The characters Janice Covington, Melinda Pappas and Jack Klienman are the property of Renaissance Pictures and no copyright infringement is intended. All other characters are mine. This tale contains adult themes and depicts the two main characters as more than just "friends." It also contains descriptions of violence and instances of graphic language including the "F" word so be warned.
This story follows an arc previously established in "The Favor" and the "Janice and Mel: The War Years" stories. While it is not necessary to read those in order to gain a comprehension of this latest effort the reader should be aware that some characters and events from those stories are referred to here without much clarification.
The characters Eva Haralambos and Zoe Lambros appear through the courtesy and kind generosity of my good friend Mary Draganis and are solely her property. Many thanks to her for entrusting them to me. It is deeply appreciated.
Gerhard Zeissler was a hard man. In the recent war he had miraculously survived twenty-nine months battling against the relentless Russian hordes in that boiling cauldron whose simple name was now and forever burned into the memory of every last son of Germany who had the misfortune to serve there---the Eastern Front. During those twenty-nine months he had witnessed every kind of horror and unspeakable atrocity. Many of these he had in fact dutifully committed himself in the service of the Fatherland.
At first he had found the slaughter of helpless civilians and Red Army prisoners of war troubling but this had quickly passed. After all, he had rationalized, it was the ape-like Slavs who were the real barbarians. Hitler had said so. So it was therefore simply a case of he and his fellow countrymen finding it necessary to fight barbarism with barbarism in order to eradicate the Slavic threat once and for all. As he had seen it, it was nothing more than Germany's duty to Humanity. Had not Der Fuhrer and Dr. Goebbels expounded on this time and time again? Had they not warned the German people that the Slavs were nothing more than pestilential vermin whose extermination must be achieved if they were to ensure the purity of the Aryan race?
Like any good soldier, Gerhard Zeissler had not shirked his duty. Although times had changed immeasurably since the war, as far Zeissler was concerned orders were still orders whether they be to take a hill held by Russians or, as he was now about to do, take a hunk of stone held by some foolish old man. This line of work was not exactly what he had planned on doing after the war but in these trying times there were not too many jobs in Europe that paid as well. His boss had instructed him to get the stone and so he would get the stone.
The object of tonight's exercise was to be main tent of an archaeological excavation that was being supervised by the noted British archaeologist, Alfred Frailing. Zeissler had purposely chosen a Sunday evening to make his move because he knew most of the Greek laborers who worked at the site would be gone at this time. Because of this he had very little difficulty maneuvering his way to Frailing's tent where he now stood, ready to make his move. Reaching under his jacket, he eased out his Walther P-38 and ever so carefully pulled back the tent flap. He peeked inside and saw Frailing sitting on the edge of his cot and, as expected, alone. So intently was the old man focused on his business that not until Zeissler actually spoke did the realization came to him he was no longer alone.
"Put your hands where I can see them and do not make any noise."
Startled, Frailing shot a glance up and standing there just inside the entrance to the tent he saw a stockily built man pointing a pistol at him. "Who--who are you?" he stammered.
"That is not important," Zeissler coolly replied. "All you need to know is that I will kill you if you do not cooperate."
Thinking Zeissler a common, ordinary thief, Frailing said, "But...I assure you we have nothing that would be of any interest to you. We have nothing here of real monetary value."
"That is a lie," said Zeissler tersely. Not a man to beat around the bush, he then snapped, "You have a stone. A tablet, found Tuesday last. You will produce it at once."
"Stone? What stone?"
"You are not in a position to play games here, Doctor," Zeissler grimly warned him.
It was then that Zeissler detected a glint of understanding in the old man's eyes. "Who sent you?" asked Frailing. "Hanley?"
However Zeissler's patience was already beginning to wear thin. Advancing a couple of steps toward Frailing, he snarled, "None of your damned business, old man! Now give me the stone or I'll--"
Behind him, from the entrance to the tent, a soft voice said, "Professor Frailing, is something wrong? I thought I heard---Ohh!"
Whirling around, Zeissler saw a wide-eyed woman who looked to be in her early twenties leaning through inside the tent opening.
As she put her hand to her mouth in dismay Zeissler growled, "Don't move!"
It was at this precise moment that Frailing took advantage of Zeissler's momentary distraction. Boldly seizing up the nearest thing to a weapon he could find, a battered trowel, Frailing hurled it at Zeissler.
Now it was Zeissler's turn to be startled. He had not expected this sort of resistance from the old man. Fortunately for the German it was the trowel's handle and not one of the sharp corners that caught him just behind the left ear. Still, the unexpected blow caused Zeissler to instinctively turn his face away and thrust his hand up to where the trowel had struck him.
"Run, Millie!" yelped Frailing, as he bolted for the opening. However his feet had long since ceased to be as nimble as his mind. Before Frailing could get past, the intruder had recovered sufficiently enough that he was able to lash out with his Walther, striking the old man right across the bridge of his nose, breaking it instantly and sending him reeling backwards. In vain Frailing tried to regain his balance but the combination of his reflexes not being what they once were and his center of gravity already being tilted too far backward off its axis were too much for him to overcome.
Frailing fell and as far as Zeissler was concerned it was simply a case of rotten luck that the aged archaeologist's temple slammed against the corner of his little writing table as he went down. He was as good as dead even before his head sustained the final blow upon impacting the hard ground of the tent floor.
For Zeissler there was no time to lose. Even as Frailing drew his last breath he was wresting the terrified Millie back inside the cover of tent. She had managed to make a mere ten yards from the tent before the athletic ex-soldier had caught up to her and clamped his hand over her mouth to prevent her from screaming.
Once back inside the tent, Zeissler glanced at the old man and knew instantly what he had to do next. It was not necessary that he examine Frailing to know that he was dead. That familiar vacant look in his eyes which Zeissler had seen hundreds of times before on the battlefields of Russia told him all he needed to know. Soon he would see it yet again in the eyes of this young woman. After all, this was not war and the death of Frailing was sure to mean police involvement and all the trouble that went with their nosing around. It was because of this that he forced the struggling Millie down on Frailing's cot and, using the old pillow, slowly, methodically, smothered out her young life.
With Frailing dead the only thing left for Zeissler to do was search the tent and for twenty minutes he did so, carefully checking every nook and cranny. However as he searched his frustration began to mount quickly. The stone simply was not there. Spying Frailing's notebook, he leafed through it in the hope that he might find something, anything, that would give him a clue as to the stone's location. All he found was a name, another archaeologist apparently. Maybe, he wondered, Frailing sent it to this one for some reason.
He tore the page out of the notebook and stuffed into his shirt pocket. It was then the thought came to him that perhaps the stone was to be found in one of the other tents. Of course! Surely that was it! The young woman's! What was her name? Millie? Too bad, he thought. Such a pretty girl.
The first thing he saw when he entered the next tent was a stone, lying on another small table. "Unproblematisch," he muttered, as he entered the tent. Beside the stone was an opened loose leaf notebook with several blocks of words set down on one of the pages Each of these successive blocks had in turn been crossed out. Evidently someone had been trying without much success to translate the inscription. As for as Zeissler was concerned it did not matter what it read. For all he cared the inscription could be a recipe for strudel. His job was to get the stone.
And now he had it.
Slipping the Walther into his jacket pocket, Zeissler snatched up the stone and tucked it under his arm. Taking a quick peek out, he saw no one. Quietly he stepped out of the tent and started off into the night. He was smugly congratulating himself on a job well done when much too late he heard a faint rustle off to one side. A million colors exploded inside his brain and then...blackness.
Ten minutes later he came regained consciousness. As the fog cleared from his brain his first lucid thought was of the stone. Frantically sweeping the ground with his hand, he worst fears were soon realized.
The stone was gone.
Like all who had fought on the Eastern Front, Zeissler was no stranger to hatred, blistering rage, unspeakable, soul-wrenching terror...and death. Yes, Gerhard Zeissler knew death well. By his own hand he had visited it on so many others that by now it was like an old acquaintance to him. Now, as the barrel of the Luger at his back sharply prodded him forward down the dimly lit hallway of this opulent mountain villa, it seemed that his "old acquaintance" Death would soon be at his side once more. But as he stumbled along he knew all too well that this time it would be his shoulder--not that of some faceless victim, that would be gripped by the cold, skeletal hand of the remorseless black specter.
Near the end of the corridor a door opened at his approach as if by magic. At the door he hesitated for a moment and it was here that a hot, stabbing pain as the barrel of the Luger rammed hard against his kidney.
In Greek a harsh voice from behind commanded, "Inside!"
While he was still in agony an unseen hand seized him by the collar of his jacket and roughly hauled him across the room. There he was thrown down into a plain high-backed wooden chair which was positioned squarely in front of the dim outlines of a large, imposing desk. For a few moments the only sound in the room was the rasp of his own labored breathing.
Presently a dark form stirred behind the desk and a voice--very calm, very measured, said, "Hans, some light if you please."
A third, heretofore unnoticed figure moved out of the shadows and padded across the thick, plush carpeting to the large window situated right directly behind the desk. Grasping the cord, Hans carefully drew back the thick drapes. Per his chief's instructions, he merely cracked open the drapes enough to allow a narrow beam of sunlight to slip through. Like a long accusing finger the light fell onto the fearful Zeissler in such a matter that it bisected him perfectly as he sat stiffly in his chair.
"Thank you, Hans," said the voice from behind the desk.
In light of the present circumstances the effect of these polite, almost tranquil tones on Zeissler was to make the voice across the desk seem even more menacing to him than it normally was. And that in itself was quite menacing enough.
His task done, Hans silently moved back across the room and once more took up his position by the door.
Karl Brachmann, former Wehrmacht captain turned smuggler and profiteer, leaned forward out of the shadows into the strip of light. Propping his elbow on the desk, he cradled his brow of his shaven head into the palm of his hand as if suddenly stricken by some severe malady. "Tell me, Gerhard," he patiently began, "do you remember that night in the Kursk salient?"
Of course he did. How could he forget? "Yes, Herr Brachmann," he quietly answered.
"And do you remember what happened when Corporal Aust failed to carry out my instructions?"
It was not necessary that Zeissler possess any kind of physic ability to understand where this was going. In the raging maelstrom that stemmed from the titanic German offensive in the summer of '43, Brachmann's unit had found itself in the desperate position of being hemmed in on three sides by the ferocious Red Army. Nearly surrounded, their radio dead, Brachmann had ordered Aust to get a message through to regimental headquarters asking permission to fall back. Though wholly justifiable considering the circumstances, in the Wehrmacht it was nevertheless no small matter to retreat without orders.
Then, when Aust had disappeared into the night only to return in a suspiciously short period and saying he had been unable to get through, Brachmann had at that point took the necessary step that he felt any proper Wehrmacht officer in his situation would have done.
"You shot him...Herr Brachmann."
"I meted out the just and proper punishment for his failure," Brachmann patiently corrected him.
As for Zeissler he was not too certain about the adjectives "just" and "proper" but there was no disputing the fact that a bullet to the brain was punishment all right. Aust's actions had undoubtedly been cowardly it was true, but who was to say any other of the other men under Brachmann's command would have behaved differently given the circumstances?
Brachmann lifted up his head, letting his palm drag across his face. Next came his grim pronouncement, "And now you too have failed me, Gerhard."
And there it was, what Gerhard Zeissler had been fearing ever since this sadistic Greek goon at his back had burst in on him in that brothel down in Larissa. At the time he had been right in the middle of a "transaction" with two fine examples of the local talent but the sight of the barrel of the Luger inches away from his nose had for some reason worked to kill the mood for him.
Coming from a man like Brachmann the word "failure" was practically as good as a death sentence. "But, Herr Brachmann," he implored, "If you will only give me chance. I'm sure I can--"
Brachmann's calm air fell away as he violently smacked the palm of his hand down on the desk. "Give you a chance!" he thundered. "Why? So you can show me once and for all how truly incompetent you are? I entrusted you with an extremely important mission and this...this is how you seek to repay that trust? By letting someone knock your stupid brains out and take the stone? And after your blunder did you come without delay directly back to tell me of your failure? NO! You had the gall to slink to a Larissan whorehouse! A whorehouse! What were you thinking, you imbecile?"
"How was I supposed to know somebody else was after the stone?" bleated Zeissler.
Hearing this, Brachmann contemptuously jerked his head up and to the right. "You fool!" he growled. "Did the war teach you nothing? One should always expect the unexpected."
To his horror Zeissler felt the barrel of the ever present Luger press hard against the nape of his neck. "N--no," he pleaded. "Wait!"
Thrusting his shaking hand under his jacket, he reached into his shirt pocket and extracted the small scrap of paper. "See?" he asked, almost choking. "Another archaeologist. Maybe this one knows something about it. Perhaps if we pay her a little visit...."
However at the moment Brachmann was still much too angry to be placated by this simple piece of paper. It was not that he was upset about the death of this Frailing--far from it. What he really found upsetting was that Zeissler had been incredibly sloppy in his work and more than anything Karl Brachmann despised sloppiness and inattentiveness to duty. He simply would not stand for it either in himself or those subject to his orders. "I should kill you, Gerhard," he said in flat, even tones which only served to make it all the more intimidating for Zeissler. Brachmann was one of those people who reveled in exercising power over others and by extension loved to have others fear him. Despite his anger, it was necessary that he hear his minion out. There was a lot of money at stake here. So it was for this reason that he let Zeissler hang for a few excruciating seconds longer before finally nodding to his man to lower the pistol.
He leaned forward and roughly snatched the scrap of paper from Zeissler's hand. Quickly then he scanned it for a moment. "What is this?" he sharply demanded. "It tells me nothing! The only thing I can use this for is to wipe my ass! Can you no longer carry out even the simplest of orders? All you had to do was bring me the stone but what do you do? You bring me..." Angrily he crumpled up the notebook page in his hand. "...this!"
Fuming, Brachmann for some reason picked the paper back up and smoothed it out in order to look at it again. Like Zeissler, Brachmann read and spoke English very well. Reading the page more carefully this time, he quickly focused in on the same catch words that had caught Zeissler's eye back in Frailing's tent... "Covington"..."Volos"..."interpret the stone..." Volos eh? he thought. Maybe this troglodyte was right. Maybe it would be possible to salvage this mess after all. It was a long shot but it just might be possible that this Covington knew something after all. Perhaps he had even had a hand in stealing it from this fool Zeissler. Faced now with the loss of the ten thousand pounds he was to have received for obtaining the stone he reasoned it certainly was worth checking out.
To be sure his client would be none too pleased about Zeissler's failure. Well that was too bad. What was he going to do? Sue him for breach of contract? What was done was done and there was nothing anyone could do about it now except to try to again. Besides, if the thing turned out to be of any value Brachmann fully intended to keep it for himself anyway. As the former Wehrmacht captain saw it this was just another mission and like all the others one he would do everything in his considerable power to ensure its success. It was simply going to take a little longer than previously thought, that was all. Sooner or later he would get the stone and his client's ten thousand pounds. Already he was thinking that if he played his cards right, he just might find a way to keep both.
Zeissler sat sweating it out for a few anxious moments and was heartened to see Brachmann carefully fold the paper up tuck it into his shirt pocket.
"This Covington must be located at once," Brachmann declared.
Greatly relieved that Brachmann's anger seemed to have dissipated, Zeissler hopefully offered up, "With your permission I will leave for Volos at once, Herr Brachmann."
Brachmann eyed his underling with all the emotion of a bored housewife selecting vegetables at the market. "Ahh no, Gerhard," he replied, vapid to the extreme. "I think not."
In one short breath the feelings of foreboding again descended on Zeissler, enshrouding him with a sense of fear so profound it was almost suffocating. "But--Herr Brachmann, I--"
"You are no longer reliable," Brachmann darkly interjected. "Therefore you are of no further use to me." He then looked into the darkness behind Zeissler's head and gave a curt nod to the shadowy Hans who, like some deadly beast of prey stalking his next victim, had silently moved in to join the other man standing behind Zeissler.
Fully aware of the potential danger he was now facing, Zeissler half turned in his chair and attempted to rise. Almost immediately a million tiny explosions of light filled his head as the big Greek cracked him hard in the head with the Luger. Zeissler's knees turned to rubber and, slumping back down, he was vaguely aware that someone had now seized him by the hair and was roughly jerking his head erect.
As he strolled past on his way out of the room Brachmann was but a dark, nebulous shadow to the stricken man. His senses were reeling and in his present state Zeissler was not quite sure whether or not he had heard Brachmann mutter, "Finish him." Not that it would have mattered anyway as he was no longer capable of offering resistance.
His steely blue eyes as expressionless as ever, Hans reached into one of the pockets of his jacket and produced a piece of electrical cord measuring not quite a meter in length. Zeissler's death had been preordained from the start and as Brachmann's enforcer Hans was expert in killing by any number of means. On this occasion he had settled on ordinary strangulation for the simple reason that he had not wanted Zeissler bleeding all over Herr Brachmann's fine new carpet.
Hans nimbly wrapped the ends of the cord around his hands and, moving in, crossed his wrists to loop the cord around the neck of the groggy Zeissler. And while he strangled the life out of Zeissler's body he was rather glad the man was not much able to scratch and claw ever more feebly in useless struggling against the crude instrument of his death. Hans had known Zeissler for more than a year now and he seemed like a decent enough fellow. He even thought it a bit ironic that the man had survived almost two years and a half years on the Russian Front only to die at the hands of an ex-Wehrmacht brother.
Zeissler gurgled in agony one last time and Hans began to feel the muscle tension in his body slacken. In a way he was sorry that a brave soldier had to die this way but this was a new world now; one where such archaic notions as brotherhood and a combined sense of purpose mattered little. Now it was every man for himself.
The deed done, Hans looked over to the big Greek and said, "Herr Brachmann and I will proceed at once to Volos. Get rid of the body and wait here in case we have cause to send for you."
The Greek silently nodded the acknowledgment of his orders and Hans left to join his boss who by now was waiting for him in the car. As he saw it retrieving the stone was not going to be especially difficult. After all, how much trouble could this Covington give them?
Sliding in behind the wheel of the car, Hans started the big Mercedes and slowly drove down the long, narrow lane that led out to the road. At the end of the lane he turned left out onto the main road and at a safe, sensible speed started toward Volos.
"Ja-yun?" a voice softly drawled.
From her crouched position Janice Covington slowly unbent her aching knees and stiffly stood up. Peeking up over the edge of the cramped, ten foot by ten foot hole that she had been working in all morning, she wearily replied, "Yeah, Mel? Whaddaya want?"
Above her, on her knees and peeping down into the hole was Melinda. "I brought you some water," she said, handing down a battered old canteen.
"Oh yeah," Janice grinned, taking the canteen. "Thanks." Unscrewing the cap, she took a long drink of the warm water and then handed the canteen to the man with whom she had shared the long morning with down in that sun baked hole.
Smiling up at Mel, she wistfully said, "Damn, what I wouldn't give for an ice cold bottle of Coke right now."
"Are yuh sure that's all you want?" Mel impishly teased her.
"Why, Melinda Pappas," Janice replied with mock innocence, "you know I don't drink anymore." Only in her mind did she complete the thought. Much! During the past few years she had for the most part acted in accordance with her lover's wishes and refrained from the heavy drinking of her bygone days. But that had not stopped her from more than once this morning entertaining the notion that knocking down a bottle or two of cold Schlitz would not be such a bad thing after all.
"Why don't you break for lunch?" Mel gently urged. "I mean, ya'll have been down there since sun up."
Janice pulled the bright red handkerchief from her back pocket and, taking off her hat, mopped the perspiration off her brow. This was turning out to be yet another in what had been a long string of unseasonably warm days. Janice licked her chapped lips and then turned her attention to her hat for a moment, using her handkerchief to wipe dry the sweat band. Settling the dusty fedora back down on her matted blonde hair, she squinted up at the bright Mediterranean sun and emitted a deep sigh of resignation. Thus far it had been a disappointing day but then again what else was new? Up until now the only thing the excavation could be noted for was its complete and total lack of success. Janice was not accustomed to this kind of complete failure and so by now her frustration was such that she could hardly stand it.
It did not seem fair. She had waited sooo long for this opportunity! The three months spent in the Andes Mountains during the fall of 1941 marked the last time she had been on a legitimate archaeological site and ever since then Janice Covington had not always so patiently bided her time. For sixty-nine months long months--almost six years-- she had waited; planning, dreaming for the day when she could resume her life's work.
Despite this yearning she had for the most part coped with the war years quite well. The heroic service she and Melinda had performed for their country as members of the OSS had helped immeasurably in this. Janice was rightly proud of the role she and Melinda had played in America's victorious war effort. After all, there were not many who had done as much as they had to ensure the success of Operation Paper Clip, America's secret plan to import German scientists to work on the nation's rocket program. Their daring and highly secret rescue mission behind enemy lines to rescue the brilliant scientist Janik Cernak had drawn the praise of none other than the head of the OSS himself. William J. Donovan normally handed out compliments as if they were manhole covers but for bringing back Cernak Jan and Mel had each been given their third decoration of the war.
However even this adventure had been small potatoes when compared to their two most critical enterprises of the war. While on assignment in Costa Rica in June, 1942 they had uncovered and ultimately foiled a Nazi plot to blow up the Panama Canal. Then, in Tehran in late 1943 they had succeeded in nothing less than stopping an assassination attempt on President Roosevelt himself! And while for the rest of her life Janice would never speak of these valiant deeds with anyone but her precious Mel, she was secure in the knowledge that no one could say they had not done their part.
Still, she had missed her work. That fateful knock on her hotel door back in November, 1941 had in a very real sense signaled the end of one life for her and the beginning of another. So much had changed since then. Janice knew that things could never be exactly the way they once were and indeed she had no desire to return to that life of loneliness. With a soul mate there now to share it with, she was more determined than ever to reclaim that portion of life which, up until the arrival of Mel on the scene, had been the only thing to give her troubled soul any pleasure.
What ever her feelings about her work, Janice Covington's priorities had changed. For as much as she loved archaeology it now came in a very poor second when compared to the sweet, soft-spoken belle with the refined manners and the horned-rimmed glasses. Mel was such a comfort to her! When the millionaire Sidney Warner Poole's proposed archaeological expedition to French-Indochina fell through in early 1946 due to the continued political unrest in the area, Janice had grown angry, bitter....depressed. At one time a setback such as this would have sent her reeling into another binge of drunkenness but the loving arms and the tender caress of the gentle Melinda had worked to quickly quash any self-destructive notions she might have been harboring. To the cynical Janice Mel was her one beacon of light in a world full of darkness and evil.
However at this particular moment Janice's beacon of light was impatiently waiting for an answer. "Way-ul?" she expectantly drawled.
Sagging her shoulders in exasperation, Mel replied, "I said why don't you come out of there and have some lunch?"
"Oh yeah. Lunch. Sounds good." Turning to the men next to her she said, "Okay, we'll knock off for a while. Come back in an hour."
"Honestly, Jan," Mel went on, "I jes' don't know where your mind is sometimes."
Leering up at the belle, Janice said, "The gutter mostly. Now be a good girl and help me out of here."
Leaning over the hole, Mel extended a hand down to her irrepressible lover. Janice took the hand and then braced her foot high up against the wall of the hole.
"Ready?" asked Mel. Janice nodded and once again marveled at Melinda's strength as her friend ever so easily lifted her up out of the sweltering hole.
Once Janice was out Mel brightly said, "There ya go."
The man pulled himself up out of the hole after her and wasted no time departing for the shade of the canvas tarpaulin that had been set up on poles to provide shade and which was also the nerve center of the site's activities. The red handkerchief was still in Janice's left hand and this Janice now stuffed into a back pocket of her khaki trousers.
"Find anything?" Mel asked, peering once more over into the hole.
Making no attempt to conceal her disgust, Janice muttered in reply, "Hell no." For the last three days she had been searching the area for the location of what was believed to be the entrance to the tomb of a certain King Nonos, a 6th century B.C. despot who had ruled this region. So far she had found nothing but dirt and rocks, dirt and rocks.
As much as she was loathe to admit it, doubts about the validity of the tomb's existence were beginning to creep into Janice's mind. Dusting off her trousers, she said, "It's looking like more and more like this whole thing is going to be a bust, Mel."
Noting the trace of dejection in Janice's voice, Mel flashed her a sympathetic smile. She then reached up and began to carefully straighten the collar of Janice's loose fitting shirt. Her tones soft and soothing as she tried to assure her friend. "Janice, you're going to find it. I know you will. Melinda's faith in Janice was total and absolute but it was not merely derived from fact that they shared the same bed. By this time she had come to believe there was nothing the little blonde could not accomplish once her mind was set on it.
"Thanks, kid," said Janice, grinning at her. "But if we don't produce some positive results pretty soon I'm afraid our sponsors are going to pull the plug on this excavation."
"Well in that case," Melinda said, with mock solemnity, "we should definitely have some lunch while we can still afford it."
That's my girl! Janice thought, proudly. As a woman of grace and charm Melinda might project a genteel image but as Janice had learned long ago she could be plenty tough enough in her own right when it was necessary. This hidden toughness only made Janice admire her all the more. In her usually cynical eyes Melinda might not have come from Georgia, but she was still a peach. With a chuckle the archaeologist said, "I'm with you, kid."
Forty-five minutes later found Melinda sitting on a crate in their tent, frowning at the half uneaten portion of Janice's sandwich. For the life of her she could not understand how the relentless Janice could function on such meager meals. The woman ate like a bird! As a girl Melinda had been well schooled by her mother that a proper Southern lady simply did not over indulge at the dinner table yet even she was appalled by her friend's indifference to food. "Ahh, Ja-yun," she tactfully began, "you really ought tuh finish the rest of your sandwich."
At the moment Janice was sitting her own crate with her back leaned up against the tent's center pole. She had her arms folded and her short legs were stretched out in repose before her. Without bothering to push up the hat tilted down over her eyes, she issued what was more or less her standard reply to all attempts by Mel to get her to eat. "Maybe later."
Melinda knew it was pointless to press the stubborn Janice any further on the subject and so with a slight shrug of the shoulders she stood up and ambled over to the tent opening. Looking out, she saw the workers still in the same little knots of three of four in which they always gathered when taking their midday meal. As she watched them idle about she was struck by the thought of how very different this trip to Greece had been so far as compared to her first visit here back in 1940.
Golly, she wondered, had it really been that long ago?
It had been the turning point in her young life. Her decision to look up Janice Covington had marked the first time she had ever gotten up the nerve to leave behind her sheltered academic life and venture forth on her own into the real world. On the first trip to Greece she had experienced the thrill of adventure far beyond her wildest dreams. But much, much more importantly...she had found Janice. The tough little blonde with the seemingly perpetual scowl on her face had somehow seen fit to not only accept the gangly, often accident prone Southern belle, but to also in very short order come to regard her as her closest friend. To this day it meant so very much to Melinda that she and Janice were best friends long before they became lovers. While she was now fully aware of the ancient and almost mystical bond between their very distant ancestors, it was still a source of wonder to her how Janice had in such a short time so easily allowed her past that high wall she had thrown up around her heart. This was the kind of stuff one read about in poetry and maybe bad comic books and yet it was all too true. Whatever the reason, Melinda Pappas was truly grateful. Like Xena some thirty centuries before she had found her one true love.
She was about to turn back inside the tent when in the distance she began to hear the high pitched whine of a vehicle as it struggled along in low gear up the long incline leading to their site. "Ja-yun?"
"Hmm?" Janice grunted in reply.
"We've got company."
"Probably that damned Martin again," was Janice's sullen comment, as she pushed her hat back and grudgingly sat erect. Martin was the liaison between Janice and her sponsors. Usually he came up from Athens at least once a week to check on her progress and over the past few weeks his dissatisfaction with her work had become increasingly more apparent with each successive negative report. Janice was irked enough by her own fruitless efforts but her annoyance was compounded even further by the fact that it was to this smirking, supercilious little man that she had to admit those failures. He had been one of those people whom, before even uttering his first word, she knew she would dislike. And she had been right.
Fortunately for Janice's blood pressure it was not Martin this time. Catching sight of the big black sedan as it topped the rise, Melinda said, "IIIII don't think so."
Janice stood up and walked over to join her friend at the opening.
"Who do yuh suppose it could be?" Melinda wondered aloud.
"Beats me," said Janice, putting a hand on Melinda's shoulder.
The car made the final curve in the dusty road and slowly rolled to a stop some twenty yards away. The two women watched intently as two uniformed men got out of the front of the car and another man, dressed in a suit, got out of the back. After a moment's consultation with one of the laborers the men started toward the tent.
"Oh my," said Melinda, a little apprehensively. "This looks serious."
For her part Janice did not much like what she was seeing, either. Without a word she left Melinda standing there by the opening and quickly crossed over to her cot located on the opposite side of the tent. From under the cot the archaeologist dragged out the battered old pack which she always kept stashed there. Wasting no time, she thrust her hand into the pack and pulled out what she cynically referred to as her "second best friend in the whole wide world"--her well worn Colt .45 automatic. Janice stood up and pulled back the slide, cocking it, and with well practiced thumb engaged the safety by the means of a small lever on the left side of the weapon.
Hearing the heavy snap snap of the slide, Melinda turned and saw Janice tugging the tail of her shirt out of her trousers. With some concern she asked, "Golly, Jan do you think that's really necessary?"
"The way things are shaping up around here you can't be too careful, kid," Janice grimly replied. She stuck the pistol into the waist of her trousers and then covered it up with the tail of her shirt.
Even now guns made her nervous but despite this Melinda had to concede that Janice was probably right to want to be prepared. She had come to learn that the gritty archaeologist's instincts were almost always dead on when it came to smelling out trouble.
Janice rejoined her lanky friend at the opening and, looking out, saw the men were now only a few yards away. Brushing past Melinda, she said, "Stay here. I'll see what these palookas want."
Her voice soft but firm, Melinda answered, "No. I'm going with you, Jan."
For a fleeting moment Janice looked into the azure eyes of her friend, her lover, her life. The feelings of pride she had for her brave belle were far beyond her poor capacity to express so all she could do was wink at the woman and, in a low voice, say, "All right. But keep your eye on the bastards."
With an obeisant little nod of the head Mel murmured, "Right."
Janice thrust the tent flap aside and with Melinda on her heels, stepped out into the midday sun. "What can I do for you boys?" Janice half asked, half demanded, as the men joined them.
It fell to the man in the suit, obviously the leader, to answer. Before he did he stood there for a moment looking the women up and down; first Janice with her dusty hat, soiled trousers and wrinkled shirt; then Melinda with her clean white shirt and spotless khaki trousers. To his way of thinking it seemed that it should not be this dirty blonde with the sour look on her face who was in charge but rather the statuesque, immaculately dressed vision of loveliness standing quietly next to her.
Returning his gaze to Janice, he said, "You are Covington?"
"That's right." Gesturing to Melinda she added, "And this is my associate, Melinda Pappas. If you're here to check our permits I want to say this is the third damn time and I'm getting tired of it."
Such insolence! thought the man in the suit. Already he found himself disliking this woman. Drawing himself up in a dignified manner, he stiffly said, "I am Inspector Pratikakis." Here he paused and casually scanned the site. Pratikakis was a professional through and through but, even so, he now somehow felt compelled to toss out the barb, "I have seen many noted archaeologists come to my country." Then with a condescending little smile he added, "However I must say I have never heard of you."
Oh Lord! thought Melinda.
Janice never batted an eye at this. Instead, without missing a beat she returned his smile and in a voice laced with acerbity said, "Well that makes us even. I've never heard of you, either." She knew she ought to be content to let it go at that but she simply could not resist a little piling on after the whistle, "And to tell you the truth, I've never met one dumb ass, flat-footed detective that could even spell archaeologist, much less name one." Keenly she watched with no small amount of satisfaction as the man's cheeks flushed with anger.
Arrogant bitch! he silently raged. Arrogant American bitch! It was only with some effort that he managed to maintain his composure in front of his men. After all, he was not accustomed to being spoken to in such a rude manner. He was used to people showing him the proper respect. "You would be well advised to cooperate with this...'flatfoot,'" he warned her through clenched teeth.
Melinda noted that in spite of his heavy accent his grasp of English seemed to be quite good.
Whatever the quality of the man's communication skills the volatile Janice had had just about enough. "Look," she growled, "I'm busy. So why don't you stop beating around the fucking bush and tell us just what the fuck it is you want?"
Melinda understood all too well the meaning of the double use of the "f" word in one sentence and so to head off any potential trouble here she stepped forward and slipped a shoulder in front of her fiery lover. "Uhh, why don't we all step into the tent and get out of this sun?"
The inspector did not directly reply but instead turned to his two cohorts. Leaning in close, he mumbled something to them in Greek. These two both nodded and Pratikakis then turned back to face the two women. "Very well," he said.
Melinda wrapped her arm around Janice's waist. By pressing her hand gently against Janice's rock hard abdomen she was able to steer her still thoroughly riled lover back toward the tent. Janice took pride in her work and it was difficult enough for her to swallow Martin's snide little comments about her abilities--but at least he paid the bills. However she was not about to take any crap from some bull who would not know a relic from a rattlesnake. Alone she might have gotten into serious trouble but the tender warmth of the arm gently girding her effectively blunted that sharp point of her anger enough so that by the time she and Melinda were in the tent she had pretty much cooled down.
Looking the inspector squarely in the eye, Janice asked, "Now what's this all about?"
Pratikakis had entered the tent alone, leaving the two uniformed men outside to keep an eye on things. At this point he reached into a jacket pocket and produced a notebook and a stubby pencil. Opening the notebook, he said, "You know a Professor Alfred Frailing, do you not?"
Janice narrowed her eyelids and said, "Yeah. I know him. I know a lot of people. So what?"
Immediately Melinda feared the worst. "Is...is something wrong?" she warily asked. She knew this was a rather silly question. Of course something was wrong. Otherwise there would not be any visit from a police inspector. It was merely one of those things people say when circumstances make them feel compelled to say something.
"Three days ago Professor Frailing and a young woman named Millicent Connors were found dead in his tent. I've been assigned to question the foreigners in the area."
In horror Melinda put her hand to her mouth and gasped, "My God! No!"
"Damn!" Janice muttered. "How did it happen?"
Poor Millie! thought Melinda, sadly. In her mind she pictured the fresh-faced, ebullient young woman with the easy smile. She remembered the fun they had playing bridge together against the wily Professor Frailing and old Mr. Rupert and how Millie would good-naturedly banter with Janice when the archaeologist invariably teased them that poker was the only real card game. Millie had liked Janice. Oh, Millie! she silently lamented. You had your whole life ahead of you....
"Alfred Frailing died from multiple blows to the head and the girl was apparently asphyxiated," said Pratikakis, matter-of-factly.
"Asphyxiated?" said Janice, furrowing her brow.
In an effort to be helpful Melinda offered up, "He means smothered."
"I know what he means," Janice snapped. Had it been anyone else in the world Janice would not have given her sharp answer a second thought but this was Melinda, her precious Mel, and immediately she was sorry for her boorish remark. Even now she sometimes forgot how tender hearted the woman was. However this was not the time to make amends. That would come later.
Actually Janice need not have concerned herself for Melinda shrugged it off easily enough. She had long since learned how intense her friend could be at times like this.
"Why the hell would somebody want to kill an old man and a kid?" Janice wondered aloud.
"We were hoping you could shed some light on that," said Pratikakis, eyeing her keenly.
"What gave you that idea?" Janice warily shot back. What rankled her was not what the inspector had said but rather the intense way he seemed to be scrutinizing her.
Pratikakis pretended to ignored her petulance and replied. "The tent was ransacked. Obviously, whoever did it was looking for something."
"Did anything turn up missing?"
"That is not my concern now," Pratikakis answered coldly. "Two people are dead and I have been assigned to find out who killed them."
In Janice's own nimble mind it was pretty much clear what had happened. She figured that Frailing had been taken by surprise and, tenacious old coot that he was, had resisted. It was probably just Millie's bad luck to be there when it happened. Poor kid, she thought, echoing Melinda's sentiments.
Pratikakis flipped over a page in his notebook and at long last got to the heart of the matter. "When was the last time you saw Professor Frailing?"
Janice had to think for a moment before answering, "About three weeks ago."
"At that time did he give any indication that he might be on the verge of some important discovery?"
"Hmph!" Janice snorted. "How the hell would he know that? The man was an archaeologist, not a fortune teller."
Ignoring this, Pratikakis went on. "Would he have told you if he was?"
Janice had to concede this was a good question but in her mind she concluded probably not. Just like her Frailing could be as tight-lipped as a clam when it came to their work. Accordingly, aloud she said, "We talked in very general terms about how things were going from time to time."
"How about on this occasion?"
"Naw, just the usual shop talk. Like I said we rarely got into specifics," said Janice. "Did you check his records?"
"We found a log or, journal," Pratikakis told her. "However several pages were missing."
As she listened to this exchange Melinda began to wonder why this man was asking Janice all the questions. Not that she minded. Janice was so much more adroit at handling this sort of thing. Another thing that gave her cause to wonder was why this man here at all? Surely he did not actually think they would know anything about this terrible crime. Did he? In times past such a disturbing though might have sent her into a cold sweat but Melinda Pappas had seen many terrible things since that day she first boarded the boat for Europe way back in 1940. Adventure and risk was all new and even a little exhilarating to her in those first innocent days but now after all the horror she had witnessed that first little adventure with Janice seemed almost tame by comparison. Yes, she was still uncomfortable with the inspector's presence but they had done nothing wrong, after all, and therefore she saw no real cause for concern. All through the rest of Pratikakis' inquiries Melinda kept thinking about her slain colleagues. Later the only question she would be able to recall was the one about if Frailing had ever mentioned anything as being odd or unusual.
At last the questioning came to an end and for her part Janice was not sorry to see Pratikakis fold up his notebook and bid them good day. Despite her irritation at some of his questions she knew they had been for the most part routine and from what she could tell Pratikakis seemed satisfied enough.
As the inspector departed the two women followed him outside and from their vantage point in front of the tent stood and watched the three policemen climb back into the big car and start back down the hill. For Melinda her relief was tempered by an old familiar feeling of helplessness. She was so glad Janice was there because right at the moment she simply did not know what to do next.
It had been that way when her father died back in '39 except then the feelings of helplessness were so powerful as to almost overwhelm her. Fortunately her younger brother, Robert, had been a rock she could lean on and eventually the pain of her loss abated. Melinda had led such a sheltered life up to that point but with the death of her "Daddy" she recognized that things had irrevocably changed and her life as she knew it would never be the same.
Once she got over her grief she became filled with a new found desire to reach
out for something, anything, that would take her away from her mundane
life and out into the real world. To that end she seized upon an old telegram to
her father from one Janice Covington, little realizing just how much that one
little scrap of paper would alter her life.
After the car had gone Melinda sighed deeply and in a quiet voice asked "What do we do now, Jan?"
Her companion kept her eyes locked for a moment on the long trail of dust the car was leaving as the men wended their way back down the hill. Finally she turned to Melinda. "Not much we can do," she said dully. It was not a real answer but like Melinda the news of the death of their friends had struck her hard.
"I hope they catch the bastards who did it," Melinda softly remarked.
To hear Melinda utter such an indecorous word was for Janice one more shock in what was turning out to be a day of shocks. Melinda Pappas never cursed and had the circumstances surrounding it been different she would have teased her a good bit over it. But not now. Not with wise old Frailing and the kind-hearted Millie lying dead less than fifty kilometers away. What a waste! she thought sadly. For a brief moment she thought about the funeral arrangements and wondered who would be taking care of them. However it came to her that some of Frailing's associates would undoubtedly come down to Greece to claim the bodies and have them flown back to England.
"Me too," said Janice, answering her friend. Lifting the tail of her shirt, she pulled out the .45 and then proceeded to thumb off the safety. In an intricate maneuver she carefully eased down the hammer of the big pistol using only one hand. To be able to do this required some practice as the M1911 Colt came with an additional safety device in the grip which had to be depressed in order to free the trigger for firing. This made it difficult for the hammer, once cocked, to be lowered back down again unless one used two hands. For the experienced Janice it was a piece of cake.
Without a word she went back inside the tent and returned the gun to its hiding place. Only now did her thoughts return to the pit in which she had spent the entire morning. She decided there was really nothing left to do except go back to work. Somehow, though, her work no longer seemed as important as it had an hour ago. Two smart, good people who had so much to contribute were dead! And for what? Nevertheless, Janice was every inch a professional when it came to her work and part of being a professional meant that sometimes one had to disregard unpleasant circumstances and simply carry on.
As she watched the long trail of dust slowly drift off to the east she let out a long, deep sigh. Although only thirty-four years old Janice suddenly felt old. Old and very tired. So much death! It never seemed to end. It was as if some sinister black cloud was following her around, forever raining down trial and tribulation upon her. Her hope had been that with the end of the war she and Melinda would be able to put all the tragedy behind them and get on with their lives in as normal a manner as possible. And while the past two years had by and large been marked by inefficaciousness, Janice could take some solace in the knowledge that these disappointments were professional and not personal. Her life with Melinda was growing more wonderful with each passing day and she had been spared the awful necessity of having to sadly reflect upon yet another death. Until now.
"Well," she said finally, "we're not going to get anything accomplished by just standin' around here." Sticking two fingers into the corners of her mouth, Janice let out a loud, shrill whistle. This was her signal for the laborers to return to work.
"I think maybe we're too close to that wall," allowed Janice, nodding toward the meager remains of a stone wall extending some one hundred yards across the top of the hill. She believed there had once been a fortress here which had commanded the entire valley from these heights and that this low wall was the only remaining evidence of it. "I think Phillip and I will try over there, about a hundred yards to the south."
When Melinda made no immediate reply Janice glanced up at her and saw that her friend was staring across the summit with an odd, far away look in her eyes. Lightly touching Melinda's arm, Janice asked, "Are you all right, kid?"
More than the voice, it was the hand on her arm that brought her back to the here and now. Flinching ever so slightly at the touch of Janice's hand, she answered, "Hmm? Ohh. Yes. I'm fine, Jan."
"Are you sure?"
"I was just thinkin' about Millie," said Melinda. In truth her mind had been far away from Millie, and Frailing, and for that matter....Janice. For the first time in over two years she had just experienced that.....feeling again. Melinda felt uneasy as Janice intently studied her face and she worried that her friend might decide to press her further about it. The idea of that powerful spirit once again so near always made her feel apprehensive--even if the spirit was that of her illustrious, protective ancestor.
As much to avert that penetrating gaze as anything else, Melinda took off her glasses and wiped them clean with the handkerchief she carried in her back pocket. The belle had learned early on there was not much that slipped by those piercing green eyes. However Janice said nothing more and with the "feeling" gone now as quickly as it had come, Melinda was relieved to see that her friend appeared to be satisfied with her answer.
With a tight-lipped smile Janice said, "Try not to think about it. Find something to occupy your mind."
For Melinda this was easier said than done. With their general lack of success Melinda was for the most part left without much of anything to do. Not only was it she who took care of most of the language work but it was also usually Janice's habit when a find was made to immediately turn it over to Melinda and move on to something else, leaving the belle to do the delicate work of actually removing the embedded object. This often required a considerable amount of painstaking, even tedious work but Melinda never tired of doing it. Indeed, she was proud that Janice entrusted her with such an important job. For her part Janice saw it as a godsend because for one thing it meant she did not have to do it and for another she was well aware that Melinda was far better at it than she was anyway. Her friend was infinitely more patient than she was and it was this trait that, along with her sure hands and delicate touch, made her a natural for the job. Unfortunately, since Janice had found very little of consequence thus far it meant in turn that Melinda's role had more or less been relegated to one of tidying up the books and keeping her partner's spirits up.
In reply Melinda arched her dark eyebrows in an expression of solemn wistfulness. "I would update the catalogue," she said. "That is...if there was anything tuh catalogue."
"Jeez, Mel," grinned Janice, "you really know how to hurt a girl, doncha?"
Melinda put her glasses back on and returned her friend's smile. "Oh I reckon you'll pull through all right."
Janice chuckled softly at this and said, "Well it's good to know somebody still has confidence in me."
Mel's smile faded and her voice softened to that sweet, very sincere tone that never failed to touch Janice's heart. "Always, Jan."
"I didn't mean to snap at ya back there, you know that. I was just pissed at that cop."
Melinda's smile returned and she said, "Oh Lord, Jan. I knew that. I was just afraid you were going tuh conk him over the head with something."
Janice laughed at this. "Well I can't say I wasn't tempted," she admitted. With the back of her hand she playfully tapped Melinda on the tummy. "I'll see ya later." The archaeologist turned away and began to make her way across the summit. Already the man, Phillip, was moving to join her. Melinda saw Janice hook her arm over her head as Phillip neared and point to the south in an indication as to where they should try next.
Melinda watched the two of them for a few moments more as they walked across the site and then stepped back inside the tent. Dully sweeping her eyes over its dusty interior, she breathed a soft sigh. Under her breath she muttered, "There has to be something useful I can do around here." However, after idly wandering around the tent for a few minutes she came to the unhappy conclusion there really was not and so as a last resort she decided to kill some time straightening up the place. Even back at their home in Annapolis Janice was not exactly the poster child for neatness and when out in the field like this she cared even less. The normally quite finical Melinda did not mind because she well understood this was a work site and not some room in the Waldorf-Astoria. Besides, she reasoned, Janice really was in her element here and the less she had in the way of distractions, the better.
