by L. Fox
Continued from Part One
All disclaimers remain in effect.
Chapter 8: Hold That Tiger
Janice and Melinda crouched at the edge of the field, waiting in agonizing suspense for the dark form of Sergeant Anthony to reappear from the shadows. Less than a minute later they heard someone approaching. Just to be safe Janice drew her weapon but she quickly recognized the bent over form to be that of Anthony.
"Well?" she asked, when Anthony dropped to his knees beside her. "Could you make the sign out?"
"Fürstenfeld, six kilometers," he replied, catching his breath.
"Blake did put us down in the right place," observed Mel.
"Guess so," said Janice. "So what do you think happened to our escort service?"
"Maybe they got lost," offered Anthony.
Maybe they got killed, thought Janice, darkly. However she wisely refrained from vocalizing this disturbing supposition.
Anthony reached into the chest pocket of his field jacket, pulled out a Hershey bar, and began to unwrap it. He then divided the twelve little squares equally among himself and his two companions. While Melinda was still preparing to take her first dainty little nibble Janice simply popped her entire share into her mouth and quickly finished it off.
"Be sure you put that wrapper in your pocket," she cautioned Anthony. "You never know who might come fartin' around here."
His mouth full chocolate, he answered, "Mmmm. Right." He had not thought of that but he had to admit it made sense. At first he had been very skeptical about the idea of going behind enemy lines with only a couple of "dames" to watch his back but by now he was starting to feel more comfortable around them, especially the short one. It was obvious she had been through this sort of thing before and that she possessed leadership qualities superior to a great many of the officers he had seen. She knows her stuff, that's for sure, he had finally concluded.
But while what Covington brought to the table was readily apparent, the role the quiet Southerner was supposed to play here was considerably murkier. She seemed to be what was known in the army as a "foul up" or, at least, that was the sanitized version of the term.
And yet...and yet, there seemed to be something....more to her.
To be sure Anthony had already taken an immense liking to the lady, and that was clearly what she was--a lady, but for the life of him he could not see why she was here. Naturally if Janice had been more forthright with her information she could have eased his mind considerably but she had not bothered to tell him of her role simply because she had deemed it was something he need not know.
He thought of the strange incident on the plane. Why had the lady's demeanor changed so abruptly? he wondered. There was no getting around the fact that it was she and not the fiery Covington that had ultimately decided their destiny. It was obvious the two of them were very close and this made their scuffle all the more perplexing. Previous to that he would have thought the Pappas woman incapable of hurting a fly. And why had the forceful Covington so passively bowed to her wishes? In the back of his mind the thought kept nagging at him that there was more to all this than meets the eye.
Whatever had made Pappas act like that, he decided, it certainly was not because of any cracking on her part under the pressure of the moment as he had seen others do. Once near the Arno River, while his unit was taking a savage pounding from German artillery, Anthony had seen a boy who only that day had reported to his company snap under the strain. Even though it was in the dead of winter the poor fellow pulled off every stitch of his clothing. While those around him shouted for him to stay down the young man climbed out of his frozen fox hole and began staggering along their line like a drunken man; all the while screaming "Stop it! Stop it!" at the top of his lungs. To everyone's surprise he had managed to last a full five minutes before being blown to bits by a direct hit from a German 280mm "Anzio Annie." The worst part was no one had even taken the time to learn the kid's name.
But then, that was the way it was in the front lines. Until they proved themselves these replacements were mere non-entities. They were the fresh faced kids with the shiny boots and the spotless leggings and the crisp uniforms and they had absolutely no idea what real combat was all about. More often than not these "wet noses" were met with much resentment and even disdain by the veteran soldiers because ultimately they were replacing buddies they had known for months and even years who had been killed or wounded wrenching another fifty yards free from the ferocious German defenders.
However much of a puzzle the woman with the soft drawl might be to him there was one thing Anthony knew for certain about her and that was he would never be the one to kick her out of bed for eating crackers. She was about the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
All at once Janice felt Mel tug at her arm. "Jan," she hissed, "someone's coming!"
Although Janice at this point heard nothing, she whispered, "Get down!" Anthony too heard nothing but did as he was ordered. Her partner might have been saddled with less than perfect eyesight but there was no denying her almost uncanny sense of hearing. Janice guessed it must be a family trait because in one of the Xena Scrolls Gabrielle had light-heartedly observed that her warrior could "Hear a fly fart in a windstorm."
Sure enough, about a minute later there was heard from the east an odd clanking, clattering, grinding sound--very faint at first--but steadily growing ever louder. Soon it was accompanied by the unmistakable growl of large, powerful engines.
"Golly, what is that?" asked Mel, anxiously.
"Holy shit!" Anthony muttered, with alarm.
"What is it?" Janice asked.
With an ominous tone Anthony replied, "Tigers."
"Tanks, God damn it! Tiger Tanks. The biggest, baddest, suckers you ever saw. Up front they've got damn near four inches of armor. Compared to those nasty sons of bitches our Shermans ain't nothin' but Tinker Toys. The only way you can knock one of the bastards out is with a direct hit right in the ass."
The groaning diesel engines were growing louder and louder now and a few moments later the three Americans saw, silhouetted in the pale moonlight, four black, hulking masses of steel lumbering up the narrow road toward them. For all of them, even the battle hardened Anthony, it was a daunting, even awesome sight. As the lead tank rounded the little bend a mere seventy-five yards away they could hear the distinctive whine of the engine as the driver shifted gears.
In a purely reflex action Janice reached out to put her arm around Melinda's shoulders and draw her near. After scrutinizing the column with the precision of a professional soldier's eye, Anthony whispered to Janice, "Looks like what's left of a tank battalion."
To Melinda the name "Tiger" seemed a perfect fit for these hulking machines did indeed seem like fierce predators on the prowl in search of helpless prey. She felt her breath becoming short and quick and inside her mouth it was becoming like the Sahara Desert.
Sensing Melinda's discomfort, Janice gently patted her on the arm in an effort to soothe her. "Could they be retreating?" she asked Anthony.
"Hard to say," replied Anthony. "It might be they are just being shifted to another position."
Now, as the "Tigers" were passing directly in front of them, they could feel the ground literally shaking under them. Janice drew Melinda even closer to her. Suddenly an icy chill ran through her. For darting about the massive armored monsters like greedy little remoras she now saw German infantry. Beside her Anthony grimly flipped off the safety on his M-1 and carefully aimed it at the nearest of them.
Suddenly in quiet apprehension Mel whispered, "Oh my God!"
Turning to her, Janice saw her staring wide-eyed off to her left. One of the soldiers had left the column and was now making straight for them. Seeing him as well, Anthony coolly shifted his aim to the approaching target.
"What's he doing?" rasped Janice.
Her inquiry was soon answered. Stopping a mere twenty yards from them, they saw the soldier lay down his rifle and begin to fumble with his belt. He's gonna take a crap! she thought.
That he was. Completely unaware of his furtive audience, the infanterist turned his back to them and dropped his pants. Anthony trained his rifle sight just below the unsuspecting man's cheeks. Oh, Fritz, how I'd looove to plug you right smack in der veiner schnitzel, he thought, with malicious glee.
They were so close that even with the rumbling of the heavy tanks they could hear him grunt as he strained to hurry, Janice turned to Mel and saw the beauty gaping with wide-eyed fascination at the sorry spectacle before her. The amusing revelation came to her that this was probably the first time in her life that her shy lover had ever seen a grown man's buttocks. How fitting! she thought, savagely. As far as the volatile woman was concerned the current view being presented to Mel was representative of a sizable portion of the male population. That is to say they were, well...assholes!
With nature's call answered the soldier soon was jogging off to join up with his comrades. Janice puffed up her cheeks and slowly exhaled through tight lips. By now the column was past them and the rumbling of the 60 ton behemoths was beginning to fade. In an amazingly short period of time all that could be heard was their own tense breathing.
"Whew, that was close," allowed Janice. "Are you all right, Kid?"
The belle nodded that she was and together the two of them rose to their feet. As Anthony did the same he thumbed the safety to his rifle back on. "Jesus," he softly heaved, "I hope we don't run into any more of that stuff."
"You're not the Lone Ranger," said Janice.
Anthony checked the luminous dial on his watch. 0245 hours. Six kilometers...that's three and three fourths miles he thought. With a little luck we should make it there before daybreak.
Her mind tuned to the same frequency, Janice said, "We should make Fürstenfeld by morning. If we do we'll find a place to hole up for the day and then move in to nab Cernak tomorrow night."
"But what if the Krauts are pulling out, Covington?," warned Anthony. "Your boy might get away."
"Right now I don't care," retorted Janice, defiantly. "We have taken enough chances for one day. Now let's get moving You know the way."
Anthony nodded and struck out over the field with his two companions close behind. Damn, he thought, I'll never be able to tell anybody about this because who the hell would believe it?
As they faded into the blackness a slight gust of wind stirred up and blew the Hershey wrapper which in all the excitement Anthony had completely forgotten about several yards toward the road.
Some time later Anthony, with an alert Janice at his back, ever so carefully pushed open the door to the barn and peeked inside. Although the eastern sky was beginning to take on a reddish hue it was still quite dark inside the dilapidated old structure. For a few eon-like moments the sergeant silently stood there, his eyes and ears straining to garner every last possible scrap of information to send back to his now finely attuned brain.
Finally he hoarsely whispered, "It's clear."
Janice immediately turned to Melinda and jerked a thumb toward the door. "Inside."
Mel quickly followed Anthony through the door and waited as Janice took one last look around before also entering and easing the door shut behind her. A quick scan of the interior revealed a loft standing in the northwest corner of the building. Pointing to it, Janice said to Anthony, "Check it out."
Anthony shouldered his M-1 and began scaling the ladder leading up to the loft, carefully testing each rung as he ascended. Back on the ground Janice and Melinda could hear the soft creaking of the floor boards as Anthony stealthily tread over them. Presently they saw him poke his head over the side and give the "thumbs up" signal.
Seeing this, Janice turned to Mel and said, "Up ya go."
"Aren't you coming?" Mel asked, with some alarm. With Janice one could never be sure what was going on inside that nimble mind of hers.
"Don't worry, I'll be along in a bit," Janice assured her. "I'm just going to keep an eye out for a little while. You know--just to make sure everything's hunky-dory."
Her protest was cut short by an impatient, "Meeeel." Janice might have been trying to sound harsh but the ever so gentle touch she gave to her lover's sleeve gave her away.
"Oh all right," huffed Mel. "Have it your way."
"Atta girl," grinned Janice. As Mel began her ascent Janice gave her an affectionate pat on the rump. She waited until Melinda had disappeared into the loft before creeping back to the barn door. She then looked around until she found a suitable crack which allowed her a good view of the road running past the barn. Using an old keg for a seat, she settled in and began her lonely vigil.
Up in the loft Anthony had already settled in by the time Mel appeared at the top of the ladder. As she approached he raised up and asked "Where's Covington?"
"She's going to keep watch for a while," explained Mel.
"Oh." Damn, he thought, leaning back against the wall, does that woman ever give it a rest?
Melinda sat down beside him and stretched out her long legs. "Ohhh boy," she softly moaned, "that feels gooood."
"Oh for goodness sakes. Call me Mel."
"Okay...Mel. So tell me, how long have you known her?
"Janice? It'll soon be five years," she replied.
He furrowed his brow and continued, "Do you...work for her or what? I mean, it seems like she's always tellin' you what to do."
Melinda smiled good naturedly and said, "Oh that's just 'cause we're on a job."
"What's that mean?" he asked.
"She's not as authoritative as you think," said Mel. "It's just that when we're out on one of these she understands that she knows what's best for both of us and as a result she thinks it is her responsibility to, well, sorta watch out for me. Janice is a natural born leader and I don't mind that she gripes at me sometimes. I know she always has my best interest at heart."
"But doesn't that ever bother you?" he persisted.
"Oh goodness no," she quickly responded. "I mean, I do get a little frustrated sometimes that Jan won't let me help more but she is so good at this sort of thing--much more so than me I'm afraid. And tuh tell you the truth I could never do what she does. I'd be lost without her."
"She sure is a smart cookie," conceded Anthony.
"Janice is very talented," replied Mel. And in more ways than one, she thought, salaciously remembering their exquisite night in Rimini. Aloud she added, "And besides, when we're at home she makes it up to me by lettin' me get away with murder." What she really meant was that Janice was often guilty of spoiling her.
"You mean you two...live together?"
"Oh yesss," she replied, almost gushing. "Right now we have this darlin' little house in Annapolis but I suspect that once the war is over we'll again be living out of tents most of the time."
Anthony thought it a little odd that she should speak with such feeling about sharing a house with a friend but he decided to let it go. Instead he asked "Tents?"
"Yep. You see, Janice is a very highly regarded archaeologist."
"I see. So how did you two happen to fall into this line of work?"
Here he noted the woman's enthusiasm seemed to wane somewhat. In hushed tones she replied, "It's...a long story."
For an uncomfortable moment neither spoke but then the beauty seemed to perk up again. "So," she asked, "how about you?"
"Not much to tell really," said Anthony, shrugging. "Got drafted in the fall of '42, landed at Anzio, been in Italy ever since."
"What did you do before the war?" she asked.
"Pumped gas in Emporia, Virginia." He smiled ruefully and added, "I quit school in the tenth grade so I guess I wasn't qualified to do much else."
"You can still finish, you know," offered Mel.
"Oh sure," Anthony snorted. "I can just see myself after goin' through all this--sittin' in a classroom with a bunch of pimply-faced teenagers and being sneered at by some lousy 4F teacher with an axe to grind."
"Nooo," Mel said, gently. "You don't have to do that. You can go to night school. You can get what they call an equivalency."
"You mean like a diploma?" he asked.
"Exactly. My goodness, Sergeant, once you have that you can take advantage of that GI Bill they passed a while back and the government will pay you to attend college or a trade school."
"I'll bet you went to college, didn't ya, Mel?" he asked, his tone slightly accusatory.
"Uh huh," Mel answered, ignoring this small dig.
"Was it, you know...hard?"
Not for Melinda Pappas. In four years except for one inexplicable "C" she made straight "A's."
"Well," she tactfully began, "it's jes' like anything else. It's all in what you put into it."
Anthony, however, was not fooled. "So it is hard then."
"Look at it this way, Sergeant. It's gotta be easier than what you're doing now, don't you think?"
Anthony had to admit she had him there. "Can you...see me as a college graduate?" he asked, hesitantly.
"Yes," came her gentle reply. "Yes I can."
"Hell," he snorted, "even if I did make it I'd be almost thirty by the time I got out."
"So?" she rebutted. "Are you in that big of a hurry to get back to that gas station in Emporia?"
Sister, he thought, I like you! In spite of her daunting beauty, not to mention her formidable friend, she had such a gentle, even elegant, way about her that when she spoke to him she made him feel like he was the only other person in the world.
"I don't reckon that I am," he admitted.
Mel nodded approvingly on hearing this and said, "You know, you sure don't sound like somebody from southan Virginia."
Anthony grinned and said, "I guess that was my mom's doing. You see, when we were kids she made us speak Russian. She felt it was important that hold onto some piece of our heritage." He chuckled and added, "She used to sing all the old Russian folk ballads to us."
"It sounds like your momma is quite a woman," said Mel.
"Well, she was anyway," he said. "She's dead now."
"Oh, I'm sorry."
"That's okay. It was a long time ago. You know how in those old movies they always show Russian women as fat and toothless and wearing those big scarves? What is it they call that?"
"A stereotype," answered Mel.
"Yeah, that's it, a stereotype. "My mom wasn't anything like that. She was small--delicate even; very pretty with long blonde hair. I remember how she used to let my sister brush it." He lowered his head and then said, "She was thirty-eight years old the winter she caught pneumonia and died. I just had turned fifteen."
"It must have been very difficult for you." She mind drifted back to the death of her father and the terrible sorrow that had accompanied it.
Listening to her speak, Anthony could tell the sympathy in her voice was truly genuine. Somehow just sitting here with this warm, caring, decent human being made the memory of her mother's death just a little less painful.
Through all this Mel noticed that the man had not once mentioned his father. Almost as if on cue Anthony blurted out, "My old man was never the same after that."
"I know what ya mean," said Mel. "My daddy has been dead six years now and even today my momma will cry if she thinks about him too much."
"Somehow I don't think your momma ever came home drunk and used you for a punching bag, now did she?" Anthony had no idea why he told her that. In fact only his sister Tina knew the real extent of the verbal and physical abuse the boy had been forced to endure. It was just that it was so comforting to talk to this woman. She seemed to actually care.
"Oh my," Mel softly exclaimed. Having grown up in such a loving home child abuse was almost unfathomable to her.
"I took it for a year," Anthony said. "On the day I turned sixteen he tried to hit me and I punched his lights out for him. I walked out of the house and never went back. We never spoke again. Last fall Tina wrote me that he had gotten so drunk that he choked to death on his own vomit."
"How awful," Mel gasped. In her mind she could not help but feel sorry for the man. Obviously for this poor man the death of his wife had signaled the end of his world as he knew it.
Anthony took off his knit cap and ran his hand over his short cropped hair. "You know," he said, "it's funny. My mother's brother was a cellist. A damn good one they say. My mom said he used to play for the orchestra in Smolensk."
"I love the cello," remarked Mel.
"When the Bolsheviks took over they came to his house one night and took him away. Two days later they stood him up in front of a wall..." In the growing morning light he locked his eyes on Melinda's. "...and they shot him."
"My God! Why?"
"Because they said he was an 'enemy of the state.' Can you believe that? All the guy ever wanted was to take care of his family and play his cello. But what I'm really gettin' at is this. I mean, just think of the irony of it. My uncle was a gentle-man in the truest sense of the word. According to my mom he was a great guy with a wonderful family and a ton of friends and on top of that he had this fine talent which he loved to share with others. She once told me that everybody who knew him was the better for it. My old man, on the other hand, was a creep. Even before mom died he never went out of his way for anybody. When he died the only one that attended his funeral was Tina. He left this world a pathetic slob strangling in his own puke."
"I--I don't understand what you mean," said Mel, somewhat uncomfortable at listening to Anthony's unrelenting assessment of his father.
"Don't you see, Mel? My old man died in his own bed a free man. Yeah he was a rat and in the end he was just as dead as my uncle but he died because of his own doing--because of what he chose in life, not because some faceless son of a bitch decreed he was an 'enemy of the state.' My uncle, who had so much to offer, didn't get that chance. The sinner died a free man in his own bed, the saint died at the hands of people who hated him for no good reason."
As saints so often do, thought Mel.
Before she could answer him they both heard Janice's low, raspy voice calling out from down below, "Hey! You two wanna hold it down up there? Good God, I could hear you guys yakkin' all the way over there by the friggin' door."
