The Pietri sisters were late, as usual. This time it was only partially their fault. They had been caught in a massive traffic jam originating from the Capitol, which they blamed on the ceremony inaugurating the monument for the victims and heroes of the terrorist attack. Don Moncho, their bespectacled octogenarian taxi driver, had picked them up as usual at their Miramar apartment, located on the other side of the Condado Lagoon.
“Lucas, Michelle, and Alfredo are at the ceremony,” Fannie told her sisters proudly. “They are all guests of honor.”
María sighed. “We know, Fannie, you’ve been bragging about it for days now.”
“Have I?” Fannie said, smiling mischievously, knowing fully well that she was getting under her younger sister’s skin. “I didn’t realize it. Anyway, it’s something to brag about.”
“I hope they take lots of pictures,” Evelyn, ever the businesswoman said. “We’ll amplify them after they come out in the newspapers, and put them on one of the walls of the jewelry store, so the tourists from the cruise ships will see them.”
“We can’t fit any more pictures in the walls,” María observed, shaking her head resignedly.
“Then we’ll put them on stands, close to the display shelves. It’s good business,” Evelyn replied.
She was right. Ever since last year’s terrorist attack, where both Lucas and Michelle had played prominent roles in rescuing many of the hostages, tourists and locals had visited the jewelry store hoping for a chance encounter with one or both of the two siblings. Evelyn had capitalized on their fame, selling Puerto Rican-themed souvenirs, charms, and more expensive jewelry, and even organizing some tours of the store—where some of the events had taken place—for the VIP clients.
Michelle, working in a television station, had been able to escape her aunt’s relentless publicity campaign. But Lucas, who had his repair shop in the cellar of the jewelry store, had been forced to endure the brunt of his admirers’ attentions.
“Michelle deserves all of the recognition she can get,” Don Moncho piped in.
For more than two decades, the scrawny necked driver had traditionally driven the Pietri sisters to and from San Juan every day, and also picked up Michelle occasionally at her apartment near the San Juan docks. Wearing an immaculately white Panama hat, and using eyeglasses with lenses so thick that they expanded his eyes to a disproportionate size and made him look perpetually confused, he considered the Pietris and their children as part of his extended family.
“She saved my life, you know. And when the insurance company refused to pay me for a new taxi, after it had been destroyed by the terrorists, she went on TV to help me, and forced the insurer to make me whole,” he reminded the sisters.
María tiredly mouthed Don Moncho’s last statement, having heard it verbatim on dozens of prior occasions. Then she whispered, “I know, I know.”
It had taken Don Moncho nearly fifty minutes to get to El Joyero de San Juan, a trip that usually lasted less than a quarter of an hour. As was his custom, he had raised his taximeter’s flag after the first fifteen minutes, refusing to charge his clients for the extra time spent in the traffic jam.
“We should have kept the store closed today, in honor of the occasion,” María had said as she opened the door closest to the sidewalk. “Nobody is going to brave the crowds assembled in front of the Capitol to come shopping in Old San Juan today.”
“There are three cruise ships docked in San Juan today,” Evelyn replied. “With half of the stores in the city closed because they think like you, we’ll get more business than usual.”
Normally, the store would be open by the time that the Pietri sisters got there. But that day Lucas, usually the first to arrive, was at the new monument’s inaugural ceremony, and it was Papo’s—the new guard/errand boy of the store—day off.
María noticed the large paper shopping bag in front of the store’s entrance first.
“What is that?” she asked Fannie. “Were you expecting a delivery?”
Fannie shook her head. “No.”
“Some drunk or inconsiderate person probably left their garbage there,” Evelyn ventured. “I’ll pick it up and throw it away.”
As she walked towards the bag, a female voice shouted “Stop”, prompting her to look towards where it originated. She saw Michelle running towards them and waved happily at her, turning back again to pick up the bag.
* * *
It had soon become apparent to Michelle that she would get from the Capitol to the jewelry store faster on foot than in her car. In the four lanes of the Avenida Constitución, where she had parked, traffic was tied into a solid block of stalled vehicles, as scores of ambulances, police cars, and fire trucks struggled to make their way into the scene of the terrorist attack.
