The chief of police closed the manila folder containing the inspector's report and pitched it down on his desk. "I agree, Pratikakis," he said. "This was probably a robbery gone wrong and not premeditated murder."
"The old man and the girl are still just as dead," observed Inspector Pratikakis.
"In any event it's not very promising," the chief commented, as he leaned back in his creaky old swivel chair. "You seem to have hit a dead end."
"I know," conceded Pratikakis. "No one saw anything; no one heard anything; I could not come up with one solid clue as to either who the killer might be or even what he was after."
The chief touched the tips of his fingers together and thoughtfully gazed up at the dingy gray plaster that was slowly peeling down off his ceiling. "I think that for the moment you should concentrate your efforts on this..." Leaning forward he, picked up the report once again and began to scan for the name. "...Covington woman and her friend."
"I agree," said Pratikakis. "I had the distinct feeling she was not being completely truthful with me."
"Talk to her men," the chief counseled. "Find out if the two of them spent much time off the site, particularly in regard to Frailing. Talk to Frailing's people as well. Ask them about the nature of these women's visits to Frailing. Ask if they knew of any conflict between the two camps. Who knows? You might get lucky."
Pratikakis gave his superior a wry look and replied, "It would be the first time. This Covington is very sharp and certainly nobody's fool."
"And from what you say in your report, emotional and quick to anger."
"True," said Pratikakis. "But like I said she's also smart, very smart. And shrewd. She'll be a tough nut to crack. Pratikakis put a hand to the back of his neck and massaged it with a couple of very hard strokes. It had already been a long day and he was very tired. At forty-eight, he just did not seem to have the stamina he once did. When he was younger twelve, fourteen, sixteen hour days were nothing for him. But the war and more specifically the German occupation seemed to have somehow eaten away at his very core and left him but a shell of the man he had once been. The strain of public service under the Nazis had almost been too much for him. Arresting criminals was one thing, tracking down innocent people so that the Germans could cart them off to God knows where simply because they had not fit into the Nazi scheme of things was quite another. He had never known which unfortunate individual--including himself--would be next and this dread had very nearly broken him. Now there were times when it required using all his willpower just to get out of bed in the morning. Hopefully that would all change soon enough.
Finishing his line of thought, he said, "On the other hand her friend seems to be what the Americans call a "cream puff."
"How so?" his boss asked.
"She's the quiet type," replied the inspector. "Shy, somewhat timid, maybe even submissive. And unlike Covington she seems uncomfortable with confrontation."
"So I take it you want to ahh, 'confront' her."
"Let's put this egg in the incubator and turn up the heat," said the inspector. "You never know just what might hatch out."
"How so?" his boss asked.
"She's the quiet type," replied the inspector. "Shy, somewhat timid, maybe even submissive. And unlike Covington she seems uncomfortable with confrontation."
"So I take it you want to ahh, 'confront' her."
"Let's put this egg in the incubator and turn up the heat," said the inspector. "You never know just what might hatch out."
Grinning at the inspector's pale metaphor, the chief said, "Just remember to tread lightly. The last thing we need is some sort of incident. We don't want to be accusing American citizens of any crime with the proof to back it up."
"The Americans might give us mules to plow with and guns with which to fight the Communists," said Pratikakis, "but that does not insulate their citizens from being punished for breaking our laws. I assure you I'll be the soul of propriety."
Pratikakis lifted himself up out of his chair and stiffly stood up.
"How are the legs these days?" his chief asked.
"Fine," the inspector lied. "They haven't given me any trouble for months."
"I noticed in your report that you did not interview Covington's friend. When do you plan on seeing this other one--what's her name....?"
"Pappas," said the inspector, thus saving his boss the trouble of bothering with the folder again. "Melinda Pappas."
"Pappas," the chief echoed. "A nice Greek name."
"She's no more Greek now than that bastard Mussolini was," the inspector countered. As he made his way out he turned at the door and said, "If that girl knows anything, I'll get it out of her." Closing the door behind him, he murmured, "And with a little luck maybe a whole lot more."
However he first intended to pay a little visit to a certain Miles Kettering.
It was not without a little irritation that Janice Covington now eyed the Brit. "Already have it?" she asked. "Then what the hell are you need me for?"
"Not just you," Kettering corrected her. He tilted his head in the direction of the surprised Melinda and said, "I need her as well."
Immediately Janice's quick mind grasped the significance of what he was saying. Somehow, some way, Kettering had learned of Melinda's specialty. Breaking into a slow, sly grin, she said, "You can't read it, can you? You can't read this map of yours."
"No," Kettering admitted. "That is to say I can read it--or rather, I thought I could-- but try as I might I cannot decipher it. You see although the language appears to be the standard Greek of the period but it does not seem to make any sense at all. I was thinking that since my language skills lie more in the way of hieroglyphics I might perhaps be missing something here. Here he paused and with hopeful eyes nodded at the belle. "I understand your friend here is something of an expert in ancient languages."
The only acknowledgment he received from either of the women was Janice's terse "You've done your homework. Mel here is the best there is."
"Excellent!" Kettering exclaimed. Beaming at Melinda, he asked "So what do you say, Miss Pappas? Are you in?"
"Well uhh, Mister Ke...Miles, that depends on what...Jan here wants to do. If she decided to help you then I reckon I will too."
"Such loyalty," Kettering breezily remarked. "It is so rare these days."
At this Janice felt the anger well up inside her once more. Kettering's tone had been ambiguous--certainly not snide--but still, even the very notion that he might be in some way belittling the boundless, loving devotion which her gentle partner bestowed upon her every day of her life was enough to make the archaeologist clench her teeth so tightly that from where she was standing Melinda could easily her them gritting. Treasure or no treasure, for two very precarious seconds the only decision Janice was pondering was whether to punch the man in the mouth or kick him in the groin. Or both.
Luckily for Kettering, Janice's real fury was soon gone, receding back to her usual irritation. "All right," she snapped. "Let's cut the crap and lay our cards on the table. How much are we talkin' about here?"
"The value of the treasure is inestimable," said Kettering."
"Okay, so you need Mel for the map," said Janice. "Where do I fit into this?
"You have a reputation as a woman who knows how to get things done," Kettering began. "A woman who is resourceful, relentless........" Here Kettering paused. With a faint smile he went on, "And who doesn't mind getting her hands dirty or stepping on a few toes to get what she wants. You see, I need that, Covington. I won't kid you, there could be considerable risk involved here and we may encounter a few nasty moments along the way. I need your strength, Covington. I need your determination. In short, I need someone with guts!
Well! thought Melinda. You certainly came to the right place!
"We need each other, Covington."
Janice, however, was not moved by this assessment or by his praise. She had more practical matters on her mind. "So what's the cut?"
His face reflecting his mild surprise, Kettering looked at her and said, "You help me find the treasure and bring it back--and I'll give you ten per cent."
Janice snorted contemptuously and shook her head. "No fucking way. What do you think I am? An idiot? Try again."
"Now see here, Covington," Kettering exclaimed. "What kind of game are you trying to play here? This is an offer in good faith."
"No games," said the archaeologist said, her green eyes burning into his. Anything we find we split three ways or it's no dice."
"Absolutely not!" Kettering exploded. "It's preposterous! This is my idea. I'm the one who did all the work on this."
"Tough," grunted Janice. "God damn it! You just got through saying how much you need us. Okay so you've got a map--so what? You can't read it but I'll bet you a battleship to a bobby pin that Mel here can. We can help you find that treasure, Kettering, but it's going to take nothing less than a three way split to get our asses out off this mountain."
"This is blackmail," Kettering croaked.
"Call it what you want," Janice calmly countered. "It's just a simple business deal."
"I'm willing to reward you handsomely for your help but I won't give up two thirds of the treasure," Kettering declared. "It's my idea, my initiative, and my treasure,"
"Go get it then," Janice said with a smirk.
"Don't be a fool, Covington! I'm offering you the chance of a lifetime. Ten per cent could mean hundreds of thousands of pounds, or more."
"Fuck you and your ten per cent!" Janice snapped back at him. "I'm not risking my ass, certainly not my friend's, for a measly ten per cent." Eyes flashing, she turned to Melinda and said, "I haven't got time for this. This is all bullshit, Mel. There's no treasure anyway." The face then softened and her voice became noticeably gentler. "So," she asked, "you wanna help me lay out the new spot?"
This was not a task Melinda usually shared in and so the belle recognized Janice's request for what it was--an excuse to get her out of the tent and away from Kettering's entreaties. "I'm ready when you are," she said to her friend.
Casting a glare back at the Brit, Janice said, "Good luck, Kettering," and then began to make her way to the front of the tent.
"Meeting's adjourned," Janice brusquely replied over her shoulder. "Now hit the road."
"You're making a terrible mistake!" Kettering called out after her.
"It wouldn't be the first time," said Janice. "And besides, I'd worry about my own ass if I were you. You know what the political climate around here is like. If you were to run into the wrong group of people out here after dark, well....."
Janice conveniently let her works trail off but Kettering caught her meaning well enough. More than that, he knew she was right. Communist insurgents were rumored to be in the Volos area and they took a dim view of foreigners, especially the British. It had taken him considerable effort to get up here and at the moment he had no real desire to go through it again. "I say, Covington, could I trouble you for a lift into town?"
"I didn't bring you up here," Janice coolly reminded him.
For the tender-hearted Melinda this was too much. Her voice as close to a scolding tone as she could muster, she said, "Ja-yun! That poor man is in no condition to hike back down this mountain."
"He got up here all right, didn't he?"
"Look at him. He looks exhausted." Her soft voice brimming with compassion, Melinda asked "My God, did you even notice that he ate your sandwich?"
Janice had noticed. In fact there was not much of anything that got past those sharp eyes of hers. In a weak attempt at humor she replied, "Jeez, Mel, I thought you ate it."
Melinda Pappas was not amused. "Now, Jan, whether or not we help this fella is of course up to you. You know I'm with you whatever you decide to do. But, darn it, makin' him walk back down is just plain mean."
Already Melinda's stomach was churning and her palms were starting to sweat. The force of Janice's personality was so powerful and to confront her always left the belle a bundle of nerves. Because of this she was content most of the time to overlook Janice's excesses. But not this time. Melinda felt Janice was clearly in the wrong here and because of that she simply could not in good conscience let the matter drop.
Janice stared up at the statuesque beauty for a moment, her own eyes--penetrating and pertinacious--locked in a visual embrace with those enchanting azure eyes she knew so well. Presently a look of amusement washed over her face and her lips slowly curled into a faint smile. Janice Covington knew well enough how difficult moments like this were for Melinda and she was more than a little proud of her partner for now taking this stance. To the fiery archaeologist it was just another one of those contentious little moments that she almost seemed to crave. All her life Janice had issued these little challenges to others, pushing them, testing them, measuring their wills against her own. If the other person chose to push back, fine. Janice had always been able to give as good as she got. If not, well that was one more battle won in her own private little war.
