COUP de GRACE
Part IV: Mosaic
There is life; and there, a step away, is death.
She ran. A breathless exhilaration negated all fear and freed her memory to roam as well, pursuant, persistent, and faster than her feet could ever take her. She thought of childhood, of running through the golden fields near her birthplace with her sister, as she followed Lila's mischievous laugh. And running through the woods of Britannia…that was where everything started to go wrong, wasn't it? Or maybe that was when everything fell into place, when the larger world finally revealed itself with a shattering complexity. It seemed as if she were always running after that: away from bacchae, vengeful gods, marauding armies, and toward a friend, a lover, a crisis, a shared destiny.
The boy who had fashioned himself her sidekick, who insisted on accompanying her, fell from behind. She heard it—even over the deafening rumble from the tomb and the roar of a defeated god—the sound of boots slipping along wet sand, his gentle grunt. She turned. He was staring her, eyes wide with fear, embarrassment, and helplessness.
"Stay down!" she shouted at him.
She knew, of course, that Ares would try to have the last word in the only language he truly understood. And so she wasn't surprised to see the chakram—not the original one, which now lay broken within the tomb—sailing toward her, narrowly escaping from the rapid descent of tomb door.
Speak to me, she thought.
In their "line of work" as Xena had so prosaically put it, a second's hesitation meant life or death—or could mean it, at any rate.
This chakram did not split in two, as it was wont to do, but came at her straight on, burying itself within her chest.
She welcomed it. Death came quickly this time around. She had no time to revel in this loss, in the lightness of a burden taken away. The sticky blood, freely flowing, poured into the crook of her arm. She smiled—all was complete. It was finished. The tomb door, closing, was the last thing she heard.
1. Mad Dog and Englishwoman
In every joy, as certainly in every pleasure, cruelty has its place.
Thanks to the deceptive darkness of her tent, it was well after dawn when Janice finally awoke. When she realized how late it was, she irritably shook off the shroud of the dream. Nonetheless its niggling power remained as she quickly washed up and struggled to remember pertinent details while simultaneously berating herself for sleeping in, then berating Harry and Fayed for allowing her to sleep in. With her restless mind still casting about for someone to blame, she stalked into the mess tent.
Several of the workers were engaged in playing dice. Another small group chatted among themselves. Fayed nursed a cup of coffee while talking to Mustafa, a large Turk who was probably the strongest body on the site.
"What the hell is going on?" she growled at the Egyptian foreman.
Fayed shoved a metal cup of bitter, lukewarm coffee in her direction.
"Why isn't anyone working?" Time fell through a sieve; these little annoying fragments of life were caught in its mesh. Work needed to be done. There was no time to sit around—or to indulge in amateur dream interpretation, she accused herself. More important things eluded her, she knew it. There are things to be found here, I can smell it!
For his part Fayed found Janice's impatience a trait peculiar to Americans. Everything had to be done now—or better yet, yesterday. "We will, Janice. We're just getting a late start." He patted her arm in a paternal, almost condescending fashion—an action that he knew she detested. In protest, her limbs twitched like the flanks of a racehorse. "Harry is doing a bit of, ah, entertaining."
"Entertaining? Entertaining?" She slammed the coffee cup on the wooden table. "What the fuck?" She stormed out of the tent. The Turk opened his mouth to speak, then clamped it shut as she bolted back in, grabbed the mug, and stalked out.
Mustafa shook his head and finally dared to speak. "Ay, that one," he clucked like a worried grandmother.
Fayed raised an amused, encouraging eyebrow.
"I know the type—"
"You married the type."
Mustafa eyed him wearily. "Precisely."
The Turk shook his head. "Good for bed, bad for marriage. She will never find a husband."
Fayed smirked. "She is not looking for a husband." She is looking for three things: women, trouble, and her own personal Holy Grail. The first two items in the list—which, he knew, went together so terribly, terribly well—lingered in his thoughts. At times he felt that Janice pursued women with an almost suicidal, self-destructive fervor, a flaunting of propriety (and not to mention her father) that—even in libertine cities such as Alexandria—could get her killed. Like Casanova, she was smitten with minutiae about every woman she encountered, was undone with sensual detail: The way Cecile walked, the slope of Antoinette's shoulders, Greta's laugh, Susan's dimpled knees. She would probably find something attractive about that horrid Englishwoman—
Without a word to Mustafa, he fled the tent.
Sure enough, she was standing just outside the flap, drinking the coffee, watching three figures at a distance, truly interested in only one. Two men—one of them Harry, the other Linus Davies—were walking away from a dark, expensive car. Linus, wearing a dashing panama hat, towered over her father. The group's third member, leaning against the car, unmoving, and bored as a delinquent at Sunday School, was Jennifer Davies.
Linus spotted her first, and waved vigorously. Harry smiled in her direction. Then Jenny, head turning to see what all the fuss was about, looked at her, did a double take, fumbled with her broad straw hat, then returned the gaze.
"Do you smell it, Fayed?" Janice asked. Her nostrils quivered dramatically, her chest swelled; she hummed with pleasure, as if sitting in front of a feast. "Mmmmm…money."
The foreman folded his arms skeptically. "Is that all, then?"
She said nothing and returned her attention to the woman at the car.
Fayed did not care for the way Janice was staring at Mrs. Davies: Like a predator coolly assessing its prey, or a chess player plotting her opening moves (a poor analogy, he thought, since Janice was atrocious at the game). He had only spoken briefly with the flirtatious, supercilious blonde—when she and her husband first arrived on the site earlier that morning. Nonetheless, he had already quite firmly and decisively made up his mind: He did not like her. She was simply too English for her own good.
He could no longer keep his dismay to himself. "Please. Not her."
Janice cut him a look. "Why not?"
"She is not your type. You prefer les brunettes."
"Variety is the spice of life, pal." She threw the remainder of the black, sludge-like coffee onto the ground. It splattered along his boots.
"Not when the spice is arsenic." He pursed his lips together, unsure of how further to go. It was not as if Janice ever listened to him any more, and would actually follow his advice; she had grown into a creature as stubborn as her father. But at the very least he believed he had a duty to warn her, to share those insights he had culled from instinct. "I do not trust her."
"Frankly, neither do I." Janice returned to staring at Jenny, who finally took the hint and proceeded to walk in direction of the mess tent.
Now he was quite perplexed. "Then why—it's not just the money, is it?"
Janice glared at him coldly. "Are you saying I'd just sleep with her to get money for the dig?"
"You've done worse things," he said quietly, then added, to soften the blow: "We both have."
She blinked, her expression gentled. "It's not that."
It was a lot of things. You want love. He knew better than to say it. He also knew she had a great capacity for love, virtually untapped in the world she inhabited. But he was certain that this latest potential conquest was not where she would find it. "Well," he asked delicately, "what is it?"
"I'd like to find out why exactly I don't trust her." She kicked at a large rock moored in the dirt. "And you know something? Sometimes you just gotta embrace a challenge when it shows up on your doorstep."
"More ridiculous bravado, Janice. And may I take this opportunity to remind you, you do not have a doorstep," he retorted angrily, his mind frantically attempting to find something that would stop her. He was about ready to lie and say he knew she had the clap, but Janice nipped this in the bud with a dismissive yet charming grin.
She handed him the metal mug. "Go back in the tent, Fayed."
"Bah!" He spun around, closing the canvas flap after him with a dramatic snap.
As always, she wistfully wondered how he did that; something in the wrists, she figured. As Jennifer Davies approached, Janice remained unsettled about this morning's dream. Normally, she was hardly the type to pay attention to the ramblings of her unconscious mind; reality was quite interesting enough. But the nebulous impressions of the dream possessed a gentle, pervasive aura: It was a dream of journeying, expectation, arrival, and then—closure. It settled over her quietly, as if a quality in the air changed, grew heavier, tangible, and laid itself upon her shoulders. Are you it, then? Are you part of it? she wondered.
Jennifer Halliwell Davies was smiling. She had good teeth, Janice noted, unlike other specimens from her country. Christ. I'm not buying a horse here.
"Dr. Covington." Her voice was a low purr, with some element of shyness in it. She threw in a mocking curtsey to deflect her nervousness.
Janice shoved her hands into her pockets. "Mrs. Davies."
An awkward silence engulfed them.
It was easy to charm a woman when nothing more than pleasure was expected. This, Covington decided, was fraught with more complication, and she wasn't sure how to proceed. There were so many questions too. Namely about that queer husband of hers. If that bastard ain't in the spy game somehow, I'll be surprised.
"I was hoping I would see you today," Jenny ventured. "It's been a while—too long, I should say."
"Yeah." Oh Janice, you are so cagey!
Mrs. Davies smiled again. "I haven't seen you since—" With a gloved hand, she gestured toward the short hair.
"Oh. Yeah." Janice ran a hand through it self-consciously. Batting a thousand, you are.
"Quite the gamine look. What made you get it cut?"
Now there's a story, she wanted to say. And perhaps under different circumstances, in a smoky cafe or on a terrace after dinner, she would have—it was a good story, a story for charming a broad. It was too easy to do that here; something within her resisted. But it was also too easy to be flippant—and that came to her as second nature. "An act of destiny," she deadpanned.
Jenny laughed. "Pish posh," she retorted, then surrendered to the urge to tuck a short, unruly strand of blonde hair behind Janice's adorable little ear. Adorable? Oh, what an idiot I am, she thought. Nonetheless, she was pleased to note a faint blush creeping under the archaeologist's light tan.
And then Janice's warm hand was on her wrist, gently guiding it away from her face.
Jenny panicked. "Am I being too forward?"
"No, it's just that like most mutts, I'm reluctant to be groomed."
"I'm just kiddin'." But she was not smiling.
"I see." Well, you're not funny. "Don't tease me too much, Janice," she murmured, hoping that her low tone made her vulnerability sound less pathetic and somehow more attractive.
It appeared to have no effect upon Covington. "Why, Mrs. Davies?"
They had almost kissed at that dinner party, so many months ago in Alexandria. Jenny remembered little of it except making drunken comments about Verlaine and absinthe—those glowing eyes had so inspired her—then in the darkened vestibule, touching her soft cheek, feeling Janice leaning into her—when suddenly Harry and some of his harder-drinking cronies came crashing down the hall.
She desperately needed to retain that intimate foothold. "Won't you call me Jenny? Please?"
Janice was watching her with a careful, unwavering gaze, like an animal. "So we would be on more intimate terms then, Mrs. Davies?"
You're killing me here. And you're enjoying it. "I would like that very much, Janice—to be friends."
"Do friends spy upon each other, Mrs. Davies?"
"Spy? What are you talking about?" Oh damn it, Lye, your cover is blown. And I didn't even have to open my bloody mouth.
"I'm talking about your husband. And you."
"My husband is here because his money is burning a hole in his pocket. For some insane reason he wants to help you and your father."
"I thought his interests are Mayan."
“Bloody hell, is everyone supposed to have one narrow little set of obsessions, like you?” Janice raised an eyebrow, a prelude to getting riled, and Jenny steered the conversion back into civil waters. "It's not a crime to be interested in Greek artifacts as well, surely?"
Luckily, Janice seemed amused. "And what's your field of interest in archaeology, Mrs. Davies?"
"None," Jenny retorted. "It's a big awful bore, if you ask me. Digging around in the ground, without knowing when or where you'll really find something—it seems foolish. Perhaps even a bit frightening, don't you think? You have no control over it. I don't like to dabble in things I have no control over." And here I am, talking to you of all people.
"You might as well lock yourself in a room and never come out," Janice replied.
"Ah, well, here we go, the fundamental difference between you and I. Can this friendship be saved, before it's even started?"
Again Janice nudged the rock at her feet. "When you're in Alexandria, your husband practically lives at the Cecil Hotel." The Cecil was an unofficial headquarters for British intelligence officers in the area.
Mrs. Davies was at a profound loss. "He doesn't like the color scheme I chose for the villa." Please laugh, please drop the subject, please tell me you'll come to me tonight.
To Jenny's irritation, this did not happen. Janice veered around the wisecrack like a champion cyclist around a pothole. "So let me guess what your game plan is. You both come in here, you fuck me and keep me distracted, and make it easier for your husband to watch my old man."
"It's not like that."
