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
Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi
It did not take heaps of common sense to discern that a baseball-loving, Tommy Dorsey-humming, cigar-chomping, blue-plate-special kinda gal like Janice Covington in no way enjoyed opera. Not even the exhortations, encouragement, arguments or cajolings of her beloved companion, Melinda Pappas, could sway her on this matter. And Mel had tried her best. One afternoon, several months ago, she had forced Janice to listen to her favorite opera, the "delightful" (or so Mel called it) L'incoronazione di Poppea, by Monteverdi. The archaeologist had congratulated herself on falling asleep only once, and on not hurling the records out the window like an aspiring discus thrower. All that yammering about dying. If everyone acted like that, no one would ever die! she had thought at the time.
But here, there was no Mel. She was trapped in the castle of King Ludwig, an opera-loving madman who had painted fresco after fresco inspired by various Wagnerian operas throughout his ostentatious, fairy-tale castle. Talk about poetic justice, Mel, she thought.
She sat at a desk in the part of the castle known as the Kemenate: "the house of women." Except there was nothing terribly female about the room, except (perhaps) Janice herself: The walls illustrated scenes from the manly Lohengrin, which were partially obscured by crate after crate of documents. Some days it was fascinating work, and other days Janice felt as if she wore nothing more than a glorified secretary, as she slogged through mounds of papers and books, translating what she could, writing up reports, repacking items...she groaned as she stared at yet another Torah scroll and blew hot breath into her cupped, cold hands. The castle was swell to look at, but damned if it wasn't freezing half the time.
"I hate this," she said aloud, softly, and forgetting she wasn't alone.
Lieutenant Paul Rosenberg, an American musicologist and less reluctant prisoner of the castle keep, was perched on a table near hers, his legs crossed comfortably; like her, he was going through Judaica, but his Hebrew was better than hers and he was having a quicker time of it. For the past hour he had witnessed her periodical scowling at the Lohengrin fresco that faced her. "Doesn't anything impress you, Covington?" he remarked wryly from his berth.
She blinked, startled. "I feel like this thing has eyes," she said.
"It does," he replied simply, gesturing to the fresco and, more specifically, to the large, lapis lazuli eyes of one perfect specimen of Aryan manhood.
"You know what I mean. It stares at me." Suddenly she realized how absurd she sounded.
"Nonsense. You're just looking for an excuse to hate it."
"Look, I know you like this sort of thing, but it just isn't up my alley."
Rosenberg laughed. He was a tall, lanky man with thick dark hair and a droll, deep voice. She liked him—he was funny, smart, and good company. He grew up in Brooklyn, so they had a New York bond in common (since much of her childhood had been spent in Manhattan, and nowadays whenever she was in the States, that's usually where she was). Rosenberg swore that he knew her from New York, that he had seen her somewhere before, he just wasn't sure where, exactly.
"What are you talkin' about? This place is a total kick. You've seen those chairs downstairs, right? The ones you sit on and water shoots up your ass?"
"Yeah," she said dourly, recalling the big wet stain on the seat of her khakis.
"Can you not love a guy that wild?" He spread his arms wide. "This is like a fairy-tale castle. Ludwig was crazy enough—and rich enough—to indulge his dreams. Didn't you have those daydreams when you were a kid, where you were a princess in the castle, waiting to be rescued by a brave knight?"
"No, did you?"
"Sure, I did!" he agreed enthusiastically.
"Oh, so you wanted to be a princess?"
She laughed as he scowled. "Very funny, Covington."
"I was never much of the princess type," she added.
Talk about stating the obvious, he thought. "Yeah. You're the brave knight, rescuing and schtupping the princess..."
Ah, he's figured me out. A wry smirk. "How could you tell?"
"Listen, honey, half the WACs are queer anyway, so it's a process of elimination. Plus you don't have a ring on that finger of yours, and it's kinda surprising someone as pretty as you isn't married."
"Such flattery, Rosenberg!" Janice said, with exaggerated flutter of eyelashes.
"And you know what?"
"I bet some broad has her hooks in you, right?" He grinned lasciviously.
If Janice had learned anything from Mel, it was the fine art of Southern Lady Subterfuge—pretending not to know something that both you and the other person knew that you knew. Or something like that. So she straightened her back, raised an eyebrow, and said, "I don't know what you're talking about." It was all she could do to avoid throwing in a syrupy, fake Southern accent.
He jumped up from the table and wandered over to the record player that sat in a corner. The only records they had were, of course, endless stacks of German lieder. Which he loved, but he could tell—seeing the way her sharp eyes grew slit-like whenever he picked up a record—that she was more than sick of hearing "singing Krauts." "Come on, Janice. Spill it. I'm bored as all fuck here. Tell me about your girl. Or else I'll play Carmina Burana again." He balanced the record of Carl Orff's masterpiece on his fingertip and spun it.
Her shoulders slumped and she scowled. She drummed her fingers upon the table. "What exactly do you want to know?" she growled, expecting the usual prurient response.
"Well, uh...where is she?" Eagerly, he clasped together his large hands. Finally, he thought, some dirt. For a heterosexual gentleman, he had an uncommon love of gossip.
"London," Janice replied, moodily.
"She a WAC too?"
"English?" he asked, with a glint in his eyes. He'd had much luck with British ladies while he was stationed in London.
"Are you gonna stop giving me one syllable answers?" His assault on the emotional fortress known as Covington was, unfortunately, turning into an informational Waterloo.
The Munich Collecting Point was a long, stately gray building that took up an entire city block; formerly it had housed the Munich headquarters of the Nazi party. Only one of two Collecting Points in Germany at that time, it was properly and fully guarded unlike many of the haphazard, impromptu repositories for art throughout Europe. American guards were posed at the entrance, cradling rifles. A dark car pulled to a halt in front of this entrance, and the soldiers tensed in anticipation, then relaxed perceptibly as a woman, well-groomed, well-dressed, and very beautiful, exited the vehicle. Her black coat flared in the cold wind as she strode up to them. Without a word she pulled documents from her handbag and showed them to one of the guards. He nodded, and deferentially stood aside as she sailed through the doorway.
The adrenaline that churned through Mel's body was, so far, making her mission easy. Mission. I have a mission, she reminded herself. You will be the ultimate distraction, Pendleton had said to her, with his arms held wide open, in a dramatic, Christ-like gesture she had seen from many a religious tableau and many a cheap, self-indulgent preacher. I envy Stoller. But the true test, Mel thought, as a small, slender man—austere-looking, with gray hair—approached her, would be seeing her again.
"Fraulein?" The man posed his greeting as a question.
"I'm looking for Catherine Stoller," Mel responded in German. "I'm a friend."
"A friend?" he echoed, as if it were impossible that the intelligence agent had any such figures in her life. "Your name?"
He looked surprised. "I am Karl Isberg." He extended a hand. She took it. "Follow me, Fraulein." Together they walked across the foyer. She tried not to look too astounded at the sheer chaos that surrounded them. Boxes, paintings leaning up against walls, some covered, some not. A rather large one was half-wrapped in what appeared to be a velvet curtain and sash. And something else …lying nakedly on a table, awaiting, beckoning…a sword. One moment she was looking at it from a distance, the next it was in her hand, and her blood surged, and its inchoate roar crowded her senses for a few seconds. Then it faded, and died.
The German was staring at her in astonishment.
"Nice…sword," she said, timidly.
"Do you see that man over there?" Isberg nodded at a tall laborer, about six-foot-five and muscular, who was nailing together a large crate at the opposite end of the entrance hall.
