Cinnamon spotted Calhoun walking away from the outdoor banquet back toward the hotel. He must have forgotten something in his room. The man didn’t act like he wanted to be at the retreat even though he had paid a lot of money to get a room at the overbooked hotel hosting it. He showed no interest in the people or the events, and actually seemed annoyed to be there. So why come? It made no sense.
Normally something like that wouldn’t bug her but he drew her eye. It had to be the full sleeve of tattoos that covered his right arm from his wrist all the way up the back of his bald scalp.
Beautiful art, no matter where it was located, always caught her eye. Calhoun’s sepia-colored tattoos had clean, sharp lines defining each of the religious symbols — Ancient Egyptian scarabs, Chinese dragons, Celtic runes, and so on. She could only guess he wanted to cover all the bases.
She would love to meet his tattoo artist just in case she ever got up the nerve to actually get ink of her own. The pain didn’t deter her. She just didn’t know what she wanted or where she wanted it. That had to mean she wasn’t ready to get one.
Asking about tattoos and artists would have to wait. She had another reason to seek out Calhoun, so she followed him to the back of the hotel near the delivery and loading area. While she didn’t want to miss the rest of the dinner, she did want her bracelet back. Calhoun had said he could fix it easily. His wandering around had to mean it was finished. If not, she would rather he simply return it so she could get it fixed somewhere else.
Calhoun entered a glass door that had Employees Only embossed on it in big, bold lettering. He wasn’t an employee. He had arrived on Hawaii the same day she had. That’s how he ended up with her bracelet. It snagged on his suitcase at the baggage claim carousel while she tried to retrieve her own bag. The result — a broken bracelet clasp.
The door slammed shut behind him, and Cinnamon waited. He would come out any second after he realized his mistake… if it was a mistake. Though she couldn’t reason why it wouldn’t be a mistake. Maybe he’d gone in search of a restroom, which meant he would exit any minute.
She watched the door, but Calhoun didn’t exit. While the cool night breeze felt good against her legs, she couldn’t stand there forever, waiting for him. When a big cheer sounded from the area where the banquet was taking place, Cinnamon glanced in that direction then looked back at the door. Still no Calhoun.
Well, whatever he was doing in there was none of her business. She turned and headed back to the banquet. She had paid a lot of money to get to Hawaii so she could visit with Dannah Ridge, a legendary black actress who had been Cinnamon’s idol from the moment she laid eyes on the woman. Some people even said Cinnamon looked like a younger Dannah, except Cinnamon’s breasts were bigger, and her cheeks sported dimples instead of a beauty mark.
A rustling sound drew her attention back to the employees’ entrance. Two men carrying a wriggling, writhing duffel bag between them went through the same door.
Cinnamon frowned. Maybe it was paranoia talking, but that bag had looked a lot like a person struggling to get out. She shook her head, dismissing her silly ideas. Too many cop dramas had her seeing crimes where there were none. Except… she couldn’t stop staring at the door.
Had the men run into Calhoun and attacked him for being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Or maybe Calhoun was meeting them. He had crashed the party. If not for Dannah’s fellow actor and long time paramour Flint East, Calhoun would have never gotten a room at the hotel because they were booked solid for the all-star retreat — an event featuring actors of old and their adoring fans.
Did that mean Calhoun had crashed to do something shady? And maybe Flint East was helping him and that was how a room had miraculously become available?
Cinnamon found herself walking toward the door. Despite Calhoun’s rough exterior and gruff attitude, she couldn’t see him as the type who would harm someone without just cause. Her instincts about people were usually right.
As she reached for the doorknob, she muttered, “This is the part in the horror movie when the audience writes off the woman as TSTL for not minding her own business and then laughs when her stupidity gets her killed.”
Thankfully, her life wasn’t a movie, especially not a horror movie. She still hoped her nosy nature didn’t get her into trouble.
