On hands and knees I saw then, ten inches from my nose, a trip wire rising taut from the water I was probing through the skeleton's rib cage to something in the chest cavity that was round, green, and metallic. I'd gone through mine-awareness training. I tried to remember what happened next. "You don't move," I said to Leitner. "They could be anywhere."
"I am not so stupid."
"Then what are you doing here?"
It crossed my mind that neither of us would be there but for the other.
"Both of you, please shut up." Quierin whispering just behind us, inches away. "Listen. This is a PMA3," she said, antipersonnel, with a Cyrillic Serbian stencil for the FRY—the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. There may be others in the shallow grave sites around the border. There could be dozens. "JNA," she added, "don't like you do your job"
Quierin would go out first, exactly as she'd come. She would red-flag each of her footsteps. We in turn had to mimic precisely her path of retreat. First, turn around inside your bootprint. Slowly follow the steps she'd marked. Step only inside a flagged bootprint. "Go slow. You have lots and lots of time. Once you make the perimeter, find the backhoe track. Go up the hill going inside the track."
"Can I breathe yet?" I wanted to know.
"Breathe," Quierin whispered. The moment―her hushed voice and closeness and perfumed smell, the stillness in which every minute movement mattered―bore a hypererotic charge.
"Colonel Leitner," Queirin continued. "Don't do anything until I am up the hill. Not you either, Elliot. I call the mine cell on the Motorola. Then when I say Colonel Leitner starts up next. Elliot does not move even the pinkie until the colonel is all the way out and I say start. Who has a knife?"
I slipped out a UN "Peacekeeper" Victorinox and handed it back to her.
"This will be going slow," she said. "I have to probe every step. Be patient." She sighed and I heard the twisting of the sole of her boot, as measured as tai chi. "Greenhorns," she muttered. She stopped. Something else.
"If we have a casualty, don't help him, even if it's me. Leave us where we are, no matter how bad hurt. Comfort him with words and continue your exit. Someone will go back when a safe way is marked."
After hours, it seemed, she called to Leitner to come out. Each sucking step he took I expected a detonation. More seeming hours passed, paralyzed and cramping on all fours, staring through the rib cage of a murdered patient at a half-submerged green puck, obsessing on the questions the murdered man confronted us with.
"Elliot." Quierin's voice from above. "Now you."
By the time I'd minced up the red-flagged path, SFOR ops were on the scene―the Fukovar mine cell in flak jackets and mesh face masks, with muzzled dogs. I endured a condescending interrogation―lawyer in a war zone, cookie-pusher international getting in the way. And you watch your step too, Lieutenant, I said. Don't want you exploding my evidence.
That night, at a floating tavern moored to the Croat bank of the Danube, we mulled over the problem of evil, Quierin, Leitner, and I in a mixed crowd of local bourgeois and internationals. A table of French paratroopers in red berets, OSCE bureaucrats, and shitfaced NGO interns; dour, guarded Croats who'd suddenly erupt in brief bouts of pounding laughter; the tavern owner and his moll, a dramatic, flat-chested blonde, three diamonds on an ear, styled to a stiletto edge. An outer orbit of young women with the unanimated good looks of Marina Oswald sat listlessly here and there. Downriver, yellow rowboats trailed from painters in the current, and a silver pathway led to a sickle moon.
I poured shots of pear rakija to go with the pivo and raznjici―beer and pork kabobs―and toasted my companions: You saved my life; I owe you guys. I posed a question raised by the deadly dead man I'd cowered over. Act as you would have all others act, Kant demanded, but what can we do with those who murder hospitalized civilians then booby-trap their corpses? With crimes of terror Kant couldn't imagined.
Quierin shrugged. "They just trying to kill us. What they do." Quierin, at age thirty-four, seemed to bear the weary knowledge of all Europe's, all Asia's, aeons of calamities.
"Specifically―us?" I asked.
"Sure." Leitner considered the last chunk of spiced pork on his skewer. "We're here to imprison the people you indicted and they want to scare you away. Though trying to kill us and not each other is a little different."
But I'd concluded the skeleton djinni had a message for me personally. By a corpse with a bomb in his breast I'd faced the figure of death. It felt strangely liberating.
The Exhumation Unit had had to deal with UXO―unexploded ordnance―dumped in grave sites, but until then, not trip-wire mines. Mass graves had been tampered with, but to remove bodies and thus evidence of crimes, not to commit new crimes and leave new bodies. Specifically―ours.
"Is good proof of JNA role." Quierin patted my hand and smiled. She thought me overwrought.
I nodded. I liked the hand pats. I was trying to come around to the exhumation attitude: nonchalance. We've seen it all. But this was my cherry grave site. Hell, this was the first time in a well-traveled life I'd been anywhere recently ravaged by war.
