They glanced over their shoulders when they came, and pulled their hats down low. Not all of them were wearing hats, however, and some had to make do by burying their faces deep in their collars. Grace Matheson simply hid in the shadow of an umbrella, though the rain was a full hour past, because she didn’t want to ruin her makeup.
Still, in spite of their best efforts, it was impossible to hide the money that ran in their blood. They were the cream of high society, and couldn’t help but arrive with fanfare. In the wavering evening light, black-suited staff shuffled around them. Shiny Italian sports cars disgorged occupants in tailored suits and cocktail dresses. If they kept their faces averted, obscured from onlookers and clever camera eyes, it did them little good.
One by one, they filed into the manor. It was an old building, one of the few existing in the area that still felt Victorian enough to be called a manor. Lawrence Marelli smiled appreciatively up at it as his chauffeur slid the car door open. Marelli could never quite remember the man’s name—Marcus? Or Martin, was it?
The chauffeur smiled demurely and removed Marelli’s suitcase from the trunk as the businessman started off toward the manor, joining the steady trickle of the wealthy elite. None acknowledged each other yet, not with the hovering threat of the paparazzi, but they met each other’s eyes in glancing collisions of awareness, as discreet as they had ever learned to be.
The chauffeur, whose name was actually Marcel, hauled the suitcase onto the manor’s front walk and began to wheel it towards the door. Marelli would be staying a few nights there, like many of the guests, and though there was a separate vehicle coming with most of the man’s luggage, he insisted on bringing one bag with him, just in case. Marcel shook his head gently as he wheeled the luggage toward the looming building.
The participants called it the Chess Club, figuring that they would need some sort of cover story. They had been quite pleased with themselves at coming up with that—all except for Geneva Descartes, who had exclaimed loudly that she wouldn’t be caught dead touching a chess set. Unfortunately for Geneva, majority ruled in the Club, and she was soundly outvoted.
They arranged themselves around a table in the parlour, a distorted parody of a business meeting. A healthy portion of the members were businesspeople, with plenty of politicians and a liberal smattering of socialites. There was, in fact, a black and white chess board on the table’s corner, and Ellis Holstein began a game with Grace Matheson, whose ruby-painted fingernails clicked softly against the smooth enamel of the pieces.
No one could determine which end of the table was considered the head. Ellis Holstein was the host, but the group had no specified leader, and Ellis was hardly the most outspoken of them. As the meeting's scheduled start time came and passed, the chatter quieted. Not looking up, Ellis moved an ebony-black rook down the board towards Grace’s tenuous line of pawns. Finally, someone turned off the speaker that spewed instrumental music from the corner, and the room was filled instead by the sound of a throat being cleared loudly.
“Is everybody here?” Lawrence Marelli asked. He fiddled idly with his wedding ring and wished absently for a glass of wine. Servers weren’t allowed into the meeting, to preserve the Club’s privacy, and there was no bar in the room, only patterned carpet and polished wooden furniture.
There was another swell of muttering as they checked to see who was with them, and who was not. Gradually, the noise receded and consensus drew their eyes back to Marelli. Nobody was missing.
“Good.” Marelli nodded sharply. “Let’s begin, then.”
“It’s about time,” Geneva Descartes grumbled.
Marelli turned his gaze on her, using the piercing stare that had pushed through so many of his business deals in the past. Geneva fidgeted and looked away.
Grace Matheson spoke into the silence. “Does anyone know what went wrong? The Cairo affair fell apart completely—held up by some sort of customs dispute, and then our contacts there all got cold feet.”
Alec Lane, a moustachioed man of science, shook his greying head slowly. “It makes no sense,” he said. “It should have gone without a hitch. There wasn’t even anything illegal about the deal, nothing to arouse suspicion.”
The eyes of the Chess Club members were fastened upon Lane, and a buzz of agreement rose up. Of them all, Lane knew the most of the actual work, and he commanded the respect of the rest with little effort. The wealthy elite could dabble in whatever investments they wanted, but they didn’t always understand the technology behind it. Lane, though, Lane had his PhD in aerospace engineering, and could follow every step of what the Chess Club’s scientists were doing.
“So somebody snitched, then,” Grace concluded. “Everything should have gone smoothly, but it didn’t, so there must have been some reason, some sort of leak.”
The muttering of the others turned alarmed, the volume rising.
“It’s too early to assume anything,” Marelli boomed, his voice sweeping over the frenetic chatter. “In fact, odds are extremely low that there’s a mole involved. More likely, information leaked accidentally somewhere along the way, or it was simple bad luck.”
“So we move forward with the plan?” That was Grace again, her crimson fingernails tapping against the tabletop.
“Of course,” Marelli replied. “The plan is paramount.”
There was more grumbling at this, but the Chess Club grudgingly deferred to Marelli’s judgement.
