A Fairy for Bin laden: A Novella
There is a saying in the Neverland that, every time you breathe, a grown-up dies.
— J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan)
Osama Bin Laden is dead, and unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know the story: the long search, the discovery of his hideout in Pakistan, the helicopter assault on the compound, the headshot, the quick burial at sea.
What you certainly don’t know is that we brought him to ground with the help of a foot-tall fairy named Tinkerbelle.
In the eighteen months I was Belle’s handler for the Army and CIA, our relationship evolved from professional to friendly to . . . more. Those details you’ll neverknow; they’re private. But for you to understand the events at the end of the story, you need to know the nature of our relationship. You need to know we were close: intellectually, emotionally, and yes, physically. Sorry; that’s all you get. We made it work.
If you’re reading this, it means I got away.
Belle’s fate is another story.
So come with me, where dreams are born, and time is never planned. Just think of happy things, and your heart will fly on wings, forever, in Never Never Land!
— J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan)
“. . . with those qualifications and accomplishments in mind, Lieutenant Durrani,” Major Kincaid said, “we’re bringing you onboard Project Neverland in the role of Micro Reconnaissance Interface Specialist.”
“Sir,” I said, picking at a crease in my khakis, “I have absolutely no idea what that means.”
“You’ll be responsible for the handling and tactical management of the fairy we’ll be using to track down and kill high-value targets.”
“‘Fairy’ is a new type of drone sir?”
Kincaid shook his head. “Not an aircraft, Lieutenant. A tiny flying woman.”
“A flying wo—”
The rasp of the conference room’s old ventilation system, muffled by chipped and flaking acoustic ceiling tiles, filled the silence for a long moment.
“Is this a fucking joke?” I finally blurted.
Kincaid arched an eyebrow. I quickly appended a “Sir.”
“Not a joke, Lieutenant.” Kincaid spun his laptop around to face me across a battered gray table. “It’s for real.” He tapped the screen with a fingernail. “Have a look at your new charge.”
The center image of a high-def digital triptych showed an attractive green-eyed young woman in form-fitting black, blond, pale, and thin, late teens to early twenties. Perfectly normal, until you noticed the grid superimposed over the image, and the 11.5 inch tic mark sitting squarely on her hairline. Normal, until you noticed bluish-green translucent wing-tips rising up from behind her shoulders.
Side and back views showcased the veined wings; they reminded me of a dragonfly’s double set, but wider and sturdier. The overall impression was of sort of a fragile Marilyn Monroe-type-playing-Laura Croft. With wings.
I leaned back. “She’s really that small?”
“She flies, sir?”
“What is she? Where did she come from? Sir.”
“Did you . . . find her—” in some enchanted forest—
“Classified.” He turned his laptop back around and pecked at keys.
“—or was she . . . made?”
Kincaid’s eyes, cold dark marbles, flicked from the laptop to me and back. “Let it go, Lieutenant.”
“Sir.” I let out a breath. “Can I ask . . . is she . . . human?”
He hesitated and ran a hand through his gray brushcut. “Classified, but for the most part, yes.”
I cleared my throat. “I’m confused, sir. If this is real—and I don’t doubt you sir,” ha! “why me? I’m not trained for this. Honestly, I don’t think I’m qualified to be a . . . a pixie handler.”
Kincaid waved a hand in dismissal. “Who is? Your psych profile indicates you’re a good fit, and,” he said, ticking points on his fingers, “the same abilities that qualified you for UAV intel led you to this: you’re smart, you understand the languages, you make good real-time decisions, keep your nose clean and your mouth shut.”
My father was second-generation Pakistani, my mother an Iraqi immigrant, a linguistic background Uncle Sam found invaluable in the Global War on Terror that our country mired itself in as I reached manhood. Our Enemies, damn it, stubbornly and impolitely exhibited tendencies to speak languages like Arabic and Farsi and Pushtu.
After a few good years in Army Intelligence (don’t go there) translating recordings and occasional real-time tactical intercepts, someone came up with the bright idea of mounting sensitive directional microphones on UAVs on the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan, and I transferred to drone reconnaissance.
I took to my new job with gusto. I admit to a rush now and then when I had a hand in lining up the shot that blew some terrorist honcho to goo. Drones were fun.
But Micro Reconnaissance Interface Specialist?
“And you’re good looking, Durrani.”
Major Kincaid leaned forward. “She’s female. Handsome young men get her attention.” He hesitated, then said, “We have data that backs that up.”
