DISCLAIMER: These are the disclaimers, see? Yeah, that's the ticket: This was my entry for the 2002 Pulp Fiction contest held by the Academy of Bards. Mel, Janice and assorted XWP/HTLJ characters belong to Ren Pics and Co. No infringement meant, no profit gained. (Hell, kids, it didn't even win the contest! *grin*) Rest is mine and so forth. Some violence and swearing. (Blame Janice.) And what's a Noir type thingy without an underlying sexual dynamic? And dynamics being what they are, this one's decidedly female-centric - subtext ahead, nothing graphic. Many, many thanks to the goddess of things Mel/Janice, Vivian Darkbloom, for giving this thing a read over... You're a good kid. Keep yer nose clean, sweetheart. Comments and stuff are welcome.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Kiss Me Deadly
(Who Could She Trust In A Town Without Pity?)
By angharad governal
Los Angeles, CA 1947
It was a dark and stormy night.
Yeah, I know it's a cliché, but what can be more of a cliché than a private dick staking out a joint on a rainy night in the City of Angels? Nothin', baby. Not even those studio big-shots down on the Paramount Lot with a room full of trained monkeys pounding on typewriters twenty-four seven could make up the stuff I deal with on a daily basis. But that comes with the territory if you're in the kind of business I'm in.
The irony of my current mode of employment wasn't lost on me. Sometimes, when I'm standing out here watching as another rich man's wife bangs someone else besides her husband in a one-room bungalow in the heart of the worst part of town, I wonder how I got here. I was somebody once. But now, now, I'm just another nameless Joe trying to make ends meet the best way that I can.
So it's raining and it's the dead of night, a time when decent people should be safe in their beds. I hadn't dealt with decent people in a long, long time. No, the circles I traveled with nowadays consisted of people in the shadows, people on the brink, people that straddled the line between decency and crudeness.
Somewhere back a few blocks, I had left my car and started walking. I followed the Blonde Wife at a discreet distance as the rain lightly fell around me like a cold blanket. I pulled my fedora over my eyes as I spotted her duck into a shabby one-room shack on the corner. I moved closer and spotted a beat-up driveway that ran parallel to the overgrown hedge running along the wall of the residence. As Lady Luck would have it, the window that I found myself under had a perfect view of the sap's bedroom. I had observed this scenario a thousand times before, but something in me, some little part that still believed in the innate goodness, dignity, and honesty of my fellow man was still shocked, was always surprised when I encountered betrayal and lies in Technicolor flesh and blood.
I heard voices in the hallway and as I carefully peered into the darkened room, I could see the light in the hall. In an instant, the light shut off and the sharp click - click - click of the Wife's heels were falling in rhythm to the pitt - pitt - pitt of the rain. The light in the bedroom suddenly turned on and I quickly ducked under the window. I slowly looked into the window once more as lightning illuminated the black night. It was like a thousand spotlights lit up the LA skyline. The lovebirds were oblivious and my eyes could have popped out of my head like one of them Warner cartoons at the sight before me: The Blonde Wife was moaning as she straddled the accountant's lap.
I could feel a hard grimace tugging at corners of my mouth as I watched the scene. I took the camera out of my overcoat. I knew three things for certain: One -- the blonde had a great set of gams that went on forever, two -- the filthy rich bastard who hired me for this job just had his hunch confirmed, and three -- as I took in the décor of the Accountant's bedroom, I knew that Blondie wasn't doing the hoochie-coochie with Mr. Accountant for money. That old, rich sonofabitch, even with all his millions, couldn't compete with the one thing that this shambling, penniless accountant could offer his wife in spades.
Two weeks later. . .
The insistent knocking finally woke me from my whiskey-tinged sleep. For one blissful moment, I didn't know where I was and who I was. All that existed was the slowly fading images of a dream I could never quite remember. The knocking continued as my conscious mind finally kicked in. I felt a little groggy as I glanced at my watch. It was barely 8 am and that meant Doris wasn't at the front desk yet to let in whomever it was pounding at my office door. I cursed. I had spent the night here and it suddenly occurred to me that I would have still been in bed fast asleep at this hour had I gone home last night.
I pushed back the leather chair where I was sitting from behind my desk, opened a desk drawer, grabbed my .45 and a rubber band. I checked the chamber of the gun and then holstered the piece as I got up and grabbed my leather jacket from where I had slung it on the chair the night before. I tied my unruly hair with the band, plopped the fedora that lay on the desk on my head and put on my jacket. The knocking continued.
"Yeah, yeah. Keep yer pants on," I half-heartedly yelled at the door. Before I made my way to the front office, I checked myself in the small mirror that hung on a nearby wall. I had some dark circles under my eyes, but other than that, I still looked pretty good, considering everything I've seen and done in my short span on this Earth. I headed for the door fully intending to rip a new one into the guy who was mistaking my front door for a pair of conga drums. Any decent person would still be in bed this early in the morning. I almost laughed aloud when I realized that in this business, finding decent people was like trying to find a virgin in a whorehouse. I didn't even bother to look up at the chump when I opened the door.
"Look, buddy, we don't open 'til 9:30, so come back later. I don't care if you're the President of the United--" I looked up. Whatever other smart-ass remark I was going to make died on my lips.
It was her.
"Mel," I heard myself say.
It was her, all right. No doubt about that. Her cobalt eyes sparkled from behind the frames of her glasses. Her long ebony hair was coifed in a stylish manner; a fashionable hat was perched on her head. She wore a tailored dress that clung to her curves the way my ratty old Buick clung to the twisting turns along Mulholland. She looked exactly like the first time I saw her -- a lady through and through even in a place that came as close to resembling Hell on Earth as I ever wanted to see. How long had it been since we last saw each other? It felt like another lifetime. It was another lifetime -- at least for me -- one that I wanted to forget. Seeing her at my door brought it all rushing back and with her appearance, a torrent of emotions came flooding out of the dam I had placed on them so many years ago.
Mel. Melinda Pappas.
I guess I must have stood there like a bump on a log because she suddenly spoke up.
God. If I were the swooning type, I think I would have fallen at her feet when I heard the dulcet tones of her voice. There was a brief pause as we drank in the sight of each other.
"Doctor -- Doctor Covington. It's good to see you again."
Well, Miss Pappas, I thought to myself, we're being pretty formal considering everything that happened between us. Ever the lady. Even after everything. From the slight tremor in her lilting Southern drawl, I knew that seeing me again affected her in some manner. I felt a sense of satisfaction that I wasn't the only one out of sorts at this meeting. It leveled the playing field just enough so that I could pull off this whole damn thing without falling apart.
I tipped my hat in greeting and motioned for the leggy brunette to enter the confines of my tiny office. I tried to keep my tone light as possible as I nonchalantly closed the door. "It's good to see you too, sweetheart. Come in to my office, Miss Pappas. And please, call me Janice. No one's called me Doctor for a while. I ain't been in the archaeology game for a long time now. I'm just a run of the mill private dick--" I glanced back at Melinda Pappas as she entered the room. There was a lady present, a real, honest-to-God lady, and I had to at least feign the pretense of good manners even if I had none to speak of. "-- dick- tective."
