Out of India

by Enginerd


Chapter 8 - Whatís in a Name?

 

Sophia stood outside the hanger with a brand new suitcase by her feet. Fanning herself with a folded map did little to ward off the sweat which trickled down her back and between her ample. . . assets, despite her skimpy blouse and shorts which she thought would help her keep cool. She frowned, hating being hot and sweaty. Well, only if it didnít involve her favorite activity, she reconsidered. Blowing out a breath, she glanced at her watch over her sunglasses. Still a half an hour early she noted with some impatience, hoping to see the world before she melted into a puddle.

When she spotted the archeologistís truck finally approach, a big grin filled her face as she waved furiously.

***

"Hope she doesnít hurt herself," Janice mentioned with a snicker, noticing her friendís welcome, which included bouncing body parts that enthusiastically greeted them.

Mel smiled politely, nodded, and pushed up her glasses, well aware she would never have to fear about that particular injury. She looked around at the airfield curiously, absently noting it was a far more remote location than she had expected.

Parking on the side of the hanger, Raj jumped out of from between the various trunks in the truck bed and stretched as he looked around.

Melís curiosity turned to concern as she could see tall patches of grass and various stones on the dirt runway. Before she could ask if the runway was in an acceptable condition for their flight, Janice got out and was greeted by her not-so-silent partner.

"Janice! I couldnít sleep a wink last night!" Sophia gushed and gave Janice a big hug.

Melís gaze uncomfortably dropped to . . . her nails.

"Oooff. Geeze, Sophia," Janice blurted with irritation.

"I got lost twice trying to find this place. Good thing I got up really early!" She said, letting go and ignoring Janiceís protest. As Sophia stepped towards Mel, who seemed unusually preoccupied with her nails, Janiceís eyes went wide.

"M. . ." Janice tried to warn her distracted friend of the impending attack.

"Good morning, Melinda!" Sophia said, surprising the Southerner with a hug.

"Uuugh. Uh, morning, Sophia," Mel said.

"A beautiful morning, isnít it?" Sophia said with genuine happiness as she released the tall woman and sought out Raj, who was safely on the other side of the truck but still felt the need to step back. He smiled politely and nodded at her wave.

"Sheís a hugger," Janice whispered apologetically to Mel, who pushed her glasses up and eyed Janice curiously.

"So! Whereís our plane?" Sophia asked, rubbing her hands together with excitement.

Janice pointed to the hanger and lead the way.

***

As the four travelers walked into the hanger, three of them stopped immediately, spotting the most dilapidated plane they had ever seen. The small, two-engine cargo plane obviously had extensive repair work done on it during itís lifetime, as evidenced by the large number of patches of various shades of rust. They glanced around the small hangar with futile hope of finding another plane, before their eyes returned to the only plane there.

"Ganesh help us," Raj moaned, staring at the rainbow of dilapidation.

"I really didnít want to go to India anyway," Sophia said dejectedly.

Not an expert on airplanes or metallurgy, Mel still recognized that the holes in the fuselage and on the wings were too clean to be corrosion. The aircraft had been a target! Adding up all the disturbing facts - the remote airfield with a poorly kept runway, the dilapidated plane . . . with bullet holes, that "great deal" on the travel arrangements Janice had mentioned, the very suspicious windfall of cash Janice had obtained in time to finance the trip, in addition to that threat of death upon the stubborn archeologistís return to Delhi, Melís concern soared, worried they all were getting caught up with something they shouldnít be.

Finally tearing her stunned gaze from their supposed transportation, Mel spotted Janice pointing to a map as she talked with a scruffy looking older man, who didnít look like a pilot, Mel thought, adding to her growing list of concerns.

He looked like a bum.

Mel looked to Raj and Sophia, who were still staring at the plane. The Southerner exhaled and marched with purpose towards Janice.

"Uh, Janice?" Mel said with forced pleasantry, interrupting the archeologistís discussion with the silver-haired man, who sported a grimy Yankeesí baseball cap. "Excuse me, but may I have a moment?" She asked, politely smiling at the unshaven fellow, who nodded shyly.

"Yeah?"

"Privately?"

Janice sighed and looked at the pilot. "Iíll be right back, Crash." The man scratched his fuzzy neck and shrugged as Janice walked a few paces away to join the tense Southerner.

"What?" Janice asked wearily, knowing Mel was not thrilled with the transportation.

"Crash?!?" Mel said in a tight whisper, discreetly eyeing the man, who scratched his underarm.

"Itís his nickname," Janice said.

"Please tell me itís not because of his flight record," Mel said unhappily.

"Itís not because of his flight record," Janice dutifully repeated.

"Janice Covington! This isnít a joke. We are going to travel a very long distance and our pilot "CRASH" looks like he just came from a bar," she finished with an annoyed whisper.

"Donít judge him by his name or appearance, Mel."

"Sometimes appearances are what they seem, Janice. Look at that plane!" Mel pointed with concern. Janice eyed their plane, which Crash affectionately called Betty.

"Crash isnít going to be smuggling something with us on board, is he?" Mel asked in a worried whisper.

"Do you actually think I would ever involve you in . . . ?!?" Janice said with irritation, then let out a breath. ". . . well thatís just fucking great," she muttered, shaking her head in amazement.

"Janice . . . I . . . there are bullet holes in the plane, we are out in the middle of nowhere . . . and. . . ," Mel explained, quickly realizing her mistake from the look of poorly hidden hurt. "I . . . Iím sorry, Janice," Mel said, feeling awful for jumping to conclusions and wounding her friend.

"He doesnít smuggle anymore," Janice admitted, staring at the ground.

"Janice, Iím sorry. I know you would never. . . ." Mel blurted sincerely, needing to make amends.

"And by every indication, he doesnít bathe anymore," Janice joked, ignoring Melís attempted apology.

Mel frowned as she helplessly watched Janice bury her hurt and erect that horrible wall between them, joke by distracting joke.

"But Percyís a great pilot and giving us a great deal," Janice continued, knowing Betty had seen better days but was still sky worthy. And Percy was the best.

"Percy?" Mel asked with mild surprise, glancing at the haggard pilot, who looked like he had just gotten up as he yawned and scratched the back of his head.

"See why he goes by Crash??" Janice said dryly.

"Janice, I didnít mean to. . . ." Mel said, trying to get past that wall.

"Mel," Janice interjected. "Iíd rather fly than take a boat or try to drive or take a train across a desert. And we donít have a lot of options these days," Janice explained.

Janice didnít have anyone else. The only other airplane available left a day ago, but she wasnít willing to subject her friends to the slimy Donavitchi brothers, who, while having a much better looking plane, still smuggled as well as engage in various other illegal activities.

"Percy and his plane will get us where we need to go. Iím afraid you are going to have to trust me on this," Janice said in challenge, looking directly into Melís eyes.

Mel eyed the questionable plane, the questionable pilot, who now scratched his rear, and finally the woman she had every faith in. "Janice, I may not trust our transportation or Percy, but I trust you," Mel vowed, to a skeptical archeologist. "And you need to trust me on that, even after I put my foot in my mouth," Mel said sincerely.

Janice nodded uncomfortably.

Mel smiled weakly before leaving to join a curious Raj and Sophia. The archeologist reluctantly broke her thoughtful gaze away from her tall friend and returned to the pilotís side.

Crash pulled off his baseball cap and looked at her with gratitude, about to say something when Sophia cried out "What!?! That is NOT funny!"

The pilot and Janice glanced over to Sophia to see her and an equally unhappy Raj staring at them before walking out of the hangar door, shaking their heads. Mel looked at Janice, shrugged, then followed them outside.

"So, you all set on where weíre going?" Janice asked, giving him the chart.

"Yep."

"OK then," Janice said, looking at Betty. "Letís get this show . . . " she blurted with forced enthusiasm.

"Doc?" Crash interrupted her. "Itís been a while but . . . Iíve never really thanked you for helping me back in Turkey," he said. "I still canít believe we survived that crash. I donít think she ever got over being shot at," he said sadly, looking at his beloved plane.

