The Further Adventures of Janice and Mel
THE XENA KORE
by Judy (Wishes)
After we're settled at the hotel and discover that Ritz "rooms" are like suites, I anticipate that Janice will immediately telephone her mother. Janice is suddenly aware of furniture, something she's previously considered a place to sprawl or to pile with belongings. "What are these chairs and tables? They're very. . . .pretty."
"They're Louis XVI," I answer. "Now, call your mother."
"How much would a table like this cost?" She runs a finger along a polished top.
"A lot," I respond. "If you don't want to call, send a note."
Janice continues to study the table. "Look, if you like the table so much,
I'll buy it for you. You can carry it around in your knapsack. Now sit at that
'pretty' Louis XVI writing desk and write your mother a note. There should
be stationery and a pen in the drawer. Do you know her address?"
"Good. Write it on an envelope, and the concierge can get someone to hand-deliver it."
Janice sits at the desk and finds the stationery, pen, and an envelope. She doesn't start writing.
"I don't know what to say."
I walk over and lay a hand on her shoulder. "Just say you're in London and want to meet her. Tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" Her voice suggests that is too soon.
"Tomorrow," I say firmly, and she begins to write. Then stops.
"Could you. . . ." she starts.
"No," I answer. "You're the world-famous war correspondent. You can manage a short note to your mother."
The note written and dispatched, I wonder what we'll do until tomorrow. Being confined with Janice until then doesn't seem very appealing. Or even safe.
"We could go eat," Janice says hopefully.
"We can eat in the grill room on the ground floor," I say, then add cautiously, "but you'll have to change."
"We'll get some fish and chips or some bangers at a street stand,"
she says. "Let's go for a walk. I've sat still long enough." I hesitate.
"Come on. A little exercise will do you good. You're blessed with a
strong body. You just don't use it enough."
"Oh, I see," I tell her. "I need to walk, to exercise. Maybe a little sword practice, what do you think? Then I could be more like your hero."
"You could do worse," Janice answers, her quick temper starting to flare. "She was YOUR ancestor, you know."
"With you always reminding me, how could I forget?" I grab a raincoat and head for the door. "Are you coming?" Janice puts on her leather jacket and follows.
We decide on fish and chips, hot and greasy and wrapped in yesterday's Times. Our petulance forgotten, we stroll along Piccadilly, stopping to eat near the statue of Eros.
"There's something I want to show you, if you don't mind a walk," Janice says. Then she smiles.
"What is it?"
"Have you ever visited the British Museum?"
I shake my head. "I was in London with Aunt Helen, and she thought I had spent enough time in libraries and museums."
"Well, we're going then. There's something you've got to see. Come on. It's on Russel Street in Bloomsbury. That's not far."
The skies have cleared, producing that rarity, a sunny London day. We walk a few blocks, then Janice relents, and we take a bus to Bloomsbury. We laugh and joke, two friends on holiday, until we pass a block of what were once stately houses and that now are rubble. Recognizing us as Americans, the driver explains over his shoulder, "This section was hit hard in October 1940."
We shake our heads at the destruction, one of many blocks destroyed in the fall of 1940. I realize that reading about and watching news reels of the London Blitz has not prepared me for the reality. To think of the thousands killed! To imagine hundreds of thousands huddled night after night underground--to rise each morning to clear the ruins, to mourn, and to get on with the business of living. I notice Janice's serious expression and know she's thinking the same thing. "What courage it must have taken!" is what she whispers.
"The British Museum and Library," the driver announces, and Janice and I alight before the massive steps.
"What is it you want me to see?" I ask.
"Come on." She grabs my arm and urges me up the steps. Barely able to contain her energy after being cooped up for a couple of days, she finally races up the steps to await me at the top. We enter a huge gallery, and I gaze in wonder at the friezes that line it, while Janice again tugs impatiently at my arm.
Then we're in a large chamber, and I see what we've come for. I meet Janice's gaze. "The Elgin Marbles," she confirms.
I stand in awe until Janice propels me to a giant statue of a woman, a statue that once helped support the roof of an Athenian shrine. I think of my ancestors--and Janice's--standing thus, looking up at this work of art when it was new.
"This is one of six caryatids, or carved supports, that held up the roof of the Erechtheum, one of the temples on the Acropolis," Janice informs me, and I recognize that she has assumed her professorial tone. Dr. Covington is in control. "And over here," with another tug on my arm, "are the bas-reliefs from the temple of Athena Nike. The reliefs over there are the metopes and triglyphs from the Parthenon proper. This kouros--boy--was probably from the Parthenon, too."
We move from sculpture to sculpture, from bas-relief to frieze, and our time seems too brief to encompass all that we're seeing. I remember hearing the story of a Victorian artist who barely slept or ate when the marbles first arrived in London. He couldn't spare the time away from them. When I can finally speak, it's to say, "I've seen pictures, but I had no idea of the beauty. Thank you."
