Ethan didn’t remember falling asleep, but there was no doubt about when he woke up. The screaming alarm and flashing strobe light jolted his eyes open sometime in the painfully early hours of the morning. He was lying facing James whose eyes popped open at the exact same moment as his. He was almost as startled by the woman sleeping next to him as he was by the blaring alarm.
About four seconds after both their eyes opened, hers widened with apprehension. “The recording!” she hissed, and stumbled out of bed, grabbing for the wire she had installed on the bug near the bed. Ethan rolled off the bed and into the bathroom, pulling out the wire for the bug in there. When he came back out he said, “Are we okay?”
“I hope so,” she answered, speaking loudly to be heard over the screaming noise. Ethan hoped so too. If anyone was listening closely they might notice that the alarms started about 45 seconds later in their room than anyone else’s. James was closing files on the computer. “Do you think this is a coincidence?” she asked. There was no need to worry about them being overheard in this racket.
Ethan grabbed his gun and her knife off the bedside table and shoved them back under the bed. “A fire alarm going off in the middle of the conference? No I don’t.” She gathered the computer and bug wires and shoved them under the bed. A quick survey off the room revealed no red flags. It looked like any innocent hotel room. Ethan thought he could make out sirens over the sound of the alarm, which meant that this wasn’t just a drill. “We need to go.”
“Not dressed like this.” She was right. In their black ensemble, they were practically wearing the spy uniform. James was already digging through her luggage, and Ethan grabbed his duffle bag. There was a grey navy hoodie in the bottom. He pulled it on and slipped his bare feet into a pair of tennis shoes. “Alright let’s—that’s what you’re wearing?”
James was just slipping her pants off beneath a black silk rob, trimmed with lace. With the pants off, her legs looked…a lot longer. “You don’t think this looks like something a new wife would where?” she said with annoyance. He couldn’t stop looking at her, and she glared at him, just to prove she noticed. James was already heading for the door.
“You’re not even wearing shoes!” he cried, following behind.
“We’ve already been in here too long. I’ll be fine.” She pulled open the door and stormed out. Ethan hurried after his partner. She was right again. Ahead there was one woman hurrying to the stairs, but otherwise the hall had already been deserted. They had taken a long time evacuating. The strobing lights were even more obnoxious out here. At least he was comfortable. As Ethan watch the back of James’s legs, he didn’t imagine trapezing around in so little clothing was her idea of a good time. “Why did you even bring that robe?” he asked.
“For situations like this,” she snapped, pulling open the door to the stairwell. Ethan wasn’t an expert with women, but he was pretty sure that tone meant he should drop the subject. Halfway to the next landing she added, “I didn’t pack my own bag. I would have chosen something more…versatile.”
“They called me up last minute. My measurements are on file, so they packed a wardrobe and I grabbed it and left. Whoever packed does not have much sense of style,” she said. Ethan had thought her wardrobe was appropriate for the mission. Clearly, she was less pleased. He didn’t think this was the time to argue.
They burst out into the night and Ethan was struck by the cool air. In his long pants and sweatshirt, he was fine, but the temperature had dropped significantly since the afternoon. James must be freezing. They were absorbed into the crowd of hotel patrons milling about.
Outside the lights continued to flash, but now it was from emergency vehicles. Ethan saw a herd of firefighters hurrying into the front lobby. Back in the public eye, James dropped the professional distance and hung on Ethan’s arm, an expression of confusion and fear on her face.
“Let’s see if we can figure out what’s going on,” he said, gently pulling her through the crowd. He felt her hesitation an instant too late. Burgstein had spotted them—or her—and was making no effort to look away. She slid partially behind him as if there was any way to hide her exposed skin.
“There you are Major James. Mrs. James, glad to see you didn’t get charred in there,” Burgstein said merrily, still focused on James’s legs. Although her expression didn’t change, Ethan felt her grip his arm tighten as if she was trying to strangle his bicep as a substitute for Burgstein’s neck.
Despite his partners discomfort, Ethan knew that if anyone had answers, it would be a busybody like Burgstein. “So there really was a fire? Do you know what’s going on?” he asked.
“Definitely a fire. Sounds like it was on the third floor. Are you up there?” Burgstein asked.
“We’re on the second floor,” Ethan answered. James melted further into him and he looked around to spot the cause. Chance Smith and a few other guys were heading their way. By the looks of it, Chance was a few drinks beyond drunk. Ethan thought about turning and trying to avoid the group, but Chance seemed to have them set in his sights, and his sight was a leer that Ethan knew could be dangerous. That kind of look was never harmless.
“Well, soldiers, I think we all know why Major Ethan James ducked out of our invitation tonight,” Smith said nastily as his eyes slowly travel down James’s body. James kept her eyes down, but her grip grew even tighter on his arm, and he could see the stiffness in her jaw. He was appalled at their conduct, and then wondered if his face had looked the same when he saw her attire. Maybe she despised him just as much as these men. Burgstein laughed. Did they not all realize that James was standing right in front of them?
“Come on Kath, let’s go,” Ethan said quietly.
“Leaving so soon?” Smith sneered. “How can you deprive us of your pretty little wife’s company, Major?”
“You’re drunk, Chance,” Ethan said. “Go find somewhere to sober up.” He pulled James along with him away from the leeches, but she flinched roughly before they got far. Ethan spun around to see Chance standing much too close to his wife, trying his best not to burst into laughter.
Ethan felt his blood begin to boil. He stepped towards the man, but James put a firm hand on his chest and stopped him. “Let it go, Eth. Let’s just get out of here,” she said smoothly, but her eyes were shooting daggers. Ethan didn’t want to let it go.
