COUP de GRACE
Part VI: Minor Arcana
1. Dixie Ex Machina
I run my fingers down your dress
with brandy-certain aim
and you respond to my caress
and maybe feel the same.
—John Betjeman, "Late-Flowering Lust"
In the spirit of the season, or at least in Janice Covington's misguided, Scrooge-like sense of it, a present for an unknown servant was left in Adrian Tennant's flat—namely Adrian himself, hog-tied for the remainder of the night until the valet's arrival in the morning, and despite the Englishman's frequent and plaintive wails about the limited capacity of his bladder.
Janice had expected—and received—a modicum of disapproval from Mel about this; her dear companion, however, opted to chastise her more concerning the theft of Adrian's address book. Janice considered the theft of the slender black book a Christmas gift to herself, and necessary in pointing her in Mark Pendleton's direction. Adrian had been less than helpful on that score, suggesting that Janice look him up in the phone book. (He's listed under Bloody Two-Timing Bastards, Adrian had said, just before attempting to bite a khaki-flavored chunk out of Covington's leg.)
By the time she and Mel had arrived back at the Grosvenor Hotel, the rain had started and all of seven words had been exchanged between them:
What are we going to do? Mel's tone in this instance was not unlike the moonlight glazing the taxi—silvery smooth, beautiful yet painfully neutral, a light not of illumination but obfuscation.
Janice could only frown and regret a million things—going away, coming back, even the goddamn vacation they took. Think.
In the room, she ignored both the rain and the tumbler of Jim Beam that Mel had placed by her side without a word. The glass did its best to make itself attractive; it glowed and bled several translucent, artful beads that shimmied along its sides like the provocative amber lame of a dress. She sat in a leather chair while rippling the pages of Adrian's address book with her thumb; from the bathroom she heard water gathering in a bathtub, its gentle rush an invitation into a stupor sweeter than one induced by bourbon.
She dragged a hand over her face, making her eyes twitch; her legs slid from the chair's arm, her boots heavily hitting the floor. She was tired, alternately craving the temporary oblivion of sleep and—what? Despite the fact that spots danced in front of her eyes in an orgy of exhaustion, Janice felt restless; she recognized within the tightness of her limbs an escalating rage, an anger unfulfilled. When will you stop being angry? Harry had shouted this at her once, during an argument about her mother. Even now she flinched at hearing his voice in her head, at his impassioned, sudden outburst; at least she eventually figured out it had been a desperate expression of a long simmering fear—that she would always be like him, hard and unforgiving.
But it didn't work out like that, did it, Ma? I was like him and he couldn't change that. You broke his heart and I broke yours, wreaking my own little vengeance.
She blinked, stared at the drink on the table. Why am I thinking about you again? With all that's going on right now, why am I thinking about you? Briefly she closed her eyes and struggled, quietly, to focus on more urgent concerns. Like a taking a bath? I'm beginning to stink. Christ, I even crack wise with myself. Somehow I suspect that's not a good thing.
She tipped the glass toward her mouth quickly, just long enough for the bourbon to teasingly slide against her lips. What the hell does this Pendleton want from me? Think.
Janice stood and stretched, the action serenaded by creaking muscles and a series of sickening pops in her neck. Everything had happened fast—too fast. There had been no time for discussion. Not that verbal dissection of the matter was essential. Signs, subtle and visible, were present; reading Mel, Janice thought, was like reading a book so rife with symbolism and themes that you wondered half the time what you were missing—and while Janice was never bored, she certainly felt at times that she was in over her head, like with all that crazy "Modernist" crap she wants me to read.
In the cab going to Adrian's flat, Mel had held herself with a kind of stoic weariness under Adrian Tennant's knowing, smirking gaze. While she had briefly recovered her usual wit and grace at the flat, once it was discovered that Pendleton's machinations lay behind the blackmail, she fell into a silent, shameful reverie on the way back to the hotel. Only the occasional twitch of her nostrils and the silvery flare of her eyes indicated what simmered beneath her elegant exterior: a fierce indignation at the world's bad manners in painting her, in large, crude strokes, as nothing more than an unredeemable deviant. Anger was a powerful complement to her shame.
Blackmail, Covington thought. Comes with the territory. Yet I always thought somehow I would steer clear of it. Among the company she normally kept Janice's sexual predilections were nothing more than a sign of eccentric character; no more disreputable than anything else. Most importantly, however, she never had money, and owned nothing much beyond the clothes on her back. Blackmailers, of course, always followed the money. Linus was a good example of that; he'd been blackmailed so much that it had become a caustic running joke between him and Jenny, who had once offered herself up as payment to one particular cad. (He politely declined.) And, as much as Janice had always struggled to ignore it, Mel was moneyed—even more so now that Anton had left her a bundle.
Despite it all, she couldn't help feeling somewhat responsible since she was Pendleton's ultimate target. If she wasn't in the picture, would Mel have been blackmailed otherwise? Perhaps she would have entered a marriage of convenience—like Linus—and conducted discreet affairs—unlike Linus—with bored society wives and the boyish young woman who pumped gas at the garage down the street, who always carried paperback books in her overalls and was looking for someone to help her "improve" herself and could offer coarse yet immensely gratifying sexual favors in return? Wouldn't Mel be better off, safer, living that kind of life?
Janice blinked. This is great. As if I don't have enough to worry about, I'm now jealous of fictional women. She narrowed her eyes. But that little gas station slut will fall for her, I just know it.
From the bathroom's doorway she watched as Mel, kneeling in front of the tub, generously anointed the steaming water with bath salts. The moment they set foot in the hotel, Mel had tersely announced she was drawing a bath for her. Sometimes Mel had a way of making her feel like a five-year-old; the attitude would have annoyed Janice to no end if she didn't believe there was many a time when it was completely justified.
Mel leaned over the tub to shut off the tap. The lines of her face were diffused with whorls of scented steam and Janice could hear the sharp intake of breath that so completely delineated a moment of unguarded, simple joy. She recalled, guiltily, how Jenny found her, months ago at the villa, caught in a similar moment of sensual bliss. Sensing that she was being watched, Mel quickly looked up. Janice wondered if Jenny had seen a similar expression on her face—a proud vulnerability, a defiance at being caught, a dozen emotions shifting one over another, like a rapidly shuffled deck of cards. Absently Mel brushed her hands against her skirt, looked away, and stood up.
It wasn't this way with Fayed. I didn't see him for almost ten years. But after I saw him in the train station again, it felt like only ten minutes had passed. We fell into our old familiar, familial roles: Brother and sister. Hell, even with Jenny, we were on the same bitchy wavelength in a matter of minutes. But with you, it's completely different. I've lived with you and shared your bed and said things to you I've never said to anyone. I've let you do things to me that no one else has done and you stand there, afraid to let me in, maybe even afraid to touch me, as if you've imagined nothing but the worst since I've been gone. Have I inspired so little trust in you? Is it because so much has happened recently, it's hard for us to get back to what we were?
Or is it because it's all too important to ever take for granted? Or have we already taken it for granted, and that makes it all the harder?Jesus. Her head hurt. She reached up to rub her forehead, but instead encountered a tactile reminder of the stitches clustered near her right eyebrow. Now I sound like one of those pinheads in one of those blah-blah "modern" books.
She suppressed a sigh, bent over, and set to work on unlacing her boots; after prying them off, she tossed them into the other room. She set about fumbling with the buttons on her shirt until Mel intervened and liberated the placket with brisk efficiency.
Mel's hands lingered over Janice's body, as if she were a pianist who has momentarily forgotten the piece about to be played, before gently tugging at the belt buckle. Again, another elegant hesitation; nobody made indecision look erotic the way Mel did. To Janice's great dismay she abandoned the belt; half-undone, it hung morosely like a sad erection. Instead, she cupped the back of Janice's neck, massaging it gently, tentatively pleased at Covington's long, slow exhalation of breath. Her hand then set forth on a course from the neck over to the jaw and traveled down the throat, the chest (tripping a little at the bra), the stomach, and veered past the omphalos-oasis to the no man's land leading to the pubic hair—the bold, all-encompassing swoop of this gesture innocently proclaimed ownership. Somehow, in her utter lack of awareness, Mel always managed to transform the magnitude of her desire into the assured grace of an astonishing, pleasing, and versatile lover.
Her gaze fell beautifully, like shooting stars, to the floor. "I said I missed you. But did you miss me?"
"Every hour. Every minute." Janice meant it.
"Even every night?"
Oh. So that's what this is about. I worry about competition in the make-believe world while she's already dealt with a viper like Jenny. Dense, Covington, very dense. Nonetheless, Janice could not resist the opportunity to tease—albeit in her most gentle fashion. "Every night. Even the nights at the harem."
"You're a brat." Mel said it with a forced lightness; something in her eyes, however, crackled—a flash of lightning, an indication of a storm a-brewing.
Uh-oh. A better response didn't involve words, and so she kissed Mel with exquisite gentleness, her tongue limning the perfect lips so close to her own, her mouth exhaling terms of surrender. "You've ruined me for other women. I hope you're happy."
"I'm ecstatic." Mel's employment of sarcasm—cloaked by the velvety cadences of her accent—was always particularly insidious. Yet she remained close, if not for another kiss, then for the caress of warm, bourboned breath upon her cheek.
"Listen—there hasn't been anyone else." Janice felt the need to hammer home the point. She was exceedingly proud of those four months of abstinence, so much so that she wondered if her well-earned badge of fidelity had been inspired out of a sense to prove something to herself as much as it was about loving Melinda Pappas. Temptation abounded in Alexandria, no thanks to Cordahi the wayward civil servant, who took up Julian Manley Finch's former role in her life—as tour guide to the city's underbelly and procurer of female flesh. Private nightclubs saturated in black and gold, mirrored walls, vermilion lights, watered-down drinks, a hand under the table brushing her thigh, Cordahi smirking patiently as if it were only a matter of time before she gave in. Thank God for booze, brawls, and my right hand.
But she always returned—alone—to her room at the Davies' villa, or retreated to some dark café, to sit and drink and smoke, to roll the bitter, loose flecks of tobacco from cheap cigarettes onto her yellow-tinged fingers and flick them away while raiding the storehouse of memory for whatever meager comfort it would provide: the image, sometimes just barely within reach, of the woman who always could tell, from the most minute movement, when Janice was waking up in the morning and who would instinctually lean in kiss her neck in precisely the right spot and in precisely the right way, whose black hair roamed so freely over Janice's skin as if it were actually her own.
But now that magical woman of memory was frowning at the bathroom marble and appearing painfully unsure of everything.
Janice cleared her throat. "Maybe I look every now and then. I'm human, I'm fallible—all too goddamn fallible. And I'm an ass sometimes. And—I guess I'm a lot of things, but I'm not a liar. Remember what I told you from the start." She pulled Mel closer; the fleshly curve of the Mel's back fitting with perfect snugness into her hand.
The gentle force of Janice's orbit caused Mel to pitch forward as if she were on a jolting train. Southern women usually feigned such clumsiness in order to throw themselves into the arms of a handsome stranger, all the while retaining their carefully calculated emotional distance and flirtatious mystique. But for Mel the mating dance, both literally and figuratively, was always an awkward one; she hated that she had so little control over her body. Her mind balanced any number of things while her body, a divination rod for all things Covington, simply undulated like a current.
Janice's lips were soft, a libation filling the hollow at the base of her throat. "Wanna take a bath?"
Unfortunately, this longed-for excursion triggered a priggish panic attack. "I—I have to reread Tacitus," Mel croaked. "I'm teaching it in class next semester."
"Skip it." Janice nipped at a tendon that lurched as Mel gulped. "I tell you how it all ends in the long run: Arriverderci, Roma."
Hearing Janice mangle the Italian language was just enough to snap Mel out of her archaeo-haze. Under the scrutiny of Covington—all squinty-eyed under the canopy of her dirty bangs—Mel pulled away, swallowed nervously, and assiduously ignored the blossoming of her nipples. "Take a bath," she whispered breathlessly to Janice as she bolted.
Janice accepted the temporary setback with wry grace. "Thrown over for a dead guy," she called as Mel left the bathroom. "Very humbling."
After grabbing Tacitus's Histories from the desk Mel flopped on the bed and clutched the old leather-bound volume to her chest as if it were her own personal Bible and would somehow protect her from the vagaries and lusts of her own heart. So you're going to give up sexual relations for the rest of your life? muttered a cynical little voice in her brain. The possibility of the Confederacy rising again is much more likely, don't you think? She realized she was very tired. She fumbled the glasses off her face and placed them on the nightstand, then listened to the purling of the water from the bathroom, accompanied by a muttered "ow." Immediately she knew that Janice was trying to jam her big toe into the faucet again—a peculiar bathing ritual leftover from childhood; when one's primary domicile is usually tents, one becomes quite fascinated with the joys of indoor plumbing.
Remember what I told you from the start. She closed her eyes and recalled both the promise and the circumstances of its making.
An unseasonably warm spring day in London, the sweat on her brow, the uncomfortable, squeaking bed springs gleefully sending out engraved invitations to the prurient neighbors—most notably Mrs. Cosgrove and Mrs. Wilson, who had noted with beady-eyed, greedy gazes that Mel had a female caller and not a male one—that a particularly unnatural form of copulation had been undertaken, and finally, the most glorious thing of all—Janice, naked and underneath her. Begging.
Because it was so very early on in their relationship, Mel possessed only a nascent awareness of her sublime power over Janice Covington; she was giddily emboldened by the fact that this routinely defiant, stubborn woman craved her touch to the point of pleading—repeatedly, achingly, hoarsely.
"Do you love me?" This tender prompting was a compulsion Mel could not undo.
"Yes. Yes. I love you."
The heel of Mel's right hand pressed firmly against the soft, delicate contours of Janice's clitoris, which, vigorously propelled by Janice's hips, writhed wetly under her touch. Her left hand clasped Janice's wrist tight as a bracelet, encountering tendons as sturdily resilient as bones. Sensually fascinated, she watched the struggle just below the surface of skin—the veins and the muscles galloping up Janice's arm and criss-crossing biceps into those smooth, powerful shoulders.
Somehow she, the blindest of fools, had stumbled into this bounty.
"Please." Under the weight of her need, Janice's voice was beautifully broken, refracted like sunlight pulsing through the thick warped glass of an old window.
"Tell me what you want." With sadistic glee she preempted any response by kissing Janice roughly.
Janice broke off the kiss and threw out words in a heated rush. "I want you inside me."
"I know you do. But I could watch you all day. Do you know why?"
"No." Janice whispered this, like a child anticipating a riddle's answer.
"You're beautiful like this."
"Oh, God. Please." This time a bit of frustration colored her tone. "Do it."