“Heart rate, blood pressure, and some damn obvious reactions on video.” He leaned back in his chair and frowned. “And frankly, we’re getting worried, Lieutenant.”
Kincaid nodded. “She’s moody, becoming damn difficult to control—just as the project is showing signs of paying off. We had to pull her last handler. We hope a handsome young one that she could . . . bond with,” he met my eyes with a conspiratorial look, “would mitigate some of that.” He frowned again. “We can’t afford to lose her. Not now.”
“What’s her role, sir?” I sighed. “Never mind. Classified.”
The major shook his head. “No, you need to know—you’ll be running her. Tactically.” He dropped his voice, I suppose for effect, since we were alone in the room. “Think about it. Imagine the possibilities, Lieutenant. A miniature, living drone. Imagine her flitting up to a car or house window and quietly ID-ing a terrorist. Or following a vehicle, as inconspicuous as a bird.”
“Damn.” I did see. “Bin Laden.”
“We can’t afford to lose her,” he repeated. “We can’t. We think you can help.”
“I’ll do my best, sir.” This was some serious shit. Weird, but serious.
Kincaid held up a finger. “One thing, Lieutenant.”
“Do not ask her where she came from. We won’t let her answer that. And it would just upset her.”
“Understood, sir. When do I meet her?”
Kincaid closed his laptop and stood. “How about right now?”
“Now?” I rose shakily to my feet. “Yessir.”
A silly—but nagging—thought occurred to me as I followed Kincaid’s bony, ramrod-straight back to the door. “Sir.”
He stopped, hand on the doorknob. “Lieutenant?”
“Did my name have anything to do with my choice?”
Kincaid turned and looked at me, baffled. “Durrani?”
“No, sir. Peter.”
“Peter.” Slow realization dawned. “Oh fucking god. Peter!”
That was probably the only time anyone in Neverland saw the major laugh.
When the first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke into a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies.
— J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan)
Major Kincaid ran an access card through a reader; lights blinked through amber to green, and the door unlocked with a thunk. He pushed it inward and led us into a small room, no bigger than a closet. “Adapted from an airlock,” he said. An identical door faced us from the other wall; he shut the door we’d just stepped through and waited until the indicators winked red before running his card through the second door’s reader. “Can’t be too careful.”
Can’t be too careful. Security ran in more than one direction.
He pushed the door open; my ears popped, and a bright fresh lavender-scented breeze rushed out, a sharp contrast to the musty and mildewed corridors Kincaid had just led me through.
A girl’s room: softness and pastels. I had expected doll furniture, but items weren’t all to pixie scale—the single bed was just half-sized—the microwave, a clock radio, and a few table lamps were everyday items.
Belle sat on a padded stool, at a desk, one hand on a tiny keyboard plugged into a normal-sized laptop; she wore purple flannel pajamas and fuzzy pink slippers. She swiveled her seat and appraised us in turn as we stepped into the room.
“How are we today, Ms. Belle?”
Brilliant, unforgiving green eyes pinned Kincaid. “We are bored as all possible fuck.” She tracked him for a moment before casting an appraising stare at me. “Who’s the tall dark and handsome?” The voice was stronger and deeper than I expected, with a musical lilt.
“This is Lieutenant Durrani—”
“—your new handler.”
“Peter,” I said. I glanced at Kincaid. “Is that OK sir?”
“Perfectly. She’s technically not in the chain of command.”
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, he walks into mine,” she said, her Bogie absolutely, eerily, dead perfect. If that voice had come from a normal person, it would have been hilarious; coming from her diminutive, winged figure, it was borderline scary.
I went with an instinctive, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
“Lame,” she said, the corners of her eyes crinkling in a hint of a smile, “but points for trying.” She raised a tiny eyebrow at Kincaid. “So, he’s your new fairy expert?”
“Lieutenant Durrani—Peter—” the name came out reluctantly, “will be taking charge of your training, as soon as he’s up-to-speed on the project.”
“Can’t wait,” she said. I caught a glint of amusement in her eyes. “They tell you I eat ‘em up and spit ‘em out?”
“Something like that.” I smiled. “I’ve heard you were a handful.”
She groaned and rolled her eyes. “Awful. But better than Easter Island Head there, walking around like he has a potato chip up his ass and afraid to crack it.” She fanned her wings and cocked her head. “Waiting for me to fly?”