So Melinda diligently set to work, quietly humming to herself as she straightened up the tent. The first thing she decided to do was make the cots. Besides the absence of luxurious baths in her very own tub it was these hard cots and their scratchy blankets that most often gave her cause to miss their home. She missed sleeping in the big, soft four-poster bed that Janice had given her for a birthday present some five years before.
What she missed most about the bed, however, was having Janice's lithe body lying there with her. She missed the warm, liquid sensation of her lover's butt pressing against her tummy as she snuggled close to her on those long, dark Maryland nights. She missed enveloping the smaller woman in her arms and holding her tightly all night long. She missed waking up in the middle of the night to find Janice nuzzling and lightly suckling her breasts. Melinda paused from her work for a moment and smiled as she thought of how much Janice adored her breasts.
Out here of course, Melinda well knew that such things as soft beds and intimate embraces were not very practicable. This was not merely because of the limitations the small cots imposed but also because natural circumstances afforded them very little privacy. Even their tent was not much help in this regard. Despite Janice's repeated warnings not to do so, men were always bursting into the tent with one complaint or another. If not that then it was usually a call to break up some fight. And even though most of the men went home at night there were others who, having no other particular place to go, had more or less made the camp their home.
In the old days before the war Janice would not have tolerated these intrusions for one moment. Indeed, she would in all likelihood have seen fit to punish some offender with a solid crack on the head. However with the present political unrest in Greece it was difficult to find and--much more importantly--keep dependable labor and so she was now in the position of being forced to "grin and bear" many things she never would have countenanced in the past. The net result of all this was that it put a sever damper on the ladies' love life.
After the cots were made Melinda spent the next three quarters of an hour on other little tasks such as sorting and arranging Janice's papers and storing away items that had been left strewn about the tent. At last, with the small jobs all finally out of the way, Melinda turned her attention to the thing she had saved for last.
In the corner of the tent opposite the cots were a number of wooden containers ranging in size from that of a the proverbial bread box to crates measuring several feet in length. Most of the equipment needed for their work had arrived in these crates and on several occasions it had been necessary for Janice and the men to search extensively through these boxes in order to find what they were looking for. As a result what had once been a neat stack of boxes and crates was now a jumbled pile with empty containers intermingling with ones as yet still unopened.
Now, as she stood there before the mountain of wood, Melinda mentally took herself to task for her inattentiveness in the matter. This view that it was her responsibility came primarily by default. After all, if she did not take care of it, who would? Janice? Hardly. The gritty archaeologist was under a tremendous amount of pressure and consequently had far more important things to worry about than simple housekeeping chores. At the moment Melinda could not contribute in the manner for which she was trained. But she could do this. Straightening up a tent did not exactly require her advanced degree from the University of South Carolina but it was the best she had to offer at the present time. And so she vowed right there that if circumstances dictated this was going to be her job for the time being, so be it. She would not be slack in her responsibilities again.
So with a deep breath and a resolute little nod of the head she launched herself at the daunting pile. Forty-five minutes of hard work later found her nearing the end of her task. All that remained was for her to pick up the hammer and the crow bar Janice and the men used to open the crates and lay them up on top of the stack.
She had just crouched down to get the tools when the light in the tent suddenly grew markedly more dim and out of the corner of her eye she saw a silhouette appear at the opening of the tent. Someone was at the opening. Thinking it was Janice, Melinda did not bother to face the figure as she set the tools on the stack. "Come back for the rest of your sandwich, did you?" she teased. "Well, ha ha, I ate it."
Melinda still had her back turned when she heard a soft clearing of the throat. Like a bolt of lightning the realization came to her that the figure in the door was not Janice.
"Beg pardon, Miss. Are you Janice Covington?"
Melinda had already stood up and was whirling around when she heard the voice. She saw standing there in the door a man who looked to be in his fifties. His clothes, though well made, were very dusty and Melinda noted that he appeared not to have shaven for several days. In size he was only slightly shorter than Melinda and fairly heavy set. His face was pale with dark circles under his sunken eyes. Looking at him, Melinda could not help but get the impression the man was not exactly what Janice called "in the pink."
Still a little startled by his sudden appearance, she stammered out, "C-can I help you, sir?"
"Covington," the man wheezed. "I'm looking for Janice Covington. I was told I would find her here."
"Uhh no," Melinda answered, As discreetly as she dared away from him and back to the stack of boxes. "I mean...she--she's out on the site." Though not nearly as shy as she had been before meeting the dynamic Janice, Melinda still often found herself nervous when alone among strangers. And no doubt about it, this fellow darkening her door certainly looked strange to her.
Judging from the tired way he seemed so slump at the shoulders the belle did not really think he posed all that much of a threat. Nevertheless, she decided the prudent thing to do was to take a page from Janice's book and be ready--just in case. This was what had necessitated her slight pivot. She wanted to be able to get to the crow bar should the need arise.
"Please," the man said, his voice still breathless. "It's imperative that I speak with her at once."
"All right," said Melinda evenly. She could see the man was obviously in distress. She was still a little apprehensive about his sudden appearance but, compassionate soul that she was, she could not help but feel concern for him. He really did look to be in a bad way.
Stretching out a long arm, she pointed toward the cots and said, "If you want you can sit over there while I go get her."
For a few tense moments the man looked wildly at her and seemed hesitant to answer, causing Melinda to wonder if it might not come down to the crow bar after all. Then, to her great relief, she saw him sag his shoulders even more and wearily nod his assent. "Very well," he said, practically lurching his way into the tent. "But do hurry."
This entreatment was wholly unnecessary because as soon as the man was far
enough removed from the opening Melinda was out of the hole and gone.
At the sound of her name Janice Covington looked up from the grid she had been busily laying out. Looking back across the summit toward the main tent, she saw Melinda jogging toward her in that silly girlish manner--hands up, elbows tucked in--that was so characteristic of her. It was as if she expected those glasses of hers to come flying off at any moment. As always Janice was amazed that the woman could even keep her balance that way. She seemed so...awkward! Try as she might, those long, lean legs of hers just could not seem to be put in synchronization with the rest of her body. Janice knew all too well, though, that put those legs in water and this klutzy young lady swam like a dolphin! It was because of her Mel's swimming prowess that Jan had survived the torpedoing of their ship off the Yucatán Peninsula back in the late spring of '42.
Melinda was close enough now that Janice could read the sense of urgency in her friend's voice. "What's up?" she called out, strolling across to meet her.
Melinda trotted up to her and stopped in such a manner that it seemed as though all her body parts had not arrived simultaneously. "Ja-yun!" she excitedly repeated, after first pausing for a deep breath.
"Take your time, kid," Janice patiently coaxed.
Though long removed from the collegiate swimming pools she had once dominated, Melinda still made an effort to keep fit as best she could. As one might expect she really did not like to run but rather preferred other means of exercise. Nevertheless, the quarter mile she had just covered had not left her overly winded.
"There's a fella..." she said, taking another deep breath, "...back at the tent. Lookin' for you."
Janice squinted her eyes at the tent. "Another one? Did he say who he was?"
Melinda shook her head. "All he said was he had tuh see you. He acted like it was very urgent."
"Urgent, huh?" Janice snorted and said, "I'll bet. It's probably some palooka looking for a handout."
"I don't know, Jan," countered Melinda. In a low conspiratorial tone she added, "He sounds British."
Janice was not impressed. "So? There are lots of Limeys who are palookas too, Mel. Remember Smythe?"
Melinda wrinkled her nose. "Was he British?"
"Yep." Janice paused for a moment and the quizzically looked up at her friend. "Wasn't he?" Though surely the last, her run-in with the unfortunate Smythe and his henchmen back in 1940 had not been the first she and the man had locked horns. Yet only now did Janice realize she was not exactly sure just what his nationality was--or had been.
With a shrug she answered her own question, "With a silly accent like that he must have been."
Janice's stress on "silly accent" was not lost on her lovely Southern friend. Melinda puffed herself up in mock indignation and stuck her nose into the air. In a most exaggerated down home drawl she said, "Hmph. Janice Cuvintun, I reckon I simply jes' don't know what ya'll are talkin' about. If yuh ask me it's you Yankees what talk funny."
Janice chuckled and in turn the belle flashed that dazzling which she reserved only for her lover and her lover alone. Janice often teased Melinda about her proud Southern heritage but she always took great care to do it in a gentle vein. For her part Melinda took it in stride and sometimes even managed to give it back in kind to her devilish friend. However her heart was never really in it. Unlike the often acerbic Janice who seemed to thrive on waging her own personal little wars, Melinda had never really been comfortable with confrontation of any kind. She therefore was for the most part perfectly willing to let Janice have her little fun. Besides, she had learned there were other, even more effective ways of getting even with her.
"Well," said Janice, shooting Melinda an impish grin, "whatever nationality
our guest is, let's not keep him waiting."
With Melinda close on her heels, Janice stepped into the tent. Once there her green eyes did a sweep of the interior and, finding their target, quickly fixed a hard gaze upon it.
At the sight of the two women the man stood up. "Covington?" he asked, a trace of hopefulness creeping into his voice. "Janice Covington?"
There was, however, no empathy forthcoming from Janice. Casting a coolly unsympathetic eye at the man, she asked "Whaddaya want?"
Melinda, reared from childhood to be an impeccably mannered lady, was appalled by her friend's brusque behavior. She simply could not understand how a woman who was so warm and loving with her could project such an insensitive, unfeeling image toward others. Janice could be so positively...brutal at times!
Janice, of course, saw things differently. Her whole life had been marked by incessant struggle. It defined her very existence. As a youngster the struggle had been against the gnawing pangs of hunger. As a teenager it had been to first, get into college and then, find the money to stay there. After that it had been the inevitable struggle for acceptance and the fight to make a name for herself in a male dominated profession. Every obstacle that had ever been thrust into her path she had overcome with that dogged, relentless determination that was so much a part of her psyche. She had what athletes often referred to as "fire in the belly" and unlike the well-heeled Melinda nobody had ever given her anything. Everything she had ever gotten in life had been worked for, clawed for...fought for. Janice expected no quarter and, left to her own devices, would rarely give any.
Growing up, Melinda had by and large led a sheltered life with loving parents always close to guide her and make her feel safe. She had not seen the world as Janice had. Janice had dealt with people who would slit a throat just for a good laugh. She knew she sometimes caused her friend some consternation for her "to hell with 'em" attitude but that was the way she saw the world and not even the person she would die for could change that entirely.
Immediately put on the defensive, the man cleared his throat and replied, "I, uhhh, need your help." As if unsure of himself, he paused a moment before going on. "It is Miss Covington, right?"
"Just Covington," Janice answered, her eyes boring into him ever deeper. She did a half turn to face Melinda and said, "And this is Miss Pappas."
Slightly embarrassed by Janice's emphatic use of the title, Melinda shot the man a sheepish little smile and said, "I'm just plain ol' Mel."
Janice eyed her in tender amusement just for the span of a heartbeat or two before once more turning her attention back to the man. "And just who are you?"
The man forced a faint, nervous smile. He had heard this Covington woman was a hard case but even so he had not quite been prepared for her intense, take no prisoners approach. "Oh," he said. "Dreadfully sorry. My name is Kettering, Miles Kettering."
Janice recognized the name. Back during the early and mid-1930's Miles Kettering had made quite a name for himself. In the decade before he had cut his professional teeth working in Egypt's fabulous Valley of the Kings under the tutelage of the legendary Herbert Winlock before later striking out on his own around 1930. She remembered her professor back in college calling him a rising star in the field of archaeology.
As is soon turned out, however, this "star" proved to be more of a streaking meteor because sometime around late 1938 or early 1939 Miles Kettering's blip abruptly and completely disappeared off the archaeological radar screen. Janice had not heard of him since.
"I've heard of you," she acknowledged. "You were with Winlock in Egypt." Even Janice, who was not easily impressed, had to admit the significance of the work that had been done there. "That," she allowed, "was big stuff."
To Melinda, Kettering seemed pleased at Janice's mention of what surely must have been happier times because the man suddenly appeared to stand up a little straighter and to hold his head a little more erect. Glancing down, she now noticed that the stale, uneaten half of Janice's sandwich was gone. You poor man! she thought.
As if to validate Mel's assessment of what he was thinking, Kettering answered in a wistful voice, "It was an exciting time for me."
Though Kettering seemed to be down on his luck, Janice was not much inclined to take pity on him. She knew it was more than likely that if circumstances had been reversed and it had been she who was asking for help, Kettering probably would have already tossed her out on her behind without giving her a second thought. He would not have sympathized with her; he would not have helped her. But then, no one had ever sympathized with her. Except Mel. No one had ever tried to help her in much of anything. Except Mel.
"How did you get here?" Janice asked, suspiciously.
"I walked, of course," said Kettering.
That's a hell of a walk, thought Janice. Indeed it was. The summit stood almost a mile above sea level but by the time one negotiated the treacherous, winding road up to the top the actual distance was almost double that.
"Well," she sighed, "so just what is it that you think I can do for you?"
For the first time Kettering's face displayed a spark of emotion. His eyes grew wide and took on strange glassy quality. Grinning eerily he said, "I think your question should be what I can do for...you!"
"Look," Janice shot back, annoyed by apparent reluctance to get to the point, "I don't have time for this crap." She jerked a thumb over her shoulder and said, "I've got a dozen guys out there who won't do anything more strenuous than scratch their ass unless I'm right there to see to it they earn their pay. So either spill the beans or scram outta here."
"You are most ahh...unique," said Kettering, still smiling. "Just like I was told." Noting the sour expression on the woman's face, he quickly added, "And I do mean that as a compliment."
Janice turned her head askance and looked at him out of the corner of her eye as if not quite sure what to make of the man.
Melinda sensed her lover's blood pressure was beginning to rise and so deemed it was time for her to step in. If Janice got angry there was no telling what she might do. In soothing tones that were meant as much for her lover as for the stranger, Mel urged, "If you would jes' tell us what it is you want, Mister Kettering, Janice and I might be able to help."
"Mel, why the hell should we help this guy?" Janice asked.
"Money," Kettering broke in. "More than you've ever dreamed of."
Eyeing him up and down, Janice said, "You just bought yourself a little more time, pal. So use it."
Kettering's weird grin widened again. "What do you know about a 4th century B.C. chap by the name of Harpalus?"
"He was a crony of Alexander the Great, right?" said Janice.
A little hesitantly Melinda said, "Harpalus was a lifelong friend of Alexander the Great. After Alexander assumed the throne he made Harpalus the royal treasurer. Later he tried to flee to Athens because it was discovered he was keeping for himself a healthy portion of the loot Alexander was sending back to Macedonia."
"Quite so, young lady," said Kettering, nodding his approval.
"Hmph," Janice snorted. "He'd just be your typical run of the mill congressman today."
With the discussion turning to the time of the legendary conqueror, the meteoric Alexander, Melinda's interest in the exchange between Janice and Kettering increased exponentially. She had been a mere child of ten when first her father told her the story of the young man whose very name had made nations from the Aegean Sea to the Indus River quake with fear. Ever since then she had held a strong, some would even say unusual fascination for the brilliant warrior. Even Melinda herself did not quite know why this ancient conqueror, dead before his thirty-fifth birthday, was so firmly ingrained in her imagination. She certainly was no student of military history. Nevertheless, she had made an extensive study of not only his life and the impact of his reign, but of his great campaigns as well, voraciously reading anything and everything she could lay her hands on. Many had been the time when, while poring over some musty book about his life, Melinda herself had given pause and wondered just what it was she was doing only to always return to her reading, her hand perfunctorily turning the pages time after time as if guided by some unseen force.
What Melinda did not, could not know, what even Xena, the spirit that was such a large part of the belle's soul had not made known to her, was that not only was Alexander, son of Phillip of Macedonia, in fact a direct descendant of the long forgotten warrioress from Amphipolis, but it was through his once royal lineage that one Melinda Pappas of Columbia, South Carolina was linked to her. In short Mel Pappas was a direct descendant of both! Had her interest indeed been sparked by the spirit of Alexander the Great himself, his own hand reaching out across two millennia to touch this, his most unwarlike of progeny? Or was it mere coincidence? Who could say for certain? Still, if Xena could do it....
"Okay," said Janice, "so Harpalus was a bad egg. What's that got to do with me?"
A faint, knowing smile played across Kettering's lips. From the scant information he had been able to glean about this intense young woman he knew she had once been quite a carouser. Now he hoped that some remnant of that persona still remained. "Covington," he asked, "that long trek up the mountain has left me feeling rather jittery. You wouldn't happen to have anything to calm a man's nerves, would you?"
Janice understood well enough what he meant. It was apparent she was not going to get rid of the man any time soon so.....
The little archaeologist shifted uncomfortably and Kettering saw her cast a darting, almost wary glance at the statuesque beauty standing quietly next to her. Her voice uncharacteristically hesitant, she replied, "I...might."
Well well, thought Kettering, so the Spitfire is human after all! His spirits buoyed by this unexpected revelation, Kettering said, "Well by all means, Covington, do bring it out. We can make a toast."
I was right, thought Janice, this guy is nuts! Still, he did look to be somewhat the worse for wear and Janice reckoned that a good stiff belt might just do him some good. The only problem was in order to do that she would have to produce the bottle which Melinda had known nothing about. Until now.
Oh well, she thought, it's too late now. From the very beginning of their relationship Melinda had frowned mightily on Janice's drinking and it was a tribute to Janice's all encompassing love for her that she had in effect pulled back from the very brink of alcoholism to a point where she now rarely drank at all.
Casting a furtive glance at Melinda, Janice knelt down beside her cot and again reached under for her pack. "All right, Kettering, I'll play ball," she said. "So what are we toasting?"
The strange look returned to Kettering's eyes and with almost a giggle he said, "Possibilities, Covington, possibilities. It is quite possible that you could soon be a very rich young woman."
"Rich, huh?" Janice sardonically replied. "I'd like to have a sawbuck for every time I've heard that." Janice thrust her hand into the bag to get the bottle she felt a finger reassuringly brush against the hard steel barrel of the .45 automatic. For a millisecond she wondered if it ought not to be the gun she should take from the bag and not the bottle but in the end she decided that, crazy though he seemed to be, Kettering posed no real threat. After all, she had handled fellows a lot tougher than him with nothing more than her bare hands.
"Here we go," said Janice, bringing out the bottle.
It bore no label but it was of the size that Americans commonly called a "fifth" and Melinda saw that it was slightly less than half full. The sight of it made her more apprehensive than angry. After all, Janice was her own woman and certainly not bound by any feeble restrictions Melinda might hope to apply. No, her discomfort was more due to her fear that, once begun, Janice would not know when to stop. Looking at the bottle, she thought it most fortunate that there did not seem to be enough in it to do any real harm. She had seen Janice drink men twice her size under the table without batting an eye. In the end about all she could do was softly ask "Where did you get that?"
If it had been anyone else the hot-tempered Janice would have bluntly told them it was none of their damned business. Melinda Pappas, however, was not just "anybody." Even so, Janice had no real desire to discuss the matter with her in the presence of this stranger. All she told her lanky friend was, "I won it."
"Won it? Where?"
Janice rose and set the bottle down on her little desk with a solid thump! "In town," she replied. Then, in an attempt to ward off any further inquiries Melinda might have, she quickly added, "I'll tell ya about it later."
Melinda of course recognized this hint for what it was and so she dropped the subject. She knew Janice wanted to focus all her attention right now on this odd little fellow and his silly offer to make them rich and she was more than willing to let her do that. Besides, Melinda knew there would be plenty of time to grill her friend about it later.
Janice swept up her old handleless navy style mug and pitched out the finger of coffee left over in it from breakfast. Pouring a generous shot into the mug, she handed it to Kettering and said, "Miles Kettering, meet Mister Jack Daniels."
"Always delighted to make a new friend," said a grinning Kettering as he took the mug.
Janice raised the bottle in salute and saw Kettering cast an anticipatory glance at the raven haired beauty who was now merely standing by, watching quietly the proceedings.
With some surprise he asked "Aren't you going offer a drink to the other lady?"
"There's only one lady here," Janice matter-of-factly replied. "And she doesn't drink. Down the hatch."
Kettering shrugged and raised his cup. Likewise, Janice raised the bottle to her lips. Like the seasoned veterans they both were, the Brit easily drained the contents of his cup while Janice proceeded to knock down a good stiff slug from the bottle.
Finished, Kettering gave a satisfied little moan and said, "I say, that was rather good."
"Want another one?" asked Janice.
Kettering's answer was quick and enthusiastic. "By all means."
Janice shot him a little half grin and once more filled the bottom of the old mug with a generous helping of the whiskey. This time Kettering did not even bother to wait for Janice to join him; he simply downed the shot and finished it off with a contented, "Ahhh."
Eyeing him now with some amusement, Janice did not join him in another round. Instead she merely placed the bottle back down on her little desk. "All right," she declared, "now we're all pals. So why doncha just...get on with it?" Janice glanced at her watch and added, "And give us the Reader's Digest version."
"Of course," said Kettering. He had rather hoped Janice would offer up another shot of the whiskey but he had the distinct impression that the bar was now closed. And so, resigned to this unhappy fact, Kettering began his tale...
"I have always been fascinated by the Hellenistic Age. Even while I was with Winlock in Egypt I still devoured any and everything on the subject that I could lay my hands on. Yes, I understood well enough that if one wants to really make a name for himself these days in the field of archaeology then the surest route is through Egyptology. For the last century or so that has been the glamour field. Nevertheless the study of ancient Greece has always been the greatest source of the excitement for me.
So it was then that you can imagine my elation when none other than Lord Hanley of the British Archaeological Society contacted me in early 1939 about the possibility of conducting a dig on the Magnesia Peninsula."
This puzzled Janice. "Why on earth would Hanley want you to go nosing around on the Magnesia Peninsula? Everybody knows there's really nothing much of consequence there."
Kettering's lips formed a wry little grin and he said, "In the field of archaeology Lord Hanley was then and is now the most influential person in England. For the money he offered, not to mention the boost it would bring to my career by being associated with the esteemed Lord Hanley I would have excavated a dung heap had he wanted me to."
Janice Covington could certainly see the logic in the part about the money. In archaeology as in just about everything else, money talked.
"Besides," said Kettering, continuing, "as I said before, I was in Greece at last. At the time I felt, naturally enough, that this was only the beginning for me. Therefore it did not at first disturb me in the slightest that I was sent to such an ahh, unimpressive place."
"You said 'at first.' So what happened?" asked Janice. Already she was suspicious of his story. To her knowledge there simply was nothing important enough on the Magnesia Peninsula to spark even the slightest amount of interest in anyone, especially such a big wheel as Sir David Hanley.
"Per Lord Hanley's instructions I immediately set to work at a site that was known to have once been a favorite anchorage for sailing ships seeking refuge from those swiftly developing Aegean storms that caused such havoc along the trade routes.
Even with all my élan I was not of so different a mind as you, Covington, because as the days turned into weeks I too began to wonder just what it was I was supposed to accomplish there. That whole first month we found very little of anything and yet every time I was in communication with Lord Hanley he would invariably urge me to forward my findings to him posthaste in the most minute detail possible."
Again, this did not sit well with Janice's basic instincts. She smelled a rat all right but at first could not quite put her finger on it. However her puzzlement lasted for just a few heartbeats and soon enough the relentless tendrils of her razor sharp mind reached down and seized on the thing, pulling it up out of the depths of her innermost thoughts and into the light that was her consciousness. "Hanley sent you there in search of one specific thing, didn't he?"
Miles Kettering looked at her with something akin to shock. Any misgivings he might have had before about her ability and yes, her gender, were now thoroughly swept away like so much chaff in the wind. If I can only convince her to assist me, he thought. What a formidable ally should would be! "Damned uncanny of you, Covington," he said coolly, after a moment's pause. "But you're right, although I must say I didn't realize this at the time."
From deep in his chest there came a low chuckle and in a rueful voice he added, "The day I accepted Hanley's offer was the day my career went straight to bloody hell."
Janice picked the bottle of whiskey up off the desk and without a word poured him another drink. While Kettering gratefully downed the shot she asked "Well? Did you find it? What you didn't know you were looking for?"
Listening to her friend, Melinda immediately picked up on the subtle change in Janice's voice. There was less of that acerbic, smart-ass quality she used so effectively. The tone was still direct--Janice knew no other way to operate--but it no longer had that biting edge to it. For Melinda, who of course knew Janice's moods better than anyone alive, it was an easy read. Her friend was clearly becoming interested.
Before answering Kettering first wiped his lips with the back of hand. He then shot her a grim look and in a low voice said, "I found more than I bargained for."
All Janice wanted was the hard facts and she found this reply was a little too tenebrous to suit her tastes. "What's that supposed to mean?" she snapped.
"It means," Kettering explained, "that what I found not only ended up costing me my career, but almost my life as well."
"So what was this thing already?"
"One morning we uncovered a stone tablet lying amidst the fragments of a large clay pot. Judging from the positioning of the stone it did not require Sherlock Holmes' powers of deduction to see that this tablet had originally been contained in the pot."
"Somebody had hidden it," said Janice, stating the obvious.
"Exactly," said Kettering. "At the time I really did not understand the significance of what I was looking at. Why should I?" Answering his own question, he went on, "It was hastily carved and the inscription seemed meaningless to me and so I simply had it cleaned and stored away. The disgust in his voice was all too evident as he added, "What a fool I was!"
"This tablet then, it was the thing Lord Hanley sent you to find?" asked Melinda.
"He never expressly said so," replied Kettering. "Oh he's a sly one, that fellow is. However when I described it to him in my report he immediately wired me back with explicit instructions to send the tablet back to England at once and to never mind with the Greek authorities."
"In other words you were to smuggle it out," observed Janice.
"That thought did cross my mind," Kettering admitted. "But I assumed Lord Hanley had made some kind of special arrangements with the Greek government regarding this matter. Therefore I did as I was told. I crated up everything we had found, including the tablet, and had it all flown out, first to Italy, then on to England." He paused a moment for effect and went on, "A fortnight later I abruptly received a communication ordering me to shut down the site at once and return home."
"Didn't that seem fishy to you?" asked Janice.
"Of course it did," said Kettering. "It was here I began to wonder just what the devil was going on. I assure you, Covington, I am not a particularly dense individual but I was nevertheless puzzled by all this. I began to turn those recent events over and over in my mind until finally---"
"Came the dawn, huh?" said Janice, wryly cutting him off.
"Quite," Kettering replied, under his breath. "I realized things were not as they seemed. Immediately upon my arrival in England I was summoned directly to the offices of Lord Hanley where he greeted me with a pat on the back and a check for a rather tidy sum. He also hinted strongly that I could expect to be working for him again sometime in the very near future."
Kettering looked earnestly at Janice and said, "Now I ask you, Covington, what would you have done in a situation like that?"
"Me? I would have taken the dough and kept my yap shut."
"As I should have done," said Kettering wistfully. "Instead my curiosity had the better of me and I simply could not let it go. It certainly was not my intent to appear to be any sort kind of threat. And so I asked him about the significance of the tablet."
"His outward demeanor changed not at all however there was a barely perceptible hardening in his eyes and his voice seemed to take on an added chill."
"So what did he say?"
"Nothing concrete. He in effect pooh-poohed the notion that the stone had any real significance attached to it and, having done that, politely but firmly showed me the door."
Janice stared hard at him a moment and then broke into that predatory little smile that Melinda always found so unsettling. "A nice little tale so far," she told him. "But you know? You haven't told me one goddamn thing that would interest me."
As Melinda had already ascertained this was not true. Janice was interested.
It was Janice's reasoning, rightly enough, that if such an august personage as Lord Hanley was involved then it had to be important. Of course this all hinged on whether or not Kettering was telling some semblance of the truth. What she wanted now was to keep the man back on his heels and on the defensive. That way it would be much easier for her to catch him in a lie if in fact he was lying. After all, anyone could lie to a sympathetic ear but it took a real pro--like her--to lie effectively to a skeptical one.
She knew that Melinda would have found this line of reasoning dubious at best. Indeed the beautiful belle was a terrible liar herself, even more so with Janice whom she could not bear to lie to at all. On the other hand there had been the odd occasion when Janice, for whatever reason, had in fact found it necessary to lie to Melinda. Granted, these offenses were usually more acts of O-mission than CO-mission and could hardly be classified as anything other than "fibs" or "little white lies" but, even so, they always left Janice feeling liked she had somehow soiled her friend. Accordingly, she always tried to make it up to her lover in some fashion. What it really came down to was that rough, tough, cynical Janice Covington felt that Melinda Rose Pappas was simply too pure an individual to be lied to.
As Kettering formed his response to her challenge, Janice carefully studied every line on his face. She saw the obligatory widening of his eyes and noted with satisfaction that her vehemence had indeed upset Kettering's apple cart a bit.
The sense of urgency in his voice was now all too apparent as Kettering spoke. "I assure you, Covington, what I say is the absolute truth. I swear it."
"I never said it wasn't," the archaeologist coolly replied. "What I said was I haven't heard anything that would interest me."
"Not even the money?" Kettering incredulously asked.
"Well okay, that interested me," Janice admitted. "It always does. And it would interest me even more if you'd tell me how we're going to get it. But so far all I've heard is you whine about how mean ol' Lord Hanley used you like a Singapore whore."
In an instant Kettering's face reddened. "Damn you!" he raged through gritted teeth. With a quickness that would not have seemed possible from the man he then reared back his arm with the clear intent of hurling Janice's own cup at her.
His arm was at the end of its backswing, ready to come forward when suddenly he felt the weight in his hand disappear. With a surprised grunt he wheeled around only to see a wide-eyed Melinda tightly clutching the cup to her chest with both hands. In a move that startled even her, Melinda had in one swift stroke neatly plucked the cup right out of Kettering's hand.
In truth this had required no great feat of dexterity on her part. After all, Kettering had practically laid the thing right under her nose. Still, her quick thinking had saved what otherwise might have developed into a nasty situation. "Mister Kettering," she softly urged, "calm yourself."
"Nice work," said Janice, flashing her an impish little grin.
Kettering was not by nature prone to fits of temper and now that his moment of anger was past he was left only with a resigned sense of embarrassment. "Sorry, Covington," he forlornly offered up. "I'm not normally a violent man. It's just that this has become nothing less than my whole life. In fact, more than once it has almost cost me my life."
Janice was a very shrewd judge of character and she now saw something in his eyes that told her this man was indeed "on the level." It was not a case of her totally believing his story--she did not. Janice had heard a hundred schemes just like this over the years. However she was satisfied that, valid or not, this dusty little man truly believed that it was.
Aloud neither she nor Melinda said anything in response and so Kettering took this as his cue to continue. "I left his office filled with a sense of determination to find out why that damned little stone was so important to Lord Hanley." His lips curled into a smile of self-satisfaction as he said, "And I did. To begin with, all I had to go on was the inscription on the stone. I had taken some reference photographs of the stone and fortunately I still had them in my possession. These I studied until I had committed the inscription to memory."
"And what was the inscription?" asked Janice.
"It is of no real importance now that it's true meaning has been deciphered, "said Kettering coolly. "Suffice it to say it was simply a coded message left behind by none other than Harpalus himself to one of his allies. This message did nothing less than reveal the location of another stone, a map if you will, which I believe shows where his vast treasure lies hidden even to this day."
"Ohh Jeez!" Janice groaned. "Next you're gonna tell me there's this blind sailor after you who wants to give ya the black spot."
"Your jest is much nearer the truth than you imagine," Kettering retorted with an indignant sniff. "Except that instead of being marked for death by Blind Pew it was an English lord. You see, on at least four separate occasions an attempt has been made on my life."
"What would Hanley have to gain by killing you?"
"The old boy ran into far more difficulty than expected in deciphering the tablet and once he learned that I had in fact broken the "code..." Kettering paused and then said, "Well, Covington, that simply would not do."
So how did he find out?" the archaeologist asked.
"You would have to ask him that," replied Kettering.
It was here that their exchange was interrupted by Melinda's soft drawl. "Uhh, Mister Kettering--"
"Please, call me Miles," Kettering urged.
"Okay, uhh...Miles. How did Lord Hanley know where to find this tablet?"
For her part Janice was wondering the same thing.
"Again, I don't know," said Kettering. "Although I suppose it was a matter of being a calculated guess on his part, probably based on years of exhaustive research. It is my understanding that he was, indeed still is, quite obsessive about it."
Sounds as though he is not the only one, thought Melinda.
"Okay, so let's round up the strays here," said Janice. "Way back in '39 you say you figured out this tablet that supposedly leads to some ancient treasure. Yet only now, eight years later, are you getting around to actually going after it. I take it the war threw a monkey wrench into the plans of both you guys."
"Herr Hitler had other plans for Greece as you may recall," said Kettering dryly.
"I--we were up in Macedonia in '40," said Janice. "We didn't have that much trouble."
"That's because you got out before the Italians invaded that October," said Kettering. After that things got rather sticky. The British government advised its citizens to leave the country. Even Lord Hanley did not have enough muscle to overcome official government policy."
"But it's been two years since the end of the war," Janice reminded him. "So why has it taken you this long to get back here?"
"I was......detained," came Kettering's halting reply. Under his breath he added, "Thank God I was not too late." What Miles Kettering prudently failed to mention was that his "detainment" was due to having spent most of the last three years in a sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis and a variety other ailments.
Fortunately for him Janice did not press him on it and moved on. "All right," she said, "just where is this uhh, map supposed to be?" Naturally she did really expect Kettering to actually come right out and tell her. In her mind she was sure he had to be much more cagey than that.
He was. With a strange gleam in his eye he looked at the archaeologist and calmly replied, "Not to worry, Covington. I already have it."
The chief of police closed the manila folder containing the inspector's report and pitched it down on his desk. "I agree, Pratikakis," he said. "This was probably a robbery gone wrong and not premeditated murder."
"The old man and the girl are still just as dead," observed Inspector Pratikakis.
"In any event it's not very promising," the chief commented, as he leaned back in his creaky old swivel chair. "You seem to have hit a dead end."
"I know," conceded Pratikakis. "No one saw anything; no one heard anything; I could not come up with one solid clue as to either who the killer might be or even what he was after."
The chief touched the tips of his fingers together and thoughtfully gazed up at the dingy gray plaster that was slowly peeling down off his ceiling. "I think that for the moment you should concentrate your efforts on this..." Leaning forward he, picked up the report once again and began to scan for the name. "...Covington woman and her friend."
"I agree," said Pratikakis. "I had the distinct feeling she was not being completely truthful with me."
"Talk to her men," the chief counseled. "Find out if the two of them spent much time off the site, particularly in regard to Frailing. Talk to Frailing's people as well. Ask them about the nature of these women's visits to Frailing. Ask if they knew of any conflict between the two camps. Who knows? You might get lucky."
Pratikakis gave his superior a wry look and replied, "It would be the first time. This Covington is very sharp and certainly nobody's fool."
"And from what you say in your report, emotional and quick to anger."
"True," said Pratikakis. "But like I said she's also smart, very smart. And shrewd. She'll be a tough nut to crack. Pratikakis put a hand to the back of his neck and massaged it with a couple of very hard strokes. It had already been a long day and he was very tired. At forty-eight, he just did not seem to have the stamina he once did. When he was younger twelve, fourteen, sixteen hour days were nothing for him. But the war and more specifically the German occupation seemed to have somehow eaten away at his very core and left him but a shell of the man he had once been. The strain of public service under the Nazis had almost been too much for him. Arresting criminals was one thing, tracking down innocent people so that the Germans could cart them off to God knows where simply because they had not fit into the Nazi scheme of things was quite another. He had never known which unfortunate individual--including himself--would be next and this dread had very nearly broken him. Now there were times when it required using all his willpower just to get out of bed in the morning. Hopefully that would all change soon enough.
Finishing his line of thought, he said, "On the other hand her friend seems to be what the Americans call a "cream puff."
"How so?" his boss asked.
"She's the quiet type," replied the inspector. "Shy, somewhat timid, maybe even submissive. And unlike Covington she seems uncomfortable with confrontation."
"So I take it you want to ahh, 'confront' her."
"Let's put this egg in the incubator and turn up the heat," said the inspector. "You never know just what might hatch out."
Grinning at the inspector's pale metaphor, the chief said, "Just remember to tread lightly. The last thing we need is some sort of incident. We don't want to be accusing American citizens of any crime with the proof to back it up."
"The Americans might give us mules to plow with and guns with which to fight the Communists," said Pratikakis, "but that does not insulate their citizens from being punished for breaking our laws. I assure you I'll be the soul of propriety."
Pratikakis lifted himself up out of his chair and stiffly stood up.
"How are the legs these days?" his chief asked.
"Fine," the inspector lied. "They haven't given me any trouble for months."
"I noticed in your report that you did not interview Covington's friend. When do you plan on seeing this other one--what's her name....?"
"Pappas," said the inspector, thus saving his boss the trouble of bothering with the folder again. "Melinda Pappas."
"Pappas," the chief echoed. "A nice Greek name."
"She's no more Greek now than that bastard Mussolini was," the inspector countered. As he made his way out he turned at the door and said, "If that girl knows anything, I'll get it out of her." Closing the door behind him, he murmured, "And with a little luck maybe a whole lot more."
However he first intended to pay a little visit to a certain Miles Kettering.
It was not without a little irritation that Janice Covington now eyed the Brit. "Already have it?" she asked. "Then what the hell are you need me for?"
"Not just you," Kettering corrected her. He tilted his head in the direction of the surprised Melinda and said, "I need her as well."
Immediately Janice's quick mind grasped the significance of what he was saying. Somehow, some way, Kettering had learned of Melinda's specialty. Breaking into a slow, sly grin, she said, "You can't read it, can you? You can't read this map of yours."
"No," Kettering admitted. "That is to say I can read it--or rather, I thought I could-- but try as I might I cannot decipher it. You see although the language appears to be the standard Greek of the period but it does not seem to make any sense at all. I was thinking that since my language skills lie more in the way of hieroglyphics I might perhaps be missing something here. Here he paused and with hopeful eyes nodded at the belle. "I understand your friend here is something of an expert in ancient languages."
The only acknowledgment he received from either of the women was Janice's terse "You've done your homework. Mel here is the best there is."
"Excellent!" Kettering exclaimed. Beaming at Melinda, he asked "So what do you say, Miss Pappas? Are you in?"
"Well uhh, Mister Ke...Miles, that depends on what...Jan here wants to do. If she decided to help you then I reckon I will too."
"Such loyalty," Kettering breezily remarked. "It is so rare these days."
At this Janice felt the anger well up inside her once more. Kettering's tone had been ambiguous--certainly not snide--but still, even the very notion that he might be in some way belittling the boundless, loving devotion which her gentle partner bestowed upon her every day of her life was enough to make the archaeologist clench her teeth so tightly that from where she was standing Melinda could easily her them gritting. Treasure or no treasure, for two very precarious seconds the only decision Janice was pondering was whether to punch the man in the mouth or kick him in the groin. Or both.
Luckily for Kettering, Janice's real fury was soon gone, receding back to her usual irritation. "All right," she snapped. "Let's cut the crap and lay our cards on the table. How much are we talkin' about here?"
"The value of the treasure is inestimable," said Kettering."
"Okay, so you need Mel for the map," said Janice. "Where do I fit into this?
"You have a reputation as a woman who knows how to get things done," Kettering began. "A woman who is resourceful, relentless........" Here Kettering paused. With a faint smile he went on, "And who doesn't mind getting her hands dirty or stepping on a few toes to get what she wants. You see, I need that, Covington. I won't kid you, there could be considerable risk involved here and we may encounter a few nasty moments along the way. I need your strength, Covington. I need your determination. In short, I need someone with guts!
Well! thought Melinda. You certainly came to the right place!
"We need each other, Covington."
Janice, however, was not moved by this assessment or by his praise. She had more practical matters on her mind. "So what's the cut?"
His face reflecting his mild surprise, Kettering looked at her and said, "You help me find the treasure and bring it back--and I'll give you ten per cent."
Janice snorted contemptuously and shook her head. "No fucking way. What do you think I am? An idiot? Try again."
"Now see here, Covington," Kettering exclaimed. "What kind of game are you trying to play here? This is an offer in good faith."
"No games," said the archaeologist said, her green eyes burning into his. Anything we find we split three ways or it's no dice."
"Absolutely not!" Kettering exploded. "It's preposterous! This is my idea. I'm the one who did all the work on this."
"Tough," grunted Janice. "God damn it! You just got through saying how much you need us. Okay so you've got a map--so what? You can't read it but I'll bet you a battleship to a bobby pin that Mel here can. We can help you find that treasure, Kettering, but it's going to take nothing less than a three way split to get our asses out off this mountain."
"This is blackmail," Kettering croaked.
"Call it what you want," Janice calmly countered. "It's just a simple business deal."
"I'm willing to reward you handsomely for your help but I won't give up two thirds of the treasure," Kettering declared. "It's my idea, my initiative, and my treasure,"
"Go get it then," Janice said with a smirk.
"Don't be a fool, Covington! I'm offering you the chance of a lifetime. Ten per cent could mean hundreds of thousands of pounds, or more."
"Fuck you and your ten per cent!" Janice snapped back at him. "I'm not risking my ass, certainly not my friend's, for a measly ten per cent." Eyes flashing, she turned to Melinda and said, "I haven't got time for this. This is all bullshit, Mel. There's no treasure anyway." The face then softened and her voice became noticeably gentler. "So," she asked, "you wanna help me lay out the new spot?"
This was not a task Melinda usually shared in and so the belle recognized Janice's request for what it was--an excuse to get her out of the tent and away from Kettering's entreaties. "I'm ready when you are," she said to her friend.
Casting a glare back at the Brit, Janice said, "Good luck, Kettering," and then began to make her way to the front of the tent.
"Meeting's adjourned," Janice brusquely replied over her shoulder. "Now hit the road."
"You're making a terrible mistake!" Kettering called out after her.
"It wouldn't be the first time," said Janice. "And besides, I'd worry about my own ass if I were you. You know what the political climate around here is like. If you were to run into the wrong group of people out here after dark, well....."
Janice conveniently let her works trail off but Kettering caught her meaning well enough. More than that, he knew she was right. Communist insurgents were rumored to be in the Volos area and they took a dim view of foreigners, especially the British. It had taken him considerable effort to get up here and at the moment he had no real desire to go through it again. "I say, Covington, could I trouble you for a lift into town?"
"I didn't bring you up here," Janice coolly reminded him.
For the tender-hearted Melinda this was too much. Her voice as close to a scolding tone as she could muster, she said, "Ja-yun! That poor man is in no condition to hike back down this mountain."
"He got up here all right, didn't he?"
"Look at him. He looks exhausted." Her soft voice brimming with compassion, Melinda asked "My God, did you even notice that he ate your sandwich?"
Janice had noticed. In fact there was not much of anything that got past those sharp eyes of hers. In a weak attempt at humor she replied, "Jeez, Mel, I thought you ate it."
Melinda Pappas was not amused. "Now, Jan, whether or not we help this fella is of course up to you. You know I'm with you whatever you decide to do. But, darn it, makin' him walk back down is just plain mean."
Already Melinda's stomach was churning and her palms were starting to sweat. The force of Janice's personality was so powerful and to confront her always left the belle a bundle of nerves. Because of this she was content most of the time to overlook Janice's excesses. But not this time. Melinda felt Janice was clearly in the wrong here and because of that she simply could not in good conscience let the matter drop.
Janice stared up at the statuesque beauty for a moment, her own eyes--penetrating and pertinacious--locked in a visual embrace with those enchanting azure eyes she knew so well. Presently a look of amusement washed over her face and her lips slowly curled into a faint smile. Janice Covington knew well enough how difficult moments like this were for Melinda and she was more than a little proud of her partner for now taking this stance. To the fiery archaeologist it was just another one of those contentious little moments that she almost seemed to crave. All her life Janice had issued these little challenges to others, pushing them, testing them, measuring their wills against her own. If the other person chose to push back, fine. Janice had always been able to give as good as she got. If not, well that was one more battle won in her own private little war.
Her attitude was, however, markedly different when Melinda was involved. With every other human being on the planet Janice did not care one iota about hurt feelings or about inconsequential matters such as whether or not they liked her. All that she required of them was that they respect her. This indifference, of course, did not apply to one Melinda Pappas. More than merely important it was vital to Janice's psyche that Melinda not think badly of her. Yes, she knew better than anyone how difficult she could be. However, to Janice's eternal gratitude Melinda alone seemed capable of seeing through the hard veneer the archaeologist had built up over the years and into the innermost reaches of her heart. Only Melinda understood her. Only Mel...loved her. Even now, after seven years, Melinda Pappas seemed too good to be true!
Looking at the belle's sensuous, inviting lips now drawn tight, those classic cheek bones, the long black hair on her shoulder now being tickled by the gentle breeze, her tanned face looking imploringly back at her own, Janice's heart once again melted. "Yeah well," she muttered, "maybe you're right."
