The Express was not the famed original, of course, though it had been replicated in almost perfect detail. San Francisco and San Diego had replaced Chiang Mai and Singapore as the poles of this journey. It was kind of like Disneyland in Anaheim. Even though it wasn't real, the same customers returned again and again. It was all part of the experience, the experience that was Little Bangkok.
Technically a borough of Los Angeles, Little Bangkok had developed its own personality setting it apart from the metropolis. The enclave started humbly in the 20s when an increasing number of refugees fled Siam during the reoccupation by China. Like many immigrants, they chose to live in their new country with people of similar culture and the borough grew in leaps and bounds. American influence was unavoidable and manifested itself in a purely American way -- the reinvention of the neighborhood as a tourist destination. Now offering casino gambling and theater productions just a hair below that of Broadway, the little slice of Siam is a popular getaway for Californians on a muggy Friday evening, especially during the championship season.
The main event tonight was only an amateur bout with limited prize money on the line, but it was an excellent opportunity to scout for new talent. One could never tell where the next Montgomery or Kazimi might emerge and with it the honor of saying, "I was there!", as if the casual fan had any impact on the result one way or another. Still, it was an event, and the passengers left the station at a brisk pace towards the Sushen Square Garden a few blocks down the street.
Inside the arena, three men sat in a luxury box high above the action, yet none took any interest in the competition on the floor. They had bigger things to discuss. Mr. Carr took out his papers and slid them across the table.
"Three years at five hundred thousand dollars each, a million dollar signing bonus, plus fifty thousand dollar incentive bonuses for reaching certain levels of games played, wins, trophies, etc.," he said.
Quinn Mallory stared at the document, absently flipping through the pages until he reached the dotted line.
"So what do you say?" Carr smiled.
Quinn was prepared to let his pen do the talking for him.
What if you could slide into a thousand different worlds?
Where it's the same year...and you're the same person...but everything else is different?
And what if you can't find your way home?
Earlier that evening...
Still two matches away from tonight's main attraction, the Sushen Square Garden had nearly filled its seating capacity of seventy-three hundred. A standing room only crowd of just over eight thousand was expected before the night was over, and they would be entertained. Thus far they had not been disappointed by the performance taking place on the floor, where a teacher and his student were engaged in a struggle to the bitter end.
"Surely you see the futility in this, Mr. Mallory. You cannot possibly survive," the Professor solemnly declared.
"I have a few tricks left in me," Quinn smirked. He ran the back of his hand across his forehead to clear away the sweat. The building was like a sauna and he'd been inside it far too long.
"The only way you get out of this is if I make a mistake, which I assure you will not come to pass. Spare yourself some dignity and submit."
In the stands, Rembrandt and Wade watched the spectacle unfolding before them. Rembrandt spied the action using a pair of binoculars. Wade nudged him and tried to take them out of his hand. "What's going on?"
Rembrandt brushed her hand away and tried to stay focused on the playing field. "Quinn's up, I think. Man, this is worse than watching tennis. What kind of a world sells out an arena over a game of checkers?"
"Shhhh," the spectators surrounding them hushed. Wade took advantage and pried the binoculars from Remmy. She readjusted the lenses and focused in on her two friends.
The Professor was not bluffing. He held two kings to Quinn's one, a sure-win situation for any experienced player of checkers. A wily player could drag the game out a little while longer in the absence of a three-move repetition rule, but the only rationale for doing so would be to infuriate one's opponent. It lacked class, and since it didn't really matter which one of them advanced, Quinn pulled his last piece from the board.
"I concede," he said to the referee. The referee nodded and motioned that Arturo was the victor.
"White wins!" the loudspeaker announced to the roar of the seven thousand in attendance. The Professor stood up and saluted the crowd, which responded with an ovation. Roses fell to his feet. As Arturo stooped down to pick them up, a woman's undergarment flew past his ear.
"At least they're not throwing room keys," Quinn mumbled. "Well played, Professor."
"Good showing, my boy," Arturo said, grasping Quinn's hand. "You were a formidable challenge."
"Just be thankful we weren't playing chess. I'd have run you out of the building," Quinn laughed.
"Do I detect the taste of sour grapes, Mr. Mallory?"
"No, it's just...checkers? Come on," Quinn said.
"General Ulysses S. Grant credited much of his military success to the game of checkers," countered Arturo. "Plato made use of the game as metaphor. Napoleon..."
"OK, OK, I get it."
"Besides, who are we to speak ill of the game that will net us fifty thousand dollars?" Arturo said with a gleam in his eye. "Finally we have found a way to utilize our considerable abilities to earn money without resorting to hairnets and aprons."
"It's not won yet. You still have one match to go," Quinn tempered.
"A formality, Mr. Mallory. A mere formality. Once the cash is in hand, it will justify the week spent in this tourist nightmare."
Rembrandt and Wade, who had made their way down from the stands, joined the two on the sidelines. Rembrandt took Arturo's hand and congratulated him on the match. "Nice work, Professor. Next time could you do it in under an hour? My neck's killing me."
"I'll pay for the masseuse on the next world, Mr. Brown," Arturo said.
"You're on. Listen, I'm going to cut out for awhile. I promised Donna I'd meet her for her break," Rembrandt said. "Wade, you coming with?"
"Yeah," she said, giving the Professor a victory hug. "We'll be back for your big match though."
"I've got a loser's bracket fight to take care of before the Professor's up. I'll try and make short work of him so you don't have to spend much down time," Quinn said.
"Take your time, my boy, take your time. I shall let my opponent engage in idle fantasies of victory for a little while longer," he laughed. "Ah, I see I am needed back on the floor. Good luck, Quinn, and I shall see you all back here for the final game of the night."
A tournament official led Arturo back to the locker rooms. As they departed, the three sliders overheard Arturo shout something indignantly over "weigh-ins."
The sign in front of the Chameleon's Lair announced Donna Summers would be performing exclusively inside for the duration of the week. She was not to be confused with the disco queen Donna Summer of their homeworld although they appeared to be roughly the same age. Name aside, it was clear she was still a marketable commodity as not a table was free inside of the club.
