Ethan: Day 3-X Marks the Spot

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With a last look behind him, Ethan opened the door and they slipped in. He let the door softly close. They were in the large power room that occupied the center of the building, on a walkway that led both left and right.

The girl was busy scanning the surroundings. They were sheltered from view by a large platform of machinery, but could look down from their walkway to see everything below. A guard disappeared into the maze without looking up.

Ethan knew that they would not open the door and see a big sign that said, “Here is the clue” with an arrow pointing at a flash drive or something like that. But still, for once, when they were in a hurry, it would have been nice to have the clues be a little more obvious.

The girl made the decision to go right and started moving—more like gliding along the walkway. “Why this way?” he asked.

“The door to the stairs over there has another light,” she said. “Let’s hope that access card works everywhere.”

They passed the machinery and slowed to watch for guards. Two were walking the bridges above them, and they had to wait until both moved on, out of sight. Ethan swiped the key card again and they opened the door to a set of metal stairs. His partner didn’t hesitate to climb them.

At the first landing was another door, but the light on the access pad was off, so they kept going. The next landing had a light so they entered and found themselves on an exposed bridge about three stories up. Across the bridge on the far side of the room, Ethan could just make out another lighted access code box. There was no place to hide, and as his partner rushed across, Ethan spotted at least two guards who had to only turn their heads and they’d be caught. Ethan’s military uniform was a similar color to the guards’ clothing. If they caught just a glimpse of him, they might not be alarmed, but she was wearing the peach dress she had bought the day before, and there would be no doubt that she was not where she was supposed to be.

Fortunately, they were fast and the guards did not turn. Ethan had the card out and swiped it exactly at the moment she pulled on the handle. They slipped through to a more sheltered walkway. Now they were near a door that led back into the hallways the tour guide had been leading them around, but one floor up. Ethan was relieved to see that the light on the door’s access pad was dark. If they had just wasted their time in the most guarded and exposed part of the building for no reason, he was going to be very annoyed.

Ethan was just about to point down the left walkway where another tiny red light was shining when his partner grabbed him by the lapels and yanked him against the wall. Actually, she yanked him against herself. She was against the wall. Ethan was about to comment on this unusual action when the door next to them opened slowly. She must have heard the locking mechanism. Where they were standing, the open door would keep them hidden but when it closed, whoever had opened it would only have to turn to see them.

Ethan was standing pressed against his partner. He could feel her perfectly controlled breathing. Her hands, still grasped his jacket. He was facing the wall, and he watched her face ready to react to whatever her eyes could tell him. The door slowly pushed farther open and he felt it brush against his back. Ethan lean in as far as he could, sandwiching the girl tightly against the wall. If the door kept going, whoever was entering would know something was blocking its way. The girl’s heat so close to him was making him sweat.

The door stopped moving and for a long instant everything was frozen.  Then it began to close much faster than it had opened. Ethan watched his partner watch the person, waiting for a sign that they could move. Suddenly she reached out and caught the door from closing. Ethan understood. He slipped over and through the door without ever turning around. She was right behind him, and the door clicked shut. They were back in the office halls.

“How did you know there wouldn’t be someone out here?” Ethan asked. They had lucked out. If a guard happened to be anywhere in the hallway, they’d be done.

She waited for him to look at her before she answered. “Because I knew Chance Smith wouldn’t have come through the door unless the hallway was clear.”

“That was Chance Smith?”

“In a guard’s uniform,” she responded.

It wasn’t surprising that other people were sneaking around. Ethan knew that Chance Smith was after the information, although he wondered how he had acquired the uniform. Smith had been in the first tour group with Burgstein. “Was he going the same direction we are?”

“He went straight across the bridge,” she said. “By now he should be out of sight.”

“Good because we need to get out of here now,” Ethan said urgently. A shadow was moving along the wall. Its owner was about to turn the corner. Ethan swiped the key card, and they slipped back through the door.

Chance Smith was nowhere to be seen. Ethan led the way toward the next light, only briefly worrying that Smith was on a different path. There were a number of reasons why they could be going different directions, and Ethan figured that Smith was more likely to be wrong than they were.

The next light took them to more stairs that in turn, led them to the highest level of walkways, about four and a half stories above the ground. Ethan was thankful for the height, as it meant most the guards were below them. The last access pad they swiped led them onto a bridge over the center of the room. The far side of the bridge had a door, but no light.

Ethan and his partner began to slowly cross the bridge, watching for clues at the same time they were keeping an eye out for guards. The bridge was like all the others—metal floor, steel mesh walls to about hip height, with cables used to support the weight bolted to the ceiling.

“Well I guess X marks the spot,” she said stopping to stare at the floor in front of her. There were scuff marks on the metal floor shaped like a rough X, and in the center was a tiny red light. Kathleen James took a deliberate step onto the X, covering the light with her shoe. She slowly turned in a circle looking around. Ethan knew from his own spin there was nothing to see. He slid past her and walked further down the bridge.

“Duck!” she hissed and he dropped to the ground. He could see a guard just one level below them on another walkway off to their right. The guard was taking his time. Ethan studied the bridge they were on, looking for anything that could be a clue. There was nothing.

