DISCLAIMER: Ownership I don't own Xena, Gabrielle, Mel, Janice or the other familiar names. They belong to RenPic and Universal. I receive no monetary gain - this story is just for fun. Sex nothing very explicit, but I believe Xena and Gabrielle and their 20th century counterparts had romantic feelings for each other. If this offends you, look elsewhere! Violence yes, nothing more than you'd see in the show.
HISTORICAL SETTING: the story is set in May/June 1940. Most of continental Europe has fallen to Nazi Germany. Churchill has recently taken over as British PM. The USA is yet to enter the war. In this timeline, the discovery of the Xena Scrolls took place early in 1940 and the chakram was removed intact from the Tomb of Ares.
FEEDBACK: This is my first fanfic. I hope you enjoy it! Feedback gratefully received quillbard73[at]yahoo.co.uk
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Keep Calm and Battle On
By Quill Bard
Dr Janice Covington looked out on the deepening twilight outside her window. In the distance she could hear the sounds of student revelry from the bars of Georgetown. Starting early tonight, she smiled to herself before turning from the window to survey her living room.
The room, along with the rest of the small house which represented her inheritance from her father, and indeed her only asset, looked tired and in need of some serious TLC. Janice had stopped the maid some months ago on the grounds that she was rarely at home and in any case it was a luxury she couldn't really afford. Looking at the clutter and dust around her however, Janice found herself rueing that decision.
The students' shouting had retreated and the silence in the house was becoming oppressive. Janice sighed and made her way to the sideboard, where a bottle of cheap Scotch stood on a battered pewter tray. She poured herself a large measure and flopped down on the overstuffed armchair. There was a packet of cheroots on the nearby table and Janice absent-mindedly lit one before losing herself in her thoughts.
It had been six weeks since their return from Macedonia. After the bizarre events in the tomb, the journey home had been uneventful, if somewhat tedious. Alert to the risks of journeying with precious antiquities, especially in wartime, Janice had called in a few favours from old friends who she knew could assist in crossing borders with minimal difficulty, and she and Mel Pappas had ultimately travelled back to the States without incident via neutral Lisbon.
On arrival in the US, Mel had immediately hurried back to South Carolina, citing "family business" to attend to. She left the scrolls with Janice, promising to return to DC to work on the translation.
Privately, Janice doubted Mel's resolve. The events in Macedonia had left the shy Southerner badly shaken, and Janice suspected that once back in the bosom of her wealthy family, Mel would revert to her old life of safe and genteel tedium.
The thought of never seeing Mel again had left Janice feeling unaccountably bereft. The strength of the feeling of loss had disturbed her. The two women had, after all, only known each other for a very short time and they had little in common beyond a shared inexplicable experience and some daddy issues. Nonetheless the feeling was real and Janice was at a loss as to how to explain it.
Mel had been true to her word however and two weeks ago she had shown up at Georgetown brimming with enthusiasm about the translation project. Since then, however, she had spent most of her time ensconced in the libraries with the University's Assistant Professor of Ancient Languages, James Livingstone. With the exception of a couple of rushed lunches, Janice had barely seen her companion.
Although she would never admit it, Janice had felt a crushing disappointment at this apparent rejection. This disappointment was mixed with a stranger feeling, one of jealousy at the amount of time Mel was spending with the handsome Livingstone. For a moment Janice entertained a wild fantasy of storming into Livingstone's study and demanding she join the translation sessions.
Janice sighed again and drained her whisky. She was being irrational, she knew it. Mel's knowledge of ancient scripts far surpassed hers and her trying to muscle in on the translations would add little value. It also risked pissing off Livingstone and his fellow dons and the reality was that, even if she sensed she was often looked down on, the Classics and Ancient History Faculty had been good to her over the years; providing her with study space and access to libraries, hiring her to give the occasional series of lectures; putting her in touch with wealthy but dim students who were willing to pay for tutoring; the list went on. Without the University's patronage Janice would have been unable to finance her relentless search for the scrolls; well, at least not without a little smuggling of and trading in antiquities, something she had largely steered away from since she obtained her doctorate.
Pull yourself together, Covington, she told herself before heading back to the sideboard to refresh her drink.
Melinda Pappas's shoes clicked surprisingly loudly as she walked briskly down the side street leading away from the campus. She walked more purposefully than she felt but she knew if she dwelled on these feelings her resolve was likely to falter and she would end up back at the small but cosy room the Faculty had arranged for her.
Mel had done her best to hide her disappointment at the offer of accommodation. Not that she hadn't appreciated the kindness, but she had harboured a secret hope that she might stay with Janice in her house just off campus. No such suggestion had been forthcoming, however, and so she smiled sweetly and accepted the key to her new lodgings. No doubt she would have plenty of time to see Janice in the coming weeks.
But the long hours spent poring over the scrolls had taken their toll, and Assistant Professor Livingstone had wasted no time in arranging evening events, dinners and meet the Faculty drinks parties in the evenings. To Mel's disappointment, Janice never seemed to be invited to any of these events and she got the distinct impression that the unconventional Dr Covington was seen as something of an embarrassment. A wild card who was worth keeping on retainer on the off chance that she found something significant during one of her madcap expeditions, but not someone you'd invite for canapés in the Dean's apartments.
Mel felt a surge of anger at the thought of Janice being dismissed in this way by a bunch of pompous old men. How dare they, she muttered to herself. The young archeologist had already achieved more than these dinosaurs had managed in entire careers. So what if she was a bit rough around the edges and didn't always dress the way that was expected of her? She had more passion for her subject than a whole faculty full of stuffed shirts. And a whole lot more charisma too, Mel reminded herself with a smile.
Indeed, it was thoughts of Janice that sustained Mel throughout the seemingly interminable month in South Carolina. It seemed that her adventure in Europe had scandalised the family and her mother made it very clear that no future excursions of this nature would be tolerated. It was, instead, time for her to settle down, ideally with Clarence Abnett, scion of a local farming dynasty. Clarence had recently graduated business school and was ready to take himself a wife. "You're not getting any younger, Melinda!" had been her mother's mantra for the entire visit.
Mel had allowed herself to attend three events at which Clarence was in attendance. At each she had felt more and more repulsed until matters came to a head with an incident at a party thrown by her mother. An inebriated Clarence had become increasingly boorish and unpleasant, finally losing his temper completely, swearing at a server and throwing a glass at her. Mel realised at that point she had had enough. She slapped his face in front of an appalled yet fascinated audience before retreating to her room and packing a small valise.
She took the train to Washington early next morning. She didn't even wait to hear her mother's objections and threats to cut her out of the family inheritance. Mel Pappas senior had left his daughter a small bequest; not a fortune by any means but enough to keep her comfortable until she secured a suitable academic position. Georgetown had already offered her work translating the scrolls and Mel was confident that the significance of the find would soon be widely recognised, and the offers would come flooding in.
Plus, she said to herself as she settled into her seat for the long journey, I did promise Janice didn't I? It was a shame that the urgency of her departure had not left her time to write in advance.
Janice had just settled down with her second Scotch when she became aware of a noise outside the house. Footsteps. Coming closer. There's someone on the property.
Carefully, Janice set down her glass and reached across the table for her revolver. She always kept it close to hand. She'd been in enough hairy situations to know that it truly was Samuel Colt, and not God, who made men and women equal.
Who could it be? Janice never had visitors, especially at night. Since the events in the tomb she'd felt increasingly on edge, and on a couple of occasions she had sensed someone following her. She glanced over at a canvas bag in the corner. Could someone have found out about the circular weapon, the salvage of which she had missed out of her official report?
Then again, there was that gambling debt from 1938 that she'd never quite paid off. Perhaps Gino really had made good on his threats to send the heavies after her. Janice snorted. "Always thought you were a phoney, Gino. Guess I'm about to find out, huh?" Grasping the gun tightly in her right hand, she crept towards the front door only to see to her horror that the handle was already turning. "Musta forgot to lock it" she muttered to herself in disgust.
Nothing else for it now. As the door opened Janice leapt in front of the opening and pointed her revolver at it, yelling "Get your goddamn hands in the air!" in her best scary voice
only to be confronted by a wide-eyed Mel Pappas, dutifully raising her hands in abject terror.
Janice was almost as shocked as her visitor. She lowered her revolver and sighed. "Don't teach ya to knock south of the Mason Dixon, huh, Scarlett O'Hara?"
It came out harsher than she'd intended, and Janice immediately regretted her words when she saw the tears welling up in Mel's eyes. "Ah, look, I'm sorry. You just gave me a fright that's all. There's been so much weird stuff happening lately and, well, I don't get too many visitors. Why don't you come in?"
Mel nodded and made her way into the tiny parlour. She looked around as she did so, taking in the floor to ceiling shelves stuffed with old books and obscure periodicals, the map of Europe and Asia covered with pins, and the canvas bag she suspected contained the mysterious weapon.
"Siddown, siddown" Janice muttered, sweeping a bunch of papers off an armchair that had seen better days.
Mel perched on the edge of the cushions. "I am so sorry Janice. I rang the bell but there was no answer. I could see a light on and thought you must be home. I just thought-"
Janice cut her off with a wave of her hand. "Nah, don't apologise sweetheart. That damn bell. Yet another thing I need to get fixed." She ran her hands through her hair. "Can I get you a drink, Mel?"
"Why thank you! May I have an iced tea?" Mel tried not to stare at Janice, who was dressed in a man's button down shirt which reached almost to her knees and not much else.
Janice snorted with laughter. "This look like an iced tea kinda place, darlin'? I got some Scotch here. Or I could get ya a coffee I guess " her voice trailed off. The room suddenly seemed gloomy, and she felt ashamed of the shabbiness around her. She made a decision. "You had dinner yet Mel?"
Mel shook her head. Janice nodded. "Me neither. There's a great little place round the corner. How about I get dressed and you and me can have a proper catch up, huh?"
Mel's eyes shone. Things were definitely looking up.
Janice pushed open the door to the small pub. She was interrupted by a large man who emerged from behind the bar and threw his arms around her dramatically.
"Ah, Miss Covington, how wonderful to see you! And who is this vision of loveliness you bring with you?" The large man was surprisingly graceful as he slipped behind Janice to take Mel's hand and kiss it gently. Mel giggled girlishly.
"It's Dr Covington, Tony and she's with me so get your paws off her." Janice spoke roughly, but there was affection in her tone. "We're just here for a quiet drink and a bite to eat, get it?"
Tony smirked and retreated behind the bar. "Sure thing, Doc. Just let me know when you're ready to order, yeah?"
"Well, we'll have a couple of beers to start with," Janice called out as she slid into a wood panelled booth on the far side of the pub. "Make 'em large ones".
She looked at Mel, who was gazing thoughtfully across the bar. "Places like this always have the best food, yeah?" No answer. "Dime for your thoughts, Melinda?"
Mel shook herself. "Um, sorry. I was miles away." Hmm, she thought to herself, miles away thinking how nice it was to hear Janice say I was with her. I know she didn't mean it like that, but still
"So, whaddya wanna eat Mel? There's not a great deal of choice if I'm honest. The burgers are good."
Mel squinted at the board next to the bar, unable to make it out in the poor light. "Burgers sound wonderful," she smiled at her companion.
"Great." At that moment the beers arrived and Janice took the opportunity to order two burgers with the works. She took a sip from her beer then touched her glass to Mel's. "To adventure and discovery," she said, unsure where that came from.
It sounded stupid even as she said it and Janice winced in embarrassment but to her surprise Mel smiled and repeated the toast. Ah well, Janice thought to herself, perhaps I haven't put her off future expeditions after all. She took a long pull from her beer and adopted her serious face to look at Mel. "So, Mel Pappas, what brought you to my door this fine evening?"
Mel sipped her beer before answering. "Well, I thought um well, it would just be nice for us to catch up, you know? Also," she added hastily, "I could update you on our progress in translating the scrolls."
Janice nodded. "Yeah, they've been kinda keeping me in the dark about the whole thing. Although, one of Livingstone's flunkies did tell me they're pretty convinced the scrolls are authentic."
Mel indicated her assent. "That's right. The parchment is consistent with what we know was used in the Eastern Mediterranean area from the 2nd century BC onwards. The script itself is a dialect of Ancient Greek that would have been spoken in the Thrace and Chalcidice areas during the late classical period. We don't know any contemporary scholars who would know enough to be able to pull off a hoax like this Well, maybe my daddy, Lord rest his soul, but even then "
Janice whistled through her teeth and took another swig from her beer. "So, it's the real deal huh?"
"Looks like it."
"Huh." Janice sat back. If only Harry had lived to see his theories vindicated. She shook her head. "So, whadda we know so far?"
Mel folded her hands and considered how best to answer that question. "There are 11 scrolls. The author is named as Gabrielle of Poteidaia. They chronicle her travels with a female warrior called Xena over an 18 month period, probably during the 2nd or 1st centuries BC. Gabrielle clearly had considerable literary talent but her use of local dialect, rather than Classical Greek, and an idiosyncratic style indicates that she had little or no formal training." Mel paused to clear her throat and take a drink from her beer glass. "As well chronicling specific battles and political intrigues she and Xena were involved in, Gabrielle describes the day to day lives of the people of the region; economic activity, religious belief, cultural life etc."
At that moment Tony arrived with the burgers. Janice nodded her acknowledgement and gestured for another round of drinks. She took a bite of her dinner and smiled at Mel. "Go on."
Mel eyed the greasy behemoth on the plate in front of her. She took her knife and fork and began cutting it into manageable bites. "Gabrielle also discusses her own development under Xena's tutelage. She never boasts about this and in fact she's often quite self-deprecating. Nevertheless it's clear that by the end of the period covered by the scrolls, Gabrielle had become a warrior in her own right albeit one who fought with a staff so as to incapacitate, rather than kill. It's fascinating, really."
Janice took a gulp of her second beer, obscurely pleased that this woman who might be her ancestor had actually been something more than an irritating tagalong. "Anything else?"
Mel looked down at her plate in embarrassment. She felt her cheeks reddening. "Well, Janice, you have to understand that we're still working on the translation. There's a long way to go. Some of the words are unfamiliar "
"In a few of the scrolls Gabrielle discusses her growing attraction towards Xena. This attraction seemed to have been mutual. It looks as though Ah " Mel took another drink to steady herself. "Well, it looks as though they may have become lovers. Oh I'm so sorry Janice! I know how long you've admired Xena and then we learn that she was, oh "
Janice burst out laughing. "So she liked girls as well as boys? So what?" She looked across the table at Mel's shocked face. "C'mon, Mel, you know how it was in Ancient Greece! The Spartans, Sappho, Lesbos Those guys and gals weren't as uptight as we are these days!"
Mel considered this. Janice was of course correct about the sexual proclivities of the Ancient Greeks. Maybe she was just being uptight. She looked down at the remains of her burger. She had to admit there was something refreshing about Janice's "anything goes" attitude. "Anyway," she continued, "As I said the scrolls cover only a relatively short period. The work you've done on this in the past well the work you and your daddy did do you have any idea how long Xena's career might have been?"
Hmm. Tricky question. Janice sighed. "It's kinda hard to say. There are references in sources around the world to a Greek warrior woman with preternatural strength and skill. Some of the sources mention a blonde female companion " Janice's voice tailed off. Now she thought about it, she remembered that some of those sources described the blonde's prowess on the battlefield as being equal to that of her dark companion. How had she missed this? Huh. She turned her attention back to Mel. "Thing is, a lot of the references haven't been authenticated and the whole thing is controversial. My father was always on about them and people thought he was nuts. If they are genuine, though, then it looks as though Xena was active for a couple of decades at least some of that time with Gabrielle, some of it not. It also looks as though they travelled extensively to Northern Europe and even to Asia."
Mel absorbed this. "So, there's more scrolls to be found then?"
"Yeah, I think so."
"When do we start?"
A third round of beers and both women were feeling pleasantly mellow. Janice was thrilled that Mel was as keen as she was to continue their quest for the scrolls although, Janice cautioned, this might have to wait while Europe was convulsed by war. The discussion had moved on from their supposed ancestors to the present day.
"So if Europe's not an option at the moment, what will you do next?"
Janice fished a pack of cheroots out of her jacket pocket, selected one and lit it. She took a deep draw before answering. "I'm not sure. I've been offered a gig south of the border, excavating some Aztec ruins. I dunno. Might be okay."
"You'd rather be looking for the scrolls, though?"
"I would, but I just don't think that's an option at the moment."
They lapsed into companionable silence. Janice pondered to herself how much was was enjoying the evening. Mel was surprisingly easy to talk to. It was, she mused, very different to the long drinking sessions and poker games she was used to. She'd like to spend more time with the Southerner, but she was going crazy hanging around on the fringes of academe, looked down upon by the old fools at the Faculty. She had to get out in the field. Would Mel come with her?
"How old are you, Janice?" Mel said unexpectedly. "Oh, forgive me, that was so rude-"
"Don't be silly, Mel. I don't mind you asking at all. I'm 26. Why do you ask?"
"Don't you ever worry about, you know " Mel's face was screwed up with anxiety. "Being left on the shelf?"
"What? Oh God, no. Do I look like the marrying type to you?"
Mel gazed at her, unsure what to say next.
"What's this about, Mel?"
A tear leaked out of Mel's left eye. "My momma She told me I was gonna be left on the shelf An old maid "
"Goddamnit woman, what are you talking about? You're a goddess! You could have any man you wanted. How old are you anyway?"
Mel sniffed. "I'm 24 Janice! My two younger sisters are already married and I-"
"Jeez Mel, would you listen to yourself? I thought you wanted to have adventures and a career of your own? There's plenty of time for settling down. Now, come on. I think we should get you home."
As they stepped out of the bar Janice glanced at her watch. Hmm, it was later than she thought. She looked at Mel, who was clearly a little tipsy. "Hey Mel. I don't think you should be walking home alone at this time of night. Why don't you stay over at mine? I've got a spare room that never gets used "
Mel readily agreed and the two women turned towards the Covington residence, Janice gently steering her friend in the right direction. "How are the digs on campus anyway?"
"I well it's very kind of the Faculty to arrange for them for me, but um "
"Lemme guess," Janice turned the key, "They suck, huh? And Livingstone's always hanging around?"
"Um, well. Yes."
"Tell ya what. If your night here isn't too uncomfortable, why not just stay here with me? It's only a 10 minute walk to the campus but it gives you a break from all those academic asses. And I never stay here too long. Itchy feet, ya know. So you'd have the place to yourself."
Mel nodded happily. "I think I'd like that."
"Great. Well, you can start moving your stuff in tomorrow. I've giving a seminar at Jefferson Ladies' College at 2. But I'm around after that if you need any help."
"I didn't bring very much with me, I can probably manage. But thank you."
Janice awoke to light streaming into her bedroom and just the faintest ghost of a hangover. "Gettin' soft in your old age, Covington," she mumbled to herself before heading to the tiny bathroom.
Suitably refreshed, she wandered down the steep and narrow staircase in search of coffee. There was a note on the kitchen bench.
I had an early meeting at the Faculty this morning and didn't want to wake you. Thank you so much for your kind hospitality last night. I can't wait to move into your spare room!
See you tonight
PS I forgot to say earlier, but Assistant Professor Livingstone is trying to arrange a meeting with both of us. He didn't say what it was about
Janice grunted. "Kind hospitality, huh? I guess that's one way to describe threatening a girl with a pistol. I guess Southerners really are that polite." She put the coffee on and began searching for something for breakfast. "Hmm. All out of eggs, bread is stale " she shook her head and checked the clock above the stove. Plenty of time to grab a late breakfast at her favourite diner and be at Jefferson in time for the seminar. Mind made up, she emptied the coffee pot into the sink and headed out the door.
The diner was more than half empty. Janice selected a table beside the window and unfolded her copy of the Washington Post. "Urgh."
"Hey there Dr Janice! You say something?"
"Ah, hey there Marcia." Janice sat back to allow the waitress to pour her coffee. "Nah, it's just the War. Nazi bastards running riot across Europe, seems like no one can withstand them Hmm, well at least Churchill's in charge in England now. I guess that's something."
Marcia cocked her head. "What's that hon? I'm not following it, I've given up reading the newspapers. Never any good news. Anyway," she brightened. "Can I get our favourite archeologist some breakfast?"
Janice nodded. "Bacon, sausage, eggs over easy. Toast on the side."
"You got it hon." Marcia returned her pencil to its resting place behind her left ear. "That's a real pretty outfit you got on, Doc."
Janice looked down at her navy pencil skirt and lemon blouse combo. "Thanks Marcia. I'm teaching at Jefferson this afternoon. Gotta look the part. You know how those rich broads are. Conservative don't cut it! Don't wanna frighten the horses."
Marcia snorted and sashayed over to the serving counter.
Janice surveyed the room. A gaggle of perfectly coiffed, smartly dressed, obviously well-heeled young women sat in front of her, all clutching notebooks and gazing expectantly. "So " She began. "This week I'm covering for Mr Davis who is, unfortunately, indisposed." Not for the first time, she added silently. Matthew Davis was a raving alcoholic who missed at least four weeks every semester, either on an epic bender or recovering from one. The college frequently called on Janice to cover, and in fairness they paid her handsomely for doing so. She had, however, been warned by the college dean to avoid "confusing the young ladies" with her iconoclastic theories. Well fair enough. Stick to the syllabus, Covington, Janice told herself.
"So, today we're going to be discussing the significance of the Battle of Salamis," Janice continued. "I trust everyone has had a chance to study chapter 8?"
75 minutes later and the seminar was winding down, when a door at the back of the room opened and Mel slipped in. To her surprise, Janice involuntarily broke into a wide smile, which she did her best to cover up by clearing her throat. "In conclusion, in considering Salamis, don't ignore the contribution of Artemisia. Who was, after all," here Janice allowed a mischievous grin to cross her face, "not the only female warrior from the classical period. Thank you ladies. Mr Davis will hopefully have recovered to take next week's class."
The students filed out and Mel hurried to the front of the classroom. "Oh Janice, I'm so sorry to bother you at work! But he said it couldn't wait and I didn't know what else to do."
"No problem Mel, but what are you talking about? What's going on?"
Mel leaned forward and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, even though there was no one else in the room. "Livingstone! You know he wanted to meet us "
"Ah Jeez, Mel, is that it? That pompous ass can wait! I'm not at his damn beck and call."
If Mel was shocked by the blonde woman's language she didn't show it. "I really think this is important, Janice," she said quietly. "I don't know what it is But I know it's important. I can feel it."
Janice sighed and bit back another smart-aleck reply. "Ah, hell, I've got nothing else planned this afternoon. Let's walk over there together. I can help ya pack when the meeting's over."
Mel smiled and clasped her hands together in obvious pleasure at such a potentially difficult task being accomplished with relatively little resistance. Janice picked up her papers and the two women walked out into the late Spring sunshine.
"Do you like teaching, Janice?" inquired Mel as they turned away from Jefferson towards the main university campus.
Janice considered this. "I like educating, sure. I like having the chance to discuss history and mythology with intelligent people. But I find it frustrating teaching those girls. Some of them have great minds. But most of them are just spending four years here, at great expense, in the hope of meeting an eligible bachelor from Georgetown or one of the other schools round here. They'll get married at 22 and become perfect little wives, never giving another thought to Salamis, or Thermopylae, or the impact of the classical world on the way we live today." She sighed. "It pisses me off, if I'm honest."
Mel shook her head. "Those girls reminded me of me."
"Ah, come on now Mel! That's not what I meant!"
"No, I know. But if that's what you're brought up to expect, it's hard to break out of it. I was lucky, in a way. My daddy always wanted me to study ancient languages. After he passed, when I saw the correspondence between him and your daddy, and then heard you were in Macedonia well it just seemed too good to be true really."
"Well there ya go. Look how that turned out. A groundbreaking discovery. Can't see any of those dames doing that."
The two women walked in silence for a few moments as the Faculty building loomed up ahead of them. "You must have been a real prodigy, Janice," Mel said suddenly.
"Only 26 and you've been a doctor for at least 3 years."
Ah. Yes. How to explain it? The crazy adolescence she'd experienced? Janice paused, collecting her thoughts. "You gotta understand, Mel, I've been living and breathing this stuff day in day out since I was 12 years old. After Mom left" urgh, why did it still feel so hard to say that? "After Mom left, it was just me and my Dad. He couldn't stay at home for long. He dragged me around Europe, from dig to dig. I didn't have much option but to take an interest. So, yeah, I finished my undergrad degree a couple of years early, then the PhD kinda followed straight after. Pretty much all of it via correspondence course. My doctoral thesis was a bit of a gamble though. I thought they might think it was too out there even for Harry Covington's daughter. Luckily, my supervisor was supportive."
"Amazons of the Steppes: Lost Tribes of the Ancient World," said Mel unexpectedly. She smiled shyly at Janice's shocked face. "I called up a copy from the University library in SC. I thought it was fascinating."
Well, well, well. Janice whistled to herself. There was clearly a lot of surprises when it came to Mel Pappas Jr.
"Come in, ladies." A harassed-looking Assistant Professor Livingstone opened the door of his study and ushered his guests inside. "I am sorry for the short notice, but this really couldn't wait." He gestured towards a chair by the side of the large oak desk, where sat a grim-faced man who appeared to be in his mid-50s. "This is Edward Bolton. He's an associate of mine based at the British embassy. Edward this is Dr Janice Covington archeologist of note - and this is Miss Melinda Pappas, who is working with me on a translation project."
Bolton nodded at the two women. "Dr Covington. Miss Pappas."
Mel and Janice exchanged looks. "It's lovely to meet you Mr Bolton," said Mel in her most charming Southern drawl. "But what in the name of goodness might a busy diplomat want with a pair of classical scholars?"
"Not sure I appreciate being summoned, either," grumbled Janice. "We're not naughty kids being summoned to the headmaster's office, ya know?"
