A Marine Lieutenant encounters ancient horrors in the middle east. Word Count 8,200.
A flickering yellow light grows in strength beyond the spiderwebbed windshield of the Humvee, spitting its sickly pale glow about the shattered interior of my ride. For a long moment, I squint in confusion at a solitary patch of scrub grass hanging insanely from a sand sky. I try to make sense of this anomaly but nothing comes. Then clarity seeps slowly in, a realization I’m hanging upside down. My fingers search along the nylon safety belt until they reach the cold metal of the release. Then with a snap, I drop painfully onto the overturned roof.
“Ramirez? Michaels?” My voice sounds distant and hollow against the thunder in my ears. In the growing illumination and thickening smoke I spot Ramirez's legs. They sprout awkward and obscene from the roof weapon’s hatch, his limp booted limbs draped at an impossible angle across the floor. Then a jolt of fear halts my breath, a sudden realization his head and torso lie somewhere beneath me, crushed by the weight of the hummer. Cappizi, my driver, lays unconscious, his helmet gone, his scalp split to the bone. Blood runs thick and slow, dribbling in thick dark pools on his chest before sliding to the ground. In the stuttering smoky shadows, I can’t tell if he’s alive or dead.
“LT, where are you?” Michaels calls from the back of the hummer. “You okay?”
He breaks into a series of gagging coughs as the oily smoke thickens. The intensity of the light outside swells as does my understanding of its source, the danger of our predicament.
“We gotta get out, Doc.” Crushed safety glass and snags of metal bite into my palms as I swing around, get my legs in front of me. “The hummer’s on fire. We don’t have much time.”
It takes two hard kicks before the shattered windshield flops to the desert floor. I pause to suck in great lungful’s of fresh air, then grab Cappizi’s arm and rotate him towards the opening.
“Oh my God!,” Michaels cries. “Ramirez is dead. He’s fucking dead!”
Panic is the great foe of a warrior. I wish I could say I'd learned this truth from experience, but the fact is the only lessons I’ve learned about the fog of war I received in a classroom at Quantico. Right now, all I want is to save my ass. If there’s Marines who want to follow me outta this shit so much the better.
“Leave him, Doc,” I shout. “There’s a man up here who needs help.”
Michaels elbows across the debris-littered ground until we’re nose to nose. Light shimmers across his youthful features, dark fear smoldering in his eyes.
“You have your med kit, Marine?”
He blinks at me stupidly.
“Doc! Capizzi’s gonna need your med kit. Do… you… have it?”
I can see the gears turning in Michaels’ head, his eyes flicking from me to Cappizi’s pale, blood-spattered face.
“Yeah, yeah. It’s in the back.”
“Well fuckin’ get it, then help me get the corporal outta here.”
It takes some doing, dragging Cappizi’s limp form from our crushed vehicle and into the cool desert air. Somehow we manage. Adapt and overcome…right? The black stench of sweat, fear and burning flesh waft over us as I peer across the low-lying scrub.
We’d been at the tail end of the convoy when we were hit. Now it appears the rest of the convoy is gone. The only thing I know for certain. We aren't the only American’s out here. This fact is driven home by the distant rattle of AK-47s and the sharp answering snap of M-16s. I don’t see any muzzle flashes, can't get a bearing on the sound. I've got to assume whoever's trapped out here with us is behind the hills on the far side of our burning wreck.
It's then I spot a shadow creep among the flames of our hummer. I pull out the only weapon we have, my Beretta M9. A chill night breeze sighs past as the figure vanishes around the rear of the hummer. He returns a moment later, silhouetted against flickering flames. I assume it's one of our Iraqi ambushers until I hear him call out.
“Lieutenant Meeks, Corporal Capizzi.”
It's our translator, Rasool Masri. I stand and whistle. It makes me a target but I don't see I have a choice. “Rasool. Over here.”
He dashes across the twenty yards of desert separating us from the wreck and flops down beside me. Like Capizzi, Rasool’s helmet is MIA, his blouse covered in spattered blood.
“You hurt?” I ask.
He tears his eyes from the surrounding darkness and meets mine. They hold a wide-eyed animal intensity I’ve never seen.
“Doc.” I turn and wave Michaels over. “I want you to check Rasool. He’s covered in blood.”
Michaels looks up from his work, snipping off the last of a white gauze strip wound about Cappizi’s head. “Sure thing, LT.” He wipes his hands and crawls over.
“Are you hit?” I repeat to Rasool.
He glances down at his chest, seeming to notice the blood for the first time. Dropping his M-16, he tears open his shirt, explores his bulletproof vest with shaking fingers. We all know a soldier can take a fatal hit and not realize it until he falls over dead.
“No, no.” Rasool gasps. “I think I’m okay.” He holds out an arm, runs his hand along its length. “Yes, I’m okay. This must be from other guys.”
“Is there no one else alive?” I ask. “Sergeant Goad? Lieutenant Aatoe?”
The rattle of an AK sounds behind us. This time I spot the muzzle flashes, angry orange tongues flashing in the darkness.
“Dead. Everyone dead,” Rasool says. “We took missile on side of truck. Everyone dead.”
