Written for Atthis Arts’ Five Minutes At Hotel Stormcove anthology & not published at the time due to space constraints. All stories had to be set at Hotel Stormcove, a fictional, legendary hotel on the east coast of the USA, and had to take place in under five minutes.
Operation Stormcats: Six spies. Five minutes. Three connected short stories.
Hotel Stormcove, 2025
On the Ballroom Floor
“I’m sorry Mungo couldn’t make it,” says the lithe, brown-skinned man currently known as Mist.
Teza’s used to his faked Kiwi accent now. A Japanese-Kiwi woman and a South African man don’t draw attention, not in a place like Hotel Stormcove that welcomes all nationalities and ethnicities. Throw in the accents, however, and they’re on the verge of being identifiable.
No agent likes being identifiable.
Mist’s arm tightens a fraction at her back. Not enough to be a danger signal. He’s relaxed as they sway on the fringes of the crowd, his green eyes glowing under the ballroom lights, shoulders loose under the suit jacket which, contrary to tradition, isn’t black but a shade of deep purple that tints towards violet, plum, burgundy, or indigo depending on the light.
“Plans change,” Teza says.
“They do,” says Mist, guiding her into a flowing turn, “but that doesn’t mean we have to like it.”
Her dress is purple, too: high at the back, low at the front, flowing from a structured waist to loose skirt. It has pockets. Her glittering stilettos will be as much of a weapon in a fight as the brace of ceramic throwing knives strapped to Mist’s calf.
Under their feet the cantilevered glass floor, tinted for the night event and polished until it shines, provides a magnificent view down past plunging cliffs to the crashing, phosphorescent waves below.
As Mungo noted at the briefing: it ain’t called Stormcove for nothing.
She takes advantage of the shift in position to sweep an eye over the balcony that rings the upper floor. “No change.” Good. They don’t want to be thrown off schedule this late in the game. Their target is due to appear in two minutes.
Mist stares over her shoulder. The faintest v creases his forehead.
He’s still thinking about Mungo? “You couldn’t have helped.”
“No, I know,” he murmurs. “I hate not knowing what’s behind it, that’s all.”
As competent a medic as Mist is — and he’s very competent — they couldn’t prepare for the mythical psychic whine of the hotel because it was only that: a myth. A rumour. Something to be considered in passing and then discarded from their planning unless it proved pertinent.
And prove pertinent it did. Four days ago the jet landed at the airfield and Mungo, who until then had been remarkably quiet for him, stood up, swayed, and sank back into his seat, grey-faced and trembling.
“I’m still surprised you couldn’t hear it,” Mist adds.
Teza groans. “Don’t start that again. Please.”
Bad enough that Mungo could hear what was, in his words, the equivalent of a deafening symphony in 5/4 with off-pitch strings and off-tempo percussion. Worse that none of the rest of them could hear it.
Teza tried. She stopped and strained her ears and emptied her mind, just as much for her own curiosity as for the awful, agonised pleading in Mungo’s blue eyes. If there’s anyone he trusts to be on the same wavelength as him, it’s her.
But she didn’t hear a thing.
Mist grins, humour and concern balanced in the movement. “He’ll be okay. How are we doing for time?”
Of course, if there’s anyone Mist trusts to keep an accurate count, it’s Teza. She doesn’t need to check the silver watch on her wrist; the count is there in the back of her mind, steady as any metronome. “Forty seconds.”
“Good enough. Shall we?”
She follows his lead through the swirling throng, memorising faces as she goes and matching them to names from the hotel database. For the most part, they’re familiar. There are a few strangers, but there always are on nights like this. Some of them will be undercover security. Some of them will be ordinary guests who snuck in to the invite-only party. One or two might be the people they’re looking for, but they’ll never see it until the moment.
Contrary to popular belief, you can’t tell a killer by looking at their eyes.
