The Further Adventures of Janice and Mel
THE XENA KORE
by Judy (Wishes)
Janice has talked about rest but, when I fall asleep on the rose-colored comforter,
she is writing furiously in her small notebook. For the first time, I'm sure
she records emotions, not just events. When I wake it is to hear her saying
softly, "Mel, I want to join 'the family' for drinks before
dinner tonight. Mel?" I wave her away and roll over. "Hey, I'm even wearing a dress." Again? For that, I have to open one eye. The dress is one of the new ones purchased by Amanda, aqua, and it makes Janice's eyes look blue. "Open the other eye, and I'll wear shoes instead of boots."
She laughs, but, taking no chances, I open both eyes and sit up.
"Good thing you already took your bath," she says. "Get dressed. It's after 7:30, and Sir Robert got in a little while ago."
"I suppose. You know, I wonder where her bedroom is." She ticks off
the family members. "Mother's bedroom is next to this one, and Sir Robert's
is on the other side of hers, a dressing room in between. Gareth's and Flora's
are on the west hallway, on the other side of the front stairs. We
know there's at least one guest room over there."
"Where I was supposed to be." I'm almost dressed, but Janice looks impatiently at her big watch. "Come to think of it," I say, "I've never seen Kate on this floor. Margaret and Cook live in, but Beatrice and John don't."
"How do you know that?" Janice asks.
"Just picked it up in dinner conversation. Their rooms are downstairs on the west side." I put on fresh lipstick and start to put up my hair.
"Leave it down," Janice suggests.
"Yes." I shrug and leave it. Janice continues, "So you're saying that Kate's bedroom is downstairs with the servants?"
Reluctantly I point out, "Your mother did say something about Kate needing to know her place. And she is an employee."
"But she's also the daughter of her ladyship's best friend."
We drop the discussion as we start toward the first floor. And there, at the bottom of the stairs are the object of our discussion and Gareth. Gareth breaks off their conversation and bows as we reach the entryway. "Ah, I have the good fortune to escort three beautiful women to the library."
"Hello, Gareth," I say. "Kate."
"Hi, Gareth," Janice says and adds, "Kate, nice to see you again. I tried to get your attention this morning, but I don't think you saw us."
"This morning?" Kate asks. "Were you at the ministry?"
Janice chuckles. "No, our business was in Blackfriars. Near the Thames? What was the name of that street, Mel?"
Before I can reply, Kate shakes her head. "I wasn't in Blackfriars. Don't know when I've last been."
"Let's hurry along, ladies," Gareth urges. "Father will insist we go to dinner at eight on the dot. We'll be lucky to have time for even one drink now."
In the library, Sir Robert looks at a pocket watch as we enter. Gareth, who seems to be permanently in charge of drinks, cheerfully sets about his duties. When he turns to Janice and me, she says, "What we had last night would be fine for me. Remember, no ice." Gareth smiles and quickly fills her request. "Nothing for Mel," Janice adds, and at Gareth's raised eyebrow, "She doesn't really drink, but she's too polite to refuse." Everyone served, Sir Robert gives what I assume to be his customary toast. Gareth hastens to provide a second drink for himself and Janice.
"Where's Flora?" I ask.
Kate answers, "She went up the back stairs as I was coming out of my room. She hadn't changed yet." Janice salutes me with her glass. I was right about the location of Kate's room.
"Amanda," intones Sir Robert, "if she's late for dinner again, I'll expect you to have a word with her."
"What word would that be?" Flora asks as she enters. She is wearing a bright green dress, as inappropriate as the one she wore two nights before. I decide these clothes can't be Amanda's taste, so Flora must be choosing them on her own. Flora's hair is still slightly damp from the bath.
"Horse, I should imagine," Gareth teases. "Or is it Jimmy?"
Flora blushes furiously, and Amanda says, "Gareth, enough." He subsides, but Flora's hands continue to clench and unclench.
Sir Robert's voice adds to the tension. "I do think you're spending entirely too much time at that stable. I wonder if Archibald shouldn't join the other horses in the country."
"NO!" Flora's reply comes out as a shout, and her father blinks. "Archie is all I have, the only one in the whole world who cares whether I live or die. You can't take him away."
"Flora, dear, no need to be so dramatic," Amanda soothes. "I'm sure your father didn't mean immediately. When the new term starts, and you're back in school . . ."
The girl turns on her stepmother. "What do you care? Just bundle me off to school." She indicates Janice with a broad gesture. "You have her now, your real daughter." With that, Flora bursts into sobs and runs from the room.
Gareth stands open-mouthed. "Really now, I didn't mean to start anything up."
