“Rook to D7,” the words flew briskly off of Roxanne’s ruby-colored lips as she plucked a book written in Chinese Mandarin from the shelf.
She read the language on its spine effortlessly. Not the one, she thought before expertly putting it back in place.
The other end of the room was a perfect antithesis. Those five cups of coffee failing Philby miserably, he fumbled about the wall of books like a lost fool. His rambunctious hair, what remained of it, had refused to be tamed by the comb this morning, pointing in enough directions to draw lines on a compass.
Philby seemed distracted and managed to sputter back to Roxanne, “Um, Rook to... D7?... I take your rook?”
Roxanne had skittered through seven more books already as she said with a burst of sunshine, “Very good, Philby.”
Philby rolled his eyes. Despite Roxanne’s best efforts, her compliments always came off as slights. Like a grade school teacher complimenting a child.
She continued the mental game of chess as she pulled another book from the shelf. Not the one.
“Rook to D1,” she said, too fast and suddenly for Philby to keep up.
“Um, um --”
Philby’s Mandarin wasn’t very good. In fact, it was non-existent. Roxanne had simply told him to look for a red book where the first symbol is a triangle with two misshapen squares underneath it. “Something like a house,” she had said as if talking to a third-grader.
But as Philby looked at the endless row of books all the symbols inexplicably looked like houses. His senses then got an overload once his phone started ringing.
Seeing the name he panicked and blurted out, “Um -- er -- Queen to E5!”
The name on the phone was Elanore. He quickly silenced it, but not before a deep blush formed on his face.
Roxanne peeped around the corner with an accusatory look and declared, “You’re cheating!”
“What … I.. I just --”
“That’s an illegal move,” she said, putting several books on the shelves with such ease, you’d think she was the librarian. Or the Guǎn yuán as she would put it. “The queen can do many things, but I’m afraid that move is out of her depth.”
Philby quickly realized they were talking chess and recovered, saying, “Oh yeah. Queen to E6 I meant.”
She quickly snapped back, “Bishop to D7, Check.”
Philby just threw a book across the room -- frustration building. Roxanne, on the hand, loved his bouts of anger. Working for the CIA, she made a living out of being twelve steps ahead of everybody. Something so spontaneous as his random fits were one of her few sources of entertainment and why she had eloped with Philby on a whim at a shady-looking chapel in Costa Rica.
Slightly calming himself Philby grumbled, “How do you remember a whole damned chessboard like that?”
“The entire world’s a chessboard, darling. Billions of pieces moving one step at a time. Trying to predict what the other will do. Trying to read their thoughts.”
Then Philby found himself in one of those trances. Getting wrapped up in the miracle that is Roxanne Fenway. The way she could glide around the dingy Taiwanese library in six-inch heels reading Mandarin as simple is it was her ABC’s. And do it all looking like a cover model that just stepped off the pages.
“I know it’s overwhelming,” she said, interrupting his train of thought.
Yes, it was overwhelming being her boyfriend. Trying to keep up with her rockstar lifestyle. One minute they were on vacation in Taiwan and the next she’s getting an anonymous call from a friend who has information on a local sex-trafficking ring run some guy named Chin Ying-jeou.
Short on time and on the run, the man, Roxanne said, had ducked into a local library and hid the incriminating documents in a book. And so, there the two of them were, husband and wife, digging through Taiwanese literature.
“You’re not my first chess partner, you know, honey,” Roxanne had moved on, taking time to read a beautiful Àiqíng shī or love poem. “It doesn't have to be overwhelming. If you just focus, you can keep up -- Your turn, by the way."
She moved on to another row of books.
“Have your chess partners ever been able to keep up with you? -- Knight to D7.”
“No, but if they’re lucky, they learn a valuable lesson -- Queen to B8.”
“From chess? And what’s that? -- Knight to B8. I take your queen.”
He pumped his fist at taking the brilliant Roxanne Fenway’s queen away from her.
She simply smiled.
“Rook to D8,” she said before answering the question, “Sacrifice.”
Plucking a book off the shelf, she opened it and there were the documents tucked right in the book her contact had told her. Having both won the game and found the item, she finally said, “Checkmate.”
Moments later, they were riding down a narrow road. Despite being on the crux of taking down the second biggest sex trafficking ring in the province, Roxanne was lounging in her seat, breathing in the lush scenery. Loving the way the fresh greenery bursts from the horizon like nothing she sees in the states.
Of course, her beautiful interlude had to be interrupted by the ever-negative Philby, “How did you pull me into this?”
“Are you tired of me already honey. Just going to cast me aside like an old rug.”
“No, I just --”
That’s when he noticed something. A red car in the rearview. He had seen it before.
“I think we’re being followed.”
Roxanne just told him to keep driving as if he didn’t say anything.
“Roxy! Do you hear me! We’re being followed.”
“Remind me of your occupation, darling.”
“Do we have to do this every time?”
“I’m a Tupperware salesman.”
“Are Tupperware salesmen customarily experts on detecting when they are being covertly tailed.?”
“It doesn’t take a prodigy to figure this out. It’s obvious.”
“You’re being paranoid. It’s like you have a guilty conscience.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It can’t mean nothing. You said words. Words have meaning. Words don’t mean nothing. Even silence means nothing.”
“Listen, honey, I would really like to go over the philosophy of life with you but you need to keep your eyes on the road so we can get these papers to the local authorities.”
He tried to relax, but there was that red car in his rearview. He had to make a move. He took a sharp turn into an alleyway.
