Disclaimer: The characters of Dr. Janice Covington, Melinda Pappas, Xena, and Gabrielle belong exclusively to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended through the writing of this fan fiction. This work is strictly for entertainment purposes and not for profit.
Subtext Warning: Of course! It *is* Janice Covington we're talking about. This story implies a loving relationship between two consenting adult women. If this offends you, you are under 18, or it is illegal in the state/country in which you live, please read no further than this line I'm now drawing in the sand. |
Language Warning: Of course! It *is* Janice Covington we're talking about.
Historical Accuracy Warning: There is some great history in this story, but I've also taken some liberties. There are also sections where this story is about as accurate as the humorist Dave Barry's book, Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort of History of the United States.
Note on Songs: The origins of "Fare Thee Well, O, Honey (Dink's Song)" is lost. A song collector heard a lady named Dink sing it at a camp on the Brazos River early in the 1900s. As far as I can tell, "Daydream" was written in 1940 by Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and John LaTouche. "My Funny Valentine" is a Hart/Rodgers song. "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair" is a traditional folk ballad ascribed to John Jacob Niles (1916), but is probably much, much older, from an 18th century song from the British Isles. I've also found versions of it claimed by singers in the Southern Appalacians (U.S.) and Celtic folksingers.
Author's Note: If you want to read more about the Mystery Rock in Los Lunas, New Mexico (yes, it is real and so is the inscription in this story), please see the chapter about it in Kutz, Jack. Mysteries & Miracles of New Mexico. Corrales, NM: Rhombus Publishing Co., 1988. If you want to read more about the Luna Mansion (it is real, too, as are its ghosts), look it up on the Net. I know y'all are smart folks (otherwise, why would you be reading this?), but I felt it necessary that I should explain some things about New Mexico for those who've never been here or heard of some of the things I mention.
Acknowledgments: Muchas gracias to my beta readers: Extra, Vdub, Skylark, Chris B., and all the rest who offered to help me when I just couldn't find any beta readers. You folks are the best! Muchas gracias to Xena Gal for letting me "borrow" Stuntman. Finally, muchas gracias to Stuntman for not being on his best behavior throughout the story. If he acted like that in real life, I'd be sorely tempted to throw him to the dogs. ;-)
Please feed the bard: Any comments/questions can be sent to email@example.com.
The Southwestern Scrolls
by Bard of New Mexico
After Janice and Mel met in Macedonia and forged a very strong friendship there, they came home to Mel's mansion in South Carolina. Janice still trotted off around the world working on various digs while Mel stayed at the mansion, received and translated scrolls, earned her doctorate, and kept the home fires burning during the war and for a few years after it as well. When Janice didn't have any digs or commitments during the holidays, she went to South Carolina, which she considered her permanent residence, or at least as permanent as her residence would ever be. Mel was always glad to see her and took pride in providing a safe harbor for her friend. The women corresponded frequently and got to know each other heart and soul, but all-in-all, they hadn't spent much time together. The times they saw each other was something neither of them ever forgot, and they tried to remember each detail of each other, hoarding the memories as if they were the most precious treasures on earth.
Charleston, South Carolina: March 21, 1949
Mel sat by the fire in her father's study and sighed. She carefully folded up Janice's last letter, from a dig in New Mexico, and tucked it back into its envelope. It was two months old, but each letter of Janice's was precious to her and she read and reread each of them. She tapped the corner of the envelope carelessly against her chin, lost deep in good memories of a few months ago when she and Janice sat in front of the same fire, sipped their drinks, and talked about everything and nothing. When Janice visited, they took long strolls and picnicked by the small creek bordering the property. Janice's company was as comfortable as slipping into a favorite old pair of shoes and just as easy even after months of Janice's absence. She sighed again. The house felt like a rambling mausoleum without her father or Janice to share it with her. Even Argo, Janice's big black Newfoundland dog, made it alive and more like a real home.
Melinda shook her head and tried to think of more pleasant things, such as envisioning what New Mexico must be like. In the previous letter, Janice wrote about her thrilling, harrowing trip through the stretch of desert in southern New Mexico called the Jornada del Muerto (Journey of the Dead). In this more recent letter, Janice wrote about old Spanish mission ruins that dated back to the 1500s, ruins that had held hundreds of people, the priests as well as the Indians that they were trying to convert. She described structures built of adobe (mud and straw mixed together and baked in the sun to harden into bricks) that jutted three stories into the deep blue sky. Janice said that in the missions' heyday, the bricks would've been covered with some sort of outer layer to make the outside smooth and glaringly white. The objective was to build mission structures that would awe the Indians and draw them to God. Then, with unusual eloquence, Janice admitted to Melinda that she could feel the same things the church men must've felt when they arrived, that they must've been a little lonely and maybe a little scared coming to such an isolated outpost of the Spanish empire.
Mel was in her hometown, but she could feel the Spanish priests' loneliness. The isolation she felt without Janice nearby threatened to fill her eyes with tears. She rose from her wingback chair and sauntered over to the French windows where she could gaze at the stars in the western sky. "Oh, Janice," Mel whispered to the stars that she hoped were above Janice, too, "I wish you were here right now!"
Somewhere in Northern New Mexico: March 21, 1949
Janice stomped around in her tent, swearing and kicking things. Argo sat patiently outside the tent until her mistress's temper tantrum ended, then joined her in a walk and some stargazing. Janice was finding very little to interest her, she was getting frustrated, and she was getting tired of working hard to dig up uninteresting things just to find them disappearing from time-to-time. The trouble and the hassle at the dig just weren't worth it anymore... and she missed Mel more than she cared to admit to herself.
She had been working on pueblo and Spanish mission ruins when she would've rather been working on ancient Greek artifacts, but it was a necessary evil because she needed the money to fund her next dig. When she heard of the Mystery Rock at Los Lunas and its possible connections with the Greek, though, she got itchy feet and decided to hightail it out of northern New Mexico. She learned that no translator had been able to break the inscription and had enough faith in Mel's ability in ancient Greek texts to want to give it a shot. One of her pals in Harvard's Department of Anthropology owed her a favor and she decided to call it in; she'd get a little money from the department's private backers in exchange for sending them a photograph of the inscription in situ and hopefully a translation to go with it. She planned to surprise Mel in South Carolina, get her, and come back west for a much needed break and to investigate the Mystery Rock. She didn't really suppose it had anything to do with the Xena Scrolls. The possibility of Greeks in New Mexico piqued her interest.
Charleston, South Carolina: Late March 1949
Leah, Melinda's maid/cook who came every day, quietly stepped into the study where Melinda was reading. She waited patiently until Mel acknowledged her. "You have a visitor, ma'am." With that announcement, Argo pushed her way into the study, her mistress waiting in the doorway.
"Argo!" Mel exclaimed delightedly. She rose from her chair, knelt down, and hugged the monstrous black dog, not caring at the moment if she got black hair all over her blouse. Argo's tongue lolled happily while her thick, curly black tail thumped Leah's legs.
"What am I? Chopped liver?" Janice, feigning annoyance, entered the study.
Melinda nodded at Leah, silently communicating the request to get the guest room ready. Leah gave her a look of understanding and left as unobtrusively as she'd come.
"Hello, Janice! What a surprise! Why didn't you tell me you were comin'?" Mel stepped over to Janice and warmly shook her hand, not trusting herself with a hug.
"I wanted it to be a surprise," Janice deadpanned.
Mel's mind flashed back to the night she talked to the stars. You musta heard me, Mel mused, happy at that romantic thought.
Mel ushered Janice to one of the matching pair of wingback chairs in the study and went to pour her scotch.
Janice, for her part, didn't beat around the bush. "Mel, I'd like your help. There's a rock near Los Lunas, New Mexico, not too many miles south of Albuquerque. It has some sort of Greek inscription on it that nobody seems to be able to translate. Would you come with me to New Mexico for a short vacation and to have a look?" Janice didn't usually beg, but there was a hint of pleading in her voice. She was so sick of life, the frustrations of the last dig in particular and being so dang lonely out in the desert without Mel, that it really had her down. Not going on a vacation/investigation with Mel would be a serious setback for her peace of mind right now. She didn't know what she'd do if Mel's answer was no.
Melinda heard the pleading edge in Janice's voice. It surprised her. When she handed Janice the drink, she noticed that although Janice started off their visit as her usual gruff, smart aleck self, there was something terribly weary and wistful in her. She knelt in front of Janice and looked into Janice's green eyes. There was none of her usual spirit there. "Janice, are you all right?"
Janice halfheartedly attempted a smile. "Just a bit tired." She squeezed Mel's hand to try to reassure her.
Mel gave Janice a skeptical look, but didn't think the time was right to press the issue. She retreated to her own wingback chair, crossed her long legs, and half turned towards Janice. "Do you think the inscription has anythin' to do with the Xena Scrolls?"
Janice sighed, knowing her answer might secure a no from Mel, but she wouldn't lie to Mel about it. "I don't think so. Although, don't you think Greeks in New Mexico is an interesting idea? I mean, I'm assuming the inscription is a hoax. I was just hoping you'd go with me and see if you could translate it."
Mel didn't give it a second thought. Quietly, she said, "Okay. When do we leave?" She didn't have any commitments that she couldn't reschedule. Besides, a break from the routine of life was something she needed, too, and she couldn't think of anyone she'd rather be with when she did. She had to see New Mexico's charms with Janice Covington.
Janice beamed. "Well, I guess that depends on how you want to travel. Do you want to take the train across the country, or would you like to drive, or would you like to do half and half?"
Mel considered her strange options. "Maybe we could take the train to New Mexico someplace and drive from there?"
"You got it, sweetheart! I have a friend near Lamy who would loan us his car to drive to the dig."
"Lamy? Where's that?"
"It's not too far south of Santa Fe." Janice's eyes sparkled excitedly as she explained the places they could stay and the route they could take. She chattered on pretty rapidly, "There's a train station at Lamy where my friend will be waiting for us. Then we could take the road that almost exactly follows the old Santa Fe Trail. If we got to Lamy early enough, we could go straight to Los Lunas or there are wonderful places to stay in Santa Fe or Albuquerque. In the Plaza at Santa Fe, there's this old place where folks used to stay when they arrived by wagons or coaches. It's the La Fonda Hotel, though back then, it was called the Exchange Hotel. If you've read any decent western novels, you might've heard of it. Or if not, we could stay at my buddy Louie's place in Albuquerque. When we get to Los Lunas, I have a surprise waiting for you."
Mel halted Janice, "Janice Covin'ton! You just assumed I'd come?!" A dark eyebrow cleared the top of her glasses.
Janice looked crestfallen. "Ah... no. I just planned ahead in hopes you'd come."
That seemed to satisfy Mel. She hated thinking she was being taken for granted, especially by the young archaeologist because she meant so much to Mel. "Well, you're in luck. I am comin'."
Janice smiled again. "Lamy is actually a few miles south of Santa Fe, but I want to swing back north to Santa Fe and show you some of the sights. It's well worth seeing!" Janice grinned devilishly, wondering how Mel would react when she saw the senoritas smoking their little cigarillos (cigarettes) as was their custom after good meals. The ladies would pull out a tin of papers, a pouch of tobacco, roll the cigarillos by hand, and smoke a little while they chatted. Mel really hated smoking in any form and didn't much care for Janice's cigars.
Santa Fe, New Mexico: April 7, 1949
"Welcome to the oldest capital in the United States, Mel! Founded in 1610 by the Spaniards, if I remember rightly. Santa Fe was originally called 'La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Assisi'. That's 'The Royal Village of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi' to you and me, sweetheart. Try putting that on a road map!" Janice wiggled her eyebrows and Melinda chuckled.
"You're just a real fount of information, aren't you, Dr. Covin'ton?"
"Well, not everything about this place is boring. Let's just say I know why this state is called The Land of Enchantment," Janice quipped, sneaking in another tidbit of New Mexico trivia.
The archaeologist parked the car on a side street and sat there with a smile on her face as Mel gasped at the beauty and uniqueness of the Santa Fe Plaza. On one side, the Palace of the Governors bordered it, and running the length of the Palace was an overhang over the sidewalk—the portal— where vendors of sand paintings, turquoise and silver Southwestern jewelry, Navajo rugs, colorful serapes, food, perfumed soaps, and other traditional crafts and necessities hawked their wares. It was always a happy, festive atmosphere although sometimes tempers flared when the haggling got a little too competitive. Most of the time, though, light insults bandied about while haggling were taken in good humor, just a part of business.
