“Elaborate,” I said, frowning to focus.
Ruxandra crossed her arms, searching for the way to put it. She spoke fast, under her breath, her eyes darting left and right to ensure privacy.
“A few weeks ago, George and I went out to the Bourbon Pub on what was supposed to be a romantic date. Imagine my surprise to see Novac and Svetlana there, talking closely over drinks – she had scotch, he had water. Not exactly love-birds-style, but I was still worried they might be out on a date themselves, so I dragged George into it. No need to say that spoiled my boyfriend’s romantic mood.
“George felt awkward and pretended to need the men’s room, while I drew a chair and sat at their table without asking for permission. I did ask, however, if they were enjoying their night – my very presence ensuring they weren’t. But Svetlana didn’t actually look all that bothered. With a foxy grin she told me she needed Novac’s help with some research on a certain Cezare Lupan, a dangerous figure who a certain Marius Iordache had written about ten years before in an article, and on whom the R.I.S. had a classified file. She had the article in her purse, she said, that was her first source. I wondered why she’d need Novac’s help, she’s in Journalism, he’s in Med School, but she argued he knew people with information, since he delivered booze to the clubs underground thugs got wasted in. She implied he even had connections to corrupt officials who might know a lot. Anyway, I was soon sure she only used all this as a pretext to get close to him.
“Novac looked uncomfortable, but vertical. Now it occurs to me, Svetlana might’ve been past the pretexts and in the blackmailing stage, since she only stopped talking and her hand froze mid-way inside her purse to take out the article when Novac interrupted her, bluntly, coldly, and promised he’d meet her again the next evening. Her mouth sealed in a second and she grinned like a satisfied cat.”
“What would Svetlana blackmail him for?”
She shrugged and replied plainly, “Sex.”
“Oh, come on, Rux,” I laughed. “Why would someone like her need to blackmail a guy?”
“Because she’s fuckin’ obsessed with him, Alice, that’s why. And he does not want her.”
I bit hard into my lip. “And then? What happened?”
“Then Novac stood up and left. No kisses, no good-byes, not even handshakes. When I asked Svetlana if they were a couple, she grinned and said not yet. That exact second George came back and Svetlana stood, slung her purse on her shoulder, gave us a self-satisfied good-bye and pranced away on her high heels. But by then it was all clear to me.” Here Ruxandra began stressing her words. “Clear that Novac wasn’t interested in her. He was cold as ice. I didn’t tell you, because I thought it a strategy Svetlana used to spend time with him. And I didn’t tell you because I knew you’d back off if you learned how aggressively Svetlana was chasing him. And you shouldn’t back off, not because of her. But maybe because of this – a classified file with the R.I.S.”
I stared at her, not sure how to take this. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. My dad suspects they have a file on him too, and he’s not a criminal or something.”
“Do you hear yourself, Alice? We’re talking about the fucking R.I.S.! Your dad is famous, powerful, and he was once an agent abroad, he’s someone worth keeping a file on. What’s Novac’s excuse? He’s supposed to be just a student in No Man’s Town in No Man’s country.”
She shuffled from one leg to the other, eager to go, while I stared at her, stunned. The others were still busy eating and gossiping, but they would soon burn off their material and eavesdrop for ours.
“Here’s the deal,” Ruxandra said, “We need to know what that article says exactly. There’s no way we’ll hear another word on it ever again unless we use this chance. Since Novac tries so hard to bury this thing, I’m sure it’s worth the dig.” Her eyes darted around once more. “He’ll take a while until he walks through that door, but Hector will be back any minute now. Just call ‘I need a quilt’ at the base of the stairs if he wants to come up.”
Before I could reply she rushed to the attic. A few moments of head-shaking later I decided to ignore her request and run after her, but I bumped into George on the corridor, who showed himself interested in just that – Ruxandra’s whereabouts. I was tempted to tell him and get him up there too, but I knew she would never forgive me. This was on our “treason” list.
I told him she’d gone out for some fresh air and baited him to the kitchen, saying that food grew scarce. This wasn’t far from the truth, since the little that had been salvaged from the train quickly vanished in grumbling bellies, ravaged by last night’s drinking.
George walked to the short, exfoliated fridge and battled for two small bags of chips. He threw me one, and only eating and turning Ruxandra’s words on all sides in my head did I realize how privileged I was with my little university life back in Constanta, sipping steaming coffee every morning and eating three meals a day, safe from shady men who posed as poor students but could be anything from serial killers to cold war spies. The more I thought of it, the more ridiculous the possibility seemed. So ridiculous, it made me nauseous.
Soon Svetlana emerged from the bedroom. She looked tired and sick, her face still white from shock. I got up, swallowed my resentment and played the compassionate part, asking if there was anything I could do to help. She sneered me away and soon forced herself to laugh and act jovially with the others. By the time Ruxandra came back, lifting a weight off my heart, Svetlana played center of attention again, keeping all eyes and ears off us.
“What did he say?” I whispered.
“Not much. He’s sober now and won’t talk easily. You have to buy me more time.”
“Forget it. I won’t aid you in exposing yourself to a potential rapist like that, for any reason.”
“He’s wound in rope, Alice, from neck to toe. He’s lying on muddy hay and needs to be baby-fed. He’s harmless.”
