Murder to Qd1 is a notable piece of crime short fiction that mixes murder with chess. The story sets a Chess Grandmaster against a New Orleans homicide detective.
J.J. Counsilman has studied, taught, or consulted in America, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, and China. Because of his varied background and travels, he has written about a great variety of fiction and non-fiction.
Mark Labinov (a.k.a. Mark Sashine) is a retired aerospace engineer from Ukraine. He continues writing short stories, essays, and engineering research.
Behavior reflects personality…This individualist behavior usually remains consistent, whether it concerns keeping house, selecting a wardrobe, or raping and murdering.
John E, Douglas, Ann W. Burgess, Allen G. Burgess, and Robert K. Ressler. Crime Classification Manual. 2013. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
While searching for private accounts of murder, Joe was distracted by the image of a chessboard popping up in a corner of his screen with Russian and English text. It was a request for a game on RussianChess.com. He had played many games online but not on this site. He was curious but wary because the standard of Russian players was high.
He clicked on the image and was taken to the site. In the upper right hand corner was a button for English. He clicked on it and a new screen appeared. It revealed the username of the person requesting the game, Фэрзьбери, QueenTaker. It was a pompous name and unfamiliar. Below the username, the player’s ranking by the Fédération Internationale des Échecs was listed as unknown.
Joe glanced at the chess set next to his computer. He wanted a game but before continuing he opened a Google window and searched for “QueenTaker.” He was interested in the player’s previous games because many of his were online. Except for accounts of a mythical player of that name, he found nothing useful. He accepted the request anyway.
…Joe was distracted by the image of a chessboard popping up in a corner of his screen with Russian and English text. It was a request for a game on RussianChess.com.
A chessboard covered most of the left two-thirds of the screen. Below was a ribbon of commands, though games were invariably played with a mouse or touch screen. Beside the board was a long text box with an entry point at the top. The banner Teaching Mode revealed the subsite was intended for teachers and students, that is, for players of quite different skills.
Text began to appear.
QueenTaker: I’m glad you accepted, Detective Sicre.
That didn’t sound Russian to Joe.
Sicrechess: From the username and teaching mode, I presume you want to teach me something that requires anonymity. Something to do with me being a detective.
QueenTaker: And some chess too. I’ve named myself after the legendary ghost grandmaster QUEENTAKER. Did you know some players claimed to have learned from he, she, or it? Isn’t chess crazy? Just consider me your teaching ghost. Don’t bother asking for my IP address, and you’ll have to learn my FIDE ranking the hard way.
Sicrechess: So you expect me to learn about crime investigation from an arrogant chess player?
QueenTaker: Indeed I do. Before you disconnect in haste, tell me about your use of chess as a pedagogic tool, as you claimed in The Advocate. Then let me present you with a chess problem that may have relevance to the criminal world.
It sounded like nonsense but perhaps the chess would be interesting. Joe picked up the black knight from the nearby board.
Sicrechess: Memory and pattern recognition, as I wrote. They’re fundamental to chess and crime.
QueenTaker: Which raises the question of what kind of people are geniuses at both. What if I am, Detective?
Sicrechess: If you began as a chess player, it’s unlikely. Teamwork is essential for crime investigation but always fails in chess. There’s never been a pair or group famous for beating grandmasters.
QueenTaker: But you’re mistaken believing a brilliant chess player can’t see beyond the game.
Sicrechess: I don’t think so. People obsessed with chess make terrible teammates at almost everything.
QueenTaker: Don’t be so cynical, Detective, and give me a chance.
Sicrechess: That you’re bored with chess and now want to play cop is no reason for me to continue.
QueenTaker: I can help you catch the slayers of women.
QueenTaker: I know about sacrificing Queens.
Sicrechess: This is nonsense. Sacrificing a chess Queen has nothing to do with sacrificing a human “Queen.”
QueenTaker: I beg to differ, but never mind for now. Here is the setup: White: Kf7, Ne4, Ra8, h4; Black: d7, g6, h5, Kh7, Nf5, Bd4. The problem, as proposed by the Russian master Alexander Petrov in 1845, is for White to checkmate Black in 5 moves. You’re White.
After posting what looked like an image from an old book or magazine, QueenTaker signed off without warning.
Joe put the black knight on f5 and studied the image. He’ll play.
“They’re pussies, every one. Rejected lovers, suspicious wives, and fucked up teenagers. And the really nasty ones, the racist trolls who sleep with their AR-15s to compensate for being pussies.” After the whistling and hooting stopped, Pam grinned. She enjoyed using her position as a detective and well-known toughness to be “one of the boys.” She resumed. “They fantasize about us hassling or jailing or even killing someone they hate. And we’re letting them go with a warning because they’re so many?”
