The Slow Dance of Love
by D. J. Belt
The previous dozen or so Mel and Jan stories which I’ve penned for you span the time period from 1946 until the early 1950’s. I’ve purposely avoided dealing with their initial meeting and romance in 1940 because so many other writers have done such wonderful, entertaining stories on the subject. I thought any effort of mine would pale in comparison.
But as I was casting about for a new M&J story, the germ of an idea began forming in my pointy little head. When it jelled, I knew that I had to write this one. So here, in this ‘prequel’, is my conception of the way it really all began between our two favorite girls. No angry gods, no enchanted talismans, no creepy tomb, no irritating salesman from New Jersey; I just went with how it might have believably happened, set against the actual, tumultuous history of the time and place.
I sure hope you enjoy!
Archaeological dig, Macedonia, late summer, 1940
“Doctor Covington! Doctor Covington! Hey, Boss! Wake up!”
Jan opened one eye, and only then realized that she was face-down in her cot. The leg of a pair of dirty brown pants hovered three inches from her nose. The smell made her want to gag even more than did the hangover she was nursing. She grunted unintelligibly, then lifted her head. “What?”
Azam was gesturing dramatically. “The police, they are here.”
“What the f-?” Jan realized that, somehow, she had become vertical on the cot. “Police? Uh, yeah. Tell ’em that I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Yah, yah. A minute.” He ran from the tent, shouting, “Yah. A minute, she comes,” then remembered himself and began repeating the same sentiment in very loud Greek.
“Jesus Christ. Now what?” Jan rose from the bunk and staggered from her tent to a nearby table, where she poured some water into a large metal bowl and attempted to wash her face. After a moment, she said, “Aw, hell,” picked up the bowl and dumped the water over her head. She shook her head, dog-like, then walked back to her tent and toweled her head and face dry. After she ran her fingers through her blonde, not-quite-shoulder-length hair, she clapped her worn green fedora hat on her head and began the short trek down the hill to the archaeological dig site she was supervising.
The local chief of constables, a swarthy, handsome man in a sweat-stained police uniform, stood next to a hand-wringing Azam. Jan affected a nonchalant air, nodded a greeting and pulled her rumpled cigarette pack from the pocket of her shorts. She offered one to the constable, then lit one herself. As she exhaled the smoke and clacked her Zippo shut, she spoke in her rapid, accented Greek.
“Good morning. What brings you out here today, Chief?”
The chief constable, in answer, shifted his attention to a box in the arms of a subordinate. He lifted from it an ancient, two-handled cup and held it in front of Jan. “Do you recognize this?” he asked.
“Of course. It is a kylix, a drinking cup. Very old, perhaps fifth century BC, judging by the artist’s technique.” She eyed the artifact. “Good condition. Nice.” She batted innocent eyes at the police constable. “Where did you get the, ah, cup?”
“From a man who now warms a seat in my jail.” The constable leaned a little closer to Jan, towering over her. “He says that he bought it from you.”
“Are you accusing me of selling artifacts on the black market?” She cast a hurt expression up at the constable. “You should know me better than that, Chief Constable.”
He shook a meaty finger in her face. “I know you too well, Doctor Covington. And when I catch you…” He drew the same finger across his throat. “The Greek government does not take kindly to you foreigners stealing our history from beneath our noses.” He tapped his own prominent nose to emphasize the point.
“And a glorious nose it is, Chief Constable,” Jan said. “But I remind you that I am a trained archaeologist, employed by a Greek museum and digging this tomb on a permit from your government.”
“A permit which can easily be revoked.”
Jan spread her arms wide, indicating the activity about her. “This is my living.” She waved a hand to indicate her diggers. “Their living. Would you take this from us?”
“If I catch you selling artifacts on the black market, you will lose more than a job.” He turned toward his car and opened the door.
Jan huffed, then said, “Why do you think it was me?”
As he sat in the passenger seat, he grinned up at her. “Because you never denied it.” He watched Jan’s expression fall, then laughed heartily and slammed the car door. The car’s tires spun, kicking up a small cloud of dust, then launched the vehicle into motion. As the car drove away, Jan stood, hands on hips, watching it.
Azam edged closer to her and spoke in English. “You goin’ to jail, Boss?” he asked.
Slowly, Jan allowed a cagey grin to crease her face. “Not today, I guess.”
“Man, you one strange woman, Boss.” He studied her. “All American women, they are like you? You know, Betty Grable? Mae West? And that Hepburn! Va-va-voom!”
“Down, boy.” Jan ground out the butt of her cigarette with the toe of her boot, then spit on the ground. “Nah, not like me.” She cast a glance at Azam. “Some of those broads are crazy.” With that, she turned and began walking up the path to the tents. “I need a cup of coffee and about ten freakin’ aspirin. And I gotta quit drinkin’ that cheap booze.”
Azam watched her go, then shook his head. “I think I stick with Greek women.”
He glanced up in surprise at Jan’s laugh. “Yeah,” she called over her shoulder. “Me, too.”
Jan concentrated as she gently brushed away centuries of dirt from the edges of a pottery jar, an amphora. As the decorative artwork circling its exterior became evident, she whistled softly, then muttered, “Man, this is gonna be sweet.”
“What’s that, Boss?”
She glanced up. Azam stood on the edge of the dig pit, looking down. “Payroll, I hope,” Jan said. “You guys got that tomb door cleared away yet?”
“Nah. Soon, soon.” Azam knelt by the pit. “I got supplies from town, Boss.”
“Yeah?” Jan spoke absent-mindedly, concentrating on the amphora. “Just in time. I’m out of smokes.”
Azam tossed a fresh pack of cigarettes to Jan. “Yah, and we out of money, Boss.”
“So what? That’s the story of my life,” Jan said as she opened the pack.
“No, I mean we broke. What we do on payday, Boss?” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “The diggers, they get plenty pissed when we no pay up.”
Jan looked up. As she gestured toward the amphora, she spoke. “This is gonna be payday, right here.”
“Oh, Boss.” Azam rolled his eyes. “You gonna go to jail big time.”
“Nah.” Jan flashed a cagey smile. “They hired me to crack that tomb. This ain’t in the tomb, so I figure it’s mine. Besides, I think I’ve got a legitimate buyer.” She stood, then gestured toward the site where the diggers were laboring. “Now go put your boot up a few butts over there and get that tomb door cleared out. The museum expects results, ya know? They’ve been all over me about it.”
“Yah, yah.” Azam turned to leave, then stopped. “Oh, I check the mail. You got a telegram, Boss.” He rummaged in a pocket, then handed a brown envelope to Jan. “It’s from the boss at the Athens museum.” That done, he turned, strode purposefully toward the tomb and began barking orders in rapid, shrill Greek. Jan watched him, snickered, and lit a cigarette while she pondered the envelope.
“Telegrams. They never have good news, do they?” She ripped open the envelope. “Maybe I’ve been drafted,” she joked, as she opened the paper. “Or fired.” She considered the telegram’s contents, then mused, “Damn. Pappas is in Athens? And he’s on his way here? Hell, I never expected him to actually take me up on my invitation to visit.” Jan glanced around the dig site, then shook her head. “Nobel Prize winner and professor emeritus Melvin Pappas, coming here?” She took a drag on her smoke as she thought about it. “To my sorry little dig? He’s gonna damn sure be disappointed.” Her thoughts involuntarily added the words, in me. “He’ll be arriving in Thessaloniki tonight. I’ll meet him at the train station myself. After all, this is a big honor.” She folded the telegram and shoved it into the pocket of her khaki shorts. “Aw, hell. He’s just showing up because he was buddies with dad.” Jan snickered at the thought. “Man, that must have been an odd couple. The great Nobel Laureate Melvin Pappas, drinking buddies with Harry ‘Grave-Robber’ Covington. Talk about your two ends of the archaeology spectrum.” She took another drag on her smoke as she studied the visible portion of the amphora between the toes of her scuffed boots. “Well, back to work. The payroll won’t wait.”
Jan threw her bag into the cab of a beat-up little truck, then turned to Azam. “Keep a guard on that tomb tonight. The rifle’s in my tent.”
“Okay, Boss. You come back tonight?”
“Naw. Train comes in after dark. I’ll come back in the morning.” She softened a little and cast imploring eyes at her foreman. “And look, I’m going to have someone important with me. So knock off the digging early and clean this site up, will ya? I want it lookin’ top-notch, right?”
“Right, Boss.” Azam shuffled uneasily, then asked, “You got the, ah, moi-chandise?”
Jan snickered. “You’ve been watchin’ too many gangster movies. Yeah, the amphora’s crated and in the back of the truck.” She opened the door and swung up to the driver’s seat. “This beast got gas in it?”
“Ah, sure, Boss, sure. You take care.” Azam pointed toward the dig. “I go now, huh?”
“Yeah. See ya tomorrow.” She watched Azam trot off, then sat behind the wheel and ground the starter. The truck would not start. She cursed, then tapped the glass over the gas gauge. “That lyin’ sack of-” She threw the door open, hopped to the ground, and summoned her best shout. “Azam, you get your ass over here now and gas up this truck!”
An hour later, Jan eased the little truck down the city’s winding streets, finally stopping at the rear of the imposing building housing the Thessaloniki museum. She entered by a side door, then strode down a hallway until she came to an office door. At her knock, a voice answered in Greek, and she entered. An attractive, fortyish Greek woman with a studious demeanor and sultry, dark eyes glanced up from the restoration of a pottery piece, laughed delightedly, then spoke in English.
“Jan Covington! How good to see you!”
“How ya doin’, Sophia? Got a couple of minutes?”
“For you?” The voice assumed a soft edge. “I’ve always got time.”
Jan grinned. “Nice. Hey, I’ve got a little proposition for you.”
Sophia left the restoration table and met Jan in the center of the room. “Oh? Like last week, a proposition?”
“Ah, not quite like that one. This is business.”
“Oh.” Sophia stood, hands on hips, and studied Jan. “Just like that, you want to talk business? No hello, no how-do-you-do-Sophia?”
“Hey! I said, ‘Hi’!”
“No, no.” Sophia wrapped her arms around Jan’s neck. “This way, you say ‘hello’ to Sophia.” She planted a long, lingering kiss on Jan’s mouth, then whispered, “You say, ‘Sophia, you look beautiful today.'”
Jan placed a hand on either side of Sophia’s head and tilted it down until their eyes met. She smiled as she studied Sophia’s face. “Sophia, you do look beautiful today. Your husband’s damn sure got reason to worry.”
Sophia purred, then said, “If he ever finds us out, he will kill you.”
“Nah. He’ll probably just want to watch.”
Sophia’s answer was a delighted giggle. Slowly, deliberately, Jan pulled Sophia’s face down to meet hers, and they kissed again. As they did, Jan backed her against her desk. The kiss never ending, her hand trailed down Sophia’s ribs, found the buttons on the front of her skirt and began deftly popping them open, one by one.
Fifteen minutes later, Jan was racked back in Sophia’s office chair with her feet on the edge of the desk, lighting a cigarette. Sophia emerged from the bathroom, her clothing in neat order once again, and plucked the cigarette from Jan’s hand. She perched on her desk next to Jan’s crossed boots, ran her hand along the bare, tanned leg protruding from beneath the khaki shorts and took a luxurious drag on the cigarette. “So,” she finally said, “you have a proposition for me? I’m a married woman, you know.”
And that’s a good thing for me, Jan thought. “This is business.”
“Oh. I am so sorry.”
“Yeah, me too.” Jan studied Sophia. “I got another piece, a really sweet one. Amphora. I need you to buy it from me, on behalf of your museum.”
Sophia raised an eyebrow. “Oh? And how much do you think this, ah, ‘piece’ is worth?”
Jan allowed her cagey grin to emerge. “You talkin’ about the amphora, or me?”
Sophia’s sultry smirk answered Jan’s question. “Both, perhaps. I need to see it.”
“You’ve already seen it.”
“No. I mean the amphora.” Sophia shook her head. “You are such a bad girl.”
“And you love it. Got a cart?”
A tilt of Sophia’s head indicated a rolling cart in one corner of the room. Jan stood, pulled the cart into the hallway, and returned a few minutes later with a crate. She lifted the amphora from the crate, set it on the restoration table and stood aside, watching Sophia’s reaction. She was not disappointed.
Some time later, Jan climbed back into the cab of the little truck. Before she ground the starter, she looked at the wad of colorful bills in her hand. “Hot diggity damn. Seven hundred drachma. Payroll, and then some. Covington, you’re a whore, but you’re a good one.” She shoved the money into her pocket, hit the starter, and the engine coughed itself alive. As she pulled the truck onto the city street, she dug her pocket watch out of her shirt pocket and popped it open. “Just enough time for the hotel before the train gets in. Hot shower and clean clothes, here I come. Oh, yeah. Sometimes, life is just too damned good.”
Thessaloniki’s downtown train station was cavernous, old and a mixture of Byzantine, Moslem and western architecture. It fit Macedonia, and it fit the gaggle of languages which Jan heard being spoken about her: Greek, Turkish, English, Arabic and a few eastern European dialects. Most of it she could make no sense of, but it didn’t deter her from admiring the music of each individual tongue as it was spoken. She was in a good mood, fueled by the bulge of new money in her pocket, the hot shower she’d just had and the clean clothes she was wearing. She hadn’t felt this human in a week. She tilted her fedora back on her head, popped open her pocket watch for the fourth time in as many minutes, and studied it. “Track seven. This has to be it.”
The train wheezed to a stop, hissing steam and squealing in protest as the brakes were applied. With a final hiss of steam, the various car doors opened, and passengers began disgorging, bags in hand. Jan craned her neck and peered around the platform, but to no avail; nowhere did she see the tall, imposing figure that she remembered as belonging to Melvin Pappas.
For some time, she stood on the platform, watching the coming and going of various travelers, but saw no one she recognized. She lit a smoke, leaned against a pillar and bided her time, allowing herself to be seen and watching the passers-by. Finally, when the platform grew quiet, she discarded her smoke and stood, preparing to leave.
It was then that she realized that she was not quite alone. The only other person on the platform was a young woman standing perhaps twenty feet from her, a suitcase by her leg, a rucksack over her shoulder, and a puzzled expression on her face.
At the sight of the traveler, Jan’s gut knotted and her breath caught. She did not know why she reacted so; she had seen impressive-looking women before. There was something more about this one, though, something that Jan just had to define. She wanted suddenly, desperately, to introduce herself but felt strangely shy, rooted to the spot, her feet refusing to carry her forward. Instead, she merely stared, drank in the details of the traveler’s appearance in an effort to unravel her mystery.
The young woman was tall, perhaps six feet in height, and possessed a bearing which spoke of education and breeding. Her clothes were travel-worn, clothes more suitable to hiking than train travel, as she wore dungaree pants, beat-up leather hiking boots and a light jacket. Her hair was long and black, protruding from beneath a crumpled cloth cap which shaded her face, and hung in a single braid down her back, reaching to below her shoulder blades. Round, wire-rimmed glasses set off her face, an oval face remarkable not only for its light olive skin, but its strength and depth of expression. An intelligence, an animation moved that face as she perused the signs above her head, then withdrew papers from her pocket and studied her ticket. She seemed perplexed, questioning; now was the moment. Jan mentally slapped herself, then summoned her courage and willed her feet to move. After a hesitant moment, they did.
She pushed her fedora back a little farther on her head, thrust her hands into the pockets of her shorts and strolled toward the traveler, her dirty boots crunching on the tile of the train platform. In English, she said, “You look lost.”
The traveler glanced toward Jan. “Oh, yes. I’m afraid I am. Why, you speak English.”
Jan smiled, instantly charmed by the traveler’s pronounced southern accent. “I’m American.”
“Yeah. I saw the passport.” Jan pointed to the papers in the young woman’s hand.
“Oh. Of course. Silly me.” She glanced around the platform. “Someone’s supposed to meet me, but they must have been delayed.”
“Yeah. I’m supposed to meet somebody too, but I didn’t see him get off the train.”
Silence fell. For a long, pregnant moment, they regarded each other, saying nothing. To Jan, the air seemed to crackle a little about them; she felt, at that moment, that there was no other activity about them, no people, no train station, no city. There was just this traveler and her. The eyes, blue as the summer’s sky behind those wire rims, seemed to wash over Jan’s very soul as they perused her face. They exuded a friendly, kindly demeanor, and Jan met their gaze evenly with her own. And when their eyes locked, blue upon hazel, somewhere in the deep recesses of her mind she could hear a voice say, ‘Covington, you’re in trouble!’ And, although she agreed with the voice, she also knew that she didn’t care a whit. Wherever this moment was taking her, she was by-God going there. On an impulse, she thrust out her hand.
“Mel. I’m so very pleased to meet you.” She grasped Jan’s hand, and the touch was soft, a tingly electric. It seemed to Jan that even after Mel released her hand, it still tingled. She marveled at that for a second, then shook herself back to reality.
“Yeah, likewise.” After a second, Jan blinked in surprise. “Huh? What’d you say your name was?”
“Ah, Mel. Melinda Pappas.”
“Mel Pappas?” Jan regarded her with sudden caution. “Any relation to Melvin Pappas, the archaeologist? He’s the guy I’m supposed to meet.”
Behind the wire rims, the marvelous blue eyes squinted in puzzlement for a second, then widened in surprise. She clapped a hand over her mouth as she pointed at Jan. “Oh! You’re from the archaeological dig. You were expecting my father, not me.”
“Well, yeah. Guess so.”
“I’m so sorry. You see, my father died a few months ago.”
Jan winced. “Oh, crap. I didn’t know. I’ve been out in the bush for the last couple of months.” She shook her head. “I’m sure sorry. I loved your dad. He was a real gentleman. One of a kind.”
The blue eyes misted a little, then cleared. “Thank you, Jan. I appreciate that.” Mel froze for a second, then allowed her eyes to widen in animated surprise again. “Oh! Jan? Are you Janice Covington? Harry Covington’s daughter?”
“Yeah. That’s me, in all my glory.”
“Oh, my! I remember you now.”
“Why, of course. We played together as children one summer. Don’t you remember? Why, we couldn’t have been more than about six or seven. It was the dig on Crete. Our fathers were working together.”
“Jeez, I’d forgotten about that. Man, that was-what? Twenty years ago?”
Jan lifted Mel’s suitcase. “Well, Mel Pappas, welcome to Macedonia. I got a hotel room for tonight. What say we start out for the dig site in the morning?”
“That sounds delightful, Janice.” As they began walking down the platform, Mel looped an arm through Jan’s, and Jan smiled. It just felt right. It felt-why, it felt as if that arm belonged there. And with every step they took, Jan became more convinced that it did.
The hotel’s first floor contained a restaurant and bar, one which had become noisy with music and laughter. In a corner table, Mel partook of some food, while Jan cracked a bottle of wine. The warm evening, the strong wine and the music carried around and through their conversation. They chattered together in newfound, easy companionship and laughter until, at last, Mel noted the time and suggested that they retire. Jan motioned toward the elevator, and as she rose, dropped a colorful Drachma note onto the table, then waved at the waiter. As they passed by, he nodded. “Good-night, Doctor Covington,” he said.
The wobble in Jan’s walk did not escape Mel’s notice as they made their way through the lobby. She took Jan’s arm and pulled her to a halt as they waited for the elevator. “You have your doctorate?”
“He called you Doctor Covington.”
“Oh. Yeah. Two years ago.”
“My, that’s quite an accomplishment. I’m duly impressed.”
Jan shrugged. “Hell, I had nowhere else to go, nothin’ else to do.” The elevator arrived, and the operator opened the cage door. They stepped in, Mel careful to retain hold of Jan’s arm. “You?” Jan blinked up at Mel.
“Oh. Languages. I stopped short of a doctorate, when my daddy died.”
” Old Greek is my expertise.”
Jan nodded. “Yeah. Somehow, I knew that. Hey, Mel. Is this elevator turning in circles, or is it just me?”
“I think it’s just you. You did drink most of that bottle of wine.”
“I would say you fit the definition, Janice.”
Jan blinked owlishly, then looked up. Mel’s face was just above hers, her grip on her arm still tight. “Sorry,”she mumbled, as she studied the blue eyes.
“It’s quite all right.”
“I’ve just been out there in the bush for a while, y’know?”
“I can well imagine.”
“I mean, alcohol sneaks up on me. Shit, you probably think I’m a lush. Nice first impression, huh?”
Mel placed a finger beneath Jan’s chin and lifted her face. Their noses were a couple of inches apart. Mel waited until the hazel eyes met hers, then said, “It’s okay, Janice.”
“Jan. My friends call me Jan.”
Mel smiled at that. Softly, she repeated the name. “Jan.”
The elevator stopped, and the cage opened. With a ‘thank you’ to the elevator operator, Mel guided Jan into the hall.
The room was small, but serviceable. Twin beds occupied one wall, and sheer curtains covered the window. Mel deposited Jan on one bed, then turned and opened the window. When she turned back, Jan was undressing. She’d managed to remove her boots and socks, and she pulled her worn white cotton shirt over her head and tossed it aside. Mel felt her breath involuntarily halt as the light of the bedside lamp threw contrasting, soft light and dark shadows on Jan’s body, evident beneath the thin cloth of her sleeveless undershirt.
Muscle rippled in her shoulders and arms, and her waist was trim. Not an ounce of fat showed itself anywhere, and when Jan shed her shorts, Mel felt her knees weaken. “Oh, my,” she heard herself say, then felt the heat of blush in her cheeks as she realized that she’d said that aloud.
Jan had pulled the sheets aside, and paused midway into climbing into bed. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. Ah, nothing. You go to sleep now.” She waved a hand. “Go on. Sleep.”
“Yeah. Sleep. Good idea.” With that, Jan collapsed face-down into the clean sheets. In a moment, she began softly snoring. Mel stood by the window for some time, allowing the warm breeze to cool her cheeks, then headed for her own bed. On the way, she paused by Jan’s prone form and watched her sleep. Her eyes slowly trailed down Jan’s body from hair to toes, drinking in every detail. After a few minutes, she shook her head, then pulled the covers over Jan.
“Janice Covington,” she whispered. “I can see right now that you are nothin’ but trouble.” A smile slowly crept across Mel’s face. “And Lord help me, I do seem to like trouble.”
Mel giggled delightfully, then passed a cup of coffee near Jan’s face as she lay prostrate on her bed. “Coffee’s on.” Jan stirred. The eyes did not open, but she managed a mumble. Mel leaned close. “What’s that?” Jan mumbled louder this time, something in Greek. Mel froze, then stared down at the head of tangled blonde hair. “Just what do you mean, ‘The money’s on the table’?” she asked.
Jan’s eyes popped open, then slowly traveled up Mel’s side and came to rest on two very exasperated blue eyes peering down at her. She started, and in a second, was sitting up in bed. “Huh? What? What? What’s the matter, Mel?”
Slowly, Mel’s expression grew amused, and the blue eyes resumed their normal twinkle. “Oh, nothing. Coffee. Drink.”
She handed the cup and saucer to Jan, who accepted it gratefully and drank. After a pause, she looked up, and only then noticed that Mel was studying her intently as she sipped her own coffee. She was evidently deep in some thought. Jan lowered the cup and returned the gaze. “Something on your mind, Mel?”
“Something tells me,” she answered, “that this is going to be one very interesting trip.”
Again, a moment of pregnant silence passed between the two women as they regarded each other over the rims of their coffee cups. Then Jan said, “Yeah. I was just thinking the same thing.”
“Ah, well. Ahem. We should think about breakfast, Jan.”
“Shower. We should take a shower.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“We should shower before we leave town, Mel. Might not get another one for a few days.”
“Oh. Of course. Quite right. You can go first.”
Jan grinned. “Naw, you first.”
“No, really. I insist.”
“You’re my guest. You first, Mel.” She motioned with her cup. “Time’s a-wastin’. Sun’s up, and we’ve got to eat breakfast and hit the road pronto.”
“Well, all right, then. Thank you.”
Mel rose, placed her cup aside and headed for the bathroom, pausing to choose some clothes from her suitcase before she closed the door behind her. Jan watched her disappear, then sighed and refilled her cup from the little coffee pot on the table. “Damn,” she muttered. “I was hopin’ to catch an eyeful.” She looked around the room, seeking her clothes that she’d shed the night before, but they did not occupy their usual place on the floor. Instead, they were folded very carefully over the back of a chair. Jan smiled at the sight. “Guess I’m gonna have to clean up my act, huh?” She pondered that spoken thought, then snickered. “Me, clean up my act? What the hell’s wrong with me?”
“My goodness, Jan. Are we going to an archaeological dig or on a safari?”
Jan glanced up from beneath the brim of her beat-up green fedora hat and snickered as she strapped on her pistol belt and settled the holstered weapon over her right hip. “It’s an hour into the country, Mel. Isolated, and we’re two dames out here. I feel better with it on me.”
Mel regarded the weapon with a cautious look. “Well, in that case…” She glanced past Jan. “And this is our, ah, transportation?”
“Yup.” Jan studied the expression on Mel’s face, then looked over her shoulder at the battered little truck. “Why? What’s the matter with it?”
“Will it make it?”
“It looks like hell, but it runs good.” She shrugged. “It made it here, didn’t it?”
“I suppose it did, at that.” Mel attempted a brave smile. “Shall we, then?”
“Yeah. Let’s throw our trash in the back and make like a shepherd.”
With that, Jan tossed their bags beneath the patched canvas over the truck’s bed, then trotted toward the cab. Mel slid into the passenger’s side as Jan settled herself behind the wheel and inserted the key. As she watched Jan tap the gas gauge, then yank on the choke, Mel asked, “Like a shepherd, Jan?”
“You said, ‘Like a shepherd.”
Jan stopped and looked up. “Oh. Yeah. Y’know, make like a shepherd and get the flock outta here.” When Mel’s confused expression did not change, Jan prompted, “A joke, Mel.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh. A joke. Why yes, I believe I get it now.” She smiled demurely, then pretended to study something outside the cab window.
Jan winced at her reaction. Note to self, she thought. No dirty jokes. Then, she pushed the starter. Nothing happened. She cursed, then opened the door and hopped out. Mel was watching with great interest.
“No sweat. We’ll be going in a minute.” She popped the latches on the cover over one side of the motor and lifted it back, then drew her knife from its sheath over her left buttock. “Starter solenoid sticks sometimes. When I yell, stomp on the gas, will ya?”
Mel pushed her wire-rimmed eyeglasses farther up the bridge of her nose and studied the floor on the driver’s side, then slid over behind the wheel. Jan was watching her.
“Is it in neutral, Mel?”
She wiggled the gearshift knob. “I believe so.”
“Okay. Here we go.” She placed the blade of the knife across two bolts on the top of the starter. Sparks crackled and flew, and Jan shouted, “Do it, Mel.” The truck’s starter began grinding, and Mel tromped down on the gas pedal. The motor roared into life, and a second later, a cloud of greasy blue smoke floated forward from the back of the truck and enveloped the cab. When Jan climbed back into the cab, Mel was hacking into a handkerchief, and her eyes were watering. Jan stood on the running board, a puzzled expression on her face. “What’s wrong, Mel?” she asked.
As she slid to the passenger side of the cab, Mel continued hacking, and waved her hand to indicate that she couldn’t talk. Jan shot her a sympathetic expression, then patted her leg. “Yeah, the city air does that to me, too.” With that, she jammed in the choke, gunned the motor, popped the clutch, and the truck lurched ahead with a groan of protest.
Once out of the city, Mel breathed easier. The country was beautiful, the sun had not yet hit its full heat and the breeze was refreshing. As Mel relaxed, so did Jan, and they talked above the rattle of the truck’s motor as they bounced along the rural Greek roads. Twice, they encountered convoys of military trucks stopped on the side of the road, and ignored the hoots and greetings of the soldiers as they crept past. Just after they passed the second convoy, Mel remarked on the military presence.
