The Tears Of A Goddess
by D. J. Belt
# 2 In The Mel and Janice series. Story time-line: This story is a sequel to my story The Tomb, and takes place a year later, or in June, 1947. It isn’t essential to read The Tomb first, though. Start here, if you like. So, get a cup of hot tea, snuggle down, and get ready for the further adventures of Janice and Melinda. Hold on to your warm, fuzzy socks, and here we go!
Janice Covington, professor of archaeology, leaned back in her worn office chair and propped her sock-covered feet up on the corner of the wooden desk. She rubbed her eyes a bit, then concentrated her attention back down upon the final examination lying open on her lap. Her red pencil hovered above the page, the blue lines of careful scribbling inviting her inspection. After a moment, she groaned and dropped the pencil onto her desk. Aloud and to no one in particular, she muttered, “I hate finals. Always have. Always will.” She creaked a desk drawer open and rummaged about inside, finding her tin of small cigarette-sized cigars. Lighting one, she clacked her Zippo shut and looked about her cramped office. Through the smoke which curled up in front of her, she noted the piles of books and artifacts which lined the walls, a reflection of a varied and tumultuous career.
Her eyes came to rest on the wall calender. June 2, 1947. Another academic year shot to hell, she mused. Her gaze then trailed down to the glass-fronted wooden case hanging on the wall. Aged parchment stared back out at her, the dark scrawls of ancient Greek still seeming to blaze with their own life. What would Gabrielle say to that, I wonder? She chuckled out loud as she imagined the ancient bard responding with a quizzical smile and some witty reply. Probably, ‘Back to work, you wayward child’. Yeah, yeah. Last final. Just get it done, Covington. She gulped down the last of her lukewarm coffee, took a drag on her smoke, and picked up the red pencil once again. Scanning over the paragraphs scrawled in neat cursive, she grunted approvingly. She flipped the exam book over to the cover and read the name of the student. Oh. Her. She always does well. She scribbled a few laudatory comments on the last page, noted the final grade on the front and dropped it on top of the stack of exam booklets on her desk.
Her eye trailed over the clutter on her desk to a picture, framed and sitting prominently on one side of the stack of final exams. She smiled slightly at the image it contained of a tall, dark-haired southern woman, warming to the brilliant grin which smiled back out at her. She could almost see the blue eyes in spite of the black and white hues of the picture. Mel, she thought. Be home soon. An impish idea struck her, and she picked up the receiver on the heavy black telephone and pressed a button. The department secretary answered.
“Hey, Virginia, you doing anything?”
“Naw, Doctor Covington. Whatcha need?”
“Do me a favor?”
The smacking of chewing gum echoed across the telephone. “Sure. Be right in.”
“Thanks.” She hung up the telephone, and a moment later, her office door opened. Virginia poked her head into the office, and Janice waved her in. She sauntered across the small space, standing next to the desk, her inquisitive eyes fixed on the archeologist and her jaw busily working over a wad of chewing gum.
“Virginia, would you do me a huge favor and transcribe these grades onto the name sheet, then submit ‘em?”
“Well, Doctor Covington, y’know that’s not my job.”
Janice leaned back in the chair and offered her most imploring look at the perky secretary. “Please, Virginia? Just this once? I’m going stir crazy in this damn rat’s cage. Got to get out of here.”
Virginia laughed brightly. “Well, sure. Only for you, Doc. You’re sweeter to me than those guys are.”
Janice grinned. “I’ll love ya forever.”
The secretary gathered up the stack of exams and the name sheet, then turned to head for the door. She looked back over her shoulder and teased, “Promises, promises.” As she reached the door, she stopped and turned about. “Oh, almost forgot. This came for you.” She walked back to the desk and held out a brown manila envelope. “From France. I swear, you got friends all over.”
Janice raised an eyebrow as she accepted the envelope. “France, eh? Who the hell would write me from there?”
“I dunno. Comes of being famous, I guess.”
“Yep, that’s me. A real celebrity. Thanks again, Virginia. You’re a sweetheart.”
She eyed Janice teasingly a moment more before she headed out the door. As she did, her voice was laughing in between smacks of gum. “Don’t let it get around, Doc. Everybody else around here thinks I’m a bitch.”
“Your secret’s safe with me.” As the pert secretary walked out the door, Janice watched the tight skirt disappear around the corner, then mentally chastised herself. Oh, yeah. Cute. Covington, you’re a dog. She grinned and shook her head. Not a chance. Six or eight years ago, maybe. Not now. Not since Mel came along. She stared down at the large folder, replete with addresses and large, colorful postage stamps. The return address piqued her curiosity. Mack MacKenzie? Now what in the blue hell is he doing in France? Wonder how he and Sallie are getting along? Aah, I’ll look at it when I get home. She dropped her feet to the floor and slipped on her worn boots, lacing them up. Opening her leather briefcase, she stuffed the envelope inside and threw her jacket over her arm. After she locked the door, she slipped out the nearby exit and bounced down the stone stairs. The June sun was warm and bright, and made her feel good to be alive and breathing. A few deep breaths, and she was astride her motorcycle and coasting down the shady cobbled pathways between the university’s ivy-covered brick buildings, heading toward the road. As the motor idled its deep, throaty purr, she paused at the grassy curb to look for traffic. Some shouts from the nearby windows reached her ears.
“Hey, Doctor Covington! Wind it out, will ya?”
“Yeah. Can that thing throw dirt?”
Janice looked up at the side of the building and saw several students leaning out the windows. She smiled jauntily, rummaged in her shirt pocket for her aviator’s sunglasses, snapped them open with a flick of her wrist, and popped them onto her face. She then gunned the motor, popped the clutch, and a geyser of dirt and grass flew up and into the air as she hopped over the curb and out into the street. The back tire squealed loudly when it hit the pavement, in counterpoint to the wild cheers and applause of the dormitory’s residents. As she pointed the machine down the street, she reveled in the feel of the motorcycle and laughed out loud. Guess I’ll get another nasty note from the grounds-keeping people. ‘Dear Dr. Covington: it has come to our attention that you have been riding your motorcycle on the grass yet again…..’ Ah, who cares? Mel, I’m coming home!
The ride home was not far, as she and Mel occupied a pleasant little cottage on a wide, shady street near the edge of the campus. After coasting the motorcycle to a stop in the garage, Jan killed the engine and lowered the kick-stand, collecting her coat and briefcase. She opened the door and clumped in through the kitchen, looking about at the interior of the sunlit room. Hmm! No Mel. She must be outside. Jan hung her coat in the closet and placed her leather briefcase on the kitchen table, then hesitated and picked it up again. She pulled out the brown manila envelope and examined it again briefly, then plopped it down on the kitchen counter as she opened the door of the white enameled refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of beer. After opening it and tossing the cap neatly across the room and into the trash, she tucked the envelope under her arm and wandered out into the back yard. She looked around the small square of grass and fence, finally spying Melinda’s form bent over the flowerbed which paralleled the back of the house. Janice wandered down the back stairs, Melinda looking up at the sound of her boots on the wood.
“Oh, Jan, glad to see you home. Mah goodness, ah have let the time get away.”
“Nah. I cut out a bit early.” She looked around at the flowers. “Mel, you have a way with things that grow, don’t you?”
“You would too, darlin’, if you would only have patience with them.”
“Are you kidding? The only thing I can grow is hair.”
Mel allowed a marvelous laugh, standing and offering Janice a welcoming hug and kiss. She then held the smaller woman at arm’s length. “Phew! I declare, Janice Covington! You smell like cigars, stale coffee and that musty ol’ office of yours. Go and take a bath before you kiss me again.”
Janice offered her an evil grin and a raised eyebrow. “Wanna join me?”
“Ah swear, you are incorrigible. Now go on. Ah’ll be in shortly. Ah still have just a bit to do here.”
Jan held out the beer bottle to Mel, who stood to her full height and gratefully accepted it. As she drank, Jan remembered the envelope under her arm and held it out. “Hey! Got something in the mail today from France, of all places.”
Mel lowered the bottle and eyed Janice. “France? Whoever is it from?”
“Take a guess. Go on, try.” Mel thought for a minute, then shrugged her shoulders. Jan prompted her. “Think of one very good historian. Think Greece, a year ago, when we opened Xena and Gabrielle’s tomb. Think slightly shell-shocked veteran.”
Mel’s face brightened. “Mack MacKenzie? That rascal! Ah wonder what he’s up to in France? Did he say?”
“Haven’t opened it yet.” Jan handed Mel the envelope. “Here, why don’t you look it over while I shower? Tell me about it.”
“Sounds delightful. Ah can finish this garden some other time, ah suppose.” She handed the beer bottle back to Jan and accepted the envelope. As Jan walked back up the stairs to the kitchen door, she saw Mel remove a glove and wipe her forehead with the back of her arm as she considered the large envelope and began to carefully tear it open.
Janice finished her shower and pulled the curtain back. As she reached for the towel, she noted that the towel bar was empty and cursed under her breath. Squeezing the water from her hair, she stepped out of the tall clawfoot tub and tiptoed gingerly out into the hall, opening the linen closet door and withdrawing a clean towel. Jeez. Getting water all over the floor. Mel’s gonna kill me, she thought as she looked down at her feet, a water puddle collecting around them. She Hurriedly dried her body and mopped up some of the puddle with the towel. As she stood, she peeked around the corner of the hallway into the living room, hoping that Mel wouldn’t see the mess that she had made. Melinda sat in the living room, examining the contents of the envelope, then rose to walk towards the hall. Oh, oh, caught again, Jan thought, and snuck quickly back into the bathroom, making a show of drying her hair and acting innocent. Melinda’s soft footsteps followed, and she could hear the smooth southern accent address her.
“Jan, do you have a magnifying glass?”
“Yeah, on my desk. I’ll get it for you.” She wrapped the towel around her body and disappeared into the bedroom, emerging a moment later with the instrument held out. Mel’s attention was riveted to the papers she held, and her expression was one of rapt fascination. The tall southerner accepted the glass and peered carefully at the papers, tilting them slightly so that she could fully use the soft sunlight which lit the hallway. She stood silently for several moments, tracking the glass across the papers in her hand, and then looked up at Jan with an odd, unreadable expression. Their eyes met, and they just stood in the hall for a second, Jan’s eyes questioning and Mel’s face puzzled. Finally, Mel turned and walked toward the kitchen muttering, “Ah think ah need a drink.”
“What? Mel Pappas needs a drink?” Jan watched her go, then looked down at the remnants of water on the hall floor. She didn’t even notice the water. What’s gotten into her? Jan followed her into the kitchen, standing in the door and watching Melinda pour a small glass of sherry. She left the bottle on the counter and sat down at the kitchen table, sipping the liquor and again examining the papers.
“Mel? Something wrong? Talk to me.”
“Ah don’t quite know how to explain this, Janice. It’s…….just so odd.”
“What? What’s so odd, fer cryin’ out loud?”
“Come over here and look at this photograph, will you?”
Janice, still wrapped in her bath towel, padded over to the kitchen table, her expression now one of intense curiosity mixed with concern. Mel handed her a handwritten note. “You’d better read this first. It’s from Mack.” Janice picked up the note and perused the writing. It read:
Greetings from sunny France. Sallie and I are here working on her doctoral research and have stumbled onto something that may interest you greatly. I have enclosed a photograph of the document for your study. Mel, if you would translate it for me, I would be deeply grateful. I don’t seem to trust my own eyes. Jan, if you could shed any light on this from your own knowledge of the Xena legends, I could use the insight. I’ll try to call you transatlantic on the phone in a couple of days.
Thanks and take care,
Jan tossed the note back onto the kitchen table and leaned over Mel’s shoulder. She held a ten-by-twelve inch photograph of a parchment document laced with old-style Greek characters. The script looked somehow vaguely familiar, but Jan couldn’t see it clearly enough to make out the individual letters. Unable to contain her curiosity any longer, she rested a hand on Mel’s shoulder and questioned her.
“So what have we got there?”
Mel looked up. “It appears to be a personal letter, written in old Greek.”
“An, um, very personal letter. Ah would say a love letter.”
Jan raised an eyebrow and smiled. “Juicy, huh?”
“Not so much that. It’s more…….wistful, touching.”
“So who’s it to? Is anyone naming names?”
“The object of the letter is someone named, um, Sappho.”
Jan stood erect, her mouth dropping open. “Holy crap! Not Sappho of Mytilene?”
“It would appear so.”
“Do you realize how significant this is, Mel? I mean, if that’s authentic, that is an incredible find.”
Jan nodded, her eyes wide. “You bet!. Jeez, I can’t believe this!” Jan’s expression then clouded. “But what the hell is a love letter to Sappho doing in France? That’s bizarre. It makes me question the authenticity of the thing. Probably just some horny medieval monk letting his imagination run wild and forging documents.”
“Was Sappho really that important an historical figure?”
Jan pulled out a chair and sat down at the table across from Mel. “Don’t you remember your history, Mel?”
“Ah’m afraid ah’m ignorant of the details, Jan. Ah must have slept through that lecture.”
“Look. Sappho was an incredible influence on Greek poetry. Her fame was enormous, so much so that two hundred years after her death Plato referred to her as ‘the tenth muse’.”
“If she’s that famous, why haven’t ah seen more reference to her in mah own work?”
Jan waved a hand and spoke very animatedly now, allowing herself to warm to her subject. “Only scraps remain of her work. Very little of her personal life is known. I have a suspicion that when the Church came to power in Europe, they probably squashed her writings.”
Jan scratched her head, looking up at Mel. “Much of it was of a very intimate nature, and the subject of her poetry was often her, um, fascination with other women.”
Mel raised an eyebrow. “Ah see. Well. We can certainly understand how the Church would frown upon that, ah suppose. We’ve been the subject of some brutal criticism ourselves.”
Jan leaned back in her chair. “That’s for sure. So, anyway, if this is authentic, it would be an incredible find. Somehow, it just smells fishy to me, though. A letter to Sappho, found in France? Baloney. It’s got to be a forgery. I hope that Mack doesn’t get his hopes up too much.” She rose and walked toward the hall, readjusting her towel around her. “Forgeries happen all the time.”
Mel watched her go, hesitated, and then spoke. “Ah don’t think that it’s a forgery, Jan.”
Janice stopped in mid-kitchen and turned towards Mel. “What? Why?”
“Because of the syntax, the alphabet, the phrasing, all of it. It’s too perfect.”
“Aah, Mel. I’ve seen some great forgeries.”
“Besides, ah recognize the hand.”
Jan stared at Mel. She could see that her friend’s expression was one of earnest seriousness. “You do?”
“Yes. Ah’ve translated this person’s work before.” She rose and walked over to Jan, holding out the photograph and the magnifying glass. “Look here, darlin’, see this? She always put this little flourish on that letter. This phrase, here? All the time. And this word? She could never spell that word right.”
“So….. who wrote the love letter to Sappho?”
Janice’s mouth fell open. She stood frozen in the middle of the kitchen for a moment, then finally found her power of speech. “You’re kidding me!”
“Ah am serious, Jan. And ah’ll tell you something else ah’m serious about. If you don’t wipe up that water from the hall, you’re gonna be history.”
“Yeah. Right. I’m on it, Mel.” Jan beat a hasty retreat out of the kitchen, muttering to herself as she disappeared around the corner. “Gabrielle? I’ll be damned. This is weird.”
Melinda watched her go, shaking her head and allowing a broad grin at the sight. Janice Covington, she thought, you are absolutely the cutest thing on two legs. She placed the photograph and the magnifying glass down on the table and tiptoed around the corner, peeking down the hall to see Janice on her hands and knees, finishing the drying of the floor with her towel. Jan looked up to see Mel standing over her. With an embarrassed expression, she stood erect.
“Sorry. Think I got it all, Mel.”
“You most certainly do have it all. C’mere.” Mel grasped Janice by the hand and led her down the hall toward the bedroom, Janice’s laughter echoing through the hall. Just before the bedroom door closed behind them, a wet towel flew out into the hallway and landed with a splat on the floor.
“Damn, Mel, what’s gotten into you? You’re gonna have to start translating more love letters.”
Mack Mackenzie stood behind the wire fence at the Paris airport, his arms folded across his chest and his foot impatiently tapping. He hated waiting, but supposed that his nervous energy was more from the exciting prospect of seeing his two old friends again than his impatience. He lit a cigarette and pondered the events of the last few days, willing himself to relax and accept the inevitable wait.
Good old Jan, Mack thought. Never could pass up a great puzzle. Glad I could talk them into coming here. He laughed a bit at the next thought. Hell, they just about fell all over themselves to get out here. I thought that letter would do the trick. I’ll be glad to have their help, too. With them here, we’ve got the perfect team. Sallie’s great with Latin. Jan is the foremost authority on the Xena legends, and Mel, well……..no one can do Greek like she can. I’m loving it.
A gendarme tapped Mack on the shoulder, then pointed to a “no smoking” sign on the fence. Mack looked a bit sheepish, dropped the cigarette to the ground and stepped on it. “Sorry.”
The gendarme tilted his head back slightly, looking at Mack down his nose. “Americaine?” Mack nodded. “Ah. Dot explainz eet.” He then walked off, his hands behind his back. Mack pushed his fedora hat back on his head and scratched his chin. Huh? Oh, well. He turned his attention back to the distant runway and watched a large Pan American airliner taxi slowly towards the customs building. He looked at his wristwatch. Yup. That’ll be them. As the crowd around him began moving towards the building, he allowed himself to be carried along. Scrunched into the crowd, Mack endured more waiting until the passengers had cleared customs, and then craned his neck over other heads, working his way to the front of the crowd. Finally, he spotted Janice and Melinda emerging from the customs area into the large central room, each carrying a suitcase. He wiggled through the front line of the crowd and offered a wave and a shout. “Jan! Mel! Here!”
The two women’s tired faces brightened when they saw Mack. They approached him and dropped their bags to offer a greeting. Mack embraced each one warmly, then picked up their bags and nodded to the side with his head. “That way. Got a car.” As they emerged from the building and walked towards a parking area, Janice was first to speak.
“Thanks for picking us up, Mack.”
“Hey, thanks for coming.” He smiled broadly as he carried the two suitcases and looked over at Jan. She answered with a shrug and a squeeze of Melinda’s hand.
“No problem. How could we say ‘no’ to a French vacation?”
“Yeah. Know what you mean. Beautiful country, even in spite of what the war did to it.”
“I thought Paris was spared damage.”
“Yeah, but some of the surrounding countryside is still pretty torn up. Well, here we are.”
Both Janice and Melinda gasped as they looked at the touring car in front of them. It was slightly battered, but showed traces of former opulence. Polished metal, leather interior and wood trim gleamed in the sun. Mack’s eyes twinkled as he noticed their expressions. He unlocked the trunk, hefted the two suitcases, and put them inside. As he closed it, he raised an eyebrow. “You two don’t travel light anymore, do you?”
Jan shrugged. “Hey! It’s France, not some backwoods shit-hole. We had to bring a change of decent clothes.”
Melinda joined in. “That’s right, Mack. Ah made Jan buy an outfit just for the occasion.” She grinned. “After all, you and Sallie did promise to show us Paris.”
Mack eyed his old friend, still in scruffy chino pants and her leather jacket, then turned to Mel. “What? You think you’re gonna get Jan into a dress?”
Both women laughed. Melinda finished her thought with, “Ah’m not a miracle worker, Mack. It’s a suit with slacks.”
Jan cut the conversation short. “Okay, okay, so I’m a slob.” She pointed to the car. “Pretty fancy wheels ya got there, Mack. Who’d you sleep with to get that?”
Mack grinned and walked around to the passenger side with the two women. “It belongs to the chateau where we’re living and working. Long story. Tell you about it as we go there.”
He opened the rear door and Melinda slid into the back seat. As he opened the front door, he noticed Jan standing with her hand held out and the largest puppy-dog eyes he had ever seen peering out at him from under the brim of her dark-green fedora. They traded silent glances for a moment, then Mack relented and dropped the car keys into the outstretched palm. “Oh, all right. Just don’t wreck it, will ya?”
Jan’s face stretched out into a beaming grin. “Thanks. No problem. You’ve seen me drive before.” She scurried around to the driver’s seat and settled in. Mack shook his head and took his place in the front passenger seat.
“Yeah. That’s what worries me.”
Jan let out a good-natured chuckle. “Wise-ass,” she muttered, as she stuck the key into the ignition, turned it, and looked down at the floor. She placed her foot on the starter button, and the engine turned over a few times and roared into life. “Oh, yeah. Love it.” She fiddled with the choke a bit, and the car backfired loudly. Mack ducked down onto the floorboards, his hand on his hat, a colorful expletive trailing behind him. After a moment, he looked up at the two faces peering down at him.
“Sorry. The war, y’know. Old habits die hard.”
As he resumed his place on the front seat, his pride slightly ruffled, Janice just reached out and patted his leg softly. “It’s okay, Mack. It’s okay.” She adjusted the choke all the way down, and looked over at him. “Show me the way to go home.”
The drive took them away from Paris and into the surrounding countryside. The June sun had made the rolling hills a deep green, and the land seemed to pulse with life as cattle and sheep grazed and were occasionally herded along the roads by farm families. From the comfort of the back seat, Melinda kept a watch on the countryside as she absent-mindedly half-listened to Mack offer directions to Janice. She could see how nature quickly reclaimed what she owned from the destructive hand of man, as they occasionally passed the ruins of houses or the burned-out shell of an American or German tank sitting by the side of the road, vegetation beginning to surround it and wind its way through broken treads and up the blackened metal sides. She brought her mind back to sharp focus, however, as she heard Mack begin to unfold the story of the discovery of the letter and the circumstances surrounding it.
Sallie, he explained, had decided to concentrate her doctoral research on the survival of Greco-Roman literature through Europe’s Middle Ages, and their travels had taken them to some of the museums in Paris. While there, they were guided to an old monastery outside of Paris, one which had housed some monk-scholars who had endeavored to preserve such works and translate the Greek ones into Latin. The search for the monastery was difficult, but its location was finally discovered just outside of the village towards which they were headed. It had been neglected, and sometime in the seventeenth century, a chateau had been built over its foundations by a wealthy country count. The chateau still stood and for centuries had been occupied by descendants of the count’s family, except for a couple of years at the latter part of the recent war. The countess who had then owned the property had been arrested by the Gestapo, taken away and was never heard from again.
Melinda leaned forward and placed a hand on Mack’s shoulder. “So who owns it now?”
“Her brother. He’s a lawyer, and is taking over the property. He has some passing interest in the preservation of history, and so is letting us have access to the basement regions for our research.” Mack snorted and continued, “Although I suspect that his interest is more financial than historical. I think that he hopes to make some money from all this.”
“The basement was part of the old monastery?”
“Yeah. You can gain access through the chateau. Some manuscripts were discovered there, and Sallie is busy examining them. The Latin ones, that is.”
Janice looked over at Mack. “You mean that there’s Greek manuscripts in there, too?”
“Yep. The photograph I sent you was only one.” Mack cast a glance at Jan. “Did you find it interesting, oh esteemed Xena scholar?”
“Are you kidding? I just about dropped my teeth. I’m getting to the bottom of this little mystery.”
Mack nodded, a mischievous grin on his face. “I’ll bet.” He pointed to a hillside chateau in the distance. “That’s our home for the next bit of time. Take the next right, will you?”
Before long, the car coasted to a stop within the walled courtyard of the chateau. An old man with a beaming smile approached, and Janice reckoned that he was the keeper of the grounds and the vehicle. She tossed him the keys as Mack opened the trunk, and pointed at the car with a thumb. “Primo! Magnifique!”
The old man smiled and nodded, “Oui!”, then pulled a cloth from his back pocket and rubbed a spot on the finish which was smudged. Mack lifted the two suitcases from the trunk and called to the two women, “This way. You get the honeymoon suite, you two.”
Melinda offered a bright look, then a beaming grin at Janice. “Ah declare! The honeymoon suite in a French chateau! What a dream!”
Janice held out her arm, tilted her hat low over her eyes, and affected her best Bogart imitation. “Stick with me, kid, and I’ll show ya the world!” Mel took the offered arm, and they followed Mack into the chateau.
Janice had insisted, despite their exhaustion from the long trip, on a cursory inspection of the basement where the research had been going on. The trip down the winding stone steps into the dim basements seemed to take them centuries back in time, as the stone construction changed and aged to Janice’s expert eye. At the bottom, a joyful reunion with Sallie showed her to be up to her neck in musty manuscripts and copious notes. When she saw Janice and Mel, she bounded around the desk with the enthusiasm of a child, her unruly mop of dark hair flying and her large brown eyes sparkling. After a round of hugs to all and a kiss for Mack, she explained briefly the progress that she was making and suggested that they all retire upstairs and clean up for dinner. Their host, Monsieur Venete, would be there this evening, she explained, and he wished them all as his dinner guests. The attire was to be very informal; he seemed not to stand on pretense.
Janice had to be cajoled away from the manuscripts, so intent was she on getting to work immediately. Melinda, too, harbored such deep excitement about the untold gems contained in the old parchments that a compromise was finally reached: Melinda could take a few of the Greek documents to her room to work upon them later in the evening, if she wished. The myriad Latin writings were Sallie’s domain, as she held the greatest fluency in Latin among the four of them.
In their room, Mel placed the aged parchments down carefully upon the table, a cloth protecting them. She promised Jan that they would peruse them later, if they were not too exhausted, and they hurriedly showered and changed into clean, albeit very casual, clothes for dinner. As they were finishing, Mack and Sallie knocked upon their door and the four old friends wandered down to the main dining room to meet their host and dine.
Much of the chateau was empty, its former glory fading from age and recent disuse, but the main dining room was large and friendly. A fire burned in a hearth and the table was set for five, a pleasant female servant offering them the large, comfortable chairs by the fire and a glass of wine. She explained in her halting English that their host would be along momentarily.
