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 Balcony
“I’m sorry Mungo couldn’t make it,” Demeter says. It’s not her real name, but it’s as good as. Callsigns always are. They become their names for the duration of whatever op they’re on — although usually they get to use them for longer than a mere four days.
“Why’s that?” Alonzo, tall, blond, and slimly muscled, is sitting on the balcony rail. He kicks an idle foot against the support post and takes a long sip from his water bottle.
By contrast, Demeter is average height and curvy-fit, with a head of riotous black curls that have miraculously stayed confined in their ponytail today. She’s steering well clear of Alonzo’s spot. She’s not afraid of heights, as such, but she still doesn’t fancy leaning into empty space over the gleaming ballroom floor, which happens to provide a view straight down through polished glass to the crashing waves a few hundred metres below.
“Because,” she says, “my shoulders are killing me, that’s why.” As undercover assignments go, it’s not the worst she’s had. Not even close. But it’s intense enough. “Eight hours of lugging tables and carting loaded trays, and I’m ready for a bath.”
Alonzo grins and jerks his head, beckoning her over. “I know I’m not Mungo, and I agree, his massages are to die for—”
“Gymnasts’ fingers. The man’s a menace.”
“—but I’m not too shoddy, if I do say so myself.”
The balcony is deserted. Demeter steps across, turns her back to the drop, and settles into the v of Alonzo’s knees. His lean hands curl around her shoulders, pale fingers a stark contrast to her brown skin and the rough black polycotton of her waitstaff’s shirt.
“Is this alright?” he asks.
“Mm.” Better than alright. She drops her head and pushes back into the hold. “I won’t break.”
His grip tightens.
Alonzo works in silence for a long moment and then says quietly, “Do you want me to have a word with him?”
Ah. And here she was hoping he hadn’t noticed. He’s not talking about Mungo now. “I’ve got it sorted.”
“Because I can. Talk to him. If you want.”
“I don’t want.” She squelches a flare of irritation. Alonzo means well, he’s only trying to help, but sometimes he needs to learn when to butt out and mind his own business. “He shouldn’t need you to talk to him, because he should take my word for it that I’m not interested.”
“I don’t disagree, I’m just saying…” Alonzo trails off with an oath. “Speak of the devil.”
The young man under discussion appears at the end of the balcony. He scowls as soon as he sees them.
“Don’t stop,” Demeter says as Alonzo’s grip slackens. “It won’t hurt him to see that I’ll let you give me a shoulder rub when I won’t give him the time of day. If I was optimistic, I’d say maybe he’d cotton on to something there, but…”
“Yeah, no, I don’t like your chances.”
“Hello, your majesty,” says the intruder.
“Logan,” Demeter returns evenly. “I’ve told you, I’d appreciate it if you don’t call me that.” She might be English but that’s where the similarities end. She’s not old enough, male enough, or anything like white enough to be the King.
“And your very colonial friend, of course,” Logan adds, American accent thick. “Shouldn’t you be working, Oz?”
“I’m on break,” Alonzo says shortly. “We’ve got another four and a half minutes, so if you wouldn’t mind sodding off and leaving us alone? Cheers.”
Logan flushes to the roots of his brown hair. “You’re always on break.”
“Funny, how you seem to show up whenever we are.”
“Not surprising that you don’t do any work, I guess, everyone knows Australia’s made up of lazy criminals—”
Demeter grabs Alonzo’s hand as it rises and puts it firmly back on her shoulder. “Thank you for that resoundingly rude opinion, Logan.”
Logan opens his mouth. Closes it again. Looks from Demeter to Alonzo and back. “Sorry. I, uh, I didn’t know you and him were…”
“Oh, we’re not.”
She meets his puzzled stare with a glacial smile. Alonzo’s hands don’t pause in their work.
“We’re friends,” she adds when Logan keeps staring. “It isn’t the first time we’ve worked together, and I daresay it won’t be the last.”
“Huh,” says Logan.
It’s painful, watching the realisation trickle into his brain. She didn’t think anyone could process words that slowly, but Logan clearly can.
“Right,” he says after a million years. “So, uh, you are single, then?”
Oh for goodness’ sake. “Yes, I’m single, and for the hundredth time: I’m not interested.”
