home   |   À-ß   |   A-Z   |   ìåíþ

V The Mystery of the Black Lady

I knew by now that I had visited

his evil homeland, but I did not know

the rules of combat.

G. Kasparov

In respectful silence and perfect stillness, Octavio, Lucinda and Scaramouche were watching them with painted porcelain eyes from behind the glass of their case. Cesar’s velvet jacket was dappled with harlequin diamonds of coloured light from the stained-glass window. Julia had never seen her friend so silent and so still, so like one of the statues, in bronze, terracotta and marble, scattered here and there amongst the paintings, glass figures and tapestries in his shop. In a way, both Cesar and Julia seemed to blend with the decor, which was more suited to the motley scenery of a baroque farce than to the real world in which they spent most of their lives. Cesar looked especially distinguished – a dark red silk cravat at his neck, a long ivory cigarette holder between his fingers – and he had assumed, in the multicoloured light, a particularly classical, almost Goethian pose, his legs crossed, one hand resting with studied negligence over the hand holding his cigarette, his hair white and silky in the halo of red, blue and golden light pouring through the window. Julia was wearing a black blouse with a lace collar, and her Venetian profile was reflected in a large mirror along with jumbled ranks of mahogany furniture and mother-of-pearl chests, Gobelin tapestries and canvases, twisted columns supporting chipped Gothic carvings and the blank, resigned face of a naked bronze gladiator, his weapons beside him, raising himself up on one elbow while he awaited the verdict, the thumbs up or thumbs down, of some invisible, omnipotent emperor.

“I’m frightened,” Julia said, and Cesar responded with a gesture that was half-solicitous, half-impotent, a small sign of magnanimous and futile solidarity, of a love conscious of its limitations, the kind of elegant expressive gesture an eighteenth-century courtier might make to a lady whom he worships at the precise moment that he sees, at the end of the street along which both are being carried in a funeral cart, the shadow of the guillotine.

“Are you sure you’re not exaggerating, my dear? Or being a bit premature? No one has yet proved that Alvaro didn’t just slip in the bath.”

“What about the documents?”

“That, I must admit, I can’t explain.”

Julia put her head to one side, and her hair brushed her shoulder. Her mind was full of disquieting images.

“This morning when I woke up I prayed that it was all just a dreadful mistake.”

“Perhaps it is,” said Cesar. “As far as I know, it’s only in films that policemen and pathologists are honourable and infallible. In fact, I believe they’re not that even in films any more.”

He gave a sour, reluctant smile. Julia was looking at him without really listening to what he was saying.

“Alvaro, murdered… Can you believe it?”

“Don’t torment yourself, Princess. That’s just some far-fetched hypothesis the police have come up with. Besides, you shouldn’t think about him so much. It’s over; he’s gone. He left a long time ago.”

“Not like this he didn’t.”

“It doesn’t make any difference how it happened. He’s gone and that’s that.”

“It’s just so horrible.”

“I know. But you gain nothing by going over it in your mind.”

“No? Alvaro dies, the police interrogate me, I think someone interested in my work on The Game of Chess may be following me… and you wonder why I keep going over it again and again. What else can I do?”

“It’s very simple, my dear. If it’s really getting to you, you can give the painting back to Menchu. If you believe Alvaro’s death wasn’t an accident, then go away somewhere. We could spend two or three weeks in Paris; I’ve got loads to do there. The important thing is to go away until it’s all over.”

“But what’s going on?”

“I don’t know, and that’s the worst of it… not having the slightest idea what’s happening, I mean. Like you, I wouldn’t be so worried about what happened to Alvaro if it wasn’t for this business with the documents.” He looked at her, smiling awkwardly. “And I have to admit that I’m worried, because I’m not the hero type… It may be that one of us unwittingly opened some sort of Pandora’s box.”

“The painting,” said Julia, shuddering. “The hidden inscription.”

“I’m afraid so. That, it would seem, is where it all began.”

She turned towards her reflection in the mirror and looked at herself long and hard, as if she didn’t recognise the dark-haired young woman looking silently back at her from large, dark eyes, the pale skin over her cheekbones bearing the faint, shadowy traces of sleepless nights.

“Perhaps they want to kill me too, Cesar.”

His fingers gripped the ivory cigarette holder.

“Not while I’m alive,” he said, revealing an aggressive determination behind the exquisite, ambivalent exterior. His voice had a sharp, almost feminine edge to it. “I might be frightened out of my wits, or even worse than that, but nobody’s going to hurt you if I have anything to do with it.”

