A Game of Draughts

An extra scene from Donald Bain’s A Fatal Feast, told from George Sutherland’s point of view

--by Anne (8.11.11)

“And this is the reception area,” Seth said, taking in the cozy waiting room with a sweep of his hand.  “Old Dr. Bach always liked his patients to feel at home. After I bought the practice from him I didn’t change much - as you can probably tell.”

Upon arriving at his house, Seth had gone to put his prepared dinner into the oven to reheat while I deposited my luggage in his guest bedroom upstairs.  Afterwards he insisted on giving me what he called “the nickel tour” of the premises, which included his surgery in the front of the main living quarters. Although I would just as rather have put my feet up after my long journey, it was almost a relief to have something to do that would fill a little of the time between now and the hour I could retire for the evening without seeming rude.  The ride from Jessica’s house had been largely a silent one, and anything to loosen that uncomfortable tension was welcome.

At first glance the surgery’s waiting room looked no different than Seth’s parlor, with its comfortable sofa and chairs, braided rugs, and fireplace. The only indications of its true purpose lay in the filing cabinets arranged behind the receptionist’s roll-top desk and the long out-of-date magazines - universal to all waiting rooms, I’m convinced - strewn across the coffee table.

“Verra nice,” I commented. “Much nicer that the sterile rooms with fluorescent lighting and plastic chairs that seem to be the rule these days.”

“The examination room is through here,” Seth continued, leading me to a set of double doors on the other side of the foyer.  “It’s not a big space, all told, but it suits my needs.”

The heart of Seth’s medical practice was a single room that managed to be both practical and charming all at once. A curved bay window, its panes framed with antique stained glass, dominated the wall opposite the doors - during the day the room must be flooded with natural and colored light. To one side of the window was Seth’s examination table, medical supplies, and a sink. To the other side was his desk, where presumably he held his consultations with his patients.

“It’s a wonderful surgery,” I said when the tour was complete. “I’m sure your patients feel very comfortable here, from the moment they walk in until the moment they leave.”

Seth looked at me, confused. “Surgery?” he said. “There’s no surgery here. All that’s done down at the hospital.”

In my tired state it took a moment for me to grasp where his confusion was coming from, but then I realized my mistake.  “My apologies,” I said with a smile. “I’m forgetting where I am.  In Great Britain, ‘surgery’ is simply a term for a doctor’s office.”

“I see,” Seth said. “Interesting.”

Another uncomfortable silence stretched between us, this one fortunately interrupted before too long by the sound of a timer going off in the kitchen.

“That’d be the signal that dinner’s ready,” Seth announced. “I hope you like lasagna. Like I said at Jess’s place, it’s nothing fancy, just something quick and easy to heat.”

“Lasagna is fine by me,” I said. “Lead on.”

The lasagna was surprisingly good, considering that it was ready-made and not home cooked.  Also provided were a green salad and a loaf of Italian bread from the grocery store.  All told, it made an agreeably complete meal.

“So,” Seth said, casting about for a topic of conversation, “what’s new at Scotland Yard these days?”

“Quite a bit, actually,” I said, seizing on the proffered opening and running with it. “One of the latest initiatives has been to teach the entire staff - not just the senior inspectors - methods of detecting when a person is lying.”

“Is that so?” Seth said as he reached for the salad bowl.  “How do you tell when someone is lying?”

“Through careful attention and observation.  Most people do not lie easily - lying makes them uncomfortable, and how that discomfort manifests itself is remarkably similar from person to person.  Mostly they fidget - they touch their face and hair, or cover their mouth as they speak or, most tellingly, hide their hands.”

“I’ve had quite a few fidgety patients in my office,” said Seth thoughtfully. “Often they’re the ones that are trying to avoid giving me a straight answer to a simple question. But it never occurred to me to link the two things together.”

“And there’s more,” I said, warming to my subject.  “This was a new one for me: many people, when lying, will look away to the left.”

“The left? Why not the right?”

I shrugged. “I have no idea.  But according to the Yard’s criminal psychologists, they do. Liars will also often preface a falsehood with phrases such as ‘I’ll be honest with you,’ and ‘to tell the truth.’ In general, the more emphatic someone is in assuring you of their honesty, the more likely they are to be telling you a lie.”

Seth laughed. “Now that’s one I’ll have to remember!” he said. “What’s more, I’ll be more careful about how I use those phrases myself.”

“The system isn’t foolproof,” I said. “Criminals can learn what we look for and consciously avoid those behaviors.  But the vast majority of people have no idea they are even doing these things.  It’s really quite a handy tool.”

We finished our dinners, whereupon Seth pushed his chair back from the table. “Wait right here,” he said, heading for the kitchen. A moment later he reappeared with two plates of pie a la mode, one of which he set down in front of me. “It’s cherry. One of Charlene Sassi’s best.  Dinner might have been mediocre, but dessert should make up for it.”

“On the contrary, dinner was more than adequate.” I took a bite of the dessert: “Although I must say, this is quite extraordinary for afters.”

