“So you’re finally up, Ragnar-san!” Kenji bent double to bellow the words in the hunched over man’s ear.
A garbled curse erupted from Ragnar’s lips as he jerked his hands to his head with a grimace. “Damn you Kenji!” He whispered past parched lips. “What is the point of this meeting anyway?” He blinked his terrifically bloodshot eyes up at the men taking seats around him.
Ali only shrugged, oddly silent as he eased himself into the vacant chair opposite.
Ragnar turned his bleary eyes in Georgis’ direction and frowned to find the man glaring past him. Ragnar turned in confusion and saw Virginie entering the dining car, followed closely by Hugo.
“I feel like I’m about to be told off by the headteacher.” Kenji whispered beside him.
Ragnar snorted. Kenji may be cowed by the sight of that shifty villainess, but not him. Ragnar pushed to his feet, his eyes squinted against his raging hangover and stepped in front of Virginie.
“Who do you think you are to call meetings?” He summoned as much vehemence into his voice as he could and glared down at her. When she stopped in front of him and met his eyes in absolute silence, his resolve began to waver. “I’ll have you know, I was taking a nap.” His voice had taken on a plaintive air.
“It’s hard to take you seriously when you reek of booze, Ragnar.” Her tone was offhand but her eyes were like steel.
Georgis smirked. “The drunk does make a good point, Virginie. Why have you asked us to gather here?”
“Just to make a simple statement, Georgis.” She faced them all with her fingers spread over the table. “I’ve only known all of you for a few days. I know I don’t like you and you don’t like me. But what you all seem to have forgotten is that I am not one of you. This game means nothing to me. I get paid whether I win or lose. So if I decide to spend my entire time here ruining this contest for all of you, I can and I swear to God, I will. To avoid any…unpleasantness…I only ask that you proceed with care when dealing with both me and my assistant.” She smiled and met each of their eyes in turn. “Just a friendly warning.” She couldn’t resist turning to Ragnar. “So now you can go back to your-” she leaned right against his ear and bellowed- “nap!”
Ali reached out and grabbed Ragnar’s hand as the man lunged at Virginie’s retreating back. Ragnar shrugged off his grasp and squinted at Kenji. “What the hell is she even talking about?”
“Ask him.” Ali nodded towards Hugo, who stood in silence with his arms crossed over his chest and a thoughtful frown drawing together his brows.
Six pairs of eyes turned to Hugo for an explanation. They followed his retreating back as he turned abruptly and followed Virginie out of the dining car, leaving their curiosity unappeased. The eyes turned immediately to Ali.
Hugo pushed his way through the crowded lower class carriages before emerging finally into the peace of the first class one. Virginie had already disappeared into her cabin.
She walked unbelievably fast. The thought occurred to him as he crossed directly to her compartment and knocked commandingly on the door. When her curt voice invited him in he pushed the door wide and entered the little room. Virginie sat on her bed with her legs crossed beneath her, watching him with open curiosity. Gregory knelt in front of his suitcase, rummaging amongst the perfectly folded clothing and plastic bag packed toiletries.
Hugo was unused to doing what he was about to do. He decided to proceed quickly and get the whole thing over with.
“Gregory, I would like to apologise for Ramirez’s behaviour.”
Gregory stood slowly, an unsure smile playing across his face. He glanced uncertainly at Virginie before turning back to Hugo. “I really appreciate that Mr. Vidal.” Gregory swallowed. “It’s very kind of you. But really, it doesn’t matter now.” Gregory glanced again at Virginie. “We apologise too,” he studiously ignored the killing look Virginie was levelling in his direction, “for what happened to Ramirez.”
Hugo caught the look on Virginie’s face. “I would like to apologise to you as well…for any…inconvenience.”
Virginie gave him an odd look. “No inconvenience.” She smiled. “And no problem.”
Hugo studied her for a moment in silence. Sitting cross-legged on the bed she looked utterly relaxed. As though this was just another day. As though she hadn’t just beaten the holy hell out his rough, tough cowboy assistant. It was then, in that moment, despite everything else he had observed about her, that he realized Ragnar had been absolutely right. He didn’t have a doubt in his mind that she was, or at least at one time had been, in the military.
