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
Part III: The City of Memory
1. The Seven Hells
…like traces of perfume upon a sleeve: Alexandria, the capital of memory.
Near Alexandria, 1953
Keeping up was always the thing.
It appeared to be woven in her character, this thread of competitiveness. To be the best student, the hardest worker, the most irresistable lover, the best shot, the last one standing after a dozen shots of whiskey, the best in her profession—but even after the Ph.D., she still considered herself just a digger, a dogsbody. When she stood in front of a class chafing in a skirt, holding a piece of chalk and squinting at first her notes then about 20 tabula rasas fresh out of prep school, she sometimes blinked dazedly until one of the well-groomed boys asked her what was wrong. And then, once again, she would throw herself wholesale into the illusion. She acted the part of a professor, among so many other roles.
But the hell of it was that while she fooled others, she herself was never convinced.
The dreams complicated the matter, those now-frequent dreams of being Gabrielle, of falling short, of disappointing her—a woman (and who knows, maybe a fictional woman, a figment of her imagination, a legend) dead for thousands of years.
And Alexandria—this place that they now journeyed to—was that a separate hell altogether? How many hells are there?
The late afternoon sun filled Janice's eyes and she closed them, drowsing away in light and memory.
In the Qelippot, there are three primary ones...the Formless, the Void, and the Darkness.
She could still hear Naima's voice, that hypnotic half-murmur, after so many years. The remaining seven are...minor in comparison. Naima had smiled at that.
How can hell be a minor thing? Janice had asked.
There had been no answer save Naima's Mona Lisa smile, lingering in response.
Seven hells…can I come up with seven? Easy enough: My head, my heart, my father's ghost, my mother's ghost, searching, losing, Alexandria itself.
And while she dreamed and remembered, the train sputtered toward Alexandria through the patchy Egyptian Delta—farms, marshes, sand, minarets, and palm trees—a violent spasm here and there betraying its age and history. The newspaper on Janice's lap torqued like the Hindenberg of paper airplanes and fell to the floor, its flaccid crash waking her.
She stirred sleepily against the stiff wooden seat; even in first class it was not comfortable, as if the train hadn't been altered one whit since it was built in the 19th century. Nonetheless, she was grateful they weren't in third class—with goats, chickens, and urine-soaked hay and mud on the floor. Not to mention pickpockets and leering men—although she had always been grateful for a thin yet durable membrane of cultural and religious precepts that forced most Egyptian men to keep their hands to themselves.
She sat up and stretched, peeling away the sweaty back of her shirt. Mel was gone again, restlessly roaming the first class car—something that Janice had objected to, quite vociferously, but her protests had fallen on stubborn Southern ears. So the archaeologist was reduced to brooding and worrying. Mel, never the easiest of travelers, seemed particularly nervous about this trip for two rather dominating reasons: It was someplace she'd never been before and it was the first time they had been abroad since the Ravenna dig that had almost resulted in her death. And then there was the most unpredictable and stressful element in the trip (at least to Janice's mind, although Mel, after fussing about what to wear, had remained mum on the subject): Jennifer Davies. Janice did not know how stupid it was—agreeing to stay with the Davies while in Alexandria—but then, she had never been able to resist anything that was free. Although that's not the real reason they invited me. Despite this whole attempt at respectability with the teaching crap, everyone there will still see me as Harry's daughter—as big a thief and a liar as he was.
While Janice was convinced that most of the riffraff was indeed in third class, she knew that element of humanity lurked the corridors of first class as well. Hell, I'm in first class, so who knows who else is here. She thought in particular of an American WAVE, an officer, who had responded to the sight of Mel like candy dangled in front of a baby. And she was quite aware that Mel missed one thing—and one thing only—about the war: a proliferation of women in uniform. She'll be on full-tilt flirt mode.
At this point Mel flew into the carriage, breathless, and sat down. "Nice nap?" she asked teasingly.
"Just fine." Janice blinked. If she was not mistaken, a cigarette was tucked behind Mel's left ear. If she starts smoking, I'll start wearing lipstick. She picked up the paper from the floor. "What's with the cigarette, Stretch? Finally decided you need a vice?"
"Oh!" Mel whipped it from behind her ear; within that flash of grace Janice could see her pulling a sword from a scabbard. "I got it for you," the translator proclaimed proudly. "I knew you were out of cigarettes."
"This is new, encouraging me to smoke."
"I don't expect you to undergo a stressful trip without the aid of tobacco."
"You're such a romantic. Who'd ya flirt with in order to get it?"
Mel blinked and furrowed her brow. "I don't flirt."
"Yes, you do."
"I do not flirt." This time Mel growled it through clenched teeth.
"It's not like I blame ya or anything. Hell, you Southern women are trained to do it from day one. You're like racehorses bred for competition. Finding a husband is like the Kentucky Derby. Now, I know you're not lookin' a for husband or anything—at least I'm hoping you're not—but you can't help but do what you were born to do: flirt. You flirt with men, women, dogs, cats, children, horses—"
"It's called charm, and it's not surprising that you don't recognize it when you see it."
"—why, I bet those chickens in third class would be hypnotized by you."
"I do not flirt," Southerner repeated indignantly.
Three strikes, you're out. Janice laid down the paper decisively. It was time to bring out the big gun. "I got two words for you: Jack Kleinman."
The imposing facade of Mel's outrage crumpled; she winced, her shoulders slumped. "I couldn't help it. There wasn't anyone else around, after all your crew ran away, and Lord knows you were too intimidating to flirt with."
Janice's eyebrow twitched. Unable to swagger while sitting down, she puffed out her chest a bit, like a rooster redeemed. "I was intimidating?"
"And now I have four words for you: Gun in the face. Remember that?"
The archaeologist grinned and sprawled in her seat. Her boot nudged Mel's ankle. "Worked, didn't it?"
Blue eyes narrowed. "You're terrible." She pointed the cigarette at Covington. "You don't deserve this. I flirted with a woman just to get you this!" she hissed in an undertone.
Ah-hah, so it was the broad in the uniform! "Oh my, how awful that must've been, battin' those big dark eyelashes at some pretty woman!"
"That's it!" Mel jumped up and, as Janice gasped helplessly, threw down the sash and tossed the cigarette out the window. "A Camel for a camel!" she declared.
"You just littered in a foreign country!" Janice managed the appropriate tone of outrage; while she may be complicit or otherwise accused of far more serious crimes, littering was something she never did.
And the very proper Mel now realized what she had done. "Oh." Mortified, she gazed out the window, hands curled around the sash. "Sorry, Egypt," she sing-songed softly to the countryside, just before Covington grabbed her hips and roughly pulled her onto a khaki-clad lap.
"If I didn't like you so much…." A hasty, impulsive kiss and the feel of fingers threading through her hair silenced the archaeologist's playful growl.
Then, like a cat marking its territory, Mel rubbed against Janice's tanned cheek with her own. "Just like?"
"Just love." After all this time, why is it still so frightening to admit it?
"What if someone comes in?" The door of the first-class carriage was not locked, nor could it be, although the blind was drawn.
"We say we're long-lost sisters. And we're French. They always forgive the French for funny stuff."
"You always think of everything."
"Comes from being obsessive." Through the thin linen blouse Janice could feel Mel's hot skin, could detect a trace of lavender mingled with sweat. "Your heart's beating a mile a minute."
"I'm nervous." Finally the translator admitted it.
"Don't be. You'll be fine. You're with me." As if that should be comforting.
But now Mel was staring out the window. "More camels!" she cried.
"You're not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy." Again she was struck by the totality of Mel's beauty, how effortlessly it extended beyond the physical and embodied itself in a curiosity about what was around her, about people, about the world. How I love that about you.
But Mel sensed she was being watched, and snapped her gaze toward her companion. "What?"
Janice just grinned. "Nothin'."
The canopy of iron beams—black and criss-crossed above them—was the most impressive thing about Alexandria's train station: An elegant, almost modern shell harboring decrepit trains and years of soot, filth, neglect, and traveling fauna. While Mel fended off the persistent advances of an ardent goat, Janice surveyed the station, this place to which she thought she would never return.
"Filthy fucking city," Janice said.
Mel raised an eyebrow. "I thought you loved Alexandria."
"Sometimes I do. Guess it's a love-hate thing. Like you and the South."
"Ah." The translator understood this.
Passengers from their train dissipated along the platform, seeking the anonymity of the crowd or a familiar face. Janice did the latter, scanning the masses for Fayed, who was supposed to meet the train. It was now her turn to be nervous: the Egyptian—who always acted as foreman on Harry Covington's digs—was always chronically late. Of course, I haven't seen him in 10 years...but how much has he really changed? They wandered into a waiting area, pursued by two relentless, ambitious street urchins, who begged to carry their scant luggage.
"Yalla imshi!" Janice shouted at them.
Although she hadn't the faintest idea what Janice had said, the translator was nonetheless horrified—she knew a curse word when she heard one, could feel it in her bones. But before she could reprimand her lover for cussing out children, one of the little monsters responded to Janice—in a delightfully effective yet crude patois—something that made the archaeologist blink in shock.
"What did he say?" Mel asked.
Janice chuckled and tilted her hat back. She knew when she had been bested, and tossed the kids some coins. They fell on the money ravenously, then scattered like ashes. "Do you really want to know?"
"Yes," Mel replied defiantly.
"Well, er, he likened a certain part of my mother's anatomy to a charnel house…he said it was a miracle I crawled through the hole alive."
The Southerner gaped at the little boy dashing happily with his friends through the station, and resisted the urge to chase him down and shake the stuffing out of him.
"I'll have to remember that one," Janice mused, running a hand through her coppery blonde hair.
"No, you won't." Mel retorted primly. She had a sudden image of Janice, "Dame Faux Pas" as Paul sometimes called her, trotting out the insult at some faculty cocktail party. And saying it to the Dean, most likely.
The archaeologist only smiled absently as she watched the children run wild. She looked almost wistful, perhaps even envious. They are free. She is not. The thought sprang, unbidden, into Mel's head. She hoped scrunching together her eyebrows would banish it.
"What?" The concerned scowl was mirrored on Janice's face.
Mel shook her head. "Nothing."
Janice merely frowned, and gave the crowded station another half-hearted lookover. "I should've warned you. Fayed is always late."
"I am not!" A petulant voice, in accented English, contradicted her. That, and the light touch of his hands on Janice's shoulders, announced Fayed's arrival. An Alexandrian by birth, he was a short, slender man, with golden eyes, bronze skin, and dark, curly hair closely cropped and gray at the temples. If it had not been for that touch of gray, Mel would have placed him closer to her own age. Despite his slight build, he literally swept his old friend off her feet. "My sister!" he cried.
Mel made a mental note to grill Janice about this later; the archaeologist did say that Fayed was "like a brother," but perhaps the reticent doctor meant this in a more literal sense. Of course, I'm assuming a certain level of skirt-chasing. Like father, like daughter?
Fayed kissed Janice's cheek several times, then her forehead. The archaeologist giggled. Mel was at first jealous, then fascinated by this heretofore undisplayed girlishness from a woman who swaggered in an evening gown. He's a link to your past, to the girl that you were before the deluge of death, of war. Before me. Have I changed you for the better? Hence she was oblivious to the introduction Janice was making. "...and this is Melinda. The friend I wrote you about," she was saying, with an awkward, nervous inflection upon the word friend.
His face brightened even more, if that's possible, thought the embarrassed translator. He grasped her arms gently and appraised her with his lovely, unusual eyes. "Melinda!" he purred, taking the name for a test drive on his tongue. Before she could lapse into formal debutante behavior, he clenched her in a violently affectionate hug, and kissed both blushing cheeks. "Welcome to Alexandria!"
"Thank you," she mumbled helplessly. She had not been the recipient of such physical affection from a man since her father died.
"You are incredibly beautiful!" he exclaimed. "Is she not?" he demanded of Janice.
"She ain't hard on the eyes, that's for sure."
The Southerner squirmed.
"We're embarrassing her," the archaeologist said. Which embarrassed Mel even more.
