Checkmate

A Game for the Highest Stakes Imaginable

By Tony Sportiello

Rick was tiptoeing quietly around the expensive furniture, taking particular care not to knock over the priceless Ming vase located directly in the middle of the room when the lights suddenly went on. He looked quickly to the doorway and there stood the owner of the house, Nathan Munroe. A gun was in his hand.

"Well, hell," Rick swore.

"Indeed," agreed Munroe.

Rick sighed deeply and pulled off his mask. "Man, oh man, what a week," he said. "Usually I'm not one to bitch, but this has been like the one from hell."

Munroe moved across the room to the bar. The revolver was pointed in Rick's direction but almost carelessly. Nathan Munroe was obviously a man who felt comfortable with a weapon in his hand.

"First my car gets towed on Monday, Tuesday the cleaners lose my suit, I get food poisoning from my favorite Chinese restaurant and to top it all of, now this."

"That's rough," Munroe said. "You have my deepest sympathy."

"Look, this is nothing personal, my being here. I mean, a lot of people see it as a violation, being robbed. That really doesn't enter into it. If I could only break into the houses of people I didn't like, I would."

Munroe took a sip of brandy. "That's reassuring."

"You, for example, seem to be a very reasonable person. Intelligent, with obvious good taste. Open to...negotiations."

Munroe's eyebrow raised. "Negotiations?"

Rick continued. "What I mean is, this doesn't necessarily need to go beyond us."

"I see. By the way, are you armed?"

Rick looked alarmed. "No. No, I never go armed. I hate guns. They have a nasty habit of going off. Besides which, that's an automatic ten years at Rikers. Not for nothing, but how did you know I was here? I've cased this place for three weeks, I know every move you make. It's ten o'clock at night, you're supposed to be on the other side of the house, talking to Tokyo."

"Actually, I was. But I recently installed a new security device. The Pantheon 3000."

The burglar's eyes got wide. "Christ," Rick swore.

"I see you've heard of it."

"Yeah, I've heard of it. Not for nothing, but isn't that a bit of overkill? I mean, this is just a home, not Fort Knox. You can get by with any garden variety security system, that sucker must have set you back a ton."

"Obviously it was money well spent," Munroe said proudly. "It alerts me the instant someone moves within the perimeter. I knew you were here the moment you stepped foot on my lawn."

Rick hung his head in defeat. "And you called the cops, no doubt".

"No, I haven't called the police. Not yet."

Rick looked up in surprise. "Not yet?"

"No. I haven't made up my mind yet."

Rick rose from the couch and stepped a few paces toward. "Well, look, I have some cash. If it makes any difference, you can have it. Take all of it."

Munroe appeared not to hear Rick. "What's your name, anyway?"

"My name? Rick."

"Well...Rick...when you climbed over my fence, crossed my lawn and let yourself in through my garage, did you happen to notice the automobile parked there?"

"Um, no, not really. It was dark."

"Had you bothered to turn on the light you might have noticed, among other cars, a Lamborghini Murcielago, valued at approximately three hundred thousand dollars."

Rick whistled in disbelief. "Three hundred thousand dollars? For one car?"

Munroe nodded. "Now, then. You were going to make me an offer?"

Rick exhaled loudly. "Well, under the circumstances, we can probably skip that part and cut right to the pathetic begging."

"Something tells me you're not the pathetic begging type."

"You'd be surprised. I mean, I really REALLY don't want to go to jail."

Munroe appeared surprised. "Jail? I said nothing about jail. I'm afraid you misunderstood. When I said I haven't made up my mind yet, I was speaking of whether or not to let you live."

Rick's eyes narrowed. "Excuse me?"

"The choice is not freedom or incarceration," Munroe clarified. "The choice is life and death."

There was a long pause. "Are you serious?" Rick asked.

"After all, I could kill you right here and now and who could blame me? Here I am, alone and defenseless..."

"You have a gun!" Rick pointed out.

"I hear a noise, I reach for my revolver to protect myself, I walk into my study and there is a desperate villain who springs at me with the force of a Belgian tiger..."

