Coup de Grace by Vivian Darkbloom

Coup de Grace
by Vivian Darkbloom

viviandarkbloom@hotmail.com

 

The stars all seem motionless, embedded in the eternal vault; yet they must all be in constant motion, since they rise and traverse the heavens with their luminous bodies till they return to the far-off scene of their setting.

—Lucretius

Part I:

The Last of the International Dilettantes

1. Still Life with Assistant Professor: Cambridge, 1948

At precisely 12:19 p.m. on Saturday, June 11, 1948, after sitting on the back porch and consuming two meatloaf sandwiches, drinking half a beer, pondering the uneven lawn begging to be mowed as well as the rutted wood rot in the roof beams of the porch, thinking that she didn’t want to go to Venice to some damned boring conference anyway, then wondering why she didn’t want to go anywhere and would rather stay and home and paint the kitchen ceiling and pull weeds out of the garden and just watch her lover fall asleep in the sun, after all this fermentation of thought aided by the American institutions of beef and beer, Dr. Janice Covington, the restless, relentless archaeologist and world explorer, fully realized that she had been domesticated.

She exhaled, as if some intangible pseudo-virility within her had been deflated.

Then she burped, and this small, crude action comforted her.

Janice laid back on the porch, head pillowed on a forearm, ignoring the empty, yawning lawn chair—she could not tolerate being civilized any further. Smoke from her cigarette drifted up into the rafters of the back porch. Out, damned rot! she thought, scowling at the poor old beams. She had warned Mel about this, when they bought the house—that it was less sturdy than it looked. But its shabby genteel, struggling-academics-meet-haunted-house ambiance possessed great appeal to the Southerner, who reveled in a very regional penchant for the Gothic. Not to mention that the house, drafty in the winter, also possessed incessantly creaking floorboards and a regularly flooding basement. Nonetheless, Janice reluctantly admitted to herself that she liked the house. Oh, hell, I love it. It’s ours.

She sat up abruptly, as if the happy thought would strip it all away. I’ve been waiting for two years for the other shoe to drop.

She continually expected to wake up some morning in a leaky tent somewhere in the middle of nowhere: alone, on a site…lucid and miserable and no longer part of this living dream. Or she would wake to find a “Dear Jane” kinda letter propped against the sugar bowl (no, Mel would take grandma’s sugar bowl with her. Against the toaster, maybe?) on the kitchen table : Dear Janice, I cannot go on any longer loving someone as short as you. I’m going back home to my fiancé, who was 6’4″ in his stocking feet. You can keep the car. Love, Mel. Never mind the fact that the fiancé was now, most definitely, a former fiancé and married to another woman, and who kept sending Mel annoying photos of his newborn son, who had a strangely large head, like a mutant turnip….now there’s someone who desperately needed the Pappas gene pool.

But so far, practically every day, she woke to the smell of coffee, to Mel in the kitchen, loose hair spilling over a bathrobe, frowning over the newspaper. This world, I swear, she would mutter in her Southern drawl.

This world. When Janice was younger she kept a journal, in which she wrote about the things she was learning from her father. When she was 19 she finished one particular notebook with a litany of names—all the places she’d seen thus far. Under the dark canopy of night and tent, everything seethed with possibility, and she would recite the list in her mind: Hierakonpolis. Athens. Syria. Alexandria.

The litany kept her company, and for a long time it felt like her only friend. Through the holes in the old tent she would see stars.

Cairo. Rome. Istanbul. Thessalonika….

It had not occurred to her then to wonder if she was happy. Because everything had seemed possible. She looked around the yard. And the amazing thing was, it still felt that way.

Add Cambridge to the list.

*****

“Ah, my little Mad Dog. My poor, little, housebroken Mad Dog.”

Upon murmuring this benediction, Paul Rosenberg leaned back into the soft leather chair at the study’s desk, and put his feet up on it, ignoring Covington’s entreaties about doing so. Janice was always so nervous in the study—which she considered Mel’s room—as if she were in the tomb of Tutankhamen himself and fearing some ancient Carolinian curse, should objects be tampered with. Carefully, he stretched his long legs over the desk, avoiding the thick, vellum-paged notebook, covered with lines of Greek, and an English which, to him, was as indecipherable as the ancient language, given the florid, tangled serifs of the bold hand. He knew instantly it wasn’t Janice’s handwriting, having encountered her painstakingly neat printing while they worked at Neuschwanstein. The chair carried a faint whiff of Mel’s perfume. He smiled and closed his eyes for a minute.

His brief, fluttery daydream of a certain leggy, blue-eyed brunette was disrupted by the disgruntled tones of a certain small blonde: “Hey, asshole.”

Janice had lured him from his penniless life in New York to an equally penniless one in Boston, with the promise of a teaching post for him at the college. When this drunken promise failed to materialize (I would’ve known she was drunk on the phone if I hadn’t been drinking myself!), he found music gigs in town, tutored here and there, and acted as Janice’s Boy Friday, a position that dictated nothing much more than picking up her dry cleaning (skirts being an unfortunate fact of life for a female professor, even one as lowly as she) and trying to discern the fate of the scroll she viewed at Neuschwanstein at the end of the war. You’ve still got the military contacts, buddy boy, she had said to him.

Paul opened his eyes and smiled broadly at Janice, a toothy grin crowding his ten o’clock shadow, his open madras shirt flapping in the breeze from the window, revealing a slightly yellowing white v-neck undershirt. “Yes, my little Mad Dog?”

“Stop calling me that,” she snapped. He had been relentless about the nickname, ever since hearing Mel use it in an equally teasing fashion one day, as she shipped Janice off to work: Mad Dog honey, y’all sure are pretty in that dress! Now she stood before him, scowling, hands settled along her hips, in blue jeans and a dirty white t-shirt. He suddenly wondered if she had seen A Streetcar Named Desirerecently, or if Marlon Brando had taken butch lessons from her. “Whaddya got for me? You call that number down in Washington?”

“Ah. Well…I got stonewalled. That’s what I got.” He sighed, and toyed with a fountain pen from the desk. “I can’t get the file. Sorry, Janice.”

“You’re kidding me. They won’t even let you see a file?”

He shook his head. “I tell ya, I really ran up my phone bill trying to track it down. All I found out was that the scroll had been returned to the family of the owner before the war. Presumably the family that the lovely Fraulein Stoller bought it from. They live in Venice.”

“Venice,” Janice repeated dully.

He asked, “Does that mean something to you?”

“There’s an international archaeology conference there next month.” Then, to herself: “Damnit, I need a name, at least.”

He murmured, “That’s a coincidence.”

“I hate coincidences, Paul.” She paced in front of him. “Who’s the bigwig in charge of all this?” She felt a familiar burn in her gut: the excitement of the chase. Is it happening again? I’ve still got it, then?

“Some general named Fenton, in Washington. I spoke to a flunky in his office. We got to bullshitting about the war, and he was the one who told me the scroll is in Venice. But that’s all he would tell me.”

Janice stopped pacing. She stared at him. Another coincidence. “The general is Jeremiah Winston Fenton?”

“None other.” Paul glanced at her uneasily. “Why?”

“I’ll be damned. Mel knows him. He was an old friend of her father’s.”

“Dr. Pappas knew everyone, it seems.”

“Comes in handy.”

“I see. So…you think Melinda could sweet-talk him? Is that your plan?”

“No.” Janice sighed and rubbed the back of her neck. “She hates him. She said he’s a creepy old bastard.”

“Somehow I can’t hear her saying that,” Paul noted wryly.

“Her exact words were, ‘He’s quite a terrible old man.’ ” She mimicked Mel’s accent to perfection.

“That’s pretty good, sweetheart. You sound just like her,” he said admiringly.

“I get a lot of practice. But let me translate it into our lingo: He’s a bastard. He put the moves on her, not long after her father died.”

Paul shrugged. “Surely she’s used to beating them off with a stick,” he said, with forced carefulness. You don’t want to be on that list of terrible men, do you, buddy? He was content just to be in Mel’s orbit. Or so he believed. Given the strength of the relationship he witnessed between the two women, he knew he had very little choice in the matter.

“We’re talking hours after Dr. Pappas’s funeral,” she snorted.

“Oh.” He winced. “Lovely.”

“Yeah. I don’t want to put her through talkin’ to that asshole again.” Additionally, she was wary of using Mel’s charms in this way, given the near disastrous results with Catherine Stoller. Near disaster? Okay, definite disaster.

She was quiet for moment, but Paul didn’t like the strange glint in her eye. “Get the phone, will ya?”

*****

Paul’s hand grew sweaty as he gripped the phone, and the business-like woman answered. “Melinda Pappas calling for General Fenton!” he barked into the receiver. Janice gave him a thumb’s-up sign. He nodded, then handed her the phone. She made a great show of wiping her hand after touching the slimy receiver, but no sooner than she did, Paul could hear, from his close proximity, a deep male voice on the line.

“Why, General Fenton, is that you?” she began. Eerily, her voice had taken on the accent and cadences of her lover’s. “Yes, it’s me, Melinda. I know, it has been simply too long. Yes, yes, that is too true! So…how was your war?”

Paul rolled his eyes.

“Oh yes, I was abroad for a while, in England. I did so want to help the cause, and I was kept out of the WACs ’cause of my terrible nearsightedness.” Janice giggled like a demented schoolgirl. “General, stop! Y’all are too much! My eyes do not look like sapphires! Well, maybe just a teeny bit, I suppose. You’re so sweet. A summer sky? No, no one’s ever told me that before! Well, now, I did have a purpose in callin’ you…I’ve been so desperate for help. Yes, I am positively desperate!” Janice sat up straight, breathless as a Gene Tierney heroine. “You see, I have been continuin’ the work of my Daddy—God rest his soul—and durin’ the war I was fortunate enough to view a certain scroll at this lovely little castle in Germany…Neuschwanstein, yes. Now I’m sure you know, given how eee-fficient the military is, that it has been returned to its original owner, but I would so love to have a look at it again, so I need to contact the individual who is in possession of it. I had one of my manservants call your office earlier, to see if they would provide any information of their own free will—but I’ll be darned if your Yankee bureaucracy didn’t have me hog-tied! Yes sir, I bet you could just picture that: me, all tied up! What a sight! I was madder than a hornet’s nest.” A pause. More male rumbling. “Oh my, yes, you better believe it, sir! I do have a terrible temper…why, just the other day I found one of the servants spit-polishing my silver! Usin’ his disgusting saliva on the tea service that my great-grandaddy fought and died for, defendin’ it from Sherman’s fiends! I was so furious I could’ve cut off his balls and fed them to the hounds….” Janice’s voice dropped menacingly. “They do so love the smell of blood, it arouses them for the hunt….”

Paul conveyed a frantic plea to stay in character via a well-placed kick to her shin.

Janice grimaced, then cleared her throat. “Er, as I was saying, I would so love it if perhaps you could intervene….” Another pause. A bright smile lit up the archaeologist’s face. “Oh General,” she cooed seductively, “you are wonderful. I am entirely indebted to you. Uh-huh…” Janice picked up a fountain pen and scribbled down some information in the notebook in front of her. “Yes indeedy, I will call that lieutenant….and I certainly hope you read him the riot act!” Another pause. “No, I’m not living in South Carolina, or even in North Carolina anymore….” An unfortunate inspiration occurred. “Why, I’m livin’ in New Orleans now! You sound as excited as I did when I moved here! Ah got together with a bunch of my old sorority sisters from Vanderbilt, and we all chipped in and bought a lovely old house down in the French Quarter. We call it the Rising Sun….”

He buried his head in his hands.

“If you’re ever down that way, you just try lookin’ me up.” Another peal of feminine tittering. “Oh, you’re just awful! Uh-huh. Really? Well, red is my favorite color, you know…mmm-hmmmm. I would love to talk longer, General, but my manservant just brought in my mint julep and reminded me about gin rummy with the girls this afternoon….Why, yes…” she grinned at Paul. “He is a big strapping Negro, how did you know?”

Paul heard a loud click at the other end of the line. Janice looked at the phone in surprise. “Got him all worked up,” she muttered.

He shook his head in pure disbelief. “You are out of your damn mind, Janice.”

“That ain’t no way to talk to a lady, mister.”

“You’re no lady, even when you’re pretending to be one. And I tell you, if she ever finds out—”

Janice jammed a finger in his face. “She’s not gonna find out unless you tell her, and if you do, I’ll feed your balls to the hounds—”

“I’d like to see you try, butchling, ’cause we might as well face facts here—”

She grabbed his shirt, yanking him up out of the chair, knocking over the notebook.

“—you’re pussywhipped!” he shouted gleefully.

Both parties felt a breeze from the study door, now opened by the woman who, indeed, without a single doubt, had them both pussywhipped. Mel stood in the doorway, her face slightly flushed from her brisk walk from the campus in the midday sun, carrying the leather satchel that once belonged to her father on her shoulder, and with a needless cardigan sweater draped over one forearm, poised like a waiter with a towel. Her pale, well-formed arms were bare in the summer dress she wore. Judging from the slightly dazed expression on her face, she either heard Paul’s exclamation or was suffering a mild form of heat stroke. “Hi,” Mel greeted timidly, feeling as if she had interrupted some intimate scenario in a house that was not her own.

Both Paul and Janice mumbled hellos.

“Um…” Mel began, as she deposited both satchel and sweater on the study’s couch.

Paul straightened his abused shirt. “Hey, didn’t you tell me you guys got meatloaf?” Before Mel could affirm, he darted past and down the hallway into the kitchen.

Janice remained sitting, now cross-legged, on the desk, prompting a scowl of disapproval from her companion. The archaeologist jumped off the desk immediately, sending loose papers scattering in her wake, and inadvertently wounding the fountain pen, which proceeded to bleed blue ink all over the desk’s blotter.

Mel sighed deeply.

“Sorry.”

“Um…this word…” Mel tried again. A parade of nervous tics commenced. First she nudged her glasses with a knuckle. Beneath the becoming blush, Janice could see the little linguistic wheels spinning in her lover’s mind: Pussywhipped. Transitive verb. Pussy. Slang, obscene…. Then she scratched her cheek and tugged nervously on her ear.

The bullshit generator kicked in. “It’s all part of the Mad Dog legend, baby. You know lots of things are said about me, and ah, this is one of those rumors…that, ah, I liked to abuse cats.”

“I see,” Mel responded, drawing an imaginary line in the carpet with the tip of her shoe, perhaps indicating a rapidly lowering threshold of nonsense. She took a step toward Janice. Who retreated with a much larger step of her own.

“You know…dogs don’t…like…cats…”

“If that is the case, then, wouldn’t it have made more sense for Paul to call you a pussywhipper?” Mel said the word cautiously, as if afraid of mispronouncing it.

Oh, to hear that word rolling off that tongue. Language covered in honey. “Now Mel,” Janice muttered, taking another backstep and colliding with a chair, “you know the intricacies of American slang cannot be easily dissected and understood fully without further research…there is also an arbitrary element at work, which we must take into account…”

“Good Lord, you are becoming an academic.”

Janice gaped at her, hurt. “That was low!”

“My apologies, Assistant Professor Covington.” Mel grinned at her; then, gradually, both the smile and the warm blush faded. “Did you sleep at all this morning?”

“Huh?” The archaeologist feigned ignorance. “Sure, once you were gone. You take up a lot of space.” As do the nightmares in my head. “And you snore like an old man,” she added softly.

The smile returned to Mel’s face. “No one says you have to sleep with me.”

“Actually, it’s in the ‘Rules for Pussywhippers’ handbook. I must suffer for love.”

“Perhaps,” Mel suggested, “I should just ask Paul about this word. Hmmm?” She turned on her heel for the door.

The little blonde panicked; she knew Paul would crack as soon as Mel took the meatloaf away from him. With a running leap, Janice jumped her, piggybacking effortlessly onto Mel’s back. The Southerneroofed in surprise, then giggled, but bore the weight effortlessly, instinctively grabbing the legs that locked around her waist, and opting not to think about the dirty heels digging into her clothes. “Is thispussywhipping?” she asked in mock innocence. “Or a prelude to, perhaps?”

Janice laughed. “Will you stop for a minute?” She tightened her arms slightly around Mel’s neck and shoulders.

“I will find out what that word means,” the translator proclaimed.

“Of that I have no doubt. You’re the most stubborn woman I ever did meet.”

“You bring it out in me,” accused Mel.

No snappy retorts came to Janice’s mind. She was too close to the nape of Mel’s neck, and inhaled her scent with the ferocity of a junkie. The roller coaster rush through her blood left her dazed and senseless, and resistant to sequential thought. “How’s your Italian?” she mumbled into Mel’s ear.

“What? Oh, just fine. It’s sittin’ in the back of my brain, with my French and my Latin, playin’ backgammon. Why?”

“That’s a surreal answer.”

“Such a non sequitur deserves it.”

Janice kissed her cheek. Several times.

“Hmm. That’s a better non sequitur.”

“Baby,” the archaeologist purred, “we’re going to Venice.”

Mel craned her neck to look at Janice in surprise. “You changed your mind?” In previous discussions concerning the conference, Mel had taken Janice’s lack of interest as a sign they would not be going. The translator had been surprisingly disappointed, wondering, with some amusement, if she herself were the one growing restless.

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

Good question, wondered Janice. I just got caught up in the chase again. Figures as soon as I accept settling down, it starts up again. “Tell ya later,” she replied as Paul stomped back into the room.

“Hey, you guys are out of—” he stopped, blinking in surprise at this playfulness. Simple horseplay, or Lesbian foreplay? I don’t want to know, do I? Whatever it was, the obvious love made him feel about a dozen kinds of ambivalence.

But that happy look in Mel’s eyes, and her big grin, seemed to override everything for him at that moment. “We’re goin’ to Venice,” she blurted, like a kid, breathless, as she lugged Covington toward the door.

Paul managed a small, wry smile. “Send me a postcard,” he said wistfully.

2. The Spell, Unbroken: Venice, 1948

For Jennifer Halliwell Davies, another trip to Venice was…another trip to Venice. The city was like a drowning woman, a dying dowager thrown on a reef: It was alive, though just barely, and as such did not interest her. She could not even remember how many times she had been in the city, let alone this particular palazzo, one of many built during the Renaissance by the powerful Cornaro family.

But there was one thing in Venice that interested her: a certain woman, who stood in the crowd milling in the courtyard below.

She’d had a premonition—well, not exactly that. She’d met a fellow in the hotel bar the night before, some poor anthropology professor from Harvard, who hit her up for as many vodkas as she was willing to buy. And when she discovered that the chap knew Janice Covington and had said that the esteemed archaeologist was attending the conference as well, Jenny would have stormed Moscow itself and raided Stalin’s liquor cabinet just to keep him talking.

And there she was.

Jenny hid herself, allowing a large vase to provide her cover, as she stared at Janice through her turista binoculars.

Upon closer inspection through the looking glass, she noted that Janice wore a man’s white oxford shirt, bright against her tanned arms, and it looked clean. Must’ve been laundry day yesterday. The pants were khaki, as they usually were, and the wild strawberry blonde tresses were twined carelessly into a messy braid. The only things missing were the leather jacket and the foul fedora, older than the Dead Sea Scrolls. Perhaps the abomination passing as a millinery item had finally faced its overdue demise. Nonetheless, the good doctor looked quite prepared to lead an impromptu expedition into the most appalling of canals.

Despite the never-changing attire, she thought Janice looked different somehow. The small article she encountered almost a year ago in Archaeology magazine, about the so-called Xena Scrolls and Dr. Covington’s role in their recovery, mentioned that she had served in the war…was that why Janice looked more mature? The archaeologist was nodding politely at the older woman who had engaged her in conversation—whom Jenny recognized as a White Russian expatriate, just another international dilettante like herself. Her brows knitted in curiosity as she realized what was different: There was no impatient, angry scowl on Janice’s face.

Jenny felt Linus’s presence before he said anything—or, more accurately, she felt his mustache tickle her ear. “You were right,” he burred.

She frowned, then lowered the binoculars. “Not totally useless, you know.”

Linus smiled. “Never said you were, darling.” His arm drew around her waist in an affectionate squeeze. “Aren’t you going to go say hello to her?”

“Should I?” She tapped the lens of the binoculars irritably, then pushed away a loose strand of her blonde hair. “I suppose it’s tempting.”

“I’ll leave it to you.” Linus touched the knot of his green silk tie for the umpteenth time. Then he slicked back his dark brown hair with the damp palm of his hand, twitched his mustache to make sure it was in place, then allowed his hand wander back to the tie.

“If you don’t stop fussing with that, I’m going to hang you with it,” his wife hissed. “You’re worse than a woman.”

He raised a thick eyebrow. “I always thought you liked that about me,” he parried pleasantly.

She smiled at the familiar retort. After almost ten years of marriage, the minutiae of their lives—the jokes, the jaunts, and the lovers, shared and not shared—flimsy on their own accord and meaningless when dissected, held them together more than any illusion of love or fidelity.

“You haven’t seen her in over five years,” her husband reminded her. “The spell is broken, is it not?”

She said nothing.

“You know what she’s like.” Linus prodded with the delicacy of a ham-handed surgeon. “Girl in every port….”

…and I was just lucky Alexandria was a stop on her itinerary.

“I would be surprised if she’s here alone. And,” he added, ignoring her homicidal glare, “Covington is an awful lot of bother. She breathes trouble like air.”

Jenny turned her gray eyes to her husband. “That was part of her appeal, you idiot,” she growled.

Linus rolled his eyes, unable to comprehend this. “Oh, righto. Forgot that bit. As I said, I’ll leave it all to you, dear. If I should run into her first, I’ll just tell her you’re at Baden Baden with the masseuse again and you can remain up here, hiding.”

He succeeded in making her laugh. His eyes crinkled as he grinned, then the lines softened as he grew serious.

“What?” she prompted.

“Don’t get hurt, hmm?” He kissed her cheek, then trotted down the stone steps leading into the garden and she turned her attention, once again, to the woman in her sights. “And Jenny?” he called, turning around suddenly to face her again.

“What?” she shouted irritably.

“Don’t give her any money!”

Oh, you cheap bastard. “Fine!” she retorted, as he melded into the crowd. With another sigh she put the small binoculars back in her purse, snapping the bag shut. I think I need another drink first. She lost herself for a few minutes, staring into the crowd. Linus wants to see her again. Wants her to come to Alexandria. What about what I want?

Jenny had to admit that she didn’t have a clue about that.

Italian purring emanated from just beyond the open doors of the palazzo. She knew, even with her back to them, that it was Vittorio Frascati, who owned the palazzo. She did not know him well—she vaguely recalled being introduced to him once before the war—but the old man, scion of a prominent Venetian family and descendent of a doge, was high profile among the wealthy international set. And now he was oozing his lecherous charm on some hapless female. “Is it not the finest Cornaro in Venice?” he was murmuring.

Jenny turned around, just for a peek. She expected to see some tittering blonde barely out of university, but this one made her raise an eyebrow appreciatively; Vittorio did have taste after all, she marveled. The small, dapper man had linked arms with a tall, bespectacled black-haired beauty, who smiled at him graciously. Jenny wondered if the woman was the wife or mistress of a famous man, or even, perhaps, famous herself. Her clothes were impeccable: a silk blouse of deep blue, a darker matching skirt, both items flattering and elegant.

The woman nodded at the old man. “Grazi, Vittorio,” the woman replied, honoring him in his native language. “You have been very generous with your time. And very helpful.”

“And you have been generous to humor a babbling old man, Melinda.” He squeezed her arm affectionately, then disengaged from her. “I hope you find what you are looking for.” He kissed her hand, smiled, and returned indoors to maintain his Gatsby-like aloofness from his own party.

Jenny found herself alone—and exchanging smiles—with the beautiful woman, who looked faintly embarrassed to have been fawning, however subtly, over a wealthy and powerful man.

“He’s quite a charmer,” Jenny said to the woman.

“That he is,” the woman agreed. Her low, indolent drawl was from the American South. She came closer to Jenny, and that was when the Englishwoman noticed that the stranger was about half a foot taller than she, almost as tall as her husband. “If I wanted to marry for money, he’d be the one,” the Southerner added.

Jenny tried to stifle a grin. “You seem the type who would marry for love instead.”

The woman smiled mysteriously and said nothing, but absently touched a ring on the smallest finger of her left hand. It was a silver ring, a nice complement to the expensive watch (Cartier) and the pearl earrings (real).

“I’m Jennifer Davies,” she said, offering a hand.

The tall woman enfolded it in one of her own. “Melinda Pappas.”

“Let me guess…”

“Hmmm?” Mel mused, raising an eyebrow.

“You’re from Virginia!”

It was the “Guess the Accent” game. Mel was well acquainted with it; it had made the first few months of living in New England sheer hell. “Er, no, I’m afraid not.”

“Tennessee?”

“No.”

“Kentucky?”

“No.”

“Definitely not Texas.”

“Certainly not,” Mel affirmed, a touch haughty.

“I’m afraid I’ve run out of Southern states,” Jenny said, almost apologetic.

“South Carolina,” Mel provided, the syllables languishing in her speech like Janice Covington on the sofa after one bourbon too many.

“Good heavens.” Jenny paused. “Does each compass point have a Carolina?”

Mel laughed. “No. Just North and South.”

“And what brings you to this party, this conference?”

“I’m a translator,” Mel supplied succinctly.

“How fascinating. I barely stumble through English, let alone any other language. What have you been working on?”

“Well, it’s a bit of an ongoing project. I’m translating a series of ancient writings, known as the Xena Scrolls.”

For once Jenny was glad she wasn’t drinking, for if she were, she would have choked.

Then providence, divine and sadistic, threw a sunbeam down to highlight the silver ring on Mel’s finger.

Oh bloody hell.

“So,” Jenny enunciated carefully, “you must know Dr. Covington.”

*****

Janice frowned in the general direction of the palazzo’s great doors, wondering where Mel was. She scowled into the dregs of her wineglass, then returned her gaze to the house. Venetian architecture failed to impress her, and she had opted not to go on the impromptu house tour that Count Frascati offered to her and Mel. But she knew Mel’s motivations were more than a desire to see the palazzo; the Southerner had hoped that the Count would know something about the Falconettos, the elusive, aristocratic family that had owned at least one scroll authored by Gabrielle of Poteidaia. So far all they knew of the family was that the patriarch had died at the end of the war and his son, his heir, could not be found.

The old maze of the city, though, intimidated her, and she frequently found herself getting lost whenever she was alone, tooling around the city with the ridiculous—and essentially useless—hand-drawn map that Mel had given her. “Don’t get lost,” Mel always said to her. And the archaeologist always scoffed at this: Lost? She, who could navigate all five boroughs of New York (even Staten Island!) with ease, who knew Alexandria and Cairo like the back of her hand, who, as an ambulance driver during the war, had the smallest streets of London and Paris committed to memory?

“Venice is a tricky city,” Mel had said. “It’s a changeling.” She had paused dramatically, and if you aren’t any kind of goddamn warrior you sure did inherit a sense of drama from that damn woman,Janice had thought to herself. “Kind of like the South,” Mel then added, both wistful and mysterious.

This was typical. Whenever Mel liked anything, it reminded her of the South. This is what I get for taking her up North, thought Janice, with a trickle of guilt. Endless nostalgia and romanticism.

Janice deposited the empty glass on a tray that sailed by, piloted by an overworked waiter. No sooner was it out of her hand than a fresh drink was thrust into her hand. “Hey!” she exclaimed, half-turning to berate the waiter. Who was already gone. Standing in his place was Jennifer Davies.

Oh shit. Janice’s sudden desire for Mel to be there was not because she wanted her lover to witness what could be a potentially ugly encounter, but because she knew that the ever-responsible Mel would, if nothing else, ensure a safe return to the hotel after Jenny had beaten her to a pulpy state of unconsciousness.

“Janice,” she purred.

“Jesus,” blurted the archaeologist.

“Not quite, love.” The Englishwoman sipped at a glass of pinot grigio. “Almost didn’t recognize you without the hat. And the jacket. You seem almost naked.”

Janice rolled her shoulders nervously, then squared them, both gestures dying for the roguish finishing touch of a leather jacket. She studied Jenny. The Englishwoman was still lovely, with her mess of dark golden curls now tamed into a respectable looking bun, her gray eyes, usually mischievous, still possessing a lively glint. But what that glint meant now, Janice was not sure. All she felt was gratitude that Jenny was not enamored of firearms. “Good to see ya,” Janice mumbled. Goddamnit, Mel, where are you?

“It’s surprising to see you.” Jenny swallowed. “I thought, for a while, you might be dead.”

Is her hand shaking? “What?”

“Not long after the war I ran into Andrew Curran. He said he saw you in London, in ’44. And they were sending you to the continent, right into the heart of it.”

Janice remembered that. She also remembered he borrowed ten quid and never paid her back. Andrew was a writer, an old friend and ex-lover of Jenny’s, and a RAF pilot during the war. “I’m glad Andrew made it.”

Jenny ignored this. “I’ve spent five years wondering what’s become of you.”

Shit oh shit. Somehow an I’m sorry seemed pointless in the face of this weighty fact. “Guess I shoulda sent word.”

“Perhaps. But eventually I knew you were all right: Your scrolls are making you well known.” Jenny sipped the wine. “You have them all now?”

A tiny frown, and a familiar furrowing of her brow. “Not all of them. There are more.”

“Really, Janice? Your translator thinks you’re wrong.” Jenny smiled, relishing the stunned look on her former lover’s face, and tilted her head. Janice followed the direction of the motion. They were not difficult to spot, because they were both two of the tallest people at the party: Linus and Mel, together, talking.

Shit oh shit oh shit. “You’ve met Mel.” Janice was, initially, too surprised to ignore the implications of what Jenny claimed Mel had said about the Scrolls.

“Quite by accident. We started talking, and found out we had a mutual acquaintance in you, my pet. Then I introduced her to my charming husband, and they’ve been blathering about Mayan architecture for the past twenty minutes. Terribly dull. Oh Janice, don’t glare at me like that. I’m not saying your little concubine is a bore. Actually, she’s not so little, is she?”

“No, she’s not,” snapped the archaeologist.

Rather defensive, thought Jenny. “Not that it’s a bad thing,” she amended.

“It’s not. I never have to worry about changing light bulbs or gettin’ things from the top shelf in the pantry.”

Always ready with the wisecrack, Janice. That hasn’t changed. “At any rate, she’s lovely, and very smart. Don’t worry. I said nothing to her of our…shared past, and I’m sure Linus won’t either.”

“I’m not worried about that.”

But Jenny could tell from the nervous clenching of the archaeologist’s jaw, that this wasn’t quite the given that it was declared to be. “To be frank, dear, I didn’t think she was your type.”

“If that’s your polite way of sayin’ she’s out of my league, I know that.” Janice glared at her.

“She’s out of everybody’s league, darling.” Jenny said it lightly, but felt it deeply, miserably, in her bones. She would have been prepared to compete with a woman—or even a man—for Janice’s affections, but not an Amazonian demigoddess. “They look good together,” Jenny observed, as they both watched Linus and Mel. “My husband and your lover. Both so tall. Like some Nazi-Nietzschean super breeding couple.” As she’d hoped, Janice did chuckle at that. Nice to see I can still make you laugh, if nothing else.

“And I thought I was pissed off about being short, Jenny.”

“I’m pissed off about a lot of things, love.”

“Even after five years, baby?” Janice raised an eyebrow.

Jenny resisted the diminutive and what it stood for: an obvious attempt at being charmed. Unfortunately, as she stared into the green eyes and ached to kiss the lips, she realized it was working. “She wears a ring.”

“Yeah,” Janice grunted. “Is that a crime or something?”

“No. But it’s the ultimate symbol of marriage, of commitment. Isn’t it?”

The infamous Covington sneer of defiance made an appearance. “So suddenly you’re an expert, since you’re married yourself? You might as well wipe your ass with that piece of paper, baby.”

Ah, Janice, I have missed you. I needed to feel something, and you’re it. Who else would talk to me like this, who would let the truth fly like that? She wanted to take Janice in her arms, and forgive her, and make all the promises that she knew she couldn’t keep. Our mutual marriages appear to be in the way of that. Mine has always been flexible. But yours? She watched Janice watch Mel. This was also something new, this naked look, a vulnerability slowly crossing Covington’s face, like a blind man negotiating an intersection.

“Just admit it. You’re in love with her. And it’s something bigger than anything you ever felt for me.”

The slender archaeologist closed her eyes. “Jenny, don’t do this. Don’t start.” A little too late for that, big mouth, Janice chastised herself.

“I’m not starting anything. I’m finishing it.” Jenny glared into her wine, watching the surface of the liquid spin like a hula hoop. “You left it a bit sloppy, a bit unfinished in Alexandria. Didn’t you?”

Alexandria. It was the last time they had been together. Janice remembered little of it: Hazy golden blurs of fucking, of drinking. Of the haunting urge that built in her head to see Mel again, until it became so strong and desperate that she sold her mother’s wedding ring just to get enough money to buy a plane ticket home. She had left Jenny without saying goodbye. She still remembered sitting on the edge of the bed, money in her hand, watching Jenny sleep. And then moving, as if in a dream, for the door. “I guess I did,” Janice replied softly. “I regret that.” The musing tone gave to the words all the weight and substance of a feather. But it felt, to Janice, as if she were now a different person, someone not capable of that behavior. For she could never see herself doing that to Mel, ever again. Especially since I gave you a ring and I said I didn’t need a ceremony or a church or a God. I don’t need anything except you.

Jenny, of course, knew none of this, and even if she did, would have remained as impassively impressed as she was now. “A hell of an apology.”

Okay, I tried noble, now I’m back to the bitch. “Well, what the fuck do you want from me?” snapped Janice.

She wanted to slap Janice hard—very, very hard. But instead, she opted for the humiliation of throwing the wine in her face. The sudden violence of the gesture had the emotional impact she wanted, as she watched the archaeologist flinch ever so slightly.

“Try to explain that to your dashing Southern belle,” she said quietly.

*****

Inevitably, at any type of social gathering, Mel eventually reverted to wallflower status; she felt most happy quietly observing other guests. Especially Janice. At the moment, however, the archaeologist was not visible from where she sat, on a stone bench, at the periphery of the crowd.

But suddenly Janice was walking quickly toward her, whistling tunelessly and betraying her nervous restlessness by tapping a clenched fist against her thigh. Mel straightened in distress when she noticed the dampness of Janice’s cheeks. Crying? she wondered. But once the small blonde sat down next to her she realized it was not the tracks of tears, but a sheen of white wine. Luminous clear drops were falling happily, willingly, into her cleavage.

“Oh dear. And we were proceeding so nicely, without incident.” Mel murmured. She handed her companion a clean yet wrinkled napkin. Janice blotted her face dry. “Could have been worse, I suppose,” she added, discreetly checking for bloodstains or bruises.

“I suppose,” echoed Janice with a sigh. “But white wine does possess a certain sting.”

“Would you care to tell me what happened between you and Mrs. Davies?”

“Mrs. Davies?”

“She was the last person I saw you talking with. Did she do this…?” Mel gestured at her lover’s face.

“Ah, dear Mrs. Davies.”

“Yes. What of Mrs. Davies?”

“This conversation is beginning to remind me of that crazy book you were trying to make me read.”

The “crazy book” was by Gertrude Stein. What Mel found to be a fascinating exercise in the modern use of language had sent Janice scurrying for the comfort of her old friends Raymond Chandler and Dash Hammett.

“Don’t change the subject, darling. Especially when it’s about a woman who still seems to be in love with you.”

“So you figured that out, huh?”

“Yes. I’m pretty good at decoding the obvious. You should have seen me when the Hindenberg blew up.”

Mel had hoped to bring a smile to the that lovely face, but instead Janice frowned, wrapping the napkin around her fist, the white contrasting with her tanned hand, like a bandage. Like the gauze and cloth slapped on her during the war, like the handkerchief Harry gave her when she scraped her knuckles on rocks during an excavation in Macedonia. Four days later he was dead and all she had was his handkerchief, covered with her own blood, and his dreams, and his debts. “I didn’t know she’d be here,” Janice admitted quietly.

“Of course not. But when…when were you with her?”

Janice continued to stare at her hand, watching the white cotton flutter as she wiggled her fingers within it. “Last time I saw her was in ’43. It was one of those on again, off again things. I met both of them…” she exhaled, scowled in thought. “….oh, I think it was 1940. Harry called their set ‘the international dilettantes.’ They threw parties, they traveled, they nosed around on digs, acting all curious and trying to buy anything that struck their fancy. No one took them seriously. They were kind of on the fringe of things. In a way, so was I, but no one could say that I didn’t do my time in the field, and that I wasn’t serious about what I was doin’.” She shot Mel a wry look. “I thought you were one of them, Mel, one of those types, when I first met you.”

Mel shrugged. “Well, I guess I am,” agreed the Southerner.

“No,” teased Janice, “you’re a debutante, not a dilettante, honey.”

“Gosh, I do get those words mixed up in my pretty little head!” Mel drawled.

Janice laughed. “There’s a lot in that pretty little head, I know. In fact, I’ve always thought you should be the one teaching, not me. I’m just a digger at heart. Anyway,” Janice continued with a sigh, “we kept running into Jenny and Linus—Athens, Cairo, Syria, you name it. They were always around. Eventually we all became friends…and, with Jenny, more than that.”

“And Linus? Did he know? Does he know?”

Janice snorted derisively. “Oh yeah. He knew all right. In fact, he gave me money for a couple of my digs. ‘Cause I was fucking his wife and keeping her happy.”

“This made him happy?” Mel frowned, confused.

“Linus and Jenny have what you might call a marriage in name only. He’s nouveau riche, Canadian. His family was looking to make themselves classy by marrying off their dissolute son to a woman with background. Jenny’s got the lineage, her father is a squire or something stupid like that…they have this big country house…but no cash flow. It’s a perfect set-up. They’re fond of each other, and for all I know they may even fuck each other every once in a while, but usually they go their separate ways when it comes to companionship of that kind.”

“Oh.” Mel blinked, pondered something meaningful to say. “At least she’s not a Nazi.”

Janice laughed in amazement. “No, she’s not. She’s worse.” Morosely she stared at the ground, then scrutinized Mel. “You’re taking this awfully well,” she accused.

“I don’t see the point of getting upset over something that’s already happened.” Mel chewed her lip. How to convey reassurance, with an innocuous touch, what inept words cannot…whoever thought that language would fail me, of all people? Even now there were moments when she could not trust her body, her movements, as if any casual sign of affection would tell the world what she was, and what she felt. Her fingers twitched, she steadied her hand, and plucked at the khaki pant leg, gently, teasingly.

Janice looked at her.

“I don’t care about that.”

Jesus, I do not deserve you. “Damn this stupid thing. Why did we come to this party anyway?”

“It was your idea,” Mel reminded her.

Janice made a pretense at scanning the crowd. “I thought we should get out. Some people might think fucking in a hotel room for a whole day is unhealthy.”

“I wouldn’t take you to be one of those types, Janice.”

“And I never thought you’d turn out to be a sex fiend with unlimited energy.” Janice reached out and took the wineglass from the large hand, permitting her fingers a brief electric entanglement with Mel’s own. “But you are, aren’t you?”

Mel thought, for a moment, that Venice had just sunk another inch.

The archaeologist drained the glass. She swallowed. Her lips glittered, wet.

“Do you want to go back to the room?” Janice asked. She pressed the empty glass into Mel’s hand. Her palm brushed along the knuckles curled loosely around the expensive Venetian stemware.

She took the soft smash of Vittorio’s fine wineglass as a yes.

*****

In the sanctuary of their rooms at the Hotel Danieli, Jenny lit up a cigar in honor of Covington. She puffed furiously. Like to see that Southern ninny try to smoke one of these. The spiteful thought came too soon, as the smoke strangled her and she proceeded to hack violently. It’s like tasting death.

Linus emerged from the large bathroom while unknotting his tie to find his wife sprawled, unladylike, on the couch, her skirt hitched up to dangerous heights and a cigar in her mouth. “You know,” he began, “Byron called Venice ‘Sodom on the Sea.’ ” He sat down next to her, draping a large hand on her bare thigh, not in the least tempted by the smooth skin. “So one would think, whatever your misfortunes with the lovely doctor, you would find a bit of…entertainment elsewhere.” He squeezed her leg with gentle affection. “The night is still young.”

She unfurled smoke at him in lieu of a response.

He coughed loudly. “Darling, put that foul thing out before we all go up in flames.”

She dropped it in the half-empty champagne glass. It fizzled, just like all those hopes I had of being back in your bed, Janice.

Linus took her hand. “Look, I know it bloody hurts, but she’s happy. Can’t you tell?”

“Yes.” She flopped against him and pressed her face in the dark soft night of his black jacket. No crying. Not yet. Not now. She took a deep breath, its jagged rhythm suggesting the inhalation of broken glass. It fucking feels like that, anyway. “She’ll be coming to Alexandria?” The tiny pleading voice was almost lost against the breadth of the jacket.

He shrugged. “The invitation was proffered to both of them. You can lead a horse to water….”

“…but she’ll end up drinking bourbon anyway.” Jenny sighed and sat up. She stared at the ceiling, then at her husband. Time to ask the tricky question. “Lye, this really has nothing to do with me, does it?”

His standard trick, in attempting to look innocent, was widening his dark eyes.

Why do you want Janice in Alexandria?” she asked slowly, knowing she would get the answer he always gave, the answer that, in his so-called line of work, he couldn’t help but give her.

He smiled. “You know what I’m going to say…”

“Say it anyway.”

He rubbed his chin. “I need to keep an eye on her.”

*****

Mel had decided that they should never leave the hotel room. Because she was both deliciously happy, yet deeply mortified. What kind of looks might they get when they dared to leave the sanctuary of the room again? If this were a room in the Bible Belt, we might get away with saying we were holding a small revivalist meeting or something. I could even throw in a hallelujah. For, if the proverbial fly on the wall were, say, a blind nun, this creature would have been most impressed by the Christian devotion of Dr. Covington, as she chanted “Jesus” over and over again, so lovingly, so frequently, so breathlessly.

The repetition had indeed made Mel downright nervous, triggering dormant Methodist tendencies, and distracting from the extremely pleasant task of servicing the good doctor. Blasphemy upon blasphemy. I really am going to hell…if I still believe in that. Her quasi-theological ruminations derailed as Janice climaxed, blonde head slamming back into a soft, fat pillow, with one final cry for Christ. Her mouth glistened, as if she had swallowed stars, and her eyes were dazed, unfocused, and happy.

But I think it’s worth it.

“Keeps getting better and better,” mumbled Janice, before rolling on her stomach and falling into a light slumber. Mel indulged a bad habit and sprawled practically on top of her, cheek against shoulder blade, hips to butt. She was on the precipice of sleep herself when the soft growl of Janice’s voice reverberated against her.

“I was a shit.” The words were almost smothered by the pillow to which they were addressed.

Mel could not see her face. “What?”

“With Jenny. I was a shit.”

Her hand swept down and felt the scars along Janice’s thigh, then the resultant shudder that the touch brought, one of desire or remembrance, she did not know. She wondered if Janice herself knew. An “I don’t care” tumbled out of her mouth. It was true. It also appeared cruel somehow. She wondered, ever so briefly, why she didn’t. Love, the great blind spot.

“You should.”

“Why?”

“The last time I was with her…I could think of nothing but you.” Janice whispered this, sighed, then stretched, the action rippling her body.

Mel rode the current of flesh. “Am I too heavy for you?”

“No. Don’t move.” And she added, almost shyly, “I like it.”

Some emotion caught Mel by desperate surprise, a nameless, rootless anxiety, and she knew now Janice’s own fear of having it all taken away, of the dream dissolved. She thought of the other woman who, in this city, at this moment, also loved Janice Covington. If fate were crueler, she wouldn’t be here now. Usually, Mel possessed a powerful ability to find common ground with others; empathy had caught up with her at last.

“I love you anyway,” she said.

3. Lucky: Cambridge, 1949

Dr. James Snyder sat at his desk, focusing a passionate amount of attention on his pen. He twirled it in his fingers, aligned it with the stack of papers in front of him, picked it up again.

“You don’t think she’ll bring a gun, do you?” he muttered, half-joking.

The Dean, sitting on a worn leather couch near his desk, only smiled.

“Of course, you’ve heard the rumors….”

“Hmm,” was the Dean’s noncommittal reply.

“…she killed an entire Nazi patrol single-handedly. Didn’t she get some sort of commendation? And I have a colleague at the University of Texas who said that she pistol-whipped him.”

The Dean pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Oh, dear.” This response did little to assuage Snyder. “I’m relatively certain that Dr. Covington is capable of behaving herself, Snyder. We’ve had no incidents in the two years she’s been on staff.” Just a rash of infatuated coeds, he thought.

Nonetheless, when the door opened and the small woman, wearing dark trousers and a rumpled khaki shirt, strode into his office without being formally invited, Snyder felt his palms go clammy and every muscle in his back knot itself. He was not comforted either by the tall woman who lingered shyly near the door. Great, she’s brought back-up. He only knew of Melinda Pappas via her rising professional reputation, but wrongly assumed that the translator was as ill-tempered as her companion.

“Hiya, Snyder,” Janice said as she flopped in the chair facing his desk. She nodded at the Dean, who sat at her left. “Hiya, Dean.”

The Dean grinned, amused. “Hello, Janice.”

The archaeologist craned her neck to gaze back at Mel. “Join the party, Stretch.”

Mel rolled her eyes, and reluctantly approached. She was not faculty and enjoyed no special status, despite tutoring and being a regular denizen of the library, and thus felt uncomfortable at being privy to matters among the staff. Even if it they were about the Scrolls. But Janice had insisted that she attend the meeting. You’re my partner, Janice had said. And, she thought as she took the seat next to Covington,I really like the sound of that.

“Hullo, Miss Pappas,” Snyder said.

“Hello, Dr. Snyder. How are you?”

“Oh, just fine.” He smiled at the polite, blue-eyed beauty. “Stretch, huh?”

“Um.”

“Didn’t know folks call you that.”

“They don’t,” Mel replied firmly. She flicked a sidelong glare at Janice, who shrugged.

Snyder blinked. “Oh.”

A stake was now driven through the heart of casual conversation.

Janice cleared her throat. “Why are we here, Snyder? I assume it has to do with the dating of the Scrolls.”

“Correct, Dr. Covington. Er, the results of the carbon dating are in.”

“And?” Janice prodded impatiently.

“Well, it is a little later than you initially thought.”

The archaeologist shrugged. “They were damn difficult to date. That’s why I was so broad on time period.”

“I quite understand. In general, that’s the safest, most practical route. But now with the advent of radiocarbon dating, we can be much more accurate. Statistical probability is the basis in calculating the half-life of C-14, but no one can really predict the rate of decay, and a standard deviation exists in every case, which is—”

“Snyder, I don’t need a fucking lecture on the process, okay? Just tell me what you found.”

The befuddled and frightened academic mumbled something which sounded like “churlish beans in sentry.” In fact, this was precisely what he said. For within the great roaming recesses of his mind he thought that perhaps Covington would be satisfied with this response, would smile, shake his hand, declare him a genius, perhaps even buy him a drink.

Instead, her gaze cut him like a diamond on glass. She straightened from her lounging, relaxed position. He saw her flex her hands and became utterly convinced that even her fingernails possessed muscles. “Come again?” she requested smoothly.

Snyder swallowed, thought a quick prayer and a farewell to his wife. “The early sixteenth century.”

Another silence dropped, like a theater curtain after a botched performance.

Until it was broken by Janice. “Are you shitting me?”

“Calm down, Janice,” the Dean urged.

The only thing that kept Janice from jumping up was the sudden warm hand that, mindless of their location and the parties present, gave her leg a comforting squeeze. She looked quickly at Mel, whose stunned expression nonetheless betrayed the assurance of the gesture. “There has got to be a mistake,” snarled the archaeologist. Mel nodded numbly. “This is still a very new procedure. Someone made a mistake.”

It was now Snyder’s turn to be riled. “No mistakes can be made in this process. I checked the results several times. I dated several pieces of parchment.”

Now heedless of the hand, the archaeologist stood up and began pacing. “But the typology of the instruments—the scroll casing, the stiles—it all fit in with the time period.”

“The stratigraphy confirmed this?” asked the Dean.

“Yes! Do you know how far down I had to go? They were in a tomb, for Christ’s sake!”

“Those artifacts—the scroll case and the writing tools—did date well within the time frame you assigned,” Snyder agreed. “As did some of the pottery you brought from the same location. But it’s the actual scrolls themselves that do not: the paper.”

“So this was all a ruse. They’re fakes.” Helpless, inconsolable for the moment, Janice leaned against the windowsill. It was the only thing that kept her standing.

“Or very cunning duplicates of the original Xena Scrolls,” Mel added softly.

The Dean smiled. He didn’t know Covington’s partner well, but what he knew, he liked.

But before he could pursue this line of thought, Snyder threw in, “Oh, who cares how real they are!” The women and the Dean stared at him. “They’re a fascinating discovery! Somebody was clever enough to write in ancient Greek, use the proper materials to make them look like ancient scrolls, found a case somewhere, then buried them for posterity, thinking they played a massive joke on the world. You know, like that MacPherson fellow, who invented Ossian.”

“Or they are copies of the original scrolls, which are still missing, as Miss Pappas proposed,” the Dean added. “What do you think, Dr. Covington?”

Janice’s fury was spent for the time being, otherwise the hand pressed against the cool windowpane of Snyder’s office would’ve been bloodied by shattered glass. “I don’t know what to think,” she whispered.

“I know what I think,” the Dean retorted. “I think you’re lucky.”

Janice shot him a curious yet homicidal glance.

“Your father spent his entire professional life looking for those scrolls. Yet you, barely thirty, made this discovery, and in a war zone, no less. They may not be the real thing. But they’re a damned sight closer—and more interesting—than anything Harry Covington found.”

“Watch what you say about my father, old man,” Janice grunted.

“Janice.” Mel sounded the warning.

“My father laid the foundation for me to find what I did. He did thirty fuckin’ years of legwork chasing after these. If he hadn’t died when he did, he would’ve found them.” She drew a breath to refuel her fury. “If you want me off the faculty now, fine. I don’t give a rat’s ass. I didn’t have much of a reputation before I came here. It doesn’t matter to me. So I’ll resign.”

Alarmed, Mel stood up. “No. Wait a minute—” She exchanged a look with her lover. How much of the bravado was shock, and wounded pride? Janice’s desire for legitimacy—for someone to take her work seriously—was very much a part of why she accepted the position at the university. It complemented her wish—however tenuous it seemed at times—for a stable life.

“That isn’t what I want,” the Dean replied quietly. “I want you to find the real scrolls.”

“You believe they exist,” Janice stated warily.

“I believe that if they do exist, you’ll find them. And if this is, as Snyder suggests, some kind of fantastic fraud, you’ll find that out as well.”

“All for the greater glory of the old alma mater, eh?”

Once again, the Dean proffered his smug smile. “Anything you uncover would benefit the university, as long as you are under its auspices. And as far as I’m concerned, you are.” The older man stood up. “Let’s give you a year to come up with something. I know that doesn’t seem like much time, but if, at the end of that year, you give me enough reason to continue the search, I’ll extend the expedition. After you spend a semester in the classroom, of course.”

The Dean extended his hand for Janice to shake. She stared at him suspiciously. “Don’t be a bad sport, Covington. I’m giving you an opportunity to do what you do best. And you’re damned good at it, I know that. Have a proposal on my desk in six weeks.”

Her hands remained idly on her hips.

He chuckled and withdrew his hand. “I look forward to seeing what you’ll do.” He winked and picked up his walking stick, and a hat. “I’ll get my money’s worth out of you, my girl.” He nodded at Snyder and Mel. “Dr. Snyder, Miss Pappas, good day.”

Janice was staring into space. “Money’s worth?” she mumbled. Her gaze snapped to the doorway where the Dean had departed. She stomped over to the door, flung it open, and shouted down the hallway at his retreating form: “You already get your money’s worth out of me, you old sonofabitch! Do you know how fucking low my salary is? You’re wringing me dry, you cheap bastard!” She drew in another breath with which to launch another tirade, relented, growled, and stormed down the hallway after slamming the door.

Mel yanked her glasses off her face with a groan and massaged her temples.

Snyder gave her a timid look. “She really doesn’t want tenure, does she?”

*****

The odd, arrhymic typing of Mildred, the department secretary, was punctuated by the strange thwaps emerging from one of the offices nearby. She paused in her task, wondering when the noise would cease, and if the perpetuator would notice that her typing had stopped, but the angry sounds continued. She sighed, and took a cigarette out of the pack she kept in her top desk drawer. She was halfway through the cigarette, and pecking halfheartedly at the letter in the typewriter, when Mel arrived.

The stout middle-aged woman exchanged a look with the Southerner. “You want the bourbon?” Mildred asked. She hadn’t the chance to ask Janice if the professor wanted the emergency bottle of hooch—the little archaeologist had barreled past her with such speed and anger.

Mel shook her head. “I don’t think letting her drink will help in this instance.”

“Actually, I meant for you, honey.”

The translator laughed so faintly that it was barely an exhale of breath. “Ah, no, I don’t think so.” A finger stemmed the tide of her eyeglasses, sliding down her nose.

“If I hear screams I’ll call the police,” Mildred remarked as Mel entered the sanctum sanctorum.

The lack of time spent in the office was reflected in its bare décor; the assistant professor was rarely in it except to brood and meet the occasional student. Pieces of wood—representing two and a half years’ worth of grading midterms, finals, papers, and resisting the advances of romantically deluded students—were scattered on the floor, along with the woman responsible for them and the large, cracked dent in the side of the desk. Janice smoked a cigarette and regarded the pile of tinder, as if a merry little act of arson would cap her day.

“Paul Bunyan,” Mel said. She half-leaned, half-sat along the desk.

“Get me an ax, then, so I can destroy it properly.” A baseball bat, which lay beside her, worked well when she grew tired of kicking the desk, but a sharp object would be ever so more pleasing.

“You’re very lucky the dean likes you, honey.”

“Lucky!” Janice exploded. “You’re as bad as he is.” She pushed at the woodpile with the toe of her boot. “I should have let Kleinman keep them,” she said softly.

“No, you shouldn’t have,” Mel countered. “They may not be the Scrolls, but they are still Gabrielle’s words. And as such they are sacred.”

Janice ignored this. “Why does it seem impossible to get to point B from point A?” she mused. “I thought I was already there. Thought I had them.” Thought I had it all. She looked at Mel, who had her arms crossed and was staring into space, thoughtfully. I am incomplete without you, but I’m incomplete without them as well.

“Zeno,” Mel muttered absently.

“Huh?”

“One of his paradoxes, about how all motion is impossible. ”

“Oh. Yeah.” Janice, in reality, had totally forgotten anything to do with Zeno, or much of anything she was forced to read as an undergraduate. “Is there really a Gabrielle or a Xena? Are we so sure that these just weren’t stories our fathers created? They fed us these legends, these make-believe stories. We ate it all up. We were kids. And then it seeped into our subconscious, these myths. They’re universal. A shared hallucination.”

“I never suspected you were a Jungian, Janice.”

“Are we descendants of heroes and bards, or forgers and pranksters?”

Mel’s lips tightened, set in their familiar stubborn grimace. “You deny what you know to be true.”

“Do I?”

“You have the dreams.”

Janice said nothing. How long did you think she would say nothing, would wordlessly hold you after you wake up screaming? How long would she politely ask you how you’ve been sleeping, and settle for your half-hearted lies?

“Will you sit there and tell me that those nightmares you have…that they’re just about the war? Can you tell me that?”

The dreams were about the war, at the very least. What her mind refused during the day, what it would not acknowledge, her body whispered in the ragged gossamer of scars: This happened to you. And then the brain would finally rebel, subconsciously.

More recently, they were tenacious—and they went further than ever, extending into a darker past: Lying in snow, stomach bathed in blood, daylight faltering around her, in the blue glow of a winter world devoid of sun. She looks at her hand, watches it fall…onto a plank of wood, where it is bound by a Roman soldier.

And what was too horrible to contemplate, too awful to bear, was that she doesn’t die alone. There is a broken body next to hers. Yet you managed to smile for me.

I still remember the first time you smiled at me—really, truly smiled. It was hesitant, shy, belying the reputation of the warrior and the coldness of your eyes. This piece of you—so fallible, so human, you gave to me. The stupid, stubborn farm girl who followed you.

“Hey.” It was Mel’s soft drawl, snapping the spell. The chill she experienced every time after the dream was aroused once again, and the hairs on her arms stood, stiff in fright. Until Mel smoothed them, rubbing warmth with her palms.

Janice swallowed, stood up. She simmered, paced. Mel sighed inwardly, and waited for the inevitable.

“Goddammit!” she screamed, and kicked the desk once again. More chips of wood spiraled from the desk, like gymnasts executing backflips.

Mildred is calling the police.

A finger, not as callused as it was once when they first met, was thrust at the translator. “It may be all fine and well for you to hear fucking little voices inside your head, but not me, baby! Not me!”

Or maybe she is finishing off the last of that bourbon.

“I thought that I really accomplished something: I found the Xena Scrolls. They were real—or so I believed. And then, I thought, just maybe, I could have a simple life. Where I could just be myself. Not the descendent of some naïve brat who changed personal philosophies like underwear. Not the daughter of some obsessed grave-robbing bastard carrying on the crazy family legacy. I wanted it all normal.” She regarded Mel thoughtfully. “You made me want that. Just a house. A steady job. And a girl who loves me.”

I know, Janice, I know. I’ve wanted the same thing. “Come here,” Mel commanded.

She hesitated in the face of the gentle order, remembering the same words in different circumstances: The first time they made love, when she had stood, fixed in the doorway, neither resisting nor giving in, afraid to take the leap into the bedroom, until Mel, sitting on the bed, had uttered those two words. She had felt as if she were opening up Pandora’s box, propelled by an unknown energy and motion, by fatal curiosity. And she felt that way again, without knowing why. Afraid of what you’ll find.

Janice permitted herself to be held, to let Mel prop her chin upon her head. And afraid of what I’ll lose. I lost Harry to this search, even before he died.

The blue of the dream was the abyss and the salvation at once, beribboned together.

Mel pulled back and looked at her. And the blue of these eyes? “Weeks ago you were excited at the prospect that there were still scrolls out there to be found.”

“That was when I thought they were real.”

“They are real.”

Janice said nothing, frowned, let Mel’s thumb press a temporary cleft in her chin.

“It’ll be you and me, under the stars,” she said.

As it has been, so it shall be again.

“How bad can that be?”

Janice did not know. They hugged once again, she placed her head against Mel’s shoulder, and for the moment she could ignore the chill of the dream and could draw upon the strength of Mel’s words. She loved the certain, the tangible, the sure thing. Now she gave herself over to words not written down, belief neither felt nor seen, and a love that, more often than not, she did not understand, nor felt she deserved.

Part II: Imaginary Consequences

This is what we bring to the temple, not prayer or chant or slaughtered rams. Our offering is language.

—Don DeLillo, The Names

1. Regeneration

Ravenna, Italy

Autumn, 1950

The archaeologist stood in the pit and held a small object, clumped with dirt. Her lower lip, already mashed and ragged with worry over something far more important, endured more of a workover as her filthy thumbnail carefully shaved away moist dirt.

The boy who discovered the piece, 17 and on his first dig, watched her expectantly, nervously shifting his weight from leg to leg. He was eager to impress the beautiful blonde American, and was confident he could do so: He was the only person on site she had not yelled at. Even her friend, the tall woman who usually followed her everywhere, received the brunt of Dr. Covington’s anger at one point or another; and thus he had come under the impression that she favored his intellect and his instinct more than anyone else on the dig. He did not know that the real reason she had not yelled at him was because she remembered, all too well, what it was like be too young, too ambitious, and too rash.

In fact, thought Janice as a layer of dirt gave way and revealed a very dull razor circa 1923, she still felt that way surprisingly often.

The boy tensed, awaiting the barrage of English obscenities to fall on his head. Tebaldi, the Italian archaeologist acting as foreman and interpreter, also winced.

Janice drew a deep breath and hoped it would calm her. It did succeed in preventing her from taking the kid’s head off, and for that she was grateful. She forced a grim smile, and gently grasped his arm. “Better luck next time,” she said in her wretched Italian. As she stalked away, Tebaldi’s elephantine shadow followed. The large man walked daintily, as if on eggshells. She slowed her pace, both so that he could match it and that she could better snarl at him. “You, on the other hand, should have known better.”

Tebaldi shrugged apologetically. “He wouldn’t listen to me. He wanted you to see it.”

“Don’t waste my fucking time right now,” she snapped. She pulled canvas gloves out of a back pocket and slipped them on. Grabbing the pulley rope, she scampered out of the pit, just like the Harvard-trained monkey she is, he thought angrily. But she always has to play the tough guy. Just like her father. He lumbered over to the makeshift steps leading out of the pit, made from wooden slats and packed clay.

However, when he reached the top of the steps and saw how upset she was, his anger dissipated. She flicked away drops of sweat from her face with the brim of the fedora, then ran a dirty hand through her limp hair. “When will the doctor be here?” she murmured. She would not look at him. Her thumb dragged a line of dust across the ribboned headband of her hat.

“In about an hour,” Tebaldi replied.

Janice said nothing, but put the fedora back on and walked toward the tent. Again, he followed, not knowing what else he could do.

When they arrived, he stood at the periphery, afraid to get too close to the sick woman, for none of them had any idea the origin of the fever that possessed her. Was it contagious? Tebaldi worried for a moment, and thought that perhaps he should not even be in the tent. But if Covington is not afraid, I won’t be either.

Normally, he did not approve of diggers who brought along their women to a site. Would a surgeon invite his wife into the operating room? Does a chef allow his mistress in the kitchen? But Covington’s woman was useful, at least until the onset of her illness: She wasn’t afraid of physical labor, she bore the workers’ flirtations and vulgarities with humor and good grace, and she spoke beautiful Italian. This last quality being, in Tebaldi’s eyes, her true saving grace.

And even now—even in her profoundly sick state—she mesmerized him. A long, bare leg, moored to the floor by the blanket tangled around the foot, hung out of the fragile cot. She wore nothing but a camisole and underwear. A dark edge of pubic hair escaped the white boundary of the cotton briefs and he felt momentarily aroused, then ashamed, then alarmed: Covington possessed a preternatural ability to sense—and expose—baser instincts in men. The last thing he needed was her fist in his face. But fortunately, she was too occupied by the care of her friend—she gathered the blanket off the floor and covered her friend’s legs, mopped the sweat from the sick woman’s brow, and began to take her pulse.

“Do you need anything?” Tebaldi croaked nervously.

It startled Janice. She had forgotten all about him. “No,” she replied curtly. Then, in a gentler tone: “Please bring the doctor here as soon as he arrives.”

He nodded and left.

As much as she was relieved to see the Italian go, Janice felt nervous—almost afraid—to be alone with Mel. The hopelessness of the situation sank her when she was by herself; under its deadweight, she had no reason for the pretense of strength. Even though Tebaldi sees right through it, she admitted to herself.

The rapid onset of the illness had been particularly alarming to Janice when she realized that, since the day they had met, she had never seen Mel sick in any serious way. The woman had survived severe New England winters with barely a cold to show for it, despite her absentminded tendency to run around without hats during snowstorms. On the other hand, Mel had nursed her through flu, seasickness, airsickness, menstrual cramps, hangovers, and gunshot wounds. It hardly seems fair, Mel had teased her once.

The strangeness of the fever also unsettled her. For a day now Mel, when conscious, spoke in languages…some that she did not understand, one that she vaguely identified as the language in the scrolls. The words chilled her, even though she did not understand them. Was Mel experiencing memories, dreams of Xena again?

The murmuring began anew. She leaned in closer. The translator’s eyes were closed; a tangle of incomprehensible words was borne upon a shallow strand of breath. Janice touched her lover’s cheek. Before she could even utter the name, Mel had her by the throat. The large, powerful hand pressed against her windpipe. Janice felt the world dim for a second before she was flung almost halfway across the tent.

Jesus Christ. Janice lay gasping, afraid to move. What was that? She swallowed, touched her neck, and sat up slowly. Mel was still prone on the cot, the arm that had effortlessly thrown a grown woman several feet hung limp and weak, knuckles grazing the floor.

She could have killed me. The realization came upon her with ferocity. Janice coughed feebly, then forced herself to stand up. Was this the time of reckoning, was this where they lived the inevitable reenactment of lovers dead for thousand of years? Absurd. Right? Resentment welled up in her at the ever-persistent undertow of the past—this particular past—which seemed insistent on pre-scripting their lives.

Yet—aside from that—the past few years were an idyll that she never knew was possible. Was there a price for that? Wasn’t there always, no matter who you were?

Warily she approached the cot, mindful of that long arm’s reach. But the painful, labored breathing scared her, and Janice forsook prudence for love.

Mel was staring up at her. Her eyes, so drained of color, showed some recognition of the woman leaning over her. She spoke slowly in her own accented English. “What’s happening to me?”

Janice swallowed painfully. “I don’t know.” I wish I did.

* * *

Snowflakes caught in her hair, and on her face. They melted. She could not move. A sledgehammer blocked the sun.

Mel opened her eyes. And saw nothing. She attempted movement. But could not move a muscle. Everything—arms, chest, legs—was immobile. Oh God, it’s true. It’s becoming true. She tried again to move. She struggled in silence, but soon her feral whimpers of frustration escalated into a full-throated scream.

Her cries subsided when she felt hands on her face and a distinct sound emerged from the surrounding chaos of her distress. “Mel!” Despite the soothing touch and the commanding, familiar voice, she could not stop her body from struggling.

The sudden light—even though soft and dim—hurt her eyes. But Janice’s face, paler and thinner, was before her, and her hands, cool and comforting, on her cheeks. “It’s okay, it’s okay. Shhhh. Shhh. Look at me. Look at me, darling. It’s okay.” Through her words and her caresses, Janice managed to coax her back into a lucid, calmer frame of mind, hysteria melted by this siren song of sanity. She was, however, too exhausted and confused to note the look of wild, desperate relief in Janice’s eyes.

“What happened?” Mel rasped.

Janice’s own emotions were now threatening to mutiny. “You’re in a hospital. You’ve been sick. Do you remember anything?”

Her legs ached. “I—remember too much.”

The archaeologist permitted the cryptic comment to pass. A nun hovered by the bed, holding a cup of cold water, scrutinizing the sick woman. Janice took it and pressed it to Mel’s mouth, and she drank greedily. “Easy now,” cautioned the archaeologist. Mel drank slower, then stopped.

The water tasted good; she could not remember water that ever tasted so good. It gave Mel the courage to ask the next question. “Why can’t I move?” she whispered. Am I paralyzed? A violent surge of helplessness shook her body, and the movement would have encouraged her had not fear and illness clouded her mind.

“They put restraints on you.” Janice looked to the Sister. “Per favore, rimovere questi,” she requested in her awkward Italian. She pointed to the leather straps. The nun agreed, nodding quickly, and left the room to fetch the doctor.

“Restraints?” Mel echoed huskily.

“Meningitis. You have—had—meningitis.” Janice took the cup away from her lips. “It was dangerous for you to move.” She turned quickly to camouflage her shaking hand—too quickly. The cup fell to the floor, its clatter dominating the room. She bent to retrieve it, and paused, kneeling on the floor, as if in prayer. Tears surged and she closed her eyes tightly, every muscle scrunched and fighting surrender. Not here. Not now.

“Janice? Are you all right?” Mel’s voice was hoarse from lack of use, almost unrecognizable.

Just turn around and don’t be a fucking baby. Cry later.

She stood up and turned around.

“You’re not sick too, are you?” But now Janice was comforted with the familiar: Mel’s face was already set in that usual stubborn, serious way she got when preoccupied with her companion’s health.

You come back from the dead and you worry about me. Janice burst into laughter. She figured it was better than crying.

* * *

Even after a week, she could smell the hospital on her skin, clinical and clinging.

Mel thought taking baths—many baths—would help. Enveloped by soft steam, she stretched out in the huge tub—an old-fashioned one with claw feet. It was big enough to accommodate her length; in fact, it almost dominated the small bathroom of the pensione where she and Janice stayed.

Idling in a bathtub, however, gave her more time to recount the sickening fascination the doctors had with her quick and full recovery from a disease that either debilitated or killed its victims. E stupefacente, the doctor from Rome had pronounced, expressing his astonishment. Acting as a medical pied piper, he led his more provincial colleagues on many a merry exploration of her body—she was thoroughly poked and prodded, not to mention violated in a manner that—well, she wasn’t certain she would even let Janice touch her like that.

She could lie down in the tub if she wanted to, but shuddered at the thought of entombment in water. Instead, she dunked her head for the briefest of seconds; she sat up, gulped for air, and saw Janice shuffling nervously in the doorway, hands tucked into pockets. “I, uh, had some food sent up. Are you hungry?”

“A little,” Mel replied. The unease between them troubled her. During those awkward medical examinations Janice had always been present, her apprehension indicating a resistance to what she witnessed.You weren’t expecting this, were you? To see this legacy in action. To see how my body really works. I was never sick a day in school. Bruises would disappear overnight. A broken arm from an auto accident had healed in two and a half weeks. Self-conscious and 18, Mel had worn the splint and bandages for another three weeks, merely to avoid the questions and the stares that she had received from the doctors and nurses at the hospital.

Was it presumptuous of her to think her illness had derailed the dig? If I hadn’t gotten sick, would this have turned out better? “Could you do me a favor—”

The archaeologist nodded and straightened, eager to be useful.

“—er, could you wash my hair?” It was one way of getting physical contact. Like a concierge vying for a huge tip, Janice had been painfully attentive and solicitous—yet almost as detached—since her release from the hospital.

The response was soft. “Sure.”

As Janice walked by the tub, Mel reached out and clasped a dry wrist in her wet hand. She felt resistance twitching within those tendons, then slackening into surrender.

“What is it?” Janice knelt down. She looked tired from days spent finishing up business with the excavation—the paperwork and dealing with the local authorities a far more wearying task to her than any manual labor. In addition to this, she was trying to locate a nefarious former contact (a man who sold artifacts for Harry in the Italian black market) who might know the whereabouts of the Venetian family that possessed the scroll they saw at Neuschwanstein.

“I—um—” It had always been extraordinarily difficult for Mel to ask for affection. Initiating contact was another matter, but this she was unused to. Nonetheless, her head tilted forward, as did Janice’s, and they kissed with a tentative tenderness. Not even the tepid bath water could deter her enjoyment. Ah, good, it’s still there, she thought, as if desire were a pocket watch she could somehow misplace or lose.

Sometimes the best part of kissing Janice was after the fact. Mel would pull back, at first reluctantly, and watch her: eyes closed, body swaying, face divinely peaceful, lips parted in silent sensual prayer. She did this now, and noticed something new. The natural light of the room was powerful enough so that Mel saw a waning bruise, butter colored and round, along the neck, near the carotid artery. “What’s this?” she murmured.

The green eyes snapped open. “What?”

“Here.” Mel reached out to touch the bruise with damp fingers, but the archaeologist jerked away, like a boxer avoiding a punch. You ruined that moment, Melinda, she chastised herself.

“I dunno. Just got knocked around on site, I guess.” Janice stood up quickly, then walked around the tub to fetch the small vial of shampoo, on a stand near the toilet.

Mel craned her neck to see her, but couldn’t. “You don’t know?” she repeated, incredulous.

“Nope,” Janice replied, cheerfully obtuse.

She was crowned with a puddle of shampoo. Then lank wet hair was scooped off her shoulders and merged into the sticky goo on her head. Her body went limp as strong fingers massaged her temples and scalp. The pleasure continued in silence for a few minutes. “You deserve a tip for this.”

“I live for your tips, baby. My favorite one was, ‘Never wash silk in hot water.’ ”

Mel smiled at this, then frowned. She had tried to change the conversation, succeeded, but became undone by compulsion: The bruise remained a niggling question. “Were you in a fight, Janice?” she asked quietly.

The massage stopped for a second, then continued at an even slower, gentler pace. “Yeah.”

“With one of the workers?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Not that huge Sicilian!” exclaimed Mel.

“No.”

The translator frowned. It must have been someone strong, someone quick, to catch Janice like that. This reminded her of Tebaldi, who, despite his large size and meandering slowness, possessed lightning fast reflexes when the situation called for it. “It was Tebaldi, wasn’t it?” That would explain Janice’s reluctance to discuss the matter—the embarrassment of a fight with the dig’s other leader.

Another long pause. “Yeah.” She rubbed Mel’s neck. “Rinse.”

Mel did so, ducking her head. When she emerged from the water Janice was once again at the side of the tub, drying her hands briskly with a towel.

“Get outta there before that water gets too cold.”

“Janice?”

“Hmm?”

“I—I don’t want you to stop this excavation, if it’s because of me.” She wanted to take Janice’s hand again, but hesitated. “I’ll be fine…I could go home, if you want me to.”

“Do you want to go home?” Janice drawled this out slowly, matching time with the motion of her hands, tangled within the towel.

“I want to be where you are.”

“I want that too,” Janice replied softly. She sighed and knelt down again. A finger flicked at the water’s surface, creating lazy eddies in the water. “It was just a hunch, coming here.” This is what she chose to call both the vague, relentless dreams and an equally slim lead, an obscure reference in an equally obscure 19th-century history of the Roman Empire:

“In the very last day of his life, Julius Caesar finally avenged himself in a long-standing feud with a renowned Greek warrior. The name is lost to posterity; apparently the emperor so despised and loathed the Greek that he forbid recording the name in official court transcripts. Ironically, as his nemesis was crucified, all of Rome finally avenged themselves upon him.”

Mel had scoffed at the obscure text and its secondary sources, its typos, its blatant misstatements of well-known facts. Who could trust a book with such a morbidly pedestrian title as Ruin and Death in an Ancient Empire? And who knew anything about its author, a Romanian scholar called Blavdak Vinomori? Yet simultaneously reports surfaced of an excavation of a Roman fort in the Apennines, and fragments of what were believed to be crucifixes. A coincidence? It felt as if all the pieces were falling into place. She arranged quickly to join the dig, and due to her affiliation with a major American university became one of its leaders.

Don’t you feel it like I do, Mel? You resist it so much at times, I know you do. That’s why you didn’t recognize Catherine Stoller until she was dead. Why do you fight it? What are you fighting for?

She looked into those eyes, that familiar blue, and for one rare moment truly believed that she did not know this woman she claimed to love. She swallowed, and in the slithering motion of peristalsis, felt that phantom hand around her throat. She wished it would go away. But until it did—and Janice was certain she would eventually will it into oblivion—she would burrow it away, along with those things that she did not really consider secrets but merely unspoken truths. Whatever you were thinking, whoever you were in that one sick moment, it’s not you. So I won’t tell you.

Instead she watched as Mel stretched forward in the tub, drawing her legs up, arms wrapping about them, thoughtfully propping her chin on a kneecap. The movement—unconsciously feminine and unknowingly graceful, and in that manner quintessentially Mel—gave her back to Janice, restoring her belief and determination.

There will be no consequences.

“Janice.” This was murmured sleepily.

“What, honey?” The endearment slipped out.

“Those dreams that you’ve had…they were about a crucifixion, weren’t they? Their crucifixion.”

Why can’t I protect you? Why do I always seem to fail? “Yes, they were.”

“So that was how it ended.”

“They’re just dreams. You’re having them because obviously, at this location, the Romans crucified their prisoners. It’s influenced you.”

Mel looked up at her. “And you? Why did you have the dreams?”

“Because I…” Because I saw so many ugly things during the war, it spoiled sleep for me. Just like Catherine Stoller spoiled flying for me, the bitch. Christ, I can’t let another thing be ruined. “…I don’t have pretty dreams. You know that.”

Mel shifted in the tub, the slight agitation sending a whorl of water around her body, the water’s turmoil an extension of the unease that churned within her. She stretched her wet arm along the tub, a hand held out toward Janice, almost in supplication. “But I want that for you.” She said this solemnly, simply, as if speaking the wish could make it so.

Janice hesitated, then took the hand and helped Mel out of the tub. She then summoned the best of her bravado, a family skill she actually took pride in and deemed useful. “Who needs dreams?” She hesitated playfully in handing Mel a towel. “Reality is looking pretty good about now.”

* * *

A day later Tebaldi was at the pensione, with official reports that Janice had to sign off on. He stood at the door of their room, scanning anxiously for Janice, then nearly dissolving into a puddle of relief when Mel informed him that Janice was out. She took a manila envelope from him with brusqueness. “I hope the next time you two work together, you will get along better with one another,” she chastised him.

The large Italian looked appropriately guilty. “I know we have had some disagreements. I should have been more patient with her, for she was very anxious about you.”

“Yes. I know she is not easy to get along with, but there was no need for violence.”

He looked puzzled. “Signora?

Dottore, do not play the innocent with me. You were in a fight with her. I saw the bruises.”

“What?” he yelled. Before she could ask him to lower his voice, he continued. “Signora Pappas, what are you accusing me of? I have never, in my entire life, struck a woman! Did she tell you that?”

Mel now realized why she felt at home in Italy: The resultant melodramas were like the backstage dramatics at a cotillion, or a debutante ball.

“I do not care if Janice Covington works for Harvard or the Virgin Mary! I will not be slandered!”

It made perfect sense for him to deny it—the archaeological community was surprisingly small, rumors spread like venereal diseases (and such diseases were, in themselves, another story all together), reputations and egos were fragile, while memories were long and tougher than an elephant’s hide. Nonetheless, Mel believed him. His outrage felt genuine. And he had always acted with patience, kindness, honesty, and integrity—toward everyone involved in the excavation, including the temperamental Covington. I make him sound like an insurance company, she thought. Time to nip this in the bud. She placed a gentle hand on his forearm. “Dottore, I am mistaken then. I must have misunderstood my friend. As you know, I have been very ill, and my mind in great confusion. You have my most sincere apologies.”

The tension in his arm softened. He relented. “Thank you, Signora,” he replied haughtily.

What a Southern belle you would be, Dr. Tebaldi, she thought, and gave him one of her best disarming smiles.

He blushed. “Eh,” he muttered gruffly. “It is forgotten. We will never speak of it again.”

The Italian archaeologist accepted a glass of wine—of course—to seal the apology, then departed. He left Mel sitting alone, running a finger along a fragile glass stem, watching the gray sky finally release its burden of rain, and wondering why her lover had lied to her.

Janice appeared an hour later, breathless, exuberant, and shaking water from her jacket. “I found him.” She grinned and swiped at her wet, cold face with a shirtsleeve.

“Who?” Mel withdrew a handkerchief from her purse and gently dried the archaeologist’s face while she squirmed like a puppy. Her hair, however, was still wet. The translator frowned at her futile hankie. Fetching a towel from the bathroom meant relinquishing her hold on Mad Dog, whom she would have to chase around the room and who would leave her muddy boot prints all over the carpet!

“Falconetto. The guy who has our scroll.”

Our scroll? Mel thought, amused. How proprietary we are.

“The old man—the family patriarch—is dead. The son has it. ” Janice gulped for air. “He was out of the country for awhile. I couldn’t understand the exact word my contact used—friggin’ pain in the ass language, I know you love Italian, but Jesus, they talk so goddamn fast here—I think Giancarlo called him an entertainer or an entrepreneur or somethin’ like that. Which makes me think he’s some kind of male prostitute. But he’s back in the Veneto, on Murano. That’s the island where they make all the glass stuff, right?”

“Right,” Mel repeated, as she made a game yet useless effort to dry blonde hair with her handkerchief.

“Stop grooming me, will ya?” Janice laughed at her efforts, and vigorously shook out her tangled hair, sending off both raindrops and coppery glints. If Mad Dog really had a tail, the translator mused, it would be wagging about now.

Mel smiled. She couldn’t bear to bring such happiness to a premature end.

Murano, Italy

Autumn 1950

Neno knew the tall woman was trouble.

He did not notice her until he galloped onto the makeshift stage, her appearance at the corner of his sight made him lose the spring in his step; she towered over almost all the men in the crowd. And she was not one of the usual crowd—obviously a turista, but she did not look the type to idle away time watching a third-rate carnival act, he judged, taking in her elegant, expensive clothes. Especially a third-rate carnival act performing in an almost deserted field near a cemetery, he thought, eyeing the desultory crowd.

He mindlessly went through the card tricks, the sneering disdain he felt for the crowd thrown askance by the mysterious woman’s presence. Didn’t his Corsican grandmother have some saying about tall women? He couldn’t remember.

He flicked an ace at the crowd. They oohed.

After ten minutes he was done; the crowd was small, and he saw no need to expend energy performing more complicated tricks—those were for the larger groups. He darted behind the stage and went to his motorcycle, parked near the tent he shared with the geek and the sword swallower. The crowd grew immersed in plate spinners. He was about to make his escape when he saw the tall woman coming toward him. Another woman, much shorter and dressed in men’s clothes, accompanied her. A very odd pair, he decided.

Signore? Posso parlare con voi?” she asked. She spoke Italian with the formal over-precision of a smart foreigner.

Je ne parle pas italien,” he retorted quickly, in French.

Je parle francais aussi,” she parried.

Aber mein Deutsches ist viel besser,” he shot back. Surely she is not German, he thought, despite her unnerving Reich-blue eyes.

His sense of impending victory was short-lived. “Naturlich,” she responded cheerfully. “Sollen wir fortfahren?”

His jaw stiffened. “I suppose you speak English as well.”

“Yes, I do,” she purred. This, he realized, was her native tongue, given the languid, sweet flow of the language. “But we can try for Greek or Arabic if you like.”

The blonde woman tilted her hat back and chuckled.

“What do you want?” he snapped, spitefully reverting to Italian.

She did not miss a beat. “You are Eugenio Falconetto?”

He nodded. “Everyone calls me Neno.”

“My name is Melinda Pappas. My friend is Dr. Janice Covington.” She gestured to the blonde woman, who nodded. “We are scholars.”

He lit a cigarette. “Studying the circus, maybe?”

She smiled graciously, acknowledging the humor in the situation. “No. We are interested in a scroll. It had been in the possession of your father before the war. Do you know what I am speaking of?”

Signora, my father owned many things. What he did not sell to the Fascists, they took from him. Do you understand? I have nothing. Why do you think I am working here?” He motioned at his paltry tent with cigarette in hand; for some odd reason, he noticed, the little blonde was staring at his cigarette.

Signore Falconetto…”

“Call me Neno.”

“Neno, this scroll was written in ancient Greek. According to international records, your father sold it to the Germans in 1940. During the war it was in a depository at a Bavarian castle, where Dr. Covington and I first saw it. We have been informed that after the war, it was returned to your family. More specifically, to your father, in Venice.”

He shrugged.

His interrogator was patient and persistent. “Your father has passed away, has he not?”

Si. Papa died. He waited until the war was over.” Neno watched as Dr. Covington admired his motorcycle; the woman was circling it, looking at it from all angles. “He always had a very bad sense of timing.”

“Does this mean that you have the scroll, Neno?”

Signora Pappas, what are you asking? You want this thing, eh?”

“We would like to buy it, yes.”

“And what if I do not sell?” He slid a hand into his right pocket, and felt the reassuring coolness of switchblade there.

“It seems to me a gentleman in your financial position would be willing to sell.”

“The war has left no gentlemen in its wake,” he said. “I am no gentleman.”

His intent in pulling out the switchblade had only been to scare them away; he truly believed they had nothing to offer him but trouble. But no sooner had the blade sprung out of its sheath then he felt the steel of Dr. Covington’s handgun imposing itself upon the soft underside of his jaw, the click of the gun’s hammer reverberating along his skin.

Mel did not blink an eye, but sighed. “Neno, you are making my friend very unhappy.”

She’s unhappy?” He choked out the words. The small woman was now close enough to him that he finally took notice of her eyes, clear and hard as glass. And if he had noticed those eyes earlier, he would not have trifled with them. Covington mumbled something to the tall woman—very quickly and in English—which he did not understand.

Mel, of course, provided the translation for him. “She wants you to drop the knife and kick it over to me.”

Reluctantly, he did.

The gun remained in his neck as Mel picked up the blade and, with a look of distaste, closed it. “Why do you do this?” she asked gently, like a schoolteacher disappointed with a prized pupil.

He swallowed. Finally, the doctor backed off, pulling the gun away, but keeping the barrel trained on him. “If it’s not the Nazis, it’s the Americans,” he spat. “You are all buzzards, picking us apart like carcasses. You come in here, thinking that if you cannot buy something, you will take it.”

“We never would have taken anything from you,” she assured him.

Neno’s sneer dropped when he looked at the small woman who playfully twirled the handgun and smirked at him. “I suppose I have no choice. If I do not give it to you, your friend shoots me. Eh?”

“Put the gun away,” Mel said quickly, in English, to Janice.

The archaeologist hesitated, but trusted the imploring look in her friend’s eyes. She tucked the .38 back in her waistband, under her loose shirt. It comforted Neno only in the slightest manner, for her hard gaze remained fixed upon him.

“We are not going to hurt you, nor force you to do anything,” Mel assured him calmly. “But we are willing to pay you quite generously for the scroll.”

Janice plucked Neno’s cigarette from his hand, and took a long, hungry drag off it. The magician stared at her, stunned. She moved like quicksilver. A fellow thief, he thought. If he were not so afraid of her, he might even like her. Or want her. She was grinning at him now, although the broad smile did not warm those cautious eyes. She walked over to her friend and reached into the tall woman’s overcoat, pulling out a substantial wad of lire. The casual toss of the packet hit him, lightly, in the shins.

Yes, we understand each other very well, don’t we? We don’t even need the translator. He knelt slowly to the ground and retrieved the money, ruffling it with a rough thumb. “Dolce madonna,” he muttered, then whistled. This sum would set him up quite nicely.

Neno looked up to see Mel smiling wryly. “Dr. Covington is feeling very generous today.”

* * *

“It was a good day’s shopping,” Janice quipped happily as they emerged from Neno’s makeshift home. She gripped the metal tube tightly, resisted the almost overwhelming urge to suddenly wield it like a staff. And, even further, fought the strangely compelling, sudden desire to playfully whack Mel on the nose with it.

“So it seems.” Mel turned up the collar of her dark coat against the brisk autumn air. She waited for Janice to make another sarcastic comment about looking like a Southern secret agent or an extra from The Third Man, but instead, Janice pounced on the seemingly innocuous—yet terribly loaded—comment.

” ‘So it seems,’ ” the little archaeologist mimicked her to near perfection. “What the hell does that mean?”

It means I didn’t really want that damned scroll back in my life, it means I don’t want to know how it will end, it means I really hope that this is a forgery and a lie. It means I don’t want their darkness. I don’t want it foreshadowing us. “I just don’t want you to get your hopes up,” Mel kept her eyes riveted on the ancient cobblestones street as they walked. “This may not be a genuine artifact.”

“Believe me, my hopes aren’t up. My hopes are in the fucking gutter.” Normally—and ironically—Janice was always the one walking faster whenever they were together, but now she found herself scrambling to keep up with her long-legged companion. “Wait a minute.” She grabbed Mel’s arm, but not roughly. “You’re the one who encouraged me to keep searching. All through last year, you kept telling me that we will keep coming back and looking for them, no matter how long it takes.”

Because you’re the searcher. Because you’ll never stop looking, and I know that. It’s what you’re meant to do. And my role?

Janice took a deep breath in order to contain her ever-expanding anger. “And now—”

To hold on and never let go.

“—you’re pissing on my parade!” Janice brandished the tube with equal parts triumph and anger. “We found it again. Even if it is one of the fakes, it may point us toward the real ones.”

“How?”

Clues, baby. We’re looking for clues. Archaeology is nothing if not detective work for suckers with a romantic streak a mile wide. The Sam Spades of the ancient world.”

Mel arched an eyebrow. “I’m pleased you’re finally willing to admit the truth to yourself.”

Janice ignored this; or tried to, at the very least. “If we take the view that a forger did this for kicks, he might have written something that will lead us to the right place.” Why are you so certain it’s a man?Mel wondered. Again Janice raised the tube for emphasis. “If this is the last fake, we can look at them all together, as a whole. We can look for patterns, for sequences—” Janice’s tone softened. “—and that’s where you come in. You’re good at that kind of thing.”

“I’m a linguist, not a puzzle solver.”

“They’re the same thing sometimes,” the archaeologist countered.

“I don’t quite know how to match wits with a dead thief.”

“You match wits with a live one all the time, baby.” Janice grinned and did not wait for her, but continued walking down the street.

Mel watched her for a moment as she strode down the old cobblestones, shoulders hunched, head ducked, hands shoved in her pockets. She always walked like that, no matter her mood—in that defensive way, her body a battering ram against the world, primed for the slightest altercation. Mel knew that walk, and felt its rhythm as deeply as her own. Walking away, why is it you always seem to be walking away from me? The thought startled her, then she remembered Anton’s stroke, and Janice walking away from her in the hospital, and how she had wanted to drop everything, slip the bonds of her responsibilities, and chase after that sad swagger. How she had wanted to give up her world to assuage that hurt.

And I still do. With a just a few long strides she caught up to Janice, who peeked at her, almost suspiciously, from over the upturned lapel of her leather jacket.

“You seem pretty certain about this theory,” Mel remarked, in an effort at casualness.