I’d met Rasool in Kuwait City three days prior. We’d both received the same orders. ‘Get your asses up to 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine most Rikki-tic.’ I assumed that on the eve of the Bagdad invasion, command demanded our fluency in Arabic on the front lines.
“How the fuck are you not hurt?” Michaels asks. He squares his broad shoulders and jabs an accusing finger at Rasool. “If everyone else is dead how come you don’t got a fuckin’ scratch?”
“The blessings of Allah,” he says.
As they argue, the sudden paralyzing realization sinks in. I'm in command of these men. If they live or die, it will be based on my decisions, what direction I lead them. I can’t believe this is happening. Hell, I haven’t even received my first command. My first assignment awaits me once we hook up with the 2nd Marines south of Nasiriya. Not here. Not now.
“Whadda we do now, LT?” Michaels asks. I can hear the rising panic in his voice.
“Shut the fuck up,” I hiss. “Just everyone shut the fuck up. Let me think.”
The sound of M-16 fire is fragmented now, almost gone. From the direction of the muzzle flashes I’d seen earlier, muffled voices carry across the sand.
“We need to go,” I say. “Doc, get Cap’s left arm, I’ll get his right. Rasool, cover us.”
“You’re gonna let that raghead cover us?” Michaels asks. “How do we know he didn’t waste everyone in his truck? How we know he ain’t gonna waste us?”
“Private,” I growl. “Get Cap’s arm and shut the fuck up.”
With a grunt, we hoist Cappizi between us, one limp arm slung over our shoulders, his legs supported between. I start off in the direction opposite our burning hummer when Rasool lays a hand on my shoulder.
“No, Lieutenant. We need to go this way.” He jabs the barrel of his rifle towards a handful of lights twinkling in the distance. Like an avenging angel, a jet screams past, unaware of the struggle taking place beneath him.
“You know where we are?” I ask.
“Yes. I spend many summer in Nasiriyah as a boy. There is ancient graveyard between us and those lights. Very few people there. Many places for to hide.”
I’d had my doubts about Rasool after he showed up; not a scratch on him and covered in blood. But half an hour later, as scattered palms and rows of headstones resolve themselves against the honey pink dawn, I knew he’d guided us true. We drop behind the brick fence of a cemetery, the ambush and our smoldering wreck a good four clicks behind us.
When we set him down, Cappizi regains consciousness crying out in pain and grabbing at his leg.
“Calm down, Cap. I’ve got ya,” Michaels says. He rolls out his med kit and cuts open Cappizi’s pants revealing an ugly black bruise inches above his ankle. “I think it’s broke,” Michaels says after several painful moments of prodding.
“Can you splint it?” I ask.
“Yeah, no problem,” Michaels says.
“How’s your head, Cap?” I kneel beside him, the left side of his round face crusted with blood.
“Hurts like a son of a bitch, LT.” He raises a hand to his bandaged head, probing gingerly across the red stained surface. “When we getting’ outta here, huh? I’ve had about as much fun as I can stand.”
“We’ll be outta here in no time, Cap.” I lay a hand on his shoulder and smile. “Don’t you worry.”
“Don’t leave me out here, okay.” He pulls a folded photo from his pocket. Stares at it a long moment before handing it to me. “Did I mention I was a father? I gotta get back to my baby, LT. I can’t die out here.”
The image in the photo is blurred. A woman propped in a hospital bed, a bloody thumbprint covering her feet and legs. The only clear spot in the picture is the tiny ball of life she cradles in her arms.
“She’s a beaut, Cap.” I pass the photo back. “You can call em’ yourself. Soon as we’re home.”
With a final check for pursuit, we swing across the fence into the graveyard. Dust devils cavort between the headstones as we crouch between two raised sarcophagi and wait for more light. The wind is moist in the cool morning air, the musky aroma of reeds and dead fish reminding me of trips to the Red River back home. My brother and I pushing our canoes into the dirty brown water, paddling between its silent treed banks, our fishing lines spooling out behind us.
“We’re close to the Euphrates aren’t we?” I ask Rasool.
He's leaning against the parched stone of a crypt. He glances off to his right as if he can see the river from his spot on the ground. “Yes. She is very close. On the other side of graveyard.” A tired smile twitches up the corners of his lips. “As a boy, I fish near this spot many times.”
I risk a peek over the top of the sarcophagus. There's no sign of our burnt hummie or the blasted transport Rasool has escaped. The only road in sight a dusty dirt track meandering out of the graveyard and disappearing over the crest of the hill. On the far side of the Euphrates, the land rises in a long, lush ascent dotted with swaying palms and acres of greenery. Dozens of crude brick homes squat along the ridge but I know they offer no assistance. We are, after all, an invading force.
“So what’s the plan, LT?” Michaels asks. “We got any options?”
“Command knows we’re out here. They’ll be looking for us,” is say. “And in a couple days’, the Marines will own Nasiriya. All we gotta do is hold tight and not get caught. Ain’t that right, Cap?”
Cappizi glances up, his eyes glazed with pain. “That’s right, LT. Just another day in the suck.”
Our situation is bad, I know, but not critical. Not yet. I have my Beretta and four mags. Rasool has his M-16 and between us, we've got eight mags of rifle ammo. We wouldn’t want to get into a pitched battle, but we could hold our own.
