“Row 22,” the note said. It was signed “A.B.,” but the initials weren’t necessary; I’d recognized the handwriting.

The flight attendant standing in the aisle waited for my reply.

“Tell him I’ll come back in a minute,” I said.

“Thank you, ma’am,” she replied, with a hint of the South in her words, and returned to coach with my answer.

Flight 439 from Berlin to Washington, DC, was more than halfway across the Atlantic, traveling with the sun and gaining five hours. Lucky me, I thought, the worst day of my life will be 29 hours long. If I could have bought an International Date Line,

right here, right now, I’d have done it—then crossed that line and lost this day.

Next to me is my 4-year-old, Robin, and, across the aisle, my husband, Martin. When awake, they do not look at all alike—their eyes and expressions are too different—but, asleep and peaceful, it is clear they are father and son. Their profiles, set against the drawn, white window shades, are the same handsome mix of European bloods.

The three of us have spent many hours on planes. That is part of life in the diplomatic corps, where I have worked for 15 years. At the start of my career, I was assigned to embassies in Ecuador, Bulgaria, and Russia; it was in Greece where Martin and I met and married; and, since Robin’s birth, I’ve been stationed in Brazil and Germany.

After my first seven years, there was a stateside tour, one of those “refresher” years that each of us is given so we don’t lose touch with the country we’re representing. You never think you need it; then you go home and learn again how fast a country and a culture can change. Seven more years have passed, and it is time for another tour back home.

I looked at the note in my hand. “Row 22. A.B.” Andrew Barrett. I hadn’t seen him get onboard, nor was he anywhere in the Berlin terminal, but if an ambassador doesn’t want to be seen, he won’t be.

Unbuckling my seat belt, I stood up, took a slow, full breath, then walked past the rear rows of first class and continued back to coach, back to Row 22. On my left, in an aisle seat, sat a Marine from the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. If any soldier could be said to be standing at attention while sitting down, this one was. His head did not turn, though his eyes moved to me, and he gave the slightest of nods, which I returned.

In the row to my right, Andrew Barrett sat alone, next to the window. My friend, my mentor, he was “Mr. Ambassador” when we were in the embassy, “Andrew” when we were not. Despite more than 40 years as a diplomat, he neither looks nor acts like one, for he has never adopted the smooth demeanor so prevalent in the foreign-service community. Instead, his white hair is cut short, his face is weathered, and he gives the impression of an outdoorsman who has, only grudgingly, put on a starched shirt and a tie.

In the middle of Andrew’s row, the seatback table was down and on it was a chessboard, with every piece in its starting square—except one. The ambassador held the black king’s bishop before him, regarding it. Sensing my presence, he did not look at me, but instead gestured for me to sit down, which I did, in Seat C.

“During my first posting, in East Timor,” Andrew said, as if he was talking to himself, “I used to play against the British political officer. He claimed he was an atheist and didn’t believe in any god, but, whenever we played chess and he captured a bishop, he always talked to it, very quietly, under his breath.

“In East Timor, you are glad for anyone to talk to, but an atheist giving confession to a chess piece? I never knew what he whispered to the bishops, but every confession is the same; it’s always about betrayal—of honor, trust, or love.” Andrew reached over, put the bishop onto its square, and said, “I thought you’d want to have a last game.”

“I’d like that.”

“Black or white?”

“White,” I said, and he rotated the board a quarter-turn, so that the 16 white chess pieces were in front of me. I’ve always liked the moment before a chess game starts: The sides are even, the possibilities are endless, and there are rules to this war.

“What are you thinking?” Andrew asked.

“I wish that life was more like chess,” I said, trying to keep my voice neutral. “Here, a white piece never turns traitor, and a black piece never knocks out another black piece. There is no palace intrigue, and you always know who’s on your side.”

(End of excerpt)