“Major James! It’s nice to meet you. I heard your performance at the Sniper Challenge was very impressive,” a Colonel Burgstein said. “And this must be your lovely wife.”
“Kathleen,” she responded and shook his hand. Ethan felt strangely defensive when he saw how the older man was looking at her. “It’s nice to meet you too, Colonel.”
“You must get drinks,” he encouraged. “Come this way. The bar is decent at this place. Better than at the base, eh?” he slapped Ethan on the back and Ethan smiled slightly. The Colonel pushed them towards the bar.
“Just a beer,” Ethan said, keeping his eye on the room. Everyone was similarly occupied, this was after all, the meet and greet. It was impossible to tell who had a legitimate reason to be at the conference and who was the competition. Ethan felt protective of his so very feminine partner, knowing that they were in the same room as an unknown number of spies, assassins, and otherwise unsavory characters. Like himself.
“Tonic water please,” Kathleen James said.
“Come now, Mrs. James. Don’t hold back,” The Colonel said. “You must want something.”
“Thank you, but no,” she said a bit coolly. So it wasn’t just Ethan who was put off by this guy. However, Ethan couldn’t even be sure whether this man was a harmless, if annoying, older man or a deadly foe. It would take time to figure it all out. “Look Eth, someone else brought their spouse.” She pointed to a couple that had just walked in. There were only a handful of female attendees.
“That’s Colonel Durrant,” Burgstein said.
“You know him, then?” Ethan asked, as Kathleen led them toward the couple. He took a swig of his beer as they walked.
“Met him this morning. A bit stuffy if you ask me. He’s stationed in Texas. Where are you stationed, did you say, James?”
“Virginia,” Ethan answered shortly. They had reached the couple. “Colonel Durrant, I’m Major James. Just wanted to introduce myself.”
The Colonel turned and grasped Ethan’s hand in a friendly manner. “Major James. Good to meet you. This is my wife, Karon.”
“And you are…Kathleen,” Karon said reading the name tag. “So good to see another wife here.” She took Kathleen’s hand and held it in a motherly fashion, and Kathleen responded by smiling warmly. Ethan wasn’t sure what Burgstein had been talking about when he said Durrant was stuffy.
“I thought there would be more wives at this thing,” Kathleen confided to her new friend.
“I know! I always tell John I don’t want to go because none of the other wives will be there, but he always convinces me anyway,” Karon said. “But you are so young! You can’t have been married long!”
Kathleen gave Ethan a sweet little blushing glance. “Two months now.”
“Newlyweds!” Burgstein exclaimed. “I bet this is like a little honeymoon to you, eh?” he asked elbowing Ethan in the ribs playfully. Kathleen blushed further, and the Durrants looked at Burgstein with flat contempt. So that was why he thought they were stiff.
“Tell me James, what brings you to this gathering,” Durrant said, changing the subject. Ethan tried to mumble something, using his beer bottle as an excuse for incoherency. Kathleen was looking up at him proudly.
“Don’t be modest, Major. He’s won the sharp shooting award,” Burgstein informed them, as he led them back toward the bar to re-fill his cocktail.
“Well, then I suppose you are the one to beat at the fire arms competition this evening,” Durrant said. Neither Colonel Durrant nor his wife ordered alcohol.
“There’s a competition tonight?” Kathleen asked innocently.
“It’s in the itinerary,” Karon said. “You should have gotten one when you arrived.”
Kathleen’s face bloomed bright red and she looked down and sunk in closer to Ethan as she said, “Oh, yes. We got one. We just haven’t…had a chance to look at it yet.” The red face, embarrassed expression. No one missed her meaning, and Ethan felt his own face begin to color.
There was an awkward moment where no one said anything and then Karon saved them, “You know wives can participate in the contest too. It’s just target practice. You should do it, Kathleen.”
“Um, I don’t think so. That’s not really my thing,” Kathleen mumbled. She sipped her tonic as if the glass could hide her face. “I’ll leave that to Ethan.”
“No really, it’s just for fun,” Colonel Durrant said. “Karon’s going to do it. I bet everyone will.”
“Last time I tried, things didn’t go well,” Kathleen James stuttered. “I don’t think…”
“So you have done it before!”
“On one of our first dates,” Ethan’s wife admitted.
Ethan added. “I’m lucky she ever went out with me again.”
And Kathleen, “I almost didn’t.”
“Well, you have to participate,” Burgstein said. “And that’s an order.” It was said only half in jest, and everyone felt the discomfort of his command.
“If you really don’t want to, it’s not a big deal…” Karon added, giving Burgstein a scowl that he didn’t see.
But Kathleen James had narrowed her eyes and Ethan could see a bit of indignance under the surface. “No. I will do it. I can,” she said in a voice that sounded like she was trying to convince herself. Ethan wondered what kind of agent would hesitate to enter a friendly target competition.
As they waited to sign up for the competition, Ethan leaned in and whispered in her ear. “Are you really that bad of a shot?” (He had to admit the whole newlywed thing made whispered communication a lot less suspicious.) Kathleen James gave him a withering look.
“It can be hard to miss on purpose,” he whispered defensively.
“Don’t worry about me, honey.” She whispered back.
Her confidence aggravated him. “What do you say we have a little friendly competition of our own?” he whispered.
“What do you have in mind?”
“You hit the top right-hand side of the target, and I’ll believe you know what you’re doing,” Ethan said.
“I’ll hit it on my second shot. You hit dead center,” she whispered. “And then I’ll trust you.”
Ethan felt a smile try to creep onto his face. “No problem.”
