“Major James! Good Morning. I don’t know if we’ve met. I’m Chance Smith.”
“With Aeromatics, correct?” Ethan asked letting his partner’s hand go so he could shake the man’s hand.
“Exactly! Great conference so far, don’t you think? This must be your wife.”
“Kathleen,” she said.
He shook her hand, but focused his attention on Ethan. “So how did the competition go last night? You must have blown everyone else away.”
Ah, so that’s why Chance Smith had pounced as soon as they appeared in the doorway. It also explained why more people were abandoning their half-eaten breakfast plates to come greet him. “I’m afraid I did quite poorly.”
Smith’s face visibly fell. Another couple, not much older than Ethan and Kathleen came up just in time to hear Ethan’s answer. “Sargent Reggie Black. This is the wife, Alison. I saw your round last night Major. Tough break.”
“Everyone has an off night,” Kathleen said helpfully. She took Ethan’s hand again, and steered him—and everyone else further into the room. After Smith’s obvious dejection, most of the others had realized that Ethan wasn’t their target, and gone back to eating. Kathleen led them to the beginning of the buffet line.
“We thought for sure it must be you,” Smith said prodding further. “Any idea on who beat you?”
Ethan shrugged casually. “I wasn’t watching closely.” Both he and the girl had dreaded they’d made a huge mistake by not learning who had won last night. No one had hit all bullseyes, so it was impossible to figure out by looking at the targets. They were hoping that not knowing the winner would not put them too far behind, but it appeared that everyone was as clueless as they were. He was feeling pretty good piling his plate with mounds of food and knowing they didn’t have to compromise their cover by asking around. Plenty of other people were doing that for them. The girl, he noticed, took only a minimal amount of food.
“You should come sit with us,” Alison was saying to Kathleen.
His wife (that didn’t sound right) allowed the other woman to lead her to a table in the middle of the room. Ethan would have preferred the back, but most of those tables were filled up anyway. Chance Smith followed along with them. Ethan supposed he’d stick around until he found someone else more promising.
Kathleen James chatted with the others while they ate their breakfasts. Ethan paid enough attention to be able to answer questions when asked, but he was keeping his eye on the room, making mental notes for his lists of attendees. He noticed that one of the women had excessive make-up around her right eye, which was, despite her attempt to cover it, a bit swollen. Another man was favoring his left side. Ethan would guess bruised ribs. Apparently, some of the attendees had gotten physical last night. He imagine there had been more than a few confrontations behind the scenes when they all tried to find some hidden message in the targets
Finally, one of the conference chairmen stood up at the front of the room where a microphone was waiting. “Good morning everyone,” he said and instantly the room quieted. “I have a few remarks but before we get to that, I just wanted to announce the winner from last night’s competition.” You could have heard a pin drop, and the floor was carpeted so that was saying something. “I’m sorry for the delay, but we had some miscommunication with the facilities and most of the targets were misplaced for a while. Ethan noticed quite a few “knowing looks” passed around the room. He refrained from giving one to his partner.
“But no need to worry, they’ve all been found and I am happy to announce that Colonel Daniel Burgstein is our winner.” Every eye swiveled to Burgstein as if a pride of lions had just come upon a baby gazelle. Burgstein appeared clueless. He hopped up happily and waved to the crowd. “Congratulations Colonel. I’ll be sure not to make you angry while handling a gun.” A few people laughed politely at his attempted joke. The chairman continued on with his speech.
Now the problem became how to get close to Burgstein without knowing what they were looking for. Not to mention that everyone else was going to be doing the same thing. At least Ethan met him yesterday so he might be able to come up with a reason to talk to him again. (Not something he had planned on doing, given Burgstein’s personality.) But the minute he approached the Colonel, everyone would know he wasn’t really Ethan James. He was someone looking for information, and he didn’t want to have to bruise anyone’s ribs if he could help it. (He wasn’t worried about anyone bruising his ribs. That wasn’t going to happen.)
Ethan had just decided that his best move was to keep Burgtsein at a distance, but keep track of anyone near him, when the girl dropped her fork on her plate. He turned to look at her. She had gone pale. Her eyes were unfocused somewhere in the middle distance, and she was breathing rapidly. Alison was giving her a worried glance.
“K-Kathy? Are you okay?” Ethan asked, his mind running ahead to poison in the food, tranquilizer guns, sabotaged beauty supplies (she had taken quite a long time getting ready this morning)…
She didn’t answer, just stood abruptly and hurried from the room. Ethan was shocked. He didn’t want to leave, but he had no idea why his partner had left in distress. The speaker was still droning on and no one could get near Burgstein until he finished, so Ethan got up and followed her out.
She was clutching her stomach and walking away when Ethan got out of the room. He jogged to catch up. “Kathleen,” he hissed, grabbing her arm to stop her when she didn’t stop. “What’s wrong.”
She turned to look at him, and when her eyes met his he realized with relief that this was just an act. “I’m feeling a little…weird. I think I need some fresh air,” she said, her voice sounding shaky despite the confidence in her eyes.
“Let me help you,” Ethan said, pulling her close and supporting her as they walked from the building. As soon as they were far enough away that he could assume there were no bugs, he said, “What are you doing? I need to be in there, watching Burgstein.”