Julia couldn’t help but smile, touched by his concern.

“But what can we do?” she asked, after a silence.

Cesar bowed his head, seriously considering the problem.

“It seems a bit premature to do anything. We still don’t know if Alvaro’s death was an accident or not.”

“And the documents?”

“I’m sure that someone, somewhere, has the answer to that. The question, I suppose, is whether the person who sent them to you is the same one who was responsible for Alvaro’s death, or if the two things are entirely unrelated.”

“What if our worst suspicions are confirmed?”

It was a while before Cesar replied.

“In that case, I see only two options, the classic ones, Princess: you either run away or you stay and face the music. If I was in that situation,»suppose I’d vote in favour of running away; not that that means much.

If I put my mind to it, I can be a terrible coward, as you know.“

Julia clasped her hands behind her head.

“Would you really run away, without waiting to find out what it’s all about?”

“Of course I would. Remember, it was curiosity that killed the cat.”

“What about what you taught me when I was a child? Never leave a room without looking in all the drawers.”

“Ah, yes. But then people weren’t falling over in bathtubs.”

“Hypocrite. Deep down you’re dying to know what this is all about.”

Cesar looked reproachful.

“To say that I’m dying to do so, my dear, is in the worst possible taste, given the circumstances. Dying is exactly what I don’t want to do, now that I’m nearly an old man and have all these adorable young men to comfort me in my old age. And I don’t want you to die either.”

“What if I decide to go ahead and find out what’s really behind this business with the picture?”

Cesar pursed his lips and let his gaze drift as if he’d never even considered the possibility.

“Why would you do that? Give me one good reason.”

“For Alvaro’s sake.”

“That’s not enough reason for me. I know you well enough to know that Alvaro wasn’t important any more. Besides, according to what you’ve told me, he wasn’t entirely honest with you about the matter.”

“All right then, I’d do it for my own sake.” Julia crossed her arms defiantly. “After all, it is my painting.”

“Listen, I thought you were afraid. That’s what you said before.”

“I still am. I’m truly terrified.”

“I understand,” said Cesar, resting his chin on his clasped hands, on one of which gleamed the topaz ring. “In practice,” he added, after a brief pause for reflection, “it’s like a treasure hunt. Isn’t that what you’re trying to say? Just like the old days, when you were a stubborn little girl.”

“Just like the old days.”

“How awful! You mean, you and me?”

“You and me.”

“You’re forgetting Munoz. We’ve enlisted him now.”

“You’re right. Of course, Munoz, you and me.”

Cesar frowned, but there was an amused gleam in his eyes.

“We’d better teach him the pirates’ song then. I doubt very much if he knows it.”

“I shouldn’t think so.”

“We’re mad, my girl” Cesar was looking hard at Julia. “You do know that, don’t you.”


“This isn’t a game, my dear. Not this time.”

She held his gaze, unperturbed. She really was very beautiful with that gleam of resolve that the mirror reflected in her dark eyes.

“So?” she repeated in a low voice.

Cesar shook his head indulgently. Then he got up, and the diamonds of coloured light slid down his back to the floor and spread themselves at Julia’s feet. He went to the corner where his office was and for some minutes fiddled about in the safe built into the wall, concealed behind an old tapestry of little value, a bad copy of The Lady and the Unicorn. When he came back, he was carrying a bundle in his hands.

“Here, Princess, this is for you. A present.”

“A present?”

“That’s what I said. Happy unbirthday.”

Surprised, Julia removed the plastic wrapping and the oily cloth and weighed in her hand a small pistol of chromium-plated metal with a mother-of-pearl handle.

“It’s an antique derringer, so you won’t need a licence,” Cesar explained. “But it’s as good as new, and it takes.45-calibre bullets. It’s not at all bulky, so you can carry it around in your pocket. If anyone approaches you or comes snooping round your building in the next few days,” he said, looking at her fixedly, without the least trace of humour in his weary eyes, “I’d be most grateful if you would pick up this little thing and blow his head off. Remember? As if it was Captain Hook himself.”

Julia had three phone calls within half an hour of getting home. The first was from Menchu, who’d read the news in the papers and was worried. According to her, no one had suggested it might have been anything other than an accident. Julia realised that her friend cared nothing about Alvaro’s death, what concerned her were possible complications affecting her agreement with Belmonte.

