“No!” She got looks from the crowd, realized she’d screamed it. She was already shoving back the way she’d come, determined to leap aboard the train.
She struggled with the crowd even when it was sadly obvious that there was no way she’d reach it.
Gregory flinched from the sight and sound of her utter rage. He waited nervously until her shouting had stopped, until the stream of filthy curses had ended, then went forward slowly to pick up her bag from where she’d flung it.
“Fine!” She was down to hissing now. “If that’s the way it’s going to be, then fine!”
He so desperately wanted to say that he’d told her to do the honourable thing, that this was probably just what they deserved for proceeding in such an unsporting fashion, but he didn’t. Because he also desperately wanted to live, and after seeing her anger up close, the last thing he wanted was to be at the receiving end of it.
When he finally spoke, he kept his voice calm and neutral, the perfect secretary. “Why don’t we go have a coffee and think this over?”
She looked at him and took a deep breath. “Yes, good idea.”
They settled into a tiny outdoor café. They sat for five minutes in absolute silence. Gregory sipped his cappuccino and watched as she stared unmoving into hers. After exactly five minutes, he knew because he checked his watch, Virginie sat up and smiled.
“No matter.” She said. She drained her ice-cold espresso in one and turned to the group of men chatting and smoking at the table behind them.
Gregory watched, confused as she conversed with them in rapid-fire Russian. The men gestured down the street. Several minutes later, she turned back to him.
“Come on, Gregory.” She threw some money on the table and began to walk down the street in the direction the men have pointed.
“Where are we going?” He jogged to keep up with her long strides.
“To visit a farmer.”
“But why? We need to get on a train or something, catch up with the others at one of the stations.”
“Oh trust me, we’ll be catching up to those bastards.” She hailed a passing taxi and jumped in the front seat. “Get in Gregory.”
The taxi tore through the town and out onto a long winding highway that took them deeper into the countryside. Every minute that passed was torture for Gregory. Not knowing where they were going or why was playing havoc with his already frazzled nerves. He knew he could just try asking but Virginie didn’t seem in any mood to elaborate or explain. She seemed like such a solitary person, used to being on her own. He felt spare around her. He was pretty sure she sometimes had to remind herself who he was and why he was there. If she remembered he was there at all. He stared into his reflection in the rear view mirror. He felt ridiculous in his slacks and polo-neck. He always felt awkward in casual clothes, misshapen, uncool. Like he was failing at being someone else. Now a suit- that gave one a shape, a purpose. He missed his suit.
He was dragged from his thoughts as the taxi screeched to a halt outside a huge metal gate with ominous looking signs that he assumed said the equivalent of ‘no trespassing’ in Russian. The whole place looked forbidding, with its high fences crowned with barbed wire and the even rows of crops, disappearing out into the distance. The uninspired squat buildings and silos looming up suddenly from the sea of green. Weird, Gregory thought and shivered. He also missed the city. The beautiful asphalt…
Virginie was talking into the intercom. A man was yelling back, sounding anything but receptive to whatever it was she was saying. Her voice never changed. Back to her normal utterly calm self, she spoke steadily until the other voice seemed to waver and hesitate.
“He’s coming down.” She smiled.
She looked around while they waited.
“Jesus Christ!” Gregory gasped in shock as a pair of snarling Alsatians came galloping down the path that cut down the middle of the crops. The dogs hurled themselves at the gate, barking ferociously and baring their fangs. Gregory was sure he saw froth on the corners of their mouths. “They’re rabid!” He caught Virginie by the sleeve of her jacket and tried to tug her away. “We should get out of here.”
She yanked her sleeve away. “They’re guard dogs, they’re putting on a show.”
“It’s very convincing. And I’m certain they’d rather maul you than look at you.”
“Calm down. Look, here’s the farmer, I’m sure he’ll calm them down.” She soothed, doing a very good job of resisting the urge to roll her eyes at Gregory’s dramatics. She wondered again what on earth had made Tyrellyon think a man like Gregory would be a useful on a trip like this. After all the planning, to make a mistake like this- But then, she had been the idiot to fall for Ragnar’s trick. Oh, she was going to make that weasel pay for this little detour. When she got her hands on him… She smiled at the farmer as he slapped his dogs away with an aggressive shout and hooked his rifle over his shoulder to unlock the padlock securing the gate.