"Stay here, Argo, and Mommy will be back soon," Janice told the dog.
The ladies strolled over to the Plaza and examined the fine craftsmanship on everything they came across. Janice's mouth watered at the smell of tacos filled with ground beef mixed with some green chile and onion. The wonderful odors were almost too much for Janice to bear, so she took herself off to another vendor while Mel hung back at the Navajo rug concession.
Janice soon found herself staring at some rather simple yet beautiful silver and turquoise necklaces. Perfect, she told herself. The one that caught her eye was a large, flat, scalloped piece of silver with a chunk of pure turquoise on it that was a hint bluer than aqua. It was on a lovely silver chain. She glanced at the old Native American lady vendor and asked her, "Cuanto cuesta?" (How much?)
"Cuarenta dolares," (Forty dollars), she replied.
Janice took off her fedora, glanced at the sunny sky, and fanned herself. "Hace mucho calor, no?" (It's very hot, isn't it?)
The old lady smiled, showing only gums where some of her teeth used to be. She knew that Janice was trying to imply something like her brain must've been fried to offer such a high price. "Treinta dolares?" (Thirty dollars?)
"Comadre," (Godmother) Janice cooed in a tone still suggesting the woman should be ashamed of herself for robbing an innocent traveler. Janice put a friendly hand on the old lady's shoulder and grinned from ear-to-ear. "Eres loca?" (Are you crazy?)
The old lady laughed. She was enjoying Janice's boldness. "Bien, mi'jita. Veinte dolares." (Fine, my little daughter. Twenty dollars.)
Janice accepted the last price with a word of thanks. The deal being struck, the old lady wrapped it in some fluffy cotton and placed it in a little box before she handed it to Janice, who quickly tucked it away in her leather jacket pocket before Mel rejoined her.
The two browsed for a little while longer, then Mel glanced at her watch. "This is heaven, Janice, but do you suppose we ought ta go if we're goin' ta make it to Albuquerque?" Mel suspected the warm day with the fresh, cool breezes made it hard for anyone to want to go home, but she was looking forward to seeing what Albuquerque was like, too.
"Yeah. I have plans for us this evening."
Mel's heart raced at the suggestion, wondering what in the world it could be.
Albuquerque, New Mexico: April 7, 1949
"First stop, Louie Abeyta's place," Janice announced as she drove down a short dirt driveway. There was a cottonwood tree out front for the only shade around. The house had a flat roof and was picturesque with a turquoise paint job that complemented the place's salmon-colored stucco covering. "We're staying with him and his wife, Maria, tonight. They're old friends of mine."
Melinda rolled her eyes. "Isn't there anywhere you don't have a friend?" Janice chuckled softly while Mel considered what she just said. Even though the archaeologist was tough, rough, and could be rude, she was a contradictory picture of friendliness.
Louie opened his front door and trotted out to meet Janice and Mel.
Janice greeted him warmly, "Hey, Louie, what do you know?"
"A lot," was his reply. The ladies and Louie laughed.
"Louie, this is Dr. Melinda Pappas, and Mel, this is Louie Abeyta."
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Abeyta."
"Please, call me Louie."
"And you can call me Melinda."
They shook hands. Mel noticed the bright white smile flashing from Louie's deeply tanned face. Thick glasses made Louie's brown eyes seem large.
Janice and Louie took some of the luggage out of the car, set it on the ground, took four cases, and headed towards the house. Mel followed them. She was the picture of gracefulness until she stumbled on the front porch step. Quickly, a hand shot out to steady her. "Are you all right?" asked the lady of the house.
"Yes, fine, thanks." Mel blushed.
"Follow me," Maria said kindly, "And I'll show you to your room."
Janice flung her duffel bag on the sofa and went to help with the rest of the luggage. "Better let me help you there, Louie, or you'll get a hernia."
"Janice! Be nice," Mel scolded her.
Mrs. Abeyta passed through the door. To the left, there was a long living room, a sala, that ran almost the entire length of the house. There was a big stone fireplace to the right, and next to the stone fireplace, there was a door that led to a small guest room. Maria turned to Janice, "You don't mind sleeping on the sofa?"
"Nope! Most comfortable bed I've ever slept in!" Janice replied, smiling and winking, gazing at her old friend, the sofa in the sala. Briefly, she wondered how many times she'd been drunk, gotten in a bad fight at the cantina, or both, and Louie dragged her sorry self back to his place to sleep it off on the sofa. Hmmm... If I started counting the number of times on my fingers, I'd probably have to take off both shoes as well. Drinking and fighting sure are getting old! She glanced at Mel and wondered if Mel's presence might inspire her to take better care of herself.
As Mel got settled into her room and freshened up, Louie took Janice to the kitchen to grab the picnic basket and blanket that Maria had prepared for them. Janice stowed it in the back of their car when Mel wasn't around. She peeked into the basket. "Smells great, Louie!" She beamed at him. "Please thank Maria for me. Oh, and you don't have to wait up for us."
Taco, Maria's little chihuahua, bounded out the door, yipped, and capered around Melinda's feet. Mel tried to lean over and pet it, but it was too excited to stay still for petting. When the chihuahua saw Argo sitting at Janice's feet, he turned and dashed back into the house. Argo stayed where she was, completely oblivious of the effect she had on her "friend", Taco.
"Hey, Louie, is Taco a dog or a cat, a scaredy cat?" Janice taunted him with a big, friendly smile. In the next breath, she addressed Mel, "C'mon, sweetheart! Get a move on!"
"Where are we goin'?"
"For a ride," Janice replied enigmatically.
"In case you haven't noticed, Jan, we've been 'ridin'' all day," Mel quipped.
Janice opened the front passenger door when Mel was a few steps away. It was her silent invitation to come. Then, she loaded Argo in the back seat again and gave her a little loving scratching behind her ears while Mel got in. Finally, Janice slipped behind the wheel and they were off.
Janice drove them north along the Rio Grande River and passed cottonwood and salt cedar trees that made up Albuquerque's bosque (forest). When they crossed a bridge, Mel looked down at the river and saw flashes of orange as the water reflected the early evening sun. They continued northeast until they were a few miles outside of the city, then a large, lush field of grass appeared.
"Funny thing about this place, Mel. There was this guy who wanted to build his wife a lovely house on the outskirts of town. He put in a beautiful lawn, but the relationship soured before he started building the house itself. Just up and left everything. Now, I guess it's some park or something where nobody ever goes except to take care of the grass. Shame, really. It's one of my favorite hiding places out here. An oasis in the middle of the desert."
They stopped on the shoulder of the dirt road that led out to the razed lot and lawn. Everybody piled out and Janice opened the back of the trunk to get the basket of food and lawn blanket. When Mel reached to help, Janice shook her off and told Argo, "Would you mind carrying the blanket, girl?" Janice put it on Argo's back. "We're here to serve the lady tonight."
Mel's heart skipped a beat at the gallantry. She beamed.
Janice turned to her and gave a silly bow. "Madam, your wish is our command."
Mel chuckled softly at the thought of her "servants" especially a big black monster dog like Argo also being at her command. She remembered a time when Janice was back in South Carolina spending a springtime vacation with her. Mel was chasing Janice playfully when Argo stepped in and growled menacingly at her, not knowing at first that Janice was just faking distress.
When they got to a good spot, Janice set down the basket and took the blanket off Argo's back. "Thanks, girl." Janice petted Argo and gave the dog permission to go run and play for a while. Then she spread the blanket and set out the food, an unusual combination of American and New Mexican cuisine. "Just in case the New Mexican food is a bit too spicy for you," Janice explained. There was fried chicken, tomato slices, a container of the same meat mixture Janice smelled at the taco vendor's station in the Santa Fe Plaza, flat flour pancake-like things called tortillas, frijoles (refried beans), and cheese and bizcochitos (literally, "little cakes"; anise-flavored cookies sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar) for dessert. Janice used pieces of tortilla to scoop up the beans and the meat mixture, so Mel did the same.
"How is it?" Janice asked Mel.
Mel waved her hand in front of her mouth as her eyes watered. She'd just had a bite of meat mixture. "Very hot, but it's quite good!"
After a delicious dinner, they talked a little bit. Janice pointed in front of her, across the Rio Grande Valley to the west where some extinct volcanoes sat out on the mesa (table land). "They're called the Seven Sleeping Sisters." Talking about New Mexico's geography led Janice's thoughts back to the previous dig and her concerns about it. Suddenly, the tension that had eased somewhat in Mel's study in South Carolina and that had almost completely disappeared by the time they reached Louie's house came flooding back. Mel noticed.
"Jan, what is it?" she asked quietly.
"I was just thinking about my last dig. It was strange, Mel. You've heard of cattle rustling?"
"Well, it's like that, but it wasn't cattle rustling. It was artifact rustling. Problem is, we never figured out who did it or why exactly." Janice frowned, almost talking to herself. "It's not like the stuff was overly valuable, either. Most items were fairly common. Still, I can't shake the feeling that it matters somehow."
After a few seconds of silence, Mel responded reasonably, "Never mind, Janice. You're here with me now and that dig is behind you." She covered Janice's hand with her own and gave it a soft squeeze. She was happy to be rewarded with a gentle smile tugging at the corners of Janice's mouth.
"I have a surprise for you, Mel."
Janice pointed to the west again. While they were talking, the sun was sinking. Now, a beautiful reddish golden sunset stretched out before them. There was a square adobe mission church not too far in the distance that had a bell tower on it. The mission and the Seven Sleeping Sisters were shaded in black and outlined against the sunset. The mission bell suddenly rang with low, sweet tones. "Oh, my!" breathed Mel.
"I have another surprise for you, Mel."
Mel stared questioningly at the young archaeologist. Janice pointed behind them to the Sandia Mountains that lined the valley to the east of Albuquerque. Mel stared and blinked. The sky was a deep blue and had a special guest... the moon. Underneath the sky and moon, the mountains turned a luminescent red, reflecting the sunset's light. "Oh, Janice!" Mel whispered. "I think I know why this is called the Land of Enchantment!"
Janice laughed softly. "Are you absolutely sure?"
Mel didn't know what Janice meant by that, but she let it go for now.
"Mel, I have one more surprise for you. Welcome to New Mexico!"
When Mel turned her eyes away from the Sandias, she saw that Janice was holding a box out for her. "Why, Dr. Covin'ton, you're just full of surprises, aren't you?" She gratefully took it and opened it. She unwrapped the cotton. "It's beautiful! Thank you!" She examined the necklace as well as she could in the dark and turned her face towards Janice's. Their gazes met for a moment. "Janice, would you put this on me, please?"
Janice crawled on hands and knees to Mel and carefully draped the necklace around Mel's neck. She fastened it and crawled back to her place on the lawn blanket.
"Now, I have a surprise for you." Mel felt around in her jacket pocket and brought out a silver lighter that had a slice of inlaid turquoise. Janice examined it, closed her eyes, and felt each part of it as if she wanted to memorize what it looked and felt like. Then, she opened her eyes and looked at Mel.
"Thank you," Janice said with a heartfelt gratitude. She smiled slightly.
The two women said nothing more in the gathering darkness. They watched as the planets showed themselves, then the stars came out one by one, lighting themselves like little heavenly candles and flickering like real flames. Out on the West Mesa, peace reigned, too. The Seven Sleeping Sisters slumbered silently.
Albuquerque, New Mexico: April 8, 1949
"Well, whenever you're ready to come back, find these scrolls and they'll help you call for Aphrodite. She'll bring you back."
Janice watched as Xena, who looked a lot like Mel, instructed a strange man. Somehow, she knew he was Greek. Janice scanned the land around her. It appeared fairly barren and uninviting, with outcrops of lava rocks between which weeds grew abundantly. It was sunny, but the wind blew hard, making everyone shiver a little. There was a river a little way away, some forest alongside the river, and mountains far off in the distance.
Xena put the last of the scrolls in a lava bed's hollow and arranged pieces of lava rock haphazardly on top so nobody would notice that particular lava bed had been tampered with. She pointed to the trail nearby.