Teza should know. She looks into her own eyes every morning. It’s her job and it has been for years, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
Mist’s shoulders are straight now. Not tense, he’s far too experienced for that, but alert. Ready for action. Teza keeps her breathing steady, a match for the measured flow of their feet, and watches his back the same way he’s watching hers.
This is the danger zone, which is why Mist and Teza are here instead of delegating the job to someone else. This close to the target, they want experience. Action without hesitation. Instinct without second-guesses.
The target is due to arrive in thirty seconds. By all accounts he’s as punctual as Mungo, which means he’ll be stepping out onto the landing at the top of the stairs bang on quarter to eleven. From that point they have an hour and fifteen minutes of mingling and dancing, then the midnight speech, and then the target withdraws to his very private and very secure suite on the thirty-third floor.
The pinch points are these: The grand entrance, when the band stops playing for three minutes and all eyes will be on Kurt Nathan Daniels, rising star of the international humanitarian scene and current Ambassador to Russia, as he descends the steps from the balcony. The midnight speech. And the exit, which will be complicated by the usual handshaking and thanking before his security team can hustle him out of the room.
The exit, they have covered. The speech, ditto. The entrance… is a trickier matter.
Teza taps a thumb on Mist’s shoulder. They move towards the foot of the stairs, where the bespoke-suited security team have already formed a subtle cordon to keep people back.
“See anyone yet?” she asks.
“No-one,” Mist murmurs. “I doubt we’ll know for sure until he’s on the stairs.”
Which, of course, is the problem. Officially speaking, their unit isn’t here. They haven’t liaised with local security, they haven’t signed any orders, they haven’t dropped a warning in Daniels’ ear. In some ways, it would make it a lot easier. They’d have a heap more intel, for starters.
But in other ways, it would create a ton of problems they can’t afford. Three days to scout the place, one day for the event, and they’re gone. Out of here. Flying home to New Zealand like they never left. They can’t afford to get caught up in the hurricane of post-op debriefs and potential interrogations if things go wrong.
It’s not their fault they happened to be passing through when Command got wind of this shindig.
“Quite right,” Mist says. “Technically, we were on leave. I’ll have a word with them when we get back.”
Teza blinks. “Sorry?”
“You heard me.”
She did. And apparently he heard what she was thinking. She’s not that obvious, is she?
“Not blinking likely,” he says, fake accent thickening. “But I was thinking much the same thing.”
“Isn’t it?” he says, green eyes gleaming, and flicks a pointed glance over her shoulder.
They glide to the edge of the crowd, stepping out beside a waiter bearing a loaded tray of champagne glasses. Drinks in hand, they retreat to the nearest wall.
Teza casts a cool eye over the crowd.
The orchestra in the corner are playing with professional inscrutability, but the second trumpet looks less at her music and more at the conductor. There’s a glitter of desperate intensity in her eyes. Nothing to worry about: she’ll be making the most of the upcoming comfort break, that’s all.
The crowd itself is a fluid, pulsing creature of a hundred parts and a million colours. Already security have quietly removed several of the guests who failed to produce an invitation when asked.
No change in the wings. No signals over the earpieces from their junior agents. The waitstaff are calm as ever, quietly refilling glasses and replacing food trays as needed. The hotel’s Events Manager, stunning in a sleek gold sheath that sets off her black curls to perfection, stands poised at the foot of the stairs. A heavy curtain in cream velvet divides the ballroom from the side alcove where Daniels will stand to give his speech. They double-checked that earlier. Security will have done their part, too.
Mist slips an arm around her waist, effortlessly casual, and ducks his head to her ear. “Here we go.”
The music fades. One last shimmering note from a violin hangs in the air before the bow drops. The crowd takes their cue, conversations falling to silence in a second, arms dropping from shoulders and feet stepping back from partners.
They turn as one to the stairs, where a single man is standing on the landing.
Just looking at him makes Teza’s teeth itch. He couldn’t have picked a more exposed position if he’d tried. He’s alone up there. Anyone on the balconies, the floor, or the staff areas has a straight line of sight — and an easy shot.
