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"And Then They Came..." (Chapter I)

Chapter I

The troll-sized, modern statue of John the Baptist stood with his right arm upraised, wagging his index finger defiantly at the domed, marbled capitol building in front of it, as if warning the Puerto Rican legislators across the road to do their job well. A sea of wooden chairs blocked the three lanes of Ponce de Leon Avenue and extended all the way to the angry saint, making the venerable holy man stand out even more.

Behind him, and to his right, rose the massive outer walls of Fort San Cristobal, still guarding the eastern boundaries of Old San Juan as it had done for several centuries. To his left, tall cliffs dropped precipitously into a small beach protected from the Atlantic’s pounding surf by a series of dark reefs.

A crowd of several thousand people, including many of Puerto Rico’s top government functionaries, media and sports celebrities, religious figures, businessmen, members of the judiciary, and other influential citizens, had gradually streamed into the improvised stadium until it overflowed with people.

It was the beginning of September, still summer in the Caribbean island, and it promised to be another scorching day in that record-setting year. But at eight thirty in the morning, with the Puerto Rican and American flags flapping briskly from the flagpoles in front of the capitol and the palm trees swaying gently in the breeze, the temperature had proven to be surprisingly pleasant.

A wooden podium bearing the seal of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico—a lamb resting on a hill while holding a staff with a white guidon and a red cross—had been placed on the upper terrace of the capitol building. To its left and right, two areas, each with three rows of twelve chairs, had been prepared for the guests of honor.

Behind the podium stood a large, covered statue placed on an elongated pedestal that resembled the walls of the San Cristobal and the El Morro forts. The statue, commemorating the heroes who had sacrificed their lives during the terrorist attack of a year and a half before, would be unveiled that morning.

Lucas Alfaro sat on the front row to the left of the podium, next to his nephew Alfredo, quietly enjoying his godson’s reactions to the glamorous surroundings. It had been a day of non-stop excitement for the ten year old. Smart beyond his years, and a celebrity of sorts in his own right, he had enjoyed greeting the politicians and government officials who had approached him and Lucas during the last half hour, and relished the stares of curiosity and/or of recognition directed at him from those less fortunate attendees sitting in the general area.

In reality, a lot of the stares had been directed at either Francisco—the Governor’s son and Alfredo’s best friend—who sat to Alfredo’s left, or at Nereida, Francisco’s former governess and—after recently marrying the Governor— Francisco’s stepmother.

Lucas had particularly enjoyed the exchange between Alfredo and Police Superintendent Roberto Maldonado. Waiting for the ceremony to start, the bear-like Superintendent had caught sight of Lucas, and approached him to shake his hand. Lucas had then introduced him to his star-struck godson, who had jumped to his feet and mumbled something unintelligible. The Superintendent had smiled, enveloping the boy’s hand in his large paw.

“I’ve heard a great deal about you,” he had said to the young boy. “How you helped fight off the terrorists in the tunnel. You were very brave.”

Alfredo’s face had reddened, but he had beamed with pride.

“He was fearless!” Francisco, the Governor’s son, had interjected, before his friend could answer.

“I was very afraid,” Alfredo admitted. “But I knew my godfather would get us out of there.”

The Superintendent had exchanged a quick glance with Lucas, secretly conveying how pleased he felt talking to the young boy.

“Your uncle Lucas was very brave, but so were you. It takes a brave person to be scared and do what is expected of him,” Maldonado said in an affectionate tone. “I wish we had more people like you in the force.”

The Superintendent had moved on further down the seats, greeting some of the other people waiting for the ceremony to begin. He had stopped in front of Camilo Gomez, the SWAT captain who had helped free the hostages captured by the terrorists in the Grand Laguna Hotel, then greeted Archie—now the Police Department’s press secretary and Lucas’ brother-in-law—as well as Sergeant Edgardo Negron, both of whom had also participated in the hostages’ rescue.

