Several explosions shook the ground, spewing dirt and debris over the dozen or so Army Rangers hiding behind the windows of the deserted cafe. A barrage of bullets shot through the night from an ugly, two-story building across the street, raking the walls behind which the soldiers sought refuge, ravaging and shredding the last vestiges of what had been a family restaurant.
Lucas returned the fire from a broken window, along with his two buddies, Aparicio and Danny Satter. The continued flashes of the enemy gun muzzles created a strobe light effect that seemed to slow down time, and would have reminded Lucas of a discotheque if the stakes had not been so high.
Suddenly, the wall further away from Lucas exploded, partially collapsing over two soldiers.
“They have a bazooka!” Lucas shouted over the noise of the fighting, and as if confirming his words, a large flame shot out from the building on the opposite side of the street.
“Incom__” he began to shout, but another explosion interrupted him, demolishing part of the cafe’s central wall, and narrowly missing another soldier.
“Holy shit, we’re getting creamed in here!” Aparicio, a small, wiry Puerto Rican with a thin mustache, shouted.
“Shoot at them! Shoot at them! Second floor at two o’clock!”
Aparicio and Satter began firing blindly in the direction indicated by Lucas.
“I can’t see them!” Aparicio cursed, his voice partially drowned by another bazooka hit to the cafe’s second floor.
“We have to take it out before it kills all of us! Cover me!” Lucas shouted to Satter, and he jumped through the window, while the rest of the soldiers produced a massive volley of covering fire.
Aparicio watched him in utter dismay. “What are you…Shit! No! No! No!” The small man jumped after Lucas, followed by Satter. With a muted grunt, Satter fell to the ground almost immediately. He was a big man, and the largest target of the three. But the other two made it to the building across the street and crashed through its front door, shooting blindly and killing three armed Somalians inside.
“Carajo! Me cago en tu madre!” cursed Aparicio. “Do you have a death wish or___”
A whooshing sound, followed by another explosion on the other side of the street, interrupted him, as the bazooka struck again.
Lucas signaled him to be quiet, and took out a grenade. Both men stepped out of the room and, leaning against the building’s front wall, looked upwards, searching for a window.
Just then, they heard another “whoosh”, and an opening above them lit up with a flame. Lucas and Aparicio pulled the pins out of their grenades, and tossed them into the enemy above.
One of the grenades went through the opening, but the other bounced off the wall, landing close to the two soldiers. Lucas jumped on Aparicio, tackling him to the ground as the grenade in the upper floor went off, followed a second later by the one nearby. A body was tossed out of the second story window unto the middle of the street, while Lucas and Aparicio were covered by debris.
Lucas asked Aparicio if he was alright, but could not hear himself, his ears humming from the noise of the explosion. He saw Aparicio laugh, pointing at his own ears and slapping his helmet. Then his smile vanished, as he saw Satter try to stand up, his legs collapsing under him. He ran towards his wounded friend, and grabbed him under the armpits, dragging him into the cafe.
“Medic!” he screamed, and this time he heard himself slightly, as his hearing began to return. Satter had been hit in the groin, and was losing a lot of blood.
“Lucas!,” Danny said, swallowing hard and gritting his teeth. “Lucas!”
“Don’t worry, buddy,” Lucas told him, grabbing his bloody hand. “Help is on the way.”
“Lucas! Lucas!” Jeannie repeated, shaking him urgently.
Lucas awoke with a start, still disoriented, uncertain of where he was.
“You were having nightmares again,” Jeannie told him, looking at him with concern.
Lucas looked around him. He was home, he realized with intense relief.
He had returned with Vanessa from Michelle’s hospital visit at around 3:00 in the morning, after spending time with their injured sister in the intensive care ward. Michelle had been unconscious, already put in a medically induced coma. Nevertheless, Lucas had held her hand and whispered to her about how she would get well, how much he loved her, and how everyone was rooting for her, hoping that somehow his words would find a way through her sleep.
“What time is it?” he asked Jeannie hoarsely, looking confusedly around him. For a moment he thought he had overslept, and that he would be late for work. Then he realized that the jewelry store had been destroyed, and that it would be a long time before he returned to work in it.
