Avaloner Online Novel

The idea: Several Avalon Authors have come together to write a novel for fun. Every author contributes one chapter, writing it only after having received the previous one. We did not create any pre-arranged plot, and there are no rules besides the one that we'll stick to the Avaloner guidelines of writing family friendly material.

We hope you'll have as much fun reading our novel as we had while creating it!

* * *


Chapter One
by Beate Boeker

“It’s not a big deal.” My aunt laid her well-manicured hand on my arm and gave me a smile that shamed the restaurant lights above us.

“Not a big deal?” I cleared my throat with an effort and removed her hand. “Are you kidding? You’re asking me to go on a blind date in your stead and . . .

“It’s not really a blind date.” She lowered her voice and threw a worried look at the waiter who hovered in the vicinity.

Waiters always hover at the closest possible distance whenever my aunt is around. If they’re male, that is. Not that I blame them. Mel has cinnamon-colored hair, chocolate eyes, and skin the color and texture of strawberry cream. Appetizing, in a word.

She’s fifteen years older than I am, but for some reason, I always eclipse when she’s around - or so it feels. I’m more the “girl next door” type of girl, not the type that makes people want to kneel down and kiss the ground you walked on. Mel is that kind of woman, and even I, who should know better as I grew up with her, am not immune to her magic.

“Yes, it is a blind date.” I glared at her. “Talking to an unknown guy on the phone once and making a date at some God-forsaken-Starbucks in Seattle, of all places . . . I call that a blind date. Or semi-blind, at least.”

“I Googled him.” She said it with all the assurance as if she’d said “I met him in Kindergarten.”

“Big deal.” I drummed my fingers on the table. “And what did you find?”

“Nothing.” She gave me a sweet smile that showed her pearly teeth.

“Nothing!” A shiver crawled down my back. “If you don’t find anything at all about a guy on the Internet, he’s either a Yeti or a criminal who’s using a fake name.”

“Nonsense.” Mel shook her hair. “Besides, you know that we need to check out some package deals in Seattle, so this is the perfect opportunity.”

I sighed. “When I agreed to work with you at the travel agency, I imagined selling wonderful trips to wonderful people.”

She lifted her eyebrows. “That’s what you do.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t say I want to travel. I love Phoenix; I love it hot and warm; so I’m all for staying right where we are. However, for some inexplicable reason we only seem to specialize on rainy and cold places.”

“That’s because people like to travel to places that are very different from what they know.” She looked faintly pleased.

With a jolt, I realized that she looked happy because she had managed to get me off on a tangent, so I hastened to return to the topic on hand. “Never mind if you call it a blind date or not, but it’s definitely unacceptable that you’re asking me to take your place. There’s not even a word for it, so that just shows you!”

“Sonya.” Her chocolate eyes opened wide. “I have a special reason to ask you.”

Oh, no.“I don’t need a new man in my life. It’s been only three days that I broke off with Danny, and . . .”

“Of course not.” Mel shook her head with a slight frown.

“Then what is it?” I made sure my voice sounded gruff, but of course that didn’t stop her.

She took a deep breath. “I have a voodoo feeling about it. We have to be there.”

I swallowed with a dry throat. “A voodoo feeling?” I can’t recall when Mel first mentioned her voodoo feelings. It must have been when she was still a child and didn’t know the word for premonition, but that didn’t stop her from seeing things. By the time I was old enough to understand the concept, the family was taking them very seriously indeed.

Once, she had predicted that we should sell our house, and it turned out they were building a highway right next to it a mere six months later. Then, she told my mother to apply for a job as an art director, something she would never have dared without Mel’s encouragement. It proved to be her dream job. The same voodoo feeling made Mel turn up at our house ten minutes before the police came to tell me both my parents had been killed in a car crash. That was ten years ago, and I still felt icy whenever I remembered that evening.

Mel touched my arm. “You have to be there.”

“But I won’t be of any help!” I felt panic rising within me. It’s one thing to go on a blind date to replace a super-aunt, but that’s only a slight irregularity compared to the danger when Mel’s voodoo feelings enter the game.

“I can’t go myself.” She opened her handbag and pulled out a letter. “I got this today by special courier.”

I took the creamy paper with the embossed logo, skimmed over the lines, and felt my chin go slack. “You’re invited to speak at the Travel Agent’s Union in Santa Barbara?”

Mel gave me a happy smile. “Yes. The main speaker fell ill, and they pulled out my application instead. I have to go tomorrow.”

“Wow.” For an instant, I was diverted. The Travel Agents’ Union is the biggest congregation in our industry, and to speak at their annual event was not only an honor, but a major step forward due to the extensive media coverage. “Congratulations.”

“Thank you.” Mel fixed a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “I knew you would understand. So when they called an hour ago to follow up, I accepted.”

I held up a hand. “Wait. I haven’t . . .”

“He’ll recognize you by our brochure,” Mel said. “And by the way, his name is Stan.”

* * *

“Stan.” I rolled the word around my tongue as a test to see how it sounded. It sounded odd - matching my feelings. I sighed and looked out of the Starbuck’s window at the pouring rain. Dusk was settling between the Seattle skyscrapers. I narrowed my eyes. With the rain streaming down outside, and the window steaming up inside, my pale face was reflected like a blurred ghost. A crying ghost, to be exact. Super. I averted my gaze to stop discouraging myself and concentrated on the white foam on my latte chioccolata.

It was quiet at this particular Starbucks. Behind the counter, a bony woman was wiping down the counter with slow movements as if it was some sort of meditation. Maybe this Stan would kidnap me and ask for a million dollars as ransom. I shook myself. Stop those stupid thoughts, girl. Nobody would pay a million dollars for you - you don’t even know a millionaire!

My gaze fell onto the brochure in front of me. TIPS FOR TRIPS. Our logo in sky blue and sunny yellow brought a ray of sunshine into this grey world. At least Stan would see it immediately. I had tried hard to get more information out of Mel, but she had been in a frenzy, organizing her trip and her presentation, so I didn’t get any further particulars from her.

Darn. I spooned a bit of milk foam into my mouth. It felt velvety and sweet - quite a contrast to my mood. If only Mel hadn’t brought her voodoo feelings into the game, then I could have told her to get lost. As it was . . . I was stuck. Mel didn’t play around when it came to voodoo feelings. At least, she had never done so before.

The door opened with a woosh, and a man rushed into the café and shook himself like a dog. Raindrops flew in all directions. “Hi, Annie.” He waved at the woman behind the counter.

She smiled. “Hi, Stan. I’ll fix the usual for you.”

My heartbeat exploded. Stan. It's him.

He looked around. His gaze rested for a moment on me, then it fell to the brightly colored brochure on the table. He smiled and advanced toward me, and all at once, it felt as if a ball of energy was making its way toward my universe.

I didn’t notice anything else, just this strange feeling of compact power being focused on me. I got up and stretched out my hand. “Hi.” It took all my concentration to get out this much.

“I’m so glad you came.” He shook my hand, just a brief touch, warm and strong, then made a move with his hand, showing me to sit down again.

Annie sidled in from the side and placed a tall glass with caffè latte in front of him.

“Thank you.” He smiled at her and sat down with ease, then focused on me again.

I returned his gaze, spellbound. The smell of cinnamon wafted toward me. Did it come from him or from his drink? With a superhuman effort, I decided to put my cards on the table, right now, before it became too difficult. “My name is Sonya.”

His eyes lost their focus. He looked at the distance, unseeing, as if grappling with some grave internal problem.

I opened my mouth to say something soothing, anything, but my throat felt as if someone had twisted it shut.

At this instant, without a word or sound, Stan toppled forward, nose first into his caffè latte.

* * *

Chapter Two
by Rebecca L. Boschee

My pulse slammed in my throat as I leaned my body weight into Stan’s considerably solid chest and counted compressions. On the thirtieth compression, I zeroed in on Stan’s mouth, grateful his lips weren’t yet turning blue. For a split moment, the fullness of his bottom lip mesmerized me, the gentle curve at the corners giving him the impression of perpetual good-humor despite his unaware state and the latte foam dripping from the tip of his nose. I chided myself for noticing and pressed my mouth to his to initiate rescue breathing. The pleasant cinnamon scent was definitely coming from him, mixed with something woodsy. In the corner of my vision, the barista—Annie, Stan had called her—paced a tight circle, her slender fingers alternating between twisting in her green apron and tugging at the roots of her pixie haircut.

“What happened to him? Is he breathing? Is he dead? What are you doing to him?” She looked on the verge of a breakdown.

I switched back to chest compressions and gave her my best glare, annoyed when my voice came out breathless and shaky, ruining the effect. “I am trying to save his life. You could help by calling 9-1-1.”

Something in her glassy eyes clicked. She pulled a cell phone from her back pocket and made the emergency call. The operator’s voice carried over the floor, methodically asking questions Annie seemed incapable of answering other than to repeat that Stan had sat at the table with a strange woman and collapsed a few minutes later. Finally, either she or the operator gave up and Annie handed me the phone then slumped into a worn sofa in the corner, looking relieved to have the authorities on their way.

The operator peppered me with questions. How long had I been administering CPR? I glanced at the clock I’d studied earlier when I’d been ready to bolt if Stan had showed up even a minute late. Less than four minutes had elapsed. How was that possible when it felt like four hours? The operator continued her interrogation. No, I didn’t know if he’d taken a sip of his drink, but I hadn’t tasted coffee on his lips. No, I didn’t know if he had a heart condition. Yes, he looked to be in excellent physique to me. No, I didn’t know about allergies or medications. Yes, his color looked ok, but he didn’t seem to be conscious. Had I asked him? Well, no…

I handed the phone back to Annie and leaned in close for another repetition of breathing, then tilted my mouth toward Stan’s ear and yelled. “Can you hear me? Are you okay?”

Stan’s arms and legs jerked once and his eyes flew open, pupils dilated to large black disks ringed by a narrow band of the most beautiful green I’d ever seen. How did I not notice the color of his eyes before? He blinked in confusion for a moment, then recognition dawned. “Sonya.” Those lovely lips tipped up at the edges for a fraction before panic crowded his eyes and his face drained of color. He clutched at me, curling his fingers into the wool pea coat I still wore unbuttoned over my favorite yellow silk blouse. He grappled at my sides, pulling me closer. “Go. You have to go.” His arms fell away with a little shove.

“But, I can’t just leave you—” I shot an anxious glance at Annie for reassurance. I needn’t have bothered. Apparently having recovered her senses, she had her cell phone camera pointed at Stan and was video recording the incident. I glowered at her. Somehow, I doubted he’d appreciate his Internet debut as his near-death experience broadcast on YouTube. The wail of sirens in the near-distance snapped me back to the moment. Stan must be in shock. Conducting a quick scan of the coffee shop and coming up short of anything that could be used as a blanket, I started to shrug free of my coat. A horrified moan from Stan froze me mid-motion. “What is it? Are you hurting?”

He shook his head, then winced at the movement and pinched his eyes shut. “Poisoned…”

Poisoned? Is he saying he thinks he was poisoned? I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and did a quick internal check. Aside from the adrenalin pumping through my veins leaving me a tad light-headed, I felt physically fine. But, I don’t think he’d had even a sip of his coffee, so maybe he meant he’d been poisoned before he got here? I leaned down to ask, but when he opened his eyes again, the raw terror reflected there implored me to listen. His voice was raspy as if it were painful to speak. “Please, Sonya. If you want to help, go now.”

A glimpse at Annie’s blank face told me I’d find no help there. The sirens were gone, but red strobe lights blotted through the dark front window, announcing the arrival of the ambulance. I climbed to my feet, knees aching from the prolonged time against hard tile, and made my way to the front door. The emergency response team squealed to a stop on the slick pavement. With a final glance back at Stan—I swear I saw him smile—I angled away from the shop and ran as fast as my Jell-O-y legs would carry me.

* * *

I willed my hand to stop trembling and traced the unlock pattern on my cell phone for the third time. Finally, the home screen sprang to life, and I punched the button for Mel’s speed dial. One ring, two…please pick up, Mel. I tucked a strand of dripping bangs back behind my ear and pulled my coat tighter over my blouse. The Seattle crowd, I’d come to notice, was not big on the unshiny end of the color spectrum. If the authorities were looking for me to question in Stan’s poisoning, I’d stick out like a canary among ravens in my current outfit. It was a good thing Stan hadn’t let me cover him with my coat.

Mercifully, Mel picked up on the fifth ring. “Talk to me, darling.”

“Mel. I need to know why you insisted on meeting Stan. Why didn’t you just cancel when the conference came up? Why send me?” I tried to keep my tone even, but now that I was opening up, it squeaked in rapidly rising octaves.

“Sonya? Is that you? You hardly sound like yourself.”

“Well, excuse me, if I sound a little out of sorts. I just watched a man almost die.” Sarcasm was wasted on Mel, who was used to assuming—and getting—the best of everyone, but I couldn’t help myself.

“Oh, dear. I was afraid of that.”

I pulled my phone away from my ear and gaped at it for a beat. “Is that all you have to say? You don’t even sound surprised.” But of course, she wouldn’t. The voodoo thing would have tipped her off.

Mel’s syrupy voice oozed through the phone. “Calm down, Sonya. Where are you now?”

