DISCLAIMER: All XWP characters are copyright so-and-so by what’s-his -face. No copyright infringement intended and no profit gained. The story is mine, so think twice about plagiarizing.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
The Secret Histories
By Vivian Darkbloom
PART I: THE SWIMMING POOL HEROINE
London, August 1945
Whatever daylight existed in the room was dying, due to a sudden summer storm, yet her perverse stubbornness—which came to her, quite honestly, down through the generations—prevented her from turning on a reading light. This is how you ruined your eyes, my dear, her father had scolded her many years ago, catching her poring over a book in very similar circumstances. But it wasn't that Melinda Pappas was so utterly engrossed in learning more about the mystery cult of Mithras; rather, she needed something to pass the time while she waited for her companion, Janice Covington, to return from her duties as a driver for the U.S. military. The room was Mel's "home"—if one could call a hotel room home, she thought. Her Mecklenburgh Street flat, where she had lived since coming to London last year, had finally succumbed to one of the Germans' final air raids, and she quickly secured accommodations at Grosvenor House, overlooking Hyde Park. I might as well stop pretending that I don't have any money, she had thought. She had enjoyed the stunned look on Janice's face when the archaeologist—who had spent a lifetime in dives, flophouses, tents, digs, and currently a narrow bed in a military barracks—first entered the suite and dropped her rucksack on the floor in disbelief.
She heard a familiar clucking noise above her, and realized she would hear a chastisement from the gentleman nearby. Colonel Anton Frobisher, her father's best friend, stood over her, dapper as usual in his British uniform. Frobisher had come over to her room at the Grosvenor House to have tea with her and Janice, saying that he needed to discuss something with them. The call from Frobisher had not exactly been urgent, but something steely in the old man's voice convinced Mel that it was serious.
"You'll ruin your sight, Melinda, if you keep that up," he growled pleasantly. Deja vu.
"My eyes are already ruined," she retorted with a fond smile, unconsciously touching her glasses.
He snorted. "When are those bloody American fools—no offense, dear child—going to let her off duty? I'm feeling rather peckish." It was past tea time, and the old man, having loitered in the room with Mel for almost an hour, was rather set in his ways.
"Well, they've been discharging people right and left. Those folks left in the army must be working overtime," Mel commented by way of excuse for her late friend. With the war officially over, many American soldiers and military personnel were given their papers and being sent home. Janice, who had spent over a year as a WAC, had not yet received her discharge, but anticipated release from the army any day now. Mel too looked forward to it, although it left her with a sense of unease as well.
It would be, she knew, a period of adjustment. Their respective duties kept them both so occupied—Janice as a driver, Mel as a translator—that they barely had time for the frantic lovemaking that frequently occurred in Mel's hotel room, let alone time to think of the future. But the thoughts had intruded upon her this morning, as she cradled the sleeping archaeologist in her arms. So what happens now? she had thought, a hand idly stroking Janice's back. Do we roam the world as our ancestors did? Where do we live? New York? North Carolina? Do we even take it to that level right away? This isn't like getting engaged to Joshua Davis. There are no rules here. And, the scholar admitted, that was more than a little frightening to her—or, more precisely, it threatened the ordered, stable, self-contained world she had lived in all her life. At the same time she almost hated leaving London, where she and Janice had renewed their affair; the great gray city, too old and stubborn to be obliterated by bombing, held this sentimental value for her. And she definitely hated leaving Anton, the man who turned out to be a guardian angel for her, since he proved crucial in reuniting her with Janice. I guess I am as set in my ways as Anton is, she thought with a self-deprecating smile, putting the book aside. She stood up and patted his arm. "I'll have them send up tea," she said, and went over to the phone.
The fact that they would probably leave soon for the States was unspoken between Mel and Anton; she had grown closer to the old man, a man who—she was surprised to discover, through his vague allusions—had been in love with her father. No wonder Daddy was so understanding about me, she thought. She knew she reminded Anton of her father, and that it afforded him both pleasure and pain at the same time. And she knew her departure would be hard for him. Hard for them both.
Having placed the request for tea, she hung up the phone and watched him stare moodily out the large window at the overcast skies over Hyde Park, while absently stroking his neatly trimmed gray mustache. Obviously, something bothered him.
"Are you sure you want to wait for Janice?" She walked over and gently tugged his uniform's sleeve. "Why don't you start telling me what you came here for?"
He smiled, a little sadly. "I will, Melinda. But I don't think I'll have too wait much longer." Mel followed his glance toward the door.
A key jangled in the lock, and the door opened. Only one other person had the key to this room—and to her. With a leather jacket draped over one arm and a cigarette dangling between her lips, Janice Covington sauntered into the room, filling the space with her particular energy, its sexual component conveyed in the swagger of her hips….Mel sighed. She's one part John Garfield, one part Carole Lombard, thought the Southerner.
"Jesus fucking Christ" was the first thing out of Janice Covington's mouth.
The Colonel turned pale.
"A more traditional greeting would be something along the lines of 'Hello, ' " Mel remarked sarcastically.
"Oh, yeah. Hi." Janice dropped her jacket on a chair, where it promptly slid to the floor.
She ignored it. "I had a hell of a day. I had to drive this Belgian bastard—a goddamn major or something—all over greater London just so he could find some rare blend of tea—"
Another knock at the door announced the arrival of..."Tea!" cried the Colonel.
"Yeah, that's what I said," Janice remarked, looking at him as if he were prematurely senile.
"No, they've sent up tea, honey…" Mel began, heading for the door.
"With honey? I like honey."
"Never mind. Just sit down and behave yourself."
"What the hell did I do?" protested Janice, who nonetheless sat down.
The elegant silver tea service was wheeled in and quickly laid out for them on the table in front of the picture window.
With a generous tip from Mel the waiter exited, and the women sat down with the Colonel. Janice flopped down in a chair and hastily shoved a cucumber sandwich in her mouth. As she brutally masticated the crustless triangle, she snatched the cream dispenser and promptly drowned Earl Grey in a river of bland white liquid, and then drove the nail in the coffin of the tea's fragile flavor with three large lumps of sugar. All of this occurred under the horrified watch of Frobisher; Mel, used to the spectacle of Janice eating, merely allowed her tea cup to hover over her mouth for a slightly longer than intended to cover her amusement.