His everlasting smile appears again. He casts a long look down her curvy frame and back up. “Are you sure about that?”
Alonzo’s hands freeze on her shoulders. Frankly Demeter wouldn’t be surprised if he started growling, but he stays silent. Tense. Probably restraining an urge to tip Logan over the railing.
They don’t want that. Too loud. Too much paperwork. And they’d just have to clean the mess up afterwards, so. No. Not an option.
Demeter steps away from Alonzo, grabs his wrist as he slips down to the balcony floor, and tugs him past Logan towards the stairs. “Break time’s over. Bye, Logan!”
“Please,” Alonzo says as they walk away.
“Please, I am begging you.”
“No,” Demeter says a third time. “Don’t make me have the talk with you, too.”
“Anyway, you know what Mist would say.”
Alonzo chokes on air and falls silent. He’s still glowering like a storm cloud, but at least he doesn’t look like he’s two seconds shy of getting the box cutter out of his pocket and slitting Logan’s throat.
“Yeah,” he says after a long moment. “I know what Mist would say.”
That’s settled, then. “You think he’s a threat?”
“To the event tonight?” Alonzo snorts and tugs his collar straight. Even after eight hours’ sweaty work, the guy makes a plain black shirt and work trousers look like a bespoke suit. “Not bleeding likely. He’s an idiot, and a lecherous idiot at that, but he’s not a threat. Look, if he tries anything—”
“If he tries anything,” Demeter says calmly, “I’ll knee him in the fork and call for a manager. Happy?”
“Ecstatic. What are the chances of a sniper getting up here tonight, do you think?”
And just like that, they’re back to business. “With their security levels? Not high. It’s invite-only and they’ll all be fingerprinted, that’s standard protocol for places like this. A few people might sneak in for the dancing but they’ll be turfed out long before the speeches start. They won’t want just anyone hanging around to hear whatever the man’s got to say.”
“As, er, scintillating as I’m sure it will be,” Alonzo says, and smirks at the look on Demeter’s face. “Yeah, me too. I’m glad we’ll be well out of it.”
“Oh, yeah.” She steals his water bottle and takes a swig as they round the landing. “We’ll be out of it, because we’ll be run off our feet carrying heavy trays down to the kitchens and filling champagne glasses and making sure those little cheese and bacon thingies don’t run out.”
“And the carrot sticks.”
“Carrot sticks and dip. Classic.”
“Caviar on ridiculously overpriced crackers, also classic but a lot more expensive. You should’ve heard the chef going on about them this morning.”
Demeter grins. “Don’t tell me — the guy with the bandanna, right?” He looks a bit like Mungo, actually, with the brown hair tied back in a short ponytail. He’s taller than Mungo, though. And not half as thick though the shoulders.
“That’s him,” Alonzo says. “Kept going on about how price doesn’t equate to quality and he could’ve got stock in for twice the quality at two-thirds the price. He went on and on and on until one of the managers told him to shut it.” A thoughtful gleam steals into his eyes. “He’s handy with a knife.”
“He’s a chef. Of course he’s handy with a knife. I wouldn’t read anything into it.”
Before them, the ballroom floor is a hive of activity before tonight’s event. To one side, the caterer’s tables hum as staff cover them with freshly-ironed black cloths and start setting trays out. To the other, the orchestra is prepping for rehearsal under the eagle eye of their conductor, who’s chatting to the events manager, who’s alternately listening to the conductor and tapping away on her tablet with an air of furious intensity. In the middle of the dance floor, a few cleaners in high-vis are doing some last-minute polishing of stubborn smeary spots. Beside them, dignified even in sweats and jerseys, the hotel ballet corp move through their paces in time to music only they can hear.
Here’s hoping it isn’t the same music Mungo could hear. That didn’t sound at all pleasant.
Alonzo grunts and stretches his shoulders out. “Back to work. I’ll catch you later. Here, mate, let me get that.” He takes one end of a trestle table off another worker and they vanish down to the end of the bustle.
And she’s still holding his water bottle. Typical.
