The Secret Histories
by Vivian Darkbloom
Part I: The Swimming Pool Heroine
London, August 1945
Whatever daylight that existed in the room was dying, due to a sudden summer storm, yet her perverse stubbornness-which came to her, quite honestly, down through the generations-prevented her from turning on a reading light. This is how you ruined your eyes, my dear, her father had scolded her many years ago, catching her poring over a book in very similar circumstances. But it wasn’t that Melinda Pappas was so utterly engrossed in learning more about the mystery cult of Mithras; rather, she needed something to pass the time while she waited for her companion, Janice Covington, to return from her duties as a driver for the U.S. military. The room was Mel’s “home”-if one could call a hotel room home, she thought. Her Mecklenburgh Street flat, where she had lived since coming to London last year, had finally succumbed to one of the Germans’ final air raids, and she quickly secured accommodations at Grosvenor House, overlooking Hyde Park. I might as well stop pretending that I don’t have any money, she had thought. She had enjoyed the stunned look on Janice’s face when the archaeologist-who had spent a lifetime in dives, flophouses, tents, digs, and currently a narrow bed in a military barracks-first entered the suite and dropped her rucksack on the floor in disbelief.
She heard a familiar clucking noise above her, and realized she would hear a chastisement from the gentleman nearby. Colonel Anton Frobisher, her father’s best friend, stood over her, dapper as usual in his British uniform. Frobisher had come over to her room at the Grosvenor House to have tea with her and Janice, saying that he needed to discuss something with them. The call from Frobisher had not exactly been urgent, but something steely in the old man’s voice convinced Mel that it was serious.
“You’ll ruin your sight, Melinda, if you keep that up,” he growled pleasantly. Deja vu.
“My eyes are already ruined,” she retorted with a fond smile, unconsciously touching her glasses.
He snorted. “When are those bloody American fools-no offense, dear child-going to let her off duty? I’m feeling rather peckish.” It was past tea time, and the old man, having loitered in the room with Mel for almost an hour, was rather set in his ways.
“Well, they’ve been discharging people right and left. Those folks left in the army must be working overtime,” Mel commented by way of excuse for her late friend. With the war officially over, many American soldiers and military personnel were given their papers and being sent home. Janice, who had spent over a year as a WAC, had not yet received her discharge, but anticipated release from the army any day now. Mel too looked forward to it, although it left her with a sense of unease as well.
It would be, she knew, a period of adjustment. Their respective duties kept them both so occupied-Janice as a driver, Mel as a translator-that they barely had time for the frantic lovemaking that frequently occurred in Mel’s hotel room, let alone time to think of the future. But the thoughts had intruded upon her this morning, as she cradled the sleeping archaeologist in her arms. So what happens now? she had thought, a hand idly stroking Janice’s back. Do we roam the world as our ancestors did? Where do we live? New York? North Carolina? Do we even take it to that level right away? This isn’t like getting engaged to Joshua Davis. There are no rules here. And, the scholar admitted, that was more than a little frightening to her-or, more precisely, it threatened the ordered, stable, self-contained world she had lived in all her life. At the same time she almost hated leaving London, where she and Janice had renewed their affair; the great gray city, too old and stubborn to be obliterated by bombing, held this sentimental value for her. And she definitely hated leaving Anton, the man who turned out to be a guardian angel for her, since he proved crucial in reuniting her with Janice. I guess I am as set in my ways as Anton is, she thought with a self-deprecating smile, putting the book aside. She stood up and patted his arm. “I’ll have them send up tea,” she said, and went over to the phone.
The fact that they would probably leave soon for the States was unspoken between Mel and Anton; she had grown closer to the old man, a man who-she was surprised to discover, through his vague allusions-had been in love with her father. No wonder Daddy was so understanding about me, she thought. She knew she reminded Anton of her father, and that it afforded him both pleasure and pain at the same time. And she knew her departure would be hard for him. Hard for them both.
Having placed the request for tea, she hung up the phone and watched him stare moodily out the large window at the overcast skies over Hyde Park, while absently stroking his neatly trimmed gray mustache. Obviously, something bothered him.
“Are you sure you want to wait for Janice?” She walked over to him and gently tugged his uniform’s sleeve. “Why don’t you start telling me what you came here for?”
He smiled, a little sadly. “I will, Melinda. But I don’t think I’ll have too wait much longer.” Mel followed his glance toward the door.
A key jangled in the lock, and the door opened. Only one other person had the key to this room-and to her. With a leather jacket draped over one arm and a cigarette dangling between her lips, Janice Covington sauntered into the room, filling the space with her particular energy, its sexual component conveyed in the swagger of her hips?.Mel sighed. She’s one part John Garfield, one part Carole Lombard, thought the Southerner.
“Jesus fucking Christ” was the first thing out of Janice Covington’s mouth.
The Colonel turned pale.
“A more traditional greeting would be something along the lines of ‘Hello, ‘ ” Mel remarked sarcastically.
“Oh, yeah. Hi.” Janice dropped her jacket on a chair, where it promptly slid to the floor.
She ignored it. “I had a hell of a day. I had to drive this Belgian bastard-a goddamn major or something-all over greater London just so he could find some rare blend of tea-”
Another knock at the door announced the arrival of…”Tea!” cried the Colonel.
“Yeah, that’s what I said,” Janice remarked, looking at him as if he were prematurely senile.
“No, they’ve sent up tea, honey?” Mel began, heading for the door.
“With honey? I like honey.”
“Never mind. Just sit down and behave yourself.”
“What the hell did I do?” protested Janice, who nonetheless sat down.
The elegant silver tea service was wheeled in and quickly laid out for them on the table in front of the picture window.
With a generous tip from Mel the waiter exited, and the women sat down with the Colonel. Janice flopped down in a chair and hastily shoved a cucumber sandwich in her mouth. As she brutally masticated the crustless triangle, she snatched the cream dispenser and promptly drowned Earl Grey in a river of bland white liquid, and then drove the nail in the coffin of the tea’s fragile flavor with three large lumps of sugar. All of this occurred under the horrified watch of Frobisher; Mel, used to the spectacle of Janice eating, merely allowed her tea cup to hover over her mouth for a slightly longer than intended to cover her amusement.
Janice felt the old man’s eyes on her. “What?” she said, grabbing another tea sandwich.
He was speechless. His head wavered a little in disbelief.
“You’ll have to forgive her, Uncle Anton,” Mel said airily, “she did live in New York City for an extended period of time.”
“Oh great,” Janice grunted, slurping some tea, “the forces of prissiness, a Southern lady and a British gentleman, descend upon me.” She popped another sandwich in her mouth. “So what’s new?” she addressed Anton.
“We’re about to find out,” Mel said. They turned their attention to the Colonel.
“Ah….yes. Melinda, I’m afraid you’ve been headhunted,” Anton said.
“Excuse me?” murmured Mel.
“Can’t blame them. It’s a pretty little head,” Janice threw in, all the while wondering what the hell was going on.
“I have been contacted by an official from the OSS. An old classmate of yours, I believe….” Anton trailed off.
Mel froze with apprehension, which was not lost on the woman who sat across from her. “Who?” she asked, defensively. Oh God no?it can’t be.
“Catherine Stoller.” Oh God yes?her. “You remember her?” Frobisher asked.
Mel nodded. She said nothing. Janice, however, asked, “Who’s Catherine Stoller?”
Mel carefully lowered the tea cup, momentarily grateful that her hands weren’t shaking at the mention of this woman’s name. “Precisely what the Colonel said. She was at Cambridge during the year I studied there. We were?acquainted.”
Ah, the tell-tale pause before that word, thought Janice. With Mel, she was discovering, the silences sometimes spoke as clearly as the words.
“Righto,” the Colonel affirmed. “Catherine was an OSS operative during the war. Working in Berlin. I can’t disclose what she was doing, but suffice it to say her mission is over, and she’s back in London.” He cleared his throat and sipped his tea.
“What does this have to do with us?” Mel ran a finger around the rim of her tea cup.
He sighed. “Catherine was sent to me by her commander, the head of operations in London. She’s looking to recruit bodies for the Monuments operation.”
“Monuments?” Janice echoed. “That’s a whole other ballgame, separate from OSS. Why is she doing the Monument men’s work?”
“Remind me again,” Mel interrupted, “who are the ‘Monuments men’?”
“The MFAA. Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives,” Janice supplied. “And the OSS is the Office of Strategic Services, in case you forgot, sweetheart,” she added with a teasing grin, knowing Mel’s aversion to and confusion in the militaristic realm of acronyms.
“Catherine’s work now involves the Art Looting Investigation Unit, under the auspices of the OSS. The aim of the unit is to trace monetary assets and ensure that these finances are not falling in the hands of the Germans. At the same time they compile evidence for the prosecution of war crimes. They’ve been working closely with the MFAA in this respect. Since the Monuments men have been so generous in sharing their information, they’ve asked, in return, that OSS donate the services of some of their agents, or at least assist in finding some new personnel.”
“Lemme guess?” Janice began.
Frobisher sighed yet again. “Yes, Catherine wants Melinda to work for them. I had to supply Catherine with a list of all my civilian staff. They’re calling in a favor from me, you see. Of course, she recognized Melinda’s name right away and immediately wanted her.”
Mel ran a long finger around her tea cup. “Well, that’s just too bad. I’m not going anywhere,” she stated defiantly. She looked at Anton. “They can’t force me to go, can they?”
“No, of course not. You’re an American, and non-military personnel to boot.”
“Mel,” Janice piped up, “are you sure you don’t want to go? You don’t even know what they want you to do yet. Or where they want you to go. It might be interesting. Or fun.”
“Janice Covington, I can’t imagine that anything associated with this war could be ‘fun,’ ” her companion retorted.
Janice grinned, which made Mel all the more irritated. I love it when she gets all haughty, thought the archaeologist. “But look,” she said, “maybe I could go with you. I could try to get transferred to wherever they might send you.”
The Colonel smiled grimly. “The Yanks aren’t too keen on handing over any of their military personnel for this, Janice. However, if you were persistent in your request, I’m sure they’d let you go wherever Melinda was sent-they wouldn’t want to make a stink over it.” He sipped his tea. “In fact, I’m rather surprised the Americans haven’t put you in this line of work sooner. You would be a most valuable asset with your particular background.”
Janice shrugged. “Who knows. I made no secret of my background. But it wasn’t why I joined up in the first place.”
The question why she had joined up in the first place was one that was perplexing to the Colonel. He suspected it had less to do with patriotic duty than with something else…probably something the scrappy little corporal would be reluctant to admit.
Mel looked nervously across the table at Janice, who had lit yet another cigarette. Cigars were still hard to come by in postwar London, and Janice had grown used to the substitution of cigarettes. A scrim of smoke rose in front of her young companion’s face, making it even more inscrutable to Mel. Are we ready for this? she thought.
A silence descended upon the group. Frobisher nibbled at a sandwich. Mel stared into her tea. Janice smoked. Then the young archaeologist broke the silence. “Hell,” she drawled with typical Covington bravado, “it couldn’t be that difficult, could it? The war is over.”
“Europe isn’t exactly a playground right now, Janice,” Mel responded, a little more sharply than she intended. “The war is over, officially, but everywhere, everyone is?torn to bits.” Even you, my darling.
Janice knew what her lover was communicating in her quiet way. Ever since her return to London, nightmares of what happened in France were a regular occurrence: Blaylock’s death, the blood, the near-misses, the broken bodies?.Even more horrific were the dreams about the soldier. The variations were endless: Sometimes the soldier shoots Mel instead of Blaylock. Sometimes Janice shoots him and stabs him with a bayonet, over and over, her rage incomprehensible, her guilt palpable. Sometimes she looks into the dead eyes of the soldier, and those eyes are as blue as Mel’s, and suddenly the dead man isMel. I have put her through hell, and myself as well. thought Janice. So why am I tempted to run back there, and risk it all again? Well, he’s right, at least we could be together this time.
“See here,” added the Colonel, “both of you would be perfectly within your rights to reject this assignment; you’re both Americans, and Melinda isn’t even military personnel. All I ask is that you meet with Catherine and I tomorrow, and then make your decision.”
“Fair enough,” Janice replied cautiously. “What do you think, Mel?”
“I don’t see that it would hurt,” murmured Mel. Knowing that it was likely it would hurt, in the long run, that it might lead to something more painful than she was prepared to deal with. She had a bad feeling about this.
After the Colonel left, Mel made a pretense of examining the notes she had made on the book (Mystery Cults of the Ancient World) that she had been reading. Janice poured herself a bourbon. It was almost amusing to watch Mel try to ignore her. Okay, here comes the interrogation room scene. “So,” drawled the petite archaeologist, “are you gonna tell me anything about this Catherine Stoller?”
“What’s to tell?” Mel asked, defensively. She stacked and re-stacked the small piles of books on the mahogany desk. I almost wish they wouldn’t clean the rooms, so I’d have something to do now, she thought, as she scanned the immaculate area. Nervous energy jangled through her long body. “We were friends at Cambridge.” She idly flipped through the bound journal containing her notes.
In contrast, Janice lounged comfortably on the couch, sipping her drink. The golden liquid that swirled below her in the glass enhanced the deep green of her eyes. Carefully she sat her glass down on the table in front of her and leaned forward, forearms resting on her legs, fingers interlaced. “Mel,” she began gently.
“Hmmm?” The Southerner pretended to be distracted by her notes.
“Look, you acted a little funny when the Colonel mentioned her name. Were you?I mean, were you close to her?” Some loose papers slipped from the journal and sailed to the floor. Hastily Mel knelt to retrieve them, and Janice walked over to her, kneeling beside her. “I mean,” she said, handing Mel the sheets, “it’s okay…I just want you to be honest with me. We all have a past…”
“Some of us more than others,” she responded impulsively, and instantly regretting it. That was definitely below the belt, as Daddy would put it….Mel was quite aware of Janice’s past in this respect, having met the intriguing sociopath Mary Jane Velasko, with whom Janice had lived, however briefly, in New York; not to mention her suspicions that Janice had bedded someone named Meg during the war. Janice knew that Mel had met Mary Jane, but the scholar had not confronted her companion with her knowledge about Meg. Part of her hoped that Janice would mention it. Another part hoped otherwise.
“What the hell does that mean?” Janice growled as she stood up.
“Nothing, forget it,” Mel said quickly. “I guess?I’m trying to change the subject.” With a sigh she removed her glasses and rubbed her eyes. “All right?.Catherine and I were…involved.”
“Huh,” Janice muttered, trying to hide her surprise. I was expecting the admission of some platonic-like crush, actually. “Was she…your first?”
Mel nodded. “I haven’t been with anyone since…well, until you.”
The archaeologist blinked. “Wow. I guess I thought…I mean…” I thought I was the only woman you ever slept with.
Mel started to blush, and her stammer, which asserted itself when she was very nervous, kicked in. “S-surely, Janice, you c-could tell I wasn’t…you know…”
“A virgin?” Janice supplied. Definitely, yes. She recalled the pleasant surprise of the first time they made love, when she realized she had an experienced lover on her hands (so to speak) and not a naïve, virginal Southern belle. Not that it had meant that much to her. I would’ve been more than happy to be the first one….But how I misjudge you at times, Melinda.
“Yes,” Mel mumbled in response, clearly embarrassed. Her Methodist upbringing had precluded any explicit talk of sexual matters; despite her father’s tolerant and open nature in that area, the child spent a lot of time in the company of prudish relatives, conservative schoolteachers, and restrained, repressed churchgoers. Janice knew this, but this prim, almost guilty behavior contrasted sharply with the brunette bombshell who inhabited her bed and displayed an uninhibited passion that easily met her own.
“Well, yeah, I could tell, but I thought the magnolia blossom of your Southern ladyhood was captured by that fiancé of yours.” Janice sarcastically employed the euphemisms. She should just be glad I didn’t say “I thought that Joshua bastard popped your cherry.” That’s the way Harry would’ve put it.
“You mean Joshua?” Mel said, incredulous. “Joshua was a gentleman, Janice. He would never have taken advantage of me.” She blushed furiously, recalling that there were several times when he came close to doing so; he was nothing if not persistent. “Besides, we only engaged to be engaged,” she sniffed. Then blinked in confusion. “I think.”
“Okay, so you’re saying Joshua was a gentleman and Catherine was not. And I guess neither am I?I thought that was kinda obvious, despite the clothing?.”
“Oh, I don’t know what I mean,” moaned the black-haired beauty. “I…I don’t go to bed with just anyone, Janice. Love has to be involved somehow. That’s just the way I am. And I must admit, I never loved Joshua in quite that way. But…I was in love with Catherine.” She released a breath. She had admitted it.
“In love,” Janice echoed. She was not prepared for the full frontal assault of jealous anger that spread through her. Hands on hips, she wandered away from Mel to gaze out the window, hoping for an opportunity to get a grip on the unpleasant sensation. You fucking hypocrite, she berated herself angrily. You’ve fallen into bed with any number of women for no other reason that sheer pleasure. So what if she slept with someone else before you? She gazed out onto the green of the park; summer was dying, but doing so in a very verdant, brilliant way. She knew the real reason why she felt this way. I have never been in love with anyone except you, Mel. No one even comes close. I couldn’t even pretend. Before you, lovemaking never really had anything to do with love.
“You wanted me to be honest. But it’s all in the past…” Mel replied quickly, quietly.
The past. Janice drew a breath and held it. Didn’t she, as an archaeologist, know all about the past? What did it mean to have a history? Didn’t we all? What could she believe was important, what could she discount? About Mel, or anyone else for that matter? I’m getting way ahead of myself here. This is only the personal history of one woman. Albeit the one who means more to me than all the scrolls, buried and uncovered, in the world. She felt Mel’s hands resting gently on her shoulders. She exhaled. She turned around to face the tall woman, and then she reached up and let her fingers lazily trace the smooth planes of Mel’s cheekbones. And would she still love me if she truly knew what a slut I’ve been? Enough. Don’t torture yourself. But the resentment lingered. How dare she love anyone else.Her hand cradled Mel’s neck, the soft skin blanketing the life force-blood, muscle, bone-below it.
“…you know that. And I love you now,” Mel concluded. Her dark head bent down to meet Janice’s lips. The kiss started out as a soft nip, almost chaste, and then took its usual course: it grew wetter, bolder, warmer. Janice steered her tall companion over to the bed. With skilled and gentle forcefulness she pulled Mel down on the bed; a gasp from the taller woman tickled her ear and she pressed her body atop Mel’s, her gold hair falling down and brushing against Mel’s face. A sliding hand trespassed the boundary of a skirt.
“You belong to me. I love you,” Janice whispered into Mel’s ear. “Don’t forget that, or I am lost.” What am I saying, she chastised herself. I sound desperate, and possessive, and?I know it’s all true.
Mel too, knew the truth within the words; but she said nothing. She let a world of sensation take over as she gripped Janice’s back, smooth and rippling under the fabric of her shirt, and felt lips and caresses work a spell upon her, a gold gossamer web of hair against her lips. The dark music of jealousy played itself out among the moans and gentle cries, and the soft rustling of falling clothes.
The Tube stopped a mere two blocks from Frobisher’s office. As Janice and Mel emerged from the underground that morning, both were temporarily blinded by the sun. Janice had been unusually quiet during the trip-no cursing of the late train, no anecdotes about her fellow drivers, no impromptu musings about the scrolls. Mel was content to let her brood-obviously she needed to think some things out before the meeting. But as they walked the short distance to the office, the Southerner could tell that Janice wanted to say something.
And so she did.
“Tell me she’s ugly, Mel.”
Mel turned to her in surprise. “What?”
“Tell me how ugly this woman is. Tell me how she would frighten small children. Tell me you always closed your eyes when you kissed her. Tell me her ankles are thicker than Sergeant McKay’s.”
Mel laughed. “All right. She makes Churchill look like Greta Garbo.”
They arrived at the door of the building. Janice turned to her lover and arched an eyebrow. “Now tell me why you put on lipstick this morning,” she said quietly.
Mel froze. During her existence in London she had all but forsaken makeup; not that she had ever used a lot of it. There was no time, usually, and it had all come to the point where she really didn’t give a damn how she looked, so long as Janice found her attractive. Of course, you fool, she would notice. She was not sure, consciously, why she did it. Was it because she wanted to look good for Catherine? To make her jealous? To make Janice jealous? To show Catherine that she was still beautiful, and abundantly happy without her? Her mouth hung open, but before she could attempt any sort of reply, Frobisher’s assistant, Sergeant McKay, appeared at the foot of the steps.
“Good morning, ladies. The Colonel is expecting you. Can I get you some tea?”
“No,” both women muttered in unison. They climbed the stairs silently. McKay followed them. When they reached the office door he jogged ahead of them, like a bear running an low-level obstacle course, and opened the door for them.
Frobisher sat at his desk and stood up when they entered. A woman stood at the window, her back to them, but she turned around slowly. She was not nearly as tall as Mel, but very slender and dressed in an expensive-looking, wine-colored suit. Her curly, white blonde hair was pulled back from her face, and her dark brown eyes were intense, almost hard. Janice sighed inwardly. Not exactly my type, but she’s attractive. Okay, goddammit, she’s beautiful. She felt her own features harden when she noticed that the blonde’s attention, her gaze-in fact, her whole being-seemed centered on Mel. Before the Colonel could dispense introductions, the woman walked over to them and clasped Mel’s hands between her own.
“Melinda,” she said softly. “My God, it’s been years.” Her accent was strange; not exactly British?perhaps slightly German? Janice wondered.
“Yes, Catherine. It’s been quite a while,” Mel concurred by way of greeting. The Southern scholar looked into the dark eyes. Once upon a time, I felt something for her. I loved her. But it’s not there anymore?I don’t feel it. A sense of relief came over her; immediately it relaxed her, and she grinned fully at Catherine, without regard to the effect it had on Janice. “Let me introduce my friend, Dr. Janice Covington. Janice, this is Catherine Stoller.”
Catherine allowed her eyes to linger on Mel for a few seconds before reluctantly wrenching them away to Janice. The blonde beauty raised a critical eyebrow as she took in the form of Janice, clad in rumpled khakis and boots. But her tone was polite. “Dr. Covington, I’m very honored to meet you. I have heard much of your work. And your father’s as well.”
Mel winced slightly, knowing that Harry was a touchy subject for Janice, especially when broached by strangers. She saw the archaeologist’s green eyes narrow a bit. “It’s good to meet you, Miss Stoller,” she responded crisply. They shook hands.
In the background of it all, Colonel Frobisher nervously tugged at his tie. “Shall we get down to it?” he asked smoothly, hoping to conduct business before Covington could do something?unexpected. He was quite fond of her, but military life, obviously, had not tamed this loose cannon. Well, it doesn’t work for everyone, he thought. He tried to peer into her open jacket to see if she was carrying a gun. She caught him looking, however, and glared at him.
They all sat down.
“Do you still swim?” Catherine asked unexpectedly. Her brown eyes regarded Mel once again.
Mel, taken aback, blinked for a moment. Or two. “Ah, not really. I haven’t in a long time,” she admitted. She shifted with discomfort as all attention focused on her, or rather, on this unknown aspect of her character.
“Swim?” Janice echoed, looking at her tall companion.
“Yes,” Catherine supplied. “When we were at Cambridge, Melinda swam all the time. She was excellent. She beat the university’s best swimmer, one of England’s best, in fact-Paul Peterson-in an informal race. Won me twenty quid. My heroine.” The last sentence was spoken with a familiar, teasing warmth.
Janice regarded her lover with no small amount of surprise. But as she pondered it she could see it-Mel’s long, graceful body, its strength hidden and unsung, gliding through the water. “Well,” she drawled quietly to Mel, just loud enough for Catherine and Frobisher to hear, “I guess that explains why you can hold your breath for so long.”
Mel looked at her, stunned, and hoped no one else had caught the double entendre. Although it shouldn’t surprise me what that mouth is capable of, she thought. She shot Janice a foul, irritated look and struggled not to look embarrassed.
The statement, meant to shock and cause discomfort for Catherine Stoller, had no such effect. The blonde merely smirked, indicating to the archaeologist that she was quite aware of Mel’s…talents. Who do you think taught her all those tricks, little one? the thought coursed darkly through Catherine’s mind, but she said nothing. Her dark eyes were imperious as they met Janice’s.
Frobisher, in the interim, rolled his eyes in disbelief and angrily tapped a pen against his desk. Perhaps this whole thing is an enormous bad idea. “If we may suspend discussion of Melinda’s prowess in the arena of swimming“-he cut his eyes at Janice-“let’s do get on with it.”
“Very well,” Catherine began. A manila file sat in her lap. She read from it. “In Bavaria there is a castle called Neuschwanstein. During the war it served as a repository for a vast amount of both artwork and archival material-books, scrolls, and the like. Much of the written material gathered there was considered ‘degenerate’ and non-Aryan. A good amount of it was Jewish materials-like Torah scrolls and religious tracts. And much of it was taken from Eastern Europe and the middle East. Macedonia. Syria. And so on.”
“If it was all so worthless to them, why did they keep it?” Mel asked a rhetorical question. She suspected the answers she was about to receive.
Catherine smiled bitterly. “The Ahnenerbe. You’re an archaeologist, Dr. Covington. You’ve heard of them.”
Janice returned the strangled smile. “Yes. I have. The art and archaeology branch of the SS. They sponsored digs throughout the world. I was approached by them more than once-they wanted me to work for them.”
“Yes. The Ahnenerbe had many purposes. They busied themselves finding anything to confirm the greatness of German heritage?but, they also realized that what they found that wasn’t Aryan was valuable in many ways. It could be used for propaganda. It could be sold on the international market and make a tidy profit for the Fatherland; art dealers and collectors-even scholars and museum curators-they wouldn’t give a damn where or how they got something, just as long they possessed it?isn’t that right, Dr. Covington?”
Janice raised an eyebrow. I don’t think I like what this bitch is implying.
Catherine continued to address her. “If the Nazis had had some of your so-called Xena scrolls, what would you have paid for them? What would you have done for them? Would working with the Ahnenerbe have been such a distressing prospect?” Catherine asked in an urgent tone.
Janice’s jaw shifted. What would she have done for the scrolls? The Germans who had sought out her services always offered money, power, material possessions, even beautiful women…but stupidly they hadn’t offered her the one thing she wanted most: the scrolls. Probably because they didn’t have them at the time-but they could have bluffed it. At least then they would’ve had my attention. She said nothing.
Frobisher and Mel shifted uncomfortably at the turn of the conversation. Catherine noticed this, and added, “I say this only to prove a point. They knew how valuable these artifacts truly are.” The tension in the room dissipated a little. “Well, you see, Dr. Covington-and Melinda-you may have a chance to uncover some of your precious scrolls.”
Mel thought she detected a slight sneering tone at the word precious. Ah, Catherine?still the same, she sighed inwardly. “So you think that there may be some scrolls about Xena among these materials,” she stated flatly.
“It’s a possibility,” Catherine responded. “And that is the bait by which I use to tempt you. We’ve got a lot of material there. It needs to be classified. Ordered. Returned to where it belongs. And, if you are very lucky, you may find something that interests you, yes? One would think that among so many riches, you would surely find what you desired.” Unconsciously the dark eyes flickered again to Mel.
“One would think,” Janice muttered. She was not sure that she trusted this woman-God knows, she didn’t like her-but this was a wonderful opportunity, even if she didn’t find anything pertaining to Xena.
“Now that you have heard me out-and I appreciate you taking the time to do so-what do you think?”
Mel and Janice exchanged a look. “I need to think it over,” she said. “And I only come if Janice comes with me. Can we let you know by tomorrow?”
Catherine nodded. “Of course. Although I cannot guarantee that a decision might be forced upon the Doctor.” Her eyes met Janice’s.
“What do you mean?” Mel asked apprehensively.
“Dr. Covington is still a member of the U.S. Army. She must go where they send her, correct?” She placed her folder in a leather briefcase, snapped it shut, and stood up abruptly. The other three rose as well. “If you’ll forgive me, I must go. It’s been a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Covington, and…” she faltered a little as she looked at Mel. “Melinda…I hope I see you again. I hope you decide to come,” she concluded softly. As she walked by she stopped, and placed a hand on Mel’s shoulder. “Let Anton know your decision tomorrow. Goodbye.” Then she was gone.
Janice lit a cigarette. “That was fun,” she drawled sarcastically.
Mel, shaking her head in resignation, walked over to the window. She could see Catherine walking through the courtyard, to a cab on the corner. Just before she entered it, the enigmatic young blonde woman turned to look back at the building. She looked up to the window and smiled. I can’t believe…all this time has past, and I feel nothing, but she still feels…something. How could she? After everything that happened?
“Young lady, if I were your father…” Frobisher growled at Janice.
“…then I’d know how to appreciate a good cup of tea and Italian opera.” A stream of smoke unfurled from her mouth. “If that bitch thinks she can get me transferred to the far corners of the world so she can make her move on Mel, she’s sadly mistaken.”
The mention of her name broke Mel out of her reverie. “What?”
“Do you think Madame Stoller is going to have me sent to the halls of Montezuma or the shores of Tripoli?”
“What are you, a marine?”
“She’s up to something, there’s no doubt about that.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. It would defeat her purposes. I said I wouldn’t go to Germany without you.”
“True, but you’re here, in London, and she’s here?and I could be in Timbuktu by tomorrow if she has any influence. She’s obviously still taken with you, Mel?who could blame her? And she’s probably very powerful within the OSS. Isn’t she, Colonel?”
“So I have been lead to believe,” Frobisher commented. “I doubt she has that much influence, however.” Secretly, he was concerned; Catherine was the type who was used to getting her way-he could discern that about her from the very first. She seemed quite determined. What lengths would she go to…?
He shook his head, as if banishing the thought from his mind. “Well, I have some things to attend to. I’ve got a dinner planned with some Monuments officials later. Care to join us? It might be interesting, and useful to you both, should you take on this mission.”
After a late supper with Frobisher and a bunch of smarmy-looking Monuments officials, the women had returned to the Grosvenor. Janice was quiet, as she was pretty much throughout dinner. She had managed to maintain basic conversation skills whenever the prying interest of an officer was forced upon her, but for the most part she kept a low profile, lest another inappropriate remark fly out of her mouth; she wasn’t sure if Mel had quite forgiven her for the comment at Frobisher’s office. She shrugged off her leather jacket and lit a cigarette as she sat on the edge of the bed. She watched Mel as the tall woman peeled off her suit jacket, kicked off her heels, and started to remove her earrings. So let’s see if she’s still mad at me.
“Don’t remove the earrings. I like them,” Janice commanded quietly.
Mel’s hands lingered for a moment around an ear, then she slowly inserted the post of the pearl earring back into ear. Without missing a beat she fell into the game. “Can I take off my glasses?” she asked.
She did. “And may I let down my hair?”
“My clothes?” Mel tugged at her skirt.
“Remove them. Slowly.”
The scholar undid the buttons of her white blouse. Her fingers wavered in a dream-like, agonizing slowness, as if she were plucking out the most delicate of songs upon a harp. She kept her cool blue eyes on Janice, who twitched with impatience. “You’ve been sulky all evening,” she gently accused her audience, in a low voice.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been better company,” Janice replied in a noncommittal voice.
The buttons were undone, revealing an expanse of a creamy white camisole. Janice, expecting to see the blouse discarded, almost gasped when Mel reached down, unzipped her skirt, and discarded it in one fluid motion. Didn’t I say slowly? But the surprising suddenness of the gesture was just as stimulating, she realized, as she stared at a beautiful woman in a slip. Why complain? The tall woman walked toward her, letting the blouse fall from her body as she approached Janice. She knelt before Janice, in between the latter’s khaki legs. Her eyes never wavered from Janice’s as she slid her hands along the archaeologist’s legs to her belt, where she grasped the belt buckle and slowly undid it. “You’re always good company, my darling. But perhaps I can put you in a better mood.”
Janice leaned in and kissed her. She kept the prize of Mel’s lower lip between her own lips, sucking and savoring it. Oblivion. Then she disengaged, knowing she had to say what she needed to say. “You aremaking me feel better?.” Janice began. She touched her friend’s cheek. “I’m sorry about the way I acted earlier.”
“It’s all right. You always say the most unexpected things at the most inopportune times. It has a very strange charm all its own.”
Janice chuckled. “If you say?” She allowed herself to drown in the mesmerizing blue eyes. “But?I must know?” Mel’s skillful fingers were making short work of the buttons of her trousers. Her hips shifted a little in anticipation.
A gentle smile from Mel was encouraging. “Ask me whatever you like,” she said, expecting the question. And knowing her answer.
“What did you feel today, seeing her again?” the archaeologist managed to ask, her voice thickened by desire.
The long answer included surprise, confusion, suspicion, guilt, relief. She felt the muscles of Janice’s legs tighten with excitement. The situation called for the short answer. She reached up and let her long fingers trace Janice’s bow-shaped mouth. “I assure you, I felt nothing for her.”
“And now? What do you feel now?” asked Janice. The words breathed, as living things, at Mel’s fingertips.
“I feel that I must have you. Right now.”
Spring 1937, Cambridge University
Catherine Stoller looked at her best friend, Daphne, whose lovely face was pulled into an expression of distaste. “I don’t know if this really goes with the eggs, dear,” Daphne said, staring into a glass of red liquid.
They were sprawled in the lawn overlooking the chapel, nibbling on plover’s eggs and drinking kirsch; Catherine had swiped the unmarked bottle from the hiding place of her dipsomaniac Latin tutor. Daphne, sometimes a friend, sometimes a lover, always amusing, thought it would be “positively sacrilege” to do this in front of the chapel. And nihilism was the order of the day, especially for Daphne. Although how nihilistic it really was, Catherine thought, was debatable: The chaplain and his staff were gone for the Easter holiday (“Let them take their religion elsewhere,” Daphne had declared haughtily), so there really was no one to shock.
“Who gives a damn? It’s alcohol, and that’s my only requirement,” responded Catherine. She stretched her languid body along the blanket that lay beneath them.
“Cat, what shall we do tonight? We’ve got an invite into London, darling. Charles is having a party?”
Catherine tuned out her friend as she lazily focused her attention on a figure that appeared in the distance, walking away from the library: A tall woman, with dark hair, dressed rather drearily. Another one, Catherine thought, who took being a student much too seriously. She reached for the opera glasses beside her-nicked from her roommate several months ago-and put them up to her eyes. The figure, head bowed, clutched a satchel filled, no doubt, with lots of boring books. Suddenly the woman swung her way onto the path leading past her and Daphne. “Looks like we’re getting company, Daph,” Catherine commented. She kept the glasses up as the woman came fully into view. What was it about her that prompted Catherine to wonder what lay under that drab, shapeless gray skirt, the big dark sweater and stockings, the flat utilitarian shoes? That face. For the face she encountered through the binoculars was quite lovely, she could tell, even from such a distance: smooth white skin, black hair, perfectly sculpted cheekbones, and intelligent eyes hiding behind a severe-looking pair of round, silver eyeglasses.
“Gimme,” said Daphne, snatching the binoculars from her friend. She peered into them and moaned. “What a drone!”
The woman picked up her step as she walked past the two friends. “Hey! Christ’s College!!” Daphne shouted; the woman was wearing a navy scarf around her neck with the simple white stripes denoting the college that she belonged to.
“God, Daph,” Catherine muttered. Could it be? For the first time in her life she felt? embarrassed. She did want to speak to this woman, but on her own terms, and in her own time. In other words, sans Daphne.
The woman stopped and stared at them.
“Your outfit is drab enough, did you really think you needed to wear the most boring colors of the whole bloody university?” Daphne said sarcastically. The woman looked flummoxed. She quickened her pace and walked away, as malicious laughter rippled from Daphne. Catherine glared at her. “You damned fool, you didn’t have to do that,” she snapped.
Daphne looked at her, surprised. “What on earth do you care? You don’t even know her.”
“You’re really a bloody bitch sometimes,” Catherine muttered. She picked an egg and studied it, in order to avoid glaring at her friend.
“I know, and usually you love it.”
She dropped to her knees at the edge of the pool. With a little hesitation she slipped her fingers into the water. The temperature was cool, but she liked it that way. Wrapping her long body into a crouch, she dove gently into the water, her body rumpling the blanket of blue that enveloped her. The echoes of voices stilled as she pulsed through the water, and when she did rise to the surface she heard only the crash of the waves she created and the brutal, satisfying chop of her strokes, and then her head would duck underwater again. The world was only a murmur when she was in the water.
It felt good to use her body. In the outside world, she only walked to and from buildings. She slept. She ate, sparingly. All day, in a library, in a classroom, even at night, her mind was consumed by her studies. As a result her body craved movement, something to distract her mind from language, from history, from books. And this was?safe. Solitary. It was pleasant. The water comforted her. It was a drowning sensation without the actual death. And afterwards her muscles burned and she was pleasantly exhausted.
She reached the edge of the pool and executed a flawless spin to turn herself around as powerful legs launched her into yet another lap. She reached the other end, and this time, body flying through a halo of light and water, gripped the edge with both hands and hauled herself up out of the water.
There Melinda sat, panting, shaking droplets of water from her face. Her long legs remained dipped in the water.
“Very nice,” a woman’s voice said.
She looked up. A blonde was disrobing, revealing a taut figure in a black bathing suit. She tossed her terry white robe onto a nearby chair. Without asking, she sat down next to Mel and slowly slipped her feet into the pool. She smiled at Mel, her deep brown eyes sparkled mischievously, as if she intended for them to conspire together, or if she would reveal some plum of gossip.
“I hope you don’t mind,” the woman said in her whispery voice, the words waving over her much like the water.
Mel blinked. “Mind what?” she asked. It was then she recognized the woman as the one who had been sitting on the lawn with that rude girl who had yelled at her.
“Being so forward as to sit next to you without an introduction. Because I wanted to apologize for my friend yesterday. You recall, on the lawn?”
The woman smiled. “You’re American. That’s probably why you don’t mind me speaking to you frankly.”
Mel smiled uneasily.
“My name is Catherine. I’m at Dawson’s.” An undergraduate? Mel thought, surprised. She seemed so much older and poised. She held out her hand. Mel took it gingerly.
