The characters Janice Covington, Melinda Pappas and Jack Klienman are the property of Renaissance Pictures and no copyright infringement is intended. All other characters are mine. This tale contains adult themes and depicts the two main characters as more than just "friends." It also contains descriptions of violence and instances of graphic language including the "F" word so be warned.
This story follows an arc previously established in "The Favor" and the "Janice and Mel: The War Years" stories. While it is not necessary to read those in order to gain a comprehension of this latest effort the reader should be aware that some characters and events from those stories are referred to here without much clarification.
|The characters Eva Haralambos and Zoe Lambros appear through the courtesy and kind generosity of my good friend Mary Draganis and are solely her property. Many thanks to her for entrusting them to me. It is deeply appreciated.|
Gerhard Zeissler was a hard man. In the recent war he had miraculously survived twenty-nine months battling against the relentless Russian hordes in that boiling cauldron whose simple name was now and forever burned into the memory of every last son of Germany who had the misfortune to serve there---the Eastern Front. During those twenty-nine months he had witnessed every kind of horror and unspeakable atrocity. Many of these he had in fact dutifully committed himself in the service of the Fatherland.
At first he had found the slaughter of helpless civilians and Red Army prisoners of war troubling but this had quickly passed. After all, he had rationalized, it was the ape-like Slavs who were the real barbarians. Hitler had said so. So it was therefore simply a case of he and his fellow countrymen finding it necessary to fight barbarism with barbarism in order to eradicate the Slavic threat once and for all. As he had seen it, it was nothing more than Germany's duty to Humanity. Had not Der Fuhrer and Dr. Goebbels expounded on this time and time again? Had they not warned the German people that the Slavs were nothing more than pestilential vermin whose extermination must be achieved if they were to ensure the purity of the Aryan race?
Like any good soldier, Gerhard Zeissler had not shirked his duty. Although times had changed immeasurably since the war, as far Zeissler was concerned orders were still orders whether they be to take a hill held by Russians or, as he was now about to do, take a hunk of stone held by some foolish old man. This line of work was not exactly what he had planned on doing after the war but in these trying times there were not too many jobs in Europe that paid as well. His boss had instructed him to get the stone and so he would get the stone.
The object of tonight's exercise was to be main tent of an archaeological excavation that was being supervised by the noted British archaeologist, Alfred Frailing. Zeissler had purposely chosen a Sunday evening to make his move because he knew most of the Greek laborers who worked at the site would be gone at this time. Because of this he had very little difficulty maneuvering his way to Frailing's tent where he now stood, ready to make his move. Reaching under his jacket, he eased out his Walther P-38 and ever so carefully pulled back the tent flap. He peeked inside and saw Frailing sitting on the edge of his cot and, as expected, alone. So intently was the old man focused on his business that not until Zeissler actually spoke did the realization came to him he was no longer alone.
"Put your hands where I can see them and do not make any noise."
Startled, Frailing shot a glance up and standing there just inside the entrance to the tent he saw a stockily built man pointing a pistol at him. "Who--who are you?" he stammered.
"That is not important," Zeissler coolly replied. "All you need to know is that I will kill you if you do not cooperate."
Thinking Zeissler a common, ordinary thief, Frailing said, "But...I assure you we have nothing that would be of any interest to you. We have nothing here of real monetary value."
"That is a lie," said Zeissler tersely. Not a man to beat around the bush, he then snapped, "You have a stone. A tablet, found Tuesday last. You will produce it at once."
"Stone? What stone?"
"You are not in a position to play games here, Doctor," Zeissler grimly warned him.
It was then that Zeissler detected a glint of understanding in the old man's eyes. "Who sent you?" asked Frailing. "Hanley?"
However Zeissler's patience was already beginning to wear thin. Advancing a couple of steps toward Frailing, he snarled, "None of your damned business, old man! Now give me the stone or I'll--"
Behind him, from the entrance to the tent, a soft voice said, "Professor Frailing, is something wrong? I thought I heard---Ohh!"
Whirling around, Zeissler saw a wide-eyed woman who looked to be in her early twenties leaning through inside the tent opening.
As she put her hand to her mouth in dismay Zeissler growled, "Don't move!"
It was at this precise moment that Frailing took advantage of Zeissler's momentary distraction. Boldly seizing up the nearest thing to a weapon he could find, a battered trowel, Frailing hurled it at Zeissler.
Now it was Zeissler's turn to be startled. He had not expected this sort of resistance from the old man. Fortunately for the German it was the trowel's handle and not one of the sharp corners that caught him just behind the left ear. Still, the unexpected blow caused Zeissler to instinctively turn his face away and thrust his hand up to where the trowel had struck him.
"Run, Millie!" yelped Frailing, as he bolted for the opening. However his feet had long since ceased to be as nimble as his mind. Before Frailing could get past, the intruder had recovered sufficiently enough that he was able to lash out with his Walther, striking the old man right across the bridge of his nose, breaking it instantly and sending him reeling backwards. In vain Frailing tried to regain his balance but the combination of his reflexes not being what they once were and his center of gravity already being tilted too far backward off its axis were too much for him to overcome.
Frailing fell and as far as Zeissler was concerned it was simply a case of rotten luck that the aged archaeologist's temple slammed against the corner of his little writing table as he went down. He was as good as dead even before his head sustained the final blow upon impacting the hard ground of the tent floor.
For Zeissler there was no time to lose. Even as Frailing drew his last breath he was wresting the terrified Millie back inside the cover of tent. She had managed to make a mere ten yards from the tent before the athletic ex-soldier had caught up to her and clamped his hand over her mouth to prevent her from screaming.
Once back inside the tent, Zeissler glanced at the old man and knew instantly what he had to do next. It was not necessary that he examine Frailing to know that he was dead. That familiar vacant look in his eyes which Zeissler had seen hundreds of times before on the battlefields of Russia told him all he needed to know. Soon he would see it yet again in the eyes of this young woman. After all, this was not war and the death of Frailing was sure to mean police involvement and all the trouble that went with their nosing around. It was because of this that he forced the struggling Millie down on Frailing's cot and, using the old pillow, slowly, methodically, smothered out her young life.
With Frailing dead the only thing left for Zeissler to do was search the tent and for twenty minutes he did so, carefully checking every nook and cranny. However as he searched his frustration began to mount quickly. The stone simply was not there. Spying Frailing's notebook, he leafed through it in the hope that he might find something, anything, that would give him a clue as to the stone's location. All he found was a name, another archaeologist apparently. Maybe, he wondered, Frailing sent it to this one for some reason.
He tore the page out of the notebook and stuffed into his shirt pocket. It was then the thought came to him that perhaps the stone was to be found in one of the other tents. Of course! Surely that was it! The young woman's! What was her name? Millie? Too bad, he thought. Such a pretty girl.
The first thing he saw when he entered the next tent was a stone, lying on another small table. "Unproblematisch," he muttered, as he entered the tent. Beside the stone was an opened loose leaf notebook with several blocks of words set down on one of the pages Each of these successive blocks had in turn been crossed out. Evidently someone had been trying without much success to translate the inscription. As for as Zeissler was concerned it did not matter what it read. For all he cared the inscription could be a recipe for strudel. His job was to get the stone.
And now he had it.
Slipping the Walther into his jacket pocket, Zeissler snatched up the stone and tucked it under his arm. Taking a quick peek out, he saw no one. Quietly he stepped out of the tent and started off into the night. He was smugly congratulating himself on a job well done when much too late he heard a faint rustle off to one side. A million colors exploded inside his brain and then...blackness.
Ten minutes later he came regained consciousness. As the fog cleared from his brain his first lucid thought was of the stone. Frantically sweeping the ground with his hand, he worst fears were soon realized.
The stone was gone.
Like all who had fought on the Eastern Front, Zeissler was no stranger to hatred, blistering rage, unspeakable, soul-wrenching terror...and death. Yes, Gerhard Zeissler knew death well. By his own hand he had visited it on so many others that by now it was like an old acquaintance to him. Now, as the barrel of the Luger at his back sharply prodded him forward down the dimly lit hallway of this opulent mountain villa, it seemed that his "old acquaintance" Death would soon be at his side once more. But as he stumbled along he knew all too well that this time it would be his shoulder--not that of some faceless victim, that would be gripped by the cold, skeletal hand of the remorseless black specter.
Near the end of the corridor a door opened at his approach as if by magic. At the door he hesitated for a moment and it was here that a hot, stabbing pain as the barrel of the Luger rammed hard against his kidney.
In Greek a harsh voice from behind commanded, "Inside!"
While he was still in agony an unseen hand seized him by the collar of his jacket and roughly hauled him across the room. There he was thrown down into a plain high-backed wooden chair which was positioned squarely in front of the dim outlines of a large, imposing desk. For a few moments the only sound in the room was the rasp of his own labored breathing.
Presently a dark form stirred behind the desk and a voice--very calm, very measured, said, "Hans, some light if you please."
A third, heretofore unnoticed figure moved out of the shadows and padded across the thick, plush carpeting to the large window situated right directly behind the desk. Grasping the cord, Hans carefully drew back the thick drapes. Per his chief's instructions, he merely cracked open the drapes enough to allow a narrow beam of sunlight to slip through. Like a long accusing finger the light fell onto the fearful Zeissler in such a matter that it bisected him perfectly as he sat stiffly in his chair.
"Thank you, Hans," said the voice from behind the desk.
In light of the present circumstances the effect of these polite, almost tranquil tones on Zeissler was to make the voice across the desk seem even more menacing to him than it normally was. And that in itself was quite menacing enough.
His task done, Hans silently moved back across the room and once more took up his position by the door.
Karl Brachmann, former Wehrmacht captain turned smuggler and profiteer, leaned forward out of the shadows into the strip of light. Propping his elbow on the desk, he cradled his brow of his shaven head into the palm of his hand as if suddenly stricken by some severe malady. "Tell me, Gerhard," he patiently began, "do you remember that night in the Kursk salient?"
Of course he did. How could he forget? "Yes, Herr Brachmann," he quietly answered.