“Honey! What are you doing!”
“I’m losing him!”
He turned left, right, he turned again. Finally, the red car in the rearview was gone. But Philby had no time to celebrate as he ran right into a tree.
Both of them were safe, but Roxanne was giving him side-eye.
All Philby could say was, “Well, at least we lost them.”
The barrel of a gun pointed straight at his head said otherwise.
Once they were in the Chin Ying-jeou hideout, Roxanne revealed to their captors she had tossed the evidence for the sex trafficking ring in a dumpster. Philby was surprised she had given up so easily.
While the men went to go retrieve the item, Philby and Roxanne waited in a makeshift jail cell in their basement. Probably the same ones they had used on children many times before.
Hope hanging by a thread, Philby had only one refuge. Coming to the sad realization that he was out of his depth, he looked to Roxanne’s serene complexion. He cast his ego to the side for just one moment as he could tell her supercomputer brain was in full computation mode. Probably devising a way out of this mess.
He leaned in, eyes chipper and wide, like a doggie preparing for a treat.
“What are you thinking?” he asked.
His honest answer was not what he was expecting.
“Is she pretty?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Come on, Philby, I’ve done the calculations. We have a ten percent chance of survival and it dwindles with each moment. At least let a girl know if her competition belongs on the cover of Vogue.”
Philby positioned his body away from her to divulge the secret. He couldn’t look such a strong woman in the eye.
“How’d you know?”
“I didn’t. But considering the way you tilted your phone away from me every time you got a text message. How you couldn’t look me in the eye at dinner time. The fact that you combed your hair more than once a month and would disappear at odd times. There was an eighty-seven percent chance you were cheating on me and a forty-two percent chance you were working for the KGB. I figured I’d take a shot in the dark. So, tell me.”
“She’s quite plain, actually. I met her at work. She was this new intern and -- I know it seems silly -- but she just fawns over how I know so much about the product. She thinks my jokes are so clever. We play video games -- she beat once. But it’s the little things like how she’ll ask for help on an upcoming report.”
Roxanne relented, realizing this was no time for jokes.
“I don’t know. You just make me feel like I’m always a step behind. Like I’m nothing but a blundering sidekick. An admiring follower. You should see the way people look at me when we’re together. I’m like a joke... Elanore she makes me feel more…”
The words just hung there in silence forever for Philby dared not say it, out of shame and deference to Roxanne’s feelings. Roxanne was not so merciful.
“Like a man?” she snapped, vitriol dripping from her every word. “Because manhood is about being able to assert power over others. About feeling smarter than others.”
Roxanne silently cursed the patriarchy. How it had thrown monkey wrenches into her every relationship. How easy it was for a world to trade a relationship with her for this elusive fiction known as manhood.
“Sometimes, in life,” she went on, “you have to risk something of value to get to what you truly want. Like in that game we played. I purposely put my Queen in harm's way knowing you would go for it. I sacrifice my Queen to get to your King.”
She shrugged, got up, and started to casually pace the jail cell as if it were her living room.
“It’s the same thing I did with those documents,” she revealed.
Philby’s eyes widened, realizing they were now talking about something else.
“What are you saying?”
“I sacrificed the queen, Philby,” she continued, leaning through the bars, peeping out as if she were on her grand terrace overlooking the beach. “While you were speeding through the streets of Taipei, I tore up the documents and tossed them out the window. Now, they’re nothing but confetti on the sidewalk.“
She narrated what was to come.
“They’ll dig through the dumpster.”
She imagined an angry Tawainese hoodlum with a crooked nose digging through the rubble at the behest of his superior.
“Eventually they’ll give up...”
She could hear the arrival of a truck, the crooks returning from their field trip empty-handed.
“And when they do...”
Their chances down to three percent, she could hear one of the crooks’ heavy feet stomping toward the jail cell. Trigger cocked back ready to fire.
“It’ll all be over...”
Tears filled her eyes as she realized this was the end.
The shot fired. A bullet right through the head.
The jailer’s dead body collapsed to the ground. The Taipei authorities had arrived just in time.
It turned out that Philby was right about the red car following them. Only it wasn’t the malevolent stranger he believed him to be, but a friend with the local police force. Though they couldn’t catch the crime lord on sex trafficking, they were able to get him for kidnapping two Americans.
As the authorities apprehended all of the rogues, Roxanne looked on at a job well done. But when the dust settled, Philby realized he had just confessed to a horrible sin.
Roxanne saw no need of belaboring the inevitable, “I’ll take the Beach home and the one in DC. You’ll get the one in Colorado, but I get to keep the dog. She understands me.”
She turned to walk away, but Philby couldn’t help but stop her.
“I’m sorry,” Philby cried.
“Don’t worry, Philby,” she said.
Always having to be the strong one in the room, she touched his cheek and gave him a comforting smile before joking, “I’m pretty sure that Chapel in Costa Rica wasn’t legit anyway.”
With that she walked off, her own tears hidden behind her opulent shades.
And that was it. She disappeared from his life like she disappeared from the dozens of lives before. Like a ghost. Barely making a fuss. And why should she? She came to expect this because she knew the same reason her chess partners left was the same reason she was the sharpest agent on the force.
No one could keep up with Roxanne Fenway.
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Wonderful ending, Courtney. Amazing story with a starting of chess. The name Roxanne is unique. Well written. Would you mind reading my new story "The adventurous tragedy?"