A story from Dave Stone
Nathan Kemp opened the dusty door of the dusty little pawn shop, causing a dusty bell to tinkle dustily through the drifting dust. He stepped in and closed the door behind him, looking around as he did so. Light filtered dimly through the coat of dust on the small windows, casting a yellowish petina over display cases and odd bits of junk in the shop. The sound of the bell caused a bit of movement in the back room, and soon a curtain covering the door to the back fluttered and the proprietor came out. He was tall, he was athletic, he was blond…and he was pasty. He looked like he hadn’t seen a sunshiny day since his first birthday…in fact, he looked like a statue in a wax museum; so much so that Nathan had to resist the urge to go over and dust off his eyelids. He grinned…a huge, fake grin full of too-perfect teeth, and he spoke.
“Hi! I’m Billy Boy! How can I make your day brighter today? See something you like?” Nathan winced at the abrasive quality of his voice.
“Ummm…not really. My car is in the garage across the street. They told me to come back in an hour, so I thought I’d wander in here and check the place out.”
“Wonderful!! Well, not about your car, but about the fact that you chose to come see me. Please…look around, browse to your heart’s content. If something grabs your eye, just let me know. If nothing grabs your eye, why, it was wonderful of you to come in!”
“Thank you.” Nathan turned away, began to wander the shop. Billy Boy stood by the counter, huge, fake grin plastered across the bottom of his head, and watched Nathan. Nathan, knowing he was being watched, looked around self-consciously and spotted something in the far corner that looked like it really needed closer inspection. He strode quickly over to it.
“It” turned out to be a chess set, covered in dust, but still extremely impressive. He reached down, picked up the white queen, and with a guilty look tossed over his shoulder at Billy Boy, politely blew the patina of dust off of it. He found that he was holding a small, but heavy, dragon, perfectly and obviously hand carved from white marble. The piece was exquisite, detailed perfectly. The dragon was sitting back on her haunches on a round base, one claw resting on her knee, the other extended, claws out, toward Nathan. The neck curved up and around, ending in a perfectly carved head with deep blue gem chips as eyes and a crown sitting on top of it. The wings were folded back, partly extended, and covering the back half of the beast. A closer inspection showed dozens of individual scales, each detailed in minute perfection. Looking at the head, Nathan noted a mouth full of tiny, razor sharp teeth, and he rubbed his finger thoughtfully along one of them. He felt a prick, and a tiny droplet of blood appeared on one of the fangs. Nathan jerked back at the hint of pain, and sucked at the finger while looking at the blood droplet, which glistened momentarily in the dim light…and then seemed to absorb into the marble, leaving it once again the purest white.
As the blood disappeared, the queen seem to become softer, almost life like, and it seemed to pulse before hardening once again to marble. This action apparently re-animated Billy Boy, who immediately glided across the intervening space, stopping just by Nathan’s shoulder and looking down at the piece. Quietly, he purred into Nathan’s ear.
“Isn’t it exquisite? The finest Italian Carrera marble, the finest black onyx from Brazil…the table made up of ebony from Sri Lanka and Weymouth white pine from England. Every square inch before you was hand carved over a period of several years. I got it from an estate sale a couple of years ago, and I’m willing to let it go for a very reasonable price. What do ya think?”
“I think it’s nice…and I’m sure that the price is reasonable. But, as I said, I’m just waiting for my car, so I don’t think I’ll be buying anything today.”
“Well…OK. It certainly was nice to meet you, and if you want anything…why, you know where I am.”
Nathan thanked him, and left the store. He walked across the street, collected his car and drove home. “Home” was a dilapidated, hundred year old, inherited-but-unwanted, looks-haunted house that sat on a large lot just outside the center of town. He went in, kicked off his shoes, grabbed a beer and flopped in a chair, hoping to relax a bit before the daily rummaging of the refrigerator looking for something edible. The relaxing part eventually gave way to the dozing off part as he slipped into a quiet slumber.
The quiet slumber worked for a short time, until the dream kicked in. The dream consisted of Nathan on one side of a large room, and a score of dragons on the other side. Nathan had a Bowie knife and a small camp ax…the dragons had…well…fangs and claws and scaled armor and…oh, yeah…flames shooting out of their mouths. He heard a noise behind him and turned, only to see the wall behind him start to move, grinding slowly toward him and forcing him to move to the dragons. Closer and closer he moved, and just before he reached the furthest reach of the dragons flames…
Nathan awoke, sweating and screaming. He jumped up, pacing around and trying to figure out the meaning of what he had just experienced in his sleep. He ran to the phone and made a call, then immediately left the house. An hour later he was back, carefully carrying in a chess table and setting it up in his study. Another trip and the chess set joined the table. A couple of minutes later, the set was up and ready to play. The only disconcerting thing was the memory of the huge fake grin, full of too-perfect teeth, that had been plastered across the bottom half of Billy Boy’s face as he accepted the money for the set.