He bid them both farewell and left the room with his mind in turmoil.
Gregory returned to his suitcase with a sigh. “That was nice of him.”
Virginie was pulling out the folder she’d stashed beneath her pillow at Hugo’s entrance and responded with a non-committal sound of agreement.
“Thanks Virginie.” Gregory returned to his bunk and faced her earnestly across the space. “Thank you for coming to help me. I know you felt you had to, but it meant- means so much that you did anyway.”
She sighed and lowered the folder to meet his eyes. “Gregory, when are you going to realize that I do nothing because I have to? I did it because I wanted to.”
He smiled, unable to keep it in any longer. “Virginie,” he copied her tone, “when are you going to admit that you like me? That you like having me on this journey?”
She bent her head to the open folder, but he saw the smile playing across her face.
Georgis strode through the first-class compartment, rolling his eyes as he heard a burst of masculine laughter seeping out from Virginie’s compartment.
Really, you’d think this was an off-beat pleasure cruise. It hardly felt like a serious race to victory any more.
He pushed open the door to his own compartment and sighed with pleasure to see his most valued possessions laid out before him. His lovely clothes overflowed the tiny closet and hung from the extra clothes rails his assistant had had to get from the train attendant. His eyes skirted over the sumptuous fabrics: the luxurious cottons, wools and elegant cashmeres. A warm sensation of joy washed over him at the sight.
It faded slightly when his eyes settled on the slender form of his studious and unappealing assistant. The dry little Greek academic Stephanos Callas was bent, as usual, over a profusion of books, folders and notebooks, his glasses sliding down his thin nose.
Restraining a resigned sigh, Georgis settled himself comfortably on his own bunk. “Have you found anything?”
It would be a miracle if Stephanos had and if there was one thing Georgis didn’t believe in, it was miracles. His life, or more particularly, his father had taught him not to bother waiting for such things. To expect only a series of obstacles and difficulties. Each to be overcome if one was to succeed.
Georgis could still remember the day he had started work on his father’s flower farm. His dreams of learning his father’s craft had been crushed the moment he’d set foot on the company’s grounds. His father had set him to work, not in the comfortable office, but on the farm itself as the lowliest field hand. In a country where utilising human labour was cheaper than buying machines, his father hadn’t hesitated to use his own son as another lowly labourer. Georgis had set to work planting, weeding and hoeing. He’d been forced to bunk down in the worker’s accommodations at the end of each day. At night, he’d lie on his narrow cot, listening to the snores of the other workers, sore and exhausted from work but unable to sleep. His father had made it clear that for him there would be no guarantees. It didn’t matter that he was his father’s only son. If he couldn’t prove to his father that he was worthy then he simply wouldn’t inherit. His father had told him as much. He’d always had to work so hard to prove himself and his father had never seemed pleased with his efforts. The expression his father had worn most often had been one of disappointment.
The happiest day of his life, second only to the day he’d married his wife, had been when his father had finally retired and handed over the business to him. But even that his father had done in a resigned manner, showing no pride in the son who had worked himself to the bone to earn the family business.
Years later, when he’d stood beside his father’s death bed, Georgis had waited for the words he had longed to hear for his entire life. He had waited for his father to say he loved him, that he was proud of him. His father had gestured him close and in his fading voice had whispered his final words into his son’s ear.
“Check the Astimov account.”
That was it.
Those had been his father’s last words. Not words of wisdom or the tender words his son had so desperately needed, but rather a business reminder. Until the end, his father had thought of nothing but his flower business. His last concern had been that their client, Astimov, had not been paying his bills.
No, Georgis didn’t believe in miracles. He had never had a reason to.
Stephanos pushed his glasses back up his nose, bringing Georgis back to the present with a jolt. Georgis refocused slowly, noticing for the first time the look of victory on the usual passive and unemotional Stephanos’ face.
“You were right about the clue, Mr. Seyoum.”
And just like that, Georgis began to believe.