< See You in Hell
See You In Hell


Gregory Adams

Marv blows on his hands to keep them warm and shifts his body on the cement stool. The kid across the chessboard from him is 20, 23 tops, and he's wearing a brand new to-the-knee wool coat, wearing it open, as if to display the silk lining and the sweater beneath it. It's not cold enough for both coat and sweater yet, but Marv lives on the street and he knows that winter is coming, and coming soon. Behind Marv, in the coffee shop patio, two street musicians complain about the weather, but Marv doesn't hear them, he's thinking about the game.

"Damn, it's cold out here today," one of the musicians tells the other.

The kid moves, slips his knight out to the fore.

"Yeah, tell me about it. I think playing out here affects my amp, in, you know, a bad way."

Marv moves his queen, pops the clock.

The kid moves again, quickly. The kid’s girlfriend leans in tight against him, her thigh pressed against his. She's wearing tight jeans that cling to her leg like colored light.

Marv moves. "It was colder than this last year."

The kid moves, takes Marv's king's bishop. The girlfriend pats his head, musses the styled hair.

Marv can see now that the kid's completing a Ruy Lopez opening, he's got that much down. Marv works to pull together, fingers flexing where they project from his worn gloves. The board's scattered like a photograph he once saw of Tal playing Botvinnik in ‘89. 1989 was the year he saw the photograph of the 1960 game, a famous game, entire books had been written about it. Tal took Botvinnik with a rapid yet subtle sequence of 20 moves, leaving the board full of pieces but completely empty of possibilities.

"I wouldn’t know, man. Last October I was in Chicago. That city’s got too much love for a man to be cold."

Marv moves.

The kid moves, snaps up Marv's queen with a sacrifice knight. The girlfriend giggles.

"Too much love?" one musician says to the next, "That's funny, man, that's pretty funny."


The game's over twenty minutes later. Marv pulled it out of his hat and beat the kid, moving and slapping the clock down like in his tournament days. Marv's got his coffee now, and he's wishing for a blanket and a beer and another game, but as the sun sets lower and faster across the Charles River, he realizes that none of these things are likely to happen.

It is just past twilight when the stranger appears. The small man seems to form from the gathering darkness, to spring whole and intact from the night air, and no one notices him, no one looks his way as he steps up to the table where Marv sits, quiet and staring. The man is short, rakishly dressed, with ebony stick, scarf, and dark derby hat. His odd costume is made odder still by the ancient set of leather and wood bellows jutting from beneath one arm. He takes the chair across the board from Marv, while Marv's mind roams strange, personal alleys.

"Care for a game, friend?" the stranger asks. At the sound of a voice so near, Marv springs into motion, as if the question triggers an elaborate trap that Marv is an integral part of.

"Game?" Marv answers with an eager smile. "You got it, friend." He reaches into his satchel for his chess set, but before he can draw it from the bag, the stranger halts him with a crisp wave.

"We will use mine," the stranger tells Marv, and he lifts the bellows from his lap. Drawing the handles wide, he fills the accordion lung with cold October air. After the briefest of pauses, he swings them again closed, and smoke pours forth from the muzzle in a long steady breath, blowing warm and thick across the inlaid chessboard.

As Marv watches, dumbfounded, the smoke pulls in upon itself, becoming a full block setup, both white and black, the pieces centered upon their squares with geometric precision. The chessmen before Marv are carved of polished marble, shot through with impossible blue flaws. Across the board, the dark ranks wait, their lacquered black marbled with deep burning red.

Marv's wide eyes flick over the board, and then he looks up, his mouth open in shock. No one in the traffic of pedestrians has taken any notice of the creation of the ranks.

"Oh, forgive my forwardness, to demonstrate so brazenly without even a proper introduction," the stranger tells Marv. He shakes his head slightly, and then assumes an almost military posture.

Marv can hear the stranger’s heels click together beneath the chair. "I am Xaphan, an important member of the political strata of Hell. I have come to engage you in a game of chess, to appeal to your sense of vanity and hopelessness, with the point of devouring you, should you lose."

