ALT - This means that the story will contain scenes of intimacy between consenting adults who also happen to both be female. If for reasons of age, location or personal belief you are not permitted to read this story, then please move on to another work.
TIMELINE - Basically just after "The Xena Scrolls" episode ended.
(c) June-August 1999
Janice's feet froze to the deck. She was less than three paces away from the man and the bag clutched in his hand. She could feel Melinda at her back and the blood pounding in her veins gave her a rush of color to her cheeks and a rush of warmth to her legs. The man with the bag was not sparing a glance for her. Clasping it to his chest, he jogged to where the captain and inspector stood.
Melinda bent close as they watched him move away. "Do you think..?"
Janice's distinctly felt seasick. "I don't know," she whispered back. She started calculating the distances. Fifteen paces to the bag. There were eighteen, maybe twenty more paces to the railing that led away from the Greek naval ships. "How far can you swim?"
Wide blue eyes locked on her, pupils dilated with surprise. "No. No. No. Jan-ice." She drew out the blonde's name in a pleading tone.
Janice was not listening. She turned away and took two steps toward the assembly of men, emerald eyes glittering with determination. Melinda followed and reached for the smaller woman's arm even as they both came within earshot of the conversation.
"I found the plans to our troop movements, sir." He nodded toward the first officer. "Hidden in a false panel in his desk."
Janice could not believe her ears. She could feel Melinda at her back throw her blue gaze on Teneby even as Greek military roughly hauled him around, throwing him off his feet and holding him up as they shackled his wrists together behind his back.
Teneby said nothing, which bothered Melinda the more she thought about it. Next to her, Janice's body stopped thrumming with so much energy, even as she herself felt curiosity rising like a tide. Something very strange seemed to be going on here, she thought, as she watched Teneby and Bristol eyeing each other with matching granite expressions.
Janice grasped Melinda's arm as the brunette tried to move to stop the arrest. "No, Mel."
Captain Bristol nodded stiffly once at the Greeks' remarks while Teneby was dragged to the railing and lowered down to the smaller boat. The inspector who had located the stolen maps followed quickly.
"We have what we came for," the Greek captain informed Bristol with a tap of his hat. "You are welcome to resume your voyage, sir. May it be a safe one," he added as he paused at the top of the rope ladder.
Bristol was silent and brooding as he watched the small boat, flanked by the two naval ships, steam steadily out of the way of their westbound course. Melinda stepped up quietly alongside him and looked out over the water. "Why didn't you object, sir?" she asked, without looking at him. "Certainly a British citizen.."
"Teneby knows how I feel, Miss Pappas." He turned and protected his gaze from the mid-morning sun. "I would like lunch brought to my cabin today." He turned on his heel and moved below deck, as Janice strode up to a puzzled Melinda.
The brunette leaned back on the railing and contemplated the doorway through which the captain had disappeared. "Mel?"
"Janice, I don't think we're the only one hiding things on this ship."
The remark was said softly by a voice filled with contemplation. It made Janice look up and find cerulean eyes searching her gaze. "But it looks like we got away from Greece intact," she replied. "I'm sorry for the first officer though. He seemed like a nice guy."
Melinda looked away and thought about the faraway look she had seen briefly on the captain's weathered dark features. "I feel sorrier for the captain," she commented, then pushed away from the railing and gestured to Janice. "Come on, we've got to get back to the galley and get our work done."
Janice's forehead developed a furrow as she tried to figure out what Melinda seemed to have discovered, then shook her head and decided the brunette would share when she felt it was important. She followed Melinda down to their quarters.
Meeting a few off-duty crewmen on their way down, and near the galley, milling the corridor, both Janice and Melinda decided changing clothes would have to wait. They washed their hands and faces in the kitchen water and then dished up a couple platters of food for the stray crewman. They set out crackers, blocks of cheese, strips of cured beef and water.
The brunette was silent through the entire process, until they both stood back with hands on their hips and Janice hoped Mel was going to suggest they get cleaned up next. Just thinking about how dirty she'd gotten, Janice felt the itching start. She scratched at an itch on her chin from the drying grease.
"You go ahead and change, Janice. I'll take some of this up to the captain," Melinda suggested, picking up a small plate and filling it with an assortment.
"I'm sure the captain doesn't want his lunch until we've had a chance to clean up."
Blue eyes flickered from the plate then back up to Janice, who was scratching now at her nose. Melinda suddenly felt the urge to scratch an itch and put down the plate to do so.
"Good. So we're getting cleaned up then?" Janice's chuckle stopped Melinda's hand mid-scratch.
Guiltily she dropped her hand and nodded. "All right."
"Come on. I'll wash your back and you can wash mine." She led the way out of the galley and down to their cabin. As Melinda passed her to enter the room, she put a hand on the taller woman's shoulder, stopping her mid-step. "Mel, I'm sorry about..." she came to a halt mid-sentence. "I don't know what I'm sorry about. Just... you're so quiet. Are you all right? Are you seasick again?"
Earnest green eyes searched Melinda's, and the brunette felt an insane urge to brush the woman's cheek even as she saw Janice's jaw tremble. "No, I'm fine," she said. "Just distracted." Janice looked dubious, but Melinda wasn't sure what other answer to give. She was concerned about their captain, and wondering what other secrets this ship harbored, other than the one she and Janice carried. Janice would not want to hear any of that she was sure.
But the blonde surprised her. "We've got some time," she offered.
Melinda pulled back and stepped further into the room, crossed to her bed and sat down. "Just my conscience I suppose. I'll work it out."
Coming inside as well, Janice sighed. "Are you still wishing I had left Xena's chakram with the authorities?"
Melinda shook her head. "No. I'm just tired of secrets." She gestured to the ceiling. "Can we tell the captain at least?"
Settling on her bed, Janice looked at Melinda's posture, reading sadness in the softly sloped shoulders and fidgeting fingers in her lap. "Teneby was who they were after, Mel, not us. What good would it do to tell Captain Bristol we're carrying contraband too?"
The brunette gave a half-smile, self-deprecating and hopeful at the same time. "It would make me feel better," she admitted.
Janice pulled her knees up to her chest and sat further back on her bed, saying nothing. "Mel, I... I don't know about this." She looked again at her partner and almost chuckled. Who'd have thought it? The daughter of the infamous Harry Covington, was considering a bout with her conscience. The brunette laid back on the other bed and the blonde could see the smears of grease on the covers as Melinda rolled herself into her pillow. "Will you say something anyway, even if I don't want to do this?" Janice asked. How far did Melinda's loyalties go?
The brunette closed her eyes, but shook her head. "No. No, I won't."
Janice heard the pain of her choice in Melinda's voice. The woman was leaving the choice entirely to her. How many people in your life have ever done that willingly, huh, Jan? "All right then. At least give me time to think about it?" She sat up on the bed, drawing Melinda's gaze up to her face. "How about I take the captain his lunch? I'll figure out something. You can clean up and take a nap."
Melinda remained quiet. Their gazes locked and she could feel the sting of tears at the back of her eyes. She set her jaw against them and looked away. She didn't want to part with her conscience, but she hated being in conflict with Janice even more. "All right," she conceded.
Standing up, Janice tried for a little levity. "Maybe while you're in dreamland, you can visit dinner and find out what we're having. All this fighting with my conscience is making me hungry."
Eyes that had almost washed translucent with melancholy resumed their luminous cerulean color and a smile touched Melinda's lips. "Thanks," she said.
Janice felt better... a little. She found the wash basin and scrounged a cloth from her suitcase, washing up quickly and leaving it on the top of the small counter for Melinda to use. "All yours," she said, watching Melinda sit up. "I'll be back in a little while."
Carrying a covered tray, Janice went first to the wheelhouse looking for the captain.
"'E's in 'is office, miss," The gangly thin old man standing with one hand on the throttle and the other on the large deck wheel, gestured with his chin to the opposite door. "Down them steps. Firs' door on the righ'."
