DISCLAIMER: All XWP characters are copyright so-and-so by what’s-his -face. No copyright infringement intended and no profit gained. The story is mine, so think twice about plagiarizing.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks to Lela and Anima for beta reading and cyber-handholding. (I know, it sounds so…naughty!)
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Coup de Grace
By Vivian Darkbloom
Part II: Imaginary Consequences
This is what we bring to the temple, not prayer or chant or slaughtered rams. Our offering is language. —Don DeLillo, The Names
This is what we bring to the temple, not prayer or chant or slaughtered rams. Our offering is language.
—Don DeLillo, The Names
The archaeologist stood in the pit and held a small object, clumped with dirt. Her lower lip, already mashed and ragged with worry over something far more important, endured more of a workover as her filthy thumbnail carefully shaved away moist dirt.
The boy who discovered the piece, 17 and on his first dig, watched her expectantly, nervously shifting his weight from leg to leg. He was eager to impress the beautiful blonde American, and was confident he could do so: He was the only person on site she had not yelled at. Even her friend, the tall woman who usually followed her everywhere, received the brunt of Dr. Covington's anger at one point or another; and thus he had come under the impression that she favored his intellect and his instinct more than anyone else on the dig. He did not know that the real reason she had not yelled at him was because she remembered, all too well, what it was like be too young, too ambitious, and too rash.
In fact, thought Janice as a layer of dirt gave way and revealed a very dull razor circa 1923, she still felt that way surprisingly often.
The boy tensed, awaiting the barrage of English obscenities to fall on his head. Tebaldi, the Italian archaeologist acting as foreman and interpreter, also winced.
Janice drew a deep breath and hoped it would calm her. It did succeed in preventing her from taking the kid's head off, and for that she was grateful. She forced a grim smile, and gently grasped his arm. "Better luck next time," she said in her wretched Italian. As she stalked away, Tebaldi's elephantine shadow followed. The large man walked daintily, as if on eggshells. She slowed her pace, both so that he could match it and that she could better snarl at him. "You, on the other hand, should have known better."
Tebaldi shrugged apologetically. "He wouldn't listen to me. He wanted you to see it."
"Don't waste my fucking time right now," she snapped. She pulled canvas gloves out of a back pocket and slipped them on. Grabbing the pulley rope, she scampered out of the pit, just like the Harvard-trained monkey she is, he thought angrily. But she always has to play the tough guy. Just like her father. He lumbered over to the makeshift steps leading out of the pit, made from wooden slats and packed clay.
However, when he reached the top of the steps and saw how upset she was, his anger dissipated. She flicked away drops of sweat from her face with the brim of the fedora, then ran a dirty hand through her limp hair. "When will the doctor be here?" she murmured. She would not look at him. Her thumb dragged a line of dust across the ribboned headband of her hat.
"In about an hour," Tebaldi replied.
Janice said nothing, but put the fedora back on and walked toward the tent. Again, he followed, not knowing what else he could do.
When they arrived, he stood at the periphery, afraid to get too close to the sick woman, for none of them had any idea the origin of the fever that possessed her. Was it contagious? Tebaldi worried for a moment, and thought that perhaps he should not even be in the tent. But if Covington is not afraid, I won't be either.
Normally, he did not approve of diggers who brought along their women to a site. Would a surgeon invite his wife into the operating room? Does a chef allow his mistress in the kitchen? But Covington's woman was useful, at least until the onset of her illness: She wasn't afraid of physical labor, she bore the workers' flirtations and vulgarities with humor and good grace, and she spoke beautiful Italian. This last quality being, in Tebaldi's eyes, her true saving grace.
And even now—even in her profoundly sick state—she mesmerized him. A long, bare leg, moored to the floor by the blanket tangled around the foot, hung out of the fragile cot. She wore nothing but a camisole and underwear. A dark edge of pubic hair escaped the white boundary of the cotton briefs and he felt momentarily aroused, then ashamed, then alarmed: Covington possessed a preternatural ability to sense—and expose—baser instincts in men. The last thing he needed was her fist in his face. But fortunately, she was too occupied by the care of her friend—she gathered the blanket off the floor and covered her friend's legs, mopped the sweat from the sick woman's brow, and began to take her pulse.
"Do you need anything?" Tebaldi croaked nervously.
It startled Janice. She had forgotten all about him. "No," she replied curtly. Then, in a gentler tone: "Please bring the doctor here as soon as he arrives."
He nodded and left.
As much as she was relieved to see the Italian go, Janice felt nervous—almost afraid—to be alone with Mel. The hopelessness of the situation sank her when she was by herself; under its deadweight, she had no reason for the pretense of strength. Even though Tebaldi sees right through it, she admitted to herself.
The rapid onset of the illness had been particularly alarming to Janice when she realized that, since the day they had met, she had never seen Mel sick in any serious way. The woman had survived severe New England winters with barely a cold to show for it, despite her absentminded tendency to run around without hats during snowstorms. On the other hand, Mel had nursed her through flu, seasickness, airsickness, menstrual cramps, hangovers, and gunshot wounds. It hardly seems fair, Mel had teased her once.
The strangeness of the fever also unsettled her. For a day now Mel, when conscious, spoke in languages...some that she did not understand, one that she vaguely identified as the language in the scrolls. The words chilled her, even though she did not understand them. Was Mel experiencing memories, dreams of Xena again?
The murmuring began anew. She leaned in closer. The translator's eyes were closed; a tangle of incomprehensible words was borne upon a shallow strand of breath. Janice touched her lover's cheek. Before she could even utter the name, Mel had her by the throat. The large, powerful hand pressed against her windpipe. Janice felt the world dim for a second before she was flung almost halfway across the tent.
Jesus Christ. Janice lay gasping, afraid to move. What was that? She swallowed, touched her neck, and sat up slowly. Mel was still prone on the cot, the arm that had effortlessly thrown a grown woman several feet hung limp and weak, knuckles grazing the floor.
She could have killed me. The realization came upon her with ferocity. Janice coughed feebly, then forced herself to stand up. Was this the time of reckoning, was this where they lived the inevitable reenactment of lovers dead for thousand of years? Absurd. Right? Resentment welled up in her at the ever-persistent undertow of the past—this particular past—which seemed insistent on pre-scripting their lives.
Yet—aside from that—the past few years were an idyll that she never knew was possible. Was there a price for that? Wasn't there always, no matter who you were?
Warily she approached the cot, mindful of that long arm's reach. But the painful, labored breathing scared her, and Janice forsook prudence for love.
Mel was staring up at her. Her eyes, so drained of color, showed some recognition of the woman leaning over her. She spoke slowly in her own accented English. "What's happening to me?"
Janice swallowed painfully. "I don't know." I wish I did.
Snowflakes caught in her hair, and on her face. They melted. She could not move. A sledgehammer blocked the sun.
Mel opened her eyes. And saw nothing. She attempted movement. But could not move a muscle. Everything—arms, chest, legs—was immobile. Oh God, it's true. It's becoming true. She tried again to move. She struggled in silence, but soon her feral whimpers of frustration escalated into a full-throated scream.
Her cries subsided when she felt hands on her face and a distinct sound emerged from the surrounding chaos of her distress. "Mel!" Despite the soothing touch and the commanding, familiar voice, she could not stop her body from struggling.
The sudden light—even though soft and dim—hurt her eyes. But Janice's face, paler and thinner, was before her, and her hands, cool and comforting, on her cheeks. "It's okay, it's okay. Shhhh. Shhh. Look at me. Look at me, darling. It's okay." Through her words and her caresses, Janice managed to coax her back into a lucid, calmer frame of mind, hysteria melted by this siren song of sanity. She was, however, too exhausted and confused to note the look of wild, desperate relief in Janice's eyes.
"What happened?" Mel rasped.
Janice's own emotions were now threatening to mutiny. "You're in a hospital. You've been sick. Do you remember anything?"
Her legs ached. "I—remember too much."
The archaeologist permitted the cryptic comment to pass. A nun hovered by the bed, holding a cup of cold water, scrutinizing the sick woman. Janice took it and pressed it to Mel's mouth, and she drank greedily. "Easy now," cautioned the archaeologist. Mel drank slower, then stopped.
The water tasted good; she could not remember water that ever tasted so good. It gave Mel the courage to ask the next question. "Why can't I move?" she whispered. Am I paralyzed? A violent surge of helplessness shook her body, and the movement would have encouraged her had not fear and illness clouded her mind.
