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Chapter 5: England
"You are clear to land. Come right to zero, two, nine degrees."
"Roger." Jackson banked the C-87 to the right and very carefully lined up with the runway. Night landings in a blacked out England could be tricky but Jackson had done it many times before. Five minutes later they were safely down at Harrington Field, more commonly known as Station 179, and being waved to a spot near one of the main hangars. That Donovan had selected this particular place was no great surprise because Station 179 was the primary base of operations for OSS activity. Known as Operation Carpetbagger, the OSS, in co-operation with the Eighth Air Force had flown hundreds of clandestine sorties into the European continent to supply the French Resistance, insert agents, and drop leaflets. Though their activities had been severely curtailed by April, 1945, Station 179 was nevertheless still active.
As the C-87 rolled to a stop Janice, who for the most part was feeling better, picked her pack up off the floor and stood up. Turning to her statuesque friend, she said, "We're late. Let's hope that Sim guy is still around." This was the direct result of the C-87's losing its number four engine. By the time they had touched down at Harrington it was well after dark and the two women had no clue about what was to happen next. Everything hinged on Sim.
As he came aft Radioman Griffin, seeing the two women were having trouble opening the fuselage door, shouldered it open for them.
"Thanks, Mac," said Janice, dropping easily to the ground.
Melinda gave him a polite nod and followed her friend out the door.
"It looks like our welcoming committee has bugged out," said Janice, scanning the darkened airfield.
"So what do we do?" asked Mel.
"The first thing," replied Janice, zipping up her jacket, "is to find somewhere to get out of this cool night air." Turning to Griffin who was still in the doorway, she asked "Say, how do we get in touch with a Flight Lieutenant Sim?"
"Beats me," said Griffin, shrugging his shoulders. "You might try the duty hut."
"Where would that be?"
Griffin pointed to a silhouetted rectangle some two hundred yards away. "There."
Janice gave him a small wave signifying her appreciation. "This is a hell of a way to run a railroad if you ask me," she muttered, under her breath. "Well, Mel Pappas," she sighed, slipping one strap of the pack over her shoulder, "what do you say we go shake somebody's pecker?"
"Janiiiice!" Mel gasped. In the darkness Janice could not see the crimson now spreading across her friend's face. "I declare I sometimes think you do that on purpose."
"Come on," the archaeologist said with a chuckle. Mel was right. She did do it on purpose.
As the two of them melted into the darkness Janice asked "Are you hungry?"
"Oh, I suppose," Mel answered, casually. In truth she was famished but she did not want to admit that to Janice. The last thing she wanted was for Janice to take special pains for her. "How about you?" she asked.
"Are you kiddin'?" grinned Janice. "After what happened on the plane?"
"Be that as it may you really should try to eat something," Mel coaxed.
"We'll see," said Janice. Going hungry was no big deal for Janice Covington. Unlike the privileged Mel, Janice
knew what real hunger was--not just the ready-for-supper kind. In the hard years of the early '30's an empty
belly had been a frequent visitor for the teen-age daughter of an indifferent, obsessed man who was never home.
For Second Lieutenant Ellis Perkins of Fort Collins, Colorado this night had all the ingredients for being a long one.
Although only at his post for little more than an hour now he was already finding it difficult to remain awake. At first he had
thought himself glad to have finally gotten rid of that snotty RAF officer but now that the fellow was gone he found himself
missing having someone to talk to--even if...it...was a...Limey..........
Janice turned the door knob and, opening the door just a crack, peeked inside. "Well somebody's home anyway," she said. Pushing the door the rest of the way open, she stepped inside--Mel close at her heels. A young man with the gold bars of a second lieutenant was sitting behind a desk with his chin resting on his chest. "This joker is asleep," said Janice.
"You think we ought to wake him?" asked Mel.
"Now, Mel," Janice snorted, "you don't want this boob to get shot for sleeping at his post, do you?"
"Oh my, Jan, do they really do things like that?"
"Maybe," Janice impishly replied. Poor Mel, she thought good naturedly, for someone so intelligent you can be so gullible at times. Leaning over, she pushed on the man's shoulder. "Hey."
Perkins snorted and then mumbled, "Huh?"
Janice pushed again--harder this time. "Hey, Eisenhower! Wake up!"
"Hahhhh?" Lieutenant Perkins snapped his head erect and blinked hard at the two apparitions looming before him. "Who the hell are you?" he asked, somewhat flustered.
"Nazi spies, who do you think?" retorted Janice.
"Hey, you're dames!" he exclaimed.
"That gives you one dollar," said Janice. "Do you wanna try for the two dollar question now?"
"Just how did you manage to get in here anyway?" he asked.
Uhh boy, thought Janice, this one isn't exactly well stocked in the brains department. "Why through the door, genius," she answered, a little blithely. "How else?"
"Okay, smart ass," Perkins growled, "let's see how much poppin' off you do in front of the MP's."
Suddenly his hand shot out and yanked open the top most of the desk drawers. He had concluded this must surely be some sort of security violation and the .45 automatic in the drawer would go a long way toward making sure these two, whoever they were, would not be trying anything cute. He was quick enough to get his hand in the drawer all right but to his shock and dismay he found the lithe little blonde with the smart mouth to be much too agile to allow him to get the hand clear of the drawer. For no sooner had he made his move before Janice, instantly recognizing his intention, had dashed around behind the desk and, using her knee, slammed the drawer shut against his wrist.
"OWWWWW! Jesus, lady," screeched Perkins, "you're crazy!"
"Look, asshole," snarled Janice, "I wasn't born yesterday. I know what you were thinking. So don't be puttin' any fuckin' hands in fuckin' drawers where I can't fuckin' see 'em." Needless to say she was really angry now. The very idea of this man pulling a gun on Mel was enough to make her blood boil. Still applying pressure to the drawer, she continued, "Now pay attention, creep. I'm only going to explain this to you once. My friend and I just flew in from the States and a RAF guy named Sim was supposed to have met us here. End of fuckin' story. Now why don't you be a good little boy and give us a hand here." With a faint smirk she added, "Sorry, Bub, no pun intended."
"He...he was...here," yelped Perkins.
"Yeah. You just missed him by about ten minutes or so."
"Golly, Jan, he might still be around," said Mel.
"You're right," said Janice. Abruptly she drew back her knee and picked up the telephone. She then savagely slammed it down in front of Perkins and said, "I don't care who you have to call," she raged, "but you find that guy and you get his ass back here!"
From behind Janice heard the squeaking hinges herald the opening of the door. "Perkins!" a smooth voice called out. "The plane is here. Have you seen any sign--"
"Are you Sim?" Janice asked, cutting him off as she whirled to face him.
For a moment Sim simply stood there, gaping wide-eyed at the scene before him. Perkins, sitting at his desk with a daze look on his face. Beside him stood a fine looking, though obviously irate, woman. On the other side of Perkins' desk was a tall, raven-haired lady wearing horn-rimmed glasses that did nothing to distract from her stunning beauty. However this did not last long. In the cool manner of a true Englishman he quickly gathered himself. "I'm rather afraid you have me at a disadvantage, madam," he said, calmly.
Janice strode over and stuck out her hand. Although she was well aware that very many of the English were uncomfortable with this American custom she did not care. When Sim took the offered hand she announced, "I'm Covington and this is my friend, Mel Pappas."
But here again the usually unflappable Sim had to pause. This was not what he had expected at all.
"Is something wrong?" Janice asked, noting the look of puzzlement on his face.
"You say you're Covington?" he asked. "Jan Covington?"
Having already dealt with one man's incredulity, her mood was not improving any by the prospect of facing yet another Doubting Thomas. That she was getting tired of this was borne out by her answer. "Did I stutter?" she asked impatiently.
Sim ignored the crack and casually gave Melinda the once over. "Mel...Pappas?"
"Pleased tuh meet you I'm sure," said Melinda with a nervous little smile.
"This is most irregular," Sim said. "Most irregular."
"What are you talking about?" Janice asked in exasperation.
"Could I possibly trouble you for some identification?" asked Sim.
Janice sighed heavily and dug her hand into her inside jacket pocket. There she retrieved a small leather wallet which she handed to Sim. Inside was a small card which contained not only all the basic information, but also what Janice deemed to be the absolute worst photograph ever taken of her. "Satisfied?" she asked, taking the wallet back.
He smiled thinly and said, "Quite. Sorry about that, but one cannot be too careful. However you can surely understand my confusion. The communication I received stated I was to meet a certain Jan Covington and Mel Pappas.
"I get it," said Janice, breaking into a grin. "You thought we were guys."
"Yes," he admitted. "I rather was expecting chaps."
Janice grinned once more and moved to Melinda's side. Sweeping her hand over her friend's plainly visible "assets" she asked "Does this look like a 'chap' to you?"
"Janiiiice," said Melinda, in a mild reproof.
To ease her friend's embarrassment, Janice smiled warmly at the belle and gave her a wink.
"I should say not," sniffed Sim. "Else I think barracks life was starting to get to me."
For her part Janice did not believe that line for a second. It was clear to her this man was no ordinary flight officer. He had an air of self-confidence about him that spoke of experiences far beyond getting shot at by Messerschmitts. However she went along with the ruse. "All right," she said, "now that we are all pals shall we get down to business?"
"I have a motor car waiting to take you to your quarters," said Sim, casting a wary eye toward Perkins. "We can discuss details on the way over."
Janice nodded her assent and turned to Perkins who had been keenly watching this little exchange. "Thanks for all your help, general," she said mockingly.
"Ladies, if you would be so kind as to follow me?"
"Ahhh before we go anywhere with you," said Janice, "how about you let us see your ID?"
Sim looked at her quizzically for a moment and then opened his wallet. This one doesn't trust anybody, he thought. I like that. Holding his ID up to Janice's face, he then said, "I trust everything is in order."
"Yep," said Janice. "Lead on."
Once they were in the car she asked "By the way, where are we going?"
"Gravely at Grafton Underwood," replied Sim. "That's the nearest Lancaster base."
Although Janice was curious about the details of the next part of their mission she had been on enough of these to know that Sim would tell her in his own good time. So she held her tongue and patiently waited while they cleared the checkpoints and then drove them off Station 179. As soon as they were past the main gate Sim cleared his throat and said, "I'm afraid there is going to be a bit of a delay."
"How come?" Janice asked.
"It seems one of the engines on your plane blew a cylinder this morning on the way in."
Christ, thought Janice, that's all I need--another bucket of bolts plane.
"Couldn't we just get another one?" Mel asked.
"Eventually, yes," replied Sim.
"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Janice.
"I'm afraid one simply cannot go around commandeering aircraft," he explained. "Bomber Command frowns on that sort of thing you see. These things require authorization."
"And to get said authorization would take longer than it would to change the engine, right?"
"So, how long?"
The maintenance chaps are on it even as we speak," replied Sim. "The plane should be operational by morning at the latest."
I can live with that, thought Janice.
An hour later the archaeologist dropped her pack to the floor and gingerly stretched out on the rough blanket covering the steel cot that was her bed. "Ohhhh."
"Mel?" she groaned. "I tell ya, I am getting too old for this stuff."
Melinda sat down on Janice's bunk and gave the woman a little pat on the knee. Smiling at her, she said, "I expect there's enough life in those old bones of yours for one more turn at bat."
These assurances aside, Melinda was also grateful for one more opportunity to catch some sleep in a real bed. The original plan had called for them to lay over at Gravely for only about an hour before taking off directly for Gibraltar. Of course, with their Lancaster bomber now undergoing frantic repair efforts that had all changed. As far as she was concerned Janice just hoped their efforts were not too frantic.
In the meantime Sim had managed to produce some warmed over soup, a couple of ham sandwiches, and a couple of Cokes for their supper. This the two ladies had gratefully downed while Sim went to scour the base for some suitable quarters for them.
As Janice had guessed he was not actually assigned to Gravely and therefore was unfamiliar with the layout of the base. Because of this it had taken him some time to arrange a proper billet for the two women. In the end he had solved the problem rather nicely by having an orderly at the hospital haul over two of their spare bunks and set them up in the empty supply room he had found. As an added bonus the orderly, learning the beds were in fact for a couple of "birds," had also brought along one of the hospital's portable radios.
Now Mel began to unlace Janice's boots. Although as independent any individual could be, Janice nevertheless liked the fuss Mel always made over her. "You know, Mel," she teased, "only God knows when we'll get to bathe again."
In a somewhat surprising answer Mel said, "Well I reckon nobody ever died from body odor."
This elicited an odd look from Janice. While Melinda was not exactly afraid of dirt she was nevertheless very fastidious about her appearance--even in the field.
As Mel pulled the boot off Janice nonchalantly tucked her hands underneath her head. "Oh yeah? Well that boyfriend of yours might see things a little differently."
Already unlacing the other boot, Mel now suddenly stopped. Looking straight ahead, she lowered her eyes and in a very soft, plainly hurt voice said, "I told you he was not my boyfriend. I never had a boyfriend. I never had anybody. That is--until you, Jan."
Right about here Janice felt about as low as the proverbial snake's belly. She had not meant to hurt her friend. Far from it. In fact she was a little puzzled by Melinda's reaction because the belle very rarely took exception to her silly barbs. Usually she would just smile good-naturedly and shake her head. Not this time however.