Janice took a moment to set down her tray and look out over the front of the ship, watching the men cleaning and repairing parts of the ship, then shifting her gaze out to the sea beyond. The sparkling sunlight danced in the cool blue of the Mediterranean making Janice think of Melinda's eyes that night the brunette had come to her aid at the ministry office. She smiled, remembering linking her arm with the taller woman's and walking down the street together. It had seemed so simple, so innocent, she realized. Now look where they were. "Nice view," she commented aloud.
"Not if there's German fish under those waves, miss."
Her smile faded. Janice turned her gaze on him. "What's your name?" she asked politely.
"Reg Porter," he answered. "You're the new cook."
"Well, one of them. I'm Janice and my partner's Melinda." She gestured with a thumb over her shoulder. "German subs out there?"
"They've bottled up the French Atlantic ports since June. Cap'n figures they aren't done yet." He gestured to the food. "You bes' get a move on. Cap'n likes 'is food hot."
"It's just a few snack things. We're still clearing the grime from the galley."
"Weirdest thing that was too, ol' Hock takin' off into the city like that, just afore you boardin'."
"I heard he left just a few hours ahead of us. Not a good cook, hmm?"
Porter looked at her funny. "Who tol' you that?"
The wheelman's expression changed instantly. He smiled, showing the uneven capwork on his teeth. "So 'e did, did 'e. Well then that was right informative of 'im."
Janice's brow knit together in confusion. But Porter was done talking. "I've got to let you get on, miss. I've got a course change in the next little while to ready for."
"All right. Nice to meet you, Mr. Porter."
"Call me Reg, little lady. Everyone does."
"Thanks Reg. See you in the galley for dinner?"
"Yes'm. I'll be right down as my watch ends."
Janice lifted the food again and exited the wheelhouse.
Reaching the captain's door, the blonde paused, shifted her load again and ran a hand through her hair before raising her fist to rap twice.
She pressed her ear to the surface, listening for the call to enter, catching bits of conversation.
"I don't want to involve them if I don't have to." The captain's voice could be heard clearly. "I'd rather not bring it up at all."
"You may have no choice. The visit today came too quickly," a gruff unfamiliar voice replied.
Janice rapped hard twice again. This time chairs scraped the floor and the sound of wood against wood--a cabinet or drawer being closed. Then she heard, "Come in."
Grasping the doorknob she was preparing to push inward when the door swung wide, a large boned man with wide set brown eyes, a flat nose and nut brown skin barred her view of the room beyond. "What d'you want?"
She realized that he was the crewman who Melinda had pointed out he wasn't from Haiti though he had said as much to the Greek inspection team.
"What is it?" he asked again, impatience clearly coloring his tone. "We're busy."
The captain appeared beside the man's left shoulder, his presence drawing Janice's green eyes away from the non-Haitian. She saw him press a hand easily on the big black's shoulder. "You cleaned up, I see," he said to her. "It's all right, Virg. I asked for some lunch."
At this cue, Janice lifted the tray cover.
"Do you want some?" Bristol asked, looking at Virg, but taking the tray from Janice's hands.
She followed him inside. Virg--whatever that was short for--growled, "No. I'll be up on deck if you need me."
Bristol settled back in the leather stuffed chair and lifted a chunk of cheese. Chewing and swallowing, he then gestured for her to sit. "Would you like some? It's Miss... Covington, right?"
Janice nodded. Slowly she settled in a nearby chair, getting her first real chance to study the Lob Lolly captain. She reached for some of the food to cover her lengthy regard.
He was older than she first thought, now noticing the spray of gray through otherwise chestnut hair. Cropped short, it naturally settled around lean features and a sharply defined nose. Brown eyes took her measure and she felt her throat constrict nervously. She almost forgot her second reason for visiting the captain.
Should she tell this man, who had watched his own crewman dragged off to a Greek prison, that she and her companion's possession might put his ship in danger again? What would he do?
But apparently silence was not something the Lob Lolly captain enjoyed. He started easily enough, seeking small talk. "So, Miss Covington, where are you and your friend bound?"
Janice shrugged, working up a casual tone. "Morocco. Same as you."
"Then the American states somewhere?" he guessed, reaching for a strip of the meat. "This is quite good," he complimented.
"Thank you," she replied, set off balance a bit by the change of subject. Cautiously she answered his first question. "Eventually the States, yes." She leaned back in the chair, running her hand along the carved arms, idly identifying the wood as oak, and the style of the cut as eighteenth century. New England Colonial. Interesting. She dragged her eyes back up to the captain. "What about this ship? Where are you headed, Captain?"
"Home port. Taking some supplies for sale. Dover," he replied. "Our cargo's foodstuffs for the war effort."
"You're not carrying any arms or the German detachments in Greece wouldn't have approved your departure."
"No. No arms. We're a freighter. The Lolly is a ship in the Chatham lines. But lots of things help a war effort. Even if it is only back on the home front."
"Janice shook her head, drawn into a discussion of the war just becoming active on the Continent. "The Germans are moving into everywhere."
He chuckled, the sound deep and throaty. "True, but there's always Churchill. And hope."
Janice felt a shiver travel her spine. "You don't strike me as a man of faith, Bristol."
"I prefer to call it... practical faith. Even the Almighty accepts a helping hand now and again," he replied with a smile.
Janice, who was also not a believer in blind fate, but self-determination, agreed with a smile. "You took the arrest of your first officer quite well."
Bristol's posture became alert.
"Why didn't you object to his arrest?" she asked.
"Teneby had been with this crew since she was formed. I don't know what got into him."
"Apparently some plans for troop movements," she replied with a dry smile. He did not return it. "But that length of service... surely he was worth an argument or two?"
"I will do nothing to endanger this crew. The authorities had what they came for. Resistance would have harmed my men, or this ship."
"Do your men usually take on... independent... projects... without your knowledge, Captain?"
Bristol stood up, his expression no longer one of bland amusement, but displaying a glint of steely anger. Janice wondered what she had said exactly to bring about such a rapid change. Determined not to be cowed she remained seated.
"Miss Covington," he said thickly. "I don't like your insinuations. I suggest you return to the galley. Do your job and I'll do mine." He leaned on the arm of her chair, such that she heard the wood creak slightly under pressure. When he moved to grab her shoulder, Janice slipped from the chair and was at the door even as the chair tipped.
Bristol didn't fall, but the chair clattered loudly in the sudden silence.
"Captain." She excused herself and left quickly.
Left standing in the middle of his office studying the closed door, Bristol mused, "Pretty brave. And bold."
A single rap on his door and Bristol watched it open, admitting Virgil Turandot, his cargo boss. "Well?" asked the big man.
"Teneby selected well. I thought the pretty face might've swayed him. But... she's got brains. If we have to use her."
When she returned to the cabin, Janice was still absorbing her meeting with the captain. Melinda's instincts were on target. The Lob Lolly crew was not who they appeared to be. She wondered if they were in any danger remaining aboard. The captain's parting words indicated that if she and Melinda did what they had been hired to do there likely wouldn't be any troubles. Janice wondered again: what of Hock, the previous cook? Was he dead or alive? What had really happened to him? And if she and Mel made the same mistake, whatever it was, would his fate be theirs?
Sitting down on her bed, the blonde looked over at Melinda. The brunette woman was curled up, knees bent, shoes off and one hand tucked under her cheek. Her chest moved easily with sleep. As Janice's gaze traced the gentle profile, her chest swelled with protective instincts and tangled with guilt.
Melinda Pappas's presence here was entirely her fault Janice condemned herself. Even before the rash choice of stealing the chakram back, it was Janice's telegram to Melinda's father that enticed the brunette to leave her sheltered Carolina life and enter an unstable country to help a stranger with a dubious search.
If not for Janice, Melinda would not have bruises for days from the latest round of an ancient warrior's battle with an ancient god. The archaeologist winced. Oh Melinda had put on a brave face. But even frustrated and distracted by the necessity of exploding her own dig, Janice had not missed the mottled blue, purple and yellow bruises visible all along Melinda's arms, shoulders, back and legs. One nasty purple one on her jaw had given the brunette trouble eating for several days.
Looking now, Janice could see only faint outlines of a few stubborn remaining bruises. She was focused on one on Melinda's wrist laid out against the covers when the brunette mumbled sleepily, "Janice?"
