It was slightly after 5:00 AM and already John Price was at work. A notorious early riser, he often marveled at how peaceful and calm these sites could be in the early hours before the beehive-like activity began. As the lead archaeologist in charge of excavating this large Guaymi Indian village he was responsible for making the bees perform their work efficiently. The only problem was he did not have enough bees at the moment. Despite offering to pay the grandiose sum of five American dollars per week he found most of the locals did not wish to be within five miles of the site. They considered it cursed. He was therefore somewhat pleased when his foreman rapped on his tent pole and said he had two people outside looking for work. That is--until he saw who they were.
"Covington!" he blurted out.
"Price," replied Janice, nodding.
"What the devil are you doing here?" he asked suspiciously.
"What else? You've got the only active dig in North America, I'm an archaeologist. You need people, we need work so--"
"Not a chance!" exclaimed Price heatedly. "I still haven't forgotten how you cheated me out of the Star of Turkey."
Janice smiled faintly. "That was just business, that's all. Nothing personal."
Price eyed her up and down. "Well this is just business too," he said coldly. "I don't need you."
"C'mon, John," said Janice, almost pleading now. "I didn't squawk when you beat me to Ceylon and got the Death Ruby, did I?"
"Oh, so it's John now!" said Price, his voice rising. "Let me see now, what was that you called me at our last meeting? "A 'pussy?'"
"Things were...different then," said Janice meekly.
"To use one of your vulgar expressions, 'No shit, Sherlock,'" said Price absolutely gloating now. "Tell me, do you really need work or are you just trying to spy on me?"
"No no!" Janice replied quickly. "Nothing like that. It's just that well..." Janice took a deep breath and gave out a heavy sigh of resignation. "I'm broke, John. I haven't had a job since the war started and I'm up to my eyeballs in hock. I'm about to lose everything, I've got the IRS on my ass..."
Melinda noted the little shudder in Janice's voice as she said 'everything.'" Oh, Janice, you are sooo good. she thought admiringly.
"Spare me the melodramatics," said Price, with a mocking sniff.
"Please, John, you know how good I am. I can be of use to you. Don't--don't make me beg. You can't stand there and in all honesty tell me you can't use me."
This might be fun, thought Price. "Maybe," he said aloud. He found himself warming to the idea of the coarse, arrogant Covington doing his bidding. He tilted his head toward Melinda. "What about her? She doesn't know anything about archaeological work."
"She's worked with me for over eighteen months now," said Janice. "She's learned a lot. Besides, she's an acknowledged expert on ancient languages."
"That's of no use to me," said Price. "You know very well the Guaymi Indians had no written language. Tell you what, Covington, I need monkeys. I'll pay you twenty-five dollars a week as a common laborer."
Price held up his hand to cut short Janice's protest. "Take it or leave it."
Janice slumped her shoulders in resignation. "Okay," she sighed. "You win. But what about Mel?"
"I told you I can't--"
"Wait!" cried Mel. She pointed to an old Royal portable typewriter on Price's desk. "This sheet has a lot of errors on it," she said, bending down to inspect the page in the typewriter.
"Well the secretarial pool is just a little thin down here," growled Price.
Without a word Mel sat down at the desk and pulled her chair up close to the Royal. Looking at Price's notes, she began to hammer out words on the typewriter with incredible speed. Price and Janice both leaned forward in amazement as her fingers flew over the well worn keys. After two minutes she stopped and looked up expectantly at Price.
"Way-ul, Mister Price? Can yuh use me?'
"My God!" exclaimed Price. "I've never seen anybody..." He pointed to a steel filing cabinet in the corner of the tent. "Uhh, can you file?"
Oh, for goodness sake, of course. An' I can take dictation an' I'm very good at bookkeeping too." She smiled sheepishly and said, "Yuh might say I have many skills."
For some reason this struck a chord deep inside Janice. Where have I heard that before?
"All right, I guess I can use you," Price admitted. "You can get started organizing this mess. I'll pay you forty a week."
"Why, thank you, sir," said Mel.
Price stepped to the open flap of the tent. "Carter!"
"Yes, Mister Price?"
Without taking his eyes off his foreman Price jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Take the little one there out to the north slope and put her to work."
"But Mister Price, that's--"
"Do as you're told!" barked Price. "And make sure she earns her pay."
Carter nodded and waved for Janice to follow him. "Come along, you," he said gruffly.
Janice cast a glance at Mel and gave her the barest hint of a wink and tossed her the gas mask pouch. "Take care of that," she said.
As she passed Price he caught her by the arm. "Just remember, Covington, I'll be watching you."
Janice merely looked at him blankly before following Carter out of the tent. She soon found out why the foreman Carter had protested putting her on the north slope. Digging had not begun there yet because the area was extremely rocky and therefore needed to be cleared off first. Naturally the only way this could be accomplished under such primitive conditions was to do it by hand. She and five others were put to work loading what rocks they could lift into individual hand carts and wheeling them some fifty yards down the hill to a parked truck. Some of these rocks were quite large and it taxed Janice's strength to the limit to get them in the cart.
Having been lead archaeologist on all her excavations over the last three years, she had not been required to do very much, if any, heavy labor. As a result by noon her back was aching and her hands were covered with scrapes and scratches. Only by fantasizing about how she was going to get even with Price was she able to stagger through that first day.
By contrast Melinda spent that first day in a cool tent sipping tea and lifting nothing heavier than a stapler. After instructing her as to what she should do, Price had gone out for most of the day. Uncertain as to what she should be doing to help, she merely carried out her orders and waited out the day. She would have to wait for Janice to fill her in as to how she could help.
At exactly five o' clock Carter blew a whistle and work was halted. "Thank you, sweet Mother of Jesus!" Janice whispered breathlessly. As they made their way down the hill she felt someone tap her on the shoulder. It was Carter.
"For a little gal, ya did good, Covington."
"Thanks," mumbled Janice.
"Is it true?"
"Is what true?"
"You know, that you're an archaeologist," replied Carter.
"Not here I'm not," Janice said ruefully, arching her aching back. "Here I'm just a rock monkey."
"Well maybe you won't be for long," Carter said.
"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Janice.
"Well I admit I don't know much about this sort of thing, you understand. I'm just here to supervise the labor."
"That's Price for you," sneered Janice. "On my digs I supervise the labor."
All I know is we have been here for about a month now and as you can see we don't seem to be gettin' much done."
"So I've noticed," said Janice. It was true. As far as she could tell they had not done much more than lay down a few grid lines and perform some preparatory work. She knew if this had been her site she would have had half that hillside excavated by now. Price was not known for his sloppiness. Something was definitely amiss here--something that could not be blamed on a shortage of labor.
"Maybe Mister Price will change his mind and ask you to assist him," said Carter.
It was the almost hopeful way he said it that rattled the alarm bell in Janice's head. Be careful here, Covington, she told herself. I think this one's taken a liking to you.
"Well you never know," she said aloud.
Carter smiled at her and said, "I hope so. Now come on, I'll show you where to sleep."
By the time Carter led her to her quarters, an old tent one fourth the size of Price's, Melinda was already there. Upon seeing Janice she put her hand to her mouth and softly gasped, "Oh, my!"
"Hi, Honey, I'm home," Janice grinned wearily.
Mel rushed to her and led her over to one of the cots and sat her down. "Golly, Jan, you look awful."
"Then you can imagine how I feel,"
Mel looked at Janice's blistered and bloodied hands and shook her head sadly. "That Price fella is no gentleman. Imagine takin' advantage of his position like that."
"I'm okay. I'm just...tired, that's all. And besides, we wanted to get in remember?"
"I suppose you're right," said Melinda reluctantly. "But still, there was no call for him to be such a jerk." She turned Janice sideways on the cot and placed her hands on the woman's shoulders. "Here, let me just..." She began to massage the archaeologist's neck and back.
Janice felt Mel's strong fingers dig into her flesh and press against her aching muscles. Just like that, much of the soreness began to melt away--not all of it but enough to make it bearable. "Mmmm," she moaned, "that feels good. How do you do that?"
"It's something my Daddy taught me," said Mel modestly. "He said he learned it when he was in the Far East."
"So, how's your elbow?" inquired Janice.
"Aww it's okay. We Pappases are known for our ability to recuperate. Now let me help you." She gently pushed Janice down onto the cot and began to untie her boots. "Ja-yun?"
"What is it you want me to do while we're here?"
Janice had been thinking about that. "Do you have access to all his files?" she asked.
"There's this old trunk that he keeps locked," replied Melinda.
"Figures. Okay..." Janice grunted softly as she shifted her position on the cot. "...here's what you do. Look for unusual stuff."
"Unusual? Like what?"
"You know, things that don't belong here. Suspicious characters, people that look out of place. You've been on enough digs now to know what belongs and what doesn't."
Just on a hunch Janice added, "Try to find out just how much high explosive has been brought in here."
"If ya do find something be sure you don't write anything down. Try to memorize it put it back."
"I will," Mel promised.
"We're going to find out..." Janice let out a huge yawn. "...what this SOB is up to if it kills us."
At the rate you're goin' it just might, thought Melinda. She leaned over and kissed the woman on the cheek and then stood up. "I reckon I'd better go see what they've cooked up for supper. You jes' take it easy, Jan. I won't be long."
"Mmmm," Janice murmured, almost asleep."
Melinda stepped out of the tent and took a look around the campsite. Ever since her
arrival she had felt a sense of uneasiness about the place. "Jan," she said,
under her breath, "I sure hope you know what you're doing."
Over the next and Melinda worked diligently at their jobs, all the while keeping their eyes and ears open. From the very first day Janice noticed Price was not spending as much time at the site as he ought to have been. By the end of the week she saw his routine varied little from day to day. Up early, give morning instructions to Carter, leave about 10 A.M., stay gone for several hours, and back by five o' clock or so. Janice didn't need Sam Spade to tell her Price had his finger in another pie someplace else. But where? And more importantly, why?
One side benefit to all this was that Janice found by concentrating on the problem of Price and his "pies" she was able to block out much of the pain her arms and back were experiencing. On the second day Carter had given her an old pair of leather gloves and while they were a big help, they tended to make her hands sweat thus causing her abrasions to sting.
As to Carter himself, Janice found she was treading a very thin line. It was as plain as the glasses on Mel's face he was interested in her. Janice Covington was no stranger to sex. She had been to bed with her share of men. As with most other things some had been better than others but even the best of them had left her feeling...empty somehow. She sometimes wondered why she had never really been attracted to a woman before and had come to the conclusion that one can't become attracted to something that is not there. She did not have much opportunity to make contact with other females in her line of work. Not until that sweet, shy, Southerner took possession of her heart had she known what was missing .
Janice Covington was no fool. She was well aware that out here in the middle of nowhere it was easy for a man, or a woman, to become lonely. She had experienced it herself. Carter seemed to be a nice enough fellow but whether he was genuinely interested in her or just wanted to get between her legs was something she had not figured out yet. But she would. Personally she hoped it was the latter for it would play much lighter on her conscience. Like it or not she was going to have to string him along a little in the hope she might glean from him some little bit of information that could be used against Price. All week he had been making excuses to talk to her, to be near her. Excuses like correcting the work of others working near her or giving her special little jobs to do. Janice could see he was in reality merely trying to work up his courage. Finally, as she trudged down the hill on a muggy Saturday evening, he did.