“It’s seven thirty in the morning,” Jeannie stated.
She had been up for more than an hour, taking care of the children, even though she had been awake when Lucas had arrived at the house from the hospital.
She had been waiting, looking anxiously out through a window, until he and Vanessa—who with Michael and Alfredo were spending the night in Lucas’ house—had walked past the policemen guarding their home's entrance, and come into the living room. She had embraced him, saying nothing, relieved he was back with her. Then she had made Vanessa and him some coffee, gently probing about Michelle’s condition, listening to what had happened that day. They had spoken well into the wee hours of the new day.
Lucas had not told Jeannie or Vanessa about the note he had found taped to the waiting room’s door. He did not want to frighten them more than they already were. They had finally gone to bed almost at five in the morning.
“Sorry to wake you, but you have a call,” Jeannie said to Lucas urgently, as he sat on the edge of his bed. Below, he could hear the voices of Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny while the children watched Looney Tunes. “It’s the President.”
“The president of what?” Lucas asked, still trying to wake up.
“The President, you dummy! The President of the United States! President Powell!” Jennie whispered breathlessly.
Lucas took his cell phone and cleared his throat.
“Lucas! I hope I didn’t wake you up!”
“No, sir,” Lucas replied. “My wife did.”
Jeannie directed a deadly stare at him, and he was forced to smile.
“Well, pretty women have the right to do that, you know,” Powell said. Lucas could imagine him smiling on the other side of the call.
He had first met President Powell during the first night of the G-20 Conference, then being held in San Juan. Governor Pietrantoni and the President had sat until late in the morning, listening to Lucas tell how he had discovered the nuclear device that had been planted in one of the tunnels under the old city, and how he and Negrón--then a rookie policeman--had followed San Miguel to the cruise ship Orion, and there shot him during a firefight.
However, Lucas’ story to the President had not been completely true. Negrón and he had in fact chased San Miguel to his cabin in the cruise ship, and there had been a firefight. But San Miguel had been captured alive.
Then the terrorist had told Lucas, with chilling, heartfelt glee, that by interfering with his plans, he had doomed his family. Even if imprisoned, San Miguel bragged, he would make certain to let his associates know who had caused his plot to fail. His organization would seek revenge, starting with Lucas’ family.
Lucas had realized it was not an empty threat. Even though no one at the moment knew that Lucas had foiled San Miguel’s doomsday scheme, it would only be a matter of time before word of what had happened filtered out. And then, San Miguel’s threatening remark would become a reality.
At first, Negrón had scoffed at the terrorist's words. However, as the inevitability of his threat had dawned on him, the rookie policeman had drawn his gun and executed San Miguel on the spot, shooting him in the head at point blank range.
“Now let’s see how you send word out to your friends, you son of a bitch!” Negrón had muttered.
To protect Negrón, Lucas had lied to the FBI and the local authorities, telling them that San Miguel had been shot during a firefight in his cruise ship’s cabin. But Lucas was a terrible liar. When that same night he had met with President Powell and Governor Pietrantoni in the Presidential Suite of the Grand Laguna Hotel, both men—experienced litigators—had immediately guessed what had really happened.
At the request of the President, the FBI had concentrated its investigation on the terrorist attempt, and not looked any further into the way San Miguel had died. Also, to protect Lucas and not scare the citizenry, no mention of the nuclear bomb, or how it had been discovered, had been made public.
To that day, neither the news media nor most residents of San Juan were aware that a year before, a nuclear bomb had nearly been detonated under their city.
A couple of months after the terrorist attack, the President had invited Lucas, Jeannie, and Michelle to the White House to have dinner. The two men had become good friends, and twice during the past year, Lucas had been invited to meet with the President, once on a trip to Afghanistan—as a military advisor—the second time to bring Jeannie and his children to the White House’s Easter egg hunt.
“But I digress,” Powell said in the phone, his voice quickly sobering. “I wanted to call you first of all to give you my most heartfelt condolences for the death of your mother and your aunts. I never met your mom, but she must have been something else, producing two children like Michelle and yourself.”