With a mischievous twinkle in her eye, Mel ducked her head in turtle-like fashion and put a hand to her lips. In a tiny voice she said, "Oops." To Janice she called out, "Sorry, Jan."
"Yeah sure. Just go to sleep, damn it," her irritated lover answered back. "You too, Sergeant."
Anthony lifted up his eyebrows and replied, "Yes, ma'am." Looking at Mel, he said, "Jeez, she's worse than the lieutenant back in my old outfit."
With a knowing little grin, Mel retorted, "Just be thankful
she likes you."
Chapter 9: Death, Real and Imagined
"What the...?" Unterscarfuehrer Karl Platzer tightened his hands on the wheel as he felt the steering become sluggish. In one swift moment he knew what had happened. Wisely he refrained from using the brake and instead took his foot off the gas pedal leaving the open staff car slow down on its own.
From behind him a gloved hand came to rest on his shoulder. "What is the trouble, Corporal?" a weary voice asked.
"Flat tire, sir."
"Damn!" Waffen SS Captain Herbert Schütte muttered. This was the last thing he needed right now. At this very moment he was already supposed to have been in Fürstenfeld reporting to his new post as an officer to General Lutyens staff. It was his "punishment" for having allowed his four tanks and 120 men to have been driven out of eastern Burgenland by something so paltry as an entire Russian division. The fools! he angrily thought. No wonder we are losing the war. Imagine pulling an experienced man like me--a man born to command--out of the line and forcing him to become a blasted pencil pusher. How ignoble! To him these continual crazed exhortations to hold to the last man for the Fatherland were imbecilic drivel and he knew well enough that if he had not ordered a general pull back to the west his whole command would have been annihilated by now. Although Fürstenfeld, his destination, was still in German hands at the moment it was only barely so. It was his estimate that the Russians would be at the gates of the city by tomorrow evening. Only the night before he had led his men down this very road; quietly moving through the narrow streets of the doomed city as they passed to the west.
It was Schütte's retreating column that Janice, Mel, and Sergeant Anthony had seen the previous night.
SS Corporal Platzer eased the car to the side of the road and shut off the engine. As the inside door latch no longer worked he had to crook his arm over and open the door from the outside.
"Change the tire and be quick about it, Corporal," the captain ordered.
Platzer's response was an automatic, "Jawohl, Herr Hauptsturmfuehrer." Officers! he thought, ruefully. They are all the same--hurry, hurry, hurry; rush, rush, rush. The Reich is being ripped to shreds like rotten sail in a hurricane and all these prima donnas can think about is making their fucking reports.
Setting the parking brake, Platzer then got out of the car and made a quick inspection of the "tires." Or at least, what fit the general description for them. Indeed they were round, black, and had a little rubber in them but on two of them there was not a sign of tread anywhere to be seen as far as he could tell. As he suspected it was the right rear tire.
"Hurry up, Platzer! What are you waiting for?" Schütte impatiently snapped.
"Nothing, sir. I will see to it at once, sir." Officers! he disdainfully thought again. The hell with all of them! Quickly he retrieved the jack and the tire iron from the trunk and laid them down on the pavement. He then hefted the spare tire off its bracket and rolled it around to the side of the car.
"What is it now, Corporal?"
"Ahh, beg you pardon, sir, but it will be necessary for you to step out of the vehicle, sir; so I can jack her up, sir."
Schütte looked at him blankly for a moment and then curtly said, "Of course."
As Platzer fell to work changing the tire, Schütte got out and walked around to the front of the staff car. He desperately wished for a cigarette but he had none. Why should I? he bitterly wondered. We are measuring our fuel supplies in liters, our ammunition is pitifully low, the men have not had decent rations for weeks. Our panzers our falling apart, our artillery is worn out and fat boy Goering's Luftwaffe is but a dim memory--why should we expect to have anything so luxurious as tobacco?
Clasping his hands behind his back, he began to stroll along the ditch that lined the road. He did not hear Platzer mutter his vile oath as his tire iron slipped of the lug nut causing him to smash a knuckle. No, his thoughts were now in a very much different place. In his mind's eye it was now 1940 and '41 again. My God, he thought, the great triumphs we won! How invincible we all felt! He remembered the pride he had felt in being German when his SS unit rolled into beautiful Paris in June of 1940. Now, not quite five years later, he found himself wondering if those happy days had in fact not been only a dream. He thought of his parents, killed in a British bombing raid on Hannover. He thought of Liesl, the girl he was to have wed. She had perished in the dreadful house to house fighting when the Americans took Aachen. And now with the "barbaric" Russians at this very moment smashing down the Reich's eastern door, he fully expected to be joining his loved ones very soon.
"It is finished, sir." Platzer called out a few minutes later as he dusted off his hands.
"Good," Schütte replied, nodding stiffly. As he turned to make his way back to the car a scrap of paper blew out onto the road in front of him. Schütte gave it but a very cursory glance and continued on. Suddenly he stopped. Spinning hard on his heels, he quickly walked over to the other side of the road where the paper now lay. Snatching it up in his gloved hand, he began to minutely examine it. It was a wrapper, so brown in color it was almost black. Most of the front had been torn away leaving only a large silvery "HE." He turned it over to inspect the back. There he read, "Hershey Chocolate Co., Hershey, Penn."
Schütte had seen these before. While with Kampfgruppe Peiper during the initial successes of what was now known as the Battle of the Bulge he and his men had in addition to robbing their American captives of all their valuables and many of them of their boots and coats as well, also gleefully relieved them of all sorts of amenities such as Wrigley's chewing gum, Lucky Strike cigarettes...and Hershey chocolate bars. That several of these very men were later murdered by some of his Komeraden at a place called Malmédy was not something that he lost ever any sleep over. After all, this was war. Besides he knew well enough that on the Eastern Front this sort of thing was routine--for both sides.
What in hell is this doing here? he wondered. There isn't an American within a hundred miles of Fürstenfeld. Suddenly it dawned on him. Or is there?
Stuffing the wrapper into the pocket of his mud-spattered tunic, Schütte briskly walked back to the car and the waiting Platzer. "Get us to Fürstenfeld, Corporal. As quickly as you can."
"Jawohl, Captain." He then smoothly pulled the staff car back out onto the road. In weary exasperation he thought, Now what? The next thing you know the brave captain will have us single-handedly taking on a column of Russian T-34's with our mighty staff car!
Anthony eased his way down the rickety ladder. He then quietly walked over and stood beside Janice who, still perched on her keg, was intently staring out through the slit in the wall. "Seen anything?" he asked.
Without shifting her eyes away from the hole, she murmured, "Just some planes off to the southwest a while ago. I couldn't tell whose they were, though."
"Good. That's the way we like it," declared Anthony. "Nice and quiet."
Leaning back from her peep hole, Janice closed her eyes tightly and then twice blinked hard.
"Go on up and sack out for a while. I'll take the next watch," said Anthony.
Janice nodded and stood up. "Is Mel asleep?" she asked.
"Like a baby," he grinned. "How does she do that? You'd think she was back home in her own bed instead of out here in the middle of enemy territory."
That's because she knows I'm here to watch over her, bub, she thought. Inside she felt a warm glow at the thought of Mel's simple, yet oh so powerful expression of trust. Then again, she thought, it might be the woman is just be worn out from last night's hike.
Remembering the rough night Mel had gone through outside Rome, Janice asked "Was she breathing all right?"
Anthony darted her a puzzled look and said, "Yeah, I...guess so. Why?"
"Nothin,'" was Janice's laconic answer. She put her hand to the back of her neck and, tilting her head back, slowly turned her head first one way, then the other. "Wake me up in a couple of hours, no matter what."
Janice nodded toward her pack and said, "And if Mel gets up tell her to save her sandwich. She can have mine." She did not know when they might eat again and she wanted to make sure Mel had something for later. Janice Covington was used to being hungry.
No wonder you're such a little thing, Covington, thought Anthony. But wisely did not tell her this but instead merely replied, "Okay." As Janice turned to leave Anthony cleared his throat. "Ahh, Covington?"
"Huh?" she grunted.
"You mean Mel?" she asked, now interested.
"Well? What about her?" asked Janice, suspiciously fixing those green eyes on him.
The intensity of her gaze did not escape Anthony but he put it down to the simple desire of this fiery woman to serve as a sort of protector to her more vulnerable friend. Bravely pressing on, he said, "Well the truth is I like her--a lot."
And there it was.
So that's it, thought Janice. Well welcome to the club, pal. Everybody who has ever known her for more than five minutes feels the same way. She knew well enough where this train was heading.
"Do you think if we get out of this mess alive she might, you know...want to...go...out with me?"
Janice certainly had no desire to be either cruel or patronizing here. She liked the guy. As she saw it the real cruelty would be to allow him to cling to any false hopes he might have. In fact in a way she sympathized with him. After all, the sweet beauty with the warm heart and the jet black hair and the long, gorgeous legs was quite a package indeed and that he had become so smitten so quickly was not surprising. Not at all. Way back when Janice, too, had fallen for her like a block of granite.
So, it was with an understanding little smile she softly said, "'Fraid not, Sergeant. You see, she already belongs to someone."
The disappointment clearly evident on Anthony's face, he replied. "Oh." Slightly embarrassed now, he smiled sheepishly. "Hell," he said, "I should have known better. I mean, a dish like her." After a deep sigh he added, "Well whoever the lucky son of a bitch is I hope to God he knows what a prize he's got."
With a faint smile of amusement playing across her lips, Janice clapped him on the arm and replied, "Oh I do, Sergeant. Believe me, I do."
With that she left him standing there gawking after her with his nose wrinkled in puzzlement. It was not until she set her foot on the bottom rung of the ladder the he figured it out.
Captain Schütte snapped his heels together smartly and threw his arm up and out in the Nazi salute.
"I'm very busy, Captain. What is it that you want?" the superior officer said, ignoring the junior man's salute.
"I have reason to believe there might be Kommandos operating in this sector, sir."
Unlike Schütte, Colonel Manfred Bayerlein was regular army. Having served with distinction in the First War as an enlisted man, he had been severely wounded in the Argonne Forest. To this day the leg bothered him. Now he leaned back in his chair and stretched out his aching leg. With dull, tired eyes he looked over the gaunt-faced young/old SS Captain standing so stiffly before him. "What makes you think that, Schütte?" he asked, plainly uninterested. After all, intelligence was reporting that his three rag tag battalions could expect to almost any hour now be hit by no less than five Russian divisions; at least two of which were reported to be armored.
"I found this, sir," replied Schütte, producing the candy wrapper.
Bayerlein took the wrapper and incredulously looked it over. "You waste my time over this? This could have come from anywhere," he opined. "It could have blown out of a bomber for instance."
Schütte shook his head. "That is an assumption we cannot afford to make, sir."
"And what if there are?" Bayerlein asked, shrugging. "In the light of the present circumstances I hardly see why we should wet our pants over a few, what is it the Americans call them...'cowboys?'"
"Good God, man!" Bayerlein's angry shout cut off Schütte's protest. "What is the matter with you? We are about to have a Russian sledgehammer smash in our skull and you're worried about an American mosquito bite on the ass?"
Defeatist pig! Schütte raged silently. You should be shot for talk such as that. However his outward appearance remained calm and his voice even. "We must ask ourselves why they are here, Colonel."
At this moment the tension in the room was broken by the appearance of a harried young lieutenant at the door. "Beg your pardon, sir. I have wonderful news."
Bayerlein smiled wryly at him. "Yes, Krichbaum, what is it.? Have the Russians surrendered?"
"Ahhh no, sir. I'm afraid not. But we just received a communication from OKW. General Keitel wishes to inform you that the Fuehrer has awarded you the Iron Cross, First Class."
Bayerlein dismissed the young lieutenant with a weary wave of the hand. "See, Schütte?" he began, his voice very bitter. "You're looking at yet another of the Fatherland's valiant heroes."
"You must be deeply honored to know that the Fuehrer has such confidence in you," Schütte replied. However in his mind he was thinking he could not for the life of him see why.
Bayerlein lowered his eyes. In a quiet, rueful voice he said, "The Fuehrer has every confidence I will defend Fürstenfeld to the last round, the last thrust of the bayonet, the last drop of my men's blood." Looking up at Schütte again, he smiled weakly. "All right, Captain, tell me about your chocolate eaters."
"I am of the belief their appearance here is somehow connected to the aircraft plant, sir," said Schütte. "That is the only thing left of any importance in our area. As you know parts for our Swallows, the 262 jet fighters, are manufactured there. It could be an attempt on the Americans' part to keep the 262's plans from falling into their hands of their..." Here his lip curled in an disdainful sneer. "...allies, the Russians."
"Not a chance," retorted Bayerlein. "The order for the destruction of all blueprints and machining equipment and has already been issued."
"The personnel then," offered Schütte, doggedly refusing to let it go.
"All right, Captain," Bayerlein said with a sigh. "Have it your way. You can fight your own private little war if you like. It doesn't matter anyway. Take a squad and see if you can locate this grave threat to the Reich. If by chance you do don't bother returning with them. Execute them and be done with it."
"Jawohl!" cried Schütte, again snapping off the straight-armed salute.
Bayerlein limply lifted his hand in a half-hearted return of the salute and said, "On your way out tell Krichbaum to come in here." The old Imperial Army veteran watched Schütte smartly step out of the room. Already he had made up his mind that under no circumstances would he allow himself to become a Russian POW. Better to take the warrior's way out. He hoped his dear Helga would understand. Well, my dedicated young friend, he thought, sadly, it looks as if we weren't such supermen after all.
The squeal of the long neglected brakes jolted the nodding Anthony back to full consciousness. Peeking through Janice's slit, his heart turned ice cold as he saw several men in gray uniforms spilling forth from the back of a truck. Jee-sus Christ! he thought, Germans! "Covington!" he hissed loudly. "Covington!"
She, too, having been awakened by the squealing brakes, Janice had already given Melinda a violent shake of the shoulders and was now scrambling down the ladder.
"Krauts!" Anthony again hissed as Janice joined him.
"How many?" she asked, chambering a round into her .45 automatic.
"I dunno, eight, ten--enough," replied Anthony. "How the hell did they find us?"
"Maybe they didn't," she quickly answered. "Maybe they're just
However Hauptsturmfuehrer Herbert Schütte was not merely "snooping around." He had skillfully tracked his fox to the hole and now his hounds were about to dig it out for him. It had all been so obscenely easy. He had reasoned they would surely have to be somewhere very close to Fürstenfeld by now and after carefully scrutinizing a map of the area had decided this sector was the best place to start his hunt. Sure enough, after three hours of scouring the countryside pounding on the doors of the local farm houses he had hit pay dirt. Either his prey had been in one hell of a big hurry, incredibly stupid, or both because a thirteen year old girl, too frightened to lie, told them she had seen three "men" quietly moving thought her father's apple orchard on her way to milk the family cow just after sunrise. Thinking they might be looters, she had kept a careful eye on them. She told Schütte she had seen them cross the field toward the old Krause place, now unoccupied at the moment, its former tenants having been impressed into work the work gangs building tank traps in front of Fürstenfeld.
While not exactly comparable to the time he had personally accepted the surrender of a whole regiment of the American 106th Division in the Ardennes it was nevertheless a source of satisfaction for him. These days one took their victories where they could get them.
Sweeping his arm over the barn, Schütte now shouted, "Surround
Inside, Janice saw this and muttered a saturnine, "Fuck!"
Now she and Anthony were joined by Melinda. Hearing the harsh, excited voices outside, she asked "Jan, what are we going to do?"
Turning quickly to her lover, Janice said, "Sweetheart, I want you to get back up in the loft and cover yourself up with that old tarp. No matter what happens, no matter what you hear, you stay there, understand?"
"But, Jan, I--"
"Do it!" Janice barked, forcefully pushing her toward the ladder. "Go!"
Suddenly they both jumped as the loud report of Anthony's M-1 erupted behind them. He had just drawn first blood by downing a German who had foolishly gotten too close to the barn too soon. "Bite on that, you bastard!" he growled through clenched teeth.
As she whirled around, Janice heard the ping of his ejected shell casing as it bounced off a nearby support beam. This was immediately followed by firing from the outside in every direction. A Mauser 7.92 millimeter round slammed though the barn's half rotten plank siding, spraying wood splinters into Mel's hair. Instantly another one ripped into the ground at Janice's feet, kicking up a deceptively harmless looking spray of dirt. Seizing her friend by the arm, Janice shrieked, "Get out of here!" While she was doing this Anthony again shouldered his M-1 and snapped off its remaining seven rounds in rapid succession.
As Janice was pushing Mel toward the ladder a slug tore through the side wall, menacingly whined just past her right ear, and impacted in one of the stall gates. By this time Anthony had jammed another clip down into his superb weapon and was sweeping his sights to and fro in search of a suitable target. To his momentary frustration he found none, the enemy having now taken cover. But then, peering into the old corn crib standing twenty-five yards away, he saw a small patch of field gray suddenly shift position ever so slightly. With a grim smile of satisfaction Anthony let loose three quick rounds in that direction and was immediately rewarded with the immensely gratifying sound of a sharp cry followed by the sight of one of those familiar coal scuttle helmets tumbling forth from inside the crib.
Having now gotten Mel safely up the ladder, Janice rushed to the barn wall opposite from Anthony and threw herself on the ground. All the while the Germans kept pouring fire into the barn at a fierce rate. Peering out from behind a loose board, she thought she heard muffled voices off to her right. A second later a jack boot kicked open the side door near where she lay.
For one brief moment two German soldiers were taken aback by the sight of a small, lithe figure nimbly rolling over on its back. It was the last thing they ever saw. Janice's .45 erupted and her first round caught one of the surprised soldiers dead center in the jugular vein. Her second one struck his comrade in the chest just above the left nipple.
Up in the loft, the terrified Mel disobeyed Janice and crept to the edge of the loft. Her hands shaking, she forced herself to peer over and look down and was just in time to see the second of Janice's two victims lurch back out the door. She then saw her friend roll back on her belly and rapidly crawl behind an old plow. It was then she heard a faint, sickening little thud and sweeping her eyes to her left, she saw Sergeant Anthony do a slow roll over onto his side, his left leg jerking violently. In horror she saw the blood spurting from the ghastly wound in his head. She wanted to scream but her vocal chords betrayed her. In fact she was almost petrified by her fear. She felt so helpless, so impotent. My God! Anthony, my Jan--we're all going to die here! she silently lamented. And I can't do anything to stop it.
Right then a...feeling, for lack of a better word, began to wash over her. It was one of tremendous strength, fierce determination, and incredible self-confidence. It swept forth like a savage flood from deep within her soul to spread in every pore, every nerve ending, every fiber of her being. Her rapidly beating heart began to pulse with the vibrancy of that of another raven haired beauty of some thirty-one centuries before. The last thing Mel would remember was drawing herself up on her haunches like a panther ready to spring. For some reason she then paused for the briefest of moments to look down at her hands before making her leap down.
