Janice Covington, professor of archaeology, paced as she spoke, her hands gesturing in cadence with her words as her voice echoed across the classroom. The lecture hall was crammed full that day and Janice noticed the oddity as she paused to contemplate her next thought. She scratched her head absent-mindedly and asked, "By the way, how many people in this hall today are actually in my class?" About half the students raised their hands. She continued, "Well, I'm honored. I assume that word got around that I was lecturing on the Amazons today?" Grins flashed around the hall, and a ripple of laughter answered her. "Has it been worth it so far?" More laughter resounded, and the students erupted into a thunderous round of applause and cheers. Jan just waited for the bedlam to die, a good-natured grin on her face and the tinge of just a little embarrassment reddening her ears, then responded, "Thank you." As she turned and stepped up onto the raised lecture platform, she added, "Hey, it's okay to throw money." She raised an eyebrow and waited a beat, then offered the punch-line. "But I'm not dancing." She allowed a few seconds for the laughter at the last comment to die, then looked out at her audience. "This is a good time for questions. Who's got 'em?"
Several hands were thrust into the air and Janice chose a young lady in the first row. The student cleared her throat, then asked, "Doctor Covington, is there any archaeological evidence that the Amazons ever existed?"
"Very little. They were nomadic and did not build the cities of stone which other cultures left behind them. They cremated their dead, so very few intact graves are to be found. A couple have been excavated in Russia, but whether the graves actually belong to Amazons or not is the subject of much speculation."
Another student raised his hand. "Then what is the argument in favor of their existence?"
"Historical accounts. There are written descriptions of them from various sources, such as Herodotus. The problem with these, however, is accuracy. Were the writers of these accounts describing what they actually saw, or were they simply recounting the tales of others?" She paused, then continued, "For example, if you read Herodotus carefully, you might decide that he spoke with some of the biggest liars in history."
Another student raised her hand. "Doctor Covington, are there any accounts which might be considered factual?"
Janice leaned forward on the lectern. "Only one that I know of. That's the warrior-bard Gabrielle of Potidaea. Her accounts can be considered most accurate, as she recorded what she personally experienced. She actually was an Amazon princess and briefly, an Amazon queen. Even so, some scholars feel that her writings were fanciful. She was a bard, and as such, a story-teller first and foremost. They point to her descriptions of the gods Ares and Aphrodite as proof. After all, they argue, the Greek gods were myth, legend, and not fact." She allowed just the hint of a quizzical smile to cross her face and added, "Weren't they?" Janice glanced at her wristwatch. "Time for one more question."
A student spoke up. "Then the discovery of some archaeological proof that Amazons existed would be a huge find, would it not?"
Janice grinned. "The biggest. I hope it's me that finds it." She lifted her worn green fedora hat from its place on the lectern and plopped it on the back of her head. "I could use a feather for my cap. It's that time, guys and gals. Remember, chapter three of Burton for next time."
The hall stirred to life as the crowd of students rose, gathered their books and crowded out the door. Jan stood quietly, nodding to the greetings of the more familiar faces among them. As the hall emptied, she gathered her notes and text, thrusting them under her arm, then clicked the lights off as she exited.
A stroll down the broad stairs brought her to the narrow hallways of the Department of History and Archaeology. As she sauntered past the department secretary's desk, the young lady looked up from her typewriter and winked at Jan, never missing a beat of either her typing or the smacking of a wad of chewing gum as she spoke.
"Oh, hey, Doc. Done for the day?"
"I'll be in my office for awhile, Virginia. Any mail?"
"Yeah. On your desk."
"Thanks." Janice looked around, then asked, "Coffee?"
"Got a pot goin'. Be done in a jiff."
"You read my mind. You're a sweetheart. If I wasn't already very taken, I'd marry you."
The pert secretary giggled. "Yeah, yeah, that's what they all say."
Janice shook her head. "Virginia, you're just hanging around with the wrong people."
Virginia rolled her eyes dramatically as she pounded on the machine's keys and smacked her gum. "Tell me about it. By the way, how's that honey of yours?"
"Oh, Melinda's great, thanks for asking."
Virginia kept her eyes on her typewriter, but her voice seemed to twinkle as she teased, "Give her a kiss from me, will ya?"
Jan laughed as she walked down the hall to her office. At the door, she paused, key in the lock, and looked back at Virginia with a broad grin on her face. "Not on your life, kiddo." She opened the door and disappeared into her office. As Virginia watched her go, she smiled in amusement and popped her gum, then stopped typing and picked up her eraser, muttering a soft profanity under her breath.
"Damn, Doc, why did you have to be born so cute? I just screwed this report up again."
In her office, Janice tossed her hat on top of a filing cabinet and plopped down into her worn office chair, lifting her feet up and crossing them to rest on the edge of her desk. She sighed deeply, then glanced around her cramped office. Piles of books and artifacts stared back at her, along with the wall calender. March, 1948, she thought. Time flies when you're having fun. She glanced across her cluttered desk until her eyes focused on Melinda's face, staring out of a framed picture sitting prominently on one side of her desk. Dark hair and a brilliant smile flashed back at her from the black and white photograph. The picture always seemed to warm Jan when she contemplated it, and she smiled wistfully as she studied the beautiful features on the image. Speaking of having fun, I'll take Mel out to dinner tonight. She'd like that. I wonder what she's doing right now? Probably busting her butt on that translation she recently got hired to do. She's had a lot of work lately. Well, no wonder. She's fantastic with old Greek. Her reputation as a translator is becoming well-known. Janice brightened as a thought struck her. She needs a vacation. Yeah, that's the ticket. Hell, I need a vacation. I'll bring it up over dinner.
Her ruminations were interrupted by the ringing of her telephone. It was Virginia. "Hey, Doctor Covington, there's a visitor here for you. Are you free to see him?"
"Who is it?"
"A fed. An Agent Reynolds from the FBI."
Janice raised an eyebrow in exclamation and replied, "Uh, yeah, sure. Send him my way." As she hung up the phone, she puzzled over the visitor's identity. FBI? What the heck is this? Aah, probably some background check or something. Well, I'll just let him explain himself.
At that moment, a face appeared around the open door and a voice addressed her. "Doctor Janice Covington?"
"That's me. Come on in. Are you Agent Reynolds?"
"Yes, ma'am." As the man approached her desk, hat and briefcase in one hand, credentials in the other, Jan stood and offered out a hand. He slipped the leather wallet back into his pocket, grasped her hand warmly, and Janice gestured to a chair.
"Make yourself comfortable, Agent Reynolds. Had a long drive here?"
"Came in on the train, actually, from Washington, D.C. Just arrived."
"You must be tired, then. Do with a cup of coffee? Our secretary just brewed a pot."
He brightened noticeably and nodded. "If I'm not putting you out?"
"Not a bit. I'm up for one myself. Cream and sugar?"
"Black, thanks." Janice nodded and left the office, returning momentarily with two steaming mugs. She set one down on the desk in front of the agent, then rested back in her office chair holding the other one.
"So, Agent Reynolds, what can I do for the FBI today? Another background check on one of my former students?"
"Actually, no. I came on an entirely different matter."
"Oh? What's up?"
He looked intently at Janice. "Have you read the newspapers in the last few days?"
Janice cocked her head slightly in an expression of question. "No, I haven't."
"Well, then, let me start at the beginning." He pulled a small notebook out of his suit-coat pocket and opened it, glancing down at it. "You are aware of an American tour of ancient Greek artifacts on loan from the Athens museum, are you not? You spoke at the opening of the tour?"
"Yeah, in New York City. Why?"
"There was a theft. A priceless artifact was stolen. A thoroughly professional job, as the museum guards saw nothing. The glass case in which it was locked was undisturbed, the lock intact. No fingerprints were detected. We're at a loss to explain how the thief got at it."
Jan leaned forward in her chair. "Which artifact?"
"A large bracelet of some sort." He reached into his briefcase and produced a picture, which he handed across the desk to Jan. "You'll forgive me, but this sort of thing is a bit out of my usual turf. This is the artifact in question. Do you recognize it?"
"Yes. It's informal name is the Gauntlet of Ares, so-called because his name is inscribed on it. It is a functional piece, made to protect the forearm of a warrior."
"Right. It's quite valuable, I understand?"
"Priceless, to museums."
"How about on the antiquities black market?"
Janice shrugged. "That's iffy. It's worth as much as somebody is willing to pay for it."
"We assume that's why it was stolen, for its resale value. Now, who would be willing to pay for such a thing?"
"There's a bunch of rich amateur collectors out there who constantly attempt to out-do each other with their private collections. Some of them aren't very picky as to how they come about owning such things. That's probably where it's headed, for a private collection."
"Oh? What makes you so sure? Wouldn't it go on the black market, sold to the highest bidder?"
"Sometimes that happens. I don't think so, here."
Reynolds, his coffee cup raised to his lips, was studying her intently. "Why?"
"I assume that this was the only artifact stolen, as you've shown me no other photos. Am I correct?"
He smiled. "Correct."
"Therefore, the thief probably had a buyer already, someone who wanted this particular artifact."
"I see." He reached into his briefcase and pulled out another photograph, which he handed to Janice as she sipped her coffee. "Have you ever seen this man before?" Janice picked up the photo and glanced at it. She coughed and set her cup down on the desk, shocked at the image of the face in the picture. Dark, cruelly handsome features augmented by a goatee beard and intelligent eyes stared back at her out of the photograph. As she stared at the face, she paled slightly. Her reaction was not lost on Reynolds. "You've met him before?"
Janice nodded. "Oh, yeah. I've met him." A memory flashed through her mind of their last encounter, some two years before. Jan's expression darkened and her mind whirled in thought. Well, I'll be damned. Ares, god of war. You bastard, you tried to fry us two years ago when we opened Xena and Gabrielle's tomb in Greece. Almost succeeded, too. She glanced up at Reynold's face and thought, Jesus. How am I going to explain this one to him without getting locked up in the funny farm? He'll think I'm bonkers if I tell him the truth, but I can't lie. It's not my style.
Reynolds resumed his questioning. "Where did you see him last? When?"
Janice picked up her coffee cup and leaned back in her chair, collecting her thoughts. "Tell me, Agent Reynolds, do you have any familiarity with the Xena legends?"
"Some. I've been briefed on them."
"Well, two years ago, I led an archaeological team which discovered and excavated the tomb of Xena and Gabrielle. We dealt with tomb robbers and actually shot three of them. We took all artifacts and the remains of the two women to the safety of the Athens museum. It was a hairy experience because of that guy. He tried to stop us. He tried to kill us over it." She sipped her coffee, then said quietly, "He almost succeeded, too. He's a bad character, a really evil guy. Shrewd, intelligent, and vicious."
"What did he say his name was?"
I was afraid you'd ask that. Janice just raised an eyebrow and responded, "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"Okay. He introduced himself to us as Ares, god of war."
Reynold's jaw dropped. "You're kidding."
"I'm totally serious."
The agent rolled his eyes. "Oh, great. A nut with delusions of grandeur."
Janice just shrugged, her eyes actually twinkling in humor at the agent's reaction. "Call him what you will. So, what makes you guys think that he's involved in this?"
"This man, also identified by witnesses as hanging around the exhibit in New York, approached the curators of the Athens museum shortly before the American tour began and offered to buy the artifact from them. He identified himself to them as one Stavros Palo, a wealthy private collector. They refused, of course, and he was quite upset. He actually threatened them with violence. They had him arrested and took him to the police station in the back of a police van, but when they arrived at the station, he had disappeared from the van. The lock on the outside of the doors was still fastened."
"There wasn't a cop in the back with him?"
"Yeah. The cop was dead. The weirdest thing was the manner in which the policeman was killed. He had..."
Janice finished the sentence for him. "He had a hole burned into his chest."
Reynolds stared at Janice. "Yeah. How did you know?"
"Like I said, I've dealt with him before. Tell your guys to be damned careful."
Reynolds shifted in his chair. "Ah, yes. That brings me to our next point. We can't go after him. He's out of the country, and our jurisdiction ends at our borders."
"Well then, you can kiss the gauntlet good-bye."
"No, we can't. The Greek government is outraged at the theft. Our relations with them are bad enough as it is. Large communist contingent in their government, you know. The State Department wants the gauntlet recovered right away."
"Oh? Where is he now?"
"He was spotted in Algiers yesterday. We believe that he still has the artifact with him, based on our intelligence there."
"Can the local authorities arrest him?"
Reynolds scoffed. "They're rife with corruption. They're no help. What we need here is a free agent to go in and get it for us."
"Yeah, I know about the corruption. I was arrested in Algiers before the war. Crooked cops."
"I read of that in your file."
Janice raised an eyebrow. "You guys have a file on me?"
Reynolds nodded. "We're the FBI. We have a file on many people. My perusal of your file convinces me that you are just the person to go after this thing. You should be our free agent."
Janice froze, her coffee cup hovering near her chin. "Me?"
Reynolds leaned forward, looking intently at Janice. "You know this Stavros Palo guy. You know artifacts, and could spot a phony. You know Algiers. You've dealt with black marketeers before, as has your father. Your reputation is that you're one tough cookie, if you'll pardon the expression. You've got a past history of, ah, how shall I say it? Hard living, the occasional fistfight and such. You're not afraid to use a gun, either. Look, you're perfect for the job." Janice just stared at him, and he spoke again. "You would be doing your government a great service."
"How do you know all this about me?"
"Aside from your rather extensive file, I had a long talk with an old friend of yours, a Doctor Mack MacKenzie. He spoke very highly of you. He suggested you to us."
Janice smiled sardonically. "Good old Mack. I'll have to kick his ass the next time I see him."
Reynolds smiled. "Don't be too hard on him. He's an old army buddy of mine. Ah, I'm afraid I'm a bit pressed for time. What do you think your answer might be, Doctor Covington?"
Janice leaned back in her chair and put her feet up on the corner of her desk. As the mulled the situation over, she pulled a cigarette from a rumpled pack on her desk and lit it, exhaling the smoke up toward the ceiling as she contemplated the light fixture. After a long silence, she looked across the desk at Reynolds. "When do I leave?"
"As soon as possible. I suppose that there's someone who can assume your duties here?"
"That's what graduate assistants are for. How about the day after tomorrow?"
"That will work. Your ticket will be waiting for you at the Pan American Airlines counter."
Janice took another drag on her cigarette, then replied, "I'll need two tickets."
Reynolds raised an eyebrow. "I see." He flipped through his notebook, then looked at Janice. "Miss Melinda Pappas will accompany you?"
Reynolds sighed, then eyed Janice carefully. "Are you sure that's wise?"
"Mel and I work together. We've been through the mill before."
"Doctor Covington, may I speak frankly with you?" She nodded. "We are aware of the, ah, nature of the relationship between you and Miss Pappas." Janice began to bristle, and Reynolds held up a hand. "Please, let me assure you that I mean no disrespect or offence in any way. I just mean that this is likely to be dangerous. I know that you two are quite deeply involved romantically. Are you sure that you want to subject her to such a possible danger? I mean, it might be better for both of you if she were to sit this one out."
Janice considered the agent's words. She finished her smoke and tapped it out in the ashtray as he nervously awaited her answer, then looked across the desk. "Thank you for your concern about Melinda's safety. She can handle herself. We go together."
Reynolds nodded. "As you wish. Ah, you have a personal weapon? A pistol?" Janice nodded, and the agent looked into his notebook. "A Smith & Wesson .38 special revolver with a five-inch barrel, as I understand it."
Janice rolled her eyes and leaned back in her chair. "Good Lord, what else is in that file of yours?" She cast an exasperated look at the FBI agent and asked, "Does it say in there whether my carpet matches my draperies?"
Reynolds' face went slack, then he registered an expression of absolute shock and began to blush noticeably and stammer. Janice, noting his totally incredulous response, felt her irritation melt away and a wide, evil grin creep across her face. She began to snicker, then laugh aloud. Reynolds coughed a couple of times, then offered a weak smile and a few chuckles himself. He scratched his forehead and replied, "Ah, no, actually."
"You guys must be slipping. How about the birthmark on my ass?"
Reynolds, smiling ever more widely and rumbling with laughter, responded, "You have a...? I'll note that."
"Don't you dare."
Still laughing, Reynolds pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped at his eyes. "Yup. You're the Doctor Covington that Mack described to me." He shoved his notebook into his pocket, grasped his briefcase and hat, and stood, extending his hand. Janice reached across her desk and shook it warmly, then rose to show him out. "I'll be in touch with you tomorrow, Doctor Covington." He reached into his briefcase and pulled out an envelope, dropping it on the desk. "Here is cash in both American and Algerian currency for your travel expenses. One more thing."
He pulled an object from his briefcase and dropped it next to the envelope. It was a leather shoulder holster. "It won't do to go about Algiers with a pistol on your hip, but you should stay armed at all times. This will help. It should fit both your pistol and yourself."
"Let me guess. You've got my measurements, as well?"
His eyes twinkled. "Five foot five inches tall, with athletic frame and shoulders." He saw her eye him skeptically and joked, "Everything else is classified."
"Thank God for that."
Reynolds smiled. "Thank you, Doctor Covington, on behalf of the Athens Museum and the United States government."
Janice gave him a cagey smile as she walked him to the door. "Don't thank me yet, Agent Reynolds. I haven't returned the artifact."
He gave her a knowing look and replied, "Oh, I have every confidence that you will. Good-bye, Doctor Covington." With that, he turned and walked down the hall toward the building's entrance. Janice returned to her desk and lit another cigarette, mulling over the conversation which had just taken place and feeling a thrill begin to animate her. After a moment, she picked up the telephone and dialed a number. "Mel, it's Jan. Pack your bag, love, we're heading to Algiers. Tell you about it when we get home."
The flight to Algiers had been a long one. Janice had been kept from incredible boredom only by Melinda's delightful company. Her languorous, cultured southern drawl always seemed to sooth Janice and entertain her as they spoke about a variety of matters from weighty to mundane and speculated about their upcoming adventure in Algeria. Melinda had never been there, and was anxious to experience the unique blend of French European and North African culture with which the city was gifted. Janice had not seen it since before the late war, and wondered aloud how the conflict had changed its facade and culture.
At the airport, their slow progress through customs was speeded somewhat when the bored customs official, noting the names on their passports, stamped them, waved a hand over their two suitcases, and wished them a good visit. Melinda thought that just a stroke of good fortune, but Janice suspected that the folks from the American Embassy had been hard at work before they arrived. As they hefted their suitcases and made their way through the large building to the taxicabs waiting outside, Melinda adjusted her wire-rimmed eyeglasses with her free hand and spoke.
"Oh, Jan, I'm glad to be able to stretch my legs again. I was so cramped on that plane."
"With legs as long as yours, Mel, you'd be cramped on the Queen Mary."
"Very funny, squirt."