He half-turned to spit out "Nonsense!" at Janice, then returned to his happy inspection of Mel. "You could have been the Circassian girl that Cavafy wrote of. Those blue eyes..." He stared in wonder at Mel's eyes. "He rarely wrote about women like that, you know," he added in an undertone, as if Janice would be somehow shocked.
"I know," Mel replied in a mock-conspiring tone. "I've read many of his poems."
"Really!" He took Mel's hand; she was half-terrified that he was about to propose or proposition her in some bizarre way that would force her to bring her purse down on his head. "I must tell you then, since you will not be shocked, that the great poet was quite taken with me for some time."
"For all of two weeks," Janice added. "Mighta lasted longer if you'd hadn't taken his money and spent it all on your mistress."
He pointedly ignored his friend's commentary, dismissing her with a vague wave of the hand. "But as you were saying, you've read the great man. Whose translation, may I ask?"
"Why, my own," she replied, as if it were the most natural thing in the world and every reader did this when confronted with a text not in English. "Of course, I first read them in the Greek…"
Fayed gasped. "Janice! You did not tell me she is a genius."
"She is a genius. And you get to carry her bags." Playfully Janice slapped a valise into his stomach.
"No," he replied, "that is for Nessim." He gestured to the figure loitering nervously behind Janice. Nessim was a teenaged boy, rail thin and neatly dressed in Western clothes. His huge, serious dark eyes burned with an ascetic intensity that Janice usually attributed to Bedouins, the denizens of the desert. She watched as Fayed placed his hands on Nessim's narrow shoulders, and spoke to him, softly yet sternly, in Arabic. The boy nodded fiercely, as if carrying luggage and escorting a Western woman were a matter of life and death. And, depending on the location and the circumstances, it sometimes was. When Fayed finished speaking with him, he took the bag eagerly and motioned for Mel to follow him.
"He'll take you to the car, we'll be right behind you," Fayed explained.
"All right," Mel said. Suspiciously, she regarded the reunited friends. "You're going to talk about me, aren't you?"
"What an ego," Janice muttered, while Fayed confirmed this with a giggle and a nod.
The translator grinned, and followed the boy.
Janice watched her walk with Nessim: The unconscious feline sway of her walk, the quiet way she took in everything new about her—vendors vying for her attention, movie posters, a wall of intricate iron grillwork. She stopped momentarily to look at newspapers at a stall. The men gathered there devoured her with gazes that were an uneasy mix of lust and respect, the latter tipping the precarious balance into inaction—for most were far too reverent of this rare creature in their midst to do anything about it. Although that was not true of one young rake who, tossing his cigarette aside and running a hand over his greasy, pomaded head, was determined to make an introduction. Nessim, however, was not about to let that occur. His sweetness dissolved as he brandished his walking stick and hissed like a viper. The oily young Casanova retreated, performing an abrupt U-turn that sent him tripping over someone's suitcase.
Janice decided that she liked Nessim.
Fayed was watching her. He chortled once she glared at him, knowing she was caught. The Egyptian threw his arm around her and she wrapped her arm around his waist as they walked together through the station.
"I like her," Fayed said, nodding in the general direction of Mel.
The archaeologist snorted. "You've known her all of five minutes."
"Anyone who reads Cavafy in Greek and makes a lovesick fool out of you cannot be bad."
It was a testament to the closeness of their friendship—after so many years—that she felt comfortable in picking up the strands of their shared past. "You once made me a lovesick fool," she reminded him gently.
"Let us emphasize fool in that matter, yes? You were a sixteen-year-old girl. I was a widower who was thirteen years older than you. Your father would have killed me if I had become your lover."
"Once he found out the truth about me, my father was practically begging me to go to bed with you. He probably would have sold me to you if he could have."
Fayed noted, with scant surprise, the usual bitterness underneath the tone, present whenever Harry was discussed. After all these years, you're still angry with the dead, my friend. He squeezed her waist and she ducked her head in acknowledgment of his affection, eyes hooded, a strand of gold hair caught on her sweaty cheek. He laughed softly. "Yes, that was another reason why it would not have worked. Your predilections, my dear. We would have ended up like the Davies."
Up ahead, the newspaper vendor was attempting to speak with Mel. Janice knew she didn't have a chance of understanding the language of the Alexandrian street, the patois of French and Arabic. Indeed, she could make out a familiar, bespectacled squint of confusion from as far away as they were. Finally the vendor made a gift of the newspaper, resisting the coins Mel thrust at him. Nessim, of course, understood, and gently tugged at her sleeve. She beamed at the boy, who responded with a look of astonishment. Another devotee to the Cult of the Debutante, Janice thought.
"And speaking of the Davies," Fayed's soft tone jolted her out of her vigilance, "was it wise to stay with them? Naima and I could have put you both up."
"I know." She patted his back. "I don't want to make it too hard for Linus, y'know."
"He is a fool," Fayed groaned. "I don't know why, after all this time, he still insists..." he trailed off with a sigh.
"I don't either, but nonetheless, he does." She cast a wary eye about them. "And aren't things difficult enough right now for Naima?"
"It is true—it's difficult for all Jews here now, with Nasser's rise to power. And Westerners too." He shrugged. Fayed was not Jewish, but—as an illegitimate child running the streets of Alexandria—he knew what it was to be an outsider, even in a city seemingly full of them. "Are you sure you want to stay with Linus and Jenny?"
"No, I'm not," she murmured. "But I agreed, so we'll see what happens."
He accepted this, albeit reluctantly, and waited for her to change the topic.
Which she did: "So you have a car now? You finally got rid of the truck?"
"Linus' car, actually. He wanted me to pick you up 'in style,' as he put it. And yes, I still have the truck, it is a wreck but I love it. And yes, Linus and Jenny still treat me like a servant. I honestly do not know why I continue to tolerate them both. But I cannot argue that you do not deserve the best. You remember the Maharajah, don't you, Janice?"
"Yeah, the old pervert. What about him?"
A white Daimler sat at the curb, sporty, topless, elegant, and glistening. Nessim sat behind the wheel, waiting impatiently for the day when he would be allowed to drive it, and Mel leaned against it, as if she owned it. "So," Mel drawled to them both as they approached the splendid vehicle, "are we 'roughing it' yet?"
Janice laughed. "Christ—the Maharajah's car!"
"Yes. He sold it to Linus." Fayed gestured for the boy to relinquish his spot in the driver's seat. Reluctantly, Nessim slid into the passenger seat. "It's a good thing you never took him up on his offer—he was actually quite destitute."
"What offer?" Mel asked. She hesitated before getting in the back.
"Oh." Janice squirmed a little. "He wanted to fund one of our digs."
Fayed added the crucial omitted detail. "The only catch was Janice had to, ah, spend a night with him."
Mel gaped. "And you considered this?" Of course you did. Anything for your digs.
Now that the truth had emerged, Janice's initial squeamishness on the topic dissipated and she leaned back in the car's lush upholstery with ease. "Well," she admitted, "he did have a tiger skin rug." Her grin was wolfish, lusty. "I always wanted to fuck on one of those."
Fayed bit the inside of his mouth. "Ay, your language has not improved," he clucked as he started the car. The engine purred at him.
Mel did not miss a beat. "I will buy one for you," she replied smoothly and crossed her legs as elegantly as possible within the tiny space available in the back of the car. Her foot swung idly, like the tail of a wary cat.
"They're very rare, and very expensive," Janice countered.
"I'm very patient, and very wealthy."
While Fayed regretted he could not watch this verbal ping pong, he was nonetheless grateful that Nessim could not understand it. Teenaged boy he that he was, however, Nessim couldn't help but steal fascinated glances at the two exotic women in the backseat.
"You are, but I'm not." Janice continued. "Suppose I wanted one as soon as possible—tomorrow, let's say."
A policeman stopped the car along a crowded side street. The seafront thoroughfare known as the Corniche was visible from where they sat in traffic, as were the beaches. And as a backdrop to it all lay the Mediterranean, white hot in the midday sun. Mel drew in her breath at the sight, so sudden and delightful, that excitement tickled deep inside her belly and she momentarily abandoned the game. But as pedestrians ambled over the crosswalk, they all waited. Both for the foot traffic to abate, and for the translator's response.
Later, she had no idea what had gotten into her—the heat, the sea, the combined effect of excitement and exhaustion, perhaps even that lascivious nudge from the goat in the train station—but something provided inspiration. "Well, I would have to go into the jungle, won't I? First, I would track the tiger. He would know that I followed him everywhere—he would see me, he would smell me, and he would feel me. His senses would be engorged with my presence, so much so that he could almost taste me in his mouth. Yet no matter how hard he tried, he would never find me. I would always be one step ahead of him. I would wear him down until he knew that he was the hunted—and not I. And I would corner him. And when he expects death—when he expects a bullet in his brain, or a spear in his heart, I will defeat him with my words." Mel paused. "I will woo him, I will tame him, and I will bring him back to you."
Janice had that slightly amazed and almost envious look on her face, similar to a time when Mel had told her about the homoerotic shenanigans of her sorority sisters at Vanderbilt. "So you would bring me a live tiger skin."
"Even better, don't you think?"
A horn beeped behind them. The policeman motioned for them to proceed.
Fayed turned momentarily to steal quick glance at his old friend. The wind dashed his bangs against his sunglasses and he laughed heartily at the spectacle of a speechless Covington, who glared at him from the rear view mirror. "This brings to mind one of my favorite English expressions: 'You really have your hands full, don't you?' " he shouted above the engine.
The villa was back from the street, hidden in the green haze of ivy and jasmine run amok along its gate and along the stone path leading to the door. Such ramshackle opulence—the lot of the wealthy expatriate in Alexandria—and rampant vegetation reminded Mel of the South, of kudzu, magnolia, of summers heavy and languid. Inside, there were cool marble floors and a winding staircase, from which Jennifer Davies greeted her reluctant guests: "Well," she declared as she descended the steps, singling out Janice with a gaze, "the barbarian got past the gate."
Mel admired her sense of the dramatic. Well, I could do that, if I had spiral staircase. In a moment of temporary insanity, she wondered if she could convince Janice to have such a staircase built in their modest house.
Fayed dropped Janice's bags in a heap. "And who says the English have manners?" he muttered.
Jenny ignored him—and pointedly disregarded Janice as well—as she glided over to Mel and scooped up the Southerner's hand in a limp, feminine handshake. "My dear Miss Pappas, how pleased I am to have you here."
"No more than I to have accepted your generous invitation, Mrs. Davies," Mel replied.
"And it's Dr. Pappas now, so get it right," Janice grunted uncharitably, knowing that she had underlined the "Dr." in front of Mel's name on the envelope they'd sent to the Davies months ago, when accepting their invitation to stay in Alexandria.
Emphasizing her new status, Mel unleashed her best grin, the kind that made people wonder if she were actually a movie star, and that her glasses were some sort of half-hearted disguise so that she could mingle among the common folk.
Fayed looked puzzled—and nervous—at the friendly display. And for herself, Covington the Barbarian wished for a very fleeting moment that she were heterosexual, if only because male rivals for her affections would, no doubt, settle matters quickly and cleanly with violence and not verbal sniping behind the barricades of etiquette. And such a display, Janice thought wistfully, would be a hell of a lot more entertaining.
"I say," Jenny piped up in textbook British, "is that blouse—"
"Schiaparelli? Why, yes, it is."
"Very nice. I was regular at her shop in Milan. The girls sometimes called her—"
"—'Schiap,' as my father did," Mel concluded, trying not to sound too smug.
Round One to the Carolina Princess! Janice beamed. She plucked at her own shirt. "I got this at an Army and Navy store in Boston," she proclaimed to no one in particular.
"It is lovely," Fayed deadpanned.
"Why thank you!" Janice retorted, voice spinning an octave above her normal range. For effect she threw in a girlish titter.
Her suitors were not pleased with the object of their affection mocking their tactics.
Fortunately, Linus chose this moment to jog down the stairs, all the while apologizing profusely for some imaginary delay. His welcome was warmer and appeared more genuine, if only because he kissed his guests on both cheeks. "Melinda, my dear, let me show you the house. Then you and Janice can rest before dinner." He spirited away the translator before anyone could protest. Fayed, not wishing to affix himself to the ex-lovers, also joined the impromptu tour, although he knew the villa as well as its owners.
