As Season Two’s THE XENA SCROLLS concludes, Janice Covington and Melinda Pappas find themselves continuing a different saga, begun in the stories “Two Thousand Winters Ahead” and “Done There, Been That.”
“We’re done here.” Janice grinned at the knapsack she’d tossed in the truck. “Got what I came for.” She gazed at the firelights sputtering against the night sky above the site that once again entombed the God of War. “And then some.”
“Uh huh.” Mel shivered, thinking of how – like this unimaginable day – her previously dull life had also ended in flames, possibly now destined to flare at the will of a taciturn explorer whose match Mel found to her liking. “More than I ever dreamed.”
“What the ….” Squinting, Janice took a step forward.
Mel gasped. She adjusted her spectacles. “You see it too?”
A couple of figures had emerged from the smoke. One tall and dark. The other a smaller blonde. Both wore strange garments revealing quite a bit of flesh. Neither looked hurt or even smudged. Indeed, they strode forward as though accustomed to walking through fire.
Mel came up beside Janice. “Could Jacques S’er have been right?” she whispered. “About ghosts?”
“Pfft. He couldn’t get his own name straight.” Janice put a protective arm in front of Mel. “I’ll do the talking. Ghosts, curse, trick, whatever – nothing I can’t handle.” She flipped open her holster and rested her other hand on her whip. “That’s far enough,” she said, when the strangers were a few feet away. “If you’re aimin’ for trouble, I’m your girl. If not, state your business.”
The strangers gaped at Janice and Mel. They glanced at each other, then stared again at the women in front of them. Janice and Mel did the same. All four looked as if they’d seen ghosts. Finally the blonde displayed her hands in a gesture of peace.
“We mean you no harm. We were trying to go … home. We kind of … dropped in … by mistake.”
“Yeah? I don’t believe in mistakes. Especially at a lucrative archeological dig in the middle of nowhere.”
The taller woman studied Janice, as though trying to place her. “Exactly where is ‘nowhere?’” she asked, a bit too forwardly for Janice’s tastes.
“Listen, sister, I’m who’s askin’ the questions. Either give me a straight answer or – .”
“Macedonia,” Mel answered, with a restraining hand on Janice’s arm. “Is that where you were headed?”
The strangers exchanged glances. “We’re familiar with the area,” the taller one said. “But no, we’d hoped to land in America.”
“I thought so!” Mel clapped her hands. “From yer accents. Midwest? West Coast?”
“Mel!” Janice hissed. “They could be from Hoboken, for all I care. You think it’s a coincidence? Them looking like us? Us being descendents of Gabrielle and Xena? That they’re dressed in those ancient outfits?” She narrowed her eyes at the strangers. “Only way they’d know, is if somehow they’d read those scrolls.”
“Didn’t have to.” The taller woman blew out an impatient breath. “It’s in our blood.” She rolled her tongue in her cheek. “Apparently same as yours.”
Janice threw up her hands. “Great. Finally find treasure in the family tree. What’s it get me? Instant relatives sniffin’ around. Staking a claim on what’s rightfully mine.”
“Ours?” Mel corrected softly, bumping Janice’s shoulder. “You’ll have to excuse Janice.” She put her hand to her mouth. “Oh, my. Forgive our manners. That’s Dr. Janice Covin’ton. I’m Melinda Pappas. Mel for short. We’ve been through quite an ordeal. You poppin’ up like this is very … um … rather ….”
“Weird?” The blonde offered dryly. “Disturbing?”
“Same here.” The other woman raised a brow at Janice. “Lose the attitude, maybe we can get somewhere we’ll all feel better.”
The four women sat around a campfire not far from the smoking remnants of Ares’ tomb. They’d decided discovering more about each other topped whatever they might find moving on in some other direction. Mel had retrieved blankets to sit on and graciously fixed tea for their guests. She listened attentively to their bizarre tale, occasionally asking questions. Janice jumped up to pace within hearing distance, chomping on a cigarillo to better digest revelations that might otherwise stick in her craw.
She’d learned the strangers weren’t exactly descendants of Xena and Gabrielle, but “clones” – some type of copies created from their genetic makeup by a Xena nemesis who’d “awakened” them 50 years in the present future. They called themselves Alex and Nikki, partly to signal a fresh start, but also to avoid confusion with characters based on the originals’ adventures and popularized in their new world. They’d devised a “time machine” to revisit their roots and gotten to travel awhile with their aged … selves. Upon trying to return to their 21st Century lives, they accidentally landed in 1940, to which Xena’s spirit had just been pulled from her Pre-Mycenae days to briefly inhabit her descendent Mel in order to battle a resurrected Ares.
Mel took all this in with the innocent excitement of a kid imagining herself one of the protagonists in a fairy tale. To Janice it was more like science fiction foretelling cataclysmic upheavals in the natural order of things. Oh, she was accustomed to intrigue and the impossible all right. Had chosen to carry on Harry Covington’s quest to locate scrolls he believed written about a female Greek warrior legendary for deeds of mythical proportions. But what she believed in most was control. Regardless of any strangeness she encountered on her explorations, she kept a firm hand on her own little sphere.
Raised by a father preoccupied with his work had taught her the importance of self-reliance. She’d picked up skills to defend them against trouble he was oblivious to in the remote places where they often traveled. Came to trust her instincts above all else, to suspect the truth of anything too good. The price was a rather solitary existence, accompanied when needed by people whose loyalty depended on how much she paid them. The payoff was freedom to go when and where she wanted. Nobody telling her what to do or how she should be. Few entanglements she couldn’t undo with her pistol, a cold shoulder or “Sorry, babe. It’s been nice, but gotta go.” Yet, in the course of a few hours, her grip on all that had slipped with the discovery of ties she hadn’t counted on.
Mel she could tolerate. The naive Southern belle actually complemented Janice’s rugged individualism. Was suitably deferential. A surprising streak of spunk giving spine to neediness and a good-hearted nature. Smart, but not in the ways of the crusty explorer’s rough and tumble world. Loath as she might be to admit it, Janice secretly looked forward to teaming up with someone she could trust at her back. Share her exploits with. Temper tendencies that weren’t so good for her health. Mel somehow made Janice stand straighter. Taller. All in all, not so bad.