At the moment she was belting out a cover of an R&B hit from the early 90s, although her take on it was stripped of the keyboards and drum machines that originally plagued the tune. The lyrics were pretty much all that was recognizable in the sultry performance now taking place on stage. From his table up front, Rembrandt looked on entranced. Wade had to wave her hand in front of his eyes to break his concentration.
"What did you say?" he said, suddenly aware Wade had been talking to him.
"I said she seems really nice," Wade repeated for the third time.
"Oh yeah, yeah," Rembrandt agreed.
"You always seem to meet people on each world."
"I am a well known entertainer. It's hard to keep a low profile."
"That's not what I'm talking about," Wade said with a half-smile. "I mean, even though we're sometimes only in one place for a few days, you manage to find a date."
"I made a career out of my charm, sweetheart. I've worked long and hard at it," Rembrandt smiled.
"You don't work at all. You just go up to some woman, say something like, 'Can I buy you a taco?' and they follow you back every time," Wade said to Rembrandt's laughter.
"Girl, there's more in the Cryin' Man's play book than Mexican food. And why am I the socialite? You do pretty well yourself."
"If you say so."
"Oh no? Who's turned down more wedding proposals than you?" Rembrandt said. "You're three ahead of the rest of us combined since we started sliding. Well, maybe two ahead."
"Those were bizarre circumstances," Wade dismissed. "I just wish I could go up to people and do what you're able to do. I wasn't too successful with the last guy I threw myself at."
"Yeah, well he had other things on his mind at the time."
"All I'm saying is you make it look easy." The roar of the crowd drowned Wade out. Rembrandt too jumped to his feet to applaud the end of the song, shouting encouragement in between whistles. The forty something year old singer slinked off the stage and into Rembrandt's waiting arms.
"You were wonderful," he said, giving her a kiss. After a few seconds, Wade felt compelled to look away until the two disengaged from each other.
"Thanks, baby," she returned. "I sang that last number especially for you."
"I was hoping you'd say that," Remmy said. "Can I buy you a drink?"
"I've only got a few minutes 'til the next set," she said.
"You two sit down. I'll take care of it," Wade said, getting to her feet. Three was a crowd on any dimension.
The twitchy man across from Quinn repeatedly tapped the nail of his middle finger against his front teeth while he studied the board. He'd used his full time allotment for each move thus far, so there was no reason to expect he wouldn't do the same now, even though he was staring at a mandatory jump. Quinn should have been using the time to his advantage as well, but just couldn't see the value in it. Virtually every checker was still in play.
The game was treated with considerable reverence. The opening moves were actually announced over the public address system, the crowd cheering, gasping or booing. This struck Quinn as ridiculous as there were only seven available moves at the start of any game: four checkers in the front row, three with the option of going left or right, and a fourth that could only move right. It wasn't like chess where there were twenty opening gambits, a few of which left the board with a strong piece on the front line. Here all pieces were equal, and none were getting any further than the row in front of it. Yet even these seven innocuous moves all had names. If the end checker opened right, it was called an Edinburgh. If it went left, the play was a Double Corner. They also had varying strengths and weaknesses ranging from the strong Cross, also known as Old Faithful, down to the weak Edinburgh. True to form, Quinn had fallen into the habit of randomly pushing one forward and then relying on his wits to carry him through the match.
Mr. Twitch's finger now hovered over the board, dancing just above the pieces. Once you touched a checker you were forced to play it, so maybe this was his way of appearing daring. That was easy enough to do considering he had only one move available to him. He finally settled on the checker residing in square eleven and made the jump over Quinn's checker in square fifteen, landing in immediate peril at square eighteen. Quinn had a pair of white pieces on either side, one of which would dispose of Mr. Twitch's game piece. He retrieved Quinn's checker and tapped his clock to officially end his turn.
The PA system didn't have time to announce the move before Quinn grabbed the checker from the third square of his third row (square twenty-three) and jumped to square fourteen. The crowd shouted in surprise at such a quick and decisive maneuver, some leaping to their feet in applause. Quinn picked up his opponent's checker and stacked it in the small pile in front of him. "Your move," he sighed, anticipating another five minute wait.
The slight man rapped his fingers upon the edge of the table, taken aback by Quinn's unrelenting assault. Quinn leaned back in his chair and stared up at the rafters, an action that caused a considerable buzz from the paying customers. That they should get so excited over two men playing a sedentary game was a source of considerable amusement to Quinn. He could only imagine the cries if the two were playing Battleship. The carrier's been hit! The carrier's been hit! People fainting in the aisles... Quinn snapped out of his daydream and made sure his opponent hadn't moved. No worries there. Still three and a half minutes of time available and he knew damn well that Mr. Twitch would use it all. Plenty of time to reflect upon how he got here in the first place.
They had arrived five days earlier, sliding into the botanical gardens of Little Bangkok's Empire Hotel. Needless to say, any hotel housing its own garden was way out of their price range, so they'd settled into a Motel 12 chain in the heart of the tourist district. Not long afterwards Arturo returned to the room with a flyer in hand.
"The 37th annual Amateur Checkers Championship is taking place this week not five blocks from here," he declared.
"That's fascinating, Professor," Rembrandt said, not looking away from the television. "Maybe we can also take in a paint drying contest."
"I don't plan on watching it, Mr. Brown, but participating in it. Entry is open to all unranked players. The tournament is single elimination and runs through Saturday so it will be complete before the slide. And with fifty thousand dollars at stake, I say it's a worthy investment of time," he smiled.
"Fifty thousand dollars?" Wade repeated. "You really think you can win it?"
"My dear child, I have been playing draughts since I was a boy. For me, playing checkers with eight fewer pieces per side is akin to Michael Jordan playing against a single opponent. And who knows? I may have strategies that this world has never seen."
"In checkers? How many strategies can there be?" scoffed Quinn.
"You think you could defeat me?" Arturo snapped back.
