Ragnar reclined happily on his bunk, his back propped up on a combination of his and his bodyguard’s pillows. He sipped slowly from his drink. He was already slightly drunk and totally euphoric.
“Let me see it again.” He stretched a negligent hand towards his bodyguard.
Lars reached into his pocket, pulled out a little swath of velvet and handed it across the space between the two bunks.
Ragnar parted the velvet with an almost childish abandon. He suddenly saw himself as a child, waiting for Joulupukki to knock on his family’s little ramshackle house, to enter with a flourish and ask, a smile stretched across his rosy cheeks, “Are there any well behaved children here?” His mother might then declare that yes, there was. He’d be waiting at the foot of the stairs near the front door, wringing his fingers, desperate to the point of passing out. But then, in his reality there had never been Christmas celebrations to summon Joulupukki, to let him know that a poor little boy was waiting, and his mother would have been too drunk to announce her son. When Joulupukki had finally visited him, Ragnar had been living with his new family for six months. He hadn’t believed in Joulupukki any more. But one thing had remained from his childhood, his insatiable appetite for presents.
He caught his breath as he had the first time he’d seen the little gold rectangle. The Last Tzar’s Epaulette. A shiver danced down his spine. The little trinket seemed imbued with emotions, with a history, a tragedy that made it seem weightier than it actually was.
And he’d won it.
Stolen it to be more precise, but whatever.
The little museum on Sibirskaya Street, adjoining the city centre, had been set up in the building where the Grand Prince Mikhail had been arrested. It had been a tiny little thing, a slight disappointment for Ragnar as he’d been rather hoping for a grand spectacle of an adventure à la Indiana Jones. He’d immediately realized that that was one dream that would go unfulfilled when his eyes had settled on the little cluster of Japanese, American and British tourists. The museum had only driven the nails into the coffin of his dead dream. No security cameras, just some steely eyed soldiers who were certainly no match for Lars, should the situation degenerate into a struggle. There had been glass cases though, giving Ragnar the hope that there would be some breaking and smashing at least, but a quick glance confirmed that they were only secured at the back with a little lock. The guards hadn’t been in every room, another disappointment. Another advantage. The poor curator, obviously ecstatic at having a tour comprised of such a large group had even opened the case for them and held out the little epaulette upon his white gloved hand for them to have to have a closer look at. As the group had moved on to the next display, the curator had paused to return the epaulette to its rightful place within the glass case. Ragnar had left Lars loitering near the case and followed the tour group. He’d called the curator over, distracting the over-excited man just as he was locking the case, on the pretence of asking a historical question.
Ragnar and Lars had stayed on at the museum until the end of the tour. Ragnar even bought himself a little packet of postcards in the tiny gift shop near the exit doors.
All in the hour the train had been stopped to refuel, allow time for the station workers to clean and restock the train and for the new passengers to board. They’d rushed straight from the museum to the train, arriving just in time to return to their compartment with their loot as the train began rolling down the tracks.
The train began to slow as it reached Ekaterinburg and Ragnar quickly rolled the epaulette back up in the swatch of velvet and returned it to Lars.
“Guard that thing with your life.” Ragnar warned. “We’ll get the second clue sorted and confirm the wins with HQ in one go.”
“No problem, boss.”
“How long does the train stop here.”
Lars studied the timetable. “Not long. Half an hour.”
“Plenty of time.” Ragnar shrugged into his coat. “Get the camera.” He swept from the compartment.
Virginie watched Ragnar from behind a vendor’s stand as he disembarked from the train. He turned, while standing on the little steps down, completely oblivious to the fact that he was blocking traffic both getting on and off the train and spoke to his assistant. The assistant nodded and patted his left breast pocket. Ragnar seemed to press whatever point he was making.
“What’s happening?” Gregory’s voice floated up from behind her. “Virginie?” He was trying to lean around her.
Virginie pressed the flat of her hand against his chest, pushing him back behind her and out of view.
“I can’t see!” It was a quiet puff of sound.
She ignored him.
Ragnar’s assistant was peeling back one side of his coat, reaching in.
Virginie leaned forward. She had a second’s disquiet as she remembered what had come of her last attempt at eavesdropping. She pushed those feeling aside. She was rewarded with a glimpse of a little red object in Lars’ hand.
“Virginie, come on!”
“They have it.” She muttered back finally.
“Well…” he sounded disappointed before taking a deep rallying breath, “well, no matter. We thought they would.”
“But I actually wasn’t expecting the winner of the epaulette to be on this train. There couldn’t have been enough time to find and retrieve the prize and then alert HQ.”
Gregory shrugged. “Maybe they haven’t sent word to HQ yet. That’s probably why they’re getting off here.”
She turned to him so suddenly that he gasped. She grabbed his wrist and began yanking him forward. “Just follow me.”
“Where to? What’s going on? Aren’t we going to board the train?”
“Forget the train, Gregory, and focus. Don’t you realize the import of what you’ve just said?”
“What did I say?”
The breath hissed from between her teeth in exasperation. “If they haven’t alerted HQ, then the prize is still open to be won. Why don’t we win it?”
