Once in Cassiopeia

I’d been working for the magazine for two months when I was assigned to interview the most famous woman in the world. Till then I’d only written some books-in-brief, a film review of Spielberg’s latest, and the obituary/retrospective on Norman Mailer, which involved calling people like Gore Vidal and acting like I was familiar with (and cared about) his literary beefs and years-old grudges. I’m not bragging, but I’ve always known when to give a damn and when to tighten my smile, so I grinned like De Niro playing Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter, and patiently transcribed forty-five minutes’ worth of pent-up vitriol from the author of Burr, who, in his boundless audacity, later complained to my editor-in-chief that I was “more than a tad bit aloof.” Bang. Ya got me, Gore. But hey, it’s an attitude that’s helped me weather bigger squalls than you, including the storm that swooped through these offices when an editorial assistant (me) landed the interview of a lifetime, 2nd Lt. Sally Ryan.

Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters used to mud-wrestle for this type of interview, back when the plum assignment was Mother Teresa or Princess Diana or Jennifer Aniston or President-elect Hillary Clinton. Men never get these gigs. The thinking, I imagine, is that we’re insensitive, that we’ll waste little time with pleasantries or sartorial compliments, that, in the case of the adorable Sally Ryan, we’d get right to the question that every reporter was dying to ask: “Tell me, Sally, what’s it like to be the woman who killed Osama bin Laden?”

•••

David, my editor, didn’t allow food or drink in his office, so I left my coffee and breakfast sandwich on my desk and followed him.

“Take a seat, Greg, we’ve got something to discuss.”

“Have I been promoted?”

He grimaced and the glare of the overhead light ricocheted off his bifocals and into my eyes, softening the edges of his pot-bellied frame.

Was I late this morning? No. Had I misspelled a name? Maybe. Did the I.T. department find porn on my computer? I dissolved into the leather seat while David crossed his arms and leaned awkwardly against the lip of his cherry oak desk, staring at me with his two imperious fact-finders.

“You’ve just won the lottery.”

My eyes widened quizzically.

“Sally Ryan, she’s agreed to her first in-depth interview, and, well, she wants you to do it.”

Haven’t spoken to her in years.

“So congratulations and welcome to the big time.” He chuckled. “Oh, and everyone in this office now hates you — everyone but me, that is.”

“Why?”

“Strike that, I hate you too. Anyway, you leave for, for…Germany tonight. Can ya raise her brother? We need to talk to him. Oh, and ya got an active passport?”

How will I pay for the flight? My credit card is maxed out.

“Shepard? Are you hung over or something? Sit up and have a drink of water. Go, get a drink and come back.”

•••

Where were you when you heard the news? I was waiting in line at the self-checkout at the Stop & Shop in Fairfield when an attractive woman with red hair lowered her cell phone and announced it to the store. The fat bald man in front of me turned around and grabbed my wrist and said, “Dead! Bin Laden’s dead!” and let out a huge whoop.

It was one of those big, unexpected news events that make you ineloquent, like when you heard that Saddam Hussein had been captured alive or that Elizabeth Smart had been found safe in Utah. I strung together some knee-jerk curse words.

But who killed him? Was it an assassin? Was it an American?

He’d been stabbed in the chest in the vegetable aisle of an out-of-the-way market in the eastern end of Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. In terms of details, that’s all they were saying. And like everyone else, I wasn’t satisfied.

President Hillary Clinton said, “The architect of 9/11 is dead, but the battle against terrorism continues.” That was the right political thing to say — reminding everyone to keep their eye on the ball. But bin Laden wasn’t merely a political prize for Americans; his capture was more personal than Saddam’s or Mohammad Omar’s because his tentacles had reached our bread basket and flipped it over and we wanted to know who had the honor of whacking him. After all, he wasn’t killed by a roadside bomb or a Predator drone or a sniper; he’d been stabbed, up close and personal, which played well to America’s inner Charles Bronson. Who was the lucky killer? Was it some crazed, burqa-wearing housewife? Did OBL swipe the last good quince in the basket and get shivved for it? And who gets the $50 million reward?