She had opened the trunk of her car and traded her high heels for a pair of jogging sneakers, splitting her tight skirt up to the upper end of her thigh in order to move faster. She was a strong runner, and she calculated that the jewelry store was slightly over two miles from where she was standing, although much of it uphill. She could make it to the store in a relatively short time, she thought, hopefully before her mother and aunts got there first.
Michelle left her purse inside the trunk of her car, taking with her the car keys and her cell phone. As she ran, she redialed her mother’s cell phone number, hoping that she would answer, but her repeated attempts had proven fruitless.
When she reached San Francisco Street, the one lane avenue that ended in the Plaza de Armas, she began to zig zag between the pedestrians using the narrow sidewalks and avoiding the vehicles moving at crawl speed through the street, prompting curious or annoyed stares from those that she passed. She must have been a curious sight, she thought to herself, a woman in sneakers running in the direction of City Hall, wearing a ripped, red skirt and holding a telephone to her ear.
As she passed La Bombonera Restaurant, she nearly collided with a portly lady exiting from the establishment with a box of pastries, sidestepping her at the very last moment and provoking an indignant-sounding exclamation from her as she left her behind.
When she reached City Hall, she saw in the distance her mother and her sisters alighting from Don Moncho’s taxi cab, and sighed with relief. She reduced her speed to a slow jog across the Plaza de Armas, moving diagonally across the ancient square.
However, as the taxi moved away, she noticed for the first time the large paper bag leaning against the twin doors of the jewelry store, and she immediately realized what was happening.
Frantically, she screamed at her aunt to stop.
* * *
A massive explosion engulfed the entire front of the El Joyero de San Juan, spewing pieces of glass and debris into the street and the Plaza de Armas, some of them even reaching the City Hall building across the square. The windows from the surrounding stores shattered, and several pedestrians fell, injured or knocked down by the bomb’s shockwave. Hundreds of doves took to the air, while some of the trees and plants closest to the jewelry store splintered or were shredded to bits.
Michelle saw her mother and aunts disappear in a fraction of a second, swallowed by the expanding cloud of destruction, just before she was lifted off the ground by the impact.
She must have passed out, because when she came to, she was lying close to the middle of the square. The automatic, methodical honking of several car alarms filled the air, and thick smoke was spiraling from a burning municipal police car that had been parked in front of the jewelry store.
She tried to stand up, but her legs would not respond. She leaned on her left elbow, and a sharp pain shot through her as she pushed a piece of broken glass further into her arm. Through the haze of the fire, she looked in the direction of El Joyero, but could only find a cavernous hole where its doors and windows had been, smoke starting to billow from its inside.
She searched desperately for her mother and the others but could not find them, and she screamed, an anguished, heart wrenching scream, as she realized they were dead.
Unable to hold her head up any longer, she let it rest on the floor, closing her eyes and sobbing disconsolately. She could hardly breathe, every intake of air causing intense agony to her ribs. The coppery smell of blood, her own blood, overwhelmed even the rubbery stink of the police car’s burning tires.
“You are badly hurt,” she heard a masculine voice say. “Let me tie a tourniquet around your left thigh.”
She opened her eyes enough to see the face of a chubby, bearded, balding man, as he slipped off a handkerchief from his neck and tied it as tightly as he could around her thigh, after removing a long shard of glass that had been sticking out of it. It should have hurt her considerably, but she felt nothing.
The man tied a piece of wood between two of his handkerchief’s knots, and began to turn it, tightening the piece of cloth a few inches above her knee.
“I have to go,” he told her, looking at her with sincere regret. “Help is coming soon.” He moved Michelle’s hand to the tourniquet, making her grab the stick. “Can you hold onto this until they get to you?”
Michelle nodded, gritting her teeth with the pain caused by the movement of her arm.
“Thank…thank you,” she said, her throat feeling painfully raw.
The man nodded, then hesitated. “Please do not take this personally. I have no desire to hurt you. But I am supposed to say to you, ‘San Miguel sends his regards from his tomb. This is only the beginning.’ ”
Michelle could not initially understand what the man was saying, but then it struck her, as devastatingly and directly as the explosion that had killed her mother.
The terrorists were avenging their dead.
She opened her eyes, trying to search the man’s face for the unmistakable trace of regret she had heard in his voice, but he was gone.
