Ethan-Day 3: Fools Rush In

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In keeping with her cover of being ill, James ate very little at dinner that night. (Except for mashed potatoes. She ate all her mashed potatoes and half of Ethan’s. He had no idea what that was about.) But Ethan was beginning to realize this fake illness had more than one advantage. When Burgstein, whose entourage had finally dissembled, approached them, she only had to mention having a bug of some sort and he immediately backed away.

And another advantage of having a sick wife was that now he would have an excuse to duck out of tonight’s dancing. Ethan didn’t know how to dance. He read a book about it once, but it didn’t seem like the kind of thing you learned from a book, and he’d never been given an assignment that required dancing before.

Fortunately, he had read enough books and seen enough movies to know that when one of the slow, romantic songs came on, all you had to do was sway a little as you turned slowly in a circle. He could handle that.

James disappeared for a mysteriously long time after dinner and Ethan found himself joining the other unattached men as the conference attendees gravitated from the dining area to the conference room that had been cleared out for the dance. Because of the dynamics of the conference—about twice as many men as women—he thankfully wasn’t going to be roped into dancing with one of the other wives. The men were talking about ditching this event to go drinking, but some were hesitant to leave. No one wanted to miss a clue. Everyone was already on edge and not many of them had realized there was a clue during the tour today. If anyone else—Chance Smith perhaps—had found the X, he doubted it made more sense to them that it had to Ethan and his partner.

When James finally came back, everyone’s eyes were pulled toward her. The dress she had chosen for the evening was grey—or silver would be a more appropriate term, and flowed around her like a river. No one else was even in her league. James scanned the room while every man present scanned her. She saw Ethan and her face lit up like it had back at the airport the first time he’d set eyes on her. Even though Ethan knew it was just an act, he could help but feel a growing warmth to have a girl like that look at him the way she was. She was halfway across the room before he could even move.

“Everything ok?” he asked, searching her face for some indication of the errand that had kept her away so long.

“Fine,” she said dismissively, but it almost looked like there was a twinge of guilt mixed in. He had no idea what to think of that. Was it part of the act? Was it a signal? “I’m so tired, Eth. I don’t think I can stay and dance all night long.”

Ethan knew exactly what that meant. They need to get to work solving the clue from the tour. “We won’t stay long.” Ethan led her over to a chair against a wall.

When the next song ended, Reggie and Alison Black (enthusiastic dancers) joined them. They chatted with the couple for one song, before Alison pulled her husband back onto the dance floor for an upbeat swing number.

Chance Smith sauntered up. “A few of us are going to head to the bar. Are you in? Your wife is more than welcome to come too.”

The way Smith said it and the way he looked at James gave Ethan the irrational urge to strangle him. Until now, he hadn’t had any strong opinions on the man, but Ethan found himself coming to the conclusion that Chance Smith was a scumbag.

“No thank you,” Kathleen James answered, her voice icy, leaving no doubt that Ethan wasn’t alone in his opinion of the man.

Chance shrugged. “Suit yourself,” and walked away. Ethan watched him go, wishing he had any reason at all just to hit him.

Beside him, James said, “I wonder where he’s from.” Ethan looked at her quizzically. “He’s got an accent, but I can’t tell what kind.”

“I didn’t hear it.”

“I didn’t either until just now. But he let it slip out just a little.” She was studying the man as he weaved around edges of the room to the exit where six others were waiting. “He was letting his emotions get the best of him. That’s why the accent slipped,” she said as Smith and his buddies left.

“He wasn’t in control.” Ethan was thinking that he hadn’t been in control himself.

“Ethan, do me a favor.”

“hmm,” he grunted not sure exactly what to expect.

“Whatever happens, let’s make sure Chance doesn’t win.” Ethan felt himself smile.

The swing song ended and the first notes of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” came over the speaker.

“Do you want to dance?” Ethan found himself asking. His heartbeat quickened in the instant before she accepted.

James smiled and took his hand. Together they walked onto the dance floor as Elvis’s deep voice began to sing. Ethan’s heartbeat was (inexplicably) at least ten percent above resting but he was surprised at how comfortable this was. His hand rested lightly against her back, and she naturally moved close to him. Her hand gripped his firmly. James’s chin came up to his collarbone, a fact he knew because he could feel her chin brush against his shirt every time she moved her head. He hadn’t expected dancing to be so enjoyable.