"Crash, buddy, you can thank me by shutting the hell up about that and just do what you and Betty do best," Janice said, with a friendly pat on his back.

Crash looked at her with confusion.

"Fly???"

"Oh . . . yeah," he said sheepishly and went to get Betty ready.

Janice looked at the departing pilot, then shook her head with a heavy sigh, and followed him.

***

With the plane on the tarmac and their luggage loaded onboard, Mel then Raj embarked. However, Sophia was still on the ground with Janice with her brand-new suitcase still at her feet.

"Ok. I know you think this is funny, but where is the real plane?" Sophia said, looking around the runaway with her hands on her hips.

"Sophia, this was all that was available," Janice said again.

"OK. Fun is over. Where is the real plane?"

"This is it," Janice said, rapidly losing patience.

"Itís behind the hanger, isnít it?" Sophia looked hopefully over at the hanger.

"Sophia, this is the plane. Raj, Mel, and I will be flying in it. If you want to join us, thereís a seat. Cr. . . The pilot will be taking off in five minutes. You donít have much time to make up your mind," Janice said with irritation and headed towards the steps.

"Oh, I get it. Youíre going to make me sit down before you show me the real plane." Sophia called up to Janice, who climbed the stairs to the plane.

Janice was surprised to see Mel waiting at the top with her head poking out of the doorway. "You ready?" Janice asked, hoping she wasnít going to argue too.

"I think the question is, is Sophia?" Mel asked as Sophia cursed and finally climbed the stairs with her suitcase.

"OK. This is the most elaborate practical joke you have ever pulled. Iíll admit itís even funny, in a sadistic sort of way. But I wish you would just come clean and show us the real plane," Sophia complained as she pushed pass the two women and sat down next to Raj on the hard bench, which faced the center of the plane. She crossed her arms over her chest firmly and blurted "Right now."

Mel looked at Janice, who shook her head and guided her tall companion to her seat, which was a small bench facing Raj and Sophia. Mel sat down with Janice, who pointed to the cargo net attached to the side of the plane. "Something to hold onto," she said, getting a concerned look from Mel. "For turbulence, when we ride through clouds," Janice explained, getting an understanding nod from Mel, who grabbed the net and pulled it firmly a few times to test it.

Mel sighed with great relief that the net held firmly. When she looked at Janice, she found the woman gazing thoughtfully at her. With a questioning look, Mel received a small nod from the archeologist before she got up and headed towards the cockpit.

Moments later, the engines reluctantly started, coughing and spitting defiantly until they settled into a loud, rumbling hum. Raj said a prayer as did Mel.

Sophia yelled at the top of her lungs. "This is not funny anymore. Show me the goddamn plane!"

Janice emerged from the cockpit, stood in front of the miserable passenger, and handed Sophia a silver flask.

Realizing she couldnít deny the horrible truth any longer, Sophia grabbed the flask, crossed herself with it, said a few "hell Maryís," not being a normally religious person, raised the flask to the Almighty before taking a healthy swig.

The archeologist pointed to the cargo net, then helped Sophiaís arm through it. She eyed a meditating Raj, whose fingers were nearly white from clutching the net, the only thing that marred his image of perfect serenity.

Janice turned to Mel, who had been calmly watching, though it was clear she also wasnít thrilled about the impending flight. Not wanting to yell over the engines, Janice just motioned to her whether she also wanted something to drink. Mel rolled her eyes and shook her head no.

Janice thought a moment, then smirked, motioning for Mel not to go anywhere. She went to the cockpit and quickly returned with a cigar. Janice eyed her questioningly. Mel eyed her with amusement and politely declined with a wave and a mouthed "no thank you." Janice looked at her with feigned surprise, offering it to her again to make sure. Getting another silent "no thank you" from the Southerner, Janice shrugged and devilishly put the cigar in her mouth to Melís consternation. Mel hoped Janice wasnít going to fill the already unpleasant plane with suffocating smoke.

The engines revved and Janice turned to go back into the cockpit. The plane suddenly lurched forward as it began to taxi to end of the runway, causing the archeologist to stumble. Peeling herself off the bulkhead, she slowly turned to eye a very amused Mel, who couldnít contain the laughter that bubbled up at the sight of a broken cigar dangling from Janiceís mouth.

Janice carefully pulled the cigar from her lips, inspecting the drooping end with a grimace. She glared at the Southerner, who continued to laugh, and defiantly returned the battered stogie to her mouth before briskly turning to join Crash.

Crash eyed Janice uneasily as she sat down in the co-pilotís seat and took the cigar from her mouth and tossed it into her leather bag. "Guess you forgot about Bettyís temperament, huh?" he said with a cringe.

"Shut up and fly, Crash," Janice said with a chuckle, confusing him more.

***

An hour after a stomach-challenging takeoff, when the plane finally settled at a cloud-free altitude, Janice emerged from the cockpit to see how the troops were fairing. She cringed at the loud engine noise.

Janice glanced over to Raj, who was still meditating with his arm still woven through the cargo net. Sophia, her arm also entangled in the net, was either passed out from fear or sleeping off the contents of the now-empty flask, Janice mused.

Mel looked up from her book and smiled as Janice sat next to her. Grabbing onto the cargo net, she leaned to Melís ear so she wouldnít have to shout, Janice asked "Howís everyone doing?"

Mel leaned to Janiceís ear. "Sophiaís fine now that sheís . . . well, unconscious. Raj looks OK, though I am a little concerned about the circulation in his arm," Mel responded wryly, glancing to Raj and Sophia as she pushed up her glasses. Janice chuckled and leaned to Melís ear.

"How about you?" She asked and pulled back to see Melís face.

"Peachy." Mel said with an unconvincing smile.

Janice winced sympathetically and leaned to Melís ear. "It wonít be long before weíll have to land."

"Have to land?!?" Mel said with concern, quickly pulling back to look into Janiceís face, which was surprisingly close, close enough to see that small scar above Janiceís left eye, just under her eyebrow.

"To refuel," Janice explained and blinked, looking at those slightly parted Southern lips and inhaling the wonderfully subtle fragrance of Melís perfume. Janice had wondered why the beautiful woman even bothered with makeup and perfume.

"Oh," Mel exhaled. Mel had first noticed the small scar over Janiceís eye when Janice took care of her after Ralphís attack - a distressing event for so many reasons.

Besides a strange man attacking her when she was naked, waking up in her cot, and not remembering how Janice got her there, dried off and redressed, Janice had actually tried to talk her into going to a "safer" hotel in the city where she could as easily translate anything they found.

"No." Mel said firmly, surprising the archeologist. Mel couldnít stand the thought of being sent away.

"You need more rest. Weíll talk about this later," Janice said softly.

"More rest will not change my mind, Dr. Covington," Mel blurted. "The fact is, if this happened in that "safer" hotel of yours, you wouldnít have been there to save me."

"It wouldnít have happened in a hotel."

"I donít think the location would have stopped Ralph."

"You would have never met Ralph," Janice argued.

"You donít know that! If not Ralph, who knows, there might have been someone else." Mel countered, looking pointedly into Janiceís eyes. "Janice, I know I am safer with you," she said with complete confidence, adding softly "you promised to protect me."

Mel couldnít tell what was going on behind those green eyes. The extended silence made her uncomfortable, but she refused to look away.

"Youíll need to move into my tent. Having a tent near mine isnít good enough," Janice stated, then muttered guiltily "I should have done that when you first got here."

"But . . . I was attacked at the stream. I donít think . . . ," Mel said uneasily, not wanting to make her presence any more burdensome for the stubborn archeologist, who greatly valued her privacy.

". . . and no more going off alone to bathe in streams," Janice interrupted. It wasnít a request or admonition, it was just the way things were going to be.

She never did find out how Janice got that scar, Mel considered, eyeing the faint white line, surprising herself with the desire to reach out and run her fingers over it . . . and down her cheek . . . and over those lips.