"Yeah?" she replied, mopping off the back of her neck with her handkerchief.
"I uh, I saw Mister Price today and he ahh..well..."
"He what?" pressed Janice. Something is up, she thought.
"He, he said it was okay for you to start drivin' the truck next week."
"Oh yeah?" Already her back felt better. She smiled at him and said, "This was your doing wasn't it?"
Carter grinned boyishly and looked at his feet. "Well, maybe a little. There ain't no cause for someone as nice as you to be out here sweatin' like a plow horse all day."
Like Melinda, Carter was roughly her age. But also like Melinda, he was nowhere near as worldly. He was easy to read. She had now her answer. Carter was just trying to be a nice guy. She knew this was going to make her job more difficult. If she thought he was just one more guy looking for a piece of ass she would rip out his guts and not think twice about it but this would have to be handled more delicately now--in more ways than one.
"Well thank you, Ca--"
"Dave," Carter blurted out.
"Thank you...Dave," said Janice. She turned in the direction of her tent.
Here it comes, she thought. "Yeah?"
"Uhh as you know, we've got tomorrow off and I was wondering it you'd care to, you know, maybe let me show you around a little?"
"Oh?" She was very careful not to seem too interested.
"Yeah. We could go into Golfito for lunch and then maybe drive to the coast--it's not that far from here."
Steady, Kid, she told herself. Don't take the bait too soon. "Gee, I don't...know," she replied. "See, my friend...Mel, she..." She let her voice trail off and saw the man's face fall just a little. That's enough, she thought. "Oh what the hell," she said, smiling. Mel's a big girl. Besides, she will be glad to get rid of me for awhile."
"Great!" said Carter, absolutely beaming. "So it's a date then?"
"If ya want to call it that," she answered, pulling up one corner of her mouth in a little half-smile. "Yeah." She then turned again and started to walk toward her tent.
"I'll be by at about nine," said Carter, calling after.
The archaeologist raised her right hand up to acknowledge him. She made a mental note to retire early because she knew tomorrow could be a crucial day for them and she wanted all her wits about her. As she neared the tent she saw Melinda standing outside the tent waiting for her. Uhhhh boy, she thought. I just hope Mel will understand.
"I don't understand, Janice."
Janice wet her peeling lips and said, "Look, Mel, it's like this. I think Carter might be able to point us in the right direction here if we just sort of, you know, nudge him a little."
"We?" Mel huffed, pointing her nose slightly in the air. "You mean you." Her mind was telling her Janice was right but her heart was telling her something else.
Janice slumped her shoulders in exasperation and settled in closer to Mel on the side of the cot. "All right--me. God, what are you getting so worked up for? It's not like I'm gonna fuck him, damn it. We're just going for a drive, that's all."
"I never said you were going to fu-- do that," Mel replied curtly, through tight lips.
Janice knew her well enough to know she never talked that way unless she was very upset. "C'mon, Mel," she said soothingly, "don't act like this."
Melinda Pappas turned to her friend, her nose again a little up in the air. "Go ahead, Janice," she said. "You go on your little date. But don't expect me to jes' sit around here and pine for you to come home."
Janice raised up both her palms in incredulity and said, "Where the hell you gonna go, Mel? The jungle?"
Melinda tilted her head almost to her shoulder and replied airily, "Oh I don't know. That Mister Price might be willin' to take me somewhere."
Janice knew Melinda was only kidding (Wasn't she?) but even so, this was too much. "Ohh no," she said. "Not him. Anybody but him."
"Golly, Jan," she asked innocently, "are you sayin' you can go out galavantin' around but lil' ole faithful Mel has tuh stay here all day and do nothing but sweat?"
"Damn it, Mel. Cut it out will ya?"
Melinda looked at her slyly and said, "Oh all right. I guess that was a low blow."
"Darn right it was," Janice said. "You had me going there for a moment. I thought I was going to have to use my secret weapon on you."
"What sort of--secret weapon?"
"This," replied her lover.
To Melinda's utter astonishment Janice looked at her dolefully and immediately began to produce huge tears. "Land sake's, Jan, how do you do that?"
"Beats me. I've always been able to do it. I can turn 'em on and off at will almost."
Melinda gingerly reached up and wiped one of the tears off Janice's cheek with the knuckle of her finger. For once the belle was practically speechless. However she did manage to whisper a soft "I'll be damned."
Janice smiled and leaned over to kiss the still wide-eyed woman. Just before their lips
met she whispered, "Never in a million years."
The next morning found Melinda waving good bye to her friend as she and Carter pulled away in the old Ford panel truck they used for bringing in supplies.
"Bye. Have fun."
She stood there watching until the truck had disappeared from view. She gave out a soft sigh and stepped through the open flap into her tent. Darn it, she thought, why is it Janice is always the one that gets to go off and do things and I'm the one who has to stay behind? Why can't one time, just one time, I be the one that makes things happen? With a sad, rueful whisper she answered her own question. "Because you don't know what you're doin', Mel Pappas, that's why."
Sometimes when her companion was not around, Mel wondered what it would be like to be a leader instead of a follower. Every now and then she even went so far as to fantasize that she was the one who made all the really important decisions. She would even go so far as to put voice to it, acting out both parts with more than a little relish.
"Janice, National Geographic called today and offered me a choice of excavating either one of two sites for them."
"Golly, Mel," her friend would say. "Where?"
"Either Ceylon or Egypt. So what do you think?"
"Oh for goodness sake," Janice would reply, "that's an easy one. Egypt is the prize plum of archaeology and Ceylon is a thousand miles from nowhere."
Then would come the most delicious moment of her fantasy. In her best imitation of the woman she loved so much, Mel would say, "You're right, Kid. It is an easy choice--we go to Ceylon."
Then she would have Janice sputtering, "But...but..."
"Yeah," Melinda would say, cutting her off, "Egypt has been done to death. Thanks for your help, Jan." This silly little bit of whimsy never failed to bring a smile to Melinda's face.
Mel Pappas had little problem with self-esteem anymore. She knew she was smart. She knew she was very attractive and a lot tougher than most people perceived her to be. She did not feel inferior to anybody. The one thing she did not have was something that Janice had in spades--that certain forcefulness that allowed one to say, "Here I am, world, like it or not." And hardly a day went by without bringing an illustration of the differences in them. If somebody short-changed Mel a dollar likely as not she would merely accept it and go on but not Janice. No, not Janice Covington. She would rip the clerk up one side and down the other for such an offense. Mel had seen her say things and do things that she could not see herself doing if she lived to be a million. While she did not approve of all her lover did--she did have a temper--she nevertheless wished she could be more like her when it came to asserting herself. But she also was aware of the painful fact that some people are just more foreward than others and while it is easy for others to tell one to be more aggressive, the fact of the matter is it is never that simple. It would be like asking Janice to come to afternoon tea in a designer dress.
Melinda lay down on the cot and stared up at the roof of the tent. All kidding aside, she found the thought of Janice--her Janice--out with that Carter fellow a little bit vexing. She just could not help it. What if he tries to kiss her? Worse still--what it he tries to... Oh, God, she thought. She didn't even want to think about that.
"Melinda Pappas," she rebuked herself, "you're being silly. Janice is not gonna let that guy do anything." But from waters deep within her soul two little words floated to the surface. Is she?
"And so the other guy says, that was no lady--that was my wife!"
Janice laughed at the old joke she had heard so many times before. She and Carter had now been gone for almost six hours. Their first stop had been Golfito where they had a surprisingly good meal and where she bought what she hoped would be a nice peace offering to Mel. Janice knew the woman was none too happy about what she was doing and she really could not fault her. After all, if it had been the other way around...well she could not rule out causing bodily harm to any bastard she thought was trying to take Mel away from her.
For the past three hours or so they had been traversing the countryside on the mostly dirt roads just talking. For both of them it felt good to get away from the oppressive monotony of the work site.
"So, do you know any jokes?" Carter asked.
Did Janice Covington know jokes? When one had been in the number of bars she had over the years and worked around rough men as much as she had one would have had to have been a absolute moron not to know a goodly number of jokes. She knew hundreds of them. Unfortunately most of them were highly sexual in nature and she didn't want to tell one of these lest Carter perceive it as some kind of "come on" signal. After racking her brain for a moment or two she came across a short one that could be altered enough.
"Yeah," she said. "I got one. Hitler walks into this bar and sits down beside Mussolini. Old Benito sees him and says, 'Hey, Sickelgruber, what's got four arms, four legs and eats shit?' Adolph says, 'Holy shhhtuka! Vat?' Mussolini says, 'You and your brother.' Well! Naturally Der Fuehrer flips his swastika and says, 'Vee see if you shhtill laff ven I blitzkrieg your ass, Pizza Boy.' So here the bartender breaks in and says, 'Hey, Pal, it's just a gag. Come on, lighten up.' So Hitler calms down and says, 'Okey dokey, I'm appeased. I'll get the next zee next vun zat valks in here.' Right then Tojo comes in and sits down on the other side of Hitler. He says, 'Hey, Four Eyes, what's got four arms, four legs, and eats shit?' Tojo says he doesn't know. Hitler says, 'Me and my brother.'"
Carter broke into a very big grin. All those looks, he thought, and a sense of humor too. Janice, I like you. "You tell a good joke," he said aloud.
"I'm a little rusty," Janice said modestly. "Those things always make Mel uncomfortable so I don't tell them anymore."
Carter saw this remark as the opening he had been waiting for. He had not failed to notice how many times Janice had mentioned the other woman's name during the course of their time together. "Ahh, I was wondering. How long have you known your friend?"
"Mel? Oh, close to two years now."
"You guys must be pretty close to travel around together like you do."
Janice could just hear the AWWOOOOGA! going off in her subconscious mind. She eyed Carter a little sharply and said, "I can't speak for her but she's the best friend I've ever had."
"She uhh, she seems rather nice," observed Carter.
"Mel?" Janice snorted. "Dave, to say she is nice is like saying Crosby can sing a little bit. Mel is a hell of a lot more than 'nice.'" Try wonderful, breathtaking, perfect...God's gift to an undeserving sinner, she thought.
Carter, sensing her indignance, decided to drop the subject. He did not know why but he felt what he thought to be a hint of defensiveness on her part. Why? he wondered.
Janice also felt it was time to talk about something else. "Dave, don't you find it odd that Price stays gone from the site so much?"
"He is a pretty busy guy," Carter answered.
"Well he's constantly having to go into San José to deal with the underwriters for this project and then he has that other site to manage too."
This bit of news struck Janice like one of Kapitanleutenant Beck's torpedoes. "Oh, he's got another one?" she asked nonchalantly.
"Yeah, bigger than ours, I think."
"Have you ever been to it?" she asked.
"Nahh. It's being handled by a whole different crew. That's why we're always so short-handed at our place. Mister Price is always siphoning off the best workers to the other site."
"It that so?"
"Yep. Heck, they even have a bulldozer there."