There occurs a long instance of street sounds and distant traffic, before Marv replies, "Devouring me?"

"Oh yes," the stranger assures, with hardly a change in tone. "Devouring you, in the literal sense, the flesh from your bones, and all that." He pauses, concerned at Marv's expression. "You are familiar with the definition of the term?"

Marv stares at the stranger for a moment longer, appraising the situation. As an individual given to hallucinations and inexplicable visions, Marv has experienced blackouts, and has heard voices where there were none. Others had attributed these episodes to Marv’s alcoholism, diet and drug use, with his blood condition thrown in for good measure. He examines the stranger across the board, and tries to remember if his years of sickness and addictions have ever produced a vision, so solid, so clear, and so polite.

As Marv contemplates his reality, the clear-faced apparition which called itself Xaphan sits across the board with hands neatly folded and waits, the bellows laid out across his lap like a dinner tray. After another moment, Marv carefully set his coffee down at the edge of the table, and asks, "What if I win? What if I beat you?"

"Ah." The demon replies. "I take it then that you accept?"

"No." Marv counters firmly, his bearings settled and confidence welling up within him. "I didn't say that. I asked what would happen if I beat you."

The demon is quiet for a moment, and then his gloved right hand begins twisting the cane into the cobblestones, his mouth contracting into a slight frown. "Well then," he begins. "Since you suffer from a preoccupation with material gain, I will offer you these terms. In addition to sparing your small, worthless, pitiful life, which, as an important Fiend, I am entitled to take from you at any moment, without notice or provocation, when viewed in consideration of your willing and complete ignorance of the scriptures, as well of the Lord's Mercy, I will present to you this finely crafted chess set."

Here the demon waves a hand across the board in a gentle sweep reminiscent of a salesman's gesture. "You will, of course, be at liberty to pawn this marvel of the sculptor's art to raise funds for alcohol, narcotics, prostitutes, and coffee for your ulcer. Furthermore, I will ensure you immunity from infernal harassment for the rest of your days upon this rotting earth. Truly, Marv, a noble, generous offer for one such as you, who has nothing, neither hope nor responsibility, and who lacks even a pillow for his muddled head." The gloved hand settles upon one hip, leaving the other still perched upon the ivory head of the walking cane.

"I don't go to prostitutes." is all Marv can think to say.

The demon shrugs and resumes his waiting posture.

Marv watches him for a moment, and then allows his head to twist about, taking in the surroundings. A small group of stragglers remains on the coffee shop patio. Another small group walking along the sidewalk passes by the chess tables. No one seems to take any notice of this odd combination of homeless derelict and costumed gentleman. With tremendous care, Marv lifts one of the pawns, and examines it.

Marv grins, and allows the pawn to dangle from index and middle fingers. "If I agree to play, and if I beat you," Marv asks the demon, "you spare me. Am I right in that?"

The demon's reply is a single, solemn nod. A subway passes beneath their feet with the sound of deep, sustained thunder.

Marv considers the board. "I always play black," he tells Xaphan, looking the demon square in the eye.

"Not this time."

"What if I demand that as a condition to the contest?"

"In order to play black upon this set, Marv, you must win it from me. That is my condition of the tournament, and if you refuse it, I will be... disappointed." The demon draws a handkerchief from his vest pocket, and runs it across his lips. "Yes, Marv. Disappointed." Xaphan returns the handkerchief to his pocket with a magician's finesse.

Marv sits for a moment, flicking the solid, heavy pawn's base with his thumb, his eyes staring into nothing. He wipes the rough sleeve of his jacket beneath his red, abused nose. Xaphan waits, patiently. Then, with a steady hand, Marv places the pawn he has been holding upon King four.

With only the slightest of grins, Xaphan reaches out a black leather gloved hand and advances his queen's bishop's pawn to four.