“We could be making history here,” Marelli continued. “Space travel has been a largely governmental affair in the past, but that has petered out recently. Now, it’s looking like the future of space exploration will be dominated by large corporations, or maybe China instead. If we don’t take action, history will pass us by. Just think about it, my friends. A modest group of wealthy private investors like us could change the entire landscape of the industry. Pooling our funds, we could be like kings!”
Geneva laughed at this, and Marelli shot her another pointed glance.
“You may laugh,” he blustered, “but the moon holds unclaimed land, the foundations of humankind’s future. If we establish a colony there, we can have our hold on land of our own before the rest of the space race catches up. We can found our own nation.”
Marelli paused to survey the table. He made certain to meet the eyes of each doubter he had identified, conveying with the weight of his gaze the sheer magnitude of the future he had planned.
“We will own this land, independent of any country. With our investments and discretion, we can make ourselves rulers of the new world. All it takes is a little money, wealth you can easily afford to invest. It will pay us back tenfold.”
Though Marelli didn’t know it, few of those assembled were actually listening. They had heard this speech a dozen times before, from Marelli and from Alec Lane. It wasn’t that they dismissed the words—quite the opposite, in fact. None of them would have still been there if they didn’t believe in the plan, if they didn’t thirst for the wealth and power they had been promised.
And so the meeting progressed, the wealthy conspirators plotting to realize their dreams. They had, in their golden lives, found that enough wealth made nearly anything possible. Further plans were laid, careful schemes cemented, all with the undercurrent of their insatiable hunger, their need for more.
In the attic above, the servants gathered. “Servant” was not the proper term for them, or not the modern term, at least, but it summed up their positions fairly well. There again was Marcel, who had long since deposited Lawrence Marelli’s suitcase in the businessman’s suite, and beside him stood one of Ellis Holstein’s housecleaners, a young woman by the name of Rosa Landers. Across the room, manor chef Jackson Holt sipped champagne from a plastic cup. Many of the others assembled also had champagne, as Jackson had smuggled it out of the cellar while the wealthy guests were otherwise occupied. It gave them all a perverse sort of pleasure, to revel in the expensive alcohol while the conspirators below made due without.
In any other situation, the attic would have been an odd meeting place. Its selling feature was the air duct, which in the aftermath of a rather peculiar renovation connected the space directly to the parlour below. Every word of the Chess Club meeting was carried into the room, as clear as if the speakers were in the attic with them. It was a marvel of acoustics, if a completely accidental one.
Marcel smirked as Marelli’s speech carried into the room. “Listen to him go. He’s completely ignoring the fact that all of his previous plans for this have failed.”
Rosa Landers shrugged. “That’s our advantage, isn’t it?”
“It is, but still, that man is unbelievable.” Marcel watched Rosa stifle a chuckle. “What?”
“You must hate working for him, if you think like that.”
It was Marcel’s turn to shrug. “It pays well.”
Jackson Holt cleared his throat. “We have bigger things to worry about than Marcel’s quality of life. They’re back to plotting, now—is anyone getting this down?
One of the other cleaners raised her left hand as she furiously scribbled in a notebook.
“We should bring a recording device next time,” Marcel suggested.
Jackson tilted his head in thought. “Not a bad idea, but we’d have to be quiet to keep our voices off of it. Besides, the police have been doing just fine with the information we’ve been giving them.”
Marcel smiled wickedly. “They think they’re so smart, seven moves ahead of the rest of the world. If only they knew...”
“Be glad that they don’t,” Rosa chided.
Marcel’s smile was more sheepish, now, but he was still grinning with his teeth.
Below them, the Chess Club plotted away, devising intricate machinations of power and money and fierce, monstrous ambition. They chattered and argued well into the night, all with a steadfast conviction of their secrecy, their infallibility.
In the attic above, their employees finished off the champagne and took down their plans carefully, each plot to be foiled just as soon as it began. From her pocket, Rosa pulled a chess piece—a pawn. She examined it carefully, the piece’s surface cool against her chapped hands.
“Where’d you get that?” Marcel asked.
“Oh, you know. Mr. Holstein has chess boards all over the place. It’s not so hard to slip one piece away. He’ll never notice anyway.”
Marcel raised his half-empty cup in a mock toast and drank the rest down. Rosa continued to finger the pawn, watching the way the light glinted on its edges.
“They’ll never notice,” she continued, “never notice something amiss with a pawn. It’s an expendable piece, they think. Well, they’re fools, that lot. They’d never stop to think the pawn might have secrets too.”
Marcel raised an eyebrow at her.
“I’m just saying,” Rosa said, “that they’re all idiots. You agree, don’t you? They all think that they’re the secret society here.”
They all laughed at that.
“Checkmate,” Marcel murmured.