By Claire North
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The Gameshouse is an unusual institution.
Many know it as the place where fortunes can be made and lost through games of chess, backgammon — every game under the sun.
But a select few, who are picked to compete in the higher league, know that some games are played for higher stakes — those of politics and empires, of economics and kings . . .
In 1930s Bangkok, one higher league player has just been challenged to a game of hide and seek. The board is all of Thailand — and the seeker may use any means possible to hunt down his quarry — be it police, government, strangers or even spies . . .
Meet the Author
Table of Contents
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The great game is coming.
Not yet, not yet, the board is not quite prepared, the pieces not in place, but it is coming so soon now. Why has she not destroyed us? Beautiful one, graceful in all things, why has she not crushed us when we were so much easier to crush?
Perhaps because in all things, the greatest game is the one you most enjoy.
Remy Burke was drunk when he took the bet, but that does not excuse him. He had been a player for some fifty years, though he looked not a day over forty, and should have known better. We watched him turn down the first drink that was presented, politely once, then firmly again, and respected his wisdom in doing so. Yet when Abhik Lee sat down opposite him and in a single gulp drained his whisky down, Remy Burke’s pride was raised, for here was an opponent of some seven years playing, a whippersnapper by the standards of the Gameshouse, daring him with his grey-green eyes to be the coward.
“Are you not drinking?” asked Lee, and at those words, Remy was drinking, he was gulping it down, for he knew perfectly well that he could hold his drink and doubted nothing that this was a game he would win against the half-breed player before him.
Six whiskys in, he growled, “What are we playing for?”
“Nothing at all,” replied Lee, draining his glass. “Sometimes the game has no meaning.”
Oh, reckless Remy!
Foolish Remy, buoyed up on drugs and pride!
Every game has its meaning.
Every single one.
You should have asked us; we would have whispered in your ear, told you of the day Lee played a New Jersey arms dealer at a game of battleships in 1933. Two cruisers and a frigate went to the bottom of the sea that day, and when Lee was declared the winner he won not only the other man’s fleet, but his sea legs and iron stomach, and the beaten player had chronic diarrhoea to the end of his days. We thought perhaps, on the eighth or ninth glass to have stepped forward, to have warned you – but the umpires were there in their white robes, and they caught our eye, and we knew that you were playing now, even though you did not know it yourself.
Oh Remy, you should not have underestimated your opponent, for he would not have dared you to drink if he did not know he could win.
Yet the drink was not the game; at least, not the game that Abhik Lee wanted to play.
It was merely the opening of the trap.
There have always been houses where games were played, but this is no common parlour, no place for dice and the snap of a card upon the table. Surely if that is the distraction you desire, you may play in the lower league with the lesser men, who bet only money and pride. But if you are good enough – if you have the will to win – then step through these silver doors and come into the higher place where we ancient souls and scheming players lay our bets down in life and blood, in sight and souls. I could tell you of the games I have played – of the castles I have captured and held, seven thousand men at my command to protect a flag from my opponent! Of the kings I have enthroned and overturned, the monuments I have built, the risks I have made upon the stock exchange, racing my player to a monopoly of oil, of timber, of iron, of men. Of the murderers I have pursued and the times I have been hunted; of the races I have undertaken across the world, a crew of twenty and a single caravel at my command, and the strange pieces and men I have played to achieve my victory.
But not yet – not yet. It is not yet my time.
Therefore let us, you and I, look again at poor Remy Burke, who is a good, if unflashy player, and who woke one hot morning on the floor of his hotel room in Bangkok in the high summer of 1938, the taste of bile in his mouth and a hangover popping out through his eyes, and in a moment of stark terror, remembered.
Very little of the drinking he remembered, it is true, nor is he entirely sure how he came to be in this place, at this time. But as he raised his head from the floor and beheld the cotton trousers and linen suit of the man who sat before him, recollection returned and kicked against his skull almost harder than the hammer of the liquor within his belly.
He made it to the window in time to puke violently, wretchedly into the street below.
Remy’s father was English; his mother was French.
This was a most unfashionable union.
His people were something in India; hers were something in Laos, but that was long ago and far away, all dead, all gone. The Gameshouse gives life to those who play it well, but they are few, and they must learn to leave lesser things behind. Yet for all that Remy won many a hand and lived for many a decade, perhaps something of his family haunted him, for always he returned to the lands of his birth, wandering through the islands of Malaysia, the hills of Laos, the great rivers of Vietnam, until at last, like a moth to the flame, he comes again to Bangkok.