"Oh, for the love of..."

"Terrified by the unexpected assault, my body acts on its own, independent of rational thought, and before I know what's happened, there lies the body of the unfortunate burglar, riddled with...several...bullets. "

"Why would you do that?"

Munroe fingered his revolver almost carelessly. "I've been thinking the same thing. I'm afraid you won't like the answer."

"There's not a whole lot about this conversation I've particularly enjoyed."

"The truth is, I might just kill you out of curiosity," Munroe said. His eyes suddenly lit upon the chessboard he has set up in the corner of the room. "Do you play chess, Rick?"

"Yes. I play chess. It so happens I'm a very good chess player, in fact," Rick said. "I also bowl, watch TV and have a golf handicap of eight, anything else?"

Munroe moved a chair into the middle of the room, pushing aside an end table so as to make room. "There's a set over on the desk. Bring it here and set it up."

"If I do will you let me go?"

"If you don't, I'll shoot you right now."

"I'll set it up then." Rick moved over to the marble chessboard. "You do realize you're insane, don't you?"

"I've been called worse."

"Recently?"

Munroe smiled. "I'll be white."

"Of course." Rick pulled out the chair with the Paris design and sat across from Munroe.

"There are other things I can do, you know. To help you. I'm serious. I really am a very good thief..."

"All evidence to the contrary..."

"Yeah, well, give me a break, I didn't know you had a Pantheon 3000. The point is, there's ways I could help a man like you..."

Munroe began the game by moving his pawn forward. "Your move."

Rick pushed his pawn two spaces in front of his queen. "Be of use to you," he continued.

"I'm listening." Munroe moved his knight out and Rick countered with his knight. Munroe played his bishop and almost without thinking, Rick drew out his other knight.

"Let's say you need some info on someone, like a competitor or something," Rick went on.

"Or an employee you think is stealing from you...well, I could go in and get that info. I'm good at that."

Munroe frowned at the board. "What are you doing?"

"Trying to keep you from shooting me."

"The game, Rick. Your opening moves. Is that...is that the Traxler Counter Attack?"

"I told you I've played before."

"Impressive," Munroe conceded. "I have to take you a bit more seriously, I see."

Rick leaned closer to emphasize the point. "That's what I'm saying. If you use me in the right way..."

Munroe pushed a pawn. "To be honest, I just don't see it happening..."

"Why not?"

"Isn't it obvious?" the millionaire asked. "Once I let you leave this room, what guarantee would I have that you wouldn't just disappear?"

"What possible benefit do you get from killing me?"

Munroe's eyes were on the board. "You are good..."

Rick responded angrily. "Answer me, damn it!"

Munroe coolly raised the revolver. "Watch it, boychick! Keep those emotions in check, or you'll make my decision for me. Understood?"

Rick eased back in his chair. "Yes."

"To answer your question, I've done a lot of things in my life. I don't pretend that I've been a particularly good man so far. In fact, I've been what you might call a total shit at times."

"I'm shocked."

Munroe chuckled. "I've lied, I've cheated, I've stolen...much more than you ever will, dear Rick. Still, with everything I've done, I've never actually killed anyone. I can only imagine how that feels."

"Are you serious?"

"Would I become wracked with guilt? Wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat? Would your face refuse to leave my thoughts, tormenting me?"

"Count on it," Rick assured him.

"Or would, as I suspect, absolutely nothing happen? It's fascinating, isn't it? One of those philosophical questions you always speculate on but don't really have the opportunity to explore."

"You do realize you're talking about murder." Rick pointed out.

"No, you're talking about murder," Munroe clarified. "I'm talking about self defense. I understand that in the eyes of the deceased, the distinction is irrelevant, but for those of us left alive there is a distinct and significant difference. Murder, I go to jail. Self defense and I go to Joe Allen's for a nice steak dinner. It's your move, by the way."

Rick barely looked at the board, sliding his castle across. "Do you have any conscience at all?"

"You are on particularly shaky ground here to be moralizing; after all, it is you who broke into my house..."