They weren't shaking anymore.
At precisely the same moment "Mel" was hitting the ground, Sergeant Alfred Koch was maneuvering himself into position. A veteran of hundreds of little scraps like these from his days on the Eastern Front, he had sized up the situation with his professional's eye and quickly determined the safest way to get near the barn without being detected. Of course, he thought, those two idiots Hessler and Müeller had aided his cause considerably with their ill fated attempt to charge in without knowing what they were getting into. Slowly, cautiously, he worked his way along the side of the barn, dragging his belly over the rich, black dirt.
From her new position Janice still had her .45 trained on the door, her eyes straining to see any sign of movement. Now, suddenly, the firing from outside stopped. Not taking her eyes off the door, she called out, "Anthony? You okay?"
"He's dead," a husky feminine voice said from behind.
Turning quickly, Janice saw Melinda standing behind her, feet positioned wide apart, one ahead of the other, and her hands away from her body in an uncharacteristically aggressive pose. Somehow she looked...different.
"It's you...isn't it?" Janice asked. "Xena."
"Yeah," came the terse reply. Looking down at the small figure sitting there on her behind in the dirt the warrioress saw not the face of a hard-bitten adventurer but rather that of the warm, incredibly compassionate little bard that had stolen her heart so many centuries ago. Fighting the urge to call her "Gabrielle," the warrioress said, "Janice, we've got trouble. Follow me." Her finely tuned senses had already detected the presence of Koch lurking just outside the door and the danger he represented. For her part Janice was already feeling the effects of Xena's overwhelming presence and she recognized that it would now be she who would be doing the following. She parted her lips so say something but she never got it out for in one lightning quick move "Xena" shot her hand down, caught Janice by the collar of her jacket, and with incredible ease lifted her to her feet. "Up the ladder," she ordered.
Janice eased the hammer down on her .45 and jammed it into the waist band of her trousers. And then she did as she was told, Xena hot on her heels. They could not have cut it any closer for it was at this precise moment that Koch chose to toss in his "potato masher."
Scrambling up the ladder, Xena saw the sinister looking device sail through the door and land with a heavy thump. Despite having never seen a hand grenade before, in that one nanosecond her warrior instincts deduced the deadly purpose of the strange object. Up in the loft now, she caught Janice's by her thin shoulders and threw her against the far wall of the barn. The warrioress then flung her long body down beside that of her strange friend. No sooner had her weight hit the floor when an ear splitting explosion erupted down below. Shrapnel from the grenade flew up and out from the blast and slammed into and in some places through the loft floor. This was followed by a cloud of acrid smoke wafting up from below. From their spot against the wall the two women heard someone out in front of the barn yell, "Good work, Koch! Wait until it clears!"
Veteran that he was, Koch did not need Schütte to tell him his business. "You and those little momma's boys take care your end, you pipsqueak," he muttered to himself, "and I'll take care of mine."
Like Koch, Xena also did not need anyone to tell her what to do next. "Janice," she whispered, "we don't have much time."
"What are you going to do?" asked Janice.
"No time to explain," Xena replied. "But I need your help. Are you with me?"
"You kiddin'?" Teeth clenched, Janice said, "Just name it."
Easily flipping herself up on her feet, Xena reached down and yanked Janice up. "Keep an eye on that door and when that man comes through use that...thing of yours on him."
"You got it," Janice assured her, with a grim little smile. "But what about you?"
Xena/Mel shot her a look that chilled even the gutsy Janice to the marrow for it signified power and a savage fury most human beings could not even begin to comprehend.
Looking down on the smaller friend she towered above, Xena said
in a sinister voice, "The rest belong to me."
The newly promoted United States Army major raised his field glasses to his eyes and focused in on the old structure sitting 150 yards away to the east.
"What the bloody 'ell is going on over there, mate?" his friend asked.
"I think it's those guys we almost blundered into this morning back at the crossroads," replied the major.
"You mean those yobbos we saw in the bloomin' truck?"
"Who do you suppose they're after?"
The major lowered his glasses and gave his old friend a wry look. "I'll give you one guess, pal."
It had been an unfortunate set of circumstances that had caused the major and his buddy to miss their connection with Janice and her party. Moving in from the east, they had been forced to make a wide detour around Schütte's retreating column--the same one that had caused Janice and the others so much consternation--and then this was compounded by their stolen vehicle giving up the ghost on them so by the time they got to the rendezvous point they were a good hour an forty-five minutes late. Working on the assumption that the party had landed and were intending to carry on as best they could, the major had back-tracked toward Fürstenfeld all the while hoping he might get lucky and find them. And now that he was fairly certain he had he only hoped they were still alive.
"So what do we do, Cap'n--I mean, Major?"
Pulling back the bolt on his British made Sten gun, the major said, "What else? We get our ass over there and see if we can bail 'em out."
His big friend grunted his assent and so off they went, running
across the field as fast as their low crouches would allow.
The nervous private ever so slowly peeked around the opening to the barn and looked inside. On the ground not more than a step away lay the body of an dead American soldier. Carefully he scanned the whole interior of the barn, the stalls, the hay pile, the old, rusted farm implements. Nothing. To him it looked all right but one had to be careful about these things. A slip up could get him killed. Peering in, he sucked up his breath and held it, intently listening for any sound. Nothing. It was when he saw Koch's welcome form fill the opening in the side door. He saw Koch nod to him. It must be all right then, he thought.
Turning to the waiting Schütte, he said, "It's all clear, sir."
Schütte immediately signaled for Platzer and the other two men
to move in.
High up in the rafters, a dark form poised its muscles in readiness
to spring forward. Wait till they all get in, the form reminded itself.
Have to hit hard and fast. With the kind of weapons they've got you'll only
get one chance. However Xena was not completely unarmed herself for tightly
gripped in her right hand was the old rusty sickle she had found in the corner
of the loft. As first one, then another of the enemy cautiously stepped through
the doorway Xena raised herself up on the balls of her feet. Get them all, she
again reminded herself. Kill them all.
From her hiding place at the far end of the loft Janice watched
Koch ease his way through the door below, his rifle at the ready. Out of the
corner of her eye she saw Schütte and the rest of the others begin to enter
through the main door. Ever so slowly she brought her .45 up with both hands
and aimed it at the point where Koch's neck met his shoulders. Just a little
more, you bastard, she grimly thought. Remembering Xena's admonition to wait
for her, Janice blinked hard once, took a shallow breath and held it. Any...second...now.
Looking the scene over, Koch's tried and true combat instincts
began sounding alarm bells in his head. Something is not right here, he thought.
He could just feel it. He watched as Schütte took his foot and rolled
over the body of the dead American. Then it came to him. Those were not rifle
shots that killed Hessler and Müeller. There must be someone else in here. Immediately
his experienced eye began to sweep upwards toward the loft...and Janice.
It was just as she had hoped. The enemy--five of them--had indeed
stopped for just a few moments to gather around the lifeless body of Sergeant
Anthony. Quickly sizing up the situation, Xena picked out the one she thought
to be the greatest initial threat. The freckled faced one beside the officer,
she thought. He dies first. And so, having charted out her course, Xena now
launched her ship of death.
Koch's eyes came to rest on an oddly shaped form pressed against the barn wall. A man? he wondered. Squinting hard at the apparition, his eyes then grew wide. Yes! It is a man! He began bringing up his rifle to bear while simultaneously opening his mouth to shout out a cry of alarm. As his lips and tongue formed the first syllable his peripheral vision detected a large object hurtling down from out of the barn rafters. For a fraction of a second it broke his concentration and he flicked his eyes in the general direction of Schütte and his men. By now Koch's Mauser was to his shoulder but upon swinging his gaze back to where it had been before he saw the horrifying sight of an unmistakable muzzle flash. Koch was too late and he knew it. In that next fraction of a second his racing mind could only feebly hope that his enemy would miss and give him a chance.
Janice did not miss. Her slug slammed into Koch's rib cage just
below his left armpit. The bullet penetrated the bones of his rib cage and tore
into Koch's left lung. With a violent gurgle he dropped his Mauser and felt
his knees giving way. Slumping downward, he did a quarter turn exposing his
back to Janice who promptly planted one more .45 slug right between his shoulder
blades. By the time Koch crumpled to the ground Janice was already tearing for
the ladder at the far end of the loft in hope that she might be able to render
assistance to her friend. She need not have bothered.
As she had always done, Xena measured her leap perfectly. Alighting solidly behind the freckled face soldier she had targeted she caught him by the chin strap of his helmet and savagely jerked his head to one side. In the same motion she swung her right arm up and over his shoulder and drove the tip of the sickle deep into the shocked young man's heart. Using him as a support Xena swung her right leg up and with a long, sweeping kick struck the soldier standing next to her in the jaw with such force that she instantly broke his neck. She then heaved the body of her first victim into the solider standing directly opposite her, knocking him off his feet. In vain Schütte tried to draw his pistol for he now saw he was next on Xena's list. Instead she caught his hand in her own and with one powerful squeeze broke three of his fingers. She then swung her sickle with such strength, that rusty as it was, she still managed to drive its blade halfway into the officer's neck.
As for Platzer he had been initially so stunned by this devil-woman's version of the blitzkrieg that only now was he clumsily unshouldering his MP44. His delay cost him his life. Xena seized the weapon still looped around his shoulder and, using it as a handle, threw Platzer's body heavily into a nearby support beam. Closing on him, Xena caught him by the hair of his head and smashed his forehead into the support beam as hard as she could.
All this carnage occurred in within the space of only few heartbeats; so swift and lethal was her attack. Turning her deadly attention to the lone surviving man, she saw him scramble to his feet and in sheer terror bolt out the barn door. Of course she immediately gave chase to the panic stricken man but she had not even gotten to the door before she heard an eruption of small arms fire on the outside. The fleeing man had run straight into the major and his partner.
Standing in the door now, she saw one man--it was the major--walk out from behind the Germans' truck. His partner, whom she saw to be a very large man, then eased his way around the corner of what had once been the Krause's hen house. Twenty yards directly in front of her lay the body of her quarry--shot down in the crossfire between the two now men approaching. For the warrioress it was finished. The danger, or at least the immediate danger, was over.
Janice hopped off the latter three rungs from the bottom, neatly landing on the balls of her feet. Quickly scanning the scene before her, she was filled with a sense of awe at what had been wrought by Xena's savage display of raw power. One man lay with his head twisted an a ridiculously odd angle, another with a large, jagged hole in his chest, another sitting with his back against the barn wall--the weapon of his destruction still lying buried halfway in his neck. Next to him lay a man with an appalling depression on the top of his forehead.
Turning to her left, Janice saw her friend slump against the edge of the doorway and bury her face into her shoulder. "Mel!" she cried, rushing to her.
To Melinda Pappas it seemed as though the fog in her woozy head was never going to clear. "Ohhh," she softly moaned. She thought she heard a voice, maybe Janice's, call her name but at this moment she could not be sure of anything except how much her head hurt. What is happening to me? she vaguely wondered. The last thing she could recall was being up there in the loft and now here she was down on the ground at the entrance to the barn. How...?
She felt an arm slip around her waist. "Mel," said a tender voice. "Oh Jesus, Mel, are you all right?" It was Janice.
The belle nodded feebly and replied, "Yes, I...I think so." She went to wipe her brow but as her hand came to eye level she saw it was covered with...
Oh my, she thought, is that blood? "Golly, Jan," she gasped, "what happened?"
"It's all right, Kid," Janice cooed, as she squeezed Mel's waist. "It's all right now."
"Are you blokes all right?" a voice inquired.
"Yeah," Janice said, now intently watching the two men as they approached. "Are you guys who I think you are?"
Only now did the major's friend realize who, or rather what, these two were. Blimey! he thought, incredulously. Why they're sheilas!
No sooner had Janice spoken when the other man stopped dead in his tracks. "Oh my God. It can't be!" she heard him exclaim. His partner, thinking there might be trouble, asked "What's wrong, Major?"
In an instant Melinda recognized the "Major's" voice. It was one long seared into her memory. But it...can't be! He's....
She bore her eyes in on the tall, lean man harder still. He was indeed thinner than she remembered and his face bore signs of having endured much hardship. He was also heavily bearded and that made it difficult for her to make out those oh so familiar features she had known most of her life. Be that as it may there was no mistaking that voice. Now she felt the first tears begin to well up. Putting a hand to her mouth, she emitted a soft, joyful sob, "Oh my."
Her mind was racing now. Can it possibly be him? Am I dreaming? This can't be! It must be a dream. But no. Or is it? Oh, sweet God in Heaven, it's....HIM! "Bubby?" she asked, her voice barely above a whisper. "Is that you?"
She took a hesitant step forward and for the first time in their fourteen months together the big man saw his friend, the major, lose his composure. No matter what the situation or how tight the spot, the major--then a captain--had always kept his head. Until now.
The major spoke but one word and yet even then could not keep his voice from cracking. "Melly?" the big man heard his friend sob deeply.
Like the bearded man's partner, Janice also was momentarily puzzled by what was happening. Then, in an instant the realization came to her. Oh my God! she thought. It's Robert!
It was only a fleeting moment while brother and sister stood there gawking at each other in utter disbelief but to each of them it somehow seemed like an eternity. But it was in fact only a moment. Now Melinda tore herself from Janice's arm and rushed madly toward her broadly grinning brother. "Robert!" she cried. "Robert!"
Major Robert L. Pappas, United States Army, brother of Melinda Rose Pappas, joyfully caught his beloved sister in his arms and hugged her as hard as he dared. "Oh, God, Melly," he sobbed. "I've missed you so much." And for the next few jubilant seconds he was not Major Pappas, decorated, battle hardened veteran of the Italian Campaign, but Bobby Pappas, the ten year old boy who followed his older sister everywhere.
As Melinda held her brother just as tightly somewhere in the deep recesses of her mind the thought kept nagging at her. This cannot be happening! It's not real. It's, it's a...dream or...something. Any second now she fully expected to wake up but the longer she held him, the longer she felt his warm breath on her ear, the more she dared hope it was not a dream and that it was indeed real--that he was real. "They told us you were dead."
"I know," he whispered. Pulling back, he smiled at her and wiped her teary eyes with the crook of his finger. "Just look at you," he said. "My God you're more beautiful than ever."
"Yeah sure," she said, somewhat embarrassed. For as long as she could remember he had been telling her that. Even back in her "ugly duckling" high school and early college days.
"How's, how's Momma?" he asked his voice tentative. "Is she all right?"
"Momma's fine," Melinda assured him. "And just as stubborn as ever."
"Wouldn't have her any other way now would we?" he grinned, obviously relieved to hear this.
She looked at him for a moment and then again threw herself close to him. Her tears returning, she asked "Oh, Robert, what happened to you?"
Major Pappas gave her a gentle "shhhhh" and then said, "It's a long story and we'll have plenty of time for all stuff that later. But, right now, Melly, we've got to get the heck out of here--and fast."
While this Melinda and Robert had their reunion Janice, not wanting to intrude on their wonderful moment, had sidled over to Robert's big partner. "We sure are glad to see you guys," she said, quietly watching the two Pappas' embrace.
"Likewise," said the big man. He then nodded to the two siblings and added, "Is that really the major's sister?"
"Yep. Unbelievable isn't it?" allowed Janice.
"Too right," the big man answered. "I mean, what are the odds of that?"
Suddenly Janice's mind raced back to that day in Donovan's office. What was it Mel had told her? "I must go." Maybe this was it all along, she thought. Maybe this was the real reason Mel was drawn here.
The big man furrowed his brow and said, "You know, they never said anything about sendin' us a couple of ladies."
Janice squinted one eye and cocked her head to one side. "Australian, right?"
The big man bowed stiffly and then stuck out his hand. "Corporal Chris Michelhill, late of the Ninth Australian Infantry, at your service, luv."
Janice chuckled and replied, "Janice Covington, not so late of the OSS. So tell me, Corporal, what the hell's a Digger doin' here anyway?"
In his own way echoing Major Pappas, he shook his head with
mock solemnity and said, "Well Oz is back of Bourke, that's for sure. But it's
a long story, Covington."
Chapter 10: A Captain Courageous
All around him they stood, the Aussie and the three Americans, silently looking down at the body of the young man that until until just a few minutes ago had been so full of life. More than anyone it was Melinda that felt his loss. For the Aussie and Major Pappas, both veterans of horrific combat, it would not be fair to say they viewed him as just another casualty of war for one never becomes accustomed to seeing their own men die. However they had witnessed enough death in their young lives to know that the only thing to be done was to deal with it and move on. Death, either the possibility of their own or someone else's, was not something to be dwelt upon. It would drive one crazy it they did. But for Melinda it was different. She had gotten to know him, if only a little. She had heard his laugh, had learned what he cared about, what he feared. He had shared his candy bar with her--a little thing to be sure but then again the human experience for the most part is made up of little, mundane things. While cataclysmic events like war may make shake the very foundation of civilization from time to time sooner or later the waters become calm again and once more life boils down to things like the every day struggle to provide for one's family, to watching the children grow up, to fretting about the future...to sharing candy bars. "Little" things are the main fare on the table of life.
Robert somberly shook his head once. "What was his name?"
"Anthony," Janice softly replied. "First Sergeant Brownlow Anthony."
"Brownlow?" Robert remarked, dropping to one knee beside the dead soldier. "That's a Southern name."
"He was from Virginia," said Melinda, trying not to cry. "He was a good man, Robert."
And that's the part that stinks, thought Janice. He was a good man. And now he's dead.
Robert took Anthony's dog tags in his hand and, with a firm little jerk, broke the chain on which they had been strung around his neck. That done, he took Anthony's M-1 and stood up. He stuck his hand inside his jacket and stuffed the tags into his shirt pocket. Handing the M-1 to Michelhill, he said, "Get rid of it."
"Right." The big Aussie walked to the back of the barn where Koch lay face down in the dirt. After clearing the weapon, he gripped it by the barrel and slammed its stock against one of the big support beams, smashing it. Having still had not gotten used to his friend's promotion he asked, "Cap'n?"
Michelhill nodded toward Koch. "You want I should search this Jerry?"
"Make it quick," said Robert, who then kneeled down beside Schütte and did the same. Neither man found anything useful. Rising to his feet again, he said, "Guys, it's time we hauled ass."
"Damn," Janice muttered, referring to Anthony, "I hate like hell to just leave him here like this."
"I know," said Robert. However they both knew very well there was nothing else to be done.
