DISCLAIMER: All XWP characters are copyright so-and-so by what’s-his -face. No copyright infringement intended and no profit gained. The story is mine, so think twice about plagiarizing.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks to Lela and Anima for beta reading and cyber-handholding. (I know, it sounds so…naughty!)
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Coup de Grace
By Vivian Darkbloom
The stars all seem motionless, embedded in the eternal vault; yet they must all be in constant motion, since they rise and traverse the heavens with their luminous bodies till they return to the far-off scene of their setting.
The Last of the International Dilettantes
1. Still Life with Assistant Professor: Cambridge, 1948
At precisely 12:19 p.m. on Saturday, June 11, 1948, after sitting on the back porch and consuming two meatloaf sandwiches, drinking half a beer, pondering the uneven lawn begging to be mowed as well as the rutted wood rot in the roof beams of the porch, thinking that she didn't want to go to Venice to some damned boring conference anyway, then wondering why she didn't want to go anywhere and would rather stay and home and paint the kitchen ceiling and pull weeds out of the garden and just watch her lover fall asleep in the sun, after all this fermentation of thought aided by the American institutions of beef and beer, Dr. Janice Covington, the restless, relentless archaeologist and world explorer, fully realized that she had been domesticated.
She exhaled, as if some intangible pseudo-virility within her had been deflated.
Then she burped, and this small, crude action comforted her.
Janice laid back on the porch, head pillowed on a forearm, ignoring the empty, yawning lawn chair—she could not tolerate being civilized any further. Smoke from her cigarette drifted up into the rafters of the back porch. Out, damned rot! she thought, scowling at the poor old beams. She had warned Mel about this, when they bought the house—that it was less sturdy than it looked. But its shabby genteel, struggling-academics-meet-haunted-house ambiance possessed great appeal to the Southerner, who reveled in a very regional penchant for the Gothic. Not to mention that the house, drafty in the winter, also possessed incessantly creaking floorboards and a regularly flooding basement. Nonetheless, Janice reluctantly admitted to herself that she liked the house. Oh, hell, I love it. It's ours.
She sat up abruptly, as if the happy thought would strip it all away. I've been waiting for two years for the other shoe to drop.
She continually expected to wake up some morning in a leaky tent somewhere in the middle of nowhere: alone, on a site...lucid and miserable and no longer part of this living dream. Or she would wake to find a "Dear Jane" kinda letter propped against the sugar bowl (no, Mel would take grandma's sugar bowl with her. Against the toaster, maybe?) on the kitchen table : Dear Janice, I cannot go on any longer loving someone as short as you. I'm going back home to my fiancé, who was 6'4" in his stocking feet. You can keep the car. Love, Mel. Never mind the fact that the fiancé was now, most definitely, a former fiancé and married to another woman, and who kept sending Mel annoying photos of his newborn son, who had a strangely large head, like a mutant turnip....now there's someone who desperately needed the Pappas gene pool.
But so far, practically every day, she woke to the smell of coffee, to Mel in the kitchen, loose hair spilling over a bathrobe, frowning over the newspaper. This world, I swear, she would mutter in her Southern drawl.
This world. When Janice was younger she kept a journal, in which she wrote about the things she was learning from her father. When she was 19 she finished one particular notebook with a litany of names—all the places she'd seen thus far. Under the dark canopy of night and tent, everything seethed with possibility, and she would recite the list in her mind: Hierakonpolis. Athens. Syria. Alexandria.
The litany kept her company, and for a long time it felt like her only friend. Through the holes in the old tent she would see stars.
Cairo. Rome. Istanbul. Thessalonika….
It had not occurred to her then to wonder if she was happy. Because everything had seemed possible. She looked around the yard. And the amazing thing was, it still felt that way.
Add Cambridge to the list.
"Ah, my little Mad Dog. My poor, little, housebroken Mad Dog."
Upon murmuring this benediction, Paul Rosenberg leaned back into the soft leather chair at the study's desk, and put his feet up on it, ignoring Covington's entreaties about doing so. Janice was always so nervous in the study—which she considered Mel's room—as if she were in the tomb of Tutankhamen himself and fearing some ancient Carolinian curse, should objects be tampered with. Carefully, he stretched his long legs over the desk, avoiding the thick, vellum-paged notebook, covered with lines of Greek, and an English which, to him, was as indecipherable as the ancient language, given the florid, tangled serifs of the bold hand. He knew instantly it wasn't Janice's handwriting, having encountered her painstakingly neat printing while they worked at Neuschwanstein. The chair carried a faint whiff of Mel's perfume. He smiled and closed his eyes for a minute.
His brief, fluttery daydream of a certain leggy, blue-eyed brunette was disrupted by the disgruntled tones of a certain small blonde: "Hey, asshole."
Janice had lured him from his penniless life in New York to an equally penniless one in Boston, with the promise of a teaching post for him at the college. When this drunken promise failed to materialize (I would've known she was drunk on the phone if I hadn't been drinking myself!), he found music gigs in town, tutored here and there, and acted as Janice's Boy Friday, a position that dictated nothing much more than picking up her dry cleaning (skirts being an unfortunate fact of life for a female professor, even one as lowly as she) and trying to discern the fate of the scroll she viewed at Neuschwanstein at the end of the war. You've still got the military contacts, buddy boy, she had said to him.
Paul opened his eyes and smiled broadly at Janice, a toothy grin crowding his ten o'clock shadow, his open madras shirt flapping in the breeze from the window, revealing a slightly yellowing white v-neck undershirt. "Yes, my little Mad Dog?"
"Stop calling me that," she snapped. He had been relentless about the nickname, ever since hearing Mel use it in an equally teasing fashion one day, as she shipped Janice off to work: Mad Dog honey, y'all sure are pretty in that dress! Now she stood before him, scowling, hands settled along her hips, in blue jeans and a dirty white t-shirt. He suddenly wondered if she had seen A Streetcar Named Desire recently, or if Marlon Brando had taken butch lessons from her. "Whaddya got for me? You call that number down in Washington?"
"Ah. Well…I got stonewalled. That's what I got." He sighed, and toyed with a fountain pen from the desk. "I can't get the file. Sorry, Janice."
"You're kidding me. They won't even let you see a file?"
He shook his head. "I tell ya, I really ran up my phone bill trying to track it down. All I found out was that the scroll had been returned to the family of the owner before the war. Presumably the family that the lovely Fraulein Stoller bought it from. They live in Venice."
"Venice," Janice repeated dully.
He asked, "Does that mean something to you?"
"There's an international archaeology conference there next month." Then, to herself: "Damnit, I need a name, at least."
He murmured, "That's a coincidence."
"I hate coincidences, Paul." She paced in front of him. "Who's the bigwig in charge of all this?" She felt a familiar burn in her gut: the excitement of the chase. Is it happening again? I've still got it, then?
"Some general named Fenton, in Washington. I spoke to a flunky in his office. We got to bullshitting about the war, and he was the one who told me the scroll is in Venice. But that's all he would tell me."
Janice stopped pacing. She stared at him. Another coincidence. "The general is Jeremiah Winston Fenton?"
"None other." Paul glanced at her uneasily. "Why?"
"I'll be damned. Mel knows him. He was an old friend of her father's."
"Dr. Pappas knew everyone, it seems."
"Comes in handy."
"I see. So...you think Melinda could sweet-talk him? Is that your plan?"