“Remember,” Jan explained, “Europe’s at war. The rumor is that goof-ball Mussolini over in Italy wants to invade Greece, so the Greeks are mobilizing their army.”
“Oh, my. Do you think that will happen?”
Jan shrugged. “Who the hell knows? Mussolini’s nuts. He thinks he’s the reincarnation of Caesar. There’s Germans in France and London’s getting bombed. The world’s gone crazy, if you ask me.”
“What will happen to your dig if the war comes here?”
“I’ll lose my diggers. They’ll be mobilized. Probably lose my job, too.”
“What will you do then?”
Jan grinned. “Try to get my ass out of the country in one piece, I guess.”
“But you’re an American citizen, a neutral.”
“It’ll be chaos. Passports won’t mean anything then. And everybody will be trying to get out of the country. In a situation like that, money and connections are the best passports.” Jan glanced over at her. “And I don’t have much of either right now.”
“Enough for a ship passage?”
“There’s submarines out there sinking ships. Might have to hole up in Palestine. I can probably get some work there.” She glanced over at Mel, then shrugged. “It probably won’t get that bad, though.”
“One can only hope, I suppose.”
“Yeah. Well, we’re here, Mel.”
Jan geared the truck down and turned off the road, then followed a rutted dirt road over a gentle rise. As they crested it and coasted down the far side of the hill, Mel could see the dig site in the distance. An excavation in the side of a bluff was evident, a cluster of men working around it. Near that, there was a checkerboard of exploration trenches within the remnants of what appeared to be the foundation of an ancient building’s walls. Up the hill a little, the dig’s tents were clustered.
They passed a sign in Greek which warned outsiders of an archaeological exploration in progress, then coasted to a stop by the tents. As the two women were reclaiming their bags from the back of the truck, a breathless young man appeared around the side of the vehicle.
“Boss! Boss! Thank the God you back. We got it dug out.”
“Good work, man. Now let’s crack the thing open.” Azam nodded, but did not move, and Jan only then realized that he was looking at Mel. “Oh, sorry. Azam, the best dig foreman in Greece. This is Melinda Pappas.”
“I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance, Azam.”
He smiled at the courtesy, then bowed and touched his forehead. “Oh. So happy, madam.” He looked at Jan. “This the important person, Boss?”
“Yeah. This is the important person.” She lowered her voice. “Is everything shipshape?”
“Yah, yah. You come and see?”
“Be there in a minute.”
Azam, satisfied with that answer, took off toward the dig. Jan picked up her own bag and Mel’s, and nodded toward the tents. “Let’s drop our stuff in my tent, then check out the work.”
As they trudged toward the tents, Mel studied Jan. Finally, she asked, “Important person?”
“I’m the important person?”
“Ah, sure, Mel. Sure.” She looked at Mel. “Damned straight you are.”
“My, this is the first time I’ve ever been that.”
Jan cracked a grin. “A first time is good thing, right?”
Mel replied with a quizzical little smile of her own. “While it does have a certain magic of its own, I personally find experience to be much preferable.” They walked on in silence until Mel glanced over at Jan and saw the petite blonde studying her intently. “What?” she asked.
“Mel Pappas, you just might turn out to be one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met.”
“Really!” Mel’s eyebrows rose in exclamation. “Why, thank you, Jan.” She eyed her companion for a moment, then returned the smile. “And may I return the courtesy by saying that I think you just might be the most unorthodox woman I’ve ever met?”
Jan reflected a moment, then looked up at Mel. “I guess that’s a good thing, huh?”
“Yes, Jan. That’s a very good thing.”
“Care to read it for us, Mel?”
Jan stood in front of the newly-cleared tomb door, hands on hips and fedora low over her eyes. The diggers stood around, leaning on their shovels, Azam by Jan’s side and nervously twisting his hands. Mel stepped forward and studied the ancient script carved into the facing of the tomb door, her fingers trailing over the ridges and recesses of the work. Finally, she stepped back. “Well, it says, ‘The blessings of Athena extend to the protectors of wisdom and knowledge, and great evil will overtake those who violate her trust.”
“Athena?” Jan stepped forward. “And this, here? Show me about the evil part.”
Mel pointed. “Here, Jan.” She read it aloud, in Greek, then repeated it in English. “See? Great evil.”
“Boss, we no open this thing. Bad.”
“What’re you talkin’ about, Azam?” Jan looked at her foreman. The diggers were stepping back, many of them making the sign of the cross across themselves and speaking in low, cautious voices.
He pointed at Mel. “What the lady said. Evil in there.”
“Oh, come on! That’s superstitious crap.”
“Not for the diggers, Boss.”
Azam jerked a thumb behind him, and Jan looked past his shoulder. The diggers were gathering, shaking their heads, raising their voices in unison against opening the tomb. The admonitions rose in volume and emotion until Jan raised both her hands in the air and shouted, “Enough!” When silence reigned, she put her hands on her hips and faced the group, speaking in her rapid Greek. “What is the matter with all of you?”
One digger stepped forward. “Evil, Boss. Bad things. It exists. The priests say so.” He gestured toward the tomb door. “It is in there. If you open that, you let evil into the world.”
“This is legend, myth. It is not true. There is nothing in there but some bones, and-if we are lucky-some artifacts to pay our wages. You want to be paid, right?”
Jan huffed in frustration, then looked at Azam and spoke in English. In a low voice, she growled, “Help me out here, dig foreman.”
He threw his hands in the air. “Hey, I with you, Boss, but they-”
“Then change their minds.”
“I no match for two thousand years of religious hocus-pocus, Boss.”
“If they aren’t gonna help, then tell ’em to line up and get their friggin’ wages. They’re fired!”
Mel spoke softly. “Ah, Jan?”
Azam’s eyes grew wide. “Boss, you no do that. They talk, they tell everybody. Pretty soon, nobody in the village dig for you. You be cursed.”
“Well, God damn it. Where’s that pick-axe? I’ll open this tomb myself.”
“No, Boss.” Azam stood in front of Jan. “They think you let evil loose.” He pointed behind him. “They ten, we two. They got shovels. You see?”
“Yeah. I see I need to bust some freakin’ heads around here.”
This time, Jan looked up at Mel. “What? I’m a little busy here.”
“Ah, yes. I can see that. Might I make a suggestion?”
Jan exploded. “This ain’t a democracy. It’s a damned dig. Me boss. You guys not. Get the picture?”
“I’m just trying to help, you pig-headed-”
“Yes! And foul-mouthed-”
“I am not foul-mouthed, God damn it!”
“And you drink too much!”
“Oh, yeah? You got a problem with me, Mel Pappas?”
“It would seem so.”
“Fine. I can throw your high-society ass back on that train-”
“You’d better not try, Doctor Covington!”
Jan turned toward Azam. “What? What do you want now?”
A torrent of water hit Jan full in the face. She staggered, then stood immobile, her face and hair dripping water, her chest and shirt soaked, her hat on the ground behind her. Absolute silence fell over the scene for several long seconds. No one moved; not Jan, not the diggers, who were frozen by the sight, and not Azam, who stood holding a bucket. The first to move was Mel, who clapped her hands over her mouth, trying desperately-and unsuccessfully-to stifle screams of laughter. Azam leaned forward very cautiously, still hiding behind the empty bucket, and studied Jan.
“You okay now, Boss?”
In answer, Jan blinked owlishly a couple of times, then stared at Azam. Finally, she spoke, her voice quiet.
“I can’t believe you just did that.”
“You feel better now, Boss?”
“Yeah.” A slow grin crept across Jan’s face. “I feel better now. Thanks.”
“Sure thing, Boss.”
“Guess I was gettin’ a little out of control there, huh?”
Azam held up a thumb and forefinger, showing a space between them. “Just a little, Boss.”
She looked around, noticing everyone. “Okay, now. Where were we?”
“Ah, the tomb, Boss. The curse. What we gonna do?”
“Oh. Right.” She glanced back at Azam. “What are we gonna do?”
“The lady, Boss. She has an idea.”
Jan turned and considered Mel, who was doubled over and holding her sides. “Yeah? And what the hell’s so funny?”
Mel wiped her eyes as her laughter settled down to occasional snickers. “Nothing, Jan. I was just going to suggest that perhaps a priest could bless the tomb before you open it.”
Azam’s eyes grew wide. “That could work, Boss.”
“Bless the tomb? What a load of horse-apples.”
“Not to the diggers, Boss.”
Mel’s voice reached Jan’s ear now, soft and urgent. “They believe sincerely in it. It would reassure them.”
For a long moment, nobody said anything. Everyone stood motionless in the heat of the afternoon, considering each other. Finally, Jan sighed deeply, a gesture of resignation and surrender, then raised her voice in Greek toward the diggers. They responded with enthusiastic chatter and nods of approval.
Finally, Jan turned toward Azam and switched to English. “You know the priest they’re talkin’ about?”
“Yah, yah. He in the village. Been priest out here many, many years.”
“Go get the old fart and drag his venerated ass out here, will you?”
“It’s gonna cost you.”
Jan rolled her eyes. “How much?”
“The more you pay, the quicker he come.”
Again, Jan sighed. “That freakin’ ecclesiastical bandit. Here’s fifty drachma. You tell that con artist to get his ass-”
“Jan, be respectful, now.”
“Right. Please inform the esteemed and respected priest that we would be deeply honored if he could come tomorrow morning and bless the site, will you? You pick him up. Let’s knock off for today.”
Azam beamed as he plucked the fifty-drachma note from Jan’s hand and pocketed it. “Sure, Boss. Sure thing. You got it.” Azam then turned toward the diggers and began a rapid announcement in Greek, to which the diggers responded with great enthusiasm, then disbursed to go home. “I take the diggers to the village now, Boss, and see the priest. We come back in the morning.”
Jan managed a smile. “Thanks, Azam. You’re okay.” She gave him a friendly slap on the shoulder and a grin. “And I don’t care what the sheep around here say about ya.”
“You one crazy woman, Boss. But you good crazy.” With a cackle of laughter, Azam trotted off toward the truck.
Jan lifted her hat from the ground, knocked the dust from it and nodded toward the tents. “Shall we?”
Mel smiled. “We shall.”
They began a leisurely trudge up the path toward the tents. For a while, neither woman said anything. Finally, Jan broke the silence.
“Thanks for the suggestion, Mel. I think you saved the day.”
“It was nothing. Daddy used to use that little trick all the time.”
“Listen, Mel. I’m, ah, sorry about poppin’ off at you. I didn’t mean what I said. I was bein’ a jerk.”
“Apology enthusiastically accepted, Jan, and I must apologize, too. I was very unkind to you.”
“You were just tellin’ the truth.”
“Well… it was still very unkind.”
Jan snickered at that. “Okay. Point taken. The apology’s for the delivery, not the content.”
“That was a wonderful dinner, Jan. Thank you.”
“Amazing what I can do with Spam and couscous, huh?”
“Now that’s two words I never expected to hear in the same sentence.”
Mel lit the Coleman lantern as Jan returned from dumping the kitchen wash water. She dropped the bucket on the ground, then stepped into her tent. In a moment, she returned, a bottle in her hand, and sat at the camp table. Mel eyed the bottle. “What are we toasting, Jan?”
“Who cares?” She popped the cork and filled two tin cups. “Life.”
“I’ll drink to that.” They clanked their tin cups together, then drank. Mel winced as she swallowed. “Oh, Jan,” she said. “That’s dreadful. What is that? Horse liniment?”
“Some of the local booze. It’s good for horses, too.” She refilled their cups. “It grows on ya.”
“Like a rash, I imagine.” Mel raised her glass. “To a warm summer’s evening in Greece, Jan.”
“Hell, yeah.”Again, they tipped their cups. “No place I’d rather be. Look at that sunset.”
Mel looked behind her and gasped. The horizon above the rolling hills was a brilliant red-yellow. “Why, it’s beautiful.”
“Sit on this side, with me. You can see it better.”
Mel moved around the long table and seated herself on the bench near Jan. For a while, they both contemplated the evening’s beauty. Finally, Mel’s drawl broke the silence. “Jan?”
Jan smiled as she kept her eyes on the sunset. “Yeah?”
Mel had drawn one knee up and placed her foot on the bench next to Jan. Her arms hugged her leg, and she’d rested her chin on her knee and was considering Jan’s profile. The not-quite-shoulder-length blonde hair pushed behind the ears, the pert nose (broken at some past time?), the squinted eyes, the petite figure tight with muscle; she felt herself transfixed by the sight. She spoke softly now.
“How come you always smile when I say your name?”
Again, Jan smiled. “I guess it’s because I’ve never heard it spoken in two syllables before.”
“Jay-yun. That’s how you say it.”
“Oh. I’ll try to do better.”
Jan placed a hand over Mel’s arms. “No, no. I love how you say it. I wasn’t criticizing. Please don’t think that. Don’t change a thing.”
It was Mel’s turn to smile. “I won’t, in that case.” She shrugged. “I suppose I’m just touchy about my southern accent. When I lived in the north, many folks would make snarky comments about it. You can’t imagine all the ditzy southern belle jokes I heard.”
“So you tried to lose it?”
“Never. It made me fiercely proud of it. It became even more prominent in my speech. It’s the stubborn pride in me, I suppose. I always swim against the current.”
Jan raised an eyebrow at that. “Oh? I find that a highly admirable quality.”
“You’re the first, it would seem. My mother has disowned me three or four times now.”
“In that case, you must be doing something right. Where in the north did you live?”
“I attended university in New York City for my graduate language studies.”
“Damn, Mel. That’s a really prestigious languages department.”
“Y’all surprised? Little ol’ me?”
“I didn’t mean it that way.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” She reached toward Jan, hesitated for a brief instant, then rested her hand on Jan’s shoulder. “What about you, Jan?”
She felt the shrug beneath her hand. “What about me?”
“Where’s home for you?”
“Right here. Wherever I hang my hat.”
“It’s a very distinctive hat.”
Jan lifted it off the back of her head and studied it before she dropped it on the table. “It was my dad’s. That and my pocket watch is all I have left of him.”
“Do you have family?”
“Nah. My mother-whoever she was-walked out on us when I was little. Dad disappeared on some expedition when I was in college. Never heard from him again. I assume he got killed.”
“No lover, no beau, no handsome fellows coming around to woo you, Jan?”
“Actually, I’m not much in the guy department.” She lifted her tin cup and took a deep swallow. “If you get my drift.” Her eyes flashed over to study Mel’s reaction.
“Oh, my!” Mel felt her cheeks warm. “I believe I do.”
Jan refilled their cups. “So now you know a deep, dark secret about Jan Covington. She chases skirts.” Jan studied Mel. “What about you, Mel Pappas? Are you a miss or a missus? I never quite got that.”
“I’ve never been married.”
“Okay, Miss Mel Pappas. Lover? Fiancé? Dapper guys sniffing around you with flowers and rings? You’ve got to have that; after all, you’re one gorgeous gal.”
“Oh!” Again, Mel felt her cheeks heat. “No, I’m afraid not. I mean, occasionally they try, but I don’t encourage them at all.” Silence fell for a moment. “Um, do you really think I’m-gorgeous?”
“I said it, right?”
“You most certainly did. Thank you.”
“Just tellin’ the truth. So, Mel Pappas. How come you don’t encourage the fellas?” Jan leaned a little closer, and only then did Mel realize that her hand still rested on Jan’s shoulder. She considered, for an instant, removing it, but found that she had no strength to do so. The soft, warm strength beneath the T-shirt’s cloth held her hand immobile.
“Ah, I suppose it’s because they just don’t interest me, Jan.”
“Our Mel has no wish for marriage and all the trappings?”
“That has never been me, I’m afraid.”
“Glad to hear it.” Jan leaned a little closer. “Does that mean what I think it means?”
“Um, yes, Jan. I believe it does.” Mel’s eyes averted to study the sunset, then cautiously returned to meet Jan’s gaze. “It means that Mel Pappas chases skirts, too.”
“Well. Small world, ain’t it?”
“We seem to have much more in common than we first imagined, don’t we?”
“Somehow, I knew it at the train station.”
A silence fell between them as they studied each other’s faces, a silence pregnant with energy. After a moment, Jan spoke, a thought rendered very quietly.
“I can hear your heart beating, Mel.”
“I thought that was yours.”
“Why is it so loud? Are you scared of something?”
Mel nodded slowly.
“A little, I imagine. Mostly, of-of us. Of what I feel between us.”
“So you feel it too, huh?”
“Oh my, yes.”
“Heavy-duty, ain’t it?”
“It must be the most powerful thing I’ve ever felt.”
“Same here. So, Mel Pappas, what do ya think we ought to do about it?”
“You tell me, Jan. For some reason, I just can’t think straight right now.”
Jan leaned her cheek against Mel’s hand, still occupying its place on Jan’s shoulder. “I think,” she said, “that if we let this moment pass, we’ll regret it for the rest of our lives. We need to go with this, and that means wherever it takes us, for as long as it takes us there.”
“We won’t be accepted by most people. Smirks, whispers, rude remarks…”
“Old hat. Been there.”
“Me, too. We’ll be illegal in several states.”
“I don’t care.”
“Neither do I, Jan.”
Again, an electric silence fell between them. For an endless moment, they sat that way, considering each other. Finally, Jan broke the silence.
“Would you be real offended if I kissed you right now?”
“I’d be very offended if you didn’t.”
Jan scooted forward on the bench, and Mel dropped her foot to the ground. They felt their legs touch, and their faces drew close. Jan placed a hand beneath Mel’s chin and brought her lips near. She could feel Mel’s breath, see the eyelids close. As her mind screamed, ‘Don’t blow this, Covington!’, she brushed her lips against Mel’s, and their mouths met.
Time stopped. Neither knew how long that kiss lasted. It could have been seconds; it could have been an eternity. All either knew was that, for the first time in their lives, they believed. They both truly, really believed. It existed; it was possible. And it was possible for them. Finally, regretfully, reluctantly, the kiss ended.
Jan released a ragged breath. “Wow.”
“Oh, my. Wherever did you learn to kiss like that, Jan?”
“Right here. Right now.”
Mel giggled. “Liar. Don’t even try to tell me you never kissed a girl before.”
“Not like that, I haven’t.”
“Nor have I. Janice Covington, you are definitely something else.”
They kissed again, deeper, longer this time. Eventually, they rested, foreheads together, arms about each other’s necks. “Well, Mel Pappas.”
“I guess it’s gettin’ late.”
“I suppose it is.”
“Time for bed.”
“Ah, yes. Um, where did-where did you want me to put my things and sleep?”
“You’ve gotta know the answer to that one.”
“Jan,” Mel said. “You hear me now.” She placed a finger on Jan’s lips, indicating the need for her silence. Her manner was soft, a gentle remonstration. “If you think I’m that quickly won, you’ve got another thing coming.”
“Huh? No, Mel. I didn’t mean-”
“You most certainly did mean that. I’m not one of your floozies.”
“I don’t understand.”
Mel stroked Jan’s hair as she spoke. “I’m a southern girl, Jan. We have our pride, after all. This is not going to be some cheap fling. If you want me, you’re going to have to fall in love with me. And falling in love is a slow dance.”
Jan gulped. Falling in love? Is that what was happening here? Yes, it sure was. The words drilled into her soul. She hadn’t fallen in love since-since when? The answer screamed in her head. Never. Not like this. Of all the women she’d known and thought she’d loved, nobody had ever hit her this hard in her life. And in the next instant, she realized the next truth. Nobody ever would again. She had one chance to play this right. Again, the voice in her head screamed at her. Don’t blow this, Covington, or you’ll despise yourself for the rest of your miserable life.
“I don’t know how to do this, Mel. I’ve always been for the moment.”
“And you always wake up lonely, don’t you? They’re always gone by the sun’s rise.”
“Is that what you want here? Do you want me gone in the morning, too?”
“No. God, no.”
“Then play the game my way for once, because I don’t want that, either. Slow dance with me, and I’ll bet we can make this feeling last for the rest of our lives.”
“You think we can?”
“I know we can. Slow down. Let’s really fall in love. You won’t regret it.”
A moment of silence fell between them as they considered each other, their arms about each other’s necks, their faces close. Finally, Jan spoke, a whisper.
“So, Mel Pappas, what’s the first step in this slow dance?”
A smile unfolded across Mel’s features, a smile which became brilliant. After a moment, she replied, “Show me where I’m to wash up and sleep, Jan, and then kiss me goodnight.”
“Uh, yeah. Over here.”
Reluctantly, she untangled herself from Mel, and they rose from the bench. Jan lifted the lantern, took Mel by the hand and led her to the tent next to Jan’s. Inside, there were several unused bunks.
“You’ve got this tent all to yourself, Mel. Nobody stays at the dig but me, usually. The diggers and Azam all live at the nearby village. There’s a jerry can of water and a bowl at the table. Blankets and towels are on the far bunk.” She glanced up, an unspoken apology in her eyes for the humble surroundings. “It ain’t the Grande Hotel, I’m afraid.”
“I’m sure it’ll be quite cozy, Jan. Thank you so much. Let me light my lantern, and I’ll bid you good-night. I’m sure you’re quite tired.”
Jan was anything but tired. “I’ll get your bags, Mel.”
She returned in a moment with Mel’s suitcase and rucksack and placed them on a bunk. Mel withdrew a box of matches from her rucksack and deftly lit her lantern, then turned to face Jan. They both stood that way for a while, then Jan spoke.
“This is where we say good-night, huh?”
“I believe so, Jan.”
Jan stepped forward and wrapped her arms about Mel’s waist. “Good-night, gorgeous. I had a terrific evening with you.”
“Why, Jan Covington! That’s so romantic. You’re a very quick study, aren’t you?” She lowered her head and kissed Jan, a leisurely kiss, then whispered, “You are also just the cutest thing I’ve ever seen, I do believe.”
“I think.” They kissed again, and Mel said, “Good-night, cutie.”
“Good-night, gorgeous. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“I’ll be here.”
Jan smiled at that. “I’m glad.”
With that, Mel shooed her toward the tent’s door. Jan lifted her lantern from the table, then paused in the door and looked back. Mel was watching her. “Um, leave your boots up off the ground, Mel. There’s creepin’ wildlife around here.”
“And watch for snakes.”
“I’m not scared of snakes, Jan.”
“And, um, if you hear anything or need me, I’m…” She pointed in her tent’s direction.
“Next door. Yes, Jan.” Mel giggled. “I’ve been on a dig site or two before, remember?”
“Yeah, right.” She stood in the door for another awkward moment, then shrugged self-consciously. “Well, g’night, Mel.”
Mel smiled. “Good night…cutie.”
Jan brightened. “You really think I’m that cute, huh?”
“Darlin’, you’re so cute you make my knees knock. Now go to bed.”
“Right. Um, yeah.”
With that, Jan disappeared around the tent flap, and Mel busied herself with making herself at home in her new surroundings. As she sat on her camp cot and unlaced her boots, she shook her head. “Melinda Pappas,” she said, “just what have you gotten yourself into?” After a moment, she muttered, “Trouble, that’s what. That girl is nothin’ but trouble.” A wide grin eased across her face. “And I do love trouble, especially when it comes wrapped in a package like that.”
Jan rested her lantern on the little camp table in her tent and peeled off her shirt. She stood in the door of her tent and allowed the cool night air to brush across her skin as she lit a cigarette. As her Zippo clacked shut, she said, “Damn, Covington, what’s the matter with you?” She reflected on that question, then said, “Nothing, would you believe it? For once in my life, everything seems right with the world. No wonder I don’t know how the hell to act.”
The next day dawned to a cacophony of singing birds and a brilliant sunrise. By the time Mel had risen, Jan was already up and had coffee and oatmeal prepared. When the larger of the dig’s two trucks rattled onto the dig site with the diggers piled in the back and the priest-long, gray beard prominent and duly dressed in his ceremonial robes-regally ensconced in the passenger side of the truck’s cab, Jan was waiting, and Mel was by her side.
The blessing of the dig site, and particularly the tomb’s door, was an ancient ritual which the diggers watched with due reverence. Jan tolerated it with amazing patience and courtesy. And Mel? She found it fascinating. She worked her camera like a pro, snapping the entire ceremony and the faces, the reactions of the people watching. When it was finished, both she and Jan heaped effusive thanks upon the priest, offered him hot tea, then saw him off, as Azam drove him back to the village in the small truck. As soon as the truck disappeared over the hill, Jan roused the diggers and began barking orders in her rapid Greek. They responded with surprising enthusiasm, and in little time, had the dig’s rickety old generator set up and ready to light the inside of the tomb. Jan gathered them all around, tools in hand, and instructed them regarding the manner in which she wanted to open the door.
Then, she lifted a pickaxe. It only took a dozen blows to knock a hole the size of her head in the aged brick. She dropped the tool and pulled a flashlight from her back pocket, shone it into the hole and pressed her face against the darkness. For a couple of minutes, no one moved as they watched Jan. Then, she slowly turned toward Mel. For a moment, Mel couldn’t read the little blonde’s expression. Then, she noticed that Jan’s eyes were sparkling.
“What is it, Jan?”
“Good thing you’re here. We’re gonna need a language expert.”
“Why? What’s in there?”
Jan grinned. “Looks like scrolls. Shelves full of ’em. Maybe a hundred or more.”
“Oh, my God! Jan, that’s wonderful!” Mel bounced on her tiptoes as she gushed. Then, she paused. “Oh! Are there remains, Jan?”
“I don’t see a sarcophagus. There’s some other trash in there, though. Shit, Mel. Let’s get crackin’.” Jan chattered in her rapid Greek to the diggers, then stood aside as they threw themselves to the task of clearing out the bricks of the door.
By mid-afternoon, the generator was sputtering, powering the lights which lit the inside of the site. It turned out to be not a tomb, but a repository of some sort.
“That means that this-” Jan pointed toward the nearby foundation which she’d been excavating. “Is not a house. It’s probably a temple.”
“Whose temple, I wonder?” Mel asked.
“Athena, judging from the inscription you read yesterday. Hm. No wonder I found some beautiful pieces there.”
Azam approached. “Boss, we gotta talk.”
“What’s the matter, buddy?”
“It Saturday. The diggers, they ’bout through for the week.” Azam rubbed his fingers together. “Pay, Boss. What we gonna do for money?”
Jan grinned as she pulled a wad of drachma notes from her pocket. Azam’s eyes lit up. “Oh, Boss. You came through! Hot dog!” He lowered his voice and slid closer to Jan. “So, how you get, ah…?” He pointed at the wad of money.
“The museum curator in Thessaloniki bought that amphora.”
“For that much? Hoo, Boss. You must be one good talker.”
Jan grinned. “She said it was a…ah…really great piece.”
Azam eyed Jan suspiciously, then snickered. “Aah, okay. I got you now.” He cackled, then slapped Jan on the back. “Damn. You one crazy woman, you know that, Boss?”
Jan laughed, then pointed toward the dig. “Go on, get outta here.”
As Azam trotted off, Jan lit a cigarette and studied the diggers working to install a chain-link facing over the open tomb door, protection for when the site was empty of activity. It was then that robbers might attempt to pillage the valuable artifacts within. They worked with gusto, for they knew that when the chain-link wall and door was installed, they would be paid and released for the week.
Mel’s voice broke Jan’s thoughts. “So, Jan. How is Sophia?”
Jan froze. “Ah, you know her?”
“Oh, yes. I know her. She visited the Athens museum when I was there.”
“She’s a very pretty woman, don’t you think?”
“Uh, sure, Mel. She’s pretty.” A moment of dead silence passed. “But she’s not half as pretty as you are.”
“Really. She’s pretty, but you’re gorgeous.” Mel did not reply immediately, and Jan glanced up at her. Mel was studying Jan with an expression somewhere between caution and appreciation. “What? What, Mel?”
Mel allowed a slow smile to creep across her face. “You really are a quick study, aren’t you?” With that, she turned and walked toward the tents.