Mel certainly never needed makeup, Janice thought. She was an incredibly beautiful woman without any help. But the makeup perfectly complemented Melís God-given assets . . . those lush lips, strong cheekbones, and those incredibly dangerous eyes. Eyes that easily distracted her, causing her to forget her obviously superior arguments in their numerous debates. . . .

Noticing the long pause in conversation, Mel looked up, into Janiceís eyes that widened and blinked.

"I . . . I should make sure Percy is not sleeping," Janice offered uneasily, quickly standing up and stepping back.

"What?!?" Mel blurted, started by her action as much as her words.

"Joke?" Janice said uncomfortably with a weak smile.

"No, it wasnít, Dr. Covington," Mel countered with a stern look, pushing up her glasses.

 


Chapter 9 - Terra Firma

 

In the co-pilotís seat, Janice looked over the chart, then eyed the instruments. Though she knew her friends were going to be happy to set foot down on solid land again, especially Sophia, she enjoyed flying. Gazing into the vast blue sky, Janice smiled. Except for the loud hum of the engines, flying brought her the same feeling when standing on top of a mountain, able to look out over the horizon and see for miles and miles.

It was a feeling of hope and unlimited possibilities.

***

Mel sighed and shut her novel, unable to read anymore. The noise from the engines made it difficult to concentrate and there was barely any light from the small window on the door. She rubbed her eyes, recalling the last time she had a long uninterrupted time to read. It was in South Carolina, a lifetime ago. A lifetime ago where she could easily read away a weekend without realizing it. Janice must have rubbed off on her. Even if it had been perfectly quiet, she had grown to prefer being in the midst of the action, not reading about it.

Mel looked over to Raj and Sophia, who were both asleep. How they could possibly sleep with the rumbling and bouncing was beyond her. Seeing Janice appear in cockpit doorway, she sighed with relief, looking forward to a little conversation, even if it was nearly impossible to hear and required them to lean close and talk into each otherís ears. A burden she would just have to endure, she considered as a small smile appeared.

Instead of joining Mel at her seat, Janice eyed her. With a single index finger, Janice beckoned her. Immediately concerned, Mel pushed up her glasses and quickly joined Janice, who ushered her into the cockpit.

"W. . . What? Jan. . . ."

"Sit there," Janice said, pointing to the co-pilotís seat.

"Huh? But . . . I . . . I donít know how to fly," Mel glanced nervously around at the instruments, then at Percy, who looked at the women curiously. Remembering Docís sage advice, he kept quiet and returned his attention to flying Betty.

"Well, that makes three of us," Janice said dryly.

"WHAT?!?" Mel blurted, then from Janiceís amused smirk, realized Janice was just being . . . Janice.

"Sit there," Janice said again, guiding the curious Southerner around her to sit down.

"What, why?" Mel said in confusion, then saw Janice motioning for her to look outside. Seeing the enormous, puffy clouds and rich blue sky around them, she smiled. "Oh my," Mel gushed with appreciation and pushed her glasses up. "Itís so beautiful up here."

"The clouds are nice to look at but not to fly through. The ride tends to get a bit rough," Janice said as she carefully sat down on the arm rest, placing a steadying hand on the back of the co-pilotís seat.

"They look like cotton animals," Mel shared, looking back to Janice with a smile.

"What?"

"The clouds, they look like cotton an . . . . "

"I heard you," Janice said, making a skeptical face.

"You donít see them? Thereís a rabbit, with those ears, see?" Mel pointed to a clump of clouds.

"Your rabbit has three ears," Janice noted flatly. As Mel squinted out the window, trying to see what Janice was seeing, Janice continued sadly. "Poor rabbit . . . probably picked on by all the other two-eared rabbit clouds."

"Thatís just the trunk of the elephant floating behind it," Mel wearily explained the obvious.

"You know what I see?" Janice said. Mel shook her head no, interested to hear. "I see . . . puffy white clouds."

Mel frowned. "Well, that certainly is a boring way of looking at things."

"Hey! Iíve never been called boring in my life," Janice protested.

"I didnít call YOU boring," Mel countered, shaking her head as she pushed up her glasses and gazed out the window.

"And to show you just how un-boring I am," Janice continued.

"I did not call . . . ," Mel said again, turning to the archeologist.

". . . letís play a game," Janice interrupted with uncharacteristically bubbly enthusiasm, surprising Mel, whose eyes quickly narrowed.

"I am not going to play poker with you, Janice," Mel said firmly.

"No, no, a game you actually have a chance at winning," she said with a smug smile.

Mel looked at her.

"I spy something . . . ," Janice said, quickly looking around the cockpit and out the window. "White," she said with challenge.

Mel couldnít help but chuckle. "And here I thought I was going stir-crazy," she muttered with amusement.

"Clouds!" Crash interjected excitedly, then winced when he noticed the women staring at him. He smiled weakly and returned his attention to flying.

***

As Janice had predicted, the descent was very bumpy. Raj and Sophia, who had unfortunately regained consciousness, looked pale. Sophia saw Melindaís distant gaze and small smile as they jostled. It was like Mel had no idea their lives were in DANGER, Sophia thought with amazement.

"Oh Krishna," Raj finally spoke as the plane shuddered and groaned through the more violent bounces.

"Hell, Mary!" Sophia blurted.

Must be going through some clouds, Mel considered with a smile as she held on.

***

When Janice emerged from the cockpit, Sophia looked like she was about to explode from anticipation. She hovered over the archeologist with nervous energy, watching every move Janice made as she opened the plane up and lowered the stairs. As soon as Janice politely offered Sophia the stairs first, the prostitute practically dove out of the plane and for the ground, which she kissed.

"Oh thankyou thankyou thankyou!" Sophia said, kissing the ground again.

Janice smirked and politely motioned for Mel to descend. "The ground awaits, Madame."

With a smile, Mel pushed her glasses up and descended. Raj sighed with relief as he closely followed.

"So this is India!" Sophia said happily as she picked herself up from the ground.

Mel looked at Janice, bit her lip and quickly headed towards the building.

"What?" Sophia asked in confusion, seeing Raj cringe and follow Mel.

Janice sighed.


Chapter 10 - Down Time

 

Janice and Crash returned from the small office by the hanger to the group sitting beneath the wing, out of the hot sun. Sophia was lying on the ground, playing with the dirt between her fingers.

"Whatís wrong?" Mel asked, standing up to join Janice, who did not look pleased.

"They donít have any fuel for us."

"Oh . . . too bad," Sophia muttered without sincerity, and continued to play with the dirt.

Janice glanced at Sophia with annoyance.

"They ran out?" Mel guessed, glancing over at the hanger and the men, who sat on some crates, watching them as they drank. The old man shook his head and left the three younger men to continue their staring. She really didnít like the way the one man with a bushy beard was looking at her.

"Apparently."

"Well, when do they expect to get more?" Mel asked.

"Two days," Janice said tightly.

"Thatís not so bad," Mel said, not sure why Janice was so bothered. Perhaps she noticed that man too, Mel considered.

"Hmm," Janice responded. "They said there are no hotels around here. But Iím not sure Iíd want to leave Betty, even if there were," she added, getting a nod of agreement from Crash. Janice looked to Raj and Crash. "Weíll need to unpack our tents for our stay." The men nodded and went about the task.

"Is something else bothering you?" Mel asked Janice quietly.

"Something doesnít feel right," Janice said looking back at the men, who were now gone, leaving empty chairs and bottles. "Keep your eyes open and let me know if anything strikes you as odd."

Mel nodded, looked around suspiciously, then eyed the odd archeologist and raised her brow with a grin.

"Funny," Janice said flatly, then glanced towards the red-head, who dusted herself off as she got up to help Raj.

"Sophia?" Janice called out, getting her attention. "Letís go for a walk."

***

Sophia sighed heavily as they walked around the back of the hanger. Janice quickly scanned the area, satisfied they were alone.