Kate shoots him a look and starts for the door. "I'll talk to her." Amanda starts to follow, then returns to stand beside Sir Robert, who is again checking the time.
"Maybe I should apologize. Excuse me." Gareth leaves the room, too.
Dinner is served at 8:30, and the world continues to turn.
Feeling restless after a tense meal, I look around our room for the book I borrowed earlier in the day. "Janice, have you seen the Bright Penny book I left on the night stand?"
Janice is getting ready for bed. "Why do you want to read that nonsense? It's a kid's book and not a particularly good one, at that."
I don't argue but say, "I left it here when I came up to get my camera."
"If you're going to read, let me make sure the blackout curtains are closed." She crosses to the window. "We don't need to get blamed for the Jerries bombing London again."
"I won't need a light if I can't find the book." Thinking I might have put the book away, I open the top dresser drawer. Or maybe Beatrice, the maid I still haven't seen. . . .
"Well, what have we here?" Janice calls quietly. "Mel, turn out the light and come here."
"Okay." I turn it off and join her at the window. "What is it?"
Crossing the garden, dimly lit by the moon, a light hidden by no blackout curtain, is a slim figure. It's a woman hurrying in the direction of Regents Park.
"Kate," I guess. "Kind of late for a stroll in the park."
"But maybe not for a meeting."
"If she's meeting someone, she's probably hurrying because she's late."
Janice shoots me a glance. "Or eager."
Used to how Janice's mind works, I ask, "Do you want to follow her?"
She surprises me by shaking her head. "I'm pretty sure who she's meeting." She draws the draperies and blackout curtains, plunging the room into darkness. I grope my way to the table and switch on the lamp. "Are you still going to read?"
"Got to find that book." I return to the open dresser drawer.
"Say hi to Bill," Janice drawls.
Beside the silver-framed photograph, I see something, but not what I'm seeking. "Janice," I gasp.
"Not another rat!" But she's quickly by my side.
I silently hand her the note that was inside the drawer. She reads, "stay out of it or you will be dEAD" The words are pasted on plain white paper. "Just like the notes mother received."
"There are differences," I note. "Words of one syllable, and all the words were cut out whole except for the last. The ones to Amanda were made by cutting out separate letters."
"You on to something?"
"The letters for the other notes came from a newspaper. I think these words came from what you called a children's book. A book that is now gone." I feel sick at heart, and not only because of this threat.
Janice studies the note again and nods her head. "Yeah. These words are definitely from a book. 'Dead' was the only word that wasn't available so it had to be pieced together. Guess nothing died during Penny's adventures in the desert."
"Who would do this? Do you think it's serious?" I ask.
Janice shrugs, probably at the serious part. "When did you last look in this drawer?"
"I got something out of it just before we went downstairs. I'm sure the note wasn't there."
"So it was left between the time we went to the library for drinks and when we returned after dinner," she says. "Who was out of our sight during that time?"
"Flora," I say. "She came home late and was upstairs alone."
"Kate left the library when Flora pitched her fit."
"And Gareth followed."
"The servants. At least Margaret and the cook were in the house. Maybe John and Beatrice, I don't know."
"Your mother and Sir Robert?"
"No, they were in the library and then at dinner the whole time." She thinks. "It would take a while to find the words you wanted for the note, cut them out, and paste them on the paper. Was the book here when we got back from meeting Hank --and talking with my mother?"
"I don't know," I admit. I remember placing my camera on the night stand and try to picture what else was there. "I don't think so."
"Then someone could have gotten the book any time during the day and prepared the note. Who had the opportunity to do that?"
I laugh. "That's a long list, too. The servants, although John and the
cook would be out of place on this floor. Flora was supposedly at the stables
all day, but she could have come back sometime, probably to eat, at least. Your
mother was home. Sir Robert, Gareth, and Kate were gone all
Janice has her journal out, and she's taking notes. "We know that Kate wasn't where she was supposed to be for at least part of the day. And she and Gareth were both home yesterday in time for tea. Who knows what time they came in today? I saw Sir Robert come upstairs, and that wasn't until almost 7:30."
"So whoever is on both lists had the opportunity to both take the book and leave the note?"
"Yeah." She studies the notebook page. "That's Margaret, Beatrice, and Flora. I agree with you that John's and Cook's presence upstairs, especially twice, would be likely to be noticed. If they were up to no good, they wouldn't chance it. If Gareth or Kate was home when we were at tea with Mother, one of them also had the opportunity to both take the book and leave the note."
"Long list," I say, and she nods. I think about the note's cold message. "What are we going to do?"
"Get some sleep." She turns out the light on her way to the bed. "Tomorrow will be a busy day."
