The 19th Century brownstone at 1626 Prospect Street had much to recommend it; sandwiched between a delicatessen and a dry cleaner, it was within walking distance of the Georgetown campus. According to the conversant real estate agent at her elbow, the garden flight, 1626-G, had been freshly plastered and painted throughout. Making the best use of limited space, there were two small bedrooms, a bath and a half, an efficiency kitchen and a large parlor which opened onto a private entrance. Like the three apartments above it, it boasted a working fireplace. The realtor sighed when he thought of a blazing hearth and the comfort of his hands stretched towards the flames. In a muddled British accent he asked, "Have you seen enough?"
She walked past him, ignoring his inquiry, framing one of her own. "How many square feet did you say?"
Richard Russell, owner and operator of Double 'R' Realty of DC, chafed his gloved hands together for warmth. "Nine hundred and seventy square feet, crown molding throughout, hardwood floors, brass fixtures..."
"But it's small, cramped."
"The architect made excellent use of nine hundred and seventy square feet, Madam, that's practically a thousand, Miss --"
"Pappas," she replied, two syllables of soft Southern lilting on the brisk winter breeze. It was the third time she'd told him her name. "And the rental?"
"A bargain at just over $115 a month, without utilities. Of course, you understand that the current tenants hold a lease through the month of February, with an option to renew." Miss Pappas turned on her well shod heels to face him and for the second time since she walked into his office that morning, he marveled at the finely-chiseled features and the blue eyes divided by a long, aquiline nose. "Beg pardon? I'm sorry, did you say something?"
She appeared slightly flustered. "Whose option to renew? Can somethin' be done to stop it?"
Russell cleared his throat and stroked his pencil-thin mustaches. "This is a prime bit of real estate, central to downtown DC, minutes from the Georgetown campus. I may have mentioned that both tenants are affiliated with the university. I fully expect them to sign a one year lease when --"
"But you could raise the rental if you chose." Her eyes swept the height of the building, lingering over the red brick facade before returning to settle on Russell's bulbous, new potato nose. "It is, as you say, a prime bit of real estate after all, easily worth twice what you're chargin' for it. I know these are hard times, Mr. Russell, what with the economy an' all, and while it's admirable that you give the young and strugglin' every consideration, it must also be said that charity begins at home."
Russell pinched the flesh of his cheeks between his molars. "Meaning?"
"Meanin' it would be a shame for your company not to reap adequate rewards for the exquisite upkeep and happy geographical circumstances of this glorious old buildin', don't you think?"
Russell pulled at his mustache as he considered her words. "Indeed. I have been remiss. A lodging as fine as this, well, I couldn't let it go for less than $200 a month? Unfurnished."
"Now that is a figure worthy of you, Mr. Russell." She smiled, showing a little too much canine to be taken seriously. "Two year lease, first year paid in advance?" She offered him her hand, sleek and warm in her calfskin gloves.
He did not hesitate to enfold her hand in his own. "Agreed, Miss Pappas. I will serve notice of the rent increase immediately. The tenants can't possibly meet the demand. I don't foresee a problem." He turned and escorted her to the black sedan parked at the curb, his hand at her elbow as they walked the icy-slick pavement. They shared a conspiratorial chuckle before he kissed her hand in cavalier fashion. His lips brushed hard lumps of stone beneath her glove and he smiled furtively into the fabric. "You have my card."
She patted her black leather clutch. "Yes, I have your number." He fumbled with the heavy rear door of the sedan and she let him assist her into the warm interior. "Thank you for seein' me, Mr. Russell. I'll be in touch." He murmured a reply lost on the wind and shut the door. She did not turn to look back at him as the car sped away from the curb.
"Where to, M'am?" The driver's accent was a darker mirror of her own.
She tugged at the fingers of her gloves and frowned at the gray sky outside her window. "The hotel, Lucius. I believe it's gonna snow."
"Amazons were long thought to be creatures of myth," said Mel, as she began closing comments to her last Archeology and Antiquities class of the day. "Recent discoveries, however, have lent an air of credence to previous claims of their existence."
"Are you referring to the Penrose Dig, professor?"
Mel knew the identity of the speaker without looking up. "That information has only recently become public knowledge." Pushing her glasses up on the bridge of her nose, she turned her eyes on the handsome young Phi Kappa seated on the third row tier of seats. "I envy you your information pipeline, Mr. Todd." She rose from her chair, briefly tugging the hem of her short wool jacket. Navigating the narrow carpeted steps with ease, she explained, "What Mr. Todd is referring to, for the uninitiated, is Dr. Miles Penrose's recent discovery of 9 burial mounds near Macedonia; beneath those mounds were the skeletons of women buried with weapons sug-suggestin'--" She held up a finger and sneezed daintily into her handkerchief, eliciting a chorus of 'God Bless You's' and 'gesundheits'.. "Pardon me...suggestin' that the Greek tales may have had some basis in fact." At the top of the steps, she stole a glance at the wall clock. "More than half of those graves excavated contained iron swords, daggers, bronze arrowheads, and whetstones to sharpen those weapons."
Colleen Harrison, an attractive 20 year old, turned at the waist in her seat and raised a hand politely as she spoke. "Couldn't those have simply been ritualistic, or ornamental, professor?"
"An arrowhead found in the chest cavity of one woman suggests otherwise, Miss Harrison. Although I do not claim to be an authority on the subject, my personal experiences have definitely made me a believer in the possibility of the existence of Amazons." Again, her eyes sought the clock; she turned her back on the swiftly-moving second hand and began a leisurely stroll back to the lectern. "But the subject is open for debate in the form of one thousand words." She waited for the collective groan of dismay and was not disappointed. "Gentleman versus ladies. The skeptical Miss Harrison will argue the pro side, and the very vocal Mr. Todd will take the opposition."
Eric Todd's right hand waggled at shoulder height. "But I believe, Professor Pappas."
"Then you are in the minority, Mr. Todd." At the lectern, Mel blew her nose quietly into her handkerchief and sniffing, turned back to the gallery, where her students regarded her with the rapt attention and respect she had earned since her arrival at Georgetown. "All significant discoveries begin under the umbrella of skepticism. Christopher Columbus may have fought tooth and nail for fundin' to prove that the earth was round, but I have to believe that somewhere inside him, he was prepared for that sudden drop." An appreciative chuckle emanated from the gallery. Smiling, Mel said, "The object of the search is as much to disprove as to prove, even if we who dig in the earth deny that." Without taking her eyes from the faces of her students, she began stuffing papers into her briefcase. "I'm asking you to put your personal beliefs aside and present an intelligent, informed argument...by Tuesday next. That's all. Good afternoon." Though she knew it was coming, the shrill scream of the 3:00PM bell made her jump in her skin. She finished packing her briefcase as the students milled above her, gathered into little cliques as they donned heavy coats and galoshes. Her own knee-length wool coat, forty dollars from the Montgomery Ward catalogue, hung drying beside the radiator; she anticipated its clammy chill next to her skin with a shiver.
Eric Todd wound a plaid scarf loosely around his neck as he descended the gallery steps towards her. "May we pick your brain for information, professor?"
"Just leave somethin' for me, Mr. Todd," Mel quipped as she fought with the buckles on her overstuffed briefcase. Her eyes sought Colleen Harrison, standing in a knot of murmuring, serious females at the door, a stack of books clutched with white knuckled intensity against her chest. Behind a pair of tastefully jeweled glasses, her hazel eyes followed the retreating form of her classmate-opponent with lust. Lust, Mel thought with a vague smile. Right here in my classroom. "I will be in my office for lunch between 12:30 and 1:15 PM tomorrow. My free time is precious, so I will expect you both at one o'clock."
Colleen Harrison smiled meekly in response, barely taking notice of the excited whispers of her friends. "Thank you, professor."
