Hugo glanced up as Virginie and her assistant re-entered the dining car. Evidently whatever had caused the man to flee and her to pursue, had been settled between them. Hugo wondered at what sort of relationship they really had. To share such intimate closeness with a member of the opposite sex and not be engaged in an equally intimate physical relationship didn’t make much sense to him. But then Gregory looked like he’d allow most anything just to get near a woman. The reality, however, was that whatever derogatory statements he made against the man, Gregory was the sort of assistant he wished he had. The man looked capable of pitching in, intelligent. Hugo’s eyes were drawn to his own assistant, sitting quietly beside him, picking his teeth with a long pinkie fingernail.
He suppressed a shudder. Ramirez, was a cowboy through and through. Even after gaining employment within the Vidal network of ranches, he still rarely went into town. Ramirez preferred the company of animals to people, but the man completed every task he was given with diligence and dedication. The man may have been short on creativity and, Hugo watched in absolute horror as Ramirez dislodged some food from his teeth onto his nail, looked at it and ate it, basic human etiquette, but he made up for it in dogged determination and an almost scary focus. Once Ramirez had begun something, Hugo had never known him to leave it unfinished. At forty-five Ramirez was the second oldest assistant in the competition, next to the poor ancient family servant whom Ali dragged to the contest each year. Omar had to be in his late sixties, but Hugo had to admit, the man was still going. Not well, or very quickly, but going, and that was the main thing surely.
“So what we gonna do today Mr. Vidal.” Ramirez’s Spanish was crude and hoarse.
“I tell you every time we speak. I’ve told you for the past twenty years that you’ve known me. Please, by the sainted Madonna, call me Hugo.”
Ramirez’s pox-marked face remained impassive. He ran his hand over his chest, bare and brown under the open collar of his worn cotton shirt. His fingers traced the faded lines that made up his Jesus tattoo, as they always did when he was out of sorts. “You will always be Mr. Vidal to me.”
Hugo sighed. “There’s not much we can do at the moment. Just focus on deciphering the clues.”
“Shit.” Ramirez looked about to spit, then recalled himself and swallowed quickly. “I’m sorry Mr. Vidal, but being trapped on this train is driving me crazy. We need to get out, get some action.”
“I couldn’t agree with you more. But the next stop is still some hours away. We’re stuck here.”
“You know what I think.” Ramirez leaned across the table, his leather vest squeaking with the movement. “I think this contest is rigged. I mean, check it out-” his gesture took in Virginie and Gregory sat conversing in low tones by the bar, “chick wins two prizes.” He held up three fingers. “In a row.” He sucked his teeth and sat back triumphantly, shaking his head. “No way, man. Something ain’t right.”
“It hasn’t occurred to you that she just might be rather clever?”
“Come on.” Ramirez looked disdainful.
“You know, instead of wasting our time hassling with her, we’d be better served studying that damned list.”
“I’m no good at puzzles. No, Mr. Vidal, I’d just be wasting your time and giving myself a headache if I try to figure out that stupid list. I think I’ll focus on her.” His pointed jet black beard indicated in Virginie’s direction.
Hugo shot him a look. “Good luck getting anywhere with her. She’s like a fortress that one, she gives nothing away. And what she chooses to show you will only confuse you more.” He shook his head. “No, don’t bother. You’d be wasting your time.”
“No, brother.” Ramirez was busy securing his long black hair into a ponytail. “I’m gonna hunt on the weaker prey.”
Hugo watched him with interest. “Just what do you intend to do?” He glanced at Virginie. Their eyes met across the dining car. Hers were amused. “You know,” he turned back to Ramirez, “you might be wiser to forget your little plan. Remember how it went down for Ragnar when he thought he’d get clever with her. She seems like the kind who’ll play hard.”
“When have I ever gotten myself into a situation I couldn’t handle?”
Hugo shrugged. “Go with God, my friend.”
Kenji followed Hugo’s assistant with his eyes. The man looked like a drug smuggler. He glanced with pride at his own assistant. Quiet, reliable Satoshi. For a man in his late twenties Satoshi had the most astonishingly cold eyes. Satoshi was, in Kenji’s thinking an ‘old soul’. Satoshi knew more, had seen and done more than was healthy for a man his age. But then, what did one expect from a man who’d been errand boy to the Yakuza at the tender age of eleven? Kenji supposed that Satoshi, like any other human being, probably had some family somewhere, or at least had had at one time or another, but really it was near impossible to imagine Satoshi being born. It was strange to think that he’d ever been innocent or helpless. Either he’d emerged fully formed in Athena’s style or had congealed somewhere.
