“I couldn’t be happier!” Tyrellyon’s excited voice boomed down the line into Virginie’s ear. He paused when she didn’t answer. “What’s the matter with you? You’re doing really well. In fact I’d say you’re well on your way to receiving a bonus of some kind.”
“I’m not sure.” Virginie turned at the bar to watch the other contestants gathered around the dining car.
Hugo and Georgis sat at one booth with their assistants, eating breakfast in silence, while across the car Ali and Kenji conversed in low tones over a morning glass of tin and tonic as their assistants ate nearby. Ragnar and Lars were nowhere to be seen.
She lowered her voice even though she knew they would be unable to hear her over the dull roar of the train’s engines. “Winning two in a row may have been a mistake. All their attention will be focused on me now. They’re asking a hell of a lot of questions. Especially Vidal.” Virginie studied the subject of her conversation. She studied the dark head of thick raven black hair falling over his brow as he bent to his plate. Her eyes were drawn to his hands as they lifted a glass of orange juice. She remembered the feel of them from last night. They were large and long fingered like a sculptor’s.
“Well, for Pete’s sake, don’t tell them anything.”
“Do you think I’m an idiot?” She shifted her body to the side. “You’d better cover up our tracks, if we’ve left a trail I’m sure they’ll find it. They’re just the sort of men to cry foul play at this.”
“There’s nothing in the rules against what we’re doing.”
“That may be so, Tyrellyon, but better safe than sorry, eh?”
“I suppose. I’ll have…” he sighed, “Alexandre look at them.”
“My new secretary, if you can call him that. He’s a ridiculous dandy, you should see him, I mean really!” Tyrellyon blew an exasperated breath. “He spends half his time in the office grooming his moustache and adjusting his fob watch. Who wears a fob nowadays? Pretentious swine.”
“Do you miss Gregory?” Virginie smiled.
“I… I can’t believe I’m saying this, but, yes. I miss Gregory. He was always such an able chap.”
She could imagine Tyrellyon smiling fondly to himself in his grand sunlit office.
“Well, what could I do?” He took on the wearied tones of a martyr. “You needed an assistant and being a gentleman-”
“I didn’t need an assistant, Tyrellyon. You forced one upon me-”
Virginie glanced up and caught Gregory standing a foot away from her, having just left their compartment to join her for breakfast. He stood for a moment staring at her. The look of dejection, disappointment and embarrassment on his face, cut Virginie unexpectedly to the core.
She stared after him in dismay when he turned and walked back out of the dining car.
“What’s going on?” Tyrellyon’s peeved voice sounded over the phone.
“I’m sorry Tyrellyon, I’ve got to go. Make sure you take care of things on your end and I’ll be in touch soon-”
“But Virginie, I want to talk about-”
“Later. Goodbye Tyrellyon.”
Tyrellyon sighed. “Call me later-”
But she’d already hung up. He held the dead phone is his hand for a minute before replacing it in it’s cradle.
John hesitated a long time over pressing the intercom before he finally did it. Then he sat down to smoke a cigarette and wait for his so-called secretary to deign to answer his summons. He was grinding out the butt of his cigarette in the ashtray when Alexandre slouched into the room without knocking. Now, John knew that it took him about ten minutes to finish smoking a cigarette. It had taken the no good parasite ten minutes to walk the ten inches from his desk to the door of his employer’s office.
John ground out the butt until little bits of tobacco were strewn violently about the little crystal ashtray. He wished he were grinding Alexandre’s face.
John sat back in his chair and took in the younger man before him. There was something about the boy’s very presence that put him in a bad mood, made him feel on edge, as though he were constantly struggling to keep himself from pouncing on the young man’s throat. He reached out, curled his fingers around his cane and tapped it slowly on the floor. He counted out the taps as he sought to calm himself down.
What was it about Alexandre? Was it the affected English regency type style? The ridiculous little cravat at his neck? The platinum blond hair falling with careful nonchalance over his left eye?
John leaned forward a little bit, distracted by what he was beginning to suspect was eye-liner ringing the boy’s eyes.
Alexandre stared back, utterly shameless. The boy even had the gall to look annoyed at being made to stand there and wait.
“Did you want something?” His French was the guttural jargon of the streets. Practised no doubt, as John knew that Alexandre belonged to one of the wealthiest families in the world and had been educated at the best institutions money could buy.
Ha! Thought John a little childishly. Money had to buy since talent was lacking.
“Alexandre, remind me again why I hired you.”
If John had hoped to offend the young man into some level of reaction, he was about to be deeply disappointed.
He was deeply disappointed.
“Because my father asked you.”
John blinked at the blasé and very honest answer. “Er- yes.” Damn that A-. Since inflicting shame had failed, he switched to another tack. “Have you no ambitions of your own?”
“If we’re going to chat, may I have a seat?” Alexandre strolled forward without waiting for an answer and collapsed into the seat across from John’s desk. Anyone would have though he’d been left standing for a hundred years, watching the apparent exhaustion with which he settled himself into the chair.
Which prompted John to ask in genuine curiosity, “How old are you anyway?”
“And what are your dreams?” John happily adopted the air of a concerned adult and clasped his hands on his desk. “What do you want to do when you…er…grow up?”