I offered her a chair. We both sat down. I nodded in her direction and was about to start talking when she crossed those long, long legs of hers. I felt my mouth turn dry. I was glad I was sitting down because if I were standing up, I think my legs would have gone under me. I licked my suddenly dry lips and gave a rueful glance at the empty whiskey bottle on my desk. Steady, kid, I told myself. She's just another dame. Yeah, right. Just another dame with the longest, shapeliest pair of gams this side of Burbank with a face and figure that made me want to crawl in her lap, curl up in a ball, and meow like a kitten who had just finished a bowl of cream. Who was I kidding? She was more than just a dame -- I knew it back then and I knew it now. I had fallen for her hard all those years ago and as she sat in my office this morning, I knew those feelings I tried to bury and forget were still with me and stronger than ever.
I took a deep breath and reached for the cigarette case in my front shirt pocket. I offered her a smoke and she declined. I took one out of the case. 'I hope you don't mind," I said as I inclined my head toward the cigarette in my hand. I was so nervous that I forgot she didn't smoke.
"No. It's all right. Please go ahead," she said softly.
I placed the smoke against my lips as I pocketed the case. I began to fish for a light when she suddenly stood up and leaned across the desk.
"Here, let me." She took out a silver lighter from her small purse and held out the naked flame between her cupped hands. I recognized it immediately. It was her father's old lighter. She had told me once that she kept it for good luck.
"Thanks." I leaned forward, placed one hand against the warmth of her outstretched ones as she held the tiny tongue of fire steady. I resisted the urge to caress the soft skin underneath my fingers as I puffed on the smoke. I glanced up at her and caught an eyeful of her . . . assets. Our eyes briefly met and if she had caught on that I was ogling her overflowing bounty, she never let on. Good ol' Mel. She was first class all the way. I started to feel like a second-class heel. I quickly sat down and took a greedy drag from the cigarette as she seated herself on the chair across from my desk.
I busied myself, rummaging through a desk drawer. "Make yourself comfortable," I said as I took out a pencil and a pad of paper. I looked up in time to see her lean back and re-cross her legs. Christ. I knew that once this visit with her was finished, I had to run home and take a very cold shower. That or do something I hadn't done in a long while -- make a trip down to The Red Rose to see Meg about an itch I had to scratch.
"So," I placed my cigarette in a nearby ashtray. "How can I help?"
I thought it best to get down to why she was here rather than deal with the looming elephant in the room that was us. It was too damn early in the morning and I was a bit too sober for such a conversation. It seemed that Miss Pappas had similar inclinations.
"I came to ask for your help because something was taken from me, from us. The scrolls, Janice. The scrolls were stolen from the Institute."
The Xena Scrolls. I thought I left behind all of that years ago, that I had washed my hands of it. Now, three years later, she walked in my door and I found myself in the middle of it again. I shook my head softly. "Mel . . . Miss Pappas, I said earlier that I was out of the archaeology game. If it's a matter of stolen property, I think the police would be better at handling --"
She abruptly stood up. "Janice, please. You're the only person I can turn to, the only person I could trust with this. The Institute wants this matter dealt with on a need-to-know basis. They don't want the publicity, nor do they want law enforcement involved. They want this dealt with as quietly, as discreetly as possible. I had hoped that knowing it was about the scrolls -- that it was about Xena and Gabrielle -- that what was taken rightly belonged to us, to our family, that you'd be more than willing to help."
The Institute. I wondered whether the Board of Directors had convinced Mel to keep the theft of the Scrolls a secret. It didn't seem like Mel to think of something like this -- at least the Mel I used to know.
The Pappas Institute of Archaeology, named after Mel's grandfather, Alexandros Melvin Pappas, was part of the reason why I left archaeology, why I decided to head West and leave New York. I was a digger by trade and tradition -- the grueling demands of fieldwork was where I felt most at home and not in the hallowed halls of a university. The ins and outs of academic life were far worse than anything I had encountered in the field where I dealt with thieves, smugglers, and murderers. Learned men and women lurking in their ivy- covered halls, formal teas, and conferences were far more dangerous to me than running into lowlifes in dark alleys of the world's most hazardous cities. The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. But, I knew my discomfort with academia wasn't the real reason why I left her. The real reason was my worst nightmare come to life. I had no choice but to leave it all behind me; I made plans to work my way back to digging, but somehow, I could never get myself to leave the country. I think somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that if I left, if I took that final step, I would really lose Mel. If we were still in the same country, there would be a chance; somehow, we would be together again.
There was a noise in the outer office and we both looked toward the door. The knob on the door began to turn. I stood up and started to reach for the .45 that was holstered under my jacket. The door opened and I heard the clicking of heels on the linoleum floor. I let out the breath I was holding at the familiar sound.
"Hey, Janice! It's me --"
It was my secretary, Doris.
"Covington? Did you spend another night in this dump? You know, you coulda said yes last night and come home with me --"
I stole a glance at Mel. She had the strangest look on her face. If I didn't know any better, I would have sworn she was jealous.
Doris's almost six-foot frame and ample outline filled the doorway of my office as she glanced inside. "-- You missed a really good dinner and some fine compan--" Doris hesitated for a moment as she spotted Mel's lean frame. "--Or maybe you already had some company after all."
I eyed both of them, eager to get this mess straightened out. The way Doris and Mel were looking at each other didn't exactly ease the tension that had suddenly filled the room.
"Mel -- Miss Melinda Pappas, this is my secretary, Doris Minya." I gestured to Doris, "Doris, don't just stand there. Say hello to our guest, our new client."
"Hiya." Doris cast a suspicious glance toward Mel. "Nice ta meet ya."
I moved from behind my desk and took hold of Doris's arm, escorting her from the room. "Will you excuse me for a minute, Melinda? I need to talk to Doris about something."
"Yes, of course, Janice. It was lovely to meet you, Miss Minya."
I pulled Doris along to the other room.
"Yeah. Any friend of Janice's --"
I shut the door behind us and faced my secretary.
"What the hell was that, Doris? Since when do you treat paying clients like that?"
"Oh? She's payin'? Isn't that usually the other way around?"
"Don't start with the lip, Doris. She's legit and an old friend of mine. She's more of lady than both of us combined. And she's an heiress, goddamnit!"
Doris shook her head, her brown curly locks swinging left and right in obvious displeasure. I didn't know if she was upset because I told her Mel was an old friend or that I disputed her status as a lady and dared to place her on the same level as I was. I admit, that was kinda low, but I was angry at the thought that anyone, even Doris, would think badly of Mel and her motives.
She lifted her hands in a gesture of surrender at the set of my jaw. She knew me well enough to know when she would lose an argument, no matter how persuasive she thought she was being.
"All right, Janice. I'll behave. It's just that--"
"There's something fishy about her. That's all."
I shook my head indignantly. "You haven't known her for more than five minutes!"
"Just call it woman's intuition, Janice."
"And what about my intuition? What am I, chopped liver?"
"I don't think you can be objective about this, considerin'."
My office door suddenly opened and Mel peered into the front room.
"Janice? Is everything all right?"