Adjusting to Gabrielle as a forebear was another challenge. The useless tagalong?! Not in Janice’s wildest dreams. When she’d possessed Mel, Xena had insisted Gabrielle was far more than that. While of some consolation, it wasn’t as convincing as the blond woman sitting a few feet away. Nikki claimed to be as close to the real Gabrielle as you could get. Everything about her projected Xena’s equal, from her bearing to her muscular physicality. She behaved more like Mel in terms of congeniality or likelihood at cussing and spitting tobacco. Still, all in all, not so bad.
The woman with a striking resemblance to Mel? Hard to believe they shared the same blood. Nothing modest about Alex. She oozed dominance from every pore, commanded attention with the hike of a brow. Could probably cuss and spit with the best. Put a hole through somebody as easily as Smythe’s goons had ventilated Janice’s hat. Friend or foe, no question whether you’d want that cocked weapon at your back. Just looking at her made Janice’s trigger finger twitch. Sparked an urge to ruffle feathers of this dark bird who had so ceremoniously landed in the roost previously ruled by one hen.
Noting a lull in the others’ conversation, Janice sauntered back to perch on a pile of crates. “This Alti character. The witch who brought you to life or whatever. Sounds like a real winner.”
Nikki smiled, pleased the guarded explorer had decided to communicate beyond grunts. “As bad as they come. A curse on Xena from the moment they met. One we’re destined to battle in many lives for who knows how long.”
Janice pulled out a switchblade and began cleaning her fingernails. “I meant, seems she had Xena’s number. Turned her from an overachieving warlord into something worse, right? An enemy Xena can neutralize.” She glanced up casually at Alex. “But never eliminate?”
Nikki frowned. “Xena’s defeated her several times. If you mean – .”
“Let her finish.” Alex cocked her head, eyes boring into Janice. “Tell us herself what she means.”
Janice gave Alex a cool smile. “I’m a simple archeologist. Hot after the Xena Scrolls for their educational value.” She poked a finger through the hole in her hat. “Almost killed over what turned out to be a lot more than I figured.”
“Uh huh.” Mel leaned forward. “Powers so strong evil governments fancy them. The ‘deep, dark secrets of the gods.’” She ducked her head. “That’s how Jacques S’er explained it anyway. Some thought the scrolls the source of a terrible weapon. We believe now it was more about Ares. Unleashing him inta the world again, ya know?”
“Exactly. He bragged about potential for mayhem in modern times – this Hitler guy and his ilk. Could be your Alti is mixed up in that somehow.”
Mel’s head dropped. “And I’d be ta blame.”
“You?!” Nikki gaped at Mel. “How on earth – .”
“Tryin’ too hard ta help. Ta prove I’m not such a ….” Mel glanced apologetically at Janice. “I didn’t listen to `er. I’m who deciphered the lock for that awful Smythe. I freed the other half of the broken chakram. I was the descendent Ares needed ta rise and escape. If Xena’s spirit hadn’t come ta the rescue ….”
“Hey.” Janice moved to crouch beside Mel, chagrined at hitting the wrong target. “Don’t beat yourself up. We got the scrolls because of you. `Cause you had the stubbornness to push yourself on me.” She lightly punched Mel’s shoulder. “And disobey.”
Mel grinned sheepishly. “She told me ta sit, stay and be quiet. That’s when I accidentally leaned against the spring ta the vault of scrolls.”
“Yup. A lot happened despite us. Out of our control.” Janice narrowed her eyes at Alex. “Almost like it was meant to be.”
Nikki grinned. “No doubt that’s so, with you two meeting.”
“Uh huh. Me findin’ her inquiry ta Professor Pappas? Comin’ in his place?” Mel grinned. “‘Shazam!’” She brushed dust from her suit jacket, with a shy glance at Janice. “Now we’re gonna do some explorin’ tagether.”
“Mm. Interesting side note. I suspect Janice was headed somewhere else.” Alex crossed her arms. “Back to Alti, I presume?”
Janice snorted softly before returning to sit on the crates. “Alti sort of created ‘monster’ Xena. You say she’s an evil force who could crop up any time in anybody. Except for Xena’s miraculous appearance, an innocent descendant might’ve loosed Ares in the 20th Century. What’s next?” Janice flipped the switchblade in her hand as though pondering this question. “Oh, yeah. She manufactures a new version of Xena. In the 21st Century.”
“Let me guess,” Alex said at Janice’s pregnant pause. “And we … ‘mistakenly’ … appear out of nowhere. Right after you blow the site of Ares’ tomb to smithereens.”
Mel and Nikki felt a chill in the air, a tension between the other two women despite their efforts to appear relaxed.
“Janice? Surely you don’t mean ta imply Alti sent them here ta ….”
“Alex, let’s not jump to conclusions, okay? She’s not necessarily suggesting you’re some sort of … of ….”
“Pawn?” Janice shrugged. “Like I said, I’m just an archeologist. Laying out what I dig up. Arranging specimens to see how they fit.” She stood and stretched, sporting a cautiously superior smile. “Too soon to tell what we’ll get in the end.”
The consensus reaction to strained fireside chats was early retirement a sufficient distance from the scent of dynamite. The night sky of the explosive day was actually quite clear – perfect for sleeping under the stars.
“What’s she doing now.”
Nikki rolled her eyes. She glanced over her shoulder. “Getting some bed rolls, just like us. Wait …. She’s walking to her truck. Starting to clear out the bags. Guess they’ll be sleeping there instead of …. Hmmm. She’s staring at Mel. Now she’s going back to the supply pile. Dragging out …. Ah. Seems she decided on a tent.”
“Figures. Prob’ly afraid Mel’ll wilt in the great outdoors.”
“What’s she doing?” Janice handed Mel some stakes, shouldered the tent and led the way to the spot she’d picked.
“I’m sorry?” Mel caught up to Janice. “What’s who doin’?”
“Alex. No, don’t look! I mean, do it, but on the sly.”
“Janice, whatever are you talkin’ about? They’re gettin’ ready for bed, same as us.”