Thrusting her hand into her trouser pocket, Janice fished out the worn key to their old truck. "Just hang loose till I get back," she said.
"Let me take him," Melinda suggested. "You've already lost enough time today."
"You sure?" The thought of Melinda's herding that rickety old truck down the mountain was not exactly one that she relished. Still, the belle had done it before and, gazing into those anxious eyes, Janice could see this was important to her. Melinda did so like to be useful.
"All right," said Janice, tossing her the key. "You take him."
Melinda made a clumsy, two-handed attempt to catch the key and, characteristically enough, fumbled it away and dropped it. "Oops!" Back in her college days Melinda's friends heard this so often they had naturally dubbed her "Oopsie."
As Melinda bent her lanky frame over to pick the key up out of the dust Janice rolled her eyes and smiled. Retrieving the pesky key, Melinda stood back up. "There now," she said brightly, pushing her glasses back into place with the tip of her finger.
Janice's smile faded and once more she was all business. "Take the guy to town and come straight back."
"No detours, no pickin' up hitchhikers, no friggin' stopping for damsels in distress, ya got that?"
"Got it," Melinda assured her with a nod.
For Janice this was not enough. Despite having clearly established the undertone she still found herself compelled to forcefully add, "BE CAREFUL! Especially on that one curve, you know the one I'm talking about."
Melinda reached out and gently touched Janice on the forearm. "Don't worry."
I can't help it! thought Janice. "All right then," she said aloud. "Load our friend up and get him outta here."
As Melinda was making her way back to the tent Janice called after her, "Hey!"
Over her shoulder Melinda answered, "What?"
If that bucket of bolts breaks down don't go wandering all over the countryside. Stay with the truck so I can find you."
Melinda spun on her heels and, walking backwards, continued on toward the tent. "Jaaaa-yun!" she called out in exasperation. "I'm not a little kid! I'll be fine."
Though Janice would have been loathe to admit she was afraid of anything, the thought of her precious Mel being caught out in Greece's troubled countryside after dark, away from her protection, was one that terrified her. At the moment Greece was an embattled place, such a broiling cauldron of strife and political unrest that one just never knew where trouble might fester up next.
But as much as Janice would have liked to shelter Melinda and keep her from harm, she knew there were times when she must back off and allow Melinda to go her own way. Melinda herself had said it, she was not a kid but a brave young woman. She was smart and during the war had proven time and time again just how capable she really was. It was just that...Janice loved her so much!
As the archaeologist watched Melinda talk to Kettering a comforting thought came to her. If Mel got into real trouble--well, there was a distinct possibility that she would be able to count on the help of a certain bad-ass ancestor....
Janice never took her eyes off Melinda as she collected the still rattled Kettering and walked him to the old truck. A few moments later the relic's engine was coughing to life and when Melinda eased out the clutch the wheels almost grudgingly began to roll forward. Before long Melinda and her passenger dropped out of Janice's line of sight with only their long trail of dust that was now lazily wafting away to the east left to mark their passage. Instinctively Janice checked her watch. An hour at the most, she thought.
"Okay, boys!" she yelled out. "Off your asses! Break's over."
Instantly twelve men sprang to their feet. The foreman come over and she began to point out to him what she wanted done. The man nodded and then repeated her instructions to the men right down to using the same arm movements she had. The crew at once set to work and as Janice started off toward the far side of the hill the foreman rushed up and fell into step with her. After checking her watch once more she stole a quick glance down the road where a faint, wispy line of dust still remained as silent testament to her love's recent traversal.
Already Janice missed her.
Nearing the curve about which Janice had warned her, Melinda carefully slowed the truck enough to allow her to drop the transmission out of high gear and into second. Learning to drive, especially manipulating the clutch and the "H" pattern of a column shift of their car back home had for a time seemed like one of life's unfathomable mysteries to her. However Janice had been patient in teaching her and as most beginners do she had gotten the hang of it soon enough. A shaky driver at first, Melinda grew so confident and self-assured behind the wheel that by the time she was introduced to the intricacies of the old truck's floor shift she found learning it to be a piece of cake. To many this personal little triumph might have been nothing special but it was just one more indication of how much the woman had grown in the last seven years.
The belle negotiated the turn, leaving the truck in second gear because of the steep down grade that lay just ahead. Since departing the camp she and the dejected Kettering had not spoken at all, leaving both of them--oddly enough--free to ponder their own next move would be.
Finally it was Kettering who broke the monotonous whine of the truck's engine. "Your friend Covington," he began, "is quite the hard case. Is she always so difficult?"
In light of Kettering's mood Melinda had no real desire to debate him on the nuances of Janice's personality and it was for this reason that she tactfully answered, "Jan just believes in plain speaking. She's very forthright."
Kettering emitted a low, rueful chuckle and said, "Ha! You say she's forthright, I say she's downright choleric."
"She's not that way at all!" Melinda heard herself blurting out.
The passion in the lady's response caught Kettering off guard and he now focused on her with a surprised look on his face.
Quickly regaining her composure, Melinda began to expound. "What I mean tuh say is, you don't...know...her like...I know her. If she likes you, if she trusts you, she'll do anything for you but first..." Descending the incline, the truck to pick up speed and so Melinda eased down on the brake. "...you have to earn that trust, Mister Kettering. You see, unlike most of us she's not willing to give a person the benefit of the doubt. And for good reason I might add. With Janice you have to-"
Interrupting her, Kettering smirked "Prove yourself worthy? I find that a bit supercilious."
The blue eyes behind those horn-rimmed glasses turned ice cold. How dare you say that? she thought furiously. Who are you to talk about proving yourself?
For a fleeting moment she was tempted to enlighten him as to Janice's illustrious war record and to also challenge him to try to even come close to it. However they even now were not supposed to talk about such things and so all she said was, "That's not what I was going to say."
Having already antagonized one female today, Kettering was not about to repeat his error and so he wisely changed his tack. Hoping his voice sounded sincere enough, he said, "Frightfully sorry. I certainly meant no disrespect." He grinned at her and added, "But even you must admit she does have a temper."
Glad that he seemed willing to drop the subject Melinda returned his grin with a little half--smile of her own. "She does at that."
"How long have you known her?"
"Seven years," came the reply.
"You must enjoy working for her," the man remarked.
"Despite what you might think I don't work for her," said Melinda, mildly correcting him. "I work with her."
"Oh really?" said Kettering, his voice dripping with incredulity.
Catching the man's tone of disbelief, Melinda explained, "Jan has her work and I have mine. It's true of course that she's the leader. Golly, I could never do that. But Jan leaves it to me to do my work in my own way and she never interferes."
Here was the opening Kettering had been looking for. "Well I'm glad to hear that because you see, it's not too late, Miss Pappas." While in the presence of the daunting Covington his suggestion to Melinda that formalities be dropped had seemed appropriate enough. After all, Americans were big on that sort of thing. However here--alone with this woman of remarkable beauty--he found any attempt at using first names uncomfortable somehow.
"What are you saying?" Melinda warily asked. By now the incline was beginning to level out so Melinda depressed the clutch and pulled the floor shift straight back, settling it into high gear.
Very smoothly he replied, "Just that since Covington, as you say, doesn't interfere with your work, she surely would not object to you taking a look at something for me."
Suddenly Melinda began to regret being such a good Samaritan. More than that, she resented having her words thrown back at her like this. Nevertheless, what would Janice say? Would she even care at all? Then again, why should she? the belle thought. Had she not told Kettering she was totally uninterested? What could she say then? The only thing was, Janice was so unpredictable. The thought occurred to Melinda that just maybe her friend's indifference had for some reason merely been feigned. It would be just like her to do that, she thought. Janice was sooo crafty and an absolute master at such maneuvering. Still, she had not said so. But what if she had?
Melinda knew her lover all too well for this was in fact exactly what Janice had done. She felt that if Kettering was serious about his proposal he would be back--with a better offer of course. She had not told Melinda because the belle had this rather inconvenient penchant for telling the truth and Kettering would be sure to get it out of her.
Still lost in thought, Melinda heard her passenger utter an expectant "Well?"
"Golly, Mister Kettering, I--I don't know. I--"
"Oh, I see," Kettering nodded knowingly. "You are afraid of Covington."
"I am not!" Melinda indignantly shot back. "It's just that..." Only in her mind did she complete the sentence, I don't want to do the wrong thing!
"Miss Pappas, let me put your mind at ease. I assure you this has nothing to do with my offer to Covington. So come on, what do you say? I promise I'll make it worth your while."
Melinda did not answer immediately but instead merely continued to drive on in silence, her eyes riveted to the road and her hands tightly gripping the steering wheel. In an attempt to put him off she asked, "How do you know you can trust me?"
Kettering's smile was a faint one as he replied, "As I said this has nothing to do with the treasure. I would never ask you to compromise your friend." He looked at her in amusement and added, "Besides, I doubt if you've ever told committed a treacherous act in your entire life."
Hearing this, Melinda was not quite certain if he had meant the remark to be a compliment or some kind of wisecrack. Kettering sensed she was still indecisive and it was here that he decided to play his trump card. Reaching into the front pocket of his trousers, he pulled out a folded up wad of notes. This he held up in front of his face and said, "I've got twenty pounds here, Miss Pappas. Help me out and it's yours. That's twenty for what, five minutes of your time? Not a bad deal, wouldn't you say?"
Shifting her eyes from the road, Melinda stole a lingering glance and the money. Odd, she thought. With that kind of money he could have hired someone to take him up the mountain. Such a strange man!
Encouraged by her apparent interest, Kettering said, "Just because your friend Covington chose to pass up an opportunity doesn't mean you have to do the same."
Melinda checked the road and then took another look at the wad of bills. Twenty British pounds was a lot of money in anyone's book. With it, she could do something extra nice for Janice. Dinner in a nice restaurant maybe.....
By the time they passed a sign reading, "Volos 5km," Melinda Pappas had made up her mind.
For perhaps the tenth time Janice Covington stepped outside the tent and peered down the road that led off the mountain. Damn it to hell! she silently raged. Where is she?
The shadows were growing very long now with the sun but a glowing ball of orange hanging low in the western sky.
Two hours! Janice thought, anxiously checking her watch again. She should have been back two hours ago! All of her men were gone for the day, leaving no one for the fretful archaeologist to vent her frustration upon. "God damn it!" she growled through gritted teeth.
Stalking her way a few paces from the tent, she came across an old tin can someone had carelessly tossed there. Barely breaking stride, Janice sent the toe of her work boot crashing into the can in a vicious kick. With a dull clang the can was launched into flight and when it landed went tumbling end over end down the road until it finally came to rest some fifteen feet away. Janice abruptly halted in the middle of the road and stood there with hands on hips and glaring at the road as if it were directly to blame for Melinda's tardiness.
The sour look she now wore was the very one that Melinda had teasingly dubbed her "Pickle Puss." Right now, however, Janice Covington was in no mood for humor of any kind. Still seething, she spun on her heels and began to stride quickly back to the tent. Janice was worried, very worried. Yet she chose to channel her concern, her fear, through anger because anger gave her at least the illusion of having some sense of control over the situation. Otherwise, she would have simply felt helpless and Janice Covington hated feeling helpless.
Mel Pappas, she silently vowed, if you're out goofing off somewhere I'm gonna kick your butt! It was an idle threat and she knew it but at this troubling moment just the idea of doing something--anything-- was one that made her feel better. Of course she could not imagine ever actually harming her belle, even in her very worst nightmare. However this did not mean Janice would be above chastising her partner a little--but only after she was certain the woman was all right. Melinda would understand it for what it was--Janice's own unique way of conveying to her just how concerned she had been about her prolonged absence.
Janice entered the tent and headed straight for her cot. She had waited long enough. The only thing left for her to do now was to go looking for her friend. Snatching up the knapsack still lying on the cot, Janice was just about to reach inside for her gun when far off in the distance she heard the familiar whine of their old truck as it strained to crawl its way up the mountain.
Janice threw the bag back on the cot and rushed back out into the fading light. Sure enough, the old truck was just emerging into view as it rounded the last curve about a quarter of a mile down the road.
Thank God! thought Janice, heaving a sigh of relief. The truck got nearer and it soon became apparent that Melinda was not returning alone. Naturally Janice's first assumption was that it was Kettering, crawling back with a better offer.
As the forms in the truck became more distinct Janice recognized the familiar figure of Melinda at the wheel. By the same token, however, it was also now very obvious to her that the passenger was not the Englishman after all.
"Now what?" she grumbled. Suddenly their heretofore isolated mountain top was becoming more like Grand Central Station. Other than the "little turd" Martin, no one ever came up there.
The truck was less than fifty yards away now. Staring hard at the figure on the passenger side, it suddenly occurred to Janice that there was something oddly familiar there. The slope of the shoulders, that skinny neck...
"Son of a bitch!" she muttered in amazement. "That's Jack Klienman!"
And so it was.
Even before its worn brakes had brought the truck to a squealing halt Klienman poked his head out the window and waved at Janice. "Hiya, toots!" he cheerfully called out, as the truck rolled to a stop.
It was one of those rare moments in her life when Janice Covington was genuinely shocked. Jack Klienman! The last person she had expected to see coming up that hill with Mel was silly-ass Jack Klienman.
From the other side of the truck Mel chirped, "Look who I found!" Flushed with excitement, the Southerner pushed open her door and hurried around the truck to join Janice. From his side the still grinning Jack also got out and although Melinda's route was much the more circuitous, her haste was such that she and Jack were able to join up in front of Janice at precisely the same instant.
"Can you believe it, Jan?" Melinda gushed. "It's Jack!"
It had always been Janice's suspicion that Melinda had a soft spot in her heart for this strange fellow. It was not that the archaeologist viewed him as any sort of rival. Hardly. Back at the beginning, right after their first adventure together when the relationship between the two women was still in its infancy, there might have been some sort of chance for him. However in typical male fashion Jack had bolted, leaving the two of them behind to clean up the mess. In doing so he forfeited whatever chance he might have had with this elegant lady. No sir, it was too late for him now. Melinda was hers!
Janice's moment of surprise was behind her now and as Jack stuck out his hand she was once again her old steady self. "Jan, huh?" he mused. "Can I call you that too?"
"Not unless you like the idea of taking your meals through a straw," she shot back. Janice's grin mirrored his own but something in her eye told Klienman she meant what she said. She did too. She would not now or ever allow anyone but Melinda to call her "Jan."
"All right...Covington," the man said wryly. "Have it your way."
Just as Klienman had read Janice's eyes so now did the archaeologist read his. >From them, Janice sensed this man was perhaps different somehow from the silly buffoon she had remembered. He had a look that she had seen many, many times before and right away she knew that, like tens of millions of others, the war in one way or another had come to Jack Klienman.
"It's good to see you, Jack," she said, shaking his hand. Her words rang true. Although back then he had by and large been useless in their fight against Ares he had tried his best and besides, he was not really such a bad guy. "So what brings you back to Greece?"
"Lookin' for you guys," said Jack.
"For us?" Janice asked in surprise. "What the hell for?"
"We-ell, I missed you," he said.
"Bullshit," grinned Janice.
"Now, Janice, that's not very polite," Melinda chided gently. "Jack's come all this way tuh see us."
"You're right," said Janice. "We can catch up on all the details later." Turning back to Jack, she asked, "Mel and I are about to open up a can of spam for supper. You hungry?"
The face Jack made was an indication that he was indeed all too familiar with what servicemen had dubbed, among other things that were not repeatable in polite company, the "mystery meat."
Grinning slyly, Janice said, "It's the best offer you're going to get on the whole mountain. Hell, we'll even throw some crackers for your dining pleasure and you can top it all off with a cup of nice warm water."
Jack rubbed the three day old stubble on his chin and replied, "Well since you put it that way, Jeez, how can I refuse?"
This earned him a curt nod of approval from Janice. "Well come on then," she said. "I for one am starving."
Jack left the two women standing there and walked back to the truck. Leaning over into the bed, he grabbed the strap of a battered, heavily stained duffel bag.
Janice watched him hoist the bag out of the truck bed and set it down on the ground in front of him. Noting its pale blue color, she gave him a faintly incredulous look. "Don't tell me you were in the navy."
Her cutting remark left Jack feeling just a little miffed. He looked first down at his bag, then at her, and responded with a tart, "I didn't get this at the Army-Navy store if that's what you mean. Yeah, Covington, as a matter of fact I spent darn near two years in the Pacific."
"Hey no offense," the archaeologist good-naturedly offered up. "Just wondering, that's all."
Jack remembered Janice well enough to understand that this was tantamount to an apology from her and so his somber look vanished immediately. He was well aware the she thought of him as something of a goofball but he also felt that down deep she liked him. Just as he liked the both of them.
Hefting his bag upon his shoulder, Jack said, "Aww, I know that. There's been a lot of water under the bridge since I last saw you guys back in '40."
There sure as hell has, thought Janice. "Let's eat then." For her part Janice had certainly meant no harm. After all, as Jack had suspected she did in fact like him. In retrospect she realized she probably should have phrased her remark somewhat differently because for some the subject of military service was a sensitive one. There were those men who, even as their fellow Americans were engaged in bloody combat all around the world, had utilized every means possible to stay out of the conflict.
Now, however, with the war safely over and victory won, many of these same men were suddenly finding themselves uncomfortable with the oft asked question, "What did you do in the war?" They had begun to notice that even perfect strangers somehow did not look at these young men of military age in quite the same fashion once they gave their reply as they did when some veteran spoke of sweating it out in a submarine, freezing in a B-17 over Germany, eating sand on some hellish Pacific atoll, or simply performing some mundane duty state side. The point was they had all served. They had all done their part in the defense of home and country.
Obviously Jack was proud of his service--he had a right to be--and in truth Janice was glad he had. Even more, she was thankful the odd fellow had survived.
"Go on and take your gear inside," she told him. "We'll be along in a minute."
Jack nodded and started for the tent but just when he reached Janice and Melinda he stopped and with a wide grin took a deep sigh. "Gosh, it's good to see you guys again!"
"Same here," said Janice, smiling thinly. As glad as she was to see him, she still could not help but wonder what he was doing here.
Jack then continued on his merry way and as Melinda turned to follow him she felt Janice catch her by the arm.
"Not you," the archaeologist sternly whispered.
"What's wrong, Jan?" her lover asked. It was a superfluous question because she already knew the answer.
Janice waited until Jack was no longer in sight before replying, "Where have you been?"
"Didja have a breakdown or something?"
"Nooo. See, I--"
Janice angled her head toward the tent and once again cut Mel off. "Was it because of him?"
"What then? Damn it, Mel!" she rasped. "Didn't you remember what I said? There are armed bands from both sides crawling all over these friggin' hills. You could have gotten into deep trouble pussy footin' around like that. What the hell were you thinking?"
Now it was Melinda's turn to become irritated. Drawing herself up to her full height, she said, "Janice Covin'ton, in spite of what you might think I'm not a baby. Ah'm a grown woman and I can take care of myself."
"I don't think you're a baby," Janice quietly answered. "You know that." She looked deep into Melinda's lovely blue eyes and in a halting voice said, "It's just that... ya had me kind of..."
"Yeah," admitted Janice. "Scared. So, where were you?"
It seemed like a simple statement but Melinda Pappas understood the significance of what her friend had just said. She knew there was not another person on the planet that Janice would have made such an admission to and it made her heart melt. "Oh, Jan," she softly cooed. "I'm sorry I caused you such worry. Everything went as smooth as silk. I had no trouble at all. Really."
She paused and took a deep breath. Now for the hard part. "It's just that something...came up."
Janice squinted one eye and looked askance at her. "Oh yeah? And just what exactly was it that 'came up?'"
With a playful smile Melinda dug her hand into her trouser pocket and pulled out a handful of folded up British notes. Taking Janice's hand, she smacked the money into her palm. "This," she said, "is for you."
Janice stared at the money and in an instant knew that a major portion of her plan had just been sunk deeper than the Titanic. It was not that she was totally convinced of the existence of this treasure in the first place but it might have been a chance for her to make a few bucks on the side while running out the string on this dry hole of a dig. If the Brit wanted to play treasure hunter she was willing to go along with the gag--as long as he paid for it. But now things had changed. She had lost her trump card. As it was Kettering might still need her but now she would have to play her hand without that one big ace up her sleeve. And so it was with an understandably hushed voice that she asked "You translated it for him, didn't you?"
"Uh huh," Melinda answered brightly. She then quickly added, "But for the life of me I can't see the significance in the thing."
"What do you mean?"
"It's jibberish, Jan, just like he said. It's just random words on a stone tablet."
"How did Kettering take it when you told him that?"
"He was darn disappointed if you ask me," the belle chuckled. "Unless he was hidin' something in which case he missed his calling as an actor."
A little disappointed herself, Janice asked "So it's all crap then?"
Melinda, who was very sensitive to Janice's moods, read the look in her friend's and so it was with gentle commiseration that she answered, "It would appear so."
However Janice felt there simply had to be more to it than that. Kettering had not worked and schemed all these years without having some clue of what he might expect to find on that tablet. Maybe, she thought, it was a code of some kind. Maybe, she, thought, Kettering had tricked the ever trusting Melinda after all.
Nodding weakly, Janice handed the money back to Melinda. It was all she could do. Certainly the only blame to be placed here was on her own shoulders and she knew it. She had made the mistake of allowing Kettering to side step her and use Melinda. She had obviously underestimated him. You knucklehead! she scolded herself. You should have seen that coming!
Declining the money, Melinda's anxious voice of protest fell softly on Janice's ears. "But, Ja-yuuun! It's for you."
What a sweetheart you are! thought Janice. She understood that, in itself, the money was not really the important thing to Melinda. The woman had simply seen it as an opportunity to do something nice for her friend--for the both of them.
As Melinda looked at her Janice could see there was confusion and, yes, perhaps even a little panic in those eyes. "Golly, I--I didn't do anything wrong, did I?"
This was just one of the many little things that made Janice love her so much. The belle had not a devious bone in her body and so had merely taken Janice at her word. There simply was no place in Melinda Pappas' heart for deceit of any kind and it was therefore sometimes hard for her to see the dishonesty in others. For perhaps the thousandth time Janice had cause to wonder just what it was she had ever done to deserve such a precious gift.
Even so, she was not sorry she had given the belle such a hard time about her prolonged absence because in truth she had been worried far more than even she was willing to admit. However she was willing to let it go because she really did not want to spoil Melinda's sense of having done a good deed and, more importantly, because everything had turned out all right. She was safely back now so there was no harm done.
Besides, she thought, who the hell needed treasure when standing here before her was the greatest treasure of all. My God! she wondered in amazement. How I love you so!
With a smile Janice folded up the money and stuck it into her shirt pocket. "Nah, I was just worried, that's all." Giving her partner a mischievous wink, she added, "It looks like Mister Limey Kettering has been kind enough to buy us a night at the theater and dinner at the best restaurant in Volos."
This was exactly what the cultured Melinda had hoped for. She felt she that deserved it, that they deserved it. They had been on that mountain for so long now! Knowing her refined friend as she did, Janice had long since sensed the woman's yearning for such an evening.
"Ohh, Jan...." Melinda moved in close, towering over her shorter friend. Unfortunately it was just as the two of them were about to embrace that Jack chose to poke his head out of the tent and in that nasal voice Janice suddenly found so irritating asked "Hey, are you guys comin' or what?"
Janice emitted a frustrated little groan and then barked out, "We're coming!"
Jack's head disappeared back into the tent. "Ugh!" Janice grunted. "And here I was counting on some nookie for supper."
Melinda's cheeks turned a very nice shade of crimson as she said, "Janice Covington, you are positively the most evil person. 'Sides, we mustn't be rude to our guest."
With a dismissive wave of the hand Janice retorted, "Yeah yeah."
The archaeologist turned away and this time it was Melinda that stopped her with a touch on the shoulder. "Jan?"
"Were you really...scared?"
Janice turned back to face the raven-haired beauty and in an emotion filled voice that was barely above a whisper huskily replied, "Jesus, Mel, I'd die without you."
Melinda smiled and gently slipped her hand into that of her lover. Hand in
hand they walked back into the tent, neither of them caring for one second if Jack
noticed or not.
Stretching out his legs before him, Jack Klienman leaned back against one of the many crates and let forth a soft, contented belch. "I gotta say," he allowed, "that stuff ain't half as bad as I remember."
Across from him sat Janice and Melinda side by side on Janice's old cot. Together the two of them had just watched in amazement while Jack single-handedly polished off nearly two full cans of spam and half a tin of saltine crackers. "Well I guess not seeing as how you've damn near eaten us out of house and home," Janice remarked with some amusement.
"It reminds me of back in the fleet," said Jack, ignoring her good natured barb. "We always ate good on board ship."
"Ate well," Melinda gently corrected him.
"You ate well."
"Yeah, that's what I said," said Jack, eyeing her with a quizzical look.
"Forget it, kid," Janice chuckled to her friend, "You're over his head."
"Heeey," Jack protested. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Feigning innocence, Janice replied, "Nothing." And now she reckoned it was time to get down to business. Changing her course and her tone just that quickly, she asked "So what are you doing here, Jack?"
"Well jeepers," said Jack defensively. "Like I said I missed you guys. Jeez, can't a fella miss his pals?"
Unconvinced, Janice patiently repeated, "What are you doing here, Jack?"
Klienman started to protest but one look at those piercing green eyes was enough to make him cave in like rotten timbers. Janice Covington was too smart for him and he knew it. "You're spooky, Covington, do you know that?"
Janice was amused by this for in spite of herself she did like the man. Breaking into a smile, she said, "All I know is you didn't come five thousand miles just to sing Auld Lang Syne now didja? What are you doing here, Jack?"
"Okay-ay! he bleated. "You win." He shook his head and added, "Jeez, what a hard ass!"
Melinda smiled at this as it made her think of what a truly nice, oh so firm butt Janice Covington did in fact have.
Janice's own smile widened into a triumphant grin and she replied, "It's not my fault you're such a cream puff."
"What have you got on your mind, Jack?" asked Melinda. To her it was still unbelievable! She had not much more than stepped out the front door of Kettering's run down little hotel back in Volos before she had heard a certain familiar whiny, nasal voice coming from down the street. Sure enough, a quick investigation had revealed one Jack Klienman, standing on a street corner, laboriously attempting to extract directions from an elderly, white bearded man who obviously had no clue what this strange man wanted from him. Like Janice she did not think Jack had come all this way just to say hello, even though their first adventure had been practically all he had talked about on the drive back to the camp.
Klienman sat up and in order to emphasize the importance of what he was about to say glanced first left, then right as if making absolutely certain the three of them were alone. To add to the aura of conspiracy he leaned forward and whispered, "Something big!"
"Huh?" Janice grunted, herself leaning forward now.
"Fame and fortune, Covington," was Jack's exasperated answer. "This could put you on the map in a big way."
Janice leaned back and turned to Melinda. "Damn," the smaller woman said wryly, "this must be our lucky day. Seems like everybody in Greece suddenly wants to do us a favor."
Jack furrowed his brow and gave the archaeologist one of his patented looks of befuddlement. "Huh?"
"Skip it," muttered Janice, suddenly longing for the relative solitude the mountain had once afforded. Why was it that men always seemed to want something? she wearily wondered. "Look, Jack...I don't know what you thought but--"
"Now I know what you're gonna say," said Jack, quickly cutting in. "All I ask is that you hear me out."
"Couldn't this have waited?" Janice forlornly asked.
"Hey," he protested, "it's taken me almost a whole month to find you guys. After all that I've gone through I think the least ya could do is hear me out."
"How did you find us?" asked Melinda.
"My boss knew that you were somewhere here in Greece so he sent me to find you," said Jack. "He's got an offer for ya, Covington. A job offer."
"Oh yeah? And just who is your boss?" Janice carelessly asked.
"Mister Poole," said Jack. "I believe you know him?"
"You mean Sidney Poole?" asked Melinda incredulously. "Sidney Warner Poole?"
"Good Lord," muttered Janice. It had been over a year now since the two of them had heard from the famous or as Janice saw it, infamous Sidney Poole.
"One and the same," Jack replied with a chuckle. "He said to tell you he feels bad because that thing you guys were supposed to have done for him in Burma or whatever it was went sour."
"Indo-China," said Melinda. "It was supposed to have been in French Indo-China. Unfortunately it fell through."
Janice looked at him with that sour expression as only she could and with a faint sneer sarcastically said, "Oh yeah, I'll bet he's all broken up over it."
Turning to Melinda, she asked. "How the hell do you suppose he knew we were here?"
As Melinda shrugged Jack said, "That guy's pretty sharp. He ain't got all those millions for nothing. I got the feeling there's not too much that he doesn't know."
"He didn't know how to get us a job," Janice snorted, barely hiding the bitterness that still remained from the disappointment of losing out on going to Indo-China.
"Anyway I'm just glad I finally found you. Ever since I got to Greece I've been traipsing all around the country searching for you and let me tell you, it wasn't easy." He paused and as an afterthought added, "It's a lucky thing I bumped into that Frailing guy."
In that moment the whole atmosphere in the tent changed and Jack suddenly found himself the focus of both women's full attention. "Frailing? You saw Frailing?" Janice suspiciously queried.
"Yeah," replied Jack, somewhat taken aback by the woman's sudden change of attitude. "Good thing too or else I'd still be running around in circles."
Sensing something was wrong, he began to fidget with the flaps of his duffel bag and as he did a sinister and highly disturbing thought sprang into Janice's mind. Very deliberately she repeated the question, "You saw Frailing?" Down deep Janice did not think and she certainly did not want to believe that Jack Klienman was capable of committing such a vile act as murdering two innocent people. In fact from what she knew about the man she doubted he had the guts to kill anyone, especially in the brutally up close and personal manner that had befallen Frailing and Millie. Still, the lure of money made people do all sorts of things and who was to say Jack Klienman was any different? Janice might have liked him well enough but as with every person she had ever known--save one--she did not completely trust him.
"Jeez, Covington, you must be losing your hearing in your old age," Jack nervously cracked. "I said I did."
"I dunno, couple of days ago," he answered, hoping he sounded nonchalant. He looked up from his duffel and was surprised by the intensity with which both women were looking at him--Melinda with wide-eyed astonishment, Janice boring in on him with that cold hard stare of hers which the former sailor had always found to be very unsettling. In an effort to lighten the moment he asked "What's with you guys? You look like you just saw a ghost or something."
"Maybe we did," Janice answered grimly.
"Huh? Say, what is all this?" Jack cautiously replied. The longer Janice looked at him with those piercing green eyes, the more uneasy he became.
Finally, it was Melinda who broke the news to him. In a delicate voice she said, "Jack, Professor Frailing was..." Even now the belle found it difficult to say. "...was...murdered three days ago."
For even the obtuse Jack it was suddenly as clear as glass now. "If that's a joke," he said, his mouth suddenly very dry, "I ain't laughing."
"I wish it were, Jack," was Mel's quiet reply. I wish to God in heaven it were!
Gaping at his friends in a mixture of astonishment and disbelief, he managed to choke out a nervous little laugh as he said, "You guys don't...really think that I had something to do with this." Here he paused before adding a hopeful "Do ya?"
"All I'm saying is that you couldn't have seen Frailing when you said you did," said Janice. "He was already dead by then."
Agitated now, the scale of Jack's voice rose higher in pitch as he said, "Okay, so I got my days mixed up. There's no crime in that." Looking Janice squarely in the eye he went on, "I tell ya, he was very much alive the last time I saw him. Jeez, what do you think I am? Would I have even brought his name up if I had? Yeah I saw him. And like I said I asked about you guys. He told me where you were and I after that left--end of story, that's all folks."
Realizing how upset Jack was becoming, Melinda set to work trying to assuage his fears. "Calm down, Jack," she said soothingly. "No one is accusing you." She glanced sideways at her partner and tactfully added, "We believe you, don't we, Jan."
"Of course we do. Nobody here is accusing him of anything," said Janice.
"You could have fooled me," Jack said with an indignant sniff. "All I know is he was very much alive on the day I saw him. And another thing, I can't believe you guys would even think such a thing!"
"You're right," said Janice, visibly softening her gaze. Jack might be affable and fun to be around in a grating sort of way but he was not very clever and when he was placed under this sort of intense scrutiny Janice felt certain she would have been able to tell whether or not he was lying. By now she figured it was just as he had said; he simply had gotten his days mixed up. And for a guy like Jack it certainly would not have been hard to do. "But somebody killed them. All I can say is that it's a good thing you weren't here earlier," she told him.
"Why?" asked Jack, suddenly feeling uneasy again.
"There was a police inspector here today," explained Melinda. "He said he was checking out any foreigners who might have had recent contact with Professor Frailing."
"And I doubt if he would be so quick to believe your story," said Janice.
"Oh," said Jack, tilting his head back in acknowledgment. In his mind Janice was more right about his sense of timing than she knew but not because of any guilt on his part. He had spent considerable time and effort, not to mention a good part of his expense money in locating these two. Jack Klienman was nearly broke and he was tired because a good amount of his travel had been accomplished by hitchhiking and as it had turned out he had done a lot more hiking than hitching. Now it felt like his aching feet had blisters on their blisters! No indeed, the last thing he needed right now was some gung ho cop peppering him with a lot of confusing questions, even if he was totally innocent.
"If you've got any ideas of staying in the country you ought to think about laying low for a while," suggested Janice. "You know, until they can find the real killer."
"Don't worry," said Jack. "Now that I've found you guys I'm taking the first boat back to the States...." he paused and added, "...after you hear Mister Poole's proposal."
"If we only could hear it," Melinda said wistfully.
By now the orange glow of evening was fading away into the purple veil of night. Upon first entering the tent Janice had pulled off her hot work boots in order to let both them and her tired feet air out. The socks were off now as well and so it was in her bare feet that Janice arose from the cot and meticulously picked her way to the tent's center pole where hung their only lantern. Once it was lit, she carefully retraced her route over the floor of the tent to rejoin her friends. Though packed down from heavy use, the dirt floor still afforded its share of sticks and sharp little pebbles and Janice did not relish the ideas the idea of stepping on one of those "little bastards," as she called them.
There had been a time when she would have not given such a prospect a second thought. Up until she was a teenager Janice Covington had gone barefoot at least six months out of each year and as might be expected her feet were usually tough enough in those days to allow her to run over even a gravel road with ease. But that time was long gone and this was why the archaeologist now kept a sharp eye on the floor as she gingerly made her way back to the others.
Once safely on the cot again she edged herself in close to Melinda's warm body. Even now she thrilled at just touching her. "All right, Jack," she sighed. "Out with it. Let's hear this great master plan of yours."
"Wait till you hear it," Jack enthused. "If you ask me it's the chance of a lifetime. Covington, I tell you--"
"Come on!" Janice barked out, causing Melinda to jump. "Just get on with it, will ya?"
"Okay, okay," said Jack, properly chastised. "Sheesh, there's no need to get sore."
Janice gritted her teeth and with an ominous growl warned, "You'll be the one who's sore if you don't get to the fucking point, pronto, you moron."
"Well basically it's this," Jack began. "Sid--that's what he likes for me to call him--"
"Uh huhh," Janice scoffed.
Jack pretended to ignore her and went on, "Anyway, Sid, has made a deal with Chiang Kai-shek. The Generalissimo has given him permission to excavate the site of something called the "Last Gate." It's supposed to be some kind of appreciation thing for Sid's contribution to the war effort on the behalf of China."
Janice was not surprised. Sidney Poole was an extremely influential man, one with a seemingly endless number of contacts in very high places in governments throughout the world.
At the mention of this a strange but nevertheless familiar feeling came over the belle and it was the name Lao Ma that suddenly popped into her head.
Janice furrowed her brow. "The 'Last Gate?' What the hell is that?"
Melinda knew. "Legend has it that when Lao Tzu was an old man he became saddened by the evil of men and so he decided to leave civilization behind. Although he had long been respected for his wise council he had always steadfastly refused to set his philosophy to writing. He believed this would cause his teachings to become rigid and something of a formal dogma and this he did not want. However, when he reached the Gate of Tibet, the..."Last Gate," Yin Xi, the Guardian of the Gate, convinced him to at long last set his principles down so that they might be yet be saved for posterity. The result was Tao-Te Ching.
"Taoism," said Janice.
"Yeah." Suddenly she murmured,
"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Jack.
"It's a quote from Lao Tzu," Melinda explained. Deep insider her soul a voice whispered, "The truth of Tao-Te-Ching is the truth of Lao Ma." And Melinda understood. The scholars might say Lao Tzu, but it was pure Lao Ma, his noble wife.
Lao Ma!. Even now the name evoked deep emotions. The scrolls said little of her but nevertheless Melinda knew some and somehow sensed even more of just what this paradox of strength and humility had meant to the ancient warrioress. After the shattering death of M'lila she had been the only person, the one exquisite soul that had looked past Xena's rage and seen the latent greatness within her. It was she who had believed in Xena, who had patiently tried so hard to lift the seemingly soulless, irredeemable woman from far over the western mountains out of her cesspool of blinding hate and endless lust for blood and shown her, if only for a glimmering moment, how good and noble and pure of heart it was possible to be. Here she had taught the Greek perhaps the most valuable lesson of all, that strength and power came in many different forms and were there for all to make use of if one were only to listen to their own heart and believe in themselves. All that was necessary was to tap into their own inner power. Truly no more noble person than Lao Ma had walked the earth in Xena's lifetime.
She, more so than anyone, had understood the concept of "The Greater Good."
"How did they find this place?" asked Janice. "How do they know if it's authentic?"
Jack shrugged and said, "I dunno. I would guess that's why they want you."
"There's got to be more to this than what you're telling us," allowed Janice. Poole was by his nature a realist, a very pragmatic man and not one to be moved by some ancient philosophy, Chinese or otherwise. No, his motivation lay elsewhere and this was the source of Janice's skepticism. She was firmly convinced that if Sidney Poole had gone through so much trouble in order to poke around on the Chinese/Tibetan border it was for some other reason besides Taoism. But despite herself Janice found she was becoming interested.
"If there is I don't know about it," sniffed Jack. "All I know is what Mister...Sid told me."
"You say he's got it all set?" Janice asked.
"Well he has permission and a promise of full cooperation from the Chinese government if that's what you mean," replied Jack. "He said he'd leave the details to you."
Some details! thought Melinda.
Janice's lips fashioned a half smile and she more or less echoed Melinda's thoughts. "To me, huh? How big of him. So when does he want to get the ball rolling on this?"
"Just as soon as you are finished here," said Jack.
"Hmph," snorted Janice, "from the looks of it I'd say we've been finished here just about since day one." Turning to Melinda, she asked "So what do you think? You wanna go to China?"
"It's up to you, Jan," replied her friend. "What do you want to do?"
Janice looked askance at her and said, "That's no answer."
Janice may have been the leader but gone were the days when she routinely decided what was best for the both of them. Melinda had not merely been paying lip service when she told Kettering the two women were partners. They were true partners now, in work and in life--and no matter how badly Janice might have wanted to go to China it would have been unthinkable as far as she was concerned to go off and leave Melinda behind. She knew she soon would go crazy without her near.
"What if she don't wanna go?" asked Jack, with some alarm.
One look from Janice and Jack knew his was a silly question. "Then we won't go," she said, matter-of-factly.
"Jan," Melinda said softly, "I go where you go. You know that. I always have and I always will." The belle took her friend by the hand and looked deeply into her eyes. The smile she gave her friend emanated directly from her heart and reflected all the love she felt for this incredible woman sitting next to her who had changed her life for all time. "I'd love to go to China."
Janice returned her smile in kind and gave her lover's hand a almost imperceptible squeeze. Turning back to Klienman, she said, "Well there you have it. You can go back and tell Poole that we accept his offer."
From his seat opposite them Jack watched this little scene unfold and found it somewhat unsettling. To be sure he knew Covington and Mel to be very close friends but the holding of the hands and look they had just given each other seemed to him to indicate there was more here than mere friend to friend affection. A lot more. For all his travels Jack Klienman was not one who could have been called worldly wise or sophisticated. That these two women could be devoted lovers was a realization that would in his mind not easily come to the fore. Instead it stubbornly continued to skulk deep within his subconscious in the form of a nagging little understanding that something was not quite...right...here.
Still, as far as Jack was concerned it did not really matter anyway. These two were his friends and it made him genuinely happy that they had accepted Poole's offer. This was reflected by his enthusiastic, "That's great!" However, he figured this was not the time to press his luck any further and so he refrained from telling them that Poole had decided that he too should make the China trip with them. His reasoning for this one tiny little omission was that there was no sense in getting Covington worked up all over again. He figured it would be much better for his own well being if he did not tell her this just right now.
Having attended to business, the conversation between the three of them grew progressively lax over the next hour or so and was generally confined to a rehash of old times. Once or twice Jack tried to draw out the women on exactly how they had spent the war years but to his surprise both of them were very evasive about it with Janice only saying vaguely that they had done some work for the government.
Finally deciding that enough was enough, Janice eased herself down on the cot behind Melinda. "Night, kids," she said with a big, theatrical yawn. She then rolled over on her right side, facing away from Klienman. Though not sleepy in the least she had reached the point where she simply could not bear this mundane little waltz of words any longer. It was nothing against Jack to be sure. Aside from Melinda she had never felt comfortable talking anything but business with anyone. It was just not in her nature. As Melinda had said Janice did indeed very much believe in plain speaking and that meant getting straight to the heart of the matter and not taking all day to do it. No, polite chit chat was not for Janice Covington.
Melinda, on the other hand, had been taught from a very early age that being a good conversationalist was just as much a part of being a proper Southern lady as knowing the proper fork to use at the dinner table. She loved the witty give and take after dinner conversations often afforded and she especially reveled in the gossipy "girl talk" of the powder room. Janice of course had never really shown an interest in this sort of thing and this was one of the reasons the belle liked to regularly visit "back home" because there she could get together with old friends and catch up on all the delicious "news." And unlike Janice, she at this moment very much felt like talking even if the subject she wanted to discuss might not be the most pleasant one or one that Janice might approve of. Nevertheless, it was one she felt compelled to bring up. And so she did.
"Jack? Were you in the fighting?"
"In the Pacific...did you see any action?"
Listening to this, Janice was a little surprised by her question. Melinda was not often so straightforward with men and in truth Melinda herself did not know just why she had asked him this. Perhaps it was because of the very fact that Jack was her friend and she felt she just needed to know. She certainly was not eager to hear any war stories he might have. After all, she had seen it for herself. Death, destruction, unbearable misery and despair--she had seen it all. And the sorrow, she remembered that as well. Although her it had ultimately proved to be a false report Melinda nevertheless still remembered the incredible sorrow and emptiness. she had felt when told that her dear brother Robert had been killed at Cassino. And even now, two long years after the fact, the terrible image of the poor Anthony boy, lying dead in that run down old barn with half his head blown away was one that still occasionally invaded her dreams.
Burned also in her memory was the horrific carnage Janice had single-handedly wrought that night on that lonely Costa Rican airfield. Melinda still remembered the screams of those Germans, the stench of their burning flesh and how she had almost lost her own life there. She also remembered the heart breaking evening when they had eased their way into Pearl Harbor on the old cruiser "San Francisco, just days after the attack. Some eleven months later the San Francisco itself would be shot to pieces off Guadalcanal in what Admiral King would call, "the fiercest naval battle ever fought" and among the dead would be the petty officer who had been so kind to them while they were on board. So much death!
Yes, these haunting images from the past still had occasion to lurk forth from the dark recesses of her inner conscience despite her best attempts to keep them locked away. She had spoken of these things to Janice many times and her lover had always been there for her with the utmost in sympathy and support.
Even so, way down deep in Melinda's heart she rather suspected that Janice Covington had not given so much as a moment's pause to reflect on her--their, incredible experiences in the Second World War. Sometimes the belle wondered if indeed Janice had not viewed the whole thing as simply another job to be done--another means of earning a pay check. As implausible as this might have seemed Melinda's belief stemmed from the knowledge that not once, not one time, had her friend ever expressed so much as a hint of sorrow for what she had seen or remorse for what she herself had done. Janice was responsible for enough dead bodies to fill up a boxcar and yet never had she gave even the slightest impression that it bothered her. To Melinda it was just another one of those paradoxes that seemed to define Janice; hard as tempered steel--and as cold--on one hand, soft as a lover's caress on the other.
Of course Janice did think about the war. After all, she was not some sort of relentless, dispassionate robot but as much of a living, breathing, feeling human being as Melinda or anyone else. It was just that she was more selective in what she chose to care about. Did it bother her that so many had died by her hand? Not really. For Janice it was a simple of matter of black and white. When the issue was survival there were no shades of gray. Her rationale was as old as life itself. It had been them--or her. They had been the enemy and, given the chance, would surely not have hesitated to kill her--or Melinda. War was brutal and uncompromising and in order to survive it one was sometimes forced to be brutal and uncompromising as well.
And so she had.
What was important--the only thing that mattered--was that she had survived. Melinda had survived. The end had justified the means and now she and her partner could look to the promise of the future and the wonderful life they would build together unfettered by things like war and duty to one's country.