“It’s the only one I have,” Janice retorted grimly. “Otherwise—I don’t know what to think. I wouldn’t know where to begin to look for the originals again, except to retrace my father’s steps. And that seems almost pointless to me right now. There wasn’t a stone left unturned in Amphipolis when he was done with it.” Her lips tightened for a moment into a fierce frown, as they frequently did whenever Harry arose as a topic of conversation.

Now there’s a subject that sorely needs excavating, Mel thought. Albeit one that required the lightest and most precise of touches, and even after everything they had been through, and everything they meant to each other, Mel wasn’t certain she could pull it off. She sighed.

Janice fixed her with a glare. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

“You’re thinking, and you know I hate it when you do that.”

“Well, I’m surprised you haven’t concocted some manner in which to keep me barefoot and pregnant!”

“Believe me, I’ve been trying to knock you up for years.” Janice stopped walking, thus forcing pedestrian traffic—a mishmash of tourists and artisans from the work shops returning to work after lunch—to flow around them. “Now tell me what’s bugging you.”

“I just—I—” Mel shrugged helplessly. Janice’s thumb stroked the black cashmere of her coat.

“—you’re afraid of what we’ll find.”

And I’m afraid we’ll find nothing.”

“You’ll find something in your translation, Mel. I know you will.”

“I don’t know why you think I’m good at this.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Janice snorted. “Need I bring up Bletchley again?”

After the war, Anton Frobisher, Mel’s old friend, let slip that “the boys from Bletchley”—the brilliant team of codebreakers who eventually unraveled the Germans’ Enigma code—were interested in having Mel on staff. She had refused, of course, and her repeated rejections grew even more strident once she was reunited with Janice in London.

It was a sore spot—the revelation had caused a considerable row between them. Janice believed that Mel was a sentimental fool passing up a great opportunity, and Mel thought Janice was an unsentimental fool who clearly did not understand the politics and rivalries among wartime government agencies.

“No, you needn’t bring that up again,” Mel retorted icily.

“They wouldn’t have wanted you if you weren’t damned good.”

“It wasn’t about how good I was, it was about stealing Anton’s staff.” And yes, it was about staying close to you. Mel finally yanked her sleeve away from Janice’s hand. Why did I fall in love with someone who loves to argue in public?

“Okay, fine, but don’t you regret it at all?” Janice spread out her arms.

Regret? Yes. If I went to Bletchley, maybe Catherine Stoller never would have found me, and maybe she wouldn’t have almost killed you. “I can’t believe you’re picking a fight about this again!” she growled through her teeth.

The archaeologist seemed to ponder this apparent insanity. “Yeah, but just think of all the fucking we’ll have to do to make up.” This time Janice did not claim her sleeve, but her hand. “I don’t know about you, but that’s what keeps me focused in a fight.”

The situation thus diffused, Mel allowed herself to be led through the tourists, the shopkeepers, and the open-air stalls. She smiled. Covington did know how to start a fight, but she also knew how to finish them.

* * *

Back on the mainland, in Venice, Mel stared at the small envelope that the Cavaletto’s concierge had handed her before they descended up to the hotel room. Thinking it another dinner invitation from the amorous and persistent Vittorio Frascati, she rolled her eyes and resolutely decided to ignore it. However, as Janice rushed into the bathroom, idle curiosity won out and she tore open the note.

You’re a difficult woman to keep track of, my dear.

Meet me at the Rialto Bridge tomorrow morning.

Mark Pendleton.

Mel felt most fortunate that she was sitting when she opened the note. Nonetheless, she almost jumped out of her skin when Janice came up behind her.

“Another love note from Vittorio?” Janice asked sarcastically.

Mel quickly tore up the note and threw it in a wastebasket. “Yes.” She was surprised at how quickly the lie came to her.

Janice hummed for a moment. “Will I have to kill him?” The playful threat lost even more of its edge as she placed her chin atop Mel’s head.

Mel stared at the torn paper in the wastebasket. “I hope not,” she whispered.

* * *

She did not recognize him at first. In civilian clothes he looked less prepossessing, the male equivalent of dowdy, the stern crewcut of his wartime service yielding to a softer hairstyle. His eyes, however, retained their bitter sharpness.

And he remained impressed with her beauty. There was an uneasy silence as he smiled, taking her in.

She said nothing; if she was anxious, it was only at this appalling failure of her relentlessly proper Southern manners.

“You probably wonder how I knew you were here,” he began.

Mel’s lips moved without sound. Then she found her voice. “Yes, Major. I do.”

“You can call me Mark. It’s no longer wartime.” His reply was almost as soft. She despised the creeping, implied intimacy of it.

“How did you know I was here—” He stepped closer to her. “—Mr. Pendleton?”

His laugh was low. “Ah, let’s see. When last I saw you, it was Switzerland, at the end of 1945. From there you went on to London. You—and Dr. Covington—were there until the spring of 1946. April, I believe. I think you took about three trips to Cornwall during that time as well. From London, you returned to the United States. You were in New York for two weeks, then you accompanied Dr. Covington to Cambridge. You were in Cambridge for six weeks approximately. Then you returned to your house in Charlotte, North Carolina—with a little side trip to the ancestral home in Columbia, South Carolina—sold it, and moved your belongings to Cambridge.” He paused to take a breath. “A lot of moving about in one year. You really threw in your lot with that guttersnipe, didn’t you?” He watched, fascinated to see a crack in her reserve—her eyes darkened, the pupils expanded and flooded with anger. “Do you want me to go on?”

Mel’s empty hands ached. How easy it would be, how satisfying to feel the soft crunch of your throat. Bones and veins, unraveled in my grasp. Like pulling apart a chicken carcass. The clenching of her hands neither stilled the voice inside, nor the compulsion it produced.

“I make it my business to know these things—to keep track of certain people. You must admit, you are hardly low profile in your circle these days. Being the, ah, sponsor of Dr. Covington’s work, you are becoming as well known as she. Perhaps that was not your intention.”

Stop it, stop it. She looked down at her shaking hands. “It wasn’t,” she affirmed.

“It does draw attention to the fact that you live with the woman.”

“I’m hardly a stranger to gossip.” Obviously, you have never lived in a small, Southern town, where there is nothing to do but talk about your neighbors. As a young woman, living alone with her father, Mel had been subject to every strain of lurid rumor imaginable, the tamest of which was being homosexual. “I’ve lived with it most of my life.”

“So you never wonder or worry about what people think?”

She straightened. “I’ve gone through too much…to really care anymore what people think about me.”

“Ah, my dear, but you do care about what people think of your lover, don’t you?” Pendleton smiled, knowing he hit his target.

“What do you want of me?”

“I want your services.” He chuckled at the look on her face. “Oh, not that. You’re a lovely creature, but—” Pendleton shuddered, as if carnal relations with her would sully him in some fashion. “No, it’s not that. Your proximity to Dr. Covington is what interests me.”

Mel’s hand tightened along the bridge. “I don’t quite understand.” Nor do I want to, really.

“The war is technically over. But the work of the OSS continues—we are still retrieving missing and lost art objects all over Europe.” He paused for a moment, to retrieve a pipe from his coat. Casually, he tapped its bowl against the railing. “What is your business with Falconetto?”

“Since you seem to know everything about my life, I think there is no reason for me to tell you.”

Pendleton suppressed a smile; he found Melinda Pappas an enjoyable and formidable opponent. “You’re right, of course. I know. You have come to retrieve a scroll—one of those tales of that warrior woman. You know, Catherine Stoller paid old Falconetto quite generously the first time around. Almost three times its worth. She kept meticulous records of all her purchases for the Ahnenerbe.” He clenched the stem of the pipe between his teeth and fumbled for matches. “She was involved with them from the start, despite what she told you. Quite an expert at playing both ends, I say. A damned genius at subterfuge.” He yanked a match free from its book, then stopped and fixed her with his flinty glare. “Did she play you for the fool, Melinda? Is that how your relationship came to an end?”

Darling Melinda, surely you knew this would come. I have a fiancé. Even in the seeming anonymity of a typewritten “Dear Jane” note, Catherine’s voice—cool, condescending—had bled through every word and every rackety keystroke that echoed within Mel’s mind.

“She typed up a fucking kiss-off letter?” Janice had exclaimed in disbelief when Mel finally told her the Stoller story in its entirety.

The impersonality—and brevity—of the letter had hurt the most; Mel paid little regard to the part about the fiancé. Those, the Southern beauty knew from experience, were discarded easily enough—she had gone through seven in four years at Vanderbilt.

“You had seven fucking fiancés?” Janice had roared when this slight piece of information inadvertently revealed itself.

Thinking of Janice’s reaction—and what she had to do to placate her—brought a serene smile to her face, and provided Pendleton with an erroneous, silent answer to his needling, gratuitous question, one that she felt no need to correct.

Dismayed at her lack of response, he lit a match and sucked the flame into the pipe’s brown bowl. “No matter,” he said between puffs. “The past is done and Stoller is dead, unfortunately.”

She arched an eyebrow.

“Oh, I know you don’t mourn her. I mourn what was inside her head. The things she knew—about the SS in general, the Ahnenerbe in particular, even the bloody Werwolf movement she took up with at the end of the war—the woman was a walking font of information about the Nazis. She would have made my task easier.”

“I—” Mel began shakily. “I regret that things happened the way they did. It was never my intent for Catherine to die. I didn’t know, I didn’t imagine—that it would end as it did.” So now you’re finally feeling remorse?

“Of course not,” he retorted coldly. ” ‘But the wise perceive things about to happen.'” He removed his pipe and stared at it. “You’re familiar with the quote?” His sharp eyes returned to her face.

She nodded bleakly. “Philostratos.” And also used in a Cavafy poem, she recalled.

They stood quietly, watching the canal. Pendleton smoked his pipe in an almost amiable silence, perhaps trying to disarm her with his casualness, so that his assault would be all the more effective. “Would you really lie to protect her? If she is cut from the same cloth as her father—”

“She’s not,” Mel shot back vehemently.

“All right then, let’s assume that. But she must have information about her father’s transactions with the Nazis. Something she is not telling us.”

“Why would she withhold information?”

“Her father’s reputation. Her own. Yours.” He sucked on the pipe. “Find out for me. Get me some documentation.”

“This could be resolved in a very simple manner. Go to her, and ask her these questions yourself. Janice will not lie to you.”

“My dear, your doctor was interrogated by the OSS, before she was sent on assignment to Neuschwanstein. She refused to answer any questions directly pertaining to her father. Needless to say, suspicion was raised a few notches after that.”

Interrogated? Mel was too distracted by this new bit of information to resist the hand placed upon her arm. “We are bound together by the secrets we have, whether you like it or not. Work with me, Melinda. I think you would be of great use to the intelligence community.” Oh, what a euphemism. Even in her muddled mindset, she couldn’t fail to see the humor in that phrase. “In return….Perhaps I could help you.”

She stared at him incredulously.

“I may be able to help you locate the scrolls.”

“You know where they are?” Her voice was tinged with menace.

Pendleton raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t say that.” He tapped out the remains of his pipe bowl into the Grand Canal as she winced. He smirked, amused at her disgust, and nodded at the water. “Don’t you know how filthy that canal is already?” He buttoned his coat and turned to her; something remained of his military bearing and he looked as if he were standing at attention, even with his hands tucked in the coat’s pockets. “I must go now. Do think about what I’ve said, will you?”

“Go to hell,” she said softly. Then she walked away.

2. Recognition

Does the ancient book instill a quiet fear because its language is dead or because, on the contrary, it communicates a recognizable voice? Which is more terrible, death or resurrection?

—Geoffrey O’Brien

Cambridge

Spring 1951

The fountain pen drew a line, a savage gallop over the page, a border of black that glistened until the page drank it in. Once drained of liquid life, it stood there, solid and dull, yet indelible.

Mel had awakened before dawn, an act strangely familiar to her. She blamed an odd dream—she was drowning, literally, when a small rowboat came along. Miss Cantrip, her old high school Latin teacher, was in the boat, and instead of throwing out a life preserver, she threw a huge Latin grammar instead. And Mel was clinging to the book and going under when she woke. The blue shadows of pre-dawn and the murky dream sea were almost indistinguishable at first, and she panicked until realizing that she held in her arms an extra pillow and not a Latin grammar, and that it wasn’t an undertow but Janice’s legs that pinned her down. We sleep so close together that our skin becomes entwined. The illusion broke with the tickling sharpness of an unshaven leg scraping against her smooth skin. Mel sighed; if only the wartime practice of leg-shaving—a very civilized practice indeed, the translator thought—had caught on with Covington. The little savage.

From there she padded down to the study. The transcription of the scroll in its original Greek (the original too fragile to be handled extensively) lay beside her own vellum notebook—a languishing, laughing tabula rasa, and the fountain pen lying in its crook—an antiquated weapon, charming and useless.

She allowed these instruments to torment her only briefly. You just have to not think about it and do it, as Janice would say to her when confronted with an unpleasant task (and Mel so loved to throw these words back at her when she dreaded going in to class). And so she picked up the pen and, as if it needed a warm-up, drew the line at the top of the page.

The pen, guided by her hand, idly copied a few Greek characters just above the thick line. The serifed strokes formed a word. Waters.

I have traveled over many rivers and seas. None I regret more than those I crossed to Britannia.

After uncharacteristically dooming Pendleton to the underworld, Mel had walked through the city—her city, she thought of it so protectively—winding through the narrow streets, along the Riva Degli Schiavoni and into the less crowded Castello district. She had sat at a cafe, staring into the water of the San Marco Canal, fluttering under the soft gold of weak autumn light. Had she made the right decision? Should she tell Janice? She didn’t know. All she knew was that the serenity, the bliss she consigned to this city was under threat of implosion from an aspect of her past that, she had hoped, was completely, utterly dead and buried. Don’t taint this place for me, she had silently implored the absent Pendleton, as she sat at the cafe. Because she believed that in Venice she could immerse herself in a history of her own construction, one that she devised with Janice. One that she thought she could control.

What made me think I could control it? Any more than I can control this act, or what it will reveal? She watched, almost detached, as the pen skated over paper.

The words came, as they always did, cloaked in that strange garb of a dead language, like ghosts. Then, gradually, they were stripped by her ministrations until the meaning was bare. Sounds erotic, but it’s not, she thought, awkwardly cradling the huge Liddell & Scott dictionary in both arms, as if it were a burdensome baby.

Morning had tilted its light along the walls and the bookshelves, and suddenly she felt Janice’s presence—sleepy, sweet-smelling, showered, a hand depositing a coffee cup on the desk, damp copper tendrils brushing her cheek in a kiss of their own devising.

When she reached for the coffee, she discovered an oily film of age floating on top of the black liquid and the porcelain mug downright cool. She was about to curse her blonde coffeemaker when she noticed the square of sun from the window had climbed even higher on the wall. Close to noon? She stared at another new object on the desk, cold toast, once slice dark with absorbed butter, the other topped with marmalade, just the way she liked it. Shanghaied once again by her overwhelming sense of propriety, Mel left the study in order to wash up and put on real clothes. When she returned, chewing on a hairpin and still ignoring the cold food on the desk, she could hear children playing outside (did I leave that window open?), the clatter of tools in the driveway (what on Earth is she doing to that car?) and tuneless whistling (isn’t she sick of “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” yet?).

But once again the words drew her in, and everything was forgotten.

* * *

The wrench slid out of Janice’s grasp. “I give up. I fucking give up.”

The Packard’s death rattle continued to mock her.

“Turn it off,” she called to Paul, who sat behind the wheel of the abysmal vehicle.

He turned the key, and the car convulsed, sputtered, and died. At least for the time being.

“Packard 1, Mad Dog 0,” Paul decreed the winner. He opened the door of the car but remained sitting there; the seats were terribly comfortable. He put a foot on the dash, and looked toward the open front window of the house, where the study was located. “Did you chain her to the desk?” he asked Covington.

“No, asshole,” she grunted as she tossed tools back into their metal chest.

“Keep sweet talkin’ me, Janice. Weave your spell over me.”

“Asshole, asshole, asshole.” She punctuated this mantra by consigning the wrench to the clutter.

“Come on, spill it. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” she muttered tersely—just as he knew she would. But then, surprisingly, she glanced at the window, and reneged on her stoicism. “I just worry when she gets like this.” Janice shut the toolbox.

Paul was surprised at this rare revelation. Oh, so you do worry about her, you do love her, he thought sarcastically. Asshole! he berated himself. You know she does. God, it’s been too long. I need a woman. His gaze wondered over Janice’s body. Not exactly his type, compact and too muscular, but she certainly had curves in all the right places—

“What the hell at you staring at?” she barked.

“I just realized something,” he said.

“What?”

“You have great tits.” Unfortunately, the excitement regarding this epiphany had negated any common sense.

Janice could not have looked more stunned if he had hit her. And for a moment he thought she would hit him. Silence dragged, she contemplated his observation, and thus spake Covington: “It’s no wonder you can’t get a woman. Your social skills are even worse than mine.”

“We’ll see about that, buster.” Paul gave a quick warning whistle. “Geezer at 3 o’clock!”

Janice looked up. “Huh?”

“The Dean,” he hissed.

Sure enough, the Dean and his walking stick were meandering in their general direction. Pompous old idiot, she thought. Never trust a man who wears a bow tie.

The wiry old man smiled and tipped his hat as he entered the driveway. “Janice.” He nodded to Paul. “Mr Rosenberg! I’m pleased you’ll be teaching for us this fall.”

Paul jumped out of the car, nervously wiping dirty hands on his trousers. “Yes sir, I’m looking forward to it.” They shook hands.

The one social amenity out of the way, the Dean turned his attentions to Janice.

She folded arms across her chest, leery of further examination and potential commentary on her breasts. “I don’t have to see you for another couple weeks, old man. What brings you to my door?”

“Is it wrong of me to check up on you, Janice? To see how your dig went? How Miss Pappas is feeling?”

“You know how the dig went. I filed the report at your office. And Miss Pappas is fine.”

“She went to the Medical School as requested?”

“Yeah.” Albeit very reluctantly. The team of Roman physicians was curious to see what their American colleagues thought of Mel’s rapid recovery. The Americans were just as impressed, and just as unsuccessful in finding anything that would explain the healing powers of one seemingly unremarkable myopic Southern woman. Janice cleared her throat. “There’s a report on that too, you’ll just have to bug the damn doctors, and not me.”

“Is she about?” The Dean made a show of looking around, as if Mel might have set up office under a hydrangea bush.

“Yeah. She’s working.”

“Has she given any further thought to my proposal?”

Paul noticed—with some measure of dread—that Covington’s eyes glistened with malice. “She is giving it thought, and we will discuss it.” The words slithered out between clenched teeth.

“Ah, she’s a good girl!” the Dean grinned again. “And so are you, Janice, even though you pretend otherwise.”

“Who’s pretending, old man?”

Paul nibbled at his lip, wondered what Mel did in these situations other than discreetly kick her in the shins with pointy shoes. Not an option. He also wondered if the Dean was not the most masochistic man within the town limits.

Nonetheless, the old man laughed, shook his head, and tipped his hat once again. “Very well. We shall speak again soon. Good day to you both.”

As the Dean walked away, he thought he heard a word—”mother”—followed by a strange, muffled cry of pain. He turned around. Janice was bent over, as if examining something on the ground, and Mr. Rosenberg was tucking a pen into his shirt pocket. “Uh, Janice was just reminding me…to send regards to your mother.”

The Dean arched an eyebrow, momentarily amused himself with the thought of what kind of regards Covington might actually send to his mother, then continued on his way.

Once he was well down the block, Janice was on the move, clutching her leg and hopping more frantically than an extra performing an Indian war dance in a bad Hollywood western. Wisely, Paul placed the Packard between himself and the homicidal archaeologist by half-climbing, half-leaping over the car’s hood.

“You had to stab me with a pen!” she cried.

“I’m sorry! I wanted to shut you up before you did anything stupid.”

“Fine, but why did you have to pick the same spot where that goddamn Nazi bitch nailed me?”

“Oh. It just looked like the chunkiest part of the thigh—”

“Shut up!” She rubbed her leg. “Christ, I think you broke the skin.”

“Big baby.” Nonetheless he jumped in genuine fear as she lunged for him across the Packard’s hood. Growling in frustration, she resigned herself to sitting down in the driver’s seat. He approached her cautiously. “What’s this proposal the Dean was yakkin’ about?”

The rubbing slowed considerably. “He wants Mel on faculty.”

“Huh,” he muttered, impressed. “You mean like the whole nine yards—a professor, and not a part-time hack like me?” She nodded. “I thought you needed an advanced degree to teach on that level.”

“She has one. From Cambridge.”

“You mean Harvard?”

“No, I mean Cambridge University in friggin’ England, knucklehead. Well, almost. She didn’t finish all the coursework. But she could do that here in a flash.” She glared at the ground. “It’s all part of his deal.”

“You made a deal with him?”

“Sort of. He’ll continue to grant me sabbaticals and fund my research if he gets Mel on his staff.”

“Does she want to?”

“I dunno,” Janice mumbled.

37 Hours Ago

“No,” Mel said firmly.

“But—”

“No.”

“You might—”

“No.”

“—like it—”

“You said that about baseball.”

“You’re not still sore about that, are you?”

“I’m still sore, period.”

“Not everyone gets hit with a DiMaggio foul ball. It’s like getting a Purple Heart. Anyway, this is different. I know you hate—”

“—talking in front of groups, especially adolescent boys—”

“Yeah, I know you hate that, and there is all the bullshit—”

Academic politics.”

“They should just shorten it to a four-letter word, shouldn’t they?”

“When I agreed to this arrangement—”

“‘Arrangement’? And you bitch about me not being romantic.”

“—it was with the understanding that I would serve a supportive role. I would type your lesson plans, update your schedule, make your appointments, wash your stockings, make your lunch, bake cookies—”

“I’m still waiting for the cookies.”

“Stop joking. You realize that if this happens, I won’t be able to come with you on all your digs. In fact, I would probably be lucky to accompany you on any of them.”

A pause. “I know.”

“Of course you do. And you’re glad of it.”

“What the fuck do you mean by that?”

“It means that you still have this foolish idea of protecting me, that I will be safer if I’m not out of the country. If I’m not with you.”

There was no response to this.

“It’s not your fault that I—got sick. It doesn’t mean that something bad will happen every time.”

Another long pause.

“Well?”

“All right, dammit, I won’t deny it. But…it’s not just that.” A sigh. “Don’t you see it, Mel?”

“See what?”

“You told me once that you left your home to find adventure—and to find yourself. You said you didn’t want to end up being some sad small town spinster or some rich man’s wife. Well, I’m not rich and I’m not a man, but goddamned if I don’t wonder sometimes if you’re wasting your talents and your skills. It’s not that I don’t appreciate all the stuff you do for me. I do. But—”

“What?” This rhetorical prompting was uttered gently.

“I want you to be you,” Janice said.

* * *

And it had been left at that: Unresolved and with the promise of cookies still lingering in the air.

How much time do we got? Janice wondered. How many times will we be separated, if you take this gig? Her jaw clenched with determination.

“I’m really sorry about the leg,” Paul apologized, fearing that the sudden silence might have something to do with him.

“It’s okay, buddy boy.” She raised her arm and sniffed. Ah, just the right amount of sweat and motor oil. Top it off with a little bourbon, and voila, we have eau de Covington. She’ll be helpless! At my mercy! And she might even do that little trick of unbuckling my belt with her teeth. A cunning linguist, indeed. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an obsessive to distract.”

* * *

Mel desperately wanted to remove her glasses and rub her tired eyes, but one hand was more or less sat on by Janice, the other fending off the archaeologist’s persistent advances.

They were both crammed into the leather chair at the desk. Janice was sitting in her lap. The Mouth—indeed, the organ was so talented it warranted capital letters—was at her neck, composing a symphony out of kissing, nipping, and licking. Janice’s intrepid hand—oh, all of your body deserves capital letters, and in big bold 72 point type, too!—flicked open two buttons of her blouse, and plunged in, cupping her breast.

Mel momentarily regained her senses, however, and snared the hand by its wrist. No you don’t, buster. Although she had to admit fending off Janice was, without question, the best bad date she’d ever had. She maneuvered the hand away from her breast and placed it on her knee.

It was a tactical error that her ancestor would’ve despised. Janice’s hand shot up her skirt and lodged itself happily between two thighs. Like an Olympic swimmer, the hand was going for the gold.

Mel’s vision blurred to such a degree that, for one delirious moment, she thought she was reading ancient Greek again and not her own English translation. She heard a gurgling whimper and recognized it as the sound of her own surrender. Oh, all right, I give up. It’s not like I’m getting anywhere here. I don’t even think I’m doing it justice, some of it sounds so pedestrian…”I intend to show….” Why on earth would she begin a section with such a pompous, self-important phrase? It was very unlike Gabrielle as a writer…of course, we are assuming these are not originals, but a good forger would not tamper with an original unless—Janice, please stop biting my neck—unless there…is…some… significance—

Mel sat forward violently, dislodging the bundle of blonde archaeologist in her lap. Janice landed upon the floor with an undignified thunk. “You sure know how to show a girl a good time, Stretch,” she growled as she sat up, rubbing her back. “Ow.”

The translator was frantically flipping through her notebook.

“Ow,” Covington restated petulantly, emphatically.

Mel uncapped her fountain pen and began scribbling on a fresh piece of paper.

“Goddamnit, OW!”

The roar caught Mel’s attention, but failed to produce an apology. Janice then knew something was up when those relentless Southern manners did not engage. “I-I think I figured out something,” Mel stammered breathlessly and, in her excitement, stood up.

The spurious injury was forgotten. Janice too jumped to her feet. “Really?”

“This phrase, i-it’s repeated several times in the scroll….” She pointed to the words in her notebook. ” ‘I intend to show.’ At least that was the best possible translation I could come up with. It’s very prosaic and sometimes even awkward when it’s stuck in the middle of all this purple prose. You might even call it inorganic.” Janice raised an eyebrow. “You know what I mean. I think it’s foreign, that someone other than the writer inserted it. And I think that’s why I had such difficulty with it. If we look at the text surrounding it….” Mel pointed at a sentence: I intend to show here that the sun was far from rising when Xena set out for Chin.

The pages fluttered wildly, like in a Walt Disney cartoon. Janice felt like the hapless hero of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” “And here’s another.” The translator pointed at another clumsy beacon within the language: I intend to show that the gate near the northern pass could not be broached.

“You’re right, it’s not like her usual style,” Janice conceded.

Mel’s finger struck the page with another triumphant thump. “Here’s another.” It is my intent to show the moon, glistening beyond the woods, was the only thing illuminating my path. Her eyes skipped the remainder of the painful passage: For it was the only thing that shone for me in that dark time. I wondered if the light she had so loved in me was forever dim.

And then the dignified Melinda Pappas did something she had not done since her 12th birthday, when her father bought her a horse: She clapped her hands and jumped up and down. I’ve got you now, my pretty!

She grabbed Janice’s head with both hands and bestowed a sloppy kiss on messy hair. “My lucky charm,” she breathed, and took a moment to mesmerize Janice with blue eyes and a secondary smooch, hard and hungry, right on the lips.

Janice was falling into the kiss—and preparing to drop her pants—when contact was broken, and a large hand gave her a substantial shove.

“Now y’all go away.” Mel sat down and resumed copying out Greek sentences.

The archaeologist’s hands were frozen on her belt buckle. “What?”

“Go fix the car.”

“It’s fixed.”

“You’re lying.”

“I’m lying, but shit, baby, I need—”

She was silenced by two fingers thrust in her face—index and thumb, barely touching. “I’m this close,” Mel said, with quiet urgency.

“Really?” Janice was slack-jawed.

Mel nodded.

She returned the nod. Helpless, anxious, yet happy, Covington felt like an expectant father as she wandered out of the study. And like generations of expectant fathers before her, she paced in front of a closed door for a while, and when the wait proved too much, she sought the comfort of alcohol at the closest bar. There she discovered anew the agony of waiting, the thrill of possibility, and the fact that her shirttail was peeking out of her unbuttoned fly.

Several hours later she returned home to find the lamp still burning in the study. But Mel was not within the penumbra of light at the desk; she was sprawled on the couch, one hand shading her eyes, the other loosely curled around her glasses. Each breath was a low, crouching rumble, ready for the great leap into full-fledged snoring.

Janice gazed at the open notebook on the desk. What she saw reminded her—unpleasantly—of algebraic equations. Lines of Greek were written on the page, one after another. She was helpless in deciphering their meaning even under the best of circumstances, let alone after two beers and three shots of bourbon. Show your work, Janice’s mathematics professor had always chastised her. And in this instance, that was precisely what Mel had done. But the translator had found something. Characters had been underlined and a new Greek phrase scribbled out below the block of text. And below that was a phrase in English: Gate of the Sun, Gate of the Moon.

Unlike other useful homilies, the ever-skeptical Covington never quite believed the hyperbole behind the saying my blood runs cold. But, taking in the words of the notebook, something did freeze within her. She recoiled at first, then extended a hesitant finger to the page, as if to smite the meaning out of the words. But there they remained. Indelible.

Alexandria.

A sigh unfurled from the general direction of the couch. Janice blinked, the corners of her eyes now damp and aching. Fuck.

“You’re back,” Mel was stretching, catlike, on the sofa.

I’ve never wanted to go back to Alex. Will I? It figures that this search would take me there again. It just fucking figures. Janice swiped at her eyes. “And you found something.” Her shaking voice easily tumbled the attempt at casual retort. She tapped the notebook for emphasis, then walked over to the couch and sat down carefully on its edge.

The translator propped herself up on elbows. The effort, however, proved too taxing and she flopped back down on the couch, delicately pressing the pads of her fingers to her throbbing temples. “I’ve found that staring at ancient Greek all day can make your head explode.” Black-framed glasses slid from their temporary perch on her stomach and headed toward the floor.

Janice intercepted them. “You’re so goddamn stubborn. I tried to stop you.”

“Hush.” Mel groaned. “You know, I don’t even know what that means—the Gate of the Sun, the Gate of the Moon.”

“How did—”

“It—it was an acrostic. I wrote out all the sentences that included that phrase—’It is my intent.’ or ‘My intention is’ or any variant on it. And there it was: A character from each sentence, in a simple linear pattern, spelling it out.” The translator chuckled. “That’s the ‘long story short’ version of it. I would stare and stare at those lines. Then I’d try something else: I would change the order of the lines, or write them all backward…. Then I would go back to the lines I had originally written. The sentences themselves were like foreshadowing, since they all spoke of the sun and the moon. Sometimes, you just have to go back at look at it from the right angle. In a different way.” She rubbed her eyes. “Do you remember that painting I once showed you at the National Gallery, in London? ‘The Ambassadors,’ by Hans Holbein?”

Janice shrugged. “Vaguely.”

“The one with the anamorphic skull. When it’s viewed at a certain angle, you see the skull depicted at the bottom of the painting.”

“Oh, yeah. That was nifty.”

“A ‘nifty’ memento mori. Renaissance painters were fond of doing that—inserting a vanitas skull or something similar—to remind even the richest among their patrons and admirers that they too will die. As do we all.”

Silence filled the air between them as the archaeologist took in what Mel, in her usual oblique way, was trying to tell her. “So you’re sayin’ you did the same thing…with the…words?” Janice proffered the theory with caution. “Just kept looking at them in all different kinds of ways, until something clicked?” Translation was a downright spooky practice, she decided. Didn’t Mel say she had kin down in New Orleans—the American cradle of voodoo? The skull beneath the flesh, the meaning beneath the words.

Mel was smiling, and staring into some imagined distance. “It’s a beautiful thing. I felt…” she trailed off, raising her hand as if the continuation of that phrase—perfectly expressing the beauty and wholeness she felt—rested there tangibly, within her grasp. Sometimes I think it’s better than making love. So maybe there is an erotic component to it. Which explains how I could do without a lover for such a long period of time. She looked at Janice—or rather, her pants. “Your fly is unbuttoned.”

“Yeah. I know. The boys at Mickey’s thought it was funny. Delmar bet me ten bucks I couldn’t leave it that way all night.” Janice flashed the greenback with pride.

I could certainly do without this boorish behavior. Mel’s mortification manifested itself in a groan as she covered her face with a hand. “This isn’t helping us figure out—”

“—the Gate of the Sun and the Gate of the Moon? It’s in Alexandria,” Janice replied. “In the ancient city, along the Canopic Way. There was a gate at its east end—the Gate of the Sun—and one at the west end—the Gate of the Moon.”

A bleary blue eye peeked at her from between two fingers. “I knew there was a reason I kept you around.”

“Aside from fucking and keeping that stupid car of yours running, you mean.”

“It’s certainly not your eloquence, or lack thereof.” Mel now managed to sit up. “So you think they may be in Alexandria?”

Janice busied herself with massaging a callus on her palm. “I suppose it’s possible. It would explain a lot. The duplicates are dated in the early 1500s. Venice was a major port city at that time, a gateway to the east—including Alexandria. Trade flourished then between the Venetians and the Ottoman Empire. It’s possible the originals were traded for something, and ended up in Alexandria.”

Mel nodded vigorously. “That’s a good theory.”

“I need more, though. I need more to back it up.”

“I understand. But it might not hurt to do a, er, fact-finding mission.”

“Yeah.” Janice laughed nervously.

“Is something wrong?”

“No, I just…” She shrugged. “I get scared about it sometimes. One day I want it more than anything, the next it’s like…it’s like a whole other world. It’s a little overwhelming.” I wonder if it will change me. I wonder if it will change us.

Mel fingers tangled with her own. “I know.”

“Somehow I figured you would.” Janice’s response sounded perfunctory to her own ears and she quickly stared down at the floor. But do you know how afraid I really am?

If she did, Mel opted to change the subject instead. “I’ve never been to Alexandria,” she said, wistfully.

“Let alone Egypt?” Janice retorted.

“Not true. Daddy took me to Cairo once. I was 14. He did keep me entombed in the hotel the entire time, however. I did nothing but swim in the pool and read.” A certain fact floated dismally to her consciousness. “The Davies live in Alexandria, don’t they?”

“Yeah. Along the seafront, like all the rich bastards. I, uh—” She cleared her throat. “I usually stayed there when I was in Alex. Although before we met them, Harry and I had this lousy flat there.”

“Hmmm,” said Mel.

“Don’t give me ‘hmmm.’ I hate that.” She was my lover, damn it, I can’t change history. “Your jealousy is kind of touching, Mel. A small frailty. It makes me feel better about my shortcomings.” Janice blew out a weary breath. “I thought we got over this particular hump, so to speak. I ain’t interested in Jenny.”

“I know, but she is still interested in you.”

A shrug. “There’s nothing you can do about that.”

“True.” Mel conceded this with reluctance.

“Then what are you worried about?” An angry, green-eyed glare fixed itself on Mel like a sniper’s rifle. “Do you trust me?”

Mel blinked in surprise. “But—yes. Yes. Of course.”

Janice scowled at an innocent Persian rug until her expression softened.

“It’s her that I don’t trust,” Mel continued. “So if we do go to Alexandria, I’ll need a new outfit.” Save me, Madame Schiaparelli! she prayed to her own personal saint.

“You need a new outfit like London needs more rain.”

Mel squared her shoulders. “You don’t understand. This is a battle for you, on the field on sartorial elegance. If I show up looking like some ragamuffin—”

“In other words, like me,” Janice interjected.

“—she will think me utterly unworthy of you.”

“That’s absolute bullshit. Besides, I don’t give a rat’s ass what she thinks—it’s not a social occasion. And you could wear a goddamn sack cloth and still look like royalty.”

“Your faith is very touching, but nonetheless, I will need new clothes.”

Janice took a more common road in appealing to help from a higher power: Jesus help me. “I still didn’t say we were going anywhere. The Dean may think we’re outta our minds.”

“Don’t underestimate the man, Janice. There are two things in our favor. First and foremost, he admires you. Better yet, he trusts you, and he knows you have good instincts.”

Doubtful, Janice grunted and folded her arms. “How do you know all this?”

“I have tea with the man every week.” The archaeologist looked impressed at this. “The lot of a faculty wife is busier than you think.”

“You got my wholehearted respect. So what’s the second thing here?”

Mel smiled triumphantly. “He simply adores acrostics.”

alex

Part III: The City of Memory

1. The Seven Hells

…like traces of perfume upon a sleeve: Alexandria, the capital of memory.

—Lawrence Durrell

Near Alexandria, 1953

Keeping up was always the thing.

It appeared to be woven in her character, this thread of competitiveness. To be the best student, the hardest worker, the most irresistable lover, the best shot, the last one standing after a dozen shots of whiskey, the best in her profession—but even after the Ph.D., she still considered herself just a digger, a dogsbody. When she stood in front of a class chafing in a skirt, holding a piece of chalk and squinting at first her notes then about 20 tabula rasas fresh out of prep school, she sometimes blinked dazedly until one of the well-groomed boys asked her what was wrong. And then, once again, she would throw herself wholesale into the illusion. She acted the part of a professor, among so many other roles.

But the hell of it was that while she fooled others, she herself was never convinced.

The dreams complicated the matter, those now-frequent dreams of being Gabrielle, of falling short, of disappointing her—a woman (and who knows, maybe a fictional woman, a figment of her imagination, a legend) dead for thousands of years.

And Alexandria—this place that they now journeyed to—was that a separate hell altogether? How many hells are there?

The late afternoon sun filled Janice’s eyes and she closed them, drowsing away in light and memory.

In the Qelippot, there are three primary ones…the Formless, the Void, and the Darkness.

She could still hear Naima’s voice, that hypnotic half-murmur, after so many years. The remaining seven are…minor in comparison. Naima had smiled at that.

How can hell be a minor thing? Janice had asked.

There had been no answer save Naima’s Mona Lisa smile, lingering in response.

Seven hells…can I come up with seven? Easy enough: My head, my heart, my father’s ghost, my mother’s ghost, searching, losing, Alexandria itself.

And while she dreamed and remembered, the train sputtered toward Alexandria through the patchy Egyptian Delta—farms, marshes, sand, minarets, and palm trees—a violent spasm here and there betraying its age and history. The newspaper on Janice’s lap torqued like the Hindenberg of paper airplanes and fell to the floor, its flaccid crash waking her.

She stirred sleepily against the stiff wooden seat; even in first class it was not comfortable, as if the train hadn’t been altered one whit since it was built in the 19th century. Nonetheless, she was grateful they weren’t in third class—with goats, chickens, and urine-soaked hay and mud on the floor. Not to mention pickpockets and leering men—although she had always been grateful for a thin yet durable membrane of cultural and religious precepts that forced most Egyptian men to keep their hands to themselves.

She sat up and stretched, peeling away the sweaty back of her shirt. Mel was gone again, restlessly roaming the first class car—something that Janice had objected to, quite vociferously, but her protests had fallen on stubborn Southern ears. So the archaeologist was reduced to brooding and worrying. Mel, never the easiest of travelers, seemed particularly nervous about this trip for two rather dominating reasons: It was someplace she’d never been before and it was the first time they had been abroad since the Ravenna dig that had almost resulted in her death. And then there was the most unpredictable and stressful element in the trip (at least to Janice’s mind, although Mel, after fussing about what to wear, had remained mum on the subject): Jennifer Davies. Janice did not know how stupid it was—agreeing to stay with the Davies while in Alexandria—but then, she had never been able to resist anything that was free. Although that’s not the real reason they invited me. Despite this whole attempt at respectability with the teaching crap, everyone there will still see me as Harry’s daughter—as big a thief and a liar as he was.

While Janice was convinced that most of the riffraff was indeed in third class, she knew that element of humanity lurked the corridors of first class as well. Hell, I’m in first class, so who knows who else is here. She thought in particular of an American WAVE, an officer, who had responded to the sight of Mel like candy dangled in front of a baby. And she was quite aware that Mel missed one thing—and one thing only—about the war: a proliferation of women in uniform. She’ll be on full-tilt flirt mode.

At this point Mel flew into the carriage, breathless, and sat down. “Nice nap?” she asked teasingly.

“Just fine.” Janice blinked. If she was not mistaken, a cigarette was tucked behind Mel’s left ear. If she starts smoking, I’ll start wearing lipstick. She picked up the paper from the floor. “What’s with the cigarette, Stretch? Finally decided you need a vice?”

“Oh!” Mel whipped it from behind her ear; within that flash of grace Janice could see her pulling a sword from a scabbard. “I got it for you,” the translator proclaimed proudly. “I knew you were out of cigarettes.”

“This is new, encouraging me to smoke.”

“I don’t expect you to undergo a stressful trip without the aid of tobacco.”

“You’re such a romantic. Who’d ya flirt with in order to get it?”

Mel blinked and furrowed her brow. “I don’t flirt.”

“Yes, you do.”

“I do not flirt.” This time Mel growled it through clenched teeth.

“It’s not like I blame ya or anything. Hell, you Southern women are trained to do it from day one. You’re like racehorses bred for competition. Finding a husband is like the Kentucky Derby. Now, I know you’re not lookin’ a for husband or anything—at least I’m hoping you’re not—but you can’t help but do what you were born to do: flirt. You flirt with men, women, dogs, cats, children, horses—”

“It’s called charm, and it’s not surprising that you don’t recognize it when you see it.”

“—why, I bet those chickens in third class would be hypnotized by you.”

I do not flirt,” Southerner repeated indignantly.

Three strikes, you’re out. Janice laid down the paper decisively. It was time to bring out the big gun. “I got two words for you: Jack Kleinman.”

The imposing facade of Mel’s outrage crumpled; she winced, her shoulders slumped. “I couldn’t help it. There wasn’t anyone else around, after all your crew ran away, and Lord knows you were too intimidating to flirt with.”

Janice’s eyebrow twitched. Unable to swagger while sitting down, she puffed out her chest a bit, like a rooster redeemed. “I was intimidating?”

“And now I have four words for you: Gun in the face. Remember that?”

The archaeologist grinned and sprawled in her seat. Her boot nudged Mel’s ankle. “Worked, didn’t it?”

Blue eyes narrowed. “You’re terrible.” She pointed the cigarette at Covington. “You don’t deserve this. I flirted with a woman just to get you this!” she hissed in an undertone.

Ah-hah, so it was the broad in the uniform! “Oh my, how awful that must’ve been, battin’ those big dark eyelashes at some pretty woman!”

“That’s it!” Mel jumped up and, as Janice gasped helplessly, threw down the sash and tossed the cigarette out the window. “A Camel for a camel!” she declared.

“You just littered in a foreign country!” Janice managed the appropriate tone of outrage; while she may be complicit or otherwise accused of far more serious crimes, littering was something she never did.

And the very proper Mel now realized what she had done. “Oh.” Mortified, she gazed out the window, hands curled around the sash. “Sorry, Egypt,” she sing-songed softly to the countryside, just before Covington grabbed her hips and roughly pulled her onto a khaki-clad lap.

“If I didn’t like you so much….” A hasty, impulsive kiss and the feel of fingers threading through her hair silenced the archaeologist’s playful growl.

Then, like a cat marking its territory, Mel rubbed against Janice’s tanned cheek with her own. “Just like?”

“Just love.” After all this time, why is it still so frightening to admit it?

“What if someone comes in?” The door of the first-class carriage was not locked, nor could it be, although the blind was drawn.

“We say we’re long-lost sisters. And we’re French. They always forgive the French for funny stuff.”

“You always think of everything.”

“Comes from being obsessive.” Through the thin linen blouse Janice could feel Mel’s hot skin, could detect a trace of lavender mingled with sweat. “Your heart’s beating a mile a minute.”

“I’m nervous.” Finally the translator admitted it.

“Don’t be. You’ll be fine. You’re with me.” As if that should be comforting.

But now Mel was staring out the window. “More camels!” she cried.

“You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.” Again she was struck by the totality of Mel’s beauty, how effortlessly it extended beyond the physical and embodied itself in a curiosity about what was around her, about people, about the world. How I love that about you.

But Mel sensed she was being watched, and snapped her gaze toward her companion. “What?”

Janice just grinned. “Nothin’.”

* * *

The canopy of iron beams—black and criss-crossed above them—was the most impressive thing about Alexandria’s train station: An elegant, almost modern shell harboring decrepit trains and years of soot, filth, neglect, and traveling fauna. While Mel fended off the persistent advances of an ardent goat, Janice surveyed the station, this place to which she thought she would never return.

“Filthy fucking city,” Janice said.

Mel raised an eyebrow. “I thought you loved Alexandria.”

“Sometimes I do. Guess it’s a love-hate thing. Like you and the South.”

“Ah.” The translator understood this.

Passengers from their train dissipated along the platform, seeking the anonymity of the crowd or a familiar face. Janice did the latter, scanning the masses for Fayed, who was supposed to meet the train. It was now her turn to be nervous: the Egyptian—who always acted as foreman on Harry Covington’s digs—was always chronically late. Of course, I haven’t seen him in 10 years…but how much has he really changed? They wandered into a waiting area, pursued by two relentless, ambitious street urchins, who begged to carry their scant luggage.

Yalla imshi!” Janice shouted at them.

Although she hadn’t the faintest idea what Janice had said, the translator was nonetheless horrified—she knew a curse word when she heard one, could feel it in her bones. But before she could reprimand her lover for cussing out children, one of the little monsters responded to Janice—in a delightfully effective yet crude patois—something that made the archaeologist blink in shock.

“What did he say?” Mel asked.

Janice chuckled and tilted her hat back. She knew when she had been bested, and tossed the kids some coins. They fell on the money ravenously, then scattered like ashes. “Do you really want to know?”

“Yes,” Mel replied defiantly.

“Well, er, he likened a certain part of my mother’s anatomy to a charnel house…he said it was a miracle I crawled through the hole alive.”

The Southerner gaped at the little boy dashing happily with his friends through the station, and resisted the urge to chase him down and shake the stuffing out of him.

“I’ll have to remember that one,” Janice mused, running a hand through her coppery blonde hair.

“No, you won’t.” Mel retorted primly. She had a sudden image of Janice, “Dame Faux Pas” as Paul sometimes called her, trotting out the insult at some faculty cocktail party. And saying it to the Dean, most likely.

The archaeologist only smiled absently as she watched the children run wild. She looked almost wistful, perhaps even envious. They are free. She is not. The thought sprang, unbidden, into Mel’s head. She hoped scrunching together her eyebrows would banish it.

“What?” The concerned scowl was mirrored on Janice’s face.

Mel shook her head. “Nothing.”

Janice merely frowned, and gave the crowded station another half-hearted lookover. “I should’ve warned you. Fayed is always late.”

“I am not!” A petulant voice, in accented English, contradicted her. That, and the light touch of his hands on Janice’s shoulders, announced Fayed’s arrival. An Alexandrian by birth, he was a short, slender man, with golden eyes, bronze skin, and dark, curly hair closely cropped and gray at the temples. If it had not been for that touch of gray, Mel would have placed him closer to her own age. Despite his slight build, he literally swept his old friend off her feet. “My sister!” he cried.

Mel made a mental note to grill Janice about this later; the archaeologist did say that Fayed was “like a brother,” but perhaps the reticent doctor meant this in a more literal sense. Of course, I’m assuming a certain level of skirt-chasing. Like father, like daughter?

Fayed kissed Janice’s cheek several times, then her forehead. The archaeologist giggled. Mel was at first jealous, then fascinated by this heretofore undisplayed girlishness from a woman who swaggered in an evening gown. He’s a link to your past, to the girl that you were before the deluge of death, of war. Before me. Have I changed you for the better? Hence she was oblivious to the introduction Janice was making. “…and this is Melinda. The friend I wrote you about,” she was saying, with an awkward, nervous inflection upon the word friend.

His face brightened even more, if that’s possible, thought the embarrassed translator. He grasped her arms gently and appraised her with his lovely, unusual eyes. “Melinda!” he purred, taking the name for a test drive on his tongue. Before she could lapse into formal debutante behavior, he clenched her in a violently affectionate hug, and kissed both blushing cheeks. “Welcome to Alexandria!”

“Thank you,” she mumbled helplessly. She had not been the recipient of such physical affection from a man since her father died.

“You are incredibly beautiful!” he exclaimed. “Is she not?” he demanded of Janice.

“She ain’t hard on the eyes, that’s for sure.”

The Southerner squirmed.

“We’re embarrassing her,” the archaeologist said. Which embarrassed Mel even more.

He half-turned to spit out “Nonsense!” at Janice, then returned to his happy inspection of Mel. “You could have been the Circassian girl that Cavafy wrote of. Those blue eyes…” He stared in wonder at Mel’s eyes. “He rarely wrote about women like that, you know,” he added in an undertone, as if Janice would be somehow shocked.

“I know,” Mel replied in a mock-conspiring tone. “I’ve read many of his poems.”

“Really!” He took Mel’s hand; she was half-terrified that he was about to propose or proposition her in some bizarre way that would force her to bring her purse down on his head. “I must tell you then, since you will not be shocked, that the great poet was quite taken with me for some time.”

“For all of two weeks,” Janice added. “Mighta lasted longer if you’d hadn’t taken his money and spent it all on your mistress.”

He pointedly ignored his friend’s commentary, dismissing her with a vague wave of the hand. “But as you were saying, you’ve read the great man. Whose translation, may I ask?”

“Why, my own,” she replied, as if it were the most natural thing in the world and every reader did this when confronted with a text not in English. “Of course, I first read them in the Greek…”

Fayed gasped. “Janice! You did not tell me she is a genius.”

“She is a genius. And you get to carry her bags.” Playfully Janice slapped a valise into his stomach.

“No,” he replied, “that is for Nessim.” He gestured to the figure loitering nervously behind Janice. Nessim was a teenaged boy, rail thin and neatly dressed in Western clothes. His huge, serious dark eyes burned with an ascetic intensity that Janice usually attributed to Bedouins, the denizens of the desert. She watched as Fayed placed his hands on Nessim’s narrow shoulders, and spoke to him, softly yet sternly, in Arabic. The boy nodded fiercely, as if carrying luggage and escorting a Western woman were a matter of life and death. And, depending on the location and the circumstances, it sometimes was. When Fayed finished speaking with him, he took the bag eagerly and motioned for Mel to follow him.

“He’ll take you to the car, we’ll be right behind you,” Fayed explained.

“All right,” Mel said. Suspiciously, she regarded the reunited friends. “You’re going to talk about me, aren’t you?”

“What an ego,” Janice muttered, while Fayed confirmed this with a giggle and a nod.

The translator grinned, and followed the boy.

Janice watched her walk with Nessim: The unconscious feline sway of her walk, the quiet way she took in everything new about her—vendors vying for her attention, movie posters, a wall of intricate iron grillwork. She stopped momentarily to look at newspapers at a stall. The men gathered there devoured her with gazes that were an uneasy mix of lust and respect, the latter tipping the precarious balance into inaction—for most were far too reverent of this rare creature in their midst to do anything about it. Although that was not true of one young rake who, tossing his cigarette aside and running a hand over his greasy, pomaded head, was determined to make an introduction. Nessim, however, was not about to let that occur. His sweetness dissolved as he brandished his walking stick and hissed like a viper. The oily young Casanova retreated, performing an abrupt U-turn that sent him tripping over someone’s suitcase.

Janice decided that she liked Nessim.

Fayed was watching her. He chortled once she glared at him, knowing she was caught. The Egyptian threw his arm around her and she wrapped her arm around his waist as they walked together through the station.

“I like her,” Fayed said, nodding in the general direction of Mel.

The archaeologist snorted. “You’ve known her all of five minutes.”

“Anyone who reads Cavafy in Greek and makes a lovesick fool out of you cannot be bad.”

It was a testament to the closeness of their friendship—after so many years—that she felt comfortable in picking up the strands of their shared past. “You once made me a lovesick fool,” she reminded him gently.

“Let us emphasize fool in that matter, yes? You were a sixteen-year-old girl. I was a widower who was thirteen years older than you. Your father would have killed me if I had become your lover.”

“Once he found out the truth about me, my father was practically begging me to go to bed with you. He probably would have sold me to you if he could have.”

Fayed noted, with scant surprise, the usual bitterness underneath the tone, present whenever Harry was discussed. After all these years, you’re still angry with the dead, my friend. He squeezed her waist and she ducked her head in acknowledgment of his affection, eyes hooded, a strand of gold hair caught on her sweaty cheek. He laughed softly. “Yes, that was another reason why it would not have worked. Your predilections, my dear. We would have ended up like the Davies.”

Up ahead, the newspaper vendor was attempting to speak with Mel. Janice knew she didn’t have a chance of understanding the language of the Alexandrian street, the patois of French and Arabic. Indeed, she could make out a familiar, bespectacled squint of confusion from as far away as they were. Finally the vendor made a gift of the newspaper, resisting the coins Mel thrust at him. Nessim, of course, understood, and gently tugged at her sleeve. She beamed at the boy, who responded with a look of astonishment. Another devotee to the Cult of the Debutante, Janice thought.

“And speaking of the Davies,” Fayed’s soft tone jolted her out of her vigilance, “was it wise to stay with them? Naima and I could have put you both up.”

“I know.” She patted his back. “I don’t want to make it too hard for Linus, y’know.”

“He is a fool,” Fayed groaned. “I don’t know why, after all this time, he still insists…” he trailed off with a sigh.

“I don’t either, but nonetheless, he does.” She cast a wary eye about them. “And aren’t things difficult enough right now for Naima?”

“It is true—it’s difficult for all Jews here now, with Nasser’s rise to power. And Westerners too.” He shrugged. Fayed was not Jewish, but—as an illegitimate child running the streets of Alexandria—he knew what it was to be an outsider, even in a city seemingly full of them. “Are you sure you want to stay with Linus and Jenny?”

“No, I’m not,” she murmured. “But I agreed, so we’ll see what happens.”

He accepted this, albeit reluctantly, and waited for her to change the topic.

Which she did: “So you have a car now? You finally got rid of the truck?”

“Linus’ car, actually. He wanted me to pick you up ‘in style,’ as he put it. And yes, I still have the truck, it is a wreck but I love it. And yes, Linus and Jenny still treat me like a servant. I honestly do not know why I continue to tolerate them both. But I cannot argue that you do not deserve the best. You remember the Maharajah, don’t you, Janice?”

“Yeah, the old pervert. What about him?”

A white Daimler sat at the curb, sporty, topless, elegant, and glistening. Nessim sat behind the wheel, waiting impatiently for the day when he would be allowed to drive it, and Mel leaned against it, as if she owned it. “So,” Mel drawled to them both as they approached the splendid vehicle, “are we ‘roughing it’ yet?”

Janice laughed. “Christ—the Maharajah’s car!”

“Yes. He sold it to Linus.” Fayed gestured for the boy to relinquish his spot in the driver’s seat. Reluctantly, Nessim slid into the passenger seat. “It’s a good thing you never took him up on his offer—he was actually quite destitute.”

“What offer?” Mel asked. She hesitated before getting in the back.

“Oh.” Janice squirmed a little. “He wanted to fund one of our digs.”

Fayed added the crucial omitted detail. “The only catch was Janice had to, ah, spend a night with him.”

Mel gaped. “And you considered this?” Of course you did. Anything for your digs.

Now that the truth had emerged, Janice’s initial squeamishness on the topic dissipated and she leaned back in the car’s lush upholstery with ease. “Well,” she admitted, “he did have a tiger skin rug.” Her grin was wolfish, lusty. “I always wanted to fuck on one of those.”

Fayed bit the inside of his mouth. “Ay, your language has not improved,” he clucked as he started the car. The engine purred at him.

Mel did not miss a beat. “I will buy one for you,” she replied smoothly and crossed her legs as elegantly as possible within the tiny space available in the back of the car. Her foot swung idly, like the tail of a wary cat.

“They’re very rare, and very expensive,” Janice countered.

“I’m very patient, and very wealthy.”

While Fayed regretted he could not watch this verbal ping pong, he was nonetheless grateful that Nessim could not understand it. Teenaged boy he that he was, however, Nessim couldn’t help but steal fascinated glances at the two exotic women in the backseat.

“You are, but I’m not.” Janice continued. “Suppose I wanted one as soon as possible—tomorrow, let’s say.”

A policeman stopped the car along a crowded side street. The seafront thoroughfare known as the Corniche was visible from where they sat in traffic, as were the beaches. And as a backdrop to it all lay the Mediterranean, white hot in the midday sun. Mel drew in her breath at the sight, so sudden and delightful, that excitement tickled deep inside her belly and she momentarily abandoned the game. But as pedestrians ambled over the crosswalk, they all waited. Both for the foot traffic to abate, and for the translator’s response.

Later, she had no idea what had gotten into her—the heat, the sea, the combined effect of excitement and exhaustion, perhaps even that lascivious nudge from the goat in the train station—but somethingprovided inspiration. “Well, I would have to go into the jungle, won’t I? First, I would track the tiger. He would know that I followed him everywhere—he would see me, he would smell me, and he would feel me. His senses would be engorged with my presence, so much so that he could almost taste me in his mouth. Yet no matter how hard he tried, he would never find me. I would always be one step ahead of him. I would wear him down until he knew that he was the hunted—and not I. And I would corner him. And when he expects death—when he expects a bullet in his brain, or a spear in his heart, I will defeat him with my words.” Mel paused. “I will woo him, I will tame him, and I will bring him back to you.”

Janice had that slightly amazed and almost envious look on her face, similar to a time when Mel had told her about the homoerotic shenanigans of her sorority sisters at Vanderbilt. “So you would bring me alive tiger skin.”

“Even better, don’t you think?”

A horn beeped behind them. The policeman motioned for them to proceed.

Fayed turned momentarily to steal quick glance at his old friend. The wind dashed his bangs against his sunglasses and he laughed heartily at the spectacle of a speechless Covington, who glared at him from the rear view mirror. “This brings to mind one of my favorite English expressions: ‘You really have your hands full, don’t you?’ ” he shouted above the engine.

* * *

The villa was back from the street, hidden in the green haze of ivy and jasmine run amok along its gate and along the stone path leading to the door. Such ramshackle opulence—the lot of the wealthy expatriate in Alexandria—and rampant vegetation reminded Mel of the South, of kudzu, magnolia, of summers heavy and languid. Inside, there were cool marble floors and a winding staircase, from which Jennifer Davies greeted her reluctant guests: “Well,” she declared as she descended the steps, singling out Janice with a gaze, “the barbarian got past the gate.”

Mel admired her sense of the dramatic. Well, I could do that, if I had spiral staircase. In a moment of temporary insanity, she wondered if she could convince Janice to have such a staircase built in their modest house.

Fayed dropped Janice’s bags in a heap. “And who says the English have manners?” he muttered.

Jenny ignored him—and pointedly disregarded Janice as well—as she glided over to Mel and scooped up the Southerner’s hand in a limp, feminine handshake. “My dear Miss Pappas, how pleased I am to have you here.”

“No more than I to have accepted your generous invitation, Mrs. Davies,” Mel replied.

“And it’s Dr. Pappas now, so get it right,” Janice grunted uncharitably, knowing that she had underlined the “Dr.” in front of Mel’s name on the envelope they’d sent to the Davies months ago, when accepting their invitation to stay in Alexandria.

Emphasizing her new status, Mel unleashed her best grin, the kind that made people wonder if she were actually a movie star, and that her glasses were some sort of half-hearted disguise so that she could mingle among the common folk.

Fayed looked puzzled—and nervous—at the friendly display. And for herself, Covington the Barbarian wished for a very fleeting moment that she were heterosexual, if only because male rivals for her affections would, no doubt, settle matters quickly and cleanly with violence and not verbal sniping behind the barricades of etiquette. And such a display, Janice thought wistfully, would be a hell of a lot more entertaining.

“I say,” Jenny piped up in textbook British, “is that blouse—”

“Schiaparelli? Why, yes, it is.”

“Very nice. I was regular at her shop in Milan. The girls sometimes called her—”

“—’Schiap,’ as my father did,” Mel concluded, trying not to sound too smug.

Round One to the Carolina Princess! Janice beamed. She plucked at her own shirt. “I got this at an Army and Navy store in Boston,” she proclaimed to no one in particular.

“It is lovely,” Fayed deadpanned.

“Why thank you!” Janice retorted, voice spinning an octave above her normal range. For effect she threw in a girlish titter.

Her suitors were not pleased with the object of their affection mocking their tactics.

Fortunately, Linus chose this moment to jog down the stairs, all the while apologizing profusely for some imaginary delay. His welcome was warmer and appeared more genuine, if only because he kissed his guests on both cheeks. “Melinda, my dear, let me show you the house. Then you and Janice can rest before dinner.” He spirited away the translator before anyone could protest. Fayed, not wishing to affix himself to the ex-lovers, also joined the impromptu tour, although he knew the villa as well as its owners.

“Nessim, please take the bags to the guestroom,” Jenny requested. The boy did so. She folded her arms, took a deep breath, and faced Janice. “I’m not as good a hostess as my dear husband. So let me just take you to your fucking room, all right?”

* * *

The room was actually a suite of rooms, including a bathroom, on the second floor of the villa. Janice had basically commandeered the space once she found herself to be a regular sleepover guest; it washardly fitting to make love to the lady of the house in the master bedroom, as Linus had cheekily put it (he always managed to take his affairs elsewhere). The villa was also a good hiding spot—from Harry, homicidal husbands, suspicious civil servants, and other complications of life at that time. She particularly liked the bedroom with its high ceiling, cream-colored walls, and elegant sparseness. A busy, crowded room was anathema to anyone who’s ever laid in bed after a night of heavy drinking. A spinning room is always best when it’s empty, she thought, without objects colliding in the drunken gyroscope of the morning after.

It was one of those useless conclusions she’d come to in the aftermath of Harry’s death, in the whiskey-tinted haze of her mourning. Three days I spent holed up here, with as much liquor as I could get.

Of course, the room now felt haunted with not only Harry, but also Jenny….who intercepted a pack of cigarettes and lighter from Janice’s breast pocket with the quick, smooth precision of an expert mooch. She tossed herself on the bed, next to the suitcase, and bounced. Twice. She lit a cigarette, eyes squinting behind the lighter’s flame. “Hope you don’t mind being in your old rooms.”

“No. I was just thinking, I’ve always liked them.”

“Good.” Jenny exhaled smoke. “Bed’s new, by the way.”

Janice braced herself for raunchy commentary. “Great.”

“You and the Deb can be the first to fornicate in it.” The archaeologist didn’t bat an eye at the nickname with which she and Linus had anointed Mel. Rather, a slightly raised eyebrow silently assured Jenny that they would indeed do that.

All right, I had that coming. I’m really not doing well here at allfirst the Deb shows me up, and now I can’t get Covington mad at me. The Englishwoman squinted, although it was not smoke that caused this. “Am I mistaken, or do you limp a bit on occasion?” Janice looked perturbed—yet surprised—that she picked up this detail. Jenny fumbled for further explanation: “I noticed it in Venice…when the party was over….” After I apologized for throwing the wine in your face. You just nodded at me, and said, in your usual way, “See ya.” Damned Americans, how casual you are, even at goodbye. Then you walked away, limping ever so slightly through that empty courtyard, with your head down. But you recovered your grace as you bounded up the steps, to where she waited for you, smiling.

And Linus made me apologize, of course. But you know that, don’t you?

Janice tapped the side of her thigh. “I got shot,” she said.

The cigarette almost fell out of Jenny’s mouth. “Jesus Christ. When? Where?”

“During the war.” Janice’s full lips pressed together to form a tight, slim line. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Fair enough,” Jenny replied softly. A clearing of the throat signaled a change of topic. “I’m surprised you took us up on the offer, Janice. To stay here.”

“Mel said it would be rude to refuse.”

“So she’s teaching you manners, at least.” Jenny flipped the lid of the open suitcase. “Has she done anything for your wardrobe, I wonder?” She peered into the case with mock intensity, looking for something other than the usual archaeoensemble. “Let’s see. Khaki, khaki, and—khaki! Oh, wait. A blue shirt. How risqué, Janice!”

Mel had bought the shirt—sky blue chambray, handmade—for her during a shopping frenzy in New York. Never before had Janice experienced the genuine surprise of a gift that was not only spontaneous, but also took into mind her own preferences, her own likes and dislikes. It had been so perfect she couldn’t believe it. Stupidly, she had almost cried over it, causing Mel a great deal of alarm. Before Jenny got any ideas about digging for underwear, she stalked over and closed the suitcase. “Knock it off, willya?” she grunted.

She was close enough so that her belt buckle was within Jenny’s grasp. God, I can smell your sweat. “Must I change the subject again? You’ve gotten testy in your old age, dearie.” Jenny blew out smoke. “All right, then. Let’s drag out the past, shall we? That’s always good for a giggle.” She was both pleased and saddened at the wince on Covington’s face, and, softening her voice, focused on more pleasant memories. “Speaking of rooms…you must be glad you aren’t staying at that dreadful flat you and Harry had. One practically had to walk through a curtain of flies to get at the door.”

“You didn’t seem to mind once you got in,” Janice reminded her gently.

No, I didn’t. How she had loved that miserable little room. It was a sanctuary for Jenny, away from her husband, and the world she inhabited. The morning sun would snake through the broken shutter, as would the irresistible reek of the street: incense, garbage, rotting fruit, carrion, smoke. But there was this beautiful creature next to her, innocent in sleep. She remembered the patchwork quality of Janice’s skin—the muscled brown limbs, edged with pink and fading into milky white, the smattering of freckles along her forearms, her perpetually sunburned nose, the crease of her brow that, in sleep, melted into buttery smoothness. She blinked, and saw that Janice too was remembering, if not these exact memories, then something of equal pleasance. “It wasn’t that bad, was it?”

That lovely brow furrowed. “No, it wasn’t.”

“It would be easy for us to go back to that, wouldn’t it?” She reached out and touched the rough fingertips that hung loosely at Janice’s side.

Then the archaeologist’s expression hardened into its usual stubborn mask. “No.” She pulled her hand away. “I’m not going to fuck this up,” she said quietly.

Jenny sighed, and gave up a potential seduction—the resultant melodrama was something she wasn’t quite up to yet. It was too soon, she thought. Let Janice stew, let her remember. It’ll weaken her. And Jenny felt too aware of her own weakness: A growing fondness for Mel. It was rather annoying, this unforeseen obstacle.

Besides, Linus had planned such a lovely dinner: Lamb and lentils.

“I admit, Janice, I do like your Melinda. She’s got a brain behind all that beauty and money, and a heart as well. She’s absolutely mad to entrust it to you.” Janice looked a little surprised—and pleased—that Jenny had admitted this. “However, she doesn’t understand you like I do. You and I are two of a kind. We’re selfish. We go our own way.” She paused for effect. “It’s hardly fair to her, is it? To expect her to follow you around the globe on your mad little missions?”

“At least she would.” The accompanying glare hit Jenny like a slap, until Janice decided to turn her gaze to the floor, hands thrust angrily in her pockets.

“I’ve been waiting for you to bring that up. I’m impressed you’ve waited this long.” Another thing that impressed Jenny—and always had—was Janice’s fast, ferocious strength. She was off the bed and on her feet, with her wrist encircled in a vice-like grip, before she could blink.

“How many times did I ask you to come with me? To Macedonia? To Thessalonika?

To Istanbul? If I meant so damned much to you, why was your husband always more important?” The words weren’t so much spoken as bitterly hissed.

“Maybe this time I would,” Jenny retorted softly.

“You’re way too late for that.”

“A woman like Melinda Pappas is not going to follow you around for the rest of your life. And I’m sure you’d miss her at first, but you’d probably miss her money more, wouldn’t you?”

The green eyes flared with such rage that Jenny tried to pull away. Oh, you hit the mother lode, dearie dear, she congratulated herself. Janice’s words were spoken with careful, soft menace. “If you were a man, I’d knock your fucking teeth down your throat for that.”

“Old Harvard wouldn’t want to hear about you beating up defenseless expatriates now, would they? They’re trying to keep you low profile these days, I hear. Very few people even know that you’re in Alex. And if they do, they don’t even know that you’re scouting sites.”

“And how do you know all this?”

Jenny smirked wickedly. “Rumors travel fast among our kind, Janice. Especially when one wonders why your alma mater is keeping quite mum on the subject of the Xena Scrolls these days.” Janice released her wrist, and Jenny rubbed the blossoming bruise. “It’s a little tiresome, when no one tells you what the bloody hell is going on.” My husband and his little spy games, now you. “Why don’t you just tell me why you’re back here?”

Before Janice could give in to either temptation—telling Jenny or smacking her a good one—the door opened and Linus, high on hostessing, sailed in, with Mel trailing languidly in his wake. “And this is the bedroom, of course.”

“It’s quite lovely.”

“Oh come now, it’s just a very simple room.”

“Perhaps, but it’s quite a welcome change from hotel rooms.” While the hotels that they had encountered in Italy were usually of the highest standard, Mel nonetheless felt the need to charm—or flirt, as Janice would put it. She watched the archaeologist stalk over to the terrace. Well, they’re both standing, fully clothed…that’s something! The tense lines of the Janice’s body suggested that something had passed between the former lovers; but obviously, Mel thought with guilty relief, it had not been something pleasant.

“I’m pleased you like it. Now, we’ll leave you to relax for a while. Dinner will be in about two hours. Jenny?” Linus prompted his wife gently, hoping that he wouldn’t have to drag her away.

“‘Tis a pleasure to have you in our lovely home, Miss Pappas,” Jenny drawled, aiming a cloud of cigarette smoke in Mel’s direction.

“Dr. Pappas,” Janice growled automatically.

“Or maybe it should be Mrs. Covington?” Jenny retorted with a blithe bitterness that she hoped someday to trademark. She ground out her cigarette in an ashtray near the bed, then sailed out the door.

And she knows how to make an exit, too, Mel thought.

It left the two women staring at Linus, who shrugged guiltily. “She’ll be better after a couple glasses of wine. Or a polo mallet to the skull.” He sighed and smiled. “Enjoy your rest,” he said as he departed.

Janice said nothing, but stood at the balcony, arms folded.

So how do I do this without having you take it out on me? The translator waited for a minute. “You know,” she began, “where I come from, gentlemen fight duels over a lady’s attention.”

“Chivalry,” Janice spat venomously.

“The situation is, I admit, slightly different in this instance…”

The archaeologist finally looked at Mel, who was studying a small object in her hand with exaggerated intensity.

“…I could try taking her out with a bobby pin.”

It worked. There was a soft, sputtering laugh, a small grin, and relaxed posture.

Mel stated the obvious: “She really gets to you.” Still, after all these years.

“Yeah.” Janice leaned against the balcony door. “She’s always known just how to piss me off. It’s all part of our…thing.” Fighting and fucking. Amazing I didn’t kill her, or she didn’t kill me.

The translator stared at the bed, her fingers tracing the weave of the thin blanket shrouding the mattress. “You…must have loved her very much. Did you?” And I must be the biggest idiot in the world, for thinking we should stay here. Keep your friends close, but your enemies even closer, isn’t that the saying?

Janice was still frowning at the sea. “I…” she began, but faltered as she gathered her thoughts. “I thought I did. But it was just that I wanted it so badly. To be in love.” She looked at Mel. “You know?” And I didn’t know what it was until I saw you.

Mel nodded, and somehow found her voice. “I know.” She patted the bed beside her. “We don’t have to stay here.”

For once, Mad Dog answered the call, trotting over and sitting down on the bed. “I know, but it is convenient, and free.”

“Money’s not a problem.”

“I know,” she repeated, “but I’d rather have you spend your money in other ways.”

“Like what?”

Janice leaned into her. “Like getting me that tiger skin rug.”

* * *

The lovely dinner went off as planned, as did an impulsive turn at the hookah. Mel, in an attempt to undo her priggish reputation, indulged with the others and managed to acquit herself with a modicum of dignity—she did not cough, gag, or spit up any of the shisha touffah that bubbled within the water pipe. Initially the smoke had scorched her throat and she thought, involuntarily, of Sherman’s March through the South. But then the hint of apple in the tobacco concoction soon enmeshed itself with the aftertaste of the crisp wine upon her tongue, and she enjoyed it. In the aftermath of this new experience she felt light-headed, pleasantly exhausted, and faintly decadent as she lounged upon a couch with Janice, listening to Linus poke at the piano. She recognized the Beethoven sonata he was attempting to play, the soft notes deflating under his relentless, erratic jabs.

Jenny had mysteriously (yet blessedly) disappeared after dinner, and Fayed, arms crossed, was looming near the piano, no doubt plotting how he could get Linus to stop playing, so that they might give the gramophone a try.

Mel regarded the handsome Egyptian. Despite all the stories Janice had told her of growing up with him, she still felt she knew little about the man. And she was compelled to know more. Since he is about the only family you got. “You’ve said Fayed has a wife.”

“Yeah. Naima.”

“Why isn’t she here tonight?”

“Well,” Janice began, “you’ll find this out sooner or later…”

“She was your lover too?” A tad prematurely, the translator congratulated herself for foresight on the matter.

Until Covington leveled her with a glare. “Melinda, dearest, contrary to what you might think, I haven’t slept with every woman in this goddamn city. I know Alexandria is seen as some modern day Sodom and Gomorrah, but dammit, I did do some work while I was here.”

“Oh.”

“Now, about Naima…..Well, the reason she doesn’t come is mostly Jenny’s fault. She’s kind of uncomfortable with Naima’s practices.”

“Practices?”

“Naima is a Cabbalist.”

This roused Mel from a shisha-induced stupor. Before the translator had the opportunity for rhetorically shrieking “A Cabbalist?”, Janice clapped a tanned hand over her mouth. “Your manners are slipping, sweetheart. Jesus, that Methodism is really bred in the bone with you, isn’t it?”

In response, Mel was decidedly un-Christian: She gave the soft, delectable pad of Janice’s forefinger a nasty nip.

“Ow!” The archaeologist yanked her hand away. “And you call me a savage.”

“A Cabbalist!” Mel exclaimed in an undertone. She glanced quickly at Fayed, who was oblivious to their conversation as he playfully tried to shove the laughing Linus off the piano bench. “You could have told me sooner.”

“Why?”

“It’s just—I don’t know, it’s so strange.”

“Don’t be provincial,” Janice retorted, then regretted it as she saw Mel wince. “I’m sorry. Look, it’s just another religion. These mystical sects always scare the general population, and there’s hardly any real reason behind it. I mean, I’ve read some of the texts with Naima—”

Mel eyes widened.

“—and sacrificed some babies, but that’s it.” She laughed as Mel’s eyes narrowed. “Sure, it’s fine for you to read all that crap about Indian gods, but I peruse a couple lousy texts 10 years ago and suddenly I’m the devil.”

“The Indian ‘crap,’ as you call it, was research—you know that. The last scroll mentioned a journey to India. Some background reading was called for.”

The archaeologist smirked mischievously and flung a leg on Mel’s lap. “Still, y’all better be careful, Miss Melinda.” It never failed to infuriate the Southerner how well Covington could mimic her accent. “You’ll turn into some awful lotus-eatin’ heathen!”

Oh my God, is that what I’m becoming? Mel wondered incoherently. This stuff is worse than champagne. “Everything is your fault. You seduced me—”

“You kissed me first, remember?”

“Now you’ve made me smoke this narcotic—”

“Didn’t twist your arm.”

“Not to mention you have a four-star general thinking that I run a brothel in New Orleans.”

Janice was speechless.

“Nicey Nell from Vandy called before we left the country. General Fenton is her uncle.” Janice muttered something about inbreeding. Mel ignored it. “At any rate, she’s praying for my eternal soul.”

The archaeologist lit a cigarette. “She oughta pray for a new name,” she retorted.

Mel’s short-lived deliverance from the clutches of Jennifer Davies ended as the Englishwoman entered the room. Without a word to the others she walked over to Janice and tossed a small, battered brown leather journal into the archaeologist’s lap.

“I thought I lost this,” Janice murmured to no one in particular, as she stared at the old book.

“No. Fayed found it at the El Alamein site, after you took off.”

She pressed her hand against the dry, cracked cover. Flecks of brown stippled her fingertips. And we think of history as something solid as a stone. Maybe that’s always been my problem. The past crumbles before I really make anything out of it.

“What is that?” Mel asked sleepily.

Janice blinked, startled, lost in reverie. “It was my journal. I kept one, years ago.” She shrugged, embarrassed, suddenly feeling that it was immature, that it was a foolish thing—only schoolgirls kept journals. “It was just, notes and stuff on excavations, places I’d been…”

“…women you slept with. It’s quite entertaining.” Jenny concluded. Janice shot her a homicidal look. “What? Surely you didn’t think I wouldn’t read it, after all these years?”

Mel managed to salvage the situation with a bit of good grace and affection. She stretched her long legs, then patted Covington’s thigh. “I reckon you’ll have to get caught up on your entries, dear.”

Janice grinned at her, relieved—not that she expected a scene, or irrational jealousy. The way you handle yourself, baby. You never lose your cool with me. Maybe the goddamn Dean was right: I am lucky, at least when it comes to you. “Nah, I’d need a whole new book for you. I’d get downright Proustian.”

Jenny rolled her eyes. Defeated by the Deb again! What gets to this woman? Sighing, she snatched the journal from Janice’s hands and idly flipped through it. Something stuck in the pages caught Mel’s eye. “Was that a photo?” she asked.

The Englishwoman nodded, backtracked, and removed a black and white picture from the journal. She gave it to Janice.

It was an old photo from the 1920s, of a woman whose obvious voluptuousness and cherubic cheeks defied that decade’s trend toward a thin, boyish build, even though the subject’s dark hair was bobbed flapper-style.

Mel leaned in for a better look at the picture. “Who is that?”

Janice hesitated, overcoming the urge to tuck the picture away into the past, where it belonged. “My mother,” she finally said.

“Really?” Mel could not contain her excitement, and sat up. The topic of Janice’s mother was even more taboo than that of Harry. The translator’s delicate inquiries had served up only these terse facts: Janice had not seen the woman since she was sixteen and there was no chance of seeing her ever again because she was now “dead as a fucking doornail.” She managed to check her enthusiasm as she tentatively reached out for the photo, her fingers brushing Janice’s knuckles. “May I?” she requested softly.

Janice blinked. “Sure.” She surrendered the photo.

“You don’t look a thing like her,” Jenny opined. “Hard to believe she was your mum. You take after Harry all the way.”

This was met with stony silence.

“Oh, no,” Mel demurred. “I see a definite resemblance.” And she could—in the wry, sensual half-smile and the mischievous glint of the dark eyes. Harry Covington may have passed on to Janice his obstinacy, his temper, and his drive, but this woman, Mel believed, had to be the source for the mercurial, subversive wit, the quicksilver intelligence that brimmed within her daughter.

Janice had opened her mouth to say something when a quail came rampaging through the room. Half-flying, half staggering, the bird rounded a corner into the hallway. Nessim soon followed in hot pursuit, armed with a large cleaver.

“Nessim!” Linus bellowed. “You’ll chop off your damn arm with that!” Fayed too was yelling at the boy, but in Arabic. Finally both men jumped up and followed Nessim down the corridor.

“For God’s sake,” Jenny groaned. She slammed the journal down and followed the action. “If you hear a high-pitched squeal,” she called over her shoulder, “it’s either Linus or the bird.”

A feather floated to the floor.

“Just…what exactly is in that shisha?” Mel asked.

2. The Book of Splendor

Love nothing but that which comes to you woven in the pattern of your destiny.

—Marcus Aurelius

Janice ran her fingers over the battered door of the Ford pickup as if it were a frieze—a sturdy one that she could actually touch, where the grooves and furrows of the past could be experienced in rust, dents, and scrapes. A lot of money and finagling went into getting the dark green truck, she recalled; she had begged Harry for the truck, and once she got it, for a long time she loved nothing—or no one—quite as much. Fayed knew this, of course, and when she gave it to him during the war he took his role as its new owner quite seriously.

“You’ve taken good care of it,” she remarked.

He laughed. “You must be joking.”

“Considering the shape it was in when I gave it to you, I’m surprised it’s still running.”

He squeezed her shoulder affectionately, and gazed at the ivy-covered gate of the Davies’ villa. “She’s not coming with us?”

“Hungover. For the first time in her life, I think.” Janice smiled, although she felt guilty about leaving Mel behind; when she had left her lover in bed this morning, the translator was tucked into a fetal position with a pillow wrapped around her head in a fruitless attempt to drown out the muezzin’s cries of “Allah Uakbar” that signaled the commencement of prayers at a nearby mosque.

Linus offered to watch over Mel while they were gone; additionally, he proposed that they take Jenny along. When Janice and Fayed had both looked puzzled—and annoyed—at the suggestion, the expatriate gently reminded them that perhaps the last thing Mel would want to deal with, on top of a hangover, would be Jenny.

And thus, the Englishwoman now emerged from the villa, eyeing the Ford with distaste. “Banned from my own home, and condemned to roam around in a garbage heap all day,” she muttered.

“But surely the charming company compensates,” Fayed retorted, with a mocking bow.

“Not quite sure. Where are we going, my dears?”

“To the necropolis near the Western Harbor,” Fayed began.

“Are we picking up sailors?”

Janice finally acknowledged her presence with a look of disdain. “That’s where the Gate of the Moon is supposed to be.”

Was, you mean,” Jenny retorted. “I know, I’m not totally ignorant.”

“But first,” Fayed interjected, “We go to see the Old Man.” He opened the driver’s door of the truck and climbed in.

“Oh for Christ’s sake.” Jenny folded her arms. “I suppose it was Naima’s idea to do this, to seek approval from that old fraud of a fruit. Or old fruit of a fraud, take your pick.”

Janice flung open the passenger’s door. “Actually, it was mine. Now shut up and get into the goddamn truck.”

They glared at each other for a moment. Janice let her tongue find the soft spot where a certain molar once was—a tooth that, once upon a time, Catherine Stoller had knocked out of her head. For some reason the gesture always calmed her. Perhaps because it reminded her of how Mel had kept the tooth all these years, a perverse little treasure among the pearls, diamonds, and sapphires of her jewelry box at home.

Haughty even in defeat, Jenny arched an eyebrow and climbed in.

The archaeologist followed her and closed the door. She exhaled as the heat of the truck swam over her. Sweat burst on her brow.

Perpetually contrary, Jenny merely sighed contentedly and squirmed happily between Janice and Fayed. “Well! This might not be so bad,” she purred. “I’ve always wanted to be the filling in an archaeologist sandwich.”

God help me, Janice thought, as the motor roared into life.

* * *

The Old Man lived in an abandoned monastery. It was located beyond the large beaches along the western edge of the city—like an outpost of sorts between Alexandria and the desert proper. The paved road running parallel to the beach passed by shacks normally half-buried in sand during the off-season; soon enough the road deteriorated into a path of hardened sand that nonetheless failed to deter the seasoned truck, even as it climbed the sudden, steep hill leading to the decrepit building.

The sun tracked their course up the hill. Janice pulled her hat low to avoid the pebbles of sand that the truck’s tires spat up at them. It was ironic, she thought, that in this place where Copts once worshipped, there now lived an old Jewish mystic who favored young boys. But Alexandria had always been aswirl with the mystery religions of both Judaism and Christianity, from Arianism and Gnosticism to Cabbalism—with each sect quite literally at one another’s throats. The city’s own turmoil would prove to be its inevitable downfall—time after time. Alexandria’s tattered garb was the worn finery of a host of conquerors. There had been the Romans, the Arabs, the Turks—even Napoleon, who rode into the sleepy backwater town that had, once upon a time, been the center of knowledge in the known world. All that remained were statues— hollow casts glowing silver in moonlight—to guide the French forces, that and a population indifferent and unimpressed with yet another martial takeover. Calling it an invasion was charitable. And so it always appeared that the city was constantly in flux; nonetheless, it seethed inwardly with the same tensions as it had since the beginning.

This particular sanctuary—unlike the Davies’ home—provided the archaeologist with some much-needed, crucial perspective and distance from the city. Naima was the one who had first brought her to the monastery. The Cabbalist knew full well that the main reason Janice came with her was to escape from everything—to see it all from a remote, peaceful hilltop—and not just for the lingering fascination and curiosity that the archaeologist possessed with her faith. For Janice it was enough just to come up here and sit, with the wind and the smell of the desert pulsing against her back, and the Mediterranean—slithering like a chameleon from day to day, season to season—before her. She needed neither the religion nor the fortune-telling skills of the Old Man.

He was called a soothsayer, sometimes even a demon; Naima speculated (and only half-jokingly) that he was probably the original Wandering Jew. People from throughout the country would come to him, to learn of their futures. He knew the fortunes of many of his visitors. Perhaps he knew all of them, but he never fully revealed what he knew. Even more mystifying than his religion was the fact that the Old Man—fat, blind, and toadlike—could have a passel of beautiful boys taking care of him: cooking his food, bringing him records (he had a weakness for Western music), drawing his baths, washing his clothes, and making his bed. Among other things that Janice didn’t want to think about. One of these boys now opened the gate for the truck. Once the Ford pulled to a halt Jenny—who had stubbornly repeated that she would not set foot in the Old Man’s home—promptly set off for the small yet overgrown garden, shaded with a trellis, along the monastery’s sunny southern side.

Fayed and Janice watched her stalk away. The Egyptian gave his friend a playful shove. “Go on, go speak with him.”

“What? I don’t really wanna talk to him, Fayed. He’s creepy.” Despite the unease that he always set about in her, Janice had nonetheless felt the allure of the Old Man’s words during those nights, whenever she accompanied Naima. Sometimes she even sat at his feet as he spoke to them of the Tree of Life, the Qelippot, the sacred texts—such as Sefer ha Zohar, the Book of Splendor, and the Behir, the Book of Illumination.

She had imagined the Xena Scrolls to be her own Book of Splendor. Like the Cabbalists’ book, it would be the story of a world’s beginning, of its creation, of its own divinity. It was the “innermost light” that had illuminated her path.

The Egyptian raised an eyebrow; while he was not a true believer like his wife, he was nonetheless fiercely protective of her faith and those involved in it. “I shall pretend I did not hear that.”

She shrugged awkwardly. “I just wanted to come up here…for old time’s sake. Not to see him. You know that.”

“Do not be rude, Janice. Speak with him. Then come out to the garden. We shall sit for a while, the boys will make us tea, then we will go.”

“Come with me,” she pleaded, uncharacteristically.

“I cannot. I must keep an eye on Madame.” He nodded toward the garden, and she smiled weakly at the use of their old, private nickname for Jenny. “It is never a good idea to leave her alone with handsome young boys. If the Old Man catches her at it, we shall be banned for life.” Fayed gave her another affectionate nudge in the direction of the monastery, and when this failed to motivate her, he added a slap on her rump. He laughed at her glare then walked away, comfortable in the knowledge that he was still the only man in the world who could get away with such an act.

And thus alone, she entered the house, following the sound of a gramophone playing “St. James Infirmary.” The sound of the slow, downbeat melody appeared to be threaded together with the crackling record scratches that filled the air.

The Old Man was also alone, sitting in a chair near a second-floor window above the garden. At the sound of her tread upon the worn carpet, he tilted his head and smiled, the lines around his thick, milky blue cataracts crinkling.

“Covington’s daughter,” he rumbled, his belly straining against the buttons of his old, dirty oxford shirt. “I wish I could remember your name.” As always, he spoke to her in English. While his voice never retained the imprimatur of any country, there was joy in his tone, and she marveled at that. He was glad to see her. How could he even remember her after all these years?

Janice smiled uneasily. Fayed must have told him I was coming. “It doesn’t matter,” she said, barely trusting that her own voice conveyed warmth and not fear.

“No, it does not,” he replied. “For I remember many things about you. For instance, the many times that you told me I was full of—ah, how did you say it?” His eyebrows waggled. “Oh yes—shit.”

Her jaw dropped. He laughed uproariously, as if he could really see her expression. “My little explorer. I am pleased you came to visit me.”

“Just to—say hi,” she muttered, again awkward in his presence.

“It has been many years, hasn’t it?” He held out his hand. It was hard and smooth, like pumice stone, the runes of his palm crisscrossing the skin like a crazy, self-contradictory map.

Don’t.

This was the way it began, the way he told fortune: His fingers read hands as assuredly as any palmist’s eyes would. One surrendered to his grasp, as if to the ocean’s undertow, and was swallowed in prophecy.

Reluctantly, she rested her fingertips against his palm. He drew her in.

“I liked your hands, always,” he said. “A perfect size for a woman. Not too big, not too small, warm and smelling of the earth.”

“Like many old men, you’re a flatterer,” she burred.

He giggled mischievously. “You have not changed. You still speak truth with bluntness.” He turned her hand over in his, running his thumb along her palm. “It’s not as rough as before. You have done other things than dig in the earth all these years.”

“Yes.”

“You teach your skill to others.”

Lucky guess. “Yeah.”

“It’s safe to say that the war interrupted your life. It did for all of us. But I see—in my way—that it almost ended your path. You took a bullet in your belly.” He knew by her silence that he was right. Then he smiled, quite brilliantly and suddenly. “And do you recall what I told you, when last I saw you?”

Janice tried to soften the edge of her voice. “What?” She honestly couldn’t remember. It wasn’t long after Harry’s death, and everything in her life felt beyond chaos. Nothing was salvageable.

“I told you,” he said slowly, stroking each finger of her hand, “that you would find love.”

Now she remembered. She had laughed, sneered. I already have a lover, she had told him. Was I drunk? Janice wondered now. It was very much a state of being in those days.

“You did, didn’t you?”

She paused before admitting it, always feeling a weakness, a superstition that in acknowledging this, it would somehow be taken away from her. “Yes,” she said softly.