"They put restraints on you." Janice looked to the Sister. "Per favore, rimovere questi," she requested in her awkward Italian. She pointed to the leather straps. The nun agreed, nodding quickly, and left the room to fetch the doctor.
"Restraints?" Mel echoed huskily.
"Meningitis. You have—had—meningitis." Janice took the cup away from her lips. "It was dangerous for you to move." She turned quickly to camouflage her shaking hand—too quickly. The cup fell to the floor, its clatter dominating the room. She bent to retrieve it, and paused, kneeling on the floor, as if in prayer. Tears surged and she closed her eyes tightly, every muscle scrunched and fighting surrender. Not here. Not now.
"Janice? Are you all right?" Mel's voice was hoarse from lack of use, almost unrecognizable.
Just turn around and don't be a fucking baby. Cry later.
She stood up and turned around.
"You're not sick too, are you?" But now Janice was comforted with the familiar: Mel's face was already set in that usual stubborn, serious way she got when preoccupied with her companion's health.
You come back from the dead and you worry about me. Janice burst into laughter. She figured it was better than crying.
Even after a week, she could smell the hospital on her skin, clinical and clinging.
Mel thought taking baths—many baths—would help. Enveloped by soft steam, she stretched out in the huge tub—an old-fashioned one with claw feet. It was big enough to accommodate her length; in fact, it almost dominated the small bathroom of the pensione where she and Janice stayed.
Idling in a bathtub, however, gave her more time to recount the sickening fascination the doctors had with her quick and full recovery from a disease that either debilitated or killed its victims. E stupefacente, the doctor from Rome had pronounced, expressing his astonishment. Acting as a medical pied piper, he led his more provincial colleagues on many a merry exploration of her body—she was thoroughly poked and prodded, not to mention violated in a manner that—well, she wasn't certain she would even let Janice touch her like that.
She could lie down in the tub if she wanted to, but shuddered at the thought of entombment in water. Instead, she dunked her head for the briefest of seconds; she sat up, gulped for air, and saw Janice shuffling nervously in the doorway, hands tucked into pockets. "I, uh, had some food sent up. Are you hungry?"
"A little," Mel replied. The unease between them troubled her. During those awkward medical examinations Janice had always been present, her apprehension indicating a resistance to what she witnessed. You weren't expecting this, were you? To see this legacy in action. To see how my body really works. I was never sick a day in school. Bruises would disappear overnight. A broken arm from an auto accident had healed in two and a half weeks. Self-conscious and 18, Mel had worn the splint and bandages for another three weeks, merely to avoid the questions and the stares that she had received from the doctors and nurses at the hospital.
Was it presumptuous of her to think her illness had derailed the dig? If I hadn't gotten sick, would this have turned out better? "Could you do me a favor—"
The archaeologist nodded and straightened, eager to be useful.
"—er, could you wash my hair?" It was one way of getting physical contact. Like a concierge vying for a huge tip, Janice had been painfully attentive and solicitous—yet almost as detached—since her release from the hospital.
The response was soft. "Sure."
As Janice walked by the tub, Mel reached out and clasped a dry wrist in her wet hand. She felt resistance twitching within those tendons, then slackening into surrender.
"What is it?" Janice knelt down. She looked tired from days spent finishing up business with the excavation—the paperwork and dealing with the local authorities a far more wearying task to her than any manual labor. In addition to this, she was trying to locate a nefarious former contact (a man who sold artifacts for Harry in the Italian black market) who might know the whereabouts of the Venetian family that possessed the scroll they saw at Neuschwanstein.
"I—um—" It had always been extraordinarily difficult for Mel to ask for affection. Initiating contact was another matter, but this she was unused to. Nonetheless, her head tilted forward, as did Janice's, and they kissed with a tentative tenderness. Not even the tepid bath water could deter her enjoyment. Ah, good, it's still there, she thought, as if desire were a pocket watch she could somehow misplace or lose.
Sometimes the best part of kissing Janice was after the fact. Mel would pull back, at first reluctantly, and watch her: eyes closed, body swaying, face divinely peaceful, lips parted in silent sensual prayer. She did this now, and noticed something new. The natural light of the room was powerful enough so that Mel saw a waning bruise, butter colored and round, along the neck, near the carotid artery. "What's this?" she murmured.
The green eyes snapped open. "What?"
"Here." Mel reached out to touch the bruise with damp fingers, but the archaeologist jerked away, like a boxer avoiding a punch. You ruined that moment, Melinda, she chastised herself.
"I dunno. Just got knocked around on site, I guess." Janice stood up quickly, then walked around the tub to fetch the small vial of shampoo, on a stand near the toilet.
Mel craned her neck to see her, but couldn't. "You don't know?" she repeated, incredulous.
"Nope," Janice replied, cheerfully obtuse.
She was crowned with a puddle of shampoo. Then lank wet hair was scooped off her shoulders and merged into the sticky goo on her head. Her body went limp as strong fingers massaged her temples and scalp. The pleasure continued in silence for a few minutes. "You deserve a tip for this."
"I live for your tips, baby. My favorite one was, 'Never wash silk in hot water.' "
Mel smiled at this, then frowned. She had tried to change the conversation, succeeded, but became undone by compulsion: The bruise remained a niggling question. "Were you in a fight, Janice?" she asked quietly.
The massage stopped for a second, then continued at an even slower, gentler pace. "Yeah."
"With one of the workers?"
"Not that huge Sicilian!" exclaimed Mel.
The translator frowned. It must have been someone strong, someone quick, to catch Janice like that. This reminded her of Tebaldi, who, despite his large size and meandering slowness, possessed lightning fast reflexes when the situation called for it. "It was Tebaldi, wasn't it?" That would explain Janice's reluctance to discuss the matter—the embarrassment of a fight with the dig's other leader.
Another long pause. "Yeah." She rubbed Mel's neck. "Rinse."
Mel did so, ducking her head. When she emerged from the water Janice was once again at the side of the tub, drying her hands briskly with a towel.
"Get outta there before that water gets too cold."
"I—I don't want you to stop this excavation, if it's because of me." She wanted to take Janice's hand again, but hesitated. "I'll be fine...I could go home, if you want me to."
"Do you want to go home?" Janice drawled this out slowly, matching time with the motion of her hands, tangled within the towel.
"I want to be where you are."
"I want that too," Janice replied softly. She sighed and knelt down again. A finger flicked at the water's surface, creating lazy eddies in the water. "It was just a hunch, coming here." This is what she chose to call both the vague, relentless dreams and an equally slim lead, an obscure reference in an equally obscure 19th-century history of the Roman Empire:
"In the very last day of his life, Julius Caesar finally avenged himself in a long-standing feud with a renowned Greek warrior. The name is lost to posterity; apparently the emperor so despised and loathed the Greek that he forbid recording the name in official court transcripts. Ironically, as his nemesis was crucified, all of Rome finally avenged themselves upon him."
Mel had scoffed at the obscure text and its secondary sources, its typos, its blatant misstatements of well-known facts. Who could trust a book with such a morbidly pedestrian title as Ruin and Death in an Ancient Empire? And who knew anything about its author, a Romanian scholar called Blavdak Vinomori? Yet simultaneously reports surfaced of an excavation of a Roman fort in the Apennines, and fragments of what were believed to be crucifixes. A coincidence? It felt as if all the pieces were falling into place. She arranged quickly to join the dig, and due to her affiliation with a major American university became one of its leaders.
Don't you feel it like I do, Mel? You resist it so much at times, I know you do. That's why you didn't recognize Catherine Stoller until she was dead. Why do you fight it? What are you fighting for?
She looked into those eyes, that familiar blue, and for one rare moment truly believed that she did not know this woman she claimed to love. She swallowed, and in the slithering motion of peristalsis, felt that phantom hand around her throat. She wished it would go away. But until it did—and Janice was certain she would eventually will it into oblivion—she would burrow it away, along with those things that she did not really consider secrets but merely unspoken truths. Whatever you were thinking, whoever you were in that one sick moment, it's not you. So I won't tell you.
Instead she watched as Mel stretched forward in the tub, drawing her legs up, arms wrapping about them, thoughtfully propping her chin on a kneecap. The movement—unconsciously feminine and unknowingly graceful, and in that manner quintessentially Mel—gave her back to Janice, restoring her belief and determination.
