Smoke filled his office, billowed and streaked in pretty patterns where it met the fresh breeze filtering in through the open French windows. John watched the smoke, even though it meant that the over-bright afternoon sunshine was blazing directly into his eyeballs. It was times like this that he missed the brisk, cool snap of the British autumn. At heart, John was an Englishman, born and bred. Sitting here now, he wondered if it was time to reopen the estate in Yorkshire. The only problem was that country life didn’t suit him. And London was far too inclusive nowadays. He loved rubbing shoulders with the young, beautiful and moneyed. And truth be told, while autumn was, as a season, lovely with its changing leaves, winter could be brutal. And if it wasn’t the billowing snows of Switzerland, it was the sad, intermittent rain of England. No good whatsoever, he was destined to live in the heat. Thinking of snow led him to thinking about Iceland and his eyes stole across his office to the woman draped over the sofa in the corner. Dressed casually in jeans, ankle boots and t-shirt, hair pulled back into a ponytail, she looked again, like another woman entirely. One that seemed young and free and without a care in the world. At least, she would have done had it not been for the rather unfortunate fact that she was cleaning one of her fingernails with a wicked looking dagger.
What a mystery she still was. He had his suspicions about her so-called home in Iceland. He’d changed his mind about joining her there and sent Gregory to track her but to no avail. He didn’t bother airing his suspicions, he had come to understand one thing about her. She was cautious. If she felt that she could trust him in time, she would let him know all about her. And yet, he wondered if that day would ever come. She was contracted to him for a very short time and then she would be on her merry way. Yet, for some reason John couldn’t fathom, he was rather curious about Virginie Moreau. He crushed the cigarette he was smoking into a crystal ashtray and immediately lit another.
She glanced at her watch. John could have glanced at the little clock on his desk, but he frankly couldn’t bear the silence another second.
“What time is it?”
“I could use a drink.”
She slanted him a look. “If I’ve learned one thing about you Tyrellyon, it’s that you can always use a drink.”
He hobbled over to his mini-bar and tilted a glass in her direction in a sarcastic toast. “To the social lubricator.” He poured a generous measure of scotch into his glass.
Virginie sheathed her dagger and turned onto her back. She pulled a folder open on her chest and began leafing through the sheets.
“How can that thing help you now?”
“Haven’t you ever heard the saying ‘to be forewarned is to be forearmed’?”
Virginie couldn’t make out the response he muttered into his glass, around a sip. She returned to the papers in front of her.
Kenji Yamomoto: thirty-seven year old Japanese technology tycoon. A fifth Dan black-belt in Jujitsu, he climbed and descended Mount Fuji every year in two hours and had just accomplished a lifelong ambition to climb Mount Everest.
Ragnar Skorj: thirty-nine year old shipping tycoon from Finland. Actually of Estonian birth he’d been adopted into a Finish family as a baby. He competed often in the Iditarod, piloted his own aircraft in his travels, and had famously survived a fight with a wolf while gathering firewood near his family cottage in Hammerfest, Norway.
Hugo Vidal of Argentina was the youngest competitor at thirty-six and the only bachelor. While the other men didn’t have sons of age to take their place, Hugo’s father had enjoyed the unfair advantage of having married the earliest. Hugo’s family had made their fortune in cattle. They owned ranches all over South America and the beef from their stock was considered some of the best in the world. Hugo was a powerful sportsman, proficient at polo, fencing and sailing.
Ali Husseini was a thirty-eight year old oil baron from Syria. He was to be found, more often than not, in the desert enjoying the nomadic lifestyle he insisted was in his blood. Perhaps a little strangely, the other half of the time, he was to be found in the Alps somewhere where he enjoyed cross country skiing and even snowboarding from time to time.
Georgis Seyoum from Ethiopia was descended from a long line of enterprising farmers who’d branched out into growing flowers, which in the country’s Mediterranean climate, grew lush all year round. Georgis at the age of forty was the most recent of the men to marry when just several months ago, and to the world’s surprise, he’d married a handsome and accomplished Russian woman of fifty-three. Georgis was an adrenaline junky and when he wasn’t leaping out of planes he was racing Richard Branson around the world in his hot-air balloon.
These were all men of adventure and no little daring. She was going to have to use all her resources and cunning to beat them. She looked forward to the challenge.
“Vidal won last year?”
“If you can call what he did winning.” John hissed. “The insufferable popinjay. The cheat!”
“I’m sure the others said the same about you when you won?”
It wasn’t really a question, so John ignored her.
“What happens to your spot then? After this year?” Virginie asked baldly.
“You know…” John regarded her over his glass with narrowed eyes. “When the club was started by our grandfathers there wasn’t any real plan. It was a moment of passion, of pure inspiration.” Carried away by the power of his speech, he pushed himself to his feet and walked slowly towards the French windows, leaning heavily on his cane. “Imagine it.” He commanded with a flourishing sweep of his cane. “Six young men from all around the world. They are sent by their families to boarding school in Switzerland. The year was 1935-”
“Plenty of time.” John hushed her, swinging around to face her, his face lit by the sun and an inner glow of excitement and recollection. “As I was saying- It was 1935 in Rolle, Switzerland. Six men had met at Le Rosey Academy six years before and had become fast and firm friends. My grandfather was eighteen on the day they began their first adventure. Can you imagine what it took? The testicular fortitude-?”