“I have to admit I’m curious.”
“I don’t see anything in my tip jar, sailor.” She winked. “Fifty bucks to show you my tits. A hundred for bottomless.” She dropped her voice to throaty whisper. “And a Happy Ending is—”
“OK, OK,” Kincaid said.
She clapped her little hands. “When do we get to kick some bad-guy ass?”
“We’ll be briefing . . . Peter . . . over the next few days. Next step is to get you two to mesh, get you some quality time together, get to know each other.”
She grinned at me. “Bring yer popcorn, Hoss.”
“Looking forward to it.”
Kincaid gestured at the door. “We have work to do, Lieutenant.”
Belle let out a dramatic sigh. “Playtime’s over?”
“Nice to meet you, Tinkerbelle.”
The major swiped his card through the reader. “Always, always ensure this door is closed and she’s in that room—“
“I heard that, Kincaid—“
“—before you open the outer door.” We stepped into the space and he started to close the door.
“Louis,” Bogart called out, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
I taught you to fight and to fly. What more could there be?
— J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan and Wendy)
“There she goes,” I said in a tight voice. Belle’s tiny figure soared from the Tactical van and shot straight up into deep and endless blue Nevada skies. I whispered, “Kick some ass, Belle.”
“She’ll be fine,” Kincaid said, watching the monitors from over my shoulder.
I fervently hoped so. This initial test was the first time Belle had been allowed to fly freely since the program launched, on test grounds in the heart of government land in the Nevada desert, far from any temptation for her to make a break for it. And there were other safeguards, some I knew about, some I didn’t. A handful of other tactical vans arrayed around us monitored her movements. Mobile sharpshooters patrolled the perimeter limits “for her protection,” and armed drones capable—we thought—of matching Belle’s speed and maneuverability circled overhead, imaging systems locked onto her. She had a least one GPS tracker that I knew about, and probably several that I didn’t; I suspected some were sewn into her clothing. I wondered if they had gone as far as implanting one in her body.
They had. More on that later.
“There’s the target vehicle,” Kincaid said, tapping a peripheral monitor—a feed from one of the drones overhead—where a dust column rose from the horizon.
On my display the video from Belle’s miniaturized imaging systems panned dizzily, and a smaller, similar view snapped into focus.
“She’s acquired the target sir.”
The dust column grew in size and a lone vehicle became visible. A battered SUV drove a weaving and erratic course at the head of the dust cloud. The image rapidly grew larger as Belle closed distance.
“God, she’s fast,” Kincaid muttered.
“Faster than we thought, sir.” My stomach tightened. “I’m not sure a drone could keep up with her.”
“Let’s hope she doesn’t realize that, Lieutenant.”
She drew even with the car, and set on a course parallel to the vehicle’s general heading, not trying to match its lateral movements. Figures were dimly visible behind the windows.
The vehicle swerved again, and in a blink Belle was on it, her feed showing the car’s interior and the dummies belted to the seats. One of the dummies had a red “X” stenciled on his forehead.
“Target identified,” she said.
“Acknowledged,” I replied.
“Fuck!” she said as the SUV turned sharply, throwing her off to the road in a dusty tumble. I held my breath.
She popped up, shook out her wings and flitted off in pursuit. “Son of a bitch, I lost a goddamned motherfucking fingernail!” she screamed.
“She seems fully focused on the job, sir.”
“That she does.”
Belle closed on the car again, whipped a small device from a thigh pouch and slapped it onto the hood. She flicked a switch and a tiny LED winked red. A matching indicator lit on my board.
“Got it Belle. Disengage.”
“Outta here.” She zoomed skyward, her feed centered on high cirrus clouds. “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, gentlemen.”
I threw a switch. An air-to-ground missile rocketed from one of the drones, a white contrail spiraling down toward the SUV. A second or two later the car exploded in a satisfying fireball.
“Woo hoo!” Belle cackled. “The world’s safe from your evil love dolls, Kincaid!”
A chorus of chuckles rang over the circuit. I glanced at the major; his lips were compressed in the tiniest hint of a smile. “Nice work, Belle,” he said.
“You rock, Bug.” I checked the GPS display and switched off my mike. “She’s headed back in this direction, Major.”
“We can’t ever relax with her, Lieutenant. Ever.”
“Although she does seem to like you.”
“I know so, Durrani.” Kincaid gave me a look. “Data.”
