To James Gates, the night smelled of disappointment.
It smelled of the freshly cut paperwork clutched in his fist, now thrust deeply in his jacket pocket. It smelled, also, of a tad too much cheap champagne and the four grand worth of worn bills—the spoils of poker—weighing down his other pocket.
He paused for a moment, resting his hand on the doorframe of the tavern, and looked up at the cold stars. Even after all these years, they were foreign to him.
He pushed the door open and stepped gingerly into the dim glow of the building. It was a tidy place, despite the fading paint and the missing signboard. Everyone just called it “Sally’s Place,” because it was. The tavern was empty, except for a solitary patron seated at the bar, reading a week-old newspaper that Jim recognized by the headline: ARCADIAN SPYPLANE RECOVERY OPERATIONS CONTINUE.
The man lowered the paper, folded it neatly, and set it on the counter, all the while surveying Jim. His eyes were bland, almost disinterested, and Jim felt he was being itemized, collated, and evaluated. But the glance was over in a moment. Then the man plucked a cigar from the ashtray, placed it in his mouth, and, taking a pencil from behind his ear, turned back to the paper.
Jim presumed he was working on a crossword puzzle.
Jim had spent too many years living by his wits and a set of cards on Santa Cristobel not to be bothered by the man. He was dressed in a leather jacket and wearing worn boots—boots!—on the sandy beaches of an island paradise. And yet he was reading a local paper in a local hangout. Even his tan was wrong—not the burnt bronze of a local or the painful red of the carefree tourist, but a cool brown from more northerly climes.
Sally came out of the back. Jim saw her tired eyes light up just a little when she saw him.
“Hey, Sally,” he said, perching on a chair.
She looked at him, a little surprised. “Jim, you’re…drunk.”
He held up a finger. “I’m slightly inebriated, yes,” he said.
“Bad night tonight?” She looked genuinely concerned.
Jim chuckled and tossed a wad of cash onto the counter. “Not exactly,” he said. “I’ll have a beer. And, uh, Sally—in case I’m more drunk than I anticipated, will you count the cash? In fact, tonight’s as good a night as any to settle my tab.”
He saw her back stiffen, just a little, as she closed the tap, but when she turned to hand him his glass, she had a smile on her face. “Did you hear back from them?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. “Are they going to let you come back?” she asked, beginning to count the cash.
He shook his head and raised the glass. “No. Hence the beer.” Jim shot a glance at the man with the cigar, wondering if the money had attracted his attention, but he appeared immersed in his crossword puzzle. He set his passport rejection slip on the counter and pushed it towards her. “Here, you can read all about it.”
“Just a sec,” she said, stuffing cash into drawers. She looked at the crumpled paper. “Entry into country denied…insufficient character testimony,” she read aloud. “What does that mean?”
“Means I’m a gambler,” Jim said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “The bureaucracy’s got no use for that.”
“You’ve been here eight years?” Sally looked up at Jim sharply. He nodded. “More or less.”
“I didn’t know that,” she said, looking at the piece of paper again. “I’ve only known you for half that.” She looked up at him.
“Why do you want to go back? I mean, after all, they exiled you.”
“You’re not from here, either,” he said. “You know…what home is like.”
“But this is my chance for a better life, Jim. Maybe…maybe it is yours too.”
Jim slammed his glass on the counter. “Every time…every time I look at the stars, they look strange. Every time I walk on the beach, I miss the white cliffs. Every time I see a…a palm tree, I miss the forests.” He put his clenched fist over his mouth. “I’m sorry, Sally,” he said, unsteadily. “It’s my home. It’s not about the government or the politics or the people. I wasn’t born breathing this air, Sal. You know, I used to want to write. Can you imagine that? But you can’t earn a living selling stories on this sandbox. Everyone is too busy trying to write their own destinies.”
Sally changed the subject. “Did you always play cards?”
Jim nodded. “Yeah. But not for money! It was a game.” He looked at Sally. “I hate it, Sal. Every time I set down a card, I…I remember my good games. The ones I played because I wanted to, not because I had to.” He looked at his glass. “Even when I was good at poker, I always preferred games of pure skill. But nobody will bet anything on a game of chess—not on this island.”
“You’ve never told me that before, Jim!”
“Yeah, well, maybe I should get drunk more often,” he muttered.
Sally nodded at a neglected chessboard that rested on the bar. “You know, I used to play chess. We should—” She stopped abruptly.