There will be no consequences.
"Janice." This was murmured sleepily.
"What, honey?" The endearment slipped out.
"Those dreams that you've had...they were about a crucifixion, weren't they? Their crucifixion."
Why can't I protect you? Why do I always seem to fail? "Yes, they were."
"So that was how it ended."
"They're just dreams. You're having them because obviously, at this location, the Romans crucified their prisoners. It's influenced you."
Mel looked up at her. "And you? Why did you have the dreams?"
"Because I..." Because I saw so many ugly things during the war, it spoiled sleep for me. Just like Catherine Stoller spoiled flying for me, the bitch. Christ, I can't let another thing be ruined. "...I don't have pretty dreams. You know that."
Mel shifted in the tub, the slight agitation sending a whorl of water around her body, the water's turmoil an extension of the unease that churned within her. She stretched her wet arm along the tub, a hand held out toward Janice, almost in supplication. "But I want that for you." She said this solemnly, simply, as if speaking the wish could make it so.
Janice hesitated, then took the hand and helped Mel out of the tub. She then summoned the best of her bravado, a family skill she actually took pride in and deemed useful. "Who needs dreams?" She hesitated playfully in handing Mel a towel. "Reality is looking pretty good about now."
A day later Tebaldi was at the pensione, with official reports that Janice had to sign off on. He stood at the door of their room, scanning anxiously for Janice, then nearly dissolving into a puddle of relief when Mel informed him that Janice was out. She took a manila envelope from him with brusqueness. "I hope the next time you two work together, you will get along better with one another," she chastised him.
The large Italian looked appropriately guilty. "I know we have had some disagreements. I should have been more patient with her, for she was very anxious about you."
"Yes. I know she is not easy to get along with, but there was no need for violence."
He looked puzzled. "Signora?"
"Dottore, do not play the innocent with me. You were in a fight with her. I saw the bruises."
"What?" he yelled. Before she could ask him to lower his voice, he continued. "Signora Pappas, what are you accusing me of? I have never, in my entire life, struck a woman! Did she tell you that?"
Mel now realized why she felt at home in Italy: The resultant melodramas were like the backstage dramatics at a cotillion, or a debutante ball.
"I do not care if Janice Covington works for Harvard or the Virgin Mary! I will not be slandered!"
It made perfect sense for him to deny it—the archaeological community was surprisingly small, rumors spread like venereal diseases (and such diseases were, in themselves, another story all together), reputations and egos were fragile, while memories were long and tougher than an elephant's hide. Nonetheless, Mel believed him. His outrage felt genuine. And he had always acted with patience, kindness, honesty, and integrity—toward everyone involved in the excavation, including the temperamental Covington. I make him sound like an insurance company, she thought. Time to nip this in the bud. She placed a gentle hand on his forearm. "Dottore, I am mistaken then. I must have misunderstood my friend. As you know, I have been very ill, and my mind in great confusion. You have my most sincere apologies."
The tension in his arm softened. He relented. "Thank you, Signora," he replied haughtily.
What a Southern belle you would be, Dr. Tebaldi, she thought, and gave him one of her best disarming smiles.
He blushed. "Eh," he muttered gruffly. "It is forgotten. We will never speak of it again."
The Italian archaeologist accepted a glass of wine—of course—to seal the apology, then departed. He left Mel sitting alone, running a finger along a fragile glass stem, watching the gray sky finally release its burden of rain, and wondering why her lover had lied to her.
Janice appeared an hour later, breathless, exuberant, and shaking water from her jacket. "I found him." She grinned and swiped at her wet, cold face with a shirtsleeve.
"Who?" Mel withdrew a handkerchief from her purse and gently dried the archaeologist's face while she squirmed like a puppy. Her hair, however, was still wet. The translator frowned at her futile hankie. Fetching a towel from the bathroom meant relinquishing her hold on Mad Dog, whom she would have to chase around the room and who would leave her muddy boot prints all over the carpet!
"Falconetto. The guy who has our scroll."
Our scroll? Mel thought, amused. How proprietary we are.
"The old man—the family patriarch—is dead. The son has it. " Janice gulped for air. "He was out of the country for awhile. I couldn't understand the exact word my contact used—friggin' pain in the ass language, I know you love Italian, but Jesus, they talk so goddamn fast here—I think Giancarlo called him an entertainer or an entrepreneur or somethin' like that. Which makes me think he's some kind of male prostitute. But he's back in the Veneto, on Murano. That's the island where they make all the glass stuff, right?"
"Right," Mel repeated, as she made a game yet useless effort to dry blonde hair with her handkerchief.
"Stop grooming me, will ya?" Janice laughed at her efforts, and vigorously shook out her tangled hair, sending off both raindrops and coppery glints. If Mad Dog really had a tail, the translator mused, it would be wagging about now.
Mel smiled. She couldn't bear to bring such happiness to a premature end.
Neno knew the tall woman was trouble.
He did not notice her until he galloped onto the makeshift stage, her appearance at the corner of his sight made him lose the spring in his step; she towered over almost all the men in the crowd. And she was not one of the usual crowd—obviously a turista, but she did not look the type to idle away time watching a third-rate carnival act, he judged, taking in her elegant, expensive clothes. Especially a third-rate carnival act performing in an almost deserted field near a cemetery, he thought, eyeing the desultory crowd.
He mindlessly went through the card tricks, the sneering disdain he felt for the crowd thrown askance by the mysterious woman's presence. Didn't his Corsican grandmother have some saying about tall women? He couldn't remember.
He flicked an ace at the crowd. They oohed.
After ten minutes he was done; the crowd was small, and he saw no need to expend energy performing more complicated tricks—those were for the larger groups. He darted behind the stage and went to his motorcycle, parked near the tent he shared with the geek and the sword swallower. The crowd grew immersed in plate spinners. He was about to make his escape when he saw the tall woman coming toward him. Another woman, much shorter and dressed in men's clothes, accompanied her. A very odd pair, he decided.
"Signore? Posso parlare con voi?" she asked. She spoke Italian with the formal over-precision of a smart foreigner.
"Je ne parle pas italien," he retorted quickly, in French.
"Je parle francais aussi," she parried.
"Aber mein Deutsches ist viel besser," he shot back. Surely she is not German, he thought, despite her unnerving Reich-blue eyes.
His sense of impending victory was short-lived. "Naturlich," she responded cheerfully. "Sollen wir fortfahren?"
His jaw stiffened. "I suppose you speak English as well."
"Yes, I do," she purred. This, he realized, was her native tongue, given the languid, sweet flow of the language. "But we can try for Greek or Arabic if you like."
The blonde woman tilted her hat back and chuckled.
"What do you want?" he snapped, spitefully reverting to Italian.
She did not miss a beat. "You are Eugenio Falconetto?"
He nodded. "Everyone calls me Neno."
"My name is Melinda Pappas. My friend is Dr. Janice Covington." She gestured to the blonde woman, who nodded. "We are scholars."
He lit a cigarette. "Studying the circus, maybe?"
She smiled graciously, acknowledging the humor in the situation. "No. We are interested in a scroll. It had been in the possession of your father before the war. Do you know what I am speaking of?"
"Signora, my father owned many things. What he did not sell to the Fascists, they took from him. Do you understand? I have nothing. Why do you think I am working here?" He motioned at his paltry tent with cigarette in hand; for some odd reason, he noticed, the little blonde was staring at his cigarette.
"Call me Neno."
"Neno, this scroll was written in ancient Greek. According to international records, your father sold it to the Germans in 1940. During the war it was in a depository at a Bavarian castle, where Dr. Covington and I first saw it. We have been informed that after the war, it was returned to your family. More specifically, to your father, in Venice."
His interrogator was patient and persistent. "Your father has passed away, has he not?"
"Si. Papa died. He waited until the war was over." Neno watched as Dr. Covington admired his motorcycle; the woman was circling it, looking at it from all angles. "He always had a very bad sense of timing."
"Does this mean that you have the scroll, Neno?"
"Signora Pappas, what are you asking? You want this thing, eh?"
"We would like to buy it, yes."
"And what if I do not sell?" He slid a hand into his right pocket, and felt the reassuring coolness of switchblade there.
"It seems to me a gentleman in your financial position would be willing to sell."
"The war has left no gentlemen in its wake," he said. "I am no gentleman."