As the four reminisced by the fireplace and bided their time, they heard a voice address them from several yards away.
“Ah, forgive me. I fear that business has detained me. Doctor MacKenzie, perhaps you will be kind enough to make introductions?”
The four faced the voice, and Mel and Jan caught their first glimpse of their host. He appeared tall and somewhat aloof but offered grace in his manner. His eyes were deep and appeared extremely intelligent. He was dressed casually, but neatly.
Mack offered his hand, and the man took it. “Of course, Monsieur Venete. Allow me to introduce my colleagues.” He brought the man into the circle by the fire and gestured toward each person in turn. “You already know Miss Sallie Rosen, of course.”
“Yes, of course. Glad to see you again.” Sallie nodded pleasantly.
“Monsieur Venete, Doctor Janice Covington.” Jan offered out her hand, and the man bowed slightly as he took it.
“I am honored, and deeply so.”
“Likewise. I’m really grateful to you for putting us up and allowing us access to your basements.”
“Not at all, Doctor Covington.”
Mack next gestured toward Mel. “Miss Melinda Pappas.”
“Ah, yes.” He took her offered hand. “Honored, mademoiselle.”
“Ah’m very pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“A most delightful and charming accent. From the southern United States, I believe?”
“Of course.” He peered at her deeply for a moment, then released her hand and waved his guests toward the table. “I understand that the two of you have had a long flight. You must be hungry. Shall we sit?”
The host stood at the chair by the head of the table and waited until his guests had seated themselves, Mel and Jan on one side, Sallie and Mack on the other. He then sat and offered out a bottle of wine, from which he filled all his guests’ glasses and then his own. As he did so, he began a pleasant banter of small talk. Once the glasses were filled, he offered a toast.
“To your success in your research.”
Dinner was simple fare, but well-prepared. The guests ate with gusto and offered lively conversation as the host asked questions and nodded in understanding at their answers about a variety of topics. Finally, he came to the topic of their research.
“So, I understand that the manuscripts contained in my basements are of some deep significance?”
Mack answered. “Yes. Are you aware of the history of the monastery which underlies your chateau?”
He shook his head. “I must confess my ignorance. You see, I have only recently come into ownership of this property. It was occupied by my, ah, sister. She held hereditary title of countess, and deed to the chateau which accompanied it.”
Melinda leaned forward slightly. “Ah hear that she disappeared during the war.”
He nodded. “Yes. You see, she led a very dangerous double life during the recent occupation of our country by the Germans. She would entertain, from time to time, groups of German officers here, in this room which we now occupy. At the same time, she would offer the basements to shelter from those same Germans certain, ah, fugitives which were being rounded up for deportation to the now infamous concentration camps.”
Sallie spoke softly. “Jews.” Mack reached under the table and placed a reassuring hand on her leg. Monsieur Venete nodded.
“Yes, Miss Rosen. Jews, and anyone else who was deemed an enemy of the Reich.”
Janice joined the conversation. “It must have all fallen apart on her, then?”
“Yes. She was betrayed to the Gestapo and arrested. They took her, presumably to the same fate as those to whom she offered shelter.”
“You don’t know?”
“I do not know. No one has ever seen her since then. I searched for her after the war ended, but to no avail. She simply disappeared, presumably in one of the camps. I have only recently had her legally declared dead.”
Mack studied his host. “Any idea who betrayed her?”
He shook his head. “It could have been anyone. France, in those days, was a dangerous place to live.” He looked around the table. “I have made the dinner conversation much too somber, I think. Let me change the subject. Doctor MacKenzie, you were about to tell me of the history of my basements. Please educate me.”
“Well, interesting story, actually. It seems that your chateau was built over the foundation and basements of a medieval monastery. The monks who dwelt here contained a certain number of scholars among them who reveled in Greek and Roman literature. They collected it, stored it, translated it.”
“I see. And from where did they acquire these treasures?”
“The Crusades, probably. The Frankish armies which marched towards the middle east looted everything of value that they could return with. Monks traveled with the armies. They were about the only educated men of the day, as even many of the nobles were illiterate. Therefore, they would be the only ones who appreciated such things.”
“So, monks looted these writings?”
Mack grinned. “That’s my guess. They collected them here, along with monk-scholars who were versed in reading classical Greek text. They kept them, translated them, stored them.”
“But they did not make this common knowledge?”
“Nah. Many of the writings were frowned upon by the Church. If it was common knowledge that they existed, they might have been confiscated.”
“Forgive me, I do not follow. Confiscated?”
Janice joined in the conversation now. “Yeah. Many Greek and Roman stories, poems, legends, and so on were quite earthy. They dealt with subject matter that the Church officials would censure: the celebration of pagan gods, blatantly promiscuous sex, drunkenness, and so forth.”
“Ah, I see. Miss Rosen, have you found such writings among those you have studied?” He looked in Sallie’s direction.
“Oh, yes. I have reason to believe that among the documents in your basements are contained some incredibly significant pieces of writing.”
Sallie looked around the table. “Original writings of famous Greek poets, for example.”
“Well, you’ll forgive me. I don’t read Greek, but I have found many Greek documents along with Latin transcriptions in medieval style of the works of Alcaeus, Homer, and Sappho. I suspect that the original documents in Greek, perhaps in the authors’ own hands, are among the writings I found downstairs. Mack reads Greek moderately, and he believes that is what they are.”
“You are sure?”
Mack looked at the host. “Not completely. Forgeries are a common problem in historical research. That’s where Mel comes in.”
“You, Miss Pappas, can determine if these documents are authentic?”
Mel answered, “Well, some of them. Ah have translated original works of a few poets. Ah can recognize their hand, perhaps, or at least render some hopefully accurate translations.”
“And you have found authentic writings?”
“Yes. A letter in the hand of Gabrielle of Potidaea. Ah believe it is authentic.”
Venete leaned forward. “Who?”
Jan answered, “The author of the Xena scrolls.”
“Ah, yes. I recall reading of these Xena legends in the newspapers. The four of you actually proved the existence of this Xena and her comrade last year, am I right? Now I comprehend why you are here, Doctor Covington. This must hold exciting implications for you, eh?”
“You have no idea.”
“And ah, these documents would, if authentic, be virtually priceless, would they not?”
“Priceless to history. What such a thing is actually worth is whatever someone is willing to pay for it. Museums, however, can’t afford the money that some private collectors would probably offer.”
Venete leaned back in his chair and cast a searching eye around the table. Finally, he smiled slightly. “Indeed. Well, then. Let us continue to guard the secret of their existence for the time being. After all, the world is full of greedy and unprincipled people.”
Later that night, Mack stood on the large balcony which swept around the side of the chateau and onto which opened the room that he and Sallie occupied. He stood and silently pondered the glow of Paris in the distance as he finished a glass of wine. A soft hand wound itself around his waist, and he looked over his shoulder to see Sallie behind him. Her large brown eyes seemed to twinkle of their own light as she addressed him.
“Hey, mister. What’s up? What are you doing out here, all by yourself?”
Mack smiled. “Just thinking.”
Mack hugged her close and teased, “How come you gals always want to know that?”
“It’s our business.” She tapped his forehead with a finger. “Anytime anything goes on up there, we want to know about it.”
Footsteps echoed from the distant side of the balcony and Jan approached, the tip of her smoke glowing in the night. “Hey, you two! Looks like we share the same balcony. Not interrupting anything, am I? Do I need to get lost?”
Mack laughed, “No, Jan. Come and join us.”
Jan sauntered over to the balcony rail next to the couple. “Nice digs, huh?”
“I’ll say. The room is magnificent. The view is even better in the daytime.”
Jan nodded. “Yup. Echos of ages long gone. It really was good to be a countess, eh?”
Mack laughed. “I suppose.” Then he looked at Jan. “Say, what did you think of that letter I sent you?”
“It floored me, Mack. Do you actually know what that was?”
“Yeah. It was a love letter from Gabrielle to Sappho of Mytilene. My question is, was it authentic? The fact that you two are here right now says that it was.”
“Mel is convinced. That’s good enough for me.”
Sallie leaned around Mack and looked at Jan. “Well, as the foremost Xena scholar in the world, you will be glad to know that there’s more down there.”
Jan felt her jaw slacken just a bit. “More? How much more?”
“There’s a fair number of Greek documents down there, Doctor Covington. If my Latin transcriptions are any indication, you’re going to be up to your ears in what could possibly be some personal papers of Sappho.” She paused for a moment, and then added, “And, it would seem, Gabrielle.”
Jan nodded. “So it would seem.” She took a drag on her smoke, then flipped it over the balcony’s edge. “Say, did that letter you sent me have a Latin translation?”
“Don’t think so. Haven’t found one yet, anyway.”
“Hmm. Interesting. Well, got to hit the sack. Exhausted. Long day tomorrow.”
“Goodnight, Doctor Covington.”
Jan smiled at the couple. “Call me Jan, Sallie.”
Sallie beamed, and Mack winked at Jan as she turned and walked slowly back around the corner, heading toward the room that she and Mel shared. When she entered and shut the balcony door, she noticed that Mel had wrapped herself in a bathrobe and was sitting at the table, perusing some of the ancient documents. Jan headed for the bathroom, giving Mel a gentle squeeze on the shoulder as she passed. “Better get some sleep, Mel. We’ve got tomorrow to get into this puzzle.”
“Yes. Ah’ll be in bed shortly.”
When Jan emerged from the bathroom, scrubbed and her hair loosed from her perpetual pony-tail, she noted that the lights were out and Mel had retired. Jan undressed to her underpants, rummaging in her suitcase for a T-shirt and slipping it over her body. As she turned to head to the bed, she stopped, then went back to her suitcase. She reached down under the clothing and brought out her revolver. Quietly breaking it open, she loaded five cartridges, leaving the one under the hammer empty. She softly clicked it shut, then tiptoed over to their bed and stuffed it under the pile of pillows on her side. She slid into the bed and pulled the covers up and over her, nestling in behind Mel, who was lying still with her back toward Jan. Mel’s gentle drawl softly broke the silence.
“Janice, dear, must you bring a loaded gun to bed? One day, you’ll blow off an ear or something.”
Jan chuckled. “Relax, Mel. The chamber under the hammer’s empty. Besides, it’s pointed away from that gorgeous head of yours. It’s just force of habit, I suppose. I sleep easier that way.”
“Ah know that you have stayed in some very unsavory places, Jan. Ah suppose ah understand. You can relax here, though. What can happen here?”
“Yeah. Guess you’re right. What can happen here?” She reached under the pillow and pulled the revolver out, opening the night stand next to her side of the bed and placing the gun in the drawer. “There. Feel better?”
“Much. Thank you.”
Jan once again snuggled against the taller woman’s body, wiggling a bit to settle in. When she stilled herself, she whispered, “G’night, gorgeous. See you in the morning.”
“G’night, Janice. Ah love you.”
“Love you, too.” Several seconds of silence passed, then Jan’s voice broke the silence. “Jesus Christ, Mel, your feet are cold!”
During the night, Janice’s eyes flickered open. Mel was sleeping soundly, a barely audible snore emanating from her in the darkness. Jan lay still for a few seconds, blinking in the dark. She wondered what had awakened her, and attempted a mental checklist. Gotta pee? Nah. Arm asleep? Nah. Wait a minute. There’s a light on in the room. What the hell? Jan felt herself awaken a bit more, and lifted her head from the pillows to discern the origin of the soft silver hues which partially lit the room. When she did so, she felt the hair stand up on the back of her neck and her breath catch. The gentle glow emanated from the direction of the table where Mel had been sitting earlier, studying the manuscripts. A form sat at the table, head bowed slightly, lost in reading. Janice felt her heart skip a beat and then pound fiercely in her ears and chest. She instantly became fully awake and very slowly, very quietly slipped her arm away from Mel’s body and sat up in the bed. Scarcely daring to breathe, she blinked a few times and studied the form at the table.
It was a woman, lost in reading the ancient manuscripts. She appeared elegant and graceful, luxurious light-colored hair bound up on the back of her head and body draped in folds of cloth. The silver hue which lit the darkness just about her seemed to derive from her own body. Her arms were bare to the shoulders, and Janice noted an ornate band of jewelry about her upper arm. The cloth about her cascaded to just above her ankles, and sandaled feet rested on the floor. Janice had no idea for how long she just sat motionless in bed and stared at the strange sight; it could have been seconds, or it could have been minutes. Finally, the figure raised its head and turned to look directly at Janice. As it did so, Janice once again felt the hair rise on the nape of her neck and her forearms. The face was hauntingly beautiful, agelessly perfect, it seemed. It’s expression was painfully sad and very tender at the same time. In spite of her fear, Janice forced herself to sit very still and meet its gaze. The light eyes glistened, and Jan thought that she could perceive the tracks of some tears on its face. After a bit, it smiled slightly, raised a graceful hand and gave a slight wave through the air in front of it. The figure disappeared instantly, its light vanishing with it.
Jan shook her head again. What the hell was that? Did I just imagine that? For crying out loud, what just happened? She took a few deep breaths and willed her pounding heart to settle in her chest. She looked over at Mel; her mate was still deeply asleep. I should have awakened Mel. She sat still for a moment. Nah. No sense scaring her half to death. Jan gently slipped from the bed, standing on the cool floor. She walked over to the table, but could see no detail of the table’s contents in the darkness. Shaking her head, she slipped into the bathroom and closed the door. She clicked on the light and stared into the mirror over the sink. Her own face stared back, blonde hair hanging loosely about her face, eyes lined and puzzled. Jesus, Covington. Are you losin’ your marbles? Get a grip on yourself. Was that for real? Yeah. It was for real. Think! Who in the hell could that have been? She turned the handles on the faucet, ran some water, and washed her face. As she did, she could hear her own mind racing. Who? Listen to me, sounding like I see this shit every day. She lifted her gaze to the mirror again. Her own image stared back, dripping water. I have to admit, I have seen some pretty weird stuff in my time. I’ll find an answer. Those documents. They tell the story, I’ll bet. She was reading the documents. Tomorrow, I’ll read ‘em as well. The answer is there. Whoever you are, I’m gonna figure you out.
She dried her face and hands and clicked off the light. Slowly, she opened the door and slipped back into the bed, easing down next to Mel. Janice lay on her back, staring into the darkness toward the ceiling, her hands clasped behind her head. As she lay so, she felt Mel stir and turn to face her. A soft mumble came from the southerner. Jan could feel Melinda’s arm drape itself across her torso and pull their bodies closer together. Mel’s head nestled itself on Janice’s arm, close to her own face, and she felt the body of her friend cease its stirring and return to its slow, regular breathing of slumber. Janice turned her head slightly and placed a gentle kiss on the forehead so near her face. In the darkness, she could almost imagine a slight smile creep across Mel’s sleeping features. Jan inhaled the pleasant fragrance of her love’s hair and perfume and closed her eyes, willing herself to calm her racing thoughts and sleep while the night was still in effect. After a bit, her body relaxed and the feel of reassurance at the closeness of Mel’s presence offered her a gentle haven into which she drifted into her own restful oblivion.
“Jan? Jan? Did you hear anything ah said? Mah goodness, you are in your own world, aren’t you?”
Janice started, raising her eyes up from the cup of coffee in front of her. “Huh?” She looked around the table; three other sets of eyes regarded her with some amusement. Sallie just giggled, but Mack rose to her defense.
“Don’t be hard on her, Mel. She’s probably still thinking about that letter. Jan’s like a bloodhound when she gets a scent.”
“Ah’ll say. Jan, we were just speculating about Gabrielle and Sappho. What do you think?”
Jan sipped her coffee and shrugged. “So Gabrielle had a fling. Uncharacteristic of the bard I know, but then I suppose that she’s only human.”
Mack looked at Jan and questioned, “So did you have any inkling of this from the Xena scrolls?”
“No. Total surprise to me.”
Sallie chuckled and added, “Small wonder. Those writings chronicled her life with Xena. She wouldn’t have mentioned a liaison with someone else in them.”
Janice raised an eyebrow. “She mentioned her marriage.”
Mack and Sallie eyed each other, then turned their attention back to Jan. Sallie spoke for both of them. “She was married?”
“Yeah, early in their association. It was very short. Her husband was killed by one of Xena’s arch enemies. Since that, there was no mention of anyone else…….except Xena, of course.”
Mack scratched his chin contemplatively. “Huh. Interesting. Well, we’re not answering any questions sitting here. Let’s get to work, hey?”
They all rose from the table and headed towards the stairs leading down into the basements. As they carefully descended the long stone steps, Jan noticed that Mel was clutching the cloth containing the aged documents from the evening before against her chest. They finally arrived in the basements, clicking light switches to illuminate the musty chambers.
Sallie briefed the other three on the progress of her work and her organization of the many documents through which she had been sifting. The Greek writings had been separated from the Latin ones, and Sallie suggested that Mel and Janice might concentrate on offering a cursory translation of the Greek ones and assemble them into some sort of order. They cleared off a corner of a table, and proceeded to spread the ancient writings out and mull through them. Janice was insistent on attempting to separate out any writings which bore Gabrielle’s distinctive hand from those which did not. Mack, for his part, took charge of photographing every document brought to him, explaining that their agreement with Venete was that the writings could be photographed, but never removed from the confines of the chateau.
The work proceeded rather silently and with dogged determination, and by mid-morning the organization and cataloging of the works were in good order. Mel pulled her hair back and tied it, then sat cross-legged on a chair and bowed over the Greek documents one by one, swiftly scratching out a cursory translation on a yellow legal pad. Janice, too, perused a document and attempted her own translations, albeit a bit more slowly then Mel’s quick hand. She gazed down at the Greek lettering characteristic of the bard Gabrielle and read, feeling centuries peel away and allowing herself to be transported back in time to the rolling hills and fields of old Greece. Her concentration was interrupted by a puzzled grunt from Mel.
“Jan? This is odd.”
“This is one of the documents which ah had in the room last night. Ah could swear that yesterday, it was in excellent condition. Today, however, ah see that there is evidence of water stains on it.”
“Why, yes. Here. Just a few drops, but they seem still damp. You didn’t spill anything on them, did you?”
“No.” She rose and walked around the table to peer over Melinda’s shoulder. “Show me.”
“Right here. See, a few drops. They have smeared a few of the characters.” She gently dabbed at it with a finger. “It still feels damp.”
Jan stood erect. A memory of the night before flashed through her mind. The figure, sitting at the table and reading the documents. There were tears on her face. Good lord. It did happen. It wasn’t just a dream. Jan looked down at Mel. “What is the subject of that document, Mel?”
“It is in a hand that ah don’t recognize. The poetry, however, is exquisite. It seems to be an expression of deep affection for someone.”
“It doesn’t say.”
“Yes. There is something fascinating about it, however. It is constructed very carefully, in four-line groups. Each line seems to have the same number of syllables except for the last line, which is shorter. Ah have seen similar poetry before.”
“Sapphics.” It was Mack’s voice which interrupted. “That form of Greek poetry is known as ‘Sapphics’, after their originator.”
Jan and Mel looked at him. “Sappho, eh? Did anyone else use that?”
“Yeah. I think Theocritus was deeply influenced by her work.”
Mel became animated. “That’s where ah’ve seen it before.”
“So it doesn’t prove that Sappho wrote this?”
Mack grinned. “It doesn’t prove that she didn’t, now does it?”
Jan cracked a grin. “That’s Mack. What an optimist.”
“This is not Theocritus’ hand. Ah have seen his before. Anyway, would her signature here prove it?” Mel pointed to the bottom of the page.
“What?” Jan stared at the signature, and Mack walked over to offer a glance down at the page.
Mel looked up at them. “There. Sappho of Mytilene. It’s dated, as well.”
“Holy crap!” Jan could feel herself thrill inwardly. She studied the date, then mentally calculated. “Yep, the date works. Sappho was in the latter part of her life then.”
Mack straightened up. “How about Xena and Gabrielle?”
Janice thought, then spoke. “Xena was dead. Gabrielle, however, was still alive.” She puzzled a moment, then looked at Mack. “What are you getting at?”
Mack’s eyes twinkled. “Nothing, I guess. Hey Mel, can you read it for us?”
“Well, ah suppose so. It will be very rough, you understand?”
Sallie bounded over to the group from her corner of the basements. “Hang on, you guys! I want to hear this, too.”
Melinda cleared her throat, then slowly, carefully began to translate the poetry aloud. She kept her place with a pencil point hovering above the parchment.
How I long to see your eyes smile so for me
And feel the tender embrace of your arms
As the sun offers its warming glow
On your golden hair.
You, your strength a beacon drawing me
Spins my mind dizzy with wishful anticipation
I can barely contain my heart’s pounding
When you speak.
You seem not to notice my desire, ever so near you
Your eyes issue a sadness that strikes me to my soul
Their gaze distant for one which will never be again
Of mortal flesh.
We keep languid company in the flowered gardens
Where we speak of loves lost and loves won
You fall weeping into my lap and wish release in death
While I ache for you.
I lead you away from the olive tree near the Lovers’ Cliff
Where you would seek your solace below, in the rocks washed by the sea
And are unmindful of the healing poultice of my love’s physic
Which I lay at your feet.
Surely I will comfort you in your desperate grief’s purging
And kiss your cheek to taste the sweetest, holiest of tears
Those shed before the altar of a lover’s sacrifice so pure
That Aphrodite herself weeps for you.
Sappho, at Mytilene, Crown of Lesvos’ Isle
Jan was stunned at the last stanza. ‘Aphrodite herself weeps’? Naah. Couldn’t have been. Covington, you’re crazy. She looked again at the document, the dried splotches on the page staring back at her. The tears of a goddess? Get a grip, girl. Yer losin’ it. She shook her head and walked back around the table to sit at her seat. As she did so, she could hear soft whispers of conversation among the other of her three friends. Janice stared down at the documents in front of her, unsuccessfully attempting to return her attention to her work. She heard Mel push her chair back and stand. Jan looked up to see Mel wipe at the corner of her eye.
“Um, y’all will excuse me for a moment? Must be something in mah eye. Ah’ll be back directly.” She turned rather quickly and headed for the stairs.
Janice watched her go, smiling wistfully at the sight. That’s Mel. Hopeless romantic. Cries at the movies, too. Well, Mel’s tears are certainly the tears of a goddess, if you ask me. The specter from the night before flashed through her mind again. She turned toward Mack and Sallie. “Say, have you guys run across a physical description of Sappho in all that?
Sallie looked up. “Yes, in one of these Latin transcriptions. Petite, with black hair. Why?”
“Ah, no reason. Just wondered.” She resumed her plodding perusal of the Greek document over which she was laboring earlier. It was a rambling narrative in Gabrielle’s hand of some of the Aegean islands through which she had passed by sea. As she read, Jan was impressed by the detached nature of the writing. It seemed to lack the bard’s usual passion, dwelling on nature and geography more so than sketches of the people which she encountered. In that way, it was decidedly different than the Xena scrolls with which Jan was so familiar. She mentally filed that observation away for future contemplation, and noted Gabrielle’s signature and the date at the bottom. She wrote this several years after the rough date we fixed for Xena’s death and maybe half a year or so before her own suicide, just outside of Athens. She carefully lay the aged document aside and turned her attention to the next one. It appeared, after slow inspection, to be another travelogue, clinical, detached. Not the Gabrielle I’m familiar with. Her Xena scrolls always seemed to burn with fascination. These are merely descriptive. Jan rubbed her eyes and scanned downward over the characters. What’s this? ‘Arriving at the Island’s Crown? Hmm. Island’s Crown. Where could that be? There’s a zillion islands in the eastern Mediterranean. Jan leaned back in her chair and thought for a moment, then slapped her forehead with her hand. Of course, Covington, you moron. ‘Crown of the Isle’, not ‘Island’s Crown’. She rose and reached over the table, seeking the poetry that Mel had just translated. Looking at Sappho’s signature, she noted the words which accompanied it. ‘Mytilene, Crown of Lesvos’ Isle’. Well, that puts her in Mytilene after Xena’s death. We’re getting another piece of the puzzle here.
Jan moved the parchment aside. The next document was also in Gabrielle’s hand. Another strangely detached recitation of geography, climate and so forth. When and where, though? She noted the signature and date. Yup, Gabrielle. Same month, same year as the last document. Where? Ah, here it is. Lesvos’ Isle. Nothing outrageous here. Just another travelogue. Interesting descriptive narration, but not much else. All the fire seems to have gone out of her writing. How strange! She slowly plodded down through the scrawls to the bottom of the page, then laid it aside with the others that she had finished. As she looked at the next one, she noted that the handwriting was different. The characters were smaller, neater, more painstakingly formed. Not Gabrielle’s hand. Whose? She noted the signature. Sappho. Well, I’ll be damned. She thrilled inwardly at the realization that she was reading a note in the poetess’ own hand, possibly the first person to have read it since some nameless medieval monk had acquired it so many centuries before. She reached across the table and lifted the page containing the poetry that Mel had translated, comparing the characters. Same hand. She read slowly, attempting to ascertain the meat of the note’s contents. Short. What’s this? Addressed to…… Gabrielle! It appears to be an invitation to her to visit at Sappho’s home. What is this next passage? Jan read it slowly, feeling some frustration at the occasional word or phrase that she couldn’t quite recognize. Wish Mel was here to read this. She looked toward the stairs. Where is she, anyway? She returned her gaze to the note. After reading a couple of more lines, a thought struck her. Good Lord! These are directions to her house. They are somewhat detailed. Could we actually find her house with these? She laughed out loud as she envisioned an archeological dig in Lesvos. Oh, yeah. Dynamite stuff. Covington, here comes the next feather in your beat-up cap. An excavation of Sappho’s dwelling. We need total accuracy here. Got to have Mel translate this one.
Janice sat back in her chair, slightly giddy at the possibilities unfolding in her own mind’s eye. Mack’s voice caught her attention from across the musty room. “Jan, you look like the cat who just ate the canary. What did you find over there?”