Joe Sicre and Pamela Hebert were partners in the Homicide Section of the New Orleans Police Department. Four days ago, a young woman was murdered and the investigation team was meeting to review the initial findings. As the team leader, Joe shrugged at Pam’s complaint because phony snitches were always a problem after a sensational crime.
The team was meeting at the Royal Street Station because the homicide occurred in the French Quarter, the smallest district in the city. The core team was from headquarters on Broad Street. Joining Pam and Joe were Captain Robert Landry from the Forensics Support Unit; Sergeant John Chen from of the Crime Scene Unit; and Sergeant Neil Perino from Identification Services.
Sergeant Chen began summarizing CSU’s findings. He stood in front of a large video screen. Beside him was a table with a laptop, a stack of oversized photos, a folder of reports, and a knife.
The team was meeting at the Royal Street Station because the homicide occurred in the French Quarter, the smallest district in the city.
“To begin, this is the cleanest crime scene I’ve seen. We found no evidence of a forced entry, including no smeared finger or palm prints on the entrance door or door jambs; and the commonly used areas of the apartment were thoroughly cleaned of prints. We found few foreign fibers, strands of hair, or soil particles in the living room or on the victim; and the bag to the victim’s vacuum cleaner was missing.
“There is some potentially good news. Despite the killer’s efforts, we found many prints around the apartment, most of course the victim’s and the rest probably from previous tenants. Because of her general cleanliness we believe two prints, clearly those of a man by their size, are recent. We found them on the most overlooked site at every scene, the underside of the toilet seat.” After hearing a few sniggers, Chen said, “At least I didn’t say ‘bottom’,” which amplified the response. Chen’s humor was indistinguishable from naivety.
“Let’s look at the whole scene.” He clicked on an icon on the computer and a video appeared. It panned the living room from wall to wall and floor to ceiling from the entrance. The furnishings appeared in their expected places. The victim was sitting on a sofa with her head leaning back. In front of the sofa was a coffee table. On the table were a nearly empty coffee cup, a pen, and a loose-leaf document. On the opposite wall facing the sofa was a television on top of a cabinet.
Chen said, “The document is a legal brief from her work and the TV was on when she was found. From that and the lack of a forced entry, I conclude the victim wasn’t expecting a visitor but she either knew her killer or was charmed into admitting him or her.”
The camera technician walked past her and slowly through the apartment with frequent closeups. The kitchen, two bedrooms, and bathroom were like the living room, clean and neat. He returned to the living room and stood in front of the victim.
Marian Michele Anders was a twenty-nine year old black woman, an estate attorney at a firm in the French Quarter. She lived alone and was discovered eighteen hours after her last communication, a text message to an associate. Her T-shirt was pulled towards her head to show a rectangular bandage at the top of her bare left breast.
While the video focused on the young woman, no one spoke. The clarity was potentially valuable for the investigation but hard on the soul.
Chen continued. “Both the unusual bandage and absence of a weapon indicate the attack was premeditated. We found no blood except on the bandage. The lethal wound was of course to the heart, and the external injury was cleaned and covered. She was dressed in a fresh T-shirt and her bloodied clothes, a blouse or shirt and possibly a bra, taken away. We don’t believe her sweatpants or underpants were changed. As Dr. Landry will confirm, she wasn’t molested sexually.”
Joe called on Captain Landry, who confirmed he found no evidence of recent sexual activity, forced or not. “Nonetheless, I took both buccal and vaginal swabs to test for foreign DNA. It will be a couple of weeks before we get the results.”
Pam asked, “Doc, any thoughts on why the perp didn’t molest Miss Anders, either before or after death? She was a beautiful woman.”
“Would complicate the crime scene is my guess.”
Joe added, “Especially if the perpetrator is driven by a cleaning obsession.”
The old forensic scientist didn’t like hasty conclusions. He said, “Or is a professional, or a very scared amateur.” He picked up the knife and pressed a button. A blade flipped out. “I’ve seen similar wounds with a nine-inch stiletto. Knife wounds are almost always enlarged deliberately or during a struggle. This one wasn’t. To prevent a spurt of blood, he must have held the knife in place for a minute or two. Death from a single knife wound is not common, and one so neatly done is unheard of.” Landry shook his head as much to say this killer was more clever than they were used to.
“Miss Anders was stabbed once in the heart. Because she had no ligature marks on her hands or legs, I deduce the attack was swift and powerful enough to prevent Miss Anders, who was exceptionally fit, from defending herself. This bastard is tall and strong.
“From the angle of the wound and presence of loose hair strands, I believe she was struck while bent over backwards at about a fifty degree angle. Miss Anders was five foot eight. I believe her killer was significantly taller, say, six two; but that’s a guess based on the angle of the stab, which depended on how far she was bent backwards, which probably depended on the length of the killer’s legs.”
