“This year we have something rather unusual in store for you. Unlike previous years, you will be following a pre-existing route- that of the Trans-Siberian Railway. As you may or may not know the Trans-Siberian Railway is comprised of three routes. The Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Vladivostok is one of the longest train routes in the world at over 9,000km. There are also two other routes, the Trans-Manchurian from Moscow to Beijing and the Trans-Mongolian from Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia. You have in your possession, tickets that cover the entire line as well as permission to use any local trains if you feel the need to. You tickets allow you to hop on and off the train as the hunt requires and as you desire. Your accommodations are,” a polite laugh here, “of course, first class. There are two bunks in each compartment and each contestant will be sharing it with their assistant.”
“For God’s sake!” The exclamation came from Ragnar and he turned to glare at Georgis when the other man hushed him with a slash of his hand.
The man in white continued. “How you plan your journey is up to you. Remember some clues can be misleading. On a serious note, please be aware that this event does come with its share of risks and dangers. Always conduct yourself with caution and care as you will only have the Scavenger Hunt bank cards with the set budget to last you the trip. No more will be given and we certainly do not want a repeat of the Chilean fiasco.”
There was a general murmur of assent, causing Virginie to glance around curiously. She noticed that Kenji drained his glass of wine and glanced angrily at his assistant.
“I advise you all to make your way to the platform. The train is about the depart and the journey to begin. In your compartments you will find this year’s list as well as a dossier on the Trans-Siberian Railway and its destinations that you will find very useful. So remember.” A hearty clap of the hands here. “Do your best, always play fair, and above all else…” the man in white leaned forward intimately and winked, “have a good time!”
The lights blinked on to the groaning of the blinded occupants of the room and the screen rolled discreetly up into the ceiling. Virginie stood and gestured Gregory, who had entered during the screening and remained quietly by the doors, over.
“Do you have your tickets?”
He lifted aside his suit jacket and rummaged in his bum-pack. “Yes.” He glanced up and caught her expression. “These things are very safe.” He muttered defensively. “I bet you nothing goes missing thanks to this little device. Do you want me to hold your passport and tickets for you?”
“No, thank you. I’m fine.” She yanked her duffel bags over her shoulder and joined the little cluster of assistants hauling luggage, followed by the contestants at a more sedate and leisurely pace, moving towards the platform.
Virginie pushed through the throng that crowded alongside the train. The steel structure waited, it’s great engines steaming, every now and then roaring with sound. The clamour of voices, farewells, excited bartering at the kiosks and annoyed exclamations all merged together into a dull roar. Loud enough to deafen. She smiled. She’d missed this feeling. The beginning of the unknown. The feeling of free falling. It was exhilarating.
Her eyes settled on a little crowded kiosk, manned by a rotund woman, occupied at the moment with gesturing angrily back and forth with her neighbouring kiosk’s owner.
“Hold these.” Virginie dumped the handles of the duffel bags into Gregory’s waiting hand, then had to reach out quickly to catch him when he tipped over under the weight.
“Careful, Gregory.” Virginie smiled grimly as she set the bags gently on the floor. “This is very…fragile cargo.”
She left him staring after her as she strode to the kiosk. He was still staring when she returned a minute later with two bulging plastic bags.
He eyed them warily. “What did you buy?”
“Some provisions.” She handed him the plastic bags and returned her bags to her shoulders.
Gregory looked inside and wrinkled his nose. “Bottled water. Pot noodles?”
She’d already disappeared into the crowd.
He gathered his briefcase and the plastic bags in one hand, his drag along suitcase in the other and ran along until he’d caught up with her.
“Pot noodles?” He asked again.
“The dining car is overpriced and we need to budget our money carefully. There are always samovars in the carriages on long train rides in this part of the world. The pot noodles won’t spoil and are easy to eat. You understand?”
“Ms. Moreau, do you know how much each competitor’s Scavenger Hunt bank account contains?”
“One million pounds.”
“Exactly. One million pounds.” He stressed. “Enough to get wonderful food that… spoils.”
