Joe rushed forward to give both of them a friendly handshake. “Hey, guys! Great to see you.”
“What are you doing here?” Lila asked when she got her voice back.
“Helping out, a little this and that, you know.” Joe spoke evasively.
Ian said derisively, “You’re here to baby-sit us, aren’t you?”
“Nope, not me.” Joe then broke into a grin. “Well, maybe. Not like I’d pick one of the colder places on the planet to visit when it’s almost winter. No, sir, not me. Gimme Thailand or maybe Vietnam for its beaches.”
“I didn’t know Vietnam’s beaches were famous,” Lila commented.
“Oh, definitely,” Joe affirmed enthusiastically. “I highly recommend Nha Trang or Phu Quoc Island. Even China Beach, where the U.S. troops used to go, is a pretty amazing place with a nice 5-star hotel. But we’re getting off track.” He paused. “Lila, how’s your Russian?”
“Better than yours,” Lila shot back.
“Oh, yeah?” Joe smirked. “My team beat yours at the language bowl last year,” he said referring to their departmental Jeopardy-style foreign language and culture game that was waged annually in December.
“You cheated,” Lila protested. “We should have won easily, but you guys pulled in a ringer. He was Lebanese, so of course he was fluent in Arabic. No fair!”
“Don’t be a hater,” Joe jokingly admonished before turning serious. “So, you’re here to visit Bilibino.”
“That’s right.” Lila glanced at Ian who had been silent during the Lila and Joe’s easy back and forth banter.
Ian shrugged. “I guess we’re here to see a reactor.”
“I’m the man for you.” Joe pounded his chest. “Reactor Tours Limited is here to provide you with the best and most up close Russian reactor experience possible.”
Lila burst out laughing. “You are such a ham. Is there really such a company?”
“Absolutely. In fact,” Joe rooted around in his pocket and pulled out business card, “here’s a card for you.”
Lila admired the oversized photo of Joe beaming while standing in front of a nuclear reactor building. “Very nice,” she said, snickering. “You look like a used reactor salesperson.”
“What can I say, I’m a man who loves a reactor. Now back to your Russian.” Joe returned the focus to Lila.
“I’m a level 2 probably. Not perfect, fairly intermediate.” She looked at Joe expectantly. “Why?”
“Because we’re about to take an awesome tour by none other than yours truly.” Joe whipped out a set of keys. “In fact we’re going over right now.”
Lila groaned. “I’m tired. And hungry,” she complained.
“But you have all those things in your bag. Find something to eat. Maybe a pickle would take the edge off,” Ian said with a gleam in his eye.
Lila looked thoughtful. “Beggars can’t be choosy,” she muttered and began dragging items from her bag. “Let’s see, chocolate bar, oh, and here’s that pickle,” she said triumphantly tearing it open and eating it.
Ian exchanged looks with Joe. “I see some things haven’t changed,” Joe motioned toward Lila, “she still likes her food.”
“Yep,” Ian gave a mock sigh.
Lila finished her snack and then she and Ian decked themselves out in the winter gear he had brought. “Ready,” she announced.
Joe shepherded Ian and Lila out to the parking area. “Everyone pile into Uncle Joe’s lovely Lada,” he said referring to the Russian manufactured vehicle parked near the terminal.
“No Land Rover?” Lila teased.
Joe patted the small car’s hood. “This baby will get you everywhere you need to go. I’ve driven these through rivers and they kept on going.”
Lila seated herself in the narrow back seat, the frozen plastic upholstery crackling under her. She yelped, “It’s cold!”
“No kidding,” Ian said mildly and looked back at her from the front passenger seat. “I’d offer to let you sit on my lap, but I think that would make driving here even less safe.”
Joe started up the vehicle and pulled onto the gravel track that passed for the road to Bilibino. His eyes flickered repeatedly to the mirror, while Ian casually glanced at the side view mirror.“We’ve got a friend behind us.” Ian said quietly, his lips scarcely moving.