“Ah, Ms. Moreau. We’ve been expecting you.” The man behind the ticket window began in rapid-fire Russian. He paused and eyed her doubtfully. “You speak Russian?” He asked in halting English.
Virginie nodded. “Russian is fine.”
He returned to his native language with a smile of relief. “Here are your tickets. When are you expecting your travelling companion?”
“My what now?”
The ticket agent frowned down at his computer screen. “It says here that there will be two of you under this booking. You and a Mr. Gregory Sinclair.”
“There must be some mistake.” She was saying the words even as she realized the full horror of what was happening.
“No mistake, Ms. Moreau.”
“I see.” It was sheer will power that kept her from launching into a foaming tirade at Tyrellyon’s expense. “I’m afraid I have no idea when Mr. Sinclair will be arriving.”
“No problem.” The infuriating man smiled happily, completely unaware of her inner rage. “You can wait for him in the luxury lounge.”
Virginie quickly scanned the tickets in her hand. There were three. One to follow each route of the Trans-Siberian Railway. “Have the others arrived yet?”
“You are the first. Will you be needing any help with your…er…luggage?”
“No, thank you.”
She made her way immediately to a payphone. She rammed the coins into the slot with all the violence she wished she could direct towards Tyrellyon for what she considered to be his incomprehensible lack of trust in her.
The phone rang for what seemed like an eternity before it was finally answered. There was the sound of fussing, a whispered but vehement curse and then, “Tyrellyon here.”
“What the hell do you mean by sending Gregory?”
“Virginie! What a pleasant surprise!”
“I’m sorry I can’t say the same. Why on earth would you send Gregory to accompany me? I am telling you now, he may be capable in the office, but he will be a liability on this hunt.”
“Listen to me Virginie.” Tyrellyon soothed. “I am sacrificing a great deal by sending Gregory to you. Just now, I’ll have you know, I had to answer my own phone.” He paused tragically. Continued quickly when silence, tinged with an overt threat of violence, floated down the line at him. “Anyway, you’ll need someone to do the basic organising for you. He can consolidate your travel plans, book you hotel rooms, carry things, see that you’re well fed and watered…”
“And report back to you?”
“And report back to me. This is a serious business after all.”
“Very well, Tyrellyon, but if he’s more hassle than he’s worth, I’m sending him back to you airmail.”
“Ha! Jolly good. Save on return fare! Bon voyage, Virginie.”
Virginie slammed the phone into its cradle, then picked it up and slammed it again for good measure. It made her feel slightly better. Sighing in resignation, she swung her duffel bags over her shoulder and followed the signs through the crowded train terminal, down a marble paved corridor and through a set of gold and glass automatic doors to the lounge.
She set the bags on the floor beside an armchair tucked into a corner of the room with a clear view of the doorway and settled down for a long wait.
She must have dozed.
Virginie awoke suddenly, fully alert in the instant it took her to open her eyes. She had never been one of those people who awoke groggy and confused. She always knew where she was and what she had been doing.
Her eyes opened onto a bear of a man. Tall, with a thick head of white blond hair. He was sat across from her in another chair, watching her. She recognised him from his picture immediately.
“And you must be Tyrellyon’s champion. I didn’t get your name.”
She pulled herself up from her slouched position and took his offered hand. “Virginie Moreau.”
He grunted at her answer, then smiled suddenly, baring a set of big white teeth. “You are in for quite an adventure.”
“So Tyrellyon tells me.”
Ragnar’s smile faded. “Poor man. He must be crushed to be unable to take part this year. The fathers are very worried about him.”
“Our fathers, Tyrellyon’s contemporaries. I believe my father will be inviting Tyrellyon to visit him in Nairobi, just a small holiday to take his mind of things.”
“No doubt he’ll enjoy that. So your fathers are all still in contact with one another?”
“Our grandfathers were the best of friends, our fathers are the best of friends-” He paused delicately.
“And you? Are you friends?”
“More… competitors. Father always talks about what he calls the ‘good old days’. They spent more time with each other than they did with their families- with us.”
He gave her a strange look when she remained silent and she realized he’d probably been expecting some sort of soothing noise at his plea for sympathy. All she could muster was a slight twisting of her lips accompanied with a raised eyebrow of sympathy. People’s personal lives were of no interest to her whatsoever.
The automatic doors swung open with a soft swish of sound. Virginie glanced up as Ragnar craned his neck to observe the newest arrival to the lounge. A little stooped man entered, struggling to push two trolleys laden with Louis Vuitton trunks and followed closely by a man in a full length snow white fur coat. He swept in, ripped off his coat is a swirl of movement and threw it negligently over the shoulders of his stooped little assistant. His eyes settled on Virginie and Ragnar as he pulled off his white leather gloves.
“Ragnar.” A polite nod of his head accompanied the glacial tones of his voice.
Ali turned to Virginie and seemed to wait for her to introduce herself. Virginie gazed back, waiting for the same.
Good manners finally forced Ali to speak first. “You are Tyrellyon’s champion?”
She inclined her head. “That’s right.”
Ragnar shifted uncomfortably in his seat as the silence stretched to breaking point.