She slipped past the door quickly, throwing a glance over her shoulder to make sure no one had followed her or raised an alarm. Everything remained quiet. She looked for clues to Calhoun’s whereabouts. The door led to a long corridor with doors at odd intervals. Cinnamon didn’t plan to check the doors in case people were behind them that might object to her being there. She did peek into the few rooms with open doors.
If Calhoun and those mystery men with the duffel bag were there, they were hiding. She shrugged and chalked it up to a loss. Calhoun had to come out some time. She would get her bracelet back from him then.
Someone grabbed her from behind, clapped their hand over her mouth, and pulled her back into the shadows against a solid chest. She prepared to employ every technique she had learned in self-defense class.
“Next time you want to sneak up on me, try wearing less perfume, Cinnamon.” Calhoun whispered those words so close to her ear that his hot breath feathered across her cheek. “What are you doing here?”
She pulled his hand down and whispered back, “What about you? I doubt you’re an employee. And what happened to those two guys with the duffel bag?”
“Saw them, did you?”
“Yes. They came in right after –”
Calhoun put his hand back over her mouth and backed up farther into the room. Cinnamon didn’t understand why until two more men with another writhing duffel bag walked past.
She waited for the sounds of their footsteps to fade before she pulled Calhoun’s hand down once more and whispered, “Tell me those guys aren’t carrying what I think they’re carrying.”
“What do you think they’re carrying?” Again Calhoun spoke with his mouth close to her ear. His rumbling voice sent shivers up her spine whose cause she would contemplate when she wasn’t in a potentially dangerous situation.
“A person trying to get out.”
“Beauty and brains. Perceptive women like you are dangerous.”
“Gee, thanks.” She pulled out of his hold and faced him. “What the hell is going on? Why are you back here? And what are those guys doing with people trussed up in duffel bags?”
Calhoun raised one of his light brown eyebrows at her while regarding her with amused green eyes. “Why do I have to answer any of those questions?”
That stumped her. Rather than fighting a losing argument, she shook her head. “Whatever. I’m leaving. I want my bracelet back when you’re done playing around here. I’m in room three-fifty. Bye.”
She made it two steps before Calhoun grabbed her again. She elbowed him in the stomach then regretted it when she hit rock-hard abs. Her elbow throbbed, and Calhoun hadn’t let her go.
More people walked past the room where they hid. “Are the preparations ready?” one of the passing men asked.
“Almost. They couldn’t find her.”
Cinnamon gasped softly. She tapped Calhoun’s hand, trying to get him to release her so she could tell him that she recognized one of the voices.
He didn’t budge. In fact, he tightened his hold and made a muted shushing noise.
The man who had spoken first said, “You’ll have to wait until next time. I’m not delaying tonight.”
“It’s only the third night. You could have waited.”
“You should have kept a better eye on her.”
Another man said, “I lost sight of mine as well. Maybe they left together. They did appear quite cozy when they arrived.” He chuckled. “It makes no matter. A few more nights won’t hurt us, my dear. Patience is, after all, a virtue.”
The voices faded as the group passed.
“Shit,” Calhoun said under his breath. “Too late. You’re coming with.”
“Wait. What?” Cinnamon didn’t have a chance to say more than that before Calhoun pulled her out of the room and down the hallway. She had to run to keep up with him.
What the hell was going on? Cinnamon got the feeling she wouldn’t like whatever Calhoun was chasing with such determination.
* * *
The sweet, spicy scent of Cinnamon’s perfume tickled Calhoun’s senses as he pulled her along behind him. It had alerted him to her presence when she snuck in after him.
When he met Cinnamon, he had smelled her perfume first. He guessed she wore cinnamon scent on purpose. At least it wasn’t cloying. It made him crave candy.
Once finished with the business that had him sneaking around the back rooms of the hotel, he would think of convincing Cinnamon to let him suck on her. He bet her scent wasn’t the only thing she had in common with her namesake.
Calhoun would have liked nothing better than to leave Cinnamon out of this, but he couldn’t chance letting her run into someone who might harm her. Better to keep her with him.