"Nessim, please take the bags to the guestroom," Jenny requested. The boy did so. She folded her arms, took a deep breath, and faced Janice. "I'm not as good a hostess as my dear husband. So let me just take you to your fucking room, all right?"
The room was actually a suite of rooms, including a bathroom, on the second floor of the villa. Janice had basically commandeered the space once she found herself to be a regular sleepover guest; it was hardly fitting to make love to the lady of the house in the master bedroom, as Linus had cheekily put it (he always managed to take his affairs elsewhere). The villa was also a good hiding spot—from Harry, homicidal husbands, suspicious civil servants, and other complications of life at that time. She particularly liked the bedroom with its high ceiling, cream-colored walls, and elegant sparseness. A busy, crowded room was anathema to anyone who's ever laid in bed after a night of heavy drinking. A spinning room is always best when it's empty, she thought, without objects colliding in the drunken gyroscope of the morning after.
It was one of those useless conclusions she'd come to in the aftermath of Harry's death, in the whiskey-tinted haze of her mourning. Three days I spent holed up here, with as much liquor as I could get.
Of course, the room now felt haunted with not only Harry, but also Jenny....who intercepted a pack of cigarettes and lighter from Janice's breast pocket with the quick, smooth precision of an expert mooch. She tossed herself on the bed, next to the suitcase, and bounced. Twice. She lit a cigarette, eyes squinting behind the lighter's flame. "Hope you don't mind being in your old rooms."
"No. I was just thinking, I've always liked them."
"Good." Jenny exhaled smoke. "Bed's new, by the way."
Janice braced herself for raunchy commentary. "Great."
"You and the Deb can be the first to fornicate in it." The archaeologist didn't bat an eye at the nickname with which she and Linus had anointed Mel. Rather, a slightly raised eyebrow silently assured Jenny that they would indeed do that.
All right, I had that coming. I'm really not doing well here at all—first the Deb shows me up, and now I can't get Covington mad at me. The Englishwoman squinted, although it was not smoke that caused this. "Am I mistaken, or do you limp a bit on occasion?" Janice looked perturbed—yet surprised—that she picked up this detail. Jenny fumbled for further explanation: "I noticed it in Venice…when the party was over…." After I apologized for throwing the wine in your face. You just nodded at me, and said, in your usual way, "See ya." Damned Americans, how casual you are, even at goodbye. Then you walked away, limping ever so slightly through that empty courtyard, with your head down. But you recovered your grace as you bounded up the steps, to where she waited for you, smiling.
And Linus made me apologize, of course. But you know that, don't you?
Janice tapped the side of her thigh. "I got shot," she said.
The cigarette almost fell out of Jenny's mouth. "Jesus Christ. When? Where?"
"During the war." Janice's full lips pressed together to form a tight, slim line. "I don't want to talk about it."
"Fair enough," Jenny replied softly. A clearing of the throat signaled a change of topic. "I'm surprised you took us up on the offer, Janice. To stay here."
"Mel said it would be rude to refuse."
"So she's teaching you manners, at least." Jenny flipped the lid of the open suitcase. "Has she done anything for your wardrobe, I wonder?" She peered into the case with mock intensity, looking for something other than the usual archaeoensemble. "Let's see. Khaki, khaki, and—khaki! Oh, wait. A blue shirt. How risqué, Janice!"
Mel had bought the shirt—sky blue chambray, handmade—for her during a shopping frenzy in New York. Never before had Janice experienced the genuine surprise of a gift that was not only spontaneous, but also took into mind her own preferences, her own likes and dislikes. It had been so perfect she couldn't believe it. Stupidly, she had almost cried over it, causing Mel a great deal of alarm. Before Jenny got any ideas about digging for underwear, she stalked over and closed the suitcase. "Knock it off, willya?" she grunted.
She was close enough so that her belt buckle was within Jenny's grasp. God, I can smell your sweat. "Must I change the subject again? You've gotten testy in your old age, dearie." Jenny blew out smoke. "All right, then. Let's drag out the past, shall we? That's always good for a giggle." She was both pleased and saddened at the wince on Covington's face, and, softening her voice, focused on more pleasant memories. "Speaking of rooms...you must be glad you aren't staying at that dreadful flat you and Harry had. One practically had to walk through a curtain of flies to get at the door."
"You didn't seem to mind once you got in," Janice reminded her gently.
No, I didn't. How she had loved that miserable little room. It was a sanctuary for Jenny, away from her husband, and the world she inhabited. The morning sun would snake through the broken shutter, as would the irresistible reek of the street: incense, garbage, rotting fruit, carrion, smoke. But there was this beautiful creature next to her, innocent in sleep. She remembered the patchwork quality of Janice's skin—the muscled brown limbs, edged with pink and fading into milky white, the smattering of freckles along her forearms, her perpetually sunburned nose, the crease of her brow that, in sleep, melted into buttery smoothness. She blinked, and saw that Janice too was remembering, if not these exact memories, then something of equal pleasance. "It wasn't that bad, was it?"
That lovely brow furrowed. "No, it wasn't."
"It would be easy for us to go back to that, wouldn't it?" She reached out and touched the rough fingertips that hung loosely at Janice's side.
Then the archaeologist's expression hardened into its usual stubborn mask. "No." She pulled her hand away. "I'm not going to fuck this up," she said quietly.
Jenny sighed, and gave up a potential seduction—the resultant melodrama was something she wasn't quite up to yet. It was too soon, she thought. Let Janice stew, let her remember. It'll weaken her. And Jenny felt too aware of her own weakness: A growing fondness for Mel. It was rather annoying, this unforeseen obstacle.
Besides, Linus had planned such a lovely dinner: Lamb and lentils.
"I admit, Janice, I do like your Melinda. She's got a brain behind all that beauty and money, and a heart as well. She's absolutely mad to entrust it to you." Janice looked a little surprised—and pleased—that Jenny had admitted this. "However, she doesn't understand you like I do. You and I are two of a kind. We're selfish. We go our own way." She paused for effect. "It's hardly fair to her, is it? To expect her to follow you around the globe on your mad little missions?"
"At least she would." The accompanying glare hit Jenny like a slap, until Janice decided to turn her gaze to the floor, hands thrust angrily in her pockets.
"I've been waiting for you to bring that up. I'm impressed you've waited this long." Another thing that impressed Jenny—and always had—was Janice's fast, ferocious strength. She was off the bed and on her feet, with her wrist encircled in a vice-like grip, before she could blink.
"How many times did I ask you to come with me? To Macedonia? To Thessalonika?
To Istanbul? If I meant so damned much to you, why was your husband always more important?" The words weren't so much spoken as bitterly hissed.
"Maybe this time I would," Jenny retorted softly.
"You're way too late for that."
"A woman like Melinda Pappas is not going to follow you around for the rest of your life. And I'm sure you'd miss her at first, but you'd probably miss her money more, wouldn't you?"
The green eyes flared with such rage that Jenny tried to pull away. Oh, you hit the mother lode, dearie dear, she congratulated herself. Janice's words were spoken with careful, soft menace. "If you were a man, I'd knock your fucking teeth down your throat for that."
"Old Harvard wouldn't want to hear about you beating up defenseless expatriates now, would they? They're trying to keep you low profile these days, I hear. Very few people even know that you're in Alex. And if they do, they don't even know that you're scouting sites."
"And how do you know all this?"
Jenny smirked wickedly. "Rumors travel fast among our kind, Janice. Especially when one wonders why your alma mater is keeping quite mum on the subject of the Xena Scrolls these days." Janice released her wrist, and Jenny rubbed the blossoming bruise. "It's a little tiresome, when no one tells you what the bloody hell is going on." My husband and his little spy games, now you. "Why don't you just tell me why you're back here?"
Before Janice could give in to either temptation—telling Jenny or smacking her a good one—the door opened and Linus, high on hostessing, sailed in, with Mel trailing languidly in his wake. "And this is the bedroom, of course."
"It's quite lovely."
"Oh come now, it's just a very simple room."
"Perhaps, but it's quite a welcome change from hotel rooms." While the hotels that they had encountered in Italy were usually of the highest standard, Mel nonetheless felt the need to charm—or flirt, as Janice would put it. She watched the archaeologist stalk over to the terrace. Well, they're both standing, fully clothed…that's something! The tense lines of the Janice's body suggested that something had passed between the former lovers; but obviously, Mel thought with guilty relief, it had not been something pleasant.
"I'm pleased you like it. Now, we'll leave you to relax for a while. Dinner will be in about two hours. Jenny?" Linus prompted his wife gently, hoping that he wouldn't have to drag her away.
"'Tis a pleasure to have you in our lovely home, Miss Pappas," Jenny drawled, aiming a cloud of cigarette smoke in Mel's direction.
"Dr. Pappas," Janice growled automatically.
"Or maybe it should be Mrs. Covington?" Jenny retorted with a blithe bitterness that she hoped someday to trademark. She ground out her cigarette in an ashtray near the bed, then sailed out the door.
And she knows how to make an exit, too, Mel thought.
It left the two women staring at Linus, who shrugged guiltily. "She'll be better after a couple glasses of wine. Or a polo mallet to the skull." He sighed and smiled. "Enjoy your rest," he said as he departed.
Janice said nothing, but stood at the balcony, arms folded.
So how do I do this without having you take it out on me? The translator waited for a minute. "You know," she began, "where I come from, gentlemen fight duels over a lady's attention."
"Chivalry," Janice spat venomously.
"The situation is, I admit, slightly different in this instance..."
The archaeologist finally looked at Mel, who was studying a small object in her hand with exaggerated intensity.
"…I could try taking her out with a bobby pin."
It worked. There was a soft, sputtering laugh, a small grin, and relaxed posture.
Mel stated the obvious: "She really gets to you." Still, after all these years.
"Yeah." Janice leaned against the balcony door. "She's always known just how to piss me off. It's all part of our...thing." Fighting and fucking. Amazing I didn't kill her, or she didn't kill me.
The translator stared at the bed, her fingers tracing the weave of the thin blanket shrouding the mattress. "You…must have loved her very much. Did you?" And I must be the biggest idiot in the world, for thinking we should stay here. Keep your friends close, but your enemies even closer, isn't that the saying?
Janice was still frowning at the sea. "I…" she began, but faltered as she gathered her thoughts. "I thought I did. But it was just that I wanted it so badly. To be in love." She looked at Mel. "You know?" And I didn't know what it was until I saw you.
Mel nodded, and somehow found her voice. "I know." She patted the bed beside her. "We don't have to stay here."
For once, Mad Dog answered the call, trotting over and sitting down on the bed. "I know, but it is convenient, and free."
"Money's not a problem."
"I know," she repeated, "but I'd rather have you spend your money in other ways."
Janice leaned into her. "Like getting me that tiger skin rug."
The lovely dinner went off as planned, as did an impulsive turn at the hookah. Mel, in an attempt to undo her priggish reputation, indulged with the others and managed to acquit herself with a modicum of dignity—she did not cough, gag, or spit up any of the shisha touffah that bubbled within the water pipe. Initially the smoke had scorched her throat and she thought, involuntarily, of Sherman's March through the South. But then the hint of apple in the tobacco concoction soon enmeshed itself with the aftertaste of the crisp wine upon her tongue, and she enjoyed it. In the aftermath of this new experience she felt light-headed, pleasantly exhausted, and faintly decadent as she lounged upon a couch with Janice, listening to Linus poke at the piano. She recognized the Beethoven sonata he was attempting to play, the soft notes deflating under his relentless, erratic jabs.
Jenny had mysteriously (yet blessedly) disappeared after dinner, and Fayed, arms crossed, was looming near the piano, no doubt plotting how he could get Linus to stop playing, so that they might give the gramophone a try.
Mel regarded the handsome Egyptian. Despite all the stories Janice had told her of growing up with him, she still felt she knew little about the man. And she was compelled to know more. Since he is about the only family you got. "You've said Fayed has a wife."
