Ethan didn’t often doubt himself. His instincts were almost never wrong. But with the breakfast speaker concluding his talk and no sign of Black, he was worried he may have played this one the wrong way. Maybe James had been right, they should have tried to get to the Blacks’ room last night. Or, instead of going back to their hotel room to get a couple hours sleep after the evacuation was lifted, they should have tailed the Blacks, as James had also suggested. Ethan had been sure that nothing else would happen in the night, but with Black a no-show, he was beginning to doubt.
Another obvious no-show this morning was Chance Smith. Ethan had to consider the possibility that Smith had disposed of the Blacks after finding the drive. As the speaker wrapped up, Ethan pulled out his phone, ready to text his partner—also a no-show (feigning exhaustion, but really investigating the Blacks’ old and new rooms)—when Black and his wife made their appearance.
They were immediately swarmed.
Ethan kept his distance but watched closely. If anyone was paying attention to him, they would probably notice the obvious signs of his interest in the Blacks, but he couldn’t afford to miss something right now. Not when they were this close. And no one was paying attention to him anyway. The Blacks held the spotlight, even among the innocent attendees like Burgstein who wanted to know all about the fire.
The Blacks headed to the half empty breakfast buffet while everyone competed to get closer. Ethan wondered why the couple had been chosen. They had shown unmistakable interest in the clues, which meant they were after the information too. Placing the flash drive with them gave them an unfair advantage. Of course, the Blacks hardly seemed like competition. He knew they hadn’t seen the clue during the weapons’ facility tour, and Reggie was one of the last to abandon Burgstein and realize he wasn’t going to get anything from him. But maybe that was all an act. Or maybe Black had discovered the author of this fun little game and threaten (bribed?) him to get first access to the flash drive. Maybe the Blacks were decoys. Maybe the Blacks were the authors. No he didn’t think so.
The Durrants had slipped out just after the Blacks entered, crossing paths in the doorway, but as the young couple sat eating their breakfast and recounting their harrowing escape (much more harrowing than it sounded last night) to all their admirers, the Colonel and his wife re-appeared and strolled over to join Ethan away from the crowds.
“Kathleen not feeling well again?” Karon Durrant asked sympathetically, but also a bit probingly.
“She was pretty exhausted after last night,” Ethan answered. ”I thought I’d let her sleep in.”
“Poor girl must have practically frozen to death out there last night. It’s too bad you rushed out so quickly,” Colonel Durrant commented.
Ethan saw what he was looking for. A man slipped quickly away from Black’s side, an expression of satisfaction on his face. The balance shifted and the group around the Blacks began to crack. Ethan watched the satisfied man as he answered Durrant. “I would have taken more time if I’d known it was only a small fire, but we just grabbed whatever clothes were closest and ran.”
Karon clucked her tongue as a woman who Ethan had pegged as one of their competitors stumbled into the satisfied man, distracting him with her low cut blouse. After the encounter, she had taken more than just his satisfaction. “It’s just so unfortunate, this illness hitting right during your trip,” Karon was saying.
Ethan didn’t take his eyes off the woman with the revealing blouse as he said, “Yes, but you know how it is, when you travel. Packed on an airplane with who knows how many sick people. I’ll probably get it in a day or two. I better text her to see how she’s doing.”
Ethan pulled out his phone as a man posing as a contractor brushed against the woman catching her satisfaction as if it was James’s stomach bug. He made sure the Durrants would not be able to see the screen from any angle before he typed, “I’ve seen the light. Will have it shortly.” As he pressed send he mentally congratulated himself on the clever message. It would make her smile.
When he looked up, Karon was giving him a weird look, like she felt sorry for him or something. “We’re thinking of leaving the conference early, actually,” Ethan said. “If Kath doesn’t start feeling better.” Ethan stood up, and the Durrants stood with him. He would have preferred to do this alone, but having two companions was not completely prohibitive.
“Well, I hope things clear up,” the Colonel said. “I’d hate to have you miss anything.” Ethan noticed that Karon Durrant did not look as if she thought that was likely.
Ethan’s phone buzzed. “Let me know when you’ve been enlightened,” the message read. He smiled.
“She’s doing better?” Karon asked.
“She’ll be down soon,” Ethan answered. The look of satisfaction had transferred owners twice more and the Blacks’ fame had dissipated quickly. The room was now full of suspicious spies bumping and brushing against each other all trying to get that satisfaction for themselves. As this was a “networking” hour on the conference schedule, there was nothing to distract them all from their target. The kitchen staff was just starting to clear the buffet away, and Ethan saw his chance.