"Just mark your way on a map and you'll be fine. Take a good look at this trail and remember it."
She turned to Janice, laying a loving hand on her shoulder and favoring her with the blue light of her gaze.
"Ready to go, Gabrielle?"
Before Janice could reply, she abruptly woke up. Argo licked her face.
"Good morning, girl!" Janice scratched Argo behind the ears, not particularly happy about being woken up, but glad to have a friend sit with her while she was still half asleep and confused about her dream. Confusion about something was one of the rare things that unsettled Janice.
Mel popped her head into the sala to see if Janice was awake. "Good morning, Janice."
"Morning, Mel. How'd you sleep?"
Mel hesitated a bit with her answer, "Just fine."
Janice was too groggy and too confused by her own dream to catch Mel's hesitation.
Los Lunas, New Mexico: April 8, 1949
After Janice and Mel offered their goodbyes and thanks to Louie and Maria, they left on a short sightseeing tour of Albuquerque. Janice then topped off the gas tank and headed them to Los Lunas, a small town not far south of Albuquerque. They arrived at noon.
"Hey, Mel! Let's go see the site first. Whaddya say?" After the dream Janice had the night before, she was eager to see the site.
Janice's enthusiasm was infectious. Mel's eagerness stemmed from her own reasons.
Janice turned onto a small road that headed towards the site.
Janice caught the uneasy tone in Mel's voice. "Yeah?"
"I think I've been here before."
"I think I've been here before," Mel repeated.
"But how, Mel? You've never been to New Mexico before, have you?"
Mel's eyes narrowed. "Not that I remember, but some of these rocks and the landscape seem familiar somehow."
The familiarity pressed in on Janice's mind, too. She didn't tell Mel that she'd had a dream the night before. She'd known that she and Mel periodically had Xena/Gabrielle dreams and that they were basically the same, except from different viewpoints. Janice always dreamed from behind Gabrielle's eyes and Mel dreamed from Xena's point of view. In any case, she made a mental note to take notice of the dream if she had it again that night.
"Don't worry about it now, sweetheart. Just enjoy the ride." Janice, with her eyes on the road, flashed one of her trademark grins.
They were silent for most of the ride. Janice parked and they hiked a good way along a trail to a lava bed. Next to it, Janice dropped her pack, opened it, and got out a large sheet of paper and some charcoal. She handed it to Mel to make a rubbing of the message.
"So, whaddya think, sweetheart?"
"Oh, my!" Mel's blue eyes widened. "I thought maybe you were takin' me on a wild goose chase. I never expected this!"
Mel studied the surrounding lava, looked at the rock the message was carved into, and noticed some of the chalky weathering on the face of it. Still, it was in good shape. She kneeled down and made the charcoal rubbing.
"Do you think you can translate it?" Janice asked.
"Might take a while, but yeah, I think so. I think I know about the dialect, but I don't want to say anything just yet. I could be wrong."
"I doubt that."
The way Janice's green eyes sparkled in the bright white sunlight and the confidence Janice had in her made Mel's heart skip like it was playing hopscotch. Mel quickly refocused on the rubbing and decided it was clear enough to go back — to where? — and study it.
"Where are we goin' ta stay?"
"You might not believe this, Mel," Janice began with a sparkle in her eye and a twitch of the corner of her mouth, "but I have another surprise for you."
Mel laughed. "Okay, let's get goin'."
Everybody piled back into the car and Janice drove them back to Los Lunas. When they got there, Janice pulled up in front of a place that had an ornate black wrought iron fence around it with brick pillars guarding each side of the front gate. The front gate was only wide enough to admit pedestrians, but it was lovely with an old-fashioned lantern hanging from the arch over the top of the gate. There was a driveway — an entrance unknown to Mel and Janice — and a short lawn beyond the fence. Shade trees flanked the house.
"Oh, my," Mel breathed as she saw the structure beyond the fence.
"Thought you'd like it." Janice chuckled.
The house partly mimicked an old Southern mansion. It was two stories high with white trim, four long, white columns supporting the roof over the front porch, and a short walkway and four or five steps led up onto the porch. The porch itself only ran half the length of the front of the house, so in between the porch and the front parlor's window, climbing vines filled the space from the ground to the top of the mansion.
The mansion's building material was beautiful, too. Instead of red brick, the mansion's walls were covered in adobe that made it look like it had gotten a good suntan, a great contrast with the columns and the trim. A small sign proclaimed it "The Luna Mansion".
Elfego Otero, nephew of the last lady of the house, Josefita "Pepe" Otero, opened the front door, strolled down the walkway, and opened the front gate to greet the ladies.
"Hola, senoritas! Welcome to the Luna Mansion!"
"Hola, Elfego," Janice greeted him warmly with a smile and a hearty handshake. "Everything set?"
"I believe so, Doctora Covington, but let me show you a thing or two inside."
Elfego escorted Janice into the house and left Argo and Mel trailing along outside, free to come or stay as they wished. Mel sauntered through the gate, gazed up at the beautiful façade of the building, and stretched happily. She couldn't imagine feeling so at home in the Southwest, despite the beauty of the land.
Suddenly, a brown blur shot off the roof, landed with a small thud and rustling of leaves in the tree overhead, and before she knew it, a little furry body scampered down the tree. It jumped the last few feet down, twisted its body, landed with another thump, and hissed at Argo. Argo, terribly surprised and scared, ran for cover behind Mel. Argo poked her head around Mel's legs to figure out what in the world just happened. At that moment, Janice and Elfego stepped onto the porch to see the last part of the incident. When Janice saw Argo cowering behind Mel, she turned to the little furry body, and roared, "What the HELL did you do to my dog, you little — "
"Janice!" Mel yelled to interrupt what she was sure would be sailor talk in front of Elfego. She started giggling, nervously at first.
"What's so funny?!" Janice shouted.
"You're swearing at a little kitten!" Mel and Elfego both laughed. Janice still looked displeased.
"C'mere, Argo. C'mon, girl, it's okay."
Argo padded towards Janice, looking back behind her every few steps, not trusting the devil-spawned kitten. Janice leaned over, scratched Argo between the ears, and soothed her.
The kitten was funky-looking like all little cats are. It had a small, slender body, head that looked too big for it, and ears that looked too big for its head. The kitten had beautiful white paws, rings of white around its eyes, plenty of brown and gray fur, and lots of black stripes. It also had white around its chin and neck with a stripe going down its chest as if it were wearing a white t-shirt that was showing underneath the brown and gray striped shirt over it. The kitten was a tiger/tabby kind of cat. Mel watched the little cat hold its ground and laughed harder.
"What?" Janice asked with anger and annoyance tinting the question.
Mel held her sides, took some calming breaths, and blurted, "She acts just like you, Janice! She may be little, but she has a biiiiiiiiiig attitude!" Mel turned her eyes to Elfego. "Do you know who owns her?"
"Then I think we should call her J.J., short for Janice Junior."
Janice, touched at the tribute but still angry, calmly stated, "It's not a girl, Mel."
Mel blushed. "Oh, my!"
Mel leaned over and held her hand out to the kitten to see if he'd come. His defenses came down, his bluish-gray eyes got a softer look in them, and he stepped towards Mel. He sniffed her hand a little, then he allowed her to pick him up. She talked to him. "Goodness, you can't be very old, little fella. But you're sure friendly, aren't you?" She hugged him. "What're we goin' ta call you, you little stuntman? That's it! We'll call you 'Stuntman'! What do you think?" He wriggled happily in reply.
Argo crept towards Mel, curiosity about the kitten finally overcoming her. She sniffed at the kitten, the kitten nosed her, and they made up. Oh, no! Janice covered her eyes and rubbed them. She knew what was coming next.
"Janice?" Mel asked softly. "Can we keep him?"
Janice knew she couldn't deny Mel anything. What the hell, Janice thought. He'd make a nice addition to the family. Whoa! Where'd that thought come from?
As Janice turned to go back into the house, she gave a flip of her hand as her okay to keep Stuntman.
Mel set Stuntman down to play with Argo while she talked with Elfego and asked him about the history of the Luna Mansion and Los Lunas itself.
"Well, Doctora Pappas -- "
"Please call me Mel," Mel offered.
"And please call me Elfego. As I was saying, 'Los Lunas' roughly means 'The Place Where the Lunas Dwell'. Domingo de Luna came here in 1692 because the King of Spain gave him one of the famous Spanish land grants. Pedro Otero came a few years later for the same reason. In the 1800s, marriages between the two families' children created what was known as the Luna-Otero Dynasty in this part of New Mexico."
"But what about the mansion?"
"I was just getting to that. The railroad wanted to lay tracks through the original Luna hacienda — ranch — so they offered to build the Lunas a new home. That was in 1880. Family legend has it that the Lunas had visited the South and wanted their new home to look like a Southern mansion."
"Well, it sure does!" Mel smiled widely.
"Gracias, senorita. Some of the better changes in the house were due to a very loving, creative woman, my Tia Josefita. Aunt Josefita also did a lot of the artwork hanging in the house."
Elfego said his goodbye and walked away. After a few steps, though, he turned back to Mel. "By the way, Mel, my wife and I are having a costume party tomorrow." Elfego pointed next door where he lived. "There will be lots of good food and music. You and Doctora Covington should come. It would be pleasant to have you grace us with your presence." He knew it was short notice, especially for a costume party, so he left his invitation open-ended. They didn't have to give him an answer whether they would come or not, but he sincerely hoped they would.
"Thank you, Elfego. I'll ask Janice."
"Buenas noches." Elfego left just as Janice came back out to get the luggage.
"What was that all about?" Janice asked.
"We've been invited to a costume party tomorrow night. Want ta go?"
"We'll see. First of all, help me get the luggage upstairs, wouldja?"
The ladies got what they needed from the car and dragged it up the front steps.
"Geez, Mel! What in the world do you have in here?"
"Just clothes," Mel called over her shoulder.
Janice grunted as she got the trunk up the steps to the front porch. Just inside the front door, she paused to catch her breath. She eyed the flight of stairs that led to the second floor where their bedrooms were and stood on the first step for a moment. As she gathered the will to attack the stairs, she smelled a heavenly scent, the wonderful odor that filled kitchens, college classrooms, and other morning gathering places all across America. She perked at the thought. Oh, man! I could use a cup of coffee right now, even if it's as thick as Mississippi River mud!
Janice abandoned the trunk in search of the coffee. She strode to the kitchen, had a good look around, and came out baffled. There wasn't a coffee pot anywhere, certainly none with any coffee in it, and the coffee's aroma didn't permeate the kitchen, either. She looked in all the other rooms on the first floor, pretty sure she wouldn't find any in there, either. She was right, but the coffee smell still lingered at the bottom of the stairs. Then, she climbed the stairs to the second floor and sniffed. The coffee odor seemed to come from the bottom of the stairs. Janice went down the stairs sniffing all the way. Now, there was no coffee scent at all. Janice was terribly confused.
Mel appeared at the head of the stairs and watched Janice. "What're you doin' sniffin' 'round like an ol' bloodhound?"
"Nothing. Just thought I smelled coffee."
Mel sighed. "Wishful thinkin', I bet."
"Maybe so," Janice agreed, her voice trailing off. Still, she knew she'd smelled coffee.
"Well, bring the trunk along," Mel called.
Janice did so and the trunk banged into the backs of her legs with each step up the stairs. Sore and grumpy by the time she got up the stairs, Janice's complaint was cut short when Mel gave her a radiant smile and relieved her of the trunk. Mel dragged it to the northeast bedroom.
"I'm sorry I didn't consult you about bedrooms, Janice, but I have a feelin' this one's mine." She pointed to Stuntman who was already curled up and napping on the pillow on the right side of the bed. Argo lay on the floor to the left of the bed, her head on her paws, looking at Janice.
"It's okay. I'll take the one across the hall." Janice picked up her bag from the hallway and entered the northwest bedroom. She flung her bag on her bed and gazed at the Tiffany lamp on a table. Instead of crystals dangling from the stained glass lampshade, there was a beautiful fringe that Janice appreciated. She decided that the bedroom would suit her nicely.
Janice paused in the doorway of her bedroom and called Argo. "C'mon, girl!"