Her attitude was, however, markedly different when Melinda was involved. With every other human being on the planet Janice did not care one iota about hurt feelings or about inconsequential matters such as whether or not they liked her. All that she required of them was that they respect her. This indifference, of course, did not apply to one Melinda Pappas. More than merely important it was vital to Janice's psyche that Melinda not think badly of her. Yes, she knew better than anyone how difficult she could be. However, to Janice's eternal gratitude Melinda alone seemed capable of seeing through the hard veneer the archaeologist had built up over the years and into the innermost reaches of her heart. Only Melinda understood her. Only Mel...loved her. Even now, after seven years, Melinda Pappas seemed too good to be true!
Looking at the belle's sensuous, inviting lips now drawn tight, those classic cheek bones, the long black hair on her shoulder now being tickled by the gentle breeze, her tanned face looking imploringly back at her own, Janice's heart once again melted. "Yeah well," she muttered, "maybe you're right."
Thrusting her hand into her trouser pocket, Janice fished out the worn key to their old truck. "Just hang loose till I get back," she said.
"Let me take him," Melinda suggested. "You've already lost enough time today."
"You sure?" The thought of Melinda's herding that rickety old truck down the mountain was not exactly one that she relished. Still, the belle had done it before and, gazing into those anxious eyes, Janice could see this was important to her. Melinda did so like to be useful.
"All right," said Janice, tossing her the key. "You take him."
Melinda made a clumsy, two-handed attempt to catch the key and, characteristically enough, fumbled it away and dropped it. "Oops!" Back in her college days Melinda's friends heard this so often they had naturally dubbed her "Oopsie."
As Melinda bent her lanky frame over to pick the key up out of the dust Janice rolled her eyes and smiled. Retrieving the pesky key, Melinda stood back up. "There now," she said brightly, pushing her glasses back into place with the tip of her finger.
Janice's smile faded and once more she was all business. "Take the guy to town and come straight back."
"No detours, no pickin' up hitchhikers, no friggin' stopping for damsels in distress, ya got that?"
"Got it," Melinda assured her with a nod.
For Janice this was not enough. Despite having clearly established the undertone she still found herself compelled to forcefully add, "BE CAREFUL! Especially on that one curve, you know the one I'm talking about."
Melinda reached out and gently touched Janice on the forearm. "Don't worry."
I can't help it! thought Janice. "All right then," she said aloud. "Load our friend up and get him outta here."
As Melinda was making her way back to the tent Janice called after her, "Hey!"
Over her shoulder Melinda answered, "What?"
If that bucket of bolts breaks down don't go wandering all over the countryside. Stay with the truck so I can find you."
Melinda spun on her heels and, walking backwards, continued on toward the tent. "Jaaaa-yun!" she called out in exasperation. "I'm not a little kid! I'll be fine."
Though Janice would have been loathe to admit she was afraid of anything, the thought of her precious Mel being caught out in Greece's troubled countryside after dark, away from her protection, was one that terrified her. At the moment Greece was an embattled place, such a broiling cauldron of strife and political unrest that one just never knew where trouble might fester up next.
But as much as Janice would have liked to shelter Melinda and keep her from harm, she knew there were times when she must back off and allow Melinda to go her own way. Melinda herself had said it, she was not a kid but a brave young woman. She was smart and during the war had proven time and time again just how capable she really was. It was just that...Janice loved her so much!
As the archaeologist watched Melinda talk to Kettering a comforting thought came to her. If Mel got into real trouble--well, there was a distinct possibility that she would be able to count on the help of a certain bad-ass ancestor....
Janice never took her eyes off Melinda as she collected the still rattled Kettering and walked him to the old truck. A few moments later the relic's engine was coughing to life and when Melinda eased out the clutch the wheels almost grudgingly began to roll forward. Before long Melinda and her passenger dropped out of Janice's line of sight with only their long trail of dust that was now lazily wafting away to the east left to mark their passage. Instinctively Janice checked her watch. An hour at the most, she thought.
"Okay, boys!" she yelled out. "Off your asses! Break's over."
Instantly twelve men sprang to their feet. The foreman come over and she began to point out to him what she wanted done. The man nodded and then repeated her instructions to the men right down to using the same arm movements she had. The crew at once set to work and as Janice started off toward the far side of the hill the foreman rushed up and fell into step with her. After checking her watch once more she stole a quick glance down the road where a faint, wispy line of dust still remained as silent testament to her love's recent traversal.
Already Janice missed her.
Nearing the curve about which Janice had warned her, Melinda carefully slowed the truck enough to allow her to drop the transmission out of high gear and into second. Learning to drive, especially manipulating the clutch and the "H" pattern of a column shift of their car back home had for a time seemed like one of life's unfathomable mysteries to her. However Janice had been patient in teaching her and as most beginners do she had gotten the hang of it soon enough. A shaky driver at first, Melinda grew so confident and self-assured behind the wheel that by the time she was introduced to the intricacies of the old truck's floor shift she found learning it to be a piece of cake. To many this personal little triumph might have been nothing special but it was just one more indication of how much the woman had grown in the last seven years.
The belle negotiated the turn, leaving the truck in second gear because of the steep down grade that lay just ahead. Since departing the camp she and the dejected Kettering had not spoken at all, leaving both of them--oddly enough--free to ponder their own next move would be.
Finally it was Kettering who broke the monotonous whine of the truck's engine. "Your friend Covington," he began, "is quite the hard case. Is she always so difficult?"
In light of Kettering's mood Melinda had no real desire to debate him on the nuances of Janice's personality and it was for this reason that she tactfully answered, "Jan just believes in plain speaking. She's very forthright."
Kettering emitted a low, rueful chuckle and said, "Ha! You say she's forthright, I say she's downright choleric."
"She's not that way at all!" Melinda heard herself blurting out.
The passion in the lady's response caught Kettering off guard and he now focused on her with a surprised look on his face.
Quickly regaining her composure, Melinda began to expound. "What I mean tuh say is, you don't...know...her like...I know her. If she likes you, if she trusts you, she'll do anything for you but first..." Descending the incline, the truck to pick up speed and so Melinda eased down on the brake. "...you have to earn that trust, Mister Kettering. You see, unlike most of us she's not willing to give a person the benefit of the doubt. And for good reason I might add. With Janice you have to-"
Interrupting her, Kettering smirked "Prove yourself worthy? I find that a bit supercilious."
The blue eyes behind those horn-rimmed glasses turned ice cold. How dare you say that? she thought furiously. Who are you to talk about proving yourself?
For a fleeting moment she was tempted to enlighten him as to Janice's illustrious war record and to also challenge him to try to even come close to it. However they even now were not supposed to talk about such things and so all she said was, "That's not what I was going to say."
Having already antagonized one female today, Kettering was not about to repeat his error and so he wisely changed his tack. Hoping his voice sounded sincere enough, he said, "Frightfully sorry. I certainly meant no disrespect." He grinned at her and added, "But even you must admit she does have a temper."
Glad that he seemed willing to drop the subject Melinda returned his grin with a little half--smile of her own. "She does at that."
"How long have you known her?"
"Seven years," came the reply.
"You must enjoy working for her," the man remarked.
"Despite what you might think I don't work for her," said Melinda, mildly correcting him. "I work with her."
"Oh really?" said Kettering, his voice dripping with incredulity.
Catching the man's tone of disbelief, Melinda explained, "Jan has her work and I have mine. It's true of course that she's the leader. Golly, I could never do that. But Jan leaves it to me to do my work in my own way and she never interferes."
Here was the opening Kettering had been looking for. "Well I'm glad to hear that because you see, it's not too late, Miss Pappas." While in the presence of the daunting Covington his suggestion to Melinda that formalities be dropped had seemed appropriate enough. After all, Americans were big on that sort of thing. However here--alone with this woman of remarkable beauty--he found any attempt at using first names uncomfortable somehow.
"What are you saying?" Melinda warily asked. By now the incline was beginning to level out so Melinda depressed the clutch and pulled the floor shift straight back, settling it into high gear.
Very smoothly he replied, "Just that since Covington, as you say, doesn't interfere with your work, she surely would not object to you taking a look at something for me."
Suddenly Melinda began to regret being such a good Samaritan. More than that, she resented having her words thrown back at her like this. Nevertheless, what would Janice say? Would she even care at all? Then again, why should she? the belle thought. Had she not told Kettering she was totally uninterested? What could she say then? The only thing was, Janice was so unpredictable. The thought occurred to Melinda that just maybe her friend's indifference had for some reason merely been feigned. It would be just like her to do that, she thought. Janice was sooo crafty and an absolute master at such maneuvering. Still, she had not said so. But what if she had?
Melinda knew her lover all too well for this was in fact exactly what Janice had done. She felt that if Kettering was serious about his proposal he would be back--with a better offer of course. She had not told Melinda because the belle had this rather inconvenient penchant for telling the truth and Kettering would be sure to get it out of her.
Still lost in thought, Melinda heard her passenger utter an expectant "Well?"
"Golly, Mister Kettering, I--I don't know. I--"
"Oh, I see," Kettering nodded knowingly. "You are afraid of Covington."
"I am not!" Melinda indignantly shot back. "It's just that..." Only in her mind did she complete the sentence, I don't want to do the wrong thing!
"Miss Pappas, let me put your mind at ease. I assure you this has nothing to do with my offer to Covington. So come on, what do you say? I promise I'll make it worth your while."
Melinda did not answer immediately but instead merely continued to drive on in silence, her eyes riveted to the road and her hands tightly gripping the steering wheel. In an attempt to put him off she asked, "How do you know you can trust me?"
Kettering's smile was a faint one as he replied, "As I said this has nothing to do with the treasure. I would never ask you to compromise your friend." He looked at her in amusement and added, "Besides, I doubt if you've ever told committed a treacherous act in your entire life."
Hearing this, Melinda was not quite certain if he had meant the remark to be a compliment or some kind of wisecrack. Kettering sensed she was still indecisive and it was here that he decided to play his trump card. Reaching into the front pocket of his trousers, he pulled out a folded up wad of notes. This he held up in front of his face and said, "I've got twenty pounds here, Miss Pappas. Help me out and it's yours. That's twenty for what, five minutes of your time? Not a bad deal, wouldn't you say?"
Shifting her eyes from the road, Melinda stole a lingering glance and the money. Odd, she thought. With that kind of money he could have hired someone to take him up the mountain. Such a strange man!
Encouraged by her apparent interest, Kettering said, "Just because your friend Covington chose to pass up an opportunity doesn't mean you have to do the same."
Melinda checked the road and then took another look at the wad of bills. Twenty British pounds was a lot of money in anyone's book. With it, she could do something extra nice for Janice. Dinner in a nice restaurant maybe.....
By the time they passed a sign reading, "Volos 5km," Melinda Pappas had made up her mind.
For perhaps the tenth time Janice Covington stepped outside the tent and peered down the road that led off the mountain. Damn it to hell! she silently raged. Where is she?