Jan stood, a grin spreading across her face. “Think I’ll go outside for a smoke, Mack. Wanna come along?”
He nodded. “Lead the way.” Mack looked over to Sallie as he put the lens cap back on his camera. “Sallie? Don’t mind, do ya?” She looked up and shook her head. “Need anything?” Her eyes brightened a bit.
“I’ll see what I can do.” They trod back up the worn stone steps. In a few moments, they were outside and in the warm June sunshine, perched on the chateau’s steps and indulging themselves in a smoke. They sat in silence for a few minutes, then Mack elbowed Jan. “Okay, out with it.”
“What did you find?”
Jan crinkled her eyes merrily. “Nothing much. Just the location of Sappho’s home in Lesvos.”
“Detailed directions. Lesvos, here I come!” They flipped their finished smokes away, then stood to go back into the chateau. Mack shoved his hands into his pockets and offered a cagey little smile.
“Somehow, I smell a dig in your near future.”
The work continued throughout the afternoon, the scholars lost in their pursuits. Documents were painstakingly translated and noted, photographed, and laid aside in neat order. Mel had rejoined them, and pored over ancient parchments until her eyes ached and were bloodshot. As she rose to drain the remnants of the coffee pot, Jan looked up at her.
“Mel, how are ya doing?”
“All right, ah suppose. Ah have made notes on most of those documents. Look at them, if you wish.” As Mel resumed her seat, sipping her coffee, Jan slid an aged parchment across the table to her.
“I know you’re beat, Mel, but could I ask a big favor of you?” She nodded, bleary-eyed. “Write this one out word for word, very carefully, will you?”
Mel looked at the document. “What is it?”
“If my instincts are right, the location of my next dig.” Mel looked up at her. “Sappho’s home.”
Mel brightened. “Oh, Jan, that’s exciting! Ah’ll do it right away.” She turned the pages of her legal pad over to a clean sheet, and began her labors. Jan smiled at her, then began reading the next document in Gabrielle’s handwriting. As she labored along, her heart began to pound. Yes! This is it! This is a winner! ‘To my most gracious Sappho…. such kind hospitality…… how I find our conversations thrilling……… your elegance and beauty………. have awakened in me emotions……. long dead….’ She glanced down at the bottom of the page. Gabrielle. Bingo. Got it. Let’s see what the rest of it says. ‘My grief tears at me………. you comfort me, kissing tears which burn……. I relent and allow your passion to flood over me……’ Oh, man. This is getting personal. ‘…….touch of you in the darkness…… fragrance of your hair…. all intoxicates me.’
Jan continued reading, lost in the words which burned to life in front of her. The letter unfolded tender remembrances of an affair long lost in the mists time, the words gentle, heartfelt and yet somehow bittersweet all at once. She plodded on slowly, studying occasional words or phrases which puzzled her, unraveling them. As she did so, myriad emotions swept through her as the most personal revelations of her ancient ancestor were revealed to her eyes. Sympathy vied with slight shock, all entwined in an embarrassment at reading what was not meant for others’ perusal. She continued on in rapt fascination. ‘……how I can feel your affection for me……. you do me too much honor…………. I am unworthy……. of such love…….. for my soul is not mine to join with you… it is…..’ No, that’s not right, Covington. Get it together. ‘……….has been…… joined to another through all the ages…… even death cannot part me from her…….’ What? Is Gabrielle leaving Sappho? ‘…her path is my path….. through the ageless and timeless bond which…… unites us…… I must follow her…..’ Good Lord. ‘……sorry I must hurt my tender Sappho so….. Lovers’ Cliff…… as you read this…….’ Jan sat back in her chair, speechless. She blinked a couple of times, then leaned across the table. She lifted the parchment containing Sappho’s poetry which had earlier been translated by Mel, and placed it down in front of her and next to Gabrielle’s letter. She noted the date on the poetry, then the date on the letter. The poetry was written one day after Gabrielle’s letter. Jan scanned the neat characters in Sappho’s poetry. There it is. Thought I remembered hearing that. A sentence leapt out at Jan.
I lead you away from the olive tree near the Lovers’ Cliff
Where you would seek your solace below, in the rocks washed by the sea…….
Jan shook her head slowly. Suicide? She was gonna do it. Even then, she was gonna do it. Sappho stopped her. She put the two parchments aside and looked at the next document. It was the last in her stack. She sighed heavily, then scanned the document for names and dates. Gabrielle’s. Dated, let’s see, about a lunar month later. What’s this one all about? ‘My darling Sappho……. how you shelter me….. kindness beyond description…… I am unworthy…….. cannot return such love……. my soul is not mine to give……. I leave you to return to Athens…….. my lonely destiny……. path which Xena marked for me…….. cannot disappoint her any further…….. she speaks to me….. do not weep for us……. memories to keep us both warm…. always keep you in my heart….. Aphrodite will comfort us……’ Well, that’s it, then. That’s that. Jan stood and collected the documents. She placed them in a neat pile, then wordlessly walked toward the stone stairs, not looking back. As she climbed them, her legs felt heavy. She emerged from the basements and walked out into the late afternoon sun, sitting heavily on the front steps of the chateau. She sat that way for some time, just staring into the distant hills and farmlands of the French countryside. Finally, she relented and for the first time in years allowed herself to cry, feeling foolish and relieved all at the same time.
The day’s labor in the basements of the chateau had taken their toll on all four of the scholars. Janice, wanting to do something nice for Mel to repay her for her bloodshot eyes and writer’s cramp, suggested that they dine in town somewhere. Enthusiastic replies abounded, and after cleaning themselves up, they borrowed the estate’s automobile and headed down the road toward a little restaurant that Mack had suggested. They were not disappointed; the food was wonderful, the atmosphere relaxed and, of course, very French, and the wine excellent. After the dinner, as they sat at the table, Mack queried the others on what they had learned that day. Sallie chattered with her usual exuberance, whereas Mel seemed dreamy and detached as she described several of Sappho’s hitherto unknown odes, and Jan just sat silently and listened. Finally, Mack squinted at his old friend from across the table. “Well, Jan, how about you?”
“Hello, earth to Jan,” Mack teased. Sallie giggled and elbowed Mack in the ribs, and Mel turned a perceptive eye towards her mate.
“Ah swear, you have been fading away like that a lot lately. Whatever is on your mind, darlin’?”
Jan took a sip of her wine. After a moment, she looked around the table and answered, “It’s true. All of it.”
Sallie cocked her head quizzically. “All of what?”
Mack answered for Jan. “The affair. Gabrielle and Sappho. Am I right?”
“You’re right. I read the letters. Happened, it seems, long after Xena’s death, and about half a year or so before Gabrielle herself died. Nearest I can figure, it must have lasted for a couple of months before Gabrielle ended it.”
Sallie leaned forward. “Um, Jan? These letters……they are authentic?”
Jan nodded. “I believe so. So does Mel.” Melinda nodded her agreement from her seat next to Jan.
Sallie continued, “They more directly concern your area of expertise than mine. Why don’t you take the photographs of them and publish this? I have plenty for my work.”
“Sallie, this is your stuff. I don’t want to swipe your research.”
Sallie’s large, dark eyes twinkled at Jan from across the table. “You’re not. I’ll make reference to it in my thesis. You, you’re the foremost Xena scholar in the world. You can do more with it than I can.” She looked at Mack. “Don’t you agree?”
He nodded. “Oh, yeah. Don’t be shy, Jan. Sallie’s giving it to you. Publish or perish, y’know.”
“I don’t know what to say except……..thanks.”
“It’s the least we can do for your coming out here to help decipher this mess of stuff.” Sallie looked at Mack. “Hon, these two girls have been reading love letters and poetry all day. I think we’d better take them home soon.”
Mack chuckled and dug in his pocket for a wad of bills. “That’s okay. We’ll just give ‘em the back seat on the drive back.”
They arrived back at the chateau in the early evening, returning to the basements for just a bit more work before an early retirement. Mack collected his rolls of film, anticipating a chance to develop them the next day. Sallie for once ignored her Latin texts, instead interested in the letters that Janice had perused. They gathered around the table, anticipating her explanation of the short and seemingly doomed affair.
Janice appeared puzzled as she looked over the table. “They were right here. Mel, you didn’t move them, did you?”
“No, Jan, ah haven’t touched them.” Mel looked over toward Sallie and Mack. “Did you two do anything with these documents?”
Sallie shook her head. “Nope. Haven’t messed with them. Hey Mack, did you move these to photograph them?”
Mack looked up from his corner of the basement. “Nah. Shot them earlier.” He walked over to the table. “Missing something?”
Jan scratched her head. “Yeah. All this stuff about Gabrielle and Sappho. The letters were right here. Now where the hell could they have gone?”
Mel leafed through the few at her chair. “Not here. Now, that’s odd.”
Jan looked at Mel. “What now?”
“That poem which ah translated this morning. You know, Sappho’s poem about Gabrielle. It’s gone, as well.”
“Ah, hell. They must be around here somewhere. Let’s see if we can find them.” The four began searching the basement work area, but could find nothing of the missing documents. Finally, Janice snorted in disgust. “Beats me. Well, we’ll look for them tomorrow. They’ve got to be around here somewhere.”
A voice addressed them from the steps. “A problem?”
Mack looked up. “Oh, Monsieur Venete. Good evening. It seems that we can’t find some of the documents we were working on today.”
He descended the stone steps, a concerned look on his face. “Missing?”
“Yeah. Jan left them right here on the table, but now we can’t seem to locate them.”
Venete joined the group, his expression serious. “This is not good. They must be located immediately. You remember our arrangement, Doctor MacKenzie?”
“Of course. I assure you that we’ve removed nothing. They’ve got to be here somewhere. We’ll find them, it’s only a matter of time.”
“I hope so. Just what did these documents concern?”
“They were poems and personal letters detailing an…….a friendship between the poetess Sappho and the warrior-bard Gabrielle of Potidaea.”
Venete raised an eyebrow. “And they are now strangely missing? Which one of you had most recent dealings with them?”
Jan volunteered, “That would be me. I read them all today, and left them right here.”
The Frenchman eyed Janice. “Ah, Doctor Covington. It seems that you should be more careful with your work.” He looked around at the four scholars. “This is extremely serious, you must understand. All documents must remain here. Their value could be priceless.”
Jan attempted to ease their host’s fears. “Look, they’ve got to be here somewhere. Don’t worry, we’ll find them.”
Venete drew himself up to his full height, his hands clasped behind his back. “I sincerely hope so, Doctor Covington, for your sake. If not, I will have no choice but to hold you personally responsible before the local magistrate.”
Janice became slightly flustered. “We’ll find ‘em.” Then she looked at Venete. “By the way, does your domestic staff ever come down here?”
“Are you suggesting that my domestic staff took these?” His eyes narrowed, then he nodded his head. “I will question them immediately.” He turned on his heels and trod toward the stairs. On the first step, he paused and looked back at Janice. “But I sincerely doubt that they would comprehend what the papers are or their potential price. Domestic servants are not known to read Greek. You, however, are well aware of their value.” With that, he turned and rapidly climbed the stone steps, disappearing around the corner.
The four stood in silence for an awkward moment, then Mel’s voice broke the still. “Well, ah’ll be! He as much as accused you of stealing them!”
Janice was grim. “Yeah. Not the first time I’ve been accused of something like that. The Covington legacy, ya know. Well, let’s get to work.”
They worked well into the night, turning over every document in the basement and re-inventorying the entire catalogue of their findings. They could account for all documents, both Latin and Greek, except for the ones which were in question. Of them, there was no trace. Finally, Janice sat down on the stone steps and slammed a fist down on her knee.
“God damn it! They couldn’t have just vanished into thin air! Where the hell are they?”
Mel attempted to soothe her. “Now, Jan, we’re all exhausted. We’ve searched everything. There must be a reasonable answer. Let’s all go to bed, and we’ll get on with it tomorrow.”
“Yeah, good idea, Mel.” She rose and led the group up the stairs, Mack snapping out the lights behind them as they ascended the steps and re-entered the chateau proper. They climbed the stairs to their rooms, and each couple offered subdued good-nights to the other as they headed toward their respective bedroom doors.
Once inside, Jan stood out on the balcony and indulged in a smoke as Melinda took her turn first in the bathroom. As she stood, silently fuming at the unfortunate turn of events, she heard Mack stroll around the corner of the balcony. “Hey, Jan. Waiting for the bathroom?”
“Ditto. Hey, look. Don’t worry about this thing tonight. They’ll turn up.”
Jan nodded, and muttered, “Sure.”
Mack rested his hand on her shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “They will. Don’t stay up all night fretting.”
Jan grinned in spite of her mood. “You know me too well.”
“Yeah. Good night, Jan.” With that, he turned and strolled back around the curve of the balcony. Jan flipped her smoke away and entered her own bedroom. Mel was out of the bathroom and Janice took her turn, performing her evening ablutions. As she did so, she stopped and stared into the mirror, leaning on the sink. Way to go, Covington. In a world of crap again. I don’t even have to try, do I? It just seems to come looking for me. Well, what else can one expect from the daughter of Harry ‘Grave Robber’ Covington? Bad karma, that’s what it’s got to be. She brushed her hair and teeth, washed her face yet again, and opened the door. Mel was already in bed, so Jan tried to undress quietly, then turned to click off the bathroom light. As she did so, she noticed that her revolver was sitting on top of the night stand by her side of the bed. I put that in the drawer last night. What the hell is going on around here? She picked the weapon up and gently broke it open. It was still loaded, five rounds. She closed it again and put it in the open drawer, sliding it shut and crawling into bed. As she did, Mel turned over and faced her.
“Jan, honey? Are you all right?”
Janice sat up in the bed, her blonde hair loose about her face. “Oh, sure I’m all right! What the hell do you think, Mel? Priceless documents which I last handled are missing, our host thinks I’m a crook, and you’re asking me if I’m all right?” She stared straight ahead into the darkness of the room for a moment, then turned blazing eyes at Mel. The tall southerner was silent, and Jan instantly felt a bit of a heel for her outburst. Her expression softened, and she cast eyes downward at the sheets of the bed. “Sorry, Mel. I don’t mean to take it out on you. I’m just really pissed about the whole deal.”
Mel rested a hand on Janice’s arm. “Ah understand. Lay down now, and try to get some rest. Tomorrow’s another day.”
“Yeah. Guess so.” Jan lay back in the bed, feeling Mel’s arms wrap around her. They snuggled close together, and Janice spoke again. “And who was messing with my gun?”
Mel’s voice was soft. “Your gun?”
“I left it in the drawer. It was out tonight.”
Mel was again silent for a moment, then whispered, “It was me, Jan.”
Jan looked into her mate’s eyes, wide in the dim light of the night. “You? You don’t like the things. What were you doing messing around with my gun?”
“Listen, Jan, if ah tell you something, will you promise not to go off half-cocked and do something stupid? Ah mean, we have to be very careful here.”
“What are you talking about?”
Mel laid a hand softly on Janice’s face. “Look, darlin’. When ah left y’all this afternoon, ah came up to the room. Monsieur Venete, ah, approached me. He got rather……familiar with me. Ah pulled the gun from the drawer to induce him to leave the room.” Jan was silent, but Mel could feel the burn under the hand she kept on Jan’s cheek. “He didn’t touch me improperly or anything. He didn’t get the chance. Everything is okay. Ah believe we came to an……. understanding. He won’t try it again, trust me.”
“Jesus! Why didn’t you tell me about this, Mel?”
“Ah know your temper. Ah didn’t want you doing anything foolish. Besides, we are his guests here. If anything unpleasant transpired, it could really hurt Sallie’s research. Ah just felt that it was best if you didn’t know. If no one knew. A thing like that is best kept very quiet.” She studied Janice’s face. It showed no trace of expression except for blazing hazel eyes. After a moment, Jan responded. “That’s my Mel. Always the cool head, aren’t you?”
“One of us has to be, darlin’.”
“You said it. I would have kicked his stones up around his neck.”
Mel’s eyes twinkled at that. “No need to. Ah beat you to it.”
Jan stared incredulously at Mel’s face. “You didn’t!”
With great southern dignity, Mel replied, “Ah most certainly did. He was rather persistent, after all. Like ah said, he won’t try it again.”
Jan was silent for several minutes. Mel could feel the tension in Jan’s small frame and said nothing, waiting for the explosion which she felt was almost imminent. None came. After a bit, Jan relaxed and actually chuckled. “Well, that caps a hell of a day, doesn’t it?”
Melinda sighed, relieved that her worried vision of Janice storming down the hall to Venete’s rooms wasn’t going to come true after all. She attempted to be soothing. “Jan, the day’s not over yet.”
Jan raised a cautious eyebrow and studied Mel. “It’s not? What else can happen?”
Melinda flashed a mischievous smile and crooked a finger. “Come over here and find out.”
Jan actually laughed. “Mel?”
“I like the way you think!” Jan wiggled close, feeling Mel’s arms wrap around her and warm, soft lips searching for her in the darkness.
The morning found the four scholars at work yet again in the basements, double-checking their inventory of documents. Once again, the only ones missing were the ones having to do with the desultory love affair. As they scratched their heads over the puzzle and tried to pinpoint where they had erred, the household servant stood at the top of the stone steps. “Pardon? Monsieur Venete. Ah, he wishes you all to come.” She pointed up the stairs toward the main chateau. Janice nodded and led Mack, Sallie and Melinda up and into the lighter air of the main rooms of the chateau’s first floor. The servant led the four into the dining room, then hurriedly departed. Venete sat at the head of the table. At his right elbow sat a dapper man in a police uniform. The two men rose when they entered, and Venete gestured toward the chairs on the opposite side of the table from the police official.
“Please, sit. I await your report on the missing documents.”
The four scholars approached the table. Mack held out a chair for Sallie, as did Janice for Mel. As they took their seats, Mack and Janice did the same. Mack looked evenly at Venete. “I regret to tell you that we cannot find them. We searched the basements repeatedly both last night and this morning, and checked our cataloging of the documents. They seem nowhere to be found.”
Venete just nodded. “This is most serious, you understand.” He eyed the four Americans for a moment, and then continued. “Doctor Covington, I believe that I had informed you that I would hold you personally responsible for their safety. I regret that I must now do that.”
Janice spread her hands out in front of her. “I really don’t know how they could have disappeared. We were most careful with them. We never removed them from the chateau.”
“You never did?”
“Then you, Doctor Covington, have hidden them here somewhere, perhaps to retrieve them later?”
Janice was stunned. “Are you accusing me of stealing them?”
“Can another explanation be offered?”
Mack interceded for Jan. “Monsieur Venete, that’s ridiculous. Jan would never do something like that. I have known her since our days together at college. Her character, her reputation is………”
Venete interrupted. “Somewhat cloudy at best? Doctor MacKenzie, how well do you really know your colleague?” He cast eyes toward Janice. “Her family history is, shall we say, somewhat tarnished. Daughter of Harry Covington, who has been known to sell artifacts to the highest bidder? A woman known to have certain, ah, dealings with questionable persons in her past? One who has been arrested in Algiers, before the war? One who has, in past years, acquired a reputation for……how does one say it?………hard drinking and the occasional fist fight? One who carries a pistol on archaeological digs? This is the woman whose character you were about to vouch for? Doctor MacKenzie, if I were you I would choose my colleagues more wisely.”
Jan sat forward. “That police chief in Algiers was paid off to arrest me. He was crooked!” She then cast an apologetic glance toward the police official on the other side of the table. “Sorry.” The official just nodded politely, and shrugged. “I don’t have your documents.”
“Then where are they?” He leveled eyes at Janice. “What am I to think? The scholarly endeavors of Doctor MacKenzie and Mademoiselle Rosen are proceeding smoothly until you appear. You, of questionable past and reputation. Then, priceless documents suddenly disappear. You undoubtedly have the connections to sell them to the highest bidder on the private market. That, in spite of the fact that they reside on my property. They belong to me. What else am I to conclude but that you stole them with the intent of selling them secretly at a later time?”
Janice stood and slammed her fist down on the table. “That’s crazy! I did not steal your documents!”
“Then where are they? After all, by your own admission, you were the last to handle these particular papers.”
Jan shook her head. “I……..have no idea.”
Venete sat forward. “The rest of you must understand that I do not hold you responsible for this. I only hold Doctor Covington, here, responsible. The rest of you are welcome to continue your researches in my basements and to remain my guests here. My deepest apologies to the three of you for this unpleasant situation. Please do not allow it to cloud your remaining time here. You are welcome in my chateau. Doctor Covington, I regret that I must offer this into the hands of the local authorities.” He gestured toward the police official, who now stood, walked around the table, and addressed Jan.
“I must place you under arrest, Doctor Covington, for the felony theft of personal property of Monsieur Venete. You will please accompany me to the police station?”
Janice stood, speechless. She blinked at the official a couple of times, and her heart began to pound inside her chest. She could feel the color rise in her cheeks. The police official noted this and gestured toward the door.
“Monsieur Venete informed us of your past history of violence. In case you consider attempting escape, you will not make it through the door.” Mel looked toward the door and saw two uniformed policemen standing by it. “Please, do not make this hard. Extend your hands in front of you.” Numbly, Janice did so. The official produced a pair of handcuffs and clicked them around her wrists. Mel’s voice broke the uneasy silence in the room.
“This is outrageous! Monsieur Venete, ah implore you to reconsider this! Janice would never do this! You have made a horrible mistake here!”
Venete stood and bowed slightly toward Melinda. “It is not I who have made the mistake here. I am afraid it is your, ah…..friend. I am sorry for you, but it does not alter the situation.”
The police official motioned to the two gendarmes, who approached Janice and each grasped an arm. He then turned toward the remaining three Americans. “Ah, I must request of you all that you surrender your passports to me. You are material witnesses in a felony case. I cannot have you leaving the country unexpectedly.” He looked toward Mack, who nodded and turned to Sallie.
“You and Mel go and get ‘em. It’ll be okay.” She somberly nodded and led Melinda to the stairs by the arm. Mack turned back toward Janice. “Look, hang tight. I’ll go the embassy in Paris as soon as you leave. We’ll get you some help. Don’t fret. We’ll get you out of this.” Jan said nothing, just raised an eyebrow at Mack. “I’ll do everything I can, Jan.”
“I know, Mack. Thanks.” She then eyed Mack intently. “Hey. Take care of Mel, will ya?” She narrowed her eyes and cast an almost imperceptible glance in Venete’s direction. Mack caught the import of the message.
“Got you covered, Jan. Sallie and I won’t let anything happen to her.”
Sallie and Melinda returned with the passports. The official received them, looked each one over, and then thrust them into his coat pocket. He turned to Mack. “I will keep these in my safe. You will undoubtedly visit her later at the jail. You may have a receipt for them then.”
“Understood. I’ll be there later today.”
“As you wish. Until then.” He motioned to the two gendarmes, who led Jan out the door and to the waiting police truck. The official was last to leave. He bowed slightly to the two women, then wheeled about and strode to the truck. They watched it leave, no one saying anything. After it was gone, Sallie closed the door. Venete’s voice broke the still.
“Once again, I apologize for the unpleasantness.”
Mack turned to face him. “Monsieur Venete, I know that you did what you thought was the right thing to do, but as God is my witness, you have made a mistake.”
He eyed Mack dispassionately, then answered, “For your friend’s sake, I hope so.” He then collected his hat from the hat tree near the door. “I must return to Paris. Please, the chateau is yours.” He opened the door and walked out into the morning, shutting it behind him. Mack watched him go, then turned as he heard rapid footsteps up the stairs. It was Mel. He thought he heard a stifled sob. Sallie watched her go, and looked imploringly at Mack. He nodded and motioned, and Sallie took off after Mel, following her up the stairs. He then walked out the door and stood on the steps of the chateau, lighting a cigarette and mulling over the next steps as the smoke wafted in front of him. First step, embassy. Hope those State Department guys aren’t just useless bureaucrats. Then, lawyer. Got to find one who speaks English well. Hell, none of us are great in French. Then, visit Jan at the pokey and try to reassure her. She’s probably feeling lower than whale shit right now. Bake her a cake with a file in it? Yeah. Nice joke. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t brought her here. What a jackass I am. He flipped the smoke away and turned back to the front door. Well, MacKenzie, you jackass, time to get to work. He walked into the chateau and headed for his room to dress more appropriately, and as he passed by the door of Mel and Janice’s room, he could hear muffled crying and Sallie’s voice offering reassurance. He hesitated, then knocked. Sallie opened it.
“May I come in?” She nodded and stood back. He entered, and Sallie hugged him. He looked down at Mel, sitting on the edge of the bed. Her face was puffed and wet with tears. “I’m going to the embassy in Paris, and try to get her some help. I’ll leave as soon as I change.”
Mel looked up. “What on earth can ah do, Mack?”
Mack raised an eyebrow, then smiled. “You two gals get dolled up and come with me.”
Sallie looked at Mack. “Can we help?”
Mack grinned. “You’re my secret weapons.”
Mel sniffed. “Ah’m afraid that ah don’t understand.”
“Look, we’re about to enter a very male world, full of bureaucrats and lawyers. A pretty face opens a lot of doors. I figure that with two of the prettiest girls in Paris on my arms, we’ll have those guys falling all over each other to help Jan.” He looked from face to face. “Come on, now. Time’s a’wasting. We’ve got work to do. Are you two up to it?”
Sallie and Mel looked at each other for a moment, then grinned evilly. In unison, they answered, “Oh, yeah!” Mack gave a satisfied nod and, as he walked out into the hallway, called back over his shoulder, “Meet you downstairs.” As he walked down the hallway to his room, he thought, Hell, this just might work after all.