"One o'clock. Don't be late." Dr. Joffrey Fisher, sleek and appallingly tanned in his blue worsted suit caught Mel's eye from the door. "Well, Dr. Fisher, as I live and breathe." She met his gaze with a reserved smile that broadened once they were alone in the room. "I didn't realize you were back."
"Just last night," he replied, joining her at the radiator. He kissed her dryly on the cheek. "You're warm."
Mel raised an eyebrow. "I have a cold, Dr. Fisher. Welcome to Georgetown in the winter." She stepped back, admiring his appearance. In his tailored suit and silk tie, he was more fashion plate than physician. "Miami obviously agrees with you. That tan, the complete absence of worry lines and dark circles beneath the eyes, it's positively indecent."
The Associate Professor of Pediatric Medicine tugged absently at one ear lobe. "It didn't come without effort, my dear. Ten grueling days spent lounging in the warm Florida sun."
"Well, you look splendid. The mustache is new."
"Do you like it? It was Marcella's idea." He stroked the fringe of soft, dark hair shot through with silver. "She says it makes me look like Vincent Price."
Reaching for her coat, Mel replied, "Yes, very distinguished. How is Marcella, by the way?"
Joffrey's smile, always dazzling, approached critical wattage at the mention of his wife. "Turned her ankle on the tennis courts the first day we were there," he replied as he held her coat open for her.
Mel frowned as she slid into the damp wool coat. "Oh! The poor thing."
"Oh, she's fine now. She was up and around the next day, but it did keep her off the clay courts. Between you and me, it was the best thing that could've happened to us. We lay on that beach with the devotion of sun worshipers, sipping champagne and eating cracked crab that I am going to be working off for months to come. You know, a few days away from all this cold gray gloom would do much to put the roses back in your cheeks, Melinda."
"That sounds lovely, of course, Jeff," she replied, using the diminutive that only his closest friends employed. She stepped out of her black pumps. "But every penny I've got goes into the apartment these days."
"You got it then? The flat on Darabont?" He extended a hand to steady her as she slipped into her galoshes.
"Better," she replied, her eyes coming alive as she spoke. "I found this marvelous 2 bedroom brownstone on Prospect -- hardwood floors, a fireplace, private entrance, even a little area out back with room enough for a couple of lawn chairs and a hibachi."
"Prospect." He whistled lowly and, folding his arms across his chest, leaned against the lectern. "I didn't think there was anything available that close to campus."
"I'm tellin' you, the Fates were smilin' on me." She patted her coat pockets, locating her gloves and muffler. "We'll have to have you and Marcella over for drinks one day soon."
"Sounds marvelous. You finished for the day?"
"Not a minute too soon. Poulton Hall to collect my mail and then it's home. I have plans for the evenin'." She slipped her clutch purse under one arm. "Maybe we can have lunch together this week. I want to hear all about your vacation."
"I shot a 73 the last day on the course," he said as they joined the river of bodies in the hallway. "Do you golf?"
Mel laughed. "I'm afraid I have to agree with Mr. Mark Twain. Golf is a good walk spoiled." She paused at the door, winding a smoky gray scarf around her throat, tucking the dangling ends into her coat. "Oh, good, more snow," she said, scowling through the window.
"They're forecasting at least two more inches by midnight. That's the most snow this town has seen in 10 years. Between you and me, the Democrats are saying it's Hell freezing over."
"And what are the Replublicans sayin'?"
"Mostly that Hell is out of their jurisdiction."
Mel laughed and secured a cranberry-colored hat to her head with a hatpin. Matching suede gloves, a gift from Janice, completed her winter battle dress. "Miami is lookin' better n' better." She hefted her briefcase and closed her fingers over the door knob.
"If you give me 15 minutes to check in with my office and collect my things, I'll drive you home."
She smiled politely. "Thank you, Jeff, but it's not far, just across the common. I've gotta run. Say hello to Marcella for me." Joffrey stood in the open doorway for a moment, gathering wind-blown flakes in his dark hair and watching Mel make her way through the ankle-deep snow until she turned a corner and disappeared from view.
He looks different in the newsreels, more robust, thought Janice Covington as she spied her host's reflection in an antique mirror beside the door. He was taking a phone call, the second since her arrival and she'd graciously moved out of earshot even as he motioned for her to remain seated. She watched him now out of the corner of her eye as she navigated the spacious study, skirting stacks of books and admiring original oils of Hudson River landscapes. There were models, too. Her breath rippled the painted sails of a blunt-bowed Greek galleon, flanked on either side by Edwardian schooners, 5-masted clippers and brigantines. She submitted to the temptation to touch, running her fingertips lightly over the slick paint and spinning the tiny ship's wheel; she couldn't help but appreciate the skill evident in the replicas, all faithfully rendered in spruce and balsa, with crisp linen sails and riggings of waxed twine. She observed the gentleman seated behind the desk, trying to reconcile the public image of glib politician and respected leader of the most powerful nation on the Earth, and wondered if he had the patience to craft anything more than words.
"No, Jack," he said abruptly into the receiver. "If you were right, I would agree with you!" He spun his chair around and caught Janice's eye and winked. "Now, you tell the junior senator from New York to sit on his thumbs and check his personal agendas at the door. Have I made myself clear? Of course I have. Yes, yes, thank you." He tapped the cradle once with his finger. "Marilyn?"
His fingers drummed absently on the desktop and once again, she found herself on the receiving end of a conspiratorial wink. She restrained the inclination to scowl. Oh, don't do that, Franklin. I don't want to be a part of your machinations. As he waited for his secretary to come on the line, his head dipped, and his eyes moved over the communiqué spread open upon his cluttered desktop. For herself, Janice knew those 12 lines by heart, though as prose they certainly did not lend themselves to posterity. More memorable for the source than the content, she mused.
"Marilyn? Yes, see if Peter Mullins is still in the building, will you? He said something about a meeting with Cordell Hull. And no more calls, please." He hung up the phone and spread his hands, palms up. "Dr. Covington, please forgive the interruption."
"Everyone wants your ear these days, Mr. President. I appreciate you seeing me on such short notice."
"Not at all." He gestured towards a vacant Jefferson chair across from him indicating that he was, at last, suitably prepared to engage in conversation. "This..." he said, tapping his finger on the official communiqué "...is a most interesting offer."
"Yes, it is," replied Janice, taking a seat. "Interesting, among other things."
"But you have concerns, doubts," he replied in a rich, resonant tenor, each word carefully enunciated for clarity. "I don't wonder, considering the author." Seated behind an island of burnished rosewood, he regarded her placidly, a soft-tipped ivory cigarette holder clenched between his teeth. "It's hardly an olive branch."
"More like a dangling carrot, sir," she elaborated.
"Indeed." He removed his spectacles and tossed them carelessly atop a stack of dispatches. "Mr. Mullins was perfectly correct to refer this matter to me, the situation in Europe being what it is." With his tongue, he moved the cigarette holder to a corner of his mouth. "Rumor has it Hitler is a student of the occult, and an antiquarian to boot. The Xena Scrolls are, second to the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb, the single most important archeological find of this century." He watched a grin spread across her attractive face and countered with a broad gesture of his hands. "All right, you have me; that's a direct quote from the dust jacket on your book."
Janice laughed indulgently. "The truth bears repeating, Mr. President, and if I am anything, I'm a slave to the truth."
His smile was incandescent. "There is no better taskmaster, Dr. Covington."
"But I have to confess that any interest I have in the project is tempered by what my partner calls my innate sense of cynicism. Goebbels is their Minister of Propaganda after all. If he's gone to the effort to craft this offer, you can bet there's something in it for the Fatherland."
"Yes, Adolf doesn't just want to see the Scrolls, he wants them chaperoned by their discoverer. Are you intrigued enough to consider the invitation?"
"Is the State Department intrigued enough to let me?"
"You are in possession of the Scrolls, Dr. Covington."