"Do you mind if we skip breakfast?" Janice asks.
"Are you sick?"
"I don't want to talk to any of the 'folks' this morning," she answers. "And I need to find a phone where I can make a few calls."
"What's wrong with the phone downstairs?"
"No chauffeur today, I guess."
"I don't think so."
We make it as far as the front door. "Going out, Miss Janice? Should I ring for John?"
"No, thank you, Margaret. We're going for a little walk." Before stepping through the door, she adds like an afterthought, "Please tell her ladyship that we'll try to join her for tea."
The door closes on the maid's "Yes, mum."
"Did Kate say what Margaret did for her mother?"
I recall our conversation. "No. I assumed she was her maid. Why?"
"Just wondering. Kate said something about Margaret 'going into service' with Sir Robert and Lady Amanda. Maybe I don't understand the language the English use regarding servants, but that sounded odd to me--if Margaret had already worked as a maid."
We find a public telephone--in a restaurant, of course--and, while I wait
for our breakfast order to arrive, Janice makes several calls. She returns to
the table as our tea arrives. She takes a sip and says, "How I long for
good strong coffee." She takes another sip and makes a face. "Or even
strong coffee." A waitress brings our food, muffins for me, everything else on the menu for Janice.
"A regiment could live on what you eat," I marvel.
"Yeah, I'm single-handedly setting back the war effort." She talks between bites. "I've always been this way. Thank God I use it up as fast as I eat it."
"Did you find out what you needed to know?"
"The phone calls."
"Oh, yeah." She chews and swallows, but when she takes another bite, I know it's a stall.
"I was looking for a guy Dad used to do business with. The kind of business that doesn't stay in one place for long." She wipes her mouth, already through. "He's kind of an antique dealer."
"Well, on the shady side." She eyes my second muffin, and I push it over. "Thanks. If anyone will know what's going on with hot antiquities in London, he will."
"Stolen," she explains.
"I know that," I say. "I go to movies. At least I did before my life became one. What I meant was, why do you want to know about stolen antiquities?"
She leans forward and speaks quietly. "Thank about it. Gruner. Thieves stealing pictures of the Cashi Zun necropolis. What else could it be?"
"I don't see that Gruner was ever involved, just because he's in a photograph with Sir Robert and the owners of that gallery. And how do you know those were the photos the thieves were after? They took your mother's photographs, too. And they went to a lot more trouble to get those."
"Look, you're a thief and you go into a place that has a safe and an unlocked desk. You're looking for something you consider valuable. Where do you look?" She finishes my muffin while she waits.
I think for a few seconds before answering. "I look in the unlocked desk. It's easier than 'peeling' the safe."
She laughs, either at my answer or the new word in my vocabulary. "No. The safe. Since you consider this thing valuable, you figure the person who has it does, too. You open the safe, and what you're looking for isn't there. So THEN you look in the desk."
"But why take the photographs that were in the safe? If those aren't the ones you want?"
"Simple. Because you're a thief."
"But someone sent some of those photographs back. With notes trying to extort money," I remind her. "Those had to have been the pictures they were after."
"I think that was someone seeing an opportunity and trying to take it. If extortion was the plan all along, why did the notes stop? Mother would have paid to get those photos back, but no arrangements were ever made to get the money." Janice stands, and I hastily drop a pound on the table. "Don't you have anything smaller?" she asks. I shake my head, and she heads for the door.
"What is this man's name?" I ask as I catch up to her. "The one we're going to see?"
"Everybody calls him Ben Black," Janice answers. "Why?"
"I'm remembering the last crook who tried to help us, an Egyptian named Tekmet."
Ben Black has a shop, but it's devoted to cheap knickknacks and souvenirs of London, not the treasures of the ancient world. "American servicemen," he explains, "like to send something home."
We're sitting in a small parlor at the back, densely furnished and smelling of aromatic pipe tobacco. Ben is a large man, beyond portly, red jowls working as he lights yet another bowl of tobacco.
"Ben," Janice reminds him, "this is about your other business."
"Got no other business now, Jannie," he says calmly. "Retired."
"Sure, Ben." She hands him two photos and sits back.
"Kenneth Grace," he says of one. "Used to do some business."
"With the Grace Gallery?" I ask in surprise. "I thought it was an art gallery, you know, paintings, things like that."
He shakes his head. "You were misinformed, miss. Kenny Grace dealt in antiquities, just like I did. The only difference was that his came in through customs." He winks. "Except the ones he bought from me."
"You know anyone else in that picture?" Janice probes.
"Looks like the aristocracy." He draws the last word out mockingly. "Not my kind of people."
"How about this one?" Janice points to one face.
