After The War

Ghost Cat
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Archivist's note: This was a part of a mid week challenge issued by Leah Rosenthal on the Orphans of Rysher board. It's short but I'd love to see more of the story, wouldn't you?

When most people hear "holidays on the beach" they think of California, Bermuda, Bahamas. Only Stephen would call Normandy Beach in June a dream vacation. Then again, history and the military were his bread and butter; spending the anniversary of D-Day at the place where it all began had been a lifelong ambition. He looked down once more at the faded envelope in his hand, its faint scent of Jasmine struggling to compete with the salt tang in the air. Now he had another reason to be here, a genuine mystery.

Stephen's plane had landed in late May, so he could make Caen by June 6 without a rush. He wasn't completely immune to the romance of Paris, even though he spent more time in bookstores than at the little cafes. It was in just such a store, Shakespeare and Co., famous for housing so many authors, that the mystery had begun. Stephen got along with the gentleman bookseller immediately; he and Joe seemed to share the same love of history.

When the old man heard about the planned D-Day pilgrimage, he took the young man aside. "What's your interest in this? I know you?re not old enough to have lived it yourself. Are you here out of love, or are you just another History Channel junkie?"

He brought himself up into perfect attention; "Savage, Stephen J.; Calgary Highlanders. I did my duty, gave up one of my knees and left with an insatiable thirst for history. I may not have been there for D-Day, but I still have gunpowder in my blood."

Dawson's indulgent smile turned a bit sour, "Consider yourself lucky, I left both my legs in a Vietnam swamp." When he saw that Stephen neither cringed nor pitied him, he knew he liked the Canadian. "I've got something special for you." Stephen followed the old man to the back of the store. "Anyone can read about history, but this," he pulled down an old leather-bound volume, "this is a piece of history. It just came in from the estate of a veteran who had settled in Paris after the war." The cover was battered, its title hard to read; "This copy of "A Farewell to Arms" is probably as well-traveled as you or I, carried on the battlefields and read in quick snatches. You interested?"

Stephen could hardly speak; this was an incredible find. He bought the book immediately; it would be the perfect way to set the mood for the next stage of his voyage. Rushing back to his hotel room with his prize, he was shocked when a scrap of paper fluttered to the floor. He feared that the old book was losing its binding; but no, it was a faded pink envelope. The dusty odor of age could not completely hide the faint scent of Jasmine. It was written to Private Mac Connor, with the kind of vague, hopeful address that made it a miracle any soldier got a letter from home.

This letter was open though, unsealed gently and carefully put back each time it was re-read. With great curiosity, he scanned the perfumed page.

Dearest Mac,

I know you are doing something that you truly believe in, but I fear that I may never see you again. Fight well, and fight honorably; but when it is all over, please come home to me. I cannot imagine my world without you. I shall love you always,

Diana.

Stephen smiled as he put down the page, Private Connor was a very lucky man, or was he?

Flashback: June 6, 1944

Private Mac Connor, born many lifetimes ago as Connor MacLeod, carefully folded the letter and slipped it into his pack. The landing could come at any time; he and the rest of the boys had to be ready. He sighed, "boys"; most of the eager troops crowded into the small transport were barely more than children and some might never see their next birthday. War was an ugly thing, and getting uglier all the time. Connor felt superstitiously lucky though; what could go wrong when they were scheduled to land on a beach code-named Sword?

Stephen pulled out his laptop; plugged the modem into the hotel's phone jack. Old Paris was beautiful, but he still loved his toys. The search for Pvt. Mac Connor was difficult, even for someone who knew the Web. Official records were strangely elusive. Finally he found a single reference to a boat running aground on a hidden mine trap, everyone on-board lost. Pvt. Connor was one of a long list of soldiers missing, presumed dead; which usually meant that there were just enough body parts to count, but too many to identify.

If Mac Connor, beloved of Diana, never made it to French soil, then how did his letter end up in the Paris library of a veteran who died peacefully over 50 years later? Things were getting stranger and stranger; Stephen took it as a personal challenge. He shut down the computer; this was going to require research the old fashioned way. Phoning the old bookseller again, he told Dawson the whole story: finding the letter, Pvt. Mac Connor, the search for his records, everything. "I know I won't rest until I've got this figured out. I was wondering if you had the name of the man who left you those books?"

On the other end of the line, Dawson sighed, silently cursing whoever had put the wrong book in the wrong box. He cursed himself for not paying better attention. He kept his voice pleasant but firm, "I don't have the records right here in front of me, but I might be able to find out. Can I call you back?" The man said he would be leaving for Caen the next day; Joe dutifully wrote down the hotel where he'd be staying. As he hung up the phone, he remembered the man?s earlier words: Stephen J. Savage, of the Calgary Highlanders. He wondered if he would ever have trouble that didn't involve a Highlander in one way or another. Quickly, he dialed another number, "Mac, I think we may have a problem?"

Stubborn curiosity more than anything else had led him to the coast of Normandy and a strip of beach once named Sword. He held the letter like a talisman as he tried to imagine what the scene must have been that fateful day. He closed his eyes and saw the tiny boats crowded with soldiers, the larger craft carrying vehicles and machines; he could almost smell the smoke in the air and hear the chaos as the two sides clashed over one small piece of sand; the sound of--laughter?