"Then tell me what it's like—Jenny."
Flushed with anger, Jenny took a step closer, crowding Janice in what she hoped would be a pleasantly intimidating way. "It's quite simple, Janice. So simple that I had assumed you had figured it out already. I want to be your lover."
Covington's eyebrow twitched, a sign of surprise. Yet, cautious as ever, she said nothing.
"Well, my dear, that certainly shut you up." She touched Janice's wrist, detecting a galloping pulse under veins and tendons. "My husband works for OSS. It does not concern me. I have no idea what his intentions are toward your father—if indeed he has any." Oh my God, did I say that? You've laid out all your cards now. You're totally vulnerable. And so is he.
Janice took note of her sudden, fresher vulnerability. "What—"
She dropped her voice to a soft, urgent whisper. "Will you come see me? This evening? We've rented a house in the town."
Harry and Linus were now walking in their direction. Reluctantly, Jenny relinquished her grip on the most beautiful mutt ever. The elder Covington seemed quite jovial. She assumed an agreement about money must have been struck between the two men while they were alone.
Rarely affectionate in public, Harry now tousled Janice's hair, as if she were some sulky puppy to be teased out of a mood. "Go put somethin' on your head," he said to his daughter. "It'll get hot soon." The old man shook his head, and made the annoying mistake that many parents do in front of their children, even grown ones: He referred to his offspring in the third person. "You don't know how many times a day I have to nag her about wearing a hat, or a scarf, or something, to protect herself against the sun," he said.
"I'm very fond of the sun, but out here it can get absolutely blistering," Linus commented. "However, I suspect Janice is made of tougher stuff."
"She is indeed. But—you know, I suspect she rather likes it," Jenny said. "You know the saying: mad dogs and Englishmen...." She trailed off, then raised an eyebrow. "Isn't that right—Mad Dog?"
Harry Covington threw back his head and roared with laughter. "Now ain't that the truth!" he crowed. "That's perfect—just perfect." His delighted outburst garnered the attention of Fayed, who now came out of the mess tent. "Hey Fayed, we got a brand new nickname for the Brat!"
As the men giggled like schoolboys, the Brat—quite unsure of how much she preferred this new moniker—grabbed Mrs. Davies by the upper arm and took her aside. "I'm going to kill you," she growled.
Jenny glanced briefly at her oblivious husband, then touched the hand on her arm, soothing the rough grip. "Wouldn't you like to have dinner first, Mad Dog?"
* * *
With the easy thoughtlessness of the rich, Linus and Jenny had taken over the largest house in Thessaloniki—the mayor's house, in fact. The city's first family had gladly vacated to a semi-renovated carriage house on their property; the idea of a tidy sum of cash proved extremely appealing.
In the privacy of his elegant new bedroom, Linus stared at a perfect white egg, nestled within its egg cup on the breakfast tray. Then he glared at the Worcestershire sauce. He was loath to make his grandmother's hangover cure, but felt he had no other recourse, as his head was pounding. He wondered if his drinking companion of last night, Harry Covington, felt as badly. Somehow he doubted it.
Jenny's sudden appearance—in a flimsy bathrobe—did not help matters. "'Ere, now, sir, what's this?" she brayed in a fake Cockney accent, gesturing at the foodstuffs before him. She poured orange juice from a pitcher on the tray and downed it with irritating gusto.
"Oh, stop," he moaned, touching his throbbing temple.
She smirked, then bent over playfully to kiss the delicate spot near his fingertips. "Does that help?"
"Why are you in such a damned cheerful mood?" he demanded crabbily.
This time when she smiled, it was triumphant. She grasped his arm. "Come along and I'll show you."
Oh no. He anticipated what he was about to see. It was one of her peculiar habits—to put it mildly, he thought, as she eagerly led him down the corridor to her bedroom. But he understood that it was, for her, a way of sharing it with him, of binding herself to their life and their choices. It was a perverse—and, he believed, genuine—declaration: That she kept no secrets from him.
She opened the door, and this time the sight was indeed dazzling and well worth the perversity involved: It was none other than Janice Covington, sprawled out on her back, naked and sound asleep. While he fought the urge to scream bloody murder at Jenny—you've gone and slept with the object of my surveillance!—he couldn't help but admire the beauty in his wife's bed. The blonde hair boyish and tousled, the cherubic lips slightly parted, an arm spread out in a beckoning fashion, a sheet just barely covering her groin. If he hadn't already known how lazy Jenny was in the first place, he would have accused her of arranging those lovely limbs just so, for Janice resembled an angel of sorts—a sorely debauched one that had fallen so hard on her ass that getting up was nigh on impossible, but a heavenly creature nonetheless.
Jenny's excitement was palpable, if only because she practically danced a triumphant jig while clinging affectionately to his arm. "Well?"
"Christ," he breathed, "put a bowl of fruit in front of her, ignore the tits, and she could be out of a Caravaggio."
She laughed. Loudly. Terrified, he leaped out of the doorway. She pointed again at Janice. He braved a look in—she was still asleep and lightly snoring, her chest rising and falling in a deep rhythm.
Nonetheless, Jenny exited and closed the door. "She sleeps like a rock," she said, quite unnecessarily. "I played the 'Ride of the Valkyries' on the gramophone earlier and she didn't budge."
"Yes, dear, I heard that this morning. Did wonders for my hangover, thank you." He latched onto her arm and dragged her down the hallway, his rage escalating in proportion with their distance from the sapphic angel. Linus gave his wife an unceremonious shove into the study and shut the door, because for all they knew, Janice Covington might be one hell of an actress.
"Really, darling, you never get excited like this by one of my conquests!" she trilled.
Still on that emotional high, I see. Well, who could blame you? "Are you out of your mind?" he hissed.
"I'm supposed to be watching her."
"Well, this should make it easier for you then, shouldn't it? Besides, I thought the main focus of your surveillance was Harry."
"They are a package deal, dear. It makes things much more complicated." He ground out the emphasis between his teeth.
"Says you," Jenny sputtered weakly. "It's not complicated for me."
"Oh my dear, with your talent for gamesmanship, you could play chess, backgammon, and cricket at the same time, all while blindfolded." Right, now, who's bitter? He hoped, at any rate, that he looked angry—while certainly he felt angry, he also knew he was incapable of permitting volatile emotion to permeate his gentlemanly exterior. "What if she suspects? Damn it, she might already."
"She doesn't," Jenny retorted quickly.
He wanted to believe that, and desperately grasped onto the two-word life preserver. "I've wanted this for a long time," he murmured.
"I know," she replied quietly.
"Fucking years spent doing grunt work, sitting in bad cafes in a trench coat, taking notes and looking obvious…" And all those years hearing how brilliant my father and uncle were at it. "Do you know, I couldn't believe it when they told me I'd got Harry as my next assignment? I said, 'No, you've mistaken me for Uncle Bertie, he's the fellow you want.'"
Jenny gnawed at her lip, suddenly remorseful. "Darling, I'm sorry. I will be careful. You'll be off limits as a topic from now on, I swear." The assurance was as limp and diaphanous as her bathrobe. He grimaced nervously. "You don't really—I mean—you don't think she's really involved in anything horrible, do you?"
He rolled his eyes. "For God sake's, Jenny, she's his daughter. She works with him. Even if we entertain the notion that she does not sell black market relics to the Nazis, she's got to know about it."
"But if she knows—" Jenny trailed off. "You told me she—"
"—volunteered in the Spanish Civil War and fought against Franco, was a contact for the White Rose movement in Germany…yes, she's got a full resume of anti-fascist activity behind her." Linus rubbed his chin. "Sometimes I wonder if it's all a brilliant front they've put together, the two of them—it would be genius, you realize? Or maybe Harry just uses it as such. And then I wonder if he sees the humor in it, the irony…hiding behind the image of his heroic adventurer daughter."
"That sounds plausible to me."
He laughed a tad too harshly. "Do tell, O Covington Expert."
"All right, I haven't known her long, but—I can't see her being that duplicitous."
"Well." He leaned wearily against the closed door. "What do you see?"
Encouraged by his tired stance, she snuggled closer to him, grinning, her forehead brushing the bristling tip of his chin. "Someone strong and brave. Smart. Gentle."
Linus felt his jaw drop in surprise. "You're smitten."
"She's not like anyone I've ever met." A tiny, wondrous smile lit up Jenny's face. "She's rather splendid, actually."
Despite everything, he smiled. Splendid was an adjective Jenny usually reserved for the finest wine and the best of haute couture. As such, it was refreshing to hear it applied to an actual, living being.
* * *
One month later
Janice stirred, half-asleep, allowing her mind to wake on its own time. Thursday. My own bed. She stretched, and her hand encountered a warm thigh. And this must be…What'shername from the soukh. The warm flesh appeared to be wearing pants. Pajamas? She didn't recall that What'shername brought along her own set of loungewear, but anything could fit in the woman's enormous purse, of that Janice's sleepy mind was certain. Her hand slithered, python-like, across the leg, toward the juncture of thighs, intent on de-panting.
However, the hand halted its reconnaissance mission as it stumbled upon a flaccid lump that, Janice was quite certain despite a carafe of wine, had not been appended to the person she went to bed with the night before.
In a flurry of sheets she sat up. Bardamu, the Frenchman, sat beside her in bed while perusing a newspaper, like a Sunday-morning husband awaiting his breakfast. "Good morning, Janice," he said, quite cheerfully.
If there was one thing she hated more than a morning person, it was a thieving, murderous, treacherous, and deceitful morning person—in her bed, no less. The sheets strangled her like a toga gone berserk as she crashed onto the floor, groped through the khaki lake of her pants for the pistol, and—trying to ignore the sheet slipping over her nude body—thrust the gun at him.
He burst into laughter. "Oh come now, if I wanted to, I could have raped and killed you by now. And no one would be the wiser."
"Your whore? Got rid of her." He finished folding his paper and tossed it beside him on the bed. "Don't worry, I did not hurt her." He paused; whatever middling respect he had for Janice earned a truth. "At least not badly."
She closed her eyes for a second in sheer relief. Relief that the woman was safe. And relief that it hadn't been Jenny here last night. And by the way, old girl—annoyingly, her conscience took on her lover’s taunting English accent—just what did you think you were doing last night? However, now was not the time to dissect her increasingly confused love life. "What do you want?" she barked at the Frenchman, hoping that menace was conveyed clearly enough in her tone, because it most certainly wasn't present in her attire. Awkwardly, she managed to wrap the sheet around her body.
"I've a business proposition for you. And please put the gun down, it is tres rude."
The .38 remained trained on his skull. "Fuck you."
"If I thought you were interested...." He trailed off with a sigh and stretched out with a leonine self-satisfaction, propping himself upon an elbow. "Dansey lives, as you may be aware."
"And as you also may know, that is not on my agenda. The Nazis have my vases, which means I shall never see them again unless I visit Hitler's lovely Bavarian hideaway. I fear an invitation, however, is out of the question."
"I don't care about your fucking vases."
"Really, Janice, such a poor attitude for an archaeologist to have!" He held up one hand in a surrendering, conciliatory manner. "If you'll permit me, I have something for you." Slowly he reached into his jacket and produced a large sum of cash, tightly bound, and placed it on the bed.
Janice's lips pursed in amusement. "That is about the only way you'd ever get me into bed."
"But, my sweet, we already were in bed." He chuckled as she shuddered with disgust. "You're a great joker, Janice, and I like that about you. No, the money is not for that." He realigned himself on the bed, laying back and putting his hands under his head. "I want you to take care of Dansey for me."
Carefully, she lowered the gun, then cast a look at the wad of cash.
"Janice?" He sounded almost tender, solicitous.
Her own voice trembled in response. "What?"
"I can tell how much you really want to use that gun," he whispered. "So put it to good use. Take care of this for me. I'm certain your father would appreciate the gesture as well—one less fish in our increasingly smaller pond."
"Leave my father out of this."
"Ah, but I like your father. Not as greedy and uncouth as Dansey, and not possessing his homicidal instincts either. No, Harry Covington prostitutes himself for a cause, at least." The Frenchman smiled. "The same one as yours, of course. Dansey is a pig. He just wants money."
"Why don't you 'take care' of this yourself?"