With the river close, water shouldn’t be an issue, and we have enough junk food crammed in our pockets to keep from starving for a few days. The problem is Cappizi. Michaels is a medic, not a doctor. Cap’s head injury might turn into nothing worse than a bad scar and an interesting story. On the other hand, he could be dead by day’s end; one way or another, he needs out.
On the far side of the Euphrates, a beat up Toyota trundles between rows of green fields. Two men clamber out and begin moving along the crops. There’s one thing certain about our predicament. We aren’t going anywhere until sunset.
“Rasool. We need to get outta sight. Is there someplace we can hide?”
He scratches at his beard, rising on his haunches to pan the surrounding area then drops back down his lips pinched into a flat pale line. “There is a place. It is very close.” He shakes his head and stares into the distance. “But I am…afraid? No. That’s not the word.” He waves his hand in a circle as if he can pull what he needs from the air. Then he turns, meets my eye. “Madheur,” he says.
“Terrified?” I translate.
“Yes, yes. Terrified. Terrified to take you there.”
“Why. Is it dangerous?”
“No. Not dangerous. Cursed. It is cursed place.”
Michaels pushes closer, his hand on my shoulder. “Whaddya mean cursed? LT, I don’t think we outta be goin’ any place that’s cursed.”
I brush away his hand, the scowl on my face sending him back to his position. “Just keep a fuckin’ look out, Doc, and let me make the call.”
“Fine, fine,” he grumbles. “I’m just thinkin’ hiding in cursed places might be a poor game plan.”
“So where is this place?” I ask. “You said close?”
“Yes, just west of here. A mausoleum overlooking the Euphrates. It is very old, Lieutenant, very old. There is door to this building. We could go inside. Hide. No one will come near.”
“Then let’s get there,” I say. There is more activity on the far side of the river and traffic noise from the city rolls across the desert. Besides the white contrails crisscrossing the sky, I'm surprised at the absence of jets or thumping choppers zooming above us. It has only been a couple hours since the attack on the convoy but I’d hoped the cavalry was on the way.
With Cappizi’s arms slung over our shoulders, Michaels and I are forced to side step through the long rows of headstones and raised sarcophagi. The cool breeze off the Euphrates is a welcome relief in the growing heat, but I worry about the farmers in their fields. They move with plodding slowness through their crops, dropping to a knee to work the soil before moving on. I know if I can see them, then surely they can see us.
Finally, Rasool halts us. He’d been right, the building is old. In fact, old doesn't quite cover it. The cylindrical structure is constructed of brick with an onion shaped top. A layer of colored tile once festooned the entire surface but now adorns only the area around the door; the rest lays in glittering piles at the foot of the walls.
We rush to the building and set Cap down taking a moment to catch our breath. Shaking my head, I give the building an appreciative whistle. “This must be from the Ghaznavid dynasty,” I say. “Maybe the Selju.”
Rasool turns, his brows arched in surprise. “How is it you know this, my friend?”
I pull out my canteen; take a long swig of lukewarm water while I drink in the view. For a building constructed over a thousand years ago, it's in magnificent shape.
“I’m not a full-time Marine,” I say. “I'm a reservist, joined after 9/11. Like everyone, I wanted to do something for my country. My granddad was a Marine in WW two, ya know. Even received a purple heart at the battle of Peleliu. So I figured the Marines was where I belonged.”
I hold my canteen out to Cappizi. “Thanks, LT.” He takes it with shaking hands, a lopsided grin on his face.
“When I signed up, I was starting on my Master’s degree in Persian Studies at the University of Texas. When my unit was called up, I was in the middle of my thesis: The influence of the Seljuq Dynasty on the Holy Roman Empire." I shrug. "Boring I know but what’cha gonna do?”
A smile creeps across Rasool’s face. “It looks like I misjudged you. You obviously know much about my people. Maybe more than I.”
I chuckle dryly. “If your people lived a thousand years ago, then maybe.” I return my gaze to the mausoleum. “Why haven’t I ever heard of this place? A structure like this. I’d expect it to be famous.”
He scrubs a hand across his beard, his eyes roving across the aged stones. “The elders say demons are buried here,” he says. “and the building is cursed. None wish to take picture. None wish to speak or hear of this place. The peasants.” He nods towards the workers in the fields. “They will not even look in this direction for fear of bringing bad luck.”
A motor grumbles in the distance, growing nearer. There may not be many visitors to the cemetery, but the land around it is prime farmland. In a few hours, there will be dozens of eyes crawling across these fields. I can't count on the power of superstition to safeguard what has become my first command.
I creep up the three flat stone steps to the entrance. The door is of iron bound construction, the wood dust etched and smooth. The single metal bolt is secured with a padlock that looks like it belongs on some 1880’s stagecoach strongbox. “Michaels. Get a big rock and bring it up here. We’re gonna bust this lock.”
In moments, we have the door open and are carrying Cappizi inside. The interior of the building is surprisingly cool, a welcome relief from the growing heat. The place has a dry musty odor like an abandoned building or old warehouse. A half dozen fingers of light poke through the ancient slate roof and cut like beams across the mote-filled air.
Inside the spacious walls, six sarcophagi lay on gray stone blocks. Each of the two foot high supports carved with parades of bearded warriors in chariots and lines of spear-toting infantry. I stand for a long moment letting my eyes adjust to the darkness, the only sound, the lazy buzz of a fly high in the stone ceiling.