The dream didn’t return, and Nathan spent three days looking at the chess set, examining the chess set, playing with the chess set. Now, Nathan knew his way around a chess set. After all, wasn’t he once rated by the USCF? Wasn’t he listed on page 119 of the U.S. Chess Federation Lifetime Membership (2007 edition) book? Of course he was. This didn’t change the fact, of course, that he lived alone and had nobody to play chess with. But if anybody happened to drop by, why he was ready for ‘em.
About a week went by…and early one morning, Nathan was getting ready for work. He went into his study to get his cell phone, and on the way out, he stopped suddenly, staring at the chess set sitting so serenely in the middle of the room. The white king’s pawn was pushed forward one square. Nathan knew he hadn’t touched the set…there were no pets in the house to move the piece…he didn’t know what the hell was going on. He carefully replaced the piece on it’s home square and went to work.
Several hours later he came home, totally exhausted. He dropped his keys on the table by the door, drooped his briefcase on the floor under said table, took off his coat and tossed it in the general direction of a living room chair, went to the kitchen and grabbed a beer from the fridge, went to the study, dropped in the big, comfy office chair, leaned back, drank deep, closed his eyes and sighed in relief. After a couple of minutes, he leaned forward, set his beer down (being careful to set it on the already present water-stained ring) and took the remote from his desk drawer. Hitting the button on the remote activated the TV across the room, and he leaned back and watched the news.
The news was over, the beer was gone. Time for food. Nathan got up and headed toward the kitchen…and stopped suddenly, looking at the chess set. The white king’s pawn had been pushed forward one square. Food forgotten, he crouched down, looked under the table, examined the whole thing closely. This thing have a computer built in that he didn’t know about? No…no computer components anywhere. Well…maybe a ghost wanted to play chess. The house was certainly old enough to have a couple of those. And, Nathan, well, Nathan was a pretty damn good chess player…so…what the hell? He pushed the queen’s pawn forward two squares and went to get food.
The next night, he came home and went straight to the chess table. The queen’s bishop’s pawn was pushed forward two squares. Nathan cocked his head at that. Whoever…or whatever…was playing was initiating the Van’t Kuijs Attack…what the hell? He knew that this opening was weak for the white side, and with the variant that he had played on the first move, black actually had a 54% chance of winning, whereas white had only a 23% chance. He couldn’t understand that, but OK…he’d go with it. He made a move..and moved on. This scene repeated itself over the next few days. Nathan came home, saw that a move had been made, made a move of his own and moved on.
So far, no pieces had been taken, but as the play progressed, Nathan noticed that if he sacrificed a pawn, it might be possible to set up a trap that would definitely give him a major advantage. He examined the board, going over future moves in his mind, and finally pushed his pawn forward into danger. Then he took a deep breath and stepped back, watching the board. The gambit worked ass he…she…it…whatever decided to take the pawn. A knight swooped up and occupied the same space as the pawn. But then, the weird thing happened. The dragon figure that was the knight seemed to breathe, reared up and shot a thin stream of flame toward the pawn. As the flames engulfed the pawn, it quickly disintegrated into dust…which floated up and toward the white king. The king reared up, drew a deep breath, blinked it’s icy blue eyes and inhaled the pawn dust. As it did this, it seemed to grow by about a half an inch. It then settled back on its haunches and hardened back into a marble chess piece.
Well, that set Nathan back just a bit, and he started to suspect that maybe…just maybe…there wasn’t a ghost involved in this game. So, now he had no idea what the hell he was playing against. But he did have the feeling that stopping the game at this point wasn’t really an option. With a deep sigh, he made his next move and went to bed.
The game proceeded apace. Because of a small technical error, Nathans trap failed. But he managed to hold his own, and pieces on both sides fell at a regular rate. Both the white king dragon and the black king dragon were now a foot taller than they were at the beginning of the game, as they inhaled the dust of their vanquished enemies. Nathan was in trouble at this point, and he knew it. Normally, he would have offered his opponent a draw…but there was no opponent to ask. He could only play on…or resign.
Three days later, it was over. Nathan knew it was over. He didn’t want to admit it, but he knew it. He looked down at the shattered and scattered remnants of his army and, with a deep sigh, reached out and tipped over his king. What happened next filled him with horror. As soon as the defeated king hit the board, the white king dragon came to life, rearing up and inhaling mightily. With the exception of the white king dragon, every piece on the board, black and white, dissolved into dust and drifted toward the remaining figure. And, as the dust was inhaled, the white dragon began to grow. Two feet, four feet, five feet…splinters shot across the room as the weight of the dragon shattered the table sending it crashing to the ground. Still the dragon grew, snaking across the room…ten feet, fifteen…and at this point, Nathan let out a squeak and bolted for the door, bouncing off the far wall in an attempt to turn down the hall toward the front door.
