The blonde russian sipped amber liquid from a tumbler, staring at the couples dancing with polite disdain written in the corners of her crimson lips.
“There’s our lady. Nadja Sokolov, chess prodigy and potential russian covert operative.”
“Chess prodigy? That’s legit? Give me some details.” He trusted Knight’s intel a hell of a lot more than he did Bishop’s. In the din of the party it was a simple feat to rub his jaw and hide his mouth.
“Hang on…she’s fresh off a win at the Grand Prix in the United Arab Emirates, which she crushed with a score of eleven wins and one loss. It secured her a place in the Candidates Tournament later this spring in Berlin.”
Castle idly followed the world chess standings with the half-hearted hope that one day he’d see his own name on those leaderboards. He’d heard of Sokolov in the peripherals of the sport, and only in the last two years or so. The winner of the Candidates secured a spot in the World Championships and the chance to take on the reigning victor. Unfortunately for Nadja, the world champion three years running was Magnus Carlsen, who had been more often than not compared to a mathematical machine, a genius of computation and positional mastery.
The glow of the suspended chandeliers reverberated softly over rough stone of the bartop, backed by thick coils of purple neon that twisted over wooden shelves bearing an extensive bottle collection. The bar itself was comprised of several large slabs of fragile slate, cut to fit into interlocking segments that arced into each other like the teeth of some long-dead, forgotten beast.
“Evening sir. What’s your poison?” The bartender asked politely, tapping two fingers against the bar in time to the music. Castle surveyed the bottles briefly.
“I’ll take a gin and tonic, please.”
“Yes sir. Preference on the gin?”
The party was starting to turn up. The music was getting louder and the dance floor was more popular, full of couples twisting and jerking and laughing. The lights behind the stage pulsated with red and blue light, casting a neon glow over the gathered revelers.
“An interesting venue to find a chess prodigy.” Castle said genially, sliding sideways towards the lady.
She glanced at him disinterestedly. “If you say so.”
Her accent was well-hidden by years of private education and travel. She reflexively closed the fingers of one hand, a intuitive sign of defensiveness, and took a slug of her drink.
“Oh my god I’m sorry, what a line.” Castle groaned with an easy grin, leaning back. “I’m so sorry, I’m forgetting my manners. Aloysius DeMille.”
He extended a hand, palm open. Tolbert’s voice floated over the years from his time at the Farm. Palm up, friendly and inviting. Palm down, overbearing and aggressive.
The woman cocked a perfectly trimmed eyebrow but shook his hand anyway.
“Sokolov? As in the player?” Castle cocked his head, giving her his best ‘politely curious’ face.
“Oh? You follow professional volleyball?” Her politely disinterested expression didn’t change except for the slightest curve of the corners of her lips.
Castle laughed, caught off guard.
“No, but I do pay attention to international chess rankings. Congratulations for your win in the UAE.”
“Do you play?” She ignored his praise with the grace of someone who hears it regularly.
“Not nearly at your level.” Castle assured her, taking a sip of his gin. “I meet some friends a couple times a month for a few games. What brings you to New York? I didn’t think there was a tournament here.”
“There isn’t. I’m on holiday.” Sokolov’s shadowed eyelids flickered ever so slightly as she stared at the lights display behind the musicians.
“Sure she is.” Knight drank his coffee, amused.
“How would you feel about a quick skirmish?”
“If you have the time.”
The corners of Nadja’s mouth twitched. “Why not?”
“That was weirdly easy.” Knight muttered. The frown in his voice was audible.
“White or black?” Nadja turned towards Castle, cobalt eyes flickering interestedly.
“Pawn to e4.”
“Pawn to e5.” The russian defense. How appropriate. “May I ask you a question?”
“Knight to f3. It hasn’t stopped you thus far.”
“Why are you really doing in New York? Pawn to d6.”
Sokolov’s expression slid into a snake-like smirk.
“Pawn to d4. I already told you, I’m here on holiday.” Her lower lip extended slightly in a mock pout. “Or don’t you believe me?”
She’s messing with me.
“Now that you mention it, I don’t actually. Bishop to g4.”
“That’s a little rude of you. Pawn takes pawn on e5.”
“Rude to a uptight socialite, perhaps. But that’s not you, is it?”