Mel said no more and silently went back to unlacing Janice's boot.
"Gosh, Mel," said Janice, rising up in bed, "I was only joking. You know I didn't mean anything by that crack." She then hopefully added, "Don't cha?"
Melinda did not reply right away. Instead she merely pulled the boot off Janice's foot and carelessly pitched it over the foot of the bed.
"C'mon, Mel," coaxed Janice, "talk to me."
Then she reached out and placed her hand on her lover's arm. Clearly her careless line about the rocket whiz had struck a nerve. She was all too aware that Mel was a bundle of contradictions but the one she had never quite gotten a grasp on was how a beautiful, intelligent girl like Melinda could have grown up in such an obviously loving household feeling so lonely? Yes, Janice too had experienced this same emptiness from time to time but she had always manage to convince herself it was the price she had to pay for clawing her way to the top of a decidedly male profession. As she saw it Melinda had no such excuse.
Why then? Had it been that chronic shyness bordering on timidity? Had it been her gangly, sometimes painful, awkwardness? Or was it because she had simply been confused about her own sexuality? Janice could not say for certain because this was the one subject she had never quite been able to draw Melinda out on. Whatever the case, it had left the gentle, incredibly sweet woman with a desperate yearning to love--to be loved.
"What can I say, Kid? I'm an ass," said Janice.
"Janice Covington, you are no such thing," chided Melinda, placing her own hand on top of Janice's. She then looked her friend in the eyes and with a very straight face added, "You're, you're just demented, that's all."
Janice laughed and said, "Well you've got me there." She was relieved Mel was not too upset and mentally she made a note to dispense with the teasing.
She then lay back down and, after scooting to one side, patted the bed. Mel took the cue and eased her lanky body down onto the bed beside Janice. In an almost involuntary gesture each of them reached out for the other's hand. They lay there on their backs for a few moments--saying nothing--just quietly holding hands and reveling in the warm glow of the other's company.
After a time, Melinda spoke, "Don't you reckon we ought tuh try tuh get some sleep?"
"I can't sleep," sighed Janice. She then added, "But you should try to get some."
"I know you've probably had lots of lovers but was there ever...you know...anybody you really cared about?"
"Yeah," Janice answered. "You."
"Come on, Jan, I'm serious."
"Damn it, Mel," Janice growled in mock annoyance, "we've been together almost five years and you're just now gettin' around to asking me that?"
"Well, I had hoped that maybe one day you would tell me own your own," replied Mel.
"Why is it so all fired important that you know now?" Janice asked.
"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to," said Mel, softly.
"I have nothing to hide from you, Mel Pappas. In all honesty I can't say as there ever was," Janice replied. She rolled over on her side and looked into Mel's icy blue eyes. "Mel," she began, "I won't kid you. I've helped to rock a few beds in my time. Mostly they were locals who just happened to be handy, okay?" She smiled thinly and added, "After a month or so without it you wouldn't believe how good some of them begin to look."
Melinda had figured as much. Janice had simply been too good at making love not to have had a lot of practice--going both ways. She contrasted this with her own experiences--such as they were. She had never been with a man. In fact before Janice she had never had anyone--unless of course, she counted her own fingers.
Janice squeezed Melinda's hand. "Are you shocked at that, Scarlett O' Hara?" she asked.
"Of course not," Melinda replied. "This ain't exactly the Victorian Era, ya know."
"Hmph," snorted Janice. "Those people fooled around as much as anybody else. Anyway, like I said I've done my share of sleeping around and then some. But you know something?"
"All that time, it was just...fucking, you know? Wham, bam, thank ya ma'am don't let the door hit your ass on the way out. That's all." She chuckled mirthlessly and added, "Like rabbits in a hutch." She rolled over so close to Mel that the belle could feel the hot breath on her neck. "That's all it ever was--just screwing. You, Melinda Rose Pappas, are the one, the only, person in my whole licentious life that I have ever, ever...made love to."
"Golly, Jan, I, I don't know what to say."
"That's simple enough," said Janice, huskily. "Say you love me."
"Ohhh, Jan, you know I do, the belle gushed. "From almost the first moment I saw you in that nasty old tent. You called me a lady, remember?"
"Yeah, I remember," Janice replied softly as she snuggled still closer to her belle. "Although I gotta admit I was a lit-tle more preoccupied with our ahh, 'guests' right at that time."
Mel giggled and said, "Lord, Janice, when I walked into that tent and saw those fellas with those big ol' guns I thought I was going to pee in my panties."
"Hey don't feel bad," Janice retorted. "Because when the shooting started, I actually did!"
"Oh, Janice, you did not," chided Mel, cheerily.
"I did a little, I swear it," said Janice, holding up her fingers Boy Scout style.
Now, Melinda doubted if Janice had ever peed her panties because of anything. Nevertheless she thought it cute of her to say so.
Janice then groaned and said, "Speaking of which, I've got to go find a can."
"Now, Janice," Mel giggled, "I think the proper term on an air base is latrine."
"Call it what you want," said Janice, smiling at her, "I still have to pee." She pulled back her sleeve to check her watch...8:55. Almost 2:00 A.M. local time, she thought. Hastily pulling her boots back on, she then donned her jacket and said, "Mel, turn on the radio. Maybe we can catch some news."
"Mel arose and turned on the radio just as the final strains of Dinah Shore's voice faded away. Closing the door behind her on the way out, Janice heard, "This is the BBC, London. Here is..."
This sure is a big place, she thought, as the sound of the radio died away.
As is turned out Janice walked around for twenty minutes and never did find a latrine. Ultimately she was reduced to grumpily squatting down behind a stack of barrels in order to relieve herself. A few minutes later found her back at the door of their hut. As she entered she heard a soft melody did not recognize wafting over the room.
"Damn it, I never did find a---"
Something was wrong. Melinda was sitting leaned over on the edge of the bed, one elbow propped on her knee with her forehead buried in her hand.
"What's wrong?" Janice asked as she quickly strode to her friend. Mel looked up and with alarm Janice saw the tears streaming down her face. "God, Mel, what is it?" she asked, kneeling down in front of the belle. "What happened?"
A black thought came to her. "It wasn't that fuckin' Perkins, was it?"
Melinda sniffed and wiped rubbed a finger under her nostrils. "He's....dead, Jan," she said, quietly.
"Who, Mel? Who's dead?"
"The man on the radio said...he said..."
"Tell me, sweetheart," Janice gently coaxed. "Tell me who died."
"It's Mister Roosevelt. My God, Jan. He's...dead."
For Janice it was like a slap in the face. Like most Americans she was vaguely aware that the President's health had been deteriorating for some time. One had only to look at the newspaper photographs of the who had once been so robust and vibrant but was now so much thinner and haggard looking to know that. However few realized the President had been dying. But as early as the historic MacArthur-Nimitz meetings at Honolulu in June, 1944 MacArthur, who had not seen the President in years, had been shocked to see how much Roosevelt had changed.
"How did it happen?" asked Janice.
"They called it a cerebral hemorrhage," said Mel, still sniffing. "Jan this is awful."
"I know, Kid," Janice murmured, softly patting Melinda on the knee. "I know." In spite of her best efforts to stop them, Janice could feel her own tears welling up now. Her mind raced back to that dreary day in November, 1941 when she had meekly shaken the hand of the jovial man from New York who even then had been President of the United States longer than anyone in history. Though she had spent only a few minutes with him that day she could fairly reckon the experience had changed her life. After all, he had been the one that had shown faith in her at a time when even she had doubts about herself. While performing the "favor" he had requested of her she had come to learn that there were some things more important than just beating some rival to the latest archaeological prize.
During her three year stint in the OSS Janice had encountered many people--on both sides--willing to sacrifice all for the cause they believed in. These people were not "suckers" but highly intelligent, highly motivated individuals totally committed to that cause, however just or unjust it might be, which they believed to bigger than any of them.
For Janice Covington this was something new. For most of her young life her sole cause had been the pursuit of the almighty dollar. In this she had done quite well. But the arrival of a certain lanky, somewhat irritating Southern belle on the scene had soon caused the cynical archaeologist to step back for the first time in her life and re-examine her priorities. For to her surprise Melinda Pappas had somehow managed to strip away the veneer of her jaded exterior and find the loving heart that beat within. Before she knew it she came to realize that it was indeed Mel that mattered most of all and everything else, yes even money, now came in a poor second.
But her education did not stop there. With America's entry into the war she found another reason worth risking all for--the cause of freedom. Already presented with the opportunity to do her part, she knew she would never be able to live with herself if she turned away while tens of thousands of American boys were every month dying all over the world in places she had never even heard of before.
Though Janice Covington would never have expressed it in so many words, she knew well enough that freedom must
never be allowed to be relegated to just being another word in some musty old history book. Freedom had to forever be kept
alive as a living ideal whose spirit could never be beaten into submission no matter how hard the chest-beating tyrants of
the world tried. And to keep that spirit alive it is sometimes necessary to fight for it. And maybe die for it.
Franklin D. Roosevelt had died for it. For he was a casualty of the Second World War just as surely as any of those dead Marines in that shocking "Life" magazine photograph taken after their maggot covered bodies had washed up on the beach at Tarawa. The greatest American president of the twentieth century, and along with Winston Churchill freedom's greatest friend, was dead.
Back in 1932 a nation on the brink of despair had turned to Roosevelt to show them the way. In his inauguration speech he uttered, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." and a desperate nation took it to heart. Promising a "New Deal" for America, he implemented massive public works programs like the WPA and the CCC to put hundreds of thousand of the unemployed back to work. He introduced legislation to protect the hard earned savings of Americans and to provide at least some measure of income for them upon their retirement. Although some of his proposals, most notably the National Recovery Act and his attempt to "pack" the Supreme Court, were lambasted in the press, most working class Americans soon came to believe that in Roosevelt they had a president who was in their corner. In his hundreds of "fireside chats" he referred to the American people as "mah friends" and they in turn came to view him in the same light. This was made manifest in his three subsequent landslide election wins. By World War Two many of the young men going overseas could barely remember, if at all, anybody else but Roosevelt as president.
This is not to say he did not have his detractors. Many feared his gentle push of America to the left was merely a
prelude to socialism or, worse, full fledged Communism. The Republicans hated him for his ability to pin the blame for
much of what was perceived to be wrong with America on them. This was not necessarily the case but Roosevelt was, above
all, the consummate politician. He had cut his political teeth on this no holds barred, down and dirty, smoke-filled back room
kind of wheeling and dealing and naturally had made his share of enemies over the years since. Some called him the
"consummate hater" and indeed he could be very vindictive. But for the rest of their lives millions of hard working Americans
who had known what it was like to lose their homes, see their children go hungry, or despair at being unable to find work
during those dark days of the Great Depression would look back and remember with great affection the man who, though
himself born to privilege, had truly felt an affinity for the average person and worked so hard to better their lives.
As she knelt there before her friend Janice found she was having difficulty remembering just who the vice-president was. It's not Garner, she thought. Damn it, who is? Truman! Yeah, that's it, Truman. For a fleeting moment she wondered what he would be like.
Then one of those stubborn tears broke free and rolled down her cheek. Janice Covington, she vowed, fiercely, you will not cry. You will not cry. You will...
She recalled the fatherly way he had spoken to her, how he had even called her "child." It was no use. Quickly rising to her feet, she said, "I'll be back."
"Where are you going?" Mel asked, her voice low.
"To get some air," Janice tersely replied.
Melinda understood perfectly. Not even in front of her own lover would Janice allow herself any overt display of grief. "Okay," she said, "but don't be too long, okay? That plane will be fixed before you know it."
Janice's only reply was a muted, "Yeah." And she was gone.
Thirty minutes later she returned. Her red eyes and slightly runny nose were dead giveaways as to what she had been doing but for the most part Janice was through grieving now. Terrible as this news was, she had other things to worry about at the moment. By the time she returned Melinda had turned off the radio and was curled up on her side on one of the cots. Janice quietly removed her boots and jacket and, ignoring her own bed, crawled in beside Melinda. After a while she heard Mel's breathing become deeper and more measured and was glad her partner had finally managed to fall asleep. But lying there on her back, she resigned herself to the fact that sleep would not be visiting her any time soon tonight.
Sometime later the quiet was broken by Melinda's soft drawl. "Jan? You still awake?"
"Are you okay?"
Melinda sighed and said, "Me neither."
"Go back to sleep, Kid," said Janice.
Despite her thoughts to the contrary, sleep did finally come to Janice Covington--exactly forty-nine minutes before
a shadowy figure appeared before their door.
Chapter 6: On to Italy
Janice awoke with a start to the sound of urgent rapping upon the door. "I'm up," she called back, rolling out of the cot. She ran her fingers through her hair and blinked hard a couple of times as she shuffled to the door. Upon opening it, she found Sim standing there.
"Did you hear the news?" he asked.
"Bloody ironic that he should die now...when we're so close to victory I mean," observed Sim.
"At least he knew we are going to win," replied Janice.
Sim pointed to the Lancaster bomber warming up some three hundred yards away. "Your carriage awaits m'lady," he said, bowing slightly.
"Hmph," she snorted. "Personally I'd rather have a Cadillac."