While Mel contemplated—in a leisurely Southern fashion—what might happen if she said "no," Janice sank a hand into Mel's hair and yanked with the right amount of desperation, just enough so that a pleasurable pain sprinkled her scalp. "Fuck me," she growled. Said in this manner—with great, Covingtonesque carnal gusto—the dross of common obscenity became undeniably arousing to Mel. "Fuck me," she repeated. "I'm yours. I swear it."
Unable to resist such a lusty incantation, Mel succumbed and entered her. She loved to do this, almost as much as she loved using her mouth, loved the differences in textures, the warmth and wetness surrounding her hand as she was lulled into this ancient rhythm. A sharp downward thrust made Janice's hips leap upward and suction stickily against her thigh; a more level, deeper penetration made Janice throw her head against the pillow and grind her ass roughly into the mattress. These two primary strokes were seasoned with pinches of gentleness, then savagery, hard pumping, then teasingly soft swirls. The increasing slickness of Mel's hand diminished the precision of her touch but it didn't matter anymore; Janice was close and she wasn't about to stop for anything in the world. She took and yet herself was taken, every pore permeated with what Janice gave her.
Afterwards Janice was spent and thoughtful; sitting up cross-legged and tangled in the sheet, she dreamily gazed out the window at the darkening sky, and smoked a cigarette carefully held between glistening, sex-stained fingers. As it was whenever she spoke her heart, her words stumbled like a foal's first venture outside the stable. "I'm not going to love anyone else like you. After this, after you—it's all downhill." There was a perversely satisfied resignation to her tone.
"You're already anticipating future lovers?" Mel attempted to mask sad speculation underneath the teasing question. As of yet there had been no promises made, no plans laid. She didn't know how to extract such a commitment, wasn't sure if it could be done merely upon the basis of mad passion and the seemingly Byzantine connections they shared to lives now passed, and—worst of all—wasn't certain if she was worthy of this crazily noble woman who proudly lived outside the conventional boundaries that had so imprisoned Mel for most of her life. Janice needed someone as big as her dreams, she thought, not a shy, bookish Southern spinster.
"We don't know what the future holds. We don't know what's going to happen," Janice murmured cautiously.
In retrospect, Mel would recognize this as typically Covington: Never get your hopes up and you'll never be truly hurt. Never rely on the future. There's nothing but the present—and, of course, the past. The all-consuming past.
"I can only promise—I won't ever lie to you." She sighed. "Oh, hell."
"I'm pretty damn certain I'll always love you." Janice burrowed protectively within the sheet, fearing the storm that fate might unleash after such an admission. Take away the cigarette, the reek of sex, and the overripe look of her thoroughly ravished lips, she would look about 14, Mel thought. The girlish vulnerability, however, did not prevent Janice from giving her a look that, while mercilessly going through her like a knife, was no less besotted because of it. "You consume me," she whispered.
Having waited her entire life for such a passionate declaration, Mel did not really contemplate the ramifications of it. Instead she carelessly reveled in the effect of her body upon Janice and stretched in what she hoped was a salacious offering. "Is that such a bad thing?"
The first thing Mel noticed upon waking was that a glass of Jim Beam was precariously perched atop her stomach. The second was that Janice lay beside her, propped up on an elbow and frowning at the Histories as she flipped through it. The third thing, which should have been the first thing, was that Janice was almost certainly naked under the green-white-blue striped bathrobe that she wore—the fabric slid becomingly off a bare, squeaky clean shoulder.
She took note of Mel's conscious state. "Reading it in Latin too," she murmured admiringly while arching a mischievous eyebrow. "No wonder you practically passed out from boredom." She snapped the book shut and unceremoniously tossed Tacitus over her shoulder. It landed on the floor with a thunk.
Mel twitched violently at such literary abuse and Janice rescued the bourbon from impending spillage. "That's a rare edition, you know."
Covington sipped at amber bliss. "So am I. And guess what: I'm a hell of a lot more entertaining."
"How long have I been asleep?" Mel rubbed her eyes.
"'Bout an hour."
A pause. "And how long were you using me as an end table?"
"Oh, not long. It's like you knew it was there. You didn't move a lick. Pretty damn impressive." Janice placed the glass on the nightstand.
And now, with the fiercest competition having absented the field, her complete attention was focused on Mel—who found her ability to breathe somewhat impaired. After years of gazing into those eyes—the colors of which were as mercurial as Janice's moods—the fact that she still remained enraptured by them was, quite frankly, an amazing state of affairs.
Janice's thumb was stroking her cheek. "You're not going to run away from me again, are you?" She grinned hopefully.
I will not stammer. It's only one blasted little syllable. "N-no."
"Good." Her lovely face turned grave. "I should have been here sooner."
"It's all right. There's nothing you could have done about it—any of it."
"I guess," Janice admitted gloomily. "But still. I should have been here."
"I—I wanted you here, that's for sure." Mel closed her eyes. "Do you ever wish things were different?"
"The ways of the world. The way we're treated." The blue eyes fluttered open. "Do you ever wish you could be—like them?" She hesitated in using the word normal—as Paul did the night he confessed his love for her. I could give you a normal life, he had said.
She had laughed harshly at that. What is normal? Then she saw how much he regretted saying it, how his last desperate gamble that night had been a fatal misstep. The next day while confronting the pile of dishes left over from the party she had cried, largely out of missing Janice, but also out of frustration with the ill-defined world—and with herself, more specifically with a wish within herself, so deeply buried as if truly dead, yet nonetheless still extant and strongly inculcated by upbringing, that wish to be like everyone else.
True to form—and in this case Mel was happy for such predictability—Janice wasn't buying it. "If being 'like them' means I'm not supposed to love you, then no, I don't want to be like them." Her calm conviction was assuaging, there was no doubt about that, but the solid sensation of Janice rolling atop her and pinning her wrists to the bed made the strongest case ever for deviancy; indeed, Mel's saturated silk Parisian panties were alone triumphant proof of that fact. "When I'm with you," she continued quietly, "I know it's right. I know we're right. And as far as I'm concerned, if the world gets its nose out of joint about it, the world can go to hell." Janice smiled; it was wry and tinged with doubt as a result of believing her mini-speech was completely ineffective. "Now—you still want to be like them?"
Oh dear God, no, Mel thought. She leaned up, Janice dipped down, and they kissed. Mel tasted the color red—sweet and spicy—as the fleshy ripeness of a welcomed tongue filled her mouth and the kiss gradually mellowed into the hazy richness of purple, reminiscent of a scented plum. When Janice pulled away she lurched desperately and caught a thick lower lip between her teeth, causing a gasp of welcomed pain from her pleased victim.
"Are we on the same page now?" murmured the ever-cautious Covington.
"Yes," Mel replied breathily. "Same paragraph, same sentence, same word."
Janice sat up, triumphantly straddling her convert. "That's more like it, big girl. Now let's take off these clothes, otherwise it's not gonna be any fun."
Mel undid the fat, sloppy knot of the bathrobe and rubbed the muscled belly that lay underneath it. A slight twitch of Janice's shoulders sent the robe pooling into a soft, tangled mess that was quickly cast to the floor. Still throwing clothes on the floor, I see.Well, let's not focus on what a challenge it is to actually live with you. "You're cute when you think you're in charge." And you're cute when you're naked too!
Janice ignored this blatant disregard of her questionable authority. Her sliding hand trespassed the boundary of Mel's skirt, finding the final frontier of a stocking and a garter belt. "Hmmm. Let's leave these on, shall we?"
"You're predictable." Mel gasped as Janice's fingers did a kamikaze dive past the panty patrol then teasingly retreated.
"And you're wet. Talk about predictable. Now if you don't mind, I have a fetish to indulge." She traced the warm metal clasp of the garter belt against Mel's thigh, as if seeking a message there and discovering, in its design and indentations, the true language of lust now inscribed upon such wondrously soft skin, an entire world created and embedded in muscled flesh that flowed so invitingly under her fingertips.
Mel was pressing against her harder, signaling impatience. "There's not Braille on that, you know." She growled this in a tone that could be uncharitably yet accurately described as bitchy.
Janice continued her communion with the garter belt, dancing a tarantella on the agonizingly fine line between foreplay and torture, before focusing on the unbuttoning of Mel's blouse. Hey, it's the easy-access bra, with clasps in the front! Hello, old friend! Before proceeding with mammary liberation, she considered her handiwork: The Southerner was a disheveled, half-dressed nymph, half-mad with desire, sloppily sexy, marvelously slutty—in other words, and if such a thing were entirely possible, a high-class slattern. "Oh," Covington sang her own praises, "if only the Daughters of the Confederacy could see you now."
Mel's perfect nostrils flared. "Don't go ruining everything
by dragging them into it."
Before Covington could get out any more desire-derailing wisecracks, she was unceremoniously flipped on her back. Gee, what did I do to deserve full service? The pupils of Mel's eyes bloomed, crowding the bright blue irises into nothing more than slender, tantalizing rings orbiting black, heavenly bodies, giving Janice the sweetest chill. It was sign that always commenced this journey into pleasure. Who could fail to be so tempted into darkness? Was it any wonder, thought Janice as she sought her lover's mouth with her own, that Orpheus looked back into the abyss? What kind of piss-poor lover would not crave entrance into the world of shadows that held their beloved's heart?
Mel's hands, warm and strong, massaged Janice's thighs and pushed them apart—not that any strenuous effort whatsoever was really required for Janice to spread her legs. The world cracked open; she was deliciously vulnerable, the heat of her sex exposed to the cool air, which only served to pique her lust.
With a maddeningly slow, serpentine grace, Mel was sliding down her body, sadistically bypassing the fun zone, massaging her thighs, sucking the tender back of her knee, trailing her tongue roughly over Janice's muscled calf, nibbling an anklebone, kissing the arch of her foot, and giving a blow job to her big toe, all of which was, indeed, quite nice—particularly the toe sucking, which made her ache and melt—but considering I've been ready for about, oh, four months, shaking hands would have sufficed as foreplay. But why complain?
She found a reason to do so, however, when Mel abruptly stopped, looked up, and coolly met her frantic gaze. "May I?" Her eyes flickered politely in the direction of the bourbon tumbler on the nightstand.
Janice stared at her in a dumb frenzy. Maybe she wants to sterilize her mouth after sucking on that toe? Damn, I am a mood-killer, aren't I? Always it was difficult to discern what was spinning in the mind of Melinda Pappas. Those Southern manners were pure obfuscation, she believed; Mel would probably ask for poison in the same beguiling fashion. Nonetheless at that moment, spread-eagled and depending upon the kindness of debutantes, she would have agreed to paint pink polka dots on the Parthenon, and so she fetched the drink and pressed the glass into Mel's hand.
Mel took a generous yet refined gulp and handed it back to Janice; her cheeks undulated, her lips shifted as she rolled the liquid around in her mouth as if a connoisseur. And before Covington had the faintest idea of what to expect, her cunt was flooded with pleasure—the serendipitous explosion of hot alcohol and Mel's tongue—both elements burning and blending into a perfect, purely tortuous rapture. Her hips leapt off the bed, her head slammed into the pillow with such force that a harder surface would have rendered her unconscious, and her fingernails frantically tore at the sumptuously soft bedspread and she grew dimly aware of the fact they might be charged for damaging it—for Janice was nothing if not cost-conscious at the most inappropriate, ludicrous moments. She draped a leg over Mel's shoulder and ground a heel into the broad back beneath her; the lush vibrato of Mel's grrrr reverberated through her body. One hand released a death grip on the fabric and found its way to the crown of black hair nestled between her legs.
Mel's grip tightened around her legs; the ring on the smallest finger of her lover's left hand abraded tender flesh as Mel's tongue plumbed even greater depths, languorously prowling the labyrinth of folds and crevices—confident in its eventual, triumphant arrival at the heart of the maze. They never failed in creating a rhythm in which they were mysteriously yet perfectly matched—both pushing, neither one backing down, and somehow traversing the usual boundaries of endurance. The stubbornness that dogged their interactions on every other plane found a satisfying outlet in the act of making love.
Janice's throat was dry, hoarse, constricted; she vaguely realized she'd been shouting the incoherent, obscene things she assumed she'd been merely thinking—namely, oh God, oh baby, you fuck so good. Her body was a knife—it gleamed, it became an instrument powerful and pure in form and intent, beveled down to a singular point of focus. In moments like these Janice finally believed what words had always spectacularly failed to convey—that she was beautiful.
In a thought typical of her post-coital ruminations, Janice wondered why the French referred to a sexual climax as le petit mort; as far as she was concerned, there was nothing little, tiny, or small about the sensation of the heart, mind, and body annihilated in such furious bliss. This time, she came so hard her head hurt—she thought perhaps a blood vessel had burst somewhere, and she really would be forever carried away on a current of blood, sex, and death.
No. Not yet. My time has not come. She was momentarily unnerved by both the fleeting thought of death, whispering seductively in her ear, and the emphatic certainty with which she rebuked it. Do I know? How would I know?
When she dared once more to focus on the outside world, the ceiling was dappled with refractions of light and hazy shadows from the window. After both her breathing and her heart slowed to an acceptable rate, Janice looked down. Was Mel sensually nuzzling her thigh or just wiping her face? Perhaps both? So very practical you are, baby. Not to mention…. "You're a genius," she whispered reverently. To combine my two favorite things—sheer genius!
"It took that to make you realize it, hmm?"
"Yes, oh yes, Melinda the Modest." She threaded her fingers through Mel's dark hair. "And here I thought good old JB would always be wasted on you."
"Well, it turns out I've finally found the right mixer for the wretched stuff."
"I'm so, so happy that I could be of use." The slickness between and on her thighs seemed so pervasive, so powerfully scented that it threatened to transubstantiate muscle, skin and bone into pure liquid aphrodisiac; the effect only prolonged and enhanced her pleasure. Until she noticed one thing. "Goddamnit," she moaned.
Concerned, Mel looked up.
"You're still dressed."
"Yes, I suppose I am." The lanky Mel sprawled with a regal laziness. "Your assistance in the matter is not only requested," she murmured, "it is required."
Within the web of dusk, she stripped away Mel's clothes—save, of course, for the stockings and garter belt—and the room seemed illuminated by the ivory glow of her skin, at times chillingly, milky blue. The illusory cold, however, melted under Janice's hands and mouth.
She lay atop Mel, this gentle jostling of their bodies a necessity of sorts before they became locked into any kind of satisfying rhythm. Janice's hands curled into the sheets as she fought a sudden orgasmic surge. While she normally suffered from an appalling lack of manners, there was nothing Covington abhorred more than rudeness—and selfishness—in bed. Climaxing twice before your partner had barely disrobed was, she thought, very poor form indeed.