“I’m going to grab something for Kath to eat before it’s gone,” he said excusing himself, just as Burgstein crossed paths with the Durrants, reeling them in, and releasing Ethan.
Satisfaction was heading toward the pastries. Ethan took a plate and began filling it with fruit. To get to pastries you had to pass by fruit. As satisfaction’s current owner stepped past Ethan, Ethan shifted just enough to slow him, wobbled the plate of fruit precariously and while the man reached out to save the tower of pineapple, cantaloupe, and wilty looking grapes, Ethan slipped his hand into the man’s jacket pocket, grasped the flashdrive and pulled his hand away. By the time the fruit was again steady, he had both hands back on the plate, and satisfaction hadn’t even realized it had a new home.
“Thanks,” Ethan said, shaking his head as if he was embarrassed. “You’d think I wouldn’t be such a clutz after winning a target competition.” He made sure his expression was anything but satisfied.
The man laughed, clueless. “It happens to all of us.” He continued onto the pastries, getting one just before they were whisked away.
Ethan set down his fruit on the nearest table. They needed to act quickly. It wouldn’t be long before the dissatisfaction in the room grew…feral. “Call me Buddha,” he typed. Pressing send as he laughed at his own joke. The Durrants weren’t going to let him off the hook any longer. They were approaching again with Burgstein in tow. The small drive was secured in between his watch and his wrist, a place that would be difficult for anyone to access without him knowing, even if he wasn’t guarding against it. Still he hoped James showed up soon.
“Ethan, we were just talking to Colonel Burgstein about Chance Smith,” Durrant said in what appeared to be a desperate plea to escape his annoying companion. “No one seems to have seen him this morning.”
“Not like Smith to miss conference events,” Burgstein added, oblivious to the Durrants’ revulsion.
Ethan positioned himself with Burgstein on his right, creating a buffer against anyone who might want to brush up against him. “Chance Smith is probably sleeping off his hangover,” Ethan said.
“No love lost between you too, eh?” Burgstein said and nudged Ethan with his elbow.
“Did something happen…” Karon began to ask.
“Let’s just say, Chance was taking a little too much notice of the Major’s wife last night, if you know what I mean. Although, I don’t think you can really blame him,” Burgstein said in a confidential tone toward Durrant.
“Kathleen is not—“ Ethan was stopped in his response by Kathleen James, herself, who had just appeared in the doorway, not far from where they were standing. Ethan had expected a coy smile from the pretty woman that was supposed to be his wife. She certainly looked pretty, and a lot more chaste than she had last night, but James’s eyes were red, and she looked more like she was going to hyperventilate than smile.
“Kathleen, are you alright?” Ethan said, hurrying to meet her. For once she didn’t melt into him, but kept her distance, staying two steps back. Burgstein and the Durrants followed him. “Kathleen what’s wrong?” Ethan asked again, searching her face for some clue telling him whether this was an act or if something terrible had actually happened.
James took a deep breath but instead of speaking a sob escaped. Ethan reached out and touched her arm, but she growled and pulled away. “I am not going to be one of those girls!” she cried, sucking in breaths quickly in a failing attempt to stop the tears.
Surprising Ethan even more, Karon Durrant, rushed to the girl’s side, wrapped her in a hug as if she understood the situation perfectly and started whispering, “It’s okay, hon. It’s going to be okay.”
At this Kathleen let the tears really flow, sobbing into the older woman’s shoulder. By now everyone in the room was staring, and Ethan didn’t have a clue as to what he was supposed to do. Kathleen was crying, “I didn’t want it to be here. I didn’t want it to be like this. It was supposed to be a surprise.” And Karon was saying, “Go ahead and tell him, honey. It’s okay. It will be okay.”
Ethan wondered briefly if his partner had been double crossing him this whole time. But then she nodded and Karon let go and she turned to him, and took a deep breath and said, “Eth, I’m pregnant.”
Ethan felt his mouth drop open as he stared at his partner, and there was nothing, nothing that he could say.
Karon rubbed her back soothingly, and gave him an urgent look, but Ethan was totally unprepared for this turn of events. James’s face twisted horribly as his silence stretched too long. “Say something!” she pleaded. The entire room was crypt silent.
“I—uh—Are you sure?” Ethan finally stuttered. Kathleen James’s eyes bugged out in horrified disbelief and for one eternal second everything was frozen. Then, his pretty, little, fake wife fled the room sobbing. Ethan was still frozen, staring at the spot she had been occupying an instant before.
Colonel Durrant cleared his throat. “I think this is when you are supposed to go after her, and tell her how thrilled you are.” Ethan was frozen for another three fractions of a second before he shook his head and ran off after her.