"Hustle along," he said. "We want to be in Gibraltar as early as possible."
"Right," nodded Janice. She stepped quickly back to the bed and leaned over her sleeping friend. "Mel? Mel, come on. It's time to go."
"Mmmmm. Can't we just sleep in and order something for breakfast later?" Mel pleaded with a groan.
"Not unless you want to swim to Gibraltar," Janice said, playfully. She then gently whacked the belle on the rump and in a dreadfully exaggerated drawl said, "On your feet, honey child. You know ol' Wild Bill doesn't cotton to shirkers in the ranks."
"Oh funny," moaned Melinda.
Eight hours later the Lancaster touched down in Gibraltar. Janice had whiled away the mercifully uneventful flight by becoming acquainted with every bolt, rivet, and screw in the plane's floor and bulkheads. All in all it was a rather quiet flight as neither she nor Melinda spoke much and the British personnel on the place certainly did not seem inclined to make small talk. Even Sim had kept his distance. In fact Janice had the distinct feeling he was along to see to it the flight crew did the same. Probably that damn Donovan's doing, she thought.
After a layover of some six hours in Gibraltar the Lancaster was once again airborne and bound for Italy. Although it would have been much shorter to simply cut right across France, Donovan had not wanted to take the risk of them running off course and blundering into a stray German fighter somewhere. Again it was a routine flight and again the atmosphere on board was one which could rather be described as "restrained." However by this time Janice did not care. Both she and Mel had full stomachs now, she was not sick, and they were getting ever closer to their link up with Coleman. For her part Janice would not be sorry to leave this bunch behind.
As it had been in England, it was dark when they arrived in Rome. Actually they landed nowhere near Rome itself but a well used airstrip some ten miles east of the "Eternal City" instead. No sooner had the two women bade a polite farewell to the enigmatic Sim and began to walk away from the plane when a tall figure emerged from out of the shadows of the dimly light airfield.
"Pardon me, ladies," the figure said. "But are you two Pappas and Covington?"
"Who wants to know?" asked Janice, eyeing the figure suspiciously.
The figure stepped out to where his face could be seen the pale light. He was a handsome young American officer wearing captain's bars. "Yeah," he said. "You're them all right." He flashed a wide grin at Melinda and offered his hand. "Captain Rex Coleman, United States Army Air Corps--at your service, ma'am."
Melinda politely took the hand and said, "I'm pleased tuh meet you, Captain. I'm Melinda Pappas...and this is Janice."
"Janice," he said, now offering her the hand.
With the introductions now out of the way the three of them stood there in awkward silence for a few moments. However Janice noticed Coleman kept stealing little glances at Mel. Uhh boy, she thought, ruefully. Not another one. Indeed it did seem as though Captain Coleman had taken quite an interest in her beautiful companion.
Finally, as much to break the tension as anything, Coleman asked "So, are you two nurses or something?"
"Or something," replied Janice, tersely. Clearly they were not nurses.
Coleman took off his garrison cap and scratched his head. "Then I don't get it."
"What do you mean?" asked Janice.
"Well gee, as of right now Rimini is only a couple of miles behind the front lines, Covington."
Janice looked hard at him. "Rimini? That's where we're going?"
"Why yes," said Coleman with some surprise. "You mean you didn't know?"
"They never told us squat," replied Janice. "I take it Anthony is there?"
The captain's response was to furrow his brow. "Who?"
"Anthony," Janice repeated. "First Sergeant Brownlow Anthony. He is supposed to be waitin' for us."
"Well I don't know anything about that," Coleman said with a shrug. "All they told me was to fly down here and pick up a couple of dames...ah...women and then ferry them over to Rimini."
He eyed the two of them curiously and then said, "Can I ask you something?"
"That depends," was Janice's guarded answer.
"No offense but what in the hell are two non-medical women doing in a war zone?"
"No offense but it's none of your damn business," said Janice, glaring at Coleman. She hated the way men were forever denigrating their role.
As an officer in the Air Corps, Coleman was not used to being spoken to in this manner. Naturally Janice's rebuke irked him. "Now just a--"
"What she means to say," said Mel, gracefully interceding, "is that our purpose for bein' here is highly sensitive in nature and so quite naturally we are not at liberty to divulge any information regardin' that." She took off her glasses and with a dazzling smile added, "I'm sure you bein' an Army officer an' all, you can understand, can't you, Captain?"
"Why uhh...yes," replied Coleman, nervously clearing his throat. "Sure."
Once again Janice could not help but marvel at the powerful effect Melinda's endearing drawl, radiant beauty, and undeniable charm had on people--including her. If it had been anyone but her belle Janice would have suspected the timely removal of the glasses to be a clever little ploy to distract the irate Coleman. However she knew her partner would never do anything that devious--would she? "Sorry, Coleman," she said. "No hard feelings?"
"Ahh no," said Coleman, absently.
Melinda put her glasses back on and this caused Coleman to more or less snap out of his daze. "Whatever the reason," he said, continuing, "we won't be gettin' up there till tomorrow."
"Why not tonight?" asked Mel. Now that they were so close she found herself becoming more excited about "the mission." And though she would never admit it to Janice in a million years, she was looking forward to seeing Cernak again. Janice, too, now felt a growing sense of anticipation. Austria! It might be their last mission but they would certainly be going out with a bang. Just make that a figurative bang, she thought.
"Sorry, Miss," said Coleman. "Orders. George--George Masters, he's the other pilot--George and I are not to be flyin' you around in the dark. Looks like somebody's interested in keeping you in one piece." With a devilish grin, he added, "Besides, it's only about a hundred and twenty miles. A P-38 can do that in around twenty minutes."
Oh shit, thought Janice. She had not thought about that. Somehow the idea of tearing through the skies at three hundred fifty miles an hour in the cramped cockpit of a fighter plane did not appeal to her one iota. Suddenly it dawned on her. "Hey, how are we supposed to fly with you? The P-38 is a single seater...right?"
"Not ours," Coleman corrected her. "The Air Corps wanted to install a special radar in some of 'em so they had the boys back at Lockheed convert some Lightnings into two-seaters. That way one can guy can concentrate on flyin' the plane while the other guy works the radar. You ladies will have the radar seat all to yourselves."
"Oh," replied Janice, barely hiding her disappointment. "I see."
My poor Jan, thought Melinda as she watched her lover's shoulders sag almost imperceptibly.
Coleman clapped his hands together and then said, "So, ladies, shall we?"
Janice looped one strap of pack over her shoulder and, following Coleman's lead, the two women then began making for a nearby Quonset hut.
"Is that where are we staying?" Janice asked, referring to the arching, semi-circular shaped building.
"It's where you are staying," Coleman explained. "George and I will be sackin' out over at the maintenance hangar. I've got a buddy here that runs photo reconnaissance and he said you can have his quarters."
"That's very kind of him," said Mel, "but we would not want to cause any inconvenience. Really."
"Ahh don't worry about that," Coleman said, over his shoulder. "He's gone to Rome on a three day pass. Hell, old Carl is probably there already, swilling down wine and getting acquainted with the local talent. You guys will be long gone by the time the recon boys report for duty. The only thing is, you two ladies will have to share the same bunk."
Well I certainly hope so, thought Melinda.
I'm counting on it, thought Janice. Aloud she said, "We'll manage all right."
"Say, did you hear about Mr. Roosevelt dying?" he asked.
""Fraid so," Janice answered. "Stinks doesn't it?"
"Sure as hell does," Coleman said. "He was the best president we ever had. Oh, I almost forgot. Are you hungry?"
They both replied in the negative and after a short walk to the Quonset hut they found themselves standing before a door bearing a hand lettered sign that read "161st Photo Recon." Coleman cracked open the door and peeked into the dark interior. "Carl's quarters are at the other end of the building," he said. "I don't know where the hell the light is so be careful not to bump into anything."
"We'll be careful," Janice assured him. Having learned her lesson at Harrington, Janice asked. "Where's the nearest can?"
"Over there," said Coleman, pointing. "I'll be here at zero five thirty."
"We'll try to be ready," said Janice. "Thanks."
Coleman stepped out of the doorway to allow Janice and Melinda to pass on through and then quietly closed the door behind them. Now that they were out of the fresh air Melinda noticed an odd odor as they began to pick their way through the many tables. "Golly, Jan, what's that smell?" she said.
"Developer, stop bath...you know--darkroom stuff," Janice told her.
Sticking very close to her companion, the belle said, "If you ask me this place is creepy."
At the far end of the building Janice found the door and began groping for the knob. "Damn it, where is...Oh, here it is." She pushed open the door and the two of them cautiously stepped inside. It took a few moments to find the single bare bulb dangling from the ceiling but they did and it was Melinda who gently tugged on the little chain, switching it on. Her eyes unaccustomed to the bright light, Janice momentarily squinted before scanning the room. Not bad, she thought.
The "room" was really a ten foot by ten foot space partitioned off from the rest of the Quonset hut. A steel bunk was positioned up against the back wall, right under a small window. Taped side by side on the wall over the bed was a well worn pin-up poster of Betty Grable and a much newer one featuring the alluring Rita Hayworth. Standing in the corner, next to a footlocker, were a couple of battered lockers. Except for the duffel bag stashed in the opposite corner with the field jacket neatly folded on top of it that was all the room held.
"What do you think?" asked Janice.
"Well it ain't exactly the Waldorf-Astoria," said Mel, mildly. By now, though, she was used to these cramped little rooms with only the barest of comforts. From Borneo to Panama to Uruguay to Fairbanks, Alaska to Los Mochis, Mexico to Tehran to a half dozen other places with names no one had ever heard of, Mel had slept in dusty rooms with hard little beds. Growing up back home in Columbia, South Carolina her closet had been almost as big as this place. But none of it mattered to her as long as she was with her precious Janice. She was willing to tolerate just about anything then.
Janice took off her A-2 and took a tentative sniff under her armpit. "Hooo! I could use a shower."
"I don't even wanna think about that," sighed Mel, taking off her own jacket.
Janice sat down on the side of the bed and began unlacing her boots. Off they came but unlike back at Harrington she did not stop there. It was clear to her this would be the last night alone with Melinda for quite some time and she was not about to waste it on something so mundane as sleeping. Still sitting, she leaned back and unfastened her belt. She then stood up and, once unzipped, her trousers fell easily away from her slim waist. The shirt went next and all that was left was her panties, bra--and her US Navy issue socks. Of course none of this little scene had escaped Melinda. As she stood there watching Janice so casually undress she felt her passions stirring.
Still standing, Janice deftly balanced herself on first one foot, then the other in order to remove her socks. By now Melinda was eating her up with her eyes. She is so gorgeous! Janice stood only about five-foot three or so but there was nothing about her that suggested fragility. Her legs, naturally, were short but her thighs and especially her calves were quite muscular for one her size. Her butt could not be described as merely "tight" because it just as rock solid as her sturdy little legs.
How Melinda Pappas loved that butt! Even now she would sometimes catch herself staring longingly at it, especially on those occasions when Janice wore something tight. The rest of the package, the washboard abs, the firm, supple breasts, the beautiful shoulders, were spellbinding enough to the belle but Jan's ass was especially dear to her.
And she envied Janice because although she was taller, her body was not nearly as well toned as her smaller friend's.
Nor was she as well proportioned and while in her vanity she did her best to disguise it, her breasts were in fact surprisingly
small. Janice, however, could have cared less. For like Melinda she faulted her own body and envied that of her lover's. She
hated being so short and those graceful legs of Melinda's seemed to go on...and on...and.... And where Melinda saw small
breasts Janice saw exquisite orbs of flesh just the perfect size for caressing and suckling.
"What are you lookin' at?"
Melinda blinked and answered with a distracted "Huh?" It took another moment for Janice's words to burn away the fog of Melinda's reverie.
Janice smiled impishly. "I said, what are you looking at?"
"Well I reckon I'm lookin' at you, Janice," came the soft reply. As if you didn't know, she thought.
"Oh you are huh?" Janice stuck a thumb up under the elastic of her bra and gave Melinda an inviting smile. "So uh," she said, playfully snapping the elastic, "you wanna help me with this?" It had been three eon-like days since she had tasted her lover and by now she was dying for Melinda's caress.
Without a word Mel casually sauntered over to Janice. In a clear signal as to what she expected next, Janice haughtily took off Mel's glasses and dropped them down on her little pile of clothes. Moving in behind her, she unfastened the bra and pushed the straps up over Janice's shoulders. Janice finished removing the bra and no sooner were her breasts free before they were cupped by Melinda's hands reaching around from behind. Janice moaned softly, reveling in the warm touch of those strong hands. She tilted her head to one side, offering her lovely neck to Melinda's lips. Her partner did not disappoint. Now softly stroking each of Janice's hard nipples with her middle fingers, Melinda bent forward and very gently nipped the soft flesh of Janice's neck with her teeth.
"Janice," Mel whispered, huskily, "you are soooo beautiful."
"Shut up and do me," Janice impatiently murmured.
"Whatever you say, Janice." Still towering over her lover from behind, Melinda smiled faintly and, to the tune of Janice's soft moans, began to slowly, methodically work her lips and tongue over Janice's skin from the base of the ear to the tip of the shoulder.
