With this tale I mark one year in the world of X:WP fan fiction.
Accordingly I would like to pause here and express my sincere gratitude to a
great lady who during that time has shown me nothing but kindness, support,
and most appreciated of all, patience. Thanks, MaryD, you're the best.
"With the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph, so help us God."
With these words President Franklin Roosevelt leads his stunned nation into the greatest armed conflict in history. Before it is over between fifty and sixty million people will be dead, an entire continent will be laid waste, traditional global powers such as Britain and France fade only to be replaced by two huge superpowers, and weapons of mass destruction such as the world has never seen will be created guaranteeing that if a future war is fought on a scale even remotely resembling this one it will threaten not only civilization but the very existence of man himself.
It is a period when many Americans fear the real possibility of foreign troops on American soil for the first time in 130 years. This is not mere hysteria for indeed the news during the six months since America's entry into the war is of one of disaster after another. This hysteria is soon made manifest in one of the most shameful acts ever committed by the American government. 110,000 Americans on the west coast are torn from their homes and trucked off to hastily built "internment" camps. The only "crime" these otherwise loyal, hard working American citizens are guilty of is they are Japanese; 70,000 of these being "Nisei," American born descendants of Japanese parents. These people are as steadfastly loyal to their country as those Americans of German or Italian descent but they suffer the additional burden of racial bigotry. Later on in the war, when these young "Nisei" are finally involved in the war effort, they prove in magnificent fashion just how true their allegiance is. As members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, serving in Italy, they number only about 4500 at full strength yet will earn almost 4000 individual decorations for bravery.
On December 10, the American possession of Guam falls, on December 23, Wake Island surrenders. On April 9, 1942 the seventy thousand sick and starving American and Filipino defenders of Bataan cease resistance and are subjected to what becomes known as the "Death March" by their brutal Japanese conquerors. It is the greatest defeat in the history of American arms. On May 5 the tiny island of Corregidor falls and with it, America's last stronghold in the Philippines.
The British too are swept under by the seemingly invincible Japanese tide. On the same day Guam falls they receive the shocking news that the pride of their fleet, the "Prince of Wales" and the "Repulse" have been sunk by Japanese war planes off the coast of Malaysia. The news only gets worse. On Christmas Day Hong Kong falls and on February 15, they suffer their own worst defeat in all of British history, the fall of Singapore. The entire Western Pacific from Korea to the Dutch East Indies to Wake Island to the Solomon Islands is now under the domination of the Japanese Empire. Even the survival of Australia and New Zealand is in question.
The situation in Europe is just as grim. Hitler has the continent in a stranglehold and has renewed the assault on the Soviet Union with a massive spring offensive. This causes many Allied leaders to shudder at the possibility of a gigantic link up between Nazi forces driving east and the Japanese hordes pushing west into Burma and perhaps even India itself. Only in the desert of North Africa are any land forces of the Western Allies in action at all and they were locked in a seemingly endless back and forth affair with the Italians and the famed Afrika Korps. In this theater success is mainly a matter of which side had been resupplied most recently.
Supplies. There is an old saying that when discussing battles amateurs speak of strategy and tactics while professionals speak of supply lines and logistics. They know that without men and materiel even the best laid plans are doomed to fail. And the entire world knows where most of these supplies will come from--the United States of America. Even in 1942 US war production is already revving up to a pitch that will astound its allies and dismay its enemies. By the end of the war it will be producing more for the war effort than all the other combatants combined.
However it is one thing to produce goods, it is quite another to transport them. In the spring of 1942 German U-boats are absolutely running wild in the Atlantic. The Germans note 111 ships sunk in May, for a year-to-date total of 377, more than 100 between New York and Miami. In this period they will remember as the "Happy Time" the Deutsche Kriegsmarine is sinking cargo ships faster than they can be built and is threatening to completely cut England's already very tenuous life line to America. These marauding raiders become so bold as to sink ships in broad daylight within plain sight of horrified witnesses watching from shore along the Eastern seaboard.
About the only good news for the United States during this dark time is Colonel Jimmy Doolittle's daring but largely ineffective raid on Tokyo on April 18 and the confused fight with the Japanese Navy in the Coral Sea in early May. Though technically a draw it is in reality a real strategic victory for the beleaguered US Navy because it forces back a Japanese invasion force bound for Port Moresby on New Guinea. Had their plan succeeded in all likelihood the next step for the Japanese would have been to attempt an invasion of Australia itself. The US Navy has stopped the Japanese by the skin of their teeth. This setback gives the Americans and Australian precious time to build up their forces enough to launch a counterattack on New Guinea and later, the Solomon Islands. There is however no cause for rejoicing. Already rumors abound of a big Japanese push eastward--possibly even as far as Hawaii itself.
In contrast to the rapid succession of events during the time since Pearl Harbor, Janice Covington had spent the time doing little more than sitting on her hands waiting...and waiting...and waiting. After she and Mel had succeeded so well on their first assignment on Borneo, Janice had surely expected to be called on before now. However in that entire time she had only had one meeting with any government officials and that was merely to inform her that she and Mel would henceforth be attached to a relatively obscure agency with the cryptic name Office of Information. It was made plain to her at this meeting that she and her companion would not be communicated with on a regular basis.
When told this Melinda had taken it to be a kiss off. Her comment to Janice had been, "I guess they think bein' able tuh read ancient Sumerian ain't much help in fightin' the Nahh-zees." Like Winston Churchill, Melinda pronounced the hated word with only a soft "zee", omitting the "tee" sound most people used with it. Janice had to admit she was probably right. However they were kept on the government payroll all the same.
What the two women weren't told was that they were indeed considered very valuable assets--not so much for what they knew but whom they knew. It was duly recorded in Janice's rather thick FBI profile that during the tumultuous years from 1936 to 1941 she had been to every continent at least once and had become acquainted with most of the heavyweights of her profession. Most of these archaeologists cared little about the deteriorating international situation as long as they were free to do their work but it was known some of them had very definite opinions about how things ought to be. The Frenchman LaPalme, for example, was a great admirer of Lenin and, to a lesser extent his successor, Stalin. At the other end of the spectrum the brilliant John Price from the University of Chicago was known to be a Nazi sympathizer, and went as far as to seriously considering joining the Bund, the American chapter of Adolph Hitler's little fan club.
She remembered Sir Geoffrey Adams once telling her the only way the decadent West would be saved would be through dictatorship. In fact she recalled meeting several Brits whose leanings were considerably more to the right than most of their countryman. Janice could see how many of these sincere, well meaning people could be smitten by the alluring Jezebel that was totalitarianism. If one looked at the orderly German society with its clean cities and its efficient government and compared that to say, the slums of London or New York and the constant, often counter-productive bickering of a two-party system of government it was quite understandable how some could be swayed. In fact, it was a great irony that many of the so-called "intelligentsia," people that Hitler and Stalin despised, were the very ones most enthralled by dictators.
In early March Janice and Melinda came to the conclusion that if they were going to have to stick around they might as well buy a house and do it right. They soon found a house on the outskirts of Annapolis and set about turning it into a home. During the negotiations over price the real estate agent had become incensed at Janice's shrewd bargaining and had snidely remarked to her that it might be difficult for two unattached women to obtain a loan without a male co-signature. He then compounded his error by wondering aloud what two otherwise very attractive "cuties" were doing living by themselves anyway.
Janice had responded by angrily reaching into her pocket and pulling out a roll of bills large enough to choke a horse and telling him they didn't need any goddamn loan, that they would offer him twelve thousand bucks for the house and not a penny more and furthermore it wasn't any of his fucking business what they were doing living alone. Only Mel's gentle intervention kept Janice from socking the guy then and there. She had ended her tirade by informing him that if he wanted a sale he had exactly two minutes to fish or cut bait.
The stunned agent had taken one look at the huge wad of green backs in the tough little woman's fist, mentally calculated what his commission would be on her fair offer, and decided they could be Martians for all he cared. Besides the owner was in a hurry to sell the place, having already moved to Connecticut.
Once the house was theirs Janice told Melinda to do with it
as she pleased. As she furnished the place Mel took into account the fact that
Janice did not particularly care for bright colors or frilly things and while
she would have preferred something a bit more...feminine it really didn't matter.
The only thing in the house that really interested her was Janice and
in her adoring eyes that was something that was darn near perfect the way it
was. Since that time they had done little except keep up with the sobering war
news and collect paychecks once a month from Uncle Sam. But all that changed
on Saturday, May 30, 1942 and this is where we pick up our story.
The phone call was short and sweet.
"Hello-oh? Janice Covington? Yes, she's here. Jes' a minute, I'll get her." Melinda Pappas placed her hand over the mouthpiece. "Janice, it's for you."
"Yeah," Janice answered, taking the phone. "Uh huh. Right. We'll be ready."
"Who was it, Jan?" Mel asked anxiously.
"That Pierce guy," Janice replied. "He says somebody wants to meet with us today at three o' clock."
Mel wrinkled her nose and said, "But today's Saturday. What could anyone..." Her face then brightened. "Golly, Jan, do ya think it could be a job?"
"Could be." Janice grinned impishly and added, "Or it could be to tell us our services are no longer needed."
"Hmph," snorted Mel. "We haven't rendered any services yet." She looked at the clock and saw 10:45. "Oh my, I've got to get ready."
"Oh m'gosh, you're right. You'd better get a move on," teased Janice. "After all, you only have three hours or so before they come to pick us up."
"Well it takes some of us a little longer to make ourselves presentable," sniffed Mel. "Not all of us are satisfied to throw on a pair of trousers and a shirt and pronounce ourselves ready."
"Hey!" Janice protested, feigning indignance. In truth she loved to see Mel dressed up. She didn't know quite what it was but the sight of that perfectly groomed, statuesque beauty immaculate in one of her tailored ensembles always aroused within her a desire to have the woman then and there. And on several occasions--she had. For her part Melinda knew what it did to her and she wondered maybe if it was because it was something Janice could never bring herself to be. Whatever it was she didn't care for it always excited her so much to see Janice in one of her predatory moods. She seemed so...dangerous.
It was a given in their relationship that Janice was the dominant of the two but Mel considered hers to be a sweet submission. For all the bluster and bravado Janice was never ever anything but kind, considerate, loving, and patient-- albeit in her own unique way. Mel had learned quickly enough that Janice was not one to suffer fools lightly. Her temper was legendary. But whenever Melinda was the one who screwed up, as she sometimes did for she was terminally clumsy, Janice would merely roll her eyes and sigh loudly. God, but she loved the woman!
With Mel now firmly entrenched in the bathroom Janice decided to go out into the back yard. She emptied the remaining contents of the coffee percolator into her favorite cup, a plain white handleless navy mug given to her by Chief Ryan while aboard the USS San Francisco. She then pushed open the screen door and stepped out from the kitchen and into the back yard. It was a beautiful late spring day. The brutal heat and humidity that usually marked summers here had not yet arrived and for that Janice was thankful. She took a seat on some concrete blocks left by the previous owner that were stacked up under the large silver maple located in the center of the back yard. As she sat there sipping her coffee she could hear Mel inside half singing, half humming some tune, maybe "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree." She smiled and looked across the yard and saw a cardinal hopping from branch to branch in the thicket that lined the rear of the yard. So this is what it's like to live a normal life, she thought. She had to admit it wasn't as bad as she had feared.
Although being anchored in one place for such an extended period of time left her feeling antsy at times she knew Melinda had taken to life here like a duck takes to water. But then of course, Janice reminded herself, why shouldn't she? After all the gentle Southern belle had been born into a family that prided itself on its stability. Her father had taught at the University of South Carolina for thirty-one years. He and Mel's mother lived in the same house all their married lives. Melinda's younger brother, Robert, had followed an eighty year old custom by the men in the Pappas family, gone to The Citadel, and was now a lieutenant in the army.
And the traditions in the Covington family? Janice ruefully ticked them off. There was alcoholism for one, chronic depression for another, the practice of never living more than three months at a time in one place for another. Sometimes Janice wondered what it would have been like if she and Melinda had been born into each other's families. Would Mel be tough and aggressive? Would Janice like to primp and wear nice clothes? She knew it was the tired old debate about what influenced behavior more, environment or heredity but, still, it was something to ponder while waiting for your lover to surrender the bathroom.
For forty-five minutes she sat perched on those blocks in the shade of the huge maple tree and mulled over everything from her traumatic abandonment by her mother to what sort of present she should get Mel for her birthday which was just days away. Finally...
Janice was startled from her reverie by the sound of Melinda's soft drawl at the back door. "Huh?"
"What are yuh doin' out there?"
"Oh...uh, nothing. Just waiting for you to finish, that's all."
Mel stepped out into the back yard and walked toward her. Janice eyed her in her pleasingly tight skirt and a blouse that she had finally convinced her did not need to be buttoned up to her eyeballs. Damn! thought Janice. She is absolutely gorgeous.
"Don't cha think you ought tuh get ready now? Mel asked with a smile.
Janice pointed at her and said, "Mel, I could try for a week and not look half that good."
A hint of crimson came to the taller woman's cheeks as she took Janice's hand in hers. "Now that's silly and you know it. You're a very lovely woman, Janice Covington, no matter how much you try to hide it. Now come on inside."
Janice gave her a barely perceptible shrug of the shoulders and dumped the remnants of her now cold coffee out onto the ground.
At precisely two o' clock a black Buick stopped in front of their house and a man Janice knew only as Pierce got out and made his way up the walk. Even before he reached the door Janice and Mel were out to meet him.
"Nice place ya got here, ladies," said Pierce.
"It keeps the rain off," replied Janice matter-of-factly. Mel recognized this as a signal that her own Jan was now gone and in her place was the no-nonsense, tough-talking Janice.
"Uhh right." Pierce responded, with some surprise. He decided to try a different tack. "Miss Pappas, I must say you're looking very spiffy today."
"Why thank you, sir," replied the ever gracious Mel.
Oh brother, thought Janice. For a moment Pierce just stood there gawking in obvious admiration for the long legged beauty before him. But not for long.
Her green eyes flashing, Janice said, "It's not polite to stare you know."
"Oh, uh, I'm sorry," he stammered. He gestured toward the Buick. "If you ladies will follow me please."
As they followed him to the car Mel whispered, "Janice, that wasn't very nice."
Janice, however, had her own opinion. With a hoarse whisper she replied, "You know, it's probably a good thing you wear those god awful glasses."
"What do yuh mean?" Mel asked suspiciously.
"I mean if some of these peckerheads ever saw just how goddamn beautiful you really are you wouldn't be able to get out of the fuckin' house without being swarmed over."
"Why, Janice Covington, do I detect the presence of a little green-eyed monster?" Mel whispered playfully.
"No," Janice corrected her, "you detect the presence of a gigantic green-eyed monster."
Mel beamed the woman her best smile and squeezed her arm. "Well you jes' sent that little ol' monster back to wherever it came from because you are the only one I want swarmin' over me."
Their trip into Washington was an easy one. The Office of Price Administration had already begun gas rationing and would soon make restrictions even tighter so cars were scarce. Non essential civilian travel by was by this time being discouraged on all levels. On their way into town Pierce spoke little except for little snippets of small talk with Mel. He noticed the Covington woman had said nothing at all. She's an odd one, he thought. It seemed strange to him how two women with such different personalities could get along so well. And they did seem to get along well together. Perhaps too well. What a waste, he thought. That Pappas dame is real looker.
At last Pierce wheeled the Buick into a parking lot on F Street and turned off the ignition.
"What's this?" asked Janice, her suspicion rising. Inwardly she cursed herself for allowing her guard to slip. Remember your motto, stupid. Trust no one.
"Relax, Covington," said Pierce. "This is where we're to meet 'em."
Janice figured all those months of inactivity had dulled her instincts and she suddenly found herself wishing she had brought along her trusty .45 automatic. "Well somebody's been watching too many movies," she persisted.
Seeing her friend's concern, Mel opened up her fair sized purse and took out a stick of piece of Beeman's gum. She then dropped the pack back into her purse. "Oh I'm sorry," she drawled. "Where are my manners? Janice, would you like a stick of gum?"
"No, I don't want any gum."
"Aww come on," Mel urged, setting her purse in Janice's lap. "Take one."
"Mel, I said..." Then it came to Janice. Melinda Pappas never, ever chewed gum. It was now she finally took the hint and peeked into Mel's purse. There, down deep in the bottom of the purse partially covered by a handkerchief, was Janice's big .45. The archaeologist shot a surprised look at her companion and was met by the faintest hint of a smile.
Atta girl, thought Janice admiringly. At least one of us still has some brains. "On second thought I will have one." she said aloud, giving Mel a discreet wink.
"I kinda thought ya might," replied Mel. "Here Mister Pierce, I've changed my mind. Do you want this?"
"Don't mind if I do, Miss Pappas," said Pierce.
"Mel," said Melinda, "Call me Mel." She reached forward and gave her stick of gum to him.
"Here," said Janice, handing Melinda back her purse, "keep this handy. You never know, I might need that handkerchief of yours."
Just then a nondescript car, Janice judged it to be a DeSoto, pulled into the parking space directly opposite them. Inside the car were three men, two in front, one in the back. Even before the car's engine was turned off Pierce was out of the car and on his way to the second vehicle.
"Janice, what is all this?" Mel asked anxiously.
"I don't know, Kid," replied Janice. "Just take it easy and keep that purse where I can get to it."
After Pierce exchanged a couple of terse sentences with the driver Janice saw the lone man in the back seat get out of the car. He nodded to Pierce who then immediately replaced him in the back seat. Before approaching their car the man stopped at the driver's window and was handed what looked to Janice to be a thick folder.
"Well," Janice said, "here we go."
The man got in on the passenger's side in front and plopped the folder down in the seat. He then turned and shifted his no nonsense gaze from one woman to the other. "Which one of you is Covington?" he asked roughly, knowing full well the answer.
"I am," replied Janice.
The man then cast a wary eye at Melinda. "You must be Pappas then."
There was something about his steely gaze that made Melinda extremely nervous. "Why uh, yes," she stammered.
The man then shifted that unnerving gaze to Janice who never batted an eye. "Are you sure Miss Magnolia here can cut the mustard?"
"She can cut it," Janice answered icily. Who does this guy think he is? she thought angrily.
The man still did not seem convinced. "You're sure?" he persisted. "'Cause I don't want any slip ups."
That did it. "Look, you creep, I don't know who the fuck you are and I don't really give a shit. As far as Mel is concerned if she hadn't been there on Borneo with me that goddamn little trinket you boys wanted so badly would be in Tojo's hot little hands now instead of ours. So don't you ever question her competence again, you hear? I trust her with my life, pal." Janice jerked her head toward the men in the other car. "Can you say the same for those twerps over there?"
Had Janice seen Mel's face she would have noted it to be a very nice shade of crimson
Beneath the gruff exterior the man inwardly smiled. Marshall was right, he thought. She's as tough as they come. Just what I need. "My name is Donovan," he said aloud. "William J. Donovan. My title is Coordinator of Information. That makes me your boss. I've been informed by the President that soon the Office of Information will be reorganized into the Office of Strategic Services and I will be named its director."
"Does this name change signal a real change or is it just more bureaucratic bullshit?" asked Janice bluntly.
Donovan eyed her in amusement. "You don't beat around the bush, do you, Covington?"
"My arms are too short to beat around bushes," retorted Janice.
Melinda could not be sure but she thought she saw a twinkle in Donovan's eye. He's testing us, she thought.
By now William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan, Coordinator of Information, soon to be Director of the OSS had already decided he liked this Covington. Even before taking the job that was to make him a legend, "Wild Bill" Donovan had led a notable life. Born on New Year's Day, 1883 in Buffalo, New York he graduated from Columbia Law School in 1907 and by 1916 was serving with New York National Guard on the Mexican border. When the United States entered the Great War in 1917 he went to France as a member of the famous "Fightin' 69th" and was awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery during the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
Upon returning home he served from 1924 to 1929 as Assistant Attorney General of the United States during the Coolidge administration. In 1929 he returned to private practice and, except for a failed bid for the governorship of New York in 1932, remained there until July,1941 when he was appointed Coordinator of Information by Franklin Roosevelt.
"Well I can't tell you much, you understand," said Donovan. "But I can say this much. The OSS will be becoming much more, ah, aggressive shall we say, in its operations."
"Yes, Miss Pappas?"
"If I may, sir, jes' where do we fit in to all this?"
"Well, young lady, I've been giving that a lot of thought," said Donovan. "A lot of thought. You see, it seems the President and General Marshall think rather highly of you two. I have to tell you it is no small task to impress George C. Marshall so to have him in your corner tells me you two have something on the ball."
This revelation surprised Janice greatly for she had assumed the aloof Marshall had long since forgotten all about her. What she did not know was Marshall had made a career of never forgetting anyone that might prove useful to the nation someday.
"I'm sure the General is a very busy man these days," said Janice absently.
"We all have our jobs," said Donovan. He reached down, picked up the folder, and dropped it in Janice's lap. "Ladies," he said, "it's time you started earning your pay."
Janice flipped open the folder while Mel inched closer to get a look. "Oh my!" she cried softly. "It's--"
"Price," said Janice, finishing the identification for Mel.
"How well do you know the guy?" asked Donovan.
"Well enough," replied Janice. "Professor of Archaeology at the University of Chicago. Brilliant guy. Very competitive. One arrogant son of a bitch."
"I take it then you've had dealings with him," said Donovan.
"We've butted head a couple of times," Janice told him.
"How'd you do?"
"Won one, lost one," said Janice.
"Then you fared better than most," allowed Donovan. "That file in your lap represents five years of intense scrutiny by the FBI on our boy Price." Donovan looked the archaeologist squarely in the eye and said, "You know, of course, he's a Nazi sympathizer."
"You could say I had an inkling his politics were a little more to the right than FDR's. So do you think he's a spy or something?"
"We don't know," Donovan admitted.
"Then why all the sudden interest in him now?"
"Six weeks ago Price suddenly left the country and went to Costa Rica. Supposedly he's down there supervising an archaeological dig at some Guaymi Indian burial ground."
"We think he has a more ulterior motive for being in Central America at this time," said Donovan.
"Then you'd be right," said Janice. "Nobody in their right mind is going to sponsor a dig with a war on."
"It's like this, Covington. For the last month Price has been down there rooting around on that hillside of his and by all accounts is not getting much done. We have reports of a lot of activity around the site but it does not seem to be managed with the usual Price efficiency. Ideally we would like to get some photo reconnaissance of the area but of course that's not possible with the limited resources the air corps has right now. However we do suspect he's using the site as a front for something else. What, we have no clue. That's where you and Miss Pappas here enter the picture. We want you to get down there and find out what the hell Price is really up to. Use your expertise to ascertain if his site is legitimate or phony baloney."
Janice took one quick glance at Melinda before replying, "Okaaay. When do you want us to leave?"
"Well as you know air transportation is at a premium right now so the best we could come up with is passage on a freighter. For security reasons you won't be told its exact time of departure until just before it sails. I can say you have at least two days so that will give you plenty of time to get packed and to study this file."
"Will we have somebody we can contact down there?" Janice asked.
"Nope. Sorry. We're just spread too damn thin right now," said Donovan. "You're on your own for now."
"I see," said Janice. "So how will we communicate?"
"By plain old telephone," said Donovan. "You will be given a number you can reach when you're contacted about your departure time. You will be able to reach someone at that number anytime day or night. There is a sheet in the folder that explains the procedure you will employ, understand? Learn it and destroy it."
"Fine. Good luck to you two." Donovan pulled the handle and cracked open the door.
"Ah just one thing," said Janice.
"Do you usually make it a habit to personally appraise those under you of their missions?"
