"And Then They Came..." (Chapter V)
Lucas sat in the hospital waiting room, one arm over his sister Vanessa’s shoulders, his chin resting on his chest, his eyes struggling to remain open. It was past one in the morning, and he was exhausted, his body and mind about to shut down, beaten down to a pulp by the events of that terrible day.
He had always feared that some day Angel San Miguel’s threats would reach him from beyond the grave. Now his worst fears had materialized.
A dull, listless gloom enveloped him. He had spent the afternoon making the necessary arrangements for his mother and aunts' funeral, after receiving his mother’s meager personal possessions from the police in a clear plastic bag. He had opened it in his car, spilling its contents on the passenger seat, shortly before meeting with the funeral director. It had shocked him, how an entire life could be compressed into such a small bag.
His attention had immediately been drawn to her wedding ring, especially designed by her father, Don Jorge Pietri, several decades before. It was shaped with two small wave-like rows of tiny diamonds that served as the base of the main wedding diamond stone. She had worn it constantly, as far back as he could remember, an integral a part of her as the rest of her hand.
His head had instantly flooded with memories, so many memories of his childhood, of her sweet smile, of the intense, loving way with which she had always regarded him. Life had been so different then, so safe and simple.
In her wallet, he had found an expired driver’s license, several credit card receipts—mostly from the cafeterias near the jewelry store—which she usually tossed away unchecked, the photos of her two grandchildren, Gabriel and Sophia—“your two extensions”, she used to say to him—a lock of what seemed baby hair pressed between a folded piece of paper—whose, he could not tell— and a stamp of St Francis—“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…” Also, the stub of an illegal lottery ticket, which she played on a weekly basis despite his warning her not do so. “What are they going to do?” she would reply with a playful smile, “Arrest an old lady?”
Tears had blurred his eyes, and for several minutes he had wept inside his car, indulging in emotions he could not afford to display in front of the others, since he was supposed to be their strength, and not scare them with his despair.
It was so hard to accept that she was gone, her life callously stopped by criminals who did not even know her, who did not care who she was or what her life had been like, who merely considered her a way to get back at him.
He had not yet gone to the jewelry store to inspect the damage, did not have the will to do so. He had asked his brother-in-law, Michael, to make arrangements to board up El Joyero’s entrance after the police finished the investigation of the bombing scene, but suspected Michael’s attention had been diverted to other, more emotionally demanding matters. He would check with him later. There were more urgent things to do now.
Like finding and killing the bastards who had murdered his mother and his aunts.
In the hospital, he had found his sister Vanessa huddled in a corner of the room, sitting quietly next to Archie. When she saw him, she had run to embrace him, her grief exploding unchecked.
Lucas had tried to console her as best he could, but there was not much that he could say or do. He had assured her that their mother and aunts had not suffered, that they were with God, and that there would come a time when they would all meet again. But neither Vanessa nor Lucas could find comfort in his words. Their aunts, their mother, were gone, and nothing could bring them back.
“How is Michelle?” he had asked her.
“Dr. Molinari came out briefly about an hour ago,” she responded. “They’re still working on her in the surgery room, trying to determine the full extent of her injuries. Oh, Lucas, I’m so scared!”
“It will be okay,” he had whispered to her as he hugged her. “You’ll see. It will be okay.”
He had spoken briefly with Archie, but neither was inclined to engage in an extended conversation. Despite Archie’s insistent inquiries to the doctors, no further news had filtered out during the ensuing hours. Gradually, the three had settled into a despondent silence.
Police Sergeant Negrón had rushed into the hospital sometime after six in the afternoon, having just found out that Michelle had been seriously injured by the explosion. The young, lanky police sergeant had tried to say something to Lucas, but had been overcome by his emotions, only able to mumble, “I wish it had been me.”
It was an open secret that he had always had a huge crush on Michelle—even after she had married Archie—and the news of what had happened to her had shaken him to the core. To cover his nervousness, he had engaged in a nearly non-stop stream of consciousness conversation, talking to anybody in the waiting room who would listen—mostly people who were hoping for news of other patients—until the stress of the day had caught up with him, and he had fallen asleep.
Sitting opposite to Lucas and Vanessa, Negrón would occasionally stir—partially awakened by one of his own snores—stare groggily at the silent TV in one of the upper corners of the hall, now showing a marathon of the old comedy show “El Chavo del Ocho”, and then go back to sleep.