The French and British empires glowered at each other through South-East Asia, grabbing a peninsula here, an ancient people there, until at last only one country remained, Thailand, blessed Thailand, ready to be crushed like the butterfly beneath the leopard’s paw. The king looked at the British and saw that only the French could save him; looked at the French and saw that only the British would keep them at bay and in this state, and implausibly somehow, through gunships and concessions, Thailand remained free, a worm of neutral territory between the jaws of colonial sharks. Yet how free can any country be when all around great empires prepare for war?
So, like Remy, to Bangkok we are drawn, and now we sit, unseen observers, to see what new fate will befall our player as he wipes the last of the night’s excess from his lips and slips down to the floor by the window-sill.
“What did I agree to?” he asked at last.
The man in the linen suit didn’t answer immediately, but half turned in his wicker chair to look out of the hotel window. In the street below, the city was all change. Imported black cars idled irritably behind pony traps laden with straw and rice; three-wheeled rickshaws bounced round bicycles and grumbling trucks. Bangkok was a city where worlds collided; the smart suits of Western men and Eastern men who aspired to be more West than the West; the dusty sarongs of the running children; the torn trousers of the street-seller hawking his wares; the robe of the Buddhist monk pawing at passers-by, clinging on until they paid.
“Tell me it isn’t blind man’s buff,” groaned Remy at his companion’s quiet. “The last game took seven months and I was on a walking stick for five.”
“It’s not blind man’s buff.”
“Good, then…” This sentence was interrupted as Remy once again crawled, with surprising speed for a man so chemically damaged, up onto the window’s edge, supporting himself by his elbows and, half gagging, half spitting, stuck his head out into the street and failed to vomit. If the sight of a near-six-foot Anglo-Frenchman with grey-flecked beard and deep brown hair attempting to puke into the street below aroused any interest, no one remarked on it. This was Bangkok; the city had seen worse.
Nausea came, nausea went, and down once again he sat on the floor, gasping for breath.
The man in the suit lent back in the chair, one leg folded over the other, hands steepled together, the tips of his fingers bouncing rhythmically against the end of his nose. His face was young – an unnatural young: too smooth, too soft, as if all the time had been sanded away – but his hair was silver-white, paler than the suit he wore. At last he said, “What I don’t understand, Remy, is how you could possibly have let yourself get so drunk. And with a man like Abhik Lee! We all know that he’s as malicious a little wart as ever set foot in the higher league.”
“It wasn’t part of a deadly plan, if that’s what you mean.”
“Abhik takes things personally.”
“He’s young; he’ll burn out. Ten years – twenty at most – he’ll play a stupid hand for a stupid stake. You feel so strongly about it, Silver, why don’t you pull him down?”
The man addressed as Silver shook his head softly. “Abhik won’t play me. He hunts around the fringes, looking for smaller fish to fry. One day he might have the guts to take me on – but not yet.”
“Thank you very much,” croaked Remy. “Care to tell me which pan I’m sizzling in today?”
“You still keep cash under the mattress?”
“Got about fifty baht.”
“You’ll need it.”
“Silver,” growled Remy, shifting his still-uneasy weight on the floor, “what’s the game?”
“On your eleventh shot, I believe you agreed to a game of hide-and-seek.”
Remy closed his eyes, head rolling back. “Right,” he said. Then thought. Then, “Right.”
“What’s the board?” he asked at last.
“What – all of it?”
“All of it.”
“And the cards?”
“I can’t say what the seeker’s been dealt, but I imagine the resources are substantial. Assume he has some high cards in police, government and the temples. He’s probably also drawn a few mercenaries, ex-spies, ex-cons, maybe a banker or two.”
“How long have I got to beat?”
“You’re asking me Abhik’s form?”
“Yes – you watch everything – yes, I’m asking you his goddamn form.”
“Last time Abhik Lee played hide-and-seek, the board was Palestine. He remained hidden for fifteen months, and when the sides were swapped he found his opponent in eleven days. You don’t have to hide for long if you know you can seek fast.”
“That’s great, because in this country I probably can’t hide more than a week.”
“Abhik Lee is a proficient player of this game; I’d urge you to try and hide for a little longer than that.”