Argo lifted her eyebrows, questioning Janice, who in turn, questioned why Argo wasn't being obedient. "C'mon, Argo!"
The dog hesitantly rose, came across the hallway that wasn't very wide, and sniffed at the door to Janice's bedroom. Argo whimpered softly.
"What is it, girl?"
Janice grabbed Argo by her collar and tried to force the dog into the bedroom, but Argo remained stubborn and dug in as much as she could. Finally, Janice gave in. "Okay, but you're going to have to share a room with Stuntman."
After the animals were fed and Mel and Janice had a quick but satisfying meal, Janice took an old guitar she'd found in a closet and sat on the patio at the southwest end of the mansion. Janice took out a cigar, the same brand her father, Harry, had smoked, lit it with the lighter Mel gave her, and thought how much Harry would've loved the evening's sunset, how the day was going out in a real fiery blaze of glory. It had been several years since Mel's father and Harry died, but Janice still shed a tear or two sometimes when she thought about Harry. She felt like he'd been the only one in her life who'd truly understood her and loved her. She had to remind herself that she had friends everywhere in the world, but it just wasn't the same. Her buddies were good for drinking and laughing with, places to stay once in a while, and she'd even trust a select few with her life, but none of them really loved her, not like she needed to be loved. Not like I need Mel to love me. Janice faced the fact that part of her melancholy was due to missing Harry, but the major part of it was she didn't know how to tell Mel that she loved her or how to keep Mel if she told her she loved her.
Janice picked up the guitar, strummed a few chords absentmindedly, and started a song Harry used to sing to her when she was a young girl. Mostly, he sang the hauntingly beautiful song when he was sad or pensive, and Janice found herself singing it during those sad or quiet times, too. Harry, I miss you. Maybe you could tell me how the hell I should tell her I love her. She started singing three of the verses:
If I had wings like Noah's dove,
I'd fly up the river to the one I love.
Fare thee well, O, honey,
Fare thee well.
One of these days and it won't be long,
You'll call my name and I'll be gone.
Fare thee well, O, honey,
Fare thee well.
One of these nights was a' drizzlin' rain.
All 'round my heart was an aching pain.
Fare thee well, O, honey,
Fare thee well.
Janice didn't realize the sun was completely gone, nor did she hear footsteps or see the shadow behind her. Mel stopped in the doorway and listened until the third verse when she couldn't stand the sadness she heard in the voice. She gently interrupted.
"Janice, why are you out here bayin' at the moon like an old hound dog?"
"What is it with you and dog comparisons today?" Janice countered, trying to put a smile in her voice and failing miserably. She laid the guitar aside and leaned her arms on her chair's armrests.
Mel skipped turning on any lights. Instead, she scooted a chair next to Janice's and boldly took one of Janice's hands in her own. She was surprised and pleased that Janice didn't pull away, and they sat in the darkness for quite a long time before Mel quietly asked, "What's wrong, Janice?"
Janice mumbled only a half-truth, "Just thinking about Harry."
Mel could understand that. She still missed her father very much and remembered how his sudden death had blindsided her. There was just no easy way to deal with it. "You know," she began softly, "when I was working on the translation tonight, I thought about my daddy. It's like that every time I work."
"How can you stand work, then?"
"The reward for a job well done is greater than the pain of missin' Daddy, see?"
"I guess so." Janice sounded doubtful.
Mel squeezed Janice's hand. "Look, Jan, I don't think the pain ever completely goes away. You just have ta learn ta put it aside so you can get on with the everyday business of livin'. Now, I think of Daddy only a handful of times a day instead of all the time. Sometimes, though, I still miss him more than other times."
Janice sat quietly for a few minutes and took in what Mel was saying. Mel didn't expect a reply and she sure didn't expect what happened next. The normally brash young archaeologist nuzzled Mel's hand against her cheek for a moment and whispered, "Thanks, Mel."
Mel, surprised by Janice's tenderness, replied, "M -- my pleasure."
They sat silently for about fifteen minutes longer, then they heard a thump coming from inside.
"Stuntman," Mel quickly explained. "He's been runnin' 'round like that all night."
Janice got up, stretched, and went inside to see for herself. Mel followed. Janice saw Stuntman racing around the house as if the imps and gremlins that only cats see were chasing him. The mansion had plenty of rugs and some carpeting, but not enough to cover all the wood of the polished hardwood floors. When Stuntman tried turning a corner while he was on the wood, his claws couldn't gain purchase on the floor. Sometimes only his front or only his back claws caught a little, then he spun in 360-degree circles until he hit the wall. Mostly, he couldn't gain any traction at all and continued in his slide's direction until the wall abruptly changed the direction for him. He was literally bouncing off the walls. To Janice, it looked like a hard way to learn Newton's law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Mel chuckled and admonished the kitten, "Stuntman! Be careful! You're goin' ta break your neck!"
"We wouldn't want that to happen, now, would we?" Janice's voice dripped sarcasm.
Mel sighed. Ahhhhhhh, the many moods of Covin'ton. "Janice, be nice to Stuntman!"
Just as Mel said that, Stuntman turned the corner again and started a skid right in Janice's direction. Janice gracefully jumped over him, turned and saw him crash against the wall, and smiled. "I'll say one thing for the little monkey. He'd sure make a great pinball!"
Mel laughed again and Janice enjoyed the musical sound.
Janice turned to Stuntman and called after him, "If you break anything, it's coming out of your allowance!"
Mel laughed outright while Janice managed a chuckle at her own cleverness.
Janice followed Mel up the stairs to get ready for bed. While they went upstairs, Janice noted how strong Mel's calves looked and swallowed, thinking very dangerous thoughts.
While Janice finished unpacking, Mel went to the bathroom, washed her face, neck, and arms, brushed her hair and teeth, and changed into her white nightgown that was little more than a slip. She wrapped herself in her robe, picked up Stuntman, and went to their bedroom. There, she slipped out of her robe and laid it and Stuntman on the bed. She left the door only slightly ajar after Argo came in and settled herself on some pillows so she could sit up in bed and read for a little while. In a few minutes, she heard Janice walking down the hall presumably to finish getting ready for bed. Then, she heard Janice's voice. "Mel? What're you doing with your hair up like that?" Curious and confused, Mel tiptoed to the door and listened again. "And what're you doing dressed like that?" Mel looked down at herself, realized she wasn't wearing her robe, and was going back for it when she heard Janice yell, "GODDAM!"
The minute Mel opened her door, she had just enough time to brace herself before the blond archaeologist jumped into Mel's arms and wrapped her arms and legs around her. She also inadvertently knocked Mel's glasses off. Janice panted, heart fluttering wildly.
"My goodness, Janice! What's this all 'bout?"
Not wanting to let go of Mel just yet, Janice took a few initial quick breaths. Mel, happy enough to hold Janice, waited patiently and wondered at how light Janice was.
"I -- I thought it was you, Mel. A -- at first, th -- that is." Janice slowly extricated herself from Mel.
Mel retrieved her glasses and led Janice to a chair in the corner. She gave Janice the glass of water from the bedside table and seated herself on the bed. Janice took a few sips and gathered her breath. "Now, what did you think was me?"
"I swear, Mel, I thought it was you!" Janice repeated. "She was as solid as you are! She had her hair in a bun and wore a white skirt, kinda like flappers did in the '20s, remember?" Mel nodded and Janice continued. "At first, I thought she was you because she had dark hair like yours and her back was to me. As she turned around, she vanished!"
Mel calmly looked at Janice who was still agitated and spoke to her kindly, "Janice, don't forget that you work in some creepy places. We even tangled with a god of war, remember?"
"Yeah, but I've never come across anything like what's in this house of horrors!" Janice's temper replaced some of her fear. "That lady made me jump outta my skin!"
And into my arms. "Are you feelin' better?"
Calm down, Covington! Don't fall apart in front of Mel! Well, too late, Janice conceded to herself. She nodded although her hands still shook.
"Come on, Janice, stay here if you want."
"I'll sleep on the floor with Argo."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah. Compared to bare earth, floors aren't so bad." Janice noticed Stuntman asleep on the pillow where he'd had his nap that afternoon. "Guess his spring wound down." Mel smiled.
Janice found some extra blankets and pillows and made a comfortable nest for herself next to Argo. She looked Mel right in the eyes after Mel took off her glasses. "Thanks, Mel, for everything." A smile that reached Mel's impossibly blue eyes rewarded Janice's uncharacteristically sweet words.
"You're welcome. Good night, Janice."
Janice laid down on her back and petted Argo, finally falling asleep with her fingers entwined in the Newfoundland's soft black fur.
Luna Mansion, Los Lunas, New Mexico: April 9, 1949
"How's it going, Mel?" Janice asked as she carried a plate with mild tacos on it and set it on the corner of the desk where Mel was working.
Mel didn't notice the sandwich or look up from her work. Awe and reverence filled her voice as she answered Janice, "It's amazin', Janice! It's an early Greek dialect that hasn't been used in over 2000 years! I'm writin' the letters now, then I'll have ta go back and fill in the vowels. Greeks didn't inscribe vowels because it took a long time chiselin' each word."
Janice danced a little victory jig and pestered Mel again, "What does it say? How long before you're done?"
"Janice," Mel tried to reply patiently, "It'll be done as soon as I can finish it. It might take a few more days. You'll just have ta be patient."
Feigning a pouting, sour mood, Janice said, "Oh, all right." Then Janice brightened. "Say, you deserve a break, Mel. How 'bout going to Elfego's shindig tonight?"
"Isn't it a bit short notice, Janice? I can't think of a costume."
"That's okay. I'm sure you'll think of something. I know I have." Janice wiggled her eyebrows meaning to be mysterious but ending up comical.
"What are you goin' as?"
"Meet me there, sweetheart," Janice replied, finally being mysterious. When Mel started to protest again, Janice told her, "You really need a break. You deserve some fun!"
"Oh, all right. But if you won't tell me what you're goin' as, I won't let you know, either. Deal?"
"Deal." Janice looked forward to being surprised, too.
Mel put the finishing touches on her costume and called out upstairs, "No peekin', Janice! That's the deal!"
Janice called back, "No problem. I'll be over there with you in just a few minutes." Janice heard the door shut as Mel left and smiled to her own reflection in the mirror, pleased with the effect of her costume. If she had a chance with Mel, maybe the costume would help just a bit.
Elfego Otero's house, Los Lunas, New Mexico: April 9, 1949
"Buenas noches, Senorita Melinda. It's nice to see you tonight," Elfego greeted Mel when he answered the door and saw it was her. He gave her a charming smile that made her feel quite welcome. "Where is Doctora Covington?"
"She'll be along in a minute. She didn't want me ta see her costume before the party." Mel looked down at herself a little self-consciously. "I'm afraid my costume isn't much."
"Senorita, you look absolutely wonderful! Maybe you would favor us with a song later," Elfego teased. He smiled and nodded in the direction where a small orchestra was setting up.
Mel gave him a half smile, still doubtful whether she passed as someone who dressed for a costume party. She wore a slinky blue-sequined dress with a slit up the side and carried a microphone, dressed as a big band singer. Several people noticed her, including the group of New Mexican friends who dressed up as a whole mariachi band. They took off their hats, gave her a warm welcoming smile, bowed and then they returned to talking with the other partygoers. The mariachi men were more polite than the man dressed as a medieval knight who stared openly at her. He was tall, had short blond hair, perfect white teeth, and blue eyes that almost matched her own. When she noticed he was carrying his helmet, she also saw his perfectly manicured hands. He was quite handsome, or more correctly, pretty, but for some unknown reason, Mel didn't like him much. He came over anyway.
"Good evening, miss. My name is Dr. John Ratner."
Oh, so he's inta formal titles, is he? Mel plastered her best polite Southern smile on her face and introduced herself, matching his formal title. "I'm Dr. Melinda Pappas."
Dr. Ratner's face flashed a momentary surprise. "It's a pleasure meeting you, Dr. Pappas." He reached for Mel's hand and kissed it. When his eyes were downcast during the kiss, Mel rolled her eyes. "I hope I shall see you often during the course of the evening."
"I'm sure you will," Mel replied politely as she was thinking about another blonde. Come on, Janice! Come on! Don't leave me with people like him all night!