But Mel was feeling quite generous and forgiving of these so-called faults. With sharp wickedness she bucked Janice, who hissed in delight and helplessly thought, oooh wee, ride 'em, cowgirl!—her childhood love of westerns had never really diminished in a significant manner. Fortunately in this rare instance, her brain cautioned against verbalization; for as much as Mel liked horses, Janice was certain that the woman beneath her did not wish a comparison to one.
"Go on," Mel gently encouraged. "I want to feel you."
"No. Not—yet." Janice longed for a diversion, one that would turn the tables; but hunger negated subtlety and her mouth swooped down upon Mel's breast. She sucked with desperate abandon. This only caused Mel to thrust harder against her and gently maul Janice's backside with a passionate groping; in fact, one of Mel's fingers was straying dangerously close to her asshole, which served as a sort of sexual eject button in this particular position. Alas, Janice had always been a lousy tactician. She came quickly this time, with a vivid intensity that was no less satisfying because of its brevity.
No sooner had Janice caught her breath than she set to work. And let it be said, I've always had a great fondness for the Protestant work ethic. With rough sensuality, she dragged a hand over a soft scrub of dark pubic hair, which provoked a deep moan from Mel. Snatch. How I love that frisky little word, Covington thought deliriously, while marveling, as she always did, at the whirlpool she encountered—the slick furrows and the velvety swirls, each gradation marking a sweet descent until she finally hit the knotty core of the cervix. Slowly she retreated in order to do it all over again—relentlessly pursued by the hungry arch of Mel's body, which greedily gathered in every thrust and every caress.
Through the impending darkness Janice's unoccupied hand traveled blindly yet willingly, with a touch both light and certain—the reverential touch of her trade—sliding over her lover's tender ribs and encountering one of Mel's full breasts, still damp from its frenzied suckling, the stiff nipple thickly nuzzling her palm. She continued onward until Mel's throat—the cords of which rumbled under her fingertips—was wreathed in her grasp. Finally—and with astonishment at her continually renewed curiosity—she mapped Mel's face: the jaw, the cheek, the brow, the eyelids, until her fingers were at rest against Mel's lips. A cry of joy, a few words uttered—Oh God—filled her hand and for one indelible moment a secret wish borne of loving a woman who loved words became a strange reality—words were at her fingertips, they were living things, thrillingly tangible, they were an entire history of lust carried away on a breath.
Much later, and much sated, Mel was atop her, snoring like a bear who'd had her fill of honeycomb. Outside the downpour continued; sluices of rain coursed over the windowpane like emptied veins. Bloodless London? Or London Bloody London, as Mrs. Davies would put it. Poor Jenny. Foolishly, she worried about Jenny wandering about Morocco; Linus wasn't always strong enough to keep his wild wife tethered to reality. The one thing that had always bound her to Jenny was their mutual understanding, acceptance, and temperance of one another's self-destructive tendencies. Would I have been any good for you? We'll never know. She felt a nasty twinge of guilt at thinking about Jenny, even in a pitying fashion, as she lay in bed with Mel. Hastily she switched back to thinking about poor old bloody London instead. London and rain. Goes together like Gable and Lombard, peanut butter and jelly, pastrami on rye, champagne and caviar, Romeo and Juliet, homosexuals and blackmail—yeah, let's not forget that one—death and taxes, love and marriage, Ruth and Gehrig, Ruth and Naomi, me and—
You. Mel shifted sleepily; her head stirred against Janice's chest and her black hair trailed beguilingly into darkness, like a back road into a starless night. Reflexively her hand clenched Janice's hip and her thigh resettled over Janice's legs. In this, the profanely sacred tangling of their flesh, the mass of contradictory impulses Janice continually felt—leave me, love me, need me, don't believe me, don't love me—were stilled into submission. She was as open as a wound and—for once—didn't mind it. While she wondered if being a woman truly meant feeling so vulnerable in this way, she never imagined that it could be such a desired state, such an addictive nirvana.
You're waking up. I feel the change in your breathing. And now you are going to ask me what you've wanted to all night long, what we've avoided speaking of, that question so visible in the tension of your jaw.
It took a little longer than anticipated. Mel stretched with cat-like languor and appraised her lover with an equally feline glance of unwavering inscrutability, as if she truly could see Janice quite plainly in the dim, shadowy room, barely alit from the streetlamps and the moonlight outside. It unnerved Covington, albeit in a pleasant way—fuck me with your gaze too, why don't you?—and so she initiated a round of slow, lazy kissing, tasting the sweet salt of sex, happily delving into territory that she never grew tired of exploring. Their entwined legs tightened, slackened; then Mel pulled away with a gentle abruptness and placed her damp mouth along Janice's collarbone.
"What are we going to do?" The question feathered hotly over Covington's skin.
Janice had finally thought about it during her long bath; however, she knew that the solution she thought best was the one that Mel, no doubt, would protest most vociferously. She gently stroked the thigh lodged between her legs. "You have the money. I'll take it to him. If that's not what he wants, I'll find out. And I'll take care of it." With shocking quickness Mel flew away from her as if manipulated by the unnatural forces of deus ex machina—or in this case, Dixie ex machina, maybe? thought Janice forlornly. Women alone are hard to figure out. God knows what gothic magic controls the Southern Woman. With a sigh, Mel rolled onto her back, arms crossed under her head. Was she relieved at the suggestion, perhaps, or summoning some kind of inner strength? Both? Neither? Janice wondered. How well we know each other, yet how we always fail to figure each other out.
Finally Mel spoke. "No. We take care of it. I won't let you see him alone. It's dangerous. Don't shut me out of it."
"I'm not shutting you out of it. You've done your part: You came up with the cash." Her hand cut a swath over the top of Mel's thigh, which tensed. "Don't you think you've been through enough already?"
The tenderness of Janice's tone was not exactly surprising, but nonetheless unexpected. "Maybe we shouldn't even give him the money—or anything else he wants," Mel retorted stubbornly.
"Do you really want to live like a pariah? The money isn't the point, really. But if we lost our positions because of this, no one would take us seriously. It would affect how our work is perceived. You're establishing a legitimate reputation, Mel. You have Harvard by the balls now. We need that leverage. We need that backing if we're ever going to get anywhere in finding the real Scrolls."
Mel sighed in frustration. "All the same—you can't go alone. He might hurt you."
"He won't. He wouldn't dare." Or would he? Janice had a fleeting fear of waking up on a slow boat to China. I hate it when that happens.
Mel peered at her intently. "Then why be afraid of bringing me along?" She paused and asked the second—and more important—question with quiet delicacy. "What are you afraid of me finding out?"
"Believe it or not, nothing in particular. It's just that—" Janice broke off the confession momentarily to pummel a pillow into an acceptably comfortable form. "There have been so many things—things that don't seem so bad if you look at them one by one. But you add them all up and—I wonder how much is too much for you."
Mel paused. "Well," she began, propping herself up on an elbow. "I've always thought that if one's curriculum vitae detailed illegal activity as well as legitimate accomplishments, the academic world would be a happier and healthier environment."
Janice burst into laughter. Okay, you're being funny about it. Does that mean it doesn't really bother you? She tucked the thought away and played along. "I think you're onto something. I can't wait until the Dean retires and you get the old man's job."
"I don't want his job."
"He's grooming you for it."
"I know," Mel replied morosely. "He's mad."
"Didn't I always warn you? When that old bastard wants something, he doesn't stop until gets it."
"Oh—that reminds me."
"You're paving his driveway this summer."
A pause. "That sonofabitch."
Mel giggled; her laughter was a perfect accompaniment to the rain's percussive tones. Janice closed her eyes. Why is it we enjoy the sounds of rain so much? Maybe because we realize how safe we are—we're inside, listening to it, and not outside, drenched in it.
The grace of Mel's touch was upon her neck, her shoulders, her back; she opened her eyes at the sensation of paths traced, with such firm assurance, upon her skin.
"It won't be too much," Mel said, quite simply. "Nothing is too much."
She buried her face in Mel's chest, nose jammed against the sternum, inhaling a musky cocktail of sex and blood and skin and her own breath, an overwhelming intoxication, a delicious renewal of lust. Janice's mouth sought a breast and her tongue swooned around the dark aureole and eagerly prodded the sluggish, flushed nipple into action.
"Do you call wrapping your legs around me a form of protest? It's a hell of a way to complain."
"A lady never complains, my dear."
"Really? How'd you find that out?"
It was enough of an encouraging response; nonetheless Janice stopped her assault—she was seriously torn among the conflicting desires of food, sex, and sleep. "I'm hungry, though," she yawned.
"You beast. I'm not feeding you now. You'll get even more wound up."
"I won't, I promise. Don't you trust me?"
Janice had no ulterior motive in asking the simple rhetorical question. But Mel's fingers stopped their sensuous dawdle upon her lover's spine. "I trust you with my life," she replied quietly. "Go to him—alone, if you like."
Sheepishly triumphant, Janice grinned as she was kissed her gently upon the brow, just above the dark knot of stitches. Dropping her head against Mel's shoulder, she waded into the deep end of sleep, only dimly aware of the words that, in their gentle rhythm, sounded no more meaningful than a child's lullaby: "You keep your secrets. When you're ready to surrender them, I'll be here."
2. The Habit of Theft
How immense the world is by lamplight!
How small the world is in recollection!
—Baudelaire, Le Voyage
He thought about her every day.
Of course, there were those exceedingly rare occasions when, exhausted with business and the brimming details of a day-to-day existence, Pendleton had not thought about her at all until night settled in and he was alone. Then he would realize—with no small start of surprise—that the specter of Catherine Stoller had not crossed his mind during the course of the day. As the evening's port whirled around his glass, so the seemingly harmless images—these satellites of Stoller—encircled his mind: the Swiss doctor insouciantly wiping blood on his white coat, Melinda Pappas touching a windowpane, yearning for flight from the sanitarium, from snow, from responsibility, the wretched Covington standing bareheaded and knee-deep in snow, not unlike Henry IV, penitent at Canossa—except that, unlike Henry, she possessed a ludicrous, defiant pride, her eyes vividly accusative.
Eventually these recollections lead to the reminder of his own inevitable misery, of the perfect repose of Catherine Stoller's corpse upon the table. How only hours before she had sat on that table, alive, dominating the dank room like a chanteuse atop a piano, taunting him, her bruised face swathed in cigarette smoke, her heels playing a rhythm against the table legs, an accompaniment to a song that no one heard.
Tap tap tap.
Aren't you going to ask about the El-Almanien vases? The ones that disappeared so soon on Robert Dansey's infamous excavation?
Tap tap tap.
You do know it was the Covingtons who stole them, don't you?
She spared him a pitying look.
No, I can tell you don't know that. But now you do. How lucky you are, Mark—yes, I know your name, you fool—you've not only me in your possession, but Covington is close at hand. You can find those vases. I could find them for you.
Bring her to me.
His brow furrowed.
No, not that little bitch. Send Melinda Pappas down here. That's how to get to Covington, don't you see? If you remember anything that I tell you, Mark, remember that. However—I may be able to find out more for you. But I must see her first in order to do that.
I really did love her.
Her voice was suddenly thick with sorrow.
Oh God. I did.
An hour later Stoller was dead. Foolishly he hadn't anticipated that. He should have known that Pappas would be the last person she would want to see before dying. The last goodbye.
Before they took her body away he spent a long time staring at the face that now, like a tomb itself, had secreted away all that she had known, all that she had touched, felt, experienced, all of it, for eternity. Death hoarded knowledge and gave nothing in return except the beautiful agonies and the tortuous conundrums of its perennial mystery.
He wondered if anyone would remember her, if anyone would look at the sky and see in a bird's flight her soul, if indeed she possessed one, at peace, or would feel fleeting agony or tender sadness at the thought of her death. He wondered if anyone would truly mourn her. He knew Melinda Pappas wouldn't. For reasons he either could not or did not wish to fathom, this angered him. Her beauty, her money, her talent, her aloofness, all of it conspired in presenting an image to Pendleton of a careless woman, reckless in her failure to gauge her effect on others. She had blundered into his operation for one reason, and one reason only: Love of Covington. Who cared if the mission ground to a halt because of her ineptitude, who cared if a very important, very valuable war criminal was dead because of her? Not just a war criminal, he thought, but a woman. A woman in love. Who would mourn her?
Perhaps—he thought as he caressed the cold marble of Catherine Stoller's cheek—perhaps he would.
If there was one thing Pendleton did mourn on a regular basis, however, it was the dim reality that his manservant, Gordon, was a frequently inebriated Scottish fuckwit barely capable of concealing the petty thefts of cufflinks and silverware that financed the backstreet abortions that he was partly responsible for. Gordon's only saving grace, the only reason Pendleton kept him around, was the marvelous, almost indescribable flair in which he would announce visitors. He knew how to position callers in just the right place so that, after rolling and caressing a name with his magnificent thick brogue, he would bow and step aside with a perfect flourish, revealing a person like a magician modestly performing his greatest trick.
This evening's entertainment was Janice Covington, who appeared vaguely amused at Gordon's skill but nonetheless fearfully retracted the fedora in her hand when the servant attempted, again, to take it from her.
The door closed and they were alone.
She was about to speak when he raised a hand. "One moment, if you please. Just one moment." He continued to compose, in excruciatingly slow fashion, nothing more urgent than an idle wish list of tasks for Gordon: Hire the chimneysweep. Goat cheese from the farmer's market. His true intent was not so much to place Janice at a disadvantage as it was to take the opportunity for study; this was the first time he had ever seen her in the flesh, at close range—not standing at a distance in a pile of snow, nor in an old black and white photograph where a forced smile could not counteract the melancholy squint of her eyes.
Unconcerned at waiting, she tossed the hat on a chair and prowled the study with the leonine wariness and attention to detail one found in either an archaeologist or a professional thief. The firelight found untold splendors in her appearance: filaments of copper and gold in her tightly braided hair, the flaring phosphorescence in the green of her irises, and smooth, slender lines accentuating her profile and her full, pre-Raphaelite lips—all of this beauty counterbalanced the dark bundle of stitches near her brow. To his annoyance, the realization that Covington was indeed quite attractive forced him to revise his opinion of Melinda Pappas. That depraved bitch does have taste, I'll give her that.
A lecythus—a slender, exquisite Etruscan perfume vase—had snared her attention. Of his many possessions this one held significance; it had been one of his first "purchases"—if one considered bullying and implied threats an acceptable form of currency—a trophy from the first dig he had ever funded.
She picked it up in a manner far too casual for his liking. He stiffened. She looked it over with a discerning eye, turning it this way and that. His lips pursed anxiously.
With a snap of her wrist she tossed it high into the air.
He leapt up.
The vase landed with a satisfying thump in her left hand. With exaggerated care she sat the object down in its proper place.