He spent the afternoon and evening (meet and greet, welcome speech, dinner, etc.) observing the conference attendees and looking for clues while his pretty little wife chatted her way around the rooms. But while he could probably make educated guesses about the innocence (or lack thereof) of some of the conference attendees, nothing like a clue materialized before the target competition. As they were shuttled to the shooting range Ethan pondered the possibilities of having a large gathering of people all with a skill set like his, all trying to get the same thing. If the clues weren’t highly cryptic, he thought a pile of bodies was not an unlikely result.
The positions and timeslots had already been assigned when they arrived at the shooting range. The novice shooters went first, and so Kathleen was near the beginning. They were using M11’s, standard issue military, and each person took five shots. Kathleen was putting on her eye and ear protection when Colonel Durrant slid up next to him, and asked Ethan, “So what happened last time?”
Ethan watched his “wife” as she fingered the gun hesitantly. “She has no feel for it. And she couldn’t get used to the recoil. After she managed to whack herself in the face, we gave up.”
Durrant whistled in sympathy. Next to Kathleen, Karon had just started taking her shots. Clearly, she had done this before, but she only hit the target on three of the five shots. Kathleen had also been watching, using it as an excuse to avoid her own turn. But once Karon Durrant took her fifth shot, there was no more procrastinating to be done. She held the gun up awkwardly and pointed it in the general direction of the target. This is going to be terrible, Ethan thought.
“Eth, can you please help me,” Kathleen begged turning around and swiping the gun across the crowd.
Ethan jumped forward and pointed the gun at the ground. He looked back at Durrant who smiled nervously. “You never point the gun at people, Kath,” he remonstrated.
“I don’t have any idea what I’m doing, Ethan,” the girl said too loudly because of the earphones. More people looked their way. She was stressed to the point of being jittery.
“Hold on, I’ll help you.” Ethan quickly put on a pair of eye glasses and earphones. “Are you ready?” he asked, knowing he was practically yelling. She nodded. He turned her until she was facing the target and put the gun in her hands. He was now wrapped around her, his arms on either side of her, holding the gun with her. Her back rested against his chest. “Line up the target in your sights,” he said loudly, guiding and steadying her hands. He could swear this woman had never held a gun, let alone shot one before. “There will be recoil,” he added calmly.
“I remember the recoil,” she snapped loudly. Had she heard what he said to Durrant or was that just a coincidence?
“This isn’t the same type of weapon,” he said. “You’ll be fine. Do you have it sighted?” She nodded, and he slowly moved his hands away from hers. “Take your time.”
Ethan stepped away feeling the lack of warmth where her body had just been against his. Her hands wobbled a little, then steadied and she took her first shot. Nothing appeared on the target. Second shot, a hole appeared at the base of the target. Not the upper right-hand corner he noticed glibly.
Kathleen James lowered her weapon and studied the target. Then, in a sudden movement, she raised it and took what appear to be a wild shot. A hole appeared in the second ring. She turned, this time keeping the gun down and said, “Look, Hon, I’m not doing too bad!” but her smile looked forced.
Ethan sensed that something was wrong. “You’re doing great, Kath.”
Her next two shots hit the target but on the outer edges. She set the gun down and pulled off the earphones. When she turned, she was grinning. “You better watch out or I’ll beat you next time!” She jumped into him and wrapped her arms around him. Ethan pulled her close.
“I told you it wasn’t going to be easy,” he gloated quietly.
“It’s rigged,” she said harshly. He pulled back and looked at her skeptically. “If you don’t believe me, test it yourself. But something is going on. Keep your eyes open.” She pulled away from him. “Karon will you take my picture? My mom will never believe I did this,” she said handing the woman her phone and pulling Ethan over so that the targets were in the background. Karon snapped a few pictures before handing the phone back, and the next shooters took their places.
Ethan noticed that while Kathleen continued to chat with the other competitors her eyes were everywhere. And another thing he noticed is the increasing intensity of the whole group. Something was going on. He watch the group, noting who seemed tense, who left and when they came back. Who spoke with who, but he couldn’t see any patterns.
Ethan was one of the last to shoot and he looked back at her for…what? He wasn’t sure. She snapped a picture of him and smiled encouragingly. His first shot hit right where he’d aimed it, dead center. And his second was close enough. He looked back again. There was only one real way to test this. For his third shot he aim dead center again, but at the last minute he pulled just slightly to the left. It should have been off the target, but the hole in the bullseye grew bigger. He turned to her again.
“Okay maybe I could use a little more practice before I catch up to you,” she called happily, but her eyes said, “I told you so.”
He shot the next shot aiming for the upper right-hand corner but instead the hole appeared on the third ring in the bottom left. There was no way he’d been that far off. The final shot, he aimed at the center again since it didn’t appear to matter. It hit just to the right, but not where it should have. Slowly he put down the gun and joined the others.
“Not quite the expert marksman today,” Burgstein quipped, having joined them while Ethan was shooting.
“I probably shouldn’t have been drinking at dinner,” Ethan grumbled. He was annoyed that he had done poorly, even knowing that it was rigged.
“Nonsense, you only had two beers,” Burgstein said. “Just need to get back to the range more often.”
“Well I think you did amazing,” Kathleen James said hugging him.
Ethan shrugged and they waited for the last few shooters to take their turns. So did everyone else. No one wanted to leave and miss some crucial detail, but while Ethan continued to watch everyone around him, he couldn’t fathom what clue he was supposed to be unearthing. Kathleen was all bubbly chatter, and he could only hope that she had seen something he hadn’t. Based on previous experience working with partners, Ethan found that possibility to be highly unlikely.