Shifting her gaze, the blonde became caught by eyes the color of a storm-swept sea. "Hi," she said. "Sleep well?"
Melinda stretched, blinked a few times, and rolled onto her back before sitting up with a soft groan. Running her fingers through her hair, she settled the disheveled locks into order. "Sorry about that. I probably should be in the galley."
Janice shook her head. "No, it's all right. You obviously needed the sleep."
The grogginess fading away, Melinda remembered where the blonde had been. She asked quietly, "Did the captain like his lunch?" She leaned over and slipped her feet back into shoes.
The blonde's green eyes went from sea foam to emerald, a sure sign she was disturbed. But she replied, "Yes. He'll be down to the galley for supper though."
Mel looked at her watch. "We ought to start organizing the meal then. It's already three o'clock." She stood and rubbed her shoulders, then rolled them, easing away the ache.
"All right," Janice responded, coming to her feet next to Melinda. "Here," she offered. "Let me do that." She worked gently on Melinda's right shoulder. "Did you figure out what we're serving?" she asked to keep her mind off the warm muscle under her hands.
"They have all sorts of canned beans. Ever make a three-bean salad?" Melinda watched over her left shoulder as Janice shook her head. "It's easy."
"What about meat? We've got sailors here." Janice stopped working on Melinda's muscle and turned, deep in thought. "Do we have potatoes, carrots, stuff like that? Even canned will do."
"I'm pretty sure I saw some," Melinda answered as they walked down the corridor and into the galley. Side by side they tied on towels as aprons. "What do you have in mind?"
"New England boiled dinner."
Mel considered that. "Beef?"
"Any meat will do chunked up, but typically beef."
Melinda chuckled. "I never really pictured you cooking," she said. "I'll enjoy watching this."
Surprised at the comment from a woman she was beginning to trust being herself around, Janice bristled though she tried to cover it with a shrug. Her voice came out much tighter and upset than she wanted. "On a dig, well, it's camping all the time. The meals I know are rough and ready, not high society dinners."
Melinda realized that she had unwittingly hit a sore spot, but the archaeologist's words had been a cut back at her as well.
Hurt expressions arose simultaneously as did the urge to apologize. Turning together each woman raised her hand. Their fingers intertwined.
"I'm sorry," Janice said.
"My apologies." Melinda's voice filled in the hollows of Janice's words. The resulting sound made both women faintly smile. "I didn't mean to sound cutting," Melinda continued.
Janice sighed. "I know." She realized their hands were still clasped and lowered her eyes to study the taller woman's hand caught in hers. The long smooth fingers and carefully manicured short nails were in sharp contrast to Janice's short scarred fingers and torn nails. "I'm sorry I got you into this," she said, dragging her eyes back up to Melinda's face. For more reasons now, she realized, mindful of the new undefined danger.
"I thought we already went through that," Melinda replied easily.
Their eyes met for a long moment more then Janice released the brunette's hand, breaking the spell. She took a deep breath. "Okay." Walking to a cabinet, she dropped to her knees and started digging for the dinner makings.
Melinda felt a bemused smile form on her lips. Watching that face work on a quandary in silence made Melinda even more convinced that answering the summons, even if it had been meant for her father, had been the best decision she had ever made.
She turned to another cabinet, pulling down the cans of beans, a mixing bowl, as well as the other ingredients and worked quietly on the opposite counter, waiting for the early arrivals for the second meal.
The sunset rolled into the small portholes as Melinda pulled her hands from the tepid wash water and Janice tossed her the drying towel. The blonde walked the last stack of plates to the cupboard and settled them inside the wire catches that kept the plates from breaking in rough seas.
The brunette set a teapot on to boil. "That boiled dinner was really good, Janice," she said. She settled herself at the nearest table.
Looking from the pot to the woman sitting gingerly on a bench, Janice asked, "Tea?" Turning around she untied her towel and sat next to the taller woman.
"Yeah," Mel replied with a weary smile. "It'll settle my stomach."
Gently Janice put a hand on Melinda's near shoulder and asked, "Seasick again?" She looked around the room. "I could use a stroll on deck. How about you?"
Blue eyes sought green in the quiet as Mel grasped her hand and set both of them on the tabletop. "We've got to mop up in here," she reasoned.
"We can do that after dark. Sunset won't last forever," Janice replied, pulling Melinda up as she stood. Melinda resisted only by lightly tensing the muscles in her wrist and shoulder. "C'mon," Janice cajoled. "I'm tired of being cooped up."
"Then you go." The teapot whistled and Melinda disengaged to take it from the burner's heat.
Janice didn't want them separated though. Her uneasy feelings had been reinforced by the conversations between Bristol and Virg and the others at the officers' table that kept stopping every time she worked her way past to refill mugs or refresh a plate. "Humor me," she asked, lifting her chin to bring her gaze in line with Melinda's.
Mel felt her pulse begin to thrum in time with the one in Janice's throat. For a potent moment her whole world shrank to a pair of wide green eyes set in a soft face. "All right," she breathed, wondering where her voice had gone. Janice's hand squeezed her wrist and the woman smiled, stealing the brunette's breath. She let Janice lead her out of the galley and up the gangway steps.
Sailors were scattered to their tasks when the two women appeared on deck. Breathing deeply, Janice's face finally eased into a smile as she kept Melinda's hand in hers. She led the brunette over to the starboard forward railing. Leaning on it with her arms, Janice looked out on the horizon, watching the play of orange, red and yellow light across the waves. The Mediterranean stretched as far as she could see in any direction, though faintly on the southern horizon she could make out a change in coloration that suggested land. Africa, she thought with a smile, thinking of the teeming cultures that lived there.
As far back as Janice could remember she had wanted to be an explorer. Not necessarily an archaeologist, though that was a large part of it thanks to her father's single-mindedness, but just to go places, meet people and find out their stories, see the way they lived, and the places they called home. As a child she had read her father's letters, sent to her at her grandmother's Philadelphia home, with the oddest postmarks and stamps, and imagined the things he was seeing based on the descriptions he gave. In that way she had been with him for each of his discoveries even though her grandmother had been determined that she get a young lady's education, and be settled somewhere.
Her grandmother and her father had always been at odds the few times he came home to work the Philadelphia academic society for money. The rest of the time, Janice knew, he had begged, borrowed and stolen the funds he used to finance his obsessive search for the scrolls.She glanced over her shoulder at Melinda who stood leaning against a boat rack, eyes leveled on the wheelhouse. Thanks to this woman, Janice had uncovered one of the larger collections according to her father's notes. The Ancient History department at the University of Pennsylvania, where Janice guest lectured from time to time to pay the bills, would be properly compensatory for the scrolls, once Janice and Melinda had studied the completely translated texts.
The blonde smiled and turned back, leaning against the railing with her elbows as she responded to Melinda's call. "Yes?" She realized then that the boat's movement had decidedly made the brunette a pale green. "Oh, no," she berated herself for her lengthy stay on deck. "I'm sorry. Do you want to sit down?" She watched the tall woman sink to the deck and close her eyes.Janice sat next to Melinda on the deck surface, running her fingers over the surface distractedly before looking up into the brunette's face. Their backs were against the wall, looking out over the western horizon, which was rapidly growing dark. The moonlight began creeping over the bow of the boat, a full moon slowly rising to light the night.
"What were you thinking about?" Melinda asked gently. She opened her eyes slowly, willing the flip-flop sensations in her stomach to subside. She studied the blonde head next to her shoulder and stiffened her arm against the sudden urge to gather up the obviously troubled woman.
Janice's tone however almost changed her mind. It was soft and hollow, sounding very alone against the vastness of the night surrounding them. "Home mostly, I guess."
Keep her talking, Melinda told herself. "Where exactly is home?"
"Philadelphia." Janice returned the query. "You live just outside Raleigh, right?"
"Yes," she said without elaborating.
Tugging her knees up and wrapping her arms around them for a moment, Janice looked off over the railing out to the light dancing on the ocean before looking back up into Melinda's gaze. "Do you work at the university, like your father did?"