In essence this was Janice Covington's great regret about the Second World War. The conflict had eaten up three and one half years of her life, precious years that she could never get back. They were years in the prime of her life which the Fredric March/Myrna Loy movie had so aptly described as "The Best Years of Our Lives." This loss had been difficult enough but at least it had not been for naught. The bitterest pill for her was the two full years that had been frittered away since war's end merely trying to get back into the loop. So this then was the thing that really galled Janice Covington. Those five and one half years spent away from her life's work that she would not, could not, ever get back.
Jack Klienman was one of those individuals who are sometimes described as having a rubber face. Indeed, when he was perplexed or baffled--as he often was--he did seem capable of making the most silly, the most creative of facial expressions. However after hearing Melinda's question there was nothing either silly or comical or creative for that matter about the expression on his face. Like most combat veterans he had not often spoken of his experiences. To them the things they had seen--and done--were much better off being left unsaid. Talking about those fearful memories only served to make them all the more vivid when it was all too often that they returned anyway. They might come in the middle of the night in the form of some horrible nightmare or maybe right in the light of day where a sound or even a shadow's form could cause all those memories to come rushing back. But here, sitting across from the lovely Melinda Pappas, Jack sensed that if anybody could understand how it was then--the way he felt now, it would be this warm, caring, gentle woman. In truth he rather hoped Janice was indeed asleep by now and so not listening because he was afraid she would think him even less of a man than he believed she already did. Jack had seen her under duress and in his eyes Janice was a tough woman, a hard woman, one he thought incapable of being afraid of anything. Because of this, he sincerely doubted whether she would feel any sort of real compassion for those who might not happen to be able to match her inner strength.
Before he answered her Jack's eyes for a moment took on a vacant, far away look and seemed to hint of profound sadness. The sensitive Melinda instantly picked up on this change in him. In this moment he was no longer the well meaning, happy-go-lucky if slightly daffy guy she fondly remembered. And as Jack began to speak both she and Janice learned why.
"You remember how I couldn't get into the army before the war," Jack reminded her. "Well by '43 the armed forces weren't being so choosy. In June I managed to eke into the navy and within six months I was serving on board an flat top." He smiled at her and said, "Can you imagine? Me? On a flat top? In the Third Fleet?"
"I boarded the Intrepid just in time for her to be torpedoed off Truk in February of '44," he replied. "Just my luck, I guess."
"Oh my," Melinda gasped. "Were you hurt?"
"Nah, but I don't mind tellin' you I was plenty scared. The worst part was one of our rudders got jammed in the attack and the darn wind was so bad that it kept wanting to push us straight toward Japan. Well finally we managed to limp back to Pearl..." He paused and explained, "That's Pearl Harbor..."
"I know," Mel said quietly. "Jan and I were there three times during the war ourselves."
Jack shot her a fleeting look of puzzlement but went on with his story. "Anyway, we went on back to Hunter's Point, California and that's where we stayed until they got the old girl patched back up. That was in June and we were just within a few days of pulling out again when darn if I didn't get transferred."
"To another ship?"
"Yeah. The Franklin. Late in June I got orders to go to Pearl to join up with a new carrier that had just come in from San Diego and was heading straight out for the Marianas. The big push was on and for this one the Navy was going to throw everything at the Japs but the kitchen sink 'cause the brass thought we really had a chance to break their backs there." He paused again and gave a satisfied little nod of the head. "And we did too."
"I remember reading about that," said Melinda. What she did not say was that the paper she was referring to had in fact been the London Daily Mail. She and Janice had spent all of three nights there on assignment soon after the momentous battle. "They called it the 'Turkey Shoot' or something."
"Yep," said Jack, pleased that she remembered. "And it was too. Jeez, you never saw so many Jap planes. They were fallin' out of the sky like rain. Heck our gun crew alone must have shot down at least ten of those meatballs."
Melinda was incredulous. "You were a gunner?"
"Who? Me? Ahh, well, no," he sheepishly grinned. "I couldn't have hit a battleship with one of those twin 40's, much less a plane. Naw, I was a loader." Here he quickly added, "But I was a darn good loader. Anyway, after that it was one operation after another--Guam, the Bonin Islands...Yap. In October we helped to support MacArthur's landings in the Philippines. Late that month while off Samar we got hit by a Jap suicide plane. That laid us up for a while but by February '45 we were back at it and by this time it was Japan itself we were hitting."
It was here that Jack's face grew very grave. "By the middle of March we had maneuvered in closer to the Japanese mainland than any other carrier. One day we launched this fighter sweep against Honshu and later had hit Kobe harbor in another attack. Suddenly this plane, this one damn plane, which had somehow avoided our fighter cover and came diving out of the clouds and began to make a low level run at our ship.
"And you got hit?"
With one stiff nod of the head Jack quietly replied, "We got hit. Two bombs. One hit forward right on the flight deck centerline and penetrated to the hangar deck. The forward elevator fell like a stone and fires broke out everywhere up there. The second one hit aft and went through two decks starting more fires which set off an ammunition magazine. Explosions rocked the ship and just like that it seemed like the whole ship was covered by fire.
I was in our mess compartment when it happened. One second I was taking a bite of mashed potatoes and the next I knew I was lying flat on the floor trying to push two dead guys off the top of me. The place was so thick with smoke I could barely see but all around me I could hear guys screaming for help. I was so stunned that at first I actually didn't know if I was hurt or not. It...it was like the whole world was coming to an end.
Finally some of us managed to grope our way to the door and out into the passageway but once out there the fire seemed to be everywhere and so there we were, three hundred guys trapped like you know what. All the time the fires were getting closer, the smoke was getting thicker and we knew that if we didn't get out of there pretty fast it was going to be curtains for all of us.
Then, all of a sudden this JG appears out of nowhere and starts yelling for us to pick up the wounded and follow him. Well he sure as heck didn't have to say it twice, I can tell you. We did like he said and so he starts leadin' us down this passageway and that, around this corner and that, up stairs and around--all through smoke so thick you could have hung a picture on it. Finally this JG and another guy yank open this hatch and we bust through and it's like a miracle. We're out on the flight deck."
"Oh Lord. It must have been awful," said Melinda.
"I thought I was a goner for sure," said Jack. "To this day I don't know how that Lieutenant found the way out, but he did. He sure as hell did." Jack shook his head in wonder and said, "You know, I never did learn that guy's name."
The man who saved the lives of Jack and the others in his compartment that day was Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Donald Gary and this was only one of several dangerous trips he would ultimately make down into the bowels of the Intrepid in order to lead men to safety.
"I don't know how long we were trapped below deck but it seemed like an eternity. Anyway, we bust out onto the flight deck and I swear to God it's like a scene from hell. I mean fire is roaring all around us, the deck is covered in smoke, everywhere you can hear guys screaming. I hadn't no more than gotten out of the hatch when I stumbled and fell over something lying on the deck." Jack looked down at the ground and then back up at his friends. "It was a sailor," he said. "Everything below his chest was gone. I--I tried to get up but at first I couldn't. You see the deck was too slippery from of all the blood--his blood..."
Jack's eyes grew very sad and he paused to take a deep breath as he looked up at the tent ceiling.
"Jack," Melinda said softly, "I'm sorry I brought it up. Yuh don't have to say anymore."
Jack smiled weakly at her and shook his head. Good old Mel, he thought. Aloud he said, "Nahh, it's all right. Really. I've been carryin' around with me for two years now and, who knows, it might do me some good to get some of this off my chest for once. I've never really had anybody I could talk to about it."
Melinda knew exactly how he felt. "So what did you do?"
"The only thing I could do," Jack answered. "Try to find some way if I could to help save the ship. By now we were dead in the water, not more than fifty miles from Japan itself. Already the ship was listing pretty good to starboard, we'd lost all radio contact with the fleet and those fu..." Jack paused again and gave Melinda a quick glance. "Sorry," he said, a little embarrassed.
"It's all right," the belle assured him. She glanced fondly down at Janice and with a voice hinting of amusement added, "I've heard the word before."
Nevertheless, Jack amended his adjective. "Those darn explosions," he said, "were still going off below deck. Guys were running around like ants on a griddle, some were jumpin' over the side, bodies were everywhere and the whole thing was just one big godawful mess.
I was still wondering around when this one guy grabs me by the arm and yells for me to follow him. Since this seemed like the first fella I'd seen since that JG who had any idea about what to do I naturally followed him. All over the deck he starts grabbin' guys and pretty soon he's got twenty or thirty together. Up by one of the five inch turrets he gathers us all around and tells us that if the forward magazines go off the ship is done for. Damn if he doesn't look us straight in the eyes and ask for volunteers to go below deck and wet down the magazines.
"Golly, did you go?"
"Everybody went," replied Jack. "Because the guy said the ship needed every hand and he was goin' down there with or without us. I mean, this wasn't your ordinary priest."
"Yeah, it was a ship's chaplain. So down into that hell hole we go and I figured for sure this was it for all of us." Jack shook his head and smiled proudly as he thought of the man who had led them. "I guess the Lord really was with the guy because we did manage to keep from getting ourselves blown to bits after all."
The brave chaplain of whom Jack spoke was Joseph T. O'Callahan, who by all accounts was a veritable whirlwind of activity after the catastrophe occurred. By organizing and directing fire fighting and rescue parties in addition to administering last rites for so very many of the stricken sailors, O'Callahan did as much as any man alive to save the proud Franklin. And like Donald Gary, O'Callahan would win the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on that day, thus becoming the first chaplain since the Civil War to do so.
"Anybody who saw that ship in those first few minutes would never have believed it but somehow the old girl managed to stay afloat. Later on the cruiser Sante Fe closed along side and started taking off the wounded and so by the skin of our teeth we were able to limp out of the combat zone and head back to port." Again Jack paused before continuing. "We found out later that about seven hundred and fifty guys on board ship got it that day."
He paused here and Melinda, sensing that Jack Klienman had said all he was going to about his experiences in the Second World War, decided that the time had come to at long last speak from the heart about those events which had been forever burned into her own memory.
Before she did, however, she carefully leaned over to take an apprehensive peek at her blonde friend. Janice had not stirred or spoken for quite some time and so as the belle could only assume that she was indeed asleep.
Nervously Melinda wet her lips and then began. "Jack? Ah'm really not supposed tuh speak of this but I've just got to tell somebody or else I think I'm going to bust. Janice told you we worked for the government during the war? Well, there was a little more to it than that."
Before replying Melinda took a deep breath. She then loudly whispered, "Jan and I spent practically the whole war workin' for the OSS."
"The OSS?" echoed Jack. "You mean like, spy stuff?"
Melinda flashed him a weak smile. "Something like that."
Jack whistled softly and said, "Woww! Really?"
"How on earth did you guys get in with the OSS?"
Melinda tilted her head slightly to one side and said, "It's a long story."
Jack grinned knowingly and said, "Ohh, I get it. It's a secret, right?"
"Well, yeah," said Melinda. "It is. In fact all of it is so I can't give you much in the way of details. Sorry."
Jack shook his head in wonder. "Wow. You really did cloak and dagger stuff?"
"Uh huh. But like I said--"
"I know, I know," Jack good naturedly interjected, "Another secret."
"'Fraid so," said Melinda. "But to tell you the truth Jan was the one who did all the real work, the important work. I was just sort of along for the ride."
Hearing this, Janice almost rose up right there to tell Jack that Melinda's self-deprecating assessment of her role was simply not true. It was not true at all. Melinda had been a vital part of their success and Janice had always made it a point to tell her so. This was why it was now so surprising for her to discover that Melinda still felt as she did. However Janice caught herself and neither rose up nor spoke because she knew that if she did Melinda would be greatly embarrassed. So she lay there, still pretending to be asleep, and listened.
It therefore fell to Jack to express what both he and Melinda's devoted lover were thinking. "Covington's one tough dame all right," said Jack. "No doubt about it. But I don't for a minute buy that line about you bein' a tag-a-long. As smart as you are? Jeez! You're got too much goin' for ya to just be some kind of lame sidekick."
Tell her, Jack! thought Janice approvingly.
"Smart maybe," Melinda reluctantly conceded. "But not very brave."
"What are you talking about?"
"Jack, you're not the only one that saw the carnage of war."
Not quite catching her meaning, Jack answered, "Well I know that."
"No, what I mean is Janice and I have also seen our share of death." Under her breath she added, "More than our share. Once, when we were in Costa Rica..." Fearful of revealing too much about that terrible night at the air strip, Melinda let her words trail off.
Suddenly Jack was struck by a most disturbing thought. "God, Mel, you don't mean to say you guys actually...killed...somebody, do you?"
Melinda nodded sadly and said, "I wish I could say no but I can't. People died, Jack." Quickly Melinda added, "I don't mean to say we helped assassinate anybody or anything like that. It was just that we had to protect our lives."
We almost did, thought Janice. Or rather I almost did. More than two years after the fact it still made Janice shudder when she thought how different her life might now be had Melinda not been able to convince the brilliant Czechoslovakian scientist Janik Cernak to return to the United States with them during the last days of the war. Had he refused Janice had been given verbal but nonetheless explicit orders to kill him lest he fall into Soviet hands. Melinda and Cernak had known each other before the war, had even dated on occasion, and it still sent chills down Janice's spine to think what Melinda's reaction would have been to the death of Cernak at the hands of her own lover. Thanks to Melinda herself it had not come to pass. The belle did not know now nor would she ever know just how close Janice had come to killing her friend.
From out of the corner of his eye Jack gave her a hard look. "You yourself...I mean you didn't....you know...."
Melinda was kind enough to finish it for him. "Kill anyone? Yes. Yes I did. At least five that I know of."
Puzzled by her remark, Jack furrowed his brow. "That you know of? What the heck do ya mean by that."
"You remember how it was back in the tomb," Melinda quietly reminded him. "Well there have been...other...times as well where I don't quite...I mean I don't exactly remember what happened. All I know is that I came to and here were these...dead bodies around me."
With a knowing nod Jack said, "Ohhh. So you mean it was Xena then."
Melinda nodded. "Yeah. Sometimes...I get these strange feelings and sometimes, sometimes I can even hear her voice. Inside me."
Hearing this, Jack did not think it at all strange. After all, he had seen with the first manifestation of Xena with his own eyes so he knew very well what she was talking about. In an attempt to put his friend's mind at ease he said, "Darn it, Mel, you shouldn't feel bad. It wasn't you that killed those people. It was--"
With a tinge of bitterness Melinda cut him off. "Xena?"
"Well, yeah. You practically said so yourself."
"Don't you see? It doesn't make any difference who it was," said Melinda. "Xena, me, we're one and the same. No Jack, I killed those people."
Jack was not about to accept this "You're wrong," he adamantly told her. "You're you, you're Melinda Pappas, the sweetest, nicest person I've ever met in my life. I don't care who your ancestors are or what they might have caused you to do. You could never do anybody any harm."
Jack leaned forward to add emphasis to his words. "And ya know what? I'm glad Xena did what she did!"
Melinda stared at him in wide-eyed disbelief. "My God, Jack. How can you say that?" The belle blinked hard and Jack saw her eyes well up. "There are times when I awake in the night and it feels like I'm awash in a sea of blood. It's hard, Jack, it's awfully hard, to put those feelings out of my mind. I--I've seen so much. That blood is on me and I can't get it off." Melinda lowered her head and said, "Sometimes the guilt is almost more than I can bear."
Jack reached out and forcefully took her by the hand. "Now you listen to me, young lady. Whatever it was that Xena did or made you do I know, do you hear me, I...know that it was only done to protect you and Janice. Jesus Christ, Mel! How can that be wrong? When I was in the Pacific I saw dead Japs every now and then. Do you think it bothered me? Hell no! It was them or us."
"Jack, I know you mean well but shooting down an airplane or sinking a sub is not the same as killin' someone with your own bare hands."
"They're just as dead," Jack reminded her. "And the reasons for both are exactly the same--our own survival. Look, you're my friend and I don't want to sound calloused here but like I said before I'm glad that Xena did what she did. Otherwise..." Now it was Jack's turn to lower his head. "...you guys might not be here now. And I for one would be very sorry."
"Ohh, Jack," Melinda said with a sniff, "you're such a sweetheart." Patting his hand, she said, "Thank you for listening."
Jack angled his head toward Janice. "Have you ever talked to her about this?"
"Of course I have," said Melinda. "Janice is a dear, so supportive, and without her I don't think I could have made it."
She paused here. From the tone of her voice Jack was left with the distinct impression that a withal was lurking there somewhere within his friend's words. "But?" he coaxed.
Melinda replied, "But, I'm not as...strong as she is." She then looked down at the archaeologist and added, " I don't think the war fazed her one bit."
"So you think she doesn't really understand."
"I'm not saying that. Not at all. It's just that we see things...differently sometimes."
"Kid," Jack began, "I wish I had some magic word that would take this burden off your shoulders but I don't. Just remember this: whatever it was that you did you did it for a good cause, the best cause--liberty--and sometimes in order to preserve it we have to become as brutal as the people who would want to take it away from us."
With a stiff nod Melinda dutifully said, "You're right of course." The reply was solely for her friend's benefit. Nothing had changed nor would it ever change. The simple truth was that she had taken a life and down deep in her soul she knew that for her things would never be the same again. "You know, Jack, I guess we were both lucky."
Jack blew out a sharp, quick breath and replied, "Don't I know it. So many of those fellas...they just didn't have a chance, ya know?" He shook his head once more in sad remembrance of fallen comrades and again began to tug at his old duffel bag. "I think we both have had enough reminiscing for one night," he said. Hefting the bag upright, he asked "Ya got some place I can sleep tonight?"
Melinda angled her head toward the tent opening. "The cab of the truck ought to be cozy enough." She tossed him one of her blankets. "I'd like to let you sleep in here but..." She flashed him a sympathetic smile. "...well, you know how it is."
"Yeah. Sure," said Jack, already resigning himself to the solitude of the truck. "The truck will be fine." He swung the duffel bag up to put it on his shoulder but unfortunately he had forgotten to secure the flaps he had so idly loosened As the bag swung up its momentum caused the singularly solid object inside to come flying out. Even worse for Jack, the thing came down squarely on the ankle of Janice's left foot.
"OWWWW!!" she squalled out. She had been hoping for an excuse to "awaken" but somehow this was not exactly what she had in mind.
"Oh Jeez," Jack said earnestly. "I'm sorry, Covington. I should have paid attention to what I was doing."
Lying flat on her back, the lithe Janice took the foot in her hand and pulled it high up toward her face in order to inspect the damage. "God damn! What are you doing?" Her words might have seemed harsh but in truth the tone of her voice was nowhere near as vitriolic. After the reassurance Jack had just given Melinda the archaeologist was not about to rebuke him too severely. Even if her ankle did hurt like hell.
Concerned for her friend, Melinda gently placed her own hand on the one Janice was using to hold her foot. "Are you all right?" she asked.
"Well I don't think I'll be doing the jitterbug for a while," cracked her lover.
"Jeez, Covington," Jack said again, genuinely mortified.
Janice gritted a smile and said, "No worries. I'll be all right." Still holding her foot, she nimbly leaned forward to took a peek at the ground. "What was that thing anyway?" she asked.
While Jack bravely wrestled the duffel bag to a draw Melinda bent her long frame down and picked up the cause of Janice's pain. It was a clay tablet, part of which seemed to be missing because while its right edge was perfectly straight, the left and bottom edges went angling out in all different directions.
"Where did you get this?" the belle asked, settling the object down on her lap.
Instantly Melinda was fascinated by the thing. Something about it seemed...
Excited, she impatiently asked "C'mon, Jack, where did you get it?"
Sheepishly Jack replied, "Jeez, I forgot all about that thing. That Frailing guy gave it to me."
In surprised unison Janice and Melinda blurted out, "Frailing?"
Like a little boy with something to hide their friend shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. "Yeah. When he learned I was looking for you guys he gave me that and said to make sure you got it."
"That doesn't sound like Alfred," Janice observed.
"He said something about wanting you guys to try to translate it," said Jack.
Janice was not convinced by this. Alfred Frailing was not one to entrust relics to total strangers. Unless....
Unless he had had some inkling that his life was in danger. Janice rocked herself into a sitting position. Still holding her throbbing ankle, she craned her neck to get a better look at the tablet in Mel's lap. At first glimpse she eased her foot down to the ground. Something else had her attention now. It was, after all, the first substantial artifact she had seen since coming to Greece. "Let me see that," she said.
"Funny how he would give me something like that, huh?" Jack said, as Melinda handed the tablet over to Janice.
Janice laid the stone flat in her lap and lightly swept her hand along its rough surface. "Yeah," she tersely replied. She began to look over the stone. "Funny."
Jack was right. An item as unique as this was not something Frailing would simply hand over to a complete stranger regardless of how badly he wanted it translated. It was now obvious to Janice that Frailing had expected trouble all along. Why? she again wondered. What made this thing so important?
Although ancient languages were not her forte she had seen enough of this particular writing to recognize it as cuneiform. She was still intently looking at it when suddenly, to her mild surprise, Melinda reached out and took back the tablet. Something about the stone had caught the belle's eye. Holding it up close to her face, Melinda's squinting eyes began to very carefully study it.
"Oh my," the belle suddenly cried in dismay. "Oh myyyyyy!"
"What is it?" Janice asked.
"Is it something important?" asked Jack.
A look of shock filled her lovely visage as Melinda said, "Ja-yun, this stone. Oh, Jan, I-I think I see it now!"
"Yeah, darn it, tell us," Jack exhorted.
Eyes wide with excitement, Melinda said, "Remember how I said Mister Kettering's stone made no sense?"
"Yeah but, it could be some kind of code, you know," Janice reminded her.
Melinda vigorously shook her head. "It's no code, it's as plain as day."
All this was too much for Jack. Exasperated, he pleaded, "What is!?"
Melinda reached into the pocket on her loose shirt and pulled out a folded up sheet of paper that had been torn from a writing pad. Unfolding the paper, she said, "This is the first three lines of what's written on Kettering's stone. I copied it down so that I might get a better understanding of what I was seeing."
Janice had seen Melinda do this many times in the course of her translations but so far she still did not see the significance of it. "Okay, so?" she asked with a shrug.
Melinda smiled and placed the paper beside the stone. "Looky." She began to alternate pointing first to the paper, then to the stone, reading off each word in turn.
Janice cocked her head to one side and said, "Alternate wording, huh? Nice goin', Mel."
Looking up, Melinda said, "Jan, this seems to be some kind of report."
Not surprisingly, with the reintroduction of Harpalus into the mix Janice became very interested.
So did Jack. "Hey," he asked, "who's this 'Most Exalted Majesty' they're talkin' about?"
In unison Janice and Melinda chimed out, "Alexander!"
"No, Jack, the Stupid," Janice wryly cracked. Ignoring Jack's grimace, Janice nodded at the two pieces of writing still in Melinda's lap. "What else does it say?"
"Not...much," Melinda haltingly replied, as she resumed her reading. "No, wait! This last line..." She looked at Janice in astonishment and said, "My God, there was a mutiny!"
"Mutiny? Where?" Janice eagerly asked. "By who? What happened?"
As Janice peppered her with questions Melinda could only shake her head. "That's the last line on the paper."
"Well, what about the stone?" Janice hopefully asked. "Maybe you and I can piece together the gist of what it says."
"Without Mister Kettering's part I doubt it," said Melinda. "In fact it could be well nigh impossible. I mean, it could so easily be taken out of context."
Despite being a little dejected by this observation, Janice found herself compelled to agree with her friend. "Yeah, I guess it could at that."
It was then that Melinda at last understood. "Oh my! You intended to go with Kettering all along, didn't you?"
"Well, yeah, I was leaning that way," Janice admitted.
"Oh my!" Melinda repeated. Aghast, she looked at Janice with wide-eyed horror.
"What's wrong, kid?" asked Janice.
"What if...if...Mister Kettering's stone had revealed everything?"
Instantly catching her belle's meaning, Janice laid a reassuring hand on her forearm and said, "But it didn't."
"I know, but..." Aghast at the mere thought of it, Melinda turned to Janice in wide-eyed horror and said, "Oh, Jan, I--I let you down, didn't I?"
"NO!" Janice forcefully replied. "Don't you ever say that, do you hear?" You did nothing wrong!" Then in gentler tones Janice quickly sought to reassure her friend. "Sweetheart, I could never see you doing that. It's all right. Don't worry about it." She smiled at Melinda and went on, "Kettering's got nothing on us. To begin with he's not a tenth as smart as you are and without this stone of Jack's he's just pissin' in the wind. So forget about it." Pointing to Melinda's paper, she asked "Now, you're absolutely certain this is what you saw before?"
"Uhhh, yeah," was Melinda's somewhat shaken reply. "You know how I am about my work. I copied it word for word. She lowered her head and added, "Jan, I am sooo sorry I let him talk me into that."
"Screw him," said Janice, consoling her friend with a pat on the shoulder. "We'll break that bastard from sucking eggs, I promise you. Now, he mentioned something about a map. I don't see any kind of a map on there."
"I don't think there really is a map." Melinda hefted up the tablet and then said, "I think these tablets are all the map there is."
By now Jack's look of befuddlement was back in all its glory. "Maa-ap? What map? And who's this Kettering guy?"
"Come on, guys," he whined, "spill the beans will ya?"
Janice ignored him and flashed her lover an impish smile. "So as you see it now we're all even then."
"Uh huh." Melinda nonchalantly shrugged her shoulders. "Of course, all this is really nothin' to us. I mean after all, you said you weren't interested, remember?"
"Did I say that?" Janice asked in mock innocence. Evidently Melinda's sense of guilt had faded enough to allow her this little tease of Janice. That made the archaeologist very glad indeed because she hated the idea of Melinda being unhappy.
"Say, what are you guys talking about?"
"It's a long story," said Janice. "Remind me to tell it to ya sometime. Say, Jack just how did you find Frailing anyway?"
"It's a long story," Jack said with a smug little sniff. "Remind me to tell it to ya sometime." For him this was a deliciously gratifying moment, one that he had not expected to present itself quite so soon.. He well knew it wasn't often that someone was able to take the verbal measure of Janice Covington.
In return Janice merely grinned at him for a moment. She would allow her friend his little victory. "Well this stuff can wait till morning. I for one am beat. Jack, if you want you can leave your gear over there in the corner."
Jack took the none too subtle hint. "Uh, okay," he said with a stiff nod of the head. "Uhh, well, see you guys in the morning, I guess."
"Bright and early," said Janice. "'Cause there may be something I want to talk over with you."
At this Jack's face brightened. "Yeah? Well gee, you know, I'm not all that sleepy. If ya want we could--"
"Good night, Jack," Melinda broke in. Her tone was soft but the insistent inflection in her voice was clear enough. There would be no further conversation tonight.
"Uhh yeah. Right. Ahh good night."
Janice and Melinda watched him take his blanket and walk to the front of the tent. There he paused and looked back at them. "Sorry about not mentioning the stone sooner," he said. With that he turned and stepped out into the brisk night air.
Janice waited until she thought he was out of hearing before speaking. "You know?" she mused aloud. "I think he missed us."
"Jack's a very nice fella," said her partner. From outside the two of them heard the clank of the truck door closing as Jack got inside. Melinda stood up and with her long strides walked over to the front of the tent. There she pulled down the flap, closing the "door."
"I think he's lonely."
Janice nodded thoughtfully. If he was that was too bad for him because she knew all too well what it was like to be alone. For most of her life she had been alone. How wonderful it is, she thought, to have somebody to hold, to fuss with, to share all life's joys and sorrows with--to love.
Janice stood up and, unfastening her belt, opened up her trousers, letting the loose khaki garment fall easily away from her slim hips. Stepping out of them, she sighed, "I wish we were home in Annapolis."
Melinda flashed her a knowing smile. "No you don't," she teased. Tall and lanky, Melinda very often walked with short, choppy steps that were so unbecoming to the graceful lines of her body. However when she concentrated on it, when she really tried, she had this way of walking with a certain subtle turn of the hips that was suggestive, highly sensual and very alluring. >From behind it looked even better but from the front or the back, it always sent Janice's temperature rising when she saw her use it. To Janice this walk had a certain feline, even feral and predatory quality that would have seemed so incongruous to those who thought they knew Melinda. Of course, no one knew her in the special way that Janice did and consequently no one else knew just how sexually aggressive the stunning belle could sometimes be. It was this suggestive walk that Melinda now used upon strolling back to the woman she loved so much. "You're loving it here and you know it."
"Well......." Janice conveniently let her words trail off to avoid further incrimination. However in her heart she had to admit Melinda was right. She did so love the field work--always had and probably always would.
Melinda moved in close, towering over the petite blond. Their eyes met and without a word the two women eased into a soft embrace. As their lips met Janice emitted a soft moan and let her body melt into the strong arms of her lover.
"Mmmm," Melinda moaned, coming up for air at last, "I've been waiting for that all day."
Janice smiled and, pulling herself free, picked up the remaining blanket from her cot and tossed it on the ground. She then slid her hand between her lover's warm crotch and in a husky voice said, "How 'bout I show you what you've been missing?"
Her body soaked in the sweat of passion, Janice leaned back on her knees and luxuriously trailed her tongue across the top of her lip so that she might lap up the last sweet vestiges of her lover's exquisite offerings. With a long sigh she said, "Mel, you're gonna kill me yet."
Lying on her back, chest heaving, Melinda parted her knees as wide as possible in order reward her weary lover by giving her the best possible view of her handiwork--Melinda's glistening crotch. With a throaty croon she answered, "Mmmmm, but what a way to gooooo...."
"Damn straight," Janice with a wanton grin.
Janice eased herself down on the blanket beside her belle. In turn Melinda, still breathing a little heavily from her most recent orgasm, rolled over on her side to face the woman that had changed her life forever. Propping her head up on her elbow she called out her sweet lover's name. "Jan?"
Jan too had rolled over on her side and as she so often liked to do had by now nestled her head in close to Melinda's breasts. "Yeah?"
Melinda reached around to the back of Janice's head and took up a thick strand of the archaeologist's long blonde hair. For the life of her she could never understand why the woman insisted on treating her beautiful blonde hair so meanly by binding it up the way she did and, worst of all, by always wearing those dreadful hats! For one raised to always try to look her best at all times it still bothered Melinda some that Janice did not seem to care much about how she looked. What really made it such a shame for her, though, was the knowledge that if she tried even just a little bit Janice Covington would be an absolutely stunning woman. Melinda had seen if for herself that time in Lisbon back during the war. She had seen what Janice could do if she put her mind to it. But unfortunately Janice rarely tried. It simply was not in her. It was not her.
Melinda deftly took the hair in between her two fingers and began to gently curl it. "You're thinking real hard about goin' after that treasure, aren't you?"
At first Janice tried to seem noncommittal. "What makes you say that?" she asked.
Melinda gave the hair a very gentle tug. "Because I know you, Janice Covington. That's why."
Resting her head on Melinda's arm, Janice rolled over on her back and stared up at the roof of the tent. "I don't know, kid," she sighed. "We're sure as hell going nowhere fast here. In fact I've been expecting Martin's skinny ass up to show up any day now to close us down."
"But we're supposed to be here for a least another month," Melinda reminded her. "That's what our agreement with those people calls for. I mean, so what if we haven't found anything? I don't know how you see it but to me this is a legitimate pursuit of knowledge, not just some kind of business deal. My God, we're not being paid by how much dirt we move every day or by how many artifacts we find. We're simply here to learn all we can about King Nonos' reign. Or at least, that's what I thought."
"Nobody's saying otherwise," said Janice. "Still, just what have we learned?"
"Well, not much," Melinda conceded.
"Mel, you and I are not tenured professors at some blue nose Eastern college. The people that hire us expect something for their money." She idly swept back a wisp of hair from her cheek and added, "I wouldn't say that was unreasonable on their part, would you?."
Melinda had taken off her glasses but it was not for this reason that she now squinted at Janice. "We're not just relic hunters, either." She paused as if to gather herself and then asked "Are you sure you're not just using our lack of success up to this point as a rationalization for bailing out of here and going off on what is in all probability a wild goose chase?"
With a quick jerk of the head Janice turned to face her. "What are you saying?" she asked. "That I'm a quitter?"
"That's not what I said and you know it," was Melinda's quiet answer. She had not meant to sound so harsh and she now found herself wishing this whole thing would just go away. Already that uncomfortable feeling was washing over her.
"You might as well have," Janice said in an accusatory tone. "Damn, Mel, you make it sound like I'm forcing you to make some kind of choice between right and wrong." She paused and gave her friend a hard look. "Are you? Do you think that's what this is?"
"How can you say that after all we've been through together?" countered Melinda. "Jan, I know you're not a quitter. You never were and you never will be. Good Lord! You're by far the most tenacious person I've ever met. You're my hero! But if you're wantin' me to lie here and tell you that I totally agree with what it is you're wanting to do, I can't do that. I won't do that. I just...won't."
"So you don't want to go then?"
"Darn it, you're not listening. Whether or not I want to go has nothing to do with it. What did I say earlier? Where you go I go. You know that. Ah'm just sayin' that I might not necessarily agree with this, that's all. "
"Okay, I understand that," said Janice, trying to hide her relief. "I respect that. You have every right to express your opinion. But still...I mean...I can count on you...right?"
Melinda was shocked. This was not like the supremely confident Janice she knew so well. In fact she seemed down right worried. Tenderly the belle brushed the back of her hand across Janice's cheek. "Oh, Jan," she said breathlessly, "you mean after all this time you really think you have to ask? Always! Till the day I die."
Janice took the hand into her own and held it there at her cheek. "I just don't want you to think I'm somehow forcing you to go against your principles. Jeez, I'd never do that." She took a deep breath and continued, "Maybe it would be for the best if you did stay here. It could get rough, ya know."
Melinda shot her an impish smile and said, "Oh, and things weren't rough that time in Borneo? Or Costa Rica? Or Portugal? Or Alaska? Or Tehran? Or Austria? Or our first time together here in Greece? Jan, I've been in a war zone before, ya know."
"Okay, okay, I give." Janice said with a chuckle. "I get the message."
Melinda gave Janice's hand a tight squeeze and said, "Well you'd better," said Melinda. "Because if you ever doubt my devotion to you again..." She squeezed the hand tighter, tight enough to even cause it to hurt a little. "...I just might be forced to do something drastic."
Janice eyed her curiously and though her lover's tone had been a teasing one for fleeting moment it was not her gentle belle that she saw in those enchanting blue eyes but rather someone else. "What, do you think I'm stupid?" the archaeologist cracked. "Hey, never piss off anybody bigger that you, that's what I always say."
Now Melinda pulled Janice's hand to her own cheek. "Janice Covington, I love you so much. I belong with you, wherever that may be."
"Melinda Pappas, you're an angel. You really are." With a nod of the head Janice said resolutely said, "All right, we're going. If we can figure out just where the treasure supposed to be." She then flashed a sly little grin and said, "So tell me more about this Harpalus guy."
"Uh uh," Melinda grunted. "Not now." Stretching out her arm, she pulled the blonde beauty close to her. Just before their lips met for another exquisite kiss she whispered, "I've got other plans for you."
A half hour later Janice snuggled in close and Melinda enveloped the smaller woman in the fold of her body. And so between two thin blankets they lay there on the hard ground, bound together not only by Melinda's strong arms but by each one's undying love and devotion for the other as well. Within ten minutes both of them were sound asleep. Melinda was the first to go, her rhythmic breathing lapsing every so often into the very soft snoring the mischievous Janice never tired of teasing her about. Janice herself soon followed, her own breath warmly caressing Melinda's left breast.
Out in the truck Jack had by now already sawed enough logs to build a good sized house. Fortunately, the haunting nightmares that even now so often plagued him would not descend on him this night. Perhaps it was because, at long last, he had finally been reunited with the friends he had never forgotten. Then again, perhaps it was because he was, like Janice and Melinda, simply so very tired or because of his heart felt talk with Melinda. Whatever the reason, Jack Klienman lay there in the peaceful stillness of the mountain top and dreamed not of burning sailors screaming in agony but of Melinda Pappas' gentle drawl and Janice Covington's ferocious kindness. High above, a brilliant full moon steadily arced its lonely way across the heavens, its luminous glow washing out all but the brightest stars in the wondrous constellations which had so fascinated the ancient inhabitants of this fabled land.
On the mountain it had been a very long day.
In the morning the autumnal dawn broke crisp and clear. As always, those first rosy rays found Janice Covington already up and ready to face the new day. She poured a steaming cup of coffee from her battered old pot and then carefully eased her way around the pallet where Melinda still lay sleeping. Quietly she sat down on Jack's crate and for a few precious minutes did nothing more than sip her coffee and watch Melinda as she slept.
Gazing at her, Janice could not help but envy Melinda's long legs and sturdy shoulders. For one to merely describe her as "beautiful" seemed to Janice to be oh so inadequate. No, the proper word, the one true description was magnificent!
After a time Janice washed the last of the coffee over the back of her tongue and stood up. As much as she enjoyed the serenity of the moment she was a woman with a lot to do and none of it was going to get done by sitting around and sipping coffee. Kneeling down beside Melinda, the archaeologist began to shake her slumbering partner by the shoulder. "Mel. Mel!"
Without stirring Melinda replied with a weak, "Mmmm?"
"C'mon, Mel. Get up. We've got a long day ahead of us."
Melinda grudgingly rolled over on her back and covered her eyes with the crook of her arm. "Ohhh," she groaned. "Just five more minutes."
"Get uuuup, Mel," Janice repeated. "I want to go over the stone with you."
When Melinda made no further attempt to move Janice picked the belle's trousers up off the cot and unceremoniously dropped them on the sleepy young woman's head.
"Jaaa-yun!" Melinda whined, snatching the trousers from her face. "I swear you are just the meanest thing."
"You don't want Jack to see you like this, do ya?" teased Janice, as she treated herself to another cup of coffee. "Hell, the poor guy might trip over his tongue or something if he saw those bazookas of yours."
"Janiiiiiice," Melinda scolded, as pulled her trousers over her long legs.
"What?" Janice innocently replied. She took a sip of her coffee and with a wicked little smirk added, "Not that I would blame him."
Hearing this, Melinda could not help but grin as she pulled on her trousers. "The only one I want drooling over me is you, Janice Covington.
Janice shook her head once and said, "No problem there. Or have you already forgotten last night?"
"Mmmm, how could I?" the belle dreamily replied.
Squinting her eyes, Melinda felt around on the cot until she found her glasses. When a quick scan of the tent did not reveal what she was looking for she wrinkled her nose and said, "Have you seen my bra?"
Somehow the thing had found its way into Melinda's work boot. Upon finding it, Janice wadded it up and tossed it to her yawning friend.
Janice watched her strap the bra on over those lovely breasts she adored so much. "Uhh, you forgot your panties," she reminded her.
"To heck with 'em," Melinda said with a shrug. "I don't have any more clean ones anyway."
"While you're doing that I'll go wake up Admiral Halsey out there," said Janice.
Janice turned back to see Melinda earnestly looking up at her from her seat on the pallet. "Yeah?"
In entreating tones Melinda asked "Be nice to him?"
Janice smiled faintly and said, "You like him, don't you?"
"He's an awfully nice fella," said Melinda. "And besides, he's our friend so don't go hurtin' his feelings."
Feigning innocence, Janice asked "Who me?"
"Sometimes you're not exactly Miss Congeniality, you know," Melinda said with a knowing grin.
Janice placed the back of her hand to her forehead and in a campy Southern accent lamented, "Ohhhh the shame of it all! Of all things to be branded uh shrew by one's very own lovah! Oh my, ahh jes' don't know what this world is comin' to."
Melinda laughed and said, "Well just try, Scarlett. Okay?"
"Don't worry, kid," Janice said with a wink. "For you I'll be the very soul of propriety."
Leaving Melinda to her business, Janice stepped out of the tent and into the cool morning air. Unlike her soporific partner this was and had always been her favorite time of day. Except in the aftermath of one of her many past alcoholic binges she had for as long as she could remember been an early riser, a "morning person" as Melinda called her. Now, as she purposefully strode toward the old truck her acute senses reveled in the sight of the morning sun's long shadows, the lonely coo of a faraway dove and, yes, even the singular smell of the dust being kicked up by her boots.
Reaching the truck, Janice gave its door two sharp whacks with the bottom of her fist. "Jack!" she barked out.
At first there was no answer so she peeked through the window. Jack Klienman was lying there on the seat, mouth wide open, his head on the passenger side and with feet jutting out the partially open door on the driver's side.
Twice more Janice banged on the door. "Jack!"
"Wha?" came a week response from inside.
"This is Janice. Get up, Jack."
She saw him stir slightly but when he made no further attempt to rise Janice stepped up on the running board and, leaning through the window, rapped a third time. This time, however, it was done with her knuckles on the side of Jack's head.
"Owww!" Jack yelped. "Jeez, Covington!" Jack sat up rubbed his head. "What was that for?"
"We're wasting daylight," Janice matter-of-factly replied.
"Well if you get your butt up sometime before noon I'll tell ya."
"Okay okay," said Jack. "You don't have to get so sore about it."
This caused Janice to think back to the promise she had just made to Melinda and she felt a little guilty for having been so impatient with their friend. Her voice decidedly softer, she asked "I didn't hit you too hard, did I?"
"Nah, I like being awakened by a shot to the head every morning."
Janice grinned. Mel's right, she thought. He is a good guy.
Jack slid out the driver's side door and hurried to catch up with Janice who was already walking back to the tent. He smacked his lips a few times to get the bad taste out of his mouth and then said, "Say, what's for breakfast? I'm starving."
Janice was about to tell him that breakfast would have to wait when from down the road she heard the distant sound of an approaching vehicle.
Jack heard it too. Staring down the road he said, "Sounds like you've got company."
Who in the world could be coming up here this early? she wondered. The cop! Yeah, she thought, it's gotta be the cop. Quickly Janice turned to Jack and said, "Make yourself scarce."
"I think it's that cop that was here yesterday," said Janice.
"So? I've got nothin' to hide," said Jack.
From behind him Janice gripped both his arms and began to hustle him toward the tent. "I know that and you know that," she said. "Trouble is, Dick Tracy there doesn't know that. By now he's bound to know a guy fitting your description was recently seen with Frailing."
Reaching the front of the tent, Janice shoved Jack through the opening. "Mel!"
"What's going on?" Melinda asked, as she stepped outside.
"I think our friend the inspector is back," said Janice, angling her head toward the road. But as the car came into view she recognized it as belonging not to Pratikakis, but to her old antagonist Andrew Martin instead.
>From his seat behind the steering wheel Hans leaned over and lightly shook his boss by the shoulder. "Herr Brachmann, wake up. We will be reaching Volos soon."
Karl Brachmann sat erect and blinked hard a couple of times to clear his bleary eyes. He then checked his watch. "Seven seventeen," he observed. "Excellent. We have made good time."
"It is much easier at night," said Hans. "There are no stupid farmer's wagons to contend with or troublesome animal herds to dodge."
"How much farther?" Brachmann asked.
"About five kilometers," replied Hans. "How will we find this Covington?"
"It should not be too difficult," said Brachmann. "As an archaeologist she has very likely hired local laborers. If we spread a few drachmas around in the right places I think we will be able to learn what we want to know soon enough."
"We should be careful whom we ask," Hans reminded him. "The local authorities have probably become aware of the murder of the English archaeologist."
At the mention of Frailing Brachmann curled his upper lip into a snarl. "Stupid Zeissler!" This is all his fault."
"His ineptitude has certainly complicated matters," allowed Hans. "However I am confident we will make things right with our client in the end."
Brachmann stretched his arms behind his head as he tried to shake off the last effects of his nap. "Are you tired, Hans?" he asked. "If so, I can drive."
"No, I am fine."
Hans had driven all night but despite this Brachmann had fully expected that he would answer as he did. Brachmann regarded the taciturn Hans as a very valuable, almost indispensable part of his organization but he also looked upon him as being unusual, perhaps even a bit odd. Hans rarely spoke unless spoken to, he never seemed to tire or to need sleep and, most telling of all, had never, ever been known to express even the slightest interest in any of the beautiful Greek women who were so readily available in post war Greece to those with the proper means. Not that Brachmann cared. All that mattered to him was that Hans was loyal and very efficient at what he did.
Brachmann leaned back and let rested his head on the top of the car seat. He closed his eyes and once more began to drift back to the time before the war, back to his former life in Dresden. He had been born and raised there and there as a teacher he had made his living. It was also where he had met his beloved Anna.
Anna! My sweet, delicate rose! Oh God how I miss you!
The two of them had been married barely two months when war came but on the same day that England declared war on Germany Karl Brachmann had gone straight out and enlisted. Even now he could see the devastated look on Anna's face and how she had cried when he broke the news to her. Only looking back at in retrospect did he realize how that day had marked the end of his world. What humanity the ceaseless slaughter and the unimaginable savagery of the Eastern Front had not drained from him the death of his precious little Anna had. She, his mother and father and his grandmother too had all perished in the terrible fires that resulted from bombing of Dresden on the night of February 13, 1945.
Brachmann opened his eyes and began to stare out his window. Since the end of the war he had done quite well for himself, amassing a small fortune mostly through smuggling and the black market. There was nothing very cerebral about it. All it took was the proper amount of force and the guts to use it. Karl Brachmann had plenty of both.
"Five kilometers, boss."