“That’s an impressive stretch, Doctor,” Pam said.
“Let’s see. You and Joe come up here. You’re both about as tall as the victim and hypothesized killer. Face each other. At the same time and as quick as you can, Joe, put your left leg behind Pam’s right, grab the hair at the back of her head, and pull a switchblade knife out of a pants pocket. Without pausing, yank her backwards, stab her in the heart, and hold her there. Don’t move.”
After several minutes, Landry told Joe he could stop holding Pam. The demonstration appeared to show the killing could have been accomplished in the manner Landry described. Pam was appreciative. “And the angle of my wound would be the same as hers.”
Landry clicked his tongue. “You all have missed the most important point. He would’ve had to hold the victim for at least a minute, probably longer, as she spasmed to death. He’s tall, strong, and soulless.”
“Thanks, Doc, for the very serious theater,” Joe said. He called on Sergeant Perino.
The ID expert, said, “My report is brief. We found no evidence of exceptional finances, dangerous activities, unwholesome interests, or vindictive boyfriends on Miss Anders’ phone or home computer. As an estate attorney, she was sometimes involved in contentious disputes over wills or trusts, and we’re reviewing those with her firm.”
Pam ended the meeting. “The evidence so far doesn’t point to a friend or a stranger. Our interviews and Neil’s findings suggest a stranger; but the location of the wound suggests a lover. The FBI says cleaning and staging reflect a close relationship, but so would the perp being a compulsive-obsessive, professional, or scared amateur. In other words, our profile is pretty much crap.”
A few days later, Joe was again contacted by QueenTaker in the evening at home.
QueenTaker: Catch the killer yet?
Sicrechess: Which one? There’s a murder every other day in New Orleans.
QueenTaker: The young, black woman on Royal Street in the French Quarter, which by the way is the street where the great Paul Morphy lived all his short life.
Joe guessed QueenTaker was a resident if not a native of New Orleans.
Sicrechess: I’m not much interested in chess history.
QueenTaker: You should be, Jose Maria, otherwise known as Joe. Your namesake was not only the only slave to ever play a Grandmaster but was also given a gold coin that is now one of the most valuable objects in the chess world—if it can be found. Never mind. Did you make your first move?
Sicrechess: Ng5+. Check. You must have learned about my namesake through the chess club.
QueenTaker: Kh6. And no, I have a different source. Let’s return to crime. I predict your killer isn’t finished yet.
Sicrechess: No value. It’s well known perpetrators who invest a great deal of time and effort in killing rarely stop at one.
QueenTaker: A point to the professional. Tell me about your profile. Perhaps I can do better there.
Sicrechess: I will tell you what I believe. His obsessions—and I believe he has more than one—make him a misogynist, probably impotent, and possibly a racist. In other words, he’s a robot.
QueenTaker: Harsh, but let me offer different points of view. It’s possible to see obsessions as tools, not controls. For him, they may be the perfect tools for murder, precise, relentless, and elegant in their fulfillment. The murder of the young Miss Anders must have achieved something involving those tools. The question is what?
Sicrechess: Perhaps he believed killing a defenseless woman would turn a cowardly boy into a brave man.
QueenTaker: I was hoping you’d appreciate my insight to obsessions. Here’s another. You must have heard of Chernev’s great advice, “If you want to win at chess, begin with the ending.” You should ask yourself, “What is the killer’s endgame?”
Joe knew in endgames the stronger side, usually the one with more pieces, tries to exchange Queens, Knights, Bishops, and Rooks but not pawns, which can be promoted; while the weaker side tries to keep the more valuable pieces and sacrifice pawns.
Sicrechess: Except it takes two events to start a pattern.
QueenTaker: Except you have found no obvious motive, such as rape or robbery, and that could be viewed as a sacrifice of a Queen because Miss Anders was young, beautiful, and a professional. As Grandmaster Mikhail Tal showed, a Queen can be sacrificed but only for a great advantage. I hate to break it to you, Detective, but if as you so blandly predict the perpetrator isn’t finished, you will have multiple great advantages to identify.
Again the game ended without warning. Of course meticulous and cult killers chose victims of a kind. Calling the motives “great advantages” suggested no more than they were sure to be unusual. In contrast, the use of obsessions as tools was a revelation after he realized it had parallels in autism and synesthesia. It was another so-called handicap serving a surprising purpose.
Another activity in Joe’s free time was playing blues harmonica. He was practicing along with the Sonny Boy Williamson II recording of Sloppy Drunk Blues. He wasn’t doing well and quit. His suspicion the QueenTaker’s insights were from experience was on his mind. He couldn’t imagine obsessive-compulsive behavior looking like a tool to anyone without the disorder.