The door slammed. Jim heard footsteps on the tavern floor.
“Hey. You still open?”
“Yeah,” said Sally.
“I came down here from downtown. Mr. Esperito’s wondering about the money.”
“I still have until tomorrow.”
“Well—you got it or not?”
Sally opened the cash register and pulled out a pile of bills. “Here.”
Jim heard the man thumbing through the cash. “Not gonna be enough,” he said. “You’re still a few hundred short…”
Jim’s head felt incredibly heavy.
“It’s not due today.”
“Uh huh. Good luck coming up with that much money by midnight tomorrow, sister. See ya.”
Jim heard the door slam. He laid his head on his arms.
“Who’s that?” The voice came from far away, but Jim realized it must be the man with the cigar. “Any connection to Robert Esperito, the tourist tycoon? The casino owner?”
There was no response.
The last thing Jim remembered before falling asleep was the man with the cigar chuckling quietly.
Jim awoke to the disconcerted sensations of a splitting headache and a soft pillow. He groaned, shifted slightly, and opened one eye. Finding that well within his ability, he sat up.
“Oh, you’re awake.” Sally stooped down beside him, untying her apron.
“Aren’t you supposed to be working?” muttered Jim.
“It’s the post-lunch lull, and I’ve got someone working up front. How are you feeling?”
“I’ll be fine.” He sat up. “What are you doing here? What am I doing here?”
“You fell asleep.”
“I drank myself to sleep, you mean.”
“You were tired, Jim! And then when it came time to open up, I woke you up and put you in bed. And you’ve been sleeping ever since.”
“Agh. Well, I suppose I should probably eat then, right?”
“Sure. I’ve got some sandwiches left over from lunch.”
“I’m sorry for crashing here,” Jim apologized, following her out of the back room a bit unsteadily.
“I had forgotten that you lived back here, Sally.”
Sally glanced back at him. “Of course I do, Jim. Where else would I sleep?”
Jim shrugged. “I just expect everyone else to have a home, I guess.”
Sally paused. “No. This is all the home I have,” she said wistfully. “Let’s get you something to eat.”
Jim winced as Sally opened the door to the restaurant and he was assaulted by blinding sunlight and pungent cigar smoke. He slid around the bar and made his way to a table.
“Ah, Mr. Gates.”
The voice was strange, but the speaker, perched atop a bar stool, seemed familiar to Jim.
“You may not remember me, Mr. Gates—I was here last night. I understand you’ve been having some trouble.”
Jim narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean?”
The man produced a crumpled slip of paper and tossed it onto the table. “Your passport rejection form. I took the liberty of taking this last night while your friend wasn’t looking—sit down! No need to get upset. I looked into your case a bit, and I think I can help you.”
“Help me do what?”
“Help you get home, Mr. Gates. If that’s what you want.”
The man with the cigar leaned back against the bar. “Four weeks ago, an Arcadian spyplane crashed in the sea maybe three miles from here. It was doing a reconnaissance mission, and after the crash the Arcadian Navy picked apart pretty much every square inch of the seabed within fifty miles of the site. But they missed the film capsule—some techie somewhere designed it to float—and it was recovered by some bigshot honcho on this island—a Mr. Esperito. Now, according to some ‘law of the sea’ or legal whatnot, finders is keepers—well, more or less—and so Mr. Esperito gets to keep the loot. The Arcadians, of course, tried to buy it back, but Esperito’s not exactly broke. So he’s got it on his mantelpiece.”
“What’s that got to do with me?”
The man with the cigar pointed at the scrap of paperwork. “Do you know how badly those paper-pushers would love to get their hands on that film?”
“Why would they care?”
“Arcadia isn’t exactly on speaking terms with the place you come from, and this is a piece of Arcadian military intelligence. If that won’t get you a passport, I don’t know what will.”
“If everyone wants it so much, how am I supposed to get it—and why hasn’t everyone else come in and taken it? It’s not like the Arcadians don’t have a navy.”
“Even if it is just a small island paradise, Santa Cristobel is still a neutral state. Arcadians tend to respect that.” The man with the cigar chuckled, but Jim was not amused.
“And so I’m supposed to ask Mr. Esperito for this incredibly precious bit of military hardware, and he’ll give it to me for free?”
The man with the cigar shrugged. “If you play your cards right, so to speak.”
“What makes you think he’ll be willing to bet with something like that?”
