“Look, I know it’s rather unusual but couldn’t you make an exception, just this once? Come on, let’s shake on it.”
The official at the little military landing strip in Ekaterinburg took her hand and deftly transferred the rolled up roubles she passed him into his pocket.
“Just make sure you never do anything like this again.” His wink defeated the ninja-like stealth of the money exchange. “But under the circumstances, I can allow you to leave the plane here. Make sure the farmer sends someone to collect it.”
She returned to where Gregory stood waiting amid their bags. “I can’t get used to everyone having guns.”
“The police in Monaco have weapons.” She countered, picking up her bag.
“I know.” Gregory trotted after her. “But it’s all the more intimidating when you can’t understand what’s being said.”
“I suppose.” She sounded distracted. “Ah, there it is.” She pointed to the army truck idling at the open gate ahead of them. Several men in military fatigues were loading some boxes into the back of the truck. “The guy said this truck’s going to town. They can drop us off at the station, it’s on their way. ”
She spoke briefly to the men, pointed at the official she’d spoken to, who raised his arm to confirm her story, and jumped up onto the back of the truck. She offered Gregory a hand, which he took gratefully, and dragged him in alongside her.
Gregory settled down on the crude bench across from her and glanced around at the three sullen men sat with them. All were staring at Virginie with obvious interest. He suddenly wished he were the kind of man who could call out these men and defend her honour. As it was, he was more liable to loose his teeth and his dignity as well as the fight.
Virginie was studying the folder she’d brought with her. She glanced up and caught him staring at the other men. She followed his gaze and caught them staring at her.
She spoke a few quiet words in Russian, to which one of the men responded suggestively in a manner that drew laughter from his friends. She responded calmly and whatever she said seemed to kill their good humour. They spent the remainder of the journey speaking quietly to one another, and a few times when they were certain she wasn’t looking, they’d glance over at Virginie with what Gregory thought was something akin to wonder.
Why hadn’t he learned Russian at school?
The ride seemed to take forever, what with the awkward atmosphere that everyone but Virginie seemed to notice in the truck and the horribly pitted road. Gregory felt as though he had been jostled to within an inch of his life by the time the scenery changed for one last time into a large and thriving city. The truck screeched to a stop outside a huge, beautiful building in the crowded city centre and Virginie leapt out lightly.
“Ekaterinburg Station.” She read happily with a glance at her watch. “And we’ve beaten the train.” She strode ahead towards the entrance and Gregory hurried to follow.
She stood in the centre of the waiting room craning her neck backwards to study the mural on the ceiling. In the centre of a collage of idealised communist scenes, was painted a man pitching head first from a destroyed spy plane.
“There he is.” She smiled at Gregory. “Francis Gary Powers.”
“The falling American.” He smiled back, nearly dizzy with the rush of euphoria that accompanied their victory.
He watched as she took a photograph of the mural with a camera from her duffel bag.
“We’d better send this to HQ.” Virginie slipped the camera back into her bag and led the way out of the waiting room and to the teeming station beyond. “Let’s find an internet café.”
They strolled happily through the station and out into the city beyond. They found an internet café easily enough and settled themselves onto one of the computers.
It took a couple of minutes for Virginie to upload the photo to the Hunt’s HQ, or web-page as it would have been known to anybody else in the world.
She and Gregory waited anxiously for the confirmation of receipt. There was still the (albeit tiny) chance that someone had arrived ahead of them. That the contest for this one item had already been won.
The page took what seemed like an age to load. And then…
V. Moreau- Winner (The Falling American)
The words flashed onto the screen. Simple black words on a plain white background. But also so much more.
Virginie was flung back in her seat with the sudden and unexpected force of Gregory’s body slamming into hers as he threw his arms around her in an embrace. After a moment of shock, she smiled and returned his embrace.
“It seems that despite everything I said, you still harboured some doubts about our chances in this competition.” She joked.
“Well, in my defence,” Gregory laughed, “after the cruel trick Ragnar played on us this morning I thought all was lost.”