Janice heard the reluctance in the brunette's tone and realized it wasn't the seasickness keeping her answers short. "Do you teach?"
Melinda leaned back on her hands on the deck and slowly shook her head. "No."
"A student?" Again Melinda shook her head. Janice put a hand on her hips and asked pointedly, "Are you going to tell me or not?"
"I'm on the Board of Directors and two committees for named chairs." Sighing, Melinda's body stiffened.
"The chairs," Janice finally said quietly. "Named for your father?" Melinda nodded.
"Does that bother you?" she asked.
"No. But this must be very different than what you're used to," Janice pointed out reasonably. "It can't be easy."
Melinda shrugged. "It's different." Then she smiled warmly. "But that's the point. I... I didn't want to..."
"Why did you come to Macedonia, Mel?" Janice leaned back to watch the brunette's face, the breeze taking locks of her hair and playing with it obscuring the blue eyes from time to time.
"I wrote your father. You could have simply written back and explained that he died before he could answer it."
Melinda shook her head. "I couldn't do that," she said with a low rumble. Blue eyes came up as she brushed her hair out of her face. "I had to come."
"You weren't prepared for the rough conditions."
"No I wasn't," Melinda admitted. Then she met Janice's green eyes determinedly. "Would you have preferred I stay home?" she asked quietly.
Janice frowned. Not come? "No. I'm..." She brushed her hand over the brunette's arm and squeezed it. "Thank you for coming to Macedonia. You've been a lot of help."
Ducking her head, Melinda accepted the thanks. "You would have gotten into that cave without my help." Even as she said it, Melinda knew that everything had transpired as it should, in an almost pre-ordained way. She didn't believe in pre-destination but so many things in her young life suggested there were just some things you didn't contest.
Like a dream in the middle of the night with a telegram clutched in your fist, that makes you wake up screaming, knowing you should go across an ocean to trace down a woman you had never met.
Janice's voice drifted into Melinda's thoughts. "I wouldn't have wanted to," she replied. Their hands slid together putting Janice's elbow inside Melinda's as they stretched out their feet in front of them, hips touching, each studying the other's foot close to her own. "Why can't anything be simple," she heard the blonde murmur. Then Janice's head dropped gently to the taller woman's shoulder.
The action startled Melinda into looking down into the profusion of blonde hair covering her throat and collar. "I wouldn't have wanted you to, either," Melinda heard herself saying softly, slipping an arm around the blonde's back and pulling her against her in a hug.
She sensed the blonde was worried about something but Melinda offered what comfort, even protection, she could out here in the middle of the ocean in the middle of the night. She closed her eyes and sank into the feeling of surrounding and being surrounded by warm contentment.
It was then, almost sleepily, she realized that she couldn't feel the motion of the boat. The sensation was incredible. She buried the spontaneous smile in her companion's hair and hugged Janice closer.
The moonlight shadows shifted and the brunette tensed, sensing a presence behind them. Instincts older than she could guess rose up, almost choking her with their ferocity. She jerked her head around, eyes narrowing on the new arrival.
The sailor walked with the easy rolling gait of one well-used to the sea and its movement. Melinda watched him, her eyes following even though her head did not move. He glanced once in their direction, said nothing and moved away, adjusting a coil of rope settled over one shoulder.
It didn't seem like a good idea to stay out here any longer. Lifting her head she looked up at the position of the moon, arched her neck and rolled her shoulder muscles, gently dislodging Janice. She realized the blonde had fallen asleep.
"Janice," she murmured against the woman's head. "Let's go back below deck."
Janice stirred, blinked and rubbed her cheeks. "Sorry about that."
"No problem," the brunette replied. The archaeologist responded with a dubious look. "Really," she emphasized. "My seasickness is gone too. I'm ready to get some sleep."
Melinda stood and helped Janice to her feet. Following the blonde to the stairway, she looked up and caught movement in the wheelhouse as someone moved away from the front glass. They were being watched? Protectively she put a hand on the blonde's shoulder and followed her down to their cabin.
Stepping back to the wheelhouse glass, the captain nodded to Virgil. "What other choice do we have, I know." He dropped his shoulders and murmured, "I'll talk to them." A twinge of misgiving over what he was about to do made him shake his head. "What bastards we are," he murmured as Virgil turned and walked out.
Too bothered to sleep, Janice laid awake, arms tucked under her head as she stared through the darkness at the piping running through the ceiling. Glancing toward the other bed, she identified Melinda's sheet-covered form where the brunette lay facing away to the wall.
The blonde smiled, remembering sitting up on deck, and the security she felt in their hug. It had been some time since the archaeologist had last been that at ease around anyone. First there had been the sudden loss of her father -- Smythe, may his soul rot in Hell, had been responsible, though Janice had been unable to prove anything. Then taking control of the dig had been complicated as the men repeatedly demanded she prove she really did know what she was doing.
Janice rolled out of bed and pulled on her pants. Might as well put this restlessness to good use, she thought, and mop the galley. The gray pants and her loose night shirt were perfect for the dirty job. She padded down the corridor in bare feet and into the galley.
The darkness was deeper here without portholes to let in the moonlight. Slowly she felt to her left for the wall switch.
A shadow exploded through the darkness before her. Something big and hard hit her arm aside before she could illuminate the room. A body fell atop her, throwing them both to the ground. Janice hit the floor with a painful *oof* then rolled beneath her attacker's grip. She yelled near what she hoped was an ear. He howled and boxed her ears. She kicked, dislodging his leg wrapped around one of hers. She batted his head hoping to distract his concentration. Balling her hand, she slammed from right to left across the space between their faces. Triumphantly she connected with his nose. The sickening crunch of bone greeted her. She yelled again indistinctly.
Finally she wedged her arms between them. She drove an elbow into his throat at the same time she found his groin with her knee.
The man cried out and rolled away, panting, whimpering and clutching himself. Panting herself, Janice sprang to her feet, stumbled to the wall and flipped the switch.
Light flooded the room, and she identified her attacker with a growl. "Bristol!" Angry, she kicked him. "I think you owe me an explanation." She fished in her pocket, glad she had the unkempt habit of not emptying her trousers before undressing.
Coughing blood and holding his nose the man sat up, but threatened by the gun easing out of her pocket, he remained on the floor. "Damn," he said quite succinctly.
Without his British accent. In fact, Janice realized, it was obvious he was American. "What's your real name?" she demanded, wiggling the handgun's muzzle as a warning.
"James Bristol." She cocked the hammer. "That's the truth."
"What's with the fake accent then, and I assume, false papers. This ship isn't British is it?"
"Put the gun away and I'll explain." She shook her head.
"Go ahead, Janice. Put it away. I think he's going to tell us what we want to know."
The blonde and the captain turned around to see Melinda Pappas leaning on the wall leading into the galley. She had Janice's other gun in her left hand, loosely trained on them both.
"Both of you are like this?" Bristol asked. "I thought Teneby hadn't met you?" he said pointedly at Melinda.
"He didn't. But that doesn't have anything to do with anything," Janice confirmed. "All right, Bristol." She put away the gun and gestured to the table. She reached across the counter in the cooking area and tossed him the towel she picked up. "Time to talk."
For a long moment watching them while they watched him, Bristol just carefully stopped the bleeding in his nose and tested the bridge. The break was apparently small. So the Lob Lolly's captain began with a simple statement that confirmed the women's suspicions. "We're an American ship."
"The entire crew?" Melinda stood at the table's end, giving Janice the weapon she held.
He nodded. "Under orders from the Secretary of the Navy, we've been... collecting information on the war here."
"And Teneby?" Blue eyes leveled on him.
"Safe in Greece. Collecting more data."
"But he was arrested by the authorities?" Janice queried.
Here Bristol smiled. "The Greek port authority has been helping us out. We get the information on board, and in response to the threats from the German contingent, they 'cooperatively' send out a unit to detain us, search the ship and 'recover' the stolen data.
"The originals do go back to the Germans," he added. "But we've already stowed copies."
"It is," he confirmed. "We've still got to make a connection in Morocco with a plane headed for Washington."