Ding! As Elmer Fudd would say, "There's something awfuwwy scwewy goin' on awound here." she thought. Why the hell would Price need a bulldozer anyway?
"Umm, just where is this other site anyway?" Janice asked, innocently she hoped.
"Not far from here actually," came the reply. "In fact we'll go right by it on our way home."
"Could we stop and see it?"
"I, I don't know he replied haltingly. "Mister Price...he doesn't..."
"Look, I don't want to get you into trouble with Price," said Janice. "I know what a jerk he can be."
"I gather you two have had your differences in the past," said Carter.
"You could say that," Janice allowed. "But right now I'm just needing the work and if he's willing to take me on then who am I to hold a grudge? So, what are you doing in Costa Rica anyway?"
"You mean as opposed to being in the military, don't cha?" asked Carter.
"Well now that you mention it..."
"I got turned down for the Marines," he said. He pointed to his left leg and said, "Bad knee. I hurt it playin' football in high school. I can get around on it all right but I can't run a lick."
For Janice it was hard to decipher whether he was sorry about that or not.
"Anyway," he continued, "I couldn't see myself working in some defense plant for the duration so when this came up I jumped at the chance."
Suddenly Carter slowed the truck down and then stopped.
"Is something wrong?" Janice asked, knowing full well there wasn't.
Carter pointed to a field on the opposite side of the road and said, "There. It's over there."
"You mean, the other site?" asked Janice, desperately trying to remain calm.
"Yeah. It's supposed to be a few hundred yards back off the road so you really can't see anything from here."
Janice leisurely scanned the field looking for a road of some kind of but all she saw was a place where the weeds and tall grass looked as if they had been ridden down. She knew that one way or another she would have to check the place out. Suddenly she found herself wanting to get back to Melinda.
"I think it's time we started back. I'm beginning to feel a little woozy."
"Gee, Janice, is there something I can do?" Carter asked anxiously.
"Nah. It's not your fault. I shouldn't have eaten that fish for lunch that's all. It always does this to me." She felt a little badly for pulling such a juvenile stunt and she was not quite sure if Carter bought it but she really had had enough. She missed Mel.
Carter eased the truck back out onto the road and forty-five minutes later they were pulling up in front of Janice's tent.
"You're sure there's nothing I can do for you?" Carter asked again.
"No," replied Janice, swallowing hard for effect. She turned the handle on the door latch and looked at the young man. "Look, Dave, I had a very good time...really." She opened the door and slid off the seat onto the ground.
"Oh, Janice? You forgot your package," said Carter.
"Oh yeah. Thanks." Janice took the bundle from him and pushed the door closed.
"See ya in the morning," said Carter.
"I'll be there," said Janice. She stepped back from the truck to allow Carter to pull away. Not a bad guy, she thought, watching the truck disappear on the other side of the camp. She stood there for a moment and then entered the tent. "Mel, look I--"
But Melinda Pappas was nowhere to be seen. Janice's first thought was, Jesus Christ she really did it. Her fears were soon calmed, however, by the sound of Mel's soft humming. The woman had merely been to the outhouse. A couple of seconds later the long, lean figure stepped through the flap and into the tent. "Why, hiya, Jan!" she gushed.
"Hiya, Melinda," she said softly. Only now did she realize just how much she had missed the woman.
Mel tilted her head to one side and looked at the woman quizzically. "Why, Jan, what's the matter. Is there something wrong?"
"Not now," came the reply. "Why do you ask?"
"Well it's jes' that you never call me Melinda."
"Hmm? Oh that. Well it was just a slip of the tongue," said Janice. Melinda, what a beautiful name. She picked up her bundle and held it out in front of her. "Here, I have something for ya."
"Oh my. For meee? What is it?"
"I guess you'll just have to open it, won't you?" Janice replied.
Mel undid the string and eagerly tore off the paper. "Ohh, Jan," she sighed softly. "This is marvelous."
In her hands was a copy of "Selected Poems of Robert Frost"--in English no less.
"Ya like it?"
"Oh boy, do I?" Mel looked at her friend and beamed, "Janice Covington, you never cease to uhmaze me."
"Kid," Janice said, returning her smile, "sometimes I amaze myself."
In the gloom of the tent the two of them hugged tightly and sat down on Mel's cot.
"I love you," the archaeologist whispered in a voice so low it could hardly be heard.
The tall beauty blinked hard and in that sweet drawl of hers replied, "Janice, you
know my heart belongs to you...now and forever." She then gleefully rubbed her hands
together and said, "Now, tell me all about your date."
"Now you're sure you don't need Pablo to go with you?"
Janice took the roughly drawn map from Carter and tucked it into her shirt pocket. "I'll find it all right," she assured him. She was about to make her first trip off site in the truck and Carter was anxious that she be sure of the route. Already it was almost noon and she had spent the better part of the morning hauling truck loads of rocks to a remote part of the site. That is, until the generator that produced electricity for the camp cracked a piston. As usual Price was nowhere to be seen but Carter knew he would undoubtedly place a high priority on getting that engine overhauled. As a result he and two other men had just finished hoisting it into the back of Janice's truck with a block and tackle and another man was busy making it secure.
"Now remember," said Carter, "be sure to tell Ernesto--that's the guy's name--that this is for Señor Price and that he wants a rush job on it."
"Right," nodded Janice.
The man that had been at work securing the gen-set dropped down off the truck and nodded to Carter.
"Okay," he said to Janice, "you're all set."
The archaeologist turned the key and depressed the starter switch located on the floorboard. The engine in the old Ford was not as finely tuned as Guevara's so she had to let it turn over several times before it finally started. She shook her head at Carter and he grinned back at her.
"Yeah I know," he said. "It's a piece of shit."
She depressed the clutch pedal and moved the floor shift into low gear.
"I wouldn't go too fast if I were you," warned Carter. "Especially with that load on the back. You saw how bad some these roads are in some places."
Janice nodded and eased the clutch out. As she began to pull away, Mel breathlessly ran up to the truck.
"What's the matter?" Janice asked, stopping the truck.
Mel handed her what looked to be two sandwiches wrapped in wax paper and said, "It's a long way tuh Puerto Cortes," she said. "You might get hungry." Janice's indifference to food was forever a cause of concern for Mel.
Janice smiled and patted her rock hard tummy. "Why, Mel, haven't you heard? The scarecrow look is in this year."
Mel was not amused. She clamped her hand around Janice's wrist. "Eat," she said, squeezing hard.
"I will, I will," Janice assured her. "What is it anyway?"
"It's canned tunafish," came the reply.
"Oh goody," Janice said, rolling her eyes. "My favorite." She smiled warmly at the tall beauty and said, "I'll see ya tonight."
Mel released her grip and patted Janice her on the arm. "Be careful."
Janice winked at her and nodded. Mel stepped back and Janice again eased the truck
forward. In a few minutes she was gone leaving Mel standing there wishing they were both
in that canopy bed back at home in Annapolis. After sighing softly she went back to work.
An hour later the belle sat there with her long legs propped on her little table staring at Price's trunk. I'd give a peach pie to know what's in there, she thought, as she idly rotated her pencil between her teeth. She cast a guarded eye toward the tent flap and then stood up. After once again making sure no one was around she nonchalantly strolled her way over to Price's side of the tent. All week she had been discreetly riffling through Price's papers in the hope she might find something Janice could use. As a proper Southern lady she really did not care for this sort of thing but if that was what Janice wanted her to do then, by golly, that was what she would do. So far she had found nothing even remotely incriminating.
She ran her fingers over the trunk and, under her breath said, "My goodness, this old thing is filthy." It looked like it was a hundred years old. How can I get this thing open without Price knowing it? she wondered. In what she knew was a futile gesture of wishful thinking she grasped the lid and gave it a fierce tug. Naturally nothing happened. Then she remembered something she saw in an old movie once. At first she thought, Naah. But what did she have to lose. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a bobby pin. While she never used them herself Janice sometimes did and she was always losing them so Mel usually kept a couple in her pocket for her. Straightening it out, she muttered, "Mister Chan, I sure hope you're right."
She inserted the pin into the old lock and began to jiggle it around. To her complete surprise she heard a satisfying click. "Ooh my," she softly gasped.
Mel shifted her body around to where she could keep an eye on the opening in the tent and quickly plunged her hand into the drawer. There was nothing in the trunk to organize the papers so they merely lay flat on the bottom. She walked her fingers along the edge of the stack before taking hold of several pages. She shot one more nervous glance at the opening, took a deep breath, and pulled out the thick sheaf. Cradling the sheaf in her left arm, she quickly began to scan through them, stacking them up against her breasts as she went. It was difficult to see very well in the gloomy tent but so far she had found nothing of interest. Bills of sale, old letters, cash receipts, and other mundane records were all she saw.
"Hmph," she snorted, "I almost gave myself a heart attack for this?"
Satisfied there was nothing in the pile she could use Mel replaced the stack of papers and picked up another one. At first she thought the pile another dead end but, as she neared the bottom of the stack a document caught her eye. It was worded somewhat ambiguously in Spanish and she didn't understand every word but what she could make out troubled her. She glanced again at the tent opening before, in express disregard of Janice's instructions, quickly writing down a word she found on the paper--a word she did not know the definition of. As she replaced the papers the tips of her fingers brushed up against what she thought to be a packet of some sort.
After extracting it from the trunk she learned it was, in fact, an envelope, the kind with the metal tabs that allow it to be securely closed over and over again. After one more glance at the door Mel undid the tabs on the envelope and pulled out its contents. It was a small book with a reddish orange cover.
"Oh my!" she gasped, placing a hand to her cheek. A cold chill ran up her spine and she felt her throat becoming very dry. For on the front cover of the little book was a black eagle perched on an encircled symbol that all freedom loving peoples had come to loathe. Contrary to common belief this symbol was not the creation of some propaganda machine for it had been used by some religions and even by certain tribes of the American Indians for centuries. However this former emblem of peace had by now come to represent everything that was evil in man--war, racial hatred, mass slaughter of innocents, rape of individuality. These and a thousand other crimes were enthusiastically, even gleefully, carried out with incredible attention to detail by warped men who believed whole heartedly that the flag under which they goose-stepped, the flag with the crooked cross--the swastika--was destined to be the terrifying banner under which they, the "Master Race" would subjugate those less pure that themselves into a New World Order.
It was no wonder Melinda Pappas felt to uneasy just looking at it. Her hands were now shaking a little and she almost dropped the book before she managed to open it. The belle half expected Hitler himself to leap off the pages and grab her but all she saw were groups and groups of numbers in neat columns, letters of the alphabet, and more numbers with strange symbols beside them. As she leafed through the pages she wondered what the thing could possibly be used for. It was not a technical manual as far as she could tell. What then? There was no doubt about it now. Price was clearly up to something rotten. But what?
Mel's concentration was broken by the sound of a harsh voice nearing the tent. Price!
Oh God! she thought. She quickly slipped the little book back in the envelope and folded over the tabs. To her horror one of them broke off. After replacing the envelope back in the trunk she hastily stepped to the center of the tent and tried to look as nonchalant as possible. She no sooner reached her destination when the ominous figure of Price appeared at the front of the tent.