Satoshi sat at Kenji’s side with his palms laid flat against the table. His plates, all put licked clean, had been stacked neatly to one side. Every now and then a finger would tap as though drawing a line under one train of thought and preparing to start another. All the time the young man stared straight ahead, not at Ali’s assistant who sat directly opposite him in the booth, but rather through Omar. He did that sometimes, Kenji had noticed, just retreated into his own brain. Strange, cold-blooded fellow.
If he were forced to admit it, Satoshi made him very nervous. Who knew what motivated such a detached and amoral mind? Who knew what caused such a person offence or what terrible means they would resort to to rectify the situation. But after last year’s fiasco in Chile, Kenji had been determined to bring an assistant who thrived under adversaries and was not afraid to tackle some…unpleasant tasks. Satoshi would have been perfect for the job if they didn’t have to share a compartment. As it was Kenji spent half the night struggling to remain awake, his sleep addled mind filled with half crazed notions of Satoshi stabbing him to death in the night. Next year, Kenji decided, he wouldn’t bring a known mobster and cold blooded killer. He’d follow Ragnar’s tack and get himself a bodyguard. Why hadn’t he thought of that in the first place?
“Why the hell is your man staring at Omar like that?” Ali’s voice interrupted his musings.
Kenji glanced sharply at Ali, pulling an exasperated face across the booth at him. He still couldn’t get used to Ali’s habit of talking about servants in front of them as though they could not hear. Kenji wished to God Ali would shut the hell up and not antagonize the human time bomb ticking away at his side. In an attempt to convey just that, he gently pulled an expression meant to warn Ali to let the subject matter die.
“What’s wrong with your face?”
Idiot! “Just leave it Ali.”
“I don’t know why I should.” Ali turned to Satoshi and snapped commanding fingers in the younger man’s face. “Hey you.” When he got no response he turned to Kenji. “Can he speak English?”
Kenji followed Satoshi’s example and remained silent.
Ali sniffed and rose from his seat with a great show of offended dignity. “Omar, come.”
The sleeve of his snow white fur coat hit Kenji in the face as he swept from the room.
Kenji glanced at Satoshi and was shocked to see the tiniest of smiles playing across the young man’s face.
Ali strode through the clogged corridors of the train. He yearned desperately for the calm, elegant safety of his compartment. He thought it was a shame that Ragnar hadn’t joined the group for breakfast. While it was true that the man was a degenerate lush, the fact that he created entertainment wherever he went was definitely in his favour. Last night for instance, what a remarkable show. Ali was smiling in memory as he slammed the door behind him and heard the little exclamation of pain Omar uttered on the other side.
“For God’s sake- Omar!” Ali yanked open the door and dragged his assistant in by a frail wrist. “You need to keep up.”
Omar glanced up at Ali from his stooped position with eyes made large by terrifically strong glasses. He could still remember when Ali had been a child in his care, the little boy would slide on his glasses and spin till he collapsed nauseous and laughing in the courtyard of the family’s oasis palace in Jordan.
He shuffled to his bunk and sat on the wafer thin bedding that came with the room. Ali settled down across from him on the goose down duvet and hypo-allergenic pillow that he’d had brought from his New York apartment.
“Cut me up an apple, will you, Omar? I couldn’t eat properly with Kenji’s crazy assistant eye-balling you from across the table.”
Omar creaked up from his seat with much difficulty and went to fetch the fruit from the little basket in the corner. He sat back down to cut it at the little table between the bunks.
“He didn’t trouble me.” Omar spoke Arabic in the old way, very poetically, gently, as though he were retelling an epic tale around a desert fire surrounded by Berbers and nomads. He smiled as he spoke, pleased that Ali was showing concern for his well-being.
“It’s not about if he was troubling you.” Ali shattered his misconceptions as he munched on the segments of apple Omar handed across to him. “He was annoying me. I think that Kenji’s crazy anyway.” He snorted. “First, Tyrellyon hires a champion from the military and now Kenji’s recruiting from the madhouse. They need to shore up the rules for this contest if it’s not going to degenerate into a Battle Royale situation.”