Janice nods, standing at rest at last. "Can you imagine what it would be like to see these marbles at their original site? To see them where they were placed by the sculptors' hands a millennium ago?"
"Why did the Greeks ever let them go?"
"LET them go?" she snorts. "The Greeks never had a choice. The
Turks ruled Greece when the marbles were taken. Lord Elgin was the British ambassador
to Turkey. He got a Turkish official to agree to the study and removal of relics
and inscriptions from Athens. Elgin's men then went to
the Acropolis with saws and pry bars and removed everything in sight. It took 22 ships to bring it all to England!"
We're still walking among the sculptures when I hear a child's voice. "Mummy, it's the girl!" she pipes. I look down at a small girl, who is pointing at my face. "See, it's her!"
A very embarrassed young woman in a shabby brown coat takes the child's hand. "Pardon, miss," she says. "The girl's that excited about the art, she is."
I smile at the child and tell her mother, "It's all right. I'm that excited by the art myself."
"But, mum, she IS that statue in the other room. Just like it," the little girl insists as her mother pulls her from the chamber.
Janice is laughing. "It's that classic Greek profile, Miss Pappas." She studies me a minute before looking at a couple of the female statues or kores. "You know, the little girl is right. You do look something like the women in these statues. Tall, stately, high cheekbones, strong features. . . ."
"Right," I say, adjusting my glasses and waiting for the joke.
"And sometimes you're just about as stiff!"
At least one of us laughs.
Janice's outfit is a compromise, not the dress I want her to wear, but nice black slacks and a flattering blouse bought this morning, actual shoes instead of boots. Her hair is down, shiny and clean, that and her clear green eyes her best features.
"How do I look?" she asks, the first time I've heard her voice interest in her appearance.
"Pretty," I say.
"Sure." She looks at my plain gray shirtwaist. "Is that what you're wearing?"
"Me? I'm not going." The note from Janice's mother was awaiting us when we returned from the museum yesterday. It said she would send a car for Janice this afternoon. No mention of a friend.
Janice's mouth sets in a grim line. "I'm sure as Hell not going alone."
"Your mother wants to see you, talk with you."
"This was your idea. If you don't go, I don't go." She sits down and folds her arms.
I sigh. "I'll change my clothes. Will the blue suit with white piping be all right, Dr. Covington?"
Janice nods, always amiable when she gets her own way. "Don't forget to wear your pearls."
"To tea?" I say. "How gauche!"
The car waiting at the curb is a black Rolls, one of the last pre-war models, and the elderly chauffeur wears black livery. As he holds the door for us, I raise an eyebrow at Janice, who laughs. There is little mirth in the sound. "I guess my mother is 'comfortable.' "
We stop in front of a townhouse just south of Regents Park. A uniformed maid meets us at the door, takes our coats, and says, "I'll announce you to Lady Amanda. She is expecting you."
"LADY Amanda?" I ask after the maid has left.
"Mel, don't you ever pay attention? I told you my mother was a Lady."
"I thought you meant she has good manners, not that she's married to a Lord!"
The maid returns. "Her ladyship will receive you in her sitting room."
We follow her across a marble entryway and down a hall toward the rear of the
townhouse. The maid opens double doors to show us into a small, but wonderfully
light room. I realize that the rear of this house actually overlooks the park.
"This must be more to my mother's liking than a tent
pitched in the desert," Janice whispers as we enter the room.
A woman is sitting at a mahogany tea table and arranging the silver service.
She rises to face us as the maid quietly exits and closes the doors. For a few
minutes, there is silence. I've expected there to be more resemblance between
Janice and her mother. Like her daughter, Lady Amanda is a small woman, but,
whereas Janice gives the impression of compact strength, the older woman appears
delicate or petite. Both are fair, but Janice's hair is reddish-gold, while
her mother's would best be
described as ash blonde. Lady Amanda's eyes are a startling violet hue, deep-set in a fine-featured, narrow face. I can only guess that Janice's resemblance is to her late father.
Janice is the first to speak. "Hello, Mother."
"My dear." The violet eyes fill with tears, and she steps forward, both hands reaching out. Janice seems to sidestep an embrace, and her mother's lips barely brush her cheek.
Janice pulls me forward. "Mother, this is my friend, Melinda Pappas."
Lady Amanda's eyes appraise me. "Miss Pappas," she acknowledges,
leading the way to the tea table and inviting us to sit. I see a service for
three. Did she know that Janice would not arrive alone? When we've been served,
Lady Amanda asks me, "Pappas? Janice's father had an old friend
named Mel Pappas. Are you related to him?"
I nod. "My father."
"And have you followed in his footsteps, as Janice has followed in her father's?"
"In a sense, your ladyship. I translate ancient manuscripts."