"No." Janice sighed and rubbed the back of her neck. "She hates him. She said he's a creepy old bastard."
"Somehow I can't hear her saying that," Paul noted wryly.
"Her exact words were, 'He's quite a terrible old man.' " She mimicked Mel's accent to perfection.
"That's pretty good, sweetheart. You sound just like her," he said admiringly.
"I get a lot of practice. But let me translate it into our lingo: He's a bastard. He put the moves on her, not long after her father died."
Paul shrugged. "Surely she's used to beating them off with a stick," he said, with forced carefulness. You don't want to be on that list of terrible men, do you, buddy? He was content just to be in Mel's orbit. Or so he believed. Given the strength of the relationship he witnessed between the two women, he knew he had very little choice in the matter.
"We're talking hours after Dr. Pappas's funeral," she snorted.
"Oh." He winced. "Lovely."
"Yeah. I don't want to put her through talkin' to that asshole again." Additionally, she was wary of using Mel's charms in this way, given the near disastrous results with Catherine Stoller. Near disaster? Okay, definite disaster.
She was quiet for moment, but Paul didn't like the strange glint in her eye. "Get the phone, will ya?"
Paul's hand grew sweaty as he gripped the phone, and the business-like woman answered. "Melinda Pappas calling for General Fenton!" he barked into the receiver. Janice gave him a thumb's-up sign. He nodded, then handed her the phone. She made a great show of wiping her hand after touching the slimy receiver, but no sooner than she did, Paul could hear, from his close proximity, a deep male voice on the line.
"Why, General Fenton, is that you?" she began. Eerily, her voice had taken on the accent and cadences of her lover's. "Yes, it's me, Melinda. I know, it has been simply too long. Yes, yes, that is too true! So…how was your war?"
Paul rolled his eyes.
"Oh yes, I was abroad for a while, in England. I did so want to help the cause, and I was kept out of the WACs 'cause of my terrible nearsightedness." Janice giggled like a demented schoolgirl. "General, stop! Y'all are too much! My eyes do not look like sapphires! Well, maybe just a teeny bit, I suppose. You're so sweet. A summer sky? No, no one's ever told me that before! Well, now, I did have a purpose in callin' you…I've been so desperate for help. Yes, I am positively desperate!" Janice sat up straight, breathless as a Gene Tierney heroine. "You see, I have been continuin' the work of my Daddy—God rest his soul—and durin' the war I was fortunate enough to view a certain scroll at this lovely little castle in Germany…Neuschwanstein, yes. Now I'm sure you know, given how eee-fficient the military is, that it has been returned to its original owner, but I would so love to have a look at it again, so I need to contact the individual who is in possession of it. I had one of my manservants call your office earlier, to see if they would provide any information of their own free will—but I'll be darned if your Yankee bureaucracy didn't have me hog-tied! Yes sir, I bet you could just picture that: me, all tied up! What a sight! I was madder than a hornet's nest." A pause. More male rumbling. "Oh my, yes, you better believe it, sir! I do have a terrible temper…why, just the other day I found one of the servants spit-polishing my silver! Usin' his disgusting saliva on the tea service that my great-grandaddy fought and died for, defendin' it from Sherman's fiends! I was so furious I could've cut off his balls and fed them to the hounds…." Janice's voice dropped menacingly. "They do so love the smell of blood, it arouses them for the hunt…."
Paul conveyed a frantic plea to stay in character via a well-placed kick to her shin.
Janice grimaced, then cleared her throat. "Er, as I was saying, I would so love it if perhaps you could intervene…." Another pause. A bright smile lit up the archaeologist's face. "Oh General," she cooed seductively, "you are wonderful. I am entirely indebted to you. Uh-huh..." Janice picked up a fountain pen and scribbled down some information in the notebook in front of her. "Yes indeedy, I will call that lieutenant....and I certainly hope you read him the riot act!" Another pause. "No, I'm not living in South Carolina, or even in North Carolina anymore...." An unfortunate inspiration occurred. "Why, I'm livin' in New Orleans now! You sound as excited as I did when I moved here! Ah got together with a bunch of my old sorority sisters from Vanderbilt, and we all chipped in and bought a lovely old house down in the French Quarter. We call it the Rising Sun…."
He buried his head in his hands.
"If you're ever down that way, you just try lookin' me up." Another peal of feminine tittering. "Oh, you're just awful! Uh-huh. Really? Well, red is my favorite color, you know…mmm-hmmmm. I would love to talk longer, General, but my manservant just brought in my mint julep and reminded me about gin rummy with the girls this afternoon….Why, yes…" she grinned at Paul. "He is a big strapping Negro, how did you know?"
Paul heard a loud click at the other end of the line. Janice looked at the phone in surprise. "Got him all worked up," she muttered.
He shook his head in pure disbelief. "You are out of your damn mind, Janice."
"That ain't no way to talk to a lady, mister."
"You're no lady, even when you're pretending to be one. And I tell you, if she ever finds out—"
Janice jammed a finger in his face. "She's not gonna find out unless you tell her, and if you do, I'll feed your balls to the hounds—"
"I'd like to see you try, butchling, 'cause we might as well face facts here—"
She grabbed his shirt, yanking him up out of the chair, knocking over the notebook.
"—you're pussywhipped!" he shouted gleefully.
Both parties felt a breeze from the study door, now opened by the woman who, indeed, without a single doubt, had them both pussywhipped. Mel stood in the doorway, her face slightly flushed from her brisk walk from the campus in the midday sun, carrying the leather satchel that once belonged to her father on her shoulder, and with a needless cardigan sweater draped over one forearm, poised like a waiter with a towel. Her pale, well-formed arms were bare in the summer dress she wore. Judging from the slightly dazed expression on her face, she either heard Paul's exclamation or was suffering a mild form of heat stroke. "Hi," Mel greeted timidly, feeling as if she had interrupted some intimate scenario in a house that was not her own.
Both Paul and Janice mumbled hellos.
"Um..." Mel began, as she deposited both satchel and sweater on the study's couch.
Paul straightened his abused shirt. "Hey, didn't you tell me you guys got meatloaf?" Before Mel could affirm, he darted past and down the hallway into the kitchen.
Janice remained sitting, now cross-legged, on the desk, prompting a scowl of disapproval from her companion. The archaeologist jumped off the desk immediately, sending loose papers scattering in her wake, and inadvertently wounding the fountain pen, which proceeded to bleed blue ink all over the desk's blotter.
Mel sighed deeply.
"Um...this word…" Mel tried again. A parade of nervous tics commenced. First she nudged her glasses with a knuckle. Beneath the becoming blush, Janice could see the little linguistic wheels spinning in her lover's mind: Pussywhipped. Transitive verb. Pussy. Slang, obscene.... Then she scratched her cheek and tugged nervously on her ear.
The bullshit generator kicked in. "It's all part of the Mad Dog legend, baby. You know lots of things are said about me, and ah, this is one of those rumors...that, ah, I liked to abuse cats."
"I see," Mel responded, drawing an imaginary line in the carpet with the tip of her shoe, perhaps indicating a rapidly lowering threshold of nonsense. She took a step toward Janice. Who retreated with a much larger step of her own.
"You know...dogs don't...like...cats..."
"If that is the case, then, wouldn't it have made more sense for Paul to call you a pussywhipper?" Mel said the word cautiously, as if afraid of mispronouncing it.