Doris cast a critical glance at Melinda. Considering the conversation I had less than a minute ago, I wasn't sure how to answer Mel's simple question.
"And speaking of liver," Doris said softly as she looked from Mel to me, "Knowing Janice, she probably hasn't had breakfast yet. Janice, why don't you take Miss Pappas down to the Ambrosia. You can learn more about the case and discuss our fee."
I stood there befuddled at the sudden change of attitude my secretary was currently exhibiting toward Mel. She patted my arm and gently pushed me to the door. "Go on, Covington. I'll hold the fort while you're out."
I closed the office door behind us; Mel and I walked silently to the elevator. As I pushed the down button, Mel turned towards me.
A soft ding echoed through the empty hall as the elevator stopped on our floor, the doors sliding open with a soft whoosh.
"Yeah, sweetheart?" I answered as Mel gracefully stepped inside. She cocked her head to the side as I stepped into the elevator and stood next to her.
"Doris works for you, right?" she said in an amused tone as the doors slid shut before us.
The Café Ambrosia was bustling with the breakfast crowd. There was a constant buzz of conversation that competed with the clinking and clanking of knives, forks, and coffee cups. Floating over the general din was the tinny sound of a radio playing. As Mel and I made our way to an empty booth in the back, I could hear the strains of Billie Holiday crackling through the radio by the counter.
Who do you think is comin' to town?
You'll never guess who.
Loveable, huggable Emily Brown.
Miss Brown to you.
What if the rain comes patterin' down
My heaven is blue
Tennessee's sending me Emily Brown.
Miss Brown to you.
I know her eyes are brilliant.
But go slow. Oh, oh.
Don't you all get too familiar.
Why do you think she's comin' to town?
Just wait and you'll see.
The loveable Little Miss Brown to you
Is 'Baby' to me.
We sat down opposite of each other and as I handed her one of the menus on the table, I glanced up. Aw, hell. This was one doosie of a morning. I pulled down my fedora over my eyes.
"Janice, is there something wrong?" Mel was peering up from the menu in her hands.
"Nah, sweetheart. Everything's fine and dandy." I sighed softly and began to count under my breath. "Three, two, one. . ."
"Hiya Janice. Ain't it kinda early for ya?"
I didn't even bother to look up. The figure stopped before our table. I hazarded a guess that she was giving my breakfast companion the once over. I heard her pop her gum in an almost thoughtful manner.
"Or maybe it was just a really long night."
Melinda caught my eye from across the table. An elegant eyebrow rose from behind her glasses in question.
I cleared my throat. "Evie, Melinda Pappas. Mel, Eve de la Roma."
"Hiya." Evie popped her gum once more. I looked up as she fished a pencil from her mass of mousy brown hair and tapped the pad in her hand.
Mel said a polite hello to the skinny waitress. Evie nodded in her direction with a knowing grin on her face, but turned her attention back to me.
"Gee, Jan, didn't know your dates lasted this long. I thought ya just kicked them outta bed after--"
"Evie!" I gritted angrily from behind my teeth. "Shut yer pie hole, will ya? It ain't like that. Miss Pappas is an old friend and a client."
"Oh! Jeez, I'm sorry Janice, Miss." She turned and gave an apologetic smile towards Mel. "I just thought, well, seein' you and Janice, I thought--"
I blew a frustrated breath and cut her off before her attempts at an apology caused more trouble and embarrassment for me and for herself. "I'll have some eggs, toast and coffee -- black."
Evie nodded and took my order. She turned toward Mel. "Miss, I'm real sorry. I didn't mean ta --"
Mel reached up and patted the waitress's arm and gave Evie a soft smile which conveyed that, indeed, Evie de la Roma was forgiven of her sins. "It's all right, Miss de la Roma. I'll have the same as Janice."
Yep. Mel was first class all the way.
Evie smiled back. "Your orders will be here in a jiff." She turned and walked to the counter to convey our breakfast orders.
I sighed. Dames. I wanted to bury my head in my hands. It felt like it was going to be a very long day. I heard Mel chuckle and I looked up in time to see her shake her head, an amused smile etched on her face.
"You do know the most interesting people, Janice."
"Yeah. I seem to attract 'em like flies."
We sat silently and waited for our orders although Mel's eyes looked like they were full of questions. A few minutes later, Evie returned with our breakfasts.
"Miss." She placed a steaming plate before Mel and turned toward me. "Janice, I want to apologize for everything. I didn't mean ta --"
I eyed the plate she placed in front of me. My stomach rumbled. Guess I was hungrier than I thought. "Don't apologize, kid. No harm, no foul, 'kay?" I looked up, gave her a smile which she returned.
"Thanks, Janice. You're swell."
"S' kay, kid. Keep yer nose clean, huh?"
Evie nodded happily. "Enjoy your breakfast, ladies." She turned and walked to another table.
I sweetened my drink and reached for the ketchup bottle when Melinda finally broke her silence.
"She seems like a nice girl."
"Yeah. Evie's a good kid." I drowned my eggs in ketchup.
"She didn't seem surprised about--"
I shrugged. "Well, she knows I take my clients to the Ambrosia to talk once in a while." I grabbed the pepper shaker.
"That wasn't what I meant, Janice."
I shrugged again. It was too long a story and I still felt out of sorts about the whole thing. I began to mix the eggs around my plate, trying not to be too obvious that I wasn't going to give further explanation about how I had been spending my life these past few years.
Mel sighed. "I forgot how much you liked eggs with your ketchup and pepper."
I looked up, smiled, and shoved a forkful of eggs in my mouth. Mel took a few bites of her meal.
Evie walked by a few minutes later. "Warm your cup, ladies?" We both nodded. "Anything else I can get ya?"
"How about another plate?" I said as I swirled the last bit of toast on my now empty plate.
"Wow, Janice. You've got to work on your table manners. I'm sorry, Miss. She can be a pig sometimes."
I picked up my cup. "S' okay. Mel's seen me eat before."
A smile eased across Melinda's face as she reached for her coffee.
"It's true, Evie. I've had the pleasure of seeing Janice's legendary table manners. I think I was as appalled as you were the first time I saw it. But now, I think it's just part of the Covington charm."
They both laughed.
"All right, break it up, you two," I shot them both a poisonous glance. "How 'bout those eggs, Evie?"
The waitress rolled her eyes. "Comin' right up," she said as she grabbed my plate and refilled our cups once more.
Mel smiled and took another bite of her eggs. "How did you two meet? Here or--"
"During a case," I said as I swirled my coffee. "She was just a kid who ended up at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. Helped get her out of a fix. She's flyin' straight now. It was just one of those things, you know? She was always a good kid. She's doin' great now."
Evie brought another steaming plate. "Here ya go, Janice. Miss." She nodded and headed for another table.
I reached for the ketchup bottle.
I watched as the red glop splashed onto the eggs. "She was from some little 'burg in Ohio. Her Pop was in the army, but was killed a year before the War ended. About four months later, her Mom . . . killed herself."