"Please call me Amanda, Miss Pappas," she instructs, "since you are such a good friend of my daughter."
"If you'll call me Mel or Melinda," I respond.
Janice is sipping her tea and taking small bites of the sweet English biscuits we Americans would call cookies. She glances nervously between her mother and myself. She clears her throat, and we both look at her, but she just takes another bite of biscuit.
"Janice," Amanda says, "what happened to your other friend? Teresa, wasn't it?"
Janice chokes on her tea. "Tereise," she corrects. "How do you know about Tereise?"
"She and I became acquainted when you were last in London. I met her at the hospital when you were ill."
"I wasn't 'ill,' Mother. I had been shot. I never knew you were at the hospital."
"I left before you were fully conscious, but after it was clear you would recover." She responds to Janice's look of surprise. "I knew how you felt about me. I didn't think my presence would be helpful to your convalescence. When I later returned, you had already left, to go to Greece, I believe."
"Yeah, Greece," Janice agrees.
"More tea, Melinda?" I shake my head. "No doubt you were trying to dig up your father's folly, Janice. The Xena Scrolls indeed!"
Surely Janice will tell her mother that she found--and lost--the scrolls during that trip to Greece, but she does not. Instead, she says mildly, "I'm an archaeologist, Mother. Digging is what I do."
Amanda opens her mouth, probably to comment further on that matter, but instead asks me again if I want more tea. Janice puts down her cup and leans forward. "Mel already said she's had enough tea. So have I. Now, what exactly do you want?"
Amanda's beautiful eyes widen and flutter, and I imagine what havoc that plays with male hearts. Her daughter, unimpressed, says, "Well?"
"Why do I have to want something?"
Janice raises a hand to tick off the reasons. "You went to the trouble
to find out I was returning to the States and how to contact me there. You sent
a letter that sounded as if you were on your deathbed. You look as healthy as
one of King George's horses. Conclusion: You want something.
So you might as well tell me what, so I can say no, and Mel and I can go on home."
The indignation in her mother's voice causes Janice to rise. "Come on, Mel. I'm not interested in playing parlor games."
"Please sit," Amanda pleads. "Please."
Janice is halfway to the door when she realizes I'm not behind her. I hold out my cup. "Could I please have another cup of tea?" As Amanda pours, I say, "Janice, I didn't fly across the Atlantic Ocean so you could get even with your mother. Come back here and ask her your questions."
"What questions?" Janice asks, still facing the door.
"The ones that brought you here." I wonder whether curiosity or stubbornness will win. Finally, Janice returns and sits down.
Her mother looks at me, speculation in her eyes. Quietly, I say, "If you're not honest, you'll lose her." I see her lips tighten, their stubborn line the first resemblance I've seen between mother and daughter. Then I think I see a slight nod before she faces her daughter.
Without preliminaries, Janice asks, "Why did you leave my father and me?"
"I left Harry Covington because I hated the life we were living and because we were on the verge of hating each other."
"Why did you--how could you--leave me?"
I have to look away from the pain in Janice's eyes. Amanda's reply is slow in coming, and I wonder if she's just realized the wreckage she left in her wake. "Your father would never have let me leave with you. He would have tracked us all over the world to get you back."
Janice gets me to meet her eyes and, reluctantly, I shake my head. Janice starts to rise again, and her mother reaches out one hand as if to restrain her. "That was one reason. The other was that I planned to live a different kind of life--and there wasn't room for you in it."
"Who was in the car? The one that took you away?" Janice looks around the comfortable room with its expensive furnishings and fashionable address. "Was it his lordship?"
"No," Amanda sighs, surrendering. "It was another archaeologist, someone better at the academic game than your father, someone with money and important friends. It was through him and those friends that I later met Sir Robert. We've been married for over twelve years."
"Why didn't you ever send for me, even for a visit?" Janice's tone is accusing.
"For a long time, Sir Robert didn't know about you. By the time I told him, you had stopped accepting my letters. It seemed better to just let you go."
"Better for whom?" I'm surprised that the voice that asks this question is mine.
Amanda doesn't seem to notice and continues to speak to her daughter. "For us both. Better for you, Janice, because you were happy with your father and didn't need that life disrupted. Better for me because I had a good life by then: Sir Robert, my social life, my work."
"Your work?" I ask.
Janice answers. "Mother is a writer and photographer." Her voice takes on a biting tone I recognize. "Hey, maybe she can teach you to use your camera, Mel."
Not sure if Janice is serious, Amanda nevertheless says, "I would be glad to."
"I'm left only with my original question, Mother. Why did you go to so much trouble to contact me after all these years? What do you want?"
Tears well in violet eyes and are delicately brushed away. "I want your help," Amanda states. "I may lose my career, my marriage, even my life. And there's no one else I can trust to help me. No one but you."