"Not really," said Donovan. He got out of the car and then stuck his head back inside. "But I'm told what you did in Borneo was of great service to our country and I wanted to get a look at a couple of heroes."
The two of them watched Pierce pile out of the back seat of the car as Donovan approached.
"Ya know, Jan," Mel mused aloud, "maybe someday somebody will
be kind enough to tell us jes' what it is we did.
The next day a half a world away two midget submarines sneak into the harbor at Sydney, Australia. The target for this operation is the cruiser USS Chicago. The subs fire their torpedoes at the parked cruiser and the fish race under the ship, hitting the ferryboat Kuttabul, which is serving as a depot ship, killing 20 Australian sailors. One submarine is sunk by harbor defenses, the other two man crew commits Hara-kiri.
This is the opening move in Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's plan to lure out the American carriers and destroy them once and for all. At the other end of the Pacific, in another feint, the Japanese invade the islands of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutians and bomb Dutch Harbor. To get his "decisive battle" Yamamoto believes an attack on one of America's few remaining possessions in the Pacific, Midway Island, is needed. This will surely cause the US Fleet to come to the rescue, straight into the trap laid by the Combined Fleet.
But what Admiral Yamamoto does not know is that his opposite number, the quiet Texan Chester Nimitz, has set a trap of his own. Thanks to the work of signals intelligence officer Joseph Rochefort, Admiral Nimitz, unlike his unfortunate predecessor at Pearl Harbor, knows where the Japanese are to strike. Against the strong recommendations of his boss, Chief of Naval Operations Ernest J. King, Nimitz gambles everything and decides to commit America's most precious assets in the Pacific Theater, the aircraft carriers Hornet and the seemingly indestructible Enterprise, designating them Task Force 16. He knows only too well that if these are lost the entire west coast of the United States will be open to attack.
That evening, two Japanese Kawanishi flying boats are scheduled to refuel from submarines at French Frigate Shoals, and fly on to Pearl Harbor for a final reconnaissance mission. but when I-168 pokes its periscope up at French Frigate Shoals, it finds the US seaplane tender USS Ballard there. The plan, "Operation K," is scrubbed. The Japanese will not know if the American carriers are still in Hawaii. On the battleship Yamato, Adm. Yamamoto, suffering diarrhea, nibbles at rice porridge, when he gets the word that "Operation K" is off. He also has word that American radio traffic is unusually heavy, most messages marked "urgent." He shows the messages to Captain Kameto Kuroshima, his chief of staff, who has drafted the Midway plan, and says, "These must be sent to Admiral Nagumo and the carrier force immediately." Kuroshima protests. "He must have picked them up -- and we can't risk breaking radio silence." Yamamoto disagrees, but Kuroshima is firm. The messages are not sent. Radio silence is maintained. And Nagumo has not picked up the messages (Akagi's antenna is smaller and weaker than Yamato's), so Nagumo steams along, ignorant of the American carriers' location.
The next day, June 1st, 1942 finds Task Force 16 positioned some 325 miles northeast of the island of Midway. Their commander, Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, briefs them on the impending battle of Midway, putting his sailors in the picture at last. Never one much for speeches the brilliant Spruance makes one of the great understatements of the war when he tells them, "The successful conclusion of the operation now commencing will be of great value to our country."
June 2nd, 1942...Amid the cold and driving rain, with visibility down to 100 feet, the USS Yorktown and its escorts, designated Task Force 17 and under the command of Rear Admiral Jack Fletcher, joins up with carriers Enterprise and Hornet off Midway. The trap, if one can call it such with a straight face, is set. In fact all the US Navy has left to throw against the greatest assemblage of seapower ever to sail under the Rising Sun are three carriers, seven heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and 15 destroyers. The Japanese have over ninety ships moving in towards them behind the weather fronts. Aboard the Nagumo task force, Japanese carrier pilots, instead of training or going over targets, listen to records and relax. Overconfidence is rampant.
At dawn on the morning of June 4--one of the most memorable dates in American military history--the battle of Midway commences. It opens with Nagumo launching his bombers to hit Midway and soften the island's defenses for his invading troops. The Marine pilots on Midway, flying the hopelessly outclassed Buffalo fighter, put up fierce resistance. Of the twenty-six American planes to go up to face the Japanese onslaught twenty-four are shot down but they take a third of Nagumo's strike force with them.
It is now that Raymond Spruance takes his place in history. He correctly guesses the Japanese will launch a second strike against Midway. By now he has learned the position of two of the four Japanese carriers. Some on his air staff argue that it is too risky to attack without knowing the location of the other two enemy carriers. But Spruance, unlike his counterpart Yamamoto, does not vacillate. While conceding they do not know where the other two carriers are, he tells them they do have two definite targets 135 miles away--practically maximum range for the American planes. In the biggest gamble of his career he orders the Enterprise and Hornet turned into the wind and they launch everything but the kitchen sink into the air against the enemy. The head man on his air staff, Captain Miles Browning, known throughout the Navy as the man with the calculator brain, makes his computations and now tells Spruance they may have caught the enemy with his pants down for if the Japanese hold their present course and speed--which they must do until they recover their planes--the Americans stand a good chance of reaching the carriers when they are most vulnerable, with bombs on their decks and fuel lines running as they rearm and refuel.
The torpedo bombers from Task Force 16 arrive first and find all four Japanese carriers sailing in a box formation and doing just as Browning predicted. Although the attack is supposed to be coordinated with the fighters and dive bombers they are nowhere to be seen. The Americans must attack regardless. Under such conditions they know it is probably tantamount to a suicide attack. It was. In come fifteen Devastator torpedo bombers from the Hornet. Every last one of them is shot down. Next come fourteen more from the Enterprise and ten of these are knocked out of the sky. Twelve more from the Yorktown appear and eight of them are sent careening into the sea. Not one Japanese ship is touched. The forty-one slow Devastators attacking without fighter cover are no match for the Japanese Zeroes and anti-aircraft fire. For a few sweet moments it seems to Nagumo that he has won the war for Japan.
But the ill-fated attacks by the Devastators have not been in vain for they succeed in breaking up the Japanese formation and bringing down its fighter umbrella leaving the sky clear at precisely the moment thirty-seven of the peerless Dauntless dive bombers arrive on the scene led by Lieutenant Commander Clarence McClusky from that favorite of the Fates, the USS Enterprise. In six minutes they change the course of the Pacific war. Like the Devastators, McClusky has no fighter protection. He has been flying for an hour and a half and has seen only empty ocean. His fuel supply is running low but he has decided to continue the search. A half an hour before he had spied a Japanese destroyer racing northeastward like a bat out of hell and decided to follow it. At almost the same moment, Lieutenant James Gray, leading a fighter squadron, broke radio silence to report he had found the Japanese carriers. This gave Spruance and Fletcher their first hard news about the main enemy fleet.
Now McClusky hears the voice of Miles Browning bellowing, "Attack! Attack!" over the radio phone. McClusky replies, "God damn it, I will as soon as I find the bastards!" He does and soon. McClusky leads half his Dauntlesses down on the carrier Kaga while Lieutenant (J.G.) Earl Gallaher takes the other half hurtling down on the carrier Akagi. The Akagi, Nagumo's flagship, takes hits from two one thousand pound bombs, one on the flight deck causing huge explosions amid forty refueling planes, the other bores into the hangar below causing the torpedo magazine to blow up. For the rest of the day the Japanese mount a desperate effort to save the ship but at 7:15 that evening they are forced to abandon her. Meanwhile the Kaga is hit four times, turning the carrier into an inferno within seconds. It is now that seventeen Dauntlesses from the Yorktown, led by Max Leslie, join the fight and scream down on the carrier Soryu, leaving her a crippled wreck. Later that evening the submarine Nautilus, despite heavy depth charging by Japanese destroyers, pumps three torpedoes into the Soryu and finishes her off.
The shaken Nagumo has been forced to transfer his flag to the cruiser Nagara where later on he has the small satisfaction of hearing the American carrier Yorktown has been found and sunk. But while the Japanese bombers are breaking through the Yorktown's AA defenses, twenty-four Dauntlesses, led by the formidable Gallaher, find the lone remaining Japanese carrier, the Hiryu, fall upon her and send her to the bottom.
In the end Midway is an American victory of titanic dimensions. In one fell swoop the Japanese have lost the initiative in the Pacific, never to regain it. From this moment on it is the Americans who will call the tune. The United States Navy has paid the first installment back to the Japanese for the debt of Pearl Harbor.
Melinda awoke to the sound of a knock at the front door. Ever so carefully she removed Janice's arm from around her waist and sat up. Putting on her glasses, she checked the clock. It was 7:20 AM. Eight hours behind, in the black Pacific night, Admiral Yamamoto was telling his men that he was the only one that needed to apologize to the Emperor for their failure, Jack Fletcher was signaling Spruance, "Ya did good," and Chester W. Nimitz, by recognizing the rare opportunity presented to him and risking everything in order to see it through to victory, had already emerged as the greatest naval leader of the Second World War.
But Mel, totally oblivious to the momentous events that had occurred six thousand miles away, was concerned only with who in the world could be beating on her door at this hour of the morning. Now she sleepily threw on her robe and made her way to the front door. There she saw two burly men on her steps.
"You Melinda Pappas?" the one with the huge cigar clinched between his teeth asked.
When she answered in the affirmative the men departed from her and went back to their truck which was parked in front of the house. The back of the truck was covered by a large tarpaulin so she could not see what they were doing but she heard several loud thumping noises as if something heavy were being moved around. It was now that Mel decided she ought to wake up Janice but, to her surprise, when she returned to the bedroom Janice was gone.
She checked the kitchen. "Jan? Where are you?"
Again, no answer. After wondering for a few moments about what was going on she returned to the front door in time to see the burly men emerge from the back of the truck with a long, narrow crate.
"Uh excuse me but jes' what have yuh got in there?" she asked the men. "And where did it come from?"
"Relax, lady, it's been paid for. Besides we're not supposed to say," the man with the cigar replied. "It's a surprise."
"A sur--" Mel now remembered. Today was her birthday.
From behind her she heard Janice's voice. "Right this way with it, boys."
Mel whirled and faced her lover. "Jan, what's going on here? What is that thing they're taking to the bedroom?"
"Gee, Mel, I don't know," Janice said with mock innocence. "I guess we'll just have to wait and see now won't we?"
After depositing their load in the bedroom the returned to their truck twice more to retrieve smaller crates. Melinda put on a pot and then joined Janice at the kitchen table. During the next torturously slow thirty minutes she heard various thumping and squeaking noises come from the bedroom. Every now and then she heard one of the men speak. All this time Janice just sat there at the table grinning like the cat that ate the canary. Despite repeated pleas from Mel she was totally mum about what the men were up to. Finally with a pouty frown Mel cried, "Golly, Jan, this is killin' me! Pleease! Tell me what it is."
The sight of her companion in so much distress mellowed Janice's resolve just enough., "All right, damn it, come on."
Before Melinda could reply one of the men stuck his head through the kitchen door and said, "Miss Covington? It's ready."
"Thanks, Charlie," Janice said.
Mel looked at her quizzically. "Charlie? Yuh mean you know him?"
"Just his name, that's all," smiled Janice. "Now let's go view their handiwork, hmmm?"
By now the men were piling the empty crates into the back of their truck and were preparing to leave. Janice escorted Melinda to the bedroom door and turned the knob for her. "After you M'lady."
Mel stepped inside and there before her eyes was the most beautiful canopy bed she had ever seen. It was a genuine antique and the overhead was made of pure lace. In the corner she saw a chest made of the same matching cherry. It was something straight out of "Gone With the Wind," and Melinda could not help but well up over her lover's thoughtfulness. It was...home.
"Don't you like it?" Janice asked anxiously, seeing her tears.
"Ohhh, Jan, it's lovely."
Janice had thought she would. The bed and chest had set her back nearly four hundred bucks but it was now worth every last penny just to see her Melinda so happy. "Happy birthday, Kid," Janice said softly.
The two lovers' lips met and for the longest time they stood there entwined in the loving embrace first shared by their souls some thirty centuries before.
There would, however, be no sleeping in her wonderful new bed for Mel this night for at exactly 5:30 that evening they received a phone call informing them that a freighter named the Northern Cross, bound for New Zealand, was sailing from Baltimore that very evening and arrangements had been made for the two women to be on it. After hastily securing transportation to the Baltimore docks they met with the master of the ship, Captain Phillips, and were soon squared away in their own cabin below decks. Just before midnight the Northern Cross slipped her moorings and by morning was lumbering her way down the Eastern seaboard at a steady twelve knots.
A few days later they rounded the western tip of Cuba and as they passed through the Yucatan Channel on course for the Panama Canal, they learned of their nation's great victory at Midway. Janice celebrated the news by knocking back a couple of shots of "medicinal" bourbon one of the crewmen had sneaked on board--much to Mel's dismay. So far the trip had been uneventful although they were well aware of all the recent activity by German submarines in the area. There only bit of trouble so far had been when they ran into a storm off the Mosquito Coast. Dangerously close to being overloaded, the Northern Cross, never a graceful ship, lay down and wallowed like a sick dog in the heavy seas. For the next six hours Captain Phillips had to call on all his considerable skill to keep the Northern Cross from being swamped.
For their part Janice and Mel rode out the storm well enough. Although Janice was sometimes given to violent fits of motion sickness, particularly on airplanes, she found herself able to cope with the rolling ship surprisingly well this time around. As for Melinda, well her biggest concern was the storm made it impossible for her to finish the copy of Paul Herman Buck's "The Road to Reunion" she had brought along. In exasperation she tucked the book under her pillow and turned off her light. "I'll finish it tomorrow night," she assured herself. But twenty-four hours hence Melinda Pappas would be in a fight her life.
For Kapitanleutenant Ernst Beck it had been a most satisfying mission. Operating from his patrol area in the western Caribbean he and the crew of the U-141 had succeeded in sinking no less than four merchant ships so far. Now with only two torpedoes left he had deliberately ordered his lookouts to ignore any ships riding high in the water and look for something heavily laden. In four days the U-141 was due to be relieved by another unterseeboot and Beck was becoming anxious to find a suitable target before then.
At last on the evening of June 9th, while running submerged, Beck's second in command rapped on the portal of his tiny compartment. "Kapitan?"
"We've got ourselves a nice fat one."
Beck leaped to his feet and made his way up to the conning tower. There he took off his hat and, peering into the periscope, got his first look at their latest target. It was the Northern Cross.
"What luck!" Beck exclaimed.
"Yes, Kapitan," said Remer. "We have plotted her course and I estimate the next leg of her zig-zag will bring her to within seven hundred meters of our position. Shall we surface and attack?"
"Nein," said Beck. "We'll let the fly come to the spider. Down periscope!" As the bosun hit the switch lowering the instrument Beck grinned at Remer. "It's about time we got ourselves an easy one, Walter. Come right to zero eight seven degrees."
"Right to zero eight seven degrees," the helmsman echoed.
Janice stood on the deck of the Northern Cross and looked out over the now calm waters of the Caribbean. The sun was already turning orange in the western sky and soon she and Melinda would be forced to go below for Captain Phillips did not allow them on top after dark.
"Oh my, isn't it lovely, Jan?" Melinda asked dreamily.
"The sun I mean," she explained. "See how it creates that long, shimmering, reflection on the water? Every time I see that it reminds me of some sort of pathway to the sky."
"Kind of like your own yellow brick road huh? Any Munchkins up there, Mel?" Janice teased.
"I declare, Janice," said Mel, a little irritated. "Don't cha ever allow yourself any whimsy?"
"Never," replied Janice truthfully. "I prefer to take life as it is and not waste my time dreaming."
Mel knew this to be all too true. For all Janice's wit and intelligence Mel had never once seen her read a book. She would not go to movies, she never listened to any of the myriad of entertaining programs on the radio--Janice Covington refused to even read the comics in the newspaper! For someone as in love with the aesthetics of life as Mel, she found Janice's stubborn refusal to enjoy anything except music a little sad.
Well, she thought resolutely, we'll just have to work on that.
Fifteen minutes later........
Beck crouched down to meet the eyepiece on its way up. "Bearing....mark!"
"Zero three zero degrees, Kapitan."
"Nine hundred meters."
"Open outer doors on tubes one and two," Beck ordered.
"Tube doors open, Kapitan."
Beck turned the periscope slightly to his right and increased magnification. "She's dead on. Final bearing....mark!"
"Zero three six."
"Eight hundred and fifty meters," Remer answered. "Kapitan, the firing solution is accurate. No correction necessary."
"Very well. Flood tubes one and two," said Beck.
"Tubes flooded, Kapitan."
Remer reached into a drawer under the plotting table and took out his stopwatch.
"Eight hundred meters."
Beck edged still closer to the periscope and caressed it like an old familiar lover. This was the moment he lived for. "Torpedo number one....los!"
The U-141 bucked slightly as the tremendous air pressure inside the torpedo tube was released into the open sea.
"Torpedo los, Kapitan!"
"Torpedo number two....los!"
Again the boat bucked.
"Torpedoes running straight and normal, sir," the soundman announced.
"Down periscope!" barked Beck. "Remer, running time to target...."
"Have yuh given it any thought as tuh how we're gonna sneak into Price's camp?"
"We're not going to sneak in, Mel," replied Janice.
"Nope. We are going to walk straight in and offer our services to the rat."
"But, Jan, don't you think that's kinda...dangerous?"
Remer once again checked his stopwatch. "Ten seconds to impact,
Kapitan. Seven seconds...six...five..."
"Nothing ventured, nothing gained I always say, Kid. I--"
From off to the women's left a terrified voice screamed out, "Torpedoes!"
Janice just managed to turn halfway toward him before first
one, then another, huge explosion rocked the ship. At the exact spot where the
unfortunate seaman had been standing two large plumes of water rose forth from
the sea and swept over the railing.
"Two hits!" cried the U-141's sound man.
"Up periscope!" barked Beck.
Janice and Melinda were near enough to the blast that the concussion knocked both of them off their feet. The first explosion swept Mel's legs out from under her and the second sent her rolling violently into the bulkhead. There she banged her left elbow hard against the cold steel and the resulting pain had an almost electric quality to it. However this was nothing compared to what befell her lover.
When the first torpedo struck Janice's thoughts had naturally turned to protecting Melinda but the blast caused her to lose her balance and the second slammed her forehead first into the bulkhead, rendering her unconscious. Melinda just managed to gain her bearings only to see Janice crumple to the deck like a limp rag doll.
"Jan!" she screamed.
"Your aim was perfect, Kapitan," said an admiring Remer as he looked through the periscope. "Dead amidships." Remer had seen enough of these by now to know the ship was doomed. Fires had broken out on board her and already the heavily laden ship was starting to list.
"Do we surface and finish her with the deck gun?" Remer asked, relinquishing the periscope to Beck.
"No. Not yet." Beck checked his watch. "It will be dark soon. Less chance of a patrol plane spotting us then. We'll wait."
"Very good, Kapitan."
Beck's two torpedoes had struck the engine room on the starboard side, tearing a great gash into the hull of the Northern Cross. Already most of the men inside the compartment were dead. Just as Melinda was able to struggle to her feet one of the ship's huge boilers ruptured and went off like a bomb. Mel was thrown back and, to her horror, saw the shock waves sweep Janice's inert body over the side as if some unseen hand was at work.
"Janiiiiiiice!!" Melinda screamed so loudly her throat burned. As she rushed to the railing where Janice had gone over she kicked off her low cut shoes. Then pausing only to take off her glasses and tuck them inside the cup of her bra, she leaped into the warm water. She did not think of the possibility of being swept under the ship. She did not consider there might be sharks lurking in the water nor did she worry about how long she might be able to stay up in the water without a flotation device. None of that mattered now to the quiet Southern belle with the knack for ancient languages. All she knew was Janice--her beloved Jan--needed her. Protect the little one.
Melinda hit the water exactly ten seconds after Janice. She swam the ten feet to where she had seen Janice go under and, taking a deep breath, dove down after her.
On land Melinda Pappas was known as a klutz. Ever conscious of this, the sweet woman was sometimes guilty of trying too hard to atone for her "accidents" and would very often make matters worse. Those that knew her well would merely shake their heads good naturedly and say, "That's Mel for ya," but to her it was forever a cause of consternation. She hated being that way! Perhaps that was why she liked the water so well. For in the water Mel Pappas was no klutz. In the water clumsy Mel Pappas, dubbed "Oopsie," by her friends, was Melinda Pappas-- two time conference champion in the 100 and 400 meter freestyle races. She was Melinda Pappas, the intimidating swimmer that was undefeated her last two years in college, she was Melinda Pappas, absolute cinch to make the 1940 United States Olympic team--had there been one. To say she swam like a fish would be giving the fish the benefit of the doubt.
Janice was about five feet under when Mel's strong hand caught her by the collar and hoisted her to the surface. On board the Northern Cross another explosion rocked the ship and Mel knew it was imperative they put some distance between themselves and the ship. She pulled Janice's head back and tucked the woman's chin into her aching elbow. With the powerful stroke of someone long practiced she began to pull Janice away from the ship. The Northern Cross was now listing so badly Melinda was certain it would capsize at any moment but somehow the doomed ship hung on. Every so often she saw a crewman make his way to the railing and leap into the sea. In her heart she knew she ought to be seeing more.
Once safely back Mel for the first time began to take stock of their situation. Janice was hurt, how badly she had no idea but thankfully the woman seemed to breathing all right. It was a certainty the ship was going to go down and in a very short time the sun would be setting. How far they were from land Mel could only guess. Silently she hoped the radio operator had been able to get off an SOS in time. As to how long she might be able to keep Janice afloat--well she didn't want to think about that now.
Thirty minutes later the only light was from the faint glow of sunset and the raging fires on the somehow still-afloat Northern Cross. As Mel watched the last light of day fade away she heard a loud rushing sound off to her left. Her elbow still under Janice's chin, she cocked her head around and saw a large, dark apparition break the surface of the water no more than fifty yards away. At first the near-sighted Mel thought it might be a whale but then, in the glow of the burning ship, she saw even without her glasses the large white numbers 141 on its side.
"Oh my God!" she whispered. "It's a sub!"
She could see men climbing to lookout positions above the conning tower and more were popping up through a hatch in the front and running toward what she perceived to be some sort of gun. Their voices carried easily over the calm water and she knew well enough what language they were speaking--German. For a split second Mel contemplated calling out for help. However she remembered the stories she had heard about German submarines machine gunning helpless victims in the water so she kept her mouth shut. In her heart she really didn't want to believe those stories but who knew for sure? It seemed people were capable of anything these days. Melinda watched as the gun crew fired five rounds into the stricken vessel. After the fifth round struck the Northern Cross she shuddered one last time and rolled over. Melinda heard the men on the sub give out a loud cheer.
Then she heard some sort of horn sound and immediately the men began to reenter the submarine. She fully expected it to submerge again but the U-141 needed to recharge its batteries. Safe now under the cover of twilight, it fired up its diesel engines and turned northeast. Soon it vanished into the gloom.
Mel and Janice were now totally alone. As the last light of the burning ship waned, Melinda Pappas, now beginning to tire, did something she had not done in a very long time--she prayed. "Lord, I know you think I'm jes' another one prayin' to you only when they want something. I know I was never a big one for goin' to church like Momma but what I'm about to ask you is not for me--I want you to know that. Please, God. Please don't let Janice die. If you have to take one of us... I'd rather it be me, not her. I love her..." The water lapped into Mel's mouth and she had to pause to spit it out. "The way I see it yuh haven't given her too many breaks up till now so maybe you owe her one, huh? She deserves better. She has a right to live. If ya feel what we have is wrong and you want to punish somebody, punish me. But please, God...let Jan live."
