COUP de GRACE
Part V: Stella Matutina
Bright star! Would I were steadfast as thou art—
1. A Certain Mercy
Who has dressed you in strange clothes of
Who has taken you far from my land?
Who has said that my sayings were wrong?
And who will say that I stayed much too long?
—Nick Drake, “Clothes of Sand”
Somewhere in Macedonia
In the perfect circle of the binocular lens, the approaching Nazi Kübelwagen was beautiful. The jeep—a flat slate gray—was transformed by a near flawless unity of motion, heat, and light, and its mounted machine gun gleamed, a turret on a fairytale castle.
Janice almost hated to look away, but Mustafa was standing at her side, shuffling anxiously, awaiting her instructions. While he hated Nazis as much as she did, he was considerably less successful in the masquerade of coolness that she had perfected—at least where Germans were concerned.
Finally she lowered the binoculars. “I want to be alone,” she proclaimed to the world.
As she’d hoped, Mustafa—who learned English from not only movies but the celebrity-obsessed magazines they spawned—grinned appreciatively at her cheesy Nordic and relaxed. “Yes, boss, very good.” He rested a gentle paw upon her shoulder. “You are like Garbo unwashed, yes?”
Janice’s tongue danced a can-can along a row of molars, biding time in a play for a wisecrack that, unfortunately, was not forthcoming. “You don’t smell much better, pal.” It was all she could come up with.
He smiled again, as if perversely proud of this. But then he quickly sobered at the thought of their impending guests. “What are we going to do?”
She picked at the worn, pilled leather strap of the binoculars. “You know the drill.”
Mustafa parroted American gangster lingo with ease: “Take de gun, hide de loot.”
The purist in Janice balked at hearing artifacts described as such, while her more world-weary side winced a little at the too-close-for-comfort feeling the description evoked. What else were these things that they found, but loot? Did they really belong to her, or to the arbitrary country that she found them in that did not exist thousands of years ago? Lately, with increasing frequency, she found herself questioning The Work. (Harry had always called his profession that, with the reverential ham-handedness that demanded capital letters.) And perhaps the most compelling reason—one she could barely admit to herself—for her ambivalence was the fact that immersion in it no longer served as any sort of escape. It all reminded her too much of him.
Janice saw that Mustafa was hesitating. “What?”
“You be okay, boss?”
She smiled. He was a good man, and just as protective of her as Fayed, who—anticipating the dig’s end and missing his home—had left for Alexandria a week ago. “Yeah, I’ll be fine.” She sighed. “If they haven’t killed me by now….”
Understandably, Mustafa failed to be consoled by this.
She shoved him—rather, shoved at him, for his bulk resisted her attempt as the iceberg successfully resisted the Titanic. “Go on. I’ll be okay. Just keep out of sight. If I need you, I’ll whistle.”
“Perhaps you will scream instead?” he countered cheekily. Earlier he had been roused from his siesta by an impressive cry of distress, whereupon he quickly discovered the one thing that his trigger-happy boss detested more than Nazis: Snakes. She had shot two huge, fluttering holes through her tent—holes which the reptile cannily utilized in his escape.
Janice gritted her teeth. “Shut up, Mustafa, and hide.”
He laughed, and then disappeared down into the excavation pit. Like Alice in the rabbit hole—well, if Alice were a 275-pound Turk, she thought. Again she glanced at the jeep through the binoculars. It looked like there were only two men in the jeep; their features, however, were obscured by caps and goggles. Christ, who do they think they are, Rommel in the fucking desert?
When the jeep finally arrived on site and pulled to within 18 feet of her, Janice recognized the tall, lanky man who bounded from the vehicle.
“Guten abend, Frau Doktor,” Marius Zech pulled off his goggles with a flourish. He wore a field uniform and as a result looked considerably less intimidating than he did in black de rigueur SS attire. The sleeves of his shirt were folded, revealing thin, sinewy arms like beef jerky, she thought ungenerously. Janice looked at her own arms and wondered if they were bigger. Could I take him? Nah. He’s a cool sonofabitch. He knows how to fight, I can tell. Indeed, Marius looked very relaxed and collected, despite the pounding sun and stifling humidity.
“Do Nazis ever sweat?” she offered by way of greeting.
He laughed—no easy feat to get him to even crack a smile, Harry always said. The very sound of it—bold, harsh, sudden—was so completely unnerving it made her wonder if the world were ending. So this is their secret weapon: The Laughing Fascist.
Marius wagged a finger at her. “Ah, ah, Janice, perhaps now you believe there is some merit to what we have been saying all along.”
“Sure. And there’s a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.”
He smirked uneasily, not getting the joke.
The driver—a stocky, middle-aged man—now clambered out of the vehicle and mopped sweat from his pasty brow. He stretched, and his knobby knees cracked audibly.
“So much for the master race,” muttered the archaeologist. She caught the steely glint of Marius’s glare. “What do you want, Marius?”
His demeanor grew more accommodating—at the very least, he bowed his head in a manner best described as charmingly mocking. “I am here to take care of unfinished business.”
“The only unfinished business you may have had was with my father. And given that he’s dead, I’m afraid it will have to remain that way, unless you have it in mind to conduct a séance.”
“My dear doctor, I assure you that while my visit does indeed involve your father, it involves you as well. I do not wish to intrude upon your work, although—“ He gazed around the nearly vacant site. “—it looks as if you are closing shop, as they say. Please—may we retire to your tent and conduct this transaction in comfort and privacy?”
Janice rolled her eyes. “Fine,” she spat. As she gestured at the tent and he entered it with a sultan-like imperiousness, the archaeologist hesitated for a moment, then tossed her canteen at the bedraggled driver.
He was so surprised he almost dropped it. “Danke,” he croaked hoarsely. She nodded and slipped into the tent.
Marius was already sitting at her table when she entered. “Frau Doktor, are you experiencing difficulties with the local fauna?” He pointed at the giant holes, both of which seemed to curve into sinister nyah-nyah smiles every time she looked at them.
She scowled, puzzled at the note of concern in his voice. “You could say that.”
He drummed his fingers nervously. What the hell is wrong with him? He’s as jittery as a bridegroom. Ever since she had the inopportunity of meeting Marius Zech in Berlin three or four years ago (she couldn’t quite remember the exact date), in their subsequent chance encounters he had never been anything less than polished and dourly cool.
Suddenly Marius looked at her hopefully. “Bourbon?”
“Sorry. I’m all out.” It was a lie—the bourbon was safely stashed in her footlocker—but she felt no shame in it.
“Your father was always prepared for impromptu guests.”
Ever since Harry’s death she had been mostly successful in immersing herself in The Work and not thinking of him. Now Marius was here, picking relentlessly at the scab crusted over the not-so-distant past. “I’m here to work, not conduct a salon.” Janice sat down opposite him at the table littered with maps, drawings, and photos. Her hands splayed casually among these worthless treasures. She took a breath and continued as cautiously as could be managed. “In case I’ve failed somehow to make it perfectly clear, I’m not in the same business as my father. Do you understand? I will not sell a thing to you. Not even a goddamned Fuller Brush.”
Another Americanism puzzled Marius, who frowned in confusion.
Nonetheless she plowed on. “Anything of value that I find here will be placed in the safest repository I can find—if not within this country, then I will do everything possible to see that it remains in Allied hands.”
Marius looked bored, as if he were sitting through an interminable opera, possibly a mandatory Wagner performance—Janice believed the stereotype that all Nazis were required to listen to the composer, that the bombast of the music was the cud on which Aryan delusions of grandeur chewed. He raised a lazy eyebrow. “Nice speech.”
“Thanks. I trotted it out just for you.”
“You mistake my intention, Janice. I am not here to take.” He placed a velvet sachet on the desk amid the clutter. “I am here to give.”
She eyed it skeptically. “Marius—an early Christmas gift? You shouldn’t have.”
This time he did not laugh.
The archaeologist untangled the cord of the pouch. A single item fell into the palm of her hand and she hunched over imperceptibly, just barely managing to take the blow to memory. The scab was ripped off, the wound flowed freely. It was a plain gold wedding band with an equally simple inscription running along the ring’s inside: Isabel and Henry April 4, 1914.
When they found his body in the ravine, it had been picked over by the most thorough of thieves. Gone were boots, belt, money clip, passport, wedding ring, even cigarettes and the buttons of his shirt. Luckily he had left his watch back at the site, and his lighter was later found on the floor of the truck.
What she could not forget—and what had made her sob until her ribs ached—was his mouth, pried open and bloodied, mutilated for the prize of a gold tooth.
Through the rictus of a dead man’s mouth and the circumference of a ring she fell, a casualty in the tug of war between remembering and forgetting. What is there between the two, but living? Memory was a theater where the things she would not, could not forget played on a brutally endless and distorted reel.
She stemmed the tide of tears by blotting them with thumb and forefinger in the corner of each eye. “Where did you get this?” In spite of every effort, her voice trembled. He never took it off. Even after she left him. Left us.
“From the Frenchman.” Marius reached out and took the pouch, fingering it with hesitant reverence, like a talisman. Then he dropped it back on the table. “If you were in Alexandria, you would be reading about it in the papers.”
A hot tear dived down her cheek as she looked at him with renewed sharpness. “What?”
“Bardamu is dead.” Calmly, Marius met her gaze.