Their eyes met.
She grinned toothily. "It's a nice copy," she said in a voice that—under different circumstances and belonging to a different woman—he would find deliciously husky.
He despised her more than ever—yet made a mental note to somehow brutalize and/or ruin Ambrose Delahyde, the fiend now unfortunate enough to have given him the lecythus.
She was trying not to smirk. "Do you think," she continued, "we can discuss business now?"
Pendleton cleared his throat. "It's strange, we've never spoken before."
"There's never been a reason for me to speak to you. Until now." She trailed a finger along the table where other vases stood in comradely fashion with the lecythus.
He screwed the cap on the fountain pen. "It's thoughtful of you to handle the transaction all by yourself and spare her further indignity." His eyebrow arched. "I must apologize for all the nonsense with Adrian. He's greedy, and did not follow my instructions as we had agreed upon."
"He was supposed to only give you the photos and the instructions on how to contact me."
Janice feigned interest in an amphora. "He wouldn't even give
me your phone number."
"Only delaying the inevitable, you see, so that he would have a chance to scarper before I got hold of him."
She tapped her fingers impatiently on the table and finally looked at him. "Don't rough up the poor bastard too much."
"You already had a go at him, didn't you?" Pendleton leered.
"I don't like to be blackmailed."
"I don't consider it blackmail. I call it 'getting your attention.'"
"Next time try a calling card," she retorted. "But now that I'm here, why don't you just tell me what you want? The sooner we get this over with, the happier both of us will be, I bet."
"It's not cash." Pendleton nodded at the fairly obvious bulge in her jacket. "My currency is information."
"Fine." She folded her arms and leaned against a bookshelf. "What the hell are you waiting for? A cue from the orchestra?"
"Let's go back to the year 1939, more specifically, to your fateful employment by Robert Dansey as foreman for his excavation at El-Alamein." He carefully aligned the fountain pen beside the blotter. "Rather surprising he agreed to hire you, given how much he detested your father."
"You really know everything, don't you? I guess you would, considering you put a lot of effort into seeing me get arrested for Dansey's death." The accusation, finally made, lay between them like a corpse—one that Pendleton wasn't yet ready to acknowledge. "Look," she continued, "I had no problem with Dansey. There was a lot of bad blood between him and my old man, it's true. But he owed me, see. Around that time I had gotten him out of a jam."
Pendleton gave her a questioning look.
"Let's just say he was stupider about women than I was."
Janice ran a thumb over her blunt, smooth fingernails. "I know that's pretty hard to believe."
He laughed lightly. "Ah, yes. Your reputation precedes you. And Dansey's as well, although his was for legendary stupidity and not luck with the ladies. But let's move on, shall we? A very significant discovery was made on that dig. Two vases. Surely you remember them."
She nodded. "Rare funereal vases—and very odd to find Greek ones of that period in an Egyptian tomb." She hesitated. "I found them myself." Her voice was filled with quiet pride.
"Where are they?"
"Don't toy with me."
She shrugged, nonchalant. "I'm not. I don't know where they are anymore than you do."
"You neglect to mention that while you were the one who found them, you—and your father—were the ones who stole them from Dansey's site."
"True." He couldn't help but notice that she sounded a trifle satisfied with that.
Harry tightened the harness that criss-crossed Janice's torso and tugged at the metal loop embedded in the leather material. Satisfied with its strength, he threaded a rope through it.
Despite the chill of the desert night, Janice was sweating bullets at the thought of going down into the narrow tunnel. She grudgingly appreciated this great jibe from the fates—being an archaeologist susceptible to sudden and inexplicable bouts of claustrophobia. "Okay, Harry, look, if you're not going to believe the Curse of the Mummy—"
"They haven't found any mummies yet."
"Cat mummies. Didn't they find goddamn cat mummies?"
"They don't count."
"Sacrilege, Harry!" Fayed's Cheshire cat grin—his teeth alarmingly bright in the near darkness—punctuated this teasing comment.
"—but look here, Fayed weighs less than me, I swear…look at him, for Christ's sake."
"Just because you can lift me up does not mean I am lighter than you." Fayed's fingers danced along her ribcage. "Ah yeeeees, you are as light as a mu-mmmeeee." To her annoyance he possessed an uncanny ability to sound as creepily ethereal as Peter Lorre.
"Shut up!" Janice, easily rattled at the prospect of going down the tunnel, snapped at him.
"Knock it off, you two." Harry blithely pulled gloves on Janice's unwilling hands, tugging at them insistently in order to focus her on the task ahead. "Remember—pull the rope once if you need more slack, twice when you've got the goods."
"And three times if you see Boris Karloff," Fayed added.
"Fayed, I swear, I am going to goddamn kill you!"
Harry interrupted. "Janice?"
She was now clutching a torch, distracted by the strange, stale back draft from the black tunnel that ruffled her hair and curled insidiously at her back. "Huh?"
"I love you." Harry gently planted his boot in her ass and down the pit she went.
Janice was staring into space. Goddamn those vases. If we hadn't taken them—none of this would have happened. My father would still be alive. And I wouldn't be here with this asshole. "Listen. Those vases have been an albatross around my neck since the day I found them. I'm going to tell you what I know, then I'm done with it. Do you know who Marius Zech was?"
Pendleton squelched laughter. "My dear doctor, given how much I know of Catherine Stoller—surely I would know who her fiancé was. And you can be certain that, had I the chance, I would have asked Zech about the vases. Alas, he has been dead for almost ten years now."
Unable to stifle her surprise, Janice blinked. "Marius was her fiancé?" she repeated. Jesus Christ. She recalled Mel's tale about Stoller's infamous "Dear Jane" letter: Stoller had mentioned a fiancé—but, apparently, gave no specifics. I would have blotted his name out of my mind anyway, Mel had said. And—Marius was dead. She hadn't known that. How truly small the world is, especially when it seems to be composed primarily of madmen and madwomen chasing the shadow of a world that no longer existed.
"Indeed." Pendleton raised an eyebrow. "I thought you knew the late lamented Herr Zech. He was the Ahnenerbe's top man in Egypt for a while."
He probed further. "A friend of yours."
"Not quite." More like my reluctant savior. She moved closer to the desk. Did you ever regret what you did for me, Marius? "They were engaged while Zech was in Alexandria?"
"—was in Alexandria only briefly, I believe, in 1939, for about two weeks. A little conjugal visit, I suppose." Pendleton's face curdled into a moue of distaste.
Janice briefly wondered if Pendleton was queer, but since it appeared that he didn't really like anyone, it was hard to say. Her stomach curdled at the thought of his sex life, and so she banished the thought and concentrated on the revelations at hand. Stoller was there. In Alexandria. Did she see me? Did she know who I was? Did I even run into her somewhere? Christ, did I make a pass at her? She wasn't really my type but God knows at that time anything with tits was my type…well, except for Julian. During that time Julian Manley-Finch's home was like Grand Central Terminal for all Westerners; everyone passed through at one point or another, even—to Julian's private dismay—the Germans.
Harry. She may have at least met my father; he had more contact with Marius than I did. She tucked away the thought for later speculation and squinted at Pendleton with renewed interest. "So tell me, why are these vases so important to you?"
Pendleton shifted with stiff unease. "They're very rare, as you've pointed out, doctor."
"Yeah. But I don't understand what this is all about. You're a smart man, you've clearly done your homework and all that—so you must know that my father sold them to Zech that year."
Calmly he sat, trying to read the truth in her face, her body, her eyes.
She continued. "Zech was high up in the Ahnenerbe—you know that. He worked for Goering directly and practically spent his entire military career buying everything he could lay his hands on for that greedy sonofabitch. He knew about the vases. And once he did, everybody knew about them—because he wanted them so much. But no one knew who had them." Janice smiled briefly. "In the end, they were just too much goddamn trouble. That's why we had to get rid of them. I had the goddamn kingpin of the black market breathing down my neck about them. We had to unload them. Zech was buying, and we knew no one would dare touch him."
"You're lying to me. There was nothing in Zech's records that indicated such a purchase."
"Did he always write down what he bought on the black market?"
"He was German, for God's sake. They keep meticulous records about everything—even killing millions of people."
"Look," Janice said. "I don't have them."
"I don't have a reason to lie to you. Why would I hang onto something like that for so long anyway? It's dangerous. I would have sold 'em a long time ago."
"Well, you don't really need the money anymore, do you? You haven't really needed it since you started bedding the blue-eyed belle of the ball."
"Hoo boy." She chuckled sardonically and folded her arms. "How long have you been waiting to say that?"
Pendleton leaned back, momentarily relaxed and—dare he admit it?—even a tad pleased at her amusement. He smiled. "Oh, for so long. For so very long."
"It's almost flattering that you think I'm so skillful and manipulative that I could constantly deceive someone like Mel, after all these years, just for money. She's smarter than you think." She leaned against his desk in an almost proprietary way. "I don't need the money because I have a job. And I've lived without money before. I can do it again. I don't have much, but I get by."
"How much longer will you have that job of yours, doctor? Your reputation is in such disrepair, it may only be a matter of time. I know the case is closed again in Alexandria—they failed to convict you of Robert Dansey's murder. But the cloud will linger for longer than you can imagine."
"We'll see. You gave it a good try, buddy boy. I'm always impressed when someone puts a lot of effort into putting me into jail—or worse."
"You're just like her, aren't you?" he muttered savagely.
Janice frowned. "What?"
"You think you can get away with doing whatever you like, including murder."
"I did not murder him, and I'm getting pretty damn tired of denying it all the time."
"Then who did?"
"You mean Hubert Plessis."
"Hubert, eh? No wonder he changed his name." She pulled a cigarette out of a slender, silver carrying case—an expensive, elegant gift that meshed incongruously with her rough appearance.
He felt a flare of distaste for what he perceived as a subtle showing off. You're kept,there's no doubt about it. he thought disdainfully, and did not hide the sneer that disrupted his face. Nonetheless, force of habit prevailed and Pendleton rose quickly to light her cigarette. Gruffly, she permitted it. The manners of an Englishman were as indefatigable as a Southern woman's, apparently. "An anti-hero out of a bad novel. Now him—I know you did not kill him. But it wasn't from lack of trying, was it?" he whispered, his mouth hovering, with conspiratorial closeness, near her ear. "Didn't finish the job, did you?"
I wanted to. Time had only engorged her memory with ugly images. She did not stop hitting him with the gun, even when her hands were slick with blood and the metal kept slipping within her grasp, even when the policeman had shouted at Fayed—get her out of here—even when, as she tussled against Fayed, she landed a glancing blow on her beloved friend's face.
"Did you ever see what you actually did to him?"
She did. She remembered the swollen bloody mass of his face—like rotting meat falling, slowly, off the bone.
"I saw the photos, Janice. May I call you Janice? Your companion Miss Pappas always prefers to be so formal. But I believe, since we are discussing matters of such an intimate nature, we may call one another by our Christian names, don't you think?"
She said nothing. He thought he saw a barely perceptible tremor of her hand as she raised the cigarette to her mouth, the gesture a suitable camouflage—along with the nacreous curtain of smoke—for emotions she could barely contain.
"You disfigured him. That much, surely you know. You shattered his jaw—so thoroughly that he was reduced to eating mush and gruel for the short remainder of his life. He couldn't even close his mouth properly. And he was in constant pain, I was told. He became a walking vial of morphine. He was the living dead, thank to your questionable compassion. He was probably relieved when Marius Zech's henchman finally put a bullet in his brain. It was a mercy killing."
He picked up his glass of port. "You know, I do believe you didn't kill Dansey."
She looked surprised.
"There was no conclusive proof. You'd had no contact with him for at least a month prior to his death. And as everybody involved in the investigation told me, everybody wanted to see him dead anyway. You could've cooperated more with the authorities to clear your name. But you didn't." He sipped the rich port. "You wanted them to believe you were guilty. You were trying to keep the focus off your father—and the Alexandrian cabal."
The cabal. So secretive that it did not really have a name, at least not one that was ever revealed to her. Janice recalled Naima's deft refusals as she lounged around the Old Man's home, her bright dress of red and gold, smiling, laughing at her friend's foolhardy questions. We know this is a mere diversion for you, until you find your true path. Janice blinked at Pendleton and everything started to make a bit more sense. Of course. "That's what this is about, isn't it? Old rivalries between your cabal and the Eastern one. Which one are you part of? Stella Matutina? The Golden Dawn? The Sacred Society of British Bedwetters?"
Pendleton colored, indicating that she had mined some sort of truth; whether it was about cabals or bedwetting remained to be seen. "I never said—"
"You don't have to," she retorted. "You're one of them."
He took a step back. "All right," he breathed shakily, "I am. What of it? Are you surprised?"
"I shouldn't be. You're not terribly different from the kind of Westerner who gets involved in this stuff. You're lured in by the secretiveness of it all, the promise of forbidden knowledge, of power and prizes beyond your wildest dreams. It doesn't matter that you have to steal it from other people." And I know this because I was tempted in the same fashion. I wanted answers to all those questions. I wanted a key to the past that few possessed.
"You little hypocrite," Pendleton hissed. "You've stolen just as much as I."
"The difference is I don't do it anymore. The past belongs to everyone. We can't hoard it away for personal gain, just for the sake of power." Janice knew this impromptu lecture would fall on deaf ears; nonetheless she said it, if only as a reminder for herself—a guidepost or marker to a truth she easily misplaced.
"The past is power. Surely I needn't tell that to you, of all people."
My God, how is it you know me so well? "Do you think an entire cabal is behind the missing vases?"
"Don't play the fool. It is, you know it is. And you are part of it."
"No. I'm not."
"Your friend and his wife are."
"Perhaps. I'm not."
"Nonetheless," he trailed off and reached over the desk for his empty glass. "You would protect them with your life, wouldn't you?" He tapped the tumbler, which resounded with a hearty, impressive ping. "Care for a drink?"
Her jaw shifted, as if she were contemplating the offer; but those hooded, glittering eyes remained coolly hostile.
Pendleton smiled, and warmed up to his subject. "As you see, I know a lot about you, Dr. Covington—oh dear, we're on formal terms again. Forgive me, Janice. Since I managed to trace Stoller's tenuous connection to you—one that is independent of the mutual rutting you've shared with Melinda Pappas—you've become very interesting to me. Such enormous potential, such drive you've always had! The first woman to acquire a Ph.D. in archaeology from Harvard. The first American woman to guest lecture at the Royal Society. The discovery of the Apollo-Christ mosaic outside Amphipolis—an extraordinary find. You could have coasted on that for the rest of your career, if it weren't tainted by the Dansey case or this ridiculous madness concerning the Xena Scrolls. And—you've never really managed to escape the circumstances of your background, have you? Rather sad, that. I'm not just talking about your father, the thief. I'm talking about your mother, the whore. I suppose if she hadn't died of syphilis it would have been of the drink instead."