"Why...hello, Mister Price," Mel squeaked as Price entered.
Price merely grunted and sat down at his desk. "Did you get my report typed up?" he asked gruffly.
"Why uh, yes. Yes I did." She picked the document up from her little table and brought it to him. "I must say, I just did manage to finish it before that generator thing went bad."
"You would have finished it outside then," replied Price. Stupid woman, he thought. He did not even bother to look at the woman but merely sat there scanning her work.
"Well I reckon I never thought of tha-yat," she drawled meekly.
Of course you didn't, thought Price. Why are women so incapable of applying logic?
You Nahh-zee bastard, thought Mel, sensing his smugness. She had been uncomfortable around Price from the very start but now she found she was disgusted by the mere sight of him. Traitor! For a brief moment she felt an urge to take Price by the neck and crush his Adam's Apple. She knew where this came from. From what she could learn of her illustrious ancestor, Xena, she knew the woman had a special hatred for those who were treacherous. "Death to traitors in our midst!"
When he was finished Price folded the report up lengthwise and placed it in his ever present leather case. "Miss Pappas, my notes please"
"Oh golly, I'm sorry. I forgot." Mel quickly retrieved Price's notes from her little table and handed them over to him. Price took the notes and walked his fingers over the edges of each page as if he were counting them--which of course, he was. "I assure you they are all there," said Mel.
Price looked up at her with an expression totally devoid of emotion and replied, "Of course." With that he abruptly stood up and put on his hat. "I'm going to San Juan," he said. "My associates are very anxious to hear how were are progressing."
Uh huh, surrre, Mel thought bitterly.
He reached into his pocket and extracted a folded sheet of paper. "I may not be back today," he said. "Here are Carter's instructions for tomorrow."
"But he was just outside," said Mel.
"I didn't see him and I don't have time to look for him," Price answered impatiently as he strode out of the tent.
She was just about to sit back down when Price stuck his head back inside the tent. "I won't need you for anything else today," he said sharply, startling her. "You can have the rest of the day off."
After he was gone Mel stood there gaping at the portal and ran a hand through her jet black hair. Now what in the world was that all about? she wondered. To her way of thinking an act of kindness from a cold fish like Price was something one should be suspicious of, not grateful for. As she prepared to leave the tent she happened to cast a glance over to the trunk she had so recently been rummaging through. To her horror she now noticed the lid to the trunk was not completely closed. In her haste she had left it open about a quarter of an inch. "Oh my," she gasped, putting her hand over her mouth. "Ohhh my God." Three quick steps and the thing was closed but the damage had already been done. Did Price notice? Oh God, what if he did? He'll know it was me.
What was she going to do? And more to the point, what was Janice going to do when she found out? For Mel sadly knew she would have to tell her. Would she be angry? Mel Pappas why do you always screw things up? Can't you do a simple thing like close a lid? Mel took off her glasses and rubbed her temples. "Calm down now," she murmured. "It's most likely he didn't see it or else he would have named it." Yeah that's it, she thought hopefully. Price didn't notice it. But despite her best attempts to convince herself otherwise, Mel could not help but worry.
She stepped outside the tent into the bright afternoon sunlight. She wandered back to her tent totally oblivious to the hustle going on all around her. I screwed up, she kept repeating over and over in her mind. I screwed up.
When she reached the tent she immediately went inside and sat down on her cot. For the first time she considered the possibility that a good stiff belt of something 100 proof might not be such a bad thing. Maybe more than one. There was no denying it, Mel Pappas was just plain scared. To her it seemed Janice had already been gone a lifetime. She was alone. What would she do if Price came back and confronted her? Deny it, of course. But Mel knew she was not a very good liar. Even when she told teeny fibs to Janice the woman could always tell.
She worked her way to the end of her cot farthest away from the opening and positioned herself facing out. A grim thought crossed her mind. Should she get Janice's gun? She did know how to use one because Janice had a long time ago more or less forced her to learn. After mulling it over for a few moments she decided against it. She doubted she could shoot anyone--even Price.
So Melinda Pappas just sat there and waited, hoping the next voice she heard would be Janice's.
However at that very moment Janice and her voice were just finishing up their business in Puerto Cortés. "So you say it's gonna take at least a week to get a new set of pistons?"
Ernesto nodded, "And two more days to install them." He broke into a toothless grin and added, "Come back in two weeks."
"Come on," said Janice. "You ought to be able to put those in in less than a day. This is supposed to be a rush job remember?"
"This is a rush job," said Ernesto. "Otherwise Señor Carter would have to wait a month."
"Okay," said Janice. She didn't really care if it took him two years but she had to make it look good in case somebody got nosey. "Ya got me. I'll tell Carter two weeks."
Janice nodded to him and climbed back into the truck.
Americanos, thought Ernesto, always in such a hurry.
But the only real hurry Janice Covington was in was to return to the place Carter had
shown her the day before.
Ninety minutes later she was there. After pulling off and making certain this was indeed the correct place she turned the truck around and drove back the way she came. Close to five hundred yards later she spied a place where the truck could be driven off the road and hidden. She pulled the truck into a thick stand of bushes and slipped the key into her pocket before making her way back to the road. First listening carefully to make sure no vehicles were approaching she trotted across the narrow road and melted into the dense underbrush. It's about time, she thought, wiping her forehead with her handkerchief. The humidity in the undergrowth was stifling.
For close to half an hour she slowly picked her way through the brush until at last she saw it begin to thin out up ahead. She eased her way a few more feet when suddenly she heard something that made her freeze in her tracks. It was a voice. As far as she could tell it was some distance away but she decided it was better to be safe than sorry. She stood there for a few very tense seconds just holding her breath and slowly swiveling her head from side to side. Satisfied no one was nearby she ever so carefully made her way to the edge of the clearing and once there dropped to one knee. Here the dense undergrowth gave way to a large grassy field. At first she thought she had not made the angle of her approach acute enough for she saw nothing. The she heard the voice again. To her it was like a lighthouse beacon for she now knew where to look.
She got to her feet and carefully moved about fifty yards off to her right along the edge of the clearing. There, about one hundred yards directly across the field, she saw several men milling around idly. Damn, she thought, I wish I had some binoculars. But soon she saw an object that did not need binoculars to be identified. It was Price's car. As it rolled up the men gathered around and she saw Price get out and begin conversing with them. Soon she saw him reach into his pocket and pull out something. It did not take her long to realize what he was holding was money. From the way the men eagerly queued up it was obvious he was paying them. "What the hell are you up to, you bastard?" she mumbled.
For the next ten minutes she observed the men depart as, one by one, they were paid. As last they were all gone leaving only Price remaining. She saw him get into his car and drive in a straight line crossing her line of sight from right to left. Presently she saw him stop, turn the car around, and drive back the way he had come only much, much slower this time. Twice she saw him stop the car, get out, and bend down as if looking for something. Finally he reached his original starting point, got out one more time, and looked back the way he came.
What's he looking at? she puzzled. Price then got back in the car and drove off leaving the place, as far as Janice could tell, totally deserted. Already she had decided to find out just what was over there. She was still not 100 per cent sure the place was unguarded but fortunately for her the approach was well covered by waist high grass. Bending low, she entered the grass and soon wound her way through it to the other side. She listened intently for a few more minutes in an attempt to make certain no one else was around and then crawled out of the grass.
For the first time she saw the object of Price's meticulous scrutiny. It was long and straight, about twenty-five yards wide, and while not paved it was packed down very tightly. To her it was very plain it was not a road and it was surely not anything even remotely connected to archaeological work. Janice Covington knew full well what it was.
"Jesus," she said, under her breath, "it's a fuckin' airstrip!"
It was just after 4:30 when Janice rolled the truck to a halt in front of her tent. Even before she had the door open Mel was bounding out to meet her. "Janice," she whispered urgently. "Janice, thank goodness you're back."
The archaeologist immediately picked up on this sense of urgency in her friend's voice. "What's happened?" she asked the belle.
Mel glanced about nervously and said, "I've got something to tell you."
"Inside," said Janice, tilting her head in the direction of the tent.
Once they were inside Mel described to her the strange book she had seen. "Golly, Jan, what do you think?" she asked upon finishing.
"It's a code book," replied Janice, matter-of-factly.
"A code book?"
"Yeah. It's used to send and receive encrypted radio transmissions. Did you find anything else?"
"Well, there was something else in the book," said Mel. "There was another set of numbers written in pencil on the fly leaf." She picked up her poetry book and, using the pencil she kept for a bookmark, wrote these figures down in it.
"Now I don't know much about such things but to me that looks for all the world like a longitude and a latitude," said Mel.
"That's exactly what it is," said Janice. She nodded to the figures and said, "Erase that." As Mel complied Janice turned the numbers over and over in her mind. Nine degrees north, that's about where we are, she thought. Eighty degrees west, well that's--
Then it came to her. "My God, Mel," she said in a low voice, "that's the Panama Canal Zone. I'd bet a dollar to a doughnut whatever the hell Price is up to it has something to do with the Canal."
It was then Mel remembered that word. She furrowed her brow and withdrew the scrap of paper from her shirt pocket and unfolded it. "Jan, do you know what this is?"
"Let's see," said Janice, taking the paper.
"Accordin' to what I saw Price has acquired over 2200 pounds of that, whatever it is."
Janice looked down at the scrap of paper and read the word "trinitrotoluene." "Jesus Christ, Mel, that's TNT."
"Yuh mean like, dynamite?" Mel asked.
"It's a hell of a lot more powerful than dynamite," Janice replied grimly. She did not like the direction these clues were leading her at all. Price certainly had not gotten his hands on over a ton of TNT in order to celebrate the Fourth of July. "Mel," she said, "you know that other site Carter told me about?"
"Well it's just like we thought. It's not a dig at all. Price has constructed an airstrip there."
"Golly, Jan, what does it all mean?"
"I'm not quite sure yet," said Janice. "But you can bet your pretty ass it's not good."
Now Melinda figured she had delayed the inevitable long enough. She folded her hands in her lap and looked down at her feet. "Jan, I--I may have done a bad thing," she said meekly.
Despite the gravity of the situation Janice almost had to chuckle upon hearing this. It was inconceivable to the archaeologist that Melinda Pappas could be capable of doing anything "bad."
"What did ya do?" she asked Mel.
"When I heard Price comin' I got in such a rush to replace the book I didn't..." She took a deep breath to gather herself before finishing..."completely close the trunk lid." As she reeled off the last five words Mel winced a little as if expecting the worst. Instead all she got was a gentle hand on her shoulder.
"Don't worry about it," said Janice with a kindly smile. "From what you said I think Price was in too big of a hurry to notice."
"Janice, I'm sooo sorry," Mel blurted out. "I just--"
"It's all right, Mel," Janice assured her, the voice much more tender now. "Look, it took a lot of guts on your part to do what you did. I'm proud of you."
Janice leaned over and ever so lightly kissed the tall beauty on the lips. "Really." Damn it, Mel, she thought, I'm always proud of you.
Melinda broke into that enchanting smile that Janice loved so much. "Ah guess I did help you a little bit, didn't I?"