I nodded. "Put a bullet in her brain. Anyway, Evie didn't have anyone else and she was legally too young to be on her own so they put her in an orphanage. I don't exactly know how long she was in there, but eventually, she ran off. Managed to get all the way here. Lots of kids end up here, y'know? Most with dreams of becoming film stars." I shook my head and took another bite of my eggs. "But this town . . . This town ain't easy, Mel. A town without pity if there ever was one. It takes people in, chews them up, and spits them out. I ran into Evie about a year and a half ago on a job I was on. Managed to get her out of that jam, pulled a few strings and now she's doin' fine. Keepin' her nose clean."
"It's wonderful that you were able to help her out, Janice."
I pushed my fedora out of my eyes. "Nah. It's not me that deserves the credit, it's Evie. And Eli, actually. He's the one who's helped her the most. Set her up here. He owns the Café Ambrosia."
Mel blinked in confusion. "Eli? You don't mean that con-man we met on the transport out of Macedonia in 1942?"
I smiled. "Yep. Same guy. Eli Josef. He's changed, Mel. He's an upstanding citizen now. A businessman."
Mel's voice raised a notch. "He was a liar and a thief. And he tried to proposition you!"
I chuckled softly. "Yeah, he did. I was about to er . . . turn him down when you got wind of it and popped him in the jaw." I whistled. "Remind me never to piss you off. You were my hero, Mel. If ya ever decide you wanted out of the Institute, I can probably hire ya as my muscle."
Mel blushed a becoming shade of red and seemed momentarily flustered. She smiled softly as I leaned back and grinned. Our eyes met.
"I'll hold you to that, Janice Covington."
We stayed at the diner for about an hour or so discussing the details of the theft of the Scrolls. From what Mel had told me and from what I knew about the inner workings of the Institute, the theft seemed to have been instigated by one of the higher ups in the organization, possibly one of the Board members who had a grudge against the path the Institute was now taking. Suddenly, the Board's reluctance to go to the police and Mel seeking me out made sense.
The Pappas Institute was founded long before Melinda's father began his investigations into the existence of the Xena Scrolls and had reluctantly "indulged" Melvin Pappas's "hobby" as a personal quirk of its most distinguished member. After Doctor Pappas won the Nobel Prize in Archaeology in 1923, even his association with my father raised only the eyebrows of the Board of Directors and not their ire and displeasure. Harry and Doc Pappas never found the Xena Scrolls, of course; the question of Melvin Pappas's "hobby" was quietly put to rest as the Institute went on to pursue more "legitimate" areas of Classical Archaeological Studies. Everything changed in 1942 when Mel and I found the Xena Scrolls in a cave in Macedonia. It was a significant find, a stunning revelation that would forever change how we viewed the past. To say that our finds were controversial is putting it mildly, but there was enough support within the Institute that several months after Mel and I arrived back States-side, a small but enthusiastic department of Xena Studies was created within the Institute itself.
It wasn't all a walk in the park, of course. There was still a vocal minority which claimed that Harry Covington's daughter had fabricated the whole thing -- that the Xena Scrolls was a great big hoax cooked up to save Harry's rather questionable reputation within the archaeological community. To make things even worse, rumors had floated around that I had somehow corrupted and coerced Mel into helping me with the deception. Mel took it all in stride -- quietly deciphering the scrolls and writing up a paper to present at a conference early the next year. I blew my top when I found out about the rumor-mongering; I could care less about what they had thought of me, but the idea that I was dragging Melinda's reputation down with me made me see red. Mel convinced me to wait it out and see how our findings were going to be received at the conference. Let's just say that things got lively. The controversy only grew and in that chill March afternoon in 1943, a split between those who believed in the authenticity of the Xena Scrolls and those who thought they were clever fakes had its beginnings.
After our talk, I hailed a taxi for Mel and headed back to the office. I had my suspicions about who was behind the theft. I told her that I would scrounge around for a few leads and let her know if I came up with something. Knowing who instigated the thefts would be a big help, but I thought hitting a few places for any dirt on the whereabouts of the scrolls would be all I could do for now. The traffic in stolen antiquities was a booming market in Los Angeles. This town had loads of millionaires who wanted to fill their mansions with art and artifacts and weren't too picky about the who's, where's, and how's of their acquisitions.
I opened the front door of the office and found Doris hanging up the phone and giving me the once over.
"The lady ain't with ya, huh?"
"And a hello to you too, Doris." I doffed my hat in her direction.
She rolled her big brown eyes at me. "I was checkin' up on your lady friend."
I leaned against the desk and took out the cigarette case from my pocket. "Yeah? I figured as much. Probably why you were so anxious to get us out of here." I fished for a match and lit a smoke. "So, what did ya find?"
Doris tapped a pad of paper in front of her with a pencil. "She's legit, like you said."
I hid a 'I told ya so' grin that I knew musta been plastered on my face by taking my hat off and toying with the brim. "And?"
Doris hesitated for a moment before replying in a soft, concerned tone. "Covington? She-- she's that Mel, isn't she? When I first saw her I wasn't so sure, but after I made a few calls . . ."
I took a puff on the cigarette between my fingers then ground it out on the ashtray on Doris's desk.
"When you got shot on the Cesar job and Mike found you in that alley, he said you were mumbling something about a Mel. Janice--"
I stood up. "Ya know Doris, I'm starved."
Doris blinked in surprise. "Again?"
"Yeah." I put my hat back on and bowed toward my secretary. "How 'bout you and me get some egg rolls?"
She sighed and shrugged her shoulders in defeat. "Sure. I'd love some Chinese."
Yeah, Doris knew me too well. "Great. Besides, I need to ask Lao Ma a few questions. Might as well kill two birds with one stone."
During breakfast, Mel informed me that the Institute was able to track the whereabouts of the stolen scrolls for several weeks, but the trail went cold when it reached the West Coast. Luckily, I still had contacts within the archaeological community as well as more shadier circles that dealt with the illegal antiquities trade. Depending on what type of artifacts you were after, you dealt with certain people. Amazingly enough, the community that grew around the traffic of looted and stolen antiquities was just as complex and multi-layered as its more legitimate cousin. Specializations abounded. There were experts on Egyptology, Chinese art and artifacts, the growing traffic of Mayan artifacts, Greek and Roman artifacts, and everything in between. There were people who participated in both sides of the game -- playing one side over the other depending on mood and opportunity. Lao Ma O'Bannon was one such person -- a double agent of sorts -- pretending to deal in the illegal trade of antiquities while secretly helping the authorities to capture the crooks and put 'em in the clink, returning the goods back to its' rightful owners and countries. Lao Ma's specialty was Chinese artifacts and oddly enough, Greek antiquities. She had inherited the antiquities bug from her father who sold Chinese art, furniture and knickknacks in the heart of Chinatown. From her mother, she had inherited one of the oldest noodle joints in Los Angeles. We had crossed paths several times before on earlier jobs I had. The restaurant provided a great cover for our meetings and, I had to admit, that place had the best wonton soup and egg rolls I ever had in my life. It was a helluva deal any way you look at it.
I was workin' my way through a bowl of chicken soup while Doris was eating chow mein when Lao joined us at our table. The place was half-empty -- the lunch rush still a few hours away and the breakfast crowd had thinned down to two elderly gentlemen chatting over tea and sweet red bean paste sesame balls. We chatted for a bit as Doris and I finished our meal. As Ming Tien, Lao's nineteen-year-old son, handed me the check and put a plate of fortune cookies on the table, I turned to Lao and got to the nuts and bolts of our visit.
