God Is My Palm PilotExtra-special type warning: Heavy-duty swearing follows (Janice is in a very bad mood). Sorry if I offend anyone, but I'll try to go easier next round, okay?
THE SECRET HISTORIES
III: SHADOWS OF THE LIVING
Life itself is but the shadow of death, and souls departed but the shadows of the living....The sun itself is but the dark simulacrum, and light but the shadow of God.
Fall. He brooded, watching the leaves gently disengage themselves from the trees outside his townhouse window. He loved the season when he was younger, welcoming the crisp air, a renewed feeling of purpose, of vigor. Now, as an old man, he dreaded it—it meant the onslaught of the cold weather that would settle in his bones, and the painful chilblains he would get...and now, recovering from his recent stroke, Anton Frobisher truly felt the season of aging, of death and decay was upon him. He could only groan in response.
"Are you all right?" The voice was gentle, soft. With a Southern accent. Before he could look in her direction, Melinda had laid a hand on his arm.
And here, inside his home, a young woman he loved was about to gently disengage herself from his life. Perhaps not permanently; who could tell? The war was over, they kept reminding themselves, but the world was just as unpredictable, violent, and crazy as ever. With the bombs dropped on Japan only a scant two months ago, he was more than convinced of that fact.
Anton looked at Melinda. Her familiar frown, that serious, intent look that she always wore, except in the presence of Janice Covington, was directed at him. Damn you, Covington, you better not get yourself killed.
He gave a wry smile. "I'm fine," he rumbled in a deep voice, hoping to convince her. She managed a small smile in return. "By God, it feels good to speak again." Slowly, after his stroke, his ability to speak—to formulate sentences—had returned.
"I bet it does."
He eyed the small black suitcase that sat in the corner of his den, near the door. "So you're off, then?"
She nodded, then pushed her sliding glasses up along the ridge of her nose with a long index finger. One of her "nervous scholar tics," as Covington called it. He could still see and hear—quite vividly—the golden-haired woman laughing gently as she teased her tall and sometimes too-serious companion. "I'm...off," she said quietly.
"I shall miss you very much, you know," he said, with David Niven bravado, the fighter pilot going down nobly in his fiery plane.
"Yes, I will miss you too. But I'll be back." Optimistic words, but the chasm of doubt in her voice threatened to swallow them both.
"You will," he said, taking her hand, "and so will Janice."
After the stroke, when he could not speak, he felt as if he had been trapped underwater, under an ice floe, separate from the world, his senses refracted. He could witness everything going on around him, but could neither understand it clearly nor express it. When he could finally tell Melinda—or rather, show her, via the report—what he had discovered about Catherine Stoller, he felt that he had finally broken through. But it took almost a week before he could tell her of his discovery, and how he had come to it: How he had been more than a little suspicious of Stoller when she showed up at his office; how she seemed to know exactly what she wanted, and how her single-minded intensity sent off alarms in his head. He had called in a favor from a friend in the OSS, and obtained a file on the elusive agent. The war, he thought cynically, had been, for him, nothing more than trading favors to obtain information and get his way.
But that wasn't the worst of it. "They knew," Anton had told her one evening as they sat in his den.
She didn't want to believe it. "What?"
"The OSS knew about her activities. Did you look at the date of the report I showed you?"
"No," Mel had admitted guiltily, knowing she should have noticed such a crucial detail.
"It was written approximately two weeks before she came to my office, looking to 'recruit' you."
Anton saw the change, saw the blue eyes darken, saw the muscles in her jaw ripple. She was greatly mysterious to him at times; as much as he loved her, he saw depths in her that he was afraid of—afraid he could never reach them, or understand them. Only one person seemed capable of that. "How could they?" she whispered.
He carefully continued his discourse. "I don't know exactly what the agency is up to, Melinda. Obviously, they want something from Catherine. They're watching her, hoping that she will lead them to something. What, I have no idea."
"Lead them to something?" She fought her rising panic. Like Janice's dead body?
"Yes. That's all I can get out of my contacts. Right now their orders are simply to monitor Stoller." He blew on a cup of steaming tea. "Unfortunately, they were simply unaware of her relationship to you—and, now, Janice."
She had sat in an overstuffed chair in his study, her longs legs drawn up against her chest, chin on her knees. In such instances she reminded him of the lanky girl she used to be. Despite the girlish pose, her body emanated a strength and grace she was barely aware of. Absentmindedly she bit into the dark wool trousers covering her knee, deep in thought. "Do you think the OSS could use some help in watching Catherine?" she asked softly.
He raised an eyebrow. He admired her determination. "My dear," he replied, placing the cup back on its saucer, "it never hurts to ask."
And that was how she ended up in the halls of the OSS headquarters, pacing, awaiting a meeting with an OSS official. Mel wore her best suit, a somber navy blue wool skirt and jacket with a white blouse, dark stockings, and black heels. Much to her chagrin Janice had always referred to the ensemble as "the librarian outfit." She found it uncanny (and annoying) that both Janice and the archaeologist's former girlfriend, Mary Jane Velasko, had similar reactions to this particular suit.
The rhythmic, ringing echo of her heels against the hard, shiny floor soothed her. When in doubt, pace. Janice always did so when agitated, and perhaps, just perhaps, mimicking the archaeologist's habits would somehow bring her back, and fix everything that went wrong between them. She folded her arms against her chest as she walked, remembering the time just after they had met, when they were in the U.S. Embassy in Athens. Mel had lost her passport, and was nervously awaiting new papers as she paced in a similar cavernous hallway. Melinda the metronome Janice had called her, as her heels had clacked along the marble hallway with stormtrooper precision. It hadn't been that she was really upset about the passport—she knew the officials would find some way to ship home an essentially useless (in their eyes) American woman—but that her feelings for Janice…were moving beyond mere friendship, engendering an intensity that she felt powerless to stop. As she waited that day in the Embassy, she had wondered to herself how it all happened. She had reached no answer then. Three years later, despite all that she had learned about Xena and Gabrielle, she still didn't have one.
Well, missy, you wanted some excitement, she thought to herself.
Mel stood in a dusty road devoid of travelers, deep in the agrarian heart of an unknown country, in torn and sweaty clothes, exhausted. To her right, alongside the road, was a motorcycle that refused to operate. And her new friend, Janice Covington, who was rather—attractive in a unique way, was throwing a somewhat butch version of what was known among Southern ladies as a hissy fit.
The engine of Janice's motorcycle, after a sudden spurt and gasp, died, and they had coasted to a gentle stop along the barren road (thanks to Janice's skill in handling the thing). The fair-haired archaeologist had jumped off the bike and unleashed a barrage of obscenities. Actually, first she threw her fedora on the ground, stomped around it a bit as if she were attempting some bastardized American version of a Mexican hat dance, and angrily kicked at a tire—she missed, and fell down. Then the swearing began in earnest. Mel had not heard such cussing ever since the time she encountered a group of sailors on leave one time during a trip to the French Quarter in New Orleans. (Which had prompted her 12-year-old self to innocently ask her father what a "cocksucker" was. She had been quite pleased at making her verbose father speechless.)
Mel was, on one hand, relieved at the motorcycle's death: She had hated sitting in its sidecar. It was ill-suited for someone of her height, and she had gotten terrible cramps in her calves from being in it for a mere hour, exacerbated by the fact that she'd had Janice's heavy rucksack on her knees as well. But now they were without transportation. And Janice didn't even seem to be remotely close to regaining her senses.
"Janice—" she attempted.
"Motherfucker!" screamed Janice Covington.
Mel blanched. Oh, that's a new one on me. Rather awful sounding. "I know you're upset—" she pressed on.
"But we have to think about how to get to Athens."
"Goddammit to hell!"
