It’s a beat-up little suburban single-story house in a Third World place far away. Faded blue paint on the outside, broken bicycle on a cracked cement walkway, rusty fence. You wouldn’t think twice if you drove by. It wasn’t interestingly decrepit or antique, just modern, cheap and fallen down.
It’s after midnight. A man—thin, bearded, tall—is sitting up in bed, his back against the wall. He’s writing a letter in a lined notebook that rests on a pillow. There’s a little kid’s sort of lamp, 40 watts, to his right, on a rickety plywood bureau that holds his cell phone, PDA, papers, watch.
A sound. The sharp break of a small stick.
He doesn’t move. Stares straight ahead. He isn’t even aware of “seeing” or “feeling”; he has only one sense now and it is hearing.
Nothing. Silence. Now he moves, keeping silent. The sheet soundlessly put aside, his feet on the floor. He sits on the side of the bed, listening.
Nothing. A dog barks a block away. He notes the time. Quietly takes the PDA, cell phone and watch, and puts them in a small brown satchel.
Quietly, gently, takes a shirt from the floor and lays it over the lampshade. Waits a minute. Turns the lamp off. Rises slowly, goes to the window. Looks through the screen and the narrow slats of the blinds.
Darkness, a street lamp. Stillness.
He’s all right. An animal probably, a dog or a cat.
Silently still he crosses the room, opens the door, walks to the living room, says something. A mass on the couch moves, sits up. The bearded man says another word. The one on the couch grunts: Yes.
Bearded man goes back to his darkened room, to the bed, lies down, breathes softly, his chest barely raising the sheet. Turns on his side, sighs. The weekend, he thinks. Tomorrow the apartment near the tunnel. Good place. Ramsi, the transfer, the meeting. The visit from the beloved son. A dinner. Festive. Lamb and fresh vegetables . . .
He nods off.
All is peaceful. Or as peaceful as his life is. Images tumble through his brain—the mountain, the dust where the cars sped by.
* * *
There’s a white light.
Bomb. His mind says the word before his eyes open. The house is blowing up. Yelling, light from the window, the door to the bedroom explodes off its hinges.
Men, rifles, masks. The leader moves fluidly, surely, is straddling him, is sitting on his arms, a rifle in his face.
“Osama bin Laden, you are under arrest by order of the United States government.”
Silence. You can hear the clock tick.
“U.S. Army Rangers.” He leans in close. “Hoo-ahh” the soldier whispers in his ear.
“Get it all,” the leader says.
“Want this?” says a soldier. White linen in his hand.
“Do-rag,” says the leader. “He don’t need it now.”
Outside a thousand troops—the Pakistani Frontier Corps, the 82nd Airborne—surround the house.
Cars, military vehicles, lights. The bearded man, yanked from the bed, is dragged, handcuffed, into the back of a Hummer. Rangers, rifles drawn, surround him—one at each side on the middle seat, two in front, two in back. Four rifles aimed at his head.
They roar off down the highway. Dust shoots out. Vroom.
Behind them they can make out a rising cheer.
A convoy speeds behind them.
* * *
The Americans in the lead vehicle say nothing. They are from Indianapolis, Long Island, Sacramento, two from Ohio—one downstate and one Cleveland—and one from outside Tallahassee. The guy from Sacramento—his cousin died in the World Trade Center. He’s thinking: Payback is hell.
The mission leader, the guy who straddled the prisoner, he’s the one from southern Ohio, and he is old. He’s 42. He is career Army. This is the great moment of his life.
Radio transmissions. A siren off somewhere. Silence. Silence. Twelve minutes to base.
Ten minutes to base.
The Old Man thinks: Almost home. Man, the moment calls for something. Should have imagined this. Shoulda brought something.
