After receiving the colonel's call Mel and Janice had crawled into the back of another C-47 and flown to Atlanta, Georgia. There they had scrambled into a waiting Mitchell B-25 and flown to San Antonio, Texas where they had joined up with the crew of the B-17 they were now on. These planes were being transferred to the Philippines in light of the present tensions with the Japanese. From San Antonio they had flown first to Phoenix and finally to San Diego.
At each stop the women had been met with disbelief and even some disdain but each time all Janice had to do was produce the letter with "War Department, Office of the Army Chief of Staff," on the letterhead and the signature "George C. Marshall" at the bottom and it was as though she were parting the Red Sea. Instantly these previously dubious men fell all over themselves to be of assistance.
In San Diego they had waited six hours in a grimy hangar while the Superforts underwent routine maintenance in preparation of the Pacific crossing. At Pearl Harbor they had waited twelve more hours while the flight crews got some much needed rest and then it was on to Wake Island. From that small speck of dirt (Privately Janice had worried whether any of these young men's navigation was good enough to hit the small clump of dirt) they flew to Guam and finally, their destination at the airfield northwest of Manila.
Clark Field was the largest American air base in the Far East and many in Washington referred to it as MacArthur International Airport. However as Janice swung herself down out of the pilot's hatch the imperial general with the giant ego was the last thing on her mind. "Hey, Bud!" she yelled at a passing mechanic. "Where's the can?"
"Hello, my name is Major Franks," said the short, stocky man as he walked over to meet Janice. For the last ten minutes had waited beside his staff car with a nervous Mel while her friend dropped a bomb load of her own in the maintenance latrine. He had only two hours ago received a message informing him there were two civilians on board the incoming flight of B-17's. As a liaison officer he was constantly meeting people coming over from the States, be it a congressman, or senator, or defense contractor. Many of these wasters of the taxpayers money merely wanted to have their picture taken with the grandiose MacArthur. When he had seen Janice and Mel emerge from the plane it had taken some moments to get over the shock that they were women.
Janice stuck out her hand and said, "Major, my name is Janice Covington and this is my colleague, Melinda Pappas."
Major Franks stretched out his arm toward the car and said, "Ladies, if you will be so kind as to follow me."
When they reached the car Major Franks gallantly opened the rear door for the tall, obviously refined, Mel.
"Why thank you, sir," smiled Mel.
Janice, meanwhile, unceremoniously yanked open the front door and plopped down in the shotgun seat. Again momentarily taken aback, the Major shrugged and eased into the back seat with the lovely young Southern lady. Fifteen minutes later the three of them were sitting in the Major's cramped office in the administration building at the far end of the field.
The Major offered them refreshments and Mel took a Coke. Janice, while fervently wishing for a screwdriver, settled for just the orange juice.
"Now ladies, how can I be of service to you?" asked the Major.
Janice unbuttoned the flap on her shirt pocket and pulled a page torn from her notebook. "I've made a list of things I'm gonna need."
The Major smiled as he picked up the note but his amusement soon vanished. He put down the note and looked at Janice as if she were The Bride of Frankenstein.
"You're not serious!" he exclaimed.
Janice killed the last of her juice, set the mess cup down on the Major's desk, and returned the Major's steely gaze. "What makes you think I'm not?" she asked.
The Major pointed at the note and incredulously began to read the list aloud. "Ten clips for a 1911A automatic? A Marine combat knife? One pair of medium-sized fatigue pants?"
"The pants are for her," Janice interrupted, nodding at Mel.
Franks ignored her and continued, "One pair of binoculars, a Navy survival kit," he put the note down, "and last but certainly not least, two hand grenades."
"Oh Lord, Janice, what are you going to do with those?
"That's a good question," smirked the Major.
"You never know what you'll run into," said Janice.
"Sorry, but your request is out of the question!" exclaimed Franks. "Lady, there is no way in hell we are going to issue ordinance to a private citizen. Especially a, a woman!
It was the way he said woman that really ticked Janice off. He had sort of spit the word out as if it were somehow contemptible to him. With her face not changing expression at all she leaned back in her chair and straightened out her right leg so she could reach into her pants pocket. Slowly she dug her hand in and pulled out her ever present pack of Beeman's chewing gum.
"Ya want one, Mel?" she asked quietly.
"No thank you," replied Mel meekly. She knew this was the calm before the storm.
Janice carefully unwrapped the stick, rolled it up and placed it in her mouth. "First of all," she began, grinding her teeth to flatten out the stiff gum, "I didn't ask for this. I was mindin' my own business when I was rousted out of bed in the middle of the night by some of your fellow government employees. After a lovely flight to Washington I was taken to see a Mister George Marshall and some other guy. Maybe you've heard of him? Do the initials F-D-R ring a bell?"
Mel sat watching Janice's neck get a little redder and heard her voice rise a little higher with each sentence she uttered. Having been witness to many a volcanic eruption by her friend, she had become something of an expert at prognosticating their magnitude. Oh my, she thought. Batten down the hatches. It was clear Typhoon Janice was about to hit.
"Anyway, Mister Roosevelt asked my associate and me..." Mel though it kind of Janice to include her. "...to do a job for him. Now when the President of the United States personally asks you to do something you tend to want to do it, right?" She stood up and leaned over, placing the palms of her hands flat on the desk. "Major, the President more or less told me that if something goes wrong down there my friend and I are going to be on our fucking own. Now if that happens I want enough oomph to at least give us a fucking chance, you understand! It might mean the difference between getting the job done or not."
She straightened up and pulled the now well-worn letter from General Marshall out of her pocket. She then unfolded it and tossed it down on the Major's desk. "You see what that says, Franks? I am to receive full co-operation from all military personnel. Now how do you think Marshall is gonna like it if I come back empty-handed and have to explain to him I was unable to do my job because some pissy-assed, paper-shuffling nobody in the Philippines wouldn't play ball? It won't be my ass they'll be puttin' in the sling.