The second call surprised her. It was an invitation from Paco Montegrifo to have dinner that night to talk about business. Julia accepted, and they arranged to meet at nine at Sabatini’s. After hanging up, she remained thoughtful for a while, searching for some reason for his sudden interest. If it had to do with the Van Huys, the correct thing would have been for him to talk to Menchu, or to meet them both. She’d said as much during the conversation, but Montegrifo made it quite clear that it was something of interest to her alone.

She sat down in front of the painting to continue her work of removing the old varnish. Just as she was applying the first dabs of solvent with the cotton wool the phone rang for the third time.

She tugged at the cable to pull the phone, which was on the floor, towards her and picked up the receiver. For the next fifteen or twenty seconds she heard absolutely nothing, despite the vain “Hello’s” she uttered with growing exasperation. Intimidated, she kept quiet, holding her breath, for a few seconds longer, and then hung up, as a feeling of dark, irrational panic washed over her like an unexpected wave. She looked at the phone, sitting on the carpet as if it were a poisonous beast, black and shining, and she shuddered involuntarily, knocking over the bottle of turpentine with her elbow.

This call did nothing to calm her spirits. So when the doorbell rang, she remained quite still, staring at the closed door until the third ring forced her to pull herself together. Several times since leaving the antiques shop that morning, Julia had smiled wryly whenever she imagined herself making the movement she now made. But she felt not the slightest desire to laugh when she stopped before going to open the door, long enough to take the small derringer out of her bag, cock it and slip it into her pocket. No one was going to leave her to soak in a bathtub.

Munoz shook the rain off his coat and stood awkwardly in the hallway. The rain had plastered his hair to his skull and was still dripping down his forehead and off the tip of his nose. In his pocket, wrapped in a bag from one of the big stores, he was carrying a chess set.

“Have you solved it?” asked Julia as soon as she’d closed the door.

Munoz hung his head, half-apologetic and half-timid. He was clearly still uncomfortable in someone else’s, especially Julia’s, apartment.

“Not yet,” he said, looking apologetically at the little pool of water forming at his feet. “I’ve just got out of work and we arranged yesterday to meet here now.” He took two steps and stopped, as if wondering whether to remove his raincoat. He did so when Julia reached out a hand to take it, and he followed her through to the studio.

“What’s the problem?” she asked.

“There’s none in principle.” As before, Munoz showed no curiosity when he looked around the studio. He seemed instead to be searching for some hint about how to behave. “It’s just a question of investing thought and time. And all I do is think about it.”

He was standing in the middle of the room with the chess set in his hands. Julia didn’t need to follow the direction of his gaze to know what he was looking at. His expression had changed, switching from elusive to fascinated intensity, like a hypnotist surprised by his own eyes in the mirror.

Munoz left the chess set on the table and went nearer to the painting, focusing only on the part depicting the chessboard and the chess pieces. He leaned closer to look much more intensely than he had the previous day. And Julia realised that he was not exaggerating in the least when he said, “All I do is think about it.” He was a man intent on resolving something more than just her problem.

He studied the painting for a long time before turning to Julia.

“This morning I reconstructed the two previous moves,” he said, without a trace of boastfulness. “Then I ran into a problem. Something to do with the unusual position of the pawns.” He pointed to the chess pieces in the picture. “We’re not dealing with a conventional game here.”

Julia was disappointed. When she’d opened the door and seen Munoz standing there, she’d almost believed that the answer was within reach. Naturally, Munoz had no idea of the urgency of the matter, nor of the implications the story now had. But she was not the person to explain it to him, at least not yet.

“The other moves don’t matter,” she said. “We just have to find out who took the white knight.”

Munoz shook his head.

“I’m spending all the time I can on it.” He hesitated, as if his next remark were almost a confidence. “I’ve got the moves in my head, and I play them backwards and forwards.” He paused again and curved his lips into a pained, distant half-smile. “But there’s something odd about this game.”

“It’s not only the game,” she said. “The thing is, Cesar and I saw it as the central part of the painting, because we couldn’t see anything else.” Julia reflected on what she’d just said. “But it may be that the rest of the painting simply complements the game.”

Munoz nodded slightly, and Julia had the impression that he took for ever to do so. Those slow movements, as if he spent much more time on them than was strictly necessary, seemed to be an extension of his mode of reasoning.