“Good. You needed it.”

“Doesn’t everyone?” she parried.

“Yes, you are right, of course.” His smile faded. “But a great love, like the one you have now, is both a joy and a burden. A burden worth having. Do not forget that.”

You bastard. How do you know that? Had this love altered her so completely that it had changed her chemically, had mutated every cell in her body so that her touch, her skin was different? Typically, she could only seek an empirical explanation.

“The things you look for…this truth you want. You have not found it.”

“Not entirely.”

“Child,” he sighed.

Janice raised an eyebrow, somewhat amused; she hadn’t been called that in years.

“Your fate will be your father’s. If you are not careful.”

She tried, halfheartedly, to pull her hand away. “What are you saying?”

“Do not live in the past. If you love it too much, you will be claimed by it sooner than you think.” With a squeeze of her hand, he released her. “Your friends wait for you,” he said softly.

Blind instinct propelled her from the house. Outside, the sun warmed her face and sank into her bones. She bypassed the garden and sought the solitude of the promontory overlooking the sea and the city, the place that always brought her peace. There she sat, occasionally staring at her hand. The desert light served to illuminate those dark lines of her palm, but told her nothing. She remained there for almost an hour, until Fayed came looking for her.

* * *

Linus had insisted that they take lunch on the terrace. The heat of the day was not at its most intense, and he was not one to waste an opportunity to show off their view of the Mediterranean to a guest.

And as they waited for Nessim to bring in the food and the tea, Mel seemed content to do nothing but stare at the sea. If indeed she was hungover, it was hard for him to tell—she looked fine to him, although a touch subdued. But he chalked that up to Janice’s absence. Or perhaps it was the debutante training; she seemed to possess a vast reserve of charm tailor-made for social occasions. He remembered how confident she seemed when they first met in Venice, how easily she spoke on any number of topics. Yet now, in a more intimate setting, she was suddenly shy, remote, even awkward. It intrigued him. And amused him—she was so the opposite of Janice. Opposites attract, opposites get divorced, was Jenny’s (hopeful) theory on the matter. He knew his wife was biding her time, looking for weaknesses in the relationship. He attempted to dissuade her as much as possible in her pursuit, but he too sometimes wondered if this comically mismatched romance between Debutante and Rogue had any staying power.

After the lunch arrived, Linus poured the tea himself. “It’s rare to find an American who is not addicted to coffee.”

She suddenly turned to him, as if she had forgotten that he was present, perhaps worrying if, at this very moment, my wife might be trying to seduce her lover. I wonder the same thing myself…Jenny is nothing if unpredictable. That very morning his wife had sworn to be on her very best behavior while Entertaining Dr. Covington.

“You promise?” Linus had asked, solemnly.

“I…promise,” Jenny had responded with equal seriousness. Then she burst into peals of laughter.

Mel touched a finger to the bridge of her glasses. “I became accustomed to tea while I was in England—the coffee was so dreadful—I guess I never saw the point in switching back.”

“I can understand that. Yet Janice still drinks coffee.”

“Yes,” she replied with a slight laugh. “Janice was born to drink coffee.”

“Oh really, Linus, I shall be nothing but the ideal friend and I won’t pounce on Janice a bit, but if she should ever suggest it…well, I cannot throw the good doctor out of my bed. That’s just foolish, not to mention being a bad hostess.”

He quashed his fretful thoughts. “I regret that I never had a chance to meet your father,” Linus said. “I knew him by reputation, of course, and I daresay we may have had some acquaintances in common, but I would have enjoyed the opportunity, nonetheless.”

She smiled. “Yes, he was a remarkable man.”

“You must miss him.”

“I do.”

He hesitated; he had his lead-in, but to go further…am I doing the right thing? He sipped his tea, then took the plunge. “However, Melinda, you and I have an acquaintance in common…other than Janice.”

He had her attention now.

“Mark Pendleton.”

She stood so abruptly that her knee jarred the table with clumsy yet considerable force and the dishes chorused in a clatter of protest.

Linus was awestruck. Her pale eyes were icy with contempt and the lines of her body seemed to reverberate with rage. He too jumped up from his seat, and placed a hand on her arm. “Please. Let me explain.”

“Take your hand off me.” Her voice was low, the charming accent now nonexistent. “And tell me the truth.”

“All right,” he said cautiously as his hand dropped. “But please, sit down.”

Both of them were breathless at the sudden intense turn of conversation. Mel sat down.

Linus followed suit, relieved for the moment. Until he noticed her cold gaze upon him. “I’m with MI5,” he said. “British Intelligence.”

She leaned back in her chair, defeated. “Does Janice know?”

“I don’t know. She’s not stupid. But she’s never given any indication that she does know, however.”

“And Mrs. Davies?” Her sarcasm was as subtle as the atom bomb.

“She knows, of course. She’s sworn up and down that she has never said anything to Janice.” He bristled at her skeptical look. “She may be a lot of things, but a liar is not one of them.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Mel snapped. She drew a deep, steadying breath and stared out at the sea again. He was relieved not to have her frightening gaze upon him, but the reprieve was only temporary. “It all worked out very well for you, didn’t it? To have your loyal wife fall into bed with the object of your surveillance.” You just didn’t count on her falling in love. Did you?

Linus blinked, a bit taken aback at her directness—obviously a corrupting influence on Covington’s part. “Jenny is a big girl. She takes care of herself. I never asked her to become involved with Janice. I didn’t even know they were lovers until after my assignation to Alexandria. Even then…” He stared down at the lunch that suddenly seemed unappetizing. “…I still had a job to do. And that job was keeping tabs on Harry Covington and his daughter. Surely I don’t need to give you a rundown on Harry’s dealings with the Nazis. He was in so damned deep we had every reason to think him a spy. And Janice…”

“Guilt by association,” Mel murmured, running a finger along her teacup.

“And more.”

She looked at him sharply. Damn those eyes! he thought. “Have you ever heard of a man named Robert Dansey?” Linus asked.

She nibbled her lip in thought. “An American archaeologist. An Egyptologist, am I right? He died during the war.”

“Two out of three, Melinda. Dansey was an American Egyptologist, but he was murdered before the war started—in 1939, to be exact. I had the misfortune of meeting the rotter on several occasions. He was the type of man who made Harry look like a saint.”

Mel interrupted him. “He was murdered? By whom?”

“There’s the kicker. It’s still unsolved.”

“And what does this have to do with—”

“—Janice? Very much, I’m afraid. She was the number one suspect.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Dansey made certain threats against Harry. He accused Harry of stealing some artifacts from him. And for all I know, maybe that happened. Nonetheless, it was getting rather ugly. There were some very public scenes, including a nasty fight that Fayed had to break up. Harry then beat a retreat to Cairo—he had to finish up work on a site near the Gaza. And while he was away, Dansey was killed. Throat slit from ear to ear.”

“If this man was as corrupt and disliked as you say, there were probably many people who wanted him dead.”

“True,” Linus conceded. “But few had the nerve to carry it out. And we both know that Janice runs on nerve.”

“She’s not a killer.”

“No, by nature she isn’t. But she would kill for the right cause, wouldn’t she? To protect someone like her father?” He paused as the pained realization crept across her face. “Or like you?” he added gently.

Mel pulled off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. She appeared to be holding the eyeglasses so tightly he thought they would snap in two. But she ducked her head and a shadow along her dark bangs hid her eyes. “Why are you telling me this?”

He leaned forward in his chair. “Because the moment Catherine Stoller died, you made yourself an enemy. Stoller was Mark’s big prize. He spent close to the entire war tracking her movements, gathering evidence against her. Perhaps he was even in love with her a little—he so admired the balancing act, the deception that she maintained. He was convinced that he would spend months extracting information out of her, and that it would lead to him uncovering some of the biggest art treasures lost in the war.”

“I know—this. I know all of it,” she whispered. Her hand shook, and she did not resist when he reached across the table and covered it with his own.

“I know you do,” he replied quietly. “I—I had to tell you, to warn you. I am afraid of what Janice would do if I told her. He’s looking for ‘restitution,’ as he calls it.”

“He would think of it that way, wouldn’t he?” She laughed hollowly. “So you’ve spoken with him.”

“He’s been in contact with me, yes.” Linus sighed and withdrew his hand. “I don’t consider him a friend, if that’s what you’re thinking. But he has it in mind to reopen an investigation of the Dansey case.”

“Is that it, then? He won’t be happy until he sees her in a prison? Or me, for that matter?”

He snorted, then frowned thoughtfully. “Have you tried offering money?”

She shook her head.

“Might be worth a try. Or better yet, the Xena Scrolls.”

Again, he felt the full force of her glare. “Sorry.” Linus smiled wryly. “Should have known better than to even suggest it.” He leaned forward earnestly. “Look, I don’t think you should tell her about this, at least not yet. I’ve taken an awful risk in telling you these things myself.” He played with his fork. “There’s got to be a way we can nip this in the bud,” he muttered.

“There’s nothing to nip,” Mel insisted, before realizing how absurd that sounded. “She did not murder that man.”

Her conviction was contagious. “Why do you think that?” he asked.

“Because…she killed a Nazi soldier during the war. Later, when I asked her about it, she said that she had never killed anyone before.”

Linus rubbed his chin.

“She wouldn’t lie to me about something like that.” But Mel frowned, her black eyebrows knitted together in doubt. “She may lie to me about smoking in the house, or how many drinks she’s had at a party or even how many lovers she’s had…” There was something derisive in her self-conscious laugh. “…but not this.” She shook her head. “Not this.”

Unless to protect you, he retorted silently. This is all too bloody confusing. He groaned and stretched. “I suggest you eat something,” he said, picking up his fork. “Janice will have my head if I don’t feed you properly.”

Her lips pursed, ready to protest.

“And, my dear, you’re going to need every bit of strength you can muster to hash through all of this.”

* * *

After lunch the afternoon passed lazily, in true Alexandrian fashion. Linus napped in his room, and as usual woke bathed in his own sweat. Years of living in this godforsaken city, and I still sweat like a pig. I might as well face it, I’m bred for dreary Toronto summers. He washed up, changed his shirt, and went downstairs, where he found Mel in the garden, sitting in a shaded wicker chair. Silently, he watched her. She was copying Arabic characters and words from a newspaper into a small notebook. She wrote ferociously, the muscles of her right arm undulating beneath the skin. He smiled, once again both charmed and impressed. How many Westerners would try to teach themselves Arabic? And how many would be successful, as I’m sure she will be?

His hand dived into a pocket and inadvertently rattled some change. She jumped, her concentration broken. “Sorry,” he said.

Mel said nothing. She dismissed him with a look, then returned her attention to the joys of Arabic.

Damn damn damn. I don’t need her mad at me. Linus pulled up another chair and sat down opposite her. “I hope I haven’t ruined casual conversation between us forever,” he said.

Her beautiful eyes flickered over the dark frames of her glasses, which had slid down her nose in such a charming fashion that even Linus felt his avowedly homosexual heart skip a beat.

He sighed and stretched, crossing his long legs at the ankles. “The more you resist me, the more desperate I become.”

The translator ruffled the pages of her notebook, content to ignore him.

“I shall pine away after you. I shall write bad poetry about your pretty blue eyes. How many adjectives can I come up to describe them? Let’s see: cerulean, lapis lazuli, cobalt, azure, indigo, aquamarine, sapphire…”

Mel remained silent and began doodling on a page.

He lifted his head at a noise from the street. “They’re back,” he announced, relieved—he wasn’t sure how many adjectives he had left in his brain.

She glanced at him curiously.

“I recognize the truck’s engine.”

“Oh.”

At last, you speak a word to me! Thank the heavens I’m not really in love with you, or I would go mad, Linus thought. She folded the paper and sat up in anticipation. When Janice entered with her usual purposeful swagger, Mel bolted out of the chair. Good God, separated for only ten hours and it’s like ten years. He watched them. Suddenly, everything was awash in a sense of urgency, as if they were the only two people present. He watched as Covington’s hand flew up to cup Mel’s cheek, and one of the translator’s own long hands brushed against Janice’s waist. But they were aware of him, on some level—in the slow desperation of their movements they held back, just barely restraining this thing between them.

“Feel better now?” Janice’s voice was pitched so low he could barely make out the words.

Mel nodded.

I made a mistake, Linus thought.

Janice was pulling her lover’s face closer to her own. Never before had he seen his old friend’s eyes lit with such vulnerability and gentleness.

She will tell Janice. Maybe not now, but soon.

Mel was whispering something in her ear now. Something that made Janice’s eyelids flutter and swoon.

Is there any room for secrets between them?

Just as they kissed, a book flew across the garden from the doorway, smacking Covington squarely between the shoulder blades.

Oh, Jenny, he sighed to himself.

Wincing, Janice turned to face the culprit.

Arms folded, the Englishwoman stood defiantly within the doorframe. “We gave you a goddamned room. Use it, all right?”

From where he sat, Linus could only imagine the archaeologist’s dark glare. Nonetheless, she nonchalantly slid her hands in her pockets and turned back to Mel. With a cock of her head, she indicated that Mel should follow her upstairs. Whistling, she sauntered out the garden and past Jenny, who did not warrant another look.

Mel, however, took pity on the poor, abused book at her feet. She picked up the heavy, clothbound edition of Proust’s Du côte de chez Swann and smiled, ruffling the novel’s pages with a thumb. “Je vous remercie encore de votre hospitalité, Madame Verdurin,” she said, handing the book to her reluctant hostess. Then she was gone.

Unfortunately, the French equivalent of “fuck off” eluded Jenny’s memory. She stared at the book, then at her giggling husband.

He tried, frantically, to pull off a serious expression. “What? It was funny.”

* * *

In Mel’s recent readings on the Indian deities, one story had left upon her a particularly strong impression—that of Garuda. He was an immense eagle, black against the sky, so powerful that not even Indra, king of the gods, could bring him down. And why? Why were his feathers as impenetrable as armor? Because they were composed of sacred hymns: Words.

The afternoon’s sun and heat disintegrated into smoky dusk, blurred and softer, like a grainy photograph. This time, a transitive shadowland that was neither night nor day, seemed ideal for what they were about to do.

Loosely, Janice held out her arms from her torso, a gesture of surrender, granting permission to be undressed. Mel battled the buttons of the archaeologist’s shirt with her own clumsy hands. No matter how many times she had done this successfully, or how many times she was assured that she possessed magnificent, beautiful hands, or how many expensive, tailored shirts she bought with the express intent of camouflaging her large and prominent wrists, she was all too acutely aware of her shortcomings when confronted with the beauty now before her.

The shirt poured from Janice’s body, and curled liquid at her feet. A white undershirt, covering the bra, still remained. The grace only hinted at in everyday life, in the mundane gestures of picking up a coffee cup or tying a shoelace, now unraveled before Mel, like a gift. Her ungainly hands traced the bare limbs before her and she tried to envision Janice’s body as composed of language. Each finger was the line of a stanza, the dip of her elbow a syllable, a soft bridge between muscled, solid consonants. The tendons at the back of her neck, behind the cascade of blonde hair, swayed under Mel’s splayed fingers, evoking the deceptively simple rhythm of a haiku.

She tried to envision words because somehow words had failed her.

Or have I failed them?

She slid her hand underneath the flimsy softness of the ribbed undershirt. Knotted bones rested below her fingertips. Broken ribs. She had felt them many times, under a variety of circumstances, yet never elected to ask what caused them; the first time they made love she had touched them, shyly, and Janice had winced, as if the injury were still fresh. It discouraged her, for on subsequent occasions when she thought to ask, she always remembered that particular first time, and her own nervous inexperience.

Inexperience, however, was no longer a problem. She knew exactly what she wanted as she pulled her lover’s body onto her own, as she guided a hand that really needed no guidance. And as the fingers of that hand entered her, she gathered in every possible sensation, every gradation of pleasure and pain. In a more lucid state she would call it greed, and would even feel ashamed of it. But now she craved a closeness that she felt lacking, an intimacy where language had failed.

I know you like your eggs over easy and your bourbon over ice. I know you like the smells of grass after rain, of old books. I even know the names of your favorite baseball players, for God’s sake. But there is so little, still so little, that I know about you. Yet how do I ask? How do I persuade you to tell me the things that you don’t want to tell me?

Janice’s eyes, colorless in the twilight, watched her. Her body was a spell. No chant, no prayer, no invocation could break it.

3. Things Past

To feel despair, we must still be attached to that life which can no longer be anything but unhappy.

Marcel Proust

1939, Alexandria

She moved through the crowd with intent—the rapid, even rhythm of her footsteps unlike the dreamy, almost drifting pace of many Alexandrians—and quietly hoped that her single-minded gait would not draw attention. Her trail led down the Faransa, past the El Shorbagi Mosque, along the border of the Jewish Quarter, and finally to a cul de sac at the end of a deserted street. The too-quiet buildings would have given her pause under normal circumstances.

There was only the sound of wind in the trees, rustling loose a scent of jasmine into the air that sustained itself somehow, high and thin, like some impossible note in a song that even a virtuoso could only aspire to and never grasp. Was it perfume? Janice wondered. She was breathless, and drew in more air. It was indeed jasmine, mixed in with the sea—a skein of scent that filled her, and made her blood pound.

The girl grabbed her from behind, a dusky arm flung across her chest and shoulders, temporarily rendering her immobile. A free hand brushed a translucent, silky scarf across Janice’s face.

Her teeth snared it. Then, with a graceful duck and twist, the archaeologist slipped her captor’s pleasant grasp. They struggled playfully: The woman pulled the scarf free from Janice’s mouth as she was maneuvered against a wall, reeking of damp clay.

Janice moved in for a kiss but once again, the giggling girl draped the scarf over her face. It would not deter her; as she gathered part of the scarf in her mouth, she decided that this kiss would be draped in cheap blue silk. She was enjoying the odd, exquisite sensation of her tongue, sheathed in the fabric, moving within the girl’s mouth, when she heard the sound of a shoe scraping the pavement. The scarf drifted from her lips as she pulled away abruptly, in response to a sharp knife that raked a diagonal, searing slash across her back.

Before she could say a thing or move a limb, the knife, tinged with her own blood, was at her throat, and an unseen pair of hands had pulled her arms behind her back, binding them—quickly and professionally—at the wrists. Either there were two men involved in the process, she thought, or Vishnu had waylaid her. She wouldn’t put anything past the dual temptations of this woman, this city—both of them gorgeous and, obviously, dangerous.

It was no doubt pure ego, but Janice could have sworn that the girl looked wistfully disappointed that their tryst was interrupted. She bundled her scarf into an improbable knot, then thrust it into Janice’s shirt pocket. “Maybe next time,” she said, in English softened by her thick accent.

* * *

No one was certain of the Frenchman’s real name. Almost everyone knew him as Bardamu, a name given to him by someone—perhaps even himself—after the nihilist hero of Celine’s novel. His particular brand of ruthless, organized, black-market thievery even had the Nazis impressed, for the Germans frequently sought his assistance in procuring valuable artifacts and artwork that otherwise could not be purchased legitimately.

The Frenchman sat behind a desk with the tools of their underworld trade: a bottle of a whiskey, cigarettes, a rumpled newspaper, and a gun. His linen suit had won the war but lost the battle with time: Sweat and age lent it the patina of a stained teacup.

Janice was shoved, ungraciously, into a hard wooden stool facing him. Her arms remained tied behind her back, and her shoulders ached because of it.

“So you’re young Covington.”

She paused a minute, both seriously contemplating a name change and wondering if the dryness in her mouth would go away. When neither magically disappeared, she merely nodded.

“I am pleased to meet you.”

She found her voice. “Wish I could say the same.”

He chuckled. “A sense of humor is useful in these situations.” He ground out a cigarette in an ashtray. “Although a weakness for women is not,” he added pointedly.

Janice said nothing, but merely shifted her jaw.

“May I call you Janice?”

“You can call me a piece of shit if you want. I don’t have much choice in the matter.”

“It would hardly suit you. You know why you’re here, do you not?”

“Not quite.”

“Thank Robert Dansey for your visit here.”

She squinted. “Dansey?”

“You were part of the crew on his most recent excavation. Correct?”

She hesitated, then nodded.

He was silent for a moment. “I think Dansey took something very important from me, Janice. Something very important. As you can imagine, I am not very happy about it. No, I am not happy one bit. You know, don’t you, what I’m missing?” He held up a hand before she could respond. “And if you lie to me I’ll cut your pretty little throat. I should not like to do that, Janice. No, not at all. Because I have a game in mind for both of us.”

Her stomach roiled at that. She flattened her lips together while he waited for her to speak. Footsteps echoed from behind her chair. Then she was staring at pair of legs, a belt buckle, and two fat dark hands cradling a straight razor. The legs moved slowly, circling her. She felt a tug on her hair and a noise—tzik—that sliced through the air. Her head felt suddenly light.

A long braid of blonde hair now lay coiled in her lap.

“It happens that quickly, Janice. I can be a merciful man.”

The razor was pressed into her throat.

“The vases,” she managed to say.

Bardamu smiled. “Yes. Two vases retrieved from a burial site outside Cairo. Rather, stolen. From me.”

He removed a bullet from a desk drawer. Then he placed it into a chamber of the .38 and spun it. Its roulette rhythm was interrupted by a sudden clack as he shut the chamber.

She watched, amazed, as he put the handgun to his own temple. His smile was mischievously proud, like that of a boy who has mastered a magic trick and is about to demonstrate it to the adults in the room. He pulled the trigger. The click echoed loudly. Too loudly. But no shot followed.

His subsequent movements were painfully slow: He stood and walked over to her. The cool barrel pressed gently yet firmly into her temple and she was possessed of a sense of wonder divorced from fear, that this couldn’t possibly be happening, she couldn’t be about to die, there was much—so much—that she needed to do. At that moment everything seemed possible; it was a strange feeling to have, she thought, when one was so close to death—this surge of life, everything possible and impossible all at once—yet essentially reduced to two paths, life and death. “The odds of survival decrease with every pull of the trigger in this game, Janice.”

It’s about to be taken away.

“I can make it easier for you,” he murmured. “If it’s Dansey, you don’t have to say a word. Do nothing. If it’s not him, speak up. Now. Or forever hold your peace.”

That wonder, that strange peace, was starting to dissolve, and what filled the void was a very raw, very real fear of death. Tears sprang to her eyes. She closed them. Her lips trembled, burdened by the truth, but she said nothing.

The gun clicked, its hammer slamming into an empty chamber.

Bardamu laughed. Her breathing shuddered as she struggled not to hyperventilate.

Vous êtes tres courageux,” he commented admiringly. “I’ve had grown men shit their pants and cry for their mothers during that.” He placed the gun on the desk. “I like you, Janice, and I pray that you have told me the truth.” He took one final look at her. “Let her go,” he said, and dismissed her with a turned back.

The straight razor hacked through the rope around her wrists. This time the minion wasn’t as careful and nicked the fleshy part of her palm. She sucked on the tiny wound while trying to walk out of the building with as much dignity as she could muster. And considering her hair was fucked up and she had a bloody hole in her shirt the size of Montana, it wasn’t much.

* * *

Since it was likely that the Frenchman would trail her, she went about things with some degree of normalcy; storming back to either the excavation site at the catacombs or to the flat she shared with Harry would do no good. So she visited a few cafes just off Sidi Gaber Street. In the second one she drank absinthe, currently on the verge of being outlawed in Europe yet still plentiful and available in Alexandria. A pretty Englishwoman she’d met recently—unfortunately, the woman’s name eluded her—had murmured something flirtatious to Janice during a dinner party: You have eyes like absinthe.

In the mirror behind the bar she could see her reflection. Her eyes, she thought, did not look like Verlaine’s favorite drink, but she did notice that her hair, in the back, appeared to list off to one side, like a torpedoed sinking ship. Inspired by an additional jigger of scotch, the idea to get a haircut took a sudden, unprecedented appeal.

She knew a barber, a large, pleasant Turk, who usually cut Fayed’s hair. As Janice sat in his creaking leather chair, she tried to explain that she just wanted the back even, and that was all. But she grew so lost in her own thoughts and misery—was it possible to warn Dansey, possible to get rid of the vases before anyone knew?— that when she next looked into the cracked mirror, her neck was alarmingly cool and her hair boyishly short.

“Now you really look like a man, yes?” the barber bellowed, quite pleased with himself. His hearty backslap reverberated down her spine to the oozing wound covered by her leather jacket.

She tipped him, albeit reluctantly, and left. The short hair left her feeling strangely vulnerable, and as soon as she was down the block she put her hat back on.

Next stop was Julian’s flat. The poet wasn’t in, but his catamite was. Ahmed invited her in—he was smoking shisha with some of his friends, other young men about town, looking to make a living through a modicum of effort. Seeing that Janice was neither rich nor sexually interested in them, they politely ignored her as they all took turns with the pipe.

She sighed and settled back on a cushion. It would be dark soon, and there would be no other option but to retreat to the camp.

* * *

Fayed’s dark eyes narrowed suspiciously as Janice strode up to him, jacket slung over her shoulder, armpits dark with sweat. Without asking, he lifted the fedora off her head and gave a shriek of laughter. “What on earth did you do to your hair?”

“Nothing,” she snapped, jamming the hat back on her head.

“You look like a street urchin.”

“I need to talk to you.” She nodded at her tent, and began walking in that direction.

“Janice!” he cried, grabbing her arm. “What happened?”

“What? I just got my hair—”

He touched her back. “Here.” She had forgotten all about the knife wound.

Her eyes dropped. “Come help me with it.”

In the tent she tossed the fedora on the cot, poured water from a pitcher into a large ceramic bowl, and shoved her face in it.

When she emerged from the water, Fayed was holding the first aid kit. “Take off your shirt and lie on the cot.”

She gave him a mocking, flirtatious look, but removed the shirt and tossed it in a corner.

He smiled. “I am one of few resistant to your charms, I know.” The Egyptian sat down behind her. “Although I confess I am glad you have taken to wearing brassieres.” He dabbed at the wound with gauze and she winced as peroxide sizzled along her skin. “Not very deep. You won’t need stitches. In fact, I am certain it will not scar.” He was taping a bandage to her back when he finally decided to ask, “What happened?”

She sighed.

“Did Antoinette’s husband finally catch up with you?”

“No,” she groused. She sat up on the cot, swinging her legs to the ground. “It was a Frenchman,” she murmured, “just not that one.”

Suddenly he was in front of her, hands on her bare arms. “Bardamu?”

Janice nodded.

“About the …?”

Another nod.

He cursed softly. “He could have killed you.”

“I know.” She exhaled. “We’ve got to get rid of the vases. Give them back. Hide them. I don’t know….”

Fayed nodded. “I agree, but Janice, what did you tell him? How did you get out of it?”

“He thinks Dansey took them, and I…I…” Her mouth went dry. “I let him believe that.”

His hands slid off her arms and hung useless at his side. Go on, tell me I disappointed you. I’ve disappointed everyone else, why not you too? “You’ve signed Dansey’s death warrant.”

Janice shrugged helplessly. “What else could I have done?” The wound in her back was throbbing, and soon her skull took up the same rhumba of pain.

“Something other than letting an innocent man die!”

“He’s not dead yet! And what the fuck makes you think he’s any better than we are? Dansey is a goddamn crook. And if he’s not a killer too, I’d be surprised.”

“So this is how you justify it?” Fayed retorted angrily. “The man’s life will be in peril!”

Furious, she shoved him. While he was accustomed to her outbreaks of temper, this was extreme. “What was I supposed to do, Fayed? Tell him the truth? That Harry took those vases? That I helped him? Would you rather he murders my father than Dansey? What would you have done, huh? Just what the fuck would you have done?”

They stood staring at each other, breathless, hoping silence could somehow broker a solution to the situation. Then the tent’s flap flew opened and Harry Covington entered. While perversely pleased at the sight of his daughter in a state of undress with a man (as opposed to a woman), he nonetheless asked the more pressing question: “What the hell did you do to your hair?”

* * *

The gray, smoldering tip of the cigarette, couched in a long, black cigarette holder, was a scant inch from the vase that Marius Zech inspected. Zech puffed, and it blazed orange, making Harry Covington even more nervous. Harry wanted nothing more than to shove the pretentious holder and its flaming cigarette up the guy’s ass and beat him to a pulp but now, firmly entrenched in middle age, he was finally learning how to pick his battles. Zech was easily six feet tall, muscular, and had a .45 holstered to his side. Not to mention there were at least two dozen other armed German soldiers outside the room where they conferred.

The SS officer smiled, and straightened from his crouch over the artifacts on the table. “Very lovely,” he said to Harry. “If Herr Goebbels is not interested, I shall take them for myself.”

“Fine.” Harry shrugged.

“Well!” Zech exclaimed. “Please, restrain your enthusiasm, doktor.” The Nazi tugged fussily at the cuffs of his uniform.

“Look, you guys aren’t the only ones buying,” snarled Harry.

“That is a surprise,” murmured Zech. “I am certain if suspicions regarding your activities were affirmed in the international community, we would be the only ones interested.”

“You’re right—because there are a lot of goddamned hypocrites out there.”

Marius Zech laughed. It pissed Harry off even more. “I must agree in this instance.” The SS officer aimed his smoke in Harry’s general direction. Even through the scrim of smoke, his blue eyes glimmered. With the eyes, the height, and the dark hair, he bore a slight resemblance to Harry’s old friend Melvin Pappas and this prevented Harry from a consummate loathing of the Nazi. “Tell me, Harry, you are not withholding anything from me, are you?”

The archaeologist sneered. “Like what?”

“The Xena Scrolls, perhaps.”

Harry laughed harshly. “Marius, even if I had the Scrolls, there would be no way in hell I’d sell them to you.”

“Really?” The cigarette holder jerked. “How is your daughter, Harry?” Marius purred.

He tensed. “Fine.”

“All recovered from that little incident in Berlin?”

The archaeologist leaned forward and gripped the edge of the table in an effort to restrain himself. “You fucking sonofabitch, if I ever find out you had a role in that, I’ll kill you.” His voice quivered with rage.

“Oh, yes, I am certain you would. But I assure you, it is her own behavior that is at fault here. A few broken ribs is a small price to pay for plotting against the Reich.”

“You consider handing out leaflets some sorta crime? It’s not like she was planning an armed takeover of the Reichstag.”

The SS officer’s smile was tight. “No, but that is where they would like it to go.” The smile disappeared. “You should be thankful you know me—if it had not been for my influence, the girl would be in the ground.”

“Marius, dear, stop.”

Startled, Harry jumped. He had not heard the door open. A woman, pretty and blonde, was leaning in the doorway. “You’re scaring the poor man.” She grinned, and her dark eyes were mischievous.

Immediately, Marius’s demeanor softened, and he returned the woman’s smile. “Sorry, darling. You know sometimes it is necessary to scare sense into certain people.” He threw an icy glare in Harry’s direction.

“So you always tell me,” the woman retorted wryly. She looked at Harry again. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

Marius nodded at Harry. “This is the infamous Harry Covington, dear. Harry, this is my fiancee, Catherine Stoller.”

Unable to resist a smile from a beautiful woman, and trying not to think of how he passed that particular characteristic on to his daughter, Harry doffed his fedora playfully.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, herr doktor. I’ve studied archaeology, and have a great interest in it. I have read of the Xena Scrolls, and I look forward to your discovery of them.”

The broad was a charmer, Harry thought, in sharp contrast to the gloomy Marius. “Not very many people know of the Scrolls,” he remarked.

“I was fortunate to meet someone who had quite an interest in them as well.”

He raised an eyebrow in question.

“Melinda Pappas.”

“Oh!” Harry smiled. He had only met his friend’s daughter once, many years ago when she accompanied her father to an anthropology conference in Montreal. He carried around an image of a melancholy teenager—lanky, bookish, and bespectacled—who had effortlessly—and continuously—corrected his French whenever he dared to speak the language. “She’s a nice kid.”

“We studied together, at Cambridge.”

“I see. You’re very good friends, then?”

Something darkened in her expression. “Yes, we were—at the time.”

Harry looked quickly at Marius, who appeared even grimmer somehow at this mention of Melvin Pappas’s daughter. An awkward silence fell over them. But then Catherine unleashed another smile. “Well, I suppose I should let you conclude your business. I’m sorry to interrupt, darling, I thought you were finished.”

“That’s quite all right, dear,” Marius murmured, conciliatory.

Catherine did hesitate in the doorway for a moment, her hand resting on the knob. Harry did not know what to make of the way she looked at him; was she flirting? He couldn’t understand why a young, pretty woman would do that—it wasn’t as if he was in her league, or if he rated any sort of importance in his dealings with Marius. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, buddy. But there was something weighted and significant about the final glance that Catherine Stoller gave him. “Perhaps we will meet again someday,” she said softly, and left.

* * *

“Cheer up,” Janice was saying to him. “It’s free food, and free drinks.”

She was ahead of him on the steps leading up to Julian Manley-Finch’s flat. Julian was a British poet, an expatriate renowned in the city for his parties more than his writing, and for the fact that the only thing remotely masculine about him was the first part of his surname.

“I can’t stand that frigging fruit,” Harry muttered.

“Be nice,” his daughter snarled at him.

The door was already ajar when they reached it, and he pushed it open. Julian had knocked away walls, leaving a vast foyer in which dozens of partygoers were jammed. The poet himself sat atop a chiffarobe, Buddha-esque and commanding in his caftan, his merry voice floating above the buzz of the crowd. Immediately he spotted Harry. “Harold!” he shrieked ecstatically. “My dear, I’m tickled you came! How are you? You’re looking very sunburnt—let me guess, digging digging digging—so where is—” The poet’s babble ceased and he leapt from his perch. A hush spread over the group like spilt milk; the sudden movement of their rotund host signaled something of importance, of that they were certain.

“There!” he proclaimed in the deep, vibrating voice used for public readings and decantations. He pointed, and the crowd followed the beam of his attention to Janice, leaning in the doorway, pushing back her fedora with an amiable swipe of her hand. “There she is. Golden as a resurrected goddess. Polymath love’s androgynous advocate. My strapping lad. My diamond in the rough. My brute angel.” Each phrase drew him closer to her, until he was standing within arm’s length. The pampered pads of his fingers touched her jaw. “Janice,” he burred. “How I wish you were a boy.”

Janice waited a beat, gathering the crowd in her hands. In the background she saw her father squirm with distaste; he could barely keep his animosity toward the poet under wraps. She ignored him. “Julian,” she drawled, “you didn’t forget my whiskey again, did you?”

He burst into laughter, and everyone in the room—save Harry—followed suit. “Of course not! I haven’t forgotten that pouty little fit you threw at my last soiree. I discovered a lovely bottle of Jameson’s, just for you. Come.” He grasped her warm, dry hand and led her through the group into the dining area. Ahmed, ever so well trained, handed her the whiskey over ice. Julian smiled as she downed the drink in one gulp. “Oooh. Nice,” she growled pleasantly.

“That’s not the only thing I have for you.” The poet sipped at his vodka gimlet and lowered his voice. “There’s a girl. Armenian. Very handsome.”

Janice put the glass to her lips once again, just to get the final last icy hot drops on her tongue. She stared at the empty glass. “Keep talkin.'”

“She’s lovely. Charming smile, speaks English fairly well, works for a banker, has a brother who’s hung like a horse.” Julian paused. “Not that you need to know that.”

“Blue eyes?” Janice stared wistfully into the empty glass, as if a divination rested among the ice cubes.

“Blue eyes? Blue eyes?” the poet spat incredulously. “Don’t be difficult, dear. I swear, you’re as bad as a Nazi.” Julian then clapped a hand over his mouth, then glanced around as surreptitiously as he could manage. “Dammit, I’ve got to watch that,” he whispered to Janice. “They’re everywhere these days.”

“I know.” She frowned. He took her glass and had the boy fill it up again.

“Is Harry—”

She silenced him with a look.

“All right, all right. I shan’t say anything else.” He patted her arm.

This time she sipped the whiskey, savoring the burn.

* * *

Harry drained his glass and looked around. It wasn’t exactly late—unless you were an archaeologist. He had every intention of getting up in the morning and scouting some locales outside the city. And to do that he needed Janice along; the girl’s instincts were remarkable, he admitted to himself, when it came to knowing where to dig. Or maybe, he quietly hoped, she just had a kind of luck that he didn’t have.

The slow music, which many in the room obviously found seductive, merely made him sleepy. He noticed that people were pairing off at an alarming rate, and either leaving the party, or cuddling wherever they sat or stood. Uh-oh. Dread prickled him. Where was that goddamn brat?

He wound his way through Julian’s expansive flat, and parted a shimmering curtain of multicolored beads leading into a room of people not unlike the one he had just left. Except in this room, the smell of opiates was heavy in the air. The thrumming music slinked around him as he picked his way through many a prone body. Then he stopped and stood still.

Janice was sitting in an open window, facing a young woman, beautiful, dark, and voluptuous. They were literally doing nothing—no speaking, touching, or kissing. And while that should have relieved him, it possessed instead the opposite effect. For he watched as his daughter’s gaze alone—both tender and hungry, needy yet dominating—made love to another woman.

He knew the inevitable path that it would take. This was what she really wanted. She’s only human. He tried to be calm, to be rational, to see it, perhaps, from that point of view. But he couldn’t. Stumbling through the darkness and his own confusion, he left, barely distinguishing between the dim labyrinth of Julian’s hallways and the winding streets that led back to their flat.

He remained awake half the night, drinking the last of the emergency bourbon he had hidden in a shoebox, deep in the recesses of the closet. He had thought it would stop, that it was something she would grow out of. Women formed these intense attachments sometimes, he thought. Yet the bitter chaser to this thought was, what the hell do I know about women? Except how to fuck them. And leave them. Not surprisingly, he thought of his wife. Who had been in such a hurry to leave him that she forgot about Janice and what was best for the kid.

The turmoil of his thoughts—and the booze—finally wore him down, and he fell asleep, sprawled across the couch.

The chill of dawn and the smell of coffee from the hot plate woke him up. Harry could hear her in the bathroom, washing up. She was whistling. Whether she was aware of it or not, he had come to identify it as something she did after getting laid.

Janice emerged from the bathroom, humming and wiping her hands. She wore an A-frame undershirt, with suspenders hanging limp against her khakis, lightly batting her legs as she moved across the room. “Hey, you’re up!” she said cheerily.

“Aren’t you cold?” he grunted. “It’s freezing, for Christ’s sake.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Good mornin’ to you too,” she retorted sarcastically, then, to assuage him, she picked up a sweater lying across a chair.

As she put it on, he noticed the ropy muscles entwined under the skin of her bronzed arms, and the firm definition of her shoulders. She had spent the summer working side by side with the men in their camp. She joked with them, played cards with them, listened to their stories, shared meals with them. She was not just the kid anymore. She was still beautiful, and he doubted she would ever be less than that. But she was different now. She was changing.

Janice caught him staring at her. “What is it?” she mumbled apprehensively. Force of habit compelled her to reach back for imaginary long hair trapped in the collar. But she stopped in mid-reach and instead nervously raked her fingers over the short blonde locks.

“Nothing,” he croaked.

She should be married.

Her mouth twitched skeptically, but she let it pass.

She should be in America.

“Okay. You hungry?”

“Not really.”

She should be safe.

“Oh.” She paused before attending to the hot plate. “You should eat somethin’, we’ll be out there all day,” she chided gently.

Harry rubbed his throbbing temple. Damn, I can’t drink the way I used to. He couldn’t keep up the pretense. “I waited for you to come home,” he blurted.

“I figured as much, since you were on the couch,” Janice replied uneasily. “I’m sorry, I tried to find you, to tell you I’d be late…” She trailed off awkwardly.

His throat felt hot and hoarse, and all the common sense in the world could not tackle the angry, taunting question before it left his mouth. “How was she?”

Bitterly triumphant, Harry noted that it caught her by surprise. Janice stared quickly at the ground, as if ashamed, but after a moment her defiant eyes and cool, even tone battled back. “Do you really want to know?”

“Jesus Christ,” he rasped. “What you do could get you killed someday.” He forced himself to meet her eyes, much greener than his had ever been. “You can’t trust anybody out here.”

“I know,” she said quietly. And she did. She was careful, but it was always a risk, especially in this part of the world.

He continued, in the same ragged voice, “Dammit…why?”

“It’s just—what I feel.” She wanted to go to him, and touch him, hold him, but she knew he would only pull away. “It has nothing to do with you.” She wasn’t sure of much, but of this, she was certain.

“You had a boyfriend once. That Harvard fellow—you were even going to marry him. What happened?”

Janice blinked. She had not expected her father to bring up Dan. “What happened?” she echoed sarcastically. “This happened: I figured out what I was.” She saw that her father still looked perplexed, as if he couldn’t imagine why that would prevent her from marrying a man. “Use your head. It hardly seemed fair to him, don’t you think? He’s my friend. He deserves a woman who can love him completely.” She jammed her hands into her pockets. “And I loved him, but not…passionately.” She felt her face grow hot with a blush. It felt excruciating, to talk about something like this with her father. Her boot dug at a scrape on the bare floor. “Shit, Harry, you never even liked Dan.”

“He was a milksop,” her father confirmed gloomily. “But if you met a real man, a good man…you might…y’know, feel something. ‘Cause that was just one guy, Janice. One guy.”

“Sweet Jesus, I didn’t lack opportunities! I just wasn’t interested.”

He frowned, but then his eyes grew bright with another ill-informed attempt at finding a cause of his daughter’s malady. “Wait.” He licked his lips. “It was—what happened with Cherif, wasn’t it?”

“No.” she interrupted firmly. She did not want this conflated with the rape attempt that happened—in Alexandria—years ago. “Listen, I’ve felt—these things for a long time. Ever since I was a child.”

And thus Harry was back at square one: blaming himself. “You can’t tell me this has nothing to do with the way you were raised. I should’ve had your mother take you.”

“She didn’t want me,” Janice replied simply. The alchemy of her belief had transformed this into fact.

“Not true,” Harry muttered. “That’s not true. It was more complicated than that.”

With a disbelieving roll of the eyes, she sat down beside him on the old couch.

Harry was torn between taking her in his arms and giving her a good shake. She was watching him with her ruthless stare, and in doing so reminded him of her mother. He stared at his feet and was surprised to see his socks. She must have taken off his shoes last night, he realized. “I still think it’s wrong,” he muttered, desperately clinging to his beliefs.

He knew what she was thinking. In fact, he could hear the accusations quite clearly, for she had said them before: Wasn’t it wrong of you to sell every priceless antiquary you’ve ever unearthed on the black market? To share drinks and secrets with those Nazi pricks? Her jaw clenched. Just like me, that expression, he thought. It pained him to see parts of himself—those angry, stubborn parts—in her. He felt that inexorable, familiar sense of failure drowning him at these moments, when he looked at her.

But instead of a lecture, she merely asked one question. “What do you want from me?”

“I want you to stop.”

“I can’t change.” She paused and leaned forward intently, elbows on knees, yet not looking at him. “You know I tried.”

“Stupid goddamn quacks. We can try elsewhere. I hear in Zurich—”

She cut him off with a furious litany: “The specialist in Berlin, the hypnotist in London, the psychiatrist in Vienna…especially the fucking psychiatrist, Harry.”

“Come on, it was worth a shot.”

“It was bullshit!” she roared. “I mean—” She threw up her hands. “—cigars! What the hell was he asking me about cigars for?”

“All right, all right!” he snapped. “That’s enough!”

“Is it?” she yelled back. “I’m sick of trying to fight this. If you can’t accept me, I’ll leave. Is that what you want?”

Harry Covington felt tears in his eyes. He hadn’t cried since his wife left him. He didn’t want to start again. “Ah, shit. No, I don’t want you to go. I just…I’ve always wanted you to be happy.”

“I am happy,” Janice replied. As a prelude to a hug, she leaned into him, silently demanding his affection, and his love.

He surrendered to it, and wrapped his arms around her. Her grip was strong; he had forgotten how fierce, how affectionate her embrace could be. What kind of happiness can this possibly bring you?“You don’t understand. I don’t want you to be alone.”

She laughed softly in his ear. “I’m not. I have you. I have our work.”

Harry repeated the words helplessly: “You don’t understand.” His voice felt withered and he couldn’t explain it any further. I want you to find someone to love. He couldn’t stop the thought, inevitable as rain:I don’t want you to be like me.

Part IV: Mosaic

Prelude

There is life; and there, a step away, is death.

—William James

She ran. A breathless exhilaration negated all fear and freed her memory to roam as well, pursuant, persistent, and faster than her feet could ever take her. She thought of childhood, of running through the golden fields near her birthplace with her sister, as she followed Lila’s mischievous laugh. And running through the woods of Britannia…that was where everything started to go wrong, wasn’t it? Or maybe that was when everything fell into place, when the larger world finally revealed itself with a shattering complexity. It seemed as if she were always running after that: away from bacchae, vengeful gods, marauding armies, and toward a friend, a lover, a crisis, a shared destiny.

The boy who had fashioned himself her sidekick, who insisted on accompanying her, fell from behind. She heard it—even over the deafening rumble from the tomb and the roar of a defeated god—the sound of boots slipping along wet sand, his gentle grunt. She turned. He was staring her, eyes wide with fear, embarrassment, and helplessness.

“Stay down!” she shouted at him.

She knew, of course, that Ares would try to have the last word in the only language he truly understood. And so she wasn’t surprised to see the chakram—not the original one, which now lay broken within the tomb—sailing toward her, narrowly escaping from the rapid descent of tomb door.

Speak to me, she thought.

In their “line of work” as Xena had so prosaically put it, a second’s hesitation meant life or death—or could mean it, at any rate.

This chakram did not split in two, as it was wont to do, but came at her straight on, burying itself within her chest.

She welcomed it. Death came quickly this time around. She had no time to revel in this loss, in the lightness of a burden taken away. The sticky blood, freely flowing, poured into the crook of her arm. She smiled—all was complete. It was finished. The tomb door, closing, was the last thing she heard.

1. Mad Dog and Englishwoman

In every joy, as certainly in every pleasure, cruelty has its place.

–Oscar Wilde

Thessaloniki, Greece

Autumn 1940

Thanks to the deceptive darkness of her tent, it was well after dawn when Janice finally awoke. When she realized how late it was, she irritably shook off the shroud of the dream. Nonetheless its niggling power remained as she quickly washed up and struggled to remember pertinent details while simultaneously berating herself for sleeping in, then berating Harry and Fayed for allowing her to sleep in. With her restless mind still casting about for someone to blame, she stalked into the mess tent.

Several of the workers were engaged in playing dice. Another small group chatted among themselves. Fayed nursed a cup of coffee while talking to Mustafa, a large Turk who was probably the strongest body on the site.

“What the hell is going on?” she growled at the Egyptian foreman.

Fayed shoved a metal cup of bitter, lukewarm coffee in her direction.

“Why isn’t anyone working?” Time fell through a sieve; these little annoying fragments of life were caught in its mesh. Work needed to be done. There was no time to sit around—or to indulge in amateur dream interpretation, she accused herself. More important things eluded her, she knew it. There are things to be found here, I can smell it!

For his part Fayed found Janice’s impatience a trait peculiar to Americans. Everything had to be done now—or better yet, yesterday. “We will, Janice. We’re just getting a late start.” He patted her arm in a paternal, almost condescending fashion—an action that he knew she detested. In protest, her limbs twitched like the flanks of a racehorse. “Harry is doing a bit of, ah, entertaining.”

“Entertaining? Entertaining?” She slammed the coffee cup on the wooden table. “What the fuck?” She stormed out of the tent. The Turk opened his mouth to speak, then clamped it shut as she bolted back in, grabbed the mug, and stalked out.

Mustafa shook his head and finally dared to speak. “Ay, that one,” he clucked like a worried grandmother.

Fayed raised an amused, encouraging eyebrow.

“I know the type—”

“You married the type.”

Mustafa eyed him wearily. “Precisely.” Fayed laughed as the large man shook his dark head and elaborated: “Good for bed, bad for marriage. She will never find a husband.”

The Egyptian smirked. “She is not looking for a husband.” She is looking for three things: women, trouble, and her own personal Holy Grail. The first two items in the list—which, he knew, went together so terribly, terribly well—lingered in his thoughts. At times he felt that Janice pursued women with an almost suicidal, self-destructive fervor, a flaunting of propriety (and not to mention her father) that—even in libertine cities such as Alexandria—could get her killed. Like Casanova, she was smitten with minutiae about every woman she encountered, was undone with sensual detail: The way Cecile walked, the slope of Antoinette’s shoulders, Greta’s laugh, Susan’s dimpled knees. She would probably find something attractive about that horrid Englishwoman—

Without a word to Mustafa, he fled the tent.

Sure enough, she was standing just outside the flap, drinking the coffee, watching three figures at a distance, truly interested in only one. Two men—one of them Harry, the other Linus Davies—were walking away from a dark, expensive car. Linus, wearing a dashing panama hat, towered over her father. The group’s third member, leaning against the car, unmoving, and bored as a delinquent at Sunday School, was Jennifer Davies.

Linus spotted her first, and waved vigorously. Harry smiled in her direction. Then Jenny, head turning to see what all the fuss was about, looked at her, did a double take, fumbled with her broad straw hat, then returned the gaze.

“Do you smell it, Fayed?” Janice asked. Her nostrils quivered dramatically, her chest swelled, and she hummed with pleasure, as if sitting in front of a feast. “Mmmmm…money.”

The foreman folded his arms skeptically. “Is that all, then?”

She said nothing and returned her attention to the woman at the car.

Fayed did not care for the way Janice was staring at Mrs. Davies: Like a predator coolly assessing its prey, or a chess player plotting her opening moves (a poor analogy, he thought, since Janice was atrocious at the game). He had only spoken briefly with the flirtatious, supercilious blonde—when she and her husband first arrived on the site earlier that morning. Nonetheless, he had already quite firmly and decisively made up his mind: He did not like her. She was simply too English for her own good.

He could no longer keep his dismay to himself. “Please. Not her.”

Janice cut him a look. “Why not?”

“She is not your type. You prefer les brunettes.”

“Variety is the spice of life, pal.” She threw the remainder of the black, sludge-like coffee onto the ground. It splattered along his boots.

“Not when the spice is arsenic.” He pursed his lips together, unsure of how further to go. It was not as if Janice ever listened to him any more, and would actually follow his advice; she had grown into a creature as stubborn as her father. But at the very least he believed he had a duty to warn her, to share those insights he had culled from instinct. “I do not trust her.”

“Frankly, neither do I.” Janice returned to staring at Jenny, who finally took the hint and proceeded to walk in direction of the mess tent.

Now he was quite perplexed. “Then why—it’s not just the money, is it?”

Janice glared at him coldly. “Are you saying I’d just sleep with her to get money for the dig?”

“You’ve done worse things,” he said quietly, then added, to soften the blow: “We both have.”

She blinked, her expression gentled. “It’s not that.”

It was a lot of things. For one thing, you want love. He knew better than to say it. He also knew she had a great capacity for love, virtually untapped in the world she inhabited. But he was certain that this latest potential conquest was not where she would find it. “Well,” he asked delicately, “what is it?”

“I’d like to find out why exactly I don’t trust her.” She kicked at a large rock moored within the dirt near the tent. “And you know something? Sometimes you just gotta embrace a challenge when it shows up on your doorstep.”

“More ridiculous bravado, Janice. And may I take this opportunity to remind you, you do not have a doorstep,” he retorted angrily, his mind frantically attempting to find something that would stop her. He was about ready to lie and say he knew she had the clap, but Janice nipped this in the bud with a dismissive yet charming grin.

She handed him the metal mug. “Go back in the tent, Fayed.”

“Bah!” He spun around, closing the canvas flap after him with a dramatic snap. As always, she wistfully wondered how he did that; something in the wrists, she figured. As Jennifer Davies approached, Janice remained unsettled about this morning’s dream. Normally, she was hardly the type to pay attention to the ramblings of her unconscious mind; reality was quite interesting enough. But the nebulous impressions of the dream possessed a gentle, pervasive aura: It was a dream of journeying, of expectation, then arrival, and then—closure. It settled over her quietly, as if a quality in the air changed, grew heavier, tangible, and laid itself upon her shoulders. Are you it, then? Are you part of it? she wondered.

Jennifer Halliwell Davies was smiling. She had good teeth, Janice noted, unlike other specimens from her country. Christ. I’m not buying a horse here.

“Dr. Covington.” Her voice was a low purr, with some element of shyness in it. She threw in a mocking curtsey to deflect her nervousness.

Janice shoved her hands into her pockets. “Mrs. Davies.”

An awkward silence engulfed them.

It was easy to charm a woman when nothing more than pleasure was expected. This, Covington decided, was fraught with more complication, and she wasn’t sure how to proceed. There were so many questions too. Namely about that queer husband of hers. If that bastard ain’t in the spy game somehow, I’ll be surprised.

“I was hoping I would see you today,” Jenny ventured. “It’s been a while—too long, I should say.”

“Yeah.” Oh Janice, you are so cagey!

Mrs. Davies smiled again. “I haven’t seen you since—” With a gloved hand, she gestured toward the short hair.

“Oh. Yeah.” Janice ran a hand through it self-consciously. Batting a thousand, you are.

“Quite the gamine look. What made you get it cut?”

Now there’s a story, she wanted to say. And perhaps under different circumstances, in a smoky cafe or on a terrace after dinner, she would have—it was a good story, a story for charming a broad. It was too easy to do that here; something within her resisted. But it was also too easy to be flippant—and that came to her as second nature. “An act of destiny,” she deadpanned.

Jenny laughed. “Pish posh,” she retorted, then surrendered to the urge to tuck a short, unruly strand of blonde hair behind Janice’s adorable little ear. Adorable? Oh, what an idiot I am, she thought. Nonetheless, she was pleased to note a faint blush creeping under the archaeologist’s light tan.

And then Janice’s warm hand was on her wrist, gently guiding it away from her face.

Jenny panicked. “Am I being too forward?”

“No, it’s just that like most mutts, I’m reluctant to be groomed.”

“Oh.”

“I’m just kiddin’.” But she was not smiling.

“I see.” Well, you’re not funny. “Don’t tease me too much, Janice,” she murmured, hoping that her low tone made her vulnerability sound less pathetic and somehow more attractive.

It appeared to have no effect upon Covington. “Why, Mrs. Davies?”

They had almost kissed at that dinner party, so many months ago in Alexandria. Jenny remembered little of it except making drunken comments about Verlaine and absinthe—those glowing eyes had so inspired her—then in the darkened vestibule, touching her soft cheek, feeling Janice leaning into her—when suddenly Harry and some of his harder-drinking cronies came crashing down the hall.

She desperately needed to retain that intimate foothold. “Won’t you call me Jenny? Please?”

Janice was watching her with a careful, unwavering gaze, like an animal. “So we would be on more intimate terms then, Mrs. Davies?”

You’re killing me here. And you’re enjoying it. “I would like that very much, Janice—to be friends.”

“Do friends spy upon each other, Mrs. Davies?”

“Spy? What are you talking about?” Oh damn it, Lye, your cover is blown. And I didn’t even have to open my bloody mouth.

“I’m talking about your husband. And you.”

“My husband is here because his money is burning a hole in his pocket. For some insane reason he wants to help you and your father.”

“I thought his interests are Mayan.”

Bloody hell, Janice, is everyone supposed to have one narrow little set of obsessions, like you? However, she managed a civil retort. “It’s not a crime to be interested in Greek artifacts as well, surely?”

“And what’s your field of interest in archaeology, Mrs. Davies?”

“None,” Jenny retorted. “It’s a big awful bore, if you ask me. Digging around in the ground, without knowing when or where you’ll really find something—it seems foolish. Perhaps even a bit frightening, don’t you think? You have no control over it. I don’t like to dabble in things I have no control over.” And here I am, talking to you of all people.

“You might as well lock yourself in a room and never come out,” Janice replied.

“Ah, well, here we go, the fundamental difference between you and I. Can this friendship be saved, before it’s even started?”

Again Janice nudged the rock at her feet. “When you’re in Alexandria, your husband practically lives at the Cecil Hotel.” The Cecil was an unofficial headquarters for British intelligence officers in the area.

Mrs. Davies was at a profound loss. “He doesn’t like the color scheme I chose for the villa.” Please laugh, please drop the subject, please tell me you’ll come to me tonight.

To Jenny’s irritation, this did not happen. Janice veered around the wisecrack like a champion cyclist around a pothole. “So let me guess what your game plan is. You both come in here, you fuck me and keep me distracted, and make it easier for your husband to watch my old man.”

“Stop it. It’s not like that.”

“Then tell me what it’s like—Jenny.”

Flushed with anger, Jenny took a step closer to the archaeologist, crowding Janice in what she hoped would be a pleasantly intimidating way. “It’s quite simple, Janice. So simple that I had assumed you had figured it out already. I want to be your lover.”

Covington’s eyebrow twitched, a sign of surprise. Yet, cautious as ever, she said nothing. Let’s see how this plays out.

“Well, my dear, that certainly shut you up.” She touched Janice’s wrist, detecting a galloping pulse under veins and tendons. “My husband works for OSS. It does not concern me. I have no idea what his intentions are toward your father—if indeed he has any.” Oh my God, did I say that? You’ve laid out all your cards now. You’re totally vulnerable. And so is he.

Janice took note of her sudden, fresher vulnerability. “What—”

She dropped her voice to a soft, urgent whisper. “Will you come see me? This evening? We’ve rented a house in the town.”

Harry and Linus were now walking in their direction. Reluctantly, Jenny relinquished her grip on the most beautiful mutt ever. The elder Covington seemed quite jovial. She assumed an agreement about money must have been struck between the two men while they were alone.

Rarely affectionate in public, Harry now tousled Janice’s hair, as if she were some sulky puppy to be teased out of a mood. “Go put somethin’ on your head,” he said to his daughter. “It’ll get hot soon.” The old man shook his head, and made the annoying mistake that many parents do in front of their children, even grown ones: He referred to his offspring in the third person. “You don’t know how many times a day I have to nag her about wearing a hat, or a scarf, or something, to protect herself against the sun,” he said to the expatriates.

“I’m very fond of the sun, but out here it can get absolutely blistering,” Linus commented. “However, I suspect Janice is made of tougher stuff.”

“She is indeed. But—you know, I suspect she rather likes it,” Jenny said. “You know the saying: mad dogs and Englishmen….” She trailed off, then raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that right—Mad Dog?”

Harry Covington threw back his head and roared with laughter. “Now ain’t that the truth!” he crowed. “That’s perfect—just perfect.” His delighted outburst garnered the attention of Fayed, who now came out of the mess tent. “Hey Fayed, we got a brand new nickname for the Brat!”

As the men giggled like schoolboys, the Brat—quite unsure of how much she preferred this new moniker—grabbed Mrs. Davies by the upper arm and took her aside. “I’m going to kill you,” she growled.

Jenny glanced briefly at her oblivious husband, then touched the hand on her arm, soothing the rough grip. “Wouldn’t you like to have dinner first, Mad Dog?”

* * *

With the easy thoughtlessness of the rich, Linus and Jenny had taken over the largest house in Thessaloniki—the mayor’s house, in fact. The city’s first family had gladly vacated to a semi-renovated carriage house on their property in order to make a tidy sum of cash off the Western wastrels.

In the privacy of his elegant new bedroom, Linus stared at a perfect white egg, nestled within its egg cup on the breakfast tray. Then he glared at the Worcestershire sauce. He was loath to make his grandmother’s hangover cure, but felt he had no other recourse, as his head was pounding. He wondered if his drinking companion of last night, Harry Covington, felt as badly. Somehow he doubted it.

Jenny’s sudden appearance—in a flimsy bathrobe—did not help matters. “‘Ere, now, sir, what’s this?” she brayed in a fake Cockney accent, gesturing at the foodstuffs before him. She poured orange juice from a pitcher on the tray and downed it with irritating gusto.

“Oh, stop,” he moaned, touching his throbbing temple.

She smirked, then bent over playfully to kiss the delicate spot near his fingertips. “Does that help?”

“Why are you in such a damned cheerful mood?” he demanded crabbily.

This time when she smiled, it was triumphant. She grasped his arm. “Come along and I’ll show you.”

Oh no. He anticipated what he was about to see. It was one of her peculiar habits—to put it mildly, he thought, as she eagerly led him down the corridor to her bedroom. But he understood that it was, for her, a way of sharing it with him, of binding herself to their life and their choices. It was a perverse—and, he believed, genuine—declaration: That she kept no secrets from him.

She opened the door, and this time the sight was indeed dazzling and well worth the perversity involved: It was none other than Janice Covington, sprawled out on her back, naked and sound asleep. While he fought the urge to scream bloody murder at Jenny—you’ve gone and slept with the object of my surveillance!—he couldn’t help but admire the beauty in his wife’s bed. The blonde hair boyish and tousled, the cherubic lips slightly parted, an arm spread out in a beckoning fashion, a sheet just barely covering her groin. If he hadn’t already known how lazy Jenny was in the first place, he would have accused her of arranging those lovely limbs just so, for Janice resembled an angel of sorts—a sorely debauched one that had fallen so hard on her ass that getting up was nigh on impossible, but a heavenly creature nonetheless.

Jenny’s excitement was palpable, if only because she practically danced a triumphant jig while clinging affectionately to his arm. “Well?”

“Christ,” he breathed, “put a bowl of fruit in front of her, ignore the tits, and she could be out of a Caravaggio.”

She laughed. Loudly. Terrified, he leaped out of the doorway. She pointed again at Janice. He braved a look in—she was still asleep and lightly snoring, her chest rising and falling in a deep rhythm.

Nonetheless, Jenny exited and closed the door. “She sleeps like a rock,” she said, quite unnecessarily. “I played the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ on the gramophone earlier and she didn’t budge.”

“Yes, dear, I heard that this morning. Did wonders for my hangover, thank you.” He latched onto her arm and dragged her down the hallway, his rage escalating in proportion with their distance from the sapphic angel. Linus gave his wife an unceremonious shove into the study and shut the door, because for all they knew, Janice Covington might be one hell of an actress.

“Really, darling, you never get excited like this by one of my conquests!” she trilled.

Still on that emotional high, I see. Well, who could blame you? “Are you out of your mind?” he hissed.

“What?”

“I’m supposed to be watching her.”

“Well, this should make it easier for you then, shouldn’t it? Besides, I thought the main focus of your surveillance was Harry.”

“They are a package deal, dear. It makes things much more complicated.” He ground out the emphasis between his teeth.

“Says you,” Jenny sputtered weakly. “It’s not complicated for me.”

“Oh my dear, with your talent for gamesmanship, you could play chess, backgammon, and cricket at the same time, while blindfolded.” Right, now, who’s bitter? He hoped, at any rate, that he looked angry—while certainly he felt angry, he also knew he was incapable of permitting volatile emotion to permeate his gentlemanly exterior. “What if she suspects? Damn it, she might already.”

“She doesn’t,” Jenny retorted quickly.

He wanted to believe that, and desperately grasped onto the two-word life preserver. “I’ve wanted this for a long time,” he murmured.

“I know,” she replied quietly. Shit. What have I done?

“Fucking years spent doing grunt work, sitting in bad cafes in a trench coat, taking notes and looking obvious…” And all those years hearing how brilliant my father and uncle were at it. “Do you know, I couldn’t believe it when they told me I’d got Harry as my next assignment? I said, ‘No, you’ve mistaken me for Uncle Bertie, he’s the fellow you want.'”

Jenny gnawed at her lip, suddenly remorseful. “Darling, I’m sorry. I will be careful. You’ll be off limits as a topic from now on, I swear.” But the damage is done. Oh damn it, why did I tell Janice? “You don’t really—I mean—you don’t think she’s really involved in anything horrible, do you?”

He rolled his eyes. “For God sake’s, Jenny, she’s his daughter. She works with him. Even if we entertain the notion that she does not sell black market relics to the Nazis, she’s got to know about it.”

“But if she knows—” Jenny trailed off. “You told me she—”

“—volunteered in the Spanish Civil War and fought against Franco, was a contact for the White Rose movement in Germany…yes, she’s got a full resume of anti-fascist activity behind her.” Linus rubbed his chin. “Sometimes I wonder if it’s all a brilliant front they’ve put together, the two of them—it would be genius, you realize? Or maybe Harry just uses it as such. And then I wonder if he sees the humor in it, the irony…hiding behind the image of his heroic adventurer daughter.”

“That sounds plausible to me.”

He laughed a tad too harshly. “Do tell, O Covington Expert.”

“All right, I haven’t known her long, but—I can’t see her being that duplicitous.”

“Well.” He leaned wearily against the closed door. “What do you see?”

Encouraged by his tired stance, she snuggled closer to him, grinning, her forehead brushing the bristling tip of his chin. “Someone strong and brave. Smart. Gentle.”

“You’re smitten.”

“She’s not like anyone I’ve ever met.” A tiny, wondrous smile lit up Jenny’s face. “She’s rather splendid, actually.”

Linus smiled despite everything. Splendid was an adjective Jenny usually reserved for the finest wine and the best of haute couture. As such, it was refreshing to hear it applied to an actual, living being.

* * *

Alexandria

One month later

Janice stirred, half-asleep, allowing her mind to wake on its own time. Thursday. My own bed. She stretched, and her hand encountered a warm thigh. And this must be…What’shername from the soukh.The warm flesh appeared to be wearing pants. Pajamas? She didn’t recall that What’shername brought along her own set of loungewear, but anything could fit in the woman’s enormous purse, of that Janice’s sleepy mind was certain. Her hand slithered, python-like, across the leg, toward the juncture of thighs, intent on de-panting.

However, the hand halted its reconnaissance mission as it stumbled upon a flaccid lump that, Janice was quite certain despite a carafe of wine, had not been appended to the person she went to bed with the night before.

In a flurry of sheets she sat up. Bardamu, the Frenchman, sat beside her in bed while perusing a newspaper, like a Sunday-morning husband awaiting his breakfast. “Good morning, Janice,” he said, quite cheerfully.

If there was one thing she hated more than a morning person, it was a thieving, murderous, treacherous, and deceitful morning person—in her bed, no less. The sheets strangled her like a toga gone berserk as she crashed onto the floor, groped through the khaki lake of her pants for the pistol, and—trying to ignore the sheet slipping over her nude body—thrust the gun at him.

He burst into laughter. “Oh come now, if I wanted to, I could have raped and killed you by now. And no one would be the wiser.”

“Where’s—”

“Your whore? Got rid of her.” He finished folding his paper and tossed it beside him on the bed. “Don’t worry, I did not hurt her.” He paused; whatever middling respect he had for Janice earned a truth. “At least not badly.”

She closed her eyes for a second in sheer relief. Relief that the woman was safe. And relief that it hadn’t been Jenny here last night. And by the way, old girl—annoyingly, her conscience took on her lover’s taunting English accent—just what did you think you were doing last night? However, now was not the time to dissect her increasingly confused love life. “What do you want?” she barked at the Frenchman, hoping that menace was conveyed clearly enough in her tone, because it most certainly wasn’t present in her attire. Awkwardly, she managed to wrap the sheet around her body.

“I’ve a business proposition for you. And please put the gun down, it is tres rude.”

The .38 remained trained on his skull. “Fuck you.”

“If I thought you were interested….” He trailed off with a sigh and stretched out with a leonine self-satisfaction, propping himself upon an elbow. “Dansey lives, as you may be aware.”

“I’m aware.”

“And as you also may know, that is not on my agenda. The Nazis have my vases, which means I shall never see them again unless I visit Hitler’s lovely Bavarian hideaway. I fear an invitation, however, is out of the question.”

“I don’t care about your fucking vases.”

“Really, Janice, such a poor attitude for an archaeologist to have!” He held up one hand in a surrendering, conciliatory manner. “If you’ll permit me, I have something for you.” Slowly he reached into his jacket and produced a large sum of cash, tightly bound, and placed it on the bed.

Janice’s lips pursed in amusement. “That is about the only way you’d ever get me into bed.”

“But, my sweet, we already were in bed.” He chuckled as she shuddered with disgust. “You’re a great joker, Janice, and I like that about you. No, the money is not for that.” He realigned himself on the bed, laying back and putting his hands under his head. “I want you to take care of Dansey for me.”

“What?”

“Kill him.”

Carefully, she lowered the gun, then cast a look at the wad of cash.

“Janice?” He sounded almost tender, solicitous.

Her own voice trembled in response. “What?”

“I can tell how much you really want to use that gun,” he whispered. “So put it to good use. Take care of this for me. I’m certain your father would appreciate the gesture as well—one less fish in our increasingly smaller pond.”

“Leave my father out of this.”

“Ah, but I like your father. Not as greedy and uncouth as Dansey, and not possessing his homicidal instincts either. No, Harry Covington prostitutes himself for a cause, at least.” The Frenchman smiled. “The same one as yours, of course. Dansey is a pig. He just wants money.”

“Why don’t you ‘take care’ of this yourself?”

“For the simple reason that it would be easier if you did so. He knows me, he knows my men. He’d go running the minute he would lay sight on any of us. But you…you could get close enough to strike.” He nodded at the money. “And that’s only half. You get the rest when you finish the job.” Bardamu gave a final, satisfying stretch. “Think about it.” He stood up and tugged his jacket into some semblance of smoothness.

Kill Dansey? No, kill him. Kill him now. They will hear the gunshots, they will ask questions, but put money in the right hands, ask favors of the right people, and no one will know.

The gun was hard and snug in her hand, its reassuring closeness like a lover. But she did not pull the trigger.

The Frenchman smiled and tapped the journalistic rag left sitting on her bed. “I’ll be reading the newspapers, of course. What is the expression? See you in the funny papers.”

Then he was gone.

2. The Vespa Trail

Thus the Vespa came to be linked in my eyes with transgression, sin, and even temptation – not the temptation to possess the object, but the subtle seduction of faraway places….it entered into my imagination not as an object of desire, but as a symbol of an unfulfilled desire. – Umberto Eco

Alexandria

August, 1953

One of the most significant archaeological discoveries in twentieth-century Alexandria was made by an ass; this is noteworthy because, in this instance, the ass was actually a donkey and not an archaeologist.

It was 1900 when the animal plummeted into an access well leading to the catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa, a mass burial site three stories into the ground. It would be over 50 years later that Dr. Janice Covington would uncover a significant extension to this necropolis heretofore unexplored in modern times—an accomplishment that both delighted and concerned the Egyptian government, for the thought of potentially lucrative artifacts falling into the hands of the Grave Robber’s Daughter was indeed a mixed blessing.

Thus—as befitting any organization dominated by middle-aged men with drinking problems, and further goaded by the inquiries of British intelligence into an old, unsolved murder—the country’s sluggish bureaucracy staggered into action. If they could not frame the good doctor for this crime—conveniently eliminating her involvement with the current dig and stifling her windfall of prestige—they would, at the very least and to put it in her own words, bug the shit out of her.

Under such circumstances Artaud Cordahi, civil servant par excellence, paid his first visit to the site. It was not his first time dealing with Covington, whom he always found vastly entertaining. He sauntered past the curious workers—including a statuesque beauty who brought unimaginable glamour to the dirty khaki outfit she wore—and right into the tent he knew held the nefarious archaeologist.

She did not seem surprised to see him; rather, she merely nodded at him to take a seat while rummaging through a large footlocker. He ignored the ominous groan of the camp chair as he settled in, and gave a toothy grin of approval at the bottle of single malt scotch produced from her fruitful search. She poured a two-fingered sliver into the cleanest tin cup she had and handed it to him.

Not surprisingly, Janice permitted rhetorical sarcasm to open the conversation and set the tone. “Isn’t this against your religion?”

“Yes,” he retorted cheerfully. “But I trust you not to tell.” Nonetheless he hesitated before downing it and skeptically examined the battered cup. Perhaps the liquor was simply too powerful for a simple mug? “You are not having any?”

She shook her head.

“Then you are a good Muslim.” He tossed back the shot, hissing with joy as fire bolted down his throat. He licked the ragged edges of his patchy mustache. “Very nice.”

“To what do I owe this pleasure of wasting my best scotch?” Janice asked, thumping the bottle on the table for emphasis.

“Just doing my job.”

Resigned to the reality of impromptu inspections, she merely reclined in her seat.

“You have been holding back on us, Janice. Not only have you discovered a new catacomb, you have unearthed a living goddess in the process.” He gestured toward the open tent flap. Janice angled her body for optimum viewing pleasure.

Of course, he was looking at Mel, who was visible in the near distance. The translator was clumsily unraveling a kaffiah from around her head. As the dusty scarf lay in ringlets around her neck, she tucked her glasses into a shirt pocket and attempted, with endearing daintiness, to carefully splash canteen water across her lightly tanned face.

She looks so different. And yet so familiar. Recognition shot a cold chill up her spine, as bracing as the water splashed upon her lover’s face.

They watched as Fayed appeared on the scene and exchanged unheard pleasantries with Mel. He took the canteen from her. Uh-oh, thought Janice. She knew her old friend all too well—the Egyptian, feigning a drink, suddenly dumped the contents of the canteen onto the translator’s dark head. They could hear his wild hoot of laughter as he gamboled away from the clearly befuddled Mel, who, after a moment of building up the appropriate outrage, took off after him. Janice was pleased to see the initial coltish awkwardness of her stride smooth itself into thoroughbred grace as she became immersed in the chase, gaining speed and losing herself.

Cordahi shot a sideways glance at Covington. “Very professional.”

“As a matter of fact, they are.” Janice folded her arms, broaching no argument.

“Who is she?”

“Tallulah Bankhead.”

“Stop your silly games. I know that is a famous American. She was the wife of your last President.” Cordahi smiled with smug—albeit misplaced—triumph.

“She’s a member of this excavation team. That’s all you need to know.”

“Can you introduce me?”

His pathetically hopeful whine induced teeth grinding. “She’s not available,” Janice replied with flat malice.

The civil servant raised the mug in a mock toast. “So you have corrupted her already!”

“You can’t corrupt the willing, Cordahi.” The conversation was making her edgy. She eyed the bottle, which gave her a sweet amber wink. Before she knew it, the bottle’s neck was in her grasp and the cork popped with her thumb.

“Pity.”

She took a swig. “Depends on your point of view. Look, I would love to sit here all day and hear you rhapsodize about a woman you can’t have, but I got things to do. Why don’t you tell me why you’re really here?”

He wiggled his empty glass. Dourly, she poured another shot. It disappeared. He basked in the hot glow of the scotch for a few moments. “Why do you think I’m here?”

“Don’t waste my goddamned time with this. If this is about Dansey—”

“It is,” he interrupted softly, wearily, “it is.”

“How many years ago was it?” she asked, as if she really didn’t know. “Twelve?” He nodded. “And you still haven’t found the killer. And you still think it’s me. Aren’t you guys tired of being stuck on the same page? Did you think if I really killed the bastard I would tempt fate by coming back here again?”

“Yes,” he said defiantly. “This is your work, Covington. It is not that surprising to see you in Alexandria once more. And as for tempting fate—well, my friend, risk is not alien to you.”

Her stare unnerved him. “I didn’t do it,” she said quietly.

“Your temper is legion. If you were capable of—”

She sat forward in the chair. “Stop it.”

Cordahi arched a surprised eyebrow. She managed to combine the force of an icy command and an anguished plea in two words. “Well. Now we are getting somewhere.” He mulled over everything—the scant evidence, her reaction, and, most importantly, her history—while his fingers drummed against the cup. “I believe you. I believe you did not kill him. Unfortunately, my opinion accounts for very little. And you are right, there is no evidence except that you and he were in the same city, as were hundreds of thousands of others. However”—and here he sighed resignedly—”there is an Englishman who is not entirely convinced.”

“Pendleton.”

The civil servant’s eyes widened in surprise. “You know. Do you know him?”

“You could say that.” Janice took another drink from the bottle; predictably, it only hastened bitter memories—of Switzerland. It was the first time she had ever seen him, after Mel had left for London. Not exactly leaving “for” anything, but just to get away from you. Not her finest hour, was it? Ditching a critically wounded lover in a foreign country. And you’re still furious about it, after all this time. Aren’t you? She had cried so hard that she busted her stitches, had behaved so badly that the kindly doctor had threatened to have her arrested by the Allied military police, had felt so abandoned that she did everything she could think of to undermine her recovery, including going outside—in subzero weather—in pajamas, jacket, and boots to escape the smothering, Swiss-style boredom of the nearly vacant sanitarium.

One afternoon as she stood outside, thigh-deep in snow, creating a pyramid of perfect snowballs to hurl at any moving target, she saw him. He was finally leaving the spa, along with the remainder of his bully boys, and she took a petty consolation in the fact that his much-vaunted prize, Catherine Stoller, lay in the wooden coffin that was being slid into the back of a truck.

His crewcut was caught in the crosshairs of her rage. I had nothing left to be angry at but him. You were gone. I didn’t want to think about hating you. I couldn’t.

Pendleton had hardly looked surprised when the snowball hit him squarely in the chest. In fact, his expression as he brushed away the snow from his coat was not so much angry as brimming with recognition. But then he climbed into the truck and was gone.

“Well!” Cordahi shattered her reverie with a single word. “I suppose I have wasted my trip, not to mention your fine scotch.” He stretched, which gave a perambulatory roll to his belly and hinted at impending departure. “You know we do not care. It is not my government’s concern if you people want to kill each other. Although I must confess I have much respect for you personally: You have a God-given talent for seducing women. A less fortunate man”— his hand fluttered modestly to his chest—”cannot help but admire that. Nonetheless, this entire matter would lie in the grave along with Dansey except for the tiresome Englishman. He holds a grudge against you, yes? Did you take a woman from him?” Perhaps anticipating a fantastic tale of seduction, the civil servant’s dark eyes flashed.

“In a manner of speaking,” Janice muttered.

“Tell me.”

Even though there was nothing to tell—at least nothing that would interest her prurient guest—she felt spiteful in her denial. “No.”

“Ah! Janice, you wound me. In the old days, you loved to share such things. Tell me about your black-haired goddess, then.”

Janice sighed. Why had she ever encouraged this behavior? It fed your enormous fucking ego, that’s why. Still, she had to give him something to keep him on her side. She needed that much. Come on, use that bardic bullshit, you know you can do it. She poured a particularly generous shot of scotch into Cordahi’s cup, tapping the metal edge with the tip of bottle, as if she were an alchemist directing the meager attention of a poor apprentice. “She is the very embodiment of this liquid: Scotch incarnate. Smooth, fiery, supple. You think she fortifies you, strengthens you, when in the end you are as dependent upon her as a newborn. For with one taste she burns a path through you to your heart.”

“Allah!” he cried. “Where do I find such a creature?”

“Ah, only in the wilds of the American South, Cordahi, a brutal and unforgiving land. Where the men are men and the women are amused by this.”

The civil servant swayed as he stood; if Janice were making sense, he couldn’t tell.

She smirked. “I trust I’ll be seeing you again when you’ve something ‘new’ to report?”

His head bobbled in the affirmative. Swaying and mumbling like a mystic who has experienced a vision, he stumbled past her and out into a world suddenly bright with promise.

* * *

In the mornings, Mel usually did the sieving: She poured water through nested wire mesh baskets while gently agitating the contents therein. Sunlight molded itself into the shape of the clear water so that it appeared as if liquid gold washed away centuries’ worth of grit—even though the act usually revealed nothing more exciting than common pot shards. Routine was a comforting concatenation—this was the way Janice had started out too, performing these simple, basic tasks: cleaning tools and boxing and labeling finds (although Mel’s handwriting proved to be something of an issue). The translator even petitioned Fayed for more physical labor, despite Janice’s opinions on the matter: The archaeologist believed that the men on the site would be intimidated by a physically strong woman. Yet, irritatingly, Janice also believed herself the exception to that rule: The workers did not see her as a woman, she thought, but a freak of nature, one that demanded—and received—respect, but an anomaly nonetheless.

While not experienced in the practical maintenance of an excavation site, Mel’s years of expertise in the field of Covington dictated that nothing would change said archaeologist’s skewed little world view, and so she let the matter drop.

This morning, however, as the hour crawled toward noon, Mel found herself alone in the vestibule of the catacomb. When she looked up at the opening near the circular staircase and saw daylight gliding by, a bead of sweat dashed a sweet, tortuous path down the nape of her neck to the small of her back, the movement mirroring her own downward journey. Infected with darkness, she thought, recalling the phrase from Plato’s Republic: That was how the ancient philosopher had described the descent of an enlightened man, returning to a cave of ignorance.

Her hand had curled tightly around the pen when she first tasted the line in translation.

Darkness has a knowledge all its own.

She took a final look at the funerary splendor that surrounded her. The language of death. While the theme and motifs were clearly Egyptian (or simply not Greek, as her biased brain identified them), the artisans who created the friezes, the sarcophagi, and the sculptures had all trained in the Greco-Roman style. It was a fascinatingly peculiar blend, unlike anything she’d ever seen: the artistic rigor mortis of the rigid hieratic poses molded with disturbingly lifelike and quintessentially Western touches, like the soft drape of fabric, or the curl of human hair.

Too much time spent in this underground was unnerving. I feel like Orpheus. Mel took the steps two at a time—it was unladylike yet effective—while fending off the niggling compulsion to look back.

She was briefly disappointed that it was Fayed, and not Janice, who waited for her at the opening, and who proffered an arm for her to latch upon as she hoisted herself out of the ground.

“Lovely Dr. Pappas, did you find what you were looking for?”

“Now that’s a loaded question,” Mel muttered. She gazed down into the maw of the catacomb. The sun dappled upon the surface of shadows as upon the face of the sea.

With childlike, affectionate impatience, Fayed poked her in the arm. The warmth of his open smile—charming, beguiling—drew Mel away from the catacombs of her self-consciousness. Little wonder you were Janice’s first infatuation.

“Oh. Sorry. No, I didn’t find anything that remotely resembled the frieze rubbings from Amphipolis. Of course, I already told her that a dozen times and she still didn’t listen to me. I suppose if I tell her—again—after looking—again—she’ll insist on going down there herself.” Irritably she pushed dusty bangs off the rim of her glasses.

“I see, I see.” He pursed his lips with mock thoughtfulness. “Shall you tell her or shall I?”

The noble instincts of her Southern heritage—which so loved to embrace lost causes—nonetheless failed to trump an understandably human desire to avoid her exasperating, temperamental lover. But you were the temperamental one this morning, she chastised herself. It was embarrassing to even silently recall that she had a classic Scarlett O’Hara moment and threw a tin mug at Janice’s head with almost alarming accuracy.

The desired result—enhanced communication—had not occurred. Janice had merely stared at the mug until she thought of a decent wisecrack: It’s not too late to trade you to the Giants, Mel.

Fayed interpreted the slump of her shoulders correctly. With a whistle, he summoned Ahmed, one of the younger workers. “Take a message to Dr. Covington,” he said. “Tell her that the divine Dr. Pappas and I are taking ‘lunch.'” Even in a language other than English, quote marks hovered guiltily over the word.

The boy’s dark brow furrowed with worry. The small American woman terrified him.

“Go on now, she won’t hurt you,” the foreman urged, giving him a playful shove.

“Yes, she will, but you’re younger than us and you’ll have a better chance of recovery,” Mel added, but luckily the boy could not understand English and blithely headed toward his doom.

Fayed held out a beckoning hand to Mel. “Come!” he demanded haughtily. “We shall take the Vespa!”

The translator, about to follow him, abruptly stopped. “Oh no.”

His warm hand claimed hers. “Oh yes, darling Dr. Pappas.”

“Janice will disown me if I so much as lean against it.”

The dark blue Vespa 125, a gift from his wife, was Fayed’s most prized possession and the object of Janice’s most enduring envy. However, as a direct consequence of an incident (1936, Athens) involving Janice, a once-pristine motorbike, and a cart of pomegranates, the archaeologist was forbidden to ride it.

“It is her own doing she is not permitted this liberty,” the Egyptian replied primly. “Now come. Somewhere a hookah awaits us.”

“Not another hookah!” Mel cried with almost genuine horror.

He laughed and sat on the scooter. “Yes, another one! Do you not want to tell many wonderful stories to your pupils of the decadence that is Alexandria? Ah!” he suddenly exclaimed, contrite, as her face fell at this reminder of the duty that would separate her from Janice. “It is terrible to see sadness on your beautiful face. I am a fool. Please accept my apologies.”

She ducked her head, taking a moment to school a neutral expression and quash her anxious stomach. “No need.” In a week’s time she would be in America again, pretending to unravel the chaos of language for the benefit of the country’s young, moneyed elite. For Christ’s sake, it’s just teaching—they stare at your ass half the time anyway, Janice had said, in her typically unique way of providing assurance and comfort.

Au contraire—there is need.” Fayed took her hand again. “Come.” His teeth were the gleaming centerpiece in a rakish, inviting grin. “This is all the more reason for you to ride. Everything falls away the moment you are in motion.”

Mel sighed resignedly. The vehicle was irresistible—it’s so cute!— even though she could not help but imagine morbid, humiliating newspaper headlines (Daughter of Famed Scholar Dies in Tragic Scooter Accident). She slipped behind him on the Vespa, and the misleading intimacy of it made her blush; her knees knocked against his thighs, her arms wrapped around his stomach.

“Everything, hmm?” she muttered nervously.

Fayed patted an arm wrapped around his waist; it was a paternally comforting gesture that made Mel think of her father. “Everything,” he replied, then started the motor.

And they were off.

When it was too hot to work, she roamed the city as only a foreigner—a traveler hungry for the unknown—would do: with a random yet pronounced greed for experience and a curiosity that clouded previously lucid judgments. She would devour any food she came across (developing a taste for ful, a simple bean paste) and rode trams where the remnants of Alexandria’s polyglot nature were revealed in the station names (Sidi Gaber, San Stefano, Cleopatra, Sporting). And she would wonder if, somehow, she was becoming someone different; her body certainly felt changed. She was tanned, and could feel new muscles in her arms, calluses on her feet, and the perpetual embrace of desert heat.

At moments, she could see these private fears and ruminations mirrored in Janice’s expression—that face, so carefully guarded to the world, was patently clear to her. She could translate Covington like nobody’s business: If you change, will you still love me? Will I still love you? Is there really constancy to what we feel, as we’ve always believed?

Occasionally, Fayed was a companion on Mel’s exploratory jaunts; it was an excellent opportunity for him to show off the city he loved. Now, they sprinted through the streets on the Vespa, and he was proven right—Mel knew nothing but the wind rushing by, the Byzantine dips and swirls of the side streets, the sweet smells of fried delicacies from the street vendors, the smoke of charred kabobs, the listless sway of colored lanterns hanging from trees, the admiring, envious looks of the poor, earth-bound peripatetic masses. As they navigated one intersection, a young girl—her dark hair flying in the force of the Vespa’s gale—reached out and touched her, perhaps hoping the magic from the shiny, flying machine was contagious.

Eventually they arrived at a coffeehouse not far from the waterfront. It was where Fayed took his coffee every single morning—which meant, to Janice’s irritation, he was not on the site precisely at dawn. As she always was. Working on Alexandrian time, they called it (he with pride, she with sarcasm).

They drank bitterly strong espresso—even though she secretly longed for the tepid orangeade that Nessim made at the Davies’ villa—while enduring the blatant, curious stares of the regulars, many of whom knew Fayed and were stunned to see him with a woman other than his wife. She squirmed with discomfort most of the time they were there, and the fact that the tiny espresso cups made her hand look Frankensteinian in appearance did not help matters either.

Finally, at her relentless urging, they left for a walk along the beach. From a vendor she bought hazelnut biscuits, slippery and sweet in their oily, wax paper bag, with the partial intent of presenting them to Janice, who loved them. However, by the time they had their shoes off and were actually walking through the sand, she’d eaten half the bag and Fayed was nibbling at the remainders.

“That was wonderful,” he crowed. With every step hot sand sifted through their toes. “Everyone at the café will think you are my mistress. Those sycophants will fight amongst themselves for the honor of reporting it to Naima. It will amuse her.”

“That doesn’t sound good. Hell hath no fury like an angry wife.” She immediately thought of Jenny—definitely angry, but for all the wrong reasons.

“There is no need for concern. She will know it is you.”

“Oh, of course,” she murmured sarcastically, and then pursed her lips.

“What is it?”

“Everybody’s a mystic in this confounded city,” she complained.

Fayed’s contagious giggle was the initial response. “A mystic, a whore, or a misfit,” he amended.

“Which one are you?” Mel stiffened in shock at the impolite boldness of her question. What on earth is happening to me? Soon I’ll be wearing white after Labor Day. In a day-to-day existence on a physical plane, Mel usually felt as graceless as a drunken bear, but in the intangible realm—a floating world—of social decorum she always imagined herself as lithe and graceful as Astaire, executing a fox trot over a faux pas or leaping over the many silent quagmires of illicit affairs, petty squabbles, and general bad behavior. And this brings me back to the great cosmic joke of falling in love with someone like Janice Covington.

However, Fayed did not look displeased at the question. “Maybe a little bit of each,” he replied, not missing a beat.

Like Janice? Days spent in study of the Cabbala and in search of the past, nights spent making love with strangers? But this was surprising. Despite the joke about Mel being mistaken for his mistress, she knew that Fayed was quite happily married, and had been for a number of years. Her mouth parted in surprised; she quickly clamped it shut, lest more prurient questions fly out.

“Ah. You want to know.”

“It’s none of my business.”