"I recall there was a farm a couple miles near here. I saw it on the drive down. Perhaps I should walk there and see if I can get us some help."
Mel's calm, reasoning tone finally managed to seep through Janice's fury. The small woman caught her breath, and swallowed. She picked up her hat, and banged the battered, dirty fedora against her knees. "Yes. Melinda. Mel. That would be terrific." She leaned against the defunct motorcycle, panting lightly from the exertion. "I'm sorry about that. I don't usually—well, actually, I do lose my temper on a regular basis—but this was different."
Now that Janice was acting a tad more normal, Mel gingerly approached her. "Why?" she asked gently. "What's bothering you? Other than the fact we're stuck in the middle of nowhere."
Janice chuckled in spite of herself. "I didn't tell you…I guess I didn't know how to tell you…." She took a deep breath. "Jack Kleinman took the scrolls. I don't know if it was by accident or on purpose. But I need to catch that dumb bastard and get them back."
"What?" Mel was surprised at the admission; Jack, while certainly a little on the duplicitous side, did not seem like the type to deliberately do something so blatantly…wrong. But if he did, I think I'll kill him myself. "Oh my, Janice…I'm so sorry. I know it took a lot of work for you to find them."
"I know." Her clear green eyes clouded over in anger. "Son of a bitch. My father spent his whole life looking for those things. And I had them, Mel. I had them." She closed her eyes in an effort not to cry in front of this woman she had just met.
"You did, Janice. And you'll get them back. I'll help you in any way I can."
The words of the Southerner—and the warm hand that touched her forearm—were a tonic. She did not cry. "Thanks," she said wistfully. "Because you know something?"
Mel shook her head.
Those green eyes ensnared her in their gaze. "They belong to you as much as to me."
Mel smiled. And Janice returned the smile. My, what a beautiful smile. And I think we're having a moment! One of those girl-bonding things; yet instead of talking about makeup or clothes, we're talking about—scrolls. Well, you take it however you get it, I suppose. But the Southern scholar's courage gave out and she looked away. "Well! I best get going then!" she declared in her best "go-getter" tone, developed at Miss Evangeline's charm school in Columbia.
"Wait a minute." Janice pulled out a handgun from her leather jacket, and offered it to Mel, handle first. The translator could not contain her expression; she was utterly aghast.
"Go on, take it," Janice, oblivious, encouraged her. "For protection."
"Ah, no, thank you anyway," Mel said politely, as if refusing a plate of pig's feet.
"Come on, now, I'll worry about you if you don't have something." Mel shook her head vigorously, like a wet dog. "Okay, okay. But be careful, Mel." Tucking the gun back into her waistband, Janice took off the worn jacket and rolled up her sleeves, revealing the subtle musculature of her tanned arms. Mel blinked. Okay. I didn't notice that. I am not noticing that. "I don't think the Krauts have penetrated this deep into the countryside, but you can never know for sure." The archaeologist discarded her hat for a moment and ran a hand through her red-gold hair, just the color of a sunset, Mel thought giddily. She hadn't realized before how lovely Janice's hair was…uh-oh. The archaeologist scrunched her nose in concern as Mel suddenly grew pale. "Is something wrong? You want me to come with you?" she asked.
Yes, come with me, you blonde devil! Let’s drink ouzo and dance barefoot under the sun. I’ll whisper to you how lovely you are! "N-no, I'm fine. B-but you keep the gun. You need protection too," Mel added. Protection from me, if I keep this up. What is wrong with me?
Janice grinned, and spun the .38 around in her hand, like an outlaw. "Don't worry. Usually I just wave it around, fire off a few shots maybe, and people leave me alone."
"Nazis aren't people, Janice," Mel replied sternly, in her best schoolteacher-spinster mode.
The archaeologist continued to flash her too-dazzling white teeth, as if auditioning for a toothpaste advertisement. "Really?"
"Well, you know what I mean," the Southerner amended stupidly.
As the light hit Janice in all the right places, illuminating the red highlights in her blonde hair, making her green eyes glitter like rare emeralds, and deepening the golden tone of her strong, smooth forearms, Mel felt dizzy. And ditzy. I hate feeling this…unbalanced. So she’s attractive. So what? She turned on her heel and started walking as fast as her long legs would take her. Which was pretty fast.
It was a classic pastoral scene: A young shepherd, tending his flock. Except that the boy, who looked about 16 or 17, was cursing violently in Greek at the immobile animals, who blocked the road. The shepherd, with his curly black hair and huge dark eyes, framed by silky long eyelashes, was very attractive, Mel admitted to herself, and he almost made her forget Janice.
Mel came across him about 3 miles away from where she had left Janice. And she was never so glad to see sheep in her life. Her feet ached with blisters, and she had no illusions about how she must have looked to this boy: Torn dirty clothes, limping, and I don't even want to think about my hair. When he first saw her, his mouth formed a wide "O" of surprise. He cried out for protection from God. But then she rapidly began to explain, in Greek, her predicament.
It didn't take much. Her beauty (he saw past the obvious, quite fixable flaws) and her peculiar accent (a mishmash of ancient and modern syntax, superimposed by a Carolinian drawl) charmed him, not to mention the fact that she waved around a wad of cash. He eagerly agreed to drive them to Athens. First he had to borrow his uncle's truck; it would only take a few minutes, he said. "Wait with the sheep," he ordered her, as he ran up a hill and disappeared over its sloping crest.
His departure triggered some distress among members of the flock: There were bleats all around, and one angry ewe kept butting her head against Mel's hip, as if trying to displace her from their simple sheep lives. At one point it succeeded in knocking Mel down. Perhaps it was all some sheep-plot to kill her? She imagined the gossip this would engender among the D.A.R. back home: Did you hear about Melinda Pappas? Stampeded to death by a bunch of sheep in some silly foreign country like Hungary or something! I swear, that girl never did a normal thing in her life, it just makes perfect sense she would meet her maker in such a way.
Almost an hour passed. The sheep began to ignore her. She sat down carefully in the grass nearby, resting her tired feet. When she heard the roar of an engine, she jumped up, started to jog toward the road (insofar as one can jog in heels), and promptly slid into a pile of dung. Luckily the damage was minimal and her stockings took the brunt of it. When the boy pulled up to her in a dark green pickup truck, she was pulling off the smelly stockings as discretely as she could manage. His eyes became riveted on her shapely, bare legs.
She sighed at his interest. "It's like you've never seen a woman's legs before," she muttered in English, then realized he probably hadn't, except maybe a sister or his mother. She tossed the ruined stockings to the side of the road—something for you to remember me by—she thought, glaring at the sheep. He offered her a hand as she climbed in the truck, and they drove off to pick up Janice.
When they arrived on the scene, Janice was sitting on top of the sidecar, smoking a cigar. As they slowed to a halt she leapt off the sidecar, and ran toward the truck. She jumped on the running board and leaned in the open window as the vehicle slowed to a halt. "Mel, you're great!"
"Just lucky," Mel replied, while the boy stared at Janice in amazement. A pretty woman dressed as a man? Americans were just too strange.
"I could just kiss you!" Janice was grinning, revealing those perfect white teeth again. But before Mel could even dream of responding to that, Janice was off the truck, and running back to the motorcycle to get her hat and her bag.
"What did she say?" the boy asked, craning his head to watch Janice gallop down the road.
"Nothing important," Mel replied dreamily, her eyes upon the same prize.
"Ha!" he laughed. "She said 'kiss'. She wants to kiss me, right?" He grinned.
"Why, you're absolutely right. In fact, I should go sit with her and restrain her from making any more advances to you. You know how American women are."
"Yeah, I know! From the movies! So ask her if she wants to sit up front with me!"