Janice just offered a good-natured chuckle in response. Mel was a tall woman, long-legged, and towered above Janice by half a foot. Her erect, graceful posture and beautifully sculpted features were in sharp contrast to Janice's more petite form and rather feline movement. Janice, dressed in her favorite chino pants, scuffed leather jacket and worn green fedora, also provided sharp counterpoint to Melinda's more feminine, albeit very casual attire. Janice looked at her companion as they walked through the terminal and thought, How does she look so good after a flight like that? I'll have to learn her secret. Aloud, though, she responded to the pleasant, teasing tone in Melinda's voice. "Yeah, so I'm short. At least it's not my feet sticking out of the covers in the wintertime."
"That doesn't bother me. I just warm them on the backs of your legs."
"Tell me about it."
"Well, if you'd prefer to sleep separately..."
"Not on your life, gorgeous."
Melinda smiled at her victory. "Then quit grousin', cutie."
Janice conceded her defeat. "Yes, ma'am. Let's get this taxi over here. Maybe this guy can actually drive."
After a harrowing taxi ride through the Algiers traffic, Janice and Melinda found themselves being escorted into the American Embassy by a couple of starched Marine guards. They were deposited in an airy office and the guards left, instructing them to wait. Janice casually inspected the office, noting its slowly whirling ceiling fans and the large wooden desk in one corner. The room had an atmosphere of being occupied by someone who was casual, yet organized. It wasn't cluttered, yet looked lived-in. Everything seemed in its place, and yet there was some evidence of work in progress there.
Melinda shrugged. "What now, Jan?"
"Now, we wait. Have a seat, Mel."
"Is dealing with the government always this strange?"
"Naw. Sometimes it's worse."
A male voice addressed them from the doorway. "Well, look at what the cat dragged in. Jan Covington. It's been a while."
At the sound of the voice, both Janice and Melinda turned and faced the door. A man of roughly forty years of age was leaning against the jamb, a jaunty grin spread across his face below a scar which decorated one temple. His necktie was loose, his hands were thrust into the pockets of his slightly rumpled white linen pants, and a shoulder holster housing an automatic pistol was tucked under one arm.
"Smitty. Good to see you, too. They still got you working in this shit-hole?"
"Always." He straightened up and walked into the room, grasping Janice's hand. "Algiers seems to have grown on me."
"Yeah, like a wart." Janice motioned toward Melinda. "Smitty, meet Melinda Pappas." She looked at Melinda and explained, "Smitty and I go way back. He's the one who pulled my beans out of the fire when I got arrested in this town before the war."
He shook Melinda's hand warmly. "Honored. So you're Jan's friend? I understand that you two are quite a team."
Melinda responded politely, "I like to think so. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Smitty, and thank you for looking out for Jan."
"No big deal. Grease the right palm with money, and anything can happen in this town." Smitty motioned toward the suitcases. "Just got in? That's okay. If you don't mind, I'll brief both of you now. Won't take long. Then you can head to your hotel. Sit?"
Janice looked over at Melinda, then replied, "No, we'll stand. Our fannies are still asleep from the plane ride."
Smitty nodded. "Know what you mean. Uneventful trip?"
Melinda answered, "Until the taxicab ride. My word, we almost acquired a donkey and two street merchants as hood ornaments."
Smitty chuckled, then replied, "If you think that's bad, you ought to try a Tokyo cab. Look, your boy, Stavros Palo, has been spotted in town. He's up to something, but we can't figure out what. We figured he'd try to sell the artifact he swiped, but our contacts in the black market haven't been able to determine if it's for sale. So, we put out a bid for it. Rich American oil fella by the name of Jake Thompson, private collector, now officially wants to buy the thing, since he's read in the papers that it's been stolen."
Janice scratched her chin. "Is this oil tycoon trustworthy?"
"He's fictional. You're going to play the part of his agent in the matter."
"Oh. Going to try to buy it back?"
"If we can. Hopefully, we can do this low-key and without bloodshed."
"Smitty, what if he doesn't want to sell it?"
Smitty looked puzzled. "What makes you think he wouldn't? You think that he wants it for himself? What in hell would he do with it? As a thief, he's obviously a pro. They sell to others. They don't keep that junk for themselves."
Janice winked at Melinda, then spoke to Smitty. "We've run into this guy before. He's a bad character, but he has delusions of grandeur. Thinks that he's Ares, god of war. That's the Gauntlet of Ares. He might want the power that he thinks that it affords his chosen one."
"What power? What chosen one?" Smitty looked at Janice, then sighed and pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pants pocket, lighting one. As he clicked his Zippo shut, he exhaled and said, "Okay, Doctor Covington. I can see you putting on your professor's hat. Out with it. Let's hear the legend of the Gauntlet of Ares."
"Well, as the legend goes, the thing was forged from an indestructible metal by Hephaestus himself, at the behest of the god of war."
Janice shook her head. "Hephaestus, Greek god of metalworking, arts and such. What did you do, sleep through college?"
"Yeah. If I didn't know better, I'd say you had been in one of my classes. Anyhow, Ares enchanted the thing with great powers. He had it forged to protect his chosen warrior-queen or warrior-princess, the one who was to lead an army in battle in his name. It supposedly makes the wearer invincible in combat, protects her from harm and thus allows her to inspire her army to victory."
"Queen? Princess? Not a king?"
Janice shook her head. "According to the legends, Ares always had a 'thing' for strong women-warriors."
"Yeah? Which one, as if I would know the difference?"
"The legends don't say." Janice eyed Melinda, then added, "I have my suspicions, though."
Melinda's face registered surprise. "Xena?"
Janice nodded. "That's my guess. It's logical. The Xena scrolls say that he repeatedly attempted to seduce her into being his mortal reflection on earth and the chief general of his army."
Melinda agreed, "Of course. The scrolls tell of others, but his greatest obsession was always Xena."
Smitty looked at Melinda. "You're a scholar of this stuff, as well?"
"I translated the scrolls. It's what I do for a living. I am a translator of old Greek."
Janice interjected, "And the best in the business."
Melinda smiled at the compliment, then leaned down slightly and gave Janice a soft kiss on the cheek. "Thank you, dear." That just caused Janice to grin slightly and Smitty to emit an amused chuckle. He snuffed out his smoke in an ashtray, then paced in thought for a moment. When he stopped, he looked up at both Melinda and Janice.
"Look, you say this guy actually thinks he's the god of war?" Janice nodded, and Melinda just shrugged. "Yeah, then he may want to keep it. You may just have to resort to old-fashioned thievery to reclaim it. Anyhow, I'll know more when my contact in the black market reports back to me. Here's the plan: you two go to the hotel, get cleaned up, and have a great evening in Algiers. I'll talk with you tomorrow, when I know whether he bit on our offer to buy. We'll know what our course is then." He walked over to his desk, opened a drawer and pulled out a hotel key, tossing it to Janice. "Here's your room. It's number 510, at the Algiers Royale Hotel."
"Damn, Smitty. Pretty fancy digs."
"Sorry that we could only spring for one room. Hope that's okay?" Smitty eyed Janice with a twinkle in his eye and the hint of a devilish upturn at the corner of his mouth. Melinda just blushed slightly and pretended to scratch her forehead. Jan grinned from ear to ear and retorted, "Oh, we'll manage, I'm sure."
"Yeah, one more thing. You still carry that pistol of yours?"
"In my suitcase, with a shoulder holster courtesy of Uncle Sam."
"Keep armed. This can be a dangerous town, and you're not exactly unknown around here." He handed a thin black wallet to Jan, who opened it and examined it as Smitty explained, "Gun permit, courtesy of the French colonial government. You're now officially allowed to 'pack heat' in this town."
"You've thought of everything but where we should eat tonight."
"Try the restaurant just down the street from where you're staying, Jacques'. It's great. One of the embassy drivers will drop you at the hotel."
"Thanks, Smitty. I guess we'll hear from you tomorrow?" He nodded and gave a friendly mock-salute. Janice and Melinda picked up their suitcases and headed for the door. Just before they exited, Smitty called out to them.
"Hey, Jan. Do me a favor?" They stopped in the doorway and half-turned to peer back at Smitty. He leaned against the front of his desk, shoved his hands into his pockets and teased, "Try not to get arrested this time, will ya?"
Janice grinned, silently held up her fist and extended her middle finger. Melinda grasped the collar of the petite blonde's leather jacket and pulled her out of the door, the back of her suitcase and her finger last to leave Smitty's sight. As their footsteps echoed down the hallway, he laughed brightly, then muttered aloud, "Now that's the Covington I remember. Blast her, she always had better luck with the gals than I did, too."
Janice stood on the balcony of the hotel room, her eyes gazing out over the night lights of Algiers. The darkness had brought with it a cool wind, and she found it immensely refreshing as it caressed her body. She removed the clip from her pony-tail and allowed her hair to blow free, closing her eyes to the sensation. Then, rummaging in her pocket, she pulled out a cigarette and lit it, her mind traveling back over the strange story which had been unfolded to her in the last few days. As she smoked, she attacked the details from several different angles, attempting to discern Ares' motive in the theft of the artifact and shook her head when she could come up with nothing.
She sighed in frustration, then flipped the butt over the balcony railing and turned her thoughts to another, more personal matter as the mental image of her distant but dear ancestor came to her mind. It was an ancestor long lost in the mists of history, but with which Janice shared not only a direct lineage but a very close personal bond. In a whisper, she asked, "Gabrielle? You there?" She listened in the wind for some moments, listened both with her ears and her heart, and repeated the question. "Gabrielle?"
I'm here, Janice.
Her heart thrilled at the gentle voice as it seemed to speak to her from her own soul. The whisper of the wind added an ethereal quality to the answering voice.
"Am I doing the right thing?"
Do you doubt it, my distant daughter?
"I always have my doubts."
Just listen to your heart.
"I'm about to go into a fight again."
I will watch over you, as always.
"I'm scared for Mel. Was it right to bring her?"
Xena will protect her.
"It's Ares. How can I defeat the god of war?"
Your strength to defeat Ares lies in the gauntlet you seek and in your own nobility.
"The gauntlet? Then the legend is true?"
Partly. If you believe in your own nobility, it will render you victorious.
Remember what I say: believe in your own nobility. Go in peace, my distant daughter.
A whisper of cool wind seemed to quiet the voice in Janice's heart, and in an instant she knew that her ancestor was gone. She sighed deeply, then leaned out over the railing and once again contemplated the lights of Algiers until a pair of long arms wrapped themselves around her waist and a soft cheek rested itself against her own. Melinda's breath was warm in her ear.
"I wondered where you were, darlin'."
"Are you finished in the bathroom, Mel?"
"Yup. I can feel that introspective mood of yours. What's on your mind?"
Janice turned and placed her hands on Melinda's shoulders. "Mel, you're the last of Xena's lineal descendants. Do you-that is, does she speak with you often?"
"Upon occasion. She's not much for words, though. It's enough to know that she's there when I need her." Melinda leaned her forehead down on Janice's head. "What brought this on?"
"About what the next few days will bring? Are you frightened?"
"I'm scared for you. I'd never forgive myself if anything happened to you. Look, Mel, maybe it would be better for you not to be mixed up in this one."
"Now you listen, Janice Covington. If I've told you once, I've told you many times that I'd much rather be by your side and in danger than sitting in safety half a world away and missing you horribly, wondering what is happening to you. I've been with you for eight years now, and I'm not leaving because of a little danger."
"You're my courage, Mel. My strength."
"Your strength lies within you. I'm just the one who loves you more than life."
Janice wrapped her arms around the tall southerner and squeezed tightly. "As I love you. I've never said that to anyone else, you know."
"I know. That's what makes it so wonderful to hear. Now come inside and get washed up for bed. I'm lonely for your company."
Jan smiled up at the blue eyes above her. "Oh? Need to warm your feet?"
"Actually, what I had in mind was..." She leaned close to Janice and whispered in her ear. Janice's eyes grew wide as she listened, then she looked up at her mate.
"You really know how to sweet talk a girl, don't you?"
"Meet you in bed in ten minutes, cutie."
"Deal, gorgeous." With that, Janice untangled herself from Melinda and literally sprinted into the room. Melinda watched her go, then smiled. With a parting look around her at Algiers' night lights, she entered the room and shut the balcony door with a soft click.
The telephone jangled harshly, and Janice growled under her breath. Her eyes were still closed, so her hand snaked out from underneath the bed's covers and felt around the bed-side table, spider-like, until it found the offending instrument and pulled the receiver off the hook, dragging it back under the covers. "H'lo?"
The male voice on the other end was tinny, but unmistakably Smitty's voice. "Jan? That you?"
"Smitty here. Did I wake you?"
The voice snickered. "Obviously. Look, ol' pal, got some news. You and Melinda meet me for lunch and we'll talk about it."
"Umph. Lunch? What time is it?"
"Jeez, don't you own an alarm clock? It's almost nine o'clock in the morning. Get your ass out of that bed."
"Yeah, yeah. Where and when?"
"Oh. Come to my office, eleven o'clock. And Jan?"
"Get room service to deliver up some coffee, will ya? Man, you're a bear in the morning."
"Umph. Good idea. And Smitty?"
"Kiss my butt."
A rollicking belly laugh echoed across the telephone line. "Later, grouchy."
The line went dead, and Jan reached out and fumbled with the receiver until she was able to return it to its cradle. She groaned once again, then sat up in the bed, stretching and yawning, arching her back until it popped. She looked over at the tangle of sheets and noted a lump next to her, not moving. Ah, hell, let her sleep a bit more. I'll sneak into the bathroom first. Jan slipped out of bed, padded softly to the bathroom and closed the door. In a few minutes, she emerged, face washed, hair brushed into some semblance of order and smelling of mouthwash. Wrapping her robe around her, she returned to the telephone and ordered a pot of coffee and an English-language newspaper from room service, then found her pants and dug into a pocket for some money. As she impatiently awaited room service, she wandered over to the balcony door and opened it, breathing deeply. The morning air and pleasant sun seemed to shake the cobwebs from her head and infuse her with energy, so that when the cart arrived with coffee, she was actually feeling quite human again and was able to offer a smile of thanks with the tip.
By the time Melinda stirred, poking her head out from under the covers, Jan was sitting at the table, her legs crossed, the newspaper open in her hands. "Um, that smells good. Coffee?"
The paper lowered slightly and hazel eyes twinkled over the top of the newsprint sheets. "Come and get it, gorgeous."
"I'll be right there, cutie, but first things first." She rose and slipped into the bathroom, closing the door behind her, and in a few minutes emerged to take a seat at the table. As she poured a cup of coffee and sipped at it, she leaned forward and placed her elbows on the table. "So, what's new in the world?"
Jan chuckled, then replied, "Same old stuff. War and rumors of war. Famine, pestilence, greed, and politics. The human condition hasn't changed in ten thousand years."
Melinda rolled her eyes. "Gee, cheery this morning, aren't we?" She brightened, then asked, "So what's on our agenda for today?"
"Lunch with Smitty, eleven o'clock. After that, we'll play it by ear. Want to shop today in the Casbah?"
"The old section of town? I'd love to." She eyed Janice through squinted lids, then added, "You hate shopping. What's the catch?"
Never taking her eyes off the paper, Janice replied, "No catch. Just want to show you a good time while we're here. I know you love to shop."
"You really are very good to me, aren't you?"
Janice lifted her hazel eyes up from the paper to meet Mel's brilliant blue eyes and affected her best Humphrey Bogart imitation. "I keep tellin' ya that, sweetheart. Stick with me, and I'll show you the world."
Mel laughed as she smelled the aroma of her coffee. "Keep that up, and I just might let you sleep with me tonight."
Janice's eyes returned to the paper, but the corner of her mouth turned up in a teasing little smile. "Mel?"
"One of these nights, you're gonna screw me to death." A cloth napkin flew across the table, hit Janice in the side of the head, and fell into her lap, accompanied by Mel's false affectation of indignity.
"Janice Covington, you are absolutely crude, lewd and rude."
"Yeah, and you love it."
Melinda smiled. "Yes, so help me, I do." She leaned across the table. "You want the bathroom first?"
"Naw. You go, Mel." Melinda rose from the table, her coffee cup in her hand, and headed for the bathroom. As the shower started, Janice rose, found her pants and pulled her rumpled cigarette pack and Zippo from the pocket, stepping outside on the balcony. As she smoked and sipped her coffee, she turned her thoughts to the Gauntlet of Ares and the ancient, earthbound immortal who was, at this moment, somewhere in the city below her. Ares, where are you and what is your game? Jan mused. I've got a feeling that today is going to be very eventful. Very eventful, indeed.
Stavros Palo slouched at the desk in his study, one leg draped over an arm of his broad leather office chair. He cradled his goateed chin in one hand as his dark eyes focused on the artifact resting on his desk. Been a long time since I've seen that gauntlet. Had great plans for it, too, just like I had great plans for her. I could have turned her from that 'greater good' crap that she bought into, I know it, if I had just played my cards right so long ago. Well, with age comes wisdom, so Zeus once said. He gave a soft snort of derision. If that's so, then I should be a genius by now. How come I didn't foresee the furor that stealing that thing would cause? The other stuff I've stolen didn't cause such an uproar. Hades, it's just mortal politics, I guess. I'll never understand it.
He glanced around the large, airy study. Still, this stolen antiquities stuff is more fun than I ever imagined it would be. Built some wealth and a good business out of it. Whoever thought that Ares, god of war would one day become Ares, 'king of thieves'? By the gods, I love the irony of it. One thing that's always been predictable in mortals is greed. That will never change. I can take that to the bank. He chuckled at the next thought. Hades, I do take it to the bank.
His eyes clouded in concern. Got one little problem, though. That little pissant, Gabrielle's descendant Covington. I know she's here in town, her and her girlfriend. They've got to be here for the gauntlet. The timing is just too perfect for anything else. The fact that they're here in Algiers tells me that they know it's here too. If that's true, then they know somehow that I've got it. Somebody must have ratted me out. No honor among thieves, I guess.
He stood and began pacing the floor, tapping a fist into the palm of the other hand as he thought. Need to throw them off my scent. For mere mortals, they're a formidable pair, especially with their auspicious ancestors looking over their shoulders all the time. Where that Pappas chick is, Xena isn't far away. No one else was ever so able to mess with my mind and frustrate my plans as Xena was, even in her mortal form. Since she's long dead, she's more powerful than ever. I need to get rid of Pappas. With her out of the picture, so is the Warrior-Princess. But how to do that? Think, Ares, think.
There was a tapping on his study door, and at his growl, it opened. A young blonde woman entered, her manner assured and her eyes perceptive and intelligent. Palo smiled when he saw her enter. "Well, if it isn't my newest protégée? What's up?"
"Stavros, we've got a problem."
She was taken aback at the question. "Yeah. You knew that she was in town?"
"I'm way ahead of you, honey. She's got to be here for the gauntlet."
"That thing's attracting too much attention. We've got to get rid of it."
Palo shook his head. "It stays here. I've got plans for it."
"I mean that it's not safe here." She paused, then added, "And we're not safe while it's here. Maybe we need to lock it up. Safety deposit box or something."
"Like I said, it stays on my desk. Besides, even Covington hasn't got the brass to steal it from my study."
