That was back when I was young in deed. With experience I have now, I’ll crush you.”
“I’ll beat you, Zoyxaquitl. All of you.”
“March 15, then. I’ll come to Cleveland. Reserve a ballroom in the Hyatt. Call the press. I’ll see you there.”
“And in hell,” growled Weiskopf.
He was about to hang up, when Larissa spoke. “Zachary, let me speak to Kenneth Goviz.”
“I speak for all the Incorporated Personalities,” Zoyxaquitl proclaimed. Then “ARGGH.” A different voice, still deep, but more human, came on. “This is Kenneth. Stop it, Zach!”
Larissa’s voice was quiet and forceful. “Why are you helping this mad alien, Kenneth? Have you lost your free will, operating from his inner parts?”
A long pause, then a tortured voice, “That’s Larissa, isn’t it? It’s hard to explain. As if — I can’t throw a game. He asks me, asks all of us, the best line of play. We can’t resist. We’re driven to win. It’s all we have, since we’re divorced from — ”
“From your bodies.” Larissa’s voice trembled, near weeping.
“ENOUGH!” roared Zoyxaquitl’s voice.
Larissa pressed on. “How many are you?”
Kenneth’s voice said, “Twenty one, counting Lakshmi Govandi. He ate her yesterday at an invitational tournament in Milwaukee.”
“No!” cried Weiskopf. Lakshmi was a fourteen-year-old, the best woman chess player to emerge since the Polgars. Her sweet disposition, daring middle game tactics, and fine sportsmanship had won the hearts of the whole chess-playing community. Her family and fans would be devastated.
Kenneth continued, “He wanted to get his feet wet in international competition.”
“AFTER YOU, THE RUSSIANS! THE WORLD!” Zoyxaquitl roared.
But Kenneth was silent. The phone went dead.
Weiskopf looked at Larissa. Deadly pale, but she came to him, slipped her arms around him, pressed her breasts to his chest.
“You’ll have to study Lakshmi’s games, too, now,” she said.
Local Cleveland entrepreneurs financed the match. The mad grand master-eating alien was now news, and not just in the tabloids.
“A circus,” said Larissa.
Weiskopf’s headmaster went to his soccer booster club and convinced them to provide Weiskopf with a living allowance while he trained.
Zoyxaquitl publicly pledged to the National Chess Federation that he would not attack Weiskopf before the tournament. Still, Weiskopf felt nervous. He moved out of Larissa’s apartment into the Algonquin, telling nobody but Larissa his address. Larissa worked with him every evening, reviewing games, discussing possibilities. André Kremer, a hot player from Astoria, flew in for a week to provide additional practice. Also, Weiskopf played games electronically with several grand masters.
“You’re amazing,” said Larissa. “You’ve always been good, but now your play is sheer poetry.”
He glanced darkly at her. Perhaps she was easily impressed; or perhaps she wanted to build his confidence.
His ulcer came back, and he found himself living on Lomotil.
The ballroom was brilliantly lit; a television monitor from an overhead camera revealed the boards to the audience. Carpet and comfortable chairs; that was good. By agreement, the opponents had arranged for a non-regulation giant chess set. Weiskopf cynically wondered if Zoyxaquitl had thought the large set would throw his game off. That was silly; Weiskopf was no patzer.
Some in the audience were saurosapiens, but most were humans. Weiskopf was flattered to see that several Russian grand masters had come to see the match.
Zoyxaquitl appeared flourishing a burgundy cape about the yardage of the curtains of a Broadway theater. His suit was conservative gray, cut terrestrial style, but topped by a metallic bow tie. His eyes flashed fire.
With him was a slightly smaller saurosapiens.
“MY FIANCEE,” said Zoyxaquitl, “BLIARIXYA.” Bliarixya, her perfume redolent of skunk and rotten strawberries, wore a gown sparkling with blue sequins. Her gloves were dark green, and aquamarines hung from her enormous snout and forepaws. The effect was as if the Loch Ness monster had become a transvestite.
“I AM NOT YET YOUR FIANCEE,” said Bliarixya. “YOU HAVE NOT YET ACCOMPLISHED YOUR XIAS.”
“Xias?” said Weiskopf.
“NEVER MIND,” said Zoyxaquitl.
Larissa exchanged glances with Weiskopf. As the alien couple went off to primp, she said, “That might explain why he’s doing this.”
“Sure,” said Weiskopf. “She’ll marry him if he becomes Interplanetary Chess Champion.”
“Frivolous.” Larissa adjusted her glasses.
“LAST TIME,” said Zoyxaquitl, “YOU PLAYED WHITE. THIS TIME, YOU’RE BLACK.”
Weiskopf bit his lip. It seemed sporting, but his life might depend on the minute advantage of playing white.