Still wrapped in Melinda's arms, Janice now suddenly turned and faced her lover. Her breasts, already firm, were now swollen seemingly to the point of defying gravity. The two women wrapped each other in loving embrace--Janice with her hands up on Melinda's shoulder blades, Melinda's naturally fell to cup the cheeks of Janice's butt. Their lips met in a series of short kisses; light ones at first but incrementally more forceful with each successive meeting of the lips. Finally they ground their mouths together in very long, very passionate kiss. Already their eager tongues were hard at work.
After a couple more minutes Janice broke away and in her lustful haste to remove Melinda's shirt, tore off one of the buttons. For all Melinda cared Janice could have ripped the entire shirt off her. Off came her bra next and, still clad in her trousers, Melinda found herself being forced down on the scratchy blanket covering the bunk. In an instant Janice was upon her, her lips tugging hard at Mel's left nipple.
Melinda put the palm of her hand to the back of the smaller woman's head, pulling her still closer. "Jaaaaan?" she groaned.
Not bothering to remove her lips, Janice answered, "Mmmm?"
Her voice almost breathless, she said, "Fuck me, Jan."
Janice smiled so broadly she lost contact with her precious nipple. The dreaded "F" word was not a word her refined Southern lady was in the habit of saying. God! Janice thought. She is really hot. Nevertheless in a cool voice she told Mel, "Not yet."
Mel found it extremely exciting whenever Janice imposed her will on her like this. And by the same token her delicious whimper stimulated Janice even more and after trading back and forth between breasts for a couple of minutes, the archaeologist finally got around to removing the rest of Melinda's clothes. By now both women's panties were drenched. Removing her own panties now, Janice eased herself down between Mel's receptive long legs and began to slowly grind her crotch against Mel's. It was in essence their version of the sex fight without the competition.
Whispering harshly in Mel's ear, Janice asked "Is this how you want it, Puss?"
"Uhhh huuuhhh!" Melinda gasped. "Harder, Jan. Harder!"
In eager compliance to Mel's plea, Janice pressed her slim body down even harder. Melinda found this especially stimulating and it was not long before she erupted into orgasm. As the throbbing pulses of pleasure surged forth within her, Melinda gave out a little cry and again cupped Janice's butt with her hands, pulling her hips against her own as hard as she could.
Her undulating body glistening with perspiration now, Janice patiently waited until Melinda released her. She then extracted one short, rough, kiss from the groaning belle and rolled off her. Turning on her side to face Janice, Melinda stretched out her arm and cradled Janice's head in it. On her back now, Janice drew her knees up high and expectantly spread them wide apart. Taking her cue, Melinda went straight for the crotch with her free hand and began to gently stroke her lover's clit with her long middle finger.
Now it was Janice's turn to submit. Melinda leaned over and the two of them kissed once more--this time in a slow, leisurely manner.
"Janice?" she cooed. "Say you love me."
Her lover's only response was a faint grunt. Removing her finger from the swollen clit, Melinda then plunged it deep into Janice's vagina. "Say it!" she commanded.
Janice lifted her pelvis upward to meet the thrust and emitted a low guttural moan. "I...love.....youuuuu."
Melinda vigorously worked the finger back and forth for a minute or so and, upon pulling it out, lasciviously began to suck on it. "Ummmm, Janice," she purred, "you taste soooo good." She then inserted the same finger deep within her own vagina and after wetting it with her juices, held it up to Janice's face. As Janice lay there toying with her own clit she opened her mouth in greedy anticipation and when her lips closed around Melinda's finger she lovingly ran her tongue along its length.
"Do I taste good, Janice?" Mel asked, her voice very husky.
Her mouth still closed around the delicious finger, Janice could only nod slightly and whimper, "Uh hmmm."
With a haughty smile Melinda pulled out the finger from Janice's reluctant mouth and began to slowly kiss her way toward Janice's crotch. By now the once and future archaeologist was literally aching for Melinda's talented tongue. Fortunately for her lover did not make her wait. At the first touch of the belle's tongue on her clit Janice shuddered in wild ecstasy. Intoxicated by the aroma of Janice's juices, Melinda began to suck hard on the swollen clit.
Janice bucked hard at this and then wrapped her short legs around her beautiful, raven-haired lover. She uttered a soft cry and in a feeble voice, said, "I love you."
Her lips drenched in Jan's juices, Melinda stopped her blissful work only long enough to answer back, "I know...Puss."
And when at last Janice's body began to reel in the throes of her gigantic orgasm, she gave thanks to any and all deities for sending her this brilliant, captivating beauty with the tender heart--and the tongue of a goddess.
And so ended Round One. Melinda threw herself down on the bed beside her precious, precious Jan. They each turned to face the other and the taller woman gracefully swung her long leg up over Janice's hips. Pulling her close, they lay there locked in loving embrace, all the while looking forward in glorious anticipation of Round Two.
Both of them suspected this was only the beginning of a very long night indeed.
Janice awoke to the sound of a sharp snuffle by Melinda. Though not normally a snorer, Melinda, for whatever reason, sometimes seemed to have trouble breathing when sleeping in a bad bed. Melinda did it again and for a moment Janice wondered whether or not she should wake her. Naw, I'll let her sleep as long as she can, she decided. While she figured these little spells were nothing very serious she made a mental note to have Mel see a doctor regarding them. It struck Janice that Melinda probably did not even now she was doing this.
It had been a wonderful night. For the longest time each of the two lovers had reveled in the thrilling caress of both their own and the other's sentient body. And as they always did after these sessions, they had fallen asleep in each other's arms.
Now Janice wearily massaged her eyes with the fingers of one hand and then held her watch up the pale moonlight streaming through the window. Thankfully, she had remembered to set it to local time upon landing. Now it read ten minutes till five. "Damn," she muttered. Soon Coleman would be along and they would be on their way to Rimini. In that quiet, pre-dawn moment she found herself wishing she could just lie there forever with her beautiful Mel or, even better, just take her home. However it was much too late for that now. For better or for worse she and her partner had a job to do and, by God, they were going to do it.
But at what cost? she wondered. Janice felt like a kid poised at the top of a long slide. Once on it, there was no stopping to get off. The only option was to just ride it out till the end. When they reached Rimini they would be sitting at the top of their own slide with no turning back. She would crack open those sealed orders giving them their final destination along with last minute instructions and that would be it. She knew there was a distinct possibility the situation could arise where, per Donovan's grim directive, it would fall to her to kill this Cernak. But could she? Janice had given this no small amount of thought and even now she did not now. She just did not know.
Another check of the watch. Five-fifteen. It's time, she thought. Raising up, turned back the blanket and gently pushed on her friend's shoulder. "Mel? Mel, sweetheart, wake up. It's time to go."
"Okay," came the murmured reply. There would be no protest this morning for Melinda knew just as well as Janice that their real journey would start today. Janice dressed and, as Melinda did the same, checked the contents of her pack one more time. Inside were two cans of Spam, two PayDay bars, a Swiss army knife, a compass, two extra clips for the .45 automatic, the holstered .45 itself, the money Donovan had given them, now tightly bound into two rolls by thick rubber bands, both their ID's, a GI issue can opener, a bottle of aspirin, a box of Band-Aids, a roll of adhesive tape, a roll of gauze, Mel's copy of Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," and lastly, the envelope containing their orders.
As Mel donned her jacket Janice handed her one of the rolls of cash. "Put this in your pocket," she told the belle. "And be damn sure you don't lose it. That could be your only ticket outta here."
Mel nodded and did as she was told. Janice tucked her own roll into the inside pocket of her A-2 jacket and again checked her watch. Five twenty-eight. Janice Covington looked up to her companion. Smiling faintly, she asked "You ready?"
"As I'll ever be," replied Mel.
She turned to leave only to feel Mel catch her by the arm. "Ja-yun?"
"Thanks for...you know...comin' with me. I reckon I'd jes' be lost without you."
Janice looked at her like she had three heads. "What, are you kiddin' me? Did you actually think I would have let you done this alone?"
"Mel, if you asked me to go to hell with you, I would," said Janice, her voice quietly fierce.
Blushing, Mel softly replied, "Well I'm kinda countin' on the both of us gettin' invited to the other place."
Janice playfully jabbed her on the arm and said, "No doubt in my mind. You're good enough for the both of us."
They made their way outside and, sure enough, there was Coleman jogging toward them. "You two all set?" he asked, upon reaching them. Janice nodded that they were and the three of them set off toward the two planes warming up about two hundred yards away. As they neared the aircraft Janice said a silent prayer that she would not puke all over the cockpit.
After introducing his fellow pilot to the two women, Coleman asked "So, who goes with who? Or is it whom? Hell, I never can remember that."
"Mel goes with you," Janice said to him. Her only reasoning for this decision was that his plane looked to be newer.
Five minutes later both women were strapped into the radar seat of the P-38's and a very short time later the twin-boomed fighters were streaking down the runway toward the gray light of dawn. It was a credit to its designers that the Lockheed P-38 was the only American fighter plane in production at the start of the war that was still being produced at the end. To the Germans it was "Der Gabelschwanz Teufel"--"The Forked-Tail Devil." To the Americans it was known as the "Lightning." In the Pacific Theater it would not only decimate the vaunted Japanese Zeroes but in fact be responsible for the destruction of more of their aircraft than any other plane. While the pilots of the American P-51 "Mustang" and the German Focke-Wolfe 190 probably had a more valid claim, for the thousands of loyal men who flew her in the Second World War, the "Lightning" was the plane they stubbornly insisted to be the best of them all.
It seemed to Janice that she did not have time to be sick for exactly twenty-six minutes after take-off they were touching
down at Rimimi.
Chapter 7: Of Sergeants and Showers
Once again Janice and Melinda had no trouble making connections for First Sergeant Brownlow Anthony, late of the 10th Mountain Division, was dutifully waiting for them when they landed. No sooner were the two women out of the Lightnings before Coleman, after a little wave, spun his plane around and began to take off once more with Masters close behind.
"So uh, Anthony," Janice asked as she watched the P-38's lift up off the runway, "how did you happen to get mixed up in all this?"
"I guess it's because I speak Russian," the man replied.
"Russian?" Janice felt an sense on uneasiness descend upon her.
"Yep. Our family originally came from a village near Smolensk. Mom was already pregnant with me when he took the rest of the family and bugged out after the Bolsheviks took over. Our name in the old country was Antonov but when pop came over to the States he figured we oughtta have a good ol' American name so he chose Anthony."
Janice made a face hinting of bewilderment and said, "I don't get it. Our boy is Czech. And besides, he speaks English." Of course she remembered Donovan's dark comment about his real purpose for coming along but she was finding herself still somewhat puzzled over this latest revelation.
"What boy?" Anthony asked, quizzically.
"You mean you don't know what we're going to do?" asked Janice. However deep inside she was wondering if the man did not know more he appeared to. The fact that he knew Russian bothered her to no end. Had Donovan not told her something?
"Naw, nothin," Anthony answered. "All they told me when I volunteered was that it might have something to do with goin' behind emeny lines." And in truth that was all there was to it. There was no ulterior purpose for his being there.
"If you knew that much then why the hell did you volunteer?" asked Janice.
Anthony shot her a very wry grin and said, "Lady, if you'd spent all last winter up in those mountains freezing your ass off and dodging German mortar rounds all day long you wouldn't be askin' that question. So when they came around a couple of weeks ago lookin' for guys who could speak Russian I didn't exactly ask 'em for any details, if ya know what I mean."
Janice had to admit she saw the logic in his reasoning. Sticking out her hand, she said, "Welcome aboard, Anthony."
"Ahh, just so I know," asked Anthony a little tentatively as he took the hand, "who is gonna be in charge of this operation?"
"I am," replied Janice, eyeing him intently now. She decided to put to rest right now all doubt about what she considered to be this most basic of tenets. "You have any problems with that?"
"Hey," said Anthony, lifting his hand in a defensive posture, "it's no skin off my ass. I just want to be sure where everybody stands, that's all."
"All right then," said Janice. "Now you know. So tell me, do you have any idea as to whom we are supposed to see about arranging transportation?"
Anthony shrugged and replied, "Damned if I know. Say, are we really goin' to Czechoslovakia?"
"Not quite that far," said Janice." Son of a bitch, she raged inwardly. Now what? Then it came to her. Of course, her orders!
"All right," she snapped, "let's clear this mess up once and for all." Thrusting her pack into Melinda's hands, she said, "Here, hold this."
While the startled belle clutched the pack to her tummy Janice opened it and extracted the nine by twelve inch brown envelope with the metal clasp on the back. Opening it, she found what looked to be a folded up silk handkerchief and a single sheet of typing paper folded in three places.
"What's that, Jan?" Mel asked, nodding to the handkerchief.
"It's one of those maps they give to the Air Corps boys," said Janice. "They print 'em on silk to make them easier to handle in case the pilot is shot down."
Janice carefully folded the map and tucked it into her pocket. She then turned her attention to the sheet of paper. Before opening it she took a deep breath and glanced up at Melinda. Pulling up one corner of her mouth in a little half-smile, she said, "Well, here's our ticket."
"Go on, Jan," Mel urged, softly. "Open it up."