The shadows were growing very long now with the sun but a glowing ball of orange hanging low in the western sky.
Two hours! Janice thought, anxiously checking her watch again. She should have been back two hours ago! All of her men were gone for the day, leaving no one for the fretful archaeologist to vent her frustration upon. "God damn it!" she growled through gritted teeth.
Stalking her way a few paces from the tent, she came across an old tin can someone had carelessly tossed there. Barely breaking stride, Janice sent the toe of her work boot crashing into the can in a vicious kick. With a dull clang the can was launched into flight and when it landed went tumbling end over end down the road until it finally came to rest some fifteen feet away. Janice abruptly halted in the middle of the road and stood there with hands on hips and glaring at the road as if it were directly to blame for Melinda's tardiness.
The sour look she now wore was the very one that Melinda had teasingly dubbed her "Pickle Puss." Right now, however, Janice Covington was in no mood for humor of any kind. Still seething, she spun on her heels and began to stride quickly back to the tent. Janice was worried, very worried. Yet she chose to channel her concern, her fear, through anger because anger gave her at least the illusion of having some sense of control over the situation. Otherwise, she would have simply felt helpless and Janice Covington hated feeling helpless.
Mel Pappas, she silently vowed, if you're out goofing off somewhere I'm gonna kick your butt! It was an idle threat and she knew it but at this troubling moment just the idea of doing something--anything-- was one that made her feel better. Of course she could not imagine ever actually harming her belle, even in her very worst nightmare. However this did not mean Janice would be above chastising her partner a little--but only after she was certain the woman was all right. Melinda would understand it for what it was--Janice's own unique way of conveying to her just how concerned she had been about her prolonged absence.
Janice entered the tent and headed straight for her cot. She had waited long enough. The only thing left for her to do now was to go looking for her friend. Snatching up the knapsack still lying on the cot, Janice was just about to reach inside for her gun when far off in the distance she heard the familiar whine of their old truck as it strained to crawl its way up the mountain.
Janice threw the bag back on the cot and rushed back out into the fading light. Sure enough, the old truck was just emerging into view as it rounded the last curve about a quarter of a mile down the road.
Thank God! thought Janice, heaving a sigh of relief. The truck got nearer and it soon became apparent that Melinda was not returning alone. Naturally Janice's first assumption was that it was Kettering, crawling back with a better offer.
As the forms in the truck became more distinct Janice recognized the familiar figure of Melinda at the wheel. By the same token, however, it was also now very obvious to her that the passenger was not the Englishman after all.
"Now what?" she grumbled. Suddenly their heretofore isolated mountain top was becoming more like Grand Central Station. Other than the "little turd" Martin, no one ever came up there.
The truck was less than fifty yards away now. Staring hard at the figure on the passenger side, it suddenly occurred to Janice that there was something oddly familiar there. The slope of the shoulders, that skinny neck...
"Son of a bitch!" she muttered in amazement. "That's Jack Klienman!"
And so it was.
Even before its worn brakes had brought the truck to a squealing halt Klienman poked his head out the window and waved at Janice. "Hiya, toots!" he cheerfully called out, as the truck rolled to a stop.
It was one of those rare moments in her life when Janice Covington was genuinely shocked. Jack Klienman! The last person she had expected to see coming up that hill with Mel was silly-ass Jack Klienman.
From the other side of the truck Mel chirped, "Look who I found!" Flushed with excitement, the Southerner pushed open her door and hurried around the truck to join Janice. From his side the still grinning Jack also got out and although Melinda's route was much the more circuitous, her haste was such that she and Jack were able to join up in front of Janice at precisely the same instant.
"Can you believe it, Jan?" Melinda gushed. "It's Jack!"
It had always been Janice's suspicion that Melinda had a soft spot in her heart for this strange fellow. It was not that the archaeologist viewed him as any sort of rival. Hardly. Back at the beginning, right after their first adventure together when the relationship between the two women was still in its infancy, there might have been some sort of chance for him. However in typical male fashion Jack had bolted, leaving the two of them behind to clean up the mess. In doing so he forfeited whatever chance he might have had with this elegant lady. No sir, it was too late for him now. Melinda was hers!
Janice's moment of surprise was behind her now and as Jack stuck out his hand she was once again her old steady self. "Jan, huh?" he mused. "Can I call you that too?"
"Not unless you like the idea of taking your meals through a straw," she shot back. Janice's grin mirrored his own but something in her eye told Klienman she meant what she said. She did too. She would not now or ever allow anyone but Melinda to call her "Jan."
"All right...Covington," the man said wryly. "Have it your way."
Just as Klienman had read Janice's eyes so now did the archaeologist read his. >From them, Janice sensed this man was perhaps different somehow from the silly buffoon she had remembered. He had a look that she had seen many, many times before and right away she knew that, like tens of millions of others, the war in one way or another had come to Jack Klienman.
"It's good to see you, Jack," she said, shaking his hand. Her words rang true. Although back then he had by and large been useless in their fight against Ares he had tried his best and besides, he was not really such a bad guy. "So what brings you back to Greece?"
"Lookin' for you guys," said Jack.
"For us?" Janice asked in surprise. "What the hell for?"
"We-ell, I missed you," he said.
"Bullshit," grinned Janice.
"Now, Janice, that's not very polite," Melinda chided gently. "Jack's come all this way tuh see us."
"You're right," said Janice. "We can catch up on all the details later." Turning back to Jack, she asked, "Mel and I are about to open up a can of spam for supper. You hungry?"
The face Jack made was an indication that he was indeed all too familiar with what servicemen had dubbed, among other things that were not repeatable in polite company, the "mystery meat."
Grinning slyly, Janice said, "It's the best offer you're going to get on the whole mountain. Hell, we'll even throw some crackers for your dining pleasure and you can top it all off with a cup of nice warm water."
Jack rubbed the three day old stubble on his chin and replied, "Well since you put it that way, Jeez, how can I refuse?"
This earned him a curt nod of approval from Janice. "Well come on then," she said. "I for one am starving."
Jack left the two women standing there and walked back to the truck. Leaning over into the bed, he grabbed the strap of a battered, heavily stained duffel bag.
Janice watched him hoist the bag out of the truck bed and set it down on the ground in front of him. Noting its pale blue color, she gave him a faintly incredulous look. "Don't tell me you were in the navy."
Her cutting remark left Jack feeling just a little miffed. He looked first down at his bag, then at her, and responded with a tart, "I didn't get this at the Army-Navy store if that's what you mean. Yeah, Covington, as a matter of fact I spent darn near two years in the Pacific."
"Hey no offense," the archaeologist good-naturedly offered up. "Just wondering, that's all."
Jack remembered Janice well enough to understand that this was tantamount to an apology from her and so his somber look vanished immediately. He was well aware the she thought of him as something of a goofball but he also felt that down deep she liked him. Just as he liked the both of them.
Hefting his bag upon his shoulder, Jack said, "Aww, I know that. There's been a lot of water under the bridge since I last saw you guys back in '40."
There sure as hell has, thought Janice. "Let's eat then." For her part Janice had certainly meant no harm. After all, as Jack had suspected she did in fact like him. In retrospect she realized she probably should have phrased her remark somewhat differently because for some the subject of military service was a sensitive one. There were those men who, even as their fellow Americans were engaged in bloody combat all around the world, had utilized every means possible to stay out of the conflict.
Now, however, with the war safely over and victory won, many of these same men were suddenly finding themselves uncomfortable with the oft asked question, "What did you do in the war?" They had begun to notice that even perfect strangers somehow did not look at these young men of military age in quite the same fashion once they gave their reply as they did when some veteran spoke of sweating it out in a submarine, freezing in a B-17 over Germany, eating sand on some hellish Pacific atoll, or simply performing some mundane duty state side. The point was they had all served. They had all done their part in the defense of home and country.
Obviously Jack was proud of his service--he had a right to be--and in truth Janice was glad he had. Even more, she was thankful the odd fellow had survived.
"Go on and take your gear inside," she told him. "We'll be along in a minute."
Jack nodded and started for the tent but just when he reached Janice and Melinda he stopped and with a wide grin took a deep sigh. "Gosh, it's good to see you guys again!"
"Same here," said Janice, smiling thinly. As glad as she was to see him, she still could not help but wonder what he was doing here.
Jack then continued on his merry way and as Melinda turned to follow him she felt Janice catch her by the arm.
"Not you," the archaeologist sternly whispered.
"What's wrong, Jan?" her lover asked. It was a superfluous question because she already knew the answer.
Janice waited until Jack was no longer in sight before replying, "Where have you been?"
"Didja have a breakdown or something?"
"Nooo. See, I--"
Janice angled her head toward the tent and once again cut Mel off. "Was it because of him?"
"What then? Damn it, Mel!" she rasped. "Didn't you remember what I said? There are armed bands from both sides crawling all over these friggin' hills. You could have gotten into deep trouble pussy footin' around like that. What the hell were you thinking?"
Now it was Melinda's turn to become irritated. Drawing herself up to her full height, she said, "Janice Covin'ton, in spite of what you might think I'm not a baby. Ah'm a grown woman and I can take care of myself."
"I don't think you're a baby," Janice quietly answered. "You know that." She looked deep into Melinda's lovely blue eyes and in a halting voice said, "It's just that... ya had me kind of..."
"Yeah," admitted Janice. "Scared. So, where were you?"
It seemed like a simple statement but Melinda Pappas understood the significance of what her friend had just said. She knew there was not another person on the planet that Janice would have made such an admission to and it made her heart melt. "Oh, Jan," she softly cooed. "I'm sorry I caused you such worry. Everything went as smooth as silk. I had no trouble at all. Really."
She paused and took a deep breath. Now for the hard part. "It's just that something...came up."
Janice squinted one eye and looked askance at her. "Oh yeah? And just what exactly was it that 'came up?'"
With a playful smile Melinda dug her hand into her trouser pocket and pulled out a handful of folded up British notes. Taking Janice's hand, she smacked the money into her palm. "This," she said, "is for you."
Janice stared at the money and in an instant knew that a major portion of her plan had just been sunk deeper than the Titanic. It was not that she was totally convinced of the existence of this treasure in the first place but it might have been a chance for her to make a few bucks on the side while running out the string on this dry hole of a dig. If the Brit wanted to play treasure hunter she was willing to go along with the gag--as long as he paid for it. But now things had changed. She had lost her trump card. As it was Kettering might still need her but now she would have to play her hand without that one big ace up her sleeve. And so it was with an understandably hushed voice that she asked "You translated it for him, didn't you?"
"Uh huh," Melinda answered brightly. She then quickly added, "But for the life of me I can't see the significance in the thing."
"What do you mean?"
"It's jibberish, Jan, just like he said. It's just random words on a stone tablet."
"How did Kettering take it when you told him that?"
"He was darn disappointed if you ask me," the belle chuckled. "Unless he was hidin' something in which case he missed his calling as an actor."
