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                                                        Erica Minor died on her seventh birthday. She had been small for her age, tied                                                         pink ribbons in her hair, wore second-hand dresses to school, and though quiet,                                                         was not as shy as her teachers thought. More than anything, she had wanted to                                                         keep her home life a secret.

                                                        When the story of Erica’s death appeared in the newspapers the next day, the                                                         public was outraged. There were interviews with city officials on morning radio and                                                     TV programs, newspaper headlines, and heated op-ed pieces for days. But it was all                                                     too late. Erica had needed help long before she died.

                                                        Donald and Judy Minor, Erica’s parents, were meth-heads. They made, sold, and used methamphetamine, a drug so dangerous that almost every first-time user becomes addicted to it.

     The kitchen in Erica’s house looked more like a chemistry lab than an area where a family stored food and prepared meals. It was cluttered with stained glass tubes, jars, and bottles. Copper pipe twisted and turned, connecting one container to another. Propane tanks stood like squat sentinels in the corners, and it was littered everywhere with small, white cardboard boxes and the ravaged foil blister packs of cold and allergy medications.

     At two in the afternoon, while her parents were at the kitchen counter crystallizing a fresh batch of the drug, Erica crawled along the floor, quietly searching through drawers and cabinets until she finally found a butane barbeque lighter to ignite her birthday candles with.

     Donald and Judy left the kitchen when a customer knocked on their front door. They never even knew their daughter had been in the room with them. The coroner said Erica’s death was due to severe internal injuries and the third degree burns she’d suffered after she had lit the candles on her birthday cake, igniting the combustible noxious fumes in the room and causing her house to explode.

     Erica’s ten-year old brother, Jason, told all of this to me from his hospital bed. He’d pressed himself to the floor beneath the dining room table and watched it all until he was mercifully knocked unconscious by the blast. But he’d seen his baby sister thrown against the kitchen ceiling and swallowed by flames before he passed out.

     Jason and I talked a lot, but never about anything as horrific as watching your baby sister die. Usually we discussed video games, television shows, and fast food restaurants. My name is Ray Gordon. I’m a chess teacher.

     I was thinking about my talks with Jason while I stood within the Lake View Cemetery, dressed in a black suit, surrounded by a crowd of a hundred people. I didn’t know most of them, but the gathering was lightly salted with a handful of recognizable faces from the youth center where I taught most of my students. Jason Minor was up front, near the casket and beneath a green canvas canopy. He sat next to a woman who must have been his grandmother, judging by her steely gray hair and the giant orchid pinned above her left breast.

     Donald and Judy Minor weren’t present at their daughter’s funeral. They were handcuffed to their respective hospital beds, recovering from superficial wounds sustained in the explosion. The usually emotionless local TV news reporters shook their heads sadly at the camera after Judy Minor offered only a blank expression through her stringy hair when asked about the death of her daughter. Doctors showed the TV audience colorful computer-generated images that compared a healthy human brain to a spongy-looking brain affected by methamphetamine.

     One doctor went so far as to say Judy Minor had been using meth so long her brain looked like a lump of Swiss cheese left out in the sun. Her daughter’s death probably only registered as a minor nuisance.

     It was a nice day for a funeral, bright and crisp with the kind of blue sky I wished I could dive into and discover what lay behind the clouds. The air was cool, and many of the attendees wore coats or sweaters. But by noon the sun seemed to win the push/pull between summer and autumn. It was the kind of day my parents were buried on. A good day for a hike in the mountains.

     My reverie was shattered by a group of angry people who marched on the sidewalk outside the cemetery. They carried cardboard signs that read Meth Kills and chanted, “The Minors murdered her with meth!” I only hoped Jason wasn’t paying attention to all the hype surrounding his baby sister’s death.

     My wristwatch beeped, and I muffled it with my hand before pushing the tiny button to silence the alarm. Several people turned and glared as if I’d just spit. It wasn’t like I had answered my cell phone! Nevertheless, the alarm on my watch triggered a chain reaction of heads tilting toward their own timepieces. Nobody wanted to be there. No matter how nice a day it was or how much time they could get off of work. Not one person wanted to be at the funeral for a seven-year-old girl.