I can't believe my good fortune, or perhaps bad fortune. Here I am, standing amongst the most pristine ancient site I'm ever likely to see, unsure if I’ll live out the day. I run my fingers across the smooth, bald effigy carved into the top of one sarcophagus. It's strange how cold the stone feels beneath my fingers. Almost icy in its uniform smoothness. Cuneiform letters run in rows along the length of the coffin’s lid, but before I can examine the writing, Michael’s breaks my reverie.
“Hey, LT. The raghead’s still outside. He’s probably lettin’ them Iraqis know just where we’re at.”
I rush to the door and ease it open. Down deep, a part of me fears Michaels might be right. That Rasool has killed the other passengers in his transport. That he's leaving a trail for our attackers to follow. Maybe even lending a hand in the ambush. But I don't find our translator has abandoned us. I discover him kneeling behind a headstone keeping watch.
“Rasool. Come inside. If they catch us in the daylight there’s nothing we can do. We’ll be safer out of sight.”
He glances over his shoulder and holds me in his gaze, then continues scanning the countryside. “I cannot go in with you, Lieutenant,” he says. “I’ll be fine out here.”
“He’s waiting for em’ ta show up, LT,” Michaels whispers. “He’s bird doggin’ for em’. As soon as our backs are turned he’ll dime us out.”
“That’s bullshit, Private.” I turn and nod towards Cappizi. He's propped against the wall, his head slumped to his chest. “Go attend to your patient, Doc. I’m no expert on head trauma, but I don’t think he’s supposed to be napping.”
I turn to Rasool. “Come inside, Rasool. That’s an order.” I didn’t really believe Michaels’ prejudice, but why tempt fate.
Rasool pushes up from the ground and slings his rifle. Then with the look of a man sentenced to the gallows, stomps up the steps and into the darkness.
The afternoon passes without event, the beams of light creeping across the flagstone floor and crawling along the curved gray walls. To our shared distress, the flies somehow learn of our presence. By the middle of the afternoon, they buzz in fat lazy clouds above our heads landing with irritating regularity on lip or eye or ear as we try to nap.
One benefit of my inability to sleep is the afforded opportunity to study the chamber. It becomes quickly apparent that although the sepulcher in which we hide is indeed of vast antiquity, the sarcophagi it houses are of an even greater age.
I examine first the sides of each sarcophagus, magnificent in their carved detail. Each stone coffin a portrayal of feats of arms or holy oversight of crops and people. One peculiarity is an eerie similarity in the effigies of all those interred. Each carved face holds the same cadaverous expression, each stone visage portraying skin pulled taught over cheekbones and chin, lips framed into slight grins almost evil in their intent, each head smooth and unburdened by hair, or circlet or crown.
But it's the cuneiform script atop these coffins which draws my greatest interest. The writing is from a period which I'm not familiar. The Achaemenid Dynasty, most likely 300 BC.
“Lieutenant, please,” Rasool begs as I hunch over the writing. “Let the dead be and pray to whatever God you follow that we do not lose our souls for coming here.” He drops once more to his knees in whispered prayer.
I'm surprised at our translator’s ignorance. On our trip from Kuwait, I’d learned he was a Kurdish national from a well to do family. He’d graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry from USC and spent three years working in Houston before volunteering to return to Iraq. To see him quaking over some ancient superstition is galling.
“Come on, Rasool. Surely you don’t buy into the mumbo jumbo they fed you as a kid. This is the archaeological find of the century.”
Rasool pauses in his prayers and pushes to his feet. “Those tombs have remained untouched for thousands of years, Lieutenant. Maybe you should honor that tradition.” A deep rumble rolls through the ground sending a fine shower of dust drifting from the ceiling. It's followed by the hollow thud of artillery. Somewhere the Cavalry is on the way.
Rasool returns to his prayers, no amount of prodding breaking him from his chants.
“So what’s all the writin’ say?” Michaels asks. He’s been trying to keep Cappizi awake all afternoon with little success. More frightening still, Cap’s speech has begun to slur, his crooked smile devolving into a palsied leer.
“Boasting mainly.” I yawn. We’d been on the run almost twenty-four hours and the effort has worn me down. “This guy smitted so and so at such and such battle and that guy next to him crushed his enemy at the great Euphrates river. That sort of thing.” I lean over, examining a fragment of text which is similar on each crypt I examine. “The weird part are these final lines. They’re pretty much the same on each tomb.”
“And what is that?” Michaels asks.
“It says these guys were high priests, all buried on the same day. Only the word they use isn’t buried. The word they use is ‘locked away’.” I pitch my voice into my best Vincent Price imitation. “Destined to rise at the end of times. To serve the great God, Erra in his mighty return. Dum, dum, dum.”
Michaels laughs, hums the Twilight Zone tune. I notice Rasool considering me with a sword sharp stare before returning to his prayers.