Over the dance floor the band was starting to play faster. The piano player grinned a hanged-man’s grin of excitement to the drummer, whose hands were a blur as they tapped over the shimmering brass of his cymbals. The suspender-clad singer’s face shone with sweat as he clasped the microphone tightly, scatting in tune with the beat. Tuxedos and dresses gyrated and spun, limbs akimbo as they flailed drunkenly in time to the rising beat.
Sokolov took a slow sip of her drink. There was a calculated amusement in her cold blue eyes. “Isn’t it?”
Castle waited for a heart beat. “You’re a world renowned chess player. Different social rules apply.”
The corners of her mouth twisted upwards. “A chess player. Of course. So what are you saying, Mr–what was it again– DeMille?”
The word sounded stilted and foreign with her accent, even as subdued as it was. Her mouth widened into a mocking smirk.
“She knows.” Knight hissed suddenly. “She knows you’re CIA.”
“Bishop takes knight on f3. That’s right. Aloysius DeMille.” Castle smiled easily. A steel wire tightened in his gut. His gaze slid to the clutch tucked tightly beneath her thin arms. If she was an operative (which was becoming more and more likely with every passing second) she was too smart to ditch the hardware. It had to be on her person. And if it wasn’t in that clutch…Castle shuddered. He hoped it was in the clutch.
“Queen takes Bishop on f3. It’s funny, you don’t look like an Aloysius.”
Nobody from this century looks like an Aloysius, goddamnit Bishop.
“Pawn takes pawn on e5.”
“Your pawn is a little exposed out there all by itself, Mr. DeMille.” Sokolov said with caustic disdain. She drank slowly, cooly. “Are you quite sure of your plan?”
“She thinks we have a plan? She is way overestimating us.”
“Let’s find out together.” Castle said with more bravado than he felt. His pawn was very exposed, and Sokolov had made mincemeat his pawn structure, but that’s not what she was talking about.
“Bishop to c4.”
“Knight to f6.”
“Queen to b3.”
“Queen to e7.” A close shave, there. If the bishop had successfully taken his f7 pawn that would have been game and match. The bartender asked him a question but Castle ignored him, intent on keeping the pieces straight on the board he had in his head.
“Knight to c3.” She went back on the defensive, developing her queen-side.
“Rook, what the hell are you doing? Just take the stick and get the hell out of there.”
“Da. You should listen to your little friend.” Sokolov cocked her head and winked.
Ice slid through Castle’s veins in a heart-stopping rush.
“Oh Jesus she’s wired.” Knight gasped. Castle could hear his fingers hammering frantically at his keyboard. “How did I not know she was wired?”
“Because Russian tech will always beat American toys.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s not a phrase anyone says.” There, a filament-thin wire colored yellow to blend into her hair. It looked like a stray strand, but it looped beneath her ear. It must be a microphone of some kind. Sokolov took a dainty swallow of her whiskey.
“We’ve been looking for you for a long time, Mr. Rook. We were wondering which of you american spies we would catch in our trap. Truly fortune shines on those that deserve it. It’s your move.” She smiled sweetly. “Take your time.”
Castle’s heart was pounding in his chest. A trap. Of course it was a trap. They knew someone would be sent to retrieve the hardware. He breathed slowly, trying to slow down his heart, which was slamming against his chest like a jackhammer. Stay calm.
“Pawn to c6. How many?”
“Bishop to g5. How many what?” Her eyes widened in mock innocence.
“How many of your men are watching us? Pawn to b5.”
“Four.” Her lips twitched into another snake-smirk. “Knight takes pawn on b5. One next to the stage, two around the other end of the bar, one on the balcony above the dance floor.”
“Six.” Knight growled in his ear. “She left out two near the closed doors to the study. I swear to god once I trace whoever’s listening into our feed…”
Sokolov’s smirk widened. “Your little friend, he is good, yes?”
“Pawn takes knight on b5. So how does this end, Nad-ya?”
Her eyes hardened. “Nadja. It ends with you walking me to my car downstairs. I’ll laugh, you’ll laugh, we’ll kiss on the curb and you’ll get into the car with me.” She touched her the clutch beneath her arm instinctively.
“Oh? Back to your place?”
She snorted an ugly laugh. “Da. Something like that. Bishop takes pawn on b5, check.”
Castle could hear feel his heartbeat in his fingertips in hammering thuds. Blood roared in his ears as he suppressed his anger, trying to think of a solution. He had walked right into this, god damn it. A trap he should have seen coming.
