Originally published in Ghosts and Ghoulies, 2002
The sun was alive, savage, and hungry, beating down on Sam Troy's bare head like an enemy's blow. Nothing existed but sun and sand in every direction, more sand, sand that slid away under his feet and sent him skidding down the sides of shallow dunes. He never found enough slope to grant him shade. Short of digging in and burying himself in the sand, he could think of no way to avoid the heat that drained the moisture out of the very marrow of his bones. Burying himself in the sand would be only a quick short-cut to the grave.
He picked himself up from yet another tumble down a slope. Each time he fell, it grew harder to get up. This would have been easy if he'd had water and his bush hat. The desert sucked the energy from his body right along with the moisture. At this point, he would have even been glad to see a Kraut patrol. Dietrich might be on the other side, but at least Dietrich would have given him water. Troy thought he would sell his soul for water. He would not sell his country or the other members of his team, but his soul...it might even be a fair bargain.
In the distance-a rocky outcrop jutted up out of the sand. It was maybe not more than a mile or two away, although it looked like six hundred miles, and in the desert a mile or two was a lifetime of steps. The outcropping vanished when his path led him down into a wadi between dunes, and reappeared when he dragged himself over the next one. He made the jutting outcrop his goal. Once he reached it, he would find shade. Blessed shade. If Lady Luck had any good fortune to spare for a stranded G.I. he might even find water there.
A skirmish with a short German convoy that had gone wrong had stranded Troy alone and on foot in the middle of the desert. It had not been Dietrich. He had grown used to Dietrich, and while he might have been taken prisoner, Dietrich would not have run from the battle and left the others behind. Separated from his jeep and his comrades when a too-sharp turn combined with an unexpected rock beneath the wheels had pitched him out of the jeep, Troy had been snatched immediately by an SS officer in a staff car, and hauled away while the halftrack engaged the two jeeps in a fierce battle. He'd heard Hitch yell in protest when they picked him up, but two of the trucks in the convoy held soldiers and they were all armed. Too many of them for the jeeps to break away and come after Troy. By the time Troy heard the faint, distant explosion that marked the downfall of the halftrack, and a secondary thump that must have been one of the trucks, they had already moved out of range of pursuit.
He'd expected to be taken to a German camp for interrogation, probably with a little torture thrown in for the fun of it--the SS officer had that kind of face--but fate, in the form of two dozen Arabs on camels, intervened. They evidently had scant reason to like the SS officer, maybe they had a history with him, for all Troy knew. Two minutes after they surrounded the staff car and forced it to stop, the officer and his driver were very dead, the car was in flames, and the Arabs were clumping away on camelback, leaving Troy untouched but free. One of them had gabbled at him in Arabic before they left, but he didn't understand anything but the final "Inshallah."
If God wills.
He only knew that they were stranding him in the middle of the desert without weapons, hat, or water, and that a nasty wind circled the sand around his feet, wiping out the tire treads of the staff car. God must have willed he be cast adrift in the sea of sand without so much as a canteen. The two jeeps of the Rat Patrol might find him by continuing in the direction the staff car had gone, but after four or five hours of scorching heat--Troy had lost track of time--they had not arrived. The sand continued to slide and twist under him and the sun continued to bludgeon him. Sore already from his dramatic fall from the jeep, he groaned as his aches and pains warred with the growing discomfort of heat and dehydration. If he did not reach shelter soon, Moffitt, Hitch, and Tully would only find his corpse. If they found that.
He paused periodically to look back the way he had come, and to scan in all directions, not only to check for the two jeeps he knew would be hunting for him, but to make sure the Arabs hadn't changed their minds and decided it would be smart to eliminate a witness to their killing of the SS officer. The Arabs were long gone--but who said they could not come back? Who said another German patrol would not suddenly appear? Even if he'd had five full canteens draped about his person, he wouldn't have been safe out here.
His unsteady feet led him down into yet another trough, and the treacherous sand skidded away beneath him and pitched him forward, helped by a sudden gust of wind against the small of his back that almost felt like a shove. He thrust out his hands to break his fall and his fingers dug into the hot, dry sand. The abrasive stuff peeled the top layer of skin right off his fingers, and he bit his bottom lip to keep from crying out. Out here alone with the enemy sun, there was no one to hear him, but the protective habits were well ingrained.