"And do you remember what happened when Corporal Aust failed to carry out my instructions?"
It was not necessary that Zeissler possess any kind of physic ability to understand where this was going. In the raging maelstrom that stemmed from the titanic German offensive in the summer of '43, Brachmann's unit had found itself in the desperate position of being hemmed in on three sides by the ferocious Red Army. Nearly surrounded, their radio dead, Brachmann had ordered Aust to get a message through to regimental headquarters asking permission to fall back. Though wholly justifiable considering the circumstances, in the Wehrmacht it was nevertheless no small matter to retreat without orders.
Then, when Aust had disappeared into the night only to return in a suspiciously short period and saying he had been unable to get through, Brachmann had at that point took the necessary step that he felt any proper Wehrmacht officer in his situation would have done.
"You shot him...Herr Brachmann."
"I meted out the just and proper punishment for his failure," Brachmann patiently corrected him.
As for Zeissler he was not too certain about the adjectives "just" and "proper" but there was no disputing the fact that a bullet to the brain was punishment all right. Aust's actions had undoubtedly been cowardly it was true, but who was to say any other of the other men under Brachmann's command would have behaved differently given the circumstances?
Brachmann lifted up his head, letting his palm drag across his face. Next came his grim pronouncement, "And now you too have failed me, Gerhard."
And there it was, what Gerhard Zeissler had been fearing ever since this sadistic Greek goon at his back had burst in on him in that brothel down in Larissa. At the time he had been right in the middle of a "transaction" with two fine examples of the local talent but the sight of the barrel of the Luger inches away from his nose had for some reason worked to kill the mood for him.
Coming from a man like Brachmann the word "failure" was practically as good as a death sentence. "But, Herr Brachmann," he implored, "If you will only give me chance. I'm sure I can--"
Brachmann's calm air fell away as he violently smacked the palm of his hand down on the desk. "Give you a chance!" he thundered. "Why? So you can show me once and for all how truly incompetent you are? I entrusted you with an extremely important mission and this...this is how you seek to repay that trust? By letting someone knock your stupid brains out and take the stone? And after your blunder did you come without delay directly back to tell me of your failure? NO! You had the gall to slink to a Larissan whorehouse! A whorehouse! What were you thinking, you imbecile?"
"How was I supposed to know somebody else was after the stone?" bleated Zeissler.
Hearing this, Brachmann contemptuously jerked his head up and to the right. "You fool!" he growled. "Did the war teach you nothing? One should always expect the unexpected."
To his horror Zeissler felt the barrel of the ever present Luger press hard against the nape of his neck. "N--no," he pleaded. "Wait!"
Thrusting his shaking hand under his jacket, he reached into his shirt pocket and extracted the small scrap of paper. "See?" he asked, almost choking. "Another archaeologist. Maybe this one knows something about it. Perhaps if we pay her a little visit...."
However at the moment Brachmann was still much too angry to be placated by this simple piece of paper. It was not that he was upset about the death of this Frailing--far from it. What he really found upsetting was that Zeissler had been incredibly sloppy in his work and more than anything Karl Brachmann despised sloppiness and inattentiveness to duty. He simply would not stand for it either in himself or those subject to his orders. "I should kill you, Gerhard," he said in flat, even tones which only served to make it all the more intimidating for Zeissler. Brachmann was one of those people who reveled in exercising power over others and by extension loved to have others fear him. Despite his anger, it was necessary that he hear his minion out. There was a lot of money at stake here. So it was for this reason that he let Zeissler hang for a few excruciating seconds longer before finally nodding to his man to lower the pistol.
He leaned forward and roughly snatched the scrap of paper from Zeissler's hand. Quickly then he scanned it for a moment. "What is this?" he sharply demanded. "It tells me nothing! The only thing I can use this for is to wipe my ass! Can you no longer carry out even the simplest of orders? All you had to do was bring me the stone but what do you do? You bring me..." Angrily he crumpled up the notebook page in his hand. "...this!"
Fuming, Brachmann for some reason picked the paper back up and smoothed it out in order to look at it again. Like Zeissler, Brachmann read and spoke English very well. Reading the page more carefully this time, he quickly focused in on the same catch words that had caught Zeissler's eye back in Frailing's tent... "Covington"..."Volos"..."interpret the stone..." Volos eh? he thought. Maybe this troglodyte was right. Maybe it would be possible to salvage this mess after all. It was a long shot but it just might be possible that this Covington knew something after all. Perhaps he had even had a hand in stealing it from this fool Zeissler. Faced now with the loss of the ten thousand pounds he was to have received for obtaining the stone he reasoned it certainly was worth checking out.
To be sure his client would be none too pleased about Zeissler's failure. Well that was too bad. What was he going to do? Sue him for breach of contract? What was done was done and there was nothing anyone could do about it now except to try to again. Besides, if the thing turned out to be of any value Brachmann fully intended to keep it for himself anyway. As the former Wehrmacht captain saw it this was just another mission and like all the others one he would do everything in his considerable power to ensure its success. It was simply going to take a little longer than previously thought, that was all. Sooner or later he would get the stone and his client's ten thousand pounds. Already he was thinking that if he played his cards right, he just might find a way to keep both.
Zeissler sat sweating it out for a few anxious moments and was heartened to see Brachmann carefully fold the paper up tuck it into his shirt pocket.
"This Covington must be located at once," Brachmann declared.
Greatly relieved that Brachmann's anger seemed to have dissipated, Zeissler hopefully offered up, "With your permission I will leave for Volos at once, Herr Brachmann."
Brachmann eyed his underling with all the emotion of a bored housewife selecting vegetables at the market. "Ahh no, Gerhard," he replied, vapid to the extreme. "I think not."
In one short breath the feelings of foreboding again descended on Zeissler, enshrouding him with a sense of fear so profound it was almost suffocating. "But--Herr Brachmann, I--"
"You are no longer reliable," Brachmann darkly interjected. "Therefore you are of no further use to me." He then looked into the darkness behind Zeissler's head and gave a curt nod to the shadowy Hans who, like some deadly beast of prey stalking his next victim, had silently moved in to join the other man standing behind Zeissler.
Fully aware of the potential danger he was now facing, Zeissler half turned in his chair and attempted to rise. Almost immediately a million tiny explosions of light filled his head as the big Greek cracked him hard in the head with the Luger. Zeissler's knees turned to rubber and, slumping back down, he was vaguely aware that someone had now seized him by the hair and was roughly jerking his head erect.
As he strolled past on his way out of the room Brachmann was but a dark, nebulous shadow to the stricken man. His senses were reeling and in his present state Zeissler was not quite sure whether or not he had heard Brachmann mutter, "Finish him." Not that it would have mattered anyway as he was no longer capable of offering resistance.
His steely blue eyes as expressionless as ever, Hans reached into one of the pockets of his jacket and produced a piece of electrical cord measuring not quite a meter in length. Zeissler's death had been preordained from the start and as Brachmann's enforcer Hans was expert in killing by any number of means. On this occasion he had settled on ordinary strangulation for the simple reason that he had not wanted Zeissler bleeding all over Herr Brachmann's fine new carpet.
Hans nimbly wrapped the ends of the cord around his hands and, moving in, crossed his wrists to loop the cord around the neck of the groggy Zeissler. And while he strangled the life out of Zeissler's body he was rather glad the man was not much able to scratch and claw ever more feebly in useless struggling against the crude instrument of his death. Hans had known Zeissler for more than a year now and he seemed like a decent enough fellow. He even thought it a bit ironic that the man had survived almost two years and a half years on the Russian Front only to die at the hands of an ex-Wehrmacht brother.
Zeissler gurgled in agony one last time and Hans began to feel the muscle tension in his body slacken. In a way he was sorry that a brave soldier had to die this way but this was a new world now; one where such archaic notions as brotherhood and a combined sense of purpose mattered little. Now it was every man for himself.
The deed done, Hans looked over to the big Greek and said, "Herr Brachmann and I will proceed at once to Volos. Get rid of the body and wait here in case we have cause to send for you."
The Greek silently nodded the acknowledgment of his orders and Hans left to join his boss who by now was waiting for him in the car. As he saw it retrieving the stone was not going to be especially difficult. After all, how much trouble could this Covington give them?
Sliding in behind the wheel of the car, Hans started the big Mercedes and slowly drove down the long, narrow lane that led out to the road. At the end of the lane he turned left out onto the main road and at a safe, sensible speed started toward Volos.
"Ja-yun?" a voice softly drawled.
From her crouched position Janice Covington slowly unbent her aching knees and stiffly stood up. Peeking up over the edge of the cramped, ten foot by ten foot hole that she had been working in all morning, she wearily replied, "Yeah, Mel? Whaddaya want?"
Above her, on her knees and peeping down into the hole from Melinda. "I brought you some water," she said, handing down a battered old canteen.
"Oh yeah," Janice grinned, taking the canteen. "Thanks." Unscrewing the cap, she took a long drink of the warm water and then handed the canteen to the man with whom she had shared the long morning with down in that sun baked hole.
Smiling up at Mel, she wistfully said, "Damn, what I wouldn't give for an ice cold bottle of Coke right now."
"Are yuh sure that's all you want?" Mel impishly teased her.
"Why, Melinda Pappas," Janice replied with mock innocence, "you know I don't drink anymore." Only in her mind did she complete the thought. Much! During the past few years she had for the most part acted in accordance with her lover's wishes and refrained from the heavy drinking of her bygone days. But that had not stopped her from more than once this morning entertaining the notion that knocking down a bottle or two of cold Schlitz would not be such a bad thing after all.
"Why don't you break for lunch?" Mel gently urged. "I mean, ya'll have been down there since sun up."
Janice pulled the bright red handkerchief from her back pocket and, taking off her hat, mopped the perspiration off her brow. This was turning out to be yet another in what had been a long string of unseasonably warm days. Janice licked her chapped lips and then turned her attention to her hat for a moment, using her handkerchief to wipe dry the sweat band. Settling the dusty fedora back down on her matted blonde hair, she squinted up at the bright Mediterranean sun and emitted a deep sigh of resignation. Thus far it had been a disappointing day but then again what else was new? Up until now the only thing the excavation could be noted for was its complete and total lack of success. Janice was not accustomed to this kind of complete failure and so by now her frustration was such that she could hardly stand it.