The blonde was adamant. "I wouldn't be so sure about that. She's relentless. I learned a lot about her when I was in her classes in college. If she's here to get that thing, she'll get it."
"She's persistent, I'll give her that. We need to distract her from her quest for the gauntlet."
Palo approached her and lifted her face with a hand under her chin. "By getting rid of her girlfriend. That Melinda Pappas is her greatest weakness and her greatest strength. We get rid of her, and Covington is useless."
The blonde grew cautious, her eyes wide. "Hey, look. Maybe I've got some larceny in my heart, but I'm not murdering anyone."
"Who said anything about murder? I was thinking of a little, ah, 'domestic crisis' between the two of them, that's all."
"Um, what do you mean, 'domestic crisis'?"
"Call it a lovers' quarrel. It'll probably get rid of Pappas and take Covington's mind off of us for a while." He placed his hands on her waist and pulled her closer to him. "Besides, there's three thousand American dollars in it for you if you can pull it off."
"Now you're speaking my language." She leaned her head against his chest and snaked an arm around his neck. Her eyes widened, and she softly asked, "What do you want me to do?"
Smitty, Janice and Melinda sat at an outside table of a street corner café, speaking while they indulged themselves in lunch. Pleasant conversation gave way to business as Smitty leaned forward, his expression suddenly growing more serious. "I heard from my contact in the antiquities black market. It's no deal. Palo is not interested in selling the gauntlet."
Janice nodded. "I thought as much. What's 'plan B', then?"
"You steal it back. Look, he's got a place in the old section of town, the Casbah. He won't be there tonight. That's when you do it."
"You're sure he won't be there?"
"He's slated to be at an embassy party this evening which we're hosting. Embassies have these things all the time, and he's always attended them before. Likes to hobnob with the diplomatic types. He'll be there."
"So what's the plan?"
"Listen, I can't be involved in this directly. I'm an employee of the American government. So, Melinda drives the car. You go into his place just after dark."
"Any idea where he's keeping it?"
"Yeah. We've got someone on the inside. Palo's got a study on the second floor. That's where our contact says that he keeps it."
"Security? Has he got guards and such?"
"Not that I can tell. A few servant types and a couple of strong-arm goons, but they live on the other side of the building. You can gain entry from the roof. I've got it figured. If it's in the study like our contact says, you're in and out in fifteen minutes or so."
"Sounds a little too easy."
"Sometimes it is that easy. Let's hope it's so this time." Janice and Melinda cast cautious glances at each other, then back at Smitty as he finished, "Meet me in my office an hour before sunset. We do final briefing then and you pick up your gear." He leaned back in his chair, his voice assuming a more normal volume, and asked, "So, what are you girls up to this afternoon?"
"From here, we go shopping."
"Have fun, but be careful. Like I say, you're not exactly a total unknown in this town, Jan. You armed?" Janice held one side of her open leather jacket slightly away from her body to show her pistol tucked up underneath her arm in a shoulder holster. Smitty nodded and said, "Good girl. Hang on to your wallet, too."
"Smitty, you sound like a worried father."
"In my line of work, I trust very few people. Besides, I know this town."
"We'll be fine, Dad, and we'll be in by curfew."
"Right." Smitty smiled self-consciously, then rose and dropped a few bills on the table. "Got to get back to work. Meeting. See you this evening. Have fun." With a nod, he turned and walked out onto the crowded street, heading in the direction of the American Embassy. The two women watched him go, and Melinda looked over at Janice. "Well, cutie, where to?"
Jan grinned. "The Casbah, hot stuff. Shall we?" She rose and extended an arm to Melinda, who stood and wrapped her hand around it. Together, they walked out into the street, losing themselves in the crowd.
At a nearby table, a blonde woman wearing sunglasses and a black beret watched them depart as she sipped her coffee, then rose and made her way into the café. She stopped at the counter, got the attention of the proprietor, and asked, "Telephone?" He pointed expressionlessly to a phone hanging on the wall. It was an old telephone, with separate earpiece and speaking-trumpet. She picked up the earpiece, slipped a coin into the slot, and dialed a number. After a moment, she said simply, "They've left the café and are going shopping in the Casbah. I overheard it." She listened, then spoke again. "No, he's not with them. He headed in the direction of the American Embassy." After another pause, she finished, "I understand." She hung up the earpiece and left the café, walking briskly toward the Algiers Royale Hotel, her heart pounding and a thousand nagging doubts pecking at her mind as she negotiated the crowds on the sidewalk.
Janice and Melinda walked through the crowded market stalls, talking and taking in the myriad sights, sounds and smells of the open stalls and cramped, dark shops. Melinda was absolutely delighted with the experience, stopping often to bargain with the merchants and occasionally buying something which she would shove into the colorful bag slung over her shoulder. Jan, for her part, just tagged along, hands in her pockets, fedora hat tilted back on her head, smiling at Mel's unbridled enthusiasm.
They had wandered the crowded, narrow streets for what seemed a couple of hours when a small man approached them and, in his thick accent, questioned, "Doctor Covington? Miss Pappas?"
Jan eyed him cautiously and replied, "Who wants to know?"
"Ah, excuse. I am the driver from the American Embassy. You come with me, please?"
The small man wrung his hands nervously and gestured toward Janice. "Mr. Smith says that you must go now to the hotel. Very important." The man indicated Melinda and continued, "And Miss Pappas, you come to embassy. Family emergency, I am told."
Melinda's expression was shocked. "Family emergency? What's wrong?"
"I do not know. They tell me to bring you. Please, I have a car just over there. We go." He seemed anxious and was waving them forward. Janice and Melinda gave each other a quick, disbelieving glance as they followed him through the crowds.
When they reached the car, Janice took the man aside and said, "I need to stay with Miss Pappas."
The little man was adamant. "No, no, you must go to the hotel right away. Mr. Smith says important."
"Mr. Smith? You mean Smitty?"
"Yes, yes. Smitty. Come." He opened the rear door of the car and gestured. "Please."
Melinda placed a hand on Janice's shoulder. "We mustn't waste time, Jan. It might be my mother. Let's go, please." Jan felt a knot form in the pit of her stomach. Her instinct told her that something wasn't right here, but she wasn't sure what it was. Before she could voice her concern, Melinda spoke again, more urgently. "Please, Jan."
Janice, in spite of her misgivings, nodded. "You get in first, Mel. I'll sit behind the driver." Melinda scooted into the rear seat of the sedan and Janice followed. The little man closed the door and entered the driver's seat, starting the car and pulling the shifter down into gear. With a lurch, the car sped forward and very soon was out of the Casbah and onto one of the wide avenues in the newer , more westernized part of town. Janice looked over at Melinda. Her face was pale, her expression pained. Jan leaned close to her and asked, "What about your mother?"
"She's not in the best of health, you know."
"Mel, did you tell anyone we were going to Algeria?"
"Why, yes. I told my mother and my sister. Why?"
"Just curious." Jan sat back, puzzling over the sudden turn of events, then shook her concerns away as paranoia. I'm just seeing goblins behind every door, I guess. Worried about tonight. I don't trust anyone, either. Force of habit. This guy seems legit, though, so far. He's heading in the right direction, at least. Her eyes squinted at the next thought. If he makes a wrong turn, though, he's going to have my pistol stuck in his neck.
The little man screeched to a halt in front of their hotel. He turned in his seat and spoke to Janice. "Please, someone from the embassy will meet you in the hotel bar. They must speak with you. Urgent."
Janice eyed him cautiously. "Let's drop Mel at the embassy first."
"No time. Mr. Smith says important. I take Miss Pappas to the embassy."
When she didn't move, Melinda urged her with a hand on her leg and a pleading voice. "Please, Jan. I'm sure it's quite all right."
"Yeah? Well, I'm not."
The small man was growing very excited. "Please. My orders are to take you here and Miss Pappas to embassy. Emergency. Mr. Smith tells me to do this."
"Please, Jan, I'm sure that it will be just fine." Janice looked over at Melinda. Her eyes were wide in exasperation, her countenance quite worried. "Jan, if something's wrong with my mother, I have to know right away." The uneasy suspicions which Janice felt melted away when she looked into the imploring blue eyes of her mate.
Janice slowly nodded. "All right, Mel. I suppose it's okay." She opened the door and stepped out, leaning down to speak to Melinda. "Call me when you find out what's going on."
"Oh, I will, Jan." With that, Janice closed the car door and the driver sped off into the traffic of the wide boulevard, leaving her standing on the street curb and scratching her head in uneasy question.
Melinda hurried up the stairs past the marine guards, briskly walking down the hall of the embassy. She stopped before a large board with names and office numbers, and was puzzling over the strange designations when a familiar voice hailed her.
"Hey, Melinda. What's up?"
She turned and saw Smitty standing in the hallway, about fifteen feet away. He smiled and approached her, his smile fading when he noted the concerned expression which she wore. She spoke to him urgently. "I got word of a family emergency. I was supposed to come here right away. Do you know who I should speak with?"
Smitty replied, "Family emergency? Oh, that would be the Red Cross representatives. Their office is up on the second floor. Come on, I'll take you there."
"Thank you." They began walking together to the stairs, and as they ascended the wide steps to the second floor, Smitty attempted to set her at ease.
"I hope it's nothing serious. Often, these things aren't, you know."
"I'm worried that it's my mother. She's not well."
"If it is serious, we'll get you on the first plane back to the States." They stopped at an office, and Smitty opened the door for Melinda. They entered to find a small office crammed with desks.
A matronly woman looked up at them. "Good afternoon. May I be of help?"
Melinda spoke rapidly. "Yes. I'm Melinda Pappas. I got word to come here immediately. Some sort of family emergency, the message said."
The woman looked puzzled. "Hm. Melinda Pappas? I don't remember a message concerning you. When did you get this?"
"Just a little while ago."
The woman lifted a file, plopped it down on her desk, and opened it. As she leafed through the form messages in it, she squinted in question. "I don't see anything here for you, Miss Pappas. Are you quite sure you understood the message correctly?"
"Oh, yes. Would there be anyone else in the embassy who might know something?"
"No, all family emergency situations come through us." The woman rose from her chair and added, "Alice works in here as well. She's at lunch in the basement right now. If you'll wait here, I'll just go and speak with her. She might know something. It won't take long."
"Thank you. I'd be very grateful."
The woman nodded. "Of course." She left the office, and Mel began pacing the floor as she waited. Smitty just wandered over to the open window and lit a cigarette, patiently waiting for the drama to play itself out.
After what seemed an endless amount of time, the woman returned. "My dear, Alice says that she received no such message." With a shrug, she added, "I'm sorry."
Melinda nodded silently, then turned to leave. Smitty flipped the stub of the cigarette out of the window and followed her, then took her aside and spoke to her in the hallway. "You said that you were worried about your mother. Does she have a telephone?"
"Why don't you call her house from my office? We can get through to America much faster than the Algerian operators can."
Melinda brightened. "Would that be possible?"
"Sure. Follow me." They descended the stairs to the first floor and entered Smitty's office. He picked up the telephone and dialed the embassy operator, then spoke with her for a moment. Looking up at Melinda, he asked, "What city? What number?"
"Ah, Charleston, South Carolina. Oakwood 3-4428."
Smitty repeated the information to the operator, and then hung up the telephone. "She'll ring us back when she makes the connection. Have a seat. You want some coffee?"
At her grateful nod, he poured two cups from the urn near his desk and handed her one. They sat in relative silence, sipping at their drinks, until the telephone rang again. Smitty picked it up, spoke a few words, then handed the receiver to Melinda, who rose and placed it to her ear. "Hello? Hello? Mother, is that you? It's Mel. What? You'll have to speak up. I can hardly hear you. Is everything all right there?" She listened for a moment, then nodded to Smitty. He smiled back at her and walked out of the office, allowing her some privacy, and stood in the hallway, leaning against the wall and sipping his coffee until Melinda appeared at the door.
"Everything okay, Melinda?"
Melinda smiled with relief. "Yes, she's just fine. There must have been some mistake, I suppose."
"Yeah. Things can get pretty fouled up around here sometimes. You heading back to the hotel?"
"Yes. I'll catch a cab."
"Nonsense. Let me drive you."
"But I've put you out so much already."
"Don't worry about it. Hang on a minute." He entered his office, reappearing in a few minutes with his rumpled white linen suit coat and a set of car keys. "Never let it be said that Smitty let down a damsel in distress."
Janice watched the sedan, Melinda's dark head visible through the back window, squeal away from the curb, shook her head, and walked into the hotel lobby. She looked around, then headed toward the bar. Who's supposed to meet me, I wonder? Well, hell, I'll just let them recognize me. Wouldn't hurt to have a drink while I'm waiting, I guess.
She sauntered into the bar, hands in pockets, and headed toward the bartender. A voice addressed her from nearby. "Doctor Covington, is that you? I can't believe this. Small world, huh?" Janice looked toward the voice and saw a blonde woman approach her. The face and voice were very familiar, but she couldn't quite place them. The woman approached her and continued, "Do you remember me? Mary Peterson. I was in several of your classes."
Jan pointed a finger and smiled as the flash of recognition finally hit her. "Of course. How the heck have you been?"
"Just fine. I couldn't attend this semester. Had to work to earn some money." Mary gestured toward the bar. "Buy ya a drink for old time's sake?"
"Don't mind if I do, but why don't you let me get it?"
She waved a hand in a gesture of dismissal. "No, no. My treat. You go sit at a table, and I'll bring them over. Whatcha drinking?"
"Whiskey and soda, thanks." She nodded and leaned over the bar to speak with the bartender as Janice picked out a table and sat down, removing her hat and dropping it on the table. In a moment, Mary joined her and placed the drink down in front of Janice.
"So, Doctor Covington, what brings you to Algiers?"
Janice raised an eyebrow. "I was about to ask you the same thing."
She spoke animatedly, a little nervously, it seemed to Janice. "Oh, like I said, I had to work. I got this really great job. My boss travels a lot and brings me with him. I'm a sort of personal assistant to him. He's at business meetings, so I have a lot of time to kill." She eyed Janice. "How's about you?"
"Business. Antiquities. You know, the usual."
"Oh, I remember that you were always off chasing some legend or something. It seemed like we had to put up with your graduate assistant quite a bit."
Janice shrugged. "Yeah, but she was a good one." She eyed Mary, then teased, "You guys didn't give her too much trouble while I was gone, did you?"
Mary laughed. "Oh, no. Her lectures weren't as interesting as yours, though." After a split second, she added, "She wasn't as cute as you, either." At Janice's raised eyebrow, she hastened to explain, "Oh, I think that half the guys in the class had a secret crush on you." She leaned forward and added in a whisper, "A couple of the girls, too, but I'm not saying who."
Janice just smiled and waved a hand. "Don't tell me. I don't need to know."
"Right. Well, I think that the guys were all disappointed that you didn't wear tight skirts. You know, you always dress in pants and stuff."
"I don't even own a skirt. Besides, would they have heard a word I said if I had worn tight skirts?"
Mary laughed. "Probably not."
They fell silent for a moment, each sipping their drinks, and Janice studied the young woman as she sat across the table from her. The thought crossed her mind, Is she flirting with me? Nah, get a grip, Covington. No way. Janice set her drink down, reached in her jacket pocket and produced a crinkled pack of cigarettes. "Do you mind?"
"Oh, no. I smoke too. May I?" Janice held out the pack, and she pulled one from the paper and placed it between her lips. As Janice leaned forward, her arm extended and her Zippo alight, Mary steadied her hand in both her own as she leisurely lit her smoke. After several seconds, she slowly released Janice's hand and leaned back as Jan lit her own cigarette. Hell, yes, she was flirting with me. Watch yourself, Covington. She could be trouble.
As they smoked and sipped their drinks, making small talk about a variety of subjects, Janice noted that Mary was watching her intently. After what seemed about fifteen minutes, Janice lifted her nearly empty glass and noted that her hand was slightly unsteady. She set the glass down on the table, then squinted as the ice in the glass began to appear suddenly rather fuzzy to her sight. She blinked a couple of times, then shook her head.
"Doctor Covington? You don't look so good. Something wrong?"
Janice replied, "I don't know. Feel funny, all of a sudden." She studied the glass, then asked, "What was in this?"
Mary shrugged. "Whiskey and soda, like you said." She teased, "Don't tell me that you can't hold your liquor."
"Always have before." To Janice, it seemed that the room wanted to spin on her. She found that she had trouble focusing her eyes on Mary's face. "Must be tired from the trip or something. I'll just go lie down for a while." She attempted to stand, but lifted herself only a few inches off the chair before she sat back down. "Damn. I feel lousy. Sorry to be such a party-pooper."
"Don't worry about it. Look, why don't you let me help you up to your room? I'm worried about you."
"Aah, I'll be okay." She attempted to stand again, and was noticeably shaky. Mary was at her side in a moment.
"Here, I'll help you upstairs, Doc. I've got your hat. Let's go." Mary placed an arm around Janice's waist and held her arm with the other hand. "This way." They left the bar, Janice leaning upon her for support, and made their way to the elevator. "What room are you in?"
"Huh? Oh, 512." The elevator began its rise, and Janice's knees almost buckled. "Keep it together, Doc. We're almost there."
"Yeah. I'm with you." The elevator car stopped with a jolt, and the cage door opened. Mary looped one of Janice's arms around her neck to help support her, then led her down the hallway. They stopped in front of the door numbered 512.
"Got your key?"
Mary listened for a reply, but Janice could only mumble, "Pocket." She fumbled in her pants pocket and produced the key, and Mary lifted it from her hand, unlocking the door. They stumbled inside, and Mary sat Janice on the side of the bed.
"Look, let's get your coat and shoes off."
"Yeah, yeah." Janice's words were extremely slurred. Mary pulled the leather jacket off of Janice, then allowed her eyes to widen a bit as she saw the shoulder holster.
"Damn, Doc. You carry a gun?"
Janice blinked stupidly, attempting to focus her eyes. "Tough town. Can't trust...anyone."
As Mary slipped the shoulder holster off of Janice, she muttered, "Ain't that the truth." She placed the holstered weapon on the floor, then took Janice by both shoulders and nudged her back on the bed. Janice lay back, her eyes barely open, her words a whisper and slurred. The blonde leaned over Janice and said, "What was that?"
Janice's words were a whisper. "Mel. I need...Mel..."
"Oh, I'm sure she'll be here shortly, Doc. Try to rest."
"Get..." Janice could not form any more words, but just moved her lips silently.
Mary studied her for a moment, then lifted her purse from her shoulder and placed it on the bed-side table, opening it and withdrawing a lipstick. She applied it to her own lips, then leaned down and placed several kisses on the side of Janice's face, lingering when she reached the lips. Janice did not resist. Her eyes fluttered slightly, then closed.
Mary stood up, gazing at Janice's lethargic form, then leaned over her and began to undress her, pulling the clothes from her body and dropping them on the floor. As she did, she said aloud, "Wish this had been under different circumstances, Doc."