I looked around the Curiosity Shoppe I’d ducked into after running more than four blocks under dim streetlights and over slippery sidewalks. A motley assortment of animal antlers, bones and strange petrified fish hung from wires in the ceiling. A customer who looked like he might be going for a world’s record in facial piercing opened the door to exit and a giant puffer fish hanging in front of me caught the wind, its glossy eyes winking in the overhead light. I suppressed a shudder and forced my gaze down to shop-level. Wire rack displays sold everything from rubber rats and tarot cards to t-shirts and cheap touristy license plates embossed with common names. Mounted on the walls behind them, were shadow boxes of insects and butterflies alternating with low shelves holding terrariums of who-knows-what. On the far back wall, a tall glass case reaching from floor to mid-ceiling framed the mummified body of some primal man in a loincloth. Next to it, an arched doorway covered by a sheer curtain allowed a glimpse of a dark stairwell behind it. An eerie amber light from the overhead lamps cast a sallow glow over the whole place.

“Right now? Trapped in my worst nightmare.”

“Sonya.” Mel used a tone sterner than I’d ever heard from her. It did more to sober me than the morbid surroundings.

“Some sort of tourist shop that sells oddities.”

There was a long pause on the line. “I need you to listen to me, Sonya. They’re calling me to the podium and I don’t have much time—”

Something inside me snapped. I was tired of doing Mel’s bidding, and now it’d gotten me into trouble I had no business being involved with. “No, Mel, you listen to me for once. I need some answers. Who is Stan, how do you know him, and what did your stupid voodoo feeling see that sent me here?” I heard a sharp intake of breath on the other end of the line. Okay, maybe calling her premonitions stupid was crossing the line, but I figured I was entitled to a little hysteria after what I’d been through.

Mel sounded cautious when she spoke again. “I met Stan over the phone when I was booking our Seattle Valentine’s Day tour.”

I wracked my brain. We’d marketed the Valentine’s tour for couples. It paired a scenic champagne cruise on the Sound with a romantic dinner at a swanky Italian restaurant overlooking Elliott Bay. “Stan is a tour boat operator?”

“Stan inherited his stepfather’s restaurant when Angelo died late last year.”

Stan owned Angelo’s? The place was on every one of Seattle’s Best lists I’d ever seen, and I’d scoured through plenty of them trying to find pleasant outings for tourists in the soggy northwest. Given its waterfront location on Elliott Bay, it had to be worth a small fortune. Maybe even a big one.

“Anyway, we got to talking and discovered I went to school with his stepsister, Portia. He seemed nice and since we planned to be in the area, I asked him if he’d meet with me to finalize the package details.”

“Doesn’t he have people who do that?”

“He lost several long-time employees after Angelo died. I guess some of them weren’t enamored with the idea of Stan taking his place. It sounded to me like Stan was rolling up his sleeves to keep the restaurant running. I heard he even cooked for a few weeks when the head-chef walked out. He has a replacement now, of course.”

“And your plans to meet him—that was business, not a romantic blind-date?”

“I kept telling you it wasn’t, remember?”

I let out a deep breath. I guess she had tried to tell me something like that. I toyed with a shrunken head hanging from a rack of key chains and spared a moment to hope it was fake. “Wait, if he’s the heir to a successful business, why couldn’t you find anything about him online?”

“Maybe he likes to keep a low profile. Look, Sonya, I know you’re upset, but I really don’t have much time. Do you want to hear about my vision or not?”

A shiver ran down my spine like it always did when Mel started talking about her visions. Sure, some of them turned out well, but a lot of them didn’t. And when they went bad, they really went bad. I tugged my collar up to cover my ears, even though I was still inside, and stuffed my free hand into my coat pocket since I’d left my gloves with my brochure on the table at Starbucks. The brochure! I may as well have left my calling card. I groaned and fisted my hand in my pocket. Something sharp jabbed into my palm.

Mel continued, “It isn’t complicated, really. I simply saw you saving the man’s life. After that, I couldn’t cancel on him.”

I pulled my hand from my pocket and squinted at the paper I’d withdrawn with it, a ticket for a tour of the Seattle Underground at Pioneer Square. I knew it wasn’t far, though I’d never been on the tour. In 1889, some cabinet-maker had started a fire that burned down thirty-one blocks of early Seattle. They’d rebuilt some of it, placing new ground floors atop the old ones, but most of the merchants used only the street level floors these days, and a lot of the underground was still in ruins. Supposedly, there were sidewalks with dim lighting people could meander through to explore the place, and even a few seedy clubs set up shop there. In short, the whole place sounded nightmarish for someone who loved three-hundred-and-twenty days of desert sunshine year round. The ticket was dated for later this evening, in a half-hour, to be exact. Had Stan intentionally slipped it into my pocket before the ambulance came?

A bell chimed over the door and a jolt of dread sluiced through me. Annie walked in, a khaki-green coat zippered up past her chin. She bee-lined for the register where they were selling packets of herbs and bottles of organic oils. I ducked behind a rack of postcards and held a hand over the phone receiver to muffle Mel’s voice, which seemed to be getting more agitated by the second. Very un-Mel-like.

“I swear to you I never thought you’d be in any danger, Sonya. But then, I had a second vision this afternoon, and I tried to warn you but your cell must have been off.”

Of course it was off. I was on a date—more or less—and as much as I didn’t want to be on said date, it’d be rude to interrupt it with a phone call. What had Mel said about being in danger? I didn’t have time to ask, because Annie appeared again across from where I was crouched. She’d finished her purchase, looking far too chipper for someone who’d almost lost a long-standing customer, and had paused by the door to browse the city tour brochures displayed there. She plucked a brochure for a bar called The Poisoned Pear and turned to leave. Her eyes landed on me and narrowed. “You.”

Mel was practically yelling into the phone now. “Are you listening, Sonya? You have to be careful.”

I took a step back, bumping into the mounted head of a jackalope just as Annie advanced on me. “Quick, Mel. What was the vision?” I managed to ask.

“A man, I couldn’t make out his face-but definitely not someone you’d want to meet in a dark alley-is not happy.” I managed to ask.

I eyed Annie’s reddening face. Even the spikes of her hair looked hostile. “Lots of unhappy people in the world. How is that my problem?”

“He’s following you.”

* * *

Chapter Three
by Sandra Carey Cody

Mel was yelling in my ear to get out of there, but I couldn't move - not with Annie's eyes boring holes in my face. I was like a rabbit held captive in a snake's gaze.

The gaze shifted to a spot over my shoulder and the spell broke.

I turned to make my escape - and looked directly into another pair of eyes. What had Mel said? Something about a dark alley? Someone you wouldn't want to meet there? The guy who'd caught Annie's attention definitely fit that bill. I took a couple of side steps to put myself in a direct line with the door.

He sidestepped too. It was like we were dancing. I couldn't see what was happening behind me, but it sounded like Annie was closing in from the rear, turning the dance into a weird threesome.

Mel's voice escalated, "Get out of there!"

"I'm doing my best," I told her before I jammed the phone in my pocket. Instinct was screaming even louder than Mel, telling me I needed both hands free.

Instinct was right. As I rushed past, dance partner number one grabbed my arm. He almost ripped my coat off. I twisted, pulled the coat close, and managed to shake him off with enough force to send him sprawling on his backside. I didn't know exactly how close dance partner number two was and I didn't wait around to find out.

I made a beeline for the door. I heard Annie shout, "Wait!" Did I heed Annie's call? Are you kidding? I pushed the door open. Outside, under the store's awning, a sale table was lined up against the side of the building. I took a few precious seconds to pull the table, filled with rows of tiny multi-colored bottles, in front of the shop entrance. It sounded like an out-of-tune calliope as the bottles tipped against each other, but none of them fell off the table and, more important, exit from the Curiosity Shoppe was blocked, at least for the moment.

I darted an apologetic glance toward the woman huddled in a lawn chair under cover of the awning.

She hopped up and shook her fist like she wanted to beat me to a pulp.

Get in line, Lady.

I dodged around a young couple pushing a stroller and picked up the pace. The light at the end of the block went from orange to red. I ignored it. A chorus of squealing brakes and honking horns followed me into the next block. I cringed but kept going. If this went on much longer, I'd have everybody in Seattle mad at me. I couldn't worry about that now. I slogged on, splashing through the puddles on the sidewalk until I got a hitch in my side. I stopped, leaned against a building, and looked back for the first time since I'd left the shop. No sign of either Annie or the dark alley guy. That seemed a little strange. A good thing, but strange.

Standing still, I was more than ever aware of the rain, a slow, steady drizzle that sent cold rivulets under my collar and down my neck. The people of Seattle didn't seem to mind; they filled the sidewalks, laughing and chatting, happily immune to the weather. Personally, I'd never missed warm, sunny Phoenix quite so much. No time to think about that now. I needed a plan.

There was a Starbucks across the street. It seemed as good a place as any to regroup, so I waited for a break in traffic and sprinted across.

I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the window as I opened the door. Not a pretty sight. My hair was plastered to my head and my clothes looked like that they belonged to a shipwreck victim. That was the least of my worries. I checked the sidewalk again to see if my pursuers were catching up. Still no sign of either of them. Hmmm. I decided to call Mel and see if her voodoo had picked up on their location.

I reached for my phone. All I found was a clump of sodden lint. Ugh. I tried the other pocket. No phone there either. Had it fallen out somewhere along the route of my mad dash? Possibly. Those pea coat pockets weren't very deep. Should I retrace my steps to see if I could find it? That didn't seem like a good idea, but I thought of all the information the phone held. That's when it hit me: the dark alley guy hadn't tried very hard to hold on when he had me by the arm. Come to think of it, he hardly tried at all. Did he have my phone? Is that why he and Annie didn't seem to be following me? Why would they want my phone? Could they use it to track me? I couldn't see how. Mel? Were they looking for a way to track her? Questions buzzed in my head like bees in a jar. I took a deep breath. Don't panic. Relax. Another deep breath. What next? Think. Not easy when you're cold, wet, and miserable.

I located the restroom and dried myself off with paper towels as best I could. I pushed the hair back from my face, scrunched it into a semblance of style, added a touch of lip gloss, and squared my shoulders. Still not pretty, but better. Now, for the plan…

This was clearly an emergency. Everybody knows what that means. An emergency calls for chocolate so I got in line and, when my turn came, ordered a small plain coffee and two chocolate chunk cookies. I spotted an empty chair near the door. From there, I had a good view of the sidewalk and street. I scanned in both directions. Just a bunch of normal-looking pedestrians - if you call people who are out strolling in the rain normal. A lanky guy from half a block away waved. Hmm. Not only could I see, but I could be seen. There was a small table behind a tall plant that looked like it could be a maneater. Maybe it would protect me.

I moved with my coffee and my cookies. Much better. Now I was partially hidden from the street, but with a slight shift to the left, I could watch what was going on outside. I settled in, determined to come up with a plan. First of all, Mel needed an update. And I needed to know if she'd had any more visions. I didn't have a phone so I couldn't call her. Fortunately, I still had my purse. I retrieved the small notepad that I always carry and started a list. When in doubt, make a list. (That's one of the little pearls of wisdom my mother passed along before the car crash took her from me.)

1. Get a phone.

2. Call Mel.

3. -

My pen hovered over the page. What next? Call the police? I thought about that. What could I tell them? Would involving the police make the situation worse? How much worse could it get? Probably best not to think about that. Could it put Mel in danger? Was she already in danger? She hadn't said anything about danger to herself, only to me, but I hadn't given her much time. What about Stan? I remembered those amazing green eyes as I tried to arrange the day's events in some kind of a pattern. Everything seemed to start with Stan. He'd called Annie by name when he came into Starbucks and she knew him well enough that she knew what his "usual" was. They were obviously on a pretty friendly basis. Then there had been that little interlude with the mouth to mouth (such a nice mouth - the highlight of my day so far). I hunched over the table and bit into my cookie. The silky richness of dark chocolate flooded my mouth and worked its magic. My soul was soothed; thought was possible.

What had Stan said? Something about poison. So, here was one thing I actually knew: Stan had been poisoned - or at least thought he had.

Whoa! I sat up straight. Mel had been called to the conference to fill in for someone who had gotten sick. Had that really been a ruse to keep her from coming to Seattle? Had the person she was filling in for been poisoned? Was Mel next? Is that what Stan had been trying to tell me? Either way, it seemed reason enough to involve the police. I reached for my phone. Oops … no phone. My fingers found a scrap of paper. The ticket! I'd forgotten about that. I pulled it out and looked at it - soggy, but intact. I'd use the ticket, see if I could figure out why Stan had slipped it into my pocket. Then I'd call the police … maybe. But, first, back to Item 1 - get a phone. I asked the guy behind the cash register if he could recommend a place for me to get a disposable phone to use until I could get home and get a permanent one.

"Radio Shack. Two doors down. Toward the corner. Tell 'em Rudy sent you."

Okay, first hurdle cleared - well, almost cleared.

It didn't take long to get a phone, get it all set up, including listening to Rudy's pal explain in endless detail what the phone could and couldn't do. Somewhere in his ramblings, I remembered Annie using her phone to film Stan as he lay on the floor of the coffee shop. At the time I'd thought it was a morbid obsession with the unusual. Now I wondered if she had another reason. Like what? No idea. None of it made sense. The one concrete thing I had was the ticket. Obviously, a visit to the Underground was number three on my list. First, though, now that I had a phone, I'd call Mel.

No answer. I left a message, telling her to call back as soon as she could, and then, after checking to make sure the coast was clear, set out to use the ticket.