As the light dims and our time for departure nears, an unquenchable desire to see inside the crypts consumes me. There's no telling what untold knowledge and wealth is secreted inside these ancient enclosures, no telling when or if I’ll ever see them again. I fantasize about leading a study team researching the crypts. Maybe even a wing in the Smithsonian dedicated to their display. I hook my fingers beneath the lid of a priest named Nara-Sun and lift. The cover is heavy, much heavier than I thought. I groan against the effort, hunching up my shoulders. The black cover rises. A quarter inch. A full inch, the icy cold stone biting painfully into my fingers. Then I lose my hold and it slams down with a thud.
The noise draws alarmed stares from all three of my companions, even startling poor Cappizi from his slumber. Michaels and Rasool spring to their feet.
“What the fuck?” Michaels blurts out. “LT, you can’t open those things. Uh, uh. I ain’t stickin’ 'round for that shit.”
“The Private is right, Lieutenant,” Rasool says. He holds the M-16 now, his hands tightening and loosening on the grip. His dark eyes flashing defiance. “I’m afraid I will not allow you to open the crypt. It is bad enough we are here at all.”
It was then we hear the baying, each eye bending towards the door. I dash to the opening and crack it wider. Much has changed since our arrival. Twilight is folding her purple fingers over the eastern horizon, the rattle of small arms and thump of explosions announce the invasion of Nasiriya to the east.
Across the dusty field we’d crossed so many hours before, a man dressed in dingy white robes and a keffiyeh headdress is being pulled along by two short-haired mutts. The dogs snuffle along the ground baying like a pair of Louisiana hounds. Beside the old man and his dogs strides a tall soldier in a dark green uniform and black beret.
‘Ah fuck. Wha’da we do now?” Michaels asks.
As I consider our options for dealing with these two, the rest of their party crest the ridge. Two BRDM armored personnel carriers and at least fifty infantry follow in the path of the crying hounds.
I drop my forehead against the door. We're fucked. “If anyone has ideas,” I mumble. “I’m open to suggestions.” I'm not surprised there are no takers. “Okay.” I sigh and square my shoulders. “Once they surround us, we’ll wait for them to call us out. I’ll go out …and surrender.”
My eyes slide from one man to the next halting on Cappizi. “The good news, Cap, is you’ll get to a hospital.” I almost believe it.
The pursuit closes, meandering along the headstones until the baying dogs come to a halt. Our pursuers are still a hundred yards distant but it seems the animals will come no closer. It's grown dark in the desert, the air quickly losing its heat. The interior of the crypt, comfortably cool during the day, turns chill, an icy bite seeping from the stones themselves.
The officer argues with the old man for some time, the peasant pointing repeatedly at the mausoleum. Finally, the officer pulls out his pistol and shoots both dogs, the crack of the gun’s report sharp and final.
“You still think surrenderin’ sounds like a good idea?” Michaels asks.
Seeing the leader of the Iraqis kill those dogs has awakened in me the same misgivings. But I don't see a means of escape. Not without leaving Cappizi behind.
“You can’t negotiate with a dog as your hostage, Private. You can with a living Marine.” I'm betting these men’s lives on that hope. I pray I'm not wrong.
Luckily, we never have a chance to surrender. Seems the presence of two armored vehicles and a company of Iraqi regulars has drawn the attention of the good guys. Without warning, the countryside erupts in flame. The spot where the armored vehicles once sat exploding in towers of flame. The concussion from the blast flings the crypt door open, slams me to the floor.
Clouds of dust erupt around the feet of the scattered Iraqi troops, the ratta-tat-tat of distant Apache gunships echo among the stones. Then the world comes apart with an ear shattering whump.
I don’t know how long I was out. No more than a couple minutes. Rasool has me by the arms, dragging me across a field of jagged stone.
“I’m up. I’m up.”
He lets go of my arms and drops to a knee, helps me to my feet. “What the fuck happened?” I ask.
We're stand at the center of a swirling cloud of dust, a monstrous hole gaping from the rear of the mausoleum. Michaels stumbles from the open maw of the building with Cappizi dangling over his shoulder.
“A missile hit the building,” Rasool says. Bullets thump and splange around us. The fire isn’t coming from the Apache, I know that immediately. It sizzles in from a semi-circle of muzzle flashes to our left.
I point to one of the sarcophagi laying tumbled among the rocks. Its top missing, the interior open to the star-freckled sky. I dive behind this protection and upholstered my Beretta. “Rasool! Cover Fire!”
Dashing to where I’d last seen Cappizi and Doc, I find them laying in a pile of rubble, a trickle of blood dribbling down Docs face. He gazes up with wide, startled eyes. “Follow me, Doc.”
I bend down and grab Cap’s arm, yank him onto my shoulder in a dead man's carry.
“Go answer the door, Brad,” Cappizi coughs in my ear. “Momma ordered us pizza.”
Rasool’s M-16 spits out a measured flat tempo to the rattling staccato of the AKs. As I stumble through the crushed bricks, and chunks of stone, bullets hiss and crack around us.
I stumble to a halt before the open sarcophagus. I didn’t know if its former resident has been stolen by grave robbers, fallen out in the explosion or simply rotted away to dust. Except for a thick mat of dead flies, the sarcophagus is empty. A perfect place for Cappizi to hide. I dump him inside and catch my breath. For a moment, the firing of our attackers slows. The deep voice of the Iraqi commander orders some of his men to surround us on the right. He has no idea two of us speak Arabic.