Bolton took a deep breath. "I am sorry for the cloak and dagger nature of all of this. It's not how I normally like to do business." He reached into a pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. "But there's a war on, and there's not always time to obey the usual social niceties." Both Janice and Livingstone took a smoke from the proffered packet. Mel demurred politely.
There was a knock at the door and one of the Faculty secretaries entered with a tray of coffees and pastries. Livingstone nodded his thanks and the room remained silent for a few seconds before he cleared his throat. "Coffee, anyone?"
Bolton shook his head. "Do you have anything stronger, James? I think we're going to need it."
Livingstone turned round in his chair and opened a cupboard behind the desk. A bottle of whiskey and four tumblers emerged. "You're right. Coffee isn't going to cut it today." He began pouring measures very slowly and with exaggerated care.
"Fellas." Janice said with some irritation. "Any chance of finding out what this is all about any time soon?"
"Alright," said Bolton briskly. "Let's put our cards on the table. I know that both of you ladies returned from an expedition to Macedonia some weeks ago.
"Whilst in Macedonia, you explored an ancient tomb and made what you believe to be a significant discovery. A cache of ancient writings of some description."
Janice nodded. "The Xena scrolls, yes. Well, some of them anyway."
Bolton leaned forward. "Whilst in the tomb, did you encounter anything unusual? Any strange experiences?"
Mel stiffened. How could he know? She'd read Janice's expedition report. Professional, matter of fact, really quite dry if she was honest. It did, of course, leave out a number of significant events. In fact, there was no mention at all of Nazis with machine guns or reanimated Greek gods. Or, for that matter, possession by a long dead ancestor. On the journey back from Lisbon the two women had made a pact to keep the expedition weirdness to themselves. It would never be believed. The scrolls were a major discovery. They could change myth into history. History into myth. Bizarre tales of re-awakened ancient evils would turn their triumph into a joke and the two of them into a laughing stock.
Janice broke the silence. "You been talkin' to that clown Kleinman? He's a fantasist. Crazy ideas about all sortsa things. You should read my report, Mr Bolton. It's all in there."
Bolton fixed the blonde with a stare. "I have no idea who 'Kleinman' is, Dr Covington. And I have read your report." He paused. "Your decision to seal the dig site struck me as curious."
"I explained all this in the report." Janice was irritated again. "The site wasn't safe. There had been an earlier fatality. The tomb was booby trapped. It was my judgement that we had extracted everything of value from the site. It was a danger to the locals "
"Dr Covington." Bolton placed his hands on the desk. "I believe that you and Miss Pappas experienced something inexplicable in that tomb. You don't want to tell me what it was, and that's fine. One question though. Did you by any chance come across a chap named Smythe?"
Janice nodded. "Yeah. One of your countrymen. Selling out to the Nazis. Pig." She went to spit, then considered her surroundings and thought better of it.
"I thought he might have crossed your path. Our man in Skopje had been tracking him, but lost the trail near your digsite. In any event, he seems to have vanished."
A silence descended on the room, broken eventually by Janice. "Good riddance, if you ask me."
Bolton smiled for the first time. "I agree with you, Dr Covington. But my concern and the concern of the British Government is that this business won't end with Smythe."
Mel spoke up. "I'm afraid I'm not following you, Mr Bolton."
The British man lit another cigarette. "Strange folk, the Nazis. So proud of their technology and modernity on the one hand. Steeped in ancient superstitions on the other." He leaned back in his chair. "There are various senior bods in the Nazi upper echelons who are obsessed with the occult and with ancient myths and legends. They scour the world looking for artifacts and supernatural beings that they believe might give them an edge in this war. Help bring about the 1000 year Reich.
"We've had intelligence that Nazi agents are at this very time searching for the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail. Berlin already has possession of an item they claim to be the Spear of Destiny. There have been attempts to locate long-lost shrines in China and Tibet.
"So, whatever Smythe was looking for at your excavation, it wasn't some dusty old scrolls. Now the site is sealed, I suppose whatever you found there won't cause us any difficulties. But there will be other sites. Other dangers." Seemingly exhausted by his exposition, Bolton slumped back in his chair.
Mel spoke up again. "Pardon me, Mr Bolton, but do you truly believe that there are occult powers which could win the war for Germany?"
Bolton propped his head up with one hand. "Two years ago, I would have found the whole idea laughable. Now " his voice trailed off. "I have seen things I still can't explain. And if there's even a chance that such powers could fall into the hands of our enemies, I think we have an obligation to stop such a thing happening."
Janice gave an affirmative sounding grunt. "You got no argument from me, Mister. But I'm still not clear what you're asking of Mel n' me."
Bolton reached into a briefcase which neither woman had noticed, but which must have been by his feet the whole time.
"Late last year in England, there was a surprise discovery by a farmer ploughing one of his fields." He took a paper from the briefcase and handed it to Janice. It was a photograph of an elaborate looking necklace. "Further investigation revealed more items. It appears that there was a small settlement there in the pre-Roman period. Whoever the inhabitants were, they appeared to be wealthy. You'll note, Dr Covington, that this necklace is not Celtic in style. Or Roman, for that matter."
Janice had noted this. Her eyes narrowed. "Okay, Mr Bolton, I'm interested. Keep going."
Bolton fished another document out of the case. "I think Miss Pappas might like to take a look at this one." He handed to Mel.
Janice craned her neck to look at the paper. It was a photograph of a slate tablet, covered in writings of some sort in an unfamiliar alphabet. "What is that? Sanskrit?"
"Old Persian." Mel had removed her glasses and was staring in fascination at the photograph. "What on Earth would this be doing in pre-Roman Britain?"
"Very good, Miss Pappas, and in answer to your question, we're not sure ourselves. Can you translate any of it?"
Mel squinted at the picture. "Well my Old Persian is a little rusty, and the reproduction here is a tiny bit fuzzy around the edges. But from what I can see " Mel paused to collect her thoughts. "It's a description of a temple, or place of worship of some sort. Then a reference to a single deity. One god. A god who will sweep the other pantheons away and rule in their place?"
"One god?" asked Janice. "Hmm, early for monotheism in Britain, but could be some sort of Mithraic cult perhaps?"
"Decent theory Dr Covington, but we don't believe this to refer to Mithras-worship." Bolton took a deep breath. "You ever hear of something called Dahak?"
Dahak. Huh. The name sounded oddly familiar but Janice couldn't place the reference. It felt troubling for some reason. She glanced at Mel who had an unreadable expression on her face. "I'm not sure if I have, Mr Bolton."
"No. Well. Not surprising." Bolton paused as if gathering his thoughts. "Dahak is, apparently, an evil entity of some description. An entity with immense power, but power that can only be exercised in our world if he is given some sort of mystical conduit to enter it. Well, at least that's what his followers believe," Bolton hastily added.
"Near to where these finds were located, there are rumours of some sort of cult or secret society. A cult of Dahak. We believe that this group may be in contact with, or even have as members, enemy agents.
"Dr Covington, we would like you to travel to England to lead the dig team. And Miss Pappas, we hope you will accompany Dr Covington to assist with translating any further texts which may be found. Whilst there," here Bolton grimaced and looked a little awkward, "We would like you to try to infiltrate the cult."
For a moment no one said anything. Janice was vaguely aware her jaw had dropped. For once, she was lost for words.
"Great Britain is at war, ladies. Money is tight. However, should you accept this mission, I have agreement to offer you a generous payment. In addition, should you locate any items that are unrelated to the Dahak cult coins, jewellery, weapons feel free to dispose of them as you see fit." Bolton looked meaningfully at Janice. "We'll look the other way if you decide to fence the gear, Dr Covington."
"Hey!" shouted Mel, unexpectedly. "That's no way to talk about Janice! How dare-"
Janice held up her hand. "You can't blame him Mel. My reputation and that of my father precedes me." She stared at Bolton. "Ya know. I've done some shady things in my past. I won't deny it. But there's a lot more to the Covingtons than grave robbing. I'm not sure I like your insinuation, Mister."
Bolton had the good grace to look faintly embarrassed. He reached into his briefcase a third time. "Very well, Dr Covington. Your motives are not wholly mercenary. I understand that now. But if the prospect of riches doesn't excite you, perhaps this will."
Another piece of paper, this time a Latin text. "This is a transcription of a Roman commander's journal, located a couple of years ago during the excavation of a ruined fort near the South Coast of England."
Mel and Janice simultaneously translated the words in their heads.
The barbarians continue their attacks on our camp. They are relentless. It seems their resolve has been fortified by the arrival of a Greek warrior woman. As well as a fearsome fighter in her own right, the woman is a military tactician of great talent. I fear we are lost, but Caesar has told us to take heart. He has a plan. He has captured the Greek woman's lover, a bard who travels with her and to whom she is devoted. Tomorrow he will have her crucified. He is confident that the warrior, maddened with grief, will cease to function as an effective commander and Britannia will be ours for the taking.
Mel looked at Janice in horror. "Oh no. Poor Gabrielle."
Janice's face betrayed no emotion. "Okay, Mr Bolton. I'm in."
"We're in," corrected Mel. She looked across at Livingstone who had opened his mouth to protest. "Assistant Professor, the scrolls will still be there when I return. And I don't think this can wait." She gave him a small smile. "I've taken copies anyway. I'll work on them while I'm in England. We can exchange letters and share our progress."
Livingstone gave a resigned shrug and went back to his whiskey.
Bolton snapped his briefcase shut and stood. "Great Britain is in your debt, ladies. There's no time to lose. We leave two days from now. I must warn you, things are tough at home. We have rationing. Stock up on supplies over here. It's slim pickings back in Blighty." He turned and grasped Janice's hand then did the same to Mel. "An embassy car will collect you from Dr Covington's residence at 11am Thursday and take you to the airfield."
"Airfield?" Mel gasped. "We're going by plane?"
"I'm afraid so ladies. We don't have time to take the scenic route. Be ready to leave Thursday morning."
After a brief stop at Mel's lodgings to collect her belongings, the two women found themselves back at Tony's pub for another evening of burgers and beers. They hadn't spoken much since leaving Livingstone's study, both desperately trying to process Bolton's unexpected revelations.
"Wow," Janice muttered finally, shortly after Tony had delivered the second round of beers. "That was somethin' else."
"Well, you did say you were looking to get out on a dig again," reasoned Mel. "And this sounds more interesting than that Aztec business."
Janice had to agree. It sounded fascinating. "Not sure about the evil cult infiltration thing, though, Mel." She leaned forward. "Look, are you sure about this? It could be dangerous." Her face softened. "I worry about you, Mel."
"And how much do you think I would worry about you? Out there in England on your own, a war on " Mel was aware of how strange this sounded. On one level, she and Janice barely knew each other and yet they were speaking to each other like best friends, sisters sweethearts. Hmm. Odd. "Anyway," she said, brightly, "You need me, Janice! Who's going to translate all those obscure ancient texts you dig up if I'm not with you?"
Janice relaxed. Okay, so Mel did really want to come with her. An extraordinary feeling of relief flooded through her. This was good. Having someone who genuinely cares for you is good. A strange feeling for Janice, but a welcome one.
"Um, Janice?" Mel's voice broke through her thoughts. "Did you know Xena had been to Britannia?"
Janice shook her head. "Not really. One of my father's pet theories was that Xena had helped repel the Roman invasion in 54BC. Based on some dubious sources, he believed there was some sort of bad blood between her and Julius Caesar.
"I never took the theory particularly seriously, to be honest. There was no real evidence for travel to Britannia, and my father did tend to shoehorn Xena into every significant historical event of the period. Guess he was onto something after all."
Mel bit her lip. "And what about Gabrielle?"
Janice hesitated. "I don't know, Mel. The precise dates that she and Xena lived aren't clear, are they? But there's no mention of a trip to Britannia in the Macedonian scrolls. So I suppose this could have been her last adventure." It was a horrible thought. Janice pictured her ancestor, dying a hideous death in a foreign land. It was unbearable.
"Xena wouldn't have let her die," said Mel decisively.
"Mel, you can't say that for certain. She had been captured by Caesar. There would have been centuries of Roman troops guarding her Maybe a whole legion "
"Doesn't matter." Mel was adamant. "Xena would have found a way to save her."
"You can't know that."
"Trust me. I know."
Mel was in the process of carrying out yet another "final" check of her luggage. She ran through her checklist once again. "Let me just "
"C'mon Mel," Janice called from the kitchen. "I reckon you've got everything now."
"It doesn't hurt to be thorough," huffed Mel.
Janice rolled her eyes. The banter between them was relaxed, easy. It felt like they'd known each other all their lives. Perhaps they had, in some other lifetime. Janice pondered that thought. She'd always been a sceptic when it came to the supernatural. But since Macedonia well, she thought, a lot of things had changed.
In any event, she'd had a surprising amount of fun the previous day. Surprising, given how much she usually hated shopping. At her insistence Mel had purchased two pairs of pants made of sturdy yet soft cotton. "You're not gonna be much use on a dig in that mauve suit," Janice had reasoned and Mel had acquiesced with surprisingly little fuss. As a quid pro quo, she'd demanded Janice buy a forest green dress, which she said complemented her eyes. Janice had been happy to comply. She'd liked the dress too, but in truth she would have bought any garment which pleased Mel to such an extent.
Some underwear, stockings and toiletries finished off the day's shopping and the duo had decided to end their trip with a visit to an upmarket restaurant. The maitre d had frowned at Janice's slacks but Mel's winning smile must have charmed him because they found themselves seated at one of the best tables in the house. Two delicious meals and a bottle of French champagne later, Janice was helping Mel into a cab. "I've had a wonderful evening Janice!" she'd gushed, and Janice felt as though her heart would burst with delight.
Ahem. Well, that's what champagne does to you, though Janice. Makes you giddy and silly. Still, a fun day.
Janice ran through her own mental checklist. Three pairs of khakis. Half a dozen shirts. A spare pair of boots. A skirt suit and the new dress, in case they got to go some place nice. A large bottle of Scotch. Cash in various currencies. A box of ammunition. Her bullwhip. Oh, and the mysterious circular weapon. She didn't really know why, but something was telling her to bring it with them.
Mel entered the room to see Janice strapping a large hunting knife to her calf. "Is that really necessary, Janice?"
"I always take it on expeditions, Mel. Ya just never know." She rolled her pants leg back down and shrugged on her leather jacket. The revolver, she tucked into an inside pocket. The doctor completed the classic Covington look with her battered fedora. "Okay Mel, it's time. Let's roll." She hoisted her kitbag over her shoulder, and walked out to the waiting car.
Bolton was waiting for them when they reached the airfield. He led them across the tarmac to a large transport plane. "It's going to be a long and not terribly comfortable journey, ladies. But it's the quickest means to get there, and as you know time is of the essence."
"I've never been on a plane before," squeaked Mel. "My, this is exciting!"
Janice grimaced. She'd been on planes before. She'd even had a go at flying one a drinking buddy's Cessna, as a means of relaxing after a particularly intense poker game. However these machines, built for higher altitudes and longer distances, were another matter. She vaguely recalled reading something about their safety record, and thinking that it didn't seem all that good.
Ah well. No sense in worrying about that now, she thought, as the engines started up.
As the plane levelled out, Bolton pulled a card folder from his briefcase. "Some background information for you, ladies. I suggest you take time to read it all in detail though that might be easier when we're back on solid ground."
Janice felt her ears pop. The drone of the engines was enervating, and her stomach was rebelling slightly. She needed a distraction. "Wanna give us the highlights, Mr Bolton?"
He nodded. "The digsite is in the English county of Wiltshire, a couple of miles from Stonehenge. We believe that there may be some connection between the Dahak cult and the stones."
Mel frowned. "I always thought that Stonehenge was a Druidic place of worship for the Ancient Britons? What does some evil Persian god have to with it?"
Bolton shrugged. "Miss Pappas, I'm no ancient historian. I can't pretend to understand the ins and outs of it all. That's the reason we've hired you and Dr Covington." He sighed. "The Roman commander's journal that I told you about references an evil temple to the north west. It's possible that the cult appropriated an existing place of worship. We just don't know."
The businesslike tone returned. "You will be based in Salisbury. It's the nearest town to the site. We have arranged lodgings for you in an inn called the Black Lion. Your cover story is that you are American academics on sabbatical at Oxford University. Dr Covington has been brought in to lead the excavation due to the ill health of the original archeologist."
"Is he really ill?" Mel asked.
"No. We became aware of a liaison between him and one of his students. On reflection, he decided he'd rather keep his marriage intact and step away from this particular assignment."
Mel and Janice exchanged looks. So, Bolton and his colleagues weren't above a little blackmail. Hmm. Needs must, perhaps, but it left a nasty taste in the mouth.
After what felt like an interminable journey, with stops for refuelling in Nova Scotia and the West coast of Northern Ireland, the plane finally touched down at RAF Brize Norton. Janice bolted for the door as soon as the engines had cut out. Mel followed her out onto the tarmac, with Bolton bringing up the rear.
"Our first port of call is Oxford," said Bolton. "Your cover needs to be convincing, just in case anyone does any checking up. Somerville College has agreed to put you both on its staff for as long as is necessary. You'll have rooms there, and access to the Bodleian Library for any research you might need to do. I'll be based just across the road, at St John's College. You will be able to reach me there at any time. I have my own private telephone line there. The number is in your folder. Memorise it. I'd like you to check in at least weekly." Bolton paused before adding, quietly, "If for any reason you can't speak openly just pretend I'm Janice's uncle. If I hear that I'll know there's a problem and I'll do what I can to help you."
They had reached a small parking lot outside of the airfield. "I'm guessing you know how to drive, Dr Covington?" When Janice nodded, he gestured at the handful of vehicles there. "Go ahead and pick one. They're all government issue."
Janice wandered across the parking lot, glancing without much enthusiasm at the cars and trucks waiting there. At the end of the row she noticed a large motorcycle. Her eyebrows twitched and she turned to look at her fellow American. "What you reckon, Mel?" she grinned, and was rewarded by a mischievous smile in return.
Bolton threw his hands up in mock frustration. "All yours, Dr Covington. If you're certain."
"Oh, I'm certain." Janice secured their bags to the back of the bike. It looked a little precarious but on further inspection she felt confident in its stability. "Climb on behind me Mel. Mr Bolton please lead on to Oxford. We'll be following you."
The rooms at Somerville were basic, but clean and comfortable, and both Mel and Janice awoke late but refreshed and ready for the next stage of their English adventure. After a tasteless, rationed breakfast in the refectory, they headed out of the college.
Bolton was waiting for them in the lodge. "Dr Covington. Miss Pappas. Are you all set? I should have mentioned yesterday your folder contains ration cards for you both, as well as a supply of coupons for petrol. There should be enough to last you for a few weeks. Salisbury is about 90 minutes away - there's a map "
"In the folder." Mel finished the sentence for him.
"We're good," said Janice. "We got it, Mr Bolton. Don't you worry! We'll get these Nazi demon worshippers for you!"
Mel giggled as she climbed on the bike behind her companion. "Goodbye, Mr Bolton. We'll be in touch soon."
Watching the huge bike disappear down the road in a cloud of dust and exhaust fumes, Bolton wondered whether he'd made a huge mistake. Ah well, he told himself. James did say she was idiosyncratic. But that she's the best bet for a crazy assignment like this.
The ride to Salisbury was exhilarating. The bike handled well and was capable of higher speeds than Janice had expected. There was virtually no other traffic on the road and both women enjoyed the feeling of freedom, the sun on their faces and the wind in their hair. There was something else as well a nagging familiarity of riding through the countryside, one behind the other like this. Something was different though. Were they the wrong way round?
Weird, though Janice. Where did that thought come from? They passed a sign Salisbury, 5 miles. Janice made a decision. They would take a detour on the way to check out the digsite before heading into town to find their lodgings.
The site was a short distance from the road and easily identifiable from a set of small orange flags marking the boundaries of the excavation. Within the flags, the earth had been dug up so that the excavation area was about five feet lower than the ground surrounding it. There were a couple of tarpaulins covering part of the site and someone had dug a set of steps into the bank of the far side of the site.
Hmm, though Janice. Looks professional enough. Guess someone knows what they're doing. She was about to jump down to look under the tarpaulins when she heard someone calling. She turned to see a grey haired man hurrying towards them from a wooden structure behind the excavation area.
"Dr Covington?" The man gasped. He was red faced and quite out of breath. "We weren't expecting you until tomorrow!"
"We were just on our way to Salisbury, and thought we might as well check out the site, Mr um "
"Daniels. William Daniels." The man reached out his hand. "I've been keeping an eye on the site while work has been suspended."
"Good to meet you, Mr Daniels. I'm Janice Covington and this is Melinda Pappas. We're from Oxford University."
"Well," Daniels beamed at the two Americans. "It's wonderful that you're both here. Everyone is keen to restart work. It's such a shame that Dr Anderson fell ill so suddenly."
Janice cleared her throat. "It was, yeah." She didn't look at Mel. "Seeing as we're here Mr Daniels, would you mind showing us around?"
Daniels readily agreed, leading the women up to the wooden structure. It was a one storey building, perhaps 18 by 12 feet in size. It had a pitched roof and a single, lockable door, which Daniels opened to reveal a room with a desk, small table and three wooden chairs. A handful of old-fashioned gas lamps were scattered around. Janice nodded approvingly. "Better than a tent," she acknowledged.
"We started off with an old army tent," Daniels explained. "But it wasn't much fun in the English winter. I'm a carpenter by trade, and so "
"You built this all yourself?" Janice was impressed.
"Well, not quite. I had some help from a couple of the youngsters on the dig."
As the others talked, Mel's eyes were drawn to a corner of the room which was half covered by a torn curtain. Poking out from behind this curtain was the corner of a bed. "Oh Mr Daniels," she exclaimed. "Are you living here?"
Daniels looked embarrassed. "Now look. It's not how it looks. I'm not some sort of tramp! I have my own place in town. However " he sighed. "I have been sleeping here most nights lately."
Both Mel and Janice looked quizzically at him.
"The site " Daniels seemed to struggle to find the right words. "The site attracts some strange people. I don't like them. I don't know what they want. If they know there's someone here, they tend to stay away." He walked towards a portable stove, where a kettle of hot water was bubbling away. "Have some tea. I'll do my best to fill you in on where we are."
Five minutes later, all three were sat at the table sipping tea. Janice was flicking through a leather bound notebook in which all of the finds to date had been catalogued in a spidery hand. There was the necklace, of course, and the slate with Persian writing on it. Other items included a variety of coins minted in Greece, Rome and Egypt as well as Persia; a silver ring; some pieces of leather, most of which were rotted away beyond recognition; animal bones; and a dagger with an elaborate handle. Janice was particularly interested in this item and the description given next to it: "v well preserved. Possible ceremonial use??" She wondered why Bolton hadn't mentioned it. Perhaps it just hadn't occurred to him. "Did you see this dagger, Mr Daniels?"
"Oh yes! It was quite a find. Everyone was very excited about it. It was just before Dr Anderson got sick."
Hmm. "What happens to all of the things that you find?"
Daniels looked puzzled. He clearly assumed she knew already. "Um, well, they're stored in the bank vault until your research assistant collects them on Friday afternoons. I believe he then takes them to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford for proper cataloging and study. Or, at least that's what happened with Dr Anderson. Do you want us to do something differently, Dr Covington?"
Ah. A research assistant. Damn. Janice cursed silently. Guess I should have read the stuff in that wretched folder before coming here. You're going to have to do better than this, Covington, if you want to keep up this cover story. "No, no. That all sounds great, Mr Daniels. It's all good."
Mel intervened to change the subject. "What can you tell us about the dig team, Mr Daniels?"
"Well, it's a small team, Miss Pappas. It was difficult, I think, for Dr Anderson to put together at all. All the able-bodied lads and lasses are serving their country in one capacity or another. So there's a couple of old farts like me begging your pardon miss, but that's what they call us and some students from the local grammar school. Most of them can only come for a couple of hours after school, mind you. Although," he mused, " I think it's half term this week. So you might see more of them."
"Is that it?" Janice was beginning to feel disheartened. It was likely to be a struggle to manage a team like this. Not for the first time, she wondered whether Bolton had been selective in what he'd told them.
"Well, not quite, Dr Covington. We do have a younger gentleman who is with us for two full days a week. Paul Holland. He's a clerk at the bank in town, but his boss is big on local history and gives him a couple of days leave a week to help us out. He's very engaged with it all."
"He wasn't conscripted?" Janice asked curiously.
"No, he failed the medical. Flat feet, apparently."
A loud gunshot rang out and Janice almost spilt her tea. Mel looked up in alarm. "What was that?"
"Oh, it's nothing to worry about ladies. There's an army camp just across the way from here. They're always having training exercises. Well, they've got something to train for now of course. Anyway, they don't bother us, and you get used to the noise after a while."
Janice stood up. Daniels had been helpful, and she felt she could trust him, but she really wanted to speak to Mel privately about what they'd learned so far. "Thank you very much for your hospitality, Mr Daniels," she said as he followed them to the door. "We should let you get back to your afternoon. Is there anything else we should be aware of?"
Daniels reddened. "Ah, well, I suppose I ought to let you ladies know where the latrines are." Leaving the hut, he pointed towards a wooden outhouse just visible behind a hedge. "There you go. It's quite private. And hygienic. There's a pit underneath that's pretty deep."
Mel wrinkled her nose in distaste. Spotting this, Janice laughed uproariously. "Unavoidable fact of life on a dig, honey! Trust me, I've seen much worse facilities." She thanked Daniels again before heading for the bike. "See ya tomorrow!"
Janice still didn't feel ready to head for Salisbury. "Wanna check out the stones, Mel?" Hearing something which vaguely sounded like Mel's affirmative, she gunned the bike and headed towards the ancient monument.
Mel couldn't help feeling that Stonehenge felt a bit underwhelming close up. Of course, the wandering livestock and seemingly endless sheep poo that covered the grass around the monument might be a factor. She looked over at Janice, who was walking slowly between the stones, an odd expression on her face. "What is it, Janice?"