He turned off Sonny Boy and began searching for chess players in Louisiana with a FIDE ranking of 2000 or higher. From personal knowledge and online profiles, he eliminated most by age, gender, height, and fitness using the Stiletto Killer’s rough profile. One player stood out, not only because he was a Grandmaster but also because they had an intertwined family history.
Joe had met Juan Carlos Cortez at the annual New Orleans Open Chess Tournament some months ago. He played against him simultaneously with nineteen other local players. After the game, Joe joined the players and audience surrounding Cortez.
Cortez told the group of admirers, “Here is the advice I give every young player: Oh, what a task so harsh, to drag a hippo from a marsh.”
The group laughed in anticipation of a humorous lesson.
“The brilliant Mikhail Tal thought about this couplet from a children’s poem when he was analyzing the value of sacrificing a knight. Because he couldn’t justify the sacrifice, he kept thinking about the trapped hippopotamus. After admitting defeat in rescuing the animal, he realized it was not possible to calculate all the outcomes of a move. Sometimes you had to go with intuition.” The youngest players clapped the loudest.
During the tournament, Cortez scored fourteen wins, including one against Joe, and six draws. No losses to a strong field was a remarkable feat.
As the group dispersed, Joe approached him. “Congratulations Grandmaster on your promotion.”
The man looked classically Spanish, with white skin almost bright in contrast to the dark eyes and black hair of his eyebrows and head. The tailored dark blue suit, light blue shirt, and simple tie of a white chess king against a black background were an immaculate second skin. He was clean shaven and had shoulder length straight hair. He was more like Joe than the typical chess player in being tall, trim, and muscular.
Cortez said, “You used a closed defense, which was a good beginning, but you had no plan after your fifth or sixth move. Your ranking is 1800, isn’t it.”
To Joe, the charm Cortez showed to the group left with it. For most people, he would have ascribed such binary behavior to vacillations in arrogance and doubt. For a master of an exceedingly difficult game, the reasons were certain to be more complex.
Joe replied, “I thought I did. I’m Joe Sicre.” His extended hand was ignored as Cortez picked up his satchel.
“Sicre?” He looked up. “That’s a Spanish name. Since you’re black, play chess, and live in New Orleans, you must be related to the Sicre who played against Morphy. It was in 1862, and Jose Sicre was a slave.”
“He was, and I’m named after him. Although I call myself Joe Sicre, my legal name is Jose Maria Sicre. By the age of seven, I was sick of being a black boy with both a Spanish and a girl’s name.”
Cortez wasn’t amused. “My ancestors moved to Cuba from Spain three hundred years ago as nobility.”
“Nobility,” Joe thought, “you know, the architects and masters of racism.” Joe replied, “Perhaps our ancestors played against one another.” Before Cortez could mock the idea, Joe continued. “My grandfather wrote a ballad about the Sicre-Morphy game and one other game because it too had a profound effect on our ancestor’s life.”
Cortez wanted to see the ballad and Joe wanted to give it to him. Joe didn’t like the shine on the man’s whiteness. Be it superior blood or superior DNA, it was the same lie.
When Joe arrived home, he sent Cortez an email with a copy of the ballad. He included a note saying his ancestor’s surname was of course that of his owner and he didn’t know Jose Maria’s African name or much else about him.
The Legend of Jose Maria Sicre
Joseph Francis Sicre
He came to Cuba on a pestilent ship,
shackled in iron and bent by the whip.
On the plantation, he toiled in screams
that birthed nightmares and interred daydreams.
He vowed to gain every master’s trust,
to learn what to them was just and unjust,
to use his intelligence in open and veiled ways,
to play the game of masters, the only game a slave could play.
As he became useful, he learned their speech,
and learned what they had no intention to teach.
As a house slave, his dreams still had no wings
until he saw the caballeros fly in the game of kings.
Like the game of masters, he learned on his own,
to manage disparate pieces without being shown.
The young master who found his board scolded him
until he proved chess was more than a whim.
He became famous as the black who beat whites
and was rewarded with easy days and gaming nights.
Against the caballeros, he was happy to play,
with a slave’s hope of playing his slavery away.
In Havana in 1862, he played against the world’s best,
the only slave ever to face such a test.
Against Paul Morphy he couldn’t win,
but forcing a draw would tie him to him.
He lured Morphy into thorn and bush,
with temptation after temptation and push after push.
Among the thorns, the Creole and black met
and became entangled in a two-faced net.
The free man stood and offered his hand
to applaud the chaos at the slave’s command.
Morphy gave Jose a gold coin he couldn’t spend
but offered it in good faith as a godsend.
Jose began playing against Cuba’s nobility,
and needed subservience as well as ability.