"Oh, him? Yeah, I figured you knew who that was. Gruner." He drops his voice as if someone might hear. "Archaeologist, like your father. He and I did some business, if you know what I mean."
She jumps on the information. "When was this?"
"Oh, late twenties, early thirties, I guess." Ben laughs. "Sometimes I wondered that he had anything left to send to the museums. Then he stopped coming around."
"Before the war?"
"Oh, long before that, Jannie. Thirty-five, thirty-six. Sometime in there."
"Why do you think he stopped?"
"I figured he went into business for himself." He puffs his pipe
thoughtfully. "He was a mean one, that Gruner. Wasn't sorry to lose his
business. Heard somebody shot him dead. Wasn't sorry to hear that
I have a thought. "After Gruner stopped coming to sell you antiquities, did Kenneth Grace continue to buy from you?"
"Now that you mention it, miss, I would have to say he didn't." I doubt this is the first times he's realized this.
"Look at the other picture," Janice directs.
"Kore," Ben comments, "statue of a young woman." He adjust his glasses, clearly more interested in this subject than in discussing Gruner. "Greek style, but there's something vaguely Egyptian. I don't know. Too stylized for classic Greek, too naturalistic for Egyptian. You got a better photograph? Or the real thing?"
Janice shakes her head. "Can you tell us anything more from that picture?"
He smiles. "Only one thing."
"She looks like your friend."
Before we leave Ben's, we call a cab. As we stand on the corner waiting for it to come, Janice suddenly turns to me. She puts her hand on my arm. "I want you to take this cab and go home. . . . to my mother's. I'll go back to Ben's and call another."
"Why? Where are you going?"
"To the Grace Gallery."
"There isn't any Grace Gallery," I remind her. "It was destroyed in the Blitz. September 1940."
"The lot's still there," she says stubbornly. "I want to see it."
"I think all this mess started there." She looks up at me, and there is fire in her green eyes. "All of it. The theft of the tomb treasures from Cashi Zun, my father's death, what we went through. . . . I think all of that started at the Grace Gallery."
I'm not sure I follow her logic, but I know that I'll follow her anywhere. "Lead on."
I realize that I've spoken my thought. "I said, come on. There's our cab." We're seated inside when Janice realizes she doesn't know the address. I lean toward the driver. "Hanover Square," I tell him.
Janice chuckles. "That's why I keep you around. Your memory."
"I've been wondering."
When we arrive at Hanover Square, we find a nearly vacant lot. Some rubble
covers one section, what looks like the remains of an exterior wall and the
bottom section of an outside stairway. There are a few other buildings on the
block, all badly damaged and boarded up. The driver looks at us
questioningly as I pay him and Janice tells him to leave. He glances around the devastated neighborhood, clearly wondering if all Americans are crazy. Then he drives away.
Janice has headed straight for the ruins. She kneels by the wall and moves a few bricks. Archaeologists, I think. Always picking over the remains.
"I wonder if this is the wall that fell on Kenneth Grace," Janice
says. "From what Mother said, I expected that the whole thing had been
razed after that. Why would they leave this bit of wall and the outside stairs?"
She walks around the steps that now lead to nothing. "Probably led to an
office or apartment on the second floor." As I watch, she paces around the lot. "I can still make out the foundation. This place wasn't very large." She looks at the nearest buildings. "Not a building on the block over two stories."
"What are you thinking?"
"I'm thinking that someone has gone to a lot of trouble to hide a dead man's past crimes." Janice concentrates her attention on the stairs. Kneeling again, she brushes away some dirt and trash from behind them. "What have we here?"
She has unearthed a slab or wide plank of wood. It reminds me of the cover of a root cellar I once saw back home. She brushes the rest of the covering dirt away and reveals an indentation seemingly carved into the wood. It's just deep and wide enough to give purchase for one hand. Janice reaches her fingers into this hole and pulls. Her face shows the strain, but she's finally able to lift the wide board. As it comes up, I reach under and help her push it out of the way. It isn't hinged like a door and must be pushed along the ground. When it's out of the way, we see crude stairs leading down into darkness. "DAMN!"
"I left my knapsack at Mother's. No flashlight."
I hold up my camera. Attached to the side is the flash attachment Hank threw in on our "deal."
"Yeah. That will give us a quick look at what's below. Good thinking." Janice takes my free hand. "Wait until we get to the bottom." We work our way carefully down creaking steps, Janice testing their soundness as we go. When there are no more steps, she says, "Now."
I point the camera straight ahead and, hoping I remember Hank's instructions,
discharge the flash. The brief glimpse afforded makes me think I am dreaming.