It did not seem fair. She had waited sooo long for this opportunity! The three months spent in the Andes Mountains during the fall of 1941 marked the last time she had been on a legitimate archaeological site and ever since then Janice Covington had not always so patiently bided her time. For sixty-nine months long months--almost six years-- she had waited; planning, dreaming for the day when she could resume her life's work.
Despite this yearning she had for the most part coped with the war years quite well. The heroic service she and Melinda had performed for their country as members of the OSS had helped immeasurably in this. Janice was rightly proud of the role she and Melinda had played in America's victorious war effort. After all, there were not many who had done as much as they had to ensure the success of Operation Paper Clip, America's secret plan to import German scientists to work on the nation's rocket program. Their daring and highly secret rescue mission behind enemy lines to rescue the brilliant scientist Janik Cernak had drawn the praise of none other than the head of the OSS himself. William J. Donovan normally handed out compliments as if they were manhole covers but for bringing back Cernak Jan and Mel had each been given their third decoration of the war.
However even this adventure had been small potatoes when compared to their two most critical enterprises of the war. While on assignment in Costa Rica in June, 1942 they had uncovered and ultimately foiled a Nazi plot to blow up the Panama Canal. Then, in Tehran in late 1943 they had succeeded in nothing less than stopping an assassination attempt on President Roosevelt himself! And while for the rest of her life Janice would never speak of these valiant deeds with anyone but her precious Mel, she was secure in the knowledge that no one could say they had not done their part.
Still, she had missed her work. That fateful knock on her hotel door back in November, 1941 had in a very real sense signaled the end of one life for her and the beginning of another. So much had changed since then. Janice knew that things could never be exactly the way they once were and indeed she had no desire to return to that life of loneliness. With a soul mate there now to share it with, she was more determined than ever to reclaim that portion of life which, up until the arrival of Mel on the scene, had been the only thing to give her troubled soul any pleasure.
What ever her feelings about her work, Janice Covington's priorities had changed. For as much as she loved archaeology it now came in a very poor second when compared to the sweet, soft-spoken belle with the refined manners and the horned-rimmed glasses. Mel was such a comfort to her! When the millionaire Sidney Warner Poole's proposed archaeological expedition to French-Indochina fell through in early 1946 due to the continued political unrest in the area, Janice had grown angry, bitter....depressed. At one time a setback such as this would have sent her reeling into another binge of drunkenness but the loving arms and the tender caress of the gentle Melinda had worked to quickly quash any self-destructive notions she might have been harboring. To the cynical Janice Mel was her one beacon of light in a world full of darkness and evil.
However at this particular moment Janice's beacon of light was impatiently waiting for an answer. "Way-ul?" she expectantly drawled.
Sagging her shoulders in exasperation, Mel replied, "I said why don't you come out of there and have some lunch?"
"Oh yeah. Lunch. Sounds good." Turning to the men next to her she said, "Okay, we'll knock off for a while. Come back in an hour."
"Honestly, Jan," Mel went on, "I jes' don't know where your mind is sometimes."
Leering up at the belle, Janice said, "The gutter mostly. Now be a good girl and help me out of here."
Leaning over the hole, Mel extended a hand down to her irrepressible lover. Janice took the hand and then braced her foot high up against the wall of the hole.
"Ready?" asked Mel. Janice nodded and once again marveled at Melinda's strength as her friend ever so easily lifted her up out of the sweltering hole.
Once Janice was out Mel brightly said, "There ya go."
The man pulled himself up out of the hole after her and wasted no time departing for the shade of the canvas tarpaulin that had been set up on poles to provide shade and which was also the nerve center of the site's activities. The red handkerchief was still in Janice's left hand and this Janice now stuffed into a back pocket of her khaki trousers.
"Find anything?" Mel asked, peering once more over into the hole.
Making no attempt to conceal her disgust, Janice muttered in reply, "Hell no." For the last three days she had been searching the area for the location of what was believed to be the entrance to the tomb of a certain King Nonos, a 6th century B.C. despot who had ruled this region. So far she had found nothing but dirt and rocks, dirt and rocks.
As much as she was loathe to admit it, doubts about the validity of the tomb's existence were beginning to creep into Janice's mind. Dusting off her trousers, she said, "It's looking like more and more like this whole thing is going to be a bust, Mel."
Noting the trace of dejection in Janice's voice, Mel flashed her a sympathetic smile. She then reached up and began to carefully straighten the collar of Janice's loose fitting shirt. Her tones soft and soothing as she tried to assure her friend. "Janice, you're going to find it. I know you will. Melinda's faith in Janice was total and absolute but it was not merely derived from fact that they shared the same bed. By this time she had come to believe there was nothing the little blonde could not accomplish once her mind was set on it.
"Thanks, kid," said Janice, grinning at her. "But if we don't produce some positive results pretty soon I'm afraid our sponsors are going to pull the plug on this excavation."
"Well in that case," Melinda said, with mock solemnity, "we should definitely have some lunch while we can still afford it."
That's my girl! Janice thought, proudly. As a woman of grace and charm Melinda might project a genteel image but as Janice had learned long ago she could be plenty tough enough in her own right when it was necessary. This hidden toughness only made Janice admire her all the more. In her usually cynical eyes Melinda might not have come from Georgia, but she was still a peach. With a chuckle the archaeologist said, "I'm with you, kid."
Forty-five minutes later found Melinda sitting on a crate in their tent, frowning at the half uneaten portion of Janice's sandwich. For the life of her she could not understand how the relentless Janice could function on such meager meals. The woman ate like a bird! As a girl Melinda had been well schooled by her mother that a proper Southern lady simply did not over indulge at the dinner table yet even she was appalled by her friend's indifference to food. "Ahh, Ja-yun," she tactfully began, "you really ought tuh finish the rest of your sandwich."
At the moment Janice was sitting her own crate with her back leaned up against the tent's center pole. She had her arms folded and her short legs were stretched out in repose before her. Without bothering to push up the hat tilted down over her eyes, she issued what was more or less her standard reply to all attempts by Mel to get her to eat. "Maybe later."
Melinda knew it was pointless to press the stubborn Janice any further on the subject and so with a slight shrug of the shoulders she stood up and ambled over to the tent opening. Looking out, she saw the workers still in the same little knots of three of four in which they always gathered when taking their midday meal. As she watched them idle about she was struck by the thought of how very different this trip to Greece had been so far as compared to her first visit here back in 1940.
Golly, she wondered, had it really been that long ago?
It had been the turning point in her young life. Her decision to look up Janice Covington had marked the first time she had ever gotten up the nerve to leave behind her sheltered academic life and venture forth on her own into the real world. On the first trip to Greece she had experienced the thrill of adventure far beyond her wildest dreams. But much, much more importantly...she had found Janice. The tough little blonde with the seemingly perpetual scowl on her face had somehow seen fit to not only accept the gangly, often accident prone Southern belle, but to also in very short order come to regard her as her closest friend. To this day it meant so very much to Melinda that she and Janice were best friends long before they became lovers. While she was now fully aware of the ancient and almost mystical bond between their very distant ancestors, it was still a source of wonder to her how Janice had in such a short time so easily allowed her past that high wall she had thrown up around her heart. This was the kind of stuff one read about in poetry and maybe bad comic books and yet it was all too true. Whatever the reason, Melinda Pappas was truly grateful. Like Xena some thirty centuries before she had found her one true love.
She was about to turn back inside the tent when in the distance she began to hear the high pitched whine of a vehicle as it struggled along in low gear up the long incline leading to their site. "Ja-yun?"
"Hmm?" Janice grunted in reply.
"We've got company."
"Probably that damned Martin again," was Janice's sullen comment, as she pushed her hat back and grudgingly sat erect. Martin was the liaison between Janice and her sponsors. Usually he came up from Athens at least once a week to check on her progress and over the past few weeks his dissatisfaction with her work had become increasingly more apparent with each successive negative report. Janice was irked enough by her own fruitless efforts but her annoyance was compounded even further by the fact that it was to this smirking, supercilious little man that she had to admit those failures. He had been one of those people whom, before even uttering his first word, she knew she would dislike. And she had been right.
Fortunately for Janice's blood pressure it was not Martin this time. Catching sight of the big black sedan as it topped the rise, Melinda said, "IIIII don't think so."
Janice stood up and walked over to join her friend at the opening.
"Who do yuh suppose it could be?" Melinda wondered aloud.
"Beats me," said Janice, putting a hand on Melinda's shoulder.
The car made the final curve in the dusty road and slowly rolled to a stop some twenty yards away. The two women watched intently as two uniformed men got out of the front of the car and another man, dressed in a suit, got out of the back. After a moment's consultation with one of the laborers the men started toward the tent.
"Oh my," said Melinda, a little apprehensively. "This looks serious."
For her part Janice did not much like what she was seeing, either. Without a word she left Melinda standing there by the opening and quickly crossed over to her cot located on the opposite side of the tent. From under the cot the archaeologist dragged out the battered old pack which she always kept stashed there. Wasting no time, she thrust her hand into the pack and pulled out what she cynically referred to as her "second best friend in the whole wide world"--her well worn Colt .45 automatic. Janice stood up and pulled back the slide, cocking it, and with well practiced thumb engaged the safety by the means of a small lever on the left side of the weapon.
Hearing the heavy snap snap of the slide, Melinda turned and saw Janice tugging the tail of her shirt out of her trousers. With some concern she asked, "Golly, Jan do you think that's really necessary?"
"The way things are shaping up around here you can't be too careful, kid," Janice grimly replied. She stuck the pistol into the waist of her trousers and then covered it up with the tail of her shirt.
Even now guns made her nervous but despite this Melinda had to concede that Janice was probably right to want to be prepared. She had come to learn that the gritty archaeologist's instincts were almost always dead on when it came to smelling out trouble.