“And if I refuse? Even you russians aren’t brass enough to pull iron at a party packed with international diplomats. What would Putin say, Nadja?” Castle tsked, but the attempt at humor fell flat. He was being backed into a corner, and he knew it.
The woman’s gaze roamed across the packed dance floor. The piano player on the stage desperately wiped the beads of sweat from his brow as his fingers flew over the ivories in chaotic arrangements, shouting encouragements to the drummer and cello player. They were riffing on some kind of ragtime beat, loosely based around what sounded like a Joplin song. Feet hammered against the wooden floor in ragged time, giving the room it’s own frenetic heartbeat that skittered and stuttered like a heroin addict’s. Men who aped at respectability hours ago now abandoned all pretense and guzzled champagne and liquor like diesel, bow ties undone and shirts loose, faces red with drink. Women squealed with flirtatious laughter and hiked their thousand-dollar dresses up around their knees as they danced and cavorted wildly, kicking jimmy choos and louboutins across the floor with the careless insouciance of born elite.
“You americans.” Nadja said with ill-hidden contempt as she watched the display. “You think you can live so large and live so little for the rest of us. It is judgement day, Mr. Castle. Russia will rise once again to her rightful place.”
“Is she seriously quoting Batman right now? Tell her to go fu–”
Castle ignored the stream of blistering profanity streaming into his ear.
“Queen’s knight to d7. Don’t you think, Mrs. Sokolov, that if Russia was to rise, she would have already done so?”
“Queenside castle.” Nadja brushed the small chess problem away, cobalt eyes locked on Castle’s with the intensity of a fanatic screaming on a street corner. “Not with you capitalist bastards monopolizing world markets and repressing free trade overseas in the name of peace. You beat your chests while standing on the necks of the more worthy.” Her lips curled back in a cold sneer.
“Rook to d8. I seem to have struck a nerve. Are you quite alright, Nad-i-ya?” Castle sipped his gin, feigning concern.
The woman’s narrow cheekbones burned brightly with twin spots of color. She inhaled shakily and her usual smirk greasily spread across her lips.
“You will find it much harder to get under my skin, american. Rook takes knight on d7.”
Well that wasn’t true at all. It had actually been relatively easy. “Rook takes rook, d7.”
“Rook to d1.”
If this game was broadcast like those world poker tours, Castle’s percentage chance of winning would be dwindling with every move. And they weren’t high to begin with.
“Got it!” Knight gasped. “Rook, I’ve blocked the feed streaming to her earpiece but I can’t figure out the source. We’ve got a short window–maybe ten minutes, maybe–but I can’t stop it. It’s coded in mandarin, for fucks sake–”
Nadja’s brow furrowed in consternation as her gaze darted along the floor.
“It’s disconcerting, isn’t it? Having your ears blacked out?” It was Castle’s turn to smirk. “What was it you said? Something about american toys? The phrasing is escaping me, but you get the general gist of it.”
Sokolov glared at him, an ugly rash growing along the base of her neck to match the color high on her cheeks.
“You can’t win, Mr. Rook. You are outnumbered and outmanned.”
“Queen to e6.” Castle covered a fake yawn with a fist. He conjured and dismissed plan after plan as he struggled to keep his focus and maintain his composure. In the endgame, it was all about staying calm. He needed something clever, something no one would see coming. He was playing two games, his moves anticipated in both.
What’s the last thing that would be expected?
It came to him in a flash.
“Bishop takes rook, d7.” Nadja growled.
“Knight takes bishop, d7.” He stretched leisurely and held up his thumb and forefinger behind the small of his back. Knight would be glued to the cameras, and hopefully he would see it.
“What are you doing there?” Sokolov scoffed, taking a sip of her drink in an attempt at placidity. “Signaling your little bird? There’s nothing you can do we haven’t planned for. You americans. So impetuous.”
“Are you going to move, or continue making a scene?” Castle asked pleasantly. Curious heads were starting to turn at the bar in their direction.
“Queen to b8, check. You’ve lost, Mr. Rook.” Nadja cocked her head and smiled coyly, taking a half step closer. She smelled of elderflower and jasmine, and faint sweat.
“I see you.” Knight whispered intently. His fingers clicked over the keys as fast as the pianist’s on stage. “The Paulie maneuver? You sure? You’ve had a bit to drink tonight.”
Castle clenched his fingers into a fist and repeated the signal.