"I dunno." The blonde paused to touch one particular obelisk. "It feels kinda familiar, but not, if that makes any sense."
"Mmm." Mel made her way to a flat stone and sat down, motioning Janice to come and join her. "This place it is a bit strange, Janice. But it doesn't feel evil, as such. I think I know what you mean about the familiarity, though."
Janice sat down and removed her hat before running her fingers through her hair. "Are we going crazy, Mel?" Seeing Mel's puzzled expression, she tried to articulate her thoughts more clearly. "Ya know, a couple of months ago I was just an archeologist looking for evidence to back up my father's theories. Okay, some of those theories were a bit out there, but " she gestured at the stones. "Ultimately, it was proving the reality of a legendary figure who'd for whatever reason been forgotten by history, ya know? But since then there's been all this craziness about gods and monsters and magic " Janice drummed the fingers of her left hand against the stone. "Whaddya think really happened in that tomb, Mel?"
It was the first time they'd discussed it in these terms. Mel breathed deeply. The truth was she didn't know. The bearded man who'd claimed to be Ares, God of War, had seemed real enough, and whatever powers he had had made short work of Smythe and his henchman. On the other hand, the whole episode made no rational sense whatsoever. Perhaps it had all been a shared hallucination. She, Janice and Jack Kleinman overcome with toxic fumes, maybe. But then there was the scrolls, and the circular weapon, and, most dramatically from Mel's perspective, the exhilarating surge of strength and confidence as her ancestor's soul took hold of her. "I can't explain any of it," she said quietly, "And I don't understand who or what 'Ares' was. But I know what I felt. Xena was there, a part of me. So yes. It was real."
Janice blew out air from her mouth, unhappily. "I think I'm out of my depth, Mel." It felt painful to say it.
To her surprise, Mel reached over and squeezed her hand. "I don't think so Janice. I think you're going to knock this one out of the park!"
Janice laughed to hear Mel use such a colloquialism. "WE're gonna knock this one out of the park," she corrected gently.
It was past 5pm when they finally rolled into Salisbury. The Black Lion was easy to find from the comprehensive directions in the folder, and as they parked up outside Janice remarked on how quiet everything seemed. "What day is it, Mel?"
"Why, it's Sunday of course."
"Ah, hell I lost track of the days cos of that goddamn flight."
Mel clambered off the bike and brushed herself down. "I'm famished, Janice. I hope they've got some decent food here."
Unlikely, Janice thought to herself. British cuisine combined with rationing made for uninspiring chow. Still, you never know. She picked up her kitbag and attempted to push open the door. From the outside at least, the pub looked traditional, welcoming and charming.
"Bar's closed," came a muffled voice from inside. Well, thought Janice, appearances can be deceptive.
"Pardon us, sir, but we're not here for a drink. We have a reservation here." Mel had stepped in front of her companion and was oozing her trademark Southern charm.
"Oh, right, yes. Miss Pappas and Miss Covington, isn't it?" The door opened and a smiling middle aged man with a spectacular beard ushered them inside.
"Dr Covington," grumbled Janice, more to herself than the bearded man, who she assumed was the landlord.
The man was now positively beaming at Mel. "I'm John Tyler. I'm the landlord here. Let me call for my wife. She deals with the rooms. Mind you, we don't have many," he commented, pointlessly, as he gestured for the Americans to take a seat in the empty pub.
A door behind the bar opened and a sour-faced woman entered. The two women assumed she must be Mrs Tyler, and the assumption was proved correct when her husband gave her a kiss on the cheek before introducing their new guests.
"You're late." Mrs Tyler scowled at Mel and Janice. "I was expecting you hours ago."
"We slept late, Mrs Tyler. The journey from the States was very tiring. And then we had some business to take care of. We're very sorry if we put you to any trouble." Mel's charm seemed less effective than it had been on the landlord.
Mrs Tyler said nothing. She eyed Janice's attire with barely concealed disdain. Finally, she spoke. "That your motorcycle out there?"
"It sure is," said Janice proudly. "Ain't she a beauty?"
"It's not a typical vehicle for ladies," sniffed Mrs Tyler.
"Well, in case ya haven't noticed, doll, I'm not your typical lady." Janice spoke cheerfully, ignoring Mel's sighing behind her.
"I don't know," huffed Mrs Tyler. "The gentleman from the university said we were getting nice ladies from one of the ladies' colleges. He didn't say anything about trousers and motorcycles."
Janice was starting to see red. "Now just wait one second you "
Fortunately, Mr Tyler intervened before she could finish her sentence. "Now, come on dear. These ladies have come all the way from America to excavate old Patrick's field. It could be very important to the town. And the university has paid a month up front, Evelyn. Come now and show our guests to their room."
Mrs Tyler opened her mouth to argue then clearly thought better of it. "Follow me, then," she said charmlessly before heading towards a staircase hidden away to the right of the bar.
"Bar opens at 7, ladies," Mr Tyler called after them.
Mel and Janice followed their hostess up three flights of stairs, arriving at a wooden door coated in peeling white paint which Mrs Tyler was unlocking. "Well, this is it! Hurry up, I don't have all day."
Janice surveyed the room. It had seen better days but was homely enough. There was a desk, a washbasin and ample wardrobe space. The original wooden rafters gave the place some character. One aspect that surprised her slightly, however, was that the room contained only one bed a double with an attractive patchwork quilt, one edge against a wall. "Looks like we're bunking up, honey," she laughed, bumping Mel with her shoulder.
"It's the only room we had available for the full period," Mrs Tyler spat out. "If it doesn't suit, feel free to find another hotel."
"Oh no, Mrs Tyler, it's lovely," Mel assured her. "I'm sure we're going to be very comfortable here."
Mrs Tyler grunted. "Bathroom's down the hall. No baths after 9pm. Dinner's at 7.30 sharp. If you're not there, you don't eat. Except Sunday, of course. Lunch is at 2. I don't do a dinner Sunday nights," she paused, and to Janice's surprise, the sight of Mel's grief stricken face seemed to melt the old battleaxe's heart. "Well, under the circumstances I think there's some bread and Spam in the kitchen. I'll have it sent up."
The brief moment of détente over, Mrs Tyler returned to her previous theme. "Breakfast's at 7am sharp. No male visitors. Curfew is when the bar closes 11pm except Sundays when it's 10.30. Laundry is done every Friday. Oh, and if the air raid sirens go head for the cellar."
Seemingly finished for now at least, Mrs Tyler pulled two sets of keys from her apron pocket and handed one each to Mel and Janice. "I don't want any trouble, ladies. This is a respectable establishment."
"We got it, Mrs T. There'll be no trouble from us."
Mrs Tyler made a dismissive noise and left the room. Mel stuck her tongue out at her retreating form.
"Wow." Janice shook her head. "Welcome to England, huh?"
The two Americans sat in silence for a few minutes, until there was a knock at the door. It was a young girl holding the promised tray of kitchen scraps. Janice gave her a couple of pennies and sent her on her way. "So. I guess this is Spam." The pink translucent meat made her gag initially, although paired with the bread it wasn't too dreadful. Still. "Can't see this catching on," muttered Janice, wiping her mouth.
"So, what now?" asked Mel.
Janice looked at her watch. "Bar opens at 7, he said. Let's unpack and head down there. I'm not sure there's much else to do in this godforsaken place but get drunk."
At 7.05 precisely, Mel and Janice sat in the "snug" of the Black Lion. It had been recommended to them by Mr Tyler as more suitable for ladies than the saloon bar and it was, in fairness, pretty comfortable. It was also pretty empty.
Janice took a sip of her ale. "Gah! Even the beer's terrible here! No wonder it isn't rationed."
"I was looking at the folder while you were unpacking," said Mel. "Apparently the government took a deliberate decision not to ration beer, restaurant meals or fish and chips. They keep morale up you see."
"Can't imagine this bilge keeping anyone's morale up," grumbled Janice. "It's not even chilled." She looked across at Mel. "I'm fed up with England already. Tell me something about the scrolls."
Mel thought for a moment. "Well, we've really only completed the translation on one of them. It seems to be the first. It's titled 'Sins of the Past' although I'm not entirely happy with that translation. It implies a Judaeo-Christian value system that simply wouldn't have been meaningful to a pagan like Gabrielle."
Janice nodded, fascinated.
"Anyway, the scroll describes her first meeting with Xena. It seems that Gabrielle and some others from her village had been attacked by slavers. Xena fought them off and shortly afterwards Gabrielle abandoned her family to travel with her.
"It's clear from the scroll that Xena had previously done some bad things. Gabrielle doesn't elaborate and it's possible she doesn't know herself at this point. However, whatever it was was serious enough for Xena to contemplate suicide and for Xena's mother to reject her daughter and leave her to be beaten to death by a mob.
"Gabrielle intervenes and somehow manages to talk the mob into dispersing. Xena takes her with her, reluctantly. Later Xena returns to her home town to defeat a warlord and she and her mother reconcile."
"That's pretty heavy stuff." Janice lit a cheroot and inhaled deeply. "And then what? X & G ride off into the sunset?"
"Sort of." Mel still felt slightly uncomfortable discussing the Grecian duo's relationship. "Xena is apparently unsure about taking Gabrielle with her, but goes along with it. It's clear that Gabrielle is thrilled with this development."
"I'll bet." Janice drained her beer. "You know, this stuff could grow on me. Fancy another?"
"Gone 9.30," said Janice as she unlocked the door to their room. "Guess a bath's out of the question. Best not to piss off the dragon lady on night one. A wash will have to do." Stripping off her shirt, she was vaguely aware of Mel's sharp intake of breath. "C'mon Mel. We're both girls here. No reason to be shy."
Mel didn't respond. Instead, she watched in guilty fascination as Janice removed the rest of her clothes and began washing herself with a flannel. Mel was captivated by the other woman's body. It was strong and muscular, but with an undeniably feminine softness. Her breasts were round and, to Mel's eyes at least, perfectly formed. Mel noted, sadly, that Janice had clearly not come out unscathed from some of her expeditions, as a number of scars were visible. Not that they detracted from the vision in front of her. Janice was, Mel decided, the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen. She continued to gaze raptly until, to her horror, Janice turned round and saw her doing so.
"Like what ya see, huh, sweetheart?" Janice grinned and reached for a towel.
Mel was struck dumb in horror. She cast desperately around for a reason why she had been staring lasciviously at her friend's naked body. "Ah, Janice, I am so sorry! I didn't mean to stare. It was just your scar I got a shock, you must have really hurt yourself."
"Huh? Which one?" Janice finished towelling herself dry and, to Mel's relief, slipped into her sleep shirt.
"Erm, the big one. On your hip."
"Ah, yeah. That old thing. Took a bullet on the battlefield outside of Barcelona in '36. Just a flesh wound. Healed up fine."
Mel momentarily forgot her embarrassment in pure shock at this revelation. "Battlefield? Barcelona? What on Earth, Janice? You fought in the Spanish Civil War?"
"Questions, questions," Janice chuckled as she climbed beneath the sheets. "Yeah, I joined a Republican militia shortly after hostilities broke out. There were quite a few women fighting at that time. Didn't fight for long though, hospitalised after a couple of months with this wound, and then I got word that my father was very sick and I had to go to him."
"I didn't realise you were a communist, Janice," Mel said warily.
"I'm not a communist Mel, and most of the people I fought with weren't either. They were just ordinary folk who wanted the best for their country. In the end, they were screwed over by both sides." Janice turned onto her side. "I was on an excavation in Southern France, near the Pyrenees. It wasn't going anywhere, another pointless money pit my father had insisted we pursue because he believed we'd find evidence of Xena in Gaul. Anyway, one of the guys working on the dig was from Spain and he got me all fired up about the new government there and the hope for democracy in his country. When I heard about Franco's coup I wanted to help, so I crossed the border and signed up with the first militia who'd have me."
Mel was silent for a moment. She knew Janice had experienced more of life than she had, and it didn't surprise her that her friend had been in her fair share of sticky situations. But combat well, yes that had taken her aback somewhat. "Did you kill anyone?" she asked in a small voice.
Janice sighed. "Yeah, I did, Mel. A few times." She looked at her friend's shocked face. "It was a war, Mel. Two armies shooting at each other. People die."
"Does it bother you?" Mel knew she was playing with fire here. She couldn't bring herself to stop, though. It was like picking at a scab.
"I don't feel guilty, if that's what you're asking. I was a soldier in a war. That's what you do. To be honest, I don't even think about it that often. But yeah. Things do change, after you've killed someone. You become I dunno. Harder, maybe. More distant." Janice rolled over again. "Yeah, so, avoid it if you can." Time to change the subject. "Your turn at the washbasin. I'll try not to look."
After an uninspiring breakfast of toasted grey bread spread with some sort of salty yeast paste "Marmite", Mrs Tyler had proudly announced it as Mel and Janice had made good time up to the digsite. It was a beautiful sunny day and there was a gaggle of workers already waiting for them, apparently keen to meet the new bosses.
Janice introduced herself and Mel, giving a potted and largely fictional account of their academic careers to date. She ran through the usual safety briefing and stressed the need for great care to be taken around potentially fragile artifacts.
While Janice did her spiel, Mel observed the members of the team. In addition to Daniels, there were two boys and two girls from the local school around 16 or 17, Mel estimated a couple of guys in their 60s, a jolly-looking middle-aged woman, and a lanky youth whom Mel provisionally identified as Paul Holland. Everyone seemed very enthusiastic to be back on the dig and eagerly picked up their tools once Janice had finished her speech. Mel grabbed her own trowel and went to join them. She planned on finding out as much as she could about her new workmates.
The team broke for lunch at 12.30. Morale in the team was high, despite the absence of any finds that morning. The jolly woman, whom Mel had learned was called Elsie, had prepared a cauldron of vegetable soup to share. Mel helped herself to a bowl, and then made her way over to Janice, who was sitting alone on a rock some distance from the others, smoking. "Not eating, Janice?"
"Not hungry," Janice snapped and took a swig from a hip flask, ignoring what she suspected was Mel's look of disapproval. She turned to face her friend. "What are we doing here, Mel?"
"Er, excavating a potentially very important archeological site?"
"We've found nothing, Mel."
"Oh my goodness, Janice Covington, we've been here for three hours! What on earth were you expecting? And when did you become such a brat?" Mel bit her tongue, thinking she'd gone too far.
But Janice just shrugged. Mel was right. She was being a brat, and she despised herself for it. "I'm sorry, Mel. This whole scene has got me on edge." She looked around, but the rest of the team was tucking into their soup and seemed oblivious to the raised voices. Nonetheless Janice dropped her voice down to a whisper. "Mel, do you trust Bolton?"
Mel wondered what had brought this on. "I think so, Janice. He seems genuine. Very patriotic. He's very committed to the war effort."
"He's committed to the war effort alright and I don't doubt his patriotism. What I'm not sure is the extent to which he considers you and me to be expendable in the fight for the 'greater good', as he sees it." Janice warmed up to her theme. "He didn't tell us about the dagger. He didn't tell us that my dig team was a bunch of school kids and weirdos. What else hasn't he told us?"
"You're getting paranoid, Janice. Maybe he didn't know about the dagger, or just didn't think it was important. And this team, okay so they're amateurs, but they seem like a nice bunch of people."
"Yeah, well, keep an eye on them, Mel. Especially that Holland guy. He gives me the creeps."
After her attack of nerves on the first day, Janice relaxed and quickly found herself back in the familiar routine of archeological expeditions. There were no major discoveries, but the team was excited to unearth more coins as well as some pottery shards.
In the absence of any texts to translate, Mel had elected to spend a few days in the town library archives, researching the history of the cult, as well as engaging with the locals to find out what they knew about its contemporary resurgence. Janice had missed having her around during the day, but acknowledged that grubbing around in the dirt with a trowel and a brush probably wasn't the best use of an ancient languages scholar's time. Ah well, it's the weekend now. She can fill me in properly on what she's found so far.
Janice had just finished up at the digsite and was about to head back to town when she noticed a man in a blue uniform standing by the bike. "Great. A cop. Just what I need on a Friday night." She gritted her teeth and mustered up the best smile she could manage. "Good evening, officer. Can I help you?"
"Are you Dr Janice Covington?"
"I am indeed, officer. Is there a problem?" Janice hoped she sounded more confident than she felt. She was always uncomfortable around police officers; and, it had to be said, there had been numerous times in her past when she'd had good reason to feel that way.
"Oh no, madam, not at all!" The policeman beamed at her. "I just wanted to see how the dig was coming along. I've been meaning to drop by all week, but I wasn't able to get away."
Janice studied the policeman. He was about her age, she guessed, tall and with a nose that had clearly been broken at some stage. He could, Janice supposed, be considered handsome. "It's up and running again, officer. Progress has been quite slow this week, but we're getting there." She smiled politely and moved to get to the bike.
"So, no interesting finds this week?" The policeman moved closer, blocking her path. Janice grimaced. The man was in her personal space and was beginning to make her feel uncomfortable. Her initial relief that she wasn't about to be arrested for running the bath water too late at night, or some other BS, made up rule in this godforsaken country, had quickly turned into irritation and now trepidation.
"We found some coins and a few bits of pottery, Officer er-" Janice craned her neck forward to see if the man had a name badge.
"Oh, so sorry, madam. I'm PC Morgan. But you can call me Stephen." The officer continued to block Janice's path. "I'm quite a history buff, see, and I've been taking a keen interest in the things that you eggheads have been digging up. I wondered if you and your assistant Miss Pappas, is it might be so kind as to spare me some time to tell me all about it?"
"She's not my assistant, PC Morgan. But sure, we'd love to tell ya all about it some time." Janice was gradually edging past the large policeman. "Come up to the site, but during the day, yeah? Well, I gotta go. See ya!" Janice jumped on the motorcycle, which thankfully started first time. She waved as she floored the bike. She was pointing in the wrong direction, but at that moment all she wanted was to get out of there as soon as possible. She thought she heard Morgan shout something after her, but she couldn't make it out over the roar of the engine.
Janice was still feeling unsettled when she arrived back at the inn. She ran up the stairs to their room, where Mel was sitting at the desk poring over some papers and making notes in the margins of her journal. "You alright, Janice? How was your day?"
"Tell ya later. I'm gonna grab a bath before dinner."
After another tasteless dinner in Mrs Tyler's cramped dining room, the Americans retreated to a corner table in the snug bar. Janice sipped her beer and looked directly at Mel. "I had a visitor on site this evening. A police officer called Morgan. He freaked me out a bit."
"Oh," Mel paused as if trying to recall something. "PC Morgan? Yes, I was introduced to him the other day when he called into the library." Mel giggled. "He's quite handsome, isn't he?"
Janice looked disgusted. "He's a creep, Mel. He turned up at the dig while I was alone and started asking all sortsa questions about what we'd been doing. He got in my face and was blocking me from getting to the bike. Luckily I made my escape while he was still yakking."
Mel frowned. "I thought he seemed nice. He was probably just being friendly."
"Yeah? So why didn't he mention he'd already met you?"
"Well, goodness, Janice, did you even give him the chance? It sounds like you drove off in the middle of a conversation!" Mel reached out to pat her friend's hand. "You've got to stop being so paranoid, Jan. It's going to make you crazy."
Janice sat back in her seat and considered this. On reflection, she thought, Morgan could have just been showing an innocent interest in her work. Perhaps he hadn't meant to stand between her and the bike. It wasn't like he made any attempt to stop her leaving once she'd reached it. She sighed. "Maybe I am going crazy, Mel."
Mel shook her head. "It's been a long week. Let's try and relax tonight." She leaned forward and said in a low voice, "I thought I could fill you in on where I've got to with my research."
Janice looked around, but the snug was almost empty. The real action tonight seemed to be in the main bar, which was playing host to couple dozen soldiers from the local military camp. It seemed safe to talk. "Go ahead. What have you found so far?"
Mel got into her stride. "The earliest reference I could find to an actual cult in the area was from the fourteenth century. A local monk chronicled the effects of the Black Death on the surrounding villages, and one particular concern of his was that some of the local populace had abandoned the Church in favour of what he describes as 'devil worship'. He doesn't elaborate on what this worship involves, but some of it apparently took place near standing stones in the area. He also states that the cult was reviving previous rituals which the Church had stamped out centuries earlier.
"The next reference was in 1632. A man and a woman were executed for witchcraft. They were accused of consorting with devils and there were claims of strange rituals in the woods featuring fire and chanting. Before being hanged, the woman cried out in an unfamiliar language. "Dayhoc, Dayhoc," is how a diarist who happened to be present recorded it.
"But the cult really got going in the 1780s. A local landowner, Sir Francis Gainford, had apparently become fascinated with local folk tales about an ancient power or entity of some sort, and he attempted to revive the old rituals. Sir Francis was wealthy and charismatic, by all accounts, and he attracted lots of followers."
Janice interjected. "There were a few rich idiots doing this sorta thing round about that time, weren't there? Hellfire Club and all that garbage?"
"That's right," Mel agreed, "But most of them were just bored rich young men trying to scandalise their families. Gainford was different. He took the whole business very seriously, and so did his acolytes. Over the next couple of decades the cult grew large and became quite powerful locally. Even the Church became wary of speaking out against it."
"What happened?" Janice was intrigued.
"Scandal happened. A young girl was lured away from one of the local villages. The newspaper reports are coy about the details, but it seems that there was an attempt to use her in some capacity at one of the rituals. She managed to get away and raise the alarm. Some of the cult members were arrested. Gainford himself left for the colonies, and as far as I can tell was never heard from again.
"There were a couple of attempts to revive the cult late last century, but without real success."
"Wow. Okay," Janice went to the bar to get another round. When she returned, she looked across at Mel expectantly. "So, next chapter? Has this cult returned today and if so why?"
"Ah." Mel took a drink from her glass. "Well, finding out what's happening now is much harder than studying the past, that's for sure. People don't seem to want to talk to a stranger about any of this business. But," her eyes twinkled slightly, "I don't give up that easily."
Janice smiled and nodded in agreement.
"So, I've picked up a few hints here and there. The secret is not to ask too much directly. Just wait for them to tell you.
'What I've learned is that the cult is indeed active still. Only now, it is portrayed very much as a sort of folk society which keeps alive harmless traditions and engages in charity work.
"The current leader is a local businessman, Harold Montague. He owns the grocery, the hardware store, and has interests in a number of other local businesses." Mel dropped her voice a little. "I'm not one for gossip, but it seems he wasn't always well-liked. He refused to give even regular customers credit during the Depression. And he made a lot of money buying up bankrupted businesses and abandoned homes. Since the charity work, though, people seem to have forgiven him."
"What about other members? Do we know how big this cult is?"
Mel shook her head. "I'm sorry, Janice. They seem secretive about membership. Although from the way people talk, I don't think it's a huge group. Maybe a dozen or so."
Janice grinned. "Why the hell are you apologising, Mel? You've achieved a helluva lot more this week than I have, that's for certain. C'mon, let me buy ya another drink."
Clambering into bed after a convivial evening in the snug, Janice noted that Mel's eyes had taken on the slightly glazed expression she sometimes adopted after a drink or four. Janice lay back warily, because she had noted on previous occasions that such an expression was often accompanied by earnest conversation or difficult lines of questioning, and at this point all the archeologist really wanted was some some shut eye.
"Janice," whispered Mel shortly after she'd put out the light. "Are you awake?"
"No," grunted Janice.
"Haha, silly. I know you're tired. I was just wondering well, I was just wondering "
"Spit it out Mel. We don't have all night."
"Have you ever had a boyfriend, Janice?"
Urgh. Here it comes. Janice lay quietly for a moment then spoke up, "I've had friends who are male, yes."
"Well, but that's not what I meant," whined Mel. "I meant "
"I'm not a virgin, Mel, if that's what you're asking."
There was a shocked silence from the other side of the bed that Janice found almost comical. "Honey, don't ask questions that you don't want to hear the answer to."
The silence lasted for so long that Janice wondered whether her companion had fallen asleep. At long last though Mel piped up again. "Was it nice?"
Nice. What? Christ, this woman is something else. "It was okay, yeah. Anything else ya wanna know?"
"Oh, no, Janice. Well, except didn't you want to marry him?"
"I've already told ya Mel, I'm not the marrying type. We had sex. It was fun. There wasn't anything more to it. Go to sleep."
Mel murmured an apology of some description and turned to face away from Janice. Within a couple of minutes her breathing had become steady, signalling that she'd already fallen asleep.
Sleep felt a long way off for Janice. She stared at the ceiling. She had no desire to shock her friend with stories from her past. The truth was she'd had several lovers, male and female. Nothing serious, and nothing which had lasted beyond a couple of weeks.
Was "lover" even the right word? She'd hadn't felt love for any of them and sure as hell none of them had loved her. For the men, she had been a challenge could they seduce tough "one of the guys" Janice Covington, and turn her into a simpering girly? Cos, you know, they'd say when they thought she wasn't listening, she's quite pretty under the khakis and macho bullcrap. Janice had no illusions as to what they were about, and each time she was happy to do the deed then dump them in the morning.
As for the two women Janice had slept with well, the less said the better, really. Greece and Macedonia - small town girls wanting a roll in the hay with the strange foreign woman in men's clothes before they settled down to marry the boy next door. Who was probably their second cousin.
Janice wasn't even sure why she had chosen to experiment with the fairer sex. She sighed inwardly. Male or female, she'd made no real connections with any of her previous conquests. In fact, she'd made no real connections with anyone. Before Mel, she admitted to herself, she hadn't really had friends. She'd had acquaintances and contacts and drinking buddies. But no one with whom she could share her hopes and fears.
Janice made a private vow to keep certain aspects of her past secret from Mel. Their friendship had assumed a frankly terrifying importance in her life. She had no intention of doing anything to jeopardise it.