No sooner were the words out when she felt something bump her from behind. Without her glasses on Melinda for one terrifying moment took the gray object to be a shark but then, to her relief, saw it was an empty life raft. It was at this precise moment the Northern Cross finally gave up the ghost and slipped under the waves. Summoning forth the amazing strength she carried deep within her, Mel hoisted Janice up into the four foot by six foot raft. After pausing to take a deep breath, she positioned the palms of her hands on the side of the raft and pushed down hard. This propelled her up and she landed tummy first on the side of the raft. She then swung her leg up and over and simply rolled into the raft.
The bottom of the raft was of the design that allowed a certain amount of sea water to seep into the bottom to maintain ballast so the first thing Mel did was to pull Janice's head up to where it safely rested on the side of the raft. Although it was now totally dark Mel reached into her bra and took out her glasses. In the blackness she could hear the faint sounds of men crying out off in the distance. She could only hope they would be all right.
Mel bent over and put her ear to Janice's chest. To her the archaeologist's breathing seemed strong and regular and she wondered why Janice did not awaken. She had been unconscious almost an hour now. Tired, hurt, only now beginning to realize how frightened she was, Melinda Pappas curled up next to the petite woman she loved more than life itself and lay her weary head on her chest. "Jan, please be all right."
She lay there for a considerable amount of time before raising back up. It was totally dark now except for a few stars peeking through the gathering clouds. A storm is the last thing we need now, she thought. The only sound to be heard was the gentle lapping of the water against the side of the raft. Where are all the others? she wondered, remembering the cries she had heard before. Now there was nothing. >From time to time she leaned down close to Janice, hoping to catch some sign that she might be coming around but there was nothing except the gentle sound of her breathing.
As the night oozed by Mel began to feel her frustration over their predicament build. After all, these were the times when Janice was the one who was supposed to rise up and take charge, to be their rock. Janice had always seemed so indestructible and it was more than a little unnerving for the belle to see her lover so helpless. "Darn it, Jan," she whispered helplessly.
At last Mel's eyelids began to droop and, try as she might,
she found it impossible to stay awake any longer. Well I'll just rest a minute,
she thought. Within seconds, however, she was fast asleep and thus missed hearing
Janice murmur, "Meeeel."
The PBY banked slowly to the east and began a new search pattern. The plane had taken off well before dawn from its base at Cristobal in the Canal Zone in order to be over the last position given by the Northern Cross in its SOS of the night before. So far they seen nothing, not a life boat, not a body, not even a goddamn sea gull. This particular PBY, the MaryD (So named for a first rate Australian gal its pilot had almost married before the war.) had been one of last planes ordered out of the Philippines before they were overrun. In late April they had been transferred to the Panama Canal Zone to conduct submarine patrol and to perform air search and rescue.
The pilot was Lieutenant Merle Piloto, a thoughtful man from Miami, Florida who loved to read, and was by now an old hand at search and rescue operations. Of course being a pilot, he got a lot of ribbing from his buddies about his last name. His co-pilot, an enthusiastic young fellow with the unusual name of Xavier Charles Crismore from Albuquerque, New Mexico was said to have one of the sharpest pair of eyes in the Navy. X.C. Crismore, known as "Windy" because of his penchant for long, round-about (And sometimes even truthful.) accounts of his encounters with members of the opposite sex, had proven himself able to spot objects floating in the water over great distances. Now "Windy" Crismore, binoculars glued to those remarkable eyes, was scanning the ocean in hopes of finding somebody--anybody from the Northern Cross alive.
For the first time since they reached the search area, Piloto spoke--all of three words. "See anything, Windy?"
Ensign Crismore grunted in the negative and continued his sweep.
"Fuck!" Piloto swore under his breath.
Janice awoke to what she thought was the drone of a giant bumblebee.
The pain inside her head was worse than any five hangovers she might have had.
"Ohh," she groaned. For a moment she had difficulty discerning just where she
was. She had the distinct sensation her ass was wet. Blinking the film from
her still not completely focused eyes, she now became aware of Mel's head on
her chest. And then she remembered. She remembered the explosions on the ship,
she remembered wondering in panic where Mel was, she remembered everything going
black and then vaguely hearing a soft voice plead to an unseen entity to spare
her friend's life. She remembered a strong hand hoisting her out of the water
and into--this raft, she guessed. And she remembered feebly fingering the long,
black, and very wet hair of the head resting wearily on her chest. The realization
came to her--Mel had saved her life.
"I think I saw something, Merle!"
"Where, damn it?" Piloto demanded.
Crismore dared not remove his big twenty power binoculars from his search area. Instead he kept them trained where they were and pointed in the general direction. "Over that way."
"Hang on, Windy." Piloto banked the big Catalina hard to the right. Once the plane's turn was straightened out he activated the internal microphone situated by his throat. "Williams! Get ready. We might have some customers soon."
"Aye aye, lieutenant," a voice crackled in Piloto's headset.
In the rear of the plane Seaman First Class Ted Williams sat down by the starboard blister hatch and made ready with his long boat hook.
"Damn it, Windy, are you sure? I still don't see a friggin' thing."
"I tell ya I saw something," Crismore insisted.
"Okay," said Piloto. "Let's go down for a closer look." He pushed forward on the wheel and eased the PBY down until it was no more than a thousand feet above the water.
"There!" Crismore cried.
About a thousand yards dead ahead Piloto could now see a dirty white object bobbing in the water. "You think it's a raft, Windy?"
"You bet your ass it is," replied Crismore.
Piloto pushed forward on the wheel again until they were barely
a hundred feet above the drink.
Janice sat up in the raft and ran a hand through her stringy hair. She sat there with Mel's head still in her lap and began to massage her temple. Her head was killing her. It was then she became aware that the droning sound she had heard before was back and getting louder. She turned in the direction of the sound and cast a bleary eye skyward.
"Mel!" she cried. "Mel, wake up!"
"Huh?" Melinda sat up and sleepily rubbed her eyes. "Jan? Oh God, Jan!" she erupted joyfully. "You're all right!"
"Yeah, Mel" Janice grinned, "I'm all right. How 'bout you? Are you..."
Melinda wrapped both arms around the woman and gave her a crushing bear hug. "Oh for goodness sakes! I'm fine. It's you that had me worried half tuh death," she sniffed.
Janice Covington knew well enough what Melinda had done for her. Though moved to the very depths of her soul by the thought that this woman had risked her own life for her she knew this was neither the time nor the place to express her gratitude. That would come later. "Jeez, Mel," Janice wheezed good naturedly, "You didn't save me from drowning only to smother me to death, didja?" Sometimes Mel Pappas did not know her own strength.
Mel sat back and smiled sheepishly. "I'm sorry, Jan. It's just that...it's just I was worried I might...lose--"
Before she could finish Janice reached up to her and gently wiped a tear from Mel's cheek. She then smiled warmly at the woman that was such a bundle of contradictions and said, "Kid, everything's gonna be all right. Look."
Mel turned to where Janice's outstretched arm was pointing and she saw a plane low in the sky heading straight for them. She saw the distinctive twin motors mounted close to the fuselage and instantly recognized it. "Oh my!" she gasped. "It's a--"
"Catalina!" yelled Janice, half laughing. "It's a Navy Catalina."
Twenty seconds later they saw the familiar big white star under
the wing as the PBY roared directly overhead, its big propellers kicking up
wash all around them.
"Two of 'em," Crismore called out. "They look to be all right."
Piloto nodded and dipped his wing to assure those in the raft that they had been spotted. "We'll stay on this course for ten more minutes, then turn north," he said.
Crismore nodded and resumed his search.
"But where are they going?" Mel asked anxiously. "Golly, Jan,
didn't they see us?"
"Don't worry, they saw us," Janice assured her friend. "Right now they're going to continue to look for other survivors, that's all. They will be back for us."
Piloto and Crismore searched for another hour and managed to find six crewmen from the Northern Cross. Six men out of a crew of thirty. These they fished out of the water first because, unlike Janice and Mel, they had only their individual life preservers to keep them afloat.
While waiting for the PBY to return, Janice and Mel did not speak much. Each of them was aware of the grim probability that many of the crew from the Northern Cross would never be going home again. For her part Mel could simply not understand how supposedly "civilized" beings could stoop so low as to wage war on each other. My God, she thought, watching the PBY circle far to the northeast, here we are in the twentieth century and all our advances in technology seem to have done for us is make us that much more proficient at murdering one another. It was disheartening for one with such a gentle turn. Will we ever learn?
She thought of her brother, Robert. In his last letter to her he had proudly informed her of his promotion to first lieutenant. He was now in charge of a platoon--45 men who now looked to him, a twenty-three year old kid, for guidance. Mel could remember him as a boy being frightened out of his wits by the movie "Frankenstein" and now...now he was a sturdy young man training to lead other men into battle. On his last furlough he had given her a patch with a bright red bull's head on a black background. It was the insignia of the 34th Infantry, the Army's famed "Red Bull" division, and no one was more proud to be a member of it than Robert L. Pappas.
Melinda closed her eyes and thought of the boy with the unruly locks and the easy smile, the boy all the girls were crazy over. In contrast to the popular, out-going Robert who made friends almost at will, his sister had been very much the wallflower. Though liked well enough by her classmates and grudgingly admired for her intellect, Melinda Pappas simply could not overcome her painful shyness. People marveled that she and Robert could be siblings. So while Robert went to all the dances and had a date any time he wanted, Melinda stayed home with her sympathetic Momma and read Keats or James Joyce or just sat staring out her bedroom window.
On the rare occasion when she was asked out it invariably turned into a disaster. She wasn't much of a dancer. She was not good at small talk and if some boy had the audacity to try to kiss her...well, Melinda Pappas would almost break out into hives on the spot. Finally she just stopped trying. For a very long time she had wondered if there was something wrong with her. But now, after finding such bliss with Janice, she had reached the happy conclusion that the problem had not been with her, the problem had been with them!
Ironically the one that understood her pain most was Robert. He adored his older sister and hated to see her unhappy. Sometimes after he came home from an evening out he would stop by her room. He would tell her how boring it was and how she had really not missed a thing. Robert would see her smile bravely and he would rage at all the boys and all their excuses for not asking her out. You idiots! he would rail silently, Can't you see how beautiful Mel is? Can't you see how smart and kind and sweet she is? Sometimes he would glance about conspiratorially and whisper the latest naughty joke he had heard to her. Mel would blush and threaten to tell their Momma on him but she would laugh just the same. Always--always he could make her laugh.
While Mel's thoughts were of her dear brother, Janice's were along much darker lines. Having been one of life's survivors for so long now, she had already put last night's harrowing experience behind her. The ever pragmatic Janice was now turning over in her mind her plan for dealing with Price. That she and Melinda had lost all their possessions when the ship went down concerned her not in the least for safely tucked into the left front pocket of her trousers was an envelope containing the twenty now temporarily soggy one hundred dollar bills in expense money Donovan had left for them inside Price's file. She knew they would have no trouble at all procuring what they needed.
Janice Covington had the distinct feeling Price was up to no good. She had smelled a rat ever since Donovan first mentioned the subject of Price's dig were the Guaymi Indians. The autocratic Price usually considered the study of such obscure cultures to be beneath him. Why now all the sudden interest? she wondered. And who the hell would put up the money for such an endeavor with a war going on?
Janice's thoughts were interrupted by Mel's soft drawl. "Ja-yun? They're comin' back."
Janice watched as the PBY descended and nestled down on the surface of the water. Lieutenant Piloto cut back on the throttle and the plane slowed to a crawl on the calm sea. He then skillfully guided the big plane so close to the life raft all Williams had to do was reach out with his long boat hook and pull them in. When Williams got his first good look at the survivors in the raft he could not believe it.
"Jeez!" he exclaimed. "Miss Covington! Miss Pappas!"
"Hiya, Kid," said Janice warmly. "Long time no see."
"But wha--, how...?"
"It's a long story, Kid," Janice told him.
Melinda reached out and shook the hand of the young man they had first met some six months ago in the Philippines.
"Gosh you ladies sure do get around, don't cha?" remarked Williams, still somewhat stunned.
"Nah," said Janice. "This is our first time out of the country since we left you on Guam."
Their conversation was broken up when Ensign Crismore poked his head through the forward hatch. "Have ya got 'em, Williams?"
"Yes, Mister Crismore," replied Williams.
"Well get 'em squared away so we can get the hell out of here."
"Aye aye, sir." Williams smiled sheepishly at the two women. "I'm sorry, ladies," he said. "Lieutenant Piloto don't like to sit in the water too long. If you'll just--"
"We know the drill," said Janice, cutting him off.
"Yeah, I guess you do at that," Williams allowed. He pulled the clear bubble of the blister hatch shut and made his way to the forward hatch. "Okay, Mister Piloto, we're all set!"
No sooner had he spoken before Piloto gunned the throttle and the plane began to roar across the surface. Mel and Janice were seated on the floor of the plane-- knees up, backs against the fuselage. With them were the six other survivors from the Northern Cross.
"Is this it?" Janice asked Williams. "Is this all of us?"
"'Fraid so," said Williams. "There's another search plane comin' to relieve us but I don't think they are going to find anything. If Mister Crismore can't spot 'em, nobody can."
"Anybody see what happened to Captain Phillips?" Janice asked them. None of them had.
"I was too busy tryin' to save my own ass," one of them said bluntly. Who could blame him? Janice thought.
Once they were safely in the air Williams broke out a five gallon can of water and some little cans of a mysterious substance known as potted meat. "Sorry, ma'am," he said, opening one of the cans with his GI can opener and handing it to Mel. "It's all we've got on board. I'm afraid you'll have to eat it with your fingers."
"This is fine," Mel replied graciously. In truth she was hungry enough not to care what was in the can.
Williams opened another can and gave it to Janice.
"Hey! What about us?" rasped the man who had spoken before.
"Keep yer shirt on, Mac," growled Williams. Winking at Janice, he added, "On the MaryD it's ladies first."
Presently everyone had their can of "meat" and a paper cup full of water. Though genuinely sorry their shipmates were dead these men knew it was useless to dwell on their misfortune. It was much better to just try to deal with it as best they could.
Now Janice, who was long accustomed to going without food, took a couple of bites of the so called "meat" and decided she could wait until they landed.
"Aren't you goin' tuh eat that?" asked Melinda, watching Janice set her can on the floor of the plane. The belle had uncharacteristically wolfed down her share--and she was still hungry.
With an amused grin Janice picked up her nearly full can and handed it to her. "Here, be my guest," she said.
"You're sure?" asked Mel.
"Go on," Janice assured her. She watched the normally impeccably mannered Mel Pappas not only finish off the second can in nothing flat but suck her fingers clean when she was done. "Say uh, Mel?"
"Do ya think Emily Post would approve of that?"
"She probably would if she was as hungry as I was."
Janice had to admit she was probably right. "You keep this up," Janice teased her, "and before you know it you'll be just like me."
Melinda looked her straight in the eye and in all seriousness whispered, "Janice Covington, I wish I were more like you."
Well I'm glad you're not, thought Janice, because I think you're perfect just as you are.
It was just after 1700 hours when the PBY touched down at Cristobal, Panama. After bidding farewell to their friend Williams and thanking the two pilots of the MaryD, Janice and Mel and the six other survivors were hustled off to the infirmary where, except for a sailor who had suffered a broken hand, they were pronounced none the worse for wear and released. Upon noticing Melinda was without shoes, one of the nurses scrounged around in her locker and came up with a decent pair of deck shoes for her to wear.
They were then individually interrogated about the attack by a Navy lieutenant commander. While Janice was the first to be questioned Melinda was the very last so she was forced to wait impatiently almost an hour and a half for her. She did, however manage to phone the number Donovan had given her and inform them what had happened. By the time Mel rejoined her it was beginning to get dark.
"So what do we do now, Jan.?" Mel asked.
"Well like I told that guy in there, since the Canal Zone was our intended destination anyway we're going to proceed as planned."
"Now that you mention it," said Mel, squinting her eyes, "that Commander Lewis fella sure seemed awfully interested in knowing what we were doin' down here didn't he?"
This seemingly innocent remark made Janice uneasy. Lewis had not brought that subject up at all during her fifteen minutes with him. "What did you tell him, Mel?" she asked somewhat suspiciously. While she knew Melinda would never intentionally reveal their true purpose for being there Janice was nevertheless aware of her admirable but sometimes rather inconvenient penchant for telling the truth.
"Why, I told him the truth," replied Mel.
"I told him the truth," Mel repeated. "I told him you're an archaeologist and I'm your assistant and we're goin' to Costa Rica to do some work for the government."
"Ya did huh?" Janice grinned slyly at her companion. "You know, that was pret-ty sneaky."
With a drawl as thick as molasses, Mel said, "I don't know whut you're talkin' about, Ja-yun. Ah'm jes' a lil' gal from South Car-lina an' I don't know nothin' 'bout deceivin' folks."
"Yeah, surrre," chuckled Janice. "And I'm Scarlett O'
Hara." Janice took her by the arm. "Come on, 'lil' gal,'" she said, "let's find
a place to stay."
After making some inquiries the two of them found a decent looking hotel. Although technically in Panama, here in the Canal Zone they had no trouble finding locals who could speak English. Besides if push came to shove, Janice knew enough Spanish to get by. They entered the lobby and were observed with a disapproving eye by the desk clerk as they approached. He had taken one look at their stained, wrinkled clothes and their disheveled appearance and deemed them to be riff raff.
"We'd like a room," said Janice.
"I'm sorry," the man replied in very good English, "but I am afraid I cannot accommodate you."
"What the hell do you mean you can't 'accommodate' us?" Janice asked, baring her teeth in anger. "This is a hotel ain't it?"
"This is a reputable hotel," the clerk corrected her. "It is our policy not to allow those without luggage to check into this establishment."
"But we lost it!" Melinda protested.
"Then I suggest you go look for it, young lady," sniffed the clerk.
Janice had heard enough. "Look, you jerk," she snarled, "our stuff is lying on the bottom of the Caribbean about five hundred miles from here. Our ship took two torpedoes from a goddamn Kraut sub last night and she went down like a penny in piss. We spent sixteen hours in a fuckin' leaky ass life raft so I ain't exactly in the mood for this bullshit."
"Besides," she continued, running her hand into her pocket, "we've got all the luggage we need right here." She pulled out the tattered envelope containing the two thousand dollars in cash and slapped it on the counter. "I have a proposition for ya. What are your rates here?"
"Ten American dollars per night."
"Okaaay." Janice extracted one of the damp bills from the envelope and tore it in two. Handing one half to the clerk, she whispered loudly, "I tell ya what. I expect us to be here, oh, a couple of days at the most. How about, when the time comes for us to settle our bill, I give you the other half of old Ben Franklin here and you keep the change for yourself? Hmmm?"
The clerk cast a quick glance around to make sure no one was watching. "I suppose that would be...acceptable."
"I thought it might," said Janice, pleased with her triumph. She folded the remaining bills up and jammed them into her pocket. "Well? Can we have a key now?"
"Oh, yes...of course." The clerk plucked a key off the rack. "You can have number twenty-four."
"Thank you so much," Janice said sweetly. She wadded up the envelope and shot it basketball-style dead center into the trash can at the end of the clerk's desk. Picking up the key, she said, "Come on, Mel. Let's see if we can wash some of this sea scum off. Oh by the way," she paused and turned to the clerk, "ya think you can get somebody to wash our clothes for us?"
"Of course," the clerk replied. "We have the finest service in Cristobal."
The two women made their way to the elevator. Janice took one peek at the ancient looking thing and decided to opt for the stairs. Once they were inside room number twenty-four she turned to Mel and said, "Go ahead. You can be first."
Mel nodded and headed for the bathroom. Upon opening the door she found the room to be very cramped. She stepped in and looked the tub over and noticed there was no shower head. Uh boy, she thought, Janice won't like this a little bit. The archaeologist much preferred a shower to taking a bath. Mel, on the other hand, just loved to leisurely soak in a tub of warm, sudsy water. Once she had the right mixture of hot and cold water running into the tub Mel gingerly set about stripping off her grimy, sweat stained clothes. Her loose trousers were easy enough but she ran into some difficulty when it came to removing her shirt. Her left elbow was hurting her very badly.
It was this moment when Janice chose to stick her head into the bathroom. "Mel I-- What the--?"
Melinda was standing there in her panties, feebly plucking at the shirt twisted half on, half off about her shoulders.
Quickly Janice went to her and straightened the shirt. "Is there something wrong?" she asked forcefully.
Melinda dreaded this. "Way-ul..."
"Answer me, damn it!"
With a timid half smile Mel said, "I uh, I seem to be havin' a little trouble getting my shirt off." Somehow she had managed to keep her injury from the doctor and she now feared Janice would give her hell for not telling him about it. She was right.
Mel pulled up the corners of her mouth into that endearing little smile of hers and said, "It's my elbow, I--"
"Why the hell didn't you tell the doctor?" Janice demanded, more worried than angry.
"I was afraid," Mel answered.
"Afraid? Of what?"
"I was afraid they might want to keep me over for observation," Mel explained. "I didn't want to slow us up."
Janice closed her eyes and sighed heavily. There was no use jumping down Mel's throat over this. She was only being loyal. "Which one?"
"Darn it, Mel. Which elbow?"
"Oh. Uh, it's this one," she said, lifting her left arm.
"Okay, let me help you," said Janice.
Janice carefully slipped the shirt off the woman's shoulder. "Bend your right arm," she ordered.
Mel obeyed and Janice eased the shirt past her elbow and off her arm. Once done it was a simple matter for her to finish the job. Janice tossed the shirt on the floor and inspected Mel's elbow. "God, Mel," she whispered. She saw considerable swelling and a nasty bruise on the woman's arm. Privately she wondered how Melinda managed to keep it from the doctor. The son of a bitch probably didn't even look her over, she thought.
"How'd you do this?" she asked Mel.
"I got thrown against the side of the ship like you did," Mel answered. "Against that big steel door."
Janice looked up into the eyes of the woman she loved so much. "Jesus, Mel," she said quietly. "You mean you were...you were hurt all that time we were in the water?"
"Tuh tell you the truth I didn't think much about it at the time," said Mel.
Janice smiled at her and said, "Mel Pappas, you always were a lousy liar." The smile faded and she moved in close to her. "There's nothing I can say to you that can even begin to express my gratitude."
"Aww, Jan, I--"
"This makes twice you've saved my butt. Thanks."
Melinda placed her index finger across Janice's lips. "Shhh. You don't have to say anything. You know that. I'm just thankful you--we--survived."
Janice cocked her head to one side and eyed Mel curiously. "By the way, where did you learn to swim like that?"
"I used to do some swimming in college," Mel replied. She then modestly added, "I wasn't too bad."
"I'll just bet," said Janice With that she bent over and turned off the water running into the tub. She then reached both arms around behind Mel. "Here let me help you with that." She undid Mel's bra and the thing dropped to the floor baring the lovely breasts Janice adored.
Mel's thank you was cut short when Janice stood up on her tiptoes and kissed her. Melinda leaned over to make it easier for the smaller woman and Janice rewarded her by tenderly stroking one of her nipples with the tip of her finger.
"Ohhh, Jan," Mel cooed. This time it was her turn to initiate a long and very passionate kiss.
At last Janice leaned back and blinked. "You know, you're getting pretty good at this."
"I have a good instructor," Mel answered with a devilish smile.
"You better take your bath before we get ah, ahem, sidetracked," said Janice. She picked up her love's clothes and made her way to the bathroom door. After getting a good whiff of Mel's things she wrinkled her nose. "Ugh! I can't wait to get under that shower."
"There is no shower. You'll have to use the tub."