 

 

 

     I got home from the funeral an hour later than I’d hoped I would. It was just before three p.m. and I had an appointment at six. Normally not a problem, but between where I was and where I had to be was a two-and-a-half hour drive. I still needed to get my mail out and finish packing.

     I ran to the window and looked up the street. The mailman was four houses up, his glorified ice cream truck parked at the curb while he delivered a package. I dashed back to my table where a postcard had waited for two days. It was already addressed and contained some arcane scribbles on the back, notation recognized only by chess players, but it wasn’t ready to go out just yet.

     I looked out the window again, and then at the chessboard in front of me. I stared at the page of notes I’d made over the week and then wrote 23. Rad1 on the postcard. It was my next move in a chess game being played through the U.S. Postal Service.

     When I opened my front door, the little white truck chugged in front of my neighbor’s house while the mailman stuffed letters and magazines into the mailbox at the curb. I walked slowly until the postman gave his rig a little gas, and then adjusted my gait to arrive with him at my mailbox.

     “I didn’t realize what time it was,” I said, walking up to the truck.

     “Another game, Ray?” he said when I handed him the postcard.

     “I’m in a correspondence tournament.” I nodded. “I’ve got that along with my regular games.”

     “How many is that?”

     I had to think for a moment. “Twenty-three.”

     “Jeez! That’s a lot of postage. How long does it take to play a game of chess by mail? I always see these cards from you and for you.”

     “Years.” I bounced on my toes with pride. Chess was fun no matter how I played, from five-minute speed games to contests spanning address changes and multiple birthday parties.

     “Why not use the Internet? Wouldn’t e-mail be cheaper?”

     “This coming from a postman?” I laughed, then shrugged. “Some people do use e-mail, but this is more traditional. In fact,” I said with an I’m-so-smart bounce of my heels, “the first Correspondence Chess Champion of the World, an Australian guy named Purdy, said correspondence chess is the purest form of the game. There are no distractions, no clocks—just chess. Even e-mail is too fast. If both players are sitting at their computers at the same time, they end up just playing the whole game. Or they blunder moves, because of the distraction of the other player waiting. Besides, it’s fun to get mail.”

     “You’re nuts.” The mailman handed me a stack of what looked like nothing but junk.

     “I know. Certifiable.” I smiled and gave him a quick salute. For a correspondence chess player, I was considered only mildly insane for juggling twenty-three games. Two of my opponents conducted sixty or more chess games by mail.

I trudged back up the sidewalk and shuffled through the envelopes. There were two postcards addressed to me with similar notations to the one I’d just sent. I put those next to my chessboard and dropped the rest of the stack on my desk to look over later.

     “Morphy!” I called. “Get your leash.”

     Morphy was my four-year-old mutt, part yellow lab and part “other big dog,” and he was my best friend. He bounced into my bedroom with his leash hanging limp between his jaws like a fresh kill.

     My duffle bag had been mostly packed before I’d left for the funeral, so I just tossed in a small bag of overnight toiletries and an extra shirt. In the living room, I stuffed a small binder with all twenty-three of my correspondence chess games (including the two moves I’d just received) into the duffle bag, then grabbed a chess book about tactics. I rifled through it until I found the game I wanted, added it to the bag, and zipped it up.

     At three ten, the lights were off, drapes drawn, porch light on, and the dog leapt in anticipation. I grabbed a handful of CDs, and Morphy and I were out the door. It would be close. Just getting out of Seattle would take a half hour to forty-five minutes.

     For the past five years, I’d been volunteering at the Brookstone Youth Center. I didn’t have a degree in psychology or sociology, but I did what I could. I am a chess nut, and I taught the kids chess. Maybe Jason Minor talked to me about his sister because I was not an official counselor or maybe because we had chess in common.

     Once I reached Master level, I began getting requests to teach adults some of the finer nuances of the game. I took on a few students outside of the youth center, mostly men in their thirties or forties who were looking to improve their club play. I’d go to their homes or we’d meet somewhere on the University of Washington campus.

     When I’d received a call from Walter Kelly, one hundred fifty miles away in Yakima, asking me to help him figure out why he was losing such a high percentage of his over-the-board battles, I’d turned him down flat. I hadn’t wanted to spend that much time on the road. Besides, there were plenty of players in Yakima better than me. “Doesn’t matter,” he’d said. “I think we can help each other.”