* * *
Lucas drove his PT-Cruiser at breakneck speed, hoping to reach his house as quickly as possible and find everyone safe. It had taken him nearly forty minutes to free himself from the tangle of cars in San Juan, and he feared time was of the essence.
Like Michelle, he had tried to reach Jeannie by phone, but communications continued to fail, tied by the hundreds of thousands of calls that competed to get through.
Everything would be all right, he told himself. It was just an empty threat by a bitter enemy.
Lucas reached his house and screeched to a halt, nearly running out of his car before it had stopped.
As he stepped into the living room, everything seemed normal. Except for the absence of noise in the house. Normally, with two small kids, the TV set would be on at a healthy volume, or the children would be running around or complaining about each other to their mother, but he could not hear or see any of them.
“Jeannie?” he called, but she would not answer.
Growing increasingly concerned, he ran up the stairs and heard the noise of water running in the children’s bathtub.
As he stepped abruptly into the bathroom, Jeannie, squatting next to the bathing children, looked up at him with a startled expression and nearly fell backwards.
“Lucas! Do you want to frighten me to death?”
Relieved, Lucas embraced her and kissed her passionately, then turned to his children.
“Daddy!” they exclaimed delightedly, half engulfed by the deep foam of their bubblebath, Gabriel sporting a frothy, soapy beard of Biblical proportions, Sophia wearing a bubble beehive hairdo.
“Hi, you crazy cuckoos!” Lucas said, sounding a little bit too relieved.
“Well!” Jeannie said breathlessly, eyeing him with curiosity as she recovered from his ardent greeting. She smiled. “I guess you’ll have to attend more commemorative ceremonies! Sorry I couldn’t watch you on TV. I had to take the children to the pediatrician.” Jeannie stopped talking, worried by her husband’s expression. “Is something wrong?”
“There was a terrorist attack during the ceremony,” Lucas replied in a lower voice. “The Superintendent was killed, along with others.”
“Oh no!’ Jeannie whispered, embracing Lucas, trying to hold back her tears in front of the children. “Are you hurt?”
Lucas shook his head. “I’m fine. I was…” He thought of telling Jeannie about the terrorist’s threat, but then decided not to do so. Not yet, anyway. “I just wanted to be with you.”
“I’ll tell you about it when the kids are sleeping.”
Jeannie nodded, examining Lucas as she did so. It would not have been the first time that she had asked him if he was okay, only to discover later that he had been injured. But apart from a frayed left knee in the pants of his blue suit—his wedding suit, as Lucas called it—he seemed fine.
“Oh, by the way,” she said as she squatted next to the bathtub to finish bathing the children. “We got a strange package left in front of our entrance today. A large shopping bag.”
Lucas frowned. “Oh?”
“It seemed unusually light, so I opened it. There was only an envelope in it, with your name written on it.”
“What did it say?”
“I didn’t read it,” she replied. “I…figured if I discovered it was another woman, I’d have to kill you,” she joked lamely, all humor gone from a line she had obviously rehearsed before learning about the terrorist attack.
“Where is it?”
“It’s on the dresser, in our room.”
Lucas walked into their bedroom, and immediately saw the envelope, lying on top of their dresser. It was white, and plain, and in elegant, blue-inked cursive letters read: “To: Mr. Lucas Alfaro.”
Lucas gingerly picked it up, and noticed its back was not sealed. He carefully lifted its flap up, and saw inside a folded piece of paper, pulling it out.
He read it, and his heart sank. In the same elegant writing, it said: “Regards from the tomb of Angel San Miguel. Your family is next.”
Lucas closed his eyes in despair, and instinctively went to his bedroom window and looked out into his backyard, searching for movement. He saw the two tricycles of his children, and their small plastic pool half-filled with water and a couple of limes from their lime tree floating in it, but not much else.
He went downstairs and searched the entire house, but all the doors were securely locked and the windows intact. Then he slumped into the living room’s sofa, covering his face with his hands.
His recurring nightmare had become real. How could he defend against the terrorists’ threat? How could he keep his family safe?
Just then, his cell phone began to buzz, and he looked at its screen.
It was Archie.
* * *
"The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration continues to watch a
disturbance some three hundred miles west of Africa, now moving due west at 20 mph, and identified as Invest 121. There is still little sign of circulation, and no significant development is expected within the next twenty-four hours.”
(To be continued this coming Thursday, May 7, with Chapter V)