"Now see here..." Franks tried to fight back but Janice was on a roll now.
"Just how long do you think it would be before he called your boss demanding to know why one of his officers was disobeying orders?"
By now Janice was practically shouting and the major was reduced to just staring open-mouthed at the raging archaeologist.
"You know," she sneered, "you'll be lucky if all they do to you is transfer you to some fucking weather station in Alaska!"
Franks picked up the letter and looked at it. There was no denying it. It did say to give Miss Covington full co-operation, it did say to give her anything she needed, and it was signed George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff. With all the dignity he could muster he stood up and put on his service cap. "Perhaps I was in error, Miss Covington."
"Well we all make mistakes," said Janice. Having clearly won the victory she did not now wish to rub it in. There was something about his attitude, though, that warned her this was not over.
Franks picked up the note and put it in his pocket. "If you will wait here please I'll see what I can do."
Mel felt sorry for the major as she watched him exit the room. She wondered if she would be to able to hold up as well as he had to one of Janice's rages. To be sure there were times when she would bark at Mel but it was always more with a sense of exasperation or annoyance. Never once had Janice vented that kind of anger on her.
"Was, was that a number one?" Often after calming down from a tirade such as this Janice would jokingly say it was a "number two" or a "number three" depending on its severity. Mel had never heard her rate one as a number one. She suspected this might be the one.
"Nah," replied Janice, smiling warmly at her friend. "A number one has a lot more 'fucks' in it." She did take a kind of perverse pleasure in shocking Mel.
Forty-five minutes later Franks returned with an olive green army pack and unceremoniously dumped it at Janice's feet. During his absence he had become more and more angry over Janice's tirade. How dare that bitch speak to me that way! he raged.
"I want you to know it took some fancy talking to get all this," the major said coldly. "But everything you asked for is in there. By the way, are you sure you know how to use those pineapples?"
"It was one of the many things I learned when I was in Spain in '36," replied Janice. This guy is spoiling for a fight, she thought.
Franks sat down at his desk while Janice opened up the pack. Retrieving the fatigue pants from the pack, she tossed them to Mel and said, "Go find a can and put these on." On the flight over Janice had impishly warned her it would not be wise to wear anything that would allow the native wildlife (i.e. insects, spiders, snakes, small rodents) to crawl up her leg.
Mel silently rose clutching the pants to her chest and looked inquiringly at the major.
"Turn left down the hall--go all the way to the end," he said tersely.
Mel nervously nodded her thanks and left the room.
After she had gone the room was uncomfortably quiet for several minutes until the major leaned back in his chair and eyed Janice curiously. "Can I ask you something?"
"I was just wondering why you would be taking someone like your friend to a hell-hole like Borneo."
"What do you mean, 'someone like her?'" Janice asked suspiciously.
"Well I mean she doesn't seem like she belongs out here. How does she fit in? She is obviously not as capable as you are." The major then smiled knowingly at Janice and added, "Or maybe she serves some other purpose?"
"What the hell are you talkin' about?"
"Aw, come on. I saw how she looks at you. You know, I've heard of people like you but..." The major let his words conveniently trail off.
Janice's eyes grew hard and she shot him a withering glare. "Number one, Melinda Pappas is one of the foremost experts on ancient languages in the entire country. Number two, she is a hell of a lot tougher than you give her credit for. Number three, she is my best friend and I resent like hell your thinking her to be anything but the lady she is."
"Lady my ass," snorted the major. "You two are as queer as four dollar bills. I knew it from the first minute I laid eyes on you. How the hell you managed to hornswoggle Marshall into sending you out here is something that's going to be looked into, I promise you that!"
At this point Mel re-entered the room and quietly re-occupied her spot beside Janice.
The old saying, "If looks could kill..." certainly applied to Janice Covington at this moment. Never in all her life had she wanted to hurt someone so badly. She stared at Franks as if trying to bore a hole through his head through sheer will power alone. How dare that bastard think of Mel that way! Down deep she knew there was more than a grain of truth in what Franks said but he had made it sound so...dirty.
Franks casually lit his pipe and then continued, "I just got off the phone with MacArthur's chief of staff, General Sutherland. There's a navy PBY bound for Australia leaving from Corregidor tomorrow morning at 0630 hours. General Sutherland said the swabbies have agreed to drop you off on Borneo. He also said that I was to personally see to it you get on the plane."
"How thoughtful of him," Janice replied caustically. Taking Mel's skirt from her and stuffing it into the field pack, she then stood up and slung one strap over her shoulder. "Is there any place my friend and I can get something to eat?"
"Sorry," sniffed Franks. "The mess hall doesn't open until 1600 hours."
"Come on, Mel," said Janice. "Something stinks in here and it's not the pipe."
Once outside they descended the administration steps and paused at the bottom.
"Don't worry, Kid," said Janice, "we'll find something to eat."
"But the major said--"
"The major doesn't know shit from Shinola," growled Janice. "Besides, at a place like this you can find anything you want-- if you know where to look. So whaddaya say we see what we can dig up."
"way-ul I am kinda hungry," Mel admitted.
The two of them began walking away from the administration building but had not gone far when Melinda stopped.
"What is it?" Janice asked.
A troubled look came over Mel's face. "Back there in the major's office. I heard what you said."
"About what?" Janice asked, feigning ignorance.
"About you sayin' I was a lady an' all--"
"Well you are," interrupted Janice.
"And how, and how you said I was your best friend." Mel looked at the smaller woman earnestly. "Janice, am I your best friend?"
Janice looked into the lovely face that hinted of hope and not a little trepidation and with a tenderness that surprised even her said, "Geez, Mel, don't ya know that by now?"
Mel's smile was one of both relief and nervousness and she replied, "I kinda, sorta knew but darn it Janice, in all these months you never..."
"Melinda Pappas, anybody that has a friend as true as you should thank their lucky stars every day. I know I do."