Janice sat in one of the tiny, dingy cells in the back of the police station, her back against the cool stone wall, her feet on the hard cot fastened into the wall on one side of the cell. Stone surrounded her on three sides, the fourth one being an open wall of metal bars with a door. She cast a disgusted glance around at her surroundings, noting the other cot on the opposite wall and the sink and toilet sitting against the back wall, next to her elbow. On the walls, graffiti was scrawled or scratched in several places. She just stared into the center of the small room, her eyes focused on nothing, her mind racing a million miles a second. Shit, Covington. Way to go. I seem to fall into it without even trying. Some French vacation, huh? Sure showed Mel a good time with this one. Mel. Wonder what she’s doing right now? Probably going crazy. That asshole Venete. I can’t believe he’d try to pin this on me. She snorted derisively. Well, can’t say that I blame him, I guess. Daughter of Harry ‘Grave Robber’ Covington. Bad karma. A legacy that sucks. Why was he so hot to get me in the slammer, though? Probably thought that the others would cough up the documents if I was arrested. They don’t have any proof that any of us have ‘em. Hell, he doesn’t need any proof, I guess. He sure seems to carry some weight in this place. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the wall. He was anxious to get me hauled away, wasn’t he? Wonder why? Maybe he just doesn’t like me. Or, maybe he was just wanting to get me away from Mel. Yeah, that’s probably closer to the truth. I saw the way he was looking at her at dinner. He’d love nothing better than to try to poke her. She could feel a dark cloud of anger envelop her mind. And I’m sitting here in the slammer and can’t do a thing about it. Hell, I can just about hear him now. ‘Mademoiselle, be nice to me and I’ll get your girlfriend out of the jail.’ Yeah. Jerk. If I find out that he touched her, I won’t just kick ‘em up around his neck. I’ll rip ‘em off and stuff ‘em down that arrogant throat of his. Mack, don’t let me down. Keep an eye on Mel for me.
Her bleak ruminations were interrupted by the sound of footsteps in the cell area. An unsmiling, dour police woman appeared in front of Jan’s cell, produced a set of keys and proceeded to unlock the door. She looked at Jan and said something in French that Jan didn’t understand. Jan just shrugged and looked back at her. The woman gestured with a finger, and Mack appeared from around the corner. She opened the door and allowed Mack in, then locked the door behind him. She then sat on a wooden stool in the hallway and watched them intently as Mack stood in the center of the cell, staring down at Jan. He was dressed in a dark double-breasted suit, and his tie was loose at the collar. His hat was pushed back on his head. Mack shoved his hands in his pockets and just looked at Jan for a moment. She looked back, saying nothing. Finally, he spoke.
“Well, kid, how are you doing?”
“I’ve had better days.” She eyed him. “You look sharp. You dressed for my funeral?”
Mack offered a grin. “Oh, come on. This isn’t the Janice that I remember.”
“Guess not. Real desperado, huh? Say, I’m dying for a smoke. Got one?”
He rummaged in his pocket and brought out a pack of cigarettes. He turned toward the matron and motioned toward Jan, saying, “Cigarette?” She nodded glumly. He pulled two out of the pack, and offered Jan one, clicking his Zippo open and lighting it for her. As he lit his own, Jan took a deep drag and exhaled a cloud of smoke. She looked back up at Mack.
“Thanks. How’s Mel taking all this?”
Mack shrugged. “Like one would expect her to. She cried her eyes out for a bit, then rose to the occasion like a champ. We went into Paris and visited the embassy. Thank God that she and Sallie were there. I’m not sure how much headway I could have made alone, but she and Sallie turned on the charm and doors were banging open all over the place.” Mack grinned. “You should have seen Melinda in action, Jan. She turned on that southern twang and let out a few tears, and those State Department guys were putty in her hands. That girl can charm the socks off of a snake!”
Jan laughed. “Yeah. Tell me about it. So, what’s the scoop?”
“Well, they’re sending out a lawyer this afternoon. He should be here any time. Comes highly recommended. They tell me that he’s a special, er, ‘problem-solver’ for them.”
“Thanks, Mack. I owe ya one.”
“You don’t owe me anything. Mel and Sallie did it. Thank them.” He looked around the dingy cell. “So, how’s the five-star accommodations here?”
Jan waved a hand around the cell, then flipped her ash into the toilet. “Had better, had worse.” She gave a slight gesture toward the unsmiling female guard. “The bride of King Kong over there strip searched me.”
Mack winced. He retained the concerned look on his face, then attempted a feeble joke. “Was it good for you?”
Jan snorted. “She enjoyed it a lot more than I did, I suspect.” Jan took another drag, then added, “Especially the cavity check. Bitch.”
Mack’s expression became deeply pained at that. “Look, Jan, I’m just sorry for all of this. I feel that it’s all my fault. If I hadn’t brought you two out here, none of this would have happened.”
Jan shook her head. “Nah. Not your fault. We had no way of knowing this would go down.”
“Look, Mel’s outside and wants to say ‘hi’. They’ll only let us back here one at a time. I’m gonna go so that she can come in. You need anything?”
“A bottle of good red and a bath. Other than that, I’m peachy.” They both threw their smokes in the toilet, and Mack pulled the chain. He turned to go, then paused at the door, looking back.
“Jan, try to keep your spirits up. We’ll get this straightened out, and you’ll be dancing over the French countryside in no time at all.”
“Thanks for everything, Mack. You’re a pal. You always were, ever since college.” She paused for a moment, then added, “Mack?”
“Keep an eye on Mel, will ya? I mean it. I don’t trust that asshole Venete around her.”
Mack’s eyes narrowed. “You, too? I got the same impression. Don’t worry, Sallie and I will take her under wing.”
Mack smiled. “Not a problem. See you soon, Jan.”
Jan grinned. “Yeah. Five to ten, with time off for good behavior?”
“You’re not going to prison. That’s a promise.” Jan just nodded. The guard opened the cell door and Mack walked out, paused, winked at Jan, and then disappeared around the corner. The matronly guard followed him, then returned in a moment, rattling her keys in the lock of Jan’s cell door. She opened it and motioned to someone out of sight in the hallway. Familiar footsteps sounded, then Mel walked into the cell, the door clanking shut behind her.
Jan just sat and looked at her for a moment, as she stood in the center of the room. She was dressed in a very dapper manner, tailored suit and hair impeccable. She stood, eyes questioning, as Jan studied her. Finally, she whispered, “Jan?”
Janice’s enigmatic expression broadened into an offhand smile. “Mel, you just keep getting more beautiful every day.” She stood and they embraced, a desperate, tight hold upon each other for what seemed minutes. Finally, Mel offered some attempts at good news.
“Listen, darlin’, the boys at the embassy were helpful. Your lawyer’s arriving any time.”
“Yeah. Mack told me. Maybe he can get me shot instead of hung.”
Mel held Janice at arm’s length and studied her face very closely. “Don’t be so despondent, now. C’mon, where’s that fire that ah love so much? We are sticking by you on this. You have been wrongly accused, and we’ll prove it. You have to have some faith.”
“I wish I could feel that confident, Mel. I guess I’ve just seen too much of the world to believe like you do.”
“You forget, ah’ve seen the world as well.”
Janice hesitated, then looked intently at Mel. “Look, promise me something.”
“If…….Venete gets his way and I’m convicted, you get the hell out of here. Forget about me. Go back to America and live your life.”
Mel’s mouth dropped open in surprise. “Janice Covington, you stop talkin’ like that! Ah will do no such thing! We are getting you out of this, you hear? Ah swear, ah have never seen you like this. What is goin’ on with you?”
Jan sighed, then shook her head. “I dunno. Guess I’m just tired. Tired of trying to live down a bad legacy, bad karma. Tired of constantly falling into poop. Tired of trying to be somebody in spite of it all.”
“You are somebody. Why do you think ah love you so? Now you pull yourself together. Get that fight back into you.” She placed a hand under Janice’s chin, and drilled her eyes into her friend’s. “Ah will stay. Now, are you goin’ to make me wait just days, or are you goin’ to give up and let them win and make me wait years? What’s it goin’ to be, Janice Covington?”
Janice said nothing, just looked at Mel for the longest time. Her intensely sad eyes creased into smiling ones, and she simply said, “When’s that lawyer getting here? We’ve got work to do!”
Mel grinned at that, a magnificent grin. “Now that’s the Janice ah know. Kick some ass for me, will you?” They embraced again and kissed, unmindful of the unsmiling matronly guard who was their audience. Mel turned to leave, and paused at the door to cast a twinkling glance back at Jan. “Ah will see you soon, love.”
Jan smiled at her. “Not soon enough. Hey, Mel.”
“Watch out for Venete, will ya?”
Mel stood proudly. “If he tries anything again, he’d better watch out for me.” She then left, the guard locking the cell and following her down the hallway.
Jan stood in the center of the cell, hands in her pockets, and said aloud, “That’s my girl.”
The guard returned in a bit, again rattling her keys in the lock. Jan looked up from her seat on her cot against the wall and noted a pleasant, bespectacled young man holding a leather briefcase enter the cell. As the door closed behind him, he bowed slightly. “Doctor Covington?”
Jan raised an eyebrow and cracked a grin. “That’s me, in all my glory.”
“Allow me to introduce myself. I am Raymond Derea, attorney at law. The American Embassy in Paris has sent me to you.” Jan rose and walked toward him, offering a hand.
“My knight in shining armor, eh?”
As they shook hands, he smiled in a charmingly self-depreciating manner. “Well, hardly that.”
“I appreciate you coming out here to see me.” She waved to the cot and said, “Make yourself at home.”
“Thank you.” He sat, opened his briefcase and pulled out a pad and a pencil. “Doctor Covington, let me first say how honored I am to meet you. Having some fascination for the history of Greece myself, I have read some of your work. Most exciting, especially your endeavors regarding the now famous Xena legends.” Janice smiled and nodded her thanks. “Now, I am given to understand that you are in, ah, how do you Americans say, ‘a bit of a pickle barrel’?”
Janice actually found herself laughing out loud. “Yeah, you could say that.” She sat and leaned up against the wall in the corner of her cot, folding her legs underneath her. He looked at her over the wire rims of his eyeglasses and continued speaking.
“Now, I already know something of the matter. I have spoken at length to your most charming friends. They have told me much. I must now hear it from you. Anything which you tell me is confidential, of course.” He cleared his throat, and spoke carefully next. “Ah, before we go any further, there is something which I must ask you.”
He studied her face intently. “Did you steal those documents, Doctor Covington?”
Janice leaned forward and met his eyes with her own intent hazel ones. “No.” Their eyes remained fixed one set upon the other, and then Derea nodded, smiling.
“I believe you. That is the only time I will ask that of you. Forgive me, but that was necessary.”
“Understood, Monsieur Derea. Not a problem.” She then peered intently, solemnly at the young lawyer and spoke to him. “Now, there is something which I must ask you.”
He placed his pencil down and returned a serious, slightly questioning gaze to hers. “Of course.” He leaned forward slightly in anticipation of the question.
She studied him intently, almost nose to nose, then cracked a broad, friendly grin. “Do you smoke? I damn sure hope so.”
He blinked in surprise, totally astonished for a split second, then threw back his head in a marvelous roar of laughter. The lawyer and Jan just sat on the cot, he howling in hysterical mirth, she regarding him with a grin, until the dour stare of the matronly guard quieted them both down. Still chuckling, he wiped at his eyes, replaced his spectacles and withdrew a cigarette case from his pocket, opening it and offering it out toward Jan. She nodded thanks and took one, as did he. He lit them both, then they settled back to begin their interview.
“Ah, that was marvelous. Your friend Mack described you as, ah, one of a kind. I see now that he was not wrong.” He picked up his pencil and poised it over his writing tablet. “Now, why don’t you tell me everything that has happened to render you into this unfortunate place?”
He and Janice spent the next half-hour together, she outlining the events of the last few days, he scribbling notes and asking the occasional perceptive question. Toward the end of the interview, Jan spread out her hands in front of her in a gesture of completion. He flipped through his notes and nodded satisfactorily. In the ensuing pause, she decided to hit him with the question which had been burning in her mind all day.
“So, Monsieur Derea, how does this look to you? Am I really in danger here?”
He took off his spectacles, rubbed his eyes, and replaced them. “Honestly, they have no proof that you stole anything. All evidence against you is circumstantial, you understand. The prosecutor for the district will no doubt attempt to argue that you had motive and opportunity to steal the papers, but there is no proof that you actually did so. He will probably also attempt to impugn your character, showing you as one of some questionable, ah, reputation. All of that is, according to strict point of law, of very little consequence.”
“Uh-huh. So what’s the problem, then?”
“Ah, yes. The problem is the judge. If he is not kindly disposed toward you, he could still rule against you. I would immediately appeal, of course, but it could take some time. In the meantime, you would remain in jail.”
“How much time?”
“That depends. Perhaps six months to a year.”
Jan leaned her head back against the wall. “Holy crap.”
“Let us worry over that when we arrive at that point. That has not yet happened.” He looked over at Janice. “There is something which I wonder about. Perhaps you could enlighten me?”
“Do you know of anyone who would wish to have, ah, how do you say it?…….’set you up’? Someone who may have stolen these papers and allowed you to take the blame?”
Jan sat for a moment, stunned. Finally, she answered, “Yeah.”
Derea raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Who?”
“Sacre! Why would he steal what he owns and blame you?”
“Just speculation, really, but it fits. Look, I think that he’s got the ‘hots’ for Melinda. Mack thinks so, too. He has already made one advance toward her, and she rebuffed him quite, um, energetically. That must have really infuriated him, humiliated him. So, he takes the documents, gets me arrested for it, and then will go to Mel with an offer, a trade. Her, um, favors for my freedom. All he has to do is produce the documents, say that there must have been some error, and the charges are dropped, right?”
“That is true. Tell me, why did she reject him the first time? He appears to be a handsome man, and she is not married, I take it?”
Jan scratched her head. “Ah, Melinda and I consider ourselves married.”
“To each other. She and I are deeply in love. Have been for years. Trust me, she has no interest in him, or any other man.”
Derea slapped his forehead with an open palm. “Ah! Now I understand! You and Mademoiselle Pappas are lovers! You must forgive me, I can be quite stupid sometimes. Yes, that would explain it.”
Jan continued, “He was quick to point out that he held only me responsible for the lost papers, and was very quick to have me arrested when we couldn’t produce them. Not Mack, not Sallie, not Mel, just me. Why else would he do that?”
Derea became quite animated at the next thought. “Of course! With you here, he has the opportunity to approach your friend Melinda and use your unfortunate situation to manipulate her. Has he made such a proposition to Mademoiselle Pappas yet?”
“I don’t think so. He went to Paris on business today.”
“Yes, yes. He has a law practice there. I know of him.” He thought intently for a moment, then turned to Jan, quite alive with excitement. “If he does so, it will be quite soon. You go before the judge on the day after tomorrow.”
“No, no, it is in our favor. Listen now to what I say. This could be his undoing and your salvation. It is uncertain, but it could work!”
Jan sat upright, cross-legged on her spot on the cot. “Hit me with it.”
“Here is what I suggest we do.” They huddled together in the dingy cell, whispering animatedly. At the conversation’s conclusion, he hurriedly thrust his tablet and pencil into his briefcase and stood. Jan accompanied him to the cell door, where he turned and offered his hand to Jan. She shook it warmly.
“Thanks for everything, Monsieur Derea.”
“Do not thank me yet, Doctor Covington. We still have much to do.” As the unsmiling matron opened the door, he spoke once more to Jan. “I go now to the chateau and instruct your friends on their particular roles in this. Here is my business card. Keep it. Call if you have anything more. I will see you again soon. Oh, and here. Take these.” He reached into his briefcase and offered a flat cardboard box of cigarettes and a folder of paper matches into Jan’s hand. “Prisoners always seem to need this.”
Jan cracked a grin. “Don’t tell Mel. She’s trying to get me to quit.”
He smiled. “Yes, my girlfriend chides me for the habit, as well. This is not the place to quit, however. After you get out, then you must listen to her. Adeiu.”
“I’ll see you again soon.” Derea left, the matron closing the cell door in Jan’s face and following him down the hall. Jan wandered back to the cot, but found herself too energetic to sit still. She lit a smoke and paced, her mind racing. C’mon, Venete, hang yourself. Proposition Mel. I dare you. Do it, you asshole, and then we’ll teach you to mess around with Mel and me. Oh, yeah.
To Janice, time seemed to pass with infuriating slowness in the cramped cell. She spent the night tossing and turning on the miserably hard cot, and dozed fitfully. Occasionally, she would rise and wash her face in the grubby sink, trying to rid herself of the stale stink of the cell’s environ. It was unsuccessful.
Sometime in the dead of the night, she felt her eyes snap open. She was laying on her side, the stones of the wall just inches from her nose. She blinked a few times, then noted something odd. The stones reflected a soft glow, one which she did not notice before. Again, the hair stood up on the back of her neck, and her heart pounded. It couldn’t be, she thought, then slowly turned over to face the center of the room. The sight which greeted her shocked her. She sat up on the bunk and scrambled backwards, her back wedged in the corner at the head of her bunk, her eyes wide and staring. “You again!”
A woman sat on the other bunk, regarding Janice with kindly, sad eyes. Their gentle affection seemed to set Janice’s pounding heart at some ease, and she scanned the figure from top to bottom. It was the same figure which had so startled her that first night at the chateau. The face bore a timeless beauty, an incredible beauty, which studied Janice from under tendrils of luxuriously long blonde hair piled atop her head and cascading down to her shoulders. She was wrapped in folds of cloth resembling the garb of ancient Greek statuettes, and rested sandaled feet on the floor. A dreamy, ethereal quality enveloped her. They sat very still in the dreary cell, studying each other for what seemed the longest time. Jan’s mind raced. Who the hell? Not Gabrielle, I’ve seen her……ghost, or whatever…..before, when I cracked their tomb open last year. This is not her. Another thought struck her. Sappho? No. Sallie said that she was petite with dark hair. Come on, Covington, where’s your brass? Just ask her. Jan opened her mouth and hesitantly whispered, “Who…..are you?”
The figure held a finger to its lips, indicating that quiet was needed. It cast a look toward the door, then spoke softly, in impeccable, although slightly accented, English. “You look so like the little one, the little bard. How dear she was! I was so fond of her. She is your ancestor, I can see that.”
Jan blinked. “You mean Gabrielle?”
Jan leaned forward, fascination growing inside her. “You’re not a ghost, are you?”
“No. I offer you hope, reassurance. Take heart. You will triumph, as she always did.”
Footsteps echoed in the hallway, approaching Jan’s cell. The figure looked in that direction, then suddenly disappeared. The matronly guard stuck her face around the corner and glowered into Jan’s cell, then proceeded to fuss at her in unintelligible French, ending with a “Shhh!”
Jan just gave her a disgusted look and responded, “Yeah. Sure. Whatever, bride of King Kong. Shove it.” The guard gave her a disapproving look, then walked away. The figure reappeared in Jan’s cell, a finger over her lips. It spoke again.
“She cannot hear me, only you. You must not speak. Unseen forces are even now at work to right this wrong. Remember, you are under their protection.”
Janice mouthed the word, “Their?” to the figure. It smiled.
“The ancestors will protect the descendants. Please, tell no one that I have visited.” With that, she disappeared. Janice sat, stunned, just staring into the now empty room. Her mind raced with myriad questions and possible answers, and she attempted to make sense of it all. The ancestors will protect the descendants. What the……? A sudden memory flashed through her mind: the spirit of the bard leaning over her, a year ago in Athens, healing the effects of the God of War’s attempt to kill her as she had worked to unravel the mystery of the final end of Xena and Gabrielle. Gabrielle? That wasn’t Gabrielle who just visited me. Who, then? I’ll figure you out.
When the guard eventually delivered a breakfast somewhat resembling cardboard, Jan attacked it only half-heartedly. The coffee, however, was actually good, and she was able to coax refills out of the pleasant young guard who was on duty that morning. Soon, her mind buzzing with the effects of the coffee and the anticipation of her day in court, she once again paced, occasionally smoking and often turning her mind away from her own troubles and back to the wistful letters which she had read, seemingly a million years ago now, in the basements of the chateau. Gabrielle and Sappho, she mused. Guess that surprised me more than I can admit. She chuckled out loud. Well, hell, she’s only human, I suppose, in spite of the marvelous things she accomplished. Guess that, over the years, I’ve tended to endow Gabrielle with a superhuman quality. How desperate things must have seemed to her, alone for those years after Xena. How would I manage for years if something happened to Mel? She attempted to conjure a vision of life without the marvelous southerner, and shook her head. I wouldn’t. Couldn’t. I would probably do what Gabrielle finally did, but a lot sooner. Guess Gabrielle was a lot stronger than I would ever have been. She stopped pacing and stared at the graffiti on the wall. Another love affair? I dunno. Seems impossible. Hell, Mel’s the only one in my life that I’ve ever been totally faithful to. Odd, isn’t it? Covington, guess you’ve finally grown up. She looked around the cell and snorted. Nice timing.
Her thoughts were interrupted by footsteps, and the guard opened the door to admit Mack into her cell. He strolled into the cell, nodding thanks to the guard, and when he offered out a hand, Janice gave him a resounding hug instead. Mack laughed.
“Darn, what a welcome! You’ll have to get thrown into the pokey more often, Jan.”
“Shaddup. Good to see you, too.”
“Hey. Everything is okay at the chateau. Sallie and Mel send their greetings. They stayed behind. The girls will try to visit you later.”
“They’re alone there?”
Mack shook his head. “Don’t worry. Venete won’t be back until at least this afternoon, according to his servants. He’s in Paris. And Mel’s not alone. Sallie’s with her, and Derea sent out a young lady to stay with her as well.”
Jan raised an eyebrow. “He did?”
“Yeah. Interesting gal. Used to be in the Resistance during the war, I understand. She is connected to the embassy in some mysterious way. Evidently has some experience in, ah, ‘intelligence gathering’, as Derea put it. She’s going to be the witness that we need when Venete propositions Mel.”
Jan had a suddenly sobering thought. “Mack, what if he doesn’t proposition Mel?”
Mack grinned. “Derea’s on it. He’s got a ‘Plan B’ going, as well.”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
“I don’t know the details. He’s got a couple of the embassy people on it, though. They were actually kinda fired up about screwing over this Venete guy. I got the vague impression that they know him and don’t like him. Either that, or Mel did even a better job than I thought of charming their socks off.”
“Yeah? The more I know him, the more I don’t like him, either.”
Mack chuckled. “I can imagine. Look, you need anything?”
Jan lifted an arm and sniffed. “Phew! A bath. I’m starting to smell like last week’s laundry.”
“I’ll speak to the police chief about it. At least he’s somewhat approachable around here. How’s the chow?”
Mack raised an eyebrow. “Hmm. I thought that the one thing that a French jail would have is decent food. See what I can do about that, as well. Let me get crackin’, Jan. Keep your chin up, hey?”
“Sure, Mack. Thanks for everything.”
He turned to go, then halted and looked back at Jan. “Oh, by the way. I hope those missing documents are found again, because they didn’t come out on the film.”
“Nah. Weirdest thing. I developed those rolls. When they dried, I saw that the frames having to do with those love letters and such were all fogged.”
“The whole roll?”
“Not the whole roll. Just the stuff about the affair between Gabrielle and Sappho. Those frames were ruined. Unreadable. All the other stuff on that roll was perfect. Strange, huh?” Mack shrugged. “I must have done something wrong, although I can’t figure out what.”
Jan furrowed her eyebrows in question. She thought about it for a moment, then waved a hand in the air in front of her. “Well, don’t worry about it now, Mack. Spilled milk. If the letters ever turn up again, we’ll re-photograph them.”
“Sure.” He reached out one arm and gave Jan a hug, then sniffed the air teasingly about her. “You’re right, Jan. You’re starting to get ripe.”
Jan gave him a playful punch in the stomach with a fist. “Jerk. Now get outta here and go give my love to Mel, will ya?”
Mack looked fondly at his old friend and nodded. “Yeah. See you soon.” Janice said nothing, just winked and smiled in response and then walked back over to her corner of the cell, on her bunk next to the sink. Behind her, she could hear the cell door open and then clank shut as Mack left. She sat cross-legged in the corner, pulling her shoes off and thinking about what Mack had just said. Her mind mulled over the fogged film, then she dismissed it. Just another mystery. There seems to be a lot of those, the last few days.
At the chateau, shortly after Mack had returned, a black sedan pulled into the estate’s courtyard. Two men climbed out and approached the door. When the servant answered, they spoke briefly to her and she admitted them. She showed them to the chairs next to the dining room fireplace, then left and hurried up the stairs. At the door to Mel and Janice’s room, she knocked. Mel answered. The servant hesitated, then addressed Mel. “Ah, two men, they speak with you.” She pointed downstairs, and Mel looked back over her shoulder. A young woman with shoulder-length light brown hair and an expression around her eyes which seemed much older than her years emerged from the bathroom and joined Mel at the door. She held a brief conversation in French with the servant, then turned to Mel, speaking in very capable, if heavily-accented English. “Come, we go downstairs. Bring Sallie and Mack.”
As the servant showed the four into the dining room, the two men rose and turned toward the group. Mel sized them up as she entered the room, and couldn’t quite decide if they were malevolent or friendly. They had about them the air of men who were intently alert but stood at ease just the same. They were both dressed in suits of moderate quality, their hats in their hands. As the group approached them, one of them spoke to the young lady, and in doing so revealed himself as an American.
“Hey, Marie. Everything okay here?” She nodded. “All set up? Got the room bugged?” She nodded again, then turned to the group and made introduction, gesturing toward each person in turn.
“Fellows, this is Melinda Pappas. Doctor MacKenzie. Sallie Rosen. These two men are, ah, associated with me at the embassy. They prefer to be known by only first names. Sam, and Andre. They are here to help.”
Both men bowed slightly, deferentially, to the group. The American spoke. “Say, which one of you reads classical Greek?”
Melinda cleared her throat. “That is mah expertise. Ah translate such things for a living.”
