Prague, Czechoslovak Soviet Republic
April 23, 1970
The man across the table steepled his fingers and stared down at the chessboard. He looked so much older than he had the last time Sasha had seen him—when had that been? Only four years ago? Five? In this business even a few years could age a man.
“I’m waiting, old friend,” Sasha said.
The man flicked his hand dismissively. “As if you don’t take your time, too. All that correspondence chess—you can spend hours contemplating a move.”
“Not that I do,” said Sasha.
The man let his hand hover over a rook for a few seconds. A breeze drifted through the budding tree branches overhead, bringing a hint of chill to the sun-warmed air. Sasha didn’t mind. The faint twittering of the birds above assured him spring was here for good.
The man moved his hand away, and Sasha sighed, rolling his eyes. “Bozhe moi!” he said. “You’ve gotten slow in your old age.”
The man slid a bishop across the board and leaned back in his seat, folding his arms over his chest. Sasha laughed. “That’s it? All that time and you went with the obvious move?”
The man smiled. “I like to consider all my options.”
Sasha studied the board, unconcerned. In truth, he was in no hurry. The sun was warming him, and he was winning the game. His old friend was just delaying the inevitable.
Sasha clicked a knight into place.
“A good thing spring is finally here,” the man said, rubbing at his chin. “I always forget what the sun feels like by the end of winter.” He glanced up at Sasha, his gray eyes sharp and glinting. “But that wouldn’t bother you, eh? You Russians, you’re used to the cold.”
“We Russians know how to prepare,” Sasha said. “Which, coincidentally, is why we always win at chess.”
The man shook his head, chuckling under his breath. He moved his queen across the board. A fatal mistake, but he didn’t seem to notice, just leaned back again and gestured at Sasha to continue.
Sasha made his move. “Checkmate.”
His old friend threw up his hands. “What?” he cried, leaning over the board. “Are you sure?” Sasha watched as his eyes flicked over the spaces, following the moves he should have taken. “Damn you, Komyetski.”
Sasha shrugged. “You need to learn to be more Russian.”
It was an old conversation; his opponent just shook his head and swept the pieces into their little cloth bag. They’d played this game hundreds of times over the years and he’d never beat Sasha once. But it had still become a ritual for them. A quick game of chess in the park, beneath the trees. Easy and familiar.
“Maybe next time,” Sasha said, as he always did.
The man snorted. “If you don’t wait five years again.”
“That should have been enough time for you to improve.”
The man handed Sasha the bag of playing pieces, and Sasha dropped them into his briefcase. When he folded up the chessboard, he slipped his fingers underneath, just to be sure. Not that he didn’t trust this old friend of his, but it would be a pity if their game had gone to waste.
But, just as he expected, his fingertips brushed against the envelope his friend had slipped beneath the board when he set it up an hour earlier, before Sasha arrived.
“At least I was able to get out, enjoy the sun,” the man said.
“That’s all that really matters.” Sasha dropped the board into his briefcase and then snapped the latches shut. He stood up and so did his companion. They shook hands, the birds sang out to each other, and Sasha’s vision glimmered with the prospect of a long-fought-for victory.
“Until next time,” Sasha said.
“Until next time.”
They went in opposite directions, Sasha toward the car he had driven to the park, and the man to someplace unknown. When Sasha slid into his car, he popped open the briefcase and pulled out the envelope. Slipped the contents out. Briefly, quick as a flash. There was still time to catch his old friend if the man had tried to swindle him.
But no. This was exactly what Sasha had been looking for. He put the contents back in the envelope and the envelope back into his briefcase. He started the engine of his car. Glanced into his rearview mirror. But of course his friend had vanished. Their table sat empty beneath the tree.
Patience, Sasha thought, before he pulled away.
Josh didn’t think he should be enjoying this as much as he was.
Up in the ring, Aurel Cervenka flung out one massive arm, his gloved fist connecting with Jurik Prazek’s face. Prazek’s head jerked back as if it had been yanked by a string, and then he went sprawling. Kazimir and his associate leapt to their feet, screaming at Prazek to get off his ass, they had money riding on this, goddammit. Kazimir shoved Josh’s arm. “We’re losing!” Kazimir shouted, gesturing at the ring. “That damned Prazek thinks he can just lie there.”
Josh stood. “He’ll get up. He always does.” For a moment Josh felt a rush of dizziness—when did he become the sort of person who said those sorts of things? Who knew those sorts of...