     “What do you mean?” I’d asked.

     “I knew your mother.”

     My parents died when I was eleven years old. They were caught between a drunk driver and an eighteen-wheeler. So when Walter Kelly had said he had known my mom, two and a half hours of drive time didn’t seem very long at all. Twice a month, when our schedules meshed, I’d drive to Yakima to dispense any chessic wisdom I could, and then listened to tales of my mother in her youth over dinner.

     Walter couldn’t come to Seattle because he took care of his wife, Margie. Years earlier, she’d suffered a cracked vertebra when she fell from a ladder at work. Her employer and six doctors had agreed her injury was severe and warranted surgery, but the bureaucrats at Labor and Industries had refused to okay any operation until they were satisfied it was absolutely necessary.

     When she could no longer stand up straight, one of those doctors had performed the surgical procedure Margie had needed a year and a half earlier, and logged it as part of a liposuction for a different patient.

     For the better part of a year, I got to know my mother in a way I may never have, even if she had lived. She and Walt had dated in high school. He was two years her senior, and the romance didn’t last, but he was still able to tell me how she’d revved the engine of her father’s Chevy and then jammed the shifter into drive. She’d done it in front of the high school the day after getting her driver’s license, which meant all of her friends were able to witness the drive shaft succumb to the sudden force of the engine and explode off of the axle. I wondered if my mother would have told me that story had she been alive when I turned sixteen.

     Walter showed me the two high school yearbooks he had with her pictures, along with photos from their prom. The first time I brought Morphy with me, Walt told me about the dog my mother had owned since she was ten. It was a beagle named Rudy, and when he got killed by a delivery truck, she’d cried every day for a month. So I learned that my mother was where my love for my own dog came from. I teared up just thinking about when Morphy would be gone.

     At Ellensburg, I eased into the right hand lane of the freeway and headed south on I-82.

     It’s a half-hour drive between Ellensburg, home of Central Washington University and Yakima, the “Palm Springs of Washington.” The citizens of Yakima were pretty much divided over that particular moniker as a nickname for a city usually known for apples, but either way, the sign was there for all to see.

     Just before getting into Yakima, I turned west on the freeway, then got off on the 16th Avenue exit. Like almost every city in the country, Yakima has its roster of streets named for trees, and as I turned up Chestnut Avenue, I was met by towering oaks, elms, and willows, all brandishing their fall foliage. The reds, oranges, and yellows popped against the deep blue October sky like an artist’s canvas. Good work, God, I thought.

     Morphy whined and cried when I turned into the Kellys’ driveway. He either needed to seriously take a leak or was anxious to see Walt and Margie. Probably a little of both.

     I got out and stretched while Morphy sniffed the hedge line and lifted his leg against the telephone pole by the sidewalk.

     We were fifteen minutes late. Usually, I was on time for everything I did. My uncle Dave, who raised me after my parents were killed, had little toleration for people who couldn’t keep track of their own lives. “Sometimes things happen to mess up your day,” he’d say, “but not nearly as often as people simply not keeping track of the time. It’s just a matter of planning. Never be too lazy to plan, Ray.”

     I knocked on the front door knowing Walt would grill me about being late. Luckily, Morphy was my pal, and he was cute and happy and begged for everyone’s attention, so Walt would only have a minute or two to dish it out.

But when the door opened, it wasn’t Walt standing in front of me. Instead, it was his son, Brian Kelly. Brian and I were close in age. I guessed he was a year or two older than me and he had me beat in the weight department by at least twenty pounds. He was six foot three and had hair the color of sawdust.

     Brian had been the star quarterback on his high school football team and gone to Washington State University with high expectations. The college life got the better of him, though, and Brian missed too many practices and too many classes. His grades sagged, and eventually, he was no longer an athlete. He’d messed up his chance and by the time he’d figured it out, it was too late. But he’d stayed in school, then came home to Yakima, and was one of the best veterinarians in town, according to Walt.

     Brian let me in and watched Morphy go unabashedly off on his own. “With everything that’s happened, Mom must have forgotten you were coming,” he said.

     “What do you mean? What’s happened? The police finally hear about me?” Brian didn’t return my smile, so I let mine drop. “What’s wrong?”

     “Ray, my dad’s dead.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

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