(Moving update: Still no home Internet access. Used my iPod as a glorified floppy disk to transfer this file over from my laptop to Kady's. Used her laptop, which doesn't have wireless-card problems like mine, to steal bandwidth from some neighbor's unsecured connection. I figured it was a good break from paying bills and changing addresses online.)
The old mansion sprawled, labyrinthine, through and around the twisting hills. People bustled through its creaking wooden halls and spilled out onto the green grass and dirt paths connecting the different parts of the immense single building. Long ago, it had been converted into a school of some sort, and now the walls were packed with books, making many of the narrow halls look like sprawling libraries.
It was an exciting day. Bruce Hornsby was visiting campus! I had managed to join his small entourage, and was one of the few students giving him a tour of the place.
He graciously decided -- or was convinced -- to perform an impromptu concert while he was there. We led him to the piano, which was on one side of the gym/auditorium -- a spacious, empty wooden floor, with a ceiling over two stories tall, surrounded on all sides and on several levels by the wooden hallways and walkways that were the bulk of the school. The auditorium was one of the few points of convergence of those long, looping hallways -- like the body of an octopus, tentacles flailing every which way.
But there was a problem. The old wooden hallways squeaked, groaned, and shuddered, as old wood tends to do. Students were in motion all around us. The cacophony of their walks was distracting to the musician, and would make listening to his concert all but impossible. Someone needed to go turn out all the hallway lights, indicating quiet time, so that we could hear Bruce play. I volunteered.
I raced around the building, through the serpentine halls, past rows of library books, small study desks sprawled around the wider areas, past bare scaffolding in the more basement-like areas (and earthen walls, where the hallways cut into the hills), running up and down stairs, urgently turning off switches and pulling the chains of overhead bulbs as Bruce played. Several students asked what was going on; I pointed them to the concert or explained it and left them to their studies.
The campus gradually quieted down as I went about my task, and Bruce's music became more and more audible. I enjoyed it as I went about my rounds -- almost finished, and knowing I could soon return to the seat they'd held for me, right beside the piano.
As I was nearly finished, Bruce began a song I didn't recognize from any of his albums. It was impossibly pretty -- sweet, soulful, reverent, delicate. The campus, which had been getting pretty quiet anyway, sank into a deep hush. I glanced inside an open classroom as I passed by, and saw the roomful of students paused, silent, heads bowed and hands clasped in prayer.
The hallway I was in took a sharp turn away from the auditorium, and I only had one or two more lights near the concert to turn off, so I ducked out of the second-story hall onto a dirt path outside, which ran along the top of one of the hills to the other hall that was my destination. Bruce neared the end of his hymn as I walked out into the twilight.
I noticed a man slightly downhill of me, also praying with hands clasped and head bowed. He was dressed in the saffron robes of a Buddhist monk.
The song ended; all across campus, we could hear the thunder of applause. The man dressed like a monk unclasped his hands, smiled at the fading music, and opened his eyes, sizing me up.
The monk digested the hymn for a moment, and seemed to come to some inner decision. "I have written something very similar," he admitted to me. "Would you like to read it?" He motioned me to follow.
"Yes," I said, curious. "But I'm playing stage hand at the moment. I've got to get back to the auditorium." I motioned, and he nodded at the importance of my task. "Can we get back in touch later?"
He nodded. Behind him, a group of his companions walked up the hill. Some were also dressed in the same robes.
"I could give you my school e-mail address ... oh, wait. The mail server's been down," I realized. I looked at the monk, hoping for inspiration.
He glanced over at one of his friends, the leader of the newcomers, also dressed in the robes. "Give him a white king," the monk said.
My heart leapt. I knew then that I had stumbled upon some secret society -- and passed some sort of test. They were showing interest. There were mysteries behind this to explore.
The monk's friend took a small chess piece from the arm of his robe, then hesitated and pointed at me. "He's already taken," the man said accusingly. "Look at his shirt."
I glanced down. I was wearing some shirt depicting a chessboard mid-game. Pieces of both colors stood in a tangled skirmish across the board. From the angle at which the picture was printed, the only piece that was fully visible -- unblocked by other, nearer pieces and not cut off by the bottom of the image -- was the black queen.
I had picked it up at one of the school's stores. There had been a few similar designs; my choice had been more or less at random. Nobody had said anything about any meaning behind it.
"What an unfortunate coincidence," I said sheepishly. "There's no meaning behind this. What can I do to show you that?"
... Then I was awakened by the phone.