Something hard and round pressed against the palm of his left hand and he closed his fingers over it automatically. A pebble in his mouth would help him to make saliva. It was not the answer, not when he needed a gallon or two of water, but it was better than nothing. With a groan, he pushed himself up to his knees and sat back on his heels, and then he turned his hand over and opened his fist.
He held not a pebble but a coin, irregular and worn nearly smooth, with a vague image of a guy with a face like one of those ancient Roman statues. An antique coin. Moffitt would probably like it. He always kept such finds when they cropped up, even though he preferred the ancient Egyptian stuff to the more "modern" Roman artifacts.
It also was proof that Sam Troy was not the only human being ever to stand on this particular patch of sand. Proof that there was life in the universe besides himself and the savagery of the sun. He closed his fingers over it tightly and bent his head. He did not think he had enough strength to go on.
The unexpected hand on his shoulder made him jump, reaching automatically for his sidearm only to remember the SS officer had taken it; it must have burned in the staff car fire.
The grip was not one of his three teammates; he knew that instantly. It was the touch of a stranger, one that left him with a cold chill of unease. The Arabs come back to rid themselves of a witness to the murder of the SS officer? A German patrol? Could it be Dietrich? Who else could be out here?
Unarmed, at the end of his strength, he turned.
** *** **
The smoke from the burning staff car had guided the remaining three members of the Rat Patrol in their pursuit of Troy and his captors. By the time they arrived the fire had burned itself out, and little remained of the two corpses, but enough to suggest neither one was Troy. The officer still wore his Luger, and the other charred corpse sprawled behind the wheel. Of Troy there was no trace, no third body, not even tracks, other than the blurred remains of camel footprints. The persistent wind had scoured Troy's trail clean.
Tully bounced his matchstick around in his mouth. "Think they took him, Sarge?"
Hitch, guarding the scene from Troy's fifty, gazed around the endless, bare dunes, the sun glinting off his glasses. "I don't see him," he said, and his mouth traced a tight line. He still felt bad for hitting that rock and pitching Troy out of the jeep, although nothing could have prevented it. He had retrieved Troy's hat from the ground where it had fallen, and the determination on his face said he meant to give it back to Troy or know the reason why.
"Whoever did this didn't like the Germans," Moffitt said slowly. "Maybe they had no quarrel with an American."
"Maybe they wanted an American prisoner to trade," Hitch suggested. "We're going after him." The lines of his body suggested he would go even if Moffitt should veto it.
Moffitt had no such intention. "We are," he agreed.
At times, the wind did a thorough job of scouring out the trail they followed, but two dozen camels leave a distinct path, and they had always been able to pick it up again after a few careful loops with the jeeps. After several such forays, they realized that the Arabs were heading in a fairly straight line. Moffitt dimly recalled a settlement a day's ride in that direction, but he could not remember its name.
They did not have to go so far. As the jeeps breasted a dune, they saw the camp in the distance. Odd they had not swerved to the side; a distant rock formation might have provided them better shelter. But the Arabs knew the desert well. Maybe they did not need shelter, not when they carried so many supplies and could be home the following day. Or perhaps there were a dozen other reasons –- tribal territory, or even superstition, for example -- that kept this group of Arabs away from the outcropping.
Moffitt made Tully take it slow into the Arab encampment; not a settlement, but a temporary camp, pitched on the bare desert sand. Tents had gone up and a perimeter guard had been posted. The camels, whose tracks had been too many for the wind to eradicate completely, were tethered in a crooked line.
The Arabs watched silently as they approached. A burly, bearded man in a colorful, striped burnoose raised his gaze from the nargilah in front of him and lifted a hand to restrain the others. With calm, incurious eyes, he measured each foot of the jeeps' progress. The fact that Moffitt stood at the fifty and that Tully and Hitch both maneuvered the jeeps one-handed while the other gripped side arms did not appear to alarm him. Instead, he made a gesture with his hand to indicate they should approach him. The man had deigned to grant them an audience.
Moffitt said, "Tully," to get him to stop, and the two jeeps sat idling in front of the leader.
"Salaam alaikum," he greeted them, the traditional Arab salutation. He then continued in fluent English, "I am Hassan Abu Mustapha, leader of many hundreds of men. The Allies are not my enemies. Why have you come into my camp with weapons at ready?"