I flushed. Heart rate and BP again. A strategic component of Neverland’s move from its dingy Virginia location to a newer facility in New Mexico entailed “bonding” Belle and me; we were given adjoining rooms within the secure heart of the complex, with a door between us that stayed open most of the time. Our relationship hadn’t evolved to intimacy, yet; but we were getting very . . . comfy.
Of course we were monitored. Soon we would evolve the tactic of discussing intimate or sensitive items in muted whispers in my shower.
We weren’t quite there yet, but getting there; and Kincaid knew it.
“And she seems happier. Good work, Durrani.”
A huge torn and bloody fingernail loomed on the monitor. “You owe me a fuckin’ manicure, Kincaid. If you’re lucky,” she said, “I won’t insist on you doing it.”
Take care, lest an adventure is now offered you, which, if accepted, will plunge you in deepest woe.
— J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan)
Lebanese terrorist killed in US drone attack in Pakistan
June 21, 2010
A major Lebanese terrorist released by the German government five years ago has been killed in a US drone attack in Pakistan’s tribal region . . .
Mohammed Ali Hamadi died when a missile fired by a CIA-operated unmanned drone aircraft destroyed a compound in North Waziristan, a known hub of al-Qaeda and Taliban militants . . .
“A toast,” I said, pouring another thimbleful of champagne into the ordinary shot glass Belle used for drinking. I refilled my own glass and sat down next to her on a loveseat.
She giggled. “I think we’ve already toasted to all the good guys in the universe.” Belle crawled up a throw pillow, balancing her glass with the exaggerated care of the intoxicated and snuggled against me. She took a sip and hiccupped. “You’re trying to get me drunk, sailor.”
“Maybe.” I smiled and took a long swallow. “However, I do believe that we’re past the ‘try’ period.” I met those luminous green eyes. “Was that a rush, Belle?”
“Fuckin’ awesome.” She handed me her glass. “Hold that.”
She flitted to my shoulder, and used her tiny hand to turn my face to hers; a current of lavender-scented air arrived with her. “Ever felt a butterfly kiss?”
My heart skipped a beat. “No but I’ll try anything once.”
She moved her face very close to mine. My eyes flicked to the ceiling.
“Fuck ‘em. This is what they want, isn’t it?” Her tiny lips tickled mine. “Let ‘em watch.”
In August, 2010, Kincaid walked in and tossed a manila folder on the table. “Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Bin Laden’s courier. He’s been identified in Pakistan. Pack up,” he said, “we’re moving to Bagram for the duration.” He nodded at Belle. “Follow al-Kuwaiti, and you’ll find Bin Laden.”
Terrorist on FBI most wanted list 'killed by drone'
06 Oct 2010
One of the FBI's most wanted terrorists was killed alongside a Briton by a drone attack in Pakistan last month targeting al-Qaeda operatives planning a Mumbai-style attack in Europe, according to reports.
Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso, 35, allegedly met two of the September 11 hijackers and was said to be involved in the bombing of the USS Cole . . .
“You should have seen Kincaid’s face when you made like you were making a break for it.” We were in my shower, about as drunk as we’ve ever been. I delicately scrubbed off the grime from Belle’s latest mission.
“I was thinking about it.”
Blood drained from my face.
She smiled and tapped me on the nose. “Gotcha.”
I managed a shaky grin.
“And how could I leave, knowing what it’d do to you?”
“I probably shouldn’t ask you this—”
She silenced me with a finger to the lips. “Then don’t.” She kissed me. “Not yet.”
Pak admits majority killed in drone strikes are terrorists
Mar 9, 2011, 01.49pm IST (times of india)
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan army has admitted that most of those killed in the CIA-operated drone strikes in northwest Pakistan were "hardcore al-Qaida and Taliban terrorists" notwithstanding the government's public posture that such attacks were causing civilian deaths . . .
“Drink?” I poured champagne into my glass.
“She gave me a tired smile. “You go ahead. I’m just not in the mood.”
“You OK, Bug?” Her eyes were dark bruises; not, I thought, from the stress of today’s mission.
In seven weeks we would move on Bin Laden; Belle had captured a dark and grainy clip of him a few weeks back through the window of his Abbottabad compound. Not perfect, but enough to jive with the intel and analysis that was pouring in from informants and surveillance. It was deemed too risky to send Belle in any deeper until the actual night of the raid.
In the meantime, Kincaid was keeping her busy winnowing down the high-value target list.
“I’m OK. I just wanna go to bed.”