Alexandre tossed his hair out of his eyes. It fell back to exactly the same place, after all it had been styled and moussed that way. John resisted the urge to rake his fingers through the boy’s hair and drag it back from his stupid face.
Alexandre was watching him with a cocky half smile playing on his lips. “I just wanna be happy, you know? I’m not interested in all this capitalist, rat-race bullshit.” An airy flit of his slender wrist indicated John’s office, John and the mini-bar.
“Capitalist bullshit?” John sputtered. “Why, you damned communist!” He blustered to his feet and leant on his cane. “How do you think everything’s paid for?”
“Not everything is about money.” Alexandre stared back mutinously.
“I think you’ll find it is.”
“That’s just why the world is in the state it is today.” Alexandre sat up ever so slightly, a sure sign of his excitement. “We need to rebuild the world. When your generation dies out everything will change, you’ll see.”
“How will I see if I’m dead, you daft maniac?” He was yelling now. He caught himself and forced himself to relax. John returned to his seat. “Listen, Alexandre, you’re here because your father asked me to give you the job. And your father is a great man and a great friend-”
“Gay.” Alexandre snickered under his breath.
Hugo started up from his seat, his eyes bulging. He remembered himself in time and returned to his seat. “Just, for the love of God, get out of my face. Go get the files on Virginie Moreau. I need them.”
Alexandre stood and turned to leave.
“And Alexandre-” John’s voice recalled him. “I need them now.”
“Whatever.” The boy shrugged out of the room, leaving John glaring after him.
God, how he missed Gregory.
“Gregory.” Her voice was the kindest he’d heard it, but he didn’t want to hear it now. “Gregory, please let me in.”
Gregory stared mutinously at the locked door from within their compartment. He felt desperately hurt by what she’d said and now horribly embarrassed that she’d known he’d heard. He was very aware he was making a scene, but he couldn’t remember ever having been so hurt in his life.
“I’m fine, okay? I just need a minute alone.”
“It’s not what you think-” She cut herself off. “That sounds ridiculous, I know.” He heard her sigh, heard the slide of clothes against the door and imagined her sitting on the ground in the narrow corridor, her back braced against the door.
Why didn’t she go? It was obvious now that she didn’t care about him at all. It was silly really, they’d only known each other a few days. It seemed stupid now but Gregory realized that he’d already begun to change, to embrace the adventure of the Hunt. She’d helped him change, helped him by never seeming to doubt his ability to handle whatever situation arose. He’d begun to believe it too. What an idiot he’d been. This was just a job for her. A job that she was hampered in doing well because she’d been saddled with an assistant she didn’t want.
“I won’t lie to you Gregory.”
He turned towards the door to better hear her quiet voice.
“The truth is,” she sighed, “I didn’t want an assistant. I always work alone, I’m not really…good with people. I’m glad you’re here now. You’re carrying your share of the workload. As I see it, we’re tied for winner. I discovered a clue, but remember, so did you.”
“I was wrong about the location of the clue though.”
She snorted. “Who cares? You still set us on the right path.”
“But you’re the one who nicked the epaulette from Lars.”
There was a second of silence and he could almost hear the smile in her voice when she spoke. “I think what you’re saying is that we make a good team.”
Gregory was smiling, albeit grudgingly. He knew she was going to think he was being a child but he couldn’t resist asking, just a little plaintively, “Are you sure you want me here?”
“I’m sure. Now what do you say? Will you open the door?”
He was already yanking open the door triumphantly. He jumped back in surprise as Virginie fell backwards into the room at his feet.
Virginie groaned as the back of her head cracked onto the tile floor sharply. She glared up at Gregory, staring down at her from his height. She narrowed her eyes against the ceiling light that framed his head like a halo. “What the hell?” She breathed. “Why did you open the door?”
“You asked me to!” Gregory beamed down at her.
Virginie took the hand he offered her and stood. “Friends?” She shook the hand he’d given her.
He grabbed her up in a hug that surprised her. “Friends!”
Virginie sat on her bunk. “You’re in heavy demand actually. Tyrellyon is suffering without you. He misses you.”
Gregory glanced at her doubtfully. “I doubt that.”
“He said it himself.”
He smoothed his closely cropped sandy blond hair back from his forehead, looking very pleased with himself.
“We might as well grab some breakfast.” Virginie stretched. “We’re gonna be on this train for hours.”
“You know,” Gregory said thoughtfully, “we can use this time to do a little digging into the affairs of the other contestants. Oh! Maybe I can get in with the other assistants.”
Virginie chuckled. “Why, Gregory, I’m surprised at you!”
His cheeks pinked with shame but he was quick to defend himself. “They started it.”
“Ah, the school yard defence.”
“If I’ve picked up any bad habits, I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s due to the peer pressure.” He looked at her significantly.
“Nonsense.” She replied with a smile. “But you are onto something good there. It’s time to stop being on the defensive.”
“Are we going to get offensive?” He looked deadly eager.
Virginie held the door open to him and bowed him out ahead of her. “Shall we begin?”
Gregory left the compartment in much better spirits then when he’d entered.