"More than a little," Janice corrected her. "But I wouldn't go around thinking I was another Mata Hari just yet."
"God, I reckon not," smiled Mel. "After all, look what happened to her."
For perhaps the tenth time that evening Price unfolded his map and went over the details of the plan with his cohorts. As he finished one of his associates, a man named Strolin, gave the mission's two unfortunate principals some very hollow words of encouragement.
"The Fatherland has mercifully allowed you men this chance to redeem your filthy souls. Succeed and your names will forever live gloriously in the annals of the Reich. Fail and..." Strolin conveniently allowed his words to trail off.
For an American like Price used to living in freedom it seemed ludicrous to threaten men who were already condemned to die but to Karl Wessel and Wilhelm Mueller the threat was very real indeed. These two men had been selected with the usual German efficiency to end their lives in fiery explosions thousands of miles away from their homeland instead of by more conventional methods of execution. They had been chosen because both of them were excellent pilots and both of them had been "convicted" of crimes considered among the most abominable by the state; Wessel for being "mad" and Mueller for the simple fact he was a homosexual. In the eyes of the Nazis there was no place for such "imperfect" people in the New World Order.
In Wessel's case his "madness" had been made manifest when he made the mistake of letting the wrong ears hear him speak of his fear that the Nazis were going to lead Germany to ruin. To the Nazis' way of thinking one would surely have to be mad in order to criticize the perfect society they had created. What else could explain dissent? That it had been Wessel's own sister that had reported him was further proof that the man was a dangerous enemy to the state. In Hitler's Germany one could never be certain whose ears were friendly and whose were not.
As for Mueller his fate was particularly ironic because some of the very ones that vilified him during his "trial" as a morally depraved individual were in truth some of the most degenerate men in Germany. Sadists, murderers, sexual predators, these men were drawn to the Nazi Party like green flies to dung. Here their craven pursuits could be carried out under the protection--even auspices--of the of the all powerful police state.
Given their circumstances it would seem Price could be allowed his incredulity at Strolin's threats to two men already doomed to die. However most Americans, even one such as Price, could not possibly understand just how deeply the slimy tentacles of National Socialism reached into the daily fabric of ordinary Germans' lives. Yes Wessel and Mueller were in effect dead men already but they would nevertheless do as they were ordered. How could they not? They knew all too well the consequences of refusing to obey.
That their sentences would be summarily carried out was the least of them. The real teeth in Strolin's threat was the dark implication that their entire families would be rounded up and hauled of to a concentration camp should they fail to cooperate.
"We will not fail, Herr Strolin," said Wessel quietly.
"Good," snapped Strolin. Though supposedly a banana grower he was in reality the chief of German espionage for Central America. It had been he who had conceived the plan that was now within a few hours of being brought to fruition.
Had Janice Covington been there she would have taken little solace in knowing her
deductions were correct. The objective of the Nazi plot was the Panama Canal.
When most people think of the Panama Canal they usually form an image of one continuous gash running across the Isthmus of Panama. Indeed the Canal is often referred to as the "Big Ditch." However only the Gaillard Cut, an approximately eight mile long channel, can be called a proper canal. The remainder of the fifty-one mile long canal is made up of two lakes: the huge Gatun Lake extending over about two thirds of the Isthmus, and the much smaller Miraflores Lake on the Pacific side of the canal. Gatun Lake was formed by the construction of a dam across the Chagres River adjacent to the Gatun Locks. At the time the canal was built Gatun Lake was the largest man made lake in the world. An oddity of the canal is, because it runs from northwest to southeast, the sun sets on the Pacific entrance to the canal before it does on the Atlantic side.
The canal was opened in 1914 and by using it instead of sailing around Cape Horn a ship traveling from New York to San Francisco saves almost eight thousand miles. Four and a half million cubic yards of concrete went into the construction of the canal's dams and three sets of locks. Although the largest of these lock gates are seven feet thick and weigh some 730 tons, they are so delicately balanced a twenty-five horsepower motor can swing them.
Ever since the canal was opened a major concern for the Americans has been the Gatun Dam. This huge earthen dam is made up of two wings and is nearly a half mile wide at the base but tapers to a width of one hundred feet at its crest, rising about twenty feet above the normal level of Gatun Lake. If this dam was somehow destroyed the huge Gatun Lake would drain rendering the canal unusable. Even if the dam could be rebuilt it would take many years for the lake to refill from the surrounding watersheds.
All this was not lost on Heinrich Strolin. Since even before Germany declared war on the United States he had given considerable thought to the destruction of the dam and how best to accomplish this. The reason for his fixation on this idea was twofold. First it would place quite an added burden not only on Allied shipping but the United States Navy as well. As the majority of the Navy's dry docks and shipyards were located on the East coast, the neutralization of the Panama Canal would mean a much longer turnaround for those ships damaged in combat in the Pacific that had to return to the navy yards in Brooklyn and Philadelphia for repairs. Strolin had correctly forecast that the port facilities at the great naval base at Pearl Harbor would not be able to handle the large number of American ships that would suffer damage in the bitter fight with Japan. While none of this would benefit Germany directly it would nonetheless be of great strategic value to her Axis partner and might even make Nippon more amenable to any German claims in the Pacific after the successful conclusion of the war
The second and, as far as Strolin was concerned, more important reason was that it would finally call the attention of those in Berlin to the abilities of one Heinrich Strolin. Since being ordered to Central America in the spring of 1938 he had brooded over how to extricate himself from what he considered to be a dead end assignment. He felt the great events of the day were passing him by and he chafed at knowing he was not part of them. His subversive colleagues had been instrumental in the Anschluss of Austria. They had also helped to topple Czechoslovakia in early 1939 and had played a key role in the fall of Norway in 1940. In the meantime his biggest sacrifice for the Fatherland had been being bitten by a tarantula while inspecting bananas. For a man as ambitious as Strolin it was like being slowly suffocated.
The only way out as he saw it was to do something. Something spectacular. Something that would make those pencil pushers in Berlin sit up and take notice of a bright, aggressive, and extremely opportunistic young man. That something would be the destruction of the Panama Canal. By late 1941 he had already hit upon a plan. Two planes, packed with high explosives and diesel fuel, and piloted by either volunteers or prisoners would time their flight to appear over the Gatun Dam just after dawn and then ram into the spillway of the great dam. As to whether it would work or not he had spoken to several engineers and had come away with differing opinions. Some said yes, it would work and others said no. To Strolin it did not really matter. What would matter would be whether he could pull the actual attack off. If after that the canal happened to survive it would be most regrettable but either way his star would be brightened a hundred fold. What did he have to lose? All Germany would be out was a few thousand marks and a couple of expendable men. In any event he hoped he would be viewed as a doer and as someone worthy of a more prestigious post--maybe even the United States itself.
The last real problem he had to overcome, that of providing sufficient cover for his operation, had been solved upon his introduction to a certain John Price by another German agent. Because of his known affinity for National Socialism the esteemed Price had been at first carefully cultivated by a series of operatives and Nazi sympathizers. Upon meeting him Strolin found him to be a somewhat naive individual.
Price was a man dedicated to his work but also one concerned about state of affairs in the world. He had seen the turmoil and unrest spawned by the Great Depression and had come to the conclusion democracy was not capable of dealing with such potentially cataclysmic events. He now believed Nazi Germany was the model for all future governnments and that National Socialism was the only thing that would stem what he perceived to be the real threat to the world--Communism. To him democracy was like a tired old man that was bound to give way to the young and more virile successor that was dictatorship. As far as he was concerned if that meant the United States losing the war then so be it.
Strolin watched as the men loaded the last of the explosives on the plane. He had dreamed of this day for a very long time. He turned his eyes westward toward the sun now turning a deep orange and hanging low in the sky. Ever since the two Constellations had flown in that afternoon from Argentina he had fretted over the possibility of them being spotted, remote as that was. He need not have worried for he had chosen his site well. If any place could be said to be in the middle of nowhere, this was it.
"So, Price," he said, turning to his co-conspirator, "soon we will stand the world on its ear."
Price checked his watch and said, "I think I will return to the site now."
Fool! thought Strolin. Does he really think I am going to just let him walk away from here? By now his opinion on the usefulness of Price had soured greatly. He saw Price to be a fundamentally weak person who would not be able to withstand the pressure of the business he now found himself in. The Americans might be lazy and naive but they were not stupid. Sooner or later they would get around to suspecting Price and he would sing like a canary once caught. Strolin could not allow that to happen.
Well, he mused, what else could one expect from a man that makes his living scratching in the ground. Not that he had anything against archaeology, after all it was Price's profession that had made him so attractive in the first place. Who else in the area could lure that may people away from the banana plantations without arousing suspicion? However it did seem to be a mundane, even trivial occupation to an adventurer like Strolin.
All evening he had been pondering just what do about Price. Tonight will be as good a time as any, he thought. Then and there he resolved that by the time the planes reached the Canal, Price would no longer be a part of the equation.
"At the present time I cannot allow it," he told Price.
"What do you mean, you cannot allow it?" Price asked.
"Just what I said," retorted Strolin. "Until we know the results of the operation I think it would be wise for us not to separate."
"What's the matter, don't you trust me?" Price asked, only half joking.
"No," replied Strolin bluntly. "I trust no one."
"But that means we'll be here all night,'" Price protested. "And besides, you have no authority to keep me here."
Strolin shrugged his shoulders and said, "It cannot be helped. I'm afraid I must insist."
I don't like this, thought Price. To him the whole thing was starting to reek of a double cross. He looked at the ominous bulge in Strolin's jacket and thanked his stars he had shown the foresight to come prepared. Indeed the weight of the .25 automatic in his pocket felt very comforting.
Twenty miles away Janice stood outside her tent watching the same deep orange ball descend in the western sky. Although the day had been a very eventful one there was still a lot she did not know, specifically how and more importantly when all that TNT would be put to use. Would they load it on a small ship and somehow try to crash into the dam? Had they somehow fashioned a home made bomb or some kind of mine? Was that what the airstrip was for? Janice had no clue. What she did know was the authorities in the Canal Zone had to be warned. But the only way she could do that was to call the number Donovan had given her and that meant a telephone and that meant a thirty mile trip in a vehicle she did not have. A trip she would likely not be able to make until tomorrow.
Goddamn it! she swore. It may be too late by then. Just where the hell was that truck anyway? A voice cut the stillness of the evening and shook Janice from her frustrating thoughts.
"Janice?" It was Mel.
"What do we do now?"
"Just as soon as whoever has that damn truck brings it back you and I are gonna load up and haul ass out of here," Janice answered. "We have to warn those boys in Panama."
"But...shouldn't we try to find about more about what Price is up to?" Mel asked.
"We'll let Donovan worry about him now," said Janice. "Commando stuff is somebody else's department. We accomplished what we came here to do. Donovan said find out what Price is up to and we've done that."
"Golly, Jan," Mel persisted, "maybe we ought to try to stop 'em if we can."
Janice eyed her sharply. "We don't know for sure if anything is on for tonight. And even if we did just how the hell do you propose we get there, Mel?" she snapped. "It's twenty fuckin' miles to that airstrip and the only means of transportation we have are our own two feet. Are you up to a twenty mile hike? Hmm?"