"Now isn't that just fuckin' peachy?" Janice growled. In truth though she was not really upset. How could one get worked up over a little thing like that after what they had just gone through? Once outside Janice removed the wad of bills from her pocket, peeled off her own clothes and lumped them together with Melinda's in a heap by the door. A terse phone call resulted in a knock on their door. Janice thrust her arm through the cracked door and tossed the bundle into the arms of a startled bell boy.
An hour later the clothes were back and the two women were bathed, refreshed--and working over a couple of surprisingly good steaks.
When she had finished Mel stretched out her long legs and contentedly leaned back in her chair. "So what do we do tomorrow?" she asked.
Between bites Janice replied, "Well...the first thing we do is get some decent footwear. These soggy things of mine are starting to blister my feet. And those silly shoes of yours just won't do where we're going."
"I don't know," said Melinda, taking a peek at her low cut canvas shoes. "I kinda like 'em."
"Forget it, you're not wearing 'em," Janice declared.
"Okay okay," Mel sighed. It was pointless to argue with Janice once her mind was set and she knew it. "But let's try to find something lighter than those monstrosities I wore in Borneo. My calf muscles were sore for a month after that."
"Don't worry," said Janice, yawning, "we'll find something comfortable for ya."
About an hour later Melinda felt Mother Nature calling so she ambled off to the bathroom. When she returned Janice was still sitting in the arm chair but her arms were crossed and her head was tilted forward. She was fast asleep.
"Your poor thing," Mel said softly.
It had been quite a day for both of them. She touched Janice on the arm. "Janice? Jan."
"Come on, Jan, let's go to bed."
"Mmmm." Janice got to her feet and began to remove her garments. "I don't know why I'm so tired," she said.
Melinda took the smaller woman by the shoulders and guided her to the bed. "Here we are." She lay Janice down on the bed and with one quick tug pulled her trousers down off her slim waist. "Now in ya go, tough guy."
Without a word Janice crawled under the sheets. Mel dropped her pants and undid reluctantly undid a couple of buttons on her shirt. The heck with it, she decided. I'm not going through with that again. Leaving the shirt on, she clicked off the lamp and climbed into bed. By now it was automatic. Mel's buttocks no sooner hit the mattress when Janice snuggled up next to the taller woman and curled an arm around her waist.
"Good night, Janice," Mel whispered.
"Nnnnt," murmured Jan.
Lying there in the dark, Mel listened as her lover's breathing became deeper and more measured. It was clear the archaeologist was worn out. Often times Mel wondered where the petite Janice got all that energy. The woman never went half way in anything she did. Many was the time Mel had seen her put in fourteen to sixteen grueling hours at a dig, spend half the night working on her notes, sleep maybe four hours, and then tear into the next day like Joe Louis into Max Schmeling. Compared to some of those days Mel remembered them spending in the Andes Mountains during that memorable fall of '41 today had been a holiday. But somehow this was...different. Melinda guessed that knock on the head Janice had received probably had something to do with it. The truth be told, she wasn't feeling too peppy herself. Then again, it wasn't every day they got torpedoed.
She chuckled somewhat ruefully as she thought of whom "Wild Bill" Donovan had dispatched to find out what that Hitler's ass kisser Price was up to. Two shipwrecked women, one with a busted arm and the other with a cracked head, were all the assets Uncle Sam had to spare at the moment. Oh well, she thought, at least in the morning Jan will be as good as new. She always is. As for herself, well...whatever came she would not let Janice Covington down.
Janice stirred, breaking Mel's train of thought. The archaeologist gave a soft, almost whimpering sigh and murmured a couple of words Melinda could not make out. Then, as she often did, Janice nestled her head against Mel's shoulder. Mel craned her neck and gently kissed the woman of top of her head. Big, bad Janice, she thought. If only others were allowed to see the real you. But she knew that would never happen. Janice Covington would not tolerate any cracks in that hard bitten image she had so carefully cultivated over the years.
It was close to one o' clock before Mel was finally able to put aside all thoughts of Janice and their blossoming life together and drift off to sleep.
Just as Mel predicted, the next morning found Janice up early. She arose just after dawn and spent the better part of the next hour quietly sitting in the big easy chair dressed only in her panties and her long-tailed khaki shirt. She always loved this time of day. It was when she did her best thinking. This morning her mind happened to be tuned to one John Price and her plan for dealing with him.
In contrast Melinda was not a morning person. Even after all this time with the energetic Janice she still found it difficult to roll out of bed before seven thirty or so. As a result Janice usually didn't disturb her, even when they were on a dig. Ever pragmatic, she much preferred an alert and efficient late riser to a groggy and error prone early bird.
Today, however, was different. Janice rose from the chair and walked over to where Melinda still lay sleeping. Sorry, kid, she thought, but it's time. But first she leaned over and inspected Melinda's arm. To her relief the swelling seemed to have gone down some but she still worried about the ugly discoloration now encircling the entire elbow. It's a miracle she didn't break it, Janice thought. Again she marveled at how Mel had jumped into the water and not only rescued her but kept the both of them afloat for the better part of an hour--and all with more or less only one arm.
She knew Mel had a mostly untapped source of inner strength within her that bordered on the awesome and it somewhat perplexed her as to why the woman only seemed to be able to summon forth this raw power when it was Janice who was in danger. Of course she knew all about the ancient bond between them. The great Xena herself and told Janice just how much her own ancestor, Gabrielle, had meant to her. It still evoked wonderment when she thought about it. Two souls, irrevocably intertwined as one for more that three thousand years now, eternally finding each other again and again over the centuries. Did the two of them always find each other? Probably not. But she guessed that only made their reunion all the more sweet when they did. She thought of the current manifestation of this bond, her love for Mel. What we have is powerful enough, she thought, but my God; the love Xena and Gabrielle must have had for each other!
It had changed her way of thinking. Before Mel came along Janice had always prided herself on being practical, fiercely independent, on having both feet firmly planted on terra firma. Now she knew better. Now she knew there truly were more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in her philosophy.
She cast one last loving glance at the lovely woman sleeping
so peacefully. She is so beautiful! But made the tough, cynical Janice
Covington's eyes well up was the knowledge that this beauty was not just skin
deep. Melinda Pappas was the finest person she had ever known. She felt so fortunate.
Even now, down deep, she still felt she didn't really deserve her. Reluctantly
she reached down and shook the raven haired woman's shoulder. "Mel. Come on,
it's time to get up.
Janice watched in amusement as Mel finished off her breakfast and downed the last of her orange juice. "Well I'm happy to see that bum arm of yours hasn't affected your appetite."
"Honestly, Jan," replied Mel between bites, "I don't see how you can get by like that with only a cup of coffee for breakfast."
With an impish smile Janice said, "I guess my little frame doesn't need as much fuel as all those muscles of yours." She grinned slyly and added, "Especially those two big chest muscles of yours."
"Janice Covington, you are an evil person and I simply don't know what it is I see in you." She reached out and touched Janice's hand and for a moment the two of them shared love's warm glow, totally oblivious to all the activity around them.
Finally Janice said, "Come on, we've got work to do."
Their first step was a shop down the street where they were fortunate enough to locate boots that met Janice's rigid standards. In particular she wanted the leather to be soft enough that it would not take too long to break them in. Once this was accomplished Janice made a beeline for the nearest pawn shop. There she bought a Smith & Wesson snub nosed .38 and a twenty round box of ammunition. As always this made Mel most uncomfortable. She hated guns. However she knew how much Janice disliked being unarmed so she kept quiet and looked over the surprisingly nice jewelry on display while Janice bargained with the broker.
"You drive a hard bargain, señorita," said the broker as he handed Janice back her change. "A few more customers like you and I shall starve."
"Stop it, you're breaking my heart," Janice retorted. "You and I both know you probably doubled your money on this."
The man broke into a faint smile and gave a barely imperceptible shrug of the shoulders. "What can I say? I have a wife and eight little niños to feed."
Janice tilted her head back slightly in a gesture of comprehension and began idly browsing around the shop.
"Is there something else I can help you with?" the man asked hopefully.
"Yeah. I need a pack of some kind," said Janice.
"You know, like a field pack or a haversack or something. Something tough, with a strap and some way to secure the flap," explained Janice.
The man looked down at the floor and scratched behind his ear. Then, as if struck by some sort of revelation, he raised on finger into the air and smiled. "One momento, please..." He quickly strode out from behind the counter and went into the back room of his shop. Janice and Mel looked at each other quizzically as they heard him rummaging about. Presently they heard a loud thud followed by a low muttering in incomprehensible Spanish. Janice allowed it was just as well they did not understand him because from the tone of his voice it sure sounded like cursing to her.
At last the man came out with an olive drab colored item and handed it to Janice. "It is all I could find," he said.
It was a gas mask pouch Janice saw--something a little smaller than what she really wanted but she figured what the hell. "Yeah, that'll do," she declared. She picked the Smith & Wesson up off the counter and dropped it and the box of ammo into the bag.
"Um, Jan?" By now Mel had wandered over to the far end of the shop and was staring up at a rack of some sort.
"What is it," asked Janice, joining her.
With a smile Janice thought somewhat queer Mel rolled her eyes up to the rack and said, "Looky." There on the rack was a hat identical to the one Janice always wore when in the field.
"It's my hat!" exclaimed the archaeologist, almost gleefully. "Hey you!" she called out to the broker.
"Lemme see that hat up there."
The man looked at her oddly but complied. What does she want with a hat like that? he wondered. First a gun and now a man's hat...the broker by now had come to the conclusion this one must be muy loco.
Janice took the hat and immediately checked the size. It was a quarter inch larger than her own size but then again her hair was longer than usual so she sort of figured that would provide some compensation.
"Go on, Janice, try it on," Mel urged.
Janice put the hat on. Oh yeah, she thought, this is more like it. "I'll take it," she announced.
After paying him for the hat and the pouch Janice, with Mel in tow, stepped outside and looked up the street.
"Now what?" Mel asked.
Janice turned to her and put the palm of her hand on Mel's shoulder. "Mel, I've got something I need to do." Then with obvious reluctance she added, "Why don't you to go back to the hotel and wait for me, okay?"
Melinda was stunned. Never before had Janice made such a suggestion. "But....Jaaa-yun! Where are you going?"
The crestfallen look on Mel's face was one that plucked at Janice's heart strings but the archaeologist had made up her mind. "Can't say for sure," she said evenly, "but where I have to go the company is not going to be very polite and I will feel a lot better knowing you are some place safe."
All Melinda could do was softly repeat, "But, Jan?" It was not a whine nor was it a whimper, just a simple appeal from a concerned lover not to be left behind. After a couple of extremely uncomfortable moments Mel added, "Janice, no matter where I am I always feel safest when I'm with you."
What a sweet thing to say, Janice thought. She's saved my butt twice now and here she is telling me she feels safest when I'm around. For a millisecond she almost relented. Almost. No, she decided. She's not going. "Mel, please," she said with a soft sigh, "I don't want to butt heads with you over this, okay? I'll be back soon. I promise."
Why is she doing this? Mel wondered dejectedly. Doesn't she trust me?
Almost as if reading her mind Janice said, "It's not that I think you'd be in the way or anything but I really should do this alone. You understand, don't cha?"
"No," Mel replied frankly. "No I don't understand. But...I'll, I'll do what you want. I'll wait."
"Atta girl," said Janice, squeezing Mel's arm.
"Now you won't be long, will you?"
"I'll be back before you even know I'm gone," Janice assured her.
"Well all right. But be careful, Jan."
"Careful is my middle name. And, Mel?"
"I'll make this up to ya. I swear."
"I should say you will," Mel said, smiling suggestively.
"Uhh boy," grinned Janice, with mock trepidation. "Just remember, you're bigger and stronger than me."
"Ah reckon you'll survive all right," Mel replied.
Janice winked at her and slung the pouch. After looking around to make sure they were not being watched she ran her hand into her pocket and took out their money. Handing it to Mel she said, "Hang on to this--and don't let anybody see it, understand?"
"Stick close to the hotel," Janice cautioned her. "I don't want you assing around and getting lost."
"I will," promised Mel.
Janice folded up the hundred dollars she had kept for herself and stuck it in her shirt pocket. Buttoning the flap she said, "Good. I'll see you around three o' clock if all goes well."
Melinda watched the smaller woman turn and make her way up the street. She wistfully stood there watching her until she had disappeared into the crowd.
Janice knew securing overland transportation to Costa Rica would be difficult. The limited amount of gasoline now available to the civilian populace was bound to be having an adverse effect on travel. And as always whenever shortages occur, it is those that abide by the law that suffer most. Therefore Janice knew she needed to find someone who, well, was not quite so concerned with the niceties of the law...in other words, a crook.
After a long morning of making discreet inquiries supplemented by the judicious use of a few sawbucks, Janice at last learned that one Miguel Guevara, a local smuggler, black marketeer, and all around bad egg, might be willing to do business with her. After learning where Señor Guevara, also known as "Oso" or bear, might be found Janice went straight there.
Janice found Guevara sitting behind his "desk"--an old door laid flat across some crates. At first Guevara was what could mildly be described as uncooperative. In fact he was downright insulted. How dare this measly little gringo just prance in here like she owns the place!
"Are you Miguel Guevara?" asked Janice.
The burly man grinned slyly. "No habla inglés."
Janice now found herself in the company of three other well armed men.
I'll just teach this one a lesson, Guevara smugly told himself. However, to his complete surprise, it would be Janice Covington who would be conducting class on this day.
"I'm gonna ask you once more," said Janice. "Can you help me or not?"
"No comprende," sneered Guevara.
"Don't give me that bullshit," growled Janice. "A guy doesn't get to be the primero around here without knowing a few good old Americanisms."
"You are mistaken," said Guevara, finally dropping his act. "I am but a simple businessman."
"Listen, Palooka Joe, I didn't just fall off the fuckin' banana boat you know. So let's cut the crap okay? You say you're a businessman, well all right. Let's do some business--or are you too chickenshit to deal with a woman?"
"Get her out of here!" Guevara shouted in Spanish. The three men, up till now loitering by the door, stepped into the room. Now they began to rue the fact they had not bothered to search the little woman for anticipating this very scenario Janice stepped back and pulled her .38 out of the pouch. They froze in their tracks when Janice turned and pointed the gun directly at Guevara's nose.
"You've got five seconds to tell the Three Stooges here to take a hike," she announced calmly.
"And if I refuse?"
Janice pulled back the hammer on the .38 and replied, "Then that big schnozz of yours gets a third nostril."
"Manuel! Felipe! Vamanos!" The men who were by now staring open-mouthed at this little she-devil meekly obeyed and withdrew without as much as a grumble.
After they had departed Janice eased the hammer on the .38 back down and positioned one cheek of her buttocks on Guevara's makeshift desk.
"Stupidos!" scowled Guevara. "They should have searched you." He then grinned up at the fine looking American woman. "You know, not many would have the nerve to talk to me like that. You have ah, what is it they call it in your country? Balls?"
"Not here," replied Janice with a grin. "Besides you don't get very far in this world by bein' a candy ass now do ya?" She stuck the .38 back in the pouch but Guevara noted she kept it on her lap within easy reach.
He leaned back in his ancient swivel chair and took a cigar out of his shirt pocket.
"Ya got another one of those?" asked Janice.
Guevara eyed her with some amusement and taking out another one, tossed it on the table. "Be my guest." He lit his cigar and then leisurely propped his feet up on his desk. "So now," he asked, tossing the brand new Zippo lighter to her, "how can I be of assistance?"
Janice lit her cigar and slid the lighter back across the table. Before answering him she took a long, luxurious puff and slowly blew the smoke up in the air. Damn! she thought, I'd forgotten just how much I like these. Janice's cigars had been the normally amenable Mel's number one peeve. For the better part of a year she had harped practically every single day to Janice about the evils of tobacco. At first Janice had been somewhat resentful of it, then as she grew to like the Southerner more merely annoyed, then downright defensive. But it was only after she and Melinda became lovers that Janice had said "Aww what the hell," and given them up for good.
Clinching the cigar in her teeth, Janice nonchalantly said, "I understand you might be making a run into Costa Rica tonight."
Guevara's feet slid off the table and he bolted up out of his chair. "You devil! How do you know such things?" he demanded.
Janice eyed him casually and blew a puff of smoke toward him. "I didn't for sure...until now."
It was then Guevara knew he'd been had. A huge grin slowly broke across his pock marked face and he sat back down in his chair. The woman had set him up. He knew that now. "Hoooo, ho ho ho." His guttural laugh was completely without mirth but it did hint of respect. "I like you, mi amigo. All right so what if I am ah, working tonight? What is this to you?"
"I want you to take me along," she answered.
"Impossible!" Guevara then muttered a few words in Spanish. Janice could not be certain but she thought it was an invitation for her to kiss a certain part of his anatomy.
Calmly she stood up, placed both palms down on the table and leaned forward. In a low tone she said, "Come on, be a pal. I have to be in Costa Rica PDQ."
"NO!" But already he was mentally calculating just how much he could squeeze out of the woman. While he had in fact been doing rather well lately, there was always room in his pocket for a few more greenbacks. Especially if they just waltzed in own their own like this.
"Not even for three hundred smackers?" Janice asked.
Guevara closed one eye to a squint and leered up at her. "How do I know you are not working for the army?"
With her cigar still clenched in her teeth Janice said, "I think the army's got a lot more fuckin' things to worry about than some two bit black marketeer, don't you?"
Guevara leaned back in his chair and let out a loud guffaw. "So this is why business has been so good. Okay, gringo, maybe we can work something out. You be here at dark. You not here--too fucking bad. We leave your pretty ass. And by the way, the price is five hundred American. And another thing, why do you not just go directly to our neighbor instead of taking such a roundabout route?"
Janice shook her head. "Three oh one," she countered. For some reason she really liked getting under this guy's skin. "And these days you take what transportation you can get."
"What kind of bargaining is this?" Guevara asked in exasperation. "Hokay, make it 475."
"Three oh two," Janice offered, smiling sweetly.
Again Oso grumbled a few words in Spanish before replying, "All right, all right! Four twenty-five! This is my last word."
"Janice took the cigar out of her mouth and cooed, "Three ninety-nine."
"Little one, I don't know what it is you do for a living but if you ever need a job... come and look me up, hokay?"
"For the record I'm an archaeologist," said Janice. "And I tell you what. When they finally bust your ass and send you off to the big house, you come and look me up after you get released. I'll give you a job."
"Yeah. You see, I can always use a man with experience in bustin' up rocks."
Guevara roared with laughter and stood up. "If you were my partner we could become very rich, little one."
"Maybe some other time," said Janice. She crushed her cigar under her boot and then reached into her shirt pocket. She took out what was left of her money and tossed on the table. "Consider that a down payment," she said. "But just remember, I don't want any billing errors, comprende?"
"You offend me, little one," said Guevara, with mock indignance. "Ask anyone, they will tell you Miguel Guevara is an honest man."
"Yeah right." Janice turned and started for the door. Halfway there she stopped and turned back. "Oh by the way, you'll have two passengers tonight."
"Two? No. No. Impossible!"
"Now we're not gonna go through all that again, are we?" sighed Janice.
Guevara eyed her keenly. He liked this woman. He liked her guts. "There is more risk," he said finally. "You must pay more."
"Okaaay," Janice said matter-of-factly, "we'll make it an even four hundred then."
Guevara threw up his hands in disgust and grumbled, "Dusk, little one. Be on time. Now get out of here before you cheat me out of my pants."
Back at the hotel Mel waited impatiently. Three o' clock came and went. No Janice. 3:15, 3:27. No Janice. 3:41, 3:52, 4 o' clock. No Janice. Mel was becoming very concerned. Where is she? 4:08. 4:17, then 4:30 came and went. Unable to take the waiting any longer, Mel leaped to her feet and exited their room, locking the door behind her as she went. She bounded down the steps to the lobby and then quickly strode to the front door, her long legs eating up impressive distances. No sooner had she exited the building when a hand caught her by the ear and tugged hard.
"Owww!" Mel bleated. "Darn it, Jan, that hurt."
"What did I tell you about leaving the hotel?" Janice asked through gritted teeth.
"I know what you said," frowned Mel, still rubbing her ear. "But you're almost two hours late and I wasn't just going to sit on my hands and continue to do nothing."
With only the barest hint of a smile Janice said, "Well I'm here now. Come on."
Ten minutes later they were in their room. "Golly Janice, aren't you going to tell me anything about what you did today?" Mel entreated.
Before responding Janice took a sip from her Coke and stretched out her tired legs. "Let's just say I was able to make some travel arrangements for us."
Melinda knew well enough she would get no more on the subject
from the stubborn woman.
That evening, after dinner, Janice and Melinda made love for the first time in almost a week. As always, it was as thrilling for Mel as if this was her very first time because Janice had a real talent for making it so. It seems the brilliant archaeologist had learned a lot more during her extensive travels than just the proper way to brush off a rock. She sometimes wondered how many there had been before her. Several? Maybe. Janice was just too good at this. And men? Probably but it was hard to say for sure. Janice had never brought the subject up and Melinda surely was not going to.
In truth Melinda had never really seriously considered the possibility of having another woman for a lover until she met Janice. In her hellish days in high school she had been attracted to boys but none of them had been very interested in the gangly, painfully shy girl with the horn rimmed glassed. Then when she got to college the combination of her new found love for swimming and her heavy study load had served as a somewhat convenient excuse for her lack of social activity. Also she was very much the late bloomer. The more or less plain looking freshman had, by her senior year, become a very beautiful young woman--the classic ugly duckling story. She had also, to a certain extent, managed to suppress her chronic shyness but by then her interest in a relationship had more or less waned. Upon graduation she decided to concentrate fully on her work.
Then her father had died and while going through his papers Mel had found the fateful telegram from a certain Janice Covington. Intrigued by the idea of a female archaeologist in charge of her own dig, she had found her way to Macedonia and the rest, as they say, was history.
From the first day it had been apparent there was a special
bond between the ill-tempered Janice and the mild-mannered Melinda and over
time this bond had grown stronger and stronger. The tough, often cynical, and
beautiful Janice opened up a whole new world for her. A world where her deepest
passions could be evoked and her desires fulfilled on a scale she never dreamed
As the last throes of Mel's second orgasm began to die away, Janice raised up and sat back on her knees. She then flung herself down on the bed beside the still throbbing Mel. Propping herself up on one elbow, she leaned over and whispered breathlessly, "God, Mel! What are you trying to do to me?"
Melinda rolled over on her side to face the petite woman. "Just making sure you kept your promise. What's the matter, Jan, she smiled puckishly, "you gettin' old?"
Janice cocked her head to one side. "You were trying to hold it back, weren't you?" she asked accusingly.
"Janice Covington, I simply don't know what you are talking about," replied Mel innocently.
A little too innocently to suit Janice. A broad grin slowly broke across her face and in one swift move she swung a leg across Melinda and sat upright on top of her. She wiggled her fingers ominously in front of Mel's face and in the cheesiest of German accents said, "Ve haf vays of making you talk, fraulein."
"Oh no!" pleaded Mel, already beginning to laugh. "Not that!"
"Tell me, Amerikaner, vhy do you hold off on your partner und make her vork so hard? How you do ziss?"
"Drop dead, Heinie!" smirked Mel playfully.
Janice dug her fingernails into Mel's ribs and savagely began to tickle her.
In between squeals of laughter Mel gasped, "Okay...you, you win. I...I thought...I thought of...baseball."
Janice stopped her torture and looked at Mel. In all earnestness she asked, "Really?" She was a huge baseball fan and was forever trying to indoctrinate a largely indifferent Mel to the intricacies of the National Pastime.