“Yeah, along with everyone else. If you get anywhere near him, you’ll end up with a limp like that contractor—Johnson something. It must have been a nasty night for some of them,” she said sharply.
“I don’t know what other choice we have,” Ethan said. “I’m not a novice. I can figure this out without being obvious.”
“Good, then you do that.”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going to check out his room,” she told him matter-of-factly.
“I don’t know—“
“Look, it may not lead to anything, but this is our chance. Everyone is tied up in there, completely focused on Burgstein. If there is something in his room, we may not have another opportunity to check it out,” she said.
“You shouldn’t go alone,” Ethan said.
She gave him a withering look. “Don’t assume you’re the only one who knows what they are doing, Ethan.”
“Fine! Then what am I supposed to tell everyone? Won’t it be suspicious that you are missing?”
She rolled her eyes. “How did you think I looked just before leaving the room?”
“That’s what you’ll tell them. Alison Black can confirm that story. We don’t have forever. Go back and keep an eye on Burgstein and I’ll catch up with you as soon as I’m done.”
They had walked out to the street, the traffic providing more cover in case there were bugs hidden even out here. She turned back toward the building, but he grabbed her arm again. “The contractor with the limp isn’t the only one who got in a fight last night. Be careful.”
She looked as if she wanted to respond with something sarcastic, but decided against it and just nodded. He let go of her arm, and she left him to make his way into the building. He hoped she didn’t get them in trouble.
When Ethan got back, the chairman was still droning on, and by the looks on everyone’s faces, he hadn’t missed anything. He continued talking for another five minutes before concluding by reminding everyone, “Contractor presentations start in about…” he looked at his watch…”ten minutes in the conference room on the second floor. Contractors if you haven’t already set up, I suggest you do so now. I hope you all have an enjoyable day.”
“What happened with the little lady?” Smith asked as the room broke into directional commotion, aimed at Burgstein.
Ethan kept Burgstein within sight as he answered, “She wasn’t feeling well.”
“I hope it’s nothing serious,” Alison Black added. Both Smith and Reggie Black were making their way toward Burgstein. Smith had barely waited to hear Ethan’s response before leaving, but Alison seemed content just to chat. “She looked pretty awful.”
“Yeah, I don’t know what happened,” Ethan answered. “She said she just needed some fresh air. Hopefully that helps.”
Burgstein was glowing in the attention everyone was showering on him, but Ethan noticed that no one else seemed particularly pleased. That meant they hadn’t found anything. Alison was saying something, “…I know I always do when I travel.”
“Yes, well Kathleen hasn’t traveled much,” Ethan answered, not entirely sure what the conversation was about. “She’s probably just not used to it.”
Alison nodded and he was glad his answer had been appropriate. Her husband Reggie was clearly after the secret information, which meant that Alison must be some kind of fraud too. She didn’t seem the least bit interested in Burgstein, however, so perhaps she was just an actress meant to keep Reggie Black free of suspicion, much like Ethan’s partner was supposed to be.
The Durrants, appearing clueless to Burgstein’s sudden popularity, approached and Ethan stood to greet them. “Major James, Mrs. Black, so good to see both of you,” Karon Durrant said. “Where, may I ask, are both of your significant others?”
“Reggie’s in the throng trying to congratulate the Colonel,” Alison said. She was right. It was a throng. They all looked ridiculous.
“Kathleen isn’t feeling well,” Ethan said.
“You should have seen her,” Alison added. “Her face turned white and I thought she was going to faint.”
“I thought I saw her leave during the speech,” Colonel Durrant said. “I hope everything is okay.”
Ethan shifted uncomfortably. There really wasn’t all that much he could say. “She wanted to get outside and take a walk. Thought that might help.”
“Poor girl,” Karon said. “I hope she feels better. I was going to invite her to go shopping with some of us wives this afternoon. Alison you’re coming with us, aren’t you?”
“Do I ever turn down an opportunity to shop?” Alison laughed.
Burgstein looked like he was about to leave and Ethan didn’t want to get caught trailing behind like everyone else. “I’m going to see if Kathy is back before the presentations start,” he said, excusing himself. He got out of the room before Burgstein and his entourage and waited in the lobby, the group still visible through the double doors. He pretended to call his wife on the phone. As Burgstein exited the room and headed for the elevator he had so many people jostling around him Ethan was pretty sure that every pocket on the man had been picked five times. Yet no one backed away satisfied by what they had found. Burgstein remained clueless.
Ethan watch them disappear into the elevator, pretty sure it was above its weight limit, and then took the stairs, arriving just ahead of them. The presentations by contractors were step up as booths and posters and Ethan wandered around, absently listening to the salesmen, always about two booths ahead of Burgstein’s group, but nothing changed. No one was finding any clues on the very pleased Colonel.
Ethan was just beginning to doubt their interpretation of the message in the targets when his partner slipped in beside him, standing in just the perfect spot so he instinctually wrapped his arm around her waist. She still looked a bit pale. “How are you doing?” he asked carefully, hoping she realized that his question had more than a superficial meaning.