Jan puzzled over the exchange as she finished her smoke, then ground out the butt with the toe of her boot. “What was that all about?” she asked nobody in particular, then strode toward the work site to take personal charge.
The dig, now that the ‘tomb’ was opened and discovered to be a temple repository, took on a very different flavor. Jan had stopped the digging, and wanted to concentrate on examining and cataloging the entire contents of the repository. She kept most of the diggers employed, but as guards now, sitting up day and night in teams of two, armed with ragtag old rifles. Now that the repository was opened, tomb robbers were a threat.
For the next month, their days and nights fell into a routine. During the daylight hours, she and Mel photographed, examined, catalogued and carefully packed for transport the myriad items there. Eventually, everything would be taken to the Thessaloniki museum and trans-shipped to Athens. Crated, it would fill the big truck to its capacity. When the sun set-as it was doing a little earlier each evening, now that autumn was approaching-they spent time together doing what budding lovers do: talking, nuzzling, kissing, laughing, becoming ever closer to each other. And every morning, Mel would make them breakfast as she watched Jan perform her daily ritual of exercise to keep her body tight with muscle and flexible.
Night after night, though, Mel steadfastly refused to be lured into Jan’s bunk. This was a new experience for Jan, and she puzzled over it privately to no end. She’d never had a problem bedding women before; indeed, she had a gift for it. They seemed to shed their clothes and fall into her arms with matter-of-fact predictability. And now, the one woman she hungered for more than life itself kept refusing her overtures. Had she lost her golden touch? Or was this the slow dance of real love, instead of the frantic moments of unrestrained lust with which Jan was so familiar?
Jan was packing a piece of art for travel when Mel’s excited call shook her from her thoughts. She cast a glance across the sorting tent to the table where Mel had spread a scroll, white cotton gloves on her hands so that oil from her skin wouldn’t degrade the fragile papyrus.
“This is just such an exciting scroll, Jan. I’ve never heard of this person before. Some sort of bard, from-have you heard of this place? Potidaea?”
“Yeah, Mel. It’s near here, east of Thessaloniki. What’s up?”
“Well, the bard’s a woman, which is unusual for the bards of this era. And she’s chronicling the life of some sort of warlord. Also a woman. Fascinating reading.”
Jan was hovering over Mel in an instant, her expression serious. “What’s the bard’s name, Mel?”
Mel scanned the papyrus for a minute, then stopped. “Oh. Here it is.” She looked up at Jan’s face. “Gabrielle.”
“What’s the matter, Jan? You look like you’ve just been slapped.”
“Maybe I have. Have you found anything else like that in here?” She waved a hand at the pile of scrolls on the table.
“No. Just this, so far. Why, Jan. Your hands are shaking.”
“If you find anything else like that, put it aside and tell me. Keep it separate from everything else. Holy shit, Mel. This is incredible.” Mel blinked in surprise at Jan. Her entire body seemed animated; she was breathing deeply, and her expression was alive with energy. “Do you realize what you’ve found here? Oh, my God. Mel, you kick ass!” She bent down next to Mel, grasped her head with both hands, and turned her so they were nose-to-nose. “You’re fantastic. I love you!” With that, Jan planted a huge kiss on Mel’s mouth, then released her and stormed from the tent.
For a couple of minutes, Mel sat quite still, some loose hair hanging in her face, her expression one of intense puzzlement. She pulled off her gloves and slowly touched her lips, then turned in her chair and looked past the open tent flap. Jan was pacing in the sun, talking animatedly to, it seemed, no one in particular. Mel rose and walked to the tent’s door, watching the little blonde. She visibly cowered back a few paces when Jan leapt atop the rough wooden table, waved her fists at the sky and shouted, “Yes! There’s a God after all!”
Cautiously, Mel approached her. “Um, Jan?”
Jan was dancing on the table top. “Yes! Yes! Yes! This is too freakin’ good!”
A torrent of water smacked Jan square in the face and chest. She stood, frozen in position, on the table, her hair and face dripping, her chest and shirt soaked, her hat on the ground. After a moment, she spit a stream of water, then slowly looked down at Mel.
“I can’t believe you just did that.”
Mel dropped the water bucket on the ground and covered her mouth with a hand. “Please don’t be angry, but I didn’t know of any other way to get your attention.”
Jan dropped down to the bench, then sat heavily on the table top. “Well, I’d say you have it now. What’s up, Mel?” She glanced up at her friend’s face, then added, “And quit laughing at me.”
“I’m not laughing, Jan.”
“Yes, you are.”
“Okay. I’m sorry. And I’m sorry I did that.” She pointed at the bucket.
Jan snickered. “No, you’re not. You loved it. And it felt good. It’s hotter than hell out here. So now that you have my undivided attention, what is it?”
Mel huffed in exasperation, then stood in front of Jan. “Okay, first question: who is this bard?”
“Gabrielle. It’s always been considered just baloney. You know, legend, fiction. She was supposedly a bard who traveled with, and chronicled the adventures of, a Greek warlord. Some say that they were also lovers. References have been found to her in others’ works.”
“Why is this so important?”
“Because nobody’s ever found something directly from her hand, Mel. Nobody.” Jan’s gaze was intent. “Until today. Until you. You just proved that she’s real.”
“Yeah.” Jan held a finger up to punctuate her next thought. “But that’s not all.”
“Damned straight. This warlord. Did the scroll mention her name?”
“Yes. That’s it, Jan.”
Jan’s fist pounded on the table. “Yes! She’s been a personal quest of my Dad’s for his whole life. He always believed that those two were real, not just myth. I believed it, too. I swore that I’d end Dad’s quest for him, that I’d redeem his reputation as an archaeologist, that I’d prove their existence if it was the last thing I ever did.” Jan ran a hand through her wet hair. “And now, thanks to you, Mel, I just might be able to do that.”
“Oh. I see.” Mel hesitated, then sat on the bench next to Jan’s feet. She leaned on Jan’s knee and looked intently into her face. “That’s all incredibly exciting, but I do have one more question.”
“A minute ago, you said that you loved me. Did you mean it?”
Jan sat, stunned. Her thoughts flashed back to a minute ago. She had said it. And then, she had kissed Mel. It had seemed like the most natural thing in the world, to say those three words to her. Mel’s face was just below hers, looking up at her. Watching her, studying her with those sky-blue eyes that mesmerized her. “Yeah. I damn sure did mean it.”
“It wasn’t just the excitement of the moment? It wasn’t that you just loved me for finding that scroll?”
Jan leaned close to Mel’s face. She chose her words carefully, now; so carefully. “I’ve said a lot of things in the excitement of the moment, but never-until now-have I ever said those three words to any woman.”
“In that case, may I hear them again?”
Jan smiled. She spoke them slowly, clearly, her eyes fixed on Mel’s. “I love you.”
She watched the blue eyes water, and watched a single tear track its path down Mel’s cheek. “You really mean it, don’t you?” Mel said.
“You’d better believe it.”
“I do believe it. Oh, Jan. I love you, too. So much.”
Somehow, Jan had come to be sitting on the bench with Mel. She felt Mel’s lips on hers, the warmth, the passionate energy of the kiss, the incredible softness of those lips, that tongue, and could even taste the tear which had trailed down Mel’s face. She could feel Mel’s hands on her back, then in her hair. It was, to her, by far, among the most unforgettable of the countless kisses she’d experienced in her young life.
Then she abruptly sat back, panting. Her expression had suddenly become uncertain, even frightened.
“Why, Jan. Whatever’s the matter?”
“I’m trusting you. Don’t break my heart. Do you hear me?”
“I can see,” Mel said, “that you still have a lot to learn about me.” Gently, she lifted Jan’s hand and kissed the knuckles. “And about trust. And about love.”
Work progressed at a fever pitch; day after day, the two women labored relentlessly to catalogue and pack the repository’s contents. Eventually, after long labor, the large truck was almost packed. Very few items remained.
Fall had begun to arrive in earnest, too. The nights got cooler, the days shorter, and Jan knew that soon, they would have to terminate the dig. Then, their efforts would be to see the materials they’d recovered safely to Thessaloniki, then on to the Athens museum. And after that? Who the hell knew?
One afternoon, Jan heard a familiar voice calling her name. She looked up to see Azam skid his motor-bike to a halt near the tents. He seemed anxious, and waved a newspaper in the air as he trotted toward Jan.
“Boss! Boss! We at war!”
Jan felt her heart fall to her feet. “Oh, no. The Italians?”
“Yeah, Boss. They invade us.” He pointed to the newspaper. “Look, they in Greece.”
“Where?” Jan lifted the newspaper from his hand. “Albanian border. Shit, they’re in Macedonia.”
“You get your ass outta here, Boss. Take this stuff.” He waved at the truck. “You no let them get it.”
“You better believe it.” She eyed Azam. “What about you? Can you help me?”
“Sorry, Boss. I go to war.” He patted his chest proudly. “I sergeant in reserves. I report tomorrow. We be fighting at the front in maybe three, four days.”
“Oh, man. You watch out. People get killed in wars, y’know.”
“Yah, yah. Not this Greek, Boss. I duck good!” His expression became more severe. “Ah, Boss, look. The diggers, they report, too. No come tonight. They wanna be with family.”
“Yeah, I understand.” They eyed each other silently for a moment, then Jan stuck out her hand. “You take care of yourself, Azam.”
“You too, Boss. I’m gonna miss you.” He shook her hand warmly, then laughed. “You one crazy woman, Boss, but you good crazy. I work with you anytime!” He looked past Jan’s shoulder. “Miss Pappas, you take care of the boss for me? She need lookin’ after big time, you know?”
Mel’s voice answered from behind Jan. “I promise, Azam.”
He hesitated, then motioned toward his motor-bike. “Well, I go now. You get outta here, Boss. Them Italians, they only a couple days away.”
“Yeah. I damned sure will.”
He kicked his motor-bike into life and sat astride it. “See you after the war, Boss.” With that, he spun the back tire and headed toward the distant hill. Jan watched him go, then sighed.
“That’s one good fella, there.”
“I’m sure he’ll be just fine, Jan.”
She looked up at Mel. “Somehow, it’s always the good ones that die first. Well, let’s get crackin’. We need to be out of here first thing in the morning.”
“Jan? Jan! Wake up.”
“Huh? Mel? Whuzzat?”
In the darkness, Mel clapped a hand over Jan’s mouth. “Shh. I think there’s somebody at the truck.”
Jan was instantly upright on her cot. “I’m awake. Give me a second.” She slipped her socks and boots on her feet, then hurriedly tied the laces. As she strapped on her pistol belt, she rose and silently tread to the tent’s door. For some time, she remained motionless, then returned to Mel. “Yeah. I can hear ’em. Stay here and keep your head down, Mel.” Jan shoved a flashlight into her back pocket, then lifted a rifle from its place against her tent’s center post.
“Perhaps I can help.”
Jan bent low, her face near Mel’s. “Have you ever shot anybody?”
“Then stay here and keep your head down. Please, Mel. I can’t deal with them and worry about you, too. Right?” She got a reluctant nod from Mel, then rose to leave.
“Have you, Jan?”
“Have I what?”
“Ever shot anybody?”
Jan was silent for a second, then nodded. “Yeah. This isn’t the first time I’ve dealt with guys tryin’ to rob me.” With that, she left the tent.
Mel sat on Jan’s bunk, her heart pounding in her ears, and listened. She could hear the distant buzzing of insects, she could hear whispered voices and the occasional thump or clank coming from the truck, but she couldn’t hear Jan’s footfalls. A slow, agonizing eternity passed in which Mel heard nothing of Jan. Every fiber of her being screamed at her, urging her to seek Jan out, but she had promised. She sat still, only the pounding of her heart keeping her company.
Jan took a roundabout path toward the truck, her rifle leveled, the safety off, her feet treading slowly, silently in the night. About twenty feet from the back of the truck, she stopped, crouched behind some brush, and allowed her eyes to adjust to the darkness. She could detect hoarse whispers, and she attempted to count the voices. She reckoned that there were three, at least.
She shifted a little, then eased herself to a seated position, raised the rifle, and aimed it toward the back of the truck. She peered over the barrel, biding her time, waiting for a clear target. If the first shot was true, the remaining robbers would probably run. She could explain the body to the Chief Constable in the morning. As she waited, willing her breathing into an easy pattern, a break in the clouds allowed a weak moonlight to illuminate the scene. She saw two shadows standing at the back of the truck, peering inside. From that, she deduced that the third was inside.
She heard the sound of a wooden crate being scraped across the floorboards of the truck’s cargo area, and heard muttered curses. Then, the canvas was thrown back, and she saw the silhouette of a man bent over the crate. Or rather, she saw the back half of a man. She felt a smirk ease itself across her face. Oh, yeah, she thought. The part that went over the fence last. That’ll work for me. Carefully, she took aim, squeezed the trigger, and the rifle kicked against her shoulder.
Her ears were ringing with the rifle’s report, but she could hear-and see-pandemonium break out at the back of the truck. Someone was shrieking in high-pitched and very profane Greek, and two other voices were chattering. The man fell out of the truck and hit the ground with a hard thud. His companions were tugging at him, attempting to lift him to a standing position as Jan pulled back the rifle’s bolt and chambered another round. She took aim just to the side of one of the figures and squeezed the trigger again. Again, her ears rang, and again, the excited chatter of the robbers increased in volume and speed. One tripped over another, and they both fell to the ground, then clambered to rise again. Jan aimed a third bullet into the ground near their feet, and that sent the three unlucky robbers into spasms of panic. Their purpose in life seemed to become to leave as quickly as possible.
The next bullet kicked up rocks and dust near them, and Jan lowered the rifle to watch the spectacle. Arms and legs flailing, excited shrieks and chatter abounding, they reminded her of a Keystone Cops movie as they fled the scene. She noted one of the three running more slowly than the others. He was bent forward, and was holding his behind with both hands.
“Damn, that’s gotta hurt,” Jan said. “I hate it for ya, buddy.”
A hand touched Jan’s shoulder. In a second, she had dropped the rifle, turned, and her hand held her unsheathed knife against Mel’s throat. They stood that way, frozen, for a long moment, and then Jan relaxed. The knife’s blade dropped away.
“Jesus Christ, Mel! You scared the shit outta me. Don’t ever sneak up on me like that again.”
“Oh, my. I’m-sorry.”
Jan released a deep sigh, then stood, sheathing her knife. “It’s all over. I shot one of ’em, and they ran.” She picked up her rifle, then looked up. Mel was staring down at her. “What, Mel?”
“You shot one of them? Is he-?”
“Nah. I shot him in the ass. He’ll probably be okay, but he won’t be able to sit down for a month.” Mel stared at Jan wordlessly. “Did ya bring a flashlight?” Slowly, Mel held up a flashlight. “Great. C’mon. Let’s check out the truck, see if they got away with anything.”
A couple of minutes later, they were inside the back of the truck, flashlights on, taking a quick mental inventory. Everything seemed to be in place. Satisfied, they trekked the short distance back to Jan’s tent. As they entered, Jan lit her lantern, then sat on a stool and proceeded to reload the rifle. Mel took a seat on Jan’s bunk and watched. When Jan finished loading the rifle, she shoved the bolt home, clicked the safety on, and leaned the rifle against the table. Then, she popped the cork on the liquor bottle and took a long drink. She offered the bottle to Mel, who shook her head.
Then, she leaned forward. “Okay, what’s wrong? Out with it.”
“Does something have to be wrong?”
“You’ve been giving me the silent treatment since the hillside, Mel. Something’s wrong. Spill it.”
“All right, Jan. I guess I’m just a little shocked at seeing this side of you, that’s all.”
“What side is that, specifically?”
“I suppose it’s your violent side. You just shot someone, and you seem unfazed by that.”
“I should be fazed?”
“You shot someone, Jan!”
“Yeah. He was stealin’ from me, and I shot him. In the ass, Mel. Not in the head or the gut. In the ass. That’ll heal.” Jan took another swig from the bottle. “He’s not layin’ out there dead. He ran off. He can’t be hurt too bad.” A moment of dead silence passed between them. “Anything else?”
“You held a knife to my throat tonight.”
At that, Jan winced. “I’m sorry about that, Mel. Honest to God, if I’d known that was you behind me, I wouldn’t have done that. It was instinct.”
“I was truly frightened.”
“I’m sorry. I really am. I wouldn’t hurt you for all the world. You know that.”
“Do I? I heard from Sophia that you can box. Is that true?”
“Yeah. So you two talked about me, huh?” She took another drink. “Done it since freshman year of college. So what?”
So your hobby is beating people with your fists, Mel thought. Aloud, she voiced a different concern. “Jan, have you ever killed anybody?”
Jan froze. For a minute, she sat, very still, and considered the expression on Mel’s face. Then, she took another drink. “Yeah.”
“More than one?”
“Yeah. Two tomb-robbers on digs, and one guy in a barroom brawl.” She took another drink.
Mel sighed. She studied Jan with a pensive, questioning look. “And you have no remorse?”
Jan drank again. “The first one hit me hard. Real hard. I got over it, though. Those guys wouldn’t have died if they weren’t tryin’ to hurt me. Their fate was their doing. If I hadn’t killed ’em, I probably wouldn’t be here now. And that guy tonight? I don’t have any regrets about that, Mel. None.” She took another drink. “Look, I could just as easily have shot him in the gut. Ever seen a gut shot, Mel? It’s nasty. It’s a killin’ shot, and it takes a day or two to die from it. And all the time, they’re in agony. Was I thinking about that when I was aiming at him? Yeah, I was. Is that the reason I shot him in the ass, instead? Probably.”
She took another drink, then offered the bottle to Mel. This time, Mel took it and tipped it to her mouth. Jan watched her, then continued, “I’m not a bad person, Mel. Look, I know I’m rough around the edges, but I live a rough life, y’know? I’m out in the bush as much as I can be, just tryin’ to make a living. I’m an archaeology bum. That’s what I do. And archaeology isn’t done on Park Avenue. It’s mostly done in places like this; wild, primitive places. I guess I’ve gotten wild and primitive, too.”
She accepted the bottle back from Mel and took a drink. “It’s strictly survival for me. I work wherever I can, for whoever I can. My daddy wasn’t a Nobel Laureate, Mel. My dad was Harry ‘Grave-Robber’ Covington. The legacy follows me, y’know? I can’t get a decent job, not even a year’s teaching appointment. A professorship? Yeah, right. Fat chance of that.” She drank again. “I’m sent to the most stinkin’, God-forsaken digs. Stuff nobody else wants to do. Hell, hire Covington, they say. She’ll do it, the crazy, God-damned, drunk-ass, skirt-chasin’-” She took another drink. “That kind of reputation has put me in some rough situations, Mel. And I’m little, and I’m a woman. I’ve got to be meaner than a damned snake, or I won’t last long out here.” Jan took a long pull at the bottle, then lowered it. “I hate it, but that’s the way it is. Welcome to my life, Mel.” She paused and waited for Mel to say something. When Mel remained silent, Jan continued.
“Look, I’m not all dirt and booze and violence. I love clean sheets and hot baths and nice clothes and Mozart and Shakespeare. But there ain’t much of that around here, is there? There’s just dust and heat and bugs and guys who try to rob me. Or worse.” She motioned toward the dig. “And there’s human history out there, just waitin’ for bums like me to scratch it out of the ground and give meaning to it.” She leaned forward, forearms on knees, and studied Mel. “That’s what I’m all about.”
She took another drink. “But you’re sittin’ there, wondering if I’m going to hurt you. I must be a real piece of work, if you actually think that. I said that I loved you, Mel, and I do. God help me, I love you so much it actually hurts in my chest sometimes. I’ve never had it this bad for anybody else, ever. And the way you’re lookin’ at me now…”
She squinted her eyes into slits and turned her head aside. Her hand covered her mouth, and Mel realized that Jan was crying. It was a silent agony that she witnessed, borne out only by the tears which dripped down Jan’s cheek.
Mel rose from the bunk and knelt in front of Jan. Gently, she lifted the liquor bottle from Jan’s hand and placed it on the table. Then, she leaned forward and rested her arms on Jan’s thighs. “How am I looking at you now?”
Jan kept her head averted. “You hate me.”
“I love you.”
“Look at me and see.”
Jan sniffed loudly, then wiped her eyes with the back of her hand as she studied the face in front of her. “I hate to cry, Mel. Nobody sees me cry. Ever.”
“It’s good for you to cry, sometimes.”
“It’s called being vulnerable. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I’m just so scared that I’m gonna lose you.”
“I’m right here.” Jan reached for the liquor bottle, and Mel’s hand stopped hers. “You’ve had enough for tonight. Come and rest now. Let’s lie down.”
Jan stood, unsteadily, as Mel pulled the buckle open on her pistol belt. It fell away, and Mel rested it on the camp table, then led Jan to her bunk. She flopped down, and Mel kissed her. “Good night, Jan.”
She stared down at Jan. The hazel eyes were wet, imploring. Vulnerable. “All right, darlin’. Move over.”
Jan wriggled to one side of the cot. Mel lowered herself down to rest beside her and allowed Jan to bury herself in her arms, her head resting on Mel’s shoulder. Mel could smell the booze, feel the wetness of new tears.
Jan’s voice was a whisper. “Are you gonna leave me?”
“Jan, honey, I love you. I’m not leaving you.”
“It would kill me.” Mel felt the blonde head bury itself in her shoulder. Jan’s fist gripped her shirt, and she wept openly for a moment, then sniffed and went silent. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to do that. I’m not some weepy dame, really.”
“I know.” Mel stroked Jan’s hair softly, slowly. “Every girl needs to do that from time to time. Even a tough gal like you.”
“You must think I’m a train wreck, huh?”
“Maybe I love a train wreck, Jan.”
“Well, you got one.”
“And you’re just the cutest train wreck I’ve ever known.” She squeezed Jan. “Rest now. Try to sleep.”
The head nodded again. Jan remained still for a long moment, then broke the silence, her voice muffled in Mel’s shirt. “I wouldn’t hurt you, ever.”
“I know, Jan. Sleep now.”
She felt Jan’s arm snake around her body, then squeeze her tightly. Jan buried her head even more tightly into her shoulder; then, with a final, ragged sigh, her breathing became regular. Mel lay still, feeling Jan pressed against her, feeling the heartbeat, feeling the chest expand and contract with gentle breaths, and allowed herself a sad smile. Tough-as-nails, devil-may-care Jan Covington was a frightened, lost child tonight. The booze was the catalyst, the means that weakened Jan’s walls. Mel’s pointed questions were the blows that had toppled them.
And what lay behind those walls was pain. Mel had suspected it all along, but only tonight had she actually seen it. She felt a sympathetic tear track its way down her own cheek.
What, Mel wondered, had caused such pain? Abandoned by her mother, a dead father, no family, no close friends-a single woman in a rough, a competitive, a man’s world, depending on no one but herself, fighting to survive and make a living doing the only thing she knew and loved, repeatedly sent to desolate places and treated like a pariah for her name. For years now, she must have felt so alone. No wonder she’d surrounded herself with toughness and a bad attitude and booze and casual sex and quick fists and a sharp tongue. And no wonder she’s so frightened of being left, abandoned yet again. That’s all she’s ever known.
Very soon, she heard and felt Jan’s gentle snore. “Well, cutie,” Mel whispered. “You finally got me into your bunk, didn’t you?”
As if in reply, she felt Jan’s arm tighten about her ribs.
Mel blinked awake, then stared up at the tent’s ceiling. It was dawn. She heard footsteps outside the tent, the tinkle of tin cups and smelled coffee percolating. Jan was up. Mel sat up and stretched, then rose and staggered to the tent’s door.
Jan wordlessly pointed to the coffee-pot on the camp stove. She did not look at Mel, who studied her from behind. She seemed in a foul mood, so Mel said nothing else, but retreated to the neighboring tent to wash and change her shirt. As she scrubbed her face over the dented metal bowl, she wondered about Jan’s mood, then chalked it up to a hangover. She hoped that it was not from the last evening’s conversation.
After she brushed her hair and banded it into a pony tail, she returned to the outside table. Jan was sitting, a tin coffee-cup tightly gripped in her hands, and was staring at the distant hills. A second tin cup sat on the other side of the table. Mel seated herself in front of it, and Jan wordlessly poured steaming coffee into the cup, then pointed at the tins containing sugar and condensed milk.
As Mel fixed her coffee to her taste, she cast cautious glances in Jan’s direction. The woman’s expression was unreadable, her eyes squinted into slits. She tasted the coffee, then decided to test the waters.
Mel raised an eyebrow in question. “Not well?”
“My goodness. Do you want some aspirin?”
At that, one eye popped open. “Umph?”
“Yes, I have some. I’ll be back directly.” Mel rose, walked to her tent, and returned in a moment with a bottle of aspirin. She unscrewed the lid as Jan held out a hand. After Mel tapped two aspirins into Jan’s palm, Jan reached over and tapped the bottle again. Two more fell out. She popped them all into her mouth and followed it with a slurp of coffee. Mel watched her, then asked, “That bad, huh?”
“Well, take heart. No one ever died of a hangover.”
Mel smiled. “See? You’re on the mend already. We’re up to one-syllable words now.” Jan studied her through slitted eyes, then raised the coffee-cup to her lips. As she did, she wiggled her middle finger. Mel raised an eyebrow at that, then felt herself ease into a wide grin. From anyone else, she would have been offended. From Jan, at this moment, it struck her as intensely funny. “Okay,” she said. “Two syllables.”
That got a grin from Jan. The eyes widened a little. “Would you like to hear five?” she asked.
“I’m not sure. Do I want to hear this?”
“I hope so.”
Mel leaned forward, as Jan’s voice had not reached above a husky whisper. “Okay. Hit me with it.”
From behind her tin cup, Jan mumbled, “I love you, gorgeous.”
Mel smiled, really smiled at that. “My, my. Jan Covington, you’re a hopeless romantic at heart, aren’t you? Here you are, suffering a terminal hangover, and all you can think about is me. Thank you, cutie. And just for the record, I love you, too.”
“Last night, I started to wonder.”
“You remember last night?”
“Sure. I wasn’t drunk enough to not remember. Just drunk enough to make an ass of myself.”
“You did not make an ass of yourself, Jan. You got totally honest with me, dropped all pretense of being one tough I-don’t-give-a-damn broad. Last night, I really saw you. And I really liked you, because you do give a damn. You’re tender and vulnerable, and I love that about you.”
Jan studied Mel’s face for a long moment, then spoke softly. “You’re not just sayin’ that?”
“I’m telling you the truth.”
“I wouldn’t hurt you ever, Mel. You’ve got to believe that.”
“I do. I know in my soul that you could never raise a hand to me. It’s not who you are.” She sipped her coffee, then added another thought. “In fact, now that I know what a scrapper you are, I feel very safe around you. I know that, should anything bad happen, you’ll be there to protect me.”
“Damn right I will. I’d die for you, Mel.”
Mel placed a hand across her mouth. Her blue eyes glistened, and she swallowed hard. “Jan, you’re the only person who’s ever said that to me.”
Jan leaned forward. “Do you really love me?”
“You know I do.”
“Then tell me one more time.”
“I love you, Janice Covington. I’ve come to love you more than I ever thought it possible to love someone. And, just for the record, I’d die for you, too.”
Jan’s expression slowly transformed. Her eyes opened wide, revealing sparkling hazel irises. Her cheeks took on a tinge of rosy pink, and her whole body seemed to straighten up and infuse itself with unspoken energy. “Enough about dyin’. Let’s start living. We’ve got an adventure ahead of us, Mel. Let’s get this stuff to the Athens museum.” She rose. “I’m gonna clean up and pack. We need to be on the road in-” She popped her pocket watch open. “One hour. You up for this?”
Mel beamed. “I’m with you all the way.”
The truck’s motor idled as Mel approached and placed her suitcase in the back. Her rucksack, she kept over her shoulder. “Are we ready?”