“I can’t breath man, They’re all over me!” Cappizi sits bolt upright in his stone coffin. Shots zip in from the darkness, splatting and zinging off the cold thick stone of his shelter. Michael’s put a hand to Cap’s chest and shoves him down. “Stay put, Cap” he whispers. “This is the safest place for you.”
Michaels turns and looks at me. “If he keeps sitting up, he’s gonna get tagged.”
Cappizi tries to rise again, but he's weak and I push him back easily. “You gotta stay still, Marine. You gotta take it easy.”
His eyes are the only active thing about him, darting from side to side, glaring at the walls of his hideous enclosure. I know he's delirious, know his fears will drive him from this haven and into the line of fire. I grip his jaw, force his eyes to mine.
“Cappizi! Cappizi!” I hiss. His eyes dart past like panicked birds. “Marine. Fall in.” I say. His heaving chest slows. His eyes drift to mine. “Cap. Are you with me?”
There's a long pause. He nods.
“Ali Baba’s all around us, pal. I need you to understand that. Do you understand.”
“The men they sent to flank us will be here any second, Lieutenant,” Rasool calls. "You need to hurry."
“Cappizi. Are you good? You need to lay still. If you don’t lay quiet they’re gonna shoot you.”
“But they’re crawling all over me, LT,” Cappizi mumbles. “They’re trying to suffocate me.”
“It’s your imagination, Marine. I need you to be calm. You need to listen to Michaels.” I take his hand. His grip is weak, his palms moist. “Can you do that for me?”
He nods his ascent, leans back with a sigh. I release Cappizi’s hand and sneak across the rough ground to Rasool. He points to a second sarcophagus buried amongst the rubble.
“I’m gonna get inside that,” I say. “You draw their fire, then fall back. When they follow, I’ll hop out and attack from the rear.”
He lays a hand on my shoulder, his dark eyes reflecting the fires of the burning vehicles. “Be careful, my friend.”
I've got no idea how many troops the Iraqi commander has sent to flank us, no idea when they'll arrive. From a count of muzzle flashes, I figure there’s only ten or twelve of them left. The remainder of the Iraqi troops must be dead or hightailing it home.
I squat next to the sarcophagus, the lid laying in chunks beside it. Like Cappizi’s container, this one is empty too. I crawl inside and lay with my arms crossed, the Beretta tight in my grip.
I’m not superstitious, don’t associate bad feelings with inanimate objects. Yet when I lay back, I’m struck by an almost overpowering sense of corruption. As if this things held every foul and malignant form ever doomed to slime or slither or crawl across God’s green earth.
I feel the light touch of tiny legs across my skin. I chalk it up to Cappizi’s rant. He’s obviously freaked me out. I take a long breath. Ease it out. There's nothing in here, I tell myself. Nothing but dust and dead flies.
Despite my denial, the feeling persists, creeps from ankle, to calf. Along my knee. The flies which had harassed us so mercilessly during the day suddenly return. They swarm and hum above my head. I drag the corner of my blouse over my mouth. Pinch my nose. Rifle fire explodes beside me. The loose kack, kack, kack of the AK-47 followed by an M-16’s barking reply.
Through the cracks of my lashes, I spot a figure step past. He raises his weapon and fires. The wriggling invaders have reached my nuts, my ass. Flies land in a sheet, their buzzing wings a cacophony drowning out the world, their tiny legs scraping and grabbing for purchase as they fight to enter my ears, claw their way past my fingers onto my pursed lips, my pinched nose. It's too early to ambush our attackers. I know that. I also didn’t care.
Springing up like a jack-in-the-box, I bat the filth from my eyes, spit them from my mouth in deep retching hacks. Two Iraqis stand at the foot of the coffin. They turned as one, their eyes wide, the color drained from their faces.
“Shaytan min aldhdhubab,” one screams. He drops his rifle and vanishes into the dark. The other stands frozen. His eyes dark pools of fear.
The Beretta comes up and I fire. The bullet smashes into his chest and slams him to the ground. Free of the threat, I roll from that obscene place, spit out the squirming remains of those crushed between my teeth. Then I yank down my pants and swat away the legion of filth crawling up my legs.
Rasool creeps up, helps me to my feet. “Are you okay?” he asks.
“Yeah, fuckin’ peachy.” My hands are shaking as I scoop up the dropped AKs.
“That soldier called you Demon of Flies,” Rasool says. “Did you hear him?”
“Yeah. So what? Seeing me covered with all those bugs. The poor bastards must have been scared to death.” I look into the crypt, at the squirming mass at the bottom. Somehow they'd been dormant, awakened by my entry into their realm.
“I’m sure they were,” Rasool says. “But that’s not my point. The Demon of Flies, Demon of Pestilence. Those are names given to the ones buried here. The reason this place is cursed.”
I squint at him in disgust, amazed we’re having a discussion on superstition in the middle of a firefight. “Well there's no demon to worry about now,” I say. “The coffin’s empty”
I hand one of the AKs to Rasool. “Give me your M-16,” I tell him.
Rasool give me a hard look before passing over the rifle. “You don’t trust me, Lieutenant?”
I pull out the M-16’s mag and slapped in a fresh one. “It’s not your loyalty I’m worried about. It’s your aim.”
“Yeah. You’re not a Marine.”