Mel wandered around the room, snagged a glass of champagne and a cracker with cheese on it, and mingled for a while. After she spoke with Elfego for a while, she met one of the men dressed as a member of a mariachi band. Marcos turned out to be a real vaquero (cowboy) and described to her some of the English cowboy terms that came from Spanish words, like "lariat" that came from the Spanish "la reata". The man was polite, charming, and had Mel laughing when they discussed words in one language that didn't translate well into another language. Best of all, Marcos sensed that Mel didn't appreciate Dr. Ratner's advances, so he took it upon himself to make sure the gorgeous Southerner was always engaged in conversation with someone other than Ratner. Luckily, Marcos found himself chatting with Mel for most of the time until Mel turned around slowly. Marcos followed Mel's eyes across the room and saw she was gazing at a petite Zorro whose eyes behind the mask were full of hot green fire. Whereas Mel had been a pleasurable companion, she had been somewhat demure. Now, however, Marcos found a woman with a personal power and charisma radiating from her that was far beyond his ability to explain the sudden change.
"I beg your pardon, Melinda. I seem to have monopolized your charming company so far this evening. If you will excuse me, please." Marcos left unobtrusively when he realized Mel wasn't listening to him.
From across the room, Janice noticed the tallest woman around, the Southerner. Mel had her back to Janice, but Janice noticed the slinky blue dress, the slit up one leg, the creamy-skinned back, and her heart flipped. Easy, Covington, she cautioned herself. She took a moment to gain her composure then cleared the doorway's shadow and stepped into the room. She rested one hand on the hilt of the fake sword that was in its scabbard and held a single red rose with the other hand. Her Zorro costume helped mask any self-consciousness that she might've had and she felt like her usual dashing self. Using her recovered bravado and pretending a light tone, Janice strode over to Mel to say hello.
"Nice costume," Janice opened.
Mel colored slightly. "I'm afraid it's not as creative as yours."
Janice smiled and reassured Mel, "Doesn't matter, sweetheart. It suits you fine."
Mel returned the compliment, careful to match Janice's lighter tone, "You don't look half bad, either. Did you get the cape from the parlor curtains?"
Janice chuckled. "Nope. It's my security blanket."
Mel laughed hard, appreciating Janice's ability to make fun of herself once in a while. Janice transferred the rose to her sword hand, stopped a waiter, and snagged a glass of champagne. She and Mel then turned to the band, listened a bit, voiced their appreciation of the fine music, and talked about inconsequential things. They were having a good time when the medieval knight came around to chat with Mel.
"Ratner!" Janice growled.
Although Ratner's surprise at running into Janice flashed briefly in his face, he greeted her curtly. "Covington."
Janice glared at him from behind her mask. Her upper lip curled under itself, baring her clenched teeth. She spoke with a dangerous tone in her voice and low enough for just the three of them to hear clearly. "Keep out of my way. You hear me? If you don't understand that, then how 'bout this? Steer clear of me or I'll make your life a living hell."
Dumbfounded and not understanding, Mel just stared at Janice. Ratner continued smoothly, "Is that a threat, Covington?"
Janice shot a fleeting smile and continued in a hard, threatening voice, "'Threat' is such an ugly word in such a beautiful place as this." She waved her hand expansively, indicating the room, while her eyes stayed locked on his.
Before Ratner could continue, dinner was announced. Since Ratner judged anything else he could say would only add fuel to the fire and he was not in a mood to deal with Covington's famous temper, he found his way to a table. As Janice guided Mel to another table, Mel said, "My goodness! What was that all about?"
Janice, still red-hot angry at seeing Ratner said, "Mel, let's talk about this later. Let's try to enjoy tonight."
"Okay." Mel already knew enough not to inflame Janice further.
Janice found two places side-by-side at the table and their backs were turned to Ratner. Mel noticed the women gathering around one long table while the men gathered around another table. The party mixed American and Spanish and Mexican customs left over from New Mexico's days as Spanish and Mexican territory. Janice saw the question in Mel's look and grateful for the opportunity to change the subject, Janice explained, "It's an old New Mexican custom. At large gatherings like these, men used to sit at their own table separate from the women. It's like being sent to the drawing room even before dinner is served. But just wait until after dinner." Janice smiled knowingly and winked once at Mel.
Dinner proceeded pleasantly with a delicious blend of American and Mexican dishes, and the other women surrounding Janice and Mel were wonderful company. After dinner, the dishes were cleared away as all the ladies remained at the table and brought out little pouches. The women dug out hojas (leaves; in this case, leaves of paper) from small tins and loose tobacco from their pouches and rolled their own cigarillos. Mel's eyes widened as they lit the cigarillos and smoked. "You mean ta tell me --?"
Janice laughed and cut Mel's question short. "Yep! Another tradition. Old habits die hard."
Mel fought valiantly to keep her nose from wrinkling in disgust. "Oh, my."
"Don't worry. The men will rejoin us soon. You can mingle some more or dance a little." Janice kept her tone light and reassuring though she didn't like the thought of someone else dancing with Mel.
For her part, Mel hoped nobody would ask Janice and Mel even had a little surprise to keep Janice's attention, if she could get a little help from Elfego. She had to do something about the bittersweet squeeze of her heart every time she was near Janice. When the men rejoined the women, Mel excused herself and immediately sought him out. After a quick secret conference, Elfego talked with the band leader during the next break. When the band's break was over, Mel had a quick word with the band leader, gave Elfego the microphone that went with her costume, grabbed the real microphone. She took off her glasses because she didn't want to see the people watching her, but she could still identify Janice's form without having to squint. She could see Janice was having a good, lively discussion with Marcos.
The band finished the introduction to the romantic jazz ballad and Mel sang in her surprisingly rich voice:
Daydream, why do you haunt me so.
I'm deep in a rosy glow.
The face of my love you show.
Mel saw Janice turn her way and stare. She didn't remember much of the song until she came to another section.
Don't know the time,
Lordy, I'm in a daze.
Sun in the sky
While I moon around feeling hazy...
Mel sang the rest of the song, finishing by begging the daydream to not stop until she knew if her lover daydreamed like she did.
Janice drifted closer to the stage. She noticed Mel's crystal blue gaze aimed right at her during the song and wanted to hear another captivating ballad from her siren. She wasn't disappointed. After a quick meeting with the band leader again, the band played the introduction to "My Funny Valentine". Mel proceeded through the song, added emphasis to the line, "Is your figure less than Greek," because of the special connection that she and Janice had to Greece. Beautiful violins and cellos backed her up as she tenderly sang the last few lines:
Don't change a hair for me
Not if you care for me.
Stay, little valentine, stay.
Each day is Valentine's Day.
Janice felt her heart flip. Do I have a chance after all? She led the cheers enthusiastically as Mel slipped on her glasses, bowed briefly, and got off the stage area. Janice slipped a hand into Mel's and gave it a quick, heartfelt squeeze. "Mel! That was wonderful! I didn't know you could sing."
"You never asked," Mel replied modestly.
"You really should do it more often."
Mel smiled meekly and blushed a little from the compliment and the excitement.
"Now, why don't you go get something to drink to refresh those lovely pipes of yours."
Janice was eager to get rid of Mel so she could plan her own response to Mel's performance. She sought out Elfego when Mel was out of her line of sight. Elfego rolled his eyes and smiled, wondering what game was going on, but he agreed with Janice's plan. He waited for Janice to hide herself in the shadows behind the first row of bushes in the garden — just beyond the patio — then he wrangled up very small section of the band made up of violin, flute, and cello players. He gave them Janice's instructions and waited for them to situate themselves on the garden path that led to the patio.
Mel got another glass of champagne, took a sip, and then Ratner cornered her again. She laid the champagne glass back down on the table and tried to excuse herself but Ratner wouldn't let her go without a good excuse. Marcos passed by, made excuses for himself and Ratner, and led Mel away to talk a little more. After Mel expressed her thanks for the rescue and Marcos complimented her on her performance, Elfego interrupted them. "Excuse me, Melinda, Marcos." Marcos left when he saw that Elfego wanted a private word with Mel. "Melinda, it appears you have an admirer."
"Really." Mel made it more of a statement than a real question. It could've been one of few people that she'd met that evening and she didn't see any of them in sight, however, she was hoping it wouldn't be Ratner. She knew very well who she hoped it would be.
"Follow me, please?" Elfego offered Mel his arm. Mel took it and he escorted her to the marble bench in the middle of the patio. Elfego withdrew his arm, she sat, and she waited a bit impatiently to see what would happen.
Mel saw the three band members and was curious. They began to play what sounded like a very old Irish air, a courtly ballad. With more emphasis on the cello and light, sweet violin and flute, a voice sang from behind the bush. Soon, a petite form appeared from the shadows and the moon shone like an enchanting spotlight that blessed Zorro. She had a fresh, large red rose in her hand that she pretended to sniff thoughtfully before she turned her full attention to Mel. She sang:
Black, black, black is the color of my true love's hair.
Her face is something wondrous fair.
And the purest eyes and the daintiest hands.
I love the ground on which she stands.
I love my love and well she knows.
I'll follow her where'er she goes.
I will write her a letter containing these lines:
"I'll suffer death a thousand times."
I'll go to Troublesome to mourn, to weep.
But satisfied, I ne'er can keep
If she on earth no more would stay,
My life would quickly fade away.
Black, black, black is the color of my true love's hair.
Alone, my life would be so bare.
I would sigh, I would weep, I never more would sleep.
My love is way beyond compare.
Black, black, black is the color of my true love's hair.
Her face is something wondrous fair.
And the purest eyes and the daintiest hands.
I love the ground on which she stands.
Black, black, black is the color of my true love's hair.
Janice carefully crafted each note, each word, and savored the feel of each word rolling around in her mouth, but although she was careful, she didn't rein in her heart and soul; she let them fly as far and free as they could. She tapped the part of her that she associated with Gabrielle to help her express the passion that she always found awkward to try to express in words. Even though the lyrics were somebody else's words, she felt each word keenly and laid them bare at Mel's feet, hoping she didn't misunderstand Mel's message earlier.
As the night claimed the last beautiful quivering note, Mel's smile lit up the night and encouraged Janice. The band quietly left as Janice bowed deeply to Mel and Mel daintily laid a hand on the marble bench next to her, an invitation for the romantic Zorro to join her. Janice's eyes locked on Mel's and stayed there while Janice slowly climbed the steps that led to the porch. When she got to Mel, she lifted Mel's hand, kissed it reverently, and let her lips linger for a moment, all the while gazing at Mel. Janice sat as she slowly released Mel's hand. She broke some of the long stem from the rose and fixed it behind Mel's left ear. "Thank you," Mel whispered, her voice barely a ripple in the spell surrounding them. Janice's reply was a large smile.
They sat staring at each other for a long time, not needing to say anything because everything was written in their eyes and flowing from their souls. Finally, Mel reached behind Janice to unmask Zorro so she could see Janice's lovely face better. When Mel slipped the black silk off Janice's face, Janice gently caught her wrist and drew her in for a tentative, tender kiss which deepened in intensity. When the kiss finally ended and they drew back for breath, Mel gave a throaty chuckle.
Mel spoke in almost a whisper, love and passion still edging her voice, "My mama told me that when I kissed 'the one', I'd hear violins or maybe even a full orchestra."
Janice laughed a little when she realized the orchestra's music drifted out to the patio. Appropriately enough, they were playing "Isn't It Romantic". Her laughter stopped as suddenly as it started and she spoke with all the tenderness in her heart, "Oh, sweet Melinda!" That earned the happy archaeologist another searing kiss, one that finally revealed a truth to her. She'd known for a long time that something was missing from her life and she was tired of being lonely. Mel had been missing.
After gathering her thoughts and her breath, Mel gazed into the green depths of Janice's eyes and smiled as if the best-kept secret in the world just revealed itself to her. "I know why New Mexico is called The Land of Enchantment."
Janice smiled, cute crinkles adorning the corners of her eyes and the bridge of her nose. "Thought you'd figure it out. How 'bout blowing this joint, sweetheart?"
Mel gazed at her with passion-darkened eyes. "Good idea."
They thanked Elfego for a wonderful evening and said their goodbyes as quickly as they could without seeming rude, then they strolled home arm-in-arm, enjoying how clearly the stars shone in the desert sky.