A little disappointed herself, Janice asked "So it's all crap then?"
Melinda, who was very sensitive to Janice's moods, read the look in her friend's and so it was with gentle commiseration that she answered, "It would appear so."
However Janice felt there simply had to be more to it than that. Kettering had not worked and schemed all these years without having some clue of what he might expect to find on that tablet. Maybe, she thought, it was a code of some kind. Maybe, she, thought, Kettering had tricked the ever trusting Melinda after all.
Nodding weakly, Janice handed the money back to Melinda. It was all she could do. Certainly the only blame to be placed here was on her own shoulders and she knew it. She had made the mistake of allowing Kettering to side step her and use Melinda. She had obviously underestimated him. You knucklehead! she scolded herself. You should have seen that coming!
Declining the money, Melinda's anxious voice of protest fell softly on Janice's ears. "But, Ja-yuuun! It's for you."
What a sweetheart you are! thought Janice. She understood that, in itself, the money was not really the important thing to Melinda. The woman had simply seen it as an opportunity to do something nice for her friend--for the both of them.
As Melinda looked at her Janice could see there was confusion and, yes, perhaps even a little panic in those eyes. "Golly, I--I didn't do anything wrong, did I?"
This was just one of the many little things that made Janice love her so much. The belle had not a devious bone in her body and so had merely taken Janice at her word. There simply was no place in Melinda Pappas' heart for deceit of any kind and it was therefore sometimes hard for her to see the dishonesty in others. For perhaps the thousandth time Janice had cause to wonder just what it was she had ever done to deserve such a precious gift.
Even so, she was not sorry she had given the belle such a hard time about her prolonged absence because in truth she had been worried far more than even she was willing to admit. However she was willing to let it go because she really did not want to spoil Melinda's sense of having done a good deed and, more importantly, because everything had turned out all right. She was safely back now so there was no harm done.
Besides, she thought, who the hell needed treasure when standing here before her was the greatest treasure of all. My God! she wondered in amazement. How I love you so!
With a smile Janice folded up the money and stuck it into her shirt pocket. "Nah, I was just worried, that's all." Giving her partner a mischievous wink, she added, "It looks like Mister Limey Kettering has been kind enough to buy us a night at the theater and dinner at the best restaurant in Volos."
This was exactly what the cultured Melinda had hoped for. She felt she that deserved it, that they deserved it. They had been on that mountain for so long now! Knowing her refined friend as she did, Janice had long since sensed the woman's yearning for such an evening.
"Ohh, Jan...." Melinda moved in close, towering over her shorter friend. Unfortunately it was just as the two of them were about to embrace that Jack chose to poke his head out of the tent and in that nasal voice Janice suddenly found so irritating asked "Hey, are you guys comin' or what?"
Janice emitted a frustrated little groan and then barked out, "We're coming!"
Jack's head disappeared back into the tent. "Ugh!" Janice grunted. "And here I was counting on some nookie for supper."
Melinda's cheeks turned a very nice shade of crimson as she said, "Janice Covington, you are positively the most evil person. 'Sides, we mustn't be rude to our guest."
With a dismissive wave of the hand Janice retorted, "Yeah yeah."
The archaeologist turned away and this time it was Melinda that stopped her with a touch on the shoulder. "Jan?"
"Were you really...scared?"
Janice turned back to face the raven-haired beauty and in an emotion filled voice that was barely above a whisper huskily replied, "Jesus, Mel, I'd die without you."
Melinda smiled and gently slipped her hand into that of her lover. Hand in hand they
walked back into the tent, neither of them caring for one second if Jack noticed or not.
Stretching out his legs before him, Jack Klienman leaned back against one of the many crates and let forth a soft, contented belch. "I gotta say," he allowed, "that stuff ain't half as bad as I remember."
Across from him sat Janice and Melinda side by side on Janice's old cot. Together the two of them had just watched in amazement while Jack single-handedly polished off nearly two full cans of spam and half a tin of saltine crackers. "Well I guess not seeing as how you've damn near eaten us out of house and home," Janice remarked with some amusement.
"It reminds me of back in the fleet," said Jack, ignoring her good natured barb. "We always ate good on board ship."
"Ate well," Melinda gently corrected him.
"You ate well."
"Yeah, that's what I said," said Jack, eyeing her with a quizzical look.
"Forget it, kid," Janice chuckled to her friend, "You're over his head."
"Heeey," Jack protested. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Feigning innocence, Janice replied, "Nothing." And now she reckoned it was time to get down to business. Changing her course and her tone just that quickly, she asked "So what are you doing here, Jack?"
"Well jeepers," said Jack defensively. "Like I said I missed you guys. Jeez, can't a fella miss his pals?"
Unconvinced, Janice patiently repeated, "What are you doing here, Jack?"
Klienman started to protest but one look at those piercing green eyes was enough to make him cave in like rotten timbers. Janice Covington was too smart for him and he knew it. "You're spooky, Covington, do you know that?"
Janice was amused by this for in spite of herself she did like the man. Breaking into a smile, she said, "All I know is you didn't come five thousand miles just to sing Auld Lang Syne now didja? What are you doing here, Jack?"
"Okay-ay! he bleated. "You win." He shook his head and added, "Jeez, what a hard ass!"
Melinda smiled at this as it made her think of what a truly nice, oh so firm butt Janice Covington did in fact have.
Janice's own smile widened into a triumphant grin and she replied, "It's not my fault you're such a cream puff."
"What have you got on your mind, Jack?" asked Melinda. To her it was still unbelievable! She had not much more than stepped out the front door of Kettering's run down little hotel back in Volos before she had heard a certain familiar whiny, nasal voice coming from down the street. Sure enough, a quick investigation had revealed one Jack Klienman, standing on a street corner, laboriously attempting to extract directions from an elderly, white bearded man who obviously had no clue what this strange man wanted from him. Like Janice she did not think Jack had come all this way just to say hello, even though their first adventure had been practically all he had talked about on the drive back to the camp.
Klienman sat up and in order to emphasize the importance of what he was about to say glanced first left, then right as if making absolutely certain the three of them were alone. To add to the aura of conspiracy he leaned forward and whispered, "Something big!"
"Huh?" Janice grunted, herself leaning forward now.
"Fame and fortune, Covington," was Jack's exasperated answer. "This could put you on the map in a big way."
Janice leaned back and turned to Melinda. "Damn," the smaller woman said wryly, "this must be our lucky day. Seems like everybody in Greece suddenly wants to do us a favor."
Jack furrowed his brow and gave the archaeologist one of his patented looks of befuddlement. "Huh?"
"Skip it," muttered Janice, suddenly longing for the relative solitude the mountain had once afforded. Why was it that men always seemed to want something? she wearily wondered. "Look, Jack...I don't know what you thought but--"
"Now I know what you're gonna say," said Jack, quickly cutting in. "All I ask is that you hear me out."
"Couldn't this have waited?" Janice forlornly asked.
"Hey," he protested, "it's taken me almost a whole month to find you guys. After all that I've gone through I think the least ya could do is hear me out."
"How did you find us?" asked Melinda.
"My boss knew that you were somewhere here in Greece so he sent me to find you," said Jack. "He's got an offer for ya, Covington. A job offer."
"Oh yeah? And just who is your boss?" Janice carelessly asked.
"Mister Poole," said Jack. "I believe you know him?"
"You mean Sidney Poole?" asked Melinda incredulously. "Sidney Warner Poole?"
"Good Lord," muttered Janice. It had been over a year now since the two of them had heard from the famous or as Janice saw it, infamous Sidney Poole.
"One and the same," Jack replied with a chuckle. "He said to tell you he feels bad because that thing you guys were supposed to have done for him in Burma or whatever it was went sour."
"Indo-China," said Melinda. "It was supposed to have been in French Indo-China. Unfortunately it fell through."
Janice looked at him with that sour expression as only she could and with a faint sneer sarcastically said, "Oh yeah, I'll bet he's all broken up over it."
Turning to Melinda, she asked. "How the hell do you suppose he knew we were here?"
As Melinda shrugged Jack said, "That guy's pretty sharp. He ain't got all those millions for nothing. I got the feeling there's not too much that he doesn't know."
"He didn't know how to get us a job," Janice snorted, barely hiding the bitterness that still remained from the disappointment of losing out on going to Indo-China.
"Anyway I'm just glad I finally found you. Ever since I got to Greece I've been traipsing all around the country searching for you and let me tell you, it wasn't easy." He paused and as an afterthought added, "It's a lucky thing I bumped into that Frailing guy."
In that moment the whole atmosphere in the tent changed and Jack suddenly found himself the focus of both women's full attention. "Frailing? You saw Frailing?" Janice suspiciously queried.
"Yeah," replied Jack, somewhat taken aback by the woman's sudden change of attitude. "Good thing too or else I'd still be running around in circles."
Sensing something was wrong, he began to fidget with the flaps of his duffel bag and as he did a sinister and highly disturbing thought sprang into Janice's mind. Very deliberately she repeated the question, "You saw Frailing?" Down deep Janice did not think and she certainly did not want to believe that Jack Klienman was capable of committing such a vile act as murdering two innocent people. In fact from what she knew about the man she doubted he had the guts to kill anyone, especially in the brutally up close and personal manner that had befallen Frailing and Millie. Still, the lure of money made people do all sorts of things and who was to say Jack Klienman was any different? Janice might have liked him well enough but as with every person she had ever known--save one--she did not completely trust him.
"Jeez, Covington, you must be losing your hearing in your old age," Jack nervously cracked. "I said I did."
"I dunno, couple of days ago," he answered, hoping he sounded nonchalant. He looked up from his duffel and was surprised by the intensity with which both women were looking at him--Melinda with wide-eyed astonishment, Janice boring in on him with that cold hard stare of hers which the former sailor had always found to be very unsettling. In an effort to lighten the moment he asked "What's with you guys? You look like you just saw a ghost or something."
"Maybe we did," Janice answered grimly.
"Huh? Say, what is all this?" Jack cautiously replied. The longer Janice looked at him with those piercing green eyes, the more uneasy he became.
Finally, it was Melinda who broke the news to him. In a delicate voice she said, "Jack, Professor Frailing was..." Even now the belle found it difficult to say. "...was...murdered three days ago."
For even the obtuse Jack it was suddenly as clear as glass now. "If that's a joke," he said, his mouth suddenly very dry, "I ain't laughing."
"I wish it were, Jack," was Mel's quiet reply. I wish to God in heaven it were!
Gaping at his friends in a mixture of astonishment and disbelief, he managed to choke out a nervous little laugh as he said, "You guys don't...really think that I had something to do with this." Here he paused before adding a hopeful "Do ya?"
"All I'm saying is that you couldn't have seen Frailing when you said you did," said Janice. "He was already dead by then."