"To steal, not to kill! Christ, with all you have you'd barely even miss it."

Munroe squared his shoulders and peered directly into Rick's eyes. "There you're wrong. It's taken me a long time to accumulate what I have, a hell of a long time, a lot of blood spilled. You couldn't even begin to understand how I've gotten where I have. I've climbed over the broken bodies of friends and foes, and I don't intend to let any piss ant, dime store burglar make off with so much as a single dollar of my money. Are we absolutely clear on that point?"

"Crystal."

"Good." Munroe glanced down at the chessboard and smiled, moving a castle and taking Rick's bishop. "Tsk, tsk. You're getting careless. Nerves?"

"I wouldn't be surprised." Rick responded by pushing a knight. "So, basically, you would kill me just to see how it feels?"

"I'm considering it. Well, let's face it, when am I ever going to get a better chance? You presume to steal from me, you arrogant, incompetent little prick, and you expect there to be no consequences? And besides, you don't really seem to have much value otherwise. You're not a very good burglar, your chess game is creative but hardly noteworthy, I take it you're not married...

"No."

"Well, there you go. But let's put the shoe on the other foot. Give me one good reason I should keep you alive."

Rick mulled the question over in his mind. "I guess...I can't."

"So you see where that puts us..."

"Wait. What you just said...I'm not a very good burglar. Maybe that's it."

"Maybe that's what?"

"Maybe that's how I can make you money. I mean, real money. I've done it before."

Munroe sighed heavily. "I thought we'd already been through this."

"Hear me out. If you don't like what I have to say, you can pull the trigger." Rick looked about the room. "What's the most expensive thing you own in the house?"

"The Egyptian Rose, of course."

Rick frowned. "A flower?"

"It's a diamond, you idiot," Munroe replied. "The most expensive diamond on the western hemisphere. You mean to tell me you've never heard of it? I assumed that's what you were here to steal."

"Um, well..."

"What kind of a burglar are you, anyway? The Egyptian Rose is worth ten million dollars. On a bad day."

"That's great. Insured?"

"Of course."

Rick brightened. "Then that's the ticket."

Munroe stared at the burglar, confused. "I'm afraid I'm missing something."

"Ok, here's the deal. You were in your bedroom tonight, as always, when you heard a sound. You come running in, but you're too late. The window is open, the place is a mess and someone has made off with the Egyptian Tulip."

"Rose," Munroe corrected.

"Whatever. The point is, it's gone. You call the police, they search the area, gather up the clues, but no luck. The piece goes on the record as stolen, the insurance company comes in, snoops around, finds my prints, pays you the money, you're ten million bucks ahead. Now that's one serious paycheck.

"Are you proposing that I let you steal the Egyptian Rose in order for me to collect the insurance?"

Rick shook his head. "I don't really steal it, of course. I take it out, I rummage around, I leave my fingerprints all over the place, and I give it back to you. In return, you let me escape. The cops have my prints on file, they already know I'm a thief, no one is going to suspect we've had any communication between us, we've never even met! So this way you keep the diamond, stash it somewhere out of sight for a while, collect the insurance, and I get to, you know, not be dead. It's a win-win for everyone."

Munroe looked down at the chessboard, distractedly. "Whose move is it?"

"On all fronts, it's yours."

Munroe considered. "Let me see if I understand you correctly. You break into my house...which you did...make your way to the study...which you did...you steal my diamond...which you then give back to me...leaving your fingerprints all over for the police to find...what's to stop the police from arresting you and throwing you into prison, which is what you didn't want in the first place?"

Rick shrugged. "They'll have to catch me first. I'm not saying it's ideal, I'll be on the run for the rest of my life, but better that than dead."

"I see your point," Munroe acknowledged. "And how do I know I can trust you not to shall we say, 'spill the beans' in the unfortunate event that you do become apprehended?"

"Well, on the one hand we have the testimony of a very rich, very solid, law-abiding pillar of the community. On the other we have the word of an ex-con, who got his hand caught in the cookie jar..."