Janice rejoined her lanky friend at the opening and, looking out, saw the men were now only a few yards away. Brushing past Melinda, she said, "Stay here. I'll see what these palookas want."
Her voice soft but firm, Melinda answered, "No. I'm going with you, Jan."
For a fleeting moment Janice looked into the azure eyes of her friend, her lover, her life. The feelings of pride she had for her brave belle were far beyond her poor capacity to express so all she could do was wink at the woman and, in a low voice, say, "All right. But keep your eye on the bastards."
With an obeisant little nod of the head Mel murmured, "Right."
Janice thrust the tent flap aside and with Melinda on her heels, stepped out into the midday sun. "What can I do for you boys?" Janice half asked, half demanded, as the men joined them.
It fell to the man in the suit, obviously the leader, to answer. Before he did he stood there for a moment looking the women up and down; first Janice with her dusty hat, soiled trousers and wrinkled shirt; then Melinda with her clean white shirt and spotless khaki trousers. To his way of thinking it seemed that it should not be this dirty blonde with the sour look on her face who was in charge but rather the statuesque, immaculately dressed vision of loveliness standing quietly next to her.
Returning his gaze to Janice, he said, "You are Covington?"
"That's right." Gesturing to Melinda she added, "And this is my associate, Melinda Pappas. If you're here to check our permits I want to say this is the third damn time and I'm getting tired of it."
Such insolence! thought the man in the suit. Already he found himself disliking this woman. Drawing himself up in a dignified manner, he stiffly said, "I am Inspector Pratikakis." Here he paused and casually scanned the site. Pratikakis was a professional through and through but, even so, he now somehow felt compelled to toss out the barb, "I have seen many noted archaeologists come to my country." Then with a condescending little smile he added, "However I must say I have never heard of you."
Oh Lord! thought Melinda.
Janice never batted an eye at this. Instead, without missing a beat she returned his smile and in a voice laced with acerbity said, "Well that makes us even. I've never heard of you, either." She knew she ought to be content to let it go at that but she simply could not resist a little piling on after the whistle, "And to tell you the truth, I've never met one dumb ass, flat-footed detective that could even spell archaeologist, much less name one." Keenly she watched with no small amount of satisfaction as the man's cheeks flushed with anger.
Arrogant bitch! he silently raged. Arrogant American bitch! It was only with some effort that he managed to maintain his composure in front of his men. After all, he was not accustomed to being spoken to in such a rude manner. He was used to people showing him the proper respect. "You would be well advised to cooperate with this...'flatfoot,'" he warned her through clenched teeth.
Melinda noted that in spite of his heavy accent his grasp of English seemed to be quite good.
Whatever the quality of the man's communication skills the volatile Janice had had just about enough. "Look," she growled, "I'm busy. So why don't you stop beating around the fucking bush and tell us just what the fuck it is you want?"
Melinda understood all too well the meaning of the double use of the "f" word in one sentence and so to head off any potential trouble here she stepped forward and slipped a shoulder in front of her fiery lover. "Uhh, why don't we all step into the tent and get out of this sun?"
The inspector did not directly reply but instead turned to his two cohorts. Leaning in close, he mumbled something to them in Greek. These two both nodded and Pratikakis then turned back to face the two women. "Very well," he said.
Melinda wrapped her arm around Janice's waist. By pressing her hand gently against Janice's rock hard abdomen she was able to steer her still thoroughly riled lover back toward the tent. Janice took pride in her work and it was difficult enough for her to swallow Martin's snide little comments about her abilities--but at least he paid the bills. However she was not about to take any crap from some bull who would not know a relic from a rattlesnake. Alone she might have gotten into serious trouble but the tender warmth of the arm gently girding her effectively blunted that sharp point of her anger enough so that by the time she and Melinda were in the tent she had pretty much cooled down.
Looking the inspector squarely in the eye, Janice asked, "Now what's this all about?"
Pratikakis had entered the tent alone, leaving the two uniformed men outside to keep an eye on things. At this point he reached into a jacket pocket and produced a notebook and a stubby pencil. Opening the notebook, he said, "You know a Professor Alfred Frailing, do you not?"
Janice narrowed her eyelids and said, "Yeah. I know him. I know a lot of people. So what?"
Immediately Melinda feared the worst. "Is...is something wrong?" she warily asked. She knew this was a rather silly question. Of course something was wrong. Otherwise there would not be any visit from a police inspector. It was merely one of those things people say when circumstances make them feel compelled to say something.
"Three days ago Professor Frailing and a young woman named Millicent Connors were found dead in his tent. I've been assigned to question the foreigners in the area."
In horror Melinda put her hand to her mouth and gasped, "My God! No!"
"Damn!" Janice muttered. "How did it happen?"
Poor Millie! thought Melinda, sadly. In her mind she pictured the fresh-faced, ebullient young woman with the easy smile. She remembered the fun they had playing bridge together against the wily Professor Frailing and old Mr. Rupert and how Millie would good-naturedly banter with Janice when the archaeologist invariably teased them that poker was the only real card game. Millie had liked Janice. Oh, Millie! she silently lamented. You had your whole life ahead of you....
"Alfred Frailing died from multiple blows to the head and the girl was apparently asphyxiated," said Pratikakis, matter-of-factly.
"Asphyxiated?" said Janice, furrowing her brow.
In an effort to be helpful Melinda offered up, "He means smothered."
"I know what he means," Janice snapped. Had it been anyone else in the world Janice would not have given her sharp answer a second thought but this was Melinda, her precious Mel, and immediately she was sorry for her boorish remark. Even now she sometimes forgot how tender hearted the woman was. However this was not the time to make amends. That would come later.
Actually Janice need not have concerned herself for Melinda shrugged it off easily enough. She had long since learned how intense her friend could be at times like this.
"Why the hell would somebody want to kill an old man and a kid?" Janice wondered aloud.
"We were hoping you could shed some light on that," said Pratikakis, eyeing her keenly.
"What gave you that idea?" Janice warily shot back. What rankled her was not what the inspector had said but rather the intense way he seemed to be scrutinizing her.
Pratikakis pretended to ignored her petulance and replied. "The tent was ransacked. Obviously, whoever did it was looking for something."
"Did anything turn up missing?"
"That is not my concern now," Pratikakis answered coldly. "Two people are dead and I have been assigned to find out who killed them."
In Janice's own nimble mind it was pretty much clear what had happened. She figured that Frailing had been taken by surprise and, tenacious old coot that he was, had resisted. It was probably just Millie's bad luck to be there when it happened. Poor kid, she thought, echoing Melinda's sentiments.
Pratikakis flipped over a page in his notebook and at long last got to the heart of the matter. "When was the last time you saw Professor Frailing?"
Janice had to think for a moment before answering, "About three weeks ago."
"At that time did he give any indication that he might be on the verge of some important discovery?"
"Hmph!" Janice snorted. "How the hell would he know that? The man was an archaeologist, not a fortune teller."
Ignoring this, Pratikakis went on. "Would he have told you if he was?"
Janice had to concede this was a good question but in her mind she concluded probably not. Just like her Frailing could be as tight-lipped as a clam when it came to their work. Accordingly, aloud she said, "We talked in very general terms about how things were going from time to time."
"How about on this occasion?"
"Naw, just the usual shop talk. Like I said we rarely got into specifics," said Janice. "Did you check his records?"
"We found a log or, journal," Pratikakis told her. "However several pages were missing."
As she listened to this exchange Melinda began to wonder why this man was asking Janice all the questions. Not that she minded. Janice was so much more adroit at handling this sort of thing. Another thing that gave her cause to wonder was why this man here at all? Surely he did not actually think they would know anything about this terrible crime. Did he? In times past such a disturbing though might have sent her into a cold sweat but Melinda Pappas had seen many terrible things since that day she first boarded the boat for Europe way back in 1940. Adventure and risk was all new and even a little exhilarating to her in those first innocent days but now after all the horror she had witnessed that first little adventure with Janice seemed almost tame by comparison. Yes, she was still uncomfortable with the inspector's presence but they had done nothing wrong, after all, and therefore she saw no real cause for concern. All through the rest of Pratikakis' inquiries Melinda kept thinking about her slain colleagues. Later the only question she would be able to recall was the one about if Frailing had ever mentioned anything as being odd or unusual.
At last the questioning came to an end and for her part Janice was not sorry to see Pratikakis fold up his notebook and bid them good day. Despite her irritation at some of his questions she knew they had been for the most part routine and from what she could tell Pratikakis seemed satisfied enough.
As the inspector departed the two women followed him outside and from their vantage point in front of the tent stood and watched the three policemen climb back into the big car and start back down the hill. For Melinda her relief was tempered by an old familiar feeling of helplessness. She was so glad Janice was there because right at the moment she simply did not know what to do next.
It had been that way when her father died back in '39 except then the feelings of helplessness were so powerful as to almost overwhelm her. Fortunately her younger brother, Robert, had been a rock she could lean on and eventually the pain of her loss abated. Melinda had led such a sheltered life up to that point but with the death of her "Daddy" she recognized that things had irrevocably changed and her life as she knew it would never be the same.
Once she got over her grief she became filled with a new found desire to reach out for
something, anything, that would take her away from her mundane life and out into
the real world. To that end she seized upon an old telegram to her father from one Janice
Covington, little realizing just how much that one little scrap of paper would alter her
After the car had gone Melinda sighed deeply and in a quiet voice asked "What do we do now, Jan?"
Her companion kept her eyes locked for a moment on the long trail of dust the car was leaving as the men wended their way back down the hill. Finally she turned to Melinda. "Not much we can do," she said dully. It was not a real answer but like Melinda the news of the death of their friends had struck her hard.
"I hope they catch the bastards who did it," Melinda softly remarked.
To hear Melinda utter such an indecorous word was for Janice one more shock in what was turning out to be a day of shocks. Melinda Pappas never cursed and had the circumstances surrounding it been different she would have teased her a good bit over it. But not now. Not with wise old Frailing and the kind-hearted Millie lying dead less than fifty kilometers away. What a waste! she thought sadly. For a brief moment she thought about the funeral arrangements and wondered who would be taking care of them. However it came to her that some of Frailing's associates would undoubtedly come down to Greece to claim the bodies and have them flown back to England.