Andre and Sam looked at each other, then back at the group. “Anyone else?”
Mack nodded. “I can read it as well, although not nearly as proficiently as Mel.”
Andre spoke now, in French-accented English. “Tell me, can you recognize these missing documents if you see them again?”
“Yeah, I believe so. Mel’s better than I am, though.”
“The mademoiselle must remain here at the chateau. Ah, MacKenzie? Doctor MacKenzie, right?”
“Yeah. Call me Mack.”
The American spoke. “Fair enough. Mack, we need to borrow you for a couple of hours. Fill you in on the way. Grab your hat and coat.”
Mack returned in a few minutes, slipping on his suit coat and plopping his hat on the back of his head. As he did so, the two men made a motion to head toward the door, Andre waving to Mack to follow them. The three women followed, and the group paused at the front door. Sam turned to Marie. “Be back as soon as we can.” She nodded. Mack looked uncertainly at the faces of Sallie and Mel, then turned to the two guys.
“We’re going to leave them here alone?”
The American grinned. “Marie’s got it under control here.” He looked at Marie, and continued, “Hey kid, you packing heat?”
She raised an eyebrow and lifted the hem of her skirt to reveal a pistol in a thigh holster. “Of course.”
“That’s our girl.” They donned their hats and the three men left the chateau, heading to the car. Once inside and well on their way toward Paris, Sam turned around from his position in the passenger side of the front seat to speak to Mack.
“Guess you’re wondering what this is about, hey?”
Mack nodded. “I figured you’d tell me when you were ready.”
“Yeah. Look, did Derea mention a ‘Plan B’ to you?” Mack nodded. “Well, we’re about to put it into motion. We’re gonna pay a friendly little visit to Monsieur Venete at his law office in Paris. When we get there, just stay in the waiting room, out of sight. I don’t want him to know that you’re there. If we squeeze him hard enough, he just might crap some ancient documents. If he does, you verify them, right?”
“You bet. Say, you think this will work? After all, he seems to be nobody’s fool.”
Andre chuckled, and Sam just wore an amused expression. “Don’t worry. Andre, here, is kinda lookin’ forward to this. He was in the Resistance during the war. Got a personal score to settle with the guy, I think.”
Monsieur Venete sat at his desk in his office, adrift in paperwork. He only had one appointment that afternoon, so had his suit coat off and sipped a cup of tea as he absent-mindedly perused legal papers. He looked up with an irritated expression as his door opened and began to chide his secretary about disturbing him, but it was not she who entered. Two men walked into his office and shut the door behind them. As they approached his desk, he raised an eyebrow. “Who are you gentlemen?”
Andre spoke for both of them. “Monsieur Venete?” He nodded. “We are from the American Embassy, here in Paris. Intelligence section. Please, we won’t take much of your time.” They flashed credentials, and as they returned them to their pockets, they made to sit in the chairs in front of his desk. “May we sit?”
He motioned to the chairs. They both unbuttoned their suit coats, and as they sat, he could see the handles of pistols protrude from beneath their coats.
“Ah, what can I do for you gentlemen? I am quite busy, you understand.”
“I would imagine so. We have recently had translated some most interesting documents from the Gestapo headquarters archives in Berlin. We wondered if you would be kind enough to look them over. There are some things about them which puzzle us. Perhaps you could help.”
“Ah, I don’t understand. Gestapo?”
Andre reached forward and plopped a tan folder on his desk in front of him. “Yes. Gestapo. These are the French translations. Please, take your time.”
He opened the folder in front of him, eyeing the men and then the papers cautiously. “I don’t really understand how I can help you.”
Sam leaned forward. “You can start by explaining to us how your name comes to be mentioned so prominently in them.” Venete’s expression wavered a bit, and he paled just slightly.
“I, ah………my name? Preposterous.”
Andre now leaned forward, very unsmiling. “Your name. We can read.”
Sam raised his voice just a notch. “It would seem that you had a rather cozy little friendship with the German Secret Police.”
“Not at all! I resent the implications of this!”
Andre answered for both men. “Before you protest too much, take a look at those records. Then you can enlighten us.”
Sam stared hard at the man. “Monsieur, just what did you do during the war?”
“Ah, I was here, in Paris. Lawyer. And I was in the Resistance for a time.”
“Oh, yes. As eyes and ears for the Gestapo, I believe.”
He stood up behind his desk, raising his voice. “This is ridiculous! You believe these documents?”
Sam raised an eyebrow at him. “The Gestapo would have no reason to fabricate these. We all know how meticulous they were in keeping records.”
“You two……gentlemen……had better leave my offices now, or I will summon the police!”
Andre and Sam noted the sheen of perspiration which was evident on Venete’s brow. They eyed each other, then returned hard gazes to the lawyer. Andre stood, placed fists on the front of the desk, and leaned across toward Venete. “Why don’t you do that? Make a scene. Summon the police. Have this end up in the Paris newspapers.”
“Oh, yes. The editors of the Paris daily and weekly papers would love to see this, not true?”
“You wouldn’t dare offer them this………pack of lies!”
“We wouldn’t? We know that you harbor political aspirations. Once the citizens of Paris read about this, you won’t be able to get elected dog-catcher in this city, much less in France.”
Sam added, “Yes, Monsieur. And there are survivors of the Resistance walking the streets of the city right now who would love to learn of your friendship with the Gestapo.” He nodded toward Andre. “I believe that my associate, here, is one of them.” Sam stood and walked around the desk, standing about three feet away from Venete. The lawyer’s eyes flitted nervously from one face to the other. Sam’s hand reached underneath his suit coat and he brought forth a pistol. His other hand produced a silencer, which he slowly began screwing onto the muzzle of his pistol as he spoke. “How many Frenchmen did you sell to the Germans? How many Jews? You’re a real piece of work, aren’t you? I could blow out your brains right now, and no French court would touch me. Diplomatic immunity can be a wonderful thing.” He laughed, and added, “No, I think that I will just let my friend here do it and say that I did so. The worst that can happen is that they will post me to an embassy in another country.” Still holding the gun, he walked back around the desk and handed it to Andre. “Go ahead.” Andre hefted the gun and pointed it at Venete’s forehead. As the hammer clicked back, the lawyer blanched and waved his hands in front of him.
“All right! All right! Perhaps we can make a deal? What do you want? Money?”
Andre released the hammer and handed the gun back to Sam, who began slowly unscrewing the silencer as Andre spoke. “Now, Monsieur, you are talking sensibly. Please, be seated.” The two men sat down, and Venete returned to his chair, bringing forth a handkerchief from his pocket and wiping at his brow. Hands shaking somewhat, he looked at the two men as Sam began speaking.
“Money won’t do. We believe that you have something of much more interest to us.”
“What is that?”
Sam studied him for a minute. “Do you remember your Greek history from school?”
Venete shrugged shakily. “A bit. Why?”
“You have heard of the Xena legends, have you not?”
Venete’s expression became puzzled. “Of course. What has that got to do with me?”
“I believe that you are in possession of certain ancient documents, now missing, and having to do with the author of the Xena scrolls. You will produce them for us and exercise your influence to have the theft charges against Doctor Covington dropped. We will in turn assure that this Gestapo record in which your name appears will, ah, disappear.”
Venete’s eyes widened. He swallowed nervously. “And if I do not agree?”
“Then we will give your regards to the newspaper editors.”
“Doctor Covington’s trial is out of my hands now. I cannot influence its outcome. Besides, what makes you so sure that I possess these, ah, documents?”
Andre looked at his watch. “Don’t play games. We do not have all day.”
Venete raised his voice. “They are mine. They were discovered in the basements of my chateau. The law supports my ownership of them.”
“Does it? Just when and how did you acquire this chateau, Monsieur?”
“My sister disappeared during the war. She has been legally declared dead. I came into ownership of the chateau in that way. All strictly legal, I assure you.”
Sam raised an eyebrow at that. “Oh? We investigated your background thoroughly. You don’t have a sister, Monsieur!”
Venete’s face reddened, and he looked as though he would burst. “This is outrageous!”
Andre raised his voice. “You’re damned right it is! You betrayed the countess into the hands of the Gestapo, did you not? You saw her deported, then had papers forged to establish some blood connection with her. When she did not return from the camps, you had her legally declared dead and assumed control of her property. I believe you have also ‘inherited’ a few other properties the same way, have you not?”
Venete sputtered a bit, then slumped back in his chair. “You have proof of this?”
“Would we be here if we did not?”
There was a thick silence in the room lasting for a minute or more. The three men just stared at each other. Finally, Venete said, “If I surrender these documents to you, you will guarantee that the Gestapo records are destroyed?”
Sam smiled. “You have the word of the United States government.”
“Alas, that will have to do, I suppose.” He withdrew a small key from his vest pocket and unlocked a drawer in his desk, pulling it open. He looked down into the drawer, then became visibly pale. He stared into the drawer for a bit, then looked up. Sam and Andre sat, studying him quizzically.
Sam said, “Problem, Monsieur?”
Venete stammered slightly when he answered. “The documents……they are gone! I do not understand it. They were here! I have the only key!”
Sam got up and walked around the desk. He peered into the open drawer, then nodded to Andre. “Yes. Empty.”
Andre stood, collecting the folder of Gestapo documents from Venete’s desktop. “Too bad, Monsieur. We shall give your regards to the newspaper editors.” With that, Sam and Andre walked to the door, opened it and left the office.
On the street outside, Sam, Andre, and Mack paused. Mack quizzed the two men. “He didn’t have them?”
Sam grinned. “No honor among thieves, Mack. He had ‘em and was ready to cough them up, but it seems that somebody snatched them from him. Where they are now is anybody’s guess.”
Mack grimaced. “Do you think that he destroyed them?”
“Nah. You should have seen the look on his face when he opened his desk drawer and it was empty. Someone stole ‘em.”
“Well, they’ll probably end up in some rich guy’s personal collection. Guess we’ll never know.”
“Guess not. Come on, let’s get you back to the chateau.”
“So what happens to Jan now?”
Sam tried to reassure Mack. “Derea’s on it. He’s sharp. Besides, after we drop you off, we’re going to pay a little visit to the judge who’s going to hear her case tomorrow. You know, remind him of his duty to be strictly impartial in this.”
“Think it’ll help?”
Andre laughed as he opened the car door for Mack. “Oh, we can be most persuasive, Mack.”
Venete sat at his desk, numbly staring at the empty drawer. He then kicked it shut, growling under his breath. He stood, put on his coat and hat, and left the office. As he walked past his secretary’s desk, she protested, “But Monsieur, you have an appointment this afternoon.”
He eyed her coldly. “Cancel it.” He then left the offices, walking down the stairs to the street. As he strode toward his car, he muttered aloud, “Perhaps I can still accomplish something out of all this. Mademoiselle Pappas is, after all, very protective of her little, ah…. friend. I shall see just how protective she really wishes to be.”
Marie entered Mel’s room and shut the door. “He has arrived. Stay here in your room. Let him come to you. You remember how we rehearsed this?” Mel nodded from her place at the table. “I must hide myself.” She disappeared into the bathroom and swung the door shut, leaving it open just a crack. Mel kept her seat at the table, staring at an open book but not seeing the pages. Her heart pounded, and her hands shook slightly. Her mind raced as she kept her ears open for the telltale echoes of approaching footsteps. Get control of yourself, Melinda. You can do this. She heard a knock at her door and her heart leapt into her throat. That’s your cue, darlin’. Let’s see if you can win an Oscar.
She rose and opened the door a crack. Venete stood at the door, suit-coat and vest gone, white shirt open at the collar. He smiled a most disarming smile. “Mademoiselle Pappas. I have been wishing to speak with you. May I enter?”
Mel was cautious. “Do you promise to conduct yourself properly this time?”
He bowed slightly. “I assure you, that last unfortunate incident was not within my normal character. Please?”
She opened the door and admitted him, walking back to her place at the table and sitting. He stood near the table as he spoke next. “I have come to offer my concerns for you and Doctor Covington. This whole affair is extremely unfortunate. You are doing all right?”
“As well as can be expected, ah suppose.”
“You are, no doubt, extremely worried about her?”
“That’s putting it mildly, Monsieur. Have you seen her cell at the jail?”
“Ah. Most humble, I am quite sure. My apologies for that. French justice can be harsh.”
“This has nothing to do with justice, does it? You know that she didn’t steal those documents.”
“Whether she actually stole them or not is of no consequence now, is it? The circumstantial evidence against her is, I think, enough to convict her. You know, she is looking forward to several years in a French prison. Those are conditions which I would not wish to endure. I understand that it is even more difficult for women.”
Mel paled. “Why are you doing this, Monsieur? If you don’t think that she took them, why persist in this? Speak out and have the charges dismissed!”
Venete stroked his chin as he spoke. “Ah, it is not that simple. The process of trial and conviction is begun. It is out of my hands now. Unless, of course……..”
Mel stared at him. “Unless…….what?”
“I might have some influence with the judge in this matter. I have known him for some years. It would seem that he is not kindly disposed toward foreigners in our country and probably would be rather severe with Doctor Covington, but it is possible that I could, ah, sway him a bit.”
“Oh, Monsieur Venete. Would you do that? Jan and ah would be ever so grateful!”
“Oh? It is not really Doctor Covington’s gratitude that I am concerned with. It is yours.”
“What do you mean?”
“For the proper, ah, ……..inducement, I could intervene. Possibly even have the charges dismissed.”
“Inducement? Ah’m afraid ah don’t quite understand.”
He laughed softly. “Come, come, Mademoiselle. Don’t play innocent with me. We are both people of the world. Let us speak honestly.”
Mel’s expression hardened a bit. “All right. Why don’t you explain to me exactly what inducement you seek?”
“If you insist. Mademoiselle, you are quite beautiful. I have desired you from the first time I met you. What man would not crave such a woman as yourself? I only seek your, ah, companionship. Is that clear enough?”
Mel’s mouth gaped open, and she stared at him incredulously. “You expect me to sleep with you?”
He smirked. “I expect you to lay with me. Whether you sleep or not afterward is up to you.”
She stood. “Monsieur Venete, you are outrageous! Do you have no honor?”
“To the contrary, I have found that it is women who have no honor. They do not hesitate to employ their bodies and charms to get what they desire. If the price is right, they will sell their favors to the highest bidder.” He walked forward now, very close to Mel. She stood her ground and glowered at the man. “What is your price, Mademoiselle? What are you willing to sell your favors for? The freedom of your, ah……friend? I can make that happen for you. Think carefully before you say ‘no’, Mademoiselle. The alternative is your little companion spending several years away, and in conditions most deplorable. Or, you can offer yourself to me for the night, and I will see that she does not get convicted. It is up to you. No one need know about this but ourselves. I would not speak of it, and I’m quite certain that you would not, either.”
Mel stood silently for several moments, then said, “Monsieur Venete, ah think that you’d better leave me now. It would seem that ah have quite a bit to think over.”
He bowed slightly. “As you wish. Just remember, it is in your hands. The trial is tomorrow. If you come to my rooms tonight, your little, ah……friend will go free. If not, then I cannot be held responsible for the outcome. Her conviction will be your responsibility, I am afraid.”
He opened the door, pausing as he exited. “Tonight, or she goes to prison.” He then left, closing the door behind him. The bathroom door squeaked open, and Marie walked out into the room.
“Excellent! I have gotten every word. You have done well, Melinda.” Mel said nothing, just collapsed into the chair behind her, covering her face. Marie bent over her, hugging her close and attempting to comfort her. “Now, now. Look, go and visit your love at the jail. The cook has prepared a basket for you to take to her. I will drive you, if you wish, and wait for you. I will not leave your side until this situation has resolved itself.” Mel looked up, then nodded animatedly as she rose to prepare herself for the visit. Marie walked into the bathroom, emerging a moment later with a palm-sized reel of recording tape which she tucked into an inner compartment of her small purse. “This does not leave me, either.”
Mel smiled. Jan, darlin’, take heart. It’s all working out, and ah’m coming to visit you.
Jan had alternately paced and sat, groaning inwardly at the confinement and her subsequent forced inaction. She had no window in the cramped cell and her wristwatch had been confiscated, so the grasp of time eluded her. She found the entire situation maddening. In addition, she felt unwashed and uncomfortable, in spite of the fact that the pleasant young guard had brought her a towel and soap, and she had attempted to bathe from the worn sink in her cell. I swear to God, if I get out of this, I’m getting a bigger office at work, or at least one with a window. Work? Ha. That’s a laugh. When the trustees of the university hear of this little stroke of bad luck, they’ll can me faster than anything. I can hear those pompous jerks now. ‘Doctor Covington, we cannot have this kind of negative publicity at our university. We regret……’ Yeah. Why is it that whenever someone’s about to screw you over, they always say, ‘We regret…..’? She snorted. And Mel? She’s such a sweetheart. She’ll just say, ‘No problem, darlin’, we’ll just find you another job.’ She won’t mention a thing about how she loves that little cottage, or her new flower garden which we’d have to leave behind. Yeah. Like it’s so easy, finding another job. I had a hard enough time getting this one. Another teaching appointment? Right. Maybe at some little jerkwater college, if at all, making peanuts for money, teaching freshman courses, no funding for digs. The famous Doctor Janice Covington, driving a taxi for a living, or slinging hash or some such thing to make ends meet. Damn sure won’t let Mel support me with her family money. Janice Covington may be many things, but she’s not a freeloader. Besides, I’d make a lousy hausfrau. Janice actually snickered a bit at the mental picture of herself in an apron, dusting and cleaning, waiting for Mel to come home. Mel, though? I could see her doing that. I’d support her in a heartbeat. I’d do that. Damn right I’d do that. Hell, I’d work three jobs to do that.
The keys rattled in her cell door, and Jan turned around. The pleasant young guard was opening the door and admitting Mel, who carried a basket. Jan’s expression beamed at the sight of her friend, and Mel just swept her arms out and gave Jan a bear hug that almost squeezed the breath right out of her. She looked up at the tall southerner to say something, and her words were stifled when lips pressed themselves over her own. When they parted, Jan just grinned a most disarming smile.
“Gosh, Mel, glad to see you too.”
“Look, Jan, Mack told me that the food was awful here. Ah brought you something to eat.”
Jan motioned to the cot, and Mel sat on it’s foot. Jan took her favorite place at the head, pulling her legs up and underneath her. Mel picked up the checkered cloth from the top of the basket and snapped it out over the bunk. She lay out two plates, offering cheese and bread and bringing forth a bottle of wine. “The cook in the kitchen at the chateau made this for you. And this wine is from Monsieur Venete’s private stock, although he doesn’t know it.” She popped the cork on the bottle and brought out two cups as Jan began eating.
Jan laughed. “What did you do, Mel? Swipe his wine?”
Mel offered a very dignified expression as she poured it out. “Ah most certainly did not.” Her expression dissolved into an evil grin, and she finished, “The servants did. Anyhow, it’s the least he can do after the mess he’s gotten you into.”
“I’m getting out of this, Mel. Oh, yeah, by this time tomorrow, I’ll be soaking in a hot bath and talking trash. I’m not getting convicted, that’s for damn sure.”
Mel paused and smiled. “Well, after yesterday’s gloom and doom from you, ah’m glad to see that you’ve perked up. What changed your mind?”
Jan became suddenly serious. She leaned forward, peering at Mel. “You’re a descendant of Xena. Tell me, Mel, do you ever feel a……connection with her?”
Mel thought at that. Finally, she answered. “Yes. Ah do. From time to time, the feeling has been very strong. Especially in times of peril.”
“Right. Well, Mel, we both know that I’m a descendant of Gabrielle. I feel that same connection. I feel it now.”
Mel studied Jan. She raised an eyebrow. “Jan, have you seen Gabrielle? You know, like last year in Greece?”
“No, but I can feel her somehow at work here. I’m gonna be okay. We’re gonna be okay.”
Mel offered a cup up in front of her, and passed one to Jan. She proposed a toast. “To them, Jan.” They clinked their cups together and drank, relishing every drop of the purloined wine. They then sat for a moment, feeling very warm and cozy. Jan shot a glance over toward the pleasant young guard who watched them. She wiped her cup clean with a corner of the cloth, then offered it out for a refill. Mel refilled the cups, and Jan rose from her roost at the end of the cot and waved at Mel, padding over toward the cell door in her sock feet.
“Hey, Mel, come over here and bring that bottle, will ya?” Mel rose and did as Jan suggested, slightly puzzled. Jan waved to the guard. She stood and approached the bars. Jan held out the cup for the guard, and motioned to her. She quickly looked about her, then smiled and took the cup. Mel joined them at the bars, and Janice lifted the bottle from Mel’s hand. They reached through the bars and clinked the two cups and the bottle together, then drank the toast. The guard chattered something in pleasant French, and finished with a “Merci!”
“You betcha.” The guard handed the cup back and returned to her post, smiling devilishly. Jan and Mel returned to their seats on the cot, Mel raising an eyebrow.
“Mah goodness, Jan, you are certainly charitable today.”
Jan waved a hand, as she picked up a piece of cheese with the other. “She’s a sweetheart. Brought me soap and a towel, and refills my coffee.”
“Well, bless her. Are they all so nice?”
Jan shook her head. “Naw. They’ve got one here who I call ‘the bride of King Kong’. A real bitch. Tell you what, if I ever meet her on the street, she and I are gonna tangle.”
Mel chastised Janice gently. “Now, Jan. Don’t be that way. Last time you punched someone, you broke your hand. Remember?”
“Bad punch. Hard head.”
Mel smiled. “Yours, darlin’, or his?”
Jan grinned. “Both, I guess.” Jan shook her head. “A real gem, aren’t I? How come you put up with me, Mel?”
“Well, as a southern lady, ah must admit that you are a little rough around the edges, even for a Yankee. But ah swear, Janice Covington, you are also just the cutest thing on two legs.”
“Well, I’ve got to have at least one redeeming quality, I guess.”
“Don’t forget that you are also now a famous scholar.”
Jan’s face fell. “Yeah. Fat lot of good that’ll do me when those old farts at the university find out about me being arrested. They don’t like bad publicity. They won’t just refuse to fund my plans to excavate Sappho’s home. They’ll can me, Mel. I know they will.”
Mel tried to be reassuring. “No problem, darlin’, we’ll just find you another job.”
Jan grinned in spite of herself. “Somehow, I knew that you’d say that.”
Mel studied Jan very closely for a long time, saying nothing. Jan just raised an eyebrow but allowed her silence, perceiving myriad wheels and gears turning in that beautiful, dark head. Finally, Mel gave voice to her thoughts.
“Oh, ah think they won’t dare get rid of you, Jan.”
“Sure they will. You know how they are, Mel. Some of ‘em don’t like me as it is.”
“Ah certainly do. Listen, ah have a thought. Just hear me out, Jan. Now, what do they love most? What is the one way to assure that they not only won’t fire you, but will actually kiss that cute little fanny of yours?”
Jan was slightly sarcastic. “Give ‘em money?”
“Bingo. Listen, you remember that railroad stock that ah inherited from mah daddy?”
“Ah’ve been wondering what to do with it. It has gained in value since daddy died. Why don’t we kill two birds with one stone?”
Jan leaned forward. “Mel?”
“Listen. Ah have decided to put it to a very worthy cause. We’ll establish a trust. Use it to fund archaeological research done by only that university. You leave, and the trust leaves with us. Ah get the tax break, and you get your dig. The university gets money, and everybody’s happy.”
“Mel, I can’t let you do that. Jeez, you know how I feel about you squandering your family inheritance on me. Naw, it won’t do at all. I won’t let you buy my job from them.”
“Jan, your reputation as a scholar precedes you wherever we go anymore. You are good. It won’t be wasted at all. Besides, we’ll use mostly the interest and not too much of the principal.”
“But that’s your money, Mel, not mine. I can’t let you do this.”
Mel lowered her eyebrows at Janice. “You most certainly can, Jan. Ah want this.”
“Look, Mel, I know what you’re trying to do. I appreciate it more than I can say. But it just isn’t right.”
“Of course it’s right. It’s mah money, and ah can do whatever ah want with it. Isn’t that so?”
Jan shrugged. “Well,……”
“Besides, don’t ah go along with you on all your digs? They’re just so exciting to me, Jan.”
“And I couldn’t do it without you, Mel. But…..”
Mel held up a finger to silence her mate’s protests. “But nothing. So there.”
Jan just sat for a moment, mouth slightly open, speechless. Then she leaned back against the wall and began laughing. “I know when I’m whipped.” She took a sip of her wine.
Mel continued, “Do you want to really see them blanch, darlin’?”
Jan looked up, the cup at her mouth.
“We’ll call it ‘The Harry ‘Grave Robber’ Covington Memorial Trust’.”
Jan choked on her wine, almost spitting it out. Mel rose and walked over to Jan, patting her on the back until she settled down. Jan put the cup down and wiped at her eyes, still coughing slightly. When she regained her composure, she gave Mel a wide grin. “Damn, Mel, you can really be evil when you want to be.” Mel just returned to her seat at the foot of the cot, a picture of dignity and repose. Janice studied Mel for a moment, then added, “Call it the Pappas/Covington Trust, and you’ve got a deal.”
Mel smiled. “Mah daddy would have liked that.”
Jan nodded. “Mine, too.”
“So be it.” Mel stood and collected the remnants of their meal, packing everything away into the basket. She stood, preparing to leave. Jan stood with her, and they once again hugged tightly, whispered words of endearment and kissed, a long kiss. When they parted, Jan walked her to the cell’s door. The guard unlocked it, and Mel exited. As the door was locked again, Mel paused to gaze at Janice, who was standing forlornly in the center of the small, grubby cell. She said, “Jan?”
“Do you know what ah’m going to do first thing, when you get out of here?”
Jan raised an eyebrow. “Ummm……..”
“No, darlin’. That’s the second thing. The first thing ah’m going to do is get you a bath. Phew!” With that, she flashed a smile and disappeared down the hall. Jan just stood in the center of the cell for a moment, then shoved her hands into her pockets, pulling out her cigarette pack and lighting one.