Against one nobleman he had to choose
between danger to win and safety to lose.
The man said the coin belonged to Cuba’s best
and demanded the game be such a test.
Jose’s master ordered him to accept
and not expose the Marquis’s playing as inept.
Although it would end his gaming days,
Jose routed the Marquis in two dozen plays.
He expected violence from the aristocrat’s pride,
not the bane of the other man’s suicide.
The death led to the Marquis’s family’s decline
and to Jose and his family being vehemently maligned.
Within an hour, Joe received a reply.
Mr. Jose Maria Sicre,
The so-called legend of your namesake ancestor is worthless. First of all, he lost to Morphy, and here is the proof. The game was recorded in a Havana newspaper. Morphy played White, blindfolded.
- e4,e6; 2. d4,d5; 3.exd5,exd5; 4. Nf3,Bd6; 5. Bd3,Nf6; 6. O-O,O-O; 7. Nc3,c6; 8. Bg5,Bg4; 9. h3,Bxf3; 10. Qxf3,Nbd7; 11. Rfe1,Qc7; 12. g4,Rfe8; 13. Be3,Kh8; 14. g5,Ng8; 15. Qxf7,Re7; 16. Qh5,Nf8; 17. Qg4,Ne6; 18. Bxh7,Nf6; 19. gxf6,gxf6; 20. Bg6,Rg7; 21. Qh5+,Kg8; 22. Kh1,Nf8; 23. Bf5,Bf4; 24. Rg1,Bxe3; 25. fxe3,Rg5; 26. h4,Nh7; 27. hxg5,Nxg5; 28. Rxg5+,fxg5; 29. Rg1.
Aside from the loss, your legend contains two other egregious errors: (1) he defeated Marquis Cortez, who is indeed one of my ancestors, the father of my namesake, and (2) the Marquis committed suicide from shame of losing. My family records show the match was a draw and the Marquis was murdered, though the villain was never identified.
My namesake tried to save the family’s reputation but slanderous rumors about both the game and his father’s death were too damaging. The slave did not deserve the Morphy coin, and I believe it belongs to the Cortez family for the injustice done to us.
Juan Carlos Cortez, M.A., Chess Grandmaster
Grandmaster Juan Carlos Cortez,
Thank you for the information about the games. I suspect receiving a gold coin from the best player of the game of kings made my namesake a hero to all Cuban slaves. That may account for the false claims about both games.
I know nothing specific about the coin. Family legend has it being sold to pay for the move to New Orleans by Jose’s grandsons after the end of Cuban slavery in 1884. As to who deserves it, I can’t say.
Recalling the conversation and email made Joe suspect he himself had been QueenTaker’s source about his ancestor. He saw no need to mention the old connection between his family and the Cortez family to the team. On the face of it, two namesakes being entangled in a murder a hundred and fifty-eight years apart sounded like a fantasy.
From the house intercom, Mrs. Cortez refused to permit Pam and Joe to pass the front gate. Pam had requested an interview with her son. She elaborated, “We would like Mr. Cortez’s help identifying a perpetrator we believe is a skilled chess player. It’s his civic duty.”
When Mrs. Cortez continued to refuse, Joe reminded her the police had the right to interview anyone they believed could provide information about a crime. If necessary, they would return with a warrant and a siren. The warrant was a bluff because Joe’s request to collect Cortez’s fingerprints and DNA had been denied. The hypothesized connection from QueenTaker to Cortez to Stiletto Killer was too thin for the judge.
She replied, “Juan doesn’t have to say anything to you.”
Joe countered, “That’s up to him, Mrs. Cortez, not you.”
As they drove up to the house, Pam said, “At least it doesn’t look like an old plantation mansion, like so many here.” The Cortez home was a three-story Spanish villa with wide arches across the front of the ground floor and more narrow archways in front of the balconies on the second and third floors. The obligatory tennis court and swimming pool are visible from the long, curving driveway.
Juan Cortez opened the door and stepped aside. Mrs. Cortez stood in front. The detectives knew she was a prominent business woman in the Cuban community of New Orleans. Photos in the local news media showed her to be tall, slender, attractive and always elegantly dressed. Her severe expression diminished her attractiveness. Juan on the other hand was grinning broadly and radiated enthusiasm. The difference from when Joe last met him was stunning and suspicious.
Mrs. Cortez was blunt. “My son has nothing to say to you. You can leave.”
She refused to move until her son gently guided her out of the way. “Mother, we talked about this. The detectives have been courteous enough to come quietly in an unmarked car, and you don’t want them returning in a police car with a siren.”
Joe and Pam were led to a living room large enough for two dozen guests. They sat opposite Mrs. Cortez in silence while Juan left to make coffee. Facing Pam, she said, “It must be awful being a woman policeman.”