His intent in pulling out the switchblade had only been to scare them away; he truly believed they had nothing to offer him but trouble. But no sooner had the blade sprung out of its sheath then he felt the steel of Dr. Covington's handgun imposing itself upon the soft underside of his jaw, the click of the gun's hammer reverberating along his skin.
Mel did not blink an eye, but sighed. "Neno, you are making my friend very unhappy."
"She's unhappy?" He choked out the words. The small woman was now close enough to him that he finally took notice of her eyes, clear and hard as glass. And if he had noticed those eyes earlier, he would not have trifled with them. Covington mumbled something to the tall woman—very quickly and in English—which he did not understand.
Mel, of course, provided the translation for him. "She wants you to drop the knife and kick it over to me."
Reluctantly, he did.
The gun remained in his neck as Mel picked up the blade and, with a look of distaste, closed it. "Why do you do this?" she asked gently, like a schoolteacher disappointed with a prized pupil.
He swallowed. Finally, the doctor backed off, pulling the gun away, but keeping the barrel trained on him. "If it's not the Nazis, it's the Americans," he spat. "You are all buzzards, picking us apart like carcasses. You come in here, thinking that if you cannot buy something, you will take it."
"We never would have taken anything from you," she assured him.
Neno's sneer dropped when he looked at the small woman who playfully twirled the handgun and smirked at him. "I suppose I have no choice. If I do not give it to you, your friend shoots me. Eh?"
"Put the gun away," Mel said quickly, in English, to Janice.
The archaeologist hesitated, but trusted the imploring look in her friend's eyes. She tucked the .38 back in her waistband, under her loose shirt. It comforted Neno only in the slightest manner, for her hard gaze remained fixed upon him.
"We are not going to hurt you, nor force you to do anything," Mel assured him calmly. "But we are willing to pay you quite generously for the scroll."
Janice plucked Neno's cigarette from his hand, and took a long, hungry drag off it. The magician stared at her, stunned. She moved like quicksilver. A fellow thief, he thought. If he were not so afraid of her, he might even like her. Or want her. She was grinning at him now, although the broad smile did not warm those cautious eyes. She walked over to her friend and reached into the tall woman's overcoat, pulling out a substantial wad of lire. The casual toss of the packet hit him, lightly, in the shins.
Yes, we understand each other very well, don't we? We don't even need the translator. He knelt slowly to the ground and retrieved the money, ruffling it with a rough thumb. "Dolce madonna," he muttered, then whistled. This sum would set him up quite nicely.
Neno looked up to see Mel smiling wryly. "Dr. Covington is feeling very generous today."
"It was a good day's shopping," Janice quipped happily as they emerged from Neno's makeshift home. She gripped the metal tube tightly, resisted the almost overwhelming urge to suddenly wield it like a staff. And, even further, fought the strangely compelling, sudden desire to playfully whack Mel on the nose with it.
"So it seems." Mel turned up the collar of her dark coat against the brisk autumn air. She waited for Janice to make another sarcastic comment about looking like a Southern secret agent or an extra from The Third Man, but instead, Janice pounced on the seemingly innocuous—yet terribly loaded—comment.
" 'So it seems,' " the little archaeologist mimicked her to near perfection. "What the hell does that mean?"
It means I didn't really want that damned scroll back in my life, it means I don't want to know how it will end, it means I really hope that this is a forgery and a lie. It means I don't want their darkness. I don't want it foreshadowing us. "I just don't want you to get your hopes up," Mel kept her eyes riveted on the ancient cobblestones street as they walked. "This may not be a genuine artifact."
"Believe me, my hopes aren't up. My hopes are in the fucking gutter." Normally—and ironically—Janice was always the one walking faster whenever they were together, but now she found herself scrambling to keep up with her long-legged companion. "Wait a minute." She grabbed Mel's arm, but not roughly. "You're the one who encouraged me to keep searching. All through last year, you kept telling me that we will keep coming back and looking for them, no matter how long it takes."
Because you're the searcher. Because you'll never stop looking, and I know that. It's what you're meant to do. And my role?
Janice took a deep breath in order to contain her ever-expanding anger. "And now—"
To hold on and never let go.
"—you're pissing on my parade!" Janice brandished the tube with equal parts triumph and anger. "We found it again. Even if it is one of the fakes, it may point us toward the real ones."
"Clues, baby. We're looking for clues. Archaeology is nothing if not detective work for suckers with a romantic streak a mile wide. The Sam Spades of the ancient world."
Mel arched an eyebrow. "I'm pleased you're finally willing to admit the truth to yourself."
Janice ignored this; or tried to, at the very least. "If we take the view that a forger did this for kicks, he might have written something that will lead us to the right place." Why are you so certain it's a man? Mel wondered. Again Janice raised the tube for emphasis. "If this is the last fake, we can look at them all together, as a whole. We can look for patterns, for sequences—" Janice's tone softened. "—and that's where you come in. You're good at that kind of thing."
"I'm a linguist, not a puzzle solver."
"They're the same thing sometimes," the archaeologist countered.
"I don't quite know how to match wits with a dead thief."
"You match wits with a live one all the time, baby." Janice grinned and did not wait for her, but continued walking down the street.
Mel watched her for a moment as she strode down the old cobblestones, shoulders hunched, head ducked, hands shoved in her pockets. She always walked like that, no matter her mood—in that defensive way, her body a battering ram against the world, primed for the slightest altercation. Mel knew that walk, and felt its rhythm as deeply as her own. Walking away, why is it you always seem to be walking away from me? The thought startled her, then she remembered Anton's stroke, and Janice walking away from her in the hospital, and how she had wanted to drop everything, slip the bonds of her responsibilities, and chase after that sad swagger. How she had wanted to give up her world to assuage that hurt.
And I still do. With a just a few long strides she caught up to Janice, who peeked at her, almost suspiciously, from over the upturned lapel of her leather jacket.
"You seem pretty certain about this theory," Mel remarked, in an effort at casualness.
"It's the only one I have," Janice retorted grimly. "Otherwise—I don't know what to think. I wouldn't know where to begin to look for the originals again, except to retrace my father's steps. And that seems almost pointless to me right now. There wasn't a stone left unturned in Amphipolis when he was done with it." Her lips tightened for a moment into a fierce frown, as they frequently did whenever Harry arose as a topic of conversation.
Now there's a subject that sorely needs excavating, Mel thought. Albeit one that required the lightest and most precise of touches, and even after everything they had been through, and everything they meant to each other, Mel wasn't certain she could pull it off. She sighed.
Janice fixed her with a glare. "What's wrong?"
"You're thinking, and you know I hate it when you do that."
"Well, I'm surprised you haven't concocted some manner in which to keep me barefoot and pregnant!"
"Believe me, I've been trying to knock you up for years." Janice stopped walking, thus forcing pedestrian traffic—a mishmash of tourists and artisans from the work shops returning to work after lunch—to flow around them. "Now tell me what's bugging you."
"I just—I—" Mel shrugged helplessly. Janice's thumb stroked the black cashmere of her coat.
"—you're afraid of what we'll find."
"And I'm afraid we'll find nothing."
"You'll find something in your translation, Mel. I know you will."
"I don't know why you think I'm good at this."
"You've got to be kidding me," Janice snorted. "Need I bring up Bletchley again?"
After the war, Anton Frobisher, Mel's old friend, let slip that "the boys from Bletchley"—the brilliant team of codebreakers who eventually unraveled the Germans' Enigma code—were interested in having Mel on staff. She had refused, of course, and her repeated rejections grew even more strident once she was reunited with Janice in London.
It was a sore spot—the revelation had caused a considerable row between them. Janice believed that Mel was a sentimental fool passing up a great opportunity, and Mel thought Janice was an unsentimental fool who clearly did not understand the politics and rivalries among wartime government agencies.
"No, you needn't bring that up again," Mel retorted icily.
"They wouldn't have wanted you if you weren't damned good."
"It wasn't about how good I was, it was about stealing Anton's staff." And yes, it was about staying close to you. Mel finally yanked her sleeve away from Janice's hand. Why did I fall in love with someone who loves to argue in public?
"Okay, fine, but don't you regret it at all?" Janice spread out her arms.
Regret? Yes. If I went to Bletchley, maybe Catherine Stoller never would have found me, and maybe she wouldn't have almost killed you. "I can't believe you're picking a fight about this again!" she growled through her teeth.
