"Lot a people say this city looks like Hell," Allie said. She took a long drag from her cigarette. The glowing tip burned a hole in the darkness.
"Most people never been to Hell," Jacob said.
She looked at him and he could hear the smile in her voice. "And I suppose you have?"
Jacob said nothing, then stood and walked to the bed. Allie let out a small noise and shrank back against the pillows as if she'd claw her way into them if she could. He leaned down close to her ear.
"You like to play games," he whispered. "And that's fine. But you don't want to be playing games with me, because I'm the one honest man in this city. You should know that, since we were married."
Waiting was always the hardest part: in the stir, and in life. Guys who couldn't handle it either ended up rocking back and forth in a dark corner, or babbling incoherently. Always the same.
Jacob would have been the one rocking in the corner. He did solitary the first time after a fight, someone thinking he was an easy mark. Forty-eight hours and he started screaming and didn't stop until his larynx was raw and his voice cracked. It was a month before he could talk again.
One of the lifers saw Jacob wasn't as fence-post dumb as the rest of the population and took to schooling him in chess. Jacob never got much respect from the old-timer, but he got his sanity. He'd play chess, checkers, backgammon, any game there was.
He got into another fight when one pendejo who was looking to make a name for himself flipped over Jacob's game board, said impolite things about people and their little kiddie games. Jacob cracked one of his ribs and amused himself for a week in solitary playing Kasparov and Bobby Fischer in his head.
Samuel looked at him from across the table, but he might as well have been peering at Jacob from the Devil's own palace in the deep blue sea.
After a moment Samuel rubbed his rheumy eyes. "You ever wonder about morals?" he said. Jacob shook his head. "I do... all the damn time. I wonder what it means to be good - if there's some tally that says 'you only hurt ten people, so come on up, but eleven and you're going straight to hell.' Then I think maybe it's a little voice that tells you, way back in your head. And then I wonder what happens when that voice goes away..."
Jacob reached under the table and put the little .22 pistol against one of Samuel's kneecaps.
"I don't think you're going to like my answer to that. Where is she?"
There weren't many moves left. Jacob knew that. Most of the pawns had been taken off the board and his own queen lost. The game had entered its final phase, and now the question wasn't which piece to sacrifice - they were all more or less expendable - but when.
He shined his flashlight throughout the rooms of the vacant house. It was a perfectly serviceable tract home somewhere in the suburbs where the sun occasionally shone. It looked like no one had lived there for ages, and that was true enough. Jacob just took care of the bills - any paper trail ended at Hobb's Cemetery up state.
In the attic he found the old water heater, cold now. He removed the top and felt along the edge for a nearly invisible strand of fishing line. Jacob hauled back on the line until he pulled a dripping plastic bag free of the murky tank. He took the flashlight between his teeth and opened the bag.
Inside was a gun, a clean gun. Its serial numbers filed and the rifling scratched beyond any possible match. The bullets all reloads with blank copper casings. No fingerprints.
Time for the next move.
It was late when he got back. Everything black and quiet. Jacob killed the lights but didn't take the key out of the ignition. He reached into his pocket and took out a little box with an LCD display, thumbed a button and the radio transceiver captured the last few hours worth of motion sensor logs from the building. He'd done some favors for friends in the Shop - or whatever it was they were calling it this week - and they'd installed it to spec for him.
As he walked to the door he was still arranging all the pieces in his head. Sure way to get his ass taken down, but he couldn't help it. Something was missing. Didn't fit. Allie hunched over in the bathroom, that needle dangling from between her toes. Katsuya shifting a half million yen before the currency market closed. The radio station Samuel had turned him on to, the one with the little girl repeating all those numbers in sequence. And somewhere in the middle...
Jacob stopped, looked up at the night sky. He'd been assuming that there were two sides to this game and both were playing to win. But what if... what if there was someone else, and they wanted to see both sides lose?
Jacob looked at her and watched all the regret drain from her eyes. She tossed the empty revolver onto the body next to her, the gun in her other hand never moving an inch from a point that Jacob guessed was just above the bridge of his nose.
"You don't have to do this. It doesn't have to be like this."
"Oh, yes... yes, I'm afraid that it does."
He slowly shook his head. The window cracked and for a moment it sounded as if a wasp had buzzed through the room - then a dull thud as her body dropped to the floor. Blood poured from the cavity that had been her skull, a wide black pool that spread like a shadow in the darkness.
Jacob knelt and rubbed his fingers in her blood. Monk never missed with a sniper rifle. Not ever.
Jacob sat down on the bench and unrolled his chess board onto the rough stone table in front of him. As he was removing his playing pieces, a shadow fell across the board. He looked up, squinting into the sun.
"Merriweather," he said.
"Jacob." She settled herself down onto the opposite bench, leaning heavily on her cane. "It didn't turn out so well for you this time, did it?" Jacob said nothing. She gestured to the board with one hand and he detected just a hint of a tremor. "You're playing black today."
He put the queen down on her square and his fingers lingered. "No, it didn't turn out well. I did some stupid things." He closed his eyes for a moment. "I cared, and some people died because of it."
Merriweather made a tsking sound. "It's not the caring that's a matter, Jacob, it's what comes after. What are you going to do now?"
Jacob paused for just a moment. "Now... I'm going to play another game."