“Yup. Gassed up and ready. I’ve tied down all the stuff in the back. Bumpy roads, y’know. And there’s more jerry cans of gas back there, and fresh water.”
“You’ve thought of everything.”
“Listen, the scrolls are packed in this trunk. It’s weatherproof and watertight. I figure they’re the most valuable thing we have. If anything happens, we save this before anything else. Right?”
“Well, let’s hit the road.”
“What about the camp, Jan? The tents and things?”
Jan sighed. “Can’t carry it all. Let’s just hope it’s here next spring.”
Mel cast a final look around. “One moment, Jan.” She rummaged in her rucksack and pulled out her camera, then proceeded to compose and take several pictures of the dig site. After she finished, she nodded. “For posterity. Okay, I’m ready.”
They both climbed into the truck’s cab, and Jan released the brake, eased out the clutch, and headed for the main road.
The drive into Thessaloniki was slow, hampered by military traffic and refugees from the front lines. Several times, they had to pull off the road and wait for the passage of trucks filled with soldiers, and horse-drawn artillery columns.
More sobering was the sight of ambulance trucks heading toward Thessaloniki. The canvas sides were rolled up, and the backs were laden with young soldiers wrapped in bloody bandages. Their expressions were haunting, hollow, pain-filled.
“Oh, Jan. Look at them.” Mel clapped a hand over her mouth. “My God. It’s heartbreaking. Those faces! I don’t think I will ever be able to forget them for as long as I live.” She produced her camera and began snapping pictures.
“What’re you doin’?” Jan asked.
“I want people to see this, to know what’s going on here. This is awful. The suffering-”
“It’s war, Mel. People have seen it before.”
“Not enough, evidently. We’re having another one.”
“Yeah.” Jan geared the truck down to second gear. “And it ain’t half as bad as it’s going to get. This one’s just gotten started.”
They approached an intersection, and were waved to a halt by a police constable. The young man approached the truck and asked in Greek, “Where are you going?”
Jan leaned out the window and replied, “The Thessaloniki museum. We are from an archaeological dig, employees of the Greek government.”
A more familiar voice echoed from behind the truck’s cab. “Well, Doctor Covington. What a surprise meeting you here.”
Jan looked aside. “Good morning, Chief Constable.”
“Pull off the road.” He pointed. “Over there.”
“For what reason?”
He cast Jan an impatient, but tolerant, gaze. “Humor me.”
“As you wish.” Jan sighed, then shifted into first gear and pulled into the field. The chief constable was there in a moment, and motioned them out of the truck. As they descended to the grass, Jan gestured toward the policeman, then toward Mel. “Chief Constable, this is Melinda Pappas.”
Mel assumed her most polite manner and spoke in Greek. “Honored to meet you, Chief Constable.”
His eyes widened. “Ah. You are Greek?”
She pulled it from her pocket, and the policeman studied it. After a moment, he returned it with a courteous smile. “So you are. You could have fooled me. And your name is Pappas?”
“I’m descended from Greeks.”
He nodded, evidently satisfied, and strolled around to the back of the truck, Jan and Mel in tow. “So, Doctor Covington, what have you here?”
“Artifacts. The contents of a temple repository.”
His manner darkened. “Bound for the black market?”
Jan blinked in surprise. “No. Bound for the Thessaloniki museum, and then to Athens.”
“So you say. This would fetch a pretty penny from private collectors, not true?”
“I guess so, but not for me. This belongs to the Greek government.”
“A conscience, at this late date? I am surprised, Doctor Covington.” He studied Jan, then spoke sharply. “I do not believe you. I think that you are going to sell these artifacts on the black market. I have the intention of arresting both of you and confiscating this truck and its contents.”
Jan huffed, then breathed deeply to calm herself. Then, she slipped into her easy, cagey manner. “You know, these artifacts are extremely valuable, as you say. They would be an easy target for bandits, and there is just Miss Pappas and myself to defend them.” Jan paused, pulled her cigarette pack from her pocket, and offered the policeman one. When he waved a hand, she lit one herself, then continued speaking in her easy, rapid Greek. “Just Miss Pappas and myself.” She glanced up at him. “Two women, to guard such an important piece of Greek history. We are armed, but still…”
“What are you suggesting, Doctor Covington?”
“We need a police escort to the Thessaloniki museum.” She watched his eyebrows shoot up to his hairline, then added, “The officials in the Bureau of Antiquities would be most grateful to a chief constable who managed such a deed, I am certain.” She paused for effect. “Most grateful.”
“Well, I don’t know…”
Jan allowed a slow grin to cross her face. “If you came along, you could make certain that these artifacts were indeed bound for the museum and not for the black market.”
He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I could.”
“Are you acquainted with the curator there?” He shook his head. “Sophia is her name. Well, not only is she lovely, but she is very prompt about writing letters of gratitude.” Jan paused for one more beat, then lowered her voice a notch. “And of expressing her gratitude in other ways, should the spirit move her.”
“And I understand that she has a particular weakness for a handsome man in a uniform.” She looked him up and down. “Such as yourself, for instance.”
He thrust a finger into the air to punctuate his decision. “I will personally escort you and your bits of history into Thessaloniki, Doctor Covington. This is too important a mission to be left to one of my men. No, I must do this myself. Wait here.” He strode off, a gathering air of self-importance about him. Jan watched him go, then squashed the end of her cigarette beneath her boot..
“Janice Covington, you should be ashamed of yourself.”
“What? I got us a police escort and kept us from getting arrested. Not a bad morning’s work.” She glanced up at Mel, and noticed the twinkle in the blue eyes. Oh, yeah. Mel wasn’t upset. She was loving this.
“Have you ever sold anything for a living, Jan?”
“Nothin’ that I want to confess to.”
“Well, I’ll bet that you could sell shoes to snakes.”
“Iceboxes to Eskimos?”
“Attitude to a New Yorker?”
“Even that, I suppose.”
“Perk up, Mel. Here comes our champion.”
A motorcycle pulled up next to Jan’s truck. The Chief Constable, pistol by his side, a carbine slung across his back, lowered his goggles. “Follow me, ladies, and I will see you safely into Thessaloniki.”
Jan elbowed Mel in the ribs, and Mel took the hint. “Thank you so much, Chief Constable, for your kindness and devotion to duty. We will always remember it.”
Jan nodded. “Yes. I could not have said it better.”
“For Greek history, and for a lovely lady, I am always ready!” With that, he replaced his goggles, then motioned. Jan and Mel clambered back into the truck’s cab, and followed the Chief Constable’s motorcycle onto the crowded road. The police quickly stopped traffic for them, and in short time, they were on their way. The Chief Constable kept them at a steady pace, clearing the way for them with the howls of his motorcycle’s siren.
Noting Jan’s silence, Mel asked, “What are you stewing about?”
“Who says I’m stewing?”
“I can tell. What’s wrong?”
“Jan, you can’t fool me.”
“Oh, okay. ‘A lovely lady’, he said. Jerk.”
“Why, Jan. He was talking about Sophia.”
“Nope. He was talkin’ about you.”
“Jealous? My goodness. You needn’t be. He’s really not my type, trust me.”
“It’s not that. ‘A lovely lady’. Singular form, Mel. I mean, there’s two of us. What the hell am I here, chopped liver?”
Mel collapsed into spasms of laughter. After a moment, she calmed herself, wiped her eyes, and patted Jan on the leg. “Well, darlin’. Sophia did describe you as, ah…”
“What? What, Mel?”
Mel uttered a Greek phrase, and Jan’s jaw dropped.
“Scruffy? I’m scruffy? She said that?”
“I’m sure it doesn’t mean quite that.”
“I’m sure it does. Jesus. Scruffy? What the hell am I, a stray dog?”
“Well, I happen to think you’re just the cutest thing on either two legs or four, Jan.”
“Oh. You like scruffy, huh?”
Mel leaned across the cab and brought her lips very close to Jan’s ear. As her hand slipped beneath the leg of Jan’s shorts and caressed the skin of her thigh, she slowly traced the outline of Jan’s ear with her tongue, then whispered, “Oh, I like scruffy. I like it a whole lot. In fact, you have yet to find out just how much I like scruffy.”
Jan swallowed hard, then spoke, her voice cracking. “Well, then. I guess scruffy’s not so bad.”
In little more than an hour, they were rolling through Thessaloniki’s downtown streets. When they finally stopped in front of the museum, Jan motioned toward the back of the building. “Follow me,” she called in Greek, and the Chief Constable nodded his understanding. Soon, the truck and the motorcycle were safely parked behind the building, and the three of them strode down the hall and stopped at a door. Jan paused, her hand on the handle. “Wait here,” she said. Then, she entered.
Sophia looked up from her work, and her expression brightened. “Oh, Jan! A wonderful surprise. Why do you visit me?” She rose and met Jan near the door. “You come to proposition Sophia again?” she asked with a sultry giggle as they drew near.
“Ah, yeah. I’ve got two more surprises for ya. Wait right there.” She motioned through the door, and Mel stepped into the room. “Sophia, I think you two know each other.”
Sophia’s expression immediately softened, and she embraced Mel and kissed both her cheeks. “Melinda. How good it is to see you again.”
“Hello, Sophia. You look wonderful, as always.”
Jan waved a hand, and the Chief Constable stepped into the room. With his uniform dusty, his goggles against his chest and his pistol prominent on his hip, he appeared every inch the warrior. Jan switched the language of conversation to Greek. “Sophia, this is-”
“Chief Constable Stamos Amendios.” He approached Sophia, and as she extended her hand, he raised it to his lips with a graceful bow. “Honored! How honored I am to have been of service to such a lovely and charming lady.”
“Oh.” Sophia blinked, then smiled. “Ah, how is that, sir?”
Jan spoke now. “The Chief Constable has given us a police escort from the dig all the way here on his motorcycle.”
“Yes, the ladies and I have brought you a truckload of Greece’s ancient history. It waits outside.”
Sophia’s eyes widened. “Oh! Yes, yes! Those artifacts are to be trans-shipped to the Athens museum. Thank you, Chief Constable. I’m very grateful for your help.”
Jan stepped forward and slapped the Chief Constable on the back as she kept up the conversation’s pace in her rapid Greek. “Without his presence, we might not have made it. He is a hero.” She cast a glance behind his back at Mel, then motioned with her hand. Mel caught the message, and added her two cents.
“Why, that is true, Sophia. It is dangerous out there. He was truly God-sent to us. We must make our appreciation known to his superiors, at the very least.”
Sophia considered him quietly for a moment, then smiled warmly. “And we shall. You must all be tired and hungry. Come to my office, and I shall have lunch brought in for all. Would that be acceptable? Chief Constable, do you have time enough away from your duties to dine with us?”
“I do. And I would so love to hear about your work here in greater detail, Madame Curator. I have always entertained a love of our history, and admired those whose work it is.”
“Oh! Call me Sophia, please.”
“Yes. Stamos. Such a strong name.”
Jan motioned toward the door. “We will just fetch the inventory book.”
“Come to my office with it, Jan.” She studied them both in turn, and smiled. “Melinda.” For a moment more, she considered them both, then nodded gently, almost imperceptibly, as if she were privy to a deep secret. Then, she turned to the Chief Constable. “Come, Stamos. For one who has rendered us such a great service, lunch seems a poor reward, does it not?”
He smiled. “But lunch with the charming curator of the Thessaloniki museum? A great honor!”
She laughed, a sultry giggle, as she led him toward the door. “You are too kind to me.”
Jan tugged on Mel’s sleeve, and they retreated through the door. As they left the building and opened the door to the truck’s cab, Jan snickered. “What do ya think, Mel? Can I freakin’ read people, or what?”
“Jan, I never ceased to be amazed by you.” As Jan rummaged in her bag and produced the dig site’s ledger book, Mel asked, “So, I take it you’ve, ah, ‘propositioned’ Sophia in the past?” Jan froze, then slowly turned toward Mel. “Yes, I overheard her comment. But I would have known that you’d bedded her anyway. The way she looked at you. The kindness with which she talked about you in Athens.”
“May I ask you a personal question?” Cautiously, Jan nodded. “Are you in love with her?”
“No. We’re friends. I like her. I don’t love her.” Jan leaned against the side of the truck and pushed her fedora back on her head. “Funny, but when ya feel about somebody the way I feel about you, Mel, there just isn’t room inside for anybody else. Not in that way.” She glanced up. “Do ya know what I mean? Am I making sense here?”
Mel placed a hand under Jan’s chin and lifted it. Then, she kissed her, a slow, affectionate kiss. When they parted, she said, “Yes. I know exactly what you mean, you’re making perfect sense, and that’s all I needed to know.”
After lunch, conversation continued, in Greek. “I am so sorry,” Sophia said. “I had arranged a costal freighter for you, but with the war…” She shrugged. “Doctor Morikis at the Athens museum says Italian submarines lurk off the coast. It is not safe.”
“The trains?” Mel asked.
“Again, with the war…”
“So we drive,” Jan said. “It’s what? Two hundred miles to Athens? We have spare gas and fresh water on the truck. We can do it in a day.”
“You must use the costal road. It is the main highway between Thessaloniki and Athens, and is marked so. It winds much back and forth, and follows between the coast and the mountains. You see, here on the map. See, the crooked nature of the road adds perhaps fifty miles or more to your trip.” She unfolded a road map of Greece across her desk. “Highway Number One. You must stay on this road. If you get lost in the mountains, it can be very bad for you.”
The Chief Constable studied the map. “Yes, the inland roads are awful. This road is good, but will be heavy traffic, though, I think, as it is a major highway. You will go slowly. Perhaps two days, it takes you.” He shrugged. “Twenty-five, thirty kilometers per hour. And in the hills, slow driving.” He added a caution. “Do not drive at night, if you do not know the road.”
“Will I not make better time at night? Less traffic?” Jan asked.
“Perhaps, but better is your chance of getting lost, too. And, not to alarm you, but better is your chance of being robbed. I hear reports of such things happening recently. With the war, things are not in order. Criminals get brazen at such times.” He sighed. “I wish that I could accompany you, but it is impossible.”
“Not a problem. We are armed, and we will be careful.”
Sophia folded the map and handed it to Jan. “When will you start?”
“Now is good. Let us use your washroom, and then we will leave.”
Fifteen minutes later, Sophia and the Chief Constable saw them to their truck. Sophia embraced Jan and kissed both cheeks. “You will take care? I will worry so about you. And I will telegraph the Athens museum that you are coming.”
“Thanks for everything, Sophia,” Jan said.
“Of course. And you, Melinda, you will take care of Jan?”
“It will be my pleasure.”
Sophia embraced Mel and kissed both cheeks. As she did, she whispered in English, “You both look radiant. I suspect that you are in love.”
“Is it that obvious?” Mel asked.
“Yes. And you wear it delightfully.” She stepped back and cast a smile Jan’s way. “You have chosen well, both of you. I weep tears of joy for you.”
The Chief Constable shook Mel’s hand, then Jan’s, and spoke in Greek. “I wish you safe journey and Godspeed, Doctor Covington, Miss Pappas.”
“So you trust that these artifacts will make it to the Athens museum?”
He studied Jan for a moment, then smiled. “I am sure of it. In these dangerous times, you will not fail Greece, for you love her, too.”
“Thank you. I imagine that you will be heading back to your duties?”
Sophia smiled. “He is tired and dirty from his travel and work. I have offered him the use of my home to bathe and relax before he leaves.” At Jan’s raised eyebrow, she switched to English and added, “It is quite safe. My husband is an army general. He is serving at the front.”
“Sophia, you’re quite a lady.”
With that, they climbed into the truck as Sophia and the Chief Constable waved a final good-bye, then disappeared into the building. Jan ground the truck’s motor into life, then urged it out onto the city’s streets. “Okay, Mel. Navigate for me. Where the hell’s Highway One?”
The travel was every bit as congested as the Chief Constable had anticipated. Jan could only maintain an average speed of about twenty-five to thirty miles an hour. She guessed that the only reason the truck didn’t overheat was because of the pleasant November daytime temperatures. It probably wasn’t more than seventy degrees Fahrenheit. They stopped often for military traffic, and even once for a herd of sheep which meandered across the highway.
The first sixty or so miles were through flat plains and farmland, but the mountains loomed ahead of them. After about three or four hours, they reached the hills and began climbing to about a hundred meters above sea level. At the slow speed and the incline, the motor’s temperature did elevate, and a couple of times, Jan had to pull off the road and allow the motor to cool down. Then, she would check the radiator’s water level, and they would start again. Every few miles, the terrain would change, from mountainous to plateau, and then to mountainous once again. The road meandered between mountains, keeping to roughly two hundred meters of elevation, and crossed a plain, then a river, then led them into a narrow gap. There, the traffic was slower than usual. The only thing keeping Jan from experiencing a totally foul mood at the slow pace was Mel’s marvelous presence. She approached the trip with the wonderment of a child, excitement written on her face, her camera at the ready to capture scenes that impressed her.
They had actually made about one hundred miles by dusk, which amazed Jan. It excited Mel, who was delighted by the scenery. They were driving in the foothills, the mountains to their right and the Aegean Sea to their left, and the view of the sea was magnificent. Once, Mel insisted that Jan stop, and she climbed atop the hood of the truck to capture a scene of the sea reflecting the setting sun behind her. Jan could only shake her head in good humor.
As the evening grew more dusky, Jan found a space off the road with a view of the sea, and they halted there for the night. In quick time, they had arranged a camping space in the back of the truck, and had lit a camp lantern and the camp stove. Jan only made hot tea, though; they were both too weary to eat. As night fell, they donned sweaters, huddled together on the truck’s tailgate under a blanket, and talked. Jan cradled a rifle in her lap, and she kept her pistol belt around her waist, her holstered gun over her right hip, her knife sheathed at her left side.
For a while, the conversation fell silent as they kept their lantern turned low, sipped their hot tea and contemplated the brilliant stars over the Aegean Sea. Then, Mel began speaking in a soft voice.
“Jan, I have a confession to make.”
“Oh, oh. Something that you have to get off your chest?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Jan was silent for a moment, then sighed. “Is this gonna hurt?”
“I sincerely hope not.”
“Okay. Hit me with it.”
“All right.” Mel sat for a moment, composing her thoughts, as Jan waited. Finally, it came. “You’re not the only one who slept with Sophia.”
“What? Mel, did you-?”
“I’m afraid I did. In Athens, when she visited there.”
“I thought you didn’t do-what was the term? ‘Cheap flings’?”
“I never said I didn’t do cheap flings. I just said that I wouldn’t do one with you.”
“Oh, that’s nice. You’ll do her, but not me. So, what’s Sophia got that I don’t have?”
“It’s not a matter of that. It’s that you have something that she doesn’t have.”
“What? A venereal disease? Bad breath? What?”
Mel cast a glance at Jan. “Do you have a venereal disease?”
“No, I don’t. And don’t change the subject. So, answer my question. What’s she got that you’ll jump her bones, and you won’t jump mine?”
“It’s what she doesn’t have, Jan. She doesn’t have my love.”
Silence reigned for a few moments while Jan digested that revelation. Then, she spoke. “Call me dense, but you’d better explain that one to me, ’cause I’m totally confused now.”
“Jan, from the first moment I met you, I knew that I was going to fall in love with you, and fall hard. I desperately wanted you to feel the same way about me. I wanted us to have something deep and real and lasting. I wanted you to learn me, to know me, to really love me. I wanted you to ache for me with your heart, and not merely with your-”
“Yeah, I got the picture. So you insisted on the slow dance instead of the cheap fling.”
“Exactly, Jan. And I want every step of this slow dance of ours to be as perfect as possible. It has been, so far. It’s been beyond my wildest expectations. I want our first night together to be, as well. After all, we’ll remember it forever. And if our slow dance has served its purpose, if we have fallen truly in love with each other instead of just being in some fiery lust, it’ll be…”
“Two souls in the dance of love, and not just two bodies?”
“Why, Jan. That’s beautiful. You’re a poetess.”
“Y’all surprised? Little ol’ me?”
Mel smiled. “Touche.” They fell silent for a while. Then, Mel spoke. “I suppose you think me a hopeless romantic, with some silly schoolgirl notions of love.”
“No, Mel. I don’t think that. I think that I believe in you more than I’ve ever believed in anybody.”
“I’ll try not to let you down.”
“You never could.”
“I’m not perfect.”
“Neither one of us is.” Jan looked over at Mel. “But you’re the closest thing to it that I’ve ever met.”
“In spite of my cheap fling with Sophia?”
Jan snickered. “You and me both. Look, when you got frisky with Sophia, had we met yet?”
“Okay. Isn’t she a neat gal? Fun to be with?”
“And didn’t you enjoy every minute of it? Sure you did. She’s a dynamite lover, after all.”
“Oh, my. That she is, Jan.” Mel giggled. “And she said the same thing about you.”
“She did?” Jan mused over that, then said, “Well. I guess that makes up for being scruffy, huh?”
“Remember, I happen to like scruffy.”
“Yeah.” Jan cast a twinkling glance at Mel. “I have yet to find out just how much.”
Mel smiled. “Oh, believe me. You’ll find out.”
Jan snickered. “I’m waitin’. I’m patiently waitin’.”
“And that’s the first time in your memory that you’ve ever done that, isn’t it?”
Jan thought for a moment. “Yeah, it is.”
“Well. I’m honored that it’s me.”
Jan snuggled closer and leaned her head on Mel’s shoulder. “You’re worth the wait.”
They settled into a comfortable silence for a while. Then, Jan chuckled.
“What’s so funny, cutie?” Mel asked.
“I was just thinkin’. I don’t know why it’s called a ‘cheap fling’. Every time I’ve had one of those, I’ve come out of it flat broke.”
The dawn broke, and with it, a drizzling rain. Jan sat up, looked out the tailgate, and cursed. Mel’s voice was sleepy, dreamy, from beneath her blanket.
“What’s the matter?”
“It’s raining. And I’ve gotta pee.”
“Raining?” Mel uncovered her head and placed her glasses on her face. “Oh, my.”
“I’m gonna pee under the tailgate, Mel. It’s down. Where’s the tissue?”
Jan dug into Mel’s rucksack, found the roll, and disappeared under the tailgate. A minute later, she re-appeared. “Oh, yeah. That’s better.”
Mel was lacing her boots onto her feet. “Where’s the roll? It’s my turn.”
When Mel re-appeared above the tailgate, spattered with raindrops, Jan was lighting the little camp stove to make coffee. “So, what do we do?”
“Do?” Jan looked up. “We keep on going. The road’s paved, so we shouldn’t have to worry about getting stuck in mud.”
After coffee was made and consumed, they collected their blankets and things, donned their coats and hats, and made a dash for the cab. As Mel arranged their things and settled in for the trip, Jan left to tie down the canvas back of the cargo area and insure the tailgate was secure. She eventually returned, rain dripping off the brim of her fedora, her worn leather jacket speckled with wetness. She shed her hat and coat, flipped some switches and cranked the starter. The truck’s motor turned over, then settled into a satisfying rumble. “So far, so good,” Jan said. She eased out the clutch, and with a cursory spin of tires on wet ground, the truck lurched toward the road as they headed ever southward, toward Athens.
The pace was slowed even further than normal by the rain. Hairpin turns, wet pavement, and stopped traffic plagued them. The windshield wipers kept a slow cadence back and forth across the windshield, an accompaniment to the steady drum of rain on the metal hood and the canvas top of the cab. After a while, the canvas sagged and began to leak. Jan mumbled some weary profanities over the situation, but Mel merely re-arranged their things in the cab so that they wouldn’t get too wet from the splattering rivulets of water.
The road became even more winding, narrow and torturous as they neared Thermopylae. Several times, they saw trucks and cars off the road, evidence of the dangerous nature of the road multiplied by the wet pavement and poor weather.
“Yeah, Mel. This place is known as the ‘horseshoe of Maliakos’.” Jan cast a twinkling glance at her. “Also known as the ‘horseshoe of death’.” She geared down the truck and eased it into a sharp turn. The wheels on Mel’s side bumped along the shoulder, and the cab leaned to one side.
“Why’s that? Is it because we’re so near to where the Spartans died fighting the Persians?”
“Nothin’ so glorious. It’s car accidents. People die here all the time.”
“My. That reassures me greatly, Jan.”
She laughed. “Don’t worry. Traffic’s too slow, too busy. In peacetime, people drive like maniacs along here.”
They passed a truck which had skidded off the road, its tailgate sticking up into the air, several men arguing around it. “And they don’t now?” Mel asked.
A short time later, they were stopped behind a military convoy along a coastal portion of the road. As Jan fumed, Mel pointed toward the sea. “Look, Jan. It’s a ship of some kind.”
Jan squinted out the window, then rolled down the glass. “It’s a submarine, on the surface. I wonder whose, though?”
“I have a glass.” Mel dug into her rucksack and pulled out a telescope. Jan snapped it open, then peered at the distant, gray outline.
“It ain’t Greek. That looks like an Italian flag.”
“I wonder what they’re up to?”
“I don’t know, but there’s guys out on the deck. In this weather? They’re nuts.” Jan watched for another minute, then said, “Oh, oh.”
“What?” Mel asked.
“They’re messing with their deck gun. No, they’re not actually gonna…”
Her thoughts were interrupted by an orange flash and a puff of smoke from the submarine’s deck gun. A moment later, the boom echoed. A screech sounded, and an explosion ravaged the road ahead of them. A ball of flame erupted from a military truck. Soldiers from the convoy began running in every direction, abandoning their trucks and heading for the hills to their right. Jan’s comment was, as usual, succinct and to-the-point.
The deck gun fired again, another orange flash and puff of smoke. Again, a screech sounded, and again, an explosion racked the convoy ahead. Mel’s voice was frantic.
“Jan, what will we do?”
Jan ground the truck into gear. “Make like that shepherd, Mel.”
“The road’s blocked ahead.”
“I ought to just be able to make it between those two trucks.”
“It’s too narrow!”
Again, the boom from the gun echoed across the Greek hills. Again, a screech sounded, and a truck burst into flames, this time just ahead of them. Pieces of metal and wood rained down across the hood of their truck, and the windshield shattered. Jan jerked her head and winced. A second later, she wiped her hand across her face. It came away bloody. “Son of a bitch,” she hissed.
“Jan, you’re hurt!”
“It’s nothing. Hang on, Mel!”
“Jan, we can’t make that.”
“We’ve got to try. They’re getting closer. The next one could be right up our butts.” With that, she popped the clutch, and the truck lurched forward, wheels spinning on the wet pavement. A moment later, a screech sounded, louder than before, and the resounding explosion sent clods of muddy dirt rattling across Mel’s side of the truck. Their ears rang with the concussion. Jan craned her head out the open window and looked back, then concentrated on what was ahead.
“Was it close?”
“It hit just about we were sitting a minute ago.”
“Hang onto something. We’re about to make a hole.”
Mel braced her feet on the dashboard as Jan gunned the motor. It whined, and with the truck in first gear, it sideswiped two trucks, pushing them apart. Both outside rear view mirrors were ripped off, and metal scraped on metal as the front wheel fenders bent inward. A door left open on one of the trucks snapped off and bounced across their hood. Their truck slowed. Jan put the pedal to the floor, and the rubber of their tires burned across the wet pavement as they attempted to wedge themselves between the two trucks.
Another shriek sounded, and an explosion shook the cab. Dirt and rocks spattered across their hood, and their ears ached from the noise and concussion. For a long, terrible moment, they sat so, then suddenly lurched ahead as the two trucks gave way. They were through! Ahead, the military convoy was parked on the sea side of the road. The right side and shoulder of the road was clear. No trucks were moving, as the soldiers had all abandoned their vehicles for the safety of the hills on the road’s landward side.
Jan ground the gears into second, then third. Another shriek sounded, and a shell exploded behind them, at some distance. She glanced back, then ahead as they followed the narrow, winding coastal road. “Looks like we’re gonna be okay.”