The guard moved on and Kathleen hopped back up. She had a cellphone in her hand. It wasn’t the one she usually carried. That one was in the secure lockers they’d been required to deposit all personal belongings in. She stood directly on the X and began taking pictures. “You think that’s going to work?” he asked.

“It has so far, hasn’t it?” She held the camera phone straight in front of her and snapped pictures as she turned in a circle. “Besides, I don’t think we have time for anything else. There’s probably only about two minutes before a guard drops by.”

“I’d say 90 seconds,” Ethan countered. Now she was angling the camera towards the ceiling and snapping more photos.

“Just watch my back while I’m doing this,” she said finishing the ceiling photos and moving the camera so it was facing straight down.

Ethan checked for guards, but they were safe. He searched a little more for some message or anything really, but it looked like the photographs would have to save the day again. “We need to move.” They couldn’t count on this level being guard-free forever, and they were exposed on the bridge.

“A couple more,” she said turning to photograph the room from the other railing. “Okay, let’s go.” The girl slipped the phone into her dress under her arm and jogged back the way they had come. “Where are we going now?”

“We need to get the key card back to the guar—“ Ethan stopped. He heard footsteps just below them. The girl mouthed, “Chance Smith” and Ethan ventured a look. He was heading perpendicular to them about one flight of stairs down. His partner was already crouched down. They crossed the rest of the bridge like they had severe scoliosis. Smith was on his way up to their level. They needed to be anywhere else.

Ethan swiped the key card to a stairway and they hurried down one level. He remember to look up and make sure they hadn’t been spotted from above, and it’s a good thing, because a guard, or possibly Smith was turning onto the walkway 15 feet up. Ethan grabbed his partners arm and yanked her onto the landing between the flights of stairs. The angle provided moderate cover. Once again, they were standing pressed up against each other.

“Clear,” she said after about 45 seconds, but another guard was coming up the stairs, so they used the key card to exit the stairs and traveled down a walkway. They still needed to descend one story to get back to the guard he’d stolen the key card from. Ethan spotted another stairwell, and took the lead, heading for it with the girl close behind. He was glad for the noise of the machinery. It allowed them to travel more quickly without worrying about being heard.

After a brief pause to wait for their path to clear, Ethan swiped them through to the stairs and the descended back to the second floor. The closest door leading into the office hall was across a short bridge. He charged over it, swiping the card and pulling the door to the hall open simultaneously. And then he looked up.

There was a guard four doors down turning towards him. The girl was only a step behind him, but Ethan knew that the guard would see her coming through. He was already out and the guard might not see the slightly open door if he let it close on his partner. There was less than a second to act.

“James!” he hissed and threw the key card at her, letting the door swing shut, and taking a step away from it as the guard’s eyes turned towards his. In the instant before he had cut her off, Ethan had seen her—James—catch the card. She had known what to do. And he finally knew what to call her.

“Can I help you?” The guard said suspiciously.

“Yes, sorry. I was with the tour group, but I had to use the restroom. Our guide told me to have someone take me up to the reception room?”

The guard nodded, the suspicion melting away. “Follow me. It’s on the fourth floor. You wouldn’t even be able to get onto the elevator without one of these,” he said patting his access card. This was not the same guard Ethan had stolen a card from. That was fortunate. Hopefully that guard hadn’t even noticed it was missing. Hopefully James knew to find him and would think of some way to give it back.

“It’s too bad you missed the second half of the tour,” the guard was saying. “It gets better.”

“Yes, well, I was looking forward to it, but I think I must have eaten something bad last night,” Ethan said, trying to channel a dash of his partner’s instant illness expression. That kept the guard from asking anymore, although he gave Ethan a sympathetic look.

Ethan had to resist the urge to look back as they turned the corner and waited for the elevator. Where was James now? The guard escorted him up the elevator and showed him where the reception room was before disappearing back down to his post. Ethan didn’t know what to do, a feeling he found irritating. The first tour was already done and he could hear voices from the room. His tour would be arriving any minute. But it would look odd to arrive without his wife.

To stall, Ethan walked to a drinking fountain a couple doors down and got a drink. It was next to the bathrooms, and he decided he could hover near there, pretending to be going in or out, until she arrived. If she arrived.

James came walking around an opposite corner, about three minutes after he’d finished his long drink. She was with the guard whose key card he had swiped, and Ethan immediately noticed that the man had it back, clipped to his belt.

Far from being suspicious, the man was engrossed in whatever she was saying. He could see the way she drew the guard in and made him feel comfortable. “Thank you so much for your help,” she said, touching his arm lightly.

“It’s no problem ma’am.”

“Oh, please don’t call me that,” she laughed. “I’m not that old, am I?”

“No. No you are not,” he said blushing, and the pretend husband in Ethan felt just a tad bit jealous. The guard noticed Ethan’s approach and said, “Well I better be going. Glad to be of service.”

Ethan wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her close as they watch him walk away. “Everything go okay?”

She looked up at him and smiled and they walked into the reception room together.

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