Janice felt the old man's eyes on her. "What?" she said, grabbing another tea sandwich.
He was speechless. His head wavered a little in disbelief.
"You'll have to forgive her, Uncle Anton," Mel said airily, "she did live in New York City for an extended period of time."
"Oh great," Janice grunted, slurping some tea, "the forces of prissiness, a Southern lady and a British gentleman, descend upon me." She popped another sandwich in her mouth. "So what's new?" she addressed Anton.
"We're about to find out," Mel said. They turned their attention to the Colonel.
"Ah, yes. Melinda, I'm afraid you've been headhunted," Anton said.
"Pardon me?" murmured Mel.
"Can't blame them. It's a pretty little head," Janice threw in, all the while wondering what the hell was going on.
"I have been contacted by an official from the OSS. An old classmate of yours, I believe...." Anton trailed off.
Mel froze with apprehension, which was not lost on the woman who sat across from her. "Who?" she asked, defensively. Oh God no…it can't be.
"Catherine Stoller." Oh God yes. "You remember her?" Frobisher asked.
Mel nodded. She said nothing. Janice, however, asked, "Who's Catherine Stoller?"
Mel carefully lowered the teacup, momentarily grateful that her hands weren't shaking at the mention of this woman's name. "Precisely what the Colonel said. She was at Cambridge during the year I studied there. We were…acquainted."
Ah, the telltale pause before that word, thought Janice. With Mel, she was discovering, the silences sometimes spoke as clearly as the words.
"Righto," the Colonel affirmed. "Catherine was an OSS operative during the war. Working in Berlin. I can't disclose what she was doing, but suffice it to say her mission is over, and she's back in London." He cleared his throat and sipped his tea.
"What does this have to do with us?" Mel ran a finger around the rim of her teacup.
He sighed. "Catherine was sent to me by her commander, the head of operations in London. She's looking to recruit bodies for the Monuments operation."
"Monuments?" Janice echoed. "That's a whole other ballgame, separate from OSS. Why is she doing the Monument men's work?"
"Remind me again," Mel interrupted, "who are the 'Monuments men'?"
"The MFAA. Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives," Janice supplied. "And the OSS is the Office of Strategic Services, in case you forgot, sweetheart," she added with a teasing grin, knowing Mel's aversion to and confusion in the militaristic realm of acronyms.
"Catherine's work now involves the Art Looting Investigation Unit, under the auspices of the OSS. The aim of the unit is to trace monetary assets and ensure that these finances are not falling in the hands of the Germans. At the same time they compile evidence for the prosecution of war crimes. They've been working closely with the MFAA in this respect. Since the Monuments men have been so generous in sharing their information, they've asked, in return, that OSS donate the services of some of their agents, or at least assist in finding some new personnel."
"Lemme guess…" Janice began.
Frobisher sighed yet again. "Yes, Catherine wants Melinda to work for them. I had to supply Catherine with a list of all my civilian staff. They're calling in a favor from me, you see. Of course, she recognized Melinda's name right away and immediately wanted her."
Mel stared into the shallow depths of her tea. "Well, that's just too bad. I'm not going anywhere," she stated defiantly. She looked at Anton. "They can't force me to go, can they?"
"No, of course not. You're an American, and non-military personnel to boot."
"Mel," Janice piped up, "are you sure you don't want to go? You don't even know what they want you to do yet. Or where they want you to go. It might be interesting. Or fun."
"Janice Covington, I can't imagine that anything associated with this war could be 'fun,' " her companion retorted.
Janice grinned, which made Mel all the more irritated. I love it when she gets all haughty, thought the archaeologist. "But look," she said, "maybe I could go with you. I could try to get transferred to wherever they might send you."
The Colonel smiled grimly. "The Yanks aren't too keen on handing over any of their military personnel for this, Janice. However, if you were persistent in your request, I’m sure they'd let you go wherever Melinda was sent—they wouldn't want to make a stink over it." He sipped the tea. "In fact, I'm rather surprised the Americans haven't put you in this line of work sooner. You would be a most valuable asset with your particular background."
Janice shrugged. "Who knows. I made no secret of my background. But it wasn't why I joined up in the first place."
The question why she had joined up in the first place was one that was perplexing to the Colonel. He suspected it had less to do with patriotic duty than with something else...probably something the scrappy little corporal would be reluctant to admit.
Mel looked nervously across the table at Janice, who had lit yet another cigarette. Cigars were still hard to come by in postwar London, and Janice had grown used to the substitution of cigarettes. A scrim of smoke rose in front of her young companion's face, making it even more inscrutable to Mel. Are we ready for this? she thought.
A silence descended upon the group. Frobisher nibbled at a sandwich. Mel continued to stare into her tea. Janice smoked. Then the young archaeologist broke the silence. "Hell," she drawled with typical Covington bravado, "it couldn't be that difficult, could it? The war is over."
"Europe isn't exactly a playground right now, Janice," Mel responded, a little more sharply than she intended. "The war is over, officially, but everywhere, everyone is…torn to bits." Even you, my darling.
Janice knew what her lover was communicating in her quiet way. Ever since her return to London, nightmares of what happened in France were a regular occurrence: Blaylock's death, the blood, the near-misses, the broken bodies…. Even more horrific were the dreams about the soldier. The variations were endless: Sometimes the soldier shoots Mel instead of Blaylock. Sometimes Janice shoots him and stabs him with a bayonet, over and over, her rage incomprehensible, her guilt palpable. Sometimes she looks into the dead eyes of the soldier, and those eyes are as blue as Mel's, and suddenly the dead man is Mel. I have put her through hell, and myself as well, thought Janice. So why am I tempted to run back there, and risk it all again? Well, Anton's right, at least we could be together this time.
"See here," added the Colonel, "both of you would be perfectly within your rights to reject this assignment; you're both Americans, and Melinda isn't even military personnel. All I ask is that you meet with Catherine and I tomorrow, and then make your decision."
"Fair enough," Janice replied cautiously. "What do you think, Mel?"
"I don't see that it would hurt," murmured Mel. Knowing that it was likely it would hurt, in the long run, that it might lead to something more painful than she was prepared to deal with. She had a bad feeling about this.