After she did, she shrugged her shoulders at the guard and muttered, “So I stink. I’m still cute.”
Raymond Derea entered Jan’s cell, hat and briefcase in hand, and offered a pleasant handshake to a waiting Janice. After they seated themselves on the hard bunk, Jan said, “So, what’s up? Am I going up the river tomorrow?”
“You know, prison. Up the river.”
He puzzled for a moment, then laughed brightly. “Oh. That’s a good one. You Americans, such colorful use of the English language.”
“Are you kidding? We haven’t spoken English in years.”
“So my English acquaintances tell me. Ah, no. Not yet. We go to trial tomorrow morning, as you know. We have had some success, and some, ah, failure.”
“Yeah? How’s that?”
“Well, first, I am of the belief that Monsieur Venete had the documents in question. Had, I say. He does not now. Someone stole them from him, it would seem.”
“Great. So where are they now?”
“No one knows. I am sorry for that.”
“Me, too. They’ll probably turn up on the black market somewhere.”
“Quite so. You tell me that they are worth a lot of money?”
“Name your price.”
“Oh? And now the second bit of news. Monsieur Venete did actually approach your friend Mademoiselle Pappas this afternoon. He offered her the tawdry deal that you had anticipated. We have recorded the whole thing, and I will offer it into evidence tomorrow in court.”
Jan’s eyes narrowed. “When did this happen?”
Jan slammed a fist down on her knee. “That sonofabitch. I knew that’s what he wanted.” She looked up at Derea. “She was here this afternoon. She never mentioned a thing about it.”
“Of course not. She didn’t want to worry you, I am sure. She is quite a lady.”
Jan smiled. “Yeah. Sure is.” After a moment, she looked at Derea. “Is Venete at the chateau tonight?”
“Yes. I believe he will remain the night.”
Jan sat stiffly up. “Mel’s in danger. We can’t have her alone there with him in the house.”
Derea hastened to reassure Jan. “She’s not alone. Besides your friends Mack and Sallie, who have kept her constant company, we have assigned a young lady from the embassy to stay by her side.”
“A clerk? A clerk is protecting Mel?”
Derea smiled mysteriously. “Oh, no, Doctor Covington. She is no clerk. She is a most capable member of their ah,……” He leaned forward and whispered, “Intelligence section.”
Janice raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“I cannot speak too much of her background, other than to say that she is quite dangerous when provoked, and is constantly armed. She will assure your friend’s safety.”
Jan sighed. “Sure hope so. I can’t.” Jan stewed over her own helplessness for a moment, then said, “Anything else?”
“Yes. The judge. As you know, he can be our friend or our enemy in this. I believe he will cooperate most favorably with you tomorrow.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Ah, let me just say that he was paid a visit by two of our colleagues today. They reminded him of his need to conduct the trial with strict impartiality tomorrow.”
“Think he’ll listen?”
Derea smiled. “Oh, yes. They reminded him, ah……quite enthusiastically, if you get my meaning.” Jan glanced over at Derea’s face. There was the trace of a mischievous smile on his lips. “My friends can be quite persuasive.”
“Jesus. I think I’m getting the picture here. Do I want to know any more?”
“Just one more thing. It seems that you are possessed of some fame as an archaeologist. The newspapers were alerted. The courtroom will be packed with reporters tomorrow, I suspect.”
“Is that good for us?”
“I believe so. In private, many things can happen. In the public eye, things must be above reproach. Do you have any other questions for me?”
“Guess not. Nothing to do now but wait for the circus tomorrow.”
“As you say. Try to sleep, Doctor Covington, and try not to worry too much. I have every belief that we shall prevail.” He stood, gathering his hat and briefcase. Jan walked him to the cell door, then extended her hand. He shook it warmly, then asked, “Do you need anything?”
“Yeah. A bath.”
“The police tell me that they have no facilities for that here. So sorry. I will suggest to Mademoiselle Pappas that she come by early and help you make yourself presentable, however.”
“Thanks. For everything, Monsieur. You’re a good man.”
His eyes twinkled a little at the joke he rendered in reply. “So I keep telling my girlfriend, Doctor Covington. Adieu!” With that, he left the cell and the dour, matronly guard slammed the door in Jan’s face.
At the chateau, Marie and Mel kept to her room. The cook delivered a small meal and some wine, and they ate it quickly. Mack and Sallie visited, explaining that they were on their way down to the basements to do some research this evening, and asked if there was anything that they could do to be of help. At that, Marie spoke up.
“Yes, actually. I believe that your balcony door is immediately next to ours, is it not?”
Sallie answered. “Yes. Just around the corner.”
“Good. When you retire tonight, keep it unlocked. We will do the same with ours. If there is any, ah, trouble tonight, I wish you, Melinda, to run to their room and stay with them until I am able to take care of it.” She rose from her seat at the table and walked over to the bed side table. Opening the drawer, she hefted Janice’s pistol and offered it to Mack. “I believe you were in the war, were you not?” He nodded. “Good. You can use this?” Mack nodded again, and took the proffered weapon, breaking it open and examining it. “It is loaded. Keep it in your room.” Mack again nodded, thrusting it into the waistband of his trousers. “Now, all is understood?”
Mack and Sallie responded affirmatively, and left to descend to the basements. Mel studied Marie for a moment, then softly asked, “Do you think that he will come here tonight?”
Marie shrugged, then looked at Mel. She smiled, the friendliness of her smile belying the cagey, tough expression around her eyes. “Maybe. Maybe not. We’ll see.”
“Watch him, Marie. He’s a dangerous man, ah suspect.”
Her smile broadened into a toothy grin. “I’m a dangerous woman, Melinda.”
In the basements, Sallie and Mack bent over a manuscript, in rapt discussion over some point of translation of one of the Latin manuscripts. Sallie asked Mack a question, and Mack just leaned back in his chair, smiling. She eyed him for a moment, then said, “What?”
“You asked me that same question ten minutes ago.”
She dropped her pencil and leaned her head forward, cradling it in both hands. “Aw, Mack. I can’t think straight. Got a headache, too.”
“Want some aspirin?”
“Upstairs. I’ll get it for you, if you want.” He rose from his chair. “On second thought, why don’t you just knock off for tonight?”
She looked at her watch. “Yeah, soon. I just want to get this damn paragraph right. Won’t take long.”
He nodded and walked toward the steps. “Okay. I’ll get the aspirin. Be right back.” He left the basements, treading the stairs up to the chateau’s main floor. Sallie rubbed her eyes and then continued scribbling on her legal pad, repeatedly scratching out phrases and shaking her head. Finally, she threw down her pencil in disgust and rose from the table. Mack’s right. Go to bed. Can’t concentrate, anyway. Too worried about Jan. God, I hope that it all works out tomorrow. Can’t believe that she’s in the slammer. I feel like it’s my fault. After all, it’s my research that brought her out here. She ascended the steps, clicking out lights behind her. Theft. What a load of crap!
She left the basement steps and walked across the first floor entranceway to the stairs. As she reached the first step, a voice called her name. “Mademoiselle Rosen?”
She looked up. Venete stood nearby, a wine glass in his hand. “Oh, hey, Monsieur Venete. Just going up to bed. Got a headache.”
He approached her. “Oh. I am sorry. You know, a glass of wine has been known to help that. Would you like one?”
“No, thanks anyway. Sleep usually does it for me. Probably wouldn’t hurt if I wore my glasses, too.”
“Ah, glasses, but you don’t wear them?”
“Not like I should. A woman’s vanity, I guess.” She smiled at the attempted joke, and he responded with a smile of his own, one that didn’t reach his eyes. They remained somehow very aloof, very cold.
“But you have something to be vain about. You are a very pretty woman.”
“Thanks, I guess. Don’t feel that way tonight, though.”
“But you look that way. Tell me, mademoiselle, you are close friends with Doctor Covington?”
“I think the world of her. She was one of my professors in college, and I worked a dig with her last summer.”
“You are no doubt worried about her?”
“Yeah. Very. That’s probably where my headache is from. Do you think she will be set free?”
“Hard to say. It is up to the court now.”
“I wish there were more I could do for her. I feel really helpless in all this.”
He eyed her closely. “You may be able to do something, after all. Why don’t you visit with me, and I will explain what you can do to assist her?”
Sallie felt a strange knot start in the pit of her stomach. She noted Venete’s cold eyes, and suddenly felt a pang of fear. “Me? What can I do?”
He took a step closer. “Perhaps more than you think, mademoiselle.”
Sallie backed up a step. “Yeah, I’ll bet. Goodnight, monsieur.” With that, she hurried up the steps, occasionally casting an eye behind her. When she reached the door of her room, she entered, shut the door, and leaned against it. Mack’s voice called to her from the bathroom.
“Sallie?” He walked out into the room, aspirin bottle in hand, then stopped and studied her very carefully. “What’s wrong?” She just stared at him, her large brown eyes even larger than usual. Mack walked over to her, and halfway across the room she met him.
“Mack,…….. he was putting the moves on me down there!”
“Who? Venete?” She nodded. “Did he touch you?” She shook her head.
“No, Mack, but he scared the crap out of me. Met me at the stairs. Told me that I could do something to help free Jan. When I asked him what, he just got close to me and said, ‘Perhaps more than you think’.”
Mack’s face reflected a deep, fiery anger. “That asshole. Think I’ll go and have a little chat with him right now.”
Sallie stood in front of him. “No, Mack, no. Look, think about this.”
Mack stared incredulously at Sallie. “What’s there to think about? He as much as propositioned you!”
“Mack, let it go. He didn’t come right out and say it, and he didn’t touch me, so just let it go.” They stood in the center of the room, eyes locked. “Get hold of yourself, Mack. You go in there and you’ll probably punch him out or something. Then we’ll have to be visiting you in jail, as well as Jan.”
Mack growled, “At least Jan will have some company.”
Sallie’s large eyes flashed. “That’s not funny. And what about my research? We’re on thin enough ice around here as it is. I’m surprised he hasn’t thrown us all out yet.”
“Just because he knows that your research will help define a value for those documents down there. Why do you think he’s being so nice to us? All your hard work will just help him get a fancier price. He wants to know what he’s got down there, and you’re telling him.”
“You think so?”
Mack snorted derisively. “I know so. Why do you think that I’m so insistent on photographing everything? After we leave, he’ll try to sell those documents. We’ll never see ‘em again.”
Sallie turned away from Mack and walked over to the balcony door. She stood there for some moments, hand up to her mouth, just staring out into the darkness. Finally, she turned around and faced Mack. “Look, Mack, screw the research. I’ll make do with what I’ve got. Let’s get out of here as soon as we can.”
“You’re only halfway through that stuff down there.”
“I don’t care, Mack. That stuff isn’t worth the price we’re paying.”
“Do you really feel that way?”
“Yes. This situation has become intolerable, all because of that jerk downstairs. Jan’s in jail, Mel is in enough danger to have a bodyguard and we’re arguing right now. It’s not worth it. Tomorrow, after Jan gets free, we’re outta here. We take Jan and Mel to Paris, and we’ll all have a blast like we promised them. We’ll stay in Paris. Then, it’s off to our next stop when they go home. But we don’t stay here another night. Agreed?”
“So far. But, what if Jan gets convicted? What then?”
“Then? We do whatever it takes to see to Mel’s well-being and support Jan. Like I said, screw the research. Our friends come first.” Mack said nothing, just smiled at her. She huffed and blew a lock of unruly hair from in front of her face, then eyed him quizzically. “Agreed?”
“You bet we’re agreed.” He walked over to Sallie and they embraced. “You’re a work of art, Sallie. Guess that’s why I’m so crazy about you.”
She smiled up at him. “And you know when to listen to reason. Think I’ll keep you for a while.” He handed her the aspirin bottle. “That, and you take care of me. Thanks.”
“There’s a water glass in the bathroom. Let’s go to bed. Long day tomorrow. You got the bathroom first.”
Venete sat in his rooms, working his way through much of a bottle of wine. He glanced at his watch, then back at the bottle. She is not coming. I don’t believe it of her. I thought certainly that she would do anything to save her little………. friend. He raised the glass to his lips, his mind burning darkly with anger. She is so holy, is she? Thinks that she is better than me? How dare she. She is under my roof. Mine. He looked around the rooms. The dear countess certainly doesn’t need the chateau anymore, considering the fact that she is undoubtedly dead. All this is now mine. The mademoiselle should be, as well. How dare she choose that scruffy little blonde over the likes of me! I will teach her what it means to defy Venete. I take what I want.
He rose a bit unsteadily from the table in his rooms and softly walked down the hallways until he stood in front of Mel’s door. He listened for a while, and heard no sounds from the room. No light emerged from under the door. His hand rested on the door handle, and he wiggled it. It was locked. From his pocket, he withdrew a key and slipped it into the door. It clacked a bit as he attempted to turn it in the lock. Then, the key turned and the lock slipped back. He squeaked the door open, and softly entered. The lights were out, and the only illumination was from the soft moonlight coming through the balcony door’s glass. He stood still for a moment, allowing his eyes to accustom themselves to the dim light, then glided across the floor to the bed. Under the covers, he could see a form asleep. Leaning slightly over the bed, he grasped the covers and pulled them back. “Now, mademoiselle, you will learn what it is to be with a man.” The form did not stir, and he stared at it for a moment, blinking in the dim light, then growled under his breath and lifted a pillow from the bed. Pillows! Mademoiselle, you are more clever than I gave you credit for. Where are you hiding, I wonder? At that instant, his vision exploded in stars, and he found himself on his hands and knees on the floor. Dazed, he raised a hand to the back of his head and felt a lump beginning to rise. A foot connected with his stomach, and he felt the breath knocked from him. Then, his vision once again became whirls of stars as something pounded into the back of his head, and he remembered nothing else.
Marie leaned down over the prostrate form and felt for a pulse. Satisfied that he was alive, she opened the balcony door and waved a hand. Melinda appeared from the darkness of the balcony, accompanied by Mack and Sallie, dressed in their robes. Mack held Janice’s pistol. Marie stood aside to allow them into the room, and gestured toward the hall door. “Mack, turn the light on, will you?” Mack walked around the dark form on the floor and clicked the light on. They stood for a moment, staring down at Venete. Sallie’s voice broke the silence.
“Marie? Is he……”
She grinned and shook her head. “No. He will have a headache tomorrow, though.” She noticed blood on the handle of her automatic pistol, and leaned down to wipe it on Venete’s trousers. She then lifted the hem of her dress and replaced it in her thigh holster. “Help me get him back to his rooms. Hurry. He may regain consciousness soon.”
Mack walked over to the limp form. He handed his pistol to Marie, and then bent down, lifting the limp Venete up and into a sitting position. He grasped the man under the arms, and Sallie and Mel each took hold of an ankle, lifting the unconscious man. Marie led them down the hall, holding a finger to her lips to indicate the need for silence. She led them into Venete’s rooms and, noticing the nearly empty bottle of wine on the table, motioned to the floor by the table. “Put him down here.” After they did so, she placed a foot under his shoulder and rolled him over onto his back. She lifted the wine bottle from the table and placed it in his hand. Looking quickly at the layout of the room and the near proximity of the table, she reached behind his head and then withdrew a bloody hand. She leaned over toward the table and wiped it on the table’s corner, leaving a red splotch on the sharp edge. “Let’s get out of here now, before he awakens. Come, come.” At her lead, they all left his rooms, closing the door behind them, and softly returned to Mel’s room. Marie hastened to the bathroom, emerging a few moments later drying her hands on a towel. “Well done. He smelled of wine. He was probably drunk, a bit. When he awakens, he will think that he fell in his rooms. He will be quite confused.”
Mel chuckled, in spite of the situation. “Done this before, have you, Marie?” In response, she just gave a knowing smile.
“A girl has to earn a living somehow, eh?” Mack and Melinda laughed at that, but Sallie was concerned. She questioned Marie.
“Will he be all right?”
Marie shrugged. “I suppose. If not, then the servants will discover his body in the morning. The police will be summoned, they will assume that he got drunk and fell, hitting his head, and the prosecutor loses his only witness against Doctor Covington. Either way, we are in a good position. Oh, one more thing.” She opened the door to the hall, removing the key from the outside of the lock, then closed the door and locked it from the inside with the latch. “All is in order now. Thank you all for your help. Return to bed, and if the police come and question you about this, you know nothing. You heard nothing. It is a surprise to you, understand?” They all nodded. “Also, if they ask you about me, I was sent by the embassy to stay with Melinda as a courtesy. Ah, a translator, perhaps, if you like. I will assume that role in the morning, at the trial.” Again, they nodded, and she returned Janice’s pistol to Mack. “Keep it, just in case he awakens.” Mack and Sallie slipped out the balcony door, closing it behind them. Marie patted Mel on the arm. “You are safe. I will still stay with you here, however. Now try to sleep, Melinda.”
“What about you, Marie? Will you sleep?”
She shrugged. “I do not sleep much, it seems, since the war. Old habits are difficult to break.”
“That’s what Mack says. Ah don’t think that ah will sleep much, either.”
Marie looked at Mel. “In that case, do you play cards?”
Melinda had visited Jan early in the day at her cell. The pleasant young guard had just come on duty, and allowed Mel to help Jan pull herself together as much as possible under the austere circumstances which the cell afforded. Mel had fussed over Jan as she bathed from the sink, and had also brushed out Jan’s hair and fixed her pony tail back with a large beret. After words of reassurance, she had given her a long hug and kiss and was ushered out of the cell, leaving Jan alone to await the guards who would escort her to the court for the trial. Dutifully, they had appeared and handcuffed Jan’s hands in front of her, leading her out into the bright morning sun to the waiting police van. She was locked in the back, next to a bored gendarme, and the van lurched into motion.
At the courthouse, they led Jan into a back door and held her in a small hallway. When a clerk came out and said something to the gendarmes, they ushered her in through a door and walked her into the courtroom, opening a gate and motioning to a chair. She stood inside the prisoner’s dock, and only then cast a glance about the courtroom. The sight slightly overwhelmed her.
The courtroom was about two-thirds filled with participants and spectators. Jan looked about, studying the faces, and noted the benches filled with men and women. Some had writing tablets open on their laps, and were conversing softly. She assumed those to be the reporters of which Derea had warned her earlier. As her gaze traveled across the room, she noted two long tables in front of the spectators’ benches. Just behind one table, she recognized the familiar faces of Mack, Sallie, and Mel. They were dressed very nicely, and offered her smiles and furtive waves as she caught their eye. In response, she nodded and assumed an attitude of detached bravado, although her heart was pounding loudly and she felt a bit shaky. She placed her handcuffed hands on the railing of the prisoner’s dock in front of her to steady herself a bit, and swallowed hard. She then studied the tables. At the one in front of her friends sat Monsieur Derea, his briefcase open in front of him. He nodded his head gently and smiled. Next to him, turned about and speaking to Mel, was a young woman with shoulder-length light brown hair. At the other table, a man sat alone, papers in front of him. She assumed him to be the prosecutor. Her eyes trailed over to the judge’s bench. It was empty. The judge had not arrived, but the court reporter sat, machine at ready to record the proceedings. A couple of clerks milled about the courtroom.
One of the gendarmes motioned to Jan to sit, and she did so. They kept their places, one on either side of her, and wore weary expressions. Jan glanced from one to the other, then sighed deeply. Her handcuffs chafed a bit, and she wished that she could be rid of them.
The young woman seated next to Derea rose and walked across the courtroom toward the prisoner’s dock. A gendarme approached her, and they had a few words. She flashed credentials of some sort, and the gendarme allowed the young woman to speak with Janice. She stood just on the other side of the dock. “Doctor Covington, my name is Marie. I am from the embassy, and will act as your translator during this. When the judge enters and the trial begins, they will allow me to sit with you so that I can offer translation.”
“Are you the one who stayed with Mel?” She nodded. “Thank you. I appreciate it.”
“It was no problem. She is a delightful person.”
“She’s all right?”
Marie smiled. “Oh, yes. Quite fine. Please, do not worry.” She remained in her position next to one of the gendarmes, as the courtroom awaited the arrival of the judge and the start of the trial. Jan looked around the courtroom again, and noticed two men sitting in the back row near the door, away from the others. They had a strangely intimidating air about them, one not quite official but yet very assured. Jan leaned forward slightly. “Marie?”
She looked up. “Eh?”
“Who are those two palookas sitting in the back row?” She glanced, then laughed slightly.
“Ah, Sam and Andre. They are colleagues of mine. Embassy. Friends of yours, as well.”
“They look, um………”
“Yes. They are here to remind the court of its need for impartiality.” Jan made the association, and chuckled.
“I think I got it. Say, I don’t see Monsieur Venete here.”
Marie smiled, a mysterious grin. “I suspect that he had a bad night last night. He may be late, or he may not be here.”
“No, here he is now. Holy cow, he looks rough.” Marie glanced at the doors, and saw the lawyer enter. His expression was pained and haggard, and he wore a bandage around his head. Marie just chuckled.
“Yes, a bad night, I suppose.”
A clerk said something in a rather loud voice, and the courtroom instantly silenced and everyone stood. Jan followed suit, and the judge entered from a side door, wearing his official robes. He took his seat at the bench, and everyone sat. Marie motioned to one of the gendarmes, and he opened the prisoner’s dock to allow her in. She took her place next to Jan, and leaned close to whisper translations of the proceedings.
“The judge. We now start. They announce the case.” In the rapid-fire French of the clerk, Jan could discern her name being mentioned. At that, many faces in the courtroom cast a glance her way. “Just lawyer talk now. Ah, now you must plead. Stand up.” They both stood. “How do you plead to charge of felony theft? You must answer.”
Jan said loudly and clearly, “Not guilty.” Marie translated, and then pointed to the seat when the plea was recorded. They again sat, and Marie leaned close. “The prosecutor, he makes his statement. I will summarize it.” Jan saw the prosecutor stand and begin speaking, referring to his notes occasionally as he did so. “Just summarizing his evidence. He states that you had motive, opportunity and desire to steal these ah, potentially priceless documents. He says that you would know where to sell them. He says that your character is somewhat cloudy, as well, and he will prove all these things today.” He became silent and sat, and then Derea stood and spoke. “Stating his defense. He says that there is no evidence that you stole anything. He says that the state is offering only speculation.” Jan nodded. In the midst of speaking, a clerk approached Derea and handed him a note. He paused and glanced at it, then began speaking quite animatedly, waving the note. “Ah. He says new evidence important to your defense. Requests a ten-minute delay to speak with someone in the hall outside.” The judge responded. “The judge is opposed.” Jan saw the two palookas in the back rise and stand against the wall, eyes fixed unblinkingly on the judge. She noted the judge’s response as he saw the two men, then cleared his throat and spoke again, his hand gesturing. “He has changed his mind. He will allow it.” A silence fell over the court as Derea strode toward the doors and exited. A low murmur arose in the room, the judge stirring nervously in his seat as he waited. In a few minutes, Derea returned to the courtroom and walked briskly up to the judge’s bench. He had a few hushed words with the judge, who then motioned toward the prosecutor. He rose, and joined them at the bench. They whispered animatedly together, at times pointing fingers at each other. Jan guessed that the prosecutor was not at all happy with this new turn of events. Finally, the judge spoke loudly to the courtroom, bringing his gavel down to punctuate his last few words. He then rose and left by the side door, the two lawyers hurriedly retrieving their briefcases from their respective tables and following. As the door closed behind them, Marie explained, “They are taking conference together in his back rooms. About what, I do not know.”
Jan squirmed on the hard wooden seat and cast a glance toward the back of the courtroom. The two palookas had disappeared. “Where did your friends go?” Marie looked, then smiled.
“They are probably, ah, observing the conference.” Jan nodded. As they sat and waited, Jan noticed the clock on the wall. Five minutes went by, then ten, then fifteen minutes elapsed. She found the wait almost intolerable, wishing she could rise and pace to burn off some nervousness. Finally, a clerk emerged from the door and walked to the front of the spectator’s benches. He called out two names. They did not need translation.
“Monsieur Venete? Mademoiselle Pappas?” He motioned with a hand, and Mel rose to meet the clerk. Venete rose as well, slightly wobbly, and made his way to the front of the courtroom. The two cast uneasy glances at each other, and Mel kept her distance from the man, a fact that did not go unnoticed by Jan. She felt a slow burn come over her, and willed it down. Mel and Venete followed the clerk through the door. Jan returned her attention to the clock. Another five minutes passed, then ten. Finally, Jan turned to Marie.
“What the hell is going on?”
Marie shrugged. “Trust Derea.”
Another five minutes passed, and then a clerk came out and approached the prisoner’s dock. He spoke to the gendarmes, and they nodded. One of them said something to Marie, and opened the gate of the dock. Marie took Jan by the arm. “Oh, come. They want you back there as well.”
Jan rose and followed one gendarme, Marie staying by her side and the other gendarme taking his place behind her. They led her out of the courtroom and down a hall, finally ushering her through a door. She faced a large room lined with bookcases, in the center of which was a fairly large, round table. The judge sat at the table, looking very chagrined. Next to him sat the prosecutor, and by his side, Venete, who glowered visibly when Jan entered the room. As Jan’s eyes traveled around the table, she caught sight of Mel, who was smiling, and Derea, whose eyes were twinkling brightly through his wire-rimmed eyeglasses. On the other side of the table, a woman sat, back to Jan, dressed in dark clothing, a leather binder on the table in front of her. The gendarmes held out two chairs for Jan and Marie, and they took their seats at the table. Only then did Jan cast a glance toward the woman at the table. When she did, she felt her heart skip a beat, then pound wildly in her chest. Her expression must have slightly betrayed her surprise, as the woman smiled slightly when her eyes met Jan’s.