Mel hung her head for just a moment and then looked up to Janice. In a voice as soft as the evening breeze playing through in her hair she said, "Gee, I am if you are, Janice."
Janice looked into the woman's face and saw the hint of anguish in those deep blue eyes. You idiot! she rebuked herself. You've hurt her. And for what? She was only trying to help. As she looked upon the gentle woman towering over her she could not help but feel Mel was bigger than her in more ways than one.
"Jeez, Mel, I'm sorry," she said, taking the woman's hand. "That was a dumb ass thing for me to say."
"Aww, Janice," said Mel, "I know yuh didn't mean anything by it."
"Well that still didn't give me the right to be such a smart ass." She smiled impishly and added the qualifier, "Well, not to you anyway."
It was moments like this that only served to make Janice admire Mel all the more. The woman seemed to have the patience of Job. She knew she could be difficult at times. She also recognized that in the give and take of their relationship it was she that did most of the taking and it was Mel that did most of the giving. Even now she marveled that this incredibly sweet, highly cultured, drop dead gorgeous person could find an ill tempered, foul mouthed, and yes, sometimes selfish woman like her attractive. Janice hoped to high heaven it would always remain so.
For her part had Melinda been privy to Janice's thoughts she would have been very amused. She did not see her lover that way at all. What she saw was an energetic, fiercely independent woman with a passion for life most people could only dream about. Yes she was sometimes cynical and a little coarse and yes, maybe some of her so-called "friends" back in South Carolina would be appalled by her but as far as she was concerned Janice Covington was the finest person she had ever known. She was not only intelligent, tough, and brave but she was also thoughtful, funny, and well...terrific in bed. And besides, she knew the real reason for Janice's irritability. The woman was tired and more than a little frustrated.
Melinda returned her smile and said, "Forget it. And anyway, you're right about warnin' Donovan. After all, who knows for sure when Price is gonna make his play?"
Mel's question was answered by a voice from behind. "I do. Tonight."
The two women spun on their heels to face the voice. "Carter!" exclaimed Janice.
"Don't look so surprised, Janice," said Carter.
"How long have you been standing there?" Janice demanded.
"Long enough. But I didn't come here to eavesdrop on you. I came to ask for your help. You see, I know why you are here."
"I don't know what you're talking about," said Janice warily. "Like I said before we're just down here because we need the work."
"Oh come now. Let's cut the act okay?" Carter moved closer and murmured, "I'm here for the same reason you are."
"I'm with the State Department, Janice. I'm assigned to the embassy here and when we got word Price was nosing around in the area I was assigned to try to find out why."
"I didn't know the State Department did intelligence work," said Janice, still not convinced.
Price leisurely inspected his fingernails. "Oh, you'd be surprised at some of the stuff we do," he said. "But that's not important now."
"You said you know when Price is going to act. How?"
"Let's just say I have my sources."
"That's not good enough," said Janice. She cocked her head and squinted at him through one eye. "And just how did you know about us?"
"We were informed by your own Mister Pierce," said Price. "It seems Donovan had second thoughts about sending you up against Price without any help."
"So they sent you." Janice had to admit this was certainly plausible. "Well what are we waiting for? Let's get out there pronto."
"I was hoping you would say that," grinned Carter.
Janice turned to her partner and smiled thinly. "Well, ya happy now?"
"Ask me tomorrow," Mel shot back.
"Carter, just give us a couple of minutes to get our things together and we'll be off," said Janice. "I got a feeling we won't be comin' back here any time soon."
"I'll bring the truck around while you're doing that," he told them.
Janice entered the tent and picked up her bag before nestling her hat down on her head.
"Ja-yun, what do you want me to do with this?" Mel asked, holding up her book.
Janice opened up her gas mask bag and replied, "Stick it in here." Mel did and before she closed the bag back Janice took out her box of .38 slugs and emptied them into her pocket. She checked to make sure her .38 was loaded and then returned it to the bag. Seeing Mel's apprehension, she said, "Listen to me, Mel. This might get rough so I want you to promise me that you'll do whatever I ask. No ifs, ands, or buts, okay?"
"Okay," Melinda promised, nodding her head.
"Good girl." Janice followed this up by taking out the remainder of their money and thrusting it into her partner's hand. "Take this." She took Mel by the arm and looked her straight in the eye. "Now listen closely. If I could be certain no harm would come to you here I'd leave you but I can't. Mel, if something was to, you know, happen to me tonight I want you to get the hell out of here any way you can and head straight for Golfito, you understand? You can book passage on a ship back to the States there."
"But Jan, I--"
"Hey!" barked Janice. "Remember what I said? No ifs, ands, or buts?"
"Yes, Jan," Mel replied meekly.
"This is no time to be fuckin' around," said Janice. "So just stay off the main road as much as you can and try to hire somebody to take you there."
"I will," Mel assured her. It was a lie and both of them knew it. Deep in her heart Janice knew Melinda would never leave her but it eased her conscience a little knowing she had at least tried. They looked into each others eyes and shared a visual embrace of love and warmth and undying devotion. All too soon their spell was broken by the sound of Carter pulling up in the truck.
Janice smiled warmly at the belle and playfully jabbed her on the arm. "Come on. Remember what Wild Bill said. It's time we earned our pay."
"Janice just promise me you won't do nothin' stupid, okay?" Mel blurted out.
"Who mee? Hey, Kid this ain't Gangbusters. I have no intention of playing hero."
By the time the three of them covered the twenty miles to the airstrip it was already dark. Upon reaching the site Carter pulled off the road and killed the engine. "Well, ladies," he said, " this is it."
Along the way he and Janice had discussed several different plans and finally settled on one they thought to be the most safe. "You know, Carter," she said, "if something goes wrong here this could get ugly."
Carter answered her by folding over the truck seat. Reaching in behind, he pulled out the latest model of the Thompson submachine gun--the one with the straight magazine instead of the older drum-style type. It was the one now in use by the American military. Just the sight of the moonlight reflecting off its stubby muzzle made Mel shudder.
"This ought to even things up some, don't you think?" Carter asked.
"All the same let's not try to go that route, huh?" suggested Janice.
Carter stepped out onto the road and stopped for a moment to listen. Nothing. "Okay, let's make sure we stay together," he said. "We don't want anybody gettin' lost."
Although he did not come right out and say it, Mel had the distinct impression he was referring to her. Slowly, very carefully, they picked their way over pretty much the same ground Janice had covered the day before. Carter was in the lead, followed by Melinda, and then Janice. Fortunately the moon was out and it made navigating the dense undergrowth considerably easier. For Mel the light striking the vegetation and the resulting shadows produced by it worked to give the place an almost surreal look. It was like something right out of one of those wolf man movies where the victim knows danger lurks about but is totally powerless to do anything about it. Right now she could think of a million places she would rather be. And yet the sense of danger--the thrill of the unknown excited her. She could feel something deep within her begin to awaken from its slumber and begin to stir. She now began to feel that total oneness with her environment she had only experienced one other time--on Borneo.
"Golly," she whispered. "Xena, is...is that you?"
There was no answer at first but Melinda Pappas felt a reassuring shroud of warmth and great strength descent upon her. Then, as distinct as if it were her own, she heard a voice say, "Don't be afraid. I am with you."
"Oh my God," Mel gasped softly.
"Shhh! Be quiet," Janice admonished her from behind.
It was just like before. How wondrous it was and how privileged she felt to be a part of a love that was now more than thirty centuries old, she thought. A love that would make a woman want to protect her lover from beyond the grave. It was almost too fantastic to believe and yet it was so very true.
Carter suddenly stopped in front of her and just like that Mel was brought back to reality. Except this time she sense of awareness and strength was still with her. She was not quite sure what she was supposed to do but she trusted that Xena would show her the way when the time came.
"See that?" whispered Carter, pointing to a white glow some distance away.
"Yeah," replied Janice, joining him. "Looks like somebody's puttin' in a little overtime."
Mel eased up to them and laid a hand on Janice's shoulder. "Is that it?"
"That's it," echoed Janice. Her lover's hand acted as a reminder of what was really at stake here. "Mel," she said, turning to her, "I think it would be best if you remained here while we go on ahead."
"Nuh uh. Nothin' doing, Janice. I'm going with ya'll."
"Damn it, don't be so stubborn," hissed Janice. As the two of them quietly bickered in the moonlight they were unaware of Carter discreetly backing away from them.
"Janice, I'm going," Mel declared resolutely.
"No you're not."
The two of them stopped when they heard a sharp metallic click. They turned to the noise and found themselves staring down the .45 caliber bore of Carter's Tommy gun. "I'm afraid I must insist on Miss Pappas accompanying us," he purred.
"What the fuck is this, Carter?" Janice growled.
"Why I'm surprised at you, Janice. I thought you of all people would know a set up when they saw it," said Carter. He leveled the gun at her chest and said, "Put you arms behind your neck--you too, Pappas."
Janice grudgingly complied and Carter carefully slipped the bag off her shoulder. "I'll take this if you don't mind." As he removed it his hand brushed against Janice's breast.
"Is that the only way you can get a feel--at the point of a gun?" smirked Janice.
"Silence." Carter took the .38 out of the bag and stuck it in his pocket before tossing the bag carelessly to the ground. "I must say Price had you pegged from the beginning."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Well when you two suddenly showed up on his doorstep he knew that your ah, what do you call it, sob story, was a lie. So he wisely decided to keep you around while we checked up on you and my my, what do you think we found?"
"I dunno what? That Leavenworth has very nice accommodations available for traitorous scum like you?"
"You hurt my feelings, Covington," replied Carter. "Actually one of your colleagues was able to tell us all about you."
"So that's why you cuddled up to me all week," said Janice.
"Of course," said Carter. "And then when we found out from your Mister Pierce who you were it was decided I should drop the hint about the other site and let you put two and two together."
"How did you know for sure I checked the site out?"
"Simple. I checked the milage on the odometer. It was forty-six miles more than it should have been," Carter replied smugly.
Pierce! I never did like that guy, thought Janice.
"If it will make you feel any better I am not a traitor," said Carter.
"So you're a fucking German saboteur then," snapped Janice.
"Agent," Carter corrected her.
"Yeah," snorted Janice, "spelled B-A-S-T..."
Carter lashed out and savagely backhanded her across the mouth. "Slut! he rasped. "I was going to ask Herr Strolin to make your deaths swift and merciful but now I think I will enjoy watching you beg for mercy."
Janice spit the blood from her mouth and snarled, "Not in a million fucking years."
"Oh I don't mean for yourself, of course." Carter pressed the muzzle of his weapon right between Mel's breasts. "I mean for your friend here."
Gun or no gun, something in Janice snapped. "You son of a bitch!" she cried as she launched herself at him.
Mel saw Carter's eyes shift to face the threat. At the precise moment he swung the Tommy gun away from her Mel heard the voice once more. NOW! Without thinking, Melinda pivoted sharply on the ball of her left foot and did a sweeping 360 degree spin catching Carter hard just above the temple with the heel of her right foot. Carter dropped like a sack of potatoes just as the onrushing Janice reached him. Her forward momentum carried her right over the top of him. Mel reached out and caught her surprised partner in her strong arms and pulled her to her chest.