Moffitt could feel the privates' tension rise, and he used a hand gesture of his own to restrain them.
"We are seeking a missing man. The Germans took him. We believe you stopped the Germans."
"That maskin was not worthy to live," the Arab leader said impassively. "He killed three of our women and four camels, and he stole food from us. And he fought us with deception, first pretending friendship. He did not even attack at dawn. Infidel." He spat.
"There was an American with him," Moffitt said carefully. It would not do to appear to accuse them of anything dishonorable. He had not missed the Arabs' rifles. Although they were not in the men's hands, it would take no effort for them to grab the weapons and start firing. The fifty might take most of them out, but a slaughter would not aid Troy. Although Moffitt could not see Troy in the tents that stood open to view, there were other tents with the flaps closed. Troy might be incarcerated there, and he might not be alone. A quick slash of a knife across Troy’s throat would negate all chance of rescue.
"He was a prisoner of the Germans. We have a saying among my people. 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend.' That officer you killed was our enemy, too. Our missing man was not."
"I remember this man," said Mustapha, as if he had suddenly realized the SS officer had not been alone. "I did no harm to him. He was no threat to me, and I do not wish to kill when it is unnecessary."
Moffitt could practically feel the tension leave Hitch, as the young man shifted in the other jeep. Tully appeared less inclined to take Mustapha's words in good faith. The matchstick jutted out unmoving; his jaw was clenched.
"We are grateful for your forbearance." It would never do to rush negotiations. Mustapha had not offered hospitality--Arab hospitality was lengthy and followed elaborate ritual. Once begun, it would be impossible to ask questions immediately. Better to be polite and wary, to allow the Arab to take the lead. Anything else could lead to unnecessary deaths.
"Is it permitted to inquire as to the location of the American Sergeant?"
"It is permitted. He was nothing to do with our vendetta. We did not bring him."
"What do you mean, you didn't--"
"Hitch." Moffitt cut across the outburst, his voice hasty and cautionary. The private fell silent, but Moffitt could feel him fuming. Tully didn't seethe overtly. He calmly checked his weapon to make sure he could fire. It would not take much for him to do it, either.
Hitchcock fell silent with an obvious effort. Moffitt could practically see the urgent, "But, Sarge..." trembling on his lips.
"Would you know where the American is now?" Moffitt asked carefully.
"I do not know. We left him there."
"Alone? In the desert?" Hitch exploded.
Mustapha regarded him consideringly, took in the fact that he was the only one in his jeep, and his apparent youth, and nodded wisely. "He is your commander. You are concerned for him. This is good. I have been told the Americans value each other. I value my men, as well. However, your man was nothing to do with me. We did not harm him. We did what we set out to do and we came away. His fate is in the hands of Allah."
"You didn't even give him water?" Hitch stared at him in disbelief.
Mustapha regarded Hitch impassively. "He was there, yes, but he was nothing to do with me. I left him free, alive." His eyes were steely. Mustapha did not look prepared to endure much more of Hitch’s impertinence. What patience he possessed had nearly dissipated.
Hitch turned imploring eyes on Moffitt. Do something. He did not have to speak it.
Moffitt sent him a warning glance. Don't try anything. Hitch dithered. Obviously, he wanted to do something right now to rescue Troy, to avenge him. He would not, though. But Tully was calmly and logically raising his weapon.
Moffitt grabbed him by the shoulders from behind. "No, Tully," he said under his breath.
"As you see," he spoke aloud, "we have concern for our missing friend. Did you see in which direction he went?"
"I did." Mustapha raised his hand and pointed across the desert to the distant rocky ridge barely visible across the limitless sands. Moffitt didn't miss the way his mouth twisted and his eyes slid away from the rock formation. His men deliberately avoided glancing in that direction. Perhaps Moffitt's earlier speculation had been right, that a local taboo prevented the Arabs from camping there. "He walked in that direction," Mustapha explained. "He must be a wise man. That is the only water. If he is very strong, he might even make it."
Moffitt drew a deep breath. Troy had been without water a long time in the full heat of the day. They had to get to him right away. "Thank you for your answers, and for sparing my comrade. Allah yikafik anni." He lifted his hands from Tully's shoulders. "We will go now to retrieve him. Salaam."
"Salaam alaikum," returned Mustapha placidly and returned to his nargilah.