“I know that!” Janice dropped the tent and knelt beside it. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
Perplexed, Mel crouched next to Janice. “If yer so curious, why dontcha just – .”
“Just do it, okay? Is she checkin’ us out or what?”
Mel blew out a long breath. As casually as she could, she turned. And discovered Nikki doing the same. They held each other’s eyes momentarily with a trace of embarrassment, replaced with bemusement.
“Um, she’s mindin’ her own business. Takin’ off those wrist guards. Now the armor.”
“Yeah, yeah. Miss Tough Guy. Just had to time travel in those warrior duds ”
“Ohhhh, that’s interestin’.”
“What?” Janice steeled herself against turning around. “What’s interesting?”
“She’s reachin’ behind her back.” Mel smirked. “To … scratch. Reckon maybe she has an itch?”
Janice ground her teeth. “Just what I need. A comedian. Fine. You can’t spy worth squat, might as well hand me that mallet. I’ll show you how to anchor this thing.”
“She checkin’ us out yet?” Alex tried to scratch her back. “While you’re at it, give me a hand, will you? Got an itch. Can’t reach it.”
“Sure. And no, she’s fixing the tent. Apparently minding her own business.” Nikki snorted. “Just like you.”
Alex cut her eyes at Nikki, but figured a snarky retort would provide more kindling to cook her goose. Still refusing to indicate the least bit interest in what her other blond nemesis might be up to, she silently went about their retiring routine. Awhile later, she lay on her back gazing at the sky.
“Go ahead. Say it.”
“Mmmm.” Nikki burrowed deeper into her bedroll. “Hmmm?”
“Tell me I’m being an idiot.”
“You? An idiot? How so, dear?”
“Grrrr. I’ll have to hear it sooner or later. Might as well get it over with.”
Nikki yawned. “About Janice?” She rolled her head toward Alex. “Your ‘My whip is better, my chakram faster than your bullets’ attitude? The fact she drives you to grind your teeth?”
“See? That wasn’t so hard.” Alex closed her eyes. “We can both sleep better, now that’s off your chest.”
“Mmhm. I’m right there with ya.”
“Mm. Figured you’d ….” Alex’s eyes blinked open. “Say again?”
“I can excuse the spitting. Those awful cigars. Manners and sensitivity of a bar fly. That a branch on my family tree gnarled into a mockery of its roots. Harmony, trust, joy, hope as solid in her heart as that hole in her hat. But accusing you of being a tool for Alti? An incarnation of such a malevolent spirit?” Nikki resisted the urge to spit. “I can’t decide which would satisfy me more – watching you wipe that sneer off her face, or doing it myself.”
“Yeah?” Alex rolled to her side. “You serious?”
“As Ares on steroids.”
“Wow.” Alex digested this unexpected admission. “She’s feisty. Got your smarts too.” She snickered. “Your cute nose. And butt. That counts for somethin’, dontcha think?”
Nikki pursed her lips. “As much as Mel’s do for you.”
“Eh, Mel’s not so bad. Is she what I pictured on my family tree? No. But you gotta remember, I’ve seen quite a few warped versions, even if they weren’t related. Just `cause they were silly didn’t keep `em from being brave or good-hearted underneath.”
“Please. Tell me it doesn’t bother you the least bit – her klutziness or ‘Ooo, that is ever so interestin’’ about practically anything. How she drools over Janice like a puppy dog.”
“Um …. Something else I’ve experienced before.” Alex tweaked Nikki’s nose. “I’m still here, aren’t I?”
“What’re you ….” Nikki’s mouth dropped. “Alex!” She swatted her partner’s arm. “I was never that …. Okay, maybe a little. At first. For a while. A relatively short while.” She scowled in rare defeat. “Smarty pants.”
“Uh huh.” Alex basked a moment in rare victory. “I like her. More importantly, she likes us. Doesn’t treat me like a vessel of evil.”
Nikki sighed. “Yeah. I like her too.” She smirked. “Maybe `cause she actually does remind me of somebody I’ve experienced before. But nicer. Much nicer.”
“What’re you ….” Alex recognized the signs of a trap. “You just had to go there. Couldn’t stand letting me win.”
“Tsk tsk. So suspicious. I’m merely pointing out the irony. How the early you was so different from Mel.” She snickered. “More similar to ….”
“Arghhh! You’d compare me to that … that …. To somebody who deserves throttling?”
“Perhaps I spoke too hastily. You gave me a new perspective. There could be hope for Janice after all. Liking her, I mean.” Nikki tweaked Alex’s nose. “I’m still here, aren’t I?”
The kerosene lamps illuminated the tent interior. Large burlap sacks layered the tarp floor. Next to one of two cots sat a cloth-covered crate with a plane of reflective glass propped against an earthen vase filled with desert flora. A large bowl atop another crate held water. Wrinkled towels hung from a rack big enough to drape a few clothes. The only thing missing …. Janice dashed outside. Three trips later, the tent also featured two rickety wooden folding chairs and a small camping table bearing two mugs and a dusty bottle Mel hoped contained wine.
“My.” Mel surveyed Janice’s handiwork. “This’s whatcha call roughin’ it?”
“Nah. All I need is somethin’ soft to lay my head on. Don’t usually have guests. Least, not the princess variety.”
“Well, thank ya, ma’am.” Mel mock curtsied. “I, for one, appreciate yer hospitality.”
Janice grunted in response and began unbuckling her belt, mainly to hide the hint of a blush. “Don’t count on it being a habit. G’won, do your night stuff. Brought some of my special brew to sample before we turn in. Oughtta knock you right out.”
Mel chuckled. “Just like my daddy. He liked quiet when he worked,” she said, undressing. “I was a bit of a chatter bug.”
“What a surprise,” Janice muttered, sitting to pull off her boots.
“He’d trundle me off ta bed and hand me a cup. `Melinda,’ he’d say, ‘this’ll give ya sweet dreams.’ It was tea, but smelled like his breath after his dinner cordials. Next thing he’d hear me singin’ and talkin’ ta myself. He’d bring me another cup. ‘I swear, girl, ya must have yer mother’s hollow leg.’”
