Andrew had his opponent cornered. The game of chess would be over in five more moves. Give or take. Five hundred dollars were on the line, and he would win the prize the same way he always won a game of chess: by relying entirely on his gut.
He moved his rook to take a bishop, earning a sigh of exasperation from the other side of the table. Andrew hit the button of the chess clock and glanced at the display. They weren't playing specifically for the sake of speed, but Andrew always finished his turns within fifteen seconds since he usually started losing if he spent too much time thinking.
His opponent, a man named Bryan, regarded the board with a scowl. One more error would cost him the game. Bryan had five minutes to make up his mind. He brought his king back with only a few seconds to spare.
Andrew had one hand over the clock to register his last move the moment it was played and used the other to strike with a knight. "Checkmate."
The crowd in the gymnasium of the community college that had gathered to watch Andrew uttered a collective gasp. Light applause accompanied the arbiter and his opponent as they verified the results. A nod from the arbiter sealed it. Andrew had won.
Pictures were taken. He made sure to smile. Andrew offered a hand to the now red-faced challenger and received a limp shake without any eye contact. Bryan then wandered off towards the restrooms.
Andrew looked around for the arbiter, hoping to be pointed in the direction of the check he intended to collect. An older man wearing a Navy cap was speaking with the arbiter out of earshot. He carried a weathered backpack. Both men looked right at Andrew and nodded. Something was amiss. The arbiter walked away while the Navy man approached him.
"Hello, Andrew. I'm Mike. I know you're eager to get your check, but I was wondering if I could have a minute of your time."
Andrew remembered him. They could have been pitted against each other if Mike hadn't lost the previous round.
"Sure," Andrew said.
"You're pretty good. Is this your first tournament?"
Mike nodded. Something about the answer made him smile. "Impressive. How long have you been playing?"
"A while. I picked it up in the military. Helped pass the time."
Mike's eyes lit up. "You were in the service too? What branch?"
It was a long story that Andrew intended to keep short. "I was a Ranger."
"Really? I'd think someone like you would play with a little more regard for strategy."
Andrew chuckled. "I play to win."
"And so, you have." Mike looked around. Nobody else was listening in on their conversation. They were all too busy cleaning up the gym. He still lowered his voice. "There's only one other thing I've seen play like you. How would you like to have a match against it?"
The conversation had seemed a little off, but relatively harmless. Until now. Andrew decided to remain polite, but firm. "Are you talking about a computer? No, I don't play computers. They cheat. People like you and me can't know everything about the game the same way one of those AI's does. Thanks, anyway."
"I'm not talking about a computer." Mike slung the backpack around and fumbled with the front pocket. He produced a black photo book and offered it to Andrew. "Please have a look."
The first two pages preserved two pictures taken using some form of instant film. Being tucked away inside the photo book hadn't stopped them from aging. Both pictures featured different men standing next to someone in an ape suit somewhere in the woods. They had nervous smiles and a bewildered look in their eyes. The person wearing the ape suit was covered in too much hair to present any other physical characteristics apart from being extremely tall.
Fashions became more modern as Andrew flipped through the book. One blonde woman from the nineties stood out amongst all the men. It wasn't always the same ape suit, but whoever wore it towered over the person they stood next to. Andrew found Mike at the end of the book. Unlike his predecessors, Mike had been bold enough to put his arm behind the person in the suit and looked like he had just won the lottery.
Andrew closed the book and held it up. "The hell is this?"
"What's it look like?"
"That's not somebody in a costume, Andrew. Look again if you don't believe me."
Another inspection of the last photo triggered an absurd explanation. "These are Bigfoot?" He winced. Sasquatches was word he should have used.
Mike nodded. "It's not always the same one, either. Up until recently, it's always been a male member of the species. The past three years, it has been a female."
Andrew tossed the book on the ground. "Are you trying to get me to go somewhere so that you can steal my kidneys? Because you can fuck right off if that's the case."
Mike sighed and wore a grimace that suggested he saw their disagreement coming. He bent over and picked up the book. "This little tournament our county has been having has been around since 1987. In 1986, Patrick O'Connor had an encounter while he was hiking up at Ahwi. He stumbled upon two Sasquatches playing a game of chess. Somehow, he managed to convey that he would like to play as well. He won, and was allowed to take a picture of himself with the animal." Mike tapped the cover of the photo album. "He's the first guy in here, by the way. Patrick was given a piece of the board the Sasquatch used and had to find somebody else good enough to play against it."