"No!" Mel smirked. She then shot her powerful arms up and caught her lover by the waist. She pulled the smaller woman down to her and rolled over on top of her. The much larger Mel now sat astride Janice, towering over her.
God! thought Janice. She's so strong! If Mel ever really got mad at me..."Darn it, Mel, that's cheating," she said aloud.
Janice saw her smile triumphantly and lean forward. Mel kissed
her and with a taunting whisper said, "Suc-kerrrr!"
Forty-five minutes later the surly desk clerk had the other half of his hundred dollar bill and Janice and Melinda were standing in front of Miguel Guevara's old warehouse.
"This is it?" Mel asked.
"Yep." Janice pulled open the screen door and stepped inside. The man guarding the door recognized her from earlier in the day and let the two women pass unchallenged. Guevara stood supervising his men as they loaded a black 2 1/2 ton truck. In the background a radio was playing rather loudly. Rather than just walk in on them and risk startling someone, Janice put two fingers in her mouth and emitted a loud, very shrill whistle.
The men stopped loading the truck and reached for their guns. Guevara spun around, saw who it was, and raised his hand to stop his men. "Ah, so you come at last," he said with a big toothy grin. "You had me worried. I was beginning to think you might have had a change of heart."
"Uh huuh, sure," said Janice with a wry little smile.
Guevara then locked his eyes on the statuesque Mel and emitted a low whistle. "Covington, you didn't say your friend was so, so...."
"Oh didn't I? Well I guess I forgot," said Janice. She did not care at all for the way he was gawking at the beautiful Melinda.
Guevara bowed to Mel with surprising elegance and asked, "May I be so bold as to ask what is your name?"
"Mel--Melinda Pappas," Mel answered with a nervous smile. For some reason this man was making her very uneasy.
"Miguel Guevara, at your service." He stepped forward to take her hand but both women misinterpreted his intentions.
Oh my! thought Mel.
Janice stepped in front of him, cutting him off. In a voice close to a growl she glared up at him and said, "Now that the passenger list has been confirmed, when do we leave?"
Guevara looked down at the formidable little woman with the slightly bared teeth that merely hinted at the boiling rage within her. Most odd, he thought. He wondered why the Covington woman was so protective of the tall, raven--haired beauty. He understood it was natural for one friend to want to look out for another but... Mentally he shrugged it off and said, "Ten minutes."
Janice jerked her head toward Guevara's makeshift desk and said, "We'll wait over there."
"As you wish."
Actually it was more than a half hour before the truck was loaded and ready to go. "Hokay, ladies, time to go," said Guevara, clapping his hands. For a minute he considered asking the obviously more delicate Mel if she would care to ride up front but he then recalled the seething anger in Janice's eyes and thought better of it. That one is loco enough to do anything, he thought. To the two of them he said, "You two--in the back."
Janice nodded to him and then looked at Mel. She jerked her head toward the truck and said, "In ya go."
Melinda climbed in the back of the truck aided by a gentle boost from Janice. As Guevara turned to go to the cab of the truck Janice caught his arm. Miguel Guevara was not a timid man. He had been in his share, more than his share of trouble before--even going so far as to kill a man once. But the look this young woman now gave him was enough to make his blood run cold.
"Listen you," Janice hissed just barely loud enough for him to hear. "Just so we understand each other. My friend in there is not too thrilled about all this. In fact she's a little scared. So I'd better not see any more of you fuckers making goo goo eyes at her, comprende?"
"No one means either of you any harm," said Guevara in all sincerity.
"Glad to hear that," replied Janice. "And let's not get any ideas about trying to pull a double cross either. Otherwise there will be some mighty sorry hombres."
Guevara looked down at her and slowly shook his head. He then tapped her on the chest and said, "All that anger you have inside is muy malo, mi amigo." With that he turned and made his way up front.
Janice stared after him for a moment before climbing up in the back of the truck. One of Guevara's men pulled the flap of the tarpaulin down and tied it off. She sat down by the tail gate and pulled the tarp back enough to see out. "Well, Kid, this is it," she said to Melinda.
The driver hit the starter and the truck's engine turned over one time before coming to life. From her place in the back Janice noted the engine was well tuned. This was really no surprise to her. After all this vehicle was money to Guevara. Now the truck lurched forward. They were on their way.
"You might as well try to get some rest if you can," said Janice. "It's gonna be a long night."
By the time they were across the Medio River Mel's head was in Janice's lap. By the time they made it to the Arrieros River the belle was fast asleep. All during the long night Janice sat there at the tail gate. She was grateful the main road was not a particularly rough one thus sparing her and Mel from having their kidneys jarred into jelly. However every so often she noticed the truck leave the main road and ease its way down one of the many little dirt roads that intersected the main artery. Janice's guess was they were probably trying to elude road blocks set up by the local authorities.
Finally at about 4:30 in the morning the truck crawled to a stop. Janice then heard the door on the passenger side open. Just be safe she pulled out her .38 and laid her hat over it.
"Covington!" Guevara whispered loudly as he untied the flap. "We're here."
After satisfying herself that all was as it should be, Janice discreetly stuck the gun back into the gas mask pouch and jammed her hat down on her head. "Mel. Mel, wake up."
"I'm up," her friend moaned softly. Quietly she sat up and rubbed her eyes before putting on her glasses. She had really gotten only about an hour of sleep all night but just lying there with her head in Janice's lap had been very comforting to her.
By now Guevara had the flap open and Janice was dropping cat-like to the ground from off the truck bed. "That road leads to where they are doing the digging," said Guevara, pointing to a narrow dirt strip running perpendicular to the main road
"How far?" Janice asked guardedly.
"Do not worry," said Guevara, sensing her mistrust. "It is only five hundred meters or so. I swear by the grave of mi madre."
"Well it had better be," retorted Janice, "'Cause if you think you can pull a fast one on me..."
"Tsk, tsk. Such hostility," Guevara whispered good naturedly. "Now, señorita, the diñero?"
Janice dug her hand into her shirt pocket and pulled out several folded over bills. Although the first hint of dawn was appearing in the eastern sky, it was at the moment still too dark to see much.
"Covington, I trust you," said Guevara, taking the bills and stuffing them into his pocket.
"It's all there," Janice assured him.
"I wish you luck," said Guevara.
I think we're gonna need it, thought Mel.
"Thanks," said Janice. "And Guevara?"
"Try to keep that can of yours out of prison, huh?"
"That is my most fervent wish," said Guevara, bowing grandly. "Adios."
With that he quickly strode his way to the cab of the truck and climbed in. The women watched the truck roll away and soon it rounded a bend in the road and was gone.
"Well this is it, Mel?" said Janice with a deep sigh. "Now remember, when we meet Price let me do all the talkin' okay?"
"And whatever I say, no matter how outrageous, you act as if it's the gospel truth."
"Yes, Janice." Privately, however, Melinda wondered, Oh Lord, just what is she going to say?"
It was slightly after 5:00 AM and already John Price was at work. A notorious early riser, he often marveled at how peaceful and calm these sites could be in the early hours before the beehive-like activity began. As the lead archaeologist in charge of excavating this large Guaymi Indian village he was responsible for making the bees perform their work efficiently. The only problem was he did not have enough bees at the moment. Despite offering to pay the grandiose sum of five American dollars per week he found most of the locals did not wish to be within five miles of the site. They considered it cursed. He was therefore somewhat pleased when his foreman rapped on his tent pole and said he had two people outside looking for work. That is--until he saw who they were.
"Covington!" he blurted out.
"Price," replied Janice, nodding.
"What the devil are you doing here?" he asked suspiciously.
"What else? You've got the only active dig in North America, I'm an archaeologist. You need people, we need work so--"
"Not a chance!" exclaimed Price heatedly. "I still haven't forgotten how you cheated me out of the Star of Turkey."
Janice smiled faintly. "That was just business, that's all. Nothing personal."
Price eyed her up and down. "Well this is just business too," he said coldly. "I don't need you."
"C'mon, John," said Janice, almost pleading now. "I didn't squawk when you beat me to Ceylon and got the Death Ruby, did I?"
"Oh, so it's John now!" said Price, his voice rising. "Let me see now, what was that you called me at our last meeting? "A 'pussy?'"
"Things were...different then," said Janice meekly.
"To use one of your vulgar expressions, 'No shit, Sherlock,'" said Price absolutely gloating now. "Tell me, do you really need work or are you just trying to spy on me?"
"No no!" Janice replied quickly. "Nothing like that. It's just that well..." Janice took a deep breath and gave out a heavy sigh of resignation. "I'm broke, John. I haven't had a job since the war started and I'm up to my eyeballs in hock. I'm about to lose everything, I've got the IRS on my ass..."
Melinda noted the little shudder in Janice's voice as she said 'everything.'" Oh, Janice, you are sooo good. she thought admiringly.
"Spare me the melodramatics," said Price, with a mocking sniff.
"Please, John, you know how good I am. I can be of use to you. Don't--don't make me beg. You can't stand there and in all honesty tell me you can't use me."
This might be fun, thought Price. "Maybe," he said aloud. He found himself warming to the idea of the coarse, arrogant Covington doing his bidding. He tilted his head toward Melinda. "What about her? She doesn't know anything about archaeological work."
"She's worked with me for over eighteen months now," said Janice. "She's learned a lot. Besides, she's an acknowledged expert on ancient languages."
"That's of no use to me," said Price. "You know very well the Guaymi Indians had no written language. Tell you what, Covington, I need monkeys. I'll pay you twenty-five dollars a week as a common laborer."
Price held up his hand to cut short Janice's protest. "Take it or leave it."
Janice slumped her shoulders in resignation. "Okay," she sighed. "You win. But what about Mel?"
"I told you I can't--"
"Wait!" cried Mel. She pointed to an old Royal portable typewriter on Price's desk. "This sheet has a lot of errors on it," she said, bending down to inspect the page in the typewriter.
"Well the secretarial pool is just a little thin down here," growled Price.
Without a word Mel sat down at the desk and pulled her chair up close to the Royal. Looking at Price's notes, she began to hammer out words on the typewriter with incredible speed. Price and Janice both leaned forward in amazement as her fingers flew over the well worn keys. After two minutes she stopped and looked up expectantly at Price.
"Way-ul, Mister Price? Can yuh use me?'
"My God!" exclaimed Price. "I've never seen anybody..." He pointed to a steel filing cabinet in the corner of the tent. "Uhh, can you file?"
Oh, for goodness sake, of course. An' I can take dictation an' I'm very good at bookkeeping too." She smiled sheepishly and said, "Yuh might say I have many skills."
For some reason this struck a chord deep inside Janice. Where have I heard that before?
"All right, I guess I can use you," Price admitted. "You can get started organizing this mess. I'll pay you forty a week."
"Why, thank you, sir," said Mel.
Price stepped to the open flap of the tent. "Carter!"
"Yes, Mister Price?"
Without taking his eyes off his foreman Price jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Take the little one there out to the north slope and put her to work."
"But Mister Price, that's--"
"Do as you're told!" barked Price. "And make sure she earns her pay."
Carter nodded and waved for Janice to follow him. "Come along, you," he said gruffly.
Janice cast a glance at Mel and gave her the barest hint of a wink and tossed her the gas mask pouch. "Take care of that," she said.
As she passed Price he caught her by the arm. "Just remember, Covington, I'll be watching you."
Janice merely looked at him blankly before following Carter out of the tent. She soon found out why the foreman Carter had protested putting her on the north slope. Digging had not begun there yet because the area was extremely rocky and therefore needed to be cleared off first. Naturally the only way this could be accomplished under such primitive conditions was to do it by hand. She and five others were put to work loading what rocks they could lift into individual hand carts and wheeling them some fifty yards down the hill to a parked truck. Some of these rocks were quite large and it taxed Janice's strength to the limit to get them in the cart.
Having been lead archaeologist on all her excavations over the last three years, she had not been required to do very much, if any, heavy labor. As a result by noon her back was aching and her hands were covered with scrapes and scratches. Only by fantasizing about how she was going to get even with Price was she able to stagger through that first day.
By contrast Melinda spent that first day in a cool tent sipping tea and lifting nothing heavier than a stapler. After instructing her as to what she should do, Price had gone out for most of the day. Uncertain as to what she should be doing to help, she merely carried out her orders and waited out the day. She would have to wait for Janice to fill her in as to how she could help.
At exactly five o' clock Carter blew a whistle and work was halted. "Thank you, sweet Mother of Jesus!" Janice whispered breathlessly. As they made their way down the hill she felt someone tap her on the shoulder. It was Carter.
"For a little gal, ya did good, Covington."
"Thanks," mumbled Janice.
"Is it true?"
"Is what true?"
"You know, that you're an archaeologist," replied Carter.
"Not here I'm not," Janice said ruefully, arching her aching back. "Here I'm just a rock monkey."
"Well maybe you won't be for long," Carter said.
"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Janice.
"Well I admit I don't know much about this sort of thing, you understand. I'm just here to supervise the labor."
"That's Price for you," sneered Janice. "On my digs I supervise the labor."
All I know is we have been here for about a month now and as you can see we don't seem to be gettin' much done."
"So I've noticed," said Janice. It was true. As far as she could tell they had not done much more than lay down a few grid lines and perform some preparatory work. She knew if this had been her site she would have had half that hillside excavated by now. Price was not known for his sloppiness. Something was definitely amiss here--something that could not be blamed on a shortage of labor.
"Maybe Mister Price will change his mind and ask you to assist him," said Carter.
It was the almost hopeful way he said it that rattled the alarm bell in Janice's head. Be careful here, Covington, she told herself. I think this one's taken a liking to you.
"Well you never know," she said aloud.
Carter smiled at her and said, "I hope so. Now come on, I'll show you where to sleep."
By the time Carter led her to her quarters, an old tent one fourth the size of Price's, Melinda was already there. Upon seeing Janice she put her hand to her mouth and softly gasped, "Oh, my!"
"Hi, Honey, I'm home," Janice grinned wearily.
Mel rushed to her and led her over to one of the cots and sat her down. "Golly, Jan, you look awful."
"Then you can imagine how I feel,"
Mel looked at Janice's blistered and bloodied hands and shook her head sadly. "That Price fella is no gentleman. Imagine takin' advantage of his position like that."
"I'm okay. I'm just...tired, that's all. And besides, we wanted to get in remember?"
"I suppose you're right," said Melinda reluctantly. "But still, there was no call for him to be such a jerk." She turned Janice sideways on the cot and placed her hands on the woman's shoulders. "Here, let me just..." She began to massage the archaeologist's neck and back.
Janice felt Mel's strong fingers dig into her flesh and press against her aching muscles. Just like that, much of the soreness began to melt away--not all of it but enough to make it bearable. "Mmmm," she moaned, "that feels good. How do you do that?"
"It's something my Daddy taught me," said Mel modestly. "He said he learned it when he was in the Far East."
"So, how's your elbow?" inquired Janice.
"Aww it's okay. We Pappases are known for our ability to recuperate. Now let me help you." She gently pushed Janice down onto the cot and began to untie her boots. "Ja-yun?"
"What is it you want me to do while we're here?"
Janice had been thinking about that. "Do you have access to all his files?" she asked.
"There's this old trunk that he keeps locked," replied Melinda.
"Figures. Okay..." Janice grunted softly as she shifted her position on the cot. "...here's what you do. Look for unusual stuff."
"Unusual? Like what?"
"You know, things that don't belong here. Suspicious characters, people that look out of place. You've been on enough digs now to know what belongs and what doesn't."
Just on a hunch Janice added, "Try to find out just how much high explosive has been brought in here."
"If ya do find something be sure you don't write anything down. Try to memorize it put it back."
"I will," Mel promised.
"We're going to find out..." Janice let out a huge yawn. "...what this SOB is up to if it kills us."
At the rate you're goin' it just might, thought Melinda. She leaned over and kissed the woman on the cheek and then stood up. "I reckon I'd better go see what they've cooked up for supper. You jes' take it easy, Jan. I won't be long."
"Mmmm," Janice murmured, almost asleep."
Melinda stepped out of the tent and took a look around the campsite.
Ever since her arrival she had felt a sense of uneasiness about the place. "Jan,"
she said, under her breath, "I sure hope you know what you're doing."
Over the next week Janice and Melinda worked diligently at their jobs, all the while keeping their eyes and ears open. From the very first day Janice noticed Price was not spending as much time at the site as he ought to have been. By the end of the week she saw his routine varied little from day to day. Up early, give morning instructions to Carter, leave about 10 A.M., stay gone for several hours, and back by five o' clock or so. Janice didn't need Sam Spade to tell her Price had his finger in another pie someplace else. But where? And more importantly, why?
One side benefit to all this was that Janice found by concentrating on the problem of Price and his "pies" she was able to block out much of the pain her arms and back were experiencing. On the second day Carter had given her an old pair of leather gloves and while they were a big help, they tended to make her hands sweat thus causing her abrasions to sting.
As to Carter himself, Janice found she was treading a very thin line. It was as plain as the glasses on Mel's face he was interested in her. Janice Covington was no stranger to sex. She had been to bed with her share of men. As with most other things some had been better than others but even the best of them had left her feeling...empty somehow. She sometimes wondered why she had never really been attracted to a woman before and had come to the conclusion that one can't become attracted to something that is not there. She did not have much opportunity to make contact with other females in her line of work. Not until that sweet, shy, Southerner took possession of her heart had she known what was missing .
Janice Covington was no fool. She was well aware that out here in the middle of nowhere it was easy for a man, or a woman, to become lonely. She had experienced it herself. Carter seemed to be a nice enough fellow but whether he was genuinely interested in her or just wanted to get between her legs was something she had not figured out yet. But she would. Personally she hoped it was the latter for it would play much lighter on her conscience. Like it or not she was going to have to string him along a little in the hope she might glean from him some little bit of information that could be used against Price. All week he had been making excuses to talk to her, to be near her. Excuses like correcting the work of others working near her or giving her special little jobs to do. Janice could see he was in reality merely trying to work up his courage. Finally, as she trudged down the hill on a muggy Saturday evening, he did.
"Yeah?" she replied, mopping off the back of her neck with her handkerchief.
"I uh, I saw Mister Price today and he ahh..well..."
"He what?" pressed Janice. Something is up, she thought.
"He, he said it was okay for you to start drivin' the truck next week."
"Oh yeah?" Already her back felt better. She smiled at him and said, "This was your doing wasn't it?"
Carter grinned boyishly and looked at his feet. "Well, maybe a little. There ain't no cause for someone as nice as you to be out here sweatin' like a plow horse all day."
Like Melinda, Carter was roughly her age. But also like Melinda, he was nowhere near as worldly. He was easy to read. She had now her answer. Carter was just trying to be a nice guy. She knew this was going to make her job more difficult. If she thought he was just one more guy looking for a piece of ass she would rip out his guts and not think twice about it but this would have to be handled more delicately now--in more ways than one.
"Well thank you, Ca--"
"Dave," Carter blurted out.
"Thank you...Dave," said Janice. She turned in the direction of her tent.
Here it comes, she thought. "Yeah?"
"Uhh as you know, we've got tomorrow off and I was wondering it you'd care to, you know, maybe let me show you around a little?"
"Oh?" She was very careful not to seem too interested.
"Yeah. We could go into Golfito for lunch and then maybe drive to the coast--it's not that far from here."
Steady, Kid, she told herself. Don't take the bait too soon. "Gee, I don't...know," she replied. "See, my friend...Mel, she..." She let her voice trail off and saw the man's face fall just a little. That's enough, she thought. "Oh what the hell," she said, smiling. Mel's a big girl. Besides, she will be glad to get rid of me for awhile."
"Great!" said Carter, absolutely beaming. "So it's a date then?"
"If ya want to call it that," she answered, pulling up one corner of her mouth in a little half-smile. "Yeah." She then turned again and started to walk toward her tent.
"I'll be by at about nine," said Carter, calling after.
The archaeologist raised her right hand up to acknowledge him. She made a mental note to retire early because she knew tomorrow could be a crucial day for them and she wanted all her wits about her. As she neared the tent she saw Melinda standing outside the tent waiting for her. Uhhhh boy, she thought. I just hope Mel will understand.
"I don't understand, Janice."
Janice wet her peeling lips and said, "Look, Mel, it's like this. I think Carter might be able to point us in the right direction here if we just sort of, you know, nudge him a little."
"We?" Mel huffed, pointing her nose slightly in the air. "You mean you." Her mind was telling her Janice was right but her heart was telling her something else.
Janice slumped her shoulders in exasperation and settled in closer to Mel on the side of the cot. "All right--me. God, what are you getting so worked up for? It's not like I'm gonna fuck him, damn it. We're just going for a drive, that's all."
"I never said you were going to fu-- do that," Mel replied curtly, through tight lips.
Janice knew her well enough to know she never talked that way unless she was very upset. "C'mon, Mel," she said soothingly, "don't act like this."
Melinda Pappas turned to her friend, her nose again a little up in the air. "Go ahead, Janice," she said. "You go on your little date. But don't expect me to jes' sit around here and pine for you to come home."
Janice raised up both her palms in incredulity and said, "Where the hell you gonna go, Mel? The jungle?"
Melinda tilted her head almost to her shoulder and replied airily, "Oh I don't know. That Mister Price might be willin' to take me somewhere."
Janice knew Melinda was only kidding (Wasn't she?) but even so, this was too much. "Ohh no," she said. "Not him. Anybody but him."
"Golly, Jan," she asked innocently, "are you sayin' you can go out galavantin' around but lil' ole faithful Mel has tuh stay here all day and do nothing but sweat?"
"Damn it, Mel. Cut it out will ya?"
Melinda looked at her slyly and said, "Oh all right. I guess that was a low blow."
"Darn right it was," Janice said. "You had me going there for a moment. I thought I was going to have to use my secret weapon on you."
"What sort of--secret weapon?"
"This," replied her lover.
To Melinda's utter astonishment Janice looked at her dolefully and immediately began to produce huge tears. "Land sake's, Jan, how do you do that?"
"Beats me. I've always been able to do it. I can turn 'em on and off at will almost."
Melinda gingerly reached up and wiped one of the tears off Janice's cheek with the knuckle of her finger. For once the belle was practically speechless. However she did manage to whisper a soft "I'll be damned."
Janice smiled and leaned over to kiss the still wide-eyed woman.
Just before their lips met she whispered, "Never in a million years."
The next morning found Melinda waving good bye to her friend as she and Carter pulled away in the old Ford panel truck they used for bringing in supplies.
"Bye. Have fun."
She stood there watching until the truck had disappeared from view. She gave out a soft sigh and stepped through the open flap into her tent. Darn it, she thought, why is it Janice is always the one that gets to go off and do things and I'm the one who has to stay behind? Why can't one time, just one time, I be the one that makes things happen? With a sad, rueful whisper she answered her own question. "Because you don't know what you're doin', Mel Pappas, that's why."
Sometimes when her companion was not around, Mel wondered what it would be like to be a leader instead of a follower. Every now and then she even went so far as to fantasize that she was the one who made all the really important decisions. She would even go so far as to put voice to it, acting out both parts with more than a little relish.
"Janice, National Geographic called today and offered me a choice of excavating either one of two sites for them."
"Golly, Mel," her friend would say. "Where?"
"Either Ceylon or Egypt. So what do you think?"
"Oh for goodness sake," Janice would reply, "that's an easy one. Egypt is the prize plum of archaeology and Ceylon is a thousand miles from nowhere."
Then would come the most delicious moment of her fantasy. In her best imitation of the woman she loved so much, Mel would say, "You're right, Kid. It is an easy choice--we go to Ceylon."
Then she would have Janice sputtering, "But...but..."