Mel shook her head sadly.
"But I like you too!" Again, his eyes drifted down to her legs.
"I think we'll both sit in the back," she replied primly, exiting the truck. With some awkwardness—in order to avoid tearing her skirt even more—she climbed into the bed of the truck. The archaeologist had made herself at home, using the rucksack as a pillow. "What, you're not gonna ride up front?" Janice asked from her lounging position, as she struck a match and lit one of her foul cigars.
"No. I'm getting rather tired of that boy staring at my legs."
Janice laughed. "Don't blame you." The truck started again, and they were on their way, under the canopy of Greek twilight. "Hey," Janice mumbled, wrinkling her nose, "I smell—"
"Don't even say it, Janice Covington. It smells no worse than your cigar."
It was during that trip on the truck that Mel realized that her passport was missing. She immediately knew where it was: trapped in a tomb with the God of War. She dimly recalled the sensation of the slender document slipping out of what she thought was a secure pocket inside her suit. But this happened during the possession of her body by Xena, who was too busy turning somersaults and trying to skewer Ares with a sword in order for her to do anything about it. Sure, Xena defeated the God of War, but she also ruined my outfit, broke my glasses, and lost my passport.
She put off telling Janice of this development. The archaeologist had gotten crabby on the remainder of the drive, as she had time to focus once again on the missing scrolls, and the shock of being a descendent of Gabrielle, "the stupid sidekick." Also, she was starving but "sick of Greek food and dying for a good roast beef sandwich."
Mel endured these tirades, then timidly asked Janice if she had a place to stay in Athens.
"Uh, no. I had been sleeping on site, you know. Camping. I'm sure I'll find something, though."
"Well, er, um…"
"What, Mel?" Always cuts to the chase. How Yankee-like of her.
"You're, ah, quite welcome to share my hotel room for the evening." Common sense sent out a rather hysterical alarm. Are you absolutely mad? Are you trying to torture yourself by having this woman in close proximity to you? Take it back! I don't care if your stupid Southern manners won't allow you to retract an invitation, take it back!
By this time it was dark out, and she could barely make out Janice's features in the dim starlight. But she thought she caught a gleam of white teeth. "That's really nice of you," Janice replied softly.
"It's my pleasure," she replied. Of course it is, you masochist.
"No, really, I mean, you're so…nice to me! I've been nothing but a pain in the ass all day. Complaining, yelling at you, nearly getting you killed. Then you arrange our ride here, now you're offering me a place for the night. What did I do to deserve this?"
"Nonsense. You deserve to be treated nicely, just like anyone else. You've had a rather rough day, too, I might add."
"I won't argue with that."
"Then don't," Mel said with surprising firmness. More to quash the objections inside herself than Janice's.
There was no response. Just a soft laugh in the dark.
The hotel was mediocre, but it had been the best Mel could manage on short notice, after she had made the impulsive decision to come to Macedonia. At least, she thought, it was clean, and that was all that really mattered to her.
The little archaeologist flopped right down in the bed with her boots still on. "Ah!" Janice cried with relief. "I could sleep for days." She looked up to see Mel scowling at her feet. "Oh—shoes. Right." She sat up and set to the task of unlacing the boots. After pulling them off and discarding them, she noticed that the tall Southerner was still frowning. "Hey, everything okay? I'm not gonna sleep in the bed, y'know. I just wanted to relax for a few minutes. I can take the floor, if you don't mind sparing a blanket—"
"No!" Mel exclaimed impetuously. "You can sleep in the bed." Did I just say that?
"With…you?" Janice asked innocently, green eyes wide.
"With…me," Mel affirmed, painfully colliding with a table, its sharp edge sinking into her smooth thigh.
"That's, uh, fine by me." Janice rubbed the back of her neck.
"I'm, ah, g-glad to feel—uh, I m-mean, hear that."
"You know, you stammer sometimes." Janice lit a cigar and scrutinized her new friend.
No kidding, Sherlock Holmes. "Uh, yes, I do sometimes. When I get nervous or upset—"
"Well, what the hell is wrong?" she grunted around the cigar.
"I, oh…" Mel moaned. I'm having dirty thoughts about you! In spite of that disgusting cigar! "I lost my passport."
Janice sat up, concern evident on her lovely face. "Really? Where? Do you know?"
"Yes, I do. It's back on the site. In the tomb," she mumbled grimly.
"Shit, Mel. I'm sorry." Then Janice started to laugh, causing Mel to scowl even more fiercely than she did at shoes on the bed.
"What's so darned funny, Janice?"
"Looks like no one will be using it, except maybe Ares." Her laughter sounded like cascading water. "If he gets out of the tomb, that is. Then he could use it. He could shave his beard, dress in drag, and pass himself off as you—"
Mel felt herself smiling in spite of it all. "I don't think I'm particularly vain, but I'd like to think I'm somewhat better looking as a woman than Ares would be."
"Oh, without a doubt," Janice replied quickly. "But you know how dim those passport officials are."
Mel started to laugh, but it sputtered to a halt once she saw that Janice was beginning to take off her clothes. She peeled off the dirty khaki shirt, revealing a white, sleeveless man's undershirt. The ribbed white fabric gleamed against her tan and outlined her sleek torso; obviously, Janice spent a lot of time in the sun—in a skimpy little undershirt. She could just imagine the reaction this must cause among her on-site workers—this beautiful woman running around in a flimsy, sleeveless shirt. She certainly knew what reaction it was causing in herself—her throat constricted and dry, her whole body a flushed, fiery patch of nerves. Then Janice undid her belt, and her pants dropped to the floor. Her short, muscular legs were tanned as well, at least as far as Mel could see, up to the edge of the baby blue boxer shorts.
"So, tell me," Janice began, snapping her out of her lustful reverie, "what do Southern belles wear to bed? Frilly pink nighties?"
What do…? Mel's mouth hung open in surprise. In her haste to leave home, she had neglected to pack anything to wear for bed. Not that she always wore something to sleep in; sometimes, when it was very hot, she did not wear anything at all (which caused the housekeeper a great deal of confusion when she did the laundry). And usually when it was cold she wore old pajamas that had been her father's. But it wasn't cold here.
No, she gulped, letting herself look at Janice Covington's body once again, it was definitely not cold here. She wished she could erect the Walls of Jericho, just like Claudette Colbert did in It Happened One Night. But that might make her pint-sized Clark Gable unduly suspicious. (After all, why put up the wall if there's no threat?) She realized that Janice was staring at her, awaiting an answer to her facetious question.
"Well," Mel mumbled haughtily, "you'll just have to wait and see." With that, she headed into the bathroom. And collapsed against the door. All right. A slip. I'll just have to wear my slip. She washed up, trying to drag out the process as much as possible, combed her hair, undressed slowly, and threw on a slip from the valise that sat in the corner of the bathroom. Luckily, the delay produced the anticipated result: Janice was sound asleep by the time she crawled into bed. Lord, get me through this night, she prayed as she turned out the light, her body hovering near the edge of the bed.
Mel awoke, as if the sudden flitting of the bard's name across her subconscious were an alarm clock. Her sleepy eyes adjusted to a mass of red-gold hair near her face. Very close to her face; in fact, she was practically nuzzling Janice's hair. Her head lifted from the pillow in alarm. Oh my God.
Janice was spooned against her tightly, the archaeologist's firm buttocks pressed into her hips, shoulders against breasts, Mel's arm around her midriff, Janice's hand clutching it, as if she didn't want Mel to move. What on earth am I doing? I'm such a pervert, I can't even trust myself when I sleep!