Pendleton had momentarily—and fortunately, for his sake—placed the tumbler back on the desk again when Janice took this perfect opportunity to punch him in the stomach.
Because he had approximately seven inches and 45 pounds on her, Mark Pendleton had not been particularly concerned about the threat of bodily harm from Covington; as angry as she was capable of looking, she did not, he thought, possess that dramatic air of black menace that her companion, Melinda, could generate with the merest darkening of her eyes and which gave him serious chills. Now he quickly reassessed this opinion; there was little doubt that her rage matched his size ounce for ounce. He attempted to break his fall with a weak grope for the desk but missed, hitting the floor with such force that his knees would ache for days afterwards.
In moments of physical duress a second feels like minutes; the threads of time unravel from their tightly bound, preconceived notions—perhaps not unlike the strands of gossamer now unfurled from the braided mass of Covington's hair. The few seconds he was unable to breathe were an unendurable eternity and he stared at a furling tendril of gold, glowingly unobtainable; it seemed to take on representation of both time and beauty, things that always seemed to elude him. He shuddered, gasped for air, and coughed with relief. So glad I didn't break the bloody glass. Gordon would take days before cleaning it up.
"That must be one hell of a file you people have on me." She flexed her hand and spoke calmly, with unwavering malice. "My mother may have been a shanty Irish drunk, but she wasn't a whore." Then she knelt beside him, so that her lips were level with his ear. "So you know a lot about me. Let me tell you what I know about you. You spent the entire war behind a goddamn desk. You never set foot outside England until peace was declared. You never held a gun, you never faced an enemy. So forgive me if I don't find you fit to pass some sort of higher judgment on me." Her voice dipped lower, into a register tinted with incredulous rage. "Have you ever seen anyone get killed? Have you ever seen a body blown into a million pieces? Have you ever watched someone you know slowly die, knowing you could do nothing to stop it? I wouldn't wish the things I saw then on anyone." Her hand twitched and he flinched. "Not even you."
She stood. Silence stretched over the merciless rack of time. Pendleton risked a glance at her. She was unbuttoning her jacket with an odd deliberateness indicating that either a seduction or a thrashing was forthcoming. He strongly suspected the latter.
With the last button freed a lump of cash fell to the floor, accompanied by her jacket. That was when he noticed the gun lodged in her waistband.
Now she was rolling up the sleeves of her shirt. "You better give me those photos now."
"Are you going to shoot me?" The effectiveness of his sneer was undercut with a gasping cough. "You wouldn't dare. You wouldn't get away with it." He tried to stand but she kicked him in the ribs, just hard enough to knock the wind out of him again.
"I wouldn't be too sure about that." She began to do something he found most peculiar: She untucked her shirt, undid a few buttons, and tugged it into general disarray. "I'm sure I can cook up a good 'attempted-rape' defense. I can draw on experience for that—you look a little surprised. Wasn't that in my file too? Anyway, this isn't the kind of publicity you'd like, I'm certain. And I don't think there's any love lost between you and old Gordon—he'd make a good witness. Jesus, with that sense of drama he has, he'd be front-page news. Sure, you'd fire his sorry ass but I can tell you right now Dr. Pappas misses having a servant, you know?"
His expression was clearly one of you're mad.
"Now I'm gonna ask nicely. I want those photos and their negatives." She pressed the gun against his windpipe. "A girl deserves some nice pictures to remember her vacation by, don't you think?"
* * *
In the opium world, heaven burned white hot. She wondered what hell felt like under the same influence.
Regardless, Janice was certain that in either place she would hear Julian's voice booming loudly with his absurd proclamations and hopelessly rolling r's: I am a wizened path of water, sinewy and sneakily encircling the rich land of Alexander!
She continued feasting upon Antoinette's mouth, until Antoinette disengaged sloppily and pressed her sticky lips against Janice's ear. "Do you see her?"
"The blonde bitch looking at us."
Janice tilted her head but Antoinette grasped her chin roughly, forcing her glazed green eyes upon the Frenchwoman again. "Don't be obvious. She is over by the window."
"Oh. Yeah. Her." Janice hoped she sounded convincingly nonchalant, for she had no idea whom Antoinette was talking about. I don't like blondes anyway. "What's the big deal, baby? Some like to watch. Those who can't do, watch."
"Stop babbling, Covington. I don't like her—I don't like being watched like that. Let's go to the room."
"You want her to join us?" Janice grinned dopily.
Antoinette smacked her in the chest, provoking a dizzying fit of giggling and coughing from her uncouth lover. "You filth! You know I do this just for you, because I love you so much! I receive no pleasure from your beastly acts at all!"
"Oh, I know. It's very very very kind of you to indulge my perversities."
The sarcasm fell on tone-deaf ears and Antoinette remained haughtily oblivious. "I am glad you appreciate it. Now I am retiring to the guest room and"—a heavy sigh—"if you wish to join me there, then so be it."
Antoinette was gone by the time Janice had started to form a sentence. "Ah, sure. Jus' give me a minute…" To make sure I don't throw up when I stand up.
The sofa lurched slightly, like a boat at sea—oooh, is that my dinner I feel at the back of my throat?—and Janice realized someone new had sat down next to her.
It was the woman—thin, blonde, with dark, intense eyes and a cigarette dangling out of her mouth. "Give me a light," she demanded quietly.
Janice groped for the lighter in her breast pocket. Her thumb jerked repeatedly over the tiny wheel until finally a spark took and a flame shot up, engulfing the cigarette's tip.
The woman gently seized Janice's wrist. "Nice lighter."
The blonde spat a stream of smoke. "You looked like you were having fun."
"I was." Janice tried to force her tired eyes upon the woman. "You looked like you were having fun watching us."
They laughed, enjoying this peculiar shared moment.
"Your friend, however, was not having fun."
"No, she wasn't."
The woman sank in cushions closer to Janice. "Do you know who I am?"
She kissed Janice on the mouth with shocking tenderness. "Someday, someone is going to kiss you like that. But it won't be me."
Janice's eyebrows knotted in puzzlement. She frowned. "I still—I still don't know who you are."
"Good." The woman stood up and walked away.
Yearning hurts, and what release may come of it feels much like death.—Heraclitus
A Very Long Time Ago
If ever someone would tell Marcellus that librarians led dull lives, he would now have irrefutable evidence to deny it.
Excitedly he followed the mercenary through the narrow, uneven streets that led toward the docks, unaware that his clean, fresh robe looked conspicuous among the dusty streets of battered, aged stone. His nostrils flared dramatically at the salt-tinged air, free—yes, free!—of the smell of old rotting papyrus. I really should get out more often.
The only obstacle to this fervent wish was his job. Running the library was a task that consumed every waking moment. Generations ago, when the library was still intact and at the height of its glory, great scholars ran the renowned library: Demetrius. Apollonius. The very names invoked the highest standard of learning in the known world.
All of this, of course, before the fire.
Now, in its current ramshackle fate, it was left to precocious, well-read upstarts like him to keep the bloody thing running. If he'd had a wife and family, he would never see them. As it was, it was pure luck that he caught that fleeting glimpse of the mysterious woman—gold hair, gray cape, small round weapon at her side—who donated a bundle of old and surprisingly valuable scrolls to the library two days past.
It's her. I know it.
The burly, smelly mercenary—Marcellus had tried to stay upwind of him the entire time they walked—slowed to a stop. They were in a city square, bustling with morning activity. "That's it." The soldier nodded at a decrepit tavern across the square.
Marcellus frowned. Well, what did you expect? he chastised himself. She's not exactly a Ptolemy. "All right." The librarian dug a coin out of the pouch at his waist. "Wait around, will you? I don't want to get lost going back."
The soldier shrugged. "I'll be there." He pointed at a building that, while just as self-effacing at the others in the square, seemed much more clean, respectable, and well-kept. He ambled away, whistling.
The librarian breathed deeply before entering the tavern. I hope you know what you're doing, Galen had said to him this morning. If she is who you think she is, she might skewer you sooner than talk to you.
She wouldn't do that. She's the Battling Bard, for Gaia's sake! A heroine! A legend in her own time!
Galen had snorted disdainfully. She was, at any rate. They say she's gone mad. Just be careful.
The tavern was eerily empty except for the man behind the bar: tall, beady-eyed, and immediately suspicious of Marcellus, who nodded in greeting. "I'm looking for a woman," the librarian began.
"Whorehouse is four doors down."
Marcellus blushed. So that's where he was going. "No. That's not what I meant. I'm looking for a warrior woman—small in stature, blonde hair. Looks like an Amazon, you might say."
The tavernkeeper frowned. "Amazons are usually big, aren't they?"
"Usually, I suppose—oh, never mind. Look, I need to talk to her, if she's here. Is she?"
The man's beady eyes went even smaller. "Who says she's here?"
Before Marcellus could even think of a way to dig himself out of that one, a child's screech could be heard—loud, shrill, and piercing the air. A girl, no older than seven, bolted into the room. "Daddydaddydaddy!" she screamed this protective mantra at the tavernkeeper—amazingly transformed from sullen lout into caring father. He scooped the child into his arms. "Here now, what's this?" he said softly. "Hmmm?" The girl hyperventilated into his shoulder as she clung to him fiercely. His eyes, focused on something in the distance, turned hard and small again. "What's going on here?" he demanded angrily. Marcellus followed the trail of his gaze to the woman standing in the doorway.
It was her. She was barefoot, her famous hair quite tousled, wearing a leather vest of dark brown—open, and just barely covering her breasts—and a matching skirt. She was quickly fastening a thick, braided belt around the skirt.
It didn't look good.
But then, she didn't look good either. The wind was momentarily and surprisingly knocked out of his hero-worshipping sails. How tired she looks! Beautiful, most definitely, but weary. It's a miracle she can stand. But this is the woman. This is her. I know it. Not only a brilliant bard and a hero in her own right, but she is also the beloved of a great warrior, and the inspiration for some of Sappho's most stunning lyrics. "No woman I think will ever outshine your skill—no woman who will ever look into sunlight." She wrote that for you, Gabrielle, you of the "golden crown and sorrowed eyes." That was you. And this is you.
"I'm sorry." She speaks! Her voice was low, frayed with exhaustion.
The tavernkeeper had an ugly vein pulsing on his forehead. "What happened?" he barked. "What did you do to her?"
"Nothing—please believe me," she replied, perhaps too quickly. "I was sleeping, she came into my room, and—she saw my back."
"She saw your back?" the tavernkeeper echoed, confused.
"There's a tattoo…" the warrior trailed off, dropping her head in embarrassment. "It frightened her."
The tavernkeeper followed his skeptical squint with a challenge. "Let's see it, then."
She closed her eyes tightly, as if for a moment she would resist, then turned around slowly. The vest fell, gathering in folds at her waist, and revealing a fantastical creature the likes of which none of them had ever seen and had only heard about in tall tales from sailors, bards, and drunken adventurers. For his part Marcellus had never seen such an exquisitely detailed creation upon human flesh—not that he knew many people with skin designs. Even with his limited experience, though, he marveled in silence. This was something extraordinary. No wonder the poor girl was scared out of her wits.
The tavernkeeper took in vain the names of several gods—Egyptian, Greek, Norse, Roman, as if trying to ensure good standing with a deity from each corner of the known world. This unusual litany of swearing from her father piqued the child's curiosity, and she braved another look at the tattoo, shivering in the delight of fear. Her father soothed her.
Further encouraged by the safe perch of his arms and with the boldly amazing, sudden changes of heart that only children are capable of, she reached out, arm extended, fingers rigid. She wanted to touch the dragon.
"Ah—is it okay if she touches it?" the tavernkeeper asked timidly.
A pause. The blonde head bobbed slowly in agreement.
Father and daughter approached the dragon, the former whispering gentle words of encouragement to the latter: See, it's just a pretty picture, it won't hurt you.
The child spent several delighted minutes tracing lines and colors along the warrior's back, from the vermilion flames that licked at the neck to the darkened shades of emerald pooling in the dip of the muscular back. Finally she dropped her hand, her curiosity fully sated. Her father lowered her to the ground. She remained staring in awe at the warrior's back until the tavernkeeper, embarrassed, took her hand and led her out of the room.
Gabrielle stood motionless.
She doesn't know I'm even here, Marcellus realized.
She pulled the vest back on.
Say something, fool! He opened his mouth and croaked aloud her name.
In a blink of an eye she was standing in front of him. While her face was damp with tears and her bright eyes threatened to unleash even more, her voice was hard. "Who are you?"
"I—" he stammered. "My name is Marcellus. I'm the librarian at the library." Oh, well done, you idiot. As opposed to "the librarian dancing naked in the town square"? "We didn't meet the other day when you brought the scrolls. I don't know why Galen didn't come and get me, I wanted to wring his stupid neck, he knows he should do that. I wanted to say—"
"No." She shook her head. "Don't say anything."
"Please, listen to me. I wanted to be absolutely certain that you intended for us to have them. They are in written in your hand." He hesitated in proffering forth his theory. "They are the only copies you have, aren't they?"
She said nothing.
"We can make a copy for you, or we can copy the originals and return them to you." He fumbled with his robe. "It would take several months, unfortunately, but—"
She cut him off with a low, almost conciliatory tone that nonetheless brooked no argument. "I don't want them. That's why I gave them to the library."
Well, that settles that. Doesn't it? "All right," he acquiesced. "But you must realize—it's not every day I am presented with the opportunity to speak with someone like you. You wrote some of the most legendary tales known to our world. It's like—having Aristophanes, or Herodotus, or Socrates stop by." The librarian smiled.
Gabrielle blotted away tears with the back of a sinewy, tanned arm. "A long time ago, I knew someone once who would have loved to do what you do—live among words." She sniffled, her jaw shifted. "You must be very learned by now."
She spoke with gentle politeness, yet he had the distinct feeling that she mocked him. He fumbled a retort composed purely from false modesty and raging insecurity. "Well, ah, the more one reads, the more one realizes how little one really knows."
She was fastening the leather stays on the vest. "Do you know the works of Heraclitus, Marcellus?"
"Of course!" he blurted, shedding false modesty as easily as a snake does an old skin.
"'Just as the river where I step is not the same, and is, so I am as I am not.'" Her eyes were preternaturally fierce, her gaze as achingly sacred as the ruins of a temple. "The woman who wrote those scrolls you have can tell you nothing, because she's dead. She died many times. And she came back one time too many."
She turned and walked away.
As a certain Poteidaen girl did thirty-two years ago in a similar circumstance, Marcellus followed—blindly, faithfully, and closely on the heels of greatness.