“Hey,” one of the managers says, stopping on his way past with a tray full of drinking glasses stacked three high. “You’re not paid to stand around. Get rid of that bottle and then come back and take this, would you?” He offloads the tray on the nearest table, shoots her a pointed look, and stalks past her without a word.
Demeter restrains an eye roll with an effort and turns to the back room. They’ve taken over one of the empty storage rooms as a staff cloakroom for the moment. It’s far closer than the official cloakroom back by the kitchens, but it’s also a lot smaller. And hotter. She was trying to avoid it.
The local staff tend to use single-use plastic bottles, but Alonzo’s is one of those metal double-walled ones. Neat size, not too tall, not too hefty. Just right. She’s not about to chuck in it the nearest rubbish bin.
Bags and jackets litter the borders of the storage room and encroach on the centre, leaving winding trails for the staff to pick their way through. A woman in a cleaner’s apron slips past her, tucking a tampon into her pocket with one hand while she holds the door with the other.
“Thanks,” Demeter murmurs, and lets the door fall closed behind her.
There’s only one other person in here. She’s never seen it this quiet before, but maybe there’s a reason for that. The guy is red-faced and sweating behind a curtain of lank black hair. Hands shaking. Staring at his phone like it holds the worst news he’s ever seen.
Demeter turns to head to her bag, pauses, and turns back.
“Oi,” she says. “You alright, mate?”
The guy jumps. His head whips up. “I’m fine,” he blurts, eyes wild.
“You sure about that? Because you don’t look fine. You look like you need a good sit-down or a glass of something strong — or both.”
He makes a noise somewhere between a gulp and a laugh. “No, I’m, I’m, I’m fine. Really. Thanks. Alcohol is, uh, it’s the last thing I need.”
“You don’t drink?”
“Not on the clock, anyway.” His eyes narrow. “Is that what’s in your bottle?”
Demeter grins. “Just water, I promise.”
“But really,” she adds, winding her way over to her bag and talking over her shoulder, “if there’s anything I can do to help…? Not to pry, but you look a bit rattled.” She tucks the bottle away and turns back.
He’s staring at her like she’s a ghost.
“What is it?”
“You know,” he says numbly, “you’re the first person who’s actually offered to help.”
“Yeah. Everyone else, they’ve walked in here and seen me and made some excuse to hightail it out of here. Or they asked if I’m okay but didn’t hang around to listen to my answer. You… you actually want to help?”
“Helping people is kind of my thing,” Demeter says with complete honesty. “What do you need?”
He gapes at her. Looks down at his phone again. Back up. “My wife’s in hospital.”
“Giving birth,” he says, with another of those desperate darting looks at his phone. “To our first. Our first kid. Child. Don’t know what sex it is, wanted to find out on the— on the day.” He vents a shuddering laugh.
“So?” Demeter says. “Get going.”
“I can’t. I’ve already had more than my three paid sick days this year. Her morning sickness alone was — was bad. I’ve got nothing left.”
“And? Holiday leave, compassionate leave, leave without pay—”
He shakes his head. “None of that left, either. Didn’t start with much, I haven’t been here two years yet, and I can’t afford to be fired now. Not with a newborn to look after.” Tears glint on his cheeks. He dashes them away. “I can’t go and I can’t stay. And I can’t think.”
Cortisol’s a hell of a drug. Thanks for the lessons on that one, Mist.
“I can’t think,” he whispers. “I don’t know what to do.”
“You want to go, right?” Just to clarify. She’s not going to help him get out of here if he doesn’t want to go.
“Yeah. More than anything, yeah. But—”
“No buts.” Demeter grins. “A tip from a friend: don’t look at the problem. Look at the solution.”
He stares at her with blank, red-rimmed eyes. “I don’t see it. What’s the solution?”
“Me.” She taps a hand against her leg, considering ideas. Okay. Okay, as long as Logan is back from his break, that should work. The tray of glasses will still be there. The manager is guaranteed to swing past again to make sure she’s doing her job and not still loitering.
All she needs to do is engineer a situation that makes her new friend look so good the manager can’t say no to his leave request, while avoiding a situation that gives Alonzo or anyone else an excuse to punch Logan in the face.
“Give me ten seconds and then follow me out,” she says. “I’ll be by the second table with the trays of water glasses. Start giving me a hand with them, look natural, and don’t say anything to annoy the manager when he swings past. Got that?”