After the Colonel left, Mel made a pretense of examining the notes she had made on the book (Mystery Cults of the Ancient World) that she had been reading. Janice poured bourbon. It was almost amusing to watch Mel try to ignore her. Okay, here comes the interrogation room scene. "So," drawled the petite archaeologist, "are you gonna tell me anything about this Catherine Stoller?"
"What's to tell?" Mel asked, defensively. She stacked and re-stacked the small piles of books on the mahogany desk. I almost wish they wouldn't clean the rooms, so I'd have something to do now, she thought, as she scanned the immaculate area. Nervous energy jangled through her long body. "We were friends at Cambridge." She idly flipped through the bound journal containing her notes.
In contrast, Janice lounged comfortably on the couch, sipping her drink. The golden liquid that swirled below her in the glass enhanced the deep green of her eyes. Carefully she sat her glass down on the table in front of her and leaned forward, forearms resting on her legs, fingers interlaced. "Mel," she began gently.
"Hmmm?" The Southerner pretended to be distracted by her notes.
"Look, you acted a little funny when the Colonel mentioned her name. Were you…I mean, were you close to her?" Some loose papers slipped from the journal and sailed to the floor. Hastily Mel knelt to retrieve them, and Janice walked over to her, kneeling beside her. "I mean," she said, handing Mel the sheets, "it's okay...I just want you to be honest with me. We all have a past..."
"Some of us more than others," she responded impulsively, and instantly regretting it. That was definitely below the belt, as Daddy would put it. Mel was quite aware of Janice's past in this respect, having met the intriguing sociopath Mary Jane Velasko, with whom Janice had lived, however briefly, in New York; not to mention her suspicions that Janice had bedded someone named Meg during the war. Janice knew that Mel had met Mary Jane, but the scholar had not confronted her companion with her knowledge about Meg. Part of her hoped that Janice would mention it. Another part hoped otherwise.
"What the hell does that mean?" Janice growled as she stood up.
"Nothing, forget it," Mel said quickly. "I guess…I'm trying to change the subject." With a sigh she removed her glasses and rubbed her eyes. "All right. Catherine and I were involved."
"Huh," Janice muttered, trying to hide her surprise. I was expecting the admission of some platonic-like crush, actually. "Was she your first?"
Mel nodded. "I haven't been with anyone since...well, until you."
The archaeologist blinked. "Wow. I guess I thought...I mean..." I thought I was the only woman you ever slept with.
Mel started to blush, and her stammer, which asserted itself when she was very nervous, kicked in. "S-surely, Janice, you c-could tell I wasn't...you know..."
"A virgin?" Janice supplied. Definitely, yes. She recalled the pleasant surprise of the first time they made love, when she realized she had an experienced lover on her hands (so to speak) and not a naïve, virginal Southern belle. Not that it had meant that much to her. I would've been more than happy to be the first one. But how I misjudge you at times, Melinda.
"Yes," Mel mumbled in response, clearly embarrassed. Her Methodist upbringing had precluded any explicit talk of sexual matters; despite her father's tolerant and open nature in that area, the child spent a lot of time in the company of prudish relatives, conservative schoolteachers, and restrained, repressed churchgoers. Janice knew this, but this prim, almost guilty behavior contrasted sharply with the brunette bombshell that inhabited her bed and displayed an uninhibited passion that easily met her own.
"Well, yeah, I could tell, but I thought the magnolia blossom of your Southern ladyhood was captured by that fiancé of yours." Janice sarcastically employed the euphemisms. She should just be glad I didn't say "I thought that Joshua bastard popped your cherry." That's the way Harry would've put it.
"You mean Joshua?" Mel said, incredulous. "Joshua was a gentleman, Janice. He would never have taken advantage of me." She blushed furiously, recalling that there were several times when he came close to doing so; he was nothing if not persistent. "Besides, we only engaged to be engaged," she sniffed. Then blinked in confusion. "I think."
"Okay, so you're saying Joshua was a gentleman and Catherine was not. And I guess neither am I…I thought that was kinda obvious, despite the clothing…."
"Oh, I don't know what I mean," moaned the black-haired beauty. "I...I don't go to bed with just anyone, Janice. Love has to be involved somehow. That's just the way I am. And I must admit, I never loved Joshua in quite that way. But...I was in love with Catherine." She released a breath. She had admitted it.
"In love," Janice echoed. She was not prepared for the full frontal assault of jealous anger that spread through her. Hands on hips, she wandered away from Mel to gaze out the window, hoping for an opportunity to get a grip on the unpleasant sensation. You fucking hypocrite, she berated herself angrily. You've fallen into bed with any number of women for no other reason that sheer pleasure. So what if she slept with someone else before you? She gazed out onto the green of the park; summer was dying, but in a very verdant, brilliant way. She knew the real reason why she felt this way. I have never been in love with anyone except you, Mel. No one even comes close. I couldn't even pretend. Before you, lovemaking never really had anything to do with love.
"You wanted me to be honest. But it's all in the past," Mel replied quickly, quietly.
The past. Janice drew a breath and held it. Didn't she, as an archaeologist, know all about the past? What did it mean to have a history? Didn't we all? What could she believe was important, what could she discount? About Mel, or anyone else for that matter? I'm getting way ahead of myself here. This is only the personal history of one woman. Albeit the one who means more to me than all the scrolls, buried and uncovered, in the world. She felt Mel's hands resting gently on her shoulders. She exhaled. She turned around to face the tall woman, and then she reached up and let her fingers lazily trace the smooth planes of Mel's cheekbones. And would she still love me if she truly knew what a slut I've been? Enough. Don't torture yourself. But the resentment lingered. How dare she love anyone else. Her hand cradled Mel's neck, the soft skin blanketing the life force—blood, muscle, bone—below it.
"You know that, don’t you? And I love you now," Mel concluded. Her dark head bent down to meet Janice's lips. The kiss started out as a soft nip, almost chaste, and then took its usual course: it grew wetter, bolder, warmer. Janice steered her tall companion over to the bed. With skilled and gentle forcefulness she pulled Mel down on the bed; a gasp from the taller woman tickled her ear and she pressed her body atop Mel's, her gold hair falling down and brushing against Mel's face. A sliding hand trespassed the boundary of a skirt.
"You belong to me. I love you," Janice whispered into Mel's ear. "Don't forget that, or I am lost." What am I saying, she chastised herself. I sound desperate, and possessive, and…it’s true. It's all true.