“Well, Ms. Moreau, it’s a pleasure to have you. I am sure you will represent Tyrellyon…to the best of your ability.” Ali said finally.
“That’s the general idea.”
Ali turned and gestured for an attendant. “I could use a drink. What’ll you have Ragnar?”
“Gin and tonic.”
“Whiskey for me.” Virginie’s words stopped Ali in the middle of his order. “Straight-up.” She winked at his murderous expression.
“Already at it?” The new speaker drew their eyes back to the door. Kenji was in the middle of handing his coat to his personal assistant, a steely eyed well dressed young man. “It’s morning yet.”
There was an explosion of sound from the other side of the glass and gold doors of the lounge.
“Oh! I am terribly sorry. Oh! No, please let me-”
The men in the room had turned towards the door at the sound of the crash, but it was Virginie, hearing Gregory’s sad plaintive tones, who strode towards the door.
They shifted apart gently, belying the urgency of the moment, to reveal Gregory struggling to his feet with papers and folders overflowing from his briefcase. A large coffee stain splattered his suit jacket and shirt. Virginie followed his gaze to the man towering over him in a rage.
Georgis Seyoum gestured angrily at the tiny spot of coffee on his elegant suede loafers. “Idiot. Why don’t you watch where you are going?”
“I’m so sorry. I was rushing and I just didn’t see you until it was too late.”
“And my coffee?” A hand slashed towards the overturned styrofoam mug bleeding its contents onto the marble floor.
“Gregory’s already apologized. I think that’s enough under the circumstances.” Virginie’s calm voice drew all eyes to her.
Georgis’s eyes fixed on her face with something akin to utter shock. “And just who are you.”
“For the purposes of this hunt, I am Tyrellyon.”
Kenji gave a shout of laughter. When Virginie glanced at him she found his face utterly devoid of emotion. The humour of the moment had passed.
“Gregory,” Virginie gestured to the man staring at her as a damsel would a brave knight, “come along. I want to talk to you.”
They re-entered the lounge and went to her little corner.
“Why are you here Gregory?”
He blinked in confusion. “Surely Mr. Tyrellyon told you?”
“Told me what? I knew nothing of your coming with me until the ticket agent mentioned ‘a companion’.”
“The contestants always travel with an assistant. Just to do the paperwork, sort out hotel rooms-”
She held up a hand. “Yes, Tyrellyon explained.” She eyed him doubtfully. “You’ve gone with Tyrellyon before?”
Gregory shifted amongst his files, struggling to scrunch all the papers back into his briefcase. “No…” He finally admitted. “I haven’t gone, but I do know all about it. And I am an excellent secretary, even Mr. Tyrellyon would confirm that fact. Not one secretary stayed beyond a couple weeks before I came. They couldn’t bear him or he couldn’t bear them. But I-”
“How can you help me if you don’t know any more than I do?” Her steady gaze fixed on him.
Gregory shifted uncomfortably under her appraisal.
“It seems to me, Gregory, that your lack of experience could even be considered a liability.”
“I know all I need to know to help you through this.” He straightened his back, more sure of himself now. “Look,” he gestured to all the assistants milling around in a corner of the room together while their bosses glared at each other from various parts of the room, “all the other contestants have brought their assistants. Why should you be the only one to do without? And who knows what you might face?”
“Ragnar doesn’t have an assistant.” She pointed out flatly.
“Yes he does,” Gregory countered, “I saw him at one of the duty free shops buying cigarettes and booze for Mr. Skorj.”
Virginie retreated with a sigh of resignation. Gregory, seeing her surrender, smiled enthusiastically and began rummaging in his little drag along suitcase for a change of shirt.
He excused himself to go to the toilet to change, then nearly barrelled into the last of the contestants as he walked out of the room.
So that was how the sixth and last contestant entered the lounge. Late and rather dramatically with a string of Gregory’s apologies trailing in behind him.
“Late as usual, Hugo.” Ragnar chewed an ice cube as he eyed the new arrival.
Hugo Vidal glanced at his watch and arched an eyebrow. “I have it at two minutes to seven.”
Virginie sat in her seat and watched them all, sipping slowly, contemplatively from her whiskey. These five men would be her competitors. She eyed them all up. Each man looked to be in good health and peak physical condition. She knew from their files that they were all relatively young men and that they all led active lives. But she also knew that they all, with the exception of Hugo, had families. Wives and children, one even had a mistress, and such attachments restrained the fighting spirit to some extent. People with loved ones had the handicap of wanting to go back to them. She on the other hand, had no such attachments.
A clock somewhere struck the hour. Virginie counted the bells, could see from their focused eyes, their moving lips, that some of the other men were counting them as well.
On the seventh bell the light snapped off, and the room, windowless, was plunged into a sudden darkness. By the time a projector in the wall above the bar began whirring a millisecond later, Virginie had already pulled the dagger from her boot. She snapped it back in an instant and a quick glance around the room showed her that the men were too busy watching the screen at the opposite end of the room to notice her.
The image of a white haired man in an elegant white suit wavered on the screen for an instant before it settled. A soundtrack kicked in.
The man in the white suit smiled and began to speak in a cool elegant voice that oozed good breeding and refinement.
“Welcome competitors to The 75th Annual International Scavenger Hunt.”