Brachmann said nothing and only idly glanced at the faded road sign. It was the very one which Melinda and Kettering had passed the day before on their way in to Volos. At the moment his mind was not on Volos, stone tablets, silly little archaeologists, the pesky British or even money. Karl Brachmann's thoughts were on the gentle girl with the delightful personality and the incisive intellect that had captured and held his heart these many years. Yes, he was a prosperous man now but he would gladly have traded every last British pound he had if only he could go back to those happy days when a cheap two room apartment was his home and once more find his Anna waiting there at the door for him.
Hans veered to avoid a football sized rock that had rolled down onto the road and it was this that brought Brachmann back to the world as he now knew it. That other world, his dream world, the world where his Anna yet lived was gone now, pushed back into the shadowy recesses of his memory to be replaced by thoughts of the Covington woman and what he planned to do to her should she refuse to cooperate.
In a cloud of dust Martin's sleek Peugeot 402 rolled to a stop only a few feet from where the two women were standing. The driver got out and Janice squinted her eyes in disgust at the sight of him. By anyone's standards Andrew Martin was a small man. In fact he and Janice were very nearly the same size with Martin outweighing her by but a few pounds. He wore glasses with thick black frames which he believed only served to enhance his appearance as an intellectual. Only twenty-eight, his hawkish nose and receding hair line combined to make him seem older than that and although not intentional, his lips seemed to form a perpetual smirk. Despite the likelihood of yet another unseasonably warm day he wore a black suit with buttoned jacket.
Janice watched him meticulously adjust his tie. "Christ," she muttered under her breath. Still, she could guess why he was there and this helped ease her irritation.
This animosity between Janice and Martin was hardly one sided. For his part he considered Janice Covington to be undisciplined and unprofessional, arrogant, ill tempered and, worst of all as far as he was concerned, totally lacking in the proper respect for those who were by rights her superiors. It galled him to no end that she pertinaciously refused to address him as Mister Andrews, instead crudely referring to him only by his surname. For these reasons and many more he enjoyed these trips about as much as a toothache. While the Pappas woman always seemed civil enough Covington's behavior in his mind was absolutely abominable, a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. She never ceased to be contentious, always questioning him, always challenging his rightful authority.
Today, however, was different. Rounding the front of the car, he could truthfully say that on this day he was not unhappy to be there. Today, finally, Janice the Bitch was going to get her just desserts. "Good morning..." With a faint contemptuous smile Martin looked straight at Janice. "...ladies."
Of course Melinda was well aware of the bad blood between this man and her partner. She too had little use for this peevish little man. But, proper Southern lady that she was, she managed a polite if somewhat jerky nod and replied, "Good morning, Mister Andrews."
However no such courtesy would be forthcoming from Janice. "Martin," she caustically observed, "you're up early. Big day for you, huh?"
"Ahh, Covington," he snidely replied, "you have such powers of perception."
"Save it for somebody who gives a damn," said Janice. "We both know why you're here so spit it out and be done with it."
Martin flashed her a triumphant little smile. "I'm going to miss your eloquence so very much, Covington. But you see I do want to savor this little moment."
Keep it up, you little squirt, thought Janice, and you might get the chance to savor a knuckle sandwich.
"Mister Martin, Janice is right. If you've got something tuh say then by all means say it."
Surprised by Melinda's words, Martin turned to her and received another surprise when he saw the intensity with which she was looking at him. "Yes, uhh, by all means." Martin drew himself up to his full height, such as it was, and announced, "Covington, on behalf of the Wiggins Group you are hereby directed to shut down this site immediately and ship at once to our office in Athens all excavated artifacts."
"All right," said Janice. "But don't forget that these fellas here have four days pay coming to 'em."
"Or that you still owe Jan the balance of what was specified in her contract," Melinda chimed in.
"Not to worry," said Martin, eyeing her curiously. Never before had he seen Pappas this assertive. It made her...different somehow. Different and strangely...unnerving.
Reaching under his jacket, he pulled out an envelope and handed it to Janice. "This should take care of everything."
Janice lifted up the unsealed flap and ran her thumb across the tops of the bills stuffed inside.
"It's all there," Martin assured her.
"It's not that I don't trust you," said Janice, folding the envelope in half. This she then jammed into her back pocket and added, "But then again, maybe it is."
Any other time and Martin would have taken offense at Janice's barb but on this day there was nothing she could say or do that could make him angry. He idly swept his eyes across the barren mountain top. "I knew this was doomed to fail from the start," he casually remarked. "I warned them. What a waste of investors' money."
"Well you know how it is," said Janice. "Some people have this crazy notion that every now and then you have to take a chance."
Morton only blinked and Janice knew that she might as well have been speaking in Swahili. It was clear the ultraconservative Martin just did not get it. In fact she doubted if the man had ever taken a risk in his entire life.
"Tell your bosses I'm gonna need the truck for a few days," said Janice.
His victory complete, Martin felt he could afford to be at least a little charitable. "All right, Covington," he said. "I'm sure they won't mind."
With his happy duty now done Martin had no desire to linger on. With this Covington one could never be quite certain just what she would do next. Half-heartedly he said, "Good luck to you, ladies."
Neither Melinda nor Janice was surprised by his lack of an offer to shake hands.
"Don't think it hasn't been a little slice of heaven," Janice wryly replied. "'Cause it hasn't." Fuckin' little weasel!
Martin flashed her a quick, humorless little smile. "Charming to the end, eh, Covington? With that he took his leave of the two women, got in his car and drove away.
"Well, kid," said Janice, as she watched the Peugeot disappear around the curve, "so much for our obligations, huh?"
Melinda grinned at her and said, "Tuh tell you the truth, I was never so glad to get fired."
"That's my girl," said Janice. "Okay, Jack," she called out over her shoulder, "you can come out now."
Immediately Jack poked his head out of the tent. "Who was that guy?"
"Our former employer," replied Melinda.
However Janice's description of Martin was something different altogether. In virulence
she thought, Him? An asshole, that's who!
An hour later found Janice on her knees and pulling her pack out from under her cot. By now she had broken the unhappy news to her work crew and paid them their last wages. She did, however, hire her foreman Phillip and another man whom she trusted to stay and break up the camp and have it ready for transport by Martin's men. By that time Janice expected that she and Melinda would be long gone. And perhaps with a little luck they might even have some company.
But first things first. Plopping her pack on the cot, Janice yanked out Jack's clay tablet. "Okay," she said to Melinda, "go through and read the entire thing to me."
Melinda did as asked and when she was finished Jack scratched his head and said, "Does any of that make sense to you guys?"
"Well I think the double reference to alpha is pretty clear," said Melinda. "Or at least half of it."
"What are you thinking?" asked Janice.
"The part about bein' spurned by alpha can only mean Athens."
"How do you know?" asked Jack.
"Harpalus had been a trusted friend of Alexander the Great since boyhood and as Chief Treasurer it was his responsibility to oversee the vast treasures that were being captured by his king in those Asian great campaigns. In the end, though, Harpalus betrayed Alexander's trust and began to keep some of this loot for himself."
"Started skimming a little off the top, huh?" Janet remarked. "Typical."
"Started skimming a lot off the top," Melinda came back.
"So what's the whole story on this guy? I've don't know all that much about him."
"Harpalus is at the center of somewhat celebrated mystery," said Melinda. "It is well known that Alexander was often less than attentive when it came to mundane administrative problems. Perhaps this explains the lack of supervision for the activities of his Chief Treasurer. At last, though, Harpalus' fortunes changed. At Carmania Alexander staged this big week-long drunken revel. Then he shocked everyone by ordering his satraps and generals to disband their mercenary armies."
"Fear of insurrection, I'd bet," Janice remarked.
"Yep," replied her friend. "This then began a period of punitive action against those officials who had been disobedient or negligent."
"Enter Harpalus," said Janice.
"He might have been Alexander's friend but he sure wasn't about to take any chances. So rather than stay and risk Alexander's wrath he decided to take it on the lam."
Her amusement evident, Janice repeated the last part of Melinda's sentence. "Take it on the lam?" It always surprised her when Melinda used such slang. In her mind it did not seem to become the raven haired beauty.
Unaware of this, Jack offered up, "Yeah, you know, he beat it, bugged out, scrammed."
Janice's only response was to dip her chin and roll her eyes as she momentarily glanced at him. "Okay," she said to Melinda, "so Harpalus made tracks before Alexander could rub him out. How much was he supposed to have stolen?"
"No one knows for certain but it's been written that it took several triremes to hold it all."
"What's a trireme? asked Jack.
"A three tiered ship," said Janice. "They were still the pinnacle of ship design at that time and had been the instrument Athenian naval dominance in Aegean almost a century B.C. before." To Melinda she said, "A trireme would have held a hell of a lot treasure."
"To be sure," agreed her friend. "Anyway, after fleeing Harpalus eventually sailed his little fleet to Athens. At first the Athenians denied him entrance because to let him in would have been tantamount to a declaration of war on Alexander. Considering the extent of Alexander's power this would have been darn near suicidal on the Athenians' part."
"So what did Harpalus do?" asked Janice.
"This is where things start to get fuzzy," said Melinda. "All that's really known for sure is that Harpalus sailed away and when he returned later it was with only one ship containing a mere seven hundred talents."
With a sentient gleam in her eye Janice said, "Don't tell me, let me guess. The rest of the treasure was never seen again."
"Not as far as anyone knows," Melinda answered. "And that's the mystery."
Remembering Melinda's revelation of the night before, Janice said, "Well with a little luck maybe it won't be a mystery for much longer."
"Harpalus was nothing if not persistent," said Melinda. "He later returned to Athens with the idea of convincing the city to form a coalition against Alexander. Now the Athenians were no fools. They still remembered how the Macedonians had brutally put down the rebellion in Thebes fourteen years before. They knew the danger of provoking Alexander. Nevertheless, they did have a powerful motivation to resist stemming from what was known as the Exiles Decree."
"What was that?" Jack asked.
"The Exiles decree required all cities in the Greek League except Thebes to allow all those who had been exiled to return along with their families," said Janice. She grinned at Melinda and said, "See? I do remember a little from my college days."
"Ostensibly it was an attempt by Alexander to remedy the problem of the thousands of nomadic mercenaries," said Melinda, continuing. "However the Athenians viewed it as a threat to their cleruchies on Samos because they had exiled the Samian population to make way for the Athenian settlers now there. They had already been forced to cede to Macedonia control of the cities in the north of Greece that had for years been under the influence of Athens."
"Including Amphipolis," said Janice. "Right?"
"Including Amphipolis," said Melinda. "And for many of them this latest affront was the last straw. Despite such a powerful motive Harpalus ultimately was unable to sway the Athenians into aligning themselves against Alexander."
"How could he?" Janice snorted. "By this time Alexander had already conquered much of the known world. How could one puny little city-state hope to resist?"
"Quite so," replied Melinda. "In the mean time the leaders of Athens decided to imprison Harpalus and turn him over to Alexander for punishment. Luckily for him he was able to make good his escape with the aid of some of those who had been in favor of his proposal. A by product of this affair was the downfall of the great Demosthenes. You see after the escape of Harpalus it was later discovered that half of the seven hundred talents that had been confiscated from him was missing and in the ensuing scandal it was this great orator who took the fall. For the man who had all his life fought so hard against Macedonian domination it was the end of his political career and he ultimately committed suicide."
"So what happened to this Harpalus character?" asked Jack.
"Well officially he kind of fades from history here," replied Melinda.
"Okay" said Janice, "so our boy steals a big chunk of Alexander's treasure and hauls ass to Athens. There he is turned away and when he comes back a second time he's thrown in the slammer before ultimately making his escape. Throw in the little matter of this mutiny..." Janice shook her head once and said, "The best laid plans..."
It fell to Melinda to put it in much more human terms. "Can you imagine how alone and afraid he must have felt?"
Janice was not sympathetic. "He should have thought of that before he decided to betray his king."
"What makes you think he didn't just go back, pick up his loot and retire to some nice little island somewhere?" asked Jack.
In her own unique way Janice took the words right out of Melinda's mouth when she replied, "Jack, where the hell could he have gone without Alexander sooner or later findin' out about it? I mean, the guy did pretty much rule most of the known world. If Harpalus had managed to hang on to even some of the treasure it would have been hard to escape Alexander's tendrils."
"For a stranger to show up anywhere bearing those kinds of riches would have been a thing that could hardly have been kept secret for long," Melinda added. "But twenty-three centuries have passed now. It's been a very long time."
Noting the intensity with which the two women were conversing, Jack sensed there was more here than a mere academic discussion of some long dead embezzler. Putting two and two together, he said, "Say, why are you so interested in all this? Why, if I didn't know you guys better I'd think you were actually going to look for this treasure or something."
Janice shot him a mischievous little grin and in a deliberate manner said, "Maybe you don't know us as well as you think you do."
"But you've got this site to excavate," said Jack.
"Not any more," Melinda happily informed him. "You see, we've been given the boot."
"Ohhh." Then the significance of Melinda's statement hit him and Jack's eyes grew wide. Suddenly things were now becoming a whole lot more interesting. This was what he had hoped for when he had gone looking for Janice and Melinda. "Wow!" he exclaimed. "You mean to say you are? You really are?"
"If we can figure this stone out," Janice answered. She lightly tapped him on the stomach with the back of her hand. "You wanna come?"
It was music to Jack's ears. "Do I?!" he excitedly asked. "Are you kiddin'?"
Teasing him, Melinda said, "Jan, ahh reckon we can take that as a yes. Golly, Jack, you really should show a little more enthusiasm."
"What about Poole?" Janice asked.
"Ahh, I'll send him a cable," replied Jack. Inside he could not get over his elation at being invited to join them.
"There might be trouble," warned Janice.
"Covington, I've been bombed, strafed, torpedoed and I was damn near roasted on that floating barbecue of a ship. How much worse could it get?"
"Well you can't say I didn't warn ya," said Janice. With that settled Janice turned her attention to Melinda. "Mel," she said approvingly, "you've really nailed this thing."
"Awww, it was easy once I saw both parts," Melinda modestly replied.
It fell to Jack to verbalize the thought that was on all their minds. "So, uhh, where are we goin'?"
Janice shook her head once and with a sigh said, "Not sure yet. But let's say I have ideas."
Suddenly, like a bolt of out the blue, Melinda blurted out, "Pydna!"
Her voice suddenly deeper and more assertive, Melinda added, "We have to go to Pydna."
With the tip of her index finger Janice slowly pushed back her hat far enough to where her intense green eyes could peer up at the belle. For a moment she was puzzled by Melinda's odd...request? No, it was not a request. Not the way her friend had framed it.
Naturally, though, her nimble mind quickly realized the significance of it all. That voice, that distant, distracted look in Melinda's eye could mean only one thing. This was another one of those moments. She was near! The indomitable spirit of the warrior woman that dwelt deep within the soul of the gentle Mel seemed to have once more awakened. It had been so long now that she had almost forgotten. Not since their mission to Austria in the spring of '45 had they felt the unmistakable power of Xena's presence. For Janice this was a cause of extreme concern because if her spirit did indeed fell compelled to arise here and now more it could only mean one thing--trouble!
For Melinda things were not quite so clear because the next thing she knew Janice was for some reason sharply calling out her name. "Mel!"
Melinda blinked a couple of times before answering, "Huh?"
"I said what makes you say that?" said Janice, repeating the question Melinda had not heard originally. Her question was supererogatory because she already knew the answer.
Puzzled, Melinda asked "Say what?"
"You still sleepy or something?" asked Jack. "You said Pydna."
"I did? Ohh. Sorry, I must have been thinking out loud."
Janice knew better. "Uhh huhh," she grunted.
"Wait a minute," said Jack. "Where did this Pydna thing come from?"
At the moment Janice had no desire for lengthy explanations so she merely replied, "Call it a hunch."
Melinda was more accommodating. "It's like what I talked to you about last night, Jack."
It took another moment or two but Jack finally made the connection. "Ohhhhh."
Turning her attention back to her partner, Melinda said, "Remember yesterday when you told me to find something to occupy my mind? Well I wasn't really thinking about Millie. For a moment I felt her presence then as well. Ah reckon I should have told you."
"I was wondering about that," said Janice. The outward expression on the smaller woman's face did not change all that much but had Jack been able to see her eyes he would have been startled by the expression of tenderness now there. "You okay?" When the lanky beauty nodded that she was Janice went back to her original train of thought. "We're going to go see Kettering. He might be more willing to play ball when he finds out we have the other half of his little puzzle."
"Where is this Pynda?" asked Jack.
"About a hundred miles straight up the Aegean coastline," answered Janice.
Jack was persistent. "But why Pydna?" he asked.
"I can't explain it. But in my heart I know Pydna is the place we ought to be."
Janice eyed her with curiosity for a moment before breaking into a little half--grin. "Pydna, huh?"
"Yeah," the belle softly answered. From deep within her a voice echoed, Be careful!
"But, how will we know where to look once we get there?" asked Jack.
It was a legitimate question and one for which Melinda had no real answer. Janice did. "That's why we're going to look up Kettering. I'll bet once we put the two stones together we'll know everything."
Looking up at the belle, Janice asked, "So, are you still game?"
Melinda was game all right but not still completely sold on her own idea. But then she thought, Well, who am I to argue with the spirits of my ancestors? "Yeah, I'm ready when you are."
"All right," said Janice. "That's settled once and for all. Now let's pay a little visit to one Mister Miles Kettering.
An hour later found the three of them ready to go. It had not taken Janice and Melinda long to load both their meager belongings and what few artifacts that had been found into the old truck. The remainder of that time had been spent waiting for Janice's two hired men to show up. After giving these men their final instructions Janice yanked open the door to the truck and slid in behind the wheel.
"I've got shotgun!" Jack chortled. As it was this was hardly a victory for Jack because this was to have been his spot in any event. Janice had already decided that she was going to have someone bumping up against her all day inside that rickety truck that person was most assuredly going to be her sweet Melinda and not the oftentimes irksome Jack.
With Jack gallantly opening the passenger side door, Melinda settled in beside her lover. Once inside she was forced to stretch her long legs off to the right so as not to impede Janice's handling of the gear shift. By the time Jack got in Janice was already depressing the starter switch. The truck sputtered to life and for what would be the very last time she and Melinda began the long trip down the mountain. As the drove away both felt a certain amount of regret for not having accomplished more but for each of them this was tempered by the knowledge they had done their absolute best. In the field of archaeology these things happened. After all, not every dig yielded a Tutankhamen's tomb.
When they reached the foot of the mountain where their road teed off into the main road Janice turned left and headed east, toward Volos. A kilometer outside the city they met a sedan heading in the opposite direction. Of course Brachmann and his henchman, Hans, had no idea the driver of the sputtering old truck was in fact the very person they were looking for. Indeed both of them barely gave the truck a second glance as it went past. Having learned the location of Janice's site from a fish peddler in the market place, these men were intent on not missing the cutoff they were supposed to take. Before long they found it. Upon nearing the mountain road, Hans pulled the car off to the side and stopped. A few moments later he turned off and started the ascent up the mountain with both he and his boss as yet unaware that their quarry was already gone.
Janice Covington brought the truck to a stop and leaned forward with her forearms against the steering wheel. Peering up at the run down, two story building inn through the dusty windshield, the archaeologist said to Melinda, "You're sure this is where you took him?"
"Yes, Jan," Melinda patiently answered. "This is the place all right. Room number eight."
It's not exactly the Hilton, is it?" Janice remarked as she yanked on the door handle. "You guys wait here. Jack, hand me the stone."
Jack did as asked and together he and Melinda watched as Janice tucked the stone under her arm and left. "What's she up to?" he asked, as he watched the lithe woman bound up the inn's steps.
"With Jan one can never be sure but if I were a bettin' woman I'd say she's gonna ask Mister Kettering to join us," replied Melinda.
"Say, who is he anyway?" Jack asked.
Melinda proceeded to fill Jack in on the details of the two women's encounter with the British archaeologist. from the previous day.
When she finished Jack rubbed his unshaven chin and pronounced, "Sounds pretty far-fetched if ya ask me. I'm surprised Covington bought into it."
Melinda had a ready answer for him. "Is it as far-fetched as believing that the god of war from Greek mythology actually exists?"
"Well okay, you have me there," Jack conceded. "But all the same I think there's something mighty fishy about it. We'd be smart not to turn our backs on this Kettering character."
For her part Melinda Pappas thought that to be very wise counsel indeed.
Inside the hotel Janice walked briskly down the second floor hall until she came a door marked by a tarnished "8." In much the same manner as she had rapped Jack on the head earlier in the morning so now did she knock on the door to Kettering's room. When there was no reply on the first attempt Janice knocked again. "Kettering." Again there was no answer so Janice knocked again. In louder tones she repeated, "Kettering!"
Finally there came a muffled, "Who's there?"
From inside Janice could hear the creaking of floorboards as someone made their way across the room. "Covington? Go away. We have nothing more to discuss."
To Janice the voice emanating from just inside the door hinted of surprise and not a little dismay. She was right. Kettering had not expected this volatile woman to come pounding on his door so quickly. "Oh we've got a hell of a lot to talk about," she said. "Now why don't you be a good boy and open this door?"
"It was a straightforward business transaction," insisted Kettering. "I-I paid your friend a fair price--more than fair--for her services." Naturally he assumed this was her purpose for being there. "I gave her damn near the last shilling I had. Now please go away or I shall be forced to shout for help."
Exasperated and a little disgusted by his whining, Janice thought, Jeez, what a candy ass! It was now apparent to her that Miles Kettering was on of those jittery souls who saw peril at every turn and consequently she began to wonder if perhaps those many "attempts" on his life had not all been imagined. For a just a moment she contemplated kicking in the door. However she knew this would only cause a disturbance within the hotel so after a moment she changed her mind and decided to try another tack. "Look, Kettering," she said reassuringly, "I'm not here about that. I've got something here I want to show you. It's an artifact that I know you'll be interested in."
There was a dull click and Janice saw the door open perhaps an inch. With the door chain still firmly in place Kettering cautiously peeked through the crack. Part of him still wanted to yell for help but another part of him--the archaeologist in him--was also curious enough to wonder what it might be that Covington could deem so "interesting."
"This had better not be a trick, Covington, because if it is--"
Before Kettering could finish the sentence Janice pulled the tablet out from under her arm and held it up to where he could get a good look at it. "Does this look like a trick?"
As soon as he saw it Kettering guessed what it was and the thought utterly astounded him. And as it had the previous day in Janice's tent, his composure now momentarily left him. "Good heavens!" he cried.
Despite herself Janice could help but display a little smugness. "Uh huhh, so you do know what it is."
It took Kettering a couple of fumbling seconds to free the door chain from the slot but at last he was able to manage it. Forgetting all his previous anxiety he threw the door open and, with a wide sweep of the arm, gestured for Janice to step inside. "Wh-where did you get that?" he asked.
In handing him the stone, Janice chose to be nebulous with her reply. "You might just say it sorta fell in my lap. Or rather, on my foot!"
"The other half of the inscription? I don't believe it," said Kettering, brushing his fingertips across the stone's rough surface. "In doing my research I came across one or two references to the second stone but I never dreamed it had survived, or that someone might actually find it. It's amazing, Covington." Suddenly his enthusiasm vanished quicker than water in the desert sand, only to be replaced by the stark realization of just what the ramifications were for the existence of such a replication "I rather suppose," he said morosely, "that you and I are competitors now."
For the Brit this was a disturbing thought indeed. Although an intelligent man, Kettering would have been the first to admit that he could not hope to match Covington's cunning resourcefulness much less her intensity and relentless drive. He had heard more than one man marvel at her almost uncanny ability to get things done. While not sure if Janice could move mountains, some of those same men were quite certain that she could in fact move fair sized hills. Kettering knew just how formidable this woman could be.
However at the moment an adversarial role was not what Janice had in mind. In a measured reply she said, "It doesn't have to be."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, like you said yesterday we need each other. My offer's still on the table. Everybody as equal partners. So whaddaya say?"
For a moment he did not say anything. It just did not seem fair to him. For nigh on to ten years he had worked and dreamed, planned and schemed--just waiting for this opportunity to unfold. Now it was here. If it was a pie he could have smelled its delicious aroma. And now--now that he was so close that he could almost reach out and touch it this tempestuous woman had had the whole damn thing, as she had so aptly put it, fall right on her. But Kettering was also a realist and as the old adage advises that, "Half a loaf is better than none," so too did he begin to figure that a third interest would be better than being shut out completely. "It's just as well," he finally admitted. "Even with your friend's translation I did not gain as much insight as I had hoped. Partners it is."
To seal the deal the two of them then shook hands. As Kettering handed the stone back to Janice the remark he made reflected perfectly his hopes for their endeavor. "May one month hence find the three of us wallowing in our new found riches."
In an odd sort of way Janice relished what she was now about to do. I might as well tell him now, she thought. I wouldn't want him to have a heart attack in front of Mel. Melinda was right--her lover did enjoy a good confrontation.
"You mean four," said Janice, matter-of-factly. "There are four of us now."
For Kettering this was too much. "Good God, woman!" he huffed. "What are you doing, taking out advertisements in the local paper?"
It was all Janice could do to suppress a grin at this one. "An old pal of ours from before the war unexpectedly turned up yesterday," she calmly informed him.
"Who gives a bloody damn?" Kettering testily shot back. "This isn't Miss Piloto's Home for Derelict Writers you know."
Janice had to admit that when he was angry Kettering could be down right funny in a pompous sort of way. She would have to remember that. "Maybe not," she retorted. "All the same he gets an equal cut."
"What do you take me for?" Kettering testily asked. "A fool? I know when I'm being buggered."
With a wicked little smirk Janice said, "Do you now?"
For the beleaguered Kettering there was no doubt about it. The woman was simply maddening! So it was that he now felt compelled to quickly add, "Well figuratively of course."
"Look," said Janice, "it's because of our friend that we now have this second stone." Naturally the archaeologist was of the opinion that the less said about poor Frailing's role in the matter, the better.
"Confound it, Covington, why do you insist on this continual provocation?" Kettering shook his head vigorously and said, "No. This is where I put my foot down."
Now it was Janice's turn to become angry. "Awww fuck you, Kettering! You can blow a gasket for all I care. I don't give a big rat's ass whether you go or not. Either way the guy's coming along. I tried my damndest to be fair about this but since you wanna be a little prick about it, well up yours, you pompous little twerp. It's every man for himself now, Junior."
The irate Janice turned to go when Kettering caught her by the arm. "Wait!" It was no use. Without this woman he did not stand a chance of recovering the treasure and he knew it.
Janice glared at him and for a moment it looked to Kettering as if she meant to do him bodily harm. Fortunately for him Janice had no such intention, which gave him the chance to snap, "Oh very well! Have it your own bloody way!" Bravely he then managed a weak grin. "As you Yanks would say you've put me behind the eight ball."
"Nope," Janice matter-of-factly replied. "Just being fair."
"Just give me a minute or two to get my things together," said Kettering.
"Take your time," said Janice. "There's no rush. We'll be out front."
Even so there remained one last little issue that needed to be addressed. Something that in Janice's mind could not wait. Pausing at the door, she turned and said, "Oh, there's just one more thing."
"You took advantage of my friend yesterday. I don't like that. Try it again and I'll kick your ass so far up between your shoulder blades you'll need to unbutton your collar just to take a crap, and you can take that to the bank."
"Making threats is not the most ideal way to begin a new partnership, you know," Kettering coolly replied.
"Oh that's not a threat," Janice promptly assured him. "That's a promise."
"I told you it was a straight business transaction," said Kettering.
"Call it what you want," Janice said with a shrug. "Just make goddamn sure you watch your step around her from now on."
"All right, Covington," said Kettering in all earnestness. "You have my word."
Janice seemed satisfied by this. "Okay then," she said. "Just so we understand each other."
"Can you at least tell me where we're going?"
"North," Janice tersely replied.
"Are you aware there have been reports of fighting along the Loudias River?"
"What's the matter?" Janice dryly asked. "You're not going to let a few Reds keep you from all that moolah, are you? I know I'm sure as hell not." With that she stepped out into the corridor and was gone.
For a moment Miles Kettering just stood there staring after her, both mystified and amazed. That, he thought, is without question the most unique individual I have ever met. In his mind even Lord Hanley paled in comparison to her. However, as to whether that meant she was the most able or simply the craziest remained to be seen.
Perhaps, he thought wryly, it's both.
Five minutes later the three Americans watched as Kettering trudged down the front steps of the hotel. For him it seemed as if all his troubled life had been but a prelude to this, what should have been his crowning moment. But a fellow countryman had once written something about the best laid plans and no one understood that better than Miles Kettering.
Silently he lamented his double setback. Of all the blasted luck! He wondered how it was possible that this Covington woman had been able to solve the riddle of the Amazon's cradle in less than a day while in that same time he had drawn only a frustrating blank. Worse, with the appearance of this second stone he did not even have that to play as a trump card anymore. Life, he thought sadly, is a bastard.
Not taking her eyes off Kettering as he approached, Janice spoke. "Jack?"
"There isn't room up here for the four of us. Why don't you sit in the back and keep Kettering company."
Trying to hide his disappointment, Jack replied, "Uhh, okay. Sure." His reluctance was not so much that he minded sitting back there in the dusty bed of the truck. Indeed in his search for his two friends he had spent many a ride in just this fashion. Rather, it was because of the sweet soul sitting next to him. Jack enjoyed sitting next to the engaging Melinda very, very much. She was sooo nice and now that Jack had seen her again was more beautiful than even he remembered.
Most women never gave him a second glance but Melinda was kind and attentive and when they talked had a way of making him feel like he was the only guy on the planet. Jack Klienman liked that feeling. Still, if Covington wanted him to get in the back, he would get in the back. As usual this was her show.
Jack was already in the bed of the truck by the time Kettering joined them. "Hi," he said, holding out his hand. "Jack Klienman, Hoboken, New Joisey."
Still sulking from his most recent misfortune, the Brit paid was in no mood at the moment to make any new friends, especially this pasty faced fellow whom he regarded as nothing more than a crass interloper, undeserving of inclusion in this affair. And so it was that instead of Kettering's hand thrust into his own it was his battered old leather bag instead.
"Put that away for me," Kettering said curtly.
Easy going fellow that he was, Jack readily complied. However when he looked back up he found himself in for a surprise. Kettering had slipped into the cab of the truck beside Melinda was already pulling the door shut!
The startled Jack was certain Janice would right away set this puffed up palooka straight but he received yet another surprise when Janice said nothing at all. When she started up the truck he thought, What the hell is goin' on here? Janice, having already taken the wind from Kettering's sails, had no real desire to knock down the mast as well. All this could be sorted out later but at the moment she had more important things to worry about than what the damn seating arrangements were.
Janice popped the clutch a little too fast as the truck pulled out, forcing Jack to catch the wall of the bed for support. Easing himself down onto the floor, he sulkily muttered, "Damn it, I've got just as much right to be up there as he does. More in fact." Jack, he thought, you should change your name to Elevator. You're always gettin' the shaft anyway.
On the floor he saw a rusty old lug nut lying beside him. In disgust he snatched this up and threw it out the back of the truck. Still fuming, he happened to glance up at the cab window. There, half turned in her seat and looking back at him, was Melinda. Her lips were pressed together in a tight, apologetic little smile and the effect on Jack was to completely melt away all his anger. At least somebody cares, he thought. Just knowing that made the rough ride a little easier for him to bear.
All the remainder of that day they slowly made their way northwest, up the torturous road toward Larissa. As Janice saw it there was no need to hurry. After all, the road was not in good condition and they were not in a race. Given the tenuous condition of their vehicle, the important thing was to just get there.
Inside the cab little was said as they wended their way north. Janice, intent on negotiating the many treacherous twists and turns the road presented, was in no mood for conversation. Of course Melinda recognized this and so she spent the time quietly sitting their with her hands folded in her lap. She certainly had no desire to speak to the mistrustful man on her right. Kettering might be their partner now but as far as the belle was concerned it would be a cold day in hell before she had any more to do with him. As for Jack it was probably for the best that he, as the most talkative person of the four, was in the back. In light of the present mood permeating the group it was highly likely that somebody's nerves would have become frayed before very long. As it was he spent much of the first day coping with the incessant jarring and dozing away the miles as best he could.
Had Janice known what was behind her she might have been more inclined to pick up the pace. Brachmann and Hans had sniffed out their trail and by the middle of the afternoon were steadily closing ground on them. Back on the mountain top the two Germans had found Phillip and his helper none too cooperative at first. However the Greeks' attitude had changed very quickly once Brachmann, frustrated at having missed yet again, unleashed an all too willing Hans on Phillp's hapless helper. With Brachmann holding the frightened Greeks at gun point Hans had proceeded to coldly and efficiently beat the unfortunate man senseless, leaving him quivering in a pool of his own blood.
After this, it was not surprising that Phillip had sung like a canary. Even so, except for a couple of names and the description of the truck they were driving, what information Brachmann was able to extract had been sketchy at best and that they were now so close to overtaking Janice and her party was due as much to blind guesswork as it was to deductive reasoning. Whatever the reason, they were no more than a half an hour behind when Janice and her companions suddenly began to hear a strange whine coming from underneath the truck.
"What is that?" Melinda asked.
"I hope it's not what I think it is," Janice ominously replied.
No sooner had she spoken when they heard a metallic thump followed by the sound of something dragging along. Even before the truck began to perceptively slow Janice knew what had happened. "Son of a bitch," she muttered in disgust.
Pulling over to the side of the road, Janice angrily thrust open her door and got out. Outside she fell to her knees and peered under the truck. What she saw was what exactly well knew she would see. The drive shaft had become disconnected from the rear axle, its back end lying uselessly on the ground. "Son of a bitch!"
On the other side of the truck Jack too was surveying the damage. Wrinkling his nose, he said, "Gee, looks like we've lost a U-joint."
Very good, Einstein! thought Janice. However she knew Jack was only trying to be helpful so all she said aloud was a restrained, "Yeah."
She felt Melinda's warm hand on her shoulder. "Is it bad?" the belle asked.
Janice rose to her feet. "It's bad," she said, as she dusted off her hands. "But nothing that can't be fixed."
"Hey I can do it for you," Jack cheerfully offered.
Perhaps he could, she thought. He might even be able to do it right. But Janice was not about to take a chance. "That's okay," she said. "I'll do it."
"Then I suggest you make the necessary repairs and let's get moving again," Kettering said tartly.
Pal, thought Jack, you're makin' it awfully hard for me to like you! However the reply he heard Janice give to the Brit was one that he found extremely gratifying.
She too had not cared for his tone. "Have you got a universal joint?" she snapped back.
"Of course not," Kettering said with a snort.
"Well then pipe down and let me handle this."
"Can't you just put the old one back in?" asked Melinda.
Janice shook her head. "Naw, kid," she patiently replied. "It's to hell and gone by now. Even if we did find it, it's too worn to hold."
"What'll we do then?"
Her voice filled with resignation, Janice sighed, "I'll just have to find another one."
"Where? In Volos?"
"We're closer to Larissa than to Volos," the archaeologist said. "I'm sure I can find one there."
Melinda nodded thoughtfully and said, "Well let's get started. Maybe we'll get lucky and catch a ride."
Janice shot her an incredulous little half grin. "Ohhh no," she said. "You're not going."
"But, Ja-yun, you just said--"
"I just said I will find us one," said Janice, forcefully cutting her off. "You, my friend, are gonna stay right here."
Janice took Melinda by the arm and began to walk her away from the others. "Look, Mel, it may turn out to be a long walk. I'd feel much better if you stayed here. After all, there's no sense in both of us going and besides..." Janice paused and leaned in close. "...I need you here to keep an eye on Kettering. I mean, you don't really think we should leave him here with those tablets, do ya?"
"But Jack will be here," Melinda weakly protested.
Janice looked askance at her and softly said, "Meeeeel."
It was no use and Melinda Pappas knew it. As usual Janice's assessment of the situation was dead on. To leave the wily Kettering alone with Jack and the tablets would just be begging for a double cross. Slumping her shoulders in resignation, Melinda gloomily sighed, "All right."
"Atta girl," said Janice with a smile.
"I still don't like it," said Melinda.
Larissa can't be more than a few miles up the road," said Janice. "With a little luck I'll make it up there and back by nightfall."
"And if you're not?"
Janice grinned at her. "Don't be such a worrier."
"I reckon I can't help it," Melinda softly replied. The belle took a long look up the road; in her own heart Janice fully understood the underlying message being sent here. Melinda's concern was not for herself but for Janice--the vibrant bundle of energy that was so very dear to her.
"Mel," Janice assured her, "I'll be all right. Now you guys just sit tight and wait."
As Melinda nodded Janice spoke again. "I'll pick up something to eat while I'm in town."
"Once I get there I shouldn't have any trouble hiring somebody to bring me back out here."
"I'm sure you won't."
From behind they heard Kettering's exasperated voice. "Covington!"
Over her shoulder Janice barked, "In a minute!" Turning back to Melinda she asked "How much money have you got?"
"A few drachmas and about forty dollars in American money," Melinda answered.
Janice ran her hand into her pocket and, again leaning close, deftly put something into Melinda's hand. "Here," she said, "take this too."
"What's this?" Melinda asked.
"It's that twenty pounds you gave me yesterday," Janice explained. "Don't look at it. Just stick it in your pocket."
"Ya never know," said Janice, "it may come in handy."
"Well okay," Melinda said reluctantly, "if you--"
At this, Janice closed her eyes and began to clench her teeth. Muttering, she said, "If this keeps up I know another archaeologist who could end up being murdered."
"Janice, that's not very nice." Despite everything Melinda had to flash a little smile at this.
Turning, Janice began to approach Kettering. "All right, Kettering, what is it?"
"What are we going to do about this?" the man asked.
"We aren't going to do anything," Janice replied. "I'm going on to Larissa while you three wait here."
"Why don't we all go?" asked Jack.
"Here we haven't gone forty kilometers and things are a bloody mess already," the Brit huffed.
Ignoring him, Janice explained to Jack, "We can't carry all our stuff and we can't leave it here." Jack nodded and Janice went on to add, "Besides, you guys will only slow me down. I can make much better time alone."
Jack Klienman had no doubt about that. In the navy he had seen very many young men who were in tough and in excellent physical condition but for sheer endurance and the will to persevere he would have put his money on Janice against any of them.
When Kettering mumbled something indecipherable and walked around to the other side of the truck Janice immediately took advantage of his absence. Her voice low, she said, "Listen, Jack, I want you and Mel here to watch out for that guy. I want one of you keeping an eye on him at all times, especially around the tablets."
"You think he might try something funny?" Jack asked.
Janice answered him with a question of her own. "Who can say? It might depend on how desperate he becomes. All I know is you can't trust the guy as far as you can throw him."
"Amen to that," Melinda mumbled.
"What if he decides he doesn't want to hang around?"
"Let him go," said Janice. "Provided he doesn't try to leave with the tablets."
"Not even his?" Melinda asked.
Janice looked hard at her and replied, "Not even his."
"Well that ought to keep him around," allowed Jack.
"That's what I'm counting on," said Janice. "One more thing. I'm going to leave my gun here. It's--"
Alarmed, Jack hissed, "Jesus Christ! You don't expect me to shoot him, do ya?"
"No, damn it," said Janice. "But in case you've forgotten there's a war going on and, well, you never know who might come rolling down that road."
The concern in Melinda's voice was plainly evident as she asked "But what about you?"
Janice confidently replied, "Now, Melinda Pappas, you know darn well I can take care of myself. Jack, the gun is in my bag under the seat. Don't go near it unless you need it."
"You can be sure of that," said Jack.
"If somebody should happen to stop and offer to help, just tell 'em help is on the way. Under no, repeat no circumstances are either of you two to leave the truck, understand?" Her two friends nodded that they did. "Okay, if you take it easy on the water you should have plenty to do you." Then, satisfied that she had covered all contingencies, Janice smiled at Melinda and said, "Don't worry, nothing's going to happen."
Standing there with her lover about to leave, Melinda wanted to kiss the woman so very badly but with Jack standing right next to them and Kettering only a few feet farther away she could not work up the courage to do so.
This was why she was so delighted when Janice said to her, "Walk with me for a little way?"
Together the two women began to walk up the road. With Janice having already covered most everything there was very little left to say and so it was mostly in silence that the two lovers made their way up the road.
"It's lovely out here," Melinda observed after a couple of minutes.
Janice was much less appreciative. "I suppose," she said idly. "But I'd rather be watchin' it pass by through a windshield instead of having to hike my way through it."
After moving up the road about a hundred yards they came to a clump of trees standing
alongside the road. Following Janice's lead, Melinda left the road and with her moved in among
the trees to a place where they could not be seen back at the truck.
Back at the truck Kettering emerged from behind the vehicle and stepped out into the road. "I thought Covington said she was going alone."
Annoyed at being stranded with such an unlikable character, Jack impatiently replied, "She is."
"Well I don't see either of them out there," remarked the Brit. He formed a crooked little grin and said, "Those two are quite the little pair, aren't they?"
From the tone of Kettering's voice Jack recognized that the man was hardly being complimentary. "And just what's that crack supposed to mean?"
"Oh come on," Kettering scoffed. "Surely you're not as blind as that. Why, one would have to be a fool not to see it."
"Look, Mac, if you've got something to say, spit it out."
And so the archaeologist did. Snidely he said, "Haven't you noticed the way they look at each other, how they're always touching each other? I would bet my degree those two are sharing more than the morning coffee."
"My God, man, they're lovers. Must I draw you a picture?"
His words struck Jack like a thunderbolt. Over the course of the last twenty-four hours he had been struck by how close the pair seemed to have become. Even so, had not really given it much thought. After all, two people who had been together as long as they and had been through as much as they had were bound to find themselves drawn closer together. During the war Jack had seen for himself how close those who had faced danger together could become. However, the more he thought on Kettering's words the more he came to realize just how right the man might be. Perhaps Janice and Melinda were indeed beyond close. My God! he thought. What if they are? This in itself was disconcerting enough for him but his mounting anxiety was compounded even further by the fact that at the moment he was not quite sure what to think about that.
Nevertheless, Jack felt obligated to come to the aid of his friends. How he felt about his revelation would have to be sorted out later. "Even if they are lo-- what you said, it's none of our business. Besides, what do you care?"
Kettering, unruffled by the American's sharp reply, smugly asked "My, aren't we the sensitive one?" Now I wonder whyyyyyy. Awwww, it couldn't possibly be because you perhaps had designs on one of the good ladies, now would it?"
Jack Kleinman was by nature not a violent man. However right at this moment he had never in his life wanted so badly to punch somebody in the nose. The only thing that stopped him was the fact that, down deep inside, Jack had to admit there was, or had been, some measure of truth in what the Brit said. What man would not want to have Melinda Pappas for his own? Never quick with a comeback, Jack was left only with a lame, "You're nuts. They're my friends. You see, pal, we've worked together before. I'm here because they asked me to come."
"Well I sure as hell didn't invite you," Kettering said testily.
Here was an opening even Jack could take advantage of. With a sly little grin he said, "You know what I think? I think you're sore because you're not the one calling the shots here. And just lookin' at it I'd say that what you want doesn't seem to count for a whole hell of a lot with Janice, now does it?"
"Bloody Yanks," Kettering growled. "Think the sun rises and falls on their bloody asses."
With that he stalked over and sat down under a plane tree, leaving Jack alone to stare up
the road and turn over and over in his mind this idea, strange as it might have been to him, that
two women could indeed be lovers.
Back in the trees Janice moved in close and lightly put a hand to Melinda's receptive breast. "Look uhhh, I didn't want to go without giving you a proper good-bye."
Melinda took the hand into her both her own and softly kissed it. "Oh, Jan," she cooed, "do be careful."
In one of those moments that occurred only when she and Melinda were totally alone, Janice momentarily dropped the bravado and wrapped her arms around the statuesque belle. Together the two lovers shared first a warm embrace, followed by a lingering, very tender kiss. When their lips finally parted Janice capped off the sublime moment by ever so lightly kissing the dark haired beauty on the tip of the nose. Taking off her hat, she put her head on Melinda's chest and with a husky whisper declared, "Melinda Pappas, I do love you so!"
Neither spoke as for a few precious moments Melinda gently stroked Janice's long blonde hair. No one knew better than she that what Janice was about to do could very well end up being something other than an ordinary walk into town. There was a real element of danger here. Civil war had boiled over in Greece, leaving the birthplace of democracy in turmoil. Trouble had proven itself capable of arising anywhere. Who knew where it would pop up next?
Lovingly resting her chin on the top of Janice's head, Melinda quietly implored, "Jan, I want you to play this one close to the vest, you hear? Don't you go risking your life over some stupid treasure. Just come back to me, that's all I ask. You're all the treasure I ever want or need."
With one final hug the two at last reluctantly separated and once more Janice was her old brash self again. "Don't worry, about that, kid," she said. "I'd walk through hell in a gasoline suit just to see you again." Then the archaeologist turned much more serious. "Mel, I'm counting on you to keep Kettering straight. You know how Jack is so don't let Kettering talk him or you into doing anything before I get back. Stay here and wait."