As he stumbled down the hall, Nathan heard a crash behind him and risked a glance back, just in time to see the doorway of the sturdy explode as a huge head rammed through it. The head swiveled and shot a stream of fire toward the fleeing man. The fire slammed into Nathan’s back, splashing left and right onto the curtains, furniture and walls, while the main portion of the stream continued straight, exploding out of his chest and smashing into the front door. As Nathan collapsed in a pool of flame and the curtains, furniture, walls, house erupted into a raging inferno, the white dragon, now twenty feet long, reared up in the study, smashing through the ceiling into the second floor, and let out a thunderous roar, which reverberated through the neighborhood.
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Detective Callen walked slowly toward the old house, moving carefully up the creaky, blackened steps, stopping just shy of the front door and looking around.The roof and upper floor had collapsed onto the lower floor, leaving mounds of charred wood and plaster piled here and there. A couple of interior and exterior walls still stood, but they drooped sadly downward and looked like they could go at any moment. Underfoot was a muddy mixture of ash and water. He stepped carefully over what remained of the threshold and into what remained of the house.
He was met by a fire inspector who introduced himself as Inspector Jackson. Together, they slowly walked over to the charred lump of debris that was, in fact, the sole victim of this fire. Callen squatted down, examined the corpse closely. It was actually difficult to determine that this had once been human, but there were a few indications…a misshapen head, a couple of teeth poking out…indications of arms and hands, maybe legs…he stood, thinking.
“Do we have any idea of who this once was?”
“Best guess…this is probably Nathan Kemp. It is his house and, as best as we have been able to determine, he was the only occupant. He is also the primary source of ignition, by the way.”
“Spontaneously combust, did he?”
Jackson chuckled. “No, he didn’t spontaneously combust. But, we do know that the fire started with him; specifically, on his back. Maybe someone or something threw fire at him in such a way as to set his back of fire. I don’t know. I do know that there is no trace of gasoline, turpentine, or any other accelerant on him. But, while he is the cause of the fire, there is something very, very strange that you should see. Just in here, if you will.”
As he spoke, he stepped up to a door, solid oak, that groaned saggily against what was left of its jamb, miraculously still standing in the middle of a mostly gone wall. Moving past the door, to a spot where the wall wasn’t anymore, they stepped through, and into what appeared to be the remains of a study. At the far end of the room stood a desk, heavily charred, held together by sheer determination. The walls and windows were gone, the bookcases puddled piles of debris. But there, there was…
Standing in the middle of the floor, in absolute pristine condition, was a chess table. Untouched by smoke, flame or water, it gleamed in the light. The table was constructed of Sri Lankan and English woods, with the board portion being alternate light and dark squares. On the table stood a chess set, white pieces of Italian Carrera Marble, perfect in every way. The black pieces were constructed of black Onyx, blacker than the deadest night. All of the pieces, black and white were intricately carved into dragons, perfect miniatures of the mythical beasts.
“What the hell is this?” Callen stepped over to the set, peering at it in awe. He picked up the white king, looking at it closely. He noted the beauty of it, and ran his finger gently over the piece. He sighed deeply, reluctantly put the piece back on the door, and turned away. He and Jackson left the study, with the mystery of the cleanliness of the chess set running through Callens mind. As they re-entered the living room, the medical examiner was just zipping up the body bag and preparing to remove the body. A small army of police and fire department personnel were combing through the house, seeking answers to the questions of how and why the fire had occurred.
Callen wandered around, poking here and there, looking for something, anything that would explain the mess in the house. But as he walked, his mind kept going back to that chess set…wondering how it could possibly be so pristine in the sooty, wet mess. Finally, he gave up all pretense of working and headed back to the study. He crouched down in front of the set, examining it closely without touching it. Nothing on it seemed amiss. It just sat there in its pure beauty. He reached out, picked up the white queen, noted its heaviness, the cool marble. The attention to detail in it’s construction was superb and the tiny fangs seemed to be razor sharp. He tentatively ran his finger over the fang, then jumped when the fang punctured it. A spot of blood appeared on the fang, then slowly absorbed into it, leaving it once again gleaming white. As the blood disappeared, Fire Inspector Jackson…tall, athletic, blond Inspector William “Billy Boy” Jackson plastered a huge, fake, full of too-perfect teeth grin across the bottom of his face…and chuckled.