She wasn’t OK.
I could see it coming.
I hoped no one else did.
Tink was not all bad: or, rather, she was all bad just now, but, on the other hand, sometimes she was all good. Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling only at a time. They are, however, allowed to change, only it must be a complete change.
— J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan)
“I want you to get me out,” she whispered, lips tickling my ear.
I blinked soapy water from my eyes. “What?”
“I can’t do this anymore. I can’t sleep. I have nightmares.”
“They’re bad men, Belle.”
“So you say.”
“They deserve to die. They need to. You’re doing the world a favor.”
Her voice grew hard. “I’m doing your country a favor.”
Damn it. “Yes. Belle, you save lives. And suffering. You really do.”
“I can’t do it anymore. I see their faces. I see their children’s faces.”
“Belle.” My stomach was an icy lump.
“I’m just like them, Peter. It makes me just like them.”
Just like them. The targets or the Kincaids? Maybe both.
“I want out.”
“They won’t let you stop. They won’t let you go, Belle.” I shivered, despite the shower’s steamy warmth. “They’ll kill you.”
“You’ll think of something. Get me out, Peter.”
I held her at arm’s length and looked into her eyes, then brought her close to my lips. “After Bin Laden,” I promised. Operation Neptune Spear was three weeks away.
“Oh, Peter.” Her voice trembled.
I took a deep breath of moist air. “Belle. Where did you come from?”
The shower nozzle hissed. I watched water circle the drain.
“After Bin Laden,” she finally whispered.
Thus did the terrified three learn the difference between an island of make-believe and the same island come true.
— J.M. Barrie
“Wheels up,” I radioed as the sleek Blackhawk helicopter lifted into the night and pivoted east toward the Pakistan-Afghan border, the motion pressing me deep into my harness. I flipped open my laptop. “Coming on line now.”
Major Kincaid’s voice crackled in my ear. “Belle’s on her way. ETA 45 minutes.”
“Roger that sir.”
Our flight time from the Jalalabad staging area to the Bin Laden compound was 90 minutes; Belle had plenty of time to do her part—getting eyeballs on Bin Laden—before we got too deep into Pakistani airspace.
I switched the laptop to a low red night setting and arranged the tactical display, with Belle’s video feed in the large central window; the smaller side windows showed her GPS track, and the infrared and hyperspectral image feeds from the RQ-170 drone circling high over the Abbottabad compound.
“Bug, Sailor Boy. Comm check.”
“Muah,” she said over the hiss and pop of the carrier signal. “Just zippity-do-dahing along here.”
“Roger that. We’re right behind you, Bug.”
“See you at the party.”
I glanced out at an absolute velvet darkness that mirrored the pitch black of Belle’s feed. Inside the chopper, a deep red night glow illuminated the grim, focused faces of the Navy Seal Team Six commandos. The team’s leader—I’ll call him “Commander Smith”—shuffled over and dropped down beside me. Smith had skin so coal-black he seemed part of the night; he was the only other person onboard who knew anything about Neverland’s role—and that knowledge was limited.
“How we doing, Lieutenant?”
“Five-by-fives, Commander. Asset on target shortly.”
“Good. Let me know the instant you have an ID.”
“Will do, sir.” I said.
He shook his head. “I have all sorts of questions I can’t ask you, Lieutenant.”
I smiled. “Get that a lot sir.” As Smith started back for his seat I said, “You and your men must be proud that you’re the ones sent to capture Bin Laden.”
“You mean ‘kill,’ Lieutenant.”
“There is no capture. Bringing him back alive poses all sorts of complications. Killing is a cleaner solution, and those are our orders. I don’t care if he’s in bed, on the shitter, or behind an AK-47, but the second we lay eyes on him,” he said, “Osama Bin Laden’s a dead man.”
“Crankshaft,” Belle whispered over the radio. Her IR feed showed only a dim, ghostly green outline, but her eyes were orders of magnitude sharper than the resolution of the miniaturized imaging gear she wore.
“Crankshaft, acknowledged. Get out of there, Bug.”
Commander Smith’s head came up. “Where?”
“Third floor bedroom, north, sir.”
Smith nodded and let out a long breath that I don’t think he knew he was holding. “Good work.” He keyed his mike and spoke across the tactical circuit that linked the team spread between the two aircraft. “Listen up, people, intel has Jackpot, third floor bedroom north; I repeat, Jackpot, ten-twenty, third floor bedroom north.” He glanced at his watch. “Twenty minutes, people.”