Daniels holds position for an exquisitely-timed second, dark head high, grey eyes sweeping over the waiting masses; and then he steps forward.
Somewhere in the crowd, a woman shrieks.
The weight of Mist’s arm vanishes from Teza’s waist. He’s gone already, passing his glass to her and slipping through the stirring crowd to where a ragged circle has appeared.
“Excuse me,” comes his voice, and for all that he’s slim and quiet, he carries an authority that can’t be denied. The crowd parts to let him through. “I’m a medic. Let me through. Medical staff, coming through. It’s alright. Give her space, please. Give her space. Thank you.”
If anyone wanted a distraction, that’s the moment they’ve been waiting for. If they’re going to act, it’ll be now.
Teza keeps her eyes on Daniels. The man plays the moment for all it’s worth: a slight frown of concern lingers just long enough for the waiting cameras to catch it, and then his expression smoothes into a calm smile. He continues down the stairs at a steady pace.
No shots from the balcony. No wild shouts from any intruders at the entrance, where hotel security stand broad-shouldered and heavy-footed. Nobody else screams; Mist’s voice is a soft murmur in Teza’s earpiece as he checks the woman over. He’ll be quietly checking her for weapons, too, although it’s unlikely that someone who’s here to provide a distraction is also here to take the hit.
The crowd stands silent, aching with anticipation, as Daniels reaches the final step. He looks around at them and smiles. It’s a startlingly flash of that good humour and genuine kindness that makes so many people love him. Even through the impartial eye of a camera lens, the emotion will bleed through. For all the rumoured etiquette lessons, he’s still human. All the polish in the world can’t hide the heart of gold underneath.
He takes the final step down to the glass floor of the ballroom.
Several things happen at once.
Over by the staff tables, someone yelps. A hundred heads whip around in unison to stare at the far point, out of sight of Teza.
The glass under Daniels’ foot creaks. A thin ribbon of blue smoke spurts into the air under the floor, catches in the everlasting updrafts floating up from the water, and curls back on itself before dissolving into nothingness.
The nearest security guard reaches for Daniels, gets a hand around his arm as Daniels’ eyes widen, and draws him forward onto the exact spot where the guard was standing only a moment ago.
Oh, that was slick. The guard must have practiced that move a thousand times, in his head if not in person. Teza ghosts forward, hardly daring to blink. Is the guard in on it? He’s had days to scope out that position. Did he want Daniels to stand there specifically? Or is he loyal to Daniels, and that was the closest spot with a stable floor?
Local security varies. In their three days watching the crew, Mist and Teza have concluded that while they aren’t shoddy, they’re not the best at lateral thinking either.
Hence why Command wanted the team here.
Daniels steps forward again, clearly intending to make a beeline for the person who yelled. Security moves him back and murmurs in his ear. Daniels settles, slipping on a polished smile for the cameras and exchanging some jest with the guest closest to him.
Yeah, well, if she was his security, she wouldn’t want him moving until they’ve called an all-clear, either. Teza ditches her empty glass, sips from Mist’s, and drifts to the edge of the cordon, staying half-hidden behind the journo with the biggest lens and brightest flash.
The guard taps his earpiece and nods. “False alarm,” he says to Daniels. “One of the waitstaff got a little handsy, that’s all. His coworker didn’t appreciate it.”
“And the woman?” Daniels asks.
“Minor reaction to some citrus. Apparently she has a sensitivity to it. The doctor is with her now.”
Daniels’ voice carries easily to the journalists. “I’m glad they’re being looked after. Are we going to stand here all night, or may I continue?”
The guard nods. The events manager glides forward, gold dress whispering, to grasp Daniels’ hand for a calculated four seconds while the bulbs flash.
“Melanie,” Daniels says warmly. “So good to see you.”
“Kurt. Thank you again for coming. Stormcove is graced by your presence.”
“Stormcove,” he murmurs, “needs a good paint job and some new blood, if you ask me. We should talk about that. Tomorrow morning? Over coffee?”