"Yeah," Melinda would say, cutting her off, "Egypt has been done to death. Thanks for your help, Jan." This silly little bit of whimsy never failed to bring a smile to Melinda's face.
Mel Pappas had little problem with self-esteem anymore. She knew she was smart. She knew she was very attractive and a lot tougher than most people perceived her to be. She did not feel inferior to anybody. The one thing she did not have was something that Janice had in spades--that certain forcefulness that allowed one to say, "Here I am, world, like it or not." And hardly a day went by without bringing an illustration of the differences in them. If somebody short-changed Mel a dollar likely as not she would merely accept it and go on but not Janice. No, not Janice Covington. She would rip the clerk up one side and down the other for such an offense. Mel had seen her say things and do things that she could not see herself doing if she lived to be a million. While she did not approve of all her lover did--she did have a temper--she nevertheless wished she could be more like her when it came to asserting herself. But she also was aware of the painful fact that some people are just more forward than others and while it is easy for others to tell one to be more aggressive, the fact of the matter is it is never that simple. It would be like asking Janice to come to afternoon tea in a designer dress.
Melinda lay down on the cot and stared up at the roof of the tent. All kidding aside, she found the thought of Janice--her Janice--out with that Carter fellow a little bit vexing. She just could not help it. What if he tries to kiss her? Worse still--what it he tries to... Oh, God, she thought. She didn't even want to think about that.
"Melinda Pappas," she rebuked herself, "you're being silly. Janice is not gonna let that guy do anything." But from waters deep within her soul two little words floated to the surface. Is she?
"And so the other guy says, that was no lady--that was my wife!"
Janice laughed at the old joke she had heard so many times before. She and Carter had now been gone for almost six hours. Their first stop had been Golfito where they had a surprisingly good meal and where she bought what she hoped would be a nice peace offering to Mel. Janice knew the woman was none too happy about what she was doing and she really could not fault her. After all, if it had been the other way around...well she could not rule out causing bodily harm to any bastard she thought was trying to take Mel away from her.
For the past three hours or so they had been traversing the countryside on the mostly dirt roads just talking. For both of them it felt good to get away from the oppressive monotony of the work site.
"So, do you know any jokes?" Carter asked.
Did Janice Covington know jokes? When one had been in the number of bars she had over the years and worked around rough men as much as she had one would have had to have been a absolute moron not to know a goodly number of jokes. She knew hundreds of them. Unfortunately most of them were highly sexual in nature and she didn't want to tell one of these lest Carter perceive it as some kind of "come on" signal. After racking her brain for a moment or two she came across a short one that could be altered enough.
"Yeah," she said. "I got one. Hitler walks into this bar and sits down beside Mussolini. Old Benito sees him and says, 'Hey, Sickelgruber, what's got four arms, four legs and eats shit?' Adolph says, 'Holy shhhtuka! Vat?' Mussolini says, 'You and your brother.' Well! Naturally Der Fuehrer flips his swastika and says, 'Vee see if you shhtill laff ven I blitzkrieg your ass, Pizza Boy.' So here the bartender breaks in and says, 'Hey, Pal, it's just a gag. Come on, lighten up.' So Hitler calms down and says, 'Okey dokey, I'm appeased. I'll get the next zee next vun zat valks in here.' Right then Tojo comes in and sits down on the other side of Hitler. He says, 'Hey, Four Eyes, what's got four arms, four legs, and eats shit?' Tojo says he doesn't know. Hitler says, 'Me and my brother.'"
Carter broke into a very big grin. All those looks, he thought, and a sense of humor too. Janice, I like you. "You tell a good joke," he said aloud.
"I'm a little rusty," Janice said modestly. "Those things always make Mel uncomfortable so I don't tell them anymore."
Carter saw this remark as the opening he had been waiting for. He had not failed to notice how many times Janice had mentioned the other woman's name during the course of their time together. "Ahh, I was wondering. How long have you known your friend?"
"Mel? Oh, close to two years now."
"You guys must be pretty close to travel around together like you do."
Janice could just hear the AWWOOOOGA! going off in her subconscious mind. She eyed Carter a little sharply and said, "I can't speak for her but she's the best friend I've ever had."
"She uhh, she seems rather nice," observed Carter.
"Mel?" Janice snorted. "Dave, to say she is nice is like saying Crosby can sing a little bit. Mel is a hell of a lot more than 'nice.'" Try wonderful, breathtaking, perfect...God's gift to an undeserving sinner, she thought.
Carter, sensing her indignance, decided to drop the subject. He did not know why but he felt what he thought to be a hint of defensiveness on her part. Why? he wondered.
Janice also felt it was time to talk about something else. "Dave, don't you find it odd that Price stays gone from the site so much?"
"He is a pretty busy guy," Carter answered.
"Well he's constantly having to go into San José to deal with the underwriters for this project and then he has that other site to manage too."
This bit of news struck Janice like one of Kapitanleutenant Beck's torpedoes. "Oh, he's got another one?" she asked nonchalantly.
"Yeah, bigger than ours, I think."
"Have you ever been to it?" she asked.
"Nahh. It's being handled by a whole different crew. That's why we're always so short-handed at our place. Mister Price is always siphoning off the best workers to the other site."
"It that so?"
"Yep. Heck, they even have a bulldozer there."
Ding! As Elmer Fudd would say, "There's something awfuwwy scwewy goin' on awound here." she thought. Why the hell would Price need a bulldozer anyway?
"Umm, just where is this other site anyway?" Janice asked, innocently she hoped.
"Not far from here actually," came the reply. "In fact we'll go right by it on our way home."
"Could we stop and see it?"
"I, I don't know he replied haltingly. "Mister Price...he doesn't..."
"Look, I don't want to get you into trouble with Price," said Janice. "I know what a jerk he can be."
"I gather you two have had your differences in the past," said Carter.
"You could say that," Janice allowed. "But right now I'm just needing the work and if he's willing to take me on then who am I to hold a grudge? So, what are you doing in Costa Rica anyway?"
"You mean as opposed to being in the military, don't cha?" asked Carter.
"Well now that you mention it..."
"I got turned down for the Marines," he said. He pointed to his left leg and said, "Bad knee. I hurt it playin' football in high school. I can get around on it all right but I can't run a lick."
For Janice it was hard to decipher whether he was sorry about that or not.
"Anyway," he continued, "I couldn't see myself working in some defense plant for the duration so when this came up I jumped at the chance."
Suddenly Carter slowed the truck down and then stopped.
"Is something wrong?" Janice asked, knowing full well there wasn't.
Carter pointed to a field on the opposite side of the road and said, "There. It's over there."
"You mean, the other site?" asked Janice, desperately trying to remain calm.
"Yeah. It's supposed to be a few hundred yards back off the road so you really can't see anything from here."
Janice leisurely scanned the field looking for a road of some kind of but all she saw was a place where the weeds and tall grass looked as if they had been ridden down. She knew that one way or another she would have to check the place out. Suddenly she found herself wanting to get back to Melinda.
"I think it's time we started back. I'm beginning to feel a little woozy."
"Gee, Janice, is there something I can do?" Carter asked anxiously.
"Nah. It's not your fault. I shouldn't have eaten that fish for lunch that's all. It always does this to me." She felt a little badly for pulling such a juvenile stunt and she was not quite sure if Carter bought it but she really had had enough. She missed Mel.
Carter eased the truck back out onto the road and forty-five minutes later they were pulling up in front of Janice's tent.
"You're sure there's nothing I can do for you?" Carter asked again.
"No," replied Janice, swallowing hard for effect. She turned the handle on the door latch and looked at the young man. "Look, Dave, I had a very good time...really." She opened the door and slid off the seat onto the ground.
"Oh, Janice? You forgot your package," said Carter.
"Oh yeah. Thanks." Janice took the bundle from him and pushed the door closed.
"See ya in the morning," said Carter.
"I'll be there," said Janice. She stepped back from the truck to allow Carter to pull away. Not a bad guy, she thought, watching the truck disappear on the other side of the camp. She stood there for a moment and then entered the tent. "Mel, look I--"
But Melinda Pappas was nowhere to be seen. Janice's first thought was, Jesus Christ she really did it. Her fears were soon calmed, however, by the sound of Mel's soft humming. The woman had merely been to the outhouse. A couple of seconds later the long, lean figure stepped through the flap and into the tent. "Why, hiya, Jan!" she gushed.
"Hiya, Melinda," she said softly. Only now did she realize just how much she had missed the woman.
Mel tilted her head to one side and looked at the woman quizzically. "Why, Jan, what's the matter. Is there something wrong?"
"Not now," came the reply. "Why do you ask?"
"Well it's jes' that you never call me Melinda."
"Hmm? Oh that. Well it was just a slip of the tongue," said Janice. Melinda, what a beautiful name. She picked up her bundle and held it out in front of her. "Here, I have something for ya."
"Oh my. For meee? What is it?"
"I guess you'll just have to open it, won't you?" Janice replied.
Mel undid the string and eagerly tore off the paper. "Ohh, Jan," she sighed softly. "This is marvelous."
In her hands was a copy of "Selected Poems of Robert Frost"--in English no less.
"Ya like it?"
"Oh boy, do I?" Mel looked at her friend and beamed, "Janice Covington, you never cease to uhmaze me."
"Kid," Janice said, returning her smile, "sometimes I amaze myself."
In the gloom of the tent the two of them hugged tightly and sat down on Mel's cot.
"I love you," the archaeologist whispered in a voice so low it could hardly be heard.
The tall beauty blinked hard and in that sweet drawl of hers
replied, "Janice, you know my heart belongs to you...now and forever." She then
gleefully rubbed her hands together and said, "Now, tell me all about your date."
"Now you're sure you don't need Pablo to go with you?"
Janice took the roughly drawn map from Carter and tucked it into her shirt pocket. "I'll find it all right," she assured him. She was about to make her first trip off site in the truck and Carter was anxious that she be sure of the route. Already it was almost noon and she had spent the better part of the morning hauling truck loads of rocks to a remote part of the site. That is, until the generator that produced electricity for the camp cracked a piston. As usual Price was nowhere to be seen but Carter knew he would undoubtedly place a high priority on getting that engine overhauled. As a result he and two other men had just finished hoisting it into the back of Janice's truck with a block and tackle and another man was busy making it secure.
"Now remember," said Carter, "be sure to tell Ernesto--that's the guy's name--that this is for Señor Price and that he wants a rush job on it."
"Right," nodded Janice.
The man that had been at work securing the gen-set dropped down off the truck and nodded to Carter.
"Okay," he said to Janice, "you're all set."
The archaeologist turned the key and depressed the starter switch located on the floorboard. The engine in the old Ford was not as finely tuned as Guevara's so she had to let it turn over several times before it finally started. She shook her head at Carter and he grinned back at her.
"Yeah I know," he said. "It's a piece of shit."
She depressed the clutch pedal and moved the floor shift into low gear.
"I wouldn't go too fast if I were you," warned Carter. "Especially with that load on the back. You saw how bad some these roads are in some places."
Janice nodded and eased the clutch out. As she began to pull away, Mel breathlessly ran up to the truck.
"What's the matter?" Janice asked, stopping the truck.
Mel handed her what looked to be two sandwiches wrapped in wax paper and said, "It's a long way tuh Puerto Cortes," she said. "You might get hungry." Janice's indifference to food was forever a cause of concern for Mel.
Janice smiled and patted her rock hard tummy. "Why, Mel, haven't you heard? The scarecrow look is in this year."
Mel was not amused. She clamped her hand around Janice's wrist. "Eat," she said, squeezing hard.
"I will, I will," Janice assured her. "What is it anyway?"
"It's canned tunafish," came the reply.
"Oh goody," Janice said, rolling her eyes. "My favorite." She smiled warmly at the tall beauty and said, "I'll see ya tonight."
Mel released her grip and patted Janice her on the arm. "Be careful."
Janice winked at her and nodded. Mel stepped back and Janice
again eased the truck forward. In a few minutes she was gone leaving Mel standing
there wishing they were both in that canopy bed back at home in Annapolis. After
sighing softly she went back to work.
An hour later the belle sat there with her long legs propped on her little table staring at Price's trunk. I'd give a peach pie to know what's in there, she thought, as she idly rotated her pencil between her teeth. She cast a guarded eye toward the tent flap and then stood up. After once again making sure no one was around she nonchalantly strolled her way over to Price's side of the tent. All week she had been discreetly riffling through Price's papers in the hope she might find something Janice could use. As a proper Southern lady she really did not care for this sort of thing but if that was what Janice wanted her to do then, by golly, that was what she would do. So far she had found nothing even remotely incriminating.
She ran her fingers over the trunk and, under her breath said, "My goodness, this old thing is filthy." It looked like it was a hundred years old. How can I get this thing open without Price knowing it? she wondered. In what she knew was a futile gesture of wishful thinking she grasped the lid and gave it a fierce tug. Naturally nothing happened. Then she remembered something she saw in an old movie once. At first she thought, Naah. But what did she have to lose. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a bobby pin. While she never used them herself Janice sometimes did and she was always losing them so Mel usually kept a couple in her pocket for her. Straightening it out, she muttered, "Mister Chan, I sure hope you're right."
She inserted the pin into the old lock and began to jiggle it around. To her complete surprise she heard a satisfying click. "Ooh my," she softly gasped.
Mel shifted her body around to where she could keep an eye on the opening in the tent and quickly plunged her hand into the drawer. There was nothing in the trunk to organize the papers so they merely lay flat on the bottom. She walked her fingers along the edge of the stack before taking hold of several pages. She shot one more nervous glance at the opening, took a deep breath, and pulled out the thick sheaf. Cradling the sheaf in her left arm, she quickly began to scan through them, stacking them up against her breasts as she went. It was difficult to see very well in the gloomy tent but so far she had found nothing of interest. Bills of sale, old letters, cash receipts, and other mundane records were all she saw.
"Hmph," she snorted, "I almost gave myself a heart attack for this?"
Satisfied there was nothing in the pile she could use Mel replaced the stack of papers and picked up another one. At first she thought the pile another dead end but, as she neared the bottom of the stack a document caught her eye. It was worded somewhat ambiguously in Spanish and she didn't understand every word but what she could make out troubled her. She glanced again at the tent opening before, in express disregard of Janice's instructions, quickly writing down a word she found on the paper--a word she did not know the definition of. As she replaced the papers the tips of her fingers brushed up against what she thought to be a packet of some sort.
After extracting it from the trunk she learned it was, in fact, an envelope, the kind with the metal tabs that allow it to be securely closed over and over again. After one more glance at the door Mel undid the tabs on the envelope and pulled out its contents. It was a small book with a reddish orange cover.
"Oh my!" she gasped, placing a hand to her cheek. A cold chill ran up her spine and she felt her throat becoming very dry. For on the front cover of the little book was a black eagle perched on an encircled symbol that all freedom loving peoples had come to loathe. Contrary to common belief this symbol was not the creation of some propaganda machine for it had been used by some religions and even by certain tribes of the American Indians for centuries. However this former emblem of peace had by now come to represent everything that was evil in man--war, racial hatred, mass slaughter of innocents, rape of individuality. These and a thousand other crimes were enthusiastically, even gleefully, carried out with incredible attention to detail by warped men who believed whole heartedly that the flag under which they goose-stepped, the flag with the crooked cross--the swastika--was destined to be the terrifying banner under which they, the "Master Race" would subjugate those less pure that themselves into a New World Order.
It was no wonder Melinda Pappas felt to uneasy just looking at it. Her hands were now shaking a little and she almost dropped the book before she managed to open it. The belle half expected Hitler himself to leap off the pages and grab her but all she saw were groups and groups of numbers in neat columns, letters of the alphabet, and more numbers with strange symbols beside them. As she leafed through the pages she wondered what the thing could possibly be used for. It was not a technical manual as far as she could tell. What then? There was no doubt about it now. Price was clearly up to something rotten. But what?
Mel's concentration was broken by the sound of a harsh voice nearing the tent. Price!
Oh God! she thought. She quickly slipped the little book back in the envelope and folded over the tabs. To her horror one of them broke off. After replacing the envelope back in the trunk she hastily stepped to the center of the tent and tried to look as nonchalant as possible. She no sooner reached her destination when the ominous figure of Price appeared at the front of the tent.
"Why...hello, Mister Price," Mel squeaked as Price entered.
Price merely grunted and sat down at his desk. "Did you get my report typed up?" he asked gruffly.
"Why uh, yes. Yes I did." She picked the document up from her little table and brought it to him. "I must say, I just did manage to finish it before that generator thing went bad."
"You would have finished it outside then," replied Price. Stupid woman, he thought. He did not even bother to look at the woman but merely sat there scanning her work.
"Well I reckon I never thought of tha-yat," she drawled meekly.
Of course you didn't, thought Price. Why are women so incapable of applying logic?
You Nahh-zee bastard, thought Mel, sensing his smugness. She had been uncomfortable around Price from the very start but now she found she was disgusted by the mere sight of him. Traitor! For a brief moment she felt an urge to take Price by the neck and crush his Adam's Apple. She knew where this came from. From what she could learn of her illustrious ancestor, Xena, she knew the woman had a special hatred for those who were treacherous. "Death to traitors in our midst!"
When he was finished Price folded the report up lengthwise and placed it in his ever present leather case. "Miss Pappas, my notes please"
"Oh golly, I'm sorry. I forgot." Mel quickly retrieved Price's notes from her little table and handed them over to him. Price took the notes and walked his fingers over the edges of each page as if he were counting them--which of course, he was. "I assure you they are all there," said Mel.
Price looked up at her with an expression totally devoid of emotion and replied, "Of course." With that he abruptly stood up and put on his hat. "I'm going to San Juan," he said. "My associates are very anxious to hear how were are progressing."
Uh huh, surrre, Mel thought bitterly.
He reached into his pocket and extracted a folded sheet of paper. "I may not be back today," he said. "Here are Carter's instructions for tomorrow."
"But he was just outside," said Mel.
"I didn't see him and I don't have time to look for him," Price answered impatiently as he strode out of the tent.
She was just about to sit back down when Price stuck his head back inside the tent. "I won't need you for anything else today," he said sharply, startling her. "You can have the rest of the day off."
After he was gone Mel stood there gaping at the portal and ran a hand through her jet black hair. Now what in the world was that all about? she wondered. To her way of thinking an act of kindness from a cold fish like Price was something one should be suspicious of, not grateful for. As she prepared to leave the tent she happened to cast a glance over to the trunk she had so recently been rummaging through. To her horror she now noticed the lid to the trunk was not completely closed. In her haste she had left it open about a quarter of an inch. "Oh my," she gasped, putting her hand over her mouth. "Ohhh my God." Three quick steps and the thing was closed but the damage had already been done. Did Price notice? Oh God, what if he did? He'll know it was me.
What was she going to do? And more to the point, what was Janice going to do when she found out? For Mel sadly knew she would have to tell her. Would she be angry? Mel Pappas why do you always screw things up? Can't you do a simple thing like close a lid? Mel took off her glasses and rubbed her temples. "Calm down now," she murmured. "It's most likely he didn't see it or else he would have named it." Yeah that's it, she thought hopefully. Price didn't notice it. But despite her best attempts to convince herself otherwise, Mel could not help but worry.
She stepped outside the tent into the bright afternoon sunlight. She wandered back to her tent totally oblivious to the hustle going on all around her. I screwed up, she kept repeating over and over in her mind. I screwed up.
When she reached the tent she immediately went inside and sat down on her cot. For the first time she considered the possibility that a good stiff belt of something 100 proof might not be such a bad thing. Maybe more than one. There was no denying it, Mel Pappas was just plain scared. To her it seemed Janice had already been gone a lifetime. She was alone. What would she do if Price came back and confronted her? Deny it, of course. But Mel knew she was not a very good liar. Even when she told teeny fibs to Janice the woman could always tell.
She worked her way to the end of her cot farthest away from the opening and positioned herself facing out. A grim thought crossed her mind. Should she get Janice's gun? She did know how to use one because Janice had a long time ago more or less forced her to learn. After mulling it over for a few moments she decided against it. She doubted she could shoot anyone--even Price.
So Melinda Pappas just sat there and waited, hoping the next voice she heard would be Janice's.
However at that very moment Janice and her voice were just finishing up their business in Puerto Cortés. "So you say it's gonna take at least a week to get a new set of pistons?"
Ernesto nodded, "And two more days to install them." He broke into a toothless grin and added, "Come back in two weeks."
"Come on," said Janice. "You ought to be able to put those in in less than a day. This is supposed to be a rush job remember?"
"This is a rush job," said Ernesto. "Otherwise Señor Carter would have to wait a month."
"Okay," said Janice. She didn't really care if it took him two years but she had to make it look good in case somebody got nosy. "Ya got me. I'll tell Carter two weeks."
Janice nodded to him and climbed back into the truck.
Americanos, thought Ernesto, always in such a hurry.
But the only real hurry Janice Covington was in was to return
to the place Carter had shown her the day before.
Ninety minutes later she was there. After pulling off and making certain this was indeed the correct place she turned the truck around and drove back the way she came. Close to five hundred yards later she spied a place where the truck could be driven off the road and hidden. She pulled the truck into a thick stand of bushes and slipped the key into her pocket before making her way back to the road. First listening carefully to make sure no vehicles were approaching she trotted across the narrow road and melted into the dense underbrush. It's about time, she thought, wiping her forehead with her handkerchief. The humidity in the undergrowth was stifling.
For close to half an hour she slowly picked her way through the brush until at last she saw it begin to thin out up ahead. She eased her way a few more feet when suddenly she heard something that made her freeze in her tracks. It was a voice. As far as she could tell it was some distance away but she decided it was better to be safe than sorry. She stood there for a few very tense seconds just holding her breath and slowly swiveling her head from side to side. Satisfied no one was nearby she ever so carefully made her way to the edge of the clearing and once there dropped to one knee. Here the dense undergrowth gave way to a large grassy field. At first she thought she had not made the angle of her approach acute enough for she saw nothing. The she heard the voice again. To her it was like a lighthouse beacon for she now knew where to look.
She got to her feet and carefully moved about fifty yards off to her right along the edge of the clearing. There, about one hundred yards directly across the field, she saw several men milling around idly. Damn, she thought, I wish I had some binoculars. But soon she saw an object that did not need binoculars to be identified. It was Price's car. As it rolled up the men gathered around and she saw Price get out and begin conversing with them. Soon she saw him reach into his pocket and pull out something. It did not take her long to realize what he was holding was money. From the way the men eagerly queued up it was obvious he was paying them. "What the hell are you up to, you bastard?" she mumbled.
For the next ten minutes she observed the men depart as, one by one, they were paid. As last they were all gone leaving only Price remaining. She saw him get into his car and drive in a straight line crossing her line of sight from right to left. Presently she saw him stop, turn the car around, and drive back the way he had come only much, much slower this time. Twice she saw him stop the car, get out, and bend down as if looking for something. Finally he reached his original starting point, got out one more time, and looked back the way he came.
What's he looking at? she puzzled. Price then got back in the car and drove off leaving the place, as far as Janice could tell, totally deserted. Already she had decided to find out just what was over there. She was still not 100 per cent sure the place was unguarded but fortunately for her the approach was well covered by waist high grass. Bending low, she entered the grass and soon wound her way through it to the other side. She listened intently for a few more minutes in an attempt to make certain no one else was around and then crawled out of the grass.
For the first time she saw the object of Price's meticulous scrutiny. It was long and straight, about twenty-five yards wide, and while not paved it was packed down very tightly. To her it was very plain it was not a road and it was surely not anything even remotely connected to archaeological work. Janice Covington knew full well what it was.
"Jesus," she said, under her breath, "it's a fuckin' airstrip!"