“Battle Royale?” Omar blinked owlishly from behind his thick lenses. “What is this Battle Royale?”
Ali sighed. “It doesn’t matter.”
“You know…” Omar began slowly. “I was thinking. Maybe next year you should bring another assistant.”
Ali’s head snapped around to stare at him. Omar glanced away in shame.
An uncomfortable silence descended.
“If that’s what you want.” Ali’s voice was flat, dry as the desert.
Omar handed over the last segment of apple without responding. Ali snatched it from him with such ferocity that the older man just barely escaped from the encounter with his fingers intact.
Omar watched his young charge with a tenderness borne of true love. He himself had been Ali’s closest friend in childhood. While the boy’s parents had lived the adventurous and glitzy life of the jet-setting elite, too often they had left their only son behind. Before Ali could walk his parent’s had left him in Omar’s care to attend the Carnival in Venice, the opera in Egypt and the ballet in Russia. By the time Ali could talk he’d been calling Omar ‘baba’. Omar had been in his prime then and had thought nothing of running after the little boy, and never having been married or blessed with children of his own, he’d been happy- no, more than that- proud to take the boy with him as he’d gone about his daily duties in the household. When Ali’s mother had died in a plane crash when the boy had been just eighteen, his father had sent him away to attend boarding school in Boston. There, the recipient of a staggeringly large allowance, away from the loving guidance of the man, who for so long had been his father figure, Omar was ashamed to admit that Ali had become rather spoiled.
Was still spoiled, in fact, till this very day. While Omar wished that Ali would learn to be more generous and soft-spoken, he just couldn’t bring himself to say the harsh words. To risk turning against him the one person he loved most in the world. So he turned his head when Ali drank himself to unconsciousness, when he was unfaithful to his beautiful wife of so many years and even when he spoke harshly to the one man who had raised him and always loved him. What else could he do? Omar could only give love and hope for Ali’s happiness.
But there were not too many years left to give, Omar knew that. His health had always been bad, and he knew (he knew Ali knew it as well, even if he wouldn’t admit it) that he could no longer run around in these contests and follow Ali from one glittering capital to the next. It was time for him to retire to a small house of his own, with a garden teeming with flowers and spend out the rest of his days in contemplation surrounded by his books.
Ali turned to him suddenly. “You won’t reconsider?” His voice was cold, unfeeling.
Omar shook his head slowly, setting his long white beard floating over his chest, unable to say the words.
He saw the odd brightness in Ali’s eyes just before the man uttered a foul curse and turned in his bunk. He yanked the luxurious duvet over his shoulders and lay with his back to Omar.
A pang of conscious burned his chest and Omar stood, painfully and uncertainly. “Ali-”
“Just leave it.”
Just then, a dull thud issued from the hallway, followed by low angry murmuring.
Ali looked relieved at the interruption. “Go see what’s happening. Don’t let anyone see you.”
Omar shuffled across the room and gently pushed the door open just a crack. He placed his eyes to the crack and peered out carefully into the corridor. He drew back quickly and closed the door.
“It looks like two of the assistants are having a fight.”
Ali turned onto his back, his eyes sparking to life with glee. “Really? Which ones?” He demanded.
Omar hesitated a moment before opening the door again with a gentle sigh of resignation.
The sight that met his eyes sent his heart sinking into his gut. He retreated quickly into his compartment. “It looks bad.” Omar’s voice quaked with fear. “Mr. Vidal’s assistant is out there with Ms. Moreau’s. I think Mr. Vidal’s man has a knife.”
Ali was on his feet in an instant and shoving Omar aside to replace him in the doorway. The door cracked open silently and Ali pressed his eye to the slit, peering down the corridor until he sighted the two men.
Ramirez bared his teeth in a cold smile as he pressed Gregory against the wall with an arm across his throat. With his free hand he waved his wicked looking switch-blade in front of Gregory’s stunned and horrified eyes.
“Please….don’t do this.” Gregory forced the words past his constricted throat, struggling to keep down the breakfast that was at this moment working its way back up his intestinal tract.
“I haven’t done a thing yet, friend.” Ramirez rasped in his thickly accented English. “Now I’m only asking. Tell me what you know, little man.” He pressed his arm down harder and smiled as Gregory’s eyes bulged in terror. He eased his hold for a moment.