With the accumulated stealth of a lifetime spent in libraries, she managed to disengage herself from Janice. She did not awaken, and Mel breathed a sigh of relief as she scooted, once again, to the furthest corner of the bed. Then the smaller woman emitted a peeping sound, almost like a mewl, and rolled over, right back into Mel's arms. A tanned arm was flung around her waist, and the exquisite torture didn't stop there: Janice pressed her face against Mel's chest, and within seconds was snoring into her cleavage.
Perhaps this is a sign from God? Mel thought hopefully. No, I couldn't be so lucky. Again, she began the careful practice of extracting herself from Janice. The triumph she felt as she slid away successfully diminished rapidly once she fell out of the bed and onto the floor with a heavy thud and an "oof!"
The noise woke Janice. Who sleepily peered over the bed at her friend, sprawled on the floor in her slip. "Mel? Whaddya doin' down there? You woke me up," she grumped with gentle irritation.
"Uh, nothing, Janice."
"I was taking up too much space, wasn't I? Come back up. I promise I won't push you out again." Janice rolled over to the other side of the bed.
"It's okay, Janice. I'm getting up anyway. I've got to get to the consulate."
"Oh yeah, your passport. Maybe I'll come with you…" And then Janice was asleep again.
Pappas lay on the scratchy gray rug of the floor, staring up into ceiling
cracks, and cursing—in a non-profane, genteel Southern way, of course—whatever
fate that tortured her.
And so they went to their separate lives, with some inexplicable, ineffable thread now connecting them. Janice did find Jack ("I didn't hurt him, just smacked him around a little," she had reassured Mel through a crackling, long-distance phone connection) and the scrolls, but—given the war and its consequential dangers to one perpetually in motion as Janice was—she opted to leave the majority of the scrolls with him, believing it to be the safest location for the time being: Who would expect precious, priceless artifacts to be in…New Jersey? But, in time, many of the documents found themselves on their way down South, into the hands of a certain lovestruck translator.
Mel was still smiling wistfully, recalling that first night when she literally slept with Janice, when a heavy wooden door opened and a grim British officer with a crewcut motioned her inside his office. As put off as she was at his severe, soldierly look, she was ever optimistic and believed his gruffness, like Anton's, was all for show.
She was rather wrong.
Major Pendleton (for that was his name) seemed to think she was nothing more than some little American idiot looking for adventure. (Perhaps true three years ago, she thought, but not now.) He was, however, both impressed and perturbed that she knew classified information. She took the blame for that, and said she went through Anton's papers while he was sick. It seemed to assuage him a bit. "I assure you," he reiterated smugly, "we have the situation quite in hand."
If, by the situation, he meant Catherine, she doubted it: "If that is true, why haven't you captured her? What do you want from her?"
He sighed. "You know I can't tell you that."
"I know." It just doesn't hurt to ask. Like Anton said. She frowned. And idea occurred to her, yet she wasn't sure if she could pull it off. "I could help you," she said, hesitantly.
He snorted. "Miss Pappas, how on earth could you help us? Do enlighten me. The fact that you know her and went to university with her is of little use to me."
"It wasn't just that I knew her as a friend. You could say I knew her very...intimately." She let her voice dip into huskiness. She knew how aroused Janice became when she spoke like this, and while it was not her intention to excite this man, she wanted to convey a very certain message to the major about herself, and Catherine. She crossed her long legs for emphasis, and was suddenly glad she opted to wear a skirt instead of pants, when she noticed how his eyes traveled up and down her legs.
He then blinked in confusion as he digested her words, and groped for a meaning that he knew was hidden. "So you were…very good friends?"
"It went beyond friendship." She forced her voice to retain a vaguely sexy tone.
"Beyond…?" he trailed off. She was beginning to think she would have to resort to some crude phrasing a la Covington (I fucked her, Major) when she noticed his eyes narrow and his jaw slacken. "Good Lord. I never would have pegged you for that type."
"That's why she came to me recently, Major." Again, the confused look. She sighed. "She wants to renew our…involvement."
"I see." Actually, he didn't. Weren't women like this usually in prisons, or wearing men's clothing, or something like that?
She moistened her dry lips. "I'm offering myself as bait, Major." Do I need to be any plainer?
His admiration of her legs stopped, and he scrutinized her closely. "Why?"
"I have a friend at Neuschwanstein. Stoller knows this. I think my friend's life is in danger, that Catherine will hurt her in some way, as retaliation against me."
"Because you rejected her?"
"More or less."
"And you have another…'friend'?" He sneered a little, caught between fascination and disgust. "Another woman?" he asked, almost incredulous.
"American. A WAC."
"You certainly get around, don't you?"
I'll endure your insults all day if I have to. "If that's what you want to think."
He leaned back in his leather chair and idly drummed his fingers. "I never thought this operation would turn into some love triangle amongst inverts." He contemplated the matter further, then stood up and walked around the desk until he was right beside her. "All right. I would like to have your help. But you must remember: This is not about you, nor your…women. We have a mission to do. Play your part, and everything will be fine." His hand strayed and he touched her hair. She did not flinch, but he saw her nostrils flare. He took the warning and withdrew. "You're quite lovely. It's a shame, really."
Yes. It's a shame the world finds me a freak just because I love. Just because I'm flesh and blood. Like you.
She stared at the bottle of bourbon upon the table. The rich amber liquid was pretty to look at. She had never drunk bourbon in her life; indeed, in past few years she drank very little. She recalled having a rum and coke with Jack Kleinman at her hotel in New York almost two years ago, and a glass of champagne at a New Year's party a year before that…She had grown leery of alcohol, since her excessive drinking at Cambridge, even though she attributed the ill effect it had on her more to the problems between her and Catherine, and the latter's self-destructive influence, than to anything else.
And Janice? Janice drank a lot; it was hard not to when much of her social life in the military was spent in pubs and the like. But she knew how to pace herself, and she knew when to stop. Mel had only seen her companion really drunk on one occasion, and that was the evening before she left for Germany.
And tomorrow I go to Germany. I hope I find you there. Alive. She wanted to fly out today, but the briefing with the OSS took longer than she anticipated, and they insisted that she wait until morning, until they organized a transport for her. So tonight I'll drink to you, my love. Perhaps this will help me sleep. And not dream that you're dead. Or lost to me somehow. She took a crystal tumbler from the liquor cabinet and poured a sliver of bourbon in it. She drew a deep breath, as if preparing to run a mile, then grabbed the glass and downed the shot. The bourbon burned a path down her esophagus, and the aftertaste, to her palate, held a tinge of vomit. She groaned in hoarse disgust. How does Janice drink this stuff? I should just stick to champagne. Or Earl Grey, better yet.
There was a knock at the door. Her heart lurched. Could it be… She jumped up, almost knocking over the glass before snaring it with her long hand. …she's come back… She walked to the door, unconsciously smoothing back her already sleek hair. …to me? She opened it. It was indeed a woman in uniform, but not Janice. This WAC was slender and dark-haired: A friend of Janice's. Mel had met her once. But she could not recall the woman's name.
"Hiya, Mel!" the woman greeted her.
It was also disconcerting to be called Mel by someone other than Janice. She wasn't sure if she liked that. "Hi," Mel responded meekly. "I'm sorry, but I don't recall your name..."
The woman extended a hand, laughing. Mel took it and was jerked forward by the powerful handshake. "You don't remember? I'm Sally Phillips. How are ya?"
"Ah, yes, you're Janice's friend. I'm fine, thank you—"
"No, you're not. You look like hell, if you don't mind my sayin'." Automatically Mel inspected her immaculate clothes and felt around her bun for stray hair. Did she have something in her teeth? "It's your eyes," Sally supplied. "Bags. Of course, if we all looked as bad as you on your worst day, the world would be a damn sight more attractive, if ya don't mind my sayin' so."
