ALT - This means that the story will contain scenes of intimacy between consenting adults who also happen to both be female. If for reasons of age, location or personal belief you are not permitted to read this story, then please move on to another work.
TIMELINE - Basically just after "The Xena Scrolls" episode ended.
(c) June-August 1999
E-Mail LZClotho at firstname.lastname@example.org
Janice ran an anxious hand through her hair as she sidestepped a portly woman haggling angrily with a fishmonger. "Sorry dear," the woman said in rough French as she stepped into Janice's path, causing the blonde to stumble.
Janice shook her head and extracted herself abruptly. She stumbled into another merchant's stand knocking an array of jewelry off the displays.
"Can I help you?" the merchant asked in French.
"Non, Moi--" Then she saw a gendarme change direction on his patrol at the commotion. "I'm sorry," she offered hurriedly. "Bientot."
She moved toward Akilim's and was just pulling open the door when the gendarme reached her. "Mademoiselle, you are all right, I trust?"
Looking over her shoulder she forced
aside her problems to give
him a smile. "I'm fine. Just looking for some things to take back home." She put as much lightness into her voice as she could manage.
"You are American then. Sightseeing, yes?"
She shook her head. "Signed on as a cook."
"And your ship?"
She walked up to the service counter before answering. "The Lob Lolly. Merchant marine." The man behind the counter looked up.
"I see." He nodded. He crossed his arms behind his back and sketched a bow. "It is a rare day we have such a lovely woman in our city."
"Just collecting supplies for the galley," she explained. "We ship out in the morning." She nodded to him and smiled again. He flushed slightly and she realized she might have a chance if she played her cards carefully. "Though," she added thoughtfully. "If I finish here quickly, maybe you can show me your town." Good one, she thought, letting her smile grow inviting.
Unsure of her charms, Janice was pleasantly surprised to see him take a moment to preen, pulling at his collar and snapping his uniform jacket into smooth lines. Then he adjusted the lie of his military cap.
She turned away and waved to get the clerk's attention. "Akilim, please," she said softly.
"Oui, ma'am'selle." He went into the back.
The gendarme came up to her elbow and leaned on the counter. "Name's Jean Boutre. Let me help. Sometimes these shopkeepers are difficult to deal with."
"I can--" she protested. Akilim appeared; a cinnamon colored man built along gaunt lines he smiled at her, looked at the gendarme and then back to her. She fished for the paper in her pocket and started to pass it over. "I'd like--"
Snapping it from her fingers, Jean Boutre smiled helpfully and turned to Akilim. "Lady just needs a few things here."
Janice's breath caught in her throat as Boutre glanced at the paper. Then he looked up at her, a confused expression on his face. This is it, she thought. "I can explain," she began.
"I'll have to call in a little help to get it down to the docks for you," he commented with a smile. "Lots of things here."
"Big ship," she replied absently, still silently praying.
He read aloud off the list: "Fifteen boxes Durena oil. Eight bags whole cloves. Two boxes cinnamon sticks. One dozen pounds of caraway seeds." He didn't pause, stumble or look askance at a single thing. "You're cooking with all this?"
"All the time," she responded almost giddily.
She watched him hand the paper to Akilim, who took it, read it over himself and looked quizzically at her. "Lob Lolly," she said. "Bristol." She hoped those were all he needed to know. In front of the French officer she was hesitant to be more specific.
"Request however many men you need from the yard," he told Akilim. Boutre offered his elbow. "Now that everything is well in hand. May I offer you a drink?"
Akilim nodded to Janice. As she put her arm through Boutre's Janice caught the proprietor's wink. The whole list was a code, she realized.
Walking through the market she saw shadows moving in the alley where Bristol, Godwin and Melinda had hidden. She wrapped her arm tighter around Jean's. "Thank you for the help. Dinner would be great." They passed close to the alley. "Where are we going?" She raised her voice a little.
"Rick's. Most popular place in all
Still held firmly in Godwin's arms, Melinda squirmed at the sound of Janice's voice.
Bristol raised the gun barrel where she could see it. "Quiet!" he hissed. "Or the nice gendarme's going to find a body in the morning."
Melinda subsided in her struggles but murmured, "Looks like she made your deal for you."
"We'll see. I'll be satisfied only when the shipment's aboard safely."
"You can't hold us until then."
"Seems I can get her to dance easily, as long as I have you," he brushed his thumb under her chin. "Go on back to the ship, Terry. Time for a little fun at Rick's."
Godwin let Melinda go; with a salute to his captain he hurried back down toward the docks. Bristol kept a hand on her arm as the pair walked through town, following the gendarme and Janice at a distance. Occasionally he stopped their progress, ostensibly looking at wares of the shops.
The crowd thinned, and the make up of the population changed considerably. A higher percentage here were Europeans, easily identified by their lighter coloring and usually broader features. In the silence, since Bristol didn't make small talk, Melinda found herself playing a guessing game of "homeland", trying to separate out the various Nordic, Celtic and Germanic features of the passersby. Then she caught her first sight of a prostitute, African features blending into an exotic look. Bristol, she realized as they paused at the corner, was taken too.
"Thinking of a little fun, captain?" she asked innocently following his gaze. "Thought this was a working trip."
"Smart mouth you know that, woman? Just follow my lead." He grasped her arm and dragged her forward into a small open porch surrounded by stone archways. "You say anything out of line, and I'll take it out of your hide." She stiffened her chin, daring him to hit her in such a public place. "All right," he countered. "I'll have your friend killed instead." She blanched and realized she had just given away her one weakness. "I see we understand each other then."
She nodded tightly. "All right." As they stepped up to the door, he pushed it open and her inside ahead of him. The sound of the door drew eyes to them quickly, and before they could slide away, Bristol kissed her cheek. She had no time to react. He had just successfully marked her as his.
Scanning the room, she found Janice seated at a table near the piano player, positioned so she saw the brunette at the door, but appeared to be looking only at the Frenchman. She gave the woman a smile and saw a small one play across the blonde's lips in return.
All right. So they were still biding their time. She looked at Bristol and recalled every manner she possessed in order to get through the meal.
And anything else to come.
"Ah, early for dinner. Would you like seats at the bar or the tables monsieur et madamoiselle?" A man in bowtie, black pants, and crisp white shirt under a starched white coattails stepped up to intercept Melinda and Bristol.
"Bar for the moment," Bristol remarked, studying the full table immediately next to where Boutre and the Covington woman were sitting. "Then we would like the table directly under the fans," he indicated with a slight gesture. "I get dreadfully hot." He smiled ingratiatingly at Melinda. "Isn't that right, dear?"
Melinda nodded, saying nothing. She watched Janice leaning close to the Frenchman and saw the woman's eyes change shade to a deep emerald. The blonde said something to the man, making him laugh. The sound was grating.
"Come on," Bristol said. "We can keep an eye on them from here for now." He led her behind the waiter to two stools at the long, polished bar. "A scotch for me. Over ice," he told the bartender. The smooth-faced man of middle-age rolled a glass from under the counter and flipped it up onto the surface. He dropped two cubes of ice into it, then looked up again.
"Something for the lady?" He asked while unstopping the bottle of golden liquid and pouring a shot over ice for the ship captain.
"Wine, please," Melinda answered when Bristol nudged her. "Bordeaux if you have it," she clarified.
"Nice choice," the bartender concurred, immediately selecting the appropriate bottle and popping the cork, letting the contents breathe a scant moment before sluicing it into a fluted wineglass. Passing over the glasses, he tapped the counter surface.
Bristol fished a twenty piece Franc from his pocket and flipped it toward the bartender. "Thanks," he said. "Keep it."
The brunette inclined her head toward the bartender and smiled her thanks as he left them to look after other customers. "So, what are we waiting for?" she asked Bristol. "You've got the shipment being loaded. What's the other meeting?"
Bristol downed his scotch slowly and pondered the other patrons for a long moment, leaning heavily on his forearms on the bar. "I'm taking a little profit in an otherwise profitless venture," he commented firmly, but quietly.