The rain had stopped by the time I reached Pioneer Square. I took that as a sign that the heavens were on my side and approached the Underground with a hopeful spirit. "After all," I told myself, "this is real life, not film noir." My optimism was short-lived. The world became noir-ish again when I saw Annie and the dark alley guy patrolling the area in front of the entrance. I kept my distance and watched them. It struck me that they didn't seem to be together. In fact, everything about their body language suggested that they were hostile to each other. Something to think about later. My concern right now was that there was no way into the Underground without going past them. Should I risk it? I was debating this when I felt a tap on my shoulder - and an ever-so-faint whiff of cinnamon. I turned.

There was Stan, looking remarkably well for someone who'd just had a near-death experience.

* * *

Chapter Four
by Mary Hagen

“Uh, hello,” I gasped. It started to rain again. Rivulets of water squiggled down my face as I stared at the hulk standing in front of me, his green Gortex jacket highlighting his very green eyes, his broad shoulders, and his dark hair sticking out from his hood. “How did you get here?” I mean “Why are you here? I thought you’d been poisoned.”

“I wanted to thank you. You saved my life.”

“Oh. Were you really poisoned?” I had enough questions to keep the conversation on track for an hour. This was just the beginning.

He shrugged his shoulders not giving me an answer. The rain came down in sheets. The night lights were on and the air turned even chillier. Oh for Phoenix. I shivered involuntarily and pulled my soaked collar higher on my neck. By now, I could wring water from my jacket, and my new black high heels squished every time I moved my feet. To say I was miserable would be the understatement of the year.

“I have the ticket you put in my pocket,” I said. “Want to join me on a tour?” Glancing over my shoulder, I noticed Annie no longer paced in front of the restaurant and the entrance to the old city, but the mean dark looking man still walked back and forth, his face hidden by the hood of his jacket. By now I had lost my motivation to visit underground caverns. The old buried city rang with sinister connotations.

Stan saw the man. I swear a dark cloud passed over his face. Don’t tell me that’s impossible with the dark sky and falling rain, but I saw it. He took my elbow and guided me away from the underground city without a word. We walked to the corner, turned east and he propelled me up a series of steps. When we reached the next level, he asked, “Care to have dinner with me?”

How could I say no? If I had a list of physical characteristics I wanted in a man, he’d have an A in every column. Beyond that, I didn’t know him well enough to give him a grade and I had that warning from Mel. Thinking of her raised my blood pressure. She was enjoying sunny LA and I was drowning in rainy Seattle in the middle of winter. I no sooner had the thought than round hard pellets of snow pummeled my face. I’d never forgive her.

Before saying yes, I wanted, no needed to find a shop to purchase a rain coat, maybe like the one Stan wore. We could be twins. Hah. I’m five four and he’s about six two. He has dark hair, and you guessed it, with the name Sonya, I’m a fair-haired, blue-eyed Norwegian descent. Right now, my hair was dripping rivulets down my neck and undoubtedly looked dark. To add to my misery, my clothes were damp under my coat and sticking to my skin. I’m from Phoenix and have little use for rain gear so I didn’t want to spend big bucks on waterproof clothing.

Stan kept glancing over his shoulder and had little to say while he pushed me along the sidewalk. I watched for a thrift shop but didn’t see one. We walked up a hill to another level. By the time we reached the street, I was panting. I’m not use to hills.

The snow pellets increased. If I didn’t find better clothing for the weather, I’d soon turn to an ice statue. My uneasiness increased as we walked. How did I know where he was taking me? Maybe he was a serial killer. Mel had warned me, but wouldn’t she have told me to beware of Stan? No. Her voodoos weren’t that detailed. Besides, I’d soon be dead. I couldn’t stop my teeth from chattering and I was shivering, first signs of hypothermia.

We reached a nice shopping center, expensive I bet, not the places I could afford, but I had to buy something to keep dry. Then I spotted a thrift shop sign.

“I need to step inside this store and get some dry clothing,” I said.

Stan stopped, glanced over his shoulder, and led me inside. The warmth of the store enveloped me like a blanket, but I continued to shiver. An elderly lady at a check-out counter, smiled.

“I need a rain coat. Do you have anything?” I asked.

She pointed to the back of the store. Stan settled his powerful body on a small folding chair facing the window. With her elbows on the counter, the lady rested her chin in the palms of her hands and stared at Stan. I hurried along the closely packed racks of everything from dresses to bras, pausing along the way to pick out a rust sweater, brown jeans, a bra and underwear I thought would fit, dry socks, and a pair of well-worn rubber-coated boots. The jackets were on the last isle. I pushed hangers aside as I searched for, you’ve guessed, a green coat but found only a red one that wasn’t color-coordinated with the rust sweater so I looked again and came up with a brown one that would fit. When I turned to find a fitting room, Stan came toward me.

“Just thought I’d ask out how long this is going to take. I’ll call a cab. The rain has changed to snow.” His voice was impatient and he fidgeted with the zipper on his coat. He frowned, his green eyes appearing black in the dim light of the store, and he kept glancing at the front door.

“As soon as I try everything on, I’ll be done.”

“Okay.” With his shoulders hunched and his chin buried in the collar of his jacket, he returned to the chair by the register.

About twenty minutes later I had changed my clothes and shoes and wore the jacket. A bit too big, it would have to do with Stan pacing in front of the window watching every car that passed.

I handed the woman the tags from the garments. She rang up the total, twenty-five dollars. Not bad, I thought as I handed her two ten dollar bills, a five, and extras for tax.

“Would you have a plastic bag for my clothes and shoes,” I asked.

“You could leave them. I can dry them out and sell them,” she said.

Now, I had purchased my dress, coat, and black leather heels at a specialty boutique in Phoenix that cost a good portion of one month’s salary even though they’d been marked down seventy-five percent. Wet as they were, I intended to save them. “I’ll take them with me.”

She handed me two recycled Smith’s grocery bags that quickly bulged with my items.

The perusal of Stan's glance and his lopsided grin turned me to melted butter. I wouldn’t mind being held in his arms.

A taxi stopped in front of the store returning me to the moment. Stan took my sacks, held open the door, and we stepped outside into blowing snow. Traffic had slowed to nothing. Seattleites no longer walked the sidewalks. He opened the door to the taxi and shoved me inside. As soon as we left the thrift shop, the lights went out.

“Take us to the Japanese Restaurant on Sixteenth Street.”

“Japanese?” I blurted. “I thought we’d go to your restaurant.”

“Another night.” He settled against the back of the seat and put his arm over my shoulders. Adrenaline pummeled my veins. He gave me a mischievous grin. My nerves turned to quivering mush.

My new cell phone interrupted the moment.

“Mel,” I said. I smiled at Stan. “My aunt.”

“I hope you’re watchful,” she said.

“I am. Stan’s taking me to a Japanese Restaurant. It’s snowing.”

“How exciting.”

Exciting. She had to be kidding.

“Remember what I said.” How could I forget?

I asked how her presentation went and she told me “fine.” Then she whispered, “Do take care. Call me when you get to the hotel. I’ll see you in Phoenix in three days.”

Darn her. She intended to leave me here in this awful weather by myself to make all the arrangements for our upcoming tour offer. How could she?

The taxi stopped. Stan paid him, looked up and down the road, and offered me a hand out of car. We exited onto icy sidewalks and snow and hurried inside the door of the restaurant. Was this to be my “last supper?” I still didn’t know what to expect of him. But what could he want?

The Japanese waitress led us to a table and handed us menus. “Not the best night to be out.” The petite, beautiful girl with coal black hair and eyes to match gave Stan a beguiling smile. “I’ll be back to take your orders.” With hips swinging in a provocative way, she left us.

“Mr. Shimoda is a friend of mine. We recommend one another’s establishment. Tomorrow I’d like you to compare my food preparation to his,” Stan said. He smiled showing white teeth.

My heart almost jumped through my sweater and my stomach quivered. I hauled in my breath to stifle the pounding of blood through my veins. I’d see this hunk again.

I ordered wrapped salmon over rice and green tea followed by a dessert I couldn’t pronounce. Stan wanted shrimp tempura. “He dips them in his own recipe and then deep fries them to perfect. You’ll have to try one of mine.” He poured small cups of tea and looked into my eyes befuddling my mind. I blinked my eyes and prepared to ask him about his near miss with the poison and why someone wanted to kill him, but my throat was too dry to speak. I put the cup of tea to my lips.

“You should try sushi,” he said, his voice smooth like soft music.

“No thank you.” I’d read about sushi, raw fish prepared overnight, sometimes poisoning diners. I wondered if sushi had made Stan sick. I formed a question in my mind. Before I could open my mouth, Stan frowned and his beautiful face turned darker.

He looked over his shoulder and back at me with alarm, pulled out his wallet, laid several bills on the table, stood and said, “I apologize but we have to leave.”

Surprise must have registered on my face as he came around the table to my chair. I didn’t have time to protest. He helped me into my old new jacket, suggested I pull the hood over my head which I did. Too big, it drooped over my forehead and nearly covered my eyes, so I pushed it back, grabbed my soggy bags of clothes, and my mismatched purse. Turning around to follow him out of the restaurant, I choked back a cry of concern. The frightening looking man I’d seen at the entrance to the underground, sat at a corner table reading a menu, but I felt his eyes watching us.

* * *

Chapter Five
by Elisabeth Rose

Stan didn’t try to hail a cab outside the restaurant he bundled me along the sidewalk and around the corner, icy pellets stinging my cheeks, feet slipping and sliding in my clumsy rubber boots which had unaccountably grown a size or two.

I was getting very, very sick of this. In fact I’d had enough. Along with the whole incomprehensible Stan situation I’d been chased, frightened to near babbling hysteria, grabbed at by a strange scary man, lost my phone, probably ruined my designer dress, coat and shoes, been drenched, frozen and deprived of a meal— unappetising though it may have been, it was food and I was hungry. A girl could not and would not endure this.

I stopped in the swirling wet, miserable slush that passed for weather in this city and announced, “I’m not doing this anymore. I’m going to my hotel to collect my suitcase and I’m leaving.”

I peered up and down the street looking for a cab. If he wasn’t hailing one I sure was.

Stan had forged ahead a few paces before he realised I’d dug in my new second hand rubber boots and wasn’t following like an obedient dog. He strode back and grasped my arm.

“Don’t be stupid.” His face loomed large in my vision, but now as well as the usual attractive and kissable his mouth indicated stern and angry which far outweighed any romantic feelings I might have been developing. Plus calling a girl stupid wasn’t an endearing trait.

“Stupid?!” I wrenched my arm free. “This has nothing to do with me, any of it. I’m leaving.”

“You can’t.” Now the anger morphed into smugness which only fuelled my own growing fury.

“Watch me.” A vacant cab appeared through the murk and I waved my arm wildly. It slowed, spraying slimy icy water onto my legs but I yanked the door open, tossed my bags of ruined clothes in and dived after them. Stan was almost too slow but he managed to get a foot in and his bum on the seat before the driver obeyed my strident command to get going. His large body lurched against me as the car slithered into the street, the door slammed. I fumed.

He wasn’t in a hurry to straighten himself, lolling against my resistance until he eventually got the message, sat up and brushed wet hair from his forehead. I was not succumbing to that spark between us, I was not!

“The snow will close the airport,” he said.

“That’s doubtful.” I had no idea. What would I know about snow? It didn’t look thick enough to me and already it was turning back into sleety rain rather than settling in those soft white romantic drifts our brochures featured in the ski package holidays.

Stan wisely refrained from saying more.

“Where to, ma’am?” The driver caught my eye in the rearview mirror. I almost told him the hotel name but then thought better of it. Stan probably already knew but I wasn’t going to hand him the information just in case. What landmark was close by but anonymously public? I didn’t know this city. More to the point how could I shake Stan? He’d been trouble since I laid eyes on him. Was he rescuing me or abducting me? Charm was the oldest trick in the book and he had buckets of it.

“Hotel Regent,” Stan said. The faint cinnamon aroma he carried about with him intensified in the warmth of the car’s interior, comforting as a farmhouse kitchen on baking day. I wrenched my thoughts back on track. Don’t be lulled by Stan’s apparent concern.

Another smell emanated from my damp second hand coat. I sniffed. Not quite as pleasant as cinnamon. The last owner had been a smoker.

I sighed and stared out the window. Okay. I couldn’t shake him but I didn’t have to talk to him. He wouldn’t tell me anything anyway. Ten minutes later the familiar façade appeared through what was now driving rain. I flung the door open leaving Stan to fend for himself with the driver and the fare.

The staff were probably used to drenched guests squelching across the foyer with sodden shopping bags because no-one accosted me as a bag lady. I headed for the elevators without a backward glance. Was Stan on my heels? Didn’t know, didn’t care. Fortunately a bell pinged and one of the elevators released a group of people. I darted in and slammed my finger on all the floors from three up to ten then the close door button. My room was on seven. My little ruse might give me a few extra moments to escape Stan.

Each time the elevator stopped I pressed close doors. For good measure, before I got out, I punched in a few more floors. He could ask at the desk but they should ring my room to check with me first. If they didn’t I’d black mark them in my Travel Agent lists. To make doubly sure I rang the reception desk and asked them not to give anyone my room number. No-one, I emphasised.

“Very well, ma’am.” He didn’t sound at all interested in why I might be so adamant. For all he knew I might be on the run from the law. A tick for respecting guests’ privacy.

I hadn’t unpacked more than my bathroom bag when I checked in earlier. Just enough to spruce up a little before my blind date. What a joke! Thoughts of the Mel payback paraded briefly through my mind. But recompense could wait. The faster I got out of Seattle the better. I could plan her penance on the plane.