He stared at her as though she were an idiot. “Um, we can’t because they’ve already got- Oh…” He dragged out the last word as understanding dawned. “You want to steal it, don’t you?”
Virginie continued dragging him along behind her, keeping a careful eye on Ragnar and Lars pushing through the throng ahead of her. “Yes.” She glanced back at him. “Are you game?”
He surprised her. Hell, he surprised himself. “Absolutely.” He was rewarded with a smile that revealed her even white teeth, lit up her chocolate eyes and flashed a dimple charmingly in her cheek.
She no longer had to drag him. He was striding alongside her, two steps for one of hers, but keeping up all the same.
It dawned on him all of a sudden, just where Ragnar and Lars were heading to in such a hurry. Not towards the exits as he’d first anticipated, but rather-
Gregory jerked Virginie to a stop. “Oh my!” His malicious pleasure was reflected in his voice. “They think they’re going to win the falling American challenge as well. The suckers!”
She nudged him to attention. “I have a plan. Just follow my lead.” She rummaged quickly in her duffel bag and pulled out her camera, watching as Ragnar and Lars went towards the waiting room with the mural.
Virginie began to run towards them. She could hear Gregory just behind her. Luckily with all the noise of the station, the two subjects of their observation could not hear the sound of their pounding footsteps. Lars had just entered the sitting room behind his boss when she slammed into his back with enough force to launch the unsuspecting man forward and down onto his face. She allowed herself to go down with him, landing on his back.
There was several moments of confusion, a brief struggle as Lars tried to rise while she pretending to do the same. Her elegant fingers slid from his pocket to hers. She stood quickly, snapped a photo of the mural, winked at Ragnar and ran back out of the room.
Ragnar’s confused and shocked eyes stared at Gregory who stood rooted to the spot, looking as mystified as he, before finally coming to himself and setting off at a sprint after his partner.
“What the hell?” Ragnar roared. “She got the photo. Quickly, damn it!” He fumbled with his own camera, shaking with anger. His mind a blank of utter fury.
Gregory heard the shouts as he pounded after Virginie. A second later he heard several shouts behind him and turned to see one of the most horrific sights of his life thus far. Lars, head down and shoulders hunched was charging towards him like an enraged bull. The man’s sheer girth, the muscles bulging against the sleeves of his coat, the wicked scar slashing from ear to neck, made the sight of him bearing closer with each breath, utterly terrifying.
Gregory had never known he could run so fast. His feet had been leant the proverbial wings. Within seconds he had passed a slightly shocked looking Virginie, pausing to gasp out the question of where they were running to.
“The internet café.” She gasped back.
Those were all the words he needed. He ran like he’d never run, straight back to the internet café they’d visited only earlier that day.
He’d already been assigned a computer and was waiting, hoping from foot to foot, absolutely bathed in sweat when Virginie slammed into the little shop.
She’d been connecting the cables to camera while she’d been running. She was taking a photo of the epaulette as she entered the room. She skirted the rows of computers with the deft movements of a matador or a ballerina.
“Here, hook it up.” She threw the camera into his startled face and bent over the computer- no time to sit- and logged onto HQ just as Lars roared into the internet café after her.
She had hoped he’d be slowed by having to ask for a computer, she was gravely disappointed as Lars simply lifted the teenager sitting at the nearest computer by the scruff of his neck, threw him casually to the side and took his seat.
Gregory fumbled with the cables. “Shit.” He was nearly foaming at the mouth with panic. None of the damn cables were fitting. His fingers, slick with sweat and shaking with panic were useless.
“Calm down, Gregory.”
He shot her a sharp glance. She looked utterly calm, even waved to Ragnar as he entered the room and bent over double beside Lars, ruffled and out of breath. Virginie, Gregory couldn’t help but notice, was not even out of breath.
She took the cables from his hands and in one deft movement connected her camera to the computer. She uploaded the picture of the epaulette to HQ. The screen was loading.
Across the room, she could hear Ragnar cursing wildly, knew they were on the same page.
“Come on, damn it, come on.” The voice was Gregory’s.
The poor fellow looked more out of sorts than she’d ever seen him. He had worked himself into an absolute lather, looked completely done in by panic.
He looked so alive, nearly vibrating with it. She wanted him to feel the adrenaline to enjoy the adventure so she only smiled and said nothing.
She could have told him that there was no doubt in her mind that they would win this challenge as well. She was in fact, certain of that fact. Just as she was certain that right now, across the room, Ragnar and Lars were uploading the photo of the mural first, not realizing that she had already won that prize.
A strange animal like sound erupted from Ragnar’s side of the room. He read his screen with utter disbelief. V. Moreau- Winner (The Falling American). His eyes went over and over the words. His mind baulked. “Quickly, do the epaulette.”
“I wouldn’t bother.” Virginie’s voice came to them over the horrified silence that had fallen over the café at their groups odd and dramatic entrance.
The poor man really hadn’t understood yet. Virginie helpfully turned her computer monitor towards him to reveal the words:
V. Moreau- Winner (The Last Tzar’s Epaulette)