Oh, to hear that word rolling off that tongue. Language covered in honey. "Now Mel," Janice muttered, taking another backstep and colliding with a chair, "you know the intricacies of American slang cannot be easily dissected and understood fully without further research...there is also an arbitrary element at work, which we must take into account..."
"Good Lord, you are becoming an academic."
Janice gaped at her, hurt. "That was low!"
"My apologies, Assistant Professor Covington." Mel grinned at her; then, gradually, both the smile and the warm blush faded. "Did you sleep at all this morning?"
"Huh?" The archaeologist feigned ignorance. "Sure, once you were gone. You take up a lot of space." As do the nightmares in my head. "And you snore like an old man," she added softly.
The smile returned to Mel's face. "No one says you have to sleep with me."
"Actually, it's in the 'Rules for Pussywhippers' handbook. I must suffer for love."
"Perhaps," Mel suggested, "I should just ask Paul about this word. Hmmm?" She turned on her heel for the door.
The little blonde panicked; she knew Paul would crack as soon as Mel took the meatloaf away from him. With a running leap, Janice jumped her, piggybacking effortlessly onto Mel's back. The Southerner oofed in surprise, then giggled, but bore the weight effortlessly, instinctively grabbing the legs that locked around her waist, and opting not to think about the dirty heels digging into her clothes. "Is this pussywhipping?" she asked in mock innocence. "Or a prelude to, perhaps?"
Janice laughed. "Will you stop for a minute?" She tightened her arms slightly around Mel's neck and shoulders.
"I will find out what that word means," the translator proclaimed.
"Of that I have no doubt. You're the most stubborn woman I ever did meet."
"You bring it out in me," accused Mel.
No snappy retorts came to Janice's mind. She was too close to the nape of Mel's neck, and inhaled her scent with the ferocity of a junkie. The roller coaster rush through her blood left her dazed and senseless, and resistant to sequential thought. "How's your Italian?" she mumbled into Mel's ear.
"What? Oh, just fine. It's sittin' in the back of my brain, with my French and my Latin, playin' backgammon. Why?"
"That's a surreal answer."
"Such a non sequitur deserves it."
Janice kissed her cheek. Several times.
"Hmm. That's a better non sequitur."
"Baby," the archaeologist purred, "we're going to Venice."
Mel craned her neck to look at Janice in surprise. "You changed your mind?" In previous discussions concerning the conference, Mel had taken Janice's lack of interest as a sign they would not be going. The translator had been surprisingly disappointed, wondering, with some amusement, if she herself were the one growing restless.
Good question, wondered Janice. I just got caught up in the chase again. Figures as soon as I accept settling down, it starts up again. "Tell ya later," she replied as Paul stomped back into the room.
"Hey, you guys are out of—" he stopped, blinking in surprise at this playfulness. Simple horseplay, or Lesbian foreplay? I don't want to know, do I? Whatever it was, the obvious love made him feel about a dozen kinds of ambivalence.
But that happy look in Mel's eyes, and her big grin, seemed to override everything for him at that moment. "We're goin' to Venice," she blurted, like a kid, breathless, as she lugged Covington toward the door.
Paul managed a small, wry smile. "Send me a postcard," he said wistfully.
2. The Spell, Unbroken: Venice, 1948
For Jennifer Halliwell Davies, another trip to Venice was…another trip to Venice. The city was like a drowning woman, a dying dowager thrown on a reef: It was alive, though just barely, and as such did not interest her. She could not even remember how many times she had been in the city, let alone this particular palazzo, one of many built during the Renaissance by the powerful Cornaro family.
But there was one thing in Venice that interested her: a certain woman, who stood in the crowd milling in the courtyard below.
She'd had a premonition—well, not exactly that. She'd met a fellow in the hotel bar the night before, some poor anthropology professor from Harvard, who hit her up for as many vodkas as she was willing to buy. And when she discovered that the chap knew Janice Covington and had said that the esteemed archaeologist was attending the conference as well, Jenny would have stormed Moscow itself and raided Stalin's liquor cabinet just to keep him talking.
And there she was.
Jenny hid herself, allowing a large vase to provide her cover, as she stared at Janice through her turista binoculars.
Upon closer inspection through the looking glass, she noted that Janice wore a man's white oxford shirt, bright against her tanned arms, and it looked clean. Must've been laundry day yesterday. The pants were khaki, as they usually were, and the wild strawberry blonde tresses were twined carelessly into a messy braid. The only things missing were the leather jacket and the foul fedora, older than the Dead Sea Scrolls. Perhaps the abomination passing as a millinery item had finally faced its overdue demise. Nonetheless, the good doctor looked quite prepared to lead an impromptu expedition into the most appalling of canals.
Despite the never-changing attire, she thought Janice looked different somehow. The small article she encountered almost a year ago in Archaeology magazine, about the so-called Xena Scrolls and Dr. Covington's role in their recovery, mentioned that she had served in the war…was that why Janice looked more mature? The archaeologist was nodding politely at the older woman who had engaged her in conversation—whom Jenny recognized as a White Russian expatriate, just another international dilettante like herself. Her brows knitted in curiosity as she realized what was different: There was no impatient, angry scowl on Janice's face.
Jenny felt Linus's presence before he said anything—or, more accurately, she felt his mustache tickle her ear. "You were right," he burred.
She frowned, then lowered the binoculars. "Not totally useless, you know."
Linus smiled. "Never said you were, darling." His arm drew around her waist in an affectionate squeeze. "Aren't you going to go say hello to her?"
"Should I?" She tapped the lens of the binoculars irritably, then pushed away a loose strand of her blonde hair. "I suppose it's tempting."
"I'll leave it to you." Linus touched the knot of his green silk tie for the umpteenth time. Then he slicked back his dark brown hair with the damp palm of his hand, twitched his mustache to make sure it was in place, then allowed his hand wander back to the tie.
"If you don't stop fussing with that, I'm going to hang you with it," his wife hissed. "You're worse than a woman."
He raised a thick eyebrow. "I always thought you liked that about me," he parried pleasantly.
She smiled at the familiar retort. After almost ten years of marriage, the minutiae of their lives—the jokes, the jaunts, and the lovers, shared and not shared—flimsy on their own accord and meaningless when dissected, held them together more than any illusion of love or fidelity.
"You haven't seen her in over five years," her husband reminded her. "The spell is broken, is it not?"
She said nothing.
"You know what she's like." Linus prodded with the delicacy of a ham-handed surgeon. "Girl in every port...."
...and I was just lucky Alexandria was a stop on her itinerary.
"I would be surprised if she's here alone. And," he added, ignoring her homicidal glare, "Covington is an awful lot of bother. She breathes trouble like air."
Jenny turned her gray eyes to her husband. "That was part of her appeal, you idiot," she growled.
Linus rolled his eyes, unable to comprehend this. "Oh, righto. Forgot that bit. As I said, I'll leave it all to you, dear. If I should run into her first, I'll just tell her you're at Baden Baden with the masseuse again and you can remain up here, hiding."
He succeeded in making her laugh. His eyes crinkled as he grinned, then the lines softened as he grew serious.
"What?" she prompted.
"Don't get hurt, hmm?" He kissed her cheek, then trotted down the stone steps leading into the garden and she turned her attention, once again, to the woman in her sights. "And Jenny?" he called, turning around suddenly to face her again.
"What?" she shouted irritably.
"Don't give her any money!"