“They almost killed us, Jan. Why were they shooting at us?”
“All they saw was a military convoy.” She geared the truck down and rode the brakes as they approached a sharp curve. “Freakin’ jerks. They don’t have the guts to shoot at anything that’ll shoot back.”
“I wonder if our cargo is okay.”
“I’m not checkin’ it now. We’ll look at it later, after we get out of here.” Jan blinked at the water coming in through the shattered windshield. “Damned rain.”
“Oh, Jan. You’re still bleeding. There’s blood all over your chest. Pull over and let me see that.”
“Yes, you will, won’t you?”
Jan glanced at Mel. She was actually smiling. “What, Mel?”
“If it wasn’t for you, we’d be dead now.”
“If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.”
“And there’s nowhere I’d rather be than with you. Now find a place to stop and let me tend your face, please.”
Jan grinned. “Okay, Florence Nightingale.”
Ten minutes later, Jan had pulled the truck onto a wide shoulder on the road. Mel rummaged in her rucksack and pulled out a tin box. Inside, she had first aid supplies. She opened a paper packet, pulled some squares of gauze bandage forth, and wetted them by holding them out the window. Then, she turned Jan’s face so that she could see her cheek.
“Oh, Jan. That looks awful. You’re bleeding like a stuck pig.”
“You know what I mean. Stop squirming.”
Jan glanced at the inside rear-view mirror. Streaks of dried blood covered her left cheek and the side of her neck and stained the front of her thermal top. “Aah, not so bad.”
“Oh, I forgot. You like to box. Okay, tough gal. Hold still.” She began wiping blood away from Jan’s face, and in a few minutes, had her face cleaned. She soaked some new bandages with iodine. “This is going to hurt.”
“Yeah, yeah.” She patted the cut with iodine, and Jan winced. “Damn. You weren’t kidding.”
“You don’t want it to get infected. Hold still.” Mel cut a bandage in pieces, tore off some adhesive tape, and began the careful work of dressing the cuts. In a few minutes, she had Jan suitably patched. “There,” she said, as she admired her work.
“Am I gonna be scarred for life?”
Mel shrugged. “It was nasty, Jan. You might carry scars.”
“So I won’t be the cutest thing you’ve ever seen anymore?”
Mel smiled. “I think scars give a body character.”
“Scruffy and scarred. I’m gettin’ better lookin’ all the time, huh?”
A cursory walk around the truck in the rain revealed some damage and rips in the canvas over the cargo area, but there was no way to tell about the cargo itself without unloading it. The tires, although terribly worn, appeared intact, so Jan elected to hit the road again. Soon, they were off.
The rain eased off, but the sky remained overcast, keeping a chill in the wet air. The highway began curving inland, through hills and between mountains, and took them evermore west. Mel studied the road map and pronounced the change in direction a good omen, as it meant they were approaching Athens. She reckoned, though, that they still had at least fifty miles to drive.
“That means another night on the road, Mel.”
“If it does, then it does.”
As Jan shifted into third gear, noting straight patch of highway ahead of them, a loud bang resounded. Jan tugged at the wheel and let fly with a string of curses. “Just blew a front tire, Mel.”
The truck pulled off the road. Jan descended, studied the left front tire and sighed. “Freakin’ luck.”
“Do we have a spare, Jan?”
Jan walked to the side of the truck. A spare tire was bolted to the outside of the cargo bed. She thumped it with a fist. “Yeah. It even feels pumped up. The gods must be with us. Let’s find the tool kit and get this puppy changed before it gets totally dark out here.”
Soon, Jan had the truck jacked up and the spare tire resting against the side of the truck. She was tugging on the lug wrench, attempting to loosen the lug nuts, when Mel asked, “Anything I can do?”
“Damned freakin’ lug nuts are rusted on. I can’t break ’em loose.”
“Just a moment, Jan.” Mel climbed into the truck’s cab. In a moment, she returned, a glass bottle in her hand.
“It’s a bottle of cola.” She produced a bottle opener and popped the cap free.
“Sounds good. I didn’t know we had one.”
“There was one left in the kitchen at the dig site. I just love cola, so I put it in my rucksack. Oh, I’m afraid it’s not for us, Jan. It’s for the lug nuts.”
“It’ll break that rust.” She smiled up at Jan as she knelt by the truck and poured the soft drink over the lug nuts. “Trust me.”
“You’re a cola expert?”
“It was invented in Georgia. Southern girls know the many uses of this stuff.” She emptied the bottle, then tossed it aside. “Give it a few minutes.”
They sat on the truck’s running board. Jan studied the empty bottle, then said, “I’ve heard it’s even good for preventing an unwanted pregnancy.”
Mel nodded. “That is the rumor down south. I honestly don’t know if it works.”
Jan snickered. “Well, I suppose it can at least prevent conception.”
“Oh? How’s that?”
“If you hold a bottle between your knees.”
Mel snorted in laughter, then slapped Jan on the arm. “You’re awful. Go try the lug wrench again.”
Jan rose, lifted the lug wrench, and tugged at a bolt. It came loose, and the wrench spun around. “I’ll be damned,” she said. “It works.”
“I’ll never doubt a southern girl ever again, about anything.” She spun off the other nuts, cranked up the jack a few more turns, and pulled off the flat tire. As she was fitting the spare onto the hub, she muttered, “Man, I’m getting covered in mud.”
“At least it’s not raining,” Mel said.
At that moment, thick raindrops began spattering the ground around them. Jan looked up at Mel, who grinned and shrugged an apology. She reached inside the cab, fetched Jan’s fedora, and clapped it on her head. Then, she knelt down and began handing Jan the lug nuts, one by one.
“You get in the cab, Mel. Stay dry. I can do this.”
“Now Jan, what kind of girlfriend would I be to you if I did that?”
“You’d be like the rest of ’em, I guess.” After a second, Jan stopped turning the lug wrench and looked up. “And you’re nothin’ like the rest of ’em.” She studied Mel’s face for a long moment as rain soaked her clothing and dripped off the brim of her fedora. “Yeah, you really are my girlfriend, aren’t you?”
“Every bit.” She touched Jan’s nose with a finger tip. “Are you mine?”
“You’d better believe it, gorgeous.”
“Then we’ll catch our death of colds together. Now hurry up, Jan.”
“Yeah. Right.” Quickly, Jan spun on the remaining nuts, snugged them down and lowered the jack. Then, she rolled the flat tire off into the bushes near the road, threw the jack and the tools into the truck’s back, and pulled the canvas tight. “Let’s put a few more miles under us before night falls, Mel.”
They slept in the truck’s cab that night, unmindful of the rain dripping in through the canvas roof or through the broken windshield, huddled together, wet and chilled beneath their blankets. Dawn woke them, and Jan rubbed her eyes as she looked around. It had stopped raining. The sky had cleared, and patches of blue were attempting to show themselves. Jan tapped Mel.
“Rise and shine, gorgeous.”
“Um. What time is it?”
“Past dawn. Let’s make some coffee and get going. I need to gas up the truck, too.”
With a groan, Mel rose, tugged her floppy cloth cap onto her wet hair, and volunteered to make coffee while Jan dealt with the gasoline issue. She had the stuff brewed and poured by the time Jan returned to the back of the truck with three empty jerry cans. Jan looked inside, perceived that there was no room for them, and threw them down by the side of the road. “What the hell,” she said. “They’re empty, anyway.”
They secured the ragged canvas and the tailgate, then returned to the truck cab with their coffee cups. Jan said a quiet prayer, pushed the starter button, and the truck coughed into life. “Oh, yeah,” Jan said triumphantly.
Then, she drank her coffee, put the cup aside, and shifted into first gear. “And away we go.” As the wheels spun in the muddy earth and the truck slid sideways, she winced. “I hope.” The tires caught, and the truck lurched forward, back onto the highway. “Yup,” she said. “Whoever the Greek god of mud is, he’s with us.”
Traffic on the road became thick, but more organized as they neared Athens. By afternoon, they were crawling through the city’s streets and seeking out the museum. Jan eventually found it by recalling its location relative to the Acropolis, which towered above the city. She pulled the truck halfway onto the broad sidewalk in front of the museum’s impressive facade and stopped the motor.
For a while, neither one said anything. They just sat in the beat-up cab, staring through the broken, dirty windshield at the beautiful building. After a while, Mel spoke.
“We made it.”
“I guess we did.”
“We should go inside and let them know we’re here.”
“Yeah.” Jan looked over at Mel. “One of us should maybe stay with the truck. This stuff’s valuable, after all. Why don’t you go in?”
“All right.” Wearily, they descended from the cab. Mel looked down at herself. Her hiking boots were caked with mud, as were her bare legs beneath her knees. Her clothing hung on her. She sniffed herself and grimaced, then noticed a broken rear-view mirror still dangling from the side of the truck’s cab. She lifted it, studied her image in the cracked glass, then sighed. “I’m a mess, Jan.”
Jan laughed. “You? Look at me. Now this-” She held out her arms. “Is scruffy.”
Mel looked her over. She was muddy boots, muddy legs, filthy shorts, and bloody chest and thermal top. Her pistol and knife were still about her. Her hair hung in hanks, and her face was edged with dried blood and bandaged on one cheek. She lifted the fedora from her head and combed a dirty hand through her hair to brush it away from her face.
“Oh, Jan. That really is far beyond scruffy. You look absolutely frightening.”
“Okay, it’s settled. I’ll stay and guard the truck. You go and fetch Doctor Morikis.”
“Agreed.” With that, she turned and trotted toward the front of the museum. Jan watched her jog up the front stairs, then walked to the cab and lifted her rifle from beneath the seat. With it, she stood guard next to the damaged truck, as passers-by stared at the sight of her and the tortured vehicle and navigated around her, giving her wide space.
Jan had found a dry cigarette and was enjoying its last puffs when she heard Doctor Morikis hail her. She looked up as she ground the cigarette out beneath a muddy boot. He approached her and held out his hand. “Doctor Covington, how glad I am to see you safe,” he said in his impeccable English. “You had us all very worried when you did not arrive yesterday. Miss Pappas has explained to me a little of what you’ve gone through to come here.” He looked the truck over, and he shook his head. “It is a miracle that you survived.”
Jan shook his hand warmly. “It was nothin’. A stroll in the park,” she joked.
“Can you drive the truck around back? We’ll open the shipping doors and wait for you.”
“Oh, wait a moment,” Mel said. She hurried to the cab, dug into her rucksack, and produced her camera. “Doctor Morikis, can you please take a couple of pictures? For posterity. I want to capture this moment.”
“Of course,” he said.
Mel cast a glance at the sky and the light, then fiddled with the settings until she was satisfied. Then, she waved Doctor Morikis over, handed him the camera, and joined Jan. They stood side-by-side next to the truck as he snapped several pictures. Then, he handed the camera back to Mel.
“Come, Doctor Covington. Around back.”
“Yeah, sure.” Jan mounted the cab as Mel and Dr. Morikis hustled back into the museum. In short order, she’d managed the large truck down the alleyway, and had it backed up to the open shipping doors. She killed the motor, then stepped out of the truck with the dig’s ledger book under her arm. She dropped the tailgate, threw back the canvas, and handed the ledger to Doctor Morikis. “It’s all here,” she said. “Every bit of what’s on the inventory. I don’t know if anything got damaged.” She tapped the watertight trunk containing the scrolls. “These are, in my opinion, priceless. We discovered almost a hundred scrolls in the repository. Most of ’em are in excellent shape. Very legible.” She met his eyes. “Some, Mel has determined, were written by the bard Gabrielle of Potidaea.”
“What? So she actually exists? Oh, yes. That is magnificent! Doctor Covington, Miss Pappas, you have done us a wonderful service at great danger to yourselves. We are indebted to you. Tell me, how can I be of service to you now?” he asked as he tucked the ledger book under his arm.
“I could use my back pay,” Jan said. “Mel and I need a hotel room. Bath, clean clothes, a decent meal and some sleep would work.”
“Yes, of course. We also owe Miss Pappas for her services to us. My secretary will take you to a nearby hotel and obtain for you rooms. Our expense.” He shrugged. “It’s the very least we can do.”
Jan beamed. “Sounds like a deal.” She looked at Mel. “Shall we?”
Mel beamed. “We shall, Jan.”
Jan, still filthy, pistol and knife by her hips, strode through the cavernous receiving department of the Athens museum. Doctor Morikis followed, the ledger book open in his hand. The truck was being unloaded, and crates were being opened and tagged. The curator was chattering excitedly.
“This is wonderful! You’ve recovered some beautiful pieces, Doctor Covington.”
“Call me Jan. Yeah, it’s all in the book.”
“Yes, yes. Your inventory is quite detailed.”
“Oh, man. Look at this crate.” Jan pointed to the splintered wood on one side, then dug into the packing. “Aw, hell.” She lifted a piece of a pottery urn and handed it to him. “It was intact when we started out. Hang on.” She dug further, then brought up a palm-sized hunk of bent, jagged copper-colored metal. “Here ya go. Piece of an Italian navy artillery shell, courtesy of Mussolini.”
“My God,” was all he could say as he received the piece of metal. “It could have killed you.”
“Nah,” Jan said. “The Italian navy never could shoot straight.”
Doctor Morikis laughed nervously. “Thank God for that, at least. My assistant will continue to unpack these items.” He motioned, then handed the ledger book to a young man. “Now, let us pay you and Miss Pappas, and tie up some unfinished ends to the Macedonia dig you oversaw for me.”
A short stroll down the hallway brought them to the curator’s office. When they entered, Jan saw that Mel was already there, indulging in a pleasant conversation in Greek with Doctor Morikis’ secretary, an animated girl in her early twenties. She smiled when Jan entered, and offered her hot tea.
In a moment, the four of them were gathered in the curator’s office, and Doctor Morikis was counting out colorful drachma notes, back pay which he owed Jan. She signed for it, then pocketed the cash. The curator turned to Mel.
“And Miss Pappas, for your services as inspector.” He consulted a contract, then began counting out notes. She, too, signed for and pocketed a wad of bills.
Jan looked at Mel. “Inspector?”
Mel cast Jan, then Doctor Morikis, a sheepish look. “Yes, Jan.”
“Ahem. Ah, your dig.”
“What?” Jan’s jaw dropped. He looked across the desk at the curator. “Mel came to inspect my dig? What’s this all about?”
“Please understand,” Doctor Morikis said, “that I have only the highest regard for you, Jan. But I had received reports that certain, ah, artifacts which passed through your hands had made their way onto the black market. I had also received reports-rumors, really-that the Macedonia dig was not proceeding…” He searched for words. “Properly.”
“So,” Mel hastened to explain, “I was here tying up loose ends on my father’s business, when Doctor Morikis asked me if I would visit you and see for myself what was going on.”
Jan digested this, then spoke curtly. “I’ll be God-damned.”
“Please don’t be upset, Jan. It was Doctor Morikis’ responsibility to investigate. He was only doing what he had to do, protecting the museum’s interests.”
Jan remained silent for a long moment, then crossed her arms across her chest and began pacing the office. After a minute, she halted and considered the curator. “I sold several items not recovered in the temple repository to Sophia, at the Thessaloniki museum. Do you know why? To make the payroll and feed the diggers and put gas in the trucks and the generator and keep the dig running. And, out of sympathy, I suppose, she paid more than she should have for them. But I didn’t sell anything to black market collectors.” She cast a glance at the faces in the room. “Have I ever done that in the past? Yeah. But not here. As God is my witness, not here. I have never betrayed your trust in me, in spite of what everybody seems to think of me.”
“No, Mel. Let me talk. Doctor Morikis, what did you mean when you said, ‘the dig was not proceeding properly’?”
“Jan, let me explain. Please.”
Jan huffed, then considered Mel. Finally, she nodded. “Okay, Mel. Hit me with it.”
“He had received reports that the dig was in disarray, that the work was behind, that you were often drunk and were acting mentally unstable, that you were visiting a brothel in Thessaloniki instead of overseeing the dig.”
“And that you were embezzling the dig budget and selling artifacts on the black market.”
“Jesus Christ! Where did you guys hear all this? What the-?”
“Please, Jan!” It was Doctor Morikis who spoke now. “None of it was true. None. You are a deeply honorable person, and without blame in this. But we had an obligation to seek the truth.”
Jan sat heavily on a chair. “Maybe you guys had better tell me the whole story.”
“Jan,” Mel began, “somebody was planting these rumors about you to cast suspicion away from themselves. They were selling artifacts on the black market, artifacts that you’d sold to Sophia. They were embezzling the money that Doctor Morikis had been sending to keep your dig site operating.”
A wave of relief and understanding slowly colored Jan’s expression. “And they set me up to take the fall. Makes sense.”
“Exactly. When I got there, I met you and I looked around, and I suspected right away that you’d been misrepresented. I knew that the Jan Covington I’d just met was not the one I’d heard about. I sent Doctor Morikis a telegram that explained all that-that’s when I had Azam drive me into town, remember?-and he started sniffing around. The culprit’s been discovered, Jan.”
Jan’s expression went from puzzlement to realization, then to dismay. She cast a pleading glance at Mel. “Oh, no. Not Sophia. Tell me it’s not Sophia, please.”
“It’s not. It was Gregorios.”
“Sophia’s assistant curator?”
“Yes,” Doctor Morikis said. “Sophia was simply too trusting of him. But he’s in jail now, in Thessaloniki, and Sophia has learned a valuable lesson about human nature.”
“Yeah,” Jan said. “She always sees the best in people.” Jan ran a hand through her hair. “Even when it’s not there.”
“Are you okay, Jan?” Mel asked.
“What? Yeah. It’s just a shock, y’know?”
“I know. Now, why don’t you and Doctor Morikis go back to the shipping dock, and let Mika-” Mel indicated Doctor Morikis’ secretary-“and I get us hotel rooms? I’ll come and get you later this afternoon.”
“Sounds like a winner,” Jan agreed.
“And she and I are going shopping, too.”
Jan looked up. “Need money?”
“I have plenty. Now shoo. Go to work, so we can have this evening to ourselves.” With that, she winked in Jan’s direction. “Go on. Go, go.”
In a moment, Jan was standing. “Come on, Doc. We’ve got work to do.”
Mel smiled at Jan’s enthusiastic response. Mika, having been privy to Mel’s flirtatious wink, laughed brightly. As they left the room, Doctor Morikis observed, “My, Jan! You seem possessed of boundless energy.”
“It’s nothin’, pal-just a matter of bein’ properly motivated.”
Mika entered the cavernous receiving room and approached Jan, who was bent over a packing crate. She stood quietly for a moment, until Jan noted her presence and looked up. In Greek, the young woman said, “Melinda has asked for you to come to the hotel now.”
Jan stood and stretched, a hand on her back, then popped open her pocket watch. Her eyebrow raised in exclamation when she noted the time. As she thrust it back into her pocket, she nodded. “Thank you, Mika. I have let the time get away from me.”
“You look exhausted. A hot bath and a good meal will make you feel new again. Come, I will take you there.”
Jan merely smiled her consent, then picked up her fedora and clapped it on her head. In English, she called, “See ya, Doc. I’m outta here.”
Doctor Mikos looked up. “Oh, yes. Rest well. Shall I see you and Melinda tomorrow?”
“We’ll be here.” Jan grinned. “In the afternoon, most likely. Not in the morning.”
“Yes, of course. Good-night.”
Jan slung her canvas satchel’s strap across her body, then hefted a half-full army duffel bag containing her worldly possessions over one shoulder as Mika carefully folded Jan’s leather jacket under her own arm. In Greek, Jan said, “Show me the way to go home.”
In a few minutes, they were out of the museum’s front door and walking down the city street toward the hotel. Jan studied Mika, then spoke in Greek. “Are you married?”
She shook her head. “No, no.”
At that, she laughed. “Four of them! Last week was five, but one gave up on me and became engaged to my cousin.”
“Who will you choose to marry?”
She shrugged. “I do not know if I will choose any of them. I have not decided.”
Jan laughed. “Good girl. Only take the best.”
“And how does one tell the best?”
“Oh, it is not hard,” Jan said. “Which one loves you?”
“They all say they do. I do not believe most of them.”
“Young men’s love lies not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.”
“Eh? I am sorry, but I speak no English.” Jan translated the quote from Shakespeare into Greek, and Mika nodded. “So it is. My mother says that I should marry the richest one.”
“Money is nothing, Mika. Most rich men are asses. A rich man can be poor tomorrow, but he will still be an ass.”
The secretary laughed, then cast a puzzled glance at Jan. “So which one should I marry?”
“Marry the kindest one. Kindness lasts forever; money lasts for a day.”
“That is very wise. I will tell my mother that you said that.”
Jan snickered. “Tell her I said you should sleep with all of them and then marry the best lover.”
“Oh!” Mika shrieked in laughter. “Doctor Covington, you are naughty!” She pointed. “This is the hotel.”
Mika opened the door, and Jan strode in. In the lobby, they halted, and Jan dropped her duffel bag by her foot. “Nice,” Jan observed.
“Not the most expensive, but not the worst, either. There are many foreigners-diplomats, businessmen and such-who stay here. The English, the Americans, the Germans, the Spaniards…” She pointed. “The restaurant is very good. You must eat there tonight. And have their coffee and baklava. It is wonderful.”
At that moment, a dapper, pleasant man wearing a British Army uniform stopped near Jan, taking in the sight of her from head to toe. He executed a slight bow, tapped the end of his swagger stick to the brim of his officer’s cap, and asked, “Do you speak English?”
“Sure, pal. What’s up?”
“Please excuse me, but your appearance is so extraordinary, I felt that I simply must say hello to you. You appear as if you’ve just come from some part of deepest Africa.”
Jan cracked a grin. “Worse. Macedonia, by the coastal road.”
“Oh. Tell me, how is the war going up there?”
“Like all wars, I guess. People are dyin’. It’s chaos.”
“Well, thank goodness you’ve made it in safely.”
“Thanks, pal. I appreciate it.”
With that, he nodded and proceeded on his way. Jan cast a glance at Mika, then spoke in Greek. “Hm. The people are friendly.”
“Yes.” She pointed toward the wide stairs ascending to the floors above. “You and Miss Pappas are in room 203, just up there.”
It took a moment for that to settle into Jan’s exhausted brain. When it did, she glanced at Mika. “We are sharing a room?”
Mika nodded. “Yes, yes. It was Miss Pappas’ idea. She insisted upon it.” She studied Jan with a suddenly puzzled expression. “That is not acceptable to you?”
A slow, tired grin creased Jan’s face. “Oh, very acceptable, Mika. Extremely acceptable.”
Mika giggled in delight. “Room 203. Miss Pappas is already there.” She handed Jan her worn leather jacket. “I must return to the museum now. Good-bye.” She made a motion as if to embrace Jan, then considered Jan’s dirty state and thought the better of it. Jan extended her hand, which Mika shook with gusto before she walked away. At the door, she paused and looked back, her eyes twinkling with laughter.
“Have a pleasant evening, Doctor Covington.”
“Thank you. I think I will.”
She giggled again. “Oh! I think so, too.” Then, she darted for the hotel’s door and disappeared into the crowd of pedestrians on the street.
Jan scratched her chin in puzzlement. “Huh. Wonder what she meant by that?” Then, suddenly mindful of the stares she was receiving from people in the spacious lobby, she shouldered her duffel bag and headed for the stairs. As her dirty boots crunched on the wide marble, she was feeling very, very much like a gypsy in the palace.
A few minutes later, she stopped at the door marked, ‘203’ and turned the knob. It opened, and she entered, then dropped her bags on the floor and threw her hat onto a nearby chair. “Honey, I’m home,” she called out.
“Oh, Jan. Come on in.” Mel emerged from the bathroom, clad in a robe, a towel about her hair. “Why, you look even worse than this morning, if that’s possible.”
“Yes. You take off those muddy boots right now and put them outside the door, with mine. The valet will be up to get them and clean them.”
“Uh, yeah, sure.” Jan headed for a nearby chair, but Mel stopped her.
“Oh, no. You’re filthy. You just stand right there and take them off.”
Jan leaned against the wall and unlaced her boots, then kicked them off. Mel picked them up by the laces, then opened the door and gingerly placed them outside the room. When she closed the door behind her, Jan was standing, watching her.
“Now, you march right into the bathroom and shed those awful clothes. They have a wonderful shower here, and everything’s just waiting for you. Go on.”
“Yeah. I just need my toilet kit, Mel.” With that, she hurriedly undid the tie on her duffel bag, found the leather kit and tucked it under her arm. Mel shooed her toward the bath, following her.
When the bathroom door closed behind Jan, Mel called, “And drop those clothes outside the door. I’ll see to them.”
A minute later, the door cracked open. A dirty hand emerged, and dropped a pile of clothes on the floor. Mel clucked her tongue. “Oh, Jan. We’re going to have to throw those out.”
“Aw, Mel. Those are my favorite shorts.”
Mel laughed. “All right, darlin’. We’ll see if we can’t salvage them.”
That seemed to placate Jan. She closed the door, then stood, naked and filthy, in the bathroom, and looked around. Indeed, she felt like a gypsy in the palace at that moment. The room abounded in marble, and the plumbing fixtures were elegant and shiny. Clean, fluffy white towels hung on brass rails. A soft white robe hung on a hook, the hotel’s emblem on its breast.
With some trepidation, she padded to the sink and studied herself in the mirror. “Holy crap,” she said, then looked down at the sink. Brush, comb, perfume, toothpaste, it was all there. Jan cracked open the glass shower door and looked inside. Again, marble was everywhere, set off by shiny fixtures. On a shelf, there was soap, shampoo, razor and blades, everything that she’d need. Mel hadn’t missed a trick. Jan cranked on the water, tested its temperature, and stepped in.
When the steamy water hit her body, she sighed. “Oh yeah,” she said. “I think I’ve just died and gone to heaven.”
It was the better part of an hour before Jan emerged from the bathroom, hair damp and hanging loose, the hotel robe wrapped around her. She padded barefoot across the room and looked out the window. Beneath them, Athens was busy. Here, for some reason, Jan felt suddenly very detached from the world, as if her life was unreal, as if she was in a dream. Hell, she thought, maybe she was. She reflected on how drastically her life had changed in the last month, then smiled. It was only getting better. About time, too. She’d nearly hit rock-bottom on that last dig. Jan felt a swell of pride as she realized that she’d pulled success from certain catastrophe “by the skin of her teeth”, as her father used to say. Yeah, he would have been proud. She could almost hear his gruff, good-natured voice rumble, “Way to go, Tiger.”
She also realized that, without Mel, it probably never would have come to pass. She’d have been accused of embezzlement and theft, thrown in some stinking Greek jail and left to rot. Mel had arrived in her life just when she was about to hit the gutter hard, and turned it upside-down in the very best way possible.
Now here she stood in a comfortable Athens hotel room with a pocket full of back pay, the museum’s praise and thanks still ringing in her ears, clean and warm, and in love with the most magnificent woman she’d ever met. “Somebody pinch me,” she said, then smiled. Yes, here in the land of the ancient gods, they still seemed to work their magic in mysterious ways.
She turned and studied the room. It was comfortable, the Persian carpet soft beneath her toes. The windows emitted airy light, and a ceiling fan slowly turned above her. Then, her eyes traveled down to the bed.
It was a single, wide bed, its headboard situated against one wall, spacious and neat with clean linens. Jan considered it, then slowly realized that yes, it was a single bed. Not twin beds. Mel’s idea? she wondered.
She approached it and noted clothes carefully laid out on it, with a note in Mel’s handwriting. She lifted the paper and read it, then considered the clothes. Mel had bought them for her that afternoon. She shed her robe and held the clothes to her body. The fit looked perfect. Mel had a good eye. Then, Jan shook her head and smiled. “Not what I would have bought, but it just might work.” With a sigh of good-natured resignation, she began pulling them on.