The judge was speaking now, and Marie leaned close to Jan to translate. “The judge is saying that new evidence has appeared which may change entirely the matter at hand. Prosecutor and defense have agreed to air it here instead of in court.” Jan watched Derea as he, while speaking, withdrew a small tape recorder from his briefcase and set it on the table. “He is offering evidence that Venete has attempted to corrupt the process of justice. This is a serious accusation.” Derea clicked the switch on the tape recorder, and the small reels turned. Tinny-sounding voices echoed through the room. Jan could hear Venete’s voice, then Mel’s, as their conversation from the day before replayed itself. Jan listened to the conversation as Marie, at Derea’s suggestion, offered a running translation of the words in French.
As the scene replayed before the audience, Jan could feel a slow, deep anger grow. She narrowed her eyes toward Venete, but he did not meet her gaze. She then looked to Mel, who sat erect and proud at the table, hands folded, a picture of dignity. When the recorded conversation was finished, Derea clicked off the recorder and plopped a document down on the table in front of the judge. Marie said, “The written translation.” Then, Derea spoke again. Marie whispered, “Now he offers evidence that the chateau does not belong to Venete at all. It still belongs to the Countess d’Agee. He has no blood connection to her and has usurped its ownership illegally. Therefore, the documents supposedly stolen by you do not belong to him and he has no right to offer charges against you.”
Jan whispered, “She’s dead.”
“No. She sits at the table with us.”
“What??” Jan again glanced over to the woman seated at the far end of the table. The same timeless beauty, the same luxurious golden hair, the same sad, wise eyes which visited her in the cell that night and the bedroom before that peered back at her. Her eyes caught Jan’s and held them for a brief instant. In that instant, Jan thrilled. I know you now. I know who you really are. Yes. As if understanding the thought, the woman smiled ever so slightly and nodded almost imperceptibly. She then began to speak to the assembled group, in French. Marie whispered into Jan’s ear, “She identifies herself. She is well-known here. The judge recognizes her, and does not question that she is indeed the Countess d’Agee. The prosecutor agrees.”
The prosecutor now spoke quite energetically. Marie whispered, “He says that it does not matter whether the documents belong to Venete or the countess. They do not belong to you. This is felony theft. The government makes the accusation now, not Venete. The documents are still missing. You had motive and opportunity to steal them, and would recognize their value. He still wishes to press the trial.”
Derea now spoke equally energetically, pointing around the table as he did so. Marie leaned close to Jan’s ear. “He says that the documents are not missing. He says that they are in the possession of their rightful owner, the countess. Therefore, there has been no theft by you. If there has been theft, it is of the countess’ property by Venete. He wishes to offer proof.”
Venete argued, slamming his hand down on the table. Marie translated. “He says that he is her brother. He quotes the document offering that proof. He says that she has been declared dead. He is entitled to her lands by law, as there are no other relatives. He regrets that he does not have the document on him, but it is filed at the courthouse. He quotes the date and number.”
At that, Jan saw Derea rise and produce several documents from his briefcase. He looked at the first, then at Venete and said something. Marie whispered, “He asks the full name of Venete.”
Venete replied, “Emil Andre Venete.”
Derea nodded, then spoke again. “He asks the date of his birth.” Venete replied again. Derea then held up a document. “It is Venete’s birth certificate. He was born in La Rochelle, on that date. His parents’ names are mentioned.” Derea now held up a second document. “He offers now the birth certificate of the countess. He notes that the parents’ names are different.” Derea plopped the two certificates down in front of the judge, then held up a third. “He now offers a document establishing a blood connection between Venete and the countess. He says that the tax stamps are missing. He notes that it is signed by this same judge. The judge did not yet occupy a position of authority when the document was dated. He says it is a forgery.” As Derea threw the third document down in front of the judge, the official paled just slightly.
Derea paused for a second, then held up the last document. It was emblazoned with the eagle and swastika of the Nazi party. Marie whispered, “Now he offers proof that the judge was a member of the French Nazi party. He reminds the judge of the penalty for forgery of official documents, and the fact that such former party members are not well tolerated in France now.”
The judge sat back in his chair when he saw the last document waved in front of his face, his expression slack with surprise. The judge recovered his composure, then began gesturing and speaking. “The judge says that none of this matters. That, as far as he is concerned, the stolen documents are still missing, and that evidence points to you. He wants to press the trial.”
Derea replied very strongly, and Marie translated, “He urges the judge to press the trial in public and reminds him of the reporters in the courtroom. He dares him.” After a moment of silence, Derea continued, and Marie kept up her running translation. “He says that there is no basis for theft charges, as the documents are not missing. They are in the possession of their rightful owner.” At that, Derea pointed to the distant side of the table, toward the countess. She opened the leather binder, unfolding it and laying it out on the table. She moved a cloth aside, and the ancient parchments were evident to all. As she did so, she spoke quite clearly. Marie translated, “She says that she has possession of the documents. You never had them, except to examine them in the basements of the chateau. You are without blame in this.”
The judge protested loudly, waving his hand and speaking. Marie whispered, “The judge does not believe that those are the documents. He wants to know how she came into possession of them.” The countess responded, and Marie continued, “She says that she reclaimed them from Venete’s offices, where he himself had hidden them.” Jan looked over toward Venete, who was sitting, head cradled in his hands.
The prosecutor stood and eyed the judge very severely, then cast a withering glance at Venete. He picked up the certificates from in front of the judge, perused them quickly, and began speaking now, quite loudly. “He, ah, says that this is most interesting. He was unaware of this situation. It seems obvious to him that, since the countess is alive, Venete’s claim upon the chateau and its contents is illegal, and was fraudulently attempted. As representative of the State’s interest in this, he wants to know more about this matter.”
The countess stood, pointing toward Venete and the judge, her voice rising. “She accuses the judge and Venete of conspiring to usurp her land and other holdings. She also claims that Venete faked the theft of these documents in order to coerce Mademoiselle Pappas into allowing him to violate her honor. She demands that justice be done, that her chateau and possessions be returned to her, and that the charges of theft against you be dropped.”
The prosecutor nodded. He spoke to the assembled group, leaning forward with his hands on the table. Marie echoed, “He says that, assuming that the documents in front of the countess are indeed the ones in question, he agrees. He sees much evidence of wrongdoing here, but it is not by you. He promises that, as representative of the State, he will seek punishment, if this is true.”
The judge now stood, red-faced and yelling, and the prosecutor walked toward a side door. He opened it a crack, waved his hand, and a police official entered. He pointed toward Venete and the judge, and whispered something. The official blanched a bit, witnessing the shouting, then waved to the two gendarmes standing next to Janice. They left her side and conferred with the police official, then stood, looking nervously. Jan, watching the swirl of activity around her, noted that during the judge’s outburst, the two palookas who had been standing silently on one corner of the room were advancing and taking places to either side of the countess, their eyes fixed unblinkingly on the judge. While this swirl of activity took place, Marie kept up a running commentary. “The judge says that this is ridiculous. He should hold us all for contempt of court. He has never been so outraged in his life.” As the two palookas advanced and stared hard at the judge, he began to falter, then stopped speaking. His hand went unconsciously to a mark on his forehead which appeared to be an abrasion. He cleared his throat nervously and then said something, gesturing toward the countess and the documents. Marie said, “He does not believe that those are the documents in question. If he is to drop the theft charges against you, he demands proof of their authenticity.”
Derea stood and spoke to the judge. “He wants Melinda to verify the authenticity of the documents, or you.” The judge shook his head and muttered something. “He won’t allow it. Both of you are not believable witnesses. He wants someone else to verify them. Someone who isn’t in this room. If there is anyone, that is.”
The prosecutor now spoke. “He says that the State is also very interested in the authenticity of the ancient documents, as the validity of the charges against you depend on that, in his eyes. He asks if there is anyone else that can attest to their validity.”
Jan said, “Yeah. Mack. He’s in the courtroom.” One of the two palookas looked at Jan, then said something to the prosecutor. He looked at the man, then at the judge, then waved to a gendarme, speaking further. The gendarme nodded and left the room. The judge sat down, and there was a very uneasy silence in the room for several moments. The door opened again and the gendarme entered, followed by Mack and the court reporter. She quickly set down her machine, assuming a seat behind it. Mack cast eyes around the room as he attempted to appraise the situation. The prosecutor pointed at Marie. They spoke for a moment, she nodding affirmatively to his questions.
Marie looked at Jan. “I am to translate this. Excuse, please.” Jan nodded, placed her elbows on the table, and rested her chin on her cuffed hands, watching intently. The prosecutor spoke to Mack. Marie stood and translated, “Monsieur MacKenzie, you are needed as an expert witness here.”
Mack replied, “What can I do?”
The prosecutor spoke again, and Marie pointed to the leather binder open in front of the countess. “You are to examine those documents, and tell us what they are.” Mack nodded, and walked over to the side of the table occupied by the countess. At that, Venete protested loudly. The prosecutor responded, then looked toward the judge. The judge hesitated, then looked up and around at the faces gathered in the room. When he caught sight of the two palookas, he slowly nodded permission. Venete sputtered for a moment, then stared hard at the judge. The man avoided his gaze. The prosecutor began speaking again, and Marie translated, looking at Mack. “You are to be sworn in. Wait a moment. Do not look at the documents just yet.” Mack nodded. The prosecutor motioned toward Mack, and a gendarme approached him and placed a Bible on the table in front of Mack. The judge looked at Mack, then waved a hand with an air of resignation. The prosecutor spoke, Marie’s words offering a running translation. “Raise your right hand and place your left hand on the Bible.” Mack did so. “Do you affirm in the sight of God that what you will say from now on is the truth, only the truth?”
“I do.” Marie translated, then the prosecutor continued in his questioning, Marie translating back and forth.
“What is your name?”
“What is your level of education?”
“I hold a doctorate in history.”
“What is your current occupation?”
“Historian. Currently lecturer in history, University of Maryland.”
“What ancient languages can you read?”
“I have moderate fluency in Latin, Old English, and classical Greek.”
“Do you know the accused?”
“You are friends with her?”
The prosecutor studied Mack very severely. Marie translated his words. “Do you understand that you are under oath here? That the penalty for perjury is quite severe in our country? Ten years minimum in prison?”
The prosecutor nodded. Marie translated his next words. “Look at the documents on the table. Take your time, study them, and tell us what they are. Can you do that?”
“Yes.” Mack leaned forward, gazing at the documents, as the countess gently pushed the leather binder toward him. He scanned each one quickly, gently lifting each one to peruse the next below it. After some moments, he straightened up. “They are letters and poems in classical Greek text.”
“Who wrote them? Can you tell us that?”
“Some contain the signature of the poetess Sappho of Mytilene. Some contain the signature of Gabrielle, warrior-bard of Potidaea.”
“Are these the documents which are missing from the basement of the chateau? The documents which the accused is under arrest for stealing?”
“They are all there? None are missing?”
“They are all here, every one of them.”
“Thank you. Monsieur Derea, do you have questions for the witness?” Derea stood and spoke in French. Marie echoed, in English, “No thank you. I am satisfied.” The prosecutor nodded, then Marie translated his words. “Thank you. Doctor MacKenzie, you are dismissed. Please return to your seat in the courtroom. We will call you again if we need you.” Mack nodded, then walked to the door. A gendarme ushered him out.
In the courtroom, the crowd was unsettled, shifting on their seats and murmuring amongst themselves. Sallie sat on the hard wooden bench, rubbing her temples and groaning inwardly at the headache which was returning with a vengeance. The room was becoming warm with the press of bodies, and she felt a dampness of perspiration wet her dress slightly. Mack walked out of the back rooms and returned to his seat next to her. Sallie leaned over and grasped his arm.
“Mack, what the hell is going on? What did they want you for in there?”
He patted her hand. “Don’t think I’m supposed to talk about it just yet. Tell you after this is over.”
“Is it ever going to be over? My ass is asleep from this seat, and my headache is pounding.”
“I’m sorry, honey. I think it will be ended very soon now. Try to hang on.” Their conversation was interrupted by the shouting of voices from behind the closed door to the back rooms. The courtroom instantly quieted, allowing the voices to echo more clearly. After a minute or two, the sound of a scuffle was heard. The door to the room flung open. Two gendarmes ushered Venete out, hustling him down the aisle through the courtroom, leaving through the large courtroom entrance. Sallie noted that his hands were cuffed in front of him. At that, the room hushed for a moment, then quickly became a dull roar of questions and excited conversation. Sallie watched the spectacle, then turned wide, dark eyes at Mack.
“Did what I think just happened really happen?” In response, Mack just grinned from ear to ear and nodded. He then peered at Sallie, leaned over to her, and whispered, “Hey, good-lookin’, have I ever told you that I’m a sucker for big brown eyes?”
Sallie grinned and punched him playfully in the arm. “Only about a million times. Be serious, Mack. How come you always get frisky in the most serious situations? Jan’s life is in danger of being ruined here, and you’re flirting with me?”
“Oh, I don’t think she’s got a problem. Wait and see.”
The door to the back rooms again opened, and several people poured out. The prosecutor and Derea took their places at their respective tables. Mel followed, and sat next to Sallie. Jan was ushered out by a gendarme and seated in the prisoner’s dock. Marie followed, and sat next to her. Derea turned around to whisper to Mack, Mel and Sallie. “We are almost done. Please, be patient.” At a clerk’s announcement, the entire courtroom quieted and stood. The judge appeared and took his seat at his bench. Everyone sat, and the judge rapped his gavel and began speaking. He did not speak for long, and then rapped his gavel again, stood, and rapidly departed back through the door. The courtroom broke out into pandemonium, reporters dashing for the door, others standing and trying to depart. The prosecutor stood and walked over to Derea. They held a brief conversation, then shook hands and the prosecutor departed. Mack, Mel and Sallie looked about them in wonder, then at each other and shrugged their shoulders. As their eyes traveled back to Derea, they saw Janice bounce across the floor of the courtroom, hands free of their handcuffs, and catch Derea in a resounding bear hug.
“Derea, I love ya. You’re a champ!” At that, he just smiled in his most charming, self-depreciating manner.
“Not at all, Doctor Covington.” He turned to Mack, Mel, and Sallie. “Ah, the charges have been dropped. She is free to go.” Mel felt a bit dizzy, then recovered quickly as she felt Jan embrace her. She held on tightly, eyes closed for a minute, then looked down at the blonde head in front of her. Janice’s hazel eyes absolutely sparkled, and she leaned up slightly and planted a hardy kiss on Mel’s mouth, unmindful of any observers.
“Oh, Jan, ah’m so glad. Now, let’s get out of here, shall we?”
Jan stepped back, waving a finger in the air. “Not yet. There’s someone I’ve got to speak to.”
Marie joined the group. “If you mean the countess, she will await you at the chateau. She wishes all of you to be her guests there as soon as you can return. She is most anxious to see you all.”
Sallie exclaimed, “The countess? Hey, fill me in. I thought she was dead.”
Jan shook her head. “Not by a long shot.” As Sallie’s expression, Jan just laughed. “Long story. Let’s talk about it on the way back, hey?”
Sallie assumed a put-out expression, hand on one hip, eyes squinting at the group, finger waving. “You guys have some explaining to do.”
There was a round of laughter at that, then Jan turned to Marie, who stood next to Derea. “Thanks, both of you. I owe you guys. Look, Monsieur Derea, about your fee……”
He waved a hand in dismissal of the thought. “It was my pleasure, Doctor Covington. No fee is necessary.” Jan stood open-mouthed for a second, and Marie laughed brightly.
“Don’t let him fool you. He is being paid by the American Embassy.”
Jan raised an eyebrow, and then joked, “Well, tell you what. If I ever meet that girlfriend of yours, I’ll tell her what a good man you are. Maybe she’ll believe me.”
Marie smiled. “I believe him, Doctor Covington. I always have. I just like to keep him guessing.” At that, she looped an arm around Derea’s shoulders and kissed him on the cheek.
“You? You’re his girl?”
Marie looked affectionately at Derea. “I’d better be the one you were talking about.”
Derea just shrugged. “Ah, you are, Cherie. Believe me, I know better than to be unfaithful to a girl who carries a gun and knows how to use a tape recorder.” He glanced back at Jan. “But there is something you could do, if you would be so kind?”
Jan waved a hand. “Yeah, sure. Name it.”
Derea rummaged in his briefcase and brought forth a book. Holding it out to Jan, he shyly inquired, “Would you please inscribe my book?” Jan accepted the book and stared down at it. She noted the title: ‘The Xena Legends’. Underneath, in smaller print, her own name echoed back at her: ‘by J. Covington, Ph.D.’
Jan smiled. “Honored. Got a pen?” Derea pulled a fountain pen out of his pocket and offered it. Jan took the pen and walked over to the table. She lay the book open to its front page, unscrewed the cap from the pen, and scribbled a message. When she finished, she offered the book back to Derea, along with his pen.
He opened the book and read the inscription, nodding pleasantly. “You are too kind.” Noting the quizzical expressions of those around him, he gestured and asked, “May I?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah, sure.” He held the open book out for the others to read. There, in Janice’s bold penmanship, was the following note:
Thanks to my knight in shining armor for rescuing this somewhat tarnished damsel in distress.
Always, Jan Covington.
When the group emerged from the front doors of the courthouse, they were mobbed by a group of reporters, all clicking cameras and shouting in French. Jan blinked a bit in the bright sun, and muttered, “Holy crap! What’s this?”
Derea smiled. “It would seem that your fame precedes you, Doctor Covington. They wish to ask you questions. The press, you know. Do you wish to make a statement to them?”
Jan shrugged. “Why not?” Derea held up a hand and shouted, quieting the crowd of reporters. He said a few words, Marie translating for the four Americans.
“He says that you will make a statement to them. What do you wish to say?”
Jan looked at Mel, then grinned. “Tell them that their jail sucks, the judge was crooked and I can’t wait to get a bath, have a good stiff drink and then chase Mel around the bedroom naked.” Mack and Sallie collapsed in laughter behind her, but Mel just looked at Jan with horror.
“Janice Covington, you can’t say that!”
Derea, who had overheard the whispered remarks, just grinned from ear to ear and then began speaking to the reporters. Marie, still laughing from Jan’s unrestrained comments, began translating.
“He says that you were treated very nicely in the jail and are impressed by the deep desire of the French people to see true justice done. You thank them all for their concern and are looking forward to seeing for yourself the legendary greatness of Paris.”
At that, the crowd of reporters nodded, smiling, and began shouting questions. Jan fielded a few, Marie translating for the crowd. After a bit, Derea again raised his hand and spoke. The crowd began disbursing, and Derea turned to Jan.
“I have asked them to give you time to rest and recover from your ordeal. If any want personal interviews, they have only to request them through my office, and perhaps you may grant a couple. Shall we go?”
The group left the courthouse stairs and walked over to the cars parked nearby. They stopped next to the touring car. Derea held out a hand to Jan. “Doctor Covington, it has been an honor.”
Jan took the hand. “Call me Jan, will ya?”
He bowed slightly. “Raymond, please. You still have my card?” She nodded. “You can reach either Marie or myself there. We will take our leave of you now.”
“Look, at least allow us to show our appreciation for all you’ve done. Say, you two can be our guests at dinner in Paris tonight. We’ll give you a call when we settle into the hotel.”
Derea and Marie brightened at that. “We would be delighted. See you then?”
“Done.” A round of handshakes and hugs followed, and the group split up, Derea and Marie heading for a black embassy sedan, the rest piling into the touring car. Mack held out the keys for Jan, but she shook her head. “Nah. I’m sitting in the back with Mel. You drive, Mack.”
He raised an eyebrow. “This is a first. You two behave back there, will you?”
At that, Mel spoke up. “That depends on how fast you drive, Mack.”
The touring car pulled out onto the road, winding through the village and then out into the countryside toward the distant chateau. At Sallie’s insistence, Jan outlined the events which transpired in the back room at the courthouse. Sallie sat turned around on the front seat next to Mack, soaking in every word. As the conversation fell silent, Sallie suddenly got a puzzled look on her face and turned around to speak to Mack. “Honey?” He grunted in response to her query. “Did you just run over something?”
“No. Why do you ask?”
“Then what’s that smell?” She sniffed a couple of times. “It smells like……a locker room or a dead animal or something.”
Mack chuckled, Mel placed a hand over her mouth to hide a grin, and Jan just rolled her eyes. “Jeez. No respect. I get no respect.”
Mack came to Jan’s rescue. “They didn’t let her bathe in jail, Sallie.”
Sallie cast wide, dark eyes at Jan, then slumped down in her seat with a bright scarlet blush on her face and a mumbled, “Oh. Sorry.”
Mel patted Jan on the head, smiled a most endearing smile, and just offered, “That’s all right, darlin’. You’re still the cutest thing on two legs, even if you do stink.”
In their room at the chateau, Jan emerged from the bathroom freshly scrubbed. She dressed quickly in clean but casual clothes, Mel gazing up from her book to admire her. She watched Jan brush out her hair, then reach for her beret.
“Wait a moment.” Mel rose and walked over to Jan, turning her first one way and then another by the shoulders. “Do me a big favor?”
“You always put your hair back in that pony-tail. Leave it loose, will you? You look absolutely marvelous like that.”
“Really? Hell, I don’t even think about it.” She noted the look in Mel’s eyes. “You like it down that much?”
“Oh, you have no idea.”
“Well, sure, since you like it.” She cast the beret back onto the bathroom sink and turned back to the door, just as Mel caught her and planted a long kiss on her mouth. When Jan came up for air, she whispered, “Mel, you’re messing with a girl who’s been in jail. Keep that up and we’re gonna end up being rude to the countess.”
“Oh, mah goodness, you’re quite right. Come on.”
They found their way to the dining room, where Mack and Sallie were sitting at the table and chatting with the countess. At their entrance, Mack rose and greeted them. The countess turned and smiled, then stood and met them, offering a slight hug and a kiss on either cheek to both women. She waved them to the table, then offered them tea. As she poured, she spoke in fluent English, traced with an undefinable accent. “I am delighted that all is well for you, ah… may I call you Janice?”
“Please do. Jan, if you like.”
“I am Alais. Everyone around here refers to me as ‘the countess’, but I find that I miss hearing my own name spoken.”
Jan accepted the cup and saucer of hot tea with a nod of thanks. “You know, I’m really grateful to you for showing up when you did.”
“Oh, the court?”
Jan met her eyes, those wise, sad eyes which she recognized. “That, too.” The eyes twinkled slightly, then Alais addressed her next thought to all four of her guests.
“I am given to understand that it was the four of you who found the remains of Xena and Gabrielle last year, in Greece?” As she looked around the table, she saw four heads nod. “Ah. I understand that it was quite a dangerous adventure.”
Jan chuckled, “Guess you could say that we had help. Er, friends in high places?”
Alais smiled wistfully. “So I am told. The ancestors will always protect the descendants. Melinda, you are reputed to be a descendant of Xena?”
“Why, yes, ah suppose so. Last of the line, so, ah……. ‘they’ tell me. And Jan, here, is…..”
Alais finished the sentence. “Yes. I saw the resemblance before, but now, with your hair loose like that, it is incredible. You are so much like her, like Gabrielle.”
Sallie leaned forward. “You saw the pictures of the tomb murals, Alais?”
Janice spoke before Alais could answer. “No. She saw them.”
Sallie’s eyes traveled back and forth from Alais to Jan. “You mean their ghosts, spirits, whatever, like we did?”
Jan shook her head slowly. “No. I mean…. them.” There was dead silence at the table. Alais and Jan just sat still for a moment, their expressions gentle and warm, their eyes fixed one upon another quite like dear old friends might sit across from each other at a café table. Finally, Jan softly inquired, “The goddess Aphrodite, I presume?”
Alais sat upright in her chair, a picture of grace and timeless dignity, her hands folded in her lap. “That was a long time ago. We immortals were like wayward, spoiled children then. We toyed with humanity as little ones play with dolls, never wise enough to understand the consequences of our tantrums. How we hurt you so, even when we only wanted to do good.”
Sallie leaned forward, totally fascinated. “So exactly how long have you been alive, ah… Alais?”
“Our exact origins are lost in the mists of history. In mortal years, I cannot say, my dear.”
Mack offered a guess. “Let me guess at, maybe, fifteen thousand years?”
“Perhaps so. When one is immortal, one does not count the years so. We had a purpose once. It has long since passed. There are but few of us left, and we have faded into the ranks of humanity.”
Mel spoke now. “And live for a time as a mortal, before you disappear to assume another life? After all, you do not age, ah take it?”
“We do not age. What mortals wish for most, we have. It is a curse, believe me.”
Jan assumed a puzzled expression. “But Derea had your birth certificate in court.”
Alais smiled slightly and snapped her fingers. A document appeared on the table in front of them. “I have found that my powers have diminished somewhat over the centuries, but I can still do some tricks. Whenever I assume a new identity, I always provide the local government with documents to prove myself.”
Mack reached out and pulled the paper to him, examining it. “I’ll be damned,” he muttered. He passed it over to Sallie, who studied it with rapt fascination.
Jan took a sip of tea as she listened, then placed the cup down. “How did you know I was in trouble?”
“As I say, the ancestors protect the descendants. I had a visit from an old, old friend.”
“Even so. When I became aware of the import of the situation, I felt that it was imperative to make things right. You see, she was worried only about you. She was, as usual, selfless in that. I, however, felt another obligation pull at me in addition to your safety. The poems and letters which were involved had been buried in these basements for a reason.”
Jan quizzically cocked her head to one side slightly. “They were never meant to see the light of day again, were they?”
“Never. When Venete got his hands upon them, I knew that he would sell them. They would be made public, perhaps. That, I could not allow. I reclaimed them from him. I had intended to keep their existence secret, but you were arrested for their disappearance. That was intolerable. I knew then that both the letters and I would have to make a public appearance.”
Jan nodded. “And I appreciate that more than I can ever tell you, trust me.”