"You're selling out your own countrymen. What profit's worth that?" she replied, keeping her voice equally low.
"I'm getting information they'll find useful. There's no selling out happening. You're wrong."
She looked at him squarely and asked with surprise, "Why are you trying to convince me?"
He reached for her chin, and brown eyes looked sincerely into her eyes. "I'm sorry you got caught in this." His fingers brushed her cheek, and Melinda swallowed back a wave of revulsion.
"Wasn't it? You could have refused us passage." Turning her head, she sipped her wine, looking away at Janice's profile.
The blonde was now accepting a platter of food from a waiter, and laughed at something her French companion said, as he forked some chicken into his mouth. She was beginning to feel an edge of annoyance. She was stuck with the questionably moraled Bristol and it seemed Janice was enjoying herself. She thought again that the blonde was probably just biding her time for a good escape opportunity.
It was time she got on with her own escape plan then. She watched Janice excuse herself then, standing and brushing Boutre's hand as he reached for her arm. Time to get some attention, Melinda thought. She could cover for Janice's escape with a small diversion.
She moved to the piano, leaning easily on the upraised surface. Bristol made a move to join her but she waved him off, turning to the dark-skinned well-dressed pianist. "Do you do requests?" she asked with a smile.
"Sometimes," he answered with liquid tones. "Did you have something in mind?"
Having thought only up to getting out of Bristol's immediate reach, Melinda was now at a loss for what to do. She looked from Bristol to the rapidly departing blonde and made up her mind. "I'd like to sing," she said.
"For him?" The pianist remarked. "A song for lovers," he said with a slow smile. "My favorite kind. Name's Sam. What's yours?"
"Melinda," she responded absently as she looked toward the doorway Janice had just walked behind. A small sign indicated powder rooms. "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," she said, looking back to the pianist.
"A duet. Did you have a partner in mind?" He smiled and nodded in assent as she raised her brow questioningly at him. "What's your key?"
"C is fine." Blue eyes flashing she settled next to him, watching as he warmed up on the song's rhythms. She warmed to her ruse and positioned herself where she could see Bristol squirming, unable to bring himself to make a scene. The piano part began, and Melinda fell into the music, remembering the days spent at her grandmother's knee as the woman played wonderful tunes on the one in their home.
"You say toMAYto; I say toMAHto.
You say poTAYto; I say poTAHto.
You like EEther; I like EYEther.
You say NEEther; I say NIGHther.
Our romance is past before it's begun.
It's plain to see ... we two will never make one." Melinda looked over to Bristol with a wry smile. The crowd chuckled and clapped. Bristol frowned, but didn't move as all eyes followed Melinda's gaze for a minute and he was suddenly on the spot.
Smiling at how well her plan was working, Melinda continued. She watched Bristol, making everyone else in the room watch him as well. His eyes stayed on her, confused. And she knew he forgot all about Janice. "But oh, if we part..." She heard the door across the room click as all eyes focused on her. Moving beyond the sense of being on display, and her natural aversion to it, Mel turned to see Janice emerging slowly, pausing with her hand on the doorknob. What was the blonde doing back? She had been certain she was covering for the woman's escape. "Why that might break my heart." Stop thinking, Mel, she told herself, and sing, hearing her grandmother's advice echo in her head.
"So if you want OYsters, I'll give up ERsters. For if we part..." Her voice trailed off as she caught Janice's green eyes across the room, and felt emotion choke her. Thankfully it was Sam's turn again. As he moved into his portion, she tore her eyes away from Janice with effort and joined him for the closing joint stanza.
"So... Let's call the calling off... off..." She let her voice drift into silence along with Sam's and shared a gentle smile with him. The patrons of Rick's clapped appreciatively, drowning their conversation. The song was new, playfully romantic, perfect for a mid-afternoon serenade.
"Nice," Sam complimented her. "Sing with me anytime you like." He nodded behind her. "Looks like your fella wasn't too happy about it though."
Melinda turned to see Bristol crossing the floor with a grim look on his face. She spared a glance away from him and noticed Janice standing up straight again since she had leaned against the wall. She winked at the blonde, hoping the woman would understand the song was for her, not for the man who suddenly grabbed her up in his arms in a false hug.
"Nice job, sweet." He gestured to the tables. "Ready for some dinner?" He touched her shoulder. "A little too much attention though. You might want to duck out to powder your nose." He kissed her cheek and patted her hand caught between his. "Give them a chance to forget about you." He looked querulously at her for a moment then shook himself.
Her smile was genuine then. Perfect. Leaving Bristol to walk to the table alone, she exited to the powder room.
Since Sam started into another song, no one saw the blonde woman follow the brunette. Including, surprisingly, Bristol who at that moment was engaged with the waiter and ordering two dishes of the house special.
Melinda moved along the short hall, passing the door to the powder rooms and another labeled "office". Then she pulled open the small narrow door at the end, looking around the edge cautiously.
Melinda slammed the door shut quickly and turned around. "Oh, God! Janice, it's you!" The brunette enveloped the blonde in a hug. "Don't scare me like that!"
"Like what?" Ignoring her relief at the effusive hug, Janice backed out of the embrace and pointed at the doorway. "I'm not the one walking out the door."
"I was looking for a back way out. I got away from Bristol for a few minutes." She lowered her voice again. "He thinks I'm powdering my nose."
Janice almost laughed at the brunette's very proper language and reserved whisper. "You don't have to whisper, Mel. No one else here."
"That won't last long." She felt Janice's fingers slide warmly over her palms, then pause. She winced as they traced the raw spot from her earlier encounter with a wall. Her palms were turned over and Melinda watched the bent blonde head as Janice inspected the scrapes.
"What happened? Are you all right? Did Bristol do something?"
"I'm all right. I stumbled into a wall." She moved her own fingers over Janice's hands. Green eyes finally lifted to meet her gaze. "Really. I'm all right. I'm just glad you got away from him." She heard the words in her head a scant second before they spilled out, and couldn't stop them. "That gendarme seems rather taken with you."
"I needed some help. Jean filled the bill nicely." She shrugged easily. "I knew Bristol would be watching me."
Jean, Melinda thought with a sinking feeling. Then she brightened slightly, finally digesting the last of Janice's words. "You're just using him? For what?"
"I'm getting back onto the ship tonight."
"Are you crazy? That'll get us killed for sure."
Janice corrected her with a firm grip on the woman's arm. When blue eyes focused on her, she was firm. "Not us, Mel. Me. I got us into this, I'm going to get us out of this."
"I was trying to give you a way out." The brunette brushed her hair back from her eyes. "Why didn't you take it?"
"What do you mean?"
"You came back here. I made sure Bristol forgot all about you. You were supposed to get away."
"I did find a way out," Janice confided. She tilted her head to the side a bit, looking up at Mel with a look of pleasant surprise. "Had my hand on the door too. Then I heard you singing." She laid a gentle hand on the brunette's wrist. "Why didn't you tell me you could sing?"
"It was just a silly little song." Mel shrugged. "It kept their attention like it was supposed to."
"For just a silly little song, it was really good." Janice watched Melinda's coloring change noticeably. "You didn't think so?"
"It's not important. Why did you come back? You were supposed to get away. I can handle Bristol."
Janice gently touched Melinda's raw palms. "Why don't I believe you?" She watched the brunette's face form into a confused frown. "You really expected me to leave? Without you?" She saw the surprise and realized that was exactly what Melinda had thought... and planned. "Now who's forgetting we started this trip together, so we'll finish it together?"
"Janice." Melinda looked away, hearing a commotion in the dining room. "When he grabbed you..." She brushed her knuckles gently over the shorter woman's cheek. "I got scared I guess."
"Well, you can stop worrying." Janice smiled confidently.
Melinda swallowed. "I like worrying about you." She lowered her head slowly, drawn by confident green eyes.