He shook the hand that she offered, nearly yanking her arm from its socket in his exuberance.
“I’m sorry about the way I spoke to you before.” He began, his chubby features creasing into an affable smile. “We get a lot of jokers around here, playing tricks, wasting my time, if you know what I mean?”
“Of course.” She followed him onto his property, pausing to pet an Alsatian when it pressed against her hand.
The farmer paused. “What’s the matter with your friend?”
Virginie turned to find Gregory glued to the same spot on the other side of the gate, clenching his holdall to his chest. His eyes were glued to the farmer’s rifle.
“I think your rifle is making him nervous.”
“What this old thing?” He spun the rifle off his shoulder, drawing a little yelp from Gregory. “May I play a trick on him?” He shot her a pleading look.
Tempting. “Better not.” Virginie said with true regret. “He’s a very nervous man and my responsibility.” She turned back to Gregory. “Come on.”
He stepped forward slowly and slunk in through the gate, avoiding the dogs as much as possible.
“They’re not dangerous.” She assured him. “Look.” She pet one so he could see.
Gregory watched her, then came forward cautiously, his hand held out to pet the dog. “Good dog-” He withdrew with a little shout when the dog growled and flattened its ears.
Virginie and the farmer continued up the path towards the buildings, continuing to talk in Russian.
“Wait!” Gregory called out desperately, horrified to find himself left behind with the ravenous beasts. He sprinted carefully through the crops, not caring how he looked or if he caused any damage. His only concern at that moment, was for his life.
Virginie controlled her laughter while she watched Gregory hop towards them. She turned back to the farmer. “It’s very good of you to do this for us.”
“The price is right!” He grinning. “You know? Price is right? Like show from England?”
“I’m French.” She said flatly. She counted out the money into his waiting palm.
He recounted it with the skill of a banker and pocketed it with relish. “Any time you need anything. Anywhere in Russia. You call me.” He produced a beautiful business card from his pocket.
Yuri Sominoff, it read, Procurer.
Yuri leant close to Virginie. “I have many friends.” He confided significantly.
“I understand, thank you.”
They rounded the building and he pointed with pride to the little red crop dusting plane glinting in the afternoon sunshine. “There she is.”
“She’s perfect.” Virginie took the keys and shook Yuri’s hand. “I’ll be in touch.”
Gregory smiled awkwardly at the farmer and watched the man walk away laughing. “Ms. Moreau-”
“Virginie.” She was throwing her duffel bag up into the plane.
“Uh… Virginie, you aren’t actually planning to get in that little death trap and fly us to the next station are you?”
“No.” She waited until his shoulders relaxed in relief. “I’m getting in this little death trap and flying us to Ekaterinburg. That’s further along the line.”
“Please can’t we just-”
She yanked his holdall from his hands and threw it on board. “Get in.”
He went, awkwardly, slipping, sliding, failing, until she finally took pity on him and pushed him up with a hand under his foot. She climbed in after him and passed him a pair of googles.
“Put these on. You may also want to dig out a jacket, it’ll get a bit windy.”
“Are you a licensed pilot?”
She laughed. “I did it just to make you nervous. Don’t worry, it’ll be fine.”
He realized she hadn’t really answered his question as they were taxing down the little dirt path, but with the dust seeping into his nostrils, stinging his eyes, the high whine of the planes struggling- oh God, they were struggling- engines, he wasn’t able to press the issue. He could only clench his hands into fists, slump as far down into his seat as the stupid tiny plane would allow and stare fixedly at the back of Virginie’s head as he prayed more fervently than he had ever before done in his life. He felt the plane lift, was aware of the ground falling away beneath them. He was pressed to one side as Virginie angled the plane, setting them on the correct course. He made the mistake of glancing to the side. He saw that they were among some low flying clouds, he saw how small the world seemed beneath them. He squeezed his eyes shut and continued praying.