If he tries, Le Chiffre can think of California as a mirror image of Montenegro. It’s not admitting defeat: it’s merely an extension of his domain. Walking away from the table where he had lost his entire livelihood and then doing nothing to the man responsible still rankles: he could have amused himself, with Mr. Bond. But Le Chiffre is still an accomplished enough chess player to understand that this, of all possible moves, is the only one that admits the possibility of him alive on the board.
In many ways, Los Angeles suits him: beaches, entertainment, throngs large enough that a man with a target on his chest from the Lord’s Resistance Army can come to walk down the street with a feeling of relative safety. His confidence is by definition over-confidence, he knows; but it’s physiologically impossible to stay on high alert every moment of the day for the rest of one’s life. Eventually, the body settles. Somewhat.
They sell shockingly lightweight bulletproof vests, in America. Nobody at the shop questions why he needs one. Apparently it is normal to need a bulletproof vest here, which he finds oddly reassuring. He wears the vest under his suit at the tables of the Hollywood Park casino a few nights a week, playing conservatively, calculating rent and grocery costs in his mind as he strategizes.
There is a psychological primacy to elevated viewpoints, and there is a further particular appeal to standing on top of a city looking down when you walk around half-convinced you’re about to get shot. Le Chiffre has been in the city several months before he relaxes enough to go anywhere but between his small, hastily-rented apartment and the casino; but Griffith Observatory is free, and although it is full of tourists, so are casinos. He is no stranger to tacky polyester-clad masses, although he used to have the money to stay well away from them.
The tour group ambles along, snapping photos with their smartphones as if nobody has ever taken pictures of the inside of this place before. Le Chiffre makes aggressive eye contact with a woman in his tour group who’s trying to watch him dabbing at his eyes without being observed watching him. He pulls the cloth away from his face and allows red-tinged tears to trickle down his cheeks, and she quickly casts her eyes back down to her shoes.
He wipes his face and looks back up at the Zeiss refracting telescope. A thin, waiflike man is talking about the history of the telescope, but Le Chiffre is more interested in the present than the past. He breaks off from the group to wander around the edges, letting the history of the telescope the man is explaining wash over him. He can, indeed, see most of Los Angeles from this vantage point. There could be an assassin in the tour group, of course, but if there were, this would be a terrible place to kill him. Noon light washes through the observatory, and for the first time in a while, he allows himself to feel safe.
There’s a table in the corner, clearly the telescope director’s personal workspace. He flips over a stapled tour group schedule for the day. There’s a doodle of sorts on the other side, which looks like a painstaking kind of galaxy: spirals of dots, radiating outwards with strange irregular gaps in them that tug on something in his mind. He’s staring at the sheet of paper, lost in thought, when he realizes that the telescope speech has ended, and the tourists are beginning to mill around freely in the space.
“That’s mine,” comes a voice from behind him.
Le Chiffre turns. The man is thin and pale, but with the particular intensity of those who have maniacally followed an inexplicable passion to its logical destination in life. “You left it lying around in public,” he points out.
The man hesitates. “The social contract of personal property dictates that most people will leave alone items that clearly belong to another person, if they have a reasonable expectation that the owner would see them looking,” he says. He sounds uncertain, as if he’s reciting a lesson and asking Le Chiffre to confirm its truth.
Le Chiffre looks back down at the strange meticulous galaxies, and sees pencil-tracings that look like a spiderweb underneath. The shape resolves in front of his eyes into its true form. “Pairs of prime numbers in a polar coordinate system,” he says, holding the spirals up to the light. “All of the points where the arc length is equal to the distance from the origin, with the composite numbers removed. I mistook it for a galaxy. The pattern would be more obvious if you had a larger paper.”
The man’s eyes widen and for a moment it feels nearly obscene to Le Chiffre, looking at someone who allows their emotions to be painted so obviously on their face. He recovers from his surprise, and naked delight takes over. “Or a computer program,” he says. “But that would defeat the purpose. I get very nervous when I have to make speeches.”
Le Chiffre places the telescope director’s self-soothing doodle back on the table. He dabs at his eye, and the man watches curiously but doesn’t say anything stupid like excuse me, are you aware that you’re crying blood?