"For the simple reason that it would be easier if you did so. He knows me, he knows my men. He'd go running the minute he would lay sight on any of us. But you...you could get close enough to strike." He nodded at the money. "And that's only half. You get the rest when you finish the job." Bardamu gave a final, satisfying stretch. "Think about it." He stood up and tugged his jacket into some semblance of smoothness.
Kill Dansey? No, kill him. Kill him now. They will hear the gunshots, they will ask questions, but put money in the right hands, ask favors of the right people, and no one will know.
The gun was hard and snug in her hand. But she did not pull the trigger.
The Frenchman smiled and tapped the journalistic rag left sitting on her bed. "I'll be reading them everyday, to see if you’ve made progress. What is the expression? See you in the funny papers."
Then he was gone.
2. The Vespa Trail
Thus the Vespa came to be linked in my eyes with transgression, sin, and even temptation - not the temptation to possess the object, but the subtle seduction of faraway places….it entered into my imagination not as an object of desire, but as a symbol of an unfulfilled desire. - Umberto Eco
One of the most significant archaeological discoveries in twentieth-century Alexandria was made by an ass; this is noteworthy because, in this instance, the ass was actually a donkey and not an archaeologist.
It was 1900 when the animal plummeted into an access well leading to the catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa, a mass burial site three stories into the ground. It would be over 50 years later that Dr. Janice Covington would uncover a significant extension to this necropolis heretofore unexplored in modern times—an accomplishment that both delighted and concerned the Egyptian government, for the thought of potentially lucrative artifacts falling into the hands of the Grave Robber's Daughter was indeed a mixed blessing.
Thus—as befitting any organization dominated by middle-aged men with drinking problems, and further goaded by the inquiries of British intelligence into an old, unsolved murder—the country's sluggish bureaucracy staggered into action. If they could not frame the good doctor for this crime—conveniently eliminating her involvement with the current dig and stifling her windfall of prestige—they would, at the very least and to put it in her own words, bug the shit out of her.
Under such circumstances Artaud Cordahi, civil servant par excellence, paid his first visit to the site. It was not his first time dealing with Covington, whom he always found vastly entertaining. He sauntered past the curious workers—including a statuesque beauty who brought unimaginable glamour to the dirty khaki outfit she wore—and right into the tent he knew held the nefarious archaeologist.
She did not seem surprised to see him; rather, she merely nodded at him to take a seat while rummaging through a large footlocker. He ignored the ominous groan of the camp chair as he settled in, and gave a toothy grin of approval at the bottle of single malt scotch produced from her fruitful search. She poured a two-fingered sliver into the cleanest tin cup she had and handed it to him.
Not surprisingly, Janice permitted rhetorical sarcasm to open the conversation and set the tone. "Isn't this against your newfound religion?" In order to appease the powers that be, Cordahi professed to be a convert to Islam. Janice knew, however, that he was about as Muslim as the Pope.
"Yes," he retorted cheerfully. “But I trust you not to tell.” Nonetheless he hesitated before downing it and skeptically examined the battered cup. Perhaps the liquor was simply too powerful for a simple mug? "You are not having any?"
She shook her head.
"Then you are a good Muslim." He tossed back the shot, hissing with joy as fire bolted down his throat. He licked the ragged edges of his patchy mustache. "Very nice."
"To what do I owe this pleasure of wasting my best scotch?" Janice asked, thumping the bottle on the table for emphasis.
"Just doing my job."
Resigned to the reality of impromptu inspections, she merely reclined in her seat.
"You have been holding back on us, Janice. Not only have you discovered a new catacomb, you have unearthed a living goddess in the process." He gestured toward the open tent flap. Janice angled her body for optimum viewing pleasure.
Of course, he was looking at Mel, who was visible in the near distance and was clumsily unraveling a kaffiah from around her head. As the dusty scarf lay in ringlets around her neck, she tucked her glasses into a shirt pocket and attempted, with endearing daintiness, to carefully splash canteen water across her lightly tanned face.
She looks so different. And yet so familiar. Recognition shot a cold chill up her spine, as bracing as the water splashed upon her lover's face.
They watched as Fayed appeared on the scene and exchanged unheard pleasantries with Mel. He took the canteen from her. Uh-oh, thought Janice. She knew her old friend all too well—feigning a drink, Fayed suddenly dumped the contents of the canteen onto Mel’s dark head. They could hear his wild hoot of laughter as he gamboled away from the clearly befuddled Mel, who, after a moment of building up the appropriate outrage, took off after him. Janice was pleased to see the initial coltish awkwardness of her stride smooth itself into thoroughbred grace as she became immersed in the chase, gaining speed and losing herself.
Cordahi shot a sideways glance at Covington. "Very professional."
"As a matter of fact, they are." Janice folded her arms, broaching no argument.
"Who is she?"
"Stop your silly games. I know that is a famous American. She was the wife of your last President." Cordahi smiled with smug—albeit misplaced—triumph.
"She's a member of this excavation team. That's all you need to know."
"Can you introduce me?"
His pathetically hopeful whine induced teeth grinding. "She's not available," Janice replied with flat malice.
The civil servant raised the mug in a mock toast. "So you have corrupted her already!"
"You can't corrupt the willing, Cordahi." The conversation was making her edgy. She eyed the bottle, which gave her a sweet amber wink. Before she knew it, the bottle's neck was in her grasp and the cork popped with her thumb.
She took a swig. "Depends on your point of view. Look, I would love to sit here all day and hear you rhapsodize about a woman you can't have, but I got things to do. Why don't you tell me why you're really here?"
He wiggled his empty glass. Dourly, she poured another shot. It disappeared. He basked in the hot glow of the scotch for a few moments. "Why do you think I'm here?"
"Don't waste my goddamned time with this. If this is about Dansey—"
"It is," he interrupted softly, wearily, "it is."
"How many years ago was it?" she asked, as if she really didn't know. "Twelve?" He nodded. "And you still haven't found the killer. And you still think it's me. Aren't you guys tired of being stuck on the same page? Did you think if I really killed the bastard I would tempt fate by coming back here again?"
"Yes," he said defiantly. "This is your work, Covington. It is not that surprising to see you in Alexandria once more. And as for tempting fate—well, my friend, risk is not alien to you."
Her stare unnerved him. "I didn't do it," she said quietly.
"Your temper is legion. If you were capable of—"
She sat forward in the chair. "Stop."
Cordahi arched a surprised eyebrow. She managed to combine the force of an icy command and an anguished plea in two words. "Well. Now we are getting somewhere." He mulled over everything—the scant evidence, her reaction, and, most importantly, her history—while his fingers drummed against the cup. "I believe you. I believe you did not kill him. Unfortunately, my opinion accounts for very little. And you are right, there is no evidence except that you and he were in the same city, as were hundreds of thousands of others. However"—and here he sighed resignedly—"there is an Englishman who is not entirely convinced."
The civil servant’s eyes widened in surprise. "You know. Do you know him?"
"You could say that." Janice took another drink from the bottle; predictably, it only hastened bitter memories—of Switzerland. It was the first time she had ever seen him, after Mel had left for London. Not exactly leaving "for" anything, but just to get away from you. Not her finest hour, was it? Ditching a critically wounded lover in a foreign country. And you're still furious about it, after all this time. Aren't you? She had cried so hard that she busted her stitches, had behaved so badly that the kindly doctor had threatened to have her arrested by the Allied military police, had felt so abandoned that she did everything she could think of to undermine her recovery, including going outside—in subzero weather—in pajamas, jacket, and boots to escape the smothering, Swiss-style boredom of the nearly vacant sanitarium.
One afternoon as she stood outside, thigh-deep in snow, creating a pyramid of perfect snowballs to hurl at any moving target, she saw him. He was finally leaving the spa, along with the remainder of his bully boys, and she took a petty consolation in the fact that his much-vaunted prize, Catherine Stoller, lay in the wooden coffin that was being slid into the back of a truck.
His crewcut was caught in the crosshairs of her rage. I had nothing left to be angry at but him. You were gone. I didn't want to think about hating you. I couldn't.
Pendleton had hardly looked surprised when the snowball hit him squarely in the chest. In fact, his expression as he brushed away the snow from his coat was not so much angry as brimming with recognition. Then he disappeared into the truck that stained fresh snow as it lumbered away.
"Well!" Cordahi shattered her reverie with a single word. "I suppose I have wasted my trip, not to mention your fine scotch." He stretched, which gave a perambulatory roll to his belly and hinted at impending departure. "You know we do not care. It is not my government’s concern if you people want to kill each other. Although I must confess I have much respect for you personally: You have a God-given talent for seducing women. A less fortunate man"— his hand fluttered modestly to his chest—"cannot help but admire that. Nonetheless, this entire matter would lie in the grave along with Dansey except for the tiresome Englishman. He holds a grudge against you, yes? Did you take a woman from him?" Perhaps anticipating a fantastic tale of seduction, the civil servant's dark eyes flashed.
"In a manner of speaking," Janice muttered.
Even though there was nothing to tell—at least nothing that would interest her prurient guest—she felt spiteful in her denial. "No."
"Ah! Janice, you wound me. In the old days, you loved to share such things. Tell me about your black-haired goddess, then."
Janice sighed. Why had she ever encouraged this behavior? It fed your enormous fucking ego, that's why. Still, she had to give him something to keep him on her side. She needed that much. Come on, use that bardic bullshit, you know you can do it. She poured a particularly generous shot of scotch into Cordahi's cup, tapping the metal edge with the tip of bottle, as if she were an alchemist directing the meager attention of a poor apprentice. "She is the very embodiment of this liquid: Scotch incarnate. Smooth, fiery, supple. You think she fortifies you, strengthens you, when in the end you are as dependent upon her as a newborn. For with one taste she burns a path through you to your heart."
"Ah!" he cried. "Where do I find such a creature?"
"Ah, only in the wilds of the American South, Cordahi, a brutal and unforgiving land. Where the men are men and the women are amused by this."
The civil servant swayed as he stood; if Janice were making sense, he couldn’t tell.
She smirked. "I trust I'll be seeing you again when you've something 'new' to report?"
His head bobbled in the affirmative. Swaying and mumbling like a mystic who has experienced a vision, he stumbled past her and out into a world suddenly bright with promise.
* * *
In the mornings, Mel usually did the sieving: She poured water through nested wire mesh baskets while gently agitating the contents therein. Sunlight molded itself into the shape of the clear water so that it appeared as if liquid gold washed away centuries' worth of grit—even though the act usually revealed nothing more exciting than common pot shards. Routine was a comforting concatenation—this was the way Janice had started out too, performing these simple, basic tasks: cleaning tools and boxing and labeling finds (although Mel's handwriting proved to be something of an issue). Mel even petitioned Fayed for more physical labor, despite Janice's opinions on the matter: She believed that the men on the site would be intimidated by a physically strong woman. Yet, irritatingly, Janice also believed herself the exception to that rule, that the workers did not see her as a woman but a freak of nature, one that demanded—and received—respect, but an anomaly nonetheless.
While not experienced in the practical maintenance of an excavation site, Mel's years of expertise in the field of Covington dictated that nothing would change said archaeologist's skewed little world view, and so she let the matter drop.
This morning, however, as the hour crawled toward noon, Mel found herself alone in the vestibule of the catacomb. When she looked up at the opening near the circular staircase and saw daylight gliding by, a bead of sweat dashed a sweet, tortuous path down the nape of her neck to the small of her back, the movement mirroring her own downward journey. Infected with darkness, she thought, recalling the phrase from Plato’s Republic: That was how the ancient philosopher had described the descent of an enlightened man, returning to a cave of ignorance.
Her hand had curled tightly around the pen when she first tasted the line in translation.
Darkness has a knowledge all its own.
She took a final look at the funerary splendor that surrounded her: The language of death. While the theme and motifs were clearly Egyptian (or simply not Greek, as her biased brain identified them), the artisans who created the friezes, the sarcophagi, and the sculptures had all trained in the Greco-Roman style. It was a fascinatingly peculiar blend, unlike anything she'd ever seen: the artistic rigor mortis of the rigid hieratic poses molded with disturbingly lifelike and quintessentially Western touches, like the soft drape of fabric, or the curl of human hair.
Too much time spent in this underground was unnerving. I feel like Orpheus. Mel took the steps two at a time—it was unladylike yet effective—while fending off the niggling compulsion to look back.