Saturday morning and the women woke to bright sunlight streaming in from the window opposite their bed. It was forecast to be a beautiful day and Mel and Janice had every intention of making the most of it. The awkwardness of the previous night's discussion forgotten, they washed and dressed quickly before heading downstairs for another of Mrs Tyler's uninspiring breakfasts.
"What do you ladies have planned for today?" Mr Tyler asked amiably, layering honey onto thick slabs of grey bread. "Surely not back to the dig? All work and no play and all that "
Mel shook her head as she smiled at him. "No work today, Mr Tyler. We're going exploring on the bike."
Mrs Tyler snorted but refrained from comment. Janice, unusually, managed to stop herself rising to the bait. "We might not be back for dinner, Mrs T. So don't mind us."
An hour or so later and the Americans were heading out into the warm May sunshine. Both were looking forward to spending some time away from the town and the faint yet constant sense of disapproval that, thanks to Mrs Tyler, permeated the Black Lion. Firstly, however, they needed to check in with Bolton.
Janice started the bike and headed down a couple of side streets to where Mel had identified a slightly out of the way public telephone kiosk. The inn had a phone, but due to the looming presence of Mrs Tyler, neither of them felt comfortable using it.
Janice gave the Oxford number to the operator, and Bolton answered within two rings of the connection being made. He sounded distracted. "Oh, you two. At last. I thought you might have called earlier."
"I didn't have all that much to report, Mr Bolton." Janice filled him in on progress with the dig. She pondered whether to mention her encounter with PC Morgan, but in the end decided against it. In the cold light of day it sounded foolish.
Bolton didn't seem greatly impressed with Janice's report; clearly he had been hoping for more significant finds. He claimed to know nothing of the dagger but agreed to check with the Ashmolean curator. Bolton seemed a little happier with the progress Mel had made, but his overall mood remained dour. "You two ladies need to make haste. News from Europe is grim. Holland is about to fall and France is in disarray. We don't know when the cult will strike and there's no time to lose."
Janice was irritated at the telling off. "We've been following the papers, Mr Bolton," she said although in truth she'd been trying to avoid the neverending bad news from the Continent. She declined Bolton's suggestion that they travel to Oxford to meet with him. "We've told ya all we know Mr Bolton. Soon as we get more news, we'll tell you. Mel n' me have got plans for today."
It had been Mel's suggestion that they take the opportunity to get away from Salisbury and away from the dig. She could see the effect that the mission was having on Janice, and she was desperate for her friend to have a day off from creepy locals and tales of demonic forces. She had suggested that they spend a day touring the area, and to her surprise Janice had readily agreed.
It had been a good plan, Mel thought to herself. Only a few miles out of the town and she could sense Janice becoming more calm. As the bike traversed the bumpy local roads, she gripped her hands around the smaller woman's waist, and swore that she could actually feel the tension easing out of her muscles.
The English countryside was truly beautiful, thought Janice. She had slowed the bike to a steady 30mph to allow her and her passenger to take in the bucolic tranquility around them. A herd of brown and white cows chewed the cud contentedly in a field to their left. A scent of honeysuckle hung in the air. It was hard to believe this was a nation at war. Janice sighed, the reality of the conflict breaching through her thoughts. Were Nazi agents at work, even in this sleepy corner of the country? She frowned and shook her head. No. She wouldn't wreck the day with her fears and dark thoughts. Pushing them to the back of her mind, she turned towards a picturesque village.
Night had fallen and on a hill overlooking Salisbury, the two Americans lay side by side on a blue and white checked picnic blanket gazing up at the stars, clearly visible in the pitch black sky.
"The Big Dipper," murmured Mel, pointing up at an indeterminate part of the night sky.
"Thought that one was a bear," grunted Janice. She turned to her companion. "Woah! Bit a déjà vu there!"
"Me too." Mel sighed contentedly and stretched her long frame out past the blanket's edge. "Oh, it's been a wonderful day, Janice. Thanks so much for driving."
"No problem." It had, Janice reflected, been a good day. After wandering aimlessly but happily around a couple of picture-perfect villages, they had found a secluded spot under an oak tree near a stream to rest and eat. Mel had saved up their rations during the week which helped to supplement the ubiquitous grey bread with a little cheese and ham. With the addition of a few apples it made a fine spread, and it was all the better for being washed down with a bottle of rough French red from the Black Lion's cellar.
After a couple of hours lounging by the banks of the stream, the friends had at Janice's suggestion taken a trip to another set of standing stones at Avebury. Both had been fascinated by the ancient megaliths, which came without the odd familiar feeling at Stonehenge
They rounded off the day with fish and chips in a nearby village, and now here they were lying happily under the stars, an easy familiarity between them.
"Why Janice, maybe we should just camp up here. Forget that dreary old pub. The two of us, sleeping under the stars, wondering what adventures the next day will bring "
The archeologist turned an amused face to her companion. "We don't even have a tent, Mel. Those English nights get pretty nippy." Janice snorted to herself. Melinda the Southern belle wanting to rough it in the woods? Things you never thought you'd see.
"Well, we could build a campfire." Mel looked a little put out.
"Heh. Maybe next time." Janice paused. "Hey, Mel, you lost ya glasses?"
Mel propped herself up on her elbow and shook her head. "I didn't bring them. It's strange, but since that incident in the tomb, I've found I need them less and less."
Hmm. That was strange, Janice thought. The episode had clearly affected them both and in unexpected ways. She glanced at her watch, conscious of Mrs Tyler's curfew but reluctant to end the day quite yet. "Tell me something else about the scrolls, Mel."
Mel paused before she spoke. "Well, I've been spending a bit of time on one particular scroll. The title translates roughly as 'Mortal Beloved'. It details an episode early in the duo's travels together, where Xena meets up with an old flame, a man called Marcus. It seems that Marcus had something of a violent or criminal past, but having reconnected with Xena he was considering changing his ways. Unfortunately he dies during Xena's successful attempt to rescue a kidnapped girl. Gabrielle describes the funeral rites in considerable detail; I believe classical scholars will find this passage extremely valuable.
"The second part of the scroll deals with Xena's visit to the underworld to redeem her former lover and features all sorts of fanciful detail involving battles with harpies and such. In the end, Hades agrees to allow Marcus into the Elysian Fields."
Mel gave a little embarrassed laugh. "I think we can safely write off this second half as Gabrielle's poetic licence "
"You sure about that, Mel?" Janice pulled herself into a sitting position and pulled out a cheroot. "Because after Macedonia, I wouldn't be so quick to write off ancient deities. Not to mention this current business we've got ourselves into." She smiled at her friend's uncertain expression. "Ah, who knows? I just think we should keep an open mind." She lit the cheroot. "Anyway, Xena and Marcus, huh? I guess this predated her and Gabby being an item?"
Mel's face coloured, visible even in the poor light. "Um, well, yes." She sat up and smoothed the fabric of her skirt. "It seems so. In fact what's interesting about the scroll is the way Gabrielle's writing betrays her conflicted feelings about Xena's relationship with Marcus. She is clearly trying to build up the romance, perhaps to something more significant than it was, probably to heighten dramatic tension and intensify the tragedy of Marcus's death. At the same time, the tone of parts of the story suggest sadness and even jealousy at Xena's closeness to her former lover."
"D'ya think Xena knew about her sidekick's crush on her?" Janice was curious.
Mel shook her head. "Impossible to say for sure. We only have Gabrielle's perspective. But at this stage she describes a stoic, often silent warrior, not someone who showed her emotions. If Xena had guessed the bard's feelings for her, it seems unlikely that she would have divulged this."
Janice pondered this. To her great surprise, the relationship between her supposed ancestor and the semi-mythical warrior woman was becoming one of the most interesting aspects of the scrolls. She wondered when the two had confessed their true feelings to each other and was about to ask Mel whether her translation work so far shed any light on this, when she suddenly realised the time. "Crap. It's later than I thought. C'mon, we'd better get back before the old bat locks us out and we do have to sleep under the stars." Stubbing out her half-smoked cheroot, and vowing to keep the remainder for later, she swung her leg over the bike. Once Mel was safely aboard, they sped off back to Salisbury at a rather faster speed than was sensible.
Shortly before 10 the following morning, two strangers joined the congregation for the Sunday morning service at the Cathedral. The plans for the day had again been Mel's idea, with Janice content to skip Mrs Tyler's terrible breakfast in favour of another hour or two's snooze. Mel however saw attendance at the sermon as an opportunity to make contacts within the local Church as well as an excellent people-watching opportunity, and managed to convince an initially reluctant Janice with relatively little difficulty.
Dressed in her skirt suit, Janice craned her neck for a better view of the building's magnificent architecture. It was truly breathtaking, and almost made up for the loss of a morning spent napping.
Mel's eyes, on the other hand, were focused solely on the members of the congregation filing in to take their seats. Catching sight of one man, she elbowed her companion sharply in the ribs. "That's him."
Janice turned to see a well-fed, moustachioed man of around 50, smartly dressed and displaying a rather ostentatious watch on a chain. He looked inordinately pleased with himself as he shook hands with fellow worshippers before taking up a seat in the pew across the aisle. So this is Harold Montague. She disliked him immediately.
Glancing around, Janice noticed a few other familiar faces, including PC Morgan and Daniels and Holland from the dig. Well, she thought to herself, this must be the place to come on Sundays. The choir was starting up, so she steeled herself for some preaching of a religion that she wasn't sure she believed in any more.
Just over an hour later, the vicar was concluding his sermon. Janice stifled a yawn. The service had been entirely unremarkable and she was already struggling to remember the main messages from the address. Some decent songs, though, she mused to herself. More singing, less talking please.
A hand clasping gently round her wrist brought her attention back to current events. "Let's take a walk," Mel murmured. She proceeded to lead Janice on a meandering tour of the Cathedral and its grounds, stopping every so often to admire a statue or painting. Eventually, she spotted a tall thin man in a dog collar, and headed casually in his direction. "Oh my," she said loudly once they were in earshot, "This is so fine, Janice! I just wish we knew more about some of these treasures."
The man in the dog collar smiled broadly and made his way over to them. "Forgive me ladies, but I couldn't help overhearing. I can probably answer any questions you might have about the Cathedral." He held out his hand to Mel. "I'm Donald Brand, and I'm the Deacon here."
"So nice to meet you Deacon," gushed Mel. "I'm Melinda Pappas, and this is Dr Janice Covington."
Brand frowned. "You're excavating that field outside of town." His tone was almost accusatory. The initial friendliness had evaporated.
Interesting. Mel pulled her most innocent face. "Why yes, we are, Mr Brand. Is something the matter?"
Brand said nothing for a moment. "Ah, it's not your fault." His expression softened. "It's just that well. It's dredged up some things I think would be better buried." He looked at Mel, who was continuing to sport a bemused face. Mind made up, he lowered his voice. "Walk with me. If anyone sees us they will think I'm giving you a tour."
The deacon paused in front of an impressive stained glass window and gestured towards it. Mel and Janice pulled appropriately impressed faces. Brand looked around and then began speaking in a low voice. "None of this is your fault. But the discoveries in that field have somehow emboldened certain people in the area.
"I have no doubt that you have done your research and are aware of the history of this place. For centuries, we have been plagued by a cabal which worships an ancient evil. It ebbs and flows, but it never really goes away.
"There is considerable interest from some quarters in the findings from your excavation. There is a belief that it is significant in some way. Certain people "
"The cult." Janice announced. "Montague."
Brand looked pained and made hushing noises. "Please be careful ladies. Walls have ears."
"I was surprised," Mel murmured conversationally, "to see Montague here at all. If he really worships some evil God, why would he be turning up for Sunday morning prayers at a cathedral?"
Brand made a disgusted noise. "Showing off. He knows he owns this town. No one will stand up to him. Even the clergy's in his pocket." He shook his head. "I'm the lone voice in the wilderness. Ignored by everyone."
Janice sighed. This was useful information, but Brand's self-pitying manner was starting to aggravate her. Sensing her companion was about to lose her temper, Mel decided to bring the discussion to a close. "Thank you so much, Deacon! You have a beautiful cathedral here and you have been so kind to tell us about it!" She spoke loudly for the benefit of any hidden eavesdroppers.
Brand smiled weakly and hurried away into a side room. The two women walked slowly out of the building and into bright sunlight. Janice lit a cheroot. "Montague's the key. But how are we gonna dig any dirt on him? He's got the whole damn town bowing and scraping to him." She groaned to herself. "We got an hour before lunch with the Tylers. Buy ya a beer?"
Mel nodded, and the two women ducked into the nearest pub.
The half term holiday was over, leaving the excavation team shorthanded, so Mel offered to accompany Janice to the digsite to help out for a few days. Janice had accepted with a tinge of guilt, knowing in her heart that Mel's talents would be better put to use investigating the cult past and present. But the thought of a week stuck out in a muddy field alone dealing with Elsie's forced bonhomie and Paul Holland's faint creepiness had filled her with dread. Her heart had jumped at Mel's offer. She hoped her eager acceptance hadn't sounded too desperate.
In any event it was another beautiful Spring day, and Janice sipped weak tea as she surveyed activity across the excavation. By late afternoon Daniels had unearthed two more Persian coins and was whistling tunelessly in the "office" whilst enthusiastically cataloguing his find. Janice turned away from the wooden building to watch the team grubbing away in the dirt. Her eyes drifted to Mel, who was wearing a long sleeved red blouse and one of the pairs of cotton pants she had purchased in Washington. She seemed to have dispensed with the spectacles entirely and her thick black tresses were tied back with a brightly patterned scarf. Janice thought briefly of a Gypsy fortune teller at a country fair. A sexy one, she mused to herself, before pushing that thought to the back of her mind.
As if she sensed Janice's eyes on her, Mel looked up and gave her friend a truly stunning smile. To her shame Janice felt her cheeks colouring. She waved feebly and returned to the office to make mindless small talk about the coins with Daniels.
Their chat was interrupted by a shout of excitement, and Janice sprinted away from the office down the bank, vaulting into the dig area. Elsie was brushing dirt from an object poking out of the ground. The team clustered round as Janice reverently pulled the item from its resting place.
It was a metal figurine, approximately 18 inches high. Janice could not immediately identify the particular metal used, but it was solid and weighed heavily in her hands. The statue depicted a grotesque horned humanoid figure throwing its head back in anger or triumph it was impossible to tell. A thick base was covered in ancient writings of some sort. To Janice at least, the object reeked of evil.
Initial shocked silence had given way to muted applause. Janice stood up and addressed the team. "Well done, everyone. This looks to be quite a find." She smiled weakly. "Mel and I need to take a look at this, try and work out what we got here." She fished in the pockets of her khakis and pulled out a couple of pound notes. "You guys deserve a night out. Here, get yourselves a few drinks on me."
Whilst the team got ready to head into town, Janice walked up to the makeshift office to lock up. Turning the key she sensed someone nearby. She whirled round to find Holland standing a couple of feet from her. "Mr Holland? Can I help you?"
"I can take that to the bank. Lock it in the vaults for the night." He moved closer. "Safer that way."
Clamping the horrid artifact under her left arm, Janice felt inside her jacket for her revolver. She didn't want to use the gun, but something told her that Holland may not take no for an answer.
"Bank's closed, Mr Holland." A strong hand gripped his shoulder, and it was hard to know whether he or Janice was more surprised to see Mel standing behind him. "The team's off to the pub. I think you'd better join them."
Holland opened his mouth to speak, then seemed to think better of it. Shrugging himself free of Mel's grip, he headed down to where his colleagues were gathering near Daniels' old truck.
The Americans stood in silence for a few minutes until the dig team had dispersed. Eventually Janice turned to the taller woman. "Woah, Mel. That was something else. I didn't know you had it in you."
Mel smirked and raised an eyebrow. "He's obviously easily intimidated. Let's get back home so that I can take a look at this inscription."
Janice paced around the attic bedroom, smoking furiously and occasionally giving voice to an incoherent curse. "Well c'mon, Mel! What's it say? You've been at this for hours now."
Mel looked up from the desk and briefly surveyed the chaos around her. Janice's khakis, boots and weapons were scattered around the floor. Papers and books were stacked up on the bed. There were two ashtrays in her line of sight, both filled with the smouldering remains of cheroots. The whisky that Janice had thought to pack was already half gone, drunk out of a chipped mug that had previously housed their toothbrushes. Mel took a deep breath. "This is going to take a while. Some of these symbols are difficult to decipher, and there's been some damage to the base. You need to calm down, Janice. Getting agitated won't speed things up."
There was a loud crashing sound and to Mel's surprise she saw that Janice had hurled the mug at the door, where it had shattered into countless fragments. "Goddamnit!" screamed Janice in frustration, before she slumped onto the bed and put her head in her hands.
There was a moment of silence while both women waited for Mrs Tyler to appear and start complaining about the noise. When nothing happened, Mel moved to sit on the bed and took her friend's hand. "Dr Janice Covington. You've faced danger on four continents that I'm aware of. Nothing stands in your way! What is it about this stupid statue that's bothering you so much?"
Janice looked up at her companion. On one level she was embarrassed about how she was behaving. On another she was baffled as to how Mel could remain so calm with the vile object so close to them. "It's EVIL! Can't you feel it?"
Mel rubbed her temple. Janice's extreme reaction to the artifact was troubling her and she had no idea how to calm the other woman down. "It's a little disturbing, yes. I don't much like it. But it's only a statue, Janice. It's a very important find." When she saw Janice smiling weakly, she patted her friend on the hand and stood up. "Let me get back to the translation."
"Yeah, okay," muttered Janice. "I'd better clean this place up before we get kicked out."
Mel worked through most of the night. Janice, true to her word, cleared up the mess in the room. After the mug incident she'd lain off the whisky, although she continued to chain smoke and pace around the small living space, occasionally peering out of the small window to check whether anyone was watching the inn.
Shortly after the first signs of dawn, there was a breakthrough. Mel gave a small sound of triumph and stood up from her chair. "That's it! I think I've got it."
Janice abandoned her window vigil and hurried over to the desk. "Well? Whatcha got?"
Mel scrutinised her notes. "Well, it starts off with a supplication of sorts, our Lord Dahak, the One True God, we your humble servants, etc etc. It goes on in that vein for some time. But the really interesting bit comes after. Some of it was worn away, and there were a couple of unfamiliar symbols, which is why it took me so long. But from what I can tell, the inscription tells of a sacrifice of blood. One which involves a young innocent, and which will somehow bring Dahak's power into the world."
"Human sacrifice." Janice nodded. "Has to be. It all makes sense. When the cult kidnapped that girl 150 years ago. They were going to sacrifice her." She made a disgusted noise. "No wonder the thing feels so evil."
Mel rested her hand on Janice's shoulder. "I can't be 100% sure. Like I say, some of the symbols are unfamiliar. But it does look like the most likely explanation."
Janice wiped her palms, which were suddenly clammy, on her shirt. "Okay. No way this is going in any damn bank vault. And I'm not having it in our room for the rest of the week, either. I'm not gonna get much sleep with his ugly mug staring at us. Bolton needs to see this, right away."
After some discussion, it was agreed that Mel would supervise the excavation while Janice rode to Oxford to show Bolton the disturbing find. With some difficulty, Mel persuaded her companion to stay for breakfast before heading out. "We want this to look as normal as possible," she reasoned. "I'll tell the team you needed to do some research at the Bodleian Library." Reluctantly, Janice had acquiesced. In her heart she knew Mel was right, but her desire to be rid of the artifact was overwhelming her rational thoughts. She was also keen to confront Bolton face to face. There was no doubt in her mind that he knew more than he had shared with them.
Janice reached St John's College shortly before 10am. Parking the bike outside the lodge, she strode into the main quadrangle, ignoring the stares of gown-clad dons clearly alarmed to see the wild-looking woman in khakis and a leather jacket. She paused briefly before selecting one of the staircases off the quad and heading up a flight of stairs, taking the steps two at a time.
At the top of the staircase was an impressive oak panelled door. Janice flung it open without stopping to knock. Bolton was sitting at a large desk talking on an elaborate telephone that appeared to be finished in ivory. He looked up in surprise for a moment before holding up a hand to his visitor and returning to the call.
The apparently dismissive gesture enraged Janice, who stalked over to the desk and placed her hands on the the ink blotter next to the telephone. "We need to talk. Now," she hissed at the man opposite her.
Bolton took the hint. "I'm very sorry Home Secretary. I'll call you back." Replacing the handset in its cradle, he glowered at Janice. "Dr Covington. Would you care to explain the meaning of "
"Meaning of what, Mr Bolton? Maybe you'd like to tell ME the meaning of THIS." As she spoke Janice reached into the canvas bag around her shoulder and slammed the statue on the desk.
There was silence for a moment as Bolton studied the ugly object in front of him. His eyes narrowed. "What is this?"
Janice stared at him, but saw no sign of evasion or obfuscation in his eyes. She sighed. "We dug it up yesterday. It's some sort of depiction of an evil god, we think. Mel translated the writing around the base and believes it to describe the ritual needed to bring this god into the world. The ritual seems to involve human sacrifice."
Bolton frowned and reached out his hand to touch the artifact. "Human sacrifice, you say. An evil god. Looks like the rumours were true after all. This cult is as dangerous as they say."
"Mr Bolton." To her annoyance, Janice could hear a hint of pleading enter her voice. "Would you please tell me what you know? It feels like we're flying blind here."
Bolton stood up and walked to the window. He spent a few moments looking out over the bustling street of St Giles before speaking. "Dr Covington. I swear that I know very little more than what I have already told you and Miss Pappas." He sighed. "I have learned a little more in recent days, however."
Janice looked at him expectantly.
"Firstly, the Ashmolean has no record of the receipt of any ceremonial dagger from the Wiltshire digsite. The inventory from that week's delivery lists coins and some pottery shards. No mention of a dagger. Wherever it is, its's not here.
"Secondly, one of our intelligence operatives has tracked a German agent to Salisbury. It seems he was to meet with a contact in a café there. Unfortunately, the agent managed to give our man the slip before he could be apprehended. We do not know whether the meeting went ahead. We do know, however, that the agent in question is a high ranking officer who would only have embarked on the mission if it was of utmost importance."
Bolton moved to stand next to Janice and gingerly put his hand on her arm. "I need you to trust me, Dr Covington. Whatever is happening at your dig is of great significance to this country and perhaps the whole world. It is vital that you locate any artifacts of significance and that you manage to investigate the cult."
Janice shook off his hand, but she did so gently. "Alright, Mr Bolton. We'll keep on with this. But I have to warn you that I don't have a good feeling about any of it." She gave him a grim smile. "I should let you get back to the Home Secretary."
Bolton called out as she turned for the door. "What should I do with this, Dr Covington?"
"I don't care. Keep it away from me." She jammed the fedora on her head as she exited the study and headed to the bike.
Back in the snug of the Black Lion that evening, Janice filled her friend in on the events of the day. Mel was especially troubled to learn of the German agent. "I wonder who he was meeting?"
"Who knows. The useless Limey spy lost track of him." Janice drained her glass and looked for a refill, but the bar appeared unmanned. "What about you, Mel? Find out anything interesting today?"
"Not really. The digsite was pretty uneventful. Holland wasn't there, which was a blessing." Mel thought for a second. "Well, there was a bit of gossip from Elsie. Apparently a few years ago Montague was heavily involved with the BUF."
"The British Union of Fascists?! Goddamnit Mel, he must be the Nazi contact!" Janice looked smug. "Wait till we tell Bolton this."
"Well," Mel cautioned, "It was a few years ago, long before war broke out. Elsie seemed to think it was all in the past. Montague is a big patriot these days, or so he claims."
"Huh." Janice looked unconvinced. "I'm wiped. Let's have one more round then I'm gonna have an early night."
Wednesday morning and the excavation was a hive of activity. Janice noted with some disappointment that Holland was back on site, but he kept away from her and from Mel. "Looks like ya frightened him off," Janice grinned with satisfaction.
Mel smirked. "I do believe he deserved it!"
"I do believe that you're right." Janice checked her watch and was about to signal for a tea break when she spotted in her peripheral vision a figure standing on an outcrop jutting from a nearby hill. As she watched the figure, she saw a flash of light and a gunshot rang out.
Acting on pure instinct, Janice grabbed Mel and bundled her to the ground, yelling "Everyone! Get down!"
Mel gasped in shock as she was pushed roughly to the ground. Janice had, she realised, thrown herself over her presumably in an attempt to shield her with her body. They lay there together for what felt like an eternity but which was in reality probably less than two minutes. "Are you alright, Janice?" she eventually managed to croak.
"Yeah. I'm good, I think." Slowly, Janice raised her head. "Is everybody okay?"
A general noise indicating affirmatives. Daniels crept over towards the two women. "Dr Covington? Are you alright?"
Janice pulled herself into her knees. "I'm fine. There was a gunman "
"Gunman? Are you sure?" Daniels was shaking his head. "It was probably just a shot from the firing range "
"Jesus Christ man, I've been working here for ten days, I'm well aware that there's a goddamned firing range next door! I'm not talking about that. There was a gunman up there, on that hill."
"We didn't see anything, Dr Covington "
Janice let his voice trail off out of her earshot. She was already on her feet sprinting towards the hill in question. After a short while she realised to her surprise and delight that Mel was in pursuit, and was in fact gaining on her with her long legs. "Hey, Mel. Whatcha doin'? This could be dangerous."
"Where you go, I go."
Again with the déjà vu. Huh.
They reached the summit of the small hill, from where the outcrop was accessible via a narrow and rocky path. Breathing heavily, Janice began to make her way down it. She drew her revolver. "Stay behind me, Mel."
The outcrop was empty. There was no sign of anyone having been there. No cigarette butts, no spent cartridges, no visible footprints. Janice looked around. How had he got away? Had there even been anyone there, or was her mind playing tricks again?
"Janice! Look here!" Mel's voice roused her from her attack of self doubt.
"What is it?"
"A cave! It's hidden back here, under all these brambles. Ouch! Mind your arms on these."