She shrugged, clearly not pleased. “Okay I guess. The walked helped a little, but going back to our room didn’t do much.” Ethan was pretty sure she was relaying bad news. No luck in Burgstein’s room. “How about you? Everything going well here?”
He shrugged. “Just as you would expect for contractor presentations.” She sighed and he knew that she understood. No luck for either of them.
Just then, Karon Durrant appeared around the corner ahead of them. “Kathleen!” she exclaimed in a very motherly way. “How are you? I heard you weren’t well.”
Kathleen smiled weakly. “A little better, still not 100%.”
“Poor girl. Did your husband tell you about this afternoon? Although if you don’t feel well, maybe you won’t want to go…”
The girl looked up at Ethan curiously, a bit of mischief in her eyes. “I, uh, forgot,” Ethan stuttered.
“We’re going shopping,” Karon said, pulling Kathleen James toward her. Ethan followed behind rather helplessly. “The talks this afternoon are boring, trust me. If there is any part of the conference you’ll want to miss, it’s the talks. Have you been to Buckland?”
Kathleen shook her head no. “I’ve never been to Atlanta before.”
“Well, it’s amazing,” Karon said. “Of course, if you aren’t feeling well enough, I’d understand.”
Kathleen looked back at Ethan uncertainly, and he had no idea if it was a “I’m pretending to be your wife and looking for permission” look or a “do you think it’s a good idea to leave in the middle of a mission” look. Maybe it was both.
“You should go,” Ethan said, also not sure if he was speaking as he thought a husband should or if he was telling his partner that they should split up.
“I guess it’s settled then,” she said, smiling weakly.
“Good. We’re meeting in the lobby right after lunch. I’ll see you there,” Karon said, releasing the girl’s arm and hurrying away to recruit more shoppers.
The rest of the day was tedious. Following Burgstein at a distance was almost as annoying as having a conversation with him. And Ethan felt his partner’s absence in the afternoon much more than he expected. She left with the other wives, no longer providing a second pair of eyes. Ethan sat near the back of the presentation room for a series of long talks about military technologies. Conveniently, Burgstein sat near the front, surrounded on all sides by his new buddies, who were looking more and more irritable as the day went on. By now, Ethan had noticed more than one disappear for about a quarter of an hour at a time, and he suspected they were checking the Colonel’s room as Kathleen had done earlier. But like her, they came back looking disappointed, and went back to hovering around Burgstein again.
By the third presentation, Ethan was tempted just to go up to Burgstein and threaten him until he revealed his secret. This would have worked if the man actually knew anything, but Ethan was pretty sure he didn’t. It had to be something near him, on him, or associated with him somehow, but Burgstein himself was clueless.
The third presenter—an academic that Ethan had googled during the previous talk—began his talk on computer security and his new program that could be used in top secret technology security. Ethan looked at his phone, hoping for a message from his partner. Something along the lines of, “I solved it!” but there were no missed notifications.
“Oh sorry about that,” the presenter said. “That slide is from a different talk. I don’t know how it got in there.”
Ethan looked up just before he switched away from the errant slide. It said something about a unique paring of the computer and external drive. Ethan didn’t have time to read it all, but it mentioned viruses and software crashes if any other computer or any other drive was used. Ethan wasn’t sure if it was a clue, or if it was just an honest mistake by the professor. He filed it away in his mind and determined to pay more attention.
It didn’t do him any good. Nothing else happened. His partner was back at dinner, but she didn’t have any news. That evening was the awards ceremony where he was presented with the sniper award. A few other attendees were also receiving awards, like Reggie Black, for some relay type training activity.
Kathleen claimed exhaustion and left almost immediately after the awards had been given out. He wondered what she was up to, but couldn’t get away as fast. He’d spent all day tailing Burgstein, but now Burgstein (still with entourage) sought him out and congratulated him. “Well, Major, I have to say, I must have gotten lucky last night to beat you. I’ve seen those sniper competitions before. I doubt I could do it again.” Apparently, whatever else Burgstein was, he was a gracious winner. “Of course, we could always have a re-match,” he added with a “friendly” jab to Ethan’s ribs. Maybe not.
Ethan used the jab to brush against Burgstein’s jacket, and give the man a hug/soft punch to the shoulder. The physical contact allowed him to check the man for any hidden compartments that could be holding the clue, anything everyone else could have overlooked. But Burgstein was carrying nothing—not even a wallet—except his conference ID card, and that did not look out of the ordinary. Plus he’d seen at least two other people steal it and take it away briefly before returning it in frustration. “I was off my game last night,” Ethan responded. “But I didn’t know you were such a good shot. I’m not risking embarrassment again.” It was supposed to be a joke, accompanied by the friendly punch, but Ethan knew he didn’t sell it perfectly. Kathleen James would have done much better.
“Where is your lovely wife?” the Colonel asked. “I heard she wasn’t feeling well.”
“She already went to our room,” Ethan said. “I think I’m going to retire as well and make sure she is okay.” He was sick of Burgstein. If something hadn’t come up yet, then he didn’t think it would. Maybe he and the girl could come up with a new approach tonight. Maybe tomorrow would be better.