I took out my laptop and checked flights. It was 7-45. I’d missed the 8pm services to Phoenix and the next wasn’t till 11pm. My cursor hovered over the Book seat button. Should I go to Santa Barbara instead? That’s where Mel was and despite her crazy voodoo feelings regarding me she was the one who seemed to be at the centre of this mess.

I clicked on Santa Barbara flights. Nothing till the morning. The question was did I wait here holed up in my hotel room for the night with the wolves prowling about outside or did I make a run for the airport and the 11pm flight home? If I did that I’d arrive in the middle of the night and have to fly out again in the morning to catch up with Mel at the Convention. That would strain the credit card even with my agency discounts, plus be tiring. And Stan could be waiting downstairs with his followers. That scary man in the Japanese restaurant didn’t get there by chance. People seemed to be trailing about Seattle playing follow the leader with me, clueless, out in front. And handsome Stan was up to his neck in it.

Well I wasn’t playing anymore. I didn’t like that game.

If I stayed I could order room service, have a hot shower or better still soak in the tub, sleep in a comfortable bed and take stock of the situation. I booked a 10 am flight to Santa Barbara. I wouldn’t ring Mel because she’d either try to talk me out of going or confuse me even more with her cryptic utterances. I texted her instead.

At hotel. Freezing here. Taking a hot bath.

Then I turned my phone off.

While my bath was filling I ordered a steak, salad and baked potato with sour cream plus chocolate mousse for dessert. I figured I’d need all my strength to cope with whatever was going on and who knew when I might get my next decent meal.

* * *

I amazed myself with how well I slept in those crisp white sheets with cold rain falling outside and confusion muddling my head but I woke with a jolt and sat up abruptly, staring at the curtains and the darkened room until my head cleared and I remembered. 7 am. I sprang out of bed and ten minutes later, overnight bag trailing behind me I strode along the corridor to the elevators.

Other guests were up and about even though the view through the glass front doors showed a dark and gloomy street with rain still dripping endlessly from the heavens. A quick glance ascertained no familiar unwelcome faces lurked behind pillars or pot plants. Stan wasn’t there. He hadn't spent the night on one of the lounge chairs keeping guard over me. Was that a little surge of disappointment? Would I ever see him again?

Another more sobering thought occurred. Had whoever caused his collapse in Starbucks tried again and succeeded? But what could I do and would staying make any difference? No.

I waited at the desk behind a grey-haired couple who were also checking out. Australians. The flat accent gave them away when the man said, “Can you call us a taxi for the airport, please?”

“The concierge will assist you, sir.”

“Righto. Thanks.”

“Would you like to share a cab?” I asked quickly as they turned to leave. “I’m heading for the airport now, too. I only have this bag.” Safety in numbers. The Aussie man despite his years had a solid build and well toned muscles under the thick wool sweater.

He glanced at his equally fit looking wife and some unspoken message flashed between them.

“Yes, all right.” His wife smiled. “We’ll be over there.” She pointed across the foyer where a medium sized red suitcase waited by the porter’s desk. Seasoned travellers by their modest luggage.

The desk clerk brought up my details and I signed for my dinner charge. At Mel’s expense, of course. “There’s a message for you, ma’am,” he said. “One moment.” He bent down and scrabbled about under the desk, reappearing with an envelope. My name was handwritten on the front.

“Who left this?”

“I don’t know, ma’am. I came on duty at six and it was left for you last night.”

“Okay. Thank-you.” I took the envelope he proffered. The writing was unfamiliar. My chest tightened and heat prickled my skin under my layers of clothing. Had Stan left this? Who else? Annie? That other scary man? Was it totally innocent and unconnected to them? I swallowed, breath coming suddenly hard as I realised I’d been holding air in my lungs.

“Excuse me.” The woman next in line nudged me aside.

“Sorry.” I stepped away still staring at the envelope. It held only a single sheet of paper by the feel of it.

“Excuse me.” Again. I looked up. My Australian fellow travellers were beckoning from the doorway. “Taxi’s here.”

I shoved the envelope in my handbag, forced a smile and went to join them. Rain poured down again in leaden sheets.

“Where does all this water come from?” said the woman as we settled ourselves in the cab.

“No idea. But we don’t get it in Phoenix where I live.”

“We’re Betty and Frank,” she said.

“Nice to meet you. I’m Sonya.” I switched on my travel agent’s voice and persona and chatted like a normal person all the way to the airport with the envelope waiting like a time bomb in my bag.

But after we’d gone our separate ways, me to my Santa Barbara flight and them to their Denver connection I sat in the coffee shop nibbling on a Danish and sipping a latte, staring at the envelope and the looping script which depicted my name so carefully in black ink.

One more sip of coffee for courage and a quick wipe with a paper napkin to remove Danish stickiness from my fingers and I opened the flap and drew out the, as I’d suspected, single sheet of notepaper.

* * *

Chapter Six
by Victoria M. Johnson

Influenced by the experiences of the last 24 hours, my gaze darted around the coffee shop. No scary-looking men, no Annie, no one covertly watching me. Not even Stan, I thought, even though I told myself I wouldn’t dwell on him. Surely I was safe in a secure airport, right? Everyone was watched by airport security and everyone had to purchase a ticket to get through the security checkpoints. No one would be carrying any dangerous weapons, even if they did buy a ticket.

After a final glance over my shoulder, I returned my gaze to the note. I noticed my fingers trembled. This time it wasn’t from the weather. I unfolded the paper and unwillingly I skimmed to the signature. Stan. Stan had left the note.

Annoyingly my heart seemed to flutter as my breathing increased. I took a couple of deep breaths to slow my breathing. Let’s see what Stan has to say. I steadied my hands and read the brief note.

“Sonya, don’t’ leave. Please give me a chance to explain.”

Well the note certainly got off to a good start. Stan didn’t want me to leave! I couldn’t prevent the smile that spread across my face. And my heart did that flutter thing again, as if a horde of butterflies were trapped in my chest. What was that all about? Stan wanted to see me again. He wanted to explain and perhaps apologize for the worst blind date on record.

“I need you to trust me.”

Ha! Fat chance for that. I didn’t know much about Stan. Half of what I knew was good and admirable. The other half was suspicious and dangerous. He’d have to do a whole lot more than write a note for me to even consider trusting him.

“They will continue to follow you. Don’t lead them to Mel.”

A chill went down my spine. I shifted uncomfortably and observed my surroundings again. Who would follow me out of Seattle? And more importantly, why did they want Mel? I felt my pulse pounding past my ears. Mel was in danger! I needed to call her. Suddenly I remembered I switched my cell phone to silent mode. What if she had tried to call me for help? I rummaged through my purse, searching for my phone.

Got it. As my fingers wrapped around my phone, I glanced up and saw a man sitting a couple of tables away. He was watching me, frowning. He did not look familiar from yesterday’s encounters, but he looked mean. My throat felt dry as I sat there staring back. Should I confront him? Should I get up and run? Or should I sit there and wait for him to make a move?

Never one to sit still for long, I rose. Mel’s safety was possibly at stake here. It was my turn to be dangerous. Before I took my first step, the man’s face transformed with a bright smile. He waved his hand. At me? I turned to see a woman approaching behind me. Her face brightened, too. The man stood as she walked over to him and sat at the chair he’d pulled out for her.

Sheesh. If that woman had arrived a second later I’d have made a fool of myself! I checked my phone. No incoming calls. Mel obviously didn’t recognize my new number. With the coffee shop getting more crowded, I decided to find a more private spot to call Mel. No sense getting passengers nervous about strange men chasing me and me warning my aunt.

Finding a nice boarding gate with no immediate flight and few passengers lounging, I made the call. The phone rang, but no answer. “Mel. It’s me. We need to talk ASAP.”

I waited a moment, glanced around the loungers—no one new had arrived—and called Mel a second time. My aunt’s voicemail answered again. My flight would begin boarding soon and my gate was a good walk away.

Instantly, I remembered Stan’s note. Don’t lead them to Mel. Should I cancel my flight to Santa Barbara? Was I doing exactly what the bad guys wanted by fleeing and taking them right to the person they sought? Another thought rattled me. How do I know if Stan really wrote the note? I didn’t. Anyone could have left it. The bad guys could be attempting to trick me into staying in Seattle. I glanced out the large window of the boarding gate. Heavy sheets of rain pelted the tarmac and the parked aircraft. I shivered. No way was I going back into that.

My cell rang, causing me a jolt.

“Sonya. I’ve been calling you.”

“I lost my phone while being chased,” I said, relieved to hear Mel’s voice.

“Where are you? The hotel said you checked out,” Mel said.

“What’s going on, Mel?”

A pause. “You’re at the airport?”

“Well, after a couple of narrow escapes and your vague warnings I figured Seattle wasn’t the safest place for me.” I realized my aunt had once again diverted my attention away from my question.

“Thank God you’re safe now.”

“Who says I’m safe? And also, you’re not so safe either. Are you going to tell me what this is about?”

“Sonya, I have another voodoo feeling.”

“No! No more voodoo feelings! I haven’t recovered from your last one.” I must have shouted because the loungers looked up and eyed me curiously.

“You shouldn’t have checked out of the hotel. It’s not good for you to… ”

“What’s not good is for me to be left in the dark. If you think you’re protecting me, it’s too late for that. I’m deep into this, whatever it is.”

“Don’t go home,” Mel said. “Now listen to what I’m about to say… ”

Just as I straightened, ready to be filled in—I heard my name over the loudspeaker.
“Sonya Johnson please pick up a white courtesy phone. Sonya Johnson… white courtesy phone.” The bland voice repeated the message.

“That’s me. I’m being paged.” I peered up and down the wall of the boarding area. I didn’t immediately spot a courtesy phone so I began walking to the left.

“Wait. Let me tell you my voodoo feeling.”

“I’m waiting. Make it quick,” I said, glancing at my watch. I didn’t have much time.

“Don’t go to Phoenix.”

“I wasn’t planning to. I bought a ticket for…” I stopped. If the bad guys had my cell phone, they would have Mel’s number. And that means they could be listening. “Someplace else.” I swallowed. “Mel, they could be listening. They have my cell.”

“At least Stan is with you,” Mel said.

“What? Stan’s not with me.”

“Why not?”

“It didn’t work out. He’s not my type.” My type is a guy who calls a cab instead of making a girl slosh through the streets in freezing rain and snow wearing high heels, and the kind who makes sure the girl has a meal when she’s starving hungry. At the least, he makes sure she’s out of harm's way. No Stan wasn’t that guy at all.

“That’s not good. My feeling has you alone.”

The bland voice paged me again and my impatience resurfaced. “I’m only alone because you sent me here alone, remember. Mel I have to find... ” I didn’t see a white telephone anywhere. I turned back and went in that direction.

“I couldn’t go. I thought you were safe. They don’t want you, they want me.”

My heart dropped as my blood pressure shot up. “Who does? Who wants you… and why?”

“It’s more important that you are okay,” she said. “Sonya, come here, instead of Phoenix.”

“Don’t say where you are, Mel. I think we should meet someplace else. I may have compromised your location.” Up ahead I spotted a white courtesy phone sign. I quickened my pace. How long would the pager hold on?

“They don’t know where I am. Come here.”

I slowed my step; my gaze zipped about the area, looking for anyone who seemed to be eyeing the white courtesy phone. No one looked as if they cared at all.

“Hold on, Mel. I’m at the courtesy phone,” I said. I picked up the white telephone receiver. “Hello? This is Sonya Johnson.”

“Sonya! Thank goodness I found you in time. This is Stan.”

“Stan? Where are you and what do you want?” My head spun. I don’t know who I expected on the other end of the line but I know who I owed a piece of my mind to.

“Is Stan there?” Mel said hopefully into one ear.

“I’m here in the terminal,” Stan said in the other ear.

“You’ve caused me nothing but trouble. Why should I see you?” I said.

“I’m sorry honey,” Mel said with a deep sadness I’d never heard from her before. “I never should have sent you to Seattle. But right now I want you here with me.”

“I don’t blame you for feeling that way. Everything has gone wrong since I met you,” Stan said.

His words stung and I would have hung up if my hand hadn’t turned to stone. So he blamed me for his being a rotten date.

“That is, everything has gone wrong except for meeting you. That part went right,” he said.

“Where are you going?” Mel asked.

My mind swirled from the two conversations. Neither of which I really understood. I knew I wouldn’t get far with either person via the telephone.

“Hold on,” I said to Mel. Then I lowered the cell so she couldn’t hear me talk to Stan.

“Why are you calling me?” I asked him.

“Because I feel responsible for you. Let me get you away from here.”

“I’m already getting away from here. I have a plane ticket,” I said.

“Didn’t you read my note? You can’t go there,” he said.

He had written the note. “Why on Earth should I trust you?” I surprised myself by asking.

“Because I’m all you and your aunt have,” he said.

“Well we were fine before you entered the picture.”

“Not for long. You’re lucky I arrived,” he said defensively.

“I’d hardly call it lucky.”

I heard him suck in his breath. Then a brief pause. “Because I care. That’s why you should trust me.”

It was my turn to pause. I hadn’t expected that reply. Mel’s voodoo vision came into play. She’d said she didn’t want me alone.

“Okay tell me where you are,” I said, realizing I’d be one of the last to board the plane
if I were still going to Santa Barbara.

I made a mental note of his location, hung up, and began a hurried walk to meet him. At the same time I brought the cell up to speak.

“Looks like I’m meeting Stan before my flight.”

“Oh I feel better,” Mel said.

“I don’t know why. Nothing good happens when we’re together. Even the weather gets worse.” I glanced out the large windows and saw the rain still hammering the tarmac.