Smitty and Melinda walked through the hotel lobby, found the elevator and rode it silently up to the fifth floor. As they exited the car and walked down the hall toward 512, a young lady passed them, a rather jaunty air about her. She eyed Melinda in a flirtatious manner as she passed them, a look which Melinda noted but to which she did not offer any response. A second later, both she and Smitty detected the lingering scent of perfume in the air. They cast a look at each other, and he just smiled and shook his head. Melinda raised an eyebrow and teased, "Go on, Smitty. Don't let me stop you."
Smitty replied softly, "She was looking at you. Anyhow, I probably couldn't afford her. I'm just a poor public servant."
Melinda giggled. "Oh, I'm quite sure that you do alright for yourself." They stopped at the door and she inserted her key, allowing the door to swing open slightly and entering first. "Come on in. I'm sure Jan is here by now." She abruptly stopped about four paces into the room, and Smitty almost bumped into her. He waited for her to move, and when he noted her stiff posture and her hand raised to cover her mouth, he stepped aside and glanced past her into the room. The sight which greeted him was shocking.
Janice lay very still on the bed, face down in a tangle of sheets which only partially covered her nude body. Her hair was loose, one leg protruded from the sheets and one arm dangled off the side of the bed. Her clothing was scattered around the bed. On the bed-side table sat a small, almost empty bottle of liquor, a couple of glasses next to it. Melinda stared for a moment, then looked at Smitty with wide, disbelieving eyes, her mouth open to speak but unable to form any words. Smitty's response was one of deep alarm.
"Is she okay?"
Melinda placed a hand on his chest, gently pushing him back toward the door, and she stammered slightly as she spoke. "Ah, let me cover her up, Smitty. Excuse us, won't you?" He nodded and retreated back through the door, closing it as he spoke.
"I'll be outside in the hallway if you need me."
Melinda returned her attention to the scene in front of her. Her heart pounded in her chest and she felt light-headed as she slowly approached the bed. Her voice wavered as she spoke. "Jan? Jan? Are you all right?" She leaned over Jan's silent form and only then inhaled the smell of cheap whiskey and perfume. Her eyes clouded with tears as she recognized the fragrance. It was the same one which she had smelled in the hallway. She reached out and placed a hand on Janice's shoulder, rolling her slightly so that she could look at her face, and saw lipstick smeared across her cheek and lips. Melinda recoiled, pulling her hand away and feeling her throat tighten. Bitter tears stung her eyes as they traveled around the scene and noted the same lipstick on one of the glasses. She stood, backed away from the bed, and only then saw a nylon stocking on the floor, mixed in with Janice's clothes.
She had no idea for how long she stood still, staring at the woman passed out on the bed in front of her, but it must have been several minutes. A whirlwind of emotions encompassed her as her eyes bled harsh tears. Hurt, betrayal, and then an intense anger swept through her. Her breathing was rapid and her chest felt as if a hot knife had been thrust into it. She willed the scene in front of her to disappear, to vanish as if by some magic, but it did not change. It taunted her, tormented her to the innermost depths of her heart and soul. In that moment, she felt her faith die, her heart break beyond any torture that words could describe. Her knees buckled and she sank to the floor, gasping deeply for air and feeling all strength leave her limbs. She could not move, she could not speak, she could do nothing but stare dumbly at the floor. Her eyes slowly scanned the clothes near her knees and fastened upon the stocking lying a foot away. Slowly, agonizingly, she reached out and picked it up with a shaking hand. A vision of the jaunty blonde in the hallway flashed through her mind, and her anger swelled and consumed her. That bitch. She was laughing at me. She knew who I was.
A knock at the door and a voice roused her from her black thoughts. "Melinda, is everything okay in there? Talk to me."
Melinda swallowed hard, then responded in a thin voice, "Just a minute." She looked back at Janice's unmoving body. Hurt and anger animated her limbs, gave her strength, and she stood. She reached out to the bed and jerked at the bed sheet, pulling it over Janice's nudity, then walked to the door and opened it. Smitty stood in the hallway, his concern written plainly on his face.
"Is she okay?"
He was shocked at the response which he received. Melinda pulled herself to her full height and said, "I really don't know."
"Well, let me check her. Is she decent?"
"She's hardly that, but she is covered up. You may come in." She stood aside and Smitty gingerly entered the room, walking over to the bed. He bent over Janice and studied her face for a moment, then lifted an eyelid. She did not respond. Reaching down, he placed his hand on her wrist and felt her pulse, timing it with his wristwatch. After a few moments, he stood, waving a hand in the air in front of him.
"Phew. She's okay. She must be dead drunk, I guess." As he turned to face Melinda, he visibly recoiled at the expression which met him. Her countenance was fierce, her blue eyes ablaze with an anger which he had seldom seen in another human being. He stammered slightly, then said, "I'm sorry, Mel. I-don't know what to say. I never thought--this isn't like her."
Melinda bristled and replied, "I didn't think so, either. Obviously, it is." She paused, then continued in a flat voice, "I think that you'd better leave us alone for awhile, Smitty." He swallowed hard as he noted the fire in the depths of the blue eyes, then backed up slightly.
"Um, yeah. I'll be in the bar if you need me."
"Thank you." He nodded, then turned and left, closing the door quietly behind him. Melinda watched him go, then leaned over the bed and, with a grunt, turned Janice over and shook her. "Janice, wake up." There was no response. She shook her again, harder, and shouted into her ear, "Janice, you wake up." Janice stirred slightly and muttered something unintelligible. Mel stood, crossed her arms across her chest and looked around the room. Noticing the empty ice bucket, she picked it up and marched into the bathroom. In a moment, she returned, the bucket full of water, and dumped it on the supine form in the bed. As she threw the bucket down with a clatter, she leaned down and yelled, "Janice Covington, you had better wake up right now."
The shock of the cold water and the angry voice caused Janice to sit straight up in the bed, sputtering and coughing. She groaned, then clasped her hands to the sides of her head. "Ouch. What the hell...?"
Mel's voice began as a low growl, then escalated into a shout. "What the hell, indeed! You have really got some explaining to do."
Janice blinked stupidly a few times, then attempted to focus her eyes on the angry, albeit slightly blurry form in front of her. "Mel! How...what...what happened?"
Melinda placed her hands on her hips and her voice pierced Janice's pounding head. "What happened? What do you think happened? You obviously had a very good time up here while I was gone."
"What are you talkin' about, Mel?" She groaned once again, her hands still grasping her head, her wet hair hanging limply in her eyes.
"What-? Don't you dare try to play innocent with me. I can very well see what happened here." She reached down and snatched the sheet from Janice. "Look at yourself. Drunk and naked. Just what do you think happened?"
Janice looked down at herself, then back up at Melinda, her eyes finally focusing on the furious countenance bearing down on her. "Mel, I don't know..."
"You don't know? You don't know? Were you that drunk?" Melinda's voice was a hoarse shout now, augmenting the pounding in Janice's head.
"Mel, I don't know what you're talking about."
Melinda's mouth hung open at the words, then she resumed her angry tirade. "Don't you dare lie to me, Janice Covington. Look around at this place. Any fool can see what went on here." She reached out and wiped a finger across Janice's dripping face, then held it up for her to see. "Whose lipstick is this? Don't try to tell me that it's my shade, because it damned sure isn't."
"Lipstick, Jan." She bent down and picked up the stocking from the floor, throwing it in Janice's face. "And don't try to tell me that I wear something like this."
Janice lifted the stocking which had hit her in the face and blinked at it, then back at Melinda. Her eyes were wide. "Mel, where did you get this?"
"Where do you think I got it? Your new girlfriend left it here."
"My what?" Janice looked around the room, as if seeing it for the first time, then an expression of absolute shock crossed her disheveled, dripping face. "Mel, honest to God, I don't know what happened."
Melinda's eyes bulged and her face reddened in anger. "You don't know? How can you lie to me like that?"
Janice's expression was one of total exasperation. "I don't remember a thing."
"Oh, you were that drunk, huh? You don't remember coming up here and getting laid? You were that drunk?"
"I only remember having one drink."
Melinda exploded, "One drink? Janice Covington, do you think I'm that stupid? The bottle's empty." She pointed to the bed-side table, and Janice's eyes followed the finger. An almost-empty whiskey bottle stared back at her.
"Shut up. Just shut up." Melinda waved a hand in the air, then turned and walked to the other side of the room, her back toward Janice. "I don't think that I can talk to you just now." She sniffed loudly a couple of times, and Janice saw her head bend forward. She slid out of the bed and placed her feet on the floor, attempting to stand and finding her legs weak and shaky. Slowly, she walked toward Melinda, her hands still holding her pounding head.
"Mel, honest, I don't know what happened. It's not like it looks. It's not what you think." She reached out and touched Melinda's back. "You've gotta believe me, I don't know what happened."
Melinda whirled and faced Janice. "Liar! You're a liar." She hesitated, then spoke the next words in a whisper. "I can't believe in you anymore, Janice."
The words struck Janice to her soul. She just stood, dripping water, and felt the sentence pierce her breast. Her chest tightened, and her throbbing head pounded with a renewed vengeance. Her mouth moved, but no words came forth, until she was finally able to whisper, "Don't say that to me, Mel. Please don't do this."
"I didn't do this, Jan. You did. You betrayed everything we had, everything we were. How could you do this to us? Do I mean that little to you?"
"Mel, I-you're my life, Mel. I love you."
Melinda's hand flashed out and struck Janice across the face. The slap echoed not only in the room, but in the depths of their very souls. They stood facing one another, Janice slowly lifting her hand to the stinging in her face, puffy hazel eyes locking with pained blue ones. Melinda's voice became very sad, very quiet.
"Of all the lies you just told me, that one was the worst."
"It's not a lie, Mel. Please, for God's sake, listen to me. I don't know what happened."
Melinda coldly regarded Janice for a second, then turned and picked up a robe from the chair nearby. She tossed it to her and said, "Cover yourself. I don't want to look at you just now."
Janice caught the robe and held it in her arms. "Mel...."
"Just shut up, Janice. I don't know you anymore. You're not who I thought you were."
"How can you say that to me, Mel?"
Melinda's eyes traveled across Janice's face, and then she said, "Go look at yourself in the mirror, then ask me that again."
Speechless, Janice retreated toward the bathroom, her robe still wadded up in her arms, and clicked the light on as she entered. She stared into the mirror, and a stranger's face looked back out at her. The hair was loose and wet, the hazel eyes puffy and the pupils slightly dilated, the cheek reddening from the slap. Her heart sank, however, when she noted the lipstick on the side of her face and smeared across her lips. Her eyes slowly traveled down to her neck, and she saw a bite mark evident on her neck where the base of her neck met her shoulder. She stood numbly, staring at the mark, and she felt only a hollow disgust at the image in the mirror. It must be true. It must have happened. Jesus, Covington, when you fall, you really fall, don't you? She closed her eyes and squinted them tightly as she concentrated, attempting to remember anything that she could of the afternoon, hoping desperately that something would return to her to disprove what she, in her innermost heart, feared was true. She remembered the blonde in the bar, the dizziness, the disorientation. The last thing that she remembered was being helped down the hallway to her room, her arm over the blonde's shoulder. Shit. It's gotta be true. I can't believe it, but there it is, right in front of me. Her hands dropped the robe and gripped the sink tightly at the next thought. Mel. I'm going to lose her because of this. She's going to leave me. Her entire body began to shake. Janice picked up the robe, slipped it loosely over her body and stood in the bathroom door. Melinda was sitting in a chair, her face a mask of stone, her foot tapping on the floor, her back straight. "Mel?"
Melinda slowly turned her head and regarded Janice with a combination of intense sadness and restrained anger. Her voice was cool, distant, very formal. "Yes, Janice?"
"I-I don't know what to say, Mel."
"There's nothing you can say, Janice. Nothing, anymore."
"I..." Her voice choked on her, and her next words were strained. "I'm sorry, Mel. I'm just so sorry. I never meant for this to happen."
"You're not half as sorry as I am, Janice." She paused, then finished, "You'd better take a shower now. You look terrible."
Janice swallowed hard, then felt her chest tighten in fear as she summoned the courage to ask the next question. "Are you gonna be here when I get out?"
Melinda did not reply immediately. After a few agonizing moments, she shrugged. "I really don't know yet."
The next statement came from Janice as a whispered, desperate plea. "Please don't leave me, Mel."
"It would seem that you've already left me, Janice. Go and bathe now. Try to wash her off of you."
Angry blue eyes flashed. "Just go." Janice retreated into the bathroom, shutting the door. She leaned against the wall, struggling to maintain control of her limbs, then felt her stomach knot and twist itself. Against her will, she fell to her knees and became sick to her stomach, unable to control her retching or the knife which twisted itself in the very core of her soul.
Smitty plopped himself down on a barstool and nodded toward the bartender. The bartender strolled over and lifted his head in question. "Club soda." A moment later, the drink appeared, and he pulled a folded wad of bills from his pocket and laid one on the counter. As he sipped the cool drink, his mind pondered the twists and turns of the afternoon's events. Damn, Covington really picked a good time to get drunk and cheat on her better half, didn't she? I wouldn't have believed it of her. Thought that a person changed with a little age. Guess she hasn't, though. She's just like she was before the war. I wonder if she's gonna be in any shape to pull off the job tonight? We may have to postpone it until she gets her shit back together. State Department isn't going to be happy about this. How am I supposed to detail this in my report? Boy, that's gonna be a doozy.
He looked up, then toward the lobby just in time to see Melinda Pappas exit the hotel, her suitcase in her hand. His heart leapt into his throat, and he slid from the barstool and walked briskly through the lobby, then out onto the street. His head turned from left to right, seeking any sign of her, but there was none. Then, he saw a battered taxicab pull away from the curb, a tall, dark head in the rear seat. He muttered a soft curse under his breath and returned to the bar where he resumed his seat, crestfallen. He pulled a cigarette from his pocket and lit it, inhaling deeply and returning to his interrupted train of thought.
Well, Jan, way to go. Bet she's feeling pretty low right about now. I guess I ought to go up there and try to pull her together. Pour some hot coffee into her or something. Hot coffee. Yeah, that's the ticket. Damn, she's probably a total wreck. That Melinda can really be intimidating when she's angry. Something in those eyes scared the crap out of me. He chuckled morosely at the next thought. I sure wouldn't want to have been in Jan's shoes during the last few minutes. I'll bet she really got her ass chewed, but good. Melinda looks like she doesn't stand for any shit.
As Smitty mentally chewed on the situation, a nagging feeling rose in him that something just didn't smell right about it. Jan was a wild one before the war, but she was always focused on her job and she was damned smart. She wouldn't have done something as stupid as this. He waved the bartender over. When the man approached, he said, "Hey, pal, got a couple of questions for you. Do you mind?"
Janice sat at the table in her room, her body wrapped in her robe, her hair wet from her shower, a note in her hand. She stared at it for awhile, then read it again.
I'm so angry at you right now that I can't speak to you anymore. I'm leaving. It would seem that you can do just fine without me. Don't bother to come looking for me when you get back. You won't find me.
She breathed deeply, attempting to quell the jack-hammers in her head and the knots in her stomach, but found her attempts unsuccessful and surrendered to the pain. She was roused from her lethargy by a rapping at the door. "Hey Jan, it's Smitty. Let me in, will you?" She stood and shuffled slowly over to the door, releasing the latch. It swung open and Smitty entered, a pot of coffee in one hand, two cups in the other. "Room service. Figured you could use this."
Jan eyed the coffee, then weakly waved to the table. "I could use a bullet more."
He put the cups on the table and poured coffee into them. "Feel like hell, don't you?"
"Yeah." Janice flopped down in one of the chairs and dropped the note on the table next to her, then leaned forward and cradled her head in her hands. "She left me, Smitty. She's gone. I can't believe this."
He pushed a cup across the table to Janice. "I know. I was in the bar. I saw her head out the front door with her suitcase. I tried to catch her, but she was in a cab and gone before I could get out there."
"Damn, I really stepped on my shirt-tails this time. I can't believe I did this." She looked across the table at Smitty. "I never wanted it to happen. I never meant for it to happen."
"I know, old pal."
"What am I going to do?"
"Do? You're gonna suck down some coffee and pull yourself together. Then, you're gonna go get that gauntlet back tonight and return it to New York. After that, you're gonna go home and try to repair the damage that happened here, if that's possible."
"It's got to be possible. You don't understand, Smitty. Mel was my life, my heart and soul. I've never felt about anyone else the way I feel for her, and I never could again. I'm no good without her." Her face grimaced, and a tear ran its course down her cheek. She wiped at it with a hand, slightly embarrassed to allow anyone to see her so vulnerable.
"Look, you're gonna have to be, at least for the next couple of days. You've got to get it together." He eyed Janice, then scratched his chin. "Jan, I know that this is hard on you, but I want you to answer me a question. Total honesty here. You ready?"
Jan looked up. "Are you accusing me of being a liar, too?"
Smitty shook his head. "I've always known you for a really straight shooter."
"What do you want to know?"
"Just how much did you have to drink this afternoon?"
Janice held up her index finger. "One lousy drink, Smitty. One drink. I swear that's the truth."
Smitty relaxed slightly and smiled. "Yeah, I know. That's what the bartender said, too."
"I had a little chat with the bartender. He remembers you meeting some blonde chick in the bar. You each had one drink, then you left with her. You were in there a total of maybe fifteen or twenty minutes."
Jan stared at Smitty. Her expression was one of shock. "Yeah, that's what I remember."
He leaned across the table, looking at Janice intently. "What happened then?"
"I don't know for sure. Things got pretty fuzzy. I remember feeling like crap, and her helping me up to my room." She shook her head. "I can't remember anything after that."
Smitty studied his coffee cup. "This blonde, Jan. What was she like?"
"Do you mean in the sack?" Janice snorted. "I wish I could remember."
"No, dummy. Describe her. Height, build, age, nationality. That sort of thing."
"Oh. That's the weirdest thing about it. She was a former student of mine."
"Tell me more. Take your time and tell me everything you remember."
Janice slowly unfolded her story as Smitty listened, sipping his coffee, nodding when Janice paused to concentrate and remember details. When she fell silent, Smitty reached out and refilled their coffee cups, then lit a cigarette. He dropped the pack on the table, and Janice fished one out for herself and lit it. As she exhaled, she offered out a short, derisive laugh. Smitty looked at her. "What?"
"Feels strange, smoking in the room. I'm in the habit of smoking outside. Mel hates it, you know. She was always after me to stop."
Smitty sat up in the chair. "Oh, shit. Mel." He stood and briskly walked over to the telephone, picked up the receiver, and dialed a number. As the rotary dial clicked slowly around, Janice studied him quizzically, but said nothing. Smitty began speaking into the receiver. "Al? Look, it's Smitty. This is urgent, so listen up and get on this right away. There's an American by the name of Melinda Pappas who's heading to the airport now. Going to return to the States, probably, on Pan American, next flight is my guess. Get out there and stop her from leaving the country. What? Oh, in her thirties, very tall, dark hair, blue eyes, eyeglasses, very attractive. You can't miss her. No, I don't care what you tell her. Arrest her, if you have to, and take her to the embassy. Treat her gently. Make her comfortable and keep her there until you hear back from me. One more thing. Get somebody to search the files for an American citizen here in Algiers, name of Mary Peterson. Young, medium height and build, blonde. We've got to have something on her. She's here on business. No, I'll call you back later. Get crackin'. It's important." He hung up the phone and returned to his seat, staring up at the ceiling and finishing his smoke. Janice just watched him for a moment, then attempted a sad joke.
