"Well, this was in Baghdad, early on. It was pretty hopeful for a while, if you can believe it. Marian was a shopkeeper's daughter. A Christian, obviously, with a name like that. Most of the time she didn't wear a head scarf. They sold beer and wine at their shop. Always had, under Saddam at least. It was something Christians could do to make an honest dinar. Most of the customers were Muslims."
"I'll bet that made her real popular with the mullahs."
"To say the least. But she was pretty feisty. Westernized, you might say. Not a pushover for anybody. She dealt with the public all the time. And she spoke pretty good English. She went to a private school and she had relatives in the States. Their store was in our area of operations, in South Baghdad. She liked to practice her English with us. They had a little place where a few of us could sit and have a soda and some cookies or other geedunk. We taught her a lot of jarhead slang, and she taught us how to curse in Arabic. For a while things were fairly slack there, and we could chill out a little. Maybe even ditch the body armor and wear soft covers. Sneak a cold Heineken. But you know how it was?things could change in a minute, and then the shit was flying again."
"So, what happened to her?"
"A really nasty bunch of Shi'ite militia moved into her neighborhood and sort of requisitioned space for themselves. More of a street gang than a militia. Bad went to worst. Her neighborhood used to be mostly Christians. Chaldean Catholics who'd been there for two thousand years straight. Now they're all gone. But this was at the beginning, after Baghdad fell and while the new lines were being drawn. We were still figuring the place out, and they were going at each other's throats. Mostly it was Sunni versus Shi'ite, but the Christians got it from both sides. Marian couldn't come out of her house at all. Her family's store was only a block from her house. She was basically in hiding, but she still got grabbed and raped. I didn't get the particulars, but I heard she wound up at this sister's church basement, and I went there. I'd only seen her at her family?s store before then."
"Marian had a sister?"
"No, a Catholic sister. A nun. Old, over seventy. Sister Katterina. Five-feet-nothing. She was from Germany but she could speak perfect Arabic. Perfect. And English. She went there for a tour of missionary duty during the Saddam days and ended up staying on. Then after we got there, they killed the priest and there were really no parishioners left--they were too afraid to be seen around the church--but Sister Katterina hung on. When I was there, the church was burned out and it looked abandoned, but it wasn't. Not quite. It's made of big stones about a thousand years old, so even the occasional RPG round didn't really wreck it. Not completely. But there was Sister Katterina, hiding in the basement of another little building behind the main church. Like a little parish hall and offices. She was holding down the fort."
"Why?" asked Nick with a note of incredulity. "What's the point, if they didn't have church services?"
"Sister Katterina's basement was a hiding place for runaway girls who'd been through every sort of hell. Nick, you just wouldn't believe it, what they do to girls over there."
"Hey, you don't need to tell me. Shitcanistan is probably worse. A lot of the men get raped when they?re little boys, so they grow up thinking rape is a normal thing. Rape is sex and sex is rape. Love has nothing to do with it. That's why they do that genital mutilation deal on the girls. Cut off their clits. They don't want their women to have any pleasure. Hell, they probably like it better if their women suffer. Most of the men would rather do it with a boy anyway. Or a goat, I swear."
Improbably, this reminded me of a sandbox joke. "What do you call ten Afghan soldiers in a tent?"
"An orgy. That's an old one."
"Yeah, but it's still true. Did you ever catch them at it?"
"All the time," said Nick. "Smoking hash and humping each other was just about all the Afghan soldiers were really good at. They sure didn't want to chase the Taliban."
"Hey, it wasn't just the Afghans. We even had a corpsman who was doing it with an Afghan Army colonel. They were having an affair, on and off base. Everybody knew it."
"Nothing," I said. "It got swept under the rug. Gays could do just about anything then. The corpsman got transferred out. That was on my last tour."
"At least he was doing it by choice. Kids basically just get raped over there, and there's not a thing they can do about it. Girls and boys. It's disgusting how they treat each other."
"Yeah. And not just in Afghanistan. Iraq too. Marian was a virgin until she got raped. After that happened, she was hiding in the church basement. They had to sneak in and out under cover of darkness. Sister Katterina wore a nun's habit with the old-fashioned head thing. She could switch it to like a full-face-veil burqa, so she could go undercover and move around with the Muslims. Just another tiny old woman in a black burqa, totally invisible. Perfect camouflage. I think she?s the bravest woman I ever met, going out to rescue those girls. They're just petrified, they're in shock, and she finds them where they're hiding and shepherds them in. All based on tips she gets. A few good people around there knew she was a saint, a living saint."