"Right." With Anthony peering over her shoulder, Janice unfolded the sheet and began to read aloud:
Once your linkup is complete you will take overall command and proceed as quickly as good judgment will
allow to the location specified on the map that has been issued to you. While you are hereby advised that in-
telligence reports indicate the subject is kept under 24 hour guard by the Germans and that the use of extreme
caution is recommended, the rapidly changing lines of battle in this sector make it paramount that you establish
contact with the subject ASAP. If Nazi forces pull back before you are able to do this the subject might possi-
bly be executed or, worse, be afforded an opportunity to simply disappear.
Therefore, you will make contact with the subject and, once positive ID is established, escort them to the
"Damn," Anthony muttered.
With a wry little smile Janice asked him "Still wanna come, Sergeant?"
"Are you kidding? Sure!" He rubbed his nose and then asked, "Just one thing. Am I supposed to wear my uniform?"
"I'll leave that up to you," said Janice, looking hard at him. "But I'll tell you right now if you get caught out of uniform, soldier or not, the Germans will shoot your ass as a spy right along with the rest of us."
"Understood," said Anthony, quietly. God, he thought, this dame is tough!
"Okay then," said Janice, clapping her hands together. "Mel and I are going to find this Colonel Templeton."
"What do you want me to do?" the sergeant asked.
Janice answered this with a question of her own. "Have you got a weapon?"
"I have my M-1," said Anthony.
"Bring it," said Janice, shaking her head. "But get yourself something more easily hidden to go with it. We'll meet you back here in an hour."
"Gotcha," said Anthony, nodding.
Suddenly the smaller woman seized him forcefully by the arm and walked him a few feet away from the surprised Melinda. "There's one more thing, Anthony," she said, her voice barely audible. "Did anybody tell you that it may come down to where we have to kill somebody? Do you think you can do that?"
"They told me," replied Anthony, his eyelids narrowing. "Don't worry, Covington. I've killed before."
"Face to face?" asked Janice. "Have you ever killed somebody who was so close to you that you could smell them?"
Janice had. In the first week of July, 1943, just prior to the invasion of Sicily, a seemingly nondescript fellow named Edward Tiller suffered a massive heart attack and was dead even before he hit the floor of the train station in Hartford, Connecticut. By all accounts he was an ordinary individual whose obituary in the next day's Hartford Courant ran only a few lines long and, except of course for his family and friends, nothing about his death--or his life--seemed important enough to merit the presence on the front porch of the Tiller home the next morning of a detective from the Hartford police department and two important looking strangers. One was an Army bird colonel, tall and grim-visaged, the other a very handsome looking blonde woman with intense green eyes dressed in a stylish pant suit.
Janice Covington, in her only "job" of the war in which Melinda was not a participant, had been rushed to Hartford along with the aforementioned colonel, an Army G-2 specialist named Al Brand, to call upon the unfortunate Mrs. Tillman. Regrettably, it was not the government's concern for Mr. Tillman or his family that caused these two to board a special overnight military flight to Hartford but rather what he had been carrying with him at the time of his premature death. For locked up in his battered briefcase were the plans for one of America's most closely guarded secrets--the Norden bombsight. How he had come to possess these documents was something no one had bothered to disclose to Janice but she guessed Mr. Tillman's responsibilities were something more than what his duties as a mid-level executive at Pratt and Whitney entailed.
When told by Janice she would have to sit this one out Melinda had been extremely disappointed initially. As always she wanted to be where her Jan was. But like the trooper she was she soon bucked up and with a crushing hug and a soft kiss wished her life's partner a speedy return. For her part Janice hated making her stay behind and had especially regretted not telling her the truth about what she was to do but it had been made clear to her in no uncertain terms that she was not to discuss her assignment with anybody...anybody.
In reality it was Colonel Brand's task to take legal possession of the plans (They were, after all, government property.) and them safely to Washington. Janice's sole purpose in this affair was to make absolutely certain that he did just that. Such was the value placed on these few scraps of paper..
Within minutes of appearing at the grieving Mrs. Tillman's door credentials and court order in hand, Colonel Brand and Janice Covington had gained possession of the briefcase and, after going over their list to make sure none of the plans were missing, had hurriedly expressed their sympathies and departed. His part in what he saw as a distasteful affair over, the detective then went his own way. With his own case now securely handcuffed to Brand's wrist it fell to Janice to drive the staff car the fifty miles or so back to the huge New London submarine base where they had flown in. So far everything was going by the numbers and after the all night trip to Hartford Janice was looking forward to spending this next night in the arms of her lover.
But about twenty miles out of Hartford Janice became aware of a persistent presence behind them and, after informing Brand of her suspicions, made a couple of unscheduled detours from their route. By now there was no longer any doubt of it. They were being tailed and Janice did not need Sam Spade to tell her what they were after. Unfortunately Brand had neglected to bring a weapon and Janice, assuming there would be no trouble, had done the same. Now she silently cursed her negligence.
She pulled back out on the main road and as she and Brand were going over their limited options a panel truck roared out from behind a billboard and rammed their car in the front end. Both she and Brand were shaken up but otherwise unhurt. The next thing Janice knew someone was pressing the barrel of a sawed off shotgun under her chin and yelling at her to cut the engine off and get out of the car.
Forty-five minutes later she and Brand were being pushed through the office door of a gas station which had gone out of business. No sooner were the two of them forced into the garage area when one of their captors pulled out a snub nosed .38 and shot Brand in the back of the head, splattering blood all over Janice's jacket. Immediately Brand's executioner was subjected to a torrent of verbal abuse from his two cohorts--not because of what he had done but because he had made too much noise doing it. It was suggested that the "dame" be taken care of in a much more "quiet" manner.
While his mates fell to work freeing the briefcase from Brand's wrist it fell to the biggest one to pull Janice by the hair of her head into an empty store room in the back. Once there the man punched her in the face and, clamping his huge hands around her neck, began to strangle her. In vain the struggling Janice twice tried to knee him in the groin but the smirking behemoth would have none of it. Already beginning to black out, Janice gave it one last attempt with everything she had left within her strong little body. Again she missed but the force of her effort caused her plant foot to slip out from under her and she lost her balance. Her surprised assailant, already leaning forward, was pulled headlong down on top of her and when they crashed to the floor Janice found herself free of his deadly grip.
Being much more nimble, she scrambled to her feet and kicked him once in the ribs as hard as she could--the toe of her shoe creating a very satisfying thump. Without thinking she wiped the blood from her split lip and tried to kick him again. This time, however, the man shot out a huge arm and sent her sprawling face down on the floor. Cursing violently, the enraged man got to his feet. He reached down and again took the unexpectedly troublesome woman by the hair. Calling her a "bitch," he fiercely yanked her to her feet to exact his revenge.....
What he got instead was six inches of rusty steel rammed into his heart. While lying on the floor Janice's groping hand, unseen by her momentarily dazed attacker, had latched on to a long discarded Phillips head screwdriver. This usually benign instrument was what she had planted in her horrified foe's chest. Realizing there was no time to lose, before he had even slumped to the floor her hands were inside his jacket, desperately searching for what she was certain had to be there.
And so it was.
Almost simultaneously as her probing fingers bumped into the cold steel of the hoped for pistol one of her victim's partners, having heard the commotion caused by their brawl, stuck his head through the door. He never knew what hit him because Janice promptly shot him right through the left eye. Pausing only to peek out from the store room door, she saw the last man, briefcase now in hand, tearing for the garage exit. Janice quickly brought both hands up to the firing position and got off one round before the man disappeared through the door. Thinking she had missed, she rushed after him but upon gaining the door she found her quarry lying on the floor writhing in agony in a pool of his own blood. Her bullet had struck in the left lung and within minutes he too was dead. It had been one of the most harrowing experience of her life. Even now the memories of it were enough to make her hands shake....but she had saved the blueprints from falling into hostile hands.
The head of Army Intelligence gave her a medal for it, upon a recommendation by Donovan President Roosevelt personally
wrote her a thank you letter for it, and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau had went out his way to shake her hand for it.
And somehow she had managed to keep it all from her lover. Melinda Pappas never knew about any of it because for the rest of
her life Janice Covington breathed not one word of it to her. To her this terrible experience was something that her gentle friend
did not need to know about. And she never did. The medal and the letter from Roosevelt were carefully tucked away in some of
her old archaeological notes and never saw the light of day again.
"I killed a Kraut with a trenching tool once," replied Anthony. "Does that count?"
Janice's lips formed into something resembling a tight, mirthless little smile and she said, "I'd say it does."
And with that she and Melinda left him standing there and went off to find Colonel Templeton. This was not a difficult task as Colonel Templeton was Chief of Flight Operations at the base so of course everyone knew him. Their meeting with him lasted only a few minutes as Templeton had already been informed as to what was expected from his end and therefore had already drawn up plans for their insertion into Austria. A Mitchell B-25, the medium bomber made famous by Colonel Jimmy Doolittle in the early raid on Tokyo, had been specially pulled from the 340th Bombardment Group for their purposes and a suitable spot to put it down had been found. Their take off time had been computed down to the last minute and, barring any unforeseen difficulty, they were to land at the prearranged landing point once the all clear signal was received from the two agents who had located the landing zone. Although he was a soldier and would do as ordered, Templeton did not much care for what he considered to be "cloak and dagger stuff" and he told the two women as much. To him his pilots' job was to wear the uniform and kill the enemy.
Naturally Janice cared little for his opinion and in what Melinda knew was for her an uncharacteristically subdued manner told him as much but their meeting otherwise went amicably enough. Once the details had been hammered out Janice asked him where they could get a shower and was told by Templeton that they could use nurses' quarters which were not more than a stone's throw away. Their business done, the two women took their leave and headed straight to the nurses' hut for the long overdue shower. Once there they met up with a very nice woman by the name of Mary Owens who happened to just be getting off duty. Upon learning what they had come for she provided them with clean towels and a brand new of Ivory soap. While they both would have of course preferred some fresh clean clothes to put back on it was not all that terribly important. Even the fastidious Melinda was by now able to accept the fact that once in the field one was apt to be forced to "rough" it as Janice called it.
The shower room was in fact simply one of those portable showers inside a roughly boxed in little corner of the building with a blanket for a door. Since there was only one shower head Janice told the belle to go on in and at least try to save some hot water for her. So while Melinda's soft skin reveled in the wonderfully refreshing sensation of lather and warm water penetrating into its every pore, Janice parked herself on one of the nearby nurses' bunks and opened up her pack. She took out the big envelope again and began to review Donovan's orders once more.
A few minutes later another nurse entered the room and, thinking Janice to be a new addition to their group, went over to say hello. Hearing her approach, Janice glanced up at her, affording the young nurse an opportunity to get a good look at the stranger's face.
"Hi, I'm Anne. Anne Black," the nurse said as she extended her hand. "You can call me Annie, everybody else does. I must say I sure am glad to see you."
"Hello...Annie," replied Janice, eyeing her curiously. "And why would that be?"
Only then did the realization hit Annie that this woman was definitely not a replacement nurse. For one thing she was quite a bit older than the other nurses--well, thought Annie, except maybe for Mary, the head nurse. She knew Mary to be about thirty years of age which around there practically classified her as a grandmother type. Like her, most of them were fresh out of accelerated courses at nursing school and were in the nineteen, twenty, twenty-one range. With the American casualty rate in Europe growing ever higher the military was finding it necessary to churn out nurses at a proportionally higher rate as well.
Soon enough she had learned that it was one thing to be trained as a proper nurse, it was quite another to face the grim reality of dealing with combat casualties. In her six months in Italy Annie had by now seen practically every imaginable horror that burning hot lead, fire, and jagged steel ripping through the air could inflict on the pitifully fragile human body. She had seen men with bodies burned so horribly that she wondered how they had managed to survive the trip from the battlefield to the field hospital. Usually they soon died anyway. She had seen men with their arms, legs, hands, feet in any and all combinations shot away. She had seen men with their noses or their genitals ripped away or their eyes destroyed by shrapnel. More times than she could remember she had held the hand and tried to soothe someone who, with nothing more to be done for them, had died an agonizing death while still lying on the stretcher they had been borne in on.
For a Colorado farm girl who had never seen anything more gory than her father cleaning fish back home it had been
a horrifying awakening as to what war was really all about. Not surprisingly, this was something the recruiter had neglected to
mention. To be sure she had spoken glowingly about the ideals of defending freedom and the American way of life from those
butchering Germans and those "Godless" Japs. But it was not until that first day of duty in Italy that she had realized just what
that really entailed. Back in nursing school her instructors had tried to prepare them for what she and her classmates would soon be
facing but nothing could prepare a twenty year old for the first time she saw a boy no older than she was carried in with his lower jaw
shot away. In spite of this she was gratified and yes, proud even, to discover that she could indeed "take it." Like everybody else
she had a job to do and the doctors and--as she saw it, more importantly--those boys needed her and, by God, she was not
about to let them down.
Realizing her mistake, Annie stammered out, "Umm, you're not...a nurse, are ya?"
"Ahh no," the stranger answered with a wry grin.