I took a sip of tea. "Lao, one of these days you have to give me your recipe for that soup."
She smiled and understood where I was going. "Covington, you don't cook."
I chuckled softly. "Ah, you'd be surprised. When I was with my Pop in Greece, I used to cook a mean souvlaki. Sometimes I wish there was a decent Greek restaurant in the city."
"You like Greek food that much, Janice?"
"You know me, I'll eat anything just as long as the ketchup holds out. But what I miss the most is ouzo or a really good restina."
Lao laughed softly. "It's hard to find restina in a Chinese restaurant, Covington. . . Tell ya what, since you're an old friend, I can offer you a nice warm bowl of my private stash of red sorghum."
I smiled softly. "Deal." I turned toward Doris. "Doris, wanna join us?"
Doris, who understood the subtext of the conversation, declined. "Nah, Janice. You know me -- beer's the only thing I can stomach. 'Sides, I promised Howard I'd drop by the store and see him."
I paid the bill as Doris got up and grabbed a cookie from the plate on the table. "'Kay. See ya back at the office, Doris."
She nodded at the two of us. "See ya, Janice. Bye Lao."
As I got up to head to Lao's private office, I felt a delaying hand on my arm. I looked up.
Lao, a mysterious smile etched on her face, pointed back to our abandoned table. "Janice, don't forget your cookie."
I sighed, grabbed the fortune cookie, and stuffed it in my jacket pocket. Mel was right. I was acquainted with the strangest people who had ever walked the face of the Earth.
Lao Ma poured some tea while I strolled around her office. It was beautifully furnished-- tasteful cherry wood furniture, elegant vases full of fresh cut flowers, a huge painting of a bonsai tree on a hill at sunset covered one wall and a paper and wood partition stretched across one side of the room. It was a far cry from the cramped spaces in my own office.
I sat down on a chair across from her desk as she placed the steaming cup of tea before me. I picked up the cup and took a small sip. "Ya know, I wonder sometimes whether you actually have a stash of sorghum wine back here."
Lao smiled and sat down opposite of me. "Actually, Janice, I do. Would you like a bowl?"
I shook my head and put the teacup down. "Nah. Thanks, though. Curiosity just got the better of me, I guess."
"Now, how may I be of help, Janice?"
I pushed my fedora out of my eyes. "Was wonderin' if you heard of any new items showin' up at garage sales over the past few weeks? Any new neighbors movin' into town?"
In the privacy of Lao Ma O'Bannon's office, I knew I could speak as frankly and as freely as I wished. Double talk was never necessary in this hallowed space. But sometimes, it didn't hurt to be cautious.
Lao nodded sagely and indulged my need to be paranoid. "Any particular neighborhood?"
"Near the library."
A thoughtful silence enveloped the room. Lao took out a few papers from her desk drawer. "Yes, I seem to remember hearing rumors a few weeks back about something moving across the country."
I nodded as she continued.
"When I first heard about it, nothing seemed out of the ordinary, so I didn't think much of it. However--"
"However," I repeated.
"The way it was being moved seemed strange. Wasn't going through the normal circles. Library, you said?"
"And your clients? Can you vouch for them?"
"Yeah. They're legit. They just want the items back. No fuss, no muss."
She placed the papers before me. "Well, from what I had gathered from my contacts, it did make it all the way here. But it went deep underground and we lost track of it."
"Hard to say. Like I said, it was being moved in the most circumspect ways. If I didn't know that the items were hot, I woulda sworn it was a legit move." She tapped the papers in my hand. "You can have these -- all the info I've got on it."
"Lao, I couldn't possibly take--"
"Don't sweat it, kid. I've got the originals. Somehow, I knew you were gonna get involved with this sooner or later." She laughed at the look of confusion that crossed my face and motioned to the papers. "Read the rest of the file, Covington and you'll understand."
I got up and doffed my hat to her. "Thanks, Lao. I owe ya one."
She shook her head. "Not a problem, kiddo."
I moved to the door.
"And Covington--" I looked back to where she was sitting. "Watch your back on this one, huh? Something's not adding up."
The file contained information on the Pappas Institute, a detailed list of its activities concerning the sale and transport of Greek antiquities, as well as profiles of who had been associated with the Institute for the past 20 years. I called Mel a few days later and told her about the some of the info I had received from Lao Ma. She said that she was looking into some leads of her own and told me she was able to arrange a meeting with an old friend of hers who was teaching at the University of Southern California. I agreed to meet them both by the statue of Tommy Trojan at the main square of the campus that afternoon.
As I walked across the square, I spotted Mel right away. Her height and designer suit made her stand out like a light compared to the students scattered around the area. A tall, solidly built man with short brown hair stood with her. He looked familiar, but as I stopped before them, I couldn't for the life of me remember where I had seen him before. He turned and extended his hand in greeting.
"Well now, if it isn't the infamous Doctor Janice Covington. It's an honor to finally meet you. Melinda's told me so much about you."
We shook hands as I glanced at Mel. She sported a slight blush -- I wasn't sure which part embarrassed her more: this chump calling me infamous to my face or that he revealed that she had been discussing me to other people. Mel gestured to the brown-haired tree standing next to her. "Janice, this is John Finchley."
I felt my eyebrows shoot up like cheap window blinds. I knew that Mel had some connections in the archaeological community, but I didn't realize the scope of those connections. John Finchley was the most famous archaeologist on the planet. He was well respected among his colleagues and had done much to educate the public about the field. He even got his mug in Time Magazine when he became the youngest person to win a Nobel Prize in 1941. He was a legend, a god. I hid my astonishment by adjusting the hat on my head. "Hiya. Nice ta make yer acquaintance too."
The big lug gave us both a dopey grin as he gestured to one of the nearby buildings. "Ladies, let me take you to my office. We'll be more comfortable there."
For some reason, I was surprised how modest Finchley's office was. I guess knowin' how famous he was, how prestigious his accomplishments, I expected a palace. His office had a homey, down-to-earth feel to it. I felt less anxious about the situation as I sat next to Mel.
I thought a little small talk would give me more time to adjust and to feel my way through the circumstances. "So, how did you two meet?" I pushed my hat from my eyes as John sat across from us.
"Well, um." He glanced worriedly at Mel.
I turned to the woman sitting next to me. "Mel? Something wrong?"
Melinda broke eye contact with John and began to fiddle with the small purse on her lap. "No, Janice. Everything's fine." She looked back towards Professor Finchley. "John-- John and I were engaged, Janice."
I was dumbfounded and my voice cracked as I spoke, "To--to be married?"
John cleared his throat. "Yeah. It-- it was a long time ago, Janice. Before you and Melinda met. Years ago, when I was studying under Melinda's father -- we thought it would make the old man happy. We never went through it, of course."
Mel sat quietly as Finchley looked at me expectantly. It felt like he wanted me to forgive him, like they both wanted my forgiveness for some reason. I wondered what Mel had told him, wondered how well Mel and this John Finchley knew each other. Did he know about Mel, about me, about us? I decided to be neutral about the whole deal and not give away too much of what was racing through my mind.