She was briefly disappointed that it was Fayed, and not Janice, who waited for her at the opening, and who proffered an arm for her to latch upon as she hoisted herself out of the ground.
"Lovely Dr. Pappas, did you find what you were looking for?"
"Now that's a loaded question." She gazed down into the maw of the catacomb. The sun dappled upon the surface of shadows as upon the face of the sea.
With childlike, affectionate impatience, Fayed poked her in the arm. The warmth of his open smile—charming, beguiling—drew Mel away from the catacombs of self-consciousness. Little wonder you were Janice’s first infatuation.
"Oh. Sorry. No, I didn't find anything that remotely resembled the frieze rubbings from Amphipolis. Of course, I already told her that a dozen times and she still didn't listen to me. I suppose if I tell her—again—after looking—again—she'll insist on going down there herself." Irritably she pushed dusty bangs off the rim of her glasses.
"I see, I see." He pursed his lips with mock thoughtfulness. "Shall you tell her or shall I?"
The noble instincts of her Southern heritage—which so loved to embrace lost causes—nonetheless failed to trump an understandably human desire to avoid her exasperating, temperamental lover. But you were the temperamental one this morning, she chastised herself. It was embarrassing to even silently recall that she had a classic Scarlett O’Hara moment and threw a tin mug at Janice’s head with almost alarming accuracy.
The desired result—enhanced communication—had not occurred. Janice had merely stared at the mug until she thought of a decent wisecrack: It’s not too late to trade you to the Giants, Mel.
Fayed interpreted the slump of her shoulders correctly. With a whistle, he summoned Ahmed, one of the younger workers. "Take a message to Dr. Covington," he said. "Tell her that the divine Dr. Pappas and I are taking 'lunch.'" Even in a language other than English, quote marks hovered guiltily over the word.
The boy's dark brow furrowed with worry. The small American woman terrified him.
"Go on now, she won't hurt you," the foreman urged, giving him a playful shove.
“Yes, she will, but you’re younger than us and you’ll have a better chance of recovery,” Mel added, but luckily the boy could not understand English and blithely headed toward his doom.
Fayed held out a beckoning hand to Mel. "Come!" he demanded haughtily. "We shall take the Vespa!"
Mel abruptly stopped in her tracks. "Oh no."
His warm hand claimed hers. "Oh yes, darling Dr. Pappas."
"Janice will disown me if I so much as lean against it."
The dark blue Vespa 125, a gift from his wife, was Fayed's most prized possession and the object of Janice's most enduring envy. However, as a direct consequence of an incident (1936, Athens) involving Janice, a once-pristine motorbike, and a cart of pomegranates, the archaeologist was forbidden to ride it.
"It is her own doing she is not permitted this liberty," Fayed replied primly. "Now come. Somewhere a hookah awaits us."
"Not another hookah!" Mel cried with almost genuine horror.
He laughed and sat on the scooter. “Yes, another one! Do you not want to tell many wonderful stories to your pupils of the decadence that is Alexandria? Ah!” he suddenly exclaimed, contrite, as her face fell at this reminder of the duty that would separate her from Janice. “It is terrible to see sadness on your beautiful face. I am a fool. Please accept my apologies.”
She ducked her head, taking a moment to school a neutral expression and quash her anxious stomach. “No need.” In a week’s time she would be in America again, pretending to unravel the chaos of language for the benefit of the country’s young, moneyed elite. For Christ’s sake, it’s just teaching—they stare at your ass half the time anyway, Janice had said, in her typically unique way of providing assurance and comfort.
“Au contraire—there is need.” Fayed took her hand again. “Come.” His teeth were the gleaming centerpiece in a rakish, inviting grin. “This is all the more reason for you to ride. Everything falls away the moment you are in motion.”
Mel sighed resignedly. The vehicle was irresistible—it’s so cute!— even though she could not help but imagine morbid, humiliating newspaper headlines (Daughter of Famed Scholar Dies in Tragic Scooter Accident). She slipped behind him on the Vespa, and the misleading intimacy of it made her blush; her knees knocked against his thighs, her arms wrapped around his stomach.
“Everything, hmm?” she muttered nervously.
Fayed patted an arm wrapped around his waist; it was a paternally comforting gesture that made Mel think of her father. “Everything,” he replied, then started the motor.
And they were off.
When it was too hot to work, she roamed the city as only a foreigner—a traveler hungry for the unknown—would do: with a random yet pronounced greed for experience and a curiosity that clouded previously lucid judgments. She would devour any food she came across (developing a taste for ful, a simple bean paste) and rode trams where the remnants of Alexandria's polyglot nature were revealed in the station names (Sidi Gaber, San Stefano, Cleopatra, Sporting). And she would wonder if, somehow, she was becoming someone different; her body certainly felt changed. She was tanned and could feel muscles in her arms, calluses on her feet, and the perpetual embrace of desert heat.
At moments, she could see these private fears and ruminations mirrored in Janice’s expression—that face, so carefully guarded to the world, was patently clear to her. She could translate Covington like nobody’s business: If you change, will you still love me? Will I still love you? Is there really constancy to what we feel, as we’ve always believed?
Occasionally, Fayed was a companion on Mel’s exploratory jaunts; it was an excellent opportunity for him to show off the city he loved. Now, they sprinted through the streets on the Vespa, and he was proven right—Mel knew nothing but the wind rushing by, the Byzantine dips and swirls of the side streets, the sweet smells of fried delicacies from the street vendors, the smoke of charred kabobs, the listless sway of colored lanterns hanging from trees, the admiring, envious looks of the poor, earth-bound peripatetic masses. As they navigated one intersection, a young girl—her dark hair flying in the force of the Vespa’s gale—reached out and touched her, perhaps hoping the magic from the shiny, flying machine was contagious.
Eventually they arrived at a coffeehouse not far from the waterfront. It was where Fayed took his coffee every single morning—which meant, to Janice's irritation, he was not on the site precisely at dawn. As she always was. Working on Alexandrian time, they called it (he with pride, she with sarcasm).
They drank bitterly strong espresso—even though she secretly longed for the tepid orangeade that Nessim made at the Davies’ villa—while enduring the blatant, curious stares of the regulars, many of whom knew Fayed and were stunned to see him with a woman other than his wife. She squirmed with discomfort most of the time they were there, and the fact that the tiny espresso cups made her hand look Frankensteinian in appearance did not help matters either.
Finally, at her relentless urging, they left for a walk along the beach. From a vendor she bought hazelnut biscuits, slippery and sweet in their oily, wax paper bag, with the partial intent of presenting them to Janice, who loved them. However, by the time they had their shoes off and were actually walking through the sand, she’d eaten half the bag and Fayed was nibbling at the remainders.
"That was wonderful," he crowed. With every step hot sand sifted through their toes. "Everyone at the café will think you are my mistress. Those sycophants will fight amongst themselves for the honor of reporting it to Naima. It will amuse her."
"That doesn't sound good. Hell hath no fury like an angry wife." She immediately thought of Jenny—definitely angry, but for all the wrong reasons.
"There is no need for concern. She will know it is you."
"Oh, of course," she murmured sarcastically, and then pursed her lips.
"Hmm?” Fayed purred.
"Everybody's a mystic in this confounded city," she complained.
His contagious laugh was the initial response. "A mystic, a whore, or a misfit," he amended.
"Which one are you?" Mel stiffened in shock at the impolite boldness of her question. What on earth is happening to me? Soon I'll be wearing white after Labor Day. In a day-to-day existence on a physical plane, Mel usually felt as graceless as a drunken bear, but in the intangible realm—a floating world—of social decorum she always imagined herself as lithe and graceful as Astaire, executing a fox trot over a faux pas or leaping over the many silent quagmires of illicit affairs, petty squabbles, and general bad behavior. And this brings me back to the great cosmic joke of falling in love with someone like Janice Covington.
However, Fayed did not look displeased at the question. "Maybe a little bit of each," he replied, not missing a beat.
Like Janice? Days spent in study of the Cabbala and in search of the past, nights spent making love with strangers? But this was surprising. Despite the joke about Mel being mistaken for his mistress, she knew that Fayed was quite happily married, and had been for a number of years. Her mouth parted in surprised; she quickly clamped it shut, lest more prurient questions fly out.
"Ah. You want to know."
"It's none of my business."
"The Americans always say this to disavow their own curiosity, yes? But you are hungry for the world, I see the way you devour the new with your eyes and your mind. Do not be afraid of that. There was a time when I—shall we say tentatively—followed in the footsteps of my mother's trade. I told you, as a young man the great Cavafy admired me. And as a boy, I was even more beautiful."
"You are still beautiful." This is not some frat boy you have to charm for a free ride home, she rebuked herself.
"Melinda, you are a terrible flirt. Janice must alternate between ardor and jealous rage."
"She never runs lukewarm in anything; you must know that better than any of us. Besides, you're a fine one to talk."
He acknowledged this with a delighted grin and continued his rambling story. "At any rate, I was a beautiful boy on the streets. When I did not feel like letting a man buy me a drink or a new suit, I attempted pick pocketing. My best friend, a real Fagin if ever there was one, attempted to tutor me in this fine art. We convinced ourselves that I was good at it—I think perhaps he enjoyed too much having my hands in his pockets, yes?" He chuckled as she looked down in embarrassment, tugging at her earlobe. "But then—ah, then came the test. The first time I tried it with someone other than my friend, I had almost lifted a pocket watch from the jacket of a young American archaeologist—"
Mel's jaw dropped as she anticipated the next part of the story. "You didn't."
"—and got the most appalling cuffing ever in my entire life. Even worse than my mother gave! Then this American grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and swore at me in English—for a very, very long time it seemed—until he said to me, in my own tongue, 'If you took that watch I wouldn't have a thing to leave my child when I die.' And then he stared at me. I think it was looking into a mirror for him—because then he offered me a job. And that is how I met Harry Covington and made a career change in the very same day."
"The Covingtons have a way of upsetting one's life plans, don't they?"
He smiled wistfully and squeezed her hand. The sun burrowed behind thick clouds, the humid air hung about them like chain mail; a storm was on its way. "And perhaps they know that if you want something badly enough, it will eventually come to you."
Mel looked at him. Just as he turned away from her, she thought she saw a glimmer of unshed tears.
"Janice gave me the watch after he died."
3. Fugitive Beauty
"The very constitution of twilight is a fabulous reconstruction of fear….Every day is thought upon and calculated, but the night is not premeditated."
—Djuna Barnes, Nightwood
Janice could not sleep. The bed sheet, twisted around her waist, tugged at her like a nagging thought.
During the day, the Davies' villa seemed diffused of its powerful connection to her past. Perhaps, in part, because she was so infrequently around at that time. But at night the shadows thickened, coarsened into something substantial—a golem sloppily constructed of memories: The Nazis coming to power, the disintegration of her relationship with Jenny, the nights she couldn't pass by without a drink, all of it culminating in Harry's death.
In the darkness, she clung to the comforting undertow of Mel's steady breathing and the intermittent, unrepentant growl of her snoring. It was ironic, Janice thought, how in sleep Mel could look strangely, appealingly ferocious. The civilized, cultivated front fell away; her strong hands twitched sometimes, her brow and mouth set themselves in determined lines, a warning that this primitive, essential act would only be interrupted with dire consequences.
Janice heeded this sign, although she knew Mel could certainly be awakened for the right reasons: sex, yes, preparing midnight snacks, no—well, you have to bribe her with the sex first. Come to think of it, raiding the well-stocked larder sounds good right about now. She eased herself out of bed, pulled on a t-shirt and khakis, then padded out of the room. The distant gleam of a small lamp, in the foyer at the base of the steps, guided her downstairs.
Her bare feet skated over the cool marble floor, then she hesitated as a shadow gliding across the dark room knitted itself into the shape of a person. It was Nessim, head bowed, walking rapidly. A sheaf of his shining black hair curled over his brow with limp beauty, like the wing of a bird in repose. In the second before surprise supplanted it, shame and confusion were inscribed upon his face.
She intercepted him with a touch; her fingertips, resting in the crook of his arm, attempted to gauge the ripple effect of his turbulence. Although his opaque brown eyes swerved from any contact with her face, the fact that he hesitated for a second served as acknowledgment of her concern. Then he was gone.