So there they stood, the tall belle and the petite archaeologist sharing the warm glow of a love that, while embryonic for them, predated the founding of Rome and Carthage, the rise of Buddhism and Christianity, and most of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. They were totally oblivious to the roar of the planes circling the field over head and the din of the multitude of vehicles darting about all around them
Finally Mel whispered, "Janice, you're my most favorite four dollar bill in the whole world."
The archaeologist laughed. "So you heard that huh? Well come on. Even we degenerates have to eat."
The next morning found the two women at the pier watching as the launch that was to take them out to the PBY eased its way up along side. Janice jerked up the field pack and slung it over her shoulder. Turning to Franks she said, "Well, I'd like to say it's been a pleasure to know you--but it hasn't."
Like the gracious individual she was, Melinda tried to thank the major for his assistance but Franks responded by clenching his teeth and hissing, "I hope you and your pal here go down there and get your queer asses sliced up like Christmas turkey."
Mel recoiled in shock at the major's viciousness and blinked in disbelief. Without taking her burning eyes off Franks Janice asked Melinda to put their bags in the launch. She waited until Melinda had descended the ladder and was out of sight before reacting to the insult.
The launch was below the pier and its rumbling motor made it difficult to hear. The major's car and driver were some distance away and facing in the opposite direction. It was still early and no one else was around. Janice Covington saw her chance. She smiled sweetly at the major and then promptly kneed him in the groin as hard as she could. The archaeologist merrily walked over and mounted the ladder. Just before she disappeared below the pier she stopped and looked at Franks now bent over with his knees buckled and groaning like a sick mule. "They really should replace the planking on this deck! she yelled. "Somebody could get hurt!" She mimicked a kiss and dropped down into the launch.
The ride out to the PBY took some time. The sailors were surprised but very happy to see two such fine looking women, especially the striking Mel. For his part the poor boatswain was very envious of the sight of his mates gleefully falling all over themselves to make the women comfortable as he guided the launch out to the plane. Lucky stiffs, he pouted.
Soon they were gently bumping up against the big Catalina Flying Boat, USN designation PBY-6. Janice tossed her pack to the sailor in the blister hatch and then handed him the rest of their bags. She took his extended hand and he pulled her into the plane with a well timed yank. The sailor pointed to where she was to sit. She nodded her thanks and made for the designated spot. By now Mel was being pulled into the plane and the launch was slowly backing away.
For the three sailors in the boat their short excursion with two pretty women was a treat they would repeatedly rub in on their buddies for the next couple of days. All too soon, however, their happy recollections of the day would be burned out of their memories by desperate worries about staying alive.
In the cockpit the co-pilot of the Catalina meticulously ran down each item on the pre-flight checklist. Once satisfied everything was all right the pilot hit the starter switches and the plane's two big 1200 horsepower Pratt and Whitney engines coughed and roared to life. He let the engines idle for a few minutes to allow the oil temperature to warm up suffciently and then slowly pulled back on the throttle. Slowly at first and then faster and faster, the plane began to lumber across Manila Bay.
In the back the young sailor helped the two women put their "Mae West" life jackets on and then took off his white "Dixie cup" hat and stuck in his pocket. "Hang on, ladies," he said. "These takeoffs get kinda bumpy."
At last the plane reached air speed and rose out of the water. It brushed lightly against the surface once more as if to kiss it good bye and then slowly pulled itself into the sky for good.
"Well that wasn't too bad," said the sailor. He nodded toward the cockpit and added, Lieutenant Piloto, that's our new pilot, he hasn't been flyin' PBY's very long but he's getting better." The sailor stuck his hand out to Janice and said, "My name's Ted Williams. I'm the radioman."
Janice smiled at him in amusement. "You're kidding," she laughed. "Do you get teased much about your name?"
"All the time, ma'am," replied Williams, shaking his head sadly. "Especially when I go home."
"Where ya from?"
"The South Bronx."
"Oh Lord!" exclaimed Janice.
"Tell me about it," said Williams.
Totally perplexed by their conversation, Mel leaned over and whispered in Janice's ear, "What's wrong with his name?" she asked. "I think it's a nice name."
Janice looked at her quizzically. "Mel, don't you know who Ted Williams is?"
"Well uh, I can't rightly say...should I?"
Janice laughed and patted her friend on the knee. "Ted Williams is a baseball player," she explained.
"A helluva player," the sailor cut in. "I wish the Yanks had him."
"Oh, I see" said Mel.
"You don't know a thing about baseball, do you?" teased Janice.
"I do too," Mel huffed, her voice hinting of defiance. "I know three strikes is an out, an' nine innings is a game, and I know the world series is always played in New York."
Janice smiled faintly and decided not to challenge Mel's last remark and thus ruin her small victory. Besides, she reasoned, since the Bronx Bombers were in the series practically every year she wasn't that far off.
She winked at the grinning sailor and said, "I'm a Yankee fan too."
"How 'bout you, ma'am," the sailor asked Mel. "You a Yankee fan too?"
"No self respecting lady from South Carolina would be caught dead rootin' for a team call the Yankees," snorted Mel.
"Are you guys ever gonna stop fighting the Cival War down there?" asked Janice.
"We folk in the South still have vivid memories of what General Sherman and his marauders did to Columbia," Mel shot back.
Janice decided not to remind Mel that it was South Carolina that had started the war in the first place. She turned to the sailor and asked "So who is your favorite player, DiMaggio?"
"Nah. 'Course he's their best player and everybody likes him," said the sailor, "but I kinda like that rookie shortstop they came up with this year."
"Yeah. See, he's a little guy like me and we little guys have to stick together. Who is yours?"
"Henrich," replied Janice. "He never gets the ink guys like DiMaggio and Dickey and some of the others do but he goes out there every day and does one a hell of a job."
"He's tough," the sailor agreed. "I like him too."
Not wanting to appear completely ignorant about baseball, Melinda racked her brain trying to come up with a baseball name. Finally one came to her. "I like Ty Cobb," she blurted out proudly.