"Me too," said Janice, answering her friend. Lifting the tail of her shirt, she pulled out the .45 and then proceeded to thumb off the safety. In an intricate maneuver she carefully eased down the hammer of the big pistol using only one hand. To be able to do this required some practice as the M1911 Colt came with an additional safety device in the grip which had to be depressed in order to free the trigger for firing. This made it difficult for the hammer, once cocked, to be lowered back down again unless one used two hands. For the experienced Janice it was a piece of cake.
Without a word she went back inside the tent and returned the gun to its hiding place. Only now did her thoughts return to the pit in which she had spent the entire morning. She decided there was really nothing left to do except go back to work. Somehow, though, her work no longer seemed as important as it had an hour ago. Two smart, good people who had so much to contribute were dead! And for what? Nevertheless, Janice was every inch a professional when it came to her work and part of being a professional meant that sometimes one had to disregard unpleasant circumstances and simply carry on.
As she watched the long trail of dust slowly drift off to the east she let out a long, deep sigh. Although only thirty-four years old Janice suddenly felt old. Old and very tired. So much death! It never seemed to end. It was as if some sinister black cloud was following her around, forever raining down trial and tribulation upon her. Her hope had been that with the end of the war she and Melinda would be able to put all the tragedy behind them and get on with their lives in as normal a manner as possible. And while the past two years had by and large been marked by inefficaciousness, Janice could take some solace in the knowledge that these disappointments were professional and not personal. Her life with Melinda was growing more wonderful with each passing day and she had been spared the awful necessity of having to sadly reflect upon yet another death. Until now.
"Well," she said finally, "we're not going to get anything accomplished by just standin' around here." Sticking two fingers into the corners of her mouth, Janice let out a loud, shrill whistle. This was her signal for the laborers to return to work.
"I think maybe we're too close to that wall," allowed Janice, nodding toward the meager remains of a stone wall extending some one hundred yards across the top of the hill. She believed there had once been a fortress here which had commanded the entire valley from these heights and that this low wall was the only remaining evidence of it. "I think Phillip and I will try over there, about a hundred yards to the south."
When Melinda made no immediate reply Janice glanced up at her and saw that her friend was staring across the summit with an odd, far away look in her eyes. Lightly touching Melinda's arm, Janice asked, "Are you all right, kid?"
More than the voice, it was the hand on her arm that brought her back to the here and now. Flinching ever so slightly at the touch of Janice's hand, she answered, "Hmm? Ohh. Yes. I'm fine, Jan."
"Are you sure?"
"I was just thinkin' about Millie," said Melinda. In truth her mind had been far away from Millie, and Frailing, and for that matter....Janice. For the first time in over two years she had just experienced that.....feeling again. Melinda felt uneasy as Janice intently studied her face and she worried that her friend might decide to press her further about it. The idea of that powerful spirit once again so near always made her feel apprehensive--even if the spirit was that of her illustrious, protective ancestor.
As much to avert that penetrating gaze as anything else, Melinda took off her glasses and wiped them clean with the handkerchief she carried in her back pocket. The belle had learned early on there was not much that slipped by those piercing green eyes. However Janice said nothing more and with the "feeling" gone now as quickly as it had come, Melinda was relieved to see that her friend appeared to be satisfied with her answer.
With a tight-lipped smile Janice said, "Try not to think about it. Find something to occupy your mind."
For Melinda this was easier said than done. With their general lack of success Melinda was for the most part left without much of anything to do. Not only was it she who took care of most of the language work but it was also usually Janice's habit when a find was made to immediately turn it over to Melinda and move on to something else, leaving the belle to do the delicate work of actually removing the embedded object. This often required a considerable amount of painstaking, even tedious work but Melinda never tired of doing it. Indeed, she was proud that Janice entrusted her with such an important job. For her part Janice saw it as a godsend because for one thing it meant she did not have to do it and for another she was well aware that Melinda was far better at it than she was anyway. Her friend was infinitely more patient than she was and it was this trait that, along with her sure hands and delicate touch, made her a natural for the job. Unfortunately, since Janice had found very little of consequence thus far it meant in turn that Melinda's role had more or less been relegated to one of tidying up the books and keeping her partner's spirits up.
In reply Melinda arched her dark eyebrows in an expression of solemn wistfulness. "I would update the catalogue," she said. "That is...if there was anything tuh catalogue."
"Jeez, Mel," grinned Janice, "you really know how to hurt a girl, doncha?"
Melinda put her glasses back on and returned her friend's smile. "Oh I reckon you'll pull through all right."
Janice chuckled softly at this and said, "Well it's good to know somebody still has confidence in me."
Mel's smile faded and her voice softened to that sweet, very sincere tone that never failed to touch Janice's heart. "Always, Jan."
"I didn't mean to snap at ya back there, you know that. I was just pissed at that cop."
Melinda's smile returned and she said, "Oh Lord, Jan. I knew that. I was just afraid you were going tuh conk him over the head with something."
Janice laughed at this. "Well I can't say I wasn't tempted," she admitted. With the back of her hand she playfully tapped Melinda on the tummy. "I'll see ya later." The archaeologist turned away and began to make her way across the summit. Already the man, Phillip, was moving to join her. Melinda saw Janice hook her arm over her head as Phillip neared and point to the south in an indication as to where they should try next.
Melinda watched the two of them for a few moments more as they walked across the site and then stepped back inside the tent. Dully sweeping her eyes over its dusty interior, she breathed a soft sigh. Under her breath she muttered, "There has to be something useful I can do around here." However, after idly wandering around the tent for a few minutes she came to the unhappy conclusion there really was not and so as a last resort she decided to kill some time straightening up the place. Even back at their home in Annapolis Janice was not exactly the poster child for neatness and when out in the field like this she cared even less. The normally quite finical Melinda did not mind because she well understood this was a work site and not some room in the Waldorf-Astoria. Besides, she reasoned, Janice really was in her element here and the less she had in the way of distractions, the better.
So Melinda diligently set to work, quietly humming to herself as she straightened up the tent. The first thing she decided to do was make the cots. Besides the absence of luxurious baths in her very own tub it was these hard cots and their scratchy blankets that most often gave her cause to miss their home. She missed sleeping in the big, soft four-poster bed that Janice had given her for a birthday present some five years before.
What she missed most about the bed, however, was having Janice's lithe body lying there with her. She missed the warm, liquid sensation of her lover's butt pressing against her tummy as she snuggled close to her on those long, dark Maryland nights. She missed enveloping the smaller woman in her arms and holding her tightly all night long. She missed waking up in the middle of the night to find Janice nuzzling and lightly suckling her breasts. Melinda paused from her work for a moment and smiled as she thought of how much Janice adored her breasts.
Out here of course, Melinda well knew that such things as soft beds and intimate embraces were not very practicable. This was not merely because of the limitations the small cots imposed but also because natural circumstances afforded them very little privacy. Even their tent was not much help in this regard. Despite Janice's repeated warnings not to do so, men were always bursting into the tent with one complaint or another. If not that then it was usually a call to break up some fight. And even though most of the men went home at night there were others who, having no other particular place to go, had more or less made the camp their home.
In the old days before the war Janice would not have tolerated these intrusions for one moment. Indeed, she would in all likelihood have seen fit to punish some offender with a solid crack on the head. However with the present political unrest in Greece it was difficult to find and--much more importantly--keep dependable labor and so she was now in the position of being forced to "grin and bear" many things she never would have countenanced in the past. The net result of all this was that it put a sever damper on the ladies' love life.
After the cots were made Melinda spent the next three quarters of an hour on other little tasks such as sorting and arranging Janice's papers and storing away items that had been left strewn about the tent. At last, with the small jobs all finally out of the way, Melinda turned her attention to the thing she had saved for last.
In the corner of the tent opposite the cots were a number of wooden containers ranging in size from that of a the proverbial bread box to crates measuring several feet in length. Most of the equipment needed for their work had arrived in these crates and on several occasions it had been necessary for Janice and the men to search extensively through these boxes in order to find what they were looking for. As a result what had once been a neat stack of boxes and crates was now a jumbled pile with empty containers intermingling with ones as yet still unopened.
Now, as she stood there before the mountain of wood, Melinda mentally took herself to task for her inattentiveness in the matter. This view that it was her responsibility came primarily by default. After all, if she did not take care of it, who would? Janice? Hardly. The gritty archaeologist was under a tremendous amount of pressure and consequently had far more important things to worry about than simple housekeeping chores. At the moment Melinda could not contribute in the manner for which she was trained. But she could do this. Straightening up a tent did not exactly require her advanced degree from the University of South Carolina but it was the best she had to offer at the present time. And so she vowed right there that if circumstances dictated this was going to be her job for the time being, so be it. She would not be slack in her responsibilities again.
So with a deep breath and a resolute little nod of the head she launched herself at the daunting pile. Forty-five minutes of hard work later found her nearing the end of her task. All that remained was for her to pick up the hammer and the crow bar Janice and the men used to open the crates and lay them up on top of the stack.
She had just crouched down to get the tools when the light in the tent suddenly grew markedly more dim and out of the corner of her eye she saw a silhouette appear at the opening of the tent. Someone was at the opening. Thinking it was Janice, Melinda did not bother to face the figure as she set the tools on the stack. "Come back for the rest of your sandwich, did you?" she teased. "Well, ha ha, I ate it."
Melinda still had her back turned when she heard a soft clearing of the throat. Like a bolt of lightning the realization came to her that the figure in the door was not Janice.
"Beg pardon, Miss. Are you Janice Covington?"
Melinda had already stood up and was whirling around when she heard the voice. She saw standing there in the door a man who looked to be in his fifties. His clothes, though well made, were very dusty and Melinda noted that he appeared not to have shaven for several days. In size he was only slightly shorter than Melinda and fairly heavy set. His face was pale with dark circles under his sunken eyes. Looking at him, Melinda could not help but get the impression the man was not exactly what Janice called "in the pink."
