It rippled like a human wave. The air resonated with a few distant shouts at first, followed by numerous “pop-popping” sounds, like those of several motorcycles trying to start. Then people on the extreme left of the ceremony began to stand, scream and run in the opposite direction, sometimes clashing with those still seating, or running over those that were slower.
Lucas noticed it first, and saw that Superintendent Maldonado had also sensed the danger, standing and looking warily in the direction of the disturbance. Then a few people in the crowd fell as they were struck by bullets from a yet mainly invisible enemy. As more in the crowd stood and began to flee, Governor Pietrantoni craned his neck to see what was happening, his face a mixture of surprise and growing concern.
A few bullets ricocheted from the steps leading up to the podium, and Lucas for the first time saw several men bearing AK-47 rifles shooting into the crowd. They were heading in his direction.
“Lie down on the ground!” he shouted at those around him, and saw his nephew Alfredo hesitate momentarily. Then, grabbing his friend Francisco and the Governor’s wife by their arms, the boy urged them to follow his lead and lay on the floor, covering his head.
In the distance, Lucas saw his sister Michelle point at the panicked spectators and direct her cameraman to record what was happening, while talking urgently into her microphone.
“Get down! Get down!” Lucas shouted at her, but if she heard him, she disregarded his warning.
Archbishop Garrido, a veteran of the Afghan War, also ran to the other side of the podium, urging the confused attendees to seek cover.
Three chairs away from him, the Superintendent drew out his gun and began to run towards the Governor’s wife and the children. Five of the attackers had made it to the steps of the Capitol, and were heading towards the area of the VIP attendees. The Superintendent stood squarely in front of the cringing children, and began to return fire, his face reflecting cold, deadly anger.
Lucas saw Governor Pietrantoni take a quick glance at his family, and then step towards the approaching terrorists, shouting heatedly at them, trying to draw their attention away from the others. But before he had been able to take a couple of steps, he was tackled to the ground by his two bodyguards, Picón and Hazard. Hazard covered the Governor with his body, while Picón, lying on the ground next to them, fired at the attackers. He managed to hit one in the chest, before he was struck on the shoulder by a bullet.
Two other policemen, one of them less than twenty feet away from Lucas, had also begun to fight back, but they were no match for the AK-47s. The one further away abruptly doubled down as he was hit twice in the stomach, while the other one managed to shoot, apparently with no effect, several rounds before he was riddled with bullets, the last hit blowing up the upper part of his skull.
Lucas sprinted towards the officer struck in the head as several shots chipped the terrace’s marble floor around him. To his left, Maldonado continued to stand his ground, calmly aiming and firing his handgun at the approaching terrorists. Lucas saw him clip one of the attackers on the shoulder, making him drop his automatic rifle and kneel on the steps. Then three bullets impacted the Superintendent, but somehow, miraculously, he stayed on his feet and continued to fire, shielding with his body those behind him.
Lucas reached the killed policeman as a woman behind him screamed shrilly. He pried the gun from the dead man’s bloody hand—a Smith & Wesson M&P 40 pistol—and from a prone position took aim at the three remaining terrorists. His first three shots missed, but on his fourth and fifth attempt he hit the closest of the attackers, once on his chest, the other on his left hand, shattering part of the rifle that he held.
That drew the attention of the other two shooters, however, who sprayed the area where he lay with gunfire. Several bullets whizzed past him, and a few bounced off on the steps below him, but two struck less than a foot away from his face, splintering the marble floor in front of him and blinding him momentarily with chips of debris.
Lucas rubbed his eyes, desperately trying to regain his sight, knowing that in the next few seconds his enemies would be on top of him. With his vision blurred by tears, he caught the dark outline of the first of the approaching gunmen and fired twice, hearing a yelp of pain. Then, his eyes still stinging, he saw the last of the attackers climbing the steps, and took aim at him from less than five feet away. However, his gun failed to fire, and he realized—too late, as he saw that the slide of his gun open—that he had run out of bullets.
The terrorist, a man in his thirties with curly brown hair and a short, dark beard, pointed his AK-47 at his head, and grinned. He was so close, that Lucas could feel his excited breathing, and see his stubby index finger on the rifle’s trigger. “Enjoy your last second on earth,” he said.
Lucas flicked his gun at his face, making the man back up briefly, and tried to jump at him, but his foot failed to get enough traction, and he knew he would not get to him in time.