And indeed it was - the crust was flaky, and the cool ice cream a perfect counterpoint to the warm cherry filling.  I finished my portion in a twinkling.

“Thank you,” I told Seth as I set my napkin down. “The pudding was delicious.”

“Come again?”

“Pie,” I corrected myself. “Another British-ism - ‘pudding’ is ‘pie.’ Sorry.”

“No need to apologize for it,” Seth said. “I’m learning all sorts of things tonight.”

I offered to help with the washing up, and in short order we had the leftovers packed away in the refrigerator and the dishes cleaned and put away.  These things done, we retired to the living room.

A draughts board on a book shelf caught my eye, and it occurred to me that a game or two would probably see me safely through the remainder of the evening.  “Do you play draughts?”

“Draughts,” Seth repeated. “Another British term, right?”

“Aye,” I sighed.  I removed the board and pieces from the shelf and set it on a table. “If I weren’t so tired I’d be able to recall to mind what you Americans call this game.”

“Checkers,” Seth helpfully provided.

“Right. Checkers.”

Seth laughed. “I know we’re supposed to both be speaking English,” he said, “but sometimes I swear it’s two different languages.”

We settled down to the game, Seth setting up the board and graciously offering me the first move.

"So," I said nonchalantly as I nudged my first piece forward, "What's new with Jessica these days?"

Seth raised an eyebrow at me as he moved his own piece forward one square. "I assumed that she wrote to you frequently."

"She does," I said, "but she has a habit of - how shall I put this - editing what she includes in her letters."

"How so?"

I moved another piece up to stand beside the first. "She's open enough about her personal life," I replied, "and by contrast I'm used to her being somewhat close about her writing.  But you and I both know that there is a third aspect to her life, one she seldom talks about at all.  And it is somewhat disconcerting that I find out more about her activities from my colleagues at the Yard than I do from Jessica herself."

"Hmmm," Seth said as he took his turn.  "I wish I could help you in that regard, but I suspect she tells me even less than she tells you."

"Answer me this, at least - how many people died in Cabot Cove this past year due to homicide?"

"Five," Seth answered evenly.

"How many of those murders were solved?"

"Five," Seth repeated.

"And Jessica had a hand in solving how many of those crimes?"

Again, Seth replied, "Five."

"Well," I said, "She mentioned only two of those to me, and even then, said nothing of her own involvement."

I know that I let some of my pent-up frustration come out with my words, something I would never have allowed had I not been so tired from a long day of travel.  It affected my next move in the game, which allowed Seth to easily jump and capture my draught.

"I'm sure she doesn't tell you because she doesn't want to worry you," he said.

            "I know," I sighed, "but I worry all the same."

           Rather than jump the draught I left tantalizingly open to capture - a move which would then allow me to then execute a perfect double-jump - Seth wisely moved another piece forward instead.  "I worry about her as well," he said, "but for a different reason."

            "And what would that be?"

            "That she'll forget where her home is - forget where she belongs."

            Seth gave me a pointed look, which conveyed in no uncertain terms what - or namely, who - he considered most responsible for leading Jessica astray. Suddenly the temperature in the room felt as if it had plunged twenty degrees.  

Inwardly I sighed - if only Seth realized how little he had to fear from me! Over the years I had tried, on more than one occasion, to steer conversations between Jessica and myself toward the 'what-ifs' of advancing our relationship, only to be rebuffed.  Jessica was either too happy with the status quo, or, as I privately suspected, too scared of the alternative to contemplate taking any steps in that direction.  Unless she had a change of heart, I could not foresee her leaving Cabot Cover permanently for any reason.

            I considered whether I should articulate these thoughts to my host, but ultimately decided to hold my peace. How could I reassure Seth that Jessica was not going anywhere while at the same time secretly wishing that someday she might yet prove me wrong?  Better, I decided, to let Jessica speak for herself.

During my moment of internal debate I made another misstep on the draughts board.  Seth jumped my piece with his and sat back with a triumphant look on his face.

“King me,” he said cheerfully, banishing the chilly tension between us as quickly as he had summoned it up.

            It was a brief but decisive game as Seth handily defeated me a handful of moves later.

            "A rematch?" he asked.

            I stifled a yawn and looked at my watch.  It was nine o'clock, two in the morning back home.  "I'm afraid I must beg off," I said.  "Tomorrow, perhaps, I can rally to give you a better game than I gave you tonight."

            "It’ll be an early day tomorrow anyway, if we’re meeting Jessica at eight," Seth said, rising with me, "so I guess I'll call it a night as well.  You saw where the bathroom is, down the hall from your room?"

            "Aye.  Thank you again for putting me up."

            "No trouble at all.  Anything you need?”

“Not a thing.  Good night, Seth.”

“Good night, George."

My guest room was extremely comfortable.  I had the impression that Seth did not have overnight guests often, but I certainly had no complaints with the accommodations he kept for those rare occasions. I settled into bed, but despite my jet lag I lay awake for some time, staring at the ceiling and thinking about my earlier conversation with Seth.

Both of us wanted Jessica.

And like in a game of draughts, one of us would lose.