“That was a bitch,” Belle said over our circuit, “the fucking balcony windows were shut tight, and I couldn’t find a way in on the second floor either. I had to slip in on the first level.”
“Where are you?” I asked, checking her GPS and video feeds. Her cam showed a distorted wide-angle view of a cluttered, windowless room. “You need to leave, Belle; we’re almost there.”
“Some crap dump on the first floor. This place is a real shit hole—”
“Belle. Get out.”
“No fucking way. I’m not missing this for anything.”
A door opened; a robed bearded man and a woman entered the room, deep in conversation. “Damn,” I muttered.
“They can’t see me. I’m up high back in a recess.”
“They can’t hear me,” she said, “I’m practically sub-vocalizing.”
“Can you tell who it is?”
“Hang on.” After a moment she said, “I think it’s Abrar and his wife.”
Abrar al-Kuwaiti, brother of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the courier we had followed to the compound last year. “Just chill, Belle.”
The two spoke for a few endless minutes, voices too low for me to make out what they were saying. Outside the chopper the scattered lights of a town were coming up.
A cell phone rang; al-Kuwaiti fished it from his pocket. “Abrar.” He listened and spoke a few words I couldn’t make out, but he sounded agitated.
“Belle. Turn your audio gain all the way up. I need to hear what he’s saying.”
“Something wrong?” Commander Smith asked.
“Not sure.” I toggled a few filters, and Abrar al-Kuwaiti’s scratchy voice coalesced out of a roaring river of hiss and static. My eyes widened. Fuck—
“Sir, we’ve been compromised! I think the Pakistanis are tipping off the compound.”
“Shit!” The commander glanced at his watch. “Seven minutes ‘till wheels down. We need more time.” Intel had neither confirmed or ruled out escape tunnels under the compound – one of our biggest concerns. Smith gestured at my laptop. “Can she stop him, do something? We just need three or four—”
“Sir! She’s just a fair—” I stopped. Every head in the copter swiveled my way. I swallowed. “I’ll see what we can do, sir.” I keyed Belle’s circuit. “Belle. We need time. A distraction. Anything. Get his attention. We can’t let him—”
“Got it. What’s the word for ‘shithead?’”
“Never mind. Hey! Shithead!” Belle’s shout stabbed my ear like an ice pick over the amped-up circuit.
Abrar’s eyes flicked up at Belle, and his mouth dropped open. His wife screamed. The image tilted crazily as Belle dove from her perch and swooped at the pair. They swatted at her as she circled. Abrar threw his phone, missing Belle’s head by a hair; I flinched as it zipped in and out of view.
She circled the room again and a dizzying blur of unrecognizable objects swam in and out of the feed display. Abrar’s wife—I suddenly remembered her name as Bushra—picked up a straw broom and swung it at Belle, a crazy, deadly parody of a witch facing off against a fairy.
A minute or two of thrust and parry; then another figure entered the room—the courier Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti who had led us to Bin Laden. He stood in absolute shock in the doorway.
“If there’s one thing I hate,” Belle gasped as she dodged a swat, “it’s a fair fight.”
A gunshot boomed and pain ripped through my head; I yanked the earpiece out.
“Enough! Get out Belle!”
Abrar’s hand shot out as she darted by, filling the screen. The image feed pixilated, then went white with static.
“Belle! Belle! Answer goddamnit.”
Belle’s audio circuit hummed and crackled with an empty carrier signal.
“Sir!” the pilot shouted. “We’re hot n’ high!” The copter pitched wildly and threw us against our harnesses. “Chopper One is down!” My head snapped back as he pulled our aircraft into a sharp climb.
I found out later that high air temperatures and the compound walls kept the downwash from the rotors from diffusing. The other ‘copter in the raid had clipped a wall and broken a rotor, but the pilot quickly pushed the helo’s nose down and soft-crashed it.
“Dammit!” Smith growled. “Set us down outside the wall.” He put a hand to his ear. “They’re OK,” he said to my group—translators, intel collectors, a dog and its handler. “No injuries.”
The helicopter jolted and settled. “Move!” Smith said to the assault team, who piled out of the aircraft. Gunfire popped in the distance. He paused in the hatchway and looked back at us. “Sit tight. We’re scaling the walls. We’ll blow the doors and clear the first level, then call your group in. Stay with them,” he said to the four SEALS left in the Blackhawk.