The archaeologist seemed to ponder this apparent insanity. "Yeah, but just think of all the fucking we'll have to do to make up." This time Janice did not claim her sleeve, but her hand. "I don't know about you, but that's what keeps me focused in a fight."
The situation thus diffused, Mel allowed herself to be led through the tourists, the shopkeepers, and the open-air stalls. She smiled. Covington did know how to start a fight, but she also knew how to finish them.
Back on the mainland, in Venice, Mel stared at the small envelope that the Cavaletto's concierge had handed her before they descended up to the hotel room. Thinking it another dinner invitation from the amorous and persistent Vittorio Frascati, she rolled her eyes and resolutely decided to ignore it. However, as Janice rushed into the bathroom, idle curiosity won out and she tore open the note.
You're a difficult woman to keep track of, my dear.
Meet me at the Rialto Bridge tomorrow morning.
Mel felt most fortunate that she was sitting when she opened the note. Nonetheless, she almost jumped out of her skin when Janice came up behind her.
"Another love note from Vittorio?" Janice asked sarcastically.
Mel quickly tore up the note and threw it in a wastebasket. "Yes." She was surprised at how quickly the lie came to her.
Janice hummed for a moment. "Will I have to kill him?" The playful threat lost even more of its edge as she placed her chin atop Mel's head.
Mel stared at the torn paper in the wastebasket. "I hope not," she whispered.
She did not recognize him at first. In civilian clothes he looked less prepossessing, the male equivalent of dowdy, the stern crewcut of his wartime service yielding to a softer hairstyle. His eyes, however, retained their bitter sharpness.
And he remained impressed with her beauty. There was an uneasy silence as he smiled, taking her in.
She said nothing; if she was anxious, it was only at this appalling failure of her relentlessly proper Southern manners.
"You probably wonder how I knew you were here," he began.
Mel's lips moved without sound. Then she found her voice. "Yes, Major. I do."
"You can call me Mark. It's no longer wartime." His reply was almost as soft. She despised the creeping, implied intimacy of it.
"How did you know I was here—" He stepped closer to her. "—Mr. Pendleton?"
His laugh was low. "Ah, let's see. When last I saw you, it was Switzerland, at the end of 1945. From there you went on to London. You—and Dr. Covington—were there until the spring of 1946. April, I believe. I think you took about three trips to Cornwall during that time as well. From London, you returned to the United States. You were in New York for two weeks, then you accompanied Dr. Covington to Cambridge. You were in Cambridge for six weeks approximately. Then you returned to your house in Charlotte, North Carolina—with a little side trip to the ancestral home in Columbia, South Carolina—sold it, and moved your belongings to Cambridge." He paused to take a breath. "A lot of moving about in one year. You really threw in your lot with that guttersnipe, didn't you?" He watched, fascinated to see a crack in her reserve—her eyes darkened, the pupils expanded and flooded with anger. "Do you want me to go on?"
Mel's empty hands ached. How easy it would be, how satisfying to feel the soft crunch of your throat. Bones and veins, unraveled in my grasp. Like pulling apart a chicken carcass. The clenching of her hands neither stilled the voice inside, nor the compulsion it produced.
"I make it my business to know these things—to keep track of certain people. You must admit, you are hardly low profile in your circle these days. Being the, ah, sponsor of Dr. Covington's work, you are becoming as well known as she. Perhaps that was not your intention."
Stop it, stop it. She looked down at her shaking hands. "It wasn't," she affirmed.
"It does draw attention to the fact that you live with the woman."
"I'm hardly a stranger to gossip." Obviously, you have never lived in a small, Southern town, where there is nothing to do but talk about your neighbors. As a young woman, living alone with her father, Mel had been subject to every strain of lurid rumor imaginable, the tamest of which was being homosexual. "I've lived with it most of my life."
"So you never wonder or worry about what people think?"
She straightened. "I've gone through too much…to really care anymore what people think about me."
"Ah, my dear, but you do care about what people think of your lover, don't you?" Pendleton smiled, knowing he hit his target.
"What do you want of me?"
"I want your services." He chuckled at the look on her face. "Oh, not that. You're a lovely creature, but—" Pendleton shuddered, as if carnal relations with her would sully him in some fashion. "No, it's not that. Your proximity to Dr. Covington is what interests me."
Mel's hand tightened along the bridge. "I don't quite understand." Nor do I want to, really.
"The war is technically over. But the work of the OSS continues—we are still retrieving missing and lost art objects all over Europe." He paused for a moment, to retrieve a pipe from his coat. Casually, he tapped its bowl against the railing. "What is your business with Falconetto?"
"Since you seem to know everything about my life, I think there is no reason for me to tell you."
Pendleton suppressed a smile; he found Melinda Pappas an enjoyable and formidable opponent. "You're right, of course. I know. You have come to retrieve a scroll—one of those tales of that warrior woman. You know, Catherine Stoller paid old Falconetto quite generously the first time around. Almost three times its worth. She kept meticulous records of all her purchases for the Ahnenerbe." He clenched the stem of the pipe between his teeth and fumbled for matches. "She was involved with them from the start, despite what she told you. Quite an expert at playing both ends, I say. A damned genius at subterfuge." He yanked a match free from its book, then stopped and fixed her with his flinty glare. "Did she play you for the fool, Melinda? Is that how your relationship came to an end?"
Darling Melinda, surely you knew this would come. I have a fiancé. Even in the seeming anonymity of a typewritten "Dear Jane" note, Catherine's voice—cool, condescending—had bled through every word and every rackety keystroke that echoed within Mel's mind.
"She typed up a fucking kiss-off letter?" Janice had exclaimed in disbelief when Mel finally told her the Stoller story in its entirety.
The impersonality—and brevity—of the letter had hurt the most; Mel paid little regard to the part about the fiancé. Those, the Southern beauty knew from experience, were discarded easily enough—she had gone through seven in four years at Vanderbilt.
"You had seven fucking fiancés?" Janice had roared when this slight piece of information inadvertently revealed itself.
Thinking of Janice's reaction—and what she had to do to placate her—brought a serene smile to her face, and provided Pendleton with an erroneous, silent answer to his needling, gratuitous question, one that she felt no need to correct.
Dismayed at her lack of response, he lit a match and sucked the flame into the pipe's brown bowl. "No matter," he said between puffs. "The past is done and Stoller is dead, unfortunately."
She arched an eyebrow.
"Oh, I know you don't mourn her. I mourn what was inside her head. The things she knew—about the SS in general, the Ahnenerbe in particular, even the bloody Werwolf movement she took up with at the end of the war—the woman was a walking font of information about the Nazis. She would have made my task easier."
"I—" Mel began shakily. "I regret that things happened the way they did. It was never my intent for Catherine to die. I didn't know, I didn't imagine—that it would end as it did." So now you're finally feeling remorse?
"Of course not," he retorted coldly. " 'But the wise perceive things about to happen.'" He removed his pipe and stared at it. "You're familiar with the quote?" His sharp eyes returned to her face.
She nodded bleakly. "Philostratos." And also used in a Cavafy poem, she recalled.
They stood quietly, watching the canal. Pendleton smoked his pipe in an almost amiable silence, perhaps trying to disarm her with his casualness, so that his assault would be all the more effective. "Would you really lie to protect her? If she is cut from the same cloth as her father—"
"She's not," Mel shot back vehemently.
"All right then, let's assume that. But she must have information about her father's transactions with the Nazis. Something she is not telling us."
"Why would she withhold information?"
"Her father's reputation. Her own. Yours." He sucked on the pipe. "Find out for me. Get me some documentation."
"This could be resolved in a very simple manner. Go to her, and ask her these questions yourself. Janice will not lie to you."
"My dear, your doctor was interrogated by the OSS, before she was sent on assignment to Neuschwanstein. She refused to answer any questions directly pertaining to her father. Needless to say, suspicion was raised a few notches after that."
Interrogated? Mel was too distracted by this new bit of information to resist the hand placed upon her arm. "We are bound together by the secrets we have, whether you like it or not. Work with me, Melinda. I think you would be of great use to the intelligence community." Oh, what a euphemism. Even in her muddled mindset, she couldn't fail to see the humor in that phrase. "In return....Perhaps I could help you."
She stared at him incredulously.
"I may be able to help you locate the scrolls."
"You know where they are?" Her voice was tinged with menace.