"Now what the hell was all that on the plane?" Janice asked.

"You call that deathtrap a plane? It practically whistled from all those holes in it," Sophia complained.

"In all the years Iíve known you, youíve never struck me as afraid of anything, including my driving - what gives?" Janice said.

"Well, Iím afraid of flying in that heap, OK?" Sophia said defensively.

"I didnít expect you to have a problem with . . . , " Janice said and sighed, feeling bad. "Well, we have one more leg to the trip before we get to India. Are you up to it?"

"Do I have a choice?" Sophia griped.

"Yes. You always have a choice, Sophia. It wonít be easy to get transportation to India, or even back to Greece, around here. Flying is still the best option," Janice said honestly, seeing Sophia cringe.

"You still have a choice," Janice repeated, hoping she would choose flying.

She eyed Janice and sighed heavily. "All right. All right. Iíll risk it one more time. But if we die, I will no longer consider us friends!"

Janice nodded with a small smile. "Fair enough."

"Why didnít you get us a better plane?!?" Sophia lamented dramatically. "You know I could have given you more money," she said, reaching for the roll of bills tucked away in her ample cleavage to show her.

Janice stopped her with a gentle hand and pushed the bills back down in their snug home. "You could have all the gold from Fort Knox in there and that wouldnít have helped, Sophia," Janice relayed with a smirk. "There was no other. . . ."

"Janice?" Mel came around the corner of the building, looking between the two women uncomfortably before dropping her eyes as Janice awkwardly retracted her hand from Sophiaís chest. "Uh . . . I, uh, . . . you said to let you know if I see something odd. Those men are . . . nosing around the plane," Mel said nervously, pushing up her glasses and looking anywhere but at them.

"Great," Janice growled and dashed past Sophia and Mel, towards the plane.

***

The situation had quickly degraded after Mel left to find Janice. Two men helped themselves and rummaged through what had been just unloaded from the plane, tossing the items haphazardly on the ground with irritation that they were not finding anything of value.

Raj attempted to block the third man, the short, bald one from boarding the plane but was shoved onto the ground.

"Try the plane," the bearded man said to his friend after finding nothing in the gear that now littered the area. They marched pass Raj and the bald man, and climbed on board.

Seeing her friend on the ground being kicked, Janice rushed towards them angrily shouting "Stop it!"

"Donít move any closer," the bald man said uneasily, pulling out a knife. He roughly lifted Rajís head up by his turban and placed the knife at Rajís throat.

"You want money?" Janice said cooly, pulling some bills from her pocket as she stepped closer. "Iíve got some right here."

"Donít move any closer," he said, eyeing her nervously.

"Why? What could I do to you? As I see it, you have the knife," she said, stepping closer.

"Then why wonít you listen and stop right there!?!" the bald man said angrily, causing Raj to yelp at the sharp blade pressing against his neck.

"I just donít follow orders well. Never have," Janice admitted, shrugged and put her money back in her pocket. "If youíre not after money, why donít you tell me what you do want?" She asked easily, holding her hands up as she stepped closer and finally stopped.

Sophia and Mel arrived and watched the man and Janice. Nervously clenching and unclenching her fists, Mel wondered how Janice could possibly remain so calm.

"I didnít say we werenít after money," the bald man snapped back.

"So if we give it to you, youíll stop threatening us?" Janice asked.

The man looked at this woman with amazement. From what he was told, he expected the woman called a Mad Dog to fight them, not try and to talk him out of harassing them.

Grunts and crashes continued from within the plane as the pilot shouted "Get your goddamn hands off her!"

When the bald man glanced towards the plane curiously, Janice swiftly picked up a rock and nailed him on his temple. "Ugh!" He cried out, clenching his now bleeding head with a hand, loosening his grip on Raj who immediately scrambled away.

Mel sucked in a nervous breath as she watched Janice charge at the armed man with a growl and tackle him. Sophia grinned and shook her head, knowing this creep was toast.

Janiceís fedora flew out of the large cloud of dust that enveloped the flying limbs. Quickly losing his knife, the bald guy earned two incapacitating blows to his genitals and face. Leaping up from the lump, Janice raced onboard Betty to help Crash.

Mel went to Rajís side and helped the battered man up, pulling him to a safer distance from the bald creep laying on the ground.

Finding one man holding Crash while the other pommeled him, Janice growled as she grabbed the back of bearded oneís shirt and roughly yanked him off Crash. After tossing him into the cargo nets, she grabbed the ear of other attacker and yanked hard, causing him to cry out in pain and released Crash, who took the opportunity to throw a round of satisfying punches himself.

"Thatíll teach you to mess with Betty!" Crash snarled and punched the guy again.

Janiceís eyes widened when the bearded man untangled himself from the cargo nets and pulled out a very large knife.

"You know what they say about the size of a manís knife, donít you?" Janice taunted, getting a confused look before he lunged at her.

Easily dodging the wild lunge, she grabbed his arm and knocked the knife from his hand. With a painful twist, she tossed him out the plane. Eyeing Crash, who was tiring against the other man who was now trading punches with him, she spun around and landed a solid kick to the side of the attackerís ribs.

"UGH," he blurted, clenching his side as he crashed into the side of the plane and collapsed, gasping for air.

Looking at Crash questioningly, Janice received a confident nod before he grabbed some rope and quickly tied the man up.

As Janice jumped out of the plane, the recently airborne man scrambled to the knife next to his dazed, bald buddy. Grabbing the blade, he jumped up and waved it menacingly with a triumphant smile. He had the advantage. The annoying bitch wouldnít catch him off guard again.

His smile faded when she grinned back at him and egged him on with an inviting wave of her hand. Obviously, she was unaware of his advantage, he thought, glancing at his knife then the still unarmed woman.

As they moved, Janice easily stayed just out of reach of his blade, which arced wildly through the air as he tried to draw blood.

The knife came far too close in Melís opinion.

"So, you do realize that itís not size that counts?" Janice asked with amusement, jumping back and avoiding another swipe of his blade, easily reading his body language that clearly signaled every attack.

The bearded man was growing tired and growled with frustration.

"Ah, the strong stupid type?" She said with a smirk that caused him to charge her.

Dodging him, she turned and kicked him in the ass, causing him to tumble to the ground. "Ooofff."

"So, ready to give up yet?" Janice said as he scrambled to his feet and wiped the sweat from his brow. Mel cringed knowing the man would never give up as long as the archeologist continued to taunt him and decimate his ego. It was like she was enjoying this, Mel thought with confusion.

"I was just going have a little fun and take what I wanted, but now . . . Iím gonna have to kill you," he snarled, swiping his blade towards her again.

The archeologist quickly stepped back. "Janice!" Mel called out, too late for Janice to avoid the bald man on the ground who lunged for her feet.

She jumped away, but tripped and hit the dirt hard. If the wind had not been knocked out of her, she would have cursed.

"Mel, no . . . " Sophia blurted, unable to stop the tall woman from going to Janice. The Southerner grabbed a nearby trenching tool from the gear that littered the area. Not entirely sure what sheíd do once she joined Janiceís side, she was certain thatís where she had to be.

Janice kicked free from the bald manís grip, kicking him squarely in the head. He dropped to the hard ground and stayed there.

"Stay out of this, Mel!" Janice barked as she jumped up. Mel halted uncertainly, holding the tool tightly as she looked at the unconscious man then to the man with the beard and knife, who was now looking her over. It was not a polite gaze.

"Oh, you and me are gonna have a real good time," he promised the tall linguist, who looked at him with disgust.

"You mean, you and I," Mel corrected the ignorant man, who obviously had as little respect for proper grammar as he did for women.

"Mel!" Janice said incredulously.

"Oh yeah, you and me, baby," the attacker repeated with a snicker and looked at Janice. "After Iím done carving you into little pieces, Iíll give your friend a ride so hard she wonít be able to walk for a week," the man boasted with a laugh as he leered at tall Southerner, who gasped when Sophia grabbed her arm and pulled her back, to give Janice room to handle this jerk.