Janice watched Mel place her carefully folded suit in her briefcase and extract an embroidered nightshirt. “You plannin’ on wearing that tomorrow?”
“Of course not, silly. A lady wouldn’t wear this in public.”
“Oh, like she would heels, a skinny skirt and white gloves in the desert?”
“Perfectly proper attire for introducin’ oneself on a business trip. I hadn’t been to a dig site before. Soooo …..” Mel reached in the satchel again. “I packed these britches just in case.”
“Huh. Who’d a thought. What else you carry in that thing?”
Mel raised a foot. “Well, these sandals I got on. The usual necessities.” She laid out other contents on her “nightstand” and cot – brush, comb, cosmetics, jars of cream, toothbrush, baking soda, hair net and curlers, razor, manicure set, change of underwear, pairs of stockings and socks, khaki shirt, thin rain parka, pullover sweater, bendable slip-on shoes, couple scarves, baseball cap, diary, and pen. She poked her nose in the briefcase. “Um, some … intimates. Hygienic. Oh, and ….” She held up a Derringer. “For emergencies.”
Janice’s jaw dropped. “You kiddin’ me?”
“I’m from the South, remember. I’ve been campin’ `n’ huntin’.” Mel stowed the gun away. “Daddy said you should always be prepared for the unexpected.”
“I meant ….” Janice swept her hand at Mel’s “necessities.” “How’d you cram all this in that satchel? It’s enough for a suitcase!”
Mel beamed. “Proper packin’ is an art, for sure.” She snorted. “A side benefit of Madame Amanda’s Finishin’ School for Girls.”
Janice shook her head. She got undressed – which didn’t take long, considering she slept in her undershirt and panties. She occupied herself cleaning her weapons, as she hadn’t a clue how long Mel would need in front of the makeshift mirror. In reality, Mel focused as much on Janice’s reflection as she did her own. Though very different than her father, the edgy explorer did evoke memories of a certain prize-winning linguist.
Very much a perfectionist, the senior Pappas had demanded the highest standards of his daughter, as he did of his work. He’d ensured she received an excellent, well-rounded education – suitable whether she pursued matrimony or an academic career. She accepted his criticism as a form of love, but when her mother died young, so did the moments of unconditional joy in watching a child just be, or pride at her mastery of the simplest thing. Of hugs “just because.” Or fun for the sake of it.
As accomplished as she became, it never seemed good enough. The harder she tried, the more likely she’d flail about and stumble – her efforts crashing to the floor. She envied Janice’s “can do” assurance. Her ability to concentrate on the basics of survival or winning. To go after what she wanted without conflicting emotions or worries about someone else’s approval. To carve out a niche where all she needed was what she had –
her pistol, whip, fearlessness, and brains. The wrong word or a breach of etiquette would hardly send her into fits of self-doubt. Mel gradually recognized that – while it pained her to question one woman reflected in the mirror – she wanted to be more like the other.
She removed the last of her makeup. Wrapped her curlers in a scarf and shoved them into her briefcase. Shook out her hair, letting it cascade down her nightshirt. Walked to the small table, sat and poured herself some of Janice’s mystery drink. She took a sniff before downing the whole cup.
“Heh. Old habits die hard, eh? Give me a sec. I’ll toss one back with ya.”
“What d’ya see?”
The archeologist had disassembled her pistol, intent on getting it in shape for encounters her gut warned were right over the horizon. “Evidence I’ve been a bad momma. Shoulda cleaned this baby days ago.”
“I mean, when ya see me.” Mel took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “Could I be her? Xena?”
“Huh?” Janice glanced up to see a face free of any “aids.” A few words came to mind. Naked. Vulnerable. Exquisite. None came out of her mouth.
“When she possessed me? I know she had on my clothes. My lipstick and powder. What of her essence? D’ya see it in my eyes?” Mel lifted her chin. “My bearin’?”
Janice felt wedged between a rock and a hard place. Not something she was accustomed to. Not when it came to saying exactly what she thought. She could honestly say Xena’s appearance had been a unique situation. That the legendary warrior was the farthest thing from her mind right now, while Mel was real and fine as she was. At this moment, more than fine. Perfectly … natural.
Somehow Janice’s thoughts got expressed as, “Forget that. It’s crazy talk. You and her the same? Nah, isn’t right.”
Mel didn’t understand why Janice’s opinion mattered so much, but her eyes welled and fists balled as though her daddy had morphed into a short blonde. She grabbed her cup and swallowed until there was no more. “Well, I asked for it, didn’t I?” She stood abruptly and a tad wobbly. “I knew ya ta be a straight shooter, Janice Covin’ton,” she threw over her shoulder, walking over to lie on her cot. “But not so mean.”
Janice was dumbfounded. Her heart pounded the way it had the time Frank Covington forgot his little daughter accompanied him to an old mausoleum. By the time he finally came to fetch her, she’d closed herself off to ever feeling so abandoned again. Until now. All she had to do was admit the words came out wrong. Speak honestly from her heart. Then again, what if she had?
“Sorry, sweetheart. What you see is what you get.” Janice poured herself a drink. She took a long swig. “You’ve been around me what? Barely a day. You think that’s long enough to know me? Maybe in your neat little world. You have no idea what I’m capable of in mine.” She tossed back another swig. “My father’s schemes to finance his research? Peanuts compared to what I’ve had to do. You think I carry arms for show? Smythe was the first scum in my way? Yeah, well, the body count is much higher than him. And Ares can’t take credit for those.”
Janice stalked around turning down the lamps. “Count yourself lucky,” she said, plumping down on her cot. “You could’ve lost those rose-colored glasses after that ‘travel together’ fantasy of yours.” In the silence following her tirade, she heard a light snore.
Janice quietly gathered what she needed and slipped into the pre-dawn grayness. She checked on the two lumpy bedrolls across the way before jogging to the hill behind the main dig site. She climbed to the top and unfurled a thin mat. After taking a drink from her canteen, she stretched out on her belly and raised her binoculars. Her initial scan revealed no movement in the dusty expanse that offered more opportunity for a sneak attack than the road at her back. Besides, if intruders chose the easier entry, they’d have to get by Alex. Whatever her personal feelings about the Xena clone, Janice wasn’t stupid.
