Lulu had a seven-day, six-night all-expenses-paid working vacation to Onsen, one of the most luxurious and expensive spa resorts in the whole of the United States. Onsen was also the top competitor of Voda, the spa resort an hour down the road where Lulu worked.
Vacations weren’t made for people like her. Her idea of a fun vacation was staying at home with no one bothering her. She’d spent the first three days at Onsen running around doing everything so she could assess it all. The only thing she’d felt like doing twice was the massage. But she couldn’t get massages every day. Well, she could, but without stress to tighten up her muscles the effects wouldn’t be the same.
Today she decided to soak in the hot springs. That was what the hotel was most famous for, after all. The walk took Lulu past a group of laughing women. One wore a tiara and a sash with Bride-to-be in big gold lettering. A bachelorette party. Nice. Lulu had seen something similar at Voda many times.
No differences. It must be luck of the draw. At least Voda was second to Onsen. Her boss didn’t see that as a good thing, but Lulu did. A few of the other spa resorts were struggling worse than Voda was. Customers would never know it to look at the places, but the overworked employees who hadn’t had raises in two years knew better.
“Are you lost, miss?”
Lulu snapped out of her thoughts and looked at the smiling woman before her and then at her surroundings. “Oops. I must have walked past the entrance to the hot spring.”
“Yes, some of these corridors do look alike.” The woman gestured back the way Lulu had come. “The entrance is at the end of this hall and to the left.”
“Thank you. Sorry.” Lulu smiled apologetically and then retraced her steps. She wasn’t the type to get lost or even turned around. She hadn’t realized she’d gone off course. She glanced over her shoulder before she turned the corner and found the woman still standing in the hall, watching her.
That was weird and a little creepy, but Lulu shrugged it off. Maybe she had wandered into an employees-only area. But she hadn’t seen any signs. A hotel map on the wall caught her attention. She put her finger on the You Are Here dot and then traced the path she’d taken.
The hallway wasn’t marked, as in wasn’t there at all. According to the map, there was no other hallway except the one that led to the hot springs and beyond that was the outside of the hotel. Why would the hotel leave off the hallway, even on a visitor map? That was a safety hazard. Someone could get lost. She could understand the hotel not wanting visitors in certain areas, but they usually marked those spots as employees only so guests knew to stay away from them.
Lulu walked to the end of the hall and inched around the corner to see if the woman who had directed her was still there. She wasn’t. Lulu still didn’t see anything that marked this hall as employees only or any reason for it not to be on the map.
“That is a beautiful painting, isn’t it?”
The man’s voice so close to her shoulder made Lulu gasp. She looked at the smiling, robe-clad guest who had spoken.
He said, “It’s by a famous Japanese artist from the eighteen hundreds. I heard the hotel almost had to fight the Japanese government to get it out of the country. It’s a national treasure, after all.”
“Oh. I didn’t know that.”
“I’m a college professor of Japanese history and culture. This hotel is a treasure trove of both. I wish I could bring my students here as part of my curriculum but there’s no way they could afford it.”
“I bet.” Lulu chuckled a little because it was expected, but she had no idea what the man was talking about. What painting? She was looking down a long hallway that led to an unknown location. There were no paintings in sight. “Perhaps you could ask the hotel to sponsor a day trip to the spa for you and your students as a cultural exchange. It’s a tax write-off for them and makes them look like they are giving back to the community.”
Now why the hell was she helping out the competition? Lulu was too good at her job. She couldn’t shut it off, not even when she wasn’t at the place where she worked.
“That’s a good idea. I hadn’t thought of that. Thank you. I’ll have to speak to the manager. I’m Richard Grant, by the way.” He held out his hand.
Lulu shook his hand with a congenial smile and noticed the way his gaze darted down to her left hand. Of course. He was flirting. She’d almost missed it. “Lulu Swade. I’m a human resources admin.” She offered a generic title for her profession since he’d already told her his. Hopefully he wouldn’t ask her to elaborate.
“That sounds tough. I’m sure you’ve been looking forward to this vacation for a while.”
“Oh, you have no idea.” She really hated small talk. “I was just on my way to relax in the hot springs before dinner.”
“Me too.” He stepped back while watching her expectantly.