"Not that I'm a dyke or anything, but if anyone could make me swing, it'd be you." Sally's eyes bulged in embarrassment and she clapped her hand over her mouth. Then slowly removed it. "Jesus, I haven't even had anything to drink and I'm already acting like an asshole. Better not tell Janice I said that or she'll punch me out."
"She's really not that much of a brute," Mel countered, feeling the need to defend (or defuse) Janice's reputation as a hothead. "So, er, Sally, how can I help you?"
The WAC held up a satchel. "Well, ya see, when Janice got transferred she left behind some stuff. Nothing big. Just some papers, mostly. Before she took off she asked me if I would take 'em over to you."
Mel wanted to weep. If I ever see her again! But instead she said: "Thank you. I'll keep it for her." Sally handed the bag to her. She noticed the WAC eyeing the bottle of bourbon on the table. Oh, confound it all, manners. "Would you like a drink before you go?"
"Love one!" Sally chortled enthusiastically. They walked over to the table and Mel produced a clean glass for her guest.
"Would you do the honors?" Mel asked, nodding at the bottle. The sergeant grinned, and poured generous amounts in both tumblers. "I never figured you for the drinking type, if ya don't mind my saying so."
"I'm not. Just thought I would...you know..." The scholar trailed off lamely. Drink myself into unhappy oblivion before I traipse off after someone who may not be in love with me anymore? And maybe get myself killed? And get her killed as well?
Sally blinked at her. "No, I don't know."
"Never mind," Mel sighed, raising her glass. "Cheers."
A loud clink Then Sally drained the tumbler in two seconds flat. "Damn! That hits the spot." She looked at Mel, who sipped at the bourbon as if it were hemlock-laced tea.
"I guess I was right. You aren't the drinking type. Well, looky, I gotta get back to base. You tell that girl of yours to keep in touch with us, okay? "
"I will," Mel mumbled. With a hearty backslap that left Mel feeling as if she would cough up a lung, the sergeant departed.
She closed the door and stared at the satchel—it was actually a medic's bag—containing Janice's personal items, things that she had carried with her through the war. Mel opened it, all the while feeling a sense of violation—should I be looking at this stuff? Even though she asked Sally to give it to me.... Maybe she found something about the scrolls? Despite everything else, we still have that interest. That bond. Her curiosity won out and she opened the flap. Admit it, you fraud, you wanted to look, she chastised herself.
The first items she pulled out of recesses of the bag were a crushed, half-empty pack of Gauloises and, to Mel's horror and disgust, an old crust of moldy bread, wrapped in wax paper. Both items were promptly flushed down the toilet. After scrubbing her hands vigorously, she returned to the bag. There she found a bunch of loose papers in a book—a French dictionary—wrapped together with twine. And a hair clasp. Mel's hair clasp, one of her favorites: old pearl, faded to whorls of smoky gray and creamy white. She had been wearing it the night they first made love, back in Charlotte. She had never been able to find it afterwards. And this was why. She smiled. Of course. She took it. That thief. That beautiful little thief. The sensation of holding it in her hand brought the moment back to her: They were in her kitchen, with Janice kissing her, mouth warm and sweet and insistent, the tanned hands in her hair, the clasp loosening and that little anal retentive part of her waiting to hear the clasp clatter on the floor, but it didn't, and she didn't know where it went, time felt suspended somehow as she waited to hear the sound, and then her hair was unfurled and Janice was running her hands through it, fingers delicately brushed against her scalp, the tingles along her body which mellowed into a deep throbbing somewhere on their journey down her spine. And then it didn't matter. Nothing else mattered, except what was happening to her: Falling. Falling in love.
It's a wonder we made it to the bedroom that night, she thought. She remembered suggesting it to Janice that they take it upstairs, and to her surprise the little archaeologist had agreed. Naturally, Mel had expected that, as a lover, Janice would be as stubborn as she normally was, as both a friend and professional colleague. It had been pleasing to discover...otherwise. She smiled, and gently pulled on the thread that held together papers—old duty rosters, maps, and, tucked inside the dictionary, a piece of paper, folded in thirds like a letter. It was a letter, she discovered, reading her own name at the top:
September 25, 1944
I don't know why I never call you that. It's a beautiful name.
So we shall see with this letter if I am indeed descended from a bard—if words fall from my cheap pen the way they flowed from Gabrielle's quill. I'll confess here—something I never had the guts (or time) to tell you—that Gabrielle is the real thing. Her words are a thing of beauty. It took your translations to make me see that—my own renderings were flat and sank like a stone. It took you to make me see a lot of things. Maybe someday I'll tell you.
I write this from a hospital unit. I was wounded—a Nazi soldier shot me in the leg. I was lucky and found by GIs before I bled to death on a road near Reims. Believe it or not, this was not the worst part: I saw one of my oldest friends die before my eyes on that day as well. I must have mentioned Dan Blaylock to you, somewhere along the way. I'm sure I did. I hadn't seen him since the war started, until I got to London and found out he was stationed there. Well, he's dead now. I watched him die, and I could do nothing about it.
I think I'm rambling a little. I'm not telling you this so you're sorry for me. I don't know why I'm telling you this, or why I'm even trying to write to you. I can imagine that you probably never want to hear from me again, and I can't say that I blame you. But if you've read this far, maybe you do care, maybe you still feel something for me.
I am sorry I ran away from you the way I did. There was a part of me that wanted so badly to stay in that bed, that room, that house, with you, forever. I was frightened by the power of what I felt. You see, I was already terribly in love with you (that sounds really British—I guess I've spent too much time in London). I should have told you then, instead of running from you like a thief in the night. (And I was a thief too, since I took that thingy that you wore in your hair. It was pretty, and it smelled like you. You know how archaeologists are. We're always after the artifacts. And sometimes we lose sight of the real objective.)
I've been lying around here for almost two goddamn weeks (now that sounds more like me, doesn't it?), and I've had a lot of time to think. I've been transferred to a medic unit in Brittany, because they're planning on shipping me back to London. It's pretty here—well, I think it's pretty, anyway; most of the guys here think it's gray and ugly. The landscape is bare, and the coast is rocky. It has a sparse kind of beauty. This place is run by nuns. Can you believe it? I'm in a fucking convent. Some major breezed through here yesterday and said something about my getting a commendation. For what? I wanted to ask. For watching someone die? It's not the bullets in the leg that bother me, but this whole place. This whole situation. This whole war—I am sick with it.
And what makes it worse is that day by day I miss you more and more. I thought if I broke it off with you and joined the army, I would forget you. I was hoping something would kill me—maybe not a literal death, but that something would kill the part of me that loved you, the part that I thought was weak because I needed you so much. It turns out, now, that this is the best part of me—you're the best part of me. Because this whole thing has been a sham: I can't forget you. If I said that I never want to see you again, if I said that I don't want you, if I said that if I would not surrender my soul to you in second—I 'd be lying. Every time.
I love you like crazy. The world, the scrolls, even our ancestors be damned. Sacrilege, isn't it? But my love for you breaks every rule.
After reading it, Mel laid back on the bed for a long time. She felt strangely elated and curious: A letter never sent. Why? But...she's sending it to me...now. That's why she sent Sally over here with this bag. She wanted me to see it. Didn't she? Again, the old hesitancy. The old doubts. But she closed her eyes, and the questions stilled as she brushed the paper against her lips.
I have chased you through the centuries.