This was the culture, she reminded herself, the way it had been for thousands of years. Men and boys, grappling for power, sex, love, for the ideal of a mutually beneficial arrangement. A girl seeking such an arrangement would be labeled a whore; a boy who did similarly was only using the gifts God gave him to get ahead. What can I do, other than hate it?
As Janice expected, Linus was in the garden, sated and seated in a rickety chaise lounge, smoking, drinking, illuminated by a large candle. The table beside him held a brandy snifter, a bottle of the liquor, and a pack of cigarettes.
He looked up expectantly at the sound of bare feet flapping against the slate, but a dint of disappointment clouded his face when he saw her.
"Sorry I'm not him," Janice said.
Linus roughly ground a cigarette into the ashtray and, with an angry flick of his fingers, shot the pack across the table in her direction. "Don't give me a hard time about it."
Her hand fished in a pocket for the reassuring weight of Harry's lighter. "I wasn't intending to." I know it’s pointless.
"I still see the disapproval in your face, my friend." He stroked his throat thoughtfully; she could hear the distinct rasp of unshaven skin.
“Shit.” She pulled a cigarette out of his pack—Chesterfields, she noted with disappointment. "You can't expect me to cheer you on, Linus."
“He enjoyed it. I give as good as I get.” Linus retreated behind a defensive tone and the drifting, undulating blue gray curtain of smoke. His expression softened in thought. He didn’t say anything for several minutes, a perfectly agreeable state of being as far as Janice was concerned, particularly in this case since she wished to hear no noble defense of “Greek love.”
But finally—and unfortunately, she thought—he spoke. "Fugitive beauty. That's what it is."
"What are you talking about?"
"That kind of beauty that boys have. They try to hide it, to run away from it, they think it's unmasculine—or so they're told. Yet they are aware of it, they know they have it. They want to show it off, they want to be appreciated."
Janice felt too tired to argue about it. "Sounds like you've done some thinking about this."
"That's what aging fairies do, old boy." He sipped his drink. She noted, with disappointment, that his absorption into matters of sex and love had suspended his manners, and he failed to offer her any of the brandy. "And then, the moment they become completely aware of it, the moment they take it for granted, it's gone. They age. For what man is beautiful—I ask you that?" He smiled, believing the rhetorical finish made his case. "Now women can be different. In fact, I think your Melinda is like that. She's the type who will grow more beautiful with age."
"Try telling her that." Several years ahead of the event, Mel was already panicking about turning 40, habitually trawling her reflection in the mirror in search of gray hair and nonexistent wrinkles. I wonder what you’ll look like with gray hair. I bet it’ll be good.
"I shall. Because I want you all to know what I know. I think it will make you less judgmental, Janice. Even though you've not got a lot of room to talk. Because maybe—just maybe—you've done worse." The conjecture almost sounded like a question; he seemed certain enough that she'd done something awful, and that it was just a matter of filling in details.
It was hardly surprising.
She let the lighter's flame writhe for a moment longer than required. "You mean to tell me that all these years you've been eyeballing me for MI5, you believed I was a murderer, just like everyone else believed it? I’m disappointed, Linus." To shroud the sting of the assumption, she said it mockingly, lightly.
Linus was not caught terribly off guard at the sudden revelation; instead, he dragged a tired hand across his face. "I've made quite the balls-up of my so-called intelligence career," he slurred. "So she told you."
"Yeah, but she didn't have to. I already knew."
"I had my suspicions all those years ago. Suspicions that your wife confirmed."
Linus looked at her sharply.
"You thought Jenny would never tell. That's what she said. She felt bad about it."
"I should have known. I should have known she would."
"Why? How in the hell could you know what someone like Jenny would do? She's about as predictable as a summer wind."
Linus's countenance was aswirl with pity, regret, anger, and affection—a potentially disastrous if not all too predictable soufflé of emotion. "Because, you idiot, she loved you. She still loves you. I don't know why. You were the one who got away, Janice. The one she couldn't forget. Had you felt similarly, she would have left me without a moment's hesitation." He sneered, pondered taking another drink, but apparently decided he had enough inebriated courage to plow on. "In those days all you really cared for were your father and your digs.” He paused, waiting for a perfunctory protest. She made none. Lazily, he swirled the amber liquid within the snifter and continued. "But now you know what it's like to love someone so much your chest aches when they leave the room. Don't you? You'll be crawling around in agony when she goes back to America. Do yourself a favor and go with her."
Shit. She winced. I was trying not to think about that, you bastard. "If I could, I would."
"You can. I'm not joking. Get the hell out of here. This place is rotten, it's not good for you, and it never has been. And Pendleton—he wants you nailed to the wall. He doesn't give a damn how he does it or who else goes down with you. Do you understand that?"
"There's nothing he can do to me. I didn't kill Dansey. There's no evidence."
"Who needs evidence when you have the Frenchman’s statement?"
“He gave a statement? Before he died?”
"Oh yes, of course. What did you expect, given what you did?" The light from the candle eddied across Janice's face, and what he saw there surprised him so that he thought it a trick of brandy and shadows: It was regret, genuine and startling. "I'm being a bit hard on you," he whispered. "I'm sorry."
She pushed long bangs out of her eyes. "It's all right."
"If I had been in your shoes, I possibly would have done the same thing."
"No," she replied wearily. "You wouldn't have."
"It doesn't matter, Janice. It doesn't matter. Because—you don't understand." The candlelight flickered and he repeated it again. "You don't understand." His drunken voice floated on the darkness like a disembodied sibyl.
She was just curious enough to encourage him. "What don't I understand, Linus?"
"They'll never let you have them. They'll never let you find them. The Scrolls."
There was truth in what he said. Everyone had always been sniffing around her, and her father—Nazis, Smythe, civil servants, government officials—because everyone wanted them. The contradiction never failed to amuse her: Everyone believed the Covingtons were frauds and the Scrolls a hoax, but everyone wanted a piece of the action nonetheless. Everyone wants all the bases covered. "They can't stop me."
"No, they can't stop you from looking. But they can hound you and they can set a million obstacles in your path."
"Are you talking about Pendleton? And whatever pathetic henchmen he can scrounge up? Are you saying I should be afraid of this idiot? He couldn't fucking nail Catherine Stoller to the wall, he's not going to get me."
"It goes deeper than Mark. Could you call it a conspiracy? It seems silly to call it so; I doubt the deception is that well organized. But on the other hand, isn't a 'conspiracy' also a separation of power from truth? That's what the war was all about—it was how the Nazis conquered all of Europe. We've lived through an amazing historical period—'May you live in interesting times,' as the Chinese say. I see now why they always meant that as a curse and not a blessing. But if you fail to call it conspiracy, perhaps instead you could call it historical animosity, or the inertia of prejudice. How's that? Because the men who run this world of knowledge that we inhabit—the museums, the universities, the excavations, the exhibits we attend, the books we read—do you really think they want to change, so completely and so fundamentally, their view of the ancient world? If that changes—if their precious past changes, then what happens—what could happen—to the here and now? Truth is only useful to them if it supports what they already believe. History is written by the conquerors, not the heroes. That's why your Xena has languished in obscurity for thousands of years. They don't want to believe there once lived a woman as compelling and powerful as Alexander or Caesar. That's why they mock and deride you—and Harry, even in his grave. It didn't help he was in the Nazis' pockets. I know now he didn't believe that Fascist folderol, but all the same, it stole his credibility and tainted your own."
He did not tell her anything she had not mulled over a million times in the stifling silence of her own mind. But hearing this innate truth, allowing it to wash over her, felt both strangely liberating and terrifying. As it did when Mel had first said "I love you." And that made you run like hell. What will this make you do? "I always thought—I was being paranoid. Had a chip on my shoulder."
"You are. And you do."
He was dead serious.
Linus ignored this and continued on his merry way, plastering his paw-like hand to his chest in a demonstration of sincerity. "You see, I understand your point of view quite thoroughly, since I am, at heart, a woman myself."
He possessed what Janice believed were somewhat old-fashioned, antiquated ideas about homosexuality. He really did believe he was a woman of sorts, a true "invert," a member of a third sex. In public he projected a reassuringly masculine facade but in private his femininity unfurled before her; it was a feyness that—she hated admitting it, because it felt hypocritical—unnerved her.
God knows what theories he has about his omnisexual wife, Janice thought. "How fortunate for you that you are clothed in the vestments of a male," she intoned with mock portentousness, much like the Old Man.
He caught the joke and chuckled. "Will you start quoting Sefir Ha Zohar to me now?"
It was all the prompting she needed “‘The pride of the garments is the body of the man, and the pride of the body is the soul.' "
Linus raised his glass. "Brava, my dear. Naima would be proud of you. You were her prized pupil, you know. The one that got away."
"You just said that about Jenny."
"It's just as true. You got away from all of us, dear. You escaped the trap of Alexandria. I thought it a mistake for you to come back. They're going to try to arrest you. Things are bad now for Westerners, and they'll look for any bloody excuse to get rid of you. They'll try to make an example of you."
"I don't see you leaving."
He smiled. "I just might. I'm damned sick of this place myself." He stood up and tiredly shuffled toward the house, pausing only to rest his hand upon her shoulder. She did not resist, even though she thought of Nessim, of the way Linus must have touched the boy. Did it start out like this, a simple caress? You can't trust anyone out here. Harry, how right you were.
"You will be careful?"
"I'm always careful."
A low laugh bubbled up from his chest; a remnant of this bitter amusement still clung to his lips as he pressed them against her ear.
After he left, Janice took his place on the lounge. The gutted candle died, but it mattered little—the night relinquished its black grip, the shadows grew hazy, and the sky meandered toward dawn. Go with her. Well, why not? Why end up a broken nobody like your father? But there are no second acts in American lives, someone said. And this would be your second act, your second life, a life not built around this insane search. She knew the Scrolls existed, had existed. Perhaps that was enough? She closed her eyes. She opened them again—unaware of time passed—at the touch upon her arm.
It was Mel. Or at least it looked like Mel, hair down and sans glasses, wearing a robe of burgundy red—wine dark, just as she imagined Homer's great sea. Are you her? Or are you real?
"Come to bed." Xena with a Southern accent. It was Mel.
Every time I look at you—will it always remind me of what I never found?
Mel's touch was as instinctive and revealing as a blind man's: fingertips searched her face and smoothed a worry line between her brows; Janice thought it charitable to describe it as such when it looked—and felt—deep enough to be termed a worry chasm. "What's wrong?"
I'm scared to death half the time. Janice cleared her throat. "Don't you want to watch the sun come up?" Perhaps, she thought ruefully, the worry chasm represented the gap between what she thought and what she said.
"No." Apparently, Mel was afflicted with a similar condition—a gap between thought and action, for now she sat down beside Janice, who had swung her legs off the lounge and sat up in order to make room for her companion. Mel settled in, kissed her, then pressed her face against Janice's cheek. Janice could only think of that poor beautiful nose, all scrunched up against her dirty, sunburnt face.
"I don't want to go back," Mel murmured.
"We don't have to go upstairs."
Mel groaned dramatically and the exhale of her frustrated breath scalded across Janice's cheek. "You know what I mean." She shifted, and Janice could feel eyelashes now, like a miniature fan, brushing against her skin. "I don't want to go back home. I don't want to leave you here."
"You don't have much choice. We made a deal." It's bad enough you're already associated with me. Don't make it worse.
"Damn the deal." The fact that Mel said it through clenched teeth gave the mild oath all the power of a good loud motherfucker. Janice approved of this effective trick.
"You signed a contract with the university. You have to teach in the fall. Aside from the legal implications of not going back, you'd not only lose face with everyone in the community, but you'd leave the Dean in a hell of a lurch."
"You're not telling me anything I haven't already thought of." Mel was sighing heavily into her shoulder. “It’s just—I d-don’t—”
Janice raked the dark hair, as if it somehow could smooth out this bump in Mel’s speech.
"I don't want to leave you again."
Again. It made Janice's heart thrum with unhappiness as she realized that Mel had never truly forgiven herself for Switzerland. Because you never told her that it didn’t really matter, you little shit. Because you’ve been too angry about it for too long.