Janice walked over to where Mel was pointing. There was, indeed, an entrance to a cave, almost entirely obscured by thick and thorny vegetation. Janice pulled her hunting knife from its home on her calf and started hacking through the undergrowth. As she did it, she wondered why she was bothering to do so the gunman couldn't be hiding inside. He would have been cut to ribbons even attempting it. Still, something told her to keep going, and a few minutes later the entrance was clear.
The cave didn't go back a long way, but visibility inside was poor nonetheless. Janice sparked up her lighter and walked gingerly inside, shielding the flame with her left hand. "Nothing here."
"Wait." Mel was crouched down in a corner. "Can you bring the light here? I think I've found something."
Janice approached with the lighter, and they both gasped as something glittered between two rocks. "What on earth " Mel's long fingers worked behind the object and gently pulled it to the surface.
Both women were dumbstruck. A large, ornate box, apparently made of silver or some sort of precious metal. It was inlaid with pearls and semi-precious stones. A small lock sealed whatever was inside securely within it. "Oh my " Mel whispered.
Janice was already kneeling on the floor. She took her knife and gently pressed the point into the locking mechanism. Within seconds the box had popped open, to reveal two scrolls made of familiar-looking parchment.
"No." Janice breathed. "It can't be "
With trembling hands, Mel unrolled the end of one of the scrolls and began to read. "I sing of Xena, a mighty Princess, forged in the heat of battle "
Janice sank back down onto the ground. "Oh my God. How can this be I can't believe it." She turned to Mel. "Are they real? Or is this just some trick Bolton is playing on us to keep us here?"
Mel looked up at her friend. "I think they're genuine, Janice. They look the same as the ones back at Georgetown. The parchment, the writing everything."
"Wow. Just wow." Janice had stood up and was resuming the pacing from the previous night. "We need to get these back to our room and start translating."
"What about the dig "
"Forget the dig. This is nothing to do with them. We didn't find the scrolls there. This is different."
"We can't just run away from it, Janice. It will look odd." Mel straightened up. "You hold onto the box and the scrolls. I'm going to go down to the team and tell them you've had a bit of a scare, and that we're closing up for today."
"Okay. Thanks, Mel."
"Not a problem. Meet me at the bike in 20 minutes. I want to make sure everyone's gone."
Back at the Black Lion, it was hard for either woman to conceal their excitement. Fortunately, the handful of patrons enjoying a lunchtime drink barely registered their presence. Janice had draped her jacket over the box, and they were able to make it up to their room without incident.
Mel insisted on transcribing the scrolls before attempting any translation. "We must preserve the text," she reasoned. "Just in case anything happens to the original."
She was right, of course, Janice said to herself, but it was hard to restrain oneself from starting the translation. She tried to focus on copying Gabrielle's precise strokes exactly. The text was densely packed and clearly extremely detailed. Looks like her ancestor was thorough, if nothing else. Janice felt an odd sense of pride as she continued with her detailed work. Yeah. Gabrielle was alright.
The two women were rudely awakened from their labours by a loud knocking at the door. "Miss Pappas! Miss Covington! There's a policeman here to see you."
"Ah, shit," Janice groaned. "What now?"
Mel stood up and walked towards the door. "Stay calm, Janice. Let me handle this."
Janice opened her mouth to protest but thought better of it. Mel had been far more together than she had in recent days.
"We'll be right there, Mrs Tyler. Did he say what he wanted?"
"He did not. Just that he needed to speak to you both." Mrs Tyler sounded like she was spitting something out. "A copper at my door! I never thought I'd see the day. I'm telling you, if there's trouble you're both out of here. I don't care what the University pays me!"
Mel rolled her eyes at Janice and opened the door. Mrs Tyler was standing at the top of the stairs, glaring into the room. "He's waiting downstairs in the bar."
"That's lovely, Mrs Tyler. We'll come right away. Perhaps you would be so kind as to make us some tea ?"
Mrs Tyler snorted in disgust and stomped down the stairs. Janice did her best to stifle a laugh. "Nicely done."
Mel winked at her friend and started down the staircase. "C'mon Janice. Let's just play it cool. We've done nothing wrong after all."
They entered the deserted bar area to see PC Morgan sitting at one of the tables. Mel smiled flirtatiously while Janice gave a silent groan. She waited for her companion to begin greeting the officer before steadying herself to speak. "PC Morgan. How can we help you?"
"I've told you already, Dr Covington! Stephen, please." The police officer smiled as a scowling Mrs Tyler arrived with a tray of teas and a minuscule jug of milk. He waited for the landlady to exit the bar before continuing. "We had a report of a gunman at the digsite. I thought you might want to make a statement."
Janice steeled herself to speak but found that Mel was already in full flow. "Oh, PC Morgan Stephen we're so very sorry! Janice thought she saw a flash on one of the hills above the excavation, and it just happened to coincide with a shot from the military firing range nearby. We went to investigate but it was a false alarm. Thank goodness," she added, fluttering her eyelashes.
"I see." Morgan looked uncertain. "Dr Covington? Do you have anything to add?"
Janice pulled herself out of her shocked stupor at Mel's shameless flirting. "Er, no, officer. That's right. Exactly as Miss Pappas said."
"But you packed up early and came home," Morgan persisted. "It sounds like something spooked you."
"Oh, Officer I mean Stephen you know how it can be." Mel gave him a small smirk. "Sometimes you just need an excuse for an afternoon off. And Dr Covington and I have been working so hard "
Morgan grinned. "I do indeed know how it can be, Miss Pappas! So tell me," he leaned forward conspiratorially, "Have you ladies found anything interesting while you've been working so hard?"
Janice stiffened, but Mel was already on the case. "Why, we did find a very impressive statue the other day! But we couldn't figure out what the inscription on it said, so Janice has taken it to Oxford to be examined by some of the world's leading experts in the field."
Morgan looked disappointed, but seemed to accept what he was being told. "I only wish I'd seen it. Sounds like quite a find." He stood up to leave. "Well, I'd better be getting back to my beat. I'm glad you ladies are alright." He paused. "There's a dance on Saturday night at the city hall. Soldiers, locals it should be fun. Why don't you ladies come along?"
"We'd be delighted, officer!" Mel almost squealed.
"Well, that's great! I'll see you both there then." Morgan took Mel's hand and kissed it gently. "Until then, Miss Pappas." He nodded curtly at Janice. "Dr Covington."
Janice stared at the policeman's retreating form until she was satisfied he was well out of possible earshot. "What the HELL, Mel?"
"Ssh." Mel smiled. "It worked, didn't it? And the dance will be a perfect opportunity to find out more about the people in this town, and maybe the cult."
Janice rolled her eyes and banged on the bar. "Hey! Mr Tyler! Any chance of a coupla drinks in here?"
It turned out that the Saturday night dance was a major social event, and the whole town seemed to be buzzing with excitement over it. The couple of days leading up to it had been uneventful, with Janice supervising the dig while Mel stayed in the attic room, focused entirely on the new scrolls.
The time spent studying the find had proved worthwhile. By Saturday afternoon both documents had been fully transcribed and translation of the first scroll was proceeding at a brisk pace. It began with a description of a sea voyage by Xena and Gabrielle to Britannia. Once there, they had made contact with a female military leader Gabrielle named as Boadicea, who was fighting to repel a Roman invasion led by Julius Caesar. This dated the events to 55 54BC. It looked as though Harry Covington's theory had been correct, although the mention of Boadicea in this context troubled both scholars. All other histories pointed to a woman called Boadicea or Boudicca leading a rebellion against Roman rule many years later, following the successful conquest of the British Isles a century or more afterwards.
As Mel was satisfied that the scroll was genuine, there were two possibilities either that the established history of the period was entirely incorrect in its dating of the woman warrior Boadicea, or that her rebellious namesake had adopted the moniker of an earlier fighter who had successfully defended her lands from the invaders. On balance Mel preferred the second option. The absence of any reference to the earlier Boadicea in classical sources was unsurprising history is written by the victors, after all, and the British tribes were mainly preliterate at this stage. Roman historians of the period were unlikely to have recorded the great Julius Caesar's defeat to a barbarian woman or women, if, as Mel suspected, it was to turn out that Xena was instrumental in the rout of the invading Romans.
Late on Friday there was a breakthrough with the translation work. The scroll confirmed what had been referred to in the Roman journal Bolton had shown them. Gabrielle, along with a holy man of some sort, had been captured by Caesar. Both prisoners were taken to a hill to be crucified in view of Xena and the army of Britons. In powerful prose, Gabrielle described the terror of being tied to the wooden cross and left to die slowly and painfully.
To the relief of both Mel and Janice, Gabrielle's torture on the cross lasted only a few moments. Xena and a small band of volunteers had buried themselves in a pit beneath the hill, and as soon as the crosses were raised they burst out of the hiding place, scattering the shocked Roman troops, many of whom did not escape with their lives. Gabrielle and the holy man were quickly cut down, and Xena took pleasure in tearing up Caesar's banner. Caesar himself had also suffered a minor injury, denting the image of invulnerability he liked to portray to his troops.
Both scholars had hoped for a detailed explanation of the tactics Xena and the Britons had used to defeat the most powerful military force in the ancient world. Unfortunately, by Saturday afternoon it was apparent that the scroll was rather light on this detail, with Gabrielle's focus instead on the teachings of the holy man who had escaped the crucifixion with her. Janice's suspicions were aroused by the presence of the man, but further investigation would have to wait as it was time for the two friends to get ready for the dance.
"Urgh," Janice groaned, as her hairbrush snagged another tangle. "I hate these things. Hate dressing up."
"Don't be silly, Janice. You look wonderful." Mel was dressed in a pale blue dress with a silver and sapphire necklace and matching earrings. Her hair was pinned up on her head in what might have been a rather severe style, but which somehow suited the dark Southerner.
Janice surveyed herself in the mirror. She did not, she supposed, look too dreadful. The green dress she'd bought in DC flattered her figure and complemented her eyes. She wore an unusual golden necklace she'd picked up in a Tunisian bazaar. Her hair, though "I can't do anything with it. Never could."
"Your hair's fantastic, Janice. You should show it off." Mel walked over to her friend and took the brush from her hand. "Let me try something." She examined Janice's tresses. "I'm going to put a couple of braids in. Make you look a little exotic. Wild."
Janice shook her head. "Braids, Mel I dunno. That's gonna look a little Germanic. I'm not sure that's the greatest idea, in the current climate."
"Have it your way. But let me pin it up, at least."
The hall was only a short walk from the Black Lion. There was a faint chill in the air, so Janice had slipped on her leather jacket as they were leaving. Mel smiled at her friend's somewhat incongruous appearance. At least she left the fedora behind, she thought to herself.
They stopped at the phone box to check in with Bolton. He seemed unimpressed with the revelation about Montague's BUF affiliation. "Mosley attracted a lot of idiots a few years ago. The vast majority have abandoned all of that nonsense now." On hearing Janice's sigh, he relented. "I'll have someone look into it. Any other news?"
The two women had already made a pact to keep the discovery of the scrolls to themselves for now. "Not really," Janice said brightly. "We're off to some big dance in town. Might learn some more about this damned cult." She ignored Bolton's expression of annoyance and hung up. "Waste of time."
"Oh, come on, Janice. He's not so bad." Mel linked arms with her friend, to Janice's surprise. "Mr Tyler gave me a key for the side door. We don't have to be back for curfew. Let's dance!"
The hall was already filling up when they got there. It had been hastily decorated with bunting and patriotic posters. Janice paid the token entry fee and hung up their coats in a small room which had been set aside for the purpose. On the stage, a dance band was playing a jazz tune that sounded vaguely familiar. A makeshift bar had been set up along one wall, and Janice wasted no time in heading over to it. "Get ya something Mel?"
"Gin and tonic please." Mel surveyed the attendees. Paul Holland was sitting in a corner on his own, scowling into a pint of dark ale. Elsie, predictably, appeared to have volunteered for multiple jobs and was splitting her time between manning the entry desk, fussing over the coat storage room and adjusting crooked bunting. A couple of the sixth form students could be seen giggling at the side of the hall, enjoying illicit pints. There were a number of soldiers and airmen in uniform milling around looking for potential dance partners. No sign of Montague.
"Well, hello there beautiful ladies!" Stephen Morgan appeared from nowhere, just as Janice returned with the drinks. He stepped back and theatrically cast his eyes over the two friends. "Heavens! You look marvellous." He kissed the back of Mel's hand. "You too, Dr Covington. I've ah never seen you like this."
"I clean up okay." Janice grunted and took a long drink from her beer. Her antipathy towards Morgan was increasing. She suspected the feeling was mutual. "Haven't seen you like this, either." She indicated his suit, which was mid-brown and looked surprisingly expensive.
"Aha! Yes, well, thought a copper's outfit wasn't quite the right look for tonight. Besides," he gestured at the sea of military uniforms in front of them, "I can't compete with these chaps." He gave a little laugh, which to Janice's ears sounded entirely fake. "My manners! Can I get you ladies a drink?"
"Just got them," Janice responded shortly, holding up her beer and gesturing at Mel's glass. "Thanks for the offer though."
"Well then." Morgan held his hand out to Mel, just as the band started up 'In the Mood'. "May I have the honour of this dance?"
Mel batted her eyelashes coquettishly. "Oh, my." She glanced at Janice, who indicated with an irritated wave of her hand that she should go ahead. "I'd love to, Mr Morgan um, Stephen!"
Janice watched as a grinning Morgan led Mel over to the dance floor. Morgan was a fairly decent dancer, she thought, and Mel made up in enthusiasm what she lacked in technical ability. They looked good together both tall, dark, handsome, well-dressed.
Urgh. Janice turned away and was pondering whether to return to the bar when an unfamiliar voice broke through her thoughts. "Um, Miss? Would you, erm, care for a cigarette?"
Janice looked up to see a sandy-haired man in a military uniform proffering a pack of cigarettes. "Oh, sure. Thanks." She took one and then realised she'd left her lighter in her jacket pocket. "Damnit. Do you have ?"
The soldier looked grave as he pulled a lighter from a pocket. "Please. Miss. Allow me." He smiled shyly. "My name's Calum."
"Janice." She smiled at the soldier, whose accent sounded reassuringly and confusingly familiar. "Are you American?"
Of course. Janice nodded and turned her eyes back to the dance floor, where Mel and Morgan continued to boogie. Mel seemed to have grown in confidence and now looked for all the world like a natural. The good looking couple attracted admiring looks from across the hall.
"Don't feel too bad."
"What?" Janice looked with a flash of irritation to see that Calum was still standing there.
"I said don't feel too bad. You're sweet on that guy, aren't you? It's a shame, I know how it is. But she looks like a nice girl. Don't take it to heart."
Ah, crap. Talk about putting two and two together to make five. Janice shook her head. "I'm not sweet on that guy, Calum. I barely know him, and what I do know I don't much like."
Calum brightened. "Oh, forgive me. I thought oh well Can I buy you a drink?"
Two drinks and a few dances later, it was clear that Calum's inhibitions were lowered. Flushed, he leaned forward to whisper in Janice's ear. "I'm being shipped out overseas next week."
It was obvious where this was going. His voice was heavy with longing, and Janice felt a pang of sympathy. Who knew when or if the young soldier would see his home again. Briefly, Janice considered the possibility. The man was attractive enough, and she'd had a pleasant time with him. In the past, she thought, an assignation of some sort might have followed. But now Janice sighed. "I'm sorry, Calum. I'm not available."
The soldier looked crushed. Janice felt equal parts sympathy and irritation. She had nothing to feel guilty about. She hadn't led him on. The drinking and dancing had been fun, but she'd studiously avoided flirting. She gave a warm smile and kissed him chastely on the cheek. "Be well, Calum from Canada. Stay safe."
The soldier nodded and smiled back. "Thanks for a nice evening. I'd better be getting back to barracks."
He wandered off. Janice breathed a sigh of relief and made her way over to the bar. "Gimme a Scotch. Straight up. Double." Out of the corner of her eye she saw Mel approaching, with Morgan following a few steps behind.
"Janice! There you are! We didn't know where you'd got to." Mel smiled at her friend.
"Really? Cos I was here all along." It sounded petty. She didn't care.
Morgan reached the bar and ordered a couple of drinks. "Dr Covington! What happened to your gentleman friend?"
"He wasn't my 'gentleman friend'. And he's gone back to barracks to prepare for being shipped out to a war zone."
There was an awkward silence which was broken, eventually, by Mel. "Stephen was asking about the dig, Janice. I was telling him that you're the best person to talk to about it."
Janice turned to the policeman. "Whaddya wanna know, Officer? And why are you so interested, anyways?" She ignored Mel's sharp intake of breath at her rudeness.
Morgan looked hurt. "I've told you Dr Covington, I'm just interested in history and from what I've heard there have been some really unusual finds. It must be something special, after all you and Melinda have come a long way just to investigate it."
Janice stiffened. She wondered how much Morgan knew. She decided to keep her answer factual. "There are some unusual aspects to the objects found so far, yes. They suggest that the presence of visitors from as far away as Persia. This was not known to be a common occurrence in Britain at the time, especially so far inland."
Morgan nodded eagerly. "I've heard rumours of rare religious artifacts ?"
"And that's what they are. Rumours. We have not yet identified for certain the purpose of some of the items found." Janice inclined her head towards the policeman. "Speaking of religion and rumours, Officer, we keep hearing stories about some sort of ancient cult operating in the town. Could you tell us anything about that?"
Morgan frowned. "Oh, Dr Covington. Have you been talking to that tiresome old deacon at the cathedral? The 'cult' is a folklore society that organises charitable and community events around town. It's about our history and heritage, not devil-worship or whatever nonsense he's spreading around this month."
"Folklore and heritage, right. So not an organisation that dabbles in, say, human sacrifice?" To the side, Janice heard Mel gasp in horror. She was past caring.
Morgan drew himself up to his full height, which dwarfed Janice and topped even Mel by a couple of inches. "I'm not staying here to listen to this rubbish. Come, Melinda. Let us dance."
Janice watched the two of them head back to the dance floor, just as the band started to play a slow number. Morgan's hand was on Mel's waist, pulling her closer towards him. Janice turned away. She felt as though her heart would break. Knocking back the remains of the Scotch, she headed quickly for the cloakroom. Pulling on her jacket, she headed out into the deserted streets, trying desperately to fight back the hot tears which were pricking her eyes. She reached for a cheroot to steady her nerves, only to find the packet was empty. "Goddamnit!"
She heard something. Footsteps, tapping on the cobbled street behind her. Speeding up, getting closer. She knew who it was before she turned. "It's alright, Mel. Go back to the dance."
"Janice! Are you alright? What is wrong with you?"
"I said, go back. Your cop is waiting for you. Leave." The words choked Janice. She hoped Mel hadn't heard the sob which had escaped. If she was to end the evening with even a shred of dignity intact, Janice had to leave now. She turned away from her friend and began to walk briskly in the direction of the Black Lion, only to feel Mel's hand on her shoulder, pulling her back. "I said LEAVE!" Janice spun round to face the Southerner who grabbed the lapels of her leather jacket before leaning forward and kissing her.
Saying Janice was surprised would not do justice to her feelings at that moment. The kiss deepened and conscious thoughts retreated. It was soft and yet passionate; gentle and yet insistent. Janice found herself sinking. For that moment, her world consisted solely of Melinda Pappas. Her taste. Her feel. Her smell. A bond that was new and yet somehow ancient. Eternal. Nothing in Janice's experience had prepared her for this.
After a time she had no idea how long Janice reluctantly broke her lips away. "Mel. What ?" She couldn't speak. Her face was wet with tears. She could see, even in the darkness, that Mel's was as well. "I didn't I don't "
"Sshh." Mel brushed her finger gently over her companion's lips. "I love you, Janice Covington. I've loved you from the first moment I saw you. I just I couldn't "
Now it was Janice's turn to utter a comforting hush. "Mel. I I had no idea. I thought you and Morgan Oh Christ I was so jealous, I suppose." It was hard, but it felt good to put a name to her feelings. "I've thought about you every day since we met. I dream about you. I just couldn't allow myself to think you might feel the same way."
Mel choked back a sob. "I've never had feelings like this for anyone. But a woman I couldn't admit it to myself. After you left, and I was there on my own with Morgan well. That's when I knew. I thought I'd lost you Janice. Oh God!" The tears began to flow again.
Janice leaned in and lay her head under Mel's chin in what was an immediately comforting and strangely familiar position. "C'mon gorgeous. Let's head home."
Hand in hand, they wandered the short distance to the inn. Janice marvelled at her companion's strong, slender fingers. "Mrs Tyler's gonna freak," she mumbled.
"I've got the late key, don't forget. She won't hear a thing."
Mel was right, and they made it back to their room without being spotted. Now inside the room, Janice felt suddenly awkward. What now. "Um, Mel "
Another kiss cut her off. "No more 'umming'. I want you, Dr Covington."
Well, okay. So Mel was serious about this. Wow. Janice shrugged off her jacket and let it drop to the floor. Her friend had already kicked off her shoes and was fiddling at the back of her dress. "Hey. Let me get that." Janice fumbled with the zip just as Mel started to pull at her clothing, and the two of them fell back on the bed in a tangle of limbs. Giggling, the two women set themselves to the task of undressing each other as quickly as possible.
Finally naked, Janice clambered onto Mel's body, thinking to herself that she had not until now noticed how magnificent it was. She began slowly, gently nibbling Mel's ear and covering her shoulder and neck in kisses, conscious of her new lover's limited experience. To her surprise, Mel reacted immediately and fiercely, flipping Janice onto her back before sucking hungrily at her lips. Janice grabbed Mel's butt and pulled her closer. She wanted to meld into the other woman. This wasn't like any of her other sexual encounters. This was urgent, primal. This was her destiny. It was like time had stopped. She felt truly alive for the first time, and Janice knew that whatever happened she was ruined for anyone else.
Janice awoke to light streaming through the window. Behind her, Mel was still fast asleep, spooning her. She reached out her hand to brush a strand of dark hair from her lover's face before turning her head to kiss her gently on the cheek. "I love you," she whispered.
A piercing blue eye opened. "I love you too," murmured Mel, tightening her arm around Janice's middle.
"I thought you were asleep." Janice playfully tweaked her partner's nose. "We've missed breakfast."
"Who cares. I'll eat you instead."
A couple of hours later, Janice reluctantly extricated herself from Mel's embrace. "I need to go to the bathroom," she smiled to her grumbling bedmate. "Plus, much as I'd like to stay in bed with you all day, I need a bath and we gotta get on with the translation." She grabbed her towel and opened the door, only to come face to face with a landlady with a face like thunder. "Good morning, Mrs Tyler."
"Well, it's barely morning." Mrs Tyler sniffed. "I was coming to see if you were alright. You didn't show up for breakfast."
"No, we didn't. We're fine, Mrs T. Just tired." Janice tried, unsuccessfully, to step past the landlady.
Mrs Tyler attempted to crane her head past the archeologist. "Good grief, what's happened here? I hope there haven't been any male visitors here!"
Janice hastily closed the door on the room, which was still strewn with discarded clothes. "Trust me, Mrs T. Not a man in sight."
Scrubbing herself in the lukewarm bathwater, Janice considered the momentous events of the last 24 hours. A disastrous evening had turned into a sublime night. She'd been unable to admit to anyone, least of all herself, the strength of her feelings for Mel. The idea that these feelings might be reciprocated by the dark beauty had been truly unthinkable, especially in the light of her obvious discomfort at the apparent relationship between Xena and Gabrielle. Janice still felt giddy at the thought of the night before. Mel's inexperience hadn't been in evidence both partners had seemed to know instinctively what the other needed, as though they had been together for centuries.
Perhaps they had. Janice pondered the precise nature of her and her new lover's connection with their supposed ancestors. She thought of her own family tree no Greek heritage that she was aware of, although it was probable that some of the generations may have moved around over the course of a couple of millennia. Janice shook her head. Maybe the scrolls would provide some answers.
Speaking of which Janice climbed out if the tub and dried herself hurriedly before returning to their room. Mel was still sprawled on the bed, and Janice couldn't keep the smile off her face as she admired her partner's perfectly formed and very naked body. She shook herself to free her from the distraction. Time to focus.
"Mel. That holy man in the new scroll. Did it mention his name?"
Mel gazed on her newly bathed lover. Perfection. "Um. Sorry, Janice. What did you say?"
"The holy man Gabrielle was going on about. What was his name?"
Mel clambered reluctantly off the bed and stepped across to the desk. "It was a strange name. I haven't come across it before. Wait, let me look at my notes yes, here it is. Khrafstar."
Khrafstar. The vaguest hint of a memory stirred within Janice. "That doesn't sound Celtic or Latin to me. Any idea where it's from?" Seeing Mel shaking her head, Janice pressed the point. "Could it be Persian?"
Mel frowned and scrutinised her notes. "I I couldn't say for certain. But now you mention it, the structure would be consistent with what we know of Persian naming conventions from the period."
"We need to find out what happened after Gabrielle and this so called holy man were rescued." Janice was beginning her pacing again. "I think the scrolls are gonna be key to solving this whole damn thing. How soon can you translate the rest of that one you're working on?"
Mel unwrapped the scroll and looked at the remaining text. "There's not too much to go. I can probably get you an overview by this evening. But we may miss the nuances."
"I know. But let's go with the overview for now." Janice leaned over to nibble the dark woman's earlobe, and found herself engulfed in a passionate kiss. "Woah! Distractions!" Hearing Mel's grumbling, she relented a little. "Tell ya what. Let's go down for Sunday lunch and keep the old bat happy. Then you can get translating while I tidy up in here. Then if you're done by this evening well, we can celebrate together."
Mel winked at her. "I'll hold you to that promise, Doctor."
In the end Janice decided to leave Mel to it. It was simply too distracting for them to be in the same room together, and the only hope of any translation being accomplished that afternoon was to separate for a few hours. While Mel studied the scroll, Janice headed out into the warm May sunshine. She felt a pang of guilt at being out in the fresh air while Mel slaved away upstairs. After taking a walk and fiddling with the bike for a while, she decided to assuage her guilt by offering to run some errands for Mrs Tyler.
