It was the smallest thing, but I needed it to feel like myself, to feel human. I wanted to believe that the world hadn’t changed completely.
“Mom,” I said into the phone, “can you make me a root touch-up appointment at Salon Renee George in Reston, Virginia?”
“What?” my mother said. “Where are you calling from?”
I was standing on the other side of the world, in the middle of blown-out rubble, in 109-degree heat, armed, and with a charcoal pashmina draped around my shoulders. My mother had no idea where I was. No one did, other than those who were with me and the five people I worked with at Langley. But I’d spotted an Inmarsat phone—as large as a brick—in the room where I’d left my bulletproof vest. I’d snatched the Inmarsat and run outside to make the call. The phone was pressed to my ear. Sweat ran down my cheek. My back was to one of the armed guards two feet away, smoking an unfiltered cigarette. Beyond the heavily guarded borders of where I stood, people were being blown apart by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), museums were being looted, and men were holing up together in packs, trying to figure out the best way to kill the greatest number of people in one fell swoop.
My life felt upside down, and I needed just one thing to set me upright again, one thing to create a sense of normalcy. Even if that normalcy only extended to the ends of my hair.
Johnny ~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~ came looking for me. The crunching of his boots on the gravel was the loudest sound around. I turned and gave him the one-minute signal.
“Mom, I have to go … just try and make the appointment for next month, I’ll be there the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth, and then I’ll be back here. I love you!”
Those last three words always felt more emotional, more poignant, when I said them while standing in a war zone.
That morning had been like any other. I had gone to the kitchen of the abandoned building we used for offices, dining, and a makeshift bar, which we had named ~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~, and ate French fries. Other than black coffee, bottled water, and the cookie dough PowerBars I’d brought from the States, this was my only sustenance. Most people in this facility were suffering from dysentery. So far, the fries-and-bars diet had kept me safe.
After breakfast, I had picked out a perfect orange from the fruit bin, and then gone down the hall to the safe where I got my Glock and holster out of a lockbox and put on a bulletproof vest. Then I had trotted down the old, sloping marble steps and out of the decrepit building, through the dust to the single-wide trailer that was my home.
My trailer, number 4, was a plain white box inside and out. The only personal item I had was my pink reading lamp. Many nights, I was so tired that I never even turned it on. But when I wasn’t tired, reading was the best way to empty my mind and escape the intensity of the day.
The trailer on my left belonged to a doctor, who regularly visited ~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~ and was on call for any of the government employees.
The trailer on my right belonged to a guy in human resources. Beyond him was the resident psychologist, one of the few other women at this location. Like the medical doctor, her charge was ~?~~?~~?~~?~~ as well as employees. It must have been a tough job, as everyone’s traumas were interconnected. Obviously, it would be worse to be a ~?~~?~~?~~?~ than the person who is ~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~. But no one should ever think that the experience ~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~ is emotionally easy. It didn’t bring about feelings of joy.
The gravel and dirt area around our four trailers was unadorned. But surrounding many of the other trailers, especially those inhabited by the Navy SEALs, were pink flamingos, blow-up pools, and lounge chairs. An ironic attempt to duplicate American trailer-park life.
The government-issued white sheets on everyone’s bed were changed weekly by local men who had been thoroughly vetted. The guards who worked the entry gate and the people who worked in the kitchen were also local men. Because I could never leave the facility without hiding in some way, my only acquaintance with the people of the country I was now inhabiting was through these workers. I had to trust them with my life, and, I suppose, they were trusting us with their lives as well. A polite reserve was in place, however, and so I never felt like I knew any of them.
In my trailer, I sifted through the three pashminas I’d brought and pulled up the darkest one. Pink has always been my favorite color. In college, and even at the CIA in Langley, I often wore pink. Here, wearing pink felt as frivolous as wearing a feather boa. My essential uniform was cargo pants, long-sleeved Gap t-shirts, and combat boots. I still put on mascara every day. And every time I was stateside, I made sure to get highlights in my hair or touch up my roots. No matter how far away I went in the world, I needed to hold on to the sorority girl in me—I needed to believe that she, I, could survive all this.