Luna Mansion, Los Lunas, New Mexico: April 9, 1949
After Janice unlocked the gate, let Mel through, then passed through herself, she saw a Mexican man on the front lawn. She thought he was a robber. Immediately, she grabbed Mel's wrist to halt her, then she charged after the man. "Hey, you!" The man turned, smiled, nodded his head, and vanished into thin air just a step before Janice got to him, and when she grabbed at where his collar was, her hand passed right through an unusually cold spot in the warm night air. Startled, Janice halted suddenly and slid across the grass on her feet. Instead of bolting and jumping on Mel again, she stood her ground and sweated in sudden fear.
Mel came up behind her. "Did I ever say how fetchin' you look when you're scared outta your wits?"
Janice could only stare at her, mouth agape, still surprised at the intruder that wasn't.
"Come on," Mel whispered. She unlocked the door, led Janice by the hand, and got Janice settled on the front parlor couch. She poured a whiskey for the shocked blond. Janice gratefully accepted it and downed it in one gulp, grimacing a little as the fire burned down her throat. She waved her glass at Mel in a silent request for another, which Mel poured.
"Geez, Mel! There's no end to the creeping creepies 'round here, is there?"
Janice sounded so dejected that Mel couldn't help feeling sorry for the usually-brave archaeologist, and teasing Janice about being at home in creepy places quickly left the list of things Mel wanted to do, especially since she knew the only reason Janice rented the place was because she thought it might remind Mel a bit of home.
"No," Mel admitted quietly as she moved to sit next to Janice on the couch. "But on the bright side, Jan, our ghost friends are friendly."
"What?!" Janice blurted. "How do you know?"
Mel's eyes suddenly dropped and focused on an interesting spot on the carpet that Janice couldn't see. "I asked Elfego."
"Well, I'm glad he doesn't think we're loco," Janice snorted. "And that's just what I need, a 'friend' who gives me a heart attack every time we meet!"
Mel valiantly stifled a laugh.
"Go on," Janice stated.
"If Elfego told you about them, then you might as well explain it to me."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah. Go on. Tell me about our 'buddies'."
"The ghost you met last night was Aunt Josefita. She was a very creative woman. Elfego doesn't know why any of the ghosts around haunt the place, but he thinks it was because this was their home and they were happy here. Josefita is mostly felt on the second floor because she had a heart attack right near the top of the stairs. The gentleman patrollin' our abode is Luiz or Cruz. Nobody seems to agree on his name. He was a servant and is friendly to women and children. Don't know why he doesn't like men partic'larly."
"Any more 'surprises'?"
"Well, Jan, there are probably one or two others, though Elfego didn't know much 'bout them."
The characteristic Covington sarcasm came through in Janice's voice again, "Great!"
"Awwwww, come on, Janice, I'll protect you." The corners of Mel's mouth lifted in a beautiful half smile. Then, she broke out laughing.
"Okay, I'm counting on you!" Janice leaned against Mel.
Suddenly finding herself with a blonde leaning against her, Mel did the only thing that felt natural. She pulled Janice into a great big hug and let Janice use her as a backrest. She rubbed Janice's arm until the smaller woman calmed from her fright.
"Tell me 'bout Dr. Rat?" Mel felt Janice's body stiffen at the mention of Ratner.
"It's actually Dr. Ratner," Janice replied. Mel frowned. "But I like your version better. More appropriate." Janice shrugged slightly. "He's a big-time loser who's faked his way through everything from school to his so-called 'career' in archaeology. He tries to get by on his family's money, his good looks, and takes the credit for things he didn't really do. Some say he's a thief, though nobody is ever able to prove it. He takes the easy way out of everything and doesn't like to get his hands dirty."
Mel considered Janice's words for a moment. "I declare, he sounds like a real unsavory character."
"Yeah. Geez, Mel, I still remember his eyes." Janice stiffened again. "We were in a hallway at our university once. The professor had just posted the grades outside his office. I was head of the class that semester and Ratner was near the bottom. When he saw the list, he got really angry, you know, and glared at me with a look in his eye like he was a taco short of a taco plate. You know, he's the kind of pig who hates it when women are better at anything than he is. I don't think he's naturally evil, though I know for sure he's stupid. Those kinds of folks are even scarier than the clever ones sometimes, you know? They trick you into thinking they're too dumb, you get overconfident, and then is when they have you. And professional jealousy is high up on his list of failings, too. He gave me that same crazed look when I beat him to a dig once. There were other digs that we were both on where I found the real treasures and he found just the nickel-and-dime stuff." Janice paused. "If he's here now, I wonder if he had anything to do with stuff missing from the last dig. It seems like wherever I go, he's usually not far behind. Can't be a coincidence." Janice frowned.
"I don't know him, but I trust your judgment. I guess we'd better keep our distance from Mr. Rat."
Mel gave Janice a little squeeze and stifled a yawn. It was great just to hold Janice, sit, and talk with her until the small hours of the morning. Her body felt like a live electrical wire, thrumming with energy, and she noticed that it happened only when Janice was around. The closer Janice was, the more her body hummed with the comforting electricity.
After stifling another yawn, Mel said, "I don't know about you, Janice, but I don't think I could make it up those stairs right now."
Janice, her own body reverberating like a plucked guitar string, replied, "I don't want to move an inch. I like it riiiight here."
Mel chuckled sleepily, "You do, do you?" In the dim light, she noticed Janice's profile and how happy and incredibly young she looked. She felt Janice nod her reply. "Well then, goodnight, Janice," Mel whispered tenderly before sleep claimed them both.
In her dream, Mel surveyed the open land and studied the lava rock formation. She was satisfied that it was distinctive enough that the strange man in front of her could remember where everything was. From where she was standing, a similar but slightly different voice spoke, giving the man final instructions in curt sentences. "Well, whenever you're ready to come back, find these scrolls and they'll help you call for Aphrodite. She'll bring you back. Just mark your way on a map and you'll be fine. Take a good look at this trail and remember it. Ready to go, Gabrielle?"
Mel saw Janice standing in front of her, nodding her head, yet she knew it wasn't Janice; it was history whispering down to her from the mists of Time. Still, she didn't know the whole context of the story because it was only that one little fragmented part of the scene that came back to her in her dreams. She could see Gabrielle, knew she'd see Xena if she looked down at herself, and saw the blonde Aphrodite dressed in pink lingerie and wearing an uncharacteristically sad look in her eyes, directed at the strange man. The man nodded his thanks, strode a few paces until he found a flat surface that satisfied him, and started chipping away at it with some tool that Mel couldn't see because the man's back was to her. That was as far as she ever got in the dream.
Luna Mansion, Los Lunas, New Mexico: April 10, 1949
Janice's gentle laughter woke her up. "Mornin', sunshine," Janice began, "I didn't mean to wake you up."
Mel's bright blue eyes blinked a few times as her hand fumbled around for her glasses on end table. She assumed Janice was the one that put them there. "It's all right, Jan. It's a wonderful sound to wake up to." Mel blushed when she realized she actually said the second part. Janice flashed her a big, bright grin.
"Look at those two." Janice pointed to the floor and chuckled again. "Pathetic!"
Mel chuckled, too, when she saw Argo curled up asleep with Stuntman sleeping nestled in the fur on her back. She assessed him for a minute. "That boy is either brave or suicidal."
Janice laughed. "I can't believe Argo's letting a kitten sleep on her!" Argo chose that moment to open an eye, raise an eyebrow, and blink at her mistress. "Get a little dignity, girl," Janice teased her. Argo closed her eye and went back to sleep.
Mel smiled. "Leave her alone, Janice. I think they're cute."
"Speaking of cute...." Janice looked into Mel's eyes, took her hand, and gave it a soft kiss. Changing her mind about pushing things too far too fast, Janice then announced, "I'm gonna go clean up and make us some breakfast."
As Mel's eyes followed Janice's retreating form up the stairs, she sighed. She was happy that Janice's spirits greatly lifted since last night, but she was wondering when Janice would make a real move on her or if it was up to her to make a move.
Mel got up, stretched, let Argo and Stuntman out back for a while, and went to clean up and dress for the day. She went back downstairs, let the animals in, and started work. She was close to finishing the translation when Stuntman came roaring out of the kitchen, Argo following closely. Argo turned around to face the kitchen door, stood her ground, and growled. "What is it, girl?" Mel asked, curious about the dog's strange behavior.
Argo padded over to her, toenails clicking on the floor where there was no carpeting, and nuzzled Mel's hand. Then Argo went back to the kitchen door and growled again. She repeated the process a few times. Mel chose to ignore her, thinking that the dog was as crazy as her mistress. Argo, knowing she was being ignored, finally settled down by Mel's side, but her eyes stayed glued to the kitchen door.
A few minutes later, Janice called from the kitchen, "What do you need, honey?"
Mel, absorbed in her work, didn't hear her.
Janice's head popped out from behind the kitchen door. "Mel?"
"Hmm?" came Mel's absentminded reply.
"You called me. What do you want?"
Mel focused on Janice, very confused. "I didn't call you."
Janice stalked to the middle of the parlor. Her voice took on a harder edge than she meant, "Of course you did. I heard someone yell my name three times. I heard it as clearly as I hear you now."
Mel's voice took on its own hard insistent edge. "I assure you, I did not call you. I've been sittin' here workin' quietly."
The implication hit Janice and brought an overwhelming creepy feeling. At that moment, Stuntman, continuing his kittenish habit of racing around the mansion, bumped into the back of Janice's legs, seriously startling her. The famous Mad Dog Covington temper flared up and quickly suppressed her fear. "Stuntman! Get your tail back here!" Janice proceeded to question Stuntman's parentage in some very colorful language. Wisely, the kitten didn't heed Janice's instruction. Having nothing else to lash out at, Janice tilted her head back and roared at the room, "LEAVE ME ALONE! NO MORE GAMES!!!!!!!! YOU HEAR ME?" She grabbed the neck of the scotch bottle that was sitting on a table and shook the bottle violently. "THIS IS THE ONLY SPIRITS I'M INTERESTED IN!"
Janice's color and her anger fled quickly as she contemplated the kitchen door. Her knees looked like they were about to buckle as she sat — or more like fell — onto the couch. Mel immediately knew what was wrong, so she stood up and said, "If you're quite done, I'll bring breakfast."
Mel brought back two plates of scrambled eggs and toast that Janice had fixed. Janice thanked her in almost a whisper, cleared her throat, and said a little louder, "I'm sorry, Mel. I didn't mean to snap at you like that."
Mel set her plate on the desk and came back to sit next to Janice. She laid a hand on Janice's shoulder and gave her an appraising look, "What's going on, Jan?"
Janice sighed. "I don't know. I've been wound up pretty tight. I guess it's little things piling up, you know. Strange things at the last dig... seeing Ratner... ghosts picking on me." Janice knew her excuses were lame, but it was the best explanation she had. Snapping was also a great release of the strain she'd been under before she finally let Mel knew how she felt. Covington, you chicken! She scolded herself. You're still scared about a close relationship with Mel, and you almost sabotage it before it even gets underway because your damn temper flares. You practically accused her of lying, you idiot! It wasn't anything important, either! Pull yourself together, woman!
Mel didn't look like she believed her, but she squeezed Janice's shoulder and said gently, "Maybe you'll feel better after you have somethin' to eat." Mel picked up her plate and took a bite of scrambled eggs that were buttery and melted in her mouth. Her blue eyes lit up. "This is very good! Where'd you learn to cook?" Whenever Mel was with Janice, somebody else usually did the cooking, whether it was at Mel's home or at a dig.
"I've been cooking off and on for so long that I don't remember. You know, mother split and I had to look after myself when Harry was drunk. Just had a knack for it." The ladies' eyes met and both were profoundly grateful that they had each other now.
After breakfast, Mel cleared away the dishes while Janice smoked a cigarette and looked at the translation Mel was working on. She saw how wonderfully the message was taking shape, but there was something amiss in the context. What was shaping up was only part of a much larger story, so even with the message translated, there would still be more questions than answers.
"Like what you see?"
Janice looked up at Mel. "Yeah, now I do." Janice smiled.
"I meant the translation."