“The Americans always say this to disavow their own curiosity, yes? But you are hungry for the world, I see the way you devour the new with your eyes and your mind. Do not be afraid of that. There was a time when I—shall we say tentatively—followed in the footsteps of my mother’s trade. I told you, as a young man the great Cavafy admired me. And as a boy, I was even more beautiful.”

“You are still beautiful.” This is not some frat boy you have to charm for a free ride home, she rebuked herself.

“Melinda, you are a terrible flirt. Janice must alternate between ardor and jealous rage.”

“She never runs lukewarm in anything; you must know that better than any of us. Besides, you’re a fine one to talk.”

He acknowledged it with a delightful grin and continued his rambling story. “At any rate, I was a beautiful boy on the streets. When I did not feel like letting a man buy me a drink or a new suit, I attempted pick pocketing. My best friend, a real Fagin if ever there was one, attempted to tutor me in this fine art. We convinced ourselves that I was good at it—I think perhaps he enjoyed too much having my hands in his pockets, yes?” He chuckled as she looked down in embarrassment, tugging at her earlobe. “But then—ah, then came the test. The first time I tried it with someone other than my friend, I had almost lifted a pocket watch from the jacket of a young American archaeologist—”

Mel’s jaw dropped as she anticipated the next part of the story. “You didn’t.”

“—and got the most appalling cuffing ever in my entire life. Even worse than my mother gave! Then this American grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and swore at me in English—for a very, very long time it seemed—until he said to me, in my own tongue, ‘If you took that watch I wouldn’t have a thing to leave my child when I die.’ And then he stared at me. I think it was looking into a mirror for him—because then he offered me a job. And that is how I met Harry Covington and made a career change in the very same day.”

“The Covingtons have a way of upsetting one’s life plans, don’t they?”

He smiled wistfully and squeezed her hand. The sun burrowed behind thick clouds, the humid air hung about them like chain mail; a storm was on its way. “And perhaps they know that if you want something badly enough, it will eventually come to you.”

Mel looked at him. Just as he turned away from her, she thought she saw a glimmer of unshed tears.

“Janice gave me the watch after he died.”

3. Fugitive Beauty

“The very constitution of twilight is a fabulous reconstruction of fear….Every day is thought upon and calculated, but the night is not premeditated.”

—Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

Janice could not sleep. The bed sheet, twisted around her waist, tugged at her like a nagging thought.

During the day, the Davies’ villa seemed diffused of its powerful connection to her past. Perhaps, in part, because she was so infrequently around at that time. But at night the shadows thickened, coarsened into something substantial—a golem sloppily constructed of memories: The Nazis coming to power, the disintegration of her relationship with Jenny, the nights she couldn’t pass by without a drink, all of it culminating in Harry’s death.

In the darkness, she clung to the comforting undertow of Mel’s steady breathing and the intermittent, unrepentant growl of her snoring. It was ironic, Janice thought, how in sleep Mel could look strangely, appealingly ferocious. The civilized, cultivated front fell away; her strong hands twitched sometimes, her brow and mouth set themselves in determined lines, a warning that this primitive, essential act would only be interrupted with dire consequences.

Janice heeded this sign, although she knew Mel could certainly be awakened for the right reasons: sex, yes, preparing midnight snacks, no—well, you have to bribe her with the sex first. Come to think of it, raiding the well-stocked larder sounds good right about now. She eased herself out of bed, pulled on a t-shirt and khakis, then padded out of the room. The distant gleam of a small lamp, in the foyer at the base of the steps, guided her downstairs.

Her bare feet skated over the cool marble floor, then she hesitated as a shadow gliding across the dark room knitted itself into the shape of a person. It was Nessim, head bowed, walking rapidly. A sheaf of his shining black hair curled over his brow with limp beauty, like the wing of a bird in repose. In the second before surprise supplanted it, shame and confusion were inscribed upon his face.

She intercepted him with a touch; her fingertips, resting in the crook of his arm, attempted to gauge the ripple effect of his turbulence. Although his opaque brown eyes swerved from any contact with her face, the fact that he hesitated for a second served as acknowledgment of her concern. Then he was gone.

This was the culture, she reminded herself, the way it had been for thousands of years. Men and boys, grappling for power, sex, love, for the ideal of a mutually beneficial arrangement. A girl seeking such an arrangement would be labeled a whore; a boy who did similarly was only using the gifts God gave him to get ahead. What can I do, other than hate it?

As Janice expected, Linus was in the garden, sated and seated in a rickety chaise lounge, smoking, drinking, illuminated by a large candle. The table beside him held a brandy snifter, a bottle of the liquor, and a pack of cigarettes.

He looked up expectantly at the sound of bare feet flapping against the slate, but a dint of disappointment clouded his face when he saw her.

“Sorry. I’m not him,” Janice said.

Linus roughly ground a cigarette into the ashtray and, with an angry flick of his fingers, shot the pack across the table in her direction. “Don’t give me a hard time about it.”

Her hand fished in a pocket for the reassuring weight of Harry’s lighter. “I wasn’t intending to.” I know it’s pointless.

“I still see the disapproval in your face, my friend.” He stroked his throat thoughtfully; she could hear the distinct rasp of unshaven skin.

“Shit.” She pulled a cigarette out of his pack—Chesterfields, she noted with disappointment. “You can’t expect me to cheer you on, Linus.”

“He enjoyed it. I give as good as I get.” Linus retreated behind a defensive tone and the drifting, undulating blue gray curtain of smoke. His expression softened in thought. He didn’t say anything for several minutes, a perfectly agreeable state of being as far as Janice was concerned, particularly in this case since she wished to hear no noble defense of “Greek love.”

But finally—and unfortunately, she thought—he spoke. “Fugitive beauty. That’s what it is.”

“What are you talking about?”

“That kind of beauty that boys have. They try to hide it, to run away from it, they think it’s unmasculine—or so they’re told. Yet they are aware of it, they know they have it. They want to show it off, they want to be appreciated.”

Go ahead, justify it somehow. Janice felt too tired to argue with him about it. “Sounds like you’ve done some thinking about this.”

“That’s what aging fairies do, old boy.” He sipped his drink. She noted, with disappointment, that his absorption into matters of sex and love had suspended his manners, and he failed to offer her any of the brandy. “And then, the moment they become completely aware of it, the moment they take it for granted, it’s gone. They age. For what man is beautiful—I ask you that?” He smiled, believing the rhetorical finish made his case. “Now women can be different. In fact, I think your Melinda is like that. She’s the type who will grow more beautiful with age.”

“Try telling her that.” Several years ahead of the event, Mel was already panicking about turning 40, habitually trawling her reflection in the mirror in search of gray hair and nonexistent wrinkles. I wonder what you’ll look like with gray hair. I bet it’ll be good.

“I shall. Because I want you all to know what I know. I think it will make you less judgmental, Janice. Even though you’ve not got a lot of room to talk. Because maybe—just maybe—you’ve done worse.” The conjecture almost sounded like a question; he seemed certain enough that she’d done something awful, and that it was just a matter of filling in details.

It was hardly surprising.

She let the lighter’s flame writhe for a moment longer than required. “You mean to tell me that all these years you’ve been eyeballing me for MI5, you believed I was a murderer, just like everyone else believed it? I’m disappointed, Linus.” To shroud the sting of the assumption, she said it mockingly, lightly.

Linus was not caught terribly off guard at the sudden revelation; instead, he dragged a tired hand across his face. “I’ve made quite the balls-up of my so-called intelligence career,” he slurred. “So she told you.”

“Yeah, but she didn’t have to. I already knew.”

“How?”

“I had my suspicions all those years ago. Suspicions that your wife confirmed.”

Linus looked at her sharply.

“You thought Jenny would never tell. That’s what she said. She felt bad about it.”

“I should have known. I should have known she would.”

“Why? How in the hell could you know what someone like Jenny would do? She’s about as predictable as a summer wind.”

Linus’s countenance was aswirl with pity, regret, anger, and affection—a potentially disastrous if not all too predictable soufflé of emotion. “Because, you idiot, she loved you. She still loves you. I don’t know why. You were the one who got away, Janice. The one she couldn’t forget. Had you felt similarly, she would have left me without a moment’s hesitation.” He sneered, pondered taking another drink, but apparently decided he had enough inebriated courage to plow on. “In those days all you really cared for were your father and your digs.” He paused, waiting for a perfunctory protest. She made none. Lazily, he swirled the amber liquid within the snifter and continued. “But now you know what it’s like to love someone so much your chest aches when they leave the room. Don’t you? You’ll be crawling around in agony when she goes back to America. Do yourself a favor and go with her.”

Shit. She winced. I was trying not to think about that, you bastard. “If I could, I would.”

“You can. I’m not joking. Get the hell out of here. This place is rotten, it’s not good for you, and it never has been. And Pendleton—he wants you nailed to the wall. He doesn’t give a damn how he does it or who else goes down with you. Do you understand that?”

“There’s nothing he can do to me. I didn’t kill Dansey. There’s no evidence.”

“Who needs evidence when you have the Frenchman’s statement?”

“He gave a statement? Before he died?”

“Oh yes, of course. What did you expect, given what you did?” The light from the candle eddied across Janice’s face, and what he saw there surprised him so that he thought it a trick of brandy and shadows: It was regret, genuine and startling. “I’m being a bit hard on you,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.”

She pushed long bangs out of her eyes. “It’s all right.”

“If I had been in your shoes, I possibly would have done the same thing.”

“No,” she replied wearily. “You wouldn’t have.”

“It doesn’t matter, Janice. It doesn’t matter. Because—you don’t understand.” The candlelight flickered and he repeated it again. “You don’t understand.” His drunken voice floated on the darkness like a disembodied sibyl.

She was just curious enough to encourage him. “What don’t I understand, Linus?”

“They’ll never let you have them. They’ll never let you find them. The Scrolls.”

There was truth in what he said. Everyone had always been sniffing around her, and her father—Nazis, Smythe, civil servants, government officials—because everyone wanted them. The contradiction never failed to amuse her: Everyone believed the Covingtons were frauds and the Scrolls a hoax, but everyone wanted a piece of the action nonetheless. Everyone wants all the bases covered. “They can’t stop me.”

“No, they can’t stop you from looking. But they can hound you and they can set a million obstacles in your path.”

“Are you talking about Pendleton? And whatever pathetic henchmen he can scrounge up? Are you saying I should be afraid of this idiot? He couldn’t fucking nail Catherine Stoller to the wall, he’s not going to get me.”

“It goes deeper than Mark. Could you call it a conspiracy? It seems silly to call it so; I doubt the deception is that well organized. But on the other hand, isn’t a ‘conspiracy’ also a separation of power from truth? That’s what the war was all about—it was how the Nazis conquered all of Europe. We’ve lived through an amazing historical period—’May you live in interesting times,’ as the Chinese say. I see now why they always meant that as a curse and not a blessing. But if you fail to call it conspiracy, perhaps instead you could call it historical animosity, or the inertia of prejudice. How’s that? Because the men who run this world of knowledge that we inhabit—the museums, the universities, the excavations, the exhibits we attend, the books we read—do you really think they want to change, so completely and so fundamentally, their view of the ancient world? If that changes—if their precious past changes, then what happens—what could happen—to the here and now? Truth is only useful to them if it supports what they already believe. History is written by the conquerors, not the heroes. That’s why your Xena has languished in obscurity for thousands of years. They don’t want to believe there once lived a woman as compelling and powerful as Alexander or Caesar. That’s why they mock and deride you—and Harry, even in his grave. It didn’t help he was in the Nazis’ pockets. I know now he didn’t believe that Fascist folderol, but all the same, it stole his credibility and tainted your own.”

He did not tell her anything she had not mulled over a million times in the stifling silence of her own mind. But hearing this innate truth, allowing it to wash over her, felt both strangely liberating and terrifying. As it did when Mel had first said “I love you.” And that made you run like hell. What will this make you do? “I always thought—I was being paranoid. Had a chip on my shoulder.”

“You are. And you do.”

He was dead serious. She laughed.

Linus ignored this and continued on his merry way, plastering his paw-like hand to his chest in a demonstration of sincerity. “You see, I understand your point of view quite thoroughly, since I am, at heart, a woman myself.”

He possessed what Janice believed were somewhat old-fashioned, antiquated ideas about homosexuality. He really did believe he was a woman of sorts, a true “invert,” a member of a third sex. In public he projected a reassuringly masculine facade but in private his femininity unfurled before her; it was a feyness that—she hated admitting it, because it felt hypocritical—unnerved her.

God knows what theories he has about his omnisexual wife, Janice thought. “How fortunate for you that you are clothed in the vestments of a male,” she intoned with mock portentousness, much like the Old Man.

He caught the joke and chuckled. “Will you start quoting Sefer Ha Zohar to me now?”

It was all the prompting she needed “‘The pride of the garments is the body of the man, and the pride of the body is the soul.’ ”

Linus raised his glass. “Brava, my dear. Naima would be proud of you. You were her prized pupil, you know. The one that got away.”

“You just said that about Jenny.”

“It’s just as true. You got away from all of us, dear. You escaped the trap of Alexandria. I thought it a mistake for you to come back. They’re going to try to arrest you. Things are bad now for Westerners, and they’ll look for any bloody excuse to get rid of you. They’ll try to make an example of you.”

“I don’t see you leaving.”

He smiled. “I just might. I’m damned sick of this place myself.” He stood up and tiredly shuffled toward the house, pausing only to rest his hand upon her shoulder. She did not resist, even though she thought of Nessim, of the way Linus must have touched the boy. Did it start out like this, a simple caress? You can’t trust anyone out here. Harry, how right you were.

“You will be careful?”

“I’m always careful.”

A low laugh bubbled up from his chest; a remnant of this bitter amusement still clung to his lips as he pressed them against her ear.

“Liar.”

After he left, Janice took his place on the lounge. The gutted candle died, but it mattered little—the night relinquished its black grip, the shadows grew hazy, and the sky meandered toward dawn. Go with her. Well, why not? Why end up a broken nobody like your father? But there are no second acts in American lives, someone said. And this would be your second act, your second life, a life not built around this insane search. She knew the Scrolls existed, had existed. Perhaps that was enough? She closed her eyes. She opened them again—unaware of time passed—at the touch upon her arm.

It was Mel. Or at least it looked like Mel, hair down and sans glasses, wearing a robe of burgundy red—wine dark, just as she imagined Homer’s great sea. Are you her? Or are you real?

“Come to bed.” Xena with a Southern accent. It was Mel.

Every time I look at you—will it always remind me of what I never found?

Mel’s touch was as instinctive and revealing as a blind man’s: fingertips searched her face and smoothed a worry line between her brows; Janice thought it charitable to describe it as such when it looked—and felt—deep enough to be termed a worry chasm. “What’s wrong?”

I’m scared to death half the time. Janice cleared her throat. “Don’t you want to watch the sun come up?” Perhaps, the archaeologist thought ruefully, the worry chasm represented the gap between what she thought and what she said.

“No.” Apparently, Mel was afflicted with a similar condition—a gap between thought and action, for now she sat down beside Janice, who had swung her legs off the lounge and sat up in order to make room for her companion. Mel settled in, kissed her, then pressed her face against Janice’s cheek. Janice could only think of that poor beautiful aquiline nose, all scrunched up against her dirty, sunburnt face.

“I don’t want to go back,” Mel murmured.

“We don’t have to go upstairs.” She knew Mel wasn’t talking about that. But it was worth taking one last shot at avoiding the topic, she figured.

Mel groaned dramatically and the exhale of her frustrated breath scalded across Janice’s cheek. “You know what I mean.” She shifted, and Janice could feel eyelashes now, like a miniature fan, brushing against her skin. “I don’t want to go back home. I don’t want to leave you here.”

“You don’t have much choice. We made a deal.” It’s bad enough you’re already associated with me. Don’t make it worse.

“Damn the deal.” The fact that Mel said it through clenched teeth gave the mild oath all the power of a good loud motherfucker. Janice approved. Good trick, very effective.

“You signed a contract with the university. You have to teach in the fall. Aside from the legal implications of not going back, you’d not only lose face with everyone in the community, but you’d leave the Dean in a hell of a lurch.”

“You’re not telling me anything I haven’t already thought of.” Mel was sighing heavily into her shoulder. “It’s just—I d-don’t—”

Ah, that old familiar stammer, my poor baby. Janice raked the dark hair, as if it somehow could smooth out this bump in Mel’s speech.

“I don’t want to leave you again.”

Again. It made Janice’s heart thrum with unhappiness as she realized that Mel had never truly forgiven herself for Switzerland. Because you never told her that it didn’t really matter, you little shit. Because you’ve been too angry about it for too long.

“I—” Janice struggled with the admission. God help me, I do love you so much my chest aches when you leave a room. “I don’t want you to go either. But you have to.”

Mel’s hand tangled in her t-shirt, giving it a halfheartedly angry tug. “Why did I let you talk me into this?”

“I didn’t put a gun to your head, sweetheart.”

“No, that’s only for your first dates, I gather.”

“Like I said before: It worked, didn’t it?” Her hand sought out Mel’s shoulder and pushed aside the loose robe, laying bare skin, all for the pleasure of a thumb skating figure eights along the delicate precipice of the collarbone. But one caress was never enough, it seemed. She laid back on the lounge, pulling at the robe’s belt. “Come here.”

“No.” The translator was sulkily defiant. “Don’t distract me with this.”

“It’s not a distraction. It’s research. I’m just working on a new entry for my classification system.”

As their relationship had criss-crossed continents, Janice had—one day, while mowing the lawn—came up with a system of ranking sexual encounters based on geography and the aspects that lovemaking took on in said location. For example: London was used to denote a quickie, usually where only one partner was pleasured. Cornwall described good makeup sex. New York was when a certain party was too liquored up to perform adequately. Amsterdam denoted jet lag, illness, or similar fatigue in which the spirit was willing, but the flesh not. Venice, of course, was the five-star rating, flawless perfection. I’ll be spending my life chasing after that. My fugitive beauty.

Thus far in Alexandria, sex between them possessed a particularly fierce quality, almost like combat, a battle in the ongoing war fought between things said and unsaid. She could feel it in Mel—tendons knotted into resistance, bones almost growing within Janice’s grasp, into something larger than the act itself.

“Research.” Mel muttered it disdainfully, before being silenced with a consuming kiss from a soft mouth.

And Janice confirmed it with a legion of kisses that trampled whatever defenses that remained. “Research.” However, the shove that tumbled the archaeologist back onto the lounge made her question who was really winning the war. Her t-shirt was roughly hiked up to breast level in order to provide a fleshy landing strip for a sudden, hot tongue. Me! Me! I’m winning the war! I think.

But much like Hitler’s fateful decision to invade Russia, the tide turned as she navigated her thigh past the bunched up robe and lodged it between Mel’s legs. Although it was slightly difficult for her to locate that certain nexus point while wearing pants, she knew she hit gold when Mel stiffened and said, softly, “oh.” When it was good, the tiny syllable received a linguistic workout, repeated softly, like a mantra, a continuous, ceaseless evocation of wonder.

“Go on. Let the whole world hear you.” Despite the urging she knew that Mel would rather chew off her own arm than make any loud noise that might inform the population that she indulged, with happy frequency, in the exchange of carnal knowledge. So Janice took silent delight in the tilt of Mel’s head, revealing the slithering peristalsis of her throat and the words caught there in a struggle between freedom and denial, and the delicious tension of her limbs in the ethereal blue of twilight. The crown of her black hair—a blurry outline against the twilit sky—brought to mind one small fragment, dimly recalled, from an ode by Horace: I shall nudge the stars with my lifted head.

4. The Limitless Blue

“Would not hell glimpsed through some small window be far more terrifying than if beheld in its entirety in a single sweeping glance?
from Les Diaboliques, Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly

Thessaloniki, Greece

Autumn 1941

Earlier in the day, the rain had begun as wet, limpid snow. Thick, large snowflakes tumbled down from the sky. To Janice their artless, random patterning upon hitting the ground recalled fragments of a mosaic, the heavy crystalline motes an unknowing beauty hinting at a larger, greater unity.

Of course, ever since the team had unearthed the brilliantly colored Byzantine mosaic—the first significant find of her career—symbolism ran amok for her. She saw the mosaic everywhere, in everything. The dirt of centuries failed to dim the brightness of it, at least as far as she was concerned. In her mind’s eye it gleamed as golden as the day it was created—the saffron yellow background, the limitless blue eyes of the Apollo-Christ figure that dominated the panel. Earlier in the day she had slipped on rocks and cut her hand; inexplicably the accident prompted thoughts of the sharply etched nimbus surrounding the figure’s head—a monochromatic mini-masterpiece in white, gold, brown, and black—as blood filled her palm. The archaeologist gets stigmata, she had said to Harry as he expertly bandaged her hand with one of his handkerchiefs.

He had rolled his eyes. Don’t get weird on me, kid.

She walked out of the tent and turned up the collar of her jacket against the needling rain, which was waking her up faster than this morning’s weak coffee. Things were getting better, it seemed. Harry was in a good mood since they’d made this find, Jenny was conveniently far away back in Alexandria, and matters with Bardamu had been settled. Or so she hoped.

The Frenchman’s money had been unceremoniously returned; Janice had imagined she wouldn’t get out of the situation alive—or without being beaten within an inch of her life—but he only laughed and called her a coward, a fool. He dismissed her with a wave of his hand. I can find assassins as easily as you find women, Janice. Not everyone is as afraid of success as you are.

She stopped walking; the mud took the opportunity to render her boots immobile. She felt herself sinking. Was that true? No. I found this mosaic. I’ve been breaking my back here. This will make my reputation. This will make people realize I’m not—. The soggy sky hung low, curlicues of clouds brushed the distant mountain peaks. I’m not my father.

The realization carried with it no small amount of shame. She loved him, she loved the stories he told that had infected her blood since she was a child, she loved everything he taught her, she loved the work they shared, and she loved the lone goal they pursued with slavering devotion and single-minded fervor.

Into this atmosphere ripe for conversion, epiphany, soul-searching, and other forms of profound navel-gazing, a voice as sharp as a blade sliced through the gauze of clouds and mist of rain: “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?”

It sent Janice’s head ringing as surely as a sound boxing of the ears. God must have a voice like my old man.

Harry was standing in the pit, just outside the tented area that protected the precious mosaic. Water dripped off his fedora and he clutched a stadia rod like a walking stick—posing as the grand old man of archaeology, Harry?

As if he could hear her thoughts, he laughed, and the echo bounced around in the dense, humid air. “YOU’LL CATCH A GODDAMNED COLD, YOU BRAT, AND THEN WHAT USE WILL YA BE TO ME?”

She pulled her boots out of the sticky mud and commenced squelching noisily to the pit.

The elder Covington handed his daughter a handkerchief to wipe the cold rain from her face and a small, flat blade to knock the mud and dirt off the artifact. “My hands hurt—this goddamn weather. You’re always better at it than I am anyway,” he said. “You’ve got a light touch.”

She grinned and took the blade, then settled on her haunches to do the work. “I had a good teacher.” Carefully she tapped away clumps of dirt and waited for him to say something. Normally he was much too stubborn to admit that the arthritis was bothering him; that and the compliment left her suspicious, no matter how genuine their origin. Come on, Harry, spill it.

It took about five minutes and a cold cup of coffee. “Are you in trouble?”

Apparently he had picked up on the frisson of tension that surrounded her and Fayed as they had debated how to deal with the Frenchman, and with Dansey. Lie, half-lie, or truth? She opted for the penumbra of truth. “It’s taken care of.”

Harry grunted skeptically. When he sensed no further information was forthcoming, he sent out another probe. “It’s—not about the Davies woman, is it?”

“No.” She switched to a tiny brush.

He watched her work. Perversely, he liked the look of artifacts right after they were found, before the fussiness of conservation took over—they still possessed the glory of diamonds in the rough, were still connected to the past by the virtuous patina of dirt and dust. They were still alive, he thought, and not yet subject to sterile entombment in a museum.

Janice felt the same way too; if he hadn’t known it already, he could see it plainly in the rapture of her face as she stopped for a moment and admired the panel. “It’s beautiful,” she breathed.

He hadn’t seen her smile like that in months. That goddamn woman is not making her happy. Harry felt smothered with the bitter intensity of his anger at Jennifer Davies. Goddamn cheap whore. She’d probably fuck anyone that her husband wanted her to. The serpentine structure of the Davies’ relationship was beyond him. All he saw was a man content to let his wife bed down with whomever she wanted. And as much as he liked Linus (and the money that came with him), he could not respect that.

And what about your daughter? Do you respect her for that? She had abandoned cleaning the mosaic for a moment and was sitting cross legged on the ground, scribbling level notes with a pencil stump. “This reminds me of Collins’s find at Mykonos. Same period, similar composition—although the mandorla was square—”

“Square?” Harry muttered absently.

“Yeah.”

“Huh. Wonder why.” Damn it, Janice, I’m going to have to hit you over the head with this, aren’t I? You’re as thick as I am.

“It meant the subject of the portrait was still alive.” Janice looked irritated. “You know that.”

“Oh, yeah. Right.” He tugged at the warped brim of his fedora. “Hey.”

She stopping writing and gazed up at him.

“Look, I’m not—I’m not judging you here.” Harry’s jaw twitched as he searched for the proper tone. “I just—I want you to be with someone who really cares about you.” Momentarily distracted by the fact that Janice was looking at him as if he had grown a second head, he swallowed nervously. “I’m just sayin’—if—” He stumbled, faltered, and recovered with a stream of words that, if rushed, were no less sincere: “If you’re going to go with a woman, make sure it’s one who can love you of her own free will.”

Janice felt her lips part in surprise. I wasn’t expecting you to get wise on me, old man.

However, fatally undone by his compulsion to beat a dead horse, Harry went further: “Meaning one that’s not married, you goddamn blockhead.”

Her jaw shifted ruefully. “Harry, tell me how you really feel.”

“If it was a guy, Janice, I would say the same thing. Ya understand?” His growl announced that the big emotional moment of acceptance was completed.

Stupidly, she smiled, and felt renewed warmth toward him. “All right.”

He scowled, suspecting, correctly, that she was merely placating him. “You can do better.” He rocked nervously on his heels. “I’m just sayin’, is all.” He ducked his head, attempting to meet her eyes. “Okay?”

Hiding her small smile, she nodded, returned to working on her notes, and quietly refused to believe him.

* * *

Alexandria, 1953

Even though the train was due to leave in less than two hours, Mel wasn’t done packing. She had sent Janice away, knowing that the temptingly sullen lips of a gorgeous, bored blonde would prove an insurmountable distraction. She gazed out the balcony for a few minutes, savoring the scent from the garden and watching a ful vendor work his way down the street, past the lemon-scented trees, pushing into the stiff, sea-soaked wind that billowed his white shirt like a sail.

This foreshadowing of the journey home both annoyed and saddened her, and left her in no mood to really deal with Jenny. However, the door was open and once again Mel cursed Janice for her apparent inability to shut doors. Because the Englishwoman was now leaning there, radiating a peculiar smug nervousness. Look at her, Mel thought—hoping that her quick, casual glance at Jenny conveyed just the right amount of regal disdain—just leaning there as if she owns the place—

Oh. Wait. She does own the place.

The Englishwoman smirked. Sadly, it was one of her better features. “I hope you’re not leaving just because you broke our lounge.”

Mel had known that teasing—other than stifled giggles and naughty looks from Linus—would eventually occur. You will not blush in front of this woman. The invective failed miserably as the tips of her ears burned. At the very least Janice had come up with a new entry for her system.

Alexandria: When one partner’s enthusiastic response damages other people’s property.

Mercifully, etiquette took over and Mel, like a befuddled salesclerk at Bloomingdale’s, became a babbling supplicant. “I am very sorry about that. Your new lounge is due to arrive tomorrow. If there are any problems, you will let Janice know—”

Jenny burst into laughter. “Oh, my dear,” she sighed. If the tables had been turned, Jenny knew she would have flaunted the indiscretion, would have preened shamelessly in celebration. But Mel—this seemingly lovable nitwit—simply blushed and stammered adorably, like a schoolgirl. No matter what may occur after you leave, Janice will always go crawling back to you. The realization, always simmering in the back of her mind, finally struck her with a suddenness that, in turn, smote her giggle. “I wish I could hate you,” she said softly.

Mel pursed her lips. Even in death Catherine Stoller could stir Janice into a jealous fury. I hate the thought of that fucking bitch touching you. Janice said once, during some ridiculous fight while they were still in London after the war. Or was it Cornwall? That’s where all the big fighting happened. I was as jittery as a bridegroom. During that time they had both experienced cold feet and second thoughts at the thought of living and sharing a life together. “It doesn’t necessarily make things easier.” Mel picked up the small jewelry box on the bureau and opened it. Earrings for the trip? It seemed faintly ludicrous. But she smiled and set aside a pair.

“Good point. Of course, you are at a distinct advantage; it’s easy for you to say that.”

“Oh, for Lord’s sake,” Mel muttered to herself, and tossed an unfolded blouse onto the bed. “Do you think that if Janice really wanted to be with you, that I could stop her? You know as well as I do what she’s like when she gets her mind set on something. She won’t stop until she has it.” Yet it quickly occurred to Mel that Janice’s feelings for her hadn’t exactly inspired the archaeologist into torrid pursuit, but rather froze her into anguished inaction.

I always pay for it, when I ignore my instincts and do nothing. Someone always gets hurt because of it. Janice had said this recently; Mel tried to grope for the forgotten context but Jenny’s twitching, impatient features threw off her chain of thought.

“Yes,” Jenny agreed. “She is relentless.”

“And single-minded,” Mel added.

“Stubborn.”

“Obstinate.”

“Mulish.”

“Pig-headed.”

“And utterly irresistible.”

“It’s a mystery.”

It didn’t solve a thing, this bantering bash of the mutually beloved Covington. It did, however, broker a tentative peace, a common ground to which both parties were unwilling to admit.

Jenny knew that, despite her best intentions, it was highly likely that the minute Mel was on the train heading away from the city, she would probably throw herself shamelessly at Janice—one last time, dearie dear. One last shot at love.

Mel, of course, knew this. And acknowledged it with no small amount of reluctance—she knew, with aching precision and all too well, the desperation of a woman in love. Leaving doesn’t mean throwing in the towel, Mrs. Davies. I will fight with whatever I have, and however long it takes, if I must.

She surprised Jenny with her next request, fixing the Englishwoman with as commanding a look as she could muster. “You will make sure that nothing happens to her while I’m gone, won’t you? You will make every effort to keep her safe?”

“You’re asking me—”

“I have no pride when it comes to her. Surely you, of all people, understand that.”

“Oh.” Jenny smiled with rueful relief. “Believe me, I do.”

They both recognized the gallop upon the steps. Janice tried her best to saunter casually into the room. The fedora—at times the best barometer of her mood—was pulled low on her brow, cloaking the angelic face with a shadow from the brim. “You about ready?” she said gruffly.

Jenny rolled her eyes. “Oh, Mad Dog, my dear, a Piccadilly cab driver is more polite.” She sighed and launched herself off the wall. “If you’ll both excuse me, I have to see a man about a camel.”

Janice was keeping a careful distance, just far enough to avoid interception from the long arm of the translator. Mel noticed that her stance had tightened, like an animal desperately willing itself into the camouflage of silence. So you’re going to make me come to you. And I’m going to do it, because we don’t have much time to do this dance. It only took two small steps and her quarry was well within grasp—she could graze that beloved cheek with the back of her hand and be rewarded with a flinch so slight as almost unseen, but I see it, I see you. You know that, and it frightens you—still, after all this time.

“Tough girl,” she whispered. Mel tipped the fedora away from Janice’s face and pulled her closer, resulting in the hat’s clumsy somersault to the floor. “You don’t have to be that way with me. Don’t you know that by now?”

Her face now laid bare to scrutiny, Janice struggled to maintain a steely equipoise or, at the very least, to keep her jaw from twitching and her lips from quivering. But the tears she shed within the hollow of Mel’s neck gave the game away, set, match, point.

The actual goodbye at the train station was, naturally, a more muted affair. Mel strived for casualness—a keystone of the Covington lifestyle—while halfheartedly checking her hair as reflected in the chrome of someone’s parked motorbike. “Promise me you won’t get arrested.”

“And miss Christmas in rainy London?” Janice smiled. “With you, no less, complaining about the weather every step of the way?”

I see we’re back to normal, darling. Nonetheless Mel didn’t need any kind of mirror to know that her eyebrows were in lockdown, simultaneously providing an expression of severe consternation and a sudden headache. She wanted to say something—anything—but Janice’s sigh and impatient posturing (hands on hips, warily eyeing the crowd) made her realize that time was pressing upon them.

Mel had gotten the answer she needed anyway, that night they broke the lounge. It had seemed a odd moment for confession, especially so since they were lying in a postcoital heap atop splintered furniture and giggling like truants. But soon the laughter evaporated into the morning air and she focused happily upon the sticky throbbing between her legs and the languid yet blessedly persistent heartbeat under her ear.

I didn’t kill him. Janice had murmured it so quickly that she had barely caught it.

You do believe me, don’t you?

She did.

“How do we do this?” the archaeologist now asked. The drive to the train station had helped in regaining both her equilibrium and her misanthropy. “Is hugging suspect? Should we shake hands instead?”

“Real ladies don’t shake hands,” Mel replied. Before her irritable companion could object, she embraced Janice once again and her voice brushed against the spirals of the archaeologist’s ear. “Don’t forget me.” It seemed a silly thing to say and she felt foolish. She fully expected a gentle ribbing about it.

But to her surprise, Janice whispered back, “How could I? You mean everything to me.”

They disengaged and Mel was staring at the train with absentminded dread. “I—I hope there aren’t any chickens on board.”

The non-sequitur did its best to roll over the tension. “You’ll be in first class. It’s unlikely.”

“Because—you know, I’ve discovered I’m slightly allergic to their feathers.”

“I guess we won’t be retiring to a farm, then.”

Mel beamed at her.

So I just admitted I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you. She thought she was going to cry again, but instead swallowed with a grim self-determination. Be Bogart! “Now get your ass on that train.”

“Okay, Mad Dog.” Mel took a few strides toward walking away, her hips settling into their usual tantalizing rhythm, then she stopped and neatly executed a pivot in modest heels. “Oh, by the way, I love you too.” She said it just loud enough for it to carry over the bored buzz of the crowd and the hiss from the ancient steam engine, not caring who heard it, who understood it, who didn’t, or who might be offended; more likely than not, Janice thought, native Alexandrians would merely dismiss it as more insane Western behavior not worth the bother of scrutiny. Additionally, the confidence of the gesture seemed to cast a protective spell over them—or so Janice thought. But then she had always felt ridiculously, unusually safe merely basking in Mel’s gaze.

She grinned and tilted the hat back on her head. Smart ass.

As Mel boarded the train—only looking back once, with a nervous wave—Janice realized that she had forgotten to steal anything from the translator.

It was their old game: Janice would take something from Mel, however temporary, like a hair clasp, or a watch—in “typical archaeologist fashion, like it was yours all along” as Mel put it—and so it was that Janice laid claim to her lover as if she were a site, searching for something unknown, implacable, an artifact that would explain or reveal further this person she loved.

This time Mel beat her to it. As the train pulled out of the station, the archaeologist’s nervous, grasping hands sought the solace of her pockets. As soon as she touched them she knew what they were—the soft click of their delicate collision and the pleasantly heavy roundness of their shape gave them away. Out of the left pocket she pulled pearl earrings, Mel’s favorites, once belonging to her mother.

Against her flushed palm, the pearls glowed.

She gazed up as the train’s last car pulled past, half expecting to see Mel from a window, with her usual gentle, teasing smile. Instead there was nothing but her own funhouse reflection, distended in the greasy gleam of the passing train.

* * *

Cambridge, Massachusetts

September, 1937

She looked at herself in the mirror and dragged a judgmental thumb across her dry lips. Should she wear the lipstick? Betty had encouraged it, but Dan swore up and down that she was “perfect” as she was, didn’t need that kind of stuff to make her look pretty, and that her parents would love her as much as he loved her. She rather hoped that wasn’t the case; it sounded too perverse.

Makeup? she asked herself again, seeking enlightenment from the fraud in the mirror. Her stomach roiled with indecision.

She ran a hand down the simple gray skirt. Two fifty off the rack. Betty had said that Janice had a talent for making cheap clothes look good, “and it’s a darned good thing too, given you haven’t a dime to your name” (this said in the way rich girls talked, teeth clenched together, with pale lips like moribund worms, barely moving). Janice hadn’t the faintest idea why Betty liked her; probably a combination of pity and fascination with the poor girl who grew up in the desert. She wasn’t like the other girls here, she knew that.

She sighed. So I reckon the skirt is fine…but is it really good enough? For Dan? For all of them?

This was serious stuff for him. He talked of marriage, talked about her meeting his folks. Which was today—a formal luncheon on their yacht. Aw Jesus, I hope I don’t upchuck. Oh shit, I shouldn’t say “Jesus” or anything like that. I shouldn’t say “shit” either. Shit. Fuck. Like a weed, panic took root and flourished within her. Lipstick? Rouge? Earrings? No swearing? Which fork to use? Should I describe my father as an archaeologist or a grave robber? And what the hell are canapés anyway? With no regard for her neatly pressed clothes or her clean, brushed hair, she dug her fingers into her scalp and threw herself on the bed, defeated. Sex might help right about now, she thought. But there was hardly any time for that. And while sex was a release, they were both inexperienced and nervous, so it was kind of like driving around with neither a map nor a destination in mind: fun for a while, then frustration gnawed at you. That would change, she thought. Once they got more comfortable with one another, it would get better. Their explorations would be more enjoyable than unnerving.

Her semi-horny ruminations came to an end as Hurricane Betty hit. The small, buxom brunette burst into the room, all hormones, curves, and daddy’s trust fund. “The cutest little Western Union fellow came for you! I swear, Janice, he was blushing redder than a tomato. We had him surrounded like the wagon train in that John Wayne movie.” Betty waved a small white envelope.

Janice frowned.

“It’s cute the way your father sends you telegrams all the time.” To Betty, the word “cute” held all the power, significance, and symbolism that “New Deal” similarly possessed for Roosevelt. She flopped on the bed and scowled at her roommate. “For God’s sake, Janice, sit up! You’re wrinkling as we speak!”

As a compromise Janice propped herself on her elbows. Giggling, Betty wafted the telegram just above her face. Janice lunged and snared it with her teeth.

“You crazy thing!” Betty leaned into her, and Janice was all too conscious of the leg tangled with her own and the crush of breasts against her side. It was just affection, Janice thought—she wasn’t used to receiving any kind of attention from a girl, that’s all. “Aren’t you going to open it?”

She spat the telegram out of her mouth. “Later. Dan will be here soon.” She attributed the sudden rush of desire to the mere mention of his name and not Betty’s leg twitching excitedly against her own.

“Have fun, darling. I’m seeing Teddy later. Wish me luck.” Betty’s voice dropped to a conspiring whisper. “I may be getting pinned today.”

Pinned? Was this some strange euphemism for sexual intercourse? Or something else? “Is Ted on the wrestling team?” Janice muttered cautiously, brow furrowing.

All regard for Janice’s clothing notwithstanding, Betty howled with laughter and rolled on top of her roommate. “You are just too much!”

This is too much, Janice thought, her hips gleefully lunging for any contact with Betty’s anatomy. She tried to quash the bubbling surge of lust, which felt like the river of the damned…all paths lead to Hell here, to eternal damnation, although if Hell is as hot as the Sahara, I’ll adjust quite nicely. Enough! Stop it! Why did Harry ever yank me out of Sunday School? Then I might be truly repentant! But no, I had to bite the minister’s son and that was that.

As if telepathic, Betty bounded off her like a trampoline. “Good God, I’m late!” She ran a brush through her hair, carefully examined and retouched her makeup. “Gotta go, sweetie. You’ll tell me all about that yacht tonight—and don’t worry, it’ll be divine.”

Divine, apparently, was even better than cute.

With the slam of the door signaling her roommate’s exit, Janice pulled at her hair with renewed vigor propelled by sexual frustration. Eye level with the crumpled telegram, and driven to seek distraction, she opened it. So what is the old man up to these days? God, he’s not States-side, is he? She shuddered at the thought of introducing her father to Dan’s parents. It’s bad enough he thought Dan was “a wimp” just ‘cause he played the damn ukulele, I can imagine what he would think of the Blaylocks—

She sat up in alarm. YOUR MOTHER VERY ILL STOP WE ADVISE YOU COME IMMEDIATELY STOP

The paper went limp in her hand. So what kind of bullshit is this, Ma?

At the age of 16—her usual stubbornness steeled with a youthful belief in the permanence and irrevocability of her rash decisions—Janice had decided she would not see her mother anymore, despite Harry’s pleas. And thus in the intervening four years, the occasional haranguing letter or pathos-inducing telegram would arrive, but would receive no response from the obstinate girl. Hysterical telegrams in particular were not uncommon: Janice’s personal favorite among the lot was I’M IN JAIL SEND MONEY STOP —she admired its pithy brilliance. But this one was signed by a “doctor”—someone she’d never heard of. It certainly wouldn’t be above her mother to pull a stunt like this, sending a telegram under the guise of someone else. Nope, not the woman who sent Harry a threatening telegram that said QUIT YOUR DAMNED DIGGING AROUND and signed it “Herbert Hoover.” When the old girl was drinking, she wanted either money or pitying, uncritical attention. Usually both.

What the hell do you want from me? She stuffed the telegram under a pillow. I’m sick of trying to figure you out.

She recognized Dan’s brisk rap at the door. “Yeah,” she called.

Dan bounded in. Boyishly impeccable in a white cable-knit sweater, he was a poster boy for the Ivy League. “Hi!” He smelled of grass and sun; the innocent scent was intoxicating to her. He ducked his head, aiming for a chaste kiss along her cheek, but her lips sought his own and she kissed him, hard, pouring the day’s frustration into the act and praying for forgetfulness.

He pulled away, breathless. “Geez, honey, cool down. We gotta go.”

“Don’t we have time?” She tried to pull him closer.

Gently, he pushed her away and laughed. “In a word: No. Holy cow, other guys complain about their girls not even wanting to kiss, but you—you, I gotta fight off.” Immensely proud of this fact, Dan grinned; he wasn’t the type to boast, but his quiet smugness in the company of other young men had broadcasted, loud and clear, that he was getting it on a pretty regular basis. Nonetheless, he would have clocked anyone suggesting that his unpredictable, unorthodox fiancee was easy.

He tucked stray strands of blonde hair behind her ear. “You look swell.”

“Thanks,” she whispered. He loves me, he wants to marry me, I’m meeting his parents on a fucking yacht.

Don’t say fuck.

Dan’s fingers curled around her own; amusement and embarrassment were similarly twined within Janice’s mind at the realization that her hands—as a result of a long, hard summer spent with Harry on Crete—were rougher and more callused than his. Her nails were chipped; his were manicured. How this had escaped Betty’s scrutiny, she did not know.

You are young, you are a student at one of the most prestigious colleges in the States, you have a really great guy in love with you. It didn’t seem to help; her mind felt unmoored, sinking into preoccupation with the past, by the Titantic-like effect of the telegram.

“Janice?”

She blinked, startled, at the hand squeezing her own. “What?”

“Is everything all right? You look a little funny. Are you sick?”

She stared at her pillow. “No. I’m fine. Let’s go.”

* * *

Alexandria, 1953

When Jenny’s quiet sense of triumph had turned to sour defeat barely a week after Mel’s departure, it was easy to blame Nessim and the unwashed laundry.

Nessim reveled in the masculine tasks of running a kitchen; however, he shirked many household duties that he believed were beneath him—such as laundry. In these instances, he pressed his already overworked older sister into service. The girl was good, if erratic because of her full schedule, and couldn’t always take care of matters right away, which occasionally lead to piles of bed linens so high that they warranted their own room.

One evening, Jenny returned home via taxi to find the old green truck parked outside the villa. She was relatively certain Fayed was not waiting for her inside. To placate his old friend, who still bemoaned her lack of Vespa privileges, the Egyptian had cheerfully allowed Janice to appropriate the truck as she pleased. The battered vehicle gleamed magnificently in the dim headlights of the cab, a talisman of hope to Jenny’s rapidly thumping heart. After Mel had left, Janice had more or less disappeared onto the site, leaving both Jenny and Linus wondering whether the archaeologist would ever surface again. This was the opportunity she had hoped for—a moment when they could be truly alone, and where she might successfully rekindle their affair.

Her palms, hot and damp, bled adrenaline as she awkwardly took the stairs two at a time. There had to be a reason you came back.

The door was already open. Janice sat on the edge of the bed, her fists tangled within a bed sheet pressed to her face—eyes shuttered, back arched, and shoulders expanded, all with an unspoken pleasure. Drawing upon this scent—of sex, of her lover—Janice created a concatenation with the woman who was no longer there. This was no mere idealized love—or even if it was, it nonetheless possessed an erotic component burrowed deep inside her, beating within her blood, interlaced with every sinew.

Jenny recoiled from this act, which seemed more intimate than most bodily functions, even masturbation. “Good God.” She couldn’t quite believe that the flat, cold voice speaking was her own. No American accent, though, it must be me.

Janice, stunned out of her sexual reverie, was at that moment only capable of helpless blinking.

“I can’t even compete with a bloody fucking bedsheet.”

* * *

Alexandria, 1941

There had to be a reason you came back.

Jenny, flushed with apprehension, ran from the tram stop to the gate before the villa, stopping only to catch her breath and adjust a shoe. Her hand curled talon-like over the rusted iron gate as she saw John Smythe’s face in her mind—coolly mocking, callously smug—as he intercepted her after lunch at the Cecil: “Is the funeral here?” he had asked.

The funeral for your bloody personality, perhaps. The cigarette wavered in her hand as she went wide-eyed, feeling a bit like Bette Davis caught in a spouse-stealing, money-swapping scheme. “Pardon me?”

“For dear old Harry Covington.” He laughed, harshly triumphant, as all color drained from her face. “You mean you didn’t know? He died a week ago, in Thessaloniki.”

She could say nothing. Oh God. Janice.

“Truck went right into a ravine. He never had a chance.”

Jenny shuddered.

“I’m truly surprised you don’t know. His bitch daughter is back in town. Haven’t the faintest idea why she’s here—perhaps to seek solace in your ever-loving arms?” Smythe grinned and took a step closer to her; in a mockery of intimacy, he ducked his head close to her ear. “Unless, perhaps, you’ve grown tired of making love to a pseudo-man?”

He leapt back, hissing, as the tip of her smoldering cigarette made contact with the back of his hand.

Jenny took a hard drag off the cigarette, as if congratulating it for a job well done, then shot the smoke in his face. “No, John, I’m afraid I haven’t. You know how the old saying goes: She’s more of a man than you’ll ever be, and more of a woman than you’ll ever get.”

From there, she rushed back to the villa, cursing the lack of taxis and the slowness of the tram. The truck was there. When she finally burst into the house, the sheen of sweat on her face cooled by the funereal air of her home, she was greeted by her husband, as solemn as she had ever seen him.

It is always when there is no need for words that one gropes for them the most. “He’s really dead, isn’t he?”

Linus nodded.

* * *

“What you reap…is what you sow. This is called karma.”

The librarian lowered the parchment and looked into the tired eyes of the woman who maintained that she was, indeed, the Bard of Potedaia. “Is there more? I don’t understand entirely what this ‘karma’ is.”

“Funny,” she murmured. “Neither do I.”

He traced the line of text with an index finger. “But you claim you wrote this.”

“Yes. But that doesn’t mean I understand it.”

Daylight finally pried open Janice’s eyes. The high ceiling seemed familiar, as did the figure standing across the room silhouetted by the brightness from the window: A small, dark-haired woman, wearing a shawl, back turned.

Ma?

The woman’s head moved, almost imperceptibly, and revealed a sliver of a profile. The dusky gleam of her skin and her exquisitely small features disproved Janice’s hallucination. It was Naima.

Naima was so beautiful that, when Janice first met her, the archaeologist felt obliged to work up an infatuation over her. The truth of the matter was that Naima’s ethereal looks, mysterious remoteness, and placid demeanor did not inspire a great deal of passion in her. Once it became clear that the cabbalist was very much in love with Fayed, Janice had stopped her half-hearted pursuit with relief. Actually, Naima had put a stop to it quite directly. I am not the one for you. We both know that. So why do you waste time in your silly seductions?

It was clear that Naima had always thought of Jenny as a silly seduction; how much that had to do with the bad blood between them than with any genuine concern she felt for Janice was another question. Apparently, Janice realized, any problems between the two women had been set aside, for here was Naima—moving with sylph-like grace across the room—in Jenny’s house. After brushing the dirty, matted hair from Janice’s forehead, she touched a damp, cool cloth to her friend’s flushed cheeks and temples.

“You know where you are, don’t you?”

Janice nodded numbly.

“You’ll be safe here.”

Safe. No, she silently corrected Naima, she was not safe. Safety was home, and home—more than any house or town or tent or country had ever been—was Harry. And Harry was dead. But the intangible web of beliefs that Naima always spoke of now seemed closer to her than ever, as if she could reach out and push aside the flimsy veil that separated life from death, good from evil, and the Tree of Life from its unbalanced inverse, the Qelippot.

Naima was wringing the cloth over a basin. “Do you remember what happened?”

Much like the tiny Edwin Muybridge moving picture notebooks she’d had when she was a kid, the images flashed by with a herky-jerky kind of cohesiveness. A dead body in a truck. Ashes in the sea. The nonstop journey to Alexandria. A confrontation in the café with the Frenchman. And his face, bloated with cruel laughter. Did you really think I wouldn’t find out that it was your father who took those vases from me? And then, on top of it, to refuse me like that, Janice.

“Did I kill him?”

The field has now narrowed for both of us.

Naima appeared relieved as she answered. “No.”

She remembered more now: The sloppy, tinny clatter of all the bullets from the .38—save one—hitting the floor like dull rain. Sticking the muzzle into the frothy gleam of his bleeding mouth.

“The Negative Veils.” Janice did not realize she had said this aloud until she saw Naima’s contemplative nod.

Why am I thinking of them?

The veils serve as a backdrop to what we fully understand, while beckoning us to penetrate their mystery, daring us to comprehend what we cannot conceive. They are gone now; they have fallen from my sight. Death has opened my eyes and I see what I am. I am capable of things I never thought possible. I am no better than the others in this world of shit I’ve inherited.

Fear had slivered his pupils into barely discernible specks afloat in the vast emptiness of the slate-colored iris. He trembled under her grip, the bones of his scrawny chest knocking against her fist with every breath. The acidic smell of his urine drenched her senses.

Click.

Much in the fashion that a clock will strike at the top of the hour, so the hammer touched upon an empty bullet chamber, signifying one moment’s passing and a new one beginning. She pulled the gun out of his mouth. And then she hit him: A hard, flat blow with the handle of the pistol, as hard as she had ever hit anyone, the distinct crack of one man’s jaw signaling the liberation of her grief.

She couldn’t, wouldn’t remember anything else. Somehow Fayed got her into the truck and to the villa.

Fayed. You forget. He has lost a father as well. “Where is he?”

Sadness disrupted the pacific calm of Naima’s face. “Sleeping.”

And crying. “He cried so much. He couldn’t stop. He couldn’t.”

“And you did not cry at all. This he told me.”

“No.” Nothing could express what she felt. Not tears, nor screaming, wailing, or any other common manifestation of grief. “Ein sof,” she muttered. A Limitless Nothing—one of the Negative Veils.

“The words themselves are meaningless in this instance, as you know.” Again the cabbalist pressed the cool cloth against the archaeologist’s brow.

Even now you are goddamn lecturing me. Naima’s serenity was an infuriating thing. “I wanted to kill him. Except for the grace of God, I would have. Don’t you understand that?”

“Yes. I do.”

“Really? Have you ever felt such hatred, such anger before?”

Naima frowned. “You must think me bloodless as a stone, Janice.”

“He killed my father. He arranged it. He admitted it to me.” It didn’t take much money to hire the man who severed the brake lines of the truck that Harry Covington drove, that much was known; what would never be revealed—for it was something Janice would pursue to her own death—was the actual identity of the perpetuator. “I had given him the money back. All of it. I wasn’t going to do his fucking dirty work for him. I thought he would let it go. I was a fool. I should’ve killed Dansey. Then none of this would have happened.”

“No. You are a fool if you believe that,” Naima replied calmly. “For such a man, there is always sufficient reason to kill. He wanted no competition in the black market. He would have used any excuse to achieve his goal. Eventually he would have killed you as well. In fact, if you had placed yourself behind the wheel of the vehicle that day, you would have died. It is all the same to Bardamu.”

“It’s not all the same to me.” Just when she thought she was beyond all emotion, a sob yoked itself to her, racking and riding her body to the point that she barely noticed when Naima slid into the bed and curled around her protectively. The affectionate balm of the arm around her waist and the chin propped delicately against her shoulder, however, was needed more desperately than Janice realized; she relaxed instinctively, unknowingly, and released herself into Naima’s touch.

“What time is it?” Why am I asking? Why do I care? I will feel this forever. Time will not change this.

“I don’t know, Janice.”

“I just want it to stop.”

“I know. It will, in time.”

“Nothing makes sense anymore.”

“You feel there is no balance anymore. It is not true. It is only a temporary thing. What is happening is that you are rebalancing your life.”

“I don’t know what that means.” Janice licked her dry lips. “I am a poor student, Naima,” she whispered. “I don’t understand your words, your world. I never did.”

“But you will. I know you will.” The cabbalist tightened her embrace. “You shall see.”

Janice ignored this and closed her eyes. In her mind, the lapis lazuli tessarae from the mosaic expanded into boundless blue, saturating and soothing. If she could make a picture of her life, she thought, this color would be there, its sensuous calm touching upon every single piece in a mosaic cobbled together from disparate times and places—even upon those fragments now irretrievably lost.

Part V: Stella Matutina

Bright star! Would I were steadfast as thou art—

—John Keats

 

1. A Certain Mercy

Who has dressed you in strange clothes of sand?
Who has taken you far from my land?
Who has said that my sayings were wrong?
And who will say that I stayed much too long?
—Nick Drake, “Clothes of Sand”

 

Somewhere in Macedonia, May 1942

 In the perfect circle of the binocular lens, the approaching Nazi Kübelwagen was beautiful. The jeep—a flat slate gray—was transformed by a near flawless unity of motion, heat, and light, and its mounted machine gun gleamed, a turret on a fairytale castle.

Janice almost hated to look away, but Mustafa was standing at her side, shuffling anxiously, awaiting her instructions. While he hated Nazis as much as she did, he was considerably less successful in the masquerade of coolness that she had perfected—at least where Germans were concerned.

Finally she lowered the binoculars. “I want to be alone,” she proclaimed to the world.

As she’d hoped, Mustafa—who learned English from not only movies but the celebrity-obsessed magazines they spawned—grinned appreciatively at the cheesy Nordic accent she employed and relaxednoticeably. “Yes, boss, very good.” He rested a gentle paw upon her shoulder. “You are like Garbo unwashed, yes?”

Janice’s tongue danced a can-can along a row of molars, biding time in a play for a wisecrack that, unfortunately, was not forthcoming. “You don’t smell much better, pal.” It was all she could come up with.

The Turkish worker smiled again, as if perversely proud of this. But then he quickly sobered at the thought of their impending guests. “What are we going to do?”

She picked at the worn, pilled leather strap of the binoculars. “You know the drill.”

Mustafa parroted American gangster lingo with ease: “Take de gun, hide de loot.”

The purist in Janice balked at hearing artifacts described as such, while her more world-weary side winced a little at the too-close-for-comfort feeling the description evoked. What else were these things that they found, but loot? Did they really belong to her, or to the arbitrary country that she found them in that did not exist thousands of years ago? Lately, with increasing frequency, she found herself questioningThe Work. (Harry had always called his profession that, with the reverential ham-handedness that demanded capital letters.) And perhaps the most compelling reason—one she could barely admit to herself—for her ambivalence was the fact that immersion in it no longer served as any sort of escape. It all reminded her too much of him.

Janice saw that Mustafa was hesitating. “What?”

“You be okay, boss?”

She smiled. He was a good man, and just as protective of her as Fayed, who—anticipating the dig’s end and missing his home—had left for Alexandria a week ago. “Yeah, I’ll be fine.” She sighed. “If they haven’t killed me by now….”

Understandably, the Turk failed to be consoled by this.

She shoved him—rather, shoved at him, for his bulk resisted her attempt as the iceberg successfully resisted the Titanic. “Go on. I’ll be okay. Just keep out of sight. If I need you, I’ll whistle.”

“Perhaps you will scream instead?” he countered cheekily. Earlier he had been roused from his siesta by an impressive cry of distress, whereupon he quickly discovered the one thing that his trigger-happy boss detested more than Nazis: Snakes. She had shot two huge, fluttering holes through her tent—holes which the reptile cannily utilized in his escape.

Janice gritted her teeth. “Shut up, Mustafa, and hide.”

He laughed, and then disappeared down into the excavation pit. Like Alice in the rabbit holewell, if Alice were a 275-pound Turk, she thought. Again she glanced at the jeep through the binoculars. It looked like there were only two men in the jeep; their features, however, were obscured by caps and goggles. Christ, who do they think they are, Rommel in the fucking desert?

When the jeep finally arrived on site and pulled to within 18 feet of her, Janice recognized the tall, lanky man who bounded from the vehicle.

Guten abend, Frau Doktor,” Marius Zech pulled off his goggles with a flourish. He wore a field uniform and as a result looked considerably less intimidating than he did in black de rigueur SS attire. The sleeves of his shirt were folded, revealing thin, sinewy arms like beef jerky, she thought ungenerously. Janice looked at her own arms and wondered if they were bigger. Could I take him? Nah. He’s a coolsonofabitch. He knows how to fight, I can tell. Indeed, Marius looked very relaxed and collected, despite the pounding sun and stifling humidity.

“Do Nazis ever sweat?” she offered by way of greeting.

He laughed—no easy feat to get him to even crack a smile, Harry always said. The very sound of it—bold, harsh, sudden—was so completely unnerving it made her wonder if the world were ending. So this is their secret weapon: The Laughing Fascist.

Marius wagged a finger at her. “Ah, ah, Janice, perhaps now you believe there is some merit to what we have been saying all along.”

“Sure. And there’s a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.”

He smirked uneasily, not getting the joke.

The driver—a stocky, middle-aged man—now clambered out of the vehicle and mopped sweat from his pasty brow. He stretched, and his knobby knees cracked audibly.

“So much for the master race,” muttered the archaeologist. She caught the steely glint of Marius’s glare. “What do you want, Marius?”

His demeanor grew more accommodating—at the very least, he bowed his head in a manner best described as charmingly mocking. “I am here to take care of unfinished business.”

Now it was her turn to glare. “The only unfinished business you may have had was with my father. And given that he’s dead, I’m afraid it will have to remain that way, unless you have it in mind to conduct a séance.”

“My dear doctor, I assure you that while my visit does indeed involve your father, it involves you as well. I do not wish to intrude upon your work, although—“ He gazed around the nearly vacant site. “—it looks as if you are closing shop, as they say. Please—may we retire to your tent and conduct this transaction in comfort and privacy?”

Janice rolled her eyes. “Fine,” she spat. As she gestured at the tent and he entered it with a sultan-like imperiousness, the archaeologist hesitated for a moment, then tossed her canteen at the bedraggled driver.

He was so surprised he almost dropped it. “Danke,” he croaked hoarsely. She nodded and slipped into the tent.

Marius was already sitting at her table when she entered. “Frau Doktor, are you experiencing difficulties with the local fauna?” He pointed at the giant holes, both of which seemed to curve into sinister nyah-nyah smiles every time she looked at them.

She scowled, puzzled at the note of concern in his voice. “You could say that.”

He drummed his fingers nervously. What the hell is wrong with him? He’s as jittery as a bridegroom. Ever since she had the inopportunity of meeting Marius Zech in Berlin three or four years ago (she couldn’t quite remember the exact date), in their subsequent chance encounters he had never been anything less than polished and dourly cool.

Suddenly Marius looked at her hopefully. “Bourbon?”

“Sorry. I’m all out.” It was a lie—the bourbon was safely stashed in her footlocker—but she felt no shame in it.

“Your father was always prepared for impromptu guests.”

Ever since Harry’s death she had been mostly successful in immersing herself in The Work and not thinking of him. Now Marius was here, picking relentlessly at the scab crusted over the not-so-distant past. “I’m here to work, not conduct a salon.” Janice sat down opposite him at the table littered with maps, drawings, and photos. Her hands splayed casually among these worthless treasures. She took a breath and continued as cautiously as could be managed. “In case I’ve failed somehow to make it perfectly clear, I’m not in the same business as my father. Do you understand? I will not sell a thing to you. Not even a goddamned Fuller Brush.”

Another Americanism puzzled Marius, who frowned in confusion.

Nonetheless she plowed on. “Anything of value that I find here will be placed in the safest repository I can find—if not within this country, then I will do everything possible to see that it remains in Allied hands.”

Marius looked bored, as if he were sitting through an interminable opera, possibly a mandatory Wagner performance—Janice theorized that all Nazis were required to listen to the composer, that the bombast of the music was the cud on which Aryan delusions of grandeur chewed. He raised a lazy eyebrow. “Nice speech.”

“Thanks. I trotted it out just for you.”

“You mistake my intention, Janice. I am not here to take.” He placed a velvet sachet on the desk amid the clutter. “I am here to give.”

She eyed it skeptically. “Marius—an early Christmas gift? You shouldn’t have.”

This time he did not laugh.

The archaeologist untangled the cord of the pouch. A single item fell into the palm of her hand and she hunched over imperceptibly, just barely managing to take the blow to memory. The scab was ripped off, the wound flowed freely. It was a plain gold wedding band with an equally simple inscription running along the ring’s inside: Isabel and Henry April 4, 1914.

When they found his body in the ravine, it had been picked over by the most thorough of thieves. Gone were boots, belt, money clip, passport, wedding ring, even cigarettes and the buttons of his shirt. Luckily he had left his watch back at the site, and his lighter was later found on the floor of the truck.

What she could not forget—and what had made her sob until her ribs ached—was his mouth, pried open and bloodied, mutilated for the prize of a gold tooth.

Through the rictus of a dead man’s mouth and the circumference of a ring she fell, a casualty in the tug of war between remembering and forgetting. What is there between the two, but living? Memory was a theater where the things she would not, could not forget played on a brutally endless and distorted reel.

She stemmed the tide of tears by blotting them with thumb and forefinger in the corner of each eye. “Where did you get this?” In spite of every effort, her voice trembled. He never took it off. Even after she left him. Left us.

“From the Frenchman.” Marius reached out and took the pouch, fingering it with hesitant reverence, like a talisman. Then he dropped it back on the table. “If you were in Alexandria, you would be reading about it in the papers.”

A hot tear dived down her cheek as she looked at him with renewed sharpness. “What?”

“Bardamu is dead.” Calmly, Marius met her gaze.

She knew, with that look, exactly what he was admitting. Curiosity trumped grief as she finished off the tears with a quick swipe from a shirt sleeve. “Why?”

“Too many dead archaeologists, too many questions. It was a very simple matter—a preemptive strike, you see. It was only a matter of time before he would retaliate against you—and only a matter of time before they accused you of Dansey’s murder. I waited until you left the city before I killed him, so you have—what is the proper term? An alibi. Yes, they could not accuse you of this.” He folded his hands as if, with this gesture of fastidious elegance, he could contain and protect himself from impending derision and judgment.

But Janice remained silent. Everything was revealed with alarming clarity. You care. Why do you care? “What are you trying to tell me?”

His eyes shifted. “I’m not trying to tell you anything other than the facts.”

“The facts are that you’ve gone to an awful lot of trouble for me. You killed a man.”

“It’s not the first time.”

“I didn’t think so. But it remains—“

Marius’s interrupted harshly. “Do not attempt to put words to my motives, or interpretations to my feelings.” He drew in a breath. “Did you ever wonder about Berlin, about what happened to you? You thought your father’s intervention saved you.” He shook his head. “No. He could do nothing. Those men who beat you were old SA boys—the Night of the Long Knives didn’t get rid of all of them, you know, just the ones disloyal to the Reich. They were hungry for blood. It would have been bad if they had killed you, it is true. We were courting your father at the time, not to mention a dead American would have caused a bit of a disturbance, ja? But I did not give a damn about your father or what he could do for us. There were so many others who would have given us what we needed. Harry was not as important as he thought, the poor fool.”

Out of an obligatory respect for the dead, he curtailed a sneer—and as a result, discovered he could no longer look at her and so abruptly stood from the table. “It is a waste of time to tell you these things. But since first I saw you—” He stopped, ensnared by memory, lips pursed, completely chagrined at the yearning that still filled him for that lost girl he met in 1938, defiantly smoking in public and unafraid to meet his eyes, whose wryly conspiratorial smile claimed him as a member in a party composed of outsiders, of the ones who fumblingly follow the beat of their own blood—and hence more compelling and secretive than the one to which he had sworn allegiance and devoted his life. He shook his head. “No. Ich weiss, was Sie sind.”

I know what you are.

“And yet—“ Resisting further pointless articulation, he cut himself off. The feeling, like a decapitated corpse, struggled futilely for reanimation. “—and yet.” Marius smiled bitterly and laid the thought to rest, for he could not imagine a future—or a world—where he could really love this woman. And where she might return it. Is this the closest I will get to love?

He did not know that Janice’s thoughts were running along similar, self-pitying lines. She did not know that on the last day of his life, which was not so far away, the image of her smile would float by in a morphine daydream. And neither one of them knew that six years later, she would give a ring—different in looks, yet similar in spirit to the one in her hand—to the one person she ever wished to marry, but couldn’t.

Just before he left the tent, Marius paused; his fingers trickled down the canvas flap. “You should go back to America. You will be safer there. I’m returning to Berlin soon. And—from there, I will not be able to protect you.”

“I never asked for your protection.” She said it gently, without a hint of recrimination.

“I know.”

When it finally occurred to Janice to thank him, he was gone.

From his hiding spot Mustafa heard the dirty cackle of the jeep’s engine; the sound receded into the distance. He waited a few minutes before emerging from the excavation pit and approached the tent cautiously, rifle poised. From the holes in the canvas he could see the lower half of her body, limbs stretching and shifting in an unconscious river of movement. It looked as if she were trying to swim through the parched landscape. When he entered he found her staring at a ring. He thought about asking her what happened, but correctly assumed it was best to wait until she was ready to talk. Instead, he dug the bourbon out of the footlocker and poured her a shot.

“Mustafa.”

“Yes?”

“Life is really a kick in the head sometimes.”

He sat the drink in front of her. “I like that expression! Cheers, boss!”

 

2. The Goddess in the Off Hours

The habit of knowledge is not human but divine.

—Heraclitus

 

CambridgeMassachusetts, November, 1953

 

Thanksgiving break had ended. And thus the mood throughout the university had settled, much like the snow that covered the campus, into one of firm, gloomy entrenchment that warily aimed a collective eye toward the semester’s end. The small lecture hall where Mel stood, scribbling Greek upon a blackboard, was no exception, although the vast majority of the students took solace if not in their professor’s gentle accent and civilized manner, than in her voluptuous figure and dazzling (if seemingly rare) smile.

From the recesses of the hall, the Dean watched her. His gambit had succeeded. Finally, he thought, she appeared less nervous, more authoritative, more comfortable in the realm of the classroom. He had always known, of course, that she was brilliant at what she did, but the question of whether or not she would be a good teacher had finally been settled: She was good, and it was almost a shame to waste her on undergraduates. Well, these are seniors, he thought, scanning the group of mostly young men who were extremely attentive to their lecturer.

“When you are translating, corruption of text is an occupational hazard,” she was saying. “Ultimately, the translator is placed in the position of making decisions that aren’t always easy—one must interpret the target language in one way or another. There’s no sitting on the fence—you can leave that for the footnotes.” Whether intentional or not, this caused some mild laughter in the room. However, the Dean was convinced that Mel could tell knock-knock jokes out of vaudeville and the class would still respond enthusiastically—it was clear they liked her that much. It’s more than the way she looks, although that certainly doesn’t hurt, he thought. For the unknowing, unsuspecting translator had become the high priestess of the Covington cult; her bookish image now glittered with the luster of being the rogue’s trusted sidekick.

Within the short span of her sabbatical, Covington had become practically a legendary figure among some of the students. While the faculty and trustees of the university had worked themselves in an apoplectic froth about the Xena Scrolls and the issue of their legitimacy—not to mention the story of a 15-year-old unsolved murder in Alexandria and Dr. Covington’s renewed status as a suspect—the students had embraced the rebellious, mysterious figure. Those who had classes with Covington could claim an exulted status: I brought her flowers on Valentine’s Day and she gave them to her secretary. She dropped a water balloon on Dr. Snyder during finals. No kidding. Her temper tantrums had also entered the annals: A blackboard eraser hurled at an argumentative student became a chair thrown through a window. God, will they all start wearing fedoras soon? wondered the bemused Dean.

Mel lightly tapped the blackboard for emphasis. The chalk disintegrated in her hand, with a large chunk tumbling to the floor. She muttered with soft exasperation. As she bent over, two solid rows of young men arched attentively, thus creating a choppy hormonal wave jockeying for the best view of the Pappas posterior.

No, those looks certainly don’t hurt. The Dean then produced a noisy rumble from the depths of his throat, thus catching the students in a sticky, phlegmatic web of guilty looks and seat-slouching.

Mel, oblivious to the worship of her backside, stood up and smiled as brightly as she could, given her current state of stress and exhaustion. “Good afternoon, sir. Is there anything we can do for you?”

“Not a bit. Carry on, Dr. Pappas.”

“Thank you. To get back to the Hymn to Aphrodite…we encounter the problem—or challenge, if you will—of ambiguity in the very first line. Some manuscripts have poikilothron, which would be a multicolored or ornate throne. Others have it as poikilophron, which, I think, is best translated as ‘a multicolored mind.'”

“Whatever that is,” grumbled one Mr. Briggs in the fourth row.

And whatever it is, you certainly don’t have it, my boy, the Dean thought irritably.

For the moment, Mel ignored her peanut gallery of one. “So one little letter, as you see, can make a big difference. It may all come down to a matter of personal taste, although other things can certainly factor into one’s decision, such as experience—both with the languages involved and the writer, not to mention much broader considerations as time period, social history, political climate, and geographical orientation.”

Briggs, in serious danger of sliding out of his seat, cracked, “That’s a lot to consider, Doc.”

“It is, Mr. Briggs. But I assure you, I am not expecting perfection from anyone in this room, even myself.” She paused. Liar, thought the Dean. If anyone had such rigorous self-expectations, it was Mel. As if sensing his thought, she amended her statement. “I just want you all to try your best. That’s all we can do, really.”

Briggs pounced on her words. “Geez, Doc, so you’re sayin’ even you make mistakes?”

Mel placed the chalk in one of the well-worn wooden ruts attached to the board, then raised a surprised eyebrow. “Of course I do, Mr. Briggs.”

In a time and a climate where teachers were viewed as infallible—or at least never publicly admitted their fallibility—this admission sent a temporary, impressed hush over the room.

As usual, Briggs took it upon himself to lighten the moment. “This must put you in hot water with Dr. Covington from time to time, huh?”

A round of nervous giggling. The students were never quite sure how their occasionally stern yet eminently fair professor would react to comments about her friend and colleague.

Luckily for them, Mel was in a decent mood, since, after all, this was the last class of her busy day. She briefly entertained the notion of replying that she didn’t at all mind being in hot water with Dr. Covington, particularly if it involved candlelight and fragrant bath salts. Instead she smiled. “Whereas Dr. Covington is concerned, getting into some kind of trouble is always a given.”

The well-lobbed retort precipitated hearty laughter.

A shrill bell announced the end of class. “See you all on Wednesday,” Mel called. Or within the next five seconds, she amended silently. While brushing chalk dust from her hands, she awaited the inevitable deluge.

This time the Dean could not suppress a sigh. A small group had clustered around the podium, still eager for their teacher’s attention, including the blustery and brash Briggs. Yet even he, the group’s self-appointed ringleader, was half-awestruck in her presence and waiting, with a peculiarly meek impatience, for the casting of pearls before students. Nonetheless, Mel seemed to drown in the attention, however innocuous its origin.

The Dean limped down the steps, intent on rescuing her, and caught the last few words she addressed to the group: “…Now, unless some of you are willing to cook me dinner and pick up my dry cleaning, I really must get home.”

“Dear goddess!” boomed the largest member of the small coterie. The Dean forgot his name, but the florid, dandyish young man held out his arms as if to either hug his alarmed teacher or cradle her sacred dry cleaning. “I am your most willing, humble, and obedient servant!”

Mel was pinching the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger—an infinitely more acceptable alternative to beating him senseless with her briefcase. “Mr. Spencer, if I were really a goddess I would not even need the services of a launderer, I’m certain of that.”

“Really?” Spencer stroked his chin. “I do wonder what you would wear if—“

Before the assembled party could indulge in speculation on what skimpy, diaphanous outfits that the Academic Goddess might wear—and would she remove her glasses during a private audience?—the Dean announced his presence with a rap of his cane on the side of the lectern.

“Mr. Spencer, I might wonder what you would wear while on academic probation. Shall we investigate the possibility?” the Dean rumbled.

“No, sir,” the young man bleated.

“Very good. Now, unless some of you have legitimate questions for your instructor, I suggest you leave Dr. Pappas for the time being. I’m sure you’ll all be seeing her soon enough, unless you have all finally pushed her over the proverbial edge.”

“They haven’t, sir, just the figurative one, that’s all.” Mel granted the group a reassuring grin, and after she bade them all good afternoon, they all shuffled out the door like depressed lemmings.

The Dean sighed with relief. At last. Upon closer inspection, he saw that she really did look as tired as she sounded. A strand of dark hair had liberated itself from the confines of her French braid, and when her round, silver-rimmed glasses slid down her nose, she made no characteristically compulsive motion to restore them to their appropriate place. “Well?” she asked softly, while stuffing a sheaf of papers into her leather briefcase.

“It was your typical trustees meeting: Cigars, sherry, red faces, shouting, and dyspepsia. In precisely that order.”

Mel managed a polite smile.

“Your threat worked quite nicely.” He had taken great pleasure in informing those assembled at the meeting that if Dr. Covington were to be dismissed, Mel’s resignation would be tendered immediately. For the time being, the university was willing to accept one bad reputation for that of a rising academic star. Even though from his perspective, the matter was not so clear-cut: Their reputations were hopelessly enmeshed, conflated with one another. And how does this affect them…outside of the university? He possessed no illusions on the precise nature of their relationship, and knew from experience that romance and academic politics were a heady, fractious mix at best.

Now she smirked, proudly mischievous. He could see a bit of Covington in the expression. “Good.”

“But we’re not quite out of the woods yet.”

“And when shall we ever be out of the woods, may I ask?”

“An excellent point, Melinda. However, this Dansey business—”

Her dealings with her bag and papers grew more agitated. “—is a lot of nonsense stirred up by people who should know better. There is no evidence, no proof that she had anything to do with a murder.” She suddenly stopped and stared at the sheaf of papers in her grasp—the bread and butter of academia. How pointless it all seems, without you here. What was I thinking? I shouldn’t have agreed to this, I shouldn’t have let you convince me that you would be safe there. But as usual, I let you bluster me into doing what you want. It hadn’t occurred to her—yet—that she should be angry at Janice. She was far too miserable to realize it, despite the inkling of resentment that festered in her gut. “I shouldn’t have left her there.” Mel blinked, then flushed. Good God, I said that out loud.

The old man, however, was unfazed by the vehemence of the comment. In fact, he grinned, rather knowingly, which ratcheted up the intensity of the blush to a burning stage. “Have you heard anything from her?”

She shifted her attention from briefcase to purse and—like a flustered magician determined not to botch the oldest trick in the world—yanked a Western Union telegram out of her purse with an awkward flourish. Dated two days earlier, the message read in its entirety:

NOT ARRESTED YET. LOVE JANICE

“Pithy,” he murmured.

“Are you lisping, sir?”

It took him a few seconds to recognize her deadpan humor. “Quite.” He grinned and gave the telegram back. “What do you say we fetch that bothersome dry cleaning and then you come home with me? Helen’s making a pot roast.”

 Mel thanked him with genuine feeling, for a dismal realization finally settled upon her: She had gone from being a housewife to needing one herself.

3. Fool for Love

The trouble with the world is that it’s always one drink behind.

—Humphrey Bogart

That thought—better yet, that sensation of helpless drowning—recurred over subsequent weeks, primarily due to one huge, inane reason: Mel had agreed to host a holiday faculty party. Why she had consented to such madness could be traced to a single glass of Bordeaux.

“Good stuff, eh?” the Dean had said, topping off her glass.

 Mel had hummed in agreement. Her bones were melting into the overstuffed club chair poised in front of the fire. Dinner, wine, a fire—if the Dean kept this up, she would petition to be adopted.

 Now the old man was rumbling on about something. Something about her house. Yes. Dr. Forsythe, the newest member of the department, had never seen it. Beautiful old house, said the Dean, she and Janice had done such a remarkable job of fixing it up. Well, it was Janice mostly—Mel had only spent inordinate amounts of time obsessing about curtains and whether or not “Morning Verbena” was an acceptable color for a guest room while Janice impaled herself on rusty nails, fought off bats in the attic, and almost knocked herself unconscious with a trap door. “By the way, when Janice returns from Egypt, would she consider lending a hand with rebuilding my garage and paving the driveway? Wonderful. Glad to hear it. Filth is her element, is it not? Melinda, I don’t think I’ve heard you laugh like that in a long time. More Bordeaux? Good. This wine is simply too good to waste on the Department’s Christmas soiree, don’t you agree? Pity Helen and I can’t host the party this year, since the driveway is such a mess—ah! Here’s a splendid thought, Melinda: Why don’t you have it at your home?”

 Mel had hummed again; only a very vigilant and tiny part of her brain had realized that—to employ the unique eloquence that was all Janice’s own—she was being “screwed more than a two-dollar whore during Fleet Week.”

Usually, she was a big fan of Western civilization, of the comforts and mild pleasures of bourgeoisie life; however, the mere existence of academic social events in all their bitter, backbiting glory alone gave her serious pause and made her want to run barefoot in the backyard while baying at the moon.

No sooner had crudités appeared than the party was swimming in alcohol and she was running the gauntlet: Jim Snyder railed about the Dean, his wife tearfully confessed to Mel that she had been sleeping with one of Jim’s students, another argument about the legitimacy of The Golden Bough ensued (and for once Mel was relieved that Janice and her particular talent for hair-splitting was not around), someone spilled an ashtray on the Turkish rug, Dr. Hamilton propositioned her, and Dr. Forsythe’s too-young wife (she was 24, he, 41) obliquely attempted to figure out her sex life—“Your man is so handsome!” This said in a girlishly conspiratorial, wine-soaked whisper.

Mel blinked and gazed around furtively. Had a discarded fiancé turned up, insistent on reclaiming her hand (and her secret stash of never-returned engagement rings)? “Er—please enlighten me.”

“Why, Mr. Rosenberg over there, by the record player.”

He was handsome—even Mel had to admit that—and glaring at anyone who came remotely close to the records. He was quickly learning that academic parties were not his scene, even though he now held a low-level position in the music department. Two hours ago he had rebelled and removed the Brahms she had put on the turntable in favor of Ella Fitzgerald and now Sarah Vaughan.

“Oh. He’s not—” Mel trailed off and hoped vague hand rolls would convey a precise meaning of “the person I’m sleeping with.”

Mrs. Forsythe looked immensely confused. “He’s not?”

“No.” Get up to speed on your gossip, Mrs. Forsythe! He was secretly married to Janice last spring but she ran off to have an abortion anyway! And nobody has told me because I was in a sanitarium having a nervous breakdown because I found out my mother and father were actually first cousins! Usually Mel had neither the time nor the energy to keep up on the pseudo-soap opera that people had constructed of her life, but when she did, she was much amused and impressed at the creativity that went into the effort.

“Well, then, who is?” she demanded.

Mel paused. “Good question!” Citing imaginary duties in the kitchen, she made a break for it.

Too many hours later the guests had dwindled away, the ashtrays were emptied, her hair was a wreck, and the dishes were piled into haphazard, crusty towers that resembled Gaudi’s Barcelona apartment buildings. Janice, always energized by liquor and vigorous arguing, would wash the dishes after these interminable parties, while engaging Mel in a tipsy post-mortem of the evening’s events. The translator cursed the Covington Influence in this instance (who needs servants and maids, we shouldn’t perpetuate the great divide between the classes, taking out the trash won’t ruin your manicure, blahblah blah) because she was now stuck doing them all. Alone.

She opened the door to the back porch and stepped outside.

Despite the cold and her aching calves she stood in stockinged feet, inhaling the bracing clarity of both the sharp smoky air—somewhere, someone was using a fireplace—and the bone-white moon. Her toes curled over the edge of the porch. Was it a Harvest Moon? No, it’s too, too late in the season for that. She found she no longer easily remembered things that like that, basic things her father had taught her as a child. Was it age, was her mind simply too crammed to the brim with other things? It was no longer easy to bear the brunt of knowledge, to learn for the sheer pleasure of it. Just as it was no longer easy to be alone. Both her mind and her heart demanded purpose.

I used to love being alone—well, at least I never minded much. But now I hate it, I truly hate it, thanks to you. Do you miss me as I miss you? Where are you, what are you doing?

* * *

And where was Janice?

Lying on a rug, smitten with the bold tones of vermillion and ochre before her, absently grazing the outline of a palmette with the back of a hand, until the setting sun struck at the copper tea kettle in the kif den and sent molten gold swarming along the blades of the tired ceiling fan.

She watched the light with the stern persistence that marked much of what she did, and yet—blindly gorged on the narcotic—her observation was devoid of its one defining aspect: passion. There was nothing but the turning of the fan. There was nothing to do but watch the turning of the fan. What else did she have to do?

* * *

Sarah Vaughan still crooned from the living room, and Mel suspected she was not alone. She sighed. Paul was probably still there, since he had not sought her out to say goodbye. He was most likely drunk—forget most likely, try definitely. At any rate, he was no doubt too drunk to send home, except in a cab, and she knew at this time of night it would be impossible at best to find one. Now this is going to cramp my brooding! She flung open the screen door and passed through its wide arc. On her way to the living room she detoured to the linen closet and retrieved a pillow and blankets.

In the living room Paul sat cross-legged on the floor next to the record player, smoking. In this position he reminded her painfully of Janice; it had taken the translator a good year to train the nomadicCovington into sitting in a chair or on the couch, to convince her that furniture existed for a practical purpose, that the chairs and the couch were neither aesthetic monoliths nor rare artifacts that she must fear.

Even though the house was not really that big, Janice had sometimes seemed lost within it.

Paul grinned when he saw her, laden with linens. “The Southern Belle Mo-tel,” he drawled, utilizing the term Janice employed whenever he stayed over.

She dumped the pillow and blankets on the sofa. “You keep that up, and I will start charging you.”

Paul was aware of being drunk, of being on that precarious edge before tipsiness escalates into incoherence. Thus, as a result, his brain meandered to a conclusion that otherwise would have been reached with much alacrity in a sober state: He could not sleep alone in the house with her. It was a futile temptation, but one to which, given his current state, he would surely succumb. Even Sarah Vaughan functioned as an advocate for this position, no doubt mirroring the hostess’s views on the matter: You’re not the kind of a boy for a girl like me—

“Is there any coffee left?” he squeaked, panicky.

I’m just a song and a dance, you’re a symphony—

She looked surprised. “No, but I can make some more.”

As soon as she left the room, his sense of time disintegrated. Had a minute passed since she left, or an hour? Had he been on the floor all fucking night? He sat up. Oh, this was not a good idea, to be alone in this house with her. He managed to steer himself into the kitchen. And there she was, standing there with a glass carafe of water, making coffee. Like someone’s wife. Even the way she looked up at him—with gentle expectation, he thought—further fucked with his head.

He was desperate for something to say. “You’re not making it the funny way.”

“What?”

“You know, the way she makes it.”

Mel laughed. “Oh, you mean the Turkish coffee. I can’t do it properly. It always ends up bitter. So I’m afraid you’re stuck with boring, American-style coffee.”

“That’s fine. Anything you want—I mean, anything you make—is, ah, okay.”

The coffee pot burbled, he swayed, and Mel took a step toward him. “Are you all right?”

“Drunk,” he muttered.

“Quite,” she agreed, placing a hand upon his collarbone to steady him.

One good touch deserved another, he thought. But the realization that you’ll do anything to justify it ached. Because you’re tired of fighting it.

He touched her cheek.

It’s so hard to let you go / It’s only because I know that you’re / not the kind of a boy / For a girl like me…

He was surprised at how dry her skin felt, taut along the high cheekbone, and his mind attempted reconciliation of the idealized woman he was infatuated with and the flesh and blood creature in front of him, with dry skin, wary eyes, and a very confused look upon her face.

Mel blinked owlishly behind her glasses—each flutter of her eyelashes indicated progress in comprehending the situation—then she looked away.

“I’m sorry.” Paul dropped his hand.

She was perfunctory yet gracious. “It’s all right.”

“No, it’s not.” He walked through the back door, fully intending to walk home, but the cold needled him and he realized he’d left his overcoat inside. Foolishly he stood there, not knowing what to do.

The screen door slammed behind him. Mel was there, holding out his cigarettes. “I know it usually helps.”

He chuckled and took the pack, ignoring the shaking of his hands as he lit one. “Don’t tell me you didn’t figure it out.”

“I knew—when we were in London—that you cared for me.”

“I still care for you. Very much.”

“I’m not good at figuring these things out. I never have been.” She trailed off, folding her arms against both the chill and the topic. “I need either a bald proposition or a blow to the head.”

“Which one did Janice use?”

Mel laughed softly. “Neither. It was—different.”

He wasn’t surprised. But he didn’t want to know how it was different.

“Men…” she began.

“Lunkheads.”

“No, I wasn’t about to say that. I’ve—never quite figured them out.”

Paul burst into laughter. “There’s nothing to figure out. Feed us and fuck us, we’re happy.” He shook his head. “You’re a victim of your own intellect sometimes, you know that?” Smoke from the cigarette drifted white across the night, almost as bright as the moon. “Here’s the thing,” he began. “I always prided myself on being the guy who would never—I mean never—steal a pal’s girl. And don’t kid yourself,it’s come up a lot. I had a buddy back in New York, and he had this woman—she was something, total knockout. And she dug me, I could tell.”

“You sound like one of those—what do you call them—those bongo players….”

He smiled, charmed, as usual, by her non-sequiturs. “You mean beatniks.”

“Yes.” She touched her glasses self-consciously. “I’m sorry, please go on.”

“But, see, he was my friend, and so I never laid a hand on her. Hell, I wasn’t even tempted. I’ve never suffered for companionship, if you know what I mean. I didn’t need her. I could always get it someplace else.”

“You’re seeing someone now,” Mel observed.

“So you do pay attention when I brag about nailing a broad.” There was a woman. A couple weeks back she saw him playing with his combo—a small group of guys who, like himself, held regular jobs but still liked to get together and play.

Mel winced with distaste at the description—apparently she found coarseness charming only in her ornery lover. He turned his face away. “Yeah. I guess. I drown my sorrows in sex.” It sounded good in his head, but given body in voice it came across as self-pitying, and so he returned to the bare-bone narrative. “Then there was you. I should break out into song, right? It felt different with you. Like I really wanted to know you. I wanted to get inside your head.” An impossibility—for he doubted that even Janice “got” her. With the same stunned amazement he felt that day, he could still recall the afternoon they witnessed Mel complete a New York Times crossword in about 15 minutes, still remembered Janice laughing and shaking her head as she examined the flawless, completed puzzle. That brain, in that body. It ought to be a crime. She was all angles and curves, sexual heat and cool intellect, smothering intensity and elegant remoteness. These very contradictions kept him enraptured.

“I understand,” she replied gently.

“Yeah. I bet you do.”  He failed to match the kindness of her tone. Sarcasm, my only friend! He sighed. “I don’t want to be the louse that steals someone’s girl. But then—it kept getting complicated.”

She started to open her mouth to ask why, but before she could, he mumbled the one word that could shut her up.

“Switzerland.” In recalling those days he allowed himself to be brutal. “You left. Worse yet, you left it to me to tell her. She cried. Have you ever seen her cry before?”

Freely flowing tears? She’s always withheld that part from me. ”No.” The admission was husky, reluctant.

“I thought, maybe you weren’t so perfect then. And Janice—well, God knows she’s not perfect, but she deserves better than to have some broad walk out on her when she’s down like that.”

“Yes, you’re right. She does.”

“Don’t beat yourself up too much, kiddo. Old Mad Dog would forgive you anything, baby, and you know it, don’t you? But let me tell you something you don’t know. When you dumped her then, it made you more—I dunno, human to me, more fallible. It made think I had a chance with you, I thought maybe under all that perfection was someone rotten as me. Yeah, it’s lousy fucking logic but I’m not Einstein.” He paused. “I was going to tell you in London. I was really gonna lay my cards on the table and give it a shot.” But when I knocked on your door that morning she was already there. Janice’s look of surprise—as she had opened the door, expecting a breakfast tray—had surely mirrored his own. She was holding her belt in one hand, but before he could make an awful, desperate joke about her whipping a bellboy she quickly scanned his face and in those few terrible seconds, where he failed to mask his longing, figured it all out.