They stayed close to the wall as they trailed after the group that had passed earlier. Calhoun was happy Cinnamon had worn soft-soled shoes that didn’t make noise. If he could quiet the soft clanking of the gold metal beads adorning the ends of her braided hair, he would. The sound didn’t carry, so he decided not to worry about it.
When the group they followed entered a door that slammed shut behind them, Calhoun knew they couldn’t follow. He looked around for an alternative.
Cinnamon tugged at his hand and whispered, “Let’s leave.”
He caught sight of another door a little ways down the hallway. This one was open and led into a darkened room full of electrical panels and rigging. A stage? Calhoun looked around for the telltale curtain. He only saw light shining through a window.
Pulling Cinnamon behind him, he went to the window and peeked around the edge. He was right. It was a stage — more accurately a theater. They were in a projector room. Below them, the men had dumped their duffel bag burdens amidst the four shrouded people.
Calhoun couldn’t tell anything about the people except for their relative height when compared to one another. He needed to get closer. If he didn’t have Cinnamon with him, he could.
She tightened her grip on his hand. “Can we please go now? Or at least let go of my hand so I can leave.”
“Hold on.” The people in the theater were up to something. Calhoun needed to see what. This might be the reason he had come here. If so, he could solve his mystery and head home.
Cinnamon crowded close to him so she could see out of the window. “What are you looking at?”
If he could have explained it to her, he would have. He didn’t answer, opting to watch what happened next and let her do the same.
One of the shrouded individuals produced an egg-shaped, rock-looking thing the size of a volleyball that he — or she — held out at arm’s length. The men who had carried the duffel bags dumped their contents on the ground. Two young men fell and hit the ground with pained cries. One started cursing as he jumped to his feet. He didn’t get far before the men who had carried him in grabbed him and wrestled him to the ground.
Cinnamon whispered, “I’ve seen him before. The one still on the ground. He’s one of the guests.”
“Unlike you, I actually went to the orientation luncheon.”
“I had better things to do that day. Do you know him?”
She shook her head. “No. He was at my table, but we didn’t talk. He and Ken Wessen spent the whole time gabbing at each other.”
“I’m surprised you weren’t absorbed with your own conversation, or did Dannah not give you the time of day?”
“She didn’t sit at my table.” She gasped then slapped her hand over her mouth, muffling herself. Around her fingers, she said quickly, “That reminds me. One of the voices from earlier belonged to Dannah.”
“I would know her voice anywhere. It was definitely her.”
He nodded and then turned his attention back to the stage. Dannah being there still didn’t explain this situation. Or help him explain the mystery that brought him all the way out to Hawaii.
Low chanting started. The duffel bag handlers held both mystery men between them while the shrouded man held the rock high. Two of the other shrouded individuals stepped forward and laid their hands on the men’s heads. The duffel bag handlers stepped away while the mystery men they had held just sat there.
Calhoun didn’t understand why they didn’t make a run for it.
The chanting got louder. Cinnamon gripped Calhoun’s hand harder when the rock started glowing.
A blinding flash made Calhoun and Cinnamon look away quickly. When the light receded and they turned back, the duffel bag handlers had switched to holding the shrouded men while the mystery men stood and stretched. It looked like the group spoke to one another, but their voices didn’t carry.
What had just happened?
The shrouded men started struggling and screaming in hoarse, male voices. The duffel bag carriers held them. One of the mystery men pointed to some locale off stage as he spoke. The duffel bag handlers carted the shrouded men away.
None of it made sense. If this was a clue, it was an obscure one that needed deciphering.
He whispered, “Let’s get out –”
Hold up. What was wrong with his voice?
He looked down and stared since he didn’t quite comprehend what he saw.
This wasn’t his body.
He looked at Cinnamon. Or, he should have been looking at Cinnamon. Instead, his own green eyes stared back at him — scared green eyes that looked close to tears. He didn’t know he could make an expression like that.
Cinnamon opened his mouth to speak, but he slapped her hand over it. “Quiet. Let’s get back to your room. We’ll figure this out there.”