“My vision had you alone at the ticket counter and on a plane. A tiny plane. Don’t get on one of those,” she said.

“Are you kidding? In this weather?” I didn’t need a premonition to keep me out of a tiny aircraft today. “I’ll call you as soon as I can.”

“Be careful, Sonya. I’d never forgive myself if anything happened to you.”

“Same here,” I said. “You be careful, too.”

As I slipped the phone into my purse, I spotted Stan up ahead. I felt that familiar flutter in my chest.

A look of relief washed over his face. He smiled briefly as he reached out and squeezed my arm. His brief touch electrified me.

“We’re flying to Los Angeles,” he said, handing me a boarding pass. A hint of cinnamon wafted up from the boarding pass.

“I need to cancel my other flight.”

“There’s no time.” He gently nudged me along, toward a gate that was boarding passengers.

Why did Mel trust this man? “Explain why Los Angeles is any better,” I asked, trying to stall so I could think. I couldn’t just hop on this airplane with a man I didn’t know and who could possibly have criminal connections. Another thought flew into my overwhelmed brain. “What kind of aircraft is this anyway?”

“It’s a 737 why?”

“Just asking.”

His voice softened. “There’s dozens of conferences in Los Angeles. They’ll never find Mel. And L.A. is close enough for us to rent a car and drive to Santa Barbara.”

I looked up at Stan, stared into his green eyes and at his sexy mouth. He looked like a normal guy, dressed casually, long hair washed. But someone, several passengers behind Stan, caught my eye. It was Annie! She had a boarding pass, too. “Stan.”

“I know. It’s okay.”

But it wasn’t okay. “I’m not leading all of you to my aunt,” I said, stepping out of the boarding line. “Find her yourself.”

“I already know where she is.” Stan’s eyes gazed into mine. “They don’t. We’re leading them away from her.”

I wanted to believe him. But how could I?

“I could have gone on my flight unnoticed,” I said.

“They’re following you. I told you that in my note,” Stan said in a low voice.

“Forget your stupid note. If you would have explained in person rather than dragging me all over Seattle then maybe… ”

Annie talked into her cell phone, listened, glanced at us, and backed out of the line.

At the same time, the monotonous loudspeaker voice paged Sonya Johnson to the white courtesy phone.

Things kept getting weirder. I wanted nothing more than to leave Seattle. I handed the airline agent my boarding pass. She scanned it and waved me on. If Stan thought he would have a peaceful flight to California he was sorely mistaken.

* * *

Chapter Seven
by Fran McNabb

Total confusion blocked out any logical thought in my brain as I inched my way down the ramp to the door of the 737. Could it have been only yesterday that I got off another flight here in Seattle? How could so much have happened to me in such a short time?

My trip was supposed to be as simple as meeting a client to set up a dinner tour, but with Mel nothing is simple. To my aunt, “client” equaled “blind date” for me.

Now as I walked down this ramp to board another plane, I could hardly straighten out the last day’s happenings. Someone was following me around Seattle for reasons unknown. I was boarding a plane to Los Angeles when I really wanted to go to Santa Barbara to meet Mel, or better yet, home to Phoenix, and Stan, the man who was a stranger just yesterday, was steps behind me making me feel safe. That feeling really confused me since itwas Stan who got me in this predicament to begin with.

Well, that wasn’t really true. It was Mel who’d sent me to Seattle in her place. At least now I was traveling with a good looking guy even though every one of my brain cells screamed to dump him. I heard his footsteps close behind me and smiled. If the situation were different, Stan would be someone I’d like to get to know better.

Maybe, just maybe, things would straighten out and I’d get that chance.

At the end of the ramp, a tall red-haired flight attendant smiled politely, but I knew immediately when she looked behind me and spotted Stan. Her smile widened and her eyes flashed. I glanced over my shoulder to see how Stan reacted to this gorgeous woman’s flirtations. He smiled at the attendant, but didn’t linger.

That made me felt better. I know that didn’t make any sense, but what had made sense since I’d landed in this town?

I walked through the cabin and found my seat, then stuffed my one small bag into the overhead storage.

“Excuse me,” I said to the young man in the aisle seat, then hoped I didn’t step on his feet as I sidled around his long legs.

I plopped down in the window seat just as Stan stepped around the young man and took the middle seat.

As soon as he sat, he turned to me. “I’m glad you decided to take the ticket and head to Los Angeles. You couldn’t have gotten on that other flight and led the others to Mel.”

“I have to admit your reason made sense—the first time since your little episode in the coffee shop, but I’m still confused.”

He smiled and my heart pumped faster. Sitting so close to him unnerved me so I looked out the window and watched the crew roll the luggage cart away from the plane. That was easier than looking at that gorgeous smile.

But I couldn’t stare out the window for the entire flight, so I turned back to him. He still looked at me.

“I’m glad I took your advice, but you owe me an explanation. I haven’t been so confused since I tried to find my way around the subways in New York City. Don’t you think it’s time to come clean? Tell me why all these people are following me in the hopes of finding Mel, and, while you’re at it, you can tell me who you are.” At the moment I didn’t believe a word Mel had told me about Stan. I had to hear his story from him.

Stan stared for a second more, then looked past me out the window. “Mel made me promise not to tell you.”

“That makes no sense. She sends me to take her place even though she knows it might be dangerous, then doesn’t want me to know why? I thought she loved me.”

“Oh, she loves you. She loves you more than you’ll ever know. That’s why I’m here.”

Right then, the red-haired attendant walked down the aisle checking overhead storage doors, but when she got to our row, she looked straight at Stan. “Is there anything any of you need?”

But I knew better. She didn’t care about that aisle guy and me. I could’ve been strangling and she wouldn’t have seen me. Her attention was only on Stan.

“No, I think we’re okay,” he said and flashed her one of those smiles that I’d come to appreciate, but this time that smile directed at her irked me. Why was he flirting with her?

“Well, you let me know if I can do something for you.” She stretched her arms and adjusted the lock on the overhead door.

I felt my face contorting into an ugly frown. She definitely needed to move along and let me finish this conversation with Stan. As it was, I had a feeling she’d taken his mind off of me and Mel and the bozos who were following us.

But then he surprised me. He looked back at me.

“Mel thinks of you as a daughter. She’d never do anything to put your life in danger.”

I was shocked he remembered what we were talking about after having the attendant stop at our seat. “But that’s not how I’ve felt throughout this ordeal,” I said. “I’ve never been through anything like this. My life is usually pretty dull. The most exciting situations I ever find myself in might be in the grocery store if I happen to run into a floor display. I don’t normally have people following me around as if they want to kill me.”

“These people don’t want to kill you. They just want you to lead them to Mel.”

“That’s what I don’t understand. She’s in the telephone book. Why didn’t they just go to our agency in Phoenix and confront her for heaven-knows what they want?”

“It’s a long story.”

The seatbelt light came on. “Well, we’ll have some time on this plane for you to explain. In fact, it looks like we’re finally starting to roll. I’m your captive audience.”

As soon as the words came out of her mouth, I swallowed and forced a smile. “Captive” wasn’t exactly what I wanted to say. Inhaling a deep breath, I looked up into his green eyes and I knew he understood my feelings.

“Sonya, I guess I do need to explain a few things to you. I’m not exactly a stranger to Mel. In fact, I owe her my life, figuratively speaking.”


Stan squirmed in his seat. “Mel was traveling in Europe before she met her husband, and the way she explains it, she and a friend got lost and stopped at an orphanage to get directions. I was three years old then and the way she tells the story, she fell in love with me. She was only nineteen at the time and unmarried, but she was determined to help find me a home. To make a long story short, she found a couple who wanted a child and, well, here I am, the healthy son of a nice couple in Seattle. She and my older stepsister, Portia, went to college together. I worked in my adoptive father’s restaurant.”

“Angelos,” I said.

“Yes, Angelos. Since his funeral, I’m trying to keep it running.” He looked down and smiled. “Your aunt never forgot me. She kept in touch to make sure I was okay and sent me presents from my “Aunt Mel.” I really felt like I had two families.”

So far what he’d said sounded logical. “So when she thought she might be in trouble in this area, she called you and sent me.” I left out the part about Mel’s secret motive to play matchmaker for us.

“Right. I went to Starbucks and, well, you know the rest.”

“No, I know the beginning. Keep talking because I still don’t know why you acted as if you were poisoned.”

He opened his mouth to say something, but stopped as I felt the plane jerk, come to a stop,then start a slow turn.”

“Something’s wrong,” he said under his breath.

I watched the tall redhead walk to the front of the aisle, talk momentarily to the captain, then pick up the speaker. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a slight delay. Seems we have to return to the terminal.”

Remembering who I’d run from in the airport and hearing my name called for a second time over the PA system, I slumped down in my seat and squeezed my eyes.

Maybe I was a “captive.”

* * *

Chapter Eight
by Jayne Ormerod

The plane made a slow U-turn and began its laborious journey back towards the gate. Murmurings of speculation and suppositions as to the reason for our return grew increasingly louder despite the slinky, red-haired stewardess wandering up and down the aisle reminding everyone, “Nothing to worry about, folks. This is only a slight delay.” Despite the calmness in her voice, the passengers sounded a scooch short of full-blown panic.

When the stewardess got to our row, she leaned across the young man in the aisle seat and pushed the button to raise Stan’s seat to its full and upright position. To the casual observer, it looked perfectly routine. But I saw her lean in and whisper something in Stan’s ear. She stood and smiled, but her green eyes telegraphed a warning. I took the warning to include me, as well.

Stan nodded. Well, not so much nodded but offered an almost imperceptible jerk of the head, then turned to me and smiled. And wow, when that man smiled, well, let’s just say my heart did a little somersault that knocked against my ribs.

Then he did something totally unexpected. He reached out and slipped his right hand into mine so that our fingers were interlocked. You know, the way lovers hold hands while walking on the beach at sunset.

I looked down at my lap, and a feeling of safety washed over me. My gaze lifted to meet his without any effort on my part. He was still smiling, all the way up to his twinkling green eyes. So this is what it’s like to tumble helplessly in love I thought to myself. What an intoxicating feeling.

Stan leaned over until our foreheads touched, and our gazes met and locked. I swear I heard the sound of gears clicking into place.

“Your aunt was right, you know,” he said.

“Right about what?” I asked, batting my eyelashes ever so flirtatiously. I swear, that was the first time in my life I had ever done that. What was happening to me?

“Right about the fact that you’re irresistible.”

“Me? Irresistible?” Flutter, flutter.

“Mmm hmm.”

At that point, Stan began to murmur sweet nothings to me. At least I thought it was sweet nothings, okay I fantasized sweet nothings, but actually it was quite the opposite.

“Something is about to happen that might be a little frightening,” he said, very softly and very calmly. “Just let things play out and don’t overreact.”

“What’s going to happen?” I whispered, a tinge of nervousness churning in my stomach.

He hesitated a moment, as if weighing how much he should—or maybe could—tell me. “As soon as we get to the gate, some men in suits are going to get on this plane and flash F.B.I. badges and then take me off in handcuffs.”

Oh. My. Golly. This man, whose cinnamon breath whispered across my lips and whose Irish eyes danced like mischievous leprechauns, was in trouble with the law. But not just an unpaid-traffic-tickets law or stealing-a-Snickers-bar-from-the-drugstore law, but serious, F.B.I. law.

I pulled my head back, but Stan stopped me when he reached his left hand up and cradled my neck, keeping us close. Very close. I didn’t want to like it. Tried my very hardest not to like it, but if I were to be honest with myself, I liked being close to Stan. A whole heaping lot.

“I promise you with everything I hold dear, this is not what it seems,” he whispered.

“I can’t think of any logical reason why the F.B.I. would want you unless you did something really bad,” I whispered back while my imagination took off at a full gallop. “Are you a drug runner? Did you kill someone? Oh, wait Angelo’s is your restaurant. An Italian restaurant. You’re with the mob. You’re a hit man for the—”

Before I could get another word out, Stan’s lips touched mine. Not a gentle brushing of a man who was testing the waters, but a hard, strong possessive kiss that claimed my heart and left me breathless.

And he didn’t stop after one kiss. Okay, maybe I didn’t stop after one kiss. All I know is that time and place seemed to dissolve until it consisted only of Stan and me and the here and now. Nothing else seemed to matter. Not all the people on the plane, not the sound of the airplane door swooshing open, and especially not the fact that Stan could quite possibly be a hit man for the Mafia.

The kiss went on, and a little growl rumbled in Sam’s throat that I heard as well as felt. Then he mewed. Or maybe that was me mewing. That was definitely me mewing. I leaned in closer, wanting more.

“Mr. Stanley Robillio, I’m with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and I need you to come with me.”

“No,” I whimpered after Stan pulled away from our lip-lock.

“Yes,” the smartly dressed F.B.I. agent said. Then he reached down, grabbed Stan by the scruff of his neck and physically hauled him to his feet.

“It’s not what it seems,” Stan mouthed to me.

He continued to watch me as I watched the F.B.I. agents slap handcuffs on him. They began reading him his Miranda rights as they led him down the aisle. He kept his head turned over his shoulder, watching me, until he turned the corner to exit the plane. And then he was gone.

I felt, both figuratively and literally, like a child whose balloon had been popped by a bully. He said to trust him. And I did.

When my cell phone buzzed indicating an incoming text (oops, I guess I’d been too distracted by Stan to extinguish it for the flight), I glanced at it more out of habit than any desire to communicate with anyone.