3. The Necessity of Leaving
Sometimes a journey makes itself necessary.
—Anne Carson, The Autobiography of Red
Overnight, the bitter pill of academia was sugarcoated with a fresh layer of snow. It barely merited shoveling, but nonetheless Paul noisily dragged a shovel over the sidewalk in front of the Covington-Pappas manse, creating a scraping noise that, on the level of sheer unpleasantness, ranked close to nails on a chalkboard.
He deposited the shovel on the porch and clapped his hands a few times—there was something perversely satisfying about the soft thump of his gloved hands as they met. Now what? A drink? He grinned. Old Mad Dog thought she could hide all the booze from me. Au contraire, Shorty. But wait, he reminded himself gleefully. I can shovel the path in the back too! And I'm excited by this! Jesus, am I pathetic or what?
He picked up the shovel, walked around to the back, and was nearly knocked off his feet by the sight of Mel, wrapped in her overcoat, sitting on one of the tarp-covered porch chairs.
They weren't due back until the following week.
She stared at him blankly, then looked away.
"You're back," he said. God, I hope she responds, otherwise this means I'm seeing things.
She did reply; her voice, however, was as barren as the winter landscape. "I'm back."
Paul's ears ached at the silence. "You're alone?" he speculated sadly.
Then his nose twitched suspiciously. He caught scent of something he usually associated with Covington. "You're drunk!" He was incredulous.
"I'm drunk." Mel confirmed this with an alarming head bobble.
He climbed on the porch and leaned on the railing in front of her. "What happened?"
"Would you believe me if I told you I wasn't quite sure myself?"
"No. I'd say you're just too smashed to think clearly, and that it hurts too much to talk about it."
She laughed—which, unfortunately, made her head hurt. "Ow." She winced and rubbed her forehead.
"How much did you have, old girl?"
"Everything in that pretty blue bottle." She pointed at the empty bottle sitting on the porch beside her chair.
Only Mel would pick alcohol on the basis on a bottle's attractiveness, Paul thought. "Ah. The Bristol Cream. Excellent choice." He paused. "The whole bottle, huh?"
She purred in the affirmative.
"Sittin' on the porch and drinking out of the bottle," he mused aloud. "And here I thought it was just the hillbillies down your way who did that. Why aren't you barefoot and playing the banjo too?"
"No Southern jokes are permitted today," Mel decreed haughtily.
"Hmm. You're no fun."
"I want to sleep." She tilted her head back and stared at the rotting porch roof. "Do you think it'll help me sleep? I can't sleep."
"Honey, if that bottle of sherry doesn't knock you out, I don't know what will. Why do you think little old ladies are always nodding off in the middle of the day? It's the sherry." He held out a hand. "If you fall asleep out here, though, you're going to get frostbite or worse. Let's dump you on the couch, whaddya say?"
"Charming invitation," she slurred, accepting his hand with a surprisingly warm one of her own.
Paul steered her inside and toward the living room. She was humming Schubert as they reached the sofa. She swayed against him. It was a strange reversal of the last time they saw each other, and an anticipatory dread of what she might do filled him—because he knew the pricking numbness of booze always failed to magically seal over the wound that made you pick up the bottle in the first place.
And so she kissed him—hard. Her mouth was sweet-sour with the sherry but in no way did it diminish his pleasure of feeling her cool lips on his own. It was a kiss designed for seduction—powerful, and in its quickness hinting at wonderful things to come. But he could not help but wonder how many times Janice had succumbed to such a kiss, how many times she had been tamed by those very same lips. It was then he dimly realized that, no matter what, it wouldn't work. It wasn't just that she would always compare him to Janice—he would be doing it too. I don't want to be runner-up in anyone's contest. Not even yours, Melinda.
She ended the kiss and burrowed her face into his neck. "Well? What are you waiting for?"
He chuckled sadly at her gruff, unwilling invitation. I've received more enthusiastic encouragement from prostitutes. "You don't think much of me, do you?" He released her and gently placed his index finger against her sternum and pushed. She toppled onto the couch. "Come see me when you're sober. And when you're certain you aren't in love with another person." Paul's brain became engaged in reprimanding his heart: What did we just agree upon here? You're not waiting around to be second best. It won't work. This woman is a hopeless case. Are you listening to me?
Mel closed her eyes tightly. "That's a tall order, Mr. Rosenberg."
"Tall orders are for tall girls."
"And no jokes about my height either," she mumbled defensively.
He pulled a throw rug over her and—he couldn't help it—kissed her brow. "Sweet dreams."
Mel whispered, "Don't go yet."
Once again he disobeyed common sense—run for the hills!—and hesitated. Wisely he sat down in a chair across the room; even in a sherry-scented fog, she exuded, for him, her unusual magnetism, and he knew that he needed, desperately, to keep as far away from her as possible. "Tell me what happened. You'll feel better."
"I won't. But I'll tell you anyway. She went back."
"She has to find them. She must." Mel clumsily removed the glasses from her face.
There was no need to clarify what they were. To Paul, these mysterious scrolls were like a creature in a dark horror film—ill-defined, vaguely frightening, if only due to the wildly flickering, unstable glint that they always provoked in Janice's eyes—Dr. Covington became Dr. Frankenstein. "But—that's a violation of her teaching contract. Isn't it? She's supposed to return to the university this semester."
He listened to the shifts in her breathing—the delicate crescendos of a subdued symphony, the long tired sighs followed by frustrated staccato breaths—as she fumbled to find words. "She told me she was going back. She had to, she said. Before he finds them. She thinks he's going to find them." Mel snorted loudly in disbelief, the Bristol Cream sufficiently addling her normally unshakable sense of decorum.
Mel closed her eyes. "You made this gentleman's acquaintance, Paul: One Mark Pendleton."
"Him?" Paul remarked incredulously. "Hasn't somebody killed that asshole yet?"
"It's been more of a temptation than you can imagine." She was quiet for several minutes, and her breathing held a steady, even keel.
He assumed she'd fallen asleep. When she spoke again, the deadening bitterness of her voice startled him more than anything. "At first, I thought she was joking. Then I realized she was serious. I tried to reason with her. Then I tried to pressure her. Then I feigned indifference. Then I tried to make her feel guilty. And then I—I tried using my body." She paused. "I'm sorry. I know you didn't want to hear that. I suppose it was just out of—delaying the inevitable, trying to bind her to me at her most vulnerable. But it was all for nothing. When she wants something badly enough, nothing will stop her. Not even me."
She welcomed the soreness of fucking—the distraction of Janice's hand wrapped tightly around the back of her neck, the slick probing of her too-tender cunt, the hard thrusts bearing down upon her sticky thigh, the sudden collapse of Janice atop her, and the warmth of her lover's breath corralled in the nexus of her shoulder and her neck. "All right. You win."
Mel had been momentarily transfixed by the bite mark she'd bestowed upon Janice's shoulder, a series of finely etched red lines; one line was smearing into flesh, blurring into oblivion. She had been almost too distracted to notice this point of concession. "What?"
Janice was still panting against her neck. "Come with me. I need you with me."
"And you said no?" Paul asked gently. "But—why?"
"Duty. Commitment. I have work to do here."
"There you go, doing that noble Southern crap again."
"It's not easy for me—to not do that. Is my work any less important? Am I always the one who must follow? God." She groaned, draping an elegant hand across her face. "I don't know if I'm making sense."
"You are, I guess." Paul looked out the window; snowflakes swayed in the air with a random drunkenness, as if the sky were a vast, cosmic saloon from which they'd all been kicked out. Could snowflakes be made of vodka and not water? No wonder you get so dizzy and intoxicated, catching them on your tongue. I can't believe I'm thinking this and I'm not drunk. I want to be drunk, that's for goddamn sure. I want to be out of here and I want to forget that you kissed me and that I held you in my arms. He did not move. "But you have to admit, you're just as stupidly stubborn as she is."
In response, she snored softly against a sofa cushion.
4. Forget Everything
Alexandria…Lady of the Dew. Bloom of white nimbus…Core of nostalgia steeped in honey and tears.
—Naguib Mafouz, Miramar
Would it be a hoary cliché to liken Alexandria to a woman?
Yes, but why should that stop me? Fayed answered his own question as he drove the pockmarked old truck down the city's main artery, the winding boulevard known as the Corniche. In this, the early morning, he thought the city at its most beautiful—unsullied by traffic, commerce, the petty brutalities of those pounding the pavements and taking for granted the rolling expanse of sky and sea, of Mediterranean blue unscathed by the burning sun. The city seemed particularly abandoned this morning—like a woman whose lover has crept out in the middle of the night without a farewell; the holiday of Eid-ul-Adha was being celebrated by the Muslims of the city, and since most of the workers Janice employed were either conscientious practitioners of the religion or layabouts looking for a holiday, Fayed was certain his beloved friend would be alone on her little excavation site. Somewhat reluctantly, the government had allowed the reprobate Covington back to tear around the Necropolis again. They had been encouraged by both her earlier successes and the gentle influences of Cordahi the civil servant in the matter.
Fayed's arm dangled out the driver's window and lovingly caressed a large dent in the truck's door, an injury the vehicle sustained, he was positive of it, from when Janice kicked it during a fit of pique many years ago. The circumstances of her anger were now vague—either money lost in a poker game, a dig not going well, or another argument with Harry. That was the short list of things she cared about then; women came and went, and Janice could never be bothered to feign joy at one's arrival or regret at another's departure.
Not that his priorities had been radically different from hers during those days. For a significant amount of time, Fayed lived a deceptively carefree bachelor existence, a neatly ordered life governed by superstition and habit. He had the places he visited every day—the round of salons and cafes, tea and flirtations (the great poet among them)—and his work. He had a rotation of lovers, mostly women, occasionally young men, names listed in a book not unlike the one Janice kept, days he preferred certain ones (he always saw Marceline on the first Thursday of the month, for example, because by then she'd received her monthly allowance from her elderly, impotent husband). Whenever she was in Alexandria, Janice, to his eternal annoyance, always upset the balance somehow; inevitably, some names in his book became blacked out, because he could not tolerate the incestuous feeling of sharing a lover with her. He had been particularly put out upon discovering that they shared an American photographer with auburn hair, a husky laugh, and wondrously dark aureoles richly pronounced against her pale skin. (Who cares, as long as she takes a bath beforehand? Janice had said, typically.)
One fateful morning had begun as usual: to the barber for a shave, to the cafe for tea and brioches. But as he left the café—tucking the day's edition of Le Phare d'Alexandrie under his arm while brooding over whether he should give the photographer the heave-ho—he turned the corner of a street he'd gone down thousands of times, and saw, for the first time in his life, Naima. She stood there, motionless, as if she had been waiting there at the corner not for the tram but for him—as if every day she gathered her purse, went out, and stood on this corner, and when he didn't show, she returned to her rituals and her life and waited patiently for another chance, another tomorrow.
Alexandria was a city where people were caught within the reticule of relationships, where if someone wasn't your wife or your friend or your lover, they were instead your second cousin, your uncle, your lover's ex-lover. But Naima, whom he had never seen before in his life, had lived her entire life on this street, two blocks from where he grew up, in this city—his city. That day she filled the street, and looked so much a part of it, that he couldn't believe that he had never seen her before.
So, she had said to him, as a passing trolley managed to ruffle the collar of her blouse and the sheaf of dark hair curled along her shoulder, here you are.
So ended his bachelor life.
Similarly, he thought, fate had intervened to end Janice's bachelor life—Melinda Pappas appearing out of nowhere in the middle of war zone, wearing high heels and brandishing both an accent that could cut through stone and a deceptively helpless attitude, sounded as fabulous to him as Naima, the neighborhood girl he'd never seen before.
But fate was leading his friend and her lover down a very bumpy path. Getting Janice to talk of it was pointless; she was in prisoner-of-war mode and would only cite terse facts:
1. She felt it necessary to resume her search for the Xena Scrolls immediately and so consequently resigned her post from the university.
2. Mel did not agree with this course of action and so returned to the United States.
Initially it had perplexed him, particularly since Janice had previously spoken of how crucial it was that she retain her position within the university, how it lent her the air of legitimacy. How things have changed, he thought. In the old days, it was only fieldwork and money. You did not need this piece of paper from a school. But when she talked about it, her words, he later realized, possessed a cautious, rehearsed quality, as if she had been told this so many times and by so many people (including Harry, who wanted nothing so much as to see her safely ensconced in academia) that she couldn't help but believe it, despite her own relentless, contradictory urges.
The truck rolled to a lugubrious stop, and the spackling sound of stones hitting the truck's hull died away. Janice emerged from the tent, a shovel balanced over one shoulder. The ten pounds she had acquired from her stint as a professor were gone. It was a regression, Fayed thought, to a prototypical self, to an earlier version of what Janice had been.
Before Harry Covington's death, Janice had been a reckless pleasure seeker, secretly in thrall to her father's black market legacy while actively fighting it. After his death, she was a woman transformed—slowly, eventually, a sobering, fine patina of melancholy and sorrow touched her countenance and smoothed those rough edges, and she became quietly, grimly determined to find what had eluded her father. Initially, however, in the days after she'd nearly beaten Bardamu to death, she possessed a lean, mean look, a look that made many a man hesitate before so much as gazing in her direction, but conversely, thrilled the American photographer to no end. You don't always get what you see, and it's a damn shame, she had wistfully told Fayed in those days just before the war's onset, before leaving the country for the safety of her native land. But—and here she lit a cigarette—that little sweetheart fucked as hard and as hungry as she looked. This pronouncement, punctuated by the click of her lighter and a smarmy apologetic smirk, made his heart sink. No offense, honey.
Hard and hungry were fine for sensual pleasures, he thought, but not as a continuing way of life. In this way lies madness. It's a burning in the gut (another American expression he liked) that can court an insatiable appetite for nostalgia, for the continual feeding frenzy off a past fashioned—by desperate memory—into something more idyllic than it actually was.
Fayed knew he had to get her away from the dig, if only for a while. And to do that, he was counting on her sense of compassion. He had been on the verge of cooking up a grand lie about Mel being deathly ill or seriously injured, but was spared this prospect when a genuine crisis arose.
So. His hands, empty, helpless, fell from the steering wheel as he watched her walk toward the truck. Here you are.
As Janice approached, Fayed noted with amusement that she was already covered head to foot in dust and resembled more a relic than a woman. He tried to imagine a statue of Covington in the Place Mohamed Ali: a dirty woman with a shovel instead of a turbaned man—the great leader who resurrected a moribund city—proudly astride his horse. The diggers who fought to preserve the treasures of the glorious past deserved a statue as much as Mohamed Ali did, he believed.
Fayed leaned out the window and put on his best faux seductive expression. "Come, my dear," he crooned, "let me take you away from all this."