Oh, you cheap bastard. "Fine!" she retorted, as he melded into the crowd. With another sigh she put the small binoculars back in her purse, snapping the bag shut. I think I need another drink first. She lost herself for a few minutes, staring into the crowd. Linus wants to see her again. Wants her to come to Alexandria. What about what I want?
Jenny had to admit that she didn't have a clue about that.
Italian purring emanated from just beyond the open doors of the palazzo. She knew, even with her back to them, that it was Vittorio Frascati, who owned the palazzo. She did not know him well—she vaguely recalled being introduced to him once before the war—but the old man, scion of a prominent Venetian family and descendent of a doge, was high profile among the wealthy international set. And now he was oozing his lecherous charm on some hapless female. "Is it not the finest Cornaro in Venice?" he was murmuring.
Jenny turned around, just for a peek. She expected to see some tittering blonde barely out of university, but this one made her raise an eyebrow appreciatively; Vittorio did have taste after all, she marveled. The small, dapper man had linked arms with a tall, bespectacled black-haired beauty, who smiled at him graciously. Jenny wondered if the woman was the wife or mistress of a famous man, or even, perhaps, famous herself. Her clothes were impeccable: a silk blouse of deep blue, a darker matching skirt, both items flattering and elegant.
The woman nodded at the old man. "Grazi, Vittorio," the woman replied, honoring him in his native language. "You have been very generous with your time. And very helpful."
"And you have been generous to humor a babbling old man, Melinda." He squeezed her arm affectionately, then disengaged from her. "I hope you find what you are looking for." He kissed her hand, smiled, and returned indoors to maintain his Gatsby-like aloofness from his own party.
Jenny found herself alone—and exchanging smiles—with the beautiful woman, who looked faintly embarrassed to have been fawning, however subtly, over a wealthy and powerful man.
"He's quite a charmer," Jenny said to the woman.
"That he is," the woman agreed. Her low, indolent drawl was from the American South. She came closer to Jenny, and that was when the Englishwoman noticed that the stranger was about half a foot taller than she, almost as tall as her husband. "If I wanted to marry for money, he'd be the one," the Southerner added.
Jenny tried to stifle a grin. "You seem the type who would marry for love instead."
The woman smiled mysteriously and said nothing, but absently touched a ring on the smallest finger of her left hand. It was a silver ring, a nice complement to the expensive watch (Cartier) and the pearl earrings (real).
"I'm Jennifer Davies," she said, offering a hand.
The tall woman enfolded it in one of her own. "Melinda Pappas."
"Let me guess..."
"Hmmm?" Mel mused, raising an eyebrow.
"You're from Virginia!"
It was the "Guess the Accent" game. Mel was well acquainted with it; it had made the first few months of living in New England sheer hell. "Er, no, I'm afraid not."
"Definitely not Texas."
"Certainly not," Mel affirmed, a touch haughty.
"I'm afraid I've run out of Southern states," Jenny said, almost apologetic.
"South Carolina," Mel provided, the syllables languishing in her speech like Janice Covington on the sofa after one bourbon too many.
"Good heavens." Jenny paused. "Does each compass point have a Carolina?"
Mel laughed. "No. Just North and South."
"And what brings you to this party, this conference?"
"I'm a translator," Mel supplied succinctly.
"How fascinating. I barely stumble through English, let alone any other language. What have you been working on?"
"Well, it's a bit of an ongoing project. I'm translating a series of ancient writings, known as the Xena Scrolls."
For once Jenny was glad she wasn't drinking, for if she were, she would have choked.
Then providence, divine and sadistic, threw a sunbeam down to highlight the silver ring on Mel's finger.
Oh bloody hell.
"So," Jenny enunciated carefully, "you must know Dr. Covington."
Janice frowned in the general direction of the palazzo's great doors, wondering where Mel was. She scowled into the dregs of her wineglass, then returned her gaze to the house. Venetian architecture failed to impress her, and she had opted not to go on the impromptu house tour that Count Frascati offered to her and Mel. But she knew Mel's motivations were more than a desire to see the palazzo; the Southerner had hoped that the Count would know something about the Falconettos, the elusive, aristocratic family that had owned at least one scroll authored by Gabrielle of Poteidaia. So far all they knew of the family was that the patriarch had died at the end of the war and his son, his heir, could not be found.
The old maze of the city, though, intimidated her, and she frequently found herself getting lost whenever she was alone, tooling around the city with the ridiculous—and essentially useless—hand-drawn map that Mel had given her. "Don't get lost," Mel always said to her. And the archaeologist always scoffed at this: Lost? She, who could navigate all five boroughs of New York (even Staten Island!) with ease, who knew Alexandria and Cairo like the back of her hand, who, as an ambulance driver during the war, had the smallest streets of London and Paris committed to memory?
"Venice is a tricky city," Mel had said. "It's a changeling." She had paused dramatically, and if you aren't any kind of goddamn warrior you sure did inherit a sense of drama from that damn woman, Janice had thought to herself. "Kind of like the South," Mel then added, both wistful and mysterious.
This was typical. Whenever Mel liked anything, it reminded her of the South. This is what I get for taking her up North, thought Janice, with a trickle of guilt. Endless nostalgia and romanticism.
Janice deposited the empty glass on a tray that sailed by, piloted by an overworked waiter. No sooner was it out of her hand than a fresh drink was thrust into her hand. "Hey!" she exclaimed, half-turning to berate the waiter. Who was already gone. Standing in his place was Jennifer Davies.
Oh shit. Janice's sudden desire for Mel to be there was not because she wanted her lover to witness what could be a potentially ugly encounter, but because she knew that the ever-responsible Mel would, if nothing else, ensure a safe return to the hotel after Jenny had beaten her to a pulpy state of unconsciousness.
"Janice," she purred.
"Jesus," blurted the archaeologist.
"Not quite, love." The Englishwoman sipped at a glass of pinot grigio. "Almost didn't recognize you without the hat. And the jacket. You seem almost naked."
Janice rolled her shoulders nervously, then squared them, both gestures dying for the roguish finishing touch of a leather jacket. She studied Jenny. The Englishwoman was still lovely, with her mess of dark golden curls now tamed into a respectable looking bun, her gray eyes, usually mischievous, still possessing a lively glint. But what that glint meant now, Janice was not sure. All she felt was gratitude that Jenny was not enamored of firearms. "Good to see ya," Janice mumbled. Goddamnit, Mel, where are you?
"It's surprising to see you." Jenny swallowed. "I thought, for a while, you might be dead."
Is her hand shaking? "What?"
"Not long after the war I ran into Andrew Curran. He said he saw you in London, in '44. And they were sending you to the continent, right into the heart of it."
Janice remembered that. She also remembered he borrowed ten quid and never paid her back. Andrew was a writer, an old friend and ex-lover of Jenny's, and a RAF pilot during the war. "I'm glad Andrew made it."
Jenny ignored this. "I've spent five years wondering what's become of you."
Shit oh shit. Somehow an I’m sorry seemed pointless in the face of this weighty fact. "Guess I shoulda sent word."
"Perhaps. But eventually I knew you were all right: Your scrolls are making you well known." Jenny sipped the wine. "You have them all now?"
A tiny frown, and a familiar furrowing of her brow. "Not all of them. There are more."