Archie mostly kept to himself, consumed by his anguish, looking like a living corpse. He had been the first to arrive at the hospital, after braving like an automaton through a press conference with Colonel Montañez. When the conference had finished, the colonel, now Acting Police Superintendent, had asked Archie for Lucas’ telephone number, and ordered Archie to drop everything and go to his wife. Lucas had received the colonel’s call while he was still meeting with the funeral director.
“Lucas Alfaro? This is Montañez…” Montañez had said as Lucas answered the phone. Then he had added, as the latter failed to acknowledge him, “Colonel Montañez, remember? We’ve met a couple of times.”
“Sure,” Lucas had answered in a dull, listless voice. He had signaled the director with his hand to wait, and the latter had tactfully exited out of the office.
“I am very sorry for your loss,” the colonel had said.
“Thank you,” Lucas acknowledged. “I am very sorry for the Superintendent’s…” Lucas hesitated, not wanting to say the word “death”. “I’m very sorry for your loss as well, Colonel. The Superintendent was a great man. I know he was a good friend of yours.”
“Yes, thanks. I just wanted…well, first of all, I wanted to make sure that the police detail that I sent to your house and your sister’s house got there.”
After the attack on the jewelry store and Archie’s confrontation with the terrorists, six policemen had been sent to guard the houses of Lucas and his sister Vanessa, which were located next to each other.
“Yes, yes it did. Thank you so much for your help, Colonel. It has lifted a weight off my shoulders.”
Lucas had convinced Michael, Vanessa’s husband, to stay in his house with Jeannie and the children, including Lucas’ godson, Alfredo. A gun enthusiast, Michael had armed himself with a shotgun, and taken it upon himself to patrol the house inside.
“Happy I can be of some help at this terrible moment. There are also two police cars guarding the hospital’s entrance.”
Lucas nodded. “”I saw them when I came in.”
“I sent the note that the terrorists left in your house to our crime lab, to have it analyzed. Maybe we’ll get lucky.” Montañez said, his voice reflecting his doubts that the note would reveal any leads.
He then paused, as if hesitating to go on.
“So listen,” he finally said. “It’s you those people seem to be after. I don’t know why…well, I do know. You foiled their plans to blow up the G-20 leaders with the nuclear device they planted in one of San Juan’s tunnels last year, that’s why. But nobody was supposed to know about that except for the few people who disposed of the bomb. So I’m trying to determine the source of the leak as quickly as I can.”
Actually, Lucas had been surprised that the secret about San Miguel’s failed attempt to blow up the G-20 leaders—and San Juan along with them—had never surfaced to the press. There had been plenty of people—some of the police who had removed the nuclear bomb from the tunnel where it had been planted, and the security personnel who had surrounded San Miguel in the cruise ship Orion as he tried to escape—who were partially aware about Lucas’ role in the entire affair.
But few knew the full extent of his participation. Negrón was one of them, as were Archie, Montañez, and Police Superintendent Maldonado. And his sister Michelle. However, those were people that he would trust with his life. None of them, Lucas was certain, would be the source of the leak.
“I am thinking of assigning some undercover protection for you. It may lead us to some of these criminals, if they follow you.”
“I would prefer that you don’t,” Lucas replied evenly. “I don’t want to confuse them with any bad guys that decide to follow me.”
There was silence on the other end of the line. “I understand,” Montañez chuckled, after a long pause. “From what I’ve seen before, I pity the terrorist that gets in your way. But promise me at least this. If you do discover anyone following you, you will let me know.”
It was Lucas’ turn to consider an answer. “I will do my best,” he simply said at last, and hung up before Montañez could respond.
Doel Reyes and Correcaminos Frontera, both colleagues from the WKPA broadcast news and longtime friends of Michelle, had arrived at the hospital around eleven at night, after their ten PM nightly news broadcast had ended. There, they had gathered with Lucas, Vanessa, and Archie, anxious to hear the latest news.
“I am canvassing my contacts,” Doel had said, “to find out if anyone has seen or heard anything that might be of help to us.”
In his late-fifties, Doel was a short, wiry man who had acquired a reputation of latching on like a pit-bull to those news stories that sparked his curiosity.