"Why isn't she here tonight?"
"Well," Janice began, "you'll find this out sooner or later..."
"She was your lover too?" A tad prematurely, the translator congratulated herself for foresight on the matter.
Until Covington leveled her with a glare. "Melinda, dearest, contrary to what you might think, I haven't slept with every woman in this goddamn city. I know Alexandria is seen as some modern day Sodom and Gomorrah, but dammit, I did do some work while I was here."
"Now, about Naima…..Well, the reason she doesn't come is mostly Jenny's fault. She's kind of uncomfortable with Naima's practices."
"Naima is a Cabbalist."
This roused Mel from a shisha-induced stupor. Before the translator had the opportunity for rhetorically shrieking "A Cabbalist?", Janice clapped a tanned hand over her mouth. "Your manners are slipping, sweetheart. Jesus, that Methodism is really bred in the bone with you, isn't it?"
In response, Mel was decidedly un-Christian: She gave the soft, delectable pad of Janice's forefinger a nasty nip.
"Ow!" The archaeologist yanked her hand away. "And you call me a savage."
"A Cabbalist!" Mel exclaimed in an undertone. She glanced quickly at Fayed, who was oblivious to their conversation as he playfully tried to shove the laughing Linus off the piano bench. "You could have told me sooner."
"It's just—I don't know, it's so strange."
"Don't be provincial," Janice retorted, then regretted it as she saw Mel wince. "I'm sorry. Look, it's just another religion. These mystical sects always scare the general population, and there's hardly any real reason behind it. I mean, I've read some of the texts with Naima—"
Mel eyes widened.
"—and sacrificed some babies, but that's it." She laughed as Mel's eyes narrowed. "Sure, it's fine for you to read all that crap about Indian gods, but I peruse a couple lousy texts 10 years ago and suddenly I'm the devil."
"The Indian 'crap,' as you call it, was research—you know that. The last scroll mentioned a journey to India. Some background reading was called for."
The archaeologist smirked mischievously and flung a leg on Mel's lap. "Still, y'all better be careful, Miss Melinda." It never failed to infuriate the Southerner how well Covington could mimic her accent. "You'll turn into some awful lotus-eatin' heathen!"
Oh my God, is that what I'm becoming? Mel wondered incoherently. This stuff is worse than champagne. "Everything is your fault. You seduced me—"
"You kissed me first, remember?"
"Now you've made me smoke this narcotic—"
"Didn't twist your arm."
"Not to mention you have a four-star general thinking that I run a brothel in New Orleans."
Janice was speechless.
"Nicey Nell from Vandy called before we left the country. General Fenton is her uncle." Janice muttered something about inbreeding. Mel ignored it. "At any rate, she's praying for my eternal soul."
The archaeologist lit a cigarette. "She oughta pray for a new name," she retorted.
Mel's short-lived deliverance from the clutches of Jennifer Davies ended as the Englishwoman entered the room. Without a word to the others she walked over to Janice and tossed a small, battered brown leather journal into the archaeologist's lap.
"I thought I lost this," Janice murmured to no one in particular, as she stared at the old book.
"No. Fayed found it at the El Alamein site, after you took off."
She pressed her hand against the dry, cracked cover. Flecks of brown stippled her fingertips. And we think of history as something solid as a stone. Maybe that's always been my problem. The past crumbles before I really make anything out of it.
"What is that?" Mel asked sleepily.
Janice blinked, startled, lost in reverie. "It was my journal. I kept one, years ago." She shrugged, embarrassed, suddenly feeling that it was immature, that it was a foolish thing—only schoolgirls kept journals. "It was just, notes and stuff on excavations, places I'd been…"
"…women you slept with. It's quite entertaining." Jenny concluded. Janice shot her a homicidal look. "What? Surely you didn't think I wouldn't read it, after all these years?"
Mel managed to salvage the situation with a bit of good grace and affection. She stretched her long legs, then patted Covington's thigh. "I reckon you'll have to get caught up on your entries, dear."
Janice grinned at her, relieved—not that she expected a scene, or irrational jealousy. The way you handle yourself, baby. You never lose your cool with me. Maybe the goddamn Dean was right: I am lucky, at least when it comes to you. "Nah, I'd need a whole new book for you. I'd get downright Proustian."
Jenny rolled her eyes. Defeated by the Deb again! What gets to this woman? Sighing, she snatched the journal from Janice's hands and idly flipped through it. Something stuck in the pages caught Mel's eye. "Was that a photo?" she asked.
The Englishwoman nodded, backtracked, and removed a black and white picture from the journal. She gave it to Janice.
It was an old photo from the 1920s, of a woman whose obvious voluptuousness and cherubic cheeks defied that decade's trend toward a thin, boyish build, even though the subject's dark hair was bobbed flapper-style.
Mel leaned in for a better look at the picture. "Who is that?"
Janice hesitated, overcoming the urge to tuck the picture away into the past, where it belonged. "My mother," she finally said.
"Really?" Mel could not contain her excitement, and sat up. The topic of Janice's mother was even more taboo than that of Harry. The translator’s delicate inquiries had served up only these terse facts: Janice had not seen the woman since she was sixteen and there was no chance of seeing her ever again because she was now "dead as a fucking doornail." She managed to check her enthusiasm as she tentatively reached out for the photo, her fingers brushing Janice's knuckles. "May I?" she requested softly.
Janice blinked. "Sure." She surrendered the photo.
"You don't look a thing like her," Jenny opined. "Hard to believe she was your mum. You take after Harry all the way."
This was met with stony silence.
"Oh, no," Mel demurred. "I see a definite resemblance." And she could—in the wry, sensual half-smile and the mischievous glint of the dark eyes. Harry Covington may have passed on to Janice his obstinacy, his temper, and his drive, but this woman, Mel believed, had to be the source for the mercurial, subversive wit, the quicksilver intelligence that brimmed within her daughter.
Janice had opened her mouth to say something when a quail came rampaging through the room. Half-flying, half staggering, the bird rounded a corner into the hallway. Nessim soon followed in hot pursuit, armed with a large cleaver.
"Nessim!" Linus bellowed. "You'll chop off your damn arm with that!" Fayed too was yelling at the boy, but in Arabic. Finally both men jumped up and followed Nessim down the corridor.
"For God's sake," Jenny groaned. She slammed the journal down and followed the action. "If you hear a high-pitched squeal," she called over her shoulder, "it's either Linus or the bird."
A feather floated to the floor.
"Just…what exactly is in that shisha?" Mel asked.
2. The Book of Splendor
Love nothing but that which comes to you woven in the pattern of your destiny.
Janice ran her fingers over the battered door of the Ford pickup as if it were a frieze—a sturdy one that she could actually touch, where the grooves and furrows of the past could be experienced in rust, dents, and scrapes. A lot of money and finagling went into getting the dark green truck, she recalled; she had begged Harry for the truck, and once she got it, for a long time she loved nothing—or no one—quite as much. Fayed knew this, of course, and when she gave it to him during the war he took his role as its new owner quite seriously.
"You've taken good care of it," she remarked.
He laughed. "You must be joking."
"Considering the shape it was in when I gave it to you, I'm surprised it's still running."
He squeezed her shoulder affectionately, and gazed at the ivy-covered gate of the Davies' villa. "She's not coming with us?"
"Hungover. For the first time in her life, I think." Janice smiled, although she felt guilty about leaving Mel behind; when she had left her lover in bed this morning, the translator was tucked into a fetal position with a pillow wrapped around her head in a fruitless attempt to drown out the muezzin's cries of "Allah Uakbar" that signaled the commencement of prayers at a nearby mosque.
Linus offered to watch over Mel while they were gone; additionally, he proposed that they take Jenny along. When Janice and Fayed had both looked puzzled—and annoyed—at the suggestion, the expatriate gently reminded them that perhaps the last thing Mel would want to deal with, on top of a hangover, would be Jenny.
And thus, the Englishwoman now emerged from the villa, eyeing the Ford with distaste. "Banned from my own home, and condemned to roam around in a garbage heap all day," she muttered.
"But surely the charming company compensates," Fayed retorted, with a mocking bow.
"Not quite sure. Where are we going, my dears?"
"To the necropolis near the Western Harbor," Fayed began.
"Are we picking up sailors?"
Janice finally acknowledged her presence with a look of disdain. "That's where the Gate of the Moon is supposed to be."
"Was, you mean," Jenny retorted. "I know, I'm not totally ignorant."
"But first," Fayed interjected, "We go to see the Old Man." He opened the driver's door of the truck and climbed in.
"Oh for Christ's sake." Jenny folded her arms. "I suppose it was Naima's idea to do this, to seek approval from that old fraud of a fruit. Or old fruit of a fraud, take your pick."
Janice flung open the passenger's door. "Actually, it was mine. Now shut up and get into the goddamn truck."
They glared at each other for a moment. Janice let her tongue find the soft spot where a certain molar once was—a tooth that, once upon a time, Catherine Stoller had knocked out of her head. For some reason the gesture always calmed her. Perhaps because it reminded her of how Mel had kept the tooth all these years, a perverse little treasure among the pearls, diamonds, and sapphires of her jewelry box at home.
Haughty even in defeat, Jenny arched an eyebrow and climbed in.
The archaeologist followed her and closed the door. She exhaled as the heat of the truck swam over her. Sweat burst on her brow.
Perpetually contrary, Jenny merely sighed contentedly and squirmed happily between Janice and Fayed. "Well! This might not be so bad," she purred. "I've always wanted to be the filling in an archaeologist sandwich."
God help me, Janice thought, as the motor roared into life.
The Old Man lived in an abandoned monastery. It was located beyond the large beaches along the western edge of the city—like an outpost of sorts between Alexandria and the desert proper. The paved road running parallel to the beach passed by shacks normally half-buried in sand during the off-season; soon enough the road deteriorated into a path of hardened sand that nonetheless failed to deter the seasoned truck, even as it climbed the sudden, steep hill leading to the decrepit building.
The sun tracked their course up the hill. Janice pulled her hat low to avoid the pebbles of sand that the truck’s tires spat up at them. It was ironic, she thought, that in this place where Copts once worshipped, there now lived an old Jewish mystic who favored young boys. But Alexandria had always been aswirl with the mystery religions of both Judaism and Christianity, from Arianism and Gnosticism to Cabbalism—with each sect quite literally at one another's throats. The city's own turmoil would prove to be its inevitable downfall—time after time. Alexandria's tattered garb was the worn finery of a host of conquerors. There had been the Romans, the Arabs, the Turks—even Napoleon, who rode into the sleepy backwater town that had, once upon a time, been the center of knowledge in the known world. All that remained were statues— hollow casts glowing silver in moonlight—to guide the French forces, that and a population indifferent and unimpressed with yet another martial takeover. Calling it an invasion was charitable. And so it always appeared that the city was constantly in flux; nonetheless, it seethed inwardly with the same tensions as it had since the beginning.
This particular sanctuary—unlike the Davies’ home—provided the archaeologist with some much-needed, crucial perspective and distance from the city. Naima was the one who had first brought her to the monastery. The Cabbalist knew full well that the main reason Janice came with her was to escape from everything—to see it all from a remote, peaceful hilltop—and not just for the lingering fascination and curiosity that the archaeologist possessed with her faith. For Janice it was enough just to come up here and sit, with the wind and the smell of the desert pulsing against her back, and the Mediterranean—slithering like a chameleon from day to day, season to season—before her. She needed neither the religion nor the fortune-telling skills of the Old Man.
He was called a soothsayer, sometimes even a demon; Naima speculated (and only half-jokingly) that he was probably the original Wandering Jew. People from throughout the country would come to him, to learn of their futures. He knew the fortunes of many of his visitors. Perhaps he knew all of them, but he never fully revealed what he knew. Even more mystifying than his religion was the fact that the Old Man—fat, blind, and toadlike—could have a passel of beautiful boys taking care of him: cooking his food, bringing him records (he had a weakness for Western music), drawing his baths, washing his clothes, and making his bed. Among other things that Janice didn’t want to think about. One of these boys now opened the gate for the truck. Once the Ford pulled to a halt Jenny—who had stubbornly repeated that she would not set foot in the Old Man’s home—promptly set off for the small yet overgrown garden, shaded with a trellis, along the monastery's sunny southern side.