"Really, Janice? Your translator thinks you're wrong." Jenny smiled, relishing the stunned look on her former lover's face, and tilted her head. Janice followed the direction of the motion. They were not difficult to spot, because they were both two of the tallest people at the party: Linus and Mel, together, talking.
Shit oh shit oh shit. "You've met Mel." Janice was, initially, too surprised to ignore the implications of what Jenny claimed Mel had said about the Scrolls.
"Quite by accident. We started talking, and found out we had a mutual acquaintance in you, my pet. Then I introduced her to my charming husband, and they've been blathering about Mayan architecture for the past twenty minutes. Terribly dull. Oh Janice, don't glare at me like that. I'm not saying your little concubine is a bore. Actually, she's not so little, is she?"
"No, she's not," snapped the archaeologist.
Rather defensive, thought Jenny. "Not that it's a bad thing," she amended.
"It's not. I never have to worry about changing light bulbs or gettin' things from the top shelf in the pantry."
Always ready with the wisecrack, Janice. That hasn't changed. "At any rate, she's lovely, and very smart. Don't worry. I said nothing to her of our…shared past, and I'm sure Linus won't either."
"I'm not worried about that."
But Jenny could tell from the nervous clenching of the archaeologist's jaw, that this wasn't quite the given that it was declared to be. "To be frank, dear, I didn't think she was your type."
"If that's your polite way of sayin' she's out of my league, I know that." Janice glared at her.
"She's out of everybody's league, darling." Jenny said it lightly, but felt it deeply, miserably, in her bones. She would have been prepared to compete with a woman—or even a man—for Janice's affections, but not an Amazonian demigoddess. "They look good together," Jenny observed, as they both watched Linus and Mel. "My husband and your lover. Both so tall. Like some Nazi-Nietzschean super breeding couple." As she'd hoped, Janice did chuckle at that. Nice to see I can still make you laugh, if nothing else.
"And I thought I was pissed off about being short, Jenny."
"I'm pissed off about a lot of things, love."
"Even after five years, baby?" Janice raised an eyebrow.
Jenny resisted the diminutive and what it stood for: an obvious attempt at being charmed. Unfortunately, as she stared into the green eyes and ached to kiss the lips, she realized it was working. "She wears a ring."
"Yeah," Janice grunted. "Is that a crime or something?"
"No. But it's the ultimate symbol of marriage, of commitment. Isn't it?"
The infamous Covington sneer of defiance made an appearance. "So suddenly you're an expert, since you're married yourself? You might as well wipe your ass with that piece of paper, baby."
Ah, Janice, I have missed you. I needed to feel something, and you're it. Who else would talk to me like this, who would let the truth fly like that? She wanted to take Janice in her arms, and forgive her, and make all the promises that she knew she couldn't keep. Our mutual marriages appear to be in the way of that. Mine has always been flexible. But yours? She watched Janice watch Mel. This was also something new, this naked look, a vulnerability slowly crossing Covington's face, like a blind man negotiating an intersection.
"Just admit it. You're in love with her. And it's something bigger than anything you ever felt for me."
The slender archaeologist closed her eyes. "Jenny, don't do this. Don't start." A little too late for that, big mouth, Janice chastised herself.
"I'm not starting anything. I'm finishing it." Jenny glared into her wine, watching the surface of the liquid spin like a hula hoop. "You left it a bit sloppy, a bit unfinished in Alexandria. Didn't you?"
Alexandria. It was the last time they had been together. Janice remembered little of it: Hazy golden blurs of fucking, of drinking. Of the haunting urge that built in her head to see Mel again, until it became so strong and desperate that she sold her mother's wedding ring just to get enough money to buy a plane ticket home. She had left Jenny without saying goodbye. She still remembered sitting on the edge of the bed, money in her hand, watching Jenny sleep. And then moving, as if in a dream, for the door. "I guess I did," Janice replied softly. "I regret that." The musing tone gave to the words all the weight and substance of a feather. But it felt, to Janice, as if she were now a different person, someone not capable of that behavior. For she could never see herself doing that to Mel, ever again. Especially since I gave you a ring and I said I didn't need a ceremony or a church or a God. I don't need anything except you.
Jenny, of course, knew none of this, and even if she did, would have remained as impassively impressed as she was now. "A hell of an apology."
Okay, I tried noble, now I'm back to the bitch. "Well, what the fuck do you want from me?" snapped Janice.
She wanted to slap Janice hard—very, very hard. But instead, she opted for the humiliation of throwing the wine in her face. The sudden violence of the gesture had the emotional impact she wanted, as she watched the archaeologist flinch ever so slightly.
"Try to explain that to your dashing Southern belle," she said quietly.
Inevitably, at any type of social gathering, Mel eventually reverted to wallflower status; she felt most happy quietly observing other guests. Especially Janice. At the moment, however, the archaeologist was not visible from where she sat, on a stone bench, at the periphery of the crowd.
But suddenly Janice was walking quickly toward her, whistling tunelessly and betraying her nervous restlessness by tapping a clenched fist against her thigh. Mel straightened in distress when she noticed the dampness of Janice's cheeks. Crying? she wondered. But once the small blonde sat down next to her she realized it was not the tracks of tears, but a sheen of white wine. Luminous clear drops were falling happily, willingly, into her cleavage.
"Oh dear. And we were proceeding so nicely, without incident." Mel murmured. She handed her companion a clean yet wrinkled napkin. Janice blotted her face dry. "Could have been worse, I suppose," she added, discreetly checking for bloodstains or bruises.
"I suppose," echoed Janice with a sigh. "But white wine does possess a certain sting."
"Would you care to tell me what happened between you and Mrs. Davies?"
"She was the last person I saw you talking with. Did she do this…?" Mel gestured at her lover's face.
"Ah, dear Mrs. Davies."
"Yes. What of Mrs. Davies?"
"This conversation is beginning to remind me of that crazy book you were trying to make me read."
The "crazy book" was by Gertrude Stein. What Mel found to be a fascinating exercise in the modern use of language had sent Janice scurrying for the comfort of her old friends Raymond Chandler and Dash Hammett.
"Don't change the subject, darling. Especially when it's about a woman who still seems to be in love with you."
"So you figured that out, huh?"
"Yes. I'm pretty good at decoding the obvious. You should have seen me when the Hindenberg blew up."
Mel had hoped to bring a smile to the that lovely face, but instead Janice frowned, wrapping the napkin around her fist, the white contrasting with her tanned hand, like a bandage. Like the gauze and cloth slapped on her during the war, like the handkerchief Harry gave her when she scraped her knuckles on rocks during an excavation in Macedonia. Four days later he was dead and all she had was his handkerchief, covered with her own blood, and his dreams, and his debts. "I didn't know she'd be here," Janice admitted quietly.
"Of course not. But when...when were you with her?"
Janice continued to stare at her hand, watching the white cotton flutter as she wiggled her fingers within it. "Last time I saw her was in '43. It was one of those on again, off again things. I met both of them…" she exhaled, scowled in thought. "….oh, I think it was 1940. Harry called their set 'the international dilettantes.' They threw parties, they traveled, they nosed around on digs, acting all curious and trying to buy anything that struck their fancy. No one took them seriously. They were kind of on the fringe of things. In a way, so was I, but no one could say that I didn't do my time in the field, and that I wasn't serious about what I was doin'." She shot Mel a wry look. "I thought you were one of them, Mel, one of those types, when I first met you."
Mel shrugged. "Well, I guess I am," agreed the Southerner.