"Why attack me?" Janice asked, rubbing her shoulder pointedly.
"After your questioning in my office earlier, I needed to stop you from snooping. You came across pretty tenacious."
Melinda looked at Janice. "Yes, she does," she offered lightly with a warm smile for her partner. "So, what now?"
"I'm here to ask for your help."
"With making the drop in Morocco?" Janice leaned forward, crossing her hands on the table. She was warming to her element. Deal-making.
Bristol nodded. "We're docking tomorrow and have to unload ordinary cargo to dispel some suspicions raised during our last trip."
Janice had a flash of insight. "Hock screwed something up, didn't he? What did you do with him?"
"We didn't do anything with him. Pretty good cook. Lousy at subterfuge though." Bristol shook his head. "Those of us involved in the drop watched him get shot when we were leaving. Virgil..." He looked to Janice. "Had to kill him so the German authority couldn't question Hock as a prisoner."
Melinda drew breath in shock. "My God." Janice just nodded, aware of the necessity. Harsh, but a reality for a spy.
"Couldn't be helped. Anyway, Virgil did the cooking until we got back to Greece. Teneby met you at the docks," he nodded toward Janice. "And came to us the night before we sailed saying that he'd found a couple of new cooks for us."
"But the usual route hadn't been used to recruit us," Melinda confirmed. "So you had to test us."
"That's why the huge all-crew interrogation. Not our usual style. We figure we could watch your body language, figure out if you were trustworthy or not."
"When you decided we were, that's why you came up with the answer we'd been hired six months ago."
"What are you two hiding anyway? I had the hardest time convincing Virgil I still trusted you. He had this feeling..."
The tables turned now, it was time for Melinda and Janice to exchange looks. Taking a deep breath, Janice answered Bristol. "We have a few things the Greek authorities didn't want us to leave with."
"Military plans? Are you working for the Axis?" Bristol drew up angrily.
Janice shook her head. "No, a few archaeological pieces. Mel and I were at a dig in Macedonia until a week ago."
Bristol stood. "Seems harmless enough. Mind if I take a look though? The Reich's awfully interested in religious items. They might still come after you."
"None of it's religious. Just some scrolls."
"May I see them?"
Janice looked at Melinda, who then answered the captain. "All right. We're all being honest with each other."
Bristol nodded. "Tomorrow's plans can be discussed next."
"All right," Janice said. "Come with us." The two women led the captain to their cabin. Janice kept him at the doorway while Melinda went to their belongings to retrieve the relics. "I'm sorry, Captain, about this, but..."
As only another person who spent their life keeping secrets could, Captain James Bristol nodded and smiled in complete understanding. "You think you can help us out tomorrow?" Warm brown eyes dropped to her face.
"I'm pretty resourceful," she replied with a quirked smile, enjoying the possibility of a little adventure.
Melinda spent longer than necessary going through their bags and collecting the relics for the captain. She could hear the conversation going easily between Janice and James Bristol and heard the bright note of happiness in the blonde's usually serious tone of voice. She felt an odd knot form in her stomach. Finally she stood, bearing two scrolls, and one piece of the chakram cradled in her arms. "Captain?" She drew their attention to her and watched as Janice broke her gaze with the tall man reluctantly. "These are some of them. Hellenic period scrolls and weaponry pieces."
Bristol tilted his head and reached out. "May I?" Melinda passed him one of the sturdier scrolls. With both women watching, he unrolled an edge slowly, careful not to tear or bend the parchment now fairly brittle despite their well-kept appearance. He glanced over the symbols and wondered aloud at the words. "What are they? Stories? Histories? Birth records?"
"Stories mostly," Melinda confirmed. "by Gabrielle of Poteidaia."
Janice added with fervor, "They're about a warrior woman, Xena of Amphipolis."
Bristol nodded politely, not familiar with the name. "Sounds very academic. You wouldn't have been held up for the Germans. So... What would the Greek government care about a few scrolls?"
"It's the principle of the thing," Janice explained. "Greek historical treasure and hanging on to it... National pride."
"National pride's important. Why are you taking it then?"
Janice flushed red under his regard. "No one believes she existed."
"And you want to prove it. With these documents." Bristol's tone was full of understanding. He sat down on the bed, passing the scroll back to Melinda. "That's kind of what we're doing. Gathering evidence to prove that the war is worth American intervention. We've been trying to find out what, if anything, the Reich, has planned for the United States."
"Find anything yet?" Janice asked, sitting down.
Before James could answer, Melinda went to their door and closed it. "I'm going to turn in," she said as she came back to the bed.
"All right," Janice said distracted. She looked to Bristol. "Maybe we can go to the galley, and discuss this plan of yours for tomorrow?"
"Of course." He stood and looked over at Melinda who was sitting on her bed. "Good night, Miss Pappas."
"Good night, Captain."
Janice and Bristol left Melinda alone in the dark room to sleep, and went back to the galley. The brunette took a deep breath while studying the closed door, then rolled into her covers, wondering why she suddenly had a headache.
Grabbing her head, Melinda rolled over unsure what exactly had awakened her. Out the porthole she could see the first gray streaks of dawn. Adjusting her sight to the darkness she blinked and squinted to find her glasses on the nightstand.
The action brought her gaze to Janice's bed where she discovered the covers pulled up and tidy. The brunette felt her face tighten into a frown. She stopped it furiously, reasoning that Janice was a grown woman. What she chooses to do with her time is none of your business.
Finished mentally kicking herself, Melinda rolled out of bed and turned on the light. Finding serviceable clothing among her luggage she dressed in silence. Then she sat in front of the mirror to brush out her hair.
The doorknob clicked softly and she watched through the mirror's reflection as the door opened. Janice, blonde hair catching the light from the lamp, tiptoed toward her bed then stopped and straightened, realizing the light was on. She looked to Melinda who held the brush in mid-air a breath from her hair. "You're awake," she said with surprise.
"Thought I'd better get into the galley and work on breakfast for the crew," Melinda said quietly.
Janice nodded. "I was just coming to wake you up."
Melinda doubted that was her original intent, what with all the tiptoeing but she said nothing to it, again reminding herself it was none of her business. Instead she gestured to the bed and asked, "You were gone before I got up. Did you sleep well?"
Shaking her head, Janice's face bloomed into a smile that sent a lance of pain through Melinda's chest. "Nah. James and I have been making plans for Morocco." She sat on the bed and took off her nightshirt, switching it for a tidier cut blouse, in hunter green. The color sharply drew out her eyes and contrasted with her hair giving the woman a rugged, healthy appearance. Melinda turned back to the mirror and watched the rest of Janice's morning ablutions while she finished with her hair. Finally pulling it back in a low ponytail instead of spending the time to pin it up, Mel stood, heading for the door without another word.
Janice grabbed up the brush and pulled it through her hair, tying it back with a bit of cloth. "Wait up." She walked briskly to Melinda's side and then nodded. "Let's go."
Entering the galley first, Melinda noticed the lights were on already and easily identified the smell of fresh dough rising, and the pungency of uncooked bacon. The floor had been mopped, she noticed, stepping carefully over a small, still damp, spot. Entering the cooking area, Melinda reached for a towel. She stopped with one hand on the counter, brought up short by the presence of someone between her and the stove.
Captain James Bristol, wearing a towel apron himself watched a skillet of fat sizzling in front of him and a spatula in his right hand. He turned, brown eyes lighting on her briefly and then Janice where they lingered. "Good morning," he said.
Janice did not appear at all surprised to see him and just nodded. "I'll get back to the omelets," she said, leaving Melinda in the middle of the floor as she went to a back counter.
"Good morning, captain." To cover her unease, Melinda fell back on her carefully mannered upbringing. "Miss Covington and I can handle the meals."
He shrugged. "I'm not an awful cook, just don't have time to do it usually." He worked with the spatula in the skillet for a moment then continued. "I thought you... both... could use the help," he said, starting off his comment looking at Janice, then ending on Melinda with a sheepish smile. "So, come on... We can even eat before the rest of the crew gets drawn by the smells."