She knew, with that look, exactly what he was admitting. Curiosity trumped grief as she finished off the tears with a quick swipe from a shirt sleeve. “Why?”
“Too many dead archaeologists, too many questions. It was a very simple matter—a preemptive strike, you see. It was only a matter of time before he would retaliate against you—and only a matter of time before they accused you of Dansey’s murder. I waited until you left the city before I killed him, so you have—what is the proper term? An alibi. Yes, they could not accuse you of this.” He folded his hands as if, with this gesture of fastidious elegance, he could contain and protect himself from impending derision and judgment.
Everything was revealed with alarming clarity. You care. Why do you care? “What are you trying to say to me?”
His eyes shifted. “I’m not trying to tell you anything other than the facts.”
“The facts are that you’ve gone to an awful lot of trouble—for me. You killed a man.”
“It’s not the first time.”
“I didn’t think so. But it remains—“
Marius’s interrupted harshly. “Do not attempt to put words to my motives, or interpretations to my feelings.” He drew in a breath. “Did you ever wonder about Berlin, about what happened to you? You thought your father’s intervention saved you.” He shook his head. “No. He could do nothing. Those men who beat you were old SA boys—the Night of the Long Knives didn’t get rid of all of them, you know, just the ones disloyal to the Reich. They were hungry for blood. It would have been bad if they had killed you, it is true. We were courting your father at the time—a dead American would have caused a bit of a disturbance, ja? But I did not give a damn about your father or what he could do for us. There were so many others who would have given us what we needed. Harry was not as important as he thought, the poor fool.”
Out of an obligatory respect for the dead, he curtailed a sneer—and discovered he could no longer look at her and so abruptly stood from the table. “It is a waste of time to tell you these things. But since first I saw you—” He stopped, ensnared by memory, lips pursed, completely chagrined at the yearning that still filled him for that lost girl he met in 1938, defiantly smoking in public and unafraid to meet his eyes, whose wryly conspiratorial smile claimed him as a member in a party composed of outsiders, of the ones who fumblingly follow the beat of their own blood—and hence more compelling and secretive than the one to which he had sworn allegiance and devoted his life. He shook his head. “No. Ich weiss, was Sie sind.”
I know what you are.
“And yet—“ Resisting further pointless articulation, he cut himself off. The feeling, like a decapitated corpse, struggled futilely for reanimation. “—and yet.” Marius smiled bitterly and laid the thought to rest, for he could not imagine a future—or a world—where he could really love this woman. And where she might return it. Is this the closest I will get to love?
He did not know that Janice’s thoughts were running along similar, self-pitying lines. She did not know that on the last day of his life, which was not so far away, the image of her smile would float by in a morphine daydream. And neither one of them knew that six years later, she would give a ring—different in looks, yet similar in spirit to the one in her hand—to the one person she ever wanted to marry, but couldn’t.
Just before he left the tent, Marius paused; his fingers trickled down the canvas flap. “You should go back to America. You will be safer there. I’m returning to Berlin soon. And—from there, I will not be able to protect you.”
“I never asked for your protection.” She said it gently, without a hint of recrimination.
When it finally occurred to Janice to thank him, he was gone.
From his hiding spot Mustafa heard the dirty cackle of the jeep’s engine; the sound receded into the distance. He waited a few minutes before emerging from the excavation pit and, rifle poised, approached the tent cautiously. From the holes in the canvas he could see the lower half of her body, limbs stretching and shifting in an unconscious river of movement, as if she were trying to swim through the parched landscape. When he entered he found her staring at a ring. He thought about asking her what happened, but correctly assumed it was best to wait until she was ready to talk. Instead, he dug the bourbon out of the footlocker and poured her a shot.
“Life is really a kick in the head sometimes.”
He sat the drink in front of her. “I like that expression! Cheers, boss!”
2. The Goddess in the Off Hours
The habit of knowledge is not human but divine.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, November, 1953
Thanksgiving break had ended. And thus the mood throughout the university had settled, much like the snow that covered the campus, into one of firm, gloomy entrenchment that warily aimed a collective eye toward the semester's end. The small lecture hall where Mel stood, scribbling Greek upon a blackboard, was no exception, although the vast majority of the students took solace if not in their professor's gentle accent and civilized manner, than in her voluptuous figure and dazzling (if seemingly rare) smile.
From the recesses of the hall, the Dean watched her. His gambit had succeeded. Finally, he thought, she appeared less nervous, more authoritative, more comfortable in the realm of the classroom. He had always known, of course, that she was brilliant at what she did, but the question of whether or not she would be a good teacher had finally been settled: She was good, and it was almost a shame to waste her on undergraduates. Well, these are seniors, he thought, scanning the group of primarily young men who were extremely attentive to their lecturer.
"When you are translating, corruption of text is an occupational hazard," she was saying. "Ultimately, the translator is placed in the position of making decisions that aren't always easy—one must interpret the target language in one way or another. There's no sitting on the fence—you can leave that for the footnotes." Whether intentional or not, this caused some mild laughter in the room. However, the Dean was convinced that Mel could tell knock-knock jokes out of vaudeville and the class would still respond enthusiastically—it was clear they liked her that much. It's more than the way she looks, although that certainly doesn't hurt, he thought. For the unknowing, unsuspecting translator had become the high priestess of the Covington cult; her bookish image now glittered with the luster of being the rogue's trusted sidekick.
Within the short span of her sabbatical, Covington had become practically a legendary figure among some of the students. While the faculty and trustees of the university had worked themselves in an apoplectic froth about the Xena Scrolls and the issue of their legitimacy—not to mention the story of a 15-year-old unsolved murder in Alexandria and Dr. Covington's renewed status as a suspect—the students had embraced the rebellious, mysterious figure. Those who had classes with Covington could claim an exulted status: I brought her flowers on Valentine's Day and she gave them to her secretary. She dropped a water balloon on Dr. Snyder during finals. No kidding. Her temper tantrums had also entered the annals: A blackboard eraser hurled at an argumentative student became a chair thrown through a window. Good Lord, will they all start wearing fedoras soon? wondered the bemused Dean.
Mel lightly tapped the blackboard for emphasis. The chalk disintegrated in her hand, and a large chunk tumbled to the floor. She muttered with soft exasperation. As she bent over, two solid rows of young men arched attentively, thus creating a choppy hormonal wave jockeying for the best view of the Pappas posterior.
No, those looks certainly don't hurt. The Dean then produced a noisy rumble from the depths of his throat, thus catching the students in a sticky, phlegmatic web of guilty looks and seat-slouching.
Mel, oblivious to the worship of her backside, stood up and smiled as brightly as she could, given her current state of stress and exhaustion. "Good afternoon, sir. Is there anything we can do for you?"
"Not a bit. Carry on, Dr. Pappas."
"Thank you. To get back to the Hymn to Aphrodite…we encounter the problem—or challenge, if you will—of ambiguity in the very first line. Some manuscripts have poikilothron, which would be a multicolored or ornate throne. Others have it as poikilophron, which, I think, is best translated as 'a multicolored mind.'"
"Whatever that is," grumbled one Mr. Briggs in the fourth row.
And whatever it is, you certainly don't have it, my boy, the Dean thought irritably.
For the moment, Mel ignored her peanut gallery of one. "So one little letter, as you see, can make a big difference. It may all come down to a matter of personal taste, although other things can certainly factor into one's decision, such as experience—both with the languages involved and the writer, not to mention much broader considerations as time period, social history, political climate, and geographical orientation."
Briggs, in serious danger of sliding out of his seat, cracked, "That's a lot to consider, Doc."
"It is, Mr. Briggs. But I assure you, I am not expecting perfection from anyone in this room, even myself." She paused. Liar, thought the Dean. If anyone had such rigorous self-expectations, it was Mel. As if sensing his thought, she amended her statement. "I just want you all to try your best. That's all we can do, really."
Briggs pounced on her words. "Geez, Doc, so you're sayin' even you make mistakes?"
Mel placed the chalk in one of the well-worn wooden ruts attached to the board, then raised a surprised eyebrow. "Of course I do, Mr. Briggs."
In a time and a climate where teachers were viewed as infallible—or at least never publicly admitted their fallibility—this admission sent a temporary, impressed hush over the room.
As usual, Briggs took it upon himself to lighten the moment. "This must put you in hot water with Dr. Covington from time to time, huh?"
A round of nervous giggling. The students were never quite sure how their occasionally stern yet eminently fair professor would react to comments about her friend and colleague.
Luckily for them, Mel was in a decent mood, since, after all, this was the last class of her busy day. She briefly entertained the notion of replying that she didn't at all mind being in hot water with Dr. Covington, particularly if it involved candlelight and fragrant bath salts. Instead she smiled. "Whereas Dr. Covington is concerned, getting into some kind of trouble is always a given."
The well-lobbed retort precipitated hearty laughter.
A shrill bell announced the end of class. "See you all on Wednesday," Mel called. Or within the next five seconds, she amended silently. While brushing chalk dust from her hands, she awaited the inevitable deluge.
This time the Dean could not suppress a sigh. A small group had clustered around the podium, still eager for their teacher's attention, including the blustery and brash Briggs. Yet even he, the group’s self-appointed ringleader, was half-awestruck in her presence and waiting, with a peculiarly meek impatience, for the casting of pearls before students. Nonetheless, Mel seemed to drown in the attention, however innocuous its origin.