From: Aunt Mel. Mayday. Mayday. Had another voodoo vision. Do not let Stan out of your sight. Repeat, do not let Stan out of your sight.

I had a voodoo vision of my own. Stan and I together. Forever. But first I needed to save him from the F.B.I.

I unbuckled my seatbelt, scrambled out of the seat and ran down the aisle calling, “Stop the plane! I want to get off!”

* * *

Mission: Failed.

Stan managed to escape the clutches of the F.B.I. and abscond without my ever laying eyes on him.

Instead, I’d been escorted by the two F.B.I. agents to Stan’s boyhood home in a middle-class suburb of Seattle where I was introduced to his Italian mother, Mrs. Robillio. The four of us now sat huddled around a scratched and scarred oak table, sipping coffee and eating home-made cannolis. For the record, they were the best cannolis I’d ever tasted in my life.

“Let me get this straight,” I said around a mouthful of the scrumptious Sicilian pastry. “Stan’s participating in a Survive Seattle reality TV show requiring the participants to collect certain items from around the city based on clues they earn. Sort of like a scavenger hunt, but their efforts are being sabotaged at every turn by their competitors as well as official troublemakers, who are people paid to prevent them from achieving their goal. The scary men I saw yesterday were troublemakers, but Annie the Starbucks barista is actually on his team. But he’s also working for you,” I said, pointing my cannoli at Mrs. Robillio, “to make sure he doesn’t drop out, because Stan really didn’t want to do this in the first place but was pressured by the family because the winner gets half a million dollars, which will save Angelos Restaurant from bankruptcy and will keep dozens of family members gainfully employed for another generation.” I paused to take a breath and a sip of coffee.

“Then,” I continued, “when Stan purchased two plane tickets for LA, Annie called you because she realized he was on his way to the corporate offices to officially withdraw from the show, thus forfeiting even the ten-thousand dollar participation fee. So you sent these two,” I jabbed my thumb in the direction of the F.B.I agents, “who are actually Stan’s adoptive cousins using badges purchased at the local discount store, to keep him from quitting the show.”

All three nodded.

“And the red-haired stewardess who gave him a warning, she’s in on this?”

“That’s Stan’s baby sister, Darla, also adopted, obviously” Mrs. Robillio said. “He’s not speaking to her right now because this was all her idea. Her husband is the sous-chef at Angelos and will be out of a job if the restaurant closes. So she needs Stan to win the money as much, if not more, than the rest of us.”

Darla had probably been warning him to get back in the game, I thought. “So, he wasn’t actually poisoned?” I asked.

“No,” Antonio, the larger of the two cousins, said. “He planned to use the ambulance ride as a diversion so that he could shake the guys following him and sneak down to the Seattle Underground. He thinks the next clue to the puzzle is down there. In fact, that’s where he is now.”

“So how did he shake the guys following him this time?”

Antonio refused to make eye contact with me as he said, “Something’s you’re better off not knowing right now.”

Yikes. That was as ominous a warning as I’d ever heard. No wonder Aunt Mel wanted me to keep my eyes on Stan. And I planned to do just that—as soon as I could find him.

I sat back against the spindle-backed kitchen chair and tried to fit all the puzzle pieces together. I still had a few extraneous bits, though. One in particular bothered me greatly. “Why did he tell me he didn’t want me, and I quote, ‘leading them to Aunt Mel’?”

Bartelomé (the second cousin/F.B.I agent) fielded this question. His chair creaked as he pushed it back and balanced in on the back two legs. “Your aunt provided him the answer to one of the clues, something that had to do with a Seattle Underground event that happened about thirty years ago when she was a reporter for the local paper. So Stan is one step ahead of everyone right now because of that bit of information, and he doesn’t want any of the others making that connection between him and her and you.” Bartelomé let the front legs of his chair slam against the tile floor.

“After you two were spotted at the Japanese restaurant,” Antonio said, picking up the explanation, “Stan received a note threatening your safety so he wanted to keep you in sight at all times. And since he needed to get to LA to withdraw from the crazy game, he decided to take you with him.”

Hmm. Interesting. And somehow, it made sense. “So what’s the big secret between Stan and Aunt Mel? The reason she sent me here when she realized she had trouble in the area?”

The three Robillio’s looked at each other then shrugged their shoulders. “Nothing to do with Survive Seattle,” Mrs. Robillio said. “Must be something else.”

I’d have to ask Stan about that next time I saw him. After I kissed him silly, that is.

“So why didn’t he tell me all this to begin with?” I asked.

My question was met with uncomfortable silence.

“Well?” I prompted.

Mrs. Robillio pulled herself up taller in her chair. “The truth is, he originally planned to use you as a pawn. You know, to lead the competition off in the wrong direction. But as soon as he met you he became smitten with you—”

“He’s smitten with me?” I asked.

“He didn’t actually say it, no,” Mrs. Robillio said. “But I know when Stan is smitten, and he’s more smitten right now than I’ve ever seen him.”

That observation warmed the cockles of my heart. I had to admit I returned his smitten-ly affections. Honestly, after that kiss I was a bit beyond smitten. I had crossed the line over to ga-ga. Especially now that I knew he wasn’t a drug dealer or killer, just a realty TV star.

Mrs. Robillio continued talking. “He didn’t want to risk putting you in danger. The less you knew, the better.”

I made a snap decision. I was going all in, to coin a poker phase. “I’ll do whatever Stan needs me to do to win this thing,” I said, hoping with all my heart it wouldn’t be too dangerous.

My announcement was met with cheers and high-fives all around.

I had a brief moment of second thoughts when the image of the scary looking man from last night flashed in my mind. He looked like he would go to great lengths—possibly even slightly illegal and by that I mean physically hurtful lengths—to stop me from helping Stan win. I mean, with so much money at stake, things could get ugly. And me, Miss Better Safe than Sorry, had just climbed into the danger zone.

Before I could change my mind or establish some parameters for my involvement, Mrs. Robillio said, “Antonio, grab Sonya here a team shirt.”

Antonio left the room and returned moments later holding up a black T-shirt with a Team Stan logo on the front.

I got a little nervous when he flipped it around to show me the back.

All’s fair in love and reality TV.

* * *

Chapter Nine
by Susan Ralph

I took the Team Stan T-shirt from Antonio and held it up in front of me.

The width between the two armhole seams would measure at least six inches more than my normal-size shirts.

I checked the tag sewn into the neckline. Men’s XX.

The sharpened fingernails on Mrs. Robillio’s right hand tapped the table. A vulture’s talon came to mind. Her eyes narrowed. “Black’s a good color on you,” she said.

“Thanks, and thanks for making me part of Stan’s team.” I rolled my lips together and blinked my eyelids several times like one would when trying to hold back tears of joy. But the quiver in my stomach wasn’t happening because I’d just gobbled down one of Mrs. Robillio’s rich cannolis. Mrs. Robillio’s story didn’t ring true.

If Stan really is participating in a reality TV show scavenger hunt and wants to drop out, why hadn’t he just said so? Instead, he’d let me think Mel was in danger. And Mel had said things to me during this trip—the most wretched hours I’d spent in my entire life—except for the brief time when Stan was kissing me—which made me consider, I might be the final object of whatever the game was and whoever brought me in—dead or alive—would win the prize.

I slipped the huge Team Stan T-shirt over my head and then thrust my arms through the arm holes. I smiled at Mrs. Robillio. “Are we meeting up with Stan somewhere?”

Her dark brooding eyes glared at me. A sinister looking smile twitched at the corners of her lips. “Only if he survives the Underground,” she said and then gave a wicked sounding laugh.

Stan’s two cousins snorted.

A premonition, as clear as any of the voodoo feelings Mel had shared with me over the years, hit me broadside. “Get out.”

I covered an exaggerated yawn. “Keeping up with Stan has been exhausting. If there’s someplace I can lie down, I think a short nap would revive me.”

Mrs. Robillio’s cold eyes warmed. She pushed herself up from the table. “Follow me,” she said.

She led me up the stairs to the second floor and then opened one of two closed doors. She motioned for me to go in.

Thick fabric curtains covered a window. An unlit lamp stood on a night table next to a double bed. The dim bedroom had the air of not having been used for a long time.

I turned to Mrs. Robillio. “Such a lovely room.” I said and then beamed my best travel agent smile at her.

She nodded. “Mr. Robillio’s mother died in here. He wouldn’t let me change a thing.” She appeared mournful for a second or two and then cheered up. “Have a nice nap and don’t worry.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Robillio. Wake me if Stan shows up.”

“I’m sure he’ll insist.” She gave a low chuckle and then stepped out of the room and closed the door.

Exhausted wasn’t the half of it. My hands shook. My nerves pinged with discordant impulses.

I parted the window curtain and stared at the rain and the fenced back yard. A dog barked. Even if I could get out through this second story window and down to the ground without serious injury, the backyard could be my undoing.

I turned the lamp switch. Nothing. Rising up on tiptoe, I peered down the opening at the top of the lampshade. The bulb socket was empty.

I plopped down on Mrs. Robillio’s mother-in-law’s death bed, hitched my purse off my shoulder, and then and pulled out my cell phone and punched in Mel’s number. Mel should know the Robillio’s address. If she didn’t, she could look it up. And when I knew what it was, I’d call 911, inform them I was being held captive at this address, and then when the police showed up, I’d yell for help.

Mel, you’re all I’ve got left. Don’t fail me now.

The phone rang and rang. Even Mel’s voice mail didn’t pick up. Thinking that in my current agitated state, I’d punched in a wrong number, I redialed. And got the same result.

An image of Mel in sunny Santa Barbara, sharing amusing anecdotes with other travel agents over cocktails flashed before my eyes.

As soon as I got home, I’d give Mel notice, and look for another job.

Murmurs of a hushed conversation outside my door sent me into survival mode. I stuffed my phone under the pillow and lay down.

The door creaked. A sliver of light from the landing spilled in.

I tightened down my eyelids and made soft snoring sounds.

The door clicked shut.

If they’d be checking on me, my getting out of here on my own would be next to impossible. My mind whirled with foreboding outcomes to the mess Mel had put me in.

Sleep would be a blessing. I shut my eyes and began chanting my “go to sleep” mantra. It never failed me.

* * *

Something brushed my shoulder.

“Sonya, wake up.” The hushed voice was indistinguishable.

I slit my eyes.

And then I bolted upright. “Stan, where‘”

A thumb and forefinger clamped my lips together.


Stan’s face began descending toward mine. He freed my lips, and then he kissed me with a good amount of passion.

My fingers tangled his hair.

My heart raced. My body melted into some kind of liquid goop.

Several lip gyrations later, he broke off our kiss and then gazed down at me.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to do that,” he said taking my hands and pulling me to my feet.

My heart sank. “Stan, just to—”

A strong finger pressed against my lips.

“Sonya, there isn’t time to go all “well maybe or maybe not” with me.”

I stiffened into a defiant posture and removed his finger. “After all I’ve been through since you nose-dived into your caffé latte; I think you owe me the truth."

Stan frowned and then began tugging me in the direction of the door.

“The truth is, my cousins drove off a couple of minutes ago. My mother’s—ah—shall we say—out-of-it, and if you’re smart, you’ll get out of here while you can.”

* * *

Chapter Ten
by Loretta C. Rogers aka L.W. Rogers

My eyes adjusted to the darkened room. A moonbeam cast an eerie light against the faded floral print wallpaper. The only sound was the incessant plopping of water as it dripped off the roof and against the window ledge.

Sonya was an attractive girl, tall and slender, her mouth full, wide and curving as though laughter came easier to her than tears. Her skin was translucently pale, and dark eyes and mane of even darker hair made a striking contrast. I had never allowed my feelings for a woman to grow the way they had for her. My job didn’t encourage long term relationships. She was everything I wanted in a woman, and more. She now glared at me and stood like a stubborn goddess with her feet planted resisting my efforts to escort her from the room.

“It’s urgent we get out of here, Sonya.”

“I’m not going anywhere until you answer one question. . .well, maybe two.” Her expression giving all the emphasis it needed.

I expelled a hefty sigh. “You are infuriating, you know. Make it quick.”

Sonya jabbed a finger in the air as if she were popping bubbles. “Me? Infuriating?”

I gave a gentle tug on the hand I held. “Either ask your question or let’s get out of here before it’s too late.”

Sonya’s eyes widened. She yawned, and a larger yawn followed. “Okay, those two overgrown gorillas, frick and frack, are really your cousins?”

“If you mean Antonio and Bartelomé, yes.”

“And the red-haired flight attendant, Darla, is really your adopted sister?”


Sonya yawned again. “Okay, your mother and cousins said you were part of the Survive Seattle television reality show. Is that true, too?”

I straightened with visible surprise, and reached out to gather her free hand into mine. “If that’s what they told you, then, yes. I’m sure they gave you a T-shirt, too.”

She pulled back trying to wrest free from my tight grip. “Now, I’m really confused. I don’t know who is lying and who is telling the truth. Maybe. . .maybe you’re all liars.” A silly little giggle escaped Sonya’s throat. “Maybe, I’m asleep and dreaming the worse nightmare of my life. If so, all I want to do is wake up and hope I’m at home, in my own bed.”

I was quick to sympathize and pulled her to my chest. “Trust me, Sonya. Mel knows the truth. I wish I could tell you all of it. I can’t, so you’ll have to trust that I’m not the liar in this family. Can you do that for me?”

“Who is Anna? Is she part of your family, too?”

“You said two questions. No more. Now come on before my cousin’s return.”