Lucas saw his sister Michelle interviewing the Governor of Puerto Rico for WKPA TV near the podium, enveloped in the glare of the television’s spotlights. She had become a world-famous celebrity in her own right, after she had transmitted live during the terrorist attack to the State Police Station in San Juan, and helped save the hostages in the Grand Laguna Hotel. Her television specials of the hotel rescue had been aired by CNN and the BBC, and she had appeared in various national and international talk shows. Michelle had married Archie less than six months before.

The Governor was flanked by Orlando Picon and Billy Hazard, the two bodyguards who had helped keep the Governor alive while he was being hunted by the notorious terrorist, El Alacran, and the Macheteros in the tunnels under San Juan. Hazard noticed Lucas, and acknowledged him from afar with a friendly half-military salute.

Not all of the attendees were friends, Lucas noted. Among the notables sitting on the other side of the podium, he saw the portly—almost walrus-sized—figure of Marisel Delgado, the Speaker of the House, and Carlos Cortez, the young, handsome President of the Senate, both bitter political rivals of Governor Pietrantoni even though officially belonging to his party, the Pro-Statehood Party.

Lucas’ thoughts wandered to roughly a year before, when during a G-20 Conference held in San Juan, the terrorists had attempted to set off a nuclear device under the city. The disaster, which had been narrowly averted, had never been revealed to the public. Only a handful of people, among them Lucas, his sister Michelle, Negron, and Archie, had been aware of how close the terrorists had come to decapitating the governments of the major world powers.

Lucas still had nightmares about that terrible night, when he had fought and nearly been killed by Czecka, a hulking giant who seemed impervious to any wounds, and been engaged in a firefight with Daniel, a much smaller but just as deadly foe. He and Negron had followed the terrorist leader Angel San Miguel to a cruise ship, where after capturing him, Negron had executed him. It was another secret that had never been revealed, although both Governor Pietrantoni and U.S. President Powell had guessed it. On the morning of the ceremony, Negron had mostly avoided Lucas, quietly nodding at him when their paths had crossed while sitting.

Marking their cadence softly on the rims of their drums, the police band marched onto the area behind the podium and stopped. Secretary of State Alberto Arizmendi—dubbed by most of his constituents for his non-stop, almost cartoon-like activity as “Double A” in honor of the ‘Eveready Bunny commercials—stepped onto the podium and urged the public to stand for the Puerto Rican and American anthems.

Despite outward appearances of unity, the crowd attending the ceremony was bitterly politically divided. Even when the Puerto Rican hymn was played, a few diehard pro statehood and independence advocates refused to acknowledge it or place their hands across their chests, considering it a symbol of colonialism.

Particularly hostile had been the leaders of the pro-statehood splinter party, headed by the ex-Secretary of Justice Melendez Rovira, that included both the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate. Melendez had been fired from his Cabinet position by the Governor, after he had recklessly made public comments that had jeopardized the Governor, his family, and his staff’s safety when they had been captured by the terrorists. Only Lucas’ desperate heroics had kept them alive.

When the band finished playing the American anthem, the Archbishop of San Juan approached the podium. Beloved by most of his parishioners, a close friend of the Governor, the forty-something priest still retained a youthful, athletic appearance. Archbishop Garrido had sheltered the Governor and his group after they had escaped from the tunnels. Lucas knew him as a tough, honest, intelligent man, who had tried to negotiate the release of the hostages in the Grand Laguna Hotel, and even engaged with several terrorists in a bare-knuckled fistfight where he had knocked out a couple of them before being overwhelmed and nearly beaten to a pulp.

The Archbishop adjusted the microphone, lowered for the diminutive Double A, and addressed the crowd as the attendees bowed their heads.