The Dean limped down the steps, intent on rescuing her, and caught the last few words she addressed to the group: "…Now, unless some of you are willing to cook me dinner and pick up my dry cleaning, I really must get home."
"Dear goddess!" boomed the largest member of the small coterie. The Dean forgot his name, but the florid, dandyish young man held out his arms as if to either hug his alarmed teacher or cradle her sacred dry cleaning. “I am your most willing, humble, and obedient servant!”
Mel was pinching the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger—an infinitely more acceptable alternative to beating him senseless with her briefcase. “Mr. Spencer, if I were really a goddess I would not even need the services of a launderer, I’m certain of that.”
“Really?” Spencer stroked his chin. “I do wonder what you would wear if—“
Before the assembled party could indulge in speculation on what skimpy, diaphanous outfits that the Academic Goddess might wear—and would she remove her glasses during a private audience?—the Dean announced his presence with a rap of his cane on the side of the lectern.
"Mr. Spencer, I might wonder what you would wear while on academic probation. Shall we investigate the possibility?” the Dean rumbled.
“No, sir,” the young man bleated.
“Very good. Now, unless some of you have legitimate questions for your instructor, I suggest you leave Dr. Pappas for the time being. I’m sure you’ll all be seeing her soon enough, unless you have all finally pushed her over the proverbial edge.”
“They haven’t, sir, just the figurative one, that’s all.” Mel granted the group a reassuring grin, and after she bade them all good afternoon, they all shuffled out the door like depressed lemmings.
The Dean sighed with relief. At last. Upon closer inspection, he saw that she really did look as tired as she sounded. A strand of dark hair had liberated itself from the confines of her French braid, and when her round, silver-rimmed glasses slid down her nose, she made no characteristically compulsive motion to restore them to their appropriate place. "Well?" she asked softly, while stuffing a sheaf of papers into her leather briefcase.
"It was your typical trustees meeting: Cigars, sherry, red faces, shouting, and dyspepsia. In precisely that order."
Mel managed a polite smile.
"Your threat worked quite nicely." He had taken great pleasure in informing those assembled at the meeting that if Dr. Covington were to be dismissed, Mel's resignation would be tendered immediately. For the time being, the university was willing to accept one bad reputation for that of a rising academic star. Even though from his perspective, the matter was not so clear-cut: Their reputations were hopelessly enmeshed, conflated with one another. And how does this affect them…outside of the university? He possessed no illusions on the precise nature of their relationship, and knew from experience that romance and academic politics were a heady, fractious mix at best.
Now she smirked, proudly mischievous. He could see a bit of Covington in the expression. "Good."
"But we're not quite out of the woods yet."
"And when shall we ever be out of the woods, may I ask?"
"An excellent point, Melinda. However, this Dansey business—"
Her dealings with her bag and papers grew more agitated. "—is a lot of nonsense stirred up by people who should know better. There is no evidence, no proof that she had anything to do with a murder." She suddenly stopped and stared at the sheaf of papers in her grasp—the bread and butter of academia. How pointless it all seems, without you here. What was I thinking? I shouldn't have agreed to this, I shouldn't have let you convince me that you would be safe there. But as usual, I let you bluster me into doing what you want. It hadn’t occurred to her—yet—that she should be angry at Janice. She was far too miserable to realize it, despite the inkling of resentment that festered in her gut. "I shouldn't have left her there." Mel blinked, then flushed at the realization that she said it aloud.
The old man, however, was unfazed by the vehemence of the comment. In fact, he grinned, rather knowingly, which ratcheted up the intensity of the blush to a burning stage. "Have you heard anything from her?"
She shifted her attention from briefcase to purse and—like a flustered magician determined not to botch the oldest trick in the world—yanked a Western Union telegram out of her purse with an awkward flourish. Dated two days earlier, the message read in its entirety:
NOT ARRESTED YET. LOVE JANICE
"Pithy," he murmured.
"Are you lisping, sir?"
It took him a few seconds to recognize her deadpan humor. "Quite." He grinned and gave the telegram back. "What do you say we fetch that bothersome dry cleaning and then you come home with me? Helen's making a pot roast."
Mel thanked him with genuine feeling, for a dismal realization finally settled upon her: She had gone from being a housewife to needing one herself.
3. Fool for Love
The trouble with the world is that it’s always one drink behind.
That thought—better yet, that sensation of helpless drowning—recurred over subsequent weeks, primarily due to one huge, inane reason: Mel had agreed to host a holiday faculty party. Why she had consented to such madness could be traced to a single glass of Bordeaux.
“Good stuff, eh?” the Dean had said, topping off her glass.
Mel had hummed in agreement. Her bones were melting into the overstuffed club chair poised in front of the fire. Dinner, wine, a fire—if the Dean kept this up, she would petition to be adopted.
Now the old man was rumbling on about something. Something about her house. Yes. Dr. Forsythe, the newest member of the department, had never seen it. Beautiful old house, said the Dean, she and Janice had done such a remarkable job of fixing it up. Well, it was Janice mostly—Mel had only spent inordinate amounts of time obsessing about curtains and whether or not “Morning Verbena” was an acceptable color for a guest room while Janice impaled herself on rusty nails, fought off bats in the attic, and almost knocked herself unconscious with a trap door. “By the way, when Janice returns from Egypt, would she consider lending a hand with rebuilding my garage and paving the driveway? Wonderful. Glad to hear it. Filth is her element, is it not? Melinda, I don’t think I’ve heard you laugh like that in a long time. More Bordeaux? Good. This wine is simply too good to waste on the Department’s Christmas soiree, don’t you agree? Pity Helen and I can’t host the party this year, since the driveway is such a mess—ah! Here’s a splendid thought, Melinda: Why don’t you have it at your home?”
Mel had hummed again; only a very vigilant and tiny part of her brain had realized that—to employ the unique eloquence that was all Janice’s own—she was being “screwed more than a two-dollar whore during Fleet Week.”
Usually, she was a big fan of Western civilization, of the comforts and mild pleasures of bourgeoisie life; however, the mere existence of academic social events in all their bitter, backbiting glory alone gave her serious pause and made her want to run barefoot in the backyard while baying at the moon.
No sooner had crudités appeared than the party was swimming in alcohol and she was running the gauntlet: Jim Snyder railed about the Dean, his wife tearfully confessed to Mel that she had been sleeping with one of Jim’s students, another argument about the legitimacy of The Golden Bough ensued (and for once Mel was relieved that Janice and her particular talent for hair-splitting was not around), someone spilled an ashtray on the Turkish rug, Dr. Hamilton propositioned her, and Dr. Forsythe’s too-young wife (she was 24, he, 41) obliquely attempted to figure out her sex life—“Your man is so handsome!” This said in a girlishly conspiratorial, wine-soaked whisper.
Mel blinked and gazed around furtively. Had a discarded fiancé turned up, insistent on reclaiming her hand (and her secret stash of never-returned engagement rings)? “Er—please enlighten me.”
“Why, Mr. Rosenberg over there, by the record player.”
He was handsome—even Mel had to admit that—and glaring at anyone who came remotely close to the records. He was quickly learning that academic parties were not his scene, even though he now held a low-level position in the music department. Two hours ago he had rebelled and removed the Brahms she had put on the turntable in favor of Ella Fitzgerald and now Sarah Vaughan.
“Oh. He’s not—” Mel trailed off and hoped vague hand rolls would convey a precise meaning of “the person I’m sleeping with.”
Mrs. Forsythe looked immensely confused. “He’s not?”
“No.” Get up to speed on your gossip, Mrs. Forsythe! He was secretly married to Janice last spring but she ran off to have an abortion anyway! And nobody has told me because I was in a sanitarium having a nervous breakdown because I found out my mother and father were actually first cousins! Usually Mel had neither the time nor the energy to keep up on the pseudo-soap opera that people had constructed of her life, but when she did, she was much amused and impressed at the creativity that went into the effort.
“Well, then, who is?” she demanded.
Mel paused. “Good question!” Citing imaginary duties in the kitchen, she made a break for it.
Too many hours later the guests had dwindled away, the ashtrays were emptied, her hair was a wreck, and the dishes were piled into haphazard, crusty towers that resembled Gaudi’s Barcelona apartment buildings. Janice, always energized by liquor and vigorous arguing, would wash the dishes after these interminable parties, while engaging Mel in a tipsy post-mortem of the evening’s events. The translator cursed the Covington Influence in this instance (who needs servants and maids, we shouldn’t perpetuate the great divide between the classes, taking out the trash won’t ruin your manicure, blah blah blah) because she was now stuck doing them all. Alone.
She opened the door to the back porch and stepped outside.
Despite the cold and her aching calves she stood in stockinged feet, inhaling the bracing clarity of both the sharp smoky air—somewhere, someone was using a fireplace—and watching the moon, porous and white, a flat bone against the night. Her toes curled over the edge of the porch. Was it a Harvest Moon? No, it’s too, too late in the season for that. She found she no longer easily remembered things that like that, basic things her father had taught her as a child. Was it age, was her mind simply too crammed to the brim with other things? It was no longer easy to bear the brunt of knowledge, to learn for the sheer pleasure of it. Just as it was no longer easy to be alone. Both her mind and her heart demanded purpose.