I had draped the pashmina across my shoulders, over the vest, and then headed out. There was no time to work out in the gym trailer, but I popped my head in to say hey to anyone who might be there. It was filled, as usual, with the Navy SEAL guys. When I worked out with them, we’d argue about what to watch on TV. They usually wanted Fox News, while I preferred BBC or Al Jazeera. Though we often didn’t agree politically, I had absolute faith that these guys would keep me safe and would save my life if needed. Also, they were good company—always willing to run through the halls and play fetch with the bomb-sniffing dogs and me. Our work was demanding and intense. Our surroundings were as stark as the surface of the moon. Sanity required a little reckless joy, some make-believe, and the whimsy of those ridiculous pink flamingos staked into the crumbling ground like big, plastic bouquets.
“Hey!” a SEAL named Kyle called. “Bike’s waiting for you.” Kyle pointed at the empty bike beside him.
“I’ve got a ~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~,” I said. “I’ll see you tonight.”
“Beer! ~?~~?~~?~~?~ Seven!” Kyle said.
Here’s the interesting thing about these macho, badass Navy SEAL guys, something that most people have a hard time believing: not one of them ever acted in a way that was sexist, sexually suggestive, or dismissive. Maybe in living together and witnessing firsthand what I and the two or three other women who were in and out were doing, they knew better than anyone that though we had different tasks and skills, we were undeniably equals. And when your life depends on the intelligence and efficiency of the people around you, respect takes on a whole new meaning.
Johnny ~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~ would go with me to all my “meetings.” He was tall, bulky, and somewhat soft-looking. The opposite of the Navy SEAL guys. I don’t know where he was from—we never discussed that—but he had the calm, gentle politeness of a man from the Midwest. When he smiled, it was half hidden behind his Scandinavian-blond beard. And when he wasn’t doing ~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~, he wore glasses—thick, black frames with Coke-bottle lenses that made him look like the nerd from a Lifetime channel movie. His voice, like the rest of him, was unremarkable, not intimidating. This should be noted not because Johnny was so unlike anyone else in the CIA, but because part of Johnny’s job was ~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~?~~. Johnny, with his soft belly, nerdy glasses, and shy smile, followed protocol. And when he did, it was like he was an entirely different man.
“Ready?” Johnny leaned against the beat-up orange SUV we’d take to the other facility. He was always walking around with the Velcro sides of his bulletproof vest open. It was hot out, and even I found it hard to close myself in with more heat and weight. Sometimes the doctor, the psychologist, or another ~?~~?~~?~~?~~ joined us. That day it was just Johnny and me for the ride.
“Yup. Dino or Astro already come by?” Dino and Astro were the bomb-sniffing dogs. No one got in a car before the hounds had okayed it.
Johnny nodded in the direction of Dino and his handler, Bill, who were walking toward us. Bill was in sunglasses, a t-shirt, and shorts. Dino, a blond lab, wore only the maroon USC collar my dad had given me for the dogs. We weren’t allowed to pet Dino while he was working, so I waited until he had circled the car before I leaned down and kissed his cheeks while scratching behind his velvety ears. The dogs, like carousing with the Navy SEAL guys, created necessary lightness.
Since women weren’t allowed to drive here, Johnny, in his prescription sunglasses and a baseball cap, always took the wheel. And because the locations of where we worked and lived were both secret, I had to hide in the cargo bin whenever I left one of these two places. A blond American woman, even one with aviator glasses and a pashmina over her head, drew too much attention and created too much risk that we’d be followed.
“Let’s do this,” I said. I flipped open the back and climbed in. Once I was curled onto my side, the pashmina draped over my head, the gun digging into my hip, Johnny threw down the back gate and got in the driver’s seat. The ride was bumpy—at the time there was only one paved road in this country—and the car was creaky. It was loud with the air-conditioning cranked up to the highest level, but sometimes we talked back and forth, shouting really. Usually, Johnny put a CD into the player and we listened to music: AC/DC or Guns N’ Roses. Loud, chaotic stuff that pumped Johnny up—turning him from a pudgy nerd to an imposing force. It was the same kind of music to which the terrorists were subjected on a continuous basis. Electric guitars. Screaming voices. Mind-jangling noise.
I tuned out the music as best I could and ran through my notes in my head. I was going over what facts I knew for sure, ideas I was piecing together, and how I might get the single most important piece of information I hoped to obtain from the man I was about to meet.