"I'd say there's a fifty-fifty chance. It depends on who goes first," Quinn smirked.
"Then I suggest you put your money where your mouth is and enter the tournament with me," Arturo challenged.
"Woah, woah, woah. Who said anything about money?" Rembrandt asked.
"There's a nominal fee to join," Arturo said.
"How nominal?" Rembrandt pressed.
"One hundred dollars," Arturo mumbled.
"Professor, we can't afford to throw two hundred dollars away. As treasurer, I'm afraid I can't allocate the funds," Rembrandt said.
"Oh come on! We allowed Miss Welles to compete in a beauty contest where there was no prize money on the line at considerable expense! And you, Mr. Brown, did I complain when we ran about Los Angeles trying to clear your double of those corruption charges?"
"Bitterly, if I recall," Rembrandt replied.
"Look, all I'm asking is this one indulgence. I can win this tournament. Don't make me grovel," Arturo said.
Rembrandt and Wade smiled at each other. Arturo hung his head. "What will it cost?"
"If you don't win the tournament, you're responsible for paying our way through the next slide—no matter what job you have to do," Wade answered.
"Done," Arturo agreed, confident he'd have more than enough cash on hand by slide's end. "So what do you say, Mr. Mallory? Are you in?"
Quinn was in. Now in his twelfth match, Quinn had beaten through a field of over 2000 competitors in a rapid four-day battle. Initially, the arena was filled with tables as dozens of matches went on simultaneously. Draws were replayed immediately until one competitor emerged victorious. As soon as one game ended, another started up with the winner taking a seat in the bleachers until his or her name was called again. The loser got to go home, their wallets lighter and their egos battered.
Maybe he had a weak bracket, as Arturo suggested, or maybe his skills in chess allowed him to see the board tens of moves in advance without him being aware he was doing it. All Quinn knew was that he had ripped through his competition until the Professor sent him packing. The third place match was a formality as no money was to be won from it. It was up to Arturo to reclaim Quinn's hundred dollars.
Mr. Twitch, having lost enough checkers, played it safe and moved out a piece from his backline. Quinn gave the board a look and formulated a plan to get one of his pieces into the vacated spot. He slid the checker in square twenty to square sixteen, locking up Mr. Twitch's checker on the twelve square and preventing the piece that came out of the backline from advancing any further. It appeared to be a simple safe play, but the audience reacted with a loud whooping.
It didn't take five minutes for Mr. Twitch to realize the gravity of the situation. The light rapping of his fingers ceased and he scowled at his opponent. His eyes darted up and down the board, running the game in fast forward in his head. Now sure of the outcome, he smacked Quinn's captured checkers to the floor in disgust. "A player of your abilities? You'll have me in thirty-four moves. I yield."
And the crowd went wild.
"Two beers and a banana daiquiri?" Elston Diggs asked, trying to find the patron to whom the order belonged. Wade raised her hand and gathered in the drinks. She took a sip off the top of each beer to reduce potential spillage, but let the daiquiri be. It was tough balancing the cocktail glass with the two twenty ounce glasses, and the bustling crowd around the bar only compounded the job. The cocktail glass was about to slip from her grip when a helping hand made the save.
"I got it," the guy said, securing the drink.
He was a young man, probably her own age, she thought. He was fairly attractive with mid-length brown hair and brown eyes to match. His dress wasn't all that fancy or trendy, but neat, and he filled out his 5'8"-5'9" frame well enough.
"Thanks. Someone jostled my arm..."
"Yeah, that was me, I'm sorry," he apologized. "Need a hand with these carrying them to your table?"
"I'm all set, thanks," Wade said, taking the daiquiri back with her fingertips.
"OK. Well, nice to meet you," he said.
"You too." Wade went back to her table, marking where he headed. She noticed he was doing the same.
His name was Donald Carr and he was dressed in an expensive suit. Quinn didn't know an Armani from a Versace, but it was certainly no S&K special. Mr. Carr had approached him shortly after the match and asked for a moment of Quinn's time and he had obliged.
"Congratulations on a fine match. I've been watching the Amateurs for years, and I've never seen Howard Winster concede that early in a game before. You had him beyond rattled," the man in his fifties said as the two took in a drink at the stadium lounge.
"Mr. Twitch? It was nothing really. I didn't even know I had him pinned down," Quinn said.
"Ah, modesty. That's refreshing to see in this day and age. Swagger sells, but it doesn't earn respect. That is unless you can back it up," Carr nodded.
"So what did you want to talk to me about," Quinn cut to the chase.
"I like what I saw out there this week. So much so that I'd like to offer you a contract. Quinn Mallory, how would you like to be the next member of the Los Angeles Kings?" Carr grinned.
Quinn was perplexed. "I don't play hockey."
"Hockey?" repeated Carr. "I'm talking about the LA Kings. The professional checkers team?"
"Oh! The Kings!" covered Quinn. "I thought you said the—the Wings. You know, the hockey—forget it. Forgive me, but why me? I lost. Shouldn't you be trying to sign Maximillian Arturo?"
"Arturo's a fine player. Sound strategy, decent charisma. However, he lacks the flare and style that really jolts the audience," Carr said. "Don't misunderstand me, the Kings care about winning...three conference championships in the last five years are a testament to that, but we also want to keep the fans entertained. No one wants to shell out $40 a seat to see a neutral zone trap played out in the middle of the board.
"Besides, Arturo's only got a few years left in him. You haven't even reached your prime. I could see a long, prosperous career for you in the Kings' organization," Carr concluded.
"The offer sounds tempting, it really does," Quinn said. "It's just I'm not looking to make checkers my profession. I've got commitments elsewhere."
"Would it help if I showed you what our standard signing bonus is?" Carr took out a pen and scrawled the number on a cocktail napkin. One zero, two zeroes, three zeroes -- all the way out to six zeroes. "Interested now?"
Quinn stared wide-eyed at the figure in front of him. "Very."