"Come with me to the Casbah." Her smile was slight and grudging. "Naima wanted you out of the house again?"
"No." He paused. "Well, yes—but something's come up."
Janice's eyes narrowed. "So she turned up."
The Davies' debauch in Morocco had taken a sour turn. When her husband had insisted it was time to go, Jenny had refused. The last Linus had seen of her, she'd taken up with some strange woman who worked in the marketplace and supposedly dabbled in witchcraft. Frustrated, Linus had returned to Alexandria, alone, smugly assuming his wife would soon follow.
She hadn't. And before they all knew it, he'd lost track of her. His letters to her were returned unanswered.
"Well, yes," the Egyptian drawled.
Janice arched an impatient eyebrow.
"She has 'turned up,' but not here." Fayed didn't quite know how to put it, particularly in a way that would compel Janice to care. "It is not good. She needs fetching."
He cupped his ear with an elegant dark hand. "I beg your pardon, my dear sister?"
She was not amused. "I'm no one's babysitter. I have too much to do here."
"Janice." Fayed's mouth held a grim cast until he spoke. "Listen to me: It is not good. She is in Cyprus."
"Cyprus?" Janice was incredulous. "What happened to Morocco?"
"She was bored."
"Goddamn it, Cyprus is a mess right now." The centuries-old dispute between the Turks and the Greeks over control of the island was—under the influence of modern weaponry, the meddlesome British, and a distinctive twentieth-century taste for ruin—growing uglier with each passing day.
"I know. She is in the Greek part, near Kourion."
"Not surprising," muttered Covington, knowing her former lover's penchant for a warm, attractive body in a uniform. "Goddamn it," she muttered again. "Why can't Linus get someone from the Consulate to get her? Or Interpol? Or goddamn Scotland Yard?"
"It would provoke une scandale, one that a gentleman in Linus's position can ill-afford." He had spent several minutes rehearsing the line at home, even in front of Naima, who endorsed his performance with a lukewarm eh.
Just follow me, Janice, he thought. As you did in the old days, when you were a girl. Don't ask questions. You know you have to do this. You're the only one who can.
Janice's lips twitched skeptically. She let the spade fall from her shoulder, its sharp tip sinking into the tired earth.
You know, you will not fool her for a moment, Naima had said to him.
And he hadn't. She was smiling and shaking her head, hand resting upon her hip.
Fayed beamed. With rough affection he shoved her, his hand thumping against her strong shoulder. She chuckled, and he sensed she withheld something back from that laugh—perhaps an innate joy at the reaffirmation of their bond? Getting Janice to laugh was something of a challenge at times—and a great victory when successful. He loved the merry squint of her green eyes, the way her nose crinkled, her crooked grin, and the contagious giggle itself, starting out low, escalating into a higher octave—something that made her sound unabashedly feminine—and punctuated by a joyous little hiccup.
But her smile faded, her expression glided into its usual, unshakable stoic loveliness. "You said it's not good."
"It appears," Fayed replied quietly, "that Madame's explorations of certain illicit substances may have finally gotten the better of her."
Janice seemed neither surprised nor expectant of this particular development, this sad new wrinkle in Jennifer Davies's life; but her furrowed brow and the pursing of her cherubic lips indicated a resignation to her new role in Jenny's story—as the rescuer of someone who does not want rescuing.
* * *
Ever since she had met Mel, Janice had long ceased trusting her own ability to speak Modern Greek. (Or Italian for that matter. Or French. Or German. Or even English.) Mel had only possessed a basic fluency in the modern version of the language for a long time but soon burnished this into a dazzling fluency that, whenever they spent time in Greece, utterly enchanted the natives, who gasped in delight at the lilt of Mel's accent and the way that it threaded through every uttered syllable as if it were a bright ribbon adorning a thoughtful gift. Janice could only stand as a mute, grumpy witness to this, Mel's everyday brilliance.
Fayed understood her reluctance; had he been Melinda Pappas's lover, he was certain that he would suffer from similar insecurities. So when they touched down in Cyprus he took on the role of translator—for he spoke the language, this language of his Greek mother. Besides, he thought, it would be cruel to make Janice speak Greek after she had barely survived a long, rocky boat ride in which she threw up a grand total of three times, essentially ruining whatever fondness she once possessed for lentil soup.
Every town had a disreputable expatriate, it seemed. The first two villages they encountered outside Kourion had, respectively, a German alcoholic suffering from gout and an English banker who had embezzled a large sum of money from his employer. In the second village, Fayed asked if anyone knew of an Englishwoman living nearby.
Ah. Several of them pointed to the next village, two hours' walk through bright, hilly terrain. An Englishwoman was there, they said, abandoned by her Arab lover—but not, however, by the army of ampoules still at her disposal.
Fayed thanked them with some packs of French cigarettes and—over her protest—Janice's cheap sunglasses. From there, the two friends trudged along on the only path leading out of the one-horse town.
"Good-bye, pret-ty boy!" they heard the villagers shout, in a rolling yet rudimentary English, at their sweaty backs.
The Egyptian raised an eyebrow. "I think that was directed at you."
The coppery-gold mess that was Janice's hair was neatly subdued under the fedora. She was, at the moment, boyishly handsome, and had Julian Manley-Finch been present, he would be worshipping in the dust of her shadow while decanting bad verse into a world leery of his purple prose. She only grunted in response to Fayed's comment and unknotted the red kerchief at her throat, using it to quickly blot sweat from her face.
The kerchief reminded him of Melinda. Once, during a not-so-serious argument, Janice had playfully threatened to gag her with the bandana. Undaunted, she had opened her mouth to welcome the rolled fabric and bit into it gently, firmly. The feral flash of her teeth and the blue flame of her eyes—unwaveringly, silently declaring that she would take anything Janice was willing to give—was memorably erotic to a man who'd seen and sampled most of the decadence that Alexandria had to offer. Shocking, even, because he had deluded himself into thinking that the gentle, hopelessly civilized Mel was somehow incapable of matching the passion of someone like Janice. Hungry—but not hard. Hungry in just the right way.
Janice's thumb was absently stroking the kerchief. Was she too remembering that moment, the imperceptible buckling of her knees as Mel took what was offered, a gesture deliciously translated into the promise—and delivery—of a memorable night? Of how, later, Mel had gently, loosely bound her wrists with the kerchief, the red knot blossoming between her hands like a rose, and how as a result Janice surrendered herself as she had never done with anyone else? And how Mel made love to her in a way that, because of its gentle, ravishing reverence for her body, was all the more demanding and exhausting than anything else she had ever experienced? He could only imagine it as thus, because the day following the kerchief incident, Janice had seemed strangely, sweetly docile—and had blushed furiously when someone innocently used the term "all tied up" in a sentence. He hadn't seen her blush since she was a teenager.
Deftly, she rolled the kerchief and knotted it around her throat.
They walked in silence for a long time. Fayed reveled in the quiet affection they shared; despite her preoccupations with so many other things, there was never any mistaking the simple, direct force of her love. He felt it now, had missed it over the many years of war and separation. He also felt she wanted to talk about something; he rather hoped it was about Melinda, but anything that would alleviate her brooding would be welcomed.
"You must tell me something," she began.
"The cabal. What are its goals?"
He laughed. "After all these years—have you forgotten everything we've taught you, my dear?"
"I remember the readings, the teachings, yes," she retorted. "But the purpose—"
"Balance. Protection of our past."
"Not power?" Janice countered quickly.
He hesitated. "Ultimately, no, it is not about power. But, in its own way, it possesses power—at least in Alexandria, and despite the present regime." He tapped his walking stick against the dry, hard trail as if beating down the insurgent General Nasser and his rabid nationalism. "There will always be an underground—that is what our cabal is. It is not merely what you call the mystical mumbo-jumbo. It is a force to battle the greed of those who will steal the past away from us—like the more disreputable members of your profession." He squinted at her, momentarily regretting the fact that he gave away the only pair of sunglasses they had. "I thought you understood," he added gently.
"How could I? I was never really a part of it. But you are—you are married to Naima. How do you reconcile that little philosophy with the things we've done? For God's sake," her voice dropped to a contemptuous whisper, "we were thieves. My old man sold things to the Nazis. We stole those vases."
"Do you forget why? Our original intention, until Bardamu found out about them, was so that the musée would hide them until the war was over!"
"That's what he wanted you to believe," Janice muttered. She stopped walking.
So did he. "What?"
"Fayed." Janice said his name in a loving, anguished whisper. "Harry wasn't going to give the vases to the museum. He was going to sell them to the highest bidder." Her gaze fell to the ground. "He knew he would get a hell of a lot of money for them—with the kind of cash he was anticipating, we would have been set for years. No more scraping around for funds, no more being in Linus's pockets."
"All for his scrolls." Fayed sneered. "Your scrolls."
"I didn't want him to involve you in it."
"You needn't protect me."
"Maybe I didn't need to, but I wanted to."
The Egyptian shook his head angrily. "Damn it," he hissed. "Harry." The name shot out of his mouth like a curse, and no sooner than it did, than the bitter anger too seeped out of him—perhaps he was unwilling to admit it, but he was, like Janice, angry with the dead. For leaving me, as much as for leaving her. However, if there were an afterlife, Harry Covington was laughing somewhere: So you believed me, huh, Fayed? And here I thought Janice was the big idealist, not you, my child of the streets.
Harry had called him that on occasion. My child of the streets—or, even better, simply, my child. Affectionate, teasing. And he laughed, thinking about it now.
Janice's tense, defensive stance melted; he thought it silly of her, he would never try to hit her—in part because he knew she was a more skilled brawler than he. "You have to give the old man credit. He was a crafty sonofabitch. Aren't you glad he picked you to be one of the family?"
"Our little unhappy family. Tolstoy was right, I suppose."
"Too much vodka makes you blind?" cracked Covington.
"No, you illiterate wretch. 'All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.'" Fayed paused. "Your woman would know that," he added spitefully, defying the silent rule that one dare not invoke either the name of, or an allusion to, Melinda Pappas.
"You and Naima always call her that. Like I own her," Janice accused morosely.
"You do. And she owns you."
He was chuckling—and she was on the precipice of confession—when the shots rang out.
They were lazy warning shots, evenly spaced in a languid tempo, pinging off rocks and raising clouds of dust. Still, they were a promise of things to come, and Janice—with Fayed literally at her heels—bolted for a copse of shrubs situated alongside a particularly large boulder. She slid head first, as if the tall shrubs were home plate.
She sat up, spitting out dirt and experiencing a distinctly unpleasant and familiar pain in her calf. Oh, no. No no no. She groped the back of her leg. A broad, glistening swath of red cutting across her palm confirmed what her brain had been told. "You've gotta be fuckin' kiddin' me!" she hissed incredulously. Janice drew a deep breath; it failed in calming her. She had no idea why it supposedly worked for other people. It did, however, fill her lungs with enough ammunition to scream—at the world, at whoever listened—"I'M STARTING TO TAKE THIS PERSONALLY! "
Fayed was already inspecting the wound. "Again!" he exclaimed with gentle exasperation, as if Janice were a child who had once again skinned a much-abused knee. "Ah. It is a mere graze, fortunately."
"Great." She propped her chin on a fist. "Now what? We wait for them to kill us?"
"No," Fayed retorted in an alarmingly cheery tone. He dug a well-worn but clean white handkerchief out of his pocket. "We surrender."
Janice mustered up the appropriate outrage. "Surrender?"
He cast a withering glance at her. "This is not Custard's Last Stand, my heroic friend." Fayed, in a supple crouch, gingerly stuck an arm out past the shrub and waved his hanky.
Fayed shot her an irritated look. "What?"
"Nothing. I was just thinking I could go for a custard right about now, that's all."
"Mon Dieu, wounded one minute and already you are delirious and talking nonsense." He waved the white cloth again. "This only proves that, as usual, I have the correct idea."
The Greek Cypriots appeared mortified—or at the very least contrite—by the discovery that they had shot not bloodthirsty Turks, but an Egyptian and an American, and both of Greek descent. Additionally, Fayed's incoherent shouting also contributed to a sense of guilt, which the Egyptian then parlayed into having their "captors" take them to the apparently well-known House of Davies, a villa half-buried in the bosky hills and possessing a stunning view of the sea.
The Greeks used a blanket as a stretcher to carry the wounded Janice to the house. The lull of being cradled thus, in addition to the slight yet surprising loss of blood and the high, hot sun—which throbbed under Janice's eyes in an eerie, hallucinatory rhythm that matched the beating of her heart—meant that Janice was quite unconscious by the time their party arrived at the house where Jennifer Halliwell Davies had retreated from the world. This was an acceptable state of affairs for all involved—the mistress of the small villa was herself indisposed. Brilliant thoughts clustered in her mind and struggled through a bitter haze of opiates for the final, satisfying act of articulation, only to die before fleeing her lips or leaking from her pen. She would stop taking the morphine, Jenny thought, but for the fact that the drug which so obfuscated her genius was also its very origin.
* * *
A simple muslin curtain flapped over an open window; the evening breeze bore gifts—lemon and olives and the sea, scents of a home Janice never knew except in the long depths of collective memory. She awoke to these smells, the pleasure of their fragrance a sudden and aching confirmation of sheer absence. This awakening lacked the smells she associated with Mel—that glorious alchemy of perfume, shampoo, sweat, all of it a heady sweetness that somehow embodied the South; if ever a woman's scent cried out to be bottled and marketed, it was hers.
Don't even think about that now. Janice blinked and sat up. Taking account of the coolness of the air and the diffused quality of the light, she guessed it was early evening.
Fayed stood near the window. He smiled when he saw she was up, and brought her a cup of water. "Congratulations," he said, kissing her brow. "You have a new scar."
She gulped down the water. "I'm bursting with pride." Delicately, she confronted the wound: Her pant leg was bundled up to knee level and she contorted the leg to examine the back of the calf. More goddamn stitches. No sooner had the ones on her brow been removed than these appeared. She had a dim memory of being surrounded by old ladies, all short and dressed in black, all chattering in Greek—one brandishing a dusty bottle of alcohol, and another, a large needle and coarse black thread. God, no wonder I fainted again. "How long I been out?"
"Just a few hours."
Janice scanned his face. "Is this it, then? This is her house?"
"Yes." He glanced back at the window and answered the question she was about to ask. "I haven't seen her."
Despite the long and complicated history he shared with Jenny, Janice knew Fayed was fond of her in his own way—a long, tenacious history can do that to people, creating a dubious yet lasting affection—and that whatever addiction had claimed her pained him.
He quickly changed the subject. "This must be like Crete," he said. Crete was the homeland of his mother, an island he longed to visit, but somehow never did.
"You've never been to Crete."