I used to love being alone—well, at least I never minded much. But now I hate it, I truly hate it, thanks to you. Do you miss me as I miss you? Where are you, what are you doing?
* * *
And where was Janice?
Lying on a rug, smitten with the bold tones of vermillion and ochre before her, absently grazing the outline of a palmette with the back of a hand, until the setting sun struck at the copper tea kettle in the kif den and sent molten gold swarming along the blades of the tired ceiling fan.
She watched the light with the stern persistence that marked much of what she did, and yet—blindly gorged on the narcotic—her observation was devoid of its one defining aspect: passion. There was nothing but the turning of the fan. There was nothing to do but watch the turning of the fan. What else did she have to do?
* * *
Sarah Vaughan still crooned from the living room, and Mel suspected she was not alone. She sighed. Paul was probably still there, since he had not sought her out to say goodbye. He was most likely drunk—forget most likely, try definitely. At any rate, he was no doubt too drunk to send home, except in a cab, and she knew at this time of night it would be impossible at best to find one. Now this is going to cramp my brooding! She flung open the screen door and passed through its wide arc. On her way to the living room she detoured to the linen closet and retrieved a pillow and blankets.
In the living room Paul sat cross-legged on the floor next to the record player, smoking. In this position he reminded her painfully of Janice; it had taken the translator a good year to train the nomadic Covington into sitting in a chair or on the couch, to convince her that furniture existed for a practical purpose, that the chairs and the couch were neither aesthetic monoliths nor rare artifacts that she must fear.
Even though the house was not really that big, Janice had sometimes seemed lost within it.
Paul grinned when he saw her, laden with linens. “The Southern Belle Mo-tel,” he drawled, utilizing the term Janice employed whenever he stayed over.
She dumped the pillow and blankets on the sofa. “You keep that up, and I will start charging you.”
Paul was aware of being drunk, of being on that precarious edge before tipsiness escalates into incoherence. Thus, as a result, his brain meandered to a conclusion that otherwise would have been reached with much alacrity in a sober state: He could not sleep alone in the house with her. It was a futile temptation, but one to which, given his current state, he would surely succumb. Even Sarah Vaughan functioned as an advocate for this position, no doubt mirroring the hostess’s views on the matter: You’re not the kind of a boy for a girl like me—
“Is there any coffee left?” he squeaked, panicky.
I’m just a song and a dance, you’re a symphony—
She looked surprised. “No, but I can make some more.”
As soon as she left the room, his sense of time disintegrated. Had a minute passed since she left, or an hour? Had he been on the floor all fucking night? He sat up. Oh, this was not a good idea, to be alone in this house with her. He managed to steer himself into the kitchen. And there she was, standing there with a glass carafe of water, making coffee. Like someone's wife. Even the way she looked up at him—with gentle expectation, he thought—further fucked with his head.
He was desperate for something to say. “You’re not making it the funny way.”
“You know, the way she makes it.”
Mel laughed. “Oh, you mean the Turkish coffee. I can’t do it properly. It always ends up bitter. So I’m afraid you’re stuck with boring, American-style coffee.”
“That’s fine. Anything you want—I mean, anything you make—is, ah, okay.”
The coffee pot burbled, he swayed, and Mel took a step toward him. “Are you all right?”
“Drunk,” he muttered.
“Quite,” she agreed, placing a hand upon his collarbone to steady him.
One good touch deserved another, he thought. But the realization that you’ll do anything to justify it ached. Because you’re tired of fighting it.
He touched her cheek.
It’s so hard to let you go / It’s only because I know that you’re / not the kind of a boy / For a girl like me…
He was surprised at how dry her skin felt, taut along the high cheekbone, and his mind attempted reconciliation of the idealized woman he was infatuated with and the flesh and blood creature in front of him, with dry skin, wary eyes, and a very confused look upon her face.
Mel blinked owlishly behind her glasses—each flutter of her eyelashes indicated progress in comprehending the situation—then she looked away.
"I'm sorry.” Paul dropped his hand.
She was perfunctory yet gracious. "It's all right."
“No, it’s not.” He walked through the back door, fully intending to walk home, but the cold needled him and he realized he’d left his overcoat inside. Foolishly he stood there, not knowing what to do.
The screen door slammed behind him. Mel was there, holding out his cigarettes. “I know it usually helps.”
He chuckled and took the pack, ignoring the shaking of his hands as he lit one. “Don’t tell me you didn’t figure it out.”
“I knew—when we were in London—that you cared for me. I thought it was a brief infatuation, over and done with.”
He shook his head. “I still care for you. Very much.”
“I’m not good at figuring these things out. I never have been.” She trailed off, folding her arms against both the chill and the topic. “I need either a bald proposition or a blow to the head.”
“Which one did Janice use?”
Mel laughed softly. “Neither. It was—different.”
He wasn’t surprised. But he didn’t want to know how it was different.
“Men…” she began.
“No, I wasn’t about to say that. I’ve—never quite figured them out.”
Paul burst into laughter. “There’s nothing to figure out. We’re pretty direct creatures. You’re a victim of your own intellect sometimes, you know that?” Smoke from the cigarette drifted white across the night, almost as bright as the moon. “Here’s the thing,” he began. “I always prided myself on being the guy who would never—I mean never—steal a pal’s girl. And don’t kid yourself, it’s come up a lot. I had a buddy back in New York, and he had this woman—she was something, total knockout. And she dug me, I could tell.”
“You sound like one of those—what do you call them—those bongo players….”
He smiled, charmed, as usual, by her non-sequiturs. “You mean beatniks.”
“Yes.” She touched her glasses self-consciously. “I’m sorry, please go on.”
“But, see, he was my friend, and so I never laid a hand on her. Hell, I wasn’t even tempted. I’ve never suffered for companionship, if you know what I mean. I didn’t need her. I could always get it someplace else.”
“You’re seeing someone now,” Mel observed.
“So you do pay attention when I brag about nailing a broad.” There was a woman. A couple weeks back she saw him playing with his combo—a small group of guys who, like himself, held regular jobs but still liked to get together and play.
Mel winced with distaste at the description—apparently she found coarseness charming only in her ornery lover. He turned his face away. “Yeah. I guess. I drown my sorrows in sex.” It sounded good in his head, but given body in voice it came across as self-pitying. “Then there was you. I should break out into song, right? It felt different with you. Like I really wanted to know you. I wanted to get inside your head.” An impossibility—for he doubted that even Janice “got” her. With the same stunned amazement he felt that day, he could still recall the afternoon they witnessed Mel complete a New York Times crossword in about 15 minutes, still remembered Janice laughing and shaking her head as she examined the flawless, completed puzzle: That brain, in that body. It ought to be a crime. She was all angles and curves, sexual heat and cool intellect, smothering intensity and elegant remoteness. These very contradictions kept him enraptured.
“I understand,” she replied gently.
“Yeah. I bet you do.” He failed to match the kindness of her tone. “I don’t want to be the louse that steals someone’s girl. But then—it kept getting complicated.”
She started to open her mouth to ask why, but before she could, he mumbled the one word that could shut her up.
“Switzerland.” In recalling those days he allowed himself to be brutal. “You left. Worse yet, you left it to me to tell her. She cried. Have you ever seen her cry before?”
Almost, Mel thought—when she had left Alexandria months ago. And you always worry about her leaving? You’re the one who keeps doing it. “No.” The admission was husky, reluctant.
“I thought, maybe you weren’t so perfect then. And Janice—well, God knows she’s not perfect, but she deserves better than to have some broad walk out on her when she’s down like that.”
“Yes. She does,” Mel said tightly. Perhaps she really was no better than Jennifer Davies.
“Don’t beat yourself up too much, kiddo. Old Mad Dog would forgive you anything, baby, and you know it, don’t you? But let me tell you something you don’t know. When you dumped her then, it made you more—I dunno, human to me, more fallible. It made think I had a chance with you, I thought maybe under all that perfection was someone rotten as me. Yeah, it’s lousy fucking logic but I’m not Einstein.” He paused. “I was going to tell you in London. I was really gonna lay my cards on the table and give it a shot. But you know what happened. I knocked on your door one morning and she was there.” Janice’s look of surprise—as she had opened the door, expecting a breakfast tray—had surely mirrored his own. She was holding her belt in one hand, but before he could make an awful, desperate joke about her whipping a bellboy she quickly scanned his face and in those few terrible seconds, where he failed to mask his longing, figured it all out.
He could see the comprehension was painful to her, but she did not pity him. Instead, he felt the force of her empathy, of her respect, as she quietly invited him in. Or perhaps she was cannily demonstrating she had nothing to fear from him—for he endured having breakfast with them, for witnessing Mel, chin propped in hand, the rosy glow of her cheeks cheaply hinting at sexual satiety, dreamily watch Covington as if the latter were spinning gold from angel’s hair and not stuffing her face with bangers and mash. You became elusive to me again, and I couldn’t help but chase after you, if only in my own mind.
He had always wondered why Janice tempted fate in inviting him up to Boston, to be in close approximation to the woman he loved. Was she more sadistic than he realized? Was she hoping that somehow prolonged exposure would numb him, would make him give up? He never knew, but apparently he was fool enough to follow her suggestion. Just as he knew that Mel was fool enough to wait for her.
“When she’s gone like this—do you ever wonder if she’s coming back?”