"I—" Janice struggled with the admission. God help me, I do love you so much my chest aches when you leave a room. "I don't want you to go either. But you have to."
Mel's hand tangled in her t-shirt, giving it a halfheartedly angry tug. "Why did I let you talk me into this?"
"I didn't put a gun to your head, sweetheart."
"No, that's only for your first dates, I gather."
"Like I said before: It worked, didn’t it?" Her hand sought out Mel's shoulder and pushed aside the loose robe, laying bare skin, all for the pleasure of a thumb skating figure eights along the delicate precipice of the collarbone. But one caress was never enough, it seemed. She laid back on the lounge, pulling at the robe's belt. "Come here."
“No.” The translator was sulkily defiant. "Don't distract me with this."
"It's not a distraction. It's research. I'm just working on a new entry for my classification system."
As their relationship had criss-crossed continents, Janice had—one day, while mowing the lawn—came up with a system of ranking sexual encounters based on geography and the aspects that lovemaking took on in said location. For example: London was used to denote a quickie, usually where only one partner was pleasured. Cornwall described good makeup sex. New York was when a certain party was too liquored up to perform adequately. Amsterdam denoted jet lag, illness, or similar fatigue in which the spirit was willing, but the flesh not. Venice, of course, was the five-star rating, flawless perfection. I'll be spending my life chasing after that. My fugitive beauty.
Thus far in Alexandria, sex between them possessed a particularly fierce quality, almost like combat, a battle in the ongoing war fought between things said and unsaid. She could feel it in Mel—tendons knotted into resistance, bones almost growing within Janice's grasp, into something larger than the act itself.
"Research." Mel muttered it disdainfully, before being silenced with a consuming kiss from a soft mouth.
And Janice confirmed it with a legion of kisses that trampled whatever defenses that remained. "Research." However, the playful shove that tumbled her back onto the lounge made her question who was really winning the war. Her t-shirt was roughly hiked up to breast level in order to provide a fleshy landing strip for a sudden, hot tongue. Me! Me! I’m winning the war! I think.
But much like Hitler’s fateful decision to invade Russia, the tide turned as she navigated her thigh past the bunched up robe and lodged it between Mel's legs. Although it was slightly difficult for her to locate that certain nexus point while wearing pants, she knew she hit gold when Mel stiffened and said, softly, "oh." When it was good, the tiny syllable received a linguistic workout, repeated softly, like a mantra, a continuous, ceaseless evocation of wonder.
"Go on. Let the whole world hear you." Despite the urging she knew that Mel would rather chew off her own arm than make any loud noise that might inform the population that she indulged, with happy frequency, in the exchange of carnal knowledge. So Janice took silent delight in the tilt of Mel's head, revealing the slithering peristalsis of her throat and the words caught there in a struggle between freedom and denial, and the delicious tension of her limbs in the ethereal blue of twilight. The crown of her black hair—a blurry outline against the twilit sky—brought to mind one small fragment, dimly recalled, from an ode by Horace: I shall nudge the stars with my lifted head.
4. The Limitless Blue
“Would not hell glimpsed through some small window
be far more terrifying than if beheld in its entirety in a single sweeping
—from Les Diaboliques, Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly
Earlier in the day, the rain had begun as wet, limpid snow. Thick, large snowflakes tumbled down from the sky. To Janice their artless, random patterning upon hitting the ground recalled fragments of a mosaic, the heavy crystalline motes an unknowing beauty hinting at a larger, greater unity.
Of course, ever since the team had unearthed the brilliantly colored Byzantine mosaic—the first significant find of her career—symbolism ran amok for her. She saw the mosaic everywhere, in everything. The dirt of centuries failed to dim the brightness of it, at least as far as she was concerned. In her mind’s eye it gleamed as golden as the day it was created—the saffron yellow background, the limitless blue eyes of the Apollo-Christ figure that dominated the panel. Earlier in the day she had slipped on rocks and cut her hand; inexplicably the accident prompted thoughts of the sharply etched nimbus surrounding the figure’s head—a monochromatic mini-masterpiece in white, gold, brown, and black—as blood filled her palm. The archaeologist gets stigmata, she had said to Harry as he expertly bandaged her hand with one of his handkerchiefs.
He had rolled his eyes. Don’t get weird on me, kid.
She walked out of the tent and turned up the collar of her jacket against the needling rain, which was waking her up faster than this morning’s weak coffee. Things were getting better, it seemed. Harry was in a good mood since they’d made this find, Jenny was conveniently far away back in Alexandria, and matters with Bardamu had been settled. Or so she hoped.
The Frenchman's money had been unceremoniously returned; Janice had imagined she wouldn't get out of the situation alive—or without being beaten within an inch of her life—but he only laughed and called her a coward, a fool. He dismissed her with a wave of his hand. I can find assassins as easily as you find women, Janice. Not everyone is as afraid of success as you are.
She stopped walking; the mud took the opportunity to render her boots immobile. She felt herself sinking. Was that true? No. I found this mosaic. I've been breaking my back here. This will make my reputation. This will make people realize I'm not—. The soggy sky hung low, curlicues of clouds brushed the distant mountain peaks. I'm not my father.
The realization carried with it no small amount of shame. She loved him, she loved the stories he told that had infected her blood since she was a child, she loved everything he taught her, she loved the work they shared, and she loved the lone goal they pursued with slavering devotion and single-minded fervor.
Into this atmosphere ripe for conversion, epiphany, soul-searching, and other forms of profound navel-gazing, a voice as sharp as a blade sliced through the gauze of clouds and mist of rain: "WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?"
It sent Janice's head ringing as surely as a sound boxing of the ears. God must have a voice like my old man.
Harry was standing in the pit, just outside the tented area that protected the precious mosaic. Water dripped off his fedora and he clutched a stadia rod like a walking stick—posing as the grand old man of archaeology, Harry?
As if he could hear her thoughts, he laughed, and the echo bounced around in the dense, humid air. "YOU'LL CATCH A GODDAMNED COLD, YOU BRAT, AND THEN WHAT USE WILL YA BE TO ME?"
She pulled her boots out of the sticky mud and commenced squelching noisily to the pit.
Inside, Harry handed her a handkerchief to wipe the cold rain from her face and a small, flat blade to knock the mud and dirt off the artifact. "My hands hurt—this goddamn weather. You're always better at it than I am anyway," he said. "You've got a light touch."
She grinned and took the blade, then settled on her haunches to do the work. "I had a good teacher." Carefully she tapped away clumps of dirt and waited for him to say something. Normally he was much too stubborn to admit that the arthritis was bothering him; that and the compliment left her suspicious, no matter how genuine their origin. Come on, Harry, spill it.
It took about five minutes and a cold cup of coffee. "Are you in trouble?"
Apparently he had picked up on the frisson of tension that surrounded her and Fayed as they had debated how to deal with the Frenchman, and with Dansey. Lie, half-lie, or truth? She opted for the penumbra of truth. "It's taken care of."
Harry grunted skeptically. When he sensed no further information was forthcoming, he sent out another probe. "It's—not about the Davies woman, is it?"
"No." She switched to a tiny brush.
He watched her work. Perversely, he liked the look of artifacts right after they were found, before the fussiness of conservation took over—they still possessed the glory of diamonds in the rough, were still connected to the past by the virtuous patina of dirt and dust. They were still alive, he thought, and not yet subject to sterile entombment in a museum.
Janice felt the same way too; if he hadn’t known it already, he could see it plainly in the rapture of her face as she stopped for a moment and admired the panel. "It's beautiful," she breathed.
He hadn't seen her smile like that in months, and for a moment Harry felt smothered with the bitter intensity of his anger at Jennifer Davies. The serpentine structure of the Davies' relationship was beyond him. All he saw was a man content to let his wife bed down with whomever she wanted. And as much as he liked Linus (and the money that came with him), he could not respect that.
Could he respect Janice for that?
She had abandoned cleaning the mosaic for a moment and was sitting cross legged on the ground, scribbling level notes with a pencil stump. “This reminds me of Collins’s find at Mykonos. Same period, similar composition—although the mandorla was square—“
“Square?” Harry muttered absently.
“Huh. Wonder why.”
“It meant the subject of the portrait was still alive.” Janice looked irritated. “You know that.”
“Oh, yeah. Right.” He tugged at the warped brim of his fedora. "Hey."
She stopping writing and gazed up at him.
"Look, I'm not—I'm not judging you here." Harry's jaw twitched as he searched for the proper tone. "I just—I want you to be with someone who really cares about you." Momentarily distracted by the fact that Janice was looking at him as if he had grown a second head, he swallowed nervously. "I'm just sayin'—if—" He stumbled, faltered, and recovered with a stream of words that, if rushed, were no less sincere: "If you're going to go with a woman, make sure it's one who can love you of her own free will."
Janice felt her lips part in surprise. I wasn't expecting you to get wise on me, old man.
However, fatally undone by his compulsion to beat a dead horse, Harry went further: “Meaning one that’s not married, you goddamn blockhead.”
Her jaw shifted ruefully. “Harry, tell me how you really feel.”
"If it was a guy, I would say the same thing. Ya understand?" His growl announced that the big emotional moment of acceptance was completed.
Stupidly, she smiled, and felt renewed warmth toward him. "All right."
He scowled, suspecting, correctly, that she was merely placating him. "You can do better." He rocked nervously on his heels. "I'm just sayin', is all." He ducked his head, attempting to meet her eyes. "Okay?"
Hiding her small smile, she nodded, returned to working on her notes, and quietly refused to believe him.
* * *
Even though the train was due to leave in less than two hours, Mel wasn't done packing. She had sent Janice away, knowing that the temptingly sullen lips of a gorgeous, bored blonde would prove an insurmountable distraction. She gazed out the balcony for a few minutes, savoring the scent from the garden and watching a ful vendor work his way down the street, past the lemon-scented trees, pushing into the stiff, sea-soaked wind that billowed his white shirt like a sail.
This foreshadowing of the journey home both annoyed and saddened her, and left her in no mood to really deal with Jenny. However, the door was open and once again Mel cursed Janice for her apparent inability to shut doors. Because Jenny was now leaning there, radiating that peculiarly English quality of smug nervousness. Look at her, Mel thought—hoping that her quick, casual glance at Jenny conveyed just the right amount of regal disdain—just leaning there as if she owns the place—
Oh. Wait. She does own the place.
As if privy to Mel’s thoughts, Jenny smirked. Sadly, it was one of her better features. "I hope you're not leaving just because you broke our lounge."
Mel had known that teasing—other than stifled giggles and naughty looks from Linus—would eventually occur. You will not blush in front of this woman. The invective failed miserably as the tips of her ears burned. At the very least Janice had come up with a new entry for her system.
Alexandria: When one partner's enthusiastic response damages other people's property.
Mercifully, etiquette took over and Mel, like a befuddled salesclerk at Bloomingdale’s, became a babbling supplicant. "Again, please accept my apologies. Your new lounge is due to arrive tomorrow. If there are any problems, you will let Janice know—"
Jenny burst into laughter. "Oh, my dear," she sighed. If the tables had been turned, Jenny knew she would have flaunted the indiscretion, would have preened shamelessly in celebration. But Mel, who appeared to Jenny as a seemingly lovable nitwit, simply blushed and stammered adorably, like a schoolgirl. "I wish I could hate you," she said softly.
Mel pursed her lips. Even in death Catherine Stoller could stir Janice into a jealous fury. I hate the thought of that fucking bitch touching you. Janice said once, during some ridiculous fight while they were still in London after the war. Or was it Cornwall? That’s where all the big fighting happened. I was as jittery as a bridegroom. During that time they had both experienced cold feet and second thoughts at the thought of living and sharing a life together. "It doesn't necessarily make things easier." Mel picked up the small jewelry box on the bureau and opened it. Earrings for the trip? It seemed faintly ludicrous. But she smiled and set aside a pair.
"You are at a distinct advantage; it's easy for you to say that."
"Oh, for Lord's sake," Mel muttered to herself, and tossed an unfolded blouse onto the bed. "Do you think that if Janice really wanted to be with you, that I could stop her? You know as well as I do what she's like when she gets her mind set on something. She won't stop until she has it." Yet it quickly occurred to Mel that Janice's feelings for her hadn't exactly inspired the archaeologist into torrid pursuit, but rather froze her into anguished inaction.