Marv moves a knight; his concentration is solid and his mind clear for the first time in what seems like years. He knows Xaphan's next move before he makes it, and he counters swiftly. Xaphan takes Marv's pawn, and Marv takes one of his.

First blood taken, and answered.

The next few exchanges come rapidly, both opponents moving with confidence, each seeking to occupy as much of the center of the board as quickly as possible. "Ah. Sicilian defense," comments Xaphan as he casually shoots his queen across the ranks to sit confidently in among Marv's pieces. Marv leans back from the board, as if it had become uncomfortably warm. "How long have you been playing?" Marv asks.

"Well, for some time actually." The demon replies. "The last game I lost was to a British gentleman, a Mr. Staunton."

Marv stares hard up at his opponent. "Staunton." he echoes flatly, as his memory dredges up the meaning of this name with ease. "The man who designed the board pattern we're playing on now?"

The demon confirms this with a nod. Marv sits stunned for a moment, but his inertia is shattered as the demon casts a pregnant glance at the timing clock. Marv gathers his attention, and focuses on the game. So the demon's old, Marv thinks, his mind racing. That's only right, only makes sense. Probably older than the square here, older than the game, hell, older than Christ. So what. Age does not guarantee anything, he thinks. I'm proof enough of that.

A shadow falls across the game board, and is quickly followed by a small, wooden box. Marv jumps to his feet, fearing that the pieces would be upset, but miraculously, they are not. Both the boxes, and the scattered ranks of chessmen, occupy the same position in space simultaneously, without conflict. Marv's eyes follow the arm holding the box up to the face of a stranger standing beside him.

"Care for a game?" the newcomer asks.

Marv looks incredulously at the man standing beside the chess table, then to the demon, then back to the newcomer. "What are you doing, man?" says Marv. "You don't interrupt a man in a game like that, what's wrong with you?"

The stranger becomes at once confused. "Game?" He asks, "what game?" He points at the chair across from Marv with a mittened hand. "There's no one there."

They exchange bewildered expressions, and then Marv turns to the demon.

"Oh, forgive me," Xaphan begins, with an apologetic tone. "I forgot to mention, that to all others, I am neither visible nor audible, nor even tangible, for that matter. After all, how would it look, a gentleman like me, participating in a game with someone such as you?"

"Look man, if you're not going to play, give up the table," insists the newcomer. At the same instant, the demon tips up the clock, as if to examine how much time Marv had lost already on this move.

"Look man, scat." Marv tells the stranger, who is scowling impatiently at him from behind thick glasses. "Get outta here before I lose my concentration. And take your set." He lifts the box from the board, his fingers passing through the standing pieces as if they were mere illusion.

"But I need this table..."

"Get the hell out NOW, man!" Marv lets his voice rise to shouting madman level, the tone he saved for muggers and the jerks at the shelter who tried to steal his dinner. "NOW! GIT!"

The stranger, brow furrowed with suppressed exasperation, stalks off.

Suddenly, Marv calls after him. "Hey man, wait!"

The man turns and calls back impatiently. "What?"

"You got any cigarettes?" Marv asks.

Shaking his head, the stranger walks back to the table, fishing a pack of cigarettes out his ski jacket. He flips a cigarettes to Marv.

Marv thanks him, and asks for a light. Across the table, the demon smiles, and then laughs a loud, jolly laugh.

Marv puffs on the cigarette. "Thanks, man. Now take off." He waves the stranger away with a hand, and returns his attention to the game.

The demon laughs louder as the stranger paces away.

Marv moves a knight to protect his queen, and then watches as Xaphan moves his queen to safety, without taking any of Marv's pieces.

Marv looks up, confronting his opponent. "What are you up to?" he asks.

"Why Marv, I thought it would be obvious, even to one as muddle-headed as you. I am tormenting you." He grins broadly, as if at a private joke.

"Why me?" asks Marv.