"One other thing." Moffitt kept his voice deceptively casual. "We were able to follow your tracks here. If that is so, the Germans may be able to follow you as well, seeking retribution. It is nothing to do with me, of course," he added as dryly as possible.
The Arab's eyes flickered in understanding. "As you say," he replied, his placidity undisturbed, but the corners of his mouth twitched. Satisfied that his barb had struck home, Moffitt nodded and gestured to Hitch and Tully to take them out of there.
When the two jeeps had left the Arab camp behind, they stopped for a hasty conference. Hitch bristled. "He just left Sarge there. What kind of bastard--"
"The Arabs have different customs from ours, Hitch," Moffitt explained hastily. "They may seem unreasonable to us, but so do we seem unreasonable to them. Another man may have killed Troy simply for being there. "
"So we're just supposed to thank them for stranding Sarge out here without water?" Hitch spared Moffitt one hasty, outraged glance from the desert in front of him. His knuckles whitened on the steering wheel.
"At least Mustapha didn't kill Troy," Moffitt said mildly.
That did not go down well.
"Don't you care?"
"Yes, I care." Moffitt heard the anger in his own voice and saw Hitch recognize it. "But I also care that the rest of us not be gunned down in an Arab camp. If we had provoked them to violence we would have lost the opportunity to rescue Troy, and we are his only chance for survival."
"Assuming the Arab guy was telling the truth," Tully muttered under his breath.
Moffitt hoped Hitchcock had not heard him, but he had. Maybe he'd been wondering the same thing himself. Hitch stiffened.
"No," said Moffitt slowly. "He told the truth. I don't know him, but I have met others like him. He spoke as one who conceals nothing. He has secrets, of course, but he holds them inside rather than mentioning them. He doesn't view us as enemies, so he answered us frankly. He doesn't care about Troy, but neither does he wish him ill."
Clearly, that didn't sit well with either of the two privates, but they could do nothing about Mustapha.
"Sarge will be okay," Hitch said fiercely. "He'll get to the water. I know he will."
It was clearly a case of whistling in the dark, but in his case Moffitt whistled with him. If anyone could make it to the water, Troy could. A more stubborn, determined man than Sam Troy Moffitt had yet to meet. Troy would make it--if it were humanly possible. They had to get to him as fast as they could--in case he needed help along the way.
Damn you, Troy, you had better live, Moffitt thought fervently as they sped toward the distant outcrop where they hoped to find Troy. It would not only be the two privates who would wish to avenge themselves on Mustapha if they only found Troy's body.
** *** **
A voice accompanied the sudden grip on Troy's shoulder, and while he did not understand the words, they did not sound threatening. Oddly reassured, he let his hand fall away from his empty holster. Crazy. You're crazy, Troy. You don't even know who it is. Not that he could have done anything, even if it had been Dietrich himself, but the gesture might prove good intent if this were someone who could help him. Maybe he had water.
"Ave," said the man behind him.
Ave? The word sounded familiar but he didn't pin it down. Ave, like in Ave, Maria? What the hell did that mean?
He looked up, then his jaw dropped. Standing at his side was a guy dressed like an old-time Roman legionnaire. He wore sandals with laces that criss-crossed his shins, a kind of skirt with pleats, a tooled leather breastplate, and a helmet on his head with a red bristle crest standing upright. The face under the helmet had become tanned and creased from squinting at the sun, and the eyes were as blue as the sea. He had a hard face, but a touch of compassion showed in the lines of the mouth and the depths of the eyes. With one look at the man, Troy inexplicably understood the stranger meant him no harm.
The last Troy had heard, ancient Romans didn't run around North Africa, and hadn't for more years than he could count. A couple thousand years. Nobody would get togged up in a Roman Centurion's costume in the middle of the desert, the middle of a war zone. But the guy looked at him with sympathy. The hand on his shoulder felt firm and real.
"Uh, ave to you, too. Do you speak English?"
The Roman went off into a spiel that Troy didn't understand. Well, Troy picked up the word "aqua" in the middle of it. That had to be water, didn't it? Troy looked hopefully for a canteen, but the guy didn't seem to have one, or anything that could hold water. Too bad Moffitt wasn't here to translate.
"Aqua?" he tried, and made motions of raising his cupped hands to drink. The coin lay cool and smooth against his palm.
The Roman nodded. "Aqua," he confirmed. He thumped himself on the chest. "Flavius."