“Sir, I need to get—to get our asset; it’s classified—”
“Sit tight, Lieutenant,” he barked, and leaped out the hatch into the night.
Sit tight. The compound’s first-floor layout burned in my head, a treasure map with the red X of Belle’s GPS coordinates that would lead me to the room she was in.
“I’m coming, Bug,” I whispered into the static.
“They’ve cleared up to the second level,” Master Chief ‘Johnson’ said. “Let’s move.” He dropped to the courtyard dirt. I flipped down night vision goggles and dove out the hatchway after him, followed by the dog and his handler, the translators, the intel group, and the three other SEALS. “Keep your head down,” he said unnecessarily.
We ran through the blown gate and crossed the courtyard while gunfire and muffled explosions rang from the house.
As we passed the downed Blackhawk with its broken rotor, I asked, “They can’t fly that out, can they?”
“Nope,” Johnson said. “We brought fireworks. That’ll be a puddle of slag when we leave.”
We moved through a charred and splintered doorway into the house. The air was thick, a sting of cordite haze and the coppery tang of blood. I peeled left and darted down a short hall littered with debris.
“Lieutenant!” Johnson shouted.
“I got this,’” I called back, “classified intel asset. Keep back.”
“Sir! You can’t go off on your own!”
“It’s protocol. Check with Smith.” I figured I had a few minutes before that sorted out.
I ducked into the room at the end of the passage and tripped over the crumpled body of our courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, laying on his side, a messy bullet hole dead-centered in his forehead. I had the right room.
Somewhere in the house two quick muffled shots rang in succession, and “Geronimo EKIA” crackled over the tactical net. Bin Laden was history.
At that moment, I couldn’t have cared less.
I looked wildly around. Debris were scattered everywhere, like the aftermath of a tornado; plaster chips and dust covered everything, and a line of bullet holes riddled the walls.
I rushed through the room frantically flinging pillows, blankets, and small pieces of furniture aside. “Belle!”
Under the whisk of a broken broom I found a piece—it looked to be the upper third—of one of Belle’s wings. My heart sank. “Belle!”
A groan escaped from under a cardboard box in a corner. I slid across the room on my knees and threw the box aside. “Oh, Belle.”
Her eyes opened. Or rather, one battered and blood-filled eye opened; the other was swollen shut. Blood ran from her ears and nose, and her lips were puffed to twice their normal size.
“Mmmm,” she muttered. “You shouldn’t see me without makeup.”
I gently picked her up and cradled her. “Belle. Bug.” A tear tickled my upper lip
“Fuck. Even my hair hurts.”
“You’re not dead—”
“I got better.” She spit out a tooth and coughed.
A thought struck me. “No. No you didn’t.”
“Belle.” I glanced at the doorway. “How are you? I mean—”
“Oh, just fucking peachy—”
“No. I mean: can you walk? Can you,” I looked over her torn wing, “fly?”
“I think so. Set me down.” She groaned, then stood on wobbly legs and flapped a few times, rising six inches off the ground. “Sort of. Like walking with a bad limp.” She turned a bloodshot eye to me. “You’re not thinking—”
“This is your chance. To get away.”
“Peter.” She shook her head and promptly sat down hard. “They’ll just use you to get me back.”
“Would it work?” I held my breath.
She grinned. “Maybe.”
“If they think you’re dead—”
“They won’t believe you.”
“They will. I have a pretty good idea on how.” I looked again at the door. “We have to hurry.”
“What’s your plan?”
“Second, you just have to hide until we leave. Then we hook up later, like we talked about. You hide and you steal food and you make your way, and then wait. It might take me a while to get away, but I’ll get there, somehow. I promise.” I reached out and gently wiped a tear from under her good eye. “I love you, Bug.”
“Oh, jeez. Peter.” She sniffled. “Love you, Sailor Boy.” She wiped another tear and stood up. “’K. You said second? What’s first?”
“Your GPS chip. It’s in your lower back, right above your butt.” I slipped a knife from my boot. “It’s just under the skin.”
“Oh, fuck my toast,” she said.
I carried the small bloody bundle through the courtyard to the downed Blackhawk. Commander Smith ran over. “Is that . . .?”
I made a show of tucking the tip of a translucent green wing deeper into the blanket. “Yes,” I said, “and you didn’t see that. Sir.”