It was then they heard off to the east a low rumble very much like thunder. Except this thunder was not the fleeting natural result of the sudden expansion of air in the path of lightning. No, this thunder now rolling in from the east was due to 125 pieces of heavy artillery lined up hub to hub only four kilometers outside Fürstenfeld.
Hearing this, the four of them gathered at the door of the barn. "Somebody's gettin' plastered," noted Robert.
"Looks like our friends the Russkies have arrived, mate," said Chris.
"Yeah. The Krauts don't have big stuff in numbers like that anymore," remarked Robert. Turning to Janice and Mel, he said, "I'd bet London to a brick the Russians will be in Fürstenfeld by this time tomorrow---possibly sooner."
"That means we've got to move fast," said Janice. "Now according to my map Cernak is being held about five kilometers from here. Is that about right, Robert?"
"Dead on," he replied.
"Beggin' the lady's pardon," Chris chimed in, "but if we try to go anywhere near Fürstenfeld in the daytime we're goin' to find ourselves in more shit than a Werribee duck." Catching himself, he quickly added, "'Scuse my French."
"Can't be helped, big fella," Janice retorted, grinning. "Our window of opportunity is closing fast. Besides, the quicker we go in there and get him the quicker we get the hell out and go wait for Blake's bus."
Instinctively Chris looked to the major. "Don't look at him," Janice said, sharply. "I'm the one callin' the shots here."
"She's got ya there...mate," Robert said, impishly. "Those are the orders, you know."
The big Aussie grinned sheepishly and with a shrug of the shoulders said, "Awww don't pay any attention to me. "Sometimes I don't know if it's Pitt Street or Christmas. I meant no disrespect."
Melinda wrinkled her nose. "Huh?"
"Forget it, Melly," Robert chuckled. "I've been around this lug for a year now and I still don't understand him."
"On your bike, Major--sir," Chris huffed.
"Now, Chris," teased Robert, "your government won't take your attempts to damage relations between our two countries too kindly."
In spite of their differences in rank, this good-natured bantering was a common practice between them. For two who had seen what they had seen and endured what they had endured things like rank and military courtesy did not mean much--at least when it was applied to them.
"Never seen an officer yet that didn't have tickets on himself," muttered Chris. "And that goes bloody double for a certain Yank officer."
But as the two of them verbally sparred a troublesome thought came to Mel. "Ja-yun?"
"What if Janik's not there? I mean, at this time of day won't he most likely be at that factory ?"
Good point, thought Janice. Damn good point. Looking up at Robert, she asked "Whaddaya think?"
He response was to tilt his head in the direction of the ominous rumble. "I don't know if you are aware of it or not but the main works are east of the city. If we can hear that then chances are--"
"It's already in Russian hands," said Janice, finishing the sentence for him.
With a puckish glance at Melinda, he replied, "As our granddad used to say, 'Shore 'nuff.'"
All right, Covington, she thought. You said you were calling the shots--so call 'em. What do we do here? Wait until nightfall and risk losing Cernak altogether or go now and risk getting us all killed before we get within miles of the place? Down deep, she already knew the answer. "Chris!" she barked.
"Here, luv," he answered.
"Strip a couple of these guys of their tunics and, uhhh, pick up a couple of these helmets too."
She saw Robert slowly break into a sly grin. "I knew you'd do it," he told her.
"Do what?" Melinda asked.
"We're going in there right now, in broad daylight, aren't we?"
"You bet your sweet ass we are," Janice answered back.
He nodded he understood and then the smile faded from his lips. "Uhh, just one thing. What about Melly here? I think it would be best if we--"
Melinda Pappas knew all too well where this road was leading. "No, Robert!" she blurted out, cutting him off. Alternating a look of desperate defiance between Janice and her brother, she declared, "No. Ya'll ain't leavin' me behind." As both Janice and Robert knew, whenever Melinda became extremely agitated, her soft drawl had a tendency to be much more pronounced.
Sweetheart, I'd trade five years off my life if it meant we could do that very thing, thought Janice. But with a shake of her head, she said, "Sorry, Robert, no can do. As much as I'd like to do just that we have to bring her along."
"Why?" he persisted. "And while we're at it why the Sam hell did you drag her into this mess in the first place?"
Janice locked her green eyes on him in a steely gaze. "One, because, she wanted to come. Two, because she's the only person that can finger this Cernak joker. Three, she's a big girl now. Get over it." But in her heart she actually felt much the same way he did.
Robert shot his sister a quizzical look. "You know him?"
"From college if it's any of your bees wax," his sister huffed, somewhat embarrassed by his behavior. "Which I might add--it ain't."
Her brother gave her a sheepish little grin. "Looks like I succeeded in getting both of you pissed off at me in record time. You're right, I had that coming. Sorry, Melly. You too, Janice."
"Don't sweat it," replied Janice. From her experience with Melinda she guessed that this was about as close to a "fight" as these two ever got. From her own personal experience she knew that it was well nigh impossible to stay angry with the sweet Southern beauty. And to be sure Mel's idea of a violent temper tantrum was to stamp her foot and stick that nose of hers in the air.
"Oh for goodness sake," said Mel. "Ain't we a pair? The two of us fightin' like this after..." Here her words trailed off.
"It wasn't a fight, Mel," Robert gently assured her.
"Okay, I got 'em, Chris announced, returning with his arms full.
Janice took one of the German helmets and sat it on the top of his head.
"Well?" he asked.
It was plain for all to see the thing was adjusted much too small for him. It struck Melinda as funny looking and she put her hand to her mouth in order to suppress a snicker. Her brother, unfortunately, was not so diplomatic. "Jesus Christ, Chris," he chortled, "when you were at Tobruk what the hell did you use for a helmet--a dish pan? It's like settin' a teacup on a watermelon!"
"Robert!" chided Mel. "That's not very nice." But in spite of her reproach she too could not resist a giggle.
And Janice? It was the pitying way Mel had said "That's not very nice." that got her. Now she found she could not hold it in any longer and so she burst out laughing.
Chris rolled his eyes in disgust at this and glumly muttered, "Bloody Seppos. Think the sun rises and falls on their arses."
Holding her shaking stomach with one hand, Janice sympathetically clapped him on the arm with the other. "I'm sure you can adjust that thing to fit," she offered. "Why don't you go check out the truck and we'll finish up in here."
"Bloody oath, that's a good idea. Or else I might forget me manners."
Watching him stalk toward the truck, Janice said, "It's a good thing he's got a sense of humor."
"Hmph," snorted Robert. "You're not just whistling 'Dixie.' If that guy had a mind to he could chew all three of us up for breakfast." What he did not tell her was that on more than one occasion he had seen the big Aussie kill a man with nothing more than his bare hands.
"Okay," she sighed, turning her attention back to the job at hand, "help me with Anthony here." To her it would not have been right to have left him lying there in a pool of his own blood so with Robert's help she moved him into one of the stalls and there they carefully straightened him out.
As they did Melinda looked away to avoid seeing the awful wound in Anthony's head. Now she felt ashamed of herself for what she perceived to be simply dreadful disrespect on her part for tittering like that at Robert's silly jibe. She had no right to be laughing. This morning he was a young man with a future. All he is now is a face...and a memory. For a moment she even thought she was going to be ill and was much relieved when the unsettling sensation then passed as quickly as it had come. And it was here that another, even more unsettling, thought came to her.
Because of all the excitement over her reunion with Robert it was only now that she realized she did not know what had really occurred here. But, intelligent creature that she was, she could guess. That made her even more uncomfortable. Not one of the four Germans had been shot and she knew that even Janice, for all her toughness, could not have wrecked such havoc. She also remembered seeing poor Anthony die even before the Germans entered through the front of the barn. That left only...her! "Oh my," she said, under her breath. Still, she was well aware that this sort of thing had happened before and as always she had remembered nothing afterward. And for some reason she could never get Janice to tell her anything about what "she" might have done. Perhaps, for her sake, it was just as well.
Janice gently folded Anthony's arms across his chest and rose to her feet. Puffing her cheeks, she slowly exhaled. "I guess that's that."
"It always stinks to see a buddy dead," said Robert, reading her mind.
All Janice could do was nod once and very softly answer, "Yeah." By now the irrepressible Chris had returned to the barn. "How about the truck?" asked Janice.
"She's apples, mate," said Chris, holding up the key.
"Good, then let's blow this joint," she said.
"I'm with you, Chauncey," said Robert. He then snatched the key from Chris' and hand announced, "I'm drivin.'"
"Like hell you are," retorted Janice, deftly plucking the key from his hand. "I'm driving."
"Then I got shotgun."
"Nope, guess again," grinned Janice. "I want Muscles here up front with me."
"No. You and Mel get in the back and lie down. Just be ready
with that grease gun of yours in case there's trouble." Then just for a moment
she inexplicably allowed the "tough broad" persona to fall away and for that
wonderful five seconds someone besides Mel was able to see her for the caring
person she really was. Mel always thought of her as something akin to a rose
bush. A soul of indescribable beauty awaited if one could only negotiate through
that multitude of prickly thorns. Janice cast her lover a brief, but unmistakable
look of tenderness and without taking her eyes off the love of her life softly
said, "Besides, I think you owe our Melly here some answers."
Janice put on Anthony's knit cap and tucked as much of her hair up under it as she could before looking back into the bed of the truck. "All set back there?" she asked. Robert gave her a "thumbs up" in reply. "Okay," she said, pressing her foot on the starter switch, "here we go." The old truck's engine turned over and, to everyone's relief, immediately started. Janice carefully eased out the unfamiliar clutch and slowly pulled out onto the road. They were off. Beside her sat Chris, her pilot's map spread out upon his knee. Although he and Robert had in fact been observing Cernak's quarters for the better part of the last three days they had not been so foolish as to use any of the roads to move about. Consequently, neither he nor Robert were quite certain what was the best, or safest, route to take in order to reach their destination.
In the back Melinda and Robert lay on their stomachs near the tail gate. Mel watched her brother check his Sten gun and carefully lay it down within easy reach. "I still can't believe you're really here," she said, smiling at him.
"Well I can certainly say the same for you," he said. "You know, I used to mentally write letters and pretend I could send them to you via some cosmic mail service." He smiled faintly and said, "Stupid, isn't it?"
"Oh not at all," Mel quickly assured him. "Me, I'd go up in the attic at Momma's house and open up that big trunk where she keeps you things. I'd get that medal they gave you out and..."
"Medal?" Robert asked.
Mel's look was one of mild surprise as she replied, "Why don't you know? They gave you the Distinguished Service Cross."
"Meee?" he asked. "No kiddin'? Gee, nobody told me a damn thing about that."
'Well they did," she said, clearly proud. But then a pained expression came over her face and she said, "Bubby, what happened to you? Why didn't you write? Why didn't they tell us you were alive? How could you allow me and especially Momma to go through hell like that? How could you, Robert. How could you?"
The anguish now so plainly evident in Major Pappas' eyes was no less acute. "Melly, you have to believe me. It was not the Army's intention to deceive you. They just didn't know I was alive. I am so sorry about that.
"Well just tell me what happened to you," she pleaded. "All of it."
"All right," he replied. "If you're bound and determined to know." He took a deep breath and began. " The night of the 23rd, the night before it started--Sunday night--Colonel Siak called me into his HQ and told me that early the next day we were going to assault Cassino. He then said my company was going to be one of the lead units. Now you can imagine I was not too crazy about this and I told him so. See, my boys had taken an awful pounding of late. They were dog tired and the company was nowhere near full strength. Not that the Colonel or anybody else would have been all that sympathetic, mind you. After all, just about everybody else was in the same shape we were. And besides, the Army doesn't pay captains to whine. They pay 'em to shut up and follow orders which the Colonel made very plain to me I might add. And so I did.
Early next morning our heavy stuff opened up and pounded the hell out of the heights. It got so bad you could not see the heights for all the dust and smoke. But by this time Cassino had been bombed and shelled so much that all we were really doing now was rearranging the rubble. And for somebody who knows their business rubble is a fantastic defensive asset. And the Germans knew their business. Anyway, after about an hour the shelling stopped and up we went. Of course as soon as the big guns stopped the Krauts popped their heads up out of their holes and prepared their welcoming committee for us. They let us advance about two hundred yards up the hill and, boy, did they open up on us. I mean mortars, 88's, 37's, heavy machine guns...they hit us with everything but the damn kitchen sink and I think one of them did chuck the drain pipe down at us. And let me tell you, Melly, they weren't fartin' around either. They had already been up there for weeks and by now they had zeroed their stuff in on every rock, every hole, every friggin' rabbit path. They blasted the hell out of us."
"My God, Robert," Melinda cried out, "how awful."
"As bad as we were getting it, though, it was nothing compared to what Charlie Thomas and his boys were over on our right got hit with. I mean they were just decimated. Well. I didn't need to be Napoleon to see there was no way we were going to make it up those heights.
After about another twenty minutes of this we were finally ordered to fall back. Only thing was, our support flank had already collapsed by this time leaving us pinned down and wide open to a counter-attack. I mean, you talk about somebody's underwear flappin' in the breeze..."
At this point Janice hit a fair sized chuck hole which caused Mel to be pitched up against the side of the truck bed. "Golly, Jan!" she yelped, struggling to right herself inside the heaving truck. "Watch it, will ya?"
Robert grinned at her. "You all right?"
"Peachy," she declared, rubbing her sore butt. "You jes' go on with your story."
"Well needless to say the Krauts did counter-attack. He shook his head and went on, "Do you remember all that stuff we used to hear about the blitzkrieg?"
His sister nodded. "It means lightning war, doesn't it?"
"Yep. It's what the Germans are famous for. But you wanna know what really makes those bastards so tough?" He shook his head in genuine awe. "Counter-attack. Those guys are absolute masters at picking out our weak spots and hammering them to pieces." He paused for a moment and then went on, "And that's pretty much what they did to us."
He looked at her oddly and said, "But you know...somehow, some way...I knew it was coming. I could just feel it--even before their barrage let up. I made up my mind then and there that just as soon as the shelling stopped I was going to send those boys back down that hill PDQ. And when it did--I did."
Melinda shot him a sorrowful look. "But why in God's name did you stay behind like that, Robert? What did you think you were going to accomplish?"
"I sure wasn't trying to be some kind of hero it that's what you mean. All I wanted to do was hold up that infantry advance juuust enough to let my boys get off safely." He flashed her a rueful little smile and said, "It wasn't part of the plan to take that shrapnel in my left leg." Pulling at his trouser leg, he asked "Hey, do you want to see my scars?"
"They--they wrote us that they saw you get wounded," said Mel, weakly.
"Yeah, two of my guys, Hopper and Mullins, came back for me. But by that time my leg was already feeling like a dead log and I knew if they stayed there and tried to help me all they were going to succeed in doing was either getting themselves killed or captured. So I yelled at 'em scram out of there but that crazy Hopper, he didn't want to go. That fool tried to get me in a headlock and pull me out of the ditch. I had to slug him to make him let go."
Hearing this, Melinda guessed this was where Robert had lost his dog tags. The loyal Private Hopper must have inadvertently broken the chain during the struggle with his captain.
For a moment Major Pappas paused and it was clear to Mel he was struggling mightily to control his emotions. His voice cracking only a little, he said, "Hopper was a good man. They were all good men."
"What happened then?" his sister asked, her voice hushed.
"After a couple of minutes the BAR jammed." Under his breath he muttered, "Damned mud."
"But anyway, one of those jokers got in close and lobbed at potato masher at the ditch. Luckily for me it fell short of coming in on me but it was still close enough for the concussion to knock me silly. The next thing I knew some bastard had the point of his bayonet stickin' against my belly and was screaming at me like a banshee. The guy must have had a cold because he kept sniffing his nose real hard and swallowing the snot."
"Ewww," Melinda grimaced, a lump forming in her own throat now.
I was still kind of dopey at the time and I remember thinking, 'Gee, I hope old Fritz here doesn't sneeze because if he does I'm going to have a spare belly button."
"That's not funny, Robert," Mel said with a frown. But by now she was much too spellbound by her brother's story to be very annoyed. "What then?" she asked.
"Well about that time this little runt of an officer came over and he and Sniffles talked for a minute or two and then I saw Shorty jerk a thumb over his shoulder in my direction. I thought to myself, That's it--I'm dead."
"Oh you poor thing," Mel softly cried. "You must have been terrified."
"I wasn't about to break out singing 'Der Fuehrer's Face' if that's what you mean."
The truck rounded a sharp curve and Janice hit the squealing brakes to slow down. In attempting to drop down one gear on the unfamiliar shifter in order to accommodate for the lower speed she inadvertently missed "second" and shifted straight into "low." Naturally as soon as she took her foot off the clutch the old truck lurched violently, its engine whining loudly in protest of the abuse.
"Stone the crows, mate!" Chris yelped, fending off the dashboard with his hand. "Whose side are you on?"
Janice's response to him was to utter an unbroken string of very colorful dialogue.
In the back Janice's error caused Melinda to bump her head on the floor of the truck bed. She then shot an irritated glance toward the cab of the truck. "Good Lord," she groaned, rubbing her head. "And she thinks I'm a bad driver."
"This isn't much of a road," Robert reminded her.
"So what happened next?" Mel asked.
"Like I said, I thought it was curtains for me and old Sniffles was going to finish me off then and there but damn if he doesn't whistle for this other guy to come over. By now the fighting had pretty much died down and I knew the Krauts had whipped our ass. Anyway, you can imagine my surprise, and my relief, when Sniffles and this other fella helped me up, put my arms around their necks for support, and began walking me back toward their lines. It was that little officer that made them do it."
German or not, Melinda Pappas wished her brother's unidentified benefactor was there right now so she could lay a big one right on his old kisser. She wanted to ask him why he was spared but deemed it too inappropriate.
Robert, however, knew his sister all too well. Reading the subtle look of inquiry on her face, he said, "I think it was because they saw I was a captain."
"Huh?" Mel asked in surprise.
"You were wondering why the Krauts didn't kill me. I think they saw my rank and figured I ought to be good for interrogation."
This was in fact the very reason Captain Pappas was spared. At the time the Germans defending Cassino were desperate for any intelligence regarding what they were up against and von Senger, their commander, had ordered him men to take any prisoners they could. Especially officers.
"Once they had me up there," Robert continued, "they patched up my leg as best they could and then took me straight to see a guy named Captain Schmidt. He was an intelligence officer and, Melly, he spoke better English than I did.
Right away he jumps in asking me all these questions; What was my outfit? Where were our artillery batteries located? What was our strength? That sort of stuff. And after every question all he got was my name, rank, and serial number. After about fifteen minutes of this I could see he was starting to get pissed. Sure enough, he asks me again what my outfit is and when I feed him the same line as before he hauls off and busts me right in the chops."
Mel was aghast. "Golly, Robert, they didn't..." The idea of her brother being subjected to something so brutal as torture was too horrible for her to vocalize.