Introductions were clearly in order. He pointed to himself. "Troy."
"Troy," echoed Flavius. "Aqua." He pointed toward the ridge Troy had been making for.
"Water? There's water there?" The very thought of it made energy flow through Troy's desiccated body. "Aqua?" He pointed.
The Roman nodded. He might not understand English but he was quick on the uptake. "Wa-ter. Aqua pura."
Safe, good water. Troy imagined it, pictured himself flinging himself into a pool of clear, cool water and drinking it in through his pores. Of course that also meant he had to find the strength to walk that far in the blazing sun. His heart settled somewhere around the level of his boots, but he curled his fingers around the coin again, so he could push himself to his feet.
Flavius helped him. He hauled Troy upright and steadied him until he found his balance. Then he curled his fingers around the hand that held the coin. "Denarius."
"Denarius? The coin?" He had heard the word before. Funny, but all the Latin he had ever learned was coming back to him. Maybe all three or four words of it. That would not get him very far. Mostly Latin from the Mass. He was not Catholic but he'd been to mass a few times and remembered a little of it. He'd taken Latin in high school, but the class and the teacher had been boring and most of it had slipped away, unlamented until now. When he was a kid, more years ago than he liked to think about, his best friend, Johnny O'Malley, was an altar boy and he had recruited Troy to help him learn the Latin. Those casual, companionable lessons stuck in his head while the formal, dull lessons had fled. About all he could remember now was "Dominus vobiscum." Would Flavius understand that? Did it matter if he did?
Maybe the coin belonged to him. Maybe he was here because he'd lost it in the sand.
Which meant what? That he was really a Roman legionnaire? Time traveling? A ghost?
I don't believe in ghosts.
Yet there had been times, out in the vastness of the desert, in a night that seemed far vaster than nights back home, when he had experienced a sense that anything was possible. In the desert, a man realized that mysteries lurked just the other side of the firelight or headlight glow, mysteries that he did not really want to think about, mysteries so huge and strange that it felt wiser not to conceptualize them. He did not know if the others ever sensed such things; he'd never been comfortable talking about them. Moffitt might understand. But there were mysteries one didn't talk about, even with friends.
Flavius could not be a ghost. His hand felt solid against Troy's.
But it wasn't warm.
In spite of the searing heat of the afternoon, Troy shivered.
He did not know the Latin word for "ghost".
Maybe he had better return the coin. After all, the last thing he wanted was to make a ghost mad at him. But when he opened his hand and offered Flavius the denarius, the Roman shook his head. He said something in Latin that Troy didn't understand, then he closed Troy's fingers over the coin very firmly and instead gripped Troy's arm.
"Aqua," he said and pointed at the rocky ridge.
"Yeah, I could go for that." Troy nodded to show agreement.
The spirit might be willing to go for water, but the flesh was definitely weak. His legs trembled as he walked, and half a dozen shaky steps convinced him he couldn't make it.
"You go," he said and gestured the Roman on.
Flavius stopped. He glared at Troy the way Troy's own boot camp sergeant had glared at him on the first day of basic, and went off into a long spiel, the kind no enlisted man, not even a maverick sergeant who did things his own way, would dare to disregard. Flavius clearly possessed some degree of rank. He was used to commanding men. Troy recognized that in him. The guy might wear a weird uniform, but he was a fellow soldier. While the words he spoke did not mean anything except for the insistent repeat of "aqua", the tone was definitely familiar. Flavius sounded determined not to let Troy lie down on the job.
"Yeah, right, aqua," he muttered and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. Only the callused fingers that curled around his arm kept him upright.
Step, slide, step. The sun beat hotly on his head, burning, unbearable. The hand that held his arm gripped tightly enough to leave bruises. Could a ghost cause them? Troy believed this one could. Maybe Flavius wasn't a ghost but a man who had slipped through a crack in the wall of time. Maybe when he led Troy to water, he would slip back again. What was he doing here, anyway? Looking for his long-lost denarius? The thing was worn with centuries, scoured almost smooth by the working of the sand. It felt cool against Troy's palm, but not as cold as the hand that kept him upright.