“Melinda,” Catherine repeated, savoring the name upon her tongue in such a way that Mel felt a tingle of pleasure. “That’s a lovely name.”
“T-thank you,” Mel stammered.
“What are you studying, Melinda?”
“Latin and ancient Greek.”
“Ah. I’m more of a medievalist myself. Nonetheless my Latin is rather atrocious.” The blonde woman chuckled in a self-deprecating fashion, then regarded Mel in a manner that she had seen men do; but instead of the curious indifference she felt during an occasion of that sort, Mel felt strangely pleased. A little thrilled. And a little frightened. Catherine’s deep brown eyes were alluring, sparkling, and deep. Perhaps a little too deep. Can I swim in these depths?
“Melinda,” Catherine drawled the name in her seductive way once again, “perhaps we should meet for tea one afternoon?”
A nervous shudder passed through Mel. “Ah…yes. That sounds lovely.”
“Wonderful,” Catherine murmured. She pressed her hand against the cool, wet skin of her new friend. “I’ll send over a note. An invite, if you will.”
“Er, ah, don’t you want to know where my rooms are?”
The lithe young woman stood up and gazed down upon Mel. “Dear heart, I already know where your rooms are,” she responded confidently, as she walked away.
Her hair was almost dry by the time she reached her rooms. Mel considered herself fortunate to have wrangled rooms in the top floor of the quad; she did not mind the walk up the stairs, and the height and distance afforded her peace from the usual goings-on of her less studious classmates, who all, seemingly, inhabited the lower floors.
She opened the door and was greeted by a familiar large form blocking her large window. “Daddy!” she exclaimed happily. He opened his arms, and she flung herself into them.
“Hello, Melinda.” He grinned at her and kissed her cheek. A neat black beard covered most of his face; he had not yet “shed his winter coat,” as Mel put it many a time, to his amusement.
“What on earth are you doing here?” she asked, depositing her books on her desk.
“I’m on my way to Egypt, my dear, for a dig.” He squeezed her hand. “So I could not resist a visit.” He scrutinized her. “You look too thin.”
She swatted him playfully. “I am not.”
“I’ll take you out to dinner. Unless, of course, you have plans.”
“No plans,” she replied happily. A little too happily, he thought. Did his solitary daughter have any friends in this place? He cleared his throat. “Are you sure? If you’re seeing anyone?”
Catherine’s visage appeared in her mind suddenly, like a shooting target tossed in the air. She shot it down. “No, not tonight, anyway,” she said nervously, and turned away from him suddenly so that he could not see the bright blush inflame her face.
“Hmmm.” She knew it well: his Hum of Disapproval, she called it.
“It’s a break, you see, for the Easter holiday?not a lot of people are around?” She hated trying to excuse her loneliness to him.
“Ah. Well, if you are on a holiday, perhaps you could come with me to Egypt.”
She spun around. “What?”
His deep blue eyes sparkled. “I’ve a new lead on the Xena scrolls?”
Her eyes narrowed. Whenever the name Xena came up, in was usually in tandem with someone else’s. “Wait a minute. Who’s running this dig?”
He sighed. “I believe you’re quite aware who it is, my dear. Who else is as obsessed with Xena as I?”
The name hung unspoken, until Mel drew a breath and lectured her father thus:
“Harry Covington is nothing but a scoundrel, Daddy. A thief. A carpetbagger. He’ll drag your reputation through the mud along with his own if you’re not careful.”
He chuckled. Which was not the response she had hoped for. “Melinda, I am a grown man. I appreciate your concern, but I can manage my own reputation quite nicely and I don’t think associating with Harry will cause me any permanent damage. In fact, once you get to know him, he is really quite a decent fellow.” He laughed again. “Carpetbagger, eh?” he said wryly, affectionately.
She blushed at a letting the blatantly Southern expression slip. She longed to be as worldly as her father; he did not grow up in the South as she did, and thus was not saddled with a Carolinian drawl. Nor had he been affected by a conventional religious upbringing (although he did his best to counter his late wife’s Methodist family) in a small, provincial town. Even now, as an adult, she wished fervently to shed her accent, her attitudes?her whole self, at times.
Dr. Pappas smiled, and decided to play the trump card?or what he hoped would be a trump card. “Believe it or not, Harry has a daughter too. He raised her alone, as I did you. So we have a bit of a common bond. If you come with me, you’ll meet her. She’s an undergraduate at Harvard, but she took a leave to go on this dig with Harry.” He tried to keep his tone detached, so that Melinda would not suspect his true intentions: that of matchmaker. Ever since he laid eyes on Janice, he became convinced that Harry’s tomboyish, intelligent daughter might prove to be a most pleasing companion for his daughter. In fact, his interest in Janice sparked Harry’s suspicions; the elder Covington thought that he coveted Janice for himself, and had not been pleased about it. Good thing he lets his daughter carry around the gun, he thought with relief.
Mel snorted with disdain, and ran a finger along the trim of her desk. It was tempting, she mulled, to leave here, to go to Egypt. It would be exciting. It would be fun. Despite Harry Covington and his daughter, who was probably just as much a rogue as her father. You can send a blackguard to Harvard, but you can’t change its colors. She drummed her fingers on the desk furiously. I must remember never to say “blackguard” aloud; it’s one of those things, like “carpetbagger?.”
She thought again of Catherine Stoller and the faint aura of danger that shrouded the dark-eyed woman. Maybe I should go to Egypt, she thought with a hint of fear. But desire (and stubbornness-she did not want her father to think she condoned his association with Harry Covington) was keen upon its course. “I think I’ll pass this time,” she said, almost wistfully, to her father.
Mel was pleased to discover that Catherine’s room were on the top floor of her building, much like her own; effortlessly she climbed the four flights of stairs. The door that she deduced to be Catherine’s was slightly ajar. She knocked lightly, and it swung open even further.
She took in the cluttered, messy room. Sumptuous velvet drapery hung from the walls, an exquisite yet modest Persian rug lay on the floor. Some books were piled on a desk, along with a mess of papers, empty bottles?dirty dishes?was that some sort of chemistry experiment? Mel thought, peering into an old cup filled with strange sludge. A few overstuffed chairs were piled with books and strewn with clothes. The back of a divan faced the door. “Hello?” she called.
“Oh bloody hell, you did show up,” a voice said. The curly dark head of Daphne emerged from the other side of the divan. Then it disappeared with a sigh. “Well go up then,” Daphne said, exasperated.
“Up where?” Mel asked.
“To the roof, darling. You see, you’re special. You’re so bloody special. You get the roof.”
Mel raised an eyebrow. Very jealous?she’s tipping her hand. “Thanks?uh, where do I go?”
“Out in the hall?door at the end of the corridor.”
At the end of the hall was a doorway, much like the others, but when she opened it, it led to a narrow, claustrophobia-inducing staircase. Cautiously she climbed up the stairs. I hope this Daphne creature isn’t playing some sort of prank?She imagined brawny cricket players, the sort of thick-headed youths she tutored in Latin, ready to pounce on her and throw her off the building, all at the evil Daphne’s bidding.
She looked up and was rewarded with a square of brilliant blue. Quickening her pace she reached the sky, and plunged into it.
The first thing she saw as she emerged onto the roof was the phonograph. She stood, still on the step ladder. The music crackled along the breeze; it was the barcarole from Tales of Hoffman: The voices of two women were woven together in the air.
Mel turned around. Catherine was standing in front of a rickety table that strained under the delicious burden of lilacs, sandwiches, a bottle of sherry, and a pot of tea.
“You’re prompt, dear,” Catherine continued, “that’s actually quite refreshing for someone of our generation.”
“It’s just good manners, I think,” Mel said. She pulled herself out of the hole. She stood on the roof, in full view of the university, and gasped with delight. What was sprawled before her sight were the buildings of the college and nearby town, and the rolling green tucked in and around them. Mel allowed herself to smile. It was like Catherine was serving up the world for tea. Just for her.
Catherine chuckled. “I thought you’d like this.”
“I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t,” Mel replied.
“Well, Daphne is afraid of heights?” Catherine trailed off, not really wanting to speak further of her sulky friend who was probably sitting downstairs and deliberately, sadistically, drinking all of her gin. Impulsively she walked over to Mel and let her hand press into the small of the tall woman’s back; she could tell by the slight squirming motion and gentle intake of breath that her gesture was not unwelcome.
“Would you like some wine? Or would you prefer tea?”
“The latter. Please.”
The blonde laughed. “I should’ve known?you’re a tea-drinking kind of girl.” Again she pressed her hand into Mel affectionately and was pleased at the girl’s slight blush. She walked over to the table and began to pour out the tea. “Catherine?”
Catherine looked up brightly, enjoying the sound of her name on Mel’s lips. “Yes?” she replied eagerly. My God, this is sickening?I’m utterly smitten.
“I’m curious?where are you from?” Mel asked softly.
The blonde chuckled. “It’s the accent, I know?it throws a lot of people. My mother is English, my father German. I grew up shuttling between Berlin and London. Not so much so now, ” she said darkly.
Mel nodded sympathetically. “Do you have family in Berlin then?”
“Some,” Catherine responded curtly. The dark eyes grew hard. She did not want to talk about Germany, or its problems, or anything else. She wanted to drink some wine, laugh, and seduce this pretty girl before her.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up an unpleasant subject.”
“It’s quite all right, darling.” Catherine shifted gears and was once again the gracious hostess. She handed Mel a tea cup. For herself, she poured a glass of wine. “Let’s talk about you.”
“What about me?” Catherine loved Melinda’s voice. Sometimes the Southern drawl was girlish and sweet, sometimes low and husky. Regardless, it was always pleasing.
“Why do you wear your hair up all the time?”
Blue eyes blinked in confusion. “What?”
“Why don’t you let it down? I don’t mean to sound so forward”-a lie, she did-“but you have lovely hair. So dark, so thick.” She sipped the wine and her brown eyes sparkled. They were fixed on Mel. “Show it off. Let it breathe,” she said simply.
Mel had no idea why she did it. Whether it was the beauty of the day or the beauty of the woman who requested it, or both, or nothing but a strange desire to do something so different, so outside herself?or all of these things acting in tandem. For once, I want to be someone else. She looked past Catherine into the dizzying, lush world around her. A church bell chimed and the air vibrated with its sound. Her hands pulled the hairpins and released the clasp that reined in her sleek black hair. It unfurled past her shoulders and she smiled.
The day seemed to flow by in much the same fashion. As if something great had been loosened within her and rushed out in a flurry to touch the world. She even drank some wine. And as the sun set around them on the roof, she let this strange, wonderful woman-whom didn’t know a damn thing about-take her hand, and kiss her. It seemed as if the world then exploded around her, like the sunset. Despite the assurance from Catherine: Don’t be alarmed. It’s only a kiss.
But she was alarmed, and later remembered bucking like a nervous colt as Catherine’s lips were pressed against hers, and her mouth was gently pried open. She had kissed boys before, her ex-fiancé more often than anyone. Among the boys, in half the instances the kisses were sloppy and flaccid, the other half too brutal-usually she had a tongue down her throat before she could blink. Joshua was a decent kisser, however, the best of that lot; he was gentle and skillful, yet his kisses always left her giggling-she felt vaguely naughty, as if she were merely indulging in smoking a cigarette in the girls’ bathroom at school. Not that she would ever do such a thing.
But these kisses aroused her. They tingled and they burned, and when, six months later, Catherine Stoller walked out on her, she thought she would never again feel that sensation. It took five years for Mel to be mistaken, indeed, for her expectations to be wildly surpassed in a single kiss from Janice Covington.
Part II: An Archaeologist, High and Low
Sergeant Sally Phillips stared anxiously at the pair of khaki legs that emanated from under the car she usually drove. Grunting sounds came from the partially hidden body. “Janice, can you fix it?” she said.
“I don’t know yet, Sal. Cars other than Fords…I don’t know much about,” Janice replied from under the vehicle. They were in a driveway outside the U.S. Embassy; Sally, with whom she became friends during basic training at Fort Oglethorpe, was a driver for the U.S. Ambassador’s Office. She had called Janice in a panic, remembering that her friend knew something about cars…and she, hardly Rosie the Riveter, knew nothing about them, except how to drive one.
Sally despaired. “I know. But I can’t take it back to the garage. They’ll kick my ass. This is about the third time this thing has died on me, and Murtlock’ll kill me…”
“It’s not your fault. They should know that,” Janice said, her voice muffled.
“You know how that bastard is. If anything goes wrong, he blames one of us.”
Janice chuckled. “Yeah, you’re right. Murtlock is a real prick.”
Unfortunately, Sally felt his presence before she could warn Janice. She snapped to attention. Major Murtlock, their commanding officer, was standing right behind her. There was no telling how much of the conversation he heard, but the last statement alone was more than enough to…she sighed inwardly. She knew that Janice would get the worst of whatever shit Murtlock would ladle out; her friend was too outspoken and too indiscreet about her affair with the beautiful black-haired woman that Sally had met only once…whatever her name was…she was a looker, though, almost enough to make me switch teams…
“Stupid foreign cars…ACKPHLT!” Suddenly Janice slid from under the car, covered in oil. “God, I think I swallowed some…” Janice tried to wipe the oil off her face with an equally black hand, which made it worse.
Then she noticed Murtlock.
From her position on the ground he looked even bigger than usual. And he was a big man, probably six and half feet in his stocking feet. This was one of those moments when she envied Mel her height; if she were as tall as her beloved companion, she might feel a little less intimidated, even sitting down. The Major scowled at her, his heavy black brows crashing in consternation. “Don’t get up, Covington,” he rumbled. “I have something for you.” He pulled a packet of papers out of his jacket, and tossed them down to her. They landed in her lap. “I’m very pleased to say you have new orders. You’re shipping out in two days. The information”-he nodded at the papers-“is all there. I hope you have a pleasant trip,” he grunted sarcastically.
“Yes, sir,” Janice replied perfunctorily. Her lips shifted nervously in a frantic attempt to dissuade a smart-ass smirk off her face.
“Oh, and by the way, you’ve been promoted. To Lieutenant.” He glared at her in disgust while she raised both eyebrows in surprise; the idea that such a woman could be an officer was simply too much for him to bear. “Congratulations, you little dyke.”
He turned on his heel and left.
Sally exhaled with relief. “He sure knows how to sweet-talk a girl,” she cracked, pulling a handkerchief from her pocket. She handed it to Janice, who took it gratefully and proceeded to wipe oil off her face. Sally peered at the papers in her friend’s lap. “Hey, where do you think you’re going?”
Janice handed them to her gingerly, clasping them between greasy thumb and forefinger. “You tell me,” she replied. “I’m too sullied to touch them. At least Murtlock thinks so.”
She was also too nervous to read them, and didn’t give a rat’s ass about Army protocol-at this point in my so-called military career, I’d announce my orders with a bullhorn to anyone who would listen, she thought.
Sally unfolded the papers and scanned them quickly. “You’re going to…Bavaria? Some place called New-what-stein? Fucking Krauts and their mile-long names.”
Sally watched as Janice scratched her cheek thoughtfully; her friend did not seem too surprised at the news-in fact, her green eyes narrowed knowingly. “Huh, I’ll be damned.” So I’m the bait. Good. At least I’ll be there to keep an eye on that blonde bitch.
“Long story. Wanna get some lunch?”
“Sure, Lieutenant Covington.”
“Now that was a surprise.” Janice hoisted herself up from the ground.
“Yeah.” Sally grinned, and poked her friend in the ribs. “Congratulations, you little dyke.”
“You’re amazing,” Catherine said. She laid on the floor of her room, gazing up at Mel, sprawled in her divan. The Southerner’s feet dangled pleasantly over the edge and she hummed “Oh Susannah” in her rich, pleasant voice. Her dark hair cascaded over one arm. She was quite drunk, having consumed five gin and tonics. Catherine had thought it would only take two; but she is a big girl…a very big, beautiful girl. “I can’t believe you’ve never been drunk before.”
“No…once I got just a little tipsy on some sherry, at a Daughters of the American Revolution benefit…” Mel suddenly found the ceiling very fascinating, as her head lolled back of its own accord.
“What the bloody hell is that?”
Mel burst into laughter. “I don’t want to tell you…it’s so stupid.”
“Then don’t.” Catherine wiggled the empty bottle. “Wish we had more.”
“I bet we could get some from Daphne.”
“Oh dear. Daphne doesn’t like me. You better ask her yourself.”
“She’s merely jealous of you, my darling.” Catherine stood up. “Come on, let’s go.”
“Of course. Don’t play Miss Modesty with me, Melinda. You’re both incredibly beautiful and smart.”
Mel giggled. “Oh, thank God someone said it. I really wanted a compliment.”
“Really? I couldn’t tell at all.” The blonde held out a hand to Mel, who hadn’t moved from the couch. “Come along.”
Catherine smirked sadistically. “You must.”
Reluctantly Mel took the proffered hand and hauled herself up. Trailing behind Catherine, she was amazed at her own ability to walk in such a state, and quietly marveled at herself as they navigated the stairs to a lower floor, where Daphne’s room was located.
They were giggling quite loudly when they crashed against Daphne’s door simultaneously. Catherine pounded upon it. “Come on, Daph, open it,” she roared.
Another minute of pounding, plus the threat that Mel would sing “Swanee River,” finally persuaded the reluctant Daphne open the door. Like in a Keystone cops film, the two lovers spilled through the doorway. Catherine was on the floor, with Mel atop her, laughing like children.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” said a voice above them. Daphne, of course.
“Hallo, darling,” Catherine trilled. “Melinda and I seem to be having a crisis.”
“Yes, you’re both in my room, uninvited.”
“What, I thought we had an invitation!” Mel burbled. She and Catherine began a new round of giggling as they stood up.
“Don’t be a bad hostess, Daph. There’s a quite simple way to get rid of us.”
“I know. All I have to do is let you continue to make a ruckus here, and they’ll expel you.”
“No, dammit. I want a bottle. Of scotch.”
“Or gin. That’s my favorite,” Mel interjected.
“I don’t have any fucking alcohol, Cat. It’s all gone.” Daphne drummed her fingers on her desk.
A dead giveaway, Catherine thought, watching the spidery fingers drum their distress signal. She always does that when she’s nervous…or lying. “You don’t expect me to believe that, do you?”
“I had guests over yesterday. We drank everything here.”
Catherine’s dark eyes narrowed, and the mood of the room seemed to alter with it; it was one of those sudden shifts that occur deep in the night, and/or deep into drunkenness. “You bloody little mooch. All the time I’ve paid for your drinks, bought you things…you won’t even give me a damn bottle of booze?”
Daphne returned the angry glare, a fire blazing across her cheeks. But she said nothing.
Mel rolled her eyes. She didn’t know why Catherine had insisted on coming down here in the first place. “Let’s forget it, Catherine,” she said. “I’m tired anyway. Let’s just go back upstairs and go to bed.”
Daphne’s cold eyes did not leave Catherine’s. “Go on, then. Listen to your little tart. Get out.”
Mel wanted to laugh out loud. She had never been called a tart before, or anything even close to hinting at sexual promiscuity. Usually she was called “cold,” “aloof,” “frigid” (by a Freudian acolyte at Vanderbilt who had stuck his hand up her skirt within 20 minutes of their first date), or a “tease.” It was an amusing change of pace.
“You should mind your manners, darling,” Catherine threatened in a low voice.
Mel gripped Catherine’s arm. “Leave it,” she said quietly. “Let’s go.”
“Look, you cow, will you just shut up?” Daphne spat at Mel. “Everything was fine until you came along, you miserable twat. Do you think she really loves you?”
“Shut up,” Catherine growled between gritted teeth.
Daphne was on a roll. She inserted herself between Catherine and Mel. She was not as tall as either one of them, but stood her ground menacingly, her angry, contorted face near the Southerner’s, the curls of her marcelled hair shaking and threatening to unfurl into Medusan tresses…or so it appeared to Mel’s gin-addled mind. “Come on. You don’t really think Catherine feels anything for you, do you, you little fool? She only wanted to bed you because you’re supposedly so damned beautiful.” She paused, grinning triumphantly, before delivering the coup de grace. “And because she wanted to deflower you.”
Catherine opened her mouth to file the obligatory protest (true enough, but…), but she saw something that intrigued her. It was like a translucent film were covering Mel’s face, darkening her features and her cerulean blue eyes. It was an anger that transformed her entire being. She had never seen her lover so angry. And it excited her. She watched, fascinated.
Daphne had noticed the transformation too, but bravery-or, more accurately, stupidity-caused her to fling one final insult in Mel’s face. “You’re just another notch on her belt,” she drawled.
When Mel swung her arm, it was in a wide, lazy arc, as if hitting Daphne were barely worth expending energy. But this belied the force of the backhanded blow which sent the woman hurling through the air, across the room.
Mel blinked. Jesus Christ, did I just do that? She looked down at her hand, which trembled. It had been like a splash, a blot of black ink, that had spread within her, into a terrible rage. She clenched the shaking hand.
The few seconds that they stood there seemed like hours. Catherine’s look was one of amused amazement as she turned her eyes from the body slumped in the corner to Mel’s confused face. Then she slowly made her way over to the body. She felt around for broken bones, checked Daphne’s breathing and pulse, and returned to Mel. “I think she’ll be fine,” she remarked airily. “Let’s go.”
Mel blinked. “What? We can’t leave her here. We should take her to the infirmary. We need to tell someone…the dean…”
The blonde laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous. We’ll both be sent down if that happens. And she’s fine, trust me. She’s a stupid girl with a thick skull. She’ll live. And she’ll know better next time.” She placed her hands on Mel’s warm cheeks and kissed her soundly. “You’re magnificent. I love your strength. Your power. You think you don’t have it, but you do. You really do.”
Blue eyes narrowed at her in disbelief. “You’re crazy,” Mel retorted bluntly. Or maybe I am the one who’s crazy. What did I just do? What’s wrong with me?
Catherine’s lips twitched a little, biting back a dozen different retorts. “I’m crazy, but I’m all yours.” And you don’t know how true that is, my dear Melinda.
She was on a black horse, chasing a group of men who ran away from her on foot. There was a dull pain traveling through her legs, which were twisted and crippled; when she looked at them, she wanted to scream. A rage in her was so thick and bitter she could bite into it. With each stroke of the sword it seethed, then cooled, until the need struck again: the black urge to lash out, to kill, to obliterate. Man after man fell under her. The last one begged for his life, and then a man on horseback, his dark hair pulled into a ponytail, shouted at her not to kill the last one. But she did it anyway. It felt…so good. Better than anything in her miserable life up to that point. Better than the money. Better than the fucking. Better than the power.
It felt so good. It feels so good. Doesn’t it?
The question burned in her mind as she woke up. And she woke Catherine as her body jerked forward, out of the blonde’s loose yet possessive grasp.
“What is this?” Catherine murmured a sleepy protest.
“Nothing,” Mel replied perfunctorily, Southern manners always at the ready. I could be bleeding, I could dying…yet I’d still say “Oh please, don’t mind me, I’m fine.” Her voice felt so hoarse that she hardly recognized it.
“Bad dream?” The tone was casual.
“Yes.” She sat up, on the edge of the bed, and groped for the glass of water that she knew would be on the night stand.
“Tell me.” An edgy hint of command in the voice.
“I don’t want to.”
“Come on,” Catherine cooed gently. She let her fingers trail along Mel’s bare back. A shudder-desire, disgust, perhaps both-shimmied along her skin.
The tepid water felt good as it soothed her ragged throat. “All right,” she murmured. Cautiously she settled back on the bed, as if sleep itself would reach up and claim her again, and the nightmare replay itself. But it didn’t. And so she told Catherine about the dream.
The blonde’s legs had wrapped around Mel’s as she told the dream, and contracted, almost painfully, then relaxed. “Very interesting,” Catherine commented. “Why do you think you’re having these dreams?”Well, at least those sessions with Freud were somewhat helpful-I get to steal his inane questions.
“I’m not sure…when I was little my Daddy always told me these stories, about some ancient warrior woman-we’re supposed to be her descendants somehow. They were scary sometimes, but she-my ancestor-always wore the white hat. But in this dream, it’s like I am her, but she is…not a good person.”
“Hmmm. Funny how things get twisted around like that.” This time Catherine sounded amused. She let her fingers run along Mel’s smooth shoulders.
“I think…I’m just feeling bad about what happened the other day.” Mel alluded to the Daphne Incident, which had occurred a scant three days prior. But this morning, in the courtyard, she had encountered Daphne as she and Catherine left the quad. Instead of entering the building, as she obviously intended to do, the girl bolted like a prized race horse, in the other direction. Mel had never seen anyone look at her with such abject fear.
And Catherine had laughed. This time, her laughter seemed brutal as it echoed through the air. And so familiar.
“Oh darling, just let it go.” The fingers skittered along her skin.
There was something about the way Catherine touched her…it was stimulating, yet there always a threat-implicit in the curl of her hands, in the way she held back, in the way she pulled back when her touches grew too wild or passionate-of anger, as if that tactile contact would erupt into violence…if they were not careful.
And the funny thing is…I sometimes think I feel it too. Am I just projecting it onto her? Mel slid her arm out of Catherine’s grasp easily. She stood up and threw on a deep blue robe. “I think…I’ll read for a while.”
Catherine laughed derisively. “Do you still remember how? I don’t think you’ve picked up a book in at least a month.”
Mel rubbed her aching head. She did not know how she could possibly read with such throbbing in her skull-another hangover contributed to her dissonant state of mind, already troubled by the dream-but she wanted to try. “I know,” she replied grimly, and left the bedroom.
“I’m a lieutenant.”
“Have they gone mad?”
“I think so. But guess what else.”
“I have orders to go to Bavaria.”
Mel stared at Janice in shock. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” she demanded.
“Sorry, sweetheart, your needs seemed more…pressing.” Janice had been sprawled out in the wing chair-her favorite seat-in Mel’s hotel room, her legs flung comfortably over an arm of the chair, when Mel arrived. Before she had a chance to say anything, she felt Mel’s mouth on her own, and the delicious combination of kisses and caresses made her forget about the promotion, about Germany, about everything.
“Damn it all,” Mel muttered. She stood up from her kneeling position in front of the chair, impatiently shoving locks of her loosened black hair behind her ears and straightening her skirt.
“Hmmm, Miss Pappas is swearing. Never a good sign,” Janice teased gently. She sat up in the chair and buttoned her shirt, which had become undone in their proceedings.
“If Catherine had anything to do with this, I’ll…” Weeks ago, she had officially turned down the offer. She had thought the matter closed. And every day, she hoped for Janice to be discharged, so they could get on with their lives. It all seems like some sinister plot. And if Catherine is involved, it probably is.
“Of course she had something to do with it,” Janice retorted gently. “You were the one who said point-blank that you wouldn’t go without me. She obviously wants you to be there, Mel. So she ships me there, you follow. I should be grateful I’m not being sent somewhere else.”
“I don’t trust her.”
“Neither do I. But I can’t refuse orders.” As much as I’d like to.
“This is ridiculous! They should be discharging you. We should be going home.” The tall Southerner paced a little, hands riding on her hips. It was rare that Janice saw her so agitated.
Janice smiled. “You look like you’re gonna bust me out of the Army, like Jimmy Cagney busting out of jail.”
Mel scowled and hung on stubbornly to her bad mood.
“Mel, we will go home soon. I promise you,” Janice replied soothingly. Wherever that was, she thought sarcastically. But I do know…my home is wherever you are, baby. She watched as Mel scanned the room disconcertingly, as if searching for something. She chuckled a little, then withdrew the scholar’s glasses from her breast-pocket and held them out to her. “Here.”
How did she…? Mel smiled. “Thanks.”
“You know,” Janice began quietly, “it’s not as if we haven’t done dangerous things before.” She watched as Mel slipped on the glasses. Much as Xena was transformed by the sword in her grasp, the armor on her body, the chakram at her side, so Mel was transformed with glasses. They were a shield, and a weapon: her well-honed intelligence glinted in her magnificent blue eyes, refracted by the glasses. Her scholarly demeanor, self-effacing at times yet always rigorous and keen, was firmly in place. “Battling Ares was a pretty impressive stunt,” the archaeologist added.
“That was Xena, not me.”
“Well, it was you and not Xena who went to Macedonia in the first place. Pretty risky for a Southern belle in high heels.”
Mel conceded this with a “mmm.” She rubbed her neck. “I just…want some time with you. We nearly lost each other, do you know that? You’ve spent over a year getting in and out of dangerous situations. You got shot. Your friend died. You…almost died.” Her voice wavered. “It’s all too soon to risk losing you again.”
“My life has been pretty dangerous in general,” Janice smiled bitterly. “That’s probably not going to change…much.” Will it change? Also, did she want it to change? She loved the danger of what she did, thought little of risking her own life, but now…looking at Mel, she found a very good reason to keep herself in one piece. A very good reason for telling the Army to go to hell. Which I’d very much like to do at this point, she thought.
Mel sighed in exasperation. “Don’t patronize me, Janice Covington. I’m not totally naive. I know what you do is sometimes risky. And I know it’s worth it, for the scrolls. That is a risk I’m happy to take. But this was a war. In a way…it’s not really over yet. And that is a totally different ballgame, as you would put it.” She looked at Janice, who had raised an amused eyebrow. “I did use that word correctly, didn’t I?”
When she was a child the sight of Manhattan from the sky was exciting. She could forget her fear of flying as they sailed over the toy city. It felt as if she could reach out and touch the tip of the Empire State Building-if only because she wanted to.
Now, as the plane descended toward Idlewild, she did not look out the window at the glorious city. Indeed, she had not looked out the window in hours. She had fallen into a light sleep; a stupor, almost, where she kept the conscious world at bay. The plane was not crowded, fortunately, and she sat alone.
She opened her eyes at the stewardess’s touch upon her sleeve. “Miss, we’re landing in five minutes…please fasten your-oh, I see it is fastened! Good girl!” She smiled at Mel (a blonde, a damned blonde just like Catherine, thought the irritated Mel) and moved on to another passenger.
She turned her brooding gaze to the window. Her father was supposed to meet her at the airport; they had a suite at the Plaza. He thought that staying in New York for a few days might cheer her up before they headed home. He informed her that he had bought a new house, in North Carolina, where they would live. But…why? she had wailed on the phone, immediately thinking of their home in South Carolina, where she grew up, where she could still look at a chair, or a curtain, and still recall her mother being there, inhabiting that particular physical space.
She could practically hear his shrug over the transatlantic connection. I think we both need something new in our lives, don’t you?
She had not told him what happened, why she suddenly decided to leave Cambridge. She used the increasing conflict between the English and the Germans as an excuse, but she knew he wasn’t entirely fooled by that. What could she possibly say, how could she possibly phrase it? (Even though he knew her nature…) Sorry Daddy, I fell terribly in love with this debauched girl who dumped me after six months…who made my body come alive, who did things to me I couldn’t even imagine, yet who made me see the darkness in myself…I never hated myself so much as when I loved her.
If this is what love is about, I’ll have no more of it. This is what happened when I stopped being a “good girl.” No more love. No more desire.
She glared at the stewardess.
No more blondes.
Her father had a taxi waiting at the airport. She had to admit that it felt good to be really taken care of again; he had hugged her fiercely when she came through the terminal, after her passport and luggage had been checked.
The minute they entered the cab her head fell back against the seat, as if a lead weight had burrowed itself in the bun of her hair. She closed her eyes.
He squeezed her arm affectionately. “You haven’t been sleeping.” His tone challenged her to contradict the obvious.
“Not…very well.” She scrunched her eyes as if in pain, then opened them with an effort. “Daddy, I’ve been having dreams…they’re very odd.”
“About Xena,” he said flatly.
She seemed surprised. “Yes. You’ve had them?”
He nodded. “I used to have dreams about her…oh, all the time it seems, when I was young. Rather horrible at times. Violent. She wasn’t always a great heroine, you know.”
Mel frowned. Yes, he had always said that-that Xena had been “bad” but then she turned “good.” But Mel had pictured Xena, her wicked past, and her ultimate redemption in terms of, say, Bette Davis inJezebel. Not hacking people into bloody little bits. “But you don’t anymore?”
He smiled wistfully, and rubbed his chin with his thumb in a thoughtful manner. “No, I don’t. It’s strange…I stopped having the bad ones, not long after I met your mother.”
The following day at the office, Mel informed Frobisher of her decision.
He did not seem surprised. “So you’re going?”
“I assume Janice is being transferred there.”
She nodded again.
“That’s the only reason why you’re going, isn’t it?”
She paused, looking guilty. A slight smile creased her face. And she nodded again.
He returned the smile wearily. Again, she felt bad-his office was busier than ever, and she hated leaving him in the lurch like this. But as busy as he was, he gave her top priority. “Then let’s get cracking on the paperwork, shall we?”
The day seemed to pass quickly, once she made the decision, as if a burden had been lifted. When she arrived back at the room she found Janice already there, sitting comfortably in her favorite chair, a few envelopes scattered on her lap.
“The Army has finally seen fit to deliver my mail,” she growled. “All of these are about six months old.”
“What did you get?”
“A letter from Dan’s mom…which was nice,” she added cautiously. She had written to Blaylock’s mother after his death, and now she had received a kind letter in return. I thank you for all that you did, his mother had written. But I didn’t do a goddamn thing, she thought. And it called forth that feeling again, the empty burning sensation…of failure. It was easier to get it under control now, but there was no doubt it still existed within her. She continued. “And, um, something from Harvard-they want me to teach a class in the fall. I think they figure that since they can’t get any alumni donations out of me, they might as well put me to work. And this.” Amused, she held up a pink envelope.
“Janice, darling, I think you better inform your army of ex-girlfriends that you are quite unavailable now.”
“Look at the return address.”
Mel peered at the upper left corner of the envelope. “Jack Kleinman?”
“I always wondered if he was a nancy boy,” Janice said idly, as she tore open the letter.
Mel smirked, recalling Jack’s puppy-like attentions to Janice. “I don’t think so.”
“Let’s see what he says here….He apologizes for the stationery, says it belongs to his sister…says our cousins are fine…”
“Cousins?” Mel blurted in alarm. Good God, she can’t be related to Jack.
“He means the scrolls. That’s his ‘code’ for it.”
“Oh.” Mel was impressed. “I didn’t know you two had worked out a ‘code.’ ”
“Actually, we haven’t…it just says right here in the letter, in parentheses, ‘you know I mean the scrolls when I say cousins, right?’ ”
Mel laughed as Janice continued to scan the letter. A strange look came over the archaeologist’s face. “What is it?”
“He asks…about you, how you’re feeling…if you’ve fully recovered from your…” The deep green eyes turned up from the letter and stared at her. “…influenza.”
It hung in the air between them. Oh…damn, Mel thought, surrendering to an obscenity. She couldn’t think of what to say.
“He…misspelled it, of course.” Janice tapped the paper with a finger. “I know Jack exaggerates things sometimes, but…” Her hard, inquisitive eyes caught her lover’s guilty look. “He’s not making this up, is he?” she demanded quietly.
Mel closed her eyes for a moment to regain herself. “I…no, Janice. He’s not. I was…very ill.”
The lithe young woman stood up so quickly that it startled Mel. She paced, something she loved to do when angry or frustrated. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Janice spat out. “You…you could’ve died.” Now you know how I felt, Mel thought. “Why did you keep that from me?”
“It wasn’t important at the time.” Mel was surprised at her calmness. “Finding you was.”
Janice continued to fume. “Goddammit! Well, you found me, and you still didn’t tell me!” she shouted.
“I’m telling you now.” It had been a long time, it seemed, since she had encountered Janice’s temper. Probably not since they first met in Macedonia. It threw her a bit, but she hoped that by remaining calm, she could get her companion’s blood pressure to decrease.
“Only because you had to. You got caught.” Is that a sneer on her face?
“I…I didn’t think it was important,” Mel responded helplessly. The Southerner felt as if she were in emotional quicksand.
“Bullshit! It’s more than important. You withheld the truth from me.”
Whatever thread of patience Mel possessed snapped. So she wants to be honest here, eh? She couldn’t fight the dark impulse to lash out. Hello, darkness…hello, Xena. “Since we’re discussing the truth here, Janice, there is something I must ask you.” The tone was low, the accent almost gone under the burden of the deepening voice. The eyes were icy. “Would you care to tell me if you’ve made an acquaintance with an Englishwoman named Meg? During the war?”
The look of shock on Janice’s face was simultaneously satisfying and sickening to Mel. So it’s true. Janice’s jaw shifted. “How did you know…about that?”
“I was mistaken for her in a pub. The gentleman who did the mistaking told me a little tale he heard, about Meg’s amorous encounter on a ship with, I believe he said, ‘A little American WAC.'” She let her eyes run over Janice’s figure in a mocking appraisal. Even in her anger and pain she felt a flicker of desire. And love. “I believe you fit the bill.”
“Christ,” Janice swore softly. “How did-”
“Everyone on the ship knew. You’re fooling yourself if you thought otherwise.”
And I thought I had been so…discreet. Everyone hid it well, I must say. No one acted different, no one said a damn thing. But they sure as hell didn’t keep it to themselves. Janice rubbed her temple. “You? You were in a pub?” she asked distractedly. The dizzying revelation of events left her disoriented. And picturing Mel in a smelly pub seemed the height of this surrealism. Yet it seems anything-everything-is possible these days. The whole fucking world has been possessed by madness, why not us as well?
Mel shook her head in disbelief; she did not know if she would laugh or cry. “I was looking for you,” she retorted angrily.
A silence stretched out for a few seconds, as they took it all in. “I never thought I’d see you again,” Janice whispered.
The tall Southerner slammed her hands down on the table that separated them, and left them there, spread out before her. “Did you think I’d let you go so easily?” Mel growled fiercely. “Couldn’t you tell how much I loved you?”
Frankly, no, Janice thought. “I didn’t know…I thought…I meant very little to you.” She saw the pained look on Mel’s face. And instantly felt sorry. “Why? You know why, Mel. You did since the day we met. Since the day we recognized who we truly are. You were the noble heroine and I was your sidekick, never measuring up to you. I know now…that’s not the way it was for them. But I didn’t know-I still don’t-if that’s the way it would be for us.”