News of bin Laden’s death triggered widespread rioting in the Muslim world, particularly the Middle East. Some said he wasn’t dead, that it was just another American lie, like the existence of WMDs in Iraq. But then we saw the pictures. He didn’t have his customary beard, but it certainly looked like Mr. 9/11.

Many, of course, greeted the news with jubilation, while others said he could have been a source of information about pending terror attacks. Regardless of how you treated the announcement, you wanted more answers. And the longer the U.S. remained silent, the more talking heads rushed in to fill the void, offering unsubstantiated tidbits, including the idea that the CIA had faked his death in return for information about pending attacks. A Pentagon spokesman tried to satiate the news vacuum, saying, “He was killed in Islamabad, and that’s all you need to know.”

But Tim Russert said it best: “Frankly, we need to know a heckuva lot more than that.”

What was bin Laden doing in Islamabad, a bustling city? What about all those reports of him living in the tribal region between Pakistan and Afghanistan? All this time, while Army Rangers crawled through caves, looking for the face of modern terrorism, he was going to the movies, living in an air-conditioned room, and ordering Chinese takeout?

Other than the photos and the brief statement released by the Department of Defense, the government was tight-lipped. As we now know, they didn’t even want to announce his death — not right away, that is.

The Clinton administration claims it wasn’t planning to wait and use it as political capital in the midterm elections, but merely needed to investigate further, to answer their own questions about bin Laden and the circumstances surrounding his death, including the whereabouts of his closest confidant, Ayman al-Zawahiri. But their hand was forced when a fellow nurse, jealous that Sally Ryan was possibly entitled to $50 million, shared her identity with Reuters.

In an instance of highly questionable journalistic ethics, the news organization decided that Sally’s name would get out eventually, so they published the information. And so, less than a week after his death, the world knew that “The Sheik,” Osama bin Laden, had been stabbed in the stomach by United States Army nurse Sally Ryan, 27, of Stratford, Connecticut. The next day, The Smoking Gun Web site announced she’d been the 2000 prom queen at Stratford High School, and the day after that, al Qaeda released a statement, saying Muslims worldwide were in mourning and that it was the responsibility of all good Muslims to right this wrong: “To hunt down the filthy American woman and all her relatives, to take them from the face of this Earth.”

And that, the Pentagon spokesman said, was why they’d tried to hide her identity.

For her own protection, the United States government transferred Sally to an undisclosed location, which, we learned later, was Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. Her only living relative was Jimmy, her twin brother, and my first job was to interview him. But since I hadn’t spoken to him in eight years (and he hated my guts), I suspected it was going to be easier to get a fresh quote from bin Laden.

•••

“For the record, this runs contrary to every journalistic tenet, to everything this magazine and I stand for.”

David smiled and handed me the airline tickets, purchased by the magazine.

“Classic case of conflict of interest. I mean, who can be expected to report on this objectively? For all I know, you had a crush on this girl when you were little.” He paused; I didn’t answer. “I got writers in my Rolodex, everyone from Christopher Hitchens to Seymour Hersh, who’d do this clean and do it right. But she doesn’t want some Pulitzer Prize winner, she wants you, a freaking cub reporter. I don’t have to explain the sensitivity of this. Hell, I’m not even sure you want it, or that we want it. You write some article lauding the woman who killed bin Laden, and you’ll probably get whacked too. What the hell am I talking about? I’ll probably be the one who gets shot!” He shook his head and smiled. “Why aren’t you working for Vanity Fair or some Condé publication, huh?” He waited for me to crack a smile. “You’d better lighten the hell up and laugh at my jokes, Greg, because I’m your only friend around here right now.”

Jesus.

“Strike that, the publisher loves you too.”

I hadn’t had a cigarette since senior year, but I wanted a Camel now. “You leave for JFK in 20 minutes, so call her brother en route.”