Janice stirred a whisk through a large bowl filled with frothing contents. Eggs, Melinda guessed. She spotted the pile of uncut vegetables, drained and poured out of their cans. "I'll cut up these for the omelets," she said helpfully. In quick order she had sliced and diced mushrooms, onions and mushy tomatoes.
"Thanks," Janice replied, when Melinda delivered the cutting board contents to her. "These'll be perfect." She folded the vegetables in the eggs and delivered the contents to Bristol. "Here, James."
"Great looking omelets," he commented, taking the bowl. Letting Janice lean over his shoulder, Bristol poured some into the skillet, arranging the vegetables as the egg began to cook. Folding over the top as soon as the skin formed he then covered it. "One omelet coming up," he chuckled. "Who gets it?"
"Give it to Mel," Janice said. "Looks like you could use the boost," the blonde told her friend. "Lumpy mattress?" she asked.
"No," Melinda shook her head. "Just too much on my mind, I guess. "She took the omelet Bristol slipped onto a plate for her and sat down at the table. She kept her eyes on her plate, but could not prevent overhearing the conversation that grew more animated as she left.
"Marakesh is gorgeous," Bristol said. "You ought to see it sometime. But the Moroccans have cornered the market on food. Best anywhere I've ever been."
"What's it like?" Janice asked, accepting another plate of eggs, but not leaving while Bristol cooked his meal.
"There are African heartland, French colonial, even Spanish influences. It's spicy exotic meats and thick sauces," he explained. "There's a place called 'Siobahn's' near downtown. I'll take you there for dinner," he said. "We'll have to stay the night and leave in the morning with the tide anyway, might as well make this look good, and I'll take you out."
Melinda looked up and noticed neither was looking toward her.
"Sounds great." Janice balanced her plate and poured two mugs of orange juice. Melinda saw the discarded rinds of dozens of oranges on the counter, next to a hand juicer. "Here," Janice said, giving Bristol one of the mugs. Picking up his plate and taking the mug, the Lob Lolly captain led the way over to the table.
Janice and he settled to the bench opposite Melinda, who was nibbling on her omelet without really tasting it.
"How is it?" Bristol asked her, cutting into his for the first time.
"Nice," she answered.
"Really tasty," Janice added. "Using the bacon fat livens it up considerably."
Bristol laughed and shook his head. "Yeah, that it does." Chewing his bite he speared another and went silent as he ate.
"Yes?" The brunette looked up from her meal, noticing that the two across the way had juice and she didn't, decided she didn't like the look of Janice's bright smile and interrupted as the blonde opened her mouth to speak. "Hold that thought, I'm going after some orange juice."
"Oh, sorry about that," Bristol started to his feet.
"Don't worry I've got it. You just go on with your breakfast. We've got to get back to cooking pretty quickly anyway. It's almost mealtime. So you better finish up."
She fetched her juice and was just sitting again when the first crewmen arrived, hungry and salivating at the smells. Giving up on her meal, while Janice and the captain continued to talk quietly, Melinda served bacon and omelets to the men, mixing up more eggs and vegetables and cooking more bacon as quickly as she could.
By the time the rush was coming, Janice had joined her behind the serving line, taking off some of the pressure of cooking and serving. The captain tipped his hat to both women and followed by the greetings of his men, he ducked out the door.
Word had apparently spread somewhat of Melinda and Janice's "safety" and the men greeted them with more enthusiasm than the previous day.
"Great night onboard last night," one said. "Best sleep I've had in weeks."
"You ain't got nothin' but sea legs, Donny," called back another. He nodded to Melinda. "Did you have a good night, miss?" he asked politely.
Saying nothing, the brunette just smiled back and served him a double helping of bacon.
"Thank you," he offered, moving off.
"Doubles for me too, miss," said the next. "A cooked meal," he said with relish. "What a great way to wake up. Like my mother used t'cook back home."
"Home?" Melinda asked, pleased to have something to talk about.
"Maryland," he answered. "Where're you from?"
"North Carolina," she answered her accent pronounced because she made no effort to hide it.
"A real southern belle. Nice t'meet'cha." He tapped the next man on the shoulder and pointed to her. "Get the lady a mint julep. She's all from the South." The man's emphasized Southern accent amused his companions. There was a loud round of chuckles as he leaned forward and tried to kiss her. "Thanks for the meal, darlin'."
Melinda ducked her head and avoided the encounter. Backing up, she looked toward Janice who had gone back to do more cooking. Her back to the serving area, Janice was completely unaware of Melinda's situation. Jaw tight and eyes darkening to indigo, she grasped the man's hand and savagely slammed her other fist in his face. Soundlessly he dropped to the floor. Sheepish looks came from the other men and without another word, each stepped over the man and moved on, reaching to serve themselves. Fighting down her anger, Melinda was just returning the smile to her face as Janice came forward with more eggs and bacon.
"Here you go," Janice said. Not trusting her voice, Melinda ignored the blonde completely and only grasped the tray, set it down and began serving from it. The men eyed her warily, passing whispers down the line.
"Don't mess with the brunette," she heard distinctly. She set her jaw against the lump forming in her throat and prayed for the end of the meal.
Janice dried the last plate and put it away. Turning back she noticed that Melinda had not yet pulled her hands from the soapy water, instead standing still at the sink, eyes looking down into the remaining bubbles and drawing her fingers through them.
"Hey, come on. Captain needs our help as soon as we dock."
"You go on. I'll wait here," the brunette said.
Janice tossed the towel over her shoulder and walked up to stand next to Melinda, where she looked up into the downturned face and saw unfocused blue eyes. "Hey..." she put a hand on the brunette's shoulder. "Why didn't you tell me you were seasick? C'mon sit down."
Melinda shrugged the hand off her shoulder. "I'm not *sea*sick." Her voice was irritated.
"When we dock you ought to come with us. Give yourself a break from the ship's motion. Maybe you'll feel better," Janice insisted.
Snapping, Melinda turned and barked, "I feel fine. I'm finished here. I'm going to go sit in our cabin and work on a scroll." She turned on her heel and walked out of the galley.
Janice heard a heavy slapping sound as the door to their cabin opened and closed hard. She frowned. "What the hell happened to her?" She glanced down at her watch and sighed. "Can't deal with that right now," she murmured. "Time for action." Removing her towel apron, Janice dropped it on the counter and left the galley in a rush.
The brunette woman reclined on the small bed, atop the straightened covers. Propped against the wall, a pillow stuffed behind her lower back, Melinda sat reading an unrolled parchment against her upraised knees. She jotted a few notes on a half-filled pad bearing a partial translation.
She was currently stymied and reading further down the scroll, for a context to make sense of an idiomatic phrase. She pulled a small hand bound leather book from under her left thigh and thumbed to a page. Comparing it to the phrasing in the scroll, she shook her head. "That's not right." She frowned. Closing her eyes, she carefully set aside the parchment. Her stomach twitched, signaling hunger and she glanced at her watch. "Almost noon," she murmured. "That's what you get for skipping breakfast," she berated herself. Setting the small book atop her traveling bag, she walked quickly to the cabin door, deciding on a snack.
She thought about waiting the next hour or so for the ship to make port in Casablanca. She could then venture into the city and taste something local. Going alone though, she realized, was not a particularly smart idea.
And that's what she would have to do. Her partner, Janice Covington, had been asked to help the Lob Lolly crew make their rendezvous.
A knot of anxiety drove Melinda past the galley though and up on deck to seek out the captain and Janice. She wanted to hear from the blonde herself that she knew what she was doing.
Taking a deep breath of the salt sea air, the American southerner stopped a sailor. "Where are the captain and Miss Covington?" she asked.
"Haven't seen 'em, Miss." He gestured over his shoulder. "I have to go make a depth sounding. We're turning through the channel into port." He hurried away.
Melinda moved to the railing spotting the Casablance port skyline. Indistinct low buildings were nearly obscured by the slow-moving vessels that steamed in and out of the north African port.
Teams of men swarmed over the piers, the ship decks and the rigging and sails of the few older style sailing vessels.