Agitated now, the scale of Jack's voice rose higher in pitch as he said, "Okay, so I got my days mixed up. There's no crime in that." Looking Janice squarely in the eye he went on, "I tell ya, he was very much alive the last time I saw him. Jeez, what do you think I am? Would I have even brought his name up if I had? Yeah I saw him. And like I said I asked about you guys. He told me where you were and I after that left--end of story, that's all folks."
Realizing how upset Jack was becoming, Melinda set to work trying to assuage his fears. "Calm down, Jack," she said soothingly. "No one is accusing you." She glanced sideways at her partner and tactfully added, "We believe you, don't we, Jan."
"Of course we do. Nobody here is accusing him of anything," said Janice.
"You could have fooled me," Jack said with an indignant sniff. "All I know is he was very much alive on the day I saw him. And another thing, I can't believe you guys would even think such a thing!"
"You're right," said Janice, visibly softening her gaze. Jack might be affable and fun to be around in a grating sort of way but he was not very clever and when he was placed under this sort of intense scrutiny Janice felt certain she would have been able to tell whether or not he was lying. By now she figured it was just as he had said; he simply had gotten his days mixed up. And for a guy like Jack it certainly would not have been hard to do. "But somebody killed them. All I can say is that it's a good thing you weren't here earlier," she told him.
"Why?" asked Jack, suddenly feeling uneasy again.
"There was a police inspector here today," explained Melinda. "He said he was checking out any foreigners who might have had recent contact with Professor Frailing."
"And I doubt if he would be so quick to believe your story," said Janice.
"Oh," said Jack, tilting his head back in acknowledgment. In his mind Janice was more right about his sense of timing than she knew but not because of any guilt on his part. He had spent considerable time and effort, not to mention a good part of his expense money in locating these two. Jack Klienman was nearly broke and he was tired because a good amount of his travel had been accomplished by hitchhiking and as it had turned out he had done a lot more hiking than hitching. Now it felt like his aching feet had blisters on their blisters! No indeed, the last thing he needed right now was some gung ho cop peppering him with a lot of confusing questions, even if he was totally innocent.
"If you've got any ideas of staying in the country you ought to think about laying low for a while," suggested Janice. "You know, until they can find the real killer."
"Don't worry," said Jack. "Now that I've found you guys I'm taking the first boat back to the States...." he paused and added, "...after you hear Mister Poole's proposal."
"If we only could hear it," Melinda said wistfully.
By now the orange glow of evening was fading away into the purple veil of night. Upon first entering the tent Janice had pulled off her hot work boots in order to let both them and her tired feet air out. The socks were off now as well and so it was in her bare feet that Janice arose from the cot and meticulously picked her way to the tent's center pole where hung their only lantern. Once it was lit, she carefully retraced her route over the floor of the tent to rejoin her friends. Though packed down from heavy use, the dirt floor still afforded its share of sticks and sharp little pebbles and Janice did not relish the ideas the idea of stepping on one of those "little bastards," as she called them.
There had been a time when she would have not given such a prospect a second thought. Up until she was a teenager Janice Covington had gone barefoot at least six months out of each year and as might be expected her feet were usually tough enough in those days to allow her to run over even a gravel road with ease. But that time was long gone and this was why the archaeologist now kept a sharp eye on the floor as she gingerly made her way back to the others.
Once safely on the cot again she edged herself in close to Melinda's warm body. Even now she thrilled at just touching her. "All right, Jack," she sighed. "Out with it. Let's hear this great master plan of yours."
"Wait till you hear it," Jack enthused. "If you ask me it's the chance of a lifetime. Covington, I tell you--"
"Come on!" Janice barked out, causing Melinda to jump. "Just get on with it, will ya?"
"Okay, okay," said Jack, properly chastised. "Sheesh, there's no need to get sore."
Janice gritted her teeth and with an ominous growl warned, "You'll be the one who's sore if you don't get to the fucking point, pronto, you moron."
"Well basically it's this," Jack began. "Sid--that's what he likes for me to call him--"
"Uh huhh," Janice scoffed.
Jack pretended to ignore her and went on, "Anyway, Sid, has made a deal with Chiang Kai-shek. The Generalissimo has given him permission to excavate the site of something called the "Last Gate." It's supposed to be some kind of appreciation thing for Sid's contribution to the war effort on the behalf of China."
Janice was not surprised. Sidney Poole was an extremely influential man, one with a seemingly endless number of contacts in very high places in governments throughout the world.
At the mention of this a strange but nevertheless familiar feeling came over the belle and it was the name Lao Ma that suddenly popped into her head.
Janice furrowed her brow. "The 'Last Gate?' What the hell is that?"
Melinda knew. "Legend has it that when Lao Tzu was an old man he became saddened by the evil of men and so he decided to leave civilization behind. Although he had long been respected for his wise council he had always steadfastly refused to set his philosophy to writing. He believed this would cause his teachings to become rigid and something of a formal dogma and this he did not want. However, when he reached the Gate of Tibet, the..."Last Gate," Yin Xi, the Guardian of the Gate, convinced him to at long last set his principles down so that they might be yet be saved for posterity. The result was Tao-Te Ching.
"Taoism," said Janice.
"Yeah." Suddenly she murmured,
"Yield and overcome;
Bend and be straight."
"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Jack.
"It's a quote from Lao Tzu," Melinda explained. Deep insider her soul a voice whispered, "The truth of Tao-Te-Ching is the truth of Lao Ma." And Melinda understood. The scholars might say Lao Tzu, but it was pure Lao Ma, his noble wife.
Lao Ma!. Even now the name evoked deep emotions. The scrolls said little of her but nevertheless Melinda knew some and somehow sensed even more of just what this paradox of strength and humility had meant to the ancient warrioress. After the shattering death of M'lila she had been the only person, the one exquisite soul that had looked past Xena's rage and seen the latent greatness within her. It was she who had believed in Xena, who had patiently tried so hard to lift the seemingly soulless, irredeemable woman from far over the western mountains out of her cesspool of blinding hate and endless lust for blood and shown her, if only for a glimmering moment, how good and noble and pure of heart it was possible to be. Here she had taught the Greek perhaps the most valuable lesson of all, that strength and power came in many different forms and were there for all to make use of if one were only to listen to their own heart and believe in themselves. All that was necessary was to tap into their own inner power. Truly no more noble person than Lao Ma had walked the earth in Xena's lifetime.
She, more so than anyone, had understood the concept of "The Greater Good."
"To conquer others is to have power.
To conquer yourself is to know the way..."
She had proven this by living it for all the years of her short but incredibly inspiring life.
"How did they find this place?" asked Janice. "How do they know if it's authentic?"
Jack shrugged and said, "I dunno. I would guess that's why they want you."
"There's got to be more to this than what you're telling us," allowed Janice. Poole was by his nature a realist, a very pragmatic man and not one to be moved by some ancient philosophy, Chinese or otherwise. No, his motivation lay elsewhere and this was the source of Janice's skepticism. She was firmly convinced that if Sidney Poole had gone through so much trouble in order to poke around on the Chinese/Tibetan border it was for some other reason besides Taoism. But despite herself Janice found she was becoming interested.
"If there is I don't know about it," sniffed Jack. "All I know is what Mister...Sid told me."
"You say he's got it all set?" Janice asked.
"Well he has permission and a promise of full cooperation from the Chinese government if that's what you mean," replied Jack. "He said he'd leave the details to you."
Some details! thought Melinda.
Janice's lips fashioned a half smile and she more or less echoed Melinda's thoughts. "To me, huh? How big of him. So when does he want to get the ball rolling on this?"
"Just as soon as you are finished here," said Jack.
"Hmph," snorted Janice, "from the looks of it I'd say we've been finished here just about since day one." Turning to Melinda, she asked "So what do you think? You wanna go to China?"
"It's up to you, Jan," replied her friend. "What do you want to do?"
Janice looked askance at her and said, "That's no answer."
Janice may have been the leader but gone were the days when she routinely decided what was best for the both of them. Melinda had not merely been paying lip service when she told Kettering the two women were partners. They were true partners now, in work and in life--and no matter how badly Janice might have wanted to go to China it would have been unthinkable as far as she was concerned to go off and leave Melinda behind. She knew she soon would go crazy without her near.
"What if she don't wanna go?" asked Jack, with some alarm.
One look from Janice and Jack knew his was a silly question. "Then we won't go," she said, matter-of-factly.
"Jan," Melinda said softly, "I go where you go. You know that. I always have and I always will." The belle took her friend by the hand and looked deeply into her eyes. The smile she gave her friend emanated directly from her heart and reflected all the love she felt for this incredible woman sitting next to her who had changed her life for all time. "I'd love to go to China."
Janice returned her smile in kind and gave her lover's hand a almost imperceptible squeeze. Turning back to Klienman, she said, "Well there you have it. You can go back and tell Poole that we accept his offer."
From his seat opposite them Jack watched this little scene unfold and found it somewhat unsettling. To be sure he knew Covington and Mel to be very close friends but the holding of the hands and look they had just given each other seemed to him to indicate there was more here than mere friend to friend affection. A lot more. For all his travels Jack Klienman was not one who could have been called worldly wise or sophisticated. That these two women could be devoted lovers was a realization that would in his mind not easily come to the fore. Instead it stubbornly continued to skulk deep within his subconscious in the form of a nagging little understanding that something was not quite...right...here.
Still, as far as Jack was concerned it did not really matter anyway. These two were his friends and it made him genuinely happy that they had accepted Poole's offer. This was reflected by his enthusiastic, "That's great!" However, he figured this was not the time to press his luck any further and so he refrained from telling them that Poole had decided that he too should make the China trip with them. His reasoning for this one tiny little omission was that there was no sense in getting Covington worked up all over again. He figured it would be much better for his own well being if he did not tell her this just right now.
Having attended to business, the conversation between the three of them grew progressively lax over the next hour or so and was generally confined to a rehash of old times. Once or twice Jack tried to draw out the women on exactly how they had spent the war years but to his surprise both of them were very evasive about it with Janice only saying vaguely that they had done some work for the government.
Finally deciding that enough was enough, Janice eased herself down on the cot behind Melinda. "Night, kids," she said with a big, theatrical yawn. She then rolled over on her right side, facing away from Klienman. Though not sleepy in the least she had reached the point where she simply could not bear this mundane little waltz of words any longer. It was nothing against Jack to be sure. Aside from Melinda she had never felt comfortable talking anything but business with anyone. It was just not in her nature. As Melinda had said Janice did indeed very much believe in plain speaking and that meant getting straight to the heart of the matter and not taking all day to do it. No, polite chit chat was not for Janice Covington.
Melinda, on the other hand, had been taught from a very early age that being a good conversationalist was just as much a part of being a proper Southern lady as knowing the proper fork to use at the dinner table. She loved the witty give and take after dinner conversations often afforded and she especially reveled in the gossipy "girl talk" of the powder room. Janice of course had never really shown an interest in this sort of thing and this was one of the reasons the belle liked to regularly visit "back home" because there she could get together with old friends and catch up on all the delicious "news." And unlike Janice, she at this moment very much felt like talking even if the subject she wanted to discuss might not be the most pleasant one or one that Janice might approve of. Nevertheless, it was one she felt compelled to bring up. And so she did.
