Jack McCoy was late, and he hated being late. He especially hated being late when it was a life-or-death situation, as this was. He hurried through the whirling snow, winding past the thinning crowds of people trudging through the chilling wind and icy air, past Hogan Place, down the street and around the corner to a small restaurant he had stumbled upon too many years ago for him to comfortably remember.
He had been sitting at the bar, trying to drown his sorrows in a glass of scotch, just like he had done many times before. An extremely tall, almost scrawny man had sat down next to him and ordered an ice water. Jack had glanced at him slightly askance, but the man had only smiled thinly. After Jack had downed his third shot, the man next to him brought out a small leather case, one that could fit into a pocket, and unfolded it onto the bar. It was a chessboard. The stranger had begun setting up the pieces and then placed the board between Jack and himself. Jack, unsure of what was
going on, had moved a white pawn forward. The man wordlessly moved a black knight, and the battle was on.
Over two hours later Jack had been checkmated and the man packed up his case and left, but not before handing Jack a small slip of paper. He had unfolded the paper only to find a time and a date scribbled hastily on the sheet. There was also a signature. He squinted closer at the paper and
finally made out a name through all the loops and curls. 'Death'.
Jack finally located the tiny restaurant with the garland-draped window looking into a dingy, dimly lit front room, and again had the odd feeling he'd experienced so many times before. It was as if he was the only person on the street who could see it, and all of the other passerby's eyes just
slid from the bookstore on one side to the movie theater on the other. He opened the door and stepped into the warm, dark bar and made his way to a small table in the corner, where a dark haired, pale-faced man already sat, the chessboard laid out before him. The man silently watched Jack drape his coat over a chair and then seat himself across from him.
"You're late." The man's tone was dead and flat, and held not the slightest
hint of emotion.
Jack shivered slightly and rubbed his chilled hands together. "Merry Christmas to you, too," he snapped icily. "I'm sorry, Death, but you know New York traffic. I couldn't exactly ride my motorcycle through the snow," he added dryly, dropping his hands into his lap and giving the man an acrid look.
Death spread pale, thin hands in an odd gesture and then said quietly, "It is your turn to go first."
Jack didn't move. "You know, Death," he said sharply, leaning forward in his chair. "It's two days until Christmas. We've been playing this little game for far too many years. Don't you think it's time that we stop and get on with our lives?"
"Do you mean to tell me that you don't understand the contracts of this 'little game'?" Death asked quietly, with a slight mocking tone as he repeated Jack's words. When Jack didn't respond, he said, "If you stop meeting me here every month, Jack McCoy, you die. Your life is over. No
questions asked, no money refunded, nothing. You are dead, and no one will know why. But if you do continue to play with me, you may be able to prolong your life a little while longer. Is that understood?" The pale man quirked an eyebrow and his thin lips twisted into a cruel parody of a smile.
Jack said nothing, only reached out with a slightly trembling hand and moved an ivory pawn forward two squares. Death smiled wider. "A wise choice, Jack McCoy." Hands whiter than new snow advanced a black pawn.
Any outside observer would have commented on the lack of communication between the two men. The hunched, broodingly dark looks of the gray-haired man and the pale skin of the other figure contrasting greatly with the black hair plastered to his forehead were opposites enough, but it was also the manner in which they played. The man with the sterling hair would sit and stare at the board for a long moment, saying nothing, and then finally stretch out a hand and make his move after so much careful observation. The scrawny, pallid man, who seemed almost ageless, would play out his move mere seconds after the first man had set down his piece. It was as if he was a machine, something inhuman, and all he had to do was quickly calculate the move. Few words were exchanged between the pair as they played and only once or twice did they even glance at each other.
The number of pieces on the chessboard slowly began to dwindle as time wore on, and after nearly an hour Jack finally looked up at the figure across from him.
"I have a question to ask you, Death."
Ashen hands hovered over the board, and then descended and moved a black rook. "Ask away, Jack McCoy," Death replied quietly, folding his hands in his lap.
Jack reached forward and slid his knight over, capturing the rook. "Is is truly necessary for us to go through all of this pomp and circumstance, me cutting time out of a busy schedule to go and play chess with a man who calls himself 'Death'?"
Death laughed quietly, a harsh and bitter sound that seared the air and froze the listener's ears, bringing with it images of destruction and suffering. "Oh, you are a clever one, Jack McCoy," Death said, his cold, lifeless dark eyes crinkling up at the corners in silent laughter. "You're trying to find a way out of this, aren't you? And here I was, thinking that I was doing you a favor."
"Doing me a favor?" Jack said doubtfully. "How do you figure?"
"I am prolonging your life," the man replied tranquilly, oblivious to the anger that was building in Jack's voice. "I am giving you a few more weeks, maybe months, maybe even years, to go and fix all of the petty mistakes you made and all of the lives you stepped out of, just lurking back in the shadows while the world swirled all around you. You thought you could isolate yourself, Jack McCoy, and not be touched, or hurt, or moved by anything at all. You have not spoken to your sister in two years. You have not seen your daughter in four. As you said, it is two days until Christmas. Why not forget all of the insignificant things that drove you away from them in the first place?" Death gazed up at the ceiling and stroked his chin with one bony finger. "After all," he said softly, almost to himself. "You would have died nearly six years ago if it wasn't for me."
Jack gaped at the man across from him, momentarily speechless. "I would've died?" He said weakly, finally regaining the capacity to speak. "How?"
"Oh, just alcohol poisoning," Death said flippantly, and moved a knight backwards, taking one of Jack's pawns. "After your Claire Kincaid was killed, the original plan was for you to drink yourself into a bloody stupor and be found two days later, dead on the floor of your kitchen."
"Original plan?" He was well beyond confused now, into the realm of the truly bewildered that feel as if the floor underneath them is about to give way and plunge them into a bottomless pit of terror.
"Oh yes," Death said, smirking slightly. "There's a master plan for every life on this earth, Jack McCoy. And since I know how you don't like to resign anything to fate or luck, I always figured that it would be better if you just did not know that your life was already mapped out for you."
Jack said nothing, only raked a hand back through his sterling hair and stared morosely at the board. "I knew it," he said finally, shaking his head slightly. "I knew that I wouldn't get a straight answer out of you. You would go on, meandering on from subject to subject until--"
The pallid figure held up a slender hand and quirked one elegant eyebrow at Jack. "How did you know that you were not going to get a straight answer, Jack McCoy?" Death asked sweetly, and then directed a bishop forwards, trekking halfway across the board. "After all, I have given you no reason not to trust me."
Jack stared at Death. "No reason not to trust you?" He repeated dubiously, and moved the white pawn he had been toying with. "You tricked me into this little tournament, Death. I had no idea what the terms were. You sat down at that bar over there so many years ago and unfolded your little set, and we started playing. No agreement, nothing. You forced me to wager my life on a deal that I knew nothing about. I'd say that's a damn good reason for me to not trust you."
Death shook his head, a cruel caricature of a smile distorting his thin lips and his cold, soulless dark eyes boring straight into Jack's fiery ones. "That second month, when you obeyed the directions on that small slip of paper I gave you, your fate was sealed. You came here, you played the game, and you will continue to do so until I free you from those binds."
"And when will that be?" Jack asked hotly, frustration and anger rippling underneath his voice.
"When you die," Death said simply, and checkmated Jack's king.