It was just after 4:30 when Janice rolled the truck to a halt in front of her tent. Even before she had the door open Mel was bounding out to meet her. "Janice," she whispered urgently. "Janice, thank goodness you're back."
The archaeologist immediately picked up on this sense of urgency in her friend's voice. "What's happened?" she asked the belle.
Mel glanced about nervously and said, "I've got something to tell you."
"Inside," said Janice, tilting her head in the direction of the tent.
Once they were inside Mel described to her the strange book she had seen. "Golly, Jan, what do you think?" she asked upon finishing.
"It's a code book," replied Janice, matter-of-factly.
"A code book?"
"Yeah. It's used to send and receive encrypted radio transmissions. Did you find anything else?"
"Well, there was something else in the book," said Mel. "There was another set of numbers written in pencil on the fly leaf." She picked up her poetry book and, using the pencil she kept for a bookmark, wrote these figures down in it.
"That's exactly what it is," said Janice. She nodded to the figures and said, "Erase that." As Mel complied Janice turned the numbers over and over in her mind. Nine degrees north, that's about where we are, she thought. Eighty degrees west, well that's--
Then it came to her. "My God, Mel," she said in a low voice, "that's the Panama Canal Zone. I'd bet a dollar to a doughnut whatever the hell Price is up to it has something to do with the Canal."
It was then Mel remembered that word. She furrowed her brow and withdrew the scrap of paper from her shirt pocket and unfolded it. "Jan, do you know what this is?"
"Let's see," said Janice, taking the paper.
"Accordin' to what I saw Price has acquired over 2200 pounds of that, whatever it is."
Janice looked down at the scrap of paper and read the word "trinitrotoluene." "Jesus Christ, Mel, that's TNT."
"Yuh mean like, dynamite?" Mel asked.
"It's a hell of a lot more powerful than dynamite," Janice replied grimly. She did not like the direction these clues were leading her at all. Price certainly had not gotten his hands on over a ton of TNT in order to celebrate the Fourth of July. "Mel," she said, "you know that other site Carter told me about?"
"Well it's just like we thought. It's not a dig at all. Price has constructed an airstrip there."
"Golly, Jan, what does it all mean?"
"I'm not quite sure yet," said Janice. "But you can bet your pretty ass it's not good."
Now Melinda figured she had delayed the inevitable long enough. She folded her hands in her lap and looked down at her feet. "Jan, I--I may have done a bad thing," she said meekly.
Despite the gravity of the situation Janice almost had to chuckle upon hearing this. It was inconceivable to the archaeologist that Melinda Pappas could be capable of doing anything "bad."
"What did ya do?" she asked Mel.
"When I heard Price comin' I got in such a rush to replace the book I didn't..." She took a deep breath to gather herself before finishing..."completely close the trunk lid." As she reeled off the last five words Mel winced a little as if expecting the worst. Instead all she got was a gentle hand on her shoulder.
"Don't worry about it," said Janice with a kindly smile. "From what you said I think Price was in too big of a hurry to notice."
"Janice, I'm sooo sorry," Mel blurted out. "I just--"
"It's all right, Mel," Janice assured her, the voice much more tender now. "Look, it took a lot of guts on your part to do what you did. I'm proud of you."
Janice leaned over and ever so lightly kissed the tall beauty on the lips. "Really." Damn it, Mel, she thought, I'm always proud of you.
Melinda broke into that enchanting smile that Janice loved so much. "Ah guess I did help you a little bit, didn't I?"
"More than a little," Janice corrected her. "But I wouldn't go around thinking I was another Mata Hari just yet."
"God, I reckon not," smiled Mel. "After all, look what happened to her."
For perhaps the tenth time that evening Price unfolded his map and went over the details of the plan with his cohorts. As he finished one of his associates, a man named Strolin, gave the mission's two unfortunate principals some very hollow words of encouragement.
"The Fatherland has mercifully allowed you men this chance to redeem your filthy souls. Succeed and your names will forever live gloriously in the annals of the Reich. Fail and..." Strolin conveniently allowed his words to trail off.
For an American like Price used to living in freedom it seemed ludicrous to threaten men who were already condemned to die but to Karl Wessel and Wilhelm Mueller the threat was very real indeed. These two men had been selected with the usual German efficiency to end their lives in fiery explosions thousands of miles away from their homeland instead of by more conventional methods of execution. They had been chosen because both of them were excellent pilots and both of them had been "convicted" of crimes considered among the most abominable by the state; Wessel for being "mad" and Mueller for the simple fact he was a homosexual. In the eyes of the Nazis there was no place for such "imperfect" people in the New World Order.
In Wessel's case his "madness" had been made manifest when he made the mistake of letting the wrong ears hear him speak of his fear that the Nazis were going to lead Germany to ruin. To the Nazis' way of thinking one would surely have to be mad in order to criticize the perfect society they had created. What else could explain dissent? That it had been Wessel's own sister that had reported him was further proof that the man was a dangerous enemy to the state. In Hitler's Germany one could never be certain whose ears were friendly and whose were not.
As for Mueller his fate was particularly ironic because some of the very ones that vilified him during his "trial" as a morally depraved individual were in truth some of the most degenerate men in Germany. Sadists, murderers, sexual predators, these men were drawn to the Nazi Party like green flies to dung. Here their craven pursuits could be carried out under the protection--even auspices--of the of the all powerful police state.
Given their circumstances it would seem Price could be allowed his incredulity at Strolin's threats to two men already doomed to die. However most Americans, even one such as Price, could not possibly understand just how deeply the slimy tentacles of National Socialism reached into the daily fabric of ordinary Germans' lives. Yes Wessel and Mueller were in effect dead men already but they would nevertheless do as they were ordered. How could they not? They knew all too well the consequences of refusing to obey.
That their sentences would be summarily carried out was the least of them. The real teeth in Strolin's threat was the dark implication that their entire families would be rounded up and hauled of to a concentration camp should they fail to cooperate.
"We will not fail, Herr Strolin," said Wessel quietly.
"Good," snapped Strolin. Though supposedly a banana grower he was in reality the chief of German espionage for Central America. It had been he who had conceived the plan that was now within a few hours of being brought to fruition.
Had Janice Covington been there she would have taken little
solace in knowing her deductions were correct. The objective of the Nazi plot
was the Panama Canal.
When most people think of the Panama Canal they usually form an image of one continuous gash running across the Isthmus of Panama. Indeed the Canal is often referred to as the "Big Ditch." However only the Gaillard Cut, an approximately eight mile long channel, can be called a proper canal. The remainder of the fifty-one mile long canal is made up of two lakes: the huge Gatun Lake extending over about two thirds of the Isthmus, and the much smaller Miraflores Lake on the Pacific side of the canal. Gatun Lake was formed by the construction of a dam across the Chagres River adjacent to the Gatun Locks. At the time the canal was built Gatun Lake was the largest man made lake in the world. An oddity of the canal is, because it runs from northwest to southeast, the sun sets on the Pacific entrance to the canal before it does on the Atlantic side.
The canal was opened in 1914 and by using it instead of sailing around Cape Horn a ship traveling from New York to San Francisco saves almost eight thousand miles. Four and a half million cubic yards of concrete went into the construction of the canal's dams and three sets of locks. Although the largest of these lock gates are seven feet thick and weigh some 730 tons, they are so delicately balanced a twenty-five horsepower motor can swing them.
Ever since the canal was opened a major concern for the Americans has been the Gatun Dam. This huge earthen dam is made up of two wings and is nearly a half mile wide at the base but tapers to a width of one hundred feet at its crest, rising about twenty feet above the normal level of Gatun Lake. If this dam was somehow destroyed the huge Gatun Lake would drain rendering the canal unusable. Even if the dam could be rebuilt it would take many years for the lake to refill from the surrounding watersheds.
All this was not lost on Heinrich Strolin. Since even before Germany declared war on the United States he had given considerable thought to the destruction of the dam and how best to accomplish this. The reason for his fixation on this idea was twofold. First it would place quite an added burden not only on Allied shipping but the United States Navy as well. As the majority of the Navy's dry docks and shipyards were located on the East coast, the neutralization of the Panama Canal would mean a much longer turnaround for those ships damaged in combat in the Pacific that had to return to the navy yards in Brooklyn and Philadelphia for repairs. Strolin had correctly forecast that the port facilities at the great naval base at Pearl Harbor would not be able to handle the large number of American ships that would suffer damage in the bitter fight with Japan. While none of this would benefit Germany directly it would nonetheless be of great strategic value to her Axis partner and might even make Nippon more amenable to any German claims in the Pacific after the successful conclusion of the war
The second and, as far as Strolin was concerned, more important reason was that it would finally call the attention of those in Berlin to the abilities of one Heinrich Strolin. Since being ordered to Central America in the spring of 1938 he had brooded over how to extricate himself from what he considered to be a dead end assignment. He felt the great events of the day were passing him by and he chafed at knowing he was not part of them. His subversive colleagues had been instrumental in the Anschluss of Austria. They had also helped to topple Czechoslovakia in early 1939 and had played a key role in the fall of Norway in 1940. In the meantime his biggest sacrifice for the Fatherland had been being bitten by a tarantula while inspecting bananas. For a man as ambitious as Strolin it was like being slowly suffocated.
The only way out as he saw it was to do something. Something spectacular. Something that would make those pencil pushers in Berlin sit up and take notice of a bright, aggressive, and extremely opportunistic young man. That something would be the destruction of the Panama Canal. By late 1941 he had already hit upon a plan. Two planes, packed with high explosives and diesel fuel, and piloted by either volunteers or prisoners would time their flight to appear over the Gatun Dam just after dawn and then ram into the spillway of the great dam. As to whether it would work or not he had spoken to several engineers and had come away with differing opinions. Some said yes, it would work and others said no. To Strolin it did not really matter. What would matter would be whether he could pull the actual attack off. If after that the canal happened to survive it would be most regrettable but either way his star would be brightened a hundred fold. What did he have to lose? All Germany would be out was a few thousand marks and a couple of expendable men. In any event he hoped he would be viewed as a doer and as someone worthy of a more prestigious post--maybe even the United States itself.
The last real problem he had to overcome, that of providing sufficient cover for his operation, had been solved upon his introduction to a certain John Price by another German agent. Because of his known affinity for National Socialism the esteemed Price had been at first carefully cultivated by a series of operatives and Nazi sympathizers. Upon meeting him Strolin found him to be a somewhat naive individual.
Price was a man dedicated to his work but also one concerned about state of affairs in the world. He had seen the turmoil and unrest spawned by the Great Depression and had come to the conclusion democracy was not capable of dealing with such potentially cataclysmic events. He now believed Nazi Germany was the model for all future governments and that National Socialism was the only thing that would stem what he perceived to be the real threat to the world--Communism. To him democracy was like a tired old man that was bound to give way to the young and more virile successor that was dictatorship. As far as he was concerned if that meant the United States losing the war then so be it.
Strolin watched as the men loaded the last of the explosives on the plane. He had dreamed of this day for a very long time. He turned his eyes westward toward the sun now turning a deep orange and hanging low in the sky. Ever since the two Constellations had flown in that afternoon from Argentina he had fretted over the possibility of them being spotted, remote as that was. He need not have worried for he had chosen his site well. If any place could be said to be in the middle of nowhere, this was it.
"So, Price," he said, turning to his co-conspirator, "soon we will stand the world on its ear."
Price checked his watch and said, "I think I will return to the site now."
Fool! thought Strolin. Does he really think I am going to just let him walk away from here? By now his opinion on the usefulness of Price had soured greatly. He saw Price to be a fundamentally weak person who would not be able to withstand the pressure of the business he now found himself in. The Americans might be lazy and naive but they were not stupid. Sooner or later they would get around to suspecting Price and he would sing like a canary once caught. Strolin could not allow that to happen.
Well, he mused, what else could one expect from a man that makes his living scratching in the ground. Not that he had anything against archaeology, after all it was Price's profession that had made him so attractive in the first place. Who else in the area could lure that may people away from the banana plantations without arousing suspicion? However it did seem to be a mundane, even trivial occupation to an adventurer like Strolin.
All evening he had been pondering just what do about Price. Tonight will be as good a time as any, he thought. Then and there he resolved that by the time the planes reached the Canal, Price would no longer be a part of the equation.
"At the present time I cannot allow it," he told Price.
"What do you mean, you cannot allow it?" Price asked.
"Just what I said," retorted Strolin. "Until we know the results of the operation I think it would be wise for us not to separate."
"What's the matter, don't you trust me?" Price asked, only half joking.
"No," replied Strolin bluntly. "I trust no one."
"But that means we'll be here all night,'" Price protested. "And besides, you have no authority to keep me here."
Strolin shrugged his shoulders and said, "It cannot be helped. I'm afraid I must insist."
I don't like this, thought Price. To him the whole thing was starting to reek of a double cross. He looked at the ominous bulge in Strolin's jacket and thanked his stars he had shown the foresight to come prepared. Indeed the weight of the .25 automatic in his pocket felt very comforting.
Twenty miles away Janice stood outside her tent watching the same deep orange ball descend in the western sky. Although the day had been a very eventful one there was still a lot she did not know, specifically how and more importantly when all that TNT would be put to use. Would they load it on a small ship and somehow try to crash into the dam? Had they somehow fashioned a home made bomb or some kind of mine? Was that what the airstrip was for? Janice had no clue. What she did know was the authorities in the Canal Zone had to be warned. But the only way she could do that was to call the number Donovan had given her and that meant a telephone and that meant a thirty mile trip in a vehicle she did not have. A trip she would likely not be able to make until tomorrow.
Goddamn it! she swore. It may be too late by then. Just where the hell was that truck anyway? A voice cut the stillness of the evening and shook Janice from her frustrating thoughts.
"Janice?" It was Mel.
"What do we do now?"
"Just as soon as whoever has that damn truck brings it back you and I are gonna load up and haul ass out of here," Janice answered. "We have to warn those boys in Panama."
"But...shouldn't we try to find about more about what Price is up to?" Mel asked.
"We'll let Donovan worry about him now," said Janice. "Commando stuff is somebody else's department. We accomplished what we came here to do. Donovan said find out what Price is up to and we've done that."
"Golly, Jan," Mel persisted, "maybe we ought to try to stop 'em if we can."
Janice eyed her sharply. "We don't know for sure if anything is on for tonight. And even if we did just how the hell do you propose we get there, Mel?" she snapped. "It's twenty fuckin' miles to that airstrip and the only means of transportation we have are our own two feet. Are you up to a twenty mile hike? Hmm?"
Mel hung her head for just a moment and then looked up to Janice. In a voice as soft as the evening breeze playing through in her hair she said, "Gee, I am if you are, Janice."
Janice looked into the woman's face and saw the hint of anguish in those deep blue eyes. You idiot! she rebuked herself. You've hurt her. And for what? She was only trying to help. As she looked upon the gentle woman towering over her she could not help but feel Mel was bigger than her in more ways than one.
"Jeez, Mel, I'm sorry," she said, taking the woman's hand. "That was a dumb ass thing for me to say."
"Aww, Janice," said Mel, "I know yuh didn't mean anything by it."
"Well that still didn't give me the right to be such a smart ass." She smiled impishly and added the qualifier, "Well, not to you anyway."
It was moments like this that only served to make Janice admire Mel all the more. The woman seemed to have the patience of Job. She knew she could be difficult at times. She also recognized that in the give and take of their relationship it was she that did most of the taking and it was Mel that did most of the giving. Even now she marveled that this incredibly sweet, highly cultured, drop dead gorgeous person could find an ill tempered, foul mouthed, and yes, sometimes selfish woman like her attractive. Janice hoped to high heaven it would always remain so.
For her part had Melinda been privy to Janice's thoughts she would have been very amused. She did not see her lover that way at all. What she saw was an energetic, fiercely independent woman with a passion for life most people could only dream about. Yes she was sometimes cynical and a little coarse and yes, maybe some of her so-called "friends" back in South Carolina would be appalled by her but as far as she was concerned Janice Covington was the finest person she had ever known. She was not only intelligent, tough, and brave but she was also thoughtful, funny, and well...terrific in bed. And besides, she knew the real reason for Janice's irritability. The woman was tired and more than a little frustrated.
Melinda returned her smile and said, "Forget it. And anyway, you're right about warnin' Donovan. After all, who knows for sure when Price is gonna make his play?"
Mel's question was answered by a voice from behind. "I do. Tonight."
The two women spun on their heels to face the voice. "Carter!" exclaimed Janice.
"Don't look so surprised, Janice," said Carter.
"How long have you been standing there?" Janice demanded.
"Long enough. But I didn't come here to eavesdrop on you. I came to ask for your help. You see, I know why you are here."
"I don't know what you're talking about," said Janice warily. "Like I said before we're just down here because we need the work."
"Oh come now. Let's cut the act okay?" Carter moved closer and murmured, "I'm here for the same reason you are."
"I'm with the State Department, Janice. I'm assigned to the embassy here and when we got word Price was nosing around in the area I was assigned to try to find out why."
"I didn't know the State Department did intelligence work," said Janice, still not convinced.
Price leisurely inspected his fingernails. "Oh, you'd be surprised at some of the stuff we do," he said. "But that's not important now."
"You said you know when Price is going to act. How?"
"Let's just say I have my sources."
"That's not good enough," said Janice. She cocked her head and squinted at him through one eye. "And just how did you know about us?"
"We were informed by your own Mister Pierce," said Price. "It seems Donovan had second thoughts about sending you up against Price without any help."
"So they sent you." Janice had to admit this was certainly plausible. "Well what are we waiting for? Let's get out there pronto."
"I was hoping you would say that," grinned Carter.
Janice turned to her partner and smiled thinly. "Well, ya happy now?"
"Ask me tomorrow," Mel shot back.
"Carter, just give us a couple of minutes to get our things together and we'll be off," said Janice. "I got a feeling we won't be comin' back here any time soon."
"I'll bring the truck around while you're doing that," he told them.
Janice entered the tent and picked up her bag before nestling her hat down on her head.
"Ja-yun, what do you want me to do with this?" Mel asked, holding up her book.
Janice opened up her gas mask bag and replied, "Stick it in here." Mel did and before she closed the bag back Janice took out her box of .38 slugs and emptied them into her pocket. She checked to make sure her .38 was loaded and then returned it to the bag. Seeing Mel's apprehension, she said, "Listen to me, Mel. This might get rough so I want you to promise me that you'll do whatever I ask. No ifs, ands, or buts, okay?"
"Okay," Melinda promised, nodding her head.
"Good girl." Janice followed this up by taking out the remainder of their money and thrusting it into her partner's hand. "Take this." She took Mel by the arm and looked her straight in the eye. "Now listen closely. If I could be certain no harm would come to you here I'd leave you but I can't. Mel, if something was to, you know, happen to me tonight I want you to get the hell out of here any way you can and head straight for Golfito, you understand? You can book passage on a ship back to the States there."
"But Jan, I--"
"Hey!" barked Janice. "Remember what I said? No ifs, ands, or buts?"
"Yes, Jan," Mel replied meekly.
"This is no time to be fuckin' around," said Janice. "So just stay off the main road as much as you can and try to hire somebody to take you there."
"I will," Mel assured her. It was a lie and both of them knew it. Deep in her heart Janice knew Melinda would never leave her but it eased her conscience a little knowing she had at least tried. They looked into each others eyes and shared a visual embrace of love and warmth and undying devotion. All too soon their spell was broken by the sound of Carter pulling up in the truck.
Janice smiled warmly at the belle and playfully jabbed her on the arm. "Come on. Remember what Wild Bill said. It's time we earned our pay."
"Janice just promise me you won't do nothin' stupid, okay?" Mel blurted out.
"Who mee? Hey, Kid this ain't Gangbusters. I have no intention of playing hero."
By the time the three of them covered the twenty miles to the airstrip it was already dark. Upon reaching the site Carter pulled off the road and killed the engine. "Well, ladies," he said, " this is it."
Along the way he and Janice had discussed several different plans and finally settled on one they thought to be the most safe. "You know, Carter," she said, "if something goes wrong here this could get ugly."
Carter answered her by folding over the truck seat. Reaching in behind, he pulled out the latest model of the Thompson submachine gun--the one with the straight magazine instead of the older drum-style type. It was the one now in use by the American military. Just the sight of the moonlight reflecting off its stubby muzzle made Mel shudder.
"This ought to even things up some, don't you think?" Carter asked.
"All the same let's not try to go that route, huh?" suggested Janice.
Carter stepped out onto the road and stopped for a moment to listen. Nothing. "Okay, let's make sure we stay together," he said. "We don't want anybody gettin' lost."
Although he did not come right out and say it, Mel had the distinct impression he was referring to her. Slowly, very carefully, they picked their way over pretty much the same ground Janice had covered the day before. Carter was in the lead, followed by Melinda, and then Janice. Fortunately the moon was out and it made navigating the dense undergrowth considerably easier. For Mel the light striking the vegetation and the resulting shadows produced by it worked to give the place an almost surreal look. It was like something right out of one of those wolf man movies where the victim knows danger lurks about but is totally powerless to do anything about it. Right now she could think of a million places she would rather be. And yet the sense of danger--the thrill of the unknown excited her. She could feel something deep within her begin to awaken from its slumber and begin to stir. She now began to feel that total oneness with her environment she had only experienced one other time--on Borneo.
"Golly," she whispered. "Xena, is...is that you?"
There was no answer at first but Melinda Pappas felt a reassuring shroud of warmth and great strength descent upon her. Then, as distinct as if it were her own, she heard a voice say, "Don't be afraid. I am with you."
"Oh my God," Mel gasped softly.
"Shhh! Be quiet," Janice admonished her from behind.
It was just like before. How wondrous it was and how privileged she felt to be a part of a love that was now more than thirty centuries old, she thought. A love that would make a woman want to protect her lover from beyond the grave. It was almost too fantastic to believe and yet it was so very true.
Carter suddenly stopped in front of her and just like that Mel was brought back to reality. Except this time she sense of awareness and strength was still with her. She was not quite sure what she was supposed to do but she trusted that Xena would show her the way when the time came.
"See that?" whispered Carter, pointing to a white glow some distance away.
"Yeah," replied Janice, joining him. "Looks like somebody's puttin' in a little overtime."
Mel eased up to them and laid a hand on Janice's shoulder. "Is that it?"
"That's it," echoed Janice. Her lover's hand acted as a reminder of what was really at stake here. "Mel," she said, turning to her, "I think it would be best if you remained here while we go on ahead."
"Nuh uh. Nothin' doing, Janice. I'm going with ya'll."
"Damn it, don't be so stubborn," hissed Janice. As the two of them quietly bickered in the moonlight they were unaware of Carter discreetly backing away from them.
"Janice, I'm going," Mel declared resolutely.
"No you're not."
The two of them stopped when they heard a sharp metallic click. They turned to the noise and found themselves staring down the .45 caliber bore of Carter's Tommy gun. "I'm afraid I must insist on Miss Pappas accompanying us," he purred.
"What the fuck is this, Carter?" Janice growled.
"Why I'm surprised at you, Janice. I thought you of all people would know a set up when they saw it," said Carter. He leveled the gun at her chest and said, "Put you arms behind your neck--you too, Pappas."
Janice grudgingly complied and Carter carefully slipped the bag off her shoulder. "I'll take this if you don't mind." As he removed it his hand brushed against Janice's breast.
"Is that the only way you can get a feel--at the point of a gun?" smirked Janice.
"Silence." Carter took the .38 out of the bag and stuck it in his pocket before tossing the bag carelessly to the ground. "I must say Price had you pegged from the beginning."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Well when you two suddenly showed up on his doorstep he knew that your ah, what do you call it, sob story, was a lie. So he wisely decided to keep you around while we checked up on you and my my, what do you think we found?"