The Professor was in hot water. A hundred-four degrees, he'd wager. The home locker room he'd been assigned to included a whirlpool. When such luxuries were offered, one would be foolish not to accept. Besides, his match wasn't scheduled to begin for another half-hour. His break would have been longer had Mr. Mallory taken a little more time in disposing his final opponent, he grudgingly noted. Oh well, the boy was gifted. Even when he didn't know what he was doing, he managed to find ways of succeeding. As annoying as that often was, Arturo was glad to have a man of Quinn's remarkable abilities around.
Still, it was somewhat gratifying to have eliminated him personally. Arturo hadn't imagined Quinn would get as far as the final four. Yes, Quinn was an accomplished chess player for an amateur. That didn't assure he'd have similar success in checkers. Though the two games shared the same board and some nomenclature, their game play bore little resemblance to each other. Chess was specialized; checkers was the great equalizer. No piece began the game with any more abilities than those around it. In order to advance, one had to earn it by successfully navigating all obstacles until it reached its goal. Then, and only then, would additional powers be bestowed upon it.
"If only life were more like checkers," he ruminated aloud as the warm water soothed his muscles.
A rapping at the door to the locker room interrupted his meditations. "Mr. Arturo?" a voice asked.
"Yes, come in!" he yelled.
A young woman poked her head in carefully. She saw the Professor was in the whirlpool and held her ground at the door. "I just need to go over some last minute preparations. You, as the challenger, will be announced first. Match play will continue until there is a winner. In the event of a draw, there will be only a two-minute break where you will switch sides and then resume play. Any questions?"
"None at all."
"Very good. We'll need you on the floor in twenty minutes," she said, scribbling something down on her clipboard. "Finally, what would you like for your entrance music?"
Arturo raised an eyebrow. "Entrance music?"
One million dollars. That was the figure scrawled on the cocktail napkin. One million dollars, and this was just the signing bonus! Sign the contract, get a million dollars. No wonder every kid who ever hit a lay-up dreamed of turning pro.
"I don't know what to say," Quinn said, ogling the number. His own sense of justice recoiled at the figure. He was going to be handed seven figures for playing a game, while teachers, firefighters and policemen -- the true backbone of society were making thirty times less? It was outrageous.
Even worse, Quinn couldn't honor the contract. He'd be gone in a day so Kings fans would never get to see their latest acquisition in action. Taking the money was robbery, wasn't it? Then again, if Mr. Carr could afford to throw this kind of cash around after watching Quinn play just a dozen games or so, money likely wasn't an object to him.
A million dollars, in common American currency, would do a world of good for the sliders. He could rebuild the sliding machine from scratch, along with his basement and house! Even if it didn't get them any closer to home, it would sure make sliding a lot more comfortable. No more Motel 12s.
"Say you'll take the deal," Carr said. "The Kings are a world class organization, Quinn. I've been general manager here six years now and our owner cares more about winning than he does making a profit. It's a refreshing change from when I was with Boston. Lousy cheap bastards."
"Uh-huh," Quinn agreed, barely hearing him. His conscience told him to thank Mr. Carr for his time and just walk away. However, this was a chance for him to show that he did put his friends' interests ahead of his own. They'd all take the money, he thought. Rembrandt never looked a gift horse in the mouth. Wade claimed to worry about karma, but that didn't stop her from robbing the Royal Colony Hotel blind when they thought Arturo was the sheriff. As for the Professor, he'd probably take delight that the American entertainment machine was finally working for him, and Quinn knew Arturo had been silently bearing the indignity of unwashed clothes and third rate hotels.
Quinn felt courage well up inside of him, an odd feeling considering what he was about to do. "Where do I sign?"
Carr flashed him a broad smile, fishing for papers in his briefcase. "You're making a wise decision, Quinn. You're going to love being a King. All we need is your agent to sign off and we can wrap this up this evening."
Carr's face dropped. "You don't have an agent?"
Quinn shook his head. "You're a semifinalist in the state's top amateur tournament and you don't have an agent?" Carr repeated. "Wow. You really are straight off the farm. All right. I'll call the players' union and they'll assign you one. With any luck, they'll hand you off to one who's in attendance tonight and we can seal this deal before the Express makes its final trip of the night."
Carr whipped out a cellular phone and placed the call.
"One beer, one banana daiquiri." Wade deposited all three drinks on the table. Donna had taken her seat, so Wade grabbed a rogue chair from a nearby table, sitting down across from them.
"Thanks, sweetie," Donna said, taking a long sip from the cocktail. Wade watched in amazement that Donna didn't spit it back up.
"So Wade, who was that guy you bumped into?" Rembrandt asked, a mischievous smile on his face.
"I don't know. Just some guy," Wade shrugged off.
"I saw you watching him. He was watching you too," Rembrandt said. "You gonna go over and talk to him?"
"Maybe," Wade said, making her best innocent face.
"Oh just go already!" Donna said with a grand wave of her hand. "You're young, he's young. Don't waste your night hanging out with us old geezers."
"You trying to get rid of me?" Wade smiled.
"Just have some fun. You're in Little Bangkok, honey. Ain't no one gonna think less of you here," Donna said. "Mm, damn, I got to get back on stage."
She downed the rest of her daiquiri and straightened her cocktail dress back out. "I'll see you later," she said to Rembrandt, giving him a quick kiss. Pointing at Wade, she said, "And you, I'd better not see you sitting here all night unless you got a man on your arm and Remmy doesn't count. He's all mine."
Wade gave a feeble wave as Donna sashayed her way back to the stage. "That's some woman you found, Rembrandt."
"That she is," Rembrandt smiled. He'd met her some four days earlier when he'd come to the Lair to wrangle as much information about this world as he could from Diggs. Bartenders usually made a trade out of listening; Diggs was just the opposite. Get him started on a topic and he'd tell you everything you'd ever want to know. Rembrandt's topic of choice was the woman performing on stage and Diggs was up to the challenge.