"Temporarily, for the purposes of study and safekeeping." She noticed that the conversation had fallen into a rhythm, giving her the impression of a tennis match, ball in play. She fired a shot down center court. "They belong to the Ages. I'm merely the caretaker at the moment."
"There's a rumor going around Washington that you refused to turn them over to the Antiquities Department at Georgetown and to Dr. Kenneth Shipmann in particular, something about putting the fox in charge of the chicken house?"
"Well, if it's a rumor in Washington, it must be true," she replied. She found that the smile which punctuated her admission had to be forced, and it bothered her, but only as long as it took him to charge the net.
"Would you consider releasing the Scrolls temporarily to the possession of the State Department?"
Big lob. "I'd sooner kiss Goebbels on the mouth...sir."
"Do you trust your partner, Dr. Covington?"
"With my life." That one's right down your throat, Franklin-boy.
"With the Scrolls?"
Janice cringed. Ooo, a scorching return. "I wouldn't ask her to do anything I wasn't prepared to do myself."
He crushed out his cigarette in an ash tray and retorted, "My point exactly! What are you prepared to do for your country?"
Janice resented the implication; she was as much a patriot as the next man, or woman. "The truth is, sir, regardless of the whereabouts of the Scrolls, I would advise against letting them out of the country. No, sir, on this occasion, I have to say that my curiosity ends at the East coast."
"Now that doesn't sound like the daughter of Harry Covington," he retorted and she stared dumbly at him. He filled the ensuing silence with action, selecting a cigarette from a tin of Camels and affixing it to the end of his holder. Almost casually, as if remarking on the weather, he said, "I understand they never found his body."
"No. No they didn't." Janice set her jaw and shifted uncomfortably under his gaze; some small part of her hated giving him that quarter. Her father had been gone more than two years, killed when the plane he had chartered ran afoul of rough weather and plowed into a mountainside in Italy. He had been on his way to meet her at the dig site in Macedonia and that knowledge carried with it a certain guilt on her part. "If my father were alive, he would've contacted me."
"Yes, I have no doubts that if it were humanly possible, you would've heard from him. Still, it must gnaw at you, the uncertainty, when with the right resources and a little luck, you might know for sure." Taking his eyes from her, he dragged a match along the underside of his desk and touched the flame to the cigarette with slow, deliberate movements, as if he might be giving her the opportunity to adjust her attitude. He dropped the match into a crystal tray as his phone rang, preternaturally loud within the confines of their conversation. "Yes, Marilyn? Oh, wonderful. Ring me when he arrives." He hung up the phone and sucked the cigarette to a glowing ember. "Now, where were we?"
Thanks for asking. I do feel slightly disoriented. Janice calmly smoothed the line of her skirt and quipped, "I was about to politely and officially decline Herr Hitler's invitation to the party."
He raised an eyebrow and said delicately, "And if I made your cooperation a matter of national security?"
Janice's polite smile faded to a faint line. "Anyone who knows me knows that I don't respond well to orders, Mr. President, regardless of the source. Sit. Lay down. Roll over. Every one of them will get you the same blank stare in response."
He folded his hands on his desktop and regarded her with studied benevolence. "I think you will find we're cut from the same cloth, Dr. Covington." Referring to the communiqué, he asked, "Do you mind if I keep this?"
Janice shrugged. "It's only good for wrapping fish."
Folding the paper into quarters, he managed a snort. "You might be surprised to hear that folks around here generally make it a habit to go along with me."
"I didn't know I was setting a precedent." It was not unfamiliar territory, Janice decided -- youngest PhD to graduate NYU, first woman to receive a quarter million dollar grant from Georgetown University...first person to say 'no' to a sitting United States president in 10 years. Oh, God...his eyes just narrowed! That can't be good. Now, do I apologize like a good, awestruck little girl, or... "Presidential entreaties aside, sir, I'm afraid my answer has got to be a firm, but reluctant, 'no.' I'm sorry."
"No," he echoed, rolling the word around in his mouth like a suspicious berry plucked from a bush. Presently, he swallowed; the fruit was bitter, but not poisoned. He smiled, his blue eyes crinkling affably at the corners. "Well, rumor has it that deprivation is good for the soul. Since I have no personal experience in that area, I shall have to confer with my wife." The cigarette holder he wielded like a conductor's baton rapped soundly against a picture frame on his desk. "In all matters of the heart and soul, I defer to her."
Smiling with relief, Janice regarded the dowdy, unassuming visage of Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady Under Glass. "You're very fortunate, yes," she said. "We all need someone to keep us centered."
"Indeed, but I've always found that if you speak the truth in all things, there is little need for guidance from others." He held up his hand defensively. "And before you say it, politicians and truth are not mutually exclusive."
Janice found herself warming to him once again. "Am I that transparent?"
"Not at all, my dear, but it's plain to see that there's a lot going on inside that pretty head of yours. As you said earlier, you are a slave to the truth. Your problem lies in that pesky overseer: tact."
Tact. Janice Covington. Oh, yeah, about as compatible as peanut butter and sardines. "No one has ever accused me of being tactful."
"Well, perhaps it's not a conscious effort on your part. May I share with you a piece of advice that has served me well over the years?" He was gratified to see her lean forward attentively in her chair. "Leave no thought unspoken." Her brow furrowed and he scrambled for elaboration. "When you speak what's on your mind, Dr. Covington, internal monologues are redundant."
Janice nodded. It was an irrevocable truth, and a dangerous one, worthy of Socrates. "I'll keep that in mind, sir." His phone rang again; anticipating her imminent departure; she rose from her chair and retrieved her coat from a teak rack beside the door. She took a groping inventory of her pockets, locating her gloves, and a crushed navy blue hat that she tried to restore to its original shape.
"Send him straight in, thank you, Marilyn."
"I think that's my cue." She moved around the desk and for the first time since her arrival, the braces on his legs, painted matte black to match his trousers, were visible. Without batting an eye, she extended her hand. "Thank you for seeing me, Mr. President. It's been...interesting."
He smiled a smile he kept for the newsreels. "It's been so much more than interesting, Dr. Covington. I do hope I haven't seen the last of you."
Janice could feel an unfamiliar rush of blood to her face. I think I just blushed. Aw, damn! Shaking his hand, she cast about for a distraction, and found one in the tantalizing aroma emanating from a mahogany humidor on his desk. "Those wouldn't be Cuban, by any chance?"
He opened the humidor with a broad smile. "A gift from the ambassador. Please, have one."
"I really shouldn't," she said as she plucked a cigar from the humidor with reverence. She held it under her nose briefly, savoring the heady fragrance. "Hand-rolled, rum soaked. It's good to be the President. Thank you," she said, consigning the cigar to an inside pocket of her coat. "I'll save it for later." She wheeled as the office door opened and the considerable bulk of Peter Mullins, her longtime friend and State Department connection, filled the frame.
Peter acknowledged Janice with a smile before focusing on FDR. "You wanted to see me, Mr. President?"
Franklin Roosevelt fanned one hand towards himself. "Yes, Peter, come in. Dr. Covington was just leaving. Excuse me just a moment, will you?" Before either could respond, he was ringing his secretary again.
"I suppose you were just going to slip out of here without seeing me, eh?" Peter whispered reproachfully as Janice joined him, tossing a slight shrug from her shoulders, but her smile was ambiguous; he trolled for an attitude. "Covington...hubba hubba." He whistled lowly, appreciatively. "Nice gams. All the years I've known you and this is the first time I've seen you in a skirt."
She frowned at the print skirt ending just below her knees. "My one concession to civil society, and don't get used to it." She touched the sleeve of his immaculate 3 piece pinstripe suit, complete with the obligatory handkerchief in the breast pocket. She said, "Nice suit," then, with a wicked grin, "You look like Adolph Menjou."
There was more than a foot difference in height between them and he had to lean down to speak confidentially. He found he didn't mind the proximity at all. "Productive meeting?"