"Every time he lifts that sword, he complains how heavy it is."
Effortlessly she hefted the broad sword. "I suppose it is a little on the heavy side…"
The German stroked his bare chin in a thoughtful manner. "Do you know anything about swords? Weaponry?"
"No, not really."
"It's an intriguing piece. Bronze, but the design work is so sophisticated, I wonder if it's from a later period…."
"No," she said softly. "It's not. Trust me." With an apologetic smile, she laid the sword down and they proceeded through the hall.
"Are you British?" Karl asked as they walked. "Forgive me, I am just curious," he added with a smile.
"No. I'm American."
They turned down a dim hallway, and Karl knocked lightly upon a closed door. When there was no answer, he gingerly opened it and walked in, with Mel trailing behind him. He frowned. "She must have stepped out for a moment. Would you like to wait here for her?"
"Yes, that will be fine, thank you."
Again, he smiled easily. "I must say—you speak German very well. Almost like a native. I was quite surprised when you said you were American."
"Yes, she does speak German beautifully, doesn't she?" Catherine said from the doorway, as two pairs of blue eyes set upon her. "Hello, Melinda." Her voice lowered as she greeted her reluctant guest.
"Hello, Catherine." Mel hoped her nervousness—and what she knew—was not apparent. Your friend is now a liaison to the Werwolf, Pendleton had told her. She feeds scraps of knowledge about British intelligence work to these ragtag terrorists.
Catherine Stoller turned to her co-worker. "Karl. Would you leave us for a few minutes?"
Minutes. She had more than a few minutes. When you arrive in Munich, you'll have to keep her preoccupied for at least half an hour. Just long enough so that she misses her rendezvous with Munich's Werwolf leader. First we arrest him, then we pick up her. Neither one will know we have the other. And it will be interesting to see what stories they tell exclusive of one another.
He nodded. "Of course." With the strange little half-bow that Germans do so well, Karl departed.
A good plan, she had told Pendleton.
I'm glad you approve, my little Southern Mata Hari, he had retorted sarcastically.
They stared at each other for what seemed a very long time. Mel gripped her purse tighter as she felt catapulted into the past. It's all history. It means nothing. Janice Covington would disagree, wouldn't she? The woman whose profession, whose very life, was devoted to resurrecting and reconstructing the lives of two ancient figures that most people in the profession thought were pure fiction, a made-up story like the Odyssey? I wish this were all some story I could go back and rewrite. But I can't. It's me. It's part of me.
As she fumbled for something to say, Catherine beat her to the punch. "Do you remember that time we were in Alsace?" she said gently.
Mel stared into the dark eyes. "Yes, I do," she replied quietly. And she did remember it very well. It was early on in their relationship. The warm flush of...infatuation. Desire. Long days in bed. Her body had felt alive. Her soul did not, but it was enough then just to feel...something. Like she wasn't sleep-walking through life.
Catherine smiled, and recalled the time for both of them. "We borrowed my cousin's car, and we got lost trying to find the way back to the schloss. I was so angry. More at myself than you, although I know I wasn't pleasant company. It was getting dark, and we didn't have a map, and I was too stubborn to ask for directions...then finally you made me pull over, and you asked that farmer for directions. In German." She laughed.
Mel smiled. That attraction is still there, isn't it? I didn't know what to call it then. I thought I was in love: A beautiful person, cultured, intelligent, exotic, who was interested in me. But in the end she treated me no different than Joshua did: I was a prize. A trophy. It was different—had been different—with Janice. It hadn't been unusual for her to wake up and catch Janice watching her: Sitting up in bed, hair disheveled, wrapped in an oversized shirt. I can't believe you're here, Janice had said once, not long after they were reunited in London. I can't believe what you do to me, Melinda.
You're crazy. That warm laugh. Would she hear it again? Sometime, somewhere?
"You surprised me—I hadn't known you spoke German. And so well." Catherine was saying.
"I can be...surprising."
"You can. It's very surprising that you're here, Melinda."
"I'm on my way to Neuschwanstein. But I wanted to see you first."
"Really?" the blonde replied archly. "I thought you would bypass any social visits to be right at your lover's side."
"Well, I..." Mel stammered a little.
"You didn't part on the best of terms with dear little Lieutenant Covington, did you?"
"No." Not surprising she could figure that out; Janice is like an open book sometimes. Well, most of the time, actually.
Catherine snorted in delight. "She was quite sullen on our journey here." She stepped closer to Mel, so close that the scholar could detect her perfume. It was sickeningly sweet. Catherine smiled again, but this time it wasn't one gentled by nostalgia. She leaned into the scholar, her lips hovering near Mel's ear. "You hit her, didn't you?" she whispered, sounding eager for the affirmation.
Mel's eyes widened. She pulled back to study the OSS agent. What the...? Then she quickly realized—Janice's nose. The barroom brawl that the archaeologist had gotten into the night before she left had produced a swollen nose and a cut on the lip. She thinks I hit Janice! Her face darkened, then relaxed.
Play it to your advantage. "Yes," she replied. She lowered her eyes, and hoped that awkwardness would carry the day and pose as guilt. "I suppose…it was obvious."
"You shouldn't leave such visible evidence of your handiwork, Melinda." The OSS agent grinned. "Such a temper." She let a hand stray along the sleeve of Mel's coat, and, upon receiving no protest from the Southerner, continued to stroke it lightly. "I'm very glad I never got on your bad side. But I can see how such a brat like Covington could get on one's nerves. She reminds me of Daphne sometimes."
"She can be difficult," Mel murmured. "But sometimes she's…all right." Even during the masquerade, she felt she must defend Janice somehow, and could not undo the compulsion.
"All right," the blonde echoed flatly. "Quite a ringing endorsement. Is she all right in bed, dear? She has a nice body, I'll grant you that."
"Yes," the scholar responded, mouth dry. Is this a betrayal, Janice? Will you forgive me this? Will I let you?
"Hmpf. She is a bad officer, whose personality is even worse…so it is heartening to hear she fucks well. Of course, I surmised as much from my initial meeting. I could not fathom what you could have possibly seen in her, aside from some base attraction."
Be still, Mel cautioned herself. She swallowed. "I see you've acquired some new American curse words since the last time we met."
"Yes, although I know you detest such language. But your little friend uses them all the time, I've noticed." Catherine stated, stroking the soft dark sleeve of Mel's coat. "Is she better than me?" Her fingers danced down the arm of the coat, then wrapped themselves around Mel's hand.
The Southerner felt her body tremble, trying to restrain a full-fledged flinch. "Not better. Just different." She knew it was a test, and that she would have to react very carefully.
"Always the diplomat, Melinda." With that, the OSS agent pulled Mel closer, and they kissed. It was easy to let her body go and follow its own path. It was pleasurable, if she didn't think about it too much, as a hand brushed her breast. She pulled away, needing air.
"You still feel something for me."
"Yes," Mel replied, not entirely lying. The lure of nostalgia, the desire to drown in the past. The blonde pressed her face into Mel's neck, nuzzling it with kisses, while blue eyes quickly consulted the clock on the desk. "Can we...sit down?" she asked, with a hint of timidity. She shed her heavy coat, which tumbled to the floor.
"Of course, liebling."
The leather couch rippled with squeaks as she sank into it, with Catherine sitting astride her lap. The blonde wasted no time in sliding her hand inside Mel's blouse and squeezing her breast. She almost jumped. Forcing herself to be gentle, she grasped the OSS agent's chin between thumb and forefinger. "Bitte…slow."