"No," teased Janice, "you're a debutante, not a dilettante, honey."
"Gosh, I do get those words mixed up in my pretty little head!" Mel drawled.
Janice laughed. "There's a lot in that pretty little head, I know. In fact, I've always thought you should be the one teaching, not me. I'm just a digger at heart. Anyway," Janice continued with a sigh, "we kept running into Jenny and Linus—Athens, Cairo, Syria, you name it. They were always around. Eventually we all became friends...and, with Jenny, more than that."
"And Linus? Did he know? Does he know?"
Janice snorted derisively. "Oh yeah. He knew all right. In fact, he gave me money for a couple of my digs. 'Cause I was fucking his wife and keeping her happy."
"This made him happy?" Mel frowned, confused.
"Linus and Jenny have what you might call a marriage in name only. He's nouveau riche, Canadian. His family was looking to make themselves classy by marrying off their dissolute son to a woman with background. Jenny's got the lineage, her father is a squire or something stupid like that...they have this big country house...but no cash flow. It's a perfect set-up. They're fond of each other, and for all I know they may even fuck each other every once in a while, but usually they go their separate ways when it comes to companionship of that kind."
"Oh." Mel blinked, pondered something meaningful to say. "At least she's not a Nazi."
Janice laughed in amazement. "No, she's not. She's worse." Morosely she stared at the ground, then scrutinized Mel. "You're taking this awfully well," she accused.
"I don't see the point of getting upset over something that's already happened." Mel chewed her lip. How to convey reassurance, with an innocuous touch, what inept words cannot…whoever thought that language would fail me, of all people? Even now there were moments when she could not trust her body, her movements, as if any casual sign of affection would tell the world what she was, and what she felt. Her fingers twitched, she steadied her hand, and plucked at the khaki pant leg, gently, teasingly.
Janice looked at her.
"I don't care about that."
Jesus, I do not deserve you. "Damn this stupid thing. Why did we come to this party anyway?"
"It was your idea," Mel reminded her.
Janice made a pretense at scanning the crowd. "I thought we should get out. Some people might think fucking in a hotel room for a whole day is unhealthy."
"I wouldn’t take you to be one of those types, Janice."
"And I never thought you'd turn out to be a sex fiend with unlimited energy." Janice reached out and took the wineglass from the large hand, permitting her fingers a brief electric entanglement with Mel's own. "But you are, aren't you?"
Mel thought, for a moment, that Venice had just sunk another inch.
The archaeologist drained the glass. She swallowed. Her lips glittered, wet.
"Do you want to go back to the room?" Janice asked. She pressed the empty glass into Mel's hand. Her palm brushed along the knuckles curled loosely around the expensive Venetian stemware.
She took the soft smash of Vittorio's fine wineglass as a yes.
In the sanctuary of their rooms at the Hotel Danieli, Jenny lit up a cigar in honor of Covington. She puffed furiously. Like to see that Southern ninny try to smoke one of these. The spiteful thought came too soon, as the smoke strangled her and she proceeded to hack violently. It's like tasting death.
Linus emerged from the large bathroom while unknotting his tie to find his wife sprawled, unladylike, on the couch, her skirt hitched up to dangerous heights and a cigar in her mouth. "You know," he began, "Byron called Venice 'Sodom on the Sea.' " He sat down next to her, draping a large hand on her bare thigh, not in the least tempted by the smooth skin. "So one would think, whatever your misfortunes with the lovely doctor, you would find a bit of...entertainment elsewhere." He squeezed her leg with gentle affection. "The night is still young."
She unfurled smoke at him in lieu of a response.
He coughed loudly. "Darling, put that foul thing out before we all go up in flames."
She dropped it in the half-empty champagne glass. It fizzled, just like all those hopes I had of being back in your bed, Janice.
Linus took her hand. "Look, I know it bloody hurts, but she's happy. Can't you tell?"
"Yes." She flopped against him and pressed her face in the dark soft night of his black jacket. No crying. Not yet. Not now. She took a deep breath, its jagged rhythm suggesting the inhalation of broken glass. It fucking feels like that, anyway. "She'll be coming to Alexandria?" The tiny pleading voice was almost lost against the breadth of the jacket.
He shrugged. "The invitation was proffered to both of them. You can lead a horse to water…."
"…but she'll end up drinking bourbon anyway." Jenny sighed and sat up. She stared at the ceiling, then at her husband. Time to ask the tricky question. "Lye, this really has nothing to do with me, does it?"
His standard trick, in attempting to look innocent, was widening his dark eyes.
"Why do you want Janice in Alexandria?" she asked slowly, knowing she would get the answer he always gave, the answer that, in his so-called line of work, he couldn't help but give her.
He smiled. "You know what I'm going to say…"
"Say it anyway."
He rubbed his chin. "I need to keep an eye on her."
Mel had decided that they should never leave the hotel room. Because she was both deliciously happy, yet deeply mortified. What kind of looks might they get when they dared to leave the sanctuary of the room again? If this were a room in the Bible Belt, we might get away with saying we were holding a small revivalist meeting or something. I could even throw in a hallelujah. For, if the proverbial fly on the wall were, say, a blind nun, this creature would have been most impressed by the Christian devotion of Dr. Covington, as she chanted "Jesus" over and over again, so lovingly, so frequently, so breathlessly.
The repetition had indeed made Mel downright nervous, triggering dormant Methodist tendencies, and distracting from the extremely pleasant task of servicing the good doctor. Blasphemy upon blasphemy. I really am going to hell...if I still believe in that. Her quasi-theological ruminations derailed as Janice climaxed, blonde head slamming back into a soft, fat pillow, with one final cry for Christ. Her mouth glistened, as if she had swallowed stars, and her eyes were dazed, unfocused, and happy.
But I think it's worth it.
"Keeps getting better and better," mumbled Janice, before rolling on her stomach and falling into a light slumber. Mel indulged a bad habit and sprawled practically on top of her, cheek against shoulder blade, hips to butt. She was on the precipice of sleep herself when the soft growl of Janice's voice reverberated against her.
"I was a shit." The words were almost smothered by the pillow to which they were addressed.
Mel could not see her face. "What?"
"With Jenny. I was a shit."
Her hand swept down and felt the scars along Janice's thigh, then the resultant shudder that the touch brought, one of desire or remembrance, she did not know. She wondered if Janice herself knew. An "I don't care" tumbled out of her mouth. It was true. It also appeared cruel somehow. She wondered, ever so briefly, why she didn't. Love, the great blind spot.
"The last time I was with her…I could think of nothing but you." Janice whispered this, sighed, then stretched, the action rippling her body.
Mel rode the current of flesh. "Am I too heavy for you?"
"No. Don't move." And she added, almost shyly, "I like it."
Some emotion caught Mel by desperate surprise, a nameless, rootless anxiety, and she knew now Janice's own fear of having it all taken away, of the dream dissolved. She thought of the other woman who, in this city, at this moment, also loved Janice Covington. If fate were crueler, she wouldn't be here now. Usually, Mel possessed a powerful ability to find common ground with others; empathy had caught up with her at last.
"I love you anyway," she said.
3. Lucky: Cambridge, 1949
Dr. James Snyder sat at his desk, focusing a passionate amount of attention on his pen. He twirled it in his fingers, aligned it with the stack of papers in front of him, picked it up again.
"You don't think she'll bring a gun, do you?" he muttered, half-joking.