"Nahh," he assured her, "they didn't do anything like that. Luckily for me these guys were any of those SS bastards. Oh yeah they roughed me up a little bit and I finally ended up feeding them a line of bull just to get them off my back."
Naturally Melinda was quite relieved to hear this.
"Over the next couple of days they brought me in...I think it was three--no four more times. They'd push me around a little and I'd hem and haw a little just to make it look good and finally I'd start telling them whoppers." He grinned at her and added, "I knew that drama class I took in college would come in handy some day."
"Well at least they didn't hurt you," offered Melinda.
"Not too much anyway," Robert wryly countered. "I guess they figured they had gotten about all they were going to get out of me because a week later I found myself in a POW camp up near the Po River." He smiled and said, "That's where I met Chris. He had been a POW in one camp or another ever since Tobruk fell to Rommel in June of '42. Mostly it was British and Americans but there were a few Greeks, a handful of Poles, one guy from New Zealand--God, what a piece of work he was--some Frogs, and two Diggers; Chris and a another fellow by the name of John Phillips.
Although the Germans had managed to almost all the shrapnel out of my leg, by this time infection had set in and I was starting to get pretty sick. It got so bad that I went out of my head for three or four days and almost everybody figured I was going to die for sure."
"Wasn't there a doctor?" Mel asked.
Robert shook his head. "All we had in camp were a couple of medics. But they had no medical supplies so there really wasn't much they could do except stand by to see whether I was going to live or die." He shook his head as if amazed by his own survival and said, "The next thing I remember was lying on that hard bunk looking down at my sock feet and wondering who the bastard was that stole my boots. One of the medics, a man named Barnes, later told me it was a miracle I was alive. All I can say is thank God I was a big, strong guy. Naturally I was pretty weak for a couple for the next couple of days but within a week I was up and around. A good thing too, because it wasn't long after that when they marched us over to a nearby rail line and herded us into cattle cars. Everybody figured we were being shipped to Germany."
"Oh my," said Mel.
Her brother shot her a little grin and said, "I remember my
reaction as being more along the lines of, 'Oh shit!'"
"Take this next left up here," said Chris, looking up from his map.
Janice nodded and took her foot off the gas pedal. "So tell me, Chris," she said. "Just what is an Aussie doing in this next of the woods?"
"Most of the time I've been rotting as a POW in an Italian prison camp," he replied. "When Italy surrendered and the Germans moved in things didn't change much until after Monte Cassino fell. The camp I had spent almost two years in was abandoned and we got moved to a shit hole of a place farther north. That was where I met the major."
Echoing much of what Robert would relate to Melinda, he then went to relate the details of their escape from the Germans and the subsequent year he, Phillips, and Pappas had spent operating with the partisans behind German lines.
"So what did you do before the war?" Janice asked, after he had finished.
"After I got out of secondary school I worked as a sparkie in Adelaide for a couple of years," he replied. Till this one day when this bloke 'ires me for a little job and when I'm all finished the bastard spits the dummy and says it's a botched job--that he's not goin' to pay us till I did it right. There wasn't nothin' wrong with my work. He was just bein' a knocker. Well I bailed that little sook up and told him I'd been makin' me crust this way for a long time and I didn't need a drongo like 'im to tell me my business. He then takes a swing at me and so we end up 'aving a blue right there in there in front of his bloody house."
Janice eyed the big muscles on his arms and wryly said, "He probably had you scared to death didn't he--that you were going to kill him, I mean.
Chris shook his head ruefully and said, "The bastard won in
the end 'cause he ended dobbin' me in and it cost me my job. So after spending
the next four months on the wallaby track I decided to try my luck on the top
end but times were tough there too and, besides, those banana benders sure as
hell weren't going to go out of their way to help me. After another month or
so I finally said the hell with it and I enlisted in the army. My pisser luck
held because six months later the whole Commonwealth declared war on Germany.
The rest, as those bloody writers like to say, is 'istory."
"How on earth did you ever manage to escape?" she asked.
"Again, luck," he replied. "Plain and simple. You see, that very evening our train was attacked by a flight of P-38's. Those fly boys swooped down on us and began strafing hell out of the train."
"How awful," remarked Mel.
Robert shrugged and said, "It wasn't their fault. They didn't know we were on there. In war these things happen."
They certainly do. For example; on two consecutive days, July 24-25, 1944, in preparation for Operation Cobra, the breakout of American Forces from St. Lô on the Normandy Peninsula, USAAF bombers attempting to support "Lightning" Joe Collins VII Corps hit the wrong targets. The sorry result of these errors was that 136 American soldiers were killed and over 500 more were wounded by "friendly" fire from their own planes.
"Anyhow, they shot that locomotive engine to pieces and a couple of them even dropped bombs on us. Fortunately there were no direct hits or we'd have been nothin' but hamburger. However they did manage to plant one of them so close that it ruptured the tracks and the next thing I knew our car was keeling over like a dead dog. In fact the whole train derailed. After unpiling ourselves old Chris up there ripped off a couple of the floor boards with his bare hands and out of there we went like the proverbial bat out of hell."
"Gee, Robert, weren't you afraid of...you know...gettin' shot?"
"This was our big chance, Melly. Sitting out the war by starving in some German stalag was not something I was looking forward to. So zoom! I was right on Chris' ass out that hole. John Phillips popped out right after me and, man, you would have thought it was Santa Anita. I mean, talk about a jail break! All up and down the line guys were doing like we were; crawling out of those wrecked cars and dashing like mad for the woods."
What Melinda Pappas did not and would never know was that the
pilot responsible for wrecking the train with his bomb was none other than Captain,
then Second Lieutenant, Rex Coleman, so recently her ferryman to Rimini. This
raid had been his very first mission in Italy.
Janice pulled up to the crossroads and stopped. "Which way?" she asked Chris.
"Straight," the Aussie replied.
"Right," said Janice.
"Naw, mate, I said straight."
Janice shot him an annoyed glance but said nothing. As she was easing out on the temperamental clutch she suddenly once again depressed it all the way to the floor board.
"What is it?" Chris asked, looking up from the map.
"I think it's 'right' after all," Janice said in ominous tones.
Janice tilted her head in the direction straight up the road, and said, "Take a look at that."
Five hundred yards dead ahead was a Panzerspahwagen, an eight wheeled armored German patrol car, coming toward them at a moderate rate of speed, its five centimeter gun pointed right at them. "Blimey!" the Aussie exclaimed. "Looks like that plan's down the gurgler."
Sensing trouble, Robert turned to his sister. "Stay down," he whispered. He then arose and sidled his way to the front. "What's going on?"
"Look," said Janice, pointing straight ahead.
"What say we do the Harold Holt out of here?" Chris suggested.
Without missing a beat, Robert said, "No. Turn right, nice and easy. Don't hurry. Just like we're out for a Sunday drive. Don't give them a reason to think anything is out of the ordinary."
"What's happening'?" Mel asked, upon joining them.
"Damn it, Melly," Robert rasped, "I told you to stay down!"
"You ain't the boss of me, Rah-bert," huffed the belle.
Frustrated by his sister's obstinacy, Major Robert L. Pappas, United States Army, turned to the one person in the group that he knew he could command. "God damn it, Michelhill! Get that stupid helmet on before those bastards see you!"
"All right, all right," replied Chris. "Jesus, don't do yer block." The big Aussie glumly jammed the helmet on his head and checked the bolt on his Sten gun.
Robert reached inside the cab and patted Janice on the shoulder. "Go." Janice made the right turn and casually ran through the gears. "That's it," he told her. "Nice and easy."
"What if they follow us?" Mel asked.
"Linda, honey, will you please get down?" pleaded Robert.
"Robert, I told you---"
"Do as he says, Mel!" barked Janice.
"Oh all right!" Mel snapped, grumpily plopping her buttocks down in the bed. "But how am I supposed to see what's goin' on? And don't call me Linda! You know how I hate that."
"She's got a point, you know," Janice said. "It's going to get pretty exciting around here if they catch up to us."
"Let's just hope they go another way," replied Robert.
While Janice drove the truck Robert and Chris warily eyed the armored car while the sitting Melinda strained to see above the tail gate of the truck. As the armored car neared the crossroads they held their collective breath in anxious expectation of which way their threat would go.
Sure enough, the Panzerspahwagen turned in their direction. "Arrrrggghh!" Chris growled angrily.
"Stay calm," Robert said.
"Look," exclaimed Janice, "we don't have time to play pitty-pat here! It's time for Plan B."
"What are you--"
Janice did not give Robert a chance to finish the question. Placing both hands tightly on the steering wheel, she pressed her foot against the gas pedal and slammed it all the way to the floor. "Hang on!" she yelled.
"Are you crazy? We can't outrun that thing!" shouted Robert.
"I don't believe they're interested in us," explained Janice. "I think the Russians are giving them more than enough to occupy their mind."
"You don't know these bastards like I do," Robert persisted. "If they are told to inventory the toilet paper, by God, they'll do it even if the whole damn outhouse is caving in on them."
Glancing at her outside rear view mirror, Janice retorted, "Then they'd better count the two-ply faster. Because we're losing 'em."
Robert looked back over his shoulder and saw Janice was right. The Panzerspahwagen was not trying to catch up to them but rather moving along at the same steady pace. "What now?" he asked Janice.
"Leave it to me," she replied. "Chris?"
"We've got to double back. Keep an eye out on your side of the road for a place where we can hide the truck."
"I'm on it," said Chris. A quarter of a mile later, the Aussie stuck out his big arm and yelled, "There! That's so thick a dog couldn't bark in it!"
Janice slammed on the squealing brakes and after giving the prospective hiding place a very quick once-over, eased the truck around behind the dense thicket. "Quick!" she yelled. "Everybody out!"
She and Chris bailed out of the cab while Robert took his sister by the arm and together they jumped out of the back. Once clear, the four of them hustled over to a nearby gully and threw themselves down in it. A few tense minutes elapsed and then they heard the whine of the Panzerspahwagen's engine grow louder and louder as it drew nearer...and nearer...
Instinctively Janice and Robert both simultaneously reached out to push Melinda farther still down into the gully. Now Chris disdainfully cast aside the German helmet and spat on it for good measure. "If I 'ave to go, I'm checkin' out as a true blue Digger," he vowed, grimly.
Just as they had the night before with the "Tigers," Janice and Melinda could do nothing now but lie there and sweat it out. As the vehicle drew abreast of them the two men fingered the triggers of their Sten guns and waited. But just like the night before the Germans blithely rolled on past, totally unaware of just how close by their enemy actually was.
Even before the sound of the armored car's engine had faded, Janice was up and scurrying to the road, Robert right on her heels. Satisfied that the Germans were indeed gone, she brushed herself off and said, "Damn, I don't know how many more of these I can take."
"Huh?" asked Robert. Janice then proceeded to tell about their previous night's encounter with German armor.
Five minutes later they were back in the truck and tearing back down the road toward the crossroads. Along the way, Robert finished his incredible story to Melinda. After making good their escape, Robert, Chris, and John Phillips hid out in the woods for close to a week. On the seventh day of running--tired, hungry, and yes, scared--they were stumbling along a little used path when they suddenly found themselves surrounded by several dirty, roughly clad, but heavily armed men. That these men would, in fact, prove to be Italian communist partisans mattered not at all to either Pappas or his Aussie companions. All they saw were heavily armed, highly motivated men who were fighting the Germans. All they saw was a chance to get back in the war. And for their part the communists were delighted to have three highly trained, highly experienced combat veterans join them.
And that is what Captain Pappas and the two Aussies did. Over the next eleven months they participated in dozens of operations against the ever retreating Germans. In time Pappas would rise to second in command of a force that by March, 1945 would have grown to over a thousand men. On the last day of the month, elements of the American 10th Mountain Division linked up with these partisans and after an emotional farewell to men who, communist or no, he would remember for the rest of his life, Robert L. Pappas once again became a soldier in the United States Fifth Army.
But one man who did not return was John Phillips. In the winter
of '44 he came down with a terrible fever and was dead within a week. His Aussie
mate Chris buried him high up in the mountains with the solemn promise that
he would come back for him once the war was over.
Barely three days after his return, Captain Pappas was promoted to major and, in light of his vast experience in operating behind enemy lines, was given the opportunity to "volunteer" for one last mission, a "last little thing" the man had ironically called it. Though not initially included in the plan Chris stubbornly insisted that he be allowed to go wherever Pappas went. The army brass had said "why not" and the next thing they knew the two of them were parachuted into Austria after being told to scout the area for the two OSS agents that were to follow.
Naturally the Army had been all for informing Robert's next
of kin that he was alive but to their surprise he pleaded with them not to do
so. In the end he convinced them. His reasoning was simple enough. What possible
good would it do to tell his mother he was alive if there was a good chance
they might have to come back two weeks later and say, "Oops, sorry, he's dead
again." He figured it was better to wait until the whole mess was over--one
way or another.
Up front Chris tapped Janice on the arm and said, "Not much farther, mate."
Janice nodded solemnly and once again she began to turn over
in her mind just what her options were regarding Cernak.
Chapter 11: "Accentuate the Positive, Eliminate the...Scientist?"
"There it is. The one on the corner." Major Pappas lowered his field glasses and handed them to Janice. Through the lenses she got her first good look at the plain looking two story brick building situated a mere hundred yards away. At first she saw nothing out of the ordinary about the structure but upon closer examination she noticed the bars on the windows.
"See any guards?" asked Chris.
Janice swept the roof of the building. "No. Not outside anyway."
"Maybe they've been sent to fight the Russians," offered Mel.
Janice lowered the glasses and looked at the belle. "Well if they have," she said, "Cernak is either gone or dead." Checking the building one more time, she added, "Either way it's bad news for us."
Janice handed the binoculars back to Robert. "This is your home court," she said. "Got any ideas?"
With a discreet glance toward his sister who was now straining through her glasses at the building, he said in a low voice, "Just let Chris and me handle it."
"All right," Janice replied, knowing full well his motive. "You check the building and Mel and I will keep a lookout."
"Works for me," said Robert. "Chris? "
"Vacation's over. Time to go to work."
The big Aussie replied by nodding solemnly.
"How many pineapples do you have?" asked the major.
Chris patted his jacket pocket with his big hand. "Two."
"Make 'em count." Robert then raised up on his knees and fully extended his arm, making a kind of sight. "You take the left side of the street, I'll take the right."
"Do we crab it or haul ass?"
"We haul ass," replied Robert. He got himself up into a crouching position and as he was about to move out from their hiding place Mel's hand shot out and caught him by the arm.
"For God's sake," she pleaded, "be careful." He gave her an impish wink and, with Chris close at his heels, then clambered over the rubble pile that had hidden them. Without averting her gaze from them Mel wrinkled her nose and asked, "Jan, what did Robert mean by pineapples?"
"Well he wasn't talking about the kind you put on the Sunday ham, if that's what you mean," said Janice.
The two men eased their way to opposite sides of the deserted street. Since entering Fürstenfeld they had seen only a couple of its citizens scurrying about. Small wonder for it was clear that the Russian artillery was edging ever closer and would in all likelihood be falling on the city itself before long. All too soon the four of them would learn just how quickly this would in fact be the case. Most of the citizenry had either already fled the city or was hiding in cellars or under whatever cover they could find. And, yes, some were just sitting in their homes waiting for what they considered to be the inevitable end.
Robert and Chris were now in position. All through this Mel had not taken her eyes off her brother. Now she saw him take a deep breath, nod sharply to Chris, and off he went.
Beside her, Janice warned, "Get ready! As soon as they make the building we go."
Mel gulped and nodded that she understood.
Halfway down the street Robert neatly leaped over an abandoned bicycle and continued on. As far as he was concerned it was so far, so good. He took a quick glance across the street and was glad to see Chris' big frame nearly abreast of him.
But as they were nearing the end of the street Robert heard Chris' familiar sharp whistle. Looking his way, Robert saw Chris stop just for a moment and then dash off toward him. "What the hell are you doing?" Robert demanded to know.
"You can't see it yet but there's a bloody truck parked just around the corner," Chris explained.
Robert realized Chris did have the angle on him. "Facing us?" he asked, between heavy breaths.
Chris shook his head. "But there's a bloke in the front for sure."
Robert edged his way to the corner and peeked around the building. Sure enough, twenty yards away sat a truck with its engine running. Although his view of the cab was blocked he saw Chris' assessment of its occupancy was correct for dangling down over the running board was a leg. It was clear someone on the driver's side had the door open and was sitting sideways in the seat.
At this point Chris shot the major an expectant look. Robert's response to this was to nod once very slowly and trail his index finger across his neck. Without a word Chris handed his Sten gun over to Robert. Bending over, he then reached down and pulled the bayonet from the sheath strapped to his left boot.
"What on earth are they doin'?" Mel wondered aloud.
"There's trouble," came back Janice's terse reply. "Something's up."
"Don't yuh think we ought to do something?" her partner asked.
"Not yet," said Janice. "Just sit tight." She looked at Mel and with a faint smile added, "Don't worry, Robert can handle it." But to herself she thought, I hope.
Robert shifted position to allow Chris to ease past him. "Make bloody sure you keep watch on the front of the building," Chris reminded him.
Robert made an "okay" signal by circling his thumb and index finger. "Don't worry," he assured his friend. "I'll cover you." After carefully looking both ways to make certain the coast was clear, the Aussie was off. Crouching low, he veered slightly to his left to afford himself a better angle of approach.
While Chris stealthily worked his way toward the truck Robert did as promised and turned his attention to the building's front door. Armed with only his bayonet, Chris would be hung out to dry should any of the Germans choose this particular moment to exit the building. So far there had been no indication of activity at all but he was well aware that something was up here. Why else the waiting truck?
One quick glance back and he saw Chris was almost to the truck. Fighting the urge to watch, he turned back to the building. Chris Michelhill was a master at this sort of thing. Back in the partisans the Italians had called him the "fantasma" or "ghost."
At the truck now, Chris kneeled down and very carefully sidled up under the truck and he was gratified to see the leg still there; idly dangling over the side. A piece of piss, he thought as he silently inched his way ever so closer to his target. Almost...there...now.
What the hell is going on? Janice silently raged. Suddenly, from high overhead came that terrifying sound which so many have compared to the ripping of gigantic sheets.
Mouth agape in uneasy surprise, Mel looked upward. "Golly, Jan, what--"
Janice Covington had heard that sound before back in '36 when she had been caught up in the Spanish Civil War. Grabbing the belle by her jacket collar, Janice yanked her down hard. The next street over a heavy artillery round slammed into an unseen building.
The Russians had arrived.