Janice whipped around, at the same time going for her gun. Before she’d freed it from its holster, a large body dropped beside her.
“Are you nuts?! Sneakin’ up on me like that?!”
“Wasn’t expecting company. But I’m always prepared.”
“Pfft. That old armor? Your chakram? They better than a speeding bullet?”
“Don’t have to be.” Alex raised a brow. “If I’m faster than whoever shoots it.”
Janice jumped to her feet. “I’m warnin’ you, don’t mess with me. Whatever you are, it’s nothin’ more than an arrogant knock-off of the real Xena, far as I’m concerned. And I ain’t your sidekick. You can take your – .”
“Calm down,” Alex advised – as much for herself as to the woman fuming above her. She sat up. “I didn’t come to fight. We’re here for the same reason. A sense of danger from out there.” She shrugged. “Later, you wanna take up the other, be my guest.”
Janice crossed her arms. “Mighty gracious, seeing as how you’re who busted in. Uninvited.”
“Yeah.” Alex snorted. “Didn’t exactly spark a warm welcome in Xena and Gabrielle either.” At Janice’s frown she explained, “The originals. On our first time travel.” She sighed. “`Know thyself.’ Riiight. Dealing with so many versions? From angles that can cut deep? Not sure anybody’s programmed for that.”
Janice held the eyes whose blueness mirrored Mel’s, surprised to see the same guilelessness and sincerity. Her own shields lowered in response. “I wouldn’t know much about that,” she said, squatting across from Alex. “Before this, all I cared about was my dad and me. Redeeming his reputation. Making my own. Now I find out there’s a lot more to my heritage. Maybe my destiny. Everything based on a few ancient scribbles.” She scowled at Alex. “And hearsay.”
Alex stretched out her legs. “Xena’s visit to Ares’ tomb? I have those memories. They’re brief. Kinda … detached … like most before waking up centuries later.”
“Do you remember … me?”
“Sure. Got a kick out of a Gabrielle look-alike.” Alex snickered. “Dressed to kill. Temperament to match.”
Janice rolled her tongue in her cheek. “Yeah, it was great watching Mel’s body kicking, pummeling and rolling in the dirt. Witnessing the so-called mythical Warrior Princess in action. When it was over ….” Janice smirked. “I didn’t mind getting sweet, klutzy Mel back.”
“I remember you underestimating Gabrielle. Like maybe you do Mel. And yourself, when it comes to Xena.”
Janice narrowed her eyes. “What’re you talking about?”
“In that tomb. When Xena first took command.”
“I was dazed. Merely showing respect. Ares was her show. No way I’d take the lead in that.”
“In the end, when Ares had her at his mercy? Who stopped him?”
Janice rubbed her jaw, recalling a yesterday that seemed ages ago. She remembered Ares’ sword poised above Xena. She’d instinctively …. “Me! With my whip!”
“Uh huh. Just like Gabrielle saved Xena time after time.” Alex squeezed Janice’s shoulder. “There’s no better blood to flow through your veins. To pump from your heart. Trust this, from someone who’s been around the bend more times and longer than anybody else you’ll run into.”
Janice begrudged a shy nod. “Not so bad yourself. For somebody I was tempted to deck.”
“Heh.” Alex gazed out over the barren terrain she could now see rather clearly in the spreading light. “You’ve a lot to be thankful for, Janice. For one thing, the capability to dig up treasure ‘in the middle of nowhere.’ This is your show. Even a blind person could see you’re the star in Mel’s sight.”
“Pfft.” Janice shook her head. “A bull in her own china shop, that’s me. Last night, it was hurting Mel. Guess I oughtta ….” She stiffened. “You hear something?”
The two turned toward the campsite. Though rubble partially obscured their view, they could see cars, trucks and a couple motorcycles lining the road.
“Hell’s bells! Mel’s all alone!” Janice began scrabbling backwards down the hill.
“No, Nikki’s there.” Still, Alex moved even faster.
“Mel?” Nikki nudged the other woman’s shoulder. “Time you started moving.”
“Mmmm Movin’?” Mel shifted on her cot. “This far enough?”
Nikki chuckled. “And Alex says I’m not a morning person. If you can call this ‘morning’ yet.” She crouched beside Janice. “Why don’t I make us some coffee. I’ll see if Janice has anything sweet around.” She muttered to herself, “Hopefully something that hasn’t turned green.”
Janice tried to get up. “Oh, my,” she said, pressing her hand to her forehead. “Guess my hollow leg got shorter, the taller I grew.”
“Janice’s brew. I imbibed a trifle too much last night.” Mel’s brow furrowed. “I … um … think we had a … fight. Speakin’ of which ….”
“She’s not here. I suspect doing surveillance, same as Alex.” Janice set the water bowl near Mel. She handed her the khaki pants and shirt from the clothes rack. “This should get you started. If you can manage more than a snail’s pace, we might have time for some ‘girl talk.’”
Mel smiled. “I’d like that. I’ll do my best.”
Not too long after, the two sat in the dawn stillness at the campfire Nikki preferred to a kerosene stove.
“So, what was the fight about?”
Mel snorted. “Shadows? Ghosts? Dreams? Gotten hard ta tell the difference.” She stretched out her legs and gazed absently into space. “We had strong fathers. Janice and me. I told her we shared needin’ ta stand on our own. Her daddy’s reputation left her open ta hurtful accusations. ‘Grave robber.’ Diggin’ for cash more than historical illumination.”
“She’s a tough one, all right.”
“On the other hand, ya got the great Professor Pappas. His reputation protected me in a way. Folks expected a lot, but overlooked a lot too. Treated me like an extension of him. ‘Melinda’s got promise. Give `er some more years and trainin’, she’ll measure up to her daddy’s footsteps.’”
“Mm. That’s tough too. Proving you’re your own person in a different way.” Nikki chuckled. “Been there. Still doing that.”
“And that was before knowin’ about Xena. Who she was. Whether I could live up to her heritage.” Mel’s chin dropped. “I want to. Janice doesn’t see it. And she got ta experience the real Warrior Princess.”
