The Checker Maven

Sixth Anniversary Edition

This weekend we celebrate six years of continuous publication of The Checker Maven. As we reach each new annual milestone, we marvel at how far we've come, and we know that it's all due to the support of our readers, without whom we would have gone out of business long ago.

It's become our tradition to try to offer a new work of checker fiction at each anniversary date. This year, we're happy to present a 1,900 word short story called Inferno. You'll understand why when you read the story and solve the associated checker problem.

We won't keep you waiting any longer. Here's our latest little story.


INFERNO

by Bob Newell

Billy and Joey had escaped from the house after lunch; the two cousins didn't want to remain under the watchful eye of old Aunt Edith, who seemed to automatically disapprove of anything they did. Now, they hadn't exactly sneaked out; it was more like they forgot to ask permission. At least, that's what they had agreed their story would be when the eventual reckoning with their respective parents, not to mention Aunt Edith, would take place.

But for now it was freedom, and for a couple of hours if their luck held, for the adults would surely be staying in the farmhouse and playing cards for the rest of the afternoon. Billy and Joey scurried across the farmyard and pulled up, out of sight of the house, behind the big barn on the other side.

"Whatcha wanna do?" asked Billy. He was a year older than his cousin, and it was his parent's farm, so he always acted like the one in charge and the one who knew what was going on, even though that was a fair distance from being correct.

"What about that spooky old house?" Joey asked. "You know, the one ..."

"Yeah, yeah, I know, 'course I know," Billy interrupted, "you always been wantin' to go over there. Pretty strange lookin' place if you ask me, an' I don't think you're up to it."

They were talking about one of the neighboring farmsteads, this one abandoned for many years since the death of the owners. Rumor was their estate had been in dispute for a long time, with little prospect of ever getting sorted out, so meanwhile, the farm had become more and more dilapidated as the years passed.

And the truth was, Billy was mighty scared of the place, though he would never admit that to his younger cousin. Billy had heard a lot of the stories that people in town told, and though at eleven years old he thought himself grown up, he still was more than a bit spooked.

But Joey was pushing him, and he had to appear brave, even nonchalant, if he wasn't to lose face.

"C'mon, Billy, I ain't scared, really I ain't, why can't we go there?" he complained. He could see that Billy was relenting.

Billy was clearly in a corner, with no way out. "Okay, okay," he said, trying not to let his voice show his inner fears, "we'll go. C'mon!"

It was nearly three-quarters of a mile to the old farmstead, and the afternoon sun was unrelenting. Joey looked pretty hot and tired, but he tried bravely not to complain. Billy almost asked Joey if he was too beat to go on, and if he wanted to turn back--- Billy certainly did, though he would never say as much--- but he thought it might show a crack in his facade, so he trudged on in silence.

They stopped a minute to rest under a small grove of birch at the side of the road. "It's just 'round the bend," Billy said, while snapping twigs off a dead branch lying amidst the scruffy grass of the grove's floor. Joey was wiping sweat from his eyes and drying his hands on the legs of his shorts. "You ready yet?"

In answer, Joey stood up, brushed off leaves and debris from the seat of his pants, and resolutely headed back to the dusty road, Billy scrambling to follow him and regain leadership of the little expedition.

They were around the bend in a couple of minutes, and the old farmstead lay before them. What a sight it was. There was a large barn that had collapsed in upon itself, the roof failing and pulling down most of the walls with it. There were a few small outbuildings, all of them in a similar dilapidated state. There was the farmhouse itself, which, while much the worse for years of exposure to the elements and neglect, was at least still standing. It might even be possible to get inside without too much risk or danger.

"Hey, betcha there's a bunch of cool old stuff in that house over there," Joey said, once again stealing Billy's thunder.

"Na," replied Billy, "lots a kids been in there and there ain't nothin' left. Anyhow," he continued, trying to dissuade Joey from further speculation, "they say, you know, bad stuff happens in there."

"I don't believe none of that," Joey said. "I wanna go take a look." And again, he was the one to lead the way across the dusty, weedy ground, over the litter-strewn front yard, and up to the porch of the farmhouse.

The portico over the entryway had long since fallen. Rusted rain gutters, broken away from the eaves, lay around the ground. The floor of the porch was broken in places, but it looked solid enough at the foot of the front door. All of the clapboard walls had a gray, weathered look, the paint long since faded and peeled.

The front door looked to be ajar by just and inch or two.

"Careful!" shouted Billy but Joey was already by the door, the floor creaking and groaning but holding his weight. "Help me open this" Joey cried as he put the fingers of both hands around the edge of the door and tugged as hard as he good. The hinges were rusted and he wasn't strong enough to break the door loose.

Billy joined him and together they pulled. "One, two, three, PULL!" Billy shouted and all at once they were on their backs on the ground in front of the house, as the door yielded and they were thrown off by the force of their efforts.

Joey was already up, dusting off his shorts and tee shirt, and heading for the dark opening into the house, Billy following more slowly behind him. The light was dim just inside the door, a rectangle of light from the doorway illuminating a faded and tattered carpet, some furniture that smelled musty and looked even worse, and an old table with what looked like a checkerboard on it. Everything was covered in dust but that didn't hide the water damage, no doubt due to occasional prairie rainstorms sending torrents of water through holes in the roof and ceiling.