With a nod of the head Melinda assured her, "I understand,"
"Good." Janice looked deeply into those enchanting blue eyes that she knew so well. "You know, you don't deserve to be stuck out here like this. You should be on a beach somewhere, sipping wine and soaking up the sun, instead of out here in the middle of nowhere sweating away the day with a crab and a kook. In a rare display of vulnerability her breathless voice hinted of wonder and amazement as she said, "God, I don't see how you put up with me the way you do."
Melinda broke into a big smile and said, "That's an easy one." To show what she meant Melinda leaned over and kissed Janice again. "I love you, Jan, and I always will."
Together they shared one final embrace and then it was time. "I gotta go," said Janice.
With Janice leading the way the two women wound their way out of the clump of trees and back out onto the road. "See you later," Janice said with a wink. And she was off.
"I could go for some dolmas," Melinda playfully called out after her.
Without turning around Janice held up her hand and waved acknowledgment of her friend's parting words. For a few moments Melinda remained there, alone, watching as her Janice rapidly put distance between them with the brisk pace that was so characteristic of the way the woman took on life. Soon Janice disappeared among the trees. Casting one final glance up the road, Melinda silently said a little prayer for the safety of the one that was the focus of her existence before striding back down the road to rejoin Jack and Kettering.
For the tenth time since they left Volos, Karl Brachmann checked his watch. "It has been over three hours now. Perhaps we should try another route."
"I do not think so," said Hans. "This is the main road between Volos and Larissa. It is here that we stand the best chance of finding them."
"From what that fat Greek told us we should have overtaken them by now," fretted Brachmann. "Their vehicle is old and in bad shape. It could not possibly out run us."
"Ahh but the road is very bad in places," Hans reminded him. "That evens matters considerably. Even our Schützenpanzerwagens might have had trouble making good time on this road."
The impatient Brachmann was forced to admit that, as usual, Hans was right. "Is it possible we could have missed them somewhere?" he asked.
"It is not very likely," Hans replied. "If I were them I would want to make Larissa as soon as possible. That means keeping to the main road. I think they will want to keep to the main roads for now."
Fools! thought Brachmann. Why would they want to risk traveling into a potential war zone? What could possibly be worth risking their lives for?
It was then that his thoughts were broken up by the unflappable Hans' voice. "Well well well, what have we here?"
Brachmann peered through the dusty windshield. There, about two hundred yards up the road, he
saw a parked truck which perfectly matched the description given by the Greek, Phillip. At last! he thought.
Jack was the first to notice the approaching car. In the forty minutes since Janice's departure there had been only one other vehicle to pass their way. Of course how much traffic there was had no direct bearing on him--Janice's instructions had made that clear. Nevertheless he had hoped to see more vehicles because that would increase the chances for Janice herself to catch a ride.
For himself Jack had picked out a spot on the shady side of the truck next to the right rear wheel. Kettering was still sulkily planted under the plane tree a few yards away while Melinda had retreated to the cab of the truck where she too had some shade and the seat was comparatively soft.
At first Jack paid scant attention to the car, thinking it would simply pass on by. That soon changed, however, when to his mild surprise the car pulled off the road and slowed to a stop right behind the truck. By now, of course, both Melinda and Kettering were also aware of the car. Seeing the men get out, Melinda eased her lanky body out of the truck and joined Jack who was now standing by the tail gate of the truck. Kettering, innately suspicious and there at the tree cut off from the others, stood up but stayed where he was.
As the men approached Jack lowered his head and murmured, "Let me do the talking."
Sizing them up as he approached, Brachmann thought, They are definitely not Greeks. It must be them! "Good afternoon," he said in perfect English. "Are you having some sort of mechanical difficulty?"
"We had a U-joint go out," said Jack. "Our drive shaft came loose."
"Ahh, that is too bad," said Brachmann. His eyes drinking in the lovely sight that was Melinda, he said, "Might my friend and I be of some assistance?"
"That's okay," said Jack, subtly positioning himself between the man and Melinda, "we've got help comin.'"
"My friend and I will gladly give you a ride into Larissa," Brachmann offered. "It would be much easier on the lady if she waited there while your truck is being repaired."
There was something about this man that Kettering did not like. Slowly, very carefully, be began to edge away toward the undergrowth a few yards distant. Hans, however, was watching the archaeologist's every move out of the corner of his eye.
"You're very kind," said Melinda. "But really, I'm quite comfortable here."
"Yeah, we had better wait here," said Jack. "Thanks anyway, Mac."
Brachmann reached inside his jacket. "In that case..." He pulled out his pistol and stuck the end of the barrel right between Jack's eyes. "...I am afraid I'm going to have to insist."
Putting her hand to her mouth in dismay, Melinda softly cried, "Ohhh my."
At the first sight of the gun Kettering bolted toward the underbrush. Behind him he heard someone swear an oath in German. It was Hans.
"Get him!" Brachmann yelled in German.
The slow-footed Kettering was no match for the athletic Hans and as a result was caught before he had gone ten yards. Seizing the Brit by the collar, Hans threw him to the ground whereupon he angrily kicked him twice in the ribs. "Sohn einer Hündin!" growled the German.
Brachmann pressed the barrel of the pistol hard against Jack's forehead. "I trust no one else has any foolish ideas."
"What is it that you want with us?" asked Melinda. She put her hand into her pocket and held out the twenty pounds Janice had given her. "If--if it's money you're after, take it. "We've got--"
"Shut up!" barked Brachmann. The nerve of this woman! he thought. Assuming we are but simple robbers! Even so, Brachmann did not feel insulted enough to keep from snatching the twenty pounds from her hand and stuffing it in his pocket.
Indignant at Brachmann's rudeness to Melinda, Jack said, "Hey, don't talk to her that way."
Brachmann looked at him with cold gray eyes and without a word snapped off the safety on his pistol.
"Hey uhh," Jack gulped, "let's not get carried away here, okay?"
"One more word, and you are a dead man," Brachmann icily warned.
Jack felt Melinda's reassuring hand on his arm. "It's all right," she said softly.
By now Hans had half pushed, half booted Kettering back to rejoin Jack and Melinda. "Well, now that we are all together we can get down to business," said Brachmann. Sweeping his eyes over the three of them, he asked "Which of you is Covington?"
It seemed that Phillip, despite fearing for his very life, had in giving the description of his employer been wily enough to somehow forget to mention their gender. Brachmann, naturally enough, was left with the assumption that the person he was looking for could in fact be any one of them.
Of the three captives only Melinda grasped the immediate implications surrounding Brachmann's inquiry. If these men knew Janice was out on the road alone in all likelihood they would hunt her down--perhaps after killing the three of them. On the other hand, if they thought they already had Janice, maybe there was still a chance for them. Maybe, just maybe, she could buy some time. She just hoped that Kettering would be cooperative enough and Jack would be sharp enough to go along.
Stepping forward, the belle boldly asserted, "I am. I'm Covington."
"Where is the stone?" asked Brachmann.
"Stone? What are you talking about? I don't know anything about a stone."
"You are lying," Brachmann said sharply. "The stone Frailing found, I know you have it."
By now Kettering had come to the conclusion that it was every man for himself now and therefore he had no intention of playing along with Covington's bitch--whatever her motive for such making such a claim. Pointing at Melinda, he fleeringly said, "She is lying! She's not Covington, but she does have the stone."
"Shut up, Kettering!" exclaimed Jack. All this got him was a heavy blow to the side of the head, courtesy of the barrel of Brachmann's pistol. This sent the ex-sailor sprawling up against Melinda's legs.
Glaring at her in suspicion, Brachmann harshly demanded, "Then who are you?"
From his knees Jack gasped, "Just who she said she is, ya moron. She's...Janice Covington."
Bless you, Jack Klienman! thought Melinda, gratefully. You brave soul!
From above Brachmann raised his arm to strike Jack again when Melinda bent down to shield her friend's head with her own body. "No!" she cried out. "You leave him alone!"
Regaining his composure somewhat, Brachmann looked down his nose at the two individuals kneeling before him. "Very well, fräulein," he said. "We will resume this discussion later."
Turning to Kettering, he asked basically the same question he had asked Melinda. "What is your name again?"
Drawing himself up to his full height, the Brit replied, "Kettering. Miles Kettering, British Archaeological Society."
This was all Brachmann needed to know. In the heat of the moment the other man had indeed called him Kettering so it seemed there was at least one person here telling the truth. Brachmann was thankful for that because it greatly helped him clarify the situation. As for the woman she might be Covington or she might not. Whatever the case, he was positive that he had no further use for some scruffy member of the British Archaeological Society. Looking directly at Kettering, he calmly said to Hans, "Shoot him."
"Noooooo!" Melinda shrieked. In an instant she was on her feet and lunging at Hans, already drawing his pistol. All the old familiar rage was within her. She could feel the warrior's spirit rushing through her body. As she lunged past Brachmann caught her in his arms. To the belle it did not matter. Now that Xena was with her ten Brachmanns could not hold her. Fully expecting to easily break his grip, Melinda pushed against his chest with all her might.
Brachmann threw her up against the truck and pressed his gun hard up under her chin. "That was very foolish, fräulein," he angrily hissed.
Panic stricken, Kettering collapsed to the ground and threw an arm over his face in a vain attempt to protect himself. "Oh God, no!" he wailed. "Please. I can help you!"
With well practiced precision Hans aimed his pistol at the center of Kettering's chest.
"Please!" Melinda squalled. "You can't do this!" My God! she thought. Why isn't Xena doing anything?!
Deep with her soul an impassioned voice said, "I....can't!!"
Crawling backwards in a desperate attempt to get away, Kettering hoarsely cried, "You want the stone?! I have it. Take it, take everything--it's yours! It's all yours! Just--"
His pleas were silenced with the loud report of a pistol shot echoing away through the valley. Kettering's gurgling lungs were still gasping for air as Hans very workmanlike began to search his pockets. Finding Kettering's wallet, he tossed it over to Brachmann who then stuck it into his own jacket pocket.
"You bastard!" Melinda screeched, lunging at him. Brachmann caught her and with a rough shove sent her sprawling to the ground. There, to her utter horror, she saw him aim his pistol straight at Jack's head. "No!"
Desperately scrambling to her feet, Melinda literally tackled the still stunned Jack, covering him with her own body. "Stop it!" she cried. "This is my assistant, Mel Pappas. He's the only one that can read that stone for you!" Closing her eyes, Melinda waited out the next agonizing couple of seconds, fully expecting to hear the next shot at any time. It never came.
Brachmann eyed her keenly. "I do not care what it says."
It was time for Melinda to play her lone trump card. She hoped the man was greedy enough to bite. "Maybe you should," she said.
"I do not deal in impalpabilites," Brachmann brusquely declared. "Only absolutes."
Melinda rolled off Jack and sat up. She then forced on her lips that same little wise ass smile she had seen her own lover use so many times before. It was vital here that she look as confident as possible. She must make them believe there could be profit in keeping her and her friend alive. In other words, she must now borrow a page from Janice's book. "Yeah? she replied. "Well how about a ship full of gold? Is that enough of an absolute for ya?"
Indeed it was. Karl Brachmann was many things but he was first and foremost an opportunist. In fact he prided himself on his ability to see possibilities where others saw only obstacles. However he hardly needed such an intuitive gift to recognize the potential in a ship full of gold. "What would an archaeologist know about a ship full of gold?"
"It's part of an ancient treasure," said Melinda, "Harpalus' treasure, stolen from the plunder of Alexander the Great himself. That stone you want? It points the way to a treasure beyond your wildest dreams and it's just lying there for the taking."
Still skeptical, Brachmann said, "And so you and these two heroes of yours just decided that you would go out and find it, eh? Just like that."
"Findin' stuff is what we archaeologists do best," said Melinda, still breathing heavily. "Why root around in these rocks for a few bits of pottery when I can scoop up gold coins by the shovel full instead. Better us than somebody else, right?"
Leveling his pistol at her, Brachmann menacingly asked, "This treasure, do you know where it is? I warn you, do not lie to me."
"Well not exactly," Melinda said, "I mean, Mel and I haven't been able to pinpoint the precise location." Very quickly she added, "But we're close--very close. All it will take is a little leg work on our part."
Brachmann was still not certain whether this lanky beauty was in fact telling the truth or if it was simply a desperate ploy on her part to stay alive. It did not really matter. Either way, he was interested enough in what the woman had to say that he would forego killing the two of them for the moment. After all, he could always do that later should events merit it.
Suddenly a troubling thought came to him. Narrowing his eyelids in suspicion, Brachmann said, "You said that help is coming. Is there another member of your team? Is that who went for help?"
"No," Melinda lied, desperately hoping her voice would not give her away. "I mean, yeah, someone did go for help but it was just the fella we hired to drive us to Larissa. He doesn't know anything about the treasure."
It was here that Hans reminded his boss, "Herr Brachmann, the Greek did speak of a Mel Pappas."
Coolly eyeing the two individuals before him, Brachmann tersely replied, "So he did."
"If you decide to do this he might prove useful to us," Hans suggested.
"What to you think?" Brachmann asked Hans.
Hans shrugged and answered, "What have you got to lose?"
And so it was decided. Brachmann would let these two live--for the moment. Prodding Melinda with the toe of his foot, Brachmann said, "Get up--both of you."
At the moment Melinda's worst fear was not necessarily one of being shot but rather that poor Jack might be too groggy to understand what she was trying to do. Helping her stricken friend to his feet, she tentatively asked, "Are you all right, Mel?"
To her infinite relief Jack nodded stiffly and said, "Yeah, boss. I'm okay."
"First things first," said Brachmann. "Where is the tablet?"
Still shaken by this swift turn of events, Melinda replied, "It's...it's in the truck."
"You will produce it at once," Brachmann commanded.
Hesitantly she said, "Well uhhhh, I'll need my glasses." Her hard tackle, while saving Jack's life for the moment, had also caused her glasses to go flying off. Without a word Hans picked them up and handed them to her. After a quick inspection she was greatly relieved to find they were undamaged.
With a gentle hand she guided Jack to the running board of the truck. "Here, why don't you sit down for a minute." Jack did just that and Melinda was somewhat surprised when Brachmann made no objection.
At this point Melinda began to rack her brain for some way, any way, that she could leave a clue for Janice. It was obvious these men intended to take them along otherwise they would have already killed the two of them and searched the truck themselves. As Melinda Pappas now saw it, her duty was crystal clear. By whatever means possible it was going to be up to her to keep both herself and Jack alive long enough for Janice to find them. And Janice would find them sooner or later. Of that Melinda had no doubt. The only question was whether or not she and Jack would have already shared Kettering's fate by then.
As it appeared to Melinda that these two man were unaware of the existence of a second stone it was up to her then to decide which one to hand over. Jack's stone was stashed under the seat in Janice's pack, along with the rest of her money, their passports--and Janice's gun. Far more than the gun it was those passports that she did not want Brachmann and Hans stumbling across. If they were to find them she had no doubt it would mean an immediate death sentence for both herself and Jack. Even if the gun was all they saw they would surely take it. Janice would need that gun for herself. Better then to give them Kettering's stone.
Melinda knew full well that if Janice were here her thinking would be polar opposite of her own. Indeed Janice Covington would be positively aching for an opportunity to get her hands on the big .45. But she was not Janice and, unlike her fiery friend, was not skilled in handling one. Her experiences in the war had only served to reinforce her abhorrence of guns. No, the gun would stay where it was.
Melinda's fears proved to be well founded for she had no more than picked up Kettering's valise before Brachmann snatched from her hand. Crouching down, he turned the valise upside down, dumping its contents out onto the ground. There, lying in the dust, Melinda for the first time saw Kettering's stone and right away she sensed that there was something peculiar about it--something that at the moment she could not quite put her finger on.
"Maerchenhaft!" Brachmann triumphantly exclaimed. The German cradled the stone to his chest and stood up. As he began walking his way back to the car he said to Hans, "Bring them. They are coming with us."
Hans looked at Melinda and with a jerk of his gun hand, motioned for his two captives to follow Brachmann.
Melinda knew it was now or never. She had to take the chance. "Wait," she said. "I'm going to need my notes."
Hans hesitated only for a moment before tersely replying, "Get them but be quick about it."
Praying he would not follow, Melinda went to the cab of the truck and pulled back the door. There on the seat lay her only hope of leaving that clue for Janice. While waiting for Janice to return Melinda had decided to review some of her friend's notes on the Nonos dig and it was in these that she had been immersed upon the Germans' arrival. Now the worn notebook might be her last chance for rescue. Leaning over into the truck to mask her movements, Melinda nervously ripped out the last page in the notebook. She then used the stubby pencil tucked inside the book to quickly scribble:
To prevent the note from blowing away she then wadded up the page and tossed it down onto the floor board where she knew the sharp-eyed Janice would be sure to find it. With notebook in hand she breathed an almost imperceptible sigh and then closed the truck door.
"Hurry up!" Hans barked, eyeing her intently. As she passed him he grabbed her by the arm. "What were you doing in there?" he suspiciously asked.
Melinda's heart was pounding like a bass drum but, remarkably, she somehow managed to keep her voice steady as she replied, "Writin' a secret message to President Truman, what do ya think?"
"Get in the car," Hans growled.
Back at Jack's side, Melinda helped her friend to his feet. "Come on, Mel," she said gently. "Looks like we're going for a ride." At once the thought occurred to her that, considering the present situation, this might not have been the most optimum choice of words. Any movie buff knew what it meant to be "taken for a ride."
Under Hans' watchful eye the Melinda and Jack were herded into the back seat of the big sedan. On his way back to the car he stepped across Kettering's body. As he did he heard the man emit a small gasp. Stopping, he impassively looked down at the stricken man. "Still alive, eh?" he noted aloud. "You are tougher than I thought."
Poking his out the window, Brachmann banged his hand on the outside of the car door and said, "Let's go, Hans!"
"Coming, Herr Brachmann." With no more compunction than if he were swatting a fly, Hans lowered his pistol and shot Kettering again, this time right between the eyes.
Melinda was still guiding Jack to the car and when the shot rang out, both of them jumped. However neither dared to stop or to even turn back to look. These two men had already proven they meant business and both Melinda and Jack knew that if they were not careful they could at any time end up like Kettering.
As Hans dragged Kettering's body out into the thicket Jack thought, Poor bastard!
But Melinda's thoughts were more attuned to the living than to the dead. In the lowest of whispers she warned, "Don't forget who you are."
A minute later everyone was in the car. As usual Hans took the wheel while Brachmann sat with him in the front seat where he could keep a watchful eye on their two unwilling passengers. "All right, Covington," said Brachmann, pointing his gun at Melinda, "which way?"
"North," said the belle.
Pressing her further, Brachmann warily asked "How far north?"
Boldly looking her captor right in the eye, Melinda said, "Pydna."
Brachmann looked hard at her and said, "Don't you know the Communists are running wild up there?"
Borrowing Janice's best smirk, Melinda said, "Well if you're not up to it you could always let us go. Mel and I are more than willing to go it alone, ya know."
"I'm sure you are," said Brachmann wryly. "However I trust you will not object if Hans and I tag along?" Having faced millions of determined Russians on the Eastern Front, Karl Brachmann was not about to let a few scruffy Greek Communists stand in the way of a potential fortune.
Giving him a careless shrug, Melinda hoped to appear nonchalant as she said, "You're the one with the heater." Inside, though, she was desperately hoping that they would not encounter Janice on the road. If that were to happen she knew things could get even uglier than they were now. No, better to have Janice find them than to have these two find Janice.
In the same precise manner with which he did everything, Hans eased the car back out onto the road to Larissa. It thus turned out that, of the three, only Kettering in the form of his lifeless body was able to follow Janice's admonition about staying with the truck and if there was irony to be found in that, it was all the more unfortunate because no one else was left to appreciate it.
A few kilometers up the road Janice was still driving her short, powerful legs along at the same brisk pace when suddenly she was hit by the urge to relieve herself. As the only suitable cover to be seen was located in a gully running parallel to the road, Janice dropped down off the road and, by keeping her feet sideways, worked her way down into the high weeds. She had just dropped her pants and was squatting down when from around the bend she heard the unmistakable sound of a car approaching. When it came to getting a ride, Janice immediately decided that her bladder could stand to wait a little longer. Hastily she pulled her trousers back up and began to scramble up the side of the gully. She was half way up when her foot slipped on a loose rock, and this sent the archaeologist tumbling back down to the bottom. She was still there, lying flat on her back, when the car came into view. "Hey!" she shouted at the big black car. "Hey...wait!"
To her chagrin the car slowed not at all but instead kept right on going and was out of sight long before the sound of its engine faded away in the distance.
"Son of a bitch," Janice muttered as she dejectedly picked herself up. Of all the stupid luck! With a sigh of resignation Janice returned to her business and soon she was back up on the road again.
Twenty minutes later she was finally able to catch a ride with two men hauling a bulldozer on a flatbed truck. In
answer to the query she made in her broken Greek they said, yes, they had seen a truck off on the side of the road
some kilometers back but that they had not noticed anyone there with it. Hearing this, Janice was not particularly
concerned. After all, she had been gone barely over an hour. How much trouble could they get into?
Once she finally did arrive in Larissa Janice had only a minimum of difficulty in finding the necessary part. Within an hour she was canvassing the market place in the hope of hiring a taxi, a farmer's truck, a hay wagon--anything--to take her back out to the truck. By now it was almost four o' clock and Janice found herself becoming anxious to get back to the others--especially, of course, Melinda. The archaeologist did not relish the idea of her lover being stuck out there in the countryside after dark, even if Jack was with her.
However, despite repeated attempts, Janice met with nothing but futility in her efforts to hire a car. With each failure she became more frustrated, more angry, and, yes--more worried. She was just about to leave the market place and start back on foot when she noticed someone sitting in rather decent looking automobile that was parked on the other side of the square. What the hell? she thought. It's worth a shot.
With a determined stride Janice crossed the square and walked up to the car. As she neared she saw the person sitting behind the wheel was a young woman--a girl really--perhaps sixteen or seventeen years old. In her strained Greek Janice began to ask her about the possibility of hiring her car when the teenager suddenly interrupted her.
"I speak English," the girl tersely told her.
"Oh. Well...good. Say uh, my truck's broke down a few kilometers out of town. How about givin' me a lift out there?"
"I cannot do that," said the girl.
"Come on," Janice coaxed, "be a pal. I'll be glad to pay you. Whaddaya say?"
From what Janice could gather the girl did not seem to be very tall, perhaps being even shorter than she was. She was very pretty, though, with short chestnut hair and eyes so green they seemed almost like emeralds blazing forth from those decidedly Greek features of hers.
"I told you I cannot," the girl repeated.
Janice reached into her wallet and pulled out a twenty dollar bill. Holding it by the ends, she snapped it a couple of times and said, "Maybe Andy Jackson here can change your mind."
To Janice's surprise the girl almost seemed offended by this. With a derisive snort she said, "You Americans, you come to this country, you think you can solve all our problems for us simply by throwing money at them."
What's eating this kid? Janice wondered.
"The British, those bastard Germans, you--perhaps now even the Russians...why can't all of you just leave this country in peace?"
At the moment Janice was hardly in the mood for this nationalistic sort of ranting and so now she too began to get a little heated. "Look, I'm not here to debate either foreign policy with you or the relative merits of the Marshall plan. You guys wanna end up taking your orders from Uncle Joe Stalin, that's your business. All I'm looking for is a ride out of town." Janice shot her a sour glance and said, "Thanks for nothing, kid."
Janice spun on her heels and began to stalk away when she heard a car door open and then slam shut. "Don't call me kid!" she heard the girl say.
Still irked, Janice kept walking and called out over her shoulder, "Why? That's what you are."
Janice stopped and, turning back around, saw the girl advancing on her, her jaw set in determination. A veteran of countless fights from her younger days, Janice thought she recognized the look in the girl's eyes. Good Lord! she thought. Not this! "Look," said Janice, "if it's a fight you looking for you're out of luck." Nevertheless, the archaeologist began to size the girl up as she approached. She was indeed small, not as muscular as Janice but well toned in a wiry sort of way. From the looks of her Janice reckoned the girl had plenty of spunk but that would not nearly be enough against her own mature strength and overwhelming experience. If push came to shove the girl would not pose much of a problem. Of course Janice did not want it to come to that but, still, she had to be prepared. Setting her feet and squaring her shoulders, Janice waited for the young woman to make her move.
"Kid," said Janice, "I'm not lookin' for any trouble. You've already said no so why don't you just run along?"
However this was one of the few times in her life where Janice had in fact misread the other person's intentions because when the young woman closed to within a couple of paces of her she stopped. With a curious intensity she began to very carefully scrutinize every inch of Janice's face. After a few seconds of this she asked "Don't I know you?"
Janice shot her and incredulous look and replied, "I don't think so."
But the girl was insistent. "No," she said, "I do know you! When I was a child--eleven or twelve years old--you came here. You were looking for someone who could build some scaffolding for you."
Janice's look of incredulity turned to one of complete surprise. The girl was right. In the spring of 1940 she had indeed come to Larissa in search of a skilled carpenter for her site. "Yeah," she said, "I did. There was this priest, he found a guy for me. What was his name...?" Attempting to jog her memory, Janice began to repeatedly snap her fingers. "...Father...Hamlos?"
"Father Haralambos," said the young woman. For the first time Janice saw a hint of a smile come to her face.
"That's the guy!" Janice said with a nod. "A real solid fella."
"The man you hired," said the girl, "was my oldest brother, Mihali."
"No kiddin'?" Janice looked at her closely and said, "Say, you aren't that little kid who kept hanging on to his leg, not wanting him to go, are you?"
"That was me," the girl answered. A little sheepishly the girl continued, "You were so beautiful, I thought he was going to run away with you and we'd never see him again."
Sensing the tension lifting, Janice laughed and said, "Well as I recall, I had to give you my magnifying glass to get you to turn loose."
"You did," said the girl, almost giggling now. "And you know what? I still have it." She then added, "I admit I was a handful in those days."
Just as I was, thought Janice. "Well I'll bet for some lucky boy you still are," said the archaeologist.
A warm glow washed over the girl's face as she said, "I am married."
"That brother of yours was a damn good carpenter," said Janice. "So what's he doing now? Does he still live around here?"
The glow drained from the girl's face and she said, "No, he was killed during the German invasion."
"Oh. I'm sorry. He was a good guy." You dumb ass! Janice chided herself. You had to ask, didn't you? Janice knew better than anyone that Greece, like so many other of the nations of Europe, had suffered tremendously at the hands of the Germans. That this young woman should have lost someone dear to her should not have been surprising at all.
"I adored him," the girl said quietly. "He was my hero." Only in her mind did she finish the thought. He still is! Suddenly shifting moods again, she perked up and said, "You know, I think Mihali kind of liked you. He said you were great to work for."
"Well that was nice of him to say," said Janice. Glancing at her watch, the archaeologist said, "Look, I wish I could stay and talk but I've really got to go. I have friends who are waiting for me."
With surprising quickness the girl reached out and caught Janice by the arm. "Wait!" she said again. "You were nice to my brother so I will help you." Pulling Janice by the hand she said, "Come, will we wait for Eva."
"Who is Eva?" asked Janice.
"Eva is my...friend," the young woman answered. "Come. She can drive you."
"Why can't you take me?"
The sheepish grin returned as the young woman said, "Well, I can't really drive. I just like to sit behind the wheel and pretend I can." Nearing the car, the girl abruptly stopped and said, "My God, where are my manners? My name is Zoe. Zoe Lambros."
"Janice Covington," said the archaeologist, sticking out her hand.
Shaking her hand, Zoe said, "I am pleased to meet you again, Janice Covington."
Glancing around, Janice said, "So uhh, where is your friend?"
Angling her head up at the pock marked, two story building before them, Zoe said, "In there. Eva is seeing the doctor." Leaning forward, she whispered in a conspiratorial tone, "I don't like doctors."
"Nothing serious, I hope."
"I don't think so," said Zoe. "Coming over on the ship she experienced some swelling in her legs. It's almost gone now but you know how it is. One can't be too careful about such things." Glancing hopefully at the building she said, "She should be out any time now."
"The ship? You've been out of the country?"
"We live in Australia now," Zoe said matter-of-factly.
Janice found this a bit confusing. Did this Eva live with Zoe and her husband? Why would she move all the way to Australia with them? That was a hell of a long way from Greece. To Janice it did not really matter, though. After all, it was none of her business. She was just looking for a ride, not to write a biography.
Behind them, from the front of the building, they heard the squeaking of hinges as the heavy oaken door opened. Turning, Janice saw a woman walk out of the interior shadows and out into the evening light.
"Evy!" Zoe cried. In an instant the girl was around the front of the car at the woman's side. Taking the woman's arm into the crook of her elbow, Zoe began to pepper the woman with rapid fire questions spoken in Greek. "What did the doctor say? It's nothing, right? Did he give you anything? Do you have to come back?"
Although Janice could not understand what Zoe was saying she did nonetheless recognize the sense of urgency in the girl's voice. And that was not all. For there, once again, the girl's features were lit up with the same incandescence that Janice had seen just a few minutes before when the girl mentioned she was "married." It was a look that Janice herself had seen countless times on Melinda's face. It was a look of love.
And in that moment Janice Covington knew.
In a reassuring voice Eva said, "Calm down, Zoe. The doctor said it was probably just an allergic reaction of some kind. It's nothing serious."
Zoe was not at all satisfied with this. "Allergic reaction? To what? Where did it come from? Something on the ship?"
Eva smiled at her and, patting the girl on the arm, said, "Well we will just have to keep an eye out, won't we?"
"You can bet that new camera of yours you will," Zoe vowed. "I'll see to that!"
Initially buried under Zoe's concerned assault, it was only now that Eva noticed the strange woman in the dusty felt hat standing by their car. Following her gaze, Zoe said, "Oh. Evy, I want you to meet someone." In English she made the introductions. "This is Janice Covington. Janice Covington, this is Eva Haralambos."
"Hi," said the archaeologist. "Just call me Janice."
In turn the woman responded with a polite, "Hello." However no similar such invitation for familiarity came.
The look in those clear blue eyes told Janice this woman was of a different type altogether than was the effervescent Zoe. While not overtly hostile or even unfriendly, Janice sensed the woman was certainly...wary of her. Why? Janice wondered.
As for the woman herself she cut quite an impressive figure. For one thing she was tall, very tall--taller even than the statuesque Melinda by at least two inches, perhaps more. Her hair, like Melinda's, was jet black but cut shorter so that it just about created a median between Melinda's long tresses and Zoe's much shorter cut. Also like Melinda, there was an air of refinement about her. She carried herself with the ingrained bearing of one long used to privilege.
"My brother, Mihali, worked for her for awhile before the war," explained Zoe.
"But only after I bribed Zoe to let him," grinned Janice.
She is definitely not British, thought Eva. What was an American woman doing all alone in Greece, especially during these troubled time? "You're an American."
From the tone Janice took it not so much as a question or even as a statement of fact. Rather, it almost seemed like an accusation, one falling just barely short of, Why are you here?
It fell to the enthused Zoe to answer Eva's unspoken question. "Janice digs up old things. An..."
Gently prompting her in Greek, Eva gave her the word she was looking for. "Archaeologist."
Janice, recognizing the word, said to the girl, "I'm surprised you would remember that."
Her incredulity was plain as Eva said, "And so in spite of the political upheaval here you chose this place to further your work?"
"That's right," said Janice, eyeing her keenly. "A job is a job."
"Janice's truck has broken down outside of town. She needs a ride back and, well, I told her that we would take her." Noting the sudden look of apprehension in Eva's eyes, Zoe quickly added, "It is all right, isn't it?"
In truth it was anything but all right as far as Eva Haralambos was concerned. There was something unsettling about this American with the flashing green eyes. It did not take a psychologist to see she was intense, driven--not given to foolishness. But more than that, Eva sensed an element of danger in her. In Greek she replied, "Zoe, you know Mister Mikelos is expecting us back with his automobile. He will not like us using up all his petrol."
Brushing aside Eva's quiet protest, Zoe said, "Oh he won't mind. He thinks you're cute. It's only a few kilometers and besides..." Zoe broke into a wide grin. "...she has offered to pay. Twenty American dollars." In her eagerness now to convince Eva, Zoe did not think it the least bit ironic that she had only minutes before rebuked Janice for her loose pockets.
To Eva, however, the prospect of such a windfall was meaningless when measured against the fact that she had promised to Mister Mikelos, a friend of Zoe's family from before the war, that she would have his car back by four o' clock. A conscientious soul, such things were very important to her. As it was she and Zoe would be cutting it close but hauling some stranger out into the country side would make it impossible. Accordingly, she was just about to say no when Zoe strategically decided this was the moment to push her lower lip out into a pout.
"Pleeeeease?" the girl asked.
Eva Haralambos possessed a quiet inner strength that was far greater than Janice ever would have guessed initially. This, combined with the fact that she was almost eight years older, served her in great stead on those occasions when she felt it necessary to try to rein in her friend's youthful exuberance. Zoe put her passion into everything she did but Eva knew that such passion was not always focused where it should be. The young woman could be so impetuous! Nevertheless, that passion was so much of what defined Zoe and it, like her almost fierce COMpassion, was just one of the many things that made Eva love her so. Standing there, towering over her young friend with the doleful look on her face, Eva knew it was no use.
For her part Janice, having understood Eva's tone of voice if not her words, was just about to kiss the whole thing off when she suddenly saw the tall woman's eyes soften. After a soft sigh, Eva nodded and said, "All right. We will take her. But we must hurry."
Gleefully clapping her hands like a school girl, Zoe gushed, "Oh thanks, Evy! It will be fun, you'll see!"
Reverting to what had been her native language for so long, Eva muttered, "Ja, ja."
Zoe was herself multilingual and was so well accustomed to the easy way Eva often slipped from one language to another that she never even noticed when Eva did this.
But Janice Covington did.
Jack Klienman gingerly rubbed the throbbing knot on his head. "Boy, he said, "I sure am hungry."
Melinda stared at him in silent amazement for a moment before turning back to gaze out the window at the jagged mountains far off in the distance. How can you possibly be thinking of your stomach at a time like this? she wondered. And so, she just sat there, numbly staring out the window, barely able to believe what had happened. That poor man!
For a long time the only sound was the whine of the car's engine as Hans negotiated the many twists and turns on the road running north from Larissa. Finally Brachmann's clear voice rose above the car noise. Turning to face his two captives, he said, "I warn you, Covington. I am not a patient man. You had better not be trying to--how is it you Americans say--pull a fast one."
"What I told you is on the level," replied Melinda. By now it was clear to her that if she was going to impersonate Janice she must also try not only to emulate her lover's speech pattern, but also her mannerisms as well. Just because Brachmann did not seem to know Janice's description did not mean that he was also unaware of the woman's reputation. To avoid any slip ups Melinda was going to have to try to, not just act like Janice, but to think like her as well.
"The unhappy prospect of taking a bullet to the brain will make one say or do anything," Brachmann observed.
"There's a treasure all right," Melinda grimly answered him. "But without us you'll never see the first pfenning of it."
"I need not remind you that it is I who control the situation here," said Brachmann. 'You see, treasure or no treasure, that stone is worth ten thousand British pounds to me."
"Ten thousand pounds?" Melinda contemptuously snorted. "Chump change."
"Nevertheless, do not forget the fact that you continue to live entirely at my leisure." A smirk played across his lips as he added, "As it is I may still shoot you and keep your language expert. After all, he's the one that useful to me, not you."
Melinda knew Janice would never be intimidated by such a threat. Curling her lip into a defiant sneer, she replied, "You boys would never figure it out by yourselves even if you knew every last word of what that tablet says."
Listening to this exchange, Jack could only marvel at how well the shy Southern lady was emulating the tough-minded Janice. Sweetheart, he thought, you would have made a damned fine actress. As for why she was doing this he did not yet fully understand that yet but as far as he could tell Melinda seemed to have a good grasp of the situation. All he knew for certain was that he was not back there lying dead in the weeds with Kettering and he had Melinda to thank for that. Though he would have felt much better if Janice were there with them he knew he could count on Melinda. He just hoped Melinda felt the same way toward him.
"Are you always so sure of yourself?" Brachmann wryly asked.
"If I wasn't I'd still be back in Philly, waiting on tables in some greasy spoon."
In his own way Brachmann could relate to that. As a young man he too had struggled to rise above poverty. And like Covington he too had not only persevered, but prospered. Brachmann respected that and for the span of a heartbeat or two he thought about how if was still the old days the two of them might have become friends. However this was not the old days and he was no longer the idealistic young educator he once was. Dresden and the horror of the Eastern Front had forevermore ripped that part of his soul from him. Now Brachmann no longer had any friends nor did he want any. In his line of work a man with friends was a man who could be exploited and Karl Brachmann had sworn that he would never to allow himself to be vulnerable again. Covington and he might be cut from much the same cloth but he would not hesitate to kill her once her usefulness to him was over. But as he looked upon the face of this surprisingly beautiful woman he decided that the time had not yet come.
"Better for the both of us if you were a waitress," said Brachmann. "At least I would be spared the unpleasantness of harming such a beauty once the treasure is found."
Returning his gaze, Melinda coolly replied, "Well you never know, anything could happen by the time you get around to bumping us off. Who knows? By then you could even be head over heels in love with me."
Act or no act, Jack Klienman could not believe his ears. Even if he lived to be a hundred he would never have expected Melinda to make such a bold statement. His thoughts wandered back to Kettering's sneering words. Even setting aside for a moment the fact that they were both women, he again began to wonder how it was possible for two such polar opposites as the brash Janice and the genteel Melinda to find true happiness in being together. Whatever the level of their friendship, it was obvious the two of them had done just that. It was all so puzzling to him. Fortunately for his bewildered mind he did not have to dwell on the subject for very long. Like Melinda, Jack had not eaten anything all day and now that is stomach was beginning to object more strenuously to its neglect he forgot all about the belle's dark beauty and how lucky Janice was. Instead he found himself pondering how fortunate he would feel right now if only he could gaze on the inherent beauty of a couple of hot dogs smothered with extra relish.
>From her place in the back Janice leaned forward and took hold of the front seat. "It's just on the other side of this patch of woods," she said.
Eva nodded and began to slow the car.
"Are you really going to fix your truck yourself?" Zoe asked. The idea that a woman cold actually do such a thing fascinated her and was something she found eminently appealing.
"Sure," said Janice. "There's nothin' to it if you know how."
"Can I help?!" Zoe blurted out.
From the driver's side came Eva's voice, cautionary and quiet. "Zooooooe."
"Oh come on!" the girl entreated. Hopefully glancing back at Janice, she said, "It won't take long, will it?"
If Jack marveled at how different Janice and Melinda were he would have been equally struck by the differences between Zoe and Eva. To Janice Zoe seemed an ebullient bundle of energy, full of life. Even just sitting in the car the young woman gave the impression that she was ready for a leap into anything, whatever it might be. Eva, on the other hand, she saw as thoughtful but also extremely reserved. Janice thought she was not, however, naturally shy the way Melinda was. No, this one was mistrustful for a reason. Her first guess, of course, was that it had something to do with the war, perhaps in conjunction in some way with that faint hint of a German accent which, despite the woman's best efforts, still managed to creep through on occasion. In the end it did not really matter all that much to Janice because as soon as the woods were cleared Zoe and Eva would be relegated to just two more people to have passed through what had so far been a very eventful life. Looking at the girl's youthful, exuberant face, Janice again suddenly felt old. Old and very tired. With a weary smile she said to the girl, "Thanks anyway, kid, but that's all right. A couple of guys are there. They can help me."
As they neared the edge of the wood Janice looked out the window and saw the spot where she
and Melinda had shared their good-bye kisses only a few hours ago. Only a few hours.... To Janice it seemed
like ages! It was then that the unhappy thought struck her. Damn! she thought. I forgot Mel's dolmas!
Even before the car cleared the wood Zoe raised her arm and pointed up the road. "I see it."
A second later Janice too saw the truck. Seeing no one about, she was not alarmed at first. Aaaah, they're probably all asleep, she thought. It was then that a feeling of uneasiness began to creep over the archaeologist. No, Melinda would not be asleep. She would be taking care of the tablets, just as Janice had asked.
It took Zoe to vocalize the thing that was already beginning to trouble Janice. Squinting her eyes, Zoe said, "I don't see anyone."
Eva wheeled the car in alongside the truck and it was still rolling to a stop when Janice pushed open her door and leaped out. "Mel?" The only reply was the wind rustling through the weeds. "Mel!"
Striding quickly to the truck, Janice stepped up on the running board and looked inside. "Mel!" Then, with a worried whisper she added, "Oh Jesus!" Hopping down off the running board, Janice cupped her hands to her mouth and yelled, "Maahhh--linnn--daaahhh! Jaaaaaaack!"
Zoe, having now joined Janice, asked, "Where could they be?"
"I don't know," Janice replied. "But I don't like the looks of it one bit."
From behind the two of them heard Eva loudly gasp. "Oh my God!"
Together they turned and saw Eva standing at the back of the truck. Staring straight ahead, she had a hand over her mouth and the look on her face was one of utter horror.
"What is it, Evy? Zoe cried, as she rushed to her friend's side. Janice was right behind her and soon enough both of them saw what it was that had shocked Eva so. For there, lying in the low weeds scarcely fifty feet away, was the body of a man. Janice took a step in front of the other two and instantly she recognized that it was Kettering. On his chest stood two huge crows, quarreling and paying scant attention to these three human interlopers as they pecked at the man's face.
Janice whirled around and, putting her hands on Eva's shoulders, began to push her away. "You guys get back!" she barked. Picking up a rock, Janice flung it at the big crows. "Get out of here!" she yelled.
Even so, it was with the greatest reluctance that the crows surrendered their prize to the approaching Janice and then only after the archaeologist whizzed a second rock within an inch of one of the birds' head. Angrily cawing, the crows grudgingly took to flight, leaving the field and the corpse to Janice. Judging from the wounds and Kettering's blood soaked shirt Janice correctly guessed that the man had first been shot in the chest and then later in the head, perhaps because he had not died quickly enough to suit his attacker.
As she stood there looking at the body a flood of emotions burst forth within the archaeologist. First, she began to feel as if there was an icy ball inside her stomach. How easily could this have been Mel!? Oh God!
That icy fear lasted but a moment before it was replaced by something altogether different. Deep within her, a fiery, all encompassing rage began to well up, burning ever more strongly so that before very long its angry flames had engulfed Janice's soul. The thought that someone might at this very moment have their vulgar hands on Melinda--hurting her or doing God knows what--was almost too much for her to bear. As of yet Janice Covington did not know who had done this thing but then and there she made a vow that if it took her the rest of her life she would find who the scum and when she did they would be one sorry son of a bitch!
However along with the fear and the rage there was another emotion, an emotion no less powerful but for Janice one infinitely more lugubrious--guilt. Janice was bitterly aware that if not for her stubborn insistence on making this trip none of this would have befallen any of them--not Melinda, not Jack, certainly not the poor, unfortunate bastard now lying dead in front of her. Janice knew that, despite her assurances to the contrary, Melinda had not really wanted to do this but, as she almost always did, the belle had succumbed to the double pointed prod that was the force of Janice's personality and her own selfless love. Crouching down beside Kettering's body, Janice blinked back a tear as she thought of the sweet lady that was her very life. "My God, sweetheart," she whispered, "what have I gotten you into?"
Still, as badly as she felt at this moment regret and self reproach were not going to get it done if she wanted to see this thing through to a successful conclusion. No, far better to lean on the rage she felt and to summon forth that Covington grit and dogged determination. These were the qualities that were called for here.
As Janice began to go through Kettering's pockets a shadow fell across the body. It was Zoe. Without looking up Janice said, "I thought I told you to get back."
The girl's voice was clear and steady as she replied, "I've seen dead bodies before."
"Yeah? Well this isn't exactly your dear departed grandpa, kid."
Miffed by Janice's cold sarcasm, Zoe shot back, "I've seen a lot more people die than you have."
Still not looking up, Janice snapped shut Kettering's broken pocket watch and returned it to his pocket. "No you haven't," she matter-of-factly replied.
"Who is he?" asked Zoe. "One of your friends?"
Janice could think of several words with which to describe Kettering but "friend" was hardly one of them. This was why she merely said, "His name is Miles Kettering. He was traveling with us." She then rolled the dead man over and, as Hans had before her, began to go through his pockets.
Zoe was appalled by this. Dropping to her knees, she savagely grabbed Janice by the arm. "Why are you doing that?" she demanded to know.
Janice jerked her arm free and stood up. "Save your morals for somebody who gives a damn." The voice was harsh but in truth she was not at all angry at Zoe. In fact she very much admired the girl's spirit. In a softer tone Janice explained, "Look, kid, I've got friends out there somewhere who need me. Who knows? This guy might have something I can use."
"Like money," Zoe sneered.
I wish! thought Janice. As she had expected the man's wallet was gone. Aloud she said, "It was worth a shot. These guys ain't playin' by the Marquis of Queensberry rules here, kid and neither can we"
"It's still not right," Zoe insisted.
Glancing back at an anxious Eva, Janice asked "What would you do if your friend over there was in trouble?"