Nikki leaned forward. “Maybe it’s as much about Janice? What she does or doesn’t want to see? It’s one thing when you’re talking a legend who breezed in through you for a few minutes. It’s quite another having to compete with her in the flesh over dinner.” She snorted. “Judging by Janice’s fondness for Alex.”
Mel nodded. “That Alti malarkey? An excuse, ta my mind. Not that Janice’d need one for struttin’ around with a chip on `er shoulder.”
Nikki laughed. “Nor did ‘early’ Xena.”
“Ah. I forget. You wouldn’t know about that from the little you’ve uncovered so far.” Nikki studied Mel a moment. “I’m not sure all that matters anyway. Xena, I mean. How much of her you carry inside. I get the feeling Janice likes you for yourself.” She noted the other woman didn’t seem surprised by this observation. Or particularly encouraged. “Mel? You think I’m wrong?”
Mel shook out her slightly disheveled hair. “Ya didn’t see me when I first arrived here,” she said, running a manicured finger down the crease of her khakis. “Had a nice prim bun, my little hat perched on top. High heels. Nearly peed in my knickers – if you’ll pardon the expression – first time one of Smythe’s men said ‘boo.’ Then Janice stepped in.” She snorted. “Made `em wet their pants.”
“Ah. Another protector.” Nikki nodded knowingly. “Not sure it’s a habit you want to continue, eh?”
Mel looked up with moist eyes. “I don’t have ta be the hero. Sidekick, tagalong, assistant – I don’t care. It’s just …. A shrinkin’ violet’s who Janice accepted travelin’ with. But I’ve got desires and opinions, a stubborn streak – more like what we call a ‘steel magnolia.’ So she doesn’t see Xena in me. So she likes me as I am. What if it’s the violet? What’s the magnolia supposed ta do?”
Nikki snorted. “Boy, does that sound familiar. Well, not so much anymore. But back when ….” She stiffened. “Do you hear that?” She cocked her head toward the road. “Engines?”
Mel squinted at the dark shapes snaking through the dawning light. “Oh, my! You think – .”
“I think we could be in for trouble.” Nikki jumped up, searching for decent cover.
“Can you shoot?” Mel looked around for the crates containing Janice’s machine gun and other weapons. She froze, suddenly remembering extra supplies being carted off by workers. “What do we do now?”
Nikki counted about a half dozen men stalking toward them from the left, another from the right, and a couple riding slowly up the middle on motorcycles. “Sit,” she ordered, dropping down behind their campfire.
“Beg yer pardon?”
“Sit!” Nikki pulled the taller woman down next to her. “Act natural. Follow my lead.” She grabbed her coffee cup and calmly appraised the intruders. “Hello there,” she greeted the first men who halted a few feet away. “Are you from the museum?”
Janice and Alex hid behind a pile of dirt at the back of the main dig rubble. They had little trouble making out the men who’d entered the camp. Those grouped on the left wore fancy explorer gear. A couple carried rifles. The ragtag ruffian types on the right displayed an assortment of weaponry. Two motorcyclists hanging back near the center also had rifles slung over their shoulders.
“Lousy poachers.” Janice flipped her holster flap.
“No! Can’t go in, gun blazing. Too risky.”
“What about that chakram? It’ll be on `em before they know it.”
“I said I was fast. Wouldn’t bet either of us against a bullet in this situation.”
“Crap! They’re almost on top of `em. We gotta do something!”
“Wait, I said!” Alex focused on her partner. “Give Nikki a chance.”
“To do what? Play sitting ducks?” Janice scowled at her forebear sipping coffee as though nothing were amiss. “What in tarnation is she doing?”
“Not sure yet.” Alex smirked. “But it’s bound to knock somebody’s socks off.”
“Museum?” A pompous looking man separated himself from his colleagues. “Hmmm. It is a rather extensive collection. Quite formidable, with the artifacts Smythe promised.” He twirled the end of his elaborate mustache. “The Burghemonte Fitzhugh Museum of Self-Authorized Antiquities. Yes, does have a nice ring.”
“You fops can have your antiquateds,” sneered a burly man from the other group. “Tell Smythe Turk’s here for that weapon of mass destruction.”
“And you two gentlemen?” Nikki asked the cyclists. “What did you order?”
The cyclists exchanged glances. “We’re here on … speculation,” the older one said. “We’ll know what we want when we see it.”
“Enough!” Fitzhugh scowled at the women. “Your employer sent word he’d found access to the Xena Scrolls. Fetch him. I don’t intend to suffer this dust a moment longer than necessary.”
Nikki stood, pulling Mel up with her. “I’m afraid Mr. Smythe is unavailable.” She pointed to the rubble behind her. “Unless you choose to dig him up.”
The men stared at the rubble. “What?!”
“That was the site of discovery. He was about to complete his work. Someone ….” Nikki paused suggestively.
“Blew it up.”
The men eyed each other suspiciously as they huddled with their groups to discuss this news. The ruffians advanced on the women.
“How do we know you don’t have it? Or haven’t made a deal with one of them,” Turk said gesturing toward the others. “The fops might take your word for it.” He pulled out a knife. “I’d just as soon cut the truth outta ya.”
“Oh, my. Gentlemen, please. D’ya really think such violence necessary? When the answer may be starin’ ya in the face?”
“Okay, I’ve seen enough.” Alex coiled, ready to go in, chakram flying.
“Hold up.” Janice found herself drawn to the tall dark-haired woman in khaki, shoulders squaring, spine straightening – in a moment transforming into a vision of confidence and control. Last night, Janice thought Mel couldn’t look more perfect. She had second thoughts about that now. “Mel’s up to something.”
Alex tried to discern some hint of a defense. “Yeah? What’s she doing?”
“Beats me. Got a feeling it might beat those thugs too.”
Turk sneered. “Tell me somethin’ I didn’t already figure.”
“My pleasure. You, sir,” Mel said to Fitzhugh, “may have heard of the great Professor Pappas?”
Fitzhugh stroked his goatee. “I have.”
“I happen to be his daughter. Melinda. Also a rather accomplished linguist. No doubt yer equally acquainted with Frank Covin’ton?”
