“Good evening Mr. Tyrellyon.”
But his vocabulary had been extinguished. John could only stare, paused mid action with a glass raised halfway to his mouth.
“Why thank you sir.” She smiled.
“You er-” He finally settled down his glass and strode across the crowded deck. “You just arrived?”
Virginie glanced at the slender gold band encircling her wrist. “I’ve been here for two hours.”
Impossible! “But-” John sputtered. “Why didn’t you let me know you’d arrived?”
“I assumed this was some kind of test? You wanted to see if I could fit in?”
His eyes darted guiltily. “What? No!” Unwillingly they settled on her wrist, elegant and fine boned. At complete and utter odds with the sheer…well, masculine presence she’d exuded earlier that day in his office. In fact… His eyes travelled over her tall, slender form encased in a simple one shouldered gown of black chiffon. She looked completely and utterly feminine, as though there had never been another side to her. He wondered now, studying her delicately pretty face, how many ‘others’ she sheltered within her?
“I’m beginning to believe,” her husky voice broke into his thoughts and she gestured gently for a passing waiter, “that you’re actually considering me for the job.” She smiled politely at the waiter and removing two brimming champagne flutes, held one out to him. “Santé?”
John took in the sight of her. With the dark cascade of hair falling about her face, dressed to perfection like a 1950s screen goddess she looked every bit the society belle. His mind flashed to the CV sat on his desk. He knew in that instant that he’d hire her. That she was more than equal to the task at hand. Those chocolate eyes were looking into his, asking a very serious question but asking with good grace and a flash of humour that he found utterly charming. She wouldn’t make a scene if he didn’t return her toast. She would be a lady up until the end.
John smiled. “Santé.” he answered. He knew he’d made the right decision when she drained her glass in one go. Why, he almost expected her to smash her glass in celebration!
He stepped forward and linked his arm through hers. She raised an eyebrow but went along when he began leading her away from the crowd.
John led her down to his sumptuous cabin; the noise retreating behind them till it was only a dull throb of sound. He closed the door behind them and gestured to the plush armchairs set intimately in a corner. “Have a seat. Drink?” He was already pouring himself one.
“Why not?” She accepted the drink and watched him as he rummaged at a desk and returned to sink into the chair opposite her. He hooked his cane over the arm and leaned forward to pass her the small rectangular box in his hand.
Virginie popped open the little gold catch and lifted the lid to reveal a scroll nestled on a setting of crimson velvet. “Ooh la la…”
John shifted uncomfortably. “You must understand that in my day, style and pizazz were attributed to both men and women.”
Her eyes settled on his gravely. “Of course.” She soothed.
He didn’t miss the momentary quirking of her lips. “Just read the scroll.” He watched her unroll it.
“Is this gold leaf?”
He ignored her. There were several minutes of silence as she read.
She looked up finally. “What are the particulars? Do you have the list yet?”
He sipped slowly form his glass. “Not yet. The list arrives at exactly 3pm every year on June 7th. That’s when the race begins.”
“So how do you prepare?”
“You can’t, my dear chap – er – madam. That’s the point.”
“You competed last year?”
“Yes, but the things on the list are different each year.”
“They would have to be or it wouldn’t be much of a race. Still, it will give me an idea of what I should expect. It will also be useful to have a list of the other competitors if you can get it. I’d like to know what I’m up against.”
“Back to being the consummate professional, eh?”
Virginie lowered the papers onto her lap and studied him thoughtfully. “I like you Mr. Tyrellyon. I think you’re an honest man, a sportsman and a bit of an old fashioned gent. I like that combination. But you’ve hired me to do a job. If I’m to accept this commission I want total honesty from you.”
“You have it.”
“And absolute trust.”
“That comes in time. You earn trust.”
She smiled. “We both need each other in this endeavour. Let’s not, either of us, pretend a mastery or control that doesn’t exist.”
“I’ll toast to that.” John leaned forward and offered his glass.
Their glasses met on a ring of agreement.
John pushed to his feet with renewed vigour and set aside his drained glass. He grabbed up his cane. “Any objection with starting right away.”
“None at all.”
“Good, good.” He led the way to his desk and pushed its contents to the corners, clearing a space in the middle. He pulled a box out of a cabinet, rummaged amongst its contents and emerged a moment later with a wad of paper. He spread it out on the desk and secured its corners with a paperweight and a carton of cigarettes. “This is last years map.”
Virginie bent over the map. Her extended finger traced over the little ‘x’s. “Greenland, New Zealand, Uzbekistan, Lebanon, Belgium… These are just all over the place, there’s no pattern?”
“Oh, no! It’s all completely random. The locations are chosen every year by a committee of judges chosen in secret by another committee of secret judges. Each judge recommends a location and a relic and there you have it! It is a very honoured and sacred tradition.” He finished solemnly.
“So… let me get this straight. It can be anywhere to get…anything?”
“Give me an example please.”
“Last year I won level five which was…er…” he hesitated “retrieving a certain diamond from a certain museum in…Europe.”