Pendleton raised an eyebrow. "I didn't say that." He tapped out the remains of his pipe bowl into the Grand Canal as she winced. He smirked, amused at her disgust, and nodded at the water. "Don't you know how filthy that canal is already?" He buttoned his coat and turned to her; something remained of his military bearing and he looked as if he were standing at attention, even with his hands tucked in the coat's pockets. "I must go now. Do think about what I've said, will you?"
"Go to hell," she said softly. Then she walked away.
Does the ancient book instill a quiet fear because its language is dead or because, on the contrary, it communicates a recognizable voice? Which is more terrible, death or resurrection?
The fountain pen drew a line, a savage gallop over the page, a border of black that glistened until the page drank it in. Once drained of liquid life, it stood there, solid and dull, yet indelible.
Mel had awakened before dawn, an act strangely familiar to her. She blamed an odd dream—she was drowning, literally, when a small rowboat came along. Miss Cantrip, her old high school Latin teacher, was in the boat, and instead of throwing out a life preserver, she threw a huge Latin grammar instead. And Mel was clinging to the book and going under when she woke. The blue shadows of pre-dawn and the murky dream sea were almost indistinguishable at first, and she panicked until realizing that she held in her arms an extra pillow and not a Latin grammar, and that it wasn't an undertow but Janice's legs that pinned her down. We sleep so close together that our skin becomes entwined. The illusion broke with the tickling sharpness of an unshaven leg scraping against her smooth skin. Mel sighed; if only the wartime practice of leg-shaving—a very civilized practice indeed, the translator thought—had caught on with Covington. The little savage.
From there she padded down to the study. The transcription of the scroll in its original Greek (the original too fragile to be handled extensively) lay beside her own vellum notebook—a languishing, laughing tabula rasa, and the fountain pen lying in its crook—an antiquated weapon, charming and useless.
She allowed these instruments to torment her only briefly. You just have to not think about it and do it, as Janice would say to her when confronted with an unpleasant task (and Mel so loved to throw these words back at her when she dreaded going in to class). And so she picked up the pen and, as if it needed a warm-up, drew the line at the top of the page.
The pen, guided by her hand, idly copied a few Greek characters just above the thick line. The serifed strokes formed a word. Waters.
I have traveled over many rivers and seas. None I regret more than those I crossed to Britannia.
After uncharacteristically dooming Pendleton to the underworld, Mel had walked through the city—her city, she thought of it so protectively—winding through the narrow streets, along the Riva Degli Schiavoni and into the less crowded Castello district. She had sat at a cafe, staring into the water of the San Marco Canal, fluttering under the soft gold of weak autumn light. Had she made the right decision? Should she tell Janice? She didn't know. All she knew was that the serenity, the bliss she consigned to this city was under threat of implosion from an aspect of her past that, she had hoped, was completely, utterly dead and buried. Don't taint this place for me, she had silently implored the absent Pendleton, as she sat at the cafe. Because she believed that in Venice she could immerse herself in a history of her own construction, one that she devised with Janice. One that she thought she could control.
What made me think I could control it? Any more than I can control this act, or what it will reveal? She watched, almost detached, as the pen skated over paper.
The words came, as they always did, cloaked in that strange garb of a dead language, like ghosts. Then, gradually, they were stripped by her ministrations until the meaning was bare. Sounds erotic, but it's not, she thought, awkwardly cradling the huge Liddell & Scott dictionary in both arms, as if it were a burdensome baby.
Morning had tilted its light along the walls and the bookshelves, and suddenly she felt Janice's presence—sleepy, sweet-smelling, showered, a hand depositing a coffee cup on the desk, damp copper tendrils brushing her cheek in a kiss of their own devising.
When she reached for the coffee, she discovered an oily film of age floating on top of the black liquid and the porcelain mug downright cool. She was about to curse her blonde coffeemaker when she noticed the square of sun from the window had climbed even higher on the wall. Close to noon? She stared at another new object on the desk, cold toast, once slice dark with absorbed butter, the other topped with marmalade, just the way she liked it. Shanghaied once again by her overwhelming sense of propriety, Mel left the study in order to wash up and put on real clothes. When she returned, chewing on a hairpin and still ignoring the cold food on the desk, she could hear children playing outside (did I leave that window open?), the clatter of tools in the driveway (what on Earth is she doing to that car?) and tuneless whistling (isn't she sick of "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" yet?).
But once again the words drew her in, and everything was forgotten.
The wrench slid out of Janice's grasp. "I give up. I fucking give up."
The Packard's death rattle continued to mock her.
"Turn it off," she called to Paul, who sat behind the wheel of the abysmal vehicle.
He turned the key, and the car convulsed, sputtered, and died. At least for the time being.
"Packard 1, Mad Dog 0," Paul decreed the winner. He opened the door of the car but remained sitting there; the seats were terribly comfortable. He put a foot on the dash, and looked toward the open front window of the house, where the study was located. "Did you chain her to the desk?" he asked Covington.
"No, asshole," she grunted as she tossed tools back into their metal chest.
"Keep sweet talkin' me, Janice. Weave your spell over me."
"Asshole, asshole, asshole." She punctuated this mantra by consigning the wrench to the clutter.
"Come on, spill it. What's wrong?"
"Nothing," she muttered tersely—just as he knew she would. But then, surprisingly, she glanced at the window, and reneged on her stoicism. "I just worry when she gets like this." Janice shut the toolbox.
Paul was surprised at this rare revelation. Oh, so you do worry about her, you do love her, he thought sarcastically. Asshole! he berated himself. You know she does. God, it's been too long. I need a woman. His gaze wondered over Janice's body. Not exactly his type, compact and too muscular, but she certainly had curves in all the right places—
"What the hell at you staring at?" she barked.
"I just realized something," he said.
"You have great tits." Unfortunately, the excitement regarding this epiphany had negated any common sense.
Janice could not have looked more stunned if he had hit her. And for a moment he thought she would hit him. Silence dragged, she contemplated his observation, and thus spake Covington: "It's no wonder you can't get a woman. Your social skills are even worse than mine."
"We'll see about that, buster." Paul gave a quick warning whistle. "Geezer at 3 o'clock!"
Janice looked up. "Huh?"
"The Dean," he hissed.
Sure enough, the Dean and his walking stick were meandering in their general direction. Pompous old idiot, she thought. Never trust a man who wears a bow tie.
The wiry old man smiled and tipped his hat as he entered the driveway. "Janice." He nodded to Paul. "Mr Rosenberg! I'm pleased you'll be teaching for us this fall."
Paul jumped out of the car, nervously wiping dirty hands on his trousers. "Yes sir, I'm looking forward to it." They shook hands.
The one social amenity out of the way, the Dean turned his attentions to Janice.
She folded arms across her chest, leery of further examination and potential commentary on her breasts. "I don't have to see you for another couple weeks, old man. What brings you to my door?"
"Is it wrong of me to check up on you, Janice? To see how your dig went? How Miss Pappas is feeling?"
"You know how the dig went. I filed the report at your office. And Miss Pappas is fine."
"She went to the Medical School as requested?"
"Yeah." Albeit very reluctantly. The team of Roman physicians was curious to see what their American colleagues thought of Mel's rapid recovery. The Americans were just as impressed, and just as unsuccessful in finding anything that would explain the healing powers of one seemingly unremarkable myopic Southern woman. Janice cleared her throat. "There's a report on that too, you'll just have to bug the damn doctors, and not me."
"Is she about?" The Dean made a show of looking around, as if Mel might have set up office under a hydrangea bush.
"Yeah. She's working."
"Has she given any further thought to my proposal?"
Paul noticed—with some measure of dread—that Covington's eyes glistened with malice. "She is giving it thought, and we will discuss it." The words slithered out between clenched teeth.
"Ah, she's a good girl!" the Dean grinned again. "And so are you, Janice, even though you pretend otherwise."
"Who's pretending, old man?"
Paul nibbled at his lip, wondered what Mel did in these situations other than discreetly kick her in the shins with pointy shoes. Not an option. He also wondered if the Dean was not the most masochistic man within the town limits.
Nonetheless, the old man laughed, shook his head, and tipped his hat once again. "Very well. We shall speak again soon. Good day to you both."