Janice's gasp confirms that I'm not. "Stand still," she says. "I
saw an oil lamp on a table." She lets go of my hand and, a
few moments later, its flickering light fills the small cellar.
All around us are wonders. Statues, scrolls, amphorae, even what look like carvings from temple walls. Boxes on the floor hold artwork and primitive weapons. I half-expect to see a mummy. "Janice," I ask, "what is this place?"
"I think this is Gruner's storeroom."
We find another lamp and light that as we take rough inventory of our find.
I take more photographs, stopping only when I run out of flashbulbs. Then I
home to the scrolls and begin reading a story of Troy. After what seems too
short a time, Janice says, "We've got to get out of here." I look
startled back to the present, then nod. "Can I take this?"
"Leave it," she says. "We'll get help and come back."
"What about the lamps?"
"We'll leave them near the stairway. Come on." Her voice is growing
more urgent, and, trusting her instincts, I drop the scroll and follow her to
the stairs. We blow out the lamps and start toward the dim sunlight above. As
Janice gets near the top of the rickety stairs, she stops. "Mel, stay
there," she says, just before she comes hurtling back toward me. I struggle to break her fall, but she throws me off balance. I fall through space until my head makes contact with the concrete floor below. Then there is only pain and darkness.
I awake to lamplight and voices. One voice, I think, is inside my head. "Mel, can you hear me? Are you all right? Mel, oh God, don't be dead."
"Alive," I mumble.
"What? Thank God, you're alive. What did you say?"
No use repeating it. Just go back to sleep. Head hurts. Am I lying down?
"Mel, don't go away again. Stay awake."
"Will you shut the hell up, lady?" An angry voice intrudes, harsh
and deep, a man's voice. I try to open my eyes again and finally succeed. The
cellar room swims into view. I'm upright, standing, I guess. My arms are stretched
tightly above my head, and I can't move them. I look up. There
are rope around my wrists, and these lead to a stout pipe overhead. Janice? When I turn my head to look, I hear a groan.
"Mel, don't move. I think you're hurt." Janice has been talking softly, but now she yells. "Let her lie down. What are you, some kind of sadist?"
"You hear that, Bertie? I guess she knows you." A third voice, male, but high and squeaky."
"Shut up. All of you. I got to think."
"Let her lie down!"
A slap resounds through the confines of the small underground space. "I said shut up." His voice is a growl.
"Janice," I whisper. I turn my head enough to see that her predicament
is the same as mine. Her hands are bound and pulled high above her head, also
tied to the pipe that runs along the cellar's ceiling. A man stands in front
of her, his hand raised, threatening another blow. There is defiance
in every line of her small body. "Please," I manage. "Please be quiet."
Green eyes seek mine. She nods and forms her lips in a tight line. Satisfied, the man turns to me. "You need some of that, too?"
I shake my head and gasp as the room almost dissolves again. The man walks away, and I hear his harsh whisper as he talks to his companion. "I say we kill them now, dump the bodies before anybody knows they're missing."
His buddy doesn't bother to be quiet. "We got to talk to the boss first. See what we need to do."
"I know what we need to do."
"We don't know everything, Bertie." His voice is wheedling. "The boss knows. We check, then we're supposed to get rid of them, we do it. All right?"
The one called Bertie walks back to where Janice is tied. He's not a big man,
not small, but he looks fit and strong. He's dressed in workingman's clothes,
rough brown pants and shirt, billed hat. I think how ordinary he looks. "Who
knows you're here?" he asks, not whispering now. When Janice
doesn't answer, he smiles and punches her in the stomach. Her head drops, but then she raises it, and her face wears that look. I want to stop this, but I don't know what to do. The truth won't work, saying that the only person who knows we came here is a cab driver, probably home now telling
his family about crazy Americans. I shake my head, trying to clear it, trying to come up with a helpful lie, one that won't get someone else killed. "You're a tough little thing, aren't you?" Bertie says. "Hey,
Max, I bet I can get her to talk. What do you say? Five quid?"
The one called Max reiterates his position. "Don't do this until you ask the boss."
"The boss?" Janice asks. "Who's that, some Nazi bastard? How you like taking orders from Nazis, Bertie?"
The blow to her ribs is swift and hard. "I don't work for no Nazis." Then, after a moment's hesitation, "Not no more I don't."
"Not since Gruner died, huh?" Her tone is calm and conversational, marred only by a slight irregularity in her breathing. "I bet you and him really got along."
"Bertie, don't say no more." I look for the other man, whose insistent
voice now squeaks higher. He's standing on the other side of the cellar, and
he's practically a giant. Now I know who lifted me and who could reach high
enough to tie those knots. He wears a dirty coverall, which was once
dark gray or green. His bald head seems in danger of scraping the ceiling, which is nearly two feet above my head.