Giving in to her curiosity, Melinda remained quiet, watching the port come nearer and nearer, identifying the tugboat steaming toward them. The smell of fuel and stack smoke made her eyes water but she kept vigil, committing the pleasant pandemonium to memory as she glimpsed another new place.
She sat down on the deck and wrapped her arms around the railing, peering through, oblivious to the steps which resounded behind her.
A male voice finally drew her attention. "So, have you decided to join us, Miss Pappas?"
Bristol stopped at the railing a few paces away, looking at her. Janice brushed her wind-blown hair aside as she stepped up in the intervening space. Green eyes drifted from the port down to Melinda. "Yeah, Mel. Come with us." She gestured widely at the bustling city. "How often are you going to be back here?"
Getting to her feet, Melinda looked from Janice's face, up to Bristol's, then out to the pier where they were being tugged. The same core of intellectual curiosity that had led her into her father's line of work piqued.
She looked back at Janice to give her answer and stopped herself from speaking. Bristol's hand reached across the blonde's back, and his other arm stretched out to point. "There's Timony," he said.
Melinda looked at a caftan-clad figure pacing the pier. Cinnamon-colored face surrounded by jet black shoulder-length hair, well-tanned hands and legs were all that were visible. "Who's Timony?" she asked.
"Our contact. Acts as our dock boss," Bristol replied casually.
"Then give him the papers and we'll be back on course for the States before night tide," she suggested.
Janice put a hand on Bristol's arm as she turned to Melinda. "If we do the exchange in broad daylight we could be arrested." She gestured back to the piers, pointing out a patrolling French soldier. The heightened tension of the coming war had every port on edge. "If we make it look like just another freight delivery though and work from the warehouse, we've got better odds."
"So, exactly how will this work?" Melinda asked.
"You're coming then?" Bristol clarified, one eyebrow lifting over his brown eyes.
"New experiences and all that, right?" she offered, looking at Janice. The blonde smiled warmly before Melinda lifted her gaze to Bristol.
"Good. Terry needed a partner," Bristol replied quickly. He waved to someone behind the upper deck watch railing. "You'll suit perfectly."
Janice and Melinda turned to watch a clean cut man in sleeveless blue shirt vault the railing and land spread-legged on the deck. "Yes, Cap'n?" he called out, coming closer.
"Miss Pappas is your date for the evening," Bristol said. "Miss Pappas, Mister Terence Godwin, nickname Terry."
Bright blue eyes shined out from a young deeply tanned face and he thrust his hand toward her. "Some damn fine cookin' you do, Miss Pappas, and your friend there." He inclined his head toward Janice but that blue gaze never left Melinda's face.
She slowly took his hand. "Melinda Pappas," she offered detail with a cautious smile.
"Like the accent. Real cultured." He turned to Bristol. "Looks like our new cook's just aching for a night on the town, to find some new recipes?"
Melinda realized that set the story she would be expected to play out were they stopped by any authorities. Probably the exchange of information would take place in a restaurant. She looked to Janice. "Will you and I at least be allowed to acknowledge each other?"
"Yeah, of course." Janice smiled. She revealed her story. "James and I are here to make new business for the Chatham Line."
"Will we be leaving together?" the brunette thought to ask. Terry put his arm across her back lightly. Despite his politeness and generally harmless good looks, she still had to stifle the urge to throw her elbow into his stomach.
Janice smiled and looked up at Bristol. "I told you she was smart."
Bristol looked away from Janice's face and answered Melinda. His answer was singularly unappealing though it was calmly and evenly uttered.
Worried blue eyes sought green. "Janice?" Melinda fought to keep the panic out of her voice.
"You'll stay an extra night here in Casablanca and leave on the Trojan's Song. James and I will take the Lob Lolly to Algiers in the morning for a document pickup. Then we'll meet you in open waters in two days." She pointed out, "Otherwise you'll have an extra day on the water--in rough seas. South Atlantic boats are reporting a nasty storm off the Ivory Coast."
Melinda shook her head.
Taking her arm, Janice led Mel away from the two men. "Mel," she began.
The brunette would have none of it. She had a stake in this as much as Janice did. They stayed together. "No. No, Janice. We started this trip together. We finish it together. Doesn't that mean something to you?"
"This is a chance, Mel--"
"No!" The taller woman slashed her hand through the air.
Janice's jaw set firmly. So did Melinda's. "I'm used to looking out for myself, Melinda Pappas. No one asked you to come to Greece." She grabbed Melinda's wrist. "This is a chance for me to do something, Mel. Something important."
The brunette barked, "The Scrolls were important! What happened to all the 'they'll change history' talk?"
The blonde looked as if she had been slapped. Her jaw went slack and her cheeks reddened.
Mel went on, her voice tight, barely restraining her anger. "If you leave, Janice Covington, I'm taking the Scrolls. I'll find passage direct to the States from here and I'm gone. Your new friends' crusade can go to Hell because I'm not going to help." She took a deep breath, realizing she was shaking. "Now. You figure out if we do this and stay together. I'm not leaving you in Africa." I care too much about what happens to you, the thought echoed in her head, screaming to get out, but she bit her lip, holding it back.
Janice growled, "Someone would think you're my mother or something." Why was Mel doing this? she wondered. "Can't you see I just want to help the war effort?"
Melinda lowered her voice but none of the edgy menace departed her tone. She held the blonde's gaze and asked sharply, "Have you even seen the documents you're going to be handing over here? Has James--" she fairly sneered his name. "Has he once shown them to you?" She gripped the shorter woman's upper arm. "Do you really know who you'd be helping?" Blue eyes searched green imploringly. "Please Janice," she ended in a desperate whisper. "Don't go. They don't need us. We'll find another way home."
Janice looked back over her shoulder. Godwin and Bristol were in deep conversation. She considered what Melinda was asking of her. All through the night James had laid out the plans in detail, answered her questions, and convinced her it was vital to their success that she work with them. She believed him.
The possibility of lending the besmirched Covington name a gleam of polish by aiding in a mission of national security appealed to her pride. A lifetime devoted to a cause most thought was a fantasy, daughter to a man most thought was a thief and a graverobber.
She looked back to Melinda. The other side presented itself. She had a flash of last evening on this very deck caught in a hug with the brunette. If she did this and parted paths with Melinda Pappas. Janice swept into a pair of pleading blue eyes. Without a doubt she knew she would regret leaving Melinda far worse than continuing as "that graverobber Covington's kid." Why hadn't she thought about this last night, she asked herself, now seeing the choices clearly.
Taking a deep breath, she turned back to Bristol and Godwin to inform them of her decision. She opened her mouth. And promptly closed it.
The sun glinted off the narrow barrel of a Colt .45. "We need your decision, ladies," Bristol set the hammer. "Now."
Melinda put her hands on Janice's shoulders. The blonde cast her words back to the brunette. "Couldn't you have waited to question this until we were off the boat?" With a sigh she lifted her hands, out of the corner of her eye she saw Melinda do the same.
"Can we make a deal?" Melinda asked.
"What?" Bristol countered.
"We'll help you deliver your information and you leave us here," she reasoned.
"Two American women in Casablanca without papers?" Terry laughed. "Yeah, sure, Jim. They'll be dead by nightfall tomorrow."
Bristol nodded. "Pack your bags then. You're getting off here."
He waved the gun under Melinda's throat. "If you blow this meeting, you won't have to wait for the authorities to discover you. I'll toss you in the drink myself."
Melinda nodded quickly and pulled Janice away, down into the ship where the women threw their belongings in their bags. Terry followed them at a distance.
In their room, with Godwin outside, Janice was quiet for the longest time. Finally she asked, "How did you know?"
Unable to call it anything more than a bad feeling, Melinda said as much. "I didn't feel anything was right." She buried the scroll she had been translating deep in her clothes. "He was too forthcoming when we asked for information."
"You were holding a gun on him, Mel."
The brunette shook her head. "No. I can't explain it."
Shaking her head, Janice rubbed her forehead, warding off a headache. "And I'm supposed to be the skeptic." She eyed Godwin as the two followed him back on deck.
Melinda's whisper only made her feel worse. "He specifically set out to fool you, Janice. Don't take it personally." They emerged on deck. The rope ladder was already lowered over the side and a contingent of the Lob Lolly's crew already moved on the pier.