"Well, it's simple, really," replies the demon. "Sometimes, I torment whole peoples, torment them with plagues, wars, poor economy, dictators, whichever seems the most appropriate to the situation. At other times, however, I confine my efforts to an individual, as it is an altogether different challenge, and provides me with different rewards. In this instance, you provided me with an irresistible opportunity, as it was readily apparent that your great ego would convince your addled mind to accept the challenge I proposed. This allows me the sport of watching you break down, as a prelude to the sublime pleasure of eating you slowly alive." The demon leans forward, closer to Marv. "Is it clear for you, now?"

Marv nods quickly, breathing on his cold fingers. Then he moves, snapping up one of Xaphan's knights with his bishop.

With a sneer of contempt, Xaphan answers by taking the bishop with a pawn.

Marv advances his king's bishop, an obvious prelude to castling.

Xaphan pauses in his lightning moves. "Do you know why I enjoy this, Marv?" the demon asks.

Marv looks up from his concentration. "What, tormenting me?"

"No, Marv, no. I mean chess. The game, Marv." The demon sits, waiting for an answer.

Marv straightens up, and looks at the clock.

Still, the demon does not move.

Then, as if he can not remember upon whom the burden of action rested, Marv shouts "No! Why do you enjoy chess?" Passersby glance at him, and then hurry on a bit more swiftly.

"It's simple, Marv. Chess teaches us the power of the will. The power of strategy, of intellect. It tells us the value of others. The knight, here," he raises one gloved hand to his remaining knight, as if to move it, "is a mighty piece, it has many uses, but it cannot think, Marv. It cannot be trusted to act upon it's own initiative." He lifts his hand from the knight, without moving the piece. "Without a governing hand, it will sit there doing nothing, making no progress, gaining no ground. However, with us to direct them, and to lead, they take, they conquer, and they sacrifice. They move, Marv. Come alive under our hands, each sweating out upon the field to the best of their personal ability, of their individual strength. Take these pawns, here, for example." Again, the hand rises, and this time, it settles upon his king's rook's pawn, perching there upon the crown like a crow above a fresh battlefield. "There they are, standing out in the forefront of the rows, and hoping no one of any importance notices them. And if one of these little people does develop anything which may be mistaken for ambition, they are easily dealt with." his voice trails off, as he moves the pawn forward two ranks, and into open jeopardy from Marv's king's bishop. He raises his hand from the piece, and calmly pops the clock.

Marv ignores the bait, and castles. His king now lies safely behind two pawns as well as his rook. Now, a dozen or so moves into the game, Marv feels to be on level ground.

The next few moves transpire slowly, and in silence. Marv has to work, really work, to keep his mind not on the game before him, but on the possibilities of the game to come. In order to win, Marv needs to be working far in the future, many moves ahead of the one just completed. He tunes out the square, the sound of the clock, his opponent's subtle, distracting gestures. His coffee, forgotten, grows cold.

Nine moves flash by, with neither player claiming another's piece, yet Marv begins to feel the first twinges of confidence. He has forced the demon's last three moves, forced him to waste his initiative and act only to protect himself. Marv feels cool, not cold, in his tattered jacket and finger-less gloves.

The demon across from him is sweating now, steam rising in silent billows from his thick coat. Xaphan moves a pawn with a slow, unconfident hand.

Marv replies by moving a pawn of his own, placing Xaphan's queen in jeopardy.

Xaphan retreats once more, this time with harsh comment. "Do you realize what your problem is, Marv?" the demon asks through clenched teeth.

Marv ignores him and moves another pawn, once more trapping Xaphan's queen and knight.

Xaphan leans back from the board and mops his brow with the handkerchief, while Marv, trying desperately to hang onto his concentration, keeps his attention fixed upon the board. "Not simply your problem, Marv, but your entire species."

Marv makes no answers, doesn’t even look up, his eyes focused on the board, trying to see how it will look after the next five moves.