The blonde's dark eyes twinkled. "Naturlich, Melinda. You always preferred it…slow. It was good."
Yes, but now it's a delay tactic. She excelled at them—had always, since being (sort of) engaged to Joshua. That had been nothing but a long exercise in sexual frustration for them both, especially for him, as she struggled to determine exactly how she felt about him, and if she really wanted...it. She knew enough about sex to know she didn't want to get pregnant. But she could only put him off with exclamations of "I'm a lady!" so often. And I seriously doubt it would work in this instance, she thought, as her blouse was unbuttoned. And so she had spent countless afternoons living her life as a bad French farce: pulling his hand from under her skirt, refastening her bra after he had unhooked it with one hand (and how had he done that?), being chased around the divan and wrestled on the rug....This feels like senior year all over again, she thought miserably, as Catherine crawled over her. Will they really get here in fifteen minutes? A lot can happen in fifteen minutes.
She felt at war with her body, as they grappled on the couch. She had forgotten this brutal aspect of it—of the two of them together. Of a certain roughness that scared her. It was different with Janice, of course; they could afford to be rough, for the trust was implicit between them. That trust, that love—where was it now? Was it dissipated, gone? Don't think about it. You can't think about it. Not now.
When the door burst open, she thought once again that her life was being scripted by Feydeau. It was Karl, and he looked appropriately stunned, like a wronged husband. As Mel deftly buttoned up her shirt, intuition told her that something else--aside from finding his female comrade in a sexual situation with another woman--was troubling him.
Catherine was simply too angry to react otherwise: "Are you mad?" she spat at him in German. "What the hell do you want?"
He hesitated. "I must speak with you in private."
"You can say anything in front of her," Catherine retorted confidently, with a nod in Mel's direction.
"Just tell me, Karl," the double agent growled.
"It's the international police. They're coming here."
Mel's heart hammered. They're early, she thought. They must've caught the Werwolf leader already, and now they're coming for her.
"What happened? Where are they?" Catherine was calm, for the moment, and now seemingly oblivious to Mel.
"Andreas called me. His...contact near the American headquarters found out they were coming for you. He saw a truck heading out in this direction. We must go. Now!"
She nodded. "Go through the underpass. I'll meet you there in five minutes."
He nodded in return. With a final glance at Mel, he jogged out the door.
The double agent turned to her. "So. Now you know," she said quietly.
Mel closed her eyes for a moment. All right, keep her talking. "Why?"
"Oh, Melinda, I wasn't like this at first." She sighed, and sat on the arm of the sofa. "My allegiances at the beginning of the war were to the Allieds. But..." Her dark eyes focused on an imaginary point past Mel's head. "Do you know what it's like, to watch your home be destroyed? A place where you lived, where you loved, where your family was? Where you rode a bicycle when you were a child, where you bought bread every day, where you kissed for the first time?" Catherine smiled bitterly. "You don't understand. That place where you grew up—you hated it. You still do."
"No, I don't hate it," she protested. It's much more complicated than that. "But it's a part of me...so I do understand somewhat."
"Perhaps. I knew Germany would lose the war, but I didn't know how badly. Nonetheless…" She smiled again. "I lost my heart to my country, again. It's like falling in love, you know? I was Volksdeutsch. I could not deny it any longer." Catherine stood up from the couch. "By this time, the war was turning in the favor of your side. I…ended my mission in Berlin, and decided to make contact with the partisan movement. I saw them as our last hope. I still see them as such—yes, we've lost, but we just want to be left alone. We want the foreigners out. There's no need for them to be here."
"There is. You lost a war. Your country is not quite your own right now."
The blonde ignored this. "Germany belongs to her people. Not her enemies. Not those who are unworthy of her…."
"Like Jews?" Mel asked sarcastically.
Catherine raised a warning hand. "I don't need any American lectures on 'we are all created equal.' "
Mel laughed, and it was not a happy one; it was one of incredulity. "Do you think I'm inferior to you somehow? Because I'm not German?"
"Look," the blonde secret agent snapped, "I don't buy into the entire Nazi ideology. I don't want to eliminate those who are not Aryan. I don't want—never wanted—for us to take over the fucking world. It was ridiculous." Catherine gazed into stunningly blue eyes…eyes the Fuhrer himself would've killed for. "I don't know what you are," she said softly. Other than the angel of my torture. "You're not like other Americans, I think. Who knows," she added wistfully, "maybe you are German, somewhere in your past—"
Mel shook her head decisively. "My great-grandparents were Greek peasants." She took Catherine's arm, but not roughly. "Tell me something…women like you and I…wouldn't we be thrown into the camps for what we were doing on that sofa a few minutes ago?" She nodded at the empty leather couch. "Are you really any better than I am?" she demanded gently.
Catherine was staring at the couch, as if the activity they were doing only a few minutes ago happened a hundred years prior.
Suddenly she looked at Mel. "Come with me." The tone was buffeted between a request and a command: urgent and almost pleading, but with that steely aspect that was pure Catherine.
"No. I can't."
A tight, fraudulent smile. "Because of her."
Yes. But Mel didn't say it; she was not quite at that point of cruelty, where one not only sticks the dagger in, but twists it. "Because of many things. Because of you. Because of who you are, and what you've been doing."
The blonde raised an eyebrow. "Because of what I've been doing?"
A misstep. Perhaps it was her tone, her eyes, the assurance with which she said the words. Mel would never know.
"Tell me what I've been doing, Melinda. It sounds as if you know."
"I—I don't know what you're doing. I just assume that whatever your...activities are, whatever has made the Americans come after you...is wrong."
"Wrong," Catherine echoed flatly. "Wrong for you, right for me." She a step closer to Mel, her black eyes glinting with more malevolence than usual. "Why do I get the feeling you're lying to me?"
"I'm not lying to you," Mel proclaimed stubbornly.
"The timing of your visit is a little odd. Covington came to Germany weeks ago. Why weren't you in hot pursuit? Perhaps something—or someone delayed you? Arranged it so that the authorities would track you here, and arrest me? Sounds good to me, what do you think?"
"You're being ridiculous," Mel growled at her, hoping the insulting dismissiveness would distract her.
The blonde secret agent shook her head slightly. Her expression contorted into one of pain, then anger. "It was you. That's how they know. That's why they're coming." She stared at the floor. "I was so stupid. I should have known you'd do anything to protect that little bitch." Her darkened, furious eyes met Mel's. "Even be a whore."
Mel tried to protest once again. But she saw only a blur of movement, then darkness.
The bitter smelling salts grabbed her by the shoulders of her expensive, tailored blouse and shook her fiercely. She stumbled into consciousness. Two men, in British uniforms, were crouching over her. "Hello, gorgeous!" one of them said cheerily. He was the one holding the smelling salts, and a pack of gauze. He wore the insignia of a medic.
Mel did not feel particularly gorgeous. Once again she wondered—while trying to lift herself up from the floor—why an appalling amount of military men thought that wearing a uniform gave them the God-given right to comment upon her appearance no matter what the circumstances. Her face ached unpleasantly, and unconsciously she rubbed a painful part of her jaw. She felt something wet on her face, and when she withdrew her hand and stared at it, her fingertips were red, the bright blood seeping in and accentuating the ridges of her skin. She felt a vague sense of outrage; when has anybody ever hit me? she thought. (Well, there was that incident with Binky LaRue at the cotillion one year, but that was just some little girly slap....)
