The Blind man Who Plays Chess - an excerpt from Eagles Hunt Wolves
The blind man arrived every day at precisely the same time. His taxi pulled up at the same point at the kerb. The driver, always the same one, diligently assisted him out. The passenger was smartly attired in one of his two light summer suits; today the cream one, with a crumpled but clean blue shirt. He used a simple bamboo cane to tap the way. The café hissed and spat with coffee machines and the clatter of lives taking pause, watching the rolling ocean from their tables before going about their daily business.
The bartender, spotting the blind man’s straw fedora at the doorway, sugared his cafe solo and crossed the room to seat him. He wiped the table and laid out the setting with the precision of an architect.
“Thank you, Dinis.”
“You’re welcome, Mr de Witte.”
Peter de Witte placed his cane against the wall and removed his hat. His hair, now fully grey, was swept back and neatly trimmed. He wore smart sunglasses that concealed the scarring around his eyes and sealed lids. He had been blinded in Russia fighting the Bolsheviks; now, a quarter of a century later, he found himself fighting them again. With communist parties taking hold of Italy, Greece and France, Stalin’s sights were now set on the Mediterranean and the English Channel.
The blind man savored his coffee and waited. Inside his wallet was a folded strip of Braille.
An American big band came on the radio. Dinis raised the volume. De Witte tapped out the beat on the table gently with his fingertips.
The man he was meeting arrived five minutes later.
“Peter,” he said.
“Father Francis,” replied de Witte.
The Jesuit´s summer suit had seen better days, his black shirt worn open, without the collar. From his jacket pocket, the priest produced a small ivory inlaid travel chess set and opened it out. He set the pieces out; he was white, de Witte was black. It was their daily ritual, a comfortable routine.
De Witte motioned for coffee.
“Thank you for the information,” said de Witte.
“We don’t have many friends here,” said Father Francis, “but those we have are very loyal. White, pawn, e 4,” he said.
Father Francis´ opening move was as de Witte expected; reckless, without much thought. The priest must be preoccupied, he thought.
“The Jesuits have sent word to the British and Americans, not through the regular channels, but directly through Int.7.,” said Father Francis.
“Three German U-boats left the coast of Spain forty-eight hours ago; now no-one can locate them.”
De Witte could visualize the chessboard’s layout in his mind’s eye. Francis’ spoken moves gave away his strategy. A bold opening, high-risk.
“Black, Knight, f. 6,” he said.
De Witte swiftly calculated the game. After three moves, he took a knight; exposing the queen. The game was going to be short.
“Definitely German?” he asked.
“New generation of them. One is rumoured to have Martin Bormann on board.”
“He’s dead; killed on the Weidendammer Bridge - escaping,” replied de Witte.
“The Russians aren’t convinced,” said the priest.
“They aren’t convinced Hitler is dead either,” said de Witte.
Checkmate was suddenly two moves away and he toyed with his beard as pondered his next move.
“Stalin thinks Bormann is moving all the Reich’s remaining finances into Switzerland, out of his reach.”
“Stalin’s fantasies have a habit of becoming realpolitik,” said de Witte.
“This one may have some substance; Bormann was spotted in the Spanish port of Huelva, or at least someone matching his last known description. If it´s true, the assassination attempt failed.”
“Then we’ll have to try again,” said de Witte.
The fragment of Braille lay coiled like a serpent in his jacket pocket. De Witte imagined it writhing, twisting, gnawing through the material.
“Chasing ghosts is getting to be a preoccupation, Peter,” said Francis.
“The guns never fall silent, Father,” replied de Witte.
Father Francis switched to a new tack, trying to claw back advantage.
He took a rook with a flourish, but it was a pyrrhic victory. In less than ten minutes he was defeated.
De Wittte paused, his head angled toward the breeze coming in through the doorway.
“Chopin discovered the U-boats?” he asked.
“She did. She delivered her intelligence to the Jesuit mission in Barcelona and they sent it on to London.”
Eva, thought de Witte. It had been years now since he´d held her, smelled her, tasted her. A long-hidden pain, long thought healed, rose in his chest.
“Where is she now?” he asked.
“Berlin. Arrived a few days ago,” said Francis.
The cries of the gulls wheeling overhead, a warm breeze and the sounds and smells of a seaside café reminded de Witte of Den Helder, the Dutch town where he grew up. He taught at a school there and had joined up there to sail to Russia to fight Bolshevism. Severely injured from grenade wounds, another volunteer, Henry Chainbridge had saved him and befriended him.
If Eva was active again Chainbridge would be too.
“Berlin?” asked de Witte.
“Berlin. A dangerous city, even for a man in the fullness of health,” replied the priest.