"Jack? Were you in the fighting?"
"In the Pacific...did you see any action?"
Listening to this, Janice was a little surprised by her question. Melinda was not often so straightforward with men and in truth Melinda herself did not know just why she had asked him this. Perhaps it was because of the very fact that Jack was her friend and she felt she just needed to know. She certainly was not eager to hear any war stories he might have. After all, she had seen it for herself. Death, destruction, unbearable misery and despair--she had seen it all. And the sorrow, she remembered that as well. Although her it had ultimately proved to be a false report Melinda nevertheless still remembered the incredible sorrow and emptiness. she had felt when told that her dear brother Robert had been killed at Cassino. And even now, two long years after the fact, the terrible image of the poor Anthony boy, lying dead in that run down old barn with half his head blown away was one that still occasionally invaded her dreams.
Burned also in her memory was the horrific carnage Janice had single-handedly wrought that night on that lonely Costa Rican airfield. Melinda still remembered the screams of those Germans, the stench of their burning flesh and how she had almost lost her own life there. She also remembered the heart breaking evening when they had eased their way into Pearl Harbor on the old cruiser "San Francisco, just days after the attack. Some eleven months later the San Francisco itself would be shot to pieces off Guadalcanal in what Admiral King would call, "the fiercest naval battle ever fought" and among the dead would be the petty officer who had been so kind to them while they were on board. So much death!
Yes, these haunting images from the past still had occasion to lurk forth from the dark recesses of her inner conscience despite her best attempts to keep them locked away. She had spoken of these things to Janice many times and her lover had always been there for her with the utmost in sympathy and support.
Even so, way down deep in Melinda's heart she rather suspected that Janice Covington had not given so much as a moment's pause to reflect on her--their, incredible experiences in the Second World War. Sometimes the belle wondered if indeed Janice had not viewed the whole thing as simply another job to be done--another means of earning a pay check. As implausible as this might have seemed Melinda's belief stemmed from the knowledge that not once, not one time, had her friend ever expressed so much as a hint of sorrow for what she had seen or remorse for what she herself had done. Janice was responsible for enough dead bodies to fill up a boxcar and yet never had she gave even the slightest impression that it bothered her. To Melinda it was just another one of those paradoxes that seemed to define Janice; hard as tempered steel--and as cold--on one hand, soft as a lover's caress on the other.
Of course Janice did think about the war. After all, she was not some sort of relentless, dispassionate robot but as much of a living, breathing, feeling human being as Melinda or anyone else. It was just that she was more selective in what she chose to care about. Did it bother her that so many had died by her hand? Not really. For Janice it was a simple of matter of black and white. When the issue was survival there were no shades of gray. Her rationale was as old as life itself. It had been them--or her. They had been the enemy and, given the chance, would surely not have hesitated to kill her--or Melinda. War was brutal and uncompromising and in order to survive it one was sometimes forced to be brutal and uncompromising as well.
And so she had.
What was important--the only thing that mattered--was that she had survived. Melinda had survived. The end had justified the means and now she and her partner could look to the promise of the future and the wonderful life they would build together unfettered by things like war and duty to one's country.
In essence this was Janice Covington's great regret about the Second World War. The conflict had eaten up three and one half years of her life, precious years that she could never get back. They were years in the prime of her life which the Fredric March/Myrna Loy movie had so aptly described as "The Best Years of Our Lives." This loss had been difficult enough but at least it had not been for naught. The bitterest pill for her was the two full years that had been frittered away since war's end merely trying to get back into the loop. So this then was the thing that really galled Janice Covington. Those five and one half years spent away from her life's work that she would not, could not, ever get back.
Jack Klienman was one of those individuals who are sometimes described as having a rubber face. Indeed, when he was perplexed or baffled--as he often was--he did seem capable of making the most silly, the most creative of facial expressions. However after hearing Melinda's question there was nothing either silly or comical or creative for that matter about the expression on his face. Like most combat veterans he had not often spoken of his experiences. To them the things they had seen--and done--were much better off being left unsaid. Talking about those fearful memories only served to make them all the more vivid when it was all too often that they returned anyway. They might come in the middle of the night in the form of some horrible nightmare or maybe right in the light of day where a sound or even a shadow's form could cause all those memories to come rushing back. But here, sitting across from the lovely Melinda Pappas, Jack sensed that if anybody could understand how it was then--the way he felt now, it would be this warm, caring, gentle woman. In truth he rather hoped Janice was indeed asleep by now and so not listening because he was afraid she would think him even less of a man than he believed she already did. Jack had seen her under duress and in his eyes Janice was a tough woman, a hard woman, one he thought incapable of being afraid of anything. Because of this, he sincerely doubted whether she would feel any sort of real compassion for those who might not happen to be able to match her inner strength.
Before he answered her Jack's eyes for a moment took on a vacant, far away look and seemed to hint of profound sadness. The sensitive Melinda instantly picked up on this change in him. In this moment he was no longer the well meaning, happy-go-lucky if slightly daffy guy she fondly remembered. And as Jack began to speak both she and Janice learned why.
"You remember how I couldn't get into the army before the war," Jack reminded her. "Well by '43 the armed forces weren't being so choosy. In June I managed to eke into the navy and within six months I was serving on board an flat top." He smiled at her and said, "Can you imagine? Me? On a flat top? In the Third Fleet?"
"I boarded the Intrepid just in time for her to be torpedoed off Truk in February of '44," he replied. "Just my luck, I guess."
"Oh my," Melinda gasped. "Were you hurt?"
"Nah, but I don't mind tellin' you I was plenty scared. The worst part was one of our rudders got jammed in the attack and the darn wind was so bad that it kept wanting to push us straight toward Japan. Well finally we managed to limp back to Pearl..." He paused and explained, "That's Pearl Harbor..."
"I know," Mel said quietly. "Jan and I were there three times during the war ourselves."
Jack shot her a fleeting look of puzzlement but went on with his story. "Anyway, we went on back to Hunter's Point, California and that's where we stayed until they got the old girl patched back up. That was in June and we were just within a few days of pulling out again when darn if I didn't get transferred."
"To another ship?"
"Yeah. The Franklin. Late in June I got orders to go to Pearl to join up with a new carrier that had just come in from San Diego and was heading straight out for the Marianas. The big push was on and for this one the Navy was going to throw everything at the Japs but the kitchen sink 'cause the brass thought we really had a chance to break their backs there." He paused again and gave a satisfied little nod of the head. "And we did too."
"I remember reading about that," said Melinda. What she did not say was that the paper she was referring to had in fact been the London Daily Mail. She and Janice had spent all of three nights there on assignment soon after the momentous battle. "They called it the 'Turkey Shoot' or something."
"Yep," said Jack, pleased that she remembered. "And it was too. Jeez, you never saw so many Jap planes. They were fallin' out of the sky like rain. Heck our gun crew alone must have shot down at least ten of those meatballs."
Melinda was incredulous. "You were a gunner?"
"Who? Me? Ahh, well, no," he sheepishly grinned. "I couldn't have hit a battleship with one of those twin 40's, much less a plane. Naw, I was a loader." Here he quickly added, "But I was a darn good loader. Anyway, after that it was one operation after another--Guam, the Bonin Islands...Yap. In October we helped to support MacArthur's landings in the Philippines. Late that month while off Samar we got hit by a Jap suicide plane. That laid us up for a while but by February '45 we were back at it and by this time it was Japan itself we were hitting."
It was here that Jack's face grew very grave. "By the middle of March we had maneuvered in closer to the Japanese mainland than any other carrier. One day we launched this fighter sweep against Honshu and later had hit Kobe harbor in another attack. Suddenly this plane, this one damn plane, which had somehow avoided our fighter cover and came diving out of the clouds and began to make a low level run at our ship.
"And you got hit?"
With one stiff nod of the head Jack quietly replied, "We got hit. Two bombs. One hit forward right on the flight deck centerline and penetrated to the hangar deck. The forward elevator fell like a stone and fires broke out everywhere up there. The second one hit aft and went through two decks starting more fires which set off an ammunition magazine. Explosions rocked the ship and just like that it seemed like the whole ship was covered by fire.
I was in our mess compartment when it happened. One second I was taking a bite of mashed potatoes and the next I knew I was lying flat on the floor trying to push two dead guys off the top of me. The place was so thick with smoke I could barely see but all around me I could hear guys screaming for help. I was so stunned that at first I actually didn't know if I was hurt or not. It...it was like the whole world was coming to an end.
Finally some of us managed to grope our way to the door and out into the passageway but once out there the fire seemed to be everywhere and so there we were, three hundred guys trapped like you know what. All the time the fires were getting closer, the smoke was getting thicker and we knew that if we didn't get out of there pretty fast it was going to be curtains for all of us.
Then, all of a sudden this JG appears out of nowhere and starts yelling for us to pick up the wounded and follow him. Well he sure as heck didn't have to say it twice, I can tell you. We did like he said and so he starts leadin' us down this passageway and that, around this corner and that, up stairs and around--all through smoke so thick you could have hung a picture on it. Finally this JG and another guy yank open this hatch and we bust through and it's like a miracle. We're out on the flight deck."
"Oh Lord. It must have been awful," said Melinda.
"I thought I was a goner for sure," said Jack. "To this day I don't know how that Lieutenant found the way out, but he did. He sure as hell did." Jack shook his head in wonder and said, "You know, I never did learn that guy's name."
The man who saved the lives of Jack and the others in his compartment that day was Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Donald Gary and this was only one of several dangerous trips he would ultimately make down into the bowels of the Intrepid in order to lead men to safety.
"I don't know how long we were trapped below deck but it seemed like an eternity. Anyway, we bust out onto the flight deck and I swear to God it's like a scene from hell. I mean fire is roaring all around us, the deck is covered in smoke, everywhere you can hear guys screaming. I hadn't no more than gotten out of the hatch when I stumbled and fell over something lying on the deck." Jack looked down at the ground and then back up at his friends. "It was a sailor," he said. "Everything below his chest was gone. I--I tried to get up but at first I couldn't. You see the deck was too slippery from of all the blood--his blood..."
Jack's eyes grew very sad and he paused to take a deep breath as he looked up at the tent ceiling.
"Jack," Melinda said softly, "I'm sorry I brought it up. Yuh don't have to say anymore."
Jack smiled weakly at her and shook his head. Good old Mel, he thought. Aloud he said, "Nahh, it's all right. Really. I've been carryin' around with me for two years now and, who knows, it might do me some good to get some of this off my chest for once. I've never really had anybody I could talk to about it."
Melinda knew exactly how he felt. "So what did you do?"
"The only thing I could do," Jack answered. "Try to find some way if I could to help save the ship. By now we were dead in the water, not more than fifty miles from Japan itself. Already the ship was listing pretty good to starboard, we'd lost all radio contact with the fleet and those fu..." Jack paused again and gave Melinda a quick glance. "Sorry," he said, a little embarrassed.