Ethan and James danced more slowly than most of the others. The Durrants danced by them and Karon gave James a look full of meaning. James glanced away with that same guilty expression he’d seen earlier. “What was that about?” he asked, realizing how close his mouth was to her ear.

“Nothing,” James responded quickly, but she didn’t look him in the eye. Instead she moved in, closing the already infinitesimal space between them. Ethan could smell her hair. It was a smell he would never have guessed could be so satisfying.

“I always liked this song,” he said. He didn’t know why he said it. It served no purpose for the mission or their cover. It was just true. She tilted her head up so she could look him in the eye and smiled a curious half-smile, but didn’t speak. Her chin went back to resting near his shoulder, and despite the slowness of their dancing he felt almost dizzy.

James set the pace of their dance, leading him gently even though everyone knows the man is supposed to lead. She knew that he was a novice dancer, Ethan thought, embarrassed. He’d have to learn to dance before he danced with her again. That thought surprised him. Where had it come from? Why was he thinking of dancing with her again? Ethan worked alone. He only took partners when absolutely necessary. And even then, he only tolerated their presence until the assignment was done. You couldn’t count on other people to get a job done. He did not see his partners again. He did not work with them again, and he certainly did not dance with them again. Why had the thought occurred to him that James would be different?

“Why?” she suddenly asked, stretching her neck to whisper it in his ear. Ethan felt a shiver run down his spine but in a good way. He was so surprised by the question he took a bad step, but she steadied him. Ethan briefly wondered if he had been thinking out loud. Sensing his confusion, she asked, “Why do you like this song?”

He shrugged. “I guess I like the idea that love is the one place you just throw caution to the wind and go for it,” he said. Once again, he wasn’t sure why he told her this. “I plan everything. I always know the background. I always have a backup plan. And an escape route—“

“Sometimes two?” she added.

“Sometimes three. But I’d like to think that love would be more spontaneous than all that. That you just go for it without analyzing it to death first.”

“Hmm.”

“You don’t agree?” The dizziness and Elvis’s deep voice made Ethan feel like they were somewhere else. Somewhere all alone.

She looked up at him before answering. “I’m not the person to ask. It’s not like I’ve had time for romantic relationships in my life.”

The comment made Ethan sad. She should be falling in love right now, not searching for  information in order to save lives and/or reclaim stolen wealth. But who was he to judge? Couldn’t anyone say the same of him? He’d never had a real relationship.

The last notes of the song were fading away and Ethan had another irrational urge, this time to kiss his partner. He was debating whether this would be appropriate when she said, “Let’s go to our room,” with a mischievous little smile.

Ethan knew exactly what she meant, both in their cover relationship and in their real one. He pulled her by the hand, and they left the others to finish the dancing for them.

The minute the door closed them into the room, she dropped his hand and went back to maintaining a professional distance. Ethan was irrationally disappointed by this. Ethan had been having a lot of irrational feelings tonight. They did the usual voice acting to satisfy the bugs while they changed into their black nightwear and set up for the evening. And after James muttered a very sultry sounding “good night” that was in stark contrast to her complete focus on the computer, they turned on the sleep sounds recording and got to work.

James was already loading the pictures onto the computer screen. “So what exactly are we hoping to find?” she asked.

“Well, we know there is a computer and a flash drive. It’s possible that someone got there before us and took the flash drive,” Ethan responded.

“But unlikely, since we know no one in our tour group did that. And we know that anyone on the later tour couldn’t have gotten there before us.”

“It seems unlikely that anyone from the first group made it there and back before us. We know Chance Smith didn’t and he was on the first tour.”

“So we probably didn’t miss our chance at the flashdrive, which means the clue must be either the location of the computer or the drive,” she agreed.

“Probably the computer. A portable drive can move locations too easily. Once they give the clue for its location, I doubt it will stay in one place for long,” Ethan said. “And since there are no other conference activities away from the hotel, we can probably assume that the computer is somewhere onsite.”

“Great. I’ll just decipher all this into a treasure map,” she mumbled as she clicked through the pictures from the factory. Already she had begun applying filters to see if anything jumped out.

Ethan watched momentarily before pulling out his phone. “I’m going to see if I can track down the blueprints to the hotel. It might give us an idea where the computer is stashed.”

“It’s probably in the secret passages,” she commented without looking away from her screen.

“Secret passages?”

“Karon Durrant mentioned it when we were out shopping. This hotel was built in the twenties. Karon said they building secret escape routes for their patrons to use should the hotel be raided,” James explained nonchalantly. Ethan just stared at her until she looked at him. “What?”