For example, there was a time when she could draw more than a club's cover charge. In the mid-80s, she caught a break in the aftermath of Whitney Houston's big debut. The record companies were gobbling up every and any woman who could belt out a soulful tune. She picked up three top 40 singles and her debut album went platinum. Her star faded rapidly as the Janet Jacksons and Paula Abduls came to dominate the scene, forcing the older women to the sidelines. Ms. Summers had aged very gracefully, Rembrandt noted, and decided it would be worth his while to meet a fellow artist.
Wade had mercilessly derided him when he revealed his latest fling's name. "It's Donna Summers, not Donna Summer," he argued in the suite of the Motel 12. "Summers isn't even her last name. It's just a stage name she happened to choose some twenty years ago."
"Looks like Remmy's found himself some hot stuff," she chided.
"Very funny," Rembrandt said, tongue in cheek.
"So you met her at Diggs' place, huh?" Wade asked innocently.
"Yeah, she's performing there all this week."
"I bet she works hard for the money," Wade deadpanned.
"I'm not talking to you," Remmy said, heading into the other room.
"Oh come on, Remmy! Tell me more, more, more!"
"That's the Andrea True Connection!" he yelled back as Wade collapsed on the couch laughing.
Now the shoe was on the other foot, and revenge would be sweet. "You heard Donna, girl. Why don't you go talk to the guy?"
Wade hedged as she took a sip of beer. "Maybe later."
"Well if you're not going to bring him over, I guess I'll just have to go introduce myself then," Rembrandt said, feigning his getting up from the table. Wade practically jumped from her seat to sit him back down.
"Come on, Wade, what have you got to lose?"
"Dignity, for starters," Wade said. "Look, we slide tomorrow. There's no time to start anything."
"Well, if you take that approach, there will never be time. We're only given a week or so on each world, you have to make the most of the time you're given," Rembrandt advised.
"I'm just not as comfortable with the one slide stand as you are."
"Hey, hey, what's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing!" Wade said, realizing how bad that last comment sounded. "It's just you're a guy. It's different. Different for me anyway. I'm not the kind of girl who just walks up to a guy and leaves her room key behind. I want something more. With sliding and moving on every few days, I can't get what I want."
"Wade, no one's saying you have to take this boy home, although if you wanted to that's your decision," Rembrandt said.
Wade leaned in closer. "Don't you...worry?"
"Worry about what?"
"You know, diseases."
"I am not having this conversation with you," Rembrandt shook his head.
"I'm serious, Remmy. I worry about you. There are so many terrible things out there that we do know of, and now out here, there are god knows how many we don't know of. Brand new ones, even worse than..."
"Wade, Wade, I think you're overanalyzing this," Rembrandt said, rubbing his forehead.
"Sorry, I'm sure you use protection."
"Sorry, sorry," she said. "You're probably right. It's just it's hard enough dealing with guys back home. At least you know where they're coming from."
"Girl, there's one constant you can depend on every world we've visited. You can always tell where a man's coming from," he smiled.
"We should get back to the arena for the Professor's match," Wade said.
"I think we've watched more than enough checker games for one week. Besides, our seats are so bad, he won't even notice we're not there. We'll just show up at the end," Rembrandt argued. Looking not quite so innocent, he drummed his fingers on the table. "So, what will we do until then?"
Rembrandt wasn't going to let her back down, and in a way, she was glad he hadn't. Wade took a deep pull from her beer. "OK, I'll do it. But I'm just going to talk to him, nothing more," she said. "Well, maybe a little more."
Rembrandt gave her a broad grin and raised his drink. Wade got up, taking her beer with her, mumbling witty introductory lines to herself.
At the sound of his name, the Professor strode out of the arena corridor and on to the main stage, the sounds of "God Save the King" accompanying him. It seemed an appropriate choice given the game about to be played, but he was immediately greeted by deafening boos. Concerned, Arturo quickened his pace, striding to the table in the middle of the floor.
"Are they always this hostile to the challenger?" he asked the referee.
"Only to those who openly spit in their face. There are still some very hard feelings in this city over the British involvement in Siam. You'd do well to remember that when you leave the arena tonight," he warned.
"Now you tell me!" Mortified, Arturo took his seat.
"And now, ladies and gentlemen, the defending champion, Amy Fichaud!" The hisses turned to cheers as Miss Fichaud came sprinting out of the corridor to the Breeders' "Cannonball."
"She's the champion?" Arturo questioned. "Why, that girl can't be more than seventeen years old!"
"Exactly," the referee nodded. "You're not allowed to turn pro until the age of eighteen. Why else would she still be competing at amateur level?"
Fichaud was even smaller than Wade. She was dressed in baggy pants and a sleeveless top, her red and blue streaked hair tied back in a loose ponytail. Arturo rose from his seat as she approached, but she wasn't having any of it.
"Take a seat, Professor. School's in session."
The Orient Express had made its last delivery of the night when three men gathered in the luxury box of Donald Carr, high above the action on the floor. None took any interest in the competition below them. They had bigger things to discuss.
"Three years at five hundred thousand dollars each, a million dollar signing bonus, plus fifty thousand dollar incentive bonuses for reaching certain levels of games played, wins, trophies, etc.," Carr said as he placed the contract in front of Quinn. "So what do you say?"
Quinn stared at the document, absently flipping through the pages until he reached the dotted line. He uncapped his pen.
"Unacceptable," the man beside him said. This was Mr. Mark Frost, Quinn's appointed agent. Mr. Frost had also been in attendance throughout the week and was familiar with Quinn's performance. The agent was beginning to show signs of balding, but compensated by plastering what hair was there to his head in a slick. The pinstripes of his suit creased as he reached into his briefcase with a counterproposal.
"Now, Mr. Frost, Quinn and I already agreed to this deal in principle before you were brought in. Your presence is a courtesy to the union," Carr said, polite but cold.
"My presence here is pursuant to the last collective bargaining agreement which mandates an agent be present for all contracts, a stipulation introduced expressly to prevent backdoor arrangements such as this," Frost said. He removed a new contract and dropped it down upon the desk. "Now, I propose the standard agreement for all first-year players."