The Dean, sitting on a worn leather couch near his desk, only smiled.
"Of course, you've heard the rumors…."
"Hmm," was the Dean’s noncommittal reply.
"…she killed an entire Nazi patrol single-handedly. Didn't she get some sort of commendation? And I have a colleague at the University of Texas who said that she pistol-whipped him."
The Dean pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Oh, dear." This response did little to assuage Snyder. "I'm relatively certain that Dr. Covington is capable of behaving herself, Snyder. We've had no incidents in the two years she's been on staff." Just a rash of infatuated coeds, he thought.
Nonetheless, when the door opened and the small woman, wearing dark trousers and a rumpled khaki shirt, strode into his office without being formally invited, Snyder felt his palms go clammy and every muscle in his back knot itself. He was not comforted either by the tall woman who lingered shyly near the door. Great, she's brought back-up. He only knew of Melinda Pappas via her rising professional reputation, but wrongly assumed that the translator was as ill-tempered as her companion.
"Hiya, Snyder," Janice said as she flopped in the chair facing his desk. She nodded at the Dean, who sat at her left. "Hiya, Dean."
The Dean grinned, amused. "Hello, Janice."
The archaeologist craned her neck to gaze back at Mel. "Join the party, Stretch."
Mel rolled her eyes, and reluctantly approached. She was not faculty and enjoyed no special status, despite tutoring and being a regular denizen of the library, and thus felt uncomfortable at being privy to matters among the staff. Even if it they were about the Scrolls. But Janice had insisted that she attend the meeting. You're my partner, Janice had said. And, she thought as she took the seat next to Covington, I really like the sound of that.
"Hullo, Miss Pappas," Snyder said.
"Hello, Dr. Snyder. How are you?"
"Oh, just fine." He smiled at the polite, blue-eyed beauty. "Stretch, huh?"
"Didn't know folks call you that."
"They don't," Mel replied firmly. She flicked a sidelong glare at Janice, who shrugged.
Snyder blinked. "Oh."
A stake was now driven through the heart of casual conversation.
Janice cleared her throat. "Why are we here, Snyder? I assume it has to do with the dating of the Scrolls."
"Correct, Dr. Covington. Er, the results of the carbon dating are in."
"And?" Janice prodded impatiently.
"Well, it is a little later than you initially thought."
The archaeologist shrugged. "They were damn difficult to date. That's why I was so broad on time period."
"I quite understand. In general, that's the safest, most practical route. But now with the advent of radiocarbon dating, we can be much more accurate. Statistical probability is the basis in calculating the half-life of C-14, but no one can really predict the rate of decay, and a standard deviation exists in every case, which is—"
"Snyder, I don't need a fucking lecture on the process, okay? Just tell me what you found."
The befuddled and frightened academic mumbled something which sounded like "churlish beans in sentry." In fact, this was precisely what he said. For within the great roaming recesses of his mind he thought that perhaps Covington would be satisfied with this response, would smile, shake his hand, declare him a genius, perhaps even buy him a drink.
Instead, her gaze cut him like a diamond on glass. She straightened from her lounging, relaxed position. He saw her flex her hands and became utterly convinced that even her fingernails possessed muscles. "Come again?" she requested smoothly.
Snyder swallowed, thought a quick prayer and a farewell to his wife. "The early sixteenth century."
Another silence dropped, like a theater curtain after a botched performance.
Until it was broken by Janice. "Are you shitting me?"
"Calm down, Janice," the Dean urged.
The only thing that kept Janice from jumping up was the sudden warm hand that, mindless of their location and the parties present, gave her leg a comforting squeeze. She looked quickly at Mel, whose stunned expression nonetheless betrayed the assurance of the gesture. "There has got to be a mistake," snarled the archaeologist. Mel nodded numbly. "This is still a very new procedure. Someone made a mistake."
It was now Snyder's turn to be riled. "No mistakes can be made in this process. I checked the results several times. I dated several pieces of parchment."
Now heedless of the hand, the archaeologist stood up and began pacing. "But the typology of the instruments—the scroll casing, the stiles—it all fit in with the time period."
"The stratigraphy confirmed this?" asked the Dean.
"Yes! Do you know how far down I had to go? They were in a tomb, for Christ's sake!"
"Those artifacts—the scroll case and the writing tools—did date well within the time frame you assigned," Snyder agreed. "As did some of the pottery you brought from the same location. But it's the actual scrolls themselves that do not: the paper."
"So this was all a ruse. They're fakes." Helpless, inconsolable for the moment, Janice leaned against the windowsill. It was the only thing that kept her standing.
"Or very cunning duplicates of the original Xena Scrolls," Mel added softly.
The Dean smiled. He didn't know Covington's partner well, but what he knew, he liked.
But before he could pursue this line of thought, Snyder threw in, "Oh, who cares how real they are!" The women and the Dean stared at him. "They're a fascinating discovery! Somebody was clever enough to write in ancient Greek, use the proper materials to make them look like ancient scrolls, found a case somewhere, then buried them for posterity, thinking they played a massive joke on the world. You know, like that MacPherson fellow, who invented Ossian."
"Or they are copies of the original scrolls, which are still missing, as Miss Pappas proposed," the Dean added. "What do you think, Dr. Covington?"
Janice's fury was spent for the time being, otherwise the hand pressed against the cool windowpane of Snyder's office would've been bloodied by shattered glass. "I don't know what to think," she whispered.
"I know what I think," the Dean retorted. "I think you're lucky."
Janice shot him a curious yet homicidal glance.
"Your father spent his entire professional life looking for those scrolls. Yet you, barely thirty, made this discovery, and in a war zone, no less. They may not be the real thing. But they're a damned sight closer—and more interesting—than anything Harry Covington found."
"Watch what you say about my father, old man," Janice grunted.
"Janice." Mel sounded the warning.
"My father laid the foundation for me to find what I did. He did thirty fuckin' years of legwork chasing after these. If he hadn't died when he did, he would've found them." She drew a breath to refuel her fury. "If you want me off the faculty now, fine. I don't give a rat's ass. I didn't have much of a reputation before I came here. It doesn't matter to me. So I'll resign."
Alarmed, Mel stood up. "No. Wait a minute—" She exchanged a look with her lover. How much of the bravado was shock, and wounded pride? Janice's desire for legitimacy—for someone to take her work seriously—was very much a part of why she accepted the position at the university. It complemented her wish—however tenuous it seemed at times—for a stable life.
"That isn't what I want," the Dean replied quietly. "I want you to find the real scrolls."
"You believe they exist," Janice stated warily.
"I believe that if they do exist, you'll find them. And if this is, as Snyder suggests, some kind of fantastic fraud, you'll find that out as well."
"All for the greater glory of the old alma mater, eh?"
Once again, the Dean proffered his smug smile. "Anything you uncover would benefit the university, as long as you are under its auspices. And as far as I'm concerned, you are." The older man stood up. "Let's give you a year to come up with something. I know that doesn't seem like much time, but if, at the end of that year, you give me enough reason to continue the search, I'll extend the expedition. After you spend a semester in the classroom, of course."
The Dean extended his hand for Janice to shake. She stared at him suspiciously. "Don't be a bad sport, Covington. I'm giving you an opportunity to do what you do best. And you're damned good at it, I know that. Have a proposal on my desk in six weeks."
Her hands remained idly on her hips.