Any amusement Janice had toying with this idiot immediately vanished. She stood still and calm. Yet beneath that calm coursed a dark fury that wanted to hurt the man.

Mel watched with concern as the archeologist allowed the grinning man and his knife to get closer.

"You donít seem to be having any fun now bitch," he said with amusement, noticing the absence of her annoyingly cocky attitude. "Donít worry, your friend will," he continued to taunt with a laugh, glancing at the tall Southerner, who pushed up her glasses nervously, more concerned about the archeologistís disturbing silence than the manís threats.

He crept closer and closer, his knife waving and jabbing at her, trying to provoke an angry attack. But Janice didnít move, except to keep her eye on him. When within striking distance, he paused uneasily, expecting an attack. Yet Janice just stood, looking at him.

Mel gasped when he suddenly lunged.

Janice smoothly stepped out of the line of attack, guiding him away from her. He stumbled, quickly turning towards her with a wild sweep of his knife. He smiled, feeling it catch, just before he saw the elbow thrust into his face, breaking his nose. "UGH!" His head snapped back as Janice grabbed his wrist and brought his forearm down onto her knee with bone crunching force. The knife flew from his hand as he cried out in pain and crumbled into a whimpering heap.

Too blinded by anger and pride to give up, the bearded man awkwardly crawled towards the knife, cradling his injured limb. As he reached out to grab the weapon, his hand was suddenly pinned beneath a boot. Looking up with fear, he saw a cold smile as the boot twisted. A cry of pain accompanied the crack of bones.

Mel sucked in a breath at the swift and cold violence. Raj and Sophia winced.

Kneeling down, Janice grabbed the knife and roughly pinned him, face down on the ground.

"Janice?" Mel said uncertainly as Janice placed the blade against the manís neck.

"Listen carefully," Janice said softly into his ear, ignoring the Southerner. "Iím not a patient person. Youíll find itíll be much easier if you just answer my questions," Janice explained. "Do you understand?" She asked evenly.

He gulped and stubbornly refused to talk to this woman. He felt smug satisfaction when she suddenly released her hold on him. The woman was weak after all, he thought.

"Ahhhhh!" He cried out in pain as Janice grabbed his broken arm and roughly rolled him on his back.

"I will hurt you," she promised calmly. "Do you understand?" Janice said slowly and coldly as grabbed his broken hand and squeezed.

"OH GOD!" He cried out before quickly nodding. Janice smiled at him, disturbing not only the man but the tall Southerner.

"Janice," Mel said nervously, startled by Janiceís behavior and the look of fear on the manís face.

"Go away, Mel," Janice growled, keeping her eyes on the man.

"Must you torture the man?" Mel blurted angrily.

"Hey! How can you defend those creeps!!" Sophia blurted with amazement.

"Iím not defending them!"

"It certainly sounds like it!"

"Why did you attack us?" Janice asked the man, ignoring the two women.

"W. . .We were paid to," he blurted quickly. Startled at the admission, Mel and Sophia stopped arguing and looked at the man.

"There you go. That was easy, wasnít it? An answer without a fuss," Janice said with a slight smile. He nodded rapidly.

"Who paid you?" Janice asked.

"I . . . donít know . . . I . . . AHHHH! GOD! Please stop. Please. . . ." the man whimpered with tears in his eyes from the agonizing pain. "AHHHH!!!"

"Janice . . . Stop it. Dear Lord, Janice. He just said he doesnít know!" Mel said, getting a cold and unsettling glare from the archeologist.

"Stay the FUCK OUT OF THIS!" Janice shouted, startling Mel with her ferocity. Sophia winced and Raj prayed to Krishna.

The Southerner stared at the woman that looked like Janice. But who was this frightening woman before her now? Tears sprang to Melís eyes.

Janice turned her angry attention to the stubborn man. "Who hired you to attack us!"

"I canít tell you," he blurted with panic. "AAAAGGGHH!! Oh GOD. Stop. Please!"

Mel abruptly turned and quickly left the heart breaking scene.

***

The sun had started to set. The hot day finally gave way to a cooler evening.

Mel returned to the runway. Her eyes were still puffy and her heart still ached, but the persistent tears had finally stopped. She had never seen Janice act so brutally before.

Was she forever cursed to be a bad judge of character?

Mel took a deep breath, battling a new wave of tears but managed to hold them off. As she approached the plane, Mel noticed the ground was no longer littered with their gear or injured men. All was quiet, except for Crash, who grunted as he hauled the last load up into the plane. His shirt was torn and collar stained with blood. From his cut and battered face, she guessed as her eyes dropped and emotions warred. She was well aware Janice had protected them, like so many times before. Yet, this time, Janice had become someone she didnít recognize. Someone who frightened her.

"Well, look whoís back," Sophia said flatly with a smile and puffed a cigarette. "Just in time too. We are about to leave," the prostitute said, confusing the Southerner.

"What? How?" Mel asked as Sophia flicked the ashes off the cigarette.

"Amazingly, that old guy found some fuel for us," Sophia said, surprising Mel as she put the cigarette back in her mouth. "Damn it," Sophia growled in disapproval around her cigarette and took a puff.

"I didnít know you smoked," Mel said absently, glancing back at the hanger.

"Well I do. I could have used a few during our flight," she said with irritation.

"Why didnít you . . . ?"

"Janice said no smoking. At least she got the flask refilled by that old guy."

Mel blinked, wanting to cry at her confusion. How could Janice be so kind one moment and so ruthless the next?

"Wh . . . what happened to the men," Mel said uneasily, looking and the ground where Janice had brutally interrogated the bearded man.

"Raj and Janice took them inside the office," Sophia said, still seeing uncertainty in the Southernerís eyes. ". . . and tended to their wounds, believe it or not," she added, blowing out a plume of smoke.

Janice and Raj came out of the hanger with the old man, who appeared to have no problem talking with the two. He appeared almost friendly. Janice pulled out some money and handed it to the old man, who tried to refuse but Janice offered again and the man reluctantly took it with a nod.

Too far away to hear the conversation, Mel wondered what was going on.

"Sheís paying for the fuel," Sophia supplied, seeing the curious look. "She may be many things, but sheís always been fair," she said pointedly, getting an uneasy look from the tall woman.

"You think I was wrong to get upset with her," Mel stated weakly, torn about her feelings.

"I think you were wrong to expect Janice to do any less than protect us, Melinda," Sophia said honestly, tossing her spent cigarette on the ground.

"But . . . I didnít expect her to . . . ," Mel said, feeling a churn in her stomach as she watched Sophia extinguish the butt with a twist of her shoe, recalling the similar but much more disturbing action by Janice, who had actually smiled as she crushed the manís hand.

". . . to deliberately inflict pain on that bastard?" Sophia offered.

Mel nodded with a cringe.

"How long have you been with her?" Sophia asked.

"Almost a year . . . why?" Mel said, looking at Sophia questioningly.

"And thatís the first fight youíve seen her in?" Sophia asked curiously.

"Of course not," Mel said with exasperation. "The first moment I saw her, she was fighting some thugs, then she fought the Nazis, and then . . . uh . . ." Mel said uncomfortably, then sighed. "Look, Iíve seen her fight . . . a number of times. And I even know there are times when you have to. But Iíve never seen her be so cold . . . so cruel," Mel said with a heavy heart.

"Then youíve had a lucky life, Melinda," Sophia said, surprising the confused Southerner. "Youíve never really seen cold and cruel," she added, pulling out her pack of cigarettes to fish for another. "I happen to think Janice was too nice to that bastard and his friends."

"You think Iím naive."

"I think until you learn how to be as skeptical and paranoid as the rest of us, you should just trust Janice about these things," Sophia said, hitting a nerve. "She is the best friend anyone could hope to have."