The one concession Annie from Colorado had made to the crushing stress of her job was that she had taken up smoking. Now, feeling somewhat awkward and unsure as to what to do next, she found herself wanting a cigarette. Smoking was permitted in their quarters so without thinking she dug her hand into her shirt pocket. "Do you want one?" she asked, offering the half-empty pack of Lucky's to Janice.
To her surprise Janice heard herself saying, "Yeah." Because Mel so strongly disapproved Janice had by and large given up the habit but as ex-smokers are sometimes wont to do, she still had her moments of weakness. And right now she felt she could really use a cigarette. She jammed the envelope and its contents back in her pack and placed it on the floor by her feet. After the two women lit up Janice nodded to a spot on the bed beside her. "Have a seat," she said.
"Thanks," said Annie. She plopped herself down beside the older woman and watched her take a long drag on her Lucky. Despite the woman's somewhat unkempt appearance Annie could not help but notice she was quite beautiful and with a little effort on her part would be even more so. Studying the face, Annie saw there was something more there than just physical beauty. It hinted of a worldliness that Annie had not seen before. The young nurse was normally very perceptive and behind those pleasing features she sensed a hardness, a dogged--grim even--sense of determination.
"So, how long have you been here?"
Annie blinked and said, "Huh?" It took a moment for Janice's words to register on her consciousness. "Oh uhh, about six months." My God! thought Annie. Those eyes! To her they seemed like two little orbs of burning jade and Annie inexplicably found herself not only drawn to them, but also wondering about that passion which was so clearly evident there. Already Annie had decided she had never met anyone like her and she was quickly becoming enraptured by this mysterious, unsettling, beautiful woman. She seemed so...dangerous. And to her utter surprise she found that uncertainty in her exciting--no, more than that she found it...captivating.
She took a nervous puff and then asked "What...what brings you to Italy?"
The only smile on Janice's face was in her eyes when she replied, "Business."
"Oh." By now the young nurse was dying to know more about this woman but she somehow had the feeling that the woman's laconic reply was all that was going to be said on the subject. Still, she worked up enough courage to ask "Are you a reporter?"
"Hardly," came the terse reply.
"I take it you work for the government then," Annie observed. This was not a very great exercise in deduction on her part. After all, no unauthorized civilian would be allowed anywhere near the base.
"You might say that," said Janice, her voice hinting of amusement now. Ordinarily she might have been becoming peeved by all the questioning but she knew the girl meant no harm. And besides, Janice was beginning to like her a little.
It was then Annie heard a voice emanating from the shower softly begin to sing "Always." It was not unusual for someone to be in the shower any time of the day or night because the nurses all worked such crazy hours and, not knowing when they might get another chance, they were always popping in for a quick one. But on this occasion Annie did not recognize the voice.
"Hmm, I wonder who that is?" she remarked.
"That's my friend," the woman said, her voice suddenly warm.
"Oh. Umm, I see."
Janice could not be sure but she thought she detected the slightest hint of disappointment in the young woman's voice. "Have you...and your friend been assigned here?"
"No," Janice told her. "We'll be gone by tomorrow morning."
"Can I ask where?"
"Egypt," lied Janice. She might be a nice kid but ya never know, thought Janice.
"Gee, I'd love to go there--after the war I mean," said Annie, wistfully. "When I was in high school I thought I wanted to be an archaeologist." She smiled sheepishly and added, "Stupid huh?"
"Of course not," said Janice. "So why did you become a nurse then?"
"My two brothers joined the Marine Corps the day after Pearl Harbor. I was still in high school then but when I graduated in '43 I knew I just had to do my part somehow. I knew the Army was needing nurses so that's what I went for."
"Do you hear from your brothers much?" asked Janice.
Annie looked down at her feet and murmured, "Well they're both dead now."
"Oh...I'm sorry," said Janice. She thought back to the dreadful time Mel had gone through after Robert had been killed and could only wonder at what sort of ordeal this poor young woman--girl really--had gone through.
"It's okay," the nurse said, quietly. "I'm mostly over it by now. Carl, the oldest, he was killed at Eniwetok. Johnny died on Iwo Jima." She smiled proudly and added, "They gave him the Silver Star."
The military sure is big on giving out medals to dead guys, Janice thought, ruefully. She knew there wasn't a mother alive who wouldn't trade all the medals in the world for one more chance to hold a son lost to the stupidity that was war.
In an obvious attempt to change subject, Annie said in a bright voice, " I used to read everything I could lay my hands on about the ancient Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians--all of them. I think it would be exciting to work on a dig--to study how people used to live."
Janice took another long puff and exhaled the smoke through her nose. "Actually it's not as exciting as you'd think. In fact a lot of it is downright boring as hell. And that's not even taking into account all the work that's involved."
"Have you been on one?" Annie asked, her eyes growing wide with excitement.
Janice smiled faintly and replied, "One or two."
"Mister Anderson--he was my high school science teacher--he said women had no business in fields like archaeology," said Annie. "He said nobody would take them seriously."
Janice snorted indignantly but for the first time Annie saw her hard countenance soften--if only a little. "Kid," the woman said, softly, "your Mister Anderson doesn't know bullshit from a bazooka. If you work hard enough, if you want it badly enough, you can be any God damn thing you wanna be." Janice laid a firm hand on the nurse's forearm and said, "Don't ever let any son of a bitch tell you what you can or cannot be. Sure, getting what we want is not always easy but one of the few good things that will have come out of this war is that we've proved we can do damn near any job as good or better than a man can."
"You think so?" asked Annie, hopefully.
"Kid, I know so," replied Janice with a wink.
"Okay, Ja-yun, it's all...oh, hello."
Annie looked up at the statuesque figure emerging from the shower. To the nurse the woman's legs seemed to go on forever. Another beauty! God, thought Annie, admiringly, look at those cheekbones. She could be a model.
Seeing they had company, Melinda pulled the towel off her head letting her long black hair fall down on her shoulders. Fortunately for Janice Mel was not wearing her glasses so she was not able to see clearly enough to catch Janice drop her cigarette to the floor and discreetly crush it beneath her foot.
"Mel," said Janice, standing up, "this is Annie Black. Annie, this is Mel, ahh, Melinda Pappas, my best friend."
While reaching into her shirt pocket for glasses Melinda squinted at the blurry forms. "Pleased to meet you, I'm sure," she said, once the glasses were in place.
Immediately Annie was struck by how gentle and sincere the voice was.
"Well?" Janice asked expectantly.
"Didja save me some hot water?"
In a somewhat sheepish way Melinda beamed that dazzling smile and replied, "I reckon I might have left you a pint or two."
"Figures," groaned Janice, rolling her eyes.
As she observed the interaction between them, Annie could not help but notice the difference now in the one called Jan. To be sure she still projected an aura of toughness but the tall one seemed capable of taking that sharp edge off it. Even without Janice stating it as fact Anne would have readily known these two were very close and it did not seem to matter at all that they were apparently nothing alike.
Janice glanced at her watch and said, "I'd better get a move on. Our sidekick is liable to think we've deserted him." Reaching into the inside pocket of her jacket, she retrieved the little notebook she always kept there and quickly wrote something down in it. Tearing the page out, she gave it to Annie and said, "If you're serious about studying to be an archaeologist I recommend you go here when the war's over. He's one of the best professors in America today. If he tells you his class is full just give him this.
Somewhat taken aback by her decisiveness, Annie took the torn out page and read:
Jeep, I think the kid has what it takes.
Janice then patted the startled nurse on the shoulder and said, "It was nice meeting you, Annie." With that she headed off toward the shower but not before she gave Mel an admonishing look that the belle understood to mean, "Don't talk too much."
"She never did tell me her whole name," remarked Annie, after Janice had gone. "Is she really an archaeologist?"
"It's Janice Covington and I think she's the best darn one around," replied Mel. "But then again, I am a little biased."
As Melinda moved to Janice's former spot on the bed to wait her clumsiness rose up yet again and she kicked Janice's pack over causing some of the contents to spill out onto the floor. Among these was Janice's holstered .45. "Oops," Mel said in a small voice. Quickly she raked the spilled items back into the pack leaving the wide-eyed Annie to wonder just when the gun had joined the brush and the trowel as one of an archaeologist's tools of the trade.
"Covington, your bus stop is just up ahead," a voice crackled over the intercom. "Get ready."
In the darkened fuselage of the B-25 Janice switched on her flashlight and checked her watch. Right on time. She then arose and carefully worked her way forward in the unfamiliar plane. As she did she breathed a small sigh of thanks for not having gotten sick this time around. Reaching the cockpit, she wedged her lithe body sideways between the pilot and co-pilot's seats.
"Blake," she asked the pilot, "you're sure this is the place?"
"Well our navigator says it is and we found all the right landmarks," Blake replied, over the loud drone of the engines.
Janice raised herself up and peered past the pilot's head out into the late evening light. The sun had by now slipped well below the horizon leaving only a faint orange glow in the western sky. At least the timing is right, she thought, gratefully. During the day Templeton personally had meticulously worked out the proper time of departure from Rimini that would afford them just enough light for them to land yet still make it virtually impossible to be detected by anything other than radar. Of course such an advantageous window of opportunity was quite small but this had been the very reason the ever resourceful Donovan had dropped this baby into Templeton's lap in the first place. He knew the precision with which the veteran Twelfth Air Force Operations Chief did his job and he figured if anybody could get his "boys" safely on the ground, he could. Besides, the Mitchell B-25 was a tough little plane.
"There it is, Phil," cried the co-pilot, pointing to a long stretch of dark, grassy meadow up in the distance. "That's the place."
"Damn sure looks like it," his pilot agreed. "Okay, Buzzy, get your light ready."
Second Lieutenant Del "Buzzy" Reese reached down and brought up the signal lamp. As he did Blake began to bank the medium bomber in a long, slow turn to the right. A minute or two later he nodded to his co-pilot and said, "Okay, Buzzy, hit 'em with the light."
Buzzy immediately held the lamp to the window and began to operate the lamp's shutter lever. While he once, twice, three times flashed the challenge signal Janice and Blake strained to catch a glimpse of anything that might be perceived as a recognition signal from down below.
"Anything?" Blake tersely asked.
"Nothin,'" came Reese's just as laconic reply.
"Do it again," Blake ordered.
Again Reese sent a set of three signals and again there was no reply. "Something's wrong," said Buzzy, echoing Janice's thoughts.
"Are you sure this is the right place?" Janice asked again.
Blake flipped on the intercom and repeated Janice's question to the navigator. "Arnie, are you positive this is the right place?"
"No doubt about it, sir," Arnie Evans' muffled voice answered. "I'd bet my flight pay on it."
After another unanswered set of signals Reese lowered his lamp and turned to face Janice and Blake. "They're not answering," he said. "What do we do?"
Being the sedulous planner that she was, Janice had already taken this disturbing scenario into account. Back at Rimini it had all seemed so cut and dried but now that they were actually here and it was time to put up or shut up Janice felt the weight of the situation pressing down hard upon her. What to do? Do we risk going in blind? Do we turn back and try again tomorrow night? Remember what Donovan said. "Each moment you hesitate is potential opportunity lost." But what about Mel? Bless her, she will follow me no matter what but do I risk it? Oh, God, do I risk it? Janice knew she would never be able to live with herself if something were to happen to her sweet Southerner--especially if it were due to some error on her part. What do I do? Damn it, what do I do? So there she knelt in those few milliseconds, her mind desperately weighing her responsibility to Donovan against her responsibility to Melinda.
As might be expected this was no contest. Screw Donovan and his rocket whiz, she thought, resolutely. A million of those bastards put together aren't worthy enough to wipe Mel's ass.
Now her silent deliberations were interrupted by Blake's urgent tones. "Covington, we've got to scrub this. For all we know there could be a whole company of Krauts down there just lyin' in the weeds for us."
This clinched it for her. It was then she heard a voice say, "Okay. Get us out of here." Strangely, it did not sound like her voice and yet she knew it had to have been her. Not knowing whether to be relieved or disappointed, she made her way back to her companions. She could see the dark silhouette of Anthony hunkered over in his seat, his M-1clutched close to his chest. Sitting directly across from him was the silent form of her precious Melinda. I can't risk it, she thought again. I just can't!
But however she might try to rationalize her assent to abort the mission the same distasteful feeling kept welling up within her. We've failed! Upon reaching Melinda and the sergeant she positioned herself between them and knelt down on the floor of the plane.
"What's up?" asked Anthony.
"It's off," Janice replied, tersely.
"What?" cried Mel.
"We didn't get the recognition signal, Mel," Janice explained. "And without those guys we don't stand much of a chance of getting Cernak out."
From deep within Melinda's soul a now familiar voice rang out a passionate, resounding, NO! It took her own voice to vocalize the wishes of her ancient kinsman. "No!" she cried, echoing Xena. Before Janice could react Melinda sprang to her feet and began making for the cockpit.
She had gone exactly three steps when Janice caught her by the arm. "Mel, wait."
"NO!" Mel vehemently repeated. "We have to go on!" She attempted to pull free of Janice's grip but her friend only clamped down harder. "Jan, let...go..." Mel warned, her voice growing more ominous.
"Damn it, listen to me," Janice urged. She had long since been aware of Mel's unusual strength but even she was not prepared for what happened next.