Mel too, knew the truth within the words; but she said nothing. She let a world of sensation take over as she gripped Janice's back, smooth and rippling under the fabric of her shirt, and felt lips and caresses work a spell upon her, a gold gossamer web of hair against her lips. The dark music of jealousy played itself out among the moans and gentle cries, and the soft rustling of falling clothes.
The Tube stopped a mere two blocks from Frobisher's office. As Janice and Mel emerged from the underground that morning, the sun temporarily blinded both of them. Janice had been unusually quiet during the trip—no cursing of the late train, no anecdotes about her fellow drivers, no impromptu musings about the scrolls. Mel was content to let her brood—obviously she needed to think some things out before the meeting. But as they walked the short distance to the office, the Southerner could tell that Janice wanted to say something.
And so she did.
"Tell me she's ugly, Mel."
Mel turned to her in surprise. "What?"
"Tell me how ugly this woman is. Tell me how she would frighten small children. Tell me you always closed your eyes when you kissed her. Tell me her ankles are thicker than Sergeant McKay's."
Mel laughed. "All right. She makes Churchill look like Greta Garbo."
They arrived at the door of the building. Janice turned to her lover and arched an eyebrow. "Now tell me why you put on lipstick this morning," she said quietly.
Mel froze. During her existence in London she had all but forsaken makeup; not that she had ever used a lot of it. There was no time, usually, and it had all come to the point where she really didn't give a damn how she looked, so long as Janice found her attractive. Of course, you fool, she would notice. She was not sure, consciously, why she did it. Was it because she wanted to look good for Catherine? To make her jealous? To make Janice jealous? To show Catherine that she was still beautiful, and abundantly happy without her? Her mouth hung open, but before she could attempt any sort of reply, Frobisher's assistant, Sergeant McKay, appeared at the foot of the steps.
"Good morning, ladies. The Colonel is expecting you. Can I get you some tea?"
"No," both women muttered in unison. They climbed the stairs silently. McKay followed them. When they reached the office door he jogged ahead of them, like a bear running a low-level obstacle course, and opened the door for them.
Frobisher sat at his desk and stood up when they entered. A woman stood at the window, her back to them. She turned slowly. She was not nearly as tall as Mel, but very slender and dressed in an expensive-looking, wine-colored suit. Her curly, white blonde hair was pulled back from her face, and her dark brown eyes were intense, almost hard. Janice sighed inwardly. Not exactly my type, but she's attractive. Okay, goddammit, she's beautiful. She felt her own features harden when she noticed that the blonde's attention, her gaze—in fact, her whole being—seemed centered on Mel. Before the Colonel could dispense introductions, the woman walked over to them and clasped Mel's hands between her own.
"Melinda," she said softly. "My God, it's been years." Her accent was strange; not exactly British…perhaps slightly German? Janice wondered.
"Yes, Catherine. It's been quite a while," Mel concurred by way of greeting. The Southern scholar looked into the dark eyes. Once upon a time, I felt something for her. I loved her. But it's not there anymore…I don't feel it. A sense of relief came over her; immediately it relaxed her, and she grinned fully at Catherine, without regard to the effect it had on Janice. "Let me introduce my friend, Dr. Janice Covington. Janice, this is Catherine Stoller."
Catherine allowed her eyes to linger on Mel for a few seconds before reluctantly wrenching them away to Janice. The blonde beauty raised a critical eyebrow as she took in the form of Janice, clad in rumpled khakis and boots. But her tone was polite. "Dr. Covington, I'm very honored to meet you. I have heard much of your work. And your father's as well."
Mel winced slightly, knowing that Harry was a touchy subject for Janice, especially when broached by strangers. She saw the archaeologist's green eyes narrow a bit. "It's good to meet you, Miss Stoller," she responded crisply. They shook hands.
In the background of it all, Colonel Frobisher nervously tugged at his tie. "Shall we get down to it?" he asked smoothly, hoping to conduct business before Covington could do something…unexpected. He was quite fond of her, but military life, obviously, had not tamed this loose cannon. Well, it doesn't work for everyone, he thought. He tried to peer into her open jacket to see if she was carrying a gun. She caught him looking, however, and glared at him.
They all sat down.
"Do you still swim?" Catherine asked unexpectedly. Her brown eyes regarded Mel once again.
Mel, taken aback, blinked for a moment. Or two. "Ah, not really. I haven't in a long time," she admitted. She shifted with discomfort as all attention focused on her, or rather, on this unknown aspect of her character.
"Swim?" Janice echoed, looking at her tall companion.
"Yes," Catherine supplied. "When we were at Cambridge, Melinda swam all the time. She was excellent. She beat the university's best swimmer, one of England's best, in fact—Paul Peterson—in an informal race. Won me twenty quid. My heroine." The last sentence was spoken with a familiar, teasing warmth.
Janice regarded her lover with no small amount of surprise. But as she pondered it she could see it—Mel's long, graceful body, its strength hidden and unsung, gliding through the water. "Well," she drawled quietly to Mel, just loud enough for Catherine and Frobisher to hear, "I guess that explains why you can hold your breath for so long."
Mel looked at her, stunned, and hoped no one else had caught the double entendre. Although it shouldn't surprise me what that mouth is capable of, she thought. She shot Janice a foul, irritated look and struggled not to look embarrassed.
The statement, meant to shock and cause discomfort for Catherine Stoller, had no such effect. The blonde merely smirked, indicating to the archaeologist that she was quite aware of Mel's...talents. Who do you think taught her all those tricks, little one? the thought coursed darkly through Catherine's mind, but she said nothing. Her dark eyes were imperious as they met Janice's.
Frobisher, in the interim, rolled his eyes in disbelief and angrily tapped a pen against his desk. Perhaps this whole thing is an enormous bad idea. "If we may suspend discussion of Melinda's prowess in the arena of swimming"—he cut his eyes at Janice—"let's do get on with it."
"Very well," Catherine began. A manila file sat in her lap. She read from it. "In Bavaria there is a castle called Neuschwanstein. During the war it served as a repository for a vast amount of both artwork and archival material—books, scrolls, and the like. Much of the written material gathered there was considered 'degenerate' and non-Aryan. A good amount of it was Jewish materials—like Torah scrolls and religious tracts. And much of it was taken from Eastern Europe and the middle East. Macedonia. Syria. And so on."