The medic leaned forward and gently wiped the blood off her face. "How d'you feel, love?"
"Fine," she croaked. "What happened?"
"Hoping you'd tell us that, my dear," the other officer spoke. "I'm Captain Morot. What's your name?" he asked cautiously, expecting the answer.
"Ah. So you are. Can we see your papers, Miss Pappas?"
"Uh…" She looked around, disoriented. Her coat lay on the sofa, but there was no sight of her purse. "I don't know."
"That's all right. Relax a bit. You fit the description the Major gave us."
"What happened?" she repeated again. "Where's Catherine Stoller?"
"Gone, I'm afraid."
"Oh God," she moaned, hand covering her eyes.
"Not as bad as you think, though. She didn't get much of a jump on us. I'm sure the Yanks will be catching up to her very shortly. We did get her accomplice, though. Isberg. He's almost as big a prize as Stoller is. You did fine, love."
"Really?" she asked. Slowly she sat up and shifted her position so that her back was supported by the sofa.
"Careful now," the medic advised, patting her arm. "Like a bit of tea?"
Tea! Tea! My kingdom for a cup of tea! Honestly, the British are even making me sick of tea. "No, thank you. I've got to get to Neuschwanstein. Can you—"
"Not so fast," the Captain said, rocking back and forth on his haunches. "First, you need to be debriefed, then we file a report. Then you're going back to London."
"What?" Mel hissed with disbelief.
"You've done your duty, Miss Pappas. Your orders are that you're to be put on the next plane back to England."
"Orders? What orders?"
"From Major Pendleton, of course."
Of course, Mel thought angrily. "I'm not going back to London," she said through gritted teeth.
"I'm afraid you have no choice," the Captain replied, not unkindly. He was not prepared for the hand that grabbed him by the lapels and yanked him off balance so that he was on his knees and face-to-face before a very angry, disheveled, and beautiful woman.
"I'm afraid you have no choice, Captain, but to contact your Major and tell him that there is no goddamned way in hell I am going back to London! I am going to Neuschwanstein and if I have to crawl there I damn well will do so!" Oh my…three curse words all within the span of two sentences!
The Captain blinked at her in utter shock. His superior officer had informed him that Miss Pappas, while a degenerate of insatiable proportions, was nonetheless gentle as a lamb, and just as easily led. This information was in direct conflict with this fierce lioness who was ready to snap his neck.
Seeing that she had gotten her message across, Mel released him. With a great show he smoothed his rumpled uniform, giving her a slightly chastising look. "I'll see what can be done," he said brusquely, and stood up.
She slumped back against the sofa in relief. Janice Covington, you have been the worst influence on my manners. And I suppose I should thank you for that.
The ball was nothing more than papers crunched together and covered with a lot of sticky black electrical tape. The bat was a sturdy, round stick he had snatched from the woodpile downstairs.
Rosenberg swung the bat idly a few times and fixed his gaze on the pitcher. "I should warn you, I was the stickball king in Williamsburg."
"I once struck out a minor-league home-run champ," Janice retorted as she idly tossed the ball in the air, retrieving it with a snap of the wrist. She neglected to mention that the champ had drunk six beers and would've swung at a flying donkey if it had suddenly floated by him. Details, details. She looked around the crowded room. Okay, Janice, be a professional, don't do this in here. You've already bitched enough about the lousy conditions for the proper storage of "priceless artifacts and rare documents…"
"Maybe we should do this out in the hall," Janice suggested.
"And get caught by Brinton?"
"Y'see," he pointed the stick at Janice, squinting. "This is precisely why we shouldn't go out in the hall. You and that mouth of yours."
And he's only known me a couple weeks....A pause. We'll be real careful. Right? Right. "You may have a point there. All right." She rubbed the ball and stared him down. "Get ready." She curled her compact body into a windup, drew back her arm, and fired the ball at him. A gentle smack, and the sphere launched itself high into the air, almost touching the ceiling.
"Homerun!" he shouted.
"Fly ball!" she contradicted with a cry, backpedaling into the unknown.
Before he could even yell out a warning, she was colliding with a crate, sending papers and smaller boxes flying. She hit the ground before the ball did.
Janice groaned as Rosenberg galloped over to her. "You win," she muttered.
"You okay?" he asked, standing over her, proffering a hand.
"Yeah, fine." She was about to grasp his hand when she looked at the pile she had just knocked over. The dull, hard gleam of tarnished metal caught her eye—the top of a cylinder peeked out from under a mass of boxes. Curious, she reached over and pulled the object out from under the boxes. Just like the sword in the stone, she thought, without knowing why. Exerting increasing pressure, she tried to pry off the cap of the tube; she was about to give it to Rosenberg for a try when it finally gave way and opened.
A cluster of scrolls. She held a breath, which knit a cord of tension through her body. It was a good kind of anticipation. "Paul."
"Go get my gloves on the desk, will you?"
He nodded, and returned quickly with the soft white cotton gloves.
Barely breathing, she pulled the gloves on, and then gently extracted a fragile, rolled-up parchment from the case.
The handwriting was as familiar and recognizable as her own, in that mixture of dialects and meters that had eluded her understanding but proved only a pleasing challenge for Mel. Nonetheless, words and phrases popped out at her. Reluctantly, I, the Amazon Queen, began the scroll in her hands. While that was easy, she doubted she would be able to truly comprehend the rest. But her eyes scrolled down, catching the name: Xena.
"Janice, what is it?" Rosenberg asked excitedly.
She opened her mouth to speak, but the torrent of emotion was far too strong. My words, my life.
He grinned, not needing a response, as he noticed the trembling of her hands. "Fortuna imperatrix mundi, my friend: Fate, empress of the world."
She looked at him, deliriously happy.
"See? A little bit of Orff didn't hurt."
Arms folded, the agitated Southern belle chewed her lips and stopped herself from further pacing; her feet were starting to ache. She had been detained for hours now; the officials now wouldn't even let her go back to London, for God's sake.
Maybe I should have done that, Mel thought moodily as she plopped into a chair. Just be a good girl and go home…then sneak back over here, on my own. My work for them is done. They don't own me. I'm a civilian! An American citizen!
This quasi-patriotic thought process was interrupted when the door of the office swung open and, making a dramatic appearance in a huge great coat, Major Pendleton strode in, followed by Captain Morot. "Ah, Miss Pappas, my dear. So pleased to see you again."
"Major!" she declared, standing up. "I—I, um, what are earth are you doing here?"
He pulled off his leather gloves. "My business brought me to Berlin, and Captain Morot was good enough to find me there. I understand you have been creating some fuss, my dear. Hence my presence here."
"It wasn't my intention to create any problems, sir. But—"
"—But you want to go to Neuschwanstein. I know." He started to shrug out of his coat; the Captain, still standing behind him, intercepted it. He motioned for Mel to sit. Reluctantly, she did so. "You did well on your first assignment, my dear."
I wish you'd stop calling me that. "I'm…glad you think so."
"Don't worry about Stoller. She's powerless now. She knows she's a marked woman." He slapped his gloves against the palm of one hand. She twitched in surprise. "But she is still dangerous. At least until she's caught. You've been marvelous bait, my dear, but I'm sure now she wouldn't go near you now."
"But she might go near—"
"Janice Covington," Pendleton supplied the name with quiet triumph. "That's her name, is it not?"
Damn. "Yes," Mel whispered.