Fayed and Janice watched her stalk away. The Egyptian gave his friend a playful shove. "Go on, go speak with him."
"What? I don't really wanna talk to him, Fayed. He's creepy." Despite the unease that he always set about in her, Janice had nonetheless felt the allure of the Old Man’s words during those nights, whenever she accompanied Naima. Sometimes she even sat at his feet as he spoke to them of the Tree of Life, the Qelippot, the sacred texts—such as Sefer ha Zohar, the Book of Splendor, and the Behir, the Book of Illumination.
She had imagined the Xena Scrolls to be her own Book of Splendor. Like the Cabbalists' book, it would be the story of a world's beginning, of its creation, of its own divinity. It was the "innermost light" that had illuminated her path.
The Egyptian raised an eyebrow; while he was not a true believer like his wife, he was nonetheless fiercely protective of her faith and those involved in it. "I shall pretend I did not hear that."
She shrugged awkwardly. "I just wanted to come up here…for old time's sake. Not to see him. You know that."
"Do not be rude, Janice. Speak with him. Then come out to the garden. We shall sit for a while, the boys will make us tea, then we will go."
"Come with me," she pleaded, uncharacteristically.
"I cannot. I must keep an eye on Madame." He nodded toward the garden, and she smiled weakly at the use of their old, private nickname for Jenny. "It is never a good idea to leave her alone with handsome young boys. If the Old Man catches her at it, we shall be banned for life." Fayed gave her another affectionate nudge in the direction of the monastery, and when this failed to motivate her, he added a slap on her rump. He laughed at her glare then walked away, comfortable in the knowledge that he was still the only man in the world who could get away with such an act.
And thus alone, she entered the house, following the sound of a gramophone playing "St. James Infirmary." The sound of the slow, downbeat melody appeared to be threaded together with the crackling record scratches that filled the air.
The Old Man was also alone, sitting in a chair near a second-floor window above the garden. At the sound of her tread upon the worn carpet, he tilted his head and smiled, the lines around his thick, milky blue cataracts crinkling.
"Covington's daughter," he rumbled, his belly straining against the buttons of his old, dirty oxford shirt. "I wish I could remember your name." As always, he spoke to her in English. While his voice never retained the imprimatur of any country, there was joy in his tone, and she marveled at that. He was glad to see her. How could he even remember her after all these years?
Janice smiled uneasily. Fayed must have told him I was coming. "It doesn't matter," she said, barely trusting that her own voice conveyed warmth and not fear.
"No, it does not," he replied. "For I remember many things about you. For instance, the many times that you told me I was full of—ah, how did you say it?" His eyebrows waggled. "Oh yes—shit."
Her jaw dropped. He laughed uproariously, as if he could really see her expression. "My little explorer. I am pleased you came to visit me."
"Just to—say hi," she muttered, again awkward in his presence.
"It has been many years, hasn't it?" He held out his hand. It was hard and smooth, like pumice stone, the runes of his palm crisscrossing the skin like a crazy, self-contradictory map.
This was the way it began, the way he told fortune: His fingers read hands as assuredly as any palmist’s eyes would. One surrendered to his grasp, as if to the ocean's undertow, and was swallowed in prophecy.
Reluctantly, she rested her fingertips against his palm. He drew her in.
"I liked your hands, always," he said. "A perfect size for a woman. Not too big, not too small, warm and smelling of the earth."
"Like many old men, you're a flatterer," she burred.
He giggled mischievously. "You have not changed. You still speak truth with bluntness." He turned her hand over in his, running his thumb along her palm. "It's not as rough as before. You have done other things than dig in the earth all these years."
"You teach your skill to others."
Lucky guess. "Yeah."
"It's safe to say that the war interrupted your life. It did for all of us. But I see—in my way—that it almost ended your path. You took a bullet in your belly." He knew by her silence that he was right. Then he smiled, quite brilliantly and suddenly. "And do you recall what I told you, when last I saw you?"
Janice tried to soften the edge of her voice. "What?" She honestly couldn't remember. It wasn't long after Harry's death, and everything in her life felt beyond chaos. Nothing was salvageable.
"I told you," he said slowly, stroking each finger of her hand, "that you would find love."
Now she remembered. She had laughed, sneered. I already have a lover, she had told him. Was I drunk? Janice wondered now. It was very much a state of being in those days.
"You did, didn't you?"
She paused before admitting it, always feeling a weakness, a superstition that in acknowledging this, it would somehow be taken away from her. "Yes," she said softly.
"Good. You needed it."
"Doesn't everyone?" she parried.
"Yes, you are right, of course." His smile faded. "But a great love, like the one you have now, is both a joy and a burden. A burden worth having. Do not forget that."
You bastard. How do you know that? Had this love altered her so completely that it had changed her chemically, had mutated every cell in her body so that her touch, her skin was different? Typically, she could only seek an empirical explanation.
"The things you look for...this truth you want. You have not found it."
"Child," he sighed.
Janice raised an eyebrow, somewhat amused; she hadn't been called that in years.
"Your fate will be your father's. If you are not careful."
She tried, halfheartedly, to pull her hand away. "What are you saying?"
"Do not live in the past. If you love it too much, you will be claimed by it sooner than you think." With a squeeze of her hand, he released her. "Your friends wait for you," he said softly.
Blind instinct propelled her from the house. Outside, the sun warmed her face and sank into her bones. She bypassed the garden and sought the solitude of the promontory overlooking the sea and the city, the place that always brought her peace. There she sat, occasionally staring at her hand. The desert light served to illuminate those dark lines of her palm, but told her nothing. She remained there for almost an hour, until Fayed came looking for her.
Linus had insisted that they take lunch on the terrace. The heat of the day was not at its most intense, and he was not one to waste an opportunity to show off their view of the Mediterranean to a guest.
And as they waited for Nessim to bring in the food and the tea, Mel seemed content to do nothing but stare at the sea. If indeed she was hungover, it was hard for him to tell—she looked fine to him, although a touch subdued. But he chalked that up to Janice's absence. Or perhaps it was the debutante training; she seemed to possess a vast reserve of charm tailor-made for social occasions. He remembered how confident she seemed when they first met in Venice, how easily she spoke on any number of topics. Yet now, in a more intimate setting, she was suddenly shy, remote, even awkward. It intrigued him. And amused him—she was so the opposite of Janice. Opposites attract, opposites get divorced, was Jenny's (hopeful) theory on the matter. He knew his wife was biding her time, looking for weaknesses in the relationship. He attempted to dissuade her as much as possible in her pursuit, but he too sometimes wondered if this comically mismatched romance between Debutante and Rogue had any staying power.
After the lunch arrived, Linus poured the tea himself. "It's rare to find an American who is not addicted to coffee."
She suddenly turned to him, as if she had forgotten that he was present, perhaps worrying if, at this very moment, my wife might be trying to seduce her lover. I wonder the same thing myself...Jenny is nothing if unpredictable. That very morning his wife had sworn to be on her very best behavior while Entertaining Dr. Covington.
"You promise?" Linus had asked, solemnly.
"I...promise," Jenny had responded with equal seriousness. Then she burst into peals of laughter.
Mel touched a finger to the bridge of her glasses. "I became accustomed to tea while I was in England—the coffee was so dreadful—I guess I never saw the point in switching back."
"I can understand that. Yet Janice still drinks coffee."
"Yes," she replied with a slight laugh. "Janice was born to drink coffee."
"Oh really, Linus, I shall be nothing but the ideal friend and I won't pounce on Janice a bit, but if she should ever suggest it...well, I cannot throw the good doctor out of my bed. That's just foolish, not to mention being a bad hostess."
He quashed his fretful thoughts. "I regret that I never had a chance to meet your father," Linus said. "I knew him by reputation, of course, and I daresay we may have had some acquaintances in common, but I would have enjoyed the opportunity, nonetheless."
She smiled. "Yes, he was a remarkable man."
"You must miss him."
He hesitated; he had his lead-in, but to go further…am I doing the right thing? He sipped his tea, then took the plunge. "However, Melinda, you and I have an acquaintance in common...other than Janice."
He had her attention now.
She stood so abruptly that her knee jarred the table with clumsy yet considerable force and the dishes chorused in a clatter of protest.
Linus was awestruck. Her pale eyes were icy with contempt and the lines of her body seemed to reverberate with rage. He too jumped up from his seat, and placed a hand on her arm. "Please. Let me explain."
"Take your hand off me." Her voice was low, the charming accent now nonexistent. "And tell me the truth."
"All right," he said cautiously as his hand dropped. "But please, sit down."
Both of them were breathless at the sudden intense turn of conversation. Mel sat down.
Linus followed suit, relieved for the moment. Until he noticed her cold gaze upon him. "I'm with MI5," he said. "British Intelligence."
She leaned back in her chair, defeated. "Does Janice know?"
"I don't know. She's not stupid. But she's never given any indication that she does know, however."
"And Mrs. Davies?" Her sarcasm was as subtle as the atom bomb.
"She knows, of course. She's sworn up and down that she has never said anything to Janice." He bristled at her skeptical look. "She may be a lot of things, but a liar is not one of them."
"I'll take your word for it," Mel snapped. She drew a deep, steadying breath and stared out at the sea again. He was relieved not to have her frightening gaze upon him, but the reprieve was only temporary. "It all worked out very well for you, didn't it? To have your loyal wife fall into bed with the object of your surveillance." You just didn't count on her falling in love. Did you?
Linus blinked, a bit taken aback at her directness—obviously a corrupting influence on Covington's part. "Jenny is a big girl. She takes care of herself. I never asked her to become involved with Janice. I didn't even know they were lovers until after my assignation to Alexandria. Even then…" He stared down at the lunch that suddenly seemed unappetizing. "…I still had a job to do. And that job was keeping tabs on Harry Covington and his daughter. Surely I don't need to give you a rundown on Harry's dealings with the Nazis. He was in so damned deep we had every reason to think him a spy. And Janice…"
"Guilt by association," Mel murmured, running a finger along her teacup.
She looked at him sharply. Damn those eyes! he thought. "Have you ever heard of a man named Robert Dansey?" Linus asked.
She nibbled her lip in thought. "An American archaeologist. An Egyptologist, am I right? He died during the war."
"Two out of three, Melinda. Dansey was an American Egyptologist, but he was murdered before the war started—in 1939, to be exact. I had the misfortune of meeting the rotter on several occasions. He was the type of man who made Harry look like a saint."
Mel interrupted him. "He was murdered? By whom?"
"There's the kicker. It's still unsolved."
"And what does this have to do with—"
"—Janice? Very much, I'm afraid. She was the number one suspect."
"Dansey made certain threats against Harry. He accused Harry of stealing some artifacts from him. And for all I know, maybe that happened. Nonetheless, it was getting rather ugly. There were some very public scenes, including a nasty fight that Fayed had to break up. Harry then beat a retreat to Cairo—he had to finish up work on a site near the Gaza. And while he was away, Dansey was killed. Throat slit from ear to ear."
"If this man was as corrupt and disliked as you say, there were probably many people who wanted him dead."
"True," Linus conceded. "But few had the nerve to carry it out. And we both know that Janice runs on nerve."
"She's not a killer."
"No, by nature she isn't. But she would kill for the right cause, wouldn't she? To protect someone like her father?" He paused as the pained realization crept across her face. "Or like you?" he added gently.
Mel pulled off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. She appeared to be holding the eyeglasses so tightly he thought they would snap in two. But she ducked her head and a shadow along her dark bangs hid her eyes. "Why are you telling me this?"
He leaned forward in his chair. "Because the moment Catherine Stoller died, you made yourself an enemy. Stoller was Mark's big prize. He spent close to the entire war tracking her movements, gathering evidence against her. Perhaps he was even in love with her a little—he so admired the balancing act, the deception that she maintained. He was convinced that he would spend months extracting information out of her, and that it would lead to him uncovering some of the biggest art treasures lost in the war."