"Yeah, but I get the feeling we're gonna have more questions than answers, no matter if you finish translating or not. It's just bare bones, Mel. Look. '...exile...retribution for a debt.' What debt? He doesn't say. He gives a lovely report of the flora and fauna, though," Janice added sarcastically. "Again, look. '...much harvest gathered in... woody dell... glen... bags of young deer.' Yep, a real farm report! What the hell?!"
Mel calmly cut her off. "Jan, you couldn't expect the man ta write his whole story just by chippin' it inta rock, you know. If he did that, he probably woulda spent his lifetime carvin' rock."
"Good point. But still, I'd like to know the story behind the story. How did he end up here, if he really was Phoenician or Greek, and why?"
"Why is comin' up soon in the translation," Mel informed Janice.
Janice sat back on the couch and studied some of her notes, Argo at her feet, while Stuntman curled up on the desk next to the papers Mel shuffled.
Mel's face contorted this way and that, here an eyebrow rose and there her lips puckered in an interesting study of deep concentration. She tapped the end of her pencil against her cheek, crossed out a bit of text, wrote again, and ran through letters in her head to see which ones would fit to make the most sense. Finally, she finished the translation in the early afternoon, not having stopped for lunch. "Hey, Jan, look at this!"
Janice sauntered over and read from the translation: "I have come to this place to stay. The other one met with an untimely death in battle, dishonored, insulted, and stripped of flesh. The men thought him to be an object of care whom I looked after, considered crazed, to be tossed about as if in a wind, to perish in poverty and need. By my kinsmen I was respected and honored, of blessed lot, with a body of slaves and so many olive trees, a peg to hand [hang?] anything upon. Men punished me with exile to exact retribution for a debt; meanwhile, I remain here as a rabbit. I, Zakyneros, just as a prophet, out of reach of mortal man, I am fleeing and very afraid. I am dross, refuse, scum, just as aboard ship, a soft, effeminate sailor is flayed with an animal hide, all who speak offensively are lashed or beaten with a cane; but after a short time, the hateful ones may be sated; at an unseasonable time, I remain to protect from the rainy southwest winds the hollow or the ravine. Very much harvest is gathered in, very much is in the woody dell and glen; very many bags of young deer. Very many hides with luxuriant hair; by the channel of a river, swift flowing. Very much is given by the gods, the choicest kind of gift, to call upon the gods for again and again; at the unseasonable time, I become gaunt from hunger."
For a long time, neither woman said anything, just let the words wash over them. They each had a dreamy look in their eyes because of their reverence of history, and Zakyneros' words reverberated in their souls because of the common denominator of humanity. They knew what it was like to feel self-doubt and to have human needs, wants, and be thankful for the times when those needs and wants were filled, no matter how less than ideal the circumstances and the environment around them.
Finally, Mel broke the silence. "I think you're right, Jan. I'm almost sorry I translated it because I have more questions than answers now."
"Yeah, but each piece of uncovered history adds to the body of human learning. You can't be sorry about that, sweetheart."
Mel smiled briefly. "What do you think? Is it history or not?"
Janice ran a hand over her face and thought for a moment. "I don't know. If you look at what Zakyneros wrote, the things he thought were important, say, slaves and number of olive trees, would've been things the Greeks would've valued, too. And he mentions gods, not God; a polytheistic world view instead of a monotheistic one. On the other hand, when is the first sighting of Mystery Rock reported? I know it goes back before the Pueblo Indians, but does it go even further back? And how come it's not as badly worn as I would've imagined it should be? It seems to have aged rather well. And how would Greeks get over to New Mexico in the first place. I've heard about Phoenicians being the ancestors of the Melungeons in Tennessee, but that's just speculation, too. "
Mel opened her mouth, started saying something, and then closed her mouth. Her blue eyes looked troubled. She debated whether or not to speak up when Janice took that choice from her.
"What is it?"
Mel leveled her gaze at Janice and studied the archaeologist's face seriously. "I don't think it's a hoax. I've had one of those dreams again."
Janice nodded. "Me, too. I think there are some Xena scrolls out there near the rock. They should be embedded in another lava flow."
"Yeah, but findin' 'em might be a bit tough. I don't remember which direction it was from the rock. And the landscape's changed since then."
"Should we take a nap to refresh our memory," Janice wiggled her eyebrows at that suggestion, "or shall we go kick around out there a bit?"
"Let's go," Mel eagerly replied. "I can't wait to see if we find anything!"
"C'mon, Argo," Janice called and then she addressed Stuntman who barely held still a moment to receive her instructions. "Hey, hairball, make yourself useful and hold down the fort."
Mel laughed at Janice's antics as she grabbed her purse. She noticed that Janice's mood had lightened considerably after they'd confessed their feelings and had the beginning of an understanding. For that matter, her mood had improved tenfold.
Somewhere in the desert near Los Lunas, New Mexico: April 10, 1949
Janice suspiciously eyed the clouds overhead and cursed herself for not photographing Mystery Rock when she had the chance two days earlier. The light would've been better for photography then, but Janice also appreciated the view from the desert. She looked to the northeast, where the mountains were, and saw that the dark slate blue sky turned the granite mountains purple. The whole desert turned various shades of blues and purples. Janice's thoughts pulled away from aesthetic beauty when Mel stumbled and nearly fell. Luckily, Janice caught her in time. Funny, thought Janice, even when she stumbles, she does it with grace.
"Thank you," Mel said as she straightened up, though she hated leaving Janice's arms. She didn't meet Janice's gaze, afraid she'd get too distracted if she did.
Janice's leering gaze went unappreciated. "Anytime, sweetheart."
Janice snapped a few photos of Mystery Rock while Mel studied the land around her, trying to get her bearings and remember her dream. She started at the southwest and swung her vision around to the northeast where the mountains were. A sharp cleft in the rock face caught her attention and she remembered a part of the dream. A fist was held out in front of her, not aiming at some unlucky person, but held horizontally, the edge of the fist matching the edge of the cleft. Then she remembered a second fist, held against the first. Yes, some sort of measurement. She was measurin' degrees away from a landmark. Experimentally, Mel held out one fist, then the other. She frowned. Yes, but now what? She looked at the ground and took a few steps forward. She frowned again. Mel paced off another three yards and stopped. There was a mound of lava that rose slightly from the desert floor like a gentle rolling hill. It was only five yards across, but Mel knew it instantly. She grabbed Janice. "There, Jan!"
Janice couldn't believe Mel could be so sure, but she dug out her notebook, recorded something, snapped a few photos of the target as it was, and proceeded to remove some lava rocks. After a few minutes of careful documenting and removal, Janice found a bundle wrapped in animal skin that was buried under a lot of lava rock. She called to Mel, "You're right on!"
Janice teased open the bag and the scrolls and let Mel have a look. Mel's eyes flashed excitedly. "See here? That's Gabrielle's!" Mel pointed to a telltale spot on the scroll and judged the length of the documents. "It shouldn't take more than two or three hours to translate since I'm familiar with the style and author."
"Hot damn!" Janice yelled. She laid the scroll aside, took Mel in her arms, and crazily spun around and around.
"Whoa, Jan! You're makin' my head reel!"
Janice stopped their momentum, looked up into Mel's eyes for a moment, and gave Mel a kiss that changed from a soft flame to a raging forest fire. It sent both Mel's head and her senses reeling. After they broke the kiss off, panting for air, Mel tucked Janice's head under her chin and clung to her, loving the safe, warm, electric feeling humming through her. A warm, light rain began, but they stood like that for a long time until Mel heard a rumbling noise that she knew wasn't thunder and chuckled lightly. "You skipped lunch, too, didn't you?"
Luna Mansion, Los Lunas, New Mexico: April 10, 1949
Janice eyed the kitchen door doubtfully, but her desire to get the scrolls translated and to serve Mel overcame any qualms she had about going back into the kitchen.
"Are you sure I can't fix supper, Jan?"
"You really should work on the scrolls. Besides, you know my temper tantrums. They usually chase the devil himself away." Janice tried a smile.
"Okay, if you say so." Mel reached for Janice to give her a hug and a light kiss before they settled to their tasks. Argo and Stuntman followed Janice into the kitchen.
Mel listened for a few minutes as she heard the sound of pots and pans banging, knives being pulled from drawers, and the can opener going. When she was satisfied that Janice would be fine, she switched on the lamp over her desk and got to work on the new translations. After an hour and a half, Mel heard Janice's angry voice explode from the kitchen. She sighed, got up, and went to see what all the fuss was about, but as soon as the yelling started, it was done. She entered the kitchen anyway, saw a calm Argo sleeping on the floor near the table, and found a really temperamental archaeologist in front of the stove where a large pot of chicken vegetable soup was boiling. The archaeologist looked to be about as boiled as the soup.
"What in the Sam Hill?"
The little blonde pushed a hand through her long hair, thoroughly completing her disheveled look. Her face was red and her teeth were clenched. "Geez, Mel! Do you have any idea how hard it is to fight cats away when tuna sandwiches are part of the menu? Do you?"
Seeing as how it was obviously a rhetorical question, Mel took off her glasses and placed the end of the earpiece between her lips. She lifted an eyebrow in a "go on" gesture.
"Well, let me tell you. It was nearly a knock-down, drag-out cat fight." Janice glared at Stuntman who was on the counter with his back to the ladies. He was engrossed in something. Janice continued, "I nearly had to knock him down and drag him out!"
Mel reigned in the smile that threatened to appear. "So? What did you end up doin'?"
Janice's eyes dropped to the floor as she mumbled, "I opened up a second can."
Mel didn't quite catch that. "Pardon?"
Janice looked up at her, embarrassed at having a little cat foil her again, and growled, "I gave him his own can."
Stuntman's body rotated around the can of tuna and Mel looked at him. She couldn't keep the grin from her face this time. He lifted his blue-gray eyes and gave a soft meow as Mel addressed him gently, "You are a suicidal maniac, aren't ya, boy?"
Mel's smile disappeared as she turned back to Janice and her eyes looked like a pilot light flame. "I'm sorry he's been so much trouble."
Janice stared wordlessly as those eyes defused her temper. Mel leaned in over Janice's shoulder, careful not to touch her but close enough to speak lowly in her ear. "You will be amply rewarded for your trouble later, sugar." Mel slipped her glasses back on, studied the stupefied, speechless archaeologist, and satisfied with the reaction, went back to work until dinner was ready.
When Janice came back with two bowls of soup and some tuna sandwiches, Argo and Stuntman followed her into the main dining room, which was across the front hallway from the front parlor where Mel had been working. She arranged things as nicely as she could, lit some candles, and called Mel to wash up and come to dinner. Argo and Stuntman had already been fed. They were there just to keep their mistresses company, although Stuntman quickly started his running through the mansion again, darting this way and that, and exploring every little nook.
The ladies dug into dinner in a comfortable silence at first, enjoying the soft sound of rain pattering against the mansion, caught up in their own dreamy reflections, then Janice glanced up. "How are those translations coming?"
"Janice Covin'ton!" Mel exclaimed without any real sharpness in her voice. "You must be the most impatient person I've ever known!"
"Yeah," Janice agreed. A roguish grin suddenly spread across her face and her eyes twinkled. "So... how are those translations coming?"
Mel chuckled. "I really shouldn't tell you until you learn some manners."
"Aww, c'mon, Mel." Underneath the table, Janice's foot roved around Mel's lower leg.
Mel set her spoon back in the bowl and leveled a stare at Janice. "You really need to learn some patience."
Janice reached for Mel's hand and flipped it over in her own two small hands. She kissed the pulse point on Mel's wrist and raised her eyes to meet the blue ones. "Please?"
Mel looked highly amused. "Your skills don't include patience, Dr. Covin'ton, but they do include irresistible coercion."
Janice smiled wickedly. Mel withdrew her hand so she could focus on what she had to tell Janice.
"Okay." Mel took a breath to break the spell. "The whole story isn't there, but there are enough details. Zakyneros, it seems, was a magistrate in some small town. There was an army of raiders that kept the whole region terrified, poor from frequent raids, and nobody could touch the raiders because Zakyneros protected them in exchange for a small cut of the loot and his town's bein' off limits. It was quite a scam."