"Her file is quite interesting. A commendation for bravery, but such problems with authority!" He smiled thinly. "So you want to ensure your friend's safety, of course. It's touching." He sighed, and leaned against the desk. "You know, my dear, I like you. In spite of your—predilections. I'm willing to let you go to the castle."
She started to smile, and stood up.
"But if you murmur one word on what you've been doing in Munich for the past 24 hours, to Janice Covington or anyone else for that matter, I'll have your lovely body locked up in a military prison so quickly your head will swim."
She hesitated. "I…can't? But I've got to tell her—"
He shook his head. "No." He sighed in exasperation at her flummoxed expression. "Just what kind of game did you think you were playing?" he began angrily. "You're a part of this now. You know classified information. You have taken part in a covert operation. You cannot discuss this with unauthorized personnel, military or civilian."
"There are no buts left, my dear." He stood to his full height, almost as tall as she, and dropped his voice. "You may not care about yourself. In fact, I know you don't. But I assure you, if I find out—and I do have ways of finding things out—that you told your Lieutenant Covington about your activities with this organization, she may be spending a long time in a military prison. And judging from what I saw in her file, this just might be the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. And I assure you, you won't be sharing a cell together." He watched as her face fell, as the words sank in, bitter to the bone. "Who knows…perhaps she'll find a new lover in there. What do you think?"
He had expected the slap, but not the strength of it: the brutal crack that disrupted his vision and sent him rocking back on his heels, and the taste of blood in his mouth. He laughed in surprise.
Mel lunged a little, but Morot had restrained her by grabbing her arms. "Don't you ever… speak of her like that again." The voice was low.
His tongue poked out and touched a blood-stained lip. "And don't forget what I've told you," he retorted quietly. "Now go."
Rosenberg watched nervously as Janice paced the room. Ever since she found the scrolls, all the smoldering energy that lurked below her brooding surface had finally asserted itself with focused precision on her accidental find. Smoking furiously, she would mumble as she flipped through a old Greek reader, looking up words in the wretched copy while cigarette ash dribbled into its crevice, occasionally mumbling "shit" or "Christ, Mel, I really wish you were here." (Mel, he wondered. Was that the Girl? Janice did say that the Girl was in the same line of work as she was. He hoped to see her someday; he was insatiably curious to find out what kind of woman could put up with Janice.) The pace was agonizingly slow, and frustrating.
With a sigh he rolled off his high desk. He enjoyed sitting on the desk, rather than behind it; it gave him a high, impressive overview of the vast room. He decided to play the good old Carmina Burana one more time on the record player. He sauntered over to the ancient machine and started to crank it.
"If you play that goddamn thing again, I'm going to kill you," she muttered around her cigarette.
"It'd be preferable to hearing you bellyache all day about that stupid scroll."
"The Latin throws me, you sonofabitch. I can't think in Greek when I'm listening to a bunch of bastards sing in Latin."
"Don't blame your lousy Greek on Carl Orff."
She slammed the dictionary down. War had begun.
"Listen," she growled, stomping over to him and jabbing a menacing finger at him, "I've had just about as much of you as I can take, you goddamn—" she lunged for his shirt, and he skirted out of the way.
"Gotta catch me first, you little bitch," he taunted, half playfully, half angrily.
It was the wrong thing to say. A solid 120 pounds of angry archaeologist barreled into him, knocking him down. He was breathless—and on the verge of recollecting something—when she grabbed him with one hand and formed a fist with the other. "That's it!" he cried.
"What?" she hissed through clenched teeth, her fist hesitating.
"It wasn't New York. It was London."
"Where I saw you before. I was in the Black Bull Tavern when you knocked out Skeeter Lewis."
"It was you, I swear. Couple weeks ago. There was this big GI—former boxer—picking a fight with a WAC. There was some kinda argument. Something about the Giants…"
It came flooding back to Janice. "Aw, shit!" she spat at the unpleasant memory. It was, in fact, the night before she came to Germany. That lousy night. The fight with Mel, Anton's stroke, seeing Mel in the hospital later…she needed to get drunk and into a fight. Actually, she would have settled just for the getting drunk part, but the nameless GI was just too stupid to leave her alone. His mistake had been in thinking, when he had knocked her down and bloodied her nose, that she was unconscious. Thus he had not suspected the finger tapping his shoulder and, when he turned around, the fist that met with his glass jaw. "So you were there," she said to Rosenberg.
"Oh yeah, honey. I was there. I even had a bet riding on you. I cleaned up big time, thanks to you. Man, I'm surprised I didn't remember you sooner."
Some unreadable expression clouded her face as she released her grip on his shirt. "I'm just everybody's good luck charm," she muttered caustically. She stood up and wandered back to her table, head down.
In the short time he'd known her, Rosenberg had grown accustomed to her sudden black moods. As he got up, he made a gentle offering to her: "I'm going outside for a bit, get some air, have a smoke. Come up in a few if you like."
He was almost out the door when he caught a barely audible "thanks."
Not far from where they worked was a turret affording a wonderful view of the area surrounding the castle: mainly the forest and the nearby town of Fussen. Of course, one could hardly go wrong with any of the views from various spots at Neuschwanstein, but he liked this private little perch, where he could be alone and just…think. Or daydream. The air was cold and invigorating. He hoped Janice realized what a sacrifice it was for him to invite her into such a private space.
Yeah, right, if she even comes up, he thought sarcastically as he scanned the area with his binoculars. His eyes were still pressed into them when Janice joined him in the turret.
"Let me guess…you see snow, and trees. Right?" She had lit a cigarette and was back to her old smart-alecky self. A stream of pearl gray smoke shot from her lips, and the cold, sharp air cleaved the soft cloud.
He grinned, pleased at her presence. "Very funny, smart ass. Actually, I see a jeep. Looks like Corelli is back from Munich." Rosenberg could tell that another figure sat beside the driver, but he couldn't tell who. Probably another nosy German official. The jeep pulled into the compound and he got a closer look at the passenger. He whistled. "Corelli must've got lucky. He has a broad with him."
"Hmmm." More smoke.
"Doesn't look like his type, though. Tall brunette…"
If the cigarette had been a sentient, living thing, it would have been dead once it fell from her slackened hand, which hung over the precipice. No. It couldn't be…I couldn't be that lucky: a scroll and Melinda Pappas drop into my lap, both in the same week. "Paul…"
"…he's so damn short, any woman over five foot four is too tall for him, he says…"
"Paul…" There are plenty of tall brunettes in the world. Germany is full of them, right?
"…me, I'm not that picky…"
"Paul!" she shouted.
Startled, he looked at her. She felt her throat go dry. "Is…she wearing glasses?"
He looked into the binoculars again, to confirm. "Uh, yeah…so?"
He felt a breeze. Looking up, he saw she was gone.
"Miss Pappas, I presume?"
Tired, she nodded.
The speaker was a middle-aged man, an American officer with the usual head of distinguished gray hair. "I'm Major Andrew Brinton. Head of operations here. We're pleased to have you on board. Damned confusing, though. At first I was told you were coming, then you weren't, then I receive a message two days ago that you are, once again, coming." He raised an accusatory eyebrow, as if it were all her fault.
"Everything has been very…tumultuous right now," she murmured.
"We'll need to speak about it at length," he retorted. "But first I need to attend to some duties, and we need to get you settled in somewhere…"
Before he could continue, they noticed the sound of footsteps on the stairs, echoing down from floors above. The furious stomping grew even closer. Mel started to grin when she saw the lithe figure with red-gold hair fly down the stairs, like Hermes.