A trapezoid of dim gold light from the kitchen held them perfectly still, like amber. He could not read her expression. She was looking into the distance, staring down the night. He knew he had asked the wrong question.
4. The Morning-Star of Memory
Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard
[A throw of the dice never will abolish chance]
Janice was no longer aware of the woman sitting beside her—a Berber with strong features, stained teeth, magnificent gold eyes, and wandering hands. Earlier, as she smoked, she had resisted the caresses of the woman, who now settled for dragging her rough fingers through the gold hair splayed along the Persian rug and crooning nonsense to the archaeologist as if to a baby.
A cacophony of voices bore down on the perfect silence of the den. The door burst open and a man with a turban and a dirty beard was yelling at everyone before aiming his animosity at the woman sitting beside Janice. Soon the woman was shouting too and both were exchanging increasingly elaborate insults. Your mother shit you out of her arsehole was the topper of the exchange.
Good one, Janice thought, damn good one.
The man kicked at the Berber. She leapt to her feet. He gave a hard nudge to Janice’s ribs. She, in return, gave him the benefit of the doubt by rolling away, but he remained in pursuit and his flailing sandaled foot narrowly missed contact with her head.
Standing up was both disorienting and bothersome to Janice. As she did so, her mind was fumbling with just the right way of politely asking him in Arabic what the hell he was doing when she saw the knife.
She heard the snik of the blade catching flesh before actually feeling any pain. The sound had the singular effect of cleansing her mental palate—her head snapped back, blood dribbled from her brow and pooled into an eye socket, and she felt furiously, shockingly sober.
In his teachings on self-defense, Harry had, quite emphatically, insisted that the classic maneuver he simply titled A Good Kick to the Balls be used only in dire circumstances, and Janice knew her father would likely debate this being an emergency kinda sich, as he might have put it—particularly since the .38 was nestled safely in its holder under her jacket. But the frustrations of the dig’s sudden end and the not-so-subtle suggestion from the authorities that she leave Alexandria only fueled her inexorable anger. And thus she threw her entire weight behind a roundhouse kick at his groin. Satisfaction streamed through her as he dropped like a stone—at least until the Berber woman threw a punch that sent pain ricocheting through her face and lighting up her mind like a pinball machine going Tilt.
Janice staggered back, rubbed her jaw, and mentally kicked herself for not figuring it out sooner: The jackass curled in agony on the floor was the woman’s husband. “Stand by your man, sure, that’s admirable, baby. But I would like to take this opportunity to remind everyone one thing.” Janice was well aware that her shouting was nothing more than nonsense to everyone in the den, that no one here understood English, but by God she was going to entertain herself during this mess if it was the last thing she would do. She pulled the .38 out of her jacket and pointed it at the woman’s head. “I’m the one with the gun.”
To her eternal disappointment, the gun did not produce mute deference but sonic abuse: The Berber screamed with wraith-like abandon, the shrillness penetrating and pursuing the frantic throbbing in Janice’s skull, destined to mate with said pounding to produce the mother of all headaches, in fact, the noise pursued Janice like a harpy as she headed for the door, but suddenly—as usual, undone by her own curiosity—she stopped.
The scream continued, unappeased, unabated, burrowing into her brain, and evoking a startling sense of wonder akin to her experience—if entirely lacking in pleasure—with an anonymous singer at the Boston Symphony two years prior.
The soprano had held aloft a single note of Verdi’s Requiem; it cascaded like water and slipped silkily through the audience’s sensory grasp. She could even taste it, delicate and melting into the back of her throat. By the time it dissolved it had roused her—this most reluctant patron of the arts—from apathetic torpor to quiet amazement. To translate notes on paper into such intangible, sustained beauty, using nothing but the power of one voice was an accomplishment she envied.
Janice spun on her heel and returned to the shrill Berber, who was both creator and destroyer all at once. Who still screamed. Janice’s lips pursed with morbid fascination; how long would she scream? And why, since it was so obvious that the archaeologist was almost out the door? Does the cut on my face look that bad? What was the point? She waited, for almost a minute, for the screaming to stop. The lotus eaters moaned in supplication, softly begging the demon woman for quiet.
But when that failed to materialize, Janice decked the woman with a single punch.
“Shut up, already, will ya? I’m leavin’.” The after-the-fact announcement was quite useless, but logic was not something typically encountered in such settings and her audience was sporadically attentive at best: The woman was unconscious, her husband still nursing his gonads, and the remainder of the den—while immensely grateful to Janice for restoring their peace—truthfully cared little whether she stayed or departed and watched with idle, sleepy fascination as she stormed out.
Outside a bike whizzed by with a sharp, insect-like buzz, creating the only breeze on the street. The sudden, bedazzling bright hot day burned through the haze of the opium and the idle daydreams of lost worlds buried under Alexandria—under her feet and tantalizingly out of reach. The usual urchins had been waiting for her, and a few men watched, curiously, from the shaded doorways of dim cafes. They crowded around as she pulled out a handkerchief—it was dirty, but it would have to do—and pressed it against her eye.
The green Ford truck that hung a precarious turn around the dusty street corner was a godsend. It stopped abruptly and beeped.
She grinned, infused her walk with a self-satisfied swagger, and commenced a mental write-up entitled “How I Escaped an Opium Den” for a letter to Mel, then stupidly realized that would probably be the last thing Mel would want to hear about, when, as she approached the truck, she noticed that Fayed’s face was hard with anger.
“Get in,” he growled.
Shit. She walked around to the passenger side of the truck while attempting to flex away the pain in her right hand. She walked past Nessim—who lounged in the truck bed but sat up in alarm at the sight of blood—and tumbled into the front seat.
By nature Fayed was an open man, unafraid to show emotion; it was never difficult to discern how he felt about anything. There were, however, rare moments when he displayed an inscrutable cold rage that, like an iceberg, only hinted at ominous depths. As she watched him sitting behind the wheel, his anger carefully concealed like a knife, Janice realized that he was in this respect very similar to Mel.
His thumb stroked the steering wheel—a calming gesture. “Let’s have a look at it.”
She removed the handkerchief. He glared at her under the guise of examining the cut.
“You’ll need stitches. Naima will take care of it.” Before he put the truck into drive he pulled a paper from his shirt pocket—it was a telegram. He tossed it in her lap.
It was from London, dated three days ago. Mel was already there; they had planned on spending the holidays with Anton there. But the telegram—its blunt format forcing the diplomatic Mel into laconic terseness—informed her that Anton was dead. One last stroke had claimed him. Coronary thrombosis.
Damn it, old man, you couldn’t wait until I got there? You couldn’t wait for me to say goodbye?
A bloody thumbprint skated across the soft paper.
* * *
It seemed like madness—a weekend trip to the country in the dead of winter. But the headaches were occurring with frequency now, and Janice was discovering that her new lover was just as stubborn as she: Mel resisted both threats and cajoling about seeing a doctor, but reluctantly agreed to a trip out of the city, a break from work—from the translating that, at times, seemed to do nothing less than consume her mind.
And so Janice was here, in Anton’s St. James townhouse, humbly requesting usage of his country home. She waited in the study, oppressed by the preponderance of gloomily heavy mahogany, warming herself at the fire and idly studying the bric-a-brac that lined the mantelpiece. A photo of a handsome young man in Oxford flannels, a dusty music box, and a goblet of blue glass gilded with stars and Hebraic letters. Of course, she thought, a man of his age and background would be interested in cabalism.
She heard him come in the study, gently closing the door behind him. He saw that—unlike Mel, who had dismissed the goblet as a charming tchotke—Janice knew what it was. "Stella Matutina," he said, with a conspirator’s smile.
She knew the name. A splinter group of the famous Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a neo-pagan secret society that studied magic, cabalism, the Tarot. William Butler Yeats had been an initiate, and while he was perhaps the best known member of the group, there was no limit to the powerful men who joined its ranks. Yet the Old Man of Alexandria, the legendary cabalist, scoffed at it. English boys playing magic.
He smiled at her recognition. "You know it, then."
"Yes." She placed the chalice back within its dust-defined circle.
"No. I'm not." She was too brusque, she realized, and quickly calibrated her tone. "I'm not a member of any order. But I know people—friends—who are."
Anton nodded. "I see." He laid a wizened hand upon her arm. "It's nothing to fear, you know."
Immediately he regretted saying it; nothing triggered her defenses more than the implication that she ever expressed this most basic, primal emotion—it goaded her into childish, churlish, Pavlovian response. "I'm not afraid of it."
"Then what are you afraid of?” He laughed at her scowl and limped over to the bar, to the glittering array of golds and ambers, of brandies and sherries and whiskeys that lined the shelves. He poured a scotch—an alcoholic apology—and shoved it in her direction. Still scowling, she took the bait. “Oh, don't you look at me like that. I'm afraid of many things myself, but you are not one of them, old girl. For instance, I am afraid of death," he admitted quietly, "and of loneliness, and several other things that make for a very long and boring list. Now you—" He squeezed her arm affectionately. "—are a very brave and strong woman, I know that, but you're a damned fool and a liar if you stand there really believing that the unknown doesn't scare you just a tiny bit." He tottered back to his desk and opened a drawer. The old keys were dull in the light, and with unerring aim he tossed them in Janice’s direction. She caught them.