One hundred miles later Janice was still laughing. Mel's fellow Southerner had not played a baseball game in thirteen years.
The flight to Borneo went off without a hitch. Since the plane had to land out in the bay and there was no boat there to pick the two women up, Radioman Williams was forced to pop the cork on a self-inflating life raft and and, with Janice's aid, paddle them to shore. Once safely on the beach Williams quickly helped the women unload their gear.
That done, he stuck his hand out to Janice and said, "It's sure been was a pleasure to know you, Janice."
Janice looked into the sailor's face. God! He's so young, she thought. She sadly remembered what Roosevelt had told her and wondered whether this boy and maybe thousands more just like him would ever live to reach voting age. She took the offered hand and said, "You take care of yourself, Kid."
Williams then shook Mel's hand and told her good bye. The women stood on the dirty beach and watched him push the raft back into the water and begin paddling out to the plane. Mel gave the boy one last wave and turned to Janice. She was about to say something but was startled by what she saw. For there, rolling down tough Janice Covington's cheek, was a single tear.
If one chooses not to include Australia, Borneo is the third largest island in the world. It is composed of 280,000 square miles of rugged mountains, high plains, and some of the oldest rain forest in the world. It had been under British and Dutch rule since the nineteenth century, and Japan had for many years now looked covetously toward this and most of the other islands in the East Indies as a rich source of oil, rubber and other raw materials needed to feed its burgeoning industrial might.
Now, with the American trade embargo threatening to strangle their economy, domination of the area was of even more vital importance for Nippon. This embargo was America's retaliation for Japan's brutal campaign against China and by the time Janice and Mel landed on the east coast of the huge island relations between the two countries had become so strained that the Japanese government had informed their emissaries in Washington that "things were automatically going to happen." What those "things" were neither Nomura and Kurusu, the Japanese emissaries, nor the American cryptologists that had cracked the Japanese code, knew. Whatever it was it was disturbing enough to cause Admiral Stark, the chief of naval operation to send a message that was to be "considered a war warning," to the American Pacific and Asiatic fleets on November 27.
At the present moment Janice and Mel's concerns were of the nature of something not quite as important as automatic things about to happen. With the aid of the map supplied to her by the War Department, (In reality it had simply been cut from a recent issue of "National Geographic" magazine.) Janice had found the main road that led to Tarakan. Unfortunately the term "road" was a very loose one for the it was in fact nothing more than an expanded jungle path. It was barely wide enough to allow two vehicles to pass and was so soft from the incessant rain that in some places there were ruts large enough for a small person like Janice to lie down in and be completely hidden. Although the map said the town was only three kilometers, or roughly two miles, to the north Janice and Mel spent the better part of the evening traversing the road.
It was especially hard for Melinda because even though she was a very strong individual, she was not in as good a physical condition as Janice was. As if the combination of lugging her heavy suitcase and slogging through the goo-like mud wasn't enough she also found herself having a very hard time keeping her shoes on. Though she had wisely discarded her slippers during overnight stay in the Philippines, she found her lace-ups were not much of an improvement. It was as if the mud itself was trying to bond with the leather in her shoes. Every time she picked up her feet the mud would make a kind of slurping sound. Already she had sworn to herself that the first thing she would do when she the opportunity presented itself would be to obtain a pair of boots much like those Janice had.
Despite her conditioning Janice was not really much better off than her friend and so after struggling through the thick slop for the better part of two hours she decided it was time to rest. They found a fallen tree by the side of the road that was reasonably dry enough to sit on and they wearily plopped down upon it. By now both of them were soaked with perspiration. The heat, their hard labor and the very humid air had caused them to look like they had just emerged from the sea.
"How much farther is it?" Mel asked, still panting.
"About a half a mile, maybe a kilometer at the most," said Janice. She pulled a damp handkerchief out of her back pocket and ran it first over her forehead and then the back of her neck. "Damn, I'm gettin' too old for this."
"Well I certainly hope the government appreciates what we--you are doing for them."
Janice stuck out her tongue slightly and blew away the large mosquito trying to make a landing on her nose. "You had it right the first time, Mel," she said. "It is we."
"It never gets this hot in South Carolina," allowed Mel. She pulled out her shirt tail and used it to wipe her brow. She then looked longingly at the large puddles of water all around them and said, "Golly, Janice, I sure am thirsty."
"Me too," said Janice. "But there's no way we can drink this water. God only knows what we'd catch..
Although there was an ample supply of water purification pills in their survival kit, Janice had forgotten a much more basic element--the canteen. Damn it, Janice, she cursed herself, you should have known better than that.
As a magna cum laude graduate of the "Dirty Thirties" school of hard knocks, Janice Covington was used to hunger and thirst too for that matter. Melinda, on the other hand, had received no such education in her youth and Janice was now worried she might become dispirited. It wasn't that Melinda was soft or unreliable--far from it. It was just that she had not quite come to the realization yet that all education did not come from books or a classroom. Coming from the relatively sheltered life of academia, Mel was a little behind on the practical side of her education. That having been said, Janice also knew that she had never met anyone so dedicated, so earnest, so...sincere. On their first dig together after their little adventure in Macedonia Janice had tested this sincerity by giving Mel every shit job she could think of. Not once had Mel complained. True she did screw up sometimes but then again, who didn't. Janice was the first to admit she was not perfect.
Janice eyed her friend quietly sitting there picking bits of leaves out of her jet black hair. With her best Clark Gable imitation she said, "I'll bet you've never been this dirty in your entire life have you, Scarlett?" She was not above teasing the woman about her Southern roots and from time to time called her Scarlett--after the vixen in "Gone With the Wind." This invariably made Mel mad but, like the sweetheart she was, never too mad. Right now Mel was too fatigued to do much of anything except sweat.
Janice reached down into her shirt and pulled her bra away from her breasts. For a moment she pondered taking the thing off for it was beginning to chafe her. Aww what the hell, she thought. Why not? She undid the buttons on her shirt and was about to pull it off when she heard the chugging of a badly tuned motor.