Still a little startled by his sudden appearance, she stammered out, "C-can I help you, sir?"
"Covington," the man wheezed. "I'm looking for Janice Covington. I was told I would find her here."
"Uhh no," Melinda answered, As discreetly as she dared away from him and back to the stack of boxes. "I mean...she--she's out on the site." Though not nearly as shy as she had been before meeting the dynamic Janice, Melinda still often found herself nervous when alone among strangers. And no doubt about it, this fellow darkening her door certainly looked strange to her.
Judging from the tired way he seemed so slump at the shoulders the belle did not really think he posed all that much of a threat. Nevertheless, she decided the prudent thing to do was to take a page from Janice's book and be ready--just in case. This was what had necessitated her slight pivot. She wanted to be able to get to the crow bar should the need arise.
"Please," the man said, his voice still breathless. "It's imperative that I speak with her at once."
"All right," said Melinda evenly. She could see the man was obviously in distress. She was still a little apprehensive about his sudden appearance but, compassionate soul that she was, she could not help but feel concern for him. He really did look to be in a bad way.
Stretching out a long arm, she pointed toward the cots and said, "If you want you can sit over there while I go get her."
For a few tense moments the man looked wildly at her and seemed hesitant to answer, causing Melinda to wonder if it might not come down to the crow bar after all. Then, to her great relief, she saw him sag his shoulders even more and wearily nod his assent. "Very well," he said, practically lurching his way into the tent. "But do hurry."
This entreatment was wholly unnecessary because as soon as the man was far enough
removed from the opening Melinda was out of the hole and gone.
At the sound of her name Janice Covington looked up from the grid she had been busily laying out. Looking back across the summit toward the main tent, she saw Melinda jogging toward her in that silly girlish manner--hands up, elbows tucked in--that was so characteristic of her. It was as if she expected those glasses of hers to come flying off at any moment. As always Janice was amazed that the woman could even keep her balance that way. She seemed so...awkward! Try as she might, those long, lean legs of hers just could not seem to be put in synchronization with the rest of her body. Janice knew all too well, though, that put those legs in water and this klutzy young lady swam like a dolphin! It was because of her Mel's swimming prowess that Jan had survived the torpedoing of their ship off the Yucatán Peninsula back in the late spring of '42.
Melinda was close enough now that Janice could read the sense of urgency in her friend's voice. "What's up?" she called out, strolling across to meet her.
Melinda trotted up to her and stopped in such a manner that it seemed as though all her body parts had not arrived simultaneously. "Ja-yun!" she excitedly repeated, after first pausing for a deep breath.
"Take your time, kid," Janice patiently coaxed.
Though long removed from the collegiate swimming pools she had once dominated, Melinda still made an effort to keep fit as best she could. As one might expect she really did not like to run but rather preferred other means of exercise. Nevertheless, the quarter mile she had just covered had not left her overly winded.
"There's a fella..." she said, taking another deep breath, "...back at the tent. Lookin' for you."
Janice squinted her eyes at the tent. "Another one? Did he say who he was?"
Melinda shook her head. "All he said was he had tuh see you. He acted like it was very urgent."
"Urgent, huh?" Janice snorted and said, "I'll bet. It's probably some palooka looking for a handout."
"I don't know, Jan," countered Melinda. In a low conspiratorial tone she added, "He sounds British."
Janice was not impressed. "So? There are lots of Limeys who are palookas too, Mel. Remember Smythe?"
Melinda wrinkled her nose. "Was he British?"
"Yep." Janice paused for a moment and the quizzically looked up at her friend. "Wasn't he?" Though surely the last, her run-in with the unfortunate Smythe and his henchmen back in 1940 had not been the first she and the man had locked horns. Yet only now did Janice realize she was not exactly sure just what his nationality was--or had been.
With a shrug she answered her own question, "With a silly accent like that he must have been."
Janice's stress on "silly accent" was not lost on her lovely Southern friend. Melinda puffed herself up in mock indignation and stuck her nose into the air. In a most exaggerated down home drawl she said, "Hmph. Janice Cuvintun, I reckon I simply jes' don't know what ya'll are talkin' about. If yuh ask me it's you Yankees what talk funny."
Janice chuckled and in turn the belle flashed that dazzling which she reserved only for her lover and her lover alone. Janice often teased Melinda about her proud Southern heritage but she always took great care to do it in a gentle vein. For her part Melinda took it in stride and sometimes even managed to give it back in kind to her devilish friend. However her heart was never really in it. Unlike the often acerbic Janice who seemed to thrive on waging her own personal little wars, Melinda had never really been comfortable with confrontation of any kind. She therefore was for the most part perfectly willing to let Janice have her little fun. Besides, she had learned there were other, even more effective ways of getting even with her.
"Well," said Janice, shooting Melinda an impish grin, "whatever
nationality our guest is, let's not keep him waiting."
With Melinda close on her heels, Janice stepped into the tent. Once there her green eyes did a sweep of the interior and, finding their target, quickly fixed a hard gaze upon it.
At the sight of the two women the man stood up. "Covington?" he asked, a trace of hopefulness creeping into his voice. "Janice Covington?"
There was, however, no empathy forthcoming from Janice. Casting a coolly unsympathetic eye at the man, she asked "Whaddaya want?"
Melinda, reared from childhood to be an impeccably mannered lady, was appalled by her friend's brusque behavior. She simply could not understand how a woman who was so warm and loving with her could project such an insensitive, unfeeling image toward others. Janice could be so positively...brutal at times!
Janice, of course, saw things differently. Her whole life had been marked by incessant struggle. It defined her very existence. As a youngster the struggle had been against the gnawing pangs of hunger. As a teenager it had been to first, get into college and then, find the money to stay there. After that it had been the inevitable struggle for acceptance and the fight to make a name for herself in a male dominated profession. Every obstacle that had ever been thrust into her path she had overcome with that dogged, relentless determination that was so much a part of her psyche. She had what athletes often referred to as "fire in the belly" and unlike the well-heeled Melinda nobody had ever given her anything. Everything she had ever gotten in life had been worked for, clawed for...fought for. Janice expected no quarter and, left to her own devices, would rarely give any.
Growing up, Melinda had by and large led a sheltered life with loving parents always close to guide her and make her feel safe. She had not seen the world as Janice had. Janice had dealt with people who would slit a throat just for a good laugh. She knew she sometimes caused her friend some consternation for her "to hell with 'em" attitude but that was the way she saw the world and not even the person she would die for could change that entirely.
Immediately put on the defensive, the man cleared his throat and replied, "I, uhhh, need your help." As if unsure of himself, he paused a moment before going on. "It is Miss Covington, right?"
"Just Covington," Janice answered, her eyes boring into him ever deeper. She did a half turn to face Melinda and said, "And this is Miss Pappas."
Slightly embarrassed by Janice's emphatic use of the title, Melinda shot the man a sheepish little smile and said, "I'm just plain ol' Mel."
Janice eyed her in tender amusement just for the span of a heartbeat or two before once more turning her attention back to the man. "And just who are you?"
The man forced a faint, nervous smile. He had heard this Covington woman was a hard case but even so he had not quite been prepared for her intense, take no prisoners approach. "Oh," he said. "Dreadfully sorry. My name is Kettering, Miles Kettering."
Janice recognized the name. Back during the early and mid-1930's Miles Kettering had made quite a name for himself. In the decade before he had cut his professional teeth working in Egypt's fabulous Valley of the Kings under the tutelage of the legendary Herbert Winlock before later striking out on his own around 1930. She remembered her professor back in college calling him a rising star in the field of archaeology.
As is soon turned out, however, this "star" proved to be more of a streaking meteor because sometime around late 1938 or early 1939 Miles Kettering's blip abruptly and completely disappeared off the archaeological radar screen. Janice had not heard of him since.
"I've heard of you," she acknowledged. "You were with Winlock in Egypt." Even Janice, who was not easily impressed, had to admit the significance of the work that had been done there. "That," she allowed, "was big stuff."
To Melinda, Kettering seemed pleased at Janice's mention of what surely must have been happier times because the man suddenly appeared to stand up a little straighter and to hold his head a little more erect. Glancing down, she now noticed that the stale, uneaten half of Janice's sandwich was gone. You poor man! she thought.
As if to validate Mel's assessment of what he was thinking, Kettering answered in a wistful voice, "It was an exciting time for me."
Though Kettering seemed to be down on his luck, Janice was not much inclined to take pity on him. She knew it was more than likely that if circumstances had been reversed and it had been she who was asking for help, Kettering probably would have already tossed her out on her behind without giving her a second thought. He would not have sympathized with her; he would not have helped her. But then, no one had ever sympathized with her. Except Mel. No one had ever tried to help her in much of anything. Except Mel.
"How did you get here?" Janice asked, suspiciously.
"I walked, of course," said Kettering.
That's a hell of a walk, thought Janice. Indeed it was. The summit stood almost a mile above sea level but by the time one negotiated the treacherous, winding road up to the top the actual distance was almost double that.
"Well," she sighed, "so just what is it that you think I can do for you?"
For the first time Kettering's face displayed a spark of emotion. His eyes grew wide and took on strange glassy quality. Grinning eerily he said, "I think your question should be what I can do for...you!"
"Look," Janice shot back, annoyed by apparent reluctance to get to the point, "I don't have time for this crap." She jerked a thumb over her shoulder and said, "I've got a dozen guys out there who won't do anything more strenuous than scratch their ass unless I'm right there to see to it they earn their pay. So either spill the beans or scram outta here."
"You are most ahh...unique," said Kettering, still smiling. "Just like I was told." Noting the sour expression on the woman's face, he quickly added, "And I do mean that as a compliment."
Janice turned her head askance and looked at him out of the corner of her eye as if not quite sure what to make of the man.
Melinda sensed her lover's blood pressure was beginning to rise and so deemed it was time for her to step in. If Janice got angry there was no telling what she might do. In soothing tones that were meant as much for her lover as for the stranger, Mel urged, "If you would jes' tell us what it is you want, Mister Kettering, Janice and I might be able to help."
"Mel, why the hell should we help this guy?" Janice asked.