After this dramatic announcement, Janice and I wait for further explanation, but none is forthcoming. Amanda looks expectantly at her daughter.
Finally, I speak. "Could you be a little more specific? What sort of help do you think Janice can provide?"
To Janice, she says, "I want you to leave your hotel and stay here. Of course, Miss Pappas, Melinda, is welcome to accompany you."
"How will that help?" Janice asks. "And with what? I don't even know what the problem is yet."
"I think I'm being blackmailed," Amanda replies.
"You THINK you're being blackmailed?" Janice asks. "Don't you know?"
"Well, I know that I've being threatened and asked for money. I'm just not sure if it's what people call blackmail or not. It's the terminology I'm unsure of, you see?"
I do see, sort of.
"If I wrote crime stories or mysteries, I would know, of course," she continues reasonably, "but you know, Janice, that isn't the kind of thing I write."
I wonder what sort of thing she does write, but I don't ask.
"Okay," Janice says, "so someone is asking you for money, and it might be blackmail. Who is it, and what information do they have?"
"Information?" She looks blankly at Janice.
"What do they have on you? What will they tell if you don't pay?"
Amanda shakes her head. "I don't know who it is. The notes have been unsigned, of course. And it isn't information. It's photographs."
Janice's eyebrows are raised. She studies her mother for a few moments. When she speaks, her voice is low and unnaturally controlled. "Well, Mother, and are these photographs of you and. . . . someone other than Sir Robert?"
Realizing what her daughter is asking, Amanda's face flushes. "No. I mean. . . . NO! They aren't that kind of photographs. They're photographs I took. They're part of the manuscript for my next book. It was to be something completely different, a book about life in London before the war and during the Blitz. When I said my marriage was threatened, I meant that I didn't tell my husband about the notes. He would be very upset if he found out now."
I'm still a little confused, but I guess, "Someone stole your photographs, the ones for your book, and wants you to pay to get them back?"
"I think that's extortion, not blackmail," Janice says dryly. "How did this mysterious someone get the photographs? Can't you just use the negatives to make new prints?"
"There was a burglary at my studio several weeks ago. The photographs and negatives were in a fireproof safe. The safe was opened, and everything in it was taken."
"Your studio isn't here in this house?"
Amanda shakes her head. "No, Sir Robert wouldn't like my having a studio at home. It's on Temple Street near the river, sort of an artist's loft."
"Was anything else taken?" Janice questions her.
"My best camera, a couple of other pieces of equipment."
Having just bought an expensive camera, I ask, "Worth how much?"
Amanda shrugs delicately. "A few hundred pounds. But the photographs--or, even better, the negatives--are what I need. I hope you can figure out how to get them back, Janice."
Janice changes the subject, and I recognize the tension in her voice. "Your letter didn't say anything about a theft. It sounded as if you were ill or feared for your life."
"That was because of the poison."
Janice and I exchange a glance, and I speak first. "What poison?"
"Around the time of the burglary, I twice became violently ill. The second time, I had blood tests because arsenic poisoning was suspected."
"Was anyone else taken ill?" Janice asks.
"No," Amanda tells her. "Both times, the family had eaten together. We all had eaten and drunk the same things, and no one else was ill. That's why the doctor ruled out food poisoning and had the other tests run."
"But if you all ate and drank the same things," Janice points out, "how could only you have been poisoned?"
"I don't know," Amanda confesses. "Neither the doctor nor I could figure it out."
"What did the police think?" I ask. "Or should I say Scotland Yard?"
"It was bad enough the police investigated the burglary. We could never share this other business with them. My husband holds an important post in the government. It would soon be all over the city that Sir Robert's wife had been poisoned!"
"So you think there have been two attempts on your life, Mother, but you haven't reported either of them?"
"Your father had the same habit of repeating what I said," she comments. "Where was I?"
"Three," I offer.
"Oh, yes, I was riding in Regents Park with my stepson when I took a fall from my favorite hunter." She rubs the back of her head as if recalling a painful injury.
"How could that have been a murder attempt?" Janice asks. "People fall off horses all the time."
"The girth was cut."
After digesting that information, Janice asks, "Why would anyone try to murder you? And what do you think I can do about it by moving here?"
"I don't know who or why, but I'm sure it has something to do with the photographs," Amanda says positively. "I want you here because you're my daughter, but also because you're clever and I know you've helped other people."
"I think you need a food taster or a bodyguard more than a daughter," Janice responds, "but, if Mel doesn't mind, I guess we can give it a try."
Back at the Ritz, Janice paces restlessly around the sitting room. Expecting that a woman reunited with her long-lost mother will want to talk, I settle on one of the graceful chairs.
"Is she the way you remember her?" I open.
"Don't you think your mother is very beautiful?"
"I was a little surprised that you agreed to move to her house." I hesitate, then add, "And glad."