•••

I made a drunken pass at Sally during our senior prom, in full view of the northern side of the dance floor, including her brother, who threatened to separate me from my teeth. It was a crummy move on my part, since Sally was a good friend and a last-minute replacement for a girl who’d decided that she’d rather go to the prom with Ray Mansella, a decision that, though she’d never admit it, had everything to do with my lack of transportation and his 2000 Mustang. “Liz,” let’s call her, notified me by e-mail, and I’ll always be thankful for that. After all, if she’d told me in person, well, the look on her face, after seeing the look on my face, would have been a look I’d never forget, but her e-mail I simply erased.

“Greg, why do you want Jimmy’s cell phone number? Has something happened to Sally? What’s going on? Where are you?”

My mother knew how to get in touch with Jimmy, but given her inquisitive nature, which I undoubtedly inherited, short notice could only be purchased by a long-winded explanation. “Mom, goddamn it, I need it!”

He was, she said, still living next door. “With the girlfriend,” she added.

“Welcome to the 21st century, mom.”

“He’s with a new company though. Marc Ecko or something. They design T-shirts or clothing or — ”

“Mom, the number, puh-lease…”

“What’s going on?”

Telling her would jinx the whole thing. When I’d been in the interview gristmill at ESPN.com, in line for a column-writing gig, I’d made the mistake of telling her, and then, when I didn’t get the job, I had to deal with the rejection and with the pity of my mother. And that was like getting cut from the high-school basketball team all over again.

“I’m interviewing Sally for the magazine.”

Silence.

“I’m on my way to the airport right now, going to Germany.”

Nothing.

“I need to talk to Jimmy before I leave, otherwise I might not get to speak to him.”

She sighed.

“Ya there?”

“Yes, I’m here. Don’t take this the wrong way, honey, but…isn’t that a conflict of interest?”

•••

On 9/11, Sally was working towards a bachelor’s in nursing at Fairfield University, living in Fairfield with her then-boyfriend Bob Frantz, a broker at Cantor Fitzgerald. He died at the World Trade Center; the Times said they found a two-inch sliver of his left femur. Two years after 9/11, armed with the necessary BSN degree, Sally volunteered for the U.S. Army Nurse Corps.

“Hey, Jimmy.”

Something clicked. Did he hang up? “Ya there?”

“Maybe.”

I laughed more than necessary.

“What the hell do you want, Greg?”

Honestly, I didn’t know how to respond because I hadn’t given it proper thought. I’d tried to tell myself this was a typical interview, which I could approach dispassionately, but his tone said otherwise.

“The magazine — my mom told you I was working there, right? Anyway, they’re sending me to Germany to interview Sally. Actually, Sally wants me to do it. Ya know, first interview and all. I mean, she figures she can trust me.”

He chuckled derisively. “Trust you?”

“Listen — ”

“No, you listen. What, you want a quote from me? What ever happened to journalistic ethics? Isn’t this a conflict…whatever, forget it. How do I feel? That’s what you wanna know, right? Well, I was against the war to start with, and now I’m at the top of al Qaeda’s hit list, so how do ya think I feel?”

Like a whiner? “Proud, maybe?”

“Proud?”

“Yeah, of your sister.”

The limousine driver tapped on the glass partition; I scooted forward on the seat. “American Airlines,” I told him.

“Sure, a part of me is proud of her; another part of me is confused. I can’t reconcile the Sally I know with someone who’d stick a knife in somebody. Can you?”

“Have you spoken to her?”

He didn’t answer immediately.

“No, I haven’t spoken to her.”

“Are you — ”

“Is this gonna be much longer? They’re probably tracing this call.” He laughed. “Maybe writing this story isn’t such a wise career move, huh, Greg? Maybe a poor life decision. Ya know, another one.”

It was a drunken pass nine years ago, ya big baby. Get over it.

“Are you frightened?” I said. “Have you considered…I can’t believe I’m asking you this, but have you considered the witness relocation program?”

The limo driver stopped short and hoisted an expectant palm by the open partition. I didn’t have any singles, so I gave him a ten. “Ya know what, I have considered it. And I think the safest place to hide might be Islamabad. As long as my sister’s not out grocery shopping, I should be safe as a kitten there.”

I waited for him to stop laughing. “Seriously, what — ”

“Bye, Greg,” and he hung up.