The arbiter said, “You’ll decide by lots.” Zoyxaquitl drew black. When he began to thrash and roar, Weiskopf said, “I’ll give him white. But only if he promises to quit bothering me if I win.”
Zoyxaquitl glared at him.
Weiskopf’s plan had been this: if he drew white, he would try a bizarre attack, like the Orangutan variation. If black, again, he’d try for something none of the Incorporated personalities had successfully played against, maybe the Archaeopteryx defense, or the Archbishop’s Cramp.
Zoyxaquitl moved his king’s knight out; Weiskopf answered with his own king’s knight. Here they were, playing Archie Borodnik’s favorite opening, and Archie was one of the Incorporated personalities.
Weiskopf went to phase B of his plan.
Phase B was to frighten the Incorporated Stephan DeMay. Stephan had been a brilliant eccentric who never went very far beyond New York Chess Club games because of his panic disorder.
Weiskopf knew that daredevil exchanges of valuable material drove Stephan crazy. Larissa and he had come up with mid-game strategies, and yes, one stemmed from the four-knights opening, which involved spectacular exchanges.
Wherever several lines of play seemed equally valid, Weiskopf chose the one which required exchange of material.
And so, scarcely twenty-five moves into the game, Weiskopf offered Zoyxaquitl a rook, while simultaneously threatening his queen. It was also clear that Weiskopf would lose the other rook, which seemed to have been developed too early, but which in reality had weakened Zoyxaquitl’s king-side pawn formation.
Weiskopf recorded the first rook move and glanced at Larissa, who was sitting in the front row, across the aisle from the enormous, sequin-bedecked Bliarixya.
Zoyxaquitl at first did not react. Then, his hot breath blew onto the board, shaking one outsize pawn and blowing Weiskopf’s hair out of place. Then he emitted a groan as dire as a bear’s warning.
Weiskopf called over the arbiter. “Please ask Mr. Quilty to stop blowing in my face,” he said.
“Mr. Quilty, the player has requested — ”
“LEAVE ME BE, INCONSEQUENTIAL SCRAP FROM LOW ON THE FOOD CHAIN.”
Weiskopf thought he had gotten used to Zoyxaquitl’s bellowing. He glanced in the front row and saw Larissa’s jaw set in fury, Bliarixya’s eyes shining with greedy pride.
Zoyxaquitl began talking to himself, many voices, interrupted fragments: “WHY NOT, YOU EATEN BAG OF — i can’t stand this, he’s doing it again, i need my chlorpromazine — will you just shut up, he’s blundered, two rooks not worth a queen any — i told you not to use that opening — ” Zoyxaquitl rose and began foaming at the mouth.
Was it working? Would the cheating alien actually collapse in the heat of battle from the multitudes he had swallowed?
But no. Zoyxaquitl bellowed a terrific “THAT’S IT, YOU!” and accepted the trade.
Weiskopf avoided smiling. He wanted the alien to think the disorienting trade was his only objective, but in fact black was now positionally in better command of the center. He pushed a pawn forward to threaten a knight. He was the aggressor now, with threats on both sides.
He glanced at Larissa. The glare on her glasses made her expression unreadable.
The second exchange Weiskopf offered seemed not to upset the alien as deeply, although the chatter of many eaten personalities rose again.
Forty-two moves into the game, Weiskopf had his queen, and two pawns. Zoyxaquitl had both rooks and one pawn. The rooks guarded the first rank, and it seemed Weiskopf could never queen.
He studied the board, then Zoyxaquitl’s eyes, half-mad with bloodlust. Yes. It would take ten moves, but –
Zoyxaquitl used one rook to put him in check, but overlooked a threat from the queen. Weiskopf’s king, seemingly benignly posed on the second rank, protected the pawn while it queened.
Two queens against two rooks and a pawn. Weiskopf would mate in only a few moves.
Zoyxaquitl stood up and swept the pieces to the floor. He threw the heavy board like a discus at the human arbiter.
Bliarixya jumped up, clasping her elegant gloved claws and emitting ghastly odors. “MY DARLING, WE CAN WORK SOMETHING OUT — ”
“NO!” roared Zoyxaquitl. “HE TRICKED ME INTO COMING HERE. I BEAT HIM LONG AGO ON WASHINGTON SQUARE.”
Weiskopf looked around wildly. There was a saurosapiens arbiter, a puny yellowish reptiloid who had said nothing because he probably didn’t even understand the game. But the alien arbiter and the human one stood clasping each other’s hands in alarm, or embarrassment.
“AND NOW,” Zoyxaquitl announced, spraying Weiskopf, Bliarixya, Larissa, and the whole front row with blood-hot saliva, “I SHALL EAT HIM AS I PROMISED.”
Larissa leapt up. “Not so fast. I challenge Bliarixya to mortal combat. Under the international compact of Zox.”
