A Moment Of Zugzwang

The localised weather information Stina pulled from the bees on Wehlstrasse suggested this spring morning would be mild, but it didn’t take into account the chill coming off the river. Crossing the Lennard Lohmann Bridge, she blinked the app away in her IntaFace lenses and snugged her collar around her neck, silently cursing the decision to leave her cardigan draped over her chair back at the Inspectorate. She’d agonised over that because, though she hated to be cold, she hated even more to be overwarm—it was the interviewees that were supposed to sweat, not the detectives. Data did not yet completely describe the world, she thought testily. However much certain people would like to believe that it did.

Descending the staircase from the bridge, she found Wehlstrasse itself more sheltered and paused to smooth down her collar and fix her hair. Then she took a moment longer to arrange her bulleted case notes, focusing on the job at hand. There would be no point in coming all the way out here if she was going to allow herself to be distracted. No point at all.

Wehlstrasse was a quiet street. Seldom frequented stores and cafés lined one side. Along the other, trees evenly ranked like soldiers guarded the low balustrade above the rolling, grey river. They’d proved poor guardsmen, at least as far as Albert Vogel was concerned. Stina had watched the bee footage a thousand times. The old man visible at the edge of the frame making his way down that side of the street, coming and going behind the trees as he approached the bridge. The distinctive bushy beard jutting before him. The slow but steady gait suddenly faltering, the hand going to the jaw is if he’d forgotten something as the induced heart failure had kicked in. The stumble, the lurch. The plummet into the waters below. No witnesses, either in person or online, so no one had come to his aid and his body hadn’t been found until a couple of days later among the Hundred Island reed beds six miles downstream. Bloated, the skin of his extremities wrinkled and nibbled at by hungry critters.

Completing the impression of inept soldiery, the trees though dressed in winter’s drab sported splashes of vivid green among the upper branches like gaudy braiding. Between their trunks clustered dusty velos like mooching dogs, as well as tables and chairs belonging to the cafés. Most of these were empty so early in the day but further along, where the street followed the river’s gentle curve, Stina could see a few hunched, seated forms.

The chess players.

She knew which café to go to, knew what to order, even though she oughtn’t to. The woman she was going to meet wasn’t a suspect. Not officially. Officially, she’d been a person of passing interest, no more than that. The AI that evaluated whether to allow a person’s private data to be opened up to investigation had not done so in her case. Nor in anyone else’s. Although Albert Vogel had most definitely been murdered by administration of a drug that had exacerbated an already serious heart condition, not one person in the city had a probability score anywhere close to the required sixty-five percent threshold. The AI had analysed thousands of potential contacts. Zeroing in first on the people he’d had passed on that final walk, the luncheoners, the kaffe und kuchen brigade, the chess players. Then scraping the vast WatchNet archives for interactions in the months leading up to the man’s death that might contain signs of threat. Scouring personal records—financial, medical, business, social—for hints of motive. Looking, above all, for changes of behaviour. That had always been true of crimes of this nature. People changed their behaviour before, during and after. But according to the AI, no one had. And now the net was being widened, the current hypothesis favoured among the investigating team being a professional hit for reasons unknown. So the AI was working full time on tracing arrivals and departures for several weeks either side of the day of the murder. Trains, buses, taxis and car hires. Officially, the investigation had moved on.

Unofficially, Stina had a hunch. This woman—this Dimitra Klimala, a foreigner although she had lived in the city for so long it was doubtful anyone knew that—may have been discounted as a potential suspect after scoring a mere thirty-eight percent, but that thirty-eight percent was significantly higher than anyone else Vogel had been acquainted with. The blindspots of the trees notwithstanding, she’d been the last person who was known for sure to have spoken to Albert, a mere ten minutes before he was struck down. In her interview, she’d claimed that they’d simply played chess, which footage from a different bee to the one that had recorded his demise had corroborated. Stina had watched it on a loop. It had been a cold day, flecks of snow in the air. Vogel bought the coffees and sat down. They’d each kept strictly to their own side of the board. No touching, no tampering. Not even a handshake when, thirty two minutes later, the game was over. After Albert left, Klimala got herself another coffee, reset the board and had already begun a new match by the time Vogel’s body drifted past unnoticed.

The chess games were a regular thing between the pair and that day’s had played out exactly the same as the others for which there had been available footage. Nothing out of the ordinary. But still Stina had a feeling in her gut. She’d argued with the Super and been told flatly, in front of the whole team, to forget it. Things didn’t work that way any more. The other officers, the younger ones, so full of confidence, had schooled their inattention but she knew they’d been laughing at her. She had come slowly to the realisation that she was considered out of touch these days. Her professional ratings, her proticks, were the lowest they’d ever been. Her perticks, the aggregated social media ones, were little better, and small wonder. If any friend or neighbour ever bothered to drop in on a bee in the house she shared with Tomasz, her son, they’d despair at the stilted bewilderment that went on between them. His contributions to the household were prompt and adequate but she didn’t know what he did to make his money, only that he did it from the privacy of his bedroom and the maddening politeness that everyone practiced now made it impossible to have it out with him. And that just seemed to be the way things were. Well, fine, so she was a dinosaur. But intuition had been recognised as an invaluable asset in a detective once, and she had finely honed hers over the span of her career. No way was she going to let that old man’s death go unsolved just because a computer was supposed to know better these days.