Munroe smiled. "You know something, Rick? I almost believe this could work. With perhaps a few modifications...why, this is a plan which is...dare I say it...almost worthy of me."

"High praise indeed. Ok, so let's do this and get it over with, I have to book a flight to Canada before they figure out whose prints these are."

Rick removed his gloves and began systematically placing his fingerprints all over the room. He touched lamps, desks, opened drawers, rummaged through books. "Might as well make it easy for them."

"Make sure you leave them all over the safe as well," Munroe reminded him.

"Which is where, exactly?"

Munroe reached under the desk. He pressed a button and a section of the far wall appeared to lift. Munroe moved across the room and pressed a second button, located behind a picture frame. Two slats opened and the safe appeared.

"Mother of God!" Rick swore, admiringly.

"Exactly. You're looking at the finest, state of the art equipment there, my friend. I could leave you alone here for a month and you wouldn't be able to open it."

"Well, let's not find out. What's the combination?"

"It's a ten digit code which you must execute in ten seconds or less, otherwise an alarm goes straight to the police. The numbers must be done in order, no going backwards, otherwise an alarm goes straight to the police. Each number must be pressed firmly, otherwise...

"I got it. What's the code?"

"I have to confess I'm rather proud of it. It's a number I don't have to work hard to remember, yet no one else could possibly deduce its origin."

"Sounds like a keeper," Rick said. "Of course, you'll want to change it after I do this."

"Yes," Munroe agreed sadly. "Seems a waste."

"It's ten million dollars, you'll get over it. Now, what is it?"

"495 051 5253," Munroe responded.

Rick thought for a second and nodded his head, moving to the safe. "Got it."

"It's amusing how I came up with it, actually. I can tell you because I have to change it anyway, but..."

"It's the years the Yankees won the World Series five years in a row, '49-53, I got it. Very clever."

Munroe appeared a bit crestfallen. "Well, yes."

"Here's a tip. For women the codes are almost always their children's birthdays. For men, their favorite sports teams. With you, the life size Derek Jeter doll in the hallway is a dead giveaway...not to mention a bit creepy."

"Thank you," Munroe said sourly. "I'll remember that."

Rick moved to the keyboard on the side of the wall and took a deep breath. He quickly and confidently punched the numbers in. Suddenly, they heard a click and the safe opened. Rick smiled and reached into the safe. He came out with a large diamond. "Is this it?"

"Yes. Nice job."

Rick admired it up against the light. "It's a beauty, all right. I don't know if I'd pay ten million for it, but whatever."

Munroe placed the diamond in his pocket. "In the unlikely event we ever meet again remind me to tell you the story of how I procured this. From one thief to another."

Munroe moved to the corner of the room and procured a large bag from the shelf. He handed it to Rick. "Here."

Rick looked at him. "What's this for?"

"You may have noticed I have a few more things in my safe than just the diamond," Munroe explained. "About three million dollars in cash that the IRS doesn't need to know about, plus some documents I prefer kept hidden from prying eyes...put everything in here. I'll store it elsewhere temporarily. When the insurance company finishes its investigation, I'll return it."

Rick nodded appreciatively. "You think of everything, don't you?" He returned to the safe and started to shovel all of the contents into the bag.

"Yes, I do," Munroe said softly.

Rick finished putting the valuables into the bag and turned to hand it to Munroe. That was when he saw the gun was raised and pointed at his chest. He smiled weakly. "Ok, well, hate to not steal and run, but..."

"I really am sorry about this," Munroe said. "You were actually beginning to grow on me."

Rick stared at him in disbelief. "You're still going to kill me?"

Munroe nodded. "I'm afraid so."

"For the love of God, why?"

Munroe moved across the room and took the bag from Rick's hands. "Well, it occurs to me that I can do everything you propose...have the diamond stolen, collect the ten million dollars insurance money, blame it on you...and still satisfy my curiosity."

"You are one truly twisted son of a bitch."

Munroe smiled. "If it makes you feel any better, it's not really to satisfy my curiosity. You are what one would term a 'loose end'. In my experience, loose ends are better off left...unloose."