Mel walked away and sat down for a moment. She felt…very tired, and her voice was edged with resignation. “I suppose…I had no claim on you at the time.” Tell me otherwise, Janice. Please.
Janice leaned uneasily against the table, unable to say the words that sprang instantly to her mind. Actually you did. You already had my heart. I just didn’t know it, really. Before she could get past the shame, the anger, the hurt, and say the words, she heard the door slam.
Mel entered Hyde Park. The sky was already darkening and a fine rainy mist descended from the sky and drizzled her hair and face. Good….she thought. That means I can cry and no one will notice. The rain came down harder, and it felt good, even strangely comforting. She sought shelter under a large tree for a few minutes, then realized that wandering around in the rain was doing little good, for the same thoughts circled around in her mind. Confounding woman! She cursed the skies. Why do I love her? It’s probably some sort of karmic debt. She walked back to the hotel, her coat wet, heavy, like armor.Probably not as heavy as armor, but if Xena had to wander around the hot sticky ancient world saddled with such weight, then my respect for her has risen even higher.
As she entered the lobby she encountered a strange sight: Sergeant McKay was standing awkwardly in the lobby, nervously twisting his cap. The big ruddy Irishman looked rather incongruous within the ostentatious elegance of the hotel. His stricken look told her all she needed to know.
McKay did not hate Janice, but he did possess an irrational fear of the beautiful young woman. No doubt it stemmed from his belief that she was somewhat unnatural: the attire (even off duty, she never changed out of khakis), the smoking, the swearing…she was, he thought, everything a woman shouldn’t be. Melinda, on the other hand, met with his approval. He suspected the nature of their relationship, and didn’t really want to know any more but, he thought, a woman should act like a woman, and not-he concluded, watching Janice pace the hospital corridor like an expectant father, cursing under her breath-likethat.
He was the first to see Mel emerge from the room down the hall. When he jumped up from his seat Janice glared at him in alarm, then stopped as she saw Mel’s approach. Still damp from the rain, she pushed rain-curled hair out of her face with an absent-minded air.
They looked at her expectantly.
“He’s had a stroke,” she said, as calmly as she could.
Approximately two hours ago McKay had entered his superior’s office, to see if the old man needed anything before he left for the day, and he found Frobisher slumped over the desk, unconscious.
“Will he…?” whispered Janice.
“They don’t know. It’s rather touch and go right now.” Wearily she sat down.
“Bloody hell,” murmured the Sergeant. “I’ve got to get back to HQ, then. Have to let everyone know…” he sighed. He already felt exhausted. Mel touched his sleeve gently; despite his gruffness, she knew McKay was quite devoted to and fond of his commanding officer. “If you need anything, Sergeant, let me know. I’ll probably be here most of the night.”
“Miss, you should go home,” McKay insisted. “You’re all wet-your coat, your hair…don’t want you to get the flu, you know.”
At the word flu she felt Janice’s hard gaze on her again. And she returned the glare. “I’ll be fine, Sergeant.” McKay nodded, yet squirmed as he sensed the discord between the two women. I don’t want to know, he thought.
Her eyelids fluttered, and the blue eyes emerged like butterflies from a chrysalis. The clock at the end of the corridor read 6:35. Morning, she realized, and stretched her long, aching limbs. The doctor would be around soon, she remembered, and would update her on Anton’s condition.
Her sleepy eyes blinked in disbelief
Janice was curled up fetally in a chair across from her, sleeping. She clutched her cap as if it were a teddy bear. She stayed here with me. Last night, Janice had left with McKay, and returned a half-hour later with clothes for Mel. Wordlessly she had placed them beside Mel and walked away, down the corridor, without a word. Mel never knew that she had returned; when she drifted off to sleep around 2 (or was it 3?) she was alone.
She felt relief. When she watched Janice walk away from her last night, she wondered when she might see her lover next. Will she run off and join the Foreign Legion this time? Disappear on a dig? Go on a bender? She sat and studied the sleeping woman, as she had done on many an occasion: the brows, darker than the red-gold hair (which was pulled back in a pony tail), were pressed together, as if the archaeologist were deep in thought, even unconsciously; the cheeks were slightly flushed, the full lips parted sensually, the breathing deep and regular. I think you tamed her, Anton had said to her about Janice a few weeks ago. Was this proof of that, the fact that this woman was back at her side? I like her a little wild, Mel conceded, but I’m also glad she’s here.
She was so engrossed in her study of Janice that she did not notice the nurse who had crept up to her on little cat feet and gently touched her shoulder. “The doctor’s here,” she told Mel.
The doctor, waiting for her at the end of the corridor, was young. Yet like so many young men of his generation, he carried around a sense of permanent fatigue, as if the rest of his life would not be long enough to recover from the war. And it probably wouldn’t. “You’re Colonel Frobisher’s…wife?” he asked, with uncertainty.
She almost laughed. “No, just…his family.”
He looked confused for a moment, then continued. “I see. He’s had a rather nasty stroke, as you’ve been told. His chances for survival are good, since he made it through the night. As for a full recovery, I can’t say. Only time will tell. I’d like to keep an eye on him for a few days, then we’ll send him home. He’s a bit groggy, but you can see him in a few minutes.”
“Thank you,” she replied quietly.
Later she entered his room. He looked smaller, paler, fragile. As did her father, when he was dying. It was more dramatic with Daddy, she thought, since her father had been a big, strapping man. It had been agony to see him waste away. And it was almost as horrible to see this. Not again, she vowed. I don’t want to go through this again.
Janice could smell coffee. Coffee…I need to get Mel some coffee, her foggy brain registered the imperative. Her body jerked awake. The first thing she saw was a cup of coffee in front of her face, held by a familiar, beautiful hand.
“Good morning,” Mel said softly.
“Oh Mel,” groaned the archaeologist, as she stretched out the kinks in her back and legs.
“Goddammit, I was going to wake up before you and get you some…coffee” She took the proffered cup. “I fucked up again.”
“You didn’t.” She said it gently. But she knew it would not convince Janice-or even herself, she was ashamed to admit-of that fact.
“Thanks.” Janice stared into the black liquid, as if she had never seen coffee before. “How is he?”
“He’s…better. They think he’ll pull through. How much damage has been inflicted to his body, and to his mind…well, they just don’t know yet. We have to wait and see.”
An uneasy silence passed between them.
I should apologize, Janice thought. I should tell her I didn’t mean to hurt her, I didn’t mean for it to happen…it meant nothing, I love her, I really do.
I should apologize, Mel thought. I did lie to her. And I really don’t care about what happened. She could sleep with everyone in England right now, and I wouldn’t care…would I? Okay, maybe everyone is pushing it…but it doesn’t matter as long as she loves me. Right?
But what Mel thought-and what she said-were quite different. A deeply imbedded impulse to hurt, something she scarcely acknowledged, something she was afraid of, reared its head and bared its ugly truth.
“I can’t go with you,” Mel blurted. I’m such an idiot, Mel sighed. I could have said it…in a better way. “You know that.”
The words were like a hammer. “Uh…yeah,” Janice acknowledged in a husky voice, while blinking like a punch-drunk boxer. “I know that. You should be here. For him.”
“Janice, I’m sorry.”
The newly promoted lieutenant stood up and stretched quickly. “You know something? I’ve got to go. I need to be briefed before I leave tomorrow.”
Mel felt helpless. “I…will I…?” God, you can’t leave like this. She reached out to touch Janice’s arm, but she skittered easily out of Mel’s grasp.
“I’ll…see you later. Okay?” Janice managed to force the words out. Before Mel could respond, she was gone, striding quickly down the bleak corridor.
She had reached her threshold of exhaustion. She finally left the hospital in the afternoon, returned to the hotel, and collapsed. When she awoke several hours later, she was contorted on the bed, in her slip, and the wild colors of the sunset were flooding the room. She chastised herself for not closing the curtains earlier, and was debating getting dressed merely to go over and close them, or to dash over, scantily clad, and risk having someone see her. Propriety strikes again, she thought heavily.
Then she heard the key in the door.
The door swung open, and Janice swayed in. Drunk. Her rolling gait managed to carry her over to the bed, where she plopped down on the edge. Mel slid over to where she sat, and gasped. Blood dribbled from the archaeologist’s nose, and had coated her lips. “Oh, God,” whispered Mel.
“Fight,” Janice supplied.
I thought so, otherwise that was one very rough debriefing you got, Mel thought. She stood up with the intention of going to the bathroom and procuring a washcloth to clean off the blood. Janice grasped her arm. “No,” she moaned the protest. “Stay here for a minute.”
Mel sat down on the bed and touched the bloodied lips with her fingers, wiping away some of the blood. “What?” she whispered urgently.
She did not. Instead, she pressed a cool hand to Janice’s warm forehead. “Why, why do you always insist on hurting yourself?”
“Do you think I punched myself in the face?” Janice was angry, but did not pull away.
“No, that’s not what I meant.” But I can probably guess what happened to you, darling. You went into a pub, and you picked a fight with the biggest, nastiest piece of work you could find. If beating yourself up isn’t sufficient enough, you find someone else to do it for you.
“Don’t say anything else. Please.”
“I need you.” Janice’s lips, saturated red, claimed Mel’s. The bitter, coppery tang of blood seeped into the scholar’s mouth. It did not bother her. I know you so well, your blood has mingled with mine since our beginning. How many times has your touch burned through me and quenched itself within my blood, my heart? Could anything you give to me, could anything you do, be so horrible? Nothing, except leaving me. She felt Janice’s hands tangle carelessly within her hair, and she slid a hand inside a khaki shirt, her touch gliding over the smooth neck and rippling shoulders. She felt guilty, thinking that perhaps they should be talking about everything that happened. But the desire was a way of coping with the imminent loss, the easiest way of doing so. It was a way of saying goodbye. As she stripped away the clothes, so she hoped someday she would be able to strip away all the layers of defenses, the bravado, the insecurities of this…complicated woman.
And I’m not complicated? she asked herself.
She gently pulled Janice back on the bed, and covered her with her own long body. Then her mind stilled and she listened as their bodies spoke to one another.
Later in the night Janice had awakened. Another nightmare. Mel held her as her breathing slowed, and until the sweat on her brow cooled. Janice never really talked in detail about the dreams, or what happened in them…all she knew was that they were somehow connected to what happened in France, to her friend’s death-Janice somehow felt guilty about it. She gently traced the small scars on Janice’s strong thigh, where she had been shot. She felt a muscle twitch under her fingertips. As the scars intersected each other, like pieces of a puzzle fitting together, so did something formulate in her mind.
“You’ve never killed anyone before, have you?” Mel probed gently.
Janice’s head, buried in her chest, shook from side to side. No.
The gun she always carried, the Smith & Wesson…she knew that Harry had given it to Janice, and, from seeing her in action with a gatling gun, she knew the woman could shoot. But she hadn’t really thought it through-in a way, didn’t want to know-if Janice had ever really shot anyone. Or killed anyone. She didn’t want to know if the rumors about “Mad Dog” Covington were true, didn’t want to know if Xena’s bloody legacy tainted them both. But one afternoon in Macedonia-after Ares, just before they returned to the States-she recalled the Smith and Wesson flashing in the sun as Janice twirled it around, like Jesse James. It was a romantic image. And she had felt the first glimmer of desire for Janice at that moment: her quick hands, her wide grin, her tanned, lithe body, the golden hair that rivaled the sun in its luster….Janice had caught her fearful yet fascinated look at the gun, and laughed. Usually I just wave it around, fire off a few shots maybe, and people leave me alone, the archaeologist had assured her.
A wooden ramp lead down into the excavation pit. The crew of a dozen young men watched as a bloodied, unconscious body rolled unceremoniously down the ramp, staining the pale wood on its journey. Dust swirled around the body, as it thudded to a halt in the dirt.
Fayed, the foreman of the group, looked at the body unsympathetically. He clucked and pushed back a lock of his unruly black hair. He had known that the man who lay at his feet would not last long here: He had seen the way Cherif had eyed Harry Covington’s daughter. And since Cherif was his wife’s cousin, he felt an obligation to warn him that it wasn’t worth it-that Covington would beat him within an inch of his life if he tried to seduce her, and would definitely kill him if he succeeded in bedding the girl. And he had been right.
He turned his attention to Covington, who loomed above them at the edge of the pit. He was short yet powerfully muscular, built like a wrestler. Shouting in Arabic, hands on hips, he informed them all that the next man who laid a hand on his daughter would die. Then he ordered them back to work.
Reluctantly, the group of men walked away from the body. Except Fayed, who awaited Harry’s instructions.
“Fayed…” Harry began wearily.
“Yes, Harry?” Fayed was the only one in the crew who was bold enough to call the archaeologist by his first name.
“Get that bastard out of here. Drive him home. Get someone to help you if you need to.”
“Tell your wife I’m sorry.”
The Arab nodded again, a smile tugging at his lips. He couldn’t wait to tell his wife I told you so.
Harry walked back to his tent. He hesitated in front of the flap, and took a deep breath. He pushed back the flap and entered.
Janice was curled on the cot, her legs tucked up against her chest, and her arms wrapped around them. Her head was pressed against her knees. She did not look at him as he came over to her. He sat down carefully on the edge of the bed. “Janie?” he whispered.
Almost a minute passed. then finally she raised her head. Her lip was bleeding and, he noticed for the first time, there were violent bruises around her neck. His anger flared anew, and he recalled the scene he had found just a half-hour ago, when he came back from the marketplace ahead of schedule: Cherif in the tent, one hand pinning Janice down by the throat, she half-naked and squirming under him, his other hand fumbling with the buttons on his trousers.
The guilt hit him. Dammit, I shouldn’t have left her here. In fact, she shouldn’t even be here at all. This is no place for a girl. But where would she go-willingly, for that matter? She’d follow me here every time. I know her. Gingerly he reached out and touched her hair. she did not pull away, but he felt the shudder travel down her body. “I’m sorry, Dad,” she said hoarsely.
“It’s not your fault,” he said emphatically. “If that man knew the proper way to behave, it wouldn’t have happened.” He sighed. “Honey, let me take care of that lip for you. Then I’m gonna show you how to take care of yourself. It’s been a long time coming.”
Intrigued, the girl looked at him quizzically.
He stood up and walked over to the other cot in the tent. He threw off the thin blanket and reached under the pillow. Grinning, he pulled out a Smith & Wesson revolver. “I’m gonna show you how to use this. Between that and some boxing lessons, kid…” his smile faded, and he concluded darkly, “…no one’s ever gonna hurt you again.”
A jeep sailed across the runway. Catherine, watching from the hangar, half-expected the thing to rise off the ground, as if it were a plane too. As the vehicle drew nearer she recognized the red-gold hair flying in the air, the eyes hidden by sunglasses. The jeep stopped at the other end of the hangar. Covington climbed out of the vehicle, exchanging a few words and a quick hug with the driver, another WAC.Interesting. Is the little bitch capable of cheating on her lover? I couldn’t be so lucky. It would make things too easy.
With her rucksack slung over a shoulder, Covington swaggered over to her. She wasn’t in full uniform, Catherine noted with disapproval. A leather jacket covered the white t-shirt she wore, which showed off her taut physique quite nicely-and Catherine did approve of the flat stomach and the full, rounded breasts that were available for her viewing pleasure. They probably fucked like rabbits last night. In fact, I hope they did. For it will be the last time, I swear.
“Lieutenant,” she drawled in greeting. “Glad you could make it.” Upon a closer view, she saw that Covington’s nose looked a little red, a little bruised. Oh dear…did she make Melinda lose her temper? It takes a lot…but it is possible, and this one is just as annoying as Daphne ever was.
“Sorry about the delay. I woke up late.”
“Of course,” replied the OSS operative archly. “I won’t ask what detained you. That wouldn’t be terribly lady-like, would it? Not that either of us are ladies.” She let a grin curl her face. Let the torture begin.
To Covington’s credit, the young lieutenant did not rise to the bait. She smirked in return. “I agree, neither one of us are ladies. But that shouldn’t keep us from our mission, should it? Are we ready to go?”
Catherine nodded toward the bomber that sat on the runway. “Yes. Over there. Shall we?” together they walked toward the plane. Catherine pulled a silver cigarette case out of a pocket and opened it with one smooth gesture. “Cigarette, Lieutenant?”
Janice hesitated for a nanosecond, then accepted. No point in antagonizing the woman. Sometimes a cigarette is just a cigarette, no? And besides, I could use it. When she left in the morning Mel had still been asleep. She had not the heart to wake the slumbering scholar, nor had the time to leave a note. She only hoped that Mel understood somehow. But I ditched her again. Maybe now she’ll ditch me…for good. I guess I deserve it.
“Thanks,” she said to Catherine, as the blonde agent lit her cigarette.
“Who knows, Lieutenant…this may be the beginning of a beau-ti-ful friendship,” the OSS agent declared in a sing-song voice.
Janice let the angrily spewed smoke speak for itself.
“Thank bloody Christ,” Sergeant McKay said, as he opened the door of Frobisher’s home, and saw Mel standing on the doorstep.
“Hello to you too, Sergeant.” She strode into the townhouse, bringing with her a gust of crisp autumn air. Once again he felt like a troll next to her, and cleared his throat anxiously.
“Er, sorry, Miss Pappas. But the Colonel’s been acting funny today…and I’m just glad you’re here.”
“What’s happening?” Mel asked, as they mounted the stairs to Frobisher’s bedroom.
“He won’t stay in bed, and he’s been wandering around everywhere. It’s like he’s lookin’ for something, but he won’t tell me what.”
He probably can’t, thought Mel. Since his release from the hospital almost three weeks ago, the Colonel had been unable to speak, and barely able to move. Usually when he did speak, it was nonsense, although the notes he handed to Mel yesterday made more sense than usual. Every day since he left the hospital she would come by and spend the better part of the day with him and the nurse. Usually she read to him. Her unconscious selection of reading material-Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? -irked her, the title wailing its insistent question, immediately bringing to mind her errant lover.
Yesterday, however, he had seized the notepad she had bought for him, and a pen, and rather laboriously scrawled out the following message:
I hate Trollope, it said.
She nodded sympathetically. “How about Austen?”
He made a face.
“Balzac?” I’ll go through the alphabet if I have to, she thought.
He shrugged. Then nodded. Then, as if he suddenly remembered something, started to write on the pad again. After a few minutes of watching him grimace and scowl with the effort, the pad was thrust at her.
Go to Germany.
“I can’t…not now,” she replied firmly, mentally begging him to change the subject.
He shook his head vigorously, like a wet dog trying to get dry. “Oh!” he cried softly, in frustration, which startled her. Again he set to work on the pad. Beads of perspiration popped against his forehead.
“Take it easy,” she cautioned him gently, laying a hand on his arm, which trembled under her touch. He handed another message to her:
You don’t understand. It’s danger.
It hit a nerve. She closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. “I know it’s dangerous. I know. But she’s a grown woman. She can take care of herself.” And she better…because when I get my hands on her, I’m going to kill her, Mel had thought angrily. And while that had been the day prior, her anger still lingered, of course. She leaves without so much as a word, not even a “goodbye”…what am I supposed to think? It’s my own fault too, I should’ve said something, I should’ve said so much…she is driving me insane…this whole situation is driving me insane. Mel was agonizing over this in her mind for what seemed like the millionth time when she and McKay entered the Colonel’s bedroom.
The old man stood in the center of the room. His bathrobe hung limply around his thinning frame, as did his fleur-de-lis pajamas. His gray hair, uncombed, stood out in wild tufts here and there. He looked utterly confused.
“Uncle Anton, I never thought I’d ever be saying this to you, but…get into bed right now!” Mel chastised.
“Nonsense,” the old man muttered. “I need…” he trailed off with a sigh.
McKay looked at her, concerned. She tapped her shoulder bag, hoping to distract him. “I did bring some Balzac,” she said. It was an old leather-bound volume that she bought at a bookseller’s on Portobello Road earlier in the day: A Harlot High and Low. Another title that prompted her mind to wallow in all sorts of scathing commentary concerning Janice Covington. None of which she said, of course.
He sighed and looked around the room.
“Are you looking for something?” she asked.
“Love in all the wrong places,” he replied.
McKay rolled his eyes. “If you could tell me what you’re looking for, I can help you,” she offered. “Maybe if you try to write it down.”
He shook his head. “My…bag,” he said emphatically. “Leather!” he cried.
“Your briefcase!” she clarified.
He nodded vigorously.
“What d’ya need that for?” McKay asked impatiently.
“Just…look for it, Sergeant. Please?” Mel asked.
It took him half an hour, but finally McKay found the old leather briefcase. It was in a broom closet downstairs, where McKay had shoved it weeks ago after bringing home the Colonel’s clothes from the hospital. The Sergeant had apparently mistaken it for a real clothes closet.
He brought it up to Frobisher, who snatched it from him and proceeded to rummage through it with great speed. He sat on the edge of his bed, Mel beside him. Papers fell at his feet as he dug through the briefcase. Finally he was staring at a black leather binder. He thrust it at Mel.
She took it and opened it. The first word she saw, screaming out to her in blood-red letters, was CLASSIFIED.
“Anton,” she protested, “I can’t read this!” She shoved it at him.
He shoved it back.
She exchanged a look with McKay, who appeared just as confused-and nervous-as she.
Anton’s eyes were pleading as he held out the binder to her. Reluctantly, she turned her head to the document, and started reading in her usual brisk manner. But as she progressed her mouth dropped open in quiet shock. “Oh…God,” she whispered.
The classified report-it was not directed to Anton but the London head of OSS, and she had no idea how he had got a hold of it-detailed Catherine Stoller’s activities in Berlin during the war. She and a fellow agent had been posing as an SS official and his wife: Hans and Lotte Steiner. Three months before the end of the war, her fellow operative was dead, an apparent suicide-an encoded radio message sent by Catherine indicated that their mission had been found out. She had escaped capture, but he did not; rather than risk revealing anything to the enemy, he took his own life. Catherine had then disappeared until resurfacing in London just after Germany’s surrender.
An additional document, attached to the report, was a deposition from an SS soldier, a prisoner of war. This man claimed that, indeed, the Germans had discovered-indeed, had known for quite some time-that the officer known as Hans Steiner was a British agent. They monitored his movements for some time before arresting him. After a unsuccessful attempt at extracting information from him, he had been executed by one of their agents. A double agent. Catherine Stoller.
She let the sheaf of papers fall to floor. History repeats itself. Even the history you do not know, even the history you are not aware of.
Anton’s hand sought hers, and squeezed it with more strength than she imagined he had. “Go,” he said simply, his voice ravaged.
She nodded mutely. Didn’t I say I had a bad feeling about this?
Part III SHADOWS OF THE LIVING
Life itself is but the shadow of death, and souls departed but the shadows of the living….The sun itself is but the dark simulacrum, and light but the shadow of God.
-Sir Thomas Browne
Fall. He brooded, watching the leaves gently disengage themselves from the trees outside his townhouse window. He loved the season when he was younger, welcoming the crisp air, a renewed feeling of purpose, of vigor. Now, as an old man, he dreaded it-it meant the onslaught of the cold weather that would settle in his bones, and the painful chilblains he would get…and now, recovering from his recent stroke, Anton Frobisher truly felt the season of aging, of death and decay was upon him. He could only groan in response.
“Are you all right?” The voice was gentle, soft. With a Southern accent. Before he could look in her direction, Melinda had laid a hand on his arm.
And here, inside his home, a young woman he loved was about to gently disengage herself from his life. Perhaps not permanently; who could tell? The war was over, they kept reminding themselves, but the world was just as unpredictable, violent, and crazy as ever. With the bombs dropped on Japan only a scant two months ago, he was more than convinced of that fact.
Anton looked at Melinda. Her familiar frown, that serious, intent look that she always wore, except in the presence of Janice Covington, was directed at him. Damn you, Covington, you better not get yourself killed.
He gave a wry smile. “I’m fine,” he rumbled in a deep voice, hoping to convince her. She managed a small smile in return. “By God, it feels good to speak again.” Slowly, after his stroke, his ability to speak-to formulate sentences-had returned.
“I bet it does.”
He eyed the small black suitcase that sat in the corner of his den, near the door. “So you’re off, then?”
She nodded, then pushed her sliding glasses up along the ridge of her nose with a long index finger. One of her “nervous scholar tics,” as Covington called it. He could still see and hear-quite vividly-the golden-haired woman laughing gently as she teased her tall and sometimes too-serious companion. “I’m…off,” she said quietly.
“I shall miss you very much, you know,” he said, with David Niven bravado, the fighter pilot going down nobly in his fiery plane.
“Yes, I will miss you too. But I’ll be back.” Optimistic words, but the chasm of doubt in her voice threatened to swallow them both.
“You will,” he said, taking her hand, “and so will Janice.”
After the stroke, when he could not speak, he felt as if he had been trapped underwater, under an ice floe, separate from the world, his senses refracted. He could witness everything going on around him, but could neither understand it clearly nor express himself. When he could finally tell Melinda-or rather, show her, via the report-what he had discovered about Catherine Stoller, he felt that he had finally broken through. But it took almost a week before he could tell her of his discovery, and how he had come to it: How he had been more than a little suspicious of Stoller when she showed up at his office; how she seemed to know exactly what she wanted, and how her single-minded intensity sent off alarms in his head. He had called in a favor from a friend in the OSS, and obtained a file on the elusive agent. The war, he thought cynically, had been, for him, nothing more than trading favors to obtain information and get his way.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. “They knew,” Anton had told her one evening as they sat in his den.
She didn’t want to believe it. “What?”
“The OSS knew about her activities. Did you look at the date of the report I showed you?”
“No,” Mel had admitted guiltily, knowing she should have noticed such a crucial detail.
“It was written approximately two weeks before she came to my office, looking to ‘recruit’ you.”
Anton saw the change, saw the blue eyes darken, saw the muscles in her jaw ripple. She was greatly mysterious to him at times; as much as he loved her, he saw depths in her that he was afraid of-afraid he could never reach them, or understand them. Only one person seemed capable of that. “How could they?” she whispered.
He carefully continued his discourse. “I don’t know exactly what the agency is up to, Melinda. Obviously, they want something from Catherine. They’re watching her, hoping that she will lead them to something. What, I have no idea.”
“Lead them to something?” She fought her rising panic. Like Janice’s dead body? she thought.
“Yes. That’s all I can get out of my contacts. Right now their orders are simply to monitor Stoller.” He blew on a cup of steaming tea. “Unfortunately, they were simply unaware of her relationship to you-and, now, Janice.”
She had sat in an overstuffed chair in his study, her longs legs drawn up against her chest, chin on her knees. In such instances she reminded him of the lanky girl she used to be. Despite the girlish pose, her body emanated a strength and grace she was barely aware of. Absentmindedly she bit into the dark wool trousers covering her knee, deep in thought. “Do you think the OSS could use some help in watching Catherine?” she asked softly.
He raised an eyebrow. He admired her determination. “My dear,” he replied, placing the cup back on its saucer, “it never hurts to ask.”
And that was how she ended up in the halls of the OSS headquarters. pacing, awaiting a meeting with an OSS official. Mel wore her best suit, a somber navy blue wool skirt and jacket with a white blouse, dark stockings, and black heels. Much to her chagrin Janice had always referred to the ensemble as “the librarian outfit.” She found it uncanny (and annoying) that both Janice and the archaeologist’s former girlfriend, Mary Jane Velasko, had similar reactions to this particular suit.
The rhythmic, ringing echo of her heels against the hard, shiny floor soothed her. When in doubt, pace. Janice always did so when agitated, and perhaps, just perhaps, mimicking the archaeologist’s habits would somehow bring her back, and fix everything that went wrong between them. She folded her arms against her chest as she walked, remembering the time just after they had met, when they were in the U.S. Embassy in Athens. Mel had lost her passport, and was nervously awaiting new papers as she paced in a similar cavernous hallway. Melinda the metronome Janice had called her, as her heels had clacked along the marble hallway with stormtrooper precision. It hadn’t been that she was really upset about the passport-she knew the officials would find some way to ship home an essentially useless (in their eyes) American woman-but that her feelings for Janice…were moving beyond mere friendship, engendering an intensity that she felt powerless to stop. As she waited that day in the Embassy, she had wondered to herself how it all happened. She had reached no answer then. Three years later, despite all that she had learned about Xena and Gabrielle, she still didn’t have one.
Well, missy, you wanted some excitement, she thought to herself.
Mel stood in a dusty road devoid of travelers, deep in the agrarian heart of a unknown country, in torn and sweaty clothes, exhausted. To her right, alongside the road, was a motorcycle that refused to operate. And her new friend, Janice Covington, who was rather…attractive in a unique way, was throwing a somewhat butch version of a what was known among Southern ladies as a hissy fit.
The engine of Janice’s motorcycle, after a sudden spurt and gasp, died, and they had coasted to a gentle stop along the barren road (thanks to Janice’s skill in handling the thing). The fair-haired archaeologist had jumped off the bike and unleashed a barrage of obscenities. Actually, first she threw her fedora on the ground, stomped around it a bit as if she were attempting some bastardized American version of a Mexican hat dance, and angrily kicked at a tire-she missed, and fell down. Then the swearing began in earnest. Mel had not heard such cussing ever since the time she encountered a group of sailors on leave one time during a trip to the French Quarter in New Orleans. (Which had prompted her 12-year-old self to innocently ask her father what a “cocksucker” was. She had been quite pleased at making her verbose father speechless.)
Mel was, on one hand, relieved at the motorcycle’s death: She had hated sitting in its sidecar. It was ill-suited for someone of her height, and she had gotten terrible cramps in her calves from being in it for a mere hour, exacerbated by the fact that she’d had Janice’s heavy rucksack on her knees as well. But now they were without transportation. And Janice didn’t even seem to be remotely close to regaining her senses.
“Janice-” she attempted.
“Motherfucker!” screamed Janice Covington.
Mel blanched. Oh, that’s a new one on me. Rather awful sounding. “I know you’re upset-” she pressed on.
“But we have to think about how to get to Athens.”
“Goddammit to hell!!”
“I recall there was a farm a couple miles near here. I saw it on the drive down. Perhaps I should walk there and see if I can get us some help.”
Mel’s calm, reasoning tone finally managed to seep through Janice’s fury. The small woman caught her breath, and swallowed. She picked up her hat, and banged the battered, dirty fedora against her knees. “Yes. Melinda. Mel. That would be terrific.” She leaned against the defunct motorcycle, panting lightly from the exertion. “I’m sorry about that. I don’t usually-well, actually, I do lose my temper on a regular basis-but this was different.”
Now that Janice was acting a tad more normal, Mel gingerly approached her. “Why?” she asked gently. “What’s bothering you? Other than the fact we’re stuck in the middle of nowhere.”
Janice chuckled in spite of herself. “I didn’t tell you…I guess I didn’t know how to tell you….” She took a deep breath. “Jack Kleinman took the scrolls. I don’t know if it was by accident or on purpose. But I need to catch that dumb bastard and get them back.”
“What?” Mel was surprised at the admission; Jack, while certainly a little on the duplicitous side, did not seem like the type to deliberately do something so blatantly…wrong. But if he did, I think I’ll kill him myself. “Oh my, Janice…I’m…sorry. I know it took a lot of work for you to find them.”
“I know.” Her clear green eyes clouded over in anger. “Son of a bitch. My father spent his whole life looking for those things. And I had them, Mel. I had them.” She closed her eyes in an effort not to cry in front of this woman she had just met.
“You did, Janice. And you’ll get them back. I’ll help you in any way I can.”
The words of the Southerner-and the warm hand that touched her forearm-were a tonic. She did not cry. “Thanks,” she said wistfully. “Because you know something?”
Mel shook her head.
Those green eyes ensnared her in their gaze. “They belong to you as much as to me.”
Mel smiled. And Janice returned the smile. My, what a beautiful smile. And I think we’re having a moment! One of those girl-bonding things; yet instead of talking about makeup or clothes, we’re talking about…scrolls. Well, you take it however you get it, I suppose. But the Southern scholar’s courage gave out and she looked away. “Well! I best get going then!” she declared in her best “go-getter” tone, developed at Miss Evangeline’s charm school in Columbia.
“Wait a minute.” Janice pulled out a handgun from her leather jacket, and offered it to Mel, handle first. The scholar could not contain her aghast expression. “Go on, take it,” Janice, oblivious, encouraged her. “For protection.”
“Ah, no, thank you anyway,” Mel said politely, as if refusing a plate of pig’s feet.
“Come on, now, I’ll worry about you if you don’t have something.” Mel shook her head vigorously, like a wet dog. “Okay, okay, but…be careful, Mel.” Tucking the gun back into her waistband, Janice took off the worn jacket and rolled up her sleeves, revealing the subtle musculature of her tanned arms. Mel blinked. Okay. I didn’t notice that. I am not noticing that. “I don’t think the Krauts have penetrated this deep into the countryside, but you can never know for sure.” The archaeologist discarded her hat for a moment and ran a hand through her red-gold hair, just the color of a sunset, Mel thought giddily. She hadn’t realized before how lovely Janice’s hair was…uh-oh. The archaeologist scrunched up her face in concern as Mel suddenly grew pale. “Is something wrong? You want me to come with you?” she asked.
Yes, come with me, you blonde devil! Let’s drink ouzo and dance barefoot under the sun. I’ll whisper to you how lovely you are…. “N-no, I’m fine. B-but you keep the gun. You need protection too,” Mel added. Protection from me, if I keep this up. What is wrong with me?
Janice grinned, and spun the .38 around in her hand, like an outlaw. “Don’t worry. Usually I just wave it around, fire off a few shots maybe, and people leave me alone.”
“Nazis aren’t people, Janice,” Mel replied sternly, in her best schoolteacher-spinster mode.
The archaeologist continued to flash her too-dazzling white teeth, as if auditioning for a toothpaste advertisement. “Really?”
“Well, you know what I mean,” the Southerner amended stupidly.
As the light hit Janice in all the right places, illuminating the red highlights in her blonde hair, making her green eyes glitter like rare emeralds, and deepening the golden tone of her strong, smooth forearms, Mel felt dizzy. And ditzy. I hate feeling this…unbalanced. So she’s attractive. So what? She turned on her heel and started walking as fast as her long legs would take her. Which was pretty fast.
It was a classic pastoral scene: A young shepherd, tending his flock. Except that the boy, who looked about 16 or 17, was cursing violently in Greek at the immobile animals, who blocked the road. The shepherd, with his curly black hair and huge dark eyes, framed by silky long eyelashes, was very attractive, Mel admitted to herself, and he almost made her forget Janice.
Mel came across him about 3 miles away from where she had left Janice. And she was never so glad to see sheep in her life. Her feet ached with blisters, and she had no illusions about how she must have looked to this boy: Torn dirty clothes, limping, and I don’t even want to think about my hair. When he first saw her, his mouth formed a wide “O” of surprise. He cried out for protection from God. But then she rapidly began to explain, in Greek, her predicament.
It didn’t take much. Her beauty (he saw past the obvious, quite fixable flaws) and her peculiar accent (a mishmash of ancient and modern syntax, superimposed by a Carolinian drawl) charmed him, not to mention the fact that she waved around a wad of cash. He eagerly agreed to drive them to Athens. First he had to borrow his uncle’s truck; it would only take a few minutes, he said. “Wait with the sheep,” he ordered her, as he ran up a hill and disappeared over its sloping crest.
His departure triggered some distress among members of the flock: There were bleats all around, and one angry ewe kept butting her head against Mel’s hip, as if trying to displace her from their simple sheep lives. At one point it succeeded in knocking Mel down. Perhaps it was all some sheep-plot to kill her? She imagined the gossip this would engender among the D.A.R. back home: Did you hear about Melinda Pappas? Stampeded to death by a bunch of sheep in some silly foreign country like Hungary or something! I swear, that girl never did a normal thing in her life, it just makes perfect sense she would meet her maker in such a way.
Almost an hour passed. The sheep began to ignore her. She sat down carefully in the grass nearby, resting her tired feet. When she heard the roar of an engine, she jumped up, started to jog toward the road (insofar as one can jog in heels), and promptly slid into a pile of dung. Luckily the damage was minimal and her stockings took the brunt of it. When the boy pulled up to her in a dark green pickup truck, she was pulling off the smelly stockings as discretely as she could manage. His eyes became riveted on her shapely, bare legs.
She sighed at his interest. “It’s like you’ve never seen a woman’s legs before,” she muttered in English, then realized he probably hadn’t, except maybe a sister or his mother. She tossed the ruined stockings to the side of the road-something for you to remember me by-she thought, glaring at the sheep. He offered her a hand as she climbed in the truck, and they drove off to pick up Janice.
When they arrived on the scene, Janice was sitting on top of the sidecar, smoking a cigar. As they slowed to a halt she leapt off the sidecar, and ran toward the truck. She jumped on the running board and leaned in the open window as the vehicle slowed to a halt. “Mel, you’re great!”
“Just lucky,” Mel replied, while the boy stared at Janice in amazement. A pretty woman dressed as a man? Americans were just too strange.
“I could just kiss you!” Janice was grinning, revealing those perfect white teeth again. But before Mel could even dream of responding to that, Janice was off the truck, and running back to the motorcycle to get her hat and her bag.
“What did she say?” the boy asked, craning his head to watch Janice gallop down the road.
“Nothing important,” Mel replied dreamily, her eyes upon the same prize.
“Ha!” he laughed. “She said ‘kiss’. She wants to kiss me, right?” He grinned.
“Why, you’re absolutely right. In fact, I should go sit with her and restrain her from making any more advances to you. You know how American women are.”
“Yeah, I know! From the movies! So ask her if she wants to sit up front with me!”
Mel shook her head sadly.
“But I like you too!” Again, his eyes drifted down to her legs.
“I think we’ll both sit in the back,” she replied primly, exiting the truck. With some awkwardness-in order to avoid tearing her skirt even more-she climbed into the bed of the truck. The archaeologist had made herself at home, using the rucksack as a pillow. “What, you’re not gonna ride up front?” Janice asked from her lounging position, as she struck a match and lit one of her foul cigars.