"He's passing out cigars. What do you think?"
Peter chuckled. "I think you gave him a hard time. How's your partner these days?"
Janice looked over her shoulder briefly, at the President, immersed in a whispered conversation of his own, before answering. "Up at dawn, home after dark. The folks at the university are getting a lot for their sixty dollars a week."
"Ouch. Slave wages. Well, I suppose there's only room for one darling of the Archaeological community at any one time. Look, this should be a short meeting, how's about I take the birthday girl to dinner?" She grimaced and he loved it. "Refresh my memory: is it 25 or 26?"
"You know damn well what it is," she growled, digging an elbow playfully into his side. "And I'd love to join you, but I already have plans."
He winced and clutched a hand over his breast. "Aww, you're breakin' my heart here. Who's the lucky guy?"
"None of your business," she replied with a smile. She hated lying to him. He was a dear friend and the man responsible for reuniting her with Mel. Her presence in this office, at his request, miles away from where she most wanted to be, was an infinitesimal installment on the debt she owed him. In the end, she was happy for the distraction occasioned by a glimpse of his wristwatch. "God, is that the time? I have to go."
With the courtesy that came as second nature to him, he held open her coat while she slipped into it. "Sure. Go on your hot date." As she turned to face him, he made a pitiful face for show. "Leave the poor, lonely bachelor to open a can of soup."
"My heart bleeds for you," she quipped dryly as she jammed the navy hat on her head at an angle. "And if I believed, for one second, that you would be dining alone on chicken noodle soup I'd --"
"You'd what?" he countered, grinning into her face.
"I'd give you two bits for a burger and a beer downtown. Gotta run, boy-oh. Now, go make nice with the President."
It was nearly 6'clock when Janice officially logged out of the Visitor's Center. The sun was setting without fanfare, a cold and pale disc lost behind heavy gray clouds. Cold bit at her nose and the tips of her ears and the first wind-driven flakes of snow gleamed and blurred her vision. She hurried the distance to the taxi stand on New York Avenue, replaying her dialogue with FDR, snatches of a conversation more perplexing than interesting. The insinuation that she was perhaps, not doing all she could for her country was quietly infuriating. If only she hadn't been so passive, so uncharacteristically star struck. "What were you thinking?" she growled, her breath pluming in the brisk night air. A young couple approaching her from the opposite direction put their heads together as they shared a joke, pushing the punchline out from between their teeth where it hung briefly like a dialogue balloon in the Sunday funnies. She thrust her hands into her pockets and hunkered down in her coat as they passed her without further word...Because it's dangerous to confront people who talk to themselves! She chuckled, anger and self-recrimination slipping from her body like a useless second skin. Presidential advice aside, speaking every thought aloud was just the kind of behavior that could earn a body serious time in the rubber room.
Minutes later, she stood alone beneath an island of light, watching rush hour traffic make cautious, but inexorable progress down the slick, shiny black macadam. Just as she was contemplating the poor insular quality of silk stockings in sub-freezing temperatures, the distinctive green and white chassis of a Checker cab parted a gauzy veil of snow to pull to the curb, splashing her ankles with a breath-snatching spray of slush and water. Janice sucked in a breath over her gritted teeth. Sonofabitchthatscold! Before the driver could emerge to assist his passenger into the cab, Janice flung open the door and settled into the deep leather seat. "How are ya?" she said, grimacing as she shucked off her wet pumps. Willowy Doris Day warbled Sentimental Journey over the radio as Janice stated the obvious. "C-cold out there!"
The driver grunted and turned in his seat to address her. "Where to, Miss?"
Three syllables that preceded the solo version of Name That Dialect, a game she and Mel enjoyed playing in restaurants, theatre lobbies and anywhere else crowds would gather and converse. East Coast. New York...maybe New Jersey. I'd bet a nickel. "Corner of Prospect and 35th," she replied as she chafed her hands together; she'd lost a glove somewhere between the White House and the taxi.
"Prospect and 35th, gotcha." He turned down the flag on the meter and spared a glance over his shoulder before merging with traffic. "Hey-ah, you mind the music, Miss?" His fingers skimmed the dials on the radio as he regarded her reflection in the rear view mirror. "You want I should turn it off?"
Teaneck. Southside. Janice smiled. "No, it's just fine. I like Les Brown."
He responded by turning the volume up just slightly. "I prefer Artie Shaw myself. He makes some sweet noise. That too loud f'you?" When she didn't immediately object, he put both hands on the wheel and turned his attention to the business of navigating the predictably heavy DC traffic. The photo ID badge on the seatback identified the driver as Anthony Nowicki, CDL#DC595, anything else would have been redundant as he was the chatty sort and his mouth kept pace with his rapidly moving meter at the rate of three factoids per eighth of a mile. By the time the taxi turned onto the freeway, Janice knew his bowling average, the name of his wife and two children and the address of their little bungalow-style home...in Teaneck, New Jersey. He drew a breath half an hour later as the taxi pulled to the curb on tree-lined Prospect Street. "That'll be two and a quarter, miss," he announced.
Janice squinted at the meter and reached for the money clip in her hip pocket. She didn't carry a handbag as a rule. It was just one more thing to lose, or leave behind. "You made good time," she said as she peeled off three one dollar bills into his outstretched hand.
Tony Nowicki took the money, correctly assumed that no change was desired and smiled appreciatively. "Here, lemme get that door f'you." He was out of the car before she could protest. As he opened her door, the streetlights came up, illuminating the sidewalk and the shops adjoining her brownstone. "Nice neighborhood. You got a deli," he said, as he spied the multi-colored awning above a window display of knishes, apple strudel, potato pancakes and fresh-baked breads, all framed by a garland of miniature flags. "That a German flag in the window?"
"Looks to be." After slipping on her wet shoes, Janice joined him on the pavement, giving the building a passing glance. The owner and his adult son had only recently come over from Cologne where they had operated a thriving bakery, until arbitrary and unreasonable laws forced them to close their business, and eventually flee the country altogether. "I don't particularly care for kosher myself, but I have a friend who's developing a real taste for it," she said as the elderly owner emerged from the building, a large bucket clutched to his chest. They had only spoken once before, briefly; his English was non-existent, and her German was rudimentary at best. Their mutual deficiencies made for a short conversation. She struggled unsuccessfully to recall his name, settling instead for an ambiguous, "Ev'ning." The storekeeper turned at the sound of her voice, smiled, gave the cabbie a neutral glance and went straight back to the business of salting the sidewalk in front of his store.
Nowicki tore his gaze away from the storekeeper and dug into the pockets of his pea coat, presenting his fare with a business card. "You call me you need a ride, okay?" He closed the car door behind her. "Nobody knows DC like me. I own the cab so you call that number, you're gonna get me and nobody else."
"That's good to know," she replied, pocketing the card without looking at it. "Thanks again." Nowicki tossed a salute off the corner of his cloth cap, returned to his cab and pulled away from the curb with unseemly haste. Janice did not linger in the blue fog of exhaust, but turned on her heel for home where a stiff drink, a hot shower and a soft body awaited her. So single-minded was her quest for these creature comforts that she did not hear the storekeeper greet her from his place on the sidewalk. He was at her side, fingertips grazing her elbow before she was aware of his presence; she was laughing at herself when his name came unbidden to her lips. "Mr. Keppner, hello. Gutenabend," she said, correcting herself; she reached for elaboration and managed a clumsy translation. "Sie überraschten." Two bright spots of color on her cheeks and a hand clutched over her heart completed the picture of a woman out of her depth.
In a voice hardly more than a whisper, he said, "Guten Abend, Fräulein," and bowed in a gesture of chivalry that seemed out of place on the streets of Georgetown. "Bitter kalt, ja?"