Rick shook his head in wonder. "Man, oh man, what a piece of work. Ok, look, before you kill me, which, ok, fine, I realize you have to do, would you allow me to at least finish the game? I mean, some sense of closure?"

"But of course," Munroe answered. "I am not totally without mercy."

"Thanks. I appreciate it." Rick slowly returned to the board. "Tell me something, Munroe. Did you ever hear of a guy named Jonathan Langston?"

"Name doesn't ring a bell, but I've dealt with thousands of people in my lifetime."

"You probably wouldn't have dealt with him. Langston was a guy who went to MIT about twenty years ago. He was a mediocre student but his folks had money, so they kept him going."

"Fascinating. Is Mr. Langston an acquaintance of yours?"

Rick shook his head. "Never met the man."

"May I ask why he has entered the conversation, then?"

"Jonathan fancied himself both an inventor and a salesman," Rick answered calmly. "By all reports he sucked as an inventor, but man, he was one hell of a salesman. He didn't know what the hell he was talking about, but he LOOKED like he knew what he was talking about. And that's much more important, I'm sure you'd agree."

Rick glanced at Munroe. "Your move," he said.

"I'm aware." He tentatively pushed his Queen forward. "So anyway, this friend of yours...Mr. Langston."

"Right, Langston. Well, he set up shop, first in Los Angeles, then Las Vegas, then New York. Anywhere he could find a large group of very wealthy, not very bright people. He really was a genius in his own way, just not when it came to his product."

"And his product...exactly what it is he sold?"

"Funny thing that. He designed security systems."

Munroe's eyes rose and he stared at Rick coldly.

"Check," Rick informed him.

"Did you say...security systems?"

Rick nodded. "Yes. Specifically, he designed and marketed this colossal failure that came to be known as the Pantheon 3000."

Munroe took a breath. "Is that right?"

"The truth is, Nate, and I'm just telling you this for your own good, but the system's flawed. It looks nice, and it will keep out your basic run of the mill robber, but in the hands of a real pro it just doesn't cut it."

Munroe rose from his seat and lifted the gun in Rick's direction. "I'm not sure I like where this conversation is heading."

"You're going to like it a lot less in about two minutes. See, a true professional knows not only how to get around the Pantheon 3000, but incredibly enough, the system can actually work against the homeowner. Pull a few wires, scramble a few signals it can provide video access that you can easily tap into from say, a van parked down the ways."

"Video access?"

"Showing the movements of the folk inside, where they are, what they're doing, where they keep their guns, that kind of thing."

Munroe pulled the trigger. Nothing happened.

"So that, hypothetically,"Rick continued calmly, "you can break into the house hours earlier...say while he was out at dinner...and remove the bullets from the gun, were you so inclined."

Munroe started to move for the door but Rick quickly produced a small revolver of his own that had been strapped to his ankle. He aimed it right at Nathan's forehead. "Not so fast, boychick. We're not done with the lesson."

"I apparently underestimated you," Munroe decided.

"You think?"

"How did you know I wouldn't just call the police?" Munroe asked.

"I didn't. I took a chance that the macho millionaire would want to handle things in his own way. I never suspected you actually were going to kill me. That was a surprise, you sadistic bastard."

Rick transferred the contents of the satchel into a gym back he had hidden under the couch. "But let me tell you the guy who DID know what he was doing. The guy who designed your safe. I mean, I don't care how good you are, you couldn't break into that thing, not in a thousand years. Hell, the only way you could get anything out of there would be to have the idiot owner practically hand you the password, and what are the odds on that?"

"So that's really what you came for. The Egyptian Rose."

Rick shrugged his shoulders. "Well, yes, but the three million dollars is a nice second prize. Now, the diamond, please."

Munroe sighed and took the diamond out of his pocket. He handed it to Rick. Rick started out but came back in, as if he suddenly remembered something. He went to the chessboard and slid his queen to the other side of the board, trapping Munroe's king.

"Checkmate, you son of a bitch."