It was a long time before Virginie glanced up and realized that the sound she’d been hearing for the past hour had been the rumbling of her belly. In the bunk beside hers, Gregory lay on his back snoring gently, one of her travel books slipping from his lax fingers.
She stood and stretched to her tip-toes, sighing each time one of her bones clicked into place. She grabbed her leather jacket and left the compartment quietly. The corridor was narrow and empty but that changed soon enough a single carriage down. The difference between first class and the others was stark, not in decoration or design but by the sheer numbers of people. They loitered, chatting in the corridor or talking boisterously across bunks. Women knitted, men played cards and children ran, screeching with laughter, in all the spaces in between.
It took some time and no small amount of patience before Virginie finally emerged into the dining car. It, in comparison with the carriages before it, was nearly empty. A young couple sat chatting at a booth. Kenji sat eating with gusto beside his unmoving bodyguard and at the bar Hugo stood with a drink in hand and a cigarette between his lips. He watched her as she drew close.
“Hello.” His tone was neutral and polite. He held out a lean brown hand. “Hugo Vidal.”
“Virginie Moreau.” She shook his hand.
“How is Tyrellyon these days?”
She shrugged. “Very well, I think.”
His keen brown eyes lasered in on hers. “You are not family? Not a very good friend of his?”
Virginie smiled and turned to face the bartender who appeared to take her order. “Soup of the day please with the garlic bread and coffee.” She turned back to Hugo and smiled as she rummaged in her wallet for change. “There is nothing in the rules against it.”
His face remained serious. “Are you quite sure? I don’t mind checking.”
“Feel free, if you think you must.” She took her tray of food and smiled a farewell as she went to sit. She choose a booth in the corner of the room, as far from all the other diners as she could manage. It was a clear statement to all who cared to take notice.
Evidently, one man didn’t.
“May I join you?”
Virginie glanced up from her bowl in utter surprise to find Hugo had followed her. “Feel free.”
They sat in silence for several minutes. She continued eating and he continued smoking, each content with their own thoughts and comfortable with the silence.
“Have you seen the list?” It was Hugo who broke the silence.
Virginie paused with the spoon halfway to her lips. She lowered the spoon and sat up. She was very interested to see how he planned to make this conversation go. She followed the movements of his long fingers as they ground out the cigarette butt in the ash tray.
“Yes I have.”
“What do you think of it?” He was watching her casually, with a polite yet detached interest.
Virginie smiled. “It’s certainly very interesting.”
He returned her smile with a slow one of his own. “You must let me know if I can be of any help to you.”
“I was under the impression that this was a contest.” She sipped her coffee. “For which there can be only one winner.”
“Winning is important.” Hugo acquiesced with a nod of his head. “But camaraderie is key. The point is to play the game well.”
“What a noble sentiment.”
He paused, watching her. Was she being truthful? Sarcastic? He honestly couldn’t tell. Her face, her tone of voice gave nothing away.
Hugo was struck by that strange feeling again, the one he’d had the moment his eyes first met hers. The strange but unshakable feeling that he’d seen her before. Known her…somehow. But no matter how hard he racked his brain, he could not remember where or how. Still…
“Tell me, Virginie. Have we met before?”
Had he imagined it or did she seem to withdraw even more?
“No.” Her voice was final.
“Hmm.” Hugo smiled, enjoying her apparent discomfort. “I’m sure it will come to me.”
Curiouser and curiouser. He thought, no- he was certain, that for some reason or another, Ms. Virginie Moreau did not want to be known to him. To anyone. He wondered why.
She nodded towards Kenji at the far end of the room, who was now sat back in his chair, digging around with a toothpick between his politely closed lips and diligently looking out the window. “No one seems to be in a hurry to decipher that list.”
“How do you know he hasn’t already?”
Virginie glanced at Hugo. “You think he already has?”
“You never know with this group.”
“Mr. Tyrellyon has explained to me that in this contest, anything goes.”
Hugo smiled. “Is that what he said? I suppose the old man is right.”
“So,” Virginie met his eyes straight on, “it wouldn’t be beyond a contestant in this game to use charm to finesse their way into another competitor’s favour?”
He laughed, a deep pleasant sound. “Is that what you think I’ve been doing?” He leant across the table. “You have been much deprived if you think what I’ve been doing was meant to be charming.”
“I apologize if I misunderstood.”
He couldn’t help but notice that she looked anything but apologetic, she looked amused.
Virginie pushed to her feet. “Thank you for the company.”
She was forging her way through the second class carriage when she saw Ragnar standing near the samovars a distance away from her, in deep conversation with his assistant. Virginie didn’t hesitate for a single instant. Within the blink of an eye she had stolen quietly, but not obviously, across the space that divided them and ducked behind a set of beds. The family gathered in the space watched her curiously as she strained to listen to Ragnar’s whispered conversation.
“-so make sure everything is packed. We won’t worry about taking it with us. The compartments are reserved for the entire journey, I’ve made sure of that. Just be ready when we reach the station and for Gods sake, don’t give anything away.”
“Absolutely sir. Will we be getting a taxi from the station?”
Virginie strained further as their voices began to fade. She left her hiding place and tried to follow them towards the first class compartments. By the time she’d managed to make her way through the crowds, they’d disappeared. The corridors ahead of her were empty.
She returned to her compartment thoughtfully. Gregory looked up from his work as she entered.
“You left without me.” His voice was slightly accusing.
She smiled. “You were sleeping Gregory. I didn’t want to wake you.”
“Em…yes…sorry about that. I know I’m here to work.”