She went about it the old fashioned way. Rode the bees around the Wehlstrasse area for hours, observing Dimitra Klimala until she knew about as much as she could legally manage about her quarry. Which in the end was astonishingly little. The woman was a black hole of publicly available information. She had no social media accounts, wasn’t registered with a doctor, had no history of employment either here or elsewhere. Stina found it alarmingly suspicious but without a direct link to Vogel’s death there was nothing she could do about it. Knowing that Klimala liked her coffee two-shot strong and bolstered with a slug of hazelnut liqueur was an in at least. And that, she fervently hoped, would be all she’d need.

As she left the café and crossed the street, the cups she carried rattled in their saucers. Nervous? She’d interviewed a thousand suspects in her time. Yes, in the last decade she’d had the advantage of knowing that they were all almost certainly guilty but she wasn’t that out of practice. She calmed herself and approached Klimala’s table. It was square and had a blue checked paper cover clipped to it, the tails of which riffled in the breeze. In the centre sat an old scholastic chess set, the board softened and mildewed. The simple wooden pieces, waiting patiently in their ranks, bore the scars of years of battle.

The occupant of the table, bundled up in a bulky, brown coat and a woollen hat, was staring distractedly out over the river. Stina didn’t think Klimala was even aware of her arrival until she put the coffee cups down beside the board. The old woman turned. Looked at the cups first, then at Stina. Her face was weathered but her grey eyes were sharp.

“Polizei, huh?” Klimala’s lips crinkled into a maybe smile.

Stina hovered, thrown off by her directness. “Is it that obvious, Frau Klimala?”

The old woman shrugged. “The suit? The haircut? The presumption? Who else could it be?”

“Fair enough,” Stina said. “Can I sit down?”

Klimala’s eyes narrowed, then she gestured at the board. “Do you play?”

“I’ve just a few questions…”

“Do. You. Play?”

“…and it’ll only take ten minutes of your time, I promise.”

“Detective whatever-your-name-is. People come here for chess, not chit chat. If you sit, you play. If you don’t play, you can fuck off.”

Stina sighed, reminding herself that she’d chosen this theatre of engagement. So be it. Her Oma had divulged the principles of chess when Stina was very small and they’d often played on rainy afternoons during summer visits. It had been a long time but she was fairly sure she remembered them. “Fine.” She sat down. “And it’s Detective Wolter.”

“Good.” Klimala didn’t bother to suppress her supercilious smile. “White goes first.”

“I know.” Stina instantly regretted the snap in her reply. She had to stay professional.

 Klimala laughed like a goose, her teeth bared in glee at so easily needling her opponent. Without looking, Stina pinched the round head of a pawn between thumb and finger—she didn’t even register which pawn, one of the middle ones, it didn’t matter—and clipped it down on the next square up. Her eyes were locked with Klimala’s.

“As I said, I have questions.”

Klimala held up her hands. Her fingers were knobbed with arthritis and trembling. “Oh, go on then, ask your questions.” The words wheezed like air from a burst balloon, as if what little reserves of defiance she’d possessed were already spent.

Stina realised how wary she’d been of this confrontation, but now doubt sidled in. If she was wrong about this, all she might really be doing was harassing a frail old woman. Was her hunch really that strong? She looked away. To the dowdy sparrow pecking for crumbs under an adjacent table. To the WatchNet bee drowsing above the balustrade, one of millions supposedly making life safer for people now. The security of mass public surveillance. Anyone could be watching through its eyes right at that moment. Maybe even her colleagues back at the Inspectorate. All gathered round and having a good chuckle.

Stina cleared her throat and returned her attention to the woman across the table. “Albert Vogel,” she said. “My questions are about him.”

Klimala was scowling at the board. Then with a tiny shake of the head she made her own opening move. “What about him?” she said. “What do I know? I know he’s dead. That’s what I told the last of your lot who came around asking questions.”

“You don’t sound very sorry,” Stina said. “You played chess against him most days. Wasn’t he your friend?”

“No, he wasn’t my friend.” Klimala lifted her cup, took a slurp and winced. Too hot? Too sweet? Had Stina got the coffee wrong? “He was merely my opponent.”

“You didn’t like him, then?”