Mel glanced over to the hanger and cringed, finding Janice and Raj heading their way. She pushed her glasses up nervously, wondering if she might have just lost the best friend she ever had. But how could Janice have been a best friend and surprise her so?

"Damn," Sophia growled, finding her cigarette pack empty.

"We leave in ten minutes," Janice announced flatly, not sparing a glance in Melís direction as she passed the three. 

Raj and Sophia nodded, wanting to enjoy the last few moments on land.

"Who hired the men?" Mel asked Raj softly as she watched the archeologist embark.

Raj sighed. "Simon Neeley. He had flown in a day ago and hired the three men to cause Dr. Covington some trouble and take what they wanted," Raj said gravely.

"Simon?" Mel asked Raj with surprise. "The same Simon Neeley who left camp just before we finished with the site?"

"Yes," Raj said uncomfortably.

"And the same guy who attacked us at the crooked bastard," Sophia added. "Guess he didnít appreciate getting beaten up by a short, drunk woman," she added with some satisfaction.

"She never told me that was Simon," Mel responded, realizing there were probably many more "small" details like that, which Janice either failed or deliberately chose not to mention. Would she ever understand the secretive archeologist? Would Janice ever want her to, she wondered with a heavy heart.

"Why on Earth does he hate Janice so?" Mel asked Raj.

"She fired him," Raj said simply, looking at the ground.

Mel waited a moment for him to continue to explain, but he didnít. "Because . . . ?" Mel said impatiently.

"Come on, Raj. Spill it," Sophia prodded, finding this very fascinating.

"He broke her rules for employment," he said, knowing he had agreed to never tell Miss Pappas.

"What rules?!?" The frustrated Southerner pressed Raj, who was still reluctant to answer. "Raj, please."

"Yeah, come on, Rajjy. What rules," Sophia said, making Raj frown, wishing he wasnít outnumbered . . . or called Rajjy.

He sighed, knowing Dr. Covington would be angry with him, but Miss Pappas needed to understand.

"Doctor Covington has three rules her workers must follow . . . or employment is immediately terminated," Raj said uncomfortably, looking at the expectant women.

"Do not touch, do not look at, and do not talk about Miss Pappas as if she were . . . a piece of meat," Raj repeated the rules uncomfortably.

"What?!?" Mel said, her jaw dropping with amazement.

"Well that is interesting, isnít it?" Sophia said with an amused grin and left them for her date with Betty. Looking up at the plane, she winced and wearily pulled out the flask from her purse.

"I . . . I canít believe she would do that," Mel said, flustered, wondering how many workers who had "moved on" broke those rules.

"After Ralph, are you really surprised?" He asked softly and joined Sophia onboard.

***

The engines spat and sputtered as they came to life, quickly falling into the now familiar hum. Mel watched anxiously as Janice emerged from the cockpit and secured the door in place. Not wasting any time, Janice efficiently inspected the luggage tie downs.

Satisfied the gear and door were secure, Janice started back toward the cockpit. Mel watched Janice stop in front of Sophia then sucked in a surprised breath, seeing Janiceís shirt torn cleanly at the side. Seeing no blood staining the knife tear, she exhaled with great relief.

Sophia shrugged at Janice, then nodded with a heavy sigh. Janice nodded and returned to the cockpit.

How easily the outcome could have been horribly different, Mel considered, shutting her eyes as tears threatened to escape. The Southern Baptist thanked the Lord that Janice was not harmed and prayed for patience, understanding, and help with her long-time fears.

As they entered the mansionís library, away from the noisy social, a very handsome young man with a charming smile, reached out and closed the door with an audible click. "So we wonít be bothered," he said smoothly with a grin. "I get headaches at times from the noise and chatter," he said with a shrug, finishing his cocktail and setting the glass down on a table by the door. His fifth one, Melinda noted disapprovingly.

"Yes," Melinda said sitting on a sofa. "They can get loud and tedious. But I have a responsibility to attend."

He chuckled. "The hardships of the wealthy I suppose. You are a very beautiful woman, Melinda."

"Uh, thank you, Wilson," Melinda said with an awkward smile as she pushed up her glasses.

He leaned close and kissed her on the cheek. She smiled nervously, dreading the next awkward few moments of kissing, especially with the alcohol on his breath. But at least she knew that meant he would go home soon and she could catch up on her reading.

He leaned in again and kissed her gently on the lips. "You are so beautiful," he said smoothly, kissing her more firmly. He slipped a hand over her thigh to her hip, startling her for a moment, until she realized it wasn't moving.

She opened her lips, allowing his sloppy tongue into her mouth, trying, just like every other time, to enjoy this intimacy that she had heard made women weak and their hearts flutter. But the only thing she felt from his clumsy oral attack was amazement. How could anyone on Earth possibly enjoy this?

His hand slid up her side, to the bottom of her ribs , making her giggle.

"Sorry," she said sheepishly, pushing up her glasses, embarrassed at her ticklishness.

Undeterred, he kissed her back more forcefully, surprising her. "Wilson!" She pushed him back with annoyance.

"Itís been a year, Melinda. And I want more," he said in a heated whisper, capturing her lips again as he pushed her down onto the couch with his larger, more muscular frame.

"Wilson!" She growled as she squirmed beneath the determined man, feeling the disturbing bulge in his pants.

One hand started to unbutton her blouse, but stopped and impatiently tore the rest of it open. His other hand roughly grabbed her breast.

"No!" Mel said and with surprising strength pushed the unwanted man off her and onto the floor.

She scrambled to her feet, shocked. Her hand clenched her torn blouse together as she stared at the handsome young man in disbelief and disappointment. She had trusted him! He had always treated her with respect before. The handsome man even made her feel special. But now, he was far from handsome.

When she walked angrily to the door, he jumped up and grabbed her.

"I said NO!" She blurted and averted her head to avoid his kiss, angering him.

"Iíve waited long enough, Melinda. Iím not waiting anymore," Wilson said with a rough shake that almost dislodged her glasses before forcing another kiss. As she struggled to avoid his kisses, she was harshly pushed back and knocked into the coffee table. Magazines and the ashtray spilled onto the floor.

"Wilson, stop it!" She called out as she struggled against the strong man as he continued to force her backwards. Feeling the armrest of the couch now against her, a new wave of fear washed over her.

Having no experience to draw upon, only instinct, she brought her knee up, sharply connecting with sensitive flesh and swiftly halting his advance.

"Ugh!!" His hands covered his crotch as he crumpled down to the floor.

"Leave now, Wilson," she said in a shaky voice, straightening her glasses and closing her damaged blouse with a trembling hand.

"You frigid bitch!" He squeaked. "I canít believe I wasted all this time with you! All the money in the world isnít worth this," he moaned, his hand still against his hurting manhood.

"Money?" Mel said weakly.

"You donít think I would go out with someone like you if you didnít have money do you?" he said, struggling to stand. When he did, his look was condescending. "Look at me," he said vainly. "I could have gotten a beautiful woman if I wanted. But I chose you," he said with venom, enjoying making her flinch. "You should be happy I would be willing to have sex with you, but from your pathetic kisses, I bet youíre lousy in bed too."

"Get out," Mel spat.

The pounding at the door was welcome, along with the concerned voice. "Melinda? Are you in there?"

"Get used to it, Melinda," Wilson spat as he unlocked the door and yanked it open. Frank Coleman came stumbling in.

"Melinda?" The wiry, bespectacled man looked at the unusually disheveled woman then her boyfriend with narrow eyes. "Whatís going on here," he said, trying to be intimidating but failing. Though the poor fellow was the same height as Wilson, he had less than half the muscle.

"The only guy youíre ever going to catch will be because youíre loaded . . . or he is," Wilson snickered as he walked out, amused at his own joke.

***

"You able to handle Betty?" Janice asked Crash, who looked like he had been on the losing end of a fight. Probably because he was, Janice thought guiltily.

"Heh. Am I able to handle Betty?" he scoffed at Janiceís question. "When sheís raring to go with a belly full of fuel, how can I not be ready?"