Her voice now full and throaty, Mel hissed, "E--nough!" With that she ripped free from Janice's desperate grip as if the woman was no more than a child and began to stamp her way toward the cockpit. "You must not lose focus," the voice told her. "Do not be afraid. I am with you. We will make amends with the little one later but for now you must hold firm. Much depends on you."
She was almost to her goal when, from behind, Janice literally tackled her. The two women went down to the floor of the plane in a loud thump!
"What the hell's going on back there?" Blake demanded to know.
Mel emitted a low, guttural growl and easily forced herself on top of Janice. "I said..."
"Jesus Christ, Mel," gasped Janice, softly. "Snap out of it."
In the darkness Janice heard a soft, "Ohhh my." Melinda's hands released her vise-like grip on Janice's wrists and she gently rolled off her. Of course Janice knew well enough had happened. She had been witness to this wondrous awakening of Mel's ancient protector on several previous occasions but this had been the first time this awesome power had been directed at her and to be sure it had unnerved her a little. "Golly, Ja-yun," said Mel, her voice almost timid now, "did I hurt you?"
"Only my pride," Janice good naturedly replied.
"Jan, I am sooo sorry."
"Sweetheart, you have nothing to be sorry for," said Janice, her voice very tender now. "Ever!" She leaned forward and kissed her belle on the forehead. "You wanna go back? All right then, we'll go back."
Mel put a hand to Janice's cheek and in a loud whisper said, "Janice, I love you so much. Thank you."
Back in control now, Janice leaned closer still and murmured in her partner's ear, "Mel Pappas, I'd die for you. Don't you know that?" Leaning back, she barked out, "Blake! Turn this bucket of bolts around. We've decided to go in after all."
"Are you nuts?" Blake asked, incredulously.
"You heard me. Now get us on the ground before you lose what little light you have left," said Janice.
"I'm not takin' my plane down there," rasped Blake.
"Blake, our mission supersedes you and your God damn plane!" shouted Janice. "Do it!"
Blake looked to Reese but his only response was to shrug his shoulders in acquiescent resignation. "All right," Blake said, gritting his teeth. "It's your ass. But just remember this, Covington. I'll be back here in exactly twenty-four hours and if I don't get that recognition signal from you then I ain't 'a comin' down. Is that clear?"
"Crystal," replied Janice.
"Good. Now get your stubborn ass back there and get ready to move when I set her down 'cause I ain't exactly going to put this baby in "Park" if you know what I mean."
"Right," said Janice, grinning broadly.
Women! thought Blake in exasperation as he began to make his turn.
Minutes later the B-25 was down and rolling along over the bumpy ground. As the plane slowed to a crawl Evans jerked a thumb toward the fuselage door and yelled, "Out!"
Anthony shouldered open the door and leaped out into the darkness. With a loud, "Let's go!" Janice forcefully took Melinda by the arm and together they jumped out after Anthony. No sooner were they on the ground before Evans slammed the door shut and Blake began turning the B-25 around. The three dark figures scrambled to get out of the way of the big propellers and, once clear, Janice pointed to a line of trees looming up in the distance about a hundred yards away.
"Over there!" she said, straining to make herself heard above the roar of the B-25's engines.
Anthony pulled the bill of his knit GI cap down low and, bringing his M-1 to his chest, took off across the field at a steady trot. For the first time Janice completely mounted her pack on her back and off she and Melinda went after the already vanished Anthony. By the time they made the trees the B-25 was already in the air and before long the sound of its twin engines was but a very faint hum in the distance. Soon even this faded away leaving the only sound to be heard that of the soft breeze as it whispered through the still largely barren trees.
For several minutes they lay there at the edge of the trees, intently watching and listening for any indication that their landing had attracted attention. There was none. "Looks like we're in the clear," declared Janice.
Hearing this, Anthony rolled over and sat up. "So, now what?" he asked.
Good question, thought Janice. Her mind turned to Mel, now sitting so close Janice could feel her breathing. Again she found herself wishing they were both back home in Annapolis, safely entwined in each other's arms in that big canopy bed Melinda loved so much. Sitting there in the blackness, even with her beloved Mel so near, she somehow felt very lonely.
At last she said, "Let's try to find a road running east. If we can do that sooner or later we ought to come across a sign post and then maybe we can determine if we're where we are supposed to be."
"I gotta tell ya, Covington," Anthony said in a loud whisper. "Hanging around roads in this neck of the woods is liable to be none too healthy. Them Krauts have a nasty habit of patrolling anything bigger than a rabbit path."
"We'll keep back a few yards," Janice assured him. "That way if anybody does happen along we can take cover with no problem."
"I gotcha" the sergeant answered, satisfied. He cast his eyes upward to the night sky. Fortunately the cloud cover was minimal allowing him to easily find Polaris. Stretching his arm out as a kind of sight, he whispered, "East is that way."
Janice unshouldered her pack and opened it up. Taking out her pistol, she handed it to Mel. "Hold this," she said. She then stood up and unfastened her belt. Taking the weapon back from the all too willing Melinda, she ran the belt through the holster's loop. In short order she had the belt back in her pants. "Let's get moving," she said.
As she picked up her pack she heard Anthony's low voice, "Covington? How 'bout I carry that for you?"
"Hmph," snorted Janice. "Ya wanna carry my books too?"
"Come on, I'm just trying to help," said Anthony.
"Well it is a little heavy," replied Janice, softening her stance.
He picked up the pack by one of its straps and hefted it. "This? Christ, this is nothing. When I landed at Anzio I was carrying seventy pounds, not counting my rifle."
"All right then," said Janice. "Help yourself--for old time's sake."
As Anthony shouldered the pack, Janice said, "We'll move north by east. That way we are sure to hit something sooner or later."
"Right," Anthony concurred. "Do you want me to take the point?"
"Nuh uh. We all stick together," said Janice.
"What?" Janice asked, noting the hint of urgency.
Melinda leaned over and ever so softly whispered in Janice's ear, "I have to pee."
For the first time since they left Rimini Janice felt her heart lighten. Leave to my beanpole, she thought, affectionately. "Well go on," she said aloud. "It seems all the stalls are empty at the moment."
"I ahh..." Mel nervously cleared her throat, hoping that Janice would catch the hint.
She did. "Anthony, make yourself scarce okay?"
"Hmm? Oh, uhh...oh yeah. Sorry," the sergeant stammered. "I guess I wasn't thinking. Come to think of it, I need to take a whiz myself."
Melinda obstinately waited until Anthony was safely out of range before tugging at her zipper. In the darkness Janice heard her first grunt with dogged determination and then finally gently whine with feeble exasperation, "Ja-yun?"
"What is it now?"
"My, my zipper's stuck," was Melinda's meek answer.
"Good Lord," Janice sighed. "Here we are deep in Austria with nothin' but bad guys for two hundred miles in every direction being expected to pull off some kind of miracle and for starters my best friend can't even get her friggin' pants down."
"Sorry, Janice," said Mel, a little hurt by her lover's barb.
Sensing this, Janice penitently whispered, "Come 'ere." As she helped Mel with the stubborn zipper she playfully pressed
her cheek to Mel's breast and emitted a small chuckle. "Gee, Mel, where's Xena when we really need her?"
Chapter 8: Hold That Tiger
Janice and Melinda crouched at the edge of the field, waiting in agonizing suspense for the dark form of Sergeant Anthony to reappear from the shadows. Less than a minute later they heard someone approaching. Just to be safe Janice drew her weapon but she quickly recognized the bent over form to be that of Anthony.
"Well?" she asked, when Anthony dropped to his knees beside her. "Could you make the sign out?"
"Fürstenfeld, six kilometers," he replied, catching his breath.
"Blake did put us down in the right place," observed Mel.
"Guess so," said Janice. "So what do you think happened to our escort service?"
"Maybe they got lost," offered Anthony.
Maybe they got killed, thought Janice, darkly. However she wisely refrained from vocalizing this disturbing supposition.
Anthony reached into the chest pocket of his field jacket, pulled out a Hershey bar, and began to unwrap it. He then divided the twelve little squares equally among himself and his two companions. While Melinda was still preparing to take her first dainty little nibble Janice simply popped her entire share into her mouth and quickly finished it off.
"Be sure you put that wrapper in your pocket," she cautioned Anthony. "You never know who might come fartin' around here."
His mouth full chocolate, he answered, "Mmmm. Right." He had not thought of that but he had to admit it made sense. At first he had been very skeptical about the idea of going behind enemy lines with only a couple of "dames" to watch his back but by now he was starting to feel more comfortable around them, especially the short one. It was obvious she had been through this sort of thing before and that she possessed leadership qualities superior to a great many of the officers he had seen. She knows her stuff, that's for sure, he had finally concluded.
But while what Covington brought to the table was readily apparent, the role the quiet Southerner was supposed to play here was considerably murkier. She seemed to be what was known in the army as a "foul up" or, at least, that was the sanitized version of the term.
And yet...and yet, there seemed to be something....more to her.
To be sure Anthony had already taken an immense liking to the lady, and that was clearly what she was--a lady, but for the life of him he could not see why she was here. Naturally if Janice had been more forthright with her information she could have eased his mind considerably but she had not bothered to tell him of her role simply because she had deemed it was something he need not know.
He thought of the strange incident on the plane. Why had the lady's demeanor changed so abruptly? he wondered. There was no getting around the fact that it was she and not the fiery Covington that had ultimately decided their destiny. It was obvious the two of them were very close and this made their scuffle all the more perplexing. Previous to that he would have thought the Pappas woman incapable of hurting a fly. And why had the forceful Covington so passively bowed to her wishes? In the back of his mind the thought kept nagging at him that there was more to all this than meets the eye.
Whatever had made Pappas act like that, he decided, it certainly was not because of any cracking on her part under the pressure of the moment as he had seen others do. Once near the Arno River, while his unit was taking a savage pounding from German artillery, Anthony had seen a boy who only that day had reported to his company snap under the strain. Even though it was in the dead of winter the poor fellow pulled off every stitch of his clothing. While those around him shouted for him to stay down the young man climbed out of his frozen fox hole and began staggering along their line like a drunken man; all the while screaming "Stop it! Stop it!" at the top of his lungs. To everyone's surprise he had managed to last a full five minutes before being blown to bits by a direct hit from a German 280mm "Anzio Annie." The worst part was no one had even taken the time to learn the kid's name.
But then, that was the way it was in the front lines. Until they proved themselves these replacements were mere non-entities. They were the fresh faced kids with the shiny boots and the spotless leggings and the crisp uniforms and they had absolutely no idea what real combat was all about. More often than not these "wet noses" were met with much resentment and even disdain by the veteran soldiers because ultimately they were replacing buddies they had known for months and even years who had been killed or wounded wrenching another fifty yards free from the ferocious German defenders.
However much of a puzzle the woman with the soft drawl might be to him there was one thing Anthony knew for certain about her and that was he would never be the one to kick her out of bed for eating crackers. She was about the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
All at once Janice felt Mel tug at her arm. "Jan," she hissed, "someone's coming!"
Although Janice at this point heard nothing, she whispered, "Get down!" Anthony too heard nothing but did as he was ordered. Her partner might have been saddled with less than perfect eyesight but there was no denying her almost uncanny sense of hearing. Janice guessed it must be a family trait because in one of the Xena Scrolls Gabrielle had light-heartedly observed that her warrior could "Hear a fly fart in a windstorm."
Sure enough, about a minute later there was heard from the east an odd clanking, clattering, grinding sound--very faint at first--but steadily growing ever louder. Soon it was accompanied by the unmistakable growl of large, powerful engines.
"Golly, what is that?" asked Mel, anxiously.
"Holy shit!" Anthony muttered, with alarm.
"What is it?" Janice asked.
With an ominous tone Anthony replied, "Tigers."
"Tanks, God damn it! Tiger Tanks. The biggest, baddest, suckers you ever saw. Up front they've got damn near four inches of armor. Compared to those nasty sons of bitches our Shermans ain't nothin' but Tinker Toys. The only way you can knock one of the bastards out is with a direct hit right in the ass."
The groaning diesel engines were growing louder and louder now and a few moments later the three Americans saw, silhouetted in the pale moonlight, four black, hulking masses of steel lumbering up the narrow road toward them. For all of them, even the battle hardened Anthony, it was a daunting, even awesome sight. As the lead tank rounded the little bend a mere seventy-five yards away they could hear the distinctive whine of the engine as the driver shifted gears.
In a purely reflex action Janice reached out to put her arm around Melinda's shoulders and draw her near. After scrutinizing the column with the precision of a professional soldier's eye, Anthony whispered to Janice, "Looks like what's left of a tank battalion."
To Melinda the name "Tiger" seemed a perfect fit for these hulking machines did indeed seem like fierce predators on the prowl in search of helpless prey. She felt her breath becoming short and quick and inside her mouth it was becoming like the Sahara Desert.
Sensing Melinda's discomfort, Janice gently patted her on the arm in an effort to soothe her. "Could they be retreating?" she asked Anthony.
"Hard to say," replied Anthony. "It might be they are just being shifted to another position."
Now, as the "Tigers" were passing directly in front of them, they could feel the ground literally shaking under them. Janice drew Melinda even closer to her. Suddenly an icy chill ran through her. For darting about the massive armored monsters like greedy little remoras she now saw German infantry. Beside her Anthony grimly flipped off the safety on his M-1 and carefully aimed it at the nearest of them.