“What were the stakes?” Again, silence from the man called Silver. “Don’t give me that face: what were the goddamn stakes?!”
“Abhik bet twenty years of his life.”
“That’s not so much.”
“It is for Abhik; a huge wager for one so young, in fact, fascinating in its boldness.”
“I can afford to pay if I lose.”
“You bet your memory.”
When Remy spoke again, his voice was soft, and very sober. “All of it?”
“All of it.”
“How long do I have?”
“The game begins at noon; you have twenty minutes. I imagine that Abhik is already preparing the assault against this hotel; I’d urge you to be ready to run when the clock strikes.”
For a moment, Remy was still. Then, with a half-nod of his head, he wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve and crawled on hands and knees towards the bed, hefting the mattress to one side to reveal a paper envelope beneath. Travel documents, a little money – less than he would have liked – when had Remy got sloppy, we wonder? Doubtless as he looked through his meagre haul, he wondered the same.
As he crawled to his feet, bile again rose in Remy’s throat and he leaned against the wall a moment, waiting for the feeling to pass.
“Any rules I need to know about?” he asked through heavy breathing.
“No deployment of resources beyond those on the board.”
“Don’t write for help to your banker in India or the hunter you won in Rangoon.”
“You know about the hunter?”
“As you said: I watch people’s form.”
“All right. Only resources in Thailand. What else?”
“They can hurt you.”
“The seeker has to verify the win in person, has to touch you to make the tag. Killing a player is against the rules, but if Abhik’s men catch you before Abhik arrives on-scene, they are permitted to hold you even if you resist until he arrives.”
“Can I hurt Abhik?” he asked, with teeth-grinding relish.
“You can kill his pieces, and I suppose you could try to injure him – however it might be unwise while you’re hiding.”
“Not as much a rule, as a bit of advice – Abhik wanted to play this game. He got you drunk and you went for it and then he challenged you. He chose the board; he made the rules. He’ll have done his prep, checked up on your resources. He’ll be watching your known contacts, waiting for you to run to them for help.”
“I guessed as much already.”
“What time is it?”
“Quarter to twelve.”
“Where do I start?”
“That’s only twenty minutes away.”
“Twenty minutes on foot,” corrected Silver. “Five by car.”
“Five minutes head start isn’t much.”
“Bangkok is big, and you were drunk.” Then a question, fast, pushing its way through Silver’s lips, the thing he had wanted to ask and had fought, and now which demanded to be known. “Why does Abhik want to play you, Remy?” he asked. “This game smacks of the personal. What did you do to him?”
“Honestly, old thing,” replied Remy, pulling a bag down from the top of the wardrobe, “I have no idea.”
We watch Silver slip away round the back of the hotel at five minutes to noon. The game has not yet commenced – that comes with the ringing of the bell – but it is bad form, bad manners, for one player to be seen helping another too particularly. It might raise questions in the house about what that other player really intends.
We see Abhik Lee pacing up and down before the silver doors of the Gameshouse. How did this house come to be here? We have seen these doors in Venice and London, Paris and New York, Tokyo and Beijing, always the same doors with the lion’s head roaring from the metalwork, and yet wherever it is, wherever it appears, the Gameshouse seems old, a fixture, slotting into the architecture of this place as if it always was, and vanishing again without a scar.
We ask ourselves, you and I, who controls this motion through the world? Who is it who proclaims that here, now, in 1938, a door to the house shall open in Bangkok?
Then we ask ourselves another, far harder question: why?
Abhik Lee asks no such matter. He is a higher-league player of the Gameshouse. He has only one objective, the same as commands every man and woman who has ever set foot in those hallowed halls: he is determined to win. Every other thought is merely a distraction.
Observe Abhik Lee for a minute. His heritage is all mixed up. Persian, Bengali and Nepalese met a few generations ago with a Scottish sergeant from the East India Company, who fell in love with India, shaved his beard and swore never to eat meat again, and whose grandchildren were more beautiful than any in the village, black-haired and green-eyed, and who were shunned for being strange. Abhik was shunned too, but he stumbled through the doors of the Gameshouse where the white-robed umpires were waiting for him, and there he discovered that a skill at cards could bring more than passing glories.
- "An astonishing re-invention of the time travel narrative. Bold, magical and masterful."—Mike Carey, on The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
- On Sale
- Nov 3, 2015
- Page Count
- 100 pages