Sometimes you eluded me. Sometimes not. Who slit your throat in a brothel, as you lay, sated by sex and lulled by opium? Distracted, were you? Because the whore you chose had golden hair and green eyes, and the moment you laid eyes on her you felt like you knew her forever? That was Constantinople, in the last century. (Strange, how did such an Aryan-looking sex toy end up at the gateway to the Muslim world? She must've been very popular, don't you think?) She, your precious one, could not save you—in fact, she watched you die, and that was most pleasing to me. And you could not save yourself. Even better. But then, who snapped my neck in a Venetian cul-de-sac three hundred years before? You, of course. We've been doing this routine forever, we're doomed to it. I scratch your back, you stab mine...remember?
Something had to give. I hated you for so long that I think I fell in love with you somewhere along the line. We came full circle. Make no mistake, in whatever incarnation, you've always been beautiful. I even thought that when you laid waste to my home—at the beginning of our history. I thought, who is that magnificent stranger, with blue eyes and black hair, with her fancy armor? I remember how your hair flitted across your face—like black smoke, then revealing the clear blue day of your eyes—as you surveyed my ruined village, my dead life. Nonetheless, I wanted to be like you. You looked so strong, I thought nothing could ever hurt you. It was a child's idle wish. But lo and behold, I did become like you, like the ruthless bitch you were at the height of your infamy.
This has long been my secret, something I could not even tell myself: I hated you, but I loved you too. This time…I wanted to love you entirely, completely. I wanted it to be different—in the hopes that it would bring an end to this history of ours. And you did fall in love with me this time, to my astonishment. Would it all end, the hate? The anger? After a while I wasn't sure that I really cared. It felt too good. It was different this time, wasn't it? It felt different for a while.
But nothing really changed. I would wake up in the morning with you in my bed, like a beautiful prize, a gift from the gods, and there were moments when I just wanted to slit your throat and be done with it again. Again. I wanted to kill you with a kiss. I wanted to be your Judas. And when I left you I thought I had ruined you, even for her: The bard. The whore. The archaeologist. Whoever she is this time.
I was stupid. I still am, because I want you back. The compulsion to continue the game usually outweighs my weariness of it all.
Do you remember the sacrifice she made for you? It was all so, very, very long ago. But you remember, don't you? As she fell, I saw the way she looked at you. Her descent seemed fast and slow all at once. Or that's the way I remember it. Perhaps that's only because as human beings we have this thing called memory—which works like a camera, that great modern invention. You can play it any way you like. If you choose to dwell on that expression, it goes slow. If you cannot bear the anguish, it goes fast. And when you write it down, when you transcribe it…well, it seems that when we write down these memories, they become a history, somehow, however informal. I've had a lot of years to think about this, you know. So this is our secret history. This is what you are. This is what I am. And then there is the woman—your woman—who always comes between us. And here we are again. And again. We are all just shadows of those who lived before us.
Catherine opened her eyes. The dreams, that voice, those thoughts…again. I want them to stop. I hope they will—once I have done what I planned. I crave peace. Oblivion. The plane had tilted; they were about to land in Berlin, where they would be taken to Bavaria.
Covington was asleep too, or maybe just pretending to be: Her eyes were closed, but her body was erect, tense. But as the plane began its descent in earnest, the sea-green eyes of the WAC were upon her.
"We're here," Catherine announced.
"So I gathered," grunted Janice with a full-body stretch.
"You'll be going straight to the castle. Without me. I'm needed in Munich."
Janice scratched her cheek and pretended indifference. Hurray! "I don't understand why we didn't fly directly to Munich."
"The runway at Munich suffered much damage during the war. They like to avoid having large planes, bombers like these, landing there, until they have rebuilt it." Catherine braced herself in for the landing. "Sergeant Lowry, from Neuschwanstein, will be escorting you there. He should be here to meet us."
Indeed, as they disembarked from the plane, a jeep was pulling up to them. A young American sergeant jumped out and saluted smartly.
"Good day, Sergeant," drawled Catherine in greeting. "Sergeant Lowry, this is Lieutenant Covington."
"Lieutenant!" he barked, knocking off another salute.
Janice jumped. Oh yeah, I'm guess I'm an officer now, I get saluted and shit. "Hiya, kid!" she said, slapping him on the back. He looked rather hurt; he had expected a steely gaze, a terse greeting, and, gosh darn it, a salute. Instead, this woman had the nerve to treat him like an equal.
Catherine was amused by the young man's disappointment; he could not hide it. "Lowry, would you get my bag out of the cargo hold?" The sergeant nodded, then walked away to the back of the plane. "You'll have to forgive Lowry. He's only been in the military for three months. He's never seen anyone blown to bits before, so the glamour of military life has remained intact." Lowry returned with the bag. "Isn't that right, Lowry?"
The young man, returning with the bag, blinked. "Ma'am?"
"Never mind." Catherine picked up her bag, grinning. "All right, to the train station."
Catherine sighed the sigh of the impatient, the put-upon. "What is it, Lowry?"
"Colonel Brinton instructed me to avoid the train station, ma'am. He said Werwolf activity on the rails has increased in the past month, and he doesn't want to risk anyone getting injured."
Janice, who had been leaning against the jeep with arms folded during the exchange, echoed, "Werwolf?"
The blonde OSS turned to her. "The Werwolf are Nazi partisan fighters. Guerrillas who specialize in sabotage. And assassination."
"But the war is over. They're fighting a battle already lost."
Catherine laughed. "Not according to the Werwolf." Just as quickly, her laughter receded and she turned back to Lowry, glaring. "And Brinton thinks we'll be safer on the open road? He's a fool. There's more security on a train. More people, more military personnel."
More things that they can sabotage: engines, tracks, wheels... Janice thought.
"Ma'am," Lowry mumbled in reply. Is that all that kid can say? Janice wondered.
"Well, Lieutenant, what do you think?" Catherine asked mildly.
Janice arched an eyebrow. "This is your show, Stoller. I mean, I hate to see the kid get in trouble..." she nodded toward Lowry. The young sergeant squirmed at being called a "kid."
"Yes, we don't want little Lowry to be court-martialed." She sighed. "very well. We'll drive. It won't be as quick as the train."
Lowry frowned. "Ma'am, if you feel more comfortable on the trains, than I suggest we take them."
"Heavens, Lowry, and they call women fickle!" Catherine grinned flirtatiously at the boy. Janice rolled her eyes. "Shall we take the train, Lieutenant?"
"For Christ's sake, let's do something," Janice complained.
Catherine arched an irritated eyebrow at Janice. "The train it is, then." The jeep headed to the Berlin train station. As they drove through the streets, and a none too surprising amount of checkpoints, Janice witnessed the devastation of Berlin. She was, at this point, no stranger to the manifold damages of war. But this...the rubble, the hollow, hungry faces...the sheer amount of the damage alone took it to a new level.
Stoller, she saw, was unusually quiet for a while. They stopped at a corner for a truck to pass in the opposite direction, and witnessed a small gang of youths chasing a middle-aged man down the street. Verräter! Schwein! The screams drifted back to them and Janice watched the activity, craning her neck and turning around in her seat. She was almost tempted to jump out and intercede in the fray, but, as if Stoller could read her mind, the OSS agent laid a restraining hand on her shoulder. "Leave it, it is not our concern," she commanded crisply. As the pursuant group rounded the corner, Lowry pulled the jeep away. Guiltily, Janice mentally kicked herself for being ordered into passivity.
Catherine observed Janice's baleful look out the window. Interfering little fool. She decided a diversionary tactic was in order. "You've been to Berlin before, Lieutenant Covington."
Janice glared at her suspiciously. "Once, maybe twice."
"Two times, both in 1938, both with your father," Catherine corrected proudly. "Once in July, then three months later, in October. On your second trip you kept company with a certain cabaret singer named Sally Bowles, who, at various times, was thought either to be a Nazi informant or a British intelligence agent." Catherine wanted to laugh at the stunned expression and slackened jaw of Covington. "Despite Miss Bowles's strong preference for those of the opposite sex, it was reported that she did seem…inordinately fond of you."