“I’m so sorry, Lieutenant. I don’t know all, but I can imagine—“
“It’s OK sir. Mission accomplished.” I gestured with the bundle toward the explosive-wired Blackhawk. “Will that thing burn hot?”
Smith nodded. “Thermite and C4. There won’t be much left.”
“I need her to be onboard when that goes off.”
“You’re not bringing—?”
“Too big a risk. If the Paks force us down . . .” I waited.
He hesitated, then nodded. “Be quick. They have planes inbound.”
I climbed aboard and set the bundle in the center of the fuselage, between what I thought were thermite charges, taking care that the bundle wouldn’t fall open.
“Hurry,” Smith called from the hatch. “They’re almost on us.”
I jumped down and Smith turned and ran; I dogged his footsteps back to where our copter sat poised for flight, blades whirring. A blast of grit stung my face and watered my eyes. I ducked under the blades and grabbed the sides of the hatch; hands pulled me aboard. A loud crump thundered as I dropped into my seat and a pressure wave rocked us.
The Blackhawk rose on a cloud of dust; as it spun westward and I caught a glimpse of the inferno in the courtyard, a column of smoke rising into the night, its base illuminated by the flames.
“Belle,” I whispered.
The helicopter dipped its nose and soared past the compound walls and raced over the town and into the darkness.
Dreams do come true, if only we wish hard enough. You can have anything in life if you will sacrifice everything else for it.
— J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan)
Kincaid rapped twice on the door frame. “All packed, Durrani?”
I sprang to my feet and patted my backpack. “Got everything I need right here, sir.”
“Not everything.” Kincaid handed me a large brown envelope. “Your discharge. Honorable. You’re free to go.”
“Thank you sir.” I tucked the envelope in my backpack unopened.
Neverland was in an uproar after the raid, torn between the jubilation of smoking Bin Laden and the tragic loss of Belle. Brass had a hard time with my story about incinerating Belle’s body in the crippled Blackhawk, despite Commander Smith’s testimony. They held their returning hero pretty damn close to the coals for weeks. I stuck to my guns. Shrinks argued that it was a behavior inconsistent with my makeup. (It was.) But they had no proof: no Belle, no body—only a piece of the tail section survived the fiery demolition of the downed aircraft. The chip I removed from Belle was in the rolled blanket—so no data.
Between the stress of interrogations and the emotional impact of Belle’s absence, it wasn’t hard to fake a breakdown, and I’m not sure I did fake it. For months I walked a high wire over the pit of a collapse deep enough to be viewed as a security risk to be locked away. I lobbied for a discharge on medical grounds, and a number of the Neverland medical staff supported me.
Surprisingly, so did newly-minted Lieutenant Colonel Kincaid.
In early September, word began to filter down that I would be released. I spent the next week signing a stack of NDAs.
“There’s a van waiting outside to take you to the bus station in town. I’ll walk you out.”
Kincaid and I walked side-by-side in silence through the dark, quiet Neverland corridors, nothing to say despite a year and a half of working closely together. He stopped near the exit door and cleared his throat. “What’s next for you? Once you leave here?”
“Home for a while, sir.” I shrugged. “Then look for a job, I guess. I could always teach.”
“You certainly could.”
Kincaid stared down the dim corridor for a moment, then stepped close to me and dropped his voice. “We accomplished a lot. We got Bin Laden. I’m satisfied with that. But.”
“Not everyone is. Watch your back, Durrani.”
I met his dark eyes. “Yessir.”
He held out his hand. “Good luck, Peter.”
I took it. “Thank you, Colonel.”
I shouldered my pack and stepped out into the gloaming. A few of the brighter late-summer stars already twinkled high overhead. I drew a deep breath of clean cool desert air and left a life behind.
You’re wondering, of course, where I’m headed. Belle and I worked all this out during our long whisperings in the shower, laying the foundation for if and when this day finally came. I’d love tell you, but—
They’re tracking me, of course.
But we’re smarter than that. We learned a lot of cloak-and-dagger stuff in eighteen months from the experts in Neverland, and from watching our targets operate; if we stick to the plans there’s a good chance that they’ll never pick up our trail.
I’ll be releasing these notes as soon as I believe I’m clear, a bridge-burning that commits me to this path; but more importantly, to shine a public light in a dark, dark, place.
But I’m not leaving a hint of where I’m going, not even a little one. You understand.
Sorry to disappoint you. I know people like closure, and happy endings. So here’s the best ending to this story I can offer you:
Second star to the right, and straight on ‘til morning.