Lulu obliged him and they walked back to the hallway that led to the hot springs. She half listened to Richard’s chatter about hot springs and the cultural significance to Japan, but her thoughts stayed on the invisible hallway. When the door that separated the women’s side from the men’s side appeared, Lulu almost sighed in relief.
Richard said, “It’s a shame they separate the two sides, but that is holding with the Japanese culture.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“Perhaps we can meet for dinner, and I can tell you more about that painting.”
“That sounds interesting.” Actually it did. Richard must have come alone if he was flirting with her. She hoped that was the case. She hadn’t signed on to this trip for dramatics. Plus talking to him would help with her assignment.
Lulu had glossed over the décor. She hadn’t expected the paintings and sculptures to be real Japanese objet d’art. If they were, that might be the difference. Maybe Voda could embrace the Russian motif a bit more. People liked the myth of Princess Anastasia. Even if Voda couldn’t get originals, close facsimiles — advertised as such — would do just as well.
Richard said, “How about we meet in the lobby at seven?”
“It’s a date.”
“I’ll see you then, Lulu.” He pushed open the door of the women’s side and held it while Lulu passed him.
A gentleman. Point in Richard’s favor, though no amount of points would do him any good. Lulu had no plans of getting tangled up with any man while on this trip, least of all him. He was a means to a researching end.
Besides, her interests lay with that mysterious hallway and why Richard hadn’t seen it while standing right in front of it. It wasn’t a hallucination, since she had walked down it. Once she returned to her room, she would do a search on the building plans for this hotel.
Thinking up possibilities for why the hotel had a hidden hallway kept Lulu from enjoying the dip in the hot spring. She decided to cut her visit short so she could do research instead. Yup, vacations were definitely lost on her.
She rushed back to her room without looking like she was rushing and sat at her computer. Before she started typing, she set her phone alarm for six. That would give her enough time to shower and get dressed. She didn’t want to get immersed in her work and forget her dinner date.
Except her precaution wasn’t needed. There was nothing to immerse her. An hour of searching turned up no information, useful or otherwise. Lulu had access to many sites and resources that should have given her details about when the hotel was built and how. There wasn’t even a public record of the building permit. That wasn’t too surprising. Onsen had been around since the town was founded. The city probably hadn’t gotten around to scanning in the physical copy.
But the original hotel had changed drastically from the wooden structure of two hundred years ago. Wait… Lulu changed her search to historical photos and drawings of the town. They wouldn’t be two hundred years old, but that didn’t matter since the hotel wouldn’t have changed that much in the early years. The grand hotel she now stood in hadn’t come to be until the seventies. And even that version had been updated.
Historical photos proved easier to find, though Onsen remained elusive in all of them. A few periodicals of the day made mention of the hotel, but only as a passing thing since the owners were Japanese and that was a rare sight in those days. The same family had owned the hotel since it was built. They’d even made a few minor headlines as one of the only Japanese families to avoid the internment camps during World War II.
That wasn’t their only lucky break. They weathered the Great Depression as though it wasn’t happening just like the most recent recession. Nothing bad seemed to touch this hotel or the owners. Everyone in the family had died of old age — extremely old age. Most of them lived past one hundred. The oldest living member of the family was already one hundred and seven.
Weirder and weirder. If Lulu believed in deals with the Devil, she would swear this family had made one. But devils and the like didn’t exist. But neither did coincidence. This family had an ace up their sleeve that had kept them and their hotel on top since the beginning. Women’s intuition or a gut feeling made Lulu believe the answer to their luck and success could be found in that mysterious hallway that didn’t exist.
The chime of her phone alarm pulled her out of her thoughts. She had to get ready for dinner. But this wasn’t over. The path to the true reason she had come to this hotel had revealed itself. She planned to take it… after dinner.
* * *
If she had to fake one more laugh, she was going to scream. Richard was a man who liked to hear his own voice and tell a lot of unfunny jokes. Or maybe she found no humor in his jokes because that mysterious hallway had her distracted. The only reason she hadn’t excused herself was because she couldn’t go sneaking around while the hotel was bustling with guests and staff. Her search would end right as it started if someone caught her in that hallway again.
Once was a mistake. Twice was intention. That would make the staff suspicious of her, which might mean cutting her trip short. She had to be careful and patient… and laugh at Richard’s jokes since she couldn’t find a valid excuse to get away from the man. Thanks to him, she’d learned a good amount of information about the history of the hotel and the décor. That alone made her suffering worthwhile.