The moment lost, he opened his eyes, looking down into the smiling face of a little girl. Her fingers and toes painted in bright polish, she looked like a princess, an effect not even spoiled by the ice cream cone held tight in one tiny fist. "Erin, come back dear," she tottered eagerly away in response to the parental call. On the way she wandered too close to the water and, slipping in the wet sand, watched horrified as her precious treat plopped into the surf, dissolving instantly. Filling her lungs, she shrieked out her rage in a voice only a child could achieve!

Flashback

The landing had begun and the noise was already deafening; Connor knew the officers were shouting orders only because he could see their lips moving. Something had gone wrong; a Sergeant was pointing out at the beach and shouting at the boat pilot, who shook his head frantically and shouted back. The German defenses were much closer to shore than anyone had expected and there was nowhere to beach their small craft. The Sergeant, outraged at being questioned, grabbed the controls himself, plowing them straight into the beach. The bow of the boat hit something much harder than sand; Connor had no time to warn the others. He leapt over the side just as the explosion hit the force of it sending him flying. The body that hit the ground was in one piece, barely; it landed in a crumpled heap and didn't move.

As he felt the first shock of life surge into him once more, Connor knew what it was like to wake up in Hell. He was caught in a tangle of wreckage that he realized had once been human beings. The ruins of the landing craft were strewn like blocks scattered by an angry child. Looking around at the bodies, he whispered a prayer for lost companions: for Sean, who could perform miracles with a radio; for Dean, who talked too much; for Dave, the quiet one, always sharpening his knives; for Ron, the storyteller. The battle itself had passed him by, the men of the South Lancashire sweeping forward to take Caen.

Connor wished them well, but he would not be joining them. Private Mac Connor was dead, and would stay that way. A savage jerk broke the chain on his dog tags; he held them for a moment in his hand before throwing them into the sea. Turning his back on the past, he set about the grisly task of finding a new identity.

Stephen wasn't sure what had led him to one particular spot: instinct, fate, or serendipity. Nevertheless, he couldn't shake the feeling that there was something important nearby, something that wanted to be found. Stripped to his trunks, he dove under the water again and again, not knowing what he was looking for. Finally he saw it, tangled in a strand of seaweed. It was covered in grime, rusted to the same red-brown color of the kelp, but no soldier could ever fail to recognize a set of dog tags.

He held his prize in one fist as he struggled back to shore. He was still half-blind, rubbing sand and salt out of his eyes, when he heard an unfamiliar voice, "Towel?" After everything that had happened in the last few days, a tall stranger offering him a towel seemed par for the course; so did a trench coat on the beach. "It looks to me like you just found something you should have left alone."

Stephen calmly returned the stranger's cool stare, "I think I found the truth."

"Didn't anyone ever tell you that digging up the past can stir up some nasty ghosts?"

As his fingers rubbed against the surface of the tags, he grew more certain he was right. "It's hard to disturb the ghost of someone who didn't die. Or should I say, someone who never existed." He looked the dark-haired stranger straight in the eye, unflinching "Who are you?"

"I'm Duncan MacLeod, and I'm here to tell you to back off. While you still can." The man's voice was perfectly calm, but also deadly serious.

Stephen bristled at the implied threat. He had spent most of his adult life in one uniform or another, and he had always been confident he could out-intimidate almost anyone. One look into those dark, battle-hardened eyes, though, and his challenging gaze dropped sooner than he wished. He found himself looking down at the words on the tag for the first time: Connor, Pvt. Mac L.- Mac Connor; Mac L. Connor; Connor, Mac L.-- He spoke out loud, "Connor MacLeod." He could hardly believe it, even as he said it.

Of course, it was starting to make sense. But why didn't he fight under his own name, and why did he change identities in the middle of the battle? Too many questions; questions leading to more questions, he shook his head to clear his thoughts. He looked up at the man confronting him; "Kin of yours?"

Duncan nodded slowly, an odd, sad look in his eyes. "This has already gone too far, don't make me do something we'll both regret. Just walk away, and forget this ever happened."

"You should have told me this was about kin; that I can understand. You can have the tags, the letter too; but I can't turn my back on the truth. Not when I'm this close."

Duncan sighed deeply; this would be so much easier if the man would just back down. First Horton, now this. He turned around slowly; the least he could do would be to not let him see it coming. MacLeod was reaching reluctantly into his coat when he saw Dawson in the distance, waving him down; he made no attempt to disguise his relief.

"Mac," Joe panted as soon as he got close, "let me talk to him."

Mac suddenly realised what the old man had in mind, "Are you sure that's a good idea?"

"He loves history and he's willing to fight for the truth. We need his type, to make up for all Horton's men."

Duncan stepped aside, still uncertain but glad at least to be saved from an unpleasant task. As he walked away, the tags in one hand, letter in the other, he heard Joe begin his pitch.

"So, Stephen, you love history as much as I do. How would you like to be able to record history in the making?"

End

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