Janice was swallowed up for a precious few seconds in deep dark swirling blue. Their situation... the whole world fell away in fact, as Melinda's mouth gently touched hers. The feather-light sensation sent a strong shiver down her back and a weakness into her knees. She gripped Melinda's arms more tightly to compensate.
The touch of their lips became firmer. Janice started closing her eyes, wonderously falling under a spell as Melinda's mouth trembled against hers.
A set of heavy footfalls startled them. Both women's hands released their holds and they stumbled back abruptly.
The door marked "office" across the way opened. A solemn-looking man, with a quirked expression, stepped out, and noticed them as he turned to lock the door. "Good evening. Something I can do for you?"
Melinda, whom he had pinned first with his gaze, shook her head. "No. Just using the powder room."
"Well it's back this way, kid." The tone wasn't derogatory, merely informative. He pulled out a cigarette and pointed behind them with it. The women were quiet, looking to one another for a suggestion on how to proceed. "C'mon. I'll walk you there." He gestured for them to precede him.
The trio walked a few steps and paused in front of the powder room door. "You two aren't from Casablanca, are you?"
Janice looked from the brunette to the dark haired man in white cocktail jacket and black slacks and high polish shoes. "We're passing through. The... our ship stopped overnight."
"Dangerous traveling on the water these days. American, or British?"
"American." Melinda shrugged. "What about you?"
He shook his head and chuckled, the sound deep and quickly cut short. "No, American. Name's Rick. This is my place." He looked at the blonde with a sharp smile. "You two aren't traveling alone, are you?"
"No of course not." Melinda pulled open the door. The gesture was enough to end their conversation, and Rick moved on, tapping his cigarette and lighting it before dropping the lighter back into his coat pocket. He smoothed the pocket before leaving the women alone and entering the dining room.
Just as he entered the dining room, Janice heard a raised voice from among the patrons. "Where is she!"
There was a quiet murmur and then the sound of something slamming into something else. Before she could think about investigating, Janice felt Melinda's hand as it wrapped around her arm and pulled her inside. The space just before the door closed revealed Bristol, face reddening, stumbling into the corridor. "Damn bitch," he said in Arabic, turning on his heel. Another something slammed into the wall which actually reverberated with a low groan from the impact.
In the dark and cramped silence of the powder room, Mel crouched in the corner, holding Janice against her chest, watching the door with narrowed intense eyes. "Guess that decides that," she said wryly. "We're both getting out of here."
Janice chuckled and shook her head. "Come on." She stood up and held out a hand for the brunette. She looked down into the face she had been so close to only a few moments ago. The kiss still bemused her and she wondered exactly what was behind it.
Janice ducked out. Melinda was only a few steps behind when the door from the dining room opened again.
"Stop!" Melinda dove for the door, hearing Bristol's heavy steps running up behind her. She yanked it open and was half in and out when the captain's strong hand closed over her shoulder. Painfully she pulled it from his grip, feeling the compression that likely meant bruising. Then she was free in the alley behind the restaurant.
Stumbling she came up against a wall and bounced off of it, feeling her already sensitive palms get more scratched. Then she was in a warm grasp. "Easy." Janice pulled Melinda behind her adding, "Now, stay back."
"Covington!" Bristol swung a fist only to see Janice jump out of his way. She turned, revealing her hands as she drew them from her pockets. "Wait a minute!" Alarm filled his voice as he looked down the slim barrel of a gun. "Where did you?"
"Funny what you can obtain from the right people," Janice replied, waving the gun easily.
"But she had no--"
"Not her, Bristol. My French policeman." She cocked the weapon's hammer. The sound shockingly abrupt in the approaching evening's silence. "You've got a choice. Drop your shipment, or I drop you. Right here. Right now."
The Lob Lolly captain stuttered opposition. "I have people waiting for that cargo," he argued. "I can't just--"
"They'll just have to be disappointed. I want you to order the cargo unloaded, or I kill you right here, and take over your ship."
"Melinda, be quiet!" Her eyes never left Bristol. "I'll blow up your ship," she told Bristol coldly. "You lied to me. You killed Hock after he did his job for you." He looked surprised. "I found out from Boutre. Did you know they just buried the man with no name just two days ago?"
She pointed it at his knees. "You had similar plans for us."
"It wasn't my idea."
"I don't care whose idea it was, or wasn't. You don't just indiscriminately kill people." Janice rolled her shoulders, easing the tension she could feel building.
They didn't see Bristol's weapon until it was there, cocked and aimed right back at them, targeting Janice. Melinda gasped. Janice felt herself squeezing the trigger. She closed distance and watched him fall away from her with a wound in his chest bleeding freely. In an almost surreal moment, Janice felt Melinda's arms close around her. "Not again," the brunette murmured against her head, the words more vibration than sound.
"He was going to kill us, Mel."
"I know, Janice. I know." Melinda continued murmuring as they walked away from the restaurant and the man dying on the alley stoop. Under her hands, she felt Janice's shoulders and instinctively massaged the muscles as the blonde walked.
The single gunshot might have avoided noticed, if Jean had not chosen that moment to stand and go in search of his meal companion. Hand still on the back of his chair, he froze. He looked around too suddenly, drawing the attention of his commanding officer, Louis.
Louis stood at the entrance, scanning the dining room while they waited for the maitre'd to identify a seat for himself and his two companions. Spotting Jean standing, he immediately gestured. The sudden quick look around made him curious.
"I will return," he told his companions, one of the well-to-do couples living in the city. She was dressed in a simple style dress, with flowing skirt, topped off with a shocking chartreuse hat. Her husband wore the typical dining attire, gray flannel pants neatly trimmed to his muscular figure and an open collar maroon shirt.
The wife asked, "What is it, Capitan?"
Probably nothing, he thought. Jean was one of his more easily startled officers. Nervous about the Reich, and indignant about the German movements they heard more and more frequently these days. "I see one of my men. Order your meal. I will join you in a few moments."
The husband nodded curtly. Accepting his grant of leave, Louis started through the diners, winding his way toward Officer Boutre. Not seeing his captain, Boutre moved to the rear of the restaurant, apparently destined for the restrooms. It would have stopped Louis's pursuit, he not being the sort of man to follow another into such a private area without cause.
But then Jean looked quickly over his shoulder back at the dining room before disappearing. The man's eyes scanned the room, his chest moved in a deep breath, and then he pulled the door wide and quickly went through.
Louis then looked for Rick, the cafe's owner. The tall, dark-haired American met his gaze intently, then bent toward his piano player, the black fellow named Sam, murmuring something in his ear.
Now that's curious, Louis thought. He decided to question Rick first. So he crossed the room to intercept Rick as the piano music began.
"Evening, Louis," Rick said easily. "What brings you here?"
"Food. I thought. But you have such a look of invitation about you, Rick. I thought I might trade news with you."
The man quirked a smile then smoothed his face back to uninterested lines. "Really? So you have news to share." He leaned against the bar and gestured for a drink. The bartender moved to fill a glass with his favorite. Rick looked back at Louis, propping his foot on the baseboard of the bar. "Well, I'm all ears. What's new in town?" He took up the drink and swallowed a small bit eyeing the French captain with amusement.
"You are amusing, Rick. How long has my lieutenant been here," he gestured toward the empty table where he had first seen Jean.
"No one there," Rick informed him, looking up past the Frenchman.
"I know that."
"Then why don't you ask him? I didn't see him come in, if you must know." Rick finished his drink and set it down on the bar. "Now I have to go assure the customers that the play in the card room is fair. Excuse me."
Louis stood for a moment alone at the bar as Rick left, headed for the card room as he said. The bartender gestured inquiringly. Louis waved off the suggestion of a drink. Looking back over his shoulder he was surprised not to see Boutre not emerging from his business. His instincts prickled and he moved toward the back of the restaurant himself. Patrons gestured to him, some kindly, others furtively. One mystery at a time, he told himself, gesturing back here and there with a smile plastered on his dark features. Finally he gained the door and pulled it open.