“Not quite,” he heard a man’s voice respond to the terrorist’s words, and then a chair exploded over the man’s back. The terrorist fell awkwardly forward, crashing his head on the edge of one of the Capitol’s steps.
Lucas felt a shadow cover him, and saw a hand make its way towards him through the sun’s brilliant rays.
“Are you okay?” the man asked him, worriedly.
Lucas wiped his eyes on his sleeves, and was finally able to distinguish the face of Archbishop Garrido. He grabbed the priest’s extended arm, and was pulled up to his feet.
“I am, thanks to your divine intervention,” Lucas replied.
The faint shadow of a smile appeared on Garrido’s lips.
“Believe me, there is nothing ‘divine’ about me. Although you may call me ‘Your Holiness’ if that makes you happy.”
The Archbishop’s buoyant mood, however, sobered rapidly as he began to survey the scene about him.
The shooting had stopped. The rest of the terrorists had either withdrawn, or been killed. The sound of the gunfire had been substituted by dozens of cries from the wounded, or loud sobs from terrified survivors. Particularly loud were the wails of pain from the Speaker of the House, Marisel Delgado, who had been clipped in one of her fleshy arms by a stray bullet and was bleeding copiously. A couple of young aides were trying to staunch her wound while she complained. Her companion, the President of the Senate, was nowhere to be seen, having dashed into the Capitol building as soon as the first shots had been heard.
Lucas’ attention turned towards Alfredo, and he noted with instant relief that his godson was already on his feet, helping the First Lady and his best friend Francisco to get back up. The ten year old’s eyes briefly met with Lucas’, and he shakily made a ‘thumbs up’ gesture with his right hand.
Michelle and her cameraman had also escaped unscathed, and when he directed an angry stare at his sister she acknowledged it with a tender but defiant smile, while continuing to speak into the microphone. So she had heard him, Lucas thought to himself, shaking his head in amazement. She had just chosen to ignore him.
Lucas and the Archbishop turned their attention to the man lying on the footsteps of the Capitol. Lucas squatted, and after placing a finger on his neck, confirmed that he was still alive, quickly disarming him and tying his hands behind his back with his own belt.
“I have people to help,” the Archbishop said somberly to Lucas, and not waiting for an answer, began to descend the stairs towards the public area below.
It was a hellish scene. Chairs were strewn on the floor, piled over or tangled with other chairs, many still covering some of the dead and the wounded. Most of the crowd that had attended the ceremony had almost magically disappeared, leaving behind it dozens of injured men and women, some of whom were slowly trying to get up, many unable to do so. Several were screaming for help, and already policemen, friends, and good Samaritans were streaming into the area to aid them.
To Lucas’ right, two officers lay on the floor, not moving, blood puddling around them, both apparently dead. He saw many other similar bodies scattered about the ceremonial area.
Both Sergeant Negrón and SWAT Captain Gomez were slowly walking through the periphery, their guns still drawn, making certain that none of the fallen terrorists could inflict any more damage.
Turning his attention back to the upper terrace of the Capitol, Lucas saw the Governor kneeling beside the fallen figure of the Police Superintendent, fiercely guarded by his two bodyguards. Picón was holding his shoulder, blood streaming through his fingers. Secretary of State Arizmendi stood by them, pale and anxiously looking in, but for once, silent.
As Lucas hurriedly approached them, the two bodyguards parted to leave enough space for him to kneel next to the Governor,
Pietrantoni was grasping one of Superintendent’s bloody hands, and whispering, “Hold on, old friend, help will be here soon.”
Archie, Michelle’s redheaded husband and Police Press Secretary, was was also kneeling next to the Superintendent, and pressing a handkerchief on a bullet wound that had pierced Maldonado’s belly, but blood continued to flow out of it.
The redhead had grown to love the tough old man like a father, after the latter had taken him under his wing and gradually elevated him to his present position. An Army veteran like Lucas, he was quietly crying, having seen many of his friends in the field die from similar wounds.
The Superintendent, breathing heavily, looked at Lucas and nodded briefly at him.
“How are the boys?” he asked him.
“They are fine, Mr. Superintendent. Thank you,” Lucas replied.
Maldonado nodded again, with apparent satisfaction, then grimaced with pain. He coughed, and blood trickled from the left corner of his mouth.