“You’re wrong to say that you see nothing else. You see everything, although you may not be able to interpret it.” Munoz didn’t budge from where he was; he merely indicated the painting with a movement of his chin. “I think it comes down to points of view. What we have here are different levels, which are contained within each other: the painting contains a floor that is a chessboard which, in turn, contains people. Those people are sitting at a chessboard that contains chess pieces. The whole thing is contained in that round mirror to the left. And to complicate things further, another level can be added: ours, where we stand to contemplate the scene or the successive scenes. And beyond that there’s the level on which the painter imagined us, the spectators of his work.”

He’d spoken without passion, an absent look on his face, as if he were reciting a monotonous description whose importance he considered to be, at best, relative and over which he lingered only to please others. Dazed, Julia gave a low whistle.

“It’s odd you should see it like that.”

Impassive, Munoz again shook his head, without taking his eyes off the painting.

“I don’t know why you find it odd. I see a chess game. Not just one game, but several, which are all basically the same one.”

“That’s too complex for me.”

“Not at all. At the moment, we’re operating on a level from which we can obtain a lot of information: the level of the chess game. Once that’s resolved, we can apply any conclusions we reach to the rest of the painting. It’s simply a question of logic, of mathematical logic.”

“I never thought mathematics would have anything to do with this.”

“It has to do with everything. Any imaginable world, like this picture, for example, is governed by the same rules as the real world.”

“Even chess?”

“Especially chess. But a real chess player’s thoughts move on a different plane from those of the amateur. His logic doesn’t allow him to see possible but inappropriate moves, because he discounts them automatically. The same way a talented mathematician never studies the false pathways to the theorem he’s seeking, whereas that’s exactly what less gifted people have to do, plodding forwards from error to error.”

“Don’t you ever make mistakes?”

Munoz slowly shifted his eyes from the painting to Julia. The suggestion of a smile hovering on his lips was utterly without humour.

“Not in chess.”

“How do you know?”

“When you play, you’re confronted by an infinite number of possible situations. Sometimes they can be resolved by using simple rules and sometimes you need other rules in order to decide which of the simple rules you should apply. Or completely unfamiliar situations arise and you’ve got to imagine new rules that either include or discount the previous ones. The only time you make mistakes is in choosing one rule over another, when you’re deciding which option to take. And I only make a move after I’ve discounted all the rules that don’t apply.”

“I find such confidence astonishing.”

“I don’t know why. That’s precisely why you chose me.”

The doorbell rang, announcing the arrival of Cesar with a dripping umbrella and sodden shoes, cursing the season and the rain.

“I hate the autumn, my dear, I really do. Season of mists and all that rubbish.” He sighed and shook Munoz’s hand. “After a certain age, some seasons seem horribly like a parody of oneself. Can I pour myself a drink? Silly me, of course I can.”

He served himself a large measure of gin, ice and lemon, and a few minutes later joined them, just as Munoz was setting out his chess set.

“Although I haven’t got as far as the move involving the white knight,” he explained, “I think you’ll be interested to know what progress I’ve made so far.” With the small wooden pieces, he reconstructed the positions depicted in the painting. Julia noticed that he did so from memory, without looking at the Van Huys or at the sketch he’d made the night before, which he now took out of his pocket and placed to one side on the table. “If you like, I can explain the reverse reasoning process I’ve followed so far.”

“Retrograde analysis,” said Cesar, sipping his drink.

“That’s right,” said Munoz. “And we’ll use the same system of notation that I explained yesterday.” He leaned towards Julia with the

The Flanders Panel

sketch in his hand, indicating to her the situation on the board.

“According to the way the pieces are distributed,” Munoz went on, “and bearing in mind that Black has just moved, the first thing to find out is which of the black pieces made that last move.” He pointed at the painting with a pencil, then at the sketch and finally at the situation reproduced on the real board. “The easiest way to do that is to discount the black pieces that could not have been moved because they’re blocked or because of the particular position they’re in. It’s clear that none of the three black pawns, on a7, b7 or d7 could have moved, because they’re all in the position they occupied at the start of the game. The fourth and last pawn, on a5, couldn’t have moved either, because it’s between a white pawn and its own black king. We can also discount the black bishop on c8, still in its initial position, because the bishop moves diagonally and both of his two possible diagonal paths are blocked by the black pawns that have not as yet been moved. As for the black knight on b8, that wasn’t moved either, because it could only have got there from a6, c6 or d7 and those three squares are already occupied by other pieces. Do you understand?”

“Perfectly,” said Julia, who was leaning over the board following his explanation. “That means that six out of the ten pieces could not have moved.”