Later, she studied herself in the room’s full-length mirror. Her eyes trailed up from her still-bare feet to follow the calf-length skirt of Egyptian cotton, dyed in bright near-Eastern colors and surmounted by a white peasant blouse, revealing her neck and just a teasing amount of her chest and shoulders. Her hair was almost dry now, and Jan had elected to allow it to hang naturally, as she’d had her hair cut short before the Macedonia dig and it wasn’t quite long enough to pull back. A hunk kept falling into her face, and she fussed with it a little, then decided that she liked the way it looked there. “Damn, Covington,” she said. “You clean up okay.”
Mel’s voice jarred her from her thoughts. “I’ll say. Oh, my God, Jan. You look-”
“Hey, Mel. I didn’t hear you come in. I look-what?”
Slowly, Mel approached her. She was wearing a similar skirt, although a dark color, and a deep scarlet blouse. Her feet were clad in sandals. “You look-” Mel blinked a couple of times, then spoke softly, almost reverently. “Beautiful, Jan. Absolutely beautiful.”
“Oh my, yes.”
“I thought you liked scruffy.”
“I like beautiful, too.”
“Me, too.” Jan glanced up at Mel. “God, Mel. Look at ya.”
She put a hand to her chest. “What’s wrong, Jan?”
“Nothin’ at all. Jeez, Mel. You’re-” Jan touched a loose lock of Mel’s hair. “I’ve never seen you with your hair out of that braid.”
“Do I look okay?”
“You look more than okay. You belong in Hollywood.”
For a moment, they stood, an arm’s length apart, eyes fixed, blue upon hazel. The beating of their hearts seemed to resound in the room, echoing against the sudden, thick quiet which surrounded them. The next instant, they were locked in a tight embrace, their lips pressed frantically one against the other, their breathing heavy. Finally, they relented, and Jan rested her head against Mel’s neck. “I love you, Mel. I mean it. I’ve never felt like this about anybody in my whole life.”
“It’s the same with me.” Mel heard Jan sniff, and smiled down at the blonde head against her shoulder. “Janice Covington, are you crying?”
She sniffed again. “Shaddup.”
“Are you crying because you love me?” The blonde head nodded. “Then it’s the most wonderful sound I’ve ever heard.”
“Glad you like it.”
“I do. Now dry your eyes and let’s go eat. Here, use my handkerchief.”
“Damn. A handkerchief. With frilly edges, even. I can’t blow my nose on this, Mel. It’s too pretty. Got a shirt-sleeve instead”
“Oh, Jan. I’ll never housebreak you, will I?”
Jan hurried to the bathroom. A couple of loud honks resounded, then the water ran. She emerged a minute later, face washed. “Am I okay now?”
Mel giggled. “Yes, Jan. You look adorable.” She allowed her eyes to wash down Jan’s figure one more time. “Very suitable. Oh, my. You look so cute in that skirt. It shows off your hips magnificently.” She turned Jan around, studying every angle.
Jan looked down at it. “I haven’t worn a skirt since I graduated college.”
“Sorry I had to inflict it on you, but I checked with the maitre d’hotel, and he said that a skirt or dress for women and a coat and tie for men are required for dinner.”
“S’okay. It actually feels, um-kind of comfortable.”
“Shoes are required, too. Put your shoes on, Jan, and let’s go.”
“Shoes. Yeah. Right.” She padded across the floor and slipped her feet into the sandals that Mel had bought for her. “Damn. They fit. Good eyes, Mel.”
“Mika knows the best little shops.” Mel pointed. “Your sweater. It’s November in Athens, after all.”
“Oh. Yeah.” Jan slipped on the colorful sweater. “It’s-ah, neat. Warm. Very Greeky.” She cast a sidelong glance in the mirror. “I look okay, huh?”
“Yes.” Mel turned Jan’s head aside and studied her face. “Your cuts are closed. I don’t need to re-dress them.” She studied Jan a little more. “You need some jewelry, though.”
“I don’t do jewelry, Mel.” She looked around the room. “Except for my pocket watch.” She pulled it from her skirt pocket, clicked it open, and checked the time. “Okay, gorgeous. Dinnertime. Let’s hit the bricks.”
“Finally! I thought,” Mel teased, “that you’d never be ready.”
“What are you talkin’ about? I’m always there for a meal.”
“Now that was what I’d call a fabulous dinner.”
“Wonderful,” Mel said. “And they even apologized for it. ‘So sorry, the war,’ they said.”
“I could use a stroll. Let’s take a walk, then come back and haunt the bar for a couple of drinks.”
Mel nodded, and they passed through the hotel’s doors to the evening street. In the twilight, Athens still thronged with pedestrians, cars and even some horse-drawn carts, and in the distance, the electric tram clanged its bell as it made its way up the street. The air was cool, just a little nippy, and Mel clasped her shawl about her shoulders as she held Jan’s arm. For a while, they strolled together silently, their close company enough for each other, relishing the sights and sounds of downtown Athens. Finally, Mel ventured a question.
“So, what’s next for you? Professionally, I mean.”
Jan shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess my job is gone.”
“So how do you usually find the next job?”
“I just seem to always fall into it.” Jan grinned. “After a suitable period of poverty, despair and self-loathing, of course.”
“How about you, Mel? You got a day job?”
“No longer. I taught Greek at a university, but they let me go. Then, my father died, and I’ve been busy for the last few months arranging his affairs. I’m so glad that’s finally over.” She sighed. “I think that if I had to talk to one more lawyer, I’d go insane.”
Jan snickered. “Yeah, they can have that effect on ya.”
“Oh? You talk to lawyers, too?”
“Just through jail bars.”
“Oh, stop!” She laughed, then cast a sidelong glance at Jan. “Have you really been arrested?”
“Yeah. Got arrested in Algiers last year. Spent a few days in the slammer, then got hustled aboard a ship by a guy from the American embassy and told not to come back to Algeria.”
“Oh, my. It sounds very sinister. Whatever did you get arrested for?”
“The police official was crooked. Business deal gone bad.”
“This didn’t have anything to do with black-market artifacts, did it?”
Jan looked up, surprise on her face. “How did you know?”
“Damn. That’s pretty good.” After a moment, Jan asked, “So why did that university let you go?”
“Oh. That.” Mel was silent for a moment, then replied, “Someone whispered to the dean of the Classical Languages Department that I was a lesbian. When he confronted me, I couldn’t deny it.”
“Damn. He fired you for that?”
“I didn’t have tenure.” She giggled. “And I happened to be, ah, ‘seeing’ his niece at the time. She was a university student. The resulting scandal was delicious.”
“Yeah. Enough said there.”
“Have you ever lectured college, Jan?”
“You bet. Most of the way through my doctoral program.” She laughed. “I was the graduate assistant to an old professor who’d been there since-gosh, I think since the Pilgrims landed. He seemed to get sick whenever the fly fishing was good, so I lectured his classes for him then. The students would actually clap when they saw that they’d have me instead of him.”
“Of course they loved you. Did you always want to be an archaeologist?”
“Didn’t know anything else, Mel. That’s what Dad did, and I was off with him every summer when I was a kid, grubbing bits of ancient trash out of the dirt right alongside him. So, when it came time for college…”
They paused in front of the hotel, then wandered through the front door as the doorman held it open. They found the bar, settled themselves at a corner table, and a waiter approached them. A moment later, he returned with two glasses of ouzo. Shortly after that, their table was visited in turn by two young British army officers, then three naval types, an American Marine lieutenant from the American Embassy guard, and a dapper Greek.
“Jan, we’re far outnumbered by the men in this bar. We’ll get no peace at all.”
“Yeah. Let’s get outta here and go up to the room.”
They swung by the bar, tipped the bartender heartily, and he slid them a bottle of ouzo and two glasses to take upstairs. “Thank you, Doctor Covington,” he said in English.
“Oh, a doctor, aye?” a voice said. Jan looked up. Standing in front of her was a young army officer. “Take my pulse, doc. I think I’m in love.”
That got a laugh out of his two companions. It just got a tired, if good-natured smirk, from Jan. “Sorry, pal,” she said. “You’re barkin’ up the wrong tree here.”
“Have a drink with us.”
“Sorry, buddy. No can do.”
“Then perhaps we can chat up your friend here?”
“She’s busy, too.”
“Oh, come on,” he said. “We don’t bloody bite. Unless you want us to.” That got another laugh from his companions. “Come share a table with us.” He looped a hand around Jan’s upper arm, and her expression froze. Her entire body tensed.
“Let go of me.”
“I will if you sit with us.”
Jan passed the ouzo bottle to Mel, who was holding the glasses. “Hold this, Mel,” she said. Then, she reached into the pocket of her skirt, withdrew her hand, and gave the fellow a ferocious uppercut to the abdomen. He doubled forward, wheezed, grasped his abdomen with both hands and began gasping for breath. Jan caught him, leaned him against a barstool, and patted his shoulder with her free hand-a hand now prominently displaying a set of brass knuckles. “Breathe easy, pal. It’ll pass in a minute. That’s it. Slow breaths. There ya go. Ya better now? Are ya okay?”
Still unable to speak, he nodded. She glanced at his two friends, who stood beside her, unsure of what they should do. Jan cracked a grin. “Better take him underwing until he gets better. Here, you guys sit next to him.” She reached into her pocket, pulled out a colorful Greek drachma note, and tossed it to the bartender. “Buy these guys a drink on me, will ya?” With that, she tossed a bravado-laced grin at them. “See ya around, guys. You’re okay in my book.”
All three nodded, and one said, “Ma’am.”
Jan cast a glance around for Mel. She was standing about three feet away. “Come on, Mel. Let’s hit the road.” She lowered her voice and whispered, “Now, Mel.”
“Um, yes. Right with you, Jan.” As they made a swift departure, they could hear a voice behind them, still wheezing.
“Good God, but she can punch. Now I’m sure I’m in love.” It was followed by the hoots of his two companions.
As they tread up the stairs, Mel studied her friend silently. After a moment, Jan noticed the critical eye and shrugged. “What?”
“Okay. So I fibbed when I said I didn’t do jewelry.”
” Really, Jan! Did you have to hit him with those things?”
“He grabbed me. That’s just one thing a guy doesn’t do to me.” She fell silent for a moment, then looked at Mel. “Are you mad at me?”
“No, Jan. I think you handled that very well.” Slowly, Mel’s expression warmed as she considered Jan. “I do feel very safe around you.”
Jan unlocked their door, then stood aside for Mel. She stood, holding the ouzo bottle and two glasses, and cast Jan a twinkling, teasing look. “Aren’t you going to carry me over the threshold, Jan?”
“Are you kidding? You’re bigger than me.”
“Okay, tough gal. Hold these.” Mel thrust the glasses and the bottle into Jan’s hands, then swept Jan’s petite form into her arms in one neat motion and carried her into the room, to peals of laughter from both. With a foot, she kicked the door shut behind her.
Inside, the lights of the city flickered across the sheer curtains as they sat together on one end of a couch. The lights were low, their shoes and wraps were cast aside, and Jan was sitting with her legs across Mel’s thighs. They snuggled closer, and Jan refilled their glasses from the ouzo bottle.
“So, Mel, are ya drunk yet?”
“Not hardly.” She squinted at Jan. “Are you?”
“I’m getting a little tipsy.”
“Which one of you?”
Jan snickered. “Nice. Naw, I really want to be sober for you tonight.”
“Oh? What’s the occasion?” Mel batted her eyes at Jan with an air of feigned innocence.
“Well, let me answer that with a question.”
“Okay. I’m all ears for your question.”
“Nice ears, too.” Jan began kissing Mel’s ear and neck, and Mel closed her eyes. After a moment, Jan spoke, between kisses.
“How come you got a room with only one bed?”
“Did I do that?” She blinked in surprise, then looked around the room. “Oh. I most certainly did do that, didn’t I? My, my. Now whatever could I have been thinking?”
“I’ll bet I know.”
“Oh?” Mel’s eyes closed, and she tilted her head toward Jan. “Do tell me.”
“You were thinking that if we shared a bed, I could keep your feet warm.”
“My feet aren’t cold. Oh, my. No, I don’t think anything on me is cold at the moment.”
“So that’s not it?”
“Then you were thinking that you were going to steal my virginity tonight.”
Mel cracked up. “Darlin’, I love you, but I think your virginity was lost in the dust years ago.” She opened her eyes and looked at Jan, so near. “So exactly where…?”
“Catholic boarding school when I was sixteen. How’s about you?”
Mel sighed. “Let’s not talk about that, Jan. Let’s talk about the future.”
Oh, oh, Jan thought. Taboo subject. “Yeah. Let’s talk about us.” Jan began her attention to Mel’s neck again, and Mel sighed in response. “Do you really want to get naked with me tonight?” Jan whispered.
“I really do.”
“So I’m finally gonna find out just how much you like scruffy?”
“I believe so, Jan.” Mel opened her eyes and fixed them on Jan’s face. “Do you want this?”
“I’ve never wanted anything more, Mel.” She nibbled on Mel’s ear lobe. “I’ve wanted to rip off your clothes and love you since I first met you.”
“Well,” Mel said, then smiled at Jan’s attention to her ear. “If you promise not to rip them, you may take them off. And don’t forget the loving part, whatever you do.”
“Such a deal. You got it.” Jan stood, then held out a hand to Mel. She took it, and rose. Slowly, they walked across the room to the bed, and halted beside it. They faced each other in the dim light of the streets, arms about each other, faces near. For a long moment, they stood so, eyes fixed blue upon hazel. Then, Jan smiled.
“What’s so funny?” Mel whispered.
“This is gonna sound crazy, but I’m really nervous.”
Mel stifled a snicker. “Me, too. Um, you start.”
“Okay.” Jan reached up, placed a hand on either side of Mel’s head, and tilted her face down. Then, she kissed her deeply, slowly, for a long time, her fingers intertwining in Mel’s hair. After a time, she whispered, “Ready?” Mel nodded, and Jan’s hands slowly trailed down her body to seek out the tie on her skirt. In the dim light, she fumbled with the knot, then snickered nervously. Mel placed her hands over Jan’s, then guided her to the bed.
“Sit,” she said. “Let me.”
And Jan sat on the side of the bed, transfixed by the vision before her, as Mel slowly undressed. Piece after piece of clothing fell from Mel’s hands, until finally, there was none left. Then, she slowly approached the bed.
Jan looked up. “God, Mel. You’re…” A finger placed itself across her lips.
“Shh. Now, it’s your turn.”
Mel settled beneath the bed linens and pointed to the spot on the floor that she had occupied a moment ago. Jan rose, faced Mel, and began tugging at the tie that held her skirt around her waist. She found that her hands were shaking. Her mind screamed at her, “Slow down, Covington. Get a grip on it!” As the skirt finally dropped away and Mel stared at her, eyes hungry and expression totally involved in the moment, Jan found her bravado. Her hands became steady. With deliberate, teasing slowness, she peeled item after item of clothing away and dropped it on the pile Mel had started.
Finally, there was nothing left to take off. Mel pulled the bed linens aside and waited for Jan, who slid into bed beside her. They pressed together, breathing a collective gasp as skin touched skin and their bodies met, unencumbered by clothing, for the first time. Only two more things were said.
“I love you, Mel.”
“Don’t just tell me, cutie. Show me.”
Mel awoke and blinked at the ceiling. Without her glasses, the fan appeared blurry. She watched it slowly revolve for a moment, then turned on her side. Jan was laying a foot away, her body prone, propped up on her elbows, watching Mel.
“Oh, Jan. I must have fallen asleep. I’m sorry.”
“Not a problem. You were pretty exhausted.”
“Yes.” Mel giggled. “Three times wears a girl out.”
She leaned up in bed. “You kept count?”
“So,” Mel said, “what about you? Was it good for you, too? Did I treat you right?”
“What, you couldn’t tell? I think the people down the hall could tell.” Jan smiled. “You don’t ever have to ask that, Mel. The answer will always be ‘yes’.”
“Hmm.” Mel assumed a sly grin. “Sophia was right about you. You are one incredible lover.”
“And you sure do like scruffy, don’t you?”
“You bet I do.” She leaned over and kissed Jan, then slid from the bed. “Don’t go anywhere.”
Mel paused at the bathroom door. “If I’m not back directly, feel free to entertain yourself.” Then, the door closed.
Jan lay on her back and interlaced her fingers behind her head. After a moment, she sighed and closed her eyes. This night was too beautiful to be true. Nothing had ever felt like this. Nothing. It was the most intense, most tender, most-she felt lost for words. Finally, she found the word: spiritual. It was a totally spiritual experience. As much as she enjoyed sex, she never realized until now that it could be a mystic, spiritual thing. She now felt connected to Mel across the room, almost as if she could feel her presence although she was not nearby. And that feeling warmed her, reassured her that Mel really did love her.
That opened her eyes. Mel loved her? Mel, who is gorgeous, smart, funny, cultured, accomplished-Mel loved her, Janice Covington, who had a checkered past, a sorry reputation, who was uncouth, profane, so rough around the edges, and who had lost in life many more times than she had ever won. Jan snickered at the next thought. And who was-scruffy. Yeah. Sophia was right. That was the perfect description, wasn’t it?
The bed jiggled, and Mel rolled toward Jan. “Your turn, cutie.”
“Yeah. I knew I was forgettin’ something.”
Jan rose and headed toward the bathroom. When the door closed, Mel sat up in bed, found her glasses on the bedside table and placed them on her face. As she waited for Jan to return, she fell back into her fluffy pillows, pulled the covers up to her neck studied the lights outside their hotel room window. She was in love, really in love. It was glorious, it was soaring, it was everything she’d hoped and prayed for. She hadn’t felt like this in so long. As she thought back, she realized that she’d never really felt like this. Her last love affair paled in comparison to this. Yes, she’d done it right with Jan. Yes, they’d danced the slow dance of falling in love to perfection. And tonight was the glorious reward.
It had been an effort to not relent and melt into Jan’s cot during that time on the dig with her. So many times, she had lain awake in the night, aching for Jan’s touch, her kiss. So many times, she had almost relented and gone to Jan’s tent. So many times. Now, she was glad that she had waited. Yes, it had been worth every sleepless night, every frustrated day. Then, it would have merely been a fun lay. Now, it was glorious lovemaking.
She was in love with Jan Covington. Tough, scrappy, intelligent, funny, tender, adventurous, above-all-odds-I’ll-kick-the-world’s-ass bad girl Jan Covington. And cute! Oh, my God, she was truly the cutest thing she’d ever seen, from the top of her blonde head to the tips of her toes. That wiry, muscular body! And that laughing squint, and that darling, broken nose, and that look that could only be described as- Mel laughed. Yes, Sophia had pegged it perfectly. Scruffy. A gloriously cute, fun scruffy. And Mel loved her all the more for it.
“Hey, gorgeous. Miss me?”
Mel watched as Jan padded across the floor and slid into bed next to her. They settled back, and Jan snuggled against Mel’s side, an arm across her abdomen, her head on Mel’s shoulder.
“I did, Jan. But even though you weren’t next to me, I somehow felt that you were.”
“Funny how that works, huh?”
“Oh, you’ve felt it, too?”
They lay together in silence for a while, just basking in each other’s touch, until Mel’s whisper broke the still of the night. “Jan?”
“Do I truly satisfy you?”
“Couldn’t ya tell? Sure you do. In every way.”
“But you’ve had a lot of experience.” Mel looked down at Jan’s mop of tangled blonde hair, just inches from her face. “Just how many women have you been with, anyway?”
Jan was silent for a moment, then spoke in a whisper. “That doesn’t matter. That’s the past.” Jan leaned up on one elbow, her face very close to Mel’s. “Look, we’ve both got histories. I really don’t think that we need to know everything about each other’s pasts. If you know too much about somebody, it can make ya crazy. It’s the present, the future, that’s important.” She watched Mel’s face for a reaction. “Don’t you agree?”
“Cutie, you are wise beyond your years. Yes, I agree. We can have some secrets. And forget I asked that question.”
Jan relaxed back onto Mel’s side and nestled her head against Mel’s shoulder. “Whew,” she said.
Mel giggled in delight. “Oh, that many, huh?”
“There’s only one for me, and that’s you, gorgeous.”
“My, my. You romantic fool. You are a quick study, aren’t you? You dodged that question like a master.” Mel giggled again as she touched the end of Jan’s nose with a fingertip. “You scruffy little cutie.”
“I thought you liked scruffy.”
“Oh, I do. I really do. Scruffy makes me hotter than a Carolina summer.”
“Yeah? That’s pretty hot, Mel.”
“Come here and find out just how hot it is. If y’all aren’t afraid of getting burned, that is.”
“That sounds,” Jan said, “like a dare. And you know I can’t resist a dare.”
The morning’s sun lightened the room, and the sound of city traffic below their window caused Jan to stir. She groaned, then turned over and pulled the covers over her head. Vaguely, she could hear Mel say something in Greek, and the door shut. A minute later, Mel lifted the covers from Jan’s head.
“Darlin’? Breakfast is on.”
“Huh? What?” Jan lifted her head. Her hair was disheveled, and her eyes were squinted into slits. “Coffee?”
“We have that.” Jan felt Mel’s weight leave the bed, then return a moment later. The smell of thick, dark coffee was deliciously near. Jan stuck out a hand, and Mel placed a cup and saucer into it. “Drink.”
Jan took a deep swallow of the stuff, and her eyes popped open. “Oh, yeah. Good.”
“Come, sit at the table and eat with me.”
“Yeah. Be right there.” Jan rose, naked, and walked toward the bathroom, resting the cup and saucer on the table as she passed it by. A few minutes later, she emerged, wrapped in a hotel bathrobe and suitably washed and brushed. She sat at the table and looked over the food on the room service tray. “What have we got?”
“Eggs, sausage, fruit, bread and butter, honey and such. Eat, Jan.”
“Heck. I thought there was a war on.”
“In that case, enjoy the food now, because it won’t last.”
“No kidding. Is the museum paying for this room service?”
Mel grinned. “I thought about it, but decided not to press our luck. Now eat hearty. We’re both unemployed. This time next month, we might be going hungry.”
“Maybe not. Let’s make sure we’re at the museum this afternoon. I’ve just got a feeling.”
“I’m Jan Covington. This is Melinda Pappas. We’re American citizens.” Jan and Mel both flashed their United States passports at the Marine guard behind the fence. “We’ve got an appointment with John Brevard.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The Marine guard opened the gate for them, and they entered the American Embassy compound. “His office is on the second floor. Enter by the main door.”
They walked across the courtyard, climbed the steps to the entrance, and walked past two more Marine guards. Inside, they climbed more stairs, and finally found an office marked, “J. Brevard.”
Shortly, they were escorted into his office. Brevard appeared in his mid-thirties, and seemed the perpetually busy and efficient type. He watched them seat themselves, then placed his fingertips together and smiled at them. “And how,” he asked, “may I be of service today?”
“We’re American citizens,” Mel began, “and have been working and living in Greece. With the current war situation, we wanted the American Embassy to know that we’re here.”
“Yeah, and we were wondering how the situation looks for getting out of the country, should things go south with the war,” Jan added.
He leaned back in his chair and loosened up a little. “Well,” he began, “the war is going extremely well for the Greeks so far. They’ve stopped the Italian advance, and actually pushed them back into the Albanian mountains. It looks like the war’s reached stalemate up there for the winter.” He smiled. “For being under-equipped and having little air force, the Greek army is tearing up the Italians. I don’t think that, other than the occasional sinking of shipping, we have much to worry about, here in Attica. I don’t see the war coming here.”
Mel asked, “Then we’re safe here for the moment?”
“Extremely. I still have my family here. If I thought we were in danger, I would have evacuated them by now. Oh,” he said, “I’m sure we’ll see the effects of war here: food shortages, maybe rationing, gasoline shortages, inflation for basic commodities, corruption and such. I don’t think we’re in physical danger, though.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” Jan said. “If the situation changes, how hard will it be to get out of here?”
Brevard laughed, a little nervously. “Hard. We’re surrounded by war. Of course, we’ll attempt to get as many American citizens out of Greece as is possible, but…” He held up his hands in a gesture of question. “My secretary has forms that you can fill out to let us know where you are working and living. That way, if there is a change…”
Mel cast a worried glance at Jan, who affected a nonchalant air.
“Good idea,” Jan said. “One more question.”
“What about the Germans? Any chance they’ll get involved in this war?”
“Oh, I don’t think so. The Greek government maintains very friendly relations with the Germans. Strong commerce and such. I doubt the Germans will be invading Greece. They’ve got their own problems. Mussolini will just have to get himself out of this pickle.”
Jan rose, signaling an end to the meeting. “Thanks, Mister Brevard,” she said. “You’ve set our minds at ease. I appreciate you seein’ us.”
He rose and shook both their hands. “My pleasure. Please call if I can be of help to you.”
Standing on the city sidewalk outside the embassy, Jan scratched her chin in thought. “Okay, Mel. Let’s hit the museum now. Maybe we can sweet-talk Doctor Morikis into hiring us for something.”
“And if we can’t?”
“Then I guess we’d better try to get passage to America before we run out of cash.”
“Before we do that, can we eat lunch at that little café across from the museum?”
They boarded a crowded tram and held onto hand-rails as it began squealing and clanging along the wide city’s street, heading in the general direction of the Acropolis towering above the city.
“Darn, Mel. You’re full of good ideas. It’s better to be unemployed on a full stomach than an empty one.”
“Now that,” Mel said, “sounds like something my daddy would have said.”
Doctor Morikis stood for some time, lost deeply in thought, then waved a finger in the air. “I think I have an idea,” he said. “It’s not much, but it is something.”
“‘Not much’ is more than we have now,” Jan said.
He turned to Mel. “The scrolls you and Jan brought us need translation into modern English,” he said. “Would you be willing to undertake such a job? It cannot pay a lot, though.”
“Oh, my. Yes, that would be exciting.” She looked at Jan. “Don’t you think?”
Jan grinned. “Just up your alley, Mel.”
“And Jan, for you, it is more difficult. All digs have been shut down because of the war. We are not sponsoring any archaeology just now.” He thought for a moment, then shook his head. “Have you ever worked in a museum?”
“No,” she said. “Done research, but no curator stuff.”
“Hmm.” He turned toward Mika’s desk, where she was busily typing. In Greek, he asked, “What jobs do we need provided for, at the present?”
She stopped typing and consulted a sheet of paper. “Only guards,” she said, then gave an apologetic shrug. “The war. Many are gone.”
He turned back to Jan, offered her a gesture of resignation and spoke in English. “And I would not insult you by even suggesting-”
“Day shift or night shift?” Jan asked.
“Jan?” Mel tapped her shoulder. “Are you actually thinking of this?”
“Sure. Why not, Mel? Look, Doctor Morikis, I’m not rollin’ in cash here. I need work. If I can’t work as an archaeologist, then…”
“Aah, for how long would you be willing to work as a museum guard?”
“For as long as Mel is here, translating your scrolls.” He winked at Mel. “We’re a team, Doc. We stick together. You get one of us, you get us both. That’s the way it works.” She shrugged. “I’m familiar with Greek history. I speak Greek and English. And I’ve even got a gun.”
“I suppose we have uniforms to fit you,” he said. “Although we’ve never had a female guard here before.”
“Then it’s about time you did,” Jan said. “Day shift, right?” In her silent thoughts, she added, Please say yes. I’ve got plans for the night shift.
Doctor Morikis burst into laughter, then nodded. “You have a job, Jan.” He got a sudden inspiration, and shouted, “Oh! And a place to live. We have several apartments behind the museum gardens, usually for visiting scholars, students and such. There are none there now.” He shrugged in apology. “They are tiny, but it will help, as we cannot pay much to either of you. The war, you know.”
“What do you think about this, Mel?”
“If you’re for this, Jan, then I’m for this.”
Jan turned to Doctor Morikis. “You’ve got yourself two employees, Doc.”