The brass keys pressed into her skin, interlocking like a puzzle piece, immediately soaking in the warmth of her hand. She thought of Dan, the last day of his life, driving the Frenchman through the ruined countryside. You threw the keys at me. They fell to the street. I picked them up. I sealed your fate. She'd had plenty of time since it happened to replay it over and over again, feeling trapped within her own mind as if in a locked theater with the projectionist asleep at the reel. What, she wondered, could she have done different that day, that would have kept him alive? If I had not touched them, if I had let you pick them up, if I had walked away, your life would have turned a different corner. But then mine would have too, I wouldn’t be standing here with this man, I might not be with her. I might be dead.
Janice looked up at Anton. Well? his expression prompted, as he awaited an answer—any answer—to the question that she had evaded with desperate deftness.
"I'm afraid of losing her." Saying it did not seem to rob the declaration of any of its awful power. But I said it. Are you happy now?
“You seem so sure.”
“I do. But the question here is why you don’t.”
She smiled grimly. “Do you know want to know what really frightens me?”
“History.” Prompted by a cavalier flick of her wrist, the scotch leapt down her throat.
* * *
The doctor reeked of ether and hummed—with offkey complacency—something of a classical nature, perhaps an opera, perhaps not. Mel would know, Janice thought; she banished this thought by closing her eyes, ensuring a perversely intensified focus on the needle’s jab and the thread’s sickening pull—her flesh felt as if caught in a net.
When he was gone, Naima scrutinized his handiwork—the neat row of tiny stitches, almost half an inch long, that careened into Janice’s eyebrow—and silently congratulated herself on choosing the physician wisely.
“It will be a tiny scar.” The cabalist lovingly cupped her friend’s jaw. “But one of character.”
“Something to tell at the cocktail party,” Fayed added contemptuously.
Naima gave her husband a chastising look and finished the old physician’s work by placing a neat white bit of gauze over the stitches to protect them. He was right to be angry with her, Naima thought, but she herself could not help but be a little indulgent. For one thing, she could tell how awful Janice felt. Again, she grasped Janice’s jaw and shook it with gentle playfulness. “However, you must not scar too much, or your woman will not find you pretty anymore.”
“Perhaps she expects her mongrel Mad Dog to come back a little battered and bruised.” Fayed attempted to say it jokingly, but it fell flat. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and stalked out of the kitchen into his garden.
Naima thought that the English habit of making tea during troubled moments the saving grace of their culture. She now lit the kettle.
“He is very angry with you.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“The charges against you will be dropped.” Naima smiled at Janice’s look of surprise. “Ah. I see that I did.”
“How do you know that?”
“I have many skills.”
“You never give me a straight answer, even after all these years.”
She didn’t because there was no need. “And you, my friend, are still the same after all these years: A ruthless truth-seeker. So now I will tell you the truth: Apologize to my husband for being an ass, and leave this place now. Go to London.”
Janice could only quote Jenny on the matter. “England, bloody England,” she mused.
Naima laughed softly. “Yes. Even the Davies have fled. Quite remarkable, no?”
“I know. Jenny didn’t say where, though.”
“Morocco. On one of their debauches, as Fayed calls them. No boy in that country shall be safe.”
“That won’t stop them.” It wasn’t ego that made Janice think she was a large part of the reason for the latest debauch; Jenny had said so herself, had banished her from the villa after catching Janice practically masturbating with a dirty sheet. Shortly after this, however, she was invited back for a farewell party before the trip to Morocco.
Jenny wore black—a bombazine dress with a fine old sheen; it was fashionably old-fashioned, circa 1922. She said she was in mourning for old Alexandria and her old way of life. And an old love, she had added to the attentive, titillated band of expats who encouraged her melodramatic antics. Later, she cornered Janice and kissed her with a delicacy that could not compensate for the bitterness that compelled it. I shall mourn you, she said, with every fuck and every drink, I shall think of what could have been. Then she cried, and before Janice could attempt a half-hearted gesture of comfort slammed her fist into the archaeologist’s collarbone, leaving a sizable bruise. It was reminiscent of their entire affair, and as such a fitting coda; Jenny was always a bit too fond of the old slap-and-tickle.
It was hard, too hard to love other people, and too late to repair whatever damage she had done to Jenny. But what of the damage to Fayed, who had always — until now— meant so much more than the women she had shared a bed with? She looked out the door. She could not see him in his beloved winter garden. “Why is he so damned mad?”
“You must be joking,” Naima said. She was beginning to realize that Jenny Davies—who was, despite all her own flaws, keenly perceptive of other people—was onto something when she once called Janice the dumbest smart woman in modern times. “Must I spell it out for you, as they say?”
Yet Janice was always acutely aware of her own limitations; she only folded her arms and snarled.
Nonetheless, Naima said it. “You disappeared from his life for five years. You disappeared into a war. We thought you were dead, and he mourned you as he mourned your father so many years ago. And then one day, out of the blue, a letter arrived from you. You were alive. You cracked open his heart all over again. And not only that, you said in your letter that you loved somebody. Did you ever say that to him, or even to your father? But what could he do? Ignore it? Ignore you? He could not. He calls you his sister—you know that. You are as blood to him. He promised Harry he would always look after you.” The tea kettle wailed and Naima tended to it. “I think you have changed, but perhaps in a deeper way, a way I cannot see, for now you are indulging in your old selfish games again. Disappearing suddenly, whenever it pleases you, acting as if no one has your heart, no one has ties to you, you owe nothing to no one. Fayed cannot do that. He holds that terrible responsibility to you. And now, to her.”
Janice looked at her curiously.
Naima sat a bright blue cup in front of her. Whorls of steam rose from the cup, yearning for embrace. “If you had died so foolishly, who else would tell your lover?”
5. The Secret Art
Whoever cannot seek the unforeseen see nothing, for the known way is an impasse.
Bloody Buggery London
Te sine, vae misero mihi, lilia nigra videntur,
Pallentesque rosae, nec dulce rubens hyacinthus,
Nullos nec myrtus, nec Taurus spirat odores—
The solicitor cleared his throat.
Mel refrained from rattling off Latin in her head. It was a coping mechanism she had employed ever since adolescence—flooding her mind with another language, idly translating and re-translating whenever reality took a deep plunge into the boring. Prime examples of this state were cotillions, a college chemistry class, Hopalong Cassidy serials, and Janice talking baseball. Now, she realized, she would have to add to that list “Will Being Read by Droning Solicitor.”
Everyone was staring at her, rows of obscure relatives, thin, bony, with skin like parchment; possibly their very souls were dry as tinder as well. (Of course, Heraclitus thought it better that the soul should remain “dry” but a whole room of them is positively a fire hazard!) The oldest member of the Frobisher clan was Anton’s very ancient aunt, who bore a disturbing resemblance to Alec Guinness in drag, like in that movie Kind Hearts and Coronets. Some Englishwomen did not age well, she thought; Mel struggled, as usual, against wishing such a fate upon Jenny Davies but was distracted from this as the solicitor once again rumbled disgustingly and incoherently from the safety of his large, dark mahogany desk.
“Dr. Pappas,” she corrected automatically.
“Yes. Did you hear me?”
Suddenly she was 18 again, hounded by a chemistry professor. Good Lord, girl, we know it’s hard for someone so tall to keep her head out of the clouds, but do try, would you? “I’m sorry?”
“The sum is £50,000.”
Mel blinked. “For what?” Is that how much the edition of Burton is worth? Good God, it can’t be. Among Anton’s possessions, practically the only things she coveted were his rare edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy and a handful of photos.
“You have been bequeathed £50,000.” He enunciated carefully, fearing her mind was as muddied as her accent.
“Oh.” She touched the nosepiece of her glasses. “My.”
The relatives retained their outraged silence. Except for Adrian Tennant, Anton’s great nephew, who chuckled ruefully and could not be silenced, even by a reproachful glare from his father. Adrian had been best described by Anton as “an amiable layabout, a country gentleman turned into a city rat by the accessible pleasures of urban life, like so many generations of our family.” Mel had heard this characterization of Adrian before ever laying eyes upon him; unfortunately, yet not surprisingly, it took Anton’s demise for them to finally meet. While he had clearly been fond of the old man and had displayed the proper mournful respect during this time, Adrian’s easy charm and a beguiling grin were always at the ready.
There was nothing Mel distrusted more in a man than these two things. Penniless blonde archaeologists were another matter, however. Fortunately Janice had all the charm of an anvil at times—her complete lack of it was, in itself, charming—but the incandescent beauty of her smile more than compensated for any shortcomings. It was all she needed, apparently, to seduce women across the globe.
Don’t think about that. Mel frowned as a young clerk eagerly held out her coat. She slipped into dark cashmere and out of the solicitor’s office, her head still swimming from the news. Gathering the coat’s collar against the cold, she increased her pace down the cobbled street, only to stop as laughter, unexpected yet welcomed, bubbled forth and escaped. Well won’t she just have a big fit: I have more money than ever.
She heard rapid clicking on the street. Adrian was catching up; she started walking and he fell neatly into step beside her. A scarf—a bright Tartan atrocity—was bundled tightly at his throat. It matched neither his jacket nor his trousers and she added a lack of sartorial sense to the short list of things she did not like about him.
He flashed his obsequious grin. “Lucked out, eh?”
“I hardly think of it as such. It’s a gift.”
“A gift you’d rather not have, I take it?”