"What did you mean back there?" I asked nonchalantly. "'Greenhorns'?"
"Don't Mexicans call you that?"
Quierin wore a short muslin shift and a mock-leather bolero jacket, her going-out clothes for nights on the bombed-out town. Like other young Northern European women, her wardrobe ran to blacks. Becoming on Quierin, her home color, though she was not a classic beauty. Her features were too odd. Off-kilter. Glossy almond eyes that were a little walled. Frida Kahlo eyebrows. A slash of straight black hair chopped in a half-bang that shadowed the wandering eye. A star-shaped scar on a full right cheek. Full lips lightly parted in a Mona Lisa semismile that set off approach/avoidance shudders when they spoke in my direction. A loose intensity of features, an anything-goes look. Tough, blunt, leggy, funny, yet pensive, elusive, cloaked in darkness, Quierin combined Dutch candor and Asian mystery. A combination sexy as hell.
The broad, voiceless Danube swung around the Vukovar bend. Zephyrs of Gauloise and Shalimar drifted past as the river pulled. Quierin's ashtray overflowed.
I raised the Serb conundrum. How can the good do evil?
"Good guys do bad, bad guys do good," she said with a dubious look: provincial greenhorn. Innocent abroad. "Not who you are but the thing you do."
"It happens," said Leitner, "through the mediation of the superego. We rationalize. We dress acts of vengeance, domination, sadism in ideals like ethnic justice."
"Forget good bad people," said Quierin. "Just uncover truth. Exhume truth too."
Leitner swirled the liquid in his little glass. "I agree. Our job is to prove what happened every time it happens, in El Salvador, Rwanda, Chechnya, Boz." His military slang for Bosnia, which I would quickly adopt. "Prove it." He tossed off the glass. "Then tell the world."
"Konobar." Quierin hailed the waiter. Three fingers for a round of pivo. Leitner filled our brandy thimbles, then his.
I watched the lights in the river. Legions of the wrongfully dead seemed to rise, in my brandied imagination, from black water and demand their due―the children of El Mozote, Tutsis hacked to ribbons, Argentines thrown from airplanes, thousands shot kneeling in blindfolds on Srebenica soccer fields, Sarajevo market shoppers blown without warning to kingdom come.
The konobar stood with the tray of pivos, a tall, vain southern Slav in a Valentino pose, eyes all over Quierin.
"Away with this stuff," she said. "Zdravo." He stiffened, stacked his tray, and strutted off through the crowd.
"Boz," Leitner commented, "is the end point of history. The mass grave of ideologies and politics. Where dead mother empires gave stillbirth to doomed ethnic nation-states. Boz," he spoke toward the river, "is the hand from the crypt."
"The Balkans are the world," Quierin announced portentously.
I vigorously agreed, not sure what she meant about this place of the guilty aggrieved, where everyone had compelling stories, terrible secrets, unfathomable depths.
"America is not the world." Quierin finished her thought.
"Greenhorns have no history."
Oh, sure. "Just the single longest-standing democracy ever on the planet is all." Rakija on the river after a brush with death in a grave brought forth forceful views.
"Hah," said Quierin.
"We are the world anyway," I added. "We're even the Balkans." Look at the blue jeans, lettered T-shirts, hamburgers, movies, rock music, basketball, footwear. "Europeans need to get over it." It meaning their history. History meaning us now.
I felt a foot traveling my shin.
"Poor America," Quierin said. "Awkward adolescent."
"Real great European role models. A hundred million cooked this century."
"Let's return," Leitner intervened paternally, "to your friend with the mine in his heart, what he tells us of their audacity. That they recruit their own murder victims and arm them to kill again."
But I'd concluded the skeleton djinni had a message for me personally. By a corpse with a bomb in his breast I'd faced the figure of death. It felt strangely liberating. Like Emerson, who couldn't leave for Europe after his young wife had died until he unscrewed her coffin and beheld what remained of his beloved.
The floating tavern strained and groaned on its guy lines, yearning to go with the river. Something in me strained to break loose too.
"Someday"―Quierin―Mona Lisa―smiled my way and I shuddered―"I like to see your cherishable America, home of the free."
Breathe, I remembered her voice and the heat of her breath on my neck. Again I felt the toe of her boot.
Leitner ceremoniously rationed out the last of the brandy. "To the wrongfully dead." He raised his tiny rakija glass. "The dead aren't dead. The master principle of forensic science: the dead speak volumes."
"Zhivili." We drank.
Quierin's black eyes glimmered and her black hair shone in the light of the Muslim moon.
Wrongful Death, pp. 62–68.