“I don’t understand.” Gregory hated the sound of his own voice at that moment. It was the pleading voice of a coward. But then, that was exactly what he was, he saw that now. “I don’t know anything.” A terrified little coward. The realization crippled him with guilt. How had he ever thought himself Virginie’s equal?
“You think she cares for you? That puta you slave for?” Ramirez snorted in derision. “You are nothing to her. Tell me what you know, eh? About the clues and about her, I will make it worth your while.”
A sudden swell of rage swept through Gregory and the words flew from his mouth without thought. “Virginie is not what you say! She is a good woman. She cares-”
His tirade was strangled to a stop by a deft movement of Ramirez’s arm. “Tell me what you know about her or I will slice your face to ribbons.”
Ali watched the exchange with the smile fading from his face and an unfamiliar weight settling in his stomach. This was getting out of hand. He stood, hiding behind the door to his compartment, unable to bear watching any more, uncertain of what to do. Just as his panic reached fever pitch he heard the sound of another door opening.
Ali squinted down the opposite end of the corridor. There, with the door to the first class carriage closing slowly behind her, stood Virginie. In a second, she had taken in the sight before her and if Ali had been frightened by Ramirez, it was nothing compared to the terror that gripped him at the rage on Virginie’s face.
He drew back into his compartment, closed the door softly and stood staring at it in silence. The look of absolute and utter rage on Virginie’s face stayed with him. She had only known her assistant for a few days and yet it was clear that she cared for him. Enough to throw herself into a dangerous situation to defend him, if the sound of her steady footsteps crossing the corridor was anything to go by. Virginie cared for her assistant after a few days and yet…
A strange emotion was squeezing his heart.
Yet, his own parents, the people meant to love him most in all the world, had never cared for him at all. They had never hesitated to leave him behind to seek out adventures of their own, had never embraced him or wiped away his tears.
No, only one man had ever done that. Only one man had ever loved him and cared for him.
Ali turned to Omar, who stood behind him twirling his beard anxiously around a thin finger, and coughed around a suspicious lump in his throat. “I don’t know what I’ll do without you next year.”
Omar reached forward in the silence that followed and did something he hadn’t felt able to do since Ali had been a frightened and lonely little boy. He pulled Ali into his arms and embraced him.
Hugo glanced up from his notebook as a firm knock sounded on his compartment door.
“Just come in, Ramirez.” He called out in Spanish. How many times did he have to tell that man he didn’t have to announce his entrance every single time he returned to their room?
“It’s Virginie, Hugo. Open the door.”
Hugo smiled as he crossed the room to open the door.
His smile died a speedy death at the sight before him.
Virginie stood before him, bodily supporting a bloody and slumped over Ramirez. She dragged the heavy man past a frozen Hugo and tossed him unceremoniously onto the nearest bunk.
“What the hell happened to him?” Hugo breathed, taking in the nearly unconscious man’s bruised and battered face. “Ramirez?”
Ramirez parted his cracked lips and swallowed. His left eye, already beginning to swell shut, shot to Virginie in terror.
“Your man just made a big mistake. He tried to threaten Gregory with this knife.” She held up Ramirez’s switch-blade before pocketing it with a cold smile. “It’s mine now.” Her savage gaze returned to the wounded man. “But you’ve learnt your lesson now. Isn’t that right?”
Ramirez winced at her tone, nodding desperately.
Virginie turned back to Hugo, satisfied. “Meet me in two minutes in the dining car.”
Hugo gestured a hand towards his assistant. “I can’t leave Ramirez like this-”
“Be there, or I swear I’ll be back to finish what I started.” She left the room as abruptly as she’d entered it, slamming the door behind her.
“Please, Mr. Vidal-” Ramirez croaked, forcing himself painfully onto his elbows. “Please go.”
Hugo stared at his assistant, his mind roiling with confusion. “She did this to you?” He needed to hear the words. It seemed incomprehensible to him that Ramirez could be brought so low.
Ramirez was nearly delirious with pain. His swollen eyes glassy with it. “Yes and she’ll come back. Please, please go.”
As Ramirez sank back in a dead faint another thought occurred to Hugo, another thing to add to the surreal turn events had suddenly taken.
Virginie had been speaking in Spanish.