An Unexpected Distraction (Judge # 3) by Catherine Bybee

She listened for footfalls or voices. Within the hour she was rewarded with someone moving outside the door. Heavy feet with a slight limp.


The man had an old injury that plagued him.

Another set of footsteps, softer. Could be Sasha’s. Although Neil, as big as the man was, had been known for being light on his feet when he needed to lurk.

Out of nowhere, she heard laughter. Far off, but voices that carried.

The laughter moved closer.

She could scream . . . but would she if this whole thing was real?

No. Not with people in the next room who could kill her screams . . . literally.

Time ticked slowly.

Never once did she consider falling asleep. Even though the whole thing was fake.

She couldn’t.

Why was that?

Loud footsteps moved close, and the sound of the door opening changed the air slightly.

“Time for room service?” she asked. The sound of her own voice felt strange to her ears.

A second set of footsteps, lighter.

The smell of mint gum filled her nose.

The feel of hands on her shoulders was followed by something heavy being slipped over her head.

A weighted vest.

“Time for me to swim with the fish?” she asked.

No one spoke.

She heard tape unrolling before she felt it being strapped on to whatever they’d put around her.

Someone pushed her chair into a different position.

Four hands, but another set of footsteps.

The limp. Lars.

Then, just when it seemed as if everyone was walking away, someone took the blindfold from her eyes.

Jax blinked several times, her vision attempting to adjust to the minimal light in the room.

She was facing the wall.

When she swiveled her head, all she saw was the shadow of one person walking away.

On her chest was a pretty decent simulation of a bomb.

The reason for the safe word was now revealed.

She closed her eyes at the sound of the door shutting behind her.

This isn’t real.

Richter had trained her to think under pressure, not to give up.

It was time to start thinking.

“Is she still awake?”

Neil moved his head and acknowledged Lars’s words as he walked into the room.

In front of Neil were three screens. One was directed at Jax, complete with a monitor of her vital signs, which she likely didn’t realize they were monitoring. The second was of the perimeter of the ship they were on . . . and the third was with the mole they had in the team that was closing in on their location.

“She’s tough.”

“That’s Richter,” Sasha said, as if their alma mater was enough of an explanation. “Although I don’t think Jax spent much time in isolation for insubordination like me or Claire.”

The fact that the German boarding school had once isolated students who broke the rules in a way that would at all mimic what they were simulating made Neil want to shoot something. Jax was an adult. A licensed private investigator, but more to the point, an operative in his company. This was something she signed up for.

The school she was forced to attend when she was a child was not.

“How far out is the team?” Lars asked.

Neil looked at the monitor, saw the team putting on their vests. The ones that worked like laser tag. A fatal “shot” meant the member was out. On either side. “Twenty minutes.”

Neil glanced at Jax’s monitor once again. “First time in three years our objective held out.”

He was proud.

Damn proud of the girl.

“Let’s suit up.”

When someone says the phrase “All hell broke loose,” one never imagines how silent that hell can be.

There is a feeling that surges in the air when that hell is starting to fall.

That is what being isolated in a room with a simulated bomb strapped to her chest gave her.

A feeling.

Hell was footsteps.

Quiet, rapid footfalls and energy swirling around in sweeping colors.

The windows in the room were blacked out, but a tiny bit of light suggested the sun had started to rise.

Jax would swear it was midday by the state of her bladder.

She had been about to cry uncle for the sake of a bathroom when hell moved.

Her heart started to pound.

It wasn’t real . . . but that didn’t stop her from thinking about what she needed to do to make sure there wasn’t a simulated black toe tag on her when this exercise was over.