The hall beyond was empty. He noticed that Rick's office door was closed, the water closet door was open, and the door at the far end of the corridor, leading to the alley, was open slightly.
The alley? What in the name of Mary was his lieutenant doing in the alley? Louis proceeded quickly. Just as he reached the door and started to peer around it, he felt it pull from his hands.
Unholstering his weapon, he backed up and pointed it at the doorway. With a start, Jean stepped back in. "Captain!"
Sighing, Louis lowered his gun. "Lieutenant Boutre," he began formally. "What are you doing back here?" Boutre started to gesture with some explanation when Louis noticed the blood stains on his hands. "What happened, Boutre?" he demanded, grabbing the man's hands.
Boutre paused for a moment, studied his hands and then sighed. "Come with me," he told Louis. Then he turned around and led his captain out into the alley. As Louis emerged, looking further up the alley a bit, Jean closed the door and gestured to something behind it. "Over here, captain."
Louis turned and started. Bending close to the crumpled man on the stoop. Gingerly he opened one of the man's eyes. "Is he dead?" he questioned.
"Yes. I found him just a moment ago. Gunshot." Once again, Louis noticed Jean looking along the alley. "Did you see his killer?" he asked pointedly.
The gendarme shook his head. "Non, capitan. I found him just like this. I was about to go inside and locate a phone to call headquarters."
Louis frowned then looked at the dead man then glanced back up at his officer. "Let's see if we can't identify this one," he suggested, already beginning to check through the man's pockets.
Jean bent down and assisted, helping to shift the man so that they could check for back pockets as well as remove his coat. Watching to see that the captain's head was down, he looked once more down the alley.
Searching for his date. Each moment that passed increased his feelings of misgiving. Why did they always pick him, he thought with a gentle sigh.
"Come on, Jean." He held up a boat whistle. "Let's call for a car." Louis stood and watched back into Rick's quietly, sensing Jean following on his heels. He looked down the alley himself once more, holding the door for Jean.
He was galvanized into action, drawing his weapon, when he noticed shadows moving in a doorway. "Jean!" he called his lieutenant back. "This way!"
The two French officers jogged toward the suspect doorway. They pulled up short at a laundry's rear entrance, encountering a washerwoman sorting clothes. In rapid-fire French, Louis inquired if the woman had seen anything going on at Rick's earlier. She replied that she had just come from the front of her establishment, where she had been servicing customers. Louis and Jean emerged back in the alley, searching it further up and back down toward Rick's.
"We'll have to close the harbor," Louis said. "No ships in or out until we've searched them for the killer."
Jean nodded. "I'll get right on it, sir." Holstering his weapon, he jogged between buildings and emerged on the street. Louis went back up to the cafe to call for the car. Boutre studied the faces of everyone milling on the street. He spotted a tall brunette woman walking alone into a pastry shop, then backtracked on the woman's path and noticed a blonde seated at an outside table. He changed direction and crossed the street to the shop. "Miss Covington," he said warmly, gesturing widely. "So good to see you again."
Green eyes flew up to his face and the man knew a sinking feeling that he had found the sailor's killer. He said only, "You are leaving tonight on the first boat out, oui?"
Janice frowned, then slowly nodded. "Oui." He nodded back.
"Bon chance," he added quietly as she stood. He watched her catch up with her friend, that Jean remembered as the singer in Rick's, and the two women exchanged words. The brunette put back her order on the counter, and they walked off into the night. He watched the brunette slip her arm around Covington's shoulder, bend her head close and speak words he could not hear.
Jean Boutre decided he had better get down to the wharves himself, surprising himself with the thought to run interference for the women as they made their escape. The blonde had been a pleasant companion, witty and intelligent. He had managed a good time, and suspected only that the shooting had been in self-defense.
Shaking his head, he took quicker route to the wharves. Perhaps they might have a quiet moment to talk.
Janice settled her nerves some two blocks before the wharf district began. She reached up and nudged the weight from her shoulders.
It happened to be Melinda's arm. "Janice?"
The brunette's voice held curiosity but the blonde also could feel an underlying wave of concern practically crash over her. She closed her eyes, stopped walking and turned to face Melinda before she looked up into deep troubled blue eyes. "I'm all right, Mel."
Those eyes intensified their search. Janice could feel the woman's breath on her face when she spoke. "Are you sure?" Finally Mel tore her gaze away, leaving Janice studying the smooth line of her jaw from ear to chin. "The gendarme seemed worried. Do you think he knows?"
Boutre. Janice sighed. "He probably guessed." She started around the corner. "We had better move on."
She stopped so quickly that Melinda stepped on her heels.
"Sorry." Melinda looked past Janice, resting her hands on the woman's shoulders. "What's wrong?"
"Police. Everywhere." She pulled back into the building's shadow. "We'll hide out. Wait for the crowd to thin."
Mel shrugged. "We've done this before. Disguises."
"All our stuff's in that warehouse," she remarked.
"They're searching the buildings now. They're bound to make the connection, when they find our things in the warehouse belonging to Bristol's ship," Melinda pointed out.
"God damned son of a --," Janice replied with deep feeling. Then she caught Melinda's ears turning pink. "Cute." The pink deepened. "Sorry. Guess I'll have to sneak in and swipe it."
Melinda was shaking her head before Janice finished speaking. "No. We're going. I am not getting separated from you again." There was a glint of steel now in the deep blue, which Janice was coming to recognize, as Melinda's intent not to lose an argument.
She was surprised how little it had been used on her, and found it charming as well as challenging. "How is it anyone ever thought you were a genteel Southern belle, Mel Pappas?"
"People see what they want to see."
Nodding, Janice had to agree. "Well. You ready?"
She peered back around the wall, straining to hear the officers' exchanges as they moved through the buildings, piers and ships. French, inquisitive and bold in tone, filled the air.
"Calumet, move your men to the west section. Past warehouse nineteen. One man in each building."
"What time do you want us to meet?"
"Move quickly. We can't have the harbor closed past evening tide. Merchants'll have our heads. No more than an hour."
"All right. Men, move out!"
Melinda's whisper sounded just off her right ear. "You heard?" Janice nodded, feeling the brunette's form close on hers. "We don't have much time," Mel finished.
Sucking in a confidence-building breath, Janice nodded again. "All right. This way." She took advantage of the lengthening evening shadows and skirted buildings quickly, moving east along the line of piers. She kept track of Melinda with an almost physical sensation that seemed to shift around her back depending on the woman's position.
For now the brunette remained about two paces off her left side, which was good. It allowed for the archaeologist to draw the gun if necessary. So she kept one eye on the roaming officers, and the other on their destination, a small door set in the side of a metal building. Painted over the door was "Pier 6."
Melinda reached out for Janice's shoulder to get her attention before speaking. The blonde's hand intercepted hers. The action startled Meli and she jumped backward, stumbling into a ten-foot pile of stacked crates.
The old worn wood shattered. Surrounded by loud cracking, creaking and crashing, the brunette fell toward the pavement, dazedly covering her head against the tumbling broken planks. A sharp agonizing pain shot down her leg coaxing her hands away from her head.
Janice's alarmed yell was the last thing the young woman heard before the sharp edge of a thick plank slammed into her head, just over her left ear. She fought the blur in her vision until the ringing in her ears forced her eyes shut. Then the darkness deepened and she felt and heard nothing more.
The debris settled with a groan. Melinda lay somewhere in the middle. No sound broke the silence now settling over the evening. Janice studied the pile frantically. Between the building shadows and the depth of the pile, she didn't see anything clearly for a long heart-stopping moment.
"What happened?" A breathless male voice burst from almost on top of her.
Janice was jolted into action and she started pulling at the wood boards. Dimly she was aware of the man next to her doing the same. She was surprised only in a vague way, since no one had been investigating on this side of the wharf area for the moment. But now, panic rising, she was grateful for the help.
