"Ah! I knew it. This is destiny," he smiled, still holding me in his shaky claw. "You must pass this on to your USA embassy in Islamabad I know where Osama bin Laden is hiding."
Had to admit, that nailed my attention. We sat in a shadowy corner of the hotel lobby, away from the Pakistani secret police who are given one limp copy of the daily Baluchistan Times to hide behind.
The Afghan was probably in his late 60s, too old, I thought, to go clambering around the mountains of Afghanistan hunting for bin Laden.
"I work with others," he explained.
Sounded better. I imagined a network of stealthful Afghans, banded together for the $5 million reward on bin Laden. His English was good; the old guy was probably their negotiator.
[an error occurred while processing this directive]"There are eight of us, and what do you call it a ghost," he whispered.
"Wait... A ghost? You say a ghost knows where bin Laden is hiding?"
He glanced furtively over at the nearest secret police agent, on a couch a few yards away. No need to worry; the agent was dozing, slack-jawed behind his newspaper.
"Yes," he insisted. "You must tell your ambassador. We can find bin Laden."
Turns out the guy holds a kind of spirit-invoking seance, and the terrorist-hunting ghost channels through a nine-year old girl. This man with the trembling hands professed to be a palmist, and an expert in Pythagoras' arcane geometry.
I tried to let him down gently. I explained that the Americans were relying on satellites and electronic eavesdropping and...
"But," he interrupted, " You haven't found him yet with those things."
That was true. I offered him a deal: I wanted to attend one of his seances, first. Maybe get a telepathic glimpse of bin Laden crouching beside a fire in a cave, the long shadow of his beard flickering on the rock wall. Then the Afghan pulled out a slip of paper with letters written on it.
"It's my neighbor's telephone. I've put it in code. Call me at 4 p.m."
I did. He made excuses. He was afraid the secret police would shadow me to his house and arrest everybody but the ghost.
"I speak Pashtun. I can help you with your journalistic inquiries," he then offered.
I declined. What sort of a translation would I get? Living voices jumbled with the dead. Even still, this guy had to be better than the caliber of translator available up in Northern Alliance territory. The rapacious commanders of the Northern Alliance assign you a translator and charge you $150 a day. Often, their English isn't so good. When introduced to her new translator, one journalist asked his name. His reply: "I am jobless."