"If it was all so worthless to them, why did they keep it?" Mel asked a rhetorical question. She suspected the answers she was about to receive.
Catherine smiled bitterly. "The Ahnenerbe. You're an archaeologist, Dr. Covington. You've heard of them."
Janice returned the strangled smile. "Yes. I have. The art and archaeology branch of the SS. They sponsored digs throughout the world. I was approached by them more than once—they wanted me to work for them."
"Yes. The Ahnenerbe had many purposes. They busied themselves finding anything to confirm the greatness of German heritage…but, they also realized that what they found that wasn't Aryan was valuable in many ways. It could be used for propaganda. It could be sold on the international market and make a tidy profit for the Fatherland; art dealers and collectors—even scholars and museum curators—they wouldn't give a damn where or how they got something, just as long they possessed it…isn't that right, Dr. Covington?"
Janice raised an eyebrow. I don't think I like what this bitch is implying.
Catherine continued to address her. "If the Nazis had had some of your so-called Xena scrolls, what would you have paid for them? What would you have done for them? Would working with the Ahnenerbe have been such a distressing prospect?" Catherine asked in an urgent tone.
Janice's jaw shifted. What would she have done for the scrolls? The Germans who had sought out her services always offered money, power, material possessions, even beautiful women...but stupidly they hadn't offered her the one thing she wanted most: the scrolls. Probably because they didn't have them at the time—but they could have bluffed it. At least then they would've had my attention. She said nothing.
Frobisher and Mel shifted uncomfortably at the turn of the conversation. Catherine noticed this, and added, "I say this only to prove a point. They knew how valuable these artifacts truly are." The tension in the room dissipated a little. "Well, you see, Dr. Covington—and Melinda—you may have a chance to uncover some of your precious scrolls."
Mel thought she detected a slight sneering tone at the word precious. Ah, Catherine…still the same, she sighed inwardly. "So you think that there may be some scrolls about Xena among these materials," she stated flatly.
"It's a possibility," Catherine responded. "And that is the bait by which I use to tempt you. We have got a lot of material there. It needs to be classified, ordered, and returned to where it belongs. And, if you are very lucky, you may find something that interests you, yes? One would think that among so many riches, you would surely find what you desired." Unconsciously the dark eyes flickered again to Mel.
"One would think," Janice muttered. She was not sure that she trusted this woman—God knows, she didn't like her—but this was a wonderful opportunity, even if she didn't find anything pertaining to Xena.
"Now that you have heard me out—and I appreciate you taking the time to do so—what do you think?"
Mel and Janice exchanged a look. "I need to think it over," she said. "And I only come if Janice comes with me. Can we let you know by tomorrow?"
Catherine nodded. "Of course. Although I cannot guarantee that a decision might be forced upon the Doctor." Her eyes met Janice's.
"What do you mean?" Mel asked apprehensively.
"Dr. Covington is still a member of the U.S. Army. She must go where they send her, correct?" She placed her folder in a leather briefcase, snapped it shut, and stood up abruptly. The other three rose as well. "If you'll forgive me, I must go. It's been a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Covington, and..." she faltered a little as she looked at Mel. "Melinda. I hope I see you again. I hope you decide to come," she concluded softly. As she walked by she stopped, and placed a hand on Mel's shoulder. "Let Anton know your decision tomorrow. Goodbye." Then she was gone.
Janice lit a cigarette. "That was fun," she drawled sarcastically.
Mel, shaking her head in resignation, walked over to the window. She could see Catherine walking through the courtyard, to a cab on the corner. Just before she entered it, the enigmatic young blonde woman turned to look back at the building. She looked up to the window and smiled. I can't believe...all this time has past, and I feel nothing, but she still feels...something. How could she? After everything that happened?
"Young lady, if I were your father..." Frobisher growled at Janice.
"...then I'd know how to appreciate a good cup of tea and Italian opera." A stream of smoke unfurled from her mouth. "If that bitch thinks she can get me transferred to the far corners of the world so she can make her move on Mel, she's sadly mistaken."
The mention of her name broke Mel out of her reverie. "What?"
"Do you think Madame Stoller is going to have me sent to the halls of Montezuma or the shores of Tripoli?"
"What are you, a marine?"
"She’s up to something, there’s no doubt about that."
"Don't be ridiculous. It would defeat her purposes. I said I wouldn't go to Germany without you."
"True, but you're here, in London, and she's here…and I could be in Timbuktu by tomorrow if she has any influence. She's obviously still taken with you, Mel…who could blame her? And she's probably very powerful within the OSS. Isn't she, Colonel?"
"So I have been lead to believe," Frobisher commented. "I doubt she has that much influence, however." Secretly, he was concerned; Catherine was the type who was used to getting her way—he could discern that about her from the very first. She seemed quite determined. What lengths would she go to...?
He shook his head, as if banishing the thought from his mind. "Well, I have some things to attend to. I've got a dinner planned with some Monuments officials later. Care to join us? It might be interesting, and useful to you both, should you take on this mission."
After a late supper with Frobisher and a bunch of smarmy-looking Monuments officials, the women had returned to the Grosvenor. Janice was quiet, as she was pretty much throughout dinner. She had managed to maintain basic conversation skills whenever the prying interest of an officer was forced upon her, but for the most part she kept a low profile, lest another inappropriate remark fly out of her mouth; she wasn't sure if Mel had quite forgiven her for the comment at Frobisher's office. She shrugged off her leather jacket and lit a cigarette as she sat on the edge of the bed. She watched Mel as the tall woman peeled off her suit jacket, kicked off her heels, and started to remove her earrings. So let's see if she's still mad at me.
"Don't remove the earrings. I like them," Janice commanded quietly.
Mel's hands lingered for a moment around an ear, then she slowly inserted the post of the pearl earring back into ear. Without missing a beat she fell into the game. "Can I take off my glasses?" she asked.
She did. "And may I let down my hair?"
"My clothes?" Mel tugged at her skirt.
"Remove them. Slowly."
The scholar undid the buttons of her white blouse. Her fingers wavered in a dream-like, agonizing slowness, as if she were plucking out the most delicate of songs upon a harp. She kept her cool blue eyes on Janice, who twitched with impatience. "You've been sulky all evening," she gently accused her audience, in a low voice.