"Well, it's nice to know that you're still friends even after all these years. Let's get down to business, shall we? Mel said you had some information?"
John let out a breath. He looked genuinely surprised and relieved at my reaction. It almost looked like he was expectin' me to pop him in the mouth after what he had revealed. I stole a glance at Mel. Her shoulders were less rigid, but other than that, any change in her demeanor was imperceptible. I sighed softly. I always had a difficult time readin' Mel. She was as much of an enigma now as she was when we first met.
John leaned back, his bearing more at ease that it was several minutes before. "About two days ago, I was contacted by a mutual acquaintance of Mel's and mine. She wanted me to asses a few pieces that were to be sold to a private collection -- very up and up -- general transactions from one private collection to another. You know, the usual. Nothing illegal. All the parties were reputable. I was supposed to make sure they were the genuine thing rather than fakes. During the course of the conversation, I found out that there were several pieces from the Pappas Institute. Again, nothing unusual. Private sales were nothing new. I got the manifest of what I was going to appraise this morning. One of the items caught my eye." He pushed a file that was on his desk toward me. "I knew that Melinda was in town and I gave her a call."
I looked over the file.
"The description on the manifest list seemed odd to me so I called Mel and asked about the pieces being sold this season by the Pappas Institute. I described what was in the manifest. I have reason to believe those are your missing Xena Scrolls, Janice."
I whistled softly as I put the file back on the desk. "Well, Mel, looks like you didn't need my services after all." I shook my head. "Case closed. Congrats, Doc Finchley. I hafta admit, I did have some solid leads, but there was something I couldn't quite put my finger on." I laughed softly. "Maybe ya should change your profession from professor to gumshoe." I got up and placed a hand on Mel's shoulder. She glanced up at me. "Don't worry 'bout my fee, sweetheart. Doris will probably have my hide, but I'll just take her out for a steak dinner and everythin' will be square." I extended my hand to John Finchley. "It was a pleasure, Doc. See ya in the funny papers."
Mel stood up as I turned to leave.
I turned back as John moved from his desk to stand next to Mel. They looked like a perfect couple, like some sorta Norman Rockwell cover come to life.
"I still need your help, Janice."
"I don't understand."
"The Institute doesn't want the theft of the scrolls to be known."
"Yeah. Ya told me that."
"As far as John knows, only he and the seller are aware of what's in that manifest. None of the buyers know what's to be sold on our side. As far as everyone is concerned, the scrolls are still in a vault back in New York. I -- John and I need you to--"
"You need me to help you steal the scrolls back before the sale."
John nodded enthusiastically. "Melinda figures that our mutual friend won't be able to let on that the scrolls were stolen without letting on that it was an illegal transaction in the first place. Everyone knows that the Institute would never let the scrolls go, private sale or no. They're much too valuable. She's just trying to pass them off as something else. She doesn't know that I'm familiar with the scrolls, that I can identify them on sight."
"But what about your mutual friend, as you call her. She seems bold enough to try to sell the scrolls in the first place. What makes you so sure she won't turn the tables and squeal?" I began to pace the room. "So . . . maybe things are getting a little too hot for your friend. She wants to get rid of the scrolls without the Institute knowin' about the sale . . . D'ya think she'd do a double cross? Bribe the Institute, wave it in their faces that she's got the scrolls? Maybe sell 'em back fake scrolls and keep the real ones for herself? Mel, you know that's impossible. You and I are the only ones who've studied the scrolls that extensively. I don't care how good a forger you are--"
Mel blocked my path and took hold of my shoulders. I looked up into her eyes. "Janice, the mutual friend we've been talking about--"
"It's Callie. Callista Hamilton."
I sat at a secluded corner of the Red Rose, a drink in my hand. I hadn't drunk a drop and wasn't sure how long I had been here. Time seemed to stop as I stared out into the semi-darkness of the club. To tell the truth, I wasn't sure how I got here. After the meeting with John Finchley and Mel, I went to a nearby phone booth and rang Doris at the office. I gave her the rest of the day off, hung up the phone, got in my car and started driving. I still felt numb. Everything happened so quickly. I couldn't breathe and the world felt like it was closing in on me.
Callista Hamilton. I never thought I would hear that name again. Goddamnit. I suspected that Mel wasn't aware of the kind of person Hamilton really was and she was shocked to learn that the eager young blonde who had followed her around the Institute like a love-sick puppy was capable of such deception. I knew better, of course, had warned Mel to keep an eye on the little tramp. She dismissed it, had said that Callista was just a naïve kid in need of guidance, that the blonde just had a harmless crush and that what she really needed was a role model. Since there were so few women in the male-dominated world of archaeology, it was natural for the gifted young Miss Hamilton to turn to us for guidance. I conceded to Mel's point at the time, but I knew Hamilton was a bad egg the moment I laid eyes on her. I was convinced that Callista's little crush on Mel was more than it seemed, that it was more like a dangerous obsession. I didn't tell Mel about what I thought of her young protégé. I figured Mel would laugh it off and joke that I wasn't exactly clearheaded when it came to anyone giving her more than just a passing glance. I had let it go. Mel did have a point. I was a bit nearsighted when it came to her, when it came to anyone looking over Mel with more than just a professional interest. But, there were other things that rubbed me the wrong way when it came to Callista Hamilton. I knew that she was somehow involved with a rash of petty thefts that happened around the Institute -- stolen watches, money, personal items and such, but I could never get the jump on her, never pin her down on any of it.
My hunch came true in the summer of 1944. I came close to finally getting the drop on her when she found out about it. I learned then that Hamilton was far more dangerous and manipulative than even I had suspected. She confronted me one hot July day, had insisted that she held something over Mel and me. I scoffed at her when she pulled out a stack of photos that made it abundantly clear that my relationship with Melinda Pappas went beyond friendship and common scholarly interest. She threatened to go public with the information, not only go to the Board of Directors of the Institute, but also to the press. The scandal would have tarnished the Institute's reputation and would have destroyed Mel's blossoming career. The little bitch had me over a barrel. I coulda cared less about what happened to the Institute or to me, but Mel . . .I couldn't let Mel's whole life go down the drain. I agreed to her demands and left everything behind me one month later. I did have one last hurrah, one tiny ounce of revenge before I willingly left the life I had come to cherish and the woman I loved more than my life: I managed to get the brilliant young protégé transferred to Chicago. It was all that I could do with what little power I had left -- I was able to get the little harpy as far away from Mel as possible under the circumstances.
Now it had come full circle. Callista Hamilton was back in my life, was back in our lives. I threw back the drink in my hand, enjoying the burn of the whiskey down my throat. A figure stopped in front of my table.
"Ya know, Janice, Baby Face Pete was right. At a certain angle, you can pass for a really good lookin' man."
I snorted as the woman sat down across from me. She gently manipulated the glass from my hand and put a full tumbler in front of me. "Did ya know that Pete had the hots for ya until he found out you were a girl?" She chortled. "Shoulda seen his face. Funniest thing I ever saw in my life."