“Lord, we give you thanks for this beautiful morning, when we honor with the wonderful monument that is about to be unveiled, all of the people who faced the terror that was visited upon us a year and a half ago. We celebrate all of those men and women, many of whom are here today, who risked their lives so that all of us could be here today, and we ask our Lord to keep in His glory those who made the ultimate sacrifice in our behalf. As the Evangelist John noted, ‘Greater love has no one than this, that he should lay down his life for that of his friends.’ Let us always keep alive the memory of the heroes of the San Juan terrorist attack, and live by their example.”

A massive “Amen” followed Garrido’s invocation, and the attendees began to settle back into their seats.

“And now,” Secretary of State Arizmendi said, as he returned to the podium after the Archbishop had withdrawn, “I would like to ask Governor Pietrantoni to dedicate the monument behind us.”

The Governor stood up to the warm applause of the crowd, and exchanged a few unheard words that made Double A smile.

Even though Lucas was not a pro statehood supporter—or a supporter of any other political formula, for that matter—he had come to know and deeply admire Governor Pietrantoni from the limited time he had personally known him. The Governor, he had determined, was one of those rare beings that seldom graced the political arena: a profoundly honest, courageous man, who was prepared to place ahead of any of his personal ambitions the wellbeing of his people—at least as he perceived it. He was also a dedicated father and a devoted husband, and a true, loyal friend. During the terrorist attack, he had not hesitated in defending his family and his staff, at the risk of his own life.

Tall, thin, and professorial looking, he contrasted sharply with his short, chubby, and balding Secretary of State, leading many to dub them as Batman and Robin. However, in real life Pietrantoni and Double A formed a formidable team, who had tackled corruption and government waste in Puerto Rico, and during the past year won a plebiscite vote to petition U.S Congress to make the island the Union’s fifty-first state, all of it despite the fierce opposition from the other political parties, and the active sabotage from some of his own party’s members—like Melendez Rovira.

Thus far, Puerto Rico’s bid for statehood had been bluntly rejected by the President of the U.S. Senate, David McConnell, who feared that Puerto Rico’s incorporation into the United States would alter the political balance of the country, and end his party’s domination of Congress. Nevertheless, the Governor had not yet given up on his quest, planning to personally visit Washington later that month to promote his cause.

Governor Pietrantoni sneaked a friendly glance at Lucas, then stared at the sea of faces before him:

“We gather here today to remember all those who fought to keep us free. The policemen who, disregarding their own safety, were wounded or killed in the line of duty; the medical personnel who, at great risk to their own lives, helped the injured and the dying, many times choosing to stay with those for whom they cared, rather than hiding or fleeing; the fathers and mothers who shielded and protected their children; the military men and women—some of them on vacation at the Grand Laguna Hotel—who went into harm’s way save thousands of others; and to the scores of ordinary citizens who, caught in the middle of the terrible conflict, subordinated their own wellbeing, sometimes at the cost of their lives—most of the time against overwhelming odds—to save total strangers. This monument is dedicated to all of them, and to many, many others, so that future generations may remember what happened here a year and a half ago, but much more importantly, so that the courage, humanity, and love for our fellow man, so amply displayed during the conflict, is never forgotten.”

The Governor turned, and nodded to the men holding the ropes tied to the tarp that covered the statue. As the men pulled, the tarp began to slide off, got momentarily snagged, and then yielded without any further resistance.

It revealed a series of figures of men and women, those in the front with their arms outstretched shielding those behind them, some in police and military garb, most in civilian clothes, their faces grim and sometimes scared, but set and determined, as if bracing to repel an impending impact, while twice their number stood behind them, some preparing to move into the front ranks, others comforting children, or holding on to the wounded or the dead lying on the ground.

The artist, a local sculptor, had done a wonderful job in portraying the peoples’ emotions, so much so that Pietrantoni, who had been shown a model beforehand, was nevertheless struck by the beauty and scope of the work. The crowd gazed quietly at the statue, and then burst into spontaneous applause.

The ovation deadened, at least at the beginning, the noise of the shots. It was not until someone on the right hand VIP area fell, that anybody noticed that something was amiss.

Then panic ensued.

(To continued on Monday, April 27)

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