"I'm sorry I haven't been better company," Janice replied in a noncommittal voice.
The buttons were undone, revealing an expanse of a creamy white camisole. Janice, expecting to see the blouse discarded, almost gasped when Mel reached down, unzipped her skirt, and discarded it in one fluid motion. Didn't I say slowly? But the surprising suddenness of the gesture was just as stimulating, she realized, as she stared at a beautiful woman in a slip. Why complain? The tall woman walked toward her, letting the blouse fall from her body as she approached Janice. She knelt before Janice, in between the latter's khaki legs. Her eyes never wavered from Janice's as she slid her hands along the archaeologist's legs to her belt, where she grasped the belt buckle and slowly undid it. "You're always good company, my darling. But perhaps I can put you in a better mood."
Janice leaned in and kissed her. She kept the prize of Mel's lower lip between her own lips, sucking and savoring it. Oblivion. Then she disengaged, knowing she had to say what she needed to say. "You are making me feel better…." Janice began. She touched her friend's cheek. "I'm sorry about the way I acted earlier."
"It's all right. You always say the most unexpected things at the most inopportune times. It has a very strange charm all its own."
Janice chuckled. "If you say…" She allowed herself to drown in the mesmerizing blue eyes. "But…I must know…" Mel's skillful fingers were making short work of the buttons of her trousers. Her hips shifted a little in anticipation.
A gentle smile from Mel was encouraging. "Ask me whatever you like," she said, expecting the question. And knowing her answer.
"What did you feel today, seeing her again?" the archaeologist managed to ask, her voice thickened by desire.
The long answer included surprise, confusion, suspicion, guilt, relief. She felt the muscles of Janice's legs tighten with excitement. The situation called for the short answer. She reached up and let her long fingers trace Janice's bow-shaped mouth. "I assure you, I felt nothing for her."
"And now? What do you feel now?" asked Janice. The words breathed, as living things, at Mel's fingertips.
"I feel that I must have you. Right now."
Spring 1937, Cambridge University
Catherine Stoller looked at her best friend, Daphne, whose lovely face was pulled into an expression of distaste. "I don't know if this really goes with the eggs, dear," Daphne said, staring into a glass of red liquid.
They were sprawled in the lawn overlooking the chapel, nibbling on plover's eggs and drinking kirsch; Catherine had swiped the unmarked bottle from the hiding place of her dipsomaniac Latin tutor. Daphne, sometimes a friend, sometimes a lover, always amusing, thought it would be "positively sacrilege" to do this in front of the chapel. And nihilism was the order of the day, especially for Daphne. Although how nihilistic it really was, Catherine thought, was debatable: The chaplain and his staff were gone for the Easter holiday ("Let them take their religion elsewhere," Daphne had declared haughtily), so there really was no one to shock.
"Who gives a damn? It's alcohol, and that's my only requirement," responded Catherine. She stretched her languid body along the blanket that lay beneath them.
"Cat, what shall we do tonight? We've got an invite into London, darling. Charles is having a party…"
Catherine tuned out her friend as she lazily focused her attention on a figure that appeared in the distance, walking away from the library: A tall woman, with dark hair, dressed rather drearily. Another one, Catherine thought, who took being a student much too seriously. She reached for the opera glasses beside her—nicked from her roommate several months ago—and put them up to her eyes. The figure, head bowed, clutched a satchel filled, no doubt, with lots of boring books. Suddenly the woman swung her way onto the path leading past her and Daphne. "Looks like we're getting company, Daph," Catherine commented. She kept the glasses up as the woman came fully into view. What was it about her that prompted Catherine to wonder what lay under that drab, shapeless gray skirt, the big dark sweater and stockings, the flat utilitarian shoes? That face. For the face she encountered through the binoculars was quite lovely, she could tell, even from such a distance: smooth white skin, black hair, perfectly sculpted cheekbones, and intelligent eyes hiding behind a severe-looking pair of round, silver eyeglasses.
"Gimme," said Daphne, snatching the binoculars from her friend. She peered into them and moaned. "What a drone!"
The woman picked up her step as she walked past the two friends. "Hey! Christ's College!!" Daphne shouted; the woman was wearing a navy scarf around her neck with the simple white stripes denoting the college that she belonged to.
"God, Daph," Catherine muttered. Could it be? For the first time in her life she felt… embarrassed. She did want to speak to this woman, but on her own terms, and in her own time. In other words, sans Daphne.
The woman stopped and stared at them.
"Your outfit is drab enough, did you really think you needed to wear the most boring colors of the whole bloody university?" Daphne said sarcastically. The woman looked flummoxed. She quickened her pace and walked away, as malicious laughter rippled from Daphne. Catherine glared at her. "You damned fool, you didn't have to do that," she snapped.
Daphne looked at her, surprised. "What on earth do you care? You don't even know her."
"You're really a bloody bitch sometimes," Catherine muttered. She picked an egg and studied it, in order to avoid glaring at her friend.
"I know, and usually you love it."
She dropped to her knees at the edge of the pool. With a little hesitation she slipped her fingers into the water. The temperature was cool, but she liked it that way. Wrapping her long body into a crouch, she dove gently into the water, her body rumpling the blanket of blue that enveloped her. The echoes of voices stilled as she pulsed through the water, and when she did rise to the surface she heard only the crash of the waves she created and the brutal, satisfying chop of her strokes, and then her head would duck underwater again. The world was only a murmur when she was in the water.
It felt good to use her body. In the outside world, she only walked to and from buildings. She slept. She ate, sparingly. All day, in a library, in a classroom, even at night, her mind was consumed by her studies. As a result her body craved movement, something to distract her mind from language, from history, from books. And this was safe. Solitary. And it was pleasant. The water comforted her. It was a drowning sensation without the actual death. Afterwards, her muscles burned and she was pleasantly exhausted.
She reached the edge of the pool and executed a flawless spin to turn herself around as powerful legs launched her into yet another lap. She reached the other end, and this time, body flying through a halo of light and water, gripped the edge with both hands and hauled her body up out of the water.
There Melinda sat, panting, shaking droplets of water from her face. Her long legs remained dipped in the water.
"Very nice," a woman's voice said.