"What is that?" Mel asked anxiously.
Quickly buttoning up her shirt, Janice answered, "It's our taxi, I hope."
A few minutes later an old two and a half ton truck rounded the bend and came lumbering toward them. To avoid the ruts in the road the truck was constantly weaving from one side of the road to the other and Janice could hear the transmission grind when the driver, obviously not used to handling such a vehicle, missed a gear.
When the truck was near enough Janice slogged out into the road and began waving her arms. As the truck slid to a stop before her she saw two men sitting in the front. The driver waved her forward and, as quickly as she could, Janice made her way to the driver's side door.
"Thanks, mister, for--" To her consternation Janice realized her benefactors were Japanese! Jesus Christ! she thought. They're Japs! For a moment she tried to convince herself their presence here was just a coincidence but deep in her heart she knew better. Taken aback as she was, she did not bat one eye nor miss one beat--"stoppin. My friend and I are bushed from walkin' this damn road."
"That's quite all right, Miss," said the driver in perfect English. "We are happy to be of assistance. May I ask what you are doing out here all alone?"
"My friend and I are botanists," Janice lied smoothly. "We're part of a group from the University of Maryland over here to study the flora indigenous to this particular region." With a girlish giggle she added, "We got so wrapped up in our work we got separated from the others. Umm, you going to Tarakan?"
"Yes we are. Are you?"
"You and your friend are welcome to ride in the back," the driver stiffly.
"Thanks." As Janice turned away and made her way back to Mel she could feel their suspicious eyes boring into her back. With her back still to the truck she bent over and picked up the field pack. "Mel," she whispered loudly, "don't be scared but those two guys are Japs."
"Shhh! Janice admonished. "Try to act like everything's AOK damn it. Just calm down and act like you don't know who they are, understand?"
Mel gulped hard and looked down at her friend. "Golly, Janice what are we gonna do?"
"We're gonna let the bastards give us a ride into Tarakan, what else?
Janice loosened one of the pack flaps and ran her hand inside. With the deftness of a well practiced hand she dug down into the pack until she found the .45 automatic. She laid it on top of the other items in the pack to allow for quick retrieval if she deemed it necessary. "Come on." Gathering up their bags, she walked toward the truck. "Now, Mel, I told them we're botanists from the University of Maryland so don't forget."
"I won't," said Mel. As they passed the truck it was all Mel could do not to gawk at the two men sitting inside.
Seeing no place for a foothold, Janice was forced to drop the truck's tailgate in order to gain entry to the back. The truck bed was covered by a large tarpaulin supported by steel rods. She set her bags down and pulled herself up into the truck bed and then extended her hand to Mel.
"Watch your head," warned Janice as she pulled her friend into the truck.
Once they were safely in she put the pin back into the tail gate latch and yelled to the driver they were ready. The driver popped the clutch and the truck lurched violently forward. As it did poor Mel received a painful bump on the head when she banged it against one of the steel rods. It hurt like hell but she stubbornly refused to rub. I'm gonna be tough, she told herself, Like Janice. She looked at her staring intently down the road from whence they came and wondered what was going on in that brain of hers. God only knows, she allowed.
She had come to admire Janice so much. The fiery archaeologist in so many ways represented the woman she had always wanted to be. She was tough, smart, aggressive--okay maybe a little too aggressive but then again she had to have been to have made such an impact in a field dominated by men. More than that she knew how to get what she wanted. Many saw her as pushy, abrasive, demanding, and downright tempermental but Mel knew they were only seeing part of Janice Covington. Only she had been able to peel back that veneer of ferocity and see the vulnerable young woman that was in her. She had known that Janice did not come as advertised. Mel saw her as someone, for whatever reason, reluctant to get close to people. She often wondered if Janice if ever had a lover but she had never worked up the nerve to ask her. She watched Janice close her eyes and very casually trail a finger across her lips. Janice Covington, she thought wistfully, I wish I were your lover.
Although he had his eyes locked forward in diligent concentration as he drove down the pitiful road, Morsuru Fuchida could sense his companion intently watching him. Coming upon yet another rut, he down shifted from second to first gear and, without taking his eyes off the road, said, "Something troubles you, Shidehara. What is it?"
"You know very well what it is," replied Minoro Shidehara. "Why did you pick up those two American women?"
Fuchida chuckled and said, "Calm down, they are just a couple of tree huggers. They are no threat to us."
"Any American is a potential threat to us," retorted Shidehara. "Besides, I don't believe they are botanists."
Fuchida smiled in amusement at his partner's cynicism. "Oh no? And what do you think they are? Spies?" He snapped his fingers as if a revelation had just come to him. "I know, they are the vanguard of some kind of secret military force maybe commanded by Eleanor Roosevelt herself!"
Shidehara was not amused. "Make jokes if you will, Fuchida, but remember this. All the jokes in the world won't amuse Admiral Yamamoto if we do not come back with those rings."
"I am fully aware of our mission," said Fuchida, now deadly serious. "Or have you forgotten it was I who discovered the rings were in the possession of the American named Garnett?"
"No, I have not," said Shidehara. "And I commend you for your excellent work, especially the brake job on the archaeologist's automobile. That was a work of art."
In Miri Fuchida and Shidehara had learned that one of the men they had been warned about, an American named Joe Garnett, had beaten them to the punch and somehow obtained the ancient Rings of Bugang. They learned he had paid five thousand American dollars for them and hurriedly left town. After a frantic search they learned the name of the go-between that had arranged the sale and that night Fuchida and Shidehara had paid him a little visit. To Shidehara's disappointment the man's threshold of pain was not very high and he had told all after only a little torture. The two men learned Garnett was working out of Tarakan. They also learned that an archaeologist named Ross was supposed to have met Garnett in Miri to authenticate the rings but had missed the navy officer by just a few hours. After making arrangements to eliminate Ross they started out after Garnett. But the murder of Garnett's ally had delayed the two men's journey to Tarakan. Though they did not yet know where to find him they were confident he had not left the island. Every Japanese agent had studied their potential enemies and therefore knew Garnett by sight. They were under strict orders not to allow their quarry to leave the island alive.