I give Michaels the second AK then together we drag Cappizi out of the Sarcophagus. Cap’s head flops lazily, his arms limp.
“Something’s wrong,” Michaels says.
We set Cap down, his back to the stone casket.
“He’s not breathing,” Michaels hisses. A stream of white foam dribbles from Cappizi’s mouth. It's dotted with wriggling black dots
Michaels leaps to his feet and swings his rifle on Rasool. “This fucker did somethin’ ta Cap. I told ya, LT. He’s been workin’ with them Iraqis the whole time. First, he offed the guys in his transport. Then he led us into a trap. Now he’s killed Cappizi.”
Rasool takes an alarmed step back, his hands flex on the grip of the AK but his barrel remains pointed into the darkness, pointed at our enemy. I can see in his eyes a determination to swing the gun on Michaels. We both recognize the murder in Michaels’ voice.
I swing up my M-16 and catch the barrel of Michaels’ gun. The impact knocks his weapon up and the shot intended for Rasool blazes impotently into the night. From the darkness, the Iraqis fire back, shots peppering the rocks and snapping through the air. I dive to the earth and land atop Cappizi.
When I do, the man we thought dead, sits bolt upright, knocking me away. He turns and retches the contents of his stomach onto the sand. In the dim glow of the crescent moon, the filth ejected from his guts writhe with squirming black dots. Flies. Dozens of sodden insects crawl from the mucus. Some batting their wings with crazed intensity and buzzing into the night, others, coated in opaque slime, etch their way across the sandy soil like black-legged snails.
I crab away from that pool of muck, the charnel stench of it almost sending me screaming into the night. Then Cappizi stands up. He fucking stands up. He steps gingerly on his splinted foot his jaws clenched like a man expecting pain. Then a smile spreads across his face and he hops on the injured limb.
“Hey, LT. Look at that. My leg’s better.”
At the sound of his voice, shots sing and hiss out of the darkness.
He dives down beside me, then risks a peek over the top of the coffin. “Who’s shooting at us?”
“Cappizi?” Michaels asks. “Hey, Cap. That you?”
“Fuckin’ A, bro.”
Michaels’ scrabbles across the separating distance, the two men fist bumping when they met.
“Dude, I thought you was dead,” Michaels says. “I thought the towelhead offed you.”
“No, way man,” Cappizi says. He turns and hacks into his hand. A long, deep cough. Then turns to his friend. “Ain’t no towel head gonna whack the Cap.”
I sit in astonishment at their exchange. Stunned at the resilience of these two men neither old enough to buy drinks back in the states. Then Cappizi drops his hand to his side, the one he’d hacked into. He opens it and flies buzz into the night. At least I think that’s what I see. I rub the heel of my hand in my eye, try to will away the fatigue. It must be a trick of the light, I tell myself, an aberration produced by my overwrought imagination.
“So what’s the plan, Lieutenant?” Cappizi asks. He's crouched on his haunches, his skin an ashen gray, the bloody bandage askew on his head. Otherwise, he looks fine. “We gonna sit around and wait for the Iraqis to get brave or are we gonna get the fuck outta here?”
I sit up, try to collect my thoughts. Of course, Cappizi's right. We have to leave. I didn’t know why we haven't been overrun. Fear of the mausoleum most likely, fear of the curse. But how long will that last?
“You’re right,” I say. I brush the grit from my pants and consider direction. Our best bet is the river. If we can find a boat, we could drift with the current, out of enemy territory. After that, all we’d need to do is find a main road and flag someone down. “Get Rasool and let’s get moving.” I cast a discerning eye over Cappizi. “Can you walk?”
“Walk, hell.” His smile, one that reveals rows of too small teeth and wide gray gums makes my stomach tense with groundless fear. “When the time comes, Lieutenant, I’ll run.”
It's then I notice Rasool hunched against the side of the sarcophagus. “Rasool. Time to go.” I lay a hand on his shoulder and he slumps to the ground, a bullet hole ripped through his throat. He stares up accusingly with half-lidded eyes.
“Guess I was wrong about the towel head,” Michaels says. “But what’cha gonna do, huh?” He laughs and punches Cappizin in the arm.
I stand open-mouthed at his callous ignorance. My mind clawing at some telling jibe, some reprimand to set him straight. I come up with nothing. “Get his gun, Cappizi, and shut the fuck up.” is all I say. I’d already lost one man in my command, I'm not about to lose another.
We move quickly through the headstones, away from the crypt. Occasionally I turn and see it silhouetted against the sky by an explosion from the city or the burning glow of the armored vehicles. Then it drops below a ridge and is gone. We move beneath rows of waving palms and wide fields of lettuce, the rich aroma of the river growing ever stronger.
I hold up a fist to halt our progress. We stand atop a rock escarpment overlooking the Euphrates, the long arch of water shimmering into the distance like the gleaming black scales of a serpent. Overhead, the bright glimmer of stars are dimmed by the pulse of artillery on the horizon and fires in the city.
“I love the great water at night,” Cappizi says. “Especially when the fires of war are reflected on her surface. “ He bends to snap a succulent leaf from the earth, holds it to his nose. Eyes closed, his chin tilts up in a look of contentment. “Ah, the sweet smell of Persia. She never changes.”