He could see the comprehension was painful to her, but she did not pity him. Instead, he felt the force of her empathy, of her respect, as she quietly invited him in. Or perhaps she was cannily demonstrating she had nothing to fear from him—for he endured having breakfast with them, for witnessing Mel, chin propped in hand, the rosy glow of her cheeks cheaply hinting at sexual satiety, dreamily watch Covington as if the latter were spinning gold from angel’s hair and not stuffing her face with bangers and mash. You became elusive to me again, and I couldn’t help but chase after you, if only in my own mind.

He had always wondered why Janice tempted fate in inviting him up to Boston, to be in close approximation to the woman he loved. Was she more sadistic than he realized? Was she hoping that somehow prolonged exposure would numb him, would make him give up? He never knew, but apparently he was fool enough to follow her suggestion. Just as he knew that Mel was fool enough to wait for her.

“When she’s gone like this—do you ever wonder if she’s coming back?”

A trapezoid of dim gold light from the kitchen held them perfectly still, like amber. He could not read her expression. She was looking into the distance, staring down the night. He knew he had asked the wrong question.

4. The Morning-Star of Memory

Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard

[A throw of the dice never will abolish chance]

—Stéphane Mallarmé

Janice was no longer aware of the woman sitting beside her—a Berber with strong features, stained teeth, magnificent gold eyes, and wandering hands. Earlier, as she smoked, she had resisted the caresses of the woman, who now settled for dragging her rough fingers through the gold hair splayed along the Persian rug and crooning nonsense to the archaeologist as if to a baby.

A cacophony of voices bore down on the perfect silence of the den. The door burst open and a man with a turban and a dirty beard was yelling at everyone before aiming his animosity at the woman sitting beside Janice. Soon the woman was shouting too and both were exchanging increasingly elaborate insults. Your mother shit you out of her arsehole was the topper of the exchange.

Good one, Janice thought, damn good one.

The man kicked at the Berber. She leapt to her feet. He gave a hard nudge to Janice’s ribs. She, in return, gave him the benefit of the doubt by rolling away, but he remained in pursuit and his flailing sandaled foot narrowly missed contact with her head.

Standing up was both disorienting and bothersome to Janice. As she did so, her mind was fumbling with just the right way of politely asking him in Arabic what the hell he was doing when she saw the knife.

She heard the snik of the blade catching flesh before actually feeling any pain. The sound had the singular effect of cleansing her mental palate—her head snapped back, blood dribbled from her brow and pooled into an eye socket, and she felt furiously, shockingly sober.

In his teachings on self-defense, Harry had, quite emphatically, insisted that the classic maneuver he simply titled A Good Kick to the Balls be used only in dire circumstances, and Janice knew her father would likely debate this being an emergency kinda sich, as he would put it—particularly since the .38 was nestled safely in its holder under her jacket. But the frustrations of the dig’s sudden end and the not-so-subtle suggestion from the authorities that she leave Alexandria only fueled her inexorable anger. And thus she threw her entire weight behind a roundhouse kick at his groin. Satisfaction streamed through her as he dropped like a stone—at least until the Berber woman threw a punch that sent pain ricocheting through her face and lighting up her mind like a pinball machine going Tilt.

Janice staggered back, rubbed her jaw, and mentally kicked herself for not figuring it out sooner: The jackass curled in agony on the floor was the woman’s husband. “Stand by your man, sure, that’s admirable, baby. But I would like to take this opportunity to remind everyone one thing.” Janice was well aware that she babbled, that no one here understood English, but by God she was going to entertain herself during this mess if it was the last thing she would do. She pulled the .38 out of her jacket and pointed it at the woman’s head. “I’m the one with the gun.”

To Janice’s eternal disappointment, the gun did not produce mute deference but sonic abuse: The Berber screamed with wraith-like abandon, the shrillness penetrating and pursuing the frantic throbbing in Janice’s skull, destined to mate with said pounding to produce the mother of all headaches, in fact, the noise pursued Janice like a harpy as she headed for the door, but suddenly—as usual, undone by her own curiosity—she stopped.

The scream continued, unappeased, unabated, burrowing into her brain, and evoking a startling sense of wonder akin to her experience—if entirely lacking in pleasure—with an anonymous singer at the Boston Symphony two years prior. The soprano held aloft a single note of Verdi’s Requiem; it cascaded like water and slipped silkily through the audience’s sensory grasp. She could even taste it, delicate and melting into the back of her throat. By the time it dissolved it had roused her—this most reluctant patron of the arts—from apathetic torpor to quiet amazement. To translate notes on paper into such intangible, sustained beauty, using nothing but the power of one voice was an accomplishment she envied.

She spun on her heel and returned to this woman, who was both creator and destroyer all at once. Who still screamed. Janice’s lips pursed with morbid fascination; how long would she scream? And why, since it was so obvious that the archaeologist was almost out the door? Does the cut on my face look that bad? What was the point? She waited, for almost a minute, for the screaming to stop. The lotus eaters moaned in supplication, softly begging the demon woman for quiet.

But when that failed to materialize, Janice decked the woman with a single punch.

“Shut up, already, will ya? I’m leavin’.” The after-the-fact announcement was quite useless, but logic was not something typically encountered in such settings and her audience was sporadically attentive at best: The woman was unconscious, her husband still nursing his gonads, and the remainder of the den—while immensely grateful to Janice for restoring their peace—truthfully cared little whether she stayed or departed and watched with idle, sleepy fascination as she stormed out.

Outside a bike whizzed by with a sharp, insect-like buzz, creating the only breeze on the street. The sudden, bedazzling bright hot day burned through the haze of the opium and the idle daydreams of lost worlds buried under Alexandria—under her feet and tantalizingly out of reach. The usual urchins had been waiting for her, and a few men watched, curiously, from the shaded doorways of dim cafes. They crowded around as she pulled out a handkerchief—it was dirty, but it would have to do—and pressed it against her eye.

The green Ford truck that hung a precarious turn around the dusty street corner was a godsend. It stopped abruptly and beeped.

She grinned, infused her walk with a self-satisfied swagger, and commenced a mental write-up entitled “How I Escaped an Opium Den” for a letter to Mel, then stupidly realized that would probably be the last thing Mel would want to hear about, when, as she approached the truck, she noticed that Fayed’s face was hard with anger.

“Get in,” he growled.

Shit. She walked around to the passenger side of the truck while attempting to flex away the pain in her right hand. She walked past Nessim—who lounged in the truck bed but sat up in alarm at the sight of blood—and tumbled into the front seat.

By nature Fayed was an open man, unafraid to show emotion; it was never difficult to discern how he felt about anything. There were, however, rare moments when he displayed an inscrutable cold rage that, like an iceberg, only hinted at ominous depths. As she watched him sitting behind the wheel, his anger carefully concealed like a knife, Janice realized that he was in this respect very similar to Mel.

His thumb stroked the steering wheel—a calming gesture. “Let’s have a look at it.”

She removed the handkerchief. He glared at her under the guise of examining the cut.

“You’ll need stitches. Naima will take care of it.” Before he put the truck into drive he pulled a paper from his shirt pocket—it was a telegram. He tossed it in her lap.

It was from London, dated three days ago. Mel was already there; they had planned on spending the holidays with Anton there. But the telegram—its blunt format forcing the diplomatic Mel into laconic terseness—informed her that Anton was dead. One last stroke had claimed him. Coronary thrombosis.

Damn it, old man, you couldn’t wait until I got there? You couldn’t wait for me to say goodbye?

A bloody thumbprint skated across the soft paper.

* * *

February, 1946

London

It seemed like madness—a weekend trip to the country in the dead of winter. But the headaches were occurring with frequency now, and Janice was discovering that her new lover was just as stubborn as she: Mel resisted both threats and cajoling about seeing a doctor, but reluctantly agreed to a trip out of the city, a break from work—from the translating that, at times, seemed to do nothing less than consume her mind.

And so Janice was here, in Anton’s St. James townhouse, humbly requesting usage of his country home. She waited in the study, oppressed by the preponderance of gloomily heavy mahogany, warming herself at the fire and idly studying the bric-a-brac that lined the mantelpiece. A photo of a handsome young man in Oxford flannels, a dusty music box, and a goblet of blue glass gilded with stars and Hebraic letters. Of course, she thought, a man of his age and background would be interested in cabalism.

She heard him come in the study, gently closing the door behind him. He saw that—unlike Mel, who had dismissed the goblet as a charming tchotke—Janice knew what it was. “Stella Matutina,” he said, with a conspirator’s smile.

She knew the name. A splinter group of the famous Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a neo-pagan secret society that studied magic, cabalism, the Tarot. William Butler Yeats had been an initiate, and while he was perhaps the best known member of the group, there was no limit to the powerful men who joined its ranks. Yet the Old Man of Alexandria, the legendary cabalist, scoffed at it. English boys playing magic.

He smiled at her recognition. “You know it, then.”

“Yes.”  She placed the chalice back within its dust-defined circle.

“So you—”

“No. I’m not.” She was too brusque, she realized, and quickly calibrated her tone. “I’m not a member of any order. But I know people—friends—who are.”

Anton nodded. “I see.” He laid a wizened hand upon her arm. “It’s nothing to fear, you know.”

Immediately he regretted saying it; nothing triggered her defenses more than the implication that she ever expressed this most basic, primal emotion—it goaded her into childish, churlish, Pavlovian response. “I’m not afraid of it.”

“Then what are you afraid of?” He laughed at her scowl and limped over to the bar, to the glittering array of golds and ambers, of brandies and sherries and whiskeys that lined the shelves. He poured a scotch—an alcoholic apology—and shoved it in her direction. Still scowling, she took the bait. “Oh, don’t you look at me like that. I’m afraid of many things myself, but you are not one of them, old girl. For instance, I am afraid of death,” he admitted quietly, “and of loneliness, and several other things that make for a very long and boring list. Now you—” He squeezed her arm affectionately. “—are a very brave and strong woman, I know that, but you’re a damned fool and a liar if you stand there really believing that the unknown doesn’t scare you just a tiny bit.” He tottered back to his desk and opened a drawer. The old keys were dull in the light, and with unerring aim he tossed them in Janice’s direction. She caught them.

The brass keys pressed into her skin, interlocking like a puzzle piece, immediately soaking in the warmth of her hand. She thought of Dan, the last day of his life, driving the Frenchman through the ruined countryside. You threw the keys at me. They fell to the street. I picked them up. I sealed your fate. She’d had plenty of time since it happened to replay it over and over again, feeling trapped within her own mind as if in a locked theater with the projectionist asleep at the reel. What, she wondered, could she have done different that day, that would have kept him alive? If I had not touched them, if I had let you pick them up, if I had walked away, your life would have turned a different corner. But then mine would have too, I wouldn’t be standing here with this man, I might not be with her. I might be dead.

Janice looked up at Anton. Well? his expression prompted, as he awaited an answer—any answer—to the question that she had evaded with desperate deftness.

“I’m afraid of losing her.” Saying it did not seem to rob the declaration of any of its awful power. But I said it. Are you happy now?

“You won’t.”

“You seem so sure.”

“I do. But the question here is why you don’t.”

She smiled grimly. “Do you know want to know what really frightens me?”

“What?”

“History.” Prompted by a cavalier flick of her wrist, the scotch leapt down her throat.

* * *

The doctor reeked of ether and hummed—with offkey complacency—something of a classical nature, perhaps an opera, perhaps not. Mel would know, Janice thought; she banished this thought by closing her eyes, ensuring a perversely intensified focus on the needle’s jab and the thread’s sickening pull—her flesh felt as if caught in a net.

When he was gone, Naima scrutinized his handiwork—the neat row of tiny stitches, almost half an inch long, that careened into Janice’s eyebrow—and silently congratulated herself on choosing the physician wisely.

“It will be a tiny scar.” The cabalist lovingly cupped her friend’s jaw. “But one of character.”

“Something to tell at the cocktail party,” Fayed added contemptuously.

Naima gave her husband a chastising look and finished the old physician’s work by placing a neat white bit of gauze over the stitches to protect them. He was right to be angry with her, Naima thought, but she herself could not help but be a little indulgent. For one thing, she could tell how awful Janice felt. Again, she grasped Janice’s jaw and shook it with gentle playfulness. “However, you must not scar too much, or your woman will not find you pretty anymore.”

“Perhaps she expects her mongrel Mad Dog to come back a little battered and bruised.” Fayed attempted to say it jokingly, but it fell flat. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and stalked out of the kitchen into his garden.

Naima thought that the English habit of making tea during troubled moments the saving grace of their culture. She now lit the kettle.

“He is very angry with you.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

“The charges against you will be dropped.” Naima smiled at Janice’s look of surprise. “Ah. I see that I did.”

“How do you know that?”

“I have many skills.”

“You never give me a straight answer, even after all these years.”

She didn’t because there was no need. “And you, my friend, are still the same after all these years: A ruthless truth-seeker. So now I will tell you the truth: Apologize to my husband for being an ass, and leave this place now. Go to London.”

Janice could only quote Jenny on the matter. “England, bloody England,” she mused.

Naima laughed softly. “Yes. Even the Davies have fled. Quite remarkable, no?”

“I know. Jenny didn’t say where, though.”

“Morocco. On one of their debauches, as Fayed calls them. No boy in that country shall be safe.”

“That won’t stop them.” It wasn’t ego that made Janice think she was a large part of the reason for the latest debauch; Jenny had said so herself, had banished her from the villa after catching Janice practically masturbating with a dirty sheet. Shortly after this, however, she was invited back for a farewell party before the trip to Morocco.

Jenny wore black—a bombazine dress with a fine old sheen; it was fashionably old-fashioned, circa 1922. She said she was in mourning for old Alexandria and her old way of life. And an old love, she had added to the attentive, titillated band of expats who encouraged her melodramatic antics. Later, she cornered Janice and kissed her with a delicacy that could not compensate for the bitterness that compelled it. I shall mourn you, she said, with every fuck and every drink, I shall think of what could have been. Then she cried, and before Janice could attempt a half-hearted gesture of comfort slammed her fist into the archaeologist’s collarbone, leaving a sizable bruise. It was reminiscent of their entire affair, and as such a fitting coda; Jenny was always a bit too fond of the old slap-and-tickle.

It was hard, too hard to love other people, and too late to repair whatever damage she had done to Jenny. But what of the damage to Fayed, who had always — until now— meant so much more than the women she had shared a bed with? She looked out the door. She could not see him in his beloved winter garden. “Why is he so damned mad?”

“You must be joking,” Naima commented. The cabalist was beginning to realize that Jenny Davies—who was, despite all her own flaws, sharply perceptive of other people—was onto something when she once called Janice the dumbest smart woman in modern times. “Must I spell it out for you, as they say?”

Yet Janice was always keenly aware of her own limitations; she folded her arms and snarled in the affirmative.

Naima drew a breath. “You disappeared from his life for five years. You disappeared into a war. We thought you were dead, and he mourned you as he mourned your father so many years ago. And then one day, out of the blue, a letter arrived from you. You were alive. You cracked open his heart all over again. And not only that, you said in your letter that you loved somebody. Did you ever say that to him, or even to your father? But what could he do? Ignore it? Ignore you? He could not. He calls you his sister—you know that. You are as blood to him. He promised Harry he would always look after you.” The tea kettle wailed and Naima tended to it. “I think you have changed, but perhaps in a deeper way, a way I cannot see, for now you are indulging in your old selfish games again. Disappearing suddenly, whenever it pleases you, acting as if no one has your heart, no one has ties to you, you owe nothing to no one. Fayed cannot do that. He holds that terrible responsibility to you. And now, to her.”

Janice looked at her curiously.

Naima sat a bright blue cup in front of her. Whorls of steam rose from the cup, yearning for embrace. “If you had died so foolishly, who else would tell your lover?”

5. The Secret Art

Whoever cannot seek the unforeseen see nothing, for the known way is an impasse.

—Heraclitus

Bloody buggery London

1953

 Te sine, vae misero mihi, lilia nigra videntur,

Pallentesque rosae, nec dulce rubens hyacinthus,

Nullos nec myrtus, nec Taurus spirat odores—

 

The solicitor cleared his throat.

Mel refrained from rattling off Latin in her head. It was a coping mechanism she had employed ever since adolescence—flooding her mind with another language, idly translating and re-translating whenever reality took a deep plunge into the boring. Prime examples of this state were cotillions, a college chemistry class, Hopalong Cassidy serials, and Janice talking baseball. Now, she realized, she would have to add to that list “Will Being Read by Droning Solicitor.”

Everyone was staring at her, rows of obscure relatives, thin, bony, with skin like parchment; possibly their very souls were dry as tinder as well. (Of course, Heraclitus thought it better that the soul remain“dry” but a whole room of them is positively a fire hazard!) The oldest member of the Frobisher clan was Anton’s very ancient aunt, who bore a disturbing resemblance to Alec Guinness in drag, like in that movie Kind Hearts and Coronets. Some Englishwomen did not age well, she thought; Mel struggled, as usual, against wishing such a fate upon Jenny Davies but was distracted from this as the solicitor once again rumbled disgustingly and incoherently from the safety of his large, dark mahogany desk.

“Miss Pappas.”

“Dr. Pappas,” she corrected automatically.

“Yes. Did you hear me?”

Suddenly she was 18 again, hounded by a chemistry professor. Good Lord, girl, we know it’s hard for someone so tall to keep her head out of the clouds, but do try, would you? “I’m sorry?”

“The sum is £50,000.”

Mel blinked. “For what?” Is that how much the edition of Burton is worth? Good God, it can’t be. Among Anton’s possessions, practically the only things she coveted were his rare edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy and a handful of photos.

“You have been bequeathed £50,000.” He enunciated carefully, fearing her mind was as muddied as her accent.

“Oh.” She touched the nosepiece of her glasses. “My.”

The relatives retained their outraged silence. Except for Adrian Tennant, Anton’s great nephew, who chuckled ruefully and could not be silenced, even by a reproachful glare from his father. Adrian had been best described by Anton as “an amiable layabout, a country gentleman turned into a city rat by the accessible pleasures of urban life, like so many generations of our family.” Mel had heard this characterization of Adrian before ever laying eyes upon him; unfortunately, yet not surprisingly, it took Anton’s demise for them to finally meet. While he had clearly been fond of the old man and had displayed the proper mournful respect during this time, Adrian’s easy charm and a beguiling grin were always at the ready.

There was nothing Mel distrusted more in a man than these two things. Penniless blonde archaeologists were another matter, however. Fortunately Janice had all the charm of an anvil at times—her complete lack of it was, in itself, charming—but the incandescent beauty of her smile more than compensated for any shortcomings. It was all she needed, apparently, to seduce women across the globe.

Don’t think about that. Mel frowned as a young clerk eagerly held out her coat. She slipped into dark cashmere and out of the solicitor’s office, her head still swimming from the news. Gathering the coat’s collar against the cold, she increased her pace down the cobbled street, only to stop as laughter, unexpected yet welcomed, bubbled forth and escaped. Well won’t she just have a big fit: I have more money than ever.

She heard rapid clicking on the street. Adrian was catching up; she started walking and he fell neatly into step beside her. A scarf—a bright Tartan atrocity—was bundled tightly at his throat. It matched neither his jacket nor his trousers and she added a lack of sartorial sense to the short list of things she did not like about him.

He flashed his obsequious grin. “Lucked out, eh?”

“I hardly think of it as such. It’s a gift.”

“A gift you’d rather not have, I take it?”

“Under the circumstances—no.”

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, as they say.”

She bristled. “I’m not.”

“Look at it this way—it’ll help you keep up with your hobby.”

In spite of the implicit insult, she laughed. “It’s not exactly a hobby, Adrian.”

“Whatever you may call what you do, it’s damned interesting. I daresay you must go to many interesting places—I heard you tell Aunt Margaret that you were in Egypt recently.”

“In Alexandria, yes.”

“Fascinating. And surely you’ve been to Greece—to the islands.”

“Yes, we—I—was there last summer.”

“What a coincidence,” he drawled in a menacing sing-song. “So was I.”

She slowed to a stop. “Really?”

He was smirking. With two steps he walked a half-circle around her; instinctively, defensively, she took two steps away. On the old cobble-stoned streets of London they created a pavanne of mutual suspicion, an ancient dance of wary combatants that was, to Mel’s constant and bitter regret, part of her nature.

She doubted something like this was so ingrained in Adrian; he was still smirking like a too-clever schoolboy. “Yes. In fact—“

The nape of her neck tingled with dread.

“—I’ve something I’d like to show you.”

* * *

His flat, while located in fashionable Chelsea, was small, cramped, and cold.

He bade her to sit at his messy desk and, when she rejected his offer of tea, promptly placed an unmarked manila envelope in front of her.

“Merry Christmas,” he said.

Mel opened the envelope. Despite the immediate and miserable realization that, for the first time in her life she was being blackmailed, her first thought was: That dress really does make my hips look huge.

The photos were grainy black and white, 5 x 7”, but even in this imperfect cinematic state they fully retrieved the moment of that day at Mykonos: Summer. The sand shifting under her bare feet, the smell of the sea and its salty spray upon her lips, the dress clinging, sweatily, to her thighs and her back.

The first photo was innocuous enough: They are merely walking along the beach. Janice’s pants were rolled up to mid-calf, the bunched-up fabric tight against the muscled leg. Her hair was bleached almost white by sun and sea, and she wore a cheap pair of sunglasses that she had bought from a street bazaar. In the second snap they’ve stopped moving, Janice is laughing—she was teasing me about something, I forget what—I can’t see my face, but I know I was laughing too—

The third photo delivered the goods: bodies and lips pressed together, her hands in Janice’s hair, Janice’s hands clutching the small of her back and urgent in their motion to move south—the only kind of “south” that the hopelessly Yankee Covington liked.

Normally they were careful, primarily as a result of Janice’s all-pervasive paranoia. But that perfectly carefree day, on a seemingly deserted beach, was different: They were on vacation, far away from work, from worries. Sex possessed a lazy, languid quality: Starting slowly, interrupted for a nap or a snack, or even talking, and continuing in its roundabout way; climaxing didn’t seem important. It wasn’t the point—the contact was. And I thought that day we were far enough away from anything that could hurt us. Apparently I was wrong.

She laid the photos on the desk. “No,” she sighed wearily, removing her glasses. “I never did like that dress.”

Adrian Tennant raised an eyebrow. “Really now, don’t be so hard on yourself! It was sheer pleasure to photograph you. Certainly beats some fat bastard from the House of Lords and his tart going at it in the back seat of a Bentley.” Adrian framed that face—that beautiful, angry face—with his long, elegant hands. He had wanted to be a painter in his misspent youth, but had discovered that photography was a more accessible art form. At least you did not have to labor over draughtsman-ship with some crabby old art instructor who insisted that you draw bowls of fruit—and not naked ladies—all day.  “Oh yes, indeed,” he murmured. “Pity there was all that bloody shrubbery around the house where you were staying. Could’ve gotten some prime snaps then.”

Mel shoved the photos back in the envelope.

Abruptly he dropped his long, elegant hands and gave her such a wounded, sad look that she thought, for a brief shining moment, that he had miraculously gained a conscience. “Well, don’t stop there—there’s more.”

She knew that. The kiss on the beach had turned into a longer makeout session near a very convenient sand dune. “I’ve seen enough.” She recognized the emotion behind the constriction of her throat and her inability to look at Adrian: It was shame. She hated feeling it, hated that she had spent years battling her own self-loathing, foolishly believing the sensation would never recur.

She extracted herself from misery to see that Adrian was looking a tad churlish. “Oh, come on,” he wheedled. “Be a sport.”

“What?” Mel hissed in disbelief.

“I want someone to see all of them!”

She stood up abruptly and fought the simmering urge to slap him. “Are you out of your mind?”

Ignoring the homicidal overtones in her voice, Adrian continued blathering. “This is—you see—an art form. I approach it as such. To create good photography under such clandestine circumstances and time constraints is no easy task, believe me, and it behooves me not to have proper appreciation of my oeuvre. It’s a very secret art of considerable skill.” He pulled the photos out of the envelope and laid most of them side by side on the desk. “If we framed these photos of you with your little spitfire—we see this marvelous progression of desire, yes, of love—see here, in this pic her hand lingers demurely in the small of your back, and in the very next one, it swoops, yes, it does, look at that, the predatory hunger of that movement—right down upon your—“

“I can see that quite clearly, thank you,” she snapped and scooped the photos back into their envelope. “How much do you want?”

“Well, now.” He stroked his chin; she finally noticed, in his long face and boxy chin, a resemblance to Anton and it made her ache. It also lessened the intensity of her wish to pummel him. “You could sign over that lovely ‘inheritance’ to me.”

She threw the photos—face down—upon the desk. “You’re a disgrace to your uncle.”

“I’m just trying to make a living, Melinda. Not all of us come into money quite as easily as you seem to.” He caressed the rough edge of a photo. “But I’ll be fair. Give me half of it.”

“I don’t have it yet.”

“I’ve done my research, old girl. You’re swimming in cash. We don’t need to wait for the actual funds to trickle in.”

Her jaw shifted. “I need time. For the wire transfer.”

“I understand. Two days should do the trick then. I’ll swing by your hotel Thursday afternoon.”

* * *

England is getting as tacky as the States.

The black cab was stalled in traffic near a large department store—was it Harrod’s? Janice wondered. The Christmas theme in the window was an elaborately detailed representation of Santa’s workshop, with life-sized mechanical elves performing, over and over, the same monotonous tasks, while Santa looked on, his head pivoting with eerie slowness on a 180-degree angle. It would be handy to have elves at an excavation, she thought. Easy to drop the little motherfuckers down a hole. I bet they don’t get claustrophobia. Wouldn’t have to pay them as much either. I mean, they’re not full-sized,they’d be kind of half-priced, wouldn’t they? And wouldn’t it be a great change of pace to have workers shorter than me?

She noticed one of the elves, who originally was stacking colorful building blocks, had somehow got stuck; his arm was out of alignment, and he kept pounding a purple block against his groin in a slow-mo, masturbatory phantasm. Welcome back to Western Civilization, Janice!

 Like the driver who—with skeptical sympathy—had deposited her in front of the Grosvenor (you’ll never get a room there, luv), the hotel clerk had a similarly difficult time accepting the plain fact of Covington’s appearance at a five-star hotel, and simply could not reconcile the dirty bum in front of him with the request from Dr. Pappas that the aforementioned wretch be provided with a key to her suite. It took careful examination of her passport and lengthy consultation with management before she received a key to the kingdom, the clerk’s pinky ring flaring with distaste as he placed the key in her grimy paw.

“She up there?” Janice grunted at him.

 “I believe so.” The clerk picked up the phone. “Shall I announce you?”

“Nope. I’ve always loved the element of surprise.”

The clerk raised an eyebrow. “I certainly hope Dr. Pappas does as well.”

Despite exhaustion, despite the weighty import of the news that the excavation was now in the government’s hands, and despite her dread of having to explain the stitches along her brow—and here she hastily combed her bangs over the wound—anticipation compelled her to climb the stairs in hopes of burning off the adrenaline and blunting the edge of lust. Instead, by the time she reached the fifth floor she was fumbling with the key, breathless and secretly amazed that after so many years her heart beat faster at such folly. She dropped the key.

In the dim light of the hallway and against the floral patterns of the rug, she could hardly see the key on the floor. “Goddamnshitpissfuck—“ She dropped to her knees and groped along carpet for the key.

As animals are attuned to certain noises in a forest beyond all others, so Mel could hone in on the hissed obscenities of Janice from beyond the door and a vigorous Mozart concerto on the radio. The moment Janice found the key was the moment the door opened.

They looked at each other. Janice leapt to her feet. Mel said “oh” in that endearingly absent-minded professor way—all the more lovely, Janice reminded herself, because now she really was an absent-minded professor. Covington kicked the rucksack past the doorway—the dazed Mel made for a bad goalie—took a quick look up and down the empty hallway, and jumped into her lover’s arms, locking her legs around Mel’s waist and pouring months of abstinence into one hell of a kiss.

To Janice’s relief and Mel’s credit the latter did not drop her precious burden nor collapse, but after a muffled “mmf!” managed—while wearing heels and not breaking the kiss, no less—to steer them both to the bed, where they tumbled. Mel’s hands were now threaded tightly in her hair, and she reveled in the gentle tugs against her scalp as they tussled until the archaeologist emerged on top—at least for the time being.

London’s dull afternoon light—like a milky cup of Earl Grey—pooled in the lenses of Mel’s glasses, round and silver-rimmed. Janice had always called them “Bolshevik glasses” because of their ascetic, intellectual appeal, as if Mel should be arguing politics in grimy meeting halls and cafes. Mel deflated this romantic image by maintaining that real Bolsheviks would, more than anything, be inclined to shoot her.

Janice plucked the glasses from her face. Sometimes, in the very simple act of removing them, Mel seemed more undressed than when actually naked.

“Tell me you’ve missed me.” There was an desperate element of preemptive strike in the hoarse demand, of cutting through the mass of loss and burden—death, separation, the pervasive unease of so many things unsaid and unresolved—to the very reason that she was here and Mel was here, waiting for her.

She anticipated any number of reactions from Mel: a wittily affectionate retort, or an icy rebuke, or even a fierce, where-the-hell-have-you-been slap across the mug (why not, I deserve it), but instead received the simple truth from a woman too tired to hide her own heart, too smart for her own good, and too in love to deny otherwise—and who took Janice’s invective at the face value it required. “I’ve missed you.” The translator struggled to sit up, then pressed her nose against the hollow of Janice’s throat. “You smell like the desert.”

“Actually, I think it’s fuel exhaust and sweat.”

“No, it’s you.” Mel pushed off the leather jacket. It tumbled from the bed to the floor. Her hand slipped in past the stern, militaristic khaki shirt and pressed against Janice’s collarbone, salving and absolving whatever bruise, whatever wound leftover from Jenny. “It’s you,” she whispered again.

Janice honed in on her mouth again, thought she tasted something fruity on Mel’s breath—Berries? Orange marmalade? Maybe lemon curd, oh I love lemon curd—and fancied herself a connoisseur of kissing—the simple elements of spit, tongue, taste, and breath the building blocks in this most wonderful enterprise.

“Wait. We need to talk.”

“We also need to touch each other. A lot. Like here—“ Janice’s hand was plowing away at the drapery of the wool skirt along Mel’s thigh.

“Oh.” Desire contorted the syllable with arbitrary menace, curtailing and elongating it at will. “Wait. Just—wait. I have to tell you—“ Mel stopped. Janice could tell by the appalled look on her face that she had finally noticed the little gauze rectangle hovering above her right eyebrow; indeed, Mel was now gently tracing the bandage’s edges with her fingers. “What happened?” she gasped.

Flippancy won’t work now, fool, her mind cautioned, but it was far too late. “I was trying to pluck my eyebrows.”

“Try again.” This time Mel’s tone was deadly.

“All right,” Janice muttered. “I ran into a knife. Wielded by a jealous husband. But I swear I didn’t do anything.”

Mel sighed. “You don’t have to do anything. You exist. I’m sure you find it flattering that half the world wants finds you irresistible and the other half wants to murder you, but frankly it’s beginning to annoyme.”

Janice could not even begin to describe the relief she experienced as they fell into the ease of banter, of a pattern, a comfort she desperately needed. She laughed and allowed her head to fall against Mel’s shoulder. “That’s my girl.”

The moment, however, was short-lived. There was a vigorous knock upon the door.

It startled Janice, who glowered in the direction of the noise. “That better be room service.”

“Actually…” Mel’s hand wistfully trailed along the buttons of Janice’s shirt, then dropped in defeat as Janice shot her a puzzled look. “I do believe the blackmailer has come a’callin’.”

 * * *

 Adrian Tennant never saw it coming. No sooner than the door had opened then the blonde blur known as Janice Covington had decked him, dragged him across the room, pounded his head on the side of a dresser, stuck a gun in his face and said they were all going for a ride.

She even ransacked his pockets for the cab fare. Banging Miss Moneybags and she has to fleece me for a couple bob. Don’t that beat all. But he kept his trap shut during the journey to his flat, only out of the sheer embarrassment of being coerced by two women—something that the canny Covington was clearly counting on.

Once inside his flat she didn’t hesitate in knocking him around again—despite a tepid plea for mercy from Melinda, apparently concerned that blood might soil her outfit. Covington ignored this and set her companion to work on a search for the incriminating photos, then tied him up face down on the floor (he couldn’t fathom where she had gotten the rope) and—the grand, final indignity—was now sitting on him, perched atop his buttocks with lordly authority.

The old adage that the camera adds 10 pounds to one’s figure was truly misleading in this instance, since Adrian had heretofore viewed Janice’s lithe figure through the lens: Reality was doing pretty well at confirming that she weighed more than she looked. Occasionally, as she ranted, she would bounce so hard upon him that he feared his ribs would snap under the weight of her sadistic joie de vive.

“You know, Adrian,” she was saying now, “you really fucked up my plans.” He could feel the reverberations of her movements as she fumbled in her pockets for something. Then he heard the tell tale crumple of a cigarette pack and the click of a lighter.

“I’ve been in transit for about 3 days. I’m tired, I’m dirty, and I haven’t had a proper meal since I left Alexandria. I was lookin’ forward to a hot bath, a big dinner—I’m not gonna say a good dinner, ‘cause English food is pretty dodgy at best, but what the hell, it really sticks to your ribs and that’s what I need right now—a couple belts of bourbon, and a couple days in bed with my girl.” She paused; smoke drifted over his head and ash dripped on his hand. “I haven’t gotten laid in three months, Adrian. And I’m not the kinda girl who likes to do without, you see what I’m saying? Or maybe you don’t, maybe you just don’t attract that kind of woman.” She bounced again, and he groaned. “Anyway, all that would have made me right as rain, as they say. Do they say that here, or is it just the Australians who say it? I always wonder about the origin of these expressions, you know? Must be Mel’s influence—the woman has taught me to think about language. But never mind. You’d think I’d remember somethin’ like that, I was here for a couple years during the war, but there’s not a lot of room in my mind for Limey talk right now. See, you got me that upset, Adrian.” She wriggled around a bit more. “But I will say this for you: You’re really comfortable. You have an ass like a woman’s. You’re lucky we live in a different world these days, Adrian. In another time, in another culture—say, if I were an Amazon Queen—I could order my consort—a fierce, bloodthirsty warrior—to gut you and make a pillow out of you.”

The rhythmic click of heels across his floor announced the arrival of the doctor’s sidekick.

“What do you think, Mel?”

“Hmm?”

“About gutting Adrian and making a pillow out of him—he’s comfortable.”

“Oh.” A pause, as if seriously considering this. “Sounds like an awful lot of mess and bother. Besides, a fate as a pillow is too good for him.”

“True. What did you find in his naughty box?”

“Not what we wanted, unfortunately. However, there is something of interest—“ This was cut off with a burst of giggles.

Oh shit.

Now Janice guffawed. “Hey, sailor boy, take a look at this.”

How stupid it had been, to keep his own personal photos with the materials upon which his livelihood depended! And now his shortcomings—in more sense than one—came back to taunt him as Covington waved a familiarly lewd photo in front of his face. His great uncle would have deplored such disgraceful treatment of a naval uniform.

“Good find, Mel!”

“Thank you,” replied the intrepid translator. “I’m a little curious—“

“Now that doesn’t sound good.”

“No, it’s merely an intellectual, a scientific curiosity—if you will indulge me.”

“By all means, Dr. Pappas.”

 “As you may know, I am hardly an expert in this—field.”

“My own expertise is somewhat limited as well.”

“Yes, that is acknowledged, thank you for pointing that out. Nonetheless, your experience does significantly outweigh my own—“

“Need I remind you of your seven fiancés, Dr. Pappas?”

“Oh, no, no need for that, Dr. Covington. Still, I was not the one who needed a steady supply of French letters at one point in her life.”

“Point well taken, my esteemed colleague.”

“And so I hope I have established ground and cause for the question I put to you—“

“Abundantly. Please proceed.”

Mel paused. “Is it supposed to be that small?”

Adrian could feel Covington take a deep breath, prepared to either roar with laughter or to launch her particular form of profanity-laced bombast upon the world. “All right!” he shouted. “Enough is enough!”

“You’re no fun,” Janice said. “Where are the fucking photos, Adrian?”

“Mark Pendleton has them.”

“What?” The sharp, disbelieving syllable came from Mel.

“He came this morning. Bastard took them from me.”

“You know Pendleton?” Janice interjected.

Mel answered for him. “Yes, he does—don’t you, Adrian?”

“Met him through Uncle Anton, during the war. Did the odd job for him every now and then.”

“Was this another one of his odd jobs, pretty boy?”

“Ow. Yes. It was his idea. He knew you were both in Mykonos at the time. But the bastard wouldn’t let me get any money off the deal. I was going to—ow, that hurts!—I was just going to use a few snaps to get a bit of money off Miss Magnolia over there, then give the rest to Mark.”

“You got greedy. Guess he didn’t pay you enough.” Fingers threaded gently through his hair, then tightened into a fierce yank that made him yelp. “You better not be lying to me. Your uncle was a good man, and I would hate to hurt a member of his family.” She gave another yank. “But I will if I have to.”

“I’m not lying. He has them.”

She exhaled, and to Adrian’s consternation this made her heavier.

“You could’ve told us sooner, Adrian.” This was Mel, gently chastising.

“Yes, I fully realize that, Melinda,” he wheezed. “However, I must say one thing in my defense.”

Janice was peering at him curiously—and upside down, her blonde tresses dusting the floor—as he made his brief yet heartfelt confession.

“I’ve rather enjoyed this.”

Part VI: Minor Arcana

 

1. Dixie Ex Machina

I run my fingers down your dress
with brandy-certain aim
and you respond to my caress
and maybe feel the same.
—John Betjeman, “Late-Flowering Lust”

London

Christmas, 1953

In the spirit of the season, or at least in Janice Covington’s misguided, Scrooge-like sense of it, a present for an unknown servant was left in Adrian Tennant’s flat—namely Adrian himself, hog-tied for the remainder of the night until the valet’s arrival in the morning, and despite the Englishman’s frequent and plaintive wails about the limited capacity of his bladder.

Janice had expected—and received—a modicum of disapproval from Mel about this; the translator however, opted to chastise her more concerning the theft of Adrian’s address book. The archaeologist considered the theft of the slender black book a Christmas gift to herself, and necessary in pointing her in Mark Pendleton’s direction. Adrian had been less than helpful on that score, suggesting that Janice look him up in the phone book. (He’s listed under Bloody Two-Timing Bastards, Adrian had said, just before attempting to bite a khaki-flavored chunk out of Covington’s leg.)

By the time she and Mel had arrived back at the Grosvenor Hotel, the rain had started and all of seven words had been exchanged between them:

What are we going to do? Mel’s tone in this instance was not unlike the moonlight glazing the taxi—silvery smooth, beautiful yet painfully neutral, a light not of illumination but obfuscation.

 She could only frown and regret a million things—going away, coming back, even the goddamn vacation they took. Think.

 In the room, Janice ignored both the rain and the tumbler of Jim Beam that Mel had placed by her side without a word. The glass did its best to make itself attractive; it glowed and bled several translucent, artful beads that shimmied along its sides like the provocative amber lame of a dress. She sat in a leather chair while rippling the pages of Adrian’s address book with her thumb; from the bathroom she heard water gathering in a bathtub, its gentle rush an invitation into a stupor sweeter than one induced by bourbon.

She dragged a hand over her face, making her eyes twitch; her legs slid from the chair’s arm, her boots heavily hitting the floor. She was tired, alternately craving the temporary oblivion of sleep and—what?Despite the fact that spots danced in front of her eyes in an orgy of exhaustion, Janice felt restless; she recognized within the tightness of her limbs an escalating rage, an anger unfulfilled. When will you stop being angry? Harry had shouted this at her once, during an argument about her mother. Even now she flinched at hearing his voice in her head, at his impassioned, sudden outburst; at least she eventually figured out it had been a desperate expression of a long simmering fear—that she would always be like him, hard and unforgiving.

But it didn’t work out like that, did it, Ma? I was like him and he couldn’t change that. You broke his heart and I broke yours, wreaking my own little vengeance.

She blinked, stared at the drink on the table. Why am I thinking about you again? With all that’s going on right now, why am I thinking about you? Briefly she closed her eyes and struggled, quietly, to focus on more urgent concerns. Like a taking a bath? I’m beginning to stink. Christ, I even crack wise with myself. Somehow I suspect that’s not a good thing.

 She tipped the glass toward her mouth quickly, just long enough for the bourbon to teasingly slide against her lips. What the hell does this Pendleton want from me? Think.

She couldn’t.

Janice stood and stretched, the action serenaded by creaking muscles and a series of sickening pops in her neck. Everything had happened fast—too fast. There had been no time for discussion. Not that verbal dissection of the matter was essential. Signs, subtle and visible, were present; reading Mel, Janice thought, was like reading a book so rife with symbolism and themes that you wondered half the time what you were missing—and while Janice was never bored, she certainly felt at times that she was in over her head, like with all that crazy “Modernist” crap she wants me to read.

In the cab going to Adrian’s flat, Mel had held herself with a kind of stoic weariness under Adrian Tennant’s knowing, smirking gaze. While she had briefly recovered her usual wit and grace at the flat, once it was discovered that Pendleton’s machinations lay behind the blackmail, she fell into a silent, shameful reverie on the way back to the hotel. Only the occasional twitch of her nostrils and the silvery flare of her eyes indicated what simmered beneath her elegant exterior: a fierce indignation at the world’s bad manners in painting her, in large, crude strokes, as nothing more than an unredeemable deviant. Anger was a powerful complement to her shame.

 Blackmail, Covington thought. Comes with the territory. Yet I always thought somehow I would steer clear of it. Among the company she normally kept, Janice’s sexual predilections were nothing more than a sign of eccentric character; no more disreputable than anything else. Most importantly, however, she never had money, and owned nothing much beyond the clothes on her back. Blackmailers, of course, always followed the money. Linus was a good example of that; he’d been blackmailed so much that it had become a caustic running joke between him and Jenny, who had once offered herself up as payment to one particular cad. (He politely declined.) And, as much as Janice had always struggled to ignore it, Mel was moneyed—even more so now that Anton had left her a bundle.

Despite it all, she couldn’t help feeling somewhat responsible since she was Pendleton’s ultimate target. If she wasn’t in the picture, would Mel have been blackmailed otherwise? Perhaps she would have entered a marriage of convenience—like Linus—and conducted discreet affairs—unlike Linus—with bored society wives and the boyish young woman who pumped gas at the garage down the street, who always carried paperback books in her overalls and was looking for someone to help her “improve” herself and could offer coarse yet immensely gratifying sexual favors in return? Wouldn’t Mel be better off, safer, living that kind of life?

Janice blinked. This is great. As if I don’t have enough to worry about, I’m now jealous of fictional women.  She narrowed her eyes. But that little gas station slut will fall for her, I just know it.

 From the bathroom’s doorway she watched as Mel, kneeling in front of the tub, generously anointed the steaming water with bath salts. The moment they set foot in the hotel, Mel had tersely announced she was drawing a bath for her smelly little companion. Sometimes her lover had a way of making her feel like a five-year-old; the attitude would have annoyed Janice to no end if she didn’t believe there was many a time when it was completely justified.

Mel leaned over the tub to shut off the tap. The lines of her face were diffused with whorls of scented steam and Janice could hear the sharp intake of breath that so completely delineated a moment of unguarded, simple joy. She recalled, guiltily, how Jenny found her, months ago at the villa, caught in a similar moment of sensual bliss.  Sensing that she was being watched, Mel quickly looked up. Janice wondered if Jenny had seen a similar expression on her face—a proud vulnerability, a defiance at being caught, a dozen emotions shifting one over another, like a rapidly shuffled deck of cards. Absently Mel brushed her hands against her skirt, looked away, and stood up.

It wasn’t this way with Fayed. I didn’t see him for almost ten years. But after I saw him in the train station again, it felt like only ten minutes had passed. We fell into our old familiar, familial roles: Brother and sister. Hell, even with Jenny, we were on the same bitchy wavelength in a matter of minutes. But with you, it’s completely different. I’ve lived with you and shared your bed and said things to you I’ve never said to anyone. I’ve let you do things to me that no one else has done and you stand there, afraid to let me in, maybe even afraid to touch me, as if you’ve imagined nothing but the worst since I’ve been gone. Have I inspired so little trust in you? Is it because so much has happened recently, it’s hard for us to get back to what we were?

 Or is it because it’s all too important to ever take for granted? Or have we already taken it for granted, and that makes it all the harder? Jesus. Her head hurt. She reached up to rub her forehead, but instead encountered a tactile reminder of the stitches clustered near her right eyebrow. Now I sound like one of those pinheads in one of those blah-blah “modern” books.

She suppressed a sigh, bent over, and set to work on unlacing her boots; after prying them off, she tossed them into the other room. She set about fumbling with the buttons on her shirt until Mel intervened and liberated the placket with brisk efficiency.

Mel’s hands lingered over Janice’s body, as if she were a pianist who has momentarily forgotten the piece about to be played, before gently tugging at the belt buckle. Again, another elegant hesitation; nobody made indecision look erotic the way Mel did. To Janice’s great dismay she abandoned the belt; half-undone, it hung morosely like a sad erection. Instead, she cupped the back of Janice’s neck, massaging it gently, tentatively pleased at Covington’s long, slow exhalation of breath. Her hand then set forth on a course from the neck over to the jaw and traveled down the throat, the chest (tripping a little at the bra), the stomach, and veered past the omphalos-oasis to the no man’s land leading to the pubic hair—the bold, all-encompassing swoop of this gesture innocently proclaimed ownership. Somehow, in her utter lack of awareness, Mel always managed to transform the magnitude of her desire into the assured grace of an astonishing, pleasing, and versatile lover.

But quickly her gaze fell, like shooting stars, to the floor. “I said I missed you. But did you miss me?”

“Every hour. Every minute.” Janice meant it.

“Even every night?”

Oh. So that’s what this is about. I worry about competition in the make-believe world while she’s already dealt with a viper like Jenny. Dense, Covington, very dense. Nonetheless, Janice could not resist the opportunity to tease—albeit in her most gentle fashion. “Every night. Even the nights at the harem.”

“You’re a brat.” Mel said it with a forced lightness; something in her eyes, however, crackled—a flash of lightning, an indication of a storm a-brewing.

Uh-oh. A better response didn’t involve words, and so she kissed Mel with exquisite gentleness, her tongue limning the perfect lips so close to her own, her mouth exhaling terms of surrender. “You’ve ruined me for other women. I hope you’re happy.”

“I’m ecstatic.” Mel’s employment of sarcasm—cloaked by the velvety cadences of her accent—was always particularly insidious. Yet she remained close, if not for another kiss, then for the caress of warm, bourboned breath upon her cheek.

“Listen—there hasn’t been anyone else.” Janice felt the need to hammer home the point. She was exceedingly proud of those four months of abstinence, so much so that she wondered if her well-earned badge of fidelity had been inspired out of a sense to prove something to herself as much as it was about loving Melinda Pappas. Temptation abounded in Alexandria, no thanks to Cordahi the wayward civil servant, who took up Julian Manley Finch’s former role in her life—as tour guide to the city’s underbelly and procurer of female flesh. Private nightclubs saturated in black and gold, mirrored walls, vermilion lights, watered-down drinks, a hand under the table brushing her thigh, Cordahi smirking patiently as if it were only a matter of time before she gave in. Thank God for booze, brawls, and my right hand.

But she always returned—alone—to her room at the Davies’ villa, or retreated to some dark café, to sit and drink and smoke, to roll the bitter, loose flecks of tobacco from cheap cigarettes onto her yellow-tinged fingers and flick them away while raiding the storehouse of memory for whatever meager comfort it would provide: the image, sometimes just barely within reach, of the woman who always could tell, from the most minute movement, when Janice was waking up in the morning and who would instinctually lean in kiss her neck in precisely the right spot and in precisely the right way, whose black hair roamed so freely over Janice’s skin as if it were actually her own.

But now that magical woman of memory was frowning at the bathroom marble and appearing painfully unsure of everything.

Janice cleared her throat. “Maybe I look every now and then. I’m human, I’m fallible—all too goddamn fallible. And I’m an ass sometimes. And—I guess I’m a lot of things, but I’m not a liar. Remember what I told you from the start.”  She pulled Mel closer; the fleshly curve of the Mel’s back fitting with perfect snugness into her hand.

The gentle force of Janice’s orbit caused Mel to pitch forward as if she were on a jolting train. Southern women usually feigned such clumsiness in order to throw themselves into the arms of a handsome stranger, all the while retaining their carefully calculated emotional distance and flirtatious mystique. But for Mel the mating dance, both literally and figuratively, was always an awkward one; she hated that she had so little control over her body. Her mind balanced any number of things while her body, a divination rod for all things Covington, simply undulated like a current.

Janice’s lips were soft, a libation filling the hollow at the base of her throat. “Wanna take a bath?”

Unfortunately, this longed-for excursion triggered a priggish panic attack. This is what got you into trouble in the first place. What will the price for all this really be—will it be more than money? “I—I have to reread Tacitus,” Mel croaked. “I’m teaching it in class next semester.”

“Skip it.” Janice nipped at a tendon that lurched as Mel gulped. “I tell you how it all ends in the long run: Arriverderci, Roma.

Hearing Janice mangle the Italian language was just enough to snap Mel out of her archaeo-haze. Under the scrutiny of Covington—all squinty-eyed under the canopy of her dirty bangs—Mel pulled away, swallowed nervously, and assiduously ignored the blossoming of her nipples. “Take a bath,” she whispered breathlessly to Janice as she bolted.

Janice accepted the temporary setback with wry grace. “Thrown over for a dead guy,” she called as Mel left the bathroom. “Very humbling.”

After grabbing Tacitus’s Histories from the desk Mel flopped on the bed and clutched the old leather-bound volume to her chest as if it were her own personal Bible and would somehow protect her from the vagaries and lusts of her own heart. So you’re going to give up sexual relations for the rest of your life? muttered a cynical little voice in her brain. The possibility of the Confederacy rising again is much more likely, don’t you think?  She realized she was very tired. She fumbled the glasses off her face and placed them on the nightstand, then listened to the purling of the water from the bathroom, accompanied by a muttered “ow.” Immediately she knew that Janice was trying to jam her big toe into the faucet again—a peculiar bathing ritual leftover from childhood; when one’s primary domicile is usually tents, one becomes quite fascinated with the joys of indoor plumbing.

Remember what I told you from the start. She closed her eyes and recalled both the promise and the circumstances of its making.

An unseasonably warm spring day in London, the sweat dripping from her brow, the uncomfortable, squeaking bed springs gleefully sending out engraved invitations to the prurient neighbors—most notably Mrs. Cosgrove and Mrs. Wilson, who had noted with beady-eyed, greedy gazes that Mel had a female caller and not a male one—that a particularly unnatural form of copulation had been undertaken, and finally, the most glorious thing of all—Janice, naked and underneath her. Begging.

 Because it was so very early on in their relationship, Mel possessed only a nascent awareness of her sublime power over Janice Covington; she was giddily emboldened by the fact that this routinely defiant, stubborn woman craved her touch to the point of pleading—repeatedly, achingly, hoarsely.

 “Do you love me?” This tender prompting was a compulsion Mel could not undo.

 “Yes. Yes. I love you.”

 The heel of Mel’s right hand pressed firmly against the soft, delicate contours of Janice’s clitoris, which, vigorously propelled by Janice’s hips, writhed wetly under her touch. Her left hand clasped Janice’s wrist tight as a bracelet, encountering tendons as sturdily resilient as bones. Sensually fascinated, she watched the struggle just below the surface of skin—the veins and the muscles galloping up Janice’s arm and criss-crossing biceps into those smooth, powerful shoulders.

Somehow she, the blindest of fools, had stumbled into this bounty.

 “Please.” Under the weight of her need, Janice’s voice was beautifully broken, refracted like sunlight pulsing through the thick warped glass of an old window.

 “Yes?”

 “Please.”

 “Tell me what you want.”

 The words were a heated rush. “I want you inside me.”

 “I know you do. But I could watch you all day. Do you know why?”

 “No.” Janice whispered this, like a child anticipating a riddle’s answer.

 “You’re beautiful like this.”

 “Oh, God. Please.” This time a bit of frustration colored her tone. “Do it.”

 While Mel contemplated—in a leisurely Southern fashion—what might happen if she said “no,” Janice sank a hand into Mel’s hair and yanked with the right amount of desperation, just enough so that a pleasurable pain sprinkled her scalp. “Fuck me,” she growled. Said in this manner—with great, Covingtonesque carnal gusto—the dross of common obscenity became undeniably arousing to Mel. “Fuck me,” she repeated. “I’m yours. I swear it.”

 Unable to resist such a lusty incantation, Mel succumbed and entered her. She loved to do this, almost as much as she loved using her mouth, loved the differences in textures, the warmth and wetness surrounding her hand as she was lulled into this ancient rhythm. A sharp downward thrust made Janice’s hips leap upward and suction stickily against her thigh; a more level, deeper penetration made Janice throw her head against the pillow and grind her ass roughly into the mattress. These two primary strokes were seasoned with pinches of gentleness, then savagery, hard pumping, then teasingly soft swirls. The increasing slickness of Mel’s hand diminished the precision of her touch but it didn’t matter anymore; Janice was close and she wasn’t about to stop for anything in the world. She took and yet herself was taken, every pore permeated with what Janice gave her.

 Afterwards Janice was spent and thoughtful; sitting up cross-legged and tangled in the sheet, she dreamily gazed out the window at the darkening sky, and smoked a cigarette carefully held between glistening, sex-stained fingers. As it was whenever she spoke her heart, her words stumbled like a foal’s first venture outside the stable. “I’m not going to love anyone else like you. After this, after you—it’s all downhill.” There was a perversely satisfied resignation to her tone.

 “You’re already anticipating future lovers?” Mel attempted to mask sad speculation underneath the teasing question. As of yet there had been no promises made, no plans laid. She didn’t know how to extract such a commitment, wasn’t sure if it could be done merely upon the basis of mad passion and the seemingly Byzantine connections they shared to lives now passed, and—worst of all—wasn’t certain if she was worthy of this crazily noble woman who proudly lived outside the conventional boundaries that had so imprisoned Mel for most of her life. Janice needed someone as big as her dreams, she thought, not a shy, bookish Southern spinster.

 “We don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Janice murmured cautiously.

 In retrospect, Mel would recognize this as typically Covington: Never get your hopes up and you’ll never be truly hurt. Never rely on the future. There’s nothing but the present—and, of course, the past. The all-consuming past.

 “I can only promise—I won’t ever lie to you.” She sighed. “Oh, hell.”

 “What?”

 “I’m pretty damn certain I’ll always love you.” Janice burrowed protectively within the sheet, fearing the storm that fate might unleash after such an admission. Take away the cigarette, the reek of sex, and the overripe look of her thoroughly ravished lips, she would look about 14, Mel thought. The girlish vulnerability, however, did not prevent Janice from giving her a look that, while mercilessly going through her like a knife, was no less besotted because of it. “You consume me,” she whispered.

 Having waited her entire life for such a passionate declaration, Mel did not really contemplate the ramifications of it. Instead she carelessly reveled in the effect of her body upon Janice and stretched in what she hoped was a salacious offering. “Is that such a bad thing?”

The first thing Mel noticed upon waking was that a glass of Jim Beam was precariously perched atop her stomach. The second was that Janice lay beside her, propped up on an elbow and frowning at theHistories as she flipped through it. The third thing, which should have been the first thing, was that Janice was almost certainly naked under the green-white-blue striped bathrobe that she wore—the fabric slid becomingly off a bare, squeaky clean shoulder.

She took note of Mel’s conscious state. “Reading it in Latin too,” she murmured admiringly, arching a mischievous eyebrow.  “No wonder you practically passed out from boredom.” She snapped the book shut and unceremoniously tossed Tacitus over her shoulder. It landed on the floor with a thunk.

Mel twitched violently at such literary abuse and Janice rescued the bourbon from impending spillage. “That’s a rare edition, you know.”

Covington sipped at amber bliss. “So am I. And guess what: I’m a hell of a lot more entertaining.”

“How long have I been asleep?” Mel rubbed her eyes.

“’Bout an hour.”

A pause. “And how long were you using me as an end table?”

“Oh, not long. It’s like you knew it was there. You didn’t move a lick. Pretty damn impressive.” Janice placed the glass on the nightstand.

And now, with the fiercest competition having absented the field, her complete attention was focused on Mel—who found her ability to breathe somewhat impaired. After years of gazing into those eyes—the colors of which were as mercurial as Janice’s moods—the fact that she still remained enraptured by them was, quite frankly, an amazing state of affairs.

Janice’s thumb was stroking her cheek. “You’re not going to run away from me again, are you?” She grinned hopefully.

I will not stammer. It’s only one blasted little syllable. “N-no.”

“Good.” Her lovely face turned grave. “I should have been here sooner.”

“It’s all right. There’s nothing you could have done about it—any of it.”

“I guess,” Janice admitted gloomily. “But I still should have been here.”

“I—I wanted you here, that’s for sure.” Mel closed her eyes. “Do you ever wish things were different?”

“What things?”

“The ways of the world. The way we’re treated.” The blue eyes fluttered open. “Do you ever wish you could be—like them?” She hesitated in using the word normal—as Paul did the night he confessed his love for her. I could give you a normal life, he had said.

She had laughed harshly at that. What is normal?  Then she saw how much he regretted saying it, how his last desperate gamble that night had been a fatal misstep. Later, alone in bed, she had cried, largely out of missing Janice, but also out of frustration with the ill-defined world—and with herself, more specifically with a wish within herself, so deeply buried as if truly dead, yet nonetheless still extant and strongly inculcated by upbringing, that wish to be like everyone else.

True to form—and in this case Mel was happy for such predictability—Janice wasn’t buying it. “If being ‘like them’ means I’m not supposed to love you, then no, I don’t want to be like them.” Her calm conviction was assuaging, there was no doubt about that, but the solid sensation of Janice rolling atop her and pinning her wrists to the bed made the strongest case ever for deviancy; indeed, Mel’s saturated silk Parisian panties were alone triumphant proof of that fact. “When I’m with you,” she continued quietly, “I know it’s right. I know we’re right. And as far as I’m concerned, if the world gets its nose out of joint about it, the world can go to hell.” Janice smiled; it was wry and tinged with doubt as a result of believing her mini-speech was completely ineffective. “Now—you still want to be like them?”

Oh dear God, no, Mel thought. She leaned up, Janice dipped down, and they kissed. Mel tasted the color red—sweet and spicy—as the fleshy ripeness of a welcomed tongue filled her mouth and the kiss gradually mellowed into the hazy richness of purple, reminiscent of a scented plum. When Janice pulled away she lurched desperately and caught a thick lower lip between her teeth, causing a gasp of welcomed pain from her pleased victim.

“Are we on the same page now?” murmured the ever-cautious Covington.

“Yes,” Mel replied breathily. “Same paragraph, same sentence, same word.”

Janice sat up, triumphantly straddling her convert. “That’s more like it, big girl. Now let’s take off these clothes, otherwise it’s not gonna be any fun.”

Mel undid the fat, sloppy knot of the bathrobe and rubbed the muscled belly that lay underneath it. A slight twitch of Janice’s shoulders sent the robe pooling into a soft, tangled mess that was quickly cast to the floor. Still throwing clothes on the floor, I see. Well, let’s not focus on what a challenge it is to actually live with you. “You’re cute when you think you’re in charge.” And you’re cute when you’re naked too!

Janice ignored this blatant disregard of her questionable authority. Her sliding hand trespassed the boundary of Mel’s skirt, finding the final frontier of a stocking and a garter belt. “Hmmm. Let’s leave these on, shall we?”

“You’re predictable.” Mel gasped as Janice’s fingers did a kamikaze dive past the panty patrol then teasingly retreated.

“And you’re wet. Talk about predictable. Now if you don’t mind, I have a fetish to indulge.” She traced the warm metal clasp of the garter belt against Mel’s thigh, as if seeking a message there and discovering, in its design and indentations, the true language of lust now inscribed upon such wondrously soft skin, an entire world created and embedded in muscled flesh that flowed so invitingly under her fingertips.

Mel was pressing against her harder, signaling impatience. “There’s not Braille on that, you know.” She growled this in a tone that could be uncharitably yet accurately described as bitchy.

Janice continued her communion with the garter belt, dancing a tarantella on the agonizingly fine line between foreplay and torture, before focusing on the unbuttoning of Mel’s blouse. Hey, it’s the easy-access bra, with clasps in the front! Hello, old friend! Before proceeding with mammary liberation, she considered her handiwork: The Southerner was a disheveled, half-dressed nymph, half-mad with desire, sloppily sexy, marvelously slutty—in other words, and if such a thing were entirely possible, a high-class slattern. “Oh,” Covington sang her own praises, “if only the Daughters of the Confederacy could see you now.”

Mel’s perfect nostrils flared. “Don’t go ruining everything by dragging them into it.”

Before Covington could get out any more desire-derailing wisecracks, she was unceremoniously flipped on her back. Gee, what did I do to deserve full service?  The pupils of Mel’s eyes bloomed, crowding the bright blue irises into nothing more than slender, tantalizing rings orbiting black, heavenly bodies, giving Janice the sweetest chill. It was sign that always commenced this journey into pleasure. Who could fail to be so tempted into darkness? Was it any wonder, thought Janice as she sought her lover’s mouth with her own, that Orpheus looked back into the abyss?  What kind of piss-poor lover would not crave entrance into the world of shadows that held their beloved’s heart?

Mel’s hands, warm and strong, massaged Janice’s thighs and pushed them apart—not that any strenuous effort whatsoever was really required for Janice to spread her legs. The world cracked open; she was deliciously vulnerable, the heat of her sex exposed to the cool air, which only served to pique her lust.

With a maddeningly slow, serpentine grace, Mel was sliding down her body, sadistically bypassing the fun zone, massaging her thighs, sucking the tender back of her knee, trailing her tongue roughly over Janice’s muscled calf, nibbling an anklebone, kissing the arch of her foot, and giving a blow job to her big toe, all of which was, indeed, quite nice—particularly the toe sucking, which made her ache and melt—but considering I’ve been ready for about, oh, four months, shaking hands would have sufficed as foreplay. But why complain?

 She found a reason to do so, however, when Mel abruptly stopped, looked up, and coolly met her frantic gaze. “May I?” Her eyes flickered politely in the direction of the bourbon tumbler on the nightstand.

Janice stared at her in a dumb frenzy. Maybe she wants to sterilize her mouth after sucking on that toe? Damn, I am a mood-killer, aren’t I?  Always it was difficult to discern what was spinning in the mind of Melinda Pappas. Those Southern manners were pure obfuscation, she believed; Mel would probably ask for poison in the same beguiling fashion. Nonetheless at that moment, spread-eagled and depending upon the kindness of debutantes, she would have agreed to paint pink polka dots on the Parthenon, and so she fetched the drink and pressed the glass into Mel’s hand.

Mel took a generous yet refined gulp and handed it back to Janice; her cheeks undulated, her lips shifted as she rolled the liquid around in her mouth as if a connoisseur. And before Covington had the faintest idea of what to expect, her cunt was flooded with pleasure—the serendipitous explosion of hot alcohol and Mel’s tongue—both elements burning and blending into a perfect, purely tortuous rapture. Her hips leapt off the bed, her head slammed into the pillow with such force that a harder surface would have rendered her unconscious, and her fingernails frantically tore at the sumptuously soft bedspread and she grew dimly aware of the fact they might be charged for damaging it—for Janice was nothing if not cost-conscious at the most inappropriate, ludicrous moments. She draped a leg over Mel’s shoulder and ground a heel into the broad back beneath her; the lush vibrato of Mel’s grrrr reverberated through her body. One hand released a death grip on the fabric and found its way to the crown of black hair nestled between her legs.

Mel’s grip tightened around her legs; the ring on the smallest finger of her lover’s left hand abraded tender flesh as Mel’s tongue plumbed even greater depths, languorously prowling the labyrinth of folds and crevices—confident in its eventual, triumphant arrival at the heart of the maze.  They never failed in creating a rhythm in which they were mysteriously yet perfectly matched—both pushing, neither one backing down, and somehow traversing the usual boundaries of endurance. The stubbornness that dogged their interactions on every other plane found a satisfying outlet in the act of making love.

Janice’s throat was dry, hoarse, constricted; she vaguely realized she’d been shouting the incoherent, obscene things she assumed she’d been merely thinking—namely, oh God, oh baby, you fuck so good. Her body was a knife—it gleamed, it became an instrument powerful and pure in form and intent, beveled down to a singular point of focus. In moments like these Janice finally believed what words had always spectacularly failed to convey—that she was beautiful.

In a thought typical of her post-coital ruminations, Janice wondered why the French referred to a sexual climax as le petit mort; as far as she was concerned, there was nothing little, tiny, or small about the sensation of the heart, mind, and body annihilated in such furious bliss. This time, she came so hard her head hurt—she thought perhaps a blood vessel had burst somewhere, and she really would be forever carried away on a current of blood, sex, and death.

No. Not yet. My time has not come. She was momentarily unnerved by both the fleeting thought of death, whispering seductively in her ear, and the emphatic certainty with which she rebuked it. Do I know? How would I know?

When she dared once more to focus on the outside world, the ceiling was dappled with refractions of light and hazy shadows from the window. After both her breathing and her heart slowed to an acceptable rate, Janice looked down. Was Mel sensually nuzzling her thigh or just wiping her face? Perhaps both? So very practical you are, baby. Not to mention…. “You’re a genius,” she whispered reverently. To combine my two favorite things—sheer genius!

“It took that to make you realize it, hmm?”

“Yes, oh yes, Melinda the Modest.”  She threaded her fingers through Mel’s dark hair. “And here I thought good old JB would always be wasted on you.”

“Well, it turns out I’ve finally found the right mixer for the wretched stuff.”

“I’m so, so happy that I could be of use.” The slickness between and on her thighs seemed so pervasive, so powerfully scented that it threatened to transubstantiate muscle, skin and bone into pure liquid aphrodisiac; the effect only prolonged and enhanced her pleasure. Until she noticed one thing. “Goddamnit,” she moaned.

Concerned, Mel looked up.

“You’re still kinda dressed.”

“Yes, I suppose I am.” The lanky Mel sprawled with a regal laziness. “Your assistance in the matter is not only requested,” she murmured, “it is required.”

Within the web of dusk, she stripped away Mel’s clothes—save, of course, for the stockings and garter belt—and the room seemed illuminated by the ivory glow of her skin, at times chillingly, milky blue. The illusory cold, however, melted under Janice’s hands and mouth.

She lay atop Mel, this gentle jostling of their bodies a necessity of sorts before they became locked into any kind of satisfying rhythm. Janice’s hands curled into the sheets as she fought a sudden orgasmic surge. While she normally suffered from an appalling lack of manners, there was nothing Covington abhorred more than rudeness—and selfishness—in bed. Climaxing twice before your partner had barely disrobed was, she thought, very poor form indeed.

But Mel was feeling quite generous and forgiving of these so-called faults. With sharp wickedness she bucked Janice, who hissed in delight and helplessly thought, oooh wee, ride ‘em, cowgirl!—her childhood love of westerns had never really diminished in a significant manner. Fortunately in this rare instance, her brain cautioned against verbalization; for as much as Mel liked horses, Janice was certain that the woman beneath her did not wish a comparison to one.

“Go on,” Mel gently encouraged. “I want to feel you.”

“No. Not—yet.” Janice longed for a diversion, one that would turn the tables; but hunger negated subtlety and her mouth swooped down upon Mel’s breast. She sucked with desperate abandon. This only caused Mel to thrust harder against her and gently maul Janice’s backside with a passionate groping; in fact, one of Mel’s fingers was straying dangerously close to her asshole, which served as a sort of sexual eject button in this particular position. Alas, Janice had always been a lousy tactician. She came quickly this time, with a vivid intensity that was no less satisfying because of its brevity.

No sooner had Janice caught her breath than she set to work. And let it be said, I’ve always had a great fondness for the Protestant work ethic. With rough sensuality, she dragged a hand over the soft scrub of pubic hair, which provoked a deep moan from Mel. Snatch. How I love that frisky little word, Covington thought deliriously, while marveling, as she always did, at the whirlpool she encountered—the slick furrows and the velvety swirls, each gradation marking a sweet descent until she finally hit the knotty core of the cervix. Slowly she retreated in order to do it all over again—relentlessly pursued by the hungry arch of Mel’s body, which greedily gathered in every thrust and every caress.

Through the impending darkness Janice’s unoccupied hand traveled blindly yet willingly, with a touch both light and certain—the reverential touch of her trade—sliding over her lover’s tender ribs and encountering one of Mel’s full breasts, still damp from its frenzied suckling, the stiff nipple thickly nuzzling her palm. She continued onward until Mel’s throat—the cords of which rumbled under her fingertips—was wreathed in her grasp. Finally—and with astonishment at her continually renewed curiosity—she mapped Mel’s face: the jaw, the cheek, the brow, the eyelids, until her fingers were at rest against Mel’s lips. A cry of joy, a few words uttered—Oh God—filled her hand and for one indelible moment a secret wish borne of loving a woman who loved words became a strange reality—words were at her fingertips, they were living things, thrillingly tangible, they were an entire history of lust carried away on a breath.

Much later, and much sated, Mel was atop her, snoring like a bear who’d had her fill of honeycomb.  Outside the downpour continued; sluices of rain coursed over the windowpane like emptied veins.Bloodless London? Or  London Bloody London, as Mrs. Davies would put it. Poor Jenny.  Foolishly, she worried about Jenny wandering about Morocco; Linus wasn’t always strong enough to keep his wild wife tethered to reality. The one thing that had always bound her to Jenny was their mutual understanding, acceptance, and temperance of one another’s self-destructive tendencies. Would I have been any good for you? We’ll never know. She felt a nasty twinge of guilt at thinking about Jenny, even in a pitying fashion, as she lay in bed with Mel. Hastily she switched back to thinking about poor old bloodyLondon instead.  London and rain. Goes together like Gable and Lombard, peanut butter and jelly, pastrami on rye, champagne and caviar, Romeo and Juliet, homosexuals and blackmail—yeah, let’s not forget that one—death and taxes, love and marriage, Ruth and Gehrig, Ruth and Naomi, me and—

You. Mel shifted sleepily; her head stirred against Janice’s chest and her black hair trailed beguilingly into darkness, like a back road into a starless night. Reflexively her hand clenched Janice’s hip and her thigh resettled over Janice’s legs. In this, the profanely sacred tangling of their flesh, the mass of contradictory impulses Janice continually felt—leave me, love me, need me, don’t believe me, don’t love me—were stilled into submission. She was as open as a wound and—for once—didn’t mind it. While she wondered if being a woman truly meant feeling so vulnerable in this way, she never imagined that it could be such a desired state, such an addictive nirvana.

You’re waking up. I feel the change in your breathing. And now you are going to ask me what you’ve wanted to all night long, what we’ve avoided speaking of, that question so visible in the tension of your jaw.

It took a little longer than Janice anticipated. Mel stretched with cat-like languor and appraised her lover with an equally feline glance of unwavering inscrutability, as if she truly could see her lover quite plainly in the dim, shadowy room, barely alit from the streetlamps and the moonlight outside. It unnerved Covington, albeit in a pleasant way—fuck me with your gaze too, why don’t you?—and so she initiated a round of slow, lazy kissing, tasting the sweet salt of sex, happily delving into territory that she never grew tired of exploring.  Their entwined legs tightened, slackened; then Mel pulled away with a gentle abruptness and placed her damp mouth along Janice’s collarbone.

“What are we going to do?” The question feathered hotly over Covington’s skin.

Janice had finally thought about it during her long bath; however, she knew that the solution she thought best was the one that Mel, no doubt, would protest most vociferously. She gently stroked the thigh lodged between her legs. “You have the money. I’ll take it to him. If that’s not what he wants, I’ll find out. And I’ll take care of it.” With shocking quickness Mel flew away from her as if manipulated by the unnatural forces of deus ex machina—or in this case, Dixie ex machina, maybe?  thought Janice forlornly. Women alone are hard to figure out. God knows what gothic magic controls the Southern Woman. With a sigh, Mel rolled onto her back, arms crossed under her head. Was she relieved at the suggestion, perhaps, or summoning some kind of inner strength? Both? Neither? Janice wondered. How well we know each other, yet how we always fail to figure each other out.

Finally Mel spoke. “No. We take care of it. I won’t let you see him alone. It’s dangerous. Don’t shut me out of it.”

“I’m not shutting you out of it. You’ve done your part: You came up with the cash.”  Her hand cut a swath over the top of Mel’s thigh, which tensed. “Don’t you think you’ve been through enough already?”

The tenderness of Janice’s tone was not exactly surprising, but nonetheless unexpected. “Maybe we shouldn’t even give him the money—or anything else he wants,” Mel retorted stubbornly.

“Do you really want to live like a pariah? The money isn’t the point, really. But if we lost our positions because of this, no one would take us seriously. It would affect how our work is perceived. You’re establishing a legitimate reputation, Mel. You have Harvard by the balls now. We need that leverage. We need that backing if we’re ever going to get anywhere in finding the real Scrolls.”

Mel sighed in frustration. “All the same—you can’t go alone. He might hurt you.”

“He won’t. He wouldn’t dare.” Or would he? Janice had a fleeting fear of waking up on a slow boat to China. I hate it when that happens.

Mel peered at her intently. “Then why be afraid of bringing me along?” She paused and asked the second—and more important—question with quiet delicacy. “What are you afraid of me finding out?”

“Believe it or not, nothing in particular. It’s just that—“ Janice broke off the confession momentarily to pummel a pillow into an acceptably comfortable form. “There have been so many things—things that don’t seem so bad if you look at them one by one. But you add them all up and—I wonder how much is too much for you.”

Mel paused. “Well,” she began, propping herself up on an elbow. “I’ve always thought that if one’s curriculum vitae detailed illegal activity as well as legitimate accomplishments, the academic world would be a happier and healthier environment.”

Janice burst into laughter. Okay, you’re being funny about it. Does that mean it doesn’t really bother you? She tucked the thought away and played along. “I think you’re onto something. I can’t wait until the Dean retires and you get the old man’s job.”

“I don’t want his job.”

“He’s grooming you for it.”

“I know,” Mel replied morosely. “He’s mad.”

“Didn’t I always warn you? When that old bastard wants something, he doesn’t stop until gets it.”

“Oh—that reminds me.”

“What?”

“You’re paving his driveway this summer.”

A pause. “That sonofabitch.

Mel giggled; her laughter was a perfect accompaniment to the rain’s percussive tones.  Janice closed her eyes. Why is it we enjoy the sounds of rain so much? Maybe because we realize how safe we are—we’re inside, listening to it, and not outside, drenched in it.

The grace of Mel’s touch was upon her neck, her shoulders, her back; she opened her eyes at the sensation of paths traced, with such firm assurance, upon her skin.

“It won’t be too much,” Mel said, quite simply. “Nothing is too much.”

She buried her face in Mel’s chest, nose jammed against the sternum, inhaling a musky cocktail of sex and blood and skin and her own breath, an overwhelming intoxication, a delicious renewal of lust. Janice’s mouth sought a breast and her tongue swooned around the dark aureole and eagerly prodded the sluggish, flushed nipple into action.

“Again?”

“Do you call wrapping your legs around me a form of protest? It’s a hell of a way to complain.”

“A lady never complains, my dear.”

“Really? How’d you find that out?”

Mel laughed.

It was enough of an encouraging response; nonetheless Janice stopped her assault—she was seriously torn among the conflicting desires of food, sex, and sleep. “I’m hungry, though,” she yawned.

“You beast. I’m not feeding you now. You’ll get even more wound up.”

“I won’t, I promise. Don’t you trust me?”

Janice had no ulterior motive in asking the simple rhetorical question. But Mel’s fingers stopped their sensuous dawdle upon her lover’s spine. “I trust you with my life,” she replied quietly. “Go to him—alone, if you like.”

Sheepishly triumphant, Janice grinned as she was kissed gently upon the brow, just above the dark knot of stitches.  Dropping her head against Mel’s shoulder, she waded into the deep end of sleep, only dimly aware of the words that, in their gentle rhythm, sounded no more meaningful than a child’s lullaby: “Keep your secrets. When you’re ready to surrender them all, I’ll be here.”

  

2. The Habit of Theft
How immense the world is by lamplight!

How small the world is in recollection!
—Baudelaire, Le Voyage

 

He thought about her every day.

Of course, there were those exceedingly rare occasions when, exhausted with business and the brimming details of a day-to-day existence, Pendleton had not thought about her at all until night settled in and he was alone. Then he would realize—with no small start of surprise—that the specter of Catherine Stoller had not crossed his mind during the course of the day. As the evening’s port whirled around his glass, so the seemingly harmless images—these satellites of Stoller—encircled his mind: the Swiss doctor insouciantly wiping blood on his white coat, Melinda Pappas touching a windowpane, yearning for flight from the sanitarium, from snow, from responsibility, the wretched Covington standing bareheaded and knee-deep in snow, not unlike Henry IV, penitent at Canossa—except that, unlike Henry, she possessed a ludicrous, defiant pride, her eyes vividly accusative.

Eventually these recollections lead to the reminder of his own inevitable misery, of the perfect repose of Catherine Stoller’s corpse upon the table. How only hours before she had sat on that table, alive, dominating the dank room like a chanteuse atop a piano, taunting him, her bruised face swathed in cigarette smoke, her heels playing a rhythm against the table legs, an accompaniment to a song that no one heard.

 Tap tap tap.

 Aren’t you going to ask about the El-Almanien vases? The ones that disappeared so soon on Robert Dansey’s infamous excavation?

 Tap tap tap.

 You do know it was the Covingtons who stole them, don’t you?

 She spared him a pitying look.

 No, I can tell you don’t know that. But now you do. How lucky you are, Mark—yes, I know your name, you fool—you’ve not only me in your possession, but Covington is close at hand. You can find those vases. I could find them for you.

 She paused.

 Bring her to me.

 His brow furrowed.

 No, not that little bitch. Send Melinda Pappas down here. That’s how to get to Covington, don’t you see? If you remember anything that I tell you, Mark, remember that. However—I may be able to find out more for you. But I must see her first in order to do that.

 Another pause.

 I really did love her.  

 Her voice was suddenly thick with sorrow.

 Oh God. I did.

 An hour later Stoller was dead. Foolishly he hadn’t anticipated that. He should have known that Pappas would be the last person she would want to see before dying. The last goodbye.

 Before they took her body away he spent a long time staring at the face that now, like a tomb itself, had secreted away all that she had known, all that she had touched, felt, experienced, all of it, for eternity. Death hoarded knowledge and gave nothing in return except the beautiful agonies and the tortuous conundrums of its perennial mystery.

 He wondered if anyone would remember her, if anyone would look at the sky and see in a bird’s flight her soul, if indeed she possessed one, at peace, or would feel fleeting agony or tender sadness at the thought of her death. He wondered if anyone would truly mourn her. He knew Melinda Pappas wouldn’t. For reasons he either could not or did not wish to fathom, this angered him. Her beauty, her money, her talent, her aloofness, all of it conspired in presenting an image to Pendleton of a careless woman, reckless in her failure to gauge her effect on others. She had blundered into his operation for one reason, and one reason only: Love of Covington. Who cared if the mission ground to a halt because of her ineptitude, who cared if a very important, very valuable war criminal was dead because of her? Not just a war criminal, he thought, but a woman. A woman in love. Who would mourn her?

 Perhaps—he thought as he caressed the cold marble of Catherine Stoller’s cheek—perhaps he would.

 If there was one thing Pendleton did mourn on a regular basis, however, it was the dim reality that his manservant, Gordon, was a frequently inebriated Scottish fuckwit barely capable of concealing the petty thefts of cufflinks and silverware that financed the backstreet abortions that he was partly responsible for. Gordon’s only saving grace, the only reason Pendleton kept him around, was the marvelous, almost indescribable flair in which he would announce visitors. He knew how to position callers in just the right place so that, after rolling and caressing a name with his magnificent thick brogue, he would bow and step aside with a perfect flourish, revealing a person like a magician modestly performing his greatest trick.

This evening’s entertainment was Janice Covington, who appeared vaguely amused at Gordon’s skill but nonetheless fearfully retracted the fedora in her hand when the servant attempted, again, to take it from her.

The door closed and they were alone.

She was about to speak when he raised a hand. “One moment, if you please. Just one moment.” He continued to compose, in excruciatingly slow fashion, nothing more urgent than an idle wish list of tasks for Gordon: Hire the chimneysweep. Goat cheese from the farmer’s market. His true intent was not so much to place Janice at a disadvantage as it was to take the opportunity for study; this was the first time he had ever seen her in the flesh, at close range—not standing at a distance in a pile of snow, nor in an old black and white photograph where a forced smile could not counteract the melancholy squint of her eyes.

Unconcerned at waiting, she tossed the hat on a chair and prowled the study with the leonine wariness and attention to detail one found in either an archaeologist or a professional thief. The firelight found untold splendors in her appearance: filaments of copper and gold in her tightly braided hair, the flaring phosphorescence in the green of her irises, and smooth, slender lines accentuating her profile and her full, pre-Raphaelite lips—all of this beauty counterbalanced the dark bundle of stitches near her brow. To his annoyance, the realization that Covington was indeed quite attractive forced him to revise his opinion of Melinda Pappas. That depraved bitch does have taste, I’ll give her that.

lecythus—a slender, exquisite Etruscan perfume vase—had snared her attention. Of his many possessions this one held significance; it had been one of his first “purchases”—if one considered bullying and implied threats an acceptable form of currency—a trophy from the first dig he had ever funded.

She picked it up in a manner far too casual for his liking. He stiffened. She looked it over with a discerning eye, turning it this way and that. His lips pursed anxiously.

With a snap of her wrist she tossed it high into the air.

He leapt up.

The vase landed with a satisfying thump in her left hand. With exaggerated care she sat the object down in its proper place.

Their eyes met.

She grinned toothily. “It’s a nice copy,” she said in a voice that—under different circumstances and belonging to a different woman—he would find deliciously husky.

He despised her more than ever—yet made a mental note to somehow brutalize and/or ruin Ambrose Delahyde, the fiend now unfortunate enough to have given him the lecythus.

She was trying not to smirk. “Do you think,” she continued, “we can discuss business now?”

Pendleton cleared his throat. “It’s strange, we’ve never spoken before.”

“There’s never been a reason for me to speak to you. Until now.” She trailed a finger along the table where other vases stood in comradely fashion with the lecythus.

He screwed the cap on the fountain pen. “It’s thoughtful of you to handle the transaction all by yourself and spare her further indignity.” His eyebrow arched. “I must apologize for all the nonsense with Adrian. He’s a greedy rogue, and did not follow my instructions as we had agreed upon.”

“Which were?”

“He was supposed to only give you the photos and the instructions on how to contact me.”

Janice feigned interest in an amphora. “He wouldn’t even give me your phone number.”

“Only delaying the inevitable, you see, so that he would have a chance to scarper before I got hold of him.”

She tapped her fingers impatiently on the table and finally looked at him. “Don’t rough up the poor bastard too much.”

“You already had a go at him, didn’t you?” Pendleton leered.

“I don’t like to be blackmailed.”

“I don’t consider it blackmail. I call it ‘getting your attention.’”

“Next time try a calling card,” she retorted. “But now that I’m here, why don’t you just tell me what you want? The sooner we get this over with, the happier both of us will be, I bet.”

“It’s not cash.” Pendleton nodded at the fairly obvious bulge in her jacket. “My currency is information.”

“Fine.” She folded her arms and leaned against a bookshelf. “What the hell are you waiting for? A cue from the orchestra?”

“Let’s go back to the year 1939, more specifically, to your fateful employment by Robert Dansey as foreman for his excavation at El-Alamein.” He carefully aligned the fountain pen beside the blotter. “Rather surprising he agreed to hire you, given how much he detested your father.”

“You really know everything, don’t you? I guess you would, considering you put a lot of effort into seeing me get arrested for Dansey’s death.” The accusation, finally made, lay between them like a corpse—one that Pendleton wasn’t yet ready to acknowledge. “Look,” she continued, “I had no problem with Dansey. There was a lot of bad blood between him and my old man, it’s true. But he owed me, see. Around that time I had gotten him out of a jam.”

Pendleton gave her a questioning look.

“Let’s just say he was stupider about women than I was.”

“Ah.”

Janice ran a thumb over her blunt, smooth fingernails. “I know that’s really hard to believe.”

He laughed lightly. “Ah, yes. Your reputation precedes you. And Dansey’s as well, although his was for legendary stupidity and not luck with the ladies. But let’s move on, shall we? A very significant discovery was made on that dig. Two vases. Surely you remember them.”

She nodded. “Rare funereal vases—and very odd to find Greek ones of that period in an Egyptian tomb.” She hesitated. “I found them myself.” Her voice was filled with quiet pride.

“Where are they?”

“Good question.”

“Don’t toy with me.”

She shrugged, nonchalant. “I’m not. I don’t know where they are anymore than you do.”

“You neglect to mention that while you were the one who found them, you—and your father—were the ones who stole them from Dansey’s site.”

“True.” He couldn’t help but notice that she sounded a trifle satisfied with that.

Harry tightened the harness that criss-crossed Janice’s torso and tugged at the metal loop embedded in the leather material. Satisfied with its strength, he threaded a rope through it.

 Despite the chill of the desert night, Janice was sweating bullets at the thought of going down into the narrow tunnel. She grudgingly appreciated this great jibe from the fates—being an archaeologist susceptible to sudden and inexplicable bouts of claustrophobia. “Okay, Harry, look, if you’re not going to believe the Curse of the Mummy—“

 “They haven’t found any mummies yet.”

 “Cat mummies. Didn’t they goddamn cat mummies?”

 “They don’t count.”

 “Sacrilege, Harry!” Fayed’s Cheshire cat grin—his teeth alarmingly bright in the near darkness—punctuated this teasing comment.

 “—but look here, Fayed weighs less than me, I swear…look at him, for Christ’s sake.”

 “Just because you can lift me up does not mean I am lighter than you.” Fayed’s fingers danced along her ribcage. “Ah yeeeees, you are as light as a mu-mmmeeee.” The Egyptian had an uncanny ability to sound as creepily ethereal as Peter Lorre.

 “Shut up!” Janice, easily rattled at the prospect of going down the tunnel, snapped at him.

 “Knock it off, you two.” Harry blithely pulled gloves on Janice’s unwilling hands, tugging at them insistently in order to focus her on the task ahead. “Remember—pull the rope once if you need more slack, twice when you’ve got the goods.”

 “And three times if you see Boris Karloff,” Fayed added.

 “Fayed, I swear, I am going to goddamn kill you!”

 Harry interrupted. “Janice?”

 She was now clutching a torch, distracted by the strange, stale back draft from the black tunnel that ruffled her hair and curled insidiously at her back. “Huh?”

 “I love you.” Harry gently planted his boot in her ass and down the pit she went.

Janice was staring into space. Goddamn those vases. If we hadn’t taken them—none of this would have happened. My father would still be alive. And I wouldn’t be here with this asshole. “Listen. Those vases have been an albatross around my neck since the day I found them. I’m going to tell you what I know, then I’m done with it. Do you know who Marius Zech was?”

He squelched laughter. “My dear doctor, given how much I know of Catherine Stoller—surely I would know who her fiancé was. And you can be certain that, had I the chance, I would have asked Zech about the vases. Alas, he has been dead for almost ten years now.”

Unable to stifle her surprise, Janice blinked. “Marius was her fiancé?” she repeated. Jesus Christ. She recalled Mel’s tale about Stoller’s infamous “Dear Jane” letter: Stoller had mentioned a fiancé—but, apparently, gave no specifics. I would have blotted his name out of my mind anyway, Mel had said. And—Marius was dead. She hadn’t known that.  How truly small the world is, especially when it seems to be composed primarily of madmen and madwomen chasing the shadow of a world that no longer existed. 

“Indeed.” Pendleton raised an eyebrow.  “I thought you knew the late lamented Herr Zech. He was the Ahnenerbe’s top man in Egypt for a while.”

“Yes.”

He probed further. “A friend of yours.”

“Not quite.” More like my reluctant savior. She moved closer to the desk. Did you ever regret what you did for me, Marius? “They were engaged while Zech was in Alexandria?”

Pendleton nodded.

“And she—“

“—was in Alexandria only briefly, I believe, in 1939, for about two weeks. A little conjugal visit, I suppose.” Pendleton’s face curdled into a moue of distaste.

Janice briefly wondered if Pendleton was queer, but since it appeared that he didn’t really like anyone, it was hard to say. Her stomach curdled at the thought of his sex life, and so she banished the thought and concentrated on the revelations at hand. Stoller was there. In Alexandria. Did she see me? Did she know who I was? Did I even run into her somewhere? Christ, did I make a pass at her? She wasn’t really my type but God knows at that time anything with tits was my type…well, except for Julian. During that time Julian Manley-Finch’s home was like Grand Central Terminal for allWesterners; everyone passed through at one point or another, even—to Julian’s private dismay—the Germans.