“Yes,” she collapsed back onto her bunk with the folder once again in her hand, “but you need to be fresh to do it. Now’s the best time for sleep, before all the action begins.”
“This is impossible.” He changed the topic, slightly embarrassed by her surprising kindness. He slapped the folder with a frustrated hand.
He turned to her so quickly he felt dizzy from it. “You know what one is?”
“I’m pretty sure. But we have a problem.”
He frowned. “What?”
“I think,” Virginie said slowly, “that I know what ‘the falling American’ is. It says here,” she riffled through the stack of books strewn over her bed, “that on May Day 1960, a U-2 spy plane piloted by an American went down in Russia. There is a mural of it in Ekaterinburg Station-”
“Jesus!” Gregory exclaimed. “That’s great! I doubt the others’ve had time to-”
“Which leads us to the problem.” Virginie reminded him.
Gregory’s smile faded slowly. “What?”
“I just heard Ragnar speaking with his assistant in the hallway. They’re planning to get off at the next stop. Ekaterinburg is further down the line.”
“They’ve figured out one of the other clues.” Gregory murmured slowly.
“Yes, that’s what I just said.” Virginie sat up on her bunk. “So now we have a choice.”
“What choice? Unless we figure out the clue? And we don’t even know which one on the list it is-” He shrugged helplessly.
“Follow me here, Gregory, please. We don’t need to have the clue ourselves…if we follow them.”
“Cheat?” Gregory shot to his feet in righteous fury. “We can’t go about this dishonestly, Ms. Moreau. Everything must be fair. In fact, I’m shocked that Mr. Skorj would speak so openly in front of you-” He swung around to face her with a sudden gasp of understanding. “You were eavesdropping!” He accused harshly, his finger pointing melodramatically at her.
“Gregory, sit down.”
He did, slowly. Watching her wearily, as though now that he knew her to be an eavesdropper he considered it quite possible that she was a murder as well.
She certainly didn’t look like a bad sort though. With her long dark hair falling just past her shoulders in thick waves and her elegant face with those calm chocolate eyes, she looked more like a society débutante than a dishonest sneak. She smiled at him as she leant forward to speak. Her elbows rested on her jeans- too casual in his opinion- and his attention was drawn to the smooth golden skin of her bare arms.
“If you are to remain on this train with me, there is one thing you must know about me. One thing you really must understand. I win, Gregory. I don’t like losing. Even thinking about it” she shook her head slowly, “makes me so angry, I just can’t bare it. Anyway, I tend to overreact and it’s not worth getting into that lamentable situation. Now, I will do whatever it takes to win. I use all the weapons at my disposal. And please know, that I am not using the word ‘weapon’ in a symbolic way only. Your job is to help me win. If at any time, you find you are having difficulties working with me…if you don’t approve of my methods, speak up. You are free to go home to Tyrellyon at any time you wish. But if you stay here, we’re doing this my way.”
He thought for a moment, battling with his conscious, his budding thirst for this adventure, considering the holiday away from Tyrellyon, all the myriad little things that led people to do the things they did.
“I understand.” He said finally.
“Great. So now, let’s decide what to do. Do we follow Ragnar and steal his prize? Or do we risk it and go on to Ekaterinburg?”
“I say we risk it and stay on board.” Gregory said after a moment of thought. “After all, we have no guarantee that they know what they’re doing. They could have the wrong idea completely.”
“That’s true.” She mused.
“And in that case, we’d have left the train for nothing.”
“Remember I don’t know for sure that ‘the falling American’ is what I think it is.”
“It sounds right.” Gregory pressed.
She glanced at him. “You still really don’t want to cheat, do you?”
“You’re not taking this adventure in the spirit it was meant, Gregory, I’m telling you.” She sat up. “Get your things ready. Leave the big stuff and-” she glanced at his suit and shiny dress shoes “dress sensibly, will you?”
“We’re getting off at the next stop, aren’t we?” His tone was one of quiet resignation.
Or was that desperation she heard?
“That’s right.” Her voice was jubilant. “We should be arriving in about an hour.” She ignored his dramatic sigh and set about preparing a light duffel bag with everything she might need.
An hour later she was waiting in her compartment, watching from the window as Ragnar and his assistant stole stealthily from the train. They blended quickly with the crowd.
Virginie glanced at Gregory, sitting on his bunk looking very dejected with a little holdall in his lap. “Come on, quickly. Keep low, we don’t want the others to see us.”
They exited amidst the crowd with Virginie in the lead. The roar of the crowded platform was startling compared to the muted sounds of the train. She pushed through the crowd, sometimes using her bag as a handy crowd clearing device, straining to catch a glance of Ragnar or his assistant. She thought she saw the assistant up ahead, moving towards the exit. He was carrying two bags and rushing through the crowd. Ragnar was nowhere to be seen.
The train whistle blew as she pushed closer to the assistant. Was Ragnar ahead of him?
A sinking feeling built in her gut.
The train’s engines roared to life and she heard Gregory calling her name desperately from behind. She turned angrily, unhappy to lose sight of Ragnar’s assistant even for a second.
“Keep up.” She called back. She glanced at the train as it slowly began to roll down the platform.
Her heart stopped in her chest.
She turned back to the assistant, now very obviously a random passenger, waving his arms wildly as he engaged in an argument with a taxi driver.
Virginie spun on her heel, her horrified gaze latching onto the train as it picked up speed. So her eyes hadn’t deceived her.
There was Ragnar, safe and sound aboard the train, waving to her from a window.