Sheer momentum carried Janice as she came off the last step. She dashed a few paces, then tried to force herself to slow down by skidding the final few feet to where Brinton and Mel stood, slack-jawed.
They stared at each other.
Brinton gave his junior officer an angry glare. "Good Lord, Covington! What are you, a five-year-old? No running in the castle."
"Sorry, Major," Janice mumbled.
Brinton tapped his chin in thought, oblivious to how the two women devoured each other with their eyes. "Look, Covington, entertain Miss Pappas here for a few minutes…I…" He looked up, startled. "Now wait, don't you two know each other?"
No, you stupid bastard, I come running down here every time someone shows up….Janice rocked nervously on her heels, her hands stuffed in her pockets. "You…could say that, sir," she grunted at her commander.
To Mel, Janice looked at beautiful as ever. The Army never suited her, but the clothing did. Although in this particular instance, Lieutenant Covington had strayed from khaki and green, no doubt out of necessity—it was cold. She wore an oversized charcoal gray sweater, one sleeve sporting a hole in one elbow and the other unraveling at her wrist. The dark, neutral tone played havoc with the light of her eyes, and the color therein shifted from greens and blues to grays and browns, and back again. Mel blinked furiously behind her own glasses, trying not to be hypnotized…just yet. Now's not the time, Melinda.
"Good," Major Brinton was saying. "Then make yourself useful. Show her around a bit. Take her outside, along the parapet. Damned fine view."
It's also freezing outside, you idiot. Janice gnawed her lip. "Yes, sir."
The Major received a nod from Mel and a salute from Janice as he strolled away.
"How about that view?" Mel suggested quietly.
"Uh, sure," Janice fumbled. Why do I feel like I'm 15 and on my first date? As they walked to the outside, the words slipped out of the archaeologist: "You came."
It was positively frigid outside, but they were alone, more or less, and only in view of the guards on duty.
"Why do you think?" Mel asked carefully.
Janice peered at her. "I know what I want to think."
The view was impressive, Mel admitted to herself. A recent snowfall of almost a foot coated everything in pristine whiteness: Trees, fields, everything. Veins of darkness hinted at tree branches and roads. The air possessed that muffled quality of the world safely padded for hibernation.
A soldier, oblivious, trotted past them to retrieve a coil of rope. He whistled pleasantly, highlighting the thick tension between the two women. Then he was gone.
"I've missed you so much," Janice blurted. Missed you? More than that. I felt a craziness, an emptiness, I felt condemned to walk the world alone. Forever.
Mel's lips parted and her mouth slackened a bit, but she did not say anything. She could not. She was afraid that if she even acknowledged one thing she felt at this moment, the rest would tumble out blindly. Everything. And I do really want to be crying and on my knees before you, in front of these strangers?
The archaeologist's bare hand sank into the snow that lined the edge of the parapet like frosting on a cake. She watched as Mel fought with her emotions; the strong jaw shifted with conflict. Send me a sign, Mel. Anything.
Instead, the world sent Lowry. The young sergeant marched up to them, saluting. "Lieutenant!" he barked at Janice.
"For Christ's sake, what?" she snapped in response. Lowry remained at attention. "At ease, kid. What is it?"
He relaxed. "Ma'am," he addressed Mel, "the Major is ready to see you now."
"Um, thank you," Mel muttered.
The sergeant nodded, and smiled shyly. "Nice to see you again, ma'am."
Oh shit, thought Janice Covington.
"I don't think we—" Mel began.
"Don't you remember, ma'am?" he continued enthusiastically. "In Berlin, the train station? You were, uh, with the lieutenant...in the...bathroom..." he trailed off, embarrassed, now remembering the precise circumstances in which he found the lieutenant and the dark-haired woman. He stared at the beautiful woman in confusion. Was she some sort of actress, he wondered? In Berlin, she had sounded British…now she was Southern?
"But I've never been in..." Mel trained her blue eyes onto her errant companion. "...Berlin. With Janice." Understanding was followed by an anger that darkened her pale countenance. "Again?" Melinda hissed, incredulous.
Instinctively, Janice took a step back when Mel took a step forward. "Wait, it wasn't what you're thinking—" She saw the large hands clench and unfurl. And clench again.
There was a long, grand tradition of Women Slapping Janice Covington. It had begun with the first one she'd ever slept with—her college roommate, who regretted their drunken night of passion, and the very next day cried hot, furious tears and declared that Janice was evil and had made her unfit for marriage. Aw, just think of it as a practice run, honey, Janice had said…then pow, right in the kisser. Of course, they had ended up in bed again not long after that outburst. But now, the archaeologist feared, this most annoying ritual was about to continue with Melinda Pappas, the love of her life. And I was hoping I'd never give you a reason to slap me across the face, Mel.
But the tall woman hesitated. Absentmindedly, Mel examined her own shaking hands, flexing them nervously, palms down, like a boxer.
She's so strong, in so many ways, and she doesn't even know it, Janice thought. She recalled the day they were reunited, on that London street almost a year ago, and she had followed Mel back to her apartment. Her leg, still recovering from the gunshot wound, had been bothering her and by the time they got there her limp was rather pronounced and painful. As soon as they got past the foyer the world shifted—she had been scooped up in Mel's arms, carried up a steep flight of steps, and into a tiny Spartan apartment, over the threshold, just like a bride, Mel had said. Or is that too presumptuous of me? the scholar had added, depositing her on the bed.
Her arms had encircled around Mel's neck, their faces brushed against one another, their breathing entwined. No, she admitted, letting herself surrender, laying back on the bed, and pulling Mel to her. If I were to be anyone's bride, it would be yours.
She watched as Mel spun away angrily and walked back into the castle's interior.
"Uh, Lieutenant," began Lowry slowly, nervously, his face burning with a blush.
Janice shook her head. "No, don't say anything," she replied quietly, and nodded at the tall, retreating form. "Show her the way, Lowry. She might get lost."
The meeting with Major Brinton passed in a blur; he spent most of it babbling about the collection, betraying his vast ignorance of the materials contained within the castle. How did this man get this task? Mel wondered, as she sat across from him in his makeshift office.
"...living arrangements are cramped, I'm afraid you'll have to share a space with Lieutenant Covington and some of the French officials..."
Her heart sank a little. They would not be alone. They needed some time alone. After she had left Janice standing outside, she admitted to herself how stupid she was acting. I'm jealous because she was with that woman again? And what was I doing just 48 hours ago? How can I not tell her...what I almost did?
"...so I took the liberty of having someone take your bag up to the room. If you need anything further, do let me know...." He stood up. "I'll let you get settled in. Then perhaps Covington can get you started."
If she doesn't want to slap me silly beforehand. "Yes, sir. Thank you." He shook her hand, and she retreated.
When she came out of the office, the young sergeant was waiting for her. Proudly, like a child completing a drawing on the very first day of school, he thrust at her a hastily sketched map of the castle. "I thought you might need this, ma'am."
She smiled. "That's very kind of you."
"It, uh, can be kinda confusing...figuring out how to get around."
"I appreciate it very much, Sergeant. Can you tell me where Lieutenant Covington is?"
"Uh, no ma'am. I don't know where she went. She might have gone back to the Kemenate. That's where she works, with Lieutenant Rosenberg."
Ah, there's another opportunity for a scene, if I were so inclined. Tears, recriminations..... My life is becoming some modern day version of "Gone with the Wind." "I, uh, think I'll go to my room first."