Janice chafed her hands together to show that she absolutely understood. "Ja sicher, es ist sehr kalt." Okay, think, Janice, don't just be a parrot! This is first year German. You can do this! "Wie geht es ihn heute??"
The old man seemed encouraged by the polite inquiry of his health. "Gut, danke. Wo ist ihre Handschuh?"
Janice was lost until he touched her hand?her cold, naked hand. "Oh. My glove. Verlegt," she replied with a shrug.
"Ich erwartete soviel Schnee nicht." he said, casting his gaze upward. He spread his hands, palms up in the falling snow. "Das erinnert mich an zu Hause."
Snow?snow and something about your house. Aw hell! There were dozens of regional dialects in Germany alone, and to her dismay, she neither spoke nor understood any one of them well; until tonight, she did not consider that to be a failing. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the deli owner's son, no doubt cautious from experience, watching her from his place in the opened doorway. She wished he felt comfortable enough to join them for his English was better than her German. At last, she threw up her hands in an extravagant gesture that served to augment her imperfect grasp of a foreign language. Smiling apologetically, she responded with the second phrase hammered into every student in Sister Agnes's Rudimentary German class. "Das tut mir leid. Ich habe angst mein Deutsches?oh, what's the word??" Polly wants an adjective. "Lousy, Janice, your German is lousy!" She laughed self-consciously. "Mein Deutsch ist sehr schlecht ?"
He touched her arm and smiled. "Lassen Sie sich nicht entmutigen."
"Oh, but there's plenty to be discouraged about!" She squeezed his hand and they laughed together. "Now, I hope you'll excuse me." She hitched her bare thumb over her shoulder and searched her memory in annoyance for just the right words. "Mein freund wartet das abendessen." She watched his eyebrows come together in a frown and for a moment, she feared she had offended him in some way. "Abendessen. Supper...is that right?" she asked delicately.
He held up his hand, indicating that she should wait. "Moment mal. Habe Ich etwas für dich."
"Wait?" She pointed an ungloved index finger towards the sidewalk as a chill skittered the length of her spine. "You want me to wait here." The storekeeper nodded briskly.
As his father brushed past him on his way into the deli, the young man in the door let a combination of curiosity and courtesy draw him to Janice's side like a whitefish on a baited hook. "Miss Covington, hello." His English was impeccable. "How are you this evening?"
At last! Words I can understand. Bless you. "Cold, Mr. Keppner, cold."
Yoel Keppner wound the loose ends of his scarf about his throat, across his very prominent Adam's apple. "Please, I hope you will call me Yoel."
"Okay. Yoel. Where do you think your father's got to?"
"Oh, that." He cast a glance over his shoulder. "I think he has something for you. I saw him putting aside some things earlier."
"I wish he wouldn't do that. How am I going to learn to live on hamburger when he supplements my diet with strudel and knishes?"
"It is a cruel irony indeed that your home is too close to our kitchens," replied Yoel with a grin.
Janice laughed. "I think it's your kitchen that's too close to my home!" She shivered and wriggled her toes, icy blocks inside her shoes. Presently, the older Keppner emerged from the deli carrying a carefully sealed wax carton which he placed in her gloveless hand. Janice closed her fingers securely around the rigid carton, sensitive to the liquid movement of its contents and the vague warmth of melting wax against her exposed skin. With a whiff of cracked black pepper and a heady chicken broth, the carton gave up the last of its secrets. "It smells wonderful," she lied credibly; there was too much pepper for her liking.
"It's just chicken soup. Papa makes it fresh every morning." He could read her indecision like a book. "It will only go to waste."
"Vergeudung nicht, wünschen nicht," she said, trotting out one of Sister Agnes's more noteworthy epigrams. She smiled graciously. "Danke. Sie sind sehr freundlich."
Issac Keppner tugged his son's coat sleeve and announced with unmistakable pride, "Kennen Sie meinen sohn - Yoel?"
Yoel leaned into his father's ear. "Wir haben Vater begegnet."
Issac Keppner dug an elbow into his son's ribs and smiled pointedly at Janice. "Unverheiratet."
"Papa!" Yoel Keppner was mortified.
"Single," Janice reiterated with a raised brow. "What a coincidence."
Issac, ignorant of his son's distress and encouraged by Janice's receptive smile, spread his arms out to encompass the store and street front. "Ein tag, alles ist dieses seins."
"A dowry, too," Janice quipped, enjoying Yoel's predicament.
Yoel sighed. "Papa," he said, leaning heavily on the first syllable. "Please, forgive my father, Miss Covington. I think he does not understand that America is not like the old country; one cannot just arrange marriages on a street corner."
"I wish I could string together more than five German words at one time." Janice looked Issac Keppner in the eye and squeezed his hands. "I would tell your father that if I wasn't already spoken for, nothing would please me more than to be his daughter."
Yoel looked from Janice to his father, who clearly understood the tone, if not the sentiment, and he knew at last that he was in the company of a friend. "Thank you. I will tell him for you. But for now, we should let you be on your way. You look very cold."
"It's the wet shoes," she replied with a downward glance. She backpedaled across the walk, one step for every word out of her mouth; it seemed both polite and expedient. "Thank you again for the soup. It'll be just the thing to take the chill out of my bones. Gutenabend."
"Key,key,key?" muttered Janice as she walked cautiously down the dimly-lit footpath at the rear of her brownstone. She had misplaced the key to the front door weeks earlier, and since then had taken to coming and going via the French door in the garden, as Mel called it - a six foot square area of flagstone pavers, not a blade of grass, green or otherwise to be seen. Anyone else might have generously called it a patio, but Janice found something sweetly optimistic in Mel's plans for tomato plants and window boxes of flowers and fresh herbs. If anyone could coax life from stone, it would be Mel.
At the back door, light and sound bled faintly through the panes of glass; it was Mel's habit to play the radio, sometimes at full volume, when she was alone in the house. As Janice fit her key in the deadbolt and turned the knob, the sound resolved itself into horns and strings and the soulful vocals of Ella Fitzgerald proclaiming her affections for her lover Come Rain, or Come Shine?a beautiful melody flawlessly performed, but Janice preferred scat to syrupy sentiment. And Ella's scat was peerless.
"Hello in the house!" Janice called out as strings swelled and vocals died. She shucked out of her coat, peeled off the single remaining glove and dropped both it and her keys in a red wingback chair against the wall and made her way to the kitchen. Mel was standing with her back to the door, in stocking feet, moving to the music while her hands busied themselves with something at the butcher's block; she was singing, too, a sassy counterpoint to Ella's lead.
You're gonna love me,
like nobody's loved me
Come rain or come shine
We'll be happy together,
Now won't that be just fine
Standing in the doorway, watching Mel's well-rounded backside roll and sway to the rhythms of a Mercer-Arlen melody, Janice gained a whole new appreciation for sentimental love songs. She left the chicken soup to cool on the counter beside a stack of unopened mail and crossed the kitchen. With the gentlest of touches, she weaved her arms around her lover's waist, feeling the satisfying weight of Mel's body, beautiful and fluid as it melted into her breasts. "Mmm, you smell so good."
Mel's hands, dusted with flour, closed over Janice's. "That's the ravioli." She shivered as she felt a train of soft kisses across the back of her neck, behind her ear, to her throat. She squeezed the hands tighter across her waist and said, "Welcome home, baby."
"Is this what I've been missing all those times I came home late?" Janice's lips, pressed to supple flesh, felt the throb of a strong pulse. "A floorshow?"
Mel turned in the embrace, slid her hands down Janice's sides, to the soft swell of her hips. "Encore's at 8 and 11."
Janice conjured a gravelly, "Hubba, hubba," and tilted her chin up for a kiss, anticipating a breath-snatching lip-smacking exchange -- and got a moist peck on the jawbone instead. "On the cheek?" A beat wherein she held Mel at arm's length. "What am I? Your grandmother?"