"You are most kind," said Fuchida. "And do not worry, we will find Garnett and the rings soon enough.
"Do you think those men are somehow wrapped up in all this?" Mel asked.
"I wouldn't bet that doctorate of yours against it if I were you," advised Janice.
"For bringin' me along."
"Janice crawled across the bed of the heaving truck and sat down beside her friend. "Hey we're a team remember?"
Melinda looked deeply into Janice's green eyes and said, "Takin' me along on some dig in the Andes Mountains is one thing but--"
Mel lowered her head. "Jan, I might get you killed here."
Janice looked at her oddly. "Now just how the hell do you figure that?" she asked.
"I don't know. Maybe you should have brought somebody along who was, you know...more capable."
Janice's eyes hardened and she set her jaw. She then took the last three fingers of Mel's right hand into her own and began to squeeze them very hard. Although Mel was much stronger than Janice and could have easily broken her grip, she just sat there blinking.
"Now you listen to me and listen good," hissed Janice. "This is the last time I'm ever gonna tell you this. There is nobody, repeat nobody, that I would even think of undertaking a thing like this with but you, understand? So cut that crap out. You are the only person in the world I trust." She smiled faintly and added, "Besides you do all right, Mel Pappas."
God! She is so beautiful, thought Janice. The warmth she felt engulf her was like nothing she had ever experienced before. Mel was such a sweet person. Basically very shy, there was nevertheless a stubborn streak in her and Janice had somehow come to adore that combination. As she sat there looking into Mel's eyes she came to the realization that it might be now or never. She reached up and gently took off Mel's glasses.
As she did this Mel saw the same look in her eyes that she had seen back in that Washington hotel room. Again, she felt her heart start to pound. Janice moved closer and Mel's breath began to quicken. For her too it was now or never. "Janice?"
"Have you ever had a...lover?"
Janice responded with a faint smile and gently covered Mel's lips with her own.
"Golly," Mel said breathlessly, just before their lips met.
For a moment Janice found Mel to be reluctant and she feared she might have misread the woman after all. In a millisecond of panic she wondered if she had not made a terrible mistake. But to her ecstatic relief she then felt Mel's lips respond and they enjoyed their first wonderful, lingering, and very belated, kiss. Although she wanted to so very badly, Janice decided against using her tongue to probe for its counterpart. No this first sweet, simple kiss was enough. For an exquisite moment both of them completely forgot they were in a foreign land riding in the back of a filthy truck that happened to be driven by men who were in all probability their enemies. The situation bordered on the ludicrous. All those quiet times they had been alone together and they picked this moment to finally express their love!
Then again perhaps it was that very element of danger that had, at last, served to break down those walls of resistance. Whatever it was, when Janice finally forced herself to pull away she felt as if some great weight had been lifted from her heart. So this is what it's like, she thought.
"It's none of your business."
"Huh?" Mel's brain was shrouded in a blissful fog and she could not seem to think straight.
"You asked me if I've ever had a lover," Janice reminded her, "and I said it's none of your business."
Janice pecked her lightly on the lips and then gave her a very mischievous look. "Melinda Pappas, you don't know what you're getting yourself in for."
Suddenly a disturbing thought came to her. Oh, my God. The window! She jerked her head toward the front of the truck to see if they were being watched through the truck's back window. To her relief she saw the tarpaulin extended well down below the window and thus blocked any view of the truck bed. Janice heaved a sigh of relief and wiped off her brow. "Mel," she said, "there's something I think you should know."
Oh no, thought Melinda, here it comes. She's going to say it was a mistake. She's going to say it was just one of those moments of passion people sometimes have when placed in dangerous situations. God, Jan, she silently pleaded. Please don't break my heart. Not after...
She managed to work up the courage to ask "What's that?" out loud.
"Now you know how I feel about you," Janice said huskily. "I just want you to know that I've been crazy about you for a long time. I just...I just didn't know how to say it or even if I should say it, ya know? Mel, are you sorry?"
This time it was Mel's turn to squeeze hands. "Janice Covington, I love you. To her it felt so good to at last be able to say that aloud. She ached so badly to give herself to this woman right now but of course that was impossible.
"We sure picked a fine time for this, didn't we? 'Course you know this is gonna have to wait don't cha? We've got a job to do here."
"I know," Mel answered. She then grinned at Janice and said, "I waited this long, I reckon I can wait a little longer. But once this mess is over you and I are gonna have some makin' up to do."
The truck slowed to a stop on the graveled street and as soon as it came to rest, Janice and Mel spilled out of the back. "Get our stuff out while I lose these guys," said Janice. Mel obliged and Janice made her way to the front of the truck. "Thanks again, mister," she said. "My friend and I can wing it from here."
The crafty Shidehara replied by asking "You are sure we cannot take you...somewhere?" What he really wanted was to ascertain who they would be in contact with.
But Janice was not fooled. You sly bastard, she thought. The fish ain't bitin' today. "Umm, no," she said aloud. "Melinda and I will be just fine right here."
Shidehara shrugged and said, "Very well. Let us proceed, Fuchida."
Fuchida again popped the clutch too quickly and this time he killed the engine. Janice heard him mutter something in Japanese and though she didn't speak the language, she could tell by the tone of his voice he wasn't praying for divine guidance. She pretended not to hear and went back to rejoin Mel. Unfortunately for Mel when Fuchida restarted the truck a huge cloud of blue smoke belched out of the tail pipe. The truck roared away leaving a coughing Mel enshrouded in the lingering blue haze.
Janice could not help but laugh. "Jeez, Mel, I guess I should have asked Franks for a gas mask too huh?
