George C. Chesbro

Bleeding in the Eye of a Brainstorm

Chapter 1

Oh, woe was me. Alone and lonely on Thanksgiving eve, I was feeling sorry for myself, an unpleasant and enervating state of mind I thoroughly despised, and so I decided to seek out a little company and distraction as an anodyne. In New York City, if you are a chess player, you need never lack for reasonably respectable, like-minded souls at any hour of any day of the year if you know where to look, and so I headed for the Manhattan Chess Club in their new digs in a renovated four-story brownstone on West 46th Street, a ten-minute walk from the similar brownstone my brother Garth and I owned on West 56th Street.

I arrived at the club with its glowing twin globes flanking the entrance without having had my brain, heart, or spinal column aerated by an ice pick, which in this killing season on the city's streets was not something to be taken for granted. The crowd was sparse, even for the night before a holiday. Normally, you'd find upwards of a dozen grandmasters and international masters interspersed with sixty or seventy weaker players of all shapes, sexes, ages, and colors, but tonight there was less than half that number. I attributed the low turnout to the fact that even the rabid chess players, among the most compulsive of God's creatures, who usually frequented these haunts were reluctant to leave the safety of their homes in the midst of a horror that had caught the attention and chilled the hearts of even those quick-stepping New Yorkers who thought themselves inured to the threats of random violence and sudden death in their everyday lives, whether from stray bullets, muggers, or unlicensed killer taxi-cab drivers.

For the past week a really serious maniac had been stalking the streets of the city, and this one was no garden-variety mass or serial killer. The man or woman had a startlingly simple MO, striking in an instant like a poisonous snake whenever, wherever, and as often as an opportunity presented itself, night or day, whether on a crowded subway platform, a lonely street, or in a knot of pedestrians moving along the veins and arteries of the city's sidewalks or momentarily clotted at a corner waiting for the light to change. There was no apparent similarity or connection between any of the victims, and pleasure- or rage-driven impulse seemed the only motive. The murder weapon was an ice pick, thrust quickly and deeply into the base of the skull or spinal column, or through the rib cage to prick the heart. Death was not only instantaneous, but relatively bloodless. By the time the victim had collapsed to the grass, gravel, or concrete, the killer had moved on, sometimes alone into the night, at other times through milling, anonymous crowds in the middle of the day. In this one week seventeen people had died-men and women, old, middle-aged, and teenagers. Thus far no young children had been victims, but the police theorized this was only because young children were usually accompanied by one or more adults,and their abiding fear was that the first child victim would undoubtedly be a little boy or girl momentarily left alone on a swing or in a sandbox on some playground.

Knowing that the stranger walking toward or behind you, or standing at your side, could end your existence in the space between two thoughts was not only enough to give pause but to induce panic in most people living in a huge, congested city of strangers like New York.

I looked around the main playing rooms for some action. There were a number of games in progress, and a few individuals sitting alone at tables and analyzing positions who might have been amenable to a friendly challenge, but I didn't see anyone I knew at the boards, and in my current snit of self-pity and loneliness I wanted to play with someone with whom I was familiar.

Finally I found someone who just sneaked in under that descriptive wire in an adjoining room where one of the club's assistant directors was conducting a three-round, game-in-sixty-minutes tournament for unrated players of unknown strength, usually beginners. By the end of the evening they would have earned a provisional rating, based on their wins and losses against other players in the tournament, which was supposed to be a rough numerical description of their relative playing strength, and which would allow them to play for cash prizes in tournaments sponsored by the United States Chess Federation, the country's governing body for the international sport.

Theo Barnes, who was on my very long, very eclectic list of acquaintances, was dressed in faded jeans, high-top black sneakers, and one of the garish, baggy, short-sleeved Hawaiian shirts he always wore year-round, regardless of the weather. Barnes was someone I'd once relieved of a few dollars one lazy Sunday summer afternoon in 'Hustlers' Alley' at the southwest corner of Washington Square Park down in the Village, one of several sites in the city where people came to play chess. Barnes was no beginner-I rated him at about expert strength, which placed him in a very small percentile of the country's chess-playing population. But neither was he a tournament player, and as far as I knew he was not even a USCF member. Barnes, whom I judged to be about thirty years old-although his pockmarked face and generally grubby appearance made him appear older-was a street person, a chess fanatic and strong natural player who preferred the raucous, manic, motor-mouthed sprints of speed chess in Washington Square Park to the tight, nerve-racking, disciplined, longdistance-run style of play necessary for successful tournament competition and subsequent ascension in the ranks of titled players- National Master, Senior Master, International Master, and Grandmaster. He lived, so I was told, in a leaky basement, cooked on a hot plate, and stored what few clothes he owned in cardboard boxes that ringed the mattress he used as a bed. Nevertheless, I considered him a successful man; in my view, a man or woman who can manage to earn a living, however meager, doing exactly what he or she wants to do-something which he or she would otherwise be doing anyway, for nothing-is a success. Barnes supported himself by hustling chess-playing tourists, the vast majority of whom were 'patzers' who seriously overestimated their own skills while underestimating those of the ragtag band of players in the park who might be carrying on simultaneous conversations with half a dozen kibitzers gathered around the concrete tables while offering a running commentary- usually derogatory-on an opponent's moves, all the while making moves and punching the button on a chess clock with lightning speed. Five bucks a game.

Theo Barnes was definitely not the Manhattan Chess Club type, and I assumed that he, like not a few other New Yorkers, had been driven indoors from his usual open-air haunts by fear of the Iceman, as the killer had been dubbed, none too creatively, by the media and police. Less clear to me was what Barnes was doing standing around watching a beginners' tournament instead of working the rooms and trolling for potential marks, however scarce they might be in this place, to at least earn back his admission fee.

He glanced up, saw me coming over, and started. That made me curious, since I could think of no reason why I should make Theo Barnes nervous. He retreated a couple of steps, then, apparently deciding that escape was impossible, turned back toward me with a decidedly sour expression on his cratered face. By moving away he had revealed what he had apparently not wanted me to see-namely, that he had been standing behind one of the players in the tournament, closely monitoring his play. The man at the table was about thirty-five, with a boyish face and a high forehead. His brown hair was raggedly cut, as if by somebody with dull scissors who'd been in a hurry. His narrow, aquiline nose looked as if it might break easily, and he had thin lips. Even in profile he looked to me slightly dazed, and he would occasionally touch his cheek and shake his head, as if to help him to focus his concentration on the game. He had on baggy slacks which looked like they had come from the same Salvation Army center where he had gotten his cracked plastic shoes. His shirt, however, had definitely come out of one of Theo Barnes's cardboard boxes; it was a blaring Hawaiian print with an old ketchup stain on the right sleeve.

I found the situation, if not surpassingly strange, at least mildly curious. Theo Barnes was self-centered to a point just outside the city limits of sociopathy. For the grungy chess hustler to take an interest in what anyone else was doing was most uncharacteristic; and for him to give away or lend something that belonged to him was downright extraordinary. The man with the chopped brown hair and narrow mouth obviously had no money, so he wasn't a potential mark, and he just didn't look like the type who would be part of the hustler's very limited social circle. Then again, neither did I.

Then again, again, crack private investigator that I am, upon reflection I was fairly certain I could divine the root of their relationship. I didn't particularly care what he was up to, but it did explain why Barnes wasn't all that happy to see me. He reluctantly came over to me when I beckoned to him, grudgingly accepted my

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