“Under the circumstances—no.”
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, as they say.”
She bristled. “I’m not.”
“Look at it this way—it’ll help you keep up with your hobby.”
In spite of the implicit insult, she laughed. “It’s not exactly a hobby, Adrian.”
“Whatever you may call what you do, it’s damned interesting. I daresay you must go to many interesting places—I heard you tell Aunt Margaret that you were in Egypt recently.”
“In Alexandria, yes.”
“Fascinating. And surely you’ve been to Greece—to the islands.”
“Yes, we—I—was there last summer.”
“What a coincidence,” he drawled in a menacing sing-song. “So was I.”
She slowed to a stop. “Really?”
He was smirking. With two steps he walked a half-circle around her; instinctively, defensively, she took two steps away. On the old cobble-stoned streets of London they created a pavanne of mutual suspicion, an ancient dance of wary combatants that was, to Mel’s constant and bitter regret, part of her nature.
She doubted something like this was so ingrained in Adrian; he was still smirking like a too-clever schoolboy. “Yes. In fact—“
The nape of her neck tingled with dread.
“—I’ve something I’d like to show you.”
* * *
His flat, while located in fashionable Chelsea, was small, cramped, and cold.
He bade her to sit at his messy desk and, when she rejected his offer of tea, promptly placed an unmarked manila envelope in front of her.
“Merry Christmas,” he said.
Mel opened the envelope. Despite the immediate and miserable realization that, for the first time in her life she was being blackmailed, her first thought was: That dress really does make my hips look huge.
The photos were grainy black and white, 5 x 7”, but even in this imperfect cinematic state they fully retrieved the moment of that day at Mykonos: Summer. The sand shifting under her bare feet, the smell of the sea and its salty spray upon her lips, the dress clinging, sweatily, to her thighs and her back.
The first photo was innocuous enough: They are merely walking along the beach. Janice’s pants were rolled up to mid-calf, the bunched-up fabric tight against the muscled leg. Her hair was bleached almost white by sun and sea, and she wore a cheap pair of sunglasses that she had bought at a street bazaar. In the second snap they’ve stopped moving, Janice is laughing—she was teasing me about something, I forget what—I can’t see my face, but I know I was laughing too—
The third photo delivered the goods: bodies and lips pressed together, her hands in Janice’s hair, Janice’s hands clutching the small of her back and urgent in their motion to move south—the only kind of “south” that the hopelessly Yankee Covington liked.
Normally they were careful, primarily as a result of Janice’s all-pervasive paranoia. But that perfectly carefree day, on a seemingly deserted beach, was different. They were on vacation, far away from work, from worries. Sex possessed a lazy, languid quality: Starting slowly, interrupted for a nap or a snack, or even talking, and continuing in its roundabout way; climaxing didn’t seem important. It wasn’t the point—the contact was. And I thought that day we were far enough away from anything that could hurt us. Apparently I was wrong.
She laid the photos on the desk. “No,” she sighed wearily, removing her glasses. “I never did like that dress.”
Adrian Tennant raised an eyebrow. “Really now, don’t be so hard on yourself! It was sheer pleasure to photograph you. Certainly beats some fat bastard from the House of Lords and his tart going at it in the back seat of a Bentley.” Adrian framed that face—that beautiful, angry face—with his long, elegant hands. He had wanted to be a painter in his misspent youth, but had discovered that photography was a more accessible art form. At least you did not have to labor over draughtsman-ship with some crabby old art instructor who insisted that you draw bowls of fruit—and not naked ladies—all day. “Oh yes, indeed,” he murmured. “Pity there was all that bloody shrubbery around the house where you were staying. Could’ve gotten some prime snaps then.”
Mel shoved the photos back in the envelope.
Abruptly he dropped his long, elegant hands and gave her such a wounded, sad look that she thought, for a brief shining moment, that he had miraculously gained a conscience. “Well, don’t stop there—there’s more.”
She knew that. The kiss on the beach had turned into a longer makeout session near a very convenient sand dune. “I’ve seen enough.” She recognized the emotion behind the constriction of her throat and her inability to look at Adrian: It was shame. She hated feeling it, hated that she had spent years battling her own self-loathing, foolishly believing the sensation would never recur.
She extracted herself from misery to see that Adrian was looking a tad churlish. “Oh, come on,” he wheedled. “Be a sport.”
“What?” Mel hissed in disbelief.
“I want someone to see all of them!”
She stood up abruptly and fought the simmering urge to slap him. “Are you out of your mind?”
Ignoring the homicidal overtones in her voice, Adrian continued blathering. “This is—you see—an art form. I approach it as such. To create good photography under such clandestine circumstances and time constraints is no easy task, believe me, and it behooves me not to have proper appreciation of my oeuvre. It’s a very secret art of considerable skill.” He pulled the photos out of the envelope and laid most of them side by side on the desk. “If we framed these photos of you with your little spitfire—we see this marvelous progression of desire, yes, of love—see here, in this pic her hand lingers demurely in the small of your back, and in the very next one, it swoops, yes, it does, look at that, the predatory hunger of that movement—right down upon your—“
“I can see that quite clearly, thank you,” she snapped and scooped the photos back into their envelope. “How much do you want?”
“Well, now.” He stroked his chin; she finally noticed, in his long face and boxy chin, a resemblance to Anton and it made her ache. It also lessened the intensity of her wish to pummel him. “You could sign over that lovely ‘inheritance’ to me.”
She threw the photos—face down—upon the desk. “You’re a disgrace to your uncle.”
“I’m just trying to make a living, Melinda. Not all of us come into money quite as easily as you seem to.” He caressed the rough edge of a photo. “But I’ll be fair. Give me half of it.”
“I don’t have it yet.”
“I’ve done my research, old girl. You’re swimming in cash. We don’t need to wait for the actual funds to trickle in.”
Her jaw shifted. “I need time. For the wire transfer.”
“I understand. Two days should do the trick then. I’ll swing by your hotel Thursday afternoon.”
* * *
England is getting as tacky as the States.
The black cab was stalled in traffic near a large department store—was it Harrod’s? Janice wondered. The Christmas theme in the window was an elaborately detailed representation of Santa’s workshop, with life-sized mechanical elves performing, over and over, the same monotonous tasks, while Santa looked on, his head pivoting with eerie slowness on a 180-degree angle. It would be handy to have elves at an excavation, she thought. Easy to drop the little motherfuckers down a hole. I bet they don’t get claustrophobia. Wouldn’t have to pay them as much either. I mean, they’re not full-sized, they’d be kind of half-priced, wouldn’t they? And wouldn’t it be a great change of pace to have workers shorter than me?
She noticed one of the elves, who originally was stacking colorful building blocks, had somehow got stuck; his arm was out of alignment, and he kept pounding a purple block against his groin in a slow-mo, masturbatory phantasm. Welcome back to Western Civilization, Janice!
Like the driver who—with skeptical sympathy—had deposited her in front of the Grosvenor (you’ll never get a room there, luv), the hotel clerk had a similarly difficult time accepting the plain fact of Covington’s appearance at a five-star hotel, and simply could not reconcile the dirty bum in front of him with the request from Dr. Pappas that the aforementioned wretch be provided with a key to her suite. It took careful examination of her passport and lengthy consultation with management before she received a key to the kingdom, the clerk’s pinky ring flaring with distaste as he placed the key in her grimy paw.
“She up there?” Janice grunted at him.
“I believe so.” The clerk picked up the phone. “Shall I announce you?”
“Nope. I’ve always loved the element of surprise.”
The clerk raised an eyebrow. “I certainly hope Dr. Pappas does as well.”
Despite exhaustion, despite the weighty import of the news that the excavation was now in the government’s hands, and despite her dread of having to explain the stitches along her brow—and here she hastily combed her bangs over the wound—anticipation compelled her to climb the stairs in hopes of burning off the adrenaline and blunting the edge of lust. Instead, by the time she reached the fifth floor she was fumbling with the key, breathless and secretly amazed that after so many years her heart beat faster at such folly. She dropped the key.
In the dim light of the hallway and against the floral patterns of the rug, she could hardly see the key on the floor. “Goddamnshitpissfuck—“ She dropped to her knees and groped along carpet for the key.
As animals are attuned to certain noises in a forest beyond all others, so Mel could hone in on the hissed obscenities of Janice from beyond the door and a vigorous Mozart concerto on the radio. The moment Janice found the key was the moment the door opened.
They looked at each other. Janice leapt to her feet. Mel said “oh” in that endearingly absent-minded professor way—all the more lovely, Janice reminded herself, because now she really was an absent-minded professor. Covington kicked the rucksack past the doorway—the dazed Mel made for a bad goalie—took a quick look up and down the empty hallway, and jumped into her lover’s arms, locking her legs around Mel’s waist and pouring months of abstinence into one hell of a kiss.
To Janice’s relief and Mel’s credit the latter did not drop her precious burden nor collapse, but after a muffled “mmf!” managed—while wearing heels and not breaking the kiss, no less—to steer them both to the bed, where they tumbled. Mel’s hands were now threaded tightly in her hair, and she reveled in the gentle tugs against her scalp as they tussled until the archaeologist emerged on top—at least for the time being.