"I know—this. I know all of it," she whispered. Her hand shook, and she did not resist when he reached across the table and covered it with his own.
"I know you do," he replied quietly. "I—I had to tell you, to warn you. I am afraid of what Janice would do if I told her. He's looking for ‘restitution,’ as he calls it."
"He would think of it that way, wouldn't he?" She laughed hollowly. "So you've spoken with him."
"He's been in contact with me, yes." Linus sighed and withdrew his hand. "I don’t consider him a friend, if that’s what you’re thinking. But he has it in mind to reopen an investigation of the Dansey case."
"Is that it, then? He won't be happy until he sees her in a prison? Or me, for that matter?"
He snorted, then frowned thoughtfully. "Have you tried offering money?"
She shook her head.
"Might be worth a try. Or better yet, the Xena Scrolls."
Again, he felt the full force of her glare. "Sorry." Linus smiled wryly. "Should have known better than to even suggest it." He leaned forward earnestly. "Look, I don't think you should tell her about this, at least not yet. I’ve taken an awful risk in telling you these things myself." He played with his fork. "There's got to be a way we can nip this in the bud," he muttered.
"There’s nothing to nip," Mel insisted, before realizing how absurd that sounded. "She did not murder that man."
Her conviction was contagious. "Why do you think that?" he asked.
"Because…she killed a Nazi soldier during the war. Later, when I asked her about it, she said that she had never killed anyone before."
Linus rubbed his chin.
"She wouldn’t lie to me about something like that." But Mel frowned, her black eyebrows knitted together in doubt. "She may lie to me about smoking in the house, or how many drinks she’s had at a party or even how many lovers she’s had…" There was something derisive in her self-conscious laugh. "…but not this." She shook her head. "Not this."
Unless to protect you, he retorted silently. This is all too bloody confusing. He groaned and stretched. "I suggest you eat something," he said, picking up his fork. "Janice will have my head if I don’t feed you properly."
Her lips pursed, ready to protest.
"And, my dear, you’re going to need every bit of strength you can muster to hash through all of this."
After lunch the afternoon passed lazily, in true Alexandrian fashion. Linus napped in his room, and as usual woke bathed in his own sweat. Years of living in this godforsaken city, and I still sweat like a pig. I might as well face it, I’m bred for dreary Toronto summers. He washed up, changed his shirt, and went downstairs, where he found Mel in the garden, sitting in a shaded wicker chair. Silently, he watched her. She was copying Arabic characters and words from a newspaper into a small notebook. She wrote ferociously, the muscles of her right arm undulating beneath the skin. He smiled, once again both charmed and impressed. How many Westerners would try to teach themselves Arabic? And how many would be successful, as I’m sure she will be?
His hand dived into a pocket and inadvertently rattled some change. She jumped, her concentration broken. "Sorry," he said.
Mel said nothing. She dismissed him with a look, then returned her attention to the joys of Arabic.
Damn damn damn. I don’t need her mad at me. Linus pulled up another chair and sat down opposite her. "I hope I haven't ruined casual conversation between us forever," he said.
Her beautiful eyes flickered over the dark frames of her glasses, which had slid down her nose in such a charming fashion that even Linus felt his avowedly homosexual heart skip a beat.
He sighed and stretched, crossing his long legs at the ankles. "The more you resist me, the more desperate I become."
The translator ruffled the pages of her notebook, content to ignore him.
"I shall pine away after you. I shall write bad poetry about your pretty blue eyes. How many adjectives can I come up to describe them? Let’s see: cerulean, lapis lazuli, cobalt, azure, indigo, aquamarine, sapphire…"
Mel remained silent and began doodling on a page.
He lifted his head at a noise from the street. "They're back," he announced, relieved—he wasn't sure how many adjectives he had left in his brain.
She glanced at him curiously.
"I recognize the truck's engine."
At last, you speak a word to me! Thank the heavens I’m not really in love with you, or I would go mad, Linus thought. She folded the paper and sat up in anticipation. When Janice entered with her usual purposeful swagger, Mel bolted out of the chair. Good God, separated for only ten hours and it's like ten years. He watched them. Suddenly, everything was awash in a sense of urgency, as if they were the only two people present. He watched as Covington's hand flew up to cup Mel's cheek, and one of the translator's own long hands brushed against Janice's waist. But they were aware of him, on some level—in the slow desperation of their movements they held back, just barely restraining this thing between them.
"Feel better now?" Janice's voice was pitched so low he could barely make out the words.
I made a mistake, Linus thought.
Janice was pulling her lover's face closer to her own. Never before had he seen his old friend's eyes lit with such vulnerability and gentleness.
She will tell Janice. Maybe not now, but soon.
Mel was whispering something in her ear now. Something that made Janice's eyelids flutter and swoon.
Is there any room for secrets between them?
Just as they kissed, a book flew across the garden from the doorway, smacking Covington squarely between the shoulder blades.
Oh, Jenny, he sighed to himself.
Wincing, Janice turned to face the culprit.
Arms folded, the Englishwoman stood defiantly within the doorframe. "We gave you a goddamned room. Use it, all right?"
From where he sat, Linus could only imagine the archaeologist's dark glare. Nonetheless, she nonchalantly slid her hands in her pockets and turned back to Mel. With a cock of her head, she indicated that Mel should follow her upstairs. Whistling, she sauntered out the garden and past Jenny, who did not warrant another look.
Mel, however, took pity on the poor, abused book at her feet. She picked up the heavy, clothbound edition of Proust's Du côte de chez Swann and smiled, ruffling the novel's pages with a thumb. "Je vous remercie encore de votre hospitalité, Madame Verdurin," she said, handing the book to her reluctant hostess. Then she was gone.
Unfortunately, the French equivalent of "fuck off" eluded Jenny's memory. She stared at the book, then at her giggling husband.
He tried, frantically, to pull off a serious expression. "What? It was funny."
In Mel's recent readings on the Indian deities, one story had left upon her a particularly strong impression—that of Garuda. He was an immense eagle, black against the sky, so powerful that not even Indra, king of the gods, could bring him down. And why? Why were his feathers as impenetrable as armor? Because they were composed of sacred hymns: Words.
The afternoon's sun and heat disintegrated into smoky dusk, blurred and softer, like a grainy photograph. This time, a transitive shadowland that was neither night nor day, seemed ideal for what they were about to do.
Loosely, Janice held out her arms from her torso, a gesture of surrender, granting permission to be undressed. Mel battled the buttons of the archaeologist’s shirt with her own clumsy hands. No matter how many times she had done this successfully, or how many times she was assured that she possessed magnificent, beautiful hands, or how many expensive, tailored shirts she bought with the express intent of camouflaging her large and prominent wrists, she was all too acutely aware of her shortcomings when confronted with the beauty now before her.
The shirt poured from Janice’s body, and curled liquid at her feet. A white undershirt, covering the bra, still remained. The grace only hinted at in everyday life, in the mundane gestures of picking up a coffee cup or tying a shoelace, now unraveled before Mel, like a gift. Her ungainly hands traced the bare limbs before her and she tried to envision Janice's body as composed of language. Each finger was the line of a stanza, the dip of her elbow a syllable, a soft bridge between muscled, solid consonants. The tendons at the back of her neck, behind the cascade of blonde hair, swayed under Mel's splayed fingers, evoking the deceptively simple rhythm of a haiku.
She tried to envision words because somehow words had failed her.
Or have I failed them?
She slid her hand underneath the flimsy softness of the ribbed undershirt. Knotted bones rested below her fingertips. Broken ribs. She had felt them many times, under a variety of circumstances, yet never elected to ask what caused them; the first time they made love she had touched them, shyly, and Janice had winced, as if the injury were still fresh. It discouraged her, for on subsequent occasions when she thought to ask, she always remembered that particular first time, and her own nervous inexperience.
Inexperience, however, was no longer a problem. She knew exactly what she wanted as she pulled her lover’s body onto her own, as she guided a hand that really needed no guidance. And as the fingers of that hand entered her, she gathered in every possible sensation, every gradation of pleasure and pain. In a more lucid state she would call it greed, and would even feel ashamed of it. But now she craved a closeness that she felt lacking, an intimacy where language had failed.
I know you like your eggs over easy and your bourbon over ice. I know you like the smells of grass after rain, of old books. I even know the names of your favorite baseball players, for God's sake. But there is so little, still so little, that I know about you. Yet how do I ask? How do I persuade you to tell me the things that you don't want to tell me?
Janice’s eyes, colorless in the twilight, watched her. Her body was a spell. No chant, no prayer, no invocation could break it.
3. Things Past
To feel despair, we must still be attached to that life which can no longer be anything but unhappy.
She moved through the crowd with intent—the rapid, even rhythm of her footsteps unlike the dreamy, almost drifting pace of many Alexandrians—and quietly hoped that her single-minded gait would not draw attention. Her trail led down the Faransa, past the El Shorbagi Mosque, along the border of the Jewish Quarter, and finally to a cul de sac at the end of a deserted street. The too-quiet buildings would have given her pause under normal circumstances.
There was only the sound of wind in the trees, rustling loose a scent of jasmine into the air that sustained itself somehow, high and thin, like some impossible note in a song that even a virtuoso could only aspire to and never grasp. Was it perfume? Janice wondered. She was breathless, and drew in more air. It was indeed jasmine, mixed in with the sea—a skein of scent that filled her, and made her blood pound.
The girl grabbed her from behind, a dusky arm flung across her chest and shoulders, temporarily rendering her immobile. A free hand brushed a translucent, silky scarf across Janice's face.
Her teeth snared it. Then, with a graceful duck and twist, the archaeologist slipped her captor's pleasant grasp. They struggled playfully: The woman pulled the scarf free from Janice's mouth as she was maneuvered against a wall, reeking of damp clay.
Janice moved in for a kiss but once again, the giggling girl draped the scarf over her face. It would not deter her; as she gathered part of the scarf in her mouth, she decided that this kiss would be draped in cheap blue silk. She was enjoying the odd, exquisite sensation of her tongue, sheathed in the fabric, moving within the girl's mouth, when she heard the sound of a shoe scraping the pavement. The scarf drifted from her lips as she pulled away abruptly, in response to a sharp knife that raked a diagonal, searing slash across her back.
Before she could say a thing or move a limb, the knife, tinged with her own blood, was at her throat, and an unseen pair of hands had pulled her arms behind her back, binding them—quickly and professionally—at the wrists. Either there were two men involved in the process, she thought, or Vishnu had waylaid her. She wouldn't put anything past the dual temptations of this woman, this city—both of them gorgeous and, obviously, dangerous.
It was no doubt pure ego, but Janice could have sworn that the girl looked wistfully disappointed that their tryst was interrupted. She bundled her scarf into an improbable knot, then thrust it into Janice's shirt pocket. "Maybe next time," she said, in English softened by her thick accent.
No one was certain of the Frenchman's real name. Almost everyone knew him as Bardamu, a name given to him by someone—perhaps even himself—after the nihilist hero of Celine's novel. His particular brand of ruthless, organized, black-market thievery even had the Nazis impressed, for the Germans frequently sought his assistance in procuring valuable artifacts and artwork that otherwise could not be purchased legitimately.
The Frenchman sat behind a desk with the tools of their underworld trade: a bottle of a whiskey, cigarettes, a rumpled newspaper, and a gun. His linen suit had won the war but lost the battle with time: Sweat and age lent it the patina of a stained teacup.
Janice was shoved, ungraciously, into a hard wooden stool facing him. Her arms remained tied behind her back, and her shoulders ached because of it.
"So you're young Covington."
She paused a minute, both seriously contemplating a name change and wondering if the dryness in her mouth would go away. When neither magically disappeared, she merely nodded.
"I am pleased to meet you."
She found her voice. "Wish I could say the same."
He chuckled. "A sense of humor is useful in these situations." He ground out a cigarette in an ashtray. "Although a weakness for women is not," he added pointedly.
Janice said nothing, but merely shifted her jaw.
"May I call you Janice?"
"You can call me a piece of shit if you want. I don't have much choice in the matter."
"It would hardly suit you. You know why you're here, do you not?"