I always pay for it, when I ignore my instincts and do nothing. Someone always gets hurt because of it. Janice had said this recently; Mel tried to grope for the forgotten context but Jenny’s twitching, impatient features threw off her chain of thought.
"Yes," Jenny agreed. "She is relentless."
"And single-minded," Mel added.
"And utterly irresistible."
Mel smiled. "It's a mystery wrapped in an enigma and cheap khaki."
It didn't solve a thing, this bantering bash of the mutually beloved Covington. It did, however, broker a tentative peace, a common ground to which both parties were unwilling to admit.
Jenny knew that, despite her best intentions, it was highly likely that the minute Mel was on the train heading away from the city, she would probably throw herself shamelessly at Janice—one last time, dearie dear. One last shot at love.
And Mel, of course, knew this. And acknowledged it with no small amount of reluctance—she knew, with aching precision and all too well, the desperation of a woman in love. Leaving doesn’t mean throwing in the towel, Mrs. Davies. I will fight with whatever I have, and however long it takes, if I must.
She surprised Jenny with her next request, fixing the Englishwoman with as commanding a look as she could muster. "You will make sure that nothing happens to her while I'm gone, won't you? You will make every effort to keep her safe?"
"You're asking me—"
"I have no pride when it comes to her. Surely you, of all people, understand that."
"Oh." Jenny smiled with rueful relief. "Believe me, I do."
They both recognized the gallop upon the steps. Janice tried her best to saunter casually into the room. The fedora—at times the best barometer of her mood—was pulled low on her brow, cloaking the angelic face with a shadow from the brim. "You about ready?" she said gruffly.
Jenny rolled her eyes. "Oh, Mad Dog, a Piccadilly cabbie is more polite." She sighed and launched herself off the wall. "If you'll both excuse me, I have to see a man about a camel."
Janice was keeping a careful distance, just far enough to avoid interception from the long arm of the South. Mel noticed that her stance had tightened, like an animal desperately willing itself into the camouflage of silence. So you're going to make me come to you. And I'm going to do it, because we don't have much time to do this dance. It only took two small steps and her quarry was well within grasp—she could graze that beloved cheek with the back of her hand and be rewarded with a flinch so slight as almost unseen, but I see it, I see you. You know that, and it frightens you—still, after all this time.
"Tough girl," she whispered. Mel tipped the fedora away from Janice's face and pulled her closer, resulting in the hat’s clumsy somersault to the floor. "You don't have to be that way with me. Don’t you know that by now?"
Her face now laid bare to scrutiny, Janice struggled to maintain a steely equipoise or, at the very least, to keep her jaw from twitching and her lips from quivering. But the sigh she released within the safe hollow of Mel’s neck gave the game away, set, match, point.
The actual goodbye at the train station was, naturally, a more muted affair. Mel strived for casualness—a keystone of the Covington lifestyle—while halfheartedly checking her hair as reflected in the chrome of someone’s parked motorbike. “Promise me you won’t get arrested.”
“And miss Christmas in rainy London?” Janice smiled. “With you, no less, complaining about the weather every step of the way?”
I see we’re back to normal, darling. Nonetheless Mel didn’t need any kind of mirror to know that her eyebrows were in lockdown, simultaneously providing an expression of severe consternation and a sudden headache. She wanted to say something—anything—but Janice’s sigh and impatient posturing (hands on hips, warily eyeing the crowd) made her realize that time was pressing upon them.
Mel had gotten the answer she needed anyway, that night they broke the lounge. It had seemed a odd moment for confession, especially so since they were lying in a postcoital heap atop splintered furniture and giggling like truants. But soon the laughter evaporated into the morning air and she focused happily upon the sticky throbbing between her legs and the languid yet blessedly persistent heartbeat under her ear.
I didn’t kill him. Janice had murmured it so quickly that she had barely caught it. You believe me, don’t you?
"How do we do this?" Janice now asked. The drive to the train station had helped in regaining both her equilibrium and her misanthropy. "Is hugging suspect? Should we shake hands instead?"
"Real ladies don't shake hands," Mel replied. Before her irritable companion could object, she embraced Janice once again and her voice brushed against the spirals of that tender little ear, always so perfectly ripe for nibbling. "Don't forget me." It seemed a silly thing to say and she felt foolish. She fully expected a gentle ribbing about it.
But to her surprise, Janice whispered back, "How could I? You mean everything to me."
They disengaged and Mel was staring at the train with absentminded dread. "I—I hope there aren't any chickens on board."
The non-sequitur did its best to roll over the tension. "You'll be in first class. It's unlikely."
"Because—you know, I've discovered I'm slightly allergic to their feathers."
"I guess we won't be retiring to a farm, then."
Mel beamed at her.
“So I just admitted I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you.”
“I won’t tell anyone.”
Janice swallowed with a grim self-determination and willed herself to be Bogart. "You better get your ass on that train."
"Okay, Mad Dog." Mel took a few strides toward walking away, her hips settling into their usual tantalizing rhythm, then she stopped and neatly executed a pivot in modest heels. "Oh, by the way, I love you too." She said it just loud enough for it to carry over the bored buzz of the crowd and the hiss from the ancient steam engine, not caring who heard it, who understood it, who didn’t, or who might be offended; more likely than not, Janice thought, native Alexandrians would merely dismiss it as more insane Western behavior not worth the bother of scrutiny. Additionally, the confidence of the gesture seemed to cast a protective spell over everyone—or so Janice thought. But then she had always felt ridiculously, unusually safe merely basking in Mel’s gaze.
She grinned and tilted the hat back on her head.
As Mel boarded the train—only looking back once, with a nervous wave—Janice realized that she had forgotten to steal anything from her companion. It was now an old game: Whenever they were to be separated for a while, Janice would take something from Mel, like a hair clasp, or a watch—in "typical archaeologist fashion, like it was yours all along," as Mel put it—laying claim to her lover as if she were a site, searching for something unknown, implacable, an artifact that would explain or reveal further this person she loved.
This time Mel beat her to it. As the train pulled out of the station, her nervous, grasping hands sought the solace of her pockets. As soon as she touched them she knew what they were—the soft click of their delicate collision and the pleasantly heavy roundness of their shape gave them away. Out of the left pocket she pulled pearl earrings, Mel's favorites, once belonging to her mother.
Against her flushed palm, the pearls glowed.
She gazed up as the train's last car pulled past, half expecting to see Mel from a window, with her usual gentle, teasing smile. Instead there was nothing but her own funhouse reflection, distended in the greasy gleam of the passing train.
* * *
She looked at herself in the mirror and dragged a judgmental thumb across her dry lips. Should she wear the lipstick? Betty had encouraged it, but Dan swore up and down that she was "perfect" as she was, didn't need that kind of stuff to make her look pretty, and that his parents would love her as much as he loved her. She rather hoped that wasn't the case; it sounded too perverse.
Makeup? she asked herself again, seeking enlightenment from the fraud in the mirror. Her stomach roiled with indecision.
She ran a hand down the simple gray skirt. Two fifty off the rack. Betty had said that Janice had a talent for making cheap clothes look good, "and it's a darned good thing too, given you haven't a dime to your name" (this said in the way rich girls talked, teeth clenched together, with pale lips like moribund worms, barely moving). Janice hadn't the faintest idea why Betty liked her; probably a combination of pity and fascination with the poor girl who grew up in the desert. She wasn't like the other girls here, she knew that.
She sighed. So I reckon the skirt is fine...but is it really good enough? For Dan? For all of them?
This was serious stuff for him. He talked of marriage, talked about her meeting his folks. Which was today—a formal luncheon on their yacht. Aw Jesus, I hope I don't upchuck. Oh shit, I shouldn't say "Jesus" or anything like that. I shouldn't say "shit" either. Shit. Fuck. Like a weed, panic took root and flourished within her. Lipstick? Rouge? Earrings? No swearing? Which fork to use? Should I describe my father as an archaeologist or a grave robber? And what the hell are canapés anyway? With no regard for her neatly pressed clothes or her clean, brushed hair, she dug her fingers into her scalp and threw herself on the bed, defeated. Sex might help right about now, she thought. But there was hardly any time for that. And while sex was a release, they were both inexperienced and nervous, so it was kind of like driving around with neither a map nor a destination in mind: fun for a while, then frustration gnawed at you. That would change, she thought. Once they got more comfortable with one another, it would get better. Their explorations would be more enjoyable than unnerving.
Her semi-horny ruminations came to an end as Hurricane Betty hit. The small, buxom brunette burst into the room, all hormones, curves, and daddy's trust fund. "The cutest little Western Union fellow came for you! I swear, Janice, he was blushing redder than a tomato. We had him surrounded like the wagon train in that John Wayne movie." Betty waved a small white envelope.
"It's cute the way your father sends you telegrams all the time." To Betty, the word "cute" held all the power, significance, and symbolism that "New Deal" similarly possessed for Roosevelt. She flopped on the bed and scowled at her roommate. "For God's sake, Janice, sit up! You're wrinkling as we speak!"
As a compromise Janice propped herself on her elbows. Giggling, Betty wafted the telegram just above her face. Janice lunged and snared it with her teeth.
"You crazy thing!" Betty leaned into her, and Janice was all too conscious of the leg tangled with her own and the crush of breasts against her side. It was just affection, Janice thought—she wasn't used to receiving any kind of attention from a girl, that's all. "Aren't you going to open it?"
She spat the telegram out of her mouth. "Later. Dan will be here soon." She attributed the sudden rush of desire to the mere mention of his name and not Betty's leg twitching excitedly against her own.
"Have fun, darling. I'm seeing Teddy later. Wish me luck." Betty's voice dropped to a conspiring whisper. "I may be getting pinned today."
Pinned? Was this some strange euphemism for sexual intercourse? Or something else? "Is Ted on the wrestling team?" Janice muttered cautiously, brow furrowing.
All regard for Janice's clothing notwithstanding, Betty howled with laughter and rolled on top of her roommate. "You are just too much!"
This is too much, Janice thought, her hips gleefully lunging for any contact with Betty's anatomy. She tried to quash the bubbling surge of lust, which felt like the river of the damned...all paths lead to Hell here, to eternal damnation, although if Hell is as hot as the Sahara, I'll adjust quite nicely. Enough! Stop it! Why did Harry ever yank me out of Sunday School? Then I might be truly repentant! But no, I had to bite the minister's son and that was that.
As if telepathic, Betty bounded off her like a trampoline. "Good God, I'm late!" She ran a brush through her hair, carefully examined and retouched her makeup. "Gotta go, sweetie. You'll tell me all about that yacht tonight—and don't worry, it'll be divine."
Divine, apparently, was even better than cute.
With the slam of the door signaling her roommate's exit, Janice pulled at her hair with renewed vigor propelled by sexual frustration. Eye level with the crumpled telegram, and driven to seek distraction, she opened it. So what is the old man up to these days? God, he's not States-side, is he? She shuddered at the thought of introducing her father to Dan's parents. It's bad enough he thought Dan was "a wimp" just ‘cause he played the damn ukulele, I can imagine what he would think of the Blaylocks—
She sat up in alarm. YOUR MOTHER VERY ILL STOP WE ADVISE YOU COME IMMEDIATELY STOP
The paper went limp in her hand. So what kind of bullshit is this, Ma?
At the age of 16—her usual stubbornness steeled with a youthful belief in the permanence and irrevocability of her rash decisions—Janice had decided she would not see her mother anymore, despite Harry's pleas. And thus in the intervening four years, the occasional haranguing letter or pathos-inducing telegram would arrive, but would receive no response from the obstinate girl. Hysterical telegrams in particular were not uncommon: Janice’s personal favorite among the lot was I’M IN JAIL SEND MONEY STOP —she admired its pithy brilliance. But this one was signed by a "doctor"—someone she'd never heard of. It certainly wouldn’t be above her mother to pull a stunt like this, sending a telegram under the guise of someone else. Nope, not the woman who sent Harry a threatening telegram that said QUIT YOUR DAMNED DIGGING AROUND and signed it “Herbert Hoover.” When the old girl was drinking, she wanted either money or pitying, uncritical attention. Usually both.