"Sounds like Jews hiding in Nazi Germany."
"That's almost exactly what it was. Sister Katterina was trying to sneak Marian out of Iraq on dummied-up papers. It helped that Marian could speak English, so she could try to pass as an Iraqi-American. They had a friend at the embassy, or something. Anyway, the plan fell apart. They were going to use a 'borrowed' passport from a cousin who was an American citizen, but it didn't come through. But at least while she was staying with Sister Katterina, I got to see her a few times in the church basement."
"Now, that sounds like a hot date."
"You had to be there. Actually, it was sort of an honor. Hell, almost nobody even knew about the place. When I could sneak out and visit her it was all very proper, of course. Sister Katterina wanted her to improve her English for her escape, so I was sort of her unofficial tutor the few times I could get there. We practiced airport-type questions. Visas and going through Customs, her family back in America, all that stuff.
"Marian was traumatized from being raped. Just holding her hands across a table was a major step. But it was still beautiful. We said we would escape together. We made up fairy tales about how my unit would sneak her out of the country in one of our flyaway containers. We'd take her to California, to Disneyland, to Hollywood. But it was all just ... fairy tales." Under cover of the night I wiped my eyes on the pulled-up collar of my T-shirt. When the memories came back they still hurt, even years later.
After a minute I said, "I mean, what could I do? I was just a fucking corporal, even if I did run my own STA team."
"Surveillance and Target Acquisition. A sniper, a spotter and a few guys for security. Four teams in a STA platoon. I was the lowest-ranking team leader--usually it's a sergeant's billet. What I mean is, I had absolutely no say in what happened to people like her. There was nothing we could do for people like Marian and her family. They were just shit out of luck." I stared beyond Virgo and its brightest star, Spica.
"We had a special bond, even if I only saw her maybe a dozen times over a couple of weeks at her family's store, and then in the church basement. We just clicked. All we ever did was hold hands, but ... it was very special. She was a very sweet girl, but she had a tremendous spirit. She dreamed about coming to America. Then our part of the city calmed down a little, and some of the Shi'ite militia sort of faded away. Some kind of local agreement between the shot-callers. Her family thought it was safe enough for her to come back to her own house. Big mistake."
"Two days after she went home she was kidnapped off the street, on the block between her house and the store. Shoved into a car by a couple of jihad-Joes with AKs. Real heroes. There were ransom demands by cell phone. Some ridiculous amount of money. Impossible for her family. But it wasn't about the ransom, it was about her. A filthy wine-selling Christian whore, walking right on the sidewalk with decent Muslims. And she was way too friendly with the Ameriki infidels, so she was a traitor too."
I clenched and unclenched my fists. "The fuckers called her parents, so they could hear her screaming while she was being raped and tortured. For two days. I didn't know about it until later, or I would have gone totally snake-shit out of my mind." My fists were balled so tightly my arms were shaking. I was freefalling back down into bad-memory-land again. No stopping now.
Deep breath. "On the third day she was dumped in one of those open-sewer gutters. Dumped in the gutter, like garbage. Still alive, barely. Somehow, somebody got her to the church basement. Sister Katterina tried to get transport to a hospital, a taxi, anything, but she couldn't. The word was out, I guess. Marian never had a chance. But it's probably better that way. What they did to her ... she could never have had any kind of life."
By then I was privately crying, so I was glad for the darkness to hide my tears. But once I started down that particular memory track, I had to finish. I owed it to her memory to bear true witness.
"Sister Katterina got word to me. Her church was near one of our patrol routes, and I had a black-market cell phone. The road patrol grunts were used to hitchhiking snipers. We'd drop off partway along their route and sneak into a hide, and they'd keep going. Sometimes the same guys picked us up on the way back, but not always. This gave us snipers a lot of leeway, especially in those early days when Baghdad was still almost a wide-open city. So I was able to get loose with just my spotter, who always had my back on everything.
"As soon as I could get down there, I went, but Marian was already dead. Sister Katterina had already covered her, wrapped her. She wouldn't let me see her body. That's where I said my last goodbye, in that church basement. She was in a white sheet. Her body was taken away by her family and given a secret Christian burial, so at least she got that.