"Money," Kettering broke in. "More than you've ever dreamed of."
Eyeing him up and down, Janice said, "You just bought yourself a little more time, pal. So use it."
Kettering's weird grin widened again. "What do you know about a 4th century B.C. chap by the name of Harpalus?"
"He was a crony of Alexander the Great, right?" said Janice.
A little hesitantly Melinda said, "Harpalus was a lifelong friend of Alexander the Great. After Alexander assumed the throne he made Harpalus the royal treasurer. Later he tried to flee to Athens because it was discovered he was keeping for himself a healthy portion of the loot Alexander was sending back to Macedonia."
"Quite so, young lady," said Kettering, nodding his approval.
"Hmph," Janice snorted. "He'd just be your typical run of the mill congressman today."
With the discussion turning to the time of the legendary conqueror, the meteoric Alexander, Melinda's interest in the exchange between Janice and Kettering increased exponentially. She had been a mere child of ten when first her father told her the story of the young man whose very name had made nations from the Aegean Sea to the Indus River quake with fear. Ever since then she had held a strong, some would even say unusual fascination for the brilliant warrior. Even Melinda herself did not quite know why this ancient conqueror, dead before his thirty-fifth birthday, was so firmly ingrained in her imagination. She certainly was no student of military history. Nevertheless, she had made an extensive study of not only his life and the impact of his reign, but of his great campaigns as well, voraciously reading anything and everything she could lay her hands on. Many had been the time when, while poring over some musty book about his life, Melinda herself had given pause and wondered just what it was she was doing only to always return to her reading, her hand perfunctorily turning the pages time after time as if guided by some unseen force.
What Melinda did not, could not know, what even Xena, the spirit that was such a large part of the belle's soul had not made known to her, was that not only was Alexander, son of Phillip of Macedonia, in fact a direct descendant of the long forgotten warrioress from Amphipolis, but it was through his once royal lineage that one Melinda Pappas of Columbia, South Carolina was linked to her. In short Mel Pappas was a direct descendant of both! Had her interest indeed been sparked by the spirit of Alexander the Great himself, his own hand reaching out across two millennia to touch this, his most unwarlike of progeny? Or was it mere coincidence? Who could say for certain? Still, if Xena could do it....
"Okay," said Janice, "so Harpalus was a bad egg. What's that got to do with me?"
A faint, knowing smile played across Kettering's lips. From the scant information he had been able to glean about this intense young woman he knew she had once been quite a carouser. Now he hoped that some remnant of that persona still remained. "Covington," he asked, "that long trek up the mountain has left me feeling rather jittery. You wouldn't happen to have anything to calm a man's nerves, would you?"
Janice understood well enough what he meant. It was apparent she was not going to get rid of the man any time soon so.....
The little archaeologist shifted uncomfortably and Kettering saw her cast a darting, almost wary glance at the statuesque beauty standing quietly next to her. Her voice uncharacteristically hesitant, she replied, "I...might."
Well well, thought Kettering, so the Spitfire is human after all! His spirits buoyed by this unexpected revelation, Kettering said, "Well by all means, Covington, do bring it out. We can make a toast."
I was right, thought Janice, this guy is nuts! Still, he did look to be somewhat the worse for wear and Janice reckoned that a good stiff belt might just do him some good. The only problem was in order to do that she would have to produce the bottle which Melinda had known nothing about. Until now.
Oh well, she thought, it's too late now. From the very beginning of their relationship Melinda had frowned mightily on Janice's drinking and it was a tribute to Janice's all encompassing love for her that she had in effect pulled back from the very brink of alcoholism to a point where she now rarely drank at all.
Casting a furtive glance at Melinda, Janice knelt down beside her cot and again reached under for her pack. "All right, Kettering, I'll play ball," she said. "So what are we toasting?"
The strange look returned to Kettering's eyes and with almost a giggle he said, "Possibilities, Covington, possibilities. It is quite possible that you could soon be a very rich young woman."
"Rich, huh?" Janice sardonically replied. "I'd like to have a sawbuck for every time I've heard that." Janice thrust her hand into the bag to get the bottle she felt a finger reassuringly brush against the hard steel barrel of the .45 automatic. For a millisecond she wondered if it ought not to be the gun she should take from the bag and not the bottle but in the end she decided that, crazy though he seemed to be, Kettering posed no real threat. After all, she had handled fellows a lot tougher than him with nothing more than her bare hands.
"Here we go," said Janice, bringing out the bottle.
It bore no label but it was of the size that Americans commonly called a "fifth" and Melinda saw that it was slightly less than half full. The sight of it made her more apprehensive than angry. After all, Janice was her own woman and certainly not bound by any feeble restrictions Melinda might hope to apply. No, her discomfort was more due to her fear that, once begun, Janice would not know when to stop. Looking at the bottle, she thought it most fortunate that there did not seem to be enough in it to do any real harm. She had seen Janice drink men twice her size under the table without batting an eye. In the end about all she could do was softly ask "Where did you get that?"
If it had been anyone else the hot-tempered Janice would have bluntly told them it was none of their damned business. Melinda Pappas, however, was not just "anybody." Even so, Janice had no real desire to discuss the matter with her in the presence of this stranger. All she told her lanky friend was, "I won it."
"Won it? Where?"
Janice rose and set the bottle down on her little desk with a solid thump! "In town," she replied. Then, in an attempt to ward off any further inquiries Melinda might have, she quickly added, "I'll tell ya about it later."
Melinda of course recognized this hint for what it was and so she dropped the subject. She knew Janice wanted to focus all her attention right now on this odd little fellow and his silly offer to make them rich and she was more than willing to let her do that. Besides, Melinda knew there would be plenty of time to grill her friend about it later.
Janice swept up her old handleless navy style mug and pitched out the finger of coffee left over in it from breakfast. Pouring a generous shot into the mug, she handed it to Kettering and said, "Miles Kettering, meet Mister Jack Daniels."
"Always delighted to make a new friend," said a grinning Kettering as he took the mug.
Janice raised the bottle in salute and saw Kettering cast an anticipatory glance at the raven haired beauty who was now merely standing by, watching quietly the proceedings.
With some surprise he asked "Aren't you going offer a drink to the other lady?"
"There's only one lady here," Janice matter-of-factly replied. "And she doesn't drink. Down the hatch."
Kettering shrugged and raised his cup. Likewise, Janice raised the bottle to her lips. Like the seasoned veterans they both were, the Brit easily drained the contents of his cup while Janice proceeded to knock down a good stiff slug from the bottle.
Finished, Kettering gave a satisfied little moan and said, "I say, that was rather good."
"Want another one?" asked Janice.
Kettering's answer was quick and enthusiastic. "By all means."
Janice shot him a little half grin and once more filled the bottom of the old mug with a generous helping of the whiskey. This time Kettering did not even bother to wait for Janice to join him; he simply downed the shot and finished it off with a contented, "Ahhh."
Eyeing him now with some amusement, Janice did not join him in another round. Instead she merely placed the bottle back down on her little desk. "All right," she declared, "now we're all pals. So why doncha just...get on with it?" Janice glanced at her watch and added, "And give us the Reader's Digest version."
"Of course," said Kettering. He had rather hoped Janice would offer up another shot of the whiskey but he had the distinct impression that the bar was now closed. And so, resigned to this unhappy fact, Kettering began his tale...
"I have always been fascinated by the Hellenistic Age. Even while I was with Winlock in Egypt I still devoured any and everything on the subject that I could lay my hands on. Yes, I understood well enough that if one wants to really make a name for himself these days in the field of archaeology then the surest route is through Egyptology. For the last century or so that has been the glamour field. Nevertheless the study of ancient Greece has always been the greatest source of the excitement for me.
So it was then that you can imagine my elation when none other than Lord Hanley of the British Archaeological Society contacted me in early 1939 about the possibility of conducting a dig on the Magnesia Peninsula."
This puzzled Janice. "Why on earth would Hanley want you to go nosing around on the Magnesia Peninsula? Everybody knows there's really nothing much of consequence there."
Kettering's lips formed a wry little grin and he said, "In the field of archaeology Lord Hanley was then and is now the most influential person in England. For the money he offered, not to mention the boost it would bring to my career by being associated with the esteemed Lord Hanley I would have excavated a dung heap had he wanted me to."
Janice Covington could certainly see the logic in the part about the money. In archaeology as in just about everything else, money talked.
"Besides," said Kettering, continuing, "as I said before, I was in Greece at last. At the time I felt, naturally enough, that this was only the beginning for me. Therefore it did not at first disturb me in the slightest that I was sent to such an ahh, unimpressive place."
"You said 'at first.' So what happened?" asked Janice. Already she was suspicious of his story. To her knowledge there simply was nothing important enough on the Magnesia Peninsula to spark even the slightest amount of interest in anyone, especially such a big wheel as Sir David Hanley.
"Per Lord Hanley's instructions I immediately set to work at a site that was known to have once been a favorite anchorage for sailing ships seeking refuge from those swiftly developing Aegean storms that caused such havoc along the trade routes.
Even with all my élan I was not of so different a mind as you, Covington, because as the days turned into weeks I too began to wonder just what it was I was supposed to accomplish there. That whole first month we found very little of anything and yet every time I was in communication with Lord Hanley he would invariably urge me to forward my findings to him posthaste in the most minute detail possible."
Again, this did not sit well with Janice's basic instincts. She smelled a rat all right but at first could not quite put her finger on it. However her puzzlement lasted for just a few heartbeats and soon enough the relentless tendrils of her razor sharp mind reached down and seized on the thing, pulling it up out of the depths of her innermost thoughts and into the light that was her consciousness. "Hanley sent you there in search of one specific thing, didn't he?"
Miles Kettering looked at her with something akin to shock. Any misgivings he might have had before about her ability and yes, her gender, were now thoroughly swept away like so much chaff in the wind. If I can only convince her to assist me, he thought. What a formidable ally should would be! "Damned uncanny of you, Covington," he said coolly, after a moment's pause. "But you're right, although I must say I didn't realize this at the time."