"Well I'll tell you what it is. No need for your final moments to be devoid of education. You're lazy. All of you, lazy. You had a talent, and you wasted it. You could have been a wealthy, famous man, Marv. There are but perhaps three people alive today who could last as long against me as you have, but the others didn't spend last night tossing and turning in drunken abandon upon a heating grate, I can assure you of that." with that said, Xaphan advances his queen through an egress that Marv had not seen.

Marv tries to focus upon the escape the demon had just engineered and not the words he had just said. Still, part of it struck home, and doubt begins to well up within him, like seawater seeping between the rotted planks of a doomed ship. Thinking to be a bit more cautious, and a bit confused by the devil's rant, Marv defensively shifts his queen three files to the left.

Xaphan stretches out, and, with a satisfied air, erases Marv's remaining bishop with a pawn. "There, Marv, you see? If you had bothered to study the board, you could have saved this piece." He holds the bishop up for display, and gives it a slight toss. The heavy marble piece tumbles once in the air and drops back into the leather glove with an audible whack. "But you acted in haste. You took the simple route, and paid for it."

Marv looks up from the board. In the dim light of the street lamps, it seems that he can see nothing of his opponent's countenance but a broad grin of sharp, white teeth. The clock winds out its time, moving closer to forfeit. Suddenly, something in Marv's tumbling mind catches, and his hand shoots out. With no time to think, he takes the most obvious move, again imperiling Xaphan's queen with a pawn, and then slaps the clock.

Xaphan leisurely reaches out and advances a pawn far across the board, as if daring Marv to take the queen. Marv takes it. With a casual grin, the demon captures Marv's king's knight's pawn with one of his own, and declares, quietly, "Check."

Marv, without a moment's hesitation, takes the pawn with his king, and then sets his chin onto his fists, assuming the posture of a frustrated child. He can feel sweat running down his back, far beneath the layers of clothing he wraps around himself in early October and doesn’t take off until March. His pulse is fluttering as if he had just tied off for a hit.

Xaphan advances his rook five ranks, closing his trap.

Marv lifts his hand to retreat his king, but as he does so, his attention detects the faint promise of a pattern gestating within the center files. Upon quick reflection, he moves his hand from his king, and advances his queen instead, in a move completely unrelated to Xaphan's pressing attack. Marv settles back on his stool, running his palms against his thighs with a thoughtful rhythm.

Xaphan cocks his head to one side, perplexed. "Ah, you seek to distract me," he tells Marv, sounding more confident than he looked. "Should I let you have the knight? I could, you know. I could simply let it fall to you." He raises his hand to a bishop, to advance his attack. "But then, no. I don't think so." he swings his hand over to his remaining knight, and withdraws it from peril. He finishes by pressing his palms together beneath his chin, as if in prayer. "I am in no hurry. Proceed."

Marv pauses to consider, his contracted brow lightly sweating despite the cold. A muscle twitches in his cheek. With a quick gesture, Marv moves his king's rook one file to the left, and waits.

Xaphan studies the board, and then moves his bishop forward, negating the possibility of instant check, and imperiling Marv's queen. He completes the move by tapping the clock.

With a loud "Aha!" Marv sits straight up, runs his rook up the board, and captures the pawn. He taps the clock, and leans back, arms folded across his chest.

Xaphan considers the board, his gloved fingertips drumming quietly upon his bellows.

Still smiling, Marv lifts his coffee cup, and is surprised to find it stone cold. He laughs, and Xaphan looks up quickly, anger plain upon his features. With exaggerated care, the demon lifts a bishop, and captures Marv's rook.

"Yeah, that's the obvious move," Marv tells the demon, and he captures the bishop.

The bishop is the beginning of the end. The moves come swiftly to Marv now, and always, Xaphan is on the defensive. Marv knows that the game is already over, and a less stubborn player would have resigned long ago, but the demon plays on, and Marv, who is playing seven moves ahead of the moment, pushes his opponent to the brink. Soon all that remain of the dark chessman are the king and two widely spaced pawns, but still the demon refuses to resign, and so, with only two moves remaining until a forced draw on both sides, Marv declares Check and Mate.

