She was already dressed for the night in the black tank top and pants, sitting on the bed cross-legged staring at the computer. It felt like déjà vu. Hopefully the computer meant that she had an idea. But first they’d have to get through the pleasantries of a fake conversation. “You’re still awake,” he said as he closed and bolted the door.
“Just barely,” she responded in a voice much more sleepy that she looked.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“S’okay. How was the afternoon today?”
“I would have rather gone shopping,” Ethan responded dryly.
She laughed, both with her voice and her face. “That bad, huh? I’m sorry.”
“How was shopping? Did you get anything?” She reached over to the side of the bed and picked up a bag that crinkled loudly. Ethan looked inside. There was a peach colored dress folded neatly. “It’s…nice.”
“I only bought one thing. I know we’re trying to save money, but everyone else was insisting that I couldn’t leave empty handed, and it really was perfect,” she explained guiltily.
He saw the receipt in the bag, picked it up, and crinkled it a little for the sake of the bugs. Then he whistled. The agency was not going to appreciate that bill.
“Sorry. I know it’s a lot,” she said.
“It’s fine, Kathleen. I’m just going to go change.” Ethan was too tired to play this game any longer. He grabbed his clothes and disappeared into the bathroom. Usually he didn’t doubt himself, but tonight things were looking pretty dismal. The only good news was that it appeared everyone else was in just as bad shape. The best course of action was probably to catch a few hours of sleep and then go sneak around, hoping to get lucky in the middle of the night. If anyone else was out there—likely since they were all in the same situation—he’d be giving himself away. Everyone would know he wasn’t really Major Ethan James. But that was better than losing.
He finished in the bathroom and went out to explain his plan, but she was not in the bed. Instead she was twisting a wire to something very near where one of the bugs was. When she finished he said, “Do you mind if I watch TV again for a while tonight?”
“I’d really prefer you didn’t,” she said, surprising him. “I still just don’t feel great and I need a good night’s sleep.”
“Uh, okay,” he said slowly. What was she talking about? How were they supposed to communicate without the TV creating noise in the background. She help up a finger, indicating that he wait, so he sat on the edge of the bed while she took another wire into the bathroom.
A minute later she came back and sat next to him on the bed, “Good night Ethan,” she said sweetly.
“Night Kath,” he answered, still waiting.
She picked up her phone and tapped away. “There, we should be safe to talk now,” she said in a perfectly audible voice.
“What are you talking about?” Ethan said leaning closer and whispering in her ear. “They’ll hear us!”
“Last night after you were asleep, I needed a little break from staring at the targets, so I recorded ‘sleeping sounds’. I just wired their bugs into my phone’s system and now, all they will hear is the recording.”
He just stared at her.
“Well, I was getting really sick of whispering and typing everything. Weren’t you?” she asked.
“Yeah. Okay, so what if you missed a bug?”
She looked at him like he had just insulted her. “Then I guess they’ll know we aren’t who we say we are. Tell me what you learned today.”
Ethan followed the girl’s lead and leaned back onto the bed, so they were sitting side by side, just like last night. “Nothing. I think we got the wrong message, or interpreted it wrong or something,” Ethan explained, still whispering.
“Everyone else got the same message we did,” she answered. “They were following Burgstein like sheep.”
“I know, but no one found anything. And there was nothing in his room?”
The girl turned her computer so they could both see it. “I looked everywhere. I even rifled through his clothes, toiletries, the hotel bible—“
“Did you leave finger prints?”
She rolled her eyes. “I used gloves. There was nothing. But I took pictures of everything. I figured they might come in handy, and since you didn’t find anything, I guess it’s all we have.”
Ethan looked at the computer screen, which showed a stack of pictures, all of various parts of a hotel room that differed from theirs only because the bedspread was teal floral instead of maroon floral. She started clicking through the photos. There were photos of the room from every angle, then zooms of everything. The walls, the bathtub, the closet, a pillow. “Someone else broke into the room after me. I heard them coming and had to sneak out after they got in the door. But I didn’t see who it was.”
Ethan wasn’t seeing anything in the pictures. “Did they see you?”
She pulled up one of the zoomed out photos and changed the exposure. Brightened it, darkened it. Started playing with the color saturation. “No.”
“Ethan, this isn’t my first assignment,” She said, annoyed by his constant questioning.
He flinched. This is why he worked alone. Ethan just wasn’t good at trusting his partner. She was still messing with the picture’s coloring, tinting it strangely, hoping that it would bring out some clue. He was doubtful, but after her last reprimand, he didn’t want to tell her what to do again. She changed the photo to look like it’s negative. From this view Ethan noticed some fuzzy coloring on the wall that had been invisible before.
“Look, here. Is that anything?”
She squinted at it, then pulled up another picture with more of the wall and treated it to the same filtering. There was definitely a change in the wall, but it was faint and indistinct. The girl tapped her finger on the laptop, thinking.
Ethan thought as well. If he was in the room, what would he use to look at this disturbance. It wasn’t visible to the naked eye, and it was meaningless in negative. But if he had been in the room, he could have brought something to make it clearer. Often, a black light illuminates invisible things. “Can you filter it as if we were looking at it under a black light?”
She looked at him and through him, as if trying to work through this and then without a word, but with a slight upturn of her lip on the right side, she began tapping the buttons on the keyboard. The picture blurred as the computer worked to complete whatever action she had asked it to do, and then suddenly they were looking at the same wall in the same room but there was a big bright letter F painted sloppily right in the middle of it. The girl turned to him and grinned.
They spent the next hour or so taking the pictures and applying the filtering until they had the walls, in the right order displayed across the computer screen. The message said, “What you seek is gone in a flash.”
Both Ethan and the girl sat staring at it for about five minutes before either of them spoke. “That doesn’t really sound too encouraging, does it?” she finally commented. “Any idea what it could mean?”
Suddenly the slide from the third talk of the afternoon popped into Ethan’s head. “I think it’s talking about a flash drive,” he said.
“I guess that’s possible,” she agreed doubtfully.
“No, I’m sure. Today during one of the talks a slide accidentally popped up. The presenter was surprised, and apologized before moving on, but I think it was a clue.”
“What did the slide say?”
“Something about a computer and a flash drive.”
“So all we have to do is find this flash drive and we’re done?”
Ethan shook his head. “The slide said the program, whatever it was, could only be run when a certain flash drive was inserted into a certain computer.”
“So we need to find the flash drive and the computer.”
“Seems like it.”
She nodded. “Well, tomorrow should be fun. I need to sleep. I’ll take the couch tonight.”
“You can have the bed.”
“But I had it last night.”
Ethan shrugged. “And you hardly slept last night. I can sleep anywhere.” Ethan got up and grabbed a pillow, just so she wasn’t tempted to argue. The girl was tempted anyway, he could tell, but decided not to push it. That was wise. Ethan had never met anyone as stubborn as he was.
“I’m going to turn off the recording,” she said, settling in to sleep.
“Sweet dreams, Kathleen James.”
“See you in the morning, Ethan.”