"What's up, Smitty? Going to introduce my old girlfriend to my new one?"
"That's funny. Tell me something, Jan. Who got the drinks from the bar? Was it her or you?"
Janice thought for a moment, then replied, "Her. She brought them over to the table."
"Uh-huh. So how do you feel right now? Head pounding? Rotten taste in your mouth? Eyes dilated? Sick to your stomach?"
Janice blinked at him. "Yeah. Yes on all counts."
"That Peterson chick is no friend of yours. She slipped a 'Micky Finn' into your drink."
Janice was incredulous. "What?"
"Those are classic symptoms of it. She drugged you. Set you up. That has to be it."
"Why in the hell would she do that?"
He shrugged. "She might just be a sicko, or she might have an agenda." He looked at Janice. "Do you still have your wallet? Money?"
Janice rose from the table and retrieved her pants from the floor. She felt in the pockets and withdrew a wad of bills. From another pocket, she pulled out her passport. "No, she didn't rob me."
"This boss of hers. Did she mention his name, or the company name?"
"If my hunch is right, her boss is Stavros Palo. Let's find out." He rose, walked to the telephone and dialed a number. "This is Smitty. You find out anything about that Mary Peterson? Yeah? No kidding. Thanks. Al on his way to the airport? Good work. Check with you later." He depressed the cradle on the phone, then dialed another number. "Yeah, is Reginald there?" He waited, then continued, "Reggie? Smitty, from the embassy. Got a question for you. I need to know if a passenger by the name of Mary Peterson came into Algiers on Pan Am earlier this week, probably from New York City. If so, who did she sit next to? Who did she travel with? It's important, Reggie. Call me when you find out. Room 512, Algiers Royale Hotel. Need it pronto. Thanks." He hung up the phone, then smiled at Jan. "It's coming together." Janice nodded, but just studied the floor at her feet. "What's the matter, ol' buddy? I thought that this was good news."
Jan replied, "I still need to know one thing." She looked up, her eyes reflecting a hollow darkness. "Did anything happen between me and her? I've got to know that."
"When we find her, we'll ask her. Hell, if this works out, we'll let her explain it to Mel herself." He chuckled, then added, "That ought to be something to watch."
Janice laughed in spite of her mood. "Mel will rip her face off. She's one helluva gal. She's saved my bacon more than once."
Smitty nodded. "I got that impression." After a moment's reflection, he walked over and gave Janice a friendly slap on the shoulder. "Now get yourself together. You've got a gauntlet to retrieve. The sooner you get it back to New York, the sooner we can set all this straight."
Janice looked up at the man in the rumpled white linen suit. "Thanks, Smitty. You're a pal."
He just shoved his hands in his pockets, actually blushing slightly. With a grin, he replied, "Aw, shucks. Now get dressed before you make me cry. I'll wait in the hall."
"Don't bother. I'll dress in the bathroom." With that, Janice began rummaging in her suitcase, collecting clean clothes. As she stepped into the bathroom, she heard the telephone ring. As she emerged, clothes clean and hair pulled back into her usual ponytail, Smitty was hanging up the phone. He looked over at Janice.
"That was Reggie at Pan Am. Mary Peterson flew in from the States seated next to Stavros Palo. There's your connection."
"Then they know I'm after the gauntlet?"
"My guess has to be yes. It makes sense. Look, he swipes the gauntlet and they fly to Algiers. You two show up right afterward. She spots you in Algiers and he puts two and two together, then they engineer this little scene to knock you off your feet."
"It sure worked."
"Not yet, it hasn't." He raised an eyebrow and asked, "You ready to get some payback?"
Jan nodded, an expression of determination crossing her face. "Goddamn right. Let's go."
Smitty held up a hand. "Hang on. You're forgetting something." He pointed toward her feet. Janice looked down. Her feet were bare.
"Oh, yeah. Hand me my shoes, will ya?" She retrieved a pair of socks from her suitcase and sat down as her shoes dropped at her feet. As she was putting them on, Smitty began dropping items on the table. Her passport, her money, her gun permit, and her shoulder holster hit the table with rapid thuds, followed by her scuffed leather jacket. Janice quickly stuffed her belongings into her pockets, donned her shoulder holster and wiggled into her jacket. She looked up at Smitty. "Am I decent now?"
"Not quite." Smitty brought his hand out from behind his back. In it was Janice's worn green fedora hat. She grinned broadly, lifted it from his hand and clapped it on her head.
Smitty nodded. "Now that's the Janice Covington I remember."
Smitty and Janice emerged from his office and took the elevator to the embassy basement. He was wearing a dark double-breasted suit, and Janice had changed into dark fatigue pants and a black pullover, a dark fatigue shirt over it. Her pistol was tucked under her arm, and she hefted a canvas bag in her hand. He gave her the once-over and nodded. "You look the part, kid. Got all your stuff?"
"We inventoried it three times."
"Right. Just nervous, I guess. Got the routes down? Entry point? Feel sure of everything?"
Janice grinned. "You're worse than an old hen, Smitty."
"Just habit. You go out through the basement. Don't want the diplomats and such arriving for the party to see you. When you get the gauntlet, get out as quickly as you can and return directly here. We'll collect your stuff from the hotel and get you on the next flight out to New York."
"Won't be soon enough for me. I'm getting to hate Algiers."
Smitty just smiled and nodded in silent agreement as they stepped out of the elevator and into the garage. Smitty pointed to a small, nondescript car and handed Janice a key. "There's your ride. Take care, and don't worry about anything but this job. Everything will get straightened out, I promise."
Janice hesitated. "What about Mary Peterson?"
"We'll find her, Jan. Hell, she very possibly might attend this party with Palo. He is listed as bringing a guest. If she shows up here, she ain't leaving."
"That will alert Palo."
"That's why you need to be in and out quick. Good luck." He extended his hand. Janice shook it, then climbed into the car and started the motor. It started quickly and purred with fine precision. She leaned out of the window and looked up at Smitty.
"Looks like crap, but it sounds good."
"Best kind of car to have. Now get going." As she backed the car up and headed toward the garage door, Smitty watched her go and spoke softly under his breath as he watched the tail-lights disappear out onto the darkened street. "Good luck, ol' pal." He turned and wandered slowly back toward the elevator, checking his wristwatch. He entered the elevator and took it to the main floor of the embassy, bound for the party and the myriad guests which were now arriving to rub elbows with the diplomats and the more influential residents of Algiers.
He entered the main hall where the entertaining was done, circling slowly along the edge of the gathering crowd and noting faces. He stopped just behind a man in a dark suit standing by the edge of the room. "Al, were you able to find Melinda Pappas?"
He shook his head. "We missed her by ten minutes. Damned plane was taking off just as we got to the counter. She's partway to New York by now, I guess."
Smitty winced. "That's unfortunate. Spilled milk now, though. Look, has Stavros Palo showed up yet?"
"Haven't seen him."
"Keep an eye peeled." With that admonition, Smitty began slowly circulating among the clumps of guests. Well-dressed men with the easy air of authority and wealth stood with elegant ladies, chatting in a variety of languages. Smitty strolled leisurely among them, his eyes constantly roving back and forth among the faces, but he saw no one matching the picture of Stavros Palo or the American blonde who might be his companion for the evening. After some time, he retreated in frustration to the wide, pleasant balcony and placed a cigarette to his lips. Just before he struck his lighter, he froze, his eyes fixed on a couple emerging from the back of a sedan which had stopped in the long, circular driveway. He watched them approach, and when they were under the bright lights of the embassy's main door, he smiled and muttered, "Bingo. Got you." He lit his cigarette, checked his watch, and forced himself to remain outwardly calm, biding his time and allowing the evening's events to play out just a bit more. Soon, he promised himself, soon. Not just yet. Timing is everything.
Janice turned the small sedan down a dark, twisted street and coasted slowly to a stop. She switched off the motor and in the silence which followed, she could hear her heart pounding in her ears. She breathed deeply, then opened the door and stepped out, her canvas bag in her hand. Looking around the street, she saw no one, and nodded in satisfaction as she locked the car door. She studied the landmarks of the street, got her bearings, and walked quietly away from the car and along the edge of the buildings until she came to a stone wall about six feet high. Yeah, this has got to be it. She peered upward and noted the distance from the wall to the roof of the low buildings on either side of it. This is it. Time to go to work. She pulled a pair of leather gloves out of her pocket and slipped them onto her hands, then slung the canvas bag over her shoulder and jumped up, grasping the edge of the wall and pulling herself up to perch on it. With another look around, she satisfied herself that no one saw her, then clambered up onto the flat roof and carefully made her way across it to the opposite edge.
She placed the canvas bag down and lay on her stomach, peering down into the garden just beneath her. It was quiet and serene, long dark shadows criss-crossing the pathways and stone benches. She listened until she could assure herself that it was empty of people, then scooted forward and looked down at the side of the building just beneath her. The large windows and slender stone balconies were evident to her sight, just as Smitty's briefing had described them. Counting the windows and balconies, she picked up her canvas bag and crawled to her right until she was just above the last balcony overlooking the garden. That's it. That's the study. There's no light on. Perfect. Softly, she unzipped the bag and withdrew a knotted rope, attaching its wide metal hook to the side of the roof and lowering the loose end down until it rested just inside the balcony railing. Then, with a deep breath to still the pounding in her ears, she eased her body over the edge of the roof and slowly lowered herself down the side of the wall.
Once alight on the balcony, she crouched and peered into the room through the glass on the closed doors. She could see nothing, no light of an open door on the opposite side of the room, and deduced that the room was shut. So far, so good. Now, to get inside.
Janice removed her gloves and jammed them into one of the wide pockets in her fatigue pants, then withdrew a small penlight, flicking it on. A red beam allowed her to examine the lock on the door, and she quickly determined that it was an old one of the turn-key variety. The outside of the door had a keyhole in it, so Janice fumbled in her pocket until she found her skeleton key and eased it into the lock. She gently turned it, first one way and then the other, wiggling it back and forth in an effort to trip the mechanism. It would not budge. She cursed softly, then attempted it again, methodically moving it just a little more into the lock on each attempt to turn it. Still, she had no success. She replaced the key in her pocket and rummaged in the wide patch pocket of her fatigue trousers. Guess we'll have to do this the modern way. She studied the inside of the doors again, noting the position of the latch, then produced a suction-cup from her pocket. She licked it and attached it to the glass, then carefully, firmly scored the edges of the glass with a glass-cutter. Several seconds later, she wiggled the suction-cup, and the glass made a plinking sound as it came free in her hand. Oh, yeah. That's the ticket. She placed the glass down carefully, the suction-cup still attached, then reached in and found the lock mechanism. She turned it slowly and it moved, finally clinking as the bolt withdrew and the door moved slightly. She pushed the door open and entered the darkened room, blinking several times to adjust her eyes to the darkness while she felt in her wide pants pocket for her large flashlight.
The room slowly became visible to her, vague outlines of furniture and glass-fronted cases just barely visible. She held the flashlight up and clicked it on, its red-filtered glow illuminating the room just enough to see. In the soft red of the light, she moved silently around the room, studying the contents of the cases which lined the walls. Man, he's got some stuff here. Some of this is probably priceless. Did he swipe this stuff, too? Hell, he's the god of war. He's had thousands of years to squirrel this loot away.
Her leg bumped the desk, and she turned the red glow of her light onto it's surface. Her hand guided the beam across the large wooden desk, noting the telephone and various books and ledgers. The glow stopped when it fell upon an object resting on his desk. It appeared circular and about eight or nine inches tall, covered with ornate craftsmanship. Janice leaned forward and studied it intently, then thrilled as she realized what she had found. Hot damn! It's the gauntlet. Bulls-eye! Get it, Covington, and let's get the hell out of here. Oh, yeah. By tomorrow night, this thing will be back in New York City and I'll be on my way home to Mel. That thought gave her pause. Mel. I wonder if she'll be there. I wonder if she'll ever come home. I wouldn't, if I were her. She shook her head to clear her thoughts. Come on, Covington, first things first. She picked up the gauntlet, slightly surprised at it's relatively light weight for such an object, and clicked off her light, turning toward the open door on the far side of the spacious room. As she did so, the hair on her forearms and the back of her neck bristled and rose. She felt a sudden dread envelop her, and she instinctively knew that she was not alone.
Smitty watched from a distance as Stavros Palo and the pleasant blonde by his side circulated through the party, greeting and speaking with several of the diplomats and prominent local citizens present. He watched carefully, biding his time, knowing that sooner or later the woman identified as Mary Peterson would break away from him, either to avail herself of the lavatory or to sneak outside for a quick smoke. That would be the time to move, as they did not want to alarm Palo or cause a scene at such a gathering. To avoid arousing his suspicion, she had to excuse herself from him voluntarily.
Smitty checked his watch again, mentally gauging the amount of time Janice would need to complete her reclamation of the stolen artifact, and figured that she was probably just now entering the study. He grunted impatiently and returned his eyes to Palo and his companion, mentally fuming at her refusal to cooperate. Come on, honey, don't you have to use the can yet? You've been putting away enough of our champagne. He stood straighter when he noticed her turn and say something to Palo, to which he nodded complacently. She released his arm and left his side, threading her way through the crowd toward the lavatory. Smitty grinned in evil satisfaction, then began walking rapidly in her direction, tapping Al on the shoulder as he passed him by. Al turned and followed him, and they took their stations near the lavatory door.
It was not long before she emerged. Smoothly, Smitty and Al took their places on either side of her and guided her aside, to an empty alcove. At her alarmed and questioning glance, Smitty raised a hand and spoke. "Miss Mary Peterson?"
She looked from face to face, then replied, "That's right."
"Pardon us, but you're an American citizen, are you not?" She nodded. "Do you have your passport on you?" She nodded again, speaking in an anxious voice.
"What's this about?"
Smitty maintained his official persona. "May we see it, please?"
"We understand that there may be a problem with your passport. Please, it won't take a moment of your time."
"You guys don't have the right to..."
Smitty cut her off. "You are an American citizen in a foreign country, and we are the State Department. We have every right. Now, if you please?" He held out his hand. She considered the argument for a moment, then relented and opened her small clutch purse, withdrawing the passport. She placed it in his hand, and he opened it and examined it. With a glance at her and a nod toward Al, he closed it and said, "As I thought. Come with us, please. We can see to this right now." She hesitated and he insisted, "Please, it won't take a moment. Mere formality. Paperwork, you understand. Your passport must be completely in order, or you may have difficulty with the local police. We can fix it for you." They each gently took an arm and led her toward an elevator while she protested.
"What's wrong with my passport? What is this?" The elevator door opened, and they nudged her inside the car. When the door closed, she raised her voice. "You two slobs can let go of me right now. You guys are going to be in deep shit when the ambassador hears about this. Do you know who I'm with?"
Al produced a pair of handcuffs and clapped them on her wrists. "Yeah, we know who you're with. You need to choose better company."
She began to struggle. "Hey, what is this? You can't arrest me. You're not cops."
The elevator door opened to a hallway in the basement of the embassy. Al and Smitty each took an arm and half-led, half-carried Mary Peterson off the car and down the hallway. She was struggling and cursing, attempting to loose herself from the two iron grips on her upper arms, her cuffed hands waving in front of her. They marched her a short way down the hall, then paused as a marine guard opened a door. They wrestled her into a room and threw her down forcibly into a stiff wooden chair, one of several surrounding a long table.
She looked around at the room. Its walls were gray and imposing, the glare of the lights was harsh, and the two men who faced her radiated a sinister air. She became suddenly quiet, and raised her hands to brush away a lock of hair which bobbed over one eye. She ran her eyes over the table and noted only two objects upon it, an ashtray and a microphone. Al plopped her purse down on the far end of the table as Smitty spoke.
"Look, you're in deep trouble here, missy. In less than twenty-four hours, you're going back to the States under armed guard. When you get to New York City, you're going to be handed over to the cops there and charged with complicity in the theft of a priceless ancient artifact. Now, this can go easy for you or hard. You decide."
She glowered at the men, then leaned her arms on the table. The handcuffs on her wrists seemed a curious addition to the formal white gloves which covered her hands and forearms to above her elbows. She looked down at the cuffs, studying them for a long moment, then muttered, "I don't know what the hell you guys are talking about."
Smitty slammed his hand down on the table, making her jump in her seat. "Don't play that game with us. We've been around the block too many times before to believe that."
"Look, I don't know what you're talking about." Her voice was frantic, but not as frantic as the expression in her eyes.
Smitty leaned forward, both hands on the table. "Sure you do, Miss Peterson. We're talking about the Gauntlet of Ares here." She did not respond, and he gave her a few seconds to digest that statement before he continued. "Your boss, Stavros Palo, stole it from New York and brought it here to Algiers. You flew with him. You're just as guilty as he is." She opened her mouth to respond, but Smitty held up a finger. "I don't care whether you knew he had it or not. You brought it out of the country with him. No jury will ever believe that you didn't know. You're looking at a long time in the state pen, twenty years or more. Not easy time. Now, you can rot behind bars forever and come out an old woman, or you can start talking to us here and now and we'll intercede on your behalf. With luck, I'll bet that you'll only get a couple of years." Smitty straightened up and looked at her. "Your call. Talk to us, Miss Peterson. It's as easy as that. Just talk to us."
She looked around the room again, her eyes resting on the microphone. She studied it for a moment, then weakly nodded. "Okay. I talk, and you get me off. Is that your deal?"
"You talk, and we get you almost off. You'll still probably do a little time. Hey, it's twenty years or maybe a couple. You choose."
She rested her elbows on the table and placed her head in her hands. After a moment, she said, "Okay. What do you want to hear about?"
Smitty smiled and took a seat across the table from her. "That's more reasonable. Let's talk about the Gauntlet of Ares and your boss, Stavros Palo, shall we? After that, we'll have a little chat about what happened to Doctor Covington this afternoon."
She looked up, an expression of defeat on her features, her eyes clouding with tears. She wiped at her eyes with her hands, then muttered, "Can I have a cigarette?"
"Sure. We've got time now."