Mel wiped her hands on her apron, raining flour and little ropes of dough upon the linoleum. "I was tryin' to be considerate." She snapped off the radio in the middle of a sales pitch for Borax flakes. "I don't want you to catch my cold."
"I'll take the risk," replied Janice as she moved once again into Mel's embrace. "So - give already."
Mel tossed her glasses onto the counter and, pleasantly resigned, took Janice's face in her hands. In such close proximity, her lover's eyes were no more than two shimmering green pools, her lips a fuzzy pink blossom framing a slash of white, but her desire was knife-edged and unmistakable. Their bodies trembled where they touched - thighs, hips and breasts - fitting together as naturally as puzzle pieces. How marvelous, she thought, after all the many intimate moments, that each woman could be so thoroughly moved, so undeniably aroused by the thought of a simple kiss. "Just remember," Mel said, "You asked for this."
Janice's lips parted in anticipation, but her eyes remained open. Kissing with the eyes opened was, in her opinion, the sensual equivalent of making love with the lights on; it was more intimate somehow. Mel held her face by her fingertips and gently kissed the corners of her mouth. In the heartbeat between coherent thought and mindless lassitude, Janice shivered and sighed, putting her arms around Mel's neck to draw her closer.
No coaxing was necessary, however; this kiss had momentum. Mel played the tip of her tongue languidly across Janice's lips, dipping briefly into her mouth to dance with its counterpart before withdrawing. And then she gave Janice what she dearly wanted -- she kissed her squarely on the lips, warm and wet, of sufficient, but not extravagant duration?and the world?as someone wiser than she had once said?cracked open.
"Bill...bill...mash note from our landlord." Janice paused while thumbing through the mail to wink at Mel. "That's for you."
Without looking up from her work, Mel replied, "It's in your name."
"Yeah, but he lusts after you." She shuffled the expensive linen envelope to the back, like a card shark arranging her hand. "You want this coupon for Bromo? Five cents off?"
"No. Pitch it. You get the same result for a penny's worth of seltzer and bakin' soda." She dropped a dollop of creamed spinach and garlic into small round of dough. "So, are you goin' to tell me about this mysterious meetin' with the President, or do I have to get rough?"
Janice raised an eyebrow. "Oh, honey, if ever there was incentive for keeping my trap shut, that's it." She stood on her toes and kissed Mel sloppily on the cheek. "I'll tell you everything, okay? I just need some time to decompress, relax." She waved a fistful of mail. "?look at my mail."
Mel smiled, relenting. "There's a card from Alice in there somewhere."
"No kidding." The card in question was an over-sized two-tone envelope postmarked ADELAIDE. Erring on the side of excess, there were a dozen 2 cent stamps affixed to the back. Janice's name and address had been carefully printed in large block letters just above a very good illustration of her Electra. Smiling, she slid a fingernail beneath the flap of the envelope. "For a while there, I thought she might've forgotten all about us."
"She worships you. Don't be dense." Mel turned to her. "Okay, you're the one with the appetite of a teamster. Is 10 ravioli enough?"
Janice gave the card front, with its oversized daisies and flowery sentiments a quick glance. "It's a good start, sweetheart."
Mel pushed her glasses up on her nose and announced decisively, "Better make it an even dozen." She set a saucepan to fill under the sink. "Don't keep me in suspense. What does she have to say?"
"Well, there's your standard birthday greetings, of course, beyond that she says to tell you 'hello' and that I should give you a big hug from her. She's doing well at her studies, filling sketchpads like her hand is possessed. She misses us?uh huh?I knew she was leading up to something." Janice drifted to Mel's side and said, "Listen to this: 'School's out for winter break from 6th July through the 21st and Dad has promised me a holiday in the states if I keep my grades up. It's just the incentive I need to finish out the period with good marks. Anyway, I'm missing you both terribly. Have a wonderful birthday, Janice. Love, Alice.'" Janice flicked the card rapidly against her palm and snorted, her eyes following Mel as she moved around the kitchen. "Subtle, isn't she?"
Mel laughed as she lit a fire beneath the saucepan of water. "I guess we'd better clear our respective calendars for the month of July."
Janice closed the card and tucked it back inside the envelope. "Mel, you know I have no problems with Alice visiting. I adore the kid."
"But --" Mel leaned against the counter and folded her arms. "There's a 'but' in there somewhere."
Janice took a moment to form a reply, stepping out of her shoes, leaving a trail of wet footprints in her wake. She stopped within touching distance of Mel, but kept her hands at her sides. Her voice was resonant with affection as she spoke. "I see that kid, and I know how wonderful she is, how bright and funny and I?I'm sad to think that we can never have that for ourselves. You know?"
"Never's a long time," replied Mel quietly. "Granted, the mechanics of conceivin' a child aren't necessarily - "
"Doesn't it bother you?" interjected Janice. She could feel the heat even before Mel's hands closed over her own. She looked down at the long, elegant fingers entwined in hers and squeezed them in response. "You want children, Mel. I know you do and I can't give you --"
Mel silenced her with a kiss, tasting salt as she pressed her lips to each cheek. "I'm livin' my fantasy," she whispered in Janice's ear. "How many people can say that?"
Janice raised her hand and grinned, her eyes bright with unshed tears. "You're too good to me," she said, pulling Mel close.
Mel nipped Janice's protruding bottom lip. "Well, you deserve nothin' but the best, and that's why I have to say this: your seams are a disgrace."
Janice looked over her shoulder, at the calves of her legs where the prominent seams of silk gathered and swayed down the length of her legs. "They're not that bad." Mel turned on her heel, muttering something about '?looks like a mile of windin' mountain road?' and Janice knew she meant business. "Have I got time before supper for a hot shower?"
The water in the saucepan was just coming to a boil. "You do, if you don't dawdle."
"Dawdle," echoed Janice, kissing Mel on the mouth, "That is so precious!" Turning, she caught sight of the waxed carton on the counter. "Oh, nearly forgot, from our neighbors. Chicken soup like your bubka used to make."
"Oh, isn't he a darlin' man?" Mel opened the carton and inhaled deeply; the broth was thick with white meat, celery and carrots marinating in a perfume of black and red pepper corns. She picked a teaspoon out of the bouquet of cutlery in the strainer and tasted the soup. "Heaven, just heaven. If that doesn't clear the sinuses, nothin' will." Janice wrinkled her nose. "I know, too much pepper for your taste. I don't suppose you told the nice old gentleman that the digestive system you so happily abuse prefers apple strudel and knishes to anything even remotely healthy?"
Janice shrugged and laughed. "Funny, it didn't come up."
"He caught me as I was comin' up the walk with the groceries," Mel said, opening the icebox door. "We had quite a little talk. Did you know he was forced to leave his youngest boy in Bremen? The Gestapo just took him away in the dead of night."
Janice's brow furrowed. "Yeah, I'd heard things like that were happening. I thought the older son said that they came over from Cologne."
"Bremen," Mel reiterated, removing a saucepan from the top shelf. "Took him away and no one's seen or heard from him since," she concluded, closing the icebox door with her hip. "Isn't that awful?"
"Horrible," Janice agreed.
Mel lit a low fire beneath a saucepan containing a dry paste of roma tomatoes, basil, onion and mushrooms. "The mama died years back, but the son, his name was - pass me the wine there on the counter, will you - Issac, for his daddy, taught school until the Nazzies shut it down last summer."
Janice wrapped her hand around a stout bottle of Sauterne and gave the label -- Chateau De Malle 1939 -- a passing glance. "You learned all that in the two minutes it took you to walk from the curb to the gate?"
"No, I had him in for coffee. He seemed so lonely." She poured a half cup of wine into the saucepan and moved the contents around with a wooden spatula. "You'd know that if you spent any time at all talkin' with him."
Janice turned away from Mel and pulled aside a cascade of yellow hair, a wordless plea for assistance. "I think that level of conversational German is beyond me."