Finally they freed an arm. Tossing aside the wood, Janice climbed onto the pile and dug out Melinda's very still body. She couldn't see movement in the unconscious woman's chest. Adjusting her stance, she ignored the wood that slid away from her feet and knelt in the debris, wrapping her arms around the lolled head.
"Mel?" she whispered urgently. "Please, Mel. Can you hear me?" Gently she lowered her forehead against her partner's and brushed aside the disarrayed hair from her closed eyes. Her hand stilled in a warm sticky pool next to Melinda's ear.
Looking around, Janice's gaze fell on the man who had helped her. "Jean!" she recognized the friendly gendarme.
He answered. "Don't move her. Tell me what you need." Arms open, he gestured lightly as he spoke.
Responsive to the businesslike tone, Janice answered. "Cloth. Or something to stop the bleeding."
"Blood? On her head?" Janice nodded. "Absolutement! Don't move! I'll be right back."
Fear gripped the young blonde. Caught between letting Mel die from a head wound, or trusting a friendly officer in a strange country, she chose the latter. She remained still, listening to her heart pounding so hard she could feel the reverberation in her palms as they laid against Melinda's shoulders. Shifting slightly she laid a palm over the woman's jugular. She could sense nothing. Lightly she brushed her lips on the brunette's blood-spattered cheek and felt the tears well up, choking in her own throat. Her skin was chill to the touch.
Oh, God. Janice's tears flowed into the blood-matted dark hair. She prayed Boutre would return in time.
Squeezing Melinda in her arms, the archaeologist wondered how to give the brunette a chance. She cradled the brunette in a preoccupied rocking motion, unwittingly shifting the pile of broken wood.
"Don't leave me, Mel. Don't you dare leave me." Her voice trailed off. Her throat closed off, clogged by the tears she could no longer stop.
Four gendarmes returned with Jean in the lead. Janice looked up to see all of them circling her and then finally, climbing through the debris toward her and Melinda.
"Has she woken up, ma'am'selle?" Jean's tone was formal as well as in French, when Janice knew full well how excellently he spoke English.
She answered in kind. "Non, monsieur." She looked back into the brunette's calm, motionless face.
The four men reached for her and she squirmed back, tugging Melinda with her. But, effectively surrounded she could not go far.
The entire situation however upset the precarious balance of the wood, and Janice felt the rubble collapse again beneath her. She squeezed a tighter hold on Melinda as they both fell into a well created by the wood beams. She braced her shoulders, but the fall only stopped when her back and rear were atop the pavement.
Her hips and legs felt bruised by the fall. She ignored that for now. She checked Melinda's face for any sign of waking or additional pain stress. What were bruises compared to Melinda's injuries? With a squeak, The woodpile around them swayed precariously, threatening to topple. With a yelp she attempted to cover both herself and Melinda's face. A few scraps tumbled down on top of them. While a few were deflected by the officers, Janice felt one or two strike her arms and she batted them aside.
Then there was silence. She remained still for long moments more, waiting for her heart to slow down. Under her hands, she felt Melinda's body and clung to that knowledge. That they were here, together, if not altogether safe. But her panic would not go away. Long day, she guessed, realizing that only that morning she and Melinda had been on a boat they thought could take them home.
One gendarme put a hand on her right shoulder and sought to calm her fears. "Mademoiselle, please. We will move your friend. But we cannot safely move you both."
Green eyes pulled away from his earnest light eyes and sought Jean's familiar brown. The lieutenant's jaw was firm, but he nodded. So far he had not lied to her.
So she relaxed her grip and felt other hands replace hers around Melinda's body as she was lifted free first, caught up in a cradle hold by one officer.
"Merci," she murmured as he used his stronger legs to move over the debris.
"Everything will be all right," he replied. "Sit here." He settled her gently against the building wall some distance from the accident.
Janice heard an alarm bleeting and coming closer and though she did not tear her gaze from where the men worked, she recognized the arrival of a medical van. Jean must have called for help.
The men stood in a formation around Melinda. One pair linked arms under her shoulders, supporting her head. The other pair slid their arms gingerly under her thighs and lower back.
Jean started the count, directing a steady lift and move. The doctor--at least she assumed by the bag he carried--picked up the directions.
Janice did not realize she had been holding her breath until Melinda's body was lowered to the ground. She felt her nostrils flare in a relieved breath. The exchange between Jean and the doctor was no more than a buzz to the blonde. She tried to stand but found her legs would not support her. Sagging against the wall, she called, "Jean." Her voice was barely a whisper and she tried again. "Lieutenant Boutre."
The gendarme looked up from Mel's prone figure and motioned to one of his compatriots to fetch Janice to him. With the young officer's help, Janice made her way to the doctor's side. "Will she be all right?"
"The doctor says she must wake up before he can make a diagnosis." The doctor nodded affirmatively at the gendarmes words though his eyes remained on his patient. He had his hand gently gripping her wrist. He nodded in steady time to something and finally nodded abruptly.
"It is very weak, but she has a pulse," he announced, to no one in particular, though Janice felt giddy relief at the news and sagged against the man supporting her.
Finally she pushed off and bent near Melinda's head. "I'm her friend," she told the doctor. "What do you need to do now?"
"I must take her to the hospital where I can observe her more easily." He gestured to his bag. "I cannot do that here."
"I understand. In your opinion is it safe to move her?"
He sat back on his heels and studied Melinda briefly from head to foot. "We can do nothing here. We must move her." He focused on the gash on Melinda's head as well as a spreading red stain on her side. "I cannot say what is broken, or not."
Janice took a deep breath and nodded. She stepped back and let the doctor direct the men lifting Melinda once again, and moving her to the back of the medical van.
She started to climb into the van after him. A firm grip on her arm made her look back. Boutre looked up at her. "I have to go, Jean," she said firmly.
He thought for a moment then nodded. "I will come visit you. After I have made my report to the captain."
She had to know. "What will you tell him?"
"Three of my men and I had to clear up an accident at the docks." He waved away one of his men who had come up to speak with him. More quietly he added, "I will speak with you at the hospital before I say anything more."
Janice reached out and squeezed his hand, giving him a thankful smile. Pulling herself into the van, she sat on the floor as the doors were closed.
She felt the engine start and the motion of the van drew her eyes to Melinda's face.
"Your friend will be all right," the doctor said, as he carefully settled Melinda's head between pillows on the steel frame bed nailed to the van floor.
"Why hasn't she woken up?" Janice asked.
"The head injury, it is a strange thing. Some people do not feel anything at all, all normal very quickly. Others..." Discomfitted by his own words he trailed off. He looked at her steadily and moved over to her. "Now. Let me see to your injuries."
Janice looked up at him and frowned. "I'm all right," she said confused. She lifted her hands, and moved her arms. Then she felt a pull in her left shoulder. Looking down, she noticed the blood trickling down the arm.
"It is the shock. You were hurt, but concerned for your friend. So," he chuckled lightly, gathering up a cloth to clear away the blood. "Your body did not bother you with its own troubles."
Janice gritted her teeth against the stinging pain accompanied by the doctor's effort to clean her wounds. She leaned back as he found a tear in her pants and located the source of her inability to stand easily earlier. A wooden board must have jammed into her thigh during the woodpile's collapse. He dug what splintered pieces he could from the gash. The alcohol he poured into it to cleanse it made Janice's eyes water fiercely. Closing her eyes she felt the tugs and pulls as he firmly wrapped the leg in a temporary bandage.
"I will dress it better when we get to the hospital," he said quietly. The van made a turn and both Janice and the doctor were thrown to the right.
She caught herself quickly and then fell back and grasped Melinda's unmoving hand. "Hang in there," she told the woman. "We'll be out of here soon."
Looking up to see the doctor's eyes on her, she inquired, "How much further?"
"One more turn," he answered, just as the van took it. "Then we will be helped out."