I pulled down the edge of my pashmina and peeked out at the sky for a minute. It was a beautiful blue that day—as shiny and solid as a polished gemstone. I thought how strange it was that one sky could resemble any other sky in the world depending on the day, even when what was happening on the ground below was so drastically different. These trips in the cargo bin weren’t my first. There was my twenty-first birthday, when I was still in college at the University of Southern California and living in the Delta Gamma house. A few sorority sisters had taken me out early in the evening for sushi and sake. I was the one who had driven us there, and when the doses of sake surpassed the doses of sushi, I handed my keys to a friend named Melissa.
“I gotta lie down,” I had slurred as I staggered across the parking lot.
Melissa clicked unlock on my Acura, and I opened the hatch. A couple of friends tried to lead me into the backseat but I shook them off, repeating my need to lie down. Then I climbed into the cargo bin of the Acura. Melissa said happy birthday before she shut the hatch.
That entire ride, I had looked up out the slanted window and watched the sky. It was October 21, the sun had only just set, and there was an eerie orange-and-black gloaming. The sharply silhouetted treetops and telephone poles flickered by like an old-fashioned movie. I pulled my phone from my pocket and called my parents’ house. My dad answered the landline.
“Dad, it’s just so beautiful,” I had said.
“What’s so beautiful? Have you been drinking?” He laughed. I was legal, he knew I had planned to drink that day.
“The sky. It’s the most beautiful sky I’ve ever seen.”
“Where are you?”
“The trunk of the car.” I spaced out for a couple minutes as I forgot I was on the phone. When I tuned in again, I realized my dad sounded concerned.
“My trunk,” I said. “Melissa’s driving and I had to lie down and then I looked up and there it was. We have the most beautiful sky in the world.”
“It’s the same sky all over the world,” my dad said. “Just like it’s the same world beneath our feet.”
“Hmm.” I may have hung up without saying goodbye.
* * *
Now here I was in the Middle East, entirely sober. That universal sky was still beautiful. But the world beneath the car couldn’t have seemed any more different from Los Angeles, or Virginia, than it did just then.
Johnny shut off the music as we rolled to a stop at the gate. His window went down and he spoke with the armed guards. I couldn’t quite hear what they were saying, but it had the cadence of friendly chitchat. Once we’d pulled past the gates, I sat up and draped the pashmina across my shoulders again. Johnny parked the car, got out, and flipped open the back. He reached his hand toward me and helped me out.
Other than a few armed guards standing by, this place was so desolate it looked recently abandoned. The setting was bleak, postapocalyptic, with crumbling concrete, piles of rubble, and not a living green plant in sight. The same hundred-plus degree heat beat down at the ~?~~?~~ as here, but this felt much hotter, like everything had been baked into a stunned silence. Everywhere you looked, all you saw was white, brown, or beige—different hues of sandpaper. And every surface was as dry as chalk. It sounded like shells crunching beneath our feet as we walked to the makeshift barracks—a former industrial building—where I would meet the terrorist I was to interview.
Johnny and I said hello to the guards, then went to a closet-sized room in the building where we tossed our bulletproof vests on the gritty cement floor. That was when I spotted the Inmarsat phone on a shelf. I picked it up and ran outside while shouting back to Johnny, “I gotta call my mom!”
* * *
Once I hung up the phone my focus was streamlined into a steel tunnel of thought that ran directly from me to Q, the man who held the answers to many of my questions. Others had spoken with him, but no one had yet obtained the key piece of information we were after. I was twenty-four, and can’t tell you now why I thought I was capable of something as complicated as gaining the trust of a terrorist to the point where he’d open up and give me what others had failed to get. Maybe I was naïve. Maybe I was just determined. Or maybe I was driven by ever-present guilt.
I was at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on September 11, 2001. As an operative in counterterrorism, I was on the team of people who were supposed to save America from men like Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and Mohammed Atef. I’d known their names when most others didn’t. In fact, as a news junkie since high school, I’d been thinking about bin Laden, in particular, for years. So I’d expected more from myself. While America was focused on the disbanded Soviet Union and the drug wars in Central America, I was studying images of deserts in the Middle East. I watched and marked where terrorism was being grown and cultivated, new branches continuously sprouting like a well-pruned tree. I’d memorized the rocky, dry landscape. I’d memorized the faces of men who were hiding in reinforced, serpentine caves or sparsely furnished safe houses. I knew where they were. And I had thought I knew where they were going.
Copyright © 2020 by Tracy Walder