As the Dean walked away, he thought he heard a word—"mother"—followed by a strange, muffled cry of pain. He turned around. Janice was bent over, as if examining something on the ground, and Mr. Rosenberg was tucking a pen into his shirt pocket. "Uh, Janice was just reminding me…to send regards to your mother."
The Dean arched an eyebrow, momentarily amused himself with the thought of what kind of regards Covington might actually send to his mother, then continued on his way.
Once he was well down the block, Janice was on the move, clutching her leg and hopping more frantically than an extra performing an Indian war dance in a bad Hollywood western. Wisely, Paul placed the Packard between himself and the homicidal archaeologist by half-climbing, half-leaping over the car's hood.
"You had to stab me with a pen!" she cried.
"I'm sorry! I wanted to shut you up before you did anything stupid."
"Fine, but why did you have to pick the same spot where that goddamn Nazi bitch nailed me?"
"Oh. It just looked like the chunkiest part of the thigh—"
"Shut up!" She rubbed her leg. "Christ, I think you broke the skin."
"Big baby." Nonetheless he jumped in genuine fear as she lunged for him across the Packard's hood. Growling in frustration, she resigned herself to sitting down in the driver's seat. He approached her cautiously. "What's this proposal the Dean was yakkin' about?"
The rubbing slowed considerably. "He wants Mel on faculty."
"Huh," he muttered, impressed. "You mean like the whole nine yards—a professor, and not a part-time hack like me?" She nodded. "I thought you needed an advanced degree to teach on that level."
"She has one. From Cambridge."
"You mean Harvard?"
"No, I mean Cambridge University in friggin' England, knucklehead. Well, almost. She didn't finish all the coursework. But she could do that here in a flash." She glared at the ground. "It's all part of his deal."
"You made a deal with him?"
"Sort of. He'll continue to grant me sabbaticals and fund my research if he gets Mel on his staff."
"Does she want to?"
"I dunno," Janice mumbled.
37 Hours Ago
"No," Mel said firmly.
"You said that about baseball."
"You're not still sore about that, are you?"
"I'm still sore, period."
"Not everyone gets hit with a DiMaggio foul ball. It's like getting a Purple Heart. Anyway, this is different. I know you hate—"
"—talking in front of groups, especially adolescent boys—"
"Yeah, I know you hate that, and there is all the bullshit—"
"They should just shorten it to a four-letter word, shouldn't they?"
"When I agreed to this arrangement—"
"'Arrangement'? And you bitch about me not being romantic."
"—it was with the understanding that I would serve a supportive role. I would type your lesson plans, update your schedule, make your appointments, wash your stockings, make your lunch, bake cookies—"
"I'm still waiting for the cookies."
"Stop joking. You realize that if this happens, I won't be able to come with you on all your digs. In fact, I would probably be lucky to accompany you on any of them."
A pause. "I know."
"Of course you do. And you're glad of it."
"What the fuck do you mean by that?"
"It means that you still have this foolish idea of protecting me, that I will be safer if I'm not out of the country. If I'm not with you."
There was no response to this.
"It's not your fault that I—got sick. It doesn't mean that something bad will happen every time."
Another long pause.
"All right, dammit, I won't deny it. But...it's not just that." A sigh. "Don't you see it, Mel?"
"You told me once that you left your home to find adventure—and to find yourself. You said you didn't want to end up being some sad small town spinster or some rich man's wife. Well, I'm not rich and I'm not a man, but goddamned if I don't wonder sometimes if you're wasting your talents and your skills. It's not that I don't appreciate all the stuff you do for me. I do. But—"
"What?" This rhetorical prompting was uttered gently.
"I want you to be you," Janice said.
And it had been left at that: Unresolved and with the promise of cookies still lingering in the air.
How much time do we got? Janice wondered. How many times will we be separated, if you take this gig? Her jaw clenched with determination.
"I'm really sorry about the leg," Paul apologized, fearing that the sudden silence might have something to do with him.
"It's okay, buddy boy." She raised her arm and sniffed. Ah, just the right amount of sweat and motor oil. Top it off with a little bourbon, and voila, we have eau de Covington. She'll be helpless! At my mercy! And she might even do that little trick of unbuckling my belt with her teeth. A cunning linguist, indeed. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have an obsessive to distract."
Mel desperately wanted to remove her glasses and rub her tired eyes, but one hand was more or less sat on by Janice, the other fending off the archaeologist's persistent advances.
They were both crammed into the leather chair at the desk. Janice was sitting in her lap. The Mouth—indeed, the organ was so talented it warranted capital letters—was at her neck, composing a symphony out of kissing, nipping, and licking. Janice's intrepid hand—oh, all of your body deserves capital letters, and in big bold 72 point type, too!—flicked open two buttons of her blouse, and plunged in, cupping her breast.
Mel momentarily regained her senses, however, and snared the hand by its wrist. No you don't, buster. Although she had to admit fending off Janice was, without question, the best bad date she'd ever had. She maneuvered the hand away from her breast and placed it on her knee.
It was a tactical error that her ancestor would've despised. Janice's hand shot up her skirt and lodged itself happily between two thighs. Like an Olympic swimmer, the hand was going for the gold.
Mel's vision blurred to such a degree that, for one delirious moment, she thought she was reading ancient Greek again and not her own English translation. She heard a gurgling whimper and recognized it as the sound of her own surrender. Oh, all right, I give up. It's not like I'm getting anywhere here. I don't even think I'm doing it justice, some of it sounds so pedestrian..."I intend to show...." Why on earth would she begin a section with such a pompous, self-important phrase? It was very unlike Gabrielle as a writer...of course, we are assuming these are not originals, but a good forger would not tamper with an original unless—Janice, please stop biting my neck—unless there…is…some… significance—
Mel sat forward violently, dislodging the bundle of blonde archaeologist in her lap. Janice landed upon the floor with an undignified thunk. "You sure know how to show a girl a good time, Stretch," she growled as she sat up, rubbing her back. "Ow."
The translator was frantically flipping through her notebook.
"Ow," Covington restated petulantly, emphatically.
Mel uncapped her fountain pen and began scribbling on a fresh piece of paper.
The roar caught Mel's attention, but failed to produce an apology. Janice then knew something was up when those relentless Southern manners did not engage. "I-I think I figured out something," Mel stammered breathlessly and, in her excitement, stood up.
The spurious injury was forgotten. Janice too jumped to her feet. "Really?"
"This phrase, i-it's repeated several times in the scroll...." She pointed to the words in her notebook. " 'I intend to show.' At least that was the best possible translation I could come up with. It's very prosaic and sometimes even awkward when it's stuck in the middle of all this purple prose. You might even call it inorganic." Janice raised an eyebrow. "You know what I mean. I think it's foreign, that someone other than the writer inserted it. And I think that's why I had such difficulty with it. If we look at the text surrounding it...." Mel pointed at a sentence: I intend to show here that the sun was far from rising when Xena set out for Chin.
The pages fluttered wildly, like in a Walt Disney cartoon. Janice felt like the hapless hero of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." "And here's another." The translator pointed at another clumsy beacon within the language: I intend to show that the gate near the northern pass could not be broached.
"You're right, it's not like her usual style," Janice conceded.
Mel's finger struck the page with another triumphant thump. "Here's another." It is my intent to show the moon, glistening beyond the woods, was the only thing illuminating my path. Her eyes skipped the remainder of the painful passage: For it was the only thing that shone for me in that dark time. I wondered if the light she had so loved in me was forever dim.
And then the dignified Melinda Pappas did something she had not done since her 12th birthday, when her father bought her a horse: She clapped her hands and jumped up and down. I've got you now, my pretty!
She grabbed Janice's head with both hands and bestowed a sloppy kiss on messy hair. "My lucky charm," she breathed, and took a moment to mesmerize Janice with blue eyes and a secondary smooch, hard and hungry, right on the lips.
Janice was falling into the kiss—and preparing to drop her pants—when contact was broken, and a large hand gave her a substantial shove.
"Now y'all go away." Mel sat down and resumed copying out Greek sentences.
The archaeologist's hands were frozen on her belt buckle. "What?"
"Go fix the car."
"I'm lying, but shit, baby, I need—"
She was silenced by two fingers thrust in her face—index and thumb, barely touching. "I'm this close," Mel said, with quiet urgency.
"Really?" Janice was slack-jawed.