In the embassy ballroom, Palo looked around for Mary Peterson. Not seeing her, he grew irritated and walked toward the lavatory, awaiting her appearance. When she did not appear, he frowned, then closed his eyes in concentration for a long moment. When he opened them, a mask of anger drew itself across his features. His mind began spinning in thought. I thought I heard my immortal name mentioned. It came from below this floor. The Gauntlet of Ares is being discussed somewhere very nearby. A slow realization dawned on him, and he burned inwardly. They got her. Those idiot mortals, they got her. She'll tell them everything. They'll know where it is, and that scruffy little archaeologist will go after it. This is getting out of control. He shook his head sadly. And I had such plans for Peterson, too. I need a descendant of Amazon royalty to run my organization and work the gauntlet. Where in Hades am I going to find another one of those? A thought crossed his mind, and he actually laughed out loud. Covington? It's insane, but it might work. It just might. Without her girlfriend around to keep her on the straight and narrow, she's probably vulnerable as hell. The daughter of Harry "Grave Robber" Covington, and also the descendant of Gabrielle the Amazon queen. She's perfect. What irony. I love it. Hey, I'm not the god of war for nothing.
He entered the lavatory and waited until he was alone, then crossed his arms across his chest. With the thought, Better get home and hide the gauntlet in the meantime, he nodded and vanished in a flash of ozone.
Janice stood very still in the darkened study, listening intently and slowly turning her head from side to side, attempting to detect anyone nearby. She saw nothing, in spite of the warning which the bristling of her neck hair and the pounding of her heart had given her. She breathed deeply to still the fear which she felt and began quickly pacing toward the open balcony door. When she was just a few feet from it, she ran into something solid and grunted, backing up. She shook her head and looked again, seeing nothing. What the hell? What was that? There's nothing there.
As that thought echoed through her mind, brilliant flash blinded her momentarily and a dark form materialized in front of her. She backed up several paces and blinked, attempting to accustom her eyes to the after-effects of the flash. When she looked again, the form was still there. It waved a hand and the lights in the study clicked on.
She stood, frozen to her spot, as Ares, god of war, regarded her with an expression somewhere between deep irritation and amusement. He was still dressed in the evening clothes which he had worn to the party, but the face, the eyes, the goatee beard and the massive build were all unmistakably the god of war which she remembered from their previous encounters.
He crossed his arms across his chest and tilted his head slightly as he peered at her. Janice said nothing, just backed slowly away from him. For a long moment, neither spoke. They stared intently at each other, almost as if they were two primal animals circling and preparing to fight. Finally, Ares shook his head and offered her a twisted smile. "You know, you've got guts. I can't believe you broke into my study to steal my gauntlet. That took some big brass ones."
Janice met his gaze with an unflinching one of her own. "It's not yours anymore. It belongs to the Athens museum."
"Oh, come on. I had Hephaestus make it. I endowed it with certain, ah, properties. I figure it's mine."
"It may have been yours once, Ares. It belongs to history, now."
He raised his voice slightly. "And I am history. I herald from the dawn of time. I am one of the very few immortals to still exist on the face of this planet."
"Your purpose has long since passed. You're useless. You're just trouble, now."
He nodded and began to pace slowly. "Okay, I'll give you that. I have been feeling rather useless lately. That's why I decided to enter a new line of work. A junk dealer, if you will. Very expensive, very old junk." He waved his hands as he spoke. "Hey, some mortals will pay big money for old stuff. Isn't that your specialty, as well? Don't you dig this crap out of the ground, for sale to the highest bidder? What makes you so different from me?"
"I don't do it for profit. I do it for history, and I don't steal it."
"You don't? What were you just doing? You were stealing it from me. I stole it from the museum, and before that, an archaeologist stole it from the remains of my temple. And this makes you somehow more noble than me? I think that it just makes you more stupid than me. At least I'm turning a profit." He held out his hand. "It's my gauntlet, the Gauntlet of Ares. I am Ares. I want it back."
His voice became louder. "You are really starting to irritate me."
"I'm like my ancestor in that way."
"No kidding. Now put it down on the desk, and I just might decide to not kill you."
Janice was circling him slowly, backing away from him, gauging the distance between Ares and the open balcony door. As she neared the door, she spread her arms wide, the gauntlet visible in her hand. "Come and get it. Take your best shot. I've got nothing to lose anymore."
Ares extended his arm, his index finger pointing toward Janice. It began to glow, then form a ball of fire which hovered at the tip of his finger. To Janice, it seemed as if time had frozen at that moment. She fixed her eyes on the ball of fire, preparing to duck and sprint for the balcony when it released itself from Ares' hand. She watched it hover, glow, sparkle, and then leapt toward the door as it released itself. It struck the stone wall of the study behind her and burst as she rolled toward the door, the gauntlet in her hand. As she rose to a crouch, and strong hand grasped her by the neck and lifted her into the air. It held her so, her feet dangling just above the floor, her breathing halted, then brought her close to Ares' face. "Nice try." He threw her across the room as if she were a rag-doll. She hit the wall, a momentary flurry of stars appearing before her eyes. As she collapsed on the floor, struggling to regain her breath, she watched the gauntlet roll away from her and come to rest on the study's floor. Ares' feet appeared in front of her face. His voice was taunting. "Got to give it to you. I thought that little lovers' spat you had today would sap your determination. Guess it didn't. Oh, well."
She looked up at his mocking expression from her place on the floor. "That was your idea?"
"Yeah. Nifty, huh? Got rid of your girlfriend, and where she goes, Xena goes. Looks like you're on your own this time."
"Not quite." She rose from her crouch and butted him in the abdomen with her head. She heard the grunt and felt him back up, then reached down toward the gauntlet. As her hand neared it, Ares' fist made contact with the side of her face. She was lifted up by the blow and fell to the floor, her head spinning and a burning pain radiating down the left side of her face. She remained on her knees for a moment, then shook her head and placed a hand on her face. Her left eye began to swell shut and she could feel the warmth of some blood on her hand.
Ares stood over her. His voice began taunting her again, teasing her. "You know, you can't win. I'm the god of war."
"That won't stop me from trying."
"That's what I admire, perseverance in a hopeless cause. It's suicide, you know."
"Maybe that's the idea." She slowly stood, pulling herself to her full height and facing him, then dealt him a blow with her right hand, putting all her strength into it. She felt her fist connect solidly with his face, and he staggered back a few feet. Janice reached down and picked up the gauntlet, then turned to sprint for the door. She never made it.
Ares grabbed her by the front of the shirt and slung her against the wall with one hand, his other still covering his face. When Janice stepped forward to attack again, her vision went momentarily black and she saw stars. A loud pop resounded through her head, followed by a searing pain in the center of her face. She dropped to the floor like a rock, her nose gushing blood. The gauntlet fell by her side. She held her hands to her face, and when she touched her nose, a streak of white pain shot through her head. In her agony, Ares' voice taunted her again.
"Look, this isn't necessary. We don't have to be at odds here. We can come to an arrangement." Janice rose to her knees, looking up at him. He watched the rivulets of blood run down her chin and drip onto the floor by her knees, then said, "You're bleeding on my Persian carpet."
She just gave him a withering look and replied, "Tough."
Ares smiled. "Yes, you are. That's what I like about you. So, I'm going to make you an offer. If you're smart, you won't refuse it."
Janice knelt on the floor, her hands over her nose. She could feel the blood trail down her chin and sniffed as she looked up at him. "What kind of offer?"
"A business partnership."
"With you? Forget it."
He squatted down in front of her. "Don't be so hasty. Look, you and I are more alike than you wish to admit. We could work together. This could be a very profitable situation for both of us."
Janice looked at him. "I don't deal in stolen artifacts, and I don't work with ass-holes."
Ares reached out and grasped Janice by the front of her shirt, lifting her as he stood. He clenched his fist and drove it into her abdomen, doubling her up as she grunted. When he released her shirt, she dropped to the floor at his feet, coughing and retching. He calmly waited for her to quiet, then resumed speaking, his seductive voice somehow becoming strangely appealing as it reached through Janice's pain to prick at her logic.
"You need to learn a little respect here. After all, you are dealing with the god of war. Now, as I was saying, I just lost a business partner, one I needed for certain, ah, qualities which she possessed. She was smart, pleasant-looking, had a good understanding of artifacts-which you taught her, by the way-- and had some larceny in her heart. Most importantly, though, she was a lineal descendant of Amazon nobility."
Janice looked up. "Mary Peterson?"
"If I see her again, I'll kill her. She set me up."
"She was a soldier following orders. My orders."
"Then I'll kill you." Janice reached under her loose fatigue shirt, but before she could draw her pistol, Ares bent down and backhanded her across the face. He watched her crumple into the corner, then stood and crossed his arms, considering her with a mocking expression. Janice held a hand over her mouth, then winced as she touched her lip. She could feel it swelling and taste blood. "You're still an ass-hole."
Ares laughed derisively. "Yep."
"Mel left me because of what happened. I'll kill you if it's the last thing I ever do."
"No, you won't. You won't because I'm an immortal. You, on the other hand, are a weak, puny mortal. What were you gonna do, shoot me? Get a grip, Covington. Here I am, rearranging your face at my leisure and you can't seem to do a thing about it except bleed."
"I'll figure a way to kill you."
"You're thinking with your emotions, not your mind, kiddo. Use your logic. Listen to what I have to offer, then decide whether or not you want to die a miserable death on my floor tonight."
Janice painfully rose into a kneeling position, glaring up at the form towering over her. After a moment, she mumbled through her hand, "What's your offer?"
He nodded. "Now you're acting smart." Ares began pacing, gesturing with a hand as he spoke. "Like I said, I need a business associate who knows artifacts, has some larceny in her heart, and is a descendant of Amazon nobility. Peterson had those."
"Well, she still has them, I suppose, but she lacks loyalty. She's even now spilling her guts to your buddies at the embassy about me and my little operation. I can't use her anymore. I need a new associate. That's you. You have all the qualities she has, but in greater strength than she ever did. You know archaeology in depth, you're clever, and you've got some larceny in that very broken little heart of yours."
"How do you figure that?"
"Oh, come on, daughter of Harry Covington. I've heard about you in this town, before the war. You weren't above selling artifacts to the highest bidder. You've done it."
"That was then. This is now."
"What changed your habits?"
"Your girlfriend is history. Peterson made sure of that. So, now that you're unencumbered, go for the gold. You've got nothing to lose and everything to gain."
"How about my self-respect?"
Ares rolled his eyes. "I'll never figure you mortals. You're lying on my floor, an inch away from getting toasted by a fireball, and you're worried about self-respect? Look at yourself. You're beaten to a pulp, the love of your life has left you, and you're worried about a little self-respect?"
"It's all I have left."
"If you're rich, you can buy all the self-respect you want. Girlfriends, too. I can make you rich. Together, we'd be unstoppable."
Janice closed her eyes, immersing herself in her pain. Her head throbbed, her abdomen hurt where she had been struck, her stomach was tied in knots, and she felt nauseated. All that paled, however, in comparison to the ache which she felt deep within her as she remembered the expression of disbelief and anguish with which Mel had regarded her that afternoon. That ache, above all others, caused her shoulders to sag slightly and her head to droop. As she opened her eyes to stare at the spatters of her own blood decorating the floor around her, she thought, This is incredible. He's actually starting to make sense to me. I'm actually thinking about doing this. I guess I'm capable of anything. What the hell, I don't have anything to lose anymore. I've lost everything that meant anything to me. I've lost Mel. She looked up at him. "What the hell, why not? What would you need of me?"
Ares smiled. "That's the attitude, kid. I need someone to run my operation, someone with the knowledge and moxie to deal with day-to-day affairs while I trot the globe, scouting out new possibilities. You got it, kid. You can do it with your eyes closed."
Janice winced, then narrowed her eyes as she tried to connect a piece of the puzzle which just didn't quite fit. "Where does the Amazon heritage business fit in?"
"Ah, yes. I need someone of Amazon ancestry. Amazon royalty, to be exact."
He raised an eyebrow. "Look, I would want my associate to be indestructible, fearless, able to influence and lead people. The gauntlet gives that quality to its wearer, but only if they're Amazon nobility."
Janice peered up at Ares, a question in her eyes. "But you made the gauntlet for Xena."
"No. Before Xena attracted my attention, I attempted to seduce to my cause a female warrior of tremendous potential, an Amazon queen. Shrewd, ambitious, a great fighter, she was to lead my armies to victory. With the gauntlet on her forearm, she would be unstoppable, and so would her progeny after her as the gauntlet was passed down to them. It was a beautiful plan."
"Who was it?"
Ares tapped the gauntlet with his foot, and it rolled across the floor, stopping by Janice's knee. "Read it and weep." Slowly, she picked it up in her bloody hands and examined the ornate markings on it.
"It just has your name and sign on it."
"See that amber jewel on it? Press down hard."
Janice did as she was instructed, and a side of the gauntlet opened to reveal an inscription etched in what appeared to be a thin plate of gold. She studied the letters, slowly translating them in her mind. Her head whirled slightly as the implication of the inscription became clear to her. She looked up and said, "Hippolyte?"
"None other. Hippolyte, Amazon queen, object of one of the seven labors of Hercules. It could have been hers, but my meddling half-brother turned her away from me. Xena caught my eye next, but the gauntlet was useless to her. She was not an Amazon. Never was a joiner, that one. So, I saved it for Gabrielle, but she resisted my attempts to seduce her."
"So this thing was never put to use?"
"Right. It gathered dust in my temple, buried by the passage of time, until your daddy dug it out and put it in the Athens museum." Janice looked down at the gauntlet. Her father had found it. As she traced her fingers over it, she could feel a connection with him. She could almost see him, his pleasant face beaming with excitement, carefully dusting away the centuries with his brush and finally lifting free the very gauntlet which she now held in her hands. Dad. How proud you must have been to have found this. She looked up as Ares lifted it out of her hands and placed it on the floor about five feet in front of her. "Then, when I discovered Mary Peterson and realized her heritage, I decided to reclaim it. You see, it would have made her unstoppable. Now, of course, she's old news."
"So you need me."
He shrugged. "Yeah. So, what do you say, Covington?" He pointed to the gauntlet sitting on the floor in front of her, just out of her reach. "Do we have a deal? You and me, filthy rich? The alternative, of course, is you dead and me filthy rich. You choose." He backed up slightly, studying her intently. "You want the gauntlet? There it is. You can earn it, and it won't go back into some musty case. It will protect you, lend you strength and power. All you have to do is say yes. That's all. Just listen to that larcenous little heart of yours and give in to it."
Janice closed her eyes and tilted her head back slightly as she sat on the floor. Her mind raced as she listened to the pounding of her pulse in her ears. Damn, he's good. It's tempting. What have I got to lose anymore? My good name? I'm the daughter of Harry 'Grave Robber' Covington; I never had one. My life? It's worth nothing without Mel, and she's gone. She'll never come back, not after the way I hurt her. She's too proud. My nobility? There's not a noble bone in my body, not after today. Her eyes flashed open and fastened on the gauntlet as the next thought echoed in her mind. Nobility? What was it that Gabrielle said about nobility? 'Believe in your own nobility.' She wasn't talking about my character, she was talking about my heritage. Her eyes traveled from the gauntlet to Ares, then back to the gauntlet. If this works, I just might win this fight. If I can just reach the gauntlet in time...
She fell forward, her arm stretched toward the gauntlet. As her fingers neared it, Ares raised a hand, extending his index finger toward her. A streak of electricity arced across the room and enveloped her, sending spasms of stabbing pain through her body and causing her chest to feel as if it would explode any moment. She lay on the floor, frozen, her hand near the gauntlet but unable to force herself to crawl to it. Her eyes clouded with tears at the pain, and she began weeping openly as she realized that she had gambled and failed.
"I'm way ahead of you, kid. Nice try, though. Nope, guess you won't do, either. That's a shame. No loyalty. It's so hard to find good help these days, even among the descendants of Amazons."
The arc of electricity surrounding Janice faded and snuffed out, leaving her exhausted, her entire body aching. She slowly, painfully raised her head and looked into his eyes as small spatters of blood gathered on the floor under her chin. "You talk too much."
"Have it your way." He extended his hand toward her and a bright, tiny ball of flame began forming and growing larger in the palm of his hand. "Any last words?"
"Go to hell."
"You first, Covington." As the ball of flame in Ares' hand slowly grew in size, Janice desperately thought, Gabrielle, if ever I needed you, now is the time. Please help me.
Her eyes darted toward the gauntlet, and she stared as the ancient artifact, seemingly taking on a life of its own, wobbled and then fell over on its side. It rolled across the floor and stopped next to her arm. With a loud click, it popped open and lay next to her. Janice had no time to think; she acted on impulse, on instinct as she pulled her sleeve up and brought her arm down into the open gauntlet. It clamped shut, molding itself to the contour of her arm. She lifted it to shield her face as the fireball left Ares' hand and streaked across the room at her. To her total amazement, the gauntlet reflected the fireball back at Ares. He stared dumbly as it returned to him, then grunted loudly as it impacted his chest. He flew backward with the impact of the blow, crashing through the study's balcony doors and disappearing over the railing in a shower of broken glass and pieces of door. The racket of the fireball and the smashing of the wood and glass caused a tremendous clatter, and it jolted Janice into action. She rose to her feet and scrambled through the shattered doors, grasping the rope which dangled down from the roof and heaving herself up hand over hand. When she stood erect on the roof, she looked down into the garden below. Lights had been turned on, and she could see Ares' form lying limply in the garden. Four men were gathered around him, and their excited voices rose in pitch as they looked up and saw her, then began pointing and shouting. One drew a pistol from beneath his coat and aimed it at her. She saw the muzzle flash and heard the bang. The air cracked near her head and she ducked slightly, drawing her own pistol and clicking back the hammer as she brought it to bear. She squeezed the trigger, the weapon discharged with a roar and a flash, and the man collapsed on the lawn. Time to get the hell out of Dodge City, Covington. As she ran along the edge of the roof, she holstered her pistol. At the corner of the roof, she dropped down to the wall, then jumped again to the street below, rolling as she hit the stones. In a flash, she was up and jogging to her car, her lungs gasping at the effort. With a shaking hand, she unlocked the door, climbed in, and switched the ignition on. She depressed the clutch and jammed her thumb down on the starter button. It started on the first try. Smitty was right. Best kind of car to have. Very shortly, she was slowly coasting down the narrow, darkened streets, her headlights off. She stopped at a wide boulevard, watching the traffic, and clicked her headlights on as she prepared to accelerate out into the traffic of the city's night.
After what seemed an eternity, she pulled into the garage at the American Embassy. A couple of uniformed marine guards halted her. She rolled down the window. "I'm Jan Covington. Get Smitty. He's expecting me."
The lance corporal approached her, gawked at her face for a moment, then looked the car over. "It's one of ours. Bring her in. I'll phone Mr. Smith." A second guard waved her into the garage, pointed to a parking spot, and she squealed the car expertly into the spot, then killed the engine. As she slowly stepped out of the car, the guards stood somewhat apart, facing her, and each placed a hand on their sidearms. One of them addressed her.
"Sorry, ma'am, but until Mr. Smith says you're okay, we've got to keep you here."
Janice nodded, then leaned against the car. She fished in her shirt pocket for a cigarette and stuck it in the side of her mouth which was not swollen and sore, then felt about her pockets and cursed under her breath. She looked up at the marine guards and asked, "One of you guys got a light?" The guards eyed each other, then one reached in his pocket and produced a lighter, tossing it to her. She lit the cigarette, then flipped it back to him.