“Thank you, Doel,” Lucas had replied. “If anybody will be able to dig up any information, that will be you.”
“We will find them,” Correcaminos—WKPA’s sportscaster and Michelle’s closest friend in the station—had promised. “Those assholes will not get away. And when we do find them, there will be hell to pay.”
As short as Doel, but ten years his junior and more powerfully built, Correcaminos was as famous for his fearless commentaries and interviews in the sports world as he was for his impeccable taste in expensive suits and his carefully coifed and pomaded, jet-black hair. Spoken by anybody else, Correcaminos’ angry words would have been taken as an empty boast. But those who knew him were well aware that he would back his words with direct action.
Both Doel and Correcaminos, each in their own way, had been responsible for Michelle’s meteoric rise in the local and international news communities, and both loved her dearly. Both would do anything to help her.
After his initial conversation with Lucas, Doel had begun to pace restlessly from one end of the room to the other, ceaselessly speaking into his cell phone with several of his contacts, while chewing nervously on his fingernails.
Correcaminos had watched him with growing amusement, and then begun to bait him (“You’re not going to grow any more, you know that, right, you stunted midget?” and “The American Association of Assholes called, they want to use you as their poster child.”) Doel had, for the most part, ignored him.
Finally, at twenty past one in the morning, the family doctor walked into the waiting room. Dr. Molinari was a short, stocky, round-faced man in his late forties with a wide forehead, and V-shaped, short brown hair that started near the crown of his head. He had befriended Michelle during an interview she had conducted several years before. Since then, he had become her general doctor, and the Alfaro family had gradually adopted him as their main physician.
As he stepped into the hall, he was immediately engulfed by Michelle’s family and friends.
Dr. Molinari looked at Lucas, to confirm if he could speak freely in front of everyone, and the latter nodded.
“Michelle is in critical but stable condition,” he said, addressing mainly Vanessa and Lucas. “She sustained many injuries from the glass and bits of metal that were ejected by the explosion, but it could have been much, much worse. Many bits of glass were embedded in her arms and legs, and in addition, she suffered multiple cuts and abrasions. She also has five broken ribs, on the right side of her ribcage, which will give her pain for a long time to come, before they fully heal. What is most worrying, though, is the injuries she sustained to her head, and in a lesser degree, to her back. We took an MRI of her head…well, of her entire body, really. Apparently, her head hit the floor very hard. The scan shows significant swelling in the brain’s frontal lobe, where the motor cortex is located. It may be the reason why she can’t move or feel her legs.”
Archie shook his head in despair, interrupting his conversation. “Is this permanent damage?” he asked.
“It’s too early to tell,” the doctor replied in a more formal tone. Even though Archie and Michelle had been married for nearly a year, he still unconsciously treated the redhead as an outsider. “There is also quite a bit of inflammation at the base of her spine that might be interfering with the movement of her legs. She needs to move as little as possible, until the swelling subsides.” Dr Molinari hesitated. “I recommend that we place her in a medically induced coma, to give her body time to recuperate.”
Archie looked inquiringly at Lucas, then at the doctor, looking very scared. Negrón’s eyes filled with tears, and he turned away to wipe them away, embarrassed to be seen.
“Will there be any risk in taking her out of the coma later?” the redhead asked.
“No,” the doctor replied. “Since it’s medically induced, it can be medically eliminated when the time comes. And I hope it won’t be for long.”
Archie nodded. “Then do it. Anything that will make her better.”
“May I see her?” Vanessa asked Dr. Molinari.
“Yes, but she is heavily sedated.”
“I’ll come with you,” Archie volunteered.
“I’ll wait ‘till one of you guys comes out,” Lucas said. “Anyone want some coffee? There’s a coffee machine down the corridor, outside.”
“I’ll walk with you,” Negrón said to him. “I need to stretch my legs.”
The two friends stepped out of the waiting hall, and turned to the right of a corridor with a long, open wall that faced the hospital’s garden.
Unobserved by them, a tall thin man dressed in black waited until they had left, and taped a sheet of paper on the door handle of the waiting room. It read, in thick, magic marker letters:
“WE CAN GET TO YOU ANYTIME,
YOU WILL SOON PAY FOR YOUR SINS”
The man looked one more time at the corridor into which Lucas had walked, then headed in the opposite direction.
(Chapter VI will be published this coming Monday, May 11)