This Zoe could understand. In fact in her young life she herself had already taken far more drastic measures in order to protect Eva. Fixing Janice with a hard look, she said, "I wouldn't let anybody or anything stand in the way of what I had to do."
"Well there ya go," said Janice. "Neither will I. Because one of them means more to me than my own life." She looked down at Kettering and added, "Besides, he wouldn't have needed it where he's going."
Zoe's only reply was a solemn nod of the head. "In any case I don't have time for debate," said Janice. "I gotta get out of here." Turning quickly to Zoe, Janice said, "I know you guys are anxious to get back to town but can you stay a little longer? I can put that drive shaft back in a hell of a lot quicker if I have some help."
"Of course," Zoe said with a nod. "Just tell me what to do."
This kid is all right, thought Janice. Most girls her age would be petrified by all this terrible turn of events but she doesn't seem to be scared at all. The more Janice learned about this young woman, the more she began to respect her. With the barest hint of a smile the archaeologist said, "Thanks. But first, let's see if we can find something to cover up this poor sap."
Rummaging through Jack's duffel bag, Janice found a wrinkled windbreaker that would do the job nicely. Two minutes after that the two of them were sidling up under the truck from opposite sides. "What do I do?" asked Zoe.
"Hang on a minute." Taking the part from its bright blue box, Janice removed its oily paper wrapping. "Okay," she said, "lift up the shaft for me."
Zoe did and then watched with growing admiration as Janice deftly began to reattach the drive shaft. "Push up," said Janice. "Higher. That's it. Hold it right there." As she was preparing to insert the snap ring Janice dropped it. "Hand me that snap ring, kid," she said.
"I told you not to call me kid."
Taking the snap ring from her, Janice grinned and said, "Anything you say...kid."
This Covington woman was none like Zoe had ever seen. Uncompromising, brassy, relentlessly blunt; she was also tough, very smart, and from the looks of it extremely self-reliant. Here was a woman long used to getting her own way. But more than that, Zoe had a suspicion that underneath all that grittiness, Covington was at heart a very good person. Zoe liked that combination. Lying there watching Janice put the finishing touches on the drive shaft, Zoe at that moment decided that she liked her. It was then that a thought came to her, one which depended on her Eva liking Covington too.
As Janice began to shake the drive shaft in order to make sure it was firmly in place, Zoe rolled out from under the truck. Popping to her feet, she took the waiting Eva by the arm and led her away from the truck.
"It is finished?" Eva asked. "The truck is repaired?"
"It seems to be," replied Zoe. Seeing the look of satisfaction on Eva's face, Zoe took a deep breath and went on, "Evy...I think we should help this woman."
"Zo, what are you talking about? What do you mean by 'help?' This is a matter for the police."
Zoe cast a furtive glance back at the truck. "I don't think she's going to the police."
"How do you know?" Eva challenged her. "Did she tell you this?" As she had feared Zoe's impetuousness seemed to be once again running rampant.
"Not exactly," Zoe answered.
Eva nodded toward Kettering's lifeless body. "We are not just going to leave this man here!"
"No one is saying that," said Zoe.
However Eva found this answer far from satisfying. "Zo, a man has been murdered. It's up to the police to handle this. We are not in the Resistance anymore, remember? Helping some stranger exact her revenge is nothing more than taking the law into our own hands."
"It's not about revenge," Zoe countered. "She wants to find her friends. What's wrong with that?"
"What's with you anyway? This woman shows up and...." To emphasize her point Eva snapped her fingers. "...bang, just like that you want to jump in where it doesn't concern you."
It was in more subdued tones that Zoe sought to remind her lover. "She was good to my brother. I owe it to Mihali's memory to be good to her."
Impatiently Zoe stamped her foot. "Evy! She needs us!"
"Well what can we do?" came Eva's exasperated reply.
"I don't know," said Zoe. "Something. Anything. If I were in trouble wouldn't you want help?"
Eva was deadly serious in her reply. "If I had to I would crawl on my belly for it." Quickly she added, "But this thing here is not our concern."
Urgently tugging on her lovely friend's sleeve, Zoe softly pleaded, "Evy, please!
Eva Haralambos looked down at the passionate woman who had stolen her heart during the darkest days of the war. Zoe had been her salvation, she had gave her a reason to live at that very moment when her life was at its absolute nadir. Now the girl wanted to channel that boundless passion and energy of hers toward helping someone else. Zoe was like that. Fiercely loyal, she would do anything for a friend--even, it seemed, for a brand new one.
Gazing into those entreating green eyes, Eva decided that Zoe was not wrong for wanting to do so. And so, she
gave in. With an exaggerated sigh Eva said, "All right. If this is what you want. We'll see what we can do to
assist this woman."
By now Janice was out from under the truck. Having heard most of this exchange, she could only guess as to what the two of them were discussing so animatedly because they were conversing in Greek. As it turned out she was not long in finding out because, as she approached the women to pay them for the ride, a beaming Zoe turned to her and said, "Eva and I have decided to help you find your friends."
However Zoe was in for a surprise of her own because Janice immediately shook her head and said, "I appreciate that, but no. Thank you guys for all your help. I really do appreciate it."
Eva could not contain herself. "What about the body?" she asked.
"You guys can inform the police," said Janice. "I don't have time to waste answering a lot of questions." That said, Janice turned away and began to walk back toward the truck.
As for Zoe, she was not quite so interested in the disposition of the body. Catching up with Janice, she began to press her. "Why not?" she asked. "We can be of real help to you."
Reaching the truck, Janice flung open the door and peered under the seat, hoping her pack was still there. It was. "Sorry, kid," she said, "you guys will just--"
"Be in the way?" Zoe asked, bitterly cutting her off.
"Something like that," replied Janice. "It's nothing personal, kid, but the trail is growing colder by the minute. I've got to move and move fast and the one thing I don't need is somebody tagging along." Reaching into the pack, she was much relieved to find the .45 still there. She pulled it out and dropped the magazine just to make sure it was still loaded.
"Eva and I are not a couple of helpless kittens, "Zoe insisted. She curled her lip and added, "Typical American! The lone cowboy riding to the rescue."
Irritated now, Janice bumped the magazine back into place with the heel of her hand. "Look, kid, this is not a fucking movie! In case you haven't noticed these jokers are playing for keeps here. And so am I because when I find the bastards I fuckin' guarantee you there's going to be hell to pay."
Her voice echoing her determination, Zoe replied, "I am not afraid."
"Maybe not," said Janice, as she climbed into the truck. "But what about your friend there. Is she really willing to risk her ass for this?"
That did it. Her green eyes reflecting her fury, Zoe clenched her teeth and said, "Eva has seen danger before. During the war she put her life on the line every single day so that the Resistance might better fight the German pigs. How dare you question her courage! She is as brave as you'll ever be. She said she will help and that you can stake your very life on. I know because I have, many times."
Looking at the girl with her red face and chest heaving with emotion, Janice could not help but respect and admire her. I really like this kid! she thought.
Slowly one corner of Janice's mouth curled up into something of a half-grin. "Resistance, huh? You too?"
Her nostrils flaring in anger, Zoe tersely answered, "Yes, me too."
Janice knew from her days in the OSS just how terrible a price the Greeks had pain for their brave resistance. "Sorry, kid, I didn't know," she said.
Her anger fading as quickly as it had boiled up, Zoe still managed to huff, "There are a lot of things you don't know about us, Janice Covington. And stop calling me kid!"
Despite this, Janice was still not completely convinced. That is, not until she heard Eva speak. "You should listen to her, Miss Covington. Zoe can be of real help to you. She knows these hills, these roads--this whole area--like the back of her hand. Many of the locals might be hesitant or outright unwilling to speak to a foreigner like you. Practically everybody around here knows Zoe. She might be able to learn things no one would ever tell you." Eva laid her hand on the truck and continued, "This old thing looks as though might not make another kilometer anyway. Mister Mikelos' car, on the other hand, is in excellent repair and is very reliable."
Her eyes twinkling, Zoe chimed in, "And faster too,"
Sitting in the seat, Janice shifted her gaze from first one, then to the other of these very intriguing women. Despite her stubbornness, she knew all too well that what Eva said made perfect sense. Still, there was something about their offer that nagged at her. Naturally she was not hesitant in making it known. "You're being very kind," she said. "But tell me, why would you care at all? What's all this to you?"
"What it's all about," said Eva, "is friends. Zoe and I know what it's like to fear for the safety of those we care about."
"Remember you said before that one of them meant more to you than your own life?" said Zoe. Casting a warm glance at Eva, she continued, "Nobody knows what that means better than Evy and I. That's why we want to help you. We understand."
Teasing the girl, Eva added, "Aaand, you were nice to her brother." Zoe blushed and gave Eva a very gentle nudge with her elbow.
For a moment Janice said nothing and it was probably just as well lest the facade that was her tough persona give way under the warm generosity and deep understanding of these two young people. Janice, the fierce individualist, was deeply touched. Finally she began to slowly nod her head. "All right," she said softly, "we'll do it your way." Quickly, however, she held up a finger and added, "But--once we do find these guys you have to promise to let me handle it, okay? I'm pretty sure there's going to be trouble."
"Yeah you said that," a grinning Zoe reminded her.
"I guess I did," said Janice, grinning back at her. She then turned the grin on Eva and said, "Well, what are we waiting for? Let's load up Kettering and get out of here."
"To the police station?" Eva asked.
"You just don't give up do you? Okay, you win," said Janice. "Yeah, to the police station."
"You see?" said Zoe. "We can be just as stubborn as you are."
"Just for that," said Janice, "you get to help me with the body."
Zoe waited until Janice was some distance away before she said, "Thanks, Evy, you're the best."
With a slight leer Eva replied, "Ohh you're not getting off that easily. You owe me big for this."
"I do?" In a very suggestive manner Zoe began to trail a finger up Eva's arm. "I'll make it up to you, I promise."
"Come on!" Janice called out, effectively breaking up their little moment. "I want to get out of here."
Rolling her eyes, Zoe left to join Janice. Eva was turning to go back to the car when she happened to glance inside the truck. There something white caught her eye. Leaning over into the truck, she saw it was a wadded up piece of paper lying on the floor. Idly she picked it up and unfolded it. Instantly she recognized Melinda's note for what it was. "Mein Gott!" she gasped. Holding up the crumpled slip of paper, she raced after Janice and Zoe. "Miss Covington! Miss Covington! You must see this!"
Melinda's bold move had paid off.
Flanked by Zoe and Eva, Janice studied the note. Even thought it had obviously been written in great haste and was lacking Melinda's usually very precise hand, Janice nonetheless recognized the lettering as hers. As she read her heart filled with pride over Melinda's level-headed ingenuity in pulling this off. That's my girl! she thought.
To get a better look Zoe shifted her feet and glanced sideways at the note. "What does it mean?" she asked.
Placing her finger under the first word, Janice said, "'Treasure' means she's somehow convinced them to go after the treasure."
"Treasure?" snorted Zoe. "Here? You must be joking."
"No joke, kid," said Janice.
"Even if there was such a thing why would she tell them about it?" asked Zoe.
"A couple of reasons," replied Janice. "First and foremost, to stay alive. Mel knew she had to give them reason to keep both Jack and her alive. Secondly, it tells me where they're headed." Janice shook her head once and, forcing a faint smile, said, "That gal is one smart cookie,"
Pointing at the second work, she murmured, "Brakeman, Brakeman...that has to be a name."
"I believe she means Brachmann," Eva offered up. "B-r-a-c-h-m-a-n-n. It is a rather common German surname. Probably she wrote it phonetically to save time."
Noting the curious way Janice was looking at her, Eva calmly said, "Yes, I grew up in Germany."
For the hot-tempered Zoe this was enough to set her off again. "So what if she did?" she sharply asked Janice. "Do you have a problem with that?"
"No, kid. No problem," Janice said with a grin.
"Eva is as Greek as I am."
"Hey, I never said anything," Janice reminded the girl. Turning to Eva, she said, "Sorry, I meant no offense."
Eva, lady that she was, merely smiled faintly and said, "I have been working on losing the accent but sometimes it still manages to slip through."
Casting the woman an understanding smile, Janice said, "Let's get out of here."
A half hour later found both of the borrowed vehicles--Eva's car and Janice's truck--parked in front of the police station. Naturally the dead Englishman in the back of Janice's truck garnered everyone's attention. However Kettering's dead body was not all that was being eyed keenly. Just as Janice had thought it might she now felt the situation becoming rather dicey because at the moment more than one pair of eyes was glancing suspiciously in her direction. As the only foreigner in the group she was not surprised.
Fortunately for the archaeologist she wisely chose this moment to keep her mouth shut and let Zoe do all the talking. Listening to Zoe speak to the men, Janice was able to catch only a word every now and then. Still, just from observing their body language it was apparent to her that Zoe was on familiar terms with at least the majority of the men, as indeed she was. Of the five men present Zoe knew three of them quite well and another one casually. One of them, a swarthy fellow by the name of Kostas, had served in the Resistance with her. Another was a childhood friend who had sweated out three years in an Italian prisoner of war camp and still another had been a close friend of Mihali's before the war. All of them knew not only Zoe but, because of Kostas, the role she had played during the war. Because of the courage and undying devotion to the cause she had displayed she was held in high regard by these men. It therefore followed that if the girl told them some German, possibly named Brachmann, had killed this man they knew they could damn well believe it.
Suddenly Zoe turned to Janice. "You do want me to tell them about your friends, right?"
"You might as well for all the good it will do," Janice replied with a sigh. She could feel the weariness returning. "But make it quick. We've wasted enough time on this."
After a brief exchange with the men Zoe again turned to Janice. "You say you think you know which direction they went?"
"Yeah," replied Janice. "North."
"North?" Zoe echoed.
"That's right," said Janice. "Still wanna come?"
Zoe did not even bother to reply. Instead she turned to the policemen and spoke a single word, "North."
Watching this, Janice saw the man to whom Zoe spoke nod thoughtfully and begin to stroke his bearded chin while a couple of the other policemen uncomfortably shifted their weight from one foot to the other. Clearly none of them wanted any part of going north where there was a very real possibility that they might blunder into a band of Communist guerrillas.
Nodding toward the back of the truck, the bearded one spoke again. In Zoe's reply Janice heard her utter "Miles Kettering" and again the bearded man nodded. He then barked out a few terse words and immediately two of the other policemen began taking Kettering off the truck.
Stating the obvious, Zoe said, "They will take him to the morgue."
At the moment, however, Janice was not much interested in what the arrangements were going to be regarding the disposal of Kettering's body. Through tightly clenched teeth she asked "Is this guy satisfied? Can we get going now?"
"Yes," said Zoe.
Looking straight at Janice, the bearded man spoke.
"He says he will do what he can," said Zoe.
"Uhh huhh," Janice grunted. "Right." With that she began to walk back to the truck.
Following her, Zoe said, "You can scoff all you want but you must remember that right now their primary job is to maintain order here, in the town. Their duty is to these people."
"That's fine by me," said Janice. "I didn't ask for their help anyway. As long as they are willing to stay out of my hair and let me handle this my way I don't care what the hell they think their duty is." Casting a sardonic glance back at the bearded policeman, Janice said, "Okay, expert, what's the best northern route?"
"The northwest road," said Zoe. "Toward Kozani."
"You think so?" asked Janice.
If Pydna were my destination it would be how I would go," said Zoe. It's not the most direct route but the road is far better."
"I don't know......" Janice let her words trail off. Despite Zoe's recommendation she was not completely sold on the idea.
Once again this task fell to Eva. "Put yourself in their shoes," she said. "You've just covered fifty kilometers of very bad road. Wound you rather not go a little out of you way to take a smooth road and so avoid subjecting your arse to another pounding?"
Janice shot her an amused look and said, "In the States we say 'ass.' In any case you may be right about the road."
"They wouldn't really be losing any time by taking the detour," Zoe added. "The greater distance would be compensated for by their ability to travel faster."
"It's one hell of a chance," Janice allowed. "But we've got to do something."
"We'll take the car of course," Zoe enthusiastically declared. "You can leave your truck with Mikelos."
"You sure you can square it with the guy?" Janice asked.
"You mean regarding the car? I can square it, as you say," Eva confidently assured her. Looking slyly at the grinning Zoe, she added, "He does think I'm cute, after all."
Melinda Pappas could not remember when she had ever had a more enjoyable evening! First, there had been an early dinner at New York's famous "21 Club" and then on to Broadway to catch a simply marvelous performance of Rogers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!"
Now the theater had let out and with night air warm and the hotel only a few blocks away, the two of them decided to just walk back. It really had been a wonderful evening. Janice had been in rare form, the epitome of grace and loveliness. Now as they strolled along the sidewalk they took turns singing the few lines the could remember from the hit musical:
"Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry,
When I take you out in the surrey,
When I take you out in the surrey with the fringe on top...."
"Ev'rythin's up to date in Kansas City.
They've gone about as fur as they c'n go!
They went and built a skyscraper seven stories high,
About as high as a buildin' orta grow..."
"Ooooklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain.
And the wavin' wheat can sure smell sweet,
When the wind comes right behind the rain...."
Both of them laughed at Janice's scratchy rendition of the instant classic and then Melinda said, "My favorite, though, was this one..."
"Don't take my arm too much,
Don't keep your hand in mine,
Your hand feels so grand in mine,
People will say we're in love!"
"Well, we are!" said Janice, laughing again. And in that moment Melinda thought her lover had never looked more beautiful! Janice was dressed in an exquisite blue gown which seemed to flow over her lovely figure. With her long blonde hair swept up in a stylish "up-do," the archaeologist's once-in-a-lifetime look of elegance was topped off by a string of pearls Melinda had borrowed from her mother just for this occasion.
As they ambled along the streets of New York, totally oblivious to the world around them, Melinda's eyes simply could not get enough of the gorgeous creature next to her. All these years this was how she had always knew could be if only she had tried--elegant and absolutely stunning. Nearing the hotel, the two women were surprised to find that they pretty much had the sidewalk all to themselves. In a way the sight of the hotel made Melinda a little sad because she wanted this moment to go on forever. True, it was not over quite yet and there was a wonderful night of lovemaking to look forward to but right here--right at this moment, gazing into the smoldering green eyes of the woman she would give her life for, her love, her entire world--all of it--it seemed as if the whole universe had aligned just for this sublime moment.
Caught up in the passion of the moment, Melinda found herself feeling uncharacteristically bold. Suddenly stopping, she called out her lover's name in a low, husky voice, "Jan?"
"I love you so much! Even before I ever saw you I think I loved you." Moving in close, she added, "And I know I always will!"
Janice responded with a soft smile as she moved in closer still. "Shut up and kiss me," she whispered.
The world be damned! Sidewalk or no, Melinda was going to kiss Janice right here, right now!
Janice, surprised at her own words, sensed the belle was actually going to do it. Like Melinda, she did not care at this particular moment on this wonderful night just who was watching. In fact it she found the prospect very sensual, very thrilling. To accommodate her lover's height she tilted her head slightly back and waited for those sweet lips. Melinda was stirred even more as she saw Janice close her eyes and part her painted lips. As the belle moved in ever closer she could smell the alluring scent of Janice's perfume.
Never in all her life had there been such a night......
Uttering an angry curse in German, Hans hit the brakes hard. The sudden stop threw Melinda forward, waking her, and as her lovely dream evaporated away she thought she caught one last fleeting whiff of Janice's perfume. "Wha, what's going?" she mumbled.
"Some trucks up ahead," Jack answered in a low voice. "Greek army trucks."
Melinda blinked hard a couple of times in an effort to clear away her grogginess. "Huh?"
"While you were asleep we damn near ran up the back of a column of trucks," said Jack.
Melinda was still not completely alert. "Asleep?"
"Jeez, you've been out like a light for at least a half an hour," Jack explained.
Melinda's next reaction, though purely instinctive, nevertheless was one fraught with danger given the present circumstances. "Where's Jan?" she asked.
Alarmed, Jack shot a quick glance to the front seat but was relieved to find that apparently neither Hans nor Brachmann, both intently watching the Greeks up ahead of them, had heard Melinda's blunder. Out of the corner of his mouth he nervously urged, "Ix-nay on at-thay."
Then Melinda remembered. "Ohhh," she said quietly. "Oh yes."
Jack eyed her quizzically and then asked "Are you okay?"
Before his friend could answer Brachmann turned around in irritation and snapped, "Silence!"
But Jack, goaded on by his empty stomach, leaned defiantly leaned forward and asked "Say, when are we going to eat anyway? Janice and I are starving."
In that calm, cold, calculating voice which the unfortunate Zeissler had found so portentous, Brachmann replied, "Mister Pappas, if you are not quiet I will shoot you in the belly and then you can see how well your stomach digests lead. Do you understand?"
"Okay, okay," said Jack, sinking back into his seat. "Gee, fella, no need to get sore."
"Shut up!" Brachmann hissed.
Zoe's appraisal of the situation had proven to be the correct one. Brachmann and Hans had indeed chosen to pass up the more direct coast road in favor of this road which, though more roundabout, was in much better repair. Unfortunately for them the Greek Army had made the same choice. So now here they all were, stuck behind this maddeningly slow moving convoy of trucks, most of which seemed to be patched up reminders of the British Army's former presence in Greece.
With the two captives duly warned, Melinda once more begin to gaze out the window. Off the to west the evening sun had already sunk behind the hills. Soon the light would be failing and she for one was not looking forward to night in the company of those two smiling faces seated up front. As unsettling as that prospect was the thing that she found most disturbing was the question of why Xena had not helped prevent the murder of the hapless Kettering. She was there--Melinda had felt her. Why then, had she held back? Damn it, why?
As the car crept along behind the convoy, a bored Brachmann began to survey the steep hills
lining both sides of the winding road. What a perfect place for an ambush this would be, he thought.
Fifteen seconds later he was to discover that he was not the only one who thought so.
"Get ready," the older man said.
Five hundred yards away, up on the cliff, a young Greek flipped up the sight on his weapon and, resting the tube on his arm, carefully lined up the sights on the lead truck. Beside him crouched Vassilis, a man twenty-eight years his senior. "Wait for my command," he murmured.
Still steadily holding his aim, the boy grunted, "I'm ready," and lightly fingered the firing mechanism. He was holding a 100mm Panzerfaust, a highly effective anti-tank rocket, captured from the Germans and sent here to the Greek rebels by their Russian "friends."
Vassilis, a former cobbler, was a seasoned pro at this sort of operation, having long ago cut his teeth in fighting first the Italians, then the Germans, later on the British. Now he had turned his considerable tactical skills to killing other Greeks. Dissatisfied with what he perceived to be the vacillating, weak-kneed would--be democratizers, he had come to believe that the only way Greece could possibly hope to carve out a meaningful future for itself was through Communism. It was not going to be easy. Even though the British had finally thrown up their hands and gone home here had come the damn Americans right in behind them, sticking their noses in where it did not belong. This, after all, was an internal dispute. No matter. They had driven out the pompous British, they would drive out the bullying Americans as well. What he and his band of thirty men were about to do as just one more tiny step in that process. It would be a long road to final victory but he and his men were willing to crawl it the whole way if necessary.
For just a moment he allowed his gaze to wander from the convoy, now very near, to glance at the earnest boy beside him. He knew the lad would have bristled at the notion that he was a boy, but at sixteen that was all he really was--a boy. There was, however, nothing childish about the way he fought. No one in the entire unit was a better shot. That was why Vassilis had entrusted him to take out the lead truck. Looking at him--at this very moment Vassilis could not help admire the businesslike way the boy approached his duties. With tense, dark eyes never wavering from their target, his jaw set in grim determination, this boy was ready to do his part.
So was Vassilis. So were all of them, ready to fight--to die--for the cause.
Vassilis patiently waited until the lead truck had drawn up even with their position, a mere fifty yards away. "Now," he calmly told the boy.
The boy launched the rocket and instantly a back blast of smoke and gasses shot forth from the
rear of the tube. The football sized warhead was on its way. Vassilis watched for what seemed like an
eternity as the rocket's white hot glow streaked toward the target. As always the boy's aim was perfect.
The Panzerfaust's warhead hit the truck just above the wheel well, slamming into part of what the
Americans would call the "dog house." No sooner had the lead truck burst into flames before a second
rocket, an American bazooka round, was sent whooshing on its way toward the truck at the very end of the
column, one hundred-fifty yards behind.
Jack Klienman was still thinking about his growling stomach when the two projectiles impacted, the second one hitting the truck directly in front of them. The explosion was deafening as this second rocket hit just behind the cab, right in the truck's exposed gas tank. "Jesus!" was all he could yelp as the truck blew apart in an orange ball of fire.
From the back of the shattered vehicle Melinda saw two dark forms, writhing in agony, spill out onto the crushed gravel of the road. To her utter horror she realized they were men.
The top of the hill became alive with the clatter of small arms fire. Among them were German Mausers, a few old American Springfield 03's, British Enfields and several Russian Mosin-Nagants. Assuming any car following that close to be part of the convoy, the rebels naturally did not exempt Brachmann's vehicle from their attack.
Back inside Brachmann's car Jack instantly recognized the odd sounding clanks of bullets hitting the car. "Get the hell out!" he yelled at Melinda.
Shocked by the suddenness of the attack, Melinda managed to claw open her door and then started to get out on her side, which was the side exposed to the fire.
"No, damn it!" Jack bawled out. Frantically he reached for her. Just as he leaned over an American made 30-06 slug crashed through the window and struck Hans just above the ear. Melinda was in the process of turning to get out when the blood spattered her. Desperate to stop his friend, Jack reached out and grabbed a handful of Melinda's loose shirt. "This way!"
He pulled so hard on her shirt that he ripped all but the bottom most button right off, exposing her bra. At the moment neither of them cared. "Come on!" Jack shouted. He shouldered open his own door and when he literally fell out of the car Melinda scrambled right out over top of him.
Up ahead on the road they could hear new firing as the stunned soldiers began to wildly shoot back. Fearing the car might be hit at any moment, Jack quickly scanned the terrain for a suitable place to hide. Barely twenty yards away he found it. "Mel, we've got to get away from this car. It might blow any second." Pointing to the ditch, he said, "See that?" When the belle jerked her head in an affirmative nod he went on, "Think you can make it?"
Bravely the belle said, "I'm with ya." Jack patted her on the arm and when he got up off the ground and into a crouch Melinda emulated him.
"When I say go, you run like hell," he said. This time Melinda did not get a chance to nod because immediately after this Jack barked out, "Go!" The two friends bolted to their feet and barreled toward the ditch. It was only twenty yards--just about the distance from pitcher's mound to home plate--but to both of them it seemed more like a mile.
Their dash did not go unnoticed. Barely a third of the way to their goal bullets began to whine all about them like deadly bees, kicking up dirt as they hit the ground all around Melinda and Jack.
At long last the two reached the ditch. Once there Jack saw the ditch was not as deep as he had thought. Still, it would have to do. Without hesitation he roughly shoved his friend into the ditch and unceremoniously jumped right in on top of her, covering her with his own body.
"Oww!" Melinda yelped.
"Shut up and keep your head down!" Jack growled back.
In all this it was a miracle that the belle's glasses had stayed in place but now with Jack pressing her face down into the rocky soil she suddenly felt the need to take them off.
"Stop squirming and be still!" said Jack.
Barely six minutes into the attack it was all over. Once again Vassilis had planned perfectly. The hail of fire from his men on the hill had driven those men not killed in that first few seconds to desperately seek cover under and behind the trucks. There they afforded perfect targets for the other half of Vassilis' men who had been cleverly hidden farther up the same draw where Jack and Melinda had found cover. By the time the firing ended not a single one of the beleaguered soldiers was left alive.
As for Jack he was not sure just how long he lay there after the firing ceased. It could have been minutes or mere seconds. From his navy experiences he had found that in moments of danger time often seemed to come to a standstill. Finally he raised his face out from Melinda's soft hair and cautiously took a peek up over the low embankment. What he saw did nothing to lift his spirits. For there, standing at the edge of the ditch, were two men with rifles pointed directly at him. "Shit!" he grumbled.
Hearing this, Melinda lifted her cheek up out of the dust. "What is it?" she tentatively asked. "Are they gone?"
It was then that one of the men, a heavy set fellow with a leathery face and large, sunken eyes, jerked the barrel of his rifle up, indicating that he wanted the two Americans to get up out of the ditch.
Warily eyeing the man, Jack rolled off the belle. Slowly he said, "Sister, you ain't even close."
Free at last from Jack's weight, Melinda put her glasses back on and once she able to see what he meant, modestly reached up with her hands to close her shirt. "Oh myyyy."
"Boy," Jack muttered in disgust, "talk about one bad day."
He got no argument from Melinda.
By the time Janice and her two companions came upon the carnage wrought by Vassilis and his men night had fallen. Flashing all about she saw beams of light. These very much reminded her of that night during the Spanish Civil War when she had watched from a rooftop in Madrid as the searchlights reached up into the night sky like long, slender fingers. This was not all. On the side of the hills was the flickering light from the dying flames of the one truck still burning. For Janice it was the first indication that something was wrong.
As they approached the three women could see several men silhouetted against the light, some standing, some walking around, some just idly milling about. When they were about a hundred yards from the site a man stepped out from the darkness onto the road and began to wave a flashlight from side to side.
"I think they want us to stop," said Zoe.
"We are stopping," said Eva resolutely. "Be nice, Zo," she cautioned. "The last thing we need is trouble." Carefully she brought the car to a stop.
Almost immediately the car was flanked on either side by a man dressed in the uniform of a Greek soldier. The man on Eva's side, the driver's side, was the one bearing the flashlight and this he now turned on the occupants of the car. Briefly he held it on each squinting face before moving on to the next. When it came Janice's turn the soldier kept the light on her. "Who are you?" he asked suspiciously.
"I'm the deputy director for the Interpreter Section of the Australian Office of Immigration," Eva replied.
For her part Janice was impressed. The soldier with the flashlight was not. "Not you," he snapped at Eva. Leveling the flashing at Janice, he said, "Her."
Undaunted, Eva coolly answered, "She is an American archaeologist, here under the auspices of the Greek government."
"An American, eh? Why are all of you out here?"
"We are going to Pydna," said Eva.
"This is not the road to Pydna," the soldier informed her.
Eva shot him a look of surprise. "It isn't?"
"Are you lost?" asked the soldier.
With an apologetic little smile, Eva said, "It would seem so." It was then she saw the soldier's eyes begin to wander back to Janice. Evidently he was not convinced. She had to do something. Tilting her head slightly back, she asked "What happened up there? An accident?"
The soldier averted his scrutinizing gaze from Janice. With a snort he said, "Hardly. It was those godless Communists. They ambushed a supply convoy."
"Oh dear!" Eva gasped. "Are we in any kind of..." Her pause was perfectly timed. "...danger?"
"Huh? Oh no, miss," the soldier reassured her. "No, you're all right. Those devils are long gone."
With a demonstrative sigh of relief, Eva said, "Thank goodness!" Her eyes doe-like, Eva added, "I know we are all safe in your capable hands, sergeant."
"Private, miss," the soldier corrected her. Nevertheless he was pleased by this beauty's calculated misinterpretation of his rank. After all, he had long considered himself NCO material.
Listening to this exchange from her seat in the back, Janice admiringly thought, Smooooth. Very smooth. In one deft stroke Eva had maneuvered the wary man's attention away from Janice and a possible time consuming interrogation to that thing which had for centuries been the bane and a never ending source of frustration for regular soldiers--the armed guerrilla.
"Since you say it is safe can we please pass now?" asked Eva.
Standing erect, the soldier said, "I'm afraid not, miss. They are still picking up bodies up there."
"The road looks clear enough now," observed Zoe.
"I'm sorry, I've got my orders. The lieutenant would have my ass on a platter if I were to let you pass."
"Come back in the morning," said the other solider, speaking for the first time. "We should have this place cleaned up by then."
"Up by that last truck is a wide place in the road," said the first soldier. "You can turn around there."
"Thank you," said Eva. Slowly she pull away from the two men. No sooner were they clear when Janice leaned forward. "Is there a back road around here that will take us around this mess?"
"Not close by," said Zoe. "I suppose we will just have to wait."
"Fuck!" Janice muttered under her breath. For her it was one of those frustrating moments where she felt things could not possibly get worse. Despite the grimness of the situation, however, Janice was still able to maintain a sense of confidence about it all. All her life she had struggled against obstacles of one sort or another and every time--every time--she had prevailed. To be sure such adventures as the race for the Star of Turkey were hardly comparable to what she was facing now but it nevertheless reinforced in her mind the old Branch Rickey adage that "Luck is the residue of design."
Nobody subscribed to this idea more than Janice Covington. Time and time again she had proved that with determination, hard work and extensive use of the gray matter between the ears one could more often than not make their own luck. Still, at this trying moment she would have all too gladly accepted any break that might come her way.
She immediately got one.
They neared the place they were to turn around and for the first time Janice noticed the car sitting at the tail end of the shattered convoy. As soon as she saw it a strange feeling flooded over her but it took another moment or two before something clicked in her brain. It is! she thought.
"It" looked like the very same automobile Janice had seen from the gully that had served as her latrine back on the road to Larissa earlier in the day. Remembering back to the approximate time the car had passed her, Janice did some mental calculations on times and distances and decided to play a hunch. Her voice insistent, Janice said, "When you pull off to turn around, stop for a moment. I'm going to get out."
This elicited a simultaneous "What's wrong?" from a surprised Eva and "Why?" from Zoe.
"I want to take a look inside that car," replied the archaeologist."
"But why?" Zoe asked again.
"No time to explain," Janice said. "Just take your time turning around, okay?"
Eva nodded and began to ease the car off the road. Just as she started to ever so slowly make the turn, Janice opened her door and rolled out. Zoe deftly closed the door behind her and Janice, crouching low, quickly made her way to the car. After a quick look around to make sure no one was watching she yanked open the door and leaned in for a look. Naturally the light inside the car was not very good and so it was some few moments before her eyes adjusted enough to make out the dark form of the dead Hans still slumped sideways in the front seat. In rapid fashion Janice swept her hands over first the seat and then the floor of the car. In truth she had no idea what she was looking for. She just hoped to find something--anything--that might be of help. Mel was a clever girl. If indeed this was the car that had taken her away perhaps she had left something behind.
It was in the back seat that Janice's faith in her friend's moxie was rewarded. Groping in the darkness, her fingers brushed against something. Holding it up to the light of the burning truck, Janice immediately recognized it as Melinda's notebook.
A scant ten seconds later she was back in the car with Eva and Zoe. The whole thing had taken barely a minute and fortunately for all of them no one had noticed the lithe figure stealing about.
"Any luck?" Zoe anxiously asked.
"They were here all right," Janice said breathlessly. She held up the notebook and said, "This belongs to Mel."
"Maybe we should ask if someone has seen them," Eva suggested. "Maybe they were..." Catching herself, she uncomfortably let her words trail off.
"They're not dead," Janice resolutely replied, finishing Eva's thought for her.
"What makes you so sure?" asked Zoe.
Janice shot her a withering look. How dare you suggest Mel is dead! she silently raged. Aloud, though, all she did was bite her tongue and answer, "Because there's still a dead guy in there. If Mel and Jack were dead they would probably still be in there as well."
Zoe, unable to see the black look on Janice's face because of the darkness, asked "You think the man is Brachmann?"
"Who knows?" Janice said with a shrug. "Maybe."
"So what do we do?" asked Eva.
"Well for starters let's get the hell out of here," Janice offered up. At that moment the three of them saw the clouds in the night sky suddenly illuminated by a great flash of lightning off to the southwest.
"Looks like it's going to rain," Zoe casually observed. "Maybe a big one."
A few seconds later they heard the long, low accompanying rumble of thunder. "That's just great," Janice disgustedly grumbled. As far as she was concerned the last thing she needed was to be held up by muddy roads.
Eva, however, was of a different mind. "As you must know the summer has been unusually dry," she said evenly. "The land needs the rain."
As irritated as she was, Janice had to concede there was no disputing that. In the weeks she had been in Greece Janice could only remember it having rained once. With a sigh of resignation the archaeologist said, "Well, I guess it's a night in the car for us."
Zoe had her thoughts upon other arrangements. Turning to Eva, she said in Greek, "About five kilometers back there is a lane that leads to an old abandoned cottage. We could spend the night there."
"Sounds good to me," said Eva. Then with a mischievous grin she added, "I can handle being cooped up with one manic spitfire but not two."
Zoe shook her head and said, "Hmph, this one is manic enough for the both of us."
In the back Janice somehow sensed that this exchange had something to do with her. "Hey come on guys," she prodded. "What are you two up to?"
Grinning devilishly, Zoe said, "Evy thinks you're manic." This immediately earned the girl a punitive little slap on the arm from an embarrassed Eva.
As for Janice, instead of this setting off her legendary temper she uncharacteristically chose to take Zoe's playful barb in stride. She knew the girl was only having a little fun. Besides, she recognized it as the kind of thing she herself might do to Mel given half the chance. Janice saw a lot of herself in Zoe and more than anything this was why she now pursed her lips and said, "Eva's right. Anybody who knows me will tell you I'm a little crazy. Jeez, just ask Mel." Still, she could not resist a mild comeback of her own. "But ya know, I'm not the only one in this car whose mainspring is wound a little too tight."
"Amen," said Eva, quietly punctuating Janice's statement.
Zoe pretended to be aghast. "Eee-vee!" she whined. "You're supposed to be on my side!"
"I am, dear," Eva assured her. Then she slyly added, "But you must admit you do get a little hyper sometimes."
The two of them began to playfully banter back and forth in Greek and as she had earlier in the day, Janice again saw the unmistakable expressions of love and tenderness pass between them. Those two were in love, no doubt about it. Janice was glad for them but in truth it did little to ease the terrible feeling of emptiness in her own heart. That part of her life which was pure and good and wonderful was gone and for Janice it was as if someone had cruelly ripped away a part of her very soul. Barely eight hours apart, Janice nevertheless missed Melinda so badly she could hardly stand it. Moreover, she was worried far more than she would ever openly admit to her two companions. Of course she and Melinda had spent time apart before but never under circumstances such as these. Melinda had been stolen from her, plain and simple, and Janice was prepared to move heaven and earth to get her back. But always, lingering in the back of her mind like some kind of malignant growth, was the chilling knowledge that despite her confident assurances to the contrary Melinda might at this very moment be suffering any number of abuses, lying hurt somewhere--alone, or even--
Desperately Janice tried not to think about this last, horrible alternative. Just as Melinda had done earlier in the day, so too did Janice now say said a prayer for the safe return of her best friend and lover. God, sweetheart, I miss you so much!
At that very same moment some ten kilometers away Melinda felt a rough hand grab her by the shoulder. Speaking in Greek, a voice gruffly said, "Stop here!" Deprived of her sense of sight, the belle strained to pick up any sound that might give an indication of what was going on.
Within minutes of their capture both she and Jack had been blindfolded and since then the two of them had been stumbling along in the darkness, up and down rocky hills, for what seemed like hours. Now as she heard a hand knock on a wooden door right it looked as though their long march was finally at an end.
From the other side a raspy voice, also in Greek, barked out, "Enter."
Melinda heard the creaking of a set of hinges badly in need of oil and a split second later a hand pushed her forward. Once inside her tight blindfold was at long last removed. She hoped that her bound hands--tied with taken from the boots of one of the dead soldiers--would also be freed but this did not happen. Since her hands were tied she was not able to reach the glasses one of her captors had stuck in her shirt pocket while she was being blindfolded. Now all she saw were blurry figures looming all around her.
"Could somebody please help me with my glasses?" she asked.
From across the room she heard a few terse words in Greek followed by one the blurry figures moving in close. 'With surprising gentleness the blurry figure put her glasses on for her and stepped back. He and the other blurry figures snapped into focus. Melinda blinked a couple of times and looked at Jack.
"You all right, kid?" he asked. Melinda nodded that she was.
With a quick look around Melinda saw the they were in a dimly lit one room shack. The floor was dirt and there were not furnishings as such--only a couple of wide planks supported on each end by a crate to form a makeshift table which held two flickering candles. Behind this table stood two men, one with arms folded, standing tall and straight, the other in a more deferential posture. The man with folded arms was Vassilis and at the moment his dark, impassive eyes were locked in on his comely prisoner with the long black hair.
From the other side of the table Melinda saw how intently he was looking at her and it was all she could do to avoid averting her own eyes. Though very uncomfortable she knew this again was not the time for any display of hesitancy or weakness. As with Brachmann she would now have to once again try to be more like Janice. However Melinda Pappas was not Janice Covington and despite the necessity of presenting a strong front this sort of boldness was so very hard for her. Given a chance, the soft-spoken Southerner preferred to avoid confrontation. Indeed, she had always been more than willing to let the forceful Janice handle any contentious situation that might arise. And why not? she reasoned. Janice was so good at that sort of thing. But Janice was not here and just as before with Brachmann Melinda again assumed as best she could the air of a confident, strong-willed woman.
Returning Vassilis' steely gaze, Melinda boldly asked, "Are you in charge here?"
Vassilis' only reaction was to turn slightly toward the curly haired man at his side, all the while keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the lovely foreigner. The curly haired man was tall, fairly thin for his height and looked to be perhaps in his late twenties. He murmured something to Vassilis and to Melinda it became apparent that this man would be serving as the interpreter.
Vassilis said something to the man and this he dutifully relayed back to Melinda. "Yes, I am in charge. And I am also the one who will ask the questions. Now, who are you?"
Unlike with Brachmann Melinda saw no compelling reason here to lie about her identity. "My name is Melinda Pappas."
This perked the rebel commander's curiosity. "Pappas? You don't look Greek. Is that your married name or are you really of Greek ancestry?"
"The latter," said Melinda. "Although admittedly we are a few generations removed from this country."
In 1728 a sixteen year old boy named Nikolos had found his way to the colony of South Carolina as an indentured servant. There, through many years of struggle and hardship, Nikolos persevered and eventually prospered enough so that by the time of his death in 1774 he had firmly established himself and his burgeoning family among the elite of Charleston, thus laying the foundation for both the considerable affluence and influence the Pappas' of Charleston still enjoyed right up to the present day. Correctly guessing who these men were, however, Melinda wisely chose not to volunteer anything about her upper class background.
"You speak English but you are not British," Vassilis astutely observed. "You are American."
"That's right," said Jack. "We are. And I'd like to protest the way we've been treated by your goons here."
Turning to Jack, Vassilis brusquely inquired, "And you are?"
"Jack Kleinman. And my friend and I demand that you release us PDQ."
"Demand all you want," Vassilis said with a shrug.
"Why are you holding us?" Melinda asked. "Just because we're Americans? We're no threat to you."
"How stupid do you think we are?" Vassilis scoffed. "You were found in army convoy. An army loyal to a repressive government that we are fighting to overthrow."
Only now did it dawn on Jack just who these men were. "Hey, you guys are Reds!"
"Your powers of perception astonish me," Vassilis sneered after hearing the translation. "But we prefer to think of ourselves as patriots."
"Look, we're just here doing some archaeologist work," Melinda tried to explain. "We just happened to be following those trucks, that's all." At this point she figured there was no use going into any details about their recent abduction. It was then that a disturbing thought came to her. Where was Brachmann? In all the confusion he seemed to have disappeared.
Unconvinced, Vassilis countered, "You want to know what I think? I think you are agents of your meddlesome American government. I think you are probably here to assist in administering your so-called Marshall Plan. You Americans. You're worse than the British. You arrogantly come in here throwing your money around and you think we're all supposed to fall to our knees and kiss your hand in gratitude."
Irked by this, all Jack could blurt out was, "You're nuts! We were just mindin' our own business and you palookas go and try to make Swiss cheese out of us."
Melinda's reply was a bit more to the point. "I don't know what that has to do with us. We are just private citizens and in no way represent the American government." However she could not resist adding, "My country just wants to see Europe get back on its feet."
"I'm sure all of western Europe is touched by your altruism," sneered Vassilis. "Of course, the real motive for your generosity couldn't possibly be a feeble attempt to stem the rising tide of Communism, could it? Well let me tell you something--the Greek people are not for sale! We made the Germans bleed, we threw out the British and we'll throw you out too."
Looking him squarely in the eye, Melinda evenly replied, "Europe just went through six long years of war. The whole continent is suffering. Haven't you seen enough war? Enough suffering? Enough death? Besides, I don't see the Soviet Union offering to help."
"We will set things right once we take power," Vassilis confidently assured her. "Only through Communism can Greece be made strong again."
"Isn't that curious?" said Melinda coldly. "You profess to be of the people yet it's always through the barrel of a gun that you gain control."
"All over the world we rising up to throw off the shackles of decadent money worshippers like you. One day you will see your children become Communists." He grinned malevolently and added, "Maybe you too if you live that long."
Jack Klienman had heard enough. Having just recently given two years of his life to fighting one form of totalitarianism, he had no desire now to listen to the venomous spoutings of another. "Spare us the commercial, pal," he defiantly shot back. "And while you're at it you can tell your Uncle Joe for me that he can kiss my ass!"