The landlady was clearly surprised at the offer, but seemed genuinely grateful and asked Janice if she could take some freshly laundered clothes and bedding to an elderly aunt living just outside of town. Janice readily accepted and sensed a slight thaw in relations with the landlady.
Mrs Tyler's directions hadn't been the greatest, and it had taken Janice some time to find the house. When she finally located it, the old lady had insisted she come in for tea and had kept her there for ages telling stories about her trip to London, decades ago, for Queen Victoria's jubilee celebrations. Janice had tried to drop the topic of the cult into the conversation to no avail, and when she finally managed to extricate herself from the house it was after 7pm.
On her return to the Black Lion, Janice saw to her surprise that Mel was already ensconced in the empty snug. She walked over and gave her partner a kiss on the cheek. "Hey, honey. How ya doing?"
Mel reached out and grabbed Janice's hand. She looked troubled. "I don't like to drink alone, Janice. But I had to get out of the room. The scroll " She ran her free hand through her hair, "The scroll is quite disturbing."
Janice frowned in concern at her friend's obvious distress. She gestured towards Mel's empty glass. "Let me get ya another. Then you can tell me all about it."
Sipping her second G&T of the evening, Mel thought how best to summarise what she'd learned that afternoon. She knew Janice would be upset at what had happened to her ancestor. More than that, though, she also knew that the archeologist would try to link the events in the scroll with the current situation involving the cult. Taking a deep breath, she said, "Gabrielle was well she was violated by an evil entity of some sort."
Janice couldn't hide the look of puzzlement on her face. "Violated? What? Gabrielle was raped?"
"Sssh," Mel hissed, even though the bar was deserted. Use of the 'r' word had apparently troubled her.
Janice was shaking her head. "I don't understand. What happened? How did this 'entity' rape her?"
Mel gulped her G&T. "Gabrielle writes that this so-called holy man Khrafstar asked her to accompany him to some sort of religious ceremony in a temple a few miles away. Xena was occupied with her military strategies and so Gabrielle travelled without her.
"When they reached the temple it seems that Gabrielle was somehow tricked into killing one of the worshippers. This killing set off some sort of reaction which allowed the entity or god, whatever it was to manifest itself. Gabrielle describes levitating in flames and those flames somehow " here Mel looked awkward, "Somehow entering or penetrating her. It wasn't a pleasant experience.
"Xena arrived and defeated Khrafstar, who had himself gained some sort of super strength and was calling himself 'Deliverer'. Unfortunately she didn't arrive in time to prevent the attack on Gabrielle. The scroll ends with the destruction of the temple, leaving only stone monoliths behind."
Janice removed her hat and sat back in her chair, awash with conflicting emotions. This latest tidbit of disturbing news about her supposed ancestor left her sickened just how much did poor Gabrielle have to go through? At the same time her practical, hardheaded nature was making its way to the fore. Gabrielle may very well have been in possession of great literary talent, but the Covingtons had spent decades trying to prove the reality of Xena and her importance to the historical record. Wild tales of journeys to the underworld and supernatural rape would place the scrolls firmly in the "fiction" category, regardless of the actual truth. Janice sighed heavily and gulped her beer. Focus, Covington, she told herself. We still have to unravel the truth about this cult. Perhaps the scroll will help us. "Describe the religious ceremony, Mel. What actually happened?"
Mel folded her hands as she thought back to the precise wording of the scroll. "I'm still struggling to translate some of the words. There are unfamiliar terms. But Gabrielle mentions robes, chanting and what she thought was an attempt to harm Khrafstar, but what was it seems merely a ruse to cause her to stab one of the worshippers as she tried to help him."
A sense of foreboding began to take hold of Janice as the pieces of the jigsaw came together in her mind. "This evil entity, god, demon, whatever.. Was it Dahak?"
Mel pursed her lips. "I'm not sure. The entity is only named once, at the end of the scroll, and the word used was not one I've come across before. But, it's possible that it's Gabrielle's attempt at an approximation of 'Dahak' in Ancient Greek."
It was all falling into place. "Mel, let's go back upstairs. There's something we need to look at."
Mel looked up to see Janice already heading for the staircase. Putting down her drink, she sighed and stood up to follow.
Upstairs in the room, Janice was frantically flicking through the stack of papers on the desk. "The inscription that was on that hideous statue. We must have a copy of it somewhere!"
"Relax, Jan." Mel put a calming hand on her friend's forearm. "It's all here in my notebook." She turned to a page covered in her neat handwriting and marked with a folded down corner.
"Read it out loud. The bit about the sacrifice, not all the tedious crap at the beginning."
Mel cleared her throat. "And by the blood sacrifice of an innocent, Lord Dahak's kingdom will be upon this world."
Janice drummed her fingers on the desk. "Blood sacrifice of an innocent. Is that definitely what it says?"
Mel looked uncertain. "I I think so. It's an unusual sentence construction but I can't see how else it might translate." She looked across at her friend to see her shake her head and light a cheroot.
Inhaling the sweet, spicy smoke deeply, Janice looked directly at her lover. "How about a 'a sacrifice of blood innocence'? Might it say something like that?"
Mel paused and looked at her notes again. Yes, the inscription might well say this. But - "I don't understand, Janice. What would that mean?"
Janice looked grim. She reached up to a shelf for the whisky bottle and poured large measures into a couple of mugs. Passing one to Mel, she began to speak quietly. "I remember my father using the term. He'd come across it in one of the disputed contemporary sources which he claimed proved the historical reality of Xena." She sipped the scotch. "I can't recall offhand which one. It was only a passing reference, I think. Anyway, 'blood innocence' is a state of being it means you've never killed. Some people at the time believed that the quality of blood innocence gave the holder special protection or powers of some sort, especially if that person was in an environment or situation where they might have been expected to kill others.
"You said that Gabrielle was a warrior, but that she only fought defensively and with a staff rather than a blade, so as not to kill her enemies?"
Mel nodded mutely.
"We got it wrong, Mel. This cult isn't into human sacrifice. It's the loss of innocence blood innocence that it needs to power whatever sick crap this Dahak is all about." Janice took another drag on her cheroot. "And those monoliths Gabby talks about at the end of the scroll? I'll bet you a dime to a dollar they're Stonehenge." She shook her head. "I don't know what the hell is going on, but everything seems to be linked to our ancestors. We need to find out what happened to Gab after this whatever it was - then we talk to Bolton."
Mel stood up and put her arms around the smaller woman. She smiled as she felt Janice relax into her embrace, then she gently stroked her hair. "I'm going to spend the rest of this week translating that second scroll, honey. But tonight, I think you promised me a celebration. And I know you're not the kind to break your promises." Before Janice could object, she pressed her lips against her lover's. Janice made an incoherent noise before surrendering to the inevitable. She just managed to stub out her stogie before pulling her partner down onto the bed. Saving the world could wait.
Mel was true to her word, and as soon as Janice had set off for the dig the following morning, she returned to their room to devote the rest of the day to translating the second scroll.
It wasn't straightforward. The scroll had suffered minor water damage at some stage, obscuring a few characters. A scan of the text also revealed a number of completely unfamiliar words, most likely attempts to render Celtic terms or phrases into Greek. Mel sighed and shuffled around in her chair in an attempt to make herself comfortable. This was going to be a challenge.
Three and a half hours later, Mel stood up from the desk, suddenly acutely aware of the stiffness in her back and neck. She looked at the clock and started at the time, surprised at how long she'd already been going. Rubbing her neck, she looked down at her notes in dismay. All she'd been able to establish so far was the bare bones of a confusing narrative involving a mob of locals attacking a tavern containing an unusually gluttonous Gabrielle. She shook her head. Deciding it was time for a break, she slipped down the stairs intent on stretching her legs outside and finding something for lunch.
Unfortunately, Mel wasn't stealthy enough to escape Mrs Tyler's attention. "Miss Pappas! There you are!"
At the sound of the landlady's voice Mel stiffened and grimaced. Unfortunately she'd been spotted now and it was too late to make a run for it. Taking a deep breath, Mel turned and gave the widest smile she could muster. "Why hello there Mrs Tyler! Is everything alright?"
Momentarily flustered by Mel's apparently genuine bonhomie, Mrs Tyler paused. "No, no, miss, there's nothing wrong. I just wanted to let you know you've got a letter."
A letter. Mel frowned, puzzled as to whom it could be from. Outside of Salisbury, only Bolton knew they were staying at the inn. She looked expectantly at Mrs Tyler, who was shuffling through some papers on the table by the door.
"There you go." The landlady held up a small cream coloured envelope. "Arrived this morning. By hand. Some boy brought it over."
Mel took the envelope, which was addressed in a clear cursive script to Dr Janice Covington and Miss Melinda Pappas. Ignoring Mrs Tyler, who was making no attempt to hide her curiosity, she turned and took the unopened letter upstairs to read in private, all thoughts of a walk and lunch forgotten.
Safely ensconced in the room, Mel reached for her letter opener to slice open the envelope. On reading its contents she almost dropped the letter in shock.
To Dr Covington and Miss Pappas
You are most cordially invited to join Mr Harold Montague at his home for luncheon tomorrow (Tuesday) at 12.30pm.
Mr Montague hopes very much that you will be able to attend. It would be an honour to host such eminent academics at his humble home.
Enclosed with the invitation was a reply card, with a note to indicate that the messenger boy would collect the response later that afternoon. Mel turned the card over and over in her fingers. She really wanted to discuss the matter with Janice, but the digsite was several miles away and she had no transport of her own. This decision was going to have to be hers alone. Mind made up, Mel reached for a pen, scribbled her response, and sealed the card in an envelope away from Mrs Tyler's prying eyes.
"We're doing what?!" Janice slammed her drink down on the table and looked at her partner incredulously.
"Ssh," Mel hushed, although glancing around it was clear the snug was empty. "This is the best chance we've had to find out more about the cult. I would have preferred to discuss it with you first but he wanted an answer this afternoon and I couldn't get a message to you."
Janice sighed and ran her left hand through her hair. "I don't trust that guy, Mel. He's up to something. And going to his house! Jeez, anything could happen."
Mel nodded. "I know, Jan. It is a risk, but this has to be our best shot. It's lunch not dinner, in the middle of the day. If we keep our wits about us I'm sure we will be fine. After all," she reached over the table and covered Janice's hands with her own, "We've been in scarier situations. I'll feel safe with you there."
This comment made Janice's heart swell with pride and happiness. Momentarily unable to speak, she looked into the taller woman's stunning blue eyes and gave a small smile. "Ya always say the exact right thing, sweetheart," she eventually managed, shaking her head. "Okay, we'll go. But we're gonna be real careful."
There was a noise from behind the bar as Mr Tyler entered with a tray of glasses. Janice hastily withdrew her hand from Mel's. Time to break the moment and change the subject, Covington, she thought to herself. "So anyway," she said brightly, taking a swig from her beer, "How'd the translation go today?"
Mel sighed inwardly. She'd been dreading this question. "I'm struggling a bit with this scroll, to be honest. The narrative is confused. And there are a lot of unfamiliar words " Her voice trailed off and she examined the pattern in the wood of the table, reluctant to meet her partner's eyes. She knew Janice would be disturbed and alarmed by Gabrielle's latest revelation.
"Sure, but ya must have got a few pointers? We don't need a detailed analysis at this stage Mel. Just a clue as to what happened after they left the temple."
Mel took a drink to steady herself before filling her friend in on Gabrielle's tale of the apparently motiveless attack on the tavern and the bombshell that followed. "It seems that Gabrielle was with child."
Janice looked puzzled. She lit a cheroot while musing on this unexpected development. "Um, but I thought her and Xena were an item by this stage? Who was the father?" She half closed her eyes as the explanation hit her. "Oh no. Dahak?"
Mel raised her eyebrows. "I think it must have been. Gabrielle is quite explicit in the scroll that she hasn't been with a man since her late husband many months earlier. If it was Dahak, though, the pregnancy must have progressed unnaturally fast. She and Xena only left the temple a few days before the incident in the tavern but from the description of her condition she must be in the second trimester."
A silence fell over the pub table. Janice puffed absent-mindedly on her cheroot. She knew she shouldn't take the ongoing saga of her ancestor's misfortunes to heart, but it was difficult not to. It was possible, of course, that Gabrielle was exaggerating or dissembling in some way perhaps she had cheated on Xena with a man some months earlier, or perhaps the events described in the second scroll took place much later than the narrative suggested. In her heart, though, Janice believed that the story could be taken at face value, and that Gabrielle had in fact been impregnated by an evil entity. The implications for the contemporary cult, if it was indeed a revival or continuation of the original, were disturbing.
The more pragmatic part of Janice noted that this was likely to be yet another scroll that would not be taken seriously as a history of the period. She shook her head and forced a smile. "Okay, this all seems pretty serious. And weird. We need to get the rest of the scroll translated pronto. Maybe it will help us figure out what to do next. Wanna work on it tonight? My Ancient Greek's not what it used to be, but I reckon I can help out."
Mel shook her head and took Janice's hands in hers again. "Enough with the scrolls for one night. How about I buy you another drink, then we can head back upstairs and "
Janice reached over and put a finger gently on her friend's lips. "Sounds like a plan. But tell ya what. Let's skip the drink and go straight up."
The next morning Janice headed to the digsite as usual, promising to return before lunch and pick up Mel so that they could travel to Montague's place together. On the way to the site she stopped to call Bolton.
"Bolton," a gruff voice grunted after the operator connected the call.
"Hey, morning Mr B. I got some news for ya."
"Dr Covington! I'm glad you called." Bolton sounded troubled. "We've been doing a bit more digging on Harold Montague. Turns out his BUF affiliation might not be as quite as historical as he claims."
"Yes. And he took a number of so-called business trips to Germany right up until war broke out last September." Bolton cleared his throat. "He's got some quite unsavoury associates. Nothing concrete we can pin on him so far, but... looks like your suspicions were right, Dr Covington."
Janice allowed herself to feel just a little self-satisfied. "Well, guess where Mel and me are off to for lunch?" She paused for a moment and then, in the absence of an answer, pressed on. "Montague's house. Sent us a proper invitation, the works. Outta the blue."
There was a brief moment of silence before Bolton spoke. "Well. That is certainly unexpected." His voice took on a note of concern. "Be careful, both of you. Find out what you can, but remember this chap may be dangerous. We're still not sure what we're dealing with here."
"Got it, Mr B. We'll look after ourselves."
After an uneventful morning at the dig, Janice excused herself saying she had some errands to run in town and needed to make contact with her research associate. She picked up Mel at the previously arranged meeting point. "Which way?"
"Take the London Road out of town and then there's a left turn signposted to Old Sarum," Mel recited the directions she'd been given. "Two or three miles I think."
On arrival at the address, Janice couldn't suppress a gasp. She had been expecting a large property but nothing had prepared her for what she saw. The house was a huge, rambling affair, with formal gardens stretching out for several hundred yards. A couple of peacocks could be seen picking their way through flower beds on the left. Three expensive-looking cars were parked on the driveway.
Even Mel, who had grown up in an antebellum mansion, was taken aback by the sheer size and apparent luxury of the property. "Well. Not bad for a small-town businessman".
"No kidding." Janice dismounted to pull the bell chain hanging from the outer gates. She noted with a shudder that the statues adorning the stone gateposts bore a superficial resemblance to the artifact excavated from the digsite.
The gates swung open and an older man dressed in the formal style of an English butler emerged from the house. Janice started the bike up again and headed slowly to meet him. The tyres crunched on the driveway's gravel, setting both women's teeth on edge. Pulling up to the front door, Janice acknowledged the ageing retainer. "Afternoon. We're here to see Mr Montague."
"Miss Pappas and Dr Covington. Mr Montague is expecting you." The butler looked askance at Janice's outfit. She ignored his glares, well used to it after all these years. He turned to Mel, who was smiling sweetly. "Ladies. Please follow me."
He led the two friends into the house and through two large reception rooms and several passageways. There were prominent displays of armour and ancient weaponry everywhere. Janice inclined her head at a particularly vicious looking claymore with a serrated blade. "Bet Xena coulda caused some mayhem with that, huh?" she whispered.
Mel sniggered briefly and then stopped when the butler coughed theatrically before fixing her with a baleful glare. "Ladies. Mr Montague is waiting in the orangery." He opened a door which led into a large, airy room with glass ceilings. A table had been set up towards the far windows. Both women noted the impressive spread of foods on display, from large joints of beef and ham to eggs, fruit and a range of cheeses. Montague sat at the head of the table, rising quickly to his feet as the butler announced his guests.
"Dr Covington! Miss Pappas! Welcome, welcome." He reached for their hands and kissed them gently. Janice shuddered. It felt like a slug crawling on her hand.
If Montague noticed her reaction, he didn't show it. "Thank you, Piper. That will be all." The butler stiffened, gave a barely perceptible bow and left the room. Montague stared after him with an indulgent expression on his face. "Dear old Piper. Such a stickler for formality." He smiled at his guests. "Please, do sit down." Gesturing at the food, he gave a small shrug. "I do hope a salad with some cold cuts is to your liking. We considered a heartier dish, but it's so very warm this week."
"It looks splendid, Mr Montague." Mel nodded her thanks as Montague filled her plate with a selection of the items on offer.
"Fancy," Janice grunted. "Musta been hard to come by a lotta this stuff, Mr Montague, what with rationing and all."
Montague didn't rise to the bait. "Only the best for my honoured guests. He reached for a bottle sitting in an ice bucket by the table. "A little wine? Decent stuff, from Burgundy."
An awkward silence fell over the table. The Americans sipped their wine and picked at the food. Eventually, Montague spoke. "I'm so very glad that you could both make it. It's a great honour to have respected academics such as yourselves come so far to study the town, especially during such troubled times as we find ourselves in." He dabbed at his mouth with a napkin. "I think I speak for the whole town when I say we want you to feel comfortable here."
"It's a beautiful town, Mr Montague." Mel beamed at the businessman. "We're very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work on this excavation."
"Glad to hear it, glad to hear it." Montague reached for a boiled egg and began slicing it into paper thin discs. "But when I say we want you to be comfortable well, a little bird told me that you might have felt alarmed about the activities of the Folklore Society."
Mel and Janice exchanged looks. Janice chewed her lip, not trusting herself to speak. Luckily, Mel took the lead. "I don't know what your little bird told you, Mr Montague. But in all honesty we have heard some rather strange stories."
Montague laughed heartily. "I bet that damn churchman's been filling your heads with nonsense about devil worship! He does this every time we get some new folk in the town." Pouring himself more wine, he shook his head. "Damn Church always interfering in stuff that's none of their business. If it's not burning witches, then it's killing some other Christians because they sing different hymns, or something." He spread his meaty hands out on the table. "Look, you probably already know I'm the Chairman of the Society. And I can assure you, there's nothing sinister about it. We're just a small group of people with a real interest in this town's history. You're both academics, you know how it is. We carry out research, we meet to discuss it and " his eyes twinkled, "Just once in a while we have a re-enactment."
"A re-enactment?" Mel put down her fork and did her best to look puzzled.
"Yes, a re-enactment. You know, staging some of the events we believe took place here in the past. It's just a bit of fun, really."
Janice breathed deeply. "That's very interesting, sir. But what has it got to do with us?"
Montague turned to face the archeologist. "As I said, Dr Covington, you and Miss Pappas are welcome guests in our town. You may be influential, when you report to your fellows in academe on your time here. We do not want you to leave here with the wrong impression of our Society. And so," here Montague paused, apparently pleased with himself, "I would like to invite you to attend our re-enactment of a traditional ceremony of pre-Christian worship. It will be held at the stones at 6pm on Saturday."
After a brief silence Mel spoke up. "That is extremely kind, Mr Montague. We will be delighted to attend. It's very important for we academics to experience real life from time to time. My late father was an anthropologist and I know he would have been fascinated to see ancient traditions such as this being kept alive."
Montague looked even more pleased with himself. "Marvellous! Now," he reached over and tugged on a tasselled pulley, which summoned a uniformed maid in what seemed like seconds, "Pudding! Betsy, do bring out the trifle."
After a further forty minutes of awkward conversation, the Americans managed to extricate themselves, declining a tour of the grounds, pleading pressure of work. Piper the butler escorted them to the bike, and the women rode off in silence. Satisfied they weren't being followed, Janice pulled into a layby about a mile down the road. She killed the engine and climbed off the bike, stretching her back and staring into the middle distance. "Woah. That was unexpected."
Mel came up behind her and ran her hand gently down her partner's back before resting an arm over her shoulders. "It was. But this is our chance to find out what is going on with this cult, society, sect, whatever it is."
Janice leaned back and relaxed into her lover's arms. "Urgh. Yeah. I know. We gotta go through with it. But it's gonna be risky. I don't believe a word of what that guy says. Goddamn black marketeer, Nazi sympathising bastard " her voice trailed off as she felt Mel stroking her hair. "Mmm. That feels nice."
They stood quietly in each other's arms for a few minutes. Reluctantly, Janice prised herself out of Mel's hold. "C'mon I really do need to get back to the dig. And you need to find out what our ancestors did next." She stood on tiptoes and planted a soft kiss on her partner's nose. "I'll drive you back."
Mel shook her head. "Drop me at the edge of town. I could use a walk and I've got a few errands to run."
Mel busied herself in town picking up a couple of new notebooks and pencils and buying some stamps at the post office she had, after all, promised to keep Livingstone updated with her progress in translating the original scrolls. On her way back to the inn she called into a newsagent and exchanged some ration coupons for a bag of boiled sweets she knew Janice was fond of. It was a gorgeous day and she found herself dawdling a little, reluctant to return to the stuffy attic room to pore over ancient writings. Lost in thought, she turned a corner and promptly collided with PC Morgan, dropping her new purchases in the process. She watched in dismay as the boiled sweets scattered across the road.
"Oh no, I'm so sorry." Morgan bent down and picked up the stationery. The sweets, sadly, were beyond rescue.
"It's my fault, Stephen. Wasn't looking where I was going." Mel smiled at the policeman and accepted the proffered notebooks and pencils.
"Well, in any case, I'm glad I ran into you. Literally!" Morgan chuckled before adopting a more serious demeanour. "Although to tell you the truth I'm a little surprised to see you. I thought you'd still be with Mr Montague."
Aha. Mel's suspicions were confirmed. "So," she said, her voice taking on an unfamiliar flintiness, "You're Mr Montague's 'little bird'. I did wonder."
Her reaction seemed to panic Morgan who held up his hands in the universal gesture of truce. "It's nothing sinister, I promise you. I ran into Mr Montague at the cathedral service on Sunday and I mentioned that Dr Covington and I had got off on the wrong foot the previous evening, and that in the course of a heated discussion she said some silly things about the Society. He said he'd invite you both over to explain the real story." Morgan shook his head. "People misunderstand what we're doing and there are so many crazy stories going around that those of us who take an interest tend to keep our involvement quiet. It's easier that way."
Mel nodded. She decided to go along with the conversation for now. "He filled us in on the background. He explained it was all harmless celebration of ancient traditions. In fact, he's even invited us to a re-enactment of a pre-Christian ceremony."
Morgan looked pleased as punch at this news. "Well, that's wonderful. Anyway, Melinda, I wanted to ask whether you are alright? I was worried on Saturday when you ran off like that."
"I know. I'm sorry. I told you, Janice was upset. I had to go to her."
Morgan seemed aggrieved. He let out a sigh. "You're a good friend to her, Melinda. But I think Dr Covington was being rather selfish, spoiling our evening like that."
Mel gritted her teeth. This was uncomfortable. There was a tiny part of her that had a soft spot for Morgan, and her gut feeling was that he was ignorant of Montague's true nature. "Oh Stephen, please don't blame Janice. She's under a great deal of pressure and she needed me that evening."
Morgan appeared grudgingly to concede the point. "Fair enough." His face brightened. "I believe there's another dance on Thursday. A bit more low key this time. Would you accompany me to it?"
"I'm sorry Stephen." Mel gave him a gentle smile. "I don't think that would be such a good idea. Janice and I "
"Janice, Janice, Janice. Damnit!" Morgan's face was growing red. "What's she got to do with it? She can't stop you stepping out with me."
Oh boy. This was getting worse by the minute. Mel had no doubts about her feelings for Janice, but expressing this to Morgan was a different matter. She hesitated before speaking. "Stephen I'm not sure how to explain this. The thing is well, Janice and I are together, now. We weren't before," she added hastily, "not when you asked us to the dance. It's well, it's a new thing for me. For both of us."
For a brief moment a look of puzzlement crossed Morgan's face before the penny dropped and confusion was replaced with rage. "That damned pervert," he said, quietly. "Parading around in men's clothes. Seducing innocent young women "
"That's enough." Mel spoke sharply. "Stephen, I'm sorry if I've hurt or embarrassed you in any way. This is all very new. It's been a surprise for both of us. But I won't have you speak about Janice like that."
"You won't be the first, you know. She'll have a string of conquests just like you." Morgan blew through his teeth and made a disgusted sound. "Anyway, I've got to get back to the station. Good day, Miss Pappas." He walked past Mel and strode off without a backward glance.
Mel returned to the inn, feeling shaken up by her encounter with the policeman. Sitting at the desk in the stuffy room she removed the scroll from its case and tried with limited success to focus her mind on the characters on the vellum. The intensity of Morgan's reaction and its venom had alarmed her. Perhaps, she mused, his feelings for her were stronger than she had realised.
His words had troubled her. In her youth, Mel had always imagined herself married to a typical Southern gentleman wealthy, handsome, charming and if she allowed herself to think about them too much, the developments of the past few months still felt a little unreal. Her feelings for Janice were genuine, she had no doubts about that. However, the relationship was brand new and in the excitement and intensity of it all not to mention the background of ancient cults, evil deities and Nazi agents she had given little thought to practical matters.