She took a step and stumbled against my chest. “I feel . . . so very tired.”

I scooped her into my arms, thinking how light she felt. Her voice reflected the lethargy that was evident. “Mmm, why do you always smell like cinnamon? Is it a magic potion?”

Ignoring her question, I sniffed her breath and recognized the odor of Marsala wine and a little something extra. “How many cannolis did you eat?”

She giggled again and looked at me with one eye squinted shut as she held up two fingers. “Three great big fat ones with the best cheese I ever ate oozing out of them.”

Magic potion was right, I thought. My mother had given Sonya the special cannoli’s with enough sleeping tonic to knock out a horse. Needing to get her to a safe place, I removed the cellphone from my pocket and scrolled until I found the number. When the voice answered, I said, “Anna, I’ve got her. Call Agent M4 at the special number.” And then snapped the phone shut, returning it to my pocket.

I left the bedroom and hastened down the stairs. The woman who adopted me so many years ago reclined in her favorite chair, her eyes closed; the empty tea cup still rested in her lap. Little puttering snores told me, I had put enough drops in her tea to assure that she wouldn’t awaken until morning.

“Two can play your little game, mother.”

I found myself smiling.

* * *

The door to my room was closed; there were two of them, a thick one padded with quilted fabric for soundproofing and a conventional one. It, too, was closed. I glanced around the room and wondered how I got here. Stan had a lot of explaining to do, once I finished giving him a piece of my mind. I was getting plenty sick and tired of this cloak and dagger stuff. And for Pete sake, where was Mel? I needed to talk to her in the worst way.

The throbbing in my temples reminded me of the one and only hangover I’d ever experienced. Thing is, I didn’t remember drinking anything stronger than hot tea at Mrs. Robillio’s house.

On the table next to the bed was a hairbrush, a glass of water and a bottle of aspirin. I leaned closer to the aspirin and then picked it up and uncapped the lid. My hand shook at little as I removed the plug of cotton and poured two tablets into my palm.

The glass was midway to my mouth when the words Agent M4 seemed to echo through my mind. I puzzled for a second trying to recall if Agent M4 was a cleaning solution I heard about on TV or from a spy movie.

The wooden door opened. Anna smiled as she entered the room. “Good morning Sonya. How are you feeling?”

“Like an elephant stepped on my head. I never get headaches. Did something happen to me?” I swallowed the pills and placed the glass on the table. “The last thing I remember was talking to Stan, and hearing something about Agent M4. Does that mean anything to you?”

“Mrs. Robillio slipped you a mickey. The headache will go ahead. As for Agent M4, she’s someone close to you.”

I felt my mouth form a surprised ‘O’ and had an instant vision of a fish gasping for air. “But, I’m a nobody, a travel agent who isn’t very adventuresome. How would I—?”

Stan entered the room looking a little worse for wear. His green eyes reflected how tired he was and his clothes looked as if he’d slept in them. The subtle exchange between him and Anna added to my already agitated state of mind.

“Okay, that’s it. I’m really tired of this cat and mouse game.” I jabbed my finger into Stan’s chest. “I watched you die, then come back to life, I’ve been dragged through the freezing rain, forced to buy clothes from a thrift shop, a not so clean one, I might add, then you were arrested by FBI agents who turned out to be your cousins, and then I was fed a cockamamie story about a reality show and clues that my Aunt Mel gave you and then you wanting to forfeit the prize money, then your mother, if she really is your mother drugged me and . . . and it’s all mixed up with Aunt Mel’s voodoo feelings and someone called Agent M4 that I’m supposed to know.”

By this time I had just about run out of breath and my voice had reached an octave high enough to shatter glass. It was a good thing the room was sound proof because I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs.

Stan’s voice was calm when he said, “You’re all keyed up and nervous, Sonya. You’ve been through an ordeal, but it’ll all be over soon and then you’ll understand. All of it. Everything.”

Anna’s voice was warm with understanding. “I’ll leave the two of you alone while I make us some toast and coffee. I’ll also make that telephone call.”

As reluctant as I was to have Stan wrap me in his arms, I needed the comfort they offered and didn’t resist. Meeting his suddenly serious look, I inhaled the soothing aroma of a delectable spice and had a serious desire to bury my nose inside his jacket. “Why is it you always smell of cinnamon?”

Stan cocked an eyebrow and smiled. “You asked me that last night, remember?”

“Yes, I wanted to know if you had magic potion.”

He bent his head toward mine and kissed my lips. Icy fingers shuddered through me. I was experiencing my second voodoo feeling. I knew who Agent M4 was and why Stan always smelled of cinnamon.

I stumbled backward and nearly tripped. He caught me. My eyes were level with his. His were gleaming with wry humor. “You’ve almost got it figured out haven’t you?”

In a shattering instant the answer was there in my brain, as clear and simple as a child’s picture. “I want Mel. Now!”

* * *

Chapter Eleven
by Leigh Verrill-Rhys

After my initial burst of courage, I realized I was playing by their rules. Never trust a man who asks you to trust him, another pearl of wisdom my mother imparted before her death. Sure, he had green eyes and his lips were kissable. And yes,I did feel safe when he held me. True, he turned up when the danger was dire. However, and this was a big however, Stan was always around when danger struck,like a lightning rod.

Here I was filthy, exhausted, humiliated and angry. Mel wasn’t going to come with any voodoo feelings to make me any less angry so I took the only action of any sensible nature, precisely calculated to get me out of there and give me time to think. I reached into my deepest self and brought up all the reasons to confirm Seattle and everyone I had met was my worst nightmare and convinced myself I was never going to see the sun again.

Miraculous result. I sobbed. I sobbed inconsolably, threw my arms over my face and ran from that padded room. I wasn’t insane but I soon would be if I didn’t get my act together, take control and find an escape route, pronto. I also wasn’t as complete an idiot as either Stan or Mel thought I was. However, adorable that man was under normal circumstances, I had suffered more than enough to understand that he was not good for me.

Hmmm, cinnamon. Okay, yes, I knew the whole score. That fact did not change my determination to take back my life and purpose. I did not want to be involved in their intrigues. I wanted the sun, the heat and the frivolous structure of my desert idyll.

The next best thing was a sharp turn at the end of the hallway, a white panel door and a flip of the wall switch. A double, tiled walk-in shower cubicle with a sports power head. The secondhand clothes were a distant memory, piled like so much waste paper on the floor and I stood under the pulsing spray, at the maximum temperature I could tolerate, just to feel warm and clean again.

Not for long. I twisted my head under the spray, soaking up as much hot water as possible as though I could find clarity in the massage and all the time Stan was pounding on the door, demanding to know what I was doing and, “I have to talk to you, Sonya. Once you hear everything I have to day, you’ll understand why we had to do this.”

As if I didn’t understand. As if I would find it all very amusing and of course I didn’t mind being terrified out of my wits. After all, this was all in the name of integrity, security, justice, good business, or whatever other excuse they used to justify manipulating me into their mysterious, nefarious, criminal, need-to-know affair.

Not me. I wasn’t their pigeon anymore. I could live without someone of Stan’s character in my life. I could definitely live without that interfering matchmaker, Auntie Mel. Just let me get out of Seattle. Take me back to Phoenix, Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe, Chandler. Let me roam the high desert and cut cookies for the rest of my life. Please.

“Sonya? Sonya, darling, come out. We need to talk.”

I ignored the insistent tapping on the panelled door and the silky voice pleading with me to open it. Go away, Stan. The hot spray of water on my bare shoulders was the tonic I needed to get the aroma of cinnamon out of my head. Agent M4. Mel and her voodoo feelings and cinnamon-colored hair.

I tilted my face into the spray, scrubbed away the streaks of mascara and blusher and who knew what my foundation had done to enhance my questionable allure. There was no doubt in my mind that the whole horrendous adventure had been a hugely unfunny practical joke, at my expense. I met my reflection in the steamy mirror. Bedraggled. All for a supposed Seatlle tourist destination or some such thing. Reality TV. Oh, please! Did they really think I was that gullible? Did they really think I was so desperate I’d fall for an admittedly handsome hunk who made me feel safe all the time he was tormenting me?

I don’t think so, Mel. I was screaming in absolute silence. Irate, insane beyond even the semblance of reasonable. “All I want,” I hissed into the slit between the door and the warped doorframe, “is a flight on Southwest right back to Phoenix – absolutely anywhere but this soaking wet, drip of a place. Do you hear me, Stanley whoever-you-are?”

“I hear you.”

He sounded as flat as my hair, plastered to my aching skull. “Not funny anymore, is it?”

“Not when you put it like that, Sonya.”

“Right. So you get on that computer you’ve got stashed away somewhere in this phoney hideout or whatever it is and find me a flight home.”

“I don’t think I can do that.”

“Why not?”

“I’m not very technical. And I really don’t want you to go.”

“You should have thought about that before you and Mel and Anna and Agent M4 and your mother and Darla and those fricky and fracky cousins got all your twisted minds together to entertain me in Nightmareville, Seattle, Lesser Twin of the Amazon Rainforest.”

“You’re mad, aren’t you? You’re pretty mad, I guess.”

“You know what makes me really, really mad?”

“What’s that, Sonya?” His voice was small, like a child trying to wheedle his way out of being sent to his room. “Anything I can do?”

“What makes me really mad, Stan with the green eyes and warm-cookie-smell and latte foam on his lips, is that I fell for it, even for a little while.” He murmured something to someone— probably Anna or Fricky-Frack but, even with my ear stuck to the door, I couldn’t hear. “And while you’re discussing my future, Stan, find me something to wear. Something befitting my character and temperament. I don’t want to arrive in Phoenix looking any less sophisticated than when I left.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

He was so accommodating, so gentle. How could I possibly continue being so mean to him? I looked straight into my face, stripped bare of any artifice. That’s why and how.

The tapping resumed after a lot more mumbling and Anna said something about the clothes I wanted. By now I was clued in to their tricks. All they got was a slim opening with my whole body braced against the door. The outfit was a bit wrinkled by the time it was shoved through the crack I allowed but not half bad for a phoney hideout somewhere in the Northwest. I had no illusions about what might happen when I emerged from the safety of the shower-room. At least, I no longer looked like the poor relation of a gorgeous travel agent.

Only Stan stood in the hallway. He’d found time to clean up, rest up and shave. His eyes were less haunted but still full of that you-know-you-can-trust-me concern. I glanced neither right nor left but grasped the inevitability of my inability to escape at that moment. I walked straight into his arms and did exactly as I had been dreaming of doing. I buried my face in his shoulder, inhaled with all my might.

“You’ll keep your promise, won’t you?”

“I will, Sonya. You can trust me.”

* * *

A dust-speckled ray of light struck at my eyelid. All across the room, shelves of sunshine forced their way through the Venetian blinds. I didn’t recognize the room, just the ever-present aroma of fresh-from-the-oven cinnamon cookies. When my head stopped spinning, I crept to the window and peeped out.

“Well, what do you know, Toto? I’ve a funny feeling we’re not in Seattle anymore.”

Stan may have kept his promise, but there were very few rainbows in this part of the world.

* * *

Chapter Twelve
by Sandra Wilkins

Phoenix. Lovely, dry, warm Phoenix. I was home. Apparently, while I had been knocked out, Stan and Anna had somehow spirited me away to the place I love best.

As I peered through the Venetian blinds, my heart hammered when I realized why I recognized the city so quickly. Mel’s travel agency with its bright blue and yellow sign was directly across the street. I was in the nondescript building that I stared at five days a week. What kind of office space was this with padded doors and bright white rooms?

I whirled to face Stan. “What is this place?”

His eyes seemed compassionate as he stepped toward me.

Hold it right there, Mister!” I held up my hand at arm’s length. “You’re not getting an inch closer until you explain some things to me.”

“I understand your impatience, Sonya. Truly, I do.” Those green eyes trailed to the white tile floor. “All I can tell you is that this was the safest place to bring you. They would never think that you or Mel would turn up here so soon.”

“Who are they?” I was extremely frustrated. I might have to bang my head on that padded door. The pain surely wouldn’t be any more annoying than my blasted headache.

Suddenly, his demeanor was all official. “I can’t tell you that information. That’s for Mel to divulge if she thinks it is appropriate.”

I let out steam through my clenched teeth. This was exasperating—like herding cats—only this was apparently dangerous. I was tired of speculating. I wanted answers. Now. “Were you really drugged?” I asked.

“No. That was a diversion.”

I was a tad surprised he complied so willingly. Putting my hands on my hips, I gave him my best no-nonsense stare. “Why?”

“All I can say is the people who want your aunt were following you so they could get to her.”

Mel had a ton of explaining to do. When she returned from California, she was in for it. Since it seemed that line of questioning hit a brick wall, I switched focus. “What about your alleged mother and other odd bits of family?”

Stan’s shoulders slumped under the weight of that one. He ran his hands through his hair before looking squarely at me. “That, I’m afraid, is all my fault. Since I inherited the restaurant, my mother has been hounding me for it. Now that I’ve made it into the million dollar success it is today, the stakes have become too high. They thought they could get me to sell if they had you.”

“So, you really are a restaurateur?” Somehow that made him seem more stable. And likeable.

Funny sparks flit across his smile. “In my spare time.”

Inwardly, I groaned. “Do you mind telling me what your day job is?” I asked warily.

“Sorry. I can’t say.” He shrugged his broad shoulders. “But, I can honestly tell you that I’m ready to quit this line of work.” He began moving ever so slowly forward as if not to startle a frightened rabbit. “The deceptions never bothered me…until now.”