He studied her face, then asked, "Ma'am, are you okay? You don't look too good."
Janice raised an eyebrow. "Are you kidding? I'm the cutest thing on two legs." She offered them a half-grimace, half-smile, then started laughing. The guards both began smiling, then chuckling as they found Janice's macabre humor infectious, but they kept their distance and their hands on their pistols until the elevator door clicked open and Smitty emerged. The lance corporal met him, and Smitty nodded.
"She's okay, guys. I'll take responsibility." At that, the guards relaxed, but stuck around to watch the scene unfolding in front of them. Smitty approached Janice, a look of shock passing over his face as he beheld her appearance. "Holy Mother of God, Jan. What happened to you?"
She took a drag on her cigarette, then exhaled and replied, "I had a little run-in with the god of war."
Smitty was puzzled. "Who?"
Janice offered a half-grin, the best she could do without hurting. "Palo. He was there."
"How...? He was here tonight. How did he...? He must have snuck out somehow. Our guys didn't see him leave."
"Did you get Mary Peterson?"
He nodded. "She's in the interrogation room, singing like a lark." He hesitated, then asked, "Did you get what you were after?" In reply, Jan just lifted her arm and pulled back her sleeve. There, wrapped around her forearm, was the Gauntlet of Ares. It seemed to gleam with its own energy in the weak lights of the garage. Smitty approached it and studied it as Janice held her arm out. "So that's what all the fuss is about? It's beautiful, but it hardly seems worth it."
"Oh, it's worth it, Smitty. Trust me. It's very worth it."
Janice sat in the infirmary, a navy corpsman tending her face as Smitty leaned against a wall and watched. As he finished, the corpsman sat back on his stool. "Well, Doctor Covington, I've patched you up as well as I can."
"Think I'll live?"
He nodded. "Your nose is broken. I've put a plaster over it, but it'll heal of its own accord in a month or two. Your eye has a good cut near it, which I've closed with paper sutures. Soak 'em off in the shower in a few days. You've got one hell of a shiner there, too. Nothing to do about that eye but wait. It'll go down in a few days, and you'll have a black eye for a couple of weeks. Your lip is cut, too, but not bad enough to suture. It'll heal, in time." He placed a small white cardboard box in her hand. "Here's some ASA."
"Aspirin. Thought you were a doc, Doc."
"PhD., in archaeology."
"Oh. Good money in that?"
"Nah, but the perks are great." She smiled at him. "Thanks. I appreciate what you've done." He nodded, then rose. Smitty ushered him out with thanks, and then turned to Janice. "You can use one of our small guest rooms to shower and get some shut-eye. We'll get you out of here first thing in the morning."
"When's the next flight home?"
"Not until then, I'm afraid. That's why I want you to stay here."
"I need my stuff from the hotel."
"Already in the guest room. I had one of the gals from the embassy staff collect it."
"You think of everything."
"That's why they keep me around. Come on, I'll show you where the guest rooms are."
As they paced down the hallway, Smitty eyed the gauntlet on Janice's arm. "You want to put that in the safe until you leave?"
"It stays on my arm until I'm in the museum in New York."
Smitty nodded in agreement. "Guess I'd feel the same way."
Janice stopped Smitty with a hand on his arm. "You say you've got Peterson here?"
"Yeah. She's in lockup. Why?"
"I need to talk to her."
Smitty hesitated. "You sure that's wise?"
"Yeah. I need to know something. Only she can tell me."
"Okay. Call me after you clean up. I'll take you to her." They resumed their walk, this time in silence, until Smitty motioned to a door. "Here's your room."
"Give me thirty minutes." He nodded, then walked away. Janice let herself into the room and clicked on the light. It was sparsely furnished, a bed on one side of the room and a small table and chair on the other side. Her suitcase sat unopened on the foot of the bed. Her leather jacket and green fedora hat lay next to the suitcase. She shut and latched the door, then peeled off her shoulder holster and boots and opened her suitcase, digging out her grooming items and some clean clothes. As she undressed, dropping her bloody clothing on the floor, she noticed how sore she was becoming. Her entire body ached, her face hurt, and her arms and shoulders seemed stiff and sore. Almost as an afterthought, she pulled the band from her pony-tail and shook her hair out, then picked up her toilet kit and padded into the bathroom. When she clicked on the light, she stopped and stared into the mirror. A haggard face stared back at her, bandages across the bridge of her nose and next to her left eye, her eye swollen half-shut, and her lip puffy on one side of her face. Smears of dried blood decorated her chest, her face and her hands. There was even some dried blood in her hair. She took silent stock of herself, then shook her head and said aloud, "Damn, Covington, you just keep getting better lookin' every day."
Smitty led Janice into the lockup, spoke to the marine guard, and he nodded, unlocking the main door to the cells. Janice walked past him, then turned and looked into the four small cells, one by one, until she found Mary Peterson. She stood, hands in her pockets, regarding the young woman silently for a moment, then softly said, "Mary?"
Mary looked up, seeing Janice standing outside the bars, then looked back down at the floor. After a moment, she asked, "Didn't come to bail me out, did ya, Doc?"
"Came to talk." Janice thought that Mary seemed strangely out of place in the small cell, in an evening dress and elbow-length white gloves. She had removed her shoes, though, and they were sitting on the floor next to the hard, narrow cot upon which she sat.
"Sure. I got nothin' but time now. What did ya want to talk about?"
Janice studied her and wondered why she didn't seethe with anger at the sight of the young woman. Perhaps it was because she understood the seductive power of the god of war, had come dangerously close to submitting to it herself. Perhaps it was because she recalled Ares' words about her. Just a soldier following orders, he said. Earlier tonight, I vowed to kill you. Now... Whatever the reason was, she found that she was very thankful that the familiar burn of anger was absent. "Let's talk about you and me, this afternoon."
She looked up at that, then shrugged and slowly stood, shuffling over to the bars in her stocking feet. "What happened to your face?"
"I had a little run-in with your boss."
"Nice guy, huh?"
She nodded, then looked down at her gloved hands wrapped around the bars. "I guess you want to know why?"
"I know why. I understand it all, more than you think. I just have to know one thing."
Her eyes traveled up to Janice's face. "What's that?"
"Did we? You and I? I mean, did we actually...?"
Mary regarded Janice with intensely sad eyes, eyes which seemed to read Janice's very soul. She shook her head. "No, Doc. We never did, and that's the truth."
Janice smiled. "Thanks. I needed to hear that."
She turned to leave, and Mary's voice stopped her. "I hope I didn't cause you too much trouble. I never meant to hurt you, really."
Janice turned back to face her. "She left me." She dug into her pocket and produced the note, unfolding it and holding it up for Mary to read. The young woman looked at the writing for a long moment, then sniffed.
"You two are really in love, aren't you?"
Janice just nodded. "Guess that's why it did so much damage. It killed her trust in me, you see. Even if she comes back to me someday, things will never be the same. She'll always think that I cheated on her, then lied to her about it." She returned the note to her pocket.
"Doc, I'm so sorry." She sniffed and wiped at her eyes with a hand. "I had no idea that you two were that tight. I didn't understand. I feel like hell about it all. Believe me, I'd give my life if I could undo all this for you."
Janice reached up and patted the gloved hand wrapped around the bars. "I believe you would. Thanks." She turned and walked away, stopping in the door. "Good luck." Without waiting for a reply, Janice disappeared around the corner.
Mary watched her go, then wiped again at her face. "Good luck to you, Doc. No one deserves it more than you."
Janice was awakened by the jangling of the telephone on the table. She groaned, then arose and walked across the room to answer it, her body stiff and aching. When she picked up the receiver, she recognized Smitty's voice. "Time to get your fanny on the plane."
"Huh? Yeah. Give me a few."
"Meet me in my office."
"Yeah." She hung up the phone, then shuffled over to the bathroom, gingerly washing her bruised face around the bandage and brushing her hair into some semblance of order. She pulled her hair back and fastened it into a pony-tail, then dressed in a t-shirt and khaki pants. In a few moments, her suitcase was packed, her shoes were on her feet, her shoulder holster was donned and her leather jacket and hat were in her hand. She took one final look around the small room, then hefted her suitcase and clicked the door shut, walking down the hall toward the elevator.
Smitty met her in his office, poured some coffee into her, and hustled her into the garage. Soon, they were pulling out into the morning traffic of Algiers. As Smitty drove, he glanced over at Janice. "Got the gauntlet?" She pulled up the sleeve of her jacket, revealing a few inches of it, and he nodded in satisfaction. "I've been on the phone with the museum folks. They're expecting you tonight. Drop that thing off and get home, Jan. Then you can mend your fences with Mel."
Janice looked out the window of the car as she answered, "I wonder if that's possible, Smitty. I've never seen her that angry in my life."
Smitty cursed softly as he swerved, then honked the car's horn. "Crappy drivers. Sure it's possible, Jan. She'll have had a couple of days to cool off. You two are crazy about each other. Just go and talk to her."
"She was pretty angry. In her note, she told me not to come looking for her, because I wouldn't find her."
Smitty whistled softly. "Yeah, she was really ticked. So where would you start to look if you tried?"
Janice shrugged. "Her mother's house, I guess. But then, that's what she'd expect. She's probably somewhere else. Just as well. Her mom doesn't like me much."
"Where would she go, then?"
"How should I know? She's got a sister somewhere, and maybe a cousin or two. I haven't seen them in a while."
"Do you know where they live?"
"Well, just have some faith, Jan. I have a feeling that she'll come back to you."
"I wish that I could believe that. She's very proud, very stubborn. I hurt her pretty badly."
"You're an innocent in all this. We got a full confession from Peterson. She described in great detail how she set you up. You were passed out the whole time."
"A fat lot of good that does me now."
"Like I said, just have faith. Go home and wait for her. I've got a feeling that she'll show." Smitty swerved the car again, then accelerated. He glanced back into the rear view mirror and cursed softly. "We've got company. I had a hunch that we weren't alone."
Janice glanced back over her shoulder. Just behind them, a car, two heads visible in it, stayed very close to their bumper. "Who are they?"
"Probably Palo's goons. Bet they hung outside the embassy until they saw us leave. I'll try to lose them." He swerved, then cut to the right, heading down a side street. The car followed. He took several more turns, twisting the car around tight corners, but could not lose their pursuers. The automobile stayed on their bumper, keeping with their erratic course through the city. Smitty squealed the car around another corner, heading down a narrow street, then slammed on his brakes. "Shit."
Janice braced herself with a hand on the dashboard and looked through the windshield. A heavily-laden donkey cart blocked the alley. She glanced back over her shoulder and saw the pursuing car screech to a halt, several feet behind them. One of the figures leaned out of the car's window and pointed something toward them. A shot resounded, and the windshield splintered near Smitty's head. He ducked, then stomped on the clutch. "Hang on, Jan. When we hit, bail out and start shooting." He jammed the shifter into reverse, stomped on the accelerator, and the car's tires squealed as they caught on the pavement. They sped backwards and connected solidly with the front of the pursuing car. A tremendous crash resounded and steam began hissing, clouds of billowing smoke rising from the car. Janice and Smitty opened their doors, pistols in hand, and she heard the rapid report of several shots as he emptied his pistol into the front windshield of the pursuers' car. Janice, her pistol drawn, took aim but did not fire immediately. Instead, she simply stood and walked toward the car, her pistol extended. The goon on the passenger side of the car opened his door slightly and pointed a gun at her. She heard the shots and saw the muzzle flashes from his gun, but strangely felt no fear as she approached him. The air about her zipped and cracked as his shots sped past her. As she neared the man, she recognized him as the one who had met them in the Casbah the day before. His eyes were wide and his hand shaking as he repeatedly pulled the trigger on his weapon. After several shots, it began clicking impotently. He dropped it to the street and held up his hands. Janice just regarded him coldly.
"Not a chance, buddy." She cocked the hammer on her pistol and pulled the trigger. He slumped back against the side of the car, then tumbled to the street. She stepped over him and leaned into the car, her pistol pointing toward the driver. He had been wounded by Smitty's fusillade, but was still quite conscious. As he held one hand to his shoulder, blood seeping between his fingers, he raised the other hand toward Janice and pointed a pistol into her face. Janice pulled the trigger on her own pistol, and a hole appeared in his forehead as his head snapped back. He held his position for a second, then went limp. Smitty opened the driver's side door and the man slowly toppled over, hanging halfway out of the car.
Smitty stared at the man, then at Janice. As he inserted a new magazine into the handle of his pistol, he kept his eyes on her, his expression one of awe. Janice returned her pistol to her holster, placed her hands on her hips and looked across the hood of the car. "Smitty, you okay?"
He slowly nodded. "Yeah. Damn, Jan, that was the gutsiest move I've ever seen. You've got to be insane. That took balls the size of church bells, to do what you just did."
Janice lit a cigarette, then walked over to their car to retrieve her suitcase. "Nah. You forget, I'm a descendant of Amazon royalty and I'm wearing the Gauntlet of Ares." She returned, suitcase in hand. "Our car is friggin' trashed. Let's catch a cab."
Smitty stared at her, his mouth slightly open. "A cab, in Algiers? Are you crazy? That's dangerous as hell. You want to get hurt?" They regarded each other for a moment across the crumpled hood of the car's engine compartment and through the clouds of steam hissing into the air, then shared a mutual grin at his unintended humor.
"Smitty, you're a funny guy. Now come on. I've got a plane to catch." In reply, he just threw his hands up in a gesture of resignation and walked around the car to join her as she began trudging back through the alley. They walked in silence for a few moments, Smitty regarding her curiously. Finally, he spoke to her.
"You really believe in that 'gauntlet legend' stuff, don't you?"
Janice returned his gaze. "Don't you, after what you just saw?"
He thought about it for a minute, then nodded. "No wonder you're not afraid to take a cab in this town." He was silent for a moment, then asked, "That Palo guy. Do you think-I mean, this sounds crazy to even ask, but is he really some dethroned Greek god?"
Janice sniffed, then regarded him out of the corner of her eye. "Yup. I've run into him twice before. Nearly gotten fried both times."
"Then he didn't die in the fall from the balcony?"
"I doubt it. He's immortal, after all. It probably shook him up pretty good, but it didn't kill him. He's been around for, oh, maybe fifteen thousand years now. He'll be back."
Smitty shook his head. "That's some really weird shit, Jan. If I'd had this conversation with anyone else, I'd call the guys in white coats for them. Somehow, though, it makes sense coming from you."
Janice grinned as she quoted, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
As Smitty reached down and lifted her suitcase from her hand, he pointed at Janice. "Hamlet, act I, scene 5."
Janice flipped her cigarette away. "Bingo. See, you learned something in college after all. Say, what was your major, anyway?"
"You'll laugh at me."
"No, I won't. Come on, what was it?"
He self-consciously mumbled, "Theatre."
Janice burst out into a raucous laugh, nearly doubling over as they walked. Smitty just regarded her with a disgusted expression. Finally, she wiped gingerly at her eyes and teased, "Sorry, pal, but that's a riot. What did you want to be an actor for, anyway? They're outta work half the time."
He shrugged, then grinned as he answered. "It's a great way to meet women."
Janice raised an eyebrow, then nodded agreement. "At least you had your priorities straight. You know, Smitty, the more I know about you, the more I like you."
"You're pretty okay, too, Doc. One thing's for sure, you're the damndest college professor I've ever met. You sure aren't like those musty old farts I had when I was in college."
Janice snickered. "I've always felt that it was a great sin to be boring. Be anything, but don't be boring, because God will get you for that."
"I'd love to have been in one of your classes."
"Aah, you'd probably have slept through it."
"Somehow, I don't think so."
As they reached the curb, Janice waved a hand and shouted for a taxi. One pulled over, and they climbed into the back seat. As it pulled away from the curb, Janice smiled. "You would have made one hell of an archaeologist, Smitty."
"Me, digging in the dirt for ancient trash? Nah."
"Great way to meet girls."
"Really? Tell me more. I'm single, I'm feeling a career change coming on, and I've still got the G.I. Bill."
The taxi ride to the airport was harrowing, but otherwise uneventful. When they exited the cab, Janice half-expected to see Smitty get down on his hands and knees and kiss the ground, but he maintained his composure and hustled Janice through customs. As usual, with Smitty near, the customs inspector waved a hand over her suitcase, stamped her passport and wished her a pleasant trip. After she checked in at the Pan American counter, Smitty insisted on pouring some more coffee into Janice, and then wished her farewell as her flight was announced. They stood near the departure door, some of the passengers already walking out across the tarmac to the waiting aircraft. Smitty extended his hand.
"Good travels, Doc. If you're ever in Algiers again, look me up, will ya?"
Janice took the hand and shook it warmly. "Count on it, pal."
He shoved his hands into his pockets and shyly said, "Good luck with Mel. I know it'll all work out."
"I wish I could believe that. I don't even know where to start looking for her. God, I miss her, Smitty. I feel like my soul is gone."
Smitty's expression twinkled as he replied, "Just go home and wait." He held a finger in the air and proclaimed theatrically, "Unseen forces are even now at work on your behalf."
Janice grinned widely, then winced and held a hand to her swollen lip. "Ow! Where did you get that shit, from a fortune cookie?"
Smitty laughed, then responded, "Didn't like that one, huh? Okay, then. How about this: There's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will."
Janice pointed her finger at Smitty. "Hamlet, act 5, scene 1." She squinted at him, then added, "There's something you're not telling me."
"Just trust me for once." He gave her a friendly slap on the shoulder and jerked a thumb toward the tarmac. "Now get your butt on that plane before it leaves without you."
"You don't have to tell me twice. Take care of yourself."
With that, she walked briskly out of the door and toward the waiting aircraft as the loudspeaker announced final call in French and English. Smitty watched her go, then walked over to a telephone and dropped a coin in the slot, dialing a number. "Al, this is Smitty. I'm at the airport. Come pick me up, will ya? No, the car is trashed. Long story. What? Hell, no, I'm not taking a cab. You come and get me."
On the flight back, Janice alternated between attempting to doze, thumbing through magazines, and gazing out the window at the cloud layers below her, thinking about Mel. Without her company, the flight was horribly tedious and terribly lonely, and Janice was relieved to feel the aircraft begin to descend as the pilot announced their approach to New York.
At the terminal door, she was met by two men. She recognized one as the Agent Reynolds who had visited her at the office. The other was introduced to her as his colleague from the FBI. They gathered her bag for her, hustled her through customs, and into the back of a large, dark sedan. It was not long before she found herself being escorted through the museum and into a back room, where they were met by museum officials and two security guards.
One of the museum officials recognized Janice and extended his hand warmly as he entered the room. "Doctor Covington. So glad to see you again. I am told that you've recovered the Gauntlet of Ares. We, and the Greek government, are deeply in your debt." He looked her over, then questioned her. "Ah, where is it?"
In answer, Janice slipped off her leather jacket and held up her arm. There was a collective intake of breath when she showed it to them, and one of the officials leaned over to examine it.