“I — yeah, but…”
Demeter nods and goes, barging out of the cloakroom and back onto the ballroom floor like she never left.
Sure enough, there’s Logan, standing at the foot of the stairs and looking around for her. The guy is so predictable.
She looks past him, catches Alonzo’s eye down the end, and hopefully manages to communicate heads up, don’t step in until you have to in a single long look. Their silent communication isn’t anywhere near as good as Mungo and Teza and Mist’s; but then they don’t have the advantage of having already spent a decade in a team together.
Not yet, anyway. They’re working on it.
A stony glint lights Alonzo’s eyes. He blinks and goes back to work.
Good. Message received and acknowledged.
Now, where are those trays…?
She has time to check the first row over and pick out a glass with a chip in it before her black-haired friend from the cloakroom joins her, face newly washed, and starts sorting in silence.
“Hey, queenie,” Logan says two seconds later.
Demeter doesn’t look up. “That’s not my name, Logan.”
“Well sor-ry that I have trouble pronouncing all sixteen syllables.”
Across the table, Mister Black Hair snorts. “What, like it’s hard?”
Logan stares at him for a long moment. “Who are you?”
“A friend. Is that right?”
“Yeah,” Blackie says, matching him stare for stare. “That’s right.”
As heartwarming as the posturing is, Demeter should break it up before anyone gets too far off topic. She looks up. “Logan, what do you want?”
“You know what I want, sweetheart.” He leans against the table, grinning at her. “Come on, we all finish work at the same time tonight. One drink and we’ll call it quits, how about it?”
She warns Blackie off with a shake of her head. Puts the cracked glass aside and turns a weary stare on Logan. “Have you ever gotten a date with that line?”
He shrugs. “First time for everything, right?”
“Oh, so you’ve never had a date before? You know, that explains a lot.”
Blackie snorts a laugh.
Maybe Demeter should ask Mist to check Logan’s blood pressure. It can’t be good, the rate he flushes beet-red like that.
“I’ve had dates.”
“More than one?”
“A lot more,” he snarls.
“Then why are you so desperate to go out with the one woman in the whole world who can apparently resist your, er… charms?” As if she needs an answer. A guy like that, he thinks a challenge is an invitation. And with the way he’s acting, there have been a whole lot more of those in the life history than he’ll ever admit to.
The smile comes back. “Because you’re gorgeous,” Logan says. “And smart. And kind. And intelligent—”
“You realise intelligent and smart are the same thing, right? It only took you four words to repeat yourself, that has to be some kind of record.”
“They’re not the same thing.”
“Uh, yeah,” Demeter says. “They are.”
“No, there are connotations—”
“Connotations my foot,” Blackie mutters, not looking up from where he’s powering through the fourth row of water glasses.
“Stay out of it,” Logan snaps.
“Why, so you can keep harassing her?”
“I’m not harassing her. We’re just talking. Aren’t we?” Logan turns that smooth smile on Demeter.
She sorts another smudged glass from the pile and sets it aside, using the moment to scan the area. No sign of the manager yet. Alonzo’s at the next table, blue eyes burning, jaw clenched as he works on stabilising a particularly stubborn table support.
“Aren’t we?” Logan repeats.
“Yeah,” she says, keeping her head down. “Sure. We’re talking.” Long enough for the manager to come past again, at least. And for Logan to get even more riled up.
“See?” Logan says to Blackie, voice hard. “We’re just talking, me and my ladyfriend here.”
Oh, she hates him. She shouldn’t hate him, she should take a leaf out of Mungo’s book and rise above it, but she does. She really, really, does loathe him.
“Talking,” she echoes through gritted teeth. “Yep. That’s us.” She eases her white-knuckled grip on the glass and tucks it back into the carry tray. It’s fine. Not a scratch or a grease-mark to be seen.
And then she catches Blackie’s eye. They need to speed this up.
Bless the dude, he takes the hint immediately.
“Come off it, you can’t tell me you like talking to this guy!” Blackie bursts out.
Logan flushes even redder. She wouldn’t have thought it was possible. “Thought I told you to back off?”