The more Lulu learned, the more impressed she was that Voda had been able to compete as well as it had. Voda was fifty years old and had no hope of pulling even with Onsen now or any time in the future. Lulu just had to find a way to impart that news to her boss.
She prayed her boss would accept her report and decide to work harder at improving Voda’s reputation — not that the five-star resort needed improving — rather than taking more drastic measures, like sending in a spy to act as an employee. He’d said it jokingly, but Lulu had heard a hint of truth in his statement. Besides, people only did cliché stuff like that in movies… she hoped.
Once she got away from Richard, she would find out if her boss was serious. If she were at home, she could check her phone and make up some excuse about turning in early because of work the next morning. Being on vacation — working or not — didn’t afford her the luxury of using that excuse.
Fate must have been looking out for her, because Richard’s phone rang. He excused himself before answering it. Lulu turned her attention to her dessert while pretending not to listen. She hoped the call was about something that would make him end the evening.
Richard broke into a huge grin. “Now? No. No. That isn’t a problem at all. I would be happy to meet with you. Thank you very much. Yes. Yes. Thank you.” He ended the call and faced Lulu. “Your suggestion paid off. The hotel CEO is on the premises and wants to meet with me to discuss the idea now. I hope you don’t mind me cutting the evening short?”
“Of course not. Go. This is a great opportunity.” Lulu flashed her most winning smile and found she didn’t have to force it. She offered up a prayer of thanks to the CEO for recognizing a good thing and acting on it. “Good luck.”
“I’ll tell you about it later.” Richard waved as he rushed away.
Lulu waved back and then turned the wave to the nearby waiter. He took her dessert to be boxed while Lulu smiled at the possibility of never speaking to Richard again. He didn’t know her room number, and Onsen was a huge hotel. Besides, his trip ended tomorrow while she had three more days.
The waiter returned with her dessert, and Lulu took it back to her room. After a quick nap, she planned to head to the mysterious hallway and see if she could get down it without being spotted. The easiest time to do that was when the hotel was at a skeleton crew.
She sent off a quick email to her boss about her plans for the evening before setting her phone alarm and going to sleep. Thinking about what she might find kept her awake, but sleep did come. She didn’t feel as though she had slept that long when her alarm sounded. But a little sleep was better than none. She didn’t want fatigue messing up her plans.
To help her plan along, she stripped and put on a robe. Anyone who saw her would think she was going to the hot springs for a late-night dip to avoid the crowds. The hot springs only closed for two hours each day for cleaning, and that was during dinner. Her plan was perfect so long as she didn’t get caught. But every plan could be considered perfect given those parameters.
She grabbed one of the books she had brought with her to add to her cover. She always said she would read more and hadn’t managed to do it yet. That didn’t stop her from buying more books or packing five of them for this trip.
The hotel was empty and quiet when she walked through the lobby headed for the hot springs. The two clerks at the reception desk smiled at her when she passed and then returned to their work. Nothing suspicious about her. Not at all.
Lulu stopped before the hallway that wasn’t there and pretended to look at a painting she couldn’t see. The hallway had three doorways — two on the side and one at the end. It was the one at the end that interested her most. The two on the side were probably for the employees to get to different parts of the hotel. Going through one of those was a sure way to get caught.
She took a breath and started forward. Last time the woman who had caught Lulu had snuck up without warning, but Lulu had also been distracted. This time she listened for every sound that could be someone headed in her direction.
Her small trek to the last doorway ended without incident. A sophisticated keypad lock greeted her when she reached the door. That had to mean whatever was behind the door was important.
She glanced over her shoulder and then back at the keypad. Now what? She touched the enter button on the keypad, hoping for the best. It beeped and there was a loud click. No way she was that lucky. She pushed the handle down, testing to see if the door had really unlocked. It moved. Could the code be that simple? It made sense. No one would think to push the enter button and nothing else.
With her breath held, she eased the door open and peeked around the corner. No one was there. She entered the room and then closed the door as softly as she could. As an added precaution, she turned the lock. She hoped no one would think the door being locked was suspicious.
Now to investigate this room at the end of the mysterious hallway that didn’t exist. Not that there were anything worth investigating, unless she counted the empty shelf against the far wall and the small wooden truck on the other side of the room. She doubted the trunk held anything more than some towels. Lulu would have sucked her teeth in disgust if she wasn’t trying to be quiet. The room also held another hot spring pool. What was the big deal about that?