“He’s not using it, Mr. Gates. It’s a status symbol—he’s proud…proud that he can lock horns with a great power and come out on top. And proud men…well, you’re the gambler, you figure it out.”
“Why do you care?” asked Jim, his eyes narrowing. The man shrugged. “Can’t a fellow do someone a good turn every once in a while?”
Jim paused. “Life isn’t that simple,” he said. “Everyone wants to get something out of it.”
“And you want to get home, don’t you, Mr. Gates? Why is beyond me—I’ve been where you came from, and I can’t say I cared for the place, but that’s none of my business.”
“And what is your business?”
The man puffed on his cigar thoughtfully. “You could say I’m a reporter,” he said. “That’s how I earn my cash—by figuring stuff out. I have no personal interest in the capsule. But as for Esperito, he did me a bad turn once.”
“Why should I trust you?”
“Don’t trust me. Trust yourself.” The man with the cigar nodded at the door. “Here he comes now.”
The door swung open, and Robert Esperito himself entered, followed by a bodyguard. He was wearing a hat and sunglasses, a bright floral shirt and a pair of sandals. If the situation hadn’t been so grave, the sheer absurdity of debt-collecting in such an attire would have set Jim to laughing. But Esperito was all business.
“Sally!” he said. She materialized behind the counter.
“Do you have the money?” She looked at the floor and shook her head. “No,” she said quietly. “The place is yours.”
Jim Gates had a moment of inspiration. “Not quite,” he said. Esperito turned to look at him, annoyed. Jim reached into his pocket, fumbled around for a minute, and withdrew a wad of cash, which he tossed to Sally. “That should cover it,” he said.
Esperito looked at him for a good thirty seconds. “Why,” he said, “would a man like you do a thing like that? I was going to put a hotel here, and everything.”
“Can’t a fellow do someone a good turn every once in a while?”
“Not a fellow like you,” said Esperito. “What do you want?”
Jim chose his words carefully. “An all or nothing game of my choosing,” he said.
“If I lose, you get Sally’s place, and this,” Jim said, placing the rest of his four thousand on the table. “If I win, Sally keeps the place, and I get the roll of film.”
“The roll of film you recovered from the Arcadian spyplane.”
Esperito sat down and deposited his sunglasses and floppy hat on the table. “Son,” he said, “I’ve heard you were a pretty good player. But I didn’t make my millions bumming off of fool tourists, and I still think I can keep a straight face. Plus, I happened to be taking the film across the island to be looked at today. So go ahead, name your game.”
“Chess,” said Jim.
Esperito opened his mouth, shut it with a snap, and opened it again. “What?” he managed.
“Chess. I challenge you to a game of chess. Where I come from, Mr. Esperito, chess is the game of the cultured.”
Within fifteen minutes, Jim seized an opening in Esperito’s line to trap his king behind the lines with a rook. “Checkmate.”
Esperito stood, put on his hat and glasses methodically, looked at Jim, and nodded. “I’m very impressed, Mr. Gates,” he said as his bodyguard handed Jim a satchel. “We should do more business in the future.” Then he nodded to Sally and strode out.
Jim smiled as the door closed. “I don’t think that will be necessary, Mr. Esperito,” he said to himself, glancing inside the bag. Inside it was a white canister a little bigger than a wine bottle, marked NAVY. “I’ve played my last game of fortune.”
“Not quite, Mr. Gates.”
Jim heard Sally gasp. He turned; the man with the cigar was holding a revolver, pointing it casually in Jim’s general direction.
“Hand it over,” he said, calmly.
“What?” Jim realized that Sally had darted behind him in fright. It was a funny time to notice something like that.
“Allow me to explain,” said the man at the bar. “I’m Arcadian Navy—an intel guy. It’s easier to steal from you than it is from Mr. Esperito. Now please, step away from the table. I’d hate to shoot you.”
Slowly, Jim and Sally stepped backwards. The man reached forward and flipped the satchel open, peering inside. Satisfied, he picked it up and swung it over his shoulder.
“You said you’d help me get home.” Jim’s voice was low with anger and bitterness.
The man with the gun paused at the door. “Did it ever occur to you, Mr. Gates, that perhaps home isn’t a place you bribe your way to? That maybe, just maybe, home ought to be to sort of place that takes you in without being asked?” The man’s eyes drifted from Jim to Sally and back again. “Santa Cristobel is a nice place, Mr. Gates.” A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “You’re a gambler—you can figure something out.”