“Indeed. I owe many of my acquisitions to his thirst for discovery.” Fitzhugh snickered. “And cold, hard cash. I meant to consult him about some tablets that came into my possession. Regrettably, he died first.”
“Hey! What is this? Fop home week? She’s stallin’. You want jabberin’?” Turk waved his knife. “I’ll get ya the jabberin’ we came for.”
“Let her talk.” Fitzhugh crooked his head at one of his rifle bearers, who aimed at Turk. “She’s bound to be more illuminating than you.”
“Not yet.” Turk put a hand up to calm his bristling men. “See how this plays out. We can mop the fops after, if it suits us.”
Fitzhugh turned back to Mel as if he’d flicked something distasteful from his sleeve. “Continue.”
“This is Janice Covin’ton. She shares her daddy’s talent for archeology. And financial … creativity. The costume she’s wearin’ once belonged to Gabrielle, Xena’s long-time companion.” Mel paused for dramatic effect. “And author of the scrolls you seek.”
“See? Toldya. Bet they got that weapon too.”
“Um …. Well ….”
“May I?” Nikki smiled at Mel. “We retrieved a few items before the explosion. What’s under the rubble is still protected by traps. Instructions that must be deciphered. You’d need our assistance for that.” Nikki cut her eyes at Turk. “Which would be difficult, should we be incapacitated in any way.” She shrugged. “Question is, who’s still interested and willing to put their backs into it?”
The men discussed this among themselves. Some clearly had reservations.
“Let’s say I agree to work with … them. We manage to unearth everything.” Fitzhugh raised a brow at Turk, who obviously shared the same concern. “What’s to stop one side from taking it all?”
“Yeah, and what about those two?” Turk waved a hand at the silent cyclists. “We still don’t know what they’re after.”
“You want the weapon. Fitzhugh wants the scrolls.” Nikki smiled wryly. “Did either of you bother to bring money?” Reluctantly, both men nodded. “Normally I would ask for compensation. Being a chip off my old man’s block and all. In this situation, escaping with my life will do.” She looked at the cyclists. “Perhaps these gentlemen would accept our payment instead?”
The older cyclist blew out a breath. “We had orders to follow Turk. Maybe highjack whatever he found.” He shrugged. “The outfit we work for wouldn’t like us coming back empty handed. We’ll take what we can get. Long as it makes the trip worthwhile.”
“Excellent. As to … security. Each … team … could assign one man to guard duty, while the others did excavation. Everyone else would disarm. Pile the weapons off to the side but in plain sight. If one of the guards broke the rules, there’d still be the chance for a good old blood bath.” Nikki glanced around. “Yes?”
Mumbling and grumbling, the men divested themselves of their weapons as suggested. They got tools from their trucks and improvised devices to help clear away the debris. Fitzhugh directed the women to spread their blanket between the site and the guards, where one of the two had to remain at all times.
“Gotta hand it to `em. They’ve done pretty well.” Janice chuckled. “For a couple of ‘sidekicks.’”
“Mm. Wonder how long before those idiots’ll realize they need a bulldozer to move that crap.”
“Attack now? Wait until they tire?”
“I vote for now. We’ll go for the guards, while the others are preoccupied.”
“I’ll take the one on the right.”
“Janice, he’s twice your size.”
“So? Little Lord Fauntleroy on the left too much for ya?”
Alex rolled her eyes. “And Nikki calls me competitive. Fine.”
“Who gets the cycle guy?”
“Whichever of us moves faster.”
Hearts racing at finally seeing some action, the two crawled in their respective directions. They came up behind their targets at about the same time. Each guard noticed the danger to the other first. Both looked in confusion at the women seated in front of them. Seconds later, the big guard’s legs flew out from under him and – like the smaller one across the way – he succumbed to a blow to the head. Rather than yelling or resisting, the middle guard simply dropped his weapon and put up his hands.
“Hey! What’s going on?!” Turk lumbered forward from where he’d been supervising his men. Along with the others, he blinked in disbelief at the scene in front of him – two guards sprawled on the ground, the third apparently surrendered to the blonde and her taller friend. Except now, they had … twins?
“Problem?” The taller newcomer fingered a disk at her waist.
Fitzhugh glowered at the woman’s costume. “She’s in on it too! Get them!”
A shot rang out. The intruders froze. All but Turk. He started to make a run for the weapons pile. Another shot rang out. He turned to see the blond look-alike with a pistol in one hand and a rifle in the other, leveled at his considerable girth.
“Go ahead. Make my day. You too,” the woman said to several men preparing to rush her. She tilted her head toward the other women. “Between us, figure we can cripple any of you we don’t kill.”
A few quiet moments passed. The women the men had negotiated with earlier appeared content for the day to end as it had transpired thus far – without bloodshed. The other two radiated hair-trigger menace they’d gladly release at the slightest excuse. And yet one of the men moved anyway – the younger cyclist. Slowly lifting his arm, he pointed to the road winding to the camp.
“The good news is, no more digging,” the cyclist said. “The bad news – for some of you – is that reinforcements have arrived.”
Soldiers herded the last of Turk’s men onto trucks, where they joined Fitzhugh and company. The cyclists explained they’d been patrolling the area when alerted to potential mayhem. A “strange legionnaire with a terrible French accent” had seen an armed caravan headed toward friends at an archeological dig. Fearing it might be Turk’s band, the cyclists donned civilian clothes and decided to check it out. They told the strange man to inform fellow soldiers at a guard post a few miles away.
“Ya see, Janice? I knew he had a noble heart.” Mel watched the soldiers pull off with their prisoners. “A blessing in disguise.”
“You mean the strange legionnaire?” Nikki asked.
“Pfft.” Janice rolled her eyes. “A bumbling brush salesman from Jersey. Called himself
Jacques S’er. His real name is – .”
“Oh, gods.” Nikki looked beseechingly at Alex. “Please tell me it’s a coincidence? Surely he couldn’t be – .”
“A Joxer descendant? Afraid so.”
Mel glanced between the clones. “Ya don’t like him? Isn’t that a bit harsh? I mean, ya didn’t even get to know – .”
