Ezekiel Waterford reached for his pawn, hesitated, then nudged it forward to the eighth rank. He glanced at Rodney, his Thursday morning opponent, a 73-year-old black man with a huge grey fro and long, frizzled beard.
“Promote to bishop,” Ezekiel muttered, with the slightest hint of uncertainty. Did he buy it?
“An underpromotion?” Rodney said, his milky eyes squinting under the June sun. “But… why? What are you up to?”
Excellent. It worked. “Never you mind. Your move.”
Rodney uncrossed his arms and leaned forward to study the board, stroking his chin’s bramble and thorny underbrush.
Ezekiel closed his eyes, self-satisfied, bathing in the dappled warmth beneath Zelkova elms. He loved Thursday mornings at Washington Square Park.
A bucket drummer filled the space with a driving pulse. A crowd watched two topless black street performers flip, cartwheel and somersault. Children chased each other around the central fountain.
Ezekiel opened his eyes slightly to check in on Rodney. He was hunched over the game now with a furrowed brow, accenting his many lines of wrinkles. Concentrating, calculating. Ezekiel smiled.
“If I move my knight to e6,” Rodney mumbled to himself. “I fork your queen and newly promoted bishop… why would you do that?”
“Is that your move?”
Fortunately for Rodney, they played without a timer. There was no rush to their moves and piece development. Their positions eroded like wind against rock, slouching towards endgame in a slow, deliberate gradual ebbing… unlike the blitzkrieg flurry of other park players here.
Ezekiel palmed one of his captured knights, and stroked its headless stump, unique to the his late 18th century English Slope set. If only Rodney knew how old his set was. The antiquity of it. He’d surely be delighted. Rodney was one of Ezekiel’s few friends on the planet who could genuinely appreciate a thing like this.
“Don’t fall for it,” a distant voice called out. “But then again, I think you’ve already lost the game.”
Out of the corner of Ezekiel’s eye, he spied a rotund, redheaded man, mid-forties in a battered pale baby blue suit. Damien Hearst. He looked like an Easter egg with a splotch of red on top.
Rodney looked up. “How can that be? I have a major material advantage over him!”
Damien replied, “Yes, but that’s Ezekiel’s modus operandi. He likes to appear vulnerable before he destroys you. Take a look at his other bishop.”
Rodney stared intently at the short white mitre standing guard back in the second rank.
Ezekiel felt his stomach churn and flutter at the same time. He had not seen Damien in over fifty years now. The last time was in Boscolo Prague and it was only a mere glimpse. Ezekiel was then with his seventh wife. And at the very moment he caught sight of Damien from across the ballroom, he made up an excuse for Adela and him to leave. Damien had no idea they’d cross paths in 1959.
The last time they actually exchanged words as civil individuals was the night Damien vanished from Lismore castle, shortly after he had gifted the Slope chess set to Ezekiel. That was in 1767. Ezekiel had no reason to talk to him. Damien had abandoned him and everyone else that night.
What’s more, the chess set was not the only parting gift Damien had left Ezekiel.
“Oh be quiet, won’t you?” Ezekiel exclaimed, surprised at his own uncontrolled anger. “Who asked you?”
Damien, blank-faced coolly ignored Ezekiel and continued to speak to Rodney. “It’s mate in thirteen moves.”
“Thirteen!?” Rodney gasped.
“The fork is bait,” Damien explained. “Once you take it, you’ll free his bishop to maneuver around the board, forcing your every move until you’re checkmate. Trust me.”
Ezekiel saw his beautifully wrought puzzle crumble before him. Hours of leading Rodney on to this one singular ineffable, transcendent moment… gone.
“Just leave, won’t you, Damien?” Ezekiel said. “You’ve ruined it.”
Rodney glanced at the red headed stranger, than gazed back at Ezekiel. “You know this guy?”
“Yeah. I used to work for him. Several lifetimes ago. He fired me.”
“Fired?” Damien twinged. “That’s rather harsh, Mr. Waterford. Considering what happened, it would be much more appropriate to say I had to ‘dissolve’ my company due to ‘unforeseen circumstances’. And, let’s be honest here, your ‘severance package’ was beyond generous. Look at you, still alive and well, full of vim and vigor, after so many years!”
“Yes,” Ezekiel simpered. “Thank you so very much for all that you’ve given me and more! Shall I lie down at your feet, weeping and gnashing my teeth as well? My Prince? Go away.”
“No. We have to talk.”
“There’s nothing to talk about.”
Rodney shifted uncomfortably. “Listen, it sounds like you two have history to deal with…” he got up, “I’ll see you next Thursday O.K., Zeke?”
“Yeah, it was good seeing you, Rodney. Next Thursday.”
Ezekiel watched Rodney stand up, his grey slacks too short for him, revealing blue socks and his cheap cane from Walgreens to tall for him. Rodney ambled away, quite possibly the last time Ezekiel will see him again. He wanted to shed a tear over this, but was too used to saying goodbye to the people in his life. Mortals with frustratingly short lifespans.
After Rodney left, Damien took his chair. Ezekiel had forgotten about his pocked-marked face, his untenable floppy hair, his beady eyes. Damien was truly an ugly being of infinite proportions.
Ezekiel had served this creature without fail every morning for decades, but that was centuries ago. His unexplained betrayal still smarted when Ezekiel thought about it.
“So, it’s been what?,” Damien started. “A coupla’ hundred years? Maybe more?”
“248,” Ezekiel replied bluntly. “You lost your accent. How long have you been in the country?”
“Long enough,” Damien pulled out a pack of Camels, drew one into his thin lips, snapped his fingers to light it and took a long draw. “Long enough, my old friend.”
“So I’ve been promoted? From butler to friend?”
“Come now, Zeke. Why can’t we let bygones be bygones? Water under the bridge? Tears over spilt milk? Fresh starts. Etcetera, etcetera?”
“You left us. Alone. Without any instruction. With the curse of immortality.”
“A curse? A curse?” Damien said. “Look around you! We’re living in the greatest time in the history of mankind! You have air travel! The Internet! Unimaginable technology! You would’ve died long before George the Fourth was crowned. How can you say it was a curse?”
“I never asked for any of this, Damien. I have buried a dozen wives. I attend my children’s funerals as a stranger. I’m always on the run, creating new identities. I haven’t had a place I could call home since Lismore. Why did… why would you think… arrrgh. Why, Damien?”
Ezekiel felt flooded, every fiber and nerve in him twisted and waterlogged. He knew this outburst would lead to no good, but he didn’t care. He was exhausted, forever frozen in a fifty-year-old man’s body, with the attendant back pain and fatigue every morning he reluctantly woke up.
Wiping away a tiny rivulet of tears, he raised his eyes to meet Damien’s. His beady black eyes pierced into Ezekiel’s soul. And Ezekiel felt the immense, scorching power of his demon lord setting his entire being alight, melting his pain away, igniting his purpose.
Their eyes locked in an unspoken contract, writ in hot blood from long ago.
“Because I need your help now, my old friend,” Damien solemnly said. ☣