All during that endless walk to the ridge and the promise of water, Flavius talked to him, berated him, lambasted him to keep him moving, all in a language that had been dead for hundreds and hundreds of years. Troy let it flow over him, wash him away in its tide, tumble him like the grains of sand that skittered in the wind and flapped the legs of his pants and the sleeves of his shirt. The wind never picked up enough strength to grow into a sandstorm, but it roiled the sand enough to blur footprints. There might be water at the ridge, a whole oasis with camels and palm trees for all he knew, but Moffitt, Hitch, and Tully would only find him there by sheer luck. Still, Moffitt knew the desert, and Hitch and Tully had both learned it in a harder school, behind the wheel of a jeep in combat. They would find the burned out staff car. They'd find the bodies. They might find evidence of the Arabs. Footsteps might blow away but camel dung might not be drifted over immediately, or even the footprints of that many camels. They would expand their search. The ridge ahead looked like the only shelter in the area. They would get there. Eventually.
If Troy intended to be waiting for them, alive, he would have to get himself there, because in the midst of all the endless bare sand they'd never find him if he collapsed into a gully between dunes. And each step kept getting harder.
His lips felt split and cracked, but his tongue had dried and could not moisten them. Dehydration could kill a man fast. That water had better be there. After all, maybe Flavius' information was two-thousand years out of date. His water hole of "aqua pura" might be centuries dry.
The very thought of that possibility made Troy shudder. What if he finally staggered the rest of the way to the ridge and the "aqua pura" the legionnaire promised was gone? Or tainted? That was such an unbearable thought he would have cried if he had had enough moisture to make tears.
"Aqua," Flavius said, the word a promise.
"There better be." Troy’s voice sounded hoarse and rusty as if he had forgotten how to talk.
Flavius stopped and measured him with those sea-blue eyes. Then he said something in a softer tone, kinder, and he slid his arm around Troy's waist and pulled Troy's arm over his shoulders. He spoke again, gently, and guided the flagging sergeant toward the rocky ridge.
It was nearly close enough, but it almost looked insubstantial, as if it had become transparent, unreal. Troy's feet went through the motions of walking, but Flavius bore his weight. The Roman was practically carrying him.
The last few steps, Flavius did carry him, did bear all his weight. Then, abruptly, the sun went away as they stepped beneath an overhang that created blessed shade. It felt like the temperature had dropped ten degrees in that moment, and the abrupt change shocked Troy from his lethargic daze. He blinked painfully--his eyes ached from the sun and felt gritty from the desert, but he could see.
A narrow passage led into the stone, as if water had gouged it out millennia ago. It was into this passage that Flavius guided his weary steps. Ten feet into it, the air changed, and suddenly Troy could smell moisture. Every molecule in his body stood at alert as if a General had appeared and ordered him to attention.
"Aqua," Flavius said with satisfaction and dragged Troy the rest of the way to an enclosed area, almost a cave. If he craned his neck, he could see a thin sliver of sky, so far above that it seemed colorless, fathomless. Troy didn't give a damn about the sky. Only the pool of "aqua pura" in front of him, wet and real, mattered.
"Aqua," Flavius said again, and guided Troy to a rocky outcrop that jutted into the water. Troy practically fell into the pool face first and took a deep gulp of the water. Nothing he had ever tasted in his life had been as good as that first swallow.
Then Flavius grabbed him, yanked him back. Troy whirled, ready to deck the guy for stopping him. Flavius held up a hand and Latin-ed at him. Troy didn't know the words, but he got the meaning all the same. Take it slow. You'll make yourself ill.
He forced himself to drink in tiny swallows, letting it swirl around in his mouth, allowing it to trickle down his throat. It tortured him, when he could practically have drunk the pool dry, but he reined in his need and disciplined himself. Would not do any good if he killed himself in his urgency. He knew better than that.
Slowly, agonizingly slowly, he quenched his thirst. Restraining himself and drinking the water gradually was one of the hardest things he had ever done, but he did it. Little by little, he felt his body coming back to life.
Only when Flavius became convinced that Troy would not gulp the water too fast did he loosen his grip on the sergeant's arm. Troy used the freedom to duck his head into the water, then lift it and shake it. Water sprayed around him, wonderful, blessed water.
How the heck did you say "thank you" in Latin? Merci was French. Gracias was Spanish. They were both Romance Languages, based on Latin, but he did not think either one of them would make the point. If only Moffitt were here. He spoke Latin. Latin, German, how many other languages? Troy could have used Moffitt right about now. He wouldn't say no to Tully and Hitch, either.