Carr picked up the contract, but he knew exactly what was inside it. "You're crazy if you think I'm going to give the maximum three million limit reserved for first rounders to a twenty-four year old off the street. If he's so good, how come Central Scouting overlooked him all these years?"
"Well, I didn't actually start playing until this week," Quinn said.
"You hear that? He's a modern-day Roy Hobbs," Frost pointed out. "And that's exactly how I'll market him."
"He's undrafted, Mark," Carr reiterated.
"All the more reason to pay up. Because he's gone undrafted, Quinn is an unrestricted free agent, his services up for the highest bidder. I'm already received interest from the Vancouver Chinooks and they're prepared to offer the max," Frost countered.
"Yeah, in Canadian dollars!" Carr scoffed. "Besides, with their tax rate, he'd be taking home less than he would if he just signed the deal on the table."
"You can't be lowballed into taking a bad deal just because they're your home team," Frost told him.
"No, really. I want to play for the Kings. Money's not an object," Quinn insisted.
Frost removed his glasses and wiped the lenses with his handkerchief. "Quinn, this deal isn't just about you. It's about all the young players who will follow you. If I let you take this deal, it sets bad precedent for the rest of the league, particularly if you go out and have a monster season. During arbitration, other general managers will be able to point to your stats and say, 'You think your guy is worth more than Quinn Mallory?'"
"Yeah, you were only thinking about yourself, weren't you, Quinn? But there are other guys who need to feed their families too."
"Feed them what? Bricks of gold? We're still talking millions of dollars!" Quinn argued.
Frost paid him no heed and pushed the Kings' contract away from Quinn and back to Carr's side of the desk. "I'm afraid we have nothing more to discuss. You have our offer. Think it over," Frost said as he stood to take his leave. He beckoned Quinn to follow.
Quinn looked back and forth between Carr and Frost. Resigned that nothing was going to happen, Quinn numbly got up as well. They were halfway across the room before Carr said, "Wait. Maybe we can budge a little on the incentive clauses."
Frost smiled and returned to the bargaining table, Quinn shaking his head the entire walk back.
The champion looked down at the board, snapping her gum in an ever so distracting fashion. "That's an interesting defense you got there, pops. What do you call it? The Red Sea?"
The comment was in reference to the gridlock of red checkers Arturo had piled up in the middle of the board. "A captured piece can not be played," he said.
"Neither can one stuck in an elbow," she retorted.
"If you could just make your move without the commentary, it would be much appreciated," Arturo tersely replied.
The young woman had been nattering on since the opening move. As the challenger, he had been assigned the red pieces. Arturo began with the standard 11-15 opening, widely recognized as the best possible move.
"Old Faithful. There's a surprise," she said with a roll of her eyes. She declined the usual counter of connecting a line between the two sides, opting instead to shut off the left side of the board to advancement. So he played it conservatively, exchanging a few pieces in the middle while moving the second line into the neutral zone. "You know, they're not going to line dance for you," she snickered.
Amy now pushed a checker into the kill zone setting up a mandatory jump for the Professor. It was a curious move as there was no corresponding piece to jump his once he made it. She was actually giving him bridge position on her backline. That's why he didn't see the true counter punch coming. It wasn't his lead checker she was after, it was the space it opened up by departing. As soon as he completed the move, one of her pieces jumped out of the logjam, taking two of Arturo's checkers out on its way into his defensive zone.
"Looks like the seas just parted."
As the midnight hour came on, the Chameleon's Lair remained in full swing. Donna had since abandoned the stylings of Roberta Flack and had moved on to the more dance friendly sounds of the Miami Sound Machine. Her backup band proved equally versatile and soon she had nearly everyone on their feet, so to speak.
Wade and her new friend exited the dance floor after a particularly grueling conga line, led by none other than the proprietor himself. Diggs cut a mean swath through the club, promising half price Barbados Breezes for all who got up and shook their behinds. Blue cocktails now sat on every other table, including the one Wade was seated at.
"If you told me this morning I'd be out dancing the night away, I'd have laughed in your face," the young man said genially.
"It's cause you have a good partner," Wade smiled. That wasn't exactly true. Wade's dance floor skills left a lot to be desired. She'd said as much when she asked him on to the floor. His initial response was "I don't dance" to which she responded, "Neither do I." But they had had fun and broken the ice, win-win as far as Wade was concerned.
"Are you on vacation?" he asked her.
"I am. I'm sure it shows too. A couple of buddies came down from San Francisco for the weekend to check out the tourney. I came more for the experience," he said.
"Me too, on all of the above."
It turned out the two went to the same high school, although it was apparent her double, assuming there was one, had not. Yet they knew the same people and it was good to hear what they were up to, parallel dimensions and all.
"You're kidding? Janie's an exotic dancer?" Wade repeated. "She was first clarinet in the band!"
"What can I say? She was a late bloomer," he laughed. "You know what else? She told me she makes nearly twice as much doing this than she did filling out invoices at the cable company."
"And what's your line of work, seeing as you hang out with Janie?" Wade chided.
"Hey, Janie just happened to work the bachelor party for Zach Phillips," he said, hands in the air. "I live the good wholesome life working the IT desk for Solomon and Co. They're an accounting firm, a few blocks down from the Transamerica building."
"I've heard of it," Wade said. "The firm, I mean."
"Obviously," he said. "How about you? For whom do you toil?"
"I'm in between jobs right now. The last full time position I had was selling computers at a chain store," she said.
"No kidding! Which one? I was doing the same thing a few years back at Doppler down by the mall."
"Huh. That's so weird. You must have left just as I was starting," Wade hedged.
"I guess so," he said, taking a sip from the blue breeze. "All right, this is going to sound stupid as I've been talking to you for the last half hour, but in all the excitement, I never got your name."
She smiled and extended her hand. "Hi, my name is Wade."
He took her hand, a perplexed grin on his face. "That's absolutely amazing."
"I know it's an unusual name for a girl," Wade nodded.