He chuckled and withdrew his hand. "I look forward to seeing what you'll do." He winked and picked up his walking stick, and a hat. "I'll get my money's worth out of you, my girl." He nodded at Snyder and Mel. "Dr. Snyder, Miss Pappas, good day."
Janice was staring into space. "Money's worth?" she mumbled. Her gaze snapped to the doorway where the Dean had departed. She stomped over to the door, flung it open, and shouted down the hallway at his retreating form: "You already get your money's worth out of me, you old sonofabitch! Do you know how fucking low my salary is? You're wringing me dry, you cheap bastard!" She drew in another breath with which to launch another tirade, relented, growled, and stormed down the hallway after slamming the door.
Mel yanked her glasses off her face with a groan and massaged her temples.
Snyder gave her a timid look. "She really doesn't want tenure, does she?"
The odd, arrhymic typing of Mildred, the department secretary, was punctuated by the strange thwaps emerging from one of the offices nearby. She paused in her task, wondering when the noise would cease, and if the perpetuator would notice that her typing had stopped, but the angry sounds continued. She sighed, and took a cigarette out of the pack she kept in her top desk drawer. She was halfway through the cigarette, and pecking halfheartedly at the letter in the typewriter, when Mel arrived.
The stout middle-aged woman exchanged a look with the Southerner. "You want the bourbon?" Mildred asked. She hadn't the chance to ask Janice if the professor wanted the emergency bottle of hooch—the little archaeologist had barreled past her with such speed and anger.
Mel shook her head. "I don't think letting her drink will help in this instance."
"Actually, I meant for you, honey."
The translator laughed so faintly that it was barely an exhale of breath. "Ah, no, I don't think so." A finger stemmed the tide of her eyeglasses, sliding down her nose.
"If I hear screams I'll call the police," Mildred remarked as Mel entered the sanctum sanctorum.
The lack of time spent in the office was reflected in its bare décor; the assistant professor was rarely in it except to brood and meet the occasional student. Pieces of wood—representing two and a half years' worth of grading midterms, finals, papers, and resisting the advances of romantically deluded students—were scattered on the floor, along with the woman responsible for them and the large, cracked dent in the side of the desk. Janice smoked a cigarette and regarded the pile of tinder, as if a merry little act of arson would cap her day.
"Paul Bunyan," Mel said. She half-leaned, half-sat along the desk.
"Get me an ax, then, so I can destroy it properly." A baseball bat, which lay beside her, worked well when she grew tired of kicking the desk, but a sharp object would be ever so more pleasing.
"You're very lucky the dean likes you, honey."
"Lucky!" Janice exploded. "You're as bad as he is." She pushed at the woodpile with the toe of her boot. "I should have let Kleinman keep them," she said softly.
"No, you shouldn't have," Mel countered. "They may not be the Scrolls, but they are still Gabrielle's words. And as such they are sacred."
Janice ignored this. "Why does it seem impossible to get to point B from point A?" she mused. "I thought I was already there. Thought I had them." Thought I had it all. She looked at Mel, who had her arms crossed and was staring into space, thoughtfully. I am incomplete without you, but I'm incomplete without them as well.
"Zeno," Mel muttered absently.
"One of his paradoxes, about how all motion is impossible. "
"Oh. Yeah." Janice, in reality, had totally forgotten anything to do with Zeno, or much of anything she was forced to read as an undergraduate. "Is there really a Gabrielle or a Xena? Are we so sure that these just weren't stories our fathers created? They fed us these legends, these make-believe stories. We ate it all up. We were kids. And then it seeped into our subconscious, these myths. They're universal. A shared hallucination."
"I never suspected you were a Jungian, Janice."
"Are we descendants of heroes and bards, or forgers and pranksters?"
Mel's lips tightened, set in their familiar stubborn grimace. "You deny what you know to be true."
"You have the dreams."
Janice said nothing. How long did you think she would say nothing, would wordlessly hold you after you wake up screaming? How long would she politely ask you how you've been sleeping, and settle for your half-hearted lies?
"Will you sit there and tell me that those nightmares you have…that they're just about the war? Can you tell me that?"
The dreams were about the war, at the very least. What her mind refused during the day, what it would not acknowledge, her body whispered in the ragged gossamer of scars: This happened to you. And then the brain would finally rebel, subconsciously.
More recently, they were tenacious—and they went further than ever, extending into a darker past: Lying in snow, stomach bathed in blood, daylight faltering around her, in the blue glow of a winter world devoid of sun. She looks at her hand, watches it fall...onto a plank of wood, where it is bound by a Roman soldier.
And what was too horrible to contemplate, too awful to bear, was that she doesn’t die alone. There is a broken body next to hers. Yet you managed to smile for me.
I still remember the first time you smiled at me—really, truly smiled. It was hesitant, shy, belying the reputation of the warrior and the coldness of your eyes. This piece of you—so fallible, so human, you gave to me. The stupid, stubborn farm girl who followed you.
"Hey." It was Mel's soft drawl, snapping the spell. The chill she experienced every time after the dream was aroused once again, and the hairs on her arms stood, stiff in fright. Until Mel smoothed them, rubbing warmth with her palms.
Janice swallowed, stood up. She simmered, paced. Mel sighed inwardly, and waited for the inevitable.
"Goddammit!" she screamed, and kicked the desk once again. More chips of wood spiraled from the desk, like gymnasts executing backflips.
Mildred is calling the police.
A finger, not as callused as it was once when they first met, was thrust at the translator. "It may be all fine and well for you to hear fucking little voices inside your head, but not me, baby! Not me!"
Or maybe she is finishing off the last of that bourbon.
"I thought that I really accomplished something: I found the Xena Scrolls. They were real—or so I believed. And then, I thought, just maybe, I could have a simple life. Where I could just be myself. Not the descendent of some naïve brat who changed personal philosophies like underwear. Not the daughter of some obsessed grave-robbing bastard carrying on the crazy family legacy. I wanted it all normal." She regarded Mel thoughtfully. "You made me want that. Just a house. A steady job. And a girl who loves me."
I know, Janice, I know. I've wanted the same thing. "Come here," Mel commanded.
She hesitated in the face of the gentle order, remembering the same words in different circumstances: The first time they made love, when she had stood, fixed in the doorway, neither resisting nor giving in, afraid to take the leap into the bedroom, until Mel, sitting on the bed, had uttered those two words. She had felt as if she were opening up Pandora's box, propelled by an unknown energy and motion, by fatal curiosity. And she felt that way again, without knowing why. Afraid of what you'll find.
Janice permitted herself to be held, to let Mel prop her chin upon her head. And afraid of what I'll lose. I lost Harry to this search, even before he died.
The blue of the dream was the abyss and the salvation at once, beribboned together.
Mel pulled back and looked at her. And the blue of these eyes? "Weeks ago you were excited at the prospect that there were still scrolls out there to be found."
"That was when I thought they were real."
"They are real."
Janice said nothing, frowned, let Mel's thumb press a temporary cleft in her chin.
"It'll be you and me, under the stars," she said.
As it has been, so it shall be again.
"How bad can that be?"
Janice did not know. They hugged once again, she placed her head against Mel's shoulder, and for the moment she could ignore the chill of the dream and could draw upon the strength of Mel's words. She loved the certain, the tangible, the sure thing. Now she gave herself over to words not written down, belief neither felt nor seen, and a love that, more often than not, she did not understand, nor felt she deserved.
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