"Thank Robert Dansey for your visit here."
She squinted. "Dansey?"
"You were part of the crew on his most recent excavation. Correct?"
She hesitated, then nodded.
He was silent for a moment. "I think Dansey took something very important from me, Janice. Something very important. As you can imagine, I am not very happy about it. No, I am not happy one bit. You know, don't you, what I'm missing?" He held up a hand before she could respond. "And if you lie to me I'll cut your pretty little throat. I should not like to do that, Janice. No, not at all. Because I have a game in mind for both of us."
Her stomach roiled at that. She flattened her lips together while he waited for her to speak. Footsteps echoed from behind her chair. Then she was staring at pair of legs, a belt buckle, and two fat dark hands cradling a straight razor. The legs moved slowly, circling her. She felt a tug on her hair and a noise—tzik—that sliced through the air. Her head felt suddenly light.
A long braid of blonde hair now lay coiled in her lap.
"It happens that quickly, Janice. I can be a merciful man."
The razor was pressed into her throat.
"The vases," she managed to say.
Bardamu smiled. "Yes. Two vases retrieved from a burial site outside Cairo. Rather, stolen. From me."
He removed a bullet from a desk drawer. Then he placed it into a chamber of the .38 and spun it. Its roulette rhythm was interrupted by a sudden clack as he shut the chamber.
She watched, amazed, as he put the handgun to his own temple. His smile was mischievously proud, like that of a boy who has mastered a magic trick and is about to demonstrate it to the adults in the room. He pulled the trigger. The click echoed loudly. Too loudly. But no shot followed.
His subsequent movements were painfully slow: He stood and walked over to her. The cool barrel pressed gently yet firmly into her temple and she was possessed of a sense of wonder divorced from fear, that this couldn't possibly be happening, she couldn't be about to die, there was much—so much—that she needed to do. At that moment everything seemed possible; it was a strange feeling to have, she thought, when one was so close to death—this surge of life, everything possible and impossible all at once—yet essentially reduced to two paths, life and death. "The odds of survival decrease with every pull of the trigger in this game, Janice."
It's about to be taken away.
"I can make it easier for you," he murmured. "If it's Dansey, you don't have to say a word. Do nothing. If it's not him, speak up. Now. Or forever hold your peace."
That wonder, that strange peace, was starting to dissolve, and what filled the void was a very raw, very real fear of death. Tears sprang to her eyes. She closed them. Her lips trembled, burdened by the truth, but she said nothing.
The gun clicked, its hammer slamming into an empty chamber.
Bardamu laughed. Her breathing shuddered as she struggled not to hyperventilate.
"Vous êtes tres courageux," he commented admiringly. "I've had grown men shit their pants and cry for their mothers during that." He placed the gun on the desk. "I like you, Janice, and I pray that you have told me the truth." He took one final look at her. "Let her go," he said, and dismissed her with a turned back.
The straight razor hacked through the rope around her wrists. This time the minion wasn't as careful and nicked the fleshy part of her palm. She sucked on the tiny wound while trying to walk out of the building with as much dignity as she could muster. And considering her hair was fucked up and she had a bloody hole in her shirt the size of Montana, it wasn't much.
Since it was likely that the Frenchman would trail her, she went about things with some degree of normalcy; storming back to either the excavation site at the catacombs or to the flat she shared with Harry would do no good. So she visited a few cafes just off Sidi Gaber Street. In the second one she drank absinthe, currently on the verge of being outlawed in Europe yet still plentiful and available in Alexandria. A pretty Englishwoman she'd met recently—unfortunately, the woman's name eluded her—had murmured something flirtatious to Janice during a dinner party: You have eyes like absinthe.
In the mirror behind the bar she could see her reflection. Her eyes, she thought, did not look like Verlaine's favorite drink, but she did notice that her hair, in the back, appeared to list off to one side, like a torpedoed sinking ship. Inspired by an additional jigger of scotch, the idea to get a haircut took a sudden, unprecedented appeal.
She knew a barber, a large, pleasant Turk, who usually cut Fayed's hair. As Janice sat in his creaking leather chair, she tried to explain that she just wanted the back even, and that was all. But she grew so lost in her own thoughts and misery—was it possible to warn Dansey, possible to get rid of the vases before anyone knew?— that when she next looked into the cracked mirror, her neck was alarmingly cool and her hair boyishly short.
"Now you really look like a man, yes?" the barber bellowed, quite pleased with himself. His hearty backslap reverberated down her spine to the oozing wound covered by her leather jacket.
She tipped him, albeit reluctantly, and left. The short hair left her feeling strangely vulnerable, and as soon as she was down the block she put her hat back on.
Next stop was Julian's flat. The poet wasn't in, but his catamite was. Ahmed invited her in—he was smoking shisha with some of his friends, other young men about town, looking to make a living through a modicum of effort. Seeing that Janice was neither rich nor sexually interested in them, they politely ignored her as they all took turns with the pipe.
She sighed and settled back on a cushion. It would be dark soon, and there would be no other option but to retreat to the camp.
Fayed's dark eyes narrowed suspiciously as Janice strode up to him, jacket slung over her shoulder, armpits dark with sweat. Without asking, he lifted the fedora off her head and gave a shriek of laughter. "What on earth did you do to your hair?"
"Nothing," she snapped, jamming the hat back on her head.
"You look like a street urchin."
"I need to talk to you." She nodded at her tent, and began walking in that direction.
"Janice!" he cried, grabbing her arm. "What happened?"
"What? I just got my hair—"
He touched her back. "Here." She had forgotten all about the knife wound.
Her eyes dropped. "Come help me with it."
In the tent she tossed the fedora on the cot, poured water from a pitcher into a large ceramic bowl, and shoved her face in it.
When she emerged from the water, Fayed was holding the first aid kit. "Take off your shirt and lie on the cot."
She gave him a mocking, flirtatious look, but removed the shirt and tossed it in a corner.
He smiled. "I am one of few resistant to your charms, I know." The Egyptian sat down behind her. "Although I confess I am glad you have taken to wearing brassieres." He dabbed at the wound with gauze and she winced as peroxide sizzled along her skin. "Not very deep. You won't need stitches. In fact, I am certain it will not scar." He was taping a bandage to her back when he finally decided to ask, "What happened?"
"Did Antoinette's husband finally catch up with you?"
"No," she groused. She sat up on the cot, swinging her legs to the ground. "It was a Frenchman," she murmured, "just not that one."
Suddenly he was in front of her, hands on her bare arms. "Bardamu?"
"About the …?"
He cursed softly. "He could have killed you."
"I know." She exhaled. "We've got to get rid of the vases. Give them back. Hide them. I don't know...."
Fayed nodded. "I agree, but Janice, what did you tell him? How did you get out of it?"
"He thinks Dansey took them, and I…I…" Her mouth went dry. "I let him believe that."
His hands slid off her arms and hung useless at his side. Go on, tell me I disappointed you. I've disappointed everyone else, why not you too? "You've signed Dansey's death warrant."
Janice shrugged helplessly. "What else could I have done?" The wound in her back was throbbing, and soon her skull took up the same rhumba of pain.
"Something other than letting an innocent man die!"
"He's not dead yet! And what the fuck makes you think he's any better than we are? Dansey is a goddamn crook. And if he’s not a killer too, I’d be surprised."
"So this is how you justify it?" Fayed retorted angrily. "The man's life will be in peril!"
Furious, she shoved him. While he was accustomed to her outbreaks of temper, this was extreme. "What was I supposed to do, Fayed? Tell him the truth? That Harry took those vases? That I helped him? Would you rather he murders my father than Dansey? What would you have done, huh? Just what the fuck would you have done?"
They stood staring at each other, breathless, hoping silence could somehow broker a solution to the situation. Then the tent’s flap flew opened and Harry Covington entered. While perversely pleased at the sight of his daughter in a state of undress with a man (as opposed to a woman), he nonetheless asked the more pressing question: "What the hell did you do to your hair?"
The gray, smoldering tip of the cigarette, couched in a long, black cigarette holder, was a scant inch from the vase that Marius Zech inspected. Zech puffed, and it blazed orange, making Harry Covington even more nervous. Harry wanted nothing more than to shove the pretentious holder and its flaming cigarette up the guy's ass and beat him to a pulp but now, firmly entrenched in middle age, he was finally learning how to pick his battles. Zech was easily six feet tall, muscular, and had a .45 holstered to his side. Not to mention there were at least two dozen other armed German soldiers outside the room where they conferred.
The SS officer smiled, and straightened from his crouch over the artifacts on the table. "Very lovely," he said to Harry. "If Herr Goebbels is not interested, I shall take them for myself."
"Fine." Harry shrugged.
"Well!" Zech exclaimed. "Please, restrain your enthusiasm, doktor." The Nazi tugged fussily at the cuffs of his uniform.
"Look, you guys aren't the only ones buying," snarled Harry.
"That is a surprise," murmured Zech. "I am certain if suspicions regarding your activities were affirmed in the international community, we would be the only ones interested."
"You're right—because there are a lot of goddamned hypocrites out there."
Marius Zech laughed. It pissed Harry off even more. "I must agree in this instance." The SS officer aimed his smoke in Harry's general direction. Even through the scrim of smoke, his blue eyes glimmered. With the eyes, the height, and the dark hair, he bore a slight resemblance to Harry's old friend Melvin Pappas and this prevented Harry from a consummate loathing of the Nazi. "Tell me, Harry, you are not withholding anything from me, are you?"
The archaeologist sneered. "Like what?"
"The Xena Scrolls, perhaps."
Harry laughed harshly. "Marius, even if I had the Scrolls, there would be no way in hell I'd sell them to you."
"Really?" The cigarette holder jerked. "How is your daughter, Harry?" Marius purred.
He tensed. "Fine."
"All recovered from that little incident in Berlin?"
The archaeologist leaned forward and gripped the edge of the table in an effort to restrain himself. "You fucking sonofabitch, if I ever find out you had a role in that, I'll kill you." His voice quivered with rage.
"Oh, yes, I am certain you would. But I assure you, it is her own behavior that is at fault here. A few broken ribs is a small price to pay for plotting against the Reich."
"You consider handing out leaflets some sorta crime? It's not like she was planning an armed takeover of the Reichstag."
The SS officer's smile was tight. "No, but that is where they would like it to go." The smile disappeared. "You should be thankful you know me—if it had not been for my influence, the girl would be in the ground."
"Marius, dear, stop."
Startled, Harry jumped. He had not heard the door open. A woman, pretty and blonde, was leaning in the doorway. "You're scaring the poor man." She grinned, and her dark eyes were mischievous.
Immediately, Marius's demeanor softened, and he returned the woman's smile. "Sorry, darling. You know sometimes it is necessary to scare sense into certain people." He threw an icy glare in Harry's direction.
"So you always tell me," the woman retorted wryly. She looked at Harry again. "I don't believe we've met."
Marius nodded at Harry. "This is the infamous Harry Covington, dear. Harry, this is my fiancee, Catherine Stoller."
Unable to resist a smile from a beautiful woman, and trying not to think of how he passed that particular characteristic on to his daughter, Harry doffed his fedora playfully.
"It is a pleasure to meet you, herr doktor. I've studied archaeology, and have a great interest in it. I have read of the Xena Scrolls, and I look forward to your discovery of them."
The broad was a charmer, Harry thought, in sharp contrast to the gloomy Marius. "Not very many people know of the Scrolls," he remarked.
"I was fortunate to meet someone who had quite an interest in them as well."
He raised an eyebrow in question.
"Oh!" Harry smiled. He had only met his friend's daughter once, many years ago when she accompanied her father to an anthropology conference in Montreal. He carried around an image of a melancholy teenager—lanky, bookish, and bespectacled—who had effortlessly—and continuously—corrected his French whenever he dared to speak the language. "She’s a nice kid."
"We studied together, at Cambridge."
"I see. You're very good friends, then?"
Something darkened in her expression. "Yes, we were—at the time."