"Well, it wouldn't be if you practiced more often," Mel admonished, squinting at the pearlescent buttons running the length of Janice's dress. "As it is, your German is --"
"Schrecklich. I know," Janice replied. She felt the nervous energy of Mel's hands as they fussed with the catch at her neckline and lingered over the buttons at the small of her back; with a shrug, she bared one shoulder and looked back at Mel. "Thanks, doll," she said affectionately and stepped away to collect her shoes. "I'll try not to dawdle."
Janice peeled away layers of silk and cotton until her clothes were a wilted heap on the bathroom floor beside the Cheviot clawfoot tub. It was original to the brownstone, impossibly, gloriously deep and long enough to comfortably accommodate two bodies in repose. She had spent their first night in the new apartment introducing Mel to the joys of water conservation; it appealed to the Southerner's frugal side, among other things. She had taken to it with passion and an affinity for experimentation that both startled and pleased Janice. Lingering on that pleasant memory, she selected a cake of imported Patchouli from a gift assortment on the vanity and hung a large, thick towel next to the radiator. She stepped into the deep tub with caution and drew the shower curtain around her in a circle.
To her delight, the water came up warm at once. She turned her back to the pelting spray, enjoying the sting of hard, hot water between her shoulder blades as she soaped and rinsed her hair. When the water ran clear, she turned her face to the spray and thoroughly lathered her throat and shoulders before moving the soap lazily over her breasts. In the close, heady steam of spicy balsam, with her eyes closed, it was easy to imagine Mel's hands on her, stroking, pinching, rolling the flesh between her fingers until the nipples were pebbled and standing taut in skin one size too small. She took a mouthful of water and swallowed, spit out a second mouthful through her slightly pursed lips, tracing the path with soapy fingers, down her belly to a liquid fire kindled within her. She wanted Mel so badly she ached inside, a desire so profound she likened it to acute hunger pangs. And so there was something more than a little masochistic in the detour of her hands to her hips and thighs - the self-denial was painful and the pain was exquisite. She had always been a creature of discipline and her restraint was such that she could contain her arousal for hours, feeding off the promise of release. These days, promise had a name.
She felt a wave of cool air as the shower curtain parted. Before she could turn around, she felt a pair of arms slide around her waist and the warm press of flesh on flesh. Oh, yes...Happy Birthday to me.
"Startin' without me..." Mel husked, moving her hips into Janice in a rolling, sensual sway. "Naughty girl."
"I was thinking of you." Janice reveled in Mel's breath at her ear, and the gentle friction as their bodies moved in unison. "Does that count for anything?"
Mel's heart knocked gladly in her chest. "It counts for everything." She moved her hands over the firm, compact body settled against her, fingers and palms gliding along on ball bearings of fragrant lather.
As her lover's hands roamed her body in a long, languid caress, Janice let her head drop back into the hollow of Mel's shoulder. "Not that I'm complaining, but what happened with dinner?"
Mel slipped her hand between their bodies, dragging a finger the length of Janice's swollen labia, delighting in the slick heat she found there. "Well, now, I can make dinner?" she crooned, painting Janice's lips with her own arousal "...or I can make love?" As the smaller woman turned in her arms, fixing her with her eyes, Mel swallowed hard. "Which appetite would you like me to feed first?"
"You're joking, right?" With a growl, Janice drew Mel down for a hungry kiss, tasting herself as they settled into a slow, thorough exploration of one another. Hot water pricked and stung her skin, counterpoint to the hands, one at her hip, the other at the small of her back, urging her forward in a kind of sexual samba.
It was a rhythm both women knew well, and while loving Janice was as natural as breathing, making love to her was anything but routine and predictable. Which meant it was never dull. Janice was adventurous, passionate and self-assured by nature, and she brought those qualities to their bedroom, inspiring similar confidence in Mel. Sex with such a partner could take on the scale of a De Mille film, complete with careful buildup and skillful exposition, where the peaks and climaxes were merely places to catch one's breath in preparation for the second reel. Love with Janice, Mel once observed, could be epic?or content with a single kiss. Yup, that's the spot. Janice's lips found the pulse point at the juncture of her throat and collarbone, a favorite stop on the tour south. Oh, God?you know that makes me crazy? Mel tossed her head back, enjoying the spray on her face and throat; it was like making love in a driving rain. Water trickled from her upturned face onto her breasts to be sipped from her body by cool suction and a warm tongue. Janice's strong fingers traced the length of her spine and a hot surge moved through her as their centers met in a tangle. Mel became aware, faintly, of her name being spoken, one syllable repeated like a mantra, vibrating through her chest and the small bones of her ears.
"Mmmmel?" Janice murmured in a protracted hum. She looked up at the tall Southerner with eyes intensely, fiercely green.
Mel kissed her lips briefly. "What, baby?" she sighed, her eyes vague and half-closed.
"Mel, if you don't touch me now, I'll..."
"What? You'll what?"
Janice laughed as she pressed her lips to Mel's. "I'll be forced to beg."
Mel conjured, from recent memory, the image of Janice on her knees. "Careful now, hon?I might like that," she replied, but she was weakening under the onslaught of feverish kisses and busy hands. "Well, when you put it like that?" She held Janice's gaze in a fog of steam as one hand traveled south between them. She smiled slyly as she traced Janice's trembling lips with the tip of her tongue. "Wählen Sie eine Zahl zwischen ein und vier."
Janice's astonishment was unmistakable. "Aw, no, Mel, trust me when I say now is not the time for a German lesson."
"Im Gegenteil, jetzt ist das perfekte Mal?jetzt, wenn ich ihre vollständige, und ungeteilte Aufmerksamkeit habe." On the contrary, now is the perfect time?now when I have your complete and undivided attention. "Geben Sie mir."
"Indulge you?" Janice practically whimpered. "This is a real mood killer, you know that, don't you?"
Mel cupped Janice's mound in one hand, sent out a scout, who returned with news of a flood. "Lügner." Liar.
Janice sank on the fingers at her center with a contented sigh. "Cruel, Pappas...you have a pronounced cruel streak in you."
"Ah,ah,ah..." Mel wagged a glistening finger in Janice's face. "Auf Deutsch."
Janice shuffled in mute, grudging assent. "Würdest du deine Frage wiederholen?" What was the question?
"Wählen Sie eine Zahl zwischen ein und vier.....und seiest du habgierig nicht." Pick a number between one and four...and don't be greedy.
Janice struggled with the translation as Mel's neatly trimmed nails skimmed her belly. "Two -- er, zwei."
"Zwei?" repeated Mel, threading her fingers through wiry golden short hairs. "Das's der sehr ist demokratisch von dir?das verläßt uns irgendwo zu gehen." That's very democratic of you?leaves us someplace to go.
Janice leaned heavily against her, frustration evident as she clamped her teeth down upon the soft round of Mel's shoulder, eliciting a surprised yelp that turned quickly to a coo of delight as Janice soothed the bite with her tongue. "Genug!" she growled into the hollow of Mel's throat; her voice was thick with desire, which, oddly enough, seemed to improve her German pronunciation. "Muß ich du eine Karte zeichnen?" Do I have to draw you a map?
A chuckle rumbled through Mel's chest as the cunning linguist took pity on her pupil. "I think I 'member the way," she replied, slipping two fingers inside to the second knuckle - a hot wall of velvet contracted around her skin; her own muscles clenched in empathy.
Janice made a soft sound of delight and her hand moved down to cover Mel's, to press it deeper into her as she bent to suckle a soft, heavy breast. "More," she murmured thickly, teasing the delicate, ruched flesh with her tongue.