What the hell do you want from me? She stuffed the telegram under a pillow. I'm sick of trying to figure you out.
She recognized Dan's brisk rap at the door. "Yeah," she called.
Dan bounded in. Boyishly impeccable in a white cable-knit sweater, he was a poster boy for the Ivy League. "Hi!" He smelled of grass and sun; the innocent scent was intoxicating to her. He ducked his head, aiming for a chaste kiss along her cheek, but her lips sought his own and she kissed him hard, pouring the day's frustration into the act and praying for forgetfulness.
He pulled away, breathless. "Geez, honey, cool down. We gotta go."
"Don't we have time?" She tried to pull him closer.
Gently, he pushed her away and laughed. "In a word: No. Holy cow, other guys complain about their girls not even wanting to kiss, but you—you, I gotta fight off." Immensely proud of this fact, Dan grinned; he wasn't the type to boast, but his quiet smugness in the company of other young men had broadcasted, loud and clear, that he was getting it on a pretty regular basis. Nonetheless, he would have clocked anyone suggesting that his unpredictable, unorthodox fiancee was easy.
He tucked stray strands of blonde hair behind her ear. "You look swell."
"Thanks," she whispered. He loves me, he wants to marry me, I'm meeting his parents on a fucking yacht.
Don't say fuck.
Dan's fingers curled around her own; amusement and embarrassment were similarly twined within Janice's mind at the realization that her hands—as a result of a long, hard summer spent with Harry on Crete—were rougher and more callused than his. Her nails were chipped; his were manicured. How this had escaped Betty’s scrutiny, she did not know.
You are young, you are a student at one of the most prestigious colleges in the States, you have a really great guy in love with you. It didn't seem to help; her mind felt unmoored, sinking into preoccupation with the past, by the Titantic-like effect of the telegram.
She blinked, startled, at the hand squeezing her own. "What?"
"Is everything all right? You look a little funny. Are you sick?"
She stared at her pillow. "No. I'm fine. Let's go."
* * *
When Jenny's quiet sense of triumph had turned to sour defeat barely a week after Mel's departure, it was easy to blame Nessim and the unwashed laundry.
Nessim reveled in the masculine tasks of running a kitchen; however, he shirked many household duties that he believed were beneath him—such as laundry. In these instances, he pressed his already overworked older sister into service. The girl was good, if erratic because of her full schedule, and couldn't always take care of matters right away, which occasionally lead to piles of bed linens so high they warranted their own room.
One evening, Jenny returned home via taxi to find the old green truck parked outside the villa. She was relatively certain Fayed was not waiting for her inside. To placate his old friend, who still bemoaned her lack of Vespa privileges, he had cheerfully allowed Janice to appropriate the truck as she pleased. The battered vehicle gleamed magnificently in the dim headlights of the cab, a talisman of hope to Jenny's rapidly thumping heart. After Mel had left, Janice had more or less disappeared onto the site, leaving both Jenny and Linus wondering whether the archaeologist would ever surface again. This was the opportunity she had hoped for—a moment when they could be truly alone, and where she might successfully rekindle their affair.
Her palms, hot and damp, bled adrenaline as she dashed up the winding staircase. There had to be a reason you came back.
The door was already open. Janice sat on the edge of the bed, her fists tangled within a bed sheet pressed to her face—eyes shuttered, back arched, and shoulders expanded, all with an unspoken pleasure. Drawing upon this scent—of sex, of her lover—Janice created a concatenation with the woman who was no longer there. This was no mere idealized love—or even if it was, it nonetheless possessed an erotic component burrowed deep inside her, beating within her blood, interlaced with every sinew.
Jenny recoiled from this act, which seemed more intimate than most bodily functions, even masturbation. "Good God." She couldn't quite believe that the flat, cold voice speaking was her own. No American accent, though, it must be me.
Janice, stunned out of her sexual reverie, was at that moment only capable of helpless blinking.
"I can't even compete with a bloody fucking bedsheet."
* * *
There had to be a reason you came back.
Jenny, flushed with apprehension, ran from the tram stop to the gate before the villa, stopping only to catch her breath and adjust a shoe. Her hand curled talon-like over the rusted iron gate as she saw John Smythe's face in her mind—coolly mocking, callously smug—as he intercepted her after lunch at the Cecil: "Is the funeral here?" he had asked.
The funeral for your bloody personality, perhaps. The cigarette wavered in her hand as she went wide-eyed, feeling a bit like Bette Davis caught in a spouse-stealing, money-swapping scheme. "Pardon me?"
"For dear old Harry Covington." Harshly triumphant, he laughed as all color drained from her face. "You mean you didn't know? He died a week ago, in Thessaloniki."
She could say nothing. Oh God. Janice.
"Truck went right into a ravine. He never had a chance."
"I'm truly surprised you don't know. His bitch daughter is back in town. Haven't the faintest idea why she's here—perhaps to seek solace in your ever-loving arms?" Smythe grinned and took a step closer to her; in a mockery of intimacy, he ducked his head close to her ear. "Unless, perhaps, you’ve grown tired of making love to a pseudo-man?"
He leapt back, hissing, as the tip of her smoldering cigarette made contact with the back of his hand.
Jenny took a hard drag off the cigarette, as if congratulating it for a job well done, then shot the smoke in his face. "No, John, I'm afraid I haven't. You know how the old saying goes: She's more of a man than you'll ever be, and more of a woman than you'll ever get."
From there, she rushed back to the villa, cursing the lack of taxis and the slowness of the tram. The truck was there. When she finally burst into the house, the sheen of sweat on her face cooled by the funereal air of her home, she was greeted by her husband, as solemn as she had ever seen him.
It is always when there is no need for words that one gropes for them the most. "He's really dead, isn’t he?"
* * *
"What you reap...is what you sow. This is called karma."
The librarian lowered the parchment and looked into the tired eyes of the woman who maintained that she was, indeed, the Bard of Potedaia. "Is there more? I don't understand entirely what this 'karma' is."
"Funny," she murmured. "Neither do I."
He traced the line of text with an index finger. "But you claim you wrote this."
"Yes. But that doesn't mean I understand it."
Daylight finally pried open Janice's eyes. The high ceiling seemed familiar, as did the figure standing across the room silhouetted by the brightness from the window: A small, dark-haired woman, wearing a shawl, back turned.
The woman's head moved, almost imperceptibly, and revealed a sliver of a profile. The dusky gleam of her skin and her exquisitely small features disproved Janice’s hallucination. It was Naima.
Naima was so beautiful that, when Janice first met her, she felt obliged to work up an infatuation. The truth of the matter was that Naima's ethereal looks, mysterious remoteness, and placid demeanor did not inspire a great deal of passion in her. Once it became clear that the cabbalist was very much in love with Fayed, Janice had stopped her half-hearted pursuit with relief. Actually, Naima had put a stop to it quite directly. I am not the one for you. We both know that. So why do you waste time in your silly seductions?
It was clear that Naima had always thought of Jenny as a silly seduction; how much that had to do with the bad blood between them than with any genuine concern she felt for Janice was another question. Apparently, Janice realized, any problems between the two women had been set aside, for here was Naima—moving with sylph-like grace across the room—in Jenny's house. After brushing the dirty, matted hair from Janice's forehead, she touched a damp, cool cloth to her friend's flushed cheeks and temples.
"You know where you are, don't you?"
Janice nodded numbly.
"You'll be safe here."
Safe. No, she silently corrected Naima, she was not safe. Safety was home, and home—more than any house or town or tent or country had ever been—was Harry. And Harry was dead. But the intangible web of beliefs that Naima always spoke of now seemed closer to her than ever, as if she could reach out and push aside the flimsy veil that separated life from death, good from evil, and the Tree of Life from its unbalanced inverse, the Qelippot.
Naima was wringing the cloth over a basin. "Do you remember what happened?"
Much like the tiny Edwin Muybridge moving picture notebooks she’d had when she was a kid, the images flashed by with a herky-jerky kind of cohesiveness. A dead body in a truck. Ashes in the sea. The nonstop journey to Alexandria. A confrontation in the café with the Frenchman. And his face, bloated with cruel laughter. Did you really think I wouldn't find out that it was your father who took those vases from me? And then, on top of it, to refuse me like that, Janice.
"Did I kill him?"
The field has now narrowed for both of us.
Naima appeared relieved as she answered. "No."
She remembered more now: The sloppy, tinny clatter of all the bullets from the .38—save one—hitting the floor like dull rain. Sticking the muzzle into the frothy gleam of his bleeding mouth.
“The Negative Veils.” Janice did not realize she had said this aloud until she saw Naima’s contemplative nod.
Why am I thinking of them?
The veils serve as a backdrop to what we fully understand, while beckoning us to penetrate their mystery, daring us to comprehend what we cannot conceive. They are gone now; they have fallen from my sight. Death has opened my eyes and I see what I am. I am capable of things I never thought possible. I am no better than the others in this world of shit I’ve inherited.
Fear had slivered his pupils into barely discernible specks afloat in the vast emptiness of the slate-colored iris. He trembled under her grip, the bones of his scrawny chest knocking against her fist with every breath. The acidic smell of his urine drenched her senses.
Much in the fashion that a clock will strike at the top of the hour, so the hammer touched upon an empty bullet chamber, signifying one moment’s passing and a new one beginning. She pulled the gun out of his mouth. And then she hit him: A hard, flat blow with the handle of the pistol, as hard as she had ever hit anyone, the distinct crack of one man's jaw signaling the liberation of her grief.
She couldn't, wouldn't remember anything else. Somehow Fayed got her into the truck and to the villa.
Fayed. You forget. He has lost a father as well. "Where is he?"
Sadness disrupted the pacific calm of Naima’s face. "Sleeping."
And crying. "He cried so much. He couldn't stop. He couldn't."
"And you did not cry at all. This he told me."
"No." Nothing could express what she felt. Not tears, nor screaming, wailing, or any other common manifestation of grief. “En sof,” she muttered. A Limitless Nothing—one of the Negative Veils.
“The words themselves are meaningless in this instance, as you know.” Again Naima pressed the cool cloth against her brow.
Naima's serenity was an infuriating thing. "I wanted to kill him. Except for the grace of God, I would have. Don't you understand that?"
"Yes. I do."
“Really? Have you ever felt such hatred, such anger before?”
Naima frowned. “You must think me bloodless as a stone, Janice.”
"He killed my father. He arranged it. He admitted it to me." It didn’t take much money to hire the man who severed the brake lines of the truck that Harry Covington drove, that much was known; what would never be revealed—for it was something Janice would pursue to her own death—was the actual identity of the perpetuator. "I had given him the money back. All of it. I wasn't going to do his fucking dirty work for him. I thought he would let it go. I was a fool. I should've killed Dansey. Then none of this would have happened."
"No. You are a fool if you believe that," Naima replied calmly. "For such a man, there is always sufficient reason to kill. He wanted no competition in the black market. He would have used any excuse to achieve his goal. Eventually he would have killed you as well. In fact, if you had placed yourself behind the wheel of the vehicle that day, you would have died. It is all the same to Bardamu."
“It’s not all the same to me.” Just when she thought she was beyond all emotion, a sob yoked itself to her, racking and riding her body to the point that she barely noticed when Naima slid into the bed and curled around her protectively. The affectionate balm of the arm around her waist and the chin propped delicately against her shoulder, however, was needed more desperately than Janice realized; she relaxed instinctively, unknowingly, and released herself into Naima’s touch.
"What time is it?" Why am I asking? Why do I care? I will feel this forever. Time will not change this.
"I don't know, Janice."
"I just want it to stop."
"I know. It will, in time."
"Nothing makes sense anymore."
"You feel there is no balance anymore. It is not true. It is only a temporary thing. What is happening is that you are rebalancing your life."
“I don’t know what that means.” Janice licked her dry lips. “I am a poor student, Naima,” she whispered. “I don’t understand your words, your world. I never did.”
“You will.” Naima tightened her embrace. “You shall see.”
Janice ignored this and closed her eyes. In her mind, the lapis lazuli tessarae from the mosaic expanded into boundless blue, saturating and soothing. If she could make a picture of her life, she thought, this color would be there, its sensuous calm touching upon every single piece in a mosaic cobbled together from disparate times and places—even upon those fragments now irretrievably lost.
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