Janice looked at the odd man, who truly loved his plane . . . more than any person. That really wasnít so odd, she considered. At least he would never feel the pain of Bettyís rejection.


Chapter 11 - Stumbling Along

Soon they would be there, Janice thought as she looked out into the black sky. Her fingers strummed against her thigh which nervously bounced. She was still wound up from the fight. She rubbed her eyes, letting a weary sigh escape. She had never been so unprepared before . . . for every fucking thing.

They had no site picked out, no idea where to start, and for some reason, which she had every goddamn reason to question her sanity about, she was following a "gut feel" from her inexperienced partner, who constantly challenged her. But those daily wars of the head and heart would soon be over when Mel said goodbye, Janice concluded, having finally shown a side of herself that the Southerner couldnít accept.

Unfortunately, even with all the practice Janice had at watching people leave, or drink themselves away, it was never easy . . . even when she tried not to care so much. At least she would never fall into the same trap as her father.

Janice entered her fatherís tent with a tray of food. He had skipped one too many meals and she was determined to get him to eat something. She winced finding him sprawled on the ground, apparently having missed his cot again. Clutching a bottle of cheap whiskey to his chest, he hummed.

She recognized the tune, it was her parentís favorite. One that would get them to stop what they were doing and start to dance at the oddest times. Anger welled up, prompting her to slam the tray down on his small table.

Blissfully unaware of his daughterís anger, he took another sip from the bottle. "Oh," he blurted unhappily, realizing it was empty.

"Harry," she said with irritation. She had stopped calling that man "Dad" when he stopped being one to her.

"Jan!" he said with initial joy, then frowned. "Itís empty," he pouted, inspecting his bottle that he couldnít hold steady if his life depended on it.

Janiceís jaw clenched as she knelt down to try and get him into his cot. "Harry, get up," she said, having difficulty with the lethargic man. "Damn it, Harry, at least pretend to help," she said with frustration.

"I think Iíll just rest here," he said groggily and passed out. A wet spot appeared and grew in his trousers as he relieved himself.

She exhaled angrily and got up, looking at the man she used to admire and adore. That man was reduced to a pathetic lump all because he made the mistake of giving his heart to a woman who left him.

And though still young, she was all too aware of that kind of heartache. It hurt like hell. But she was too damn angry at everyone who had let her down, including the man at her feet, to let her own losses cripple her. She was determined to live her life on her terms and succeed . . . everywhere her father had failed.

She looked down at her former hero sadly, listening to him snore.

Quietly, she gathered a blanket from his cot and placed it over him. As she had done many nights before and would do until his last breath, she carefully placed a pillow under his head, and gently kissed his forehead, whispering "Good night, Harry."

She stood and left . . . alone.

Janice took a deep breath, knowing that her depressing thoughts were not helping her situation with Simon.

Simon. That idiot had actually surprised her. The fact he had hired three goons to rough them up meant he was pretty pissed. But not pissed enough to kill her, which would have made more sense for the amount of dough he forked over, she thought wearily, rubbing her eyes. "Where the hell did he get that kind of . . . " she wondered, as the disturbing puzzle pieces fell together.

"The Donavitchi brothers," she guessed as her stomach sank. It was one thing to get a ride with them, it was an entirely different thing borrowing from them. Depending on the amount, the brothers had been known to remove important body parts or cause whole people to disappear if not paid back, with ridiculous interest. Even Simon wasnít stupid enough to risk borrowing from those sick bastards. Unless . . . unless he actually thought he could pay them back . . . from this trip to India.

Janice blinked as she connected more dots, creating a very unpleasant picture.

"Aw fuck. That idiot thinks Iím looking for something valuable," Janice thought wearily, knowing when the Donavitchi brothers found out there was no treasure, no leads, no nothing, they were going to be pretty pissed too.

"Worried?" Crash asked, glancing over to the archeologist, who looked at him and sighed.

"You could say that," she admitted softly.

"You can handle Simon," Crash offered, getting a humorless laugh from the archeologist.

"Well so far, Iíve done a real bang up job of that," Janice muttered with irritation.

"He surprised you this time. He wonít surprise you again," Crash said confidently.

Janice looked over to Crash a moment and nodded thoughtfully. "Youíre right. He wonít. Too bad heís not what Iím worried about."

Crash looked at her with concern.

***

Betty landed smoothly and taxied to the New Delhi airport, bringing a smile to Crashís face. "Atta girl," he said, patting her on the dashboard. Janice chuckled softly at the simple joy Crash was able to experience with his true love.

He glanced over to Janice with a worried look. "Be careful?" he said.

"You too," Janice said, got up, and patted her friend on his shoulder. "You and Betty better take care of yourselves," she said firmly. "I may need another ride sometime."

He grinned. "Any time, Doc. Any time." She nodded and left the cabin.

Mel looked up expectantly as Janice emerged from the cockpit.

"Welcome to India," Janice said with a thin smile.

"THANK YOU, BETTY!" Sophia cheered, jumping up to hug Janice. "Soph . . . Oooff."

Then Raj. "Ugggh."

Sophia halted her advance towards Mel when the Southerner quickly held her hand out, offering a handshake instead. Sophia smiled, shook her hand vigorously, then gave her a big hug.

"Uhhhk."

As Janice opened the plane and lowered the stairs, she looked back to the passengers, finding Sophia breathing down her neck.

"Stay here," she said sternly.

"What?!?" Sophia said, looking between Janice and the wonderful, glorious, inviting ground in complete confusion.

"Stay here," Janice repeated more forcefully to Sophia, who nodded reluctantly with a sigh as Janice left the plane alone.

***

After what to Sophia seemed like an unnecessarily long wait, Janice returned. "Letís get some rooms," Janice announced.

"Finally!" Sophia cheered, almost knocking over the archeologist as she rushed towards the exit and the most beautiful thing on Earth . . . earth.

Raj followed with a relieved smile on his face, leaving Janice and Mel and Crash, who was still in the cockpit, whistling as he performed his post-flight checkout.

Janice politely motioned for the tall woman to precede her.

"Iím sorry, Janice," Mel blurted awkwardly, pushing up her glasses. Janice offered Mel the door, ignoring her apology.

"Simonís in India, isnít he?" Mel quickly asked, hoping to engage her in something she might be willing to talk about. Whenever Janice shut herself off, Melinda immediately felt the loss.

"Iíd bet on it," Janice said neutrally, motioning again for Mel to disembark first.

"Heís. . . ."

". . . my problem," Janice interrupted impatiently. Before Mel could counter, Janice continued "And Iíll take care of it," Janice blurted crisply and disembarked first with an irritated exhale, giving up on trying to be polite.

The concerned Southerner watched her friend descend the stairs, wondering what that meant.

***

The bed was wonderful, even if it was a small twin, one of two in the modest room. Sophia shifted her sore, travel-weary body on the mattress with a contented purr.

Mel, laying on the next bed, glanced over to her roommate, then refocused on the ceiling with a sigh. She expected sleeping arrangements to change. She just didnít expect this. Though it was logical, she acknowledged.

They had come upon a perfectly good hotel that unfortunately only had two rooms available. When Janice suggested they try another hotel, the weary travelers, especially Sophia, almost revolted, not wanting to move another inch. Knowing the awkwardness of rooming with Raj, for both Raj and the two women, Janice quickly decided the arrangements.

Thoughts of the confusing archeologist crowded Melís head, making it impossible to sleep. "Sophia?"

"Hmmmmmmm?" Sophia said lazily, hugging the pillow happily.

"May I ask you something?" Mel said, still staring at the ceiling.

"Why did a "nice girl" like me become a prostitute?" Sophia said with an amused chuckle, having heard that too many times to count.

"Uh . . . no." Actually asking that question was entirely inappropriate for the Southern lady, even though it was something she had wondered about.

"Really?" Sophia said with surprise, rolling on her side and propping her head up on her hand.