The rap on the door startled Bill Parker. He reached under his windbreaker and pulled out his navy issue .38 caliber revolver. Carefully he eased his way to the door and peeked through the crack above the knob. He saw two women, one tall, the other short. The tall one was wearing horn-rimmed glassed and looked very much out of place. The short one had on a black baseball cap with the white letters "WF" embroidered on it and seemed to be the one in charge.
The cap had been given to Janice during their layover in Pearl Harbor. A passing captain had heard her lamenting to Mel about the fact she had not had a chance to bring along her lucky hat and had graciously presented her with one of the caps worn by the Wheeler Field baseball team of which he was a member.
Now what the sam hell do they want? Parker wondered. And who are they? British? Dutch? He then heard Mel's unmistakable Southern drawl. "Are you sure this is the right place, Janice?"
"This is the place all right," answered Janice.
"Maybe he's not here."
"Then we'll wait," said Janice.
Parker opened the door just a hair. "Whaddaya you two want?"
"Am I speaking to Bill Parker?" asked Janice.
"Who are you?"
"If you will let us in," said Janice, "I'll explain." It was then she saw the barrel of a pistol appear in the crack of the door. "Hey! Calm down, pal," Janice urged, raising the palms of her hands. "My friend and I didn't travel half-way around the world to get plugged by some spooked naval officer."
How did she know that? "What do you want?" he repeated.
"Like I said," Janice patiently repeated, "If you will just let us in we can explain."
She saw the door open slowly and the voice on the other side said, "Come inside. Just remember, no monkey business. The gun barrel disappeared and the door swung wide open. The women picked up their bags and quickly entered. It took their eyes some moments to adjust to the dark room. Janice's pupils were still dilating when she felt something hard poke her in the neck. "You have one minute to convince me not to blow your fuckin' head off," said Parker darkly. "So start talking."
Jesus, thought Janice, this guy has a screw loose. "We've been sent here to give you a hand," she said evenly.
"Oh yeah? By whom?"
"By the president," Mel blurted out.
"Sure ya have," Parker said caustically. "And I bet Bill Halsey himself brought you over here on the "Enterprise," didn't he?"
Gun or no gun Janice felt her ire begin to rise. "Look, smart ass--"
The quick double click of the pistol's hammer cocking and cylinder turning resounded through the archaeologist's head like a thunderclap. "You got forty-five seconds," said Parker.
But she's telling the truth!" pleaded Mel.
"Shut up, Stretch," barked Parker.
"Leave her alone!" exclaimed Janice.
"Thirty-five seconds," said Parker.
"You kill us and you'll never get those rings off this island," said Janice.
"I thought as much," Parker said triumphantly. "So who are you working for, the Japs or the Krauts?"
"She already told you. The same guy you are," retorted Janice. "Uncle Sam. And if you'll give me half a chance I'll prove it."
Janice felt another, slighter, click as Parker eased the hammer back down. "So prove it."
Janice puffed her cheeks and blew out a small sigh of relief. "Can I get something out of my back pocket?"
"Yeah but don't be tryin' anything cute," warned Parker.
Janice slowly reached into her back pocket and pulled out the man's wallet she always carried when in the field. She reached inside and extracted a folded up, sealed envelope and handed it to Parker. He smoothed out the envelope against his knee and saw "Lieutenant Commander William E. Parker" neatly typed on the front. In the upper left hand corner he read:
"That doesn't prove anything," he said.
"You don't trust anything do you?" asked Janice.
"Lady, in this line of work trust is a luxury you can't afford," replied Parker.
He backed away from the women, tucked the pistol under his arm, and tore open the envelope. Out fell two folded up pieces of paper. In the dim light he made out one to be a hand written note and, to his surprise, he saw the other was the cover page of the game program for the 1930 Army-Navy football game. Returning to the note, he read:
"Damn," muttered Parker. He unfolded the page from the program. Written in the space above the date of the game were the words, "To Jimmy, Best Wishes, Billy "Flash" Parker." Parker smiled faintly as he read the signature. "Flash!" That's what the newspapers had called him during his gridiron days as a speedy halfback at the Naval Academy.
"Okay, ladies," he said, carefully folding the program up and stuffing into his shirt pocket, "I guess you're okay."
"Well that's mighty decent of you," snorted Janice.
"Sorry 'bout that," said Parker. "But like I said before, one can't be too careful."
"Is that why you're going under the name of Joe Garnett," Janice asked.
"My mother didn't raise William Eulas Parker to be a fool," said Parker.
Eulas, what an odd name, thought Mel. Odd but somehow vaguely familiar. Where had she heard that name before? For some reason the name kept buzzing around in her head. Eulas? Ulas? Iolaus?
"Eulas is an unusual name," said Mel. "Where did it come from?"
"It's an old family name," said Parker. "It goes back in my family for hundreds of years. Some say even longer."
"Well my name is Janice Covington, I'm an archaeologist, and this is Melinda Pappas. She's an expert on ancient languages."
"I gotta tell you, we were brought into town by two guys who were Japs for sure," said Janice.
"So what else is new?" Parker asked ruefully. "The damn town is crawling with them. What did they look like?"
"There was nothing special about them," replied Janice. "But I did hear one of them call the other one Fuchida."
"Ahh yes, Fuchida and Shidehara. That's their varsity team," said Parker. He gave Janice a hard look. "You weren't followed here were you?"
"No, I was very careful about that," Janice assured him. "So uh, can I see the rings now?"
Without a word Parker walked to the center of the room and pulled the chain switch to the ceiling fan. At that time Tarakan was one of the few places on Borneo that had the good fortune to have access to electricity. Once the fan stopped turning he placed a chair directly underneath and stood up on it. Taking out his pen knife, he quickly removed the three screws that held the fan assembly to its mounting bracket and pulled the fan away from the ceiling. Parker then reached up into the hole in the ceiling and pulled out a small black bag.
"Here," he said, tossing the bag to Janice.