The door creaked open and Hector walked in, carrying firewood on a shoulder, and for a moment Ruxandra’s eyes glinted. Yes, he was much rougher than George and surely didn’t have his sense of humor, but he looked strong and grounded. I guessed Ruxandra grew from girl to woman, and her taste in men followed suit. I elbowed her and gave her the Moon-this-is-Houston-do-you-copy line, hoping to turn her away from the ridiculous investigation. But it only served to wake her from a moment’s reverie and switch her Sherlock ambitions back on.
“Just keep him off my trail. If he goes out again, watch him. If he comes back in, keep him talking,” she said, and turned on her heels.
In the afternoon the others went back to drinking and playing cards. Ruxandra mingled with them, fixed on gathering info, while I got close to the lady I’d shared a bunk with last night. I even asked her questions about Biker, since she was part of his group, but the woman and her companions only knew Biker from the train.
He’d given them a short version of his life – an investigations journalist indeed, divorced for a year. The woman seemed desperate to convince me that she knew nothing of his “practices” and “inner demons”, and told me that she’d assured my “brunette friend” of her full cooperation with the police when the time came, too.
She even gave me a worn book she said Biker had left lying around with his things. It was a brain-wrecking, battered-looking work by a Dr. Nathaniel Sinclair about genetics, even though the vocab didn’t quite fit. It seemed archaic, as if written by a brilliant mind way ahead of its time. I only managed the first five pages, since it sounded like nothing I’d ever learned from Dad.
When evening grayed the windows, the moment came. Hector walked out the door, and Ruxandra fired a glance at me. I decided to let her have her way – I didn’t stand a chance of persuading her otherwise anyway – and darted after him, right into the sharp wind outside that nailed me on the porch, while Hector hurried to a barn blurred by snowfall.
Night descended fast over the mountains. Our shelter stood so lonely in the wilderness, so cut off from the world, that only the thought of war felt more threatening than this isolation.
There was no sign of Damian, and fear punched a void into my chest. Anything could’ve happened to him. No, something must’ve happened to him. He was gone at least eight hours.
As I made out Hector’s frame walking heavily toward me, carrying more wood on his shoulder, I held out the door.
“What are you doing here, babe?” he said hoarsely.
Babe? As in sexy? I pulled a curtain in front of the flattered face my inner self made.
“I . . . I was thinking about Damian and the others. Weren’t they supposed to be back by now?”
He dropped the pile of wood in the hallway and put his hands on his waist, moving it in circles to relieve pain. He grimaced as he spoke, looking down at the pile.
“They shouldn’t have left in the first place. Damian knew the blizzard had only taken a short break.”
My heart jumped. “Shouldn’t we go searching for them or something?”
Hector stretched and looked up, to the ceiling.
“I admire your courage, babe, but you wouldn’t last an hour out there.”
“I wouldn’t be alone. I’d be with you,” I pushed.
Hector snorted and started toward the main room.
“If it’s Damian you’re worried about, don’t be,” he threw over his shoulder.
Shit, he knows I’m into him. Everyone does. I felt exposed, I could see them all watching my midnight fantasies alone in my room, laughing at me. Shame burned in my cheeks and I wanted to hide, but for some reason I grabbed Hector’s elbow. He turned and scowled at me.
“I’m worried about all of them. Why would I think especially of Damian?” I jeered.
“Well, maybe because he saved your life?”
Yes, of course. Anyone would inquire about their rescuer and feel obliged to return the favor. My secret was still safe and my lips glued together to avoid another stupid remark.
Hector’s tone softened as he continued. “For your peace of mind, Damian can take care of himself, and he’s good with winters. As for the other two, they couldn’t hope for better company, they’re safe.”
Good with winters – so Russian spy-like, theory might just hold, my inner self mocked. But Hector didn’t lose another word on the subject of Damian. I didn’t dig any deeper either, afraid that I’d expose my infatuation with him, so we moved on to discussing survival strategies based on Discovery Channel documentaries.
In order to keep informed of his actions and intentions, I helped him feed the stoves and got a number of splinters in my bookworm hands in the process. Then, right after we’d rekindled the fire in the bunkroom, his moving toward the stairs drew a signal of alarm. He intended to check on Biker.
“I need a quilt!” I yelped. Hector stared at me as if I were a mad cow.
“And you expect me to bring you one?”
I blinked and chuckled like a schoolgirl, adrenaline rushing to my fingertips, but his attention left me in just a second. Sudden turbulence and screaming in the main room made his head snap in its direction.
We rushed into the dim chamber where Svetlana acted “all epileptic,” according to George’s wide-eyed, clueless explanation. As Hector worked our way close to her through a mass of gathered people, the sight hit me – eyes rolling, body convulsing, her hair clinging to her sweaty forehead.
“Shit, man, the woman’s possessed!” a guy called, jerking away from Svetlana as Hector fell to his knees beside her and snatched something from the guy’s shaking hand.
Hope you enjoyed this:) If you did, I’d love to read from you in a comment. If the story of The Executioner now happens not to let you sleep, it’s available in whole here. Enjoy!
Also, stay tuned for a new episode of The Marquis on Friday, it’ll be a special one! The title of the episode is “Why Wild Roses Kill,” and it will contain shocking revelations. Check out all previous episodes of The Marquis here.