"Thank you," he said fervently, and grabbed Flavius' hand. "You saved my life. I wish I knew who you were, what you were doing out here." He rolled the denarius in his hand. Was that the link? Again, he offered it to Flavius.
Flavius put his hands behind his back. Evidently, he didn't want it back. Troy started to tuck the coin into his pocket. A callused hand gripped his wrist. Flavius closed Troy's fingers over the coin. With his other hand, he pointed, back into the twisting passage that led deeper into the rocks, a real cave.
Okay, if Flavius wanted to give him the guided tour, Troy would take him up on it. He rose to his feet. His legs still trembled, but he could feel their strength returning. He did not need Flavius to hold him up.
The passage twisted into darkness, and after the first bend only a gleam from the way they had come offered light. Troy pulled out his battered cigarette lighter and flicked it on. That made Flavius stare, eyes wide with an almost-superstitious wonder. Then he shrugged and moved on.
The little anti-chamber he led Troy to must have been untouched for centuries. In the far corner, a little pile of desiccated bones had fallen into disarray and some of them were missing, probably eaten by insects or dragged off by small animals over the centuries. The battered remains of the helmet lay beside the skull. The red feather crest had vanished, and the metal tarnished, but Troy could still identify it. He looked at the pitiful remains then back at Flavius, who watched him expectantly. "Ecce," he said.
God, it had to be Flavius’ body, his remains, unburied, unhallowed, abandoned here to be worn away by time. Troy's stomach knotted up. He pointed to the bones. "Flavius?" he asked.
The ghost nodded. "Marcus Flavius." He patted his own chest to make the point.
No way Troy could tell what had killed Flavius, no way of asking for, or understanding, an explanation. Troy stared at the body, then up into the blue eyes that waited, demanding something of him that he didn't know how to give. What could he do for Flavius, who had saved his life?
"Requiescat in pacem."
Was that Latin? It seemed right. Close enough for Flavius to understand it, anyway. The sea-blue eyes brightened with unshed tears, and he gripped Troy by the upper arms and gazed at him while he poured out words. Troy would see the guy buried, even if he had to get around Colonel Wilson to do it.
Okay, maybe this was the time for the rest of it.
"Dominus vobiscum. I hope that's right. Whichever god you believe in, buddy."
Flavius nodded again, then he put out his hand, palm up.
Troy put the denarius into it.
Flavius gripped it tightly, his face working. Then, with a shuddering sigh, he carried it over to his body and made great show of placing it directly in front of the skull. His eyes caught and held Troy's as he picked it up and placed it there again, as if to insist that they belonged together.
"Yeah, I got you, buddy," Troy agreed. "Bury your denarius with you. You have my word on it."
Flavius didn't understand English, but he picked up on the resolve on Troy's face. He rose to his feet and put out his hand. They gripped each other's wrists like comrades.
A second later, Flavius had vanished.
Troy blinked in disbelief. He had never much liked the idea of ghosts, never been remotely comfortable with the concept. Until now, he had considered himself an utter skeptic, ready to scoff at other people's ghost stories. But Marcus Flavius, late of the Roman Legions, had just saved his life.
The coin lay in the dust, practically touching the skull. This time, when he retrieved it, Flavius did not reappear. He did not need to. He knew Troy would see his remains disposed of properly. Now, he finally could rest.
The sound of the jeeps echoed hollowly through the passages, and Troy tucked the denarius into his pocket to keep it safe until the burial and went out to meet his teammates.
They spotted him the minute he emerged from the rocky grotto, and Hitch bellowed, "Sarge!" in gleeful relief. A second later, all three of them pelted over to check him out. Hitch even had his hat for him.
"Are you all right, Troy?" Moffitt asked, after a round of back-slapping and hand-shaking. The Brit's eyes measured Troy. He would see the burn from the sun, the weariness in Troy's step, the way Troy squinted to shield his sun-punished eyes. But he would also see that Troy was alive and in one piece. Relief filled his own eyes.
"I am now," Troy admitted. "Took you guys long enough."
"We had to track down those stupid Arabs who just stranded you out there."
Hitch sounded off in full outrage. "Sarge, he said you weren't his problem. I wanted to deck the guy, but Moffitt wouldn't let me."