"But now that you mention it," Mel said uneasily, glancing over to the redhead. "Youíre obviously intelligent. . . ." she said, her curiosity overcoming her discomfort.

"Thank you. For your information, the most successful "business women" are. And I am successful," she said with a bit of pride.

"So why?" Mel sat up and scooted back to lean against the headboard.

Sophia sighed, recalling what seemed like a lifetime ago. "Well, the career sort of found me," she said, absently tracing her fingers over the bedding. "I had no family and I got myself involved with someone I shouldnít have. I was young and thought heíd take care of me," she said and snorted.

"His idea of taking care of me was a little different than mine. I was thinking marriage, while the bastard thought that because I was pretty, naive, and good in the sack, heíd be my pimp! I wasnít that naive. Why should he get paid when I did all the work? Well, I refused and he beat me. Bad. He almost killed me."

Mel looked at her with a wince of sympathy.

"At the time, I almost wished he had. I thought there was nothing left - no home, no money, no family, and no one to take care of me. But with some help . . . " she said and paused with a smile, sitting up, mimicking Melís sitting position against the headboard.

Mel eyed her curiously.

". . . I realized I didnít need him or anyone to support me. I could take care of myself. And I wasnít stupid, I knew where the money was. So, I chose sex as my profession. I hate to admit that the bastard was right about anything, but I am good at it. For some reason, I seem to know what people want. But more importantly, I know people will pay a hell of a lot for what they want," she said with a grin.

"Oh," Mel said weakly, amazed at this poor womanís story. The Southerner never had to worry about money. And she had a family that loved her, thought they didnít understand her or why she decided to go off into the working world, alone, as a linguist. Mel couldnít imagine having to fight for everything or selling her body to make a living.

"Are you happy?" Mel asked.

"I live my life the way I want to, Iím well compensated for my work, which I enjoy. Yeah, I am happy . . . well, except when Iím flying in a deathtrap," she finished flatly.

"Hmmm," Mel responded, finally able to relate. However, Mel found it very odd that Sophia never mentioned Janice. She would have thought that would be first on her mind when discussing what made her happy.

"So, what was it you wanted to ask me?"

"H . . . How did you meet Janice?" Mel asked timidly, glancing over to the woman.

Sophia smiled.

"Well, she jumped in between the bastardís fist and my face, which had been his punching bag until she showed up. I remember seeing worry in her eyes when I passed out, then the same green eyes greeting me when I woke up in the hospital. I didnít even know her, but something told me I was . . . safe."

Mel nodded in understanding.

Mel came to, her eyes fluttered as she tried to focus on something. Blurred vision and the memory of Ralph and a knife made her sit up and call out fearfully. "Janice!"

"Mel, Iím right here," Janice said soothingly, pulling up a chair to her cot. She sat down with a glass of murky liquid in her hand.

"My head hurts," Mel said, lifting her hand to her wound which was bandaged.

"Donít touch it," Janice said, gently intercepting her hand, which Mel clung to. "Take this and drink it all. It will help with the head," Janice said, handing her the glass.

The dazed Southerner nodded absently and quickly gulped the unpleasant liquid down with a grimace. As she handed back the glass, she looked down at her arm. She now had clothes on. Her eyes widened as she recalled she had been naked and Ralph was lunging for her. Panicked, she looked up to Janice, afraid he had . . . .

"You slipped and hit your head," Janice explained. "Nothing else happened," she added firmly, making the Southerner nervously exhale with relief. "Lie down and rest, Mel," Janice said, squeezing her hand and letting go.

Mel nervously grabbed her hand back, not wanting to give up the security she felt holding it. She looked uneasily at the archeologist as her eyes watered.

"Itís OK, Mel," Janice said, holding Melís hand with both of hers. With an uneasy nod, Mel laid down. She looked into Janiceís understanding eyes a long moment, struggling to keep her own open. "I swear, I wonít let anything happen to you," was the promise Mel heard, just before sleep came.

And Janice had kept that promise, Mel thought with enormous guilt, knowing she really needed to talk to Janice in the morning. She hoped Janice would give her a chance.

"I thought Janice was crazy to get involved. He was huge and she was so . . . so. . . ." Sophia paused for the right word.

"Short," Mel supplied without thinking. Sophia laughed, prompting a small chuckle from the tall woman.

"You know, there were many others who could have helped. But they didnít, and she did," Sophia said with amazement. "She became my friend and gave me the hope and encouragement I needed to get back on my feet."

"She encouraged you to be a prostitute?!?"

Sophia laughed. "No. I think she was surprised by my career choice, though she hid it well. She has never made me feel cheap. She has always made me feel, you know, special."

Mel nodded thoughtfully.

"I owe her so much, and she has no idea," Sophia said thoughtfully.

"You ready to blow this popcorn stand?" Janice asked with a big smile as she entered the hospital room.

Sophia nodded, then tears rolled down her cheeks.

"Donít tell me youíre going to miss the hospital!?!" Janice said.

Sophia laughed weakly then shook her head no.

"What is it?" Janice said, then noted Sophia wore the same, torn outfit she came in, having nothing else to wear.

Janice took off her jacket and gently slipped it over the womanís shoulders covering the torn sleeve. "After we get you some new cloths and a place to stay, Iím gonna want my jacket back," Janice said softly with a smile.

"But I have no money!" Sophia bawled and dove into Janiceís arms.

"Sophia?" Janice pulled back from the embrace and looked at her. "I want you to listen to me," she said, trying to get Sophia to calm down.

The woman nodded with an uneasy sniff.

"Youíve been dealt a bad hand. No doubt about it. And you are going to have to accept some help from a friend. You have a good head on your shoulders and you will get through this. I know it," Janice said with complete confidence, making the woman want to believe her.

"Now, letís get you some clothes," Janice said with a smile.

"W. . . Will you be giving up your . . . profession now?" Mel blurted uneasily, well aware it wasnít her business, but she felt protective of her friend.

"Huh?" Sophia said, startled from her memories.

"You will be giving up your profession now that youíre with Janice, right?" Mel asked more firmly.

"Oh honey, Iím not "with" her," Sophia corrected her with an easy chuckle. "Weíre not a couple. Weíve never been a couple," she explained, amused at the confused look on Melís face. "Oh, I love her dearly, but Iím not "in love" with her," Sophia said gently and shrugged. "And you should know, sheís not in love with me," Sophia added for good measure.

Sophia watched the silent Southerner with interest as relief, then confusion, then annoyance washed over her.

"Why on Earth did she bring you along on a dig?!? For paid companionship?" Mel blurted, then realized she said that aloud and looked over the prostitute with a mortified cringe.

Sophia looked at her and laughed. "Well, Honey, it isnít for companionship. She has that with you."

"N . . . Not the kind she has with you," Mel said uneasily.

"Had. Thatís old news, Melinda. Very old," Sophia said with a small, sad sigh.

"How old?" Mel asked in a small voice.

"Oh . . . ," she said, pausing thoughtfully, though she was well aware of the exact day they had last been intimate, along with each and every memorable touch. However, she was certain Melinda would not appreciate hearing such detail. "Almost a year," Sophia answered and shrugged.

"Really?" Mel said with surprise, struggling not to sound too happy. She knew she shouldnít jump to any conclusions, but her heart wanted to.

"As for why Iím here, well, maybe she was tired of me whining about never going anywhere," Sophia said sheepishly. "But I really think it was the only way she could feel right about borrowing from me," she shared.

Mel looked at her with surprise, then annoyance.

"Iím not worried about her paying me back," Sophia quickly said, concerned Mel would think she was holding something over the archeologist. "Sheís . . . "

"Janice borrowed money. From you," Mel interrupted with amazement. And just so she clearly understood, she asked "for this trip?"

"Yes, but it's O...," Sophia tried to explain as Mel got up, threw on her robe and glasses and stormed out of the room. ". . . Kay."

"Hell Mary," Sophia exhaled and plopped back down on her bed.


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