"Would you like me to come with you?" he asked hopefully.
"That's very kind of you, Sergeant. But I'll be fine." She nodded at the young man, then wound her way up a flight of steps. Following the map, she located the room where she would sleep, where her bag was taken. The huge wooden door was slightly ajar, and without knocking she entered.
Janice was sitting alone in the room, in a hard wooden chair near the window. At Mel's entrance she stood up with such abruptness that the sudden motion sent the chair clattering, falling on its side; and the slender young archaeologist, nerves already on edge, jumped aside with a startling grace. There was all sorts of potential in that movement, Mel thought. Maybe she could’ve been a dancer. For a fleeting moment the Southerner was amused at the thought of Janice Covington as a ballerina. Smoking a cigar, in a tutu.... Janice was staring at the chair as if it had bitten her, then she turned those absinthe eyes to Mel.
Later, Mel would not remember who made the first move. A soft cry barely escaped her, the noise strangled in her throat, and they were moving toward each other, and the sensations began, soothing and arousing simultaneously: arms around her waist, the flutter of an eyelash brushing against her throat, then the soft firm lips pressing against a hollow of her neck, strong hands sliding up her back, and the voice, disembodied, quiet, yet so loving and passionate: "My joy. My beloved."
Janice Covington was saying mushy things to her! Was hell freezing over?
She pressed herself even harder into the archaeologist, delirious and disbelieving. Of course, Janice had said "I love you" on a number of occasions, usually during some solemn or crucial moment (like after losing fifty quid in an ill-advised bet on a cricket game), but never something so...blatantly romantic. She moaned. Then found the ability to speak: "I'm sorry."
"It's all right, baby. I'm just happy you're here."
"I love you. I can't stay away from you."
She felt Janice sigh against her, content. "You love me?" The tone was gently disbelieving.
Mel kissed the top of the golden head. "Is that so hard to believe?" Her lips worked their way down the forehead, to the eyelids, the cheeks, and finally the bow-shaped mouth. Which yielded the finest sweetness. Ganymede has nothing on you.
In an awkward dance, Janice maneuvered them against a wall, never breaking the kiss, yet all the while receiving frantic warnings from her brain: Those stupid French broads might come back here at any minute. She felt Mel's hands groping under her thick sweater, untucking her shirt, then sliding along her bare skin. Well, if we get caught, maybe I'll get kicked out of the army and at last, I can get back to my life. Such haphazard reasoning prompted her own hands to go exploring.
Mel arched, catlike, and melted into the hands that now caressed her breasts. She closed her eyes and flung her head back. And smacked it against some low beam with a quite audible thud. Then groaned. Texas-sized stars danced with abandon in the black field of her vision, a result of giddy arousal and sudden head pain.
"Oh!" Janice cried softly. "Mel, are you okay?"
"Ow," mumbled the scholar in reply. "There goes the romance, I reckon."
"It's okay...it's not your fault. I'm sorry I ruined the mood." She reached up and rubbed the swelling bump on her head.
"It's just as well...you never know when one of those damn French girls will come barging in. Plus I gotta tell you something, Mel...."
"Good or bad?" asked Mel, apprehensively.
"Oh, it's good..." She cupped Mel's face in her hands. "I found a scroll here. One of Gabrielle's scrolls." The green eyes were feverishly bright.
There were moments when Mel thought she was in love with a madwoman, a lunatic on a quest, a search that had—and would—consume her life. Mad, bad, and beautiful.
Her father had known an archaeologist, one of many in fact—a fellow named Johnson. He was obsessed with the desire to find a particular vase that had belonged to Cleopatra. He was wild, handsome, extravagant. With honey-blonde hair. She was about eleven when she first met him, and had developed a bit of a crush on him. Mel harbored dim memories of a hotel room in Florence, a warm starry night, Johnson and her father on a terrace, the smell of cigars. Cognac on the terrace, the huge bulb-shaped glasses catching the moonlight. You're getting very pretty, Melinda, he had said. You'll have to marry me when you're all grown up.
She had run from the room, laughing.
Four years later, Johnson was pale and bloated from drink, wearing a shabby overcoat, standing on the corner outside the Plaza in New York, reeking of ruin. His holy grail eluded him. The funds were gone. He was ashamed to come into the lobby, to ask for Dr. Pappas. He sent in the porter, who relayed the message to the doctor. Mel's father then met him in the street and gave him fifty dollars. "That was kind of you, Daddy," she had said.
Dr. Pappas had shrugged in a melancholy, weltschmerz way that indicated he had spent too much time in Europe. "Merciful, maybe. But not kind. He'll drink it all away." Mel had looked at him, shocked. "Archaeology breeds obsession, Melinda. To survive it...well, you need an anchor. A ballast, if you will. He has none. Poor bastard," he added softly. Within a month, Johnson was dead. Suicide.
I swear, I will never let that happen to you, no matter what.
"Mel? Are you with me here?"
"Huh?" She blinked. "Yes. I'm...my God, I can't believe it."
"Me neither. Sonofabitch." The archaeologist allowed her hands to stroke Mel's back and torso in an absentminded fashion, oblivious to the arousing effect it was having on her companion. "Y'know, aside from the obvious, I'm really glad you're here..."
"...Because you can't make head or tail of them, can you?" Mel smiled.
Janice grinned sheepishly. "Not...really. There are such wild shifts in....well, everything...the syntax, the meter, the style...it's like Gabrielle would take on a different persona, depending on who or what she was writing about."
"You'll show it to me."
"Yes, but not now." The golden head burrowed against the scholar's chest, and Janice took in the seductive alchemy of Mel's scent: the sharp, laundered crispness of the blouse, a whisper of perfume, and some indescribable element that was purely Mel. Overcome, she mumbled something into the firm breasts.
"What is it, honey?"
Again, the mumbling.
"Janice, darling, my ears aren't down there."
She looked up, her fair face flushed. "Nothing happened in Berlin. You know, with her."
"Oh." A pause. "Good."
"Do you believe me?"
"I do, although I admit the circumstances sound…suspicious."
"Well, she tried to…I mean, at first I thought she was you."
"Oh," Mel said again, this time sounding relieved. "It's all right, darling."
"I mean," Janice stammered, unable to control the babbling, "I just kissed her…"
"An honest mistake."
"Or, actually, she kissed me first and I thought it was you so—"
"I understand, Janice," the scholar said through clenched teeth. As guilt ate its way through her like a worm through a rotten apple.
"Yeah. But, I'm sorry…"
"There's nothing for you to be sorry about," Mel responded edgily. But for me…I have so much to be sorry about. And I'm sorry I can't tell you…
"Then why are you still acting mad?" Janice snapped.
She sighed. "I…I'm just tired, honey. I'm sorry. I shouldn't take it out on you."
The archaeologist softened. "Yeah. Long trip, I know."
You don't know the half of it. "Show me that scroll, " she requested gently. She wanted—needed—to see something that would connect her life back to Janice's.
The scholar smiled. "Otherwise we'll probably end up doing something that will get you kicked out of the army."
"Mel, I was actually hoping that would happen…." She trailed off only to launch a kiss onto the tall woman's mouth, feeling strangely girlish and exhilarated as she stood on the tips of her toes to do so. I thought perhaps being a lover of women would increase my chances of finding someone close to my height…she mused to herself, arms spreading out to maintain her balance as the kiss lingered …but instead I went for the tallest tree in the forest. She was caught in Mel's embrace even before her heels could hit the ground.