"I say, it fits you like a glove. One would think that it had been made for you. How extraordinary. How does one remove it?"
Janice just gazed at it and thought, Damn, I didn't think about that. I have no idea how to get this thing off. She looked up and joked, "Got a saw?" There were some snickers from the assembled group, then she said, "Hang on a minute." She pulled out a chair and sat, extending her arm across the table, then slowly ran her hand over the ornate markings on the gauntlet. She closed her eyes and thought, Gabrielle?
The scarlet jewel, Janice.
Her eyes opened, and she placed a thumb on an ornate design, a scarlet jewel gleaming from its center. With some gentle pressure, the gauntlet popped open and Janice removed her arm. She picked it up and snapped it shut again, and one of the officials reached out to retrieve it. Janice waved him off. "You guys got a camera? I want you to photograph this thing."
"Pardon, but we already have many photographs of the Gauntlet of Ares."
"Not this part of it." She reached down and pressed on the amber jewel, and one side of the gauntlet popped open, revealing a gold leaf inscribed with old Greek characters. The officials murmured among themselves, then crowded close to examine it. One of them held a magnifying glass close to it, then spoke to the others, his voice a mirror of excitement.
"This is incredible. We had no idea that this was here. How did you discover this, Doctor Covington?"
"Oh, by accident."
"Do you have any idea what this says?"
She leaned back in the chair and smiled. "Yep. It describes the purpose of the gauntlet."
"I'll say it does. It mentions the queen Hippolyte and her descendants, those of Amazon royalty." He stood and looked around the room. "Do you realize the implications of this?"
"You bet. Physical evidence that the Amazons actually existed."
"Extraordinary. What a find! It would seem, Doctor Covington, that you have surpassed our expectations once again. Rest assured that we'll study this in great detail." Janice stood, slipping her jacket back on, and the curator reached out and pumped her hand gratefully. "How can we ever thank you for your part in this? Of course, we'll certainly give you all credit for the discovery of this part of the gauntlet's history in our publications."
Another official spoke. "And I'm quite sure that the museum's board will vote a healthy 'finder's fee' for you."
"That'll do. Oh, and if you could send me an enlargement of the photographs of the gold leaf inscription, I'd be grateful. We'll call it even on that."
"Consider it done." He produced a fountain pen and note-pad from his pocket, offering it out to Janice. "Just write down your address for me, if you will. I will personally see to it."
Janice scribbled on the pad, then handed it back to him. "That's my office. If you don't mind, I'll be on my way. I've had a long flight and a really bad day in Algiers."
"Ah, yes. I imagine that you're anxious to get home?"
An image of Melinda flashed through Janice's mind, and she nodded. "You have no idea."
With a round of handshakes and expressions of gratitude, Janice exited the building, accompanied by the two FBI agents. On the street, she paused and gazed up at the New York skyline. New York. No place like it. Agent Reynolds smiled at her. "Well, Doctor Covington, it would seem that your government owes you a debt of gratitude. Is there anything that we can do for you?"
Janice considered the question for a moment, then nodded. "Yeah. Can you find someone for me?"
"Well, that's highly irregular, but I suppose it's the least that we can do. Whom did you have in mind?"
"Oh, I see. I'll look into it for you."
"Thanks. I'd really appreciate it. By the way, I owe you a shoulder holster."
"Keep it. It came in handy?"
Janice nodded. "Very."
"Well, good. Look, can we drop you somewhere?"
"Train station. I'm heading home." Reynolds nodded, and the three of them walked toward their car. Reynolds studied Janice for a long moment.
"Not to pry, but what happened to your face, Doctor Covington?"
She grinned painfully. "Let's just say that I ran into an old acquaintance in Algiers."
"Palo, eh? I trust that you won?"
She nodded. "Oh, yeah. I won."
With that, Janice slid into the back seat of the sedan. As the two agents closed the door and walked around to the front of the car, the young agent observed, "How come you didn't tell her about Pappas?"
Reynolds held a finger to his lips, then whispered, "She'll find out on her own, soon enough." With that, the two agents climbed into the car and drove it out into the busy New York street.
Melinda sat on the back porch of her cousin's house, staring at the open book on her lap. She had not read a word in an hour. Her eyes trailed around the yard, then back to the open pages, but her mind was far away, her face a mask of stoic sadness. She did not even glance up when she felt, rather than saw, her cousin approach and sit on the bench next to her. "Mel? You hungry?"
Melinda shook her head. "You have to eat something, sweetheart. You've hardly had anything since you arrived." Again, Melinda remained silent. "I'm really worried about you."
She looked up into her cousin's face. "I'm not hungry, but thanks all the same."
"You're wasting away. You look terrible. Please, let me do something for you."
"You've already done so much. Thank you for taking me in."
Her cousin placed a hand on Melinda's arm and asked, "Have you decided what you're going to do yet?"
"Do? Go on, I suppose. I just feel so hollow. I don't really want to do anything but curl up and die."
"Oh, honey, you're not the first one to have a love affair go badly."
"It was more than that, Liz. We were inseparable. We were bound heart and soul. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine something like this happening."
"She's only human, Mel, and so are you. If it means that much to you, why don't you go home and try again?"
"I can't. She violated our trust. She cheated on me and then lied about it. I can never look at her the same way again."
"Dear, that Pappas pride will be the end of you yet." The sound of the doorbell echoed through the house and Liz rose to answer it, retreating into the house. In a few moments, she returned, her eyes wide. "It was the mailman. You have something from the American Embassy in Algeria."
"What? Me? I didn't tell anyone but you and mother where I was. Who knew that I was here?"
Liz handed a large brown envelope to Melinda. "I don't know, but it has your name on it and this address, and it's marked priority, urgent." She handed the envelope over, then stood nearby, watching Melinda study the addresses. "Well, aren't you going to open it? It looks important."
"Um, yes. I suppose I should." She began examining the edges of the envelope, then looked up at Liz. "Do you have..." Liz produced a letter opener from behind her back. Melinda smiled at her. "My, curious, aren't we?"
Liz shrugged. "Hey, it's a small town. Nothing much exciting happens here, not like what happens to my globe-trotting cousin. Come on, open it."
Melinda carefully slit the edge of the envelope open and withdrew a small sheaf of papers. On the top was a handwritten letter. She perused it silently, her cousin hovering near, and looked up. "It's from Smitty, at the embassy in Algiers."
Liz plopped down on the bench next to Melinda. "Smitty? Who's this Smitty guy? Give me all the gossip."
Melinda smiled. "Oh, it's nothing like that. He's a mutual friend of..." She hesitated over the next words. "...Janice's and mine."
"So what's up?"
She scanned her eyes over the first paragraph of the letter, then looked up. "Dear, why don't you give me some time to read this, and then I'll tell you the whole story?" Liz eyed her cousin with a mock expression of suspicion, and Melinda added, "I promise not to leave out a single sordid detail."
Liz brightened. "Deal. I've got to check on dinner, anyway. You've got fifteen minutes, and then you get to start spilling your guts to your bored cousin." As she entered the house, she turned and gave Melinda a mischievous wink. Mel smiled in spite of her mood, wiped off her eyeglasses, and settled down to begin reading.
Janice sat on the cottage's small back step, watching the evening deepen into night. She pulled her robe more tightly about her and leaned her head against the railing, looking up into the sky. The first stars were beginning to show in the cool night, and soon the moon would make an appearance. That was when she would begin to hurt the worst. The moon reminded her of the times which she and Mel had shared, sitting together on the step, their closeness enough to dissolve the cares of the day or the sting of the cold night air. Now she sat alone, and of all the times in her life in which she had been painfully alone, these last few days and nights were by far the worst.
The house seemed devoid of the sparkle of life and warmth it exuded when Melinda was present, the pleasant atmosphere, the fragrance of the candles which she loved to burn or the aroma of something baking in the kitchen. The most oppressive absence, however, was not the trappings of a happy home. It was the absence of love itself, a love which Janice never imagined in her wildest dreams that she could be a part of until circumstances threw her together with the tall, complex southerner with which she had shared the last eight years of her life.
Her aching melancholy was not lessened by the victories of the last week or so. She had done battle with an immortal and won, had overcome incredible odds, and had once again earned the grudging respect of her professional cohorts, but these victories were hollow and meaningless to her. She had lost the one thing which she valued most in her tumultuous life when she lost the respect and affection of the woman whom she loved. What really twisted the knife in her heart, however, was the knowledge that it was probably irreparable. No matter what she said, no matter what she did, she would never be able to restore Melinda's faith in her. Even if they somehow reconciled, it wouldn't be the same as it once was, and that knowledge alone was what was slowly killing Janice. It was small comfort to know that she was really blameless, a victim in the affair. Melinda had seen the evidence, Melinda had believed it, and that was what mattered.
A tear formed at the edge of her eye and trailed slowly down her cheek. She did not bother to wipe it away. She just took a deep, ragged breath and tried to warm herself with a sip of whiskey from the ornate coffee cup sitting by her foot. It burned as she swallowed, and Janice welcomed the burn, the warmth as an old, familiar friend while she mentally took stock of her situation.
Wait. Go home and wait. She'll come back. Easy for them to say. Oh, she'll come back, but it's not for me. It's for her stuff. Her stuff is still here. No, she'll probably get it when I'm at work, so she doesn't have to look at me. I know that stubborn streak in her. When she makes up her mind about something, it stays made up. Why hasn't Reynolds called me? Mel must have crawled into a really deep hole. Lf the FBI can't find her, then how the hell am I supposed to? What can I do? Wait? That's not my style. I've got to do something, anything, or I'll go mad. I've got to try. I could start with her mother. Yeah, right. She never approved of us, anyway. That'll be like talking to a brick wall. Ah, what the hell, it's worth a try.
She rose and walked into the house, flipped through the address book by the telephone and picked up the receiver, dialing a number. After a few rings, a voice answered and Janice's heart pounded as she spoke.
"This is Jan Covington, Mrs. Pappas."
"Oh." After a slight pause, the voice continued, "What can I do for you, Doctor Covington?"
"I was looking for Mel. I was hoping that you might know where she was."
"I do, but she was very adamant that I not tell anyone of her whereabouts."
"It's important, Mrs. Pappas. Please, I have to speak with her."
"She was particularly emphatic that you not know of her whereabouts. I intend to honor that. I'm quite sure you understand."
"Mrs. Pappas, please. It's important."
"Doctor Covington, I don't know what went on between you two and I really don't care, but Mel has made it clear to me that she doesn't want to talk to you. To be quite frank with you, I'm rather glad. You know that I have never approved of you and my daughter being together. If she's no longer with you, then I'd just as soon leave it that way. Will there be anything else?"
"No. Sorry to have bothered you, Mrs. Pappas."
"Not at all. Good night, Doctor Covington."
Before Janice could reply, the line went dead. She stared at the phone for a moment, then slowly replaced it on the cradle. Well, shit. That went about like I thought it would. She shuffled back through the cottage and reclaimed her seat on the step, taking another sip from her cup and lighting a cigarette. After a couple of drags, she realized that even the tobacco had no taste and dropped it on the ground. She rested her head against the railing and closed her eyes, blinding herself to all but the agonizing sense of loss which boiled in her soul.
The taxicab pulled away from the curb as Melinda walked toward the front door of the cottage. She noted a light glowing through the windows and deduced that Janice was there, despite a couple of unread newspapers lying on the front porch, haphazardly left where the newsboy had thrown them. She walked up the front steps and placed her suitcase down, turning the handle on the door. It was unlocked. The door squeaked open, and Melinda picked up her suitcase and entered, looking around. She did not see Janice. She placed the suitcase down in the hall, rested her coat on top of it, and closed the door. Her voice was soft, pleading. "Jan?"
There was no answer. She kept her colorful Algerian bag tucked under her arm as she slowly walked through the kitchen. Janice's leather jacket was slung over one of the chairs, and her green fedora hung off of one side of the chair's back. She allowed a trace of smile to cross her face at that. Jan is here somewhere. She's not gone.
Melinda tiptoed into the hallway, calling Janice's name. There was no answer. She clicked on the bedroom light and saw that the bed was neatly made up. That's odd. Janice hates to make the bed. Then, an explanation struck her. I wonder if she's even slept in it. I don't think that I could, not alone. Her eyes trailed around the room. A few of Janice's clothes were on the floor near the closet. Yes, she's here. That's Jan. She finished her inspection of the bedroom, and her eyes widened as she looked down at the bedside table. The drawer where Janice always kept her pistol was ajar and the weapon sat, broken open, on the table top. Melinda gingerly picked it up, and her heart went cold as she examined the open cylinder. Only one cartridge was loaded into the gun, just under where the hammer would strike. Oh, my God. She placed the pistol down and left the bedroom, walking back through the hall and into the living room. A blanket was wadded up on one end of the couch. She's been sleeping on the couch. She couldn't even bring herself to sleep in the bed. Our bed. Melinda scanned the living room and only then noted that the back door was ajar. She tiptoed over and peered down through the screen door. In the darkness, she saw Janice wrapped in her robe, her hair loose, sitting still in the dim light. For a long moment, she just gazed at her, wondering how to announce herself, then she breathed deeply and spoke. Her voice seemed to her somehow weak, squeaky, not her own. "Jan?" She could see the form move. Janice's back straightened, her body took on a stiff air, but she did not reply. "Jan?" She waited for an answer, and finally, one floated through the cool night air.
"Mel? Is that you?"
"Yes, Jan. It's me." She clicked on the back porch light, opened the screen door, and stepped out, perching herself on the same step as Janice was seated, about two feet from her. Janice did not turn to look immediately. Melinda studied her profile and felt an intense sadness envelop her as she noted the weary, careworn aura about her face. To her eyes, Janice looked much older than when she had last seen her, several days before. Janice did not look at her, just studied the step at her feet while Melinda made a nervous, uneasy attempt at conversation. "I saw in the newspaper that the gauntlet was recovered. Did you see the article?"
"It mentioned your name quite prominently."
Janice shrugged. "That's nice."
"Do you wish to read it? I cut it out."
"No." Janice kept her eyes on her feet. "Come to get your stuff? I won't get in your way. Take everything if you want to."
"There's only one thing in this house that I want, and I'm going to fight like the devil to get it back."
Janice slowly turned toward Melinda, an expression of total disbelief written across her face. "Me? Do you mean that, Mel?"
"I've never been more serious about anything in my life." She stared at Janice, then scooted closer to her on the porch step. "Good God, Jan, what happened to your face?"
Janice managed a grin. "I had to go a couple of rounds with Ares to get the gauntlet back."
"Oh, Jan." She slowly reached out a hand. Her fingers touched the side of the bruised, battered face and Janice closed her eyes, leaning into the touch. Her own hand rose and covered the long fingers which caressed her cheek. Melinda swallowed hard, then whispered, "My dear, dear Jan. Does it hurt badly?"
"Not anymore. Not now that you're here."
Melinda felt her eyes water. She placed her other hand on Janice's knee and leaned closer. "Can you ever forgive me for what I did?"
Janice's eyes flashed open, wide with question. "Forgive you? For what? I'm the one that screwed things up."
"But that's just it. You didn't do anything. I know that now. You told me the truth, and I called you a liar and hated you for it. I--struck you. I'm not very proud of that, you know. I wronged you terribly, and I'm just so sorry for it."
"It's not your fault. How could you have thought anything else, after what you saw? Jeez, if I'd been in your shoes, I'd have probably gone bonkers too."
"Then you don't hate me?"
"I could never hate you, Mel. You're my heart and soul. I love you more than my own life."
"Oh, Jan. I love you, too. I was very angry with you, but I never stopped loving you." She leaned closer to Janice. "Can we have us back the way we were? Do you think it possible?"
"I don't think that we ever really parted." Hazel eyes and blue eyes met, locked in the glow of the porch light, and in that moment, the anguish melted, the hurt vanished, the power of their faith in each other renewed itself, burning brighter than ever. Janice broke the silence. "Now kiss me, before you make me cry again. I hate to cry, and I've done that enough in the last few days." Somehow, they found themselves pressed together, tangled around each other on the steps, each one's lips searching for the other's and finding them, relishing the sweetness of the very familiar yet totally delicious kiss. For a long time they stayed so, then Janice mumbled something and tapped Melinda on the shoulder. Slowly, their lips parted, their foreheads rested against each other's, and their eyes met dreamily.
Melinda whispered, "Did you say something, darling?"
"Yeah. Watch the nose, Mel. It's busted."
Melinda covered her mouth with a hand. "Oh, Jan. I'm so sorry."
"Don't fret. That kiss was worth it."
"Look, I have something to show you." She reached back and pulled her colorful bag over to them, then extracted a brown manila envelope. "Here."
"An extract from the interrogation of Mary Peterson. She explains everything, how she set us up, all of it. She's insistent that nothing happened between you two."
"Jeez, Mel. Where'd you get this? It's probably confidential."
"It is. Smitty mailed it to me, priority mail."
"Good old Smitty."
"How on earth did he know where I was, Jan?"
"He probably asked Reynolds, from the FBI, to find you."
"Oh." Janice chuckled, and Melinda raised an eyebrow. "What's so funny?"
"So did I."
"Yeah, as a personal favor. It's my bet that he was already looking for you, on Smitty's request. You know, both those guys went out on a limb for us, doing this. They could have gotten into hot water for it."
"It seems that you know some good people, Jan."
"You said it, but the best one of all is sitting with me now."
Their foreheads touched again, leaning one against another. Melinda's hand sought out Janice's, and their fingers intertwined. "I'll never doubt you again."
"I'll never give you a reason."
"I know. I trust you." She reached up and ran her fingers through Janice's hair, still damp from her bath. "Oh, Jan, shame on you, sitting out here in the cold with wet hair. You'll catch your death."
Janice picked up her coffee cup. "Nah. I've got my tummy warmer right here."
Melinda lifted the cup from her hand and sniffed at it, then tilted it to her lips and drained it. With a wince and a loud gulp, she swallowed it, then breathed, "Oh, yeah. I feel warmer already." Her eyes twinkled, and she added, "Almost as warm as I did after that kiss of yours."
Janice watched her with amusement, then commented, "Darn, Mel, you knocked that whiskey back like Errol Flynn in a bordello. Hm. I learn something new about you every day."
Mel replied, "A southern girl doesn't reveal all her secrets at once, you know. That's how you keep a lover interested in you."
"Mel, you're nothing if not full of surprises. Now let's go inside, lover. I'm suddenly freezing my butt off out here."
They rose and entered the cottage together, an arm about each others' waists, the screen door banging shut behind them. The wooden door squeaked closed, the bolt clicked, and the window shade was pulled down. Projected onto the shade, the silhouette of two lovers embracing played out as a cold breeze blew some errant leaves across the back steps. After a while, the light clicked off and the silhouettes disappeared. It left the yard bathed in the dim light of a rising moon, an omen long ago considered a promise of good fortune and of the watchful protection of one's ancestral spirits.
|The End||-djb, November, 2003|