Virginie stood and swung her bag over her shoulder. “Listen we have a little over two hours until the train gets here, why don’t we grab some lunch? It’ll give us time to study the list.”
Gregory’s smile faded just a tad. “I forgot.” He sighed. “We’ve still a long way to go before this is over. This was all just day one…” His wide eyes showed his astonishment. “I feel as though we’ve been travelling for days already.” He suddenly looked a little panicked. “I don’t think I can really do this, I mean keep on right till the end.”
“Why are you worrying about all that now. Never tell yourself ‘no’, Gregory, let life tell you in its own time. Do you know what I mean?”
She sighed. “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.”
“What? Why are you talking like that?”
“Gregory, I’m trying to tell you that you need to have a little faith in yourself. You’ve kept up very well today and you didn’t even say ‘I told you so’ when I got screwed over by Ragnar bastarding Skorj. I have faith in you. So don’t worry about it. Just enjoy the ride. Now lets enjoy this little victory and celebrate with some lunch. I’m starving.”
Gregory watched her walk away among the rows of computers towards the little cashier station by the door. He couldn’t help the smile that curled his lips. Virginie Moreau was not as heartless as she seemed. In fact, he decided as he followed her, he though she rather liked him. He was certainly beginning to grow fond of her. But then, it was just the first day. There was still a long way to go until the end. He left her to pay and strolled to a display of tourist pamphlets. Gregory leafed through the pamphlets with keen interest. He’d never travelled much outside of Europe, discounting that one disastrous trip to an all inclusive resort in Barbados. He’d always wanted to travel though, see the whole world. End to end. He would literally go anywhere. Everywhere interested him. Everywhere without exception. He pulled out a museum pamphlet and began to read it. He gasped. He practically ran to Virginie’s side and rammed the paper into her hands.
Virginie struggled to hold onto her change and the paper. She pocketed the money and glanced at the paper before pushing it back at him. “We don’t have time to sightsee-”
“Read it.” She did but he continued talking, his voice rising with his excitement. “The last Tsar’s family were assassinated here in Ekaterinburg. There is a museum not far from here with documents and bits of the possessions they had with them. Possessions.” He wiggled his eyebrows.
“You absolute genius.” Virginie breathed. “Lunch will have to wait I’m afraid, I think we’d better head straight for this museum.”
“Sod lunch.” Gregory nearly yelled. “I want to win.”
Virginie laughed, a rich burst of sound, crisp, fresh. He glanced at her. He realized he’d seen her smile often enough, those calm polite smiles that went nowhere near her eyes, but he’d never heard her laugh. It made him like her more.
“Now you’re getting into the spirit of things.” She gestured him into a taxi ahead of her and Gregory slid into the seat feeling like the master of the universe.
What a wonderful day, he thought. First, to win a step on the hunt under the worst of circumstances, and then to personally discover a vital clue! Tyrellyon had been right! This was proving to be very good for him, indeed. Gregory sat back in the recklessly driven taxi and undid the top button of his polo neck. He was feeling pretty…pretty good.
He was still floating on that wonderful high when the taxi pulled up to a small inconspicuous little building glued on one side, incongruously, to a large squat Soviet era block of flats. The building was- well, the most adorable thing he’d ever seen, there was really no other word for it. Painted in vibrant reds and greens it stood out with the lovely grandeur of old Russian architecture.
They entered the wonderful little building which was sadly empty except for several academic looking types who seemed to work there. The academics gathered in a corner watching them with something akin to shock as they entered. Finally, one came forward bravely in answer to Virginie’s greeting.
“Hello, my name is Ilia.” The old man addressed them in heavily accented English and peered up at her from under thick glasses and a sparse head of hair. “Would you like to take the tour?” His little wheezy voice seemed to force itself unwillingly through the thinnest of throats.
“Eh…no, thank you, we are in a bit of a hurry to catch the train. But we are very interested in the last Tsar and his family. We heard they died here, in Ekaterinburg.”
“That’s right.” Ilia pushed his glasses up his inclining nose and Virginie’s eyes followed them as they immediately slid back down. He laughed. “Well in a manner of speaking.”