“No. I’m getting rather tired of that boy staring at my legs.”
Janice laughed. “Don’t blame you.” The truck started again, and they were on their way, under the canopy of Greek twilight. “Hey,” Janice mumbled, wrinkling her nose, “I smell-”
“Don’t even say it, Janice Covington. It smells no worse than your cigar.”
It was during that trip on the truck that Mel realized that her passport was missing. She immediately knew where it was: trapped in a tomb with the God of War. She dimly recalled the sensation of the slender document slipping out of what she thought was a secure pocket inside her suit. But this happened during the possession of her body by Xena, who was too busy turning somersaults and trying to skewer Ares with a sword in order for her to do anything about it. Sure, Xena defeated the God of War, but she also ruined my outfit, broke my glasses, and lost my passport.
She put off telling Janice of this development. The archaeologist had gotten crabby on the remainder of the drive, as she had time to focus once again on the missing scrolls, and the shock of being a descendent of Gabrielle, “the stupid sidekick.” Also, she was starving, but she was “sick of Greek food and dying for a good roast beef sandwich”….
Mel endured these tirades, then timidly asked Janice if she had a place to stay in Athens.
“Uh, no. I had been sleeping on site, you know. Camping. I’m sure I’ll find something, though.”
“Well, er, um…”
“What, Mel?” Always cuts to the chase. How Yankee-like of her.
“You’re, ah, quite welcome to share my hotel room for the evening.” Common sense sent out a rather hysterical alarm. Are you absolutely mad? Are you trying to torture yourself by having this woman in close proximity to you? Take it back! I don’t care if your stupid Southern manners won’t allow you to retract an invitation, take it back!
By this time it was dark out, and she could barely make out Janice’s features in the dim starlight. But she thought she caught a gleam of white teeth. “That’s really nice of you,” Janice replied softly.
“It’s my pleasure,” she replied. Of course it is, you masochist.
“No, really, I mean, you’re so…nice to me! I’ve been nothing but a pain in the ass all day. Complaining, yelling at you, nearly getting you killed. Then you arrange our ride here, now you’re offering me a place for the night…. What did I do to deserve this?”
“Nonsense. You deserve to be treated nicely, just like anyone else. You’ve had a rather rough day, too, I might add.”
“I won’t argue with that.”
“Then don’t,” Mel said with surprising firmness. More to quash the objections inside herself than Janice’s.
There was no response. Just a soft laugh in the dark.
The hotel was mediocre, but it had been the best Mel could manage on short notice, after she had made the impulsive decision to come to Macedonia. At least, she thought, it was clean, and that was all that really mattered to her.
The little archaeologist flopped right down in the bed with her boots still on. “Ah!” Janice cried with relief. “I could sleep for days.” She looked up to see Mel scowling at her feet. “Oh-shoes. Right.” She sat up and set to the task of unlacing the boots. After pulling them off and discarding them, she noticed that the tall Southerner was still frowning. “Hey, everything okay? I’m not gonna sleep in the bed, y’know. I just wanted to relax for a few minutes. I can take the floor, if you don’t mind sparing a blanket-”
“No!” Mel exclaimed impetuously. “You can sleep in the bed.” Did I just say that?
“With…you?” Janice asked innocently, green eyes wide.
“With…me,” Mel affirmed, painfully colliding with a table, its sharp edge sinking into her smooth thigh.
“That’s, uh, fine by me…” Janice rubbed the back of her neck.
“I’m, ah, g-glad to feel-uh, I m-mean, hear that…”
“You know, you stammer sometimes.” Janice lit a cigar and scrutinized her friend.
No kidding, Sherlock Holmes. “Uh, yes, I do sometimes. When I get nervous or upset-”
“Well, what the hell is wrong?” she grunted around the cigar.
“I, oh…” Mel moaned. I’m having dirty thoughts about you! In spite of that disgusting cigar! “I lost my passport.”
Janice sat up, concern evident on her lovely face. “Really? Where? Do you know?”
“Yes, I do. It’s back on the site. In the tomb,” she mumbled grimly.
“Shit, Mel. I’m sorry.” Then Janice started to laugh, causing Mel to scowl even more fiercely than she did at shoes on the bed.
“What’s so darned funny, Janice?”
“Looks like no one will be using it, except maybe Ares.” Her laughter sounded like cascading water. “If he gets out of the tomb, that is. Then he could use it. He could shave his beard, dress in drag, and pass himself off as you-”
Mel felt herself smiling in spite of it all. “I don’t think I’m particularly vain, but I’d like to think I’m somewhat better looking as a woman than Ares would be.”
“Oh, without a doubt,” Janice replied quickly. “But you know how dim those passport officials are.”
Mel started to laugh, but it sputtered to a halt once she saw that Janice was beginning to take off her clothes. She peeled off the dirty khaki shirt, revealing a white, sleeveless man’s undershirt. The ribbed white fabric gleamed against her tan and outlined her sleek torso; obviously, Janice spent a lot of time in the sun-in a skimpy little undershirt. She could just imagine the reaction this must cause among her on-site workers-this beautiful woman running around in a flimsy, sleeveless shirt. She certainly knew what reaction it was causing in herself-her throat constricted and dry, her whole body a flushed, fiery patch of nerves. Then Janice undid her belt, and her pants dropped to the floor. Her short, muscular legs were tanned as well, at least as far as Mel could see, up to the edge of the baby blue boxer shorts.
“So, tell me….” Janice was saying, snapping her out of her lustful reverie. “What do Southern belles wear to bed? Frilly pink nighties?”
What do…? Mel’s mouth hung open in surprise. In her haste to leave home, she had neglected to pack anything to wear for bed. Not that she always wore something to sleep in; sometimes, when it was very hot, she did not wear anything at all (which caused the housekeeper a great deal of confusion when she did the laundry). And usually when it was cold she wore old pajamas that had been her father’s. But it wasn’t cold here.
No, she gulped, letting herself look at Janice Covington’s body once again, it was definitely not cold here. She wished she could erect the Walls of Jericho, just like Claudette Colbert did in It Happened One Night. But that might make her pint-sized Clark Gable unduly suspicious. (After all, why put up the wall if there’s no threat?) She realized that Janice was staring at her, awaiting an answer to her facetious question.
“Well,” Mel mumbled haughtily, “you’ll just have to wait and see.” With that, she headed into the bathroom. And collapsed against the door. All right. A slip. I’ll just have to wear my slip. She washed up, trying to drag out the process as much as possible, combed her hair, undressed slowly, and threw on a slip from the valise that sat in the corner of the bathroom. Luckily, the delay produced the anticipated result: Janice was sound asleep by the time she crawled into bed. Lord, get me through this night, she prayed as she turned out the light, her body hovering near the edge of the bed.
Mel awoke, as if the sudden flitting of the bard’s name across her subconscious were an alarm clock. Her sleepy eyes adjusted to a mass of red-gold hair near her face. Very close to her face; in fact, she was practically nuzzling Janice’s hair. Her head lifted from the pillow in alarm. Oh my God.
Janice was spooned against her tightly, the archaeologist’s firm buttocks pressed into her hips, shoulders against breasts, Mel’s arm around her midriff, Janice’s hand clutching it, as if she didn’t want Mel to move. What on earth…? I’m such a pervert, I can’t even trust myself when I sleep!
With the accumulated stealth of a lifetime spent in libraries, she managed to disengage herself from Janice. She did not awaken, and Mel breathed a sigh of relief as she scooted, once again, to the furthest corner of the bed. Then the smaller woman emitted a peeping sound, almost like a mewl, and rolled over, right back into Mel’s arms. A tanned arm was flung around her waist, and the exquisite torture didn’t stop there: Janice pressed her face against Mel’s chest, and within seconds was snoring into her cleavage.
Perhaps this is a sign from God? Mel thought hopefully. No, I couldn’t be so lucky. Again, she began the careful practice of extracting herself from Janice. The triumph she felt as she slid away successfully diminished rapidly once she fell out of the bed and onto the floor with a heavy thud and an “oof!”
The noise woke Janice. Who sleepily peered over the bed at her friend, sprawled on the floor in her slip. “Mel? Whaddya doin’ down there? You woke me up,” she grumped with gentle irritation.
“Uh, nothing, Janice.”
“I was taking up too much space, wasn’t I? Come back up. I promise I won’t push you out again.” Janice rolled over to the other side of the bed.
“It’s okay, Janice. I’m getting up anyway. I’ve got to get to the consulate.”
“Oh yeah, your passport. Maybe I’ll come with you…” And then Janice was asleep again.
Melinda Pappas lay on the scratchy gray rug of the floor, staring up into ceiling cracks, and cursing-in a non-profane, genteel Southern way, of course-whatever fate that was torturing her.
And so they went to their separate lives, with some inexplicable, ineffable thread now connecting them. Janice did find Jack (“I didn’t hurt him, just smacked him around a little,” she had reassured Mel through a crackling, long-distance phone connection) and the scrolls, but-given the war and its consequential dangers to one perpetually in motion as Janice was-she opted to leave the majority of the scrolls with him, believing it to be the safest location for the time being: Who would expect precious, priceless artifacts to be in…New Jersey? But, in time, many of the documents found themselves on their way down South, into the hands of a certain lovestruck translator.
Mel was still smiling wistfully, recalling that first night when she literally slept with Janice, when a heavy wooden door opened and a grim British officer with a crewcut motioned her inside his office. As put off as she was at his severe, soldierly look, she was ever optimistic and believed his gruffness, like Anton’s, was all for show.
She was rather wrong.
Major Pendleton (for that was his name) seemed to think she was nothing more than some little American idiot looking for adventure. (Perhaps true three years ago, she thought, but not now.) He was, however, both impressed and perturbed that she knew classified information. She took the blame for that, and said she went through Anton’s papers while he was sick. It seemed to assuage him a bit. “I assure you,” he reiterated smugly, “we have the situation quite in hand.”
If, by the situation, he meant Catherine, she doubted it: “If that is true, why haven’t you captured her? What do you want from her?”
He sighed. “You know I can’t tell you that.”
“I know.” It just doesn’t hurt to ask. Like Anton said. She frowned. And idea occurred to her, yet she wasn’t sure if she could pull it off. “I could help you,” she said, hesitantly.
He snorted. “Miss Pappas, how on earth could you help us? Do enlighten me. The fact that you know her and went to university with her is of little use to me.”
“It wasn’t just that I knew her as a friend. You could say I knew her very…intimately.” She let her voice dip into huskiness. She knew how aroused Janice became when she spoke like this, and while it was not her intention to excite this man, she wanted to convey a very certain message to the major about herself, and Catherine. She crossed her long legs for emphasis, and was suddenly glad she opted to wear a skirt instead of pants, when she noticed how his eyes traveled up and down her legs.
He then blinked in confusion as he digested her words, and groped for a meaning that he knew was hidden. “So you were…very good friends?”
“It went beyond friendship.” She forced her voice to retain a vaguely sexy tone.
“Beyond…?” he trailed off. She was beginning to think she would have to resort to some crude phrasing a la Covington (I fucked her, Major) when she noticed his eyes narrow and his jaw slacken. “Good Lord. I never would have pegged you for that type.”
“That’s why she came to me recently, Major.” Again, the confused look. She sighed. “She wants to renew our…involvement.”
“I see.” Actually, he didn’t. Weren’t women like this usually in prisons, or wearing men’s clothing, or something like that?
She moistened her dry lips. “I’m offering myself as bait, Major.” Do I need to be any plainer?
His admiration of her legs stopped, and he scrutinized her closely. “Why?”
“I have a friend at Neuschwanstein. Stoller knows this. I think my friend’s life is in danger, that Catherine will hurt her in some way, as retaliation against me.”
“Because you rejected her?”
“More or less.”
“And you have another…’friend’?” He sneered a little, caught between fascination and disgust. “Another woman?” he asked, almost incredulous.
“American. A WAC.”
“You certainly get around, don’t you?”
I’ll endure your insults all day if I have to. “If that’s what you want to think.”
He leaned back in his leather chair and idly drummed his fingers. “I never thought this operation would turn into some love triangle amongst inverts.” He contemplated the matter further, then stood up and walked around the desk until he was right beside her. “All right. I would like to have your help. But you must remember: This is not about you, nor your…women. We have a mission to do. Play your part, and everything will be fine.” His hand strayed and he touched her hair. She did not flinch, but he saw her nostrils flare. He took the warning and withdrew. “You’re quite lovely. It’s a shame, really.”
Yes. It’s a shame the world finds me a freak just because I love. Just because I’m flesh and blood. Like you.
She stared at the bottle of bourbon upon the table. The rich amber liquid was pretty to look at. She had never drank bourbon in her life; indeed, in past few years she had drank very little. She recalled having a rum and coke with Jack Kleinman at her hotel in New York almost two years ago, and a glass of champagne at a New Year’s party a year before that…She had grown leery of alcohol, since her excessive drinking at Cambridge, even though she attributed the ill effect it had on her more to the problems between her and Catherine, and the latter’s self-destructive influence, than to anything else.
And Janice? Janice drank a lot; it was hard not to when much of her social life in the military was spent in pubs and the like. But she knew how to pace herself, and she knew when to stop. Mel had only seen her companion really drunk on one occasion, and that was the evening before she left for Germany.
And tomorrow I go to Germany. I hope I find you there. Alive. She wanted to fly out today, but the briefing with the OSS took longer than she anticipated, and they insisted that she wait until morning, until they organized a transport for her. So tonight I’ll drink to you, my love. Perhaps this will help me sleep. And not dream that you’re dead. Or lost to me somehow. She took a crystal tumbler from the liquor cabinet and poured a sliver of bourbon in it. She drew a deep breath, as if preparing to run a mile, then grabbed the glass and downed the shot. The bourbon burned a path down her esophagus, and the aftertaste, to her palate, held a tinge of vomit. She groaned in hoarse disgust. How does Janice drink this stuff? I should just stick to champagne. Or Earl Grey, better yet.
There was a knock at the door. Her heart lurched. Could it be… She jumped up, almost knocking over the glass before snaring it with her long hand. …she’s come back… She walked to the door, unconsciously smoothing back her already sleek hair. …to me? She opened it. It was indeed a woman in uniform, but not Janice. This WAC was slender and dark-haired: A friend of Janice’s. Mel had met her once. But she could not recall the woman’s name.
“Hiya, Mel!” the woman greeted her.
It was also disconcerting to be called Mel by someone other than Janice. She wasn’t sure if she liked that. “Hi,” Mel responded meekly. “I’m sorry, but I don’t recall your name…”
The woman extended a hand, laughing. Mel took it and was jerked forward by the powerful handshake. “You don’t remember? I’m Sally Phillips. How are ya?”
“Ah, yes, you’re Janice’s friend. I’m fine, thank you-”
“No, you’re not. You look like hell, if you don’t mind my sayin’.” Automatically Mel inspected her immaculate clothes and felt around her bun for stray hair. Did she have something in her teeth? “It’s your eyes,” Sally supplied. “Bags. Of course, if we all looked as bad as you on your worst day, the world would be a damn sight more attractive, if ya don’t mind my sayin’ so.”
“Not that I’m a dyke or anything, but if anyone could make me swing, it’d be you.” Sally’s eyes bulged in embarrassment and she clapped her hand over her mouth. Then slowly removed it. “Jesus, I haven’t even had anything to drink and I’m already acting like an asshole. Better not tell Janice I said that or she’ll punch me out.”
“She’s really not that much of a brute,” Mel countered, feeling the need to defend (or defuse) Janice’s reputation as a hothead. “So, er, Sally, how can I help you?”
The WAC held up a satchel. “Well, ya see, when Janice got transferred she left behind some stuff. Nothing big. Just some papers, mostly. Before she took off she asked me if I would take ’em over to you.”
Mel wanted to weep. If I ever see her again! But instead she said: “Thank you. I’ll keep it for her.” Sally handed the bag to her. She noticed the WAC eyeing the bottle of bourbon on the table. Oh, confound it all, manners. “Would you like a drink before you go?”
“Love one!” Sally chortled enthusiastically. They walked over to the table and Mel produced a clean glass for her guest.
“Would you do the honors?” Mel asked, nodding at the bottle. The sergeant grinned, and poured generous amounts in both tumblers. “I never figured you for the drinking type, if ya don’t mind my saying so.”
“I’m not. Just thought I would…you know…” The scholar trailed off lamely. Drink myself into unhappy oblivion before I traipse off after someone who may not be in love with me anymore? And maybe get myself killed? And get her killed as well?
Sally blinked at her. “No, I don’t know.”
“Never mind,” Mel sighed, raising her glass. “Cheers.”
A loud clink Then Sally drained the tumbler in two seconds flat. “Damn! That hits the spot.” She looked at Mel, who sipped at the bourbon as if it were hemlock-laced tea.
“I guess I was right. You aren’t the drinking type. Well, looky, I gotta get back to base. You tell that girl of yours to keep in touch with us, okay? ”
“I will,” Mel mumbled. With a hearty backslap that left Mel feeling as if she would cough up a lung, the sergeant departed.
She closed the door and stared at the satchel-it was actually a medic’s bag-containing Janice’s personal items, things that she had carried with her through the war. Mel opened it, all the while feeling a sense of violation-should I be looking at this stuff? Even though she asked Sally to give it to me…. Maybe she found something about the scrolls? Despite everything else, we still have that interest. That bond. Her curiosity won out and she opened the flap. Admit it, you fraud, you wanted to look, she chastised herself.
The first items she pulled out of recesses of the bag were a crushed, half-empty pack of Gauloises and, to Mel’s horror and disgust, an old crust of moldy bread, wrapped in wax paper. Both items were promptly flushed down the toilet. After scrubbing her hands vigorously, she returned to the bag. There she found a bunch of loose papers in a book-a French dictionary-wrapped together with twine. And a hair clasp. Mel’s hair clasp, one of her favorites: old pearl, faded to whorls of smoky gray and creamy white. She had been wearing it the night they first made love, back in Charlotte. She had never been able to find it afterwards. And this was why. She smiled. Of course. She took it. That thief. That beautiful little thief. The sensation of holding it in her hand brought the moment back to her: They were in her kitchen, with Janice kissing her, mouth warm and sweet and insistent, the tanned hands in her hair, the clasp loosening and that little anal retentive part of her waiting to hear the clasp clatter on the floor, but it didn’t, and she didn’t know where it went, time felt suspended somehow as she waited to hear the sound, and then her hair was unfurled and Janice was running her hands through it, fingers delicately brushed against her scalp, the tingles along her body which mellowed into a deep throbbing somewhere on their journey down her spine. And then it didn’t matter. Nothing else mattered, except what was happening to her: Falling. Falling in love.
It’s a wonder we made it to the bedroom that night, she thought. She remembered suggesting it to Janice that they take it upstairs, and to her surprise the little archaeologist had agreed. Naturally, Mel had expected that, as a lover, Janice would be as stubborn as she normally was, as both a friend and professional colleague. It had been pleasing to discover…otherwise. She smiled, and gently pulled on the thread that held together papers-old duty rosters, maps, and, tucked inside the dictionary, a piece of paper, folded in thirds like a letter. It was a letter, she discovered, reading her own name at the top:
September 25, 1944
I don’t know why I never call you that. It’s a beautiful name.
So we shall see with this letter if I am indeed descended from a bard-if words fall from my cheap pen the way they flowed from Gabrielle’s quill. I’ll confess here-something I never had the guts (or time) to tell you-that Gabrielle is the real thing. Her words are a thing of beauty. It took your translations to make me see that-my own renderings were flat and sank like a stone. It took you to make me see a lot of things. Maybe someday I’ll tell you.
I write this from a hospital unit. I was wounded-a Nazi soldier shot me in the leg. I was lucky and found by GIs before I bled to death on a road near Reims. Believe it or not, this was not the worst part: I saw one of my oldest friends die before my eyes on that day as well. I must have mentioned Dan Blaylock to you, somewhere along the way. I’m sure I did. I hadn’t seen him since the war started, until I got to London and found out he was stationed there. Well, he’s dead now. I watched him die, and I could do nothing about it.
I think I’m rambling a little. I’m not telling you this so you’re sorry for me. I don’t know why I’m telling you this, or why I’m even trying to write to you. I can imagine that you probably never want to hear from me again, and I can’t say that I blame you. But if you’ve read this far, maybe you do care, maybe you still feel something for me.
I am sorry I ran away from you the way I did. There was a part of me that wanted so badly to stay in that bed, that room, that house, with you, forever. I was frightened by the power of what I felt. You see, I was already terribly in love with you (that sounds really British-I guess I’ve spent too much time in London). I should have told you then, instead of running from you like a thief in the night. (And I was a thief too, since I took that thingy that you wore in your hair. It was pretty, and it smelled like you. You know how archaeologists are. We’re always after the artifacts. And sometimes we lose sight of the real objective.)
I’ve been lying around here for almost two goddamn weeks (now that sounds more like me, doesn’t it?), and I’ve had a lot of time to think. I’ve been transferred to a medic unit in Brittany, because they’re planning on shipping me back to London. It’s pretty here-well, I think it’s pretty, anyway; most of the guys here think it’s gray and ugly. The landscape is bare, and the coast is rocky. It has a sparse kind of beauty. This place is run by nuns. Can you believe it? I’m in a fucking convent. Some major breezed through here yesterday and said something about my getting a commendation. For what? I wanted to ask. For watching someone die? It’s not the bullets in the leg that bother me, but this whole place. This whole situation. This whole war-I am sick with it.
And what makes it worse is that day by day I miss you more and more. I thought if I broke it off with you and joined the army, I would forget you. I was hoping something would kill me-maybe not a literal death, but that something would kill the part of me that loved you, the part that I thought was weak because I needed you so much. It turns out, now, that this is the best part of me-you’re the best part of me. Because this whole thing has been a sham: I can’t forget you. If I said that I never want to see you again, if I said that I don’t want you, if I said that if I would not surrender my soul to you in second-I ‘d be lying. Every time.
I love you like crazy. The world, the scrolls, even our ancestors be damned. Sacrilege, isn’t it? But my love for you breaks every rule.
After reading it, Mel laid back on the bed for a long time. She felt strangely elated, and curious: A letter never sent. Why? But…she’s sending it to me…now. That’s why she sent Sally over here with this bag. She wanted me to see it. Didn’t she? Again, the old hesitancy. The old doubts. But she closed her eyes, and the questions stilled as she brushed the paper against her lips.
I have chased you through the centuries.
Sometimes you eluded me. Sometimes not. Who slit your throat in a brothel, as you lay, sated by sex and lulled by opium? Distracted, were you? Because the whore you chose had golden hair and green eyes, and the moment you laid eyes on her you felt like you knew her forever? That was Constantinople, in the last century. (Strange, how did such an Aryan-looking sex toy end up at the gateway to the Muslim world? She must’ve been very popular, don’t you think?) She, your precious one, could not save you-in fact, she watched you die, and that was most pleasing to me. And you could not save yourself. Even better. But then, who snapped my neck in a Venetian cul-de-sac three hundred years before? You, of course. We’ve been doing this routine forever, we’re doomed to it. I scratch your back, you stab mine…remember?
Something had to give. I hated you for so long that I think I fell in love with you somewhere along the line. We came full circle. Make no mistake, in whatever incarnation, you’ve always been beautiful. I even thought that when you laid waste to my home-at the beginning of our history. I thought, who is that magnificent stranger, with blue eyes and black hair, with her fancy armor? I remember how your hair flitted across your face-like black smoke, then revealing the clear blue day of your eyes-as you surveyed my ruined village, my dead life. Nonetheless, I wanted to be like you. You looked so strong, I thought nothing could ever hurt you. It was a child’s idle wish. But lo and behold, I did become like you, like the ruthless bitch you were at the height of your infamy.
This has long been my secret, something I could not even tell myself: I hated you, but I loved you too. This time…I wanted to love you entirely, completely. I wanted it to be different-in the hopes that it would bring an end to this history of ours. And you did fall in love with me this time, to my astonishment. Would it all end, the hate? The anger? After a while I wasn’t sure that I really cared. It felt too good. It was different this time, wasn’t it? It felt different for a while.
But nothing really changed. I would wake up in the morning with you in my bed, like a beautiful prize, a gift from the gods, and there were moments when I just wanted to slit your throat and be done with it again. Again. I wanted to kill you with a kiss. I wanted to be your Judas. And when I left you I thought I had ruined you, even for her: The bard. The whore. The archaeologist. Whoever she is this time.
I was stupid. I still am, because I want you back. The compulsion to continue the game usually outweighs my weariness of it all.
Do you remember the sacrifice she made for you? It was all so, very, very long ago. But you remember, don’t you? As she fell, I saw the way she looked at you. Her descent seemed fast and slow all at once. Or that’s the way I remember it. Perhaps that’s only because as human beings we have this thing called memory-which works like a camera, that great modern invention. You can play it any way you like. If you choose to dwell on that expression, it goes slow. If you cannot bear the anguish, it goes fast. And when you write it down, when you transcribe it…well, it seems that when we write down these memories, they become a history, somehow, however informal. I’ve had a lot of years to think about this, you know. So this is our secret history. This is what you are. This is what I am. And then there is the woman-your woman-who always comes between us. And here we are again. And again. We are all just shadows of those who lived before us.
Catherine opened her eyes. The dreams, that voice, those thoughts…again. I want them to stop. I hope they will–once I have done what I planned. I crave peace. Oblivion. The plane had tilted; they were about to land in Berlin, where they would be taken to Bavaria.
Covington was asleep too, or maybe just pretending to be: Her eyes were closed, but her body was erect, tense. But as the plane began its descent in earnest, the sea-green eyes of the WAC were upon her.
“We’re here,” Catherine announced.
“So I gathered,” grunted Janice with a full-body stretch.
“You’ll be going straight to the castle. Without me. I’m needed in Munich.”
Janice scratched her cheek and pretended indifference. Hurray! “I don’t understand why we didn’t fly directly to Munich.”
“The runway at Munich suffered much damage during the war. They like to avoid having large planes, bombers like these, landing there, until they have rebuilt it.” Catherine braced herself in for the landing. “Sergeant Lowry, from Neuschwanstein, will be escorting you there. He should be here to meet us.”
Indeed, as they disembarked from the plane, a jeep was pulling up to them. A young American sergeant jumped out and saluted smartly.
“Good day, Sergeant,” drawled Catherine in greeting. “Sergeant Lowry, this is Lieutenant Covington.”
“Lieutenant!” he barked, knocking off another salute.
Janice jumped. Oh yeah, I’m guess I’m an officer now, I get saluted and shit. “Hiya, kid!” she said, slapping him on the back. He looked rather hurt; he had expected a steely gaze, a terse greeting, and, gosh darn it, a salute. Instead, this woman had the nerve to treat him like an equal.
Catherine was amused by the young man’s disappointment; he could not hide it. “Lowry, would you get my bag out of the cargo hold?” The sergeant nodded, then walked away to the back of the plane. “You’ll have to forgive Lowry. He’s only been in the military for three months. He’s never seen anyone blown to bits before, so the glamour of military life has remained intact.” Lowry returned with the bag. “Isn’t that right, Lowry?”
The young man, returning with the bag, blinked. “Ma’am?”
“Never mind.” Catherine picked up her bag, grinning. “All right, to the train station.”
Catherine sighed the sigh of the impatient, the put-upon. “What is it, Lowry?”
“Colonel Brinton instructed me to avoid the train station, ma’am. He said Werwolf activity on the rails has increased in the past month, and he doesn’t want to risk anyone getting injured.”
Janice, who had been leaning against the jeep with arms folded during the exchange, echoed, “Werwolf?”
The blonde OSS turned to her. “The Werwolf are Nazi partisan fighters. Guerrillas who specialize in sabotage. And assassination.”
“But the war is over. They’re fighting a battle already lost.”
Catherine laughed. “Not according to the Werwolf.” Just as quickly, her laughter receded and she turned back to Lowry, glaring. “And Brinton thinks we’ll be safer on the open road? He’s a fool. There’s more security on a train. More people, more military personnel.”
More things that they can sabotage: engines, tracks, wheels… Janice thought.
“Ma’am,” Lowry mumbled in reply. Is that all that kid can say? Janice wondered.
“Well, Lieutenant, what do you think?” Catherine asked mildly.
Janice arched an eyebrow. “This is your show, Stoller. I mean, I hate to see the kid get in trouble…” she nodded toward Lowry. The young sergeant squirmed at being called a “kid.”
“Yes, we don’t want little Lowry to be court-martialed.” She sighed. “very well. We’ll drive. It won’t be as quick as the train.”
Lowry frowned. “Ma’am, if you feel more comfortable on the trains, than I suggest we take them.”
“Heavens, Lowry, and they call women fickle!” Catherine grinned flirtatiously at the boy. Janice rolled her eyes. “Shall we take the train, Lieutenant?”
“For Christ’s sake, let’s do something,” Janice complained.
Catherine arched an irritated eyebrow at Janice. “The train it is, then.” The jeep headed to the Berlin train station. As they drove through the streets, and a none too surprising amount of checkpoints, Janice witnessed the devastation of Berlin. She was, at this point, no stranger to the manifold damages of war. But this…the rubble, the hollow, hungry faces…the sheer amount of the damage alone took it to a new level.
Stoller, she saw, was unusually quiet for a while. They stopped at a corner for a truck to pass in the opposite direction, and witnessed a small gang of youths chasing a middle-aged man down the street.Verräter! Schwein! The screams drifted back to them and Janice watched the activity, craning her neck and turning around in her seat. She was almost tempted to jump out and intercede in the fray, but, as if Stoller could read her mind, the OSS agent laid a restraining hand on her shoulder. “Leave it, it is not our concern,” she commanded crisply. As the pursuant group rounded the corner, Lowry pulled the jeep away. Guiltily, Janice mentally kicked herself for letting herself be forced into passivity.
Catherine observed Janice’s baleful look out the window. Interfering little fool. She decided a diversionary tactic was in order. “You’ve been to Berlin before, Lieutenant Covington.”
Janice glared at her suspiciously. “Once, maybe twice.”
“Two times, both in 1938, both with your father,” Catherine corrected proudly. “Once in July, then three months later, in October. On your second trip you kept company with a certain cabaret singer named Sally Bowles, who, at various times, was thought either to be a Nazi informant or a British intelligence agent.” Catherine wanted to laugh at the stunned expression and slackened jaw of Covington. “Despite Miss Bowles’s strong preference for those of the opposite sex, it was reported that she did seem…inordinately fond of you.”
Jesus Christ, is nothing sacred? wondered Janice. “So you guys have a file on me,” she growled.
Catherine chuckled. “We have a file on everybody. Especially you. Surely you knew that your father was suspected of being a Nazi sympathizer, because of his dealings with the Ahnenerbe. And naturally it was assumed you might have similar inclinations.”
“He sold a few things to them. That didn’t make him a Nazi.” Janice paused, recalling the violent rows she’d had with Harry about that; that was why she had tagged along to Berlin in ’38, in the hopes of dissuading him from selling some artifacts, most notably a sword that may or may not have belonged to the Warrior Princess. But he was broke-the last of his money was used on her schooling. “Just like your being part German doesn’t make you a Nazi…necessarily,” she added pointedly.
Catherine raised an eyebrow in surprise. “And did you get hold of a file on me?”
“No. Mel told me, of course.” See, I dare to bring up the name of the woman we both love.
“Do you always call her that?”
“Mel.” Catherine repeated emphatically, making a long, horse-face of distaste.
“Yeah. I guess I do.”
“Pity. Melinda is a much nicer name, don’t you think?”
“It is. But life’s too short to waste on extra syllables. So,” Janice continued, returning bluntly and inelegantly to the German question, “you are part German?”
“I am,” Catherine acknowledged. “I grew up in Berlin. This was my home…” she trailed off. “And it’s nothing now. It’s ruins.” Her voice was as flat and dead as the cityscape they surveyed.
“I’m sorry.” Janice meant it.
“You are, aren’t you?” The blonde gave her a surprised look. “I don’t expect sympathy from you, Covington.”
How about a smack in that smug kisser of yours? “We’re here, and we have to get along, don’t we?”
The OSS agent smirked. They were quiet as jeep rolled along. Janice’s fingers drummed against its door. “You’ll pardon my asking…”
Catherine laughed. “You want to know what a Berlin-loving German is doing in the OSS. Right?”
“My parents were British citizens. When the Nazis came to power, we moved back to London. And when war broke out, I offered my services to OSS. I could speak German, of course, and I knew Berlin like the back of my hand. It would have been stupid of them not to use me.”
“Agreed,” Janice conceded.
“Yes. It’s nice to agree on something, isn’t it?”
The Berlin train station was a skeleton of its former elegant self, but nonetheless still functional. Currently it was overrun with military: Soviet, American, and British. Security was tight. Catherine flashed papers at a checkpoint at the station’s entrance, and the trio were granted entrance. Janice and Lowry trailed behind Catherine, who strode through the crowd with authority. They reached the edge of the mass, which revealed a long black, battered train sitting on a track, smoke curling from under its wheels.
“Here it is,” Catherine said. “I must get us boarding passes. Wait here, or-” she nodded at the almost empty train car, “go sit inside the train. They may let you wait there, since it is cold out. I’ll be back in ten minutes.” Without waiting for a response, the OSS agent disappeared back into the crowd.
Janice sat on the steps leading up into the train. She lit a cigarette. She did not mind the cold, but soon noticed that Lowry, who was only wearing a thin, summer-issue jacket, was hopping up and down to keep himself warm. She suddenly decided that she liked him: He had a sweet-natured lack of self-consciousness, and seemed more interested in the world, she thought-watching him eagerly scan his surroundings despite his coldness-than in himself. Like Mel, she realized. It’s getting pretty sad when even some dopey kid greener than the grass of home remind me of you, Mel. “C’mon, kid,” she said, “let’s sit inside.”
The car was empty, and it made Janice the slightest bit nervous. There was something surreal about an empty train car, she decided. It was quiet, ornate, waiting for possession. Lowry sat down with a happy sigh, warm once again, and she settled in across from him. “Is there no one else on this whole train?” she wondered aloud.
“I dunno, Lieutenant. Do you want me to look around?”
“Maybe,” she replied. “Give me a minute.” She looked out the window, hoping to see Stoller. While there were many people on the platform, most of them were military, and so it was relatively easy to pick out a tall, black-haired woman, wearing a fur-lined coat, striding purposefully through the station. She sat up. “Mel!” Her hand slammed against the window. Unfortunately, there was no way of opening it. “Damnit!” she snarled.
“Lieutenant…?” Lowry began uneasily.
“I’ll be right back!” She bolted from her seat, ran down the aisle, and was gone. From the window he saw her blend into the crowd; it looked like she was following some tall woman.
“Aw geez, Lieutenant!” he cried in dismay, and took off after her. His initial feeling-that Lieutenant Covington was going to be a little bit hard to handle-was turning out to be true.
She ran through the station to catch up with Mel. She even shouted Mel’s name a few times, to no avail; the din was too much for even her crass Yankee voice to carry. She bobbed and ducked through the crowd like a boxer, pummeling through them until her prize was in sight. She snagged Mel’s arm, and spun her around. “Hey!” she cried joyously, as the blue-eyed beauty stared at her in shock. Mel’s hair was down past her shoulders, and she wasn’t wearing glasses. Janice assumed that she was having one of those days where she was so preoccupied with something in her head that she forgot to put her glasses on before stepping out into the world (a common occurrence) or she simply misplaced them (ditto).
A huge grin lit up her tall companion’s face. They stood smiling at each other for what seemed like forever, until Mel seized her arm and dragged her away from the crowd, into an out-of-order restroom, marked as such in about four different languages. They burst into the dimly lit urinal. The tall woman kicked the door shut with a powerful thrust from a long, limber leg, slammed Janice against a wall, and kissed her savagely.
Janice surrendered into the kiss, putting aside her initial surprise; while Mel could be quite aggressive while making love, she never indulged in anything that bordered on this kind of impropriety in a public space (the lone exception being a frantic kiss-and-grope session in Kew Gardens a few months back), and certainly not with this measure of roughness. Her heart hammered wildly as persistent hands untucked her shirt. Mel pulled back as Janice gasped for air. Then the familiar face broke into a strange, predatory grin-something which made Janice tense with apprehension. Her sense of foreboding was well founded, for the voice which spoke to her possessed not a drawl of the American South, but a British working-class accent: “Hello, love.”
“Shit! Meg!” she screamed. The Nobel Prize in Sheer Stupidity? Right here, guys.
“Remember me then, eh?” Meg Edmondson could not wipe the lascivious smile off her face.
“Oh, shit….” Janice buried her face in her hands.
“Here now, you already said that. You’re glad to see me, aren’t you? You sure did seem glad a minute ago…” The Englishwoman’s large, wandering hands stroked Janice’s hips.
“What the hell are you doing in Berlin?” Janice spat.
“I’m engaged!” Meg announced proudly. “My fiancé, he’s a liaison officer here. I’m visitin’ him.”
“Yeah. Good bloke. Pots of money, treats me nice…and he’s not too bad in the sack,” she said wistfully, as if conjuring him out of thin air. But once again she turned her ravenous attentions on Janice. “But he don’t kiss as well as you do.” Her hands wandered up to Janice’s shoulders. “I still remember the first time you kissed me. You almost brought me to my knees. In fact, I reckon I did end on my knees later, didn’t I?” She leaned in for another assault on Janice’s lips.
“Stop!” Janice shrieked, blocking the woman with her hands, and hating the hysterical edge in her voice. I am not going to do this again. However tempting it may be. “You’re engaged!” And such a pertinent detail like this has stopped you…when?
Apparently such minutiae meant little to Meg as well. “So? I ain’t married yet, Janice, and I sure ain’t dead. And I can prove it to you.” She pinned Janice’s arms down against her sides and kissed her fully, once again.
A boom filled their ears, shattering glass, rattling buildings, and rumbling through the ground. They stumbled and fell forward, with Janice falling on top of her ardent admirer, who moaned. An explosion outside, Janice’s mind registered. She looked down at Meg, who stared back up at her with dazed blue eyes and a rather silly smile. “Are you all right?” she asked the Englishwoman.