“You didn’t think that would be an important thing to share?” he asked.

“I am sharing it. It never came up before.”

“And Karon is the one who told you.”

She nodded. “But it’s on the hotel website, so that doesn’t mean anything, necessarily.”

“Hmm,” was all Ethan said in response. If Karon had told all the wives, and it was on the website, that meant everyone already knew about the hidden passages. This made looking up the blueprints more vital. They needed to find the entrances to these passages so that when the time came, they were prepared.

James was busy with her task and Ethan focused in on his. He found the blueprints with only a small effort, and then had to do a bit of hacking to get full access. Nothing difficult. He spent the next hour studying them. There were no hidden passages on paper, of course. He would have to compare the plans to the actual layout of the hotel to figure out where the missing space was. He considered going out. The dance would be over by now, and so the hotel’s public areas should be deserted, but before he put in the effort required to sneak around unseen in a hotel where numerous other people were trying to sneak around unseen, he decided to perform the exercise mentally.

Ethan had a pretty good memory. He had read as a teen a lot about photographic memory and he didn’t have that, but he could recall past experience in more detail than the average person, a skill that had helped him before he joined the agency as much as it did now. The hotel must have played host to a speakeasy and that would have likely been in the basement. Patrons would have needed to get back to street level, so passages may be in both the basement and main floor. All higher floors should not need them.

According to the records Ethan found, the basement held laundry facilities, employee locker rooms, and storage. Any of these large rooms could have hosted an illegal bar back in the day. Ethan hadn’t been into the basement so his memory would do him no good. He turned his attention to the first floor.

Ethan closed his eyes, bringing up the dimensions of the place. It was more about shape than actual size. The lobby was nearly square, if you stripped out the front desk and included the office space behind. The blue prints matched. The dining area, just off the lobby was L shaped, and that seemed to match the blue prints as well. But behind the dining area was the indoor swimming pool. Ethan hadn’t actually been in the swimming area, but he’d glanced at it. According to the blue prints, this area was a pentagonal shape, with all sides approximately the same length. But Ethan was fairly certain the reality was more skewed. There was missing space in between the pool and the dining hall. This must be a hidden passage. And he was guessing that it continued on behind the kitchen as well.

From there, he could detect no inconsistencies. It was probable that there was a set of stairs that led into the basement, and he had no way of checking the basement dimensions without visiting them. “James, I think I need to—“ he had been planning on telling her that he was going to go snoop around, but he stopped because she was sound asleep.

James’s head was tilted to the side and the computer had slipped halfway off her lap. She was breathing slowly and evenly and her face was relaxed. Ethan glanced at the computer screen. While he’d been studying the blueprints, she had been playing around with filters. On the front of her screen was a photo that had been darkened, so that all you could see was a trail of lights, turning at right angles until it ended with a bright dot. She had found the treasure map. Follow the light. It hadn’t just been a message leading them to the X. It was also a clue to decipher the map.

But the map was still ambiguous. It could be directions through a city grid, the right angles being street intersections, but not necessarily. It could be anything. Trails in a park, a path through a cubicle filled office. They had no way of knowing what the grid was. Ethan glanced back at the blueprints, and then at the computer again. Or it could be secret passages in the basement of the hotel.

He wanted to get a closer look, but last time he’d touched her computer while she slept, James had attacked him. “James,” he whispered. “It’s just me. I’m going to look at this.” Slowly he reached over and pulled it away from her.

She moved only enough to find a more comfortable position. Ethan placed the laptop on his legs and let out a breath. If he overlaid the blueprints with the lighted map—

“So you think I look like a James, huh?” she said sleepily, making him jump. Her eyes were only half open, but she was watching him. “Am I really that manly?”

“No one is going to mistake you for a man.”

“Hmmm…you haven’t seen all my disguises if you think that,” she murmured.

“James fits you. I don’t know why. If you don’t like it—“

“No. I don’t mind,” she mumbled. Her eyes were closing.

“Go back to sleep. I’ll let you know when I’ve figured this out.”

She made a noise, though if it contained words, Ethan couldn’t understand them, and in another half minute her breathing was once again slow. He turned to the task at hand, importing the blueprints to the computer. If he scaled them the same and lined up the basement blueprint with the trail of lights it would only be a matter of finding the right angle. Just a simple puzzle…

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