“Wonderful! Delightful! You can move in today and start work tomorrow. Come, Jan, and let’s find you some uniforms. And Melinda, we will arrange for you a work area where you can translate in peace and quiet.”
Jan looked around the little one-room apartment as she dropped her duffel bag on the floor. “Hell. I’ve seen outhouses bigger than this.”
“Oh, Jan. It’s delightful. And look at the view from the balcony.” Mel threw open the double doors, and an ancient stone balcony looked over the museum gardens. “I love it!”
“At least it’s furnished. A few dishes, sheets, stuff like that.” She nodded. “It’ll work.”
“Good. I was so afraid you didn’t like it.”
“Naw. It’s better than a leaky tent at some stinkin’ dig.”
“That it is. And you get to share the place with little ol’ me.”
“Now that,” Jan said, “is a deal I can’t pass up.”
At Mel’s urging, they fussed about, settling themselves in. It didn’t take long. Then, they headed for the nearby market to furnish the bare kitchen. By that evening, they had provided themselves a home and stocked it with a meager supply of food.
The next morning, Mel was seated at the little table, sipping her coffee and admiring the morning’s view from the window. Her gaze slowly shifted to the table, and Jan’s empty seat and half-drunk coffee. “Jan,” she called. “We have to go soon.”
“Yeah, yeah.” A moment later, she emerged from the bathroom, and Mel squealed in laughter. “It’s not that bad, is it?” Jan asked.
“Oh, Jan. I’m sorry, but you look like a fascist.”
“I do not look like a fascist.” She glanced down at her uniform. “Do I?” She was wearing gray pants, a black stripe down the side of each leg, and a gray shirt and black necktie. The emblem of the Athens museum was emblazoned on each shirt-sleeve at the shoulder, and her sleeves were rolled up to mid-forearm because they were too long. Her worn boots had been immaculately cleaned by the hotel’s valet, and were as presentable as possible. A Sam Browne belt, a wide, brown leather belt with a buckled strap across her chest and right shoulder, completed the uniform, her pistol and brown leather holster at her left side, the gun’s butt facing forward.
“No, Jan. I’m sorry. I just had to tease you.”
Jan snickered. “Have your fun now. Just don’t laugh at me in the museum, will ya?”
She ran a hand through her blonde hair to get it off her forehead, pushed the hair behind her ears, and clapped a uniform cap on her head. Mel began laughing again as Jan tipped the cap forward so that the bill shaded her eyes.
“Now I look like a fascist, right?”
“Yes, Jan. Now you definitely look like a fascist.” She eyed Jan for a moment more, then said, “Turn around.”
Jan did, and Mel whistled. “Oh, Jan. Those trousers do justice to that fine little behind of yours. I’m going to have to take regular breaks and watch you walk through the museum.”
“Well, hell.” Jan lifted her coffee cup and drained it. “A fascist with a fine ass. I love it.” She thumped the coffee cup on the table, then popped open her pocket watch. “Time to go to work, Mel.”
“Yes, darlin’.” Mel rose and gathered her shoulder bag, and they left their little apartment and descended the stone stairs, heading across the outside gardens of the Athens museum toward their new jobs.
It was the first day of what quickly became a routine for them, a routine which stretched out for week after week. Mel occupied an office in the museum, daily bent over her scrolls and papers, a teacup at her elbow and her reference books scattered about as she slowly, painstakingly unfolded the stories contained in the scrolls.
Jan daily strolled the halls and exhibit rooms of the museum in her guard’s uniform, her pistol displayed on one hip and a ring of keys on the other, greeting and chatting with visitors and staff. Often, she would stop and deliver impromptu lectures to visiting groups on certain exhibits in either her rapid, accented Greek or her American English, lectures which were laced with humor and legend. These moments made her otherwise horribly boring job very tolerable-that, and the fact that she got to visit Mel every day. They would take their lunch together at the little café across the street from the museum, and often, Mika or Doctor Morikis would join them.
And at night, they would retire to their little one-room apartment, away from the traffic of Athens’ busy streets, to be alone and to fall ever more deeply in love. It was a glorious time for them both, and they treasured the privacy. Whether it was the quiet intimacy of whispered, heartfelt conversation or the wild abandon of lovemaking, the nights were theirs in which to grow ever closer, one to the other.
Jan got one day off every week, and they used that day to soak in the local culture or take hikes in the country, for even in the winter, Attica had a mild, pleasant climate.
And they couldn’t help but hear the war news. Fighting continued in the north, as the effects of war reached Athens. Basic commodities became more expensive or nonexistent, gasoline shortages were reflected on the city streets by less motor traffic and more horse-and-donkey-drawn traffic or pedestrians, and the city’s mood grew more somber. Graft and corruption became the order of business.
And Mel’s work on the scrolls continued. She concentrated on Gabrielle’s writings first, eagerly passing her handwritten drafts to Jan whenever she would visit Mel’s office during the day. Jan absorbed the language of the translations with fascination and a quickly-escalating respect for Mel’s grasp of ancient Greek. Her work, Jan decided, was nothing short of masterful poetry.
Their first Christmas together was spent simply, in their little apartment, with a morning exchange of gifts and affection. Then, Jan donned her uniform and went to work; the museum, although closed for the holiday, still had to be guarded, and she had agreed to work the holiday so that the other guards could be with their families. Mel found Jan’s absence painful and the tiny apartment lonely, so she elected to go to work, too. After all, the translation work was all that was keeping them in Athens, and keeping Jan in a boring job that she tolerated with good humor only for Mel’s sake. And the sooner they could escape the ever-expanding war in Europe, she felt, the safer they would be.
The work proceeded slowly, however. They diligently worked through the winter, living frugally on their meager pay and delighting in the time they were able to spend together. It was, in many ways, an idyllic time for them. Before they knew it, the weather began to moderate and warm, the days lengthened, and spring approached. And spring in Attica is always a beautiful time of year, a time when both the land and the people become fresh and vigorous once again.
The double doors to the balcony were open, and Mel was sitting at their little table, leisurely sipping at her second cup of morning coffee. “So, how’s the translations going?” Jan asked.
Mel considered the birds singing outside the windows. “Almost done.”
“Find anything else by Gabrielle?”
“No, Jan. Eight scrolls were all I found.”
“I talked to Doctor Morikis. He’s going to let us have copies of the translations and photographs of the original scrolls.” Jan smiled. “I’ll write it up for the journals.”
“Oh, Jan. That’s exciting. What can I do to help?”
“I figured we could share author’s credits, Mel. After all, you translated ’em.”
“And you unearthed them.”
“What a team, huh?” Jan tossed a careless grin in Mel’s direction. “By the way, you got any plans for tomorrow? It’s my day off.” She watched Mel shake her head, then asked, “How’s sailing sound?”
“That sounds delightful!”
“Doctor Morikis has a sailing sloop at Piraeus harbor. He’s invited us along for the day.”
“It’ll be lovely. After all, Jan, it’s the first week of April now. The weather’s wonderful.”
“Yeah. Nothing will be able to spoil this.”
Doctor Morikis, clad in white pants and canvas shoes, sat easily at the tiller of his sloop, a pipe clamped in his teeth. Jan eased the tension on a line, then snugged it down to a cleat as the neat little sloop took to the wind’s direction and settled into a lovely run. In the distance, Piraeus’ harbor was full of shipping and busy with activity. Much of the shipping was of a military nature, as the British were off-loading thousands of troops and their supplies with the intention of joining the fight against Mussolini in the north.
Mel pointed skyward. “Look at all the airplanes, Jan. Why, there must be dozens of them.”
Doctor Morikis looked up, then nodded pleasantly. Jan cast a glance up, and her expression went cold. “You got some glasses, Doc?”
“Eh? Oh, a telescope, just there.”
Jan lifted it and snapped it open, then removed her sunglasses and pointed it skyward. At the same time, the bone-chilling whine of air-raid sirens began sounding from the buildings on Piraeus’ shoreline.
Doctor Morikis sat up, suddenly alarmed. “Italians, Jan?”
Jan lowered the glass. “Nope. Worse. It’s Germans. And they’re comin’ right at us.”
“Oh, my God,” was all Doctor Morikis could say. Mel’s question was more pointed.
“Where are they going, Jan?”
She looked around, and her blood ran cold as she focused on the military shipping nearby. “There’s nothing south of us, Mel. They’re gonna bomb the harbor. And we’re right in the middle of the harbor.” She turned toward the stern. “Doc, tack left. Take us as far away from all that military shipping as you can.”
“Yes, Jan.” He sat erect. “Prepare to come about.”
In a moment, they had the boat on a new tack, and were heading toward the harbor’s entrance, and away from the docks. The air-raid sirens were wailing in full force now, and whistles were blowing among the ships in the harbor. To the cacophony, a new, bone-chilling sound added itself. It was the whistle of bombs falling. Guns began to go off in reply among several of the British warships anchored in the harbor.
A mushroom cloud of explosion erupted along the docks, then another, and a third. Geysers of water shot up in the harbor, and a ship exploded, sending pieces of metal hurtling into the air. Doctor Morikis tweaked the tiller’s position as Jan snugged down the tension on the foresail, her sinewy arms straining with the effort. The boat heeled at a sharper angle, and bit into the water with a fresh vigor. They had found their best speed, Jan knew. They could do no better. At six or seven knots, it was frustratingly slow, but it was better than-
A loud whistle stung their ears, and a geyser of water erupted not far from them. A second later, the bomb detonated, and water sprayed the deck and the sloop’s occupants. Jan looked around. “Everybody okay?”
“Keep us on this course, Doc. You’re doin’ great.”
Mel’s voice rose in volume, frantic. “Jan, what will we do?”
“Keep your head down and your fingers crossed. And keep holding on to something, Mel.”
Another geyser of water erupted, about fifteen feet from the boat this time. Jan held her breath, waiting for the explosion, but the bomb did not detonate when it hit the water. After a moment, she relaxed. “Must be livin’ right,” she said.
“Jan, emergency tack. Hard a-lee!” The urgency in Doctor Morikis’ voice caused her head to snap around. Approaching them was a British destroyer under full steam, heading directly for the mouth of the harbor. Its antiaircraft guns were pounding away, and its whistle was screaming a frantic warning.
“Holy-yeah, hard a-lee!” Jan popped the jib sheet free, and watched the sloop’s bow swing left. At the proper moment, she leaned back and pulled the sheet tight. The sail snapped into a smooth, concave curve, and the wind caught it. The sloop surged ahead.
The destroyer passed very near them. Jan glanced up, and someone on the bow far above them tipped his hat as if to say, ‘Terribly sorry, but we’re in a bit of a hurry’. Jan couldn’t help it. She began laughing, even as she still squatted, her foot on the boat’s gunwale, her arms straining against the pull of the sail. She stopped when another geyser shot up from the harbor water, about twenty feet from them. This one did explode a second later, at about the same time that the wake from the passing destroyer caught them by the stern.
The sloop almost capsized, then righted itself. As it settled and began gaining speed once again, Doctor Morikis wordlessly pointed toward the sails. Both Jan and Mel looked up, and in unison, they gasped. There were ragged holes torn in the sails from pieces of the exploding bomb.
By now, the sloop had attained a position on the far side of the harbor, just inside the breakwaters, and away from the docks. From their vantage point, they could see the destruction being rained down on Piraeus harbor. Ships and buildings were burning, and every gun which could shoot was trained into the sky. The noise was deafening. Jan glanced up. Most of the planes were past the harbor now, meaning that they had discharged their bombs and were intent on getting home. The worst was probably over, although bombs were still hitting the harbor.
A tremendous flash and explosion resounded at one of the docks, and a second later, a concussion wave hit the sloop and caused it to heel dramatically. Jan felt as if someone had slapped her face. A ship at the docks had disintegrated in one horrendous explosion. Pieces of it were hurled high into the air, and rained down all over the harbor. Mel was aghast as she watched what appeared to be a person thrown upward with the smoke and fire. Slowly, he turned, head-over-feet, and finally fell into the harbor water. Several seconds later, he came to the surface and floated, face down.
“What was that?” was all she could say.
“Must have been an ammunition ship, Mel. Jesus, look at that.”
Mel glanced at the dock. The ship had disappeared, and the buildings near where it had been were leveled, their remnants on fire. “Jan, this is horrible. Look at the destruction.”
“The face of war, Mel.” Jan glanced down at her. “You got your camera?” She nodded. “Start takin’ pictures.”
“Oh.” Mel blinked in thought for a moment, then rummaged in her bag and pulled her camera forth. She started composing and snapping pictures, as Jan pointed across the water and spoke toward Doctor Morikis.
“There’s a guy in the water, Doc. Let’s pull him out.”
Doctor Morikis glanced in the direction of Jan’s finger, and nodded. They tacked the little sloop and headed downwind of the form floating face-down in the water. Just before they reached him, they turned sharply into the wind, and the sails flapped and luffed impotently. The boat slowed, and Jan lifted the boat-hook. She snagged the back of the man’s pants and pulled him close. Then, she reached down and turned him over in the water. Doctor Morikis gasped, and Mel uttered a cry of horror.
It was the man they’d seen blown from the ammunition ship. The skin and meat was burned from the front half of his body, and ribs showed through the charred flesh. His face was gone; in its place, a grisly skull grinned up at them. Jan recoiled, then cast a horror-struck glance at Doctor Morikis.
“Shit, let’s get outta here, Doc.”
He jammed the tiller aside in agreement, and the little boat backed, then heeled to one side as the wind again caught the sails. Mel’s camera clicked, and then she quickly turned away. A second later, she leaned over the gunwale and vomited. Jan grasped the back of her shorts to steady her.
“You okay, Mel?”
“What do you think?” she said. “Oh, Jan. Is he dead?”
“If he’s lucky. Sorry you had to see that.”
Mel said nothing, but merely nodded. After a moment, she shook herself back to reality, and began snapping pictures until she ran out of film. Around them, the harbor burned, secondary explosions still occasionally resounded, and fires raged. Ship’s whistles blew, and the air raid sirens wailed once more, this time to announce the ‘all clear’. In shocked silence, they sailed away from the docks and toward the little marina where countless pleasure-boats were moored. Eventually, they found their place at a pier.
Some time later, they occupied standing-room only on a commuter train bound for downtown Athens. Jan glanced over at Doctor Morikis, who had been silent.
“Looks like you guys are at war with the Germans now, huh?”
He nodded. “And I think it will be a short one. The Germans will be in Athens in perhaps two months. We cannot stand against them, after all. The two of you must leave the country as soon as possible.”
“It may already be too late for that,” Jan said.
“Nevertheless, you must go to the American Embassy tomorrow,” Doctor Morikis urged. “Ask there about the chances of getting out of Greece.” He leaned a little closer to them and spoke with urgency now, casting glances back and forth between Jan and Mel. “I know that you love Greece, but you are neutrals. It is not your fight.”
“Are you gonna be okay?” Jan asked.
He shrugged in reply. “We Greeks have been conquered before, and yet we still exist. I fear for the museum’s treasures, though.”
“One thing that the Germans have done in the countries they have so far occupied is to raid the historical and artistic treasures. Like the arrogant conquerors they are, they simply take what they want. I fear that they will do so here, too.”
“The scrolls.” Mel spoke in horror. “If they get my work-”
“Exactly. The Gabrielle scrolls especially are incredibly valuable. That is why,” Doctor Morikis said, “you must take them with you when you leave. They will be safe in America. Publish them, Jan. Let the world see them. Don’t let them end up in some Nazi’s archive. Promise me this.”
When they returned to Athens, the trio headed directly for the museum. There, they collected the eight scrolls known to be authored by Gabrielle and Mel’s translations, carefully wrapped them in waterproof packaging, and sealed them into a metal document tube.
The next morning, as they made their way across Athens to the American Embassy, they noted the mood in the city. It was one of grim determination. The radio stations had announced that the German army had, indeed, crossed the border into Macedonia. As if to bolster the population’s courage, the news announcements were alternated with stirring national music.
Both Jan and Mel breathed a sigh of relief when they were admitted inside the embassy gates by the cautious, efficient Marine guards and made their way to John Brevard’s office. There, they had to wait almost an hour to see him. Finally, he emerged from his office, a weary and concerned expression written on his face, and waved them inside. He began by shaking their hands, then announcing the obvious.
“You two need to leave the country as soon as you can,” he said. “Latest intelligence tells me that the Germans are going to roll over this country like a freight train. They could bomb the city. They bombed the harbor yesterday.”
“No kidding,” Jan said. “We were in the middle of that.”
His eyes widened. “Thank God you’re safe. Look, we’re doing everything we can to arrange transportation out of here on neutral shipping. You can’t go on a Greek ship; the Italians will try to sink it. The Spanish are being very accommodating, but it takes time to get their passenger liners over here, and as you know, the harbor is a mess right now. We may have to get you down to Crete or somewhere on a small boat, then to Spain on a neutral-flagged liner. From there, you can get passage to America.” He pushed a pad of paper and a pencil toward them. “Write down exactly where I can find you. I’ll let you know when something comes open. Do you two have enough money to book passage and live for a while?”
“Yes,” Mel answered as she scribbled on the paper. “We’ll be fine.”
Jan shot a puzzled expression at her, then returned his attention to Brevard. “Look,” she said, “Be blunt. What’s our chances on gettin’ out of here?”
“That depends. Are you Jewish?”
Mel and Jan cast a quick glance at each other. “No,” Mel said. “What’s that got to do with it?”
“That gives you first priority out of here with us.” He noted the puzzled expressions and said, “Trust me, you don’t want to be Jewish and be here when the Nazis take over the country. They’ve been arresting Jews en masse in Germany. According to the reports, what’s happening to them isn’t pretty. Forced labor camps and mass executions.”
“Oh, man. So what’s our chances of getting out of here with you guys?”
“Okay. Are we better off fending for ourselves?”
“Probably, if you have the resources. I’ve got a bunch of scared tourists banging down my door.”
“Let’s keep in touch with each other. See who comes up with what.”
“Thanks for seeing us, Mister Brevard.”
They shook hands, and Mel accompanied Jan from the embassy. They did not speak much until they were hanging onto the side of a tram as it clanged its way along an Athens street toward the museum. Finally, Mel leaned close to Jan’s ear.
“What will we do?”
“Get the hell outta here, any way we can.” Jan glanced up at Mel. “Why did you tell him we had money? In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re not exactly the Rockefellers here.”
Mel smiled. “We’ll be okay, Jan. Just trust me.” She noted the skeptical expression on her lover’s face and asked, “You do trust me, don’t you?”
“I don’t think you do quite yet.” Mel patted Jan’s hand as it gripped the rail. “But you’ll learn.”
When they returned, Jan donned her guard’s uniform and went to work. Mel returned to her translation work, albeit with a distracted frame of mind. Finally, she quit her work and began making telephone calls. After several calls, she pulled on her sweater and stopped Jan in the museum’s main lobby.
“I’m going out. I have some leads on getting passage home.”
“Be careful, Mel.”
“I’m a big girl.” She smiled to relieve Jan’s concern, then disappeared through the front doors. Jan, for her part, sighed heavily, then returned to her duties. When Mel returned an hour later, she seemed forlorn, but said nothing.
That evening, Jan studied her lover’s silence over their dinner. Finally, she asked, “So, what did you accomplish this afternoon?”
“Well…” Mel picked at her pasta with her fork. “Nothing. No, that’s not true. I learned the lay of the land, so to speak, about leaving Greece.”
“It’s not good.”
“Naturally.” Jan shrugged. “We’ll find a way, though.”
Mel forced a painful smile. “My optimistic little cutie?”
“That’s me.” She noted Mel’s expression. “Trust me.” After another beat, she added, “I don’t think you do yet. But you’ll learn.”
Mel’s forlorn expression eased into a wide grin, and they both began cracking up.
Over the next days and weeks, the war news worsened. The Germans quickly captured Thessaloniki, then overwhelmed the Greek army. The war tumbled south, toward Attica. All Athenians knew that their beloved city was the final prize.
The English, Australian and New Zealand soldiers present in Greece fought with incredible bravery and determination, even doing battle at Thermopylae, where, like the proud Spartans two thousand years before them, they ravaged the invaders. But they were ultimately forced to retreat and flee the country to avoid total annihilation. The Germans, unlike the Italians, simply could not be stopped.
By the last week of the month, the Athenians were bracing for the Germans to march into their city. Jan had kept in touch with Mr. Brevard at the American Embassy, but nothing was hopeful there. Mel had little better luck attempting to arrange passage on a ship. There were, it seemed, none to be had, or the fares were extortionate.
In the museum, they had busied themselves by burning their records and locking up as much as they could. They even commissioned carpenters to build book-cases over the doors of some storage rooms in an attempt to hide their more treasured items, or hired masons to brick and plaster over the doors. They could only hope that it would fool the Germans.
The city’s mood was somber, much like a coastal town awaiting the arrival of a hurricane. Traffic lessened on the streets. The radio stations and newspapers were full of patriotic statements urging Greeks to show courage and pride in the face of imminent surrender. And Mel and Jan attempted to resign themselves to the fact that they would be foreign nationals, neutrals, living in a country occupied by the Third Reich.
The city had been expecting the arrival of the Germans for several days. Indeed, their army remained just outside the city, but their entrance was, for some unknown reason, delayed. The museum was sparsely visited, for many people stayed at home, their windows ready to be shuttered, waiting for the German army to march into their beloved city.
Jan stood just inside the museum’s main entrance when John Brevard entered. He hurried to Jan and spoke in a breathless whisper.
“Can you two be ready to leave Athens on the day after tomorrow?”
“Yeah. Is there a way out?”
“Yes. We’re taking a busload of people to the coast east of here, to catch a boat to Crete. From there, the embassy in Crete will help arrange passage to America.” His expression was urgent. “This is the last bus. If you aren’t there…”
“Understood. We’ll be there.”
“We leave at ten in the morning. Good luck.”
“What about you and your family?” Jan asked.
“They’ll be on the bus. I stay behind.” He shrugged. “America’s still neutral, at least this week. I’ll be okay. I’m a diplomat, after all.”
“Well, thanks for everything. I appreciate what you’ve done for us.”
He shook Jan’s hand. “Not at all. Remember, one suitcase each. That’s all.”
Jan grinned. “That’s all we have.”
He laughed in reply, a nervous laugh. “Then you’re set. Ten a.m. See you then.” With that, he hurried through the front door.
Jan considered the news, then strode to the back corridors of the museum to find Mel. He finally found her in Doctor Morikis’ office, and told her the news.
As they were discussing it, Mika stood from her desk. “Oh! Mother, come in. I want you to meet someone.” She walked around the desk and waved in a middle-aged woman with a pleasant countenance. “This is Doctor Covington, and this is Melinda Pappas.”
“Pappas?” she asked. “Greek?”
“Descended from Greeks.”
“Oh, and Doctor Covington. I have heard much about you.” She shook a finger at Jan, then smiled and hugged her. “Thank you for your good advice to Mika about marriage.”
Jan silently wondered which of the two items of advice Mika had repeated to her mother, when the woman’s expression suddenly became serious. “May I speak with you in confidence?”
“Of course,” Jan said.
She motioned both Mel and Jan to the corridor outside the office, then spoke in an urgent whisper. “You are going to America?”
“We hope so,” Mel answered.
Her expression became imploring. “Take Mika with you,” she begged. “She has an uncle, my brother, in Chicago. She can stay with his family.”
“Excuse me?” Mel said.
She leaned closer. “I am concerned about her safety, with the Nazis coming.”
“She will be fine, I am sure. There are thousands of young Greek ladies in the city.”
“You don’t understand,” she said. “We are Jews.”
A moment later, Jan strode into the office. “Mika,” she said, “do you have a passport?”
Mika looked up from her work, a puzzled expression on her face. “Yes. I went to Palestine last year. Why?”
“Be at our apartment, eight o’clock in the morning on the day after tomorrow. Bring your passport, money and one suitcase only. You’re going to America with us.”
“What?” She stood from her desk, blinking in surprise.
Mel followed on Jan’s heels. “Jan, what if the embassy won’t let her come?”
“We’ll figure out a way.”
Mel nodded. “Yes. We will.”
The following day, the German army rolled into Athens. The radio defiantly played patriotic Greek music until it was suddenly silenced. Trucks and tanks rolled along the streets, and the green uniforms of the German army appeared everywhere. There were no crowds to greet them; indeed, much of the population stayed at home and indoors, their windows shuttered in protest.
The story quickly circulated that when the conquerors attained the Acropolis and hauled down the Greek flag which flew there, a young Greek soldier wrapped himself in it and hurled himself to his death from the heights above the city.
The invaders lost no time in establishing their control over the sprawling city. A curfew was announced, and martial law was declared. Armed soldiers strolled the streets, fascinated with the sights and sounds of the ancient city. And a small group of Germans, led by a middle-aged officer with the Death’s Head symbol of the SS on his collar and an air of accustomed dominance about him, strode into the museum that afternoon. Upon his entrance, he stopped, looked about him, and noted Jan’s presence.
“You, there,” he said in Greek. “You are a guard here?”
“No, I am selling gyros.” Jan looked down at her uniform, then up at him. “I am wearing a uniform and standing near the front door. I suppose I am a guard.”
The SS officer’s subordinates did not laugh. He considered Jan with a cautious eye. “You are insolent. Take me to the head of the museum. Now.”
“This way.” Jan indicated that they should follow, then began walking toward the back of the building. On the way, the officer spoke to her.
“You speak Greek, but with an accent. You are not Greek.”
A moment, thick with silence, passed. The officer asked, “Of what nationality are you, then?”
“Ah! And what are you doing here?”
Jan shrugged. “I like to live and work in Greece. Would you not?”
“I do,” he replied with a smirk. “Now.”
“So you do.”
Another moment of thick silence passed, with only footfalls sounding in the museum. The German officer studied Jan as they walked, side by side. Then, he asked another question.
“What is your ethnic background?”
Jan glanced up at him. “What do you care?”
“You are insolent and rude. Typical, for an American. I will speak to your superior about having you fired from your post here. What is your name?”
“My name,” she said, “is Heywood.” Jan struggled to maintain a neutral expression. “Heywood Yablowme.” Jan motioned toward Doctor Morikis’ office door. “The curator.” She opened the door and stuck her head in to announce the visitors, but the officer pushed past her and entered. Doctor Morikis looked up from his desk, and the officer began speaking.
“I am Maxwell von Shell, captain of SS and Adolf Hitler’s personal representative to Athens for the preservation of Greek antiquities. You will immediately turn over to me all inventories you possess of the contents of this museum. I will wait.”
Doctor Morikis shot Jan a cautious look, then turned his attention to the officer and spread his hands wide in apology. “I am sorry, Captain, but they were all destroyed in an unfortunate fire in the records room. We have nothing.”
“How convenient. So you have no records? You have not yet re-inventoried the museum?”
“Not yet. Soon, soon. The war, you know.”
He studied Doctor Morikis for a moment, then spoke. “You will re-inventory the museum and present me with a complete record in two weeks. If you fail, you will be shot. I am sure your assistant curator would be glad to attain your position and comply with my request.”
“I suppose he would, but you have already shot him.” At the officer’s surprised expression, Doctor Morikis continued, “He died in the recent war.”
“Ah.” He thought for a moment, then motioned with a hand. “Two weeks. I will inspect your museum now. You will accompany me and answer my questions.”
Doctor Morikis nodded. “My leisure serves me now.” He rose and motioned toward the door, and the officer and his little group of subordinates followed him.
When they had left, Jan sighed with relief and leaned against the curator’s desk. In Greek, she said, “What an arrogant ass.” Mika said nothing in reply, and Jan glanced at her. She sat, immobile, at her desk. Her complexion was pale, and her eyes were wide. A second later, she burst into tears. Jan stepped near to her and rested a hand on her shoulder.
“Tomorrow. You will be out of Greece tomorrow.”
She looked up. “I am so frightened.”