“We played chess.” Klimala indicated the tables around them, the boards set out. When Stina had arrived one had been occupied by a dapper gentleman, collared and tied and sporting studious round glasses. Now he’d been joined by a scruffy student type. With barely a few words exchanged they were shaking hands, ready to begin a game. “People don’t come here to make friends. They come just to play.” Klimala nodded at their own board. “It’s your go again.”

“And how long did your rivalry with Herr Vogel last?” Stina moved the pawn another square, eliciting a tut from her opponent. “The café owner said you pair were at it when her mother was a girl.”

Klimala scowled in the direction of the open café door. “Janssen said that? I wouldn’t pay too much attention. She’s just in a bad mood because of the grilling you lot gave her.”

Stina shrugged. “Albert had a drug in his system that caused his heart to fail. We had to be sure he didn’t ingest it in his coffee.”

“Of course he didn’t,” Klimala growled. “Anyway, yes, Vogel and I played a lot.”

“I ask again, how long…?”

“I don’t know an exact date,” Klimala said, but then she clamped her lips together and stared at the board meaningfully until Stina made another move. A different pawn this time. Then Klimala nodded and continued. “But I do know how many matches we played.”

“Really?” Stina was surprised. “How many?”

“Seven thousand and fourteen.”

It was all Stina could do not to gape. In her notes she’d estimated the rivalry to have gone back perhaps a decade but they were potentially talking at least double that. Way before WatchNet and the comprehensive datasphere had been established: the very foundation of the criminal evidence chain these days. The AI couldn’t look that far back. “That’s quite a legacy,” she said.

“So, now you see?” Klimala said. “That’s how chess is. It’s a conversation, a rapport you build with every game. It’s not merely a way to pass the time while you get chummy. It’s a thing of value in itself.”

“And yet, it must be impossible not to learn things about your opponent. You’re really saying you knew nothing about Albert Vogel?”

“I know how he played chess.” In a single, swift movement, Klimala’s black knight replaced Stina’s advanced pawn and the captured piece was dropped into a pocket of the voluminous coat. Despite the encumbrance of arthritis, it was done with the deftness of a conjuror. “Which is all I needed or wanted to know about him.”

Stina found the insistence of ignorance hard to swallow, but she moved on. “And who, would you say, won the majority of your games?”

Klimala snorted at that. There was a spark in her eyes. “Albert Vogel didn’t win a single match against me. Not fairly at least.”

Stina had been about to nudge out another pawn. She paused, her hand poised in mid-air. “Are you saying he cheated?”

Klimala’s shrug was a lumpen movement inside her layers. Then she sniffed and pointed at the board. “This is going to be a short conversation if you make that move.”

Stina retracted her hand, thinking about what she’d just heard. It had sounded like Klimala was hinting that she wanted the conversation to go on for longer. For the first time in the game she gave serious thought to her next move, settling eventually on bringing out a knight.

“So, you do this every day?” she said casually and then took a sip of her coffee. She’d let it sit for too long, but even piping hot it wouldn’t have been great. She understood why Klimala had grimaced earlier. The woman who ran the café really had a grudge against the police.

Klimala nodded but didn’t speak. Just moved a pawn.

Stina mirrored the move. “Must be nice to have the time to come out and enjoy a leisurely day playing chess.”

“It’s called retirement,” Klimala grunted. “Aren’t you supposed to focus on the things you enjoy when you retire?”

Stina could have delved deeper there, asked what else the old woman had been doing with her retirement, but she already knew the answer to that. No friends, no late blooming romances. Just here, the food store and occasional trips to the park or the local repertory cinema. A picture was building. “And what did you do before you retired?”

Those deft fingers brought a bishop into play. Stina didn’t think she was going to get an answer to her question, but then she did, and it was carefully worded. “I worked in the diplomatic service.”

Stina nodded, pretended to consider her pieces. “In whose diplomatic service?” she asked quietly.

 When Klimala looked up, the grey eyes were shining with cold humour. An imperceptible shake of the head. Stina advanced her own bishop.

“Is Dimitra Klimala even your real name?”

No answer to that either.

The moves came thick and fast while Stina tried to sift her thoughts into some sort of order. A person’s data should tell you everything about them, and that Dimitra Klimala had impossibly little of it was no accident. She wasn’t some doddery oldster with no clue how the world worked. And she knew full well that she didn’t have to divulge anything unless they charged her. Even then, how little might there be? This woman had gone to great lengths to avoid connections to the world. But everyone needed some kind of connection, didn’t they? The coffees, the chess. It wasn’t a cover. Those were really all she had.

Stina moved a knight and rather pleasingly put Klimala in a fork. “I’ll bet some of those chess games with Albert were close,” she said.

“Of course.” Klimala saved her knight, sacrificing her bishop. “He was a good player.”

Stina took it. “And then?” Her short-lived satisfaction crumbled as Klimala’s next move with the knight forked her back, threatening queen and rook.