Janice stops pacing and faces me. Quirking an eyebrow, she asks, "Why?"
"She's your mother, and she needs your help," I say simply.
Her question surprises me. "What do you know about arsenic?"
"Me either." She's still dressed in the nice slacks and blouse she wore to her mother's, but she grabs and dons her hat and leather jacket. "I'll be back in a little while."
"We have to pack. . . ," I start.
Saying "Never unpacked," she's out the door. So much for our talk.
A little later, I stand in my bedroom. My suitcase is open on the polished dresser as I fold and carefully pack clothing so recently placed in the top drawer. The last item I remove is a photograph, a familiar face in a silver frame. The man smiles into the camera, confident and proud. And young. I realize that he and I are no longer the same age and that each year I will leave him farther behind.
"Bill," I say, "we're on the move again. Since I met Janice, I never stay anywhere for long. Would things have been different if I had been this willing to follow you?"
Knowing there will never be an answer, I slip the picture into my suitcase, and the lid snaps shut over the smiling face.
Janice and I are returned to the Regents Park townhouse by the elderly chauffeur,
who introduces himself as John. Although he was polite during our earlier encounters,
his manner toward Janice now shows more deference. I realize that, as a new
resident of his lordship's home or perhaps as a
member of her ladyship's family, her status has changed. Janice, dressed again as if for a dig, reluctantly relinquishes her knapsack to John as we exit the car.
We are met at the door by the same maid who greeted us earlier in the day.
"I am Margaret," she says this time. "John will take your baggage
to your rooms." She leads the way up the front stairs, a curving double
staircase that dominates the high-ceilinged entryway. "Miss Janice's room
is at the
rear of the east hallway," she explains, turning to the right. We both follow and find ourselves in a large, sunny room, wallpapered with primroses and vines. The furniture is sturdy and dark, the centerpiece a beautiful 4-poster bed.
Upon the bed's rose-colored comforter is a white dress with small green figures. Janice raises an eyebrow upon seeing this, but she doesn't comment. "Where is Miss Melinda's room?" she inquires, gently mocking the maid's inflection and overly proper accent.
"Miss Melinda's room is on the west hallway," she answers, giving no indication that she has taken offense. She walks to the door.
"Mel," Janice says softly, "I would rather we stayed together. Do you mind sharing this room?"
"No," I say, "that's fine."
Janice hesitates. "Are you sure? If it makes you uncomfortable, I'll understand."
Thinking of rooms, tents, tombs, and the ship's cabin we've shared, I'm puzzled, but I reassure her. "No, really, I would rather stay with you."
"Margaret," Janice directs, "Miss Melinda and I will share this room."
"Very well," Margaret responds, and John enters and places my suitcase and Janice's knapsack on a low stand beside a chest of drawers.
"Dinner is at eight, drinks in the library a half hour before," Margaret says. "Will that be all?" She and John leave after Janice nods."
Janice fingers the light material of the dress. Her expression is somewhere between surprise and rebellion, and I wonder which will win. Wanting to hang my clothing to reduce wrinkles, I open my suitcase and swing open the door of the wardrobe that stands in one corner. Inside hang three more dresses, all new and obviously Janice's size. On the floor of the wardrobe are two pairs of shoes.
"Your mother has been shopping," I comment mildly. The dresses are simple, but it is simplicity that bespeaks fashion sense--and money. I wonder about the wartime shortages we have heard about in the States.
Janice sits on the bed and shakes her head in an exaggerated motion. "Who IS this woman?" she asks. "I haven't seen her in over fifteen years or heard from her in eleven, but she has already criticized my career and told me how to dress!"
"She's your mother, Janice," I say.
She touches the collar of the white dress, and I can tell a battle is being fought. I want to suggest that Janice wear the dress, at least this first night, but figure that will assure her appearance at dinner in desert clothes and boots. I hang my clothing and turn to open a drawer in the dresser. I shriek and jump back. Janice is instantly at my side. She grabs me, but all I can do is point, barely able to breath and totally unable to speak.
Janice steps forward and calmly surveys the cause of my distress. A large brown
rat, dead, lies nestled among white towels. "Fresh," she says. "No
smell. And I don't think it just wandered in and died." Then she grins,
that feral look that mixes wildness with enjoyment. "Unless he's someone's
pet, I've just been welcomed into the family."
To my horror, she reaches into the drawer and, grabbing rat and towel, lifts
both. "Open the window," she says. With shaking hands, I fumble with
the window sash until it opens. I avert my eyes as Janice tosses rat and towel
outside. "Bombs away," she says. "Ah, right in the rose hedge.
I wonder what the gardener will think. Rats visiting and bringing their own towels."
I shudder, and Janice laughs. "Oh, Mel, it's just a big old mouse."
"I don't even like little young ones."