Bertie ignores him. "Never worked for Gruner. Just Grace and the Jerry." He laughs. "Then the Jerry had to go be a soldier, and Grace. . . .well, Grace lost his nerve. Some people, takes a wall falling on them to make them shut up."
"So you got a new boss," she acknowledges, "and your new boss isn't a Nazi. 'Cause, with the war and all, you wouldn't work for a Nazi."
"Then why did you kill the Jew?"
"Bertie, would you shut up now!" If the big man's voice gets any higher, only dogs will hear it.
"I'm just answering a couple of questions, Max. Before she answers mine."
His next words send chills up my spine. "It's not like she's going to tell
anyone." He turns his attention back to Janice. "Once Grace wasn't
around, the Jew looked at the books and figured things out. We had to kill
her. Squash, like a bug." He laughs. "Almost got your friend the same way. You're a quick little bugger, I'll give you that."
"Why try to kill Mel? Why not me?"
"There was reasons. Don't figure there are anymore." He lowers his shoulders into a boxer's stance. "Now, you answer my questions. Who knows you're here?"
"Everybody I've talked to today, including a Times reporter."
"Wrong answer." His left hand darts out straight and hard. Janice
folds as much as her ropes will allow. "Try again." I'm ready to tell
him anything that comes to mind, even the truth, when Max steps between Bertie
and his target. As Max looms over him, the smaller man steps back and
drops his hands.
Max points to me. "You're hitting the wrong one."
It takes several moments for his meaning to reach Bertie's brain. Then Bertie nods and moves to stand in front of me. I try to look him in the eye with the same determination Janice showed. I know I fail. He draws back his right hand, and I brace for the blow.
"No one knows we're here except for the cab driver who brought us."
Disappointment flickers across his face, and I think he is going to hit me anyway. Then he steps back and questions Janice further. "How did you find this place?"
"It was a lucky guess. . . . No, don't hit her! That's the truth. I had a hunch about this place, and I stumbled across the entrance to the cellar. I figured if stolen goods were being filtered through the gallery, there had to be more storage space than there would have been above. And it would have to be private."
"So nobody else knows you're here, and nobody else knows about this place," Bertie concludes. He turns to Max. "Now we go talk to the boss."
When they leave, they extinguish the lamps, leaving us alone in the dark.
"Mel, I'm sorry," Janice says. "I got you in another mess."
I laugh. "Another fine mess you've gotten us into, Ollie."
"Don't get hysterical," she says. "I couldn't stand it."
"Janice, I think you could stand anything. You're the bravest person I know." Silence seems to compete with darkness to fill the room. "Janice?"
"Maybe you don't know me very well."
"What do you mean?"
She sighs, a sound deep inside her soul. "You see me stand up to someone like Bertie, like Gruner, and that makes you think I've brave? Men like that, they're just an excuse to let it out, to show what I feel."
"Let what out? What do you feel?"
"Anger." I hear something in her voice I've never heard before. "And now my anger may get you killed."
There doesn't seem much to say to that, but I try. "I don't think you'll let that happen."
"God, woman, I've been working on these ropes since they left, and I haven't gotten anywhere. What do you expect me to do? Snap my fingers and fly us out of here?"
"It would be really nice if you would." This time she's the one to laugh. "Your mother should miss us by now," I say, grasping at straws. "You told Margaret to tell her to expect us for tea. She'll get people out looking for us."
Janice's voice is flat. "I wouldn't count on her."
"Janice," I start, "forgive her."
"Well, Miss Melinda, if I ever see her again, I'll consider it."
"I don't know if you've noticed, but she's not here right now."
"In your heart."
The silence goes on so long, I think she'll never speak to me again. Finally,
she says, "I don't think I can do that." She takes a ragged breath.
"Everybody who knows me talks about how close I was to Dad, his shadow,
always trying to do everything he did. They don't know. When I was little, I
loved my mother, loved her more than any other person on earth, including my
father. We moved around every few months; lived in countries where, at least
at first, I didn't even know the language. But
every tent we ever lived in, every hut, Mom made into a home."
This is the first time I've heard her use a name other than that cold "Mother."
"And a school. She was my first teacher, the one who taught me how to read. You know those books you like so well? Those Bright Penny books? She wrote them for me. To teach me to read. The first one when I was four years old. Every year Bright Penny was a year older because I was. That one you borrowed? She started that one before she left, and it was about our time in Turkey."
She pauses, and I say, "The Bright Penny books were the first books I read by myself. And I never outgrew them because the character grew up with me."