Stan seemed completely serious. Oh, how I wanted to believe him. But, still, I barely knew him. What I needed was to be free from his mesmerizing presence for five minutes to regain my composure and possible sanity.

I spotted my handbag on a chair by the door. I knew which way to go now to get out of here. Pasting on a smile, I held open my arms as if I would embrace him. As he let his guard down, I dodged past him, grabbed my bag and bolted out the door.

“Sonya! Wait!” he implored.

Closing my ears to his pleas, I turned right, opened another door that led into a drab foyer and pushed open the glass door to freedom. Bright light blinded me, and I blinked furiously.

Not stopping, I rummaged in my purse for the key to the travel agency. As I maneuvered through traffic, I found the key. I held it at the ready, for I was sure Stan was right on my heels. As I crashed into the door, it unexpectedly opened.

Stumbling inside, I immediately saw that the lights were on. When I righted myself, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was Mel. As she looked up from her desk, I could have sworn I saw flash of annoyance on her face before she brightened. Why did her perfectly white smile suddenly seem fake?

“Oh, hello, darling. You’re back,” Mel said with what seemed like forced pleasantness. Her manicured nails drummed impatiently on the desktop.

Stan burst in behind me, not nearly as breathless as I was.

“Stan.” Mel’s manner while speaking to him was all business—which was extremely out of character for her. “I’ve been trying to reach you. They have been apprehended. All is taken care of.”

Not being able to stand the secrecy one second longer, I strode to Mel’s desk, planted both palms onto the cool wood and glared—nose to nose—at my aunt. “What are you talking about?!”

* * *

Chapter Thirteen
by Jane Myers Perrine

For a moment, I studied the face of the woman who’d loved me my entire life. I’d always trusted my aunt. I’d always believed her and in her.

But suddenly I didn’t because she hadn’t smiled when I appeared. She hadn’t even moved from behind her desk to greet me. Instead she swallowed hard as she stared at me with emotionless eyes, then looked at Stan.

I followed her gaze. Good-looking guy with a great smile and beautiful green eyes, but the first time I met him, I thought he’d died. He hadn’t. Oh, not that I wasn't glad he hadn't died but he'd used deception every step of the way. Lie and more lies after which he’d turned on the charm and apologized in an attempt to win my trust, to beguile me. Hadn’t I learned with Danny not to trust a man who sidestepped the truth, even if he was very attractive?

I’d met Stan only days ago, and he’d run me around in circles every minutes of that time.

Because Mel and Stan both looked grim and glared at each other with deep dislike, I feared for my safety. Suppose I chose the wrong person to trust? It seemed as if they were playing a dangerous game for big stakes. For days I’d been watching, even taking part in, a huge undertaking with no idea what was really happening.

"What’s going on?” I repeated. No, this time I demanded. Still they looked at each other. Their silence and menace scared me enough that I took a step back and glanced toward the display window. Outside, I saw people passing. Dozens of pedestrians stood on the curb waiting for the light to change and others strolled along the sidewalk. I wasn’t alone. Surely I was out of harm's way as long as others walked by so closely. Assured of my safety, I needed to concentrate on sorting this whole mess out. But that didn’t look likely and the two still glowered at each other so I took another step backward.

As I did, Mel shouted, “Get out of here, Sonya. Run! Now!”

At the same time, Stan growled, “Don’t even try it.”

Which quickly made up my mind whom I could trust, who cared about me.

“If you try to escape, I’ll kill your aunt.” He moved quickly behind the desk and gripped Mel’s shoulder. Not a friendly placement of his hand but an action that told me who was in charge. He weighed seventy pounds more than Mel and was thirty years younger.

“Stan,” Mel said, “you aren’t a killer. You’re a double-crossing, worthless jerk with no moral fiber but you’ve never harmed anyone, at least, not directly.”

“You’re right,” he said. He shot me a warning glance. “Okay, so I won’t kill her but I can make her feel a lot of pain.”

“Don’t listen to him. Go!” Mel shouted.

I took several steps toward her desk and dropped in the chair across from her. "I'm not leaving you alone with him."

Mel moaned. “I’ve made such a mess of this. I didn’t want you hurt. That’s why I sent you to Seattle, to get you out of the way.”

“Out of the way of what?”

“The least we can do,” Mel said to Stan, “is tell her what was going on. She deserves an explanation.”

Was my aunt playing for time? I could go along with that.

“Go ahead.” Stan shoved my aunt into her desk chair but kept his grip on her shoulder.

“First, I’m so ashamed,” my aunt said. “My voodoo feelings were completely wrong. They told me he,” she jerked her thumb toward Stan, “was a good guy. He came to me with a story that people I sent on tours were bringing drugs in from foreign countries. He said he was. . .oh, some kind of federal agent. Flashed a badge. I should have checked. I shouldn’t have believed him.” She shook her head. “I can’t believe I was so gullible.”

People love to work with a federal agent,” he said. “Makes them feel important and special.”

I studied Stan, wondering if I could have realized he was an evil person. He didn’t have crazy eyes. He was handsome, appeared to be a nice guy. Add a dark suit and sunglasses and he would look like federal agent. Mel sighed. “After a few days, I realized I should’ve checked him out. I called the FBI. They’d never heard of him but were interested in the man posing as a special agent. A couple of real special agents showed up five minutes later to interrogate me.” "That’s good,” I encouraged her.

“No, it was too late.” Mel shook her head. “I’d given him a list of our clients who left for Asia last week.”

“Once you found that out, why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.

“I couldn’t.” She bit her lip and shook her head. “He threatened to hurt you if I warned you. And your mother. And to blow up a bridge or. . .I can’t remember everything he threatened, but I didn’t dare cross him. I tried to keep in touch, to make sure you were all right, but I couldn’t put you in danger.”

“Why did he want that list? What was he smuggling? Drugs?” I started to add weapons but realized no one smuggled guns into the US.

He laughed, a sound that didn't show the least bit of amusement. Suddenly I knew.

“Cinnamon.” I sat back in my chair and wondered why I hadn’t picked up on that sooner. “That’s why you smelled spicy. You’re smuggling cinnamon.” I considered my words. “But why? Why not use what’s already available here?”

“They’re developing a very high grade in Sri Lanka,” Stan explained. “Very closely guarded. Illegal to ship even an ounce out of the country.”

“Then it’s got to be dangerous to smuggle it,” I said. “Not really, not for me here in the states. It’s a spice, after all, not drugs,” he said. “I have a man in Sri Lanka who places it inside the covering of the suitcases of people on your tours. No one notices anything except their clothing smells great.” “But what’s so wonderful about any spice that you’d make an effort to bring it here?”

Mel said, “The real FBI agent told me this particular type is easier to process and has a flavor doesn’t degrade and is especially delicious.”

“So, Stan, you planned to use this spice in your restaurant and become famous?” I attempted to figure this out. “For what? Cinnamon rolls? Sopaipillas?”

“Fried chicken,” he said. “Why would I take a risk for cinnamon rolls?”

Why would he take a risk for fried chicken? I thought. But I said, “You plan to be the Colonel Sanders of Seattle?”

He nodded.

I was flummoxed. “You’ve dragged me all over and threatened my aunt and risked been poisoned for a fried chicken recipes?”

Mel shook her head and put her finger to her lips. “Brilliant idea,” she said. “There’s a lot of money in good fried chicken.”

If I hadn’t guessed it before, I now realized the man had gone around the bend and Mel was warning me not to push him any further in that direction.

“So everything you’ve done has been to manipulate my aunt and to give yourself time to rifle through the suitcases of returning travelers for your contraband?”

“Not completely. You’re cute. I enjoyed being with you.”

Although the entire mess had become a little clearer, a few things still confused me. "What happened the first time we met? When you passed out?”

“A warning from my family, a low dose of a substance to make me sick, not enough to kill me. They knew about the cinnamon and wanted to intercept the suitcases before I could. They planned to use it in chicken mole.”

“And all that stuff about the Seattle Underground?”

“That was to be the site of his new restaurant, away from the family,” Mel said.

Stan placed the hand that wasn’t on Mel’s shoulder on his temple and began to massage it. “Shut up. I’m tired of your questions,” he said. “Be quiet and let me think.” He glanced around him.

There’s not a lot in that office. Our desks, a lot of posters, several chairs—and the backdoor to the storeroom. No place to hide.

“Okay,” he nodded toward me. “Sonya, stay there. Your aunt’s going take me out the back door. You are not going to do anything or I will hurt her.” He picked up a pair of scissors with his free hand and touched her throat with the sharp point.

I stood, turned around, and looked out the window toward the street, hoping the passing pedestrians would see we were in danger. Oddly, no one was out there. The street was completely empty.

Mel said, “Don’t interfere, Sonya, because Stan has a pair of scissors at my neck.”

An odd things to say because I could see that.

The words caused Stan to look up, his gaze searching the ceiling. “Is this place bugged?” he asked, his hand holding the scissors shaking. “If it is . . .”

Before Stan completed the sentence, Danny Steele opened the door and entered. Danny, my ex-boy friend who’d broken up with me last week, came in the front door smiling at me as if we were still in love and planning a wedding next year.

“Hello, darling.” He approached and put his arm around me to kiss me on the cheek before he turned toward where Mel stood with the scissors pressed against her neck. “Hello, Mel. Did I interrupt something?"

“What the . . . .” Stan began.

“Danny, how lovely to see you. Do you know Stan?” Leave it to Mel. Even with a crazy guy pressing scissors against her neck, she sounded like the perfect hostess.

We stood there, the four of us staring at each other for nearly a minute, an eternally long sixty seconds. I had no idea what was going on but I could see terror and confusion in Stan’s eyes. As for Mel and Danny? They seemed completely relaxed. I wasn’t.

“Why don’t you put the scissors down, Stan?” Danny asked politely. “You must be aware the place is bugged. We’ve heard every word you said in here and will use them at your trial.” “We?” I asked.

“A lot of FBI special agents and officers from the Drug Enforcement Agency out there.” Danny gestured toward the door. “Stan, you know we have snipers. They’ll take you down without a thought if I signal, and I will, if you don’t put the weapon down.”

Stan scrutinized Danny's face as if searching for a clue on how serious the threat was.

“I will give the signal if you don’t drop the knife and step away from my fiancée’s aunt. You’ve given both of them a hard time and I don’t mind extracting revenge.”

I’d never seen Danny’s face look so hard, his expression so serious. Stan must have read the same because he stepped back, drop the scissors, and let go of Mel’s shoulder. She hurried toward me while several men came in a slipped handcuffs on Stan. Then more agents and a couple of cops shoved into the agency. One grabbed my arm and Mel's to escorted us outside.

I watched Danny intently through the front window. Within a minute, he’d talked to the law enforcement officers and turned to come outside.

"Sonja I’m so sorry.” He pulled me into his arms.

I shoved him away. “Okay,” I said angrily, “would you mind explaining? You,” I shoved him in the chest with my index finger, “broke up with me last week. A few minutes ago, you called me your fiancée and now you want to hug me. Well, I don’t buy this.”

“I know. I’m sorry. Let me explain.” He paused as if attempting to think of the correct words. “You know I’m a lawyer.”

I nodded. “You aren’t? Is that another lie?”

“I never lied.” He grimaced and fidgeted. "I am a lawyer."

“How did a lawyer get caught up in this?”

“Ummm. . .Hard to explain.”

Good, I was glad he was uncomfortable. He’d broken my heart but darned if I’d tell him that.

“I got pulled in on a drug case by a friend on the force. He wanted me to keep track of another lawyer in the firm.”

I tapped my foot.

“Okay, I didn’t tell you. I couldn’t.”

“You should admire that, Sonya. It could’ve been dangerous,” Mel said as she came up behind me, obviously more forgiving than I.

“My friend didn’t think so. He just wanted information and I was in a position to provide it. Then the case got more complicated and they found Stan was smuggling and thought it was drugs, too. When Mel called the FBI, my friend got in touch with me. For your safety, my friend’s boss told me to cut any link between you and me and Stan and your aunt.”

“Oh?” I raised an eyebrow, beginning to believe him but deciding to let him sweat a little more. “For my safety?”

“That’s right, ma’am.” A man flipped his wallet open to show me a badge. “I’m Tommy O’Grady with the DEA. We have a joint task force with the FBI on drug trafficking from Asia.”

This had become very complicated.

“We don’t like to work with civilians,” O’Grady said. “Too dangerous for everyone. The special agent who asked for Mr. Steele’s help has been disciplined. To keep you safe, I asked Danny to break off with you until we could complete the investigation and arrests were made.”

“I still don’t understand.” I shook my head. “Why would the DEA be interested in cinnamon?”

“When the investigation started, we didn’t know what Stan was smuggling. When we found out, we realized he’d set up a great network that drug dealers would take over. We had to shut it down.” Then O’Grady shook my hand as well as Danny’s and Mel’s. “Thank you for your cooperation.” He went back into Mel’s agency.

I turned toward Danny, arms folded and my toes still tapping.

"I love you.” Danny gazed into my eyes. “I couldn’t put you at risk. That’s why I broke up with you. That’s why I'm here now. I had to make sure you were okay.”

Sincere blue eyes filled with love were a lot prettier than green eyes. “I’m not sure I’ll forgive you.”

“I plan to spend the rest of my life convincing you.” With that, he put his arm around me and pulled me toward him. I leaned against Danny’s chest, feeling safe for the first time I days.

"I love you,” he murmured. Then he lifted my chin to kiss me and I realized I was along for the most romantic ride of my life.