Janice and I walk down the front stairs at quarter 'til eight. Janice is lovely
in the white and green dress and green pumps. I've brushed her hair until it
shines, and she wears it loose around her shoulders. I'm wearing a simple dress,
cornflower blue. Because it has a scoop neck, I've added
my pearls and matching earrings. My hair is up and twisted into a French knot at the back.
In the lead as usual, Janice pauses on the last step and looks back. "You look regal," she says, "just like a princess."
I blush, unused to compliments, and give a slight curtsy. "Thank you, ma'am," I say in my best Southern belle manner.
"Janice, dear." It's Amanda, in a short pale yellow cocktail dress, sparkling jade at ears and neck. "Good evening, Melinda. Please come and meet the family." She takes Janice's arm, and I follow them into a large room, obviously a library. The decor is masculine, dark-paneled walls, heavy wood and leather furniture. An older and a younger man, one dark, one fair stand near a glass-front liquor cabinet. They wear dark suits, identically and impeccably cut. Two young women share a divan and look up as we enter.
Amanda first presents us to the tall, dark-haired man. "Darling," Amanda begins and, when she gets no response, repeats a little louder, "Darling."
The man turns to her, his severe expression transforming to a smile.
"Robert, I want you to meet my daughter, Dr. Janice Covington," she tells him, pride evident in her voice.
"Sir Robert," Janice acknowledges.
Sir Robert takes her right hand in both of his. At first, I think he will kiss it, but he simply holds it instead. "Janice, welcome to our home. You have made your mother so happy by coming here." Sir Robert pats her hand before releasing it and makes eye contact with me.
Amanda continues the introductions. "This is Miss Melinda Pappas, Janice's friend and colleague. Melinda, my husband, Sir Robert Blessingham."
"I'm pleased to meet you, Sir Robert. Thank you for allowing me to visit."
"You're quite welcome in our home, Miss Pappas," he says, with a nod just short of a formal bow. "Do I hear a hint of the American South in your accent?"
"I'm from South Carolina, Sir Robert," I answer. "Have you visited the United States?"
"Many times on business," he says. "Sometimes alone and sometimes accompanied by my American wife." He smiles fondly at Amanda. "Now, dear, would you complete the introductions?"
Gesturing toward the other man, Amanda says, "This handsome fellow is Gareth, Robert's son. Gareth, my daughter Janice and her friend Melinda."
Fair-haired, a little shorter and slighter than his father, Gareth charms me with his first smile. As he crosses the short distance between us, I see that he walks with a limp, as if his right knee is stiff. Taking my hand, he does kiss it, his lips soft and dry against my skin. "Miss Pappas," he says and adds, "Melinda?"
"Mel," I respond.
He nods and, turning to Janice, surprises her with a kiss on the cheek. "Sister," he says, and I'm sure Janice sees the teasing glint in his light blue eyes.
"You may call me Janice, brother," she counters, "and I'll call you Gareth." He laughs at her quickness and motions toward the women. "Amanda has left the best for last. Now, the ladies."
"Our youngest family member, Flora, Sir Robert's daughter." The young woman indicated has fiery red hair, but with the clear, pale skin common among the English. She wears flounced pink, childish for her age, which I judge to be about fifteen.
"Hello, Flora," Janice says.
"Are you here because Amanda paid you to come?" Flora asks loudly. "Father said nothing else would bring you here."
"Be quiet, dear," Amanda orders calmly, and Flora makes a show of clamping her lips tight.
"This more polite guest is Katherine Lund, Sir Robert's secretary and the daughter of an old friend," Amanda completes the introductions.
"And often Flora's keeper," Gareth adds, with a humorous, but pointed, look at his little sister.
"Dr. Covington, Miss Pappas." The young woman acknowledges the introductions without quite ignoring Gareth's aside. Her hair in an auburn chignon, dressed in a tailored light blue dress, she is the picture of understated elegance. "Please call me Kate. Everyone here does."
"If you call us Janice and Mel," I say. She nods.
Gareth has been handing drinks around. He gives glasses to Janice and her mother and then places one in my hand. All are filled with amber liquid, Janice's, Amanda's and mine also containing ice.
Sir Robert raises his glass to indicate a toast. "To God and King, to family."
After dinner, Janice and I return to our room. Having exchanged the white and green dress for a white terry robe, Janice sprawls on the bed. She hasn't removed the comforter, but at least she isn't wearing shoes. Still dressed, I move Janice's leather jacket to a hanger in the wardrobe and take its place on a straight-backed chair. Janice holds a pen and a small notebook that I recognize as her current journal.
She writes for a few minutes, then looks up. "Mel, what did you think of that family dinner?"
"It was fine," I say, "boiled this and that, the usual English meal. You ate enough of it."
"I don't mean the food," she says. "I mean the family members, Sir Robert and the others."
"I don't think it's my place to say," I answer primly.