Chris now understood the time for stealth was over. Quickly wriggling the remaining distance, he rolled out from under the truck and like a huge cat was on his startled prey in an instant. By the time he drew his bayonet out of the German's heart Robert was beside him handing over his Sten gun. Before replacing his bayonet he wiped off its bloody blade on his victim's tunic.
"Come on!" barked Robert. Again the great ripping sound tore overhead and a half a block away a Russian round obliterated what had until seconds before been a butcher shop.
One hundred yards behind them Janice was scrambling to her feet and yelling the very same "Come on!" at Melinda. But unlike the two who had gone before their dash down the street would not be made separately. Janice saw to that. Taking her belle's hand in her own, she gripped it as tightly as she could. "Follow me!" They were no more than half-way down the street when a Russian shell exploded in the exact spot they had so recently vacated.
With Chris at his back, Robert kicked open the door to the building at the exact moment two German soldiers happened to be descending the staircase situated close to the door. Before they could react Robert's Sten gun erupted in a short, efficient burst and two dead Germans came tumbling down the steps. Quickly scanning the lobby, he saw a short hallway running back with two rooms leading off on either side. "Check 'em out!" he yelled at Chris.
After Chris swept past him Robert began to ease his way up the staircase. He was ten steps up when suddenly he heard someone at the front door. Swinging his weapon around, he was within an eyelash of cutting loose when to his dismay he saw Janice and Melinda enter. "God damn it!" he roared at them. "Be more careful! You two damn near got your asses shot off."
It was at this point that a shell exploded directly in front of the building. Janice and Melinda were thrown to the floor and Robert was heaved up against the steps as part of the ceiling gave way on him. "Jesus!" he muttered, spitting the plaster from his mouth. This reminded him of that nightmare that had been the Fifth Army's fight for the Abruzzi Mountains back in Italy in late '43.
Now Chris' big frame appeared on the stairs below him. "Nothing down here!" he declared.
Without a word Robert got to his feet and resumed his ascension. No sooner had his head popped over above the edge of the second floor hallway when a burst of machine gun fire rang out. Fortunately for the American the jittery German had fired wildly at the first sight of him instead of allowing his target to fully reveal himself. Most of the burst passed to Robert's left and slammed into the wall. All except one round--the last one. It smashed into the floor sending dozens of little splinters into the back of the major's. Robert cried out in pain as the hot lead seared through his flesh. Slumping back down below the enemy's line of sight, he held his hand up to check the damage. Although ugly to look at, his wound was not life threatening. Nevertheless it was already starting to hurt him very badly.
In an instant his Aussie friend was beside him on the steps. "Christ, Major, you hit?"
"Yeah," Robert replied, grimacing.
The Aussie was almost too afraid to ask. "Bad?"
Robert pulled up his shirt and Chris bent over to get a closer look. "Damn it," Robert growled. "Don't worry about me. Keep an eye out for that bastard down the hall."
"Where is he?" Chris asked.
"Couldn't tell," said Robert. "He could be in any one of those rooms."
Meanwhile at the foot of the stairs the horrified Melinda had seen her brother reel back from the edge. "Robert!" she shrieked. "Robert!" She had already bounded over the first dead German before Janice could catch up with her.
"Mel!" she cried. "NO!"
"Jan, let go of me!" Melinda squalled.
At the top of the stairs Chris took off his jacket but not before he had removed his "pineapples" and laid them down on one of the steps. He then balled up his jacket and held it to his chest with his forearms leaving his hands free to pull the pin from one of the grenades.
"What the hell are you doing?" Robert asked.
"I'm going to try to draw old Fritzie boy out," replied his friend. Holding up his wadded jacket in his huge left hand, he then pinged the lever off the grenade he held in his right, activating it. Mentally he began his count, One...two....
Chris tossed the jacket high in the air while simultaneously pitching the grenade down the hallway. Sure enough, a burst of machine gun fire again ripped overhead but this time it was punctuated by the explosion from Chris' grenade. Even before the two men heard the screams of agony Chris was up on his knees emptying the magazine of his weapon down the hall. Silence followed and as the smoke and dust cleared Chris gave a little smile of satisfaction at the sight of not one, but two German soldiers lying dead on the floor. "Got 'em!" he announced, happily.
Outside one, two, three more artillery rounds fell uncomfortably close.
"Jan, I said let...GO!" Halfway up the steps Melinda broke free of Janice's desperate grip. Her long legs covered four steps before the tenacious Janice launched herself at her friend and tackled her on the steps, holding on for dear life.
"Mel, honey, don't go up there yet," she pleaded. "You'll be killed."
"Ja-yuuuuuun!! And it was here that the two struggling women became aware of the deathly silence.
At the top of the stairs Chris dropped back down to where Robert lay. "How are you doin', mate?" he anxiously asked.
"I'm feeling a bit crook right now, ol' china," Robert replied, borrowing a couple of his friend's idioms. "But I'll be all right."
"That's grouse," said the Aussie, breathing a grateful sigh.
Here the silence was broken by Mel's squall. "Robert!"
"I'm all right, Melly," he assured her, his voice suddenly gentle. "Calm down."
As soon as Janice let go of her she was up the steps in the blink of an eye. Once there, she took one look at his bloody hand and nearly fainted.
"Don't worry, Sis," Robert said to her. "Once I get the bleeding stopped it will be okay."
Another artillery round struck the building next door showering their own building with rubble. Like everyone else Chris reacted by bending over and covering his head. Raising up, he then said, "I suggest we go have a Captain Cook for that derro of yours and get the bloody 'ell out of 'ere before everything goes balls up!"
Having spent some time in Australia back in early '39 Janice well understood Michelhill's colorful expressions of "concern."
"Ya tellin' me," she shot back. Rising to her feet, she jammed her hand into her back pocket and produced the big red handkerchief she always carried when in the field. This she thrust into Mel's hands. "Here," she said, "wrap this around his hand. Chris and I will look for Cernak."
"Not without me you're not," protested Robert.
"Sorry, Yank," the big Aussie grinned, "but the lady's right. You and yer sis stay here and watch the door."
"They're right, Robert," Mel said, firmly. "You're stayin' here."
As Janice unholstered her .45 she gave Chris a wry look. "Lady huh? You had better can that kind of talk, pal, or else I might just end up liking you." This was a superfluous statement because she had in fact already taking quite a liking to the big fellow.
"Blame me mum," Chris shot back. "She was the one that raised her little nipper to be a proper gentleman." With that he stood up as well and popped a fresh magazine into his weapon."
"You guys watch your ass," advised Robert.
As she brushed past him Janice gave him an affectionate pat on the shoulder and together she and Chris began to carefully ease their way down the hall.
Back at the head of the stairs Melinda said, "Give me your hand."
Robert did as his sister bade and as she began to tenderly wrap the handkerchief around his throbbing hand, he said, "You know, Melly, you're still a poophead for coming here."
Poophead? God, she thought, he hasn't called me that since we were kids. Without taking her eyes off her work she replied, "Well big sisters are supposed to look out for their little brothers, doncha know that?"
"You always did," Robert admitted.
Janice and Chris stood in front of the closed door leading to the last room. The other three rooms had proved to be empty and so it had all come down to this, this one last set of four walls. The success of their mission, the relevance of Anthony's death, their own possible fates--all of it hung on what they would or would not find behind that battered old door. Outside the shelling was becoming more intense and it was only a matter of time before this little heap of bricks was wiped out under the barrage. One way or another this was it and they both knew it.
Almost reluctantly, Chris positioned himself in front of the door, his Sten gun at the ready. Janice took a position beside the door to cover him and gave him a little nod. Chris nodded back, drew a deep breath, and kicked the door open.
Back at the head of the stairs Mel heard Janice's sharp cry. "Mel!"
"Go on," Robert said to her. "I'll watch the door."
Melinda got to her feet and bolted down the hall to where Janice and Chris still stood at the door. Both of them were staring into the room but were not as yet making any attempt to enter. For a moment Melinda was afraid of what she might find but she then saw Janice turn and look toward her with a sense of anxious anticipation. And as she joined her two friends at the door Janice very quietly said, "Okay, Kid, here's where you earn your pay. It's all yours now." Looking into the room, Mel counted eight men and a woman, thankfully all still alive, huddled together in the far corner. Quickly she darted her eyes from one apprehensive face to the next searching for the boy genius she remembered.
And, suddenly, there he was.
He was smaller than she remembered. His hair was thinner and to Mel he seemed to have aged at least twenty years. But those intense eyes had not changed. Putting a hand to her mouth, she uttered a soft, "Oh my."
"Well?" Janice asked, her excitement rising. "Do you see him? Is he here?"
"Yes," came the simple reply.
Janice knew she should be feeling relief and maybe even a little exultation at Mel's pronouncement but in truth she felt neither. For now that her lover's task was over her's was really only now just beginning.
Melinda hesitantly stepped into the room but took only a couple of steps before she again stopped. She was well aware that the eleven pairs of eyes present were all riveted on her but at the moment all of her attention was focused one particular pair of eyes that just happened to be staring back at her with a definite look of recognition.
"Well come on, Mel, which one is he?" Janice pressed her.
Mel did not really ignore her, she just did not answer. Taking another halting step forward, she flashed a very nervous little smile at those eyes. "Janik? Janik, it's me, Melinda. Melinda Pappas. Don't you know me?"
From the back of the huddle Cernak stepped forward. On his face was a look of utter disbelief but his voice was even when he said, "I could never forget you, Melinda. My God, what brings you into this hell?"
Janice moved assertively to Mel's side. "Mister Cernak, we represent the United States Government. We have come to take you out of here."
"Our little group seems to be quite popular today," remarked Cernak. "That is precisely what our German friends were here to do."
"Well not anymore," stated Janice. "Now, Mister Cernak, what do you say we get the hell out of here?"
"I'm afraid that will be out of the question," replied Cernak, calmly.
For Janice this answer was a nightmare come true. Sweeping an arm toward to window, she asked, "Are you crazy? Any minute now one of those Red Army calling cards is going to land right in our laps."
"Who is in charge here?" asked Cernak, his voice revealing a hint of irritation.
Janice detected his belligerent tone but hoped she would be able to avoid a confrontation. "I am," she declared, forcing herself to speak with a civil tongue.
"You?" Cernak asked, plainly incredulous.
Sensing trouble was brewing, Mel's soft voice cut through the tense atmosphere, "Janik," she entreated, "please."
"I am sorry. I cannot leave my colleagues here alone to fend for themselves," said Cernak. He flashed her an unexpectedly warm smile and added, "Not even for my American angel."
Janice knew the time had come. "All right, God damn it. That's it! No more fucking games." Striding over to him, she raised her .45.
"Janice," Melinda asked with rising alarm, "what are you doing?"
"We're running out of time here, Mel!" Turning back to Cernak, she growled, "You have exactly ten seconds to get your ass in gear." Off in the distance the group now began to hear the sound of small arms fire.
"We need to hurry, luv," Chris warned Janice. "Pretty soon it's going to busier around here than a one-armed Sydney cab driver with the crabs."
At this moment Robert appeared at the door. "What the hell's the hold up?" he demanded to know. "Didn't you guys hear that shooting? The fighting is only a couple of blocks away from us now!"
"You are bluffing," Cernak scoffed at Janice.
"Am I?" She then reached up and very deliberately pointed the end of the barrel right between Cernak's eyes. As Cernak stood there, helplessly staring into that bore which to him looked as immense as a howitzer, Janice, in a voice eerily cold, said, "You'd better get out your slide rule, Cernak, and give me the answer I'm looking for or so help me I'm gonna blow your head off right here."
"Jesus, Janice," Captain Pappas cautioned, "think about what you're doing."
Never taking her eyes off Cernak, Janice calmly told him, "Stay out of this, Robert. Cernak here is my department."
"Our department, Janice," Melinda reminded her, voice quivering.
"Mel, go outside," warned Janice. To herself she thought, Jesus Christ, I hope this works because if it doesn't....
"Oh my God!" gasped Mel.
"Jan, pleeease!" Mel beseeched. "You can't do this."
"...four...five...I told ya, Mel. Get out of here!"
"Jan, it's murder!"
Now as his calm demeanor started to crack a little and his face started to reflect the fear inside him, Cernak stammered, "If you are Melinda's friend do you... actually have such little respect for her that you would...actually allow her to bear witness to a cold blooded murder? A murder you committed?"
"...six...My feelings for Mel are way beyond your area of expertise," snapped Janice. "But just to give you a clue I'm not about to see her exposed to any further danger just because some egotistical son of a bitch wanted to pass himself off to his pals as a hero."
"You could let me go," Cernak suggested. "I assure you I...we...can manage for ourselves."
"That's not an option. You might fall into Russian hands and that, Mister Cernak, is totally unacceptable...seven...eight..."
Jesus Christ! thought Robert, silently watching the grim drama that was unfolding before him. She's going to do it!
"Janiiiiiice! For the love of God! I'm begging you!" cried Melinda, almost choking now.
"Waaaait!" a voice screamed. It was Cernak.
Her voice mockingly pleasant, Janice answered "Yes?"
"All right," said Cernak, shakily. "It will be as you wish."
For a moment Janice did nothing except continue to stare at him. Then she slowly eased the hammer back down with a well practiced thumb. "Somehow I knew you'd see it my way," she said. Thank God! she thought.
Melinda Pappas closed her eyes and ran a shaking hand across her brow. With a deep exhale she, too, silently thanked God. Only now did she become aware of just how dry her mouth had grown. For one terrifying moment she had been positive Janice was actually going to do it.
"Chris!" Janice barked out.
"'Ere," the big Aussie answered.
"Check around outside. See if that truck outside is still in one piece."
"Right, boss." And out the door he went, thinking to himself that this little Yank sheila had more guts in her than a great white after a feeding frenzy.
"Mel, you wanna show Mister Cernak out?" Janice asked, in a much softer voice.
Still a little shaky, Mel replied, "All right."
As she brushed past her friend she heard Janice ask "You okay?"
"Janice Covington," Mel softly scolded, "don't you ever do that again."
"Sorry, sweetheart," Janice murmured, just loud enough for her to hear, "I didn't mean to scare ya like that. But I had to do something to get the man's attention."
"Well yuh certainly got mine," the belle allowed, exhaling deeply.
Cernak's little group began to file out leaving Robert standing there marveling at how easily this formidable woman had handled the potentially troublesome scientist. And he had to admit that, even now, he was still not so sure that what she had said to Cernak about blowing his head off was not the God's honest truth. She was such an enigma.
Pappas found that the more he got to know Mel's great friend, the more fascinating she became to him. That she was a very complex individual was plain enough. The woman was very attractive but unlike his dear, finical sister she seemed totally unconcerned with how she presented herself to the world. She was undoubtedly very hard nosed but down deep beneath that rough exterior he was certain there was a sizeable soft spot lurking about. One just had to look for it, that was all. Another thing was that she did not seem to have much patience at all with anything or anybody except when it came to his sister. Here Janice seemed to play by a different set of rules altogether. In fact it was simply amazing to him that this tenacious, doggedly independent woman with the quick mind and the guts of a burglar could have fallen so hard for his gentle, soft-spoken sister. They were so...different.
As Janice passed him she asked, "You okay?"
"No sweat," Robert assured her. "I've done worse damage than this shaving myself after a rough night on the town."
"Just now...with Cernak. Were you really prepared to kill him if he refused to come?"
Janice shot him a faint little smile and as honestly as she had ever spoken in her life replied, "Damned if I know, Robert."
Experienced soldier that he was, Robert immediately picked up on the next development. Looking up at the ceiling, he declared, "The shelling's stopped."
"Thank God for that," said Janice exiting the room now.
Robert, however, knew better for it could only mean one thing.
At the bottom of the stairs Janice, Robert, Cernak, and his group rejoined the waiting Melinda. The diminutive Janice shouldered her way through the crowd in order to get a good look out the door. From her vantage point she could see that, amazingly, the truck had not been hit--yet. Suddenly from down the street the little band heard a muzzle blast. Almost immediately Chris was filling the door way.
Breathlessly he said to Janice, "I went over on the next block to take a take a look around. We've got company, luv."
"Tanks?" Robert asked, joining them.
The Aussie nodded and Janice whirled to face the group. "All right. Everybody into the truck. Move!"
At once they all began to run for the truck. Wisely Robert waited and brought up the rear just on the possibility that Cernak might somehow get cute and try to detach himself from the others. Janice stood at the back of the truck and watched as their charges one by one got into the back of the truck. Turning to Chris, she said, "Give Robert the map." While was digging in his shirt pocket for it she leaned close to him and loudly whispered, "You ride in the back with our friends here. Now I don't give a damn about any of the rest of them but if Cernak tries to jump ship I want you to break both his legs and sit on him, you understand?"
"You can count on me, luv," the big man assured her with a grin.
Once they were all loaded up Chris climbed in and sat down next to the tail gate. While all this was taking place Melinda and Cernak had been spending the time quietly conversing. Now Janice clapped her hands together and said, "C'mon, Mel. Up front. Time to blow this joint."
Melinda turned to her and with some apprehension asked "Is it okay if I ride in the back for a while, Jan? I'd like to speak with Janik some more if you don't mind."
"Oh. Sure," Janice replied, trying to hide her disappointment. For a moment she felt a deep sense of resentment toward Cernak. But then she reproached herself, Janice, you're just being stupid. Mel's a big girl. She can talk to whomever she wants.. You will not be jealous of that little twerp. Nevertheless she still wished Melinda had chosen to ride up front next to her.
In another millisecond all this was forgotten because from some distance behind her she heard a now familiar whine. Seeing Robert's eyes grow wide, she spun on her heels to get a look for herself. Two city blocks away she saw the first of two huge tanks pull out into the street, its left track locked to facilitate the turn toward them.
"Holy shit!" Janice exclaimed. "Are they Russian or German?"
"Does it matter?" Robert asked, incredulously. "They're not Shermans, I know that much. So let's not stick around to ask 'em."
But Janice was not around to hear his last words for she had already came to the same conclusion. Already she was in behind the steering wheel and was closing the truck door behind her. As Robert passed around the back of the truck he yelled, "Melinda, keep your head down!" As soon as his foot hit the running board Janice popped the clutch and gunned the accelerator.
The two tanks were in fact Russian T-34's; the scourge of the Eastern Front. Observing the activity around the German truck up the street the commander of the lead tank naturally assumed them to be the enemy. And just as naturally he ordered his gunner to open fire. The tank's 85 millimeter gun roared, hurting its deadly projectile toward the fleeing truck. From his perch in the back Chris saw the smoke belch from the cannon's muzzle and a split second later heard the muzzle blast. Considering the muzzle velocity of the T-34's upgraded cannon and the relatively short distance to its target, Chris was not afforded an opportunity to pray or even curse. All he could do was close his eyes and grimace. Fortunately the gunner allowed too much deflection for the fleeing truck and his aim was high. The round screeched overhead and hit in the middle of the street some seventy-five yards away.