Pam gave a slight smile. “If you wish to listen, Mrs. Cortez, I could give you nightmares.”
The woman looked away in disgust.
Juan returned with a tray holding a French press and three small porcelain cups and no milk or sugar. “I hope you like black Cuban coffee.” Presumably his mother didn’t.
After Juan poured the coffee, Joe began. “We believe the so-called Stiletto Killer is a chess player and would like your help in refining his profile.”
“Do you have any of his games?” Juan asked. He explained to his mother he and Joe had played against each other before. “And, mother, Detective Sicre is the descendent of the slave who played against Marquis Jorge Felix Cortez. Remember the ballad I showed you last year?”
Mrs. Cortez’s rigid default expression remained unchanged. To her, Joe said, “Your son corrected my family legend not only about the game with the Marquis but also the game with Paul Morphy.”
To Juan, Joe continued. “I’ve had two untraceable conversations with the suspect through a chess portal, and he presented me with a chess problem. Are you willing to answer my questions?”
He slapped his hands to his thighs and held them there. “Begin.”
“What have you heard about the so-called Stiletto Killer?” It was the kind of question that fooled no one. The reactions on the other hand were sometimes telling, with the innocent blurting out what they knew in no order and the guilty providing rehearsed lists.
Juan gave an encyclopedic account, all from newspaper reports. Pam was wide-eyed until Juan laughed and told her he could play chess blindfolded, that is, without seeing the boards, against multiple opponents. “The newest world record is…”
Pam interrupted, “I get it.”
Joe resumed. “Any rumors among the chess community?”
“Not a whisper. I wish you’d tell me more about him.” Juan was enjoying himself, looking back and forth from Pam and Joe.
Joe ignored the request. “Did you know Marian Michele Anders? We came across your name when reviewing her attendance records at Tulane. You were both there in 2014.”
Mrs. Cortez interjected. “You wanted his knowledge of chess players. Why are you asking about a student from years ago?”
“We’re also enhancing her profile.” It was nonsense but let Juan know they had done some research.
“I rarely attended lectures simply because I didn’t need to. Memory and pattern recognition, I believe you once said in an interview, Detective Sicre.”
Joe didn’t like Juan dodging the question. His next was more blunt. “What do you know about the player QueenTaker?”
“The legendary ghost? Oh, you must mean your suspect. I’ll tell you this: Because it’s impossible to cheat at chess, it always tells the truth; and that means if I could see his games I could at least identify his rank if not him.”
Joe ignored what he believed was a bogus offer. “Do you know any players you would considered sociopaths or obsessive-compulsives?” The contrast between the man’s energetic face, body, and legs and his still hands was odd but not a clear sign of the disorder. Joe recalled the elegant movements of Juan’s well-manicured hands during the tournament.
“Detective, you don’t become a Grandmaster by being convivial and slovenly.” He brushed the top of his trousers seemingly unconsciously.
“Do you know any players you would considered sociopaths or obsessive-compulsives?”
Pam was annoyed by the answer. “Detective Sicre means someone extreme enough to be a serial killer.”
“My apology, Detectives. I was joking. Mr. Sicre has some idea of what it takes to become a Chess Grandmaster. It’s a kind of insanity.”
To Joe, the interview was going poorly. He turned to Mrs. Cortez to ask a provocative question about her family’s history, which he knew was of great interest to Juan. “May I ask something about your Cuban ancestor?”
After she nodded, clearly reluctantly, Joe asked, “Does your family blame the slave Jose Maria Sicre for the murder of the Marquis?”
She stiffened. “He remained silent about the game, letting the world believe he won. The family have long believed that led to the murder. I blame Morphy too. If he hadn’t betrayed his own people by playing against a slave, none of the tragic events that befell my family would have happened. Did you know a Confederate General refused to let him marry his daughter.”
Blood and betrayal. She sounded as if it had happened within her lifetime. “So he too paid a high price for the game with my namesake. Since it seems unlikely a slave in another family could have murdered the Marquis, do you know who your family suspected?”
Mrs. Cortez replied harshly, “It’s time for you to leave.”
“One last question, Mr. Cortez. Would you be willing to provide samples of your fingerprints and DNA?”
“No he wouldn’t!” Mrs. Cortez screamed. “Get out!” She began pushing Joe towards the front door.
The detectives were mystified by Juan’s silent grin but could do nothing.
His mother confronted him as soon as she closed the front door. “You’re a suspect in the murder of that black girl. It fits: Your fetish for cleanliness and for embarrassing me. Why?”
“Why what, mother, kill her or embarrass you? She called my proposal to marry her more than prostitution but not quite slavery. I was offering that ungrateful bitch a wild life as the wife of a wealthy and respected Grandmaster. We would attend tournaments in luxury, meet famous people, and party with beautiful people like us. She guessed I would make it increasingly obscene until you gave me my inheritance; and she threatened to publicly mock me.”