"More," Mel echoed, curling her free hand around Janice's neck, drawing her closer. "Well, whatever the birthday girl wants..." Angling her hand for deeper penetration, she wriggled her fingers, eliciting a sharp intake of breath that cooled the tender flesh beneath Janice's mouth. "Ohmygod," Mel groaned, drowning in sensation -- lips, warm and wet against her skin, and a pair of small hands kneading the flesh above her rapidly beating heart -- her pleasure, giddy and profound and indistinguishable from her lover's. It was perfect. Perfect as the delicate throat arching to her kisses, perfect as the beautiful body melting into hers, moving against her hand and her hips with graceful, needy rhythm. While her fingers maintained a steady, comfortable tempo, she sank to her knees in the water. When the tide settled, her face was mere inches from Janice's hips, and her own center was happily situated over the heel of her foot. "Mmm, better n' better..." she murmured. She wrapped her free arm around a muscled thigh and, with all the appetite of a child in a candy store, fastened her lips onto the quivering knot of flesh at Janice's center.
Janice's body was primed and ready for that first intimate, electric kiss. She gasped, loudly, as if burned, but instead of withdrawing from the fire, she melted into it, savoring the intensity, and the bite. With one impeccably timed, skillfully executed maneuver, she was reduced to dog brains, barely conscious of the little noises she made as Mel's tongue mercilessly batted her clit. Her legs wobbled, watery; she didn't know how much longer she could remain standing under such an enthusiastic assault.
Mel felt a pair of hands tangle in her hair; without pausing in her work, she spared her partner an upward glance. The sight of Janice, eyes closed, mouth open, a hot spray of water hammering her teeth and tongue, thrilled her as much as any touch. "Hey, now," she cooed, dipping her tongue into the well of Janice's navel; she could feel the muscles beneath her hands bunch and jump. "Can't have you drownin' on me," she said, shutting off the water. "The best is yet to come." With her other hand, she curled her fingers inside Janice, seeking some elusive touchstone, all the while watching her lover's face, a barometer of arousal.
In the moments before she was reduced to a trembling bundle of bones and muscle, Janice looked down, into the face of a goddess, glistening wet, on her knees before her. Her world tilted and pitched, and when Mel's tongue divided her labia and speared her core, short, fiery bursts of pleasure began to flower in her. She fell to her knees in a boneless collapse, Mel's steadily pumping fingers still inside her. Pinprick bursts of light played against the screen of her tightly closed eyelids, and strong fingers dug into Mel's flesh as a delicious, dizzying sweetness overcame her?like being impaled on a candy cane. At the moment of release, she smothered her moans in the curve of Mel's shoulder. At some point, as her gasps turned to short, more even breaths and her heart rate slowed, she became aware of Mel's voice in her ear, whispering little endearments, and her arm around her waist, drawing her to rest across her thighs.
They sat there in the tepid water for a long moment, in a tender clinch, trading heartbeats and warm breaths. Eventually, Janice opened her eyes to find herself on the receiving end of a provocative smile. "Well, finally," Mel sighed good naturedly as hot, slick flesh pulsed around her fingers. "My hand was beginnin' to cramp."
Disclaimer: If Chapter 6 was an experiment in excess in all its glory, then Chapter 7 must be the progeny of such excess. If Chapter 6 was all flowery narrative and descriptives, then Chapter 7, as you will read, is its exact opposite. Dialogue. And dialogue alone. I hope I don't lose you along the way.
"Now, tell me again, Janice, and don't spare the details."
"How many ways can I say I told the President of the United States to take a hike?"
"You have a large vocabulary. The number is infinite, I'm sure."
"He wanted the Scrolls, and he wasn't beneath employing a little coercion to get them."
"You're not serious?"
"Well, maybe coercion is too strong a word. It wasn't what he said so much as how he said it."
"Now you've gone an' lost me."
"Suffice it to say that the man dabbles in manipulation the way other artists work in oils."
"Every dog suffers fleas as my daddy used to say."
"A master of the obscure reference was your old man, Mel."
"Half truths and hogwash are part and parcel of the politician's trade, Janice -- a predictable, if unpardonable, character flaw. I wouldn't expect you to overlook these flaws simply because he's the president."
"Thank you. Are you sitting on the soap again?"
"There, to your left. Still, wouldn't it be somethin' if he were right?about your daddy, I mean."
"If I believed for one second that there was a chance my father was still out there, alive, I'd move heaven and earth to get to him. As it is, he's dust?he's just dust, Mel, and I'd appreciate it if we could just drop this topic."
"Consider it dropped. I'm sorry if I upset you."
"You didn't upset me. You could never upset me, darling. I'm fine, really."
"I will take you at your word. Well...look at that?"
"They float?like little buoys. I never noticed that."
"I did?naughty little buoys!"
"It's poor taste to laugh at your own jokes, Janice."
"Come down to the shallow end and say that, little girl."
"Insatiable?and you can wipe that smug ole smile off your face. Every time I call you insatiable, you take it as a compliment. Ah, ah! Tickle me an' suffer the consequences!"
"Did anyone ever tell you that you have the most beautiful feet?"
"They're gunboats, Janice."
"They're not gunboats?they're beautiful and sensuous?look at that delicate arch, and those long toes?especially your index toe."
"Your index toe. The second toe there. Don't be thick, Mel. You want more hot water?"
"Huh uh?I'm prunin'?we need to think about gettin' out."
"Bet the ravioli's a wash."
"In the icebox under a damp cloth. They'll perk right up in a little hot water."
"Oh?nothin' at all like you."
"Whoa?oh?other foot, please."
"No one knows that better than me?yikes?two can play at this game you know."
"Why can't you just sit back and enjoy the attention? What's wrong with lettin' me do for the birthday girl?"
"Absolutely nothing?ooooh, very long, very nimble toes."
"On my daddy's side."
"Three cheers for genetics."
"What do you wanna do after?"
"Aren't we doing it?"
"Supper?whatever you wa--wanna--ah-choo!"
"Whoa?that was an interesting sensation."
"I'm sorry. Did I hurt you?"
"?no?not hurt, exactly?what were you saying?"
"What would like to do after supper?"
"Dunno?there's a new picture playing at the Orpheum?"
"In this weather? Are you out of your proverbial tree?"
"Paul - oh, oh, that's wonderful --Muni?Paul Muni and Gene Tierney?"
"Oh, I love her overbite."
"Come on, let's do it. I've got 2 dollars burning a hole in my pocket."
"And I've got classes in the mornin'."
"You'll be in bed by 11?ravished by 11:15?Mel, Mel, that's divine? what are you doing to me?"
"There's a name for it..."
"Ho-lee Toledo?I swear, Mel, if you sneezed right now, I'd be in heaven."
"Do you hear somethin'?"
"Bells, honey?angels singing."
"Bells? Janice?that's the door buzzer."
"No one I know would come callin' at this hour."
"Ignore it. Mel! Mel? You're not ignoring it. If we ignore it, maybe they'll go away. Where are you going?"
"Do you hear that racket? That is the buzzer of a determined individual. That is a buzzer that will not be ignored, so I am gonna get the door."
"Not in that towel you're not...and that's my dressing gown."
"Gimme that. You dry off. I'll get rid of whoever's at the door."
"You're a love."
"Oh, yeah, I'm a sweetheart."
"Here, at least put on my slippers."
"Not fit for public viewin'. Sic 'em, tiger."
"Okay, okay, I'm coming. Hold your horses. I swear, this building better be on Gotdamn fire. Yeah?!"
"Holy shhhh--I mean, good evening."
"I seem to have disturbed your evenin' toilette."
"I was just getting out actually."
"You'll catch your death standin' in this open doorway."
"Oh. I'm sorry. Please, come in. I'm Janice, by the way. We spoke once on the telephone."
"How could I forget? You're just as I pictured you."
"First impressions are rarely flattering."
"That's a...that's a beautiful fur you have there. Mink?"
"Chinchilla, and before you say anythin', I did not stalk and kill the poor beast for its coat. It died and left me everything. Is Melinda here?"
"Janice, you'll never guess where?oh...my...Mama."
End Chapter 7