I glanced up from the drink in my hand. "Ya know Meg, from a certain angle--" I blew a frustrated breath. My head felt kinda fuzzy. "Have ya ever considered dyein' yer hair black and wearing glasses?" God. Did I say that out loud? What the hell was in that drink?
Meg Malloy laughed and ran a hand through her reddish-brown locks. "Are ya nuts, Covington? Ya know the ol' sayin' . . . Girls don't make passes at girls who wear glasses."
"I would." I mumbled into the tumbler as I took another sip.
Meg placed her hand against mine and peered at me. "Huh? 'Sides, it's bad for business if I look too cerebral, although there are a few jokers who come in here and are into that sorta thing. Eh. Takes all kinds, I guess. Hey, are ya all right? Ya know, Janice, I never went for this whole 'tough gal private dick' act of yours. Ya ain't as tough as ya want others to believe."
I snorted again.
"And you're not much of a drinker, besides. Are ya sure yer okay?"
"Yeah, Meg. I'm fine. Tough day, is all."
"All right." Meg looked up at someone who was behind me. She nodded and stood up. "I'll see ya later, Covington."
I nodded my head as she moved away. I heard her say, 'take care of her' to whoever it was that was behind me. For a split second, even in my semi-drunk state, my teeth went on edge and I began to reach for the gun that was hidden under my jacket. Whoever it was sat down in front of me and I relaxed as I recognized the boyish grin hidden underneath the worn brown fedora.
"Hiya, Mike." I raised a glass to my old friend and took a sip. "Finally decided to play for our team, eh? Congratulations." I grinned.
Mike blushed. "I was worried about ya, Covington."
Good ol' Detective Michael Hunter. I first met Mike on an army transport that was headin' out of Europe and was bound for England. As the plane made its final descent into London, it came under enemy fire. We both managed to get outta that situation alive, me with bruises and a few broken ribs, while Mike sustained gunshots to his right leg and arm. His army days were finished and we had lost track of each other until I arrived in LA. The years had been good to him. He had risen through the ranks of the LAPD to become a detective, the remnants of that fiery landing leaving nothing more than scars and what he described as a 'tingly' feeling in his right leg and arm when it rained. Over the years, we had gotten each other out of more scrapes than I could count. He was my best friend and I trusted him with my life.
"Nothin' ta worry 'bout. Just sittin' here quiet, sippin' whiskey."
"Doris sounded awful worried on the phone and when I met your friend--"
"Doris?" I pushed my hat from my eyes. "Doris worries too much, mistakes herself to be my mother rather than my secretary. Anyway, you know I can take care of myself, Mikey. I'm a big girl--What friend?"
Mike motioned someone over from the door. Even before his companion arrived at my table, I knew who it was and I was furious.
"Mike, why the hell did you bring her to a place like this? How could you, knowin' she's a lady. Sonofabitch." I threw my hat down on the table in disgust.
Mike raised his hands and tried to reassure me. "Watch yer temper, kid. I warned her, told her that this place was no place for a lady like her. She -- she insisted, Janice. She's pretty damn stubborn."
"Yeah, tell me about it." I said from behind my teeth. I took another sip of my drink.
Mike looked up and then leaned forward and began to speak in an earnest, heartfelt tone. "Listen to me, Covington. We've always been square with each other, right?"
"Then take my advice, kid, she's special, this Mel of yours. Don't let her go, no matter what, huh? Don't let her go, not again."
He got up and doffed his hat toward Mel who was now standing before my table. I heard him say his goodbyes. Mel sat down on the seat Mike had vacated only seconds before. I lifted my glass from the table when Mel gently placed her hand against mine, effective stopping me from taking a drink.
"What are you doing here, Mel? Someone like you shouldn't be in a place like this."
"Janice, do you think being here shocks me?"
I looked at her with surprise. "It should." I laughed derisively. "Bein' seen in an establishment like this, even with a clientele as exclusive as this one, can ruin your reputation, Miss Pappas. There are people in the world who can take advantage of information like that. I know what I'm talkin' about."
"Janice," I felt her fingers splay against mine. "Do you think I gave a damn about my reputation when I went off to Macedonia?"
I blinked uncomprehendingly. I had never heard Mel swear before. Her fingers gripped tightly around mine.
"Do you think I cared about my reputation when I hit Eli Josef after he tried to proposition you? Or when I came into your bedroom that night?"
That got my attention. I looked up. "Watch what you're sayin', sweetheart. You'll ruin both our reputations for sayin' things like that."
I couldn't let this happen again, couldn't let us happen again, not while there were still people like Callista Hamilton in the world. I couldn't let Mel toss her life away, not for the likes of me. I had to keep things on the square, to keep our reunion on a strictly business level, despite the fact that seeing her, being near her, knowing she was here, was eating me alive, was driving me crazy.
"Don't worry about the case, Mel. I'll be there like I said. I'll get Meg to call ya a cab." I moved to leave.
"Janice, I know about Callista Hamilton, about what happened in 1944."
I sat back, shocked into sobriety. "How? When?"
Melinda gently pried my fingers loose from the death grip I had on the half-empty tumbler. She picked it up and in one swallow, downed the remainder of the amber liquid. She put the glass down. "A few months ago, Callista came to New York and contacted me. She tried to bribe me with those photographs. I was shocked, then angry. I learned about what happened three years earlier, that she had done the same thing to you. When I went to confront her again, she disappeared. A few days later, the Board gave me the news that the Xena Scrolls had been stolen and that's when I started trying to track you down, Janice. When I first found out about everything, I wasn't sure who I was angrier with: Callista for doing this to us or you for letting her do this to us. . . Damn you, Janice Covington."
I reached out to touch her cheek, wanting desperately to apologize, wanting to do anything to make her understand. "Mel--"
She pushed my hand away. "Why didn't you tell me, Janice? Why didn't you come to me with it? It concerned us, Janice, the both of us. How could you, how dare you decide to throw away what we had, to let that little hussy come between us, to ruin our lives, without letting me know. I could have helped you, Janice. We could have dealt with it together."
Mel's eyes blazed with a mixture of hurt, anger, and a fierce tenderness that I hadn't seen since that day in Macedonia when Xena's spirit had taken over her. I had always associated that look, that fierceness with Xena. I thought the deadly calm of the Warrior Princess was alien to Mel, a thing altogether separate from who she was. I knew now that I was wrong, that Mel was tougher than I gave her credit for. But it was too late. I had realized it three years too late and I knew that it was completely and finally over.
A numbness came over me. "You're right, Mel. I'm sorry, I shoulda told ya." I stood up. "I'd better go."
"Oh no you don't."
Mel stood up and grabbed me by the shoulders. "You're not running away from me again, Janice Covington. The last three years have been a living nightmare for me. I -- I thought I drove you away, Janice. I thought that I was pushing you too much -- if I hadn't insisted that you try and work out your differences with the Institute, that if I hadn't been so -- so pushy when it came to getting you to finally take your rightful place in the archaeological community. . . "
"Mel -- Mel it was never about that. I always felt like an outsider, Mel. It was never about you. I was Harry 'The Grave Robber' Covington's daughter. I expected that I wouldn't be welcomed with open arms. I--"
Mel caressed my cheek. "What?"