"Golly, Jan, are you all right?"
Janice stared at her wide-eyed, still breathing hard from not only her effort but from the emotion of the moment as well. "Christ, Mel," she said breathlessly, "how did you do that?"
"Well I...I don't rightly know," came the reply.
Janice looked up at her quizzically for a moment and then smiled. "It was her again, wasn't it?"
Mel nodded stiffly and pulled the corners of her mouth up in that little smile of hers. "Yeah. I reckon it was."
Janice knelt down beside Carter and laid her ear to his chest.
"Is he...he dead?" Mel asked.
"No, but he's going to have one hell of a headache when he comes to," said Janice. She dug her hands under the man's shoulders. "Give me a hand here."
Mel helped her drag Carter to a nearby tree where they proceeded to place him facing the tree in a sitting position with his arms and legs extending out past the tree trunk. At Janice's behest Mel stripped Carter of his belt and handed it to her. The archaeologist took out her razor sharp knife and split the belt down the middle lengthwise. She then used the strips to bind Carter's hand and feet together. When she was finished she tore off a piece of his shirt and jammed it into his mouth.
"That ought to hold him," she declared. Having already relieved him of her .38 Janice now shouldered the Thompson. "Well, Kid," she said to Mel, "let's go see what those bastards are up to."
Melinda nodded and off they went toward the light still glowing steadily in the distance. They had not gone ten paces before Mel suddenly stopped. "Wait, Jan!" she whispered.
"What is it?" Janice asked her.
But Mel was already trotting back to where Carter was.
What is she doing? Janice wondered.
It took the belle a couple of anxious minutes searching the ground with the palms of her hands before but she finally found what she had come back for. Yes! she thought gleefully. She cradled the object in her arms and sprang to her feet.
"What the hell were ya doing back there, Mel?" demanded Janice upon her partner's return. "Taking a crap?"
"No, silly. I had to get this." It was the bag Carter had so carelessly discarded. "My book is in here." In the moonlight Melinda saw Janice flash her a big grin.
"Well sling it over your shoulder," said Janice. "You never know, I might need you to crack somebody else's head for me."
"Oh, Janice, stop it."
The two of them broke through the underbrush and melted into the tall grass of the
Strolin slapped his cheek, crushing the huge mosquito that had been busily drilling there. Where is Meyer? he wondered, his irritation rising. He should have returned with those two nosy women by now. No wonder the Americans are losing the war, he thought smugly. They dare send mere women to oppose me! Already he had hit upon an appropriate way to eliminate them. Each would be put aboard one of the doomed planes thus creating a delicious irony. The two that had been sent to stop him would now be participants in it. In the soft light of the four lanterns placed about Strolin saw a figure approach.
"Sir, I wish to report the explosives have been secured and the detonation devices have been armed," the form said.
"Very good, Karl," said Strolin. "Now take your men and make sure the area is secure. Be careful though. Meyer is due to arrive her any minute with a couple of guests."
"Guests?" inquired Price. "You mean Covington and her friend?"
"Of course," replied Strolin.
"But why bring them here?" Price persisted. "Why didn't you have Carter--I mean, Meyer eliminate them and be done with it?"
"Because I want to see this Covington for myself. Pierce said she is quite a remarkable woman."
"You watch her, Strolin. She' a devil! hissed Price. "I mean an absolute devil."
"Hmm, sounds like a woman after my own heart," Strolin mused aloud.
Off in the shadows he saw Karl's men fanning out to begin their patrol. At the moment his two pilots were sequestered in Strolin's car under the watchful eye of a man named Schmidt. Everything was now set and all that was left was to wait until the appointed hour to begin. Before settling in the for wait in the folding chair he had brought with him Strolin had one last piece of business to take care of.
"Price, would you step over here please?" John Price arose from his seat on the crate and walked over to Strolin. "You brought your code book with you, did you not?"
"Of course," Price answered. "What do you think I am, an idiot.?" These goddamn arrogant Germans, he thought angrily. He dug his hand into his pocket and produced the same reddish orange book that had caused Mel so much consternation. "See?"
"Please give it to me," said Strolin.
"Because you have no further need for it."
In the light of the lantern Price saw the German's face was as devoid of emotion as a slab of marble. The stark realization now came to him. Strolin's remark could only mean one thing... "You double crossing bastard!" he screeched.
He flung the book into Strolin's face and jammed his hand into his pocket in a vain attempt to extract his gun. Strolin however, had the advantage of having his Luger in a shoulder holster under his jacket and was thus able to bring his weapon to bear first. "Strolin...what are you...doing?" Price sputtered, his eyes bulging in terror.
Strolin ignored his question and ordered, "Your arms...up!"
"But I, I can be of...of use...to you," pleaded Price. He then saw Strolin raise his weapon. "For the love of God!"
"There is no God," Strolin replied matter-of-factly. "There is only the Fuehrer."
Seeing his recent co-conspirator was beyond reasoning with Price dropped his hands in an attempt to flee but it was no use. Strolin fired, striking Price in the chest. The stricken man stumbled and fell, knocking over one of the lanterns in the process. Strolin bent down, picked up the code book and stuck in his pocket. He then leisurely strolled over to where Price lay.
"Sir, is everything all right?" a voice called out in German.
"Yes, Karl," replied Strolin. "And speak English." He knelt down
beside the gasping Price. The man was feebly trying to speak but it was plain to Strolin
his slug had pierced his lung for he was gurgling up blood with every breath. Heinrich
Strolin thought himself a civilized individual. Having done his duty for the Fatherland he
did not wish to see his vanquished enemy suffer unduly. So he simply pressed the barrel of
his Luger against the side of Price's head--and blew the man's brains out. That done he
got to his feet and holstered his Luger. Now, where the devil is Meyer? he wondered.
From their position across the field Janice and Melinda clearly heard the two cracks from Strolin's Luger. "Golly, Jan," Mel whispered, "what do you think's going on over there?"
"Well they're not playing spin the bottle," said Janice. Privately she hoped the shots meant there was one less guy to worry about. Fifteen minutes later the two of them found themselves at the edge of the field. From her kneeling position Janice parted the tall grass with her hands and peered across to the airstrip. There she saw the ominous silhouette of two large planes lined up as if ready to take off. She did not know yet what part these planes were to have in this whole affair but it was obvious they were the key. "Mel, I've got to have a look inside one of those planes."
"I'm with you," Mel answered.
Janice leaned closer to her partner and whispered in her ear, "All right. But if one of us so much as hiccups our goose is cooked, you understand?"
"Okay. Now, do exactly as I do."
The archaeologist dropped to the ground on her stomach and laid the Thompson across the crooks of her elbows. Slowly the two of them began to crawl side by side across the open ground. After covering about a third of the distance Janice felt Mel's fingernails dig into her arm.
"Jan," she whispered urgently, "someone is coming."
At first Janice thought her friend to be imagining things but soon enough she too became aware of the dark apparation approaching from off to their right. She reached out and pushed Mel's face against the ground. "Don't move," she ordered. She pressed her own cheek against the ground and faced the oncoming figure. Had they somehow given themselves away? she wondered. Probably not, she concluded. The palooka was just making a routine patrol sweep. Ever so carefully she clicked the Thompson's safety off. It the fucker comes much closer, she vowed grimly, it won't be routine any more.
While the two ladies held their breath the man walked to within fifteen feet of them. By now some cloud cover had fortuitously moved in to blot out the bright moon allowing the two of them to remained unobserved as the man moved past. This was something of a surprise to Melinda for she was positive her pounding heart was going to give them away. After the man had moved on Janice heaved a soft sigh of relief and tapped Mel on the arm. "Let's go."
Finally, after what Melinda believed to be the longest twenty minutes of her life, they made it to where the planes were parked. Here Janice paused to make absolutely certain no one was around before getting to her feet in a low crouch. "Stay here," she told Mel.
This time Mel offered no arguement. Janice worked her way forward to the lead plane which was well past the limits of the light from the lanterns. With her Thompson at the ready she ever so slowly popped the latch on the fuselage door. The resulting click was in truth not very loud but to Janice it seemed deafening. After taking one last look around, she quietly swung herself up in the plane. When she did she bumped into something hard. "Damn it!" she cursed, rubbing her knee. Carefully feeling around in the darkness, she ascertained the cargo hold was filled with long crates anchored down by straps. For Janice it could only be one thing. This was where all that TNT had gone.
And then she knew. The plane was going to be used as a guided bomb. She crept toward the front of the plane and almost tripped when her foot caught on something. Reaching down to investigate she discovered wire running along the length of the plane. After feeling it she knew well enough what it was--demolition wire. Good Lord, she thought, a chill running down her spine, this baby is rigged to blow right now!
Carefully backing away, she retraced her steps to the door. Silently she hopped back down to the ground and rejoined Melinda.
"Did ya find anything," the belle asked.
"Yeah, plenty," Janice answered. "Those planes are loaded with that TNT of yours. They're flying bombs, Mel and the bastards are going to try to crash 'em in the Canal somewhere."
"Probably the dam at Gatun," offered Mel.
Janice had no idea Mel knew anything about the Panama Canal but this little revelation was yet another example of the woman's depth.
"So what do we do?" Mel asked.
A damn good question, Janice had to admit. What do we do? The first thing was to get to cover. She tapped Mel on the arm and pointed to the line of trees about twenty-five yards away on the side of the airstrip opposite them. Mel nodded and the two of the crept toward them and were soon in the relative safety of the trees. No sooner had they gotten there when they saw another guard walk past they very spot they had so recently vacated.
Just how many of those guys are there? wondered Janice. She was well aware of the fact she was, in all probability, going have to kill someone tonight. As disturbing as this was for her it was not something she was going to shrink away from. Yes, she was scared but all she had to do was think of the gentle soul lying so close next to her that her breath could be felt. If something were to happen to her...
Janice decided it best not to think about that.
The archaeologist shook herself in an attempt to gather her nerves. All right, by God, enough of this screwing around. The longer we wait the greater the chance of our being discovered. It's time to do something, she told herself. Suddenly Janice got to her knees. She pulled the Thompson's bolt back and laid the deadly weapon down beside Melinda. "Take this," she said. "If anybody comes near you..."
"For God's sake, be careful, Jan."
Janice patted her on the arm and crept out of the woods and back to the plane. As of yet she was not really sure what she was going to do but she did have an inkling of a plan. Once inside she again made her way forward, this time going all the way to the cockpit. There the wires led her straight to what she hoped was there. Uh huh, she thought triumphantly. In the floor of the plane she found a box wired to a battery. She correctly guessed this to be a type of pressure switch that would open the contacts to the battery on the plane's impact hence detonating the explosives.
After taking a good look at the pilot's window Janice Covington knew what she had to do. She did not like it but she had no choice--not if she wanted to stop these people. With her heart pounding like never before she reached down and very, very carefully picked up the box/battery combination. "Well, Kid," she mumbled, under her breath, "that was the easy part. Now for the real fun."