Janice waited through the short time it took the medical van to pull to a stop and the doors to open. Then she watched hawk-like as Melinda was removed from the van first and carried inside on a wheeled bed. Then, leaning on the doctor's arm, she followed.
Concerned for Melinda, she pushed the doctor toward the door ahead of her. "I can make it on my own. Please see to Mel."
Nodding his acceptance of her decision, the doctor hurriedly followed his worst condition patient inside.
An older woman, in nursing whites, walked calmly up to her. "Mademoiselle," she gestured. "Please come with me. I will have another doctor look at your leg."
Casting a glance over her shoulder where Melinda and the doctor had disappeared, Janice turned with a sigh and followed the nurse, feeling the stabbing pain caused by each step. Please, God, she looked ceilingward for a split moment. Please let Mel be all right.
The first thing she felt was cold. Then the natural reaction of shivering alerted Melinda to the unpleasant pain. It radiated from the left side of her head, causing a buzzing in her ears that in turn seemed to rattle her teeth. God, that hurt. She concentrated on stopping the shivers.
A faint deep voice echoed somewhere in front of her face. "She seems to be coming around," it said in French, particularly a dialect heard only in the French region on the border between France and Spain. Well, Melinda, she silently applauded herself. It looks like your brains are intact.
Though her body apparently was not. Scared to open her eyes and make the damage real by looking at it, Melinda cracked her lids only a sliver, identifying that the area was well-lit.
Okay, not on the pier anymore. She felt the pain as her chest rose and fell on a deep, breath. Tears rolled down her cheeks in reaction.
A large finger gently brushed the damp skin. "Come on, open your eyes," the voice spoke again, this time in English to her.
She worked her eyes open, catching a painful brightness just off to the left. With a "no" she was certain came out more like a groan, Melinda closed her eyes again. The man standing over her seemed to understand though. Next she heard him tell someone to turn off the light.
In the silence she heard the padding steps of someone walking away and the click of the light switch.
"All right now. Try again." Something soft was pressed firmly to the left side of her head. Amazingly that reduced the ache and she more readily opened her eyes.
She looked up into the older face of a man as details became more solid in the lower light. She searched his rugged square jaw and pale brown eyes for some sense of familiarity and came up blank. She must have managed to create a furrow in her brow because he introduced himself.
"I am Doctor Lupineau. You have been brought to my hospital." He nodded to her. "Now you. Can you tell me your name?"
Melinda rolled her head slightly as she tried to nod. A bolt of pain, fast as lightning, shot down from her head to her lower back, and she stopped moving, a moan escaping between her compressed lips. "Ow," she murmured.
"Try again," he insisted with a pleasant smile.
Melinda realized then that she must have a bad head injury and rather than being nosy, he was using the questions as a way to assess how badly she was hurt. All right. Talk then. Gingerly she moved her jaw, feeling a strain in her head, but not much more if she kept herself perfectly still.
Then she spoke carefully. "Melinda. I speak French."
"Magnifique!" His smile broadened in triumph. He switched to French. "Very nice to meet you, Melinda."
"That is my name, right?"
"According to the woman who accompanied you, yes."
She smiled then. "Good."
"I thought my mind was okay, but my head hurts so much..."
"Ah, I see. So you feared amnesia." He chuckled and squeezed her hand. "I thought I was the doctor here."
The laugh caught her unexpectedly, jolting her midsection and hurting not only her ribs but also her stomach. The laugh trailed off. "Where is my friend now?"
"She is in another room in the hospital."
"How long have I been here?"
"It has been nearly four hours since you were hurt."
She closed her eyes against a memory flashing before her eyes of falling into the stacked crates at the wharves. She felt an echo of hitting the broken wood and of other pieces crashing down on top of her. She tried to move her arm, and found it stiff and uncooperative. As she turned her head to look at it, she saw out of the corner of her eye, the doctor's assistant as he went to turn on the examining room light once more. She winced only slightly at the light's intrusion.
"Your head injury was what we feared most," Lupineau was saying. "But yes, you did break your right arm, and we have had to wrap your ribs, though none appear to have broken."
She moved slowly, bracing herself on her right elbow, and rolled so she could look down at her body. She saw the bandages around her stomach and saw the tatters remains of her blouse over her chest and shoulders. Her own pants, ripped off at the knees covered her and a thin blue hospital blanket lay over her lower legs. Lifting it she saw that she sported only a few scratches and bruises.
She shifted the left one under the covers and was gratified to feel a quick response, though there were rough spots on the skin irritated by the sheet. "My legs were just scratched, it seems."
Lupineau nodded. "Would you like to try and sit up? It might help with your head now."
At her slow nod, both Lupineau and his assistant reached behind her back and shoulders, gradually pushing her up. She let her left leg fall off the side of the table, followed soon by her right, which protested when the muscle pulled against her injured side. "I really did it this time," she murmured.
"Madamoiselle," the assistant offered. "you do this often?"
She had been in the midst of her efforts to settle herself on the table edge. She paused and leveled blue eyes, which were hazy but clearing quickly, on him. "I don't make a habit of it, no." Since he had asked in French, she answered him in kind.
"You speak excellently. You are American, non?"
"Yes, but I am a... translator," she answered, keeping it simple. "What is your name?"
The doctor released her arm and stepped back. "Your head aches still?" he asked.
"Just a little."
"I will have aspirin brought to you," he said.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
"I have other patients now that you have awakened."
"Oh. Right. I'm sorry. Thank you for treating me." She shifted her weight from one arm to the other briefly and raised her broken arm to offer a wave.
He smiled. "It was my pleasure."
Alone with the doctor's help, Melinda sat on the edge of the table caught in the growing spell of silence. But she needed to find out where Janice was, if the gendarme had arrested her for the Lob Lolly captain's murder, and if she was all right. She had a vague notion of the blonde hugging her and then more crashing as the crate pile collapsed further.
"Could I go find my friend?" she asked the physician's assistant.
He fixed her with a hard considering studious look. "We should finish dressing your wounds."
"I'd really like to get up and move around a bit. I'm a little shaky still, but movement should help." She leveled her blue eyes to his and blinked. Gently she brushed her nose and confirmed her missing spectacles. "Could I have my glasses." She offered him a bright smile. Running a hand through her hair, she made a face at the mess. She could do nothing where the bandage was taped, but... "And, is there someplace I can get this wood dust out of my hair?"
Caught by that smile he nodded quickly. "Oh, yes. Certainly." He quickly searched the surrounding tabletops and brought them to her. "Here you are." He looked around again as she put on the glasses. The process was a little awkward with only one hand that could reach her nose. "A nurse can help you with your hair. It is probably good to change the bandages anyway."
He offered her his arm from elbow to hand and stiffened the muscles as she leaned on it. Thankful she was taller than average, Melinda felt her feet touch the floor before she would have needed to jump.
"Then I'd like to find Janice." Steadying
herself on her legs proved a little more difficult than she had imagined.
Not because her legs were injured, but because she couldn't straighten
over her injured middle. She sighed carefully, feeling the muscles and
skin pull taut and then relax. "God, why can't anything be simple." With
her left hand bracing herself on the young man's frame, Melinda gestured
with her immobile right arm. "Let's go."
Janice laid with her head resting on her wrists, her pant leg ripped open to the bottom of her rear. Eyes closed she could feel every pull on the tendons and muscles as the nurse cleaned her thigh wound. Tears had stopped awhile ago, and now she just felt her face constantly wincing as each bit of wood was removed. "Got it all yet?" she asked, trying for casual.
They had been at this for the last two hours. She had not been seen right away because her injuries were not life-threatening; but once she sat down she had been unable to get up again to check on Melinda's progress.
The wait without word, and without seeing the brunette was beginning to make her chest ache for an entirely different reason than the bruises from having Mel fall on her when the wood shifted.
She winced as the nurse pulled more at the injury. "Could we take a break?" She had been lying on this damn table without moving. Her kidneys were protesting the fact that she hadn't been able to shift her position that long.