Melanie’s smile falters for a second and then broadens. “I’d love that, thank you.”
“Don’t thank me, thank the people who have several million to give away in promised charitable donations before the end of the tax year.” He winks. “I just help them distribute it to worthy causes.”
“Well.” She tucks a hand through his arm and turns to the dance floor. “You wouldn’t find a worthier cause than Stormcove. I don’t believe you’ve visited our little historic cafe yet…?”
As they step into the crowd, the light from the hundred glittering chandeliers overhead shifts minutely, catching on the couple just so.
Teza’s heart skips a beat.
The black curls are perfect. The gold dress is a match for the one she saw Melanie inspecting with a critical eye early yesterday. Even the eyes are the right colour.
But the real Melanie doesn’t have that razor-thin scar across her collarbone like someone took a knife to her once upon a time. It’s hidden under the shallow neckline of her dress — almost hidden. Teza wouldn’t have seen it if the angle and the light weren’t perfect. If she wasn’t standing almost beside the woman as Melanie turned…
Hello, mission luck. Good to have you back again.
She hates being wrong. The entrance, the speech, the exit, they’re all obvious pinch points for an easy and very public assassination. But what if Daniels’ enemies don’t want this to be public? What if it’s simply the easiest way to get to him, faking an invite to the biggest party of the season?
And what easier way to fake an invite than to go undercover as the woman managing the whole affair?
Okay. So the events manager isn’t the real events manager. Daniels is presumably still Daniels. Mist is busy across the floor, tending to the woman with the citrus reaction and making sure that no other surprises await them in that corner.
They were wrong. The assassination won’t be public. It won’t be at a moment when all eyes are on Daniels and everyone will know that he was murdered. It’ll be small and quiet and maybe just another adverse reaction, nothing could be done, how tragic —
And it will be any moment now, while the crowd is breaking away from their intense focus and the orchestra is striking up again, and the room is in that transitional state of not knowing who they were talking to or what they were doing.
Teza weaves through the crowd, smiling and gently elbowing her way past human barricades, until she’s as close to Daniels as she can get without alerting him to her presence. There wouldn’t be any point, anyway. He doesn’t know who she is.
Thankfully, neither does the fake Melanie. Perks of not telling anyone except their own team that they’re here. All it would take is one nod of recognition from a guard and Teza would be finished, and Daniels would be dead. As it is, the guard’s eyes slide over her without pausing.
Daniels has stopped to talk to a guest. Melanie chimes in, laughing at the right places, and doesn’t relinquish her hold on Daniels’ arm. Hmm. So far, so bad.
A waiter approaches with a tray of champagne glasses and nibbles. He’s making a beeline for the small group. Clearly has orders to make sure Daniels and Melanie are hydrated and fed as soon as possible.
Teza has to move. Ten seconds and the waiter will be here; fifteen and Daniels will be down and in distress while Melanie plays the competent-but-helpless staff member. The gold dress has sleek pockets in it: she could have anything in them. A knife. A hypodermic. A tiny bottle of drops to add to his drink.
“Melanie!” Teza calls, voice dripping with delighted recognition.
The fake Melanie turns, eyes searching the crowd. No hesitation there; she’s drilled her part well.
“Melanie! Darling! How are you?” Teza slips past the security guard to Melanie’s side, glass in hand, beaming fit to burst. “It’s been too long.”
“I’m sor—” Melanie starts.
Teza steamrolls ahead. “How is your husband? Aaron, right, the graphic designer with the glasses he doesn’t actually need? He’s a gem, I see his selfies on social media all the time! And the kids, how are your two pumpkins doing? Let me see, what were their names… that’s right, you named them after some Greek myth because it sounded cool—”
“—do tell, how are Syphilis and Herpes?”
In the crowd behind her, a woman chokes back a laugh. Her neighbour doesn’t bother disguising his snigger.