She saw Gregory’s shoulders sag out of the corner of her eye. She was beginning to feel that sinking sensation as well. “What do you mean? Were they killed elsewhere? I read-”
“Oh, no, no, no.” Ilia wheezed. “They did die here, but Tsar Nicholas was not the last Tsar. Not officially.” He paused dramatically.
“I don’t understand.” Virginie ground out.
Gregory was less self-contained. “Tell us. Just tell us what happened.”
Virginie shot him a warning glance as Ilia looked taken aback for a moment before he smiled and began to nod his head in understanding.
“Ah!” He shook his finger in Gregory’s direction but he addressed himself to Virginie. “This one is a student of history. Maybe a professor. I can tell by his passion.”
“Er-yes. I teach history at Oxford University.” Gregory responded quickly, realizing how rude he’d been and eager to make amends. He could see Virginie staring at him in open curiosity at his random and rather fantastic lie. To be fair, even he didn’t know where it’d come from. He wasn’t a liar by nature. But, damn it all, he was feeling too good to start worrying about societal customs now.
“Well, then I will forgive your impatience.” The agreeable Ilia smiled.
“About the last Tsar…?” Virginie prompted.
“Ah, yes! Tsar Nicolas actually abdicated in March of 1917 and named the Grand Prince Mikhail Alexandrovich as his heir. Grand Prince Mikhail was arrested in Perm on his way to visit Tsar Nicolas. He did not know, you see, that the Tsar had been killed a day before. He died, having been Tsar for a day without knowing it. So technically, Grand Prince Mikhail Alexandrovich was the last Tsar of Russia.”
Virginie and Gregory glanced at each other.
“Do you have any clothing belonging to Tsar Nicholas in this museum?” Gregory asked, hoping against hope.
Ilia shook his head sadly. “No, but that would be just the thing to raise visitor rates.”
“Grand Prince Mikhail died in Perm?” Virginie asked. “Do you know if they have any of his personal effects there? In a museum or a university, perhaps?”
“I’m not sure about personal effects, but I believe there is a museum there. It is very possible that they have a section dedicated to the Grand Prince. It is a famous bit of history there.”
“Thank you.” Virginie bade the old man farewell and wandered out into the cool early evening sun. She took a deep breath and glanced over at Gregory.
“We have to go back don’t we?” His voice was resigned.
“Well, we have a choice.”
“Again?” He sounded exasperated.
She shrugged. “We can rejoin the train and go forward because, let’s face it, it’s pretty likely one of them has already gotten that prize. Or we can say screw that, throw caution to the wind and take the train going back to Perm.”
“I think we should rejoin the train.” He spoke up, then waited in terror for what she’d decide, dreading it already.
He turned shocked eyes in her direction. “Really?”
“Absolutely. If we rejoin the train and no one has won the prize we can always go back for it, we won’t be at any more of a disadvantage than anyone else. It’s much too risky backtracking now.”
Gregory glanced at his watch. “We still have forty-five minutes till the train. Can we please eat? I’m starving.”
“Let’s walk back, it’s not that far.”
He rather liked her suggestion and they strolled back towards the station slowly. Gregory enjoyed the chance to really look around and play the tourist, if even for just a short while.
“So how long have you worked for Tyrellyon?” She asked as they picked amongst the numerous restaurants lining the pavements.
“It’s been a year now.”
“Do you enjoy it?”
“You know, I do. Tyrellyon is a good man, no matter how he blusters. He has a good heart under it all. For example last year I needed to visit my mother in Reading quite suddenly. He arranged all the travel, covered the expenses and gave me as much holiday time as I needed.”
“That’s very kind.”
“And how about you?” He slanted a look in her direction. “Why are you doing this?”
“Well, Gregory, I like the adventure.” She was studying a menu and it seemed, not really paying attention.
“Shall we eat here?” She straightened from the menu and glanced at him.
It was later, as they were eating, with the folder and its contents spilling over the table between them, that Gregory realized that she had neatly avoided answering yet another one of his questions.