“… let alone a blind one?” concluded de Witte.
A faint smile creased his handsome features.
“I’m not completely helpless you know.”
Father Francis cautiously turned the chess board around. Sliding out a hidden drawer, he removed a piece of folded cigarette paper and placed it in de Witte’s hands. As the blind man fed the freshly imprinted braille through his fingers, the priest slid the drawer closed.
“She’s at an Int.7., safe house – address and details enclosed.”
Berlin. De Witte paused. He had been captured and delivered into the hands of the Abwehr there. He recalled the imaginative ways he had been tortured. As a blind man, he’d presented a challenge, but his tormentors had more than risen to it. Henry Chainbridge and Nicklaus Brandt had rescued him.
And he had lost Eva, forever.
“Brandt?” asked de Witte.
“Who?” replied Francis
Francis, now playing black, won a game. It was the Jesuit who now sensed his opponent’s mind was distracted. It had been too easy; de Witte was usually ruthless.
“Best of three?” asked Francis.
“Yes. Best of three,”
“One other thing; came in from a different wire; the Russians are working on a huge project. They’ve diverted a lot of forced labour out of Moscow.”
“Any ideas?” asked de Witte.
“Alternative energy. Possibly. Weapon, probably.”
De Witte paused. From his inside pocket, he produced a slim cigarette case, silver, unadorned. He removed two cheroots and lit them both with a steady hand. Father Francis never stopped marveling at this trick. The flame would never miss. De Witte handed one to Francis. The priest savoured the smoke.
“Alternative energy?” said de Witte.
“The Red Army stumbled onto something in Berlin last year. Beria’s Ministry of State Security has now taken over the project.”
De Witte won the game. Barely a minute later Dinis delivered the customary crepes. Returning to the bar, he phoned for the taxi.
“Guess I’m paying for the crepes again?” said Father Francis.
“I won’t be here tomorrow Father. But I’ll make sure your chess set is returned.”
“On the move then, de Witte?”
“Berlin. If my old comrades-in-arms are gathering there…”
“Bring the chess set with you. You can hand it back on your return. You know Peter, we’re both too old for adventures, you should enjoy your retirement. Here you have the sun, the sea and immensely inferior opposition. What more could you ask? Besides, you have a wonderful wife at home. Let the past go. Enjoy your life with Martha.”
De Witte, smiled ruefully,
“In China, crisis has the same meaning as opportunity. Now that the dust has settled, all the pieces have come back into play. Bormann, if he’s alive, is making his gambit.”
He tapped the chess box, “For what, we don’t know.”
The taxi arrived.
“Take care, my friend,” said Father Francis.
“I will,” replied de Witte.
“I wish I could believe that,” growled the priest as he gently guided his friend into the back seat of the waiting car.
“Light a candle for me then, you, old shaman,” grinned de Witte.
Martha was waiting. From the taxi, she took her husband´s arm and guided him into the house. She had noticed his recent distraction and a silent tension had seeped into their marriage; the same kind of tension that had made her leave him once before.
“There’s a new correspondence,” said de Witte.
Martha took the chess set from him and popped open the hidden drawer. Unfolding the cigarette paper, she fingered the correspondence. While he was recovering from his injuries, she had nursed him, loved him and taught him braille.
“DG dead. Berlin. Chopin there. Int.7., re-activated - an address too?” she said.
De Witte slumped into a chair,
“I’m going to Berlin, Martha. Henry’s there.”
“She’s there, Peter. I thought she was dead?”
“Evidently not, Martha. She’s not the reason.”
“She is, Peter. She always is.”
Martha lit the strip of paper with a match and washed the ashes down the kitchen sink. She glanced through the window to the carefully cultivated back garden they had lavished so much time on. It had been the happiest time in their marriage. This modest lodge surrounded by orange groves, olive trees and fields had been their home for three years.
“The war is over, Peter,” she said.
“Henry is there.”
Martha de Witte squeezed her eyes shut. Tighter than a child fearing the dark.
“So, you said. I’m not deaf.”
“I have contacts, I can be useful,” he said.
“So is Eva, Peter – she’s there too,”
“That´s not the reason – I have my uses, Martha,”
Martha slammed her fist on the sink. The stacked crockery juddered.
“I need you here, Peter. The work you are doing here is more important. You can assist them better from here. Berlin is suicide.”
“I have a friend, Martha, a Doctor. He’s a Sikh, he’s helping Chainbridge.”
She turned around and saw her husband staring away from her voice. His fists were clenched too.
“Do what you want then,” she said.
Martha de Witte donned a headscarf and strode out into the garden. As she toiled in the borders, Peter’s voice drifted to her through the open window. He was talking into the long-wave radio, his intonation crisp and precise
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