“The hotel staff are handing out blankets and coffee over by the gazebo,” someone called out.
“Come on Ethan. I’m cold. Let’s get a blanket,” James begged again, and he gave in, but this time he didn’t turn his back on Chance Smith.
They twisted their way toward the gazebo where the crowd was thicker, passing strangers and conference attendees alike. Ethan guided them up to the hotel manager and grabbed a blanket. He carefully wrapped it around her shoulders. Most of her legs were still bare, but it was something.
“Thank you,” she said, looking up at him with kind eyes so different that the look she had given Smith. He just shrugged it off. “Look. Is that Alison Black sitting in the back of that ambulance?”
Ethan turned to follow her eyes. It was Alison, and he saw Reggie Black sitting on the ground with an oxygen mask over his face. He looked over at his partner. She nodded. This was something to investigate. They made their way over to the ambulance and James went to work.
“Alison, what happened? Are you okay?” she gushed, managing to hug the other young woman warmly while still keeping the blanket securely around her shoulders.
Alison sighed dramatically. “The fire was in our room! Can you believe it. I have no idea how it started.” When Ethan approached he could tell both Alison and her husband were fine. The oxygen mask was a bit overkill.
“Are you hurt?” James asked frantically. “Shouldn’t they be taking you to the hospital?”
“We’re okay, I guess,” Alison said. “I didn’t even wake up until the alarms started, but we rushed out. Reg just inhaled a little smoke is all.”
“That’s so terrifying,” James sympathized. “I’m so glad you’re okay.” Ethan had shaken Reggie Black’s hand, but both men seemed content to let the wives dish out the info. Reggie didn’t even bother to take the oxygen mask off.
“I hope all our stuff isn’t completely ruined,” Alison went on. “But the hotel is giving us another room.”
“Excuse me, can I have your attention please,” the hotel manager yelled into a megaphone. He was still in the gazebo. The supply of blankets had disappeared. The crowd swiveled as one to face him. “I have been informed that the fire has been put out. The firefighters are now checking to make sure there are no other hot spots in the building. Until they have cleared it, we cannot enter, but sit tight. It hopefully won’t be too much longer.”
“What caused the fire?” someone shouted.
“That is still under investigation,” the manager answered. “And you will all be receiving a voucher for a return trip due to the inconvenience.” He stepped away before anyone else could ask a question. Ethan felt sorry for him.
Alison spoke again. “I hope for your sake, it’s not too much longer, Kathleen. You must be freezing.” Alison’s comment drew all of their attention to James’s lack of clothing. Reggie glanced at her quickly before looking away guiltily. Ethan supposed that was a little bit better than the other men they had encountered.
James smiled tightly. “I’ll survive. Kansas gets much colder than this. You take care.”
They drifted, heading away from the crowd. The Durrants were huddled together in very puritan nightclothes. Durrant waved, iniviting them over, but Ethan didn’t need anyone else noticing his wife’s legs. Even if she was his fake wife. He waved back but kept going until they were separated from the group by a dozen yards or so.
“I can’t give you my sweatshirt,” Ethan apologized.
“It’s okay. Just wrap your arms around me.” She nuzzled into him and if felt natural to hold her close. They stood both facing the hotel and all its displaced occupants with her back pressed against his chest, her hair brushing against his cheek, his arms hugged against her abdomen.
“At least let me give you my shoes,” he said when he felt her foot rest on the top of his shoe.
“I’m fine,” she insisted. “I’ve been through worse.” But Ethan was already slipping them off his feet. The ground was cold.
She rolled her eyes, but slipped the shoes on. With no socks, and bare legs, the oversized shoes were comical, but she made it look good.
“So, what do you think of this?” she asked.
Ethan spoke into her ear, already close to his mouth. “The fire in the Blacks’ room. The alarm with flashing lights. It’s definitely a clue, and since we have the location of the computer, it has to be the flashdrive.”
She tilted her head back so she could look at his face. Her eyes were curious and a half smile played on her lips. “You figured out the location of the computer?”
“Using your map.”
“Follow the light.”
A few people walked near, and Ethan waited for them to pass before resuming the conversation. “I overlaid it on the blueprints of the hotel. The computer’s in the basement in the space between the laundry facility and the men’s locker room. I don’t know how to get into these secret passages yet though.”
“It shouldn’t be hard to figure out. So do you think the flashdrive is in Black’s room? Should we sneak in and investigate?”
Ethan shook his head. “That place will be crawling with people all night. We won’t be able to get near it.”
“What about their new room?”
“It hasn’t even been assigned.”
She squirmed in closer against him. He hadn’t even known that was possible, but he didn’t mind. His arms hugged her closer almost of their own accord. “I don’t know. It’s an obvious clue. It feels wrong to stand around.”
“Patience, James,” Ethan admonished. She tilted her head again and smiled up at him. “We can check the room tomorrow, but I doubt it will be there.”
Ethan shrugged. “It was in the room last time, even though the clue pointed to the person. This time the clue is in the room, so…”
“So you think it will be on Black.”
“I could be wrong. We can still check the rooms. In the morning.”
“How are we going to get a flashdrive from him? He’ll be swarmed, just like Burgstein was.”
Ethan smiled. “Don’t worry. That is my expertize.” Her head was resting against his shoulder as if it had been made to fit there. She turned it to look at him and returned the smile. Ethan didn’t care whether it was irrational or not. He tilted his head to match hers and kissed her lightly but slowly on the lips. When he pulled away, her eyes were closed and she was smiling.