While Janice excitedly opened the bag and Mel stood behind gaping over her shoulder, Parker carefully lowered the fan down until the only thing supporting it was the electrical wires. After a little trouble with the knot sealing the bag, Janice finally got the thing open and dumped its contents into her hand. To say she was disappointed would be a serious understatement. That's it? she thought dejectedly. What a gyp!
"Mel, would you get the magnifying glass for me please? It's in my suitcase."
"Sure." Mel kneeled down and opened up Janice's suitcase and retrieved the large magnifying glass Janice had taken in lieu of the five bucks she had won in a poker game off those shocked air reconnaissance boys back at Pearl Harbor. When she had innocently asked in the game the boys had gleefully welcomed her with open arms thinking they had a pigeon for sure. However it sooned turned out their "pigeon" was, in fact, a shark. So while Mel slept on an army cot behind her, Janice won forty-four dollars, the magnifying glass, a watch, a box of chocolate bars, and a Swiss army knife. She was not one much for sweets herself so she saved some of the chocolate for Mel and traded the rest to a machinist's mate for three bars of soap and a tube of toothpaste.
"Here ya go," said Mel, handing her the glass.
"Okay if I crack one these shades a bit, Commander?" asked Janice.
Parker nodded and Janice took the piece to the window and opened up the shade.
The rings were indeed golden, not very thick, and had the approximate circumference of a silver dollar. The rings were not separate but fused together in much the same manner as a set of brass knuckles. Each end ring had a loop in it through which ran a long leather strap. Strung on each side of the strap were several bits of very colorful coral. She observed that at one time they must have been arranged in a very precise pattern but over time had become misaligned due to the necessity of having to change the strap periodically.
After scrutinizing the rings for a good five minutes Janice put down the glass. "It's not the best example of Kadazan workmanship I've seen," she said. "But it is definitely of the correct time period."
"So in your professional opinion you'd say it was the real McCoy?" asked Parker.
Janice took off her baseball cap and scratched her head. "Well," she sighed, "I gotta admit the thing is more real than most things connected with ancient lore. Yeah, I'd have to say it is."
"I knew it," Parker crowed triumphantly. "I knew this was the one." He pointed to the rings and said, "You're lookin' at five thousand bucks there, ladies."
"My goodness," Mel gasped. Even for someone from her background five thousand dollars was a great sum of money. She cocked her head to one side and asked "So just what is the big deal about this thing anyway?"
"It's believed that whoever possesses this will be invincible in battle," said Janice.
"Is that why the Nips want it so badly?" asked Mel. "To make themselves invincible I mean?"
Parker shook his head. "No. Even the Japs don't believe that mumbo jumbo. They're more pragmatic than you think. No sir, they've haven't spent all that money building up their army and creating a big ass navy just to have them sit around and twiddle their thumbs."
"Then why are they--and we--going through so much trouble to--"
"You would have to ask somebody in the government that makes a whole lot more money than I do about that," said Parker. "All I know is I was ordered to obtain it by hook or by crook and that's what I did."
Immediately the line from Tennyson came to Mel, "Theirs was not to reason why..." "How did you know where to find it?" she asked him.
"ONI, that's Office of Naval Intelligence to you, gave me a general area to search and the rest was plain old legwork," said Parker.
"Any idea why the Japanese want this thing so badly?" Janice asked.
"I couldn't say," said Parker. "All I know is if they want it then it's to our advantage to see they don't get it."
Janice realized this was almost verbatim what General Marshall had told her. "Is this something that could be used for propaganda purposes?" she asked.
"Your guess is as good as mine," said Parker. "They're not as good at lying as the Germans are but anything that will help them keep the oilfields and rubber plantations down here humming is to be viewed as an asset I guess."
"You know, you're talkin' like the Japs were already here," said Janice.
"It's only a matter of time," said Parker. "Who's gonna stop 'em once they decide to move?" asked Parker. "The British? They've got their hands full with Hitler and besides, Singapore is a much bigger priority for them than Borneo."
"What about us?" asked Mel.
"The only credible land force the United States has in ten thousand miles of here is in the Philippines and they'll be up to their own necks in Japs once the shooting starts."
"You mean to say the Western Pacific is wide open?" Janice asked incredulously.
"Everything west of Hawaii anyway," said Parker. "And if the Navy can't hold 'em off we'll be goddamn lucky if we can keep the bastards from moving over those mountains of New Guinea, taking Port Moresby, and then invading Australia itself."
"Good God!" exclaimed Mel. "It is that bad?"
"I'm afraid so. Those Aussie Diggers are some of the best soldiers in the world, the Japs are scared to death of 'em, and General Blamey is a good man. If the Japs do invade we think Blamey will abandon the north and try to defend the Great Artesian Basin and the big cities on tbe east coast--Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne but the general concensus is they won't be able to hold. There just ain't enough of them. Needless to say, if that happens the United States will be up shit creek not only without a paddle, but without a canoe as well. We've got to have Australia for sub bases, airfields, staging areas, not to mention their armed forces."
It made Janice extremely uneasy to think of Australia as being threatened with invasion. She had spent a couple of months there in early '39 and found the people to be open, friendly, and a lot of fun to be around. She liked the place very much.
Parker sheepishly at his feet. "Sorry, I didn't mean to lay all that military stuff on you. I guess I got carried away," said Parker. "How did you two get here anyway?"
"A navy PBY dropped us off a couple of miles down the coast," said Janice. She dropped the relic back into the bag and handed it to Parker who then returned it to its hiding place in the ceiling.
"So what are the new instructions Stark mentioned?" he asked.
"You are to come with us," said Janice. That PBY will be returning from Australia in three days to pick us up."
"That would be the eighth," said Parker. "But why wait three days?"
"They figured we might need a little time to find you," replied the archaeologist. She noted the puzzled look on Mel's face and asked "What's wrong?"
"I thought today was the fourth," said Mel.
"We crossed the international date line remember?" Janice reminded her. "When you travel west you gain a day."
Mel's face turned a very nice shade of crimson. "Oh yeah," she said. "Silly me."
Continued - Part 3 (Conclusion)