Harry. She may have at least met my father; he had more contact with Marius than I did. She tucked away the thought for later speculation and squinted at Pendleton with renewed interest. “So tell me, why are these vases so important to you?”

Pendleton shifted with stiff unease. “They’re very rare, as you’ve pointed out, doctor.”

“Yeah. But I don’t understand what this is all about. You’re a smart man, you’ve clearly done your homework and all that—so you must know that my father sold them to Zech that year.”

Calmly he sat, trying to read the truth in her face, her body, her eyes.

She continued. “Zech was high up in the Ahnenerbe—you know that. He worked for Goering directly and practically spent his entire military career buying everything he could lay his hands on for that greedy sonofabitch. He knew about the vases. And once he did, everybody knew about them—because he wanted them so much. But no one knew who had them.” Janice smiled briefly. “In the end, they were just too much goddamn trouble. That’s why we had to get rid of them. I had the goddamn kingpin of the black market breathing down my neck about them. We had to unload them. Zech was buying, and we knew no one would dare touch him.”

“You’re lying to me. There was nothing in Zech’s records that indicated such a purchase.”

“Did he always write down what he bought on the black market?”

Yes. He was German, for God’s sake. They keep meticulous records about everything—even killing millions of people.”

“Look,” Janice said. “I don’t have them.”

“You’re lying.”

“I don’t have a reason to lie to you. Why would I hang onto something like that for so long anyway? It’s dangerous. I would have sold ‘em a long time ago.”

“Well, you don’t really need the money anymore, do you? You haven’t really needed it since you started bedding the blue-eyed belle of the ball.”

“Hoo boy.” She chuckled sardonically and folded her arms. “How long have you been waiting to say that?”

Pendleton leaned back, momentarily relaxed and—dare he admit it?—even a tad pleased at her amusement. He smiled. “Oh, for so long. For so very long.”

“It’s almost flattering that you think I’m so skillful and manipulative that I could constantly deceive someone like Mel, after all these years, just for money. She’s smarter than you think.” She leaned against his desk in an almost proprietary way. “I don’t need the money because I have a job. And I’ve lived without money before. I can do it again. I don’t have much, but I get by.”

“How much longer will you have that job of yours, doctor? Your reputation is in such disrepair, it may only be a matter of time. I know the case is closed again in Alexandria—they failed to convict you of Robert Dansey’s murder. But the cloud will linger for longer than you can imagine.”

“We’ll see. You gave it a good try, buddy boy. I’m always impressed when someone puts a lot of effort into putting me into jail—or worse.”

“You’re just like her, aren’t you?” he muttered savagely.

Janice frowned, confused. “What?”

“You think you can get away with doing whatever you like, including murder.”

“I did not murder him, and I’m getting pretty damn tired of denying it all the time.”

“Then who did?”

“Bardamu.”

“You mean Hubert Plessis.”

“Hubert, eh? No wonder he changed his name.” She pulled a cigarette out of a slender, silver carrying case—an expensive, elegant gift that meshed incongruously with her rough appearance.

He felt a flare of distaste for what he perceived as a subtle showing off. You’re kept, there’s no doubt about it. he thought disdainfully, and did not hide the sneer that disrupted his face. Nonetheless, force of habit prevailed and Pendleton rose quickly to light her cigarette. Gruffly, she permitted it. The manners of an Englishman were as indefatigable as a Southern woman’s, apparently. “An anti-hero out of a bad novel. Now him—I know you did not kill him. But it wasn’t from lack of trying, was it?” he whispered, his mouth hovering, with conspiratorial closeness, near her ear. “Didn’t finish the job, did you?”

I wanted to. Time had only engorged her memory with ugly images. She did not stop hitting him with the gun, even when her hands were slick with blood and the metal kept slipping within her grasp, even when the policeman had shouted at Fayed—get her out of here—even when, as she tussled against Fayed, she landed a glancing blow on her beloved friend’s face.

“Did you ever see what you actually did to him?”

She did. She remembered the swollen bloody mass of his face—like rotting meat falling, slowly, off the bone.

“I saw the photos, Janice. May I call you Janice? Your companion Miss Pappas always prefers to be so formal. But I believe, since we are discussing matters of such an intimate nature, we may call one another by our Christian names, don’t you think?”

She said nothing. He thought he saw a barely perceptible tremor of her hand as she raised the cigarette to her mouth, the gesture a suitable camouflage—along with the nacreous curtain of smoke—for emotions she could barely contain.

“You disfigured him. That much, surely you know. You shattered his jaw—so thoroughly that he was reduced to eating mush and gruel for the short remainder of his life. He couldn’t even close his mouth properly. And he was in constant pain, I was told. He became a walking vial of morphine. He was the living dead, thank to your questionable compassion. He was probably relieved when Marius Zech’s henchman finally put a bullet in his brain. It was a mercy killing.”

He picked up his glass of port. “You know, I do believe you didn’t kill Dansey.”

She looked surprised.

“There was no conclusive proof. You’d had no contact with him for at least a month prior to his death. And as everybody involved in the investigation told me, everybody wanted to see him dead anyway. You could’ve cooperated more with the authorities to clear your name. But you didn’t.” He sipped the rich port. “You wanted them to believe you were guilty. You were trying to keep the focus off your father—and the Alexandrian cabal.”

The cabal.  So secretive that it did not have a name, at least not one that was ever revealed to her. Janice recalled Naima’s deft refusals as she lounged around the Old Man’s home, wearing a bright dress of red and gold, smiling, laughing at her brusque, foolhardy questions. We know this is a mere diversion for you, until you find your true path.  She blinked at Pendleton and everything started to make a bit more sense. Of course. “That’s what this is about, isn’t it? Old rivalries between your cabal and the Eastern one. Which one are you part of? Stella Matutina? The Golden Dawn? The Sacred Society of British Bedwetters?”

Pendleton colored, indicating that she had mined some sort of truth; whether it was about cabals or bedwetting remained to be seen. “I never said—“

“You don’t have to,” she retorted. “You’re one of them.

He took a step back. “All right,” he breathed shakily, “I am. What of it? Are you surprised?”

“I shouldn’t be. You’re not terribly different from the kind of Westerner who gets involved in this stuff. You’re lured in by the secretiveness of it all, the promise of forbidden knowledge, of power and prizes beyond your wildest dreams. It doesn’t matter that you have to steal it from other people.” And I know this because I was tempted in the same fashion. I wanted answers to all those questions, I wanted a key to the past that few possessed.

“You little hypocrite,” Pendleton hissed. “You’ve stolen just as much as I.”

“The difference is I don’t do it anymore. The past belongs to everyone. We can’t hoard it away for personal gain, just for the sake of power.” Janice knew this impromptu lecture would fall on deaf ears; nonetheless she said it, if only as a reminder for herself—a guidepost or marker to a truth she sometimes lost sight of.

“The past is power. Surely I needn’t tell that to you, of all people.”

My God, how is it you know me so well? “Do you think an entire cabal is behind the missing vases?”

“Don’t play the fool. It is, you know it is. And you are part of it.”

“No. I’m not.”

“Your friend and his wife are.”

“Perhaps. I’m not.”

“Nonetheless,” he trailed off and reached over the desk for his empty glass. “You would protect them with your life, wouldn’t you?” He tapped the tumbler, which resounded with a hearty, impressive ping. “Care for a drink?”

Her jaw shifted, as if she were contemplating the offer; but those hooded, glittering eyes remained coolly hostile.

Pendleton smiled, and warmed up to his subject. “As you see, I know a lot about you, Dr. Covington—oh dear, we’re on formal terms again. Forgive me, Janice. Since I managed to trace Stoller’s tenuous connection to you—one that is independent of the mutual rutting you’ve shared with Melinda Pappas—you’ve become very interesting to me. Such enormous potential, such drive you’ve always had! The first woman to acquire a Ph.D. in archaeology from Harvard. The first American woman to guest lecture at the Royal Society. The discovery of the Apollo-Christ mosaic outside Amphipolis—an extraordinary find. You could have coasted on that for the rest of your career, if it weren’t tainted by the Dansey case or this ridiculous madness concerning the Xena Scrolls. And—you’ve never really managed to escape the circumstances of your background, have you? Rather sad, that. I’m not just talking about your father, the thief. I’m talking about your mother, the whore. I suppose if she hadn’t died of syphilis it would have been of the drink instead.”

Pendleton had momentarily—and fortunately, for his sake—placed the tumbler back on the desk again when Janice took this perfect opportunity to punch him in the stomach.

Because he had approximately seven inches and 45 pounds on her, Mark Pendleton had not been particularly concerned about the threat of bodily harm from Covington; as angry as she was capable of looking, she did not, he thought, possess that dramatic air of black menace that her companion, Melinda, could generate with the merest darkening of her eyes and which gave him serious chills. Now he quickly reassessed this opinion; there was little doubt that her rage matched his size ounce for ounce. He attempted to break his fall with a weak grope for the desk but missed, hitting the floor with such force that his knees would ache for days afterwards.

In moments of physical duress a second feels like minutes; the threads of time unravel from their tightly bound, preconceived notions—perhaps not unlike the strands of gossamer now unfurled from the braided mass of Covington’s hair. The few seconds he was unable to breathe were an unendurable eternity and he stared at an unbound tendril of gold, glowingly unobtainable; it seemed to take on representation of both time and beauty, things that always seemed to elude him. He shuddered, gasped for air, and coughed with relief. So glad I didn’t break the bloody glass. Gordon would take days before cleaning it up.

“That must be one hell of a file you people have on me.” She flexed her hand and spoke calmly, with unwavering malice. “My mother may have been a shanty Irish drunk, but she wasn’t a whore.” Then she knelt beside him, so that her lips were level with his ear. “So you know a lot about me. Let me tell you what I know about you. You spent the entire war behind a goddamn desk. You never set foot outsideEngland until peace was declared. You never held a gun, you never faced an enemy. So forgive me if I don’t find you fit to pass some sort of higher judgment on me.” Her voice dipped lower, into a register tinted with incredulous rage. “Have you ever seen anyone get killed? Have you ever seen a body blown into a million pieces? Have you ever watched someone you know slowly die, knowing you could do nothing to stop it? I wouldn’t wish the things I saw then on anyone.” Her hand twitched and he flinched. “Not even you.”

She stood. Silence stretched over the merciless rack of time. Pendleton risked a glance at her. She was unbuttoning her jacket with an odd deliberateness indicating that either a seduction or a thrashing was forthcoming. He strongly suspected the latter.

With the last button freed a lump of cash fell to the floor, accompanied by her jacket. That was when he noticed the gun lodged in her waistband.

Now she was rolling up the sleeves of her shirt. “You better give me those photos now.”

“Are you going to shoot me?” The effectiveness of his sneer was undercut with a gasping cough. “You wouldn’t dare. You wouldn’t get away with it.” He tried to stand but she kicked him in the ribs, just hard enough to knock the wind out of him again.

“I wouldn’t be too sure about that.” She began to do something he found most peculiar: She untucked her shirt, undid a few buttons, and tugged it into general disarray. “I’m sure I can cook up a good ‘attempted-rape’ defense. I can draw on experience for that—you look a little surprised. Wasn’t that in my file too? Anyway, this isn’t the kind of publicity you’d like, I’m certain. And I don’t think there’s any love lost between you and old Gordon—he’d make a good witness. Jesus, with that sense of drama he has, he’d be front-page news. Sure, you’d fire his sorry ass but I can tell you right now Dr. Pappas misses having a servant, you know?”

His expression was clearly one of you’re mad.

“Now I’m gonna ask nicely. I want those photos and their negatives.”  She pressed the gun against his windpipe.  “A girl deserves some nice pictures to remember her vacation by, don’t you think?”

*  *  *

 Alexandria, 1939

In the opium world, heaven burned white hot. She wondered what hell felt like under the same influence.

Regardless, Janice was certain that in either place she would hear Julian’s voice booming loudly with his absurd proclamations and hopelessly rolling r’s: I am a wizened path of water, sinewy and sneakily encircling the rich land of Alexander!

No matter.

She continued feasting upon Antoinette’s mouth, until Antoinette disengaged sloppily and pressed her sticky lips against Janice’s ear. “Do you see her?”

“Hmmm?”

“The blonde bitch looking at us.”

Janice tilted her head but Antoinette grasped her chin roughly, forcing her glazed green eyes upon the Frenchwoman again. “Don’t be obvious. She is over by the window.”

“Oh. Yeah. Her.” Janice hoped she sounded convincingly nonchalant, for she had no idea whom Antoinette was talking about. I don’t like blondes anyway. “What’s the big deal, baby? Some like to watch. Those who can’t do, watch.”

“Stop babbling, Covington. I don’t like her—I don’t like being watched like that. Let’s go to the room.”

“You want her to join us?” Janice grinned dopily.

Antoinette smacked her in the chest, provoking a dizzying fit of giggling and coughing from her uncouth lover. “You filth! You know I do this just for you, because I love you so much! I receive no pleasure from your beastly acts at all!”

“Oh, I know. It’s very very very kind of you to indulge my perversities.”

The sarcasm fell on tone-deaf ears and Antoinette remained haughtily oblivious. “I am glad you appreciate it. Now I am retiring to the guest room and”—a heavy sigh—“if you wish to join me there, then so be it.”

Antoinette was gone by the time Janice had started to form a sentence. “Ah, sure. Jus’ give me a minute…” To make sure I don’t throw up when I stand up.

The sofa lurched slightly, like a boat at sea—oooh, is that my dinner I feel at the back of my throat?—and Janice realized someone new had sat down next to her.

It was the woman—thin, blonde, with dark, intense eyes and a cigarette dangling out of her mouth. “Give me a light,” she demanded quietly.

Janice groped for the lighter in her breast pocket. Her thumb jerked repeatedly over the tiny wheel until finally a spark took and a flame shot up, engulfing the cigarette’s tip.

The woman gently seized Janice’s wrist. “Nice lighter.”

“Thanks.”

The blonde spat a stream of smoke. “You looked like you were having fun.”

“I was.” Janice tried to force her tired eyes upon the woman. “You looked like you were having fun watching us.”

“I was.”

They laughed, enjoying this peculiar shared moment.

“Your friend, however, was not having fun.”

“No, she wasn’t.”

The woman sank in cushions closer to Janice. “Do you know who I am?”

“No.”

She kissed Janice on the mouth with shocking tenderness. “Someday, someone is going to kiss you like that. But it won’t be me.”

Janice’s eyebrows knotted in puzzlement. She frowned. “I still—I still don’t know who you are.”

“Good.” The woman stood up and walked away.

 Interlude
Yearning hurts, and what release may come of it feels much like death.—Heraclitus

Alexandria

A Very Long Time Ago

If ever someone would tell Marcellus that librarians led dull lives, he would now have irrefutable evidence to deny it.

Excitedly he followed the mercenary through the narrow, uneven streets that led toward the docks, unaware that his clean, fresh robe looked conspicuous among the dusty streets of battered, aged stone. His nostrils flared dramatically at the salt-tinged air, free—yes, free!—of the smell of old rotting papyrus. I should get out more often.

The only obstacle to this fervent wish was his job. Running the library was a task that consumed every waking moment. Generations ago, when the library was still intact and at the height of its glory, great scholars ran the renowned library: Demetrius. Apollonius.  The very names invoked the highest standard of learning in the known world.

This, of course, was before the fire.

Now, in its current ramshackle fate, it was left to precocious, well-read upstarts like him to keep the bloody thing running. If he’d had a wife and family, he would never see them. As it was, it was pure luck that he caught that fleeting glimpse of the mysterious woman—gold hair, gray cape, small round weapon at her side—who donated a bundle of old and surprisingly valuable scrolls to the library two days past.

It’s her. I know it.

The burly, smelly mercenary—Marcellus had tried to stay upwind of him the entire time they walked—slowed to a stop. They were in a city square, bustling with morning activity. “That’s it.” The soldier nodded at a decrepit tavern across the square.

Marcellus frowned. Well, what did you expect? he chastised himself. She’s not exactly a Ptolemy.  “All right.” The librarian dug a coin out of the pouch at his waist. “Wait around, will you? I don’t want to get lost going back.”

The soldier shrugged. “I’ll be there.” He pointed at a building that, while just as self-effacing at the others in the square, seemed much more clean, respectable, and well-kept. He ambled away, whistling.

The librarian breathed deeply before entering the tavern. I hope you know what you’re doing, Galen had said to him this morning. If she is who you think she is, she might skewer you sooner than talk to you.

She wouldn’t do that. She’s the Battling Bard, for Gaia’s sake! A heroine! A legend in her own time!

Galen had snorted disdainfully. She was, at any rate. They say she’s gone mad. Just be careful.

The tavern was eerily empty except for the man behind the bar: tall, beady-eyed, and immediately suspicious of Marcellus, who nodded in greeting. “I’m looking for a woman,” the librarian began.

“Whorehouse is four doors down.”

Marcellus blushed. So that’s where he was going. “No. That’s not what I meant. I’m looking for a warrior woman—small in stature, blonde hair. Looks like an Amazon, you might say.”

The tavernkeeper frowned. “Amazons are usually big, aren’t they?”

“Usually, I suppose—oh, never mind. Look, I need to talk to her, if she’s here. Is she?”

The man’s beady eyes went even smaller. “Who says she’s here?”

Before Marcellus could even think of a way to dig himself out of that one, a child’s screech could be heard—loud, shrill, and piercing the air. A girl, no older than seven, bolted into the room. “Daddydaddydaddy!” she screamed this protective mantra at the tavernkeeper, amazingly transformed from sullen lout into caring father. He scooped the child into his arms. “Here now, what’s this?” he said softly. “Hmmm?” The girl hyperventilated into his shoulder as she clung to him fiercely. His eyes, focused on something in the distance, turned hard and small again. “What’s going on here?” he demanded angrily. Marcellus followed the trail of his gaze to the woman standing in the doorway.

It was her.  She was barefoot, her famous hair quite tousled, wearing a leather vest of dark brown—open, and just barely covering her breasts—and a matching skirt. She was quickly fastening a thick, braided belt around the skirt.

It didn’t look good.

But then, she didn’t look good either. The wind was momentarily and surprisingly knocked out of his hero-worshipping sails. How tired she looks! Beautiful, most definitely, but weary. It’s a miracle she can stand. But this is the woman. This is her. I know it. Not only a brilliant bard and a hero in her own right, but she is also the beloved of a great warrior, and the inspiration for some of Sappho’s most stunning lyrics. “No woman I think will ever outshine your skill—no woman who will ever look into sunlight.” She wrote that for you, Gabrielle, you of the “golden crown and sorrowed eyes.” That was you. And this is you.

“I’m sorry.”  She speaks! Her voice was low, softly frayed with exhaustion.

The tavernkeeper had an ugly vein pulsing on his forehead. “What happened?” he barked. “What did you do to her?”

“Nothing—please believe me,” the warrior replied quickly. “I was sleeping, she came into my room, and—she saw my back.”

“She saw your back?” the tavernkeeper echoed, confused.

“There’s a tattoo…” the warrior trailed off, dropping her head in embarrassment.  “It frightened her.”

The tavernkeeper followed his skeptical squint with a challenge. “Let’s see it, then.”

She closed her eyes tightly, as if for a moment she would resist, then turned around slowly. The vest fell, gathering in folds at her waist, and revealing a fantastical creature the likes of which none of them had ever seen and had only heard about in tall tales from sailors, bards, and drunken adventurers. For his part Marcellus had never seen such an exquisitely detailed creation upon human flesh—not that he knew many people with skin designs. Even with his limited experience, though, he marveled in silence. This was something extraordinary. No wonder the poor girl was scared out of her wits.

The tavernkeeper took in vain the names of several gods—Egyptian, Greek, Norse, Roman, as if trying to ensure good standing with a deity from each corner of the known world. This unusual litany of swearing from her father piqued the child’s curiosity, and she braved another look at the tattoo, shivering in the delight of fear. Her father soothed her.

Further encouraged by the safe perch of his arms and with the boldly amazing, sudden changes of heart that only children are capable of, she reached out, arm extended, fingers rigid. She wanted to touch the dragon.

“Ah—is it okay if she touches it?” the tavernkeeper asked timidly.

A pause. The blonde head bobbed slowly in agreement.

Father and daughter approached the dragon, the former whispering gentle words of encouragement to the latter: See, it’s just a pretty picture, it won’t hurt you. 

The child spent several delighted minutes tracing lines and colors along the warrior’s back, from the vermilion flames that licked at the neck to the darkened shades of emerald pooling in the dip of the muscular back. Finally she dropped her hand, her curiosity fully sated. Her father lowered her to the ground. She remained staring in awe at the warrior’s back until the tavernkeeper, embarrassed, took her hand and led her out of the room.

Gabrielle stood motionless.

She doesn’t know I’m even here, Marcellus realized.

She pulled the vest back on.

Say something, fool! He opened his mouth and croaked aloud her name.

In a blink of an eye she was standing in front of him. While her face was damp with tears and her bright eyes threatened to unleash even more, her voice was hard. “Who are you?”

“I—“ he stammered. “My name is Marcellus. I’m the librarian at the library.” Oh, well done, you idiot. As opposed to “the librarian dancing naked in the town square”? “We didn’t meet the other day when you brought the scrolls. I don’t know why Galen didn’t come and get me, I wanted to wring his stupid neck, he knows he should do that. I wanted to say—“

“No.” She shook her head. “Don’t say anything.”

“Please, listen to me. I wanted to be absolutely certain that you intended for us to have them. They are in written in your hand.” He hesitated in proffering forth his theory. “They are the only copies you have, aren’t they?”

She said nothing.

“We can make a copy for you, or we can copy the originals and return them to you.” He fumbled with his robe. “It would take several months, unfortunately, but—“

She cut him off with a low, almost conciliatory tone that nonetheless brooked no argument. “I don’t want them. That’s why I gave them to the library.”

Well, that settles that. Doesn’t it?  “All right,” he acquiesced. “But you must realize—it’s not every day I am presented with the opportunity to speak with someone like you. You wrote some of the most legendary tales known to our world. It’s like—having Aristophanes, or Herodotus, or Socrates stop by.” The librarian smiled.

Gabrielle blotted away tears with the back of a sinewy, tanned arm. “A long time ago, I knew someone once who would have loved to do what you do—live among words.” She sniffled, her jaw shifted. “You must be very learned by now.”

She spoke with gentle politeness, yet he had the distinct feeling that she mocked him. He fumbled a retort composed purely from false modesty and raging insecurity. “Well, ah, the more one reads, the more one realizes how little one really knows.”

She was fastening the leather stays on the vest. “Do you know the works of Heraclitus, Marcellus?”

“Of course!” he blurted, shedding false modesty as easily as a snake does an old skin.

“’Just as the river where I step is not the same, and is, so I am as I am not.’” Her eyes were preternaturally fierce, her gaze as achingly sacred as the ruins of a temple. “The woman who wrote those scrolls you have can tell you nothing, because she’s dead. She died many times. And she came back one time too many.”

She turned and walked away.

As a certain Poteidaen girl did thirty-two years ago in a similar circumstance, Marcellus followed—blindly, faithfully, and closely on the heels of greatness.

3. The Necessity of Leaving
Sometimes a journey makes itself necessary.
—Anne Carson, The Autobiography of Red

January, 1954

CambridgeMassachusetts

Overnight, the bitter pill of academia was sugarcoated with a fresh layer of snow. It barely merited shoveling, but nonetheless Paul noisily dragged a shovel over the sidewalk in front of the Covington-Pappas manse, creating a scraping noise that, on the level of sheer unpleasantness, ranked close to nails on a chalkboard.

He deposited the shovel on the porch and clapped his hands a few times—there was something perversely satisfying about the soft thump of his gloved hands as they met. Now what? A drink? He grinned.Old Mad Dog thought she could hide all the booze from me. Au contraire, Shorty. But wait, he reminded himself gleefully. I can shovel the path in the back too! And I’m excited by this! Jesus, am I pathetic or what?

 He picked up the shovel, walked around to the back, and was nearly knocked off his feet by the sight of Mel, wrapped in her overcoat, sitting on one of the tarp-covered porch chairs.

They weren’t due back until the following week.

She stared at him blankly, then looked away.

“You’re back,” he said. God, I hope she responds, otherwise this means I’m seeing things.

She did reply; her voice, however, was as barren as the winter landscape. “I’m back.”

Paul’s ears ached at the silence. “You’re alone?” he speculated sadly.

“I’m alone.”

Then his nose twitched suspiciously. He caught scent of something he usually associated with Covington. “You’re drunk!” He was incredulous.

“I’m drunk.” Mel confirmed this with an alarming head bobble.

He climbed on the porch and leaned on the railing in front of her. “What happened?”

“Would you believe me if I told you I wasn’t quite sure myself?”

“No. I’d say you’re just too smashed to think clearly, and that it hurts too much to talk about it.”

She laughed—which, unfortunately, made her head hurt. “Ow.” She winced and rubbed her forehead.

“How much did you have, old girl?”

“Everything in that pretty blue bottle.” She pointed at the empty bottle sitting on the porch beside her chair.

Only Mel would pick alcohol on the basis on a bottle’s attractiveness, Paul thought. “Ah. The Bristol Cream. Excellent choice.” He paused. “The whole bottle, huh?”

She purred in the affirmative.

“Sittin’ on the porch and drinking out of the bottle,” he mused aloud. “And here I thought it was just the hillbillies down your way who did that. Why aren’t you barefoot and playing the banjo too?”

“No Southern jokes are permitted today,” Mel decreed haughtily.

“Hmm. You’re no fun.”

“I want to sleep.” She tilted her head back and stared at the rotting porch roof. “Do you think it’ll help me sleep? I can’t sleep.”

“Honey, if that bottle of sherry doesn’t knock you out, I don’t know what will. Why do you think little old ladies are always nodding off in the middle of the day? It’s the sherry.” He held out a hand. “If you fall asleep out here, though, you’re going to get frostbite or worse. Let’s dump you on the couch, whaddya say?”

“Charming invitation,” she slurred, accepting his hand with a surprisingly warm one of her own.

Paul steered her inside and toward the living room. She was humming Schubert as they reached the sofa. She swayed against him. It was a strange reversal of the last time they saw each other, and an anticipatory dread of what she might do filled him—because he knew the pricking numbness of booze always failed to magically seal over the wound that made you pick up the bottle in the first place.

And so she kissed him—hard. Her mouth was sweet-sour with the sherry but in no way did it diminish his pleasure of feeling her cool lips on his own. It was a kiss designed for seduction—powerful, and in its quickness hinting at wonderful things to come. But he could not help but wonder how many times Janice had succumbed to such a kiss, how many times she had been tamed by those very same lips. It was then he dimly realized that, no matter what, it wouldn’t work. It wasn’t just that she would always compare him to Janice—he would be doing it too. I don’t want to be runner-up in anyone’s contest. Not even yours, Melinda.

She ended the kiss and burrowed her face into his neck. “Well? What are you waiting for?”

He chuckled sadly at her gruff, unwilling invitation. I’ve received more enthusiastic encouragement from prostitutes. “You don’t think much of me, do you?” He released her and gently placed his index finger against her sternum and pushed. She toppled onto the couch. “Come see me when you’re sober. And when you’re certain you aren’t in love with another person.” Paul’s brain became engaged in reprimanding his heart: What did we just agree upon here? You’re not waiting around to be second best. It won’t work. This woman is a hopeless case. Are you listening to me?

Mel closed her eyes tightly. “That’s a tall order, Mr. Rosenberg.”

“Tall orders are for tall girls.”

“And no jokes about my height either,” she mumbled defensively.

He pulled a throw rug over her and—he couldn’t help it—kissed her brow. “Sweet dreams.”

Mel whispered, “Don’t go yet.”

Once again he disobeyed common sense—run for the hills!—and hesitated. Wisely he sat down in a chair across the room; even in a sherry-scented fog, she exuded, for him, her unusual magnetism, and he knew that he needed, desperately, to keep as far away from her as possible. “Tell me what happened. You’ll feel better.”

“I won’t. But I’ll tell you anyway. She went back.”

“To Alexandria?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“She has to find them. She must.” Mel clumsily removed the glasses from her face.

There was no need to clarify what they were. To Paul, these mysterious scrolls were like a creature in a dark horror film—ill-defined, vaguely frightening, if only due to the wildly flickering, unstable glint that they always provoked in Janice’s eyes—Dr. Covington became Dr. Frankenstein. “But—that’s a violation of her teaching contract. Isn’t it? She’s supposed to return to the university this semester.”

“That’s right.”

He listened to the shifts in her breathing—the delicate crescendos of a subdued symphony, the long tired sighs followed by frustrated staccato breaths—as she fumbled to find words. “She told me she was going back. She had to, she said. Before he finds them. She thinks he’s going to find them.” Mel snorted loudly in disbelief, the Bristol Cream sufficiently addling her normally unshakable sense of decorum.

“Who?”

Mel closed her eyes. “You made this gentleman’s acquaintance, Paul: One Mark Pendleton.”

“Him?” Paul remarked incredulously. “Hasn’t somebody killed that asshole yet?”

“It’s been more of a temptation than you can imagine.” She was quiet for several minutes, and her breathing held a steady, even keel.

He assumed she’d fallen asleep. When she spoke again, the deadening bitterness of her voice startled him more than anything. “At first, I thought she was joking. Then I realized she was serious. I tried to reason with her. Then I tried to pressure her. Then I feigned indifference. Then I tried to make her feel guilty. And then I—I tried using my body.” She paused. “I’m sorry. I know you didn’t want to hear that. I suppose it was just out of—delaying the inevitable, trying to bind her to me at her most vulnerable. But it was all for nothing. When she wants something badly enough, nothing will stop her. Not even me.”

She welcomed the soreness of fucking—the distraction of Janice’s hand wrapped tightly around the back of her neck, the slick probing of her too-tender cunt, the hard thrusts bearing down upon her sticky thigh, the sudden collapse of Janice atop her, and the warmth of her lover’s breath corralled in the nexus of her shoulder and her neck. “All right. You win.”

 Mel had been momentarily transfixed by the bite mark she’d bestowed upon Janice’s shoulder, a series of finely etched red lines; one line was smearing into flesh, blurring into oblivion. She had been almost too distracted to notice this point of concession. “What?”

 Janice was still panting against her neck. “Come with me. I need you with me.”

 “And you said no?” Paul asked gently. “But—why?”

“Duty. Commitment. I have work to do here.”

“There you go, doing that noble Southern crap again.”

“It’s not easy for me—to not do that. Is my work any less important? Am I always the one who must follow? God.”  She groaned, draping an elegant hand across her face. “I don’t know if I’m making sense.”

“You are, I guess.” Paul looked out the window; snowflakes swayed in the air with a random drunkenness, as if the sky were a vast, cosmic saloon from which they’d all been kicked out. Could snowflakes be made of vodka and not water? No wonder you get so dizzy and intoxicated, catching them on your tongue. I can’t believe I’m thinking this and I’m not drunk. I want to be drunk, that’s for goddamn sure. I want to be out of here and I want to forget that you kissed me and that I held you in my arms.  He did not move. “But you have to admit, you’re just as stupidly stubborn as she is.”

In response, she snored softly against a sofa cushion.

4. Forget Everything
Alexandria…Lady of the Dew. Bloom of white nimbus…Core of nostalgia steeped in honey and tears.
—Naguib Mafouz, 
Miramar

February, 1954

Would it be a hoary cliché to liken Alexandria to a woman?

Yes, but why should that stop me? Fayed answered his own question as he drove the pockmarked old truck down the city’s main artery, the winding boulevard known as the Corniche. In this, the early morning, he thought the city at its most beautiful—unsullied by traffic, commerce, the petty brutalities of those pounding the pavements and taking for granted the rolling expanse of sky and sea, of Mediterranean blue unscathed by the burning sun. The city seemed particularly abandoned this morning—like a woman whose lover has crept out in the middle of the night without a farewell; the holiday of Eid-El-Adha was being celebrated by the Muslims of the city, and since most of the workers Janice employed were either conscientious practitioners of the religion or layabouts looking for a holiday, Fayed was certain his beloved friend would be alone on her little excavation site. Somewhat reluctantly, the government had allowed the reprobate Covington back to tear around the Necropolis again. They had been encouraged by both her earlier successes and the gentle influences of Cordahi the civil servant in the matter.

Fayed’s arm dangled out the driver’s window and lovingly caressed a large dent in the truck’s door, an injury the vehicle sustained, he was positive of it, from when Janice kicked it during a fit of pique many years ago. The circumstances of her anger were now vague—either money lost in a poker game, a dig not going well, or another argument with Harry. That was the short list of things she cared about then; women came and went, and Janice could never be bothered to feign joy at one’s arrival or regret at another’s departure.

Not that his priorities had been radically different from hers during those days. For a significant amount of time, Fayed lived a deceptively carefree bachelor existence, a neatly ordered life governed by superstition and habit. He had the places he visited every day—the round of salons and cafes, tea and flirtations (the great poet among them)—and his work. He had a rotation of lovers, mostly women, occasionally young men, names listed in a book not unlike the one Janice kept, days he preferred certain ones (he always saw Marceline on the first Thursday of the month, for example, because by then she’d received her monthly allowance from her elderly, impotent husband). Whenever she was in Alexandria, Janice, to his eternal annoyance, always upset the balance somehow; inevitably, some names in his book became blacked out, because he could not tolerate the incestuous feeling of sharing a lover with her. He had been particularly put out upon discovering that they shared an American photographer with auburn hair, a husky laugh, and wondrously dark aureoles richly pronounced against her pale skin. (Who cares, as long as she takes a bath beforehand? Janice had said, typically.)

One fateful morning had begun as usual: to the barber for a shave, to the cafe for tea and brioches. But as he left the café—tucking the day’s edition of Le Phare d’Alexandrie under his arm while brooding over whether he should give the photographer the heave-ho—he turned the corner of a street he’d gone down thousands of times, and saw, for the first time in his life, Naima. She stood there, motionless, as if she had been waiting there at the corner not for the tram but for him—as if every day she gathered her purse, went out, and stood on this corner, and when he didn’t show, she returned to her rituals and her life and waited patiently for another chance, another tomorrow.

Alexandria was a city where people were caught within the reticule of relationships, where if someone wasn’t your wife or your friend or your lover, they were instead your second cousin, your uncle, your lover’s ex-lover. But Naima, whom he had never seen before in his life, had lived her entire life on this street, two blocks from where he grew up, in this city—his city. That day she filled the street, and looked so much a part of it, that he couldn’t believe that he had never seen her before.

So, she had said to him, as a passing trolley managed to ruffle the collar of her blouse and the sheaf of dark hair curled along her shoulder, here you are.

And that was the end of his bachelor life.

Similarly, he thought, fate had intervened to end Janice’s bachelor life—Melinda Pappas appearing out of nowhere in the middle of war zone, wearing high heels and brandishing both an accent that could cut through stone and a deceptively helpless attitude—sounded as fabulous to him as Naima, the neighborhood girl he’d never seen before.

But fate was leading his friend and her lover down a very bumpy path. Getting Janice to talk of it was pointless; she was in prisoner-of-war mode and would only cite terse facts:

1. She felt it necessary to resume her search for the Xena Scrolls immediately and so consequently resigned her post from the university.

2. Mel did not agree with this course of action and so returned to the United States.

Initially it had perplexed him, particularly since Janice had previously spoken of how crucial it was that she retain her position within the university, how it lent her the air of legitimacy. How things have changed, he thought. In the old days, it was only fieldwork and money. You did not need this piece of paper from a school. But when she talked about it, her words, he later realized, possessed a cautious, rehearsed quality, as if she had been told this so many times and by so many people (including Harry, who wanted nothing so much as to see her safely ensconced in academia) that she couldn’t help but believe it, despite her own relentless, contradictory urges.

The truck rolled to a lugubrious stop, and the spackling sound of stones hitting the truck’s hull died away. Janice emerged from the tent, a shovel balanced over one shoulder. The ten pounds she had acquired from her stint as a professor were gone. It was a regression, Fayed thought, to a prototypical self, to an earlier version of what Janice had been.

Before Harry Covington’s death, Janice had been a reckless pleasure seeker, secretly in thrall to her father’s black market legacy while actively fighting it. After his death, she was a woman transformed—slowly, eventually, a sobering, fine patina of melancholy and sorrow touched her countenance and smoothed those rough edges, and she became quietly, grimly determined to find what had eluded her father. Initially, however, in the days after she’d nearly beaten Bardamu to death, she possessed a lean, mean look, a look that made many a man hesitate before so much as gazing in her direction, but conversely, thrilled the American photographer to no end. You don’t always get what you see, and it’s a damn shame, she had wistfully told Fayed in those days just before the war’s onset, before leaving the country for the safety of her native land. But—and here she lit a cigarette—that little sweetheart fucked as hard and as hungry as she looked. This pronouncement, punctuated by the click of her lighter and a smarmy apologetic smirk, made his heart sink. No offense, honey.

Hard and hungry were fine for sensual pleasures, he thought, but not as a continuing way of life. In this way lies madness. It’s a burning in the gut (another American expression he liked) that can court an insatiable appetite for nostalgia, for the continual feeding frenzy off a past fashioned—by desperate memory—into something more idyllic than it actually was.

Fayed knew he had to get her away from the dig, if only for a while. And to do that, he was counting on her sense of compassion. He had been on the verge of cooking up a grand lie about Mel being deathly ill or seriously injured, but was spared this prospect when a genuine crisis arose.

 So. His hands, empty, helpless, fell from the steering wheel as he watched her walk toward the truck. Here you are.

As Janice approached, Fayed noted with amusement that she was already covered head to foot in dust and resembled more a relic than a woman. He tried to imagine a statue of Covington in the Place Mohamed Ali: a dirty woman with a shovel instead of a turbaned man—the great leader who resurrected a moribund city—proudly astride his horse. The diggers who fought to preserve the treasures of the glorious past deserved a statue as much as Mohamed Ali did, he believed.

Fayed leaned out the window and put on his best faux seductive expression. “Come, my dear,” he crooned, “let me take you away from all this.”

“Come with me to the Casbah.” Her smile was slight and grudging. “Naima wanted you out of the house again?”

“No.” He paused. “Well, yes—but something’s come up.”

“Hmm?”

“Mrs. Davies.”

Janice’s eyes narrowed. “So she turned up.”

The Davies’ debauch in Morocco had taken a sour turn. When her husband had insisted it was time to go, Jenny had refused. The last Linus had seen of her, she’d taken up with some strange woman who worked in the marketplace and supposedly dabbled in witchcraft. Frustrated, Linus had returned to Alexandria, alone, smugly assuming his wife would soon follow.

She hadn’t. And before they all knew it, he’d lost track of her. His letters to her were returned unanswered.

“Well, yes,” the Egyptian drawled.

Janice arched an impatient eyebrow.

“She has ‘turned up,’ but not here.” Fayed didn’t quite know how to put it, particularly in a way that would compel Janice to care. “It is not good. She needs fetching.”

“Bullshit.”

He cupped his ear with an elegant dark hand. “I beg your pardon, my dear sister?”

She was not amused. “I’m no one’s babysitter. I have too much to do here.”

“Janice.” Fayed’s mouth held a grim cast until he spoke. “Listen to me: It is not good. She is in Cyprus.”

“Cyprus?” Janice was incredulous. “What happened to Morocco?”

“She was bored.”

“Goddamn it, Cyprus is a mess right now.” The centuries-old dispute between the Turks and the Greeks over control of the island was—under the influence of modern weaponry, the meddlesome British, and a distinctive twentieth-century taste for ruin—growing uglier with each passing day.

“I know. She is in the Greek part, near Kourion. A port city.”

“Not surprising,” muttered Covington, knowing her former lover’s penchant for a warm, attractive body in a uniform. “Goddamn it,” she muttered again. “Why can’t Linus get someone from the Consulate to get her? Or Interpol? Or goddamn Scotland Yard?”

“It would provoke une scandale, one that a gentleman in Linus’s position can ill-afford.” He had spent several minutes rehearsing the line at home, even in front of Naima, who endorsed his performance with a lukewarm eh.

Just follow me, Janice, he thought. As you did in the old days, when you were a girl. Don’t ask questions. You know you have to do this. You’re the only one who can.

Janice’s lips twitched skeptically.  She let the spade fall from her shoulder, its sharp tip sinking into the tired earth.

You know, you will not fool her for a moment, Naima had said to him.

And he hadn’t. She was smiling and shaking her head, hand resting upon her hip.

Fayed beamed. With rough affection he shoved her, his hand thumping against her strong shoulder. She chuckled, and he sensed she withheld something back from that laugh—perhaps an innate joy at the reaffirmation of their bond? Getting Janice to laugh was something of a challenge at times—and a great victory when successful. He loved the merry squint of her green eyes, the way her nose crinkled, her crooked grin, and the contagious giggle itself, starting out low, escalating into a higher octave—something that made her sound unabashedly feminine—and punctuated by a joyous little hiccup.

But her smile faded, her expression glided into its usual, unshakable stoic loveliness. “You said it’s not good.”

“It appears,” Fayed replied quietly, “that Madame’s explorations of certain illicit substances may have finally gotten the better of her.”

Janice seemed neither surprised nor expectant of this particular development, this sad new wrinkle in Jennifer Davies’s life; but her furrowed brow and the pursing of her cherubic lips indicated a resignation to her new role in Jenny’s story—as the rescuer of someone who does not want rescuing.

*  *  *

Ever since she had met Mel, Janice had long ceased trusting her own ability to speak Modern Greek. (Or Italian for that matter. Or French. Or German. Or even English.) Mel had only possessed a basic fluency in the modern version of the language for a long time but soon burnished this into a dazzling fluency that, whenever they spent time in Greece, utterly enchanted the natives, who gasped in delight at the lilt of Mel’s accent and the way that it threaded through every uttered syllable as if it were a bright ribbon adorning a thoughtful gift. Janice could only stand as a mute, grumpy witness to this, Mel’s everyday brilliance.

Fayed understood her reluctance; he was certain that, had he been Melinda Pappas’s lover, he would suffer from similar insecurities. So when they touched down in Cyprus he took on the role of translator—for he spoke the language, this language of his Greek mother. Besides, he thought, it would be cruel to make Janice speak Greek after she had barely survived a long, rocky boat ride in which she threw up a grand total of three times, essentially ruining whatever fondness she once possessed for lentil soup.

Every town had a disreputable expatriate, it seemed. The first two villages they encountered outside Kourion had, respectively, a German alcoholic suffering from gout and an English banker who had embezzled a large sum of money from his employer. In the second village, Fayed asked if anyone knew of an Englishwoman living nearby.

 Ah. Several of them pointed to the next village, two hours’ walk through bright, hilly terrain. An Englishwoman was there, they said, abandoned by her Arab lover—but not, however, by the army of ampoules still at her disposal.

Fayed thanked them with some packs of French cigarettes and—over her protest—Janice’s cheap sunglasses. From there, the two friends trudged along on the only path leading out of the one-horse town.

“Good-bye, pret-ty boy!” they heard the villagers shout, in a rolling yet rudimentary English, at their sweaty backs.

The Egyptian raised an eyebrow. “I think that was directed at you.”

The coppery-gold mess that was Janice’s hair was neatly subdued under the fedora. She was, at the moment, boyishly handsome, and had Julian Manley-Finch been present, he would be worshipping in the dust of her shadow while decanting bad verse into a world leery of his purple prose. She only grunted in response to Fayed’s comment and unknotted the red kerchief at her throat, using it to quickly blot sweat from her face.

The kerchief reminded him of Melinda. Once, during a not-so-serious argument, Janice had playfully threatened to gag her with the bandana. Undaunted, she had opened her mouth to welcome the rolled fabric and bit into it gently, firmly. The feral flash of her teeth and the blue flame of her eyes—unwaveringly, silently declaring that she would take anything Janice was willing to give—was memorably erotic to a man who’d seen and sampled most of the decadence that Alexandria had to offer. Shocking, even, because he had deluded himself into thinking that the gentle, hopelessly civilized Mel was somehow incapable of matching the passion of someone like Janice. Hungry—but not hard. Hungry in just the right way.

Janice’s thumb was absently stroking the kerchief. Was she too remembering that moment, the imperceptible buckling of her knees as Mel took what was offered, a gesture deliciously translated into the promise—and delivery—of a memorable night? Of how, later, Mel had gently, loosely bound her wrists with the kerchief, the red knot blossoming between her hands like a rose, and how as a result Janice surrendered herself as she had never done with anyone else? And how Mel made love to her in a way that, because of its gentle, ravishing reverence for her body, was all the more demanding and exhausting than anything else she had ever experienced? He could only imagine it as thus, because the day following the kerchief incident, Janice had seemed strangely, sweetly docile—and had blushed furiously when someone innocently used the term “all tied up” in a sentence. He hadn’t seen her blush since she was a teenager.

Deftly, she rolled the kerchief and knotted it around her throat.

They walked in silence for a long time. Fayed reveled in the quiet affection they shared; despite her preoccupations with so many other things, there was never any mistaking the simple, direct force of her love. He felt it now, had missed it over the many years of war and separation. He also felt she wanted to talk about something; he rather hoped it was about Melinda, but anything that would alleviate her brooding would be welcomed.

“You must tell me something,” she began.

“Yes?”

“The cabal. What are its goals?”

He laughed. “After all these years—have you forgotten everything we’ve taught you, my dear?”

“I remember the readings, the teachings, yes,” she retorted. “But the purpose—“

“Balance. Protection of our past.”

“Not power?” Janice countered quickly.

He hesitated. “Ultimately, no, it is not about power. But, in its own way, it possesses power—at least in Alexandria, and despite the present regime.” He tapped his walking stick against the dry, hard trail as if beating down the insurgent General Nasser and his rabid nationalism. “There will always be an underground—that is what our cabal is. It is not merely what you call the mystical mumbo-jumbo. It is a force to battle the greed of those who will steal the past away from us—like the more disreputable members of your profession.” He squinted at her, momentarily regretting the fact that he gave away the only pair of sunglasses they had. “I thought you understood,” he added gently.

“How could I? I was never really a part of it. But you are—you are married to Naima. How do you reconcile that little philosophy with the things we’ve done? For God’s sake,” her voice dropped to a contemptuous whisper, “we were thieves. My old man sold things to the Nazis. We stole those vases.”

“Do you forget why? Our original intention, until Bardamu found out about them, was so that the musée would hide them until the war was over!”

“That’s what he wanted you to believe,” Janice muttered. She stopped walking.

So did he. “What?”

“Fayed.” Janice said his name in a loving, anguished whisper. “Harry wasn’t going to give the vases to the museum. He was going to sell them to the highest bidder.” Her gaze fell to the ground. “He knew he would get a hell of a lot of money for them—with the kind of cash he was anticipating, we would have been set for years. No more scraping around for funds, no more being in Linus’s pockets.”

“All for his scrolls.” Fayed sneered. “Your scrolls.”

“I didn’t want him to involve you in it.”

“You needn’t protect me.”

“Maybe I didn’t need to, but I wanted to.”

The Egyptian shook his head angrily. “Damn it,” he hissed. “Harry.” The name shot out of his mouth like a curse, and no sooner than it did, than the bitter anger too seeped out of him—perhaps he was unwilling to admit it, but he was, like Janice, angry with the dead. For leaving me, as much as for leaving her. However, if there were an afterlife, Harry Covington was laughing somewhere: So you believed me, huh, Fayed? And here I thought Janice was the big idealist, not you, my child of the streets.

Harry had called him that on occasion. My child of the streets—or, even better, simply, my child. Affectionate, teasing. And he laughed, thinking about it now.

Janice’s tense, defensive stance melted; he thought it silly of her, he would never try to hit her—in part because he knew she was a more skilled brawler than he. “You have to give the old man credit. He was a crafty sonofabitch. Aren’t you glad he picked you to be one of the family?”

“Our little unhappy family. Tolstoy was right, I suppose.”

“Too much vodka makes you blind?” cracked Covington.

“No, you illiterate wretch. ‘All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’” Fayed paused. “Your woman would know that,” he added spitefully, defying the silent rule that one dare not invoke either the name of, or an allusion to, Melinda Pappas.

“You and Naima always call her that. Like I own her,” Janice accused morosely.

“You do. And she owns you.”

He was chuckling—and she was on the precipice of confession—when the shots rang out.

They were lazy warning shots—evenly spaced in a languid tempo, pinging off rocks and raising clouds of dust. Still, they were a promise of things to come, and Janice—with Fayed literally at her heels—bolted for a copse of shrubs situated alongside a particularly large boulder. She slid head first, as if the tall shrubs were home plate.

She sat up, spitting out dirt and experiencing a distinctly unpleasant and familiar pain in her calf. Oh, no. No no no. She groped the back of her leg. A broad, glistening swath of red cutting across her palm confirmed what her brain had been told. “You’ve gotta be fuckin’ kiddin’ me!” she hissed incredulously. Janice drew a deep breath; it failed in calming her. She had no idea why it supposedly worked for other people. It did, however, fill her lungs with enough ammunition to scream—at the world, at whoever listened—“I’M STARTING TO TAKE THIS PERSONALLY! ”

Fayed was already inspecting the wound. “Again!” he exclaimed with gentle exasperation, as if Janice were a child who had once again skinned a much-abused knee. “Ah. It is a mere graze, fortunately.”

“Great.” She propped her chin on a fist. “Now what? We wait for them to kill us?”

“No,” Fayed retorted in an alarmingly cheery tone. He dug a well-worn but clean white handkerchief out of his pocket. “We surrender.”

Janice mustered up the appropriate outrage. “Surrender?”

He cast a withering glance at her. “This is not Custard’s Last Stand, my heroic friend.” Fayed, in a supple crouch, gingerly stuck an arm out past the shrub and waved his hanky.

She laughed.

Fayed shot her an irritated look. “What?”

“Nothing. I was just thinking I could go for a custard right about now, that’s all.”

Mon Dieu, wounded one minute and already you are delirious and talking nonsense.” He waved the white cloth again. “This only proves that, as usual, I have the correct idea.”

The Greek Cypriots appeared mortified—or at the very least contrite—by the discovery that they had shot not bloodthirsty Turks, but an Egyptian and an American, and both of Greek descent. Additionally, Fayed’s incoherent shouting also contributed to a sense of guilt, which the Egyptian then parlayed into having their “captors” take them to the apparently well-known House of Davies, a villa half-buried in the bosky hills and possessing a stunning view of the sea.

The Greeks used a blanket as a stretcher to carry the wounded Janice to the house. The lull of being cradled thus, in addition to the slight yet surprising loss of blood and the high, hot sun—which throbbed under Janice’s eyes in an eerie, hallucinatory rhythm that matched the beating of her heart—meant that Janice was quite unconscious by the time their party arrived at the house where Jennifer Halliwell Davies had retreated from the world. This was an acceptable state of affairs for all involved—the mistress of the small villa was herself indisposed. Brilliant thoughts clustered in her mind and struggled through a bitter haze of opiates for the final, satisfying act of articulation, only to die before fleeing her lips or leaking from her pen. She would stop taking the morphine, Jenny thought, but for the fact that the drug which so obfuscated her genius was also its very origin.

*  *  *

A simple muslin curtain flapped over an open window; the evening breeze bore gifts—lemon and olives and the sea, scents of a home Janice never knew except in the long depths of collective memory. She awoke to these smells, the pleasure of their fragrance a sudden and aching confirmation of sheer absence. This awakening lacked the smells she associated with Mel—that glorious alchemy of perfume, shampoo, sweat, all of it a heady sweetness that somehow embodied the South; if ever a woman’s scent cried out to be bottled and marketed, it was hers.

Don’t even think about that now.  Janice blinked and sat up. Taking account of the coolness of the air and the diffused quality of the light, she guessed it was early evening.

Fayed stood near the window. He smiled when he saw she was up, and brought her a cup of water. “Congratulations,” he said, kissing her brow. “You have a new scar.”

She gulped down the water. “I’m bursting with pride.” Delicately, she confronted the wound: Her pant leg was bundled up to knee level and she contorted the leg to examine the back of the calf. More goddamn stitches. No sooner had the ones on her brow been removed than these appeared. She had a dim memory of being surrounded by old ladies, all short and dressed in black, all chattering in Greek—one brandishing a dusty bottle of alcohol, and another, a large needle and coarse black thread. God, no wonder I fainted again. “How long I been out?”

“Just a few hours.”

Janice scanned his face. “Is this it, then? This is her house?”

“Yes.” He glanced back at the window and answered the question she was about to ask. “I haven’t seen her.”

Despite the long and complicated history he shared with Jenny, Janice knew Fayed was fond of her in his own way—a long, tenacious history can do that to people, creating a dubious yet lasting affection—and that whatever addiction had claimed her pained him.

He quickly changed the subject. “This must be like Crete,” he said. Crete was the homeland of his mother, an island he longed to visit, but somehow never did.

“You’ve never been to Crete.”

“But this is an island—like Crete, in a similar geography, no? And all islands are basically the same.”

“Like all happy families?” Janice retorted.

They smiled at each other and enjoyed another shared silence.

Eventually Janice broke it. “I don’t know what to say to her.”

“Say nothing. Destroy the opiates and their accoutrements. Give her a few days to recover. Then take her back.”

“Is it that easy?” Janice mused.

“What else do you suggest?” he snapped.

“You think kidnapping her will solve everything? I guarantee you, if we do that, she’ll be using the minute she’s back in Alex.” She swung her legs off the bed and stood, gradually placing weight upon the injured leg. Fayed was quickly at her side and she steadied herself with a hand upon his shoulder.

He watched her carefully for any sign of pain, knowing how quickly she would gloss over any discomfort. “Is it all right?”

Janice did wince slightly, but nodded. “Yeah. It’ll be okay.”

“They gave you a cane. A rather nice one too.” He handed it to her.

It was slender, polished mahogany, its head a rounded, thick, yellowing mass of pearl. She seized it with relish. “I always wanted a cane.” She permitted her overburdened mind a moment of fantasy as she clutched up on the stick as if it were a baseball bat.

Fayed leaped back as she swung at a high fastball. “Will this be your approach with Jenny?” He raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Good show, as her people say.”

*  *  *

Frankly, Janice did not know what her approach would be. Through the villa’s darkened, stone-cool hallways she limped, the stitches tightening around her leg like a noose; in turn, she angrily gripped the cane. On rainy days she limped noticeably as a result of the bullet wound sustained during the war; that was a compromise of her health she could accept, albeit reluctantly. She wasn’t, however, prepared to limp full time, especially not on a day—she stopped in front of a large, open window—like this.  The sun shone from behind the house, casting it in shadows while pouring gold into the valley below.

Many times she’d entertained the idea of living in a place like this—a remote Grecian paradise, an expatriate’s dream—with Mel. Where there was nothing but sun and wine and good food, and long, indolent afternoons spun out into eternity—the ideal time for making love. And the digs—the digs wouldn’t be so far away anymore. And Mel could translate anywhere. Or so I thought.

She sat in the window sill and nursed an overwhelming sense of futility. She felt incapable of saving Jenny and incapable of being the woman that she assumed Mel wished her to be. Why didn’t you come with me? Just this once? I’ve played the little professor in the starched blouse for long enough. It’s “chasing the chimera time,” as you called it once. But you knew what you were getting into. Why did you ever say you’d follow me anywhere, if you didn’t really mean it? “It’ll be just you and me, under the stars.” Romantic bullshit. You fucked me senseless, you fucked me like you meant it. And then you said you wouldn’t come with me.

Roughly she caressed her temples. This is not what I should be thinking about right now. It’s Jenny. Women are such a pain in the ass! How the hell do I play this?

She didn’t know. Nonetheless, she stood and ambled painfully down the hallway toward the master bedroom.

Janice had seen enough of addiction—from alcohol and other substances—to know its transformative effects, not just on behavior, but appearance as well. She only hoped she would be prepared for whatever she saw. She knocked lightly upon the door and, finding it ajar, slowly pushed it open.

The smell of ether in the room was as heavily tangible as the dark red curtains hovering over the windows. The large bed dominating the room was a patchwork of dirty sheets, old clothes, books, and loose papers.

Jenny was not in the bed but instead sitting at a large desk, weaving a pen between her fingers with a crab-like gyration. A lit cigarette sat in an ashtray, precariously ignored. Morphine had etched a severity into her features; the lines delineating her face were sharper, her cheekbones pronounced before sinking into a tundra of concave flesh. Her hair was wilder than ever; what had once been curly was now a frizzy, wiry mandorla framing her gaunt face.

What unnerved Janice the most was her former lover’s eyes: bright, unfocused, and completely unlike the old Jenny, the woman who always looked ahead, who was always so devoted to the present and scornful of the past, who was so keenly observant of every situation she found herself in, and so looking forward to the next good meal, the next one-night stand, the next round of drinks and bantering gossip, that one found it hard to believe that she’d ever had a regret in the world. Now that gaze was unmoored from reality, looking inward, looking back, into memories and imaginary worlds that Janice had no hopes of accessing.

Janice swayed, looked away. She cupped a hand under her eyes to catch tears that weren’t quite ready to fall.

“It’s you.” Jenny spoke softly.

Covington could not recall if she had ever heard her speak with such tenderness before, even at the height of their affair, even when they made love.

“Am I imagining you? Janice?”

I wish you were. I wish I were.  With a rough exhalation of breath, Janice sat down on the tempest-tossed bed. “Yes. It’s me.”

The Englishwoman pushed herself away from the desk. She was dressed in a long white shift, a nightgown of sorts, frayed at the edges but relatively clean, for the women of the house—those small, black-clad widows—did their best to take care of her. “They told me you were here.” Her voice retained a hint of wonder. “And Fayed too.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“To bring you home,” Janice croaked.

“Home. Where is home?”

“Home is—with your husband. He wants you back. He’ll take you wherever you want to live. But he wants you back at his side.”

“I wonder why.” Jenny’s eyelids flickered, as if she were waking up from a nap. “And you—you came all this way, for me?”

Janice nodded.

“Bloody hell.” Unexpectedly, Jenny grinned, and seemed more like her old self. “I’m flattered. It’s a grand gesture, darling, even though I’m sure Fayed forced you every step of the way. Where’s Tallulah?”

Janice blinked at her. “Who?”

“The breathtakingly, backbreakingly, ballbustingly beautiful Melinda. Melinda Iliona Pappas—quite a fucking name, that, when you string it all together. Beautifully pretentious, she wears it well.” She laughed at the surprised look on Covington’s face.

Janice shook her head in disbelief. “Took me eight blasted years to find out her middle name.”

“How that woman has deluded you, Janice—you, who always thinks like a thief.” Jenny rescued her cigarette from disuse. “Saw it on her passport, dearie, while I did a bit of snooping in your room one day. She’s older than you too! That I did not expect. I do hope she has not told you otherwise.”

“Now you sound—more like you.” Janice said it with a hesitant hopefulness.

Jenny held aloft her cigarette and crossed her legs. “It comes…and it goes. In a matter of minutes I may be on my knees begging you to plant a needle in my arm.”

It was impossible for Janice to keep the anguish out of her voice. “Why have you done this to yourself?”

“It would be easy to blame you…” Jenny trailed off.

Guilt sent up a flare in the guise of righteous anger. “You bitch,” Janice hissed. “Don’t you dare put this on me.”

“As I said, it would be easy to blame you,” the Englishwoman resumed calmly. “But untrue. I don’t know how to explain it to you. You only dabbled in these things.”

I don’t like to dabble in things I know nothing about. Janice recalled these words, said by Jenny, all those years ago, when they first became lovers.  

“You kissed, you teased, you brushed up against the beast. I embraced it wholeheartedly, without reservation.” Jenny’s hand shook as she took a drag off the cigarette. “Wait. I lie. I have blamed you for this. I loved you. After you, I sought your reflection in every man and every woman I took to my bed. In Morocco, I came close to finding someone who made me forget you. When that was over…there was an accident. Did Linus tell you? No? Suffice it to say it involved me behind the wheel of a bloody old Citroen and a camel. I injured my back. At least I didn’t end up dead, like the camel did. I did, however, end up in the hospital. The doctors there—well, they don’t give a damn how much morphine you have, as long as you have the money and it keeps you quiet.” Her voice quavered. “And my God, how it silenced my pain—all of it. Ah, Janice. Don’t be angry with me. It’s my doing in the end. I’ve blamed you, but I blame my husband even more.

“I blame him for the life of lies he lured me into. I believed in his lies so much that I sacrificed you, I let you go. But I shall have my revenge.” Jenny pointed at the desk. “I’m writing a history of his cabal, his sacred goddamned brotherhoods—MI5, Stella Matutina—they’re all connected, they are a maze of lies.” Unexpectedly, she laughed. “Oh, I see your look. You think I’m mad. Well, yes, I am, I suppose, one must be for such an undertaking.” She paused and drew several deep breaths; over the course of her monologue her voice had gathered speed and slid, with a silkily seductive insanity, over every syllable until she gasped for air.

Janice sat motionless, elbows on knees, her hands a hopeless knot of fingers resting against her chin. What the hell am I going to do?

Jenny dropped the cigarette on the floor. With unerring aim, Janice crushed the butt with the tip of her cane.

“You still haven’t answered my question.” Jenny squinted at her. “Where’s your Confederate Concubine? Is there trouble in paradise? Has the Deb given you the boot?”

“Jesus, Jenny, how many nicknames do you have for her?”

“Let’s see…the Deb, Miss Magnolia or Melinda Magnolia, Mrs. Covington or ‘Mrs. C’ for short, Tallulah—that was Linus’s idea, you know how he adores Miss Bankhead—and finally, my own personal favorite, the Bloody Fucking Bitch Who Broke My Bloody Fucking Chaise Lounge While Fucking the Woman I Love.”

“That one’s a bit unwieldy.”

“I thought at the very least you’d appreciate such rhythmic usage of your favorite word. If I ever work it into sonnet form I shall call it Iambic Fucking Pentameter.”

Covington massaged her brow. “You got a lot of time on your hands.”

“Darling—you should hear how many nicknames I have for you. But yes, the Opiate Family does that to you. Time is meaningless.”

“You need to pull yourself out of the family bosom, Jenny.”

“Ah, yes.” She closed her eyes, revealing eyelids shockingly dark, a dull, battered purple. “You still haven’t answered my question. Why isn’t the Adored Melinda with you?”

“She has a job.”

“So do you.”

“Not anymore.”

Jenny’s eyes fluttered open. “Whatever do you mean?”

“I quit.”

“Why?”

Janice shrugged uneasily. “It’s not for me. Teaching. Academia. That life.”

“You mean the life you share with her.”

That life—is it still mine? Is it still within my grasp? “I still love her. That hasn’t changed.”

“Pity.”

“Even shootin’ up, you haven’t changed.” Janice permitted a small, sadly affectionate smile to grace her lips.

“I know,” Jenny agreed emphatically. “Rather amazing, isn’t it?”

With that, Janice laughed.

“I’ve missed hearing that.”

In response, Janice merely hunched her shoulders and stared at her boots.

“You’re so wonderfully, strangely beautiful, Janice.” Before Covington could protest, Jenny cut her off again. “Were you unfaithful to her?”

“No,” Janice retorted icily.

“She’s so very lucky without knowing it. I still recall the times you came to me reeking of another woman.”

“It was only twice.” Was it?

“And such memorable occasions they were that my mind has chosen to replicate them ad infinitum. You were so young, such a fool. I wanted to kill you with my bare hands. Instead I let you have me on the rug, by the fireplace.”

“You should have killed me. I wouldn’t have blamed you.”

“Don’t be pathetic. Now tell me why you left.”

I left because she told me to go. “A little difference of opinion on how to conduct our lives.” Edgily, Janice conceded, “Maybe you were right. It was too much to expect her to follow me around on my ‘mad little missions.’”

Not that Janice had initially given her the option to follow. She’d never heard Mel speak with such frigid, stinging rage: You think you can leave me behind whenever you feel like it. As if I’m nothing to you but a whore.

“Yes,” Jenny concurred. “But I’m certain if you go crawling back to her, all will be forgiven. You must try, you know.”

“I can’t believe you said that.”

“I can’t believe it either. And I don’t know if I should blame the drugs or not.” Jenny hunched ever so slightly into a defensive crouch, fearing, with good reason, the power of her words. “I know you think me completely selfish. But I love you, and I want your happiness. You’ll only be happy with her.” A sharp, ticklish sensation crawled through her muscles; if she hadn’t already known it was a pang of withdrawal she might have attributed it to the agony of truth-telling. “Would things have been different—if you came here and found me as I once was? But no, you came and found me like this. We could have had one glorious false start, don’t you think? No, that would not do for either of us, even a ruined wretch like me.”  She closed her eyes and pictured the jeweled drip of morphine from the vial, the only relief of the liquescent vise—blood, muscles, flesh, mind—this reality, this stranglehold called life. The vision sated her craving, if only for the briefest span of time it took to further spin this tale of a life that was now, it seemed, impossibly out of reach. “But I know, oh, I know what would happen if I took up with you again. We’d live this very romantic, hand-to-mouth existence, and we’d be very happy for a time, going from city to city, dig to dig, bar to bar. You’d keep me from hating myself. I’d keep you from getting too goddamned bloody serious and obsessive—and I’d even keep you out of jail too, if you ask nicely. Perhaps we’d find a flat together. It’d go on fine for a while, perhaps even for a several years. And then, let’s say, we’d be at another one of those conferences you hate, or in America. And you’d see her again, Janice. Somewhere, in this world that doesn’t seem quite big enough, you’d meet up with her again. Those blue eyes would hypnotize you again and again and again. So you see, it’s better that you found me like this. It’s better this way. We’re better off not wasting time, not fooling ourselves.” Jenny stretched, the tautening of her body another distraction. “You must leave me now. For good.”

“No.”  Janice’s mind reeled. Is this what the Old Man had meant, about the burdens of a great love? Was the tragedy of it that it inadvertently caused pain to people that you cared about, that it blinded you to consequence?

Jenny looked at her haggardly. “Taking me back to him won’t help.”

“Neither will staying here.” Janice moistened her lips thoughtfully. “But if you stop—now—I will stay here with you, until you’re better. I’ll do whatever I can to help you through it.”

“Ah. That is very tempting, Covington. You’ll hold my hand. Tuck me into bed. Perhaps in due time you’ll even crawl in with me—even though you may be thinking of someone else. You have such an unselfish nature, darling.” Jenny closed her eyes tightly; the battered eyelids pulsed with tremors. “I need it now,” she murmured. “Unless you are interested in watching, I suggest you leave.”

Janice stood, but hesitated. There was a definitive kind of cowardice in turning away. No. It’s not an option. You can’t look away. Staring “the beast” (as Jenny called it) in the face meant facing the ugliness and the fear—and it meant she would be far, far less tempted to tread this path ever again.

Jenny opened her eyes just as Janice sat down; she looked pleased, even perhaps slightly awed, at this courageous act. “So you’ll be here to watch me in thrall to the beast. I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve always known how brave you really are.” She stood up shakily. Janice stood again to help but Jenny waved her off wildly, like a mad conductor whipping an orchestra into a cacophonic frenzy, and tottered over to a dusty vanity. Eyes carefully averted from the mirror—not out of the fear of seeing what she looked like, but rather the reluctance of starting yet another disjointed monomaniacal monologue and possibly delaying her gratification even further—Jenny opened a drawer and retrieved a small kit bag. She settled in at the vanity, sitting atop the small stool facing the large mirror. She rolled the small ampoule between her fingers; the mere touch, the sensation of the cool smooth glass was a calming ritual, an aperitif for addiction. Jenny risked a glance into the mirror and saw Janice’s inscrutable, calm reflection. “It will be just as you imagined.” She reached for the needle. “Because you know, as I do, that possession is itself a kind of loss.”

Note. The Sappho quote is from Willis Barnstone’s 1998 translation of Sappho’s fragments.

Part VII: World Enough and Time

 

1. Ashes to the Sea

 

my heart goes out like a raft

                into the endless absence,

 beyond memory

         down to the starless heavy sea

  in the pitch dark.
—Nazim Hikmet

 

 

May, 1954

KourionCyprus

From cliffs such as these, Janice could imagine Sappho’s suicidal fling into the blue rage of the sea. It seemed only a minor detail that she sat cross-legged before the Mediterranean and not the Aegean, was onCyprus and not Lesbos. Unlike the calm waters that graced the covers of travel brochures, the Mediterranean’s froth-fire topped brackish waves fit to claim only those of unrelenting passion—poets and warriors and romantics under the sway of opiates and mysticism, and women, always women, hopelessly in love.

Like Jenny. I always wanted to go mad in the desert. I suppose dying here will have to do.

 Jenny had said it squinting amid the creamy blue haze of cigarette smoke. She smoked constantly in those final days, so much so that Janice had forsaken tobacco—perhaps permanently—in all its forms. More consequentially, Janice had also forsaken the temerity of her belief in Jenny’s recovery, of her borderline naïve faith in her own prodigious and innate ability to change the course of someone’s life, now withered into stubborn, perfunctory numbness, into a routine of tired comfort: You’re not going to die.

 Ah, Janice. Your obstinacy is the one true constant in this shitty world.

The sun was flat and hard against the sky, a disk of glaring heat that burned away shadows and shades and—if you were young enough, foolish enough, drunk enough—death’s irrefutability. But the lacquered black box, dotted with yellow and brownish tansy, which sat at Janice’s side, quietly contradicted that. Her detached archaeologist’s mind wondered how common the box was in Cypriot funeral rites, how its appearance and shape might vary from region to region. It was pointless to wonder, but many things now seemed pointless to Janice.

She sat on a rock, leather jacket pooled about her like mud. She tipped the lid of the box with her forefinger. In the end, it is me. Again. Once again the survivor, once again saying goodbye. She’d performed a similar rite with Harry’s ashes—her father’s remains had been cast into the Aegean, and now Jennifer Halliwell Davies would find peace in the Mediterranean. Or so I hope. I wanted that for you, Jenny. I hope you believed that. I couldn’t give it to you, I couldn’t give you happiness, I couldn’t save your life. I couldn’t love you the way you wanted. Even now, what am I doing but thinking self-pitying shit? I am nothing if not consistent in failure. “Never had the stomach for real compassion,” you said. But that was just because I wouldn’t make love to you. Wasn’t it?

The wind skimmed ash off the open box. Janice crawled onto her knees, lifted the box, and tilted it so that a steady stream of ash was borne upon the current of air, twisting into a gray, incandescent skein that melted into sunlight. It was all gone so quickly she wondered if any ash would actually reach the sea; perhaps some of it would, but perhaps the rest it would be absorbed into the air, into the sun, into everything.

I will not watch the sun set. Not again.

 Quickly she turned away, leaving the empty box at the cliff.

Under shade of an ilex, Fayed waited for her, watching with his usual mix of concern and alertness as she gracefully navigated the steep rocky path from the cliff. She was alternately touched and annoyed by his vigilance. Christ, I’m not drunk yet. A bottle of vodka, in an improvised cooler of ice within a metallic packing tube, also awaited her. Last night they had found the unopened bottle among Jenny’s things, and Janice decided it would be perfect for a mini-wake upon the Cyprian cliffs. At her approach he removed the bottle from its icy cocoon and held it up triumphantly.

“You shall do the honors,” he said.

She hadn’t expected it, but the bottle of Stoli was still perfectly chilled, just the way Jenny had always liked it, had always demanded it so in every grand hotel she’d ever occupied.

She opened the bottle, tilted it back, and let the sun create a kaleidoscope out of the clear glass; a sliver of rainbow seethed along its edge. Maybe if Jenny was in air, she was part of that too. Maybe she would detest being part of such a romantically banal image. But then she’d do anything to be close to vodka, even be part of a fucking rainbow, Janice thought, and that made it all better—as did the long, greedy swig that she took.

When she was done the bottle was half full. I’m such an optimist. “Fayed.”

“Yes—darling?” He tacked the endearment on hesitantly, lovingly.

She called me that all the goddamn time, in those clipped British tones.  “Well darling, I’ve never known you just to look”— this, the last time she’d said it, after catching Janice’s lusty, idle glance upon a pretty girl with chestnut hair and large blue eyes—the daughter, perhaps, or some other youthful relation of the black-clad crones who worked in the villa.

She handed the bottle back to him. “I think I’m going to be sick.”

“It is all right.” Fayed took a swig of the clear, shining Stoli, but made a face, as might a child who discovers that the forbidden adult treats so intensely coveted are not always terribly marvelous.

Janice grinned at this. Mel had a similar negative reaction to her first taste of the stuff; having mistaken a tumbler of vodka for mineral water, she took a generous gulp and promptly doubled over in agony, as if someone had punched her in the stomach.

By the time they returned to the villa it was sunset, the vodka bottle was empty, and a guest awaited them.

Linus Davies sat in the darkening emptiness of a common room, his long legs crossed with the tight anxiety of a praying mantis. In the ethereal dusk the tip of his cigarette glowed almost as much as his pale, knobby ankles, visible in a stretch from the tip of his linen pants to his impeccable brown loafers.

It was so quiet that she could hear the moist parting of his lips as he removed the cigarette.

“Have I missed the party?” The humor that Linus always used to hold the world at bay did not work in this situation. The corners of his mouth twitched, his dark eyes desperately tried to gauge her mood.

She swaggered a beeline toward him, sadistically pleased at the subtle stiffening of his posture. Once within range she tossed the empty vodka bottle in his lap. “Go fuck yourself.” She passed him and stood before the huge, tantalizing picture window. If she stretched both arms out—as she did now—her fingertips would brush the window’s frame on either side, and there, barely balanced by a tenuous grip, she felt as if she were embracing the world that now cascaded from oranges and pinks and blues and gold into darkness.

“I came as soon as I heard,” Linus said.

Janice closed her eyes. “Maybe you should have come sooner.” Maybe you should have been here all along.

“I suppose I should have, I’m sorry. But I knew you were here. I knew you would take care of her.” Linus stared at the cigarette cradled in his hand, as if he didn’t know how it got there. “She loved you the best.”

“I wasn’t her husband.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” he retorted softly.

“It’s got to mean something. It bound you to her. It means you don’t let other people clean up when it gets messy.”

“It got messy then, did it?” Linus went on the offensive. “Is that all she was to you? A mess to be cleaned up?”

“Linus, if there was ever a time not to fuck with me, it’s right now.” Her voice thickened with rage. She turned from the window. “At least she meant something to me. What the hell did she mean to you?”

Behind the greasy glaze of his expression, he appeared startled at her reaction, even hurt. “You don’t understand, do you? Did you ever? I thought perhaps you did, you knew her so well.”

“That was a fiction you both created. I knew how to make her come. That was it.”  That’s not true, an inner voice protested, but Janice’s desire to wound momentarily overrode all compassion and truth.

Predictably, he flinched. “You just said she meant something to you.”

“A friend. She was a friend.” A friend who looked like her heart was in her throat when she saw you in Venice after five years, thinking you were dead that entire time, and then seeing you with someone new.

“But you didn’t understand us, did you? You really didn’t understand us at all. We were bound together against the world. It was always like that, for both of us. Like brother and sister.” His hand trembled as he raised the cigarette to his mouth. “We were—lost children.”

“Spare me your bullshit.”

 “You’re cold.”

“No.” Janice lost the fight to keep a tremor out of her voice. “I’m tired.”

They were quiet for several minutes. “He’s used me to track your movements,” Linus finally said. “He—did all along, I suppose.”

“Yeah. Obviously.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t intend for that to happen.”

 Yeah. Sorry old boy. She dragged a hand over her face. “It doesn’t matter anyway. I’m leaving tomorrow. You’re here now. You’re in charge of her estate. You can deal with the rest of it—the whole fucking lot.”

She started to walk away.

“The house is yours now, Janice. She left it to you. Don’t you know that?”

She stopped. You must have loved me at some point—didn’t you? Jenny had said it, in yet another moment of operatic emotion among the tumult of her final days She had said “yes” in response to this imperative, but did she lie? Love never entered into any exchange—physical, verbal, or otherwise—during their affair. As much as Janice had craved it during that time, love and its attendant language had been incomprehensible to her.

Was the claiming of her heart simply a matter of who had asked first?

Janice swayed as she turned; the lurching violence of the movement appeared to make Linus nervous and regretful of his impromptu announcement. He did not wish to become a target of that lurking anger, cloaked in a miasma of sweat and alcohol.

“Oh yeah?” she drawled.

Linus confirmed her ownership with a tense nod.

“Well then.” She ran a proprietary hand down the smooth wood framing the doorway. “By the time I’m done throwing up, I’ll expect you to be out of my fucking house.”

 

2. French Letters

When we dream and when we couple, we embrace phantoms.
—Octavio Paz

May, 1954
CambridgeMassachusetts

For the remainder of his life Fayed wrote to Mel in French. He labored over these letters, dictionary by his side, smeared drafts sloughed off at his feet, disconsolate at the final product and hesitant to cast such wretchedness adrift into the postal seas.

Nonetheless, he always did. Writing, he had confessed to her, was usually easier in English, thanks to tutoring efforts by Harry and later Janice (and which explained his usage of obscenity as a secondary form of punctuation). However, during the time they spent together in Alexandria, he frequently spoke with Mel in French. Because no one else in their small circle was fluent in the language, it effectively created an immediate intimacy between them; it was the beginning of a bond accelerated by his desire to know the woman who had so bewitched his beloved yet cynical friend. Janice’s exclusion in it rendered her, inadvertently, as the shining focal point of their triumvirate. And so the writing in French, to his mind, was merely a perpetuation of the bond.

She carried his latest letter around in her purse all day and savored the thought of reading it alone in her office after classes were complete. Around three, she settled behind her desk, in an old chair whose wood was as smooth and faded as bone, ignoring the raucous calls of restless students from the window, and the pleasant cacophony of birds singing.

Mon ami amié, he began.

So I am beloved to you, she thought. How did I manage that? Her eyes scanned ahead, picking apart words and syntax—while smiling with the Zen-like benevolence of the genius toward those far less gifted—and reconstructing them into a flimsy barrier in hopes of keeping thoughts of Janice Covington at a chilly remove from the vicinity of her heart. Perhaps, she thought, that was another reason why he wrote in French: He knew what simple joy she would get out of spontaneously translating a personal letter (Are the mistakes really intentional? After so short a time, do you know me that well?) andhow it would be a distraction from what he was really saying: Janice was stubborn, moody, obsessed, and drinking too much. And this is news?

She read on: I plead. I cajole. I beg with her—it is to no avail. She will not write you. This morning I took her into the town and asked her to send you a telegram. She folded her arms like a stubborn child. No doubt you are laughing at me—“You fool, Fayed, wasting your time!”

 Yes, Fayed, you are wasting your time. Am I wasting mine as well?

 Someone was rapping gently upon her door. She folded the letter and tucked it into a book. “Come in.”

Paul stood stiffly in the doorway. The breeze that accompanied him was more welcomed than he; the ancient radiator in Mel’s tiny office still believed it was early March and sputtered on regardless, casting its dry, vengeful heat into the warm spring air. She highly resented the fact that she had to sweat out-of-season.

He frowned. “It’s customary in these parts to say ‘hello’ when you see someone you know.”

“I’m sorry,” she murmured. For a fleeting moment Mel wished that rudeness came to her as naturally as it did to Janice, and mourned the fact that her instincts were buried under layers of decorum.

“You could have at least returned my calls.”

She pressed her fingertips deep into the roughened desk top, as if willing herself to get a splinter. Pain was about the only distraction she had at hand these days. “I don’t think that would have been a good idea.”

“I know you don’t want to see me, but—I was worried about you.” His hand curled over the doorknob. “I just wanted to know if you were okay.”

Okay. “How can I be okay?” She choked it out. “After what happened?”

“It’s not—“

“Not what? Not anything serious?” Her voice escalated. She leapt up, motioned him into the office and managed to shut the door without slamming it—but not before catching a glimpse of several interested white faces in the hallway. “I betrayed the only person I ever loved.”

“Oh, come on. Besides, you started it.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”

“For Christ’s sake, it was only a kiss!” he exploded.

Her face was blank. “What?”

“It was only a kiss,” Paul repeated.

“Was it?”

“Yeah.” His dark eyes narrowed. “What the hell else did you think it was?”

Mel experienced a simultaneous sense of lightness, of relief, and profound disappointment in her ability to misbehave. Well, you ninny, you’ve never seduced anyone in your life. She refused to consider that fateful, whiskey-fueled spontaneous combustion with Janice a “seduction,” firmly believing that Janice’s brain was so thoroughly pickled with Bushmills that she would have bedded down with Eleanor Roosevelt, had the First Lady stopped by to partake of a nightcap.

Warily, Paul leaned against the old desk. “You don’t remember anything about that night, do you?”

“When I woke up—it was night—and Lord, my head hurt—“

“Not surprising.”

She ignored him. “I woke up, alone, in my bed.” A blush sweetened her pale cheeks, giving her a lovely strawberries-and-cream complexion. “And I wasn’t wearing any clothes.”

Paul cleared his throat. “Guess I missed the floor show.”

“So we didn’t—“

“No. When I left you that afternoon, you were on the couch—fully dressed, I might add—snoring your head off. Do you always snore like that?”

“Like what?” she retorted defensively.

“When I was in the army we blew up a bridge in Germany near Aachen. Let’s just say exploding dynamite’s got nothin’ on you.”

“It must have been the drink.”

“It’s okay. You can live with having one little flaw, can’t you?” He laughed as she scowled. “No, you can’t. You always wanna be perfect. That’s—“ He trailed off.

“—hard to live with?” she finished softly. “Yes, I know. Maybe that’s really why I’m by myself.”

Impulsively he grasped her hand and squeezed it. She did not resist; how long had it been since anyone had touched her, affectionately or otherwise? (She discounted the Dean’s perfunctory shoulder pats, as if she were nothing more than a stalwart old beagle.) “You have beautiful hands,” he murmured, and glanced at her with a peculiar shyness. “I know you don’t think that.”

“How do you know that?” Mel stared accusatively not at him but at her hand: She saw the broad palm and the strong fingers, but not the finely tapered, feminine elegance that characterized them. They lived in a time where, ironically, Janice represented the average woman—in terms of size. The off-the-rack world had not been created for creatures both large and splendid, someone like Mel.

“You’re always pulling at the cuffs of your blouses,” Paul replied. “Like you’re trying to make them look smaller.”

“So you’ve known me long enough to notice all my tricks.”

“I’m more observant than you think.” He squeezed her hand again, his dark brows knotting in avoidance of her eyes, and plunged ahead with his non-sequitur. “I’m going back to New York.”

Why am I surprised? “I—I’ll miss you. I’ll be lonely.” Mel was selfish in her reaction, and hated herself for it. Who am I without someone to adore me? The Lament of the Southern Belle.

Paul smiled wryly. “You still have your post-pubescent coterie of admirers here at the school.”

Mel returned his smile. “I suppose so.”

“And the Dean.”

“I’m afraid to him I’m not so much a person as a long-term investment.”

He chuckled and traced a deep furrow that cut through the heart of her palm. It didn’t matter if it was a heart line or a life line; because, for her, all lines led to Covington. In terms of revelation, it was nothing new; only now, the truth had finally, sadly settled into his heart.

She broke the straining silence. “What shall you do in New York?”

“’Sides get drunk a lot? I know now I can teach. That’s something.” He shrugged. “They got schools down there.”

“You’ll get good recommendations from your department. If you ever need one from someone outside your field, however, I’d be happy to supply one.”

“Like a character reference, huh? That’ll be useful. ‘Mr. Rosenberg always fails to take advantage of drunken women.’ It’ll get me far.”

Mel shook her head.

“What?”

“At times—you’re so much like her.”

“I don’t think so. You think she would fail to take advantage of a drunken woman?”

She smiled—and tried not to think about what kind of woman might be succumbing to Janice’s charms at the moment. There’s being faithful and there’s being a fool. God knows when I’ll know which one I am. “You make me—almost wish I could love you. That I could be a woman who would really love you.”

That’s about as close as I’ll get.

“Almost.” He released her hand; the shock of coolness coursed over her skin.

“Almost.” She repeated it before kissing his sandpapered cheek goodbye.

3. A Terrifying Constant
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,

to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the 
Alexandria you are losing.
—C.P. Cavafy, “The God Abandons 
Antony

A Long Time Ago

The famous poet surrounded herself with only the most luscious of nymphs. Like a box of candied delicacies or a varied selection of fabrics in a merchant’s stall, there was one suited for every taste: A small one, a tall one, a dark one, a pale one. They were all lounging attentively—if such a thing were possible—around the small tiled bath, in a state of heightened awareness and focused with attenuated precision upon the poet who sprawled, alone, in the steaming water before them.

They waited patiently as Sappho, the great poet, spoke to her visitor. “I’ve had rivals, to be sure. Alcaeus—more formidable as a poet than a lover, I assure you—and Gorgo, and…” Here the poet trailed off. Ruefully she smiled. “Well, suffice it to say, there have been many. But you—you’re different. You’ve always been different. And here you are, standing before me, weighed down with weapons, scars, and legends.”

Sappho sighed. The water surrounding her rippled—as did her coterie, each and every one of them anticipating her every move and unfurling into action as the poet lifted forward in the bath. For a woman of her age, she looked quite attractive; the water sheeting off her body, glazing her flesh in a nacreous sheen, probably didn’t hurt either. Anticipating Sappho’s exit from the pool as Aphrodite’s rising from the sea, the blonde fetched Sappho’s slippers, the brunette grabbed her gilded robe, the tall one seized a fluffy towel, and the short one refreshed her drink.

Regally oblivious to the activity surrounding her, Sappho continued. “And those stories. All those wonderful stories.” Sappho took the cup of wine that the littlest minion—clearly a favorite, as the poet affectionately cupped the girl’s bright cheek—offered. “Well, the point I’m trying to make is that while I’ve felt the occasional twinge of envy and thrill of competition here and there in regard to my peers, you alone are different. What a life you’ve lived. What things you have written. And the most wondrous, amazing thing of all…”

Sappho sipped her wine, placed it on a table. She tightened the sash of her robe and strolled parallel to the jeweled, cobalt bath until she stood face-to-face with her visitor. Even then, she took a full minute to study the wearily impassive features before her.  “…you’re still beautiful,” sighed Sappho.

Her visitor, Gabrielle of Potedaia, had not moved a muscle during the barrage of compliments. “I did not come here to be seduced.” She said it softly, without a hint of recrimination, as a mere statement of fact.

Sappho raised an eyebrow and cast a glance back at her coterie. “Everyone—take note. A change of plans.”

The girls tittered on cue. Gabrielle permitted a spectral smile to grace her features.

“No. I know why you’re here.” Sappho turned to the young women. “Leave us.”

The girls, regrettably accustomed to being shooed away when things were getting interesting, filed dejectedly out of the bath, carrying the burden of their sighs bridged upon their backs.

Even alone, in presumably intimate circumstances, Gabrielle’s posture remained achingly straight and her bearing sadly formal. Sappho, the great arbiter of desire, had correctly predicted that upon the warrior-bard’s arrival on the island, every woman—and no small amount of men either—would go mad for this androgynous beauty, for she coveted the best qualities of the masculine and the feminine: Strength, gentleness, honor, intelligence, sensitivity, beauty. Indeed, how many members of either sex could lay claim to all those qualities?

But her grief was a serum, bitterly thick; an immunity against romance. She stared in puzzlement at the men who laid swords at her feet and at the women who decanted verse into her ear, who nestled flowers in the crooks of her empty arms.

No, Sappho thought sadly, Gabrielle’s visit had one purpose only. “Are they ready?” Gabrielle asked quietly.

“Almost.” The poet sipped the last of her wine, tilting the cup to swirl the warm, glistening slush of its dregs. “Gongyla is putting on the finishing touches. You know, I never thought she had it in her. She is a master scribe. Her handwriting is remarkably similar to yours.”

“Finishing touches?” Worry rumpled Gabrielle’s forehead.

Even though they altered the content of these copied scrolls at Gabrielle’s behest, obviously the warrior-bard still worried—quite rightly so, Sappho thought—about the fate of her words. The subterfuge of letters and lines hid a life—her life. “Embellishment.” As Sappho continued she paced excitedly, relishing the drama of an invented existence. “We couldn’t have a mere religious charlatan rape you in Britannia. He became a demon, who impregnates you with his evil spawn. And it’s very pedestrian to have some boring lovesick Amazon poison Xena’s son, don’t you think? Your unnatural child kills him. What happens after that is—well, it’s a little complicated. Let’s just say we’ve all set it up for a very grand scene where Xena drags you behind a horse. It’s fabulous.”

Gabrielle shook her head in disbelief.  “Gongyla has quite a bloody imagination.” Her arms shifted, a barely perceptible movement that Sappho, with her vivid imagination, attributed to a recollection of holding a dead infant.

“I’ve told her it’s unseemly to hold a grudge, but she is still miffed at your rejection. Still, she brings you back from the dead more times that you’ll ever care to admit.” With her fingertips, the poet delicately traced Gabrielle’s cheekbone.

“Sappho.”

“Yes?”

“I have already been back from the dead more times than I care to admit.”

The poet smiled; the delicate convergence of lines around her eyes served as confirmation of her age. “It’s strange, isn’t it? Our fabrications fit so neatly into your unbelievable life. At least you have a sense of humor about it. You have to, don’t you?” She turned serious. “And may you come back from the dead one more time,” she whispered, “if it comes to that.”