"But this is an island—like Crete, in a similar geography, no? And all islands are basically the same."
"Like all happy families?" Janice retorted.
They smiled at each other and enjoyed another shared silence.
Eventually Janice broke it. "I don't know what to say to her."
"Say nothing. Destroy the opiates and their accoutrements. Give her a few days to recover. Then take her back."
"Is it that easy?" Janice mused.
"What else do you suggest?" he snapped.
"You think kidnapping her will solve everything? I guarantee you, if we do that, she'll be using the minute she's back in Alex." She swung her legs off the bed and stood, gradually placing weight upon the injured leg. Fayed was quickly at her side and she steadied herself with a hand upon his shoulder.
He watched her carefully for any sign of pain, knowing how quickly she would gloss over any discomfort. "Is it all right?"
Janice did wince slightly, but nodded. "Yeah. It'll be okay."
"They gave you a cane. A rather nice one too." He handed it to her.
It was slender, polished mahogany, its head a rounded, thick, yellowing mass of pearl. She seized it with relish. "I always wanted a cane." She permitted her overburdened mind a moment of fantasy as she clutched up on the stick as if it were a baseball bat.
Fayed leaped back as she swung at a high fastball. "Will this be your approach with Jenny?" He raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Good show, as her people say."
* * *
Frankly, Janice did not know what her approach would be. Through the villa's darkened, stone-cool hallways she limped, the stitches tightening around her leg like a noose; in turn, she angrily gripped the cane. On rainy days she limped noticeably as a result of the bullet wound sustained during the war; that was a compromise of her health she could accept, albeit reluctantly. She wasn't, however, prepared to limp full time, especially not on a day—she stopped in front of a large, open window—like this. The sun shone from behind the house, casting it in shadows while pouring gold into the valley below.
Many times she'd entertained the idea of living in a place like this—a remote Grecian paradise, an expatriate's dream—with Mel. Where there was nothing but sun and wine and good food, and long, indolent afternoons spun out into eternity—the ideal time for making love. And the digs—the digs wouldn't be so far away anymore. And Mel could translate anywhere. Or so I thought.
She sat in the window sill and nursed an overwhelming sense of futility. She felt incapable of saving Jenny and incapable of being the woman that she assumed Mel wished her to be. Why didn't you come with me? Just this once? I've played the little professor in the starched blouse for long enough. It's "chasing the chimera time," as you called it once. You knew what you were getting into. Why did you ever say you'd follow me anywhere, if you didn't really mean it? "It'll be just you and me, under the stars." Romantic bullshit. You fucked me senseless, you fucked me like you meant it. And then you said you wouldn't come with me.
Roughly she caressed her temples. This is not what I should be thinking about right now. It's Jenny. Women are such a pain in the ass! How the hell do I play this?
She didn't know. Nonetheless, she stood and ambled painfully down the hallway toward the master bedroom.
Janice had seen enough of addiction—from alcohol and other substances—to know its transformative effects, not just on behavior, but appearance as well. She only hoped she would be prepared for whatever she saw. She knocked lightly upon the door and, finding it ajar, slowly pushed it open.
The smell of ether in the room was as heavily tangible as the dark red curtains hovering over the windows. The large bed dominating the room was a patchwork of dirty sheets, old clothes, books, and loose papers.
Jenny was not in the bed but instead sitting at a large desk, weaving a pen between her fingers with a crab-like gyration. A lit cigarette, precariously ignored, sat in an ashtray. Morphine had etched a severity into her features; the lines delineating her face were sharper, her cheekbones pronounced before sinking into a tundra of concave flesh. Her hair was wilder than ever; what had once been curly was now a frizzy, wiry mandorla framing her gaunt face.
What unnerved Janice the most was those eyes: bright, unfocused, and completely unlike the old Jenny, the woman who always looked ahead, who was always so devoted to the present and scornful of the past, who was so keenly observant of every situation she found herself in, and so looking forward to the next good meal, the next one-night stand, the next round of drinks and bantering gossip, that one found it hard to believe that she'd ever had a regret in the world. Now that gaze was unmoored from reality, looking inward, looking back, into memories and imaginary worlds that Janice had no hopes of accessing.
Janice swayed, looked away. She cupped a hand under her eyes to catch tears that weren't quite ready to fall.
"It's you." Jenny spoke softly.
She could not recall if she had ever heard Jenny speak with such tenderness before, even at the height of their affair, even when they made love.
"Am I imagining you? Janice?"
I wish you were. I wish I were. With a rough exhalation of breath, Janice sat down on the tempest-tossed bed. "Yes. It's me."
The Englishwoman pushed herself away from the desk. She was dressed in a long white shift, a nightgown of sorts, frayed at the edges but relatively clean, for the women of the house—those small, black-clad widows—did their best to take care of her. "They told me you were here." Her voice retained a hint of wonder. "And Fayed too."
"To bring you home," Janice croaked.
"Home. Where is home?"
"Home is—with your husband. He wants you back. He'll take you wherever you want to live. But he wants you back at his side."
"I wonder why." Jenny's eyelids flickered, as if she were waking up from a nap. "And you—you came all this way, for me?"
Time tortured them with long silence.
"Bloody hell." Unexpectedly, Jenny grinned, and seemed more like her old self. "I'm flattered. It's a grand gesture, darling, even though I'm sure Fayed forced you every step of the way. Where's Tallulah?"
Janice blinked. "Who?" Although she had a suspicion who Jenny meant.
"The breathtakingly, backbreakingly, ballbustingly beautiful Melinda. Melinda Iliona Pappas—quite a fucking name, that, when you string it all together. Beautifully pretentious, she wears it well." She laughed at the surprised look on Covington's face.
Janice shook her head in disbelief. "Took me eight blasted years to find out her middle name."
"How that woman has deluded you, Janice—you, who always thinks like a thief." Jenny rescued her cigarette from disuse. "Saw it on her passport, dearie, while I did a bit of snooping in your room one day. She's older than you too! That I did not expect. I do hope she has not told you otherwise."
"Now you sound—more like you." Janice said it with a hesitant hopefulness.
Jenny held aloft her cigarette and crossed her legs. "It comes…and it goes. In a matter of minutes I may be on my knees begging you to plant a needle in my arm."
It was impossible for Janice to keep the anguish out of her voice. "Why have you done this to yourself?"
"It would be easy to blame you…" Jenny trailed off.
Guilt sent up a flare in the guise of righteous anger. "Don't you dare put this on me," Janice hissed.
"As I said, it would be easy to blame you," Jenny resumed calmly. "But untrue. I don't know how to explain it to you. You only dabbled in these things."
I don't like to dabble in things I know nothing about. Janice recalled these words, said by Jenny, all those years ago, when they first became lovers.
"You kissed, you teased, you brushed up against the beast. I embraced it wholeheartedly, without reservation." Jenny's hand shook as she took a drag off the cigarette. "Wait. I lie. I have blamed you for this. I loved you. After you, I sought your reflection in every man and every woman I took to my bed. In Morocco, I came close to finding someone who made me forget you. When that was over…there was an accident. Did Linus tell you? No? Suffice it to say it involved me behind the wheel of a bloody old Citroen and a camel. I injured my back. At least I didn't end up dead, like the camel did. I did, however, end up in the hospital. The doctors there—well, they don't give a damn how much morphine you have, as long as you have the money and it keeps you quiet." Her voice quavered. "And my God, how it silenced my pain—all of it. Ah, Janice. Don't be angry with me. It's my doing in the end. I've blamed you, but I blame my husband even more.
"I blame him for the life of lies he lured me into. I believed in his lies so much that I sacrificed you, I let you go. But I shall have my revenge." Jenny pointed at the desk. "I'm writing a history of his cabal, his sacred goddamned brotherhoods—MI5, Stella Matutina—they're all connected, they are a maze of lies." Unexpectedly, she laughed. "Oh, I see your look. You think I'm mad. Well, yes, I am, I suppose, one must be for such an undertaking." She paused and drew several deep breaths; over the course of her monologue her voice had gathered speed and slid, silky and seductive, over every syllable until she gasped for air.
Janice sat motionless, elbows on knees, her hands a hopeless knot of fingers resting against her chin. What the hell am I going to do?
Jenny dropped the cigarette on the floor. With unerring aim, Janice crushed the butt with the tip of her cane.
"You still haven't answered my question." Jenny squinted at her. "Where's your Confederate Concubine? Is there trouble in paradise? Has the Deb given you the boot?"
"Jesus, Jenny, how many nicknames do you have for her?"
"Let's see…the Deb, Miss Magnolia or Melinda Magnolia, Mrs. Covington or 'Mrs. C' for short, Tallulah—that was Linus's idea, you know how he adores Miss Bankhead—and finally, my own personal favorite, the Bloody Fucking Bitch Who Broke My Bloody Fucking Chaise Lounge While Fucking the Woman I Love."
"That one's a bit unwieldy."
"I thought at the very least you'd appreciate such rhythmic usage of your favorite word. If I ever work it into sonnet form I shall call it Iambic Fucking Pentameter."
Covington massaged her brow. "You got a lot of time on your hands."
"Darling—you should hear how many nicknames I have for you. But yes, the Opiate Family does that to you. Time is meaningless."
"You need to pull yourself out of the family bosom, Jenny."
"Ah, yes." She closed her eyes, revealing eyelids shockingly dark, a dull, battered purple. "And still—my question remains unanswered. Why isn't the Adored Melinda with you?"
"She has a job."
"So do you."
Jenny's eyes fluttered open. "Whatever do you mean?"
Janice shrugged uneasily. "It's not for me. Teaching. Academia. That life."
"You mean the life you share with her."
That life—is it still mine? Is it still within my grasp? "I still love her. That hasn't changed."
"Even shootin' up, you haven't changed." Janice permitted a small, sadly affectionate smile to grace her lips.
"I know," Jenny agreed emphatically. "Rather amazing, isn't it?"
With that, Janice laughed.
"I've missed hearing that. That laugh. You're so wonderfully, strangely beautiful, Janice." Before Covington could protest, Jenny cut her off again. "Were you unfaithful to her?"
"No," Janice retorted icily.
"She's so very lucky without knowing it. I still recall the times you came to me reeking of another woman."
"It was only twice." Was it?
"And such memorable occasions they were that my mind has chosen to replicate them ad infinitum. You were so young, such a fool. I wanted to kill you with my bare hands. Instead I let you have me on the rug, by the fireplace."
"You should have killed me. I wouldn't have blamed you."
"Don't be pathetic. Now tell me why you left."
I left because she told me to go. "A little difference of opinion on how to conduct our lives." Edgily, Janice conceded, "Maybe you were right. It was too much to expect her to follow me around on my 'mad little missions.'"
Not that Janice had initially given her the option to follow. She'd never heard Mel speak with such frigid, stinging rage: You think you can leave me behind whenever you feel like it. As if I'm nothing to you but a whore.
"Yes," Jenny concurred. "But I'm certain if you go crawling back to her, all will be forgiven. You must try, you know."
"I can't believe you said that."
"I can't believe it either. And I don't know if I should blame the drugs or not." Jenny hunched ever so slightly into a defensive crouch, fearing, with good reason, the power of her words. "I know you think me completely selfish. But I love you, and I want your happiness. You'll only be happy with her." A sharp, ticklish sensation crawled through her muscles; if she hadn't already known it was a pang of withdrawal she might have attributed it to the agony of truth-telling. "Would things have been different—if you came here and found me as I once was? But no, you came and found me like this. We could have had one glorious false start, don't you think? No, that would not do for either of us, even a ruined wretch like me." She closed her eyes and pictured the jeweled drip of morphine from the vial, the only relief of the liquescent vise—blood, muscles, flesh, mind—this reality, this stranglehold called life. The vision sated her craving, if only for the briefest span of time it took to further spin this tale of a life that was now, it seemed, impossibly out of reach. "But I know, oh, I know what would happen if I took up with you again. We'd live this very romantic, hand-to-mouth existence, and we'd be very happy for a time, going from city to city, dig to dig, bar to bar. You'd keep me from hating myself. I'd keep you from getting too goddamned bloody serious and obsessive—and I'd even keep you out of jail too, if you ask nicely. Perhaps we'd find a flat together. It'd go on fine for a while, perhaps even for a several years. And then, let's say, we'd be at another one of those conferences you hate, or in America. And you'd see her again, Janice. Somewhere, in this world that doesn't seem quite big enough, you'd meet up with her again. Those blue eyes would hypnotize you again and again and again. So you see, it's better that you found me like this. It's better this way. We're better off not wasting time, not fooling ourselves." Jenny stretched, the tautening of her body another distraction. "You must leave me now. For good."
"No." Janice's mind reeled. Is this what the Old Man had meant, about the burdens of a great love? Was the tragedy of it that it inadvertently caused pain to people that you cared about, that it blinded you to consequence?
Jenny looked at her haggardly. "Taking me back to him won't help."
"Neither will staying here." Janice moistened her lips thoughtfully. "But if you stop—now—I will stay here with you, until you're better. I'll do whatever I can to help you through it."
"Ah. That is very tempting, Covington. You'll hold my hand. Tuck me into bed. Perhaps in due time you'll even crawl in with me—even though you may be thinking of someone else. You have such an unselfish nature, darling." Jenny closed her eyes tightly; the battered eyelids pulsed with tremors. "I need it now," she murmured. "Unless you are interested in watching, I suggest you leave."
Janice stood, but hesitated. There was a definitive kind of cowardice in turning away. No. It's not an option. You can't look away. Staring "the beast" in the face meant facing the ugliness and the fear—and it meant she would be far, far less tempted to tread this path ever again.
Jenny opened her eyes just as Janice sat down; she looked pleased, even perhaps slightly awed, at this courageous act. "So you'll be here to watch me in thrall to the beast. I shouldn't be surprised. I've always known how brave you really are." She stood up shakily. Janice stood again to help but Jenny waved her off wildly, like a mad conductor whipping an orchestra into a cacophonic frenzy, and tottered over to a dusty vanity. Eyes carefully averted from the mirror—not out of the fear of seeing what she looked like, but rather the reluctance of starting yet another disjointed monomaniacal monologue and possibly delaying her gratification even further—Jenny opened a drawer and retrieved a small kit bag. She settled in at the vanity, sitting atop the small stool facing the large mirror. She rolled the small ampoule between her fingers; the mere touch, the sensation of the cool smooth glass was a calming ritual, an aperitif for addiction. Jenny risked a glance into the mirror and saw Janice's inscrutable, calm reflection. "It will be just as you imagined." She reached for the needle. "Because you know, as I do, that possession is itself a kind of loss."
To be continued
Note. The Sappho quote is from Willis Barnstone's 1998 translation of Sappho's fragments.
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