"I dunno what? That Leavenworth has very nice accommodations available for traitorous scum like you?"
"You hurt my feelings, Covington," replied Carter. "Actually one of your colleagues was able to tell us all about you."
"So that's why you cuddled up to me all week," said Janice.
"Of course," said Carter. "And then when we found out from your Mister Pierce who you were it was decided I should drop the hint about the other site and let you put two and two together."
"How did you know for sure I checked the site out?"
"Simple. I checked the mileage on the odometer. It was forty-six miles more than it should have been," Carter replied smugly.
Pierce! I never did like that guy, thought Janice.
"If it will make you feel any better I am not a traitor," said Carter.
"So you're a fucking German saboteur then," snapped Janice.
"Agent," Carter corrected her.
"Yeah," snorted Janice, "spelled B-A-S-T..."
Carter lashed out and savagely backhanded her across the mouth. "Slut! he rasped. "I was going to ask Herr Strolin to make your deaths swift and merciful but now I think I will enjoy watching you beg for mercy."
Janice spit the blood from her mouth and snarled, "Not in a million fucking years."
"Oh I don't mean for yourself, of course." Carter pressed the muzzle of his weapon right between Mel's breasts. "I mean for your friend here."
Gun or no gun, something in Janice snapped. "You son of a bitch!" she cried as she launched herself at him.
Mel saw Carter's eyes shift to face the threat. At the precise moment he swung the Tommy gun away from her Mel heard the voice once more. NOW! Without thinking, Melinda pivoted sharply on the ball of her left foot and did a sweeping 360 degree spin catching Carter hard just above the temple with the heel of her right foot. Carter dropped like a sack of potatoes just as the onrushing Janice reached him. Her forward momentum carried her right over the top of him. Mel reached out and caught her surprised partner in her strong arms and pulled her to her chest.
"Golly, Jan, are you all right?"
Janice stared at her wide-eyed, still breathing hard from not only her effort but from the emotion of the moment as well. "Christ, Mel," she said breathlessly, "how did you do that?"
"Well I...I don't rightly know," came the reply.
Janice looked up at her quizzically for a moment and then smiled. "It was her again, wasn't it?"
Mel nodded stiffly and pulled the corners of her mouth up in that little smile of hers. "Yeah. I reckon it was."
Janice knelt down beside Carter and laid her ear to his chest.
"Is he...he dead?" Mel asked.
"No, but he's going to have one hell of a headache when he comes to," said Janice. She dug her hands under the man's shoulders. "Give me a hand here."
Mel helped her drag Carter to a nearby tree where they proceeded to place him facing the tree in a sitting position with his arms and legs extending out past the tree trunk. At Janice's behest Mel stripped Carter of his belt and handed it to her. The archaeologist took out her razor sharp knife and split the belt down the middle lengthwise. She then used the strips to bind Carter's hand and feet together. When she was finished she tore off a piece of his shirt and jammed it into his mouth.
"That ought to hold him," she declared. Having already relieved him of her .38 Janice now shouldered the Thompson. "Well, Kid," she said to Mel, "let's go see what those bastards are up to."
Melinda nodded and off they went toward the light still glowing steadily in the distance. They had not gone ten paces before Mel suddenly stopped. "Wait, Jan!" she whispered.
"What is it?" Janice asked her.
But Mel was already trotting back to where Carter was.
What is she doing? Janice wondered.
It took the belle a couple of anxious minutes searching the ground with the palms of her hands before but she finally found what she had come back for. Yes! she thought gleefully. She cradled the object in her arms and sprang to her feet.
"What the hell were ya doing back there, Mel?" demanded Janice upon her partner's return. "Taking a crap?"
"No, silly. I had to get this." It was the bag Carter had so carelessly discarded. "My book is in here." In the moonlight Melinda saw Janice flash her a big grin.
"Well sling it over your shoulder," said Janice. "You never know, I might need you to crack somebody else's head for me."
"Oh, Janice, stop it."
The two of them broke through the underbrush and melted into
the tall grass of the field.
Strolin slapped his cheek, crushing the huge mosquito that had been busily drilling there. Where is Meyer? he wondered, his irritation rising. He should have returned with those two nosy women by now. No wonder the Americans are losing the war, he thought smugly. They dare send mere women to oppose me! Already he had hit upon an appropriate way to eliminate them. Each would be put aboard one of the doomed planes thus creating a delicious irony. The two that had been sent to stop him would now be participants in it. In the soft light of the four lanterns placed about Strolin saw a figure approach.
"Sir, I wish to report the explosives have been secured and the detonation devices have been armed," the form said.
"Very good, Karl," said Strolin. "Now take your men and make sure the area is secure. Be careful though. Meyer is due to arrive her any minute with a couple of guests."
"Guests?" inquired Price. "You mean Covington and her friend?"
"Of course," replied Strolin.
"But why bring them here?" Price persisted. "Why didn't you have Carter--I mean, Meyer eliminate them and be done with it?"
"Because I want to see this Covington for myself. Pierce said she is quite a remarkable woman."
"You watch her, Strolin. She' a devil! hissed Price. "I mean an absolute devil."
"Hmm, sounds like a woman after my own heart," Strolin mused aloud.
Off in the shadows he saw Karl's men fanning out to begin their patrol. At the moment his two pilots were sequestered in Strolin's car under the watchful eye of a man named Schmidt. Everything was now set and all that was left was to wait until the appointed hour to begin. Before settling in the for wait in the folding chair he had brought with him Strolin had one last piece of business to take care of.
"Price, would you step over here please?" John Price arose from his seat on the crate and walked over to Strolin. "You brought your code book with you, did you not?"
"Of course," Price answered. "What do you think I am, an idiot.?" These goddamn arrogant Germans, he thought angrily. He dug his hand into his pocket and produced the same reddish orange book that had caused Mel so much consternation. "See?"
"Please give it to me," said Strolin.
"Because you have no further need for it."
In the light of the lantern Price saw the German's face was as devoid of emotion as a slab of marble. The stark realization now came to him. Strolin's remark could only mean one thing... "You double crossing bastard!" he screeched.
He flung the book into Strolin's face and jammed his hand into his pocket in a vain attempt to extract his gun. Strolin however, had the advantage of having his Luger in a shoulder holster under his jacket and was thus able to bring his weapon to bear first. "Strolin...what are you...doing?" Price sputtered, his eyes bulging in terror.
Strolin ignored his question and ordered, "Your arms...up!"
"But I, I can be of...of use...to you," pleaded Price. He then saw Strolin raise his weapon. "For the love of God!"
"There is no God," Strolin replied matter-of-factly. "There is only the Fuehrer."
Seeing his recent co-conspirator was beyond reasoning with Price dropped his hands in an attempt to flee but it was no use. Strolin fired, striking Price in the chest. The stricken man stumbled and fell, knocking over one of the lanterns in the process. Strolin bent down, picked up the code book and stuck in his pocket. He then leisurely strolled over to where Price lay.
"Sir, is everything all right?" a voice called out in German.
"Yes, Karl," replied Strolin. "And speak English." He knelt
down beside the gasping Price. The man was feebly trying to speak but it was
plain to Strolin his slug had pierced his lung for he was gurgling up blood
with every breath. Heinrich Strolin thought himself a civilized individual.
Having done his duty for the Fatherland he did not wish to see his vanquished
enemy suffer unduly. So he simply pressed the barrel of his Luger against the
side of Price's head--and blew the man's brains out. That done he got to his
feet and holstered his Luger. Now, where the devil is Meyer? he wondered.
From their position across the field Janice and Melinda clearly heard the two cracks from Strolin's Luger. "Golly, Jan," Mel whispered, "what do you think's going on over there?"
"Well they're not playing spin the bottle," said Janice. Privately she hoped the shots meant there was one less guy to worry about. Fifteen minutes later the two of them found themselves at the edge of the field. From her kneeling position Janice parted the tall grass with her hands and peered across to the airstrip. There she saw the ominous silhouette of two large planes lined up as if ready to take off. She did not know yet what part these planes were to have in this whole affair but it was obvious they were the key. "Mel, I've got to have a look inside one of those planes."
"I'm with you," Mel answered.
Janice leaned closer to her partner and whispered in her ear, "All right. But if one of us so much as hiccups our goose is cooked, you understand?"
"Okay. Now, do exactly as I do."
The archaeologist dropped to the ground on her stomach and laid the Thompson across the crooks of her elbows. Slowly the two of them began to crawl side by side across the open ground. After covering about a third of the distance Janice felt Mel's fingernails dig into her arm.
"Jan," she whispered urgently, "someone is coming."
At first Janice thought her friend to be imagining things but soon enough she too became aware of the dark apparition approaching from off to their right. She reached out and pushed Mel's face against the ground. "Don't move," she ordered. She pressed her own cheek against the ground and faced the oncoming figure. Had they somehow given themselves away? she wondered. Probably not, she concluded. The palooka was just making a routine patrol sweep. Ever so carefully she clicked the Thompson's safety off. It the fucker comes much closer, she vowed grimly, it won't be routine any more.
While the two ladies held their breath the man walked to within fifteen feet of them. By now some cloud cover had fortuitously moved in to blot out the bright moon allowing the two of them to remained unobserved as the man moved past. This was something of a surprise to Melinda for she was positive her pounding heart was going to give them away. After the man had moved on Janice heaved a soft sigh of relief and tapped Mel on the arm. "Let's go."
Finally, after what Melinda believed to be the longest twenty minutes of her life, they made it to where the planes were parked. Here Janice paused to make absolutely certain no one was around before getting to her feet in a low crouch. "Stay here," she told Mel.
This time Mel offered no argument. Janice worked her way forward to the lead plane which was well past the limits of the light from the lanterns. With her Thompson at the ready she ever so slowly popped the latch on the fuselage door. The resulting click was in truth not very loud but to Janice it seemed deafening. After taking one last look around, she quietly swung herself up in the plane. When she did she bumped into something hard. "Damn it!" she cursed, rubbing her knee. Carefully feeling around in the darkness, she ascertained the cargo hold was filled with long crates anchored down by straps. For Janice it could only be one thing. This was where all that TNT had gone.
And then she knew. The plane was going to be used as a guided bomb. She crept toward the front of the plane and almost tripped when her foot caught on something. Reaching down to investigate she discovered wire running along the length of the plane. After feeling it she knew well enough what it was--demolition wire. Good Lord, she thought, a chill running down her spine, this baby is rigged to blow right now!
Carefully backing away, she retraced her steps to the door. Silently she hopped back down to the ground and rejoined Melinda.
"Did ya find anything," the belle asked.
"Yeah, plenty," Janice answered. "Those planes are loaded with that TNT of yours. They're flying bombs, Mel and the bastards are going to try to crash 'em in the Canal somewhere."
"Probably the dam at Gatun," offered Mel.
Janice had no idea Mel knew anything about the Panama Canal but this little revelation was yet another example of the woman's depth.
"So what do we do?" Mel asked.
A damn good question, Janice had to admit. What do we do? The first thing was to get to cover. She tapped Mel on the arm and pointed to the line of trees about twenty-five yards away on the side of the airstrip opposite them. Mel nodded and the two of the crept toward them and were soon in the relative safety of the trees. No sooner had they gotten there when they saw another guard walk past they very spot they had so recently vacated.
Just how many of those guys are there? wondered Janice. She was well aware of the fact she was, in all probability, going have to kill someone tonight. As disturbing as this was for her it was not something she was going to shrink away from. Yes, she was scared but all she had to do was think of the gentle soul lying so close next to her that her breath could be felt. If something were to happen to her...
Janice decided it best not to think about that.
The archaeologist shook herself in an attempt to gather her nerves. All right, by God, enough of this screwing around. The longer we wait the greater the chance of our being discovered. It's time to do something, she told herself. Suddenly Janice got to her knees. She pulled the Thompson's bolt back and laid the deadly weapon down beside Melinda. "Take this," she said. "If anybody comes near you..."
"For God's sake, be careful, Jan."
Janice patted her on the arm and crept out of the woods and back to the plane. As of yet she was not really sure what she was going to do but she did have an inkling of a plan. Once inside she again made her way forward, this time going all the way to the cockpit. There the wires led her straight to what she hoped was there. Uh huh, she thought triumphantly. In the floor of the plane she found a box wired to a battery. She correctly guessed this to be a type of pressure switch that would open the contacts to the battery on the plane's impact hence detonating the explosives.
After taking a good look at the pilot's window Janice Covington knew what she had to do. She did not like it but she had no choice--not if she wanted to stop these people. With her heart pounding like never before she reached down and very, very carefully picked up the box/battery combination. "Well, Kid," she mumbled, under her breath, "that was the easy part. Now for the real fun."
Ten suspenseful minutes later, with her work done, she returned to the cockpit and slipped open the pilot's window. She then began to squeeze herself through. Before she made the ten foot leap to the ground she prayed she would land all right. The last thing she needed now was a sprained ankle. She need not have worried. For someone in the superb physical condition she was it was a piece of cake. Quickly she rejoined a much relieved Melinda. "Let's get the hell out of here," she said.
Mel did not have to be told twice. The two of them eased back into the woods a couple of hundred yards before Janice stopped. "Okay," she said, "this ought to be far enough."
"So what now?" Mel asked.
Janice sat down with her back against a tree and laid the Thompson
across her lap. "Now we wait."
Strolin checked his watch and then walked over to his car. "Wake them up, Schmidt," he ordered. "It's time."
"All right, pigs, wake up," Schmidt growled, poking Wessel in the chest with his pistol. "It's time to make atonement to the Fatherland for your sins." Schmidt got out of the car and opened the rear door. "Come on, get moving," he barked.
Wessel and Mueller obeyed by getting out of the car on the same side. As the condemned men shuffled past Strolin did not bother to speak to them. Why should he? They already knew what was expected of them. "Karl" he called out.
"Call in your men, it's time."
Soon Karl and his three men joined up with Schmidt to form a
kind of guard detail for the two pilots. Strolin picked up one of the lanterns
and followed along behind, nonchalantly stepping over Price's body on the way.
"Mel, wake up."
"What is it?" her partner asked sleepily. The Southerner had been sleeping soundly and as sometimes will happen she did not yet fully realize just where she was.
"I think it's time," replied Janice. "Lay flat on the ground and cover your head."
"Do as I say, damn it!" hissed Janice.
"Here, Otto, take this lantern," said Strolin. "I will take the car the far end of the airstrip so that the pilots can have a reference point for take off." The man took the lantern from his boss and continued on his way while Strolin started back to his car.
By now Mueller had been installed in the second plane and Schmidt and company were escorting Wessel to the lead one. Upon reaching the fuselage door the one called Otto held the lantern up to allow Schmidt to find the handle. With a smirk directed at Wessel he yanked on the latch. "In you go, hero."
The door opened and Schmidt, Wessel, and Karl saw the wooden
box that Janice had propped against the door drop and strike the black box lying
in the doorway. In the lifetime of that one second only Karl recognized the
true meaning of what they were seeing. He didn't even have time to scream.
For Melinda Pappas it was as if the world was coming to an end. The incredible stillness of the night was suddenly pierced by a tremendous explosion. The ground shook and a gigantic fireball erupted from the doomed plane which in turn detonated the second plane destroying all in its fiery path. Schmidt, Karl and the rest were simply vaporized. In the woods the resulting shock wave began to knock down tree limbs all around Janice and Melinda. Realizing this the archaeologist threw her small body over Mel and dug her arms down under her. "Keep your head down!" she shouted. The two of them could do nothing but lay there listening to the deafening echo of the blast as it washed over them. At last the thunder began to die away. Janice slowly raised her head up and looked in the direction of the planes. At first she was surprised the resulting fire was so small but she then realized there was probably nothing left to burn. She rolled off her lover and got to her knees.
"Okay," she said, patting Mel on the rump. "Let's go."
Strolin awoke to a stabbing pain in his left shoulder. The last thing he remembered was opening the door to his car and then hearing a thunderous roar. What he did not know was the force of the blast had slammed him against the side of his vehicle dislocating his shoulder in the process. He shook his head in a desperate attempt to clear the cobwebs out. Then he remembered. The planes! The German struggled to his feet and looked down the airstrip. To his horror he saw nothing but burning debris where the planes had been parked.
"Nooooo!" He tried to scream it but nothing came out.
As he stumbled down the airstrip clutching his shoulder he saw two dark forms
appear out of the treeline, silhouetted against the flames.
"Be careful, Mel," Janice said. "This wreckage is hot."
"I will," Mel assured her. In fact she was carefully watching
Janice's feet and making it a point to step exactly where she had. As the two
of them picked their way along the airstrip they were unaware of the figure
staggering toward them.
Those two must be the swine responsible for this! Strolin silently raged. He ignored the searing pain and pulled the Luger out of its holster. Aiming it at the two oncoming forms and desperately trying to steady his shaking hand, Strolin began to snap off the remaining rounds.
Janice's first reaction was that the popping noises were being caused by something in the flames. After the fourth pop the unmistakable whine of a bullet passed by her ear. "Get down, Mel!" she screamed. She turned back to find her and saw the woman was already on the ground. She now heard another pop and felt something hot nick her right arm. Grabbing her arm, she became aware of a voice screaming at her. She turned toward the sound and saw someone approaching. Strolin had reloaded his Luger and was once again raising it to fire. He never got the chance.
"You son of a bitch!" screamed Janice. She brought the Thompson up and emptied the entire thirty round magazine at the figure. At least a dozen of the .45 caliber slugs found their mark, turning Strolin's chest into so much hamburger. Satisfied the man was dead, Janice dropped the Thompson and slowly got to her feet. "Mel," she called out, "you okay?"
Oh no! Janice rushed to her friend and dropped to her knees beside her. In the light of the flames saw the big patch of blood on Melinda's shirt. "Oh, God, Mel. Noo."
Upon hearing her name Mel opened her eyes and whispered hoarsely, "Jan?"
"I'm here, Kid," Janice said softly. She ripped open Mel's shirt and ran her hand up under the belle's left breast. The warm ooze was everywhere. She pulled her hand out and saw it was covered in blood. "Oh, Jesus," she gasped. Please, God, not this. Once more she ran her hand inside the shirt in an attempt to ascertain the severity of Mel's injury but this time her vision was not as clear for already the tears were beginning to flow.
"Shhh," Janice said to her, "be quiet, sweetheart. Don't try to talk."
"It hurts, Jan." Mel groaned and bucked up as Janice's fingers found the wound. "Ohhh, myyyy." She caught her breath and then gasped, "Jan, am I--am I gonna....die?"
"Of course not," Janice replied, her voice cracking. "Mel, you ain't gonna die. Goddamn it, I won't let you die!" Blinking back the tears, she gently rolled Mel onto her side to get a better look at her wound.
"Jesus, Mel, shut up, will ya?" Janice pleaded helplessly.
"Jan, in case...in case, you know...I just want you to thank you for lettin' me be a part of your life. It's...it's meant so very much to me."
Not as much as it's meant to me, Janice thought. Never as much as it's meant to me
As Melinda spiraled down into the blackness of unconsciousness the last thing she whispered was, "I love you."
She would later remember it as like climbing out of a dark well into the beautiful sunlight. As she got nearer to the top everything got brighter and brighter until finally the whole world was awash in the sun's warm glow. The only problem was the fog. Yes the light was bright but for some reason she could not seem to be able to focus on anything. It was as if she was looking through one of those glass shower doors. She could see colors and very dim forms but they were just frustrating blurs to her. Presently the forms almost took shape but they still were not quite perfect. Where am I? she would later remember thinking. Is this what it's like to be dead?
Then she heard the voice. "Mel?" Oh my God, she remembered thinking. Is Janice dead too?
Janice Covington saw her adored lover's beautiful blue eyes flutter open and look up at her. "Mel," she repeated, it's me--Jan."
"J..." At first Mel had some difficulty forming words. "Jan, where are we?"
"We're in a hospital in San Juan," said Janice.
Janice smiled at her and said, "Ya took a Nazi slug in the abdomen, Kid." Now that she had been told by the doctors her beloved was out of danger she could afford to be cute. "But don't worry, the docs here said you're too tough to kill. Heck, you'll be up and around in no time they said."
"But what about Price and the, the others."
Janice narrowed her eyelids to mere slits. "Don't worry about them," she said, gritting her teeth in rage as she thought of what those men had almost taken away from her. After Mel lost consciousness Janice had managed to bind her wound up enough to stop the bleeding. It was then she had noticed Strolin's car parked at the end of the airstrip. As she hurried toward it she had not even bothered to look down at the man she had just killed. To her he was no more than a pile of dung to be stepped around. Once at the car she had prayed the thing would start and to her great relief it did. It was when she turned on the headlights that she saw the body of Price lying in a pool of blood a short distance away. You bastards deserve each other, she had thought at the time.
It had taken her several hours to reach San Juan. She knew that was the only place with the facilities to perform surgery. Janice had never felt so helpless. She was used to being in control, of calling the shots, but she realized these shots were being called by a much bigger boss. That first long day at the hospital had been the worst. At first it was feared she might have lost too much blood, then they worried internal damage to her organs, then infection. When the surgery first began Janice tried to wait it out in the waiting room but she found she just could not stand it in there. She had to get outside. So she walked over to the little park across the street and found a secluded spot where she could sit unobserved. And she had cried.
Janice Covington simply did not know where all the tears came
from. She cried during the surgery, she cried when they told her it was going
to be touch and go for awhile. And she had cried again when the doctors told
her Mel was going to live.
Janice reached down and took her lover by the hand. "How ya feelin', Kid?"
"Sore," Mel answered.
"Well that's to be expected," allowed Janice. "Hey, guess what? I talked to Donovan this morning. He said Pierce broke down and confessed everything."
"Yep. And he said for you to quit lollygaggin' around and get your ass back to work. He said the OSS needs people like you," said Janice.
"The OSS? So it's official now?" Mel asked.
"It's official. Donovan has been named director of the Office of Strategic Services. Sounds important huh?"
"Golly, Jan. Did he really say that about me?"
"Now would I lie to you?" asked Janice with mock indignance.
"Don't answer that!" said Janice, before she could finish. In truth, after Janice had related the events of the past few days to him, "Wild Bill" had told her they were to take all the time they needed down there and that once they were ready to come home he would make damn sure a plane would be shaken loose for them.
Mel looked down at her hands and frowned.
"What's the matter?" Janice asked anxiously, figuring something was wrong.
"Way-ul," the belle drawled, 'it's jes' that I my eyes are fuzzy. I can't seem to see straight."
Janice almost burst out in tears again but this time for the sheer joy of the moment. The archaeologist reached into her shirt pocket and pulled out an object she had completely forgotten about. "Darn it, Mel," she cooed softly. At this point one single tear managed to escape and run down her cheek. "You don't have your glasses on."
As Mel put on her glasses Janice reached into a drawer beside
the bed and pulled out the book of poems by Robert Frost. "Okay, Kid, she said
brightly, "let's start gettin' my money's worth out of this thing."
Five days after sinking the Northern Cross, the U-141 was picked up on sonar off the coast of Florida by the American destroyer Morda. Beck and his crew tried every trick in the book to escape but Captain Good, the Morda's skipper, was an old sub-chaser from the First World War and he not only knew the book--he had helped write it. Just before sundown six of the Morda's depth charges managed to find their mark, dooming the U-141 to a watery grave at the bottom of the Atlantic.
After Strolin's superiors in Berlin learned of the failure of
his plan, the families of Karl Wessel and Wilhelm Mueller were duly rounded
up and shipped off to Dachau. There within eight months either by gas, torture,
starvation, or overwork, all fifteen of them--men, women...children would perish.
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