"God damn!" Janice yelped as she saw the round explode up ahead. "That was close!"
"Get off this street! Now!" Robert bellowed. "Turn anywhere!"
Janice did not have to be told twice. Barely bothering to slow down, she turned right at the next corner and floored the accelerator. "Hang on!" she shouted, to no one in particular.
Fortunately there were no more encounters with either Germans or Russians and twenty minutes later they were safely out of Fürstenfeld and careening down a country road at forty-five miles an hour. Robert had Janice's map spread out on the seat intently and while he was intently studying it Janice checked her watch. It read 4:05 PM. "We're going to have to find a place to hole up until tonight," said Janice.
Robert looked up from the map and with a little grin, said, "Already got one."
"Yep. About five kilometers from here is an old bombed out power station. Chris and I have been using it to hide out in during the day time."
Janice nodded thoughtfully and then asked "So how far is it from the rendezvous point?"
"About three klicks," Robert replied.
"Is there a place we can hide the truck?"
"We can pull it up right up into the main building--no sweat," said Robert. "Don't worry, nobody can see us from the air."
"All right then," Janice said approvingly, "just point the way."
"Take us home, James," Robert grinned at her.
Chapter 12: If You've Seen One Dictator...
Janice pulled the truck up to the side of building and did as instructed. Robert got out and trotted past the front of the truck and positioned himself in the hole in the side of the building. Raising his hands, he slowly beckoned Janice to bring the truck forward. Janice eased out the clutch and carefully negotiated the truck through the hole. It proved to be a tight fit but she managed it without too much trouble. Once inside she turned the engine off and removed the key.
"All out for Picadilly Circus," chirped Chris, dropping down out of the truck. He dropped the tail gate and when Melinda approached the edge he gently lifted her up by the waist with his huge hands and carefully set her down on the ground. "There ya go, luv," he smiled.
"Why thank you, sir," she said, playfully polite. "You are such a gentleman."
"Hey, you big ocker," Robert grinned. "You wouldn't be trying to move in on my sister, now wouldja?"
"Who, me?" the Aussie replied, innocently. "Wouldn't dream of it, Major." He jerked a thumb toward himself. "You heard the lady, I'm a gentleman."
"Uh huh," his friend wryly shot back. "And I'm next in line for army chief of staff."
Chris never batted an eye. "But I thought we were tryin' to win the war."
Robert rolled his eyes in mock exasperation and said, "You see, Melly? See what I've had to put up with? Damn Diggers," he muttered. "Give me a good ol' Tommy any day."
You bludgers seem to conveniently forget that it wasn't the bloody Pommies and it certainly wasn't you swell-headed Yanks that were the first to whip the Axis' bums in both Europe and Asia," Chris defiantly declared. "It was us, pallie."
Chris was right. In the deserts of North Africa and the hell that was the Kokoda Trail in New Guinea it had been the proud Digger that had first administered the bitter taste of defeat to the enemy. But by 1945 the Australians had by and large been shunted aside by both the British and the Americans. And while the Americans garnered all the glory with their sweep through the Central Pacific and their drive up though the Philippines from the south the Australians found themselves relegated to mere sideshows. Although they were without fail brave, loyal, and true to the "Allied" cause, the Diggers were not appreciated by the imperial MacArthur who was loath to share the limelight with anybody and who in fact could not wait for the American buildup to reach the point where he would no longer be forced to rely on these superb fighters.
Their misuse was nothing new. In the First World War the Australians had suffered a higher casualties per population than any other participant in the war. This sacrifice was no more than apparent than at the madness that was Gallipoli where they bore the brunt of what was to become a slaughter. In two world wars these men in their jaunty "Slouch" hats did whatever that was asked of them, gave all they had in doing it, and never flinched in their duty.
One everyone was out of the truck Janice walked over to address them. "I don't know if how many of you speak English," she began, "but I'm sure Mister Cernak here will be able to get my meaning across. I know you are all wondering what's going to happen now. Well, that's up to you. My friends and I will be staying here until nightfall and that means you will be too. Now if you want we can make arrangements for one of you to come with us tonight in order to bring the truck back here." She then paused and took a deep breath for she was now about to deliberately overstep her boundaries and do something for which she had absolutely no authorization for. Looking at each one of them in turn, Janice said, "If any of you should decide you would like to come with us...I'm sure my government would be more than happy to welcome you."
For her part Janice did not know if that was true or not. But looking at those frightened faces she could not help but feel sorry for them. She was well aware there was risk involved with this. For all she knew some of them could be Nazi collaborators and that included the incandescent Cernak. And besides, she doubted if anyone would take her up on the offer anyway. After all, no matter what part of the continent they might come from, Europe, not America, was their home and with the war almost over they could at long last look forward to returning to their homes and picking up the pieces of their shattered lives. All except Cernak. One way or another he was not going to be around to see Europe climb out of its grave.
She watched their faces closely as Cernak translated her offer in no less than three languages. "Well?" she asked him, once he was finished. "Any takers?"
"No," he replied. "We all choose to stay."
"Well I had to ask," she said. Cernak's emphatic "we" was not lost on Janice however she decided not to force the issue. Not yet anyway. "Okay," she said to the group, "find yourselves a spot and get comfortable. Sorry we don't have anything for you to eat. Now remember, nobody goes outside, understand? If Nature calls you can do it on the other side of the building. I'm sure the landlord won't complain. Chris!"
Chris moved close and raised his eyes inquisitively.
"Keep your eye on 'em," she said, her voice low. "Especially that Cernak. I don't trust that bastard as far as I can throw him."
"Too right," the Aussie agreed. "He's a shifty-eyed bloke, that's for sure."
Following her own directive, Janice was the first to make use of the facilities at the other side of the building. Stepping behind a large holding tank, she loosened her belt and slid her loose fitting trousers down past her knees. Cernak still troubled her. He seemed determined not to co-operate. As she squatted down a thought came to her. Maybe, just maybe...the captivating Melinda could talk some sense into him. To show him the light as it were. Obviously even after all this time he still cared for her. Hell, she thought, why not use that to our advantage? So what if it was dirty pool? It wouldn't hurt Mel to lead him on a little bit. Her main objective was to get him back to America, not to kill him. Now if only Mel would play ball....
When Janice returned to the group Melinda and Cernak were still deeply absorbed in conversation. Her brother was sitting close by with his back to the wall and his eyes closed. "Mel" she asked, "can I speak with you for a minute?"
"Of course." Turning back to Cernak, she said, "I'll be right back." She stood up and strode over the truck where Janice was waiting for her. "What is it, Jan?"
"What do you think?"
"About what?" Mel asked, wrinkling her nose.
"About him, damn it. Cernak. Do you think he's going to give us any trouble?"
"I--I couldn't say," Mel replied, suddenly evasive.
Well what the hell have you two been yakkin' about all this time?" Janice demanded to know. "The Periodic Table of the Elements?"
"Now, Janice, don't be like that," said Mel. "We've just been talking about old times, that's all. Janik's been through a lot these last six years."
"Look, Mel," Janice angrily hissed. "In case you've forgotten we've got a job to do here and that is to convince that bozo to play ball with us."
"He's not a bozo," Mel huffed with a whisper. "Janice Covington, how dare you call him that! He's a brilliant man and I resent your calling him names like that."
Listening to Mel's soft rebuke, Janice took a deep breath in an effort to remain calm. Her voice even, she began, "Mel, we've nearly reached the end of our rope. Now think about it. Think of all we've been through the last few days. Think of all the time and effort so many other people have put into this to make it happen. Think of Anthony. If we go back empty handed that boy will have died for nothing! Is that what you want? For God's sake, Mel, your own brother laid his ass on the line for this operation. Doesn't that mean anything to you?"
Mel ran a shaken hand through her long black hair. Poor Anthony, she thought. And Robert... And so like a slap in the face the realization came to her that her loyalty lay not with a man she had quite possibly loved once long ago but with this woman she now definitely loved with all her heart and just as importantly with the one who was her own flesh and blood. And with that dead American soldier back there in that run down old barn. "You're right," she said, softly. "My God, Jan, it's true. It's all true." Lowering her head, she said, "I'm sorry, Jan.
Her anger now spent as it always did so quickly when Melinda was concerned, Janice tenderly took Mel's hand in her own. She was aware they were being watched by Cernak and the others but she did not care. "It's all right, sweetheart," she gently whispered. "You just lost your focus a little, that's all."
"I reckon I did," the belle dolefully allowed. "But I promise you it won't happen again."
"Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?"
Janice puckishly looked at her and replied, "Funny you should
"There's the light!" "Buzzy" Reese cried out. "It's Covington!"
"Well what do you know?" Blake muttered. "The broad did it."
As Blake's B-25 rolled to a stop in the failing light, Janice Covington turned to the Belgian standing quietly beside her and handed him the key to the truck. "Here you go, Emile," she smiled. "Good luck."
The man took the key with a nod and quickly made his way back to the truck and even before he started it up the group was clambering up into the plane. Naturally all insisted Melinda go first. She was followed by the irrepressible Chris, then Robert...Janik Cernak...and last of all Janice.
Mel had done it. To Janice's relief and everlasting gratitude, the belle had managed to convince Cernak that his future lay with the United States of America. After speaking with Janice, Mel had excused herself off behind the holding tank. Upon her return Robert had immediately noticed that his sister had taken off her glasses, fluffed up her hair, and--much to Robert's present and future amusement--had unloosened two more buttons on her shirt. She had then sidled up to Cernak and proceeded to lay it on at least three layers thick about how the free world was going to be needing men of his talent. She pointedly asked him did he really want to merely exchange one totalitarian master for another. She reminded him of how well respected he had been back in the US, of how no one could match the US in the development of technology. When the weakening Cernak made mention of his mother and brother back in Brno Janice had quickly chimed in with a solemn assurance that once the war was over every effort would be made to find them and bring them back to the United States. It was a promise she would personally make certain the State Department honored.
Melinda had then wheeled out the heavy artillery by telling him how America would undoubtedly be spending hundreds of millions, possibly even billions of dollars on rocket research and that there was no limit as to what might be achieved. "Who knows," she had said, "you might even help build one that goes to the moon some day." Lastly, she had dropped the hint that a grateful America would surely be inclined to amply reward those who should ultimately prove to be her friend. In the end Cernak had given way. He was as interested in a buck as the next guy and in truth at this point of his life he was no longer all that inclined to leap into the arms of the Russian bear anyway. More than anything he was simply tired. Tired of the Nazi's incessant threats and demands for design improvements, tired of working upwards of sixteen hours a day, tired of war and fearing for his life, tired of seeing death and suffering all around him.
But now these vivid pictures of incredible opportunity painted by his long lost friend appealed to him. He found himself wanting to work again. And maybe...just maybe he could do some good after all. Of course, Janik Cernak was no fool. He knew well enough why the US wanted rocket technology and it was not to thrill the kiddies on the Fourth of July. But he already had seen for himself how technology developed for war had a way of eventually becoming part of every day life.
In less than five minutes Blake had the B-25 lumbering across the field. As Janice felt the wheels lift off the ground it was as though her own worries were also being lifted from her shoulders. Just get us out of here, she thought, wishing she had a drink.
Chris too was very much relieved to be departing from this place. "Major, I don't know about you but I'm as bloody happy as Larry to be leavin' this mess behind," he said.
"Looks like the war is finally over for us, mate," Robert said, quietly. "At last."
"It's been six long years for me," Chris mused aloud. "Seems like a bloody lifetime." He sighed and said, "I wish ol' John were here to see it."
"Me too," Robert said.
And Anthony too, thought Mel as she listened to them.
So many, thought Janice. There are so many we could wish were here to see it. As for her the conclusion of the war was bringing no feelings of euphoria, no sense of triumph or exultation. All she felt was drained relief. It was finally over. No more OSS. No more of Donovan's cryptic calls at four in the morning, no risking her butt for Uncle Sam for pay that before the war she would have laughed at. Now Janice Covington was looking forward to making some real money again. And the ten G's now safely tucked in her jacket pocket that she had squeezed from the tight-fisted Donovan was a good start. That would keep her Melinda in perfume and nylons for a long time.
For some time they rode on silence as the plane droned on in the darkness. Finally Chris, entirely unintentionally, set in motion what would prove to be nearly twenty minutes of junior high school behavior by individuals who were in fact much more mature than their young ages. Figuring he no longer needed his weapon, Chris leaned forward to lay it on the floor of the plane in front of him. As he did he inadvertently what the Aussies call "dropped his guts."
"Shooo-weeee," Robert protested.
"Somebody's bakin' brownies," Janice dryly observed.
"It was that damn Chris," declared Robert. "The human gas bag strikes again."
"Ayy now!" Chris whined in protest.
"Hey, Mel, do you remember that guy in Alaska?" Janice gleefully asked.
"Oh Lord, Jan," Mel entreated, "don't bring him up."
Having already brought it up, naturally Janice ignored her plea and continued, "There was this Eskimo guy in Nome who could fart at will."
"You're kiddin'?" Chris asked.
"Must be a long lost relative of yours," said Robert.
"And that's not all," Janice went on. "Go on Mel, tell 'em what else he could do."
With a sigh of resignation Melinda muttered, "He could play 'Yankee Doodle' on his dentures."
"What's so bloomin' big about that?" Chris asked. "Now, if it had been "Waltzin' Matilda...that would have really been something."
"Awww Jeez," Robert groaned, "here we go again."
"What?" Chris innocently asked.
"Don't you sheepherders know any other song besides that damn "Waltzing Matilda?"
"Who is Waltzing Matilda?" asked Cernak. Although usually a very reserved individual he was finding himself amused by their silliness. For him as for the others this tomfoolery was in a very real sense a relief valve draining away the fear and uncertainty that had been so much a part of their lives for so long.
"It's not a who," Janice explained. "You see a matilda is what the Australians call a bed roll."
"And what's wrong with "Waltzin' Matilda?'" Chris demanded to know.
"Nothing I guess but after the first two God damn million times or so it kind of grows a little stale, ya know? I swear that must be the first damn thing they teach you in school."
At this point Melinda felt compelled to join in. "Speakin' of that, do you know what the first thing a French boy learns to write in school?"
"What's that?" asked Janice, glad to see Mel was loosening up.
Mel tittered and said, "I surrender."
Janice, Robert, and Chris all howled with laughter leaving the clueless Cernak still puzzling over just why anybody would write a song about dancing with a blanket.
"That was a good one, Melly," her brother allowed, once the laughter had died down.
"Hey, Mel, do you know what the German world for bra is?" Janice asked.
"Janice!" the belle gasped, appalled by her lover's brazenness. It was just as well that no one could see her face for at the moment it was a very nice shade of crimson.
"Tell us, luv," Chris eagerly prompted.
"Holzemfromfloppen!" squealed Janice.
Again the three of them roared with laughter.
From out of the darkness Cernak's quiet voice informed them, "But that is not the word for brassiere."
"No see, it's a joke," Janice tried to explain to him. "Get it? Holzem..holds them...see...aww skip it."
"A pirate walks into a tavern," Chris began, "and this 'ere other sailor spies 'im and asks 'So, how did ye end up with that thar peg-leg, matey?' The pirate says 'Arr, we wuz in a storm at sea, and I was swept overboard into a school of sharks. Just as me men were pulling me out a great white bit me bloomin' leg off.' 'Blimey! the sailor exclaims. 'What about your hook?'
'Well...', replies the pirate, 'While me men and I were plundering in the Middle East, I was caught and the punishment for stealin' in the Middle East is the loss of the 'and that does the filchin' doncha know.' 'Ye don't say?' remarks the sailor. 'Ow did you get that thar eyepatch?' 'Sea gull droppings fell into me eye,' the pirate says. 'Ye lost yer eye to a sea gull dropping?' the sailor asks, disbelievin' him doncha know. 'Well...", the pirate says kinda doleful,'...it was me first day with the hook.'"
Of course it fell to the irreverent Janice to put an exclamation point to the merriment. With a sly voice she began, "A guy is up on a ladder paintin' his house. Now this is on a Saturday and on the next Monday he is going to be married to the prettiest girl in town. So he's up there dreamin' about his wedding night when all of a sudden he falls off the ladder and breaks his...."
"Oh Lord," Mel groaned as Robert and Chris merrily grimaced at the poor man's terrible misfortune. Poor Cernak was wondering what was so funny about a man killing a rooster.
Suffice it to say this particularly bawdy tale ends with his new bride's sensual avowals of her virginity and her nervous groom's retort that a certain pertinent organ is "not even out of the crate yet," having been placed in a splint by a goofy doctor.
Chris was still grinning twenty minutes later when Blake touched the B-25 back down at Rimini.
Janice lay naked in the bed, lightly caressing herself. "Come ooon, Mel," she whined. "Hurry up!"
"I'm comin', I'm comin,'" Mel assured her. "Just oooone more minute." Though the impatient Janice was dying for her to join her in bed Melinda Pappas continued to stand in front of the bathroom mirror in their London hotel room. At the moment she was leisurely brushing out her hair after a wondrously luxurious bath and to her it felt sooo good to look like a lady again, to...feel like a lady again.
Two doors away Janik Cernak had been safely tucked away in his own room for the night, totally unaware that at the far end of the hall a British SOE agent was keeping a discreet watch. Soon it would all be over. Tomorrow afternoon they would be on a plane for Washington D.C. After that, well after that she and Janice could go back to the doing the kind of work they loved. Their life's work. As Donovan had promised Poole's offer was still good and to her delight her partner had already indicated a strong desire to pick it up again. Mel could not wait.
Back in Italy she had said a teary-eyes good-bye to her brother and had lovingly warned him not to be doing any more volunteering. Robert had laughed and told her not to worry, he had learned his lesson. And he had left her with the wonderful news that he had already been informed that he would soon be shipped home and not to the Pacific as so many others feared they would be.
Now Mel was finally satisfied with her hair and she laid down the brush and turned off the bathroom light. "You know, Jan, I don't see..." Entering the room, Melinda stopped and then slowly broke into a smile. The heretofore wanton Janice was lying flat on her back, her legs spread wide...and fast asleep. Oh you poor thing, thought Mel. You are just worn out, aren't you, sweetheart? Small wonder with all you've been through.
Melinda could only imagine the strain Janice had operated under during the last few days. After all, it was she--not Mel, not Robert, who had been placed in the position of being ultimately responsible for the success or failure of their mission. And as always she had come through.