Jesus Christ, is nothing sacred? wondered Janice. "So you guys have a file on me," she growled.
Catherine chuckled. "We have a file on everybody. Especially you. Surely you knew that your father was suspected of being a Nazi sympathizer, because of his dealings with the Ahnenerbe. And naturally it was assumed you might have similar inclinations."
"He sold a few things to them. That didn't make him a Nazi." Janice paused, recalling the violent rows she'd had with Harry about that; that was why she had tagged along to Berlin in '38, in the hopes of dissuading him from selling some artifacts, most notably a sword that may or may not have belonged to the Warrior Princess. But he was broke—the last of his money was used on her schooling. "Just like your being part German doesn't make you a Nazi...necessarily," she added pointedly.
Catherine raised an eyebrow in surprise. "And did you get hold of a file on me?"
"No. Mel told me, of course." See, I dare to bring up the name of the woman we both love.
"Do you always call her that?"
"Mel." Catherine repeated emphatically, making a long, horse-face of distaste.
"Yeah. I guess I do."
"Pity. Melinda is a much nicer name, don't you think?"
"It is. But life's too short to waste on extra syllables. So," Janice continued, returning bluntly and inelegantly to the German question, "you are part German?"
"I am," Catherine acknowledged. "I grew up in Berlin. This was my home…" she trailed off. "And it's nothing now. It's ruins." Her voice was as flat and dead as the cityscape they surveyed.
"I'm sorry." Janice meant it.
"You are, aren't you?" The blonde gave her a surprised look. "I don't expect sympathy from you, Covington."
How about a smack in that smug kisser of yours? "We're here, and we have to get along, don't we?"
The OSS agent smirked. They were quiet as jeep rolled along. Janice's fingers drummed against its door. "You'll pardon my asking…"
Catherine laughed. "You want to know what a Berlin-loving German is doing in the OSS. Right?"
"My parents were British citizens. When the Nazis came to power, we moved back to London. And when war broke out, I offered my services to OSS. I could speak German, of course, and I knew Berlin like the back of my hand. It would have been stupid of them not to use me."
"Agreed," Janice conceded.
"Yes. It's nice to agree on something, isn't it?"
The Berlin train station was a skeleton of its former elegant self, but nonetheless still functional. Currently it was overrun with military: Soviet, American, and British. Security was tight. Catherine flashed papers at a checkpoint at the station's entrance, and the trio was granted entrance. Janice and Lowry trailed behind Catherine, who strode through the crowd with authority. They reached the edge of the mass, which revealed a long black, battered train sitting on a track, smoke curling from under its wheels.
"Here it is," Catherine said. "I must get us boarding passes. Wait here, or—" she nodded at the almost empty train car, "go sit inside the train. They may let you wait there, since it is cold out. I'll be back in ten minutes." Without waiting for a response, the OSS agent disappeared back into the crowd.
Janice sat on the steps leading up into the train. She lit a cigarette. She did not mind the cold, but soon noticed that Lowry, who was only wearing a thin, summer-issue jacket, was hopping up and down to keep himself warm. She suddenly decided that she liked him: He had a sweet-natured lack of self-consciousness, and seemed more interested in the world, she thought—watching him eagerly scan his surroundings despite his coldness—than in himself. Like Mel, she realized. It's getting pretty sad when even some dopey kid greener than the grass of home reminds me of you, Mel. "C'mon, kid," she said, "let's sit inside."
The car was empty, and it made Janice the slightest bit nervous. There was something surreal about an empty train car, she decided. It was quiet, ornate, waiting for possession. Lowry sat down with a happy sigh, warm once again, and she settled in across from him. "Is there no one else on this whole train?" she wondered aloud.
"I dunno, Lieutenant. Do you want me to look around?"
"Maybe," she replied. "Give me a minute." She looked out the window, hoping to see Stoller. While there were many people on the platform, most of them were military, and so it was relatively easy to pick out a tall, black-haired woman, wearing a fur-lined coat, striding purposefully through the station. She sat up. "Mel!" Her hand slammed against the window. Unfortunately, there was no way of opening it. "Damnit!" she snarled.
"Lieutenant...?" Lowry began uneasily.
"I'll be right back!" She bolted from her seat, ran down the aisle, and was gone. From the window he saw her blend into the crowd; it looked like she was following some tall woman.
"Aw geez, Lieutenant!" he cried in dismay, and took off after her. His initial feeling—that Lieutenant Covington was going to be a little bit hard to handle—was turning out to be true.
She ran through the station to catch up with Mel. She even shouted Mel's name a few times, to no avail; the din was too much for even her crass Yankee voice to carry. She bobbed and ducked through the crowd like a boxer, pummeling through them until her prize was in sight. She snagged Mel's arm, and spun her around. "Hey!" she cried joyously, as the blue-eyed beauty stared at her in shock. Mel's hair was down past her shoulders, and she wasn't wearing glasses. Janice assumed that she was having one of those days where she was so preoccupied with something in her head that she forgot to put her glasses on before stepping out into the world (a common occurrence) or she simply misplaced them (ditto).
A huge grin lit up her tall companion's face. They stood smiling at each other for what seemed like forever, until Mel seized her arm and dragged her away from the crowd, into an out-of-order restroom, marked as such in about four different languages. They burst into the dimly lit urinal. The tall woman kicked the door shut with a powerful thrust from a long, limber leg, slammed Janice against a wall, and kissed her savagely.
Janice surrendered into the kiss, putting aside her initial surprise; while Mel could be quite aggressive while making love, she never indulged in anything that bordered on this kind of impropriety in a public space (the lone exception being a frantic kiss-and-grope session in Kew Gardens a few months back), and certainly not with this measure of roughness. Her heart hammered wildly as persistent hands untucked her shirt. Mel pulled back as Janice gasped for air. Then the familiar face broke into a strange, predatory grin—something that made Janice tense with apprehension. Her sense of foreboding was well founded, for the voice which spoke to her possessed not a drawl of the American South, but a British working-class accent: "Hello, love."
"Shit! Meg!" she screamed. The Nobel Prize in Sheer Stupidity? Right here.
"Remember me then, eh?" Meg Edmondson could not wipe the lascivious smile off her face.
"Oh, shit." Janice buried her face in her hands.
"Here now, you already said that. You're glad to see me, aren't you? You sure did seem glad a minute ago." The Englishwoman's large, wandering hands stroked Janice's hips.
"What the hell are you doing in Berlin?" Janice spat.
"I'm engaged!" Meg announced proudly. "My fiancé, he's a liaison officer here. I'm visitin' him."
"Yeah. Good bloke. Pots of money, treats me nice—and he's not too bad in the sack," she said wistfully, as if conjuring him out of thin air. But once again she turned her ravenous attentions on Janice. "But he don't kiss as well as you do." Her hands wandered up to Janice’s shoulders. "I still remember the first time you kissed me. You almost brought me to my knees. In fact, I reckon I did end on my knees later, didn't I?" She leaned in for another assault on Janice's lips.
"Stop!" Janice shrieked, blocking the woman with her hands, and hating the hysterical edge in her voice. I am not going to do this again. However tempting it may be. "You're engaged!" And such a pertinent detail like this has stopped you…when?
Apparently such minutiae meant little to Meg as well. "So? I ain't married yet, Janice, and I sure ain't dead. And I can prove it to you." She pinned Janice's arms down against her sides and kissed her fully, once again.
A boom filled their ears, shattering glass, rattling buildings, and rumbling through the ground. They stumbled and fell forward, with Janice falling on top of her ardent admirer, who moaned. An explosion outside, Janice's mind registered. She looked down at Meg, who stared back up at her with dazed blue eyes and a rather silly smile. "Are you all right?" she asked the Englishwoman.