Harry looked quickly at Marius, who appeared even grimmer somehow at this mention of Melvin Pappas's daughter. An awkward silence fell over them. But then Catherine unleashed another smile. "Well, I suppose I should let you conclude your business. I'm sorry to interrupt, darling, I thought you were finished."
"That's quite all right, dear," Marius murmured, conciliatory.
Catherine did hesitate in the doorway for a moment, her hand resting on the knob. Harry did not know what to make of the way she looked at him; was she flirting? He couldn't understand why a young, pretty woman would do that—it wasn't as if he was in her league, or if he rated any sort of importance in his dealings with Marius. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, buddy. But there was something weighted and significant about the final glance that Catherine Stoller gave him. "Perhaps we will meet again someday," she said softly, and left.
"Cheer up," Janice was saying to him. "It's free food, and free drinks."
She was ahead of him on the steps leading up to Julian Manley-Finch's flat. Julian was a British poet, an expatriate renowned in the city for his parties more than his writing, and for the fact that the only thing remotely masculine about him was the first part of his surname.
"I can't stand that frigging fruit," Harry muttered.
"Be nice," his daughter snarled at him.
The door was already ajar when they reached it, and he pushed it open. Julian had knocked away walls, leaving a vast foyer in which dozens of partygoers were jammed. The poet himself sat atop a chiffarobe, Buddha-esque and commanding in his caftan, his merry voice floating above the buzz of the crowd. Immediately he spotted Harry. "Harold!" he shrieked ecstatically. "My dear, I'm tickled you came! How are you? You're looking very sunburnt—let me guess, digging digging digging—so where is—" The poet's babble ceased and he leapt from his perch. A hush spread over the group like spilt milk; the sudden movement of their rotund host signaled something of importance, of that they were certain.
"There!" he proclaimed in the deep, vibrating voice used for public readings and decantations. He pointed, and the crowd followed the beam of his attention to Janice, leaning in the doorway, pushing back her fedora with an amiable swipe of her hand. "There she is. Golden as a resurrected goddess. Polymath love's androgynous advocate. My strapping lad. My diamond in the rough. My brute angel." Each phrase drew him closer to her, until he was standing within arm's length. The pampered pads of his fingers touched her jaw. "Janice," he burred. "How I wish you were a boy."
Janice waited a beat, gathering the crowd in her hands. In the background she saw her father squirm with distaste; he could barely keep his animosity toward the poet under wraps. She ignored him. "Julian," she drawled, "you didn't forget my whiskey again, did you?"
He burst into laughter, and everyone in the room—save Harry—followed suit. "Of course not! I haven't forgotten that pouty little fit you threw at my last soiree. I discovered a lovely bottle of Jameson's, just for you. Come." He grasped her warm, dry hand and led her through the group into the dining area. Ahmed, ever so well trained, handed her the whiskey over ice. Julian smiled as she downed the drink in one gulp. "Oooh. Nice," she growled pleasantly.
"That's not the only thing I have for you." The poet sipped at his vodka gimlet and lowered his voice. "There's a girl. Armenian. Very handsome."
Janice put the glass to her lips once again, just to get the final last icy hot drops on her tongue. She stared at the empty glass. "Keep talkin.'"
"She's lovely. Charming smile, speaks English fairly well, works for a banker, has a brother who's hung like a horse." Julian paused. "Not that you need to know that."
"Blue eyes?" Janice stared wistfully into the empty glass, as if a divination rested among the ice cubes.
"Blue eyes? Blue eyes?" the poet spat incredulously. "Don't be difficult, dear. I swear, you're as bad as a Nazi." Julian then clapped a hand over his mouth, then glanced around as surreptitiously as he could manage. "Dammit, I've got to watch that," he whispered to Janice. "They're everywhere these days."
"I know." She frowned. He took her glass and had the boy fill it up again.
She silenced him with a look.
"All right, all right. I shan't say anything else." He patted her arm.
This time she sipped the whiskey, savoring the burn.
Harry drained his glass and looked around. It wasn't exactly late—unless you were an archaeologist. He had every intention of getting up in the morning and scouting some locales outside the city. And to do that he needed Janice along; the girl's instincts were remarkable, he admitted to himself, when it came to knowing where to dig. Or maybe, he quietly hoped, she just had a kind of luck that he didn't have.
The slow music, which many in the room obviously found seductive, merely made him sleepy. He noticed that people were pairing off at an alarming rate, and either leaving the party, or cuddling wherever they sat or stood. Uh-oh. Dread prickled him. Where was that goddamn brat?
He wound his way through Julian's expansive flat, and parted a shimmering curtain of multicolored beads leading into a room of people not unlike the one he had just left. Except in this room, the smell of opiates was heavy in the air. The thrumming music slinked around him as he picked his way through many a prone body. Then he stopped and stood still.
Janice was sitting in an open window, facing a young woman, beautiful, dark, and voluptuous. They were literally doing nothing—no speaking, touching, or kissing. And while that should have relieved him, it possessed instead the opposite effect. For he watched as his daughter's gaze alone—both tender and hungry, needy yet dominating—made love to another woman.
He knew the inevitable path that it would take. This was what she really wanted. She's only human. He tried to be calm, to be rational, to see it, perhaps, from that point of view. But he couldn't. Stumbling through the darkness and his own confusion, he left, barely distinguishing between the dim labyrinth of Julian's hallways and the winding streets that led back to their flat.
He remained awake half the night, drinking the last of the emergency bourbon he had hidden in a shoebox, deep in the recesses of the closet. He had thought it would stop, that it was something she would grow out of. Women formed these intense attachments sometimes, he thought. Yet the bitter chaser to this thought was, what the hell do I know about women? Except how to fuck them. And leave them. Not surprisingly, he thought of his wife. Who had been in such a hurry to leave him that she forgot about Janice and what was best for the kid.
The turmoil of his thoughts—and the booze—finally wore him down, and he fell asleep, sprawled across the couch.
The chill of dawn and the smell of coffee from the hot plate woke him up. Harry could hear her in the bathroom, washing up. She was whistling. Whether she was aware of it or not, he had come to identify it as something she did after getting laid.
Janice emerged from the bathroom, humming and wiping her hands. She wore an A-frame undershirt, with suspenders hanging limp against her khakis, lightly batting her legs as she moved across the room. "Hey, you're up!" she said cheerily.
"Aren't you cold?" he grunted. "It's freezing, for Christ's sake."
She raised an eyebrow. "Good mornin' to you too," she retorted sarcastically, then, to assuage him, she picked up a sweater lying across a chair.
As she put it on, he noticed the ropy muscles entwined under the skin of her bronzed arms, and the firm definition of her shoulders. She had spent the summer working side by side with the men in their camp. She joked with them, played cards with them, listened to their stories, shared meals with them. She was not just the kid anymore. She was still beautiful, and he doubted she would ever be less than that. But she was different now. She was changing.
Janice caught him staring at her. "What is it?" she mumbled apprehensively. Force of habit compelled her to reach back for imaginary long hair trapped in the collar. But she stopped in mid-reach and instead nervously raked her fingers over the short blonde locks.
"Nothing," he croaked.
She should be married.
Her mouth twitched skeptically, but she let it pass.
She should be in America.
"Okay. You hungry?"
She should be safe.
"Oh." She paused before attending to the hot plate. "You should eat somethin', we'll be out there all day," she chided gently.
Harry rubbed his throbbing temple. Damn, I can't drink the way I used to. He couldn't keep up the pretense. "I waited for you to come home," he blurted.
"I figured as much, since you were on the couch," Janice replied uneasily. "I'm sorry, I tried to find you, to tell you I'd be late…" She trailed off awkwardly.
His throat felt hot and hoarse, and all the common sense in the world could not tackle the angry, taunting question before it left his mouth. "How was she?"
Bitterly triumphant, Harry noted that it caught her by surprise. Janice stared quickly at the ground, as if ashamed, but after a moment her defiant eyes and cool, even tone battled back. "Do you really want to know?"
"Jesus Christ," he rasped. "What you do could get you killed someday." He forced himself to meet her eyes, much greener than his had ever been. "You can't trust anybody out here."
"I know," she said quietly. And she did. She was careful, but it was always a risk, especially in this part of the world.
He continued, in the same ragged voice, "Dammit...why?"
"It's just—what I feel." She wanted to go to him, and touch him, hold him, but she knew he would only pull away. "It has nothing to do with you." She wasn't sure of much, but of this, she was certain.
"You had a boyfriend once. That Harvard fellow—you were even going to marry him. What happened?"
Janice blinked. She had not expected her father to bring up Dan. "What happened?" she echoed sarcastically. "This happened: I figured out what I was." She saw that her father still looked perplexed, as if he couldn't imagine why that would prevent her from marrying a man. "Use your head. It hardly seemed fair to him, don't you think? He's my friend. He deserves a woman who can love him completely." She jammed her hands into her pockets. "And I loved him, but not...passionately." She felt her face grow hot with a blush. It felt excruciating, to talk about something like this with her father. Her boot dug at a scrape on the bare floor. "Shit, Harry, you never even liked Dan."
"He was a milksop," her father confirmed gloomily. "But if you met a real man, a good man…you might…y'know, feel something. 'Cause that was just one guy, Janice. One guy."
"Sweet Jesus, I didn't lack opportunities! I just wasn't interested."
He frowned, but then his eyes grew bright with another ill-informed attempt at finding a cause of his daughter's malady. "Wait." He licked his lips. "It was—what happened with Cherif, wasn't it?"
"No." she interrupted firmly. She did not want this conflated with the rape attempt that happened—in Alexandria—years ago. "Listen, I've felt—these things for a long time. Ever since I was a child."
And thus Harry was back at square one: blaming himself. "You can't tell me this has nothing to do with the way you were raised. I should've had your mother take you."
"She didn't want me," Janice replied simply. The alchemy of her belief had transformed this into fact.
"Not true," Harry muttered. "That's not true. It was more complicated than that."
With a disbelieving roll of the eyes, she sat down beside him on the old couch.
Harry was torn between taking her in his arms and giving her a good shake. She was watching him with her ruthless stare, and in doing so reminded him of her mother. He stared at his feet and was surprised to see his socks. She must have taken off his shoes last night, he realized. "I still think it's wrong," he muttered, desperately clinging to his beliefs.
He knew what she was thinking. In fact, he could hear the accusations quite clearly, for she had said them before: Wasn't it wrong of you to sell every priceless antiquary you've ever unearthed on the black market? To share drinks and secrets with those Nazi pricks? Her jaw clenched. Just like me, that expression, he thought. It pained him to see parts of himself—those angry, stubborn parts—in her. He felt that inexorable, familiar sense of failure drowning him at these moments, when he looked at her.
But instead of a lecture, she merely asked one question. "What do you want from me?"
"I want you to stop."
"I can't change." She paused and leaned forward intently, elbows on knees, yet not looking at him. "You know I tried."
"Stupid goddamn quacks. We can try elsewhere. I hear in Zurich—"
She cut him off with a furious litany: "The specialist in Berlin, the hypnotist in London, the psychiatrist in Vienna...especially the fucking psychiatrist, Harry."
"Come on, it was worth a shot."
"It was bullshit!" she roared. "I mean—" She threw up her hands. "—cigars! What the hell was he asking me about cigars for?"
"All right, all right!" he snapped. "That’s enough!"
"Is it?" she yelled back. "I'm sick of trying to fight this. If you can't accept me, I'll leave. Is that what you want?"
Harry Covington felt tears in his eyes. He hadn't cried since his wife left him. He didn't want to start again. "Ah, shit. No, I don't want you to go. I just...I've always wanted you to be happy."
"I am happy," Janice replied. As a prelude to a hug, she leaned into him, silently demanding his affection, and his love.
He surrendered to it, and wrapped his arms around her. Her grip was strong; he had forgotten how fierce, how affectionate her embrace could be. What kind of happiness can this possibly bring you? "You don't understand. I don't want you to be alone."
She laughed softly in his ear. "I'm not. I have you. I have our work."
Harry repeated the words helplessly: "You don't understand." His voice felt withered and he couldn't explain it any further. I want you to find someone to love. He couldn't stop the thought, inevitable as rain: I don't want you to be like me.
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