Just then, the circle of men surrounding the Superintendent parted again, and the tall figure of Colonel Alejo Montañez came through, crouching next to his commander.
Montañez was the Superintendent’s closest friend. His unit had been dubbed by the local press as “The Untouchables” for its spectacular successes against the island’s drug traffickers. During the terrorist revolt, Montañez had been key in capturing a high ranking mole within the Police Department bankrolled by a drug cartel. He had also been instrumental in the destitution of the Secretary of Justice, after the latter had leaked information to the press that had compromised the Governor’s safety.
“An ambulance should be here within the next five minutes, to patch you up,” Montañez informed his boss in a businesslike tone, while quietly examining his wounds. “Who do you think you are, anyway, standing up there and taking on the terrorists all by yourself? Me?”
Maldonado gazed at him affectionately.
“How are our men?”
During his long tenure as Superintendent, his men had always come first. He had never recovered, and in fact aged visibly, after the two police massacres that had occurred during the prior year’s terrorist attack.
Montañez hesitated, as if considering not to burden his friend with bad news, but then answered his question directly.
“As far as I know, five of our officers were killed, eleven wounded, including yourself. That’s according to our last count. I’m sure the numbers will change. Our men were assaulted at point blank range by unknown people dressed as civilians. There must have been close to a dozen of them. We killed most of them, captured two that were wounded. A few may have escaped in the confusion, but I doubt it. We’ve blocked all of the bridges coming in and out of San Juan, and are checking them for __”
Maldonado coughed again, more blood spilling from his lips.
Montañez looked impatiently at his watch, then at an aide standing behind him. “Where is that damned ambulance?”
“They’ve just arrived,” the aide answered him, after consulting with a walky-talkie. “The paramedics are heading this way right now.”
Maldonado closed his eyes momentarily, then looked directly at Montañez.
This is your department now,” he said to his second-in-command, smiling weakly.
“Well, you know what?” Montañez replied. “I don’t want it. Besides, it’s not yours to give. So better recover quickly.”
Maldonado continued to smile, but his grip on the Governor’s hand slackened, and his eyes lost their focus. Montañez tried to feel for a pulse, his hands shaking noticeably.
“I can’t feel his heart,” he said with a scared voice.
At that moment, two paramedics arrived and quickly took over. Lucas moved back and observed from a distance, listening with growing concern to the men’s attempts to restore the Superintendent’s breathing with repeated electrical discharges from a defibrillator.
Then, he noticed that the terrorist he had tied up with his belt was stirring a few yards away, and he walked towards him. The man, not aware that Lucas was looking at him, slowly rolled to one side, then awkwardly attempted to stand while trying to free his hands. Lucas approached him from the back, placed both of his hands on his shoulders, and roughly pulled him back into a sitting position. The man briefly continued to struggle, but finally desisted, resting on one of the steps of the stairs.
“Stay where you are,” Lucas told him as he walked around him to see his face.
The man was bleeding from a cut on his forehead, and his left eye was puffed up and closed, but otherwise he seemed fine. He must have been on his late twenties or early thirties, with curly black hair and a pirate-like, round earring on his left ear. He wore jeans and a white T-shirt showing the image of “Sponge Bob” holding a “krusty burger”, on which several drops of blood from the cut on his forehead had splattered.
The man stared defiantly at Lucas, maintaining a sullen silence.
Lucas saw Sergeant Negrón at the bottom of the steps, and beckoned him to approach.
“Lucas!” the young, lanky police sergeant said to his friend with unvarnished delight, as he hurried up the stairs. “I should have known you’d get us one. You’re like …like…Puerto Rico’s James Bond! Not the Roger Moore Bond, mind you, more like the…what’s his name? Craig, Daniel Craig Bond.”
Negrón’s upbeat mood waned considerably as he watched his friend’s somber expression.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t be talking gibberish at a time like this. I guess I’m still functioning on pure adrenaline. Are your people okay? Michelle? Your godson?”
“Yes, thanks. But the Superintendent…” Lucas turned his gaze to where the group gathered around the police chief watched with dumbfounded grief one of the paramedics cover Maldonado’s body with a sheet. Montañez seemed dazed, one of his hands shielding his face, while Archie wept openly. The Governor continued to kneel, his eyes closed, whispering what seemed to be a prayer.
Michelle stood between the Superintendent’s group and her brother Lucas. To her credit, she had stopped speaking and told the cameraman to put the camera down.