"It's all right," the belle assured him. She glanced fondly down at Janice and with a voice hinting of amusement added, "I've heard the word before."
Nevertheless, Jack amended his adjective. "Those darn explosions," he said, "were still going off below deck. Guys were running around like ants on a griddle, some were jumpin' over the side, bodies were everywhere and the whole thing was just one big godawful mess.
I was still wondering around when this one guy grabs me by the arm and yells for me to follow him. Since this seemed like the first fella I'd seen since that JG who had any idea about what to do I naturally followed him. All over the deck he starts grabbin' guys and pretty soon he's got twenty or thirty together. Up by one of the five inch turrets he gathers us all around and tells us that if the forward magazines go off the ship is done for. Damn if he doesn't look us straight in the eyes and ask for volunteers to go below deck and wet down the magazines.
"Golly, did you go?"
"Everybody went," replied Jack. "Because the guy said the ship needed every hand and he was goin' down there with or without us. I mean, this wasn't your ordinary priest."
"Yeah, it was a ship's chaplain. So down into that hell hole we go and I figured for sure this was it for all of us." Jack shook his head and smiled proudly as he thought of the man who had led them. "I guess the Lord really was with the guy because we did manage to keep from getting ourselves blown to bits after all."
The brave chaplain of whom Jack spoke was Joseph T. O'Callahan, who by all accounts was a veritable whirlwind of activity after the catastrophe occurred. By organizing and directing fire fighting and rescue parties in addition to administering last rites for so very many of the stricken sailors, O'Callahan did as much as any man alive to save the proud Franklin. And like Donald Gary, O'Callahan would win the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on that day, thus becoming the first chaplain since the Civil War to do so.
"Anybody who saw that ship in those first few minutes would never have believed it but somehow the old girl managed to stay afloat. Later on the cruiser Sante Fe closed along side and started taking off the wounded and so by the skin of our teeth we were able to limp out of the combat zone and head back to port." Again Jack paused before continuing. "We found out later that about seven hundred and fifty guys on board ship got it that day."
He paused here and Melinda, sensing that Jack Klienman had said all he was going to about his experiences in the Second World War, decided that the time had come to at long last speak from the heart about those events which had been forever burned into her own memory.
Before she did, however, she carefully leaned over to take an apprehensive peek at her blonde friend. Janice had not stirred or spoken for quite some time and so as the belle could only assume that she was indeed asleep.
Nervously Melinda wet her lips and then began. "Jack? Ah'm really not supposed tuh speak of this but I've just got to tell somebody or else I think I'm going to bust. Janice told you we worked for the government during the war? Well, there was a little more to it than that."
Before replying Melinda took a deep breath. She then loudly whispered, "Jan and I spent practically the whole war workin' for the OSS."
"The OSS?" echoed Jack. "You mean like, spy stuff?"
Melinda flashed him a weak smile. "Something like that."
Jack whistled softly and said, "Woww! Really?"
"How on earth did you guys get in with the OSS?"
Melinda tilted her head slightly to one side and said, "It's a long story."
Jack grinned knowingly and said, "Ohh, I get it. It's a secret, right?"
"Well, yeah," said Melinda. "It is. In fact all of it is so I can't give you much in the way of details. Sorry."
Jack shook his head in wonder. "Wow. You really did cloak and dagger stuff?"
"Uh huh. But like I said--"
"I know, I know," Jack good naturedly interjected, "Another secret."
"'Fraid so," said Melinda. "But to tell you the truth Jan was the one who did all the real work, the important work. I was just sort of along for the ride."
Hearing this, Janice almost rose up right there to tell Jack that Melinda's self-deprecating assessment of her role was simply not true. It was not true at all. Melinda had been a vital part of their success and Janice had always made it a point to tell her so. This was why it was now so surprising for her to discover that Melinda still felt as she did. However Janice caught herself and neither rose up nor spoke because she knew that if she did Melinda would be greatly embarrassed. So she lay there, still pretending to be asleep, and listened.
It therefore fell to Jack to express what both he and Melinda's devoted lover were thinking. "Covington's one tough dame all right," said Jack. "No doubt about it. But I don't for a minute buy that line about you bein' a tag-a-long. As smart as you are? Jeez! You're got too much goin' for ya to just be some kind of lame sidekick."
Tell her, Jack! thought Janice approvingly.
"Smart maybe," Melinda reluctantly conceded. "But not very brave."
"What are you talking about?"
"Jack, you're not the only one that saw the carnage of war."
Not quite catching her meaning, Jack answered, "Well I know that."
"No, what I mean is Janice and I have also seen our share of death." Under her breath she added, "More than our share. Once, when we were in Costa Rica..." Fearful of revealing too much about that terrible night at the air strip, Melinda let her words trail off.
Suddenly Jack was struck by a most disturbing thought. "God, Mel, you don't mean to say you guys actually...killed...somebody, do you?"
Melinda nodded sadly and said, "I wish I could say no but I can't. People died, Jack." Quickly Melinda added, "I don't mean to say we helped assassinate anybody or anything like that. It was just that we had to protect our lives."
We almost did, thought Janice. Or rather I almost did. More than two years after the fact it still made Janice shudder when she thought how different her life might now be had Melinda not been able to convince the brilliant Czechoslovakian scientist Janik Cernak to return to the United States with them during the last days of the war. Had he refused Janice had been given verbal but nonetheless explicit orders to kill him lest he fall into Soviet hands. Melinda and Cernak had known each other before the war, had even dated on occasion, and it still sent chills down Janice's spine to think what Melinda's reaction would have been to the death of Cernak at the hands of her own lover. Thanks to Melinda herself it had not come to pass. The belle did not know now nor would she ever know just how close Janice had come to killing her friend.
From out of the corner of his eye Jack gave her a hard look. "You yourself...I mean you didn't....you know...."
Melinda was kind enough to finish it for him. "Kill anyone? Yes. Yes I did. At least five that I know of."
Puzzled by her remark, Jack furrowed his brow. "That you know of? What the heck do ya mean by that."
"You remember how it was back in the tomb," Melinda quietly reminded him. "Well there have been...other...times as well where I don't quite...I mean I don't exactly remember what happened. All I know is that I came to and here were these...dead bodies around me."
With a knowing nod Jack said, "Ohhh. So you mean it was Xena then."
Melinda nodded. "Yeah. Sometimes...I get these strange feelings and sometimes, sometimes I can even hear her voice. Inside me."
Hearing this, Jack did not think it at all strange. After all, he had seen with the first manifestation of Xena with his own eyes so he knew very well what she was talking about. In an attempt to put his friend's mind at ease he said, "Darn it, Mel, you shouldn't feel bad. It wasn't you that killed those people. It was--"
With a tinge of bitterness Melinda cut him off. "Xena?"
"Well, yeah. You practically said so yourself."
"Don't you see? It doesn't make any difference who it was," said Melinda. "Xena, me, we're one and the same. No Jack, I killed those people."
Jack was not about to accept this "You're wrong," he adamantly told her. "You're you, you're Melinda Pappas, the sweetest, nicest person I've ever met in my life. I don't care who your ancestors are or what they might have caused you to do. You could never do anybody any harm."
Jack leaned forward to add emphasis to his words. "And ya know what? I'm glad Xena did what she did!"
Melinda stared at him in wide-eyed disbelief. "My God, Jack. How can you say that?" The belle blinked hard and Jack saw her eyes well up. "There are times when I awake in the night and it feels like I'm awash in a sea of blood. It's hard, Jack, it's awfully hard, to put those feelings out of my mind. I--I've seen so much. That blood is on me and I can't get it off." Melinda lowered her head and said, "Sometimes the guilt is almost more than I can bear."
Jack reached out and forcefully took her by the hand. "Now you listen to me, young lady. Whatever it was that Xena did or made you do I know, do you hear me, I...know that it was only done to protect you and Janice. Jesus Christ, Mel! How can that be wrong? When I was in the Pacific I saw dead Japs every now and then. Do you think it bothered me? Hell no! It was them or us."
"Jack, I know you mean well but shooting down an airplane or sinking a sub is not the same as killin' someone with your own bare hands."
"They're just as dead," Jack reminded her. "And the reasons for both are exactly the same--our own survival. Look, you're my friend and I don't want to sound calloused here but like I said before I'm glad that Xena did what she did. Otherwise..." Now it was Jack's turn to lower his head. "...you guys might not be here now. And I for one would be very sorry."
"Ohh, Jack," Melinda said with a sniff, "you're such a sweetheart." Patting his hand, she said, "Thank you for listening."
Jack angled his head toward Janice. "Have you ever talked to her about this?"
"Of course I have," said Melinda. "Janice is a dear, so supportive, and without her I don't think I could have made it."
She paused here. From the tone of her voice Jack was left with the distinct impression that a withal was lurking there somewhere within his friend's words. "But?" he coaxed.
Melinda replied, "But, I'm not as...strong as she is." She then looked down at the archaeologist and added, " I don't think the war fazed her one bit."
"So you think she doesn't really understand."
"I'm not saying that. Not at all. It's just that we see things...differently sometimes."
"Kid," Jack began, "I wish I had some magic word that would take this burden off your shoulders but I don't. Just remember this: whatever it was that you did you did it for a good cause, the best cause--liberty--and sometimes in order to preserve it we have to become as brutal as the people who would want to take it away from us."
With a stiff nod Melinda dutifully said, "You're right of course." The reply was solely for her friend's benefit. Nothing had changed nor would it ever change. The simple truth was that she had taken a life and down deep in her soul she knew that for her things would never be the same again. "You know, Jack, I guess we were both lucky."
Jack blew out a sharp, quick breath and replied, "Don't I know it. So many of those fellas...they just didn't have a chance, ya know?" He shook his head once more in sad remembrance of fallen comrades and again began to tug at his old duffel bag. "I think we both have had enough reminiscing for one night," he said. Hefting the bag upright, he asked "Ya got some place I can sleep tonight?"
Melinda angled her head toward the tent opening. "The cab of the truck ought to be cozy enough." She tossed him one of her blankets. "I'd like to let you sleep in here but..." She flashed him a sympathetic smile. "...well, you know how it is."
"Yeah. Sure," said Jack, already resigning himself to the solitude of the truck. "The truck will be fine." He swung the duffel bag up to put it on his shoulder but unfortunately he had forgotten to secure the flaps he had so idly loosened As the bag swung up its momentum caused the singularly solid object inside to come flying out. Even worse for Jack, the thing came down squarely on the ankle of Janice's left foot.
"OWWWW!!" she squalled out. She had been hoping for an excuse to "awaken" but somehow this was not exactly what she had in mind.
"Oh Jeez," Jack said earnestly. "I'm sorry, Covington. I should have paid attention to what I was doing."