“I believe,” Melanie says coolly, “you mean Cepheus and Hermes?”
“Yes, how are they? Cepheus must be about to start school, I think? Oh—!”
In a calculated, artless movement, Teza trips, flails, grabs at Melanie’s arm to balance her, and takes them both to the floor.
“I’m so sorry,” she gasps, struggling to a knee and managing to stomp hard on Melanie’s foot in the process. “Watch the glass, it broke, I’m sorry, it’s these shoes, they’re new — but aren’t they gorgeous?”
“Beautiful,” Melanie says through gritted teeth. “Would you please get off my foot?”
Daniels glances back at them, obviously decides that discretion is the better part of valour, and moves his conversation a discreet distance further into the crowd. The security guards go with him, leaving Melanie and Teza behind.
Good, he’s out of the way. And the bowl of Teza’s champagne glass broke in the fall. It’s the work of seconds to snap the base off, slip the jagged stem into her palm, and tuck an arm around Melanie to get them both standing up again.
With Melanie on her feet and firmly against Teza’s side, Teza eases them backwards, away from Daniels. “Mind the glass,” she says, and brings the sharp stem across to press in warning against Melanie’s side.
Melanie stills. “Ah,” she says, glancing down at the broken glass strewn across the equally-glassy floor. “Yes, I see what you mean.”
“Are you alright? No, you’re hurt, you’re limping. I’m so sorry. Here, let me, ah… is there a side room we can move to? My partner’s a doctor, he’ll patch you up in no time.”
“Tess?” Mist says, appearing on demand. Green eyes flick over them, assessing the situation in a split-second. “Are you hurt?”
“No, it’s Melanie. I stood on her foot, I’m afraid. I think it might be bruised.”
He nods and falls in on Melanie’s far side. “Let’s get you off the dance floor, eh? I’ll patch you up, it won’t take long. This way.” His voice lowers as they leave the main floor for the fringes of the crowd. “Do you have friends here?”
Melanie swallows. Her eyes shift from Mist’s bland smile to Teza’s expression of calm assurance, and then drop in resignation. “You’re his undercover team, I suppose. I did ask if he had anyone, but he wouldn’t tell me.”
“Oh, he doesn’t know,” Mist says. “And we won’t tell him. That’s not our job.”
“What is your job?”
Teza presses a fraction harder on the glass shiv. “Do you have friends here?”
“Trust me, you don’t want to wait until he gets the medkit out. You wouldn’t believe what he can do with a scalpel.”
“Yes,” Melanie says after a moment. “Four friends. I’ll give you their details.”
“And the rest?”
“Fine.” She sighs, and with the sigh all the fight goes out of her. “This was our one chance, you know. Our only shot. I was our only chance, and you’ve ruined it.”
“We know,” Teza says.
“It’s why we’re here,” says Mist.
Melanie frowns. Looks at them again. “Who are you people?”
“I don’t suppose you’d believe us,” Teza says with just the right amount of wryness, “if we said the agency?”
Mist trades a laughing look with Teza and shakes his head. “Tess, how are your shoes?”
Kind of him to ask. “They’ll survive.” The stilettos aren’t the best she’s ever worn, but they’re not bad for a last-minute buy on a shopping trip with the girls. “Why, were you offering to buy me glass ones? They’d be abominably uncomfortable.”
Not that he would buy them himself; he’d put them on the team tab and let the agency pick up the bill. But it’s the thought that counts. He’s been teasing her about midnight dances and glass slippers for years.
“Glass? No.” He holds the door of the medical room for them and nods to the nearest security guard. “Diamond, however…”
Diamond? Sharper than glass, tougher than nails, sparkling like sunlight off water? Teza sighs. “Oh, I love you.”
His mouth quirks. “What are friends for?”
Would-be assassin in custody and local security advancing to take the handover, Mist laughs quietly, drapes an arm around her shoulders, and ushers Teza through the door.
And after an emergency detour and four days of hard work, Operation: Stormcats is over.