Janice continues, "Someone talked her into sending the first one to a publisher, and the first editor who read it fell in love with it. Must have had a little girl. Mom wrote and sold one or two every year after that. Those books were often why we ate and how Dad paid his native workers. But I knew that she really wrote them for me. Yeah, Mel, I really loved my mother."
"Then she left."
"Yeah, she left and everything changed." In the darkness, I hear her crying and wonder if she would have talked this way if Bertie had left us any light. "Dad. . . . Dad was drunk for a year after she left. A year. And my dad was not a nice drunk. Then he pulled himself together, but he was never the same again. I hated her for that, for leaving and for not taking me with her."
"I told you I didn't remember when my mother. But I do remember how angry I was that she left."
"Left? Your mother died."
"Explain that to a four-year-old. All I knew was that she was gone. I hated her for a long time." I try to say the next so it isn't an accusation. "Then I grew up and forgave her. And myself."
"Yourself? For what?"
"For not being good enough, for not being worth her staying."
"Not being good enough," Janice repeats. "Yeah. I knew it was my fault she left. Left me and took her imaginary daughter with her."
"That's something I've wondered about," I say. "Your mother left when you were eleven. But the Bright Penny books went on for years after that. I think I read the last one when I was fifteen or sixteen."
"Like I said, she left Janice but kept Penny," Janice responds. "She kept writing books right up until the time I started returning her letters unopened. Then she stopped and never wrote another. Know what? When I was ready to go to college, I didn't see how we could afford it. But Dad said not to worry; the money was there. He didn't tell me until I got my first degree that the money was from the sale of the books. After she left, she put all her royalties into a college fund for me."
"What did you do after he told you?"
"I worked my way through to my doctorate, never took another cent from that fund."
Even in our current predicament, I have to chuckle at my friend's stubbornness. "You're nothing if not consistent."
"Refuge of small minds." She laughs, too. "I thought I never wanted to see my mother again. But there's one thing I would give anything to have seen."
"Mother and Tereise." I hear her snort. "Making small talk over my hospital bed."
"It sounds like they got along. Maybe after the war, you can reintroduce them."
"After the war, if she somehow survives, Tereise will marry and raise little Zionist babies."
"Yeah. And, if we somehow survive, you'll marry Bill and raise little rebels and southern belles. But I'll. . . ."
I interrupt. "I won't marry Bill."
"Why? There's a reason you hold onto that picture."
I don't know how to tell it except to start at the beginning. "Bill and
I met when we were in college. I went to the University of South Carolina, and
he was at the Citadel. There was a cotillion, and he was my escort. He was a
wonderful boy, manly, but very sweet. Gentle. After that, he was
the only boy I dated. We got engaged just before he was commissioned in the Navy. We were going to be married as soon as he finished his first tour of duty."
"He came back, and my father was ill. I asked him to wait."
"And he wouldn't."
"No, he said he would. He agreed that my place was with my father. Bill was sent to the Philippines, and we wrote every day. Then my father died."
"So did you go to the Philippines then?"
"No. Oh, I would have gone." I remember. I would have gone to the moon to be with Bill. To be his wife. "He wouldn't let me. Conditions were too rough in Manila, he said, 'not suitable for a gently raised girl' like me." I wonder if Janice realizes I'm quoting his words from a letter. "He said he was about to be promoted and assigned to another ship, a destroyer. Its home port was a clean, safe place. When he was reassigned, I could join him, and we would be married. This time it was I who agreed to wait."
"Did he get reassigned?"
"Yes, within the next month. I was ready to join him, but Aunt Helen asked
me to stay home just a little longer, to spend one last Christmas with her family.
I put off leaving until after the New Year." I remember how patient Bill
had been even though his letters spoke of how much he wanted
to hold me.
I can feel Janice waiting.
"Bill's new ship was the USN Destroyer Shaw. Its home port was Pearl Harbor."
"Oh, Mel. . . ."
"Its munitions hold exploded in the first wave of the Japanese attack. Bill died on December 7, 1941."
Janice's voice is low and very quiet. "I'm sorry I teased you about the photograph."
I shake my head although she can't see it. "It's silly that I still carry it around with me. I'll tell you a secret. Sometimes I even talk to it."
"What do you say?"
"I say when your heart tells you to do something, it's stupid to wait."
The sound of the heavy plank sliding off the stairway is followed quickly by voices and the bright beam of a flashlight. "Bertie, watch where you shine that torch. Wardens see it, we're pinched."
"Why don't we just come back in broad daylight? Wouldn't have to worry about no blackout. Let everybody see us."