“We shouldn’t talk of it.”

“You’re right.” Sappho squeezed her friend’s shoulder. “Bad luck.”

“No,” Gabrielle rasped. “I just don’t want to talk about it.”

“When you asked for my help, I couldn’t refuse you. You must have known that. The Warrior Princess tutored you on irresistibility, didn’t she? All the same—” She dropped her hand. “why did you ask me for help? Why not the Librarian at Alexandria?”

“I trust you,” Gabrielle replied simply.

“Music to my ears. Almost as good as ‘I love you.’ But we both know such a declaration is not forthcoming from your lips.” Here Sappho paused to change the subject. “Still, the librarian received your real scrolls.”

“He’ll take care of them. He has a strange reverence for them.”

Indignant, the poet raised an eyebrow. “And I don’t?”

“I needed your help—on the creative end. To ask more of you is too much. And Alexandria, despite its ties to our land, is outside his realm of power.”

“This is madness—to give the God of War your scrolls, even if they are fakes.” Sappho stared into the cup, abruptly sat it down. A poet does not barter with her words, even if her life and sanity depends on it. Of course, Sappho thought ruefully, she did not have a vengeful god orchestrating the wrath of the Furies in her direction.

The tenor of Gabrielle’s husky voice tore, like an old shift. “It’s the only way, I told you. My—bouts of madness, of insomnia will completely stop. The Furies will leave me alone when he has the scrolls. He said then, and only then, will it stop.”

“And you believe him?”

Her voice shook even more. “I have no choice. He won’t kill me. He needs me. He—“ Swallowed tears softened her tone, washing clean the rough path to her heart. “I’m all he has left of her. And he will torture me, and tempt me, as he did her, for the rest of my life. It’s a game now, you know. He expects me to cheat him, to deceive him somehow. And I will. And the cycle will begin anew. Pursuit.Resistance. He loves a good fight. It will go on and on. I will die in the arms of a history that keeps turning in and repeating itself.”

The nape of Sappho’s neck tingled, and she steeled herself against a chill so sudden, so intense that her spine felt as if it had been dislocated in the resultant shudder. This is the last time. Isn’t it? You are going to kill yourself somehow. And you’re going to take him along with you. I’m not sure how, but you’ll manage it. Like Xena, you always have a plan, known only to yourself.

By the gods, how do I stop you?

 For once in Sappho’s long life, words failed her. “I beg you not to do this,” she said softly.

“I must.”

Again Sappho paced, this time not out of excitement, but instead taking the opportunity to turn the tide of some tears that would only distress—and not deter. “You won’t ride alone into Amphipolis, will you?”

“I—“ Gabrielle looked down, rubbed her forehead. “I have an army.” A bitter exhalation of breath—the closest she could come to a laugh—followed this. “I never thought that I, of all people, would have an army to lead.”

“You’ve lead Amazons into battle.”

“That seemed different somehow. I knew those I lead. These—men. I don’t know them. All of this for the sake of some worthless scrolls. I don’t know if it’s worth it. They may die. Their lives aren’t worth my words.”

“Your scrolls will be safe in Alexandria. And even if they are not…” Here the great poet smiled. “Someone, I tell you, will remember us.” She reached for Gabrielle’s cheek once more.

Gabrielle pushed her face into the outstretched hand, not unlike a feral cat desperately craving affection and contact—affection, and not sex. There had only been a few to offer companionship both affectionate and erotic: A horsewoman of the steppes, a sympathetic courtesan. Few and far between.

Water weakly coursed from the gorgon’s head fountain in the bath, drumming onto the moist tile floor, the unrelenting, steady tap a rhythm that seemed to swallow the whole room, a longing that eclipsed every thought and sigh in its march to the inevitable.

Someone will remember.

 I remember.

Dollops of rain rolled off the roof and plunked listlessly against a drain pipe. At daybreak, the noise provided a percussive counterpoint to the muezzin’s cries.

Janice, however, slept on, in thrall to dreams, captive to the past.

Tap.

“Janice.”

Tap.

 “Janice!”

No. You’re not Southern. Go away.

“Wake up!”

Try as she did to ignore the command, Janice could not ignore the hand upon her shoulder, shaking her violently; like a dog with a bone, it would not let go. Sniffling and grunting, she surrendered and opened her eyes. .

Naima’s hand was tangled in the worn gossamer of her sleeveless undershirt. “Hurry.”

“What’s wrong?” Janice’s voice was a sleepy growl.

“You must go.”

Even half asleep she noticed the tense, flat line of Naima’s normally soft, sensual mouth. “You’re a lousy hostess, Naima.”

“I am not joking.”

Janice noticed that Naima held in her free hand a rucksack—Janice’s rucksack.

Uncharacteristically, Naima sighed impatiently. She released Janice and and rifled through the bag for an acceptably clean shirt. “We have word from Cordahi. They are going to arrest you today. They are coming at any moment.” She tossed a threadbare white oxford at Janice’s chest. Janice caught it, clumsily, as Naima shepherded together boots, hat, and her jacket.

Even groggy with sleep, Janice rapidly buttoned her shirt—a skill acquired from many a hasty departure from many a married (or otherwise coupled) lady’s bed. “I thought they were giving up on this arrest thing.”

“Apparently not.” Naima was lacing up her boots. “There are different charges this time. Stealing from the dig, Cordahi said.”

“Christ,” Janice grumbled. “I’ve only been back a week.”

“You must climb down from the balcony to the back street. Fayed will be waiting in the truck. He’ll take you to the Old Man’s house. From there they will take you across the sea—and you’ll be safe.”

Now Janice stood, dressed and holding her rucksack, yet hesitating in a manner that Naima found curiously childlike and touching. “What—what will happen to you?”

“We shall be fine.” With both hands she cradled Janice’s neck and kissed her, with a strangely chaste sensuality, upon the lips. “Now go. He’s waiting for you.”

The tiny balcony with its iron railings could barely fit two people. Janice hesitated, turning back to look at her friend. Naima smiled at her and nodded. It was all the encouragement she needed—until she peered over the edge and her stomach squawked a small protest. It figures their escape plan would involve one of my phobias. Sure enough, the green Ford sat idling on the rainy street below. She tossed her rucksack—and for safe measure, her fedora—three stories down into the flatbed.

She cast one final look at Naima, who again smiled encouragingly. She took a deep breath, grabbed the railing, and swung over.

Hanging from the railing felt somewhat exhilarating, although Janice immediately regretted not thinking about precisely how she was going to get down to the truck. Her feet found the side of the building and she braced herself. She could climb down on the thick vines of ivy and hope that they would support her weight, or she could grope down from the nearby window ledge, finding footing in various crevices and key holes, to another window ledge, and then jump.

Her boot slipped a bit. Struggling for a new foothold, she kicked at the building’s stone façade and quite innocently pulverized a chunk of the aging rock. Hmm. Maybe the vines are a safer bet.

She swung from rail to rail until a thicket of ivy was within grasp and tested it with a good hard yank. This shit is probably older than I am. Or so I hope. Here goes nothing. She released the railing and hung for dear life onto the ivy, quickly scaling down the building, and making excellent progress until she hit the second story, at which point the window to her right opened and the old woman who lived on that floor with an extended family of about thirteen leaned out, screaming in Alexandrian patois. Of course, Janice could make out only the obscenities that laced the tirade.

“Yeah, yeah, my mother shit me outta her arsehole. Heard it before, old woman,” she growled under her breath.

A flash of movement caught her eye, followed by the force of a blunt object swatting the back of her right thigh.

The old woman was hitting her with a broom.

Janice felt like a reluctant penitent flogged for an unknown sin. “You fucking old bat!” She kicked at the broom while envisioning the telegram that Naima would send Mel: Janice killed by ivy and old woman stop do you really care stop o goddamn o shit stop why am I thinking about you now stop but then stop but then aren’t I always thinking about you, no matter where I am, no matter how long we’ve been apart?

A fourth kick at the broom finally dislodged it from the old lady’s hands; it clattered to the sidewalk. By this time she imagined the entire neighborhood was focused on this early-morning drama. It’s the pervert who sleeps with other men’s women, once again making a timely escape. Janice had no illusions that the community knew every detail of her past; gossip was its lifeblood, pumped and propelled by a ruthless collective memory—it was no surprise that Antoinette Sevier’s former husband lived in this neighborhood and probably had told everyone within earshot that he had been cuckolded by the depraved Western she-male being harbored from the authorities by the Jewish cabalist and her husband, a whore’s offspring.

By the time she’d climbed down to the first floor level, the Ford suddenly disappeared, tearing off down the alley. Panic squirted through her. What the hell is he doing?  Better to be confused on solid ground rather than the side of a building, she thought, so she released the vines and leaped, relying on her innate, catlike ability to fall, with grace, to the earth.

She landed on the cobbled street in a wavering crouch, muscles coiled at the impact; an ache in her thigh gently informed her that she was no longer twenty-five. A dark sedan loitered quietly in front of her, its engine smoldering, breathing its fumes into her face, additionally reminding her of the shitload of trouble she was in.

The doors on either side of the car flipped open simultaneously and it appeared that the car had miraculously sprouted metallic wings and would fly away. Instead two men got out of the vehicle. They only sent two? Janice felt both vaguely insulted and terribly relieved.

Nonetheless, both men were huge; height-wise, one of them even broke the Mel Pappas barrier and was clearly over six feet tall. The driver, the smaller of the two, held out his hand in a gesture of placation, of appeasement.

She bolted—followed by an outraged cry of “’ey!”—and was out of the alley by the time the car doors slammed shut and the sedan’s engine roared in tired dismay. Where the fuck—she gazed down the boulevard. The Ford was two blocks down, the morning sun limning it in a soft glow.

She ran. She did not look back—there was no need to, because she felt the sedan’s presence, a lumbering ghost, a malignant Eurydice at her heels, except that she knew looking back would not cause the car to dissolve into the underworld.

Fayed wasn’t making it easy; the Ford began to slowly pull away from the curb. Shit. It was probably a good idea, but damn it Fayed I’m not a kid anymore. I don’t know if I can catch up to you this time. Her lungs began to burn as she pushed harder into the wind. The euphoria of adrenaline settled over her like a liquid crown, seeping downward through her blood into every muscle, until she wrapped her hand around the Ford’s gate, hoisted herself on the rudder, and vaulted, heels over head, into the empty truck bed.

It was just in time—the bullets began to fly.

And it started to rain even harder.

Her hands glided over the slick metal bed. How many times, she thought, had she lain in the back of this truck? Sleeping, dreaming, watching stars? The raindrops tumbling down now seemed to be falling stars, cool pearls pummeling her hot skin. Gratefully, she took this moment of peace before she started to worry once again about Fayed getting shot.

The old metal bed bucked under her as Fayed executed an increasingly dizzying number of hairpin turns; no one knew Alexandria as he did—at least that’s what she counted on. The sound of gunfire faded into tinny thunderclaps on the wind, then disappeared into nothing. The Ford gathered speed and like a battered Pegasus flew out of Alexandria.

As the Ford grinded up the hill that led to the Old Man’s place, Janice watched the landscape strip away the old gaudiness of buildings and minarets and statues until it lay naked beside her, starkly beautiful and faded, smooth and worn as a piece of old mosaic.

Jenny reached out to touch the ochre brilliance of the nimbus surrounding the figure’s head.

 “Jesus, Jenny!” Ever protective of her great find, of the mosaic that would distinguish her from her father, Janice clapped a hand around her lover’s wrist. “Don’t touch it!”

 Jenny laughed; the ringlets of her hair glowed gold in the lantern’s light. “Ah, the truth, at last revealed. You care more for these old things than you do for me, you cur of a Covington!”

 “I care—“ Unable to lie, Janice let the sentence linger unfinished.

 Jenny did not even try to free herself from Janice’s iron grasp. “Don’t say anything.” She pressed her fingertips against Janice’s cheek. “Just let me believe otherwise.”

She pretended that the wet streaks on her face were rain and not tears. Three months, she thought, since scattering those ashes in the sea. From death to death, each link to her past disintegrated and she felt increasingly unmoored from a personal history that, while burdensome at best, was really all she had. The release could have been liberating, but it didn’t feel that way. She wished it did.

What was left? The Work. Shit. Who was left? There was Fayed, of course. And there was Mel. As frightening as liberation from the past may be, the intensity of their bond, defying time, history, reason, was at times even more terrifying.

 My God. I miss you. It doesn’t stop, does it? It never stops.

The truck lurched to a halt. At the sound of the truck door’s opening and closing, she sat up.

Fayed was giggling; it was a nervous habit, and sometimes depending upon her mood she found it either endearing or irritating. Given that he had just possibly saved her life, at the very least prevented her from getting arrested, she opted for the former reaction.

She climbed out of the truck. “You did it.”

He couldn’t stop laughing. “Ay!” he exclaimed. “I am too old for such excitements.”

Janice fell into his arms; her forehead brushed the sharpness of his unshaven cheek. “Thank you,” she murmured, so softly that he almost did not hear.

“Did you think,” he replied breathlessly, “we would let them take you?”

“No. Never.” Her head rested against his collarbone. She thought of Mel—the fragile strength of her broad collarbone, cresting against the whiteness of her skin.

“Listen,” he began, “Mustafa will be here soon. He will give you safe passage across the sea. He will arrange everything.”

The Cabalist Underground Railroad. It does help to have friends in low places. “What about you? And Naima?”

“We will be fine.”

“No.” She grabbed her rucksack, rummaging through it frantically, until she found what she wanted.

She tossed a set of keys at him. He caught them in a fumbling grasp that left metal poking between the slats of his fingers, like deadly claws. He knew what the keys were for, if only because he knew her so well. “You cannot.”

“I can. It’s mine now—and so it’s yours too. Jenny would want that.” She touched his face, daring to do so with lingering affection—something she had not attempted ever since she was a seventeen-year-old girl foolishly in love with him. “You know it’s not safe for you and Naima now. Particularly Naima.”

“She won’t leave.” If possible, she loved the city even more than he.

“She has to. You have to make her leave. Promise me.” I can’t lose you. Not you. Not now. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know you.  “’The city will always pursue you.’” Janice smiled weakly as she quoted this beguilingly bleak line of Cavafy’s. “She’ll have Alexandria in her wherever she goes. And so will you.”

Fayed tried to smile, failed, dipped his head.

“Will you promise me?”

He nodded. When he finally regained the courage to look at her again his eyes were damp. “Will you go back to her, back to where you belong?” Finally he smiled—tenderly, while brushing wild gold back from her face.

Janice felt as if still in the truck, taking another wild turn, running away from another crushing inevitability. Her mouth hung open.

Fayed shook her gently. “Will you promise me? This woman of yours—she is your city, your Alexandria. Your exile is pointless. It does not have to be. Go back to her.”

In the near distance the desert sand rolled and pitched like the most tumultuous of ocean waves, absorbing the light rain with sinister silence. What have you given me? The sand did not reply, nor would her mind humor her with an imagined response.

“Go,” he said again. He wrapped his hand around hers.

It occurred to her that she had nowhere left to go. She was as empty and as casually revealed as the ceaselessly shifting layers of sand. Refusing him would only be delaying the inevitable. “All right,” Janice whispered numbly.

4. Addict Days
There is the world dimensional for
those untwisted by the love of things
irreconcilable…
Hart Crane

BostonMassachusetts

May, 1954

The cabbie was thankful to have an interesting fare gravitate toward him. A day’s worth of gray flannel suits made him thank God for the strangely dressed woman—at first he’d thought she was a guy—who threw a worn duffel bag into his welcoming trunk.

As she settled into the back seat, mumbling a Cambridge address, he craned his head to get a good look at her. “Where you comin’ from?”

Janice knew she looked peculiar enough to warrant speculation. “New York,” she replied. Which was true enough—the train she’d just got off had its origin in that city.

“Yeah?” he said, querulously. “You look like you came from the desert or somethin’. You know, like you’re one of those whaddya call ‘em—“

“Would ‘bums’ be the correct term that you’re looking for?” She smiled wryly.

He laughed. He liked a woman with a sense of humor. “Naaaaah. You know, an explorer or something, like in the desert.”

“I’m—an archaeologist,” she said.

There was a strange hesitation hitched to her voice, which made him think she was lying. “No kidding?”

“No kidding.”

“Where were you?”

“Greece. Egypt.”

“Wow.” He whistled, but said nothing in order to give her an opening to discuss the fabled land. When she didn’t, he asked, almost timidly, “Did you find what you were looking for?”

He could see the answer in the weary eyes that stared into the rearview mirror from the backseat. “Not really.”

They drove in silence, crossing the glassy calm of the Charles River into Cambridge; wearily angelic, she dozed in the late afternoon sun that streamed through the grimy window.

When he pulled up in front of the address that she gave, the car’s sudden stop woke her. “Here ya go,” he announced.

She handed him a crisp ten. “Keep it.”

“Thanks, dollface.” Money made him chivalrous and he leapt from the cab to extract her duffel bag from the trunk.

Janice got out as he sat the bag on the curb. “You in a hurry to get back?”

He looked surprised. “Not really. Why?”

“Drive back around here in about fifteen, twenty minutes. I may need your services again.” Her mouth set into a grim, tight line.

He did the emotional math. “You got it.” Then he smiled and tapped her on the arm with a gentle slap, like a long-lost big brother. “But no offense, sweetheart,” he said, his South End accent neatly lopping off the e and the r from the word’s second syllable, “I hope I don’t see you again. Any guy who turns you away is nuts, I think.”

How about any girl? Janice wanted to say, but didn’t. She realized, with no small amount of astonishment, that she was simply too tired to be a smart ass.

The cab left her in a puff of exhaust. She shouldered the duffel bag and, as if walking the last mile, shuffled up the sidewalk to the porch. The nascent green trees shivered in a stiff breeze, caught in the grip of spring’s mercurial temperatures. Standing on the porch, she remembered that her house keys were buried deep within the bag. It would be easier to ring the bell. Not to mention it would save time—Mel might not even allow her over the threshold. It would be quicker, less painful. Like ripping off a Band-Aid. Nonetheless she stared at the doorbell for a good five minutes before finally committing her thumb to action.

Within seconds a young man opened the door. Quite appropriately, she felt like Odysseus returning to Ithaka and finding the palace overrun with suitors. While on a deeper level she believed Mel to be as true as Penelope, she acknowledged the fact that Penelope certainly lacked a certain temperamental strain that was inimitably, purely Southern Belle. Well fiddle dee dee, Odysseus! The Yankees burned ol’Ithaka to the ground in your absence…but Jesus, Janice thought as she examined the young man at the door, am I replaced that easily? He was clearly a student—although not the kind Mel usually attracted, for his thick body and dull yet wary look screamed football player.

He was shaking his head at her. “Nope, nope, nope. Sorry,” he said.

She raised a surprised eyebrow. “Come again?”

“The soup kitchen’s three blocks over, near St. Thomas’s.”

You really shouldn’t be surprised, she told herself. You do look every inch a bum. Her shirt was stained, her left pant leg sported a silver dollar-sized hole near the knee, the soles of both boots were cracked. What hair visible from underneath the fedora was limp and greasy. Nonetheless, some righteous indignation took hold—if she was going to be denied entry to this house, by God, it would be by decree of Melinda Pappas, and Melinda Pappas only, and not some frat boy. “I’m not looking for the soup kitchen, jackass,” she growled.

Fortunately, a friendly face appeared from behind this testosterone apparition. However, it was not Mel, but yet another student—a large young man who gaped at her with unabashed worship. “Dr. Covington!” he shouted with glee. By shoving his surly friend out of the doorway, he allowed Janice opportunity to enter. “Robbie, this is Dr. Covington. She lives here,” he hissed to his companion.

The boy named Robbie glared skeptically at Janice. Who glared back and took a decisive step into the house.

“Please ignore him, Doctor,” the young man said airily, shutting the door behind them. This friendly fellow was not a jock but the budding intellectual type: tall, portly, blond, and bespectacled, wearing a tweed jacket from which a pocketed pipe peeked out, like a periscope. Janice did recognize him—he was a former student. He now grinned at her shyly, self-consciously.  “You probably don’t remember me,” he began.

Somehow she plucked the name—and all its associations—from the mental archives. “Matthew Spencer,” she said. She shook his quivering, jellyfish hand. “How could I forget the author of a paper claiming that the Greek Amazons were in fact Etruscan hermaphrodites?” The essay had been nonsense—yet such brilliant, well-researched nonsense that she had no recourse but to give him a low A for his fanciful effort.

“You remembered!” he burbled with pride. “Gosh, I can’t tell you how great it is to have you back. I trust you’ll be teaching next semester?”

The question caught her off guard. “I—I’m not sure what my plans are at the moment.”

“Oh.” Matthew tried to conceal his disappointment. “Well,” he forced a laugh, “whatever your plans are, I can’t wait to see. We never know what’s coming from you.”

“This is so very, very true,” a familiar voice—its bitter tone languishing in the shade of a Southern drawl—commanded the trio’s attention, and all worshipful eyes fell upon Mel, who now entered the increasingly crowded foyer.

As always, Mel looked good, even when blatantly hostile. And as always, Janice’s stupid, stubborn heart pounded out a faster beat at the mere sight of her leaning against the wall, arms folded over her chest. Janice knew that she had copied this casual-confident, mistress-of-the-domain pose from watching Errol Flynn dominate Sherwood Forest in The Adventures of Robin Hood.

While star struck by the sudden appearance of his former professor, Matthew Spencer was no fool. The sudden chill in the atmosphere manifested itself in a sense of déjà vu that traversed his well-padded spine. As an intimate witness in his parents’ own turbulent marriage, he knew this scene well—the attempted reconciliation after the estrangement, its hesitant, soft notes like the gentle opening of a Beethoven piano sonata, perhaps the very sonata that lay beside the turntable in the living room.

He clapped Robbie roughly upon the shoulder. “We should go,” he announced. To his great, not-so-secret pleasure, he thought Dr. Covington shot him a look of gratitude.

“You needn’t leave on anyone’s account, gentlemen,” Mel replied coolly.

Matthew shook his head. “No, Dr. Pappas, we really should be going. We thank you for helping Robbie with his Latin, and I am greatly indebted to you for your guidance on my term paper.”

Robbie snapped out of a sulk. “What?” After months of scheming and pleading with Matthew, he had finally managed to snare a tutoring session with the beautiful professor and was already imaging what she would look like with her hair down and the buttons of her blouse carefully undone. Now Matthew was dragging him down the hall and plucking their jackets from a coat rack. “But I haven’t—I haven’t conjugated anything yet!” he shouted.

“I know precisely what you want to conjugate, you bastard,” Matthew muttered as he propelled his friend out the door, where they stood briefly on the porch as they struggled hastily into their coats.

“Sonofabitch,” Robbie muttered. “Why did you do that?”

Matthew smoothed his scarf as he tucked it into his overcoat. “You fool. They wanted to be alone.” He started down the steps to the sidewalk. Well, they needed to be alone, that’s for sure.

“That’s bull.” Robbie followed close on his friend’s heels, and they both took a broad right turn toward the general direction of the university. “Why would she want to be alone with that—that creature—“

Matthew bristled at this description of his beloved former teacher. “You’ve never seen Dr. Covington in a skirt, boyo.”

“Matthew, you have the strangest taste in broads. You’re crazy. Just plain crazy.”

“You just don’t get it, do you?” Matthew cried, exasperated.

“Get what?”

Matthew sighed extravagantly. “They’re lovers,” he said. Or they were, he thought sadly.

Robbie crinkled his pug nose while simultaneously widening his eyes in disbelief; it had the unfortunate effect of rendering him as a constipated pig. Daumier would have a field day with him. Matthew smirked and quietly enjoyed his little aesthetic joke.

“You’re full of shit,” Robbie roared. He pointed at the house, his slab of an arm quaking with indignation. “Are you going to tell me that beautiful woman in there is a queer?”

Matthew, scandalized, looked around. He didn’t want to be responsible for soiling the reputations of his favorite professors. “Shoosh. Lower your voice.”

“Hell,” Robbie retorted in a near whisper. “Come on now, Matthew.”

Matthew presented his case tersely—the details of which, as he spoke them, made him wonder why he didn’t figure it out sooner. “They’ve lived together for years. They’re both well into their thirties. No suitors in sight. It takes two to tango—or tangle, in this case.”

The only response Robbie could muster was a silent one, his mouth a vapid o of mute shock.

“Fine. Stand there all night. The garbage men will dispose of you in the morning.” Matthew began walking down the street.

“Stop screwing around with me!” Robbie wailed. “MATTHEW!”

Matthew Spencer kept walking, but cast a quick look back at the darkening house and silently wished his old professor good luck.

*  *  *

For she really needed it. Janice touched her lower lip, producing a red smudge on her fingers. She had always suspected—but had hoped, in vain, never to confirm—that Mel would be a good slapper. The head-jarring, ear-ringing, blood-inducing smack across the face that she just got was, indeed, proof of her theory.

Still, it was hard to be mad about that, especially now that Mel was slumped in a kitchen chair, one hand covering her eyes, the other tightly clutching her glasses, crying.

Goddamn you, Fayed, why did I let you talk me into this? Cause I just fucking end up hurting her anyway, no matter what I do or what I say. She blotted the lip with her shirt sleeve. “I shouldn’t have come. I’m sorry.” Sorry. You hit me and I say I’m sorry. It’s so wrong it’s right. “I’ll go,” she said softy. “I’m sorry.” Again. She turned around. Go. Quickly. Like pulling off a Band-Aid. Go. Just go.

Two words came from Mel, desolate and adrift in a sea of hoarseness and unshed tears. “Don’t go.”

The request, of course, stopped Janice dead in her tracks. Like Orpheus, she was helpless in her compulsion to turn around. Mel was swiping ineffectually at her face with the back of her hand. Janice knew that even if she had a handkerchief, it would be filthy. So instead she retrieved a box of tissues from the living room—right where she knew they would be. It was comforting to know that something hadn’t changed.

Mel left the proffered tissues untouched and stared down at her hands. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t—I shouldn’t have done that.”

Janice too stared at Mel’s hands, curled tightly in her lap—and noticed a crimson lane liquidly rounding the bend of her right fist.  As if unearthing a fragile artifact, she gently, carefully, pried Mel’s fingers away, revealing what could pass as a surrealist painting of a pair of glasses: contorted, empty wire frames and broken lenses digging into a bloody palm.

Janice lived for purpose; nothing fulfilled her as much as having things to do. Here an opportunity presented itself—which it rarely did with the alarmingly healthy Mel—to take care of someone. During the last months with Jenny she discovered she was surprisingly good at it, even if ultimately she had failed her friend. But she failed at everything, it seemed, so she pretended it didn’t bother her much, and clung desperately to this positive, a life raft barely aloft in a sea of negativity.

She marched up the stairs in search of peroxide and gauze. The bathroom’s mirror confirmed her haggard looks; she ignored the reflection and opened the medicine cabinet. Her hand strayed over a host of bottles—cold creams, cough medicines, skin lotions, witch hazel, shampoo, a metal tin of band-aids. Everything’s here.

“Janice.” Everything in one place.

Mel stood in the doorway, red-eyed, blinking, but calmer.

Everything. But what I need. “We used to have peroxide here.”

“Never mind that.”

“But it was here. I remember buying it. ‘Cause I got it when I bought gauze—”

“I’m all right.”

“—because I’m always doing something to myself.”

“Janice.”

Janice looked at her.

Mel swallowed nervously, even though her blue eyes took on that relentless quality they possessed when in pursuit of knowledge. “You haven’t said anything—I haven’t given you a chance to, I know—but what about Jenny?”

Jenny? How does she know about Jenny? Fayed, of course. All those little letters they were exchanging. Christ, I was even jealous…  “She’s dead.” Her hand began another trembling pass of the medicine cabinet and accidentally sent a bottle of witch hazel tumbling into the sink, where it smashed open. When her vision grew blurry she thought she was reacting to the overpowering scent of the stuff. The ragged gasp tangled in her throat told her otherwise. Crying. I am crying. Worse yet, she was crying in front of Mel. She couldn’t remember ever doing that before, ever displaying this weakness that made her squirm whenever confronted with it in others. But in her humiliation a tiny sense of wonder formed, solid and perfect as a pearl—that Mel was here and did not turn away, that she knew precisely what to do and did it: She held Janice, calmly welcoming tears that, Janice thought absurdly, would ruin a perfectly flawless linen blouse.

Later, Janice would think that crying was the emotional equivalent of a car crash. The frantic steering in the act of avoidance only seems to lead to a more destructive crash, and yet when it is done, it is done. With pain comes relief. Everything seems better, if only because it seems that the absolute worst is over.

* * *

Her fingertips scrape the stones. He urges her to the truck. You can save them all. Come on, come on. The hotel will blow in five minutes. You can save them, but only if you hurry.  The streets are Parisian—there are signs in French—but the rubble, the ruins are pure Berlin. Stolid Germanic row houses flared with black smoke. The gutted Reichstag, its famed pillars tattooed with graffiti.

He climbs in the truck with her and they are careening around street corners, weaving through piles of rubble, stuck with people pounding on the vehicle crying for food, eye level with detritus, a scarlet pack ofDunhills clinging to the side of the heap, her hands shake, the engine sputters, she fumbles with the clutch, he laughs—you really are a prize, aren’t you? How many things can you botch in your miserable life?—the streets are a unfamiliar maze, Rue Parnasse is not where it should be, the old whore on the corner is the kindly, plump English nurse who once bandaged her hand after an accident two days after she turned 24—and he is a harpy, winged and vile, pursuing her thoughts, her lungs ache as she drowns in the filth of a bombed out city and the hotel explodes, suddenly it is night and the city is a blur of phosphorous.

He’s lighting a cigarette, pleased at her failure. Well, you botched this. It’s like you were born to betray yourself. Even when you think you are betraying others.

Betrayal.

Is there betrayal in my blood?

 He dressed me up like a doll, picking blue silk—the color mocked me and he knew it, it marked my deed, it reminded me of her eyes. He knew it, and he wanted to remind me of it. As if I could really forget. His servants watched, blushing, as he put the clothes on me himself. He said he wanted to know what a Greek woman looked like; perhaps it was blatant yet weak attempt at seduction rather than genuine curiosity. I don’t know. I muttered that physically I was not typical of Greek women.

 And then Ming Tien laughed, richly, archly derisive. “Oh no,” he said. “You’re not typical at all. You clothe your black heart prettily—in the guise of love and your precious morality. That you are so ignorant of it makes you more dangerous than a thousand Xenas.”

Janice sat up, spewing aching breaths from a throat that was tight and dry. Waking up in a strange bedroom never fazed her much, but at the same time there was something oddly familiar about this one, with its warm, lemony walls, and the simple dresser sitting across from the double bed. Perhaps the familiarity stemmed from the snoring figure next to her—Mel. Janice blinked again. She was in the guest room of her own house. Why, she didn’t know. But then—she thought as she rubbed her face—why would Mel want her in the master bedroom again anyway?

She looked at Mel—a curled, crumpled odalisque among the sheets. A bloodied wad of tissue—vulnerably thin and palely red, a dying rose—was in her partly clenched right hand. Damn it, she probably didn’t put anything on that.

Her head ached; who would’ve known that crying, like drinking, could give you a hell of a hangover? Even though Janice could not remember having drunk anything in the past twelve hours, her bladder felt heavy. She swung her legs off the bed and felt a hand upon her arm.

Mel was awake now. “Where are you going?” Her grip was vise-like, her eyes quietly desperate.

“Just—to the bathroom.” Janice gently wriggled her arm.

Cautiously, Mel released her.

In the bathroom, the mess in the sink had been not-so-miraculously cleared away. Like most of Western Civilization, Janice valued her time and thought on the great porcelain chair. It seemed like Mel did not want her to leave. That seemed like a good thing. Perhaps Mel just wanted to torture her about everything? Janice was game. Being tortured by Mel handily beat the slow eradication of her sanity and her life in a place like Alexandria.

She flushed the toilet, washed her hands, opened the window. The sun played hide and seek with the clouds, and the trees—which looked almost bare yesterday—seemed ridiculously blossomed and full. Oh, it all looks good to you now, doesn’t it? A sedan wandered down the street, the echo of a dog’s bark rattled and bounced in the stillness of mid-morning. That’s when the epiphany stole upon here, gentle and unassuming, a zephyr of fate. Here. I want to be here.

Will she let me be here? Does she really want me here? She touched the windowpane. Only one way to find out. She returned to the guest room.

Mel sat on the bed, legs drawn up against her chest. Even with wrinkled clothes, slouching stockings, and wildly tousled hair, she was astonishingly beautiful. It was amazing, Janice thought, how some women could wear disarray as if it were just another outfit in their haute couture arsenal. The flaking tissue bandage around her hand—which Mel picked at in anxious irritation—appeared to be just another part, albeit an eccentric one, of the ensemble.

Janice cleared her throat. “You should put something on that.”

Mel blinked, startled at the reminder of the injury, then her eyes became hooded and she looked away. “It’ll heal fine,” she said quietly.

“Yeah.” Janice stared at a Persian rug of red and gold; it seemed vaguely familiar. Was that always in here? How I’ve always been a stranger in a place I called my home. “You always heal quickly.”

A darker shadow leapt across Mel’s face at this reminder of a part of herself she so hated. “I shouldn’t have—“

“You were angry,” Janice interrupted gently.

“That doesn’t give me the right.”

“It doesn’t matter.” Janice stuffed her hands in her pockets. “I’m sorry too.”

Apologies don’t suit you, Mel had once said, years ago, after a less catastrophic fight.

“You’ve nothing to be sorry about.”

“I shouldn’t have just left you like that.”

Why not? You’ve done it before. The thought, unspoken, hung accusingly in the air.

Mel ignored the original circumstance of Janice’s departure, and chose to focus on the one positive she could see—Janice’s unwavering loyalty (the possibility of infidelity be damned) to someone who needed her. “You took care of her, when no one else would. It’s nothing to be sorry or ashamed about.”

“Hell of a lot of good it did,” Janice said roughly. That wellspring of futility, the bitter aftertaste of the morning’s dream, flooded her throat and she closed her eyes and pushed and pushed at phantom despair until she could finally will its ebbing away.  “I told you that if I ever left, I would always come back.”

“Yes,” Mel replied hoarsely, “but I never thought it would hurt this much.”

“Neither did I.” Janice paused before plummeting gracelessly into the question that would make or break her life. “Do you want me here?”

“My God.” Mel looked pained. The light from the window struck her fully in the face and she blinked in confusion at the sun’s first rays. “Do you really need to ask that?”

“Nothing is a sure thing in this world, Mel.”

“Not even me?”

“Especially not you.”  How could I ever take for granted something so beautiful, so rare? But I have. I did.

“All right, then,” Mel replied softly. “I want you here.” Her fingers splayed in invitation over the worn bedspread. “Come here.”

It was, in all innocence, the right thing to say, for it reminded Janice of their first night together, so many years ago—she, in a drunken swoon at the edge of Mel’s bedroom, sweaty hand clutching a stolen hair clasp in her pocket, waiting, beguiled, and lost.

Come here, you said, please please please. You said it over and over as I stood above you, as you pressed your face into my belly, as your touch raged like fire over every inch of me. And now both her skepticism and her knees weakened as she made her way to the bed and sat down; Mel’s fingers ran over the rough terrain of her knuckles, reclaiming territory with the contradictorily desperate assurance of pure passion.

“Christ.” Janice felt tired. “It can’t be this easy, can it?”

Mel released her hand and, as she was always wont to do, commenced combing Janice’s hair with her fingers. “I don’t know. Maybe we shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth right now.”

“What day is it?”  She was too ashamed to actually ask what month it was; it was either April or May, she was fairly certain of that. Nonetheless, she felt unmoored. Months had gone by—months of nameless, numberless days. Addict Days, Jenny once called it. Days lazily curled one into another, like plumes of smoke. And earlier—in another life it seemed—Harry had called the timeless state spent on excavation sites Dig Time. It was appropriate somehow; they were searching for time as much as anything else. They needed time as much as money. They needed time in order to find time. In the end, Janice thought helplessly, was his addiction any safer, any better than Jenny’s had been?

Not surprisingly, Mel failed to see the significance of the question but nonetheless answered it. “Tuesday.”

“You must have a class.” Janice lay back on the bed and closed her eyes.

“No. Not until afternoon.” Mel’s fingers continue to weave a spell through her hair.

Janice tried to repress a smile. “You’re lying.” Her eyelids drooped dangerously and she lay back, feeling—for the first time in months—truly safe.

Mel ignored this. “I’ll make you breakfast.”

“I’ll make the coffee,” Janice murmured, just before falling asleep again.

* * *

 A tentative peace thus brokered, Janice stayed. The semester ended and June arrived; the month, however, decided to bring with it August’s oppressive summer heat. A Northern heat wave was somehow more vindictive than a Southern one ever could be, Mel theorized, because Yankees just did not understand heat. It was a sad, inexplicable state of affairs: They expected life and its attendant business to move along as it does in other seasons, that is, to be conducted at a somewhat brisk tempo. No one up here seemed to realize that life should be slower in the summer: Businesses should close suddenly, unpredictably after lunch and stay that way. Stories should be told on the veranda as the lemonade turned into tepid sugar water.

 Idiots. With Yankees as a group, Mel was always uncharitable.

 Sitting at her desk, she straightened, and a sudden coolness—a faint breeze—channeled itself between her sweaty back and the leather chair. She stared down at the essay she had struggled to write for the last half hour. It was too hot to work, to think, to move, to eat, to make love…don’t act as if that’s even possible right now, she warned herself. Silently she turned the pen in her hands.

Since Janice’s return they shared the house now as uneasy roommates, both afraid to offend. Under different circumstances, it would have amused Mel to see Janice act so painfully polite, to be so self-conscious to the point of shyness and timidity. From the vantage point of sleeping alone in a separate bedroom, however, the situation held very little humor for her. (Janice hadn’t moved from the guest room; Mel, puzzled, hadn’t really known how to extend an invitation other than appearing in the guest room wearing nothing but stockings and a garter belt, but she unfortunately and wrongly believed that she was getting too old to pull off such a stunt.) Once, and only once, during this time had they made love—after coming home from a movie (Written on the Wind, with Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall; while Mel had been unmoved by Bacall’s icy beauty, Janice at least had appreciated the actress’s fine legs): Nightswimming through the darkened hallway, Janice stumbling into her hands, a muttered apology, and Mel’s sudden pining recollection of how perfectly the small of Janice’s back fit into her eager grasp. It had been awkward, cautious, not binding—groping in the dark while on the leather couch in the study, Janice’s fingers curling into her, a delicious hook. She came too quickly and felt embarrassed afterward, as she always did when driven purely by need.

Like the stale summer air, languidly riled by the ceiling fan, the tired questions chose to rerun themselves in her mind. Is it my fault? For encouraging her to keep searching? Then being angry when she actually wanted to go? She tried to peel back the sweaty blouse away from her skin. Could I blame Alexandria itself?  How convenient it would be, to blame a place. Could we blame Italy? Or any of the other places we’ve ever been?

 She sighed, pushed herself away from the desk, and stood up. All those places we’ve been. Each place was a piece fitting into the mosaic of the life they had shared thus far. The only problem was that a mosaic forms a picture, a design; she had no idea and could obtain no perspective on what the grand scheme of their mosaic might be; she struggled not to snort derisively at entertaining the mere thought of agrand scheme.  Does it matter? She wandered over to the open door of the study and settled herself there, leaning against the wooden trim that had been repainted only a week ago. Looking into the dim, cool hallway, she saw the fedora perched atop the coat rack. Her godhead, Mel thought sarcastically.

Nonetheless, it has always been the first thing she looked for when she came through the door—to see the fedora hanging there, or sometimes lying on a table, or a chair. Wherever the hat was, the woman was not far behind.  And always, seeing it…Mel mused.  It was as if a lamp were turned on, a candle lit: She bloomed in the anticipated presence of Janice, something was ignited within her, and possibilities existed where none had before.

She picked up the fedora, fingers nestled in the crown, thumb running the smooth track of the olive drab brim. It smelled both musty and sweaty. She fought the sudden violent desire to bury her face against it, knowing she might crush the shape beyond repair; the old battered felt was actually quite delicate. Like Janice herself.

Mel returned the hat to its perch and stalked through the hallway, pursued only by a wretched yen for the past and a stream of sweat running down her shoulder blades. When she reached the kitchen she opened the icebox and regarded its spare contents: a couple bottles of Coke—Janice’s replacement for cigars and cigarettes (one vice for another, thought Mel, recalling all those childhood warnings about soda pop rotting out one’s teeth)—a pitcher of lemonade, some fruit, eggs, potato salad, and leftover fried chicken.  Indecisive, she closed the door.

Janice said that she no longer wished to travel—an uncharacteristic euphemism for her work—or to teach. The latter was hardly a surprise to Mel. While Janice was a good teacher, she was clearly uncomfortable in a classroom; her great enthusiasm for the subject only shined through when she successfully battled her own feelings of self-consciousness.

Now that was seemingly past. In order to fill her idle days, Janice worked at a garage—in essence, Mel thought, exchanging one kind of filth for another. And wasting her vast talents—which actually had been her very first thought upon discovering this unfortunate (and, she fervently hoped, temporary) career change.

“Where on earth have you been?”

 Much like the juvenile delinquent caught before attaining the safety of his bedroom, Janice stopped short before bolting up the stairs and shoved her hand deep into her pockets. “Nowhere.”

 “Nowhere.” Mel folded her arms. “That’s usually what you call a bar or a racetrack.”

 “Yeah. Well, I ain’t been to either,” Janice retorted defiantly—although for Mel the shock value of bad grammar had faded long ago.

 Mel’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Show me your hands.”

 Momentarily Janice looked trapped, then recovered herself nicely with a mocking grin. “Gotta catch me first, big girl.” She galloped up the stairs.

 Mel followed—tiredly. She found Janice in the bathroom, lathering up a pair of very dirty hands, scrubbing carefully with the loving precision of a surgeon. She was just impatient enough that her propriety slipped as she asked the $64,000 question: “Just what the hell have you been up to?”

 Janice decided to come clean—both figuratively as well as literally. “I’m working at Jimmy’s.”

 “The garage?” Mel was incredulous.

 Janice silenced her with a look and a confirmation. “Yeah. The garage.”

 She watched Janice’s thorough immersion in the task at hand and knew it was hopeless to even attempt to seriously sway her feelings in the matter. These days she spoke frequently of how archaeology had destroyed Harry, how it had alienated him from his wife, how it had left him penniless, reputation-less—and how it slowly, surely killed him.

 And so Mel could only attempt a joke. “You—you might as well up and join the circus.”

 Janice raised an eyebrow. “You know how I feel about clowns, Melinda.”

 Now she watched as Janice tirelessly pursued yet another home improvement project: cleaning the rain gutters. Janice positioned a ladder against the roof, checked it once, twice, looked up, down, then finally grasped a rung and began climbing.

The longing that caught in Mel’s throat took her by surprise; it was the familiar—and not-unusual—twinning of envy and desire. She had long admired Janice’s comfort in her own body—her strength, the economical grace of her movements. My God, you are so beautiful. I never really stopped thinking that, did I?

If there was some sort of discernible pattern to the mosaic, was that it? she wondered. It is the one constant, that—despite everything—I remain as helplessly in love with you as I was 15 years ago? I need a drink. I suppose lemonade will do. 

She poured a glass of lemonade and sat down at the table. In lieu of a straw she improvised and stirred the beverage with an index finger. It was unladylike in the extreme, but she was too hot to care. Too darn hot. Cole Porter is certainly more accurate than most weather reports.

 The screen door slammed, making a noise not unlike a gunshot. In spite of having heard it approximately a thousand times over the course of prior years, Mel jumped.

“I was right,” Janice was muttering as she made a beeline for the icebox, “there are a ton of leaves in the rain gutter. You know there are gonna be a shitload of snails in there too, and you might as well say goodbye to your garden if they get loose.”  

Her back faced Mel. In blatant disregard of whatever the neighbors might think, she wore a sleeveless undershirt tucked sloppily into khakis. The well-worn white cotton obeyed the dictates of Janice’s body: It heeded the muscled curves of her shoulders, the pronounced peaks of her shoulder blades, the smooth columns of firm flesh running parallel to the corridor of her spine.

Mel took it as a sign that she thought of her father’s uncharacteristically blunt assessment concerning his daughter’s hopeless politesse: Sometimes there is such a thing as being too reserved, dear. Especially when you encounter something you want.

She stood too quickly, jostling the kitchen chair, earning a quick concerned glance from Janice, and took an awkward leap toward her quarry. Did Xena, Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations, Scourge of RomeCorinth, and so on and so forth, ever have an off day when she waded through space like a love-struck cow? That’s what I want to know. Her hands felt clumsy even at idle rest upon Janice’s hips, and she stammered out a simile that ended abruptly in mid-formation: “You s-smell like…like…” Sun-ripened grass. Like desire itself. You smell like the eternal desert, still, after all these weeks. It’s your own elusive perfume and always I go chasing off after it until I drown in it as a wanderer in a sandstorm.

 Silkily twisting in Mel’s grasp like a scarf in a wind, Janice turned around. Her old smart-ass grin was back and her dirty, rough hands moved with a maestro’s assurance along Mel’s body, sliding against her stomach. “…like…snails in a gutter?” The edge of her palm brushed the delicate underside of Mel’s breast, then executed a capricious u-turn, heading south. The fabric of Mel’s skirt bunched and gathered within her hands, and Mel shivered in a delighted response to this, as if her own skin unraveled, revealing an essence unseen and untouched by anyone.

But that wasn’t true. Janice had always plumbed this essence, and apparently, never grew tired of it. “You get more beautiful with every year that goes by. How do you do that?”

“Because—with every year that goes by—I love you more.”

“Good answer,” Janice approved. Her hand tucked warmly around Mel’s neck, guiding her in for a kiss.

The anticipation Mel felt was surprising. Kissing her again—really kissing her again—was the first drink after a long spell of needless sobriety, the needling addiction in the pit of her stomach finally sated, the sweet scary drop of the roller coaster ride.

More than ready for the ride, Mel latched onto Janice’s belt buckle. “Now,” she whispered.

“I’m a mess,” Janice muttered unconvincingly as her thin t-shirt was savagely untucked.

Mel pushed the heel of her palm into soft skin, against the trampoline of abdominal muscle. The contradiction was an aphrodisiac. Nonetheless Mel’s mind, ever restless even in the throes of lust, meandered elsewhere. “Are you speaking metaphorically or literally?”

“Oh Christ, you kill me. Both.” She gave Mel’s hips a pleasantly violent squeeze, which made Mel press and grind against her.

Mel pulled at the delicate swath of cotton at Janice’s shoulder and attacked that sweet, firm flesh as if it were a ripe peach. “I don’t care,” she moaned.

With a finalizing bit of impropriety—not unlike a handshake sealing a business deal—Janice slapped her ass. “Upstairs.”

Strange how the neat and tidy hallway suddenly became an obstacle course, how she couldn’t get up the stairs fast enough, even taking the steps two at a time—a minor triumph in heels, she thought.

Sex was beautiful, sex was strange, and no matter how old Mel would get, the bewildering intensity of it all, the staggering sum of the emotional and the physical, always threatened to overwhelm her. For a scant few seconds standing alone in her bedroom, she did not feel like an adult woman at the zenith of her beauty and her desirability; nor did she feel as if she’d earned the title that Janice had once anointed her with—a really great fuck (“I’ve had good fucks, and great fucks, but you’re the first really great fuck—now will ya stop whining and do that to me again?”). She was momentarily a clumsy virgin nervously awaiting a harsh deflowering and the shameful aftermath of a blood-soaked sheet.

And passion was a frightening thing too; sex was a dialect in the language of violence. Despite her fondest wishes to the contrary, she knew violence. She also knew that these doubting feelings would soon pass. That the moment Janice stepped into the room everything would fall into place, as it always did. Everything in one place.

 Janice now stood, oddly hesitant, in front of the closed door, wavering like a flag planted by an exhausted conquistador.

“Well?” Mel prompted.

“You’re sure?”

Mel sat on the bed, kicked off her heels, and stretched out in what she hoped was an inviting, enticing fashion—the Southern ideal of languid, idle denial. In other words, the perfect tease. “Don’t waste time.”

Janice didn’t. But then, she never did. Within minutes her hands wove a spell, told a tale. If Janice was not a storyteller in the traditional sense, as her ancestors were, she was, perhaps, a sexual storyteller. The invisible lines that her hands traced upon her lover’s body hatched fiction, whispers of lives in which Mel took solace, finding in them both reflection and escape: I am a great warrior who surrenders to you and you alone. I die tomorrow. I am a wanderer, a thief stealing upon narrow streets. You are the greatest treasure that I never needed to steal.

I am—Janice’s hands formed the perfect cup, bruisingly tender against the curvaceous bounty of her thighs, her ass. Janice’s murmured endearments—no less important in their half-heard, barely coherent state—settled in the juncture of thigh and torso, nestled in the folds of her skin, tangled in the dark nexus of her pubic hair.

I am yours. Like a diver Mel arched, pouring forth into this pure pleasure. The initial position was like doing a backstroke—a backstroke into ecstasy. She managed this thought just before going under, just before welcoming the tidal wave of sexual oblivion. Her hands curled into bed sheets that lashed tight across her knuckles and threatened to tear, and remained so entangled until she came. Several times.When finally she released her death grip upon the sheets Janice was more than ready for reciprocation, and Mel was more than pleased to repay these happy debts.

In the afterglow of it all—the late afternoon sun burnishing the room to golden, Technicolor perfection—Mel was reclaimed. The ceiling fan shoved lazy eddies of wind across her tingling skin. Janice was touching and looking at her now with the same absentminded gravity she possessed when studying a map—her fingers literally marking time, time as shown in the scattered loops and lines that represented ancient glories.

Looking. Always looking. And searching. Always searching. That is what you do. But what, I wonder, do you find in me?

Janice placed fingertips in the sacred hollow at the base of Mel’s throat. “This is the spot. Right here. A perfect spot, one of many. I could drink a shot of bourbon right here.” She’d said that before, Mel realized, some years ago. But where? When? It didn’t matter; there was richness in the repetition.

Mel would not quibble with being so loved. “If that’s what you want to do,” she breathed.

“Very generous.”

“Considering all the things you’ve just done to me, it seems rather a mild request.”

Janice’s fingers traveled further south; her thumb playfully swiped at Mel’s navel. Their little stroll ended when Janice greedily cupped Mel’s dark sex with an eager hand.

Mel quickly winced, then groaned.

Janice, a connoisseur of groaning, was not fooled into thinking this was a noise denoting pleasure. “That didn’t sound good.” Gently she removed her hand.

The spirit was willing, but the flesh had been too tenderized. “I’m sore.”

“Poor thing. Getting too old for all this excitement, I suspect.”

“You little—“ It didn’t take much to reverse their positions; long ago Mel had realized that whereas Janice was concerned, one could not dominate the unwilling. She settled into Janice’s body, into its familiar smooth dunes and sculpted peaks, against muscles surging and deliciously tight against her welcomed weight. She kissed Janice hard. Amid the heedless crash of lips and mouths, her tongue pleasantly shipwrecked in the sweet cove of Janice’s mouth, the soreness between her legs was anointed and soothed by renewed slickness.

Janice wrapped a hand in Mel’s dark hair; her fingertips burrowed in Mel’s scalp. “Do it again.”

“Oh God. No.”

“Yes,” Janice retorted in a growl.

Mel relented slightly, pressed her face into Janice’s neck. “Tell me first—what ranking we achieved this time.” Would this achieve the stellar perfection of a Venice ranking? Or would Janice be inspired to revise her Cambridge classification (“a solid, run-scoring hit, a DiMaggio single up the pike”)? Of course, this time had aspects of their vacation in Mykonos (“an unwinding epic, a meandering marathon, yet no less pleasant because of the meandering, and with no end in sight—kinda like my bullshit metaphors, huh?”).

Janice feigned ignorance of her elaborate, frequently improvised system. “Hmm?”

“Performance evaluation. Classification, please.”

“Now? You hopeless academic, you,” Janice accused.

“Now.”

Janice’s lips brushed lightly against the whorls of her ear in half a kiss, half a whispered, blissful benediction: “Venice, Cambridge, New York, Alexandria, London, Mykonos. Everywhere and everything.”

*  *  *

The first inkling the Dean had of Covington’s return manifested itself in a serious bout of dyspepsia, which lasted so long that he could not blame mere overindulgence in soda water. The second sign was the mellowed mood and relaxed demeanor of his faculty star, Melinda.

The fresh lilacs sitting on the desk in her office were the third indication. Upon first sight of them—with Mel sitting at her desk, so entranced by them that she was allowing a fountain pen to hemorrhage black ink over her fingers—he quoted Whitman from her doorway: “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed/And the great star early drooped in the western sky in the night/I mourned, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.”

Yet she hardly was in mourning, he thought; that part of the quote was inappropriate for the situation at hand. But here in the midst of summer, ever-returning spring was now hers.

Startled, she blinked, smiled, wiped her inky hand on a handkerchief. “You’ve stumped me this time. Frost?”

He smiled. “Whitman.”

“Ah.”

“She’s back, isn’t she?”

Mel primped the flowers as if she were a hairdresser with a client. “Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.”

“I see.” The Dean attempted to take the bite out of this with a much-used, and thus very well-honed, self-deprecating chuckle.

Mel, however, was not fooled and fixed him with an icy stare—usually reserved for the impudent associate professor of Latin who frequently took her parking spot. “Whatever it is between the two of you—I will not become involved.”

He nodded. “Fair enough. You will not be involved. You are not involved. But—“

She raised an eyebrow.

“—your protective streak speaks otherwise.”

After this, his wife reported a sighting of a scruffy, familiar blonde figure at Jimmy’s Garage—even covered in grease, I’d know that little barbarian anywhere, she had said—the Dean decided to stop by the garage one fine sunny Wednesday after work.

He stood in the grimy underworld as she emerged from the office of the gas station, wiping her hands on a dingy mackerel-colored towel that made his nostrils flare with disgust—first, at the sight of such a filthy rag, then of the thought at how unbearably prissy he’d become in his old age. And to think I once worked in excavation pits—and loved it. As usual she was dressed in men’s clothes—drab corduroy work pants and a denim work shirt. It suited her; he had always thought of her beauty as something stripped down, authentic, devoid of convention and artifice. Perhaps like the motor bared under the open hood. You, Janice Covington, may be the only woman alive who would be flattered by a comparison to an engine.

Janice betrayed no sign of recognition. “We’re closin’,” she announced, tossing the hand rag on a tool chest.

“Good,” he retorted. “I wouldn’t want to interrupt your work.”

“No, but it looks like you’re interrupting my going home.” She laid a hand on the edge of the Porsche’s hood.

“I’d be happy to walk with you.”

She shrugged. “It’s a long walk, old man.”

His hip ached. “Or you could just give me a few minutes of your valuable time.”

“She told you I was here, huh?”

“Helen saw you working here, the other week. You should hardly expect your presence to go unnoticed in this town. So no, you were not given away by your companion. The flowers you sent her did that.” He smirked.

She drummed her fingers on the hood of the car. “Being nice has always been my downfall.”

“And you do have a reputation for being so very pleasant, don’t you?”

Her mouth twitched into a rueful smile.

Nervously, he scratched the back of his neck. It is never easy to talk to you. I thought you would grow out of that. Alas, you’ve gone from being a difficult girl to a difficult woman.  “Since you appreciate brevity, then I shall get straight to the point: I want you back on staff. I want you teaching again.”

“Not interested.” Absently she stared into the open guts of the Porsche, then reached in and quickly rearranged some plugs.

“Why?”

“Y’know,” she said rather pointedly, “I am making more money here.”

“You’ve never struck me as someone interested in making money.”

“I got smart. Viva capitalism, baby.”

“But what about your work? The work you’ve done your entire life? The work that you’ve lived and breathed?”

“That’s not me anymore.”

“Nonsense.”

She folded arms across her chest, a child-defiant gesture if ever there were one. They stared at each other.

“At the very least, you owe me an explanation,” he said quietly. “We have known each other for a very long time. Respect that.”

The willful child in her gave way to the weary woman she was. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate the belief you have in me—and in my work.” Her green eyes softened into something that, if he was not mistaken, approached the emotional state of affection. “You backed me up when no one else would.” Now she frowned. “But I let you down. The scrolls you have are fakes. I can’t find the originals. We had a deal, and I fucked it up. I quit on you, everyone gave you a damn hard time about it, I know. It didn’t make you look good to trust me.  The only good you got out of the whole mess was Mel.”

“She has certainly been worth it.”

“I know.”

Reading her jaw twitch as a wish to continue, he remained silent. “See this car?” she asked, tapping the shiny Porsche. Under the hood pipes dipped and curved, wires and plugs glistened darkly. “I took this apart and I put it back together again. Me. All by myself. The guy who owns this brought it in couple days ago, tearin’ his hair out, thought it would never run right again. But I’ve fixed it. I figured it out.” She paused. “This is satisfying to me, Gus.”

Augustus Finch, Dean of the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, blinked. She had never addressed him by his first name, ever. At last, she had breathed life into their history.

“I can put this back together. Before—” She ran a hand along the hood. “I sometimes felt like I tore things apart—my life, my past, my—” Abruptly she closed the hood. “I don’t understand history. I don’t understand the past. I’ve tried. But I can’t. I can’t do it anymore.”

“Do you think I—or anyone else for that matter—understand it any better?” He paused. “Do you think your father did?” he asked gently.

“No.” Abruptly she slammed shut the hood of the Porsche. “It ate him alive.”

“Believe it or not, Janice, you are an important part of history.”

“Here comes the bullshit,” she muttered.

Stop it.

She glowered at him—albeit respectfully.

“Men like your father and I didn’t need degrees when we set out to do what we did—obviously, we needed the basics—not a heap of abbreviations at the ends of our names. If it hadn’t been for the war, the opportunity to advance my learning wouldn’t have fallen into my lap as it did. But when I was young, when I was starting out—“ He smiled and briefly indulged in honey-hued nostalgia: The golden stretch of days had seemed endless then. They spoke of freedom and great discoveries, great things. “In those days, if you wanted to learn how to be an archaeologist, someone gave you a spade, told you to get to work, and marched you onto a field—“

“Like a good soldier,” Janice interjected sarcastically.

He bristled. “You have a disdain for the military.”

She grinned. “I was in it, remember?”

“And an officer, no less.” Amazement colored his tone.

“They were gettin’ desperate at that stage, I must admit.”

“Regardless,” he sighed, “we worked the field, and we loved every bit of it.” He touched his mustache. “That’s how you started out as well. You love the field. You always have. And I suspect that you always will.”

She said nothing.

“But the generation that we teach now—they are different. You are the transition, the link between an old coot like me and these pasty-faced boys who stumble out of here grasping a piece of paper they scarcely know what to do with. They need your passion—and your practicality. They need you.”

Janice laughed. “Shit, Gus, you will say anything to get me working for you again. Haven’t I paid off that last year of tuition already?”

“I always said I was going to get my money’s worth out of you, my girl.” The old man smiled. “Besides, you’re forgetting about the car.”

*  *  *

1932, Cambridge

The thing about Harry Covington was that you never knew when he might show up.

Usually, Gus thought, it was a good thing. It had been a good thing during the Battle at Aisne; he had been lying in bloody mud, waiting for the inevitable, when he felt someone grab his collar and drag him through an obstacle course of death: Sometimes they hit a corpse, or a limb, or an abandoned weapon, and they would slither around these things like bullet-headed earthworms. How they avoided the mines, he never knew, but Harry Covington had a sapper’s sixth sense for the ground beneath him, an instinct no doubt derived from his innate skills as an archaeologist.  Harry never stopped dragging him until they were on a truck and headed for safer ground.

As Gus sat in the garden of his Cambridge home, smoking his pipe, he saw that familiar swagger emerge from the backdoor of his house; somehow—yet not surprisingly—the archaeologist had got past his wife. No doubt Harry had Helen rummaging for whiskey.

It was as if the war had been just yesterday—it felt that easy for them. Gus gestured for the bandy-legged Covington to sit.

“Gus.” Harry nodded.

“How are you, Harry?”

“Good.”

“What on Earth are you doing in the States? Last I heard you were near Constantinople.”

“Yeah. But I need to take care of a few things.”

“Ah. Have you found your scrolls yet, then?”

“Nope.”

Gus grinned; getting information out of Harry was not always easy, but entertaining nonetheless. Or maybe I am just a masochist.

“How’ve you been, Gus?”

“Rather well. I’m settling into a new job.”

“I heard. Dean of Anthropology and Archaeology. Congratulations.”

“Thank you.” He paused. “It’s a reason for celebration—“

“Helen says you got no bourbon.” Harry grinned.

“Sorry, old man.”

“Whatever you have will hit the spot, I’m sure.”

“Good.” Gus straightened a bit. “Now Harry, did you come all the way to drink my liquor in the name of celebrating my promotion?”

“Yeah. Well.” Harry licked his lips. “Need a favor, Gus.”

I’ve been waiting a long time to repay you, my friend. “Name it.”

He removed his hat and rolled the worn brim of the fedora in his rough hands. “I need you to get my kid into the college.”

Gus’s bad leg gave a nasty twinge. “What?”

Now Harry rolled his eyes. “Don’t play cute. You heard me, Gus. Can you do it?”

“Kid? You—you reproduced?”

“Come on, you know I was married when I was in the service, and the kid—” Harry frowned and scratched his brow. “Well, maybe I forgot to mention the kid.” A lot fell through the cracks during the war. He could hardly believe it himself when he returned, two years later, to find his wife thrusting that squat, bewildered little mirror image at him. And don’t even act like it isn’t yours, Isabel had growled at him.It looks like you, and it makes a hell of a lot of noise like you do too.

“It—how—”

It‘s a girl, Gus. She’s 16.”

“A little young.”

“She can cut it.”

“Schooling?”

“Let’s see: A one-eyed Frenchman who taught her science, Latin, and math. A drunken, defrocked Greek Orthodox priest who taught her Arabic, history, and literature. An Englishmen who forced her to read poetry and tried teachin’ her how to play a fiddle—that didn’t go over so well.”

Later Gus would discover that Janice had broken the violin over her totalitarian tutor’s head.

“Wonderful,” Gus groaned. He dropped his head into his hands. “You would ask for the impossible, wouldn’t you?”

Still piecing together his daughter’s dubious curriculum vitae, Harry scratched his jaw. “Oh, and some Syrian, a worker on my site, taught her some astronomy…and all of them tried to seduce her. All of ‘em.”Harry grumbled and slammed the fedora back on his head. “I’d hoped at least some of ‘em would’ve turned out to be fairies.”

“So hard to get good help these days, isn’t it?”

“Can it. I need your help. I want her to get a proper education. Look, I know I’ve been bad about it, but she’s getting older, and…I want more for her than what I have—more than what I am. Will you do it?”

“Harry, I don’t know if I can. I just started this damned job. I have no weight, no authority to drag in some ragamuffin—”

“Hey! She’s not just any ragamuffin—she’s my ragamuffin.”

“Yes, right, but still—”

“I got the money, that ain’t a problem.”

This gave Gus pause; he was already thinking like a bureaucrat. “What’s her name?” he asked, as if it were a deciding factor.

“Janice. I brought her with me, so you could meet her.”

“Where is she?”

“Well, she should be—”

Harry was interrupted as Helen rushed out of the house. “Gus,” she cried, “the car is gone!”

“Aw, shit.” Harry tossed his fedora on the ground.

Gus sighed. Pleased to meet you, Janice Covington. “You pay the first year’s tuition in full. Now.”

* * *

Wariness was now so a part of Janice’s natural countenance that it blurred and streaked across her face with the regularity and grave beauty of twilight.

And so on this twilit evening, post-dinner, Mel watched as Janice pinched and massaged her plump lower lip with the aid of thumb and forefinger. This indicated brooding out of the ordinary. Graciously, Mel decided to let her percolate further and obligingly scooped up the dinner dishes, coated with the detritus of pork chops and applesauce.

“Hey. I can do those.” Janice protested lamely.

“You’ve been on your feet all day.”

“But you cooked.”

Mel decided not to confess her dirty little secret: The maid—ostensibly hired for cleaning only—also cooked and left behind prepared dishes in the fridge. Janice had never questioned this miraculous bounty, and Mel saw no reason for her to do so now. “Don’t worry. I’ll think of some fiendish household chore for you to do.”

“Hmm.”

They were silent for a long time; it was a pleasant torture. Mel washed the dishes and wondered if she could cajole Maria into washing leftover dishes. And then she wondered—

“Gus stopped by the garage.”

Ah-ha. “Oh.”

“You knew, huh?”

“That he was going to speak with you? No.” That the old man is absolutely desperate for you to be on faculty again? Yes.

More silence.

“Well,” Mel said while rinsing the sink, and trying to contain the exasperation in her voice, “what did he say?”

“Nothin’.”

“You’re going to have to do better than that, darling.”

“You know what he wants. He wants me back at the college.”

Wiping her hands on a dish towel, Mel turned around. “And you told him—“

“No. I told him no.”

They looked at one another.

“Why?” Mel asked softly.

“I’m not doing it anymore. It’s not worth it.”

“It is. It’s worthy work—you’ve devoted your life to it.” In spite of her better instincts, which could not override her sense of duty, especially when it came to Janice, Mel added, “It’s what you should be doing.”

“Funny, I don’t know what the hell I should be doing, how come you know?” Janice snapped. “Or maybe everything looked better when you were hooked up with an archaeologist and not a fucking bum who works at a garage.”

Mel breathed icy rage. “Don’t dare ever say anything like that to me ever again.”

Janice’s shoulders slumped; Mel knew that this was about as close to an apology as she would get. “It’s a filthy business. I want no part of it anymore.” She rose from the table and went outside onto the porch.

It’s a filthy business that you belong in. It’s a filthy business that makes you feel alive, I know it, he knows it, we all do—because just talking about it, your face lights up. She sighed. God. Mel tossed the dish towel on the table. Life is a filthy business, is it not? And a strange one too—here I am, living this life with you. You’ve given me the gift of your presence, your safety. And now I wonder if you would be happier out there—with me, or without me. 

She watched Janice through the screen door. During these summer months she had wondered if Janice would ever feel it again—the wanderlust that trailed her, shadowing her life like a wolf. Mel awaited its reemergence all the time, and with a desperate vigilance that teetered into steely paranoia. And now she knew that it had never left Janice, and would never leave her; it had only been obfuscated, altered with the dubious yet diligent alchemy of a master forger concealing the true nature of his work. But now she saw it. Its uneasy stirrings were visible in the way Janice stood now on the porch at dusk, framed in the doorway—her pose not unlike Caspar David Friedrich’s wanderer perched at the edge of the ceaselessly changing world, a world where vast promise and unlimited potential could only be matched by intractable realities and terrible beauties.

Note: Anachronism alert! The film Written on the Wind was not released until 1957; hence, the girls couldn’t have seen in 1954. Humor me a little on this one, okay?

VIII Orpheus Rising

Prelude: Tadzio’s Return

I think it is all a matter of love: the more you love a memory, the stronger and stronger it is.

—Vladimir Nabokov

 

Venice
Autumn, 1971

The sky, sickened with rain, became a glassy, violet-tinged green before the inevitable deluge. Raindrops glittered down, plainly visible in the autumnal rush of dusk, falling on cobblestones; in this manner the city could be viewed as a quaint timepiece, an hourglass through which time, unfairly immutable, poured into the shape of passing years.

The girl hissed breath into a cold fist and rounded a desolate corner into the crowded Campo San Salvador. It was the Janus nature of Venice: Bleakly desolate narrow streets leading into tourist carnivals. Her sense of direction was a second sight; she maneuvered the labyrinth of Venice on pure instinct, without thinking, without seeing, and knowing the drop and curve of every cul de sac, every campo, every calle, every fondamenta—the blind treading upon the blind serpents of ancient streets.

The smell of salt and sea was lost to her as well, as it was to any native Venetian—melting into the mundane, disappearing into the background. Instead, her senses hungrily seized upon the smell of caffé, of roasting meat, of a hearth’s smoldering ash. A café catering to tourists played jazz; despite the tinny transistor radio, the sound of a slow alto sax thick in the air. In the translucent glint of a storefront her kamikaze reflection struck out at her—a waif in bell bottoms and a pea jacket, the blonde crown of her head a fiery fate.

It was the golden hair that first garnered Sofia’s attention. In a sea of street urchins mugging and competing for attention, she and her brother were truly striking—cherubim out of a glamorized quattrocentopast. And they were strangely obedient, quiet, subdued, almost aloof from the others, who by and large lived on the streets to escape the stranglehold of poverty and abuse.  In the absence of a real family—a lost father, a dead mother—they held no recriminations, no ties, no memory. They were beautiful blank slates.

That terrible first meeting was not far from where she was at the moment—Rio Scoacamini. She and Ottavio were in front of the Bonvecchiati Hotel and waiting, with the absurd patience of children, for a foreigner’s generosity to rain down upon them. It seemed a good day for it. The sky was immaculate blue, the gondolas glistened in the sunlight and bobbed cheerfully like drunken sentries; courtesy of the sun, the murk in the canal that passed as water possessed diamonds of light poised on the swooning high wire of each current. Even the old stone lion perched on a cracked pedestal beside the hotel’s revolving door seemed to bless them.

But they knew the woman who ended up so interested in them—she, with her predatory head tilt—was no foreigner. Sofia, still darkly beautiful then, and still sustaining her firmly ridiculous belief in a kinship with the past, with the great historical tradition of the Venetian courtesan, had trailed perfumed fingers through their hair—Ottavio flinched at her touch—appraised them, and read a divination in their blondeness: How could such beauty bring anything but great fortune?

As Francesca walked by the Bonvecchiati, forcing herself to saunter and not dash, she pitched up the flaring collar of her coat even higher and whistled defiantly past the shining graveyard of her innocence. The yellow marble teeth of the Bonvecchiati’s lion were now shot through with the brown fissures of time; there was a fine line between gorgeous ruins and lost causes, and Venice, with its lustrous history and shabby present, was visible in the crackling of the ancient lion’s snarl.

She eyed the beast coolly. Lips curled, she flashed her teeth with mocking fierceness.

And so the blonde hair that had ensured her fate had ensnared the strange American who had returned Venice after so mysteriously disappearing two years ago. Francesca had never thought of this woman as a benefactor, a savior, a way out, until it was too late. After that night two years ago, the lire—twice what Sofia had originally negotiated—had already been pressed into her hand and Francesca’s gaze had drifted from the woman’s silvery blue eyes to the perfect drape of her linen blouse; the fine detail of the stitches, the shocking softness of the material—her hand drifted in a caress down Mel’s arm—told her it was handmade.  And she didn’t even need to look further, to the old, expensive watch. In her haste to seduce the American that night before, she hadn’t noticed how valuable the watch actually was. These were the details that Sofia was always after her to notice.

But she had been at the door, ready to return to her life: Her friends, her streets, ready to leave behind the stifling yet seductive intensity of this woman.

Will I see you again? She’d tried to sound casual.

No. I’m leaving today.

 To where do you go?

 In morning light, the latticework of age was more visible upon Mel’s features. I have an obligation to fulfill.

 Another strange thing to say. The woman was always muttering things that she never bothered to explain. It was, Francesca later admitted to herself, part of the appeal. Ah. Maybe—when you return? Francesca had thrown in another gratuitous touch: Hand slithering up Mel’s torso until it came to rest lightly between her breasts.

 I don’t know if I will return.

And that had been that.

Time passed. She cut her hair. She argued about it with Sofia, who thought the short hair made her look too old and therefore not as lucrative on the street. She nursed Marcella through a bad abortion. Her brother fell in love with a horrible—but rich—man. She started smoking. She didn’t really like it. She stopped. Her English became better. She took an acid trip and nearly ended up in a canal. And men.There were men, some briefly obsessed and infatuated, some not. None of them quite as tantalizingly mysterious as her American woman. In the midst of these tiny episodes that composed her life, just when she stopped seriously wondering if she would ever see Melinda Pappas again (having stumbled across the older woman’s surname through a surreptitious peek at her passport), a message came—not on the winged feet of a god, but a scruffy boy who worked the streets near the Hotel Cavalletto.

Francesca would have been less surprised—and less pleased—at a summoning from the Pope.

Later, at the flat they reluctantly shared, Sofia acted as if she were a lamb to slaughter—an entirely different attitude from two years ago when, after quickly negotiating the deal, she had all but shoved Francesca into the American’s arms. Now, they sat together at the breakfast table and Sofia scowled worriedly while pressing her thumb against her plate, blotting a spate of brioche crumbs to her skin. She’s never forgotten you. It’s not good.

Francesca nodded absently, finger-combed the bangs across her brow into gamine perfection. Within the arena of an old compact mirror, she stared down self-doubt and won.

Sofia nibbled at her thumb. Be careful.

She snorted derisively. Don’t be silly, Sofi. She won’t kill me.  The compact snapped shut.

The old whore laid her hand across Francesca’s wrist, lowered her dark eyes with the same caution with which a hunter aims a gun. I mean be careful with your heart.

Shockingly, there were moments when it seemed like the damned hag actually cared for her.

Another winding alley and the Hotel Cavalletto, a luminous mirage, buoyed in the distance. Francesca blew into her tight fist once again and smiled. She laughed at herself, for the ridiculous amount of hope she pinned on one woman, one ghost from her past, whose ravaged gaze puzzled her, whose consuming touch she could not quite forget. She turned that final corner, and decided she would at least be grateful for the one Sunday where she could go from guttersnipe to aristocrat.

*  *  *

In between the crevices of remembering and forgetting, there is living, and within that state, there are the comforts that make it bearable: A bath, perhaps. A song. A woman.

The thick steam of the bath gloated around the tub in a pearly fog; heavy, humid motes traversed the dim light of the bathroom.  It reminded Mel of Lucretius. Absently she moved her damp hand, the movement cutting through air, disrupting all the tiny worlds within her grasp. Melinda Pappas, Destroyer of Molecules. That is all I am capable of destroying. On the fringe of history, I stood and watched. I followed. I was the disrupted one. Wasn’t I, Janice?

After many years it became routine for her to speak to her dead lover in her mind.

How I tried to tame you, as I tried to tame language.

Because I loved wild things. Because I thought I could claim you with my own meaning.

How I failed.

She closed her eyes, slid down into the tub, and let the water press against her skull. After half a minute she emerged and, despite the water’s whispered promises, none the wiser.

It never occurred to her to be truly bitter to the bone about everything, except in these chilling, silent afternoons, gilded by autumn and confronted by age and a truth that eluded them both—then it pulled at her, the undertow of a tight, poorly healed wound.

After a lifetime spent in the service of language and words, she spoke only once today, to the boy—is he really that young, or am I so old that everyone seems so young to me now?—who lingered outside the Cavalletto upon her arrival. Thin, wizened, yet with heavy features anchoring his sallow face, he could be anywhere between twelve and forty-five.  Ever since she started staying there in the 1960s, he had been there, dealing, pimping, cajoling, all to the nefarious services of the hotel’s guests. His five-fingered memory never willingly relinquished a fact or a detail. She admired that about him. Two years later, and he remembered her. With the girl.

 She had been counting on that.

He offered to fetch the girl. He knew her, he claimed. He knew her friends and where to find her. All she had to do was press money in his hand. She felt liberated from this stale version of herself—here she was, in broad daylight, paying money for a prostitute. Somehow she convinced herself that Janice would be proud of her perversity. Or would she be unimpressed? Janice was also quite proud of boasting that she never had to pay for sex in her entire life.

 A lecher’s grin twisted the boy’s face. Lire curled through his fingers. Now? he asked.

 Now.

 In typical Italian fashion, now meant at least four hours later. And would Francesca get past the concierge without incident this time? Another factor altogether.

Mel got out of the bath, drained it. Wrapped in a towel, she sat on the edge of the tub while a skein of anxiety unraveled within her. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. Maybe she’ll get tossed out of the hotel. That would be good. Well, not for her. I’ll have the boy pay her for her trouble. God, why did I do this again? I’m not twenty-five. I’m not even thirty-five or forty-five. I don’t need to break any more headboards or scream myself hoarse or walk with a limp. I don’t need to bring someone to climax four times in a night. I’ve done all that, and it was wonderful, thank you very much, but now I’m old and respectable and I went through menopause.

 Mel closed her eyes.

 And I’m a widow. Despite what the rest of the world may think.

 The door rumbled with a faint knock.

And she reminds me so much of you that I can’t stop.

She shed the towel, pulled on a bathrobe, and opened the door with nary a glance through the peephole.

Mel wasn’t sure if the girl’s short hair alone made her look older and more sophisticated, or if it was something else innate in Francesca’s appearance: Nonetheless, she was still astonishingly young—nineteen, maybe twenty—and the shock of that sank into Mel’s bones: Even younger that first time. Self-revulsion simmered in the back of her throat.

Francesca looked more a student than a prostitute—apparently this rage for naval coats, noticed during a brief trip to the United States recently, was rampant among Italian youth too. Underneath the coat she wore a blue sweater tucked tightly into corduroy jeans topped with a black belt, and a pair of black, thickly soled shoes that looked hideously uncomfortable to Mel, a woman who spent a lifetime in heels and now suffered continual painful spasms in her steely calves as a result of it.

Francesca blinked and waited for an invitation to enter. She may have been a whore, but she did possess some semblance of manners.

Remember or forget?

“Hello,” Francesca said.

Stay or go?

“Hello.” Mel repeated it, as if she were in the first day of a Berlitz English class.

Past or present?

 Francesca grew exasperated with the waiting game. “The people in the region of your country—you have told me, they are not to be rude, no?”

Mel shook her head, stepped aside, and drank in the girl’s scent as she walked by.

As she did two years ago, Francesca prowled the room with deliberate slowness, relishing the sense of power that unfurled within her. The girl had achieved a lean, wary look so painfully redolent of Janice’s surly sensuality—that by-product of a defiant hedonism against a life that was far, far from kind—that Mel unknowingly held a breath until her chest ached for release.

Then Francesca’s slow, gentle English, tangled with the curlicues of an Italian accent, broke the spell. “Are you ill?”

It was not Janice’s hopelessly colloquial American English, peppered with obscenity yet steamrolled flat by the Midwestern accent she had inherited from her mother. In this moment Mel realized how much she missed hearing that voice. She closed her eyes for a few seconds in order to hear precisely, if only in her own mind, those delicious cadences, those lost phrases. “I’m fine.”

A glint in the girl’s eye indicated that she did not believe it for a second, but she said nothing and continued her stalking inventory of the room.

“Tadzio.” Mel threw it out casually—trying to dispel the ghost with intellectual small talk.

Frowning, Francesca looked up from her reflection in a mahogany table. “Que?

“You are my Tadzio. Do you know that?”

The girl shook her shaggy head. “I do not what you mean.”

The literary allusion now lost, Mel found herself fumbling for some sort of common ground—a scripted scenario wherein she would know precisely how to act this part that she never expected to play. If ever she believed that the advantage lay squarely with her—if only because of money, if only because she believed she knew with cynical accuracy those cobwebbed corridors of her heart—she now doubted it entirely. “Would you like a drink?”

Si. Something warm.”

Mel nodded, but did not move.

The girl touched the book upon the table. Tacitus. Her fingers pressed into the soft old leather, lazily tracing the gilded lettering upon the cover. “I have wondered—in all this time—“ Francesca halted. She spoke carefully, slowly, as if she had rehearsed the lines many times in the intervening two years, and her English shimmered on the point of precision. “— where you have been.”

“Oh.”

Francesca smiled. “You see, you haunt me as much as I haunt you.”

“Somehow I doubt that.”

The girl either didn’t hear, or didn’t want to hear it. “So?” The question was soft, almost nonchalant, all the more demanding because of it. A wary satellite, Francesca moved within Mel’s orbit, within her aching grasp.

Mel ran her hand along the girl’s thigh, thumb swishing over wales of corduroy. God forgive me. Somebody forgive me. She touched the brass belt buckle and her fingers threaded in between belt loops.”Everywhere. And nowhere.”

Ever the consummate professional, Francesca was steering her to the bed. Not that she minded.

“I give you my Sunday, you give me—”

“What?” Her mouth skimmed the girl’s cool cheek, reveling in the bounty of skin. The pea coat fell from slender shoulders.

“—words of nonsense. Babble.” Francesca’s accent struck the second syllable hard, a drumstick against ringing tympani, bringing the word back to its original meaning: Babel.

Robe undone, she fell back onto the bed and her breath rolled in the nape of the girl’s neck while inhaling the bitterness of smoke and autumn, and the haze of memory confounded her senses even further—fall evenings, leaves burning, wood fires, these scents floating and mingled in Janice’s battered canvas coat, the collar stiff and cold against her lips. That winter. That decision. You want to get away from this, baby? Then we’ll go. Anywhere you want. 

Dicami dove siete stati,” the girl whispered. Tell me where you’ve been. She straddled Mel, peeled off the tight sweater—and did nothing. She knew, of course, the power of her body to seduce and enthrall, and yet on a level that she could not consciously articulate, she was aware of her own flesh as a mirror, glowing and gorgeously distorted, to this woman’s past.

Mel’s own body was reborn with serpentine grace, reinvigorated with fluid control.

And what if I tell her, just give her one piece of the puzzle? Just one word? It will be enough? The story will unravel eventually; it will be the beginning of the end.

 Does it matter anymore? It will never be enough.

“Alexandria,” she said. “I was in Alexandria.” Mel traced the perfectly electric line that undulated from Francesca’s shoulder, down her bicep to the dip of her elbow, her forearm, her wrist, and finally to her fingertips, stippled with the gilded dust of broken, dead words.

* * *

Cyprus

May, 1966

On the first humid morning of the hot spring her hair curls ever so slightly, seeking shelter within the nape of her neck. The season’s change trickles into the air. She has been in this house, in this part of the world, long enough to know these changes, to anticipate them. Last night, on their customary after-dinner stroll, she caught Fayed smiling at her—smirking rather, head tilted in appreciation. You walk like a Greek now.

She did not know what he meant. Perhaps that now, she moved with the bruising weight of history on her shoulders?

She sits on the edge of the bed, holding the vial of sleeping pills prescribed for her after Janice died, given to her by the same old, eccentric English expatriate doctor who provided Jennifer Davies with the drugs that quelled her demons, and who himself reeked of opiates. He told her—last fall, while examining her—that her hairstyle reminded him of Louise Brooks. He also told her that she was going through “the change of life.” It did provide a logical explanation for why she woke in the morning with sheets darkened in sweat—not the bilious anguish of loss as she thought, but a mere, common sign of aging.

She could only assume that menopause and a dead lover, both within the span of one year, was the price to pay for years of happiness.

She washes her face and  pearls of water drops fall fat into the porcelain bowl. She looks at the pills again. Is the time of mourning—of this particular taint of grief, the kind that reduces one to the state of a newborn—finally over?

There is the distant din of activity as she walks through the house: Naima in the kitchen with the cook, the rise and fall of their conversation, Naima’s normally low, calm voice losing some of its soothing properties as it ran through the obstacle course of the Greek language. Closer to the balcony the sturdy ham radio crackles through a Brahms concerto to the distinct yet irregular percussion of Fayed’s teacup scraping against a saucer.

Despite Mel’s sometimes violent exhortations, they both had stayed on at the house after Janice’s death. It was what they called it taking care of you but Mel, in the private hell of her mind, instead termed a prolonged suicide watch. Naima calmly turned a deaf ear to her protests. Fayed, on the other hand, was more than willing to remind her, constantly, that she did not mourn alone. Did it ever occur to you that I might want to be close to you right now? That I’m doing this as much for myself as for you? he had shouted at Mel recently.

It had shut her up, if only for a day, and finally made her cognizant of how much he too suffered. He had been there. He blamed himself for what happened. He had allowed his oldest friend to go into the tunnel alone, indulging her stubborn, masculine pride.

Fayed’s gaze travels from his newspaper to her eyes.

She finds herself unnerved by the hope she sees in him and seeks neutrality in the valley sprawled below them. He waits every day for her to be, once again, the woman that she was; that it is now an impossibility does not deter him. There are no answers in the sun, the sea, the sky, but rather, what lies beneath them. Her lips part, words fail. She hesitates before sitting down. Finally, she says it. “I must find them.”

Fayed smiles. “Yes.” His hand shakes as he pours her tea; Earl Gray slops over into the saucer.

“Yes?” Unsure, she reaches for his free hand. “I must know if I’m doing the right thing. I have only you to guide me now.”

You don’t really need a degree for archaeology, Janice Covington had once told a lecture hall filled with hapless, hopeful students, just luck and patience. And if a cursed, ill-tempered mug like me can make a go of it, then so can you guys.

“What do you think, really?”

Fayed clutches her hand tightly, waiting for the threat of tears to pass. There is life in her again. He knows there will be setbacks. He knows her yearning for vengeance will never abate—if only because he feels similarly—and that regardless of whether it remains dormant and festering or emerges into full satiation, it will probably kill her.

But this was a start.

And so he assuages her fears by responding in the smart-ass spirit of the woman they had both loved beyond reason:  “Joyous sobbing—and so early, over breakfast—would be too much, don’t you think?”

1. Academia and Its Discontents

 Time is the school in which we learn,

Time is the fire in which we burn.
—Delmore Schwartz

Cambridge, Massachusetts

November, 1958

 

After a youth steeped in exotica, Janice fell in love with the mundane.

It was not surprising. On excavation sites she had always clung fervently to routine, to the rituals that began, marked, and concluded every day. There was comfort in them, and she always took comfort wherever she found it, because winds howled at her back, tents collapsed, sands shifted, fortunes changed. The transitive quality that existed in everything stood out in shocking, naked relief, like an unearthed bone jutting from the ground. The world was a house of cards. Harry always said it, and even after so many years, she never stopped taking the old man’s word for gospel. Harry Covington was the prophet for all cynics.

If her home in Cambridge was as flimsy, though, Janice was blissfully unaware. Practically every morning she woke at daybreak, just as she always had done on-site. Then she would lay a hand upon Mel’s thigh, charting silky gradations with the compass of her palm: skin, a nightgown bunched up in waves during the tumult of sleep, the coarse borderline of pubic hair. On site, the first thing she had always done in the morning was to consult the maps—no matter her familiarity with the territory, no matter the task at hand. There was always a map, read and reread and caressed into smooth submission. And now this living map beneath her fingertips told her where she was, what she could expect of the day: She would get up, wash up, make the coffee, go to work, come home, eat dinner, and go to bed with a beautiful woman—although the literal sharing of a bed with a six-foot-tall woman who was all sprawling limbs and relentless snoring was not always sheer romantic bliss.

Could be worse, Janice thought.

Half-asleep, Mel sometimes misinterpreted this ritual casting of her body as a map as a sneaky seduction ploy designed to rob her of precious sleep and, with a husky groan—even her petulant, groggy protests were arousing—would roll over, resuming the bossa nova beat that her snoring seemed to take on these days. (Janice silently cursed those records that Mel’s colleague, Dr. Floyd, brought back from Brazil.) She had never been much of an early morning lover.

Janice smiled, stretched, sat up. The blonde wood of the floor hinted at warmth, but instead served up a marble-like chill under her feet. She padded into the bathroom, washed up at the sink, and snuck a clandestine look at the mirror, as if bracing herself for some revelation that had eluded her for over thirty-five years now. As usual, nothing new struck her. She was finally more appreciative of the age-defying baby face that had so irritated her when she was twenty-one and playing woman of the world. Nonetheless, she didn’t regret the decision to cut her hair—it made her look older, but in a good way, the way of someone not fruitlessly striving for youth. Mel had proclaimed the haircut a success: You look almost sophisticated.

No, there was nothing new, and that was good. She had parsed a second life from her first one: quieter, less remarkable on the surface, but no less rich. In the past she’d thought such an existence beyond her reach. She was the Tantalus of happiness. She had always feigned indifference, but the golden apple was always at the edge of her sight, waiting for her to swipe a hungry paw at it.

And now she had it. She didn’t know what else to do with it, except hold on. And, occasionally, look over her shoulder.

* * *

Over breakfast, the radio cheerfully exhorted them to buy Borax and Mel frowned over the newspaper, which always had some fresh atrocity or disturbance in the cultural fabric that greatly affronted her. This morning, it was Richard Nixon. Could a man with such a face be trusted? She posed the question to her breakfast companion, brandishing the paper like a sword.

Janice shrugged. She found Mel’s expectations of sanity, common sense, and morality in the leaders of great nations to be quaint, even charming.

Mel remained scowling. The wire-rimmed glasses sliding down her nose and the irritated, thinning line of her lips did their best to mar her looks, but at forty, her beauty seemed as striking and dominating as ever, as if it had always been a skill waiting to be honed, a weapon to be employed with the wisdom of age and subtle confidence. It was a part of herself that she had finally made peace with (a relief, when there were other niggling, disparate parts in contention); when it came to men, she had moved beyond nervous giggling and outright bemusement to the haughty reserve of a bored queen. Worship me, and move on. Whether lasting love or the increasing recognition of her talents fed that confidence, Janice hesitated to say, and not out of simple modesty: Love’s mismeasure was a byproduct of the Covington worldview.