Mrs. Cortez struggled to keep fear from her face.
Juan continued. “Her refusal forced me to create an alternative plan, and that was setting up Detective Sicre to believe I was the Stiletto Killer—though of course with no damning evidence. It would then be your choice whether I bragged to the world about being a suspect, a real bad boy of chess.” He stood square in front of her to make sure she recognized both his strength and resolve. He wouldn’t admit it, but killing Marian had made him less afraid of his mother, dangerously so.
“Your inheritance?” It was a sneer, but she knew it was a mistake not fleeing to the Lake House.
“Yes mother. Last month when you believed I was playing private games in New York, I was in Cuba. I was in Cuba doing research, mother, family research. And guess what I discovered, mother? Great grandfather’s will; and guess what it said about the Morphy gold coin? He requested it stay in the family in perpetuity as an heirloom to the eldest son on his twenty-first birthday. I’m well past twenty-one, mother.”
“That will has no legality here.” She bent over the coffee table and put the cups and French press on the tray. Doing something she never did was the only sign she was shaken by the news.
“No, no, mother. He gave the coin to grandfather and because grandfather was wealthy and a man of tradition he gave it to my father; and dad would have given it to me. Dad died before I was old enough to hear about the coin, but I’ve never believed he didn’t leave a will.”
She picked up the tray and began walking towards the kitchen. As she walked, she tried justifying her action without saying anything about the will. “Juan, I have given you everything you needed to succeed at chess, and it has cost me a fortune with your luxury travels. You haven’t earned the coin. I have.” Juan knew she was also referring to her successful management of the family businesses since his father’s death.
Juan followed her into the kitchen. “Now I know why I have this insatiable desire for that coin. I thought it was to hear fans and players say, Grandmaster Cortez has the Paul Morphy Gold Coin. And the addition of a great backstory would add to that prestige.
“For the coin, I was willing to move out of New Orleans with Marian or even divorce her; but she didn’t follow my plan and now you aren’t.”
Mrs. Cortez tried moving away in the large kitchen but he followed. “Juan, it’s worth millions, perhaps tens of millions to billionaire enthusiasts. I’ve been waiting for the best opportunity. With that money, I can greatly expand my businesses, all of which you’ll inherit some day, though probably from prison because of that poor girl.”
Juan made a mocking hiss. “She’s too far below your noble blood for you to care. In any case, it’s done, and I still want my coin. Don’t you dare sell it. I will broadcast to the world you stole your own son’s inheritance.” As his anger grew, he wanted her to explode first. “And don’t you dare try blaming me for Marian’s death because I can then sue you. The elite of the Cuban community will love our dirty, mixed race family business.”
She stopped and turned towards him. With a hateful stare not unlike Marian’s before he stabbed her, she declared, “I have named you well. Here is something you wouldn’t have found in Cuba: Your namesake was believed by the family and Cuban society to be the killer of his father, the Marquis.” That wasn’t enough revenge. “If you denounce me, I promise you’ll never see any inheritance, even if you don’t go to prison.” She stepped forward and slapped him.
She had slapped him many times before, but the last time was a decade ago. As she turned to leave, he caught her arm, spun her back around, and returned the slap. It wasn’t a full strength strike but strong enough to nearly knock her to the tiled floor.
Mrs. Cortez bent in the direction of the slap. She put one hand along the left side of her face and the other at the back of her head. She withdrew a long, thick, ornate hairpin from her hair bun, turned back towards Juan, and stabbed him in the stomach. She stabbed again before he gripped her arm with his left hand. He hesitated until he saw blood spurt from the wound, and then he struck her in the solar plexus with a straight, full force punch of his right fist. His mother dropped backwards with her head hitting the floor hard.
The blood had first shocked Juan and then sickened him. He began vomiting but the pain almost made him faint. He dropped to his knees. Afraid of choking to death, he pressed both hands against the wound and finished throwing up. It wasn’t until he pulled himself up on the sofa he saw his mother on the floor, her torso shuddering with soft slaps against the tiles. He closed his eyes and didn’t open them until the noise stopped.
After the interview, Joe didn’t expect to hear from QueenTaker again. That evening, the man he was certain was Juan Carlos Cortez requested a talk.
QueenTaker: I have news about your ancestry. But first make your second move.
Sicrechess: Your obvious move is Nd6 to put my King in check. So I’ll choose to put yours in check with Rh8+.
QueenTaker: Interesting, since you know Black will respond with Bxh8 and a Rook is worth more than a Bishop. Nevertheless the search for a solution can continue. Let’s talk before making the next move.