“I did. When Xena … um … when I took over your body.” Alex shuddered. “Not to mention during other lives too numerous to mention.”
Nikki chuckled. “In the future? The moving pictures based on the scrolls? They include this adventure. I hadn’t realized until I saw it, but nearly every time someone mentions a curse, Joxer … um, Jacques S’er … pops up. But you’re right, Mel. He’s always been a brave, loyal friend.”
“Yeah, yeah. Interesting footnote. Let’s talk about what’s really important.” Janice led the way back to camp. When they’d made themselves comfortable on the ground, she continued, “Those moving pictures mean the scrolls’ll set history straight. Prove to folks in other centuries our heroes were more than myth.” She smirked at the clones. “That you two really exist. And Mel and I have a destiny beyond even our fathers’ grasp.”
Nikki smiled. “Maybe our side trip wasn’t such a ‘mistake’ after all.”
“Uh huh. I’m thinkin’ we’re done here.” Alex scanned the horizon. “At least, this phase of our … miscalculation.”
“Y’all leavin’?” Mel’s face crinkled in disappointment. “We were just gettin’ acquainted.”
“Mm. Interesting footnote.” Nikki rubbed her nose. “Perhaps even more important, you were just getting to know yourselves?”
Janice exchanged a sheepish glance with Mel. “Um, yeah, we do have some unfinished business.”
“Hey, you know what?” Nikki beamed. “We could try looking you up. After we’re back in our century? Lots of people live into their seventies and eighties.”
“Yeah, well, don’t be checkin’ out some nursing home. I plan to be roamin’ around until I drop.”
“Ditto.” Alex pulled a little box from the cleft between her breastplates. “With a boost from our time machine, if we get it to work.”
“Our feet, if we don’t.”
“Or ….” Alex grinned at motorcycles that had been left behind. “Good old fashioned ‘horse’ power.”
“Sure you don’t wanna borrow some of our clothes?” Janice scowled at the warrior costumes.
“Nah. Whatever the time or place, doesn’t seem to matter much. Even 21st Century folks figured we must be actors.”
“I’m so glad we met,” Mel said, hugging Alex and Nikki.
“Likewise.” Janice shook her heroes’ hands. She smirked. “Gave me an idea for what to wear if I ever get lost.”
Laughing, the time travelers headed arm in arm for the cycles. They mounted and waved, Alex shouting, “Heeyah!” as they putt-putted off and disappeared in clouds of dust.
Mel sighed. “I really will miss them. So much I wanted ta ask.”
“Yeah. Guess we’ll never know ….” Janice slapped her cheek. “What’m I saying?” She ran to her truck. “All this excitement, I forgot ….” She reached into the cab and pulled out her knapsack. “We’ve got the …. Boots?!” She dumped out the other contents, horrified to see clothing, an assortment of toy guns, a rubber knife, fake ID’s, and other items that could be …. “Arghhhh!”
“Janice?” Mel came over to gape at the pile. “What – .”
“Jack Kleinman! That Jacques S’er character!” Janice banged the empty backpack against her truck. “Idiot took the wrong one!”
Mel gasped. “Yours? With the scrolls?”
“Stupid, stupid, stupid! He is a curse, just like they thought!”
“Janice, calm down.” Mel looked thoughtfully into the distance. “Those moving pictures they mentioned? About the Warrior Princess? That means the scrolls get to the future somehow. Maybe that’s his destiny? To keep the stories alive? If not him, maybe a descendant?”
“All my work. That fraud gets the credit?” Janice kicked Kleinman’s stuff. “We could end up in a nursing home for real, before we learn what was in those scrolls.”
Mel climbed unto the truck bed. “Does it matter that much?” she asked, long legs swinging back and forth.
“Of course it matters! Isn’t that why we’re here?”
“Maybe you.” Mel studied the hands in her lap. “I came ta help. Do some translatin’.” She raised her eyes. “Didn’t expect it ta be of you. Or me.”
Janice crossed her arms. “What’re you saying.”
Mel took a deep breath. “We meant ta get out from our daddies’ shadows. Do we trade those in for more? Xena’s? Gabrielle’s? Isn’t this a chance to be more … ourselves? Who we want ta be? Start fresh scrolls, like Nikki and Alex?”
“Hmph. I see what’s goin’ on. You got to do your Xena thing. Standing up to those thieves. Shed your spoiled brat image.” Janice adjusted her holster as if she considered this deep conversation no big deal. “Yeah, you can do all right on your own. Even I can see that. Don’t need my shadow anymore either, huh?”
Mel chewed her lip. “Guess that depends. If ya think all it means is protection.”
Janice took a deep breath, determined this time to be more careful with her words. “Listen, I … um …. You’re a good kid. Gutsy. Somebody else might’ve wilted under what you’ve been through.” She allowed a lopsided grin. “Tough broad like me can appreciate that. Watchin’ somebody spread her wings. One of the few things I can be proud of, if I helped.” She extended her hand. “I’m glad to have made your acquaintance, Melinda Pappas. You’ll go far, whatever you put your mind to.”
Mel glanced at Janice’s hand but didn’t extend her own. “Kind of ya to say, but yer not gettin’ rid of me that easy, Janice Covin’ton.” She stuck out her chin. “I got what I’ve always wanted. Adventure. Ta put my education ta good use – not behind a desk. Learnin’ by bein’ active in the world. Riskin’ a run in my stockin’s.” She held Janice’s eyes. “More than spreadin’ my wings, it’s been stumblin’ inta somebody I can fly with.”
“Yeah?” Janice swallowed. “That ‘together’ stuff. You saying it’s still on?”
Mel hopped down from the truck. “I get ta drive sometimes?”
Janice suppressed a grin. She tilted her hat to rakish angle. “I get to smoke while you do?”
Mel removed her spectacles and rubbed them against her shirtsleeve. “Even spit. Long as you do `em down wind.”
“Hmmm.” Janice scratched her cheek. “Okay, sweetheart. You got yourself a deal.”
Mel grinned. “I’d venture ta conclude we’re done here. Where next?”
“Whichever direction, if our ‘new’ luck holds true?” Janice snorted. “My gut says to keep our eyes open for any weirdoes wearing a mustache.”