While Janice thought it all suited Mel very well, at times she wondered how happy Mel really was. Her increased cachet at the university and prominence within the department proved to be an unforeseen stress upon a gentle, unassuming woman who wanted nothing more than to pierce the impregnable mysteries of languages in flux and not merely teach ancient Greek to the good, the bad, and the indifferent.

Mel’s restless gaze settled upon her like an accusation. “What are you looking at?”

“The only beautiful thing I’m going to see all day.” Janice sipped her coffee. “Good save, huh?”

“I’m sure Marlene Sawyer will accost you today.”

Marlene Sawyer, another restless faculty wife not content to merely overindulge in martinis and her husband’s students, had cultivated a mad infatuation with Janice that resulted in frequent visits to the garage with her pathetic Buick and many teeth-gnashingly bad puns about being serviced under the hood. Janice thought it best to omit any mention of the latest visit, where she had to peel off Marlene as if the woman were amorous flypaper. “Hmm. Something to look forward to.”

Janice managed to intercept Mel’s foot before it made contact with her shin. “Not as fast as you used to be, old girl.” After the distinct sound of a shoe softly dropping from a foot—bringing to mind that terrible trite expression that she believed defined her life—she rubbed the long, squirming foot, which burrowed aggressively into her lap and provided some rather enjoyable, if distracting, sensations. In retaliation Janice sent her hand down the pike of that leg, worthy of Rockette status, in a luxurious road trip for skin.

But Mel appeared neither amused nor aroused. “If you ruin my stockings, I’ll kill you. And Marlene Sawyer too.”

Mel always referred to Marlene by full name, as if Marlene were a rare, infectious disease. Which was actually about the size of it. Fortunately, over the years Janice had built up an immunity to trashy broads. “Forget Marlene Sawyer. You know I don’t go for blondes.”

“Jenny.”

“Exception to the rule.”

“That so-called ‘countess,’ Elsa. And Veronica Berzansky…”

It irritated Janice to no end that Mel could recall the minutiae of her romantic liaisons better than she could herself. She blamed the dentist; if it hadn’t been for that lovely little serum he’d injected her with while extracting a bad crown all those years ago, Mel would have never received that golden opportunity to grill her about these things. Shit. Did she write them down somewhere? She barely remembered Elsa, a mere blip on the sexual radar that would have otherwise passed into oblivion in Janice’s mind except for all that noisy climaxing in Swedish. And Veronica? “Actually, Ronnie wasn’t a real blonde.”

“I see.” Mel’s sarcasm evaporated as Janice’s fingers made contact with the very edge of her stocking and the delicious bridge of the garter.

“Not even at work and you’re already in a bad mood,” Janice mock chastised.

“J-just the anticipation of work alone—oh God, stop doing that.”

“I’ll stop if you promise I get to torture you some more tonight.”

“Who can resist such an offer?”

“Good. Because you know something?”

“You desire me with such fierce abandon that you positively ache to make love to me?”

“That, and you’re late for work.”

Mel glanced at the kitchen clock, gasped, and took off for the door in a running leap that would’ve made Jesse Owen envious. The fact that she did so with only one foot shod in heels made it all the more impressive, although she did not notice the disparity until her stockinged foot hit the cold, bristling doormat. Humbled and momentarily graceless, she limped back to the kitchen to retrieve her shoe and claim a goodbye kiss.

“Sadist,” she muttered at Janice while sliding her foot into the shoe and frowning at her legs—crooked stockings be damned. She had no time.

“Ta ta!” Janice chirped.

When the door closed one last time, Janice settled into the worn grooves of the kitchen chair and finished her coffee. When the weather grew warmer, she would be able to sit outside again and enjoy the sun. Sometimes she thought that was the only real thing she missed about being out on a dig: The sun, the sky, the wind. But as with an old lover, selective memory was at work. She admitted to her mind only the harmless things—the things that did not induce yearning, like the thrilling heights of discovery. The deaths and the losses, however, were always with her. The boundary between the old life and the new life was as permeable as Swiss cheese. You can’t leave it all behind.

She sat the empty coffee cup in the sink.

She had fully expected this, for the first life to haunt her. It did not help that the doting Matthew Spencer became a fixture at the garage. The portly youth took to having lunch with his former professor, despite Janice’s reminders that he wasn’t doing himself any favors either professionally or academically by becoming the acolyte of a grimy mechanic. In response he would only stare at her adoringly, his glassy blue eyes disturbingly magnified into marbles by thick glasses.

Later that day at the garage, Matthew sat lumpishly upon a Buick—fortunately, not Marlene’s—and unraveled a ham sandwich. “I see it this way.” He offered the sandwich to Janice, who snatched it greedily. “You are the university’s Lucifer, unceremoniously booted of out Harvard-heaven, and this is your underworld, where you rule. Apropos, no?”

“I wasn’t actually booted,” Janice’s protest, around a mouthful of ham, was lukewarm.

“Ah, but ‘how wearisome Eternity so spent in worship paid to whom we hate!’”

“If you’re gonna spend the whole afternoon quoting Milton….” Janice put the sandwich on a tool bench and impatiently gestured for Matthew to move his bulk. He did, and she popped the hood.

“You object to Milton?”

“Let’s just say that at the end of my undergraduate days, I vowed never to hear Milton ever again.”

“Of course. English is not your subject.”

“No, but my English tutor was.”

“Oh,” Matthew murmured. Somehow a blush colored his tone.

She grinned. Matthew was an odd mixture of the ribald and the demure, not unlike a precocious child pushing to see what he could get away with and discovering his own mortification as a result. She found him sweet, which was not a quality she had uncovered in many men of his tender age and privileged upbringing. He’s like Dan. Jesus. Janice blinked, surprised at thinking of her ill-fated fiancé. Haven’t thought of him in years. The fact that she had ever let any involvement with a man reach such ludicrously serious levels was now astonishing to her. She still remembered Fayed’s giddy laughter when she had somberly revealed to him, months after the breakup, that she had been so entrenched in a relationship with a member of the opposite sex. Oh my dear, he had tittered, you did not know yourself very well, did you?

 Matthew recovered his nerve and pressed on. “And so, Milton is the poignant reminder of a youthful affair?”

“No, Milton is the poignant reminder of the fact that she quoted him constantly and wouldn’t shut the hell up.” She sighed regretfully. “The things I’ve done for a good pair of legs.”

“I apologize for bringing this up, Dr. Covington.”

She leaned into the belly of the Buick. “Don’t call me that.”

“Please, forgive me. A force of habit.” Matthew remained silent, in penance.

“Didn’t say you had to stop talking.”

“Oh.” Matthew sighed, relieved. “Wonderful, because I wanted to ask you what you thought of Dr. Arborgast’s report on the excavation near Mount Fuji—“

“Haven’t read it.” Suspicious of leakage, Janice prodded the battery. “Oriental stuff’s not my thing, you know that.”

“I know, but I thought you might be curious, because they found a scroll fragment written in Classical Greek—quite an amazing discovery. Mr. Hammett at the Peabody has it right now. There was some talk they’d be asking Dr. Pappas to translate it—I’m surprised she didn’t mention it to you.”

“Can’t expect her to tell me everything.” Despite the fact that she spent most of her days ensconced in a garage, Janice still maintained both a healthy interest in the field and a continued curiosity in Mel’s career. She knew Mel was grateful for that; it meant that this aspect of their bond, while diminished, was still intact. Yet it never ceased to amaze Janice that after so much time Mel still sought her professional and academic advice at all. She snorted. “They’re gonna bug her to translate some little fragment? Hammett should get one of his damn grad students to do it. She doesn’t have time for that.”

“Agreed, but Dr. Arborgast seems to think it will please his benefactor.”

“Hmm. Private funding. I knew it.” She tightened a plug. “So—who put up the big bucks?”

“A London antiquities dealer. Rather pompous sounding: Stella Matutina, Ltd.”

It was rather pompous sounding. And it happened to be a modest setup run by none other than Mark Pendleton.

It was the last coherent thought she had before she straightened like a shot and struck her head upon the open hood.

* * *

As Janice lay blissfully unconscious, the Peabody Museum’s latest acquisition—courtesy of Stella Matutina Ltd.—was currently being shown off by a humble curator, one Francis Hammett, to his colleague, Melinda Pappas.

Francis already had the scroll fragment trapped under a vitrine; the lamp on the table was turned discreetly away from the fragile, curling husk—a paper Medusa too hideous for full illumination.

History, they knew, could be an ugly thing.

Mel bent over the case, fully aware of Francis’s anxious presence, if only because his thin, wringing hands, like those of a saint in an overwrought baroque painting, were still visible to her. “So this is whatArborgast was going on about?”

Francis nodded. “And in this rare instance, his boasting is entirely merited. It’s not every day one finds Greek text on Japanese papyrus! In ancient times, it was not unusual to find evidence of travelers from other lands, but now….” He bent beside Mel and pushed a floppy forelock away from his face. “The very nature of the period suggests to us that what written documents we find are fragmentary at best—written by outsiders to the culture.” As Mel examined the fragment, Francis starting wringing his hands again. “I’m—glad you could help me with it,” he said softly. “I’ve attempted my own translation, but…Arborgast started lamenting the inadequacies of my skills, and…” A shrug concluded his apology. “They wanted you. I don’t blame them one bit. When one has access to a National Book Award nominee, well—it’s awfully tempting to take advantage of that.”

Mel smiled at him. She had never expected that one slender book, a translation of a handful of Cavafy poems—something, she arrogantly thought at times, she could have done largely in her sleep—would garner so much attention, nor did she expect she would enjoy that attention so much. She fervently hoped that if the book ever made it to a paperback stage, the publishers would be inclined to use a memorable comment from Janice as an endorsement: You’ve made this crap almost readable.

“I’m happy to help you, Francis.” She laid a hand along his fragile, bony wrist. “In any way I can.”

Acknowledgment of his recent troubles only embarrassed him. He looked away, and his hair tumbled across his brow again. “If only you could, really.”

“My offer still stands,” she reminded gently.

“I can’t take your money.”

“You could consider it a loan.”

Francis attempted a smile, which only succeeded in highlighting the tired lines of his face. “I’ll—think about it.”

She patted his arm. Despite the many years of their acquaintance, she did not know him well. In her younger, more idealistic days, she’d thought a life in the homosexual demimonde would foster only the closest of bonds; but for every close friendship there were shadowy figures passing through like passengers in a train station, with eyes trained hungrily into the distance, fixed upon unknowable destinations. Francis seemed to be one of these furtive figures, forever in flight even while bound to routine. Because of the scandal that resulted in his impending departure from the university—involving a raid on his apartment that yielded a stash of photos of muscular men and a very talkative kept boy—he walked the streets of the town and the halls of the university as a bona fide pariah. Simon Arborgast’s rejection of his translation had more to do with that than with Francis’s skill, she was certain, even though Simon remained a fond colleague of Janice and, like most everyone within the little archaeologist’s orbit, knew well the infamous Covington predilections and peccadilloes. Mel frowned.  Francis been beaten up twice in one week; a faded crescent from a black eye lingered along one cheek bone.

Mel thought uneasily of the bonfire she’d made of certain blackmail photos, how, for her, that fatal social bullet had been so very narrowly dodged. In better times, when they first arrived in Cambridge, Francis had functioned as her date on a few sporadic social occasions; in repayment of this, Janice taught him how to properly throw a baseball so that he would not humiliate himself during an obligatory staff baseball game. Naturally, based on this and a debt she felt she had accrued from the fates, she had worked up a wickedly niggling sense of obligation toward him. (You and your goddamn sense of honor. Southerners make for good queers, Janice had said.)

But now he flinched ever so slightly from her touch; she wasn’t sure if it was lingering embarrassment or latent misogyny. “I’ll leave you alone for a while, so you can go at it. And I’ll make sure you’re not disturbed.”

She offered him a conspirator’s smile, which, unsurprisingly, he took little comfort in. “Thank you.” As the door closed, she braced herself over the parchment, one hand on either side of the glass case, and, translator that she was to the very bone, awaited language’s embrace—or its Judas kiss.

I am

A simple declarative.

I am

 It could all be deceptively simple, she thought. Much like Cavafy was.

 Orpheus

 Her brow furrowed.

 and I am

 Here she backtracked, quickly rescanning the lines that carelessly spilled meaning before her eyes.

I am

 condemned to this earth,

 to this hell you have created for me.

In the serpentine grip of these words, she was a helpless Laocoon. She sleepwalked through a seminar following a meeting with the Dean and several trustees, knowing her distracted performance would only burnish her romantic “absentminded professor” image. But the hairs on the back of her neck bristled with new awareness, attenuated once more to the past—her past, their past.

Back at the office, Mildred—once Janice’s secretary and now her own—handed her a phone message, but not before a dollop of cigarette ash fell upon it.

Mel scowled, holding the soiled note at arm’s length.

Mildred’s perpetual Chesterfield drooped—her form of apology—and she nodded at the paper. “It’s that fat kid.”

“His name is Matthew, Mildred, and please don’t ever call him that to his face.”

“Yeah, whatever. Anyway, he says Shorty had a little ‘mishap’ at the garage and you should come as soon as you can.”

She imagined blood, severed limbs, the love-mad Marlene Sawyer going berserk. At last, I have a reason for slapping that hussy across the face! Her misplaced sense of righteousness was tempered by the realization that a common garage seemed no safer than an excavation in a barren, foreign land. “What? What happened?”

“Don’t worry. Sounds like she just banged her head on something. But who knows? Maybe she lost her memory. Maybe she thinks she’s the new Pope.”

Mildred referred to John XXIII, who had ascended to the papacy only a month before. “If indeed that’s the case, I will gladly arrange an audience for you, Mildred.”

Alas, the injury’s result was far less entertaining. At the garage Janice was awake and muttering obscenities about Buicks while Matthew loitered about guiltily, until Mel granted a pardon and sent him on his way. Janice was stubbornly coherent enough to win an argument about a potential visit to the hospital, but reluctantly agreed to call it a day and acquiesced to Mel driving her home. Slouched in the passenger seat of the car, she rubbed her head for what seemed like the hundredth time.

“If you keep doing that, I will take you to the hospital,” Mel threatened dourly.

“Like hell.”

“You remember Dr. Berger’s deal—after the tenth emergency room visit, you become a patient in his psychiatric study.”

“It’s all a front. He’ll ship me off to Kinsey.”

“I hope not, because I’m sure I’ll never see you again: They’ll be interviewing you for years.

Janice grinned, her teeth bright against the gray gloom of a rainy Friday.

It was easier now more than ever to get her to laugh, to smile. Mel credited stability to this more than anything. If she’s happiest working in an awful garage, fine. Let her stay there. Let the past remained buried.

But Janice, of course, sensed her mood, and rested a hand against her thigh. “Bad day again?”

“No. Not really.”

Janice smiled again. “That’s not very convincing.”

But she has the right to know. “I saw something today—I’m—” She fumbled foolishly.

In these moments when words and emotions became so hopelessly ensnared within Mel, Janice usually hummed encouragingly, a rough, questioning purr at the back of her throat, so instinctual and now so much a part of their interactions that they both took comfort in it.

“A scroll fragment. At the Peabody.” Mel paused, wondering if she really needed to clarify whose scroll it, in all likelihood, was.

But Janice seemed nonplussed. “Is it that thing Arborgast found near Fuji?”

Mel turned to gape at her. “How did you know about it?” The car swerved.

The unhappy passenger gripped an armrest. “Jesus, you’re determined to get us in the hospital, one way or another, aren’t ya? It was the president of my fan club—Matthew.”

“Of course.” Mel sighed. “Sometimes I think you know more about what goes on in the department than I do.”

“It’s just Matthew—he’s my mole. He tells me everything.”

“No, it’s not just him. It’s all of them,” Mel retorted wearily. While Mel was quite aware of the admiration—and lust—that she stirred within students, Janice was the one who had bred mystery and obsession in them.  During her office hours, half the students who sought her out came to gawk at her and whine about how hard ancient Greek was. The other half came to talk about Janice, and ask awestruck, whispered questions: Would she ever come back to teach? Would she look for the Xena Scrolls again, or was there a new quest that had claimed her attention? Was she in trouble? Would she be arrested at any minute? Matthew Spencer, of course, had provided the most impertinent questions: Was it true that a genuine Rockette was once smitten with the good Doctor? (It was, and Mel was firm in her irrational boycott of Radio City Music Hall.) At that point she had sent Matthew to the underworld of Jimmy’s Garage to pester the source, and Matthew now spent as much time at the garage as he did at the university.

“You sound jealous. I can’t help it if a bunch of spoiled, snot-nosed brats were taken in by a cheap cigar and a smelly fedora.”

“Then I must be as silly as they are, since I was taken in by the same things.”

“Really? You always said it was my eyes and my smile. You damned liar.” Janice paused thoughtfully. “When was it, really? When did you know?”

“I thought we were talking about—“

Janice rubbed her head again. “I need either a drink or a non-sequitur here. And since you won’t let me keep a flask in the car—’sides, I’m always telling you how bewitched I am by your incredible beauty, amazing intellect, subtle wit, and Southern-fried charm. I’d like to know the exact moment when all your common sense flew out the window and you started thinking I was the best thing since ice cream.” Janice looked at her skeptically. “You did catch cold when we left Macedonia. You could’ve had a fever. It might’ve permanently damaged that beautiful brain of yours.”

“Ah, a fever that’s never gone away.”

“Do tell.”

“You were trying to fix the oil leak from the truck…”

“Piece of shit truck. Go on.”

“…and when you were done you crawled out from under there and you just…lay there, on the ground for a moment. Like you just wanted to rest for a moment and think. Your hair was loose, and there was something in the way your body was contorted. The pose was similar to Reni’s Saint Sebastian. You looked…divine.”

Janice looked shockingly contrite. “Mel.”

“Yes, darling?”

“At that moment—“

Ah, it was the same for her too!

“—you do know that I was trying to look up your skirt, right?”

Mel thought about it. Jaunty and triumphant, she had been sitting on the hood of the truck while Janice was underneath it, basking in quiet exhilaration at the wonderful turn her life appeared to be taking: there was adventure, the beauty of a new country, and finally, the magnificent, foul-mouthed, ill-tempered diamond-in-the-rough who suddenly rolled out from under the vehicle and who gazed at her with what she took to be tender thoughtfulness, and surely that was a good thing, because she could not imagine anything making Janice Covington look so serene except perhaps a box of Cuban cigars or—better yet—Jack Kleinman’s long and torturous death.

All this while the sun had shone brightly and the gentle wind had billowed up her skirt.

“I do now, you vile little beast.” Even as she said it, Mel felt her mouth expand into a grin.

Janice squeezed her thigh.  “I guess you like vile little beasts then, huh?”

“No, only the queen of the vile little beasts will do.”

“High standards.”

Rain rattled against the car and blurred in sheets over the windshield. The wiper blades vainly fought against the tide.

“So.” She exhaled and stared straight ahead, inscrutable. “It’s really—“

“Yes.” Mel turned onto their street. “Of course, you’ll see for yourself. You’re the expert. You’ll decide.”

“I trust your instincts. But did you know who was backing it up? Who funded this little excavation?”

Mel shook her head.

“Pendleton.”

Mel’s grip tightened along the steering wheel.

“Yeah.” Janice laughed mirthlessly.

In the driveway at last, the car rolled to a halt. There was something about a vehicle at rest that prompted all questions, great and large, to come bubbling forth. “What does it all mean?”

“It could mean everything and it could mean nothing.”

“And what does that mean?”

“I dunno. It just sounds good.” Janice sighed again and ran a hand over her face. “Fucking Japan, huh?”

“One fragment. Don’t ask me about the dates. Francis said something about ‘The Early Nara Period’—“

“Approximately 645 to 710 A.D.,” Janice supplied. “But if it’s authentic, it’s got to be earlier than that.” She scowled at the strange smile on Mel’s face. “What?”

“You never cease to amaze me. Anything having to do with archaeology, you know it like the back of your hand.”

Janice hummed thoughtfully. “Yeah. But I can’t stop the rain.”

Once inside, Mel left her alone in the study with a photographed copy of the scroll and the hastily scribbled translation. In the kitchen she tossed ice cubes in a tumbler and poured two fingers of Bushmill’sover it, doing it with such unconscious ease that she wondered, after the fact, if she could ever become a bartender. I could buy a bar. Why, Janice could buy Jimmy’s Garage, and we could open a combination bar-garage, where patrons could get drunk while their cars are being repaired…of course, driving home then becomes the issue….She pinched the bridge of her nose. Why am I so nervous?

In the study Janice lounged, the heels of her dirty boots locked against the edge of the mahogany desk. Her bad leg twitched, her green eyes remained locked on the photo even as she reached out blindly for whiskey.

Mel pressed the glass into her hand and waited.

“Well, shit. Hello, Gabrielle.” Janice downed it in one gulp. “You’re right.”

“I didn’t want to be right.”

Janice looked at her. “Why not?”

Mel shrugged helplessly. Because I can live with you being restless and yearning, but I can’t live with the obsessive hell you plunge into every time, with every new lead, with every blind hope.

She didn’t need to say it; she could see the telepathic recognition of the truth in Janice’s rueful expression and simple confirmation: “Yeah.” Janice rattled the ices cubes, but otherwise quietly absorbed the scrawl of Mel’s translation. “Alexandria again?”

“Apparently.” She knew Janice was reading these lines: I will bury you in Amphipolis. And I will bury my scrolls in Alexandria.

“So.” Mel looked at her hands. “Is this a good thing or a bad thing?”

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

“Truly?”

“Yes. Truly.”

Despite her own reservations, and her own fear of how it would put them at risk, Mel surrendered her version of the truth, hating it and hating herself at the same time, for her hopeless inability to offer the questionable comfort of a lie. “I think—you’ve become so afraid of what you wanted for so long that you don’t want it anymore.”

Janice contemplated the now-empty glass on the desk as if it were a crystal ball. “I knew there was a reason I kept you around.” Who am I? What do I want? This life that she had thought of as a second act, defying Scott Fitzgerald’s epigrammatic pronouncement, carried so many elements of the first life that either Fitzgerald must have been right on some level—or perhaps he missed the point entirely. It always came back somehow, this past, like the boats beating against the tide at the end of Gatsby. “Life is just too sloppy,” she muttered.

Mel frowned. “What?”

“Nothing.” Janice shook her head. “I just—I don’t know—“ She scowled at her own inarticulateness. “I wanted them.” Her voice shook.

“I know,” Mel replied gently. “But the important thing is—what you want now.”

Janice said nothing. She touched the photo.

* * *

Venice, Italy

March, 1981

In the dusty study—long ignored in illness, and not a room Francesca ever dared penetrate, despite her curiosity—there is a mosaic composed of papers, books, journals, maps, photos, all on a broad mahogany table warped by time and the inevitable, irresistible sweet rot of Venice.

There were people coming for things. A cousin, for anything that he could sell. A scholar, once a student of both Drs. Covington and Pappas, for the papers. An old friend, for whatever was left behind. The photos? The ashes, in a simple urn? The Cartier watch, lying on the dressing room table? Mel had told Francesca she could have the watch, since she had been good enough not to steal it the first time they met. She still remembers after the first time, how the glow of her sexual triumph had been eclipsed by Sofia cuffing her on the side of the head: Why didn’t you get the watch, you imbecile?

But it is to the photos that Francesca gravitates. There is one of a handsome, bearded man, tall and proud, with a slouching, skinny girl who, amazingly, becomes the stunning beauty caught unaware in another photo, brooding at a desk and staring off into space, glasses dangling from her hand, displaying a profile worthy of an ancient coin. And this magnificent creature would fall in love with—

Her.

In this plunder of idle curiosity, she is face-to-face with the ghost—a substantiation, however two-dimensional and somewhat predictable—of the woman who, even after seventeen years, Melinda Pappas could barely mention, her brilliant articulation wilting in the heat of memory: I cannot put it into words. Living and loving someone every day like that. I knew her body better than I’ve ever known my own.

It is a black-and-white mirror image, except in the photo the young woman is in a U.S. Army uniform, leaning against a truck and pouting defiantly like James Dean; the sinewy strength of her well-defined forearms, visible in rolled-up shirt sleeves, were at odds with that sulking baby face. On the back of the photo, Paris 1944 rolls in aged, murky-green type across the dingy gray background.

And there are others. A teenaged girl with wild golden hair sitting in the back of a truck, who is the woman again in uniform and sitting in London hospital room, too scarred by death and war to really appreciate the fact that it was all over, who is the bachelor happily snared and standing outside a large, Gothic-looking house, who is the 43-year-old woman in an excavation pit, on the quest that would end her life.

She’ll read the obituary. She’ll read the dead woman’s journal. She’ll allow herself to be benignly plagued by the ghost. Her quiet, observant life will fall into a gentle collusion with the dead until she is no longer sure who the phantom really is—Janice Covington, or herself.

Haunt me.  Francesca Orvieti touches the photo and lets it begin.

* * *

Cyprus,

November, 1965

Was there a will? There were too many papers to look through, too great a risk of stumbling upon a photo or some sentimental trinket—a soft patch of paper, like a clot of dried, flattened earth, that had once been a movie stub from a showing of Mrs. Miniver  had sent her reeling the day before, the heel of her hand digging desperately against her temple in a frantic attempt to excavate memory.

Today’s bit of torture was Jenny’s journal—the diary she kept in the last months she lived, during the Addict Days, as Janice had called them. Was it a living death to lose time as Jenny had in those final months? Mel couldn’t believe it to be true. There had to be some moments of joy. The sun on her face. The presence of the one person she had loved more than anyone else. Sex? Mel had spent years believing it had happened between them, one last time, but Janice denied it eventually, even though she admitted she’d offered up her body as a mercy, a fleshly salve against dying misery. Mel thought of it this way, for the coarse alternative description—a pity fuck—was more than she could stomach at the moment.

Do you want to be canonized for that? Mel had snapped after the confession, her hand had twitched with the urge to slap.

It didn’t matter anymore. The dead were writing about the dead.

my angel-brute withholds love in the form of a needle in the form of her heart. Meting out meager doses. Only one shot today, old girl, she says.

 Look me in the eye, I say.

 She does. She is never afraid. She will look me in the eyes even while taking off her clothes—don’t be stingy baby! But alas no touching no further. I cannot manage it.  It’s pity with her & a piteous form of pity at that. 

Hands shake along the needle. She is damn awkward with that sometimes but pain is part & parcel of it all. The needle so thin like the straightest bit of gossamer spun by a spider that you’ve ever seen.

 You’ll never find them, I tell her. You know that. They won’t let you. He couldn’t take you away from her, he wouldn’t dare, but he can take this away from you—and in that moment I knew I said too much but surely she knows now my fool husband never asked too many questions and I never thought.

I never thought the spite of my desire, my thirst for your punishment would keep me so silent so blind.

But you know now, I say.

 I know, but I can’t stop she says.

 The needle bites into me, a pinprick wriggling around, insect now, trapped in the dead amber of my skin.

It’s what I do she says.

*  * *

November, 1958

Boston

As Janice walked beside Simon Arborgast, she thought, inappropriately, of the joke Mel usually made about this man, who, on the scale of ego, heftily weighed in at “pompous.” Who put the gas intoArborgast? Sometimes Mel could add a bossa nova-like texture to the phrase by teasing it into a lyric. Janice sometimes wondered if all translators shared Mel’s unadulterated joy in playing with language.

Maybe only the good ones, she thought as Arborgast parked them into an Automat and bought thin, bitter coffee.

“Like diarrhea,” he growled.

“It’s an Automat, Simon. Not a Parisian bistro.”

“Christ, why do I stay here?” He glared at her accusingly, as if it were somehow all her fault. “Why do you stay here?”

Janice shrugged.

“Yeah, I know why you stay here. That broad. You did pretty good on that score.”

“I know.”

“The wife sends her regards, by the way. She still speaks fondly of you.” Simon glared at her over his crooked nose.

“How long ago was that? Fifteen years. Long before you two got married.”

“You made an impression.”

“She was lonely in Sebastopol.”

“That could be the title of her autobiography, you know?” He tried sipping the coffee again, winced, and pushed it aside. “Look, I dunno what else I can tell you about that fragment that wasn’t in my report.”

Janice leaned forward. “I’m more interested in your little benefactor.”

“But you know him. Right? Or he knows you—your work at any rate.”

“He mentioned me?” Janice played nervously with her spoon. Very suave, she berated herself.

“Well, yeah. He said he knew you’d be interested in it. That’s why he gave it to the university. He said something clever, like he hoped you enjoyed this calling card better than his last one. You know I hate clever people, Janice.”

“Me too.”

“So that was a little in-joke, huh?”

“Yeah. So little it’s not funny and it’s not worth explaining.” She tried putting the coffee out of its misery by adding a generous river of creamer. “Did you find anything else?”

Simon smiled grimly. “The usual. Shards up the ass. Couple of nice tea bowls. He seemed happy enough with those—they’re pretty enough that they’ll look good in his shop.” When she said nothing in response to this, he stretched with feigned casualness.

“You getting back into the game, maybe? Pendleton is generous with the funds.”

“Maybe.” Janice played it cagey, which was easy to do because she really had no idea what she was going to do about anything, let alone Pendleton.

“Good news. I dunno what the hell you think you’ve been doing, being a grease monkey all this time…I mean, I get that you’re playing house with what’s-her-face, and I bet she’s a damn good lay—“

Careful, Simon.

“—but you must be getting pretty sick of it.”

Janice smirked. “Actually, I think she’s getting sick of it.”

“Huh. Well if she’s gonna cut you loose, Jan, is it okay if I—?”

“No.”

“But—“

“She’s not cutting me loose.” Sipping coffee, Janice made a face. It was worse than anything Mel—who always made coffee flavored with an automatic apology—had ever brewed. “And in case you forgot, you’re married.”

“You have to fucking remind me.”

“Like you got it so bad. Nadine is swell and you know it.”

“I dunno. I keep thinkin’ one day her, uh, predilections might get the better of her.”

“Just keep her away from Marlene Sawyer.”

“Who?”

“Never mind. So look—how did this all happen? Pendleton’s not interested in Far Eastern artifacts. At all.”

“He contacted me. Said he was expanding into Orientalia for his antiques shop.” He dipped a spoon into the coffee. “It was all him. He made the pitch, gave me a map. Next thing I know I’m on a slow boat to Japan.”

“So he had a location in mind.”

“Yeah. Had a hunch, he said, based on a Latin codex written by a librarian at Alexandria…”

“Latin, not Greek?”

“This librarian was a Roman. One of those Romans completely enamored with Hellenistic culture. Interesting figure, too. Seems that out of nowhere, and for no reason whatsoever that is mentioned in this text, he gives up his plum job and starts traveling the known world.”

Janice rubbed her lip with a thumb. I thought I knew everything there was to know about those scrolls. Every lead, every fragment…I thought I knew those scrolls better than anyone alive.

 Maybe I don’t.

* * *

Jim Snyder was not a bad person, Mel thought. He was polite, courteous, modest; he had a nice family—a good wife and happy, playful children who liked nothing more than a good game of GIs vs. Nazis (usually when Janice visited the Snyder household she, by dint of blondeness and acting skill, was the children’s favorite Nazi). He had never shown the least bit of disrespect to her or anyone else. Thus she was taken aback—if not completely surprised—when her colleague displayed an attitude of casual cruelty typical of individuals she thought far beneath him.

After the rush of afternoon classes, they commiserated outside her office on the sad fate that now awaited them. “The department meeting is going to take forever,” Snyder lamented.

Mel shot a look at Mildred, stationed at her desk and poking the typewriter keys in a sadistic manner than reminded Mel of her distant cousin Beauchamp, who loved nothing more than torturing his mother’s pet Siamese, Ashley Wilkes, by poking it with a stick. Contrary to the cat’s milquetoast name, Ashley Wilkes gave Beauchamp a distinguishingly jagged scar worthy of a Southern gentleman who never fought in a war.

Behind Snyder’s back, the old secretary rolled her eyes. Mel smiled. “That’s hardly atypical,” she drawled sarcastically.

“It’s going to be worse than usual this time.”

“You always say that, Jim.”

“No, this time it’s true. There’s going to be all sorts of dancing around the subject of Hammett.” Snyder sighed. “At least it’s the end of the story now.”

With her hand at rest upon the doorknob to her office, Mel glanced at him curiously yet stiffened, suspecting the blow to follow.

“You know, don’t you? They found him this morning. Hung from a rafter in that shabby attic room he had moved to.” Snyder shook his head. “Nasty stuff. But I reckon it’s no surprise, that it ended the way it did. He’s better off. Say, Melinda, are you okay?”

Dizzy, angry, and feeling the eclipse of sorrow overtake her, Mel slipped into her office and closed the door—not before the puzzled Snyder called her name once more. Slumped in her chair, she pulled the glasses from her face and cried. The pummeling rhythm of her heart seemed a mocking reminder of arbitrary fate. She knew she cried not solely for him, but for also for herself, for her nervous preoccupation with a path avoided:  If I had stayed at home, in Charleston—if some thread in the fabric of my life had been different somehow—would I have ended up the same way? She felt the societal noose tightening again, as she did when her blackmail occurred, but this time it seemed highly unlikely that Janice could remedy the matter by beating up two men and handily retrieving the incriminating photos.  She could not bring back the dead. She could not right this. No one could.

Why didn’t you let me help you?

She tried to convince herself she was being silly. It seemed the very pinnacle of Southern belleness to cry over someone she really did not know well. And yet the more Mel attempted to convince herself of the futility and incomprehension of her grief, the faster the tears fell. She wondered why he didn’t leave, why he stayed, why he chose this way to end his pain and humiliation. Was he convinced it would be no different anywhere else in the world, that his life was now too tainted for it to be in any way redeemable or even happy?

She wiped her face with a handkerchief and stood up. The meeting was a mere fifteen minutes away and if she was lucky, she would have just enough time to pull together both herself and her face in the bathroom before sailing into the conference room pretending—like all of them—that nothing had really happened.

The only problem was that the doorway of her office was now blocked by Mildred’s stocky, stubborn frame. “I told him you went home.”

Mel still tasted tears on her lips. “What?”

“The Dean. I told him you were sick and you went home. So go home.”

The determined scowl on Mildred’s face brooked no argument, but Mel tried regardless. “I can’t do that.” Her nose was running. Damn it. Like a child, she pressed the back of her hand against it, sniffling helplessly, the sodden handkerchief balled in her fist. “I can’t.”

“Honey.”

Mel blinked. In the twelve-odd years she had known Mildred Feeney, she’d never heard the woman call her by her Christian name, let alone a genuine endearment. She did not have the comfortable, teasing relationship with Mildred that Janice had, and still did. The steady progression of proper titles over the years—Miss Pappas, Professor Pappas, Doctor Pappas—always suited them just fine.

“Don’t make me call Shorty.”

The thought of Janice storming the college under present circumstances was alarming at best.

“Go on,” Mildred said gently.

Mel had always wondered if Mildred was as bluntly ferocious and sarcastically tactless—qualities that Janice adored about the chain-smoking secretary—with her children and grandchildren as she was with pampered academics. She was now grateful for knowing otherwise.

At home, the active fireplace was a welcome sight, one at which she almost wept. No more warmth for Francis anymore. No such small pleasures. Ever. The back door hung open, indicating that Janice was pillaging the shed for more wood. Mel sat on the couch without removing her coat and stared blankly at the burgeoning fire, as if challenging it to touch her in some way. Love was as strange and instable as the properties of fire. A heart of ashes, smoke, and heat, sometimes burning, sometimes dormant—a ridiculous standard by which to judge a man or a woman.

She heard Janice in the hall—her loping gait, her tuneless whistle—before she was in the room, standing by the fire, a corded bundle of logs cosseted against her side, knowing something was wrong. “You’re early. What’s going on?”

“Francis.”

Janice sat the logs down.

“He hung himself.”

“Christ.” Janice stared long and hard into the fire before stalking out of the room. She returned with a box of tissues and a brandy snifter, amber bliss swooning in its crystalline belly.

Mel glanced skeptically at the glass.

“Trust me,” Janice assured her. “You need it.”

Janice was right. The brandy’s fire was such a distraction that Mel could think of nothing else except its burning agony. She wheezed as tears welled up in her eyes again; this time, she knew, it was the booze. She thrust the empty snifter at Janice, who placed it on the coffee table before sitting down beside her.

“They’re all—bastards,” she decreed hoarsely.

Janice raised an eyebrow, but nodded. “I know.”

“Everyone acted as if nothing had happened. A man is dead and all they care about are his secrets. All they do is whisper about it all.” Mel removed her glasses, a smudged casualty of her mood. It made dainty daubing at her eyes a difficulty—or so she had been informed at charm school all those years ago. Eyeglasses are a complicating factor in the feminine arts, Miss Devereaux had testily informed her; apparently wandering about blind as a bat was an infinitely preferable condition for the modern woman. “I think,” she said, wiping her glasses, “that if they thought they could march out on the street and shoot us all, they would.”

“I think,” Janice countered, “they’d too goddamn surprised at who they marched out, and how many, to actually do anything.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“I sure as hell hope so. I’ve been shot enough times in my life now, thank you very much.”

If nothing else, Mel could always count upon a wisecrack. But predictably, at the very sight of that beautiful face easing into a tender, comforting grin—emphasized in the lines around her eyes, the sensuous curve of her lips—Mel could not help but return the look, however briefly, and despite the tears she cried. “He wouldn’t let us help him,” she whispered.

“I know. We tried. You tried.” Janice’s gruff bluntness—you gotta get the hell out of Dodge, buddy—had proved ineffective with Francis. Mel always had a better chance of reaching him, because they were of a type: Abundantly talented yet too sensitive, with an eggshell-thin veneer that provided little resistance against the outer world. With age and experience, Mel seemed stronger in a variety of ways, but Janice sensed, rightly, that a certain fragility remained a core element within her. It was why she had been so strangely insistent that Mel retain the Irish bulldog Mildred Feeney as a secretary, why she made Fayed swear on Harry’s old pocket watch that he would always take care of Mel if something happened to her—and why you’ve stayed here so long. Because it’s been as good for her as it has been for you.

 But now Janice was thinking they’d had too much of a good thing.

“It’s not an easy life,” Mel said.

“I know.”

“Do you? It always seemed that you took to it like a duck to water.” It was an envious accusation.

“I grew up in a pond of perversity. What can I say?” Janice leaned back, stretched her legs, and became thoughtful—if only because Mel did not appear amused. “I know it’s been hard on you at times. If you had left because of it—well, I guess I would’ve understood.” After drinking myself to death, of course. “You had your chances.”

“My chances?”

Ah, shit, opened the can of worms there. “You know. Paul.” Janice paused. “And just about every guy who lays eyes on you, it seems.” She gazed longingly at the empty snifter. If the conversation were indeed taking a turn toward boys, she would need some fortification herself.

“You knew about that? How he felt about me?”

Janice squirmed. “I—well, it was pretty obvious.”

“Not to me.” Mel frowned, and Janice could see the wheels angrily spinning in that busy brain. “So if he had made some sort of serious overture toward me, you would have allowed it to happen? Wouldn’t have stood in his way?”

“Well, not exactly, but—I just thought, if that was the kind of life you really wanted, I didn’t want to get in the way of it—“ Janice’s blundering logic came to a merciful end when Mel smacked her, hard, upon the shoulder.

“You idiot.

Melodramatic, Janice rubbed her shoulder. “Shee-it. That really hurt.

“We’re not living out The Well of Loneliness here!”

“I never finished that book, so I dunno what you’re getting at. See, I started it, then one day Harry found it on my bunk, saw what it was about and got rid of it. Then he stuck a copy of Lady Chatterly’sLover in my rucksack.”

“Obviously it did not have the intended effect.”

“No, but I did want to become a gamekeeper after that.”

A laugh escaped Mel before she could tamp it down. “You shouldn’t be making me laugh now, of all times.”

“I think Francis would want you to have a laugh. You deserve it.” Janice leaned forward, elbows on knees. “You’re not entirely happy,” she added quietly. It was easier to look into the fire while speaking the truth. “I know you. That place is driving you nuts.”

Mel couldn’t deny it and couldn’t think of anything to add to it. Janice always had a way of getting to the heart of the matter with such pithy precision that further elaboration was completely unnecessary. “I still don’t understand it all. What happened to him.”

Janice offered a barely perceptible yet no less helpless shrug. “I don’t know. Sometimes people are too quick to embrace what they think is fate.”

Not surprisingly, Mel seized upon this nugget. “Have you felt that way yourself?”

“I suppose,” Janice replied softly. “I thought I knew what I wanted. What I wanted to be. I thought I knew those scrolls—like I could feel them in my bones—‘cause I heard the stories so often when I was young. But now—I’m thinking the story is different. Maybe because I’m different now.” Quickly she grew quickly self-conscious at this quasi-philosophical outburst and rubbed her neck. It was strange—and irritating—how crises could bring out such meandering speculation. Damned inconvenient, she thought, when there were more urgent matters at hand. Just hug her, you idiot. No sooner had she thought it than Mel pressed into her with feral directness, an unspoken wish to be claimed.

When she laid her head upon Janice’s shoulder, she inhaled the primal scents of autumn—earth and smoke—that, ironically, comforted her more than words ever could. “Take me away from this,” she whispered. She felt foolish and weak saying it, as if she were reverting to the worst of womanhood; to all the ridiculous things she had been taught.

“All right.”

While she had fully expected Janice to placate her, there was something about the tone of the reply that indicated more than mere mollification. She sat up, staring. “All right?” she echoed.

Janice held her startled gaze. “Yeah.”

“Are you serious?”

“We’ll go wherever you want.” Janice said it with a convincing evenness. “You want to get away from this, baby? Then we’ll go. Anywhere you want.”

She was flabbergasted at this gift. Here was Janice Covington, whose sense of direction always followed the strict dictates of her irrefutable instincts and the irresistible lure of the past, giving her leave to determine their next move. “You will?”

“You shouldn’t be that surprised,” Janice mock-chastised her with a grin.

No, Mel thought, she should not be surprised. At all. A quality of Janice’s love was quiet stealth. She was frequently undemonstrative, always understated, and content to let the simplest actions speak of her constancy. Declarations of love were sporadic but heartfelt, and as such always memorable—despite the fact that, predictably, they usually occurred in bed, and as recently as a week ago: Blonde hair tumbled over her brow, the fullness of her body—storied scars, knotted muscles, the tight curves that betrayed her femininity—atop Mel, her grip tight across Mel’s wrists. You know I love you. You know how much.

“I can’t help it. You always surprise me.”

“Good. Keeps it interesting, doesn’t it?”

All the same, thought Mel, there had to be more to it than that. Her blue eyes narrowed in with the gentlest of suspicions. “Is it—do you want to start working again?”

Naturally, Janice went on the defensive. “In case you haven’t noticed, I have held down a steady job now for almost four years. For the first time in my goddamn life: Constant employment. A paycheck every week.”

“I know—I’m sorry. But do you—“

Janice cut her off, but not unkindly. “I don’t know what I want to do yet.”

“But you think—?”

“Mel. Can we shitcan the interrogation for now?”

“Sorry,” Mel apologized again. She submerged a hand into the thick soft mess of Janice’s hair, immediately encountering stubborn tangles.

“It’s okay.” Janice closed her eyes, enjoyed the sensation of her scalp gently rubbed. After long minutes of sensually soaking in this attention, she came up with a battle plan. “I think we should have a wake for Francis. Right now. We’ll finish off that brandy. Then we’ll toilet paper the Dean’s house. We’ll make out in front of Memorial Church. We’ll start a bonfire in Harvard Square until the whole town is on fire and purged of every goddamn Puritan for miles around. The witches will finally take over.”

“How about you just drink all the brandy yourself and give me a foot massage?”

“Hmm, A less ambitious plan, but nonetheless…much, much more appealing.”

Interlude
Too bad that, cut out as you are
for grand and noble acts,

this unfair fate of yours…

always denies you success…
—“The Satrapy,” Constantine Cavafy

Alcmaeon had bought the girl in Parnassus.

It wasn’t, he insisted to Gabrielle, that he really thought she needed a concubine—here he smiled gently, revealing teeth as gray and briny as flawed pearls. Alcmaeon was always beautiful until he smiled. No, he continued, he bought the girl because he believed his commander needed someone to clean her tent, wash her clothes, fetch her meals.

Gabrielle hadn’t protested. Arguing with her stubborn lieutenant was futile at best.

Now the girl lay sleeping on the bed. Normally she slept curled on a pallet on the floor, at the foot of Gabrielle’s cot. But last night was cold; the tent stiffened in the brutal winds. In the low shimmer of the candlelight, while pretending to review battle strategies she cared nothing about, Gabrielle noticed how the girl, at her usual subservient position on the ground, shivered. Sighing, she had put aside the scroll and reached down to rest a hand upon the girl’s bony shoulder.

Gray eyes huge with fear, the girl jumped.

Gabrielle was accustomed to this; people feared her now. She was a woman who had survived death, who had seen the other side and came back. Death clung to her as an unbearable perfume. In takingXena’s mantle, she had also, somehow, acquired Xena’s reputation. Xena of Amphipolis had been a walking weapon, a warrior par excellence, and if the student had now surpassed the master, didn’t this mean, at least in the minds of so many, that Gabrielle was now a consummate killer? Was this what it meant to be “a girl with a chakram”? The label had seemed so innocuous. It was hers now. She could not remember a time when she ever wanted it.

These were the black moments when she hoped the gods had damned Xena as much as she herself had been damned.

“Come here,” she had murmured to the girl, and pulled her to the bed. Gabrielle snuffed out the candle and wrapped them in furs. As night elided light and time, the girl gradually relaxed against her and fell asleep; together they shared warmth, and nothing more. It wasn’t as pleasant as she’d hoped; no longer accustomed to sharing her bed, Gabrielle slept badly. It was a relief to get up.

Now, from the vantage point of the tent’s opening, Gabrielle watched the girl sleep through the early morning. The sun had barely crested the hills, but Alcmaeon had everyone up and about. The machinations of an army’s endless preparation held a certain fascination for her.

She closed her eyes and felt that sensation in the back of her throat, that metallic tinge of blood that vibrated deeply within her like a chord. It was how he announced himself, Xena had told her so many years ago: Like in music…a note so amazing but terrible you hope you never hear it again.

Who else would have known the ruinous music of the God of War so well?

Ares stood beside her, almost out of sight; a flickering glance confirmed his dark presence, the perfectly elegant military bearing of his stance. “She would have loved this.” His voice held its usual low, raspy seductiveness.

She said nothing.

“But you,” Ares continued, taking a step closer, “you don’t.”

She stared at the ground. “Why are you here?”

“Just wanted a good look at your army. Pretty impressive. That guy of yours, Alcmaeon—I like him. Very well organized.”

“It’s all for show,” she murmured.

“Your do-gooding across the land speaks otherwise.” He paused to admire the army once again. “Is this what you dreamed of, all those years ago in little Poteidaia? People in thrall to your fanaticism—you’re like Eli with a bloody sword.” He leaned down, lips almost touching her ear. “A very bloody sword, Gabrielle.” He pulled back abruptly.  “You know, of course, you’re now the same age she was when she died. You know what I was thinking?  If you keep up with all your little crusades, you’ll catch up with her body count in no time at all.”

They were all blatant untruths, all part of the game. He knew that every life she had ever taken pulled at her to such an extent that she barely kept her head above the tidal wave of the insanity he perpetuated upon her: The Furies.

You let her die.

He tucked his hands behind his back. “When I told you to get together a retinue and show up in Amphipolis to surrender your scrolls, I never thought you’d acquire a frigging army.”

“It wasn’t my intention.” But she’d saved Alcmaeon from slavers, and earned his unwavering devotion. Others followed; Alcmaeon was a relentless recruiter.  It almost felt as if she woke up one morning and discovered she had an army—and not just any army, but a group of men and women who believed in her as if she were divine incarnate. She was not a woman anymore. She possessed terrible benevolence, like Shiva.

India. It happened to someone else. Didn’t it?

“I’m sure it wasn’t,” Ares retorted softly. “But here you are. And here they are.” His muscular arm swept out over the panorama of horses, tents, and soldiers, whose swords gathered glints of sunrise. “That being said, I have to wonder what you’re up to, other than saving the world.”

“What makes you think I’m ‘up to’ anything?”

His voice dropped. “Because you’re a conniving little bitch, that’s why. Not that I don’t admire the trait, but—you know how it’s supposed to go down: You arrive in Amphipolis, you pay homage to me, you give me your scrolls, and you’re free to go.” He cocked his head. “I might even let you keep this little army you’ve thrown together. You should have an army. You seem to breed that kind of loyalty.”

“You can have the army.”

“You’re very generous.” He laid two thick fingers on her jaw, roughly guiding her gaze to his own. “But you know what I want.”

She’d given up being afraid of him a long time ago. “Why are they so important to you?”

“Because they’re important to you.” Ares’ fingers strayed to her neck, digging into her carotid artery. “You thought you’d be remembered forever—as a bard. But who knows—instead you may be remembered forever as the fool who let the Warrior Princess die. Which is it? Fate is a luxury you can’t afford.”

Gabrielle fought the dizziness. “You think you can rewrite history as you see fit.” She seized his wrist, twisting it in such a way that, had he been a mortal still, would have broken several bones and driven him to his knees. Instead it merely irritated him and he backhanded her across the face with a lazy grace, as a bear swats at flies. It was still enough of a blow to send her staggering. Her mouth filled with blood.

“You have no understanding of presentation, you know that?” Ares rubbed his hands together, relishing the day’s first taste of violence. “I thought, being a bard, you would. You tell a good tale, I’ve always thought that, Gabrielle, but what else do you got? Nothin.’ You’re a broken-down heroine who can’t write anymore. You’re a fucking emotional cripple hung up on the past. All your friends are dead. And your family—what’s left of it—think you’re a freak of nature.” He shook his head with mock-disapproval, his voice softening. “Y’see, I’m doing you a favor. I’m taking the best part of you and preserving it inAmphipolis. I’m going to make that town famous. Because it all started there for her—she set out to protect that place. Her love of that town made her the warrior she became. So I’m going to make it mine.It’ll be a thriving metropolis by the time I’m through with it; it will easily replace Athens as the most glorious city-state in our land. Maybe even the world.”

“Your ongoing rivalry with Athena seems ridiculous, considering she’s—“

Ares raised a menacing finger. “Don’t make me hit you again.”

“Why not? You’re going to try to kill me anyhow.”

“I will kill you if you get in my way. I’m going to build a temple, a monument that will make the Parthenon look like a child’s toy. Don’t you think the greatest warrior that ever lived—your Xena—deserves that much honor?”

Gabrielle swallowed blood. “What you celebrate is not Xena, but you. Your cult of death and war.”

He rubbed his chin. “It was part of her.”

Not the part she’d want remembered,” she countered angrily.

His eyes glinted. “Then I guess—we’ll settle this the old-fashioned way.”

“You mean your way.”

“Precisely.” He regarded her calmly—and respectfully. “I have no reason to keep you alive anymore.”

“You’ll be bored without me,” she reminded him.

Contemplating this strange future, the God of War tilted his head thoughtfully. A formidable adversary always made things interesting, and he had to admit that for a mortal, she was quite extraordinary. But in his eyes she remained a painful reduction of a past that he could not change; in her, he saw only the regretful reminder of Xena’s choices. No matter that Gabrielle probably resented and suffered some of those choices as much as he did.

In a flash of light, he was gone.

And the girl remained asleep.

2. Absence of Grace

 You walk
like one who won’t stray far
from your own front door.
You watch like one who waits
and doesn’t see. You are earth
that aches and keeps silent.
You have bursts and lapses,
you have words—you walk
and wait. Your blood
is love—that’s all.
Cesare Pavese

Cyprus

May, 1959

 It is not one of your better ideas, Fayed had written her in a letter.

That said, Janice could not remember a time when Fayed ever condoned any of her “ideas,” except perhaps a tryst with a banker’s wife and secretary at the same time. You don’t want me to visit you andNaima? I’m hurt. Janice had written back.

He responded: My dear, can you possibly be under the considerable delusion that your charming companion would want to set foot into the House of Davies? Let us all meet on the mainland. Or another island? Mykonos, perhaps? I would scour the entire island for randy photographers first—I am always at your service!

Leave it to him to joke about blackmailers, she thought.

The idea of bringing Mel to the house possessed compelling force for her. More than anything, she thought, it appealed to her practical side: She owned a house. On a beautiful island in the Mediterranean. No matter that a former lover died an ugly death within those bright, sunny walls; there had to be something good, something redeemable about the place that, thanks to Jenny’s sense of love or duty—reparation for a destructive affair—was now her own.

Predictably, Mel was not keen on it, even though Janice had employed the softest of sells. Just for a short visit. A little while. Till we get our bearings, figure out a new home base.

I know where I want to be—not in that house, Mel shot back.

Then one day, miraculously, Mel capitulated. Janice thought it had little to do with the inherently sneaky quality of patience that she had brought to the matter at hand—I will wear her down with my seemingly cheerful acceptance of her irrational stubbornness!— and more to do with pity, more specifically, a certain incident at a swank Paris hotel where Janice’s normal grace embarrassingly abandoned her: Decked out in girly attire that included a pair of painfully unmanageable high-heeled shoes, she had tripped over a suitcase, knocking herself unconscious. Later, she had awakened in the hotel room to Mel stroking her hair, promising sorbet, and reluctantly agreeing to stay in Cyprus for a while, “because I’m hoping you won’t trip over anything there and scare me half to death again.”

 The path to the house was less tortuous than remembered. Perhaps because it was not as hot this time or no one was shooting at her, or merely that circumstances were considerably less dire. Obliging locals had sent their luggage on ahead and even driven them as far as the main road; Cyprian hospitality, as Janice had previously experienced it, typically resulted in getting shot, but a beautiful woman who spoke Greek with a particularly charming American accent was a passport to unexpected generosity.

From the main road, however, there was no avoiding the hill that led to the villa. As they made their way through, Janice found herself frequently staring at Mel’s tense, sweaty back. Not that Mel would complain about anything—at least in these circumstances. She was an unusually patient traveler; delays, adverse weather, and other minor catastrophes rarely irritated her. Janice always carried a mental snapshot, an imaginary photograph that marked the beginning of that rapid, inevitable descent into love—that first return trip from Macedonia, Mel sitting with casual, aristocratic grace on the deck of the steamer bound for America, her glasses foggy and stippled with rain, the sleeves of her shrunken, ruined sweater crawling up her arms like ivy, humming Cole Porter: There’s no cure like travel / To help you unravel / The problems of living today….

When they arrived at the house, they were greeted by the caretaker, Manolaki, and his wife—in honor of their guests, decked out in Sunday best. Before the wife could be included in introductions, she scurried away to prepare food.  Then Manolaki told them: Fayed and Naima were gone.

“Gone?” Janice echoed it incredulously, into thin, hot air. Mel’s harrumph was a wordless commentary on their hosts’ lack of manners.

Their trip to Knossos at Crete, the old man reminded them. Fayed had an opportunity to be a foreman there at the great archaeological site discovered by Sir Arthur Evans.

Janice tilted back her hat and scratched her forehead. “But they weren’t supposed to leave until Thursday.”

Mel issued a sigh of royal disdain. “It is Thursday.”

Janice pursed her lips and silently swerved past a dozen snide remarks. She was certain that Fayed had been relying on her usual mismanagement of the calendar to avoid any kerfuffle that their visit might bring. She shot a glare at She Who Would Start a Kerfuffle. “Yeah, well…”

“Another day, another island,” Mel remarked with sarcastic good cheer. “Perhaps we should go to Crete.”

Janice glowered at her. “One night in the damn house won’t kill you.”

“No, darling,” Mel continued in the same happily homicidal tone, “but it might kill you.

Unable to follow rapid, muttered English, Manolaki could only blink helplessly and beckon them inside. Once there, he left the women to their own devices—there was a prepared lunch awaiting them—and, collecting his wife, wisely retreated to his own humble cottage at enough of a remove down the winding dirt road.

Janice thought the house even nicer than she remembered; Naima’s touch—her ability to create calm warmth wherever she dwelled—was clearly at work. The villa’s overwhelmingly white starkness was transformed with delicate color—ochre and red in one room, pale celadon in another—all perfectly, sparsely employed, gathering the brilliance of natural light to the walls and deepening the amber sheen of the pine floors and roof beams.

Walking through the main room she noticed that the floorboards no longer creaked under her heavy tread; Fayed must’ve fixed them. Could you have fixed Jenny too, Fayed? Maybe you should have been the one to stay with her. Maybe your kind of discipline was what she needed. Throwing the needles away. Locking her in a room. Instead of trying to make sense of the senseless. She looked into the valley below, felt the pain again, the sense of helplessness, but realized, finally, why she wanted Mel in this house. She wanted it cured of memory, of her own mind’s loss. It was folly to think such a state could be attained. But just as Mel’s presence on an excavation site pulled her out of obsessing over Harry—his death, and his failures, as well as her own—the house felt different now. Seeing Mel at window alleviated the absence of grace that dwelled both in the house and in her heart. It all became a burden worth carrying. “I knew it.” She did not realize she said it aloud.

“You knew what?” Mel was leaning into the sill, also gazing across the land—the ragged peaks, the juniper trees, every crag and crescent waving ecstatic to the blues of sea and sky.

“I knew you’d like this window.”

“It is beautiful,” Mel admitted flatly, in the same tone of resigned envy with which she once noted Marlene Sawyer’s attractiveness, and with the accompaniment of a similar defensive stance—arms folded, shoulders locked into attentive resistance.

Janice laughed. “It’s a bitch, huh?”

“It’s hers.”

“No,” Janice corrected gently. “It’s mine. And since it’s mine, it’s yours too.” She sidled closer to Mel, bumping her companion’s hip with her own—an affectionate, physical code that roughly translated asstop taking everything so seriously. Mel’s lack of a bump-retort, however, signaled you don’t get off that lightly.

“So.” It was the tone that Mel used when brutally dismantling the translating attempts of her more asinine, arrogant students, accompanied by the Clark Kent-becomes-Superman removal of her glasses and a weary, blue-eyed glare.  “You want us to live here.”

“Maybe. For a while. If Fayed gets that job, it would be easy for us to stay as long as we like. Even if he doesn’t, he loves the whole communal living thing.”

“No matter that the last time you were here you were shot.”

“They know me now, they won’t take another shot at me. And nobody ever shoots at you.” Janice thought she detected a softening slouch to those rigid shoulders. “Tell me,” she implored hopefully, “what you’re thinking.”

“At this very minute? I doubt you want to know,” Mel replied.

“Try me, big girl.”

“All right then.” She nodded at the window. “These curtains do not work with this wall color at all.”

Janice pinched the bridge of her nose.

“I’m taking a nap.” Mel declared it as a general does marching orders, executed an elegant spin, and sauntered away to the guest room. And Janice’s ears caught the most powerful siren call known to a Covington: The rustling of a skirt over those mesmerizing hips. Cotton, wool, silk, linen—the material mattered little (although Janice’s favorite combination was rough wool overlaying the soft narcotic of a silk half-slip) because the orchestration originated with the pulchritude it protected. It was the skin’s cry for liberation: Release me from this bondage, and I’ll show you what I can do. The sound was all the more keenly provocative when one had done without certain activities for over a week—Janice blamed her accursed tendency to seasickness for this. Every other day, it seemed, they were either on a boat or too close to the sea. Stupid country of islands! Water water everywhere, and all of it makes me sick.

The guest room was small, as was the bed; it had suited Janice just fine when she stayed here alone, but now Mel lay possessively sprawled upon it like a shipwreck survivor on the very last piece of debris. A breeze bullied its way past the curtained windows, carrying the sharp intoxicants of basil, thyme, lemon, sun-saturated sea—the garden, predictably neglected during Jenny’s tenure in the house, obviously flourished now; in fact, a bit of jasmine lay captive and sweetly blossoming in a Mason jar on the nightstand.

After managing to claim a small portion of the bed, Janice thoughtfully regarded her quarry—who was feigning sleep, face pressed into a pillow, and issuing muffled, vague threats: “Your shoes better not be on the bed.”

Repressing a sigh, Janice hastily unlaced and kicked off her boots.

“That smell better not be your feet.”

Janice bit the inside of her cheek. Things were not going the way she planned. Her hand curled around Mel’s shoulder. “Say that to my face, smart ass.”

“All right.” Mel rolled over. A wave of hair covered one blue eye in Veronica Lake fashion, but the other eye glinted defiance. “Your feet smell.”

Janice kissed her.

Mel took a long moment to gather her breath. “Is this a new thing? I insult you, you kiss me?”

The first response was another kiss. “Yeah,” Janice said gruffly. “You seem to like it so far.” Her fingers laid nimble siege to the row of buttons on Mel’s blouse.

“Had a perfectly nice hotel room in Piraeus and you hardly seemed interested.”

“Unlike you, I don’t need a nice hotel room, just a nice, sturdy bed. Besides, we were too close to the port. I could smell rotten fish all the time.” Defeated, the blouse floated to the floor.

“Are you sure it wasn’t your feet?”

This ongoing argument distracted from the joy she derived in running a tongue along the beautifully electric line of Mel’s collarbone. “Will you shut up about my feet already?”

“We’re not that far from the sea now.”

“Can’t smell it. Here, I can smell the earth. Dirt.” She traced Mel’s cheekbone with the blunt tip of a curled knuckle, fully anticipating the animal-acquiescent lowering of her eyelids, seen perhaps a thousand times by now, but no less a treasured triumph of desire.

“Ah. Your first love.”  Mel tugged on her belt, pulling her closer. And when Mel tilted her head back in a wanton offering, the rush of heat from the nape of her neck exuded the same fantastic pull as it did from any other juncture of her body. Her skin exhaled desire.

But not the best love.  The words remained caught in the conspiratorial trap of Janice’s throat. She gave in to fears long battled: To give voice to these feelings would somehow tempt the fates to take it all away. She only hoped it could be heard somehow, if only in her wildest imagination: on a frequency that traversed a current coursing in Mel’s blood. She covered Mel’s body with her own, their limbs fitting together with ecstatic imperfection, sweat mingling as they lay together mouth to mouth, breast to breast, hip to hip, separated stingily by clothes wilted in the heat of travel.

“I suppose this is your way of convincing me…that we should stay.”

“I’m good at convincing.” Janice dipped her head teasingly, stopping short of a kiss, prompting Mel to roughly clap the back of her neck and pull her in. While there was always dominance implied in Mel’s kiss—a demand for response—a hint of surrender lingered as well. It was a carnal combat of glorious unknowns.

“You’re cocky.”

“Hmm.” Janice thrust her hips, earning a startled, pleased gasp from her partner. “That’s one thing I forgot to pack.”

It amused her to see comprehension travel slowly across Mel’s features, leaving a blush in its wake. “Oh.”

“It’s funny that someone of your, ah,  mature age would blush over such a thing. Considering how many times I’ve used it on you.” She touched her lips to Mel’s neck, worked upward to an ear partially obscured by black hair. “And how many times you’ve used it on me.

Mel smiled—a wide flashing of teeth, sensual yet embarrassed. Her voice slowed to a low drawl, the aural equivalent of a sexy swagger. “I like to think of myself as a very fair and equitable person…”

Janice imagined this as some spiel learned at Southern finishing school—practiced thoughtfulness. I may be wealthy and spoiled and beautiful with dozens of servants at my beck and call, but really, I’m just like you!  (Although Mel had frequently made a point of reminding her that at most her father kept merely two servants, three during Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.)

“…in all respects.” Mel shivered as a sensitive spot behind her ear was hit. Instinctively, albeit prematurely, she reached for a bedpost. To Janice’s mind she was, in fact, better than fair and equitable when it came to this: She was versatile. Gentle, rough, fast, slow, dominant, submissive: she encompassed all these moods and tempos, and her manner from one time to the next could never be predicated on anything.

“Don’t worry about it.” Janice’s left hand maneuvered with confidence: the outer calf, the ticklish inside of the back of the knee, and finally the vast, pleasing terrain of the thigh, the garter belt like a boardwalk leading to the wild, perfect sea. “Way I see it, I owe you.” Her intrepid hand slipped between Mel’s legs, burrowed stubbornly, forced a parting of the thighs. Eager intensity knotted within her chest and quickened her breath as she found the first spot—here—and rode out a sudden arching of Mel’s body. “You just have to do one thing.”

“Anything,” came the breathless agreement.

“Take off those panties.”

“That’s the only thing holding you back, hmm?” Effortlessly Mel shoved her off—a skill acquired in fending off the overzealous suitors of her youth and, once Janice thought of it, a wonderful bit of slap-and-tickle foreplay too—and then, with equal ease, shed the silky underwear. Cavalier, she tossed it across the room.

“You almost threw ‘em out the window,” Janice observed.

“Oh! That would be one way of endearing myself to the local population, I reckon.”

“Certainly works for me.”

“Show me, then.” Mel pulled her closer, the hint of roughness she employed setting the tone. Fast. Dirty. Eager. Gotcha. The fingertips that swayed along Janice’s spine, as if she were a sax in the confident grip of Coltrane, were a prelude to nails raking her back and fingers engaging—successfully—the medieval hooks of her bra. “How it works for you. Show me.”

These words, breathed against Janice’s bare, glowing skin, caught in the cradle of tendons and bone between neck and shoulder, were a beautiful invitation. And so, bodies locked together once again, Janice entered her. It could have been the first time or the millionth, for it followed its regular satisfying course: The enveloping warmth, the push, the tension, the slamming mantra of the carotid artery underneath Janice’s mouth, the hands that inscribed a bloody Braille on her back or curled into bedsheets or shook a bedpost as if it were a cage, all of it wildly petitioning for release.

The moment she came, Mel’s face was a masterpiece. If Janice could not get away with caressing the torso of the Venus Genitrix, tracing the plum lines of Ingres’ Valpincon bather, or embracing Bernini’s St. Teresa—how wrongly Harry had interpreted her interest in fine, figurative art as a refining characteristic and not the humble beginnings of a madness for the feminine form!—she could at least mold her free hand against the flawless lines of that face, hook a thumb around a plump lower lip, and feel the delightful dampness of Mel’s tongue stroking the tip of her flesh.

When it was over, Mel’s blue eyes, heavy-lidded with satiation, flickered and focused as the aperture of awareness once more narrowed her pupils. Janice brushed damp, dark hair off her lover’s sweaty brow as Mel retained an iron grip around her wrist, keeping her hand firmly in place, and milking every last sensation and tremor for maximum satisfaction.

Slowly, they parted easily, if reluctantly. But Janice kept an arm draped over Mel’s chest as she sank sleepily into sweaty sheets; she liked feeling the heart that was exclusively her own, beating frantically in desire, then gradually slowing into regulated bliss.

“You’ve missed it, haven’t you?”

Damn you. Mel possessed a sense of unerring timing, cultivated through many years of dealing with a woman who was a walking definition of obstreperous; and so would recognize the impossibility of lying at this moment, cocooned in the vulnerability of afterglow. “Yes,” she admitted, and paused, accusing gently: “You know I do.”

“I do.” Mel smiled. “Why else do you think I agreed to come here?”

Janice’s moment of outrage passed like a summer storm. “You sneaky bitch.” Unsurprisingly, Mel already knew what Fayed had taunted Janice with in a letter: If you come back here, you’ll be tempted again. You cannot be this close to history without doing something about it. There is no cure for the disease of archaeology. It runs rife in our family. It’s our royal inheritance, our hemophilia. Our blood runs wild.

Mel laughed. “You wonderful sweet talker!” She pushed the ever pliable Covington onto her back. “You do what you have to do. And I’ll come with you, if you like. Or I won’t. I don’t have to, because—” She took a moment to search for the faith to believe what she was about to say. “—you’ll come back to me.”

Janice Covington did not believe in a lot of things, but when she did, her convictions were unassailable, her replies firm. “I will.”

* * *

Janice woke hours later, naked, alone, and splayed over the lumpy terrain of tangled sheets. It was not a happy awakening, for someone was banging on the door with such intrusive, insensitive force that she feared Fuller Brush Men were as an unfortunate reality in this part of the world as they were in the States. The setting sun sliced low over the horizon, cutting into her sight as she sat up, popping joints and rubbing muscles. The bad thing about screwing in the afternoon was that those postcoital naps usually got a little out of hand—particularly now that she was older; she felt as if the entire day had escaped her greedy grasp.

The banging stopped. She dug through the open suitcase, unmindful of the mess she created, until a robe was found. She was knotting the robe’s belt and stumbling out of bedroom when she saw Mel standing in the foyer, staring at what appeared to be a telegram. To her annoyance Mel was freshly bathed and wearing clean clothes, looking as if she had only traveled languorously to the bedroom and back during the course of the day. Perhaps there was something to this mad idea of neatly folding one’s clothes before putting them in a suitcase?

“Why’d you let me sleep so long?” Complaint briefly won out over curiosity, which soon caught up: “What’s that?” She nodded at the telegram.

She received no response, as Mel continued to stare at the slip of paper with an expression that normally never crossed her beautifully controlled, intelligent features—a dopey grin. In a strange way, it rather suited her.

Finally, Mel spoke—rather, whispered, as if fearful the fates would cause the telegram to spontaneously combust. “It’s—that award. For the Cavafy translation. The National Book Award.”

Amused, Janice speculated confidently: “You won it!”

“I—won it.” Mel squinted in fierce concentration, lips moving as she reread the missive one more time, as if she did not trust herself to translate the laconic language of Western Union.

“I’ll be damned. I knew I should have started a pool at the college—and Jesus, they managed to find you here!”

“Maybe it’s a mistake. It’ll go down in the annals like Dewey defeats Truman.” Mel reread the telegram again.

“Stop it. You’ll go blind.”  Janice kissed the victor. “And then where will your brilliant career be?”

The truth finally settled and Mel issued an expression she had not employed since she was well under the age of thirty: “Gosh. You know—“

“Hmm?”

Another dopey grin. “I think I might like this house after all.”

It seemed a good omen. Janice returned that brilliant, dopey smile. “Have I mentioned how well-stocked the wine cellar is?”

* * *

Cyprus

September, 1964

 From the window Janice was visible in the garden, on her knees in front of wilting basil. What she was doing there was anyone’s guess, for the plants in the garden were mostly a lost cause. Not enough rain for some, not enough light for others.

And not even officially out of the house yet and she’s already getting dirty. Chastising was futile. Arms folded, Mel smiled and walked away from the window.

Five years passed with astonishing alacrity, and the house that she never thought she would be comfortable in she now called, in the silence of her mind, mine. My home. She pretended otherwise with Janice; it was a game they indulged in, even though she knew—or, at least, hoped—that Janice knew she was happy. But there was nothing more insufferable than a Covington proven right, and so the mock battle continued over the years—over Fayed’s excited departure for Crete, over the excavations that were no longer far away nor as arduous, over the occasional separations that lessened in recrimination, over the laurels lauded upon Mel for an award she still believed she did not quite deserve. Even though the award’s receipt was now years old, the clunky descriptor “National Book Award Winner for Translation” was now permanently affixed before her name. She never abused its fading luster, although Janice was not above doing so, particularly if it meant a better hotel room or a fancier meal.

Janice stomped inside, clumps of dirt in her wake, whistling the same annoying song that everybody in the village seemed to hum, sing, or whistle these days. It was something by an irritatingly popular English band. The lyrics—something about hard days and nights—made absolutely no sense to Mel, and she was almost glad she was not young anymore and in thrall to such apparent nonsense.

Janice’s gear sat neatly in a pile near the door, a sign of impending departure; somehow the chaos that she bred in living situations never followed her to her tidy, orderly excavation sites. Today she returned to Alexandria for the first time in nearly ten years—and, as she did the last time, alone. The decision had not been easily tenable. Desire was at cross-purposes with the reality of Mel’s work—why she had agreed to edit a volume on “current trends and practices in the field of translation” was beyond her—but it made more sense for her to stay behind. Nonetheless, she had been slightly put out by Janice’s serene, cheerful acceptance of working solo, until she sensed the palpable excitement underneath it all, the challenge of returning to Alexandria, to find the scrolls that may have been more fragmented than ever imagined. The slimmer the chances, the more thrilling the chase.

“While I’m gone, remember one thing.” Kneeling, Janice tightened the straps and buckles of the rucksack before shouldering it with the precise, unfussy grace of a career soldier. She stood solemnly, beautifully attentive before Mel, who wondered if she should salute.

“I’m not watering your plants. Manolaki will do that.”

“Not that.” Then Janice burst her jocular little bubble in the most unexpected of ways. “I love you.”

Mel had expected banter, lightness, a poke in the ribs, a fedora gently smashed against her head; these were their usual goodbyes. Not this. Not the words representing something so tangible that the very reminder of its absence, however temporary, felt as if every breath were forcibly removed from her body. She stared at the floor, and gravity proved a disadvantage in keeping her tears under control; she blotted them with thumb and forefinger. Get a hold of yourself, you silly fool. 

“Damn it, y’see, this is why I never say it to you unless you’re in some sort of sexual haze.” Janice laughed, but not unkindly. With her free hand she cupped Mel’s neck, reeling her in for a kiss, and breathing a mantra they had repeated for days now, in anticipation of separation: “Six weeks.”

Mel repeated it. “Six weeks.” Not as if you’ve never been separated for that long before.

“You’ll get a lot of work done. I won’t be under your feet, blaring the radio, making noise in the garden, getting you drunk in the afternoon…”

“We can blame that on Mrs. Davies’ never-ending wine cellar.”

“I always knew you’d find something about this house to love.” Janice grinned. She pushed aside the soft collar of Mel’s blouse and ran a rough thumb along the smooth, pronounced ridge of the collarbone, thinly protected by skin. “Did I ever tell you that this is my favorite part of your body?”

“Last week you said it was my earlobes.” Out of sheer nervousness, Mel swayed before anchoring herself to Janice by latching onto firm, khaki-covered hips.

“Jesus, what was I thinking? Not that they aren’t fine earlobes, but….I hereby restore your collarbone to its rightful glory.”

“Thank you.” She brushed her face over thick golden hair, resisting the temptation to nuzzle; if she did, she would become so immersed in sensation that the necessity of pulling away would be far too painful. “Don’t get into trouble.” She half-whispered, half-kissed this into the whorls of Janice’s left ear.

Janice smiled again. “It’s no fun getting into trouble without you, Stretch.”

Mel watched her walk down the path away from the house, knowing that the angling bent of Janice’s left arm meant that she caressed a pair of pearl earrings, a loitering talisman from long ago, in her trouser pocket.

 * * *

 Alexandria,

October, 1964

The heavy metal flashlight rhythmically tapped her thigh as she descended. She could feel its wary, pugilistic swing, like the tired hostility of a losing boxer. Once her feet were firmly planted in the underground, she unhooked the torch from her belt.

A stealthy crouch was second nature and so she moved with cautious abandon, confident in her abilities to navigate a tunnel. Some people could tame horses, lions, tigers. She believed she could tame earth. Like a swimmer who becomes part of the water, she became part of the stagnant air, cautious and invisible. But even the most profound respect for what one tries to conquer is no guarantor of success. Even through the thick sole of her boot she felt the slender wire, the delicate reverberations of the trigger.

Fuck.

It did not even register in her mind as a trap but as a kind of unavoidable mistake, as discovering that a stranger with the same name has received either the lottery prize or the bullet in the skull meant for you. The muffled explosion sounded as if it were occurring at a great distance and caused her to think of Paris after its liberation, of bombs deliberately detonated, their ominous roars had always pulled her from sleep or vivid waking dreams more compellingly beautiful than reality. The collapsing tunnel buried the torch quickly. In darkness, she recognized the music of broken bones, played out in stone notes: A large boulder pinning her leg, a succession of smaller rocks striking her torso, something sharp cutting into skin, something hard breaking her wrist.

He was bad at goodbyes. They never kissed, they rarely hugged. This time he thought he could sneak out and be gone, be in the truck and down the dirt path before anyone would notice. He was walking toward the truck with his usual bow-legged swagger, head down, when she came out of the tent and caught him. He scowled comically, drawing forth the laugh from his daughter that he had so desired.

 “I could drive you,” she offered.

 Harry half-turned, half-smiled. “It’s just a supply run. Besides, I want you here.”

 “Fayed’s here. He can take care of everything.”

 “Yeah, but—I feel better knowing you’re here.” He stopped, and looked at her. “You’re a natural leader. You know that? Must’ve done something right with you.”

 “You don’t have to flatter me, old man.” You did everything right, she wanted to say. But that was not their way.

 “It’s not flattery. Just truth.” He leaned into the footbed of the truck, but stopped. “Shit—almost forgot. Here.” He pulled the excavation map from a pocket. It was curled, frayed, and warm, its curve fitting into the palm of her hand. Then his shaking fingers rested against the top of her hand, running gently over veins and knuckles.

 He had been drinking more than usual these days. His days were spent looking at faded maps for clues—at the archaic flowing hand, the lines that traced dried-up rivers, disintegrated forts, barren forests, tick-tacked bridges delineating vanished or vanquished lands and countries. Like a spurned lover he would rage at the ridiculous notions that men had, thinking that they could create an accurate reflection of a world constantly in flux. And there were even times when he declared that if civilization had come into being here, then perhaps it would end here too, and maybe archaeologists were merely harbingers of it all.

 Usually she just nodded at these tirades, occasionally pointing out the futility of anger over the muddied course of overlapping histories, and how a place was always the same even if it carried many names. Istanbul was still Constantinople and Byzantium. The past will always be in the present and in the future, regardless of civilization’s whims.

 Janice’s throat tightened again, and she frowned, wanting to say something, but what, she did not know.

 Harry only smiled. “See ya later, kid.”

The stones stopped falling and as they settled into silence she reached out to map the lines of the night; a broken hand searched for a clue to escape the inevitable.

Say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that you are losing.

3. The Beautiful Secret

The character of a woman does not show itself where love starts but where it ends.
—Rosa Luxemburg

 

Cyprus

Autumn, 1964

When women grieve, they cut their hair.

She hacked it off carelessly with a knife; the blade had nicked her in several places along the back of her neck, and on her fingers.  Her hands shook the entire time.  Temptation sat astride her, its invisible hand urging her to stop it all, to stop everything, to glide the knife across her own throat. In the bright bedroom she sat and pressed the knife’s edge into her neck, yet hesitated—perhaps hoping the light would claim her instead, that she would be subsumed by gold and not the knife’s edge.

Instead she sliced open her palm with the blade, marveled at how effortlessly it sank into her skin and how she felt no pain. The line of blood stained her hand—ink across a page of her life. Earlier that afternoon she had dreamed. But was it of Janice, or Gabrielle? Their hands were clasped together, blood mingling.

Don’t let go of the knife.

How strong and real that hand felt.

Don’t let go of me.

What was there between remembrance and forgetting, but living? She tucked the edge into her palm once again.

Then Naima’s dark hands, hot and dry, covered her own. She allowed Naima to gently remove the knife from her grasp. She watched, fascinated, as red drops stippled the pale floor. She could even hear a soft plok as one fell.

Naima bandaged the hand, carefully watching Mel for a reaction as she did so. She dabbed the cut with peroxide, the froth of the clear liquid bubbling and burning its trail over the red line of the wound, almost—but not quite—obscuring it.

Mel’s expression had not altered; she had watched, detached, as Naima dressed the wound.

“You have beautiful hands.” Naima said it regardless of knowing that the compliment would remain essentially unheard. For the moment, the words that Mel had always valued were a slag heap, devoid of meaning and beauty. Generations ago, similar hands belonged to a murderer seeking redemption. Yet these hands, the cabbalist thought, winding another layer of gauze along the palm, were of a woman who resurrected a dead world through language, like a conjurer, out of thin air.

Words were all that Mel had now. They may have been as jumbled and incoherent as pot shards at an excavation, but even in their broken state they were everything: they were memory, they were blood, they were history, they were love. Most importantly to Naima, they were truth, they were divinity; because of this she always spoke plainly, and did so now.  “She would not want you to do this to yourself.”

Meaningless as rain, the words fell.

Fayed was fond of saying that his wife was nothing if not practical. She gathered the coils of black hair from the bedroom floor, weeded out the scant silver, and sent it to an acquaintance in Alexandria, for sale at the soukh. She received a decent price for it, and had wanted to give the money to Mel. Her husband had told her not to bother—that Mel would not accept it, and, quite frankly, did not need it.

Nonetheless, Naima put the money aside for her, while wistfully thinking of Janice’s hair—the rare and rich color of fire, which would have fetched a much higher price in a country of dark beauty.

*  *  *

Alexandria

February, 1965

In its austerity, the Alexandrian winter revealed those who loved the city most. The summer travelers, dazzled by the beaches, the sea, the bustle of the Corniche, left at the first hint of coolness, the first few drops of rain. Fayed missed the winter here—the gray, stately serenity of the streets, usually cloaked in rain.

But he never wished to return under these circumstances.

He met Cordahi in a café, all dark wood and old mirrors flecked with grim lead and trimmed in peeling gilt, not far from where the Davies once lived. In this part of the world, Fayed had always believed, the important business of life always transpired in cafés.

With a pang he remembered spouting this little theory to Janice: The time they were meeting Dansey, to be hired for the dig that would lead them to the vases. It was winter then too. Janice had an old scarf bundled around her neck—the burgundy and gold stripes suited her—and her eyes had that odd, seemingly contradictory look, both faraway and focused. He knew she was already plotting what to do with the vases that might not even exist.

And now he wished to God that they never had.

“I take a great risk in meeting you here.” It was the first thing Cordahi said. He settled his bulk in the chair opposite Fayed.

Fayed’s gaze did not waver. “If you are so concerned….” He flicked his fingertips in an angry, dismissive gesture.  “Go.”

The narrow shoulders topping Cordahi’s pear-shaped frame did a little dance of insouciance. “I am an old man.”

How old men always delight in reminding one of their age, Fayed thought tiredly. He knew because he did this himself. He found it hard to believe at times he was becoming an old man. When Janice was alive, he could somehow maintain an illusion of youth; even as she crept up on her mid-forties, she retained a level of energy and a sense of purpose similar to what she possessed nearly twenty years ago. That, combined with her increasing maturity and knowledge, had convinced him that finally she was coming into her own—and living up to the promise that Harry and so many others had always gleaned in her.

The more he thought of it, her loss was brutally multifaceted.

“I have nothing left to lose,” Cordahi continued. “I retire in a few months, my friend. I will follow your example and leave here, if only for my own safety.”

Fayed frowned, opened his mouth, but Cordahi cut him off.

“And so, since there is nothing left here for me—well, in this state, is that not when truth and justice are best served?”

Fayed’s mouth tightened as he spoke. “Since you are so much an expert in justice, Artaud, what shall you tell me? That God will avenge my friend’s death? That the wheels of Alexandrian justice are as slow as everything else in this cursed city? I know all this. It’s just another bloody murder to them. Another dead foreigner.”

The investigation into Janice Covington’s death seemed thorough enough. The American Embassy kept steady pressure and a leery presence throughout the proceedings. But despite evidence of an incendiary device in the tunnel, nothing could be proven. The labyrinthine underground of the Western Harbor frequently drew the attention of thieves and looters—treasure hunters not unlike the deceased’s father, one Egyptian official derisively noted—who would go to any lengths to protect their plunder.

Cordahi sipped his café au lait. “Have you noticed a certain, eh, flourishing of relations between the English here and the Egyptians? Not on an official or diplomatic level, of course. They are still mourning the Suez Canal.”

“No.” Fayed was curt. To his bitter disappointment, he no longer had a finger on the pulse of the city. He shuttled from Alexandria to Crete to Cyprus and back again, helplessly haunting the Mediterranean. “What does this have to do—“

“When an Englishman engineers the murder of an American, everything,” Cordahi retorted.

When Fayed touched the bowl full of latte in front of him, the cheap porcelain seemed to radiate such heat as if it had just been pulled from a kiln. Knowledge is fire. Suspicion burned into fact, memories charred, and he recoiled. “So.” His voice, unfortunately, was no steadier than his hand. “You believe it is true?”

“The materials in question, that made the explosive—all British.”

“All easily obtainable in the city, I am certain.”

Cordahi shook his head. “There is a particular kind of copper wire that is exclusive to the military, easily identifiable by its unusual thickness. There is a—what would you call it?” He searched for the word while rubbing his fingers together. “A—texture to the wire. It is almost beaded. During the war, I became acquainted with it, more than I care to admit. And I know a civilian cannot purchase it.”

“British military.”

“Yes.” Cordahi finished his coffee. “So it could be…an individual with that background, those connections.”

Fayed remained silent.

The old man leaned back, hands resting atop his cane. The paunch of his worn face puckered with a genuine concern. “What of her woman? Will you tell her this? You should not. It will do no good.”

“It’s too late.” Fayed rested his hands on the table once again, palms down. The action signaled an end to the conversation. “She has suspected Mark Pendleton from the start.”

“Then I feel almost sorry for him.” Artaud Cordahi smiled grimly.

Fayed’s nostrils flared at this mere suggestion of pity for the Englishman.

“All our nattering about justice means nothing. The Furies have been unleashed.”

* * *

London

April, 1965

Bloomsbury bustled. Perhaps it was less sedate now than when it was dominated by artists and writers many years ago—Mel could not say for certain—but lorries roared by on a lively intersection. The wonderful thing about London, though, was that even in its busiest streets those thirsting for quiet could always find oases.

In Russell Square, for instance, she rediscovered a familiar garden long forgotten—the name lost to her—that kept the silences of the dead in the graveyard and where the mystery of a terra cotta muse loomed with spectral intent, rising from a bed of lilacs shut in deference to the spring chill. During her first trip to London when she was a teenager, she walked down these charmingly desolate paths, past the elevated muse, and felt the statue’s hard fingers brush her shoulder—a confirmation, her father said with a proud grin, that she really had grown four inches in the span of a summer. Typically, he failed to see how it could be a disadvantage for a girl to approach six feet. Anyone intimidated by your height is not worth knowing, he had scoffed gently. Let it weed out the fools for you, honey. Besides, Melvin Pappas concluded, this was good fortune, to be touched by a muse.

Now, acutely aware of its presence, she found that its outstretched hand failed to bless.

It was here, under the shadow of compulsion, that Pendleton appeared. He would not meet on her terms, but apparently he would not release her from confrontation either. She thought of him these days as a terrible angel and found it strange that she bestowed a celestial status upon him. Perhaps because he existed in a realm she could neither touch nor believe in; he was elusive, and there was a malevolence in his righteousness that struck her as a quality that belonged, with perfect exclusivity, to those fallen from grace.

His posing, however, lacked its usual confidence. He seemed older, common, bloated—hardly the stuff of a great villain, yet he loomed over her as she remained sitting stiffly on the cold bench, and he spoke with his usual menacing gentility. “Surely you never thought I would agree to see you alone.”

At Pendleton’s home earlier that week she had been denied entrance, kindly rebuked at the door by Gordon, the manservant. Oh miss, were I as brave as ye, I would gladly blindfold him and lead him to the wall for ye. But Gordon’s fear of the noose and love of his employer’s unexpected bonuses (50 quid alone for keeping Melinda Pappas out of his house this one time) prompted him to kindly remind Mr. Pendleton’s murderous lady caller that if necessary, the police would be summoned. All this recited while the gentle, dissipated Scotsman kept a wary, drooping eye on the hand that never left the right pocket of Mel’s coat.

The .38 pistol, which she discovered fit so snugly in her hand, was now equally at home in her purse or her coat. Within the past six months her intimacy with it rivaled that of a lover. She slept with the gun. She imagined performing the fantastic and the profane with it. It seemed another lifetime ago that she and Janice frequently argued about the gun and its inclusion in their lives. To Mel’s consummate fury, Janice would sometimes hide the unloaded pistol in an inappropriate place: in Mel’s desk, in an empty cookie jar, and one time it even turned up in a lingerie drawer, wrapped seductively in a black peignoir.

All these years, since the failed blackmail attempt, he was a ghost, appearing in places both expected—an archaeology conference in West Berlin, an auction in New York—and unexpectedly, a reception in Paris. Mel no longer remembered what it was for, but that it was the first time she had ever seen Janice in formal evening wear. It had been an astonishing transformation, and not for Mel alone. The party had been abuzz with speculation on the remote, beautiful blonde who stood with erect hauteur while quietly taking in everything and everyone from the sidelines, not touching a drop of alcohol and barely consuming a canapé, none of them knowing that the real reason Janice Covington stood immobile as furniture that evening stemmed from her fear of spilling food or drink on the ridiculously expensive satin dress (“I could fund an entire fucking excavation on what you paid for this”—directed accusingly at Mel) or, like Carole Lombard in a screwball comedy, tripping extravagantly in heels and ending up in a punch bowl. The physical grace that Janice had always prided herself on was something that largely existed in the natural world, particularly in the beloved milieu of an excavation.

Throughout that wonderful evening Pendleton quietly circled them, keeping careful distance from the woman who brought him to his knees. But once, catching Mel’s eye, he had toasted her from afar, with the gimlet twinkle of a tumbler.

Afterwards in the hotel, Janice had kicked the blasted pumps across the room with high, athletic leg arches, like a punter, and laughed about it all. Sonofabitch kept his distance from us, didn’t he? Good.

And all Janice’s caution regarding the dress was for naught. Like a sugar-fueled toddler with the first gift on Christmas morning, Mel had ripped the dress with delirious abandon while removing it.

“Your cowardice comes as no great surprise,” she now whispered to Pendle