“Yeah, well, guess what, pal? I won’t! I won’t back off, not when you refuse to leave her alone—”
“We’re just talking!” Logan leans over the table, fist clenched. “You’d better shut up.”
“Or what? You’ll harass me like you’re harassing her?”
“I’m not,” he starts, brash and loud, and then lowers his voice to a hiss. “I’m not harassing her.” He sweeps a look around at the curious faces turning their way. “We’re just talking, that’s all. Come on, queenie, tell them.”
“Tell them what?” Demeter says coolly. “That you won’t leave me alone despite repeated requests? That you’ve been following me from workstation to workstation all day, hanging on like a drooling little puppy? That every time I take a break, you’re right there again? Is that what I should tell them?”
“Not what?” says a deep voice behind them.
Logan pales and turns.
The manager from earlier glares at them, arms folded over his expansive chest. “It’s not what it looks like, which is you standing around talking when you should be working?”
“I’m working,” Logan says weakly.
“Is that right? Because what I see is those two working while you do your best to flirt with the lady, who, by the way, doesn’t seem to be interested.”
“I’m not,” Demeter says.
“She’s really not,” Blackie adds.
“And I’ve told him that.”
“She did, I heard her. More than once.”
“The guy can’t take a hint — or an outright statement.”
“Sorry,” Blackie says. “I was trying to get him off your back without him getting violent about it. Didn’t want him to escalate when we’ve got all this glass around, you know?”
The manager looks at him, eyes sparking in interest. “Good thinking.”
“Don’t look at me, I’m not the one he was harassing.”
“You were the only one defending me,” Demeter chimes in, honey-sweet. She doesn’t dare look across to the next table. Alonzo must be verging on apoplectic by now.
The manager sighs. “You,” he says to Logan, “get back to work. Over the other side of the room, if you don’t mind.”
Logan mumbles something incoherent and flees, head ducked against the stares of a dozen coworkers.
“You,” says the manager to Demeter. “You’re new, aren’t you?”
“And you…” He trails off, eyes narrowed at Blackie. “You’re the one who’s been calling out a lot and then working overtime to make up for it.”
Nascent hope blooms in Blackie’s eyes. “Yeah. Yes, sir. My wife’s pregnant, it’s been a hard few months. Uh, she might not be anymore — pregnant, I mean — she’s at the hospital now and…” He trails off as the manager raises an eyebrow.
“She’s there now?”
The words are too neutral. He hasn’t bought the story.
“The hell are you doing here, mate?” a suspiciously Australian voice says from the crowd. “Get to your kid!”
“Yeah,” says someone else, “why are you still here? You should be at the hospital!”
“Kid’s being born and he’s still at work,” a third person mutters. “Come on, let the guy go.”
Thank you, Alonzo.
Before the murmurs can grow, the manager holds up a hand. “Is your wife at the hospital now?”
Blackie nods. “Yes, sir.”
“And you haven’t taken time off?”
“I couldn’t. Didn’t have any leave left.”
The manager stares at him for a long moment and shakes his head. Waves him away. “Never mind that. Your wife needs you more than we do, and that’s saying something, believe me.”
Blackie shoots a disbelieving look at Demeter and back to the manager. “Sorry?”
“Get going!” the manager roars.
Blackie cracks a smile so wide it’s in danger of splitting his face in half, turns away, turns back, gasps, “thank you!” to the room in general, and sprints for the cloakroom.
“Right,” says the manager, and nods. “The rest of you, back to work. We’ve lost a pair of hands for tonight, you know what that means.”
“Worth it,” Alonzo says, loud and proud. “The guy’s got a right to—”
“Did I ask for your opinion, Aussie?”
“Then keep your mouth shut.”
“Sir, yes, sir.”
“And stop with the — oh, forget it.” He sighs and heads for the orchestra corner.
Alonzo glides to Demeter’s side, catches her eye, and smiles.
With difficulty, she stifles the bubble of laughter rising in her chest. She smiles back, broad and beaming.
They might not have found the enemy yet, but they’ve made a friend. Made a difference to one person’s life. Sometimes that’s all that matters.
No, not one person. Three people. A family.
She nudges a shoulder against Alonzo’s and, still grinning, they go back to work.