“Christ all mighty, they always say that the earth is supposed to move, but this is ridiculous.”
The door burst open. “Lieutenant!” It was Lowry, gun drawn. “Are you…injured?” He trailed off lamely at the sight of Janice atop a gorgeous woman.
Janice rolled off of the too-willing Meg. “I’m fine, I’m fine. What the hell happened?”
“A bomb, Lieutenant. On our train,” he supplied tersely. She saw the fear and relief in his drawn face.
Our train. She sat there, numb. And how coincidental was that? Plus the fact that Stoller wasn’t anywhere near the train. Just what the hell is going on? Or am I being totally paranoid?
“Hey!” Meg said to Janice, breaking her frantic chain of thought. “You’re a bloody lieutenant now! Congratulations!”
“Yeah, thanks.” The women stood up, Janice dusting herself off, and Meg scowling with dismay at dirt on her very expensive coat. “Come on. We’ve got to find Stoller,” Janice said to Lowry.
The sergeant nodded, and moved through the doorway.
Janice started to follow him, but took a moment to watch Meg fuss with her coat. “You’re a lifesaver, you know that?” she said quietly.
“What?” The Englishwoman looked up at her.
“Nothing. I gotta go. See you in the funny papers.”
Meg grabbed Janice’s hand. “Wait!”
The contact was intoxicating. “Look, I’ve got to go,” Janice repeated nervously. I just have to remind myself…however much you like Mel, you are not her.
“I have a hotel room,” the dark-haired woman proclaimed in a low voice. Of course, that accent is so sexy. Jesus, give me a woman with an accent and I’m practically in bed with my legs in the air.
“In case you haven’t noticed, a fucking bomb just went off. It’s not exactly the time for romance,” Janice snapped. But adrenaline was pumping through her, courtesy of the explosion…and she felt like either getting into a fight or getting laid. And while the former was a battle she would certainly lose with this strong, scrappy woman, the latter was one where they would both win…big time.
“All the better. You only live once, my girl.” With one long step she was pressed against Janice, a warm, inviting hand on the archaeologist’s arm.
“I have orders. I’m going to Bavaria.”
Her touch glided along Janice’s arm, her voice supremely confident. “You can spare a few hours, can’t you?” As if she could smell her impending victory.
Janice knew that she could. It would be all so easy: A nice room. A bottle of wine. A warm bed. A willing woman. A rough pleasure. But somehow it was not enough. Not anymore. “I can’t. You know I like you, Meg. You know that. And we could have a hell of a good time together. But I…can’t,” she repeated.
The Englishwoman, dropping her hand from Janice’s arm, seemed more curious than disappointed. “Why?”
“Do you remember…I told you once, that you looked like someone I knew back home?” Meg nodded. “That person…well, I love her more than anything. I’ve hurt her and screwed her over too many times…I’m not going to do it again.” She smiled ruefully. “Even though she may never want to see me ever again.”
Meg looked shocked. “Bloody hell, Janice. You’ve gone all noble on me!”
“It…has nothing to do with being noble…I, uh…” She felt embarrassed, wearing her heart on her sleeve like this. Articulation fled from her mind and her mouth. “Do…do you understand?”
Meg grinned in such a way that it reminded her of Mel. “Oh God, you damned fool. You’re in love. And here I thought you were a practical girl, like me.” She shook her head, laughing. “All right, all right. I understand. Now get going, and try not to get that pretty head of yours blown off, all right?”
“Yeah.” Janice smiled back. “And you…get outta here too. This place is dangerous.”
The Englishwoman snorted in disdain. “Whole bloody country is dangerous. Don’t worry, love, it would take a lot to kill me.”
“Somehow I believe that.” She started for the door.
“Yeah?” The archaeologist paused in the doorway.
“This woman-whoever she is. She’s real lucky.”
God, a real compliment from Meg! Other than “Hey, you screw pretty well for a girl.”
“No,” Janice said, smiling. “I’m real lucky.” She left the bathroom. Lowry stood right outside, his tense posture somewhere between standing at attention and feeling constipated. His cheeks were reddened with embarrassment.
She sighed. “All right, kid, what did you hear?”
“Nothing that concerns me, Lieutenant.”
She stroked her chin thoughtfully, while regarding the smoky train station, which had grown even more chaotic in her brief absence. “That’s a good answer, Lowry.” She started to walk toward the crowd.
“Thank you, ma’am.” Lowry replied with a tiny grin, and fell into step behind her.
A hole had been ripped from the train they had been on. She saw no dead bodies, just dazed patrons, some lying on the ground, some sitting. The cacophony of languages rippled through the air, a Tower of Babel made anew: German, English, even some of the dreaded (to Janice) French. And Russian. Not a lot of blood. Good. But that blast…damn, it was strong. They saw a familiar blonde head approaching them, and she and the sergeant picked up their pace.
A smear of dirt ran across Catherine’s forehead, and her wrist was bandaged, although a blot of blood had seeped through the white gauze.
“Christ, Stoller, are you okay?” Janice asked, hands on hips, looking Catherine over.
The OSS agent nodded dismissively. She returned Janice’s visual evaluation with one of her own. “I’m fine…just a little, how do you say-knocked up?”
Janice bit the inside of her cheek. “Not quite. Knocked around is the expression.”
“Ah, yes. And I see you are both fine. I’m glad you ignored my request to stay near the
train-” She turned around to look at the smoky husk of the train. “Otherwise, there is no telling what may have happened to you.”
“Do they know where exactly the bomb was?” Janice asked.
“I think it was in the third car.”
And we were in the second. “So we might have been dead ducks. ‘Cause it was a hell of a blast.”
“Yes,” Catherine assented, then smiled strangely. “Dead ducks. Americans have such an intriguing way with language.” Her eyes met Janice’s. Then, just as suddenly, she broke off the inscrutable gaze and looked toward an exit. “Well! I don’t know about the both of you, but I have had more than enough excitement for one afternoon. Lowry, get a damned jeep and additional military escort for us. We’re driving to Fussen.”
The sergeant nodded, saluted, and disappeared. Leaving the two women staring at the wrecked train.
“Who do you think did this?” Janice remarked casually, all the while watching the OSS agent warily.
“The Werwolf, of course. Who else?”
“Why this train? Why here?”
Catherine tucked a strand of loose, curling blond hair around her ear. “You ask that as if you expect me to know.”
“It just doesn’t make sense to me. Lowry and I seemed to be the only people on that train.”
“Are you suggesting that you are a target?” Amusement tickled the OSS agent’s voice.
Janice’s false laughter rang like a dissonant bell. “Yeah, pretty funny, isn’t it? I mean, who would want me dead?”
Catherine’s already dark eyes grew even blacker. “Not me,” she replied firmly.
Her hands rode on her hips, a skeptical sneer on her face. “Shit, lady, am I really supposed to believe that?”
Catherine’s hand flew up to Janice’s face so quickly that the archaeologist barely had time to flinch. But instead of the blow that Janice had expected once she saw the fleshy blur, the hand gently cupped her chin. “I would be the first to admit that Melinda would look quite fetching in widow’s weeds. But competing with a dead lover is a thousand times harder than a living, flesh and blood rival.”
Despite many widely held beliefs to the contrary, Janice Covington was no fool. She could smell the danger in this woman, the violence underneath the cool exterior, waiting to be unleashed, and hence she made no attempt to remove Stoller’s hand from her face. But-Janice being Janice-she did not shut up. “All the same, I’m not a great believer in coincidence,” she retorted calmly.
Catherine dragged a thumb along the lieutenant’s smooth, red lips. Feeling the tremor of disgust, and knowing the thin line between it and desire. I could bring you to your knees, if I wanted to. Everything is so black and white with you, isn’t it, Covington? No in-between. No shadows. “Believe what you will. All the same, you are among the living.”
Part IV: Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi
It did not take heaps of common sense to discern that a baseball-loving, Tommy Dorsey-humming, cigar-chomping, blue-plate-special kinda gal like Janice Covington in no way enjoyed opera. Not even the exhortations, encouragement, arguments or cajolings of her beloved companion, Melinda Pappas, could sway her on this matter. And Mel had tried her best. One afternoon, several months ago, she had forced Janice to listen to her favorite opera, the “delightful” (or so Mel called it) L’incoronazione di Poppea, by Monteverdi. The archaeologist had congratulated herself on falling asleep only once, and on not hurling the records out the window like an aspiring discus thrower. All that yammering about dying. If everyone acted like that, no one would ever die! she had thought at the time.
But here, there was no Mel. She was trapped in the castle of King Ludwig, an opera-loving madman who had painted fresco after fresco inspired by various Wagnerian operas throughout his ostentatious, fairy-tale castle. Talk about poetic justice, Mel, she thought.
She sat at a desk in the part of the castle known as the Kemenate: “the house of women.” Except there was nothing terribly female about the room, except (perhaps) Janice herself: The walls illustrated scenes from the manly Lohengrin, which were partially obscured by crate after crate of documents. Some days it was fascinating work, and other days Janice felt as if she wore nothing more than a glorified secretary, as she slogged through mounds of papers and books, translating what she could, writing up reports, repacking items…she groaned as she stared at yet another Torah scroll and blew hot breath into her cupped, cold hands. The castle was swell to look at, but damned if it wasn’t freezing half the time.
“I hate this,” she said aloud, softly, and forgetting she wasn’t alone.
Lieutenant Paul Rosenberg, an American musicologist and less reluctant prisoner of the castle keep, was perched on a table near hers, his legs crossed comfortably; like her, he was going through Judaica, but his Hebrew was better than hers and he was having a quicker time of it. For the past hour he had witnessed her periodical scowling at the Lohengrin fresco that faced her. “Doesn’t anything impress you, Covington?” he remarked wryly from his berth.
She blinked, startled. “I feel like this thing has eyes,” she said.
“It does,” he replied simply, gesturing to the fresco and, more specifically, to the large, lapis lazuli eyes of one perfect specimen of Aryan manhood.
“You know what I mean. It stares at me.” Suddenly she realized how absurd she sounded.
“Nonsense. You’re just looking for an excuse to hate it.”
“Look, I know you like this sort of thing, but it just isn’t up my alley.”
Rosenberg laughed. He was a tall, lanky man with thick dark hair and a droll, deep voice. She liked him-he was funny, smart, and good company. He grew up in Brooklyn, so they had a New York bond in common (since much of her childhood had been spent in Manhattan, and nowadays whenever she was in the States, that’s usually where she was). Rosenberg swore that he knew her from New York, that he had seen her somewhere before, he just wasn’t sure where, exactly.
“What are you talkin’ about? This place is a total kick. You’ve seen those chairs downstairs, right? The ones you sit on and water shoots up your ass?”
“Yeah,” she said dourly, recalling the big wet stain on the seat of her khakis.
“Can you not love a guy that wild?” He spread his arms wide. “This is like a fairy-tale castle. Ludwig was crazy enough-and rich enough-to indulge his dreams. Didn’t you have those daydreams when you were a kid, where you were a princess in the castle, waiting to be rescued by a brave knight?”
“No, did you?”
“Sure, I did!” he agreed enthusiastically.
“Oh, so you wanted to be a princess?”
She laughed as he scowled. “Very funny, Covington.”
“I was never much of the princess type,” she added.
Talk about stating the obvious, he thought. “Yeah. You’re the brave knight, rescuing and schtupping the princess…”
Ah, he’s figured me out. A wry smirk. “How could you tell?”
“Listen, honey, half the WACs are queer anyway, so it’s a process of elimination. Plus you don’t have a ring on that finger of yours, and it’s kinda surprising someone as pretty as you isn’t married.”
“Such flattery, Rosenberg!” Janice said, with exaggerated flutter of eyelashes.
“And you know what?”
“I bet some broad has her hooks in you, right?” He grinned lasciviously.
If Janice had learned anything from Mel, it was the fine art of Southern Lady Subterfuge-pretending not to know something that both you and the other person knew that you knew. Or something like that.So she straightened her back, raised an eyebrow, and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” It was all she could do to avoid throwing in a syrupy, fake Southern accent.
He jumped up from the table and wandered over to the record player that sat in a corner. The only records they had were, of course, endless stacks of German lieder. Which he loved, but he could tell-seeing the way her sharp eyes grew slit-like whenever he picked up a record-that she was more than sick of hearing “singing Krauts.” “Come on, Janice. Spill it. I’m bored as all fuck here. Tell me about your girl. Or else I’ll play Carmina Burana again.” He balanced the record of Carl Orff’s masterpiece on his fingertip and spun it.
Her shoulders slumped and she scowled. She drummed her fingers upon the table. “What exactly do you want to know?” she growled, expecting the usual prurient response.
“Well, uh…where is she?” Eagerly, he clasped together his large hands. Finally, he thought, some dirt. For a heterosexual gentleman, he had an uncommon love of gossip.
“London,” Janice replied, moodily.
“She a WAC too?”
“English?” he asked, with a glint in his eyes. He’d had much luck with British ladies while he was stationed in London.
“Are you gonna stop giving me one syllable answers?” His assault on the emotional fortress known as Covington was, unfortunately, turning into an informational Waterloo.
The Munich Collecting Point was a long, stately gray building that took up an entire city block; formerly it had housed the Munich headquarters of the Nazi party. Only one of two Collecting Points in Germany at that time, it was properly and fully guarded unlike many of the haphazard, impromptu repositories for art throughout Europe. American guards were posed at the entrance, cradling rifles. A dark car pulled to a halt in front of this entrance, and the soldiers tensed in anticipation, then relaxed perceptibly as a woman, well-groomed, well-dressed, and very beautiful, exited the vehicle. Her black coat flared in the cold wind as she strode up to them. Without a word she pulled documents from her handbag and showed them to one of the guards. He nodded, and deferentially stood aside as she sailed through the doorway.
The adrenaline that churned through Mel’s body was, so far, making her mission easy. Mission. I have a mission, she reminded herself. You will be the ultimate distraction, Pendleton had said to her, with his arms held wide open, in a dramatic, Christ-like gesture she had seen from many a religious tableau and many a cheap, self-indulgent preacher. I envy Stoller. But the true test, Mel thought, as a small, slender man-austere-looking, with gray hair-approached her, would be seeing her again.
“Fraulein?” The man posed his greeting as a question.
“I’m looking for Catherine Stoller,” Mel responded in German. “I’m a friend.”
“A friend?” he echoed, as if it were impossible that the intelligence agent had any such figures in her life. “Your name?”
He looked surprised. “I am Karl Isberg.” He extended a hand. She took it. “Follow me, Fraulein.” Together they walked across the foyer. She tried not to look too astounded at the sheer chaos that surrounded them. Boxes, paintings leaning up against walls, some covered, some not. A rather large one was half-wrapped in what appeared to be a velvet curtain and sash. And something else …lying nakedly on a table, awaiting, beckoning…a sword. One moment she was looking at it from a distance, the next it was in her hand, and her blood surged, and its inchoate roar crowded her senses for a few seconds. Then it faded, and died.
The German was staring at her in astonishment.
“Nice…sword,” she said, timidly.
“Do you see that man over there?” Isberg nodded at a tall laborer, about six-foot-five and muscular, who was nailing together a large crate at the opposite end of the entrance hall.
“Every time he lifts that sword, he complains how heavy it is.”
Effortlessly she hefted the broad sword. “I suppose it is a little on the heavy side…”
The German stroked his bare chin in a thoughtful manner. “Do you know anything about swords? Weaponry?”
“No, not really.”
“It’s an intriguing piece. Bronze, but the design work is so sophisticated, I wonder if it’s from a later period….”
“No,” she said softly. “It’s not. Trust me.” With an apologetic smile, she laid the sword down and they proceeded through the hall.
“Are you British?” Karl asked as they walked. “Forgive me, I am just curious,” he added with a smile.
“No. I’m American.”
They turned down a dim hallway, and Karl knocked lightly upon a closed door. When there was no answer, he gingerly opened it and walked in, with Mel trailing behind him. He frowned. “She must have stepped out for a moment. Would you like to wait here for her?”
“Yes, that will be fine, thank you.”
Again, he smiled easily. “I must say-you speak German very well. Almost like a native. I was quite surprised when you said you were American.”
“Yes, she does speak German beautifully, doesn’t she?” Catherine said from the doorway, as two pairs of blue eyes set upon her. “Hello, Melinda.” Her voice lowered as she greeted her reluctant guest.
“Hello, Catherine.” Mel hoped her nervousness-and what she knew-was not apparent. Your friend is now a liaison to the Werwolf, Pendleton had told her. She feeds scraps of knowledge about British intelligence work to these ragtag terrorists.
Catherine Stoller turned to her co-worker. “Karl. Would you leave us for a few minutes?”
Minutes. She had more than a few minutes. When you arrive in Munich, you’ll have to keep her preoccupied for at least half an hour. Just long enough so that she misses her rendezvous with Munich’s Werwolf leader. First we arrest him, then we pick up her. Neither one will know we have the other. And it will be interesting to see what stories they tell exclusive of one another.
He nodded. “Of course.” With the strange little half-bow that Germans do so well, Karl departed.
A good plan, she had told Pendleton.
I’m glad you approve, my little Southern Mata Hari, he had retorted sarcastically.
They stared at each other for what seemed a very long time. Mel gripped her purse tighter as she felt catapulted into the past. It’s all history. It means nothing. Janice Covington would disagree, wouldn’t she? The woman whose profession, whose very life, was devoted to resurrecting and reconstructing the lives of two ancient figures that most people in the profession thought were pure fiction, a made-up story like the Odyssey? I wish this were all some story I could go back and rewrite. But I can’t. It’s me. It’s part of me.
As she fumbled for something to say, Catherine beat her to the punch. “Do you remember that time we were in Alsace?” she said gently.
Mel stared into the dark eyes. “Yes, I do,” she replied quietly. And she did remember it very well. It was early on in their relationship. The warm flush of…infatuation. Desire. Long days in bed. Her body had felt alive. Her soul did not, but it was enough then just to feel…something. Like she wasn’t sleep-walking through life.
Catherine smiled, and recalled the time for both of them. “We borrowed my cousin’s car, and we got lost trying to find the way back to the schloss. I was so angry. More at myself than you, although I know I wasn’t pleasant company. It was getting dark, and we didn’t have a map, and I was too stubborn to ask for directions…then finally you made me pull over, and you asked that farmer for directions. In German.” She laughed.
Mel smiled. That attraction is still there, isn’t it? I didn’t know what to call it then. I thought I was in love: A beautiful person, cultured, intelligent, exotic, who was interested in me. But in the end she treated me no different than Joshua did: I was a prize. A trophy. It was different-had been different-with Janice. It hadn’t been unusual for her to wake up and catch Janice watching her: Sitting up in bed, hair disheveled, wrapped in an oversized shirt. I can’t believe you’re here, Janice had said once, not long after they were reunited in London. I can’t believe what you do to me, Melinda.
You’re crazy. That warm laugh. Would she hear it again? Sometime, somewhere?
“You surprised me-I hadn’t known you spoke German. And so well.” Catherine was saying.
“I can be…surprising.”
“You can. It’s very surprising that you’re here, Melinda.”
“I’m on my way to Neuschwanstein. But I wanted to see you first.”
“Really?” the blonde replied archly. “I thought you would bypass any social visits to be right at your lover’s side.”
“Well, I…” Mel stammered a little.
“You didn’t part on the best of terms with dear little Lieutenant Covington, did you?”
“No.” Not surprising she could figure that out; Janice is like an open book sometimes. Well, most of the time, actually.
Catherine snorted in delight. “She was quite sullen on our journey here.” She stepped closer to Mel, so close that the scholar could detect her perfume. It was sickeningly sweet. Catherine smiled again, but this time it wasn’t one gentled by nostalgia. She leaned into the scholar, her lips hovering near Mel’s ear. “You hit her, didn’t you?” she whispered, sounding eager for the affirmation.
Mel’s eyes widened. She pulled back to study the OSS agent. What the…? Then she quickly realized-Janice’s nose. The barroom brawl that the archaeologist had gotten into the night before she left had produced a swollen nose and a cut on the lip. She thinks I hit Janice! Her face darkened, then relaxed.
Play it to your advantage. “Yes,” she replied. She lowered her eyes, and hoped that awkwardness would carry the day and pose as guilt. “I suppose…it was obvious.”
“You shouldn’t leave such visible evidence of your handiwork, Melinda.” The OSS agent grinned. “Such a temper.” She let a hand stray along the sleeve of Mel’s coat, and, upon receiving no protest from the Southerner, continued to stroke it lightly. “I’m very glad I never got on your bad side. But I can see how such a brat like Covington could get on one’s nerves. She reminds me of Daphne sometimes.”
“She can be difficult,” Mel murmured. “But sometimes she’s…all right.” Even during the masquerade, she felt she must defend Janice somehow, and could not undo the compulsion.
“All right,” the blonde echoed flatly. “Quite a ringing endorsement. Is she all right in bed, dear? She has a nice body, I’ll grant you that.”
“Yes,” the scholar responded, mouth dry. Is this a betrayal, Janice? Will you forgive me this? Will I let you?
“Hmpf. She is a bad officer, whose personality is even worse…so it is heartening to hear she fucks well. Of course, I surmised as much from my initial meeting. I could not fathom what you could have possibly seen in her, aside from some base attraction.”
Be still, Mel cautioned herself. She swallowed. “I see you’ve acquired some new American curse words since the last time we met.”
“Yes, although I know you detest such language. But your little friend uses them all the time, I’ve noticed.” Catherine stated, stroking the soft dark sleeve of Mel’s coat. “Is she better than me?” Her fingers danced down the arm of the coat, then wrapped themselves around Mel’s hand.
The Southerner felt her body tremble, trying to restrain a full-fledged flinch. “Not better. Just different.” She knew it was a test, and that she would have to react very carefully.
“Always the diplomat, Melinda.” With that, the OSS agent pulled Mel closer, and they kissed. It was easy to let her body go and follow its own path. It was pleasurable, if she didn’t think about it too much, as a hand brushed her breast. She pulled away, needing air.
“You still feel something for me.”
“Yes,” Mel replied, not entirely lying. The lure of nostalgia, the desire to drown in the past. The blonde pressed her face into Mel’s neck, nuzzling it with kisses, while blue eyes quickly consulted the clock on the desk. “Can we…sit down?” she asked, with a hint of timidity. She shed her heavy coat, which tumbled to the floor.
“Of course, liebling.”
The leather couch rippled with squeaks as she sank into it, with Catherine sitting astride her lap. The blonde wasted no time in sliding her hand inside Mel’s blouse and squeezing her breast. She almost jumped. Forcing herself to be gentle, she grasped the OSS agent’s chin between thumb and forefinger. “Bitte…slow.”
The blonde’s dark eyes twinkled. “Naturlich, Melinda. You always preferred it…slow. It was good.”
Yes, but now it’s a delay tactic. She excelled at them-had always, since being (sort of) engaged to Joshua. That had been nothing but a long exercise in sexual frustration for them both, especially for him, as she struggled to determine exactly how she felt about him, and if she really wanted…it. She knew enough about sex to know she didn’t want to get pregnant. But she could only put him off with exclamations of “I’m a lady!” so often. And I seriously doubt it would work in this instance, she thought, as her blouse was unbuttoned. And so she had spent countless afternoons living her life as a bad French farce: pulling his hand from under her skirt, refastening her bra after he had unhooked it with one hand (and how had he done that?), being chased around the divan and wrestled on the rug….This feels like senior year all over again, she thought miserably, as Catherine crawled over her. Will they really get here in fifteen minutes? A lot can happen in fifteen minutes.
She felt at war with her body, as they grappled on the couch. She had forgotten this brutal aspect of it-of the two of them together. Of a certain roughness that scared her. It was different with Janice, of course; they could afford to be rough, for the trust was implicit between them. That trust, that love-where was it now? Was it dissipated, gone? Don’t think about it. You can’t think about it. Not now.
When the door burst open, she thought once again that her life was being scripted by Feydeau. It was Karl, and he looked appropriately stunned, like a wronged husband. As Mel deftly buttoned up her shirt, intuition told her that something else–aside from finding his female comrade in a sexual situation with another woman–was troubling him.
Catherine was simply too angry to react otherwise: “Are you mad?” she spat at him in German. “What the hell do you want?”
He hesitated. “I must speak with you in private.”
“You can say anything in front of her,” Catherine retorted confidently, with a nod in Mel’s direction.
“Just tell me, Karl,” the double agent growled.
“It’s the international police. They’re coming here.”
Mel’s heart hammered. They’re early, she thought. They must’ve caught the Werwolf leader already, and now they’re coming for her.
“What happened? Where are they?” Catherine was calm, for the moment, and now seemingly oblivious to Mel.
“Andreas called me. His…contact near the American headquarters found out they were coming for you. He saw a truck heading out in this direction. We must go. Now!”
She nodded. “Go through the underpass. I’ll meet you there in five minutes.”
He nodded in return. With a final glance at Mel, he jogged out the door.
The double agent turned to her. “So. Now you know,” she said quietly.
Mel closed her eyes for a moment. All right, keep her talking. “Why?”
“Oh, Melinda, I wasn’t like this at first.” She sighed, and sat on the arm of the sofa. “My allegiances at the beginning of the war were to the Allieds. But…” Her dark eyes focused on an imaginary point past Mel’s head. “Do you know what it’s like, to watch your home be destroyed? A place where you lived, where you loved, where your family was? Where you rode a bicycle when you were a child, where you bought bread every day, where you kissed for the first time?” Catherine smiled bitterly. “You don’t understand. That place where you grew up-you hated it. You still do.”
“No, I don’t hate it,” she protested. It’s much more complicated than that. “But it’s a part of me…so I do understand somewhat.”
“Perhaps. I knew Germany would lose the war, but I didn’t know how badly. Nonetheless…” She smiled again. “I lost my heart to my country, again. It’s like falling in love, you know? I was Volksdeutsch. I could not deny it any longer.” Catherine stood up from the couch. “By this time, the war was turning in the favor of your side. I…ended my mission in Berlin, and decided to make contact with the partisan movement. I saw them as our last hope. I still see them as such-yes, we’ve lost, but we just want to be left alone. We want the foreigners out. There’s no need for them to be here.”
“There is. You lost a war. Your country is not quite your own right now.”
The blonde ignored this. “Germany belongs to her people. Not her enemies. Not those who are unworthy of her….”
“Like Jews?” Mel asked sarcastically.
Catherine raised a warning hand. “I don’t need any American lectures on ‘we are all created equal.’ ”
Mel laughed, and it was not a happy one; it was one of incredulity. “Do you think I’m inferior to you somehow? Because I’m not German?”
“Look,” the blonde secret agent snapped, “I don’t buy into the entire Nazi ideology. I don’t want to eliminate those who are not Aryan. I don’t want-never wanted-for us to take over the fucking world. It was ridiculous.” Catherine gazed into stunningly blue eyes…eyes the Fuhrer himself would’ve killed for. “I don’t know what you are,” she said softly. Other than the angel of my torture. “You’re not like other Americans, I think. Who knows,” she added wistfully, “maybe you are German, somewhere in your past-”
Mel shook her head decisively. “My great-grandparents were Greek peasants.” She took Catherine’s arm, but not roughly. “Tell me something…women like you and I…wouldn’t we be thrown into the camps for what we were doing on that sofa a few minutes ago?” She nodded at the empty leather couch. “Are you really any better than I am?” she demanded gently.
Catherine was staring at the couch, as if the activity they were doing only a few minutes ago happened a hundred years prior.
Suddenly she looked at Mel. “Come with me.” The tone was buffeted between a request and a command: urgent and almost pleading, but with that steely aspect that was pure Catherine.
“No. I can’t.”
A tight, fraudulent smile. “Because of her.”
Yes. But Mel didn’t say it; she was not quite at that point of cruelty, where one not only sticks the dagger in, but twists it. “Because of many things. Because of you. Because of who you are, and what you’ve been doing.”
The blonde raised an eyebrow. “Because of what I’ve been doing?”
A misstep. Perhaps it was her tone, her eyes, the assurance with which she said the words. Mel would never know.
“Tell me what I’ve been doing, Melinda. It sounds as if you know.”
“I-I don’t know what you’re doing. I just assume that whatever your…activities are, whatever has made the Americans come after you…is wrong.”
“Wrong,” Catherine echoed flatly. “Wrong for you, right for me.” She a step closer to Mel, her black eyes glinting with more malevolence than usual. “Why do I get the feeling you’re lying to me?”
“I’m not lying to you,” Mel proclaimed stubbornly.
“The timing of your visit is a little odd. Covington came to Germany weeks ago. Why weren’t you in hot pursuit? Perhaps something-or someone delayed you? Arranged it so that the authorities would track you here, and arrest me? Sounds good to me, what do you think?”
“You’re being ridiculous,” Mel growled at her, hoping the insulting dismissiveness would distract her.
The blonde secret agent shook her head slightly. Her expression contorted into one of pain, then anger. “It was you. That’s how they know. That’s why they’re coming.” She stared at the floor. “I was so stupid. I should have known you’d do anything to protect that little bitch.” Her darkened, furious eyes met Mel’s. “Even be a whore.”
Mel tried to protest once again. But she saw only a blur of movement, then darkness.
The bitter smelling salts grabbed her by the shoulders of her expensive, tailored blouse and shook her fiercely. She stumbled into consciousness. Two men, in British uniforms, were crouching over her. “Hello, gorgeous!” one of them said cheerily. He was the one holding the smelling salts, and a pack of gauze. He wore the insignia of a medic.
Mel did not feel particularly gorgeous. Once again she wondered-while trying to lift herself up from the floor-why an appalling amount of military men thought that wearing a uniform gave them the God-given right to comment upon her appearance no matter what the circumstances. Her face ached unpleasantly, and unconsciously she rubbed a painful part of her jaw. She felt something wet on her face, and when she withdrew her hand and stared at it, her fingertips were red, the bright blood seeping in and accentuating the ridges of her skin. She felt a vague sense of outrage; when has anybody ever hit me? she thought. (Well, there was that incident with Binky LaRue at the cotillion one year, but that was just some little girly slap….)
The medic leaned forward and gently wiped the blood off her face. “How d’you feel, love?”
“Fine,” she croaked. “What happened?”
“Hoping you’d tell us that, my dear,” the other officer spoke. “I’m Captain Morot. What’s your name?” he asked cautiously, expecting the answer.
“Ah. So you are. Can we see your papers, Miss Pappas?”
“Uh…” She looked around, disoriented. Her coat lay on the sofa, but there was no sight of her purse. “I don’t know.”
“That’s all right. Relax a bit. You fit the description the Major gave us.”
“What happened?” she repeated again. “Where’s Catherine Stoller?”
“Gone, I’m afraid.”
“Oh God,” she moaned, hand covering her eyes.
“Not as bad as you think, though. She didn’t get much of a jump on us. I’m sure the Yanks will be catching up to her very shortly. We did get her accomplice, though. Isberg. He’s almost as big a prize as Stoller is. You did fine, love.”
“Really?” she asked. Slowly she sat up and shifted her position so that her back was supported by the sofa.
“Careful now,” the medic advised, patting her arm. “Like a bit of tea?”
Tea! Tea! My kingdom for a cup of tea! Honestly, the British are even making me sick of tea. “No, thank you. I’ve got to get to Neuschwanstein. Can you-”
“Not so fast,” the Captain said, rocking back and forth on his haunches. “First, you need to be debriefed, then we file a report. Then you’re going back to London.”
“What?” Mel hissed with disbelief.
“You’ve done your duty, Miss Pappas. Your orders are that you’re to be put on the next plane back to England.”
“Orders? What orders?”
“From Major Pendleton, of course.”
Of course, Mel thought angrily. “I’m not going back to London,” she said through gritted teeth.
“I’m afraid you have no choice,” the Captain replied, not unkindly. He was not prepared for the hand that grabbed him by the lapels and yanked him off balance so that he was on his knees and face-to-face before a very angry, disheveled, and beautiful woman.
“I’m afraid you have no choice, Captain, but to contact your Major and tell him that there is no goddamned way in hell I am going back to London! I am going to Neuschwanstein and if I have to crawlthere I damn well will do so!” Oh my…three curse words all within the span of two sentences!
The Captain blinked at her in utter shock. His superior officer had informed him that Miss Pappas, while a degenerate of insatiable proportions, was nonetheless gentle as a lamb, and just as easily led. This information was in direct conflict with this fierce lioness who was ready to snap his neck.
Seeing that she had gotten her message across, Mel released him. With a great show he smoothed his rumpled uniform, giving her a slightly chastising look. “I’ll see what can be done,” he said brusquely, and stood up.
She slumped back against the sofa in relief. Janice Covington, you have been the worst influence on my manners. And I suppose I should thank you for that.
The ball was nothing more than papers crunched together and covered with a lot of sticky black electrical tape. The bat was a sturdy, round stick he had snatched from the woodpile downstairs.
Rosenberg swung the bat idly a few times and fixed his gaze on the pitcher. “I should warn you, I was the stickball king in Williamsburg.”
“I once struck out a minor-league home-run champ,” Janice retorted as she idly tossed the ball in the air, retrieving it with a snap of the wrist. She neglected to mention that the champ had drunk six beers and would’ve swung at a flying donkey if it had suddenly floated by him. Details, details. She looked around the crowded room. Okay, Janice, be a professional, don’t do this in here. You’ve already bitched enough about the lousy conditions for the proper storage of “priceless artifacts and rare documents…”
“Maybe we should do this out in the hall,” Janice suggested.
“And get caught by Brinton?”
“Y’see,” he pointed the stick at Janice, squinting. “This is precisely why we shouldn’t go out in the hall. You and that mouth of yours.”
And he’s only known me a couple weeks….A pause. We’ll be real careful. Right? Right. “You may have a point there. All right.” She rubbed the ball and stared him down. “Get ready.” She curled her compact body into a windup, drew back her arm, and fired the ball at him. A gentle smack, and the sphere launched itself high into the air, almost touching the ceiling.
“Homerun!” he shouted.
“Fly ball!” she contradicted with a cry, backpedaling into the unknown.
Before he could even yell out a warning, she was colliding with a crate, sending papers and smaller boxes flying. She hit the ground before the ball did.
Janice groaned as Rosenberg galloped over to her. “You win,” she muttered.
“You okay?” he asked, standing over her, proffering a hand.
“Yeah, fine.” She was about to grasp his hand when she looked at the pile she had just knocked over. The dull, hard gleam of tarnished metal caught her eye-the top of a cylinder peeked out from under a mass of boxes. Curious, she reached over and pulled the object out from under the boxes. Just like the sword in the stone, she thought, without knowing why. Exerting increasing pressure, she tried to pry off the cap of the tube; she was about to give it to Rosenberg for a try when it finally gave way and opened.
A cluster of scrolls. She held a breath, which knit a cord of tension through her body. It was a good kind of anticipation. “Paul.”
“Go get my gloves on the desk, will you?”
He nodded, and returned quickly with the soft white cotton gloves.
Barely breathing, she pulled the gloves on, and then gently extracted a fragile, rolled-up parchment from the case.
The handwriting was as familiar and recognizable as her own, in that mixture of dialects and meters that had eluded her understanding but proved only a pleasing challenge for Mel. Nonetheless, words and phrases popped out at her. Reluctantly, I, the Amazon Queen, began the scroll in her hands. While that was easy, she doubted she would be able to truly comprehend the rest. But her eyes scrolled down, catching the name: Xena.
“Janice, what is it?” Rosenberg asked excitedly.
She opened her mouth to speak, but the torrent of emotion was far too strong. My words, my life.
He grinned, not needing a response, as he noticed the trembling of her hands. “Fortuna imperatrix mundi, my friend: Fate, empress of the world.”
She looked at him, deliriously happy.
“See? A little bit of Orff didn’t hurt.”
Arms folded, the agitated Southern belle chewed her lips and stopped herself from further pacing; her feet were starting to ache. She had been detained for hours now; the officials now wouldn’t even let her go back to London, for God’s sake.
Maybe I should have done that, Mel thought moodily as she plopped into a chair. Just be a good girl and go home…then sneak back over here, on my own. My work for them is done. They don’t own me. I’m a civilian! An American citizen!
This quasi-patriotic thought process was interrupted when the door of the office swung open and, making a dramatic appearance in a huge great coat, Major Pendleton strode in, followed by Captain Morot. “Ah, Miss Pappas, my dear. So pleased to see you again.”
“Major!” she declared, standing up. “I-I, um, what are earth are you doing here?”
He pulled off his leather gloves. “My business brought me to Berlin, and Captain Morot was good enough to find me there. I understand you have been creating some fuss, my dear. Hence my presence here.”
“It wasn’t my intention to create any problems, sir. But-”
“-But you want to go to Neuschwanstein. I know.” He started to shrug out of his coat; the Captain, still standing behind him, intercepted it. He motioned for Mel to sit. Reluctantly, she did so. “You did well on your first assignment, my dear.”
I wish you’d stop calling me that. “I’m…glad you think so.”
“Don’t worry about Stoller. She’s powerless now. She knows she’s a marked woman.” He slapped his gloves against the palm of one hand. She twitched in surprise. “But she is still dangerous. At least until she’s caught. You’ve been marvelous bait, my dear, but I’m sure now she wouldn’t go near you now.”
“But she might go near-”
“Janice Covington,” Pendleton supplied the name with quiet triumph. “That’s her name, is it not?”
Damn. “Yes,” Mel whispered.
“Her file is quite interesting. A commendation for bravery, but such problems with authority!” He smiled thinly. “So you want to ensure your friend’s safety, of course. It’s touching.” He sighed, and leaned against the desk. “You know, my dear, I like you. In spite of your-predilections. I’m willing to let you go to the castle.”
She started to smile, and stood up.
“But if you murmur one word on what you’ve been doing in Munich for the past 24 hours, to Janice Covington or anyone else for that matter, I’ll have your lovely body locked up in a military prison so quickly your head will swim.”
She hesitated. “I…can’t? But I’ve got to tell her-”
He shook his head. “No.” He sighed in exasperation at her flummoxed expression. “Just what kind of game did you think you were playing?” he began angrily. “You’re a part of this now. You know classified information. You have taken part in a covert operation. You cannot discuss this with unauthorized personnel, military or civilian.”