“More than six. The black rook on c1 couldn’t move, since it only moves in a straight line and its three surrounding squares are all blocked. So none of those seven black pieces could have made the last move. And we can also discount the black knight on d1.”

“Why?” asked Cesar. “It could have come from squares b2 or e3.”

“No, it couldn’t. On either of those squares, that knight would have had the white king on c4 in check; in retrograde chess that’s what we might call an imaginary check. And no knight, or any other chess piece for that matter, with a king in check is going to abandon that position voluntarily; that’s simply impossible. Instead of withdrawing, it would capture the enemy king, thus ending the game. Since such a situation is impossible, we can deduce that the knight on d1 could not have moved either.”

“That,” said Julia, who had kept her eyes glued to the board, “reduces the possibilities to two pieces then, doesn’t it?” She put a finger on each of them. “The king and the queen.”

“Right. That last move could have been made only by the king or the queen.” Munoz studied the board and gestured in the direction of the black king, without actually touching it. “First, let’s analyse the position of the king, which can move one square in any direction. That means he could have arrived at his present position on a4 from b4, b3 or a3… in theory.”

“Even I can sec what you mean about b4 and b3,” remarked Cesar. “No king can be on a square next to another king. Isn’t that right?”

“Right. On b4 the black king would have been in check to the white took, king and pawn. And on b3, he’d have been in check to rook and king. Both of which are impossible positions.”

“Couldn’t he have come from below, from a3?”

“No, never. It would then be in check to the white knight on b1, which, given its position, is clearly not a recent arrival, but must have got there several moves ago.” Munoz looked at them both. “So it’s another case of imaginary check showing us that it wasn’t the king that moved.”

“Therefore the last move,” said Julia, “was made by the black queen.”

The chess player looked noncommittal.

“That, in principle, is what we must assume,” he said. “In terms of pure logic, once we’ve eliminated the impossible, what remains, however improbable or difficult it may seem, must be right. Moreover, in this case we can prove it.”

Julia looked at him with new respect.

“This is incredible. Like something out of a detective novel.”

Cesar pursed his lips.

“I’m afraid, my dear, that’s exactly what it is.” He looked at Munoz. “Go on, Holmes,” he added with a friendly smile. “We’re on tenterhooks.”

One corner of Munoz’s mouth twitched humourlessly, a mere polite reflex action. It was clear that all his attention was taken up by the chessboard. His eyes seemed even more deeply sunk in their sockets and there was a feverish gleam in them: the expression of someone absorbed in contemplating imaginary, abstract spaces that only he could see.

“Now,” he suggested, “let’s look at the possible moves the queen could have made, positioned as she is on square c2. I don’t know if you’re aware, Julia, that the queen is the most powerful piece in the game. She can move across any number of squares, in any direction, imitating the movement of all the other pieces except for the knight. As we can see, the black queen could have come from four possible squares: a2, b2, b3 and d3. By now, you can see for yourself why she couldn’t have come from b3, right?”

“I think so.” Julia frowned in concentration. “I presume she would never have left a position where she had the white king in check.”

“Exactly. Another case of imaginary check, which discounts b3 as her possible origin. And what about d3? Do you think the queen could have come from there, for example, to avoid the threat from the white bishop on fl?”

Julia considered that possibility for a while. At last her face lit up.

“No, she couldn’t, for the same reason as before,” she exclaimed, surprised to have reached that conclusion on her own. “On d3, the black queen would have been holding the white king in another one of those imaginary checks, right? That’s why she couldn’t have come from there.” She turned to Cesar. “Isn’t this fantastic? I’ve never played chess in my life.”

Munoz was pointing his pencil at square a2 now.

“It would be another case of imaginary check if the queen had been here, and so we can discount that square too.”

“Then it could obviously only have come from b2,” said Cesar.

“That’s possible.”

“What do you mean ‘possible’?” Cesar was confused and intrigued at the same time. “It looks obvious to me.”

“In chess,” replied Munoz, “very few things can be termed ‘obvious’. Look at the white pieces along line b. What would have happened if the queen had been on b2?”

Cesar stroked his chin thoughtfully.

“She would have been under threat by the white rook on b5. That’s probably why she moved to c2, to escape the rook.”

“Not bad,” conceded Munoz. “But that’s only a possibility. Anyway, the reason she moved isn’t important to us at the moment. Do you remember what I told you before? Once the impossible has been eliminated, what remains must, of necessity, be right. To sum up, (a) Black has just moved, (b) nine of the ten black pieces on the board could not have moved, (c) the only piece that could have moved was the queen, (d) three of the four hypothetical moves by the queen are impossible. Therefore, the black queen made the only possible move: it moved from b2 to c2, perhaps fleeing from the threat of the white rooks on b5 and b6. Is that clear?”