She looked up. A blonde was disrobing, revealing a taut figure in a black bathing suit. She tossed her terry white robe onto a nearby chair. Without asking, she sat down next to Mel and slowly slipped her feet into the pool. She smiled at Mel, her deep brown eyes sparkled mischievously, as if she intended for them to conspire together, or if she would reveal some plum of gossip.
"I hope you don't mind," the woman said in her whispery voice, the words waving over her much like the water.
Mel blinked. "Mind what?" she asked. It was then that she recognized the woman as the one who had been sitting on the lawn with that rude girl who had yelled at her.
"Being so forward as to sit next to you without an introduction. You see, I wanted to apologize for my friend yesterday. You recall, on the lawn…"
"Yes. I do. That's…all right."
The woman smiled. "You're American. That's probably why you don't mind me speaking to you frankly."
Mel smiled uneasily.
"My name is Catherine. I'm at Dawson's." An undergraduate? Mel thought, surprised. She seemed so much older and poised. She held out her hand. Mel took it gingerly.
"Melinda," Catherine repeated, savoring the name upon her tongue in such a way that Mel felt a tingle of pleasure. "That's a lovely name."
"T-thank you," Mel stammered.
"What are you studying, Melinda?"
"Latin and ancient Greek."
"Ah. I'm more of a medievalist myself. Nonetheless my Latin is rather atrocious." The blonde woman chuckled in a self-deprecating fashion, then regarded Mel in a manner that she had seen men do; but instead of the curious indifference she felt during an occasion of that sort, Mel felt strangely pleased. A little thrilled. And a little frightened. Catherine's deep brown eyes were alluring, sparkling, and deep. Perhaps a little too deep. Can I swim in these depths?
"Melinda," Catherine drawled the name in her seductive way once again, "perhaps we should meet for tea one afternoon?"
A nervous shudder passed through Mel. "Ah...yes. That sounds lovely."
"Wonderful," Catherine murmured. She pressed her hand against the cool, wet skin of her new friend. "I'll send over a note. An invite, if you will."
"Er, ah, don't you want to know where my rooms are?"
The lithe young woman stood up and gazed down upon Mel. "Dear heart, I already know where your rooms are," she responded confidently, as she walked away.
Her hair was almost dry by the time she reached her rooms. Mel considered herself fortunate to have wrangled rooms in the top floor of the quad; she did not mind the walk up the stairs, and the height and distance afforded her peace from the usual goings-on of her less studious classmates, who all, seemingly, inhabited the lower floors.
She opened the door and was greeted by a familiar large form blocking her large window. "Daddy!" she exclaimed happily. He opened his arms, and she flung herself into them.
"Hello, Melinda." He grinned at her and kissed her cheek. A neat black beard covered most of his face; he had not yet "shed his winter coat," as Mel put it many a time, to his amusement.
"What on earth are you doing here?" she asked, depositing her books on her desk.
"I'm on my way to Egypt, my dear, for a dig." He squeezed her hand. "So I could not resist a visit." He scrutinized her. "You look too thin."
She swatted him playfully. "I am not."
"I'll take you out to dinner. Unless, of course, you have plans."
"No plans," she replied happily. A little too happily, he thought. Did his solitary daughter have any friends in this place? He cleared his throat. "Are you sure? If you're seeing anyone…"
Catherine's visage appeared in her mind suddenly, like a shooting target tossed in the air. She shot it down. "No, not tonight, anyway," she said nervously, and turned away from him suddenly so that he could not see the bright blush inflame her face.
"Hmmm." She knew it well: his Hum of Disapproval, she called it.
"It's a break, you see, for the Easter holiday…not a lot of people are around…" She hated trying to excuse her loneliness to him.
"Ah. Well, if you are on a holiday, perhaps you could come with me to Egypt."
She spun around. "What?"
His deep blue eyes sparkled. "I've a new lead on the Xena Scrolls…"
Her eyes narrowed. Whenever the name Xena came up, in was usually in tandem with someone else's. "Wait a minute. Who's running this dig?"
He sighed. "I believe you're quite aware who it is, my dear. Who else is as obsessed with Xena as I?"
The name hung unspoken, until Mel drew a breath and lectured her father thus:
"Harry Covington is nothing but a scoundrel, Daddy. A thief. A carpetbagger. He'll drag your reputation through the mud along with his own if you're not careful."
He chuckled. Which was not the response she had hoped for. "Melinda, I am a grown man. I appreciate your concern, but I can manage my own reputation quite nicely and I don't think associating with Harry will cause me any permanent damage. In fact, once you get to know him, he is really quite a decent fellow." He laughed again. "Carpetbagger, eh?" he said wryly, affectionately.
She blushed at a letting the blatantly Southern expression slip. She longed to be as worldly as her father; he did not grow up in the South as she did, and thus was not saddled with a Carolinian drawl. Nor had he been affected by a conventional religious upbringing (although he did his best to counter his late wife's Methodist family) in a small, provincial town. Even now, as an adult, she wished fervently to shed her accent, her attitudes…her whole self, at times.
Dr. Pappas smiled, and decided to play the trump card—or what he hoped would be a trump card. "Believe it or not, Harry has a daughter too. He raised her alone, as I did you. So we have a bit of a common bond. If you come with me, you'll meet her. She's an undergraduate at Harvard, but she took a leave to go on this dig with Harry." He tried to keep his tone detached, so that Melinda would not suspect his true intentions: that of matchmaker. Ever since he laid eyes on Janice, he became convinced that Harry's tomboyish, intelligent daughter might prove to be a most pleasing companion for his daughter. In fact, his interest in Janice sparked Harry's suspicions; the elder Covington thought that he coveted Janice for himself, and had not been pleased about it. Good thing he lets his daughter carry around the gun, he thought with relief.
Mel snorted with disdain, and ran a finger along the trim of her desk. It was tempting, she mulled, to leave here, to go to Egypt. It would be exciting. It would be fun. Despite Harry Covington and his daughter, who was probably just as much a rogue as her father. You can send a blackguard to Harvard, but you can't change its colors. She drummed her fingers on the desk furiously. I must remember never to say "blackguard" aloud; it's one of those things, like "carpetbagger…."