Thus began the second day of Mel communing with the scroll, as Rosenberg thought of it. He would watch, fascinated, as she stared at it, her fingertips just barely brushing against the parchment in a reverent touch, silently forming words with her mouth, scribbling things down on a notepad, then crossing things out and rewriting them, mumbling to herself. Then the process would begin anew. It was like watching an artist at work, forming, creating something—he wasn't sure what—but something intangible and ineffable, forged in the air around her.
Covington, however, was happy as a lark and twice as productive as she normally was, whenever she wasn't hovering around her tall companion and bestowing fond glances upon the dark head and fighting to keep her hands to herself. Occasionally she lost the battle and would brush against Melinda. Earlier in the day, while looking over the preoccupied scholar's shoulder, Janice permitted her wandering hand to travel down her companion's long arm, until it rested atop Mel's hand.
Leaning against a wall, arms folded, Rosenberg couldn't decide whether he liked "the Girl" or not. After meeting him, flashing a very brilliant, sweet smile, and saying "I'm pleased to meet you," she had barely said half a dozen words to him; all of her energy was focused on the scroll (what the hell was the thing about, anyway?), and on Covington—looking up from the scroll, her blue eyes blinking, lost for a moment in confusion, then finding their mark. It reminded him of some knights-in-the-castle story he read when he was a kid, filled with all sorts of fruity old English: Verily, yon archer, doest thou know which arrow flies the furthest? 'Tis the one that meets its mark.
Then he heard Janice growling in his ear: "If I can punch out that Skeeter shit, I can punch you out twice as easy." He looked at her, stunned.
She grinned evilly at him. "You're staring."
"Huh? Oh. Well, sorry." He shook his head. "I just can't believe that's her."
Janice bristled. "What did you expect?"
"Don't get your undies in a bunch, kid. She's a beaut, but she's just so…serious."
They watched as Mel groaned, savagely bit the end of her pen, and propped head in hand in a fit of ladylike despair.
"This isn't exactly playing tennis, you dumb fuck. It's work. It's important. It's what we do," Janice retorted. "Just because it's not your kind of work…"
"I didn't say that…" he began feebly. But I was thinking it, he admitted to himself.
She snorted in disbelief, absentmindedly searching her pockets for cigarettes. "Damn," she mumbled, "I musta left them back in the room. Hey, Mel…" No response from the absorbed scholar. "Mel!" she shouted. The dark head snapped up.
"I'm going back to get my cigarettes. Want me to pick up anything on the way?"
"No, I'm fine. Thank you."
"What about you?" she snarled at Rosenberg.
"I'm half afraid to ask for some tea, it'd probably have hemlock in it," he shot back at her, sullenly.
She grinned apologetically. "Nah, maybe just a horse turd or two. I'll be back in a few minutes."
Ah, the day never has enough surprises.
Janice thought this as an unidentified fist hurled toward her through the opened door. I've got a hard head, she thought swimmingly, as she fell down on her knees. She spat out a stream of watery blood and a molar into her hand. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for my teeth.
"Sorry about that," said the voice behind her. The voice with a clipped German accent. Janice looked up at Catherine Stoller, who had a rather large, shiny .45 pointed in her direction. Under different circumstances, Janice would have taken a longer period of time to admire the weapon, but it was all she could do to stand up, holding her tooth in her bloody hand.
"I hadn't meant to hit quite that hard....I thought perhaps you were used to being punched with frequency."
"My reputation precedes me," Janice muttered, tongue skipping over the warm, velvety hole once occupied by the now-orphaned molar.
"Rather, your lover's reputation," responded Catherine cryptically.
Janice peered at her, puzzled.
The blonde spy grinned, then changed the subject. "You don't seem very surprised to see me, Lieutenant."
"Let's just say I had a feeling I'd run into you again. What the fuck do you want?"
"Believe it or not, my dear, you."
"I'm flattered. But my dance card's full." Even with her head spinning and blood coming out of her mouth, Janice managed a pithy comeback. Well done, Covington!
"Then I suppose I will have to call upon Melinda. I'm sure she can spare some time for me." Catherine smirked, noticing the shift of emotion on Covington's face: From anger and cockiness to apprehension and fear. "My dear Lieutenant, every goddamned, godforsaken military organization in this country has a price on my head right now. Courtesy of Melinda Pappas."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
Catherine's pleasure intensified dramatically at the blank look on the WAC's face. "Didn't she tell you, darling? Your beloved set me up for a fall. She was with me in Munich three days ago. The OSS sent her, I'm certain of that."
Janice shifted her painful jaw. Mel—my Mel—in the OSS? Christ, I leave her alone for a few weeks…. I should have known she wouldn't sit around and do nothing.
The former intelligence officer snorted. "How desperate they must have been, to press into service a rank amateur. Yet how stupid of me...to almost fall for it. She probably didn't want to tell you, given what she did to me—and I to her—in order to trap me."
There was no mistaking the suggestive tone. The painful throb in her mouth spread, like an explosion in slow motion, like a column of fire peeling away the last of her emotional defenses, leaving a coldness in her. A bare core. No. It isn't, it can't be true.
"You know, I may even let you live. So you can confront her." Catherine scratched her chin with the cool edge of the gun. "I know you don't want to believe it, but let's face it. She's got a fine mind, and there is no one more gentle, more civilized...but strip away all those pretenses, and she is instinctive. Elemental. And sensual."
"That's enough," Janice managed, the words forced out despite the increasing pain in her head. And her whole body.
"I enjoyed bringing that out in her. I suppose you did too."
I did. I did. On that very first night she said to me, "No one has ever made me feel this way." Was that a lie?
"I loved how responsive she was to my touch."
"SHUT UP!" screamed Janice. The words weren't even done ringing in the empty room when Stoller grabbed her collar, shook her roughly, and pressed the barrel of the .45 into her neck.
"Quiet, Lieutenant, quiet," warned Catherine quietly. "I don't want to kill you right here and waste your otherwise worthless life. You're my hostage now, you see. You will, I hope, grant me safe passage out of this country. It depends on how highly your superiors value your life."
"Fuck you. I'm not helping you get out of here. Kill me. I don't care."
"Don't act so wounded, Lieutenant. She still loves you. It's beyond my understanding." Stoller paused, and a softer note wormed its way into her voice. "It's your fate, you know."
"What do you know about my fate?" rasped Janice, trying to fight a sneer off her face.
The slender hand, elegant and elongated as an El Greco figure, snaked around to the back of the archaeologist's neck and gripped it tightly, thrusting Janice's face so close that their foreheads touched. Catherine Stoller closed her eyes. "Don't you know who I am?" she whispered.
I stood on a road with the man I had just married, and I thought this would be the road, the path I would walk—with him—for the rest of my life. But along came a woman on a horse. In her misguided vengeance, she ended that road for me. And inadvertently set me back on the course that, ironically enough, felt more true than anything.
How much time I wasted, trapped within my own guilt and agony at his loss, and the inescapable fact that I married him, knowing full well—and hoping desperately that this would make me forget—that I loved another above all others. The one who ruled my passions.
She felt it. She knew.
"So we recognize each other now?" Catherine asked, with almost painful gentleness.
And then she became my whole world. Despite everything that happened. Nothing kept us apart. Not death. Not hate.
"Yes," replied Janice Covington.
Return to Xena and Gabrielle Fiction
Return to Main Page