Mel looked at the countess. “Tell me, Alais, why was it so important that they be kept secret? Ah have read them. They are simply beautiful expressions of affection.”
“Yes, they are. An affection which never should have been, you see. My fault, it was.” Alais sighed deeply, then took a sip of tea. When she began speaking, her voice and expression seemed to reflect a time long past. “How I loved that little bard. She was so sweet, and yet so strong, so noble. I loved her as I loved my Sappho. In them and in Xena, I saw the best humanity had to offer. Xena brought Gabrielle’s strength into perfection, you know. They were connected by a bond so close that it became ageless. ‘Soul-mates’ is the term in English, I believe. I should have known better than to do what I did.”
Jan sat forward, placing her forearms on the table. “You put her and Sappho together?”
“Gabrielle was so distraught after Xena’s death. The grief threatened to destroy her, I feared. As the goddess of love, I should have understood how she and Xena were bonded. I didn’t. All I saw and felt from her was aching loneliness. I feared for her sanity, you know. She lived alone, she traveled alone, she ate alone, she slept alone. She withdrew into herself so that her fire, her passion seemed dead. Then I heard the solitary prayers of my Sappho in the night, my Sappho who existed to love and be loved. It seemed the right thing to do at the time. I only sought to make them both happy again.”
“But it didn’t work?”
“It broke four hearts, in the end. In my ignorance, I fear that I made a terrible time for them all.”
Sallie softly interjected, “Four hearts?”
“When one has not known a certain love, they do not miss it. When one has known a love, when one has been filled with that glorious connection to another heart, its later absence is devastating to the spirit. Yes, the untimely affair between the two bards brought suffering to four souls.”
Sallie puzzled. “Gabrielle and Sappho were two, obviously. Who were the others?”
Mel answered, “Xena was the third.”
Alais continued, “Yes. In those years after Xena’s death, Gabrielle was not alone, as she and I often thought. Xena was by her side constantly, watching over her. I should have seen that. In my naivete, I did not. When the two bards gave way to their passion, it struck Xena to the very soul. She had to watch it unfold, you see, as she watched over her love from her nearby station in the timelessness of the next life. What that must have been like for her, to see her soul’s mate in the embrace of another! She finally reached through the realms to appear to Gabrielle.”
Jan nodded. “That’s when Gabrielle left Sappho.”
“She left, wrapped not only in the agony of her separation from Xena, but now burdened with the knowledge of the disappointment, the anguish of heart which the affair had caused in both Sappho and Xena. She left worse than she arrived. It was not long after that, as I recall, that she implored me to release her from her despair. I watched by her side as she finally found that release in her own death.”
Alais looked at Mack. “You are known as an historian. Do you recall the legends?”
He nodded. “It is said that Sappho, in response to her unrequited love for the boatman Phaon, hurled herself off a cliff into the ocean below and died.”
Alais smiled sadly. “So the legends go. It was not for Phaon.”
Jan said, “The Lover’s Cliff? It was for Gabrielle.”
Alais concluded, “And so, you see, within a half-year of mortal time after that, both my beloved Sappho and my dear little Gabrielle had taken their own lives. I have wept for that mistake for almost two thousand years now.”
Sallie said, “The fourth heart? It was yours, wasn’t it?” Alais nodded.
“Which brings us to the letters and poems.”
Alais looked at Jan. “Yes. I attempted to make some amends. As she lay on her deathbed, I promised an old, old friend that I would keep the knowledge of this tragic story silent for all time. It was, as I remember, her last request. I fear that, once again, I have failed Gabrielle.” She rose and walked to a bureau, opening the drawer. She withdrew the leather binder and hugged it close to her, returning to the table. As she laid the binder on the center of the table, she looked at the four faces. “It is in your hands now. I know that you will treat their story gently, but I fear that an ignorant world will just make jokes over it. They will think the story a plaything for their amusement, and offer disrespect to their memories.”
Jan looked at Sallie. “It’s your research.”
Sallie shook her head. “I gave it to you. What do you wish to do, Jan?” Jan looked around the table, studying the faces which gazed at her. After a long moment, she pulled the binder toward her and opened it. She picked up the ancient parchments and stood from the table, walking over to the fireplace. Holding the documents out in one hand, she pulled her Zippo out of her pocket with the other and flipped it open.
Before Jan struck the flint, she looked at the occupants of the table. “Are we all in agreement on this?” Mack nodded silently. Sallie did the same. Jan looked at Mel, who sat silently for a moment, then spoke for the group.
“Burn it, Jan.”
Jan struck the flint, and held the corner of the parchments to the flame. As it caught and spread, she held the documents out and thrust them into the fireplace. They burned down into cinders, blackened and smoking, the writing obliterated for all time. Jan clicked the lighter shut and walked back to the table, sitting in silence and staring at the cup of tea in front of her. No one spoke. After a bit, she looked up, shaking her head slightly to toss her hair out of her face. “Well, there goes my excavation of Sappho’s home, I guess. The directions to her house were in there.”
“No they weren’t, Jan. Ah made notes. Perhaps we can still find it.”
Alais added, “When you prepare to seek it out, Jan, write me. I will show you exactly where to find it.” She shrugged and added, “After all, I’ve been there, you know.”
Jan grinned at the joke. “Suppose you have at that. Say, how do you feel now?”
“Thank you, I feel better than I have in two thousand years.”
“Do you think that Aphrodite will weep for them any more?”
“I’m quite sure that Aphrodite is deeply grateful to you all.” She rose and walked to a china cabinet, returning with glasses and a decanter bottle. Offering one glass out to each, she filled them all, and then raised her own glass in a toast. “To the best that humanity has to offer, and which is gathered at my table today.” They drank the toast, and as they set their glasses down, Mack commented on the liquor.
“Thank you. I don’t call it ‘Napoleon’s Brandy’ for nothing.”
Mack looked down at the glass, then back at her with a shocked look. “You’re kidding!”
In return, Alais just smiled a knowing little smile and added, “I am quite surprised that it still exists. That scoundrel Venete seems to have consumed much of my private stock.”
Sallie spoke up at that. “Yes, I’m curious about something, Alais. May I ask you a question?” At her nod, Sallie continued, “If you’re immortal, how did you come to allow the Gestapo to arrest you? It must have been in your power to elude them.”
Mack added, “That’s true. If the God of War is any indication, immortals can manipulate the elements, bend the laws of nature and so on. What went on there?”
“As I suggested, we do not age. From time to time, we must simply fade from the life we are leading and reappear somewhere else to establish a new life. That is how we traverse the ages in this realm. We must not, above all, attract attention to ourselves. When the Gestapo arrested me, I knew that they would spirit me away. I saw that as a marvelous opportunity to simply disappear, so I allowed it.” She shook her head slightly. “What happened to me next, I never could have anticipated.”
Sallie leaned forward, eyes wide. “You actually went to the camps, didn’t you?”
“Yes. You see, I was taken with those who sought shelter in my basements. We were kept together, under constant watch. I was never alone. They then loaded us into a railroad boxcar, locking us inside. They counted us as we entered, and made it very clear that any escape would result in the immediate death of everyone else in the car. As you can imagine, they were very thorough. I simply had no opportunity to disappear. The others would have been killed. So, I was forced to maintain my presence there until we reached the camps. I then looked for the first opportunity I could find to be alone so I could simply vanish. It was not for a while, I am afraid.”
Sallie questioned her. “You were actually in there?”
“Oh, yes. It was quite some time before I could absent myself from the others to effect my escape. When I finally did so, I sought to spend time away from humanity entirely, so completely had the awful spectacle affected me. I sought out the mountains and wilderness. I did not even wish to return here after the war. I only returned when Gabrielle informed me of your situation here.”
“What did you see in those camps, Alais?”
Alais sighed. “I have no words to describe it. I have seen innumerable wars. I have lived through the Black Death, the Revolution, the religious inquisitions. But of all that I have seen over the ages, those scenes will stay with me most strikingly. The absolute agony of the human spirit there defied any belief.” She pulled back the cuff of her sleeve to reveal a series of numbers tattooed on her wrist in blue ink. “They numbered us like cattle. It took them three times, with me. They could not pierce my skin, you know. On the third time, I allowed it so as not to attract attention to myself.” She gazed down at her wrist. “I could simply will it away, I suppose, but somehow I cannot bring myself to do that. Perhaps, one day far from now, I might. Not just yet.”
Sallie rose from the table, her hand over her mouth. She mumbled an “Excuse me,” and hurried from the room. The others watched her go, and then glanced at Mack. He offered a pained expression and an explanation.
“Sallie’s Jewish, you know. Near as we can figure, she lost an uncle, an aunt, and three cousins roughly her own age in those camps. She remembers visiting them before the war, and their playing together as children.”
Alais replied, “Ah, I should not have mentioned it.”
“No, it’s okay. She’s probably in the room. I’ll go and sit with her for a bit, if you don’t mind.” Mack made to rise, but Alais placed a hand on his wrist.
“No, Mack. Let her alone for just a while. Sometimes, the purging of one’s emotions is a private affair. Sit with us, eh? She will be grateful to have been left alone.” He slowly returned to his seat. “Now, let us speak of happier things. I understand that you wish to see Paris? Wonderful idea. Why don’t you plan to do that today? Of course, you are welcome to stay with me at any time, but you have had a difficult ordeal lately. Look, go into the city and see the marvelous sights. Stay for several days, if you wish. I can recommend the most wonderful hotel. It overlooks the Seine. Have fun. Be in love! Then, when you are rested, come again to my chateau and continue your researches. There is still much in the basements to study. Trust me, you have not found it all. Jan, I believe that you and Melinda were especially interested in the poems of Sappho? Come again to me, in several days. I will show you something that will astound you, eh? Besides, it will take me some time to begin to return my chateau to proper condition. The Germans looted much of it, but all it takes is money and time.” She waved her hands as she made the next joke. “I am immortal. I have plenty of time. Besides, I want to rid my property of the possessions of Venete, and reclaim my rooms. Now, go and have fun. Give me a few days to clean up around here.”
“Sounds like a terrific idea, Alais. Guess our budget can string out for a few days in Paris.”
Alais rolled her eyes. “Oh, of course. How stupid of me. Allow me.” With that, she snapped her fingers. “Now, have fun. Go be fabulously in love, in Paris. I will have the car brought around for you, and my man will drive you there. Go and pack, and return to me when you feel ready.” With that, she rose and beamed a smile at the three sitting at the table, then hurried out of the room.
Mack got a strangely puzzled expression on his face, then reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a wad of Frank notes. “What the hell? Where’d this come from?” He flipped through them and muttered, “Holy Christ! There must be thousands here.”
Jan rummaged in her pocket as well, and brought forth a second wad of colorful paper money. She and Mack traded glances, and then grinned broadly at each other. “Hot damn, Mack. What say we take our women and hit the bricks in Paris?”
“Best idea I’ve heard all day, old pal.” At that, all three rose from the table and made for the stairs. Mack held out an arm each to Jan and Melinda, and said, “Mademoiselles?” They each took an arm, and tread in unison toward their rooms. As they ascended the stairs, Jan laughed brightly.
“Funny how things work out. This morning, I was stinkin’. Now, I’m stinkin’ rich!”
Mel added, “And, Janice Covington, ah’ll take you either way!”
Jan, Mel, Mack and Sallie sat at the table in the upscale restaurant, the wine warming their conversation and the pleasant companionship completing the mood. Two seats sat vacant. Mel eyed the seats and looked over at Jan. “Are you sure they understood you correctly?”
Jan nodded. “Oh, yeah. They said they might be a few minutes late.”
Sallie pointed, her large, dark eyes excited. “There they are now.” She waved, and the pleasant young French couple joined them at the table. Mack stood, gesturing toward the two empty chairs. Derea held out a chair for Marie, he and Mack seating themselves after Marie had settled comfortably into hers. Derea offered apology to the rest of the table for their tardiness.
“So sorry. Business, you know.”
“Aw, not a problem. We were about to order. You guys are just in time.” After an examination of the menus and consultation with Derea and Marie, they offered orders to the waiter. He departed, and Jan reached out with the wine bottle to fill their glasses.
Marie looked about the table. “You are enjoying your stay in Paris?” Nodding heads answered, and Mel spoke for the group.
“We haven’t had much time to see anything yet. We’ll start tomorrow. Any suggestions?”
Derea dropped a few suggestions, Marie enlarging on them and adding a couple of their own. Mack leaned forward. “Be fun to go dancing tonight, just a bit. Know a good place?”
Marie nodded, then looked toward Jan and Mel. “Of course. You girls like to dance?”
Jan and Mel cast each other a grinning glance, and Mel answered. “Mah goodness, we haven’t done that in a while.” She lowered her voice just slightly, and continued, “Have to be careful where we go, you know.”
Marie gave an understanding nod. “Ah, of course. Let us take you to a little place which we frequent. It will be fine there. You will find the atmosphere there, ah, how do you say?…..very accepting.”
Jan accepted. “Sounds like a deal. Mack, Sallie, you with us?”
Sallie squeezed Mack’s arm. “Just try to get rid of us!” She stood, excusing herself. “The powder room?”
Mel stood. “Ah’ll go with you. Excuse us?” All nodded, and the two men half-rose as the women left the table, seating themselves as they watched Mel and Sallie depart. Jan took a sip of her wine, then looked over at Mack.
“You two are lucky, I guess. Like Mel said, we have to be careful. Not everyone is accepting of us.”
Mack scratched his chin, then leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table. “Believe it or not, we catch a lot of flack as well.”
Jan raised an eyebrow. “What? How’s that? Age difference?”
“Naw, not really. There’s only about eight years difference between us. It’s something else.”
Mack gestured with a hand as he explained. “Sallie’s taking an incredible beating from her family because she’s hooked up with me.”
Jan puzzled. “What? Why? Because you two aren’t married?”
“There’s three strikes against me. We’re living together out of wedlock. I’ve been divorced. The real kicker, though, is that I’m not Jewish. That’s a slap in the face to the older, more traditional members of her family. Do you know that she’s been literally disowned by some of her older relatives? They refuse to even acknowledge that she exists any more. The younger ones are all on her side, but she still defies her older, more traditional relatives to be with me.”
“That’s tough, Mack. I had no idea. How’s she taking it?”
“Hard. She cries sometimes, when she gets an occasional letter. She doesn’t think I know, but I do.” He shook his head. “I often worry that I will lose her because of it.”
Marie leaned forward. “Forgive me for being so blunt, Mack, but why don’t you just marry her?”
Mack smiled. “Funny you should say that. I want to ask her, but I’m actually afraid to. It might force her hand, make her choose. You know, me or her family.” He reached into his suit-coat pocket, and brought forth a small box. He opened it, to show a ring. “Had it for a week now. I was going to spring the question, but somehow, with all that was going on in the last week, it just didn’t seem the right time.”
Marie smiled knowingly. “That is all done now. You are in Paris, the city of light. Love is in the air here. I believe that she will say ‘yes’, if you ask.”
“Trust me, another woman can tell these things. You ask, Mack. You will not be disappointed.”
Jan chimed in, “Yeah, Mack. You guys are terrific together. Do it.” Jan glanced up. “Hey, put that thing away. Here they come.”
Mack slipped the box back into his coat pocket, then eyed the others at the table. “You folks really think so?” Three heads nodded enthusiastically. “Thanks.”
The dinner was superb, and afterward, the three couples walked the streets of Paris until they came to the door of a small club. The man at the entrance smiled when he recognized Derea and Marie, and nodded deferentially to the two American couples, waving them inside. Mack and Derea checked their hats, and they found a table in the pleasant, slightly smoky interior of the club. Drinks were ordered and delivered, and the group talked and laughed into the evening. As the small band came back from their break and began playing, a sultry voice offered a pleasant melody in French. Derea looked at Marie, whispered something, and they both stood. Marie looked at the others and pointed toward the band. “This is our song. Excuse us?”
Jan glanced over to the dance floor and noticed several couples. She rose and offered a hand to Mel. “Join me?” Mel’s eyes roamed around the club. She noted a few other female couples, then nodded. As they made their way to the floor, Jan noticed that Mack and Sallie followed. In a moment, all were lost in the thick scattering of couples embracing, weaving to the slow, alluring tune. Jan noted that Mel seemed a bit self-conscious and stiff at first, but seemed to relax when the sky didn’t crash down on their heads because they were dancing in public.
“So, Mel. Enjoying yourself?”
“Oh, Jan. Ah’m having a wonderful time. Ah had no idea how ah’ve missed dancing with you.”
“You remember the first time we did this?”
Mel chuckled. “Ah’ll say. Ah thought it was simply scandalous, us dancing together.”
“It was. I loved it. I had my face buried in your boobs all night.”
Mel blazed her trademark smile. “Yes, you did. Ah wondered why you didn’t talk much. It’s a wonder you could even hear the music.”
“Music? There was music?” Jan looked up at Mel. “Say, what’s up? Either I’ve grown, or you’ve become shorter.”
“No, darlin’. Ah just wear flats now, whenever we’re out together.”
Jan hugged Mel closer. “That’s my Mel. Always thinking of me, aren’t you?”
The music stopped, and the couples applauded the band. Another song began, and they resumed their dancing. The three couples stayed out on the dance floor for quite some time, lost in the exquisite moments which seemed to tick by, lost in the heady, slightly decadent romance of the evening, lost to all but each other. Finally, the band took another break. The sultry singer nodded her thanks, and Jan squeezed Mel’s hand. “Gotta use the little girl’s room. Come with me?”
She nodded, and they made their way to the lavatory door. Jan disappeared into one of the stalls and Mel stood to one side, waiting for her to emerge. When she did, they turned to leave, and the next stall’s door opened. Jan found herself face-to-face with a dour, unsmiling expression. Janice offered a surprised look, then a grinning exclamation.
“Well, small world! If it ain’t the bride of King Kong!” Mel stood near Jan, slightly shocked at her mate’s display of rudeness. The woman began chattering very unkindly in rapid French, then shook a finger in Jan’s face. Jan responded, “Keep it up, honey. You have no idea how I’ve wanted to find you out of uniform.” Mel noted the bristling stance that Jan took, and stepped forward to intervene.
“Now, Jan, stop that. Let’s get you out of here.” She reached out to grasp Jan’s arm, but stopped short when the dour woman brought a switchblade knife from her pocket and clicked it open in Jan’s face. Jan backed up a pace and clenched her fist, ready to swing, her eyes fixed on her opponent, but was taken totally by surprise when two long arms flashed out from beside her and drilled fingers into either side of the woman’s neck. A look of shocked surprise etched itself across the dour face, and the woman fell to her knees in front of Janice, seemingly frozen. A trickle of blood emerged from one nostril, trailing down across her lips. Mel bent down and gently lifted the knife from the woman’s hand, releasing the catch and folding it. As Jan watched in speechless surprise, Mel simply handed the knife to Jan, then pulled her by her sleeve away from the woman. “Let’s go, Jan. We just got you out of jail, and ah’m not letting you go back.”
“Shouldn’t you undo that………whatever you did?”
“Oh. Quite right. Ah suppose so.” She approached the woman and flashed out her arms again. The woman leaned back against the stall door, still on her knees, coughing and sputtering. Mel grasped Jan by the arm and pulled her toward the door.
As they emerged onto the smoky dance floor and approached their table, Janice studied Mel from the corner of her eye. Finally, she said, “Mel?”
“Sometimes you scare me, you know that?”
“Sometimes ah scare myself, darlin’.”
“Where did you learn to do that?”
Mel seemed puzzled, then just shrugged. “Ah don’t know.” She smiled slightly, then added, “Ah suppose it’s instinctual.”
“Guess so.” Jan still kept a wary eye on her friend as they returned to the table, seating themselves. Marie noted the silent exchange, then cast a glance toward the lavatory door. She saw a squat, dour woman emerge and head for the club entrance, pausing to cast a withering glance in their table’s direction. Marie crossed one leg over the other and turned slightly in her chair, pulling up the hem of her skirt to reveal the thigh holster to the woman’s gaze. Without a word, the woman noted it and turned, heading for the club entrance. Marie smoothed down the hem of her skirt, then turned back to the table, eying Jan and Mel.
Jan smiled. “Naw. Not anymore.”
Marie nodded. “Ah. Well, Raymond, I imagine that our friends have had a long day. Shall we see them back to their hotel?”
That night, Mel lay in the dim light of the room, her unclothed form still covered with a light sheen of perspiration, her heartbeat and breathing slowly returning to normal as she turned to her side and pulled the soft sheet up and over her. Janice Covington, she thought, you never cease to amaze me. How do you do what you do to me? She felt the bed move slightly as Janice emerged from the bathroom and slid back into bed behind her, pressing herself against Mel’s body and snaking an arm around her waist. After a moment, Jan’s voice whispered, “Mel?”
“How do you feel?”
“Limp as a dishrag, darlin’.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Surely. What’s on that mind of yours?”
“Do you……..I mean, how does your family really handle, you know……us?”
Mel was silent for a bit, then turned to face Jan in the night. “What brought this on?”
Jan’s hazel eyes were inquisitive, worried. “I was just wondering. Do you catch a lot of grief for being, you know…… with me?”
“No, not too much, anymore. Much of mah family is dead, Jan. The others, well, they know and may not approve, but ah can’t help what they think.”
“Is it me that they don’t approve of, or us?”
“Well, we are a genteel southern family, what’s left of us. It is rather shocking to them that ah’ve hooked up with……..”
Jan finished the sentence for her. “With a lesbian? One who gets arrested and dresses like a slob? One who drags you all over the world looking for bits of ancient trash in the dirt? One who’s got a lousy legacy, bad karma to live down?”
Mel smiled. “No, darlin’. With a Yankee.”
Jan began shaking with silent laughter, then turned onto her back and lay with her forearm over her eyes, her laughter taking voice, ringing softly in the night. Finally, she composed herself enough to speak. “Touche. Guess I had that one coming.”
Mel leaned up on one elbow. She placed a hand on the side of Jan’s face and gently turned it toward her own. “Now, you listen to me. You are mah family now. You always will be. Somehow, ah think that you always have been. So don’t go getting the idea that ah’m going to up and leave you sometime, because you’re just stuck with me.”
“Forever, darlin’. How’s that for your legacy? How’s that karma of yours, now?”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way. God, I love you, Mel.”
“Ah love you too, Jan, more than ah can ever say. Now, shut up and kiss me.” Jan did so, and of all the kisses that she remembered, there was never one sweeter.
As they parted, Jan whispered, “Mel?”
“Where did you learn to kiss like that?”
“Why, from you, Jan. Where else would ah have learned it? And by the way, just where did you learn to do what you do to me?”
“Er,……” Just then the telephone jangled loudly, startling them both. Jan seemed slightly relieved to have an excuse not to answer the question, and held up a finger. “Ahem. Let me get that.”
Mel just gave a sly look at her companion, and teased, “Uh-hum! Saved by the bell, Jan?”
Jan offered a slightly guilty look at Mel and sat up in bed. She leaned over and raised the receiver. “Covington. Oh, hey! No, that’s okay. Good thing you didn’t call fifteen minutes ago, though. Yeah, I’ve still got Derea’s number. You in trouble or something? What? You did? She did? That’s great, buddy! Tell you what, we’ll get on it first thing in the morning. Meet you two for breakfast? Yeah. Hey, not too early, know what I mean? Ten sounds good. See you then. By the way, congrats!” She hung up the phone and looked back at Mel, who was waiting inquisitively for Jan’s explanation. Jan chuckled, then simply said, “Well, I’ll be damned.” She said nothing else for a moment, just gazed at Mel, who finally sat up in bed and gave a look at Jan through squinted eyes.
“Mack’s in trouble.”
“Why, what do you mean, Jan? It sounded a very pleasant conversation.”
“Mack and Sallie are officially engaged. They want to get married here in Paris, as soon as possible.”
Mel squealed in delight at the news. “That’s wonderful, Jan.” She then assumed a puzzled expression, and said, “Ah thought you said that Mack was in trouble.”
Jan laughed brightly. “Yeah. He wants to get married.”
Mel retorted, “Why, Janice Covington, you ol’ cynic. Ah’ll teach you!” With that, she pounced on Jan, and the two rolled around in the bed, tangling themselves in sheets and pillows, laughing hysterically. Jan wheezed and gasped in between fits of laughter.
“Oh, Jeez, Mel…….you know……….I can’t…………take being………..tickled like that!”
Mel climbed up on top of Jan. “Give up?”
“Yeah, yeah”…….cough, cough……….. “I surrender.”
Mel gazed down at Jan. “Do you promise to behave? No marriage jokes tomorrow?”
“Promise, Mel. Just don’t tickle.”
“Well, all right, then. Ah’ll get off of you.”
“Hey, don’t be hasty.”
“I kinda like the view from here. You’re gorgeous, you know that?”
Mel laughed and shook her head. “Janice Covington, you are absolutely incorrigible.” She climbed off of Jan and settled down in the bed, pulling the sheet up and over her. Jan joined her, worming in next to her and draping an arm over her waist.
“Yeah, but I’m still the cutest thing on two legs, aren’t I?”
Mel was silent for a moment, then chuckled slightly. “That you are, Jan. That you are.” After another moment, she added, “for a Yankee.”
Jan snickered, then whispered, “G’night, gorgeous.”
Outside, perched on the hotel’s ornate balcony railing overlooking the Seine, a misty, ephemeral figure sat serenely and smiled a satisfied smile. Luxurious blonde hair cascading about her head and shoulders, Grecian robes and sandaled feet heralded her as a figure quite out of time and place, and yet somehow not out of time and place at all. Her normally sad eyes twinkled with an unaccustomed warmth which they hadn’t reflected in many years. She spoke softly, almost to herself. “Ah, Paris. A marvelous place to be in love.” The robed one smiled a wistful little smile, nodded her head, and then disappeared into the night, leaving the city of light illuminated with the twinkling of many stars.
The End. -djb, November, 2002.
Continued in The Legacy Of Britannia