“I read about that in the newspapers.” She was watching him now with something akin to respect. “So this may involve breaking the law. You never mentioned that before.”
John felt sudden deflated. In the middle of all the excitement he had not anticipated any resistance. “I understand,” he began carefully, “that it may be a problem for some people…” He trailed off, unsure how to proceed.
“Oh,” she looked up, “it won’t be a problem for me. I just didn’t know.”
John watched her. Was this yet another side to her? The Criminal?
She was looking at the map again. “You know Tyrellyon… I think I’m going to enjoy this…”
She’d dropped the mister and John found he rather liked the informality of it. Even if Tyrellyon had a bit of a military ring to it… it couldn’t be helped, he supposed.
“Do the same people compete year after year?”
“Yes. It’s sort of a hereditary thing. My grandfather and his friends began it. Once you get the ticket,” he held up his ring, “you take part until you are no longer able.” He tapped his cane unconsciously.
“Do you know who’ll be taking part this year?”
“There are always six of us altogether. The others are Kenji Yamomoto from Japan, Ragnar Skorj from Finland, Hugo Vidal from Argentina, Ali Housseini from Syria and Georgis Seyoum from Ethiopia.”
“Do you have any intel on these men?”
“Extra information like what they do, hobbies, personal information? Anything at all to give me an unfair advantage?”
“I like the way you think!” He smiled, going to the phone. “I’ll ask Gregory to get on that right away.”
Virginie glanced at her watch. “It’s 11pm.”
“Oh he won’t mind.”
She looked doubtful but returned to studying the map as he made his call.
A blurry and dazed sounded Gregory finally picked up after what had to have been the twenty-fifth ring.
“Gregory, you sound horrible!”
“Mr. Tyrellyon? Wha-?”
“I’ve given her the job, Gregory. Prepare that contract. And also get me some…er, intel on the other contestants.”
“For God’s sake Gregory, information! Background information! Okay, now read that back to me.”
“Read what? For God’s sake sir, I-”
“Read back what I’ve just told you to do for me.”
“Uh… well… prepare contract, information on contestants?”
“Excellent Gregory, excellent. That will do. Get some sleep, you sound as though you could use some.”
“It occurs to me to ask you…” Virginie turned to him as he put the phone down.
“What exactly can I expect, in terms of rules of engagement?”
“As far as that goes,” John shrugged and leant thoughtfully on his cane, “it’s pretty much anything goes, I’m afraid. There are, of course, some general points of good manners that we are encouraged to adhere to, but you’ll find even that’s not always the case.”
“Will I need weapons? Will there be any danger for my life?”
“You’ll need weapons. More for those you might encounter than to use against those competing. Hardly anyone ever dies in our little hunt.”
“And the danger?”
“Oh, trust me…Moreau,” he copied her with a smile, “there will be danger. But then I thought that was why you were here?”
She inclined her head. “We have one week until the sixth. You must give me time to gather my supplies and prepare some things. Will you be in Monte Carlo on the sixth?”
“But of course!”
“I shall meet you at your office, then, on the morning of the sixth. In the meantime, please have Gregory send me all the information he finds on the contestants.” She passed him a sleek eggshell coloured business card.
“What if I need to see you personally before the sixth? We need to be working very closely on this. I can’t afford to have you making any mistakes.”
“Don’t worry; we’ll video conference every day until I return.”
“Ask Gregory. I’m sure he’ll know what I mean.”
John gave an indignant huff. “Madam,” he began coldly, “I know perfectly well what a video conference is, but it simply won’t do. Where are you planning to go? I can meet you there in a couple of days for a progress report.”
“That won’t be possible.”
“And why not?”
“My house isn’t built for entertainment.”
“I’m not asking for any. It is business we’ll be discussing, remember?”
She just stopped a snort of impatience from escaping. “If you insist-”
“Very well, then. I live in Iceland. On a little island just on the Arctic Sea. It does get quite inhospitable, however, no matter what time of year it is.”
“Inhospitable…” John echoed thoughtfully.
“So bring along as much winter gear as you can. Snow boots, furs, the lot.”
“Well…now I think of it, perhaps I’ll only be in the way.”
She nodded. “I understand.” She held out her hand. “I’ll see you in a week.”
Unable to resist a perfect set-up, John gave a debonair bow over her hand and raised it to his lips.
The motorcycle leant precariously to one side, was kept firm by the sheer skill of its driver, and rounded the corner at euphoric speeds. The night was quiet and wonderfully cool. She’d gathered up the long skirt of her gown and turned it into a short of sorts with the end tucked beneath her. She’d pulled on a leather jacket and the warm sheep wool underside kept her comfortably warm. Her journey was almost over. She’s crossed the border into France not long ago and already she was nearing her tiny cottage that nestled against the edge of a little wood just at the end of a small village. She took the path that ran alongside the village, allowing her to bypass the sleeping residents.
As she rode, her mind was full of plans. She thought of the favours she could call in, the friends who might be game, the skills she had that may come in handy. Excitement pulsed through her. Was it coming at last? The new life she’s always dreamed of? This opportunity definitely seemed like a good beginning.