"Come on, Mel. Don't play the little lady. You watch people. You notice things I would never see. What were your impressions?"
I'm still reluctant, but I'm flattered enough to give it some thought. "Gareth is charming."
She rolls her eyes. "I knew you would start with Gareth."
I ignore the implication. "I wonder what happened to his leg. Was he always crippled?"
"I don't know." Janice writes something in her journal. "What else?"
"Flora kept saying things to get attention, to shock people." I think some more. "Your mother seemed able to handle her, but her father ignored her, and Gareth was mildly amused by her."
She writes something else.
"What about Sir Robert?" Janice asks.
"He adores your mother, but he mostly talked business, and that was with Gareth. Is it usual for a lord to be that involved in business?"
Instead of writing, Janice says, "I can explain that. Sir Robert does come from an old noble family, but they were poor as church mice until his father came along. The old man defied tradition and started a factory, some kind of foundry, I think. Made millions. Robert converted it to tanks or something, just before the war. Made even more millions. Now he's on some sort of government industry board, related to Lend Lease maybe. Gareth must be taking up the slack in the family business."
"How do you know all that?"
"I've known for several years who my mother had married. I may have read a few articles about the family."
Janice reads what she has written in her notebook and adds a few more lines. "Okay," she says, "the way I see it, our main problem is finding out who stole the photographs. That may tell us why, or we may have to find out why before we can figure out who. Then we get the photos back. Understand?"
"I think I do, but don't we already know why? To extort money for their return?"
"Maybe," she says, "but Mother seems willing to pay. If that's the real reason, why is there a problem?"
I point out something she seems to have forgotten. "You say finding out who stole the pictures is the main problem, but what about whoever made the attempts on Amanda's life? Isn't it more important to find out who that is?" There's silence. "Janice?"
"Mel, I'm not sure how seriously we should take all that."
Reluctantly, she turns back a page in her notebook. "Remember when I left the hotel this afternoon?"
"Yes. I figured you needed to go for a walk."
"I did walk, but it was to a library."
"You had a sudden urge to read a book?"
"A medical library." She holds out her notebook, and I take it. I look at her questioningly. "Read that page aloud. It's the notes I took."
I read Janice's small, neat printing. "Arsenic. Found in nature in low
levels as inorganic arsenic compounds. In plants and animals combines with carbon
and hydrogen to form organic arsenic. Inorganic arsenic: more harmful, used
in wood preservatives, insecticides, rodent poisons, and weed
killers. Doesn't evaporate, dissolves in water, can build up in fish and shellfish. In humans, low levels: nausea, vomiting, fewer blood cells, abnormal heart rhythm, numbness in feet and hands. High levels: can be fatal. Medical test for low levels: measured in urine soon after exposure. High levels: tests on hair or fingernails."
I look up. "Sounds pretty serious to me."
"Yeah, if it really happened."
"What do you mean?"
"Do you remember what my mother said about the tests the doctor ran?"
"Yes," I answer. "She said he ran blood tests because. . . .oh."
"So let's concentrate on the photographs, all right?" she suggests. "When we're around here, we can keep our eyes open, talk to the family members, but I'm basically not too worried about any threat to my mother's health."
I open my mouth and shut it. Aunt Helen taught me early that family business belongs in the family. I'm not part of this family, and I'm sure Janice will remind me of that if I forget.
Janice reaches for her notebook, and I return it. She turns forward a page to her new notes. "The first thing I want to do is get a look at those notes Mother says she got, the ones demanding money for the return of the photos."
"And the photographs that came with them," I remind her.
"That's right!" She makes a note. "I forgot about that. Those will give us an idea of what we're looking for. Then I want to take a look at Amanda's studio."
I nod. That sounds like a good plan. "Then what?"
"I'm not sure." She laughs. "That's as far as I've gotten. After that, I guess we make it up as we go along."
"Won't that be a nice change?"
Having reacquainted ourselves with the travesties committed in the name of an English breakfast, Janice and I hurry upstairs. "What do you think that was in the pastry shell?" Janice asks.
"Kidneys? Some kind of fish?" I guess.
"Four and twenty blackbirds?"
We are giggling at our lame humor when we knock on Amanda's door. She has told
us to come to her bedroom, "where we can have more privacy." She is
sitting on a chaises longue in this most feminine of rooms, still in a peignoir
and slippers. Janice is in full desert regalia, as I suspect she
will stay for most of our visit. I'm in dark slacks and a tailored blouse, seeking the middle ground between my friend and her mother.
"Janice, dear." Amanda holds out both hands and, when Janice doesn't immediately approach, pats the end of the chaises. Janice perches on the delicate arm of a nearby chair, and I take the chair's seat. Amanda says, "Good morning, Melinda."
"Mother, there are some things we need to know," Janice begins. "That is, if you want us to find the photographs."