“There are no buts left, my dear.” He stood to his full height, almost as tall as she, and dropped his voice. “You may not care about yourself. In fact, I know you don’t. But I assure you, if I find out-and I do have ways of finding things out-that you told your Lieutenant Covington about your activities with this organization, she may be spending a long time in a military prison. And judging from what I saw in her file, this just might be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. And I assure you, you won’t be sharing a cell together.” He watched as her face fell, as the words sank in, bitter to the bone. “Who knows…perhaps she’ll find a new lover in there. What do you think?”
He had expected the slap, but not the strength of it: the brutal crack that disrupted his vision and sent him rocking back on his heels, and the taste of blood in his mouth. He laughed in surprise.
Mel lunged a little, but Morot had restrained her by grabbing her arms. “Don’t you ever… speak of her like that again.” The voice was low.
His tongue poked out and touched a blood-stained lip. “And don’t forget what I’ve told you,” he retorted quietly. “Now go.”
Rosenberg watched nervously as Janice paced the room. Ever since she found the scrolls, all the smoldering energy that lurked below her brooding surface had finally asserted itself with focused precision on her accidental find. Smoking furiously, she would mumble as she flipped through a old Greek reader, looking up words in the wretched copy while cigarette ash dribbled into its crevice, occasionally mumbling “shit” or “Christ, Mel, I really wish you were here.” (Mel, he wondered. Was that the Girl? Janice did say that the Girl was in the same line of work as she was. He hoped to see her someday; he was insatiably curious to find out what kind of woman could put up with Janice.) The pace was agonizingly slow, and frustrating.
With a sigh he rolled off his high desk. He enjoyed sitting on the desk, rather than behind it; it gave him a high, impressive overview of the vast room. He decided to play the good old Carmina Burana one more time on the record player. He sauntered over to the ancient machine and started to crank it.
“If you play that goddamn thing again, I’m going to kill you,” she muttered around her cigarette.
“It’d be preferable to hearing you bellyache all day about that stupid scroll.”
“The Latin throws me, you sonofabitch. I can’t think in Greek when I’m listening to a bunch of bastards sing in Latin.”
“Don’t blame your lousy Greek on Carl Orff.”
She slammed the dictionary down. War had begun.
“Listen,” she growled, stomping over to him and jabbing a menacing finger at him, “I’ve had just about as much of you as I can take, you goddamn-” she lunged for his shirt, and he skirted out of the way.
“Gotta catch me first, you little bitch,” he taunted, half playfully, half angrily.
It was the wrong thing to say. A solid 120 pounds of angry archaeologist barreled into him, knocking him down. He was breathless-and on the verge of recollecting something-when she grabbed him with one hand and formed a fist with the other. “That’s it!” he cried.
“What?” she hissed through clenched teeth, her fist hesitating.
“It wasn’t New York. It was London.”
“Where I saw you before. I was in the Black Bull Tavern when you knocked out Skeeter Lewis.”
“It was you, I swear. Couple weeks ago. There was this big GI-former boxer-picking a fight with a WAC. There was some kinda argument. Something about the Giants…”
It came flooding back to Janice. “Aw, shit!” she spat at the unpleasant memory. It was, in fact, the night before she came to Germany. That lousy night. The fight with Mel, Anton’s stroke, seeing Mel in the hospital later…she needed to get drunk and into a fight. Actually, she would have settled just for the getting drunk part, but the nameless GI was just too stupid to leave her alone. His mistake had been in thinking, when he had knocked her down and bloodied her nose, that she was unconscious. Thus he had not suspected the finger tapping his shoulder and, when he turned around, the fist that met with his glass jaw. “So you were there,” she said to Rosenberg.
“Oh yeah, honey. I was there. I even had a bet riding on you. I cleaned up big time, thanks to you. Man, I’m surprised I didn’t remember you sooner.”
Some unreadable expression clouded her face as she released her grip on his shirt. “I’m just everybody’s good luck charm,” she muttered caustically. She stood up and wandered back to her table, head down.
In the short time he’d known her, Rosenberg had grown accustomed to her sudden black moods. As he got up, he made a gentle offering to her: “I’m going outside for a bit, get some air, have a smoke. Come up in a few if you like.”
He was almost out the door when he caught a barely audible “thanks.”
Not far from where they worked was a turret affording a wonderful view of the area surrounding the castle: mainly the forest and the nearby town of Fussen. Of course, one could hardly go wrong with any of the views from various spots at Neuschwanstein, but he liked this private little perch, where he could be alone and just…think. Or daydream. The air was cold and invigorating. He hoped Janice realized what a sacrifice it was for him to invite her into such a private space.
Yeah, right, if she even comes up, he thought sarcastically as he scanned the area with his binoculars. His eyes were still pressed into them when Janice joined him in the turret.
“Let me guess…you see snow, and trees. Right?” She had lit a cigarette and was back to her old smart-alecky self. A stream of pearl gray smoke shot from her lips, and the cold, sharp air cleaved the soft cloud.
He grinned, pleased at her presence. “Very funny, smart ass. Actually, I see a jeep. Looks like Corelli is back from Munich.” Rosenberg could tell that another figure sat beside the driver, but he couldn’t tell who. Probably another nosy German official. The jeep pulled into the compound and he got a closer look at the passenger. He whistled. “Corelli must’ve got lucky. He has a broad with him.”
“Hmmm.” More smoke.
“Doesn’t look like his type, though. Tall brunette…”
If the cigarette had been a sentient, living thing, it would have been dead once it fell from her slackened hand, which hung over the precipice. No. It couldn’t be…I couldn’t be that lucky: a scroll and Melinda Pappas drop into my lap, both in the same week. “Paul…”
“…he’s so damn short, any woman over five foot four is too tall for him, he says…”
“Paul…” There are plenty of tall brunettes in the world. Germany is full of them, right?
“…me, I’m not that picky…”
“Paul!” she shouted.
Startled, he looked at her. She felt her throat go dry. “Is…she wearing glasses?”
He looked into the binoculars again, to confirm. “Uh, yeah…so?”
He felt a breeze. Looking up, he saw she was gone.
“Miss Pappas, I presume?”
Tired, she nodded.
The speaker was a middle-aged man, an American officer with the usual head of distinguished gray hair. “I’m Major Andrew Brinton. Head of operations here. We’re pleased to have you on board. Damned confusing, though. At first I was told you were coming, then you weren’t, then I receive a message two days ago that you are, once again, coming.” He raised an accusatory eyebrow, as if it were all her fault.
“Everything has been very…tumultuous right now,” she murmured.
“We’ll need to speak about it at length,” he retorted. “But first I need to attend to some duties, and we need to get you settled in somewhere…”
Before he could continue, they noticed the sound of footsteps on the stairs, echoing down from floors above. The furious stomping grew even closer. Mel started to grin when she saw the lithe figure with red-gold hair fly down the stairs, like Hermes.
Sheer momentum carried Janice as she came off the last step. She dashed a few paces, then tried to force herself to slow down by skidding the final few feet to where Brinton and Mel stood, slack-jawed.
They stared at each other.
Brinton gave his junior officer an angry glare. “Good Lord, Covington! What are you, a five-year-old? No running in the castle.”
“Sorry, Major,” Janice mumbled.
Brinton tapped his chin in thought, oblivious to how the two women devoured each other with their eyes. “Look, Covington, entertain Miss Pappas here for a few minutes…I…” He looked up, startled. “Now wait, don’t you two know each other?”
No, you stupid bastard, I come running down here every time someone shows up….Janice rocked nervously on her heels, her hands stuffed in her pockets. “You…could say that, sir,” she grunted at her commander.
To Mel, Janice looked at beautiful as ever. The Army never suited her, but the clothing did. Although in this particular instance, Lieutenant Covington had strayed from khaki and green, no doubt out of necessity-it was cold. She wore an oversized charcoal gray sweater, one sleeve sporting a hole in one elbow and the other unraveling at her wrist. The dark, neutral tone played havoc with the light of her eyes, and the color therein shifted from greens and blues to grays and browns, and back again. Mel blinked furiously behind her own glasses, trying not to be hypnotized…just yet. Now’s not the time, Melinda.
“Good,” Major Brinton was saying. “Then make yourself useful. Show her around a bit. Take her outside, along the parapet. Damned fine view.”
It’s also freezing outside, you idiot. Janice gnawed her lip. “Yes, sir.”
The Major received a nod from Mel and a salute from Janice as he strolled away.
“How about that view?” Mel suggested quietly.
“Uh, sure,” Janice fumbled. Why do I feel like I’m 15 and on my first date? As they walked to the outside, the words slipped out of the archaeologist: “You came.”
It was positively frigid outside, but they were alone, more or less, and only in view of the guards on duty.
“Why do you think?” Mel asked carefully.
Janice peered at her. “I know what I want to think.”
The view was impressive, Mel admitted to herself. A recent snowfall of almost a foot coated everything in pristine whiteness: Trees, fields, everything. Veins of darkness hinted at tree branches and roads. The air possessed that muffled quality of the world safely padded for hibernation.
A soldier, oblivious, trotted past them to retrieve a coil of rope. He whistled pleasantly, highlighting the thick tension between the two women. Then he was gone.
“I’ve missed you so much,” Janice blurted. Missed you? More than that. I felt a craziness, an emptiness, I felt condemned to walk the world alone. Forever.
Mel’s lips parted and her mouth slackened a bit, but she did not say anything. She could not. She was afraid that if she even acknowledged one thing she felt at this moment, the rest would tumble out blindly. Everything. And I do really want to be crying and on my knees before you, in front of these strangers?
The archaeologist’s bare hand sank into the snow that lined the edge of the parapet like frosting on a cake. She watched as Mel fought with her emotions; the strong jaw shifted with conflict. Send me a sign, Mel. Anything.
Instead, the world sent Lowry. The young sergeant marched up to them, saluting. “Lieutenant!” he barked at Janice.
“For Christ’s sake, what?” she snapped in response. Lowry remained at attention. “At ease, kid. What is it?”
He relaxed. “Ma’am,” he addressed Mel, “the Major is ready to see you now.”
“Um, thank you,” Mel muttered.
The sergeant nodded, and smiled shyly. “Nice to see you again, ma’am.”
Oh shit, thought Janice Covington.
“I don’t think we-” Mel began.
“Don’t you remember, ma’am?” he continued enthusiastically. “In Berlin, the train station? You were, uh, with the lieutenant…in the…bathroom…” he trailed off, embarrassed, now remembering the precise circumstances in which he found the lieutenant and the dark-haired woman. He stared at the beautiful woman in confusion. Was she some sort of actress, he wondered? In Berlin, she had sounded British…now she was Southern?
“But I’ve never been in…” Mel trained her blue eyes onto her errant companion. “…Berlin. With Janice.” Understanding was followed by an anger that darkened her pale countenance. “Again?” Melinda hissed, incredulous.
Instinctively, Janice took a step back when Mel took a step forward. “Wait, it wasn’t what you’re thinking-” She saw the large hands clench and unfurl. And clench again.
There was a long, grand tradition of Women Slapping Janice Covington. It had begun with the first one she’d ever slept with-her college roommate, who regretted their drunken night of passion, and the very next day cried hot, furious tears and declared that Janice was evil and had made her unfit for marriage. Aw, just think of it as a practice run, honey, Janice had said…then pow, right in the kisser. Of course, they had ended up in bed again not long after that outburst. But now, the archaeologist feared, this most annoying ritual was about to continue with Melinda Pappas, the love of her life. And I was hoping I’d never give you a reason to slap me across the face, Mel.
But the tall woman hesitated. Absentmindedly, Mel examined her own shaking hands, flexing them nervously, palms down, like a boxer.
She’s so strong, in so many ways, and she doesn’t even know it, Janice thought. She recalled the day they were reunited, on that London street almost a year ago, and she had followed Mel back to her apartment. Her leg, still recovering from the gunshot wound, had been bothering her and by the time they got there her limp was rather pronounced and painful. As soon as they got past the foyer the world shifted-she had been scooped up in Mel’s arms, carried up a steep flight of steps, and into a tiny Spartan apartment, over the threshold, just like a bride, Mel had said. Or is that too presumptuous of me? the scholar had added, depositing her on the bed.
Her arms had encircled around Mel’s neck, their faces brushed against one another, their breathing entwined. No, she admitted, letting herself surrender, laying back on the bed, and pulling Mel to her. If I were to be anyone’s bride, it would be yours.
She watched as Mel spun away angrily and walked back into the castle’s interior.
“Uh, Lieutenant,” began Lowry slowly, nervously, his face burning with a blush.
Janice shook her head. “No, don’t say anything,” she replied quietly, and nodded at the tall, retreating form. “Show her the way, Lowry. She might get lost.”
The meeting with Major Brinton passed in a blur; he spent most of it babbling about the collection, betraying his vast ignorance of the materials contained within the castle. How did this man get this task?Mel wondered, as she sat across from him in his makeshift office.
“…living arrangements are cramped, I’m afraid you’ll have to share a space with Lieutenant Covington and some of the French officials…”
Her heart sank a little. They would not be alone. They needed some time alone. After she had left Janice standing outside, she admitted to herself how stupid she was acting. I’m jealous because she was with that woman again? And what was I doing just 48 hours ago? How can I not tell her…what I almost did?
“…so I took the liberty of having someone take your bag up to the room. If you need anything further, do let me know….” He stood up. “I’ll let you get settled in. Then perhaps Covington can get you started.”
If she doesn’t want to slap me silly beforehand. “Yes, sir. Thank you.” He shook her hand, and she retreated.
When she came out of the office, the young sergeant was waiting for her. Proudly, like a child completing a drawing on the very first day of school, he thrust at her a hastily sketched map of the castle. “I thought you might need this, ma’am.”
She smiled. “That’s very kind of you.”
“It, uh, can be kinda confusing…figuring out how to get around.”
“I appreciate it very much, Sergeant. Can you tell me where Lieutenant Covington is?”
“Uh, no ma’am. I don’t know where she went. She might have gone back to the Kemenate. That’s where she works, with Lieutenant Rosenberg.”
Ah, there’s another opportunity for a scene, if I were so inclined. Tears, recriminations….. My life is becoming some modern day version of “Gone with the Wind.” “I, uh, think I’ll go to my room first.”
“Would you like me to come with you?” he asked hopefully.
“That’s very kind of you, Sergeant. But I’ll be fine.” She nodded at the young man, then wound her way up a flight of steps. Following the map, she located the room where she would sleep, where her bag was taken. The huge wooden door was slightly ajar, and without knocking she entered.
Janice was sitting alone in the room, in a hard wooden chair near the window. At Mel’s entrance she stood up with such abruptness that the sudden motion sent the chair clattering, falling on its side; and the slender young archaeologist, nerves already on edge, jumped aside with a startling grace. There was all sorts of potential in that movement, Mel thought. Maybe she could’ve been a dancer. For a fleeting moment the Southerner was amused at the thought of Janice Covington as a ballerina. Smoking a cigar, in a tutu…. Janice was staring at the chair as if it had bitten her, then she turned those absinthe eyes to Mel.
Later, Mel would not remember who made the first move. A soft cry barely escaped her, the noise strangled in her throat, and they were moving toward each other, and the sensations began, soothing and arousing simultaneously: arms around her waist, the flutter of an eyelash brushing against her throat, then the soft firm lips pressing against a hollow of her neck, strong hands sliding up her back, and the voice, disembodied, quiet, yet so loving and passionate: “My joy. My beloved.”
Janice Covington was saying mushy things to her! Was hell freezing over?
She pressed herself even harder into the archaeologist, delirious and disbelieving. Of course, Janice had said “I love you” on a number of occasions, usually during some solemn or crucial moment (like after losing fifty quid in an ill-advised bet on a cricket game), but never something so…blatantly romantic. She moaned. Then found the ability to speak: “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right, baby. I’m just happy you’re here.”
“I love you. I can’t stay away from you.”
She felt Janice sigh against her, content. “You love me?” The tone was gently disbelieving.
Mel kissed the top of the golden head. “Is that so hard to believe?” Her lips worked their way down the forehead, to the eyelids, the cheeks, and finally the bow-shaped mouth. Which yielded the finest sweetness. Ganymede has nothing on you.
In an awkward dance, Janice maneuvered them against a wall, never breaking the kiss, yet all the while receiving frantic warnings from her brain: Those stupid French broads might come back here at any minute. She felt Mel’s hands groping under her thick sweater, untucking her shirt, then sliding along her bare skin. Well, if we get caught, maybe I’ll get kicked out of the army and at last, I can get back to my life. Such haphazard reasoning prompted her own hands to go exploring.
Mel arched, catlike, and melted into the hands that now caressed her breasts. She closed her eyes and flung her head back. And smacked it against some low beam with a quite audible thud. Then groaned. Texas-sized stars danced with abandon in the black field of her vision, a result of giddy arousal and sudden head pain.
“Oh!” Janice cried softly. “Mel, are you okay?”
“Ow,” mumbled the scholar in reply. “There goes the romance, I reckon.”
“It’s okay…it’s not your fault. I’m sorry I ruined the mood.” She reached up and rubbed the swelling bump on her head.
“It’s just as well…you never know when one of those damn French girls will come barging in. Plus I gotta tell you something, Mel….”
“Good or bad?” asked Mel, apprehensively.
“Oh, it’s good…” She cupped Mel’s face in her hands. “I found a scroll here. One of Gabrielle’s scrolls.” The green eyes were feverishly bright.
There were moments when Mel thought she was in love with a madwoman, a lunatic on a quest, a search that had-and would-consume her life. Mad, bad, and beautiful.
Her father had known an archaeologist, one of many in fact-a fellow named Johnson. He was obsessed with the desire to find a particular vase that had belonged to Cleopatra. He was wild, handsome, extravagant. With honey-blonde hair. She was about eleven when she first met him, and had developed a bit of a crush on him. Mel harbored dim memories of a hotel room in Florence, a warm starry night, Johnson and her father on a terrace, the smell of cigars. Cognac on the terrace, the huge bulb-shaped glasses catching the moonlight. You’re getting very pretty, Melinda, he had said. You’ll have to marry me when you’re all grown up.
She had run from the room, laughing.
Four years later, Johnson was pale and bloated from drink, wearing a shabby overcoat, standing on the corner outside the Plaza in New York, reeking of ruin. His holy grail eluded him. The funds were gone. He was ashamed to come into the lobby, to ask for Dr. Pappas. He sent in the porter, who relayed the message to the doctor. Mel’s father then met him in the street and gave him fifty dollars. “That was kind of you, Daddy,” she had said.
Dr. Pappas had shrugged in a melancholy, weltschmerz way that indicated he had spent too much time in Europe. “Merciful, maybe. But not kind. He’ll drink it all away.” Mel had looked at him, shocked. “Archaeology breeds obsession, Melinda. To survive it…well, you need an anchor. A ballast, if you will. He has none. Poor bastard,” he added softly. Within a month, Johnson was dead. Suicide.
I swear, I will never let that happen to you, no matter what.
“Mel? Are you with me here?”
“Huh?” She blinked. “Yes. I’m…my God, I can’t believe it.”
“Me neither. Sonofabitch.” The archaeologist allowed her hands to stroke Mel’s back and torso in an absentminded fashion, oblivious to the arousing effect it was having on her companion. “Y’know, aside from the obvious, I’m really glad you’re here…”
“…Because you can’t make head or tail of them, can you?” Mel smiled.
Janice grinned sheepishly. “Not…really. There are such wild shifts in….well, everything…the syntax, the meter, the style…it’s like Gabrielle would take on a different persona, depending on who or what she was writing about.”
“You’ll show it to me.”
“Yes, but not now.” The golden head burrowed against the scholar’s chest, and Janice took in the seductive alchemy of Mel’s scent: the sharp, laundered crispness of the blouse, a whisper of perfume, and some indescribable element that was purely Mel. Overcome, she mumbled something into the firm breasts.
“What is it, honey?”
Again, the mumbling.
“Janice, darling, my ears aren’t down there.”
She looked up, her fair face flushed. “Nothing happened in Berlin. You know, with her.”
“Oh.” A pause. “Good.”
“Do you believe me?”
“I do, although I admit the circumstances sound…suspicious.”
“Well, she tried to…I mean, at first I thought she was you.”
“Oh,” Mel said again, this time sounding relieved. “It’s all right, darling.”
“I mean,” Janice stammered, unable to control the babbling, “I just kissed her…”
“An honest mistake.”
“Or, actually, she kissed me first and I thought it was you so-”
“I understand, Janice,” the scholar said through clenched teeth. As guilt ate its way through her like a worm through a rotten apple.
“Yeah. But, I’m sorry…”
“There’s nothing for you to be sorry about,” Mel responded edgily. But for me…I have so much to be sorry about. And I’m sorry I can’t tell you…
“Then why are you still acting mad?” Janice snapped.
She sighed. “I…I’m just tired, honey. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t take it out on you.”
The archaeologist softened. “Yeah. Long trip, I know.”
You don’t know the half of it. “Show me that scroll, ” she requested gently. She wanted-needed-to see something that would connect her life back to Janice’s.
The scholar smiled. “Otherwise we’ll probably end up doing something that will get you kicked out of the army.”
“Mel, I was actually hoping that would happen….” She trailed off only to launch a kiss onto the tall woman’s mouth, feeling strangely girlish and exhilarated as she stood on the tips of her toes to do so. I thought perhaps being a lover of women would increase my chances of finding someone close to my height…she mused to herself, arms spreading out to maintain her balance as the kiss lingered …but instead I went for the tallest tree in the forest. She was caught in Mel’s embrace even before her heels could hit the ground.
Thus began the second day of Mel communing with the scroll, as Rosenberg thought of it. He would watch, fascinated, as she stared at it, her fingertips just barely brushing against the parchment in a reverent touch, silently forming words with her mouth, scribbling things down on a notepad, then crossing things out and rewriting them, mumbling to herself. Then the process would begin anew. It was like watching an artist at work, forming, creating something-he wasn’t sure what-but something intangible and ineffable, forged in the air around her.
Covington, however, was happy as a lark and twice as productive as she normally was, whenever she wasn’t hovering around her tall companion and bestowing fond glances upon the dark head and fighting to keep her hands to herself. Occasionally she lost the battle and would brush against Melinda. Earlier in the day, while looking over the preoccupied scholar’s shoulder, Janice permitted her wandering hand to travel down her companion’s long arm, until it rested atop Mel’s hand.
Leaning against a wall, arms folded, Rosenberg couldn’t decide whether he liked “the Girl” or not. After meeting him, flashing a very brilliant, sweet smile, and saying “I’m pleased to meet you,” she had barely said half a dozen words to him; all of her energy was focused on the scroll (what the hell was the thing about, anyway?), and on Covington-looking up from the scroll, her blue eyes blinking, lost for a moment in confusion, then finding their mark. It reminded him of some knights-in-the-castle story he read when he was a kid, filled with all sorts of fruity old English: Verily, yon archer, doest thou know which arrow flies the furthest? ‘Tis the one that meets its mark.
Then he heard Janice growling in his ear: “If I can punch out that Skeeter shit, I can punch you out twice as easy.” He looked at her, stunned.
She grinned evilly at him. “You’re staring.”
“Huh? Oh. Well, sorry.” He shook his head. “I just can’t believe that’s her.”
Janice bristled. “What did you expect?”
“Don’t get your undies in a bunch, kid. She’s a beaut, but she’s just so…serious.”
They watched as Mel groaned, savagely bit the end of her pen, and propped head in hand in a fit of ladylike despair.
“This isn’t exactly playing tennis, you dumb fuck. It’s work. It’s important. It’s what we do,” Janice retorted. “Just because it’s not your kind of work…”
“I didn’t say that…” he began feebly. But I was thinking it, he admitted to himself.
She snorted in disbelief, absentmindedly searching her pockets for cigarettes. “Damn,” she mumbled, “I musta left them back in the room. Hey, Mel…” No response from the absorbed scholar. “Mel!” she shouted. The dark head snapped up.
“I’m going back to get my cigarettes. Want me to pick up anything on the way?”
“No, I’m fine. Thank you.”
“What about you?” she snarled at Rosenberg.
“I’m half afraid to ask for some tea, it’d probably have hemlock in it,” he shot back at her, sullenly.
She grinned apologetically. “Nah, maybe just a horse turd or two. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Ah, the day never has enough surprises.
Janice thought this as an unidentified fist hurled toward her through the opened door. I’ve got a hard head, she thought swimmingly, as she fell down on her knees. She spat out a stream of watery blood and a molar into her hand. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for my teeth.
“Sorry about that,” said the voice behind her. The voice with a clipped German accent. Janice looked up at Catherine Stoller, who had a rather large, shiny .45 pointed in her direction. Under different circumstances, Janice would have taken a longer period of time to admire the weapon, but it was all she could do to stand up, holding her tooth in her bloody hand.
“I hadn’t meant to hit quite that hard….I thought perhaps you were used to being punched with frequency.”
“My reputation precedes me,” Janice muttered, tongue skipping over the warm, velvety hole once occupied by the now-orphaned molar.
“Rather, your lover’s reputation,” responded Catherine cryptically.
Janice peered at her, puzzled.
The blonde spy grinned, then changed the subject. “You don’t seem very surprised to see me, Lieutenant.”
“Let’s just say I had a feeling I’d run into you again. What the fuck do you want?”
“Believe it or not, my dear, you.”
“I’m flattered. But my dance card’s full.” Even with her head spinning and blood coming out of her mouth, Janice managed a pithy comeback. Well done, Covington!
“Then I suppose I will have to call upon Melinda. I’m sure she can spare some time for me.” Catherine smirked, noticing the shift of emotion on Covington’s face: From anger and cockiness to apprehension and fear. “My dear Lieutenant, every goddamned, godforsaken military organization in this country has a price on my head right now. Courtesy of Melinda Pappas.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
Catherine’s pleasure intensified dramatically at the blank look on the WAC’s face. “Didn’t she tell you, darling? Your beloved set me up for a fall. She was with me in Munich three days ago. The OSS sent her, I’m certain of that.”
Janice shifted her painful jaw. Mel-my Mel-in the OSS? Christ, I leave her alone for a few weeks…. I should have known she wouldn’t sit around and do nothing.
The former intelligence officer snorted. “How desperate they must have been, to press into service a rank amateur. Yet how stupid of me…to almost fall for it. She probably didn’t want to tell you, given what she did to me-and I to her-in order to trap me.”
There was no mistaking the suggestive tone. The painful throb in her mouth spread, like an explosion in slow motion, like a column of fire peeling away the last of her emotional defenses, leaving a coldness in her. A bare core. No. It isn’t, it can’t be true.
“You know, I may even let you live. So you can confront her.” Catherine scratched her chin with the cool edge of the gun. “I know you don’t want to believe it, but let’s face it. She’s got a fine mind, and there is no one more gentle, more civilized…but strip away all those pretenses, and she is instinctive. Elemental. And sensual.”
“That’s enough,” Janice managed, the words forced out despite the increasing pain in her head. And her whole body.
“I enjoyed bringing that out in her. I suppose you did too.”
I did. I did. On that very first night she said to me, “No one has ever made me feel this way.” Was that a lie?
“I loved how responsive she was to my touch.”
“SHUT UP!” screamed Janice. The words weren’t even done ringing in the empty room when Stoller grabbed her collar, shook her roughly, and pressed the barrel of the .45 into her neck.
“Quiet, Lieutenant, quiet,” warned Catherine quietly. “I don’t want to kill you right here and waste your otherwise worthless life. You’re my hostage now, you see. You will, I hope, grant me safe passage out of this country. It depends on how highly your superiors value your life.”
“Fuck you. I’m not helping you get out of here. Kill me. I don’t care.”
“Don’t act so wounded, Lieutenant. She still loves you. It’s beyond my understanding.” Stoller paused, and a softer note wormed its way into her voice. “It’s your fate, you know.”
“What do you know about my fate?” rasped Janice, trying to fight a sneer off her face.
The slender hand, elegant and elongated as an El Greco figure, snaked around to the back of the archaeologist’s neck and gripped it tightly, thrusting Janice’s face so close that their foreheads touched. Catherine Stoller closed her eyes. “Don’t you know who I am?” she whispered.
I stood on a road with the man I had just married, and I thought this would be the road, the path I would walk-with him-for the rest of my life. But along came a woman on a horse. In her misguided vengeance, she ended that road for me. And inadvertently set me back on the course that, ironically enough, felt more true than anything.
How much time I wasted, trapped within my own guilt and agony at his loss, and the inescapable fact that I married him, knowing full well-and hoping desperately that this would make me forget-that I loved another above all others. The one who ruled my passions.
She felt it. She knew.
“So we recognize each other now?” Catherine asked, with almost painful gentleness.
And then she became my whole world. Despite everything that happened. Nothing kept us apart. Not death. Not hate.
“Yes,” replied Janice Covington.
Part V: The Slingshot Effect
A love story is not about those who lose their heart but about those who find that sullen inhabitant who, when it is stumbled upon, means the body can fool no one, can fool nothing-not the wisdom of sleep or the habit of social graces. It is a consuming of oneself and the past.
Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
I suspect that true love runs
Looking for us
like a lion in our dreams
-Sam Phillips, “Strawberry Road”
At first she thought it was starting to snow again, but then she realized that the wind was merely shaking the trees. Shimmering waves of flakes descended from the assaulted branches. She pulled her collar closer to her neck and continued to trudge along the narrow path, each step corrupting pristine whiteness. About two inches had fallen since they had left the castle; it would make it all the more difficult for anyone at to track them. They had been walking for hours. Her feet ached, but were still dry-the army don’t do much right, she thought, but they do make good boots.
She could barely hear Stoller behind her as they marched in their blonde mini-procession. She wondered when the double agent would kill her.
Death? I did not fear death. Only separation from you, Xena.
Janice rubbed her temple. Now’s not the time for fuzzy ancient voices to start clamoring for my attention.
Obviously, Stoller would not dispense with her until they got out of the country. That little bit of the plot was clear to her. But it had not yet been revealed to Janice how they were to achieve that. There was something about marching through this huge, silent forest that unnerved her. She knew the stories now-they all did-about the mass slaughter of Jews in Russia, in Poland, and elsewhere: Hundreds of people led into forests, much like this one, forced to dig their own graves, then executed. And the camps: Neuschwanstein itself wasn’t far from one. She had seen what went on there, but hers, fortunately, was not a first-hand account. Several months ago, not long after Germany’s surrender, Frobisher’s office had obtained a film made by some British soldiers, revealing what they had found at one of the camps. It was only twenty minutes long. But barely five had passed when Janice had run out of the screening room and threw up in a waste basket, the image of skeletal corpses indelible upon her mind.
To her surprise, Mel-the gentle woman who cried at operas and sad movies, who would wince if Janice threw a pillow across a room in anger-had sat through the whole thing. Later, as they walked home, she’d made some offhand comment about how she couldn’t believe human beings could do such things to one another. I can, Mel had replied quietly.
The statement had so surprised Janice that she had no pithy, elegant retort handy. How can you-a sheltered, civilized Southern belle-even envision such carnage, such sheer hatred? Not thinking of the obvious response.
Until now. Without realizing it, she had stopped walking through the snow.
A rage in your veins. Like her. Like Xena. You know it, don’t you? You haven’t let the beast loose-and hopefully you never will. If I die, Mel, will the beast be loosened? Her foggy, labored tufts of breath dispersed through the bitter, cold air. No, you wouldn’t be a murderer or anything…would you? No. But that desire to destroy…where would you turn it, if you lost control? Yourself?
A well-placed kick from Stoller-sharp, neat, right at the back of her left knee-caused her leg to crumple like paper and she fell forward. “Jesus,” she hissed in pain, “where’s the fucking parade? Can’t I stop for one minute?”
A sigh unfurled from the blonde agent’s mouth. “You know something, Covington? I think even when I kill you, I will still hear your sarcastic little voice in my head for the rest of my life.”
“Good, you frigging bitch.”
A short laugh from the blonde behind her. “If you’re trying to get me to kill you now, you’ll have to try harder….”
Janice stood up on slightly shaky legs, jumbling like a young colt, then turned around to see Catherine surveying the forest.
“….We’re not out of the woods yet, if you’ll pardon the joke.” She smirked at Janice, who stood up and proceeded to walk again. As the American lieutenant worked off the painful ache from the backs of her knees, she half turned to Stoller and said, “Tell me something…”
“I’d love to.”
“That bomb in Berlin.”
“Bah! I work with idiots, Covington. The bomb was not intended for you. But nonetheless the Werwolf thought some ridiculous ‘statement’ was needed.” A pause. “But I thought, at the time, well, if it does go off, why not take you along with it? Although I would have been quite sad to see Lowry depart this earth, he is such a nice boy….”
“So all that crap about competing with a dead lover was just that: Crap.”
“No, not at all. But at the same time I was not about to pass up an opportunity to kill you.”
“Practical. Was this your intention from the start? To kill me?”
“No,” the former OSS agent replied with uncharacteristic softness. “I just wanted her back.”
Wistfulness was not something Janice ever thought she would hear in this woman’s voice. “But now…” she tread gently. “Now you really want to kill me.”
There was no response. Just the crunching of snow.
Just do it! She wanted to scream. Get it over with! Was it now pure revenge, for the betrayal Mel had enacted against her? Surely she no longer entertained any ideas of being reunited with her former lover. And of course, there was another element, buried and burdensome: Who they were, and what they felt, thousands of years ago. Another strata of their history, she thought. You can never dig too deep, as Harry said.
As if reading her mind, Stoller brought up the subject. “Does she know?”
“Does she know who I am?”
Janice contemplated a lie, then decided against it; she was a lousy liar, and she had a feeling Stoller would be hurt more by the truth anyway. “No,” she responded quietly. “She doesn’t.”
“I suppose…I’m not surprised. It was hard to believe…that she is a descendent of Xena, ja? She doesn’t want to believe it herself.” They puffed along in almost amiable silence. “When we were school together…and she won that swimming contest…it was then I knew, for certain, it was her. I could see it in her eyes, when she pulled herself out of the water.” I brushed the silver coin I won against your lips and you took it in your mouth, your lapis lazuli eyes entrancing me. “She had the look of a conqueror. She always fought that. It’s what makes her interesting.”
“She’s more than that,” Janice retorted softly, then hoped Stoller hadn’t heard the comment.
But the double agent had. “Is she? It’s some essential part of her. Doesn’t it attract you?”
It did-that went without saying. Months ago, at the hotel in London…a playful shoving match emerged out of a heated debate (something about the artistic merit of surrealism) and turned the corner into erotic entanglement on the bed. She had pinned Mel down, her left hand barely able to keep both large wrists against the soft sheets. Her right one slid under the skirt, its rough wool draping around her arm as her hand maneuvered toward its quarry and contrasted with the silk-both stockings and skin-underneath.
Under her nimble fingers the thigh tensed as she brushed against the warmed metal of the garter belt, and the gaze from the blue eyes turned violet. And Janice felt strangely shocked, and scared, and aroused at the dark, commanding look.
You still want to fight me, don’t you? You want to resist.
Mel had said nothing. Her free leg snaked around Janice’s waist, pressing her closer. Tightly.
Maybe. Maybe not.
She shook herself from the reverie, daring to cast an angry look at the blonde agent, because I don’t want to get kicked again, thank you very much, bitch.
Something bordering on a giggle issued from Stoller. “You’re thinking about her that way, aren’t you?”
Jesus Christ, what is this? Girl talk with this nutcase? “I’m not talking about this with you,” retorted the archaeologist firmly.
“I never thought you would be prudish, Covington. Thought you might want to take a moment to compare notes, if you will.”
Janice gnawed her lip-watch the mouth, kid-and flexed her gloved hands to prevent the automatic reflex to pound Stoller into the ground.
Rosenberg did not much like Major Brinton, the CO of the castle keep. The Major was the very essence of a bureaucrat, one of those officers who understood piles of papers better than men. Which did not exactly inspire trust in those he led. But Rosenberg had to give the bastard credit: When he and Mel had reported Janice missing, he did not waste any time. All work halted and a full search of Neuschwanstein and its grounds were undertaken. When the missing lieutenant was not found, he sent out a patrol.
Paul had volunteered, of course, to go on patrol, but Brinton ordered him to stay with Mel. So he had to give the Major even more credit, which annoyed him further: The old man recognized the fact that the translator was more than a little distressed at her friend’s abrupt disappearance. “Keep an eye on her. She’s the sensitive type,” he mumbled.
The sensitive type had barely said a word since she found a bloody tooth lying on the floor of the room they shared with the French officials. For over an hour now, Rosenberg watched her as she sat, motionless, hand cradling the tooth. She was even paler than before-quite impossible, but true, he thought-and her striking blue eyes had a glassy, sick look.
He knew he had to do…something. After all, it was his duty, right? Brinton had put him in charge of her. Nervously rubbing his thighs, he stood up and ambled over to her. Her eyes had detected no movement. He sat down. “Look here, Melinda, why don’t you eat something? Or have something to drink? Or take a nap-”
Before he could rattle off further useless bromides, the haunted eyes flicked to him. “Leave me alone,” she rasped in a low voice.
He was momentarily stunned at the rudeness.
“I can’t,” he said firmly. And he realized, he really couldn’t. Not just because of his orders. But…well, dammit, he was worried about her. This kernel of truth disturbed him. Why should I care?
“You don’t understand,” she continued, in that same quiet voice, the tone of which almost eradicated her accent.
“Understand what? She’s your friend. You want her back, unharmed.” All right, she wants to talk about it. Fine. “Tell me what you told Brinton,” he said. “You think Janice was kidnapped?”
“By a double agent. Who knows me and has a…I guess you could say a score to settle,” she replied, softly, absently rubbing her cheek.
His dark brows shot up in surprise. “You know a double agent?”
She nodded wearily, ignoring the implied insult. “We met at Cambridge. Many years ago. She was working for the OSS during the war-then switched sides.”
“She?” echoed Rosenberg.
“Yes.” She saw the unasked question in his eyes. “She was my former lover. Is that what you want to know?” she snapped, with uncharacteristic bluntness.