“To run out of school with a stash of their parent’s considerable wealth?”
John turned to face her. “You know Virginie, you…eh… you have a way about you…” He accused.
She had the grace to look slightly embarrassed and he was free to continue his story. “And for your information,” he resumed, “they didn’t run out of school. Well, they did, but they returned. Well, they were brought back.” He huffed. “You’ve completely thrown off my story with your interruptions. Needless to say they remained the best of friends and met every year for this event. When I inherited my father’s place at thirty, I was so honoured and excited to be apart of such a noble and adventurous undertaking.”
Virginie looked set to interrupt at his use of ‘noble’ but a strange fondness for the old man kept her silent.
“In those days it was still about the camaraderie. The contest was of course paramount, but the times we all seemed to enjoy best were the ones we spent socialising and enjoying each others company. Now-” he snorted. “All these young-bloods. They have no interest in the sweet life. It’s all rushing to win and rushing to go home.” His voice trailed away wistfully.
Watching him standing there, framed within the open French windows, a cigarette handing off his lip, leaning on his cane, Virginie was suddenly struck by how lonely he was. All his friends, busy with their children, their grandchildren, and here was Tyrellyon, left on his own, struggling to keep alive a past that was never going to return.
She wondered if she should say something soothing. She slid her legs off the sofa and sat up but no words came to her. She was unused to saying what she should say. She’d only ever been good at saying what needed to be said.
The shrill ringing of the phone put a stop to her struggles, and John’s musings. They both scrambled to get it. John flung his glass out the window instead of his cigarette in the utter panic of the moment and cursed long and hard.
“Hello?” Virginia frowned at his antics as she spoke into the receiver.
“John Tyrellyon, please.” A cool, high-class voice came across the line.
“I am his champion.”
There was a pause. “Due to the delicate nature of the enterprise we need Mr. Tyrellyon to confirm that fact, I’m afraid.”
She rolled her eyes and handed the phone back to an annoyed John who yanked it for her fingers.
“Tyrellyon speaking. What? Yes. Virginie Moreau. Er…yes…Ms. Now there’s nothing in the rule about gender-”
Having grown impatient, Virginie pressed the loudspeaker button and ignored John’s affronted look as she settled down at the desk to listen.
“That may be, Mr. Tyrellyon, but I’m afraid the question will have to be put before the other contestants before I can confirm your choice of champion.”
“Nonsense.” John roared good-naturedly. “You seem to forget young man that I am the grandson of one of the founding members. You leave the others to me. Now stop wasting my time, and fill us in.”
“Very well.” The cool voice was positively glacial now. “All contestants are to meet at the Yaroslavsky Rail Terminal in Moscow at seven am tomorrow morning. Ticket’s will be waiting under the contestants names for the Trans-Siberian Railway. This year, there are some further rules… due to last year’s…unpleasantness. Contestants are allowed to use any form of travel, except aeroplanes and helicopters. Travel to Moscow at the beginning and return travel home at the end of the hunt are of course the only exceptions. Use of any GPS devices and mobile phones are also strictly forbidden. Nothing else has been changed. As in all previous years, further instructions for the hunt are given as you go along the various stages. Good luck and bon voyage.”
John ended the call and turned to Virginie. “You’ll take my private jet.” He was already on the intercom to Gregory.
Virginie was crouched near the mini-bar where she’d been storing the supplies she’s brought with her from home. She’d packed three separate duffel bags. One with supplies, one with gear for winter and another one for summer. June in Russia was a comfortable but cool twenty degrees Celsius on average. Her mind was on the journey ahead. She considered what she knew of the Trans-Siberian Railway route. She thought of the men she’d be meeting for the first time in Moscow tomorrow. What prizes could be strewn along the railway’s route? She imagined that treasures abounded in that part of the world, as they did everywhere really.
She straightened and turned to find John staring at her with anxious excitement flaring in his eyes. “Everything’s been arranged. But we need to hurry if you’re going to catch the flight from Nice. Do you have everything you need?”
“Yes, but I’m hoping airport security will be…light?”
“Oh, darling, everything’s different when you’re travelling by private jet. Pack an arsenal if need be.”
“I have.” She indicated her duffel bags with a smile.
“Where is the rest?” John asked, glancing around the office.
“Rest of what?”
“Your supplies. You can’t mean to take only those three duffel bags?”
“Two,” she winked, “the third was a precautionary measure. I travel light. And don’t worry,” she soothed as he looked set to interrupt, “I come equipped with a vast network.”
Gregory appeared in the doorway. “The car is here, Mr. Tyrellyon.”
John turned to her. “In that case, Virginie, this is farewell.” He held out his hand. “Please keep in touch as often as you can. I want constant updates. Let me know how every little thing is going.”
“I will, Tyrellyon, don’t you worry.”
He watched her go, more jealous than anything else.