"A few days later, Sister Katterina sent word to me again. She wanted me to see something. She had to tell me, show me. She had a laptop computer. We sat at the little desk in her basement office. She had a bootleg electric wire to power the place. She had taken pictures of dozens of girls who had been brought to her. She wanted me to know. Dozens of girls. You just can't imagine."
"No, I can imagine, Dan. They use rape as a weapon. When you can't protect your women, when your daughters and sisters are raped and beaten and you can't stop it and you can't get justice, you just have to leave. Period. That's pure jihad. It spreads the religion if you drive out your enemies, so Allah says it's good."
"When Marian's parents heard those phone calls while they were torturing her, the kidnappers were screaming, 'Allahu-akbar!' They weren't ashamed of what they were doing. They were proud."
"Of course. Why would they be ashamed? It's a holy act to terrorize the infidels into fleeing. Anyway, they're just Christian whores, right? I mean, a girl over twelve showing her hair in public, she must be a whore! According to the jihad boys, girls like that have it coming. In Afghanistan it wasn't just the local Taliban. A lot of the fighters didn't speak any Dari or Pashto; they had a ton of Arab volunteers who came for the jihad. Show me a jihadist, and I'll show you a rapist more times than not. They even had a name for it: 'a taste of paradise.' Can you imagine? The most fucked-up people on the planet, I swear to God. Hell, most of those guys marry their own nieces. Like a twelve-year-old virgin wants to be wife number four to her fifty-year-old uncle, who has a gray beard down to here? Hello? And she can't say no to anything, not ever. Not to getting married, and not to having sex anytime he wants it. And if she refuses, she'll get beaten--with the mullahs' blessing. What kind of religion is that?"
"I know, Nick, like you said, it's way fucked up. And some people still don't understand why we?ve been fighting them for fourteen hundred years. The Christians and Jews were there first, and now the last of them are just about all gone. It took fourteen centuries for the Muslims to wipe them out or drive them out, and the bitter end of it happened on our watch. Right under our noses. I was there. I saw them do it."
"So, what does that mean?" asked Nick. "That they're stronger than us?"
"Hell no. It just means we're weaker than we used to be. Not the grunts--we kicked their asses every time, we both know that. But as a society, we just don't have the will to fight to win. Not anymore. Not like, say, on Iwo Jima."
"Hey, don't forget Hiroshima. Harry Truman sure ended World War Two in a hurry."
"A big hurry," I agreed. "That kind of will--the will to fight total war. Pillbox by pillbox with flamethrowers, if that's what it takes."
"I didn't see any pillboxes in Afghanistan. And Iwo Jima was a long time ago."
"Yeah, and Americans got weaker," I said. "Softer. More PC. They're still as ruthless as ever, and we're not."
"The mujahideen know what they're fighting for: seventy-two virgins in heaven forever. I mean, that's a pretty cool death bonus, if you believe in it."
"I guess it is, but what the hell were we fighting for?"
"Let me get back to you on that," said Nick. "So, what happened to Marian? You said the nun showed you pictures."
"Oh yeah. The pictures..." Time to sink all the way down into my darkest memory pit. "Well, Sister Katterina had hundreds and hundreds of pictures on her laptop. Dozens of women and girls. Some only eight or nine years old. Marian's photos were just the newest batch. I didn't want to look, but I had to. I owed it to her. I couldn't just let her be flushed out of the world without even that. Katterina was brave enough to take them, so I had to look."
I shook my head. Those evil images were back, sharp as ever. I went through the list on automatic, like a robot. "They cut off her hair, of course. Burned her all over with cigarettes. Blinded her. Cut off her nose. Her ears. They even cut off her ... Oh God, it was beyond evil, what they did to her." I was sure that Nick could tell that I was weeping by then, even in the dark. I had been a sniper and I'd seen a lot of gruesome things, but nothing like that for sheer cruelty.
"I'm sorry, man," he said gently. "Really sorry. What a tragic life that poor girl had."
"Tragic's not the word. There's no word for that kind of evil." I hoped my short time with Marian counted for something on the happy side of her ledger. The time that we held hands across the table and dreamt fairy tales of California.
"One thing I don't understand. Why did Sister Katterina even take horrible pictures like that?"