“Very,” said Julia, and Cesar agreed.

“That means,” Munoz went on, “that we’ve managed to take the first step in this reverse chess game that we’re playing. The subsequent Position, or rather, the previous position, since we’re working backwards, would be this.”

The Flanders Panel

“Do you see? The black queen is still on b2, before its move to c2. So now we have to find out what move White made that obliged the queen to do that.”

“It must have been the white rook,” said Cesar. “The one on b5. The treacherous devil could have come from any square along row 5.”

“Possibly,” replied Munoz. “But that doesn’t entirely justify the queen’s flight.”

Cesar blinked, surprised.

“Why not?” His eyes went from the board to Munoz and back to the board again. “The queen was obviously fleeing the threat from the rook. You yourself said so a moment ago.”

“I said that perhaps she was fleeing from the white rooks, but at no point did I say that it was the white rook on b5 that caused the queen to flee.”

“I’m lost,” confessed Cesar.

“Look closely at the board. It doesn’t matter what the white rook now on b5 did, because the other white rook, the one on b6, would already have been holding the black queen in check. Do you see?”

Cesar studied the game again, this time for quite a long time.

“I still don’t get it,” he said at last, demoralised. He’d drained his gin and lemon to the last drop, while, at his side, Julia was smoking cigarette after cigarette. “If it wasn’t the white rook that moved to b5, then all your reasoning collapses. Wherever the piece was, that nasty queen had to move first, because she was in check before…”

“No,” said Munoz. “Not necessarily. The rook could, for example, have taken another black piece on b5.”

Encouraged by that possibility, Cesar and Julia studied the game with new heart. After a few more minutes, Cesar glanced up and gave Munoz a respectful glance.

“That’s right,” he said, astonished. “Don’t you see, Julia? A black piece on b5 was protecting the queen from the threat posed by the white rook on b6. When that black piece was captured by the white rook, the queen was under direct threat.” He looked back at Munoz for confirmation. “That must be it. There’s no other possibility.” He looked at the board again, doubtfully. “There isn’t, is there?”

“I don’t know,” Munoz replied honestly and, when she heard that, Julia uttered a desperate “Good God!”

“You’ve just formulated a hypothesis,” he continued, “and when you do that, you always run the risk of distorting the facts to fit the theory, instead of finding a theory that fits the facts.”

“What then?”

“Well, that’s just it. So far we can only consider as a hypothesis the idea that the white rook took a black piece on b5. We still have to ascertain if there are any other variants and, if so, discount all the impossible ones.” The gleam in his eyes grew dim. He seemed more tired and grey as he sketched an indefinable gesture in the air, which was part justification and part uncertainty. The confidence he’d displayed in explaining the moves had disappeared; now he seemed shy and awkward. “That’s what I meant,” he said, avoiding Julia’s eyes, “when I told you I’d run into problems.”

“What’s the next step then?” asked Julia.

Munoz regarded the pieces with a resigned air.

“A long, painstaking examination of the six black pieces that are off the board. I’ll try to find out how and where each one was taken.”

“That could take days,” said Julia.

“Or minutes, it depends. Sometimes, luck or intuition lend a hand.” He gave a long look at the board and then at the Van Huys. “But there’s one thing I’m sure of,” he said after a moment’s thought.

“Whoever painted this picture or thought up the problem, had a very peculiar way of playing chess.”

“How would you describe him?” asked Julia.


“The absent player. The one you just mentioned.”

Munoz looked first at the carpet and then at the painting. There was something like admiration in his eyes, Julia thought. Perhaps the instinctive respect a chess player always feels for a master.

“I don’t know,” he said in a low voice, as if unwilling to be pinned down. “Whoever it was, he was very devious. All the best players are, but this one had something else: a particular talent for laying false trails, for setting all kinds of traps. And he enjoyed doing it.”

“Is that possible?” asked Cesar. “Can you really judge the character of a person by the way he behaves when playing?”

“I think you can,” replied Munoz.

“In that case, what do you think of the person who thought up this game, bearing in mind that he did so in the fifteenth century?”

“I’d say” – Munoz was looking at the painting, absorbed – “I’d say there was something ‘diabolical’ about the way he played chess.”

***** | The Flanders Panel | VI Of Chessboards and Mirrors