Fortunately for Jack, Vassilis largely ignored him as indeed he had all along. Instead he abruptly said, "We will leave this stimulating debate of political philosophy for another time." Perhaps it was because that, except for the aid they provided, the Greek cared nothing about Josef Stalin or the Soviet Union. More likely the reason was he found the man's companion with the glasses infinitely more interesting. Vassilis was very sensitive about such things and though this unusually tall woman was soft spoken she had courage. More than that, he thought he detected a certain latent aura of menace about her. Deep within her he sensed an underlying, almost feral quality of the spirit which in every way was so markedly different from what he had seen of her so far. Yes, there was something about her...
"Please let us go," said the object of his scrutiny. "Like I said we are just private citizens here to do some archaeological work."
Vassilis walked around from behind the makeshift table and positioned himself in front of the intriguing woman. God! She was beautiful! "I would like to believe you," he said. "I really would. However even if what you say is true I cannot risk releasing you at the moment."
"Why the hell not?" said Jack. "You know good and well we're no threat to you."
"We are at a critical hour now and I will not allow our operations to be compromised," said Vassilis.
"Bullshit!" exclaimed Jack. "We don't even know where we are."
"And it is going to stay that way," said Vassilis, shooting him a stern glance.
"What are you going to do with us?" Melinda warily asked.
"I haven't decided yet," was Vassilis' terse reply. Looking over Melinda's shoulder, he barked out a crisp order to the men behind her. "Have Martos take these two and put them in the cave. Tell him he'd better not fall asleep! And get something to tie up this lady's blouse."
>From behind the steering wheel Eva peered out past the car's headlights and into the darkness ahead. "Zo, how much farther is it?" she asked.
"It shouldn't be more than another hundred meters or so," Zoe answered. In truth she was no longer sure. The old dirt lane, its center high with weeds, had proven to be longer than she remembered. As a child she had skipped along down this lane after her brothers more times than she could count. But that was before the war. Before the Germans came.
Almost as soon as they had turned off onto the lane Zoe's mood had changed from one of coltish playfulness to one much more somber. Leaning forward, Janice asked her "How do you know about this place?"
When Zoe did not immediately answer Janice decided not to press it. Given the tragedy of recent years Janice could pretty much guess what had happened. For her part Eva too was surprised by Zoe's sudden mood shift and it was not until the neglected little house with the faded red shutters loomed in the headlights that her little friend finally spoke. As the first drops of rain began to fall on the windshield she said, "In the spring of 1943 a man wanted by the Germans was found hiding out in this house." The girl paused for a moment as if gathering herself before proceeding. "When the fugitive was found the owner of the house, who naturally had denied hiding anyone, was shot on the spot. His wife was taken away. We never learned for certain where although it was almost assuredly to a concentration camp. We never saw her again. We did learn later on that their only son, sixteen years old--only a little older than me--was sent into forced labor in Germany."
She paused again before adding, "He lasted ten months before finally starving to death."
Noting the emotion in the girl's voice, Janice said, "They were friends of yours, weren't they?"
Eva pulled the car in next to the house and shut off the engine. Zoe stared at the house still illuminated by the car's headlights. "They were family," she said softly. "My Uncle Stephanos and my Aunt Sarina. Some treacherous collaborator informed on them." With quiet grimness she went on, "If I ever find the bastard..."
Eva gently touched Zoe's hand and said, "You never told me."
Her voice laced with a bitterness that only someone who had lost their entire family could understand, Zoe replied, "What's one more drop of sadness in a sea of sorrow?" The light reflecting off the white house fell back onto Zoe's face and the harsh shadows created by her features gave her face a sunken quality that made her suddenly seem so much older.
"I'm sorry, kid," said Janice. In the light of what Zoe had just related to them this was inadequate to be sure but what else could she say?
Under her breath Zoe softly answered, "Me too."
Tenderly her friend suggested, "Maybe we should go somewhere else."
"No, Evy," said Zoe. "Uncle Stephanos won't mind. We'll be safe here because he'll watch over us tonight." She then nodded toward the windshield and said, "Besides, the rain is beginning to come down harder."
And so it was. The three of them just made it into the house before the downpour began in earnest. Through flashes
of lightning they saw the interior of the house was in shambles. The biggest part of the damage had been done that terrible
day the Germans came but vandals and other visitors had left their mark behind as well. While Zoe took a look around Janice
broke up a couple of the old chairs and went to work trying to build a fire on the dusty hearth. A mighty rumble of thunder
crashed overhead, so loud that is shook the old house. Echoing Jack's earlier sentiments, Janice glumly muttered, "What
a fucking day!"
An hour later Zoe lay peacefully sleeping in front of the fire on the old blanket she had found. Behind her sat Eva, her endless legs stretched out beside the sleeping girl, and the lithe Janice, sitting Indian style an arm's length away. For the most part the thunder and lightning had died away and the only sound to be heard now was the soft patter of rain.
Looking at the sleeping Zoe, Janice said, "Looks like the kid is worn out."
"Zoe brings so much energy to everything she does," said Eva. She emitted a low chuckle and added, "She's the only person I know who can make simply sitting in a chair into an Olympic event."
Janice smiled at this and quietly pitched a couple mores sticks of wood onto the fire. "How long have you known her?" she asked.
"Three years," Eva answered. Only in her mind did she add, Three sublime, glorious years!
Three years, thought Janice. Gee, the kid couldn't have been more than fifteen or sixteen then. She wondered if the two of them had been lovers from the start or had it taken them some time as it had with Melinda and her. Not that it really mattered. War has a way of making even the young grow up quickly and Zoe obviously had been through a lot. "You say you guys live in Australia now?"
"But I take it you were here during the occupation."
"Yes," Eva said again. "Zoe had lived in Larissa all her life." Her voiced measured and even she then said, "I moved there in 1944." Though she knew Janice was probably just making conversation she was already becoming uncomfortable with the woman's inquiries. What was past was past and she had no interest in dredging up all its painful memories.
But Janice was not yet finished. "So what made you decide to move halfway around the world? Especially to Australia? It's not the most hospitable place to foreigners."
"A fresh start," Eva tersely explained. "By the end of the war this scarred land no longer held anything for either of us and it served only as a constant reminder of the suffering--the four long years of misery so many had endured. Yes, I wanted to leave but more importantly I felt it was imperative to get Zoe out of Greece any way I could before the endless strife broke her spirit for good." Eva looked down at the softly breathing Zoe and was barely able to keep her emotions in check. "She's lost so much," she said. "Her home, her entire family.....so much."
Gathering herself, Eva resolutely lifted up her chin and said, "So, like the Israelites in Exodus, Zoe and I went looking for our own Canaan. And it was that Australia became our 'Land of Milk and Honey.'"
Eva looked away into the fire. Silently she rebuked herself for having revealed so much. It was not like her to do so. Past experiences had made her mistrustful of others and yet here was this intense American, pumping her as if she belonged on some old well box. Well two could play at that game, she allowed, and then went on the offensive herself. "And your friend," she suddenly said. "What about her?"
"What about her?" Eva shot her a wry look and Janice said, "Macedonia, seven years ago. That was when I first met Mel. It was an ahh...interesting experience."
Eva did not beat around the bush. Right away she came back with the most provocative of questions. "And you two have been a couple ever since?"
Janice looked at her with more than a little surprise. She had not expected such a trenchant remark from the quiet Greek. Even so, the question did not embarrass her. Melinda Rose Pappas was hers and she had never given a damn who knew it. However the question had aroused her curiosity and this was why she asked "What makes you say that?"
"Come on," said Eva, as she flashed the archaeologist a knowing little smile, "I see the passion in your eyes every time you just mention her name."
Janice looked hard at her and said, "Well you've got me there," Janice conceded. "I don't have many friends. I don't need any. In fact I only have one that really matters to me."
"This one," Eva quietly observed.
"Yeah, this one. Mel is my business associate, partner, best friend...lover--all of that and more. In fact she's just about my whole life."
Eva could not help but admire the no nonsense, matter-of-fact way in which Janice had stated this. It also got her to thinking. In a halting voice she asked "Are you two, you know...a lot alike?"
Needless to say Janice found this highly amusing. Pulling up the corner of her mouth into a little half-smile, she said, "God no! We're as different as daylight and dark. Mel is tall and beautiful and she has this gentle grace--not a physical grace 'cause she's clumsy as hell--but a kind of inner grace."
"You mean a spiritual grace?" asked Eva.
"In a way, I guess," said Janice. "She's kind and gentle and thoughtful--smart as hell. I suppose what I mean is she's one of those special people that makes everybody lucky enough to come in contact with her feel good." Janice wryly grinned again and said, "You've seen how I am so you know the same can hardly be said about me. But I love Mel. I'd die for her."
By the firelight Eva intently studied Janice's face for a few moments and then finally said, "Janice Covington, you are a fraud."
Again Janice was caught by surprise. This woman was much more than she seemed. "Huh?"
"I think you are what you Americans call a phony."
At this remark Janice found herself becoming a little warm. "What are you talking about?"
"I think that down deep you are not the--pardon the word--bitch--you would have others believe that you are. I think you are a very nice, caring person who for whatever reason has chosen to put up this angry facade."
Janice conspiratorially glanced about the room and, putting a hand to her cheek, leaned close to Eva and whispered, "Well don't let this get out, okay, sister? Otherwise it would ruin my reputation as a hard ass."
Now it was Eva's turn to grin and for the next hour or so they sat there by the fire, quietly talking about love, war and
everything in between while young Zoe peacefully slept to the soothing sound of the steadily pouring rain hitting the
old wood shingled roof. In the process the two women went a long way toward becoming fast friends. At last Eva stretched
out her long frame next to her Zoe and soon fell under the spell of Somnus. Janice held out as long as she could, lying there
on the floor and thinking of Melinda but eventually she too fell asleep just as the rain finally began to let up.
Sometime in the early morning hours, long after the fired had died out, a pair of eyes snapped open and a lithe figure bolted upright. In her dreams there had been two images swirling around in her mind until they had meshed into one. One was of a strangely dressed woman--proud in bearing and armed with a magnificent looking sword. The other--once familiar to her mostly forgotten now--but nevertheless one which had left an indelible mark on her young life. And though not quite sure how the woman fit it but Zoe was sure there was indeed a connection somehow. Yes, it all was all as clear as glass now. Peeved, she wondered why had she not thought of the place before.
On all fours Zoe Lambros crept over to where Janice lay sleeping by the door. "Janice. Janice, wake up!"
Shaking the archaeologist by the shoulder, Zoe repeated, "Wake up."
Janice rolled over and groggily peered up at the dark form looming over her. "What is it, kid?" she groaned.
"We need to get moving."
"I think I know where your friends are!"
The wind off the rain storm was chilling as it gusted into the mouth of the cave and it made Melinda shudder. Sitting next to her, Jack felt the belle tremble. "You cold?" he asked.
"A little," she admitted.
On the other side of the narrow cave their guard sat dozing next to a hissing lantern. "Hey, laughing boy," Jack called out. The guard awoke with a wild-eyed start and, realizing where he was, sullenly squinted at the troublesome American. If not for these two he would have well on his way by now. As it was Vassilis had ordered him to stay behind and keep an eye on the two prisoners. Of all the luck! Why, he sulkily wondered, was he the one who was always chosen for the shit jobs? It was enough to make a man want to desert.
Trying to cheer up his friend, Jack cracked, "Look at the mug on that guy. He's uglier than I am! My God, I've seen better faces on an iodine bottle. Hey, Gable, where'd ya get that puss? You try to kiss a buzz saw or something?"
Despite their predicament Melinda was unable to keep from snickering at Jack's barbs. With his pock marked face, his narrow set beady eyes and unbelievably thick eyebrows their guard was indeed quite ugly. For Melinda the whole thing was made even funnier by the fact that the man obviously did not understand a word of what Jack was saying. He just sat there sullenly staring back an them. Then again perhaps for her friend's sake it was for the best because the man looked to be capable of anything.
As for Jack it made him feel good to know that he was amusing Melinda in some small way. It was then that another cold wind blasted through the cave, causing Melinda to shudder again.
"Here, kid," said Jack, "maybe I can help." Under the guard's watchful eye Jack got to his knees and laboriously worked his way around in front of Melinda in order to block the wind off her. "There now," he said. "Is that better?"
"Yes, much," said the grateful belle. For a few moments all was quiet except for the hissing of the guard's kerosene lantern. Finally Melinda spoke again. "Jack?"
"Aahm really glad you're here."
For once the usually garrulous Jack was at a loss for words. "Gee, kid..." For all his quirkiness Jack Kleinman had never been one to kid himself. All his life he had been a loser--a nobody--and he knew it. Now in five short words this beauty beside him had maybe for the first time in his life made him feel as if he actually mattered--as if he was somebody!
Melinda snuggled close and together the two of them waited out the long night, fitfully sleeping and keeping warm as best they could.
Sometime in the early morning hours Vassilis made his decision. The Americans, he decided, were telling the truth. As far as he was concerned that made the question as to what to do with them a moot point. Vassilis considered himself a warrior fighting for a just cause. He was a soldier--not a murderer of innocents. The Americans would not be harmed. Sooner or later they would realize they were unguarded and would simply get up and walk out. He was little concerned about their learning the location of this hiding place. From what his brother had told him about the buildup of government forces in the area he doubted he and his men would be back here anytime soon anyway.
A short time later Martos saw his commander appear just at the periphery of the lantern's faint glow. With a faint whistle Vassilis beckoned to the man and quietly the two rebels made their way back down the path toward the cabin. Within thirty minutes Vassilis entire command had melted away into the dark Greek countryside.
Just as dawn was breaking Melinda awoke and saw a silhouette standing at the mouth of the cave. By now the lantern had gone out so she could not make out his face but still, there was something disturbingly familiar about the form advancing into the cave.
"Hello, Covington." Melinda could hear the smirk in the voice. "I trust you slept well?"
It was Brachmann.
Janice Covington blinked hard a couple of times and sat up. "Wha...what do you mean?"
"I think I know where we might find your friends," said Zoe.
Now Janice was wide awake. "Oh, Jesus!" she cried. "Really?"
This outburst woke up Eva and it was now her turn to roll over and sleepily sit up. In Greek she asked, "Is something wrong?"
"We have to go," said Zoe.
"Where?" Eva asked.
"Up in the hills, to the west," Zoe replied in English, "there are a series of small caves that are almost invisible from the air. During the war they were occasionally used by the Resistance." She turned back to Janice and said, "Maybe a different sort of resistance is using them now. However we must hurry, these men must surely be aware there are former Resistance fighters loyal to the government who know about those caves. Now that they have made their presence known I would expect them to leave at first light."
"It's worth a shot," said Janice. She glanced out the door and noted that the rain had stopped. "These caves," she asked, "you know where they are?"
With an assuring nod Zoe replied, "I know where they are."
"Well what are we waiting for?" said Janice. "Let's haul ass!"
At last the form was close enough and the face of Karl Brachmann, dirty and blood smeared, came into view. With a mocking smile he said, "My my, Covington, trouble certainly seems to have a way of following you around, doesn't it?"
Hoping to put up a brave front Melinda pretended to ignore his remark. "What happened to the rebels?" she asked.
"Oh them. They're gone," said Brachmann. They moved out about an hour ago. I guess they decided you weren't worth the trouble of killing." He then gave Jack a sharp nudge with his foot. "Wake up, Pappas," he curtly ordered.
"How did you find us?" asked Melinda.
"I followed you up here," replied Brachmann matter-of-factly. "I've been up on that freezing ridge all night, watching. You didn't think I was going to let a few ragged partisans keep me away now did you?"
Very reluctantly Jack began to stir. When he saw who was kneeling between Melinda and himself he let out a despondent groan. "Oh no."
"I am pleased to see you too, Pappas," Brachmann said with a sneer.
Reaching into his pocket, Brachmann took out a long, slender object which the refined Melinda did not recognize. But Jack did. Back in the tough "Joisey" streets where he grew up a switchblade knife had been as common as a cop on the take. When Brachmann flicked the knife open Jack initially feared the worst but his apprehension faded if only a little when he saw the German lean forward and cut the heavy lace binding Melinda's hands.
Free at last, the belle worked her aching shoulders in little circles.
"Where is the tablet?" Brachmann asked.
"Damn," Jack muttered. "Talk about a one track mind."
Assuming Janice's sharp demeanor, Melinda snapped, "How the hell do we know? We were too busy savin' our own skins back there to worry about a stupid hunk of clay."
Brachmann folded up the knife and returned it to his pocket. "How unfortunate," he declared. He smiled thinly and went on, "At any rate it does not matter. I have you and I think that is all I need."
"What do yuh mean?" she warily asked.
In menacing tones the German answered, "I mean we are going to Pydna and you are going to find that treasure for me."
Trying to remain calm, Melinda said, "Without the tablet it's impossible. Don't you see that?"
The smile on his face faded and Brachmann breathed a heavy sigh of impatience. Once more he produced the knife and in a menacing tone said, "Covington, we can do this the easy way..." He held the knife up to her face and switched it open. "...or we can do it the hard way. It's your choice but either way you will cooperate."
Furious at the threat to his friend, Jack roared, "Leave her alone, you slimy son of a bitch!" This outburst earned him a vicious kick to the ribs from Brachmann.
"Mel!" Melinda shrieked. Before she could rush to him the German caught her by the arm and jerked her to him. "One more word out of either of you and he dies!" he growled. "You're coming with me. Now!"
However he was surprised by Melinda's strength and she wrenched free from him. "Let me go!" she cried. Still, the German was not to be denied. Quickly exchanging his knife for his pistol, Brachmann leveled it at her and said, "If you do not move right now I will shoot you both right here."
Again Melinda resorted to the same tack she had used before. "You kill us," she warned, "and you'll never see that treasure."
"Oh I think I will," Brachmann confidently replied. "You see I don't think you're so brave as you would have me believe. I also would wager you have already memorized every detail on that tablet." He looked down at Jack. "So I think you will be of no further use to me."
"You think you've got it all worked out, doncha?" Jack said caustically.
Brachmann scornfully ignored him and with a jerk of his revolver said to Melinda, "Let's go."
Melinda wanted to ask Brachmann about Jack but held back in the hope that now that the German had what he wanted he would be willing to leave her friend alone. In the end there was nothing she could so in resignation she started toward the mouth of the cave.
Jack, however, was not finished. "Touch a hair on her head, asshole, and you'll answer to me!" he defiantly yelled after
him as they departed. Jack now meant every word he said. If for some reason Janice Covington did not take care of this man, he sure as hell would.
A hundred yards away three pairs of eyes watched as Melinda and Brachmann emerged from the cave. Unlike Brachmann the three women had only just arrived and consequently were unaware that the guerrillas had already gone.
Understandably excited at finding her belle, Janice loudly whispered, "That's her! That's Mel!" Janice would have known that silhouette anywhere but here in the early morning light she found herself squinting to get a good look at the dim form at Melinda's elbow. One thing she did know was that it definitely was not Jack.
"Is that your Mister Klienman with her?" Eva asked.
"No," Zoe quickly interjected. "Not unless he shaved his head overnight."
Again Janice peered at the figures and for a fleeting moment felt envious of Zoe's sharp-eyed youthfulness. The light was still very weak and the landscape still abounded with deep dark shadows and Janice wondered just how the girl could make out such detail from this distance.
"Do you suppose he's in the cave?" Eva asked.
"Maybe," said Janice. For a fleeting moment the black notion that perhaps he was already dead raced through her mind but with grim determination she forced herself to put this aside and concentrate on Melinda and her rescue. Her efforts were not made any easier by an awareness, however vague in the innermost recesses of her consciousness, of the stark and even more disturbing realization that she would gladly accept the death of the bumbling if well meaning Jack if it meant that her beloved Melinda would live. She would never admit such a thing--certainly not to Melinda and perhaps not even to herself--but that did not make it any less true.
At the sight of Melinda Janice was ready to take action. She was just about to make her move when Zoe caught her by the arm. "We must be careful," she cautioned. "There may still be others we haven't seen.
"We can't just lie here and do nothing!" Janice hissed in protest.
"We need to know what we're up against," Zoe quietly counseled.
The kid's right, thought Janice. C'mon, Janice, she chided herself. Think! Her own normally shrewd sense of judgment was being clouded because of the emotional factor and she knew it.
Despite the situation Eva had to flash a faint smile of amusement which Zoe just happened to catch. "What?" the girl asked.
In Greek Eva said, "I never thought I would see the day when Zoe Lambros would be the voice of caution."
Zoe, who was just a few scant weeks short of twentieth birthday, returned Eva's smile and replied, "I guess this means I'm getting old, huh?"
Janice, still itching to do something, whispered an impatient, "What are you guys yakkin' about now?"
By now Eva was no longer finding herself uncomfortable because of Janice's bluster and so she said, "We were discussing Zoe's retirement plans."
"Nothing," said Eva, shaking her head.
"I told Evy I was getting old," explained Zoe.
"Old? Hell," Janice scoffed, "you don't know what old is. Wait till you get to be my age. Then you'll see." Janice's eyes softened and she said, "You're like a young flower just now coming into full bloom."
"I don't think you're old," Zoe said quietly. It was the way the girl said it that struck Janice. She was so solemn and spoke with such obvious sincerity. Janice was very touched by it. There was passion in everything Zoe did and Janice could see how the much more refined Eva could be so taken with her. Again, the parallels with her own relationship with Melinda were remarkable!
Janice watched as the two distant figures, Melinda in the lead and the unknown Brachmann following close behind, set off down the path that led back to the cabin.
Again the archaeologist was about to move when again Zoe caught her by the arm. Pointing off to their left, the girl whispered, "Look."
Now Janice saw that it was a good thing she had heeded Zoe's advice for coming up the path from the opposite direction was another man. Even at this distance he seemed to her to be strangely familiar somehow...
Sensing a potentially disastrous situation developing, the gritty archaeologist immediately decided that the moment of truth had arrived. Melinda was here and, whatever the outcome, this might be her last--her only--chance to save her friend. The archaeologist pulled out her .45 and grimly pulled back the slide, cocking it.
"What are you doing?" Zoe hissed in alarm.
"I'm going in," Janice said firmly. "Wait here." With that the American got to her feet and, crouching low, began
to pick her way down into the ravine.
After leaving his boss, Pratikakis had wasted much of the morning in a fruitless search first for Kettering, then the American women. Arriving at the dig a scant twenty minutes after Brachmann had departed, he too had learned of the women's departure north from Phillip and his battered friend. Even more significant was Phillip's revelation during the course of questioning that before she left Covington had mentioned something about going to see a man named Kettering. This was his first inkling that the Covington woman and Kettering had decided to work in unison and so Pratikakis immediately set out after them.
Lord Hanley, it seemed, was nothing if not thorough. In engaging Brachmann to retrieve the tablet he had concluded that it would be prudent to have another man on the job open just in case the slippery German failed. Someone who knew the area and the people in it. In Pratikakis he had found such a man. Although ostensibly his visit to Janice and Melinda had been in the course of a ordinary murder investigation his real purpose had been an attempt to find out if the women knew anything about the tablet Frailing was known to have found.
Unknown to Hanley the policeman had already tripped up once. Pratikakis was the one who had waylaid Zeissler on
that night and thus had been the source of both Brachmann's displeasure and Zeissler's untimely demise. Unfortunately that
pariticular stone had turned out to be a mere bureaucratic record--a false lead. Up until his discovery of Janice and
Kettering's apparent association his interest in Janice had been nothing more than a desperate grasping of straws. After
that it became something else again.
Once in Larissa Pratikakis had as a matter of course checked in at the police station and it was there he had learned both of Kettering's death and the green-eyed American firebrand who had brought him in. Told that she had continued on north, Pratikakis correctly guessed that the better, albeit more roundabout road was the one to take.
And so it was that the policeman had come upon the smashed convoy barely one half hour after Janice and her friends. It was in this way that he knew Vassilis was back and once again operating in the area. Pratikakis had not expected him back so soon but he was ready nevertheless. After all, it was what the party expected of him. Even before the war ended Pratikakis, the highly respected police inspector, had been recruited as a Communist spy.
In leaving the scene of the ambush he had passed Brachmann's bullet-riddled car and idly glanced in at the dead Hans still slumped over in the seat--unaware that directly beneath the German's bloody corpse was the very thing for which he was searching. Later, while removing the body from the car, one of the Greek soldiers found the blood stained stone lying underneath. Neither knowing nor caring about the tremendous significance of the ancient artifact, he carelessly tossed it into the road where it was later ground back to the dust from whence it came by a halftrack as the soldiers moved out. Thus it was that the knowledge of ancient resting place for the fabulous treasure of Harpalus, chief treasure of Alexander the Great, was lost forever.
As it was finding the Americans again had been sheer luck. The plan called for the rebels man to contact Pratikakis but since he was already in the area now he decided not to wait. He knew there were dozens of places where Vassilis and his men could hole up. However the inspector knew Vassilis almost as well as he did himself and like Zoe he figured the caves would be as likely a place as any to look for them. However, unlike Zoe and her friends he had two very distinct advantages in dealing with the Communist rebels. One was they knew him. The other was that their leader, the man known only as Vassilis, was his brother.
The reunion between the policeman and former cobbler could only have been described as strained but Pratikakis had nevertheless
done his duty and passed on what he knew about the strength of government forces in the area. Hearing that his brother had left behind
two Americans in one of the smaller caves, Pratikakis thought the chances good that they might be the very same ones he was
after. As it turned out he was only half right.
Like fingers forming some kind of giant fist, the four of them drew ever closer to each other. Unfortunately for Pratikakis he had not expected trouble and so was not prepared for the sight looming out of the darkness of the Pappas woman being forced to act as a shield for the gun wielding man behind her.
In Greek Brachmann warned, "That is far enough."
"Who are you?" asked Pratikakis.
The German brushed aside the challenge with a wave of his pistol. "Put you hands behind your head."
"Let the woman go," said Pratikakis in an even voice as he spread his hands wide apart.
"You don't exactly strike me as the knight in shining armor type," Brachmann scoffed.
Pratikakis was in a bind and he knew it. At the moment the other man was the one holding all the cards. How could he have made such a blunder? His only hope was that the man would make a mistake somewhere. Given the unhappy circumstances he thought that a bluff might only escalate matters and it was for that reason that he tried another, more conciliatory approach. "Unless I am mistaken we are both after the same thing," he said. "I would suspect we are even working for the same man."
Brachmann would have none of it. In disdain he said, "I have only my own interests at heart."
"We could split the money," Pratikakis offered up hopefully. "Fifty-fifty. Five thousand pounds apiece."
The fool! thought Brachmann. A faint smirk played across the German's lips. "You are hardly in a position to offer terms." Leveling the pistol at the unlucky policeman, he said, "Turn around."
"Don't be a fool!" Pratikakis cried. "I'm a police inspector. You can't just murder me and expect to get away with it!"
The smirk faded from Brachmann's lips as he said, "I spent three years on the Eastern Front. So you see I can murder anyone. Now...turn around."
In a desperate attempt to save his life Pratikakis bolted off down the path toward the cabin. Unfazed by the sudden flight of his intended victim, Brachmann pushed Melinda to the ground and calmly raised his pistol. There was nothing hard about killing a man, he thought. It was only a matter of properly applying the fundamentals of shooting.
Janice was working her way around a large boulder when the heard the sharp crack of a pistol shot and then a faint cry immediately afterward. Oh my God!! she thought fearfully.
That was it. All bets were now off! Janice rushed around the boulder and saw Pratikakis on his knees, just starting
to fall forward. Before she could locate Melinda and the other man she heard the angry whine of a bullet as it zipped no more
than a foot from her ear.
Up on the crest Zoe could stand it no longer. Popping to her feet as she heard the second shot echo through the ravine, Zoe resolutely announced, "I'm going down there."
"Zoeeeeeeee," Eva pleaded. "What can you do? You're unarmed."
"I don't know but I've got to do something!" Zoe insisted.
"If you go down there all you'll succeed in doing is getting yourself killed." Eva said plaintively.
"Evy, I'll be careful, I promise. But I just can't sit here and wait." The echoes had died away and in the stillness of the early morning the two Greeks heard the sharp cry of human voice. For Zoe it was the clincher. Crouching down, she gently touched Eva on the shoulder. "I'll be all right," she softly assured her lover.
It was no use and Eva knew it. When Zoe's blood was up like this the young woman seemed impervious to reason. With a dejected sigh of resignation she said, "All right. While you do that I'll--I'll check the cave for the Kleinman fellow."
"Good girl," said Zoe as she patted Eva on the arm.
But Eva could not let her go without one last entreatment. "For the love of God, Zo, BE CAREFUL! If you go off and get yourself killed I'll never forgive you!"
Zoe smiled that impish smile that Eva knew so well and in a heartbeat the girl was down the side of the ridge and gone.
Before moving out herself Eva closed her eyes and paused for just a moment to say a silent prayer for the safety of not only
her precious Zoe, but the two Americans they were here to rescue and the tempestuous archaeologist who had amazingly
become her friend.
The unintelligible voice heard by the two Greeks belonged to Melinda. In response to Brachmann's demand that the interloper come out and show himself she had cried out, "Don't do it!" little realizing that she was addressing Janice.
By now Brachmann had once again firmly positioned himself behind the belle. Thinking this other person most probably an accomplice of the dead policeman, he called out in Greek, "If you don't want to end up like your comrade you'll get out of here now!"
Janice's Greek was very bad and so she missed most of the warning. Not that it would have mattered, of course. She had found her Melinda and she would be damned before she would let this bastard take her away again! "You let her go," said Janice, "and you can walk out of here in one piece."
Oh my God! thought Melinda. It's Jan! It took all of her self-restraint not to call out to her lover. If Brachmann were to find out now that she was not in fact Covington....well there was no telling what he might do.
Carefully keeping Melinda positioned between himself and the sound of the voice, Brachmann slowly began to back his way down the path. "Ohhh," he answered back, "you sound like an American."
Janice peered up over the rock which was serving as her cover. "That's right," she said in a low, throaty voice. "And I believe you have something that belongs to me."
Brachmann, very naturally assuming she was referring to the lost tablet, pleasantly replied, "Not yet. But I hope to soon enough."
Of course Janice had not been talking about the tablet but rather something infinitely more precious. Growing angrier by the second, she was hardly in a mood to elaborate. "You're not leaving here," Janice grimly told him. "Not with her anyway."
Brachmann was surprised and a little incensed by the woman's boldness. "So you know her, eh?" Putting his gun to Melinda's head, he warned, "You try to stop me and she dies."
Never had Janice wanted so badly to harm someone. Barely controlling her rage, she clenched her teeth and said, "If you so much as breathe on her you're a dead man." All the while she followed along as Brachmann continued to back his way down the path, taking care not to allow the German a clear shot at her.
"You obviously have not assessed the situation very well," Brachmann smugly replied. "It is I who am in control here."
"I'll give ya that," Janice conceded. Then she added, "As long as she stays alive."
"I could kill her right now and there is not a damn thing you can do about it," said Brachmann.
"You do and I'll shoot you and before you die I'll gut you like a hog," said Janice coldly. "You've got to ask yourself, fella, is this something worth dying for?"
Brachmann's answer was to defiantly circle his arm around Melinda's neck and roughly snap her head back as he fired off a shot in Janice's general direction. "You son of a bitch!" Janice growled lowly. "One way or another your ass is mine."
Suddenly there was a high pitched, piercing cry and out from the top of her field of vision the archaeologist was astounded to see a strange blur plummet down and pile right on top of Brachmann and Melinda. Immediately Janice recognized what was happening. Zoe!!!
The three people went down in a tangled heap of arms and legs. Being the most nimble and athletic of the three, Zoe was the first to regain her balance. Pouncing on his chest with her knees, she lashed out with her fist and caught the stunned Brachmann right between the eyes.
Owwwwww! thought the girl as she fretfully shook her throbbing hand. Damn that hurt!
In an instant Janice had bounded over a waist high rock and was tearing toward them. That crazy kid! she thought. That crazy, wonderfully brave kid! Janice had pinned much her hope on being able to pressure Brachmann into making some kind of mistake, to unnerve him somehow. In the span of a heartbeat the impetuous Zoe had changed all that.
After leaving Eva Zoe had followed the sound of the voices until she came upon a ledge overlooking the path. It was from here that she had made her leap. Seeing that Brachmann was apparently going to pass right under her, the girl had calmly bided her time, hoping that an opening would come. Brachmann's wild shot at Janice had given her such an opening. As it was Zoe's blow was well struck but hardly one strong enough to faze a man who had more than once killed a Russian with his bare hands. Growling a raging oath at his unlikely assailant, Brachmann hit her with a backhand so savage that he knocked the wisp of a girl completely off him.
Meanwhile, once Melinda was on the ground she began to roll in a desperate attempt to put as much distance as possible between herself and the German. Brachmann saw this and so he made a dive for her feet. He almost had her when like a fierce little wolverine Zoe was on him again, pummeling him with blows about his face. Furious at the frustrating tenacity of this little wench Brachmann again threw her off. This time he meant to finish her. Snatching up his pistol, he was almost on his target when Janice's big .45 roared out. The 230 grain slug caught Brachmann right below the armpit of his upraised arm, tearing through his right lung and into his heart. He was dead even before he went crashing down on top of Zoe like a big tree.
Still a little numb by the rapidity of these events, Melinda rolled over and sat up. In an instant Janice was kneeling at her side. The archaeologist gently slipped an arm around the belle. "Are you hurt?" She anxiously asked. When Melinda blankly looked at her Janice said, "Are you all right?"
This time Melinda nodded stiffly and said, "Yeah, I--I think so." For what now seemed like the first time in eons the belle looked up into those dazzling green eyes she knew so well and in that moment all the burdens, all the worries about somehow, some way, keeping Jack and her alive evaporated like so much steam from a teakettle. Janice--her Janice--was here now and everything was indeed going to be "okay."
She was safe at last.
With tears welling up in her icy blue eyes Melinda reached out with both arms and clung to Janice for all she was worth. "Ohh, Jan!" she cried. "I knew you'd find us!"
Janice closed her eyes and tenderly kissed Melinda behind the ear. It felt SO good to smell her hair, to hear her voice, to simply touch her once again. "It's all right, sweetheart," she softly cooed. "It's all right."
By now Zoe had managed to wriggle out from under her burden. Janice felt a warm hand on her shoulder and looked to see Zoe standing there beside the two of them. Gently pulling away from her lover, the archaeologist smiled at Melinda and said, "Mel, I'd like you to meet the person who just saved your life. Melinda Pappas, this is Zoe Lambros.
Zoe boldly stuck out her hand and said, "I am so very happy to meet you."
Melinda took the surprisingly smallish hand and with a heartfelt gratitude said, "Thank you, Zoe. I'm indebted to yuh."
Slightly embarrassed by the lovely American's earnestness, Zoe was momentarily at a loss for words. Fortunately the situation was at that very moment lightened considerably when they heard a nasal voice yell out. "Whoa!"
The three women looked up the path toward the caves and there they saw what resembled a misshapen log tumbling down the little hill. Except that this "log" was a human one. It was, of course, Jack.
Janice shook her head in mock exasperation and muttered, "My God." In truth though she was almost as happy to see him as she had been with Melinda.
Trotting purposefully down the hill after him came Eva. Halfway down the hill she stopped when she noticed the three figures knotted together up ahead. In desperation very close to panic her anxious eyes searched out that one particular figure she was looking for. And there she was. Seeing that Zoe was all right Eva Haralambos closed her eyes and gratefully gave thanks to the gracious and merciful God who surely had watched over them all here on this terrible morning.
It had been an eighteen hours none of them would ever forget.
Mid-afternoon evening found the five of them safely back in Larissa. There Jack was finally able to satisfy his raging hunger while the four women went to reclaim Janice's truck. Though Melinda too expressed a desire to eat something, Janice just having come so close to losing her, was hardly about to let the belle out of her sight to soon. No, Mel's belly could wait.
Later on that evening Melinda was surprised when Janice accepted Eva's gracious offer to spend the night. Janice was notorious for her self-reliance and for her to do such a thing was so very out of character for her. As the evening progressed Melinda and the two Greeks--particularly Eva--found that they had quite a bit in common, particularly their love of the arts and Eva's interest in photography.
So, while Eva, Zoe and Melinda sat by the fire enthusiastically discussing Mozart and Adams, Manet and Rosenthal, Janice sat and politely listened to them gush about things she knew nothing about and cared for even less. On a pallet in the corner lay Jack snoring loud enough to wake up the dead. For a moment she felt she had more in common with him than any of the others, including Melinda. Melinda, Eva and to a lesser extent Zoe, were the purebreds of the world, noble and proud. Jack on the other hand was a mutt, just like she was. Lifting her glass of wine, she ever so subtly raised a toast to her sleeping friend. Here's to the mutts of the world, my friend, she thought. Without us there'd be nobody to clean up the shit.
For Janice and Melinda the long night was spent merely sleeping peacefully in each other's arms. As to how Zoe and Eva spent it, well, that is best left for another time.
The next morning shortly after dawn Janice awoke to the sound of a gentle rapping at her door. Dressed only in her panties, she wrapped one of the sheets around her and quietly opened the door. There she saw Jack with his duffel bag on his shoulder. "Hey, Covington," he whispered, "can ya loan me twenty clams?"
Janice blinked hard once to clear the sleep away. "What are you doing?" she asked.
"I've been down at the station," he said. "There'll be a train here in an hour bound for Athens. I wanna be on it."
"But--why?" Janice asked. "We're going home too. You can just go with us."
Jacks features softened and he nervously licked his lips. "Ahh no," he said. "You and Mel there have been through a lot. I kinda figured you'd ahh, you know....."
"Want to be alone?"
"Uhh, yeah. You don't need me tagging along."
With a smile of unusual warmth Janice said, "Jack, you are always welcome with us."
"I know, I know," her friend said. "But, you know, all the same...."
"But what about Mel?" Janice whispered in protest. "You can just go off and leave her and not say good-bye."
Jack's eyes grew sad. "You'll tell her for me, woncha? I really should go."
"Okay, Jack," Janice said softly. "Have it your way." She tiptoed over to her trousers and pulled out a couple of notes. "Here's forty pounds," she said. "That ought to tide you over nicely."
"Thanks, Covington," said Jack, stuffing the money into his shirt pocket. "Well uhh, see ya when ya get back."
"You're goin' to China with us, right?" asked Janice.
"Oh sure. Yeah. Wouldn't miss it." Jack stuck out his hand and said, "See ya, kid."
There in the doorway the two of them shook hands. As Jack turned to leave Janice caught him by the arm. "Jack?"
"I want to thank you for taking care of Mel. I won't forget it."
With a snort Jack replied, "You kidding? If it hadn't been for her quick thinking we'd both be dead now." He glanced over Janice's shoulder to the pair of long, graceful legs protruding out from the sheets. "You should have seen her, Covington," he said admiringly. She was really something."
Janice turned to look as well and, holding back her emotions, quietly answered, "I know."
Three hours later Eva stood at the door as Janice and Melinda passed by on their way out to the truck. All through breakfast Zoe had been strangely absent and now that it was time to go Janice found it troubling that the girl was not there to see them off.
"If you two ever get to Australia you simply must come to Sydney and stay with us," said Eva, as she shook Melinda's hand.
"I'd love that," said Melinda.
"I was down there before the war," said Janice, still a little distracted by Zoe's absence. "Just don't expect me to eat any of that damn vegemite."
"Ugh!" Eva groaned.
Melinda got in the truck and Janice had almost given up hope of seeing Zoe again when suddenly the girl dashed out the door of the house. In her hand was what looked to be a rolled up piece of heavy paper.
"Here," said Zoe, handing the paper to Janice. "I want you to have this."
When Janice unrolled it what she found astounded her for there on the paper was the most beautiful sketch she had ever seen!
Leaning over to see for herself, Melinda softly cried, "Oh my! It's wonderful!"
"It sure is," marveled Janice.
It was a drawing of Melinda and herself, seen from the shoulders up. In the foreground there was Janice, sans hat, her long flowing hair being gently lifted by a soft breeze. Her face was slightly turned to her right and she seemed to be in a reflective mood as her penetrating eyes bravely looked off into the distance. For her part Melinda was amazed by how well the girl had captured the intensity of her lover's eyes. It gave Melinda the impression that the girl understood Janice as few did. Towering over Janice's right shoulder was Melinda. Zoe had drawn her without the glasses. With a strong left hand on Janice's right shoulder, the belle too seemed to be pondering the same far away sight. Even on simple paper one could feel the bond between these two images.
Janice thought it captured the two of them better than any photograph ever could. She understood perfectly the symbolism of the positioning of the two women and the significance of the hand on her shoulder. It was in every sense of the word a guiding hand. Genuinely moved, Janice shook her head once in amazement. There was no doubt about, the girl had a rare talent and for once Janice was a loss for words--almost. "Jeez, kid," she said gently, "this is terrific. You should be doing this for a living."
Happy that Janice seemed pleased with her offering and yet somewhat sheepish at the praise of her new friends, Zoe replied, "Well I hope to someday." With an impish grin she then added, "And stop calling me kid."
Janice returned the smile with one of her own and said, "You wanna know something? I never thought you were a kid."
Zoe moved in to hug her newfound friend and in her ear whispered, "I am going to miss you, Janice Covington."
"I'm going to miss you too," said Janice. She pulled away and said, "Take care of yourself. You've got a bright future ahead if you'll just apply yourself."
"She's going to," Eva assured her. "When we get back she's going to go to art school."
"Good for you," said Janice, playfully jabbing Zoe's arm. The archaeologist looked up at the towering Eva and said, "Well, I never was much of one for good-byes so....good-bye, and thanks for everything you've done for me--for us."
"Good-bye," said Eva. "And may God go with you on your journey."
As Janice got in the truck Eva slipped an arm around Zoe. Janice started the truck and drove away and together the two of them waved back to Melinda as the belle waved one last time through the back window. Down at the end of the street Janice turned left and they were gone.
After they were gone Zoe stood there for a moment staring down the road. Never in all her life had she seen such a dynamic person as Janice. It heartened her to know that in this world a woman really could knock down any barriers that got in her way.
"C'mon, Zo," said Eva, playfully pulling on her arm. "If you promise to be good I'll let you tinker with my rear end."
With a look that was positively salacious Zoe replied, "Lady, you have got yourself a deal!"
Out of town at last, Janice shifted the truck into high gear. "Mel?"
"I've been thinking. Why do you suppose, you know, I mean...why didn't Xena help when those goons showed up?"
"Ya know, I've been thinking about that," said Melinda.
"Ahh think that in some way it has something to do with you," said Melinda.
Janice found that surprising. "With me?"
"Yeah, I think that since you weren't there it was like the circle somehow couldn't be completed. It was like part of me--of Xena--was missing."
Melinda snuggled in as close as the gear shift would allow and took Janice by the arm. "Yeah," she said. "Really."
In an odd sort of way Janice felt pleased by that.
On the seat between lay Frailing's tablet, one last memento of their truncated adventure. "So," said Melinda, picking up the tablet, "what do you want to do with this?"
In the last desperate hours Janice had decided that she had gotten her fill of treasure hunting and as a result now wanted nothing more than to simply go home. Besides, she was certain the other one was lost by now. "Unless you want it for a paperweight you can chuck the damn thing," said the archaeologist. Melinda was only too happy to comply. In one swift motion she snatched it up and tossed it out the window. There was, however, slightly more to it than that.
Unknown to Janice, while waiting for her to return with the truck part Melinda had whiled away part of the time by memorizing the contents of both stones. On the whole face of the earth Melinda Rose Pappas was the only person who knew the location of the legendary treasure of Harpalus. And as far as the belle was concerned that is exactly how it was going to stay because that was one secret she would take to her grave.
To have found the treasure would have meant a profound and irreversible change in both their lives and as far as Melinda was concerned that was totally unacceptable. She was perfectly happy with things the way they were.
Picking up the conversation again, Janice said, "So, what do you want to do first when we get back home?"
"I don't know," Melinda said with a shrug. "What do you want to do?"
"Ya know? It's weird," said Janice, "but I have this...sudden urge to see "Oklahoma."
"Why that sounds lovely," said Melinda. "And I have the perfect dress in mind for you."
Janice wisely let that pass and for a while they drove in silence. Finally Melinda spoke. "Jan, where did you get the bottle?"
"You know very well what bottle. Thought I'd forgotten about that, hadn't ya?"
With a big mischievous grin Janice never missed a beat as she said, "It's a long story. Remind me to tell it to you sometime."
"Ooooooh, you!" Melinda launched into her assault by furiously tickling Janice's ribs with her strong fingers. Janice shrieked with laughter and yelped, "Jeez, Mel, you're going to get us killed!"
"Well then pull over, crazy!" Melinda tittered.
Janice veered the truck off into a grove of trees at the of the road and shut off the engine. Within a moment the two women were down in the seat, locked in playful combat. In a simple test of strength Janice was no match for Melinda and as a result, soon found herself flat on her back--pinned at the shoulders by her puissant lover.
Leaning over the smaller woman, Melinda triumphantly declared, "Now, missy, for once you're going to do what I say!" With that she leaned down further still and passionately kissed the supine woman.
After their lips parted Janice smiled and breezily said, "Ya know, I can live with that."
And, God willing, she thought, hoped to for a very long time.
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