The only differences between this one and the one in the women’s guest bath were that it wasn’t surrounded by fake rock formations to make it look like it was carved out of a mountain, it was smaller — big enough for three or four people instead of fifty — and it was surrounded by a thick straw rope suspended between barrier poles. Strips of white zigzag cloth — it could also be paper, she wasn’t sure — hung from the rope at even intervals. Was that the Japanese version of a “Do Not Enter” sign or something?
Maybe the pool was being cleaned. Or maybe this was the employees only pool. That would explain why it looked more like a small swimming pool than a hot spring. That also made sense. But why all the secrecy? And that still didn’t explain the hallway only she could see… well, she and the woman who had caught her.
Lulu looked around for anything else that would explain away the weird phenomena. The room only held the pool. She walked over to the rope and peered over it into the pool. Nothing special about it. Clear blue water. That was it.
The light scent of musk and incense wafted under her nose. The staff had scented this pool. They should do the same with the others. The aroma was nice. Though they probably didn’t because of those guests with perfume allergies.
The sound of something hitting the floor made her whirl and face the door, prepared to make up an excuse for her presence in the room. No one was there. The sound had come from outside. Was the person headed for the room? She needed to hide in case they were. But where? The only place was the pool and it was clear water. Not a very good hiding place… unless the person outside only glanced around quickly and then left. The depths of the pool couldn’t be seen from the doorway.
Lulu decided to chance it. She trotted around the edge to the side farthest away from the door and stripped out of her robe. After wrapping her book in the robe, she shoved them inside the trunk. There was muted beeping as someone typed on the keypad.
Those few seconds were all she needed. She moved her foot past the barrier. An electric shock coursed up her leg, making her slap her hand over her mouth to keep from crying out. She’d received worse shocks from touching the doorknob after rubbing her feet on the carpet, but it still hurt and she hadn’t expected it. There was nothing metal in or around the pool so she didn’t know what had caused the electrical discharge.
Lulu ignored it and dipped one foot into the water with the intention of easing in so she didn’t cause ripples. Sliding under the rope barrier and trying hard not to disturb it, she slipped into the water. She sucked in a deep breath and ducked under the water just as the door opened. The person must not have seen her because she didn’t hear anything that sounded like a commotion. Not that she could hear much in the water. She couldn’t see anything outside the pool. But that meant they couldn’t see her either.
All the same, she stayed near the edge of the pool closest to the door. If the person who had entered decided to check the pool, they would have to look straight down to see her.
She felt every beat of her heart as she waited for some telltale sign the person had left and it was safe for her to surface. None was forthcoming. The decision would be made for her soon because she needed to breathe. Being caught trumped drowning.
After another few seconds, she opted for air. She reached one hand above the surface and waved. No one grabbed her, so she surfaced and looked around. The room was empty and the door was closed — both good signs.
That was enough investigating for her. It was one thing to play guest and gather information that way. It was something different to sneak around and chance being charged with trespassing.
Lulu retrieved her robe and put it on before leaving the pool room. Whatever the purpose of the room, it didn’t have anything to do with the hotel’s success. She still had no answer for why the hallway was invisible to everyone but her, but that would have to remain one of life’s mysteries.
She decided to make her lie the truth and visited the hot springs for a quick dip to help her relax after her near miss. In the morning, she planned to be a typical guest and forget all about invisible hallways and mysterious pools of scented water.
A scent that must be stuck in her nose because she could still smell it. If it was possible, it smelled stronger now than when she had been in the secret pool room. That made no sense. There was nothing in the hot springs that could be causing the smell.
She looked around to be sure. The room was empty except for her.
Then why did it feel like a hand was caressing her stomach? Lulu stared at the empty water in disbelief. There was no mistaking the feel of a hand — a male hand — sliding up her belly to her breasts.
She didn’t believe in ghosts or phantoms or anything else like that. She also knew she wasn’t imagining the fingers that circled one of her nipples, making it stiffen. When a second hand cupped her thigh, she’d had enough.
Lulu scrambled out of the water and ran, half slipping, for the locker room and her robe. It was time for bed. A good night’s sleep would make all the secret hallways and invisible men go away. If it didn’t, then she would be asking her boss for a real vacation away from any and all hotels.