“Alright, no need to shout, I’m working on it. You’ll have three seconds.”
“It sure seems that way, doesn’t it Nad-jah?”
“Nadja.” The russian woman hissed irately. Castle’s smile widened.
“Knight takes queen on b8. You really should work on that temper of yours darling.”
“Rook to d8. Checkmate.” Nadja suppressed her lips into a tight white line and flushed with triumph. “It is game over. Take my arm, we’re leaving now.”
“Rook, ready on your mark.”
Castle took one last gulp of his gin and set the glass down on the bar. The music roared from the stage in screaming waves. The U.K cabinet member staggered drunkenly into a woman, giggling helplessly as she screeched angrily at him. Bottles clattered and spun as they were kicked thoughtlessly. He checked his watch. Twenty three-twenty.
“I think not, russian. Knight, kill it.”
Knight hit a key. Four thousand volts of electricity slid instantaneously into a single receiver board set into an electric box in the basement. The circuits melted into useless slag, sending a riot of sparks showering onto a basket of wool the night maintenance lady used to knit scarves for her grandkids. A fire started.
The ballroom went dark. The band fell silent.
Someone screamed, high pitched and keening, joined in an instant by a chorus of hysteric screeching. There was the perception of a violent surge of movement as drunk diplomats and the social elite panicked en masse.
Castle made his move.
Exactly three seconds later the lights flashed back on, blinding as they reset to their standard pre-dimmed settings. The dance floor was a tangled mess. On stage a tuxedo clad security guard was already assuring the confused guests that there wasn’t a problem, it was a simple micro-outage and to please continue to enjoy the party.
“What have you done?” Sokolov’s eyes were narrowed steel.
The band began to play again, hesitantly. The lights dimmed, leaving blinking spots in Castle’s vision.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Around the room the revellers turned and laughed about their seconds-long panic, pressing hands to chests with self-deprecating sloppy grins. Castle could feel the iron gaze of the russians around the room, scrutinizing his every move.
Sokolov’s hands darted to the clutch wedged beneath her arm. Her thin fingers slid over the loose clasp and her eyes widened in a wash of realization.
Castle stuck his hands in his pockets, usb stick clenched firmly in one fist. He felt cheap. Suddenly his tailored tuxedo fit too tightly and was irritating against his skin. He felt sweat-stained.
“Usually I try to think of a really cool one liner to say here, but the best I have right now is ‘gotcha’. I’ll probably think of something much cooler later. Do you want to give me your number and I can text it to you or…?”
The woman emitted a guttural growl of anger, hard eyes flickering to the men staged around the room and her hand raised in a half-signal.
“Oops.” Castle warned, taking a step back. “Careful there. Despite your earlier swagger, you can’t march me out of here by force. The cops will show up and you and your associates will end up in an NYPD interrogation room.”
“And you with us.”
“Yes, and all five minutes I’ll spend there will be moderately uncomfortable. You lot, though, will have hard time explaining yourselves.”
“We’ll follow you out.” Nadja snapped. Her breathing was erratic, her color higher than before. Her nostrils flared as she sucked in air. “Track you down like a dog.”
“Four cars waiting out front to carry you to drop point. Standard shell game. They’ll never catch you once you make it curbside.” Knight whispered.
Castle shrugged. He was tired. He hadn’t beaten Sokolov with skills or smarts; he’d used a cheap trick that, while effective, was primitive to the point of boorishness. He wanted to get out of this stupid ballroom.
“Best of luck. It’s a big city. Now if you’ll excuse me.”
Sokolov swore in a stream of russian that was too swift and full of frustration for even Castle’s practiced ear to catch. He turned and walked swiftly through the crowd.
“She seems upset.” Knight noted, taking a sip of his coffee.
“Isn’t that a shame?” Castle didn’t bother trying to cover his mouth anymore. Two of the hulking, florid-faced russians took a handful of steps to intercept him but stopped dead in their tracks, staring at him furiously. Whoever was in their ears was probably none too happy, Castle thought to himself. He winked at them as he passed.
As the elevator doors closed his pocket buzzed.
Am I going to get to kiss you at midnight?
Castle smiled to himself. He could almost feel the rasp of Brandon’s beard against his cheek, the taste of his mouth against Castle’s. He checked his watch. Twenty three-thirty.
“Knight, tell the drivers to hustle. I’ve got a date.”
picture credit: jonvilma.com