"I'm just saying. . . ." I hear the plank slide back into place and then heavy footsteps down the creaking stairs. I smell sulphur, and then the oil lamps flair and settle. The one called Bertie is breathing into my face. I smell alcohol mixed with the fumes of the oil.
"What's wrong? Wrinkle up your pretty nose at old Bert?" He leans closer, stretching to his full height so his mouth comes closer to my own. I draw back my head, but he touches my cheek, lightly stroking it.
"Leave her alone, you filthy pig!" Janice spits out the words and struggles against her bonds.
The big man squeaks out a warning. "The boss said none of that."
"Don't worry." Bertie laughs and draws back. "I ain't no raper. Never had no need. Right, Max?"
"Sure, Bertie." Max looks around. "Boss said to carry away the valuable stuff. How do we know what to take?"
"I got a list." The smaller man steps away from me and pulls a sheet of paper from his pants pocket. "I'll pile it up. You load it in the lorry."
Max holds up one of the oil lamps and looks over Bert's shoulder. "You can tell what's what from this list?"
"Sort of. Don't matter that much. Everything here's worth something."
"I could help," Janice says quietly.
"You? How?" Bertie's voice drips contempt.
"Promise to let us go, and I'll tell you what to take. Some of this stuff's worth thousands of pounds. Some's junk." She looks back and forth between Max and Bertie. "Come on. I know about old stuff. Untie me, and I'll help."
Max and Bertie exchange glances, and Bertie laughs. Bertie sets about placing items in a pile in the center of the cellar. Max picks up a first enormous load and starts up the loudly protesting stairs. I wonder what he'll do when he gets to the top. I hear the sound of the plank sliding and realize he's moved it with his head and shoulders, not even needing the use of his arms. There's no sound of it sliding back over the opening.
Janice tries another tack. "How much are you being paid, Bertie? You know, Mel here is an heiress. She can come up with a lot more money than anyone else is paying you. Just leave us untied when you leave. And tell us where you want the money delivered."
The man consults the list, then shrugs and returns it to his pocket. He grabs a couple of small statues and starts a new pile. He speaks without stopping his work. "Your mother is married to a lord, but that ain't going to help you either."
"Come on," Janice cajoles, "what's wrong with making a little extra money? If the boss doesn't know? You've tried it before. Only that time you got caught."
Now she has his attention. "What are you talking about?"
"The pictures from the safe," she says. "You stole them when you were sent to get the pictures of the artifacts, the treasures from that Egyptian tomb. Nice work on that safe, by the way. Couldn't have been easy."
"Used to make my living that way," he acknowledges the compliment. "After they wouldn't let me box." He puts a Grecian vase and a box full of amulets on the pile.
"Yeah, so you had pictures from a desk and pictures from a safe,"
Janice continues. "Your boss wanted the pictures from the desk, but you
figured the others had to be worth something to someone, too. So you decided
to collect on those. Hey, it was only fair. You stole them. They were
The man doesn't seem to catch any sarcasm. "Right. I took 'em. Why shouldn't I collect? I figured if her ladyship kept 'em in a safe, they had to be worth something. Why shouldn't she pay to get 'em back?"
"No reason," Janice agrees. "So you sent her ladyship some notes. And you tucked in a picture with each one just to prove you had them. And you were right, Bertie, She would have paid to get them back."
He pauses in his work and turns toward Janice. "I knew it."
Max returns, clumping back down the fragile stairs. "Take that bunch." Bertie points, and the burden disappears up the steps on huge shoulders.
"But you were caught before you could send the last note, the one that would have set it up for you to collect." Janice nods toward the stairs. "Max turn you in?"
"Nah!" Bertie sits on a box and wipes his brow with a red handkerchief. "He's my mate, grew up together. Somebody saw the third note, told the boss. The boss lit into me like the fires of hell. Made me turn over those pictures, too. My pictures."
"Bet that made you mad," Janice sympathizes.
"Yeah. Wasn't fair." His tone, although still low, turns faintly whining. "No harm in turning a few extra quid. Me and Max do most of the work. Ought to get more of the profit."
"That's just what I'm saying," Janice says. "You let us go. We don't say anything to anyone. And you get a big payday. What do you say?"
The creaking of stair boards heralds Max's return. "Last load," his friend tells him. "Move the lorry a block away. You know where?"
"Yeah, I know." Max looks at Janice and me. I think he is going to speak, but he just shakes his head sadly and stoops to pick up an amphora and other items from the floor. As he starts his ascent, he says over his
shoulder, "Do like the boss said. Quick. No pain."
"Just wait in the lorry," Bertie answers. "Don't come back."
The mumbled reply comes faintly to my ears. "Don't worry. Don't wanna see."
Continue Chapters 36-41
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