"Why? Because nobody would believe her. She told me she approached some foreign reporters about it, on the sly. Told them about the girls. The mullahs told the reporters she made it all up to slander the mujahideen. A seventy-year-old nun! So she took pictures to have the proof, but even then it didn't matter. Nobody would ever show them. Nobody. Too gory. Too ... disturbing. The reporters ignored her, and ignored her pictures. Her story didn't match the story they wanted to tell. The pictures were too horrible to show, but without the pictures it's just an unbelievable story."
"Catch-22 from every angle. Nobody wanted to think about it, the obliteration of the Christians over there. We were too busy building the new Iraq. If the Sunnis and Shi'ites wanted to wipe out the Christians neighborhood by neighborhood, well, so be it. Too bad for them. But Sister Katterina was keeping a record. Proof. Maybe someday, somewhere, historians will give a shit what happened. What still happens. But I doubt it. Nobody gives a damn."
We were both silent for a while, listening to the music.
Nick said, "So, did you ever find out who did it to her? Did anything happen to those guys?"
"Legally? No. A woman needs four male witnesses to her own rape, otherwise she gets charged with adultery and can be stoned to death. So not too many men get charged with rape--it just doesn't pay to make the accusation. It's basically a free crime over there. And killing a wine-selling Christian whore? Hell, they'd get a goddamn medal of jihad for that. But don't worry: I got some payback."
"Payback's a bitch, huh?"
"It was for those guys." I didn't mention the particulars to my new crewman, but to be accurate it was six times righteous. Unofficially. There were a few side benefits to being a Marine Corps scout-sniper team leader. I had a certain degree of latitude in selecting my particular areas of operation. I eradicated most of the gang who tortured and butchered her--and long may they roast in hell, since my brand of punishment was much too lenient given what they had done to her.
The memories of my individual acts of revenge softened the edges of Marian's post-mortem photographs in my mind. I finagled the team assignment schedule, inventing reasons to be in her old 'hood. Did a little sly detective work based on our existing enemy insurgent intel. Copied pictures, memorized faces. All line-of-duty scout-sniper stuff. Got some info from Sister Katterina, and from Marian's father. Made the rape gang militia my sideline hobby over the next three months. Treated six of them to Sierra Match King therapy.
My spotter always saw the same imaginary weapons in their hands that I saw. Or lamented the miss that didn't actually miss. He knew what I was doing and agreed with it, and I trusted him with my life. Anyway, I got all of the ones who were still in my hunting range before we rotated out. At least those six human monsters would rape and torture no more. Those were six for me, and not for the Corps. My first ever that way, but not my last.
I often wondered if that was why Sister Katterina had invited me back to see the pictures she'd taken of all of the female victims. Yes, she wanted me to bear witness to what happened to Marian, to all of the long-suffering girls, both Christian and Muslim. Sister Katterina turned away no terrified and brutalized girl or woman in need, the saint that she was. But I wondered if she hoped, in some secret part of her soul, that I'd do what I did. She knew I was a Marine scout-sniper. I never gave Sister Katterina an after-action report, but I'll bet she knew. She had her own sources.
Marian was nineteen when I'd known her, not much younger than I was at the time. Cori Vargas could have been born in Iraq and Marian in Venezuela, but it hadn?t happened that way. Or they both could have been born in San Diego or Miami. Life is just so damned unfair. But at least, because of Marian, I'd known one of God's real angels for a brief time. And I got to meet a genuine saint, the blessed Katterina. If she wasn't a saint, the word has no meaning.
Sade was singing about a smooth operator she'd known. Rebel Yell continued driving along her path, her luminescent wake churning along behind. After a minute or two of silence between us Nick said, "You know, you make a lot more sense to me now."
"What do you mean?"
"This whole finding-Cori-Vargas thing. You're rescuing Marian."
"What?" I was taken aback.
"Oh, I think you know exactly what I mean."
"Bite me, Doctor Freud. I'm turning in. Good night. Bang on the deck if you need me." I went through the pilothouse, took one more look at the radar and the chart-plotter GPS, dropped down the ladder, and made aft for my bunk. As I lay in my rack, I admitted to myself that there was some truth in what he said. I don't like seeing women abused or beaten, and certainly not raped. Not when it happened in the sandbox wars, and not when it's done by the likes of Richard Prechter and Jolly Boy Trevor. Men who treat women like that are human cockroaches, and I'll step on every last one of them that I find.