“What’s your name?” Le Chiffre asks him. The man had probably said his name in the speech, but he hadn’t been paying attention.
“Adam Raki.” Adam straightens the pile of papers in the desk that Le Chiffre had disturbed. “And yours?”
Le Chiffre takes a slow breath in. It passes into him clearly, his throat relaxed enough, but his fingers itch for the salbutamol in his pocket anyway. A nervous habit, not exactly helped by the atrocious air quality of LA.
He doesn’t want to give a name, hasn’t had one for a long time. The Numeral, Herr Ziffer, Le Chiffre; being the human representation of abstraction itself is comfortable. There’s a name on the passport he used to get into the US, but he doesn’t want to say it out loud, as if the incantation could call it into reality.
“Leo,” he says instead, elongating the last vowel awkwardly when he decides at the last moment that saying Leonhard would be tipping his hand.
“It’s very nice to meet you, Leo,” says Adam, extending his hand, the movement and the phrase sounding rehearsed. He shakes Adam’s hand, feeling the thin bones delicate enough that he imagines grinding them into powder.
“Would you like to play chess with me?” Le Chiffre asks, and that makes him reach for his inhaler in panic, because he hadn’t meant to offer that. Not when anyone he meets could be sent to kill him.
And, for the first time, he thinks, not when anyone I meet could be collateral damage when they come for me.
He doesn’t take it back, though. He hasn’t played chess in years; there’s hardly any money in it, at least not on the scale he’s used to. Besides, he now realizes, perhaps he hadn’t wanted to turn to the most beautiful game for income. Poker was for money, but chess is for love.
Plus, when you do something extremely clever in chess, you’re allowed to look pleased with yourself.
Adam hesitates again, his tongue swiping nervously over his lips. He glances down at his own desk, transparently evaluating his impression of the sort of man who can recognize the pattern of paired prime numbers in the polar space from an afternoon’s worth or messy doodling. “I’m not bad,” he says, “but I don’t know that I would be an interesting game for you.” It’s not a no.
Le Chiffre allows himself to smile, crooked teeth sharp against the flesh of his lips. “You already are.”
They play at Le Chiffre’s kitchen table on a Thursday night. Adam accepts a mug of tea at the beginning of the game but then never drinks it, the steam slowly dissipating and the drink cooling by his elbow. It’s true that he isn’t particularly experienced or sophisticated, and Le Chiffre wins every game, but the victories get more interesting every time. Without too much discussion and what feels like barely even any conscious decision, they play again the next Thursday, and the one after that.
Le Chiffre has always kept notebooks: practical topics, mostly, coded observations on finance and international relations and calculations on behalf of his clients. He starts writing down his games with Adam, instead; after Adam has left for the night, he sits on the sofa by the light of a single lamp and makes sure he can call each game to mind in its entirety and preserve it for safekeeping. Sometimes he sits up for longer, his notes and diagrams branching out and away from chess. It’s been a long time since he allowed himself to manipulate numbers and concepts for no reason other than pleasure, and no one’s financial gain.
He still enjoys the psychological manipulation of poker too much to give it up entirely, especially when Adam turns out to be more or less a brick wall. Adam never meets his eyes but he doesn’t seem to mind Le Chiffre staring at him, even when he allows blood to run down in rivulets between his nose and cheek. He tries throwing out unsettling questions a few times– what was the worst moment of your life? Why don’t you look at people properly?— but Adam just answers them without rancour (When I realized my dad was going to die and Because I have Asperger syndrome) and makes no jabs in reply.
He gets a reaction, finally, when one evening several months into their weekly games, he touches Adam’s hand absentmindedly where it lies on the table as he contemplates his next move. Adam startles out of his thoughts, then says, “Sorry, was I tapping?”
Adam’s fingers hadn’t been moving at all, Le Chiffre had simply wanted to see what reaction he would get if he touched them. “No,” he says, caught off guard in turn by the question.
“’Kay,” Adam mutters, and turns his attention back to the game. But when he puts his hand back on the table, his index finger is pressing against Le Chiffre’s.
Adam very nearly wins a chess game for the first time that night.