Lying flat on her back, the lithe Janice took the foot in her hand and pulled it high up toward her face in order to inspect the damage. "God damn! What are you doing?" Her words might have seemed harsh but in truth the tone of her voice was nowhere near as vitriolic. After the reassurance Jack had just given Melinda the archaeologist was not about to rebuke him too severely. Even if her ankle did hurt like hell.
Concerned for her friend, Melinda gently placed her own hand on the one Janice was using to hold her foot. "Are you all right?" she asked.
"Well I don't think I'll be doing the jitterbug for a while," cracked her lover.
"Jeez, Covington," Jack said again, genuinely mortified.
Janice gritted a smile and said, "No worries. I'll be all right." Still holding her foot, she nimbly leaned forward to took a peek at the ground. "What was that thing anyway?" she asked.
While Jack bravely wrestled the duffel bag to a draw Melinda bent her long frame down and picked up the cause of Janice's pain. It was a clay tablet, part of which seemed to be missing because while its right edge was perfectly straight, the left and bottom edges went angling out in all different directions.
"Where did you get this?" the belle asked, settling the object down on her lap.
Instantly Melinda was fascinated by the thing. Something about it seemed...
Excited, she impatiently asked "C'mon, Jack, where did you get it?"
Sheepishly Jack replied, "Jeez, I forgot all about that thing. That Frailing guy gave it to me."
In surprised unison Janice and Melinda blurted out, "Frailing?"
Like a little boy with something to hide their friend shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. "Yeah. When he learned I was looking for you guys he gave me that and said to make sure you got it."
"That doesn't sound like Alfred," Janice observed.
"He said something about wanting you guys to try to translate it," said Jack.
Janice was not convinced by this. Alfred Frailing was not one to entrust relics to total strangers. Unless....
Unless he had had some inkling that his life was in danger. Janice rocked herself into a sitting position. Still holding her throbbing ankle, she craned her neck to get a better look at the tablet in Mel's lap. At first glimpse she eased her foot down to the ground. Something else had her attention now. It was, after all, the first substantial artifact she had seen since coming to Greece. "Let me see that," she said.
"Funny how he would give me something like that, huh?" Jack said, as Melinda handed the tablet over to Janice.
Janice laid the stone flat in her lap and lightly swept her hand along its rough surface. "Yeah," she tersely replied. She began to look over the stone. "Funny."
Jack was right. An item as unique as this was not something Frailing would simply hand over to a complete stranger regardless of how badly he wanted it translated. It was now obvious to Janice that Frailing had expected trouble all along. Why? she again wondered. What made this thing so important?
Although ancient languages were not her forte she had seen enough of this particular writing to recognize it as cuneiform. She was still intently looking at it when suddenly, to her mild surprise, Melinda reached out and took back the tablet. Something about the stone had caught the belle's eye. Holding it up close to her face, Melinda's squinting eyes began to very carefully study it.
"Oh my," the belle suddenly cried in dismay. "Oh myyyyyy!"
"What is it?" Janice asked.
"Is it something important?" asked Jack.
A look of shock filled her lovely visage as Melinda said, "Ja-yun, this stone. Oh, Jan, I-I think I see it now!"
"Yeah, darn it, tell us," Jack exhorted.
Eyes wide with excitement, Melinda said, "Remember how I said Mister Kettering's stone made no sense?"
"Yeah but, it could be some kind of code, you know," Janice reminded her.
Melinda vigorously shook her head. "It's no code, it's as plain as day."
All this was too much for Jack. Exasperated, he pleaded, "What is!?"
Melinda reached into the pocket on her loose shirt and pulled out a folded up sheet of paper that had been torn from a writing pad. Unfolding the paper, she said, "This is the first three lines of what's written on Kettering's stone. I copied it down so that I might get a better understanding of what I was seeing."
Janice had seen Melinda do this many times in the course of her translations but so far she still did not see the significance of it. "Okay, so?" she asked with a shrug.
Melinda smiled and placed the paper beside the stone. "Looky." She began to alternate pointing first to the paper, then to the stone, reading off each word in turn.
"Most Exalted Majesty, it is my grievous duty to report only partial success
in thwarting the heinous intentions of the traitor Harpalus."
Janice cocked her head to one side and said, "Alternate wording, huh? Nice goin', Mel."
Looking up, Melinda said, "Jan, this seems to be some kind of report."
Not surprisingly, with the reintroduction of Harpalus into the mix Janice became very interested.
So did Jack. "Hey," he asked, "who's this 'Most Exalted Majesty' they're talkin' about?"
In unison Janice and Melinda chimed out, "Alexander!"
"No, Jack, the Stupid," Janice wryly cracked. Ignoring Jack's grimace, Janice nodded at the two pieces of writing still in Melinda's lap. "What else does it say?"
"Not...much," Melinda haltingly replied, as she resumed her reading. "No, wait! This last line..." She looked at Janice in astonishment and said, "My God, there was a mutiny!"
"Mutiny? Where?" Janice eagerly asked. "By who? What happened?"
As Janice peppered her with questions Melinda could only shake her head. "That's the last line on the paper."
"Well, what about the stone?" Janice hopefully asked. "Maybe you and I can piece together the gist of what it says."
"Without Mister Kettering's part I doubt it," said Melinda. "In fact it could be well nigh impossible. I mean, it could so easily be taken out of context."
Despite being a little dejected by this observation, Janice found herself compelled to agree with her friend. "Yeah, I guess it could at that."
It was then that Melinda at last understood. "Oh my! You intended to go with Kettering all along, didn't you?"
"Well, yeah, I was leaning that way," Janice admitted.
"Oh my!" Melinda repeated. Aghast, she looked at Janice with wide-eyed horror.
"What's wrong, kid?" asked Janice.
"What if...if...Mister Kettering's stone had revealed everything?"
Instantly catching her belle's meaning, Janice laid a reassuring hand on her forearm and said, "But it didn't."
"I know, but..." Aghast at the mere thought of it, Melinda turned to Janice in wide-eyed horror and said, "Oh, Jan, I--I let you down, didn't I?"
"NO!" Janice forcefully replied. "Don't you ever say that, do you hear?" You did nothing wrong!" Then in gentler tones Janice quickly sought to reassure her friend. "Sweetheart, I could never see you doing that. It's all right. Don't worry about it." She smiled at Melinda and went on, "Kettering's got nothing on us. To begin with he's not a tenth as smart as you are and without this stone of Jack's he's just pissin' in the wind. So forget about it." Pointing to Melinda's paper, she asked "Now, you're absolutely certain this is what you saw before?"
"Uhhh, yeah," was Melinda's somewhat shaken reply. "You know how I am about my work. I copied it word for word. She lowered her head and added, "Jan, I am sooo sorry I let him talk me into that."
"Screw him," said Janice, consoling her friend with a pat on the shoulder. "We'll break that bastard from sucking eggs, I promise you. Now, he mentioned something about a map. I don't see any kind of a map on there."
"I don't think there really is a map." Melinda hefted up the tablet and then said, "I think these tablets are all the map there is."
By now Jack's look of befuddlement was back in all its glory. "Maa-ap? What map? And who's this Kettering guy?"
"Come on, guys," he whined, "spill the beans will ya?"
Janice ignored him and flashed her lover an impish smile. "So as you see it now we're all even then."
"Uh huh." Melinda nonchalantly shrugged her shoulders. "Of course, all this is really nothin' to us. I mean after all, you said you weren't interested, remember?"
"Did I say that?" Janice asked in mock innocence. Evidently Melinda's sense of guilt had faded enough to allow her this little tease of Janice. That made the archaeologist very glad indeed because she hated the idea of Melinda being unhappy.
"Say, what are you guys talking about?"
"It's a long story," said Janice. "Remind me to tell it to ya sometime. Say, Jack just how did you find Frailing anyway?"
"It's a long story," Jack said with a smug little sniff. "Remind me to tell it to ya sometime." For him this was a deliciously gratifying moment, one that he had not expected to present itself quite so soon.. He well knew it wasn't often that someone was able to take the verbal measure of Janice Covington.
In return Janice merely grinned at him for a moment. She would allow her friend his little victory. "Well this stuff can wait till morning. I for one am beat. Jack, if you want you can leave your gear over there in the corner."
Jack took the none too subtle hint. "Uh, okay," he said with a stiff nod of the head. "Uhh, well, see you guys in the morning, I guess."
"Bright and early," said Janice. "'Cause there may be something I want to talk over with you."
At this Jack's face brightened. "Yeah? Well gee, you know, I'm not all that sleepy. If ya want we could--"
"Good night, Jack," Melinda broke in. Her tone was soft but the insistent inflection in her voice was clear enough. There would be no further conversation tonight.
"Uhh yeah. Right. Ahh good night."
Janice and Melinda watched him take his blanket and walk to the front of the tent. There he paused and looked back at them. "Sorry about not mentioning the stone sooner," he said. With that he turned and stepped out into the brisk night air.
Janice waited until she thought he was out of hearing before speaking. "You know?" she mused aloud. "I think he missed us."
"Jack's a very nice fella," said her partner. From outside the two of them heard the clank of the truck door closing as Jack got inside. Melinda stood up and with her long strides walked over to the front of the tent. There she pulled down the flap, closing the "door."
"I think he's lonely."
Janice nodded thoughtfully. If he was that was too bad for him because she knew all too well what it was like to be alone. For most of her life she had been alone. How wonderful it is, she thought, to have somebody to hold, to fuss with, to share all life's joys and sorrows with--to love.
Janice stood up and, unfastening her belt, opened up her trousers, letting the loose khaki garment fall easily away from her slim hips. Stepping out of them, she sighed, "I wish we were home in Annapolis."
Melinda flashed her a knowing smile. "No you don't," she teased. Tall and lanky, Melinda very often walked with short, choppy steps that were so unbecoming to the graceful lines of her body. However when she concentrated on it, when she really tried, she had this way of walking with a certain subtle turn of the hips that was suggestive, highly sensual and very alluring. >From behind it looked even better but from the front or the back, it always sent Janice's temperature rising when she saw her use it. To Janice this walk had a certain feline, even feral and predatory quality that would have seemed so incongruous to those who thought they knew Melinda. Of course, no one knew her in the special way that Janice did and consequently no one else knew just how sexually aggressive the stunning belle could sometimes be. It was this suggestive walk that Melinda now used upon strolling back to the woman she loved so much. "You're loving it here and you know it."
"Well......." Janice conveniently let her words trail off to avoid further incrimination. However in her heart she had to admit Melinda was right. She did so love the field work--always had and probably always would.
Melinda moved in close, towering over the petite blond. Their eyes met and without a word the two women eased into a soft embrace. As their lips met Janice emitted a soft moan and let her body melt into the strong arms of her lover.
"Mmmm," Melinda moaned, coming up for air at last, "I've been waiting for that all day."
Janice smiled and, pulling herself free, picked up the remaining blanket from her cot and tossed it on the ground. She then slid her hand between her lover's warm crotch and in a husky voice said, "How 'bout I show you what you've been missing?"
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