So, I managed to make it to the second round of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge! Woo! For those of you wondering, I came in 6th place in my group with 9 points.
This time, I was required to write a Ghost Story. As you guys all know from my podcast diet, I’m a big fan of true crime stories, so I wrote a piece inspired by the serial murders committed by Alexander Pichuskin, the Chessboard Killer, whom I had recently heard about on the Parcast’s Serial Killers podcast. Once again, DebsG inspired me to keep it local, so I’ve written about Xiangqi.
I hope you guys like it!
Chess at Heaven’s Gate
To truly master the art of Chess, one must spend several lifetimes dedicated to its study.
Genre: Ghost Story
Location: Chess School
Object: Safety Glasses
Xiaqi jostled with the crowd as they vied for precious front row spots around one of the many stone tables dedicated to Chinese chess. All of them had come hoping to improve their game, and as their numbers grew, it became increasingly difficult to get a glimpse of the board.
Today’s feature match was between a schoolgirl and a businessman. General, the oldest of the group, pointed to the girl’s defensive line and frowned.
“All right, everyone, this is a common mistake made by rookie players faced with the classic Centre Cannon versus Screening Horse opening gambit.” He explained, “It’s never a good idea to move an unprotected chariot into enemy territory. It leaves you open to all sorts of attacks.”
General continued with his lesson, explaining the concept behind the opening gambit and pointing out where the girl had left holes in her defence. Sure enough, the man declared checkmate after four more moves.
General had started the amateur chess school at Heaven’s Gate Park to pass the time after his retirement. Perhaps in deference to his skill at the game, he had been branded on his back, instead of on his face. He still bore the tell-tale ligature marks from his death.
Xiaqi studied the board as the schoolgirl started another round. She couldn’t help but think that the General was wrong. The opening gambit wasn’t as important as a good endgame and a good offence often made up for weak defences.
She glanced at Right Elephant, a plump, middle-aged woman, then looked askance at one of the unattended tables. Right Elephant smiled, her mouth twisting into the horrific brand on her cheek that left one eye melting out of its socket. The two of them sat at opposite ends of the table and played with imaginary pieces. Xiaqi laid out her strategy for turning the flawed opening gambit into a victory, forcing Right Elephant into the defensive quickly, once the woman had played into her territory across the river.
“That is an interesting idea.” Right Elephant giggled after Xiaqi pushed her general into a corner.
She headed over to join her sister, Left Elephant. The twins were once identical, but Left Elephant had struggled less when they were being crushed to death and so kept both eyes during the branding. Xiaqi herself had a brand – Cannon – after her aggressive style of play. In keeping with the theme of her piece, most of her body had been burned before she was stabbed and thrown in the park’s cistern to drown.
After the sun had set, the ghosts watched as the businessman returned and carefully carved a small symbol under the table. 兵 – a Pawn.
Xiaqi hoped that the schoolgirl would keep losing.
* * *
The schoolgirl didn’t keep losing, but she didn’t end up in the cistern.
Instead, when the killer reached the chess tables with her body, Xiaqi gave the signal and the General led the charge. With otherworldly shrieks, everyone rushed the man, running through his body. The coordinated attack caused the wind to kick up, forcing him to drop the schoolgirl.
Each time the killer moved forward, the wind beat him back, howling and moaning in his ears, raising goose bumps, and making his hair stand on end. Uneasy and frightened, he ran off into the night. As the schoolgirl breathed her last, a new Pawn stepped out of the body to join the rest of the group. Xiaqi knelt and closed the girl’s eyes.
Sometimes, sacrifices had to be made to ensure final victory.
* * *
A small crowd had gathered around Heaven’s Gate Park that morning. Everyone watched with great interest as the police set up a cordon around the body, taking pictures and marking the surroundings with little placards for evidence collection.
The Detective bent down to get a sample of the victim’s torn clothing and cursed as the biting wind caused a bit of blood-matted hair to smack into his safety glasses, leaving an ugly red stain in its wake.
Spotting the chess tables in the shade, he sat at one of them, absentmindedly polishing the glasses with a sanitising wipe as he considered the case. The victim was a well-known sugar baby with multiple daddies. So, this was most likely some sort of Triad killing, with the branding on the face being a message to a rival gang. Investigating such cases was futile. Triad money always kept the perpetrators out of court.
His glasses grew hot in his hand. Surprised, he dropped them. They skittered across the concrete and landed just underneath one of the other tables.
“Butterfingers!” he grumbled as he stumbled forward to retrieve them.
As his fingers reached for the plastic frames, he saw the word Pawn – “兵” reflected in the lenses. Turning, he looked up at the underside of the table and saw another chessboard painstakingly etched underneath, circles marking out where pieces would normally be, some of them blank, but others filled in with symbols.
He stood, making a note to check the table more thoroughly later. As he reached for his glasses again, another gust of wind caught the light plastic frames and blew them into the bushes.
When he got closer, the glasses flew again, this time landing near a cistern hidden under the shade of some trees.
Later, when he explained his horrific find to his colleagues over tea, he swore that he felt an electric shock. The glasses shot out of his hands, twinkling in the morning light as they dropped right through a hole in the cistern cover.
* * *
Xiaqi smiled as they pulled her bloated corpse from the depths of the cistern and laid her down beside the others. She glanced up at the killer in the crowd, noticing the colour drain from his face as he watched the police pull victim after victim out of the wet darkness.
“Checkmate.” She grinned as she began to dissolve.
She wondered if there would be chess where she was going.
 For those of you interested, the General’s lesson is adapted from this Youtube video by Singaporean Xiangqi Grandmaster, Alvin Woo.
P.S. Here’s my previous submission for round 1!