Escalation of physical contact is a game that Le Chiffre begins playing almost by accident, searching for that strange sweet surprise again. Adam is, disorientingly, either much better at this particular game than Le Chiffre, or completely unaware that they’re playing it. He starts staying after they’re finished with chess for the evening, migrating to the threadbare sofa to drink his cold tea and peer over Le Chiffre’s shoulder as he writes down their games from memory.
Adam leans their shoulders together, and when Le Chiffre gives in to curiosity and puts a hand in Adam’s hair, Adam leans his head forward and allows himself to be petted.
Adam begins winning the occasional game, though only when Le Chiffre is having trouble concentrating.
They’re sitting together on the sofa one night, nearly midnight and with the windows thrown open to admit the noises of the street below, when Le Chiffre realizes Adam is flipping past the game records in his notebook. Adam takes in the records of old poker games, and then flips forward to Le Chiffre’s more recent night-time explorations.
Le Chiffre tugs the notebook half-heartedly back towards him. “That’s mine,” he says.
Adam pulls it back. “I know,” he says, frowning at the page. “What–”
“it’s nothing,” Le Chiffre says, something uncomfortably close to embarrassment twisting in his gut. How strange.
“It’s not nothing,” says Adam. “I’m an engineer, I never got far enough into number theory to– but– you– you’re working on the Riemann hypothesis.”
It feels strangely like being flayed open, to have someone else see the private, unformed mathematical wanderings of his mind, and Le Chiffre wonders if this is how Adam had felt at the observatory.
“Leo,” continues Adam, and the name no longer feels all that strange so long as Le Chiffre reminds himself that he shares a namesake with any number of constants, equations, identities, and formulas, “If you prove this, there’s a million dollar prize. You could stop working at the casino. Not to mention you’d be the most important person in modern mathematics.”
Le Chiffre nearly wants to laugh in disbelief at Adam’s earnest tone, his seemingly genuine conviction that proving the Riemann hypothesis is a logical, feasible way for Le Chiffre to make money. Instead he just says, “A million dollars is not so much money.”
Adam narrows his eyes. “You lost a lot of money gambling once, didn’t you?” he asks. It’s not surprising that he’s figured it out; they’ve both dropped enough hints about themselves. Adam knows he works at the casino, although he probably thinks that he works for the casino instead of just using it as a venue for collecting revenue. He knows Le Chiffre has a past that he doesn’t want Adam to know about, for his own safety. It’s not a far leap of deduction.
Le Chiffre flicks a finger at the page. “If I proved this,” he says, “in fact, if I solved all remaining seven Millennium Prize problems, I would still not recoup even a tenth of the money I lost.”
Silence reigns for a few moments. “Yikes,” says Adam eventually.
Le Chriffre rests his chin on Adam’s head, sighing into his hair so that Adam can’t see the smile tugging at his lips. “Yes,” he agrees. “Yikes.”
Adam closes the notebook and hands it back to him. “Well, keep at it,” he says, like a strange but encouraging schoolteacher.
“I’d like to come live with you,” says Adam one day. They’re sitting at the kitchen table as they always do, a thrift store purchase which Le Chiffre has tried in vain to get the residual stickiness out of the wood grain, to no avail. “We wouldn’t have to live here. We could afford a larger place, if we lived together.”
Le Chiffre stares at the chess board between them. He has Adam, but it’s a ways away and he’s not sure if Adam sees it yet. He could also afford a larger apartment if he spent more time at the casino, took bigger risks– but if anything, he’s been there less, winning only the money he needs to live. Having an actual budget, a finite amount of money that dictates what he can and can’t have, is still a strange new constraint, but in many ways it’s more pleasant than the constraints that dictated his old life. The solution space of possible ways to live has changed, but not shrunk.
“I’d like to be close to the water,’ he says.
He can see the moment when Adam sees it, calculates through all feasible positions to the inevitable end of the game. “I resign,” he says, and Le Chiffre feels a flush of pride in Adam’s developing skills. A grandmaster is expected to know to resign earlier than a novice, after all. There is honour in understanding the right time to leave.
Adam sweeps away the pieces, and Le Chiffre begins resetting the board.
I stole Adam’s galaxy doodles from this gorgeous piece of mathematical pedagogy.
Le Chiffre names himself after Leonhard Euler; since there are an insane number of other things also named after Euler, it’s as close to a neutral name as he can get.