Zoyxaquitl craned his thick neck forward, as if the small woman were almost invisible. “YOU CAN’T DO THAT. SHE’S UNDER MY PROTECTION.”
“So what?” said Larissa. “Is she afraid of getting her pretty dress dirty?” She pushed her glasses firmly up her nose.
“BUT — BUT — SHE’S IN XIASITY.”
“What the hell’s that?” asked the human arbiter.
Larissa smiled. “The saurosapiens equivalent of heat, I imagine. Come now, the two of you. Bliarixya first, then Zoyxaquitl? Or shall you and I do the terminal tango first, my chess-player-eating friend?”
Zoyxaquitl charged her.
She nimbly darted away. But to Weiskopf’s horror, the alien’s talon raked her leg, tearing a hole in her pantyhose and carving a long bloody wound. He yelled like a bear whose cub is attacked and threw himself after Zoyxaquitl.
Larissa sprinted for the back of the auditorium, leaving a trail of bloody prints, as Zoyxaquitl smashed seats and tossed human observers to the sides. Larissa dipped behind the last row and pulled out the .357 Magnum. It looked enormous in her small hands.
“David, get away from him! I need a clear shot.”
Weiskopf thought she had gone mad. Everybody knew you couldn’t kill a saurosapiens with bullets, even with a head-shot. He leapt aside, planning how he would save Larissa when her attack failed and Zoyxaquitl went after her.
Zoyxaquitl stopped, confused, then wheeled around. His massive bulk slowed him, and he stumbled as he tried to flee through the small stage door.
The shot tore not into his head, as Weiskopf had hoped, but into his abdomen. The saurosapiens gazed, stricken, at his fiancée, then sagged slowly onto his side. His eyes turned sad and hot, like molten bronze, fluttered, and went blank.
Bliarixya shrieked, a shriek that seemed unending. She fell thunderously to the floor and thrashed, hot tears sprinkling Weiskopf and drenching the floor. “DEAD,” she moaned. “HIS PERSONALITIES ALL LOST. I WISH I’D NEVER PUSHED HIM INTO THIS.”
Everybody froze. Security guards at the back of the theater stood stunned, not even drawing their weapons. The audience, which had fled, trickled back in to gawk at the dead alien and his mourning fiancée. The human arbiter, dazed, wiped blood and tears off his face.
The alien arbiter went to Bliarixya and nudged her to her feet. He murmured, “He wasn’t much of a xialis — no more wit than a froxow.”
She brushed herself off and examined the large tear in her gown. “You’re right. I should forget him. It was a stupid xias anyway.” She batted her eyes at the arbiter. “What are you doing after the game?”
Larissa stood, gun still smoking in her hands. “You have to shoot them in the abdomen,” she said. “Their brains are in their abdomens.”
“THAT’S A CLOSELY GUARDED SECRET,” the alien arbiter roared, no longer soft and tender.
Larissa smiled bitterly. “I know.”
Weiskopf ran to her and enfolded her in his arms. She began sobbing, and surrendered her glasses and the weapon to one of the security guards.
After an exhausting interrogation by the Cleveland police, another in the saurosapiens consulate, and an even more exhausting interview by a Plain Dealer reporter who certainly eclipsed Twixie Toombs of Straight Tips, Larissa and Weiskopf went back to her apartment. Larissa ran a bath and slipped into it. As Weiskopf shed his blood-spattered shirt by the side of the tub, he said, “Did you find out about the saurosapiens anatomy from something Dr. Bliloblilly wrote?”
Larissa dipped under the bubbles and blew foam, eyes narrowed in enjoyment. “No. The saurosapiens keep things like that well hidden. I made a desperate wager. You see, I figured if they Incorporate their victims’ personalities by eating them, their digestive systems must be closely linked to their brains.”
Weiskopf shed the last of his stained clothing and growled appreciation as he dabbled a toe into the fragrant bubbles.
“David? Before you get wet, bring me some of those Chessmen cookies?”
|Mary A. Turzillo’s novel An Old-Fashioned Martian Girl and Nebula Award- winning novelette “Mars Is no Place for Children” are recommended reading on the International Space Station. She has been nominated for the British Science Fiction Association Award (“Eat or Be Eaten, a Love Story”) and the Pushcart (Your Cat & Other Space Aliens, vanZeno). She won a third place for long poem in the 2011 Rhysling awards and has recent and forthcoming work in Asimov’s, Analog, New Myths, Strange Horizons, Bull Spec, Stone Telling, Magazine of Speculative Poetry, Ladies of Trade Town, Aoife’s Kiss, Star*Line, and Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, plus an authorized Philip José Farmer sequel story, “The Beast Erect,” in The Worlds of Philip José Farmer 2, Meteor Press. Her latest book is Lovers & Killers, Dark Regions 2012.|