“Was it one million pounds during the year of the Chilean incident?”
He sighed. “It probably was. Point taken.”
Virginie pulled herself fluidly onto the train and watched while Gregory boarded, then struggled to pull his suitcase in with him. When a queue began to build she finally put aside her amusement to reach over and lift the shockingly light bag onto the train. She showed her ticket to the waiting attendant then went in the direction of her compartment, leaving Gregory to rummage desperately in his bum-pack for his tickets.
The compartment was as small as she’d known it would be and nowhere as large as she’s hoped against hope. It was neat and tidy enough. The thick red curtains arranged in an arch over the window with a little TV suspended in the centre gave the room a western bordello feel. As did the wafer thin duvets also covered in a velvety red material.
She set her bags down into a corner and went straight for the folder laid across the rightmost bunk. She sat on the bed and stared at the first page.
75th Annual International Scavenger Hunt
- The Falling American
- ‘Propter pinguia et tenera folia…’
- Sit Among Four Kings in the House of Bliss
- The Last Tzar’s Epaulette
- The Jewel within the City within the Republic within the Federation
- A Long Song
- Enter Through Divine Might
- The Egg in the Poplar Tree
- The Peaceful Sea and the Golden Horn
- Von Rothbart’s Cape
Gregory burst in, interrupting her focus and drawing her eyes. “Ooh, is that the list?” He plonked down beside her with such exuberance that Virginie bounced.
“There is another copy on your bunk.” She pointed across the compartment. “Over there.”
He went with a sigh.
A sudden, shrill sound ripped the air. Several whistles were blown and the engines that had been idling roared to violent life. A moment later, the train began to move.
Virginie pulled aside the white net curtain and looked outside at the slowly retreating platform. Some children waved as they watched the train roll past. Gregory waved back. After a moment of hesitation, Virginie joined him. She couldn’t stop the smile that curled her lips. The train picked up speed slowly, she could feel the forward rush of movement, her body drawn forward by the lurching of the steel giant she sat within.
Gregory sat back finally with a sigh. “Shall we go to the dining car and have some breakfast.”
“You go ahead. I’d rather make a plan for the hunt.”
His smiled faded. “I’d better stay and help you.”
She glanced up. “That won’t be necessary.”
“Ms. Moreau, I am here to help you.”
“It’s Virginie.” Her eyes returned to the folder on her lap. “Then if you want to help,” she gestured to his bunk, “help.”
He hesitated for a moment, drawing her eyes back to him. “What is it now, Gregory?”
“Maybe it’s a good idea if I just run to the dining car and grab us some breakfast to eat here.”
She shrugged. “As you wish, Gregory. Only please, let me work. Please.”
“I’ll be right back.” He was back an instant later. “What do you want?” He took one look at her face and waved a hand quickly. “I’ll just grab you something, shall I?” He vanished around the side of the door.
Virginie studied the list, focusing calmly on each item. It was no good. The list was almost useless on its own. She needed to do her homework. She knew that it was still a six hour and thirty minute journey to the next stop, the town of Nizhny Novgorod. Until then, she was no further behind then any of the other contestants. They were all trapped on the train together until that first stop. The only problem was that Virginie doubted she’d be able to figure out what items all the clues on the list alluded to in just six hours, which meant she ran the risk of going back and forth over the continent, without plan or foresight to find all the items on the list. Virginie much preferred travelling in a straight line. She planned, as much as was possible, to do just that.
When Gregory returned, balancing a tray loaded with sandwiches, fruit and bottles of pop, she was lying on the bed surrounded by travel guides and maps. He set the tray down carefully onto the tiny table between their two bunks and fumbled briefly with the sandwich’s packaging.
His eyes rolled back in his head at his first bite. It had been so long since he’d last eaten. He calculated backwards. It had been yesterday’s breakfast in Monte-Carlo. Sometimes working for Mr. Tyrellyon had its drawbacks.
He glanced guiltily at Virginie as he licked his fingers clean. He started on the bar of chocolate he’d bought as he finally set about opening the folder laid across his pillow.