"Well, one day, Zakyneros overheard the raiders' plans to sack the neighboring city. Unfortunately, Zakyneros' lady love lived there, so he got cold feet and wanted to stop harborin' the raiders. Here's a part of the story you'll be kinda familiar with, I bet." Mel smiled and continued, "Xena and Gabrielle were passin' through, so of course they helped. A battle between the combined forces of both towns and the raiders took place. Zakyneros tried protectin' his lady and her mentally-disturbed brother, but they were at the worst place in the fightin'. He was overcome and the siblin's were killed. The outcome: the raiders lost, all were hanged, and Aphrodite took pity on Zakyneros because of the loss of his love and brought him to New Mexico for his exile. He was to live here until he judged his townspeople would welcome him back. What isn't clear is why Xena and Gabrielle came with Aphrodite and Zakyneros and what Zakyneros said that was offensive. Remember, Jan? The rock said somethin' about gettin' caned for speaking offensively?"
"Well, that's it, really."
"So the other scroll was to use to summon Aphrodite and ask her for a favor. In this case, when Zakyneros was ready to end his exile, he was to call her to take him home?"
"It looks like we still have more questions than answers, Mel. I mean, why in the world didn't Zakyneros use it? My best guess is that he died before he could. Either that or he stayed because he couldn't go back to face his friends and neighbors."
They finished their meal in silence and while Mel cleared away the dishes and cleaned the kitchen, Janice headed upstairs for a bath.
Steam rose from the bathtub and fogged the mirror. Argo sat just outside the door and waited for her mistress who was soaking in the tub and smoking a cigar. A huge grin settled on Janice's lips as she contemplated what she thought was going to be a very long, promising night. She heard Stuntman racing around the rooms upstairs and thought she heard Argo give the kitten an annoyed little snuffle. Janice chuckled. After a few minutes of letting her mind drift, though, she didn't hear Stuntman at all and thought maybe he'd gone downstairs to run or to keep Mel company. Janice heard Argo shifting restlessly and in a minute, Argo growled deep in her throat. Wondering what was going on, Janice got out, dried herself quickly and threw on her boxers, a khaki shirt, and her boots. She checked her gun, snapped the cylinder back in quietly, and opened the door. She peeked around the corners, pistol at the ready, Argo trailing her, still growling. "Quiet, girl," Janice whispered. Her instincts told her trouble was at hand.
After finding nothing upstairs, Janice tiptoed down the stairs, listening intently with every step she took. She heard some voices, male ones, in the main dining room where she and Mel had dinner. She silently signaled Argo to stay and then carefully made her way to the wall next to the dining room's door so she could eavesdrop and figure out what was going on.
Janice heard a familiar voice demand, "Tell me where Covington is!"
After a short silence, Janice heard the voice say, "Well, if that's the way you want it." Then she heard a slapping sound. Its implications infuriated her, but she forced herself to keep still.
"Did you check upstairs?" the voice asked someone.
"No, boss," came another, deeper male voice.
"You moron! Go check!" yelled the familiar voice.
It was exactly that moment that Janice chose to take a quick peek into the room to see how many people were there, and it was that moment, too, that Stuntman slid on the wood floor and crashed into her. He caused a thumping noise that made the two men look in her direction.
"Ah, there you are, Covington."
"Right the first time!" Ratner pointed to Janice's gun, "Drop it, Covington!"
Janice saw Ratner's gun was trained on Mel and saw that the second man also had a gun. Ratner instructed his goon, "Take her away somewhere and tie her up until we can get to the scrolls. First, I want to have a friendly chat with Covington."
The goon snickered and pointed his gun at Mel, ushering her out in front of her. As Mel crossed near Janice, she gave an apologetic look. The only thing Janice was angry about, though, was the red mark showing on Mel's beautiful cheek.
Never one to beat around the bush, Janice got straight to the point. "What do you want, Ratner?"
"Well, Covington, I'm sick and tired of always coming in second place to you. You always get the girls —"
"But Ratner," Janice sneered, "That's what you're best at. You always win when it comes to losing."
"I wasn't finished!" he yelled, like a child starting a temper tantrum. "You were always teacher's pet in college! You've always been one step ahead of me, damn you! You always hogged the good digs and got more press than you deserved!"
Janice shrugged nonchalantly. "You can't run with the big dogs if you pee like a puppy."
Ratner almost swung at her but thought better of it, knowing she'd take any opportunity to try to turn the tables on him. Instead, he leered at her. "Well, I'm going to take the scrolls now. Maybe Aphrodite will grant me a wish."
"Just tell me one thing."
"How'd you know about the scrolls?"
"I've been shadowing you, Covington. Surely you must've known, or were you too busy?" He chuckled at his insinuation and continued, "I've been doing a bit of poking around, too, you know. And I heard you talking at dinner, though I'm surprised that's all you did. Any more questions?" he snarled.
"Nope. Can't think of any."
Seeing that the "friendly chat" was almost over, Janice took a chance. She called out, "Josefita, Luiz/Cruz, a little help here, please!"
Ratner blinked. "You really are a Mad Dog, aren't you Covington? I know for a fact it's just you, Pappas, and those hairballs here."
Again, Janice shrugged. "Are you sure? I mean, it helps to have 'friends' in the right places." Janice winked mysteriously.
Ratner started sweating. "It's just you!" he screamed, getting the crazed look in his eyes again.
"It is just you," Ratner stated. "You're just trying to play mind games with me, and believe me, it won't make things go easy for you in the end." He waved his gun at Janice threateningly.
"Oh, well," Janice sighed theatrically, "It was worth a try."
Just then, Ratner felt someone tugging the back of his shirt. He was facing the mirror on the wall behind Janice and didn't dare take his eyes off her, but he glanced into the mirror. There was nobody there. He thought he imagined it, but then the tugging started again. He shifted his eyes once more to the mirror to find there was nobody there. His heart pounded in his chest and he got a bad, bad feeling.
"Whatsa matter, Ratner?" Janice asked smugly. Even though the ghosts of the Luna Mansion almost succeeded in making Janice lose control of her bodily functions on a few occasions, she had to admit it was fun watching them do their thing on Ratner.
Ratner's confidence sank as quickly as his voice rose. "It's a parlor trick!"
"It has to be!"
Then the chandeliers, the only source of light in the room, spun, and one by one, the light bulbs exploded. They sounded like gunshots. In the raining glass and the sudden darkness, Janice pounced on Ratner, knocking him backwards, and ground his back into the broken glass. A shot fired and Argo yelped. It instantly drew Janice's wrath. She struggled so hard with both her hands on Ratner's gun hand that she lifted his torso a bit and slammed him back down on the glass. She knocked Ratner's gun hand into the glass until he finally let go and the gun skidded across the floor. Janice screamed, "Nobody... shoots... my... dog!" and punched Ratner until he lost consciousness with her last punch.
The goon, finally having tied Mel up, raced to the dining room to figure out what was going on. He found that it was pitch black. "Boss?"
He turned the corner to peer into the room and was just in time to see a small fist flying at his face. The fist connected solidly and he collapsed into a lump on the floor. "Just like I thought," Janice murmured, "glass jaw." She found the guns glittering in the hallway light and paused to scoop them up.
"Mel? Mel!" She listened but got no answer. Janice knew Mel could have been gagged or hurt, and it was the latter possibility that panicked the usually-calm archaeologist. Janice tore around downstairs and still didn't find Mel or the scrolls. She paused, closed her eyes, and tried to feel Mel with her heart. Hang on, Mel. I'm coming! she whispered with her heart, hoping Mel's heart would hear her.
Her eyes strayed to the hallway corner near the front door. "Argo! What did they do to you girl?" She quickly examined the dog and saw that it was just a slightly-bleeding scratch. She looked into the dog's big brown eyes. "We need to find Mel, girl. Help me?" Janice didn't think she remembered hearing any doors close and Argo verified that. The dog sniffed her way upstairs to the attic room where Janice found Stuntman scratching at the door. "Hey, tuna breath, is she in there?" Stuntman ignored Janice and continued his incessant clawing at the door, starting to leave little scratch marks. "Easy on the door!"
The archaeologist tested the door. It was locked. She picked Stuntman up and carefully tossed him aside then kicked the door in. Darkness greeted her at first, but she saw the hall light shining off Mel's glasses. She found the light after fumbling around half a minute. "Mel! Are you all right?" Janice raced over to take a dirty blue bandanna out of Mel's mouth.
"Just peachy," Mel replied sarcastically. Mel struggled against the ropes that held her tightly bound to an old rocking chair.
"Hold on a minute."
"I'm not goin' anywhere," Mel replied airily and got a lovely chuckle from Janice.
Janice retrieved a knife and rushed back to cut Mel loose. Mel rubbed her wrists and ankles. The scrolls were in a knapsack near the rocking chair.
"We'd better tie up laughing boys until the police get here." Janice found some more rope and started downstairs with a gleeful glint in her eye.
Mel called after her. "Oh, and Janice?"
"Be nice!" Janice could hear the smile in Mel's voice as she said that.
"Awwwww, Mel! You take the fun out of everything," Janice laughingly complained.
"I hope not everything," Mel teased. Janice gulped.
Luna Mansion, Los Lunas, New Mexico: April 11, 1949
"Well, that's all she wrote!"
Janice closed the door after the last policeman left. She moved to sit by Mel on the couch. By the time the police investigated the incident and carted the men away, it was late —or early— depending on one's point of view. Ratner confessed he and his men stole the artifacts that had gone missing on Janice's last dig.
"You know, Mel," Janice started, reflecting on Ratner's basic idiocy and the fact that even idiots get lucky sometimes, "it's the ones you think are stupid that you have to watch out for. I mean, Ratner is a real loser, but he almost won tonight."
Mel frowned. "Yes. He got the drop on me. But I was scared ta death about you, Janice." She studied Janice's profile in the front parlor's low lighting. "After you called my name, though, I knew everythin' would be fine. Funny thing is, I could've sworn I heard you tell me to hold on, that you were comin'. It was like you whispered it right in my ear."
Janice looked at Mel, a surprised expression on her face, and then she shook her head, not wanting to bother telling Mel that's exactly what she was thinking at the time. Instead, she turned her gaze onto Argo and Stuntman asleep, curled peacefully on the floor not far from them. Stuntman's head rested on Argo's leg. The animals were sleepy, but after Mel and Janice had a cup of coffee to keep them awake during questioning, the coffee and the excitement of the evening still had them wired.
Mel snaked her arm around Janice and pulled the archaeologist against her. Janice sighed happily and grinned from ear-to-ear.
"Don't you feel it, Mel?"
"What?" Mel repeated her question.
"The love. You know, in this room. It's like we're all one big family." Janice nuzzled her cheek into Mel's shoulder and continued, feeling more talkative that night than she had in a long, long time. "I'll be damned if I can remember feeling anything like it before in my life. Harry and I loved each other, but our relationship was different. It was like we were more friends or colleagues than family."
Mel considered her situation in South Carolina. When her daddy died, she was the last of that branch of the Pappas family and the mansion, which always felt like home before, seemed almost deserted, a large part of it unused. The times when she had no visitors, her voice was usually silent except to give Leah her orders. She brought her mind back to the present, to the archaeologist snuggled against her and the animals asleep on the floor. "Yeah, I feel it, too, and I hope it stays this way for a long time." Mel consciously didn't use the word "forever" because she felt like she could handle it, but didn't want to scare Janice away.
"Forever?" Janice asked hopefully. Mel nodded and smiled.
Janice took Mel's hand and gave it a few soft kisses. Then she said, "I believe I was promised an ample reward?"
"Well," Mel whispered into Janice's ear, "let's see. You haven't strung up Stuntman yet, though, Lord only knows how you've managed ta restrain yourself, and you pulled a Houdini on Ratner and came and got me. Don't you think you've earned your reward?"
Janice's mouth went dry suddenly. She swallowed and let out a lame, "Uh-huh." She couldn't believe how much a Southern accent drove her crazy, or that an incredibly beautiful, smart woman wanted her, much less that a usually-reserved woman was talking to her that way.
Mel kissed Janice's head and replied, "Much as I'm comfortable right here, I can think of a better place to give you your reward." She rose, took Janice by the hand, and led the blonde upstairs.
El Fin (The End)Return to the Academy