One such practical matter being how others would view their relationship. Mel realised with sadness that the automatic social acceptance that would come with a husband could never be hers while she was with Janice. She knew this would not bother the archeologist, who was entirely untroubled by convention. But for Mel, it was a different matter.
And what of Morgan's parting shot about Janice's past conquests? There could be no doubt, Mel thought sadly, that her partner had much more experience in that department than she did. When they'd discussed it before Janice had mentioned a previous male lover, but the more she thought about it the less likely it seemed that this was the full extent of the story.
Mel felt a sudden rush of conflicting emotions; anger, grief, fear and jealousy not to mention annoyance with herself for letting Morgan's unkind words bother her so much. Emotions exhausted, she slumped in her chair and let the tears flow.
She was still sat there two hours later when she heard the latch. Janice sauntered into the room and removed her hat. "Hey sweetheart," she murmured as she leaned over for a kiss, before noticing to her dismay her partner's swollen eyes and wet face. "Mel! Honey, what's the matter?"
Janice's presence alone seemed to cause her doubts and dark thoughts to melt away. Mel stood and pulled the blonde woman into a fierce embrace. She leaned down to kiss the top of Janice's head, feeling a distant memory stir as she did so. She stood silently for a few moments, holding her friend close to her before trusting herself to speak.
Haltingly, she recounted her meeting with Morgan and repeated what he'd said, before sharing some of her anxieties, feeling increasingly foolish as she did so. "I'm being stupid, aren't I," she whispered. "I don't know why I'm even telling you this."
Janice took a deep breath and slowly pulled back from her partner. "You're not being stupid, sweetheart," she sighed. "Well. You're kinda stupid for even talking to that creep. But, no, it's not stupid to worry about the future. And I'm not gonna lie to ya. Being with me, longer term, is not gonna be as easy and comfortable as being married to a guy."
The blonde reached for the whisky bottle and poured them both a small measure. She took a gulp before continuing. "If we're together, we're gonna get odd looks, mean comments hell, maybe even violence. It's not something people understand, and when dumb people don't understand something they tend to lash out. But " She stroked the taller woman's face, "I'm prepared to deal with that. I love you Mel, and I don't give a damn what other people think. The question is, do you? Cos it's still early days. If you decided you couldn't deal with the situation well, I'd be crushed. But I'd understand." Janice paused and took another gulp of her drink. "As for all that other crap he came out with Jeez, honey, you know I'm not some sort of defiler of innocent maidens. The truth is the truth is, I've been with a few guys. And, yeah, a couple of girls. But none of them made me feel even close to the way I feel when I'm with you."
Janice stopped speaking, feeling exhausted. That was far more emotion than she was used to articulating and she had no idea how it would be taken. When she finally mustered the courage to look at Mel, she saw the pale blue eyes filled with tears. Once again, she found herself enveloped in the Southerner's tight embrace, and took that to mean that the matter was resolved.
Thank God. Dames are so much more complicated than fellas.
The rest of the week passed quietly, although the news from Europe grew progressively grimmer as the days went on. Sitting in the excavation site office on Friday morning, Janice studied the morning's paper with growing dismay. France had all but collapsed, British troops had been evacuated from Dunkirk and the German navy appeared to have control of the seas. In fact, Nazi Germany seemed unstoppable. Britain stood alone. Janice sighed to herself, wondering whether she'd attached herself to yet another lost cause. The little Georgetown house and the petty campus intrigues were looking more attractive than ever.
She shook herself and stood up, determined to resist these negative feelings and concentrate on completing the mission. She had already spoken to Bolton, who was delighted at their invite to the cult's ceremony but had warned them to remain observers only. Observers only, she thought to herself. Easy to say, might be harder in practice, especially if her worst suspicions about the ceremony turned out to be vindicated. Part of her wanted to share these fears with Bolton, but he remained unaware of the surprise discovery of the scrolls, and a larger part of her wanted to keep it that way.
Stepping out of the hut, she saw Daniels trotting up to her with a big grin on his face. As he came closer, he held up a small piece of metal between his thumb and forefinger. "Dr Covington! Look at what we've just found!"
Janice peered at the object. It looked to be a belt buckle or brooch of some sort. It was fashioned into a likeness of a horned human head, possibly a representation of the same creature that inspired the statue. She sighed. There was no getting away from this today, clearly. Forcing a smile, she nodded at Daniels. "Great find! You okay to go catalogue it?"
"Absolutely!" Daniels hurried into the hut. Janice looked over at the dig and noticed Holland staring. He quickly dropped his gaze when he noticed her interest. Groaning, Janice wished for the umpteenth time that morning that Mel was with her. She resolved to treat her partner to a night out that evening.
And so it was that the two friends found themselves back on the hill overlooking the town, eating fish and chips out of newspaper and swigging from a bottle of beer.
"It's so lovely up here. It was a great idea to come back. Thanks, Janice!" Mel reached out her hand to stroke her lover's back.
Janice snorted. "Food outta paper, and a bottle of warm beer on a hillside. Yeah, I really know how to treat a lady." She took a drink from the bottle and smiled. "Nah, it is nice here. And private. We've got a big day tomorrow, and I didn't feel comfortable talking about it in a pub. Walls have ears, and all that."
Mel nodded, a serious expression on her face. "I've finished translating the scroll."
"Oh yeah? That was real quick, Mel. Excellent." Janice scrunched up her chip wrapper before reaching for a cheroot. Her partner had been quiet on the topic for a few days, and she'd been reluctant to ask too many questions as it was clear that the Southerner was finding the material difficult and at times distressing. "And what happened?"
"Well. It's all very strange." Mel stretched out on her blanket before turning to face her friend, propping up her head on one arm. "I don't know what to make of any of it.
"After leaving the port, Xena and Gabrielle journeyed through a forest, where they were waylaid by ghosts or sprites of some description. These things were hostile to Xena but seemed to wish to protect Gabrielle. The two of them took refuge in a fort. The inhabitants of the fort, a group of warriors, argued amongst themselves about their visitors. There were concerns that Gabrielle was carrying a demon child; others would not accept this.
"They barricaded themselves into a part of the fort used for animals. Whilst there, Gabrielle gave birth to a baby daughter, whom she named Hope. Mother and baby were doing well, but Hope grew rapidly, appearing to age months within the space of a few days.
"At some stage one of the warriors died in mysterious circumstances. Xena became convinced Hope was to blame and tried to kill the child. Gabrielle managed to escape the fort and hid the child, sending her down the river in a basket like Moses. She lied to Xena about this, telling her that Hope had turned on her and so she had thrown her from a cliff to her death."
Janice sat slack jawed in horror for a few moments. The story was more bizarre, and more disturbing, than she had expected. Eventually she pulled herself together to ask the obvious question. "And then what?"
Mel shook her head. "I've no idea. The scroll ends there. They're still in Britannia. Xena seems to believe Gabrielle's story about killing Hope."
"Sheesh." Janice turned her head to spit out some tobacco which had worked its way out of her cheroot. "What an idiot bard girl was sometimes. Makes me embarrassed to be related to her."
"You embarrassed! Well, what about me?" Mel bristled.
"Poor Gabrielle was only trying to protect her child! Xena would have killed her. She was only a baby! What kind of monster would do that?"
"Ah, c'mon, Mel. The kid was evil! A demon! You just said she killed that warrior guy." Janice shook her head. "I mean, talk about naivety "
"Now just hold on a moment." Mel had stood up and was beginning to pace up and down. "I never said that Hope killed anyone. A warrior was found dead, it's true, but no one saw the baby harm him. There was a lot of confusion, with quarrelling factions. Anyone could have come in and killed him."
Janice chewed her lip. "Xena went with her gut. I think we should trust her instincts, and Gab shoulda done as well. I mean, come on! The kid's father was an evil god, or entity, or something. She was half demon!"
"She was also half human! And we know that Gabrielle was a pure, good soul. Xena, more than anyone, should have known what it was to struggle against a dark side and still end up doing good!" Mel sat back down again. "I don't understand it. I felt Xena in me in the tomb, and she felt warm and kind. I was proud that she was a part if me. And now it turns out she was all set to murder the child of her lover, her best friend, soulmate "
"Ah, sweetheart." Janice reached over and pulled her partner into an embrace. "Maybe there's more to this. Subtleties you'll find when we have a chance to spend more time on this. But it strikes me that both Xena and Gab did what they thought was best. And for the right reasons."
"Sometimes there are no good choices, only lesser degrees of evil?" Mel said, still muffled in Janice's embrace. "I think I heard that somewhere."
"Yeah. I guess I'm saying something like that." Janice stroked the her lover's hair. "But the main thing I'm saying is that I think we both need to stop beating ourselves up about stuff that our ancestors did a coupla thousand years ago."
They stayed wrapped in each other's arms for several minutes. There was a lot more Janice wanted to ask about the scroll, but for now she was content to sit quietly, holding her precious Mel to her. As some other wise woman had once said, tomorrow was, after all, another day.
After a while Mel stirred. "Oh my gosh! The time!"
"Ah, don't worry." Without letting go of her lover, Janice stretched out on her blanket before pulling the taller woman down towards her. "I thought about what ya were saying the last time we were here. It's a warm evening. How about a night sleeping under the stars?"
"Oh! Are you serious?"
"Oh yeah, babe. I'm more serious than I've been in my life."
Mel groaned as her partner began to unfasten her blouse while nibbling her ear. Sleep, she suspected, might be a while in coming.
Janice stood in the centre of the room with her hands on her hips. "Okay. What more do we need?"
Mel looked up from her seat by the desk, where she was gazing into a compact mirror and touching up her lipstick. "Why, I don't know, honey. Maybe a large howitzer?" Watching Janice's scowl, she relented. "Heavens, girl. We're attending some traditional ceremony and you've already packed a revolver and a bullwhip. What more is there?" She smiled as Janice huffed. "Mr Bolton did say that we're just here to observe, you know."
"Mr Bolton's sitting pretty in Oxford. It's easy enough for him to talk, but I'm gonna make sure that we're prepared for everything. I'm not gonna let any harm come to you, Mel."
"Why thanks, that's sweet and all but I need to make sure no harm comes to you, either." Mel bent down and rummaged under the desk where Janice had stored the canvas bag containing the circular weapon retrieved from Macedonia. "Ah yes. This should do it." She held the weapon up so that it glinted in the light before looking down at her side in consternation. "Hmm. Need to improvise a hook of some sort." She removed the belt from her suit skirt and started fiddling with a sewing kit.
Janice frowned. "You sure about this, Mel? That weapon's lethally sharp."
"It's called a 'chakram'. Seems to be a variant of an Indian weapon," Mel said, unexpectedly. "Only, the Indian version didn't fly back to the thrower. I think Xena's weapon was one of a kind."
"You reckon you can use it if you need to?"
"I do. I can't really explain it, but when I hold it in my hand, it just feels completely natural. The important thing is not to try to think about it. Just feel it."
Janice looked at her partner in surprise. This sort of heart leading the head talk seemed out of character. Still. She'd been pretty effective with it in the tomb, even if Xena was somehow helping her. Perhaps it was best not to try to analyse it too much. She watched as Mel deftly attached a small piece of stiff leather to the side of her belt, forming a passable hook. "Perfect. And with my jacket on, you can't even see it."
Impressive. Janice gave a low whistle. "Didn't know you were handy with a needle and thread darlin'."
Mel grinned. "I have many skills."
Suitably attired, they left the inn in the direction of the bike. On reaching the vehicle Janice paused and turned to her friend. "We still don't know what happened after Gabrielle abandoned the kid. Presumably the Age of Dahak didn't come to pass after all. So, assuming we're right about the cult, why would they try to repeat it?"
Mel shook her head. "No idea. Maybe there's more to the whole saga. Perhaps Hope did try to bring in this Age of Dahak but Xena and Gabrielle or someone else - stopped her. Maybe she didn't grow up to be evil after all and Gabrielle's instincts were right from the start. There's a whole range of possibilities. But unless we find more scrolls " she shrugged.
"Do you think they know who we are? I mean, who we're related to?"
"The cult? Hmm." Mel pondered that possibility. It did seem an extraordinary coincidence that she and Janice appeared to have become embroiled in the same obscure cult that had caused their ancestors so much trouble a couple of millennia ago. But "How could they, Jan? We only found it out ourselves a couple of months ago, and we had to dig an ancient god out of a tomb to do so!"
"Maybe they had a tip off." Janice's eyes narrowed. "I'm still not sure about Bolton. Always thought he knew more than he was letting on. Maybe they got to Kleinman. Could imagine him shooting his mouth off to the wrong person."
It was, Mel thought, a possibility. Jack Kleinman's heart was in the right place of that she had no doubt but discretion did not seem to be amongst his qualities. The idea that he had blabbed the whole tale to someone with ulterior motives in a bar was entirely credible. However, the chances of that happening and getting back to the cult, British Intelligence and/or German agents in England in time to set the whole saga in motion seemed remote. She shrugged. "I can't see how that could have happened. Maybe it's just one of those things. Fate, or destiny, or whatever you want to call it."
Janice blew air from her mouth unhappily. "I don't know, Mel. I gotta bad feeling about all this." She shook her head. "Ah well. Fortune favours the brave. Let's go."
Half an hour later they were approaching the stones. Janice turned the bike off the road onto a bridle path and parked up against a tree. She walked back to the road and turned around to observe her hiding place. Satisfied that the bike was not immediately visible to passers by, she nodded to her partner. "Well, here goes nothing."
Mel trotted up, handbag over her shoulder. She was already starting to regret her choice of footwear, wishing she'd opted for the flat pair. Ah well, too late now.
They covered the short distance to the stones in silence. As the megaliths came into view, a small group of people was visible. They appeared to be wearing robes or cloaks of some description. Janice looked up at the bright sunshine and almost laughed at the incongruity. "Look at these idiots. If they want to wear scary robes they might at least have waited until it got dark."
"Maybe they thought it would be less intimidating for us this way." Mel shielded her eyes for a better look. "Can you recognise any of them?"
Janice shook her head. "They all look the same in those stupid outfits. Come on, let's find out what this 're-enactment' is all about."
"Remember what Mr Bolton said, Janice."
"Observe. Get as much information as you can. Don't take unnecessary risks. Yeah yeah."
They approached the group by the stones and one if the robed figures waved. "Montague," Janice muttered through a grimace.
She studied the group ahead of her. There were around ten of them. As well as Montague, she recognised Morgan and Paul Holland.
"Figures," murmured Mel when she noticed Holland. The rest of the group looked unfamiliar, although she thought some of them may have been at the dance the previous weekend. She glanced over at Janice. That weekend seemed a lifetime ago, and Janice now felt like the most natural part of her existence. She reached over and threaded her fingers through her friend's. She felt Janice stiffen, briefly, perhaps in surprise, before she gripped her partner's hand with some considerable strength. The blonde looked up and smiled. "Whatever happens, we go through it together."
Further discussion was cut out by the arrival of Montague. "Ladies! I'm so glad you could make it." He gestured at the stones and the rest of the robed characters. "It's an honour to have you here for this. A real honour." He clapped his hands to draw the attention of the others. "Friends! Please welcome our guests."
There was a brief silence as ten pairs of eyes studied the new arrivals. Janice noted Morgan's glare and Holland's refusal to make eye contact. Her thoughts were interrupted as a slim dark haired girl arrived with a pair of robes draped over her arm. Janice looked at her quizzically. Montague cleared his throat. "Nothing to be alarmed about! Just part of the tradition. We'd appreciate it if you could slip these on over your clothes." He picked up a robe and held it up so that Mel could slip her arms into the sleeves. "Miss Pappas. Please allow me."
"Nah." Janice shook her head. "I don't think so, Mr Montague. We're observers."
"What Janice means," Mel moved hurriedly to defuse the situation, "Is that academic observers, such as we are today, need to maintain a professional distance from the ceremony or event they are studying. It's a basic rule of anthropology." It sounded lame, but it seemed to convince Montague, who simply nodded and made a gesture of dismissal. The girl with the robes scurried away.
"Well," said Montague. "Shall we begin?"
Somewhat reluctantly, the two Americans followed Montague to the stones, where the participants had spread out to form a horseshoe around the flat altar stone. Montague guided Mel to stand just outside the horseshoe and gestured for Janice to move to the opposite side. Janice hesitated for a moment before complying, figuring that separating in this way might actually be safer, as they would have better visibility of events.
There was a buzz of excitement amongst the robed congregation, which Montague quietly ended by raising his hands. "Friends. It is time. Let us perform the sacred rituals handed down to us through the centuries. Let us honour Dahak, the one true god!"
As the group began a low chanting in an unfamiliar language, Janice locked eyes with her partner and grimaced. There could be no doubt whatsoever about the nature of the cult. She dropped her gaze and began scanning the scene, watching carefully for any sign of a worshipper acting differently or attempting to attack another.
It came more quickly than she thought. As the chanting seemed to reach a crescendo, Holland turned and grabbed the arm of Mel, who was stood immediately behind him. His other hand, Janice noted, held a blade of some sort. Her reaction was instant and instinctive. Grabbing the handle of her bullwhip, she expertly flicked the weapon so that the end coiled around Holland's wrist. He yelped in pain and dropped the blade. Mel, meanwhile, had recovered from her momentary shock and brought her heel down firmly on the bank clerk's instep. He yowled and staggered away to the side, hopping and clutching his wrist.
The chanting gradually died down and the cultists stood around looking uncertain. Janice wondered how many of them were aware of the true nature of the ceremony. She doubted that Holland had been briefed that his starring role was intended to end with his death although, she mused, having him attack Mel rather than a random Dahak worshipper was certainly an improvement on the original set up, and maximised the likelihood that the attacker would end up dead by her hands.
Holland regained his balance and limped away, sobbing. Janice turned to look directly at Montague. "I guess I've learned from my ancestor's mistakes, Mr M." She glanced around at the remaining cultists, most of whom appeared jittery and unsure of their next move. "I'd give it up, if I was you. Sorry guys. You're not gonna see any ancient deities manifesting here this evening. Go on. Scram."
Several members of the group began edging away. Janice glared at Morgan. "Yeah. You too, officer. Just get the hell away." She smirked at the utter loathing in his eyes before a strangled cry made her spin around.
Montague had retrieved the fallen dagger and was kneeling on a terrified Mel, who was pinned down on the altar stone with the wicked-looking blade pointing under her chin. "You're not nearly as clever as you think you are, Covington. I will finish this ceremony one way or another. Now, play your part or watch your girlfriend bleed out on this altar."
Time seemed to slow down, but Janice didn't hesitate. She pulled out her revolver and, with a calm that shocked even her, shot Montague once in the chest.
Montague rolled away and fell heavily to the ground. Lying on his back, he gazed up to the sky. "Lord Dahak! I give you your sacrifice!" He began to gasp for breath. "Your kingdom is at hand I could still be the Deliverer "
"I don't think so." Janice held out her hand to help Mel up from the stone. "Ya see, we might be related, but we're quite different, Gabrielle and me." She shook her head. "I lost my blood innocence a long time ago, Mr Montague."
There was a pause as this revelation hit Montague, and his face betrayed the gradual realisation that his plan had failed utterly. He gasped for breath again and began to make a gurgling sound.
A stunned Mel found her attention divided between the dying Montague and the remaining cultists, who were now fleeing in all directions. As she stood still, unsure of her next move, out of the corner of her eye she spotted Morgan running towards Janice brandishing a club. Without thinking she unhooked the chakram from her belt and let it fly. The metal disc ricocheted off several megaliths before slicing Morgan's club which, Mel noted, was actually his regulation truncheon cleanly in half and then returning as if by magic to her outstretched hand. She quickly slipped the weapon back in its hiding place.
Morgan came to a halt and looked at his destroyed truncheon in utter bafflement. It was clear he had no idea what had just happened or where the flying disc had appeared from. He hesitated for a moment and then turned and ran towards the road without saying a word.
Silence descended on the stones. Janice turned to her partner and wrapped her arms around the taller woman. Mel reciprocated, hugging the blonde tightly to her body, occasionally loosing her hand to stroke her long hair.
Mel wasn't sure how long they stayed like this, but eventually she reluctantly broke free from their clinch and turned towards the body lying by the altar. "Um, Janice. Montague?"
"Yeah." Janice pushed the fedora back and walked towards the fallen cultist. She knelt down and placed two fingers to his neck. After a few seconds she looked up and shook her head. "He's gone."
"Oh, Janice!" Mel let out a little sob. "He's really dead?"
"Yeah, that's what happens when you take a bullet to the heart." Janice straightened up. She seemed unperturbed. "He brought it on himself. Woulda killed ya. No way I was gonna let that happen." Her eye caught the dagger, which had fallen from Montague's into a patch of weeds. "Wouldya look at that. Reckon that's our missing dagger." She picked it up and examined it. "Quite something. Obsidian, I'd say."
"Leave it!" Mel's voice took on an air of urgency. "And now you've got your fingerprints on it, Jan!" The archaeologist's apparent nonchalance troubled her. "You killed a man! What are we going to do now?"
Janice casually wiped the handle of the knife on her khakis and dropped it back into the weeds. She rested her arm against Mel's back and then rubbed it gently. "Don't worry, darlin'. We're gonna walk back to the bike and find a phone so we can contact Bolton. Hopefully," here she grimaced to herself, "He'll have some way to fix this. He's working for the government, after all."
Arm in arm, they retraced their steps. As they approached the road, they became aware of the noise of a car engine and what sounded like a bell ringing. Janice sighed. "They got here quicker than I thought." She dropped Mel's arm. "Stay here."
"No! I'm going with you!"
"Stay back, Mel. There's no sense in us both getting busted. It's me they want, anyway." Janice strode towards the road, where two police cars could be seen approaching. She raised her hands in the air as both vehicles came to an abrupt halt and two policeman jumped out of each. "It's okay boys. I'll come quietly."
She nodded at the officer who was approaching her gingerly. "The gun's inside the jacket." She stood motionless, with her hands still in the air, while the constable reached into her jacket and removed the revolver.
"Janice Covington? You're under arrest," shouted a second officer. Janice responded by nodding and holding out her wrists to be cuffed. As she was bundled into the back of one of the cars, she saw with relief that another officer was comforting a weeping Mel, who was clearly being treated as a witness rather than a suspect. She closed her eyes and leaned back into the seat. It was going to be a long night.
It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, the first time that Janice Covington had seen the inside of a jail cell. However, the previous occasions had been mercifully short-lived affairs, the result of barroom brawls or shady dealings in antiquities. Depending on the circumstances, payment of a small fine or a bribe to a foreign official was all that was required to be off on her merry way. This was rather more serious. Janice sat on the narrow cot and leaned back against the bare brick wall behind it. For the hundredth time she looked around the bare room, her eyes lighting on the covered bucket in the corner. "Nice place. Ensuite." She forced a chuckle and gazed up at the ceiling.
The custody sergeant had taken her watch along with her jacket, hat, boots and belt. She had lost track of how long she had been inside the tiny cell, but the more time passed the more anxious she became. Her first action had been to give them Bolton's name and phone number and she had initially clung to the hope that a call to him would resolve the situation. This was looking increasingly unlikely and she wondered if her suspicions about him were to be proved correct.
She heard footsteps and a key in the lock, before the door opened to reveal one of the policemen who had arrested her. "Come with me."
Janice's brief hope that her release might be imminent was dashed when he cuffed her hands and pulled her roughly out of the cell before dragging her down a corridor. "This way."
"Okay! I can walk myself." She tried to shrug him off but he gripped her arm tighter. She decided to acquiesce for now and allowed herself to be frogmarched into a small room. A large man with a florid face, who appeared to be in his late 40s, sat in behind a metal table which was screwed to the floor. He looked up as they entered. "Dr Covington. I am Inspector Glenning. Take a seat." He nodded at the constable who had brought her there, dismissing him.
Janice sat down on the proffered chair. "Did you call Mr Bolton?"
The inspector nodded. "We have. He says he's never heard of you."
Her stomach lurched. "What? That's not possible Inspector. We've " she corrected herself, not washing to implicate Mel in anything, "I've been working for him, on behalf of the British Government. He commissioned me to do some investigation of this cult. It's "
Glenning head up his hand. "Enough, Dr Covington. We know what happened. One of our officers was there and saw the whole thing."
Janice slumped in her seat. "Morgan? Now just wait a minute. He's at the centre of the whole thing "
Once again Glenning held up his hand. "Be careful, Dr Covington. You're accused of a very serious crime. A capital crime. Making malicious allegations against one of my finest young officers is not going to help you." He pulled out a packet of cigarettes and offered one to Janice. Her shackled wrists made it awkward, but she took it with trembling hands and allowed him to light it before taking a deep drag. "So," Glenning continued, "Are you going to tell me what really happened?"
Mel sat back in her chair and drummed her fingers against the table in front of her. The clock on the wall showed that she'd already been sat there for well over an hour while a very nervous young constable took her statement. His note taking was so painfully slow that Mel wondered whether he was borderline illiterate. Finally he had finished and left with his sheaf of papers and Mel had breathed a sigh of relief. She looked again at the clock. She assumed that Janice would have told them to call Bolton from the outset, and it troubled her that she was still sitting in an interview room and her friend, presumably, in a cell somewhere.
The officers had been kind to Mel, offering her tea and sympathy which she accepted, and cigarettes which she politely refused. When she'd first been brought in she'd caught sight of Stephen Morgan, now in his uniform. He'd looked embarrassed and ducked his head to avoid her gaze. Mel had shot him a look of pure venom to which he'd seemed oblivious. Since then she'd given the young officer her statement and had several requests to see Janice turned down. Although not under arrest and so presumably free to go, she had agreed to wait in the interview room in case anyone had any further questions. Looking yet again at the clock, she began to regret being so accommodating.