Janice leaned close to Melinda as they walked up the pier between Bristol and Godwin. "We can't just let them herd us around."
"We have to wait for an opportunity," Melinda replied in a low whisper.
The blonde looked up at Bristol, angry again at herself for being so easily taken in. "So, where're we going first?"
Bristol's eyes narrowed on her as he answered, "Timony's waiting at the warehouse." He gestured to a dockhand. The shirtless brawny man set down the box he was moving and jogged over. "Tell Timony I've got a shipment. We'll meet at the usual." The man's dark eyes flitted over the foursome then he jogged away.
For her part, Melinda was showing considerably more calm than she felt. Her mind worked through everything she had both learned and guessed about the Lob Lolly, Bristol and his crew.
It appeared that she and Janice were still important to the plans. Otherwise they would have been killed at the first sign of resistance. So they were alive as long as they cooperated or as long as the men didn't see another way to fulfill their mission without the women's help.
Once they made contact however, what then? She tilted her gaze toward Janice and felt her chest tighten painfully. The blonde had been willing to separate once. What would prevent her from doing so again, especially should she see a way out?
By demanding they stay together as her heart commanded, had Melinda only stalled the inevitable? Would Janice run when the chance came, unwittingly or even willingly leaving Melinda behind?
She wanted, no, needed to know more about why Janice had been so eager to help Bristol. She found an opportunity to ask when the men stopped to talk to the owner of a smokehouse. "Janice?"
"What?" The blonde sounded angry and frustrated just as Melinda suspected she would, but when green eyes came up, Melinda saw the truth. Janice Covington was scared.
The revelation made Melinda feel awful. One of the reasons she had decided to stay with Janice after that first awkward meeting was the belief that the blonde archaeologist had a strong sense of personal goals. It was something Melinda wanted to learn for herself and that she thought being around Janice could teach her. Maybe they weren't so different after all.
"I'm sorry," Melinda finally offered, accepting the blame for their current predicament. "I guess I should have kept quiet."
Janice looked toward Bristol who had his back to them talking with the shop owner, a fat man with greasy fingers, and equally blood-spattered apron. She could see the bulge in his jacket from his gun. "Yeah, you should've," she retorted under her breath. Then she frowned and shook her head. "No. I should have my head examined."
"He was pretty convincing," Melinda considered.
"He really had my number though," Janice murmured with a wince. She sighed. "God, how could I do it again?" She shoved her hands angrily in her pockets. "First the scrolls, now this. I just love lost causes. Damn."
"What do you mean?"
"I spent my life listening to asinine stories and believing the ravings of a drunken fake," she sneered.
"But the Scrolls weren't fake, Janice. You did find them. You proved your father was right."
"Descendants of a hero," she mocked, imitating an older male voice. Mel realized it must be Harry Covington, Janice's father. "My whole life," she went on now in her own voice, "has been one wild goose chase after another in search of glory."
"I don't believe that." Melinda shook her head.
Disappointment in herself spilling over to all her life's endeavors, Janice countered acidly, "Believe it. My father was a thief, a drunk and always just 'one more dig' away from his glory. And I was right there with him. Such a gullible wretch." She looked up at Melinda with her smooth skin, calm blue eyes and saw a woman who had never messed up anything. "You on the other hand are certainly living up well to your ancestry. Smart." She went on, frustration oozing through her voice. "Xena never got gulled into some shallow promise of being famous."
She mused back to the scroll she had been translating. The phrasing clicked for Mel. "Not fame. Power," she corrected Janice absently. Yes, that's it. She thought about the scroll buried now in her bag. Would she ever be able to get back to it?
Further discussion was put on hold as the men rejoined the women. "All right, ladies. We now have two meetings." Bristol pointed to Janice. "We need forty cases of cooking oil."
Terry added, nodding toward Melinda. "And you're going to get fifteen cases of flour."
"What do you need us for?" Janice countered. "Just make the deals yourself. Cooking oil and flour? I don't bake cakes, fellas."
Bristol's face grew taut and angry. He grabbed Janice's collar, making Melinda jump. Brown eyes bore into green. Melinda could feel an itch in her palms and looked to Godwin, whose gaze was pinned on Janice and his captain's exchanges. She considered trying to grab Janice and running, but she knew that would likely fail, and the men would decide they were not worth the trouble of keeping them around. She felt a surge of desire for violence, but then Janice's calm exchange with Bristol defused her in surprise.
"Not really talking cooking oil are we?" Janice countered evenly though his face was inches away from hers.
He nodded. "Smart bitch." He looked over to Terence who had a fist wrapped around Melinda's upper arm, preventing her stepping forward. "I need these buys," he growled tightly. "If one of my other crew walked into those shops we'd be arrested."
"Because of the trouble you ran into last time." Janice peeled his fist from her collar. Physical violence from men she could handle. It was deception she obviously had no skill combatting. She took a judicious step back so she could fist her hands on her hips. "What's to prevent me from turning you in for that?" she asked.
They were on a street in the middle of the day. Janice counted on that public place saving her from violence. And it did.
But Godwin grabbed Melinda and even as Janice jumped to grab hold of her friend's arm, the two men and the captive woman disappeared around a corner into a dark alley between the mudbrick buildings. She rounded the corner yelling for them to stop. She stopped abruptly.
Terence Godwin had a knife blade pinned against Melinda's throat. James Bristol had withdrawn his gun and cocked it, aiming for Janice's head. He fired; she ducked. "What the hell?"
"I'll order him to slit her throat, Miss Covington. Try to rescue her and I'll blow your head off."
Gazes locked, Janice absorbed Melinda's fear into herself. Though her own heart pounded loud enough she heard it over the commotion back in the market, Janice put a stern look of confidence on her face. Stiffening her jaw, she watched the blade shift in Godwin's hands, the silver glint catching her attention. But there was no damage to Melinda's fair, smooth skin.
Looking up at Bristol, feeling the anger seep over her muscles energizing them, she forced herself to demand calmly, "Where's the shop?" Play the game and bide your time, she told herself. Opportunity, she remembered Melinda's first words to her.
Melinda brought one hand up slowly and wrapped it around Godwin's wrist, in an attempt to prevent getting cut as she spoke. "Janice?" she called to the blonde, who looked over to her again. "Be careful." Get away if you can, she heard herself mentally add. It was true. Seeing Janice in Bristol's fists had made the brunette more concerned for the blonde's safety than her own.
Janice though was caught off guard by the simple two words. Not a 'come back' or an 'I'll be all right', but 'be careful.' Look out for yourself.
No one had ever asked her just to be careful. Oh sure, there had been "Watch your step you don't break that pottery. I need it to sell at the museum," or "Damn it, don't fall down with that! I haven't translated it yet!" Both frequent cautions from her father when they were on digs.
Even her mother's mother had uttered only warnings against breaking the glass or the dishes, or whatnot. "It's priceless, dear," she would comment as Janice, a clumsy little girl, had set the table for the small, but important dinner meetings to gain the family influence in Philadelphia society.
Green eyes met blue. Just be careful for herself? "I will," she replied gently. And I'll be back for you, she added in silence, hoping the promise showed in her eyes. She turned to Bristol again. "Where's the shop?"
He pointed to a shop just barely visible from the alley. The sign out front proclaimed "Incense, Oils, and Spices Exotic and Pure. Prop. H. Akilim."
"Akilim's waiting for the word. The boxes are all labeled Durena, a local cooking oil extract."
"But anyone checks it and the contents are obvious," she replied.
"Your job is to convince them they don't need to," he replied with a matter-of-fact tone. "Feminine wiles," he added with meaning pressing a note into her hand. "Give that to Akilim. Have the shop send a runner to the ship for a handful of sailors. They'll load it up. But you stay visible. If a gendarme even blinks at you, distract him."
"Only that?" She set her shoulders. With a last look around, glaring at Bristol, frowning at Godwin and offering a wan smile to Melinda which was cautiously returned, Janice walked quickly back into the noisy busy market and crossed to Akilim's store.
Continued in part 3
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