"Of course I do, dear." Amanda turns so her slippered feet touch the floor, and she is facing us directly. "Ask whatever you like."
"You say that someone broke into your studio and took the photographs from a safe in your studio. How did they get in? And how was the safe opened? Did someone besides you have the combination?"
"The burglars took the studio door off its hinges, and they removed the side of the safe," Amanda explains. "The policeman in charge said the safe was 'peeled,' whatever that means. He called it a professional job. Personally, I don't think it would have been that hard to do. I had the safe put in more for its fireproof properties than to discourage burglars."
"You said the photographs were for your new book," Janice says. "Was the manuscript for the book taken, too?"
Amanda considers for a minute. "I hadn't even thought about that. The photographs actually are the manuscript, except for a few captions and introductions. But, no, the typewritten sheets, which were in my desk drawer in the studio, weren't taken. All of the papers were scattered around, but I don't think any were missing."
Janice nods. "So those pages actually contain descriptions of the missing photographs?"
"Yes!" Amanda glances at me and comments, "See? I said my little girl was clever."
Not knowing how else to respond that will not get me punched by her "little girl," I just smile.
"Could we see the notes, Mother?" Janice says. "And the photographs that were returned with them?"
Amanda rises and walks to her dresser. Opening the top drawer, she pulls out what we would call back home a japanned box. Hers is of a rich, dark wood, probably mahogany, and is decorated with small hand painted pictures of oriental flora. From the box, Amanda takes a small packet of papers and hands this to Janice before returning to her chaises.
"Don't you have the envelopes?" Janice asks.
"No, I threw those away," Amanda admits. "They were ordinary, cheap white envelopes, the kind available at any stationer's. From the postmarks, the envelopes were mailed from inside the city. Why?"
"It doesn't matter," Janice says.
She reads through the first note and hands it to me. It was written by cutting
letters and words from a newspaper and pasting them to a thin sheet of unlined
white paper. Someone has been watching too many detective movies, I think. I
read the message: "wE hAve SOME thing you want IT will
CosT you" When I look up, Janice hands me the photograph that was tucked into the fold of that note. It's a photograph of a group of well-dressed people at some sort of event, perhaps a dinner-dance. I don't recognize anyone in the photograph although the detail is quite sharp.
Janice has read the second note by now and hands that one to me as well. "I
Think a THOUSAND is fair doN'T you" The photograph with this note shows
the remains of a bombed out city block. the contrast between the dark hulks
of the few standing walls and a bright sky is startling. Again I'm
struck by the detail of the photograph, even in the dark portions.
Janice hands me the third and last note. "HAVE the monEY INsTRUCtions come neXt"
"Where's the photograph that came with this one?" Janice asks.
"There wasn't one," Amanda answers. "I suppose they figured they had given away enough."
"When did this last note come?" I say after I've read it again.
"Almost a month ago. they all came in the first three weeks after my studio was burglarized," Amanda explains. "I figured after that last one came that I would soon have my photographs back. All I had to do was send the money, and I would get my photographs back in the post."
"Easy as sending for a secret decoder ring," Janice comments.
"Never mind, mother." Janice stands. "I want to see your studio, too."
"Oh, scene of the crime, all that. Nick and Nora, Charlie Chan, all the really good detectives do it."
Amanda nods as if that makes sense. She still holds the japanned box and, opening it, takes out a key attached to a small card. "This is the key to my studio. The police returned it about a week after the burglary. The address is still written on the little card that's attached." Janice rises and takes the key from her mother's hand. "But, of course, John will drive you there. It's hardly safe in the city these days with all the soldiers about."
Janice smiles. "We'll manage. Goodbye, Mother." Janice heads for the door, and I follow until Amanda calls me back.
"Could I speak with you for a moment, Mel?"
Janice looks at me doubtfully, then says over her shoulder, "I'll meet you downstairs. Don't be too long."
When we are alone, Amanda pats the end of her chaises, just as she beckoned Janice. Although I remain standing near the door, Amanda keeps her smile in place.
"Melinda, I won't mince words."
"I understand that you chose to stay in the same room as my daughter instead of in the room provided for your use."
Thank you, Margaret, I think. "Janice asked me to keep her company."
"I don't doubt that," Amanda responds. "What I doubt is that you know the kind of talk that could result. . . .where Janice is concerned."
I shake my head, surprised to feel this weary this early in the day. "I don't have the slightest idea what you've heard, and I don't want to know. Janice is the best friend I have ever had. I'll do what I can to help her. If that means I'm not welcome in your house, then I'll leave."
Amanda's eyes open wide, and she stand. "No, don't go. If you leave, Janice won't stay."
"Then I'll stay," I say, "on Janice's terms." Turning, I leave the room. As I stride down the hall, I think I hear a very expensive mahogany box smash on the floor.
Continue Chapters 16-20
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