Suddenly in quiet apprehension Mel whispered, "Oh my God!"
Turning to her, Janice saw her staring wide-eyed off to her left. One of the soldiers had left the column and was now making straight for them. Seeing him as well, Anthony coolly shifted his aim to the approaching target.
"What's he doing?" rasped Janice.
Her inquiry was soon answered. Stopping a mere twenty yards from them, they saw the soldier lay down his rifle and begin to fumble with his belt. He's gonna take a crap! she thought.
That he was. Completely unaware of his furtive audience, the infanterist turned his back to them and dropped his pants. Anthony trained his rifle sight just below the unsuspecting man's cheeks. Oh, Fritz, how I'd looove to plug you right smack in der veiner schnitzel, he thought, with malicious glee.
They were so close that even with the rumbling of the heavy tanks they could hear him grunt as he strained to hurry, Janice turned to Mel and saw the beauty gaping with wide-eyed fascination at the sorry spectacle before her. The amusing revelation came to her that this was probably the first time in her life that her shy lover had ever seen a grown man's buttocks. How fitting! she thought, savagely. As far as the volatile woman was concerned the current view being presented to Mel was representative of a sizable portion of the male population. That is to say they were, well...assholes!
With nature's call answered the soldier soon was jogging off to join up with his comrades. Janice puffed up her cheeks and slowly exhaled through tight lips. By now the column was past them and the rumbling of the 60 ton behemoths was beginning to fade. In an amazingly short period of time all that could be heard was their own tense breathing.
"Whew, that was close," allowed Janice. "Are you all right, Kid?"
The belle nodded that she was and together the two of them rose to their feet. As Anthony did the same he thumbed the safety to his rifle back on. "Jesus," he softly heaved, "I hope we don't run into any more of that stuff."
"You're not the Lone Ranger," said Janice.
Anthony checked the luminous dial on his watch. 0245 hours. Six kilometers...that's three and three fourths miles he thought. With a little luck we should make it there before daybreak.
Her mind tuned to the same frequency, Janice said, "We should make Fürstenfeld by morning. If we do we'll find a place to hole up for the day and then move in to nab Cernak tomorrow night."
"But what if the Krauts are pulling out, Covington?," warned Anthony. "Your boy might get away."
"Right now I don't care," retorted Janice, defiantly. "We have taken enough chances for one day. Now let's get moving You know the way."
Anthony nodded and struck out over the field with his two companions close behind. Damn, he thought, I'll never be able to tell anybody about this because who the hell would believe it?
As they faded into the blackness a slight gust of wind stirred up and blew the Hershey wrapper which in all the excitement Anthony had completely forgotten about several yards toward the road.
Some time later Anthony, with an alert Janice at his back, ever so carefully pushed open the door to the barn and peeked inside. Although the eastern sky was beginning to take on a reddish hue it was still quite dark inside the dilapidated old structure. For a few eon-like moments the sergeant silently stood there, his eyes and ears straining to garner every last possible scrap of information to send back to his now finely attuned brain.
Finally he hoarsely whispered, "It's clear."
Janice immediately turned to Melinda and jerked a thumb toward the door. "Inside."
Mel quickly followed Anthony through the door and waited as Janice took one last look around before also entering and easing the door shut behind her. A quick scan of the interior revealed a loft standing in the northwest corner of the building. Pointing to it, Janice said to Anthony, "Check it out."
Anthony shouldered his M-1 and began scaling the ladder leading up to the loft, carefully testing each rung as he ascended. Back on the ground Janice and Melinda could hear the soft creaking of the floor boards as Anthony stealthily tread over them. Presently they saw him poke his head over the side and give the "thumbs up" signal.
Seeing this, Janice turned to Mel and said, "Up ya go."
"Aren't you coming?" Mel asked, with some alarm. With Janice one could never be sure what was going on inside that nimble mind of hers.
"Don't worry, I'll be along in a bit," Janice assured her. "I'm just going to keep an eye out for a little while. You know--just to make sure everything's hunky-dory."
Her protest was cut short by an impatient, "Meeeel." Janice might have been trying to sound harsh but the ever so gentle touch she gave to her lover's sleeve gave her away.
"Oh all right," huffed Mel. "Have it your way."
"Atta girl," grinned Janice. As Mel began her ascent Janice gave her an affectionate pat on the rump. She waited until Melinda had disappeared into the loft before creeping back to the barn door. She then looked around until she found a suitable crack which allowed her a good view of the road running past the barn. Using an old keg for a seat, she settled in and began her lonely vigil.
Up in the loft Anthony had already settled in by the time Mel appeared at the top of the ladder. As she approached he raised up and asked "Where's Covington?"
"She's going to keep watch for a while," explained Mel.
"Oh." Damn, he thought, leaning back against the wall, does that woman ever give it a rest?
Melinda sat down beside him and stretched out her long legs. "Ohhh boy," she softly moaned, "that feels gooood."
"Oh for goodness sakes. Call me Mel."
"Okay...Mel. So tell me, how long have you known her?
"Janice? It'll soon be five years," she replied.
He furrowed his brow and continued, "Do you...work for her or what? I mean, it seems like she's always tellin' you what to do."
Melinda smiled good naturedly and said, "Oh that's just 'cause we're on a job."
"What's that mean?" he asked.
"She's not as authoritative as you think," said Mel. "It's just that when we're out on one of these she understands that she knows what's best for both of us and as a result she thinks it is her responsibility to, well, sorta watch out for me. Janice is a natural born leader and I don't mind that she gripes at me sometimes. I know she always has my best interest at heart."
"But doesn't that ever bother you?" he persisted.
"Oh goodness no," she quickly responded. "I mean, I do get a little frustrated sometimes that Jan won't let me help more but she is so good at this sort of thing--much more so than me I'm afraid. And tuh tell you the truth I could never do what she does. I'd be lost without her."
"She sure is a smart cookie," conceded Anthony.
"Janice is very talented," replied Mel. And in more ways than one, she thought, salaciously remembering their exquisite night in Rimini. Aloud she added, "And besides, when we're at home she makes it up to me by lettin' me get away with murder." What she really meant was that Janice was often guilty of spoiling her.
"You mean you two...live together?"
"Oh yesss," she replied, almost gushing. "Right now we have this darlin' little house in Annapolis but I suspect that once the war is over we'll again be living out of tents most of the time."
Anthony thought it a little odd that she should speak with such feeling about sharing a house with a friend but he decided to let it go. Instead he asked "Tents?"
"Yep. You see, Janice is a very highly regarded archaeologist."
"I see. So how did you two happen to fall into this line of work?"
Here he noted the woman's enthusiasm seemed to wane somewhat. In hushed tones she replied, "It's...a long story."
For an uncomfortable moment neither spoke but then the beauty seemed to perk up again. "So," she asked, "how about you?"
"Not much to tell really," said Anthony, shrugging. "Got drafted in the fall of '42, landed at Anzio, been in Italy ever since."
"What did you do before the war?" she asked.
"Pumped gas in Emporia, Virginia." He smiled ruefully and added, "I quit school in the tenth grade so I guess I wasn't qualified to do much else."
"You can still finish, you know," offered Mel.
"Oh sure," Anthony snorted. "I can just see myself after goin' through all this--sittin' in a classroom with a bunch of pimply-faced teenagers and being sneered at by some lousy 4F teacher with an axe to grind."
"Nooo," Mel said, gently. "You don't have to do that. You can go to night school. You can get what they call an equivalency."
"You mean like a diploma?" he asked.
"Exactly. My goodness, Sergeant, once you have that you can take advantage of that GI Bill they passed a while back and the government will pay you to attend college or a trade school."
"I'll bet you went to college, didn't ya, Mel?" he asked, his tone slightly accusatory.
"Uh huh," Mel answered, ignoring this small dig.
"Was it, you know...hard?"
Not for Melinda Pappas. In four years except for one inexplicable "C" she made straight "A's."
"Well," she tactfully began, "it's jes' like anything else. It's all in what you put into it."
Anthony, however, was not fooled. "So it is hard then."
"Look at it this way, Sergeant. It's gotta be easier than what you're doing now, don't you think?"
Anthony had to admit she had him there. "Can you...see me as a college graduate?" he asked, hesitantly.
"Yes," came her gentle reply. "Yes I can."
"Hell," he snorted, "even if I did make it I'd be almost thirty by the time I got out."
"So?" she rebutted. "Are you in that big of a hurry to get back to that gas station in Emporia?"
Sister, he thought, I like you! In spite of her daunting beauty, not to mention her formidable friend, she had such a gentle, even elegant, way about her that when she spoke to him she made him feel like he was the only other person in the world.
"I don't reckon that I am," he admitted.
Mel nodded approvingly on hearing this and said, "You know, you sure don't sound like somebody from southan Virginia."
Anthony grinned and said, "I guess that was my mom's doing. You see, when we were kids she made us speak Russian. She felt it was important that hold onto some piece of our heritage." He chuckled and added, "She used to sing all the old Russian folk ballads to us."
"It sounds like your momma is quite a woman," said Mel.
"Well, she was anyway," he said. "She's dead now."
"Oh, I'm sorry."
"That's okay. It was a long time ago. You know how in those old movies they always show Russian women as fat and toothless and wearing those big scarves? What is it they call that?"
"A stereotype," answered Mel.
"Yeah, that's it, a stereotype. "My mom wasn't anything like that. She was small--delicate even; very pretty with long blonde hair. I remember how she used to let my sister brush it." He lowered his head and then said, "She was thirty-eight years old the winter she caught pneumonia and died. I just had turned fifteen."
"It must have been very difficult for you." She mind drifted back to the death of her father and the terrible sorrow that had accompanied it.
Listening to her speak, Anthony could tell the sympathy in her voice was truly genuine. Somehow just sitting here with this warm, caring, decent human being made the memory of her mother's death just a little less painful.
Through all this Mel noticed that the man had not once mentioned his father. Almost as if on cue Anthony blurted out, "My old man was never the same after that."
"I know what ya mean," said Mel. "My daddy has been dead six years now and even today my momma will cry if she thinks about him too much."
"Somehow I don't think your momma ever came home drunk and used you for a punching bag, now did she?" Anthony had no idea why he told her that. In fact only his sister Tina knew the real extent of the verbal and physical abuse the boy had been forced to endure. It was just that it was so comforting to talk to this woman. She seemed to actually care.
"Oh my," Mel softly exclaimed. Having grown up in such a loving home child abuse was almost unfathomable to her.
"I took it for a year," Anthony said. "On the day I turned sixteen he tried to hit me and I punched his lights out for him. I walked out of the house and never went back. We never spoke again. Last fall Tina wrote me that he had gotten so drunk that he choked to death on his own vomit."
"How awful," Mel gasped. In her mind she could not help but feel sorry for the man. Obviously for this poor man the death of his wife had signaled the end of his world as he knew it.
Anthony took off his knit cap and ran his hand over his short cropped hair. "You know," he said, "it's funny. My mother's brother was a cellist. A damn good one they say. My mom said he used to play for the orchestra in Smolensk."
"I love the cello," remarked Mel.
"When the Bolsheviks took over they came to his house one night and took him away. Two days later they stood him up in front of a wall..." In the growing morning light he locked his eyes on Melinda's. "...and they shot him."
"My God! Why?"
"Because they said he was an 'enemy of the state.' Can you believe that? All the guy ever wanted was to take care of his family and play his cello. But what I'm really gettin' at is this. I mean, just think of the irony of it. My uncle was a gentle-man in the truest sense of the word. According to my mom he was a great guy with a wonderful family and a ton of friends and on top of that he had this fine talent which he loved to share with others. She once told me that everybody who knew him was the better for it. My old man, on the other hand, was a creep. Even before mom died he never went out of his way for anybody. When he died the only one that attended his funeral was Tina. He left this world a pathetic slob strangling in his own puke."
"I--I don't understand what you mean," said Mel, somewhat uncomfortable at listening to Anthony's unrelenting assessment of his father.
"Don't you see, Mel? My old man died in his own bed a free man. Yeah he was a rat and in the end he was just as dead as my uncle but he died because of his own doing--because of what he chose in life, not because some faceless son of a bitch decreed he was an 'enemy of the state.' My uncle, who had so much to offer, didn't get that chance. The sinner died a free man in his own bed, the saint died at the hands of people who hated him for no good reason."
As saints so often do, thought Mel.
Before she could answer him they both heard Janice's low, raspy voice calling out from down below, "Hey! You two wanna hold it down up there? Good God, I could hear you guys yakkin' all the way over there by the friggin' door."
With a mischievous twinkle in her eye, Mel ducked her head in turtle-like fashion and put a hand to her lips. In a tiny voice she said, "Oops." To Janice she called out, "Sorry, Jan."
"Yeah sure. Just go to sleep, damn it," her irritated lover answered back. "You too, Sergeant."
Anthony lifted up his eyebrows and replied, "Yes, ma'am." Looking at Mel, he said, "Jeez, she's worse than the lieutenant back in my old outfit."
With a knowing little grin, Mel retorted, "Just be thankful she likes you."
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