They stood and looked, waiting as their eyes adjusted from bright outdoor sunshine to the weak indoor light. About the only thing still fully standing was the old wooden table and a couple of chairs. Everything else was so broken down as to be completely unusable, and showed signs of vandalism: seat cushions were shredded, the walls were gouged in places and covered with graffiti nearly everywhere.

"I wonder," Billy said, "why nobody stole the checkerboard?"

Indeed, a checkerboard did sit on the table, with a faded set of red and white wooden checkers, all coated with dust. The board was of the leather folding type. The leather had peeled in many places; most of the squares had water stains, but it was otherwise intact.

"I dunno," said Joey, "maybe kids like to play here."

"You crazy or what?" replied Billy. "Kids ain't gonna come to this creepy old dump to play checkers, fer cryin' out loud! What's wrong with you?"

"Aw, c'mon, let's play! Won't it be cool tellin' the kids at school how we played checkers in the old haunted place?"

Billy was getting more nervous by the minute, and trying hard to keep his cool. "Hey, don't be makin' up stuff like that!" he said. "Whaddya, scared?" Joey asked. "Let's play! Show me you ain't a-scared!"

It was too much for Billy. Having lost the lead already to his younger cousin, he wasn't about to act frightened, even though he was pretty close to scared witless. They both pulled rickety wooden chairs across the floor and up to the wooden table. They dusted off the checker pieces and the board, coughing in the billowing dust cloud they created. But everything soon settled down and they both found themselves sitting in front of a ready checkerboard, Joey grinning and wiggling in his chair, Billy looking something more than mildly annoyed and sitting stock still.

His mother was calling from the kitchen. "Bobby and Jimmy," she sang, "dinner's ready, come here and eat!"

"Aw, gee, Jimmy, I wanna just finish this game," Bobby said, looking down at the brightly-painted checkers on the brand new folding checkerboard.

"Nah, you know your mom gets impatient when food's gettin' cold," Jimmy replied, "we better go an' eat an' then play some more checkers later."

Just then there was a crash and a scream from the kitchen. "The gas tank!" they heard Bobby's mother cry out. "Run, boys!" and then there was the deafening roar of an explosion and hot flames streaming out the kitchen door.

"Mom, mom!" Bobby cried, and Jimmy was tugging on his arm, dragging him to the door and away from the heat of the flames. "No, no, I gotta get Mom!" Bobby screamed, and with a violent move, wrenched himself away and ran to the kitchen, blindly charging into the flaming inferno that raged there.

Jimmy had already run out yelling for help. The adults on the farm were fast to respond, pouring buckets of water and sand on the flames in a desperate effort to get into the kitchen. But it was too late. Though they had saved the rest of the house, the kitchen was completely destroyed. They found two badly charred bodies, one an adult female, the other that of a twelve-year old boy.

Billy was shaking Joey violently. "Wake up, wake up, are you OK, what's happening?" Joey's eyes opened slowly as he returned to awareness. "Huh?" Joey said. "The fire ... it was so hot ... I couldn't get away ...."

"What are you talking about, Joey?" asked Billy. "There ain't no fire ... we was goin' to play checkers an' you passed out an' fell on the floor. You was screamin' like you was havin' some kind of nightmare and I couldn't wake you up. You scared me Joey, don't do that!"

Joey was sitting up on the floor now, rubbing his eyes. "There was a fire," he kept saying. "In the kitchen ... and I ran in there to get Mom ..."

"Joey, come here, look, there ain't no fire!" Billy shouted. He pulled Joey to his feet and dragged him away from the table toward the kitchen. "Look, see ...." Billy didn't finish his sentence, his jaw agape as they both took in the sight of the charred floors and walls and the burned ceiling. There had certainly been a fire here long ago, and by the looks of it, a bad one.

There wasn't much left of the floor, but there were two large, ominous dark spots, as if the heat of the flames had burned two sizable objects.

"L..let's getta outta here," Joey said, and Billy didn't have to be told twice. Joey leaned on Billy for support and they made their way back through the living room.

"Look!" Joey shouted. "Look, there!" and his arm was pointing arrow straight to the old table and checkerboard.

There was no dust on the table, and the board and checkers looked like new. The checkers had been moved as if someone had been playing and had been interrupted in mid-game. But Billy was tugging again on Joey's arm, pulling him to the door and out into the yard.

They started to run, and they didn't stop until they were back to Billy's house.


WHITE

BLACK
Black to Play and Win

B:W26,23,22,20,18,15,13:B16,14,12,11,9,6,3.

Click on Read More to see the solution to the position shown above.



Solution

16-19 23x7---A 3x19 18-15 19-24 15-11 24-27 11-8 27-31 8-3 14-17 3-7 17-21 7-11---B 21-25 11-7 25-30 Black Wins.

A---15-8 loses also: 15x8 12-16 20x11 3x12 23x16 14x30 11-7 12x19 and Black wins handily.

B---White is completely helpless.

The problem position is taken from W. R. Fraser's The Inferno of Checkers.

12/04/10 - Category: Problems - Printer friendly version
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