"Almost done, I think," the nurse replied. She was the same woman who had helped her after the doctor went to tend Melinda.
There was another sharp tug on the back of her thigh, followed by a pinch and Janice took a deep breath, looking over her shoulder. Her thigh was wrapped tightly with a thick bandage. "Wood really makes a mess, hmm?"
The nurse looked at her with an expression of disbelief. "You are a very interesting woman to make jokes," she remarked, though she gestured that Janice could now get up.
As Janice moved through the stiffness and ripped off the pantleg over the bandage, she offered, "I've had bulletwounds in worse places... but not by much." She tested her weight on her leg and satisfied she wouldn't fall over, she stepped away from the table.
A male voice interrupted. "Excuse moi?"
Janice dusted her blonde hair back from her face with a tired hand and looked up at the doorway. "Lieutenant Boutre," she acknowledged the man now standing in the doorway.
"I have brought someone so that we can have a conversation," he said carefully, looking sideways at the nurse.
Janice accepted the unspoken request for privacy. "Could you leave us alone?"
Gathering up some of the used gauze and towels, the nurse nodded and left them alone.
"Did you have a chance to check out the boat?" she asked him without preamble.
"Your accident happened before we could," he answered. "You were very lucky we were down at the docks." He gestured at her thigh. "How is your friend?"
"I haven't seen her since we came in." Janice shook her head. "I'm sorry you didn't get onto the boat. It's probably left port by now."
"It has not."
"Good. Are you sending out another inspection team?"
"There is no need."
Janice's brow creased in confusion. "I don't understand."
"We have known about the Lob Lolly since her last visit here," he answered. He ducked his head away from the fulsome glare she delivered. "It is not that we did not ... Hold on," he said finally, stumbling to explain. "I'll be right back."
Janice waited while Jean was gone; her mind filled with questions. She sorted through them and came up with the most important one to ask. When Jean reappeared at the doorway, she was ready. "If you knew about them, why didn't you do something before now?"
"They benefit the Resistance with their supplies."
"But they carry high grade explosives. And also bargain for secrets. Secrets against the Resistance," she pointed out.
Jean stepped back and his captain stepped inside. "This is Captain Louis Renault."
She looked at the shorter, thicker man and examined his face, trying to take his measure. "The Resistance may benefit by their supplies, but they give information about the same things to your enemies."
Crossing his hands behind his back, Renault studied his feet for a long moment. "I am in a very difficult position, Miss Covington." She raised an eyebrow at Jean. "Yes, my lieutenant has told me of your day in Casablanca."
He leaned back against the wall and crossed his arms over his chest. "As I was saying. It is difficult here, with the Reich breathing down our shirts, and yet our brothers meet also to form a Resistance under our noses.
"To be a good man to my country, I put my life and that of my men in danger. Or I can tell both sides that I will do nothing."
"Bristol came to us committed to the Resistance, but my ambivalence... It... made him angry."
"So he started selling his knowledge to the Germans?" Janice shook her head. "Incredible!"
"Bristol was not a simple man. At times rigidly loyal to the noble cause. Other times wrapped up in a need for money." Jean Boutre shook his head. "I don't entirely understand why he would enlist you to make his communications meeting for him. Or his supply requests. The merchants would give him all, and more. Whatever he requested."
Janice opened her mouth to say something. But another voice made the explanation she was seeking.
"It wasn't money, Lieutenant. It was acceptance." Janice looked toward the door and a grin spread across her face.
Melinda, looking as battle-weary as she herself felt, leaned on the doorjamb, one arm in a heavy splint and bandage, her other hand wrapped white-knuckled around the doorknob.
Blue eyes felt hungrily into green. "He wanted acceptance, acknowledgement of his heroism. It was as simple, and as complicated as that."
Janice moved to the woman's side and squeezed her hand. "It didn't matter what side gave him that. If they did, for that time, he gave them his loyalty." SHe looked to Boutre and Renault. "And because money was usually involved, he appeared to be a greedy blood-sucker."
Jean nodded. "It makes sense now." He turned to his captain. "What should we do about his ship?"
"Who was the man's first mate?"
Janice supplied, "Virgil Turandot."
"Turandot can be talked to, I'm sure of it," Boutre said. "I've heard him around town. Definitely pro-French."
"So we're just going to turn the ship over to the service of the French Resistance?" Melinda asked. "Bristol or not, the crew was responsible for a man's death, Captain?" She appealed to the French officer's sense of law and order.
Renault remained silent for a long time. However when he finally answered she could see no way to refute him. "If I bring them in, I would have to bring in your friend here. Murder conviction would put her away for a dozen years. Even a self-defense conviction would hamper your journey by several months." Refute him, or argue it, and Janice, in a bid at being fair, would have to go to jail as well.
The brunette looked to Janice for a long moment. An ache started low in her chest and rose higher the longer she remained standing. "Well, Janice?" she said, with a rush of air as she lowered herself abruptly into a chair. "Do we stay? Or go?"
Janice leveled her green eyes on Jean Boutre. "What's the next chance we have to get out of Casablanca?"
Boutre looked at his captain. "There might be a plane the day after tomorrow headed for the States. A few other passengers are expected soon."
Janice looked to Melinda. "We'll need our things out of the Lob Lolly warehouse."
"You are not mad, Janice?" Jean looked at her with uncertainty.
The blonde didn't want to just let the crew of the Lob Lolly go about its business as some sort of double- or triple-agents. But she didn't want to spend the next six months to sixty years sitting in a jail cell for committing an act of self-defense. "No. I guess not."
"Then all we need is a place to stay for a couple days," Melinda summarized with a sigh of relief. "Normal would be nice for a change." She hugged Janice to her with her good arm and smiled. She sucked in a breath and caught the slightly antiseptic scent of Janice's skin, from all the cleaner used in her wounds. Still the feel of them together, both safe and whole, well mostly, left her almost giddy with relief. She smiled against the woman's waist, since Janice stood right next to her chair.
Jean chuckled. To Janice he said, "You have a very amusing life, Miss Covington."
"No. Just amusing company, Lieutenant," Janice replied, giving Melinda's hand a squeeze.
"I will send an unmarked car for you both," Renault concluded. "They will take you to rooms I will arrange in a hotel. It is the least we can do for your troubles."
"Thank you, Captain," Melinda replied.
The two women remained lightly entwined as they watched the officers leave.
Finally alone with Melinda, Janice looked down into the open blue eyes. "I'm so glad you finally woke up." Crouching was out of the question, and sitting down was also going to be difficult, so she leaned forward, bracing herself on Melinda's shoulders, careful of the broken right arm. "You really had me worried, Mel. I'm glad you're going to be all right."
"Thanks, Janice. I don't remember much."
"Be glad you don't. It was not an experience I wish to repeat." The blonde looked over the brunette. "How can you be related to Xena and still be such a complete klutz?"
The brunette's cheeks reddened in embarrassment. "I seem to remember someone..." She broke off, squeezing her arms around Janice's waist. "Stopping without warning and grabbing my hand."
"Startled you?" Janice remembered back to that moment, with a steady warm feeling sliding up her back, when she realized it was Melinda and she reached back to grasp the woman's hand in a reassuring hold. "I didn't mean it."
"Well I guess we're even. Looks like some of the crates fell on you too."
Janice chuckled and hugged Melinda. "I guess so." Impulsively she bent her head down. But the quick reassuring peck on the cheek didn't materialize. Instead she captured Mel's lips in a lingering kiss. A heartful of worry, relief, giddy joy, and the newest edge of passion, kept them clinging long after the kiss finally concluded. "God, Mel," she murmured, breathing in the soft scent of the brunette's hair, which had been washed clean of the blood that had bathed her face earlier. Gingerly she kissed the spot on the bandage where the board had struck hardest. "Next time you intend to check out for an hour. Check with me first."
"I'm sorry I scared you," Melinda replied, tugging Janice's chin down so she could look into the green eyes shadowed by the memories of her earlier terror. She brushed away a tear that escaped. She kissed Janice lightly and then pulled back.