"Christ all mighty, they always say that the earth is supposed to move, but this is ridiculous."
The door burst open. "Lieutenant!" It was Lowry, gun drawn. "Are you...injured?" He trailed off lamely at the sight of Janice atop a gorgeous woman.
Janice rolled off of the too-willing Meg. "I'm fine, I'm fine. What the hell happened?"
"A bomb, Lieutenant. On our train," he supplied tersely. She saw the fear and relief in his drawn face.
Our train. She sat there, numb. And how coincidental was that? Plus the fact that Stoller wasn't anywhere near the train. Just what the hell is going on? Or am I being totally paranoid?
"Hey!" Meg said to Janice, breaking her frantic chain of thought. "You're a bloody lieutenant now! Congratulations!"
"Yeah, thanks." The women stood up, Janice dusting herself off, and Meg scowling with dismay at dirt on her very expensive coat. "Come on. We've got to find Stoller," Janice said to Lowry.
The sergeant nodded, and moved through the doorway.
Janice started to follow him, but took a moment to watch Meg fuss with her coat. "You're a lifesaver, you know that?" she said quietly.
"What?" The Englishwoman looked up at her.
"Nothing. I gotta go. See you in the funny papers."
Meg grabbed Janice's hand. "Wait!"
The contact was intoxicating. "Look, I've got to go," Janice repeated nervously. I just have to remind myself…however much you like Mel, you are not her.
"I have a hotel room," the dark-haired woman proclaimed in a low voice. Of course, that accent is so sexy. Jesus, give me a woman with an accent and I'm practically in bed with my legs in the air.
"In case you haven't noticed, a fucking bomb just went off. It's not exactly the time for romance," Janice snapped. But adrenaline was pumping through her, courtesy of the explosion…and she felt like either getting into a fight or getting laid. And while the former was a battle she would certainly lose with this strong, scrappy woman, the latter was one where they would both win…big time.
"All the better. You only live once, my girl." With one long step she was pressed against Janice, a warm, inviting hand on the archaeologist's arm.
"I have orders. I'm going to Bavaria."
Her touch glided along Janice's arm, her voice supremely confident. "You can spare a few hours, can't you?" As if she could smell her impending victory.
Janice knew that she could. It would be all so easy: A nice room. A bottle of wine. A warm bed. A willing woman. A rough pleasure. But somehow it was not enough. Not anymore. "I can't. You know I like you, Meg. You know that. And we could have a hell of a good time together. But I...can't," she repeated.
The Englishwoman, dropping her hand from Janice's arm, seemed more curious than disappointed. "Why?"
"Do you remember…I told you once, that you looked like someone I knew back home?" Meg nodded. "That person…well, I love her more than anything. I've hurt her and screwed her over too many times…I'm not going to do it again." She smiled ruefully. "Even though she may never want to see me ever again."
Meg looked shocked. "Bloody hell, Janice. You've gone all noble on me!"
"It…has nothing to do with being noble…I, uh…" She felt embarrassed, wearing her heart on her sleeve like this. Articulation fled from her mind and her mouth. "Do…do you understand?"
Meg grinned in such a way that it reminded her of Mel. "Oh God, you damned fool. You're in love. And here I thought you were a practical girl, like me." She shook her head, laughing. "All right, all right. I understand. Now get going, and try not to get that pretty head of yours blown off, all right?"
"Yeah." Janice smiled back. "And you...get outta here too. This place is dangerous."
The Englishwoman snorted in disdain. "Whole bloody country is dangerous. Don't worry, love, it would take a lot to kill me."
"Somehow I believe that." She started for the door.
"Yeah?" The archaeologist paused in the doorway.
"This woman—whoever she is. She's real lucky."
God, a real compliment from Meg! Other than "Hey, you screw pretty well for a girl."
"No," Janice said, smiling. "I'm real lucky." She left the bathroom. Lowry stood right outside, his tense posture somewhere between standing at attention and feeling constipated. His cheeks were reddened with embarrassment.
She sighed. "All right, kid, what did you hear?"
"Nothing that concerns me, Lieutenant."
She stroked her chin thoughtfully, while regarding the smoky train station, which had grown even more chaotic in her brief absence. "That's a good answer, Lowry." She started to walk toward the crowd.
"Thank you, ma'am." Lowry replied with a tiny grin, and fell into step behind her.
A hole had been ripped from the train they had been on. She saw no dead bodies, just dazed patrons, some lying on the ground, some sitting. The cacophony of languages rippled through the air, a Tower of Babel made anew: German, English, even some of the dreaded (to Janice) French. And Russian. Not a lot of blood. Good. But that blast...damn, it was strong. They saw a familiar blonde head approaching them, and she and the sergeant picked up their pace.
A smear of dirt ran across Catherine's forehead, and her wrist was bandaged, although a blot of blood had seeped through the white gauze.
"Christ, Stoller, are you okay?" Janice asked, hands on hips, looking Catherine over.
The OSS agent nodded dismissively. She returned Janice's visual evaluation with one of her own. "I'm fine...just a little, how do you say—knocked up?"
Janice bit the inside of her cheek. "Not quite. Knocked around is the expression."
"Ah, yes. And I see you are both fine. I'm glad you ignored my request to stay near the
train—" She turned around to look at the smoky husk of the train. "Otherwise, there is no telling what may have happened to you."
"Do they know where exactly the bomb was?" Janice asked.
"I think it was in the third car."
And we were in the second. "So we might have been dead ducks. 'Cause it was a hell of a blast."
"Yes," Catherine assented, then smiled strangely. "Dead ducks. Americans have such an intriguing way with language." Her eyes met Janice's. Then, just as suddenly, she broke off the inscrutable gaze and looked toward an exit. "Well! I don't know about the both of you, but I have had more than enough excitement for one afternoon. Lowry, get a damned jeep and additional military escort for us. We're driving to Fussen."
The sergeant nodded, saluted, and disappeared. Leaving the two women staring at the wrecked train.
"Who do you think did this?" Janice remarked casually, all the while watching the OSS agent warily.
"The Werwolf, of course. Who else?"
"Why this train? Why here?"
Catherine tucked a strand of loose, curling blond hair around her ear. "You ask that as if you expect me to know."
"It just doesn't make sense to me. Lowry and I seemed to be the only people on that train."
"Are you suggesting that you are a target?" Amusement tickled the OSS agent's voice.
Janice's false laughter rang like a dissonant bell. "Yeah, pretty funny, isn't it? I mean, who would want me dead?"
Catherine's already dark eyes grew even blacker. "Not me," she replied firmly.
Her hands rode on her hips, a skeptical sneer on her face. "Shit, lady, am I really supposed to believe that?"
Catherine's hand flew up to Janice's face so quickly that the archaeologist barely had time to flinch. But instead of the blow that Janice had expected once she saw the fleshy blur, the hand gently cupped her chin. "I would be the first to admit that Melinda would look quite fetching in widow's weeds. But competing with a dead lover is a thousand times harder than a living, flesh and blood rival."
Despite many widely held beliefs to the contrary, Janice Covington was no fool. She could smell the danger in this woman, the violence underneath the cool exterior, waiting to be unleashed, and hence she made no attempt to remove Stoller's hand from her face. But—Janice being Janice—she did not shut up. "All the same, I'm not a great believer in coincidence," she retorted calmly.
dragged a thumb along the lieutenant's smooth, red lips. Feeling the tremor
of disgust, and knowing the thin line between it and desire. I could
bring you to your knees, if I wanted to. Everything is so black and white
with you, isn't it, Covington? No in-between. No shadows. "Believe
what you will. All the same, you are among the living."
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