In another Hummer behind them, a guy with a machine gun stands and surveys. Inside is a Ranger who’s a combat vet, served in Somalia. Battle of the Bakara Market. Looks, believe it or not, like Tom Sizemore. He’s driving. His forehead glistens. He calls this condition Beads of Joy. He is doing what he was born to do, and he is doing it well, and it’s all by the book except for one thing. He can’t stop smacking the wheel with his hand as he drives. Like they did in Jersey on the way to the shore when they were listening to Bruce.
Back in the front vehicle the bearded one is staring straight ahead. He can’t stop swallowing his spit. Little bird chest on him, heaving. And four rifles pointed at him.
The Old Man thinks: We’re OK. Smooth as . . . whatever.
Five minutes to base.
Jersey Shore Guy in the second car knows it’s over, this is big and this is done. He’s thinking just like the Old Man. This moment cannot go unremarked. He feels around at the CD player. One disc in it. Oh man—the Old Man’s music. That thing he gave me. Damn.
And: What the hell. Gonna disobey, gonna pay. He grunts, snaps the CD door closed, puts the volume up high, hits play.
Suddenly a crack, an electric boom. Everybody in the first car flinches.
But—it’s music. Crazy Jersey Guy in the second car is blasting the wild opening of the first cut of “Graceland” by Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Paul Simon:
- And the sun was beating
On the soldiers by the side of the road . . .
These are the days of miracles and wonders
This is the long-distance call
Driver of the first car grabs the radio. Old Man stops him. Laughs through his nose. Says, “Give it a second.”
They race forward in the darkness.
“Don’t cry baby, don’t cry . . .”
And the Old Man gets on the radio and tells Crazy Jersey Guy to knock it off, cut the music. “Report to me on reaching base.”
They roar onto the grounds, and the general and everyone are there, and they get the prisoner out of the car. There’s a man at each side, holding him up by his arms. He’s jerky on his feet; he’s a mess—covered in sweat, wearing underpants and a sleeveless undershirt, skinny legs, matted hair, matted beard, wild eyes. This nothing. This piece of . . .
The general has been reading about Lawrence of Arabia. He looks at Osama and thinks: The Prince of Our Disorder.
Some Delta guys are on the side and they’re taken aback by what they see. The Wuss Who Started the War.
* * *
No photographs were to be taken, but one of the guys on the side had one of those small magic digital things and he took a picture. Saw it later and just did it, just sent it out on the Internet. The picture makes its way to every news service in the world.
Weeks later, after all the news—the invasion, Saddam gone, more al Qaeda arrests—the president of the United States had a meeting that he’d been looking forward to. It was in the Oval Office. It was early evening and the lamps seemed to light it with a golden glow. The door opened, and in marched the men who got Osama. The Ranger crew, the Screaming Eagles who guarded them.
The president gave them great medals and thanked them on behalf of a grateful nation. Then he asked for the Rangers who’d stormed the hideout. They stepped forward. Bush said he was sorry their names would have to stay secret but it was best under the circumstances, too much still going on, didn’t want to let them be a target for some nuts.
“But when the time is right,” Bush said, “your country will be told who you are, and what you did. And then—better get ready for the sculptors and all the statues.”
They laughed, and the president turned to the Old Man. “I want to thank you for what you did,” he said. “Heard a rumor you got something for me.”
“Yes sir!” said the Old Man. “Do-rag, sir! Worn by Osama bin Laden in the recent past.”
The president took the linen, weighed it in his hands, said he’d have it cased in plastic and put up in the Roosevelt Room, where they have the banners marking every U.S. military action in all our history.
Then the president said, “Who’s Jersey Man?”
Silence. Then the Tom Sizemore guy says, “Here, sir.”
“Hear you like music.”
“Hear you like Paul Simon.” Jersey Man laughs, Old Man laughs. Everyone laughs.
“Got a state dinner tonight, may have heard. East Room. Marine Corps band. Venerable. But they’re gonna try something different. Special request of the president. “Graceland.” Rehearsing all afternoon with the harmonica and kind of hand organ thing and guitars. Sounds good. We put a table aside. Hoping you’d join us. That’s an order.”
“Hoo-ahh,” they said.