"No, no, that's not it at all. My name's also Wade," he said.
"You wouldn't happen to be Wade Welles?" she asked, laughing.
"Then you have heard of me," he said.
Wade pulled her hand back. "Oh my god."
The fans were on him now. All rules of tact had gone out the window and he could hear the catcalls begin as soon as he was down to his final minute. Initially he had complained, but learned that fans were now allowed to jeer the players after four minutes. "One of the ongoing efforts to speed up the game," the referee explained.
His adversary had captured seven of his pieces to her six and both had one king roaming. His entire backfield had been decimated by a kamikaze attack launched against it.
"You can't leave those four checkers there forever," she'd said. When attacking the backline, it was common practice to set up a checker as a bridge. The bridge checker would sit two rows back from the final row and allow allied pieces to slip through, thus preventing the backline checkers from jumping them. Rather then set the bridge with her first checker into the defensive zone, she sent it straight in on Arturo's defenses, forcing him to choose which hole he would open up.
"Your impatience will be your undoing," Arturo said, removing her checker. "Probably a consequence of being weaned on Mountain Dew commercials."
"At least they had TV when I was a kid," Amy replied, setting up a potential double jump. It was preventable, so long as he moved another piece out of his end zone to prevent the second jump and eliminate her attacking checker. In just two moves, she had effectively ruined his defensive strategy.
Now down by a piece, it was imperative he even out the casualties. He could send his king in against her from behind, but at the price of advancing his weaker checkers down the board. His advantage was that a bridge protected his king, so it could escape the back row. Hers was not. If it moved, it would be jumped. However, sacrificing the king would still leave the game fairly even and Arturo's defense would be nonexistent. Her remaining checkers would be able to waltz right in.
Thirty seconds until his move. The decision made here would dictate his endgame. There was just so much on the line. There was the indignity of being defeated by a punk teenager, naturally. The ribbing he'd receive for that alone was incentive enough to succeed. Of course, there was the money. It was important to him to use this opportunity to contribute his fair share. He did not like the feeling of being supported by the others. If they were home, his earnings would be enough to match the three of them combined—maybe two of them. Though it was Quinn's invention, the Professor was still the elder statesman of the group and it was incumbent upon him to provide for them. He would not let the brass ring slip when it was so close to his grasp.
Arturo moved his king out of the backline, its mission to send Miss Fichaud's forces scurrying in its wake. In turn, Amy sacrificed her king. The remainder of the game would be played in the wide open.
"You!" Wade pointed an accusing finger at Rembrandt. "This was your idea."
"What? Did he turn out to be a stiff?" Rembrandt asked.
"No! He turned out to be me!"
"What are you talking about?"
"You know, as Quinn is to Logan, so Wade is to Wade?"
Rembrandt did a double take, looking at Wade then across the room at the male Wade. "You and him? Haha. Damn, girl, you make a pretty good looking man."
"That's not funny!" Wade said, dropping into a seat beside Rembrandt. "Oh my god, I can't believe I hit on myself. What did Quinn do in this situation?"
"Is that before or after Logan tried to kill us all?"
"This is so your fault."
"My fault? How was I to know he was you?"
"Only us, Remmy. No one else has to worry about these things," she said, banging her head lightly against the table.
"Look on the bright side. At least now you know what your male double looks like. You won't make the same mistake again," he chuckled, doing little to comfort her. "I'm surprised you have the same name."
"My father was hell-bent on naming one of his children after his grandfather. Kelly was a girl, so dad decided my name would be Wade either way. And who are you to talk, Rembrandt."
"Don't take it out on me, girl," he said, his mirth undeterred by the shot at him. "So what are you going to do?"
"What else am I going to do? I'm getting out of here," Wade said, grabbing her coat.
"Woah, woah, you just going to leave yourself hanging?"
"I can't tell him the truth! And it's just too creepy to hang around. What if he tries to kiss me?" she shuddered. "If he comes over here, tell him there was an emergency back at the hotel and that I hope to see him around back home. Meet you at the arena?"
Rembrandt nodded, a wide smile still on his face. Wade shook her head and muttered "all your fault" as she headed for the door.
The jackets were off and the ties were loosened in the luxury box of Donald Carr. "Let me get this straight. You want a $100,000 bonus for merely appearing in ten matches? Doesn't the base contract essentially compensate Quinn for showing up?"
"The base contract is really nothing more than a retainer," Quinn's agent argued. "All it does is prevent him from playing for an opponent."
"That's a new interpretation," Carr growled.
"The boundaries are ever changing, Donald. You need to change with the times. We're not back in 1970 when you were riding the buses from Oakland to Winnipeg."
"In my playing days, we were overjoyed to be making $50,000. We'd go out there with flus, migraines and did you ever hear one of us complain? No, because we knew how good we had it. We were getting paid good money doing something we loved. Today, if a player has so much as a sniffle, his agent wants him to have the night off."
"So long as you're charging $50 a ticket for upper bowl seating, I don't think you should cry poverty," Frost returned.
"That's it," Quinn stood up and grabbed his coat.
"Where are you going?" Carr asked.
"It's obvious you don't need me here for the negotiations. You're going to do what you want regardless of my interests. I'm heading back to the stands to watch the finals. Call me when you need my signature, assuming you just won't sign for me," he said.
He walked out the door knowing he'd be sliding out of this world in no better shape than he was when he arrived.
A final round of applause went up for Donna Summers at the Chameleon's Lair, and the patrons were informed they could see Ms. Summers next weekend at the Plucky Pirate Pavilion in Long Beach with a "So long and good night!"
Rembrandt was still seated at his table when she emerged from the changing room out back. "I see your friend is gone. Did she find herself a Mr. Right?"
He chuckled at that. "Oh, she found herself—it just wasn't what she had in mind. I should be getting back too. The match must be nearly over."
"Stay just a little while longer," she said, taking a seat beside him. "Did she tell you what went wrong?"
"It's hard to explain. They both had the same name, Wade got kinda freaked, oh well."