"You poor thing," Melinda repeated, this time aloud. Quietly she walked around to the other side of the bed and began to dig into Janice's old pack. She pulled out her battered old copy of "The Grapes of Wrath." Ever so carefully she eased her way into a sitting position on the bed with her back pressing against the headboard. Reaching over to the night stand, she picked up her glasses, put them on, and then opened up her book. Before long Janice rolled over and began to snuggle her lithe body up against Mel's. The belle laid down her book and began to ever so gently finger her lover's long blonde tresses.
"Mmmm," Janice moaned, contentedly.
With a lewd smile, Mel huskily whispered, "I thought you wanted to fuck me."
"Mmmorrrow," Janice sleepily murmured. "Oona...sleep.
"Good night, Jan," Mel lovingly cooed.
"Nnnt," was all she got in return.
As Melinda took her book back up Janice laid her head on Mel's
strong thigh. After a couple more minutes she began to snore ever so softly.
Melinda smiled at this and as she lost herself in the harsh world of Tom Joad,
she thought back to Janice's promise. Tomorrow. What a nice word that was. To
her it portended hope and the wonderful promise of so many other tomorrows full
of love and joy that were just waiting to be shared. Tomorrow. What a nice word.
And as long as the exquisite human being now lying so peacefully next to her
was at her side to share it Melinda Rose Pappas simply could not wait for it
Janice eased the Oldsmobile up into the driveway and turned off the engine. To her passenger she said, "Well, here you are, hero."
Major Robert L. Pappas ducked his head down to get a good look through the windshield at the house he had been born and raised in. "It hasn't changed a bit," he observed.
"Oh yes it has," Janice corrected him. She pointed to the blue star on the white banner trimmed in red hanging in the parlor window. "That star used to be gold," she said with a smile. A blue star indicated someone in the household was in the military, a gold star meant that person had been killed.
Robert smiled weakly and said, "Thank God for blue stars." He opened the door and got out of the car. Janice did the same and for a moment they they stood together just looking at the big old house. Finally Robert said, "Thank you."
Janice wrinkled her nose and squinted an inquisitive eye at him. "For what?" she asked.
"For what you've done for Melly. My God," he marveled, "she's a hell of a woman now."
"Can't argue with you there," said Janice. "But I didn't have a damn thing to do with it, Robert. It was all her doing."
"I used to worry about her, you know. I used to wonder if she was going to be strong enough, to be tough enough to make her way in the world." He turned to Janice and said, "Now I know I don't have to worry anymore. I'm proud to call you my friend, Janice Covington. And I'm sure as as hell glad you're Melinda's friend."
"That makes two of us," grinned Janice. "Now come on. Supper should be about ready."
The two of them made their way up the cobblestone walk past the pansies and the budding roses. They stepped up on the porch and when they got to the door they were startled when Melinda jerked it open and put a finger across her lips. The surprise was still on. Although Mrs. Pappas had by now been duly informed through the proper channels that her son was indeed alive after all he had not been expected home for at least another two weeks. However in light of the circumstances General Clark had seen no reason for either Major Pappas or the Australian corporal to have to wait any longer so he had ordered his staff to make arrangements to send the young men home at once.
And so now here he was.
Melinda threw her arms around her brother and tightly hugged him.
"Where is she?" Robert asked.
In conspiratorial tones Melinda whispered, "In the kitchen. I've been havin' a devil of a time keeping her away from the windows." Grinning broadly, she drew back from him and softly stepped to the parlor door. "Momma," she called out, "there's somebody here to see you."
From two rooms away they heard Mrs Pappas ask. "Who is it?"
Melinda suppressed a giggle and said, "It's a gentleman caller, Momma."
"God, Melly!" Robert whispered. "You're awful."
"A whaat?" they heard their mother ask.
"He wants to see you...Momma," Mel tittered.
"My Lord, Child," they heard her utter. "What are you talking about?" Then they began to hear her steps on the hardwood floor as she approached. "Honestly, Melinda, you can be so abstruse sometimes. Why can't you just........" The table spoon she was carrying suddenly did a free fall to the floor.
"Hello, Momma," Robert said, softly. "I'm home." And for a moment he was not the tall, handsome war hero with the chest full of ribbons but rather the little boy of long ago who used to have to be practically dragged home for supper because he would rather be out doing things.
Mrs Pappas put a hand to her mouth and uttered an unintelligible little cry. By the time Robert was able to wrap his arms around the woman her tears were already falling. "Don't cry, Momma," he said, soothingly. "I'm here. I'm really here. I missed you."
"Oh my boy," Mrs. Pappas sobbed. "My boy."
Melinda moved in beside Janice and put a hand on the smaller woman's shoulder. "This is one of the happiest days of my life, Jan," she said, wiping away a tear with the crook of her finger.
With a little nod Janice smiled at her and gave her the ever present handkerchief. The warm embrace of a loving mother for her child was not something she was familiar with. For as long as she could remember Janice Covington had more or less been forced to face the world alone.
Robert kissed his mother on the cheek and with the little grin she had seen a million times before asked, "So what's for supper. I'm starved."
For a moment she could not remember. "Ahh, chicken and rice," she said, finally.
"That's swell. I love chicken and rice," her boy said, gleefully rubbing his hands together.
As the overjoyed mother led her boy off toward the kitchen Janice stayed behind to quietly close the front door. "You know, it feels good to be on our own again," she remarked.
"It will feel even better when we actually have a real job," Melinda retorted.
"Hey enjoy this while you can," leered Janice. "Because I'm going to work your butt off when we do get one."
Melinda leaned close and whispered, "As long as you're there to rub it for me every night."
Janice put a hand to Melinda's butt and began to sensually move her the tips of her fingers across it in a little circle. "You mean...like this?"
"Ahh, yes," Melinda moaned. "That will...do...quite...nicely."
Janice punctuated her lustful massage of Melinda's butt with a gentle pat and said, "What do you say we work some more later on getting that lovely ass of yours in shape?"
"We can do that," replied Melinda. With a positively lascivious leer she added, "You won't even have to go out for a box lunch."
Janice rolled her eyes and, taking her lover's arm, led her
off to join her kin.
The taxi moved slowly, barely creeping along past the many old maple, beech, and pin oak trees lining one of the narrow lanes cutting through Magnolia Cemetery. The driver, a retired machinist looking to ease the boredom by taking on a part time job with his son-in-law's cab company, liked coming here. Not only was it a beautiful place, so peaceful and serene, but his first born son, killed in Vietnam, was also buried here. In fact he had been here only yesterday, Memorial Day, with his wife laying flowers at the grave of the boy he would go to his grave remembering as that little fellow of ten who loved to go fishing with his dad. And yes, he had cried. His son had now been dead twenty-three years but still he cried. He knew guys from his generation weren't supposed to do that sort of thing but he had done it anyway. Now here he was taking someone else to remember a loved one.
Stealing yet another glance at the two elderly women quietly sitting in the back as he eased along the deserted lane, he thought, They're an odd pair. A regular Mutt and Jeff combination if there ever was one. Indeed one was tall, trim, wearing an expensive ensemble and heeled shoes, and carried herself with a quiet dignity that seemed to speak of one born to privilege. The other, shorter, one was content to wear sneakers, plain dark slacks, and a faded blue denim shirt. This one was obviously not as robust as her taller friend yet upon closer examination one could see the fire that still dwelt in those intense green eyes of hers. And he could not help but notice too that both of them, for all their years, were still quite handsome.
"It's just up ahead," said the taller one. "On the left."
"Gotcha," the driver replied, glancing back over his shoulder. "Just lemme know where you want me to stop."
A minute later the taller woman leaned forward and put her hand on the front seat. "Here it is," she said.
Pulling over, he eased two wheels of the car off the road to allow traffic to pass and then stopped the car. By the time he got out of the car, the well dressed taller woman was already helping the smaller one out of the car. Walking to the rear, he opened up the trunk and very carefully pulled out the large wreath. "Say, ya'll sure you don't need help with this?" he asked, handing the wreath the tall woman.
"Thank you but we can manage," she replied, as he closed the trunk.
The man nodded and jammed his hands into the pockets of his windbreaker. "Well, just yell out if you need me."
"You're very kind," said the woman.
He then strolled across the lane and looked up the slope at the large black monument flanked by well manicured shrubs on either side that had caught his eye. So plentiful were the flowers heaped beneath it that its huge base was completely obscured by them. At the foot of the grave was not one, but two flags. One was the Stars and Stripes, the other, the state flag of South Carolina. "Wonder who that is?" he said to the ladies now joining him. "Some big shot I reckon."
"It's my brother," said the tall one quietly.
"Ohh, umm, sorry," he stammered. "No offense." Straining to make out the design on one side of the double wide monument, he said, "Ya know, that somehow looks familiar, Ma'am. But I can't quite make it out."
The tall woman smiled faintly and said, "It's a combat infantryman's badge."
"Oh, so he was a vet then, huh," said the man.
"Yes. Yes, he was."
"The big one, Double U, Double U Two?"
The man nodded solemnly and said, "I was in Korea myself."
"So was he," she replied. "She then turned to her heretofore silent friend. "Way-ul, Jan, shall we?"
The smaller woman nodded and grunted something inaudible and off they went, arm in arm, up the very gentle slope leading to the grave--two silver-haired soulmates in the twilight of a life shared together which had been so rich and incredibly full. As they ascended, Melinda Pappas was very careful not to walk too quickly. Her beloved Janice had suffered a stroke some ten months before leaving her not only with impaired speech but somewhat limited use of her left leg as well. At first the doctors had told her she would at best be resigned to using a walker to get around and at worst, a wheelchair. But in a typical display of the grit and determination that had defined Janice Covington her entire life, she had scrawled out, "To hell with that," on a pad and within three months of her affliction had taken her first faltering but totally unaided steps. However, try as she might, her speech had not improved.
As the reached the top of the slope, Melinda paused, intending to let Janice catch her breath before covering the last ten yards or so to the grave. "You all right, Jan?" she asked.
Ffffiiine," Janice answered. As if to back this up she slipped her arm free and started making her way own to the head of grave.
Melinda did not immediately follow but first swept her eyes over the scenery. "This is a awfully lovely spot, don't you think?"
Mel then joined her at the headstone and with Janice's help ever so carefully positioned the wreath next to it. "There now," she said, brightly. "How does it look?"
"Umm...ppp...paah." Try as she might, Janice could not form the stubborn "pr" sound.
Sensing her frustration, Melinda took the liberty of finishing it for her. "It is pretty, isn't it? I think Emmie will be pleased. She always did like crocuses." Though she would have liked to have been there yesterday with the rest of the family Melinda had decided against it because she had not wanted to expose Janice to those Memorial Day crowds. Besides, her nieces and nephews were still in town and there would be ample time to visit with Emma and the rest later.
She knelt down and tenderly touched the stone. "Hello, Bubby," she said, softly. "It's me, Melly."
For such a large stone there was remarkably little in the way of engraving on the front of it. Whereas on the back were listed the names Mel, Lucy, Mary, and Aaron--he and his beloved wife Emma's four children--plus a poem written by his youngest daughter, Mary, the front merely displayed the combat infantryman's badge the taxi driver had noticed and the following:
That was it. That was all he had wanted. For all he had accomplished in his life, for all the good he had done through both high profile philanthropic causes and dozens more that no one never knew about, for all the difference he had made in those touched by him--this was how he had wanted to be remembered. "An old soldier."
But Emma simply could not let it go at that. Her dear husband deserved much more just than a simple name on a slab of granite. So, against what she knew had been her husband's wishes, she had ordered a foot stone to be placed there inscribed with this below a single star:
That had only been the beginning of a remarkable life. After the war Robert came home and started his own construction company. Making full use of the aggressive leadership skills he had learned the hard way during the war, he took advantage of the post war boom and within five years had made his first million. In 1948 he helped fund Chris' return to Italy to bring his dead friend home to Australia. All the while he had remained active in the Army Reserve and on August 15, 1950 had once more been called upon to serve his country, this time in Korea. There, on a freezing night in late November near Hagaru-ri, he had earned the ultimate...
Awarded Congressional Medal of Honor
Having seen more than his share of human suffering, he came home from the war determined to do as much as humanly possible to help those Americans less fortunate than himself. It had all started with his creation of the Cobber Foundation in 1954--so named for the two Aussies who had saved his life.
However Robert had not attended his own presentation because on that night he was half a world away. Two days before Chris Michelhill, owner of a successful electrical supply store in Perth, suffered a massive heart attack while getting out of a taxi while in Sydney on a business trip. He was dead before he hit the sidewalk. At his funeral everyone noticed the distinguished looking stranger sitting all alone in the back of the church who on two separate occasions broke down and wept.
Yes, it had been a remarkable life--right up until the automobile
accident that had so abruptly ended it.
After a few moments Melinda stood up. Taking the hand of her partner of more than fifty years, she said, "Ya know, Jan, you made all this possible. He was a lot like you. It was no wonder ya'll got along so famously."
"Hee-ee wa...wuz a good...ggguuyyy," said Janice.
Melinda closed her eyes and for a moment it was 1940 once more. For perhaps the ten thousandth time she marveled at that first remarkable adventure in Macedonia that had cemented the lifelong bond between the timid expert on ancient languages and the hard-as-nails archaeologist with the perpetual chip on her shoulder. Had it been fate? Melinda did not care for that word as it applied to the two of them for it seemed to imply the foretoken of something less than desirable. Needless to say this their relationship had never been. No, clearly the operative word here was destiny. And after that first memorable encounter the next thirty years they had spent together on digs in practically every corner of the world had been nothing short of heaven.
Still, though, she sometimes wondered if the two of them would really have found each other were it not for the eternally unbreakable bond between a long dead warrior and her bard. Maybe, but she doubted it. But then again, who could say? Whatever the case, she had not felt that warrior spirit within her since she and Janice had been swept up in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. But somehow...somehow, she believed that spirit was still there, somewhere deep within her, waiting...
Seven years later, in 1974, Janice had finally decided she had had enough. It was time to call it a career. She had been somewhat anxious about Melinda's reaction to this but the belle had not even batted an eye when Janice first brought the subject up to her. As far as she was concerned it had simply been a matter if that was what Janice wanted then, by golly, that was what she wanted too. After all, it had always been that way and Melinda saw no reason for it to be any different this time. To Melinda's surprise, and secret delight, Janice had given her blessing to her proposal that they move into her parents' old house in Columbia. The big old house which had made Janice so uneasy in the early days had been left to Melinda when her mother died in 1955.
And that was not all. Having already made his fortune, Robert had generously declined his share of the inheritance leaving Melinda with a cool quarter million in cash. With some very shrewd investments, that initial quarter million had grown so much that by now only Melinda's accountant knew for certain just how much her estate was worth. For her part she could have cared less. As long as there was enough to allow her beloved Janice to live comfortably was all that mattered. For all those years, in countless tight spots, Janice had been absolutely relentless in her desire to protect her Melinda--very often at the risk of her own life. Now the belle had vowed it was her turn.
Since '74 they had lived a life much like any other retired couple. They traveled when they felt like it, they worked part time as consultants when they felt like it, they did absolutely nothing at all when they felt like it. And through it all Mel was immensely gratified to see that her Janice had taken to it so well. But much more importantly for her, however, had been the wonderful discovery that, instead of their gracefully advancing years bringing on a love grown stale, they had in fact made them closer than ever.
Now she looked down at the woman she had loved more than life itself for half a century. Janice's eyes were partially closed and her head was tilted back slightly to allow Spring's warm breezes to gently wash across her face. My God! she thought with wonderment. She's as beautiful to me as the first day I met her. "Ja-yun?"
"Didja ever, you know, have any...regrets?"
The smaller woman tilted her head back stiffly and intently stared into Mel's eyes. For a moment she was the fiery Janice Covington of forty years before. Her green eyes flashing, she gripped Melinda's hand with the all the strength her feeble hands allowed and said "You...craaazy? Dammit, Meehh, how cud...I? I got t-tewww shh-share a wunnerful liife wif...God's f-f-finest creation. Wwwat more cud...any..."
Her eyes glistening, Melinda blushed (Even now Janice could make her blush.) and said, "Ohhh, Jan. My sweet, wonderful, lovely Jan. There never was anybody like you. All those years--you were my hero." She blinked hard and a single tear rolled down her cheek. Turning to face the love of her life, the two of them exchanged a look that only those who have shared a lifetime of joy and pain, laughter and tears, triumph and tragedy can comprehend. "And ya know what?" she asked softly.
"Wwwat?" Janice answered, her own tears welling up now.
Her voice cracking ever so slightly, Mel replied, "You still are." She then smiled sheepishly and added, "I-I may be taller but I have always looked up to you." She wrapped her arms around the frail Janice and very tenderly squeezed her once rock hard body. It was then the words just popped into her consciousness--words she repeated aloud almost involuntarily. "I always wanted to be like you."
Janice pulled back and looked at her quizzically.
"Is something wrong?" Mel asked.
"I wwuz thinking...same thhhing."
"I love you, Janice Covington. Now and forever."
"I love you, Meeh Pap...pas." Janice need not have bothered. Her eyes said it all for her.
Melinda sobbed softly and took a handkerchief from her purse. "Would you just look at us?" she said, still sniffing. "Actin' like a couple of sentimental old goats." She then wiped first Janice's eyes and then her own.
While she did Janice grinned at her wryly and said, "Cuz we are."
"Well speak for yourself, Janice Covington," replied Melinda, haughtily sticking her nose in the air. "I for one am not old."
"Course not," said Janice, winking clumsily.
Mel grinned at her before turning once more to her brother's grave. "I'll be back soon, Bubby," she said, softly. Then, taking Janice by the arm again, she said in a much brighter voice, "So now, do you want to have a bite tuh eat before we go over to Emmie's?"
"What would you like?"
"Piiiiiiza," Janice offered, with a devilish grin.
"Oh Lord, Janice, "Mel sighed in mock exasperation, "do you want another stroke? You know very well pizza is bad for you. Why it's plumb full of fat, not to mention all those calories..." However as they slowly descended the hill to the waiting taxi she already knew they would indeed be having pizza.
For some reason her mind wandered back for a moment to Sergeant Anthony, that brave young man with the bitter past who had died so that they might live. Some time back, to her everlasting regret, Melinda had learned from his aging sister that her oh so ephemeral friend's body had never been found.
By the time they had descended the hill Janice was starting to become a little fatigued. Seeing her wobble, the old cab driver jogged stiffly across the road and offered her his hand.
"Thank you," said Melinda.
After helping Janice into the taxi the driver said, "Do you ever wish you go back and, you know, sort of do the whole thing over and get it right this time? Or maybe be somebody else who was the kind of person you always wished you had been?" He smiled sheepishly and said, "I do."
Melinda smiled back at the man and gently replied, "Sir, I would not have traded my life for all the gold in Fort Knox. You see I got it right the first time."
With that, the driver helped his gracious fare into the car
and slowly drove them up the narrow lane and out of the cemetary.
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