Tommy’s High Ball, midday.
I stepped inside from the bright sun, squinted into the smoky, neon-tinged dusk, made my way to the bar. It was busy for that time of day. Two men were shooting darts, a card game was going on, Motown was playing softly. A couple of old-timers were talking baseball at the bar. I wasn’t thirsty, but I ordered a beer. I wasn’t hungry, but I grabbed a handful of peanuts and rattled them in my fist. Wearing a suit as I was, I didn’t exactly blend, but it didn’t take long for interest in my presence to subside.
“Is Tommy around?” I said to the barkeep with the white hair when I ordered a refill. He was way tall and way thin, and his frame was curved like a question mark, as if from a lifetime of trying to avoid hitting his head on low-hanging fixtures.
“Tommy who?” he said.
“Tommy from Tommy’s High Ball.”
“Mister, that Tommy’s been dead for twenty years.”
“Then why don’t you change the sign outside?”
“They call me Whitey.”
“I guess that explains it. Rumor is, a man who might be interested in finding a chess game could do worse than coming here.”
His eyebrows rose. “You any good?”
“Then you’re out of your league.”
“Still, it might be fun, don’t you think?”
“No, no fun at all, unless you think sitting in the dunk tank at the fair is fun. You bring any money?”
“That might be enough.” He lifted his head to call over my shoulder. “Hey, Pork Chop, you got time to teach this fellow a lesson?”
I turned around. Alone in the booth closest to the door, a chessboard with its pieces arrayed in front of him, a thick green paperback in his hand, sat Horace T. Grant.
“I don’t got time for fools,” said Horace T. Grant, staring at the board. “Tell him the grade school down the block has got a chess club first Tuesday of every month. That might be more his level.”
“He says he got some money,” said the bartender.
“With that suit? He don’t have enough.”
“But the tie is nice,” I said. “Don’t you think?”
“How much?” said Horace.
“Let’s say five a game?”
“Get your skinny ass over here to my office,” said Horace T. Grant. “And make sure you bring me a cold one, too. Whipping white boys sure builds a thirst.”
I bought the beer, slid into the booth, watched as Horace set up the board for a game. A few men ambled over to watch.
“What’s the book?” I said.
“God bless you.”
“Here’s an idea. Why don’t you keep your mouth closed so we don’t learn just how stupid you really be?” A chuckle from the onlookers. “I’ll let you move first, seeing as you’ll need every advantage you can take.”
“You know, I’ve played before,” I said.
“I suppose you probably screwed before, too, don’t mean you know what you doing.”
The men watching laughed out loud.
“Go ahead,” he said.
I surveyed the board, nodded a bit, pushed the pawn in front of my knight two spaces.
“You might as well give me that five right now,” said Horace with a chuckle.
“I made one move.”
“One was enough,” he said, and then proceeded to beat me bloodless in just a few short minutes. The men around him cackled as his queen sliced through my defenses with alarming savagery and checkmated my king.
“Again?” I said as I held out the five.
Horace shrugged, snapped up the bill, set up the board. The men who had been watching shook their heads at my stupidity and dispersed. My chess had been so ugly they couldn’t bear to stand through another game.
“Go ahead, boy,” said Horace. “Make your move.”
I reached into my jacket pocket, took out a folded document, dropped it on the board.
I watched carefully as Horace T. Grant read the order appointing me as counsel to Tanya Rose, a minor, location unknown. There was something in his face, something soft where I had never seen softness in him, something trembling just beneath the surface.
“I need your help,” I said.