The door opened and a young woman in police uniform entered, holding a mug of steaming hot liquid. "Um, hello," she said shyly. "Miss Pappas? I'm WPC Carr. But you can call me Betty." She settled down in a chair and pushed the mug towards the other woman. "I was asked to come and sit with you and make sure you're alright. I brought you some tea."
Mel smiled weakly and lifted the mug to her lips. "Thank you, Betty."
"You're welcome." Betty leaned forward and placed a comforting hand on Mel's arm. "You must have had a nasty shock. Poor Mr Montague."
Mel made a non-committal noise. She wondered what narrative was already being taken as objective fact within the station. Betty seemed nice enough, but she sensed that she needed to tread carefully and not inadvertently say something to get Janice into even more trouble than she was already. A change of topic was in order. "So, Betty. I don't think I've met a female police officer before. What does it involve?"
Betty thought for a moment. "Well, it's not all that exciting to be honest. I do quite a lot of typing." She gestured at the door. "I expect I'll be typing up your statement at some stage. Make the tea. Be a bit of a shoulder to cry on when ladies or children are upset." She looked thoughtful. "It's not a bad job. But I thought it might be more interesting, I suppose."
The conversation seemed to have dried up already. Mel racked her brains for a new subject, but before she found one Betty glanced down at her legs and made a cross noise. "Bother!" She pointed at her knee. "I grazed it earlier, and look, you can really see it. I thought I'd fooled everyone." Seeing Mel's puzzlement, she stood up and twirled around. "You see, it's been so hard to get stockings ever since the war started. We stain our legs and draw a line on the backs so that it looks like we're wearing them. But, I think I've blown my cover this time." She sighed. "I suppose you don't have to worry about this in America?"
A plan was beginning to formulate itself. Mel pulled a sympathetic face. "No, we don't." She picked up her handbag and began rummaging in it. Ah, there it was. "I do actually have a spare pair of stockings right here. If you'd like them, you'd be very welcome to them."
Betty's jaw dropped. She took the offered hosiery, unable to believe her luck. "Miss Pappas! Are you sure? I don't know "
Mel waved her hand. "Please. Take them. I have several pairs back in my room."
The policewoman's face flushed pink with excitement. "Well, thank you! So kind!" She paused. Can I get you anything else Miss Pappas? More tea, or," she dropped her voice to a more conspiratorial tone, "Something a little stronger?"
"Oh, no, no. Not at all." Mel paused for effect. "Although now you mention it, there is perhaps one thing "
"Anything you want," Betty confirmed happily.
"Well." Mel leaned forward and adopted a serious expression. "I'd really like to let Janice's uncle know that she's here. Is there any chance you could give him a call and pass on a message? He's hasn't been at all well, and she calls him once a day to check on him. He'll be terribly worried that he hadn't heard from her, and in his state of health " she let her voice trail off meaningfully.
Betty looked concerned. "Won't hearing his niece has been arrested for murder make him worry even more?"
Mel shook her head. "The important thing is that he knows where she is. And, if she's going to be here for a while, he will need to make arrangements for someone else to check on him and so on."
"Well, alright. I'm sure that will all be fine. I'll go and do it now." She took the piece of paper on which Mel had scribbled Bolton's number as well as the stockings. "I might just slip these on while I'm at it."
Mel smiled her thanks at the policewoman as she slipped out of the interview room. Well, well, Melinda, she thought to herself. Bribing police officers now. Who would ever have thought it?
Janice banged her cuffed hands on the table. "I don't know what more you want from me Inspector. I've told you what happened. Harold Montague was threatening to kill my friend. He had a knife at her throat. I was all out of options. She sighed in frustration. "Have you spoken to Mel about this?"
"Yes, we have Miss Pappas's statement here." Glenning pointed at some handwritten notes on his side of the table. "She corroborates your story. Says that Mr Montague was threatening her with a knife."
"Well then." Janice gestured with her shackled hands. "It was self-defence. Well, Mel-defence. Why am I still in your police station and in handcuffs?"
"The problem, Dr Covington, is that one of my officers witnessed the whole thing and tells a rather different tale. He says that you and Miss Pappas agreed to take part in one of the Folklore Society's re-enactments of a traditional ceremony and that Mr Montague's act with the knife was just that an act." Glenning folded his hands. "Constable Morgan further says that, while Miss Pappas may have been unaware of the nature of the ceremony and hence genuinely afraid, this was not true in your case. Look," he adopted a kindly expression. "I understand that you're very protective of Miss Pappas. Maybe you did just panic when all this was going on." He shook his head. "I hate the idea of a young woman like yourself on the gallows. But you'll have a chance to explain all of this to a jury, and even if you're convicted, I think under the circumstances the Home Secretary may commute the sentence."
Janice's jaw worked up and down but no sound came out. She knew Morgan hated her but framing her for murder seemed a little extreme. Perhaps, she thought bleakly, he thinks Mel might be available if she was out of the picture. Damn. "I think I need a lawyer, Inspector," she eventually croaked.
Glenning nodded. "We'll make the arrangements." He looked straight at her. "Janice Covington, I am charging you with the murder of Harold Montague "
It was almost two hours since Betty had left. Mel had been alone in the windowless room since then and she wondered whether the call to Bolton had ever been made. Perhaps she had just wasted a perfectly good pair of stockings. She stretched out her long legs and sighed deeply. The evening seemed to be going from terrible to unbelievably hideous. She considered Janice's ongoing distrust of Bolton and, perhaps for the first time, wondered if she'd been right all along.
The door opened again, interrupting her thoughts. Instead of Betty, this time it was a middle-aged policeman whom she did not recognise. He held out his hand. "Miss Pappas. I'm Inspector Glenning. I'm so sorry to have kept you waiting."
Mel took his hand and endured a bone crushing shake. He sat down and laid some papers on the table. "I had your statement typed up. Perhaps you could read it through and if you're happy with it just sign at the bottom there."
That was probably where Betty had got to. Mel read through the document, circled and initialled a couple of spelling mistakes, then signed it and passed back to Glenning. "Inspector, where is Janice? Is she alright?"
Glenning took a deep breath before responding. "I'm afraid that Dr Covington has been charged with murder."
"Murder?! What?!" Mel gripped the edge of the table. "Inspector, didn't you read my statement? Montague was trying to kill me! Janice saved my life!"
Glenning spread his hands across the table and looked down at them before continuing. "Miss Pappas, I have read your statement and I believe you did truly think that Mr Montague meant to harm you. But really, it was all part of an act, a role play of some sort. One of my officers was present and he has confirmed it all. I'm sorry, Miss Pappas, but I had no option but to charge your friend."
"This means does it mean oh God!" Mel clapped a hand over her mouth. "Will they kill her?"
The Inspector looked embarrassed. "The penalty in England for murder is death, yes. But, as I've already told Dr Covington, there's a good chance that a jury would look sympathetically on her. She may get away with manslaughter." He gave Mel a kindly smile. "Either way your friend will go in front of the magistrates on Monday, and then they'll set a court date. There's nothing more you can do tonight. Why don't I get someone to take you back to your lodgings?"
"No. I want to see her." Mel set her lip and stared defiantly at Glenning, who was shaking his head.
"I'm afraid not, Miss Pappas. Wait until Monday. The magistrates will probably remand her in custody and you will be able to make arrangements with the prison for visits."
Figuring that defiance wasn't working, Mel tried a different tack and began to sob quietly. "Please, Inspector. Let me see her. Just for a couple of minutes."
Glenning looked at her tearstained face and relented. "Very well. But just for a minute or two. Follow me."
Janice was lying on her cot when she heard the cell door swing open. She jumped to her feet and saw, to her surprise and delight, Mel standing in the opening. She rushed towards her and flung her arms around the taller woman.
"Stay back from the door, Covington," said a disembodied male voice. Janice ignored it, but Mel stepped further into the cell, pushing Janice back a few paces.
"Oh Janice!" Mel wailed theatrically. "This is terrible!" She let out a huge sob and then leaned into her partner, while casually letting her jacket fall open so that the archeologist could see the chakram and also her own hunting knife hiding underneath. "Want me to break you out?" She hissed in Janice's ear.
Janice paused, astonished at the turn of events. She looked quizzically at the knife.
"You forgot to take it," Mel whispered. "I saw it when we were leaving and thought I might as well bring it along. How different can it be to a sword, anyway?"
Torn, Janice eventually shook her head. If Xena was here in Mel then any attempt to bust her out was likely to result in carnage. "There's gotta be a better way. We'll figure something out."
"Alright ladies, time's up." The disembodied voice spoke again and Janice now saw that it belonged to the sergeant who had processed her. "Come along Miss Pappas. Time to go. You, Covington, step back." Janice did what she was told and Mel, still snivelling impressively, turned to follow the policeman.
"Wait for me, Mel!" Janice yelled just before the door slammed. She received an incoherent wail in response.
Janice returned to her cot and put her head in her hands. "Wait for me. What a goddamn cliché. Can't believe I did that." A cliché, she thought, and also a pretty big ask. The best outcome here was likely to be a decade or so in a British prison. The worst case scenario lay at the end of the hangman's rope. Kinda unfair to expect Mel to hang around in either circumstance. Janice looked up at the tiny barred window near the ceiling, and noted that it was pitch black outside. It was also getting very cold in the cell. She walked to the door and banged on it. "Guard!"
The hatch in the door opened. "What is it?"
"You got an extra blanket? Or how about a smoke, huh?"
The sergeant's face appeared in the open slot. "Piss off Covington, you murdering dyke bitch." He slammed the hatch shut.
Janice was momentarily taken aback by the officer's outburst, but recovered in time to kick the door in anger, before cursing horribly when she realised she wasn't wearing her boots. She hopped back over to her cot and collapsed into it.
"Miss Pappas. There's really nothing more you can do here tonight. You should go home and rest. One of my officers will walk with you."
Mel decided that continuing to argue with Glenning was unlikely to achieve much further in the short term. She shrugged her shoulders and walked to the door. "I don't need an escort, Inspector." Behind her, she could hear him beginning to protest but she ignored it and strode purposefully out the door.
It was extremely dark outside, with only a little moonlight cutting through the blackness. Mel made her way to a bench opposite the police station and sat down heavily. A cold rage was building within her, a feeling both scarily new and curiously familiar. She cursed the inattention that had given Montague his opportunity to attack her. She pulled the chakram from her jacket and twirled it in her hands, the cool metal deeply comforting. Well. Janice would not pay the price for her lack of concentration. She studied the building in front of her, mentally counting the high barred windows and comparing them with what she had seen of the layout of the custody area. Fairly certain she had identified the cell holding the archeologist, she heaved the chakram over her shoulder
And stopped. The window was too high and too narrow for Janice to escape. Another plan would be needed. Various scenarios flashed through Mel's head. An all out assault with the chakram and hunting knife. A distraction technique of some description. Stealing explosives from the military camp and blowing out the wall
The silence in the street was shattered by the noise of engines. Mel looked up to see a large black car career around the corner and come to a halt in the middle if the road in front of the main doors to the station. The car was immediately followed by an army truck, which parked diagonally, blocking the road. The passenger door to the car swung open and Edward Bolton emerged, while a half dozen men in uniforms bearing the military police insignia jumped out of the truck and followed Bolton into the police station.
Mel jumped up and followed Bolton and his entourage into the station, where he was already yelling at the hapless desk officer to call whoever was in charge.
Glenning emerged, looking flustered. He looked around at the MPs in confusion. "Can I help you, Mr ah ?"
"Edward Bolton. Ministry of War." He handed over a card. "I understand that you are holding a Dr Janice Covington?"
"Release her. Immediately."
Glenning looked lost. "Mr Bolton " he grimaced as he remembered where he had heard the name before. "Mr Bolton, when we called you said you didn't know the prisoner "
"What are you talking about man? I came as soon as I got the message from your WPC." Bolton was shaking his head and growing red in the face.
"WPC?" Glenning was genuinely puzzled. "No, the call would have come from one of my lads. PC Morgan."
"One of the cultists, and the guy who pointed the finger at Janice." Mel stepped out of the shadows and glared at the man in front of her. "I think you'll find that your officer never made that call, Inspector."
"You let one of these cult chaps be involved in this investigation?" Bolton was incredulous. "What the HELL, Glenning?"
The inspector was beginning to babble. "PC Morgan trustworthy one of my finest officers "
Bolton looked disgusted. "Enough. Release Dr Covington. Now."
Glenning wrung his hands. "It's not that simple, Mr Bolton. Dr Covington has been charged "
"Uncharge her. Do whatever you have to to make this go away. This investigation is now under military control. And Glenning," here Bolton leaned forward menacingly, "If I find that she's been mistreated in any way you'll be directing traffic for what's left of your career. Her actions may have saved this country. She is a hero."
Glenning scurried off through the door to the custody area. Bolton turned to Mel. "Miss Pappas. My dear, are you alright?"
"Never better." Mel allowed Bolton to take her hand. "You're a sight for sore eyes, Mr Bolton."
The door opened and Janice emerged, looking pale and tired. Her shirt still bore Montague's bloodstains. She nodded grimly at Bolton, who gave a tight lipped smile. "Good to see you, Dr Covington."
"Right back atcha." She turned to see the custody sergeant, who was carrying her belongings in his arms. He looked embarrassed as he handed them to her. Casting her eyes over them, she noticed something was missing. "Revolver, please."
"But " Glenning opened his mouth to protest but stopped when he saw Bolton's face. "Certainly. I'll get it now."
Janice finished lacing her boots and looked up at the sergeant, who was holding a paper for her to sign. "Dr Covington. We are very sorry for any inconvenience."
"Save it." Janice jammed the fedora on her head and secured the gun inside her jacket. "Come on Mel. Let's blow this joint."
"Just one thing I need to do, hon." Mel put a steadying hand on the smaller woman's back, dipped her and, to the astonishment of all present, including Janice, kissed her passionately.
"Ahem." Bolton's gentle throat clearing caused the two lovers reluctantly to break apart. "You ladies must be very tired. Follow me, please." He led them out to where the car was waiting. "I think it's time to leave Salisbury. Before I left Oxford this evening I asked my secretary to make a reservation at the Randolph." He turned to Janice with a faint twinkle in his eye. "I think you'll find it more comfortable than your most recent accommodation, Dr Covington."
They returned to the inn to collect their belongings. Mrs Tyler stood bemoaning the shame brought on her establishment by the whole affair, although her complaints dried up when she examined the cheque Bolton handed her. Meanwhile, Mel accompanied the MPs upstairs to ensure they gathered up all of their possessions. Bolton raised an eyebrow when he saw the inlaid scroll case bring loaded into the car, then thought back to his remark about turning a blind eye to Janice fencing non-relevant finds, and decided against enquiring further.
The drive to Oxford was quiet and uneventful. Janice spent most of the ride dozing in the back seat with her head on Mel's shoulder. On arrival at the Randolph Hotel, the receptionist pulled a face at the late hour and Janice's bloodstained shirt, but on checking the reservation his demeanour changed and he ushered the two women towards the lift while calling a porter for their luggage. They said goodnight to Bolton, agreeing to meet him the following afternoon for a full debrief.
Even from Janice's jaundiced perspective, the suite Bolton had arranged was truly impressive. A huge bedroom was enhanced with an attractive living area and, most importantly to her, an en suite bathroom which featured an enormous tub. Mel seemed to read her mind and quickly began running the taps while examining the complimentary toiletries which, while not perhaps up to US standard, were a certainly an improvement on anything they had experienced in Salisbury.
An exhausted Janice allowed herself to be guided into the tub before sitting down and beginning to wash the blood and grime from herself. To her surprise, she saw Mel strip and join her in the bath, using a flannel to scrub her partner's back. Once again, it was new but deliciously familiar. Janice sighed happily and closed her eyes. A few hours ago, she thought to herself, I was in a police cell with the hangman's noose looming over me. Now I'm in a luxury hotel sharing a bath with the most beautiful woman in the world. Hmm. Maybe there is someone looking out for me after all.
The two women slept until noon, and it was only the incessant pressure on her bladder that finally forced Janice, reluctantly, to extricate herself from Mel's arms. Exiting the bathroom, she spent a few moments gazing at the taller woman's perfection before sitting down on the bed and gently stroking her hair. "C'mon Mel. Time to wake up. We promised we'd go see Bolton and get the low down on this whole saga."
Mel's startling blue eyes flickered open and she gave her partner a huge smile, before wrapping her arms around her and tugging her down onto the mattress. "How about we let him wait another hour."
And so it was 2pm by the time the two Americans arrived at St John's College. They ran the gauntlet of stares and whisper from the male students and staff which Janice had already experienced. Mel considered how this might have intimidated her a few short weeks ago, but now seemed water off the proverbial duck's back.
Bolton was pleased to see them and launched immediately into the lengthy debrief session. Firstly, he apologised for not reaching them before the ceremony, but apparently a message left at the inn early on Saturday had not reached them. He explained that the German agent who had given his trackers the slip a couple of weeks earlier had been tracked to an address in Swindon and had died in a shoot out there on Friday morning. A search of his rooms had revealed notes in German referring to a secret weapon being "birthed" at an ancient site. Bolton had creased his face at that point, noting that the translation sounded odd and was probably a misunderstanding. Both Mel and Janice had opted to smile, nod and keep quiet at that revelation.
Investigators also found Montague's contact details and evidence of payments made to him from Berlin, along with a number of esoteric texts featuring as yet undeciphered instructions on summoning an evil entity.
The stones had been put under military guard and the digsite sealed. Stephen Morgan, Paul Holland and the other cultists who had been traced so far were under arrest and likely to remain in detention for the rest of the war. The obsidian dagger, along with the sinister statue, had been passed to the Ashmolean Museum, which would decide if and when to put them on public display.
Bolton concluded by saying that he and his superiors were satisfied that the threat, whilst not thoroughly understood, was very real and posed a serious threat to the country. It was impossible to put a value on the work of the two women in infiltrating the cult, and in particular on Janice's elimination of its leader. He advised that the British Government was keen to thank them both directly, and promised to pick them both up at 10 the next morning for a trip to London.
Neither Janice nor Mel was used to such effusive praise, and having left St John's they did not rush to speak of it. Instead, they spent the afternoon wandering the streets, taking in the sights and feeding ducks by the river. It was in many ways a perfect day, and they rounded it off with dinner in the hotel restaurant. Janice even chose to dress up in the forest green dress and to allow Mel to style her hair.
As the two happy and slightly tipsy women returned to their suite, they were surprised to see a bottle of champagne cooling in an ice bucket. Mel frowned. "I've probably had enough to drink for one night, Janice."
"Musta been a present from Bolton." Janice picked up the bottle and began removing the foil. "Taittinger. Sounds fancy. C'mon Mel, one glass won't hurt." She tried to twist the cork. "Damn, that's stiff."
A flash of blue light erupted in the room and both women almost jumped out of their skin before Mel recovered sufficiently to hit the deck and pull a startled Janice, still clutching the champagne bottle, down with her. "What the "
"Relax, ladies. Nothing to be alarmed about." The blue light had vanished to be replaced by the bearded man from the Macedonia tomb. As Janice scrambled to her feet he reached out for the bottle. "Please. Allow me."
Standing up, Mel noticed for the first time that there were three glasses arranged next to the ice bucket. Ares deftly twisted the bottle and began to pour. "Ah, I love this stuff. So much better than that godsawful mead we were stuck with back in the day." He handed a glass to Mel. "For you, my dear. You look as radiant as when I first saw you." Turning to Janice, he gave a wink. "Don't take that 'irritating blonde' stuff to heart. Just our little joke, eh?" He raised his glass in a toast. "Well, bottoms up!"
Janice recovered enough to speak. "What the hell is going on? We left you trapped in that tomb!"
Mel chimed in. "Are you really Ares?"
Smiling and shaking his head in amusement, Ares sat down heavily in one of the suite's overstuffed armchairs. "Yes, I am really Ares. And does anyone really think that a spooky tomb and some fancy optics could hold the God of War?" He drained the glass and signalled for a top up, which Janice reluctantly supplied. "I set it up. The whole thing. A honey trap for that fool Smythe and his Nazi backers, and, more importantly, to allow you two to meet again and start kicking major butt. Just like in the good old days." A dreamy look came across his face.
"Woah, woah, woah." Janice pressed two fingers to her temple. "Meet again? What are you talking about? The first time I laid eyes on Mel was in a tent in Macedonia."
Ares smirked. "In this life, perhaps." He tapped his fingers against the champagne glass. "When we met in the tomb, I said you were descendants of Xena and her little bard, huh? Well, it's true that you're related to them. But there's a much more direct connection. Your souls."
It was Mel's turn to profess bafflement. "I don't understand "
"You both have ancient souls. And every lifetime you come together." Ares stood up and gazed out the window at the darkened Oxford streets. "When I first knew you, it was as Xena and Gabrielle. I've followed your progress in every lifetime since. Usually you look similar to how I remember, although sometimes you're very different. This time round, though," Ares turned and gestured dramatically towards the two Americans, "The resemblance is uncanny! So, I figure, what would these girls be able to do with a chakram and a sense of adventure." He grinned broadly. "I haven't been disappointed so far!"
Mel frowned. "So, er, Ares," she tried to ignore how ridiculous that sounded, "Are you telling us that we ARE Xena and Gabrielle?"
Ares had removed a dagger from his belt and was using it to clean his nails. "In a manner of speaking, yes. Their souls are in your bodies. There's some superficial differences, sure. You're a lot more genteel than Xena ever was, while Blondie here is a tougher cookie than Gabby was, at least to start with. But, yeah. You are they, so to speak." He grinned again. "And, I have to say, you handled that whole Dahak business much more effectively than your forebears. No Hope this time round!" He laughed at his joke. "Course, you had a bit of help."
The picture suddenly became clear. Janice tutted. "You led us to that cave, didn't you. Led us to the scrolls. You were probably the one who hid them there. It was you I saw standing by it, when I thought I heard a gunshot." Another thought struck her. "You told Montague that I was related to their original patsy."
Ares shrugged. "Worked, didn't it?"
"Wait a moment." Mel shook her head. "This doesn't make sense. In the tomb you said that you supported what Hitler is doing! Why are you helping us?"
"I'm the God of War. I thrive on conflict. The glory and honour of battle. But what's going on in Germany now " Ares snarled. "That's just evil. I want no part in it."
"But you said "
"To rile you up. Worked, didn't it? Anyway," Ares rested one hand on the pommel of the sword on his belt and used the other to blow a kiss, "Gotta go. It's been great catching up. I'm sure I'll see you again soon."
Another flash of blue light, and he was gone.
As the car wound its way through the London streets, Edward Bolton turned in his seat and looked again at the passengers behind him. Melinda Pappas, demure in a lilac suit, looking out the window and pointing out landmarks. Dr Janice Covington, in her usual archeologist's gear, complete with fedora, pretending not to be excited. He turned back and smiled to himself. Over the past few weeks he'd developed a paternal affection for the two women. It was a shame they would soon be returning to the States.
The car drew up outside a door guarded by soldiers, and the three visitors were ushered through to a tiny reception area, where their IDs were checked. Another soldier arrived to escort them down a narrow corridor before knocking on the door at the end of it.
"Come." A deep voice boomed from inside and the soldier opened the door before saluting and standing aside.
"After you." Bolton waved the two women in front of him. They entered to see a large bald man sat behind a desk. In front of him were two telephones and numerous piles of paper. A map of Europe was pinned to a large cork board behind him.
The man looked up. "Miss Pappas. Dr Covington. A pleasure." He nodded at Bolton. "And you too, Bolton. "
Janice shook his hand. "Mr Churchill. It's an honour "
Churchill raised his hand. "No need for formalities. Sit, please." He reached into a drawer and pulled out a bottle of brandy and four glasses. "A toast, I think, to the both of you. Mr Bolton here has told me all about what transpired." He poured generous measures and handed the glasses around before continuing. "I can't pretend to understand it all, but it sounds as though we've had a lucky escape." He raised his glass. "Great Britain is in your debt, ladies. I only wish your government was as willing to defend freedom as its citizens."
A cigar case appeared and Churchill offered the contents to his visitors, all of whom, even Mel, took one. There was a brief silence while everyone savoured the drink and smoke, before Churchill spoke again. "I trust Miss Pappas and Dr Covington have been well remunerated for their services?"
"I have agreement to offer them £1,000."
Churchill made a dismissive noise. "Double it!"
"Of course, sir." Bolton scribbled something on a piece of paper.
Mel and Janice glanced at each other. This was a huge sum which would fund their research for a good while and allow Janice to have some long overdue maintenance done on the Georgetown house.
Churchill was speaking again. "Have arrangements been made to return you to the United States?"
Bolton interjected. "Certainly, Prime Minister. A transport plane will return them later this week."
Churchill grunted. "Excellent. Although," he took a drag from his cigar, "You ladies would be a real asset to this country and the war effort. I don't suppose we could persuade you to stay for a while? I'm sure Mr Bolton could find plenty more missions for the two of you."
The two Americans locked eyes and each sensed the feelings of the other. Janice turned to the Prime Minister and nodded. "We would be delighted, Mr Churchill."
"Splendid. Well, Mr Bolton will make the arrangements. Now, if you'll excuse me. I have a meeting with the Admiralty."
Churchill stood and shook hands with his guests. He opened the door and the waiting soldier saluted again and escorted the three visitors to the exit.
They stood in the warm sunshine, gazing up at the historic buildings around them. "Impressive," murmured Mel.
"Very." Janice adjusted her hat. "Let's hope Hitler's bombers don't wreck it."
"Alright, ladies," said Bolton. "My driver will take you back to Oxford. You're booked into the Randolph for the rest of the week. I've got some arrangements to make here. I'll be in touch in a couple of days. In the meantime, enjoy the R and R."
"Ya heard what he said sweetheart." Janice squeezed her partner's hand before climbing into the car. "R and R it is. I figure there's gonna be plenty more action in the not too distant future."
Mel smiled at her blonde companion and settled down in the back of the car next to her. "Sounds like a plan."
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