Janice caught herself suddenly yawning. She realized the tears were a combination of exhaustion and emotional turmoil. "It's been a long day."
Melinda gestured for Janice to help her up. The blonde offered an arm and between the two, they were standing side by side shortly. "Let's go," she directed with a flourish.
The two women moved slowly, but determined to push through their injuries, to the front waiting room to watch for the promised car. Janice tried to sit next to Melinda after helping the brunette take a seat, but found the chairs too hard against her bandaged thigh.
Melinda looked from the hard wood chair to her own lap and gestured. "Would you like to try here?"
"I could hurt you," she answered from her place leaning back against the window. "Besides it wouldn't look right."
"Do you really care how it looks?" came back the reply in a soft lilt. Janice swallowed. "Really? Over comfort?"
"All right, but if I'm too heavy, you tell me right away. Understand?" Janice lowered herself carefully to Melinda's lap.
Adjusting her position Mel felt the blonde sliding away. So she grabbed with her good arm around the woman's waist, resting her chin on Janice's shoulder. The slight stretch ease an ache in her back and she closed her eyes and sighed contentedly.
Janice's head tilted against hers slowly and her eyes closed as well.
Melinda sat at the vanity, studying her reflection and the room draped in shadows behind her. She glanced at the clock and noted it would dawn in only a couple hours. The only appointment they had was a supper engagement with the two French officers, Boutre and Renault, at Rick's Cafe American.
Moonlight beamed onto the doublewide bed, light a dancer's spotlight, illuminating Janice's hair splayed on the pillows. The effect brought a smile to Mel's face. It had been a dream of Janice Covington that remained most vivid from Melinda's four hours unconscious.
The brunette closed her eyes. Instantly the dream reformed in her mind. Everything about it consumed her senses. The sights, scents, sounds, and sensations were as vivid as if they were happening right now.
The tent smelled of sand and leather tack. The sleeping bag beneath her was roughened cotton twill. Rolling her head to the side, she found a fall of blonde hair across her shoulder. The soft texture tickled her lips when she pressed a kiss on it. Her bed partner shifted in sleep and a muscular arm slid across her stomach, which she realized was bare. Looking down at their bodies she acknowledged with a strange feeling of indulgence that both of them were naked. It made her tug her bedmate closer.
She stopped tugging but the woman continued to move across her body, lifting up and finally a face tilted toward her. Luminous green eyes sparkled with heat. A small hand slid over Melinda's breast, teasing the nipple. A bolt of lust instantly shot to her groin, and Janice's green eyes narrowed in triumphant passion.
Their mouths melted together, like their kiss in the back of Rick's. Only she was more at ease, and a sense of familiarity washed over her, instead of the uncertainty and unfamiliarity of that first time.
The fine hairs on Janice's arms left tingles in Melinda's hands as she slid her palms along them. Then she cradled shoulders and finally cheeks between her hands as the kiss deepened. Feeling the combination of soft hair and the delicate skin of Janice's ears, as their legs slid together made Melinda groan now as it had then, and awakened her.
Blue eyes searched their reflection, awash in confusion. She noticed the beads of perspiration and reached for a cloth in the wash basin. The cold jolted her heated skin, but finally she felt her cheeks cool and her heartbeat slow. The ache in her right arm and side, which had awakened her and sent her from the bed in the first place, was back. She rubbed her shoulder firmly, trying to unknot it.
Looking back up into the mirror she realized the bedcovers had been thrown back. Janice was gone, the white sheets reflecting the moonlight more brightly than the blue cover. Mel turned on the small stool and found Janice just four feet away off to her left. She looked up into questioning green eyes. "Janice?"
The blonde pulled her fingers through her hair. "Been awake long?" Green eyes took in Melinda' appearance with concern. She watched the brunette rub at her shoulder. "Still hurting?" Janice asked, stifling the concerned tone that threatened. Melinda's injuries had been severe, and it had taken Janice several bouts with her self before she had been able to just leave the grown woman alone to fall asleep. She watched Melinda rub her shoulder again, probably unaware she was even doing it. "Here, I'll see what I can do." Janice took Mel's left hand and cradled her right elbow in her palm and led the way back over to the bed. "Just sit here." She settled onto it, keeping her bandaged leg over the edge and tucking the other ankle under herself as she pulled Melinda down. Her thigh cradled Melinda's hip.
"I don't-- Really, I can--" Melinda's protests fell silent the moment Janice's fingers met her shoulders. It felt like she had been touched by a live wire. Lassitude invaded her limbs. "I--um, thank you," her voice fell to a whisper.
"No problem. I feel pretty good now," Janice admitted. "You should get some sleep. It'll probably help." Mel's skin was hot and soft under her hands and Janice was having a hard time concentrating.
For Melinda, the dream had returned. Dreams were one thing though and reality quite another. She reached up and nudged Janice's hands off. The woman's fingers trailed down her back, eliciting shivers. "Thanks, that-- I appreciate it."
Janice enfolded her in a quick hug from behind. "I'm just glad you're still here, Mel." As she spoke her breath caressed the brunette's ear. She felt the body under her hands shiver. "Get back under the covers and get some more sleep," she added then.
Mel stood and watched Janice adjust the sheets before she moved back onto the bed and slid under the covers. A bit awkwardly, because of her splint, she then laid back on the mattress and shifted to get comfortable.
Janice watched the woman's struggle and moved to adjust the pillows. She could feel the heat from Melinda's body rising up and almost engulfing her. She planted her hands and then reached under Melinda's head to plump the pillow.
The blonde's scent flooded over Melinda. She heard a question and focused on green eyes inches from her face. "What?"
"Are you comfortable?"
Swallowing, Melinda answered, "I-- um, I am, yes."
"Good," Janice replied with an exuberant smile.
"You're in a good mood."
Janice sat back on her hands and nodded, unfolding her legs. She carefully bent her legs and wrapped her arms around them. "Yeah, I am. We're out of Greece. We've got Xena's chakram and scrolls. We had a few scrapes." She shook her head at this last. "But we got rid of a crooked captain, stopped some espionage, and even had a run in with a pile of crates.
"But," she unfolded herself and leaned forward looking into Melinda's face, drawn close by a desire to hug the woman. "You're alive and so am I. And that's great." She quickly kissed the corner of Mel's mouth as she trailed dark hair through her fingers. "Tomorrow we'll board a plane to the States."
Melinda's good left arm settled around Janice's shoulders and back. "Home," she said, not realizing how much her blue eyes sparkled with expectation and pleasure at the sound of that word.
But Janice heard it, and with slow movement molded their bodies together. Nightshirts separated them, but curves fit and the air exploded with sensation.
Melinda gave in. Eyes darkening to indigo in the moonlight, she felt her arm moving as she watched her palm cup the back of Janice's head. Blonde hair slipped loosely between her fingers. Insistently, and without any resistance from the archaeologist, she began to explore Janice's lips.
Tenderly she tasted the soft skin, exploring the differences in texture and taste. They were softer and smoother than the lips of the few men the Southerner had kissed before. The unique taste drew her in to experience more.
She brought her tongue into play to identify the flavor. But once she licked Janice's lips, eliciting a moan from the blonde, amusing herself with a classification study was the last thing on her mind.
Watching the same combination of revelation and confusion flow across Janice's mobile features helped Melinda break off the kiss. She could not bring herself to put the blonde from her however. An arm slipped around her waist and a small hand squeezed her hip, and light lips touched her shoulder. Melinda discarded all thoughts of separation and rested her head against Janice's as the smaller woman nuzzled into her shoulder. In repose, she listened to the blonde's breathing.
Neither of them wanted to say anything. Morning would be soon enough to talk about the line they seemed to have crossed. But for now, they were alive, they were together, and it was enough. In the silence that enfolded them, Melinda was never quite sure who fell asleep first.
Continued in Part 4
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