Xaphan studies the near-empty board, his breath forming long agitated plumes in the cold air. Marv waits patiently, politely. Within this moment, anything seemed possible, and the only voice in Marv's head is his own, talking of ambition and potential. It was a sound long absent, and very welcome.

Eventually, Xaphan stands. "Well, then, mortal derelict, it appears you have bested me fairly. I will leave the set, it is solid enough now, and quite valuable." He resumes his military posture. "I am quite an honorable Fiend, remember."

"Yeah, I guess you are," Marv replies as he scoops the heavy chessmen into his satchel. He looks up at his opponent, who is again swathed in deep shadow. "Play again?" he asks. Marv feels strong and confident in his game. He knows that he could win again.

"No." Xaphan replies without humor. "Another contest will have to be postponed until you join me in hell. Then, perhaps."

Marv freezes at once in his gathering. "But I won. You said I would be spared if I won."

The demon stares implacably from of the darkness, keeping perfectly still. Then, very gently, his frame begins to quake with laughter. "Oh Marv, what a wonderful surprise! I see the misunderstanding now. I promised to spare you from an immediate and terrible death by my hands, Marv. That is all I offered, and this I have graciously done. You are still quite damned, however. You are a weak and sinful man, Marv, and have been the devil's property for some time, now. You can't expect to undo a lifetime of wickedness on a simple chess game, Marv."

"That's a lie," Marv tells him, quietly. He looks back at the beginning of the game, and Marv sees that demon is right: Marv had heard what he wanted to hear, and not what was said. Marv had won another day, not an eternity. He was better off, but he was not saved. Perhaps he was worse off, now. Before, Hell had been an abstract, meaningless threat. Now, if he accepts the demon as real, then he must also accept his damnation. Marv tests the weight of his bag with is hand; he can feel the marble chessmen inside, heavy and absolute as truth.

Marv looks up. The demon is still there, showing a satisfied grin. "I beat you," Marv tells the demon, his voice heavy with shudders and cracks. "I can do anything. I’m not dead yet. I can save myself."

"No, you can't, Marv," the demon replies. "Another man, shown what you have been shown, could perhaps change his life and find his way to heaven, but not a man such as you. By the morning, you will be doubting your own memory of me, and by tomorrow evening, within some mean shelter, with the set already pawned and half spent upon some barbiturate or other, you will classify me with the various spirits and voices of your imagination. I will seem no more than a dream to you, and hell, if you consider it at all, simply another unattainable warm room."

Xaphan lifts his bellows and tucks them beneath his arm. "However, do not be over-concerned about your flickering ability of recall. When you join us in the abyss, Marv, I'll see to it that your memory is restored to perfect clarity, I most certainly do promise you that. And what's more..." But whatever else the demon has to offer, either threat or promise, is lost in the roar of a passing bus. Even as Marv watches, the figure of Xaphan fades smoothly from sight, and Marv is once again alone beneath the patio lamps, a marble rook heavy and cold within his grip.

"You’re wrong." Marv says quietly, his fist tightening upon the chessman. He suddenly stands up. "You’re wrong!" Marv screams to the sky as he climbs upon the stool, and then the stone table. "You’re wrong, demon! I am a free man; I can do whatever I want! You hear me?" Marv begins jumping up and down on the table, as if he is trying to break the chessboard with his boots. Around him, people move away, some crossing the street to escape his shouts. Marv screams and raves until exhaustion takes him, then he, too, stumbles off into the night, walking old roads well known to him, his resolve a flickering light amid the burning pyres of his needs.


Bio: Gregory Adams's recent publishing credits include: "Elves of Legend" Deep Magic, April 2004, "The Bottle" (Alienskin Magazine Sentence Contest Winner) Alienskin, April, 2004, and "Something in Common: A Story of Perspective" Eotu Ezine

E-mail: iagbe@msn.com

Website: the Aphelion Lettercol
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