“Uh, sorry,” he blurted. “I guess it’s none of my business.” He found himself blushing-could feel it burning his face-and he looked down. Luckily she was too absorbed in her own misery to notice. So this…thing with Janice. Not exactly the first time. And here I thought in five years from now she’d be married with kids, and Janice Covington would be wooing some cigarette girl in a bar.
“I can’t just sit here,” she whispered. She sat straighter, ready to stand up, but he blocked her with an arm.
“There’s nothing you can do, Melinda. Brinton’s got practically everybody out there lookin’ for her.”
“You don’t understand,” she repeated again. “I…I…” Her breathing grew labored, and eventually gave way to sobbing. He watched in embarrassed horror as she removed her glasses and covered her face with a hand to shield, to cradle, the raw grief that poured out.
It had been years since he’d seen a woman cry like this. Not since his cousin Sasha had been beaten for the crime of wandering into the wrong neighborhood back in Brooklyn. He had been the smartest, brightest student at the yeshiva. After the attack, that fine mind was gone. And Sasha’s mother knew it, even before he had recovered from his injuries. Her tears were hot and endless, and her wailing uncontained. The intensity of the emotion scared him. Yet it also made him…envious.
As if she were suddenly devoid of strength, Mel had collapsed against him, her damp face against his shirt, her cries beating against his chest. Who in the world would cry over me like this? he wondered, as he enfolded her in both a careful embrace and a tentative affection he wouldn’t dare admit to anyone.
The trees surrendered a view: a open clearing leading down into a valley.
“We’re almost there,” Catherine said cheerfully.
“Almost where?” Janice ventured to ask.
Wordlessly the double agent pulled a pair of binoculars from her rucksack and handed them to her. “Take a look, over there,” she gestured with a free hand.
Janice’s gaze followed the straight arm as she put the binoculars to her eyes. As she focused them, she saw nothing but a plain field, but as she gently nudged the sights a inch to her right, a gray aluminum hangar came into view, sitting near a long expanse of empty field. “That’s a runway,” she muttered.
“Very good, fraulein doktor. I don’t believe the Allieds know about this one.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“No. Only a few top Nazi officials, stationed at Neuschwanstein and Munich, knew about this. Once we started losing, they were planning to escape by flying out of here.”
“And that’s what you’re going to do now. Fly out of here.”
“To be precise, Lieutenant, you are going to fly me out of here.”
Shit. That goddamn fucking OSS file. “Me? Fly? What makes you think I can operate a plane without getting us killed?”
It was a worthy bluff, but a failed one. This time when Stoller hit her, it was, mercifully, without the butt of the gun, or a fist: It was an open-palmed slap that caused the empty space in her mouth to ache in memory. “Don’t lie to me, you’re not very good at it,” she said coldly. “You know I’ve seen your military file. You know that I know you took flying lessons in 1940. And you were good enough that your former commanding officer recommended you for a program of women flyers.”
But the idea had been shot down. Who would trust a “broad” to fly a plane?
“You’re just lucky I like to fly,” Janice said quietly, rubbing her cheek.
“Shut up before I shoot out your teeth.” It was an absurd threat, but one that Janice was certain that she would follow through on. She already knocked one out, why not the rest? A gust of wind cut through the trees, and drove them on to their destination.
Her hand was splayed over the words of the scroll. Just barely touching it. Janice was always apprehensive when she did this-it’s too goddamn old, she would say. Touch it as little as possible. The paper was about the color of Janice’s khakis.
Sometimes the rich black ink faded to sepia. Yet the words still burned. She could feel the heat of them, she would swear it.
You embrace me now. Why? Once upon a time, Xena, you said you kept your friends close, but your enemies even closer. Is that why you touch me now? Is that why you want me here, with you?
The parchment was rough, curled, and dry. A husk of a life.
Clearly something had happened to them. To Xena and Gabrielle. What?
She hadn’t gotten far enough to find out what.
She didn’t want to go any further. Not now. Not without Janice. I need you here, to tell me what I’m reading doesn’t matter. Not to us. That we are not reliving their lives. That we’re somehow different. You were always afraid of that, Janice. Yet…you put those doubts aside and embraced it anyway. Because you knew it was a part of you.
So who’s afraid of history now?
Rosenberg’s lanky form was sprawled over a hard, uncomfortable bench, asleep. His snoring-sounding like a clogged drain-masked the stealth of her quiet footsteps as she left the room.
The stable yard at Neuschwanstein had not seen a living animal in years. Except for one lone stallion, found by a German soldier stationed at the castle a year before the Allieds took over. And the horse had remained, through the exchanges of blood and power, miraculously unharmed and existing, perhaps, purely for the purpose of one day staring down Melinda Pappas with huge glassy eyes, liquid and suspended in his long face.
Mel was game. She returned the animal’s frank stare, brows scrunched intently over her blue eyes. Xena had a horse, right? It had been a palomino, near as she could figure out, based on Gabrielle’s description of the animal. At one point the bard had written: “The love of the Warrior Princess for her horse knows no bounds.” Which had rather alarmed Mel at first; later she had been vaguely comforted by Janice’s assertion that “she may have been a barbarian, but screwing a horse just sounds like too much trouble for someone as practical as Xena.”
Or maybe it was a challenge? She won the staredown with the horse; he snorted disdainfully-a sore loser-and turned his gaze elsewhere.
It had been years since she was on a horse. And could I even saddle the beast properly? The stablehands always did that. I’m sure I could figure it out. It was all the encouragement she needed as she entered the darkened barn.
The horse was compliant in her clumsy attempts to saddle him. She had found a saddle, its old, dark, cracked leather contrasting with his coat, which was a thick, creamy gray, like night fog.
Gently she put the bit in his mouth, then traced the bulging muscle along his jaw. We’re friends now, aren’t we? Help me, then. Help me find her, okay?
With an inherent grace she’d completely forgotten, Mel swung into the saddle, and urged the stallion into an easy trot through the open doors.
Chilling sweat tingled along Janice’s back. Opening the hangar door had been almost impossible to do by herself, especially with a gun pointed at her, but she managed, and now she was staring in awe at a rather large plane.
For a moment she forgot that she was the hostage of a Nazi spy. “Are you out of your goddamn mind? This is a fighter. I can’t fly this. I don’t know the first thing-I mean, fuck, it’s not American, it’s not even British-”
Stoller leaned against the cool hull of the hangar; her dark eyes wandered appreciatively, almost dreamily, over the plane, much in the way Janice had seen her look at Mel. “It’s Italian. A Cantz 501, to be precise.”
Squinting skeptically through shadows and dust, Janice said, “How the hell did you get an Italian plane?”
“It was not my doing, Covington. I have no idea how the plane was procured, but it is here, now, for our purposes. At least it is not a German plane, ja? Then we would look terribly…what is the word?”
“Conspicuous?” Janice spat, irritated. She settled hands on hips, and continued to glare at the former OSS agent. “I could kill us both.”
“Somehow I think you would not do that. Even deliberately.”
“My dear, as long as blood beats through your body, you will want to go back to her. As long as you think you have the slightest chance of living, you will cling to it ferociously.”
Talk about being conspicuous: Heart on the sleeve. I hate being so transparent.
“But if I have a chance of killing you, Stoller, I’ll take it…” A fury began to build within her, as she remembered the bruise along Mel’s face when the translator first showed up at Neuschwanstein. I ran into a door, Mel had said. And stupidly Janice had accepted that, given how clumsy her friend could be at times. “…because,” she murmured, low and deadly, “I really want to beat the shit out of you.”
Catherine chuckled. “I’m not surprised Melinda’s particular form of slap and tickle has rubbed off on you.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Janice gave her a look of uncomprehending irritation.
“She likes to hit people, Covington. I’ve seen her do it.”
More bullshit. More lies. Or truth? Always that kernel of doubt. “You’re insane. I’ve never seen her hit anyone.”
Catherine arched an eyebrow. “Really? Not even you?” She enunciated the blunt question carefully, vigilantly observing Covington’s face for any signs of untruth.
Janice blinked, surprised. “No.”
A strange expression-comprised of both admiration and outrage-lingered on the double agent’s face. “That clever girl,” she said softly.
Rosenberg opened his eyes. The gray gossamer of the fading day hung around the room, and he blinked at the shadowed figure crouching down in front of him where he slept. The rounded head was vaguely familiar, but he knew it was not Melinda.
He kept blinking and refocusing his eyes at the nebulous form until it grew solid and identifiable. It was Sergeant Lowry. The young man’s deep brown eyes were wide in reproach.
“Shit,” Rosenberg muttered aloud.
“Sir,” responded Lowry perfunctorily.
“She’s gone, isn’t she?”
The sergeant nodded.
Without knowing why, Mel guided the horse due south. It made the most sense-if Catherine were looking to escape Germany, Switzerland would be the closest place for immediate sanctuary. And from there…well, the tiny little neutral country was her launching pad to the world.
What am I doing? She slowed the horse to stop. She was panting almost as hard as he was. Ropes of spit had crawled around his mouth, resembling transparent veins. I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t know where they are. How many hours ahead of me are they? This is useless.
Frustration caught in her throat. Even in the wilderness, she wouldn’t permit herself to lose control.
Xena would have it all figured out by now. Of course, she thought bitterly. The bad guys would be dead, and the bard would be at her side. But I’m just…a fool on a horse. Chasing after a madwoman. Her thoughts paused. And a crazed Nazi spy.
A low whir tickled her ear. She looked up, and saw nothing: Just whorls of clouds in the drab sky. Her eyes roamed the expanse of grayness.
Then a plane shot overhead, low enough for her to see its colors. She gasped. Odd, isn’t it? There isn’t much air activity around here; that much I know from Brinton. And that plane…it wasn’t American, and it’s not British. She frowned. What…was it?
Is it them? She tensed. Dare I hope for that? She urged the horse into a light canter. But the sudden roar of a jeep approaching her on the road froze the animal abruptly, she lurched forward, but remained in the saddle. A shrill horn tore through the air, the horse reared, and then she fell-fortunately, into a snow bank: The world spun and she felt the glasses fly off her face, heard a grunt (that’s you making that un-ladylike noise, Melinda), and experienced pain coursing along her back and shooting into her legs.
She lay in the snow for what seemed like an eternity. The jeep’s headlights sliced through the twilight and illuminated her inner eyelids. Now what? She refused to open her eyes. Dear world, I surrender. Yours sincerely, Melinda Pappas. The soft crunching of snow grew closer. And stopped, so very close to her ear-so close, in fact, that she felt flecks of snow tumble onto her cheekbones…
…from the sudden cessation of Paul’s boots.
She opened her eyes. Paul Rosenberg grinned down at her. “What’s new, Roy Rogers?”
The first time Janice flew a plane, she threw up. Much to the dismay of her instructor, since his lap had been her unintended target. The strange motion of the takeoff had been akin to being on a boat, which always made her ill; however, once the plane lifted off, the feeling of weightlessness eased her queasy stomach, and she would be fine.
Now, as she frowned at the gadgets surrounding her in the cockpit, and with Stoller and .45 crouched beside her, she actually hoped she would vomit again, right on the natty, expensive-looking charcoal wool pants of her captor. What the well-dressed Nazi is wearing this season…
The plane was lumbering slowly down the runway. So far, so good. She shot Stoller a side glance. The blonde double agent was biting her lower lip. It was the first sign of distress she’d ever seen from the inscrutable woman. Hey, somebody doesn’t like to fly!
Janice’s hands gripped at the controls, and she could feel the plane lift. Her nausea disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. Despite everything, she felt excited. Not just to be flying again, but because, when the moment arrived, she would put her plan in action. How about that, Mel. I kinda sorta have a plan. You’d be proud.
Mel limped to the jeep, supported by Rosenberg. Lowry, who was actually the driver, had fretted over her for all of ten seconds, until he saw that his superior officer was doing more than his share of that. So the sergeant opted for petting the horse and giving the animal some much-needed water from his canteen.
“Did you see that plane?” Mel asked eagerly, tightly clutching Rosenberg’s shoulder as he steered her to the passenger side of the jeep.
“Are you okay? Siddown,” Rosenberg muttered, looking her over. She opened her mouth again, to protest, then, wincing in obvious pain, thought better of it. As she sat he noticed a pant leg split along its seam, revealing a bare thigh.
“That could’ve been them, Paul.” Her voice intruded on his admiration.
He blinked, and banished such thoughts from his mind. Businesslike, he grasped her leg, probing for a broken bone. “Do you feel-”
Fingers curled over his. That was when he noticed how beautiful her hands were. He tried not to think of those hands on Janice Covington’s body, but the image was indelible. “Listen to me.” Her teeth were clenched, and the look in her eye dangerous.
“It mighta been them,” he conceded. “But look, I need to get you checked out first.”
“No, you’re not,” he shot back, curtly.
His cheek burned as his head spun. Holy fuck, did she just slap me? She had.
Lowry, for his part, skilled in the ways of feuding adults courtesy of his parents, simply ignored them and continued to stroke the stallion’s sweaty coat.
Mel’s voice was shaky with anger. “Don’t you tell me I’m not fine. I’ve had enough of people telling me that there’s something wrong with me.”
“I didn’t mean to-”
“You know that if it were someone you loved, you’d move heaven and earth, wouldn’t you?”
He stared down the darkening road. If I loved someone…if I loved someone like you, Melinda? He turned back to her. He could see the glint of tears on her cheek. No, not you. You burn only for Covington.
“Help me,” she said simply.
Help you? I can’t help myself. Because there’s something about you…
He broke against her will, like a wave against a rock. “If it was them…they’re obviously heading for the Swiss border. I can radio Neuschwanstein and see if they know of any landing areas.”
“How far are we from the border?”
He stared down the road again. “About 25 miles. You made good time, although you damn near killed that horse.”
She hung her head, taking the words in, calming herself.
Rosenberg looked up into the sky, as the creeping twilight deepened its shade of blue. “Hey, does Janice know how to fly a plane?”
Mel’s jaw slackened. “I-I honestly don’t about that. But there is one thing I do know.”
“What’s that, Melinda?”
“She’s always full of surprises.”
“I can hardly hear myself think,” the former OSS agent shouted above the roar of the plane’s engine.
“What do you need to think for, Blondie?” Janice yelled back. “Everything’s gonna be fine.”
“I find you less than comforting.”
“The feeling’s mutual, honey.”
Catherine ignored this. “How soon?” she asked.
“How about right now?” She jerked the throttle. The plane dipped. Stoller was thrown off balance, and Janice took the opportunity to seize her wrist and slam it against the control panel. The gun went off, creating a spidery pattern against the window. Again, she drove the German’s wrist against the sharp edge of metal dash. The .45 slipped-right into Janice’s lap. She released her grip on Stoller’s wrist and scooped up the handgun, pressing the barrel against the blonde agent’s forehead.
Fear faded in Catherine’s dark eyes, to be replaced by outrage.
“Listen,” Janice commanded with a shout. “I’m ditching this plane. There’s a parachute under this seat and I’m taking it. You’re on your own. You can either land this bird yourself, or die.”
“You won’t make it.”
“Fuck you!” A pocket of air rolled the plane. Janice felt it almost before it happened, and instinctively she pulled the gun back, closer to her own body, to prevent Stoller taking the opportunity to repossess the weapon.
But the agent did not do what she expected. Instead, she pulled a small dagger from her coat and plunged it, gracelessly, into Janice’s thigh.
The archaeologist and reluctant army lieutenant decided to forsake stoicism for the time being. Her scream filled the cockpit. Pure instinct propelled her right arm out and she struck Stoller across the face with the butt of the gun. The former OSS agent fell against the other window, seemingly unconscious.
It felt good. Until she looked down at saw the bright dagger protruding from her leg. Her stomach roiled.
Her fury dissipated, and she cast a glance at Stoller. What if she’s faking it? For good measure, she leaned over and cracked the gun over Stoller’s head, hard. Then she permitted herself to feel the leg’s pain again. Shit. She transferred the .45 to her left hand. The right hand she wrapped around the knife, feeling the SS insignia digging into her palm, and yanked it out. This time she muffled the scream slightly, burying her face in her own shoulder.
The plane was descending with increasing speed. She pulled on the throttle a little, hoping to slow it down by straightening it out a bit. Blood seeped over her khakis.
Now’s the time.
She reached under the seat, grabbed the parachute, put it on. She nestled the gun in her waistband, and clutched the dagger in her mouth, tasting her own salty, metallic blood. She could just envision Mel wincing with disapproval: Get that filthy thing out of your mouth, Janice Covington, before you hurt yourself! Using her good leg, she kicked a hole through the cracked window, and hurled herself into the sky.
The plane kept flying as a column of air pressed against her. She enjoyed the floating sensation, which lulled her for a few seconds into a kind of carefree serenity…until she stared down at the dark, ominous forest. Rip cord! With a gulp and a prayer, she fumbled for the cord, pulled it, and heard a fwoosh. The parachute blossomed above her.
Within minutes a tangle of tree branches broke her fall, by snaring the delicate chute. Hanging in the parachute like a bleeding marionette, Janice estimated she was about 18-maybe 15 if I’m lucky-feet from the ground. Using the SS dagger, she hacked through the veins of the parachute, weakening them with each stroke as she sagged closer and closer to earth. With a snap, the last strap broke and she fell, landing on her feet. The jolt to her thigh was a bit much, and she doubled over, as painful throbbing tapped out a Morse code of agony.
The blood was thickened and clotting in the cold air. Oh great. She discarded her jacket and sweater, then the olive colored t-shirt. Before tearing the shirt up for a bandage, she returned the heavier clothes to her body. There you go, chipmunks of the Black Forest. A free show. She shuddered and set to bandaging the leg.
Tending to this particular wound wasn’t quite as fun as when she’d injured herself in Macedonia, after they’d buried Ares’ tomb under rubble: The truck wouldn’t start (and, as it turned out, would remain defunct, leaving them no choice but to take the motorcycle); underneath the hood she’d tried banging at the radiator cap with the edge of a screwdriver and instead found its sharp edge slicing deep into her index finger. She had yelped and jumped off the truck, too involved in her own pain to notice Miss Pappas-gangly, disheveled, yet utterly gorgeous-ambling over to her.
Unexpectedly, the tall Southerner-after casting quick, surreptitious glances around them-had hitched up the edge of her skirt. Janice’s eyes bulged in disbelief; what the hell was this? Oh, Dr. Covington, you’re so brave and wonderful–even though it was Xena who actually saved us–why, I can only think of one way to repay your kindness….
The erotic scenario slammed to a halt as Janice watched Melinda carefully tear away a strip of her blindingly white slip, which mercifully revealed another inch of delectable, creamy thighs. Then it flared up again. Take me now, in the back of your truck! Right on top of the tent poles!
Then it died again as Melinda Pappas carefully and gently wound the impromptu bandage around her injured finger. “Whole outfit’s ruined anyway,” the scholar had said, with her lovely, shy smile. A smudge of dirt had settled itself along a high cheekbone, as if it were a dark crescent moon, a constellation of a blue eye. Janice wanted to wipe away the smudge, wanted to do nothing but stare into those riveting eyes for a long time. How strange, she had thought. This big, gentle woman is more dangerous for me than Ares and Hitler put together.
The green bandage was now tied firmly-but not too tightly-around her thigh. She sighed. Okay, now what? No time to rest, I’ve got to move. If Stoller somehow survived that plane going down…she would still head for the border, I’m sure. Maybe I should try to get back to the castle? If they’ve sent out troops looking for me–I may run into someone.
After walking for almost half an hour, she did.
Janice heard a faint sound on the air, something akin to a creak. She stopped, pulled out the .45, green eyes sweeping the area. Nothing. The wind moved through the trees again, a moist breeze, a crystalline tinkling of noise. She limped a few paces. The leg was killing her.
A branch snapped overhead. And before Janice could look up, a Nazi double agent landed on top of her. The next snapping noise-rather, more of a crunch-was the sound of a rib breaking under Stoller’s weight. On impact she fired off two shots from the handgun. Then she felt a hand wrest the gun out of her grip.
Dammit, she found a parachute.
She was face down in the snow, and unexpectedly, childishly, her tongue dipped into the cool white stuff. Then she felt her body spun around, and she was looking up at Stoller, who had straddled her. Blood matted the agent’s white blonde hair from a vicious, oozing cut on her pale forehead. She noted that a rifle-a new addition to the wardrobe-was strapped to Stoller’s back as well. Grasping the collar of the army jacket, she pulled Janice up and, for the sheer sadistic hell of it, backhanded her hard, prompting a nosebleed. “Do you treat all your girlfriends so badly, Covington? I’m very disappointed.”
“Guess I shoulda hit you once more. Third time’s the charm, they always say,” rasped Janice.
Stoller pressed the .45 against her temple. Janice ducked her head. Another shot went off as she gripped Stoller’s wrist, directing the muzzle heavenward. Then she seized the blonde agent’s free hand and, as if trying to open a particularly pesky champagne bottle, twisted the fingers in her grasp until she heard a snap and a scream. A couple more rounds went off, then a click signified a loss of firepower. Stoller dropped the gun, and yanked herself free of Janice.
“Why didn’t you head for the border?” she growled at the German.
The grin that Catherine gave was chilling, and familiar. Fear shimmied up the nape of Covington’s neck. “Not before I kill you.”
With a fierce abandon fueled by rage, adrenaline, and a lack of tobacco products, Janice threw herself on her enemy.
Lowry hit the brakes. The jeep stopped abruptly, skidding in the snow. Mel managed to brace herself against the dirty windshield, her cheek and palms almost suctioned against the glass, and Rosenberg, in the back, was pitched between the gap of the two front seats and narrowly avoided having the gear shift knob punch him in the nose. “What the fuck are you doing, you stupid kid?” he shouted at Lowry.
The Sergeant swallowed nervously; his Adam’s apple skittered along his throat. “Heard gunfire,” he responded tersely.
They sat there stupidly (or so Rosenberg thought), expectantly. Mel could only hear their collective panting, a holy trinity of nervousness.
The noise was a pinprick in the blanket of silence. The lieutenant heard it, although, judging from the straining expression on her face, the Southerner did not. He was right! Rosenberg tightened his grip around the M-16 at his side. He grinned evilly and Mel saw it.
“You heard it?” she asked breathlessly.
He nodded. “Lead on, MacDuff!” he shouted excitedly at the sergeant.
Lowry looked at him, confused.
“Go!” he and Mel roared in unison.
It was almost funny: Stoller was trying to use the rifle as a staff. She swung at Janice’s head. The archaeologist ducked, and launched a kick into the double agent’s stomach. Then she grabbed the rifle and wrenched it away from Catherine. Her possession of the weapon was short lived, as the German dove at her and knocked her feet from underneath her. She seized the weapon and flung it away from them, as both women staggered to their feet.
The rifle now lay cushioned in the snow. They both looked at it. Janice bolted for it, diving toward like a shortstop snaring a grounder. As her fingers rolled around the cold steel, she looked at Catherine. Who stood still, unmoving. “Go ahead,” Catherine prompted quietly. “Pick it up.”
She did. The stock fell into position, braced against her shoulder. She stared down the sight at Catherine. Something inside her railed against it, but her finger convulsed around the trigger.
And nothing happened.
It all fell into place just a second too late. “You fucking-”
Catherine pulled a revolver-a .38, just like the one Harry gave me-from her jacket and fired.
She fell forward, on her knees, sinking into the snow. Was it this fast the other time?
Janice thought of that day, over a year ago, when she was shot and Blaylock had died. Oh, the getting shot part happens quick enough. The agony lasts a long time. She had sat in the ambulance, waiting to die, watching him die, their blood commingled in a way more intimate and powerful than they had ever been together in life. He threw the keys at me, they hit my chest, they fell to the ground. I picked them up. Her fingernails had scraped the dark old Parisian cobblestones, smelling of dank earth underneath. I picked them up and sealed your fate, my friend.
Her curled fingers dug into snow, craving a support that wasn’t there.
Do you believe in destiny? Mel had asked once. Fate?
Is this my fate, Mel? I suppose I will find out. And you will too, I’m afraid.
The bullets burned in her stomach.
Oh, the stomach is bad, Harry Covington had commented once upon a time, upon hearing of an even less scrupulous colleague shot in the gut, after a deal gone sour. She touched her abdomen, returned to sight a thoroughly red hand, resembling an autumn leaf slicked by rain. Blood was flowing, escaping her like time.
And she laughed.
Clearly, it was not the reaction Catherine Stoller expected. The double agent lowered the gun in disbelief, and slowly walked over to Janice. “Are you mad?” she asked, half seriously, half rhetorically, looking down at the WAC bleeding in the snow.
“I just can’t believe…I’ve been shot again. Talk about shitty luck.” She continued to chuckle. I have to laugh…if I didn’t I’d be crying. I guess it’s all the same at this point. She returned the hand to her stomach, felt the liquid throb against her palm.
Catherine knelt down so that they were on eye level. Close enough so that Janice could attempt to fathom the depths of the dark eyes, if she really wanted to.
“Do you realize what’s happening here?” Catherine spoke condescendingly, as if to a slow child. “This is it. I’m leaving you here.”
The archaeologist’s laughter faded, but her voice was calm. “I’ll die. I know that.” With every breath there was pain. But the instinct was to keep breathing, and she did so, almost gasping in the process. “You could be humane and finish me off.”
“I rather like the idea of you suffering.”
“Yes,” Janice sighed. “I thought you might.”
They continued to stare at each other.
“You’re braver than I give you credit for,” Catherine conceded.
“Maybe. But Catherine, do you know something?”
Janice extended a shaky hand and tried to grab at Stoller’s collar. She misjudged the distance, and opted for letting her fingers smear blood along the double agent’s smooth, sharp jaw. She was smiling, dreamily, as she straddled the world of the living and the dead.
“It doesn’t matter. Because she’ll always love me.”
Son of a bitch.
Even through the pain and the cold, obscenities floated through her agonized mind. So this is the end. Stretched out in the snow, on my back. Lying in the snow…I’ve done this before… Blood colored the top of the icy snow, like a sno-cone. The kind she got at Coney Island, when she was a kid. Remember those? Remember everything you can right now, Janice, ’cause you’re dying. The wind rustled the trees again and the white particles sifted down, like stardust. Is there such a thing? It brushed her eyelashes and cooled her fiery hair and kissed her dry lips. She closed her eyes, and tried to remember what it was like to kiss Mel-it seemed so long ago. But the memories were enticingly out of reach. For now, Mel was defined, in her dying mind, by her absence.
In Alexandria, 1943, that aching nothingness manifested itself in erotic desperation: She had spent days making love to a woman she did not care about. There was nothing else to do. It passed the time. The money was gone, the workers went home, the bottle of scotch was empty. She was empty. She needed a body to fill out the ghostly visions, a vessel to pour in the immense craving she had for Melinda Pappas. What would it be like to kiss her? Would her creamy skin really be as soft as it looked? How would her body move among the sheets? What would the hollow of her throat taste like? Could I drink from it, the sinner at communion, and receive some sort of salvation, or peace?
I found out, didn’t I? I found so much more, more than I ever imagined.
I went to her home, thinking I would be brave enough to seduce her, and couldn’t. And then she kissed me and set our history into motion.
She tried to lift herself up. No go. She tried to move her arms and legs and could only come up with feeble motion, like the twitching of an agitated animal, limbs scraping about weakly in the snow, creating the pattern of a tortured snow angel.
Oh, yeah. Snow angels. That’s what I was trying to remember.
It was one of the few memories Janice possessed about her mother. She was eight when Harry was coaxed into teaching at the University of Michigan. So Janice and her parents had traveled to Ann Arbor-to stay permanently, so her mother had hoped.
The first big snowfall was just after Thanksgiving (it was a mild winter). Janice had been so excited that she ran out into the snow, without a coat, and flopped down in the pristine blanket of whiteness. It was not as if she had never seen snow before–but living in the city, she had seen very few large, unfettered expanses of it, except in Central Park, and never anything quite so deep.
Her mother had followed her outside, after yelling Janice’s name in that warning tone of hers. But at the sight of Janice, happy in the snow, she too smiled, and laughed, and flopped down beside her daughter. And taught Janice how to make snow angels.
Well, Mom, that skill has come in handy now. It’s keeping me occupied while I die. She closed her eyes. I’m sorry I didn’t know you. I’m sorry my father was so selfish he let you go. I’m sorry I didn’t seek you out before you died. I’m sorry I didn’t mourn you. I’m sorry you won’t get to meet the person I love so much; her kindness reminds me of your own. I’m sorry I’m here. Sorry, so sorry everyone…
She felt the blood pulse out of her body. No Xena to save her from Ares. No GIs on the road to Paris. Nothing.
Stoller walked slowly down the road. The exhaustion meant nothing, as did the twinned throbbing of her head and her broken fingers. It was a relief, actually, to have real physical pain distracting her for once.
I knew about it before you even figured it out. I knew the way you stared at her, the way you listened to her whenever she spoke…you looked as if your heart would break.
A distant rumble down the road registered, faintly.
And I gave her back to you. Without me, she would have been the wife of a farmer and you….you would have remained the dark hero. The one everyone respected, The one everyone turned to for help. But also the one that no one loved. No one understood. And everyone feared. Even when you were “good,” Xena, you still scared people.
Catherine blinked. And was confronted with the tableau of three Americans in a jeep: A baby-faced driver, an officer in the back, with a rifle pointed right at her and obviously dying to use it, and Melinda. Her hair loose and wild.
I remember the way your black hair floated in the smoky gray sky over Cirra.
The blue eyes were just as wild. The unformed, anguished question was on her lips.
“Fancy meeting you here,” Catherine whispered.
It wasn’t cold anymore. And the ground was warm, and soft. She twitched a little. Opening her eyes, she saw that a strip of leather was tickling her face.
“Gabrielle?” A strange voice said, deep and somewhat familiar.
She tried to lift her head, but a sharp pain shot through it. “Ow,” she moaned. Why does my head hurt? She lowered her head…into a lap. A human being’s lap; the strips of leather her head was lying on revealed hints of muscular, tanned flesh. Smooth skin. Without thinking, she reached out to touch it. Is this real?
The lap shook with a chuckle. “You must be feeling okay, if you want to stick your hand up my skirt,” the voice said wryly. Fingers touched her cheek. “Gabrielle, can you sit up?”
This isn’t happening. She looked up, and the backdrop of the sun blinded her temporarily, blotting out details, and she saw only the dark outline of hair. Then she blinked, and the face came into view.
No, I’m really crazy now. Or dead. I’m really dead. The hair was black and loose, windblown and tangled, the angular face tanned, but the blue eyes were…the same. A small scar, pale and curved as a crescent moon, arched near a dark eyebrow.
“Shit,” she moaned.
“Shit?” echoed Xena, the Warrior Princess. “Gabrielle, do you need to relieve yourself?”
Xena. She struggled to sit up, helped by…Xena. The Warrior Princess. Who had nice, big, warm hands, and who kept looking at her anxiously. “That was quite a blow to your head,” remarked the warrior, who stroked her face with those…nice, big, warm hands. The lovely digits then proceeded to delicately probe her skull.
“Do you remember anything?” asked Xena.
She shook her head. No.
The warrior frowned. “We got in a fight, with some bandits. Not far from camp. One of them hit you on the back of the head.” Smoothly she was scooped up into the strong arms of Xena (the Warrior Princess, with the aforementioned nice, big, warm hands); automatically her arms wrapped around the strong, sculpted neck as the warrior carried her over to a horse, a huge, butter-colored mare.
“Horse!” she cried in alarm, like a child.
Once again, Xena looked concerned. “It’s just Argo, Gabrielle. You’ve been on Argo lots of times. Remember?” The warrior spoke to her gently, as if she were a child.
Her nod was a lie. “Oh…Xena.”
“What is it?” urged the Warrior Princess.
“Nothing. Nothing at all.” She tilted her head back and let the sun claim her.
Paul had punched Stoller viciously, breaking her nose, when she refused to disclose the exact whereabouts and state of Lieutenant Covington. Lowry, however, meekly revealed that it would be easy to track where the double agent had come from, because of her footprints in the snow.
So they drove a clip, up the road for approximately two miles. The trail along the rough road veered into the forest; before the jeep was fully stopped, Mel leaped from the vehicle and ran blindly. Instinct propelled her as she shed her coat to run even faster, whatever pain she felt from her fall earlier dissipated, like the clouds of her breath in the cold air.
It felt familiar to be running through the forest, her limbs and heart pumping.
What wasn’t familiar, or anywhere near comforting-although her heart screamed out in relief at having found Janice-was the bloodied body. In the fading, blue-gray light, Janice Covington’s blood was almost violet in color, a dark pool that rippled and glittered along her torso.
The cheek was cold to the touch. The eyes were blank and open.
Don’t you leave me.
She was crying. She could hear Rosenberg shouting her name. Nothing registered until she felt something brushing her thigh: Wet fingers, clutching feebly at her pant leg.
“Hello, hero,” Janice whispered.
Dr. Girard sat in his study with his post-dinner brandy, happy to be unoccupied.
During the meal this evening, one of his staff members, a young man of only twenty, had been complaining about the lack of activity at the spa. Since the end of the war, the spa, located in a modest chalet barely a mile north of the Swiss town of Schaffhausen, had yet to return to its glory days in the 20s and 30s, when every rich, neurasthenic, dipsomaniac, tubercular, troubled, crazy, schizoid individual in Europe would be either taking a cure here, or wanting to.
The doctor was unconcerned; financially, they were in good shape. The government subsidized their existence, and someday the foreigners would be back. Although the Germans…I could live without, he thought, swirling the brandy.
Girard had been reluctantly pressed into service as a surgeon by the Nazis during the war. There was no way around it; he and the spa were too close to the border. The Germans dropped by routinely, like rude guests. He would patch them up, or watch them die despite his ministrations, and then they would be gone, fallen leaves caught in the whirlwind of war.
He was glad these troublesome visits no longer occurred. He inhaled the scent of the liquor, which, to him, was almost as pleasurable as drinking it.
His enjoyment, however, hit a bumpy patch as he looked out the window and noticed twin dots of light, traveling rapidly up the steep road to the chalet. As they grew bigger and bigger, he sighed in resignation. He could tell by the width between the headlights that it was probably a military vehicle, but this time it would be American or British. Usually they are nicer than the Nazis. “Well, Francois,” he murmured aloud, thinking of his young coworker, “you may get your excitement after all.”
He abandoned the brandy and went downstairs, to await his unknown guests.
While the Swiss doctor operated on Janice, Rosenberg spent the hours that passed by radioing the castle and arranging for the OSS to come and take custody of Stoller. He fed Lowry and put the young sergeant in charge of guarding the double agent until the authorities arrived. Sleep, he realized, was a tempting option.
But Mel was even more tempting. He knew where she would be: Outside the room where Girard worked to save her lover.
She was there, of course, tired and dirty. She refused to leave, no matter who asked her, and how many times. Her phantom eyes hovered, in dark sockets, over her broad cheekbones. Like a half-shed skin waiting to fall, her torn pant leg drooped. Her sweater was darkened with blood; there was even crimson under her fingernails.
“Anything?” he asked gently.
She shook her head. No.
He sat down. They remained in near-companionable silence for a few minutes. She closed her eyes. Then he turned to watch the clock looming above them. When next he looked at her, the blue eyes were open again and staring blankly into space.
“There is some good news,” he began, tentatively.
She turned tired eyes to him.
“Brinton’s pushing paperwork through to get Janice discharged. He thinks he’ll have it in two weeks.”
Mel didn’t say anything and he looked back at the clock, the black hands struggling toward a new hour.
“That’ll be fine,” she said, at last. “If she lives that long.”
“Don’t talk like that.” His glare was harsh, but the words were soft.
“Yes, please! I agree heartily!” The voice was booming, male, and accented. Rosenberg jumped up.
The surgeon, a burly gentleman, stood before them. With a vigorous snap he removed his bloody rubber gloves, and while this was a helpful move on his part, Mel could not help but be fixated by his red-splattered white gown. Is all of this blood…hers?
Girard smiled. “The news is good.” He looked at Rosenberg. “You are ‘Mel’?”
Rosenberg raised an eyebrow, then nodded in Mel’s direction.
The surgeon’s eyes widened. “I…see.” He cleared his throat and turned his attention to the Southerner. “Well. First, let me say your, ah, friend has survived the operation. We are fortunate that the bullets did not penetrate the stomach lining. I do not think there is any internal bleeding, but the next 48 hours will be crucial. Luckily, Leftenant Covington is in very good health, and my prognosis is optimistic.”
“Great! Thanks, doc!” Rosenberg grinned, clapping the doctor on the shoulder. The grizzled older man looked at him, then looked at the hand on his body. “Sorry.” Paul pulled the hand away.
Dr. Girard, however, found the presence of Mel’s hands on his a welcome occurrence. “Thank you,” she said to him.
“You are most welcome.”
“How did you know…there was a ‘Mel’?” she asked timidly.
He colored under his neat, dark beard. “She was calling for you before we put her under the anesthetic.” With a mysterious smile, he walked away.
“Jesus, even when she’s practically unconscious she still can’t keep her mouth shut,” Rosenberg muttered.
The afterlife is a white room. How boring.
Janice Covington winced and raised her head off a pillow, convinced she was quite dead. I was kinda hoping pain wouldn’t be part of the being-dead deal. I shouldn’t feel anything…Even more perplexing was the sensation of a heavy, dead weight along her legs. She glanced down her body. The weight on her legs was itself a human leg, one that was long and awfully familiar.
Mel sat in a chair near the bed she was in, dozing. Somehow one of the legs she had propped up on the bottom half of the bed had entangled itself with Janice’s legs.
It figures. Even when she’s not in bed, she still takes up space. So this means…I’m alive? Or in some eternal pit stop? With Mel? Or what if this is Meg? An eternity with Meg. Serves me right, huh? Well, only one way to find out. “Hey,” she called in a voice soft yet scratchy from disuse.
Louder, hoarser, in the spirit with which she would yell on Saturdays at the Polo Ground: “HEY!”
With a gasp the dark-haired woman jerked awake, alarm coloring her red-rimmed blue eyes. The shock of it all was such that Melinda Pappas blurted out loud, for the first time in her life, the name of the Son of God. “Jesus Christ!”