"I--I didn't want that for you, Mel."
"You were all I ever wanted, Janice."
I closed my eyes. The last thing I expected was forgiveness, acceptance, love -- not again, not after everything that had happened, not after all the time that had passed.
I opened my eyes and looked into Mel's face. "Yeah, sweetheart?"
"Let's get out of here."
I woke up to the sound of humming and the most beautiful sight in the world: Mel's long dark hair was splayed out against my chest as her hands drew lazy patterns against my skin. I shivered with the feel of it, with the press of emotions that came flooding with the morning.
Mel raised her head as a soft smile blossomed on her features. "Did I wake you?"
I shook my head.
She placed her head on my stomach and smiled. "D' you want breakfast? I think I hear the beast rumblin'."
I laughed. "No, I think I'm fine for now, Mel."
"Mmm. Good. I don't want to move from this spot for quite awhile."
I smiled. "Same here."
She began to softly caress the width of my abdomen, her hand stopping at a spot below the left side of my ribs. Her fingers gently stroked the scarred skin. I winced inadvertently, the touch bringing back unpleasant memories. "Janice?"
I placed my hand against hers, moving her probing fingers away from the marred length of skin. I swallowed. "Yeah, sweetheart."
"Did you get this from that Cesar job?"
"Who told you about that?"
Mel sat up. "Janice, is it true-- what Mike said, that you almost--"
"Died? Yeah, Mel. I came awful close."
I sat up as Mel buried her head in her hands, her shoulders suddenly shaking. I took hold of her hands and cradled them in my own. "Mel, Mel sweetheart. It's -- It's okay. I'm okay, see?" I pulled back a little and Mel enveloped me in a fierce hug.
"Oh God, Janice, I almost lost you. You almost died and I-- I wasn't --"
"Sshh." I spoke softly into her hair. "Sshh. It's all right, sweetheart. I'm okay. You know me, more lives than an alley cat. I've alive, Mel. Everything's all right. We're together. It's okay now." I pulled away and began to wipe the tears streaming from her eyes with my thumbs. I placed kisses on her forehead, her eyes, her cheeks, her mouth, as I whispered that everything was all right. And it was all right. No matter what happened from now on, I knew that everything would be all right as long as Mel was with me.
Mel smiled through her tears. "You must think that I'm such a silly fool."
I shook my head. "No, Mel, never and I'll pop anyone in the kisser who disagrees with me."
That got a laugh out of her. I felt higher than a kite. She pulled me to her mouth. "You're incorrigible."
I grinned. "Yes, ma'am."
She gave me a kiss that woulda knocked the socks off of me . . . had I been wearin' socks at the time.
A few hours later, I contacted John Finchley and asked him to get in contact with Callista. He was to tell her that based on the manifest that she had mailed to him, he, along with a colleague of his, was interested in buying some of the pieces ahead of the buyers. The colleague was willing to pay cash, if necessary, if Callista would only agree to the private sale. I would sneak in and take the Xena Scrolls while John and the colleague were distracting Callista.
I called Mike and explained the situation. I learned that the police had been looking for the elusive Miss Hamilton for quite awhile. It seems that she had moved on to bigger things in Chicago and was wanted on several counts of fraud and grand theft. About a year or so ago, the Institute had quietly let her go after a few incidents. The Chicago cops were hot on her trail a few days after she was dismissed when she suddenly disappeared. Apparently, she was riding on her old contacts and the reputation of the Institute as a cover in the sale of illegal antiquities. The plan was perfect and was the best thing for all those involved -- the police would nab Callista and the Institute would get the scrolls back with as little attention as possible. He agreed and we began to coordinate the details of the operation.
Things were going well. I had managed to sneak into the warehouse where the private sale would take place. I watched as John and Mike (who was undercover as the "colleague") had taken a tour of the items Callista was putting up for sale. Beforehand, John and I agreed to a signal that he would give when he confirmed the authenticity of the scrolls. He coughed twice and cleared his throat as he placed the scrolls back on the crate where several other items were on display. Jackpot. It was the real deal. As they moved to another area of the warehouse to dot the i's and cross the t's of the "sale" -- the final bit that Mike needed to make the arrest -- I moved in to grab the scrolls.
I had just put the Xena scrolls in my pack when Callista came waltzing out of the office and spotted me. She screamed when she saw me and pulled out a gun from her coat pocket. I cursed. She fired a shot and I barely managed to duck behind one of the nearby crates.
"Covington! Come out here and face me, you fuckin' bitch!"
I pulled out my .45 and took a look back to see where she was. "D' ya kiss yer mother with that mouth, Callista?"
She laughed maniacally.
I heard two quick shots and a body falling. Jesus H. Christ. "John! Mike!" I moved from behind the crate and saw Mike sprawled on top of John. "Mike? Ya okay?"
"Yeah." Mike pulled out his gun and had closed his hand on John Finchley's mouth. "Stay down and shut up. Don't be a hero, okay?" John nodded his head vigorously. Mike looked back up to where I was. "You all right, Janice?"
"Fine and dandy." I said. I looked around. "Hey, Mikey."
Mike was scanning the warehouse for movement. "Yeah?"
A grin tugged on the corners of my mouth. "I knew you played for our side. You two make a cute couple."
"Covington," he barked, "God, I swear, when we get outta this, I'm gonna--"
"You're gonna what?"
I turned when I heard a click. I came face to face with a barrel of a .45 pointed at my head.
"He's gonna put a dozen roses on your grave every year on the anniversary of your death."
"Callista." I looked into her crazed brown eyes. "Nice ta see ya again. Still just a no good, two-bit thief, I see." I shook my head in dismay. "And you had such potential."
A sneer tore across her face. "I'm going to enjoy killing you, Covington."
I sneered back. "Not half as much as she's gonna enjoy bashin' yer noggin' in," I said as the figure behind Callista hit her on the head with a large bronze drinking cup. Callista fell to the floor with a thud. I looked up into the eyes of my savior. "Hiya Mel." She smiled. I heard Mike and John come up from behind me.
"Yes, John?" Mel said without taking her eyes from me.
"My dear, uh-"
I turned around to see what Finchley was stammerin' at. He pointed to Mel's impromptu bat.
An elegant eyebrow rose from behind Mel's glasses as she tossed the damaged Greek drinking cup into John's hands. "It's a fake, Johnny."
"Oh, thank heaven." A look of pure relief flooded across John's face.
I looked down to see Mike place the still unconscious Callista in handcuffs. "I hope Mel didn't kill her." I said dryly.
A huge grin etched across Mike Hunter's face as he checked the blonde's pulse. "Nope. Unfortunately, she's still alive." He pulled out a walkie-talkie from his jacket and radioed in the collar.
I took Mel's hand in mine as we walked out of the warehouse.
"Well, ladies," John put his arms around both of us, "It's much too late for a nightcap, but just early enough for breakfast. The Café Ambrosia's open twenty-four hours. Would you care to join me for a plate of eggs?"
Mel and I smiled at one another. "Sure, Professor Finchley," I said as I opened my car door for the woman I knew I would spend the rest of my life with. "We would love to join you for breakfast."
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