“The Superintendent is dead?” Negrón asked in a stunned voice.
“The Superintendent is dead!” the prisoner repeated, a smile creeping on his lips. “Then part of our job is done, may he go directly to hell!”
Negrón reacted instantly, jumping on the man and punching him twice before Lucas could grab him by the arms.
“You piece of shit!” the young policeman screamed at the terrorist, while struggling to free himself from Lucas’ hold.
But the man was not listening to him. Instead, he was staring intently at Lucas, his eyes widening with recognition.
“Wait,” he said. “That asshole called you ‘Lucas’. Lucas Alfaro? You’re Lucas Alfaro! Yes, I recognize you now!” he concluded in a delighted tone. “Oh, this is rich! You’re next!”
Standing just a few feet away, Michelle tuned in on the conversation, and approached her brother and Negrón. The police sergeant stopped struggling, and Lucas let him go.
“Hi, Michelle,” he said, in a half embarrassed, half mortified tone.
“Edgardo,” Michelle replied absently, pecking the policeman’s cheek. During the prior attack on San Juan, Negrón, Archie, and Michelle had infiltrated, at great risk to their lives, the Grand Laguna Hotel, and helped rescue the more than a thousand hostages that had been captured by the terrorists.
It had formed an unbreakable, lifetime friendship between the three of them, and eventually led to Archie and Michelle's marriage. However, at the present moment, Michelle’s instincts were entirely focused on the captured shooter, as his last words raised all sorts of alarms in her head.
“What do you mean by ‘You’re next?’” she asked, confronting the terrorist. “Who’s next?”
The captured man grinned insolently, as he recognized the female reporter.
“A family reunion! This gets better and better. The whore sister of Puerto Rico’s top American lapdog!”
Negrón moved angrily forward to strike the brash terrorist, but Michelle stepped in his way.
“Relax, Edgardo,” she said in a business-like tone, staring directly into the face of the captured man. “He’s trying to provoke you. I repeat my question. Who’s next?”
“Your brother is, you are, all of your family is,” the terrorist sneered with venomous satisfaction. “You’re all dead! Everyone responsible for stopping us the last time, and their families. You too, fart face!” he said to Negrón. “This is only the beginning.”
“I think I’m going to shoot him,” Negrón said with quiet anger, bypassing Michelle and placing his gun between the shooter’s two eyes.
The man’s smile vanished instantly, the policeman’s intense, subdued tone convincing him that he was about to get shot. But then Michelle placed her hand on the gun, and gently lowered it.
“You’re lucky she’s here,” whispered Negrón, leaning close to his ear. “I was about to end you.”
The police sergeant raised the prisoner roughly by the arm, and called two of his men to take him away.
“Don’t worry,” he said to Lucas and Michelle. “He’s bluffing.”
“I agree,” Lucas told Michelle without a lot of conviction. “But just in case, let’s warn our people.”
The gunman’s words had shaken him, raising all sorts of specters that he had thought were long dead and banished. It was not the first time that his family had been threatened. Angel San Miguel, the leader of the prior terrorist attack, had made such a threat just before Negrón had killed him.
Michelle nodded. “I’ll call mom, tell her to close the jewelry store today, until things get sorted out.”
“I’ll call Jeannie at home, and she can warn Vanessa,” Lucas responded.
Despite the siblings’ repeated attempts to communicate, however, their calls were not answered, their cell phones showing the message: “Your call did not progress, Try again”.
“It must be an overload of the cell phone system, after the news of the attack became public,” Michelle told Lucas, shuddering involuntarily as she remembered that the same thing had happened during the initial terrorist attack. She looked around her. “Where’s Archie?”
Lucas looked at where the group was gathered around the Superintendent, but could not spot him. “He was there a moment ago,” he said to his sister. “Probably got called to deal with the press.”
“Yeah, well if you see him, tell him what that man said, and that I’ll see him later,” she said, kissing her brother. “I’m going to the store, to talk personally to the Pietri sisters.”
“Want me to go with you?”
Michelle thought it over. “No, go to your wife. Make certain that everything’s as it’s supposed to be. I’ll see you soon, okay? Love you!”
Lucas nodded absently, watching her walk away. Some irrational impulse urged him to follow her.
But then, his concern for Jeannie and the children overcame his misgivings, and he headed to his car.
(Chapter III will follow this coming Thursday, April 30)