“What you talkin’ bout bro?” Michaels says. “This raghead field? I’ve seen better crops growin’ outta my ass.” He laughs and holds out his fist but Cappizi does not oblige him. Instead, he regards his friend with a look of unmasked disdain, then lets the leaf flutter to the ground and steps closer.
“Michaels and I can hold this position,” Cappizi says. “While you look for a boat.” Our eyes meet and I feel that same hard grip of fear tighten my gut. “Wasn’t that the plan… Lieutenant?”
I swallow hard, hear the dry click in my throat. “Yeah. Yeah it was.” I study the thick layers of reeds lining the shore. It should be simple enough to find a boat, then gather up Cappizi and Michaels. We’ll be home free. “All right. Michaels. Keep an eye on Cap, I don’t want him over exerting himself.” I turn and point a finger at Cappizi. “Remember, Cap, you’ve still got a bad head injury.” As if he’d forgotten, his hand drifts to the bandage wrapping his head.
“If you hear Ali baba before I get back, high tail it to the water and swim downstream. Don’t worry about me, we’ll meet up later.” I try to sound confident. Like I know we're practically home. Even though we’d broken contact with the Iraqis, my instincts scream we're in more danger than before. Michaels feels it too. His head turns nervously, searching the darkness.
I creep along fields of reeds, their stalks clattering soothingly in the breeze. The lapping waves on the muddy shore a constant reminder how close we are to freedom. I’m only a hundred yards away when I locate a canoe pulled up on shore. Then a scream breaks the silence. It rolls across the fertile fields until fading into a gurgling shout.
Racing back I clamber up the slope to our outcrop above the river. My thudding heart freezing as I step onto that platform, assaulted by a sight beyond description. An abomination that even now roils my gut with dread.
Cappizi stands bare-chested over Michaels, the two of them framed in the dim moon’s glow. Michaels writhes on the rocky ground, his entire form cocooned in a blanket of swirling flies. Even now, I can hear his piteous, retching screams, see his bloodied fingers clawing at his insect-encrusted eyes, his mouth enshrouded in a crawling, seething blanket of black.
Michaels rolls across the ground, legs kicking in the last throes of death. Then that putrescent cloud rises, swirls like an ebony tornado before diving into Cappizi’s mouth. His jaws yawn obscenely, allowing the host to plunge inside. Then with a snap, they are gone.
He wipes a finger at the corner of his lips, like a man dabbing away a crumb after a sumptuous meal. My knees are rubber on that rocky platform, the M-16 rattling in my grip.
My gaze is drawn to Michaels’ steaming corpse. His face unrecognizable, devoid of flesh. His lidless eyes sit like glimmering white orbs above the rictus grin of death. His clothes loose on chest and legs absent the tissue which once supported them.
“What are you?” My voice barely a sigh.
Cappizi steps closer, towering over me. Before my eyes his chest swells, his arms bulging with vitality. He reaches up and drags the bloody rag from atop his head. His hair is gone, his awful wound only a whisper of a scar against his ashen skin, his visage a mirror of the icy crypts we left behind .
“Don’t you know, Lieutenant? You’ve been educated in our history. It should come as no surprise that the end of times is here.”
I raise the muzzle of the M-16. There's no comfort in the heft of that weapon. No fear in Cappizi’s eyes as I bring it to bear.
“Come on Cappizi. Quit fooling around,” I say. “We can go back to base. The docs can fix you up. You can go home, man. See you daughter.”
He throws back his head and roars his mirth to the heavens. “Don’t you realize? I am home.” He waves an arm taking in the river and the city beyond. “Once we ruled this kingdom like Gods.” He pauses for a long moment. Meets my terrified gaze. “Come, Lieutenant. Join me. We will be the first. We will raise the others and claim our thrones at the right hand of Erra.”
“That’s crazy talk, Cap. That’s not possible.”
An RPG screams out of the darkness, explodes between us. The blast catapults me from the ridge and I splash into the river. Muzzle flashes and explosions rip the night, Cappizi’s maddened roars floating across the water.
My legs are numb, but I manage to paddle out to the center of the river. I let the current carry me downstream, away from the rattle of machinegun fire and screams of terror.
I sigh and crush out my cigarette, tamp out another. Colonel James leans forward and takes the lighter from my quivering fingers. He holds the flame beneath the cigarette until I puff it to life.
“That’s pretty much it,” I say. “I floated past the highway bridge pilings and made my way to shore. That’s where the guys from Captain West’s patrol found me.”
“And you didn’t see what became of Capizzi or the guys he was fighting?”
I shake my head. “No, sir. But if you ask me, Cappizi’s not dead.”
The splash of water from the fountain echoes serenely off the courtyard walls. A dozen soldiers in wheelchairs or leaning on crutches are in mumbled conversation here and there around the open space.
The Colonel pushes to his feet, runs a thumb along his belt line to tighten his blouse. “Thank you for your candor, Lieutenant. I know it was a tough first assignment.”
He tugs his cover over his close-cut gray hair and turns to go.
“Colonel? Did anyone check out my story? Did they recover the remaining sarcophagi?”
Colonel James turns, a fat black fly orbits his head before settling on the brim of his cap. “I’m sorry, son. That information’s classified.”