She returned the nod. Helpless, anxious, yet happy, Covington felt like an expectant father as she wandered out of the study. And like generations of expectant fathers before her, she paced in front of a closed door for a while, and when the wait proved too much, she sought the comfort of alcohol at the closest bar. There she discovered anew the agony of waiting, the thrill of possibility, and the fact that her shirttail was peeking out of her unbuttoned fly.
Several hours later she returned home to find the lamp still burning in the study. But Mel was not within the penumbra of light at the desk; she was sprawled on the couch, one hand shading her eyes, the other loosely curled around her glasses. Each breath was a low, crouching rumble, ready for the great leap into full-fledged snoring.
Janice gazed at the open notebook on the desk. What she saw reminded her—unpleasantly—of algebraic equations. Lines of Greek were written on the page, one after another. She was helpless in deciphering their meaning even under the best of circumstances, let alone after two beers and three shots of bourbon. Show your work, Janice's mathematics professor had always chastised her. And in this instance, that was precisely what Mel had done. But the translator had found something. Characters had been underlined and a new Greek phrase scribbled out below the block of text. And below that was a phrase in English: Gate of the Sun, Gate of the Moon.
Unlike other useful homilies, the ever-skeptical Covington never quite believed the hyperbole behind the saying my blood runs cold. But, taking in the words of the notebook, something did freeze within her. She recoiled at first, then extended a hesitant finger to the page, as if to smite the meaning out of the words. But there they remained. Indelible.
A sigh unfurled from the general direction of the couch. Janice blinked, the corners of her eyes now damp and aching. Fuck.
"You're back," Mel was stretching, catlike, on the sofa.
I've never wanted to go back to Alex. Will I? It figures that this search would take me there again. It just fucking figures. Janice swiped at her eyes. "And you found something." Her shaking voice easily tumbled the attempt at casual retort. She tapped the notebook for emphasis, then walked over to the couch and sat down carefully on its edge.
The translator propped herself up on elbows. The effort, however, proved too taxing and she flopped back down on the couch, delicately pressing the pads of her fingers to her throbbing temples. "I've found that staring at ancient Greek all day can make your head explode." Black-framed glasses slid from their temporary perch on her stomach and headed toward the floor.
Janice intercepted them. "You're so goddamn stubborn. I tried to stop you."
"Hush." Mel groaned. "You know, I don't even know what that means—the Gate of the Sun, the Gate of the Moon."
"It—it was an acrostic. I wrote out all the sentences that included that phrase—'It is my intent.' or 'My intention is' or any variant on it. And there it was: A character from each sentence, in a simple linear pattern, spelling it out." The translator chuckled. "That's the 'long story short' version of it. I would stare and stare at those lines. Then I'd try something else: I would change the order of the lines, or write them all backward…. Then I would go back to the lines I had originally written. The sentences themselves were like foreshadowing, since they all spoke of the sun and the moon. Sometimes, you just have to go back at look at it from the right angle. In a different way." She rubbed her eyes. "Do you remember that painting I once showed you at the National Gallery, in London? 'The Ambassadors,' by Hans Holbein?"
Janice shrugged. "Vaguely."
"The one with the anamorphic skull. When it's viewed at a certain angle, you see the skull depicted at the bottom of the painting."
"Oh, yeah. That was nifty."
"A 'nifty' memento mori. Renaissance painters were fond of doing that—inserting a vanitas skull or something similar—to remind even the richest among their patrons and admirers that they too will die. As do we all."
Silence filled the air between them as the archaeologist took in what Mel, in her usual oblique way, was trying to tell her. "So you're sayin' you did the same thing...with the...words?" Janice proffered the theory with caution. "Just kept looking at them in all different kinds of ways, until something clicked?" Translation was a downright spooky practice, she decided. Didn't Mel say she had kin down in New Orleans—the American cradle of voodoo? The skull beneath the flesh, the meaning beneath the words.
Mel was smiling, and staring into some imagined distance. "It's a beautiful thing. I felt…" she trailed off, raising her hand as if the continuation of that phrase—perfectly expressing the beauty and wholeness she felt—rested there tangibly, within her grasp. Sometimes I think it's better than making love. So maybe there is an erotic component to it. Which explains how I could do without a lover for such a long period of time. She looked at Janice—or rather, her pants. "Your fly is unbuttoned."
"Yeah. I know. The boys at Mickey's thought it was funny. Delmar bet me ten bucks I couldn't leave it that way all night." Janice flashed the greenback with pride.
I could certainly do without this boorish behavior. Mel's mortification manifested itself in a groan as she covered her face with a hand. "This isn't helping us figure out—"
"—the Gate of the Sun and the Gate of the Moon? It's in Alexandria," Janice replied. "In the ancient city, along the Canopic Way. There was a gate at its east end—the Gate of the Sun—and one at the west end—the Gate of the Moon."
A bleary blue eye peeked at her from between two fingers. "I knew there was a reason I kept you around."
"Aside from fucking and keeping that stupid car of yours running, you mean."
"It's certainly not your eloquence, or lack thereof." Mel now managed to sit up. "So you think they may be in Alexandria?"
Janice busied herself with massaging a callus on her palm. "I suppose it's possible. It would explain a lot. The duplicates are dated in the early 1500s. Venice was a major port city at that time, a gateway to the east—including Alexandria. Trade flourished then between the Venetians and the Ottoman Empire. It's possible the originals were traded for something, and ended up in Alexandria."
Mel nodded vigorously. "That's a good theory."
"I need more, though. I need more to back it up."
"I understand. But it might not hurt to do a, er, fact-finding mission."
"Yeah." Janice laughed nervously.
"Is something wrong?"
"No, I just..." She shrugged. "I get scared about it sometimes. One day I want it more than anything, the next it's like...it's like a whole other world. It's a little overwhelming." I wonder if it will change me. I wonder if it will change us.
Mel fingers tangled with her own. "I know."
"Somehow I figured you would." Janice's response sounded perfunctory to her own ears and she quickly stared down at the floor. But do you know how afraid I really am?
If she did, Mel opted to change the subject instead. "I've never been to Alexandria," she said, wistfully.
"Let alone Egypt?" Janice retorted.
"Not true. Daddy took me to Cairo once. I was 14. He did keep me entombed in the hotel the entire time, however. I did nothing but swim in the pool and read." A certain fact floated dismally to her consciousness. "The Davies live in Alexandria, don't they?"
"Yeah. Along the seafront, like all the rich bastards. I, uh—" She cleared her throat. "I usually stayed there when I was in Alex. Although before we met them, Harry and I had this lousy flat there."
"Hmmm," said Mel.
"Don't give me 'hmmm.' I hate that." She was my lover, damn it, I can't change history. "Your jealousy is kind of touching, Mel. A small frailty. It makes me feel better about my shortcomings." Janice blew out a weary breath. "I thought we got over this particular hump, so to speak. I ain't interested in Jenny."
"I know, but she is still interested in you."
A shrug. "There's nothing you can do about that."
"True." Mel conceded this with reluctance.
"Then what are you worried about?" An angry, green-eyed glare fixed itself on Mel like a sniper's rifle. "Do you trust me?"
Mel blinked in surprise. "But—yes. Yes. Of course."
Janice scowled at an innocent Persian rug until her expression softened.
"It's her that I don't trust," Mel continued. "So if we do go to Alexandria, I'll need a new outfit." Save me, Madame Schiaparelli! she prayed to her own personal saint.
"You need a new outfit like London needs more rain."
Mel squared her shoulders. "You don't understand. This is a battle for you, on the field on sartorial elegance. If I show up looking like some ragamuffin—"
"In other words, like me," Janice interjected.
"—she will think me utterly unworthy of you."
"That's absolute bullshit. Besides, I don't give a rat's ass what she thinks—it's not a social occasion. And you could wear a goddamn sack cloth and still look like royalty."
"Your faith is very touching, but nonetheless, I will need new clothes."
Janice took a more common road in appealing to help from a higher power: Jesus help me. "I still didn't say we were going anywhere. The Dean may think we're outta our minds."
"Don't underestimate the man, Janice. There are two things in our favor. First and foremost, he admires you. Better yet, he trusts you, and he knows you have good instincts."
Doubtful, Janice grunted and folded her arms. "How do you know all this?"
"I have tea with the man every week." The archaeologist looked impressed at this. "The lot of a faculty wife is busier than you think."
"You got my wholehearted respect. So what's the second thing here?"
Mel smiled triumphantly. "He simply adores acrostics."
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