London’s dull afternoon light—like a milky cup of Earl Grey—pooled in the lenses of Mel’s glasses, round and silver-rimmed. Janice had always called them “Bolshevik glasses” because of their ascetic, intellectual appeal, as if Mel should be arguing politics in grimy meeting halls and cafes. Mel deflated this romantic image by maintaining that real Bolsheviks would be, more than anything, inclined to shoot her.
Janice plucked the glasses from her face. Sometimes, in the very simple act of removing them, Mel seemed more undressed than when actually naked.
“Tell me you’ve missed me.” There was a desperate element of preemptive strike in the hoarse demand, of cutting through the mass of loss and burden—death, separation, the pervasive unease of so many things unsaid and unresolved—to the very reason that she was here and Mel was here, waiting for her.
She anticipated any number of reactions from Mel: a wittily affectionate retort, or an icy rebuke, or even a fierce, where-the-hell-have-you-been slap across the mug (why not, I deserve it), but instead received the simple truth from a woman too tired to hide her own heart, too smart for her own good, and too in love to deny otherwise—and who took Janice’s invective at the face value it required. “I’ve missed you.” The translator struggled to sit up, then pressed her nose against the hollow of Janice’s throat. “You smell like the desert.”
“Actually, I think it’s fuel exhaust and sweat.”
“No, it’s you.” Mel pushed off the leather jacket. It tumbled from the bed to the floor. Her hand slipped in past the stern, militaristic khaki shirt and pressed against Janice’s collarbone, salving and absolving whatever bruise, whatever wound leftover from Jenny. “It’s you,” she whispered again.
Janice honed in on her mouth again, thought she tasted something fruity on Mel’s breath—Berries? Orange marmalade? Maybe lemon curd, oh I love lemon curd—and fancied herself a connoisseur of kissing—the simple elements of spit, tongue, taste, and breath the building blocks in this most wonderful enterprise.
“Wait. We need to talk.”
“We also need to touch each other. A lot. Like here—“ Janice’s hand was plowing away at the drapery of the wool skirt along Mel’s thigh.
“Oh.” Desire contorted the syllable with arbitrary menace, curtailing and elongating it at will. “Wait. Just—wait. I have to tell you—“ Mel stopped. Janice could tell by the appalled look on her face that she had finally noticed the little gauze rectangle hovering above her right eyebrow; indeed, Mel was now gently tracing the bandage’s edges with her fingers. “What happened?” she gasped.
Flippancy won’t work now, fool, her mind cautioned, but it was far too late. “I was trying to pluck my eyebrows.”
“Try again.” This time Mel’s tone was deadly.
“All right,” Janice muttered. “I ran into a knife. Wielded by a jealous husband. But I swear I didn’t do anything.”
Mel sighed. “You don’t have to do anything. You exist. I’m sure you find it flattering that half the world wants finds you irresistible and the other half wants to murder you, but frankly it’s beginning to annoy me.”
Janice could not even begin to describe the relief she experienced as they fell into the ease of banter, of a comforting pattern she desperately needed. She laughed and allowed her head to fall against Mel’s shoulder. “That’s my girl.”
The moment, however, was short-lived. There was a vigorous knock upon the door.
It startled Janice, who glowered in the direction of the noise. “That better be room service.”
“Actually—” Mel’s hand wistfully trailed along the buttons of Janice’s shirt, then dropped in defeat as Janice shot her a puzzled look. “I do believe the blackmailer has come a’callin’.”
* * *
Adrian Tennant never saw it coming. No sooner than the door had opened then the blonde blur known as Janice Covington had decked him, dragged him across the room, pounded his head on the side of a dresser, stuck a gun in his face and said they were all going for a ride.
She even ransacked his pockets for the cab fare. Banging Miss Moneybags and she has to fleece me for a couple bob. Don’t that beat all. But he kept his trap shut during the journey to his flat, only out of the sheer embarrassment of being coerced by two women—something that the canny Covington was clearly counting on.
Once inside his flat she didn’t hesitate in knocking him around again—despite a tepid plea for mercy from Melinda, apparently concerned that blood might soil her outfit. Covington ignored this and set her companion to work on a search for the incriminating photos, then tied him up face down on the floor (he couldn’t fathom where she had gotten the rope) and—the grand, final indignity—was now sitting on him, perched atop his buttocks with lordly authority.
The old adage that the camera adds 10 pounds to one’s figure was truly misleading in this instance, since Adrian had heretofore viewed Janice’s lithe figure through the lens: Reality was doing pretty well at confirming that she weighed more than she looked. Occasionally, as she ranted, she would bounce so hard upon him that he feared his ribs would snap under the weight of her sadistic joie de vive.
“You know, Adrian,” she was saying now, “you really fucked up my plans.” He could feel the reverberations of her movements as she fumbled in her pockets for something. Then he heard the tell tale crumple of a cigarette pack and the click of a lighter.
“I’ve been in transit for about 3 days. I’m tired, I’m dirty, and I haven’t had a proper meal since I left Alexandria. I was lookin’ forward to a hot bath, a big dinner—I’m not gonna say a good dinner, ‘cause English food is pretty dodgy at best, but what the hell, it really sticks to your ribs and that’s what I need right now—a couple belts of bourbon, and a couple days in bed with my girl.” She paused; smoke drifted over his head and ash dripped on his hand. “I haven’t gotten laid in three months, Adrian. And I’m not the kinda girl who likes to do without, you see what I’m saying? Or maybe you don’t, maybe you just don’t attract that kind of woman.” She bounced again, and he groaned. “Anyway, all that would have made me right as rain, as they say. Do they say that here, or is it just the Australians who say it? I always wonder about the origin of these expressions, you know? Must be Mel’s influence—the woman has taught me to think about language. But never mind. You’d think I’d remember somethin’ like that, I was here for a couple years during the war, but there’s not a lot of room in my mind for Limey talk right now. See, you got me that upset, Adrian.” She wriggled around a bit more. “But I will say this for you: You’re really comfortable. You have an ass like a woman’s. You’re lucky we live in a different world these days, Adrian. In another time, in another culture—say, if I were an Amazon Queen—I could order my consort—a fierce, bloodthirsty warrior—to gut you and make a pillow out of you.”
The rhythmic click of heels across his floor announced the arrival of the doctor’s sidekick.
“What do you think, Mel?”
“About gutting Adrian and making a pillow out of him—he’s comfortable.”
“Oh.” A pause, as if seriously considering this. “Sounds like an awful lot of mess and bother. Besides, a fate as a pillow is too good for him.”
“True. What did you find in his naughty box?”
“Not what we wanted, unfortunately. However, there is something of interest—“ This was cut off with a burst of giggles.
Now Janice guffawed. “Hey, sailor boy, take a look at this.”
How stupid it had been, to keep his own personal photos with the materials upon which his livelihood depended! And now his shortcomings—in more sense than one—came back to taunt him as Covington waved a familiarly lewd photo in front of his face. His late, great uncle would have deplored such disgraceful treatment of a naval uniform.
“Good find, Mel!”
“Thank you,” replied the intrepid translator. “I’m a little curious—“
“Now that doesn’t sound good.”
“No, it’s merely an intellectual, a scientific curiosity—if you will indulge me.”
“By all means, Dr. Pappas.”
“As you may know, I am hardly an expert in this—field.”
“My own expertise is somewhat limited as well.”
“Yes, that is acknowledged, thank you for pointing that out. Nonetheless, your experience does significantly outweigh my own—“
“Need I remind you of your seven fiancés, Dr. Pappas?”
“Oh, no, no need for that, Dr. Covington. Still, I was not the one who needed a steady supply of French letters at one point in her life.”
“Point well taken, my esteemed colleague.”
“And so I hope I have established ground and cause for the question I put to you—“
“Abundantly. Please proceed.”
Mel paused. “Is it supposed to be that small?”
Adrian could feel Covington take a deep breath, prepared to either roar with laughter or to launch her particular form of profanity-laced bombast upon the world. “All right!” he shouted. “Enough is enough!”
“You’re no fun,” Janice said. “Where are the fucking photos, Adrian?”
“Mark Pendleton has them.”
“What?” The sharp, disbelieving syllable came from Mel.
“He came this morning. Bastard took them from me.”
“You know Pendleton?” Janice interjected.
Mel answered for him. “Yes, he does—don’t you, Adrian?”
“Met him through Uncle Anton, during the war. Did the odd job for him every now and then.”
“Was this another one of his odd jobs, pretty boy?”
“Ow. Yes. It was his idea. He knew you were both in Mykonos at the time. But the bastard wouldn’t let me get any money off the deal. I was going to—ow, that hurts!—I was just going to use a few snaps to get a bit of money off Miss Magnolia over there, then give the rest to Mark.”
“You got greedy. Guess he didn’t pay you enough.” Fingers threaded gently through his hair, then tightened into a fierce yank that made him yelp. “You better not be lying to me. Your uncle was a good man, and I would hate to hurt a member of his family.” She gave another yank. “But I will if I have to.”
“I’m not lying. He has them.”
She exhaled, and to Adrian’s consternation this made her heavier.
“You could’ve told us sooner, Adrian.” This was Mel, gently chastising.
“Yes, I fully realize that, Melinda,” he wheezed. “However, I must say one thing in my defense.”
Janice was peering at him curiously—and upside down, her blonde tresses dusting the floor—as he made his brief yet heartfelt confession.
“I’ve rather enjoyed this.”
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