"We're done talking." Andrew spotted the arbiter and began heading towards him to ask about his check.
Mike stepped in front of Andrew, bumping into him. "I'm not finished."
Andrew rubbed his chin. "I'm starting to get angry, Mike. And I've kept myself in better shape than you have. Get out of my way."
Ignoring Andrew, Mike unzipped the back pocket of his backpack, revealing an oversized chess piece hand carved from wood with a squirrel fashioned on its tip. The crude design caught Andrew's attention. Anger gave way to curiosity. It had to represent a pawn.
Andrew reached for the backpack. "What's that?"
Mike zipped the pocket up and held the backpack against his chest. "Not something we need to be showing openly in public. I only allowed you to have a glimpse of it because our little talk is going so poorly."
"Can you blame me?"
"No, I was the same way. It's a wild story, but it's true."
"Let me have another look at what you've got in that back pocket. The Sasquatch made it, right?"
Mike stepped back, unwilling to hand over the backpack. "You have got to be more patient."
"Alright, fine. Sorry. Patience doesn't come naturally to me since I wasn't on a ship in the middle of the ocean for most of my career."
"I'll cut to the chase, then."
"I know we're talking about a cryptid, but are you at all superstitious?"
The question brought back an unpleasant memory. Early in his service to America, he had caught a bullet with his throat. He could still remember how it had felt. Andrew had fallen to the ground in absolute agony. Blood went everywhere. The next second, he was crouched behind cover with a M4 in need of another clip and a room full of fresh corpses. Andrew had forgotten all his training and had taken a minute to rub at his neck, coming back with clean fingers.
"A little," Andrew replied.
"There's a hex on this chess piece. If you take this bag from me, you're going to want to play that Sasquatch. You'll think about it until you finally do. It's a lot like the craving you get for a cigarette. You smoke, right?"
Not since his second wife had died early of lung cancer. "Nah. That stuff is bad for you. I think I get what you're saying, though. Please continue."
"This bag also contains the instructions on how to meet with the animal. Basically, rent the Cedar Lake cabin for a weekend, go on a little hike off the beaten trail, and arrive at the meeting place alone at noon. Don't forget to take the chess piece and everything inside this backpack along with you."
"Got it. How do you get a photo with it?"
"Like I said, you have to win. Don't even think about bringing your smart phone. One guy tried to use his iPhone and the Sasquatch knocked him down and crushed it. You must use a regular camera. I would have given you my old Polaroid, but I accidentally broke it about a month ago. You'll have to get one yourself. They still sell them on Amazon, but they're expensive. About a hundred dollars, in fact. I've got the money for one in my wallet."
Andrew shook his head. "Don't worry about it. I can cover that."
"You sure? Don't forget about the cabin. It's a real nice one that runs close to eight hundred bucks for a single weekend. None of that includes food, gas, or whatever else you're going to need. The prize money for this tournament used to cover everything, but. . .I'm sure you know how things have gotten in this country since we left the nineties."
"I'll be fine."
Mike hesitated. "Okay. Don't take the picture until it gives you a set of gestures mimicking what you have to do to take one. These animals don't speak any language we would have a chance of understanding, but they're very good at charades."
"And if I lose, I don't get to take a picture, right?"
"Correct. Either way, when you're finished, you'll be in the same position I'm currently in. So, what do you say? You up to the challenge?"
Andrew took a moment to think and crossed his arms. "Mike, if this turns out to actually be about getting my kidneys, it's not going to end well for you."
"It's not like you have to tell me when you're going. We don't ever have to talk to each other again after this. Rent the cabin under someone else's name for all I care. You said you were a Ranger. Do some recon of the area before you play if it makes you feel better."
"Trust me, I will."
"Don't take the pawn with you when you do or you might blow your chance to play against the ape."
"Thanks for the warning. Hand over the backpack, Mike."
Mike held the backpack by one strap and offered it to Andrew. "Make sure you memorize the instructions. Good luck."
After Andrew accepted the backpack, Mike stood a little straighter.