“You will be fine,” Jan said. Silently, though, she wondered if any of them would be fine. At the moment, America seemed a million impossible miles away.
The next morning, a gentle tapping sounded at their apartment door. When Jan opened it, Mika slipped inside, dressed for rough travel and with her meager suitcase in her hand. She seemed nervous and distraught, so Mel attempted to comfort her with a breakfast of hot tea and bread, but to no avail. She said that she had not been able to keep anything on her stomach all night.
At the appointed time, the trio of travelers left their apartment. Mel was dressed much as she was when she and Jan first met, her rucksack over her shoulder and her suitcase by her hip, and Jan-well, Jan was Jan. Hat on her head, worn leather jacket over a cotton shirt and scuffed chino pants, the strap of her canvas bag across her torso and her duffel bag in hand, she seemed familiar, at home, with travel.
They walked to the corner and caught an electric tram toward the embassy, joining the crowds of morning pedestrians emerging after the curfew. No one much gave them notice, even the groups of green-clad German soldiers who strolled the streets. Jan chuckled to notice that many of them seemed incredibly young, and acted more like fascinated tourists than conquerors as they perused Athens’ sights. Several even had cameras, and snapped pictures of the city.
Near the embassy, they dropped from the slow-moving tram. Walking shoulder-to-shoulder, they approached the tall, wrought-iron fence surrounding the embassy compound, then followed that fence, their footfalls audible along the sidewalk. They could see the Marine guards at their posts inside the fence, and feel the guards’ eyes upon them as they approached the gate.
About ten feet from the gate, two men stepped in front of them. They were wearing dark suits and unsmiling expressions, and Jan immediately felt the hair prickle on the back of her neck at the sight of them. She had feeling that the morning was about to turn complicated.
One of the men spoke in Greek, but with a German accent. “Halt. You three, there. Where are you going?”
Jan stepped in front of Mika and Mel, and replied in Greek. “What do you care?”
“Answer me. Where are you going?”
“We are American citizens, going to the American Embassy.” She eyed him. “If it is any of your business. Now get out of our way.”
He thrust out a hand. “Passports,” he demanded.
“Get out of our way,” Jan replied.
“You will show me your passports,” the man demanded.
“Get out of our way,” Jan repeated.
A group of Marine guards quickly gathered just behind the tall bars of the wrought-iron fence, and the voice of a man in civilian clothing began providing a whispered translation of the scene for them.
In front of Jan, the man’s voice rose. “You will show me your passports now.”
Jan replied, “You are not Greek police. You have no authority.”
“We are Gestapo. That is the only authority we need. If you are American citizens, show me your passports.”
Behind her, Jan could hear Mika gasp. Showing passports was out of the question. The only other option was to bluff her way through. Jan’s voice rose in response to her antagonist’s manner.
“Get the hell out of my way.”
The gate opened behind the two men, and a Marine guard was leaning out, beckoning the women toward him. Jan noted him and nodded.
The man’s companion whistled to a distant group of German soldiers, about a block away, and motioned with his arm. The group began approaching them, and Jan winced. Things were going to get ugly very quickly. They had ten feet to go to safety, and these two guys were between them and the embassy gate. They had to be dealt with, and quickly. Jan slipped her hand into her pocket. In English, she said, “Get ready to grab Mika and run, Mel.”
“You are under arrest,” the man announced in Greek. “You will come with me, all of you.”
Jan cast him a defiant glare. “Go fuck a goat!”
At the whispered translation, the Marine guards behind the fence roared in derisive laughter, and the SS man’s face reddened. Jan watched his body tense, and could sense the blow coming. She ducked, and his fist swung above her head. In reply, she dropped her duffel bag and answered with an uppercut to the abdomen. He wheezed from the blow. A second later, she swung again. This time, she did not aim at his abdomen. This time, she aimed squarely at his face. A resounding crack resounded, and he reeled backward, bleeding from a nasty gash across his cheek and nose. He hit the wrought-iron fence and slowly slid to the ground. Jan grabbed her duffel bag and shouted, “Get Mika inside the gate, Mel. Run!”
Mika and Mel ran past her and squeezed through the gate. When Mel glanced behind her, she saw that Jan was still on the sidewalk, outside the fence. Then she saw why, and her knees nearly buckled. The second SS man had produced a pistol. The barrel hovered a couple of inches from Jan’s forehead.
For a long, terrible moment, Jan stared down the barrel of that pistol as the distant boots of the group of German soldiers gradually grew louder, closer. Then, out of the corner of her eye, Jan saw another movement. An arm, clad in the khaki of a Marine guard, thrust itself between the bars of the fence and pressed the muzzle of a black automatic pistol against the German’s head.
In English, a voice rasped, “I wouldn’t do that if I was you, buddy.” The man’s eyes flickered away from her and toward the pistol pressed against his temple. “I got him,” the voice said. “You’d best get inside the compound pronto, missy.”
Two seconds later, Jan had grabbed her bag, wormed through the gate and stood inside the American Embassy compound. The gate latched behind her as the group of German soldiers arrived at the sidewalk. They milled about, unsure of what to do as their leader studied the strange scene: one Gestapo official, unconscious against the fence and bleeding; the second one, standing quite still, with the Marine guard’s pistol at his temple. Then, the Marine guard slowly stepped back until his pistol was inside the fence. He jammed it into his holster, nodded in satisfaction, and said, “I think that about takes care of it. Glad to see that you ladies are safe on American territory.”
Jan looked up at the guard. “Thanks, pal. You just saved my ass. I owe ya one.”
The weathered face grinned, and he shrugged boyishly. “Wasn’t nothin’. You pack a mean right hook, missy. You KO’ed that guy wit’ one punch.” He pointed at Jan’s hand. “Brass knuckles? I ain’t seen them since I was a punk kid in the Bronx. Hell, I figure you gotta be Irish to be that much of a bad-ass.”
Jan grinned, pocketed the brass knuckles and thrust out her hand. “I’m Jan Covington. Pleased to meet ya.”
The Marine shook her hand. “Gunnery Sergeant Mike O’Donovan. Most folks ’round here just call me ‘Gunny’.”
“Well, Gunny. Thanks.”
John Brevard’s voice interrupted now, very near. “Doctor Covington! Miss Pappas! Thank God you made it safely.”
Gunny studied Jan. “A doctor? Wit’ brass knuckles?”
“Archaeologist,” Jan explained.
“Ah.” The gunny nodded, as if that explained everything.
A shout from the fence attracted the group’s attention. The Gestapo official stood at the fence, his hands on the wrought-iron bars, his indignant fury written in his expression as the soldiers behind him lifted his companion from the sidewalk. In English, the man said, “This is not over. There will be protest of the most severe kind. You will answer for this outrage. I will have your names, all of you.”
Gunny considered the man cooly, then replied, “Like the lady here said. Go fuck a goat, buddy.”
Again, screams of laughter from the other Marine guards resounded, and the Gestapo official turned and stormed away.
“What happened, Gunny?” Brevard asked.
“Just a little incident wit’ the Germans,” Gunny replied. “Nothin’ ta worry about.”
“Hm.” Brevard considered Gunny cautiously, then turned his attention toward the three women. “Doctor Covington, Miss Pappas.” He considered Mika. “And who’s this?”
“Mika Kantos,” Mel said. “She’s our friend. We’re taking her to America. She has relatives in Chicago.”
“A Greek national? Really, we only have room for American citizens.”
“She’s Jewish,” Mel said. “We have to get her out of here. Her mother begged us. I’ll take full responsibility for her.”
“Well… does she have a passport?” Mel nodded. Brevard hesitated, then waved a hand. “We can fit in one more, in that case. Just tell her to keep her mouth shut and her passport in her pocket until we get you aboard that boat and out to sea. I’ll issue her an entrance visa for the U.S.”
With that, he herded the three women into the embassy building, and they found refuge huddled with other travelers in a lounge, awaiting word to board the ramshackle bus which would take them to a coastal town, and to a small boat to Crete.
The bus, crammed with luggage and people, twisted and turned along the coastal road. The driver geared it down, then swung it around a turn. A moment later, he stepped on the brakes. Jan stood and craned her neck, and saw several men in uniforms in the road ahead of them.
“What is it, Jan?” Mel asked.
“Greek police,” Jan said.
A moment later, a man in a police uniform stepped aboard the bus. In English, he asked, “You are all American citizens?” Murmurs and nods answered him. “Are there any Greek nationals aboard the bus?” Silence answered that question.
Mel shot a worried glance at Jan, who answered with one of her own, then a shake of her head to indicate the need for silence.
“I will need to see your passports,” he announced. Dutifully, hands started producing passports, and he began systematically glancing at them, starting at the front seats. Some, he opened. Some, he merely glanced at the covers as they were held up.
Mel’s voice was a frantic whisper. “Jan, what will we do about Mika?”
“I’m thinking, Mel.”
“We’d better think of something in about sixty seconds.”
A young lady leaned over the seat behind Mel and whispered, “I’m Susan Brevard, John’s wife. Your friend is a Greek Jew, isn’t she?”
“John mentioned her. Tell her to show him my passport, then pass it back to me. She and I look alike.” She handed the passport over the seat, and Mel handed it to Mika with whispered instruction. She nodded in understanding.
When the police official reached their seat, he glanced at the three passports held up before him, then nodded. When his head turned aside to the neighboring seat, Mika held the passport behind her neck, and the woman behind her lifted it from her fingers. The policeman then turned toward Susan’s seat, and she dutifully held up two passports, one for her and one for her child. The policeman puzzled over one, then pointed toward Mika, asking, “Is she your sister?”
“Yes,” the woman answered.
“Ah,” he said with a shrug, then went on with his duties. Soon, he was finished, and strode to to the front of the bus. “I will accompany you to the boat,” he announced.
The driver ground the gears, and the bus began rolling. Jan glanced over at Mel, and saw relief written all over her face. Then, she glanced at Mika. Her color was ashen, her hands were clenched and a silent tear streaked her cheek. In Greek, Jan whispered, “Almost there. Take courage.”
Two months later.
“Darn, Mel. Look at that.”
“Yes, Jan. The Statue of Liberty has never looked so good, has it?”
Mika joined them at the ship’s rail. “Statue of Liberty,” she repeated in English as she pointed.
Jan nodded. “That’s great. Your English is really coming along.”
“Thank you.” She looked at Mel. “I learn new words today. American words, from Jan.”
Mika proudly announced, “In how-you-say? Diner. Yes, in diner, you say, ‘Cheeseburger. Apple pie. Cuppa Joe. Keep the change.’ You need, ah, toilet, you say, ‘Where’s the can?’ And when car horn honk at you, you say, ‘Blow it out yer ass, buddy’.”
Mel cast an amused, if disapproving glance, over at Jan, who said, “What, Mel?”
“Jan, honey. Please teach her proper English.”
“Hey, this is America. If we teach her proper English, nobody will understand her.”
“Point taken.” Mel sighed. “My, it’s been quite a trip, hasn’t it?”
“Yeah. Two months since Greece. Stay-overs in Crete and Spain. And then the slow boat to New York City.”
“It gave us time to teach Mika English. She’s doing well.”
“Thanks to you, Mel.”
Mika giggled. “Yes. Thank you, Mel, for to teach me English. And you, Jan, too.” She looked at Mel. “We are on boat. Jan teach me to talk like sailor. You want to hear?”
“That’s all right, Mika. I hear that enough from Jan.”
“And I love American movie. Gary Cooper. ‘Howdy, li’l lady…’. And how-you-say? Jimmy Cagney. ‘You dirty rat. I gonna get you, see?'” She beamed at them both. “Movie teach me to speak like American, no?”
“Yeah. Too bad they only had those two movies on this ship. We must have seen each one about a dozen times.”
Mel rolled her eyes. “I’m sure her relatives in Chicago will be very impressed with what we’ve done to her, Jan.”
Jan snickered. “Don’t you mean, ‘for her’?”
“I’m really not sure.”
Mika brightened. “Chicago? When?”
“Oh, another couple of days,” Mel guessed.
“Yeah. We need to get her through immigration first, Mel. And that’s gonna be a trick.”
Mel, Jan and Mika sat in front of the immigration official’s desk as he shuffled papers and talked. “Well, she’s got a Greek passport and a valid entrance visa, issued by the embassy in Athens two months ago.” He looked up. “It took you that long to get here from Greece?”
“We were in a war zone,” Mel explained. “Travel was very disrupted. We had to go to Crete, then find passage to Spain, then find another ship to America.”
“You were in Athens when the Germans got there?”
“That must have been an experience.” He jammed a form into his typewriter, started clacking keys, and hummed a tune as he did so. Finally, he withdrew the form, signed it and stamped it with an official-looking stamp. Then, he looked at Mika. “Do you speak English?” he asked.
She perked up, threw her shoulders back and very proudly announced, “Yes. I speak kick-ass English. Doctor Covington say so.”
Jan’s face reddened as the immigration official cast a glance her way. “Well,” he said, “if Doctor Covington says so…” He pushed papers toward Mika. “Sign here. And here. And here. And Miss Pappas, I understand that you will be sponsoring her in America, is that right?”
“That’s right,” Mel said.
“Now, you understand that you are assuming total financial responsibility for her until she can fend for herself?”
“Can you offer proof that you have the resources to do that?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I’m sorry to ask, but I must see proof. I’ll keep strict confidence, of course. I see these things all the time.”
“I understand.” Mel rummaged in her rucksack, and in a moment, produced a bank book. She opened it, passed it to the official, and asked, “Will that do?”
His jaw dropped as he glanced at the book. He immediately closed it and handed it back to Mel. “Ah, yes ma’am. That will be more than sufficient, I should think. Thank you, Miss Pappas. Sign here, indicating that you are her sponsor.”
Mel scribbled her signature on the form, and the official collected all the forms. He folded them, placed them in an envelope with her passport, and handed them to Mika. “Welcome to the United States, Miss Kantos.”
“Thank you! Oh, thank you! I am A-OK now?” She looked at the faces surrounding her.
The official smiled for the first time that day. “Yes, Miss Kantos. You’re A-OK with us.”
As they stood outside the immigration building, Mel watched Jan attempting to hail a cab, then studied Mika. She was gleefully gazing skyward. “New York City,” she said. “Look, Mel. Everything so tall. To the clouds, the ah…”
“Yes! To the clouds, the buildings go.” She looked at Mel. “Chicago, it is this way, too?”
“Yes, Mika. The buildings are tall in Chicago, too.”
Jan whistled, and waved from a stopped taxi. As the cabbie threw their luggage into the trunk of his cab, Jan said, “Hey, pal. Take us to a decent hotel near the train station, will ya?”
“You got it, ma’am.”
Thirty minutes later, they stood in front of the hotel, in sight of Grand Central Station, their bags at their feet. Jan tossed Mika a greenback and asked in Greek, “Would you pay the taxi driver?”
“Okay,” Mika answered in English. She went to the car’s window, handed him the greenback note, and proudly announced, “Thank you so much. Keep the change.”
“Gee, thanks! You’re swell, ma’am!” With that, he took the money and roared off.
Mel studied Jan for a moment, then asked, “What’s the matter?”
Jan swallowed hard. “That was a twenty.”
“Oh, well.” Mel patted Jan’s shoulder. “Cheer up. You just made that cabbie’s day.”
Jan shrugged, then slung her duffel bag over her shoulder. “What the hell. Easy come, easy go. Come on, gals. Let’s get cleaned up and see the town before we head to Chicago.”
Mel and Mika each lifted their suitcases and slipped their free arms through Jan’s. Together, they walked toward the hotel’s main entrance. Mika asked, “We…how-you-say? Party?”
“Yeah. We party.” Jan cast a glance toward Mel. “If Miss Rockefeller here will foot the bill. I’m broke after that cab ride.”
Mel smiled. “I think I can spring for the evening, Jan, if you don’t get too outrageous.”
Jan cast her a sideways glance and a mischievous grin. “So, Mel Pappas, just how much are you worth, anyway?”
“A proper southern girl doesn’t talk about her money with her lover or her lawyer. Just with her accountant.”
“Oh. So, what if she’s screwin’ the accountant? Does the rule still apply?”
“Hey, I’m just asking.”
Mika perked up. “Screwing? What means this? Explain, please, Jan.”
“Yes, Jan. Explain it to her, why don’t you?”
Jan whispered a Greek phrase in Mika’s ear, and the girl whooped in glee. “Oh, Jan. You are naughty!”
“And scruffy,” Mel added.
“And that’s the way you love me, gorgeous,” Jan said. “Scruffy and naughty.”
Mel allowed a grin to spread from ear to ear. “I declare, I surely do.”
Epilogue: United States, 1996
“Thank you for agreeing to see me, Doctor Covington.”
“Jan. Call me Jan.” She motioned toward the kitchen table. “Tea’s hot. Sit, and make yourself at home.”
Jan studied the young woman as she entered the kitchen. In a moment, she had her sufficiently pegged: intelligent, ambitious, studious. Her immaculate clothing suggested that she paid great attention to detail; her businesslike, but pleasant, manner revealed caution. The fact that she was here suggested that she was a subordinate. After all, a busy publishing house editor wouldn’t have made the trip from New York City to her cottage.
“You must be tired after your trip. It was uneventful, I hope?”
“Oh, yes.” The young woman opened her leather satchel and produced a business card, which she handed across the table. Jan placed it next to her steaming cup of tea, dug the glasses from her sweater’s pocket and settled them on the bridge of her nose. Then, she perused the print on the card: Susan Veolente, assistant editor, McCibe Publishing. After a moment, she glanced at her over the tops of her glasses. The young woman’s expression seemed a combination of hope, fascination and question.
“So, Susan, what can I do for you today?”
Susan took a moment to collect her thoughts. Then, she simply said, “I just finished reading your manuscript.”
“For the third time.”
Jan smiled. “My condolences.”
“It’s a touching story. May I ask you a question?” Jan nodded in reply, and Susan leaned forward, resting her forearms on the table, her hands cradling her tea mug. “Why have you waited until now to tell it?”
“Mel was always a very private person. In the last months of her life, though, she gave me permission to tell it.”
“She passed away a year ago?”
“You must miss her desperately.”
Jan sighed, and diverted her gaze to the spring day outside the kitchen’s window. “You have no idea.” Her gaze returned to Susan’s face. “Or maybe you do.”
“Yes. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you. It has been a long year. Now, Susan, let’s talk. Tell me why you’ve come all this way to visit a crazy old broad like me.”
“Well, my boss-”
“Yes. Well, she asked me to come and see you. We want to publish this.”
Jan’s head tilted a little in question. A lock of white hair fell across her eyes, and she brushed it aside. “Oh? Is that all?”
“Is that all? It’s a book contract. I mean, most writers-”
“Yeah, I know. Most writers would give their left you-know-what for a contract. Well, my you-know-whats aren’t what they used to be, and I don’t need the money.”
Susan’s brow furrowed in question. “You don’t want to publish it?”
“Oh, I didn’t say that. But the form of the finished book is more important than anything else to me. You see, I don’t think that it would be complete without Mel’s photographs.”
“Then you see this story as background for Mel’s pictures, and the book itself as a photographic essay?”
Jan’s eyes twinkled. “Exactly. I can see that we’re thinking alike.”
“Do you still have her photographs?”
Jan grinned. “Every one. And we still own the rights to all of ’em. Y’know, Life magazine and National Geographic both did spreads of Mel’s photographs during the war.”
Susan lifted two plastic-covered magazines from her satchel and dropped them on the table. Jan studied the covers, then raised an eyebrow. “You’ve been doing your research, Susan. I’m impressed. Those copies must have cost you, too.”
“Worth every penny. Now, Jan, let’s talk about how you want to do this.”
“Hang on a minute. If we’re going to get serious, we’ve got to do this right.” Jan huffed and creaked a little as she rose, then shuffled across the kitchen and opened a cabinet. A minute later, she sat down again, slapped two shot glasses on the table, and opened a bottle of extremely classy tequila. As she filled the glasses, she glanced up at Susan. “Hot tea only goes so far. You drink?”
Susan couldn’t help but grin. “I’ve been known to tip a few.”
“Good girl. Here’s mud in your eye.” They downed the shots, and Jan refilled the glasses. “Hang on, and I’ll get the portfolio with all Mel’s pictures in it. You can see the originals.” She stood and left the room. In a minute, she had returned, and placed a brown leather portfolio on the table in front of Susan. “There’s some photos in there that weren’t in those magazines.”
“Really?” Cautiously, Susan opened the cover and lifted the top photograph. “Wow. Look at that.”
“You read the manuscript. Where was that taken, do you think?”
“Well,” Susan said, “you’re both wearing skirts, and you’re standing in what appears to be a hotel lobby.” She looked up. “It’s the evening of that very romantic night in Athens, right?”
Jan lifted the bottle. “Bring that, and come into the living room. I can see we’re gonna be at this for a while. Let’s get comfortable.”
Pictures lay spread across the coffee table and littered the couch cushions. Jan sat, cross-legged, on one corner of the couch, and Susan sat next to her, her shoes kicked off, her feet crossed on the coffee table. She shook her head when Jan offered to fill her glass.
“I’m gettin’ buzzed, Jan. No more.” She glanced at her watch. “Oh, hell. It’s getting late. I’m sorry to have taken up so much of your time.”
“Ah, don’t worry about it. Are ya having fun, at least?”
“Oh, yeah!” She held up a picture. “Is this-?”
“Yeah. That’s Mika. Sweet kid. We both adored her.”
“Whatever happened to her? Did she make it to Chicago?”
“Sure did.” Jan snickered. “We delivered her to her uncle’s house, just like we promised her mother. My God, what a family that was! Big, noisy, and loving. It was a new experience for me, ’cause I never had anything like that. The dinner conversation was a combination of Greek, Yiddish and English. All at the same time.”
“So she settled in Chicago?”
“Yeah. We kept up a correspondence. A couple of years later, we attended her wedding. She said she took my advice about marriage.”
“Which piece of advice?”
“Who knows? Maybe both.” Jan cast a twinkling glance at Susan.
“What about her mother?”
Jan shrugged. “Never was heard from again. We can only suppose the worst: that she died during the war, a victim of the Holocaust.”
“And Gabrielle’s scrolls?”
“We put them into the temperature-and-humidity controlled archives at the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C. Our articles on the Gabrielle scrolls were published in the academic journals and started a firestorm of controversy. That, in turn, led to my first decent job as an associate professor.”
Susan lifted a photo and studied the black-and-white image. The hotel lobby, the intricately-patterned skirts, the two hands clasped, fingers interlaced; the bright, wide eyes, the energy and youth which radiated from the picture; after fifty-six years, it was still evident.
“Do you remember this?” Susan asked. “I mean, that night?”
“I remember it all,” Jan said. “Every breath, every whisper, every touch, every kiss. The softness of her skin, the scent of her perfume, the fire of her kisses, the music of her voice, soft in the night; yes, I recall it all like it was yesterday.”
“So a love like that is really possible?”
Jan smiled. “It happened to me. Oh, yeah. It’s possible.” She studied Susan’s face. “If you believe in the magic of the slow dance. Do you?”
“I haven’t.” Her expression grew warm. “Until now. Count me a convert.”
“Good girl.” Jan sat up. “Let me guess. Your boss told you not to come back without a signed contract, right? That’s why she sent you here. She must want it, otherwise she wouldn’t have spent the money on your trip. Okay, here’s the deal. I work only with you. You and I, we’ll put together a great book. And when it’s done, we share credits and royalties fifty-fifty, you and me. That’s my deal. For that, I’ll sign.”
Susan’s jaw dropped. “Me? I’m honored, but…me? I mean, why me?”
“Because you know the publishing business. You know what makes a book that will sell. You have passion. You love the story. You love Mel’s pictures. Your enthusiasm, the energy of your youth, your belief in this thing will give it wings. And,” Jan continued, “in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m older than dirt. I might not live to see it finished.”
“But Jan, you’re so healthy, so full of energy. Look at you. I bet you’ll live to be a hundred.”
“Don’t count on it. I get chest pains sometimes. Bad ones. And frankly, after eighty-one years, I’m tired of living.” She looked away, and her voice grew soft. “I just want to be with Mel.”
“You’re not afraid of death?” Susan asked.
Jan’s face creased into a warm smile. “Gabrielle told me once that death is merely the beginning of a grander adventure.” She paused and studied Susan’s inquisitive expression, then laughed. “And I figure it’s about time for another adventure. I’m getting bored.” She pointed at the pictures which lay piled on the coffee table. “So, are ya with me on this one?”
“You bet,” Susan said.
They stood, and Susan gathered her coat and satchel and slipped her shoes onto her feet. When they reached the front door, Jan paused. “When can you come back?”
“Tomorrow. I’ll have the amended contract by noontime.”
“See you then. You okay to drive?”
“Oh, yes. I’m okay, and the hotel’s ten minutes away.” They stood, wordlessly, at the door for a moment. Then, Susan impulsively hugged Jan. “I can see,” she said, “why Mel loved you so much.”
In reply, Jan assumed a shy smile, then shrugged. “I’m glad somebody can. Hell, I never could figure out what she saw in me.” She snickered. “Y’know, that was the only thing her mother and I ever agreed on.”
Susan laughed, then stepped outside. “Good night, Jan. Sleep well.”
“See you tomorrow.”
She stood in the door and watched Susan bounce down the stairs toward her car. Then, after she had driven away, Jan clicked off the porch light, locked the door and wandered down the hall of the cottage. She stopped in front of the fireplace mantle, flipped a switch, and clicked the clicker. A soft whoosh announced that the gas logs were lit, and she assumed her place in her rocking chair, in front of the flames. For a while, she rocked gently, studying the fire, then allowed her gaze to travel up to the mantle and the pictures which decorated it. The center one was a picture of Mel. Jan considered the details: the black hair, the wire-rimmed glasses which circled intelligent blue eyes, the oval, kindly face, the lop-sided grin, and she smiled painfully.
“One more job to do, Mel,” she said. “Then, I guess it’ll be about that time, huh?”
And with that, she closed her eyes and rested her head of white hair against the chair’s back. Warmed by the fire, she allowed herself to be lulled toward a restful sleep. And in the quiet of the evening, supplementing the slow creak of the rocker and the rustle of the gas flames, a whispered voice seemed to add the words, “Good night, cutie. I love you. And I’ll be waiting.”
When I began the historical research for this story, I was amazed at how eventful the years 1940 and 1941 were for Macedonia and for Greece. It made a wonderful, and horrifying, backdrop against which to write a story of romance. I tried to keep faith with the actual time line of historical events. Many of the events mentioned actually happened, such as the bombing of Piraeus harbor by the Germans, the explosion of a ship carrying a large quantity of nitroglycerine and the heroic defense of Thermopylae by New Zealand soldiers. The story of the young Greek soldier who leapt to his death from the Acropolis is factually unsure, but was widely repeated at the time. Italian warships, including submarines, did prowl the waters off the Greek coast during the time when Mel and Jan drove the coastal road to Athens.
Photographs of the time and place helped tremendously. The German Federal Archives held a treasure trove of photographs which, upon close study, revealed the Athens of 1941, including the presence of electric trams.
But one particular photograph which I stumbled upon struck me speechless. It is one of those timeless photographs which capture a moment so poignantly that it says more than a book of words could convey. It is the image, frozen in time, of a weeping, distraught young Greek Jewish woman, one of 1,860 awaiting deportation from the town of Ioannina to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Her name will never be known, but her eventual fate was certain and horrible. (Records suggest that only 163 of that group survived the war.) Her face and her anguish haunted me in my quiet moments and made me long to give her an identity and write her a happy ending. So I did. She became the inspiration for the character of Mika.
If you wish to view this haunting photograph, go online to:
Or go to http://www.wikipedia.org and call up the article on the Greek town of Ioannina. About halfway down the article, you’ll find her.
As always, thanks so much for reading my stories.
-djb, August, 2009
Continued in A Conversation with Gabrielle