"There were more of them than there were of us," Moffitt explained, when Troy quirked an eyebrow at him. "Not that I didn't share Hitch's urge. Or Tully's."
Tully offered up a laconic grin and flipped his matchstick from one corner of his mouth to the other. "They pointed us here," he admitted.
"So there is water here?" Moffitt gestured to Troy's shirt, which bore the drying marks of his near immersion in the pool.
"The best water in the world," Troy admitted. "Aqua pura."
"Latin?" Moffitt looked surprised.
"Latin. I could have used you earlier, Jack. Come on in. I need the help of an archaeologist. There are some bones in there we have to move as carefully as possible."
"Bones, Sarge?" Hitch asked. He craned his neck to see over Troy's shoulder. "What the heck do you want to move bones for?" Tully rolled his eyes.
"I've got a funeral to arrange," Troy admitted, and led the way into the cavern. They would not believe him, anyway. Hell, he would not have believed it if it happened to someone else. Maybe, down the road, he would convince himself the whole thing had been a hallucination.
He stopped dead beside the pool and pushed up his sleeve.
There, where Flavius had grabbed his arm, a set of bruises in the exact position of a man's grip, darkened his skin.
"Ave, Flavius," Troy said, too softly for the others to hear. Later on, at Flavius' funeral, he would ask Moffitt the Latin word for "thank you."
It was not every day a ghost saved a man's life.
** *** **
"Charon," Moffitt explained as Troy carefully gathered up the scattered bones. Tully and Hitch held makeshift torches to light the inner chamber. "The Ferryman. Greek mythology has it that one must offer him a coin to cross the river Acheron into the afterlife. The coin would be placed in the mouth of the corpse. Without it, he would be condemned to wander the shore and never find refuge."
"He was a Roman, not Greek," Troy corrected. "He spoke Latin." He shivered. Flavius had wandered without refuge for a hell of a long time.
A flash of understanding and sympathy lit Moffitt's eyes. "We don't know what his religious beliefs were. He may have been Greek, serving in the Roman legion, or he may have simply followed the Greek gods."
Troy hesitated. "You believe me?" He'd been very uncomfortable admitting what had happened to him, convinced the others would consider it a sun-based delusion. They hadn't scoffed, though. He was grateful for that.
Moffitt nodded. "You found the water. There would be no reason to explore this place further, except for a quick survey to make sure there weren't any Germans around, yet you came directly here. You wouldn't be so determined to bury him if something hadn't motivated you."
Yeah, something had motivated him all right. Flavius had saved his life. What stronger motivation did he need?
"Besides," Moffitt continued, "the Arabs avoid this place. They pointed it out to us, but very uncomfortably, and they did not camp here when it was the obvious location."
"Haunted." Tully cast an uneasy glance over his shoulder.
"You mean he's been wandering around the desert for thousands of years?" Hitch's eyes widened. He stilled the bubble gum he'd been chewing. "All this time and nobody ever found his coin before?"
"It's a big desert," Troy said dryly. Then he felt his mouth twist. "Sounds crazy, but I almost think he directed me to it. The wind gave me a good hard push so I fell in exactly the right spot. Maybe nobody ever came close enough for a nudge before."
Moffitt eyed him thoughtfully. "Maybe, Troy. And just maybe you had a special link with him. You were both soldiers. If he wanted his coin to pay the Ferryman, maybe he was Greek or partly Greek. You have some Greek blood, I believe."
"You think I'm a descendant?" Crazy. Impossible to prove. But out of the vastness of the desert, Troy had fallen in exactly the right place. Fallen with help? Funny how he and Flavius had communicated without knowing each other's language, how Troy had known from the first that Flavius meant him no harm.
"It's possible. It's not something you can ever prove, of course. Whatever the case, I'm glad it happened. He got you to the water."
The torchlight glinted off Hitch's glasses. "Yeah, Sarge, we owe him."
Tully gave a fervent nod.
Troy drank in the sense of comradeship in the moment as fervently as he had drunk the reviving water. He picked up the skull with gentle hands and slid it into his knapsack. "Yeah," he agreed, his voice soft and reflective. One hand felt his pocket to make sure of Flavius' offering for Charon. He had it safe.
Abruptly, he rose and nodded to the others that he was ready. "Come on," he said and strode out of the cave with Flavius' mortal remains. "Let's shake it."