Mike blinked and opened his mouth in silent surprise. He then uttered a huge sigh of relief while shaking his head. "Oh, thank God that's over with." Mike laughed. "My phone number is at the end of the notes in case you have any questions. Like I said before, there's no reason to call it if you don't want to. The urge to play gets pretty strong after a month, so start planning your little vacation now. You'll want to make sure you can be at this tournament next year because you'll be itching to find a successor two weeks prior to the day they decide to have it. In the meantime, I'd highly suggest getting a safe deposit box to keep that bag in after you're done because I wouldn't want to be you if it gets lost."
"Anything else you feel needs to be said in person before I have a look at the notes?"
"Yeah, that hex is no joke. You were warned, so you can't hold it against me. The game is worth it, though. You'll never play anyone or anything like a Sasquatch."
"We'll see. Nice meeting you, Mike."
"See you around, Andrew." As he walked away, Mike jumped in the air and clicked his heels together. He landed with all the grace of someone half his age and hollered at the rafters, head held high.
Andrew looked at the pocket containing the pawn. The hex had to be strong to produce such a reaction out of someone. He couldn't turn back now, and he didn't imagine feeling compelled to find a successor to the Sasquatch challenge would hold a candle to how bad it felt to pick someone's brain matter out of his hair.
He noticed the arbiter from earlier and a few of the people in charge of the tournament looking expectantly at him. One of them was in the photo book. Andrew held up a finger and pointed towards the restrooms. All of them nodded. At the same time. They knew what he had to do next.
The restroom was all his. He hurried into a stall and locked the door behind him. Without bothering to sit, he opened the pocket containing the pawn and touched it with his left hand. A strange feeling of warmth spread quickly through his arm, across his shoulder, and to the back of his head.
His suspicions diminished. Mike had told the truth.
"So, it is real," Andrew muttered. "Unbelievable."
Chess pieces were usually small enough to hold in the palm of a hand, unless they were part of a novelty set. The squirrel pawn was slightly longer than a regular fuel container. Applause from a Sasquatch would be deafening.
One thought still bothered him. In the many years that the ritual had taken place, nobody had once thought to try and capture a video of the Sasquatch playing chess. A picture with the creature was fine and dandy. For personal gratification. A video, on the other hand, was a lot harder to criticize than a picture. After all, experts were still arguing with each other over the Patterson-Gimlin film.
Andrew could make a film just like that. He would need help, but he already had somebody in mind who would be perfect for the job. One of the assholes before him had to have done the same thing. They just hadn't released it or they had gotten caught while making it.
So long as it wasn't against any of the rules.
With a sigh, he sat down on the pot. If he had known he would have been doing some reading, he would have picked a different place to sneak off to. Andrew retrieved a laminated set of instructions with a gold ring holding them together. Whoever had written them had done so in a manner that was direct and to the point.
What he wasn't allowed to do was at the end of the document in red font. As Mike mentioned, smart phones weren't allowed. Neither were friends, but Andrew had a feeling he could get around that. Sasquatches had no tolerance for cheating and would end the game if they suspected their challenger was trying to put one over on them. Guns were expressly forbidden, even if left unloaded. Sasquatches also reserved the right to refuse to appear for any reason.
The instructions said nothing about making a video. It looked like he was in the clear.
At the end of the rules was a note. Please do nothing to violate the sanctity of this privilege we humans have been given. You are among the luckiest people on the planet. Conduct yourself accordingly.
They were right. Andrew lowered the notes and put a hand to his chin. Everyone who had played couldn't have been honorable. One of them had even cheated. Still. If he posted the footage online, the game would be permanently ruined and he'd have to live with that. Whatever money and fame he stood to earn wouldn't be worth it. His twin daughters also wouldn't let him live it down.
Somebody would do it someday. At that point, he could reveal his own video. Three or four more would probably come out, too. If on the off chance he lost, he'd be able to walk away with something more concrete than his own memories should he go through with his plan.
Two maps were also included. One for people like him and another for idiots. The hike would probably take around an hour. He could easily manage that.
So could Carter.
Every Friday morning at seven o' clock, Andrew had breakfast with Carter at the Buttered Muffin, a popular local diner.They had met at the shooting range and became fast friends since Carter had also been a Ranger. Through their conversations, Carter had let on that he enjoyed the outdoors, but didn't get around to camping as much as he had used to. Once Andrew managed to convince him that the whole thing was real, Carter would be all for it.
His plan set, Andrew packed up everything and left the restroom.
The other man from the photo book was waiting for him. "Ready to collect your winnings, Mr. Schroeder?"