Sicrechess: Talk away.
QueenTaker: I have discovered Juan Carlos Cortez’s namesake was believed to be the killer of Marquis Cortez, his father. And it was the rumored patricide not your namesake’s silence that led to the family’s rejection across Cuba.
Sicrechess: What a relief!
QueenTaker: Hypocrite. You must be proud your slave ancestor played against the world’s best. BTW, I know where the Morphy coin is.
Sicrechess: Really? The family legend is Jose used it to send his grandsons to New Orleans after slavery was abolished there, but you know that. Did he sell it to the Cortez family? That would be ironic in the extreme.
Joe was puzzled why Cortez didn’t take the bait. He couldn’t possibly believe he was still anonymous. He got an answer of sorts.
QueenTaker: Let’s continue with the problem. We don’t have much time.
Not much time? It was an endgame of five moves. Joe then noticed the irregular pauses in the man’s typing. Perhaps he wasn’t well.
Sicrechess: I still believe Black will move Nd6 to limit my King’s options. I move Kg8.
QueenTaker: OK. I move Nd6 anyway. You’ve thwarted my plan to check but this spot still has value.
Sicrechess: Since you didn’t rescue your Bishop, I’ll take him with Kxh8.
QueenTaker: And I answer with Nf7+.
Sicrechess: And I end the game with Nxf7++.
QueenTaker: So Detective Sicre, what did you learn?
Sicrechess: Because White began with fewer pieces, the game shows the inferior can defeat the superior; and sacrifices even by a weak side are sometimes necessary. I’m guessing you wanted to apply these lessons to the real world but they didn’t work out as intended.
QueenTaker: You’re a better detective than a chess player, and sometimes sacrifices fail. Whether she sacrificed her love or her life, the young Queen was intended to stand against the old Queen. And the young King was meant to reap the reward of his rightful inheritance.
Sicrechess: And how did the old Queen respond?
QueenTaker signed off, which made Joe wonder whether Mrs. Cortez also wasn’t well.
The search warrant was texted to Joe’s phone as Pam and he drove to Juan’s home. As with the previous request, the judge was not happy but this time agreed it would prevent them from being delayed at the gate. He would remain available to issue an arrest warrant.
The front door was unlocked and Joe and Pam rushed in with pistols drawn. Juan was sitting on a sofa in the great living room looking pale and shrunken. He was examining his hands.
“No need for the weapons, detectives. I can’t even stand.” He feebly waved one arm. “She’s in the kitchen.” He was not wearing a shirt but had a broad white strap around his waist. On the left side was a bloody patch with dry and wet areas that indicated bleeding had resumed after stopping for a time. Joe phoned for an ambulance while Pam went to the kitchen.
Pam called out, “She’s dead, Joe. I’m not sure how but I’m taking photos from many angles.”
Joe phoned for the arrest warrant but didn’t wait. “Juan Carlos Cortez, you are under arrest for the murder of Mrs. Valentia Luciana Cortez.” As he recited the Miranda Rights, Juan resumed looking at the fronts and backs of his hands. His skill didn’t depend on his hands, but damage would be a distraction. Every chess move was a move of a hand.
Joe sat in front of him on the edge of a hard-backed chair. “So your elegant tool betrayed you.” He was tempted to describe how it would suffocate him in prison. “While we wait, tell me how QueenTaker became the Stiletto Killer.” For once, Joe was more concerned with why than how.
“Detective, I admit I knew Marian, and you will find my fingerprints somewhere in her apartment, but you have no other evidence. I’ll never be charged as the Stiletto Killer.”
Pam returned from the kitchen. She wanted to shake his indelible smugness. “You will certainly be charged with first-degree or second-degree murder of your mother.”
“I doubt it, Detective Hebert. If the medical examiner confirms I struck mother with a single lethal punch and blood was found over the spot of the punch, I can claim adequate provocation. And if I can convince the jury my reaction was instinctive, with the sight and smell of blood blinding me, I will have a strong argument for voluntary manslaughter. My lawyer will emphasize over and over it was my blood.”
Pam was bitter. She knew the prosecutor couldn’t mention the Anders case. “You’re still aptly named after another parricide. I wonder why?”
Juan shrugged and grimaced from the resulting pain. “I don’t know but I can make an unsavory guess. It was potential control or revenge. Understand? Queens, at least of the ruthless kind, pre-arm as well as arm themselves against potential usurpers.”
He paused. “I didn’t see that because I saw no equivalent in chess. Yes, Detective Sicre, it’s another flaw in my analogy; yet…and yet the inferior may still defeat the superior because of the sacrifice of a Queen. For me, that would be freedom from her and prison, the Morphy coin, and a wicked reputation.” He laughed, but knew to keep it brief.
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