Ten suspenseful minutes later, with her work done, she returned to the cockpit and slipped open the pilot's window. She then began to squeeze herself through. Before she made the ten foot lead to the ground she prayed she would land all right. The last thing she needed now was a sprained ankle. She need not have worried. For someone in the superb physical condition she was it was a piece of cake. Quickly she rejoined a much relieved Melinda. "Let's get the hell out of here," she said.
Mel did not have to be told twice. The two of them eased back into the woods a couple of hundred yards before Janice stopped. "Okay," she said, "this ought to be far enough."
"So what now?" Mel asked.
Janice sat down with her back against a tree and laid the Thompson across her lap.
"Now we wait."
Strolin checked his watch and then walked over to his car. "Wake them up, Schmidt," he ordered. "It's time."
"All right, pigs, wake up," Schmidt growled, poking Wessel in the chest with his pistol. "It's time to make atonement to the Fatherland for your sins." Schmidt got out of the car and opened the rear door. "Come on, get moving," he barked.
Wessel and Mueller obeyed by getting out of the car on the same side. As the condemned men shuffled past Strolin did not bother to speak to them. Why should he? They already knew what was expected of them. "Karl" he called out.
"Call in your men, it's time."
Soon Karl and his three men joined up with Schmidt to form a kind of guard detail for
the two pilots. Strolin picked up one of the lanterns and followed along behind,
nonchalantly stepping over Price's body on the way.
"Mel, wake up."
"What is it?" her partner asked sleepily. The Southerner had been sleeping soundly and as sometimes will happen she did not yet fully realize just where she was.
"I think it's time," replied Janice. "Lay flat on the ground and cover your head."
"Do as I say, damn it!" hissed Janice.
"Here, Otto, take this lantern," said Strolin. "I will take the car the far end of the airstrip so that the pilots can have a reference point for take off." The man took the lantern from his boss and continued on his way while Strolin started back to his car.
By now Mueller had been installed in the second plane and Schmidt and company were escorting Wessel to the lead one. Upon reaching the fuselage door the one called Otto held the lantern up to allow Schmidt to find the handle. With a smirk directed at Wessel he yanked on the latch. "In you go, hero."
The door opened and Schmidt, Wessel, and Karl saw the wooden box that Janice had
propped against the door drop and strike the black box lying in the doorway. In the
lifetime of that one second only Karl recognized the true meaning of what they were
seeing. He didn't even have time to scream.
For Melinda Pappas it was as if the world was coming to an end. The incredible stillness of the night was suddenly pierced by a tremendous explosion. The ground shook and a gigantic fireball erupted from the doomed plane which in turn detonated the second plane destroying all in its fiery path. Schmidt, Karl and the rest were simply vaporized. In the woods the resulting shock wave began to knock down tree limbs all around Janice and Melinda. Realizing this the archaeologist threw her small body over Mel and dug her arms down under her. "Keep your head down!" she shouted. The two of them could do nothing but lay there listening to the deafening echo of the blast as it washed over them. At last the thunder began to die away. Janice slowly raised her head up and looked in the direction of the planes. At first she was surprised the resulting fire was so small but she then realized there was probably nothing left to burn. She rolled off her lover and got to her knees.
"Okay," she said, patting Mel on the rump. "Let's go."
Strolin awoke to a stabbing pain in his left shoulder. The last thing he remembered was opening the door to his car and then hearing a thunderous roar. What he did not know was the force of the blast had slammed him against the side of his vehicle dislocating his shoulder in the process. He shook his head in a desperate attempt to clear the cobwebs out. Then he remembered. The planes! The German struggled to his feet and looked down the airstrip. To his horror he saw nothing but burning debris where the planes had been parked.
"Nooooo!" He tried to scream it but nothing came out. As he stumbled
down the airstrip clutching his shoulder he saw two dark forms appear out of the treeline,
silhoutted against the flames.
"Be careful, Mel," Janice said. "This wreckage is hot."
"I will," Mel assured her. In fact she was carefully watching Janice's feet
and making it a point to step exactly where she had. As the two of them picked their way
along the airstrip they were unaware of the figure staggering toward them.
Those two must be the swine responsible for this! Stroling silently raged. He ignored the searing pain and pulled the Luger out of its holster. Aiming it at the two oncoming forms and desperately trying to steady his shaking hand, Strolin began to snap off the remaining rounds.
Janice's first reaction was that the popping noises were being caused by something in the flames. After the fourth pop the unmistakable whine of a bullet passed by her ear. "Get down, Mel!" she screamed. She turned back to find her and saw the woman was already on the ground. She now heard another pop and felt something hot nick her right arm. Grabbing her arm, she became aware of a voice screaming at her. She turned toward the sound and saw someone someone approaching. Strolin had reloaded his Luger and was once again raising it to fire. He never got the chance.
"You son of a bitch!" screamed Janice. She brought the Thompson up and emptied the entire thirty round magazine at the figure. At least a dozen of the .45 caliber slugs found their mark, turning Strolin's chest into so much hamburger. Satisfied the man was dead, Janice dropped the Thompson and slowly got to her feet. "Mel," she called out, "you okay?"
Oh no! Janice rushed to her friend and dropped to her knees beside her. In the light of the flames saw the big patch of blood on Melinda's shirt. "Oh, God, Mel. Noo."
Upon hearing her name Mel opened her eyes and whispered hoarsely, "Jan?"
"I'm here, Kid," Janice said softly. She ripped open Mel's shirt and ran her hand up under the belle's left breast. The warm ooze was everywhere. She pulled her hand out and saw it was covered in blood. "Oh, Jesus," she gasped. Please, God, not this. Once more she ran her hand inside the shirt in an attempt to ascertain the severity of Mel's injury but this time her vision was not as clear for already the tears were beginning to flow.
"Shhh," Janice said to her, "be quiet, sweetheart. Don't try to talk."
"It hurts, Jan." Mel groaned and bucked up as Janice's fingers found the wound. "Ohhh, myyyy." She caught her breath and then gasped, "Jan, am I--am I gonna....die?"
"Of course not," Janice replied, her voice cracking. "Mel, you ain't gonna die. Goddamn it, I won't let you die!" Blinking back the tears, she gently rolled Mel onto her side to get a better look at her wound.
"Jesus, Mel, shut up, will ya?" Janice pleaded helplessly.
"Jan, in case...in case, you know...I just want you to thank you for lettin' me be a part of your life. It's...it's meant so very much to me."
Not as much as its meant to me, Janice thought. Never as much as it's meant to me
As Melinda spiraled down into the blackness of unconsciousness the last thing she whispered was, "I love you."
She would later remember it as like climbing out of a dark well into the beautiful sunlight. As she got nearer to the top everything got brighter and brighter until finally the whole world was awash in the sun's warm glow. The only problem was the fog. Yes the light was bright but for some reason she could not seem to be able to focus on anything. It was as if she was looking through one of those glass shower doors. She could see colors and very dim forms but they were just frustrating blurs to her. Presently the forms almost took shape but they still were not quite perfect. Where am I? she would later remember thinking. Is this what it's like to be dead?
Then she heard the voice. "Mel?" Oh my, God, she remembered thinking. Is Janice dead too.
Janice Covington saw her adored lover's beautiful blue eyes flutter open and look up at her. "Mel," she repeated, it's me--Jan."
"J..." At first Mel had some difficulty forming words. "Jan, where are we?"
"We're in a hospital in San Juan," said Janice."
Janice smiled at her and said, "Ya took a Nazi slug in the abdomen, Kid." Now that she had been told by the doctors her beloved was out of danger she could afford to be cute. "But don't worry, the docs here said you're too tough to kill. Heck, you'll be up and around in no time they said."
"But what about Price and the, the others."
Janice narrowed her eyelids to mere slits. "Don't worry about them," she said, gritting her teeth in rage as she thought of what those men had almost taken away from her. After Mel lost consciousness Janice had managed to bind her wound up enough to stop the bleeding. It was then she had noticed Strolin's car parked at the end of the airstrip. As she hurried toward it she had not even bothered to look down at the man she had just killed. To her he was no more than a pile of dung to be stepped around. Once at the car she had prayed the thing would start and to her great relief it did. It was when she turned on the headlights that she saw the body of Price lying in a pool of blood a short distance away. You bastards deserve each other, she had thought at the time.
It had taken her several hours to reach San Juan. She knew that was the only place with the facilities to perform surgery. Janice had never felt so helpless. She was used to being in control, of calling the shots, but she realized these shots were being called by a much bigger boss. That first long day at the hospital had been the worst. At first it was feared she might have lost too much blood, then they worried internal damage to her organs, then infection. When the surgery first began Janice tried to wait it out in the waiting room but she found she just could not stand it in there. She had to get outside. So she walked over to the little park across the street and found a secluded spot where she could sit unobserved. And she had cried.
Janice Covington simply didn't know where all the tears came from. She cried during the
surgery, she cried when they told her it was going to be touch and go for awhile. And she
had cried again when the doctors told her Mel was going to live.
Janice reached down and took her lover by the hand. "How ya feelin', Kid?"
"Sore," Mel answered.
"Well that's to be expected," allowed Janice. "Hey, guess what? I talked to Donovan this morning. He said Pierce broke down and confessed everything."
"Yep. And he said for you to quit lollygaggin' around and get your ass back to work. He said the OSS needs people like you," said Janice.
"The OSS? So it's official now?" Mel asked.
"It's official. Donovan has been named director of the Office of Strategic Services. Sounds important huh?"
"Golly, Jan. Did he really say that about me?"
"Now would I lie to you?" asked Janice with mock indignance.
"Don't answer that!" said Janice, before she could finish. In truth, after Janice had related the events of the past few days to him, "Wild Bill" had told her they were to take all the time they needed down there and that once they were ready to come home he would make damn sure a plane would be shaken loose for them.
Mel looked down at her hands and frowned.
"What's the matter?" Janice asked anxiously, figuring something was wrong.
"Wa-yul," the belle drawled, 'it's jes' that I my eyes are fuzzy. I can't seem to see straight."
Janice almost burst out in tears again but this time for the sheer joy of the moment. The archaeologist reached into her shirt pocket and pulled out an object she had completely forgotten about. "Darn it, Mel," she cooed softly. At this point one single tear managed to escape and run down her cheek. "You don't have your glasses on."
As Mel put on her glasses Janice reached into a drawer beside the bed and pulled out
the book of poems by Robert Frost. "Okay, Kid, she said brightly, "let's start
gettin' my money's worth out of this thing."
Five days after sinking the Northern Cross, the U-141 was picked up on sonar off the coast of Florida by the American destroyer Morda. Beck and his crew tried every trick in the book to escape but Captain Good, the Morda's skipper, was an old sub-chaser from the First World War and he not only knew the book--he had helped write it. Just before sundown six of the Morda's depth charges managed to find their mark, dooming the U-141 to a watery grave at the bottom of the Atlantic.
After Strolin's superiors in Berlin learned of the failure of his plan,
the families of Karl Wessel and Wilhelm Mueller were duly rounded up and shipped off to
Dachau. There within eight months either by gas, torture, starvation, or overwork, all
fifteen of them--men, women...children would perish.
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