Donna cuddled in closer. "We have the same name and you don't see me running."
"My maiden name's Brown," she said, rubbing her hand on his thigh. "Donna Brown just doesn't have that ring to it like Donna Summers."
"Mm-hmm. Even Donna's a nickname, short for Donnatella."
"Wait a minute. Your real name is Donnatella Brown?" Rembrandt said, suddenly uneasy.
"As in Donatello, the painter. My mother was all into these fancy names. She named my poor brother Cézanne. He was called Susie until he was fifteen years old," she said, moving in to kiss his ear.
Rembrandt's eyes went wide with shock.
Three red checkers and two white ones remained on the table. Of the red, two were kings. The remaining checker would have to scurry nearly the entire length of the board. For the white, two kings remained in play and they had good positioning against red. Arturo immediately recognized what is known as the Third Position. The advantage was his, but a single mistake on his part would result in a draw and they'd have to start all over again.
"Payne's Draw," he said softly. Miss Fichaud didn't appear to hear him. She was now a lot quieter than she'd been an hour ago. The crowd had also been silenced. Despite its contempt for the challenger, the knowledgeable fans recognized a good game when they saw one. Allegiances began to shift toward Arturo as a victory for him would allow them to return home to their sitters, who were struggling to stay awake through the back-end Saturday Night Live sketches.
"Seeing as it's way past your bedtime, I'll allow you to concede now. You wouldn't want to sleep through your morning cartoons," Arturo taunted, his confidence growing.
"Bite me," Amy stoically replied.
"Very well. Defend yourself." The top priority was to get that third piece to the opposite end. With three kings to her two, she would be forced to concede. There was no way she'd let that checker through without a fight.
Amy danced around in her end zone until Arturo's single checker reached the midpoint of the board. He had come up the edge, so she needed only to leave a king hovering along the left side of her board to prevent it from advancing any further. With her remaining piece, she'd need to play keep away from the other two kings.
Both sides repeated moves, feeling each other out. Amy dropped back a bit, opening up a bit of room for Arturo to use. "I'm not falling for a 10-14 move while I'm bottled up high," he said, aggressively charging after her king. She slipped back into her former defensive shell.
"What's he doing?" Quinn whispered to Wade, from their seats high up above.
"They're just going back and forth. Every time Arturo can jump her, she backs away. He can't pin her down," she said.
"Can I see?" he said, reaching for the binoculars.
"Knock yourself out. This one's ending in a draw," Wade said, handing them over.
Arturo's lead king retreated back into his right hand corner. "You can't send a king in for a pit stop," Amy scoffed.
"I am merely regrouping, Miss Fichaud," he said, shifting it back and forth between the two corner squares. With Arturo's king out of the picture, Amy returned to the offense. Two kings against only one king and an immobile piece were good odds. She swung her second king around for the attack.
Arturo smiled. So did Quinn in the stands. "He's got her now," he said, returning the binoculars to Wade. "Watch this."
With Amy's two kings lined up in squares twenty-two and twenty-five, Arturo moved his unkinged piece into the line of fire. Amy looked up at him, unsure of what was going on. He was just feeding her a checker. "You want a two on two fight? You got it."
"No, Miss Fichaud, I want a one on one fight," Arturo said, sliding his other king in front of hers. The jump would take her straight into the king Arturo had pulled back, leaving them each with one king when the smoke cleared. Amy's lone checker was caught too deep in the board. It wouldn't be able to reach the safety of the double corners.
"Red Wins!" The referee declared to a thunderous ovation. The Professor leapt to his feet and pumped his arms in victory.
To her credit, Amy was gracious in defeat, taking his hand and giving him a kiss on the cheek. "You did good ... for an old guy."
"You played excellent as well ... for a delinquent," he graciously replied.
Quinn and Wade made their way down and joined in the congratulations. Wade gave him a big hug, "I'm so happy for you!"
"Thank you, my dear," he said, beaming with pride. He took Quinn's hand and shook it vigorously. "Well, my boy, losing to the champion is far more satisfying then losing to the runner-up, eh?"
"Smooth finishing move, Professor, you pulled her right in," Quinn said with a smirk.
"Youth is always impetuous. So eager to jump in, whereas a little patience would serve them well."
"You don't have to remind me of that."
"Hey, hey! Look at the big winner!" Rembrandt said after he made his way through the departing crowd.
"Thank you, Mr. Brown. I trust you slept through the entire match?" Arturo said.
"Are you kidding? You couldn't tear me away from all that jumping and pausing," Rembrandt said, shaking his hand. "All right, I missed the entire match. I'm sorry, Professor."
"That's all right, my friend. I will tell you all about it, move by thrilling move," he laughed.
"Yeah, and what's this about Wade meeting herself?" Quinn teased. "That must have been pretty funny."
Rembrandt's face went ashen. "No, it's not. Nothing funny about it all."
"What did I say?" Quinn asked to himself as the group walked over to the winner's circle.
"I can't believe they couldn't just award the prize money in cash!" Arturo roared from his seat on a park bench. He and Quinn were each seated behind a checkerboard. They were playing separate opponents but conversing with each other. "Barring that, they could have given me a check that wasn't six by eight feet. Perhaps then a bank on this world might have accepted it. Damn the Sunday slide!"
"What are you complaining about? I left close to three million dollars on the table back there." Quinn retorted, sliding a checker forward on the board in front of him. "You're out of moves. That's game."
His opponent tossed down five dollars and moved aside for the next challenger.
"Wade and Rembrandt could have at least let me off the hook for providing the funds for this world. Now look at me. Reduced to playing checkers in the park for petty cash," Arturo grumbled from the table beside him.
"A deal's a deal. Those hotel rooms aren't going to pay for themselves. Not to mention the two hundred bucks we're out," Quinn said, looking at the Professor's board. "Make that two hundred five."
"Hmm?" In his ranting, Arturo had failed to notice the hole that had opened up in his game. Arturo's thirteen-year-old opponent triple jumped him right into the end zone.