“Mel?” Janice asked warily. It wasn’t looking good. The apparition sounded like Mel, but the Southern beauty surely wouldn’t dare take Christ’s name in vain, despite her severely lapsed Methodist background.
“Janice?” Mel croaked.
Or would she? “Am I alive?” she requested huskily.
Mel managed to reply in the affirmative, before bursting into tears.
“Did you try to defeat the Nazis single-handedly?” Dr. Girard asked as he removed the thermometer from the patient’s mouth.
“Not exactly. Just one in particular,” remarked the patient drolly. Janice blinked-she had been unconscious for almost two days, yet still felt tired beyond belief. She sank back into the white pillows and let her eyelids fly at half-mast.
The bearded Swiss doctor scowled at the thermometer. “It’s still a little high.”
Mel, who had been hovering in the background, came forward to peer at the small glass tube. “A little?” cried the scholar, outraged. “It’s 105!”
“No, madame. Look more closely.” He held the thermometer closer to her nearsighted eyes. “100 degrees Fahrenheit.”
While recognizing, intellectually, that it would do no good, Mel nevertheless squinted at the small numbers, hoping some of them would humor her and make themselves clearer.
“Honey, where’re your glasses?” mumbled Janice. The doctor raised an eyebrow at the endearment.
Mel blushed. He smiled, then regarded his patient with a more thoughtful expression. “But I fear an infection might be present. The stomach looks good-ah!” It dawned on him: The leg-he had not examined the leg wound. One of the nurses had stitched it up while he had removed the bullet; she had done it quickly, too quickly, which had concerned him at the time….He pulled back the blankets. A hump of ugly, crooked black stitches were perched on the smooth thigh, which was bad enough. The fact that the ant-like row-which shifted eerily whenever Janice contracted the leg muscle-was also red around the edges and oozing pus, contributed to its unhealthy appearance.
“Mon Dieu,” muttered Girard. That old fool, he cursed the nurse to himself.
Janice cracked open an eye. “No beauty pageant this year.”
“I’m glad it amuses you, Leftenant. You will need that sense of humor when I remove the stitches…”
A thud caught their attention.
Janice sat up slowly, surveying the unconscious form of Melinda, sprawled on the floor. “Guess I’m gonna have to wait to hear about that dramatic rescue,” she commented.
Girard sighed, and knelt over Mel. He patted his pockets for smelling salts that he knew weren’t there.
Later in the night, Mel had woken up alone, in the room they had given her. At first she had forgotten where she was, and what had happened; her heart had banged wildly in panic. Then she remembered fainting, remembered that Janice was indeed alive, and let the darkness soothe her. The quiet of the black room drenched her like a sudden summer storm and she lay like that for a long time, thinking of nothing, until surrendering to sleep once again.
In the morning, light stung her eyes and she opened them, wondering why she did not feel any better. And why she didn’t want to move. And why she didn’t want to see her lover.
She washed herself at a basin, slowly, ignoring the mirror that lay beside it. Apparently…literally, I cannot face myself either. New clothes were provided for her; whoever picked them had opted for gender inappropriateness and comfort over trying to find something “feminine” to fit her tall, lanky frame: A thick blue shirt, a pair of dark corduroys. She dressed, relishing the feel of soft, clean fabric against her skin. Then, most reluctantly, she stepped out of the room and walked, cautious and catlike, up the hall. She contemplated taking a walk before going to Janice’s room. But as she passed the room, she heard a loud clang. She hesitated at the door, and Lowry rushed out, practically running her down. “You don’t wanna go in there, Miss,” he mumbled at Mel.
“Did she soil herself?” Mel asked, thinking of the one thing that she wouldn’t want to deal with.
The boy blushed. “Uh, no, but she’s in a bit of a mood.”
“Sergeant, she’s been in a bit of a mood since the day I met her,” the Southerner replied smoothly.
He pouted. “She threw a bedpan at me.”
“Then she’s definitely feeling better,” Mel replied. She rallied a smile for the sergeant, and entered the room.
Like Lowry, Janice too was pouty and sulky. She wore threadbare blue pajamas several sizes too large for her frame and sprawled in a pose of confident boredom, like a pasha surveying his decadent court.
A bored Covington is a dangerous Covington. Her eye detected the abused bedpan, a fresh dent in its side, from across the room.
Janice noted Mel’s gentle look of disapproval. “Kid was pissing me off,” she muttered. “He’s like a puppy, waiting on my every word.”
“He adores you,” Mel chastised. She began to walk across the room, but was intercepted by the archaeologist’s firm grasp on her arm, and the slight tug that threw her off balance. She flopped down next to Janice, who smiled triumphantly.
“I’m only interested in adoration from one person,” she growled huskily. “Namely you.” Not loosening her hold on Mel’s arm, she leaned in-like a predator, Mel thought, no, no, that’s not true-and kissed the translator.
Normally-and these were not normal circumstances-the kiss would bloom into such warmth inside her. She would be dizzy at the contact. But now-emotionally she balked, the pleasant surge of desire faded, and she pulled away.
Janice’s lips were slightly parted, she was flushed. And looking confused. How many women have ever willingly disengaged themselves from her, other than for the reason of lacking air? “We shouldn’t…here,” she said uneasily.
“That’s never stopped you before,” retorted Janice, voice still retaining that whiskey-and-cigarettes roughness that signified a certain need remained unfilled.
“I suppose not…” Mel trailed off. She stood up, and walked across the room, retrieving the battered bedpan. What you have done to me now…is more sinister and more brutal than you could have imagined. Or did you imagine it, Catherine? Because it would have been easier to die than see this pain in her face.
Janice looked like she expected it somehow, the withdrawal, as if she had been waiting for it ever since the beginning. Her jaw twitched a little, hampering the bitter, rueful smile that was forming on her face.
“I’m sorry,” Mel said.
“It’s okay.” It wasn’t okay.
“I don’t know…maybe I’m tired.”
“Maybe, baby.” Instead of biting back the affectionate diminutive, Janice bit her tongue by accident, and winced accordingly. Like a third-rate gymnast in slow motion, she swung her legs out of the bed and sat upright.
Mel looked at her angrily. “Just what on earth do you think you’re doing?” demanded the tall woman.
Janice couldn’t hold back the mischievous half-smile. “I’m sitting up. Is that okay?”
“Don’t you smirk at me like that, Janice Covington.”
“Sorry. It’s just that…you’re beautiful when you’re Southern fried, you know that?” Actually, you’re always beautiful. But what’s bothering you, baby?
Arms folded, the angry posture relaxed a little. “I don’t even know what you mean by that.”
“It’s the accent. It gets thicker when you’re mad.”
“I never noticed.”
” ‘Course not.” She paused, staring at Mel, silhouetted against the window. Those blue eyes had a haunted look. Somewhere along the line the sheltered Southern belle had been changed. Time, the slickest and most disingenuous of magicians, had waved its weary hand over her. Is it my fault? She chose to follow me.
But you couldn’t say no, could you? You needed her too much.
She was prodded out of introspection by the sensation of Mel’s eyes on her.
“How are you doing?” the translator inquired gently, politely.
“Um, okay…” Janice replied cautiously, nerves prickling at the distinct impression that, underneath the stilted conversation, something was quite wrong. “How are you feeling?”
“I’ve been better, that’s for sure.” Mel blinked furiously, longing for the shelter of her glasses. But they were broken and crushed, somewhere in the Bavarian forest. Rosenberg and Lowry would be going back to the castle, and the former was to return in a few weeks’ time with Janice’s discharge papers and their personal belongings. Which, in her case, included an extra set of glasses. It felt funny to give it so much credit, but her constantly blurry, nearsighted vision was a considerable factor in the disjointed, overwhelmed way she had felt over the past few days.
Nothing made sense anymore. She wanted nothing more than to go home. And stay there.
It was strange, being with Janice. As if they had passed through some fire that burnt themselves beyond recognition, and the woman she was staring at was only a memory, a broken bit of a mirror, the image of someone who, long ago, was her lover, and made her happier than anyone or anything in the world.
If you continue, this will go on and on…the madness of chasing Covington. Of being rejected or betrayed, of finding her again only to lose her again, of being found lacking…of being the twentieth century equivalent of Xena and Gabrielle. Of hurting her. Of getting hurt yourself.
“Come here.” The gentle command from Janice intruded on her thoughts. Her lips were slightly parted, as if she wanted to say…more. This intrigued Mel, who returned to the edge of the bed, where she sat down.
She was startled by the sudden gesture of the archaeologist’s hand cupping her chin, then sliding along her face, fingers and palm molded against her cheek. Instead of desire, love, and happiness, she felt nervous fear and an instinct to bolt.
“I know you’d do anything to protect me,” Janice said.
She knows about Catherine. She must.
“I know you that well. I know you so goddamn well it scares me sometimes, Mel.”
Do you, Janice? Because it scares me. All of it scares me now. This history between us, it’s bigger and more dangerous than I imagined. Was I naïve?
“You haven’t changed much in over 2000 years,” Janice mused.
The blue eyes dropped, as did the Southerner’s tone. “Don’t compare me to her.”
The statement took Janice aback. Usually Mel seemed comfortable-or, at the very least, accepting-with the notion of being Xena’s descendent. How did this change?
That scroll. Tread carefully, Covington. Be sensitive. “I’m not…I mean, what’s wrong with Xena? She was a hero.”
“She was a murderer,” Mel responded curtly.
Janice dropped her hand from the scholar’s face. “Aw, c’mon, Mel. You know that she changed.” What’s that you say, Covington? You want a dictionary?
“Perhaps superficially. She refocused her particular talents for a greater good. But inside she remained the same beast.”
“Bullshit!” Hey, how do you spell “sensitive” anyway?
Mel arched an eyebrow, for a strange moment resembling an imperious warlord. The resemblance was aided by the fact that she wasn’t wearing glasses.
“Mel, what has got you so down on Xena? Was it that scroll?” The first two pages had been slightly ominous in their setting of a tone, yet unrevealing: The warrior and bard were in Britannia, driven there by Xena’s quest to destroy Caesar.
The expression shifted, and Mel once again looked like Mel: An emotionally exhausted, smart woman dealing with too much going on in her mind. “I don’t…want to talk about it now.”
It was. “We have to talk about it at some point. You didn’t get through the whole thing, did you?” Her question ended on an incredulous note; Mel was damn good, but could she have translated the whole thing in such a short period of time?
“I read enough of it…” muttered the scholar cryptically. And what I didn’t read…well, the dreams filled in the rest of the details.
“Then tell me,” Janice demanded tersely.
Mel sighed deeply. “Not now. I can’t…”
The archaeologist allowed a fit of pique to be expressed. Without thinking she brought her fist down…on her wounded leg. “Ow! Fuck!”
“Janice, are you okay? Did you break the stitches?”
“I don’t think so…” Janice peered at the leg, disappointed that x-ray vision was not one of her superpowers. Then she fixed her angry green eyes on her companion, temper exacerbated by the pain. “What the hell are you keeping from me? Why won’t you tell me?”
“Don’t you ever get tired of it all?”
The blonde woman blinked at her. “Tired of what?”
No, of course not. She thrives on it. “I just want-things normal for a while.” The tone was sullen. Mel looked away.
“Oh.” Janice stared down at her hands. Idiot. “Normal? Since when have things ever been normal for us?” And just what did she mean by…”normal”?
“That’s the problem, Janice,” Mel snapped.
The door swung open, and Dr. Girard appeared. Immediately he sensed the tension. To him, such emotional distress always smelled sharp and bitter, like a poison. “I am sorry…I hope I did not interrupt anything?”
“No,” Mel responded quietly. She stood up and left. As she brushed past the doctor, a bitter, sickening sensation caught in her throat, a kind of anguish, and she wanted to cry, long and hard. She strode down the corridor, back toward her room, then stopped abruptly.
A figure was at the end of the hallway, near the door of her room. It was a was familiar one, yet in a bad way: The dark military coat, the close-cropped, dark head. The leering smile.
She swallowed, clenched her jaw, and walked toward him.
A spark of a lit match brightened his dark face, as he sucked methodically at the pipe where the flame was then burrowed. “Hello, my dear,” said Major Pendleton of the OSS.
“Hello, Major.” Her dry throat rasped out the cool delivery.
“Sorry to disappoint you with my presence once again. But I’ve come to retrieve my quarry. And I must thank you for your crucial role in capturing Fraulein Stoller.” He peered at her critically. “I say, you don’t look well.”
She said nothing. She knew how she looked: gaunt, sharp-featured, could see it reflected in Janice’s face, when those green eyes appraised her. When was the last time I slept well?
“You should be happy. Your friend is alive and in one piece, and you helped capture a war criminal.”
“I am thankful…it’s all over with.”
He smiled. “Not quite.”
The color in her eyes flared, as the pupils narrowed, revealing an icier, paler blue.
“That got a reaction out of you, my beauty.” His teeth clicked against the pipe’s mouthpiece as he shifted it between his lips. “You have one more task to complete.”
She said nothing, but waited expectantly.
“I need you to speak with Stoller one final time. She wants to see you.”
“I don’t want to see her.”
“Believe it or not, I quite understand. But I’m willing to play along here. She may reveal something useful to you. Something that she wouldn’t to me, or anyone else.”
“That’s nonsense. She wouldn’t-after all that’s happened-want to tell me anything..”
“Perhaps,” Pendleton conceded. “But…aren’t you the least bit curious?” He smiled, knowing she would be trumped by her own interest.
Unlike the other light, airy rooms of the spa, Catherine Stoller was whiling away her time in a dark, windowless room that appropriately enough resembled a cell. Guarded by two British soldiers, she sat at a table in the stark garret, trying to smoke a cigarette. Which is particularly hard to do, when one is tightly handcuffed and breathing is hindered by a broken nose.
Mel was struck by the comic appearance of the bright white bandage in the middle of the blonde’s bruised face. She noted that one of Catherine’s hands were swathed in gauze as well. She was seized with a sudden urge to laugh hysterically; something in her tired soul ached for a release.
Cigarette cradled in her good hand, Catherine raised it to her lips awkwardly, dragging along the useless hand with its broken fingers. She smiled at Mel. “You did not know I smoked, did you?” Her voice was lower, muffled somehow by her injury.
“What do you want?” Mel asked wearily.
“Actually, I never smoked until today. I need something to keep me occupied. These rat bastards”-she nodded at the guards-“won’t even let me read a damned newspaper.”
She spewed smoke in Mel’s general direction. “And I found-rather they found-cigarettes in my pocket. Covington’s cigarettes, to be exact. I took them when I was in her rooms at Neuschwanstein. I knew she would be back for them. And she was.” She stopped, and nudged the pack across the table. “So I’m returning them.”
Mel stared at the crumpled pack of Gauloises. “Keep them,” she murmured. She turned to leave.
“Wait.” How amazing…even as a prisoner, she commands attention.
“What?” Mel did not turn around.
“I wanted to say goodbye to you.”
Goodbye to you. Goodbye to whatever untainted memories I had of you. Goodbye to the trust broken between Janice and I. Goodbye to the fact that I grow cold when she touches me and I don’t know if I’ll ever find my way back to wanting her, or anyone else for that matter. “Goodbye, then.” She put her hand on the knob.
“Melinda.” Again the too-soft voice, surrounding her like water. “Did you like the gift I left for you?”
Mel turned again, to look at her.
“The scroll, my darling. I had hoped you would find it first, but no matter. You’re the one who figured it out first, ja? That little idiot would be lost without you.”
“That scroll…is yours?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes.” Catherine puffed on the cigarette in a matter-of-fact way, as if she had been doing it all of her life, handcuffed. “Did you enjoy reading these particular tales of Xena? The Destroyer of Nations, who kills an entire tribe of Amazons? Who kidnaps children? Who tries to kill the one person who supposedly meant everything in the world to her?”
“Stop.” Mel’s shaky voice was half-commanding, and half-pleading.
“Why stop? This is a history you need to know, Melinda. It’s unlike the scrolls Covington found in Macedonia, those romantic adventures of warrior and bard. Spare me.”
Perhaps your instinct to run away was right, Janice. Perhaps you’ve been right all along.
“I thought you needed to see…what you’re really like. Who you really are. And who I am.”
“What do you mean?” Her shoulders tensed, and her right hand flexed instinctually.
“Perhaps…perhaps I misjudge Covington. She knows her lineage, at the very least. And she even accepts it on some level. But you…” A short, harsh laugh. She held out her bound hands, in supplication. “You made me, darling. And you don’t know it.” She laughed again. “It’s somewhat amusing, nicht wahr? I’ll be laughing to my grave.”
The undertow of memory tugged fiercely at Mel. With an equal amount of determination, she resisted it. Not now. Not another memory. I’m done with it all. And yet…there were still things she wanted to know. “Where did you find this scroll? Where did you get it?” she demanded.
The blonde agent’s smile was slight. “A mystery for you to figure out, love.” Their eyes met briefly.
“I don’t want any mysteries.”
“Too bad. It’ll keep things interesting when you are playing house with Covington. Give you something to ponder when you are darning her socks or cooking her dinner.”
“You assume too much.”
“Are you saying there are no happy endings?” Catherine mocked bitterly. “Go now. I’m tired,” she ordered, with the abrupt tonal shift into the curt, which was purely…hers. “I have said all I wanted to.”
Mel lingered a moment, staring at her curiously. In return, Catherine studied her, drank in her form for one last time. There was no need to do so, really; she already had the tall, languorous body, the blue eyes, the smile, the laugh, the voice, all of it, committed to memory.
The door closed behind Mel. Did a shadow of regret move over her face as she left? Or am I just imagining that?
Without betraying any sign of movement within her face, Catherine rolled her tongue, until its tip found the cyanide capsule buried under it. She nudged it between her teeth and bit down softly. Until next time, then.
“I’m off, then.” Rosenberg slung his rucksack over a shoulder. “If I don’t come back, it’ll be someone else with your gear, and with Jan’s papers.”
“Good,” Mel said softly. “Thank you.” A pause. “Did you say goodbye to her?”
“Of course!” he replied indignantly. “I even kissed the brat on the cheek.” They both laughed at that. He shifted nervously, obviously wanting to say something.
She decided to help him. “What?”
“You look like shit.”
“You really know how to talk to women, don’t you?”
“Are you all right?”
“Who do you think I’m talking to, the fairies in my head?”
“What makes you think something is-”
“I guess the fact that you’re not in her room 24 hours a day,” he muttered sarcastically.
The relaxed expression on her face withdrew, leaving a neutral, closed-off facade in its place. He knew he had gone too far.
“I guess it’s none of my business,” he added wistfully. Jesus, I’m always saying that to her. “But you don’t look happy. You should be. And you should be taking care of yourself. If not for your own good, then for her sake.”
She said nothing. Behind the facade she tortured herself with the remnants of a dream from the night before: Catherine, in some strange, skimpy leather outfit, a claw-like hand around her throat. You destroy everything you kiss.
She stared at him. Or rather, through him.
Everything you touch.
Rosenberg opened his mouth, thoughts still frantically formulating, when the figure of Major Pendleton swung around the corner, with two soldiers in tow. He was moving so rapidly his coat had flared open as he bore down on them.
It wasn’t until the Major was within six feet of the Southerner that she finally snapped out of whatever thoughts had claimed her. She was startled to see him in front of her, and even more startled when he backhanded her viciously across the face.
The soldiers, expecting the worst, had grabbed Rosenberg before he could react. “What the fuck is going on?” he shouted.
Mel felt a dribble of blood from her nose. She stanched it with her fingertips. “I suppose we’re even now?” she asked shakily, recalling the slap she’d given him in Munich.
“Even?” Pendleton hissed. “For us to be even, you damned bitch, I should beat you within an inch of your filthy life.”
She examined the dark blood on her fingers.
“I told you to speak with her, not kill her.”
“Stoller is dead. It appears she had a cyanide capsule for lunch. What the bloody hell did you say to her?”
The stunned silence stretched itself out, as Pendleton waited indignantly for Mel to say something. Instead, she pressed herself against the wall, and slid down until sitting in the bench that was fortunately and conveniently located there.
“And this is Melinda’s fault?” Rosenberg growled at the Major. Angrily, he shook off the restraints of the soldiers, glowering at them.
You really meant that goodbye, didn’t you?
The memories shook her violently and her head jerked in surprise, as if she had been slapped again. I made you, Catherine? I know now, I know you, oh God I know you so well. Yes, I made you. She made you. Does it really matter who you blame?
“She could’ve used the poison sooner, when she was caught. But she didn’t. I may have had a chance of getting things out of her. But no, I thought I would honor her wishes to see you again. You were the trigger, dear. Something you said…” he trailed off, shaking his head. “I should have known….You’re the kiss of death.”
Pendleton turned on his heel and stalked away, followed by his minions.
Rosenberg watched him walk away, then produced a clean yet crumpled handkerchief from his jacket and handed it to Mel.
“I’m going to give you an address in London. I want you to send my belongings there.”
“Just…your stuff?” he asked tentatively.
She stared at crimson on white. “Just…mine.”
Even an hour after the opera, Rosenberg was still rubbing his temple. “I don’t know how you can like that stuff,” he said to Mel, who sat next to him in the cab.
Mel smiled slightly, saying nothing. Her eyes were closed and her head tilted back against the seat. She liked the feel of the cool leather against her bare neck. “The tenor was a bit off, I would say,” she finally responded after a minute of silence.
He shifted uncomfortably; he hated wearing full dress uniforms-the stiff collar of the shirt digging into his neck, the knot of the tie holding him hostage, pressing its bulk just below his Adam’s apple. “Everyone died,” he muttered, lodging an additional complaint.
She straightened herself a bit, and opened her eyes. “That’s what it’s all about,” she said grimly. They were approaching her hotel; she hadn’t given up the room at the Grosvenor, even while in Germany, even though now it served to torture her with memories of Janice. But I won’t be here much longer, she thought. Anton was doing well; he was as recovered as he would get from the stroke, and he was the only reason she had stayed in the city. Right, Melinda? Right.
She glanced at Rosenberg, who was staring forlornly out the window. Who does he think I stay here for? For Janice? For himself? She knew that Janice Covington was in London-where, she had no idea. She also knew that Rosenberg-and Anton himself-had spoken with her. The two men were her agents, it seemed. Nonetheless, the attempts at infiltration were met with her determined resistance. Of the two, Anton was more wily and persistent:
Over tea, usually, he would begin his civilized attack. He would lure her in with a story, usually something about someone famous he knew, or an expedition perhaps, or her father. “…And they had left me in study when I heard a thundering crash from the stairs. And much shouting. When I went into the foyer, your father and Sir James were fighting with swords.”
“Swords?” Mel echoed in awe, like a child.
“And Sir James was shouting, ‘On my honor, and on my regiment’s honor!’ And your father retorted, ‘On your ass!'”
Mel’s eyes bulged even bigger. She had never known her father to use obscenities.
“And that is precisely what your father did: disarmed Sir James and knocked him on his bottom.” He paused dramatically. “And that is the story.”
“Gosh,” Mel mumbled.
“Yes, quite fantastic in its own small way.” His eyes would pin her and he would go in for the kill. “Oh, by the by, my dear, Covington was here yesterday, inquiring about you.”
As usual, her teacup rattled and she spilled hot liquid on her skirt at the mention of the name. Anton, unfazed, would continue blithely: “Yes, and she looked quite fetching. Lovely young woman, as you well know, not to mention intelligent. And I say that, knowing that she smokes, drinks, eats, and swears like a sailor. Well, that’s quite impressive on her part, wouldn’t you say? That beauty, unmarred by such habits? Did I mention she professed undying love for you? No? She did, quite. After eating Lord knows how many egg salad sandwiches.”
But by this time a headache would kick in, and she would depart abruptly.
In the cab, Rosenberg watched her dismally. The vehicle pulled up to the hotel’s entrance.
Inside, he decided to fend off the inevitable rejection-for she never invited him to her room-by nodding at the bar. “D’ya want a drink first?”
“No, thank you, Paul.” She walked over to the elevator and pressed a button. He shuffled his feet beside her. She looked up at the half-crescent of numbers over the elevator door and watched as the arrow indicating each floor descended.
A ding announced the elevator’s arrival. She smiled at him. “Good night. Thank you for keeping me company again.”
She entered the elevator’s golden hull as a bell boy held the door for her.
“Yeah. Right. Look, I-” He stopped, nonplused.
“What is it?” Both Mel and the bell boy stared at him.
“Are we…dating or what?” he blurted in sheer frustration and confusion.
She assessed him for a moment, as if meeting him for the first time. “No,” she said. She nodded at the boy, who released the door.
As it closed over her fine features, the bell boy shrugged at him sympathetically.
Mel turned on the light as she entered the room. Its stillness filled her with a familiar kind of dread.
She sat in a chair and removed her shoes. Leaning back into the overstuffed, stiff fabric, she sighed. Then she looked around, nostrils flaring. Something about the room was different…wasn’t it?
She jumped up, inhaling deeply, like a hound catching scent of a fox.
Cigarette smoke. She was here.
Forcing herself to walk-and not run-across the room, she approached the closet and flung open its door. Nothing was visible to the eyes except her clothes. She ruffled through them, feeling no resistance, nothing strange as her touch swam through silk and wool. Then she looked up into the hat rack. And noticed that Janice’s rucksack, the one that Sally Phillips had given her before her departure for Germany, was gone, thus confirming her suspicions.
Her senses twitched; suddenly the room didn’t seem empty anymore. Is she still here? Hiding? If I were a beautiful rogue, where would I be? Mel frowned; she didn’t know. She checked the bathroom: Empty. Scowling, she entered the bedroom again…and noticed a cigarette, half-smoked, now crushed, on the rug near the bed. Cautiously, she approached the bed and kneeled. She touched the cigarette. The ash was still warm.
Dramatically, she yanked up the blanket’s edge, and gasped.
“You’re really paying too much for this room,” Janice Covington said, from under the bed. “There’s dust everywhere.”
Mel felt dizzy; the sudden desire to start hyperventilating had her fighting for control of her breathing. She was half-afraid that if she lost that battle, her heart would surely follow suit in the rebellion. “What are you doing here?” she demanded angrily. Oh, she still has that damned key!
“I wanted my stuff back.” As Mel stood up, Janice scrambled out from under the bed. She sneezed as she rose to her undaunting height of five-foot-three.
“You could have called first. Or sent someone else.”
“Why should I make it easy for you?” Janice replied quietly. “You haven’t made it easy for me.”
“I tried to make it easy.”
“You walked out on me just like I did on you. You knew how that felt. That wasn’t easy, Mel. That was revenge.”
That darker side of herself, the one that she rarely acknowledged, admitted it gleefully. “I’m sorry about that.”
“I think you almost mean that.” The Southern translator could tell that Janice was fighting her own sarcasm, and struggling to retain a neutral tone.
She felt a tremor in her lip. “It would be best if you’d just go.” Mel spun around and stalked over to the window, where she closed the curtains. With a prayer for strength, she turned to face Janice again. The archaeologist was brushing dust off her pants. Apparently she was finally sick of khaki, at least for the time being, and wore a man’s white oxford shirt, tucked into dark wool trousers, and black boots. And, of course, her leather jacket.
She looked well, and she returned Mel’s frank appraisal with one of her own. “You look great,” Janice murmured, forcing herself not to gaze too long.
“Thank you.” Mel stared down at her stockings.
“Didn’t think you’d still be hanging around London.”
“Anton needs me. For a while, anyway.”
“How is he?”
“Much better. But then, you’ve seen him.” Oh God, we’re acting almost normal. “Janice? Please. Go.”
“You’ve lost all your gracious Southern charm. Least you could do is offer me a drink and listen to me.”
Mel hesitated. “You know where the liquor is.”
Janice didn’t move. Just swayed slightly. It occurred to Mel that perhaps she had already been drinking. “I…I’ll go, but I need to tell you something first, okay?” Janice hesitated, waiting for the obligatory protests; when none were forthcoming, she decided to continue. “I had dreams after you left. You know, kinda like the ones you used to have, ’bout Xena. It was funny, never had them before. I mean, I dream, but it’s usually about Hedy Lamarr or someone like that.” The joke didn’t go over. She cleared her throat nervously. “Anyway, in these dreams I had recently, I was…her.” She could not bring herself to say Gabrielle’s name. “And…it was really confusing. Something about my…child. And Xena’s.”
Mel’s throat was paper dry and aching.
“And they died…and then Xena…” She paused and stared downward. Somehow, gazing at footwear gave her the impetus to continue and she looked at Mel with those eyes, so intent, so merciless in looking through me. “You know this all, don’t you? You read it in that scroll.”
“Yes,” Mel responded huskily.
“I understand why it frightened you, then. It is scary, isn’t it?”
“It scared me too, Mel. But we don’t know the ending yet, do we?”
“I’m not sure I want to know the ending…to this.”
Janice sighed in frustration. “We’re not them. It doesn’t have to be like that. You’re the one who helped me believe that in the first place!”
I used to think that, until I saw you bloody and almost dead in a forest. And I knew I was the reason you were there. It felt as if I had pulled the trigger myself. “We carry around their history. We feel them still. Which means we feel all of it: The pain and the agony, as well as the good things.”
“True,” Janice agreed. “So even if you think we’ll want to kill each other, tomorrow, or next month, or next year-”
Mel looked at her expectantly.
“-don’t you think it’s worth spending those few days, or months, or years, of happiness together? Don’t you think we can be happy?”
Yes! “No,” Mel said. “Not as the long as the risk remains. I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want to be hurt. I’m tired, Janice. I’m very tired of it all.”
“I’m tired, too,” Janice retorted. “I’m tired of death. I feel like I’ve spent the last two years looking at it, breathing it in, smelling it on myself. I felt like…” Her words stumbled as she swallowed and shifted her jaw. “…it was more my lover than you were. But there was one reason I clung to life so hard. And that was you.” Anger thickened her low voice. “I didn’t live through all of this, I didn’t survive it just so you could walk away from me. You think you’re being noble or something, but…” She trailed off, momentarily at a loss, as emotion overwhelmed her.
“What?” Mel prompted irritably, all the while knowing that it was something she probably didn’t want to hear.
“I’ve always thought you were stronger than me. And braver. But right now, you’re a bigger fucking coward than I’ve ever been.”
Ever since she had last slapped Major Pendleton, Mel had swore she would no longer indulge in any minor theatrics of this sort. It was “Scarlett O’Hara behavior,” as her father had disdainfully called it, and he had raised his daughter to be a better woman. Hadn’t he? Yet the word “coward” often inspires such a reaction in Southerners regardless of region or gender, that there is no ignoring the insult. Especially from a Yankee. Before common sense could commandeer her body, she was in motion, and raising a hand to slap Janice…
…who had intercepted her arm and, using the tall woman’s momentum against her, threw her onto the bed. It was almost like a dance they had done many times, always expected, never denied. You remember seeing little boys with slingshots, when you were a kid? Paul Rosenberg had said to her, a few days after meeting up with her again in London. You pull and pull that rubber band as far away as you can. No matter how hard and how far you pull, it comes back to you. Sometimes when you pull away too much, it snaps. It comes right back at you, and it can hurt like hell.
It had been one of Paul’s more inspired “You Have to Go Back to Janice” speeches. Usually the poor man was too torn between loyalty for his friend, and the feelings he had for Mel, to render effective any lectures on the contradictions and complications of love.
I get the point, Mel had said to him, not thinking how Covingtonesque the terse comment was. But she realized it now.
As she fell to the bed memory struck like lightning, and she recalled that day at her home, when Janice was about to leave. How she had grabbed that slender wrist, felt resistance as she pulled the smaller woman to her, how perfectly their bodies melded together, how automatically Janice’s hand touched her shoulder.
That familiar push and pull. Ad infinitum.
Janice was poised over her now. She had forgotten how much strength resided in that lovely, compact form. Gold hair fell over a shoulder, and touched her cheek. Unconsciously, her face tilted up, craving the contact, lips parted against tendrils. She felt Janice’s grip tighten around her wrists as the former WAC dipped down and kissed her.
The kiss burned through Mel, and was indeed worthy of the toe curls that followed. It’s still there, she thought, that connection, that feeling, that…love. Her lips parted and welcomed the familiar taste of sweetness and bourbon. The moment Janice released her wrists, her arms flew around the leather-clad back, her hands clutching fistfuls of the soft, supple jacket.
It felt like hours, but in reality the kiss lasted two minutes and forty-seven seconds. Mel disengaged to catch her breath, wished that this elusive moment riding the slipstream of time was something she could catch, and that she could horde it, hold it, savor it. But then, she thought, she would be content to relive the triumph of rediscovery by kissing Janice Covington as often as possible, for a very long time. “You lovely thief. What did you take this time, in lieu of my heart?” she whispered, breathless, and somewhat surprised at the quasi-poetry jumping out of her mouth.
Janice look stunned, a too-clever child caught in a lie. “Uh…that fancy-ass Cartier watch,” she admitted sheepishly.
Mel laughed. “I’m quite fond of that watch.”
Janice smiled. Then grew serious. “Do you still want me to go?”
After a kiss like that? she wanted to say. But she didn’t. Janice always had a need for concrete specifics, to hear things verbalized. She knew that. A yes or a no, tangible like a fact, like something she dug up from the earth with her own hands.
Mel touched her cheek. “No.” Never.
Twilight or daybreak?
Janice opened her eyes. The world was poised on a pinpoint, half dark, half light, waiting to fall either one way or another. As seconds slid by, the morning grew bold and decided to filter in sunlight from the slits and crevices of the blinds.
She was tangled possessively in Mel’s long limbs. Not that this is a bad thing. The soft skin of the translator’s forearm tickled against the still-sensitive scar on Janice’s stomach. Mel was dead to the world, which was unusual; normally she was a light sleeper. But hours of uninterrupted screwing tires out even the biggest of Southern girls, I guess.
She shifted, turning on her side, to look at Mel. The movement did nothing to jar the slumbering Southerner. Wisps of black hair were marooned along the high, smooth cheekbone. With the soft, surreptitious blasts of warm air from the mouth, some strands rose and shimmied, a little dance of joy, a “huzza!” then floated down.
Her hand trembled slightly as she proceeded to brush away the dark hairs from her lover’s face, as if dispelling dust from a priceless vase entombed in earth. She had been 19 and in college before Harry would let her do that most delicate of tasks. Even then, he had relented only because she had nagged him nonstop for weeks. It had been in Syria. Careful. It takes a light touch, he had said, as she slipped on gloves and took the brush in her hand…
Careful. It had been a new world revealed to her. She had found something so new, in the charged air of golden dust, in something so ancient.
Mel’s eyes were now open-those blue eyes, ill-served by the most flowery of poetics. The brave new world. “Is everything okay?” she asked, voice husky with sleep.
“Yeah,” Janice said, thickly.
“You’re sure? Nothing’s wrong?”
“I’m insanely in love with you. That’s what’s wrong.” Oh…did I just say that?
Mel was grinning. It was beautiful. “Is it?”
“Uh, no…it’s not…” Mel’s uncanny talent for turning her into a hormonal, stammering teenager struck with a vengeance.
Mel caught her hand. “I love you,” she said simply.
But she couldn’t help asking. Just to be…”Sure?” Archaeologists had to be sure, right? Everything wasn’t as it appeared to be, among ruins and artifacts, within dead worlds and words, waiting, waiting….
“Yes. Of course.” Mel stretched, then pulled her closer.
…Waiting to be discovered. She was embraced, the familiar long arms wrapping around her. She never knew how much she enjoyed being held by someone until the first time she lay in Mel’s arms. She studied the fine, faint down along the forearms, admired the strong, bony wrist, felt the tapered, gentle fingers wrapping around her own arm, like a gift.
“Would you like to live in Cambridge for a while?” Janice hadn’t intended on blurting it out quite like that.
“England or Massachusetts?” Mel inquired, quite logically.
“The latter. You might remember that offer I got to teach, at Harvard….”
Is she falling asleep again? Janice wondered. The drawl was drowsier than usual; the vowels dragged across those two monosyllabic words at a Southern snail’s languorous pace. “Well, I was thinking-”
“I…was thinking of maybe taking the job…” she trailed off in a quiet voice. “It’s only for a semester or two. Hell, I don’t even know if it’s still available And I was thinking maybe eventually, I could get them to sponsor a dig, y’know?”
“Yes, that’s a good idea,” Mel said encouragingly.
Janice looked hopeful. “So, you think it’s a good idea?”
“I just said that, didn’t I?” the Southerner responded musically.
“So you think…you might want to live there, then?”
“No, with the goddamn Boston Symphony. Of course, with me!” Janice growled.
Mel giggled. “I’m just teasin’, darling. I did assume…”
“Sorry. I mean…I’m gonna need all the frigging help I can get. Someone to help me get through the socializing and ass-kissing, the schmoozing. You know. Shit like that.”
“Janice, are you asking me to be your…faculty wife?”
“I, uh….” Janice smiled weakly, ruefully. “Pretty stupid idea, huh? Like I expect you to drop everything and change your life….Christ, you already have a home of your own. And why you’d want to live where it snows a ton every winter, surrounded by snooty, morally constipated New Englanders…”
“Surely Yankees and snow are not a worse combination than Nazis and snow…”
“That’s a matter of opinion.”
“…and it doesn’t snow as much in Cambridge as it does in Germany…does it?” Mel added, panicky.
“I don’t think so,” Janice lied, recalling the snowy winters of her undergraduate days. A nice pair of boots, she’ll be fine.
“Then I…accept your proposal, such as it is.”
“R-really?” This time, Janice was the one stammering. She gulped.
“Yes.” Mel wanted to laugh at the look of sheer astonishment on her companion’s face.
“Wow.” A huge grin covered Janice’s face. She giggled, like a child. In that moment Mel could imagine her as a girl, slender, mischievous, tireless, Harry Covington’s faithful shadow. The image rendered itself indelible in her mind, and she vowed to herself…that she would make Janice happy like this, as often as she could, for the rest of her life. She didn’t know-and didn’t need to know, really-that Janice had made the same vow, at the same moment in time.
Continued in Venezia