She thought again of Catherine Stoller and the faint aura of danger that shrouded the dark-eyed woman. Maybe I should go to Egypt, she thought with a hint of fear. But desire (and stubbornness—she did not want her father to think she condoned his association with Harry Covington) was keen upon its course. "I think I'll pass this time," she said, almost wistfully, to her father.
Mel was pleased to discover that Catherine's rooms were on the top floor of her building, much like her own; effortlessly she climbed the four flights of stairs. The door that she deduced to be Catherine's was slightly ajar. She knocked lightly, and it swung open even further.
She took in the cluttered, messy room. Sumptuous velvet drapery hung from the walls, an exquisite yet terribly worn Persian rug lay on the floor. Some books were piled on a desk, along with a mess of papers, empty bottles…dirty dishes…was that some sort of chemistry experiment? Mel thought, peering into an old cup filled with strange sludge. A few overstuffed chairs were piled with books and strewn with clothes. The back of a divan faced the door. "Hello?" she called.
"Oh bloody hell, you did show up," a voice said. The curly dark head of Daphne emerged from the other side of the divan. Then it disappeared with a sigh. "Well go up then," Daphne said, exasperated.
"Up where?" Mel asked.
"To the roof, darling. You see, you're special. You're so bloody special. You get the roof."
Mel raised an eyebrow. Very jealous…she's tipping her hand. "Thank you. Um, where do I go?"
"Out in the hall. Door at the end of the corridor."
At the end of the hall was indeed a doorway, much like the others, but when she opened it, it led to a narrow, claustrophobia-inducing staircase. Cautiously she climbed up the stairs. I hope this Daphne creature isn't playing some sort of prank…She imagined brawny cricket players, the sort of thick-headed youths she tutored in Latin, ready to pounce on her and throw her off the building, all at the evil Daphne's bidding.
She looked up and was rewarded with a square of brilliant blue. Quickening her pace she reached the sky, and plunged into it.
The first thing she saw as she emerged onto the roof was the phonograph. She remained still on the stepladder. The music crackled along the breeze; it was the barcarole from Tales of Hoffman, the voices of two women woven together in the air.
Mel turned around. Catherine was standing in front of a rickety table that strained under the delicious burden of lilacs, sandwiches, a bottle of sherry, and a pot of tea.
"You're prompt, dear," Catherine continued, "that's actually quite refreshing for someone of our generation."
"It's just good manners, I think," Mel said. She pulled herself out of the hole. She stood on the roof, in full view of the university, and gasped with delight. What was sprawled before her sight were the buildings of the college and nearby town, and the rolling green tucked in and around them. Mel permitted a smile. It was as if Catherine was serving up the world for tea. Just for her.
Catherine chuckled. "I thought you'd like this."
"I don't see why anyone wouldn't," Mel replied.
"Well, Daphne is afraid of heights…" Catherine trailed off, not really wanting to speak further of her sulky friend who was probably sitting downstairs and deliberately, sadistically, drinking all of her gin. Impulsively she walked over to Mel and let her hand press into the small of the tall woman's back; she could tell by the slight squirming motion and gentle intake of breath that her gesture was not unwelcome.
"Would you like some wine? Or would you prefer tea?"
"The latter. Please."
The blonde laughed. "I should've known that you're a tea-drinking kind of girl." Again she pressed her hand into Mel affectionately and was pleased at the girl's slight blush. She walked over to the table and began to pour out the tea. "Catherine…"
Catherine looked up brightly, enjoying the sound of her name on Mel's lips. "Yes?" she replied eagerly. My God, this is sickening…I'm utterly smitten.
"I'm curious—where are you from?" Mel asked softly.
The blonde chuckled. "It's the accent, I know. It throws a lot of people. My mother is English, my father German. I grew up shuttling between Berlin and London. Not so much now, " she said darkly.
Mel nodded sympathetically. "Do you have family in Berlin then?"
"Some," Catherine responded curtly. The dark eyes grew hard. She did not want to talk about Germany, or its problems, or anything else. She wanted to drink some wine, laugh, and seduce this pretty girl before her.
"I’m sorry. I didn't mean to bring up an unpleasant subject."
"It's quite all right, darling." Catherine shifted gears and was once again the gracious hostess. She handed Mel a teacup. For herself, she poured a glass of the sherry. "Let's talk about you."
"What about me?" Catherine loved Melinda's voice. Sometimes the Southern drawl was girlish and sweet, sometimes low and husky. Regardless, it was always pleasing.
"Why do you wear your hair up all the time?"
Blue eyes blinked in confusion. "What?"
"Why don't you let it down? I don't mean to sound so forward"—a lie, she did—"but you have lovely hair. So dark, so thick." She sipped the wine and her brown eyes sparkled. They were fixed on Mel. "Show it off. Let it breathe," she said simply.
Mel had no idea why she did it. Whether it was the beauty of the day or the beauty of the woman who requested it, or both, or nothing but a strange desire to do something so different, so outside herself…or all of these things acting in tandem. For once, I want to be someone else. She looked past Catherine into the dizzying, lush world around her. A church bell chimed and the air vibrated with its sound. Her hands pulled the hairpins and released the clasp that reined in her sleek black hair. It unfurled past her shoulders and she smiled.
The day seemed to flow by in much the same fashion. As if something great had been loosened within her and rushed out in a flurry to touch the world. She even drank some wine. And as the sun set around them on the roof, she let this strange, wonderful woman—whom didn't know a damn thing about—take her hand, and kiss her. It seemed as if the world then exploded around her, like the sunset. Despite the assurance from Catherine: Don't be alarmed. It's only a kiss.
But she was alarmed, and later remembered bucking like a nervous colt as Catherine's lips were pressed against hers, and her mouth was gently pried open. She had kissed boys before, her ex-fiancé more often than anyone. Among the boys, in half the instances the kisses were sloppy and flaccid, the other half too brutal—usually she had a tongue down her throat before she could blink. Joshua was a decent kisser, however, the best of that lot; he was gentle and skillful, yet his kisses always left her giggling—she felt vaguely naughty, as if she were merely indulging in smoking a cigarette in the girls' bathroom at school. Not that she would ever do such a thing.
But these kisses
aroused her. They tingled and they burned, and when, six months later,
Catherine Stoller walked out on her, she thought she would never again
feel that sensation. It took five years for Mel to be mistaken, indeed,
for her expectations to be wildly surpassed in a single kiss from Janice
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