From deep in his chest there came a low chuckle and in a rueful voice he added, "The day I accepted Hanley's offer was the day my career went straight to bloody hell."
Janice picked the bottle of whiskey up off the desk and without a word poured him another drink. While Kettering gratefully downed the shot she asked "Well? Did you find it? What you didn't know you were looking for?"
Listening to her friend, Melinda immediately picked up on the subtle change in Janice's voice. There was less of that acerbic, smart-ass quality she used so effectively. The tone was still direct--Janice knew no other way to operate--but it no longer had that biting edge to it. For Melinda, who of course knew Janice's moods better than anyone alive, it was an easy read. Her friend was clearly becoming interested.
Before answering Kettering first wiped his lips with the back of hand. He then shot her a grim look and in a low voice said, "I found more than I bargained for."
All Janice wanted was the hard facts and she found this reply was a little too tenebrous to suit her tastes. "What's that supposed to mean?" she snapped.
"It means," Kettering explained, "that what I found not only ended up costing me my career, but almost my life as well."
"So what was this thing already?"
"One morning we uncovered a stone tablet lying amidst the fragments of a large clay pot. Judging from the positioning of the stone it did not require Sherlock Holmes' powers of deduction to see that this tablet had originally been contained in the pot."
"Somebody had hidden it," said Janice, stating the obvious.
"Exactly," said Kettering. "At the time I really did not understand the significance of what I was looking at. Why should I?" Answering his own question, he went on, "It was hastily carved and the inscription seemed meaningless to me and so I simply had it cleaned and stored away. The disgust in his voice was all too evident as he added, "What a fool I was!"
"This tablet then, it was the thing Lord Hanley sent you to find?" asked Melinda.
"He never expressly said so," replied Kettering. "Oh he's a sly one, that fellow is. However when I described it to him in my report he immediately wired me back with explicit instructions to send the tablet back to England at once and to never mind with the Greek authorities."
"In other words you were to smuggle it out," observed Janice.
"That thought did cross my mind," Kettering admitted. "But I assumed Lord Hanley had made some kind of special arrangements with the Greek government regarding this matter. Therefore I did as I was told. I crated up everything we had found, including the tablet, and had it all flown out, first to Italy, then on to England." He paused a moment for effect and went on, "A fortnight later I abruptly received a communication ordering me to shut down the site at once and return home."
"Didn't that seem fishy to you?" asked Janice.
"Of course it did," said Kettering. "It was here I began to wonder just what the devil was going on. I assure you, Covington, I am not a particularly dense individual but I was nevertheless puzzled by all this. I began to turn those recent events over and over in my mind until finally---"
"Came the dawn, huh?" said Janice, wryly cutting him off.
"Quite," Kettering replied, under his breath. "I realized things were not as they seemed. Immediately upon my arrival in England I was summoned directly to the offices of Lord Hanley where he greeted me with a pat on the back and a check for a rather tidy sum. He also hinted strongly that I could expect to be working for him again sometime in the very near future."
Kettering looked earnestly at Janice and said, "Now I ask you, Covington, what would you have done in a situation like that?"
"Me? I would have taken the dough and kept my yap shut."
"As I should have done," said Kettering wistfully. "Instead my curiosity had the better of me and I simply could not let it go. It certainly was not my intent to appear to be any sort kind of threat. And so I asked him about the significance of the tablet."
"His outward demeanor changed not at all however there was a barely perceptible hardening in his eyes and his voice seemed to take on an added chill."
"So what did he say?"
"Nothing concrete. He in effect pooh-poohed the notion that the stone had any real significance attached to it and, having done that, politely but firmly showed me the door."
Janice stared hard at him a moment and then broke into that predatory little smile that Melinda always found so unsettling. "A nice little tale so far," she told him. "But you know? You haven't told me one goddamn thing that would interest me."
As Melinda had already ascertained this was not true. Janice was interested.
It was Janice's reasoning, rightly enough, that if such an august personage as Lord Hanley was involved then it had to be important. Of course this all hinged on whether or not Kettering was telling some semblance of the truth. What she wanted now was to keep the man back on his heels and on the defensive. That way it would be much easier for her to catch him in a lie if in fact he was lying. After all, anyone could lie to a sympathetic ear but it took a real pro--like her--to lie effectively to a skeptical one.
She knew that Melinda would have found this line of reasoning dubious at best. Indeed the beautiful belle was a terrible liar herself, even more so with Janice whom she could not bear to lie to at all. On the other hand there had been the odd occasion when Janice, for whatever reason, had in fact found it necessary to lie to Melinda. Granted, these offenses were usually more acts of O-mission than CO-mission and could hardly be classified as anything other than "fibs" or "little white lies" but, even so, they always left Janice feeling liked she had somehow soiled her friend. Accordingly, she always tried to make it up to her lover in some fashion. What it really came down to was that rough, tough, cynical Janice Covington felt that Melinda Rose Pappas was simply too pure an individual to be lied to.
As Kettering formed his response to her challenge, Janice carefully studied every line on his face. She saw the obligatory widening of his eyes and noted with satisfaction that her vehemence had indeed upset Kettering's apple cart a bit.
The sense of urgency in his voice was now all too apparent as Kettering spoke. "I assure you, Covington, what I say is the absolute truth. I swear it."
"I never said it wasn't," the archaeologist coolly replied. "What I said was I haven't heard anything that would interest me."
"Not even the money?" Kettering incredulously asked.
"Well okay, that interested me," Janice admitted. "It always does. And it would interest me even more if you'd tell me how we're going to get it. But so far all I've heard is you whine about how mean ol' Lord Hanley used you like a Singapore whore."
In an instant Kettering's face reddened. "Damn you!" he raged through gritted teeth. With a quickness that would not have seemed possible from the man he then reared back his arm with the clear intent of hurling Janice's own cup at her.
His arm was at the end of its backswing, ready to come forward when suddenly he felt the weight in his hand disappear. With a surprised grunt he wheeled around only to see a wide-eyed Melinda tightly clutching the cup to her chest with both hands. In a move that startled even her, Melinda had in one swift stroke neatly plucked the cup right out of Kettering's hand.
In truth this had required no great feat of dexterity on her part. After all, Kettering had practically laid the thing right under her nose. Still, her quick thinking had saved what otherwise might have developed into a nasty situation. "Mister Kettering," she softly urged, "calm yourself."
"Nice work," said Janice, flashing her an impish little grin.
Kettering was not by nature prone to fits of temper and now that his moment of anger was past he was left only with a resigned sense of embarrassment. "Sorry, Covington," he forlornly offered up. "I'm not normally a violent man. It's just that this has become nothing less than my whole life. In fact, more than once it has almost cost me my life."
Janice was a very shrewd judge of character and she now saw something in his eyes that told her this man was indeed "on the level." It was not a case of her totally believing his story--she did not. Janice had heard a hundred schemes just like this over the years. However she was satisfied that, valid or not, this dusty little man truly believed that it was.
Aloud neither she nor Melinda said anything in response and so Kettering took this as his cue to continue. "I left his office filled with a sense of determination to find out why that damned little stone was so important to Lord Hanley." His lips curled into a smile of self-satisfaction as he said, "And I did. To begin with, all I had to go on was the inscription on the stone. I had taken some reference photographs of the stone and fortunately I still had them in my possession. These I studied until I had committed the inscription to memory."
"And what was the inscription?" asked Janice.
"It is of no real importance now that it's true meaning has been deciphered, "said Kettering coolly. "Suffice it to say it was simply a coded message left behind by none other than Harpalus himself to one of his allies. This message did nothing less than reveal the location of another stone, a map if you will, which I believe shows where his vast treasure lies hidden even to this day."
"Ohh Jeez!" Janice groaned. "Next you're gonna tell me there's this blind sailor after you who wants to give ya the black spot."
"Your jest is much nearer the truth than you imagine," Kettering retorted with an indignant sniff. "Except that instead of being marked for death by Blind Pew it was an English lord. You see, on at least four separate occasions an attempt has been made on my life."
"What would Hanley have to gain by killing you?"
"The old boy ran into far more difficulty than expected in deciphering the tablet and once he learned that I had in fact broken the "code..." Kettering paused and then said, "Well, Covington, that simply would not do."
So how did he find out?" the archaeologist asked.
"You would have to ask him that," replied Kettering.
It was here that their exchange was interrupted by Melinda's soft drawl. "Uhh, Mister Kettering--"
"Please, call me Miles," Kettering urged.
"Okay, uhh...Miles. How did Lord Hanley know where to find this tablet?"
For her part Janice was wondering the same thing.
"Again, I don't know," said Kettering. "Although I suppose it was a matter of being a calculated guess on his part, probably based on years of exhaustive research. It is my understanding that he was, indeed still is, quite obsessive about it."
Sounds as though he is not the only one, thought Melinda.
"Okay, so let's round up the strays here," said Janice. "Way back in '39 you say you figured out this tablet that supposedly leads to some ancient treasure. Yet only now, eight years later, are you getting around to actually going after it. I take it the war threw a monkey wrench into the plans of both you guys."
"Herr Hitler had other plans for Greece as you may recall," said Kettering dryly.
"I--we were up in Macedonia in '40," said Janice. "We didn't have that much trouble."
"That's because you got out before the Italians invaded that October," said Kettering. After that things got rather sticky. The British government advised its citizens to leave the country. Even Lord Hanley did not have enough muscle to overcome official government policy."
"But it's been two years since the end of the war," Janice reminded him. "So why has it taken you this long to get back here?"
"I was......detained," came Kettering's halting reply. Under his breath he added, "Thank God I was not too late." What Miles Kettering prudently failed to mention was that his "detainment" was due to having spent most of the last three years in a sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis and a variety other ailments.
Fortunately for him Janice did not press him on it and moved on. "All right," she said, "just where is this uhh, map supposed to be?" Naturally she did really expect Kettering to actually come right out and tell her. In her mind she was sure he had to be much more cagey than that.
He was. With a strange gleam in his eye he looked at the archaeologist and calmly replied, "Not to worry, Covington. I already have it."
Return to The Bard's Corner