•••

She was even prettier in person. It’s a cliché, sure, but photos have never done her justice. Blond-locked Sally Ryan, with porcelain skin and a Cassiopeia of freckles in the Milky Way between her tear-shaped breasts, perfectly proportioned to her 5-foot frame. She was available for the prom because Kyle Overton, her then-boyfriend, was playing minor league ball in Idaho Falls, so she wasn’t planning to go herself. While someone like me scrambled for a date, worried even at that late date about my high-school social relevance, Sally was beyond it. She was always beyond things. She probably lost her virginity earlier than any girl I knew, and yet no one ever hinted that she was easy. She was simply advanced.

When I’m nervous I sweat and get dehydrated, so I drank about a dozen bottles of water on the flight from JFK. I hadn’t seen her in four years and I resolved to be as business-like as possible. Then again, she’d requested me specifically, so maybe uncomfortable chitchat was what she wanted. After all, she had a lot to consider.

I told myself that women, particularly feminists, would adopt her as a hero. Would she be forced into politics? Would she become a pawn? I’d lived next door to her for 18 years and I had no idea if she was a Democrat or Republican. Maybe these were the kinds of things she was weighing herself because her past life was over.

I kept picturing her snow-white hands, covered in blood. Which hand had she used? Both? He was reportedly 6’6″ and thus easily recognizable. Had she seen him and then hemmed and hawed about what to do? Was she alone? Did she have a gun on her? Do Army nurses carry guns? Perhaps she disarmed him with a smile.

When I asked her to the prom, a wide compassionate smile seemed to connect her silver pear-shaped earrings. “Of course I’ll go with you.” She didn’t ask about “Liz,” probably because she knew the embarrassment it would cause me. I repaid her friendship and civility by filling a flask with Jack Daniels, getting completely sauced, and smirking in every prom picture. When I finally leaned in to kiss her, she stepped back and jabbed an index finger into my sternum.

“Greg, you’re drunk. This is hardly the time or place for this.”

I think that’s what she said.

•••

After 9/11 and the death of her boyfriend, Sally had enlisted because she wanted to be directly involved in “apprehending those bastards,” which is how one of her fellow nurses reported it to me. If she couldn’t be the tip of the sword, she at least wanted to be near it. But instead of treating wounded Rangers or Special Forces personnel, she’d spent the last eleven months in Islamabad treating the head colds of diplomats.

Bored by routine, she left the embassy alone that day.

The Islamabad Market was supposedly near empty, so there were few people staring at the lone white woman so brazenly dressed in Army fatigues. I imagine he was leaning against a doorjamb, arms crossed, listening to a fat man yelling in Farsi and waving his arms. He had no facial hair — that’s not conjecture — so Sally must have recognized his smile or the way he used his hands. In turn, he must have recognized the recognition and sprinted towards her, and she must have grabbed the paring knife from a vegetable stand, and, just as he raised the silver 9mm handgun, plunged it into his liver and twisted, bringing him to his bloodied knees.

I have a difficult time reconciling the Sally Ryan I knew with the woman who punked bin Laden. I can only attribute her actions to instinct, and I can only guess if I, or any man for that matter, would have reacted the same way.

Did he say anything to her as his guts spilled into the market? Did he curse her? Smile at her? Beg freaking forgiveness? These are the questions I still need answered.

•••

She was dead by the time I landed in Germany.

The assassin wasn’t even Muslim; he was simply a hired gun. They found the discarded Army uniform on the roof of the base hospital, right beside the sniper rifle. His name was Henri Germain, an Algerian. He shot her once in the chest, right amid Cassiopeia. The MPs, in turn, shot him 17 times, including three times in the head.

Germain’s sister, Eva, has been found living in Seattle, and last week she agreed to her first sit-down interview.

The job goes to Katie Couric.

Camerion Martin is a pop-culture columnist and book reviewer with The Greenwich Time and Stamford Advocate Newspapers in Connecticut, and a major-league baseball humor columnist with the website Bug & Cranks. His first novel, Crookednose, needs an agent.

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