“And then he didn’t come for a while.” Klimala said.

“Well, he was convalescing from a heart attack.” Stina saved her queen, watched her rook vanish, and then tried to build again on the other side of the board. “That must have been upsetting.”

“I was…disappointed.” Klimala said it quietly, but Stina heard something in the word. A glittering glimpse of truth. While Klimala took another of Stina’s pawns off the board, Stina pulled up the feed of the bee on the balustrade in her lenses. Saw the old woman’s fingers fretting nervously with the wooden piece before dropping it into her pocket.

And that was when Stina knew how it could have been done. A piece could have been set up on the board at the beginning of the game coated with contact poison. It would have to be a piece that might not be touched until near the end of the match. The king, logically. And after it had been taken, how easy for someone with quick fingers to swap it for an untainted one hidden in that deep pocket, and dispose of it later so that when the pieces were tested no trace would be found. It was like something from an old spy film, but it was possible. Especially for someone who might once have been an old spy.

But why? What was the motive for it?

Then she saw it. Seven thousand games.

“When he came back from his time away, that was when he cheated?” Stina said. “That must have been galling. To have sullied the legacy you’d built between you. All those close matches. His valiant attempts to best you. Your ongoing run against a worthy opponent.”

She looked across the board and saw that Klimala was shivering. No, not that, laughing. Silently, mirthlessly. So hard that tears were welling in the corners of her eyes. The old woman composed herself. “How perceptive. Yes, that’s when he cheated. He moved a rook while I was ordering coffee. He realised almost immediately that he’d moved it into trouble and pulled it back a square. He thought I hadn’t seen, but I see everything.”

“He must have wanted to beat you very badly. After his brush with mortality perhaps he doubted there would be many more opportunities.”

“Ah, you picture Vogel nobly striving for a win in a longstanding friendly rivalry,” Klimala said, and again Stina caught the glitter of truth in her tone. It was sharp and steely. “Well it was that, once. Our matches were…close. But Albert was not an honourable man. He ruined what we had the first time he cheated. He’d been trying to redeem himself ever since.”

 Stina stared at her opponent, then she said, very quietly, “And you weren’t going to let that happen. You beat him over seven thousand times to teach him a lesson, and turned that lesson into a—what was your phrase?—a thing of value. But only to one of you, it turned out. That must have been very galling indeed.”

Klimala’s eyes twinkled but she made no confession, and Stina realised that she could see no way of ever getting one. She studied the board. Most of her pieces were gone now, her options for keeping the game going limited. Out of desperation, she castled.

“Can I ask,” she said, “why you agreed to talk to me?”

“That’s a good question.” Klimala’s hand hovered for a moment then shifted the black queen one square, and it was like a conjuror making her final reveal. Devastatingly impressive. Stina scanned her options but quickly saw that every possible move she made would lead her into mate in the next move or the one after.

“Why? Because as soon as you turned up here today I could tell you were like me. You’re in zugzwang.”

“Zugz…?” Stina frowned. “What is that?”

“Zugzwang is when you have to move but can’t do so without making your position worse.”

Stina’s breath caught as she saw the sudden, glaring truth of it. In the game, in this conversation, in her life. For all her efforts today, what had she really expected to gain from this? To prove to herself that her instincts were still good? Fine, but it had resulted in a lot of conjecture and no evidence. She had nothing to take back to the Super that would justify her seeking override powers on the AI. Nothing but the intuition that screamed that Dimitra Klimala had killed Albert Vogel.

Worse, what she’d done here today just made her look more old fashioned and desperate. If she even tried to make a case, she’d end up sidelined, farmed out until the next round of headcount cuts allowed them to get rid of her. If she said nothing she’d keep her tattered reputation a while longer, but it’d only be a matter of time. Either way, a murder would go unexplained. It was an awful, despairing feeling. Stina would probably never know the hidden details of Dimitra’s life but how precarious must her position have been to balance on its edge, making no move at all, for decades?

And yet, she seemed happy in her limited existence. How was that possible?

“So…” She gently laid her king on the board.

“So.” Her opponent had already begun setting the pieces up again. “You don’t play badly, you know, but you’d improve if you cut out the chit-chat.”

“I suppose,” said Stina. “I’m sorry.”

“You’ll do better next time,” Dimitra said.

Stina laughed at the presumption of the offer, but appreciated how skilfully it had been crafted. Despite everything, she liked this old woman. And besides, what else was she going to do with her time?

“Same time tomorrow, then?” she said. She could come over on her lunch hour, and if anyone happened to be watching on the bees they would see an old woman and a middle-aged one, out of step and off the grid, playing one of the oldest games in the world. But what would really be happening was something else entirely.


A Moment Of Zugzwang was first published in issue 4 of ParSec Magazine.
Reproduced here by kind permission of PS Publishing.