“Thank you, Mr. President. She was quite a lady.”
“Secondly, I was calling you because I’m sending some protection your way,” President Powell said. “I’ve been following closely the situation in San Juan, and have been in contact with my good friend Governor Pietrantoni. He thinks you need protection, and I tend to agree.”
The President waited for a reaction from Lucas, but when he got none he continued.
“Later today, some security personnel I hired will be arriving at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. I’m paying them from my own funds.” President Powell was a successful multi-millionaire in his own right, his total worth estimated at roughly half a billion dollars.
“Mr. President,” Lucas replied. “That is very generous on your part, but__”
“I already anticipated that you would reject my offer, and it’s too late. Three security people are already on board of an American Airlines flight departing from Dulles International Airport. They should arrive in Puerto Rico within the next three and a half hours. Now, do you have something to write on?”
Lucas looked around him, searching for a scrap of paper, but Jeannie beat him to the punch, giving him a small notepad and a pen she had received by mail from one of the many charities that constantly asked them for contributions.
“I’m ready, Mr. President,” Lucas said, not knowing exactly what he was going to write down.
“Write down these names: Tom Myers, Alex Ojeda, and Mark Flanigan. Those are the guys who are flying down to Puerto Rico. Tom used to be Secret Service until he retired last year and founded Myers and Associates, the security outfit he heads. Ojeda is a Bronx native and an ex-Army Ranger, like yourself. Flanigan is an ex Navy SEAL. They’ll be going first to their hotel, the…” the President paused, as he read his notes, "the Isla Verde Courtyard. I mean, they will be taking turns guarding you, but they also plan to have some beach time in your beautiful island. They’ll be in your house tonight, to establish a schedule. Two of them will be with you and your family all the time.”
“Thank you, Mr. President, but really__”
“Like I said, there are no ‘buts’ about this. Until this matter is resolved, those men will be there with you. They’re fine people. You’ll like them. Now tell me something else. I heard that your mother’s jewelry store was seriously damaged. How do you plan to make a living while you get back up on your feet?”
The matter had not occurred to Lucas until that morning. He had been too preoccupied with Michelle, and distraught by his family’s deaths.
“I have a few savings that should take us through the next couple of months,” he replied tentatively. “In the meantime, I’ll set up a small repair shop somewhere in San Juan.”
The President considered Lucas’ response for a few seconds. “It’s going to be very tough, dealing with all the problems that you have at the same time. Let me think about this for a while. I might be able to help you.”
“Thank you, Mr. President. I know how busy you are. I appreciate everything you’re doing to help me.”
“Well, I figure it this way: about a year and a half ago, I and most of the leaders of the major world powers would have been blown to smithereens if it had not been for you. Not that some of those leaders don’t deserve to be blown to smithereens, mind you. Anyway, this is the least I can do for you.”
“Thank you, sir,” Lucas answered.
“How is Michelle?” President Powell asked next. “I wouldn’t bother you if I could find out by myself, but HIPAA, you know. I can’t access her medical information.”
Lucas updated the President on his sister’s condition, and was surprised by his pointed observations on the nature of her injuries.
“Looks like she’s in good hands,” he said, when Lucas had finished. “Let me know how it all goes. If I’m not available, leave me a message with my secretary. She’s aware of what’s happening.”
“Yes, sir,” Lucas replied. Had it been another politician, Lucas would have wondered how interested the man really was in the wellbeing of his sister. But this was President Powell, and from his prior encounters with him, Lucas had learned that the man meant everything that he said.
As if to confirm Lucas’ opinion, the President said next, “Michelle is an extraordinary woman, and I’ve known plenty of extraordinary women in my line of work, let me tell you. A lot of innocent people would have died in the Grand Laguna Hotel if it had not been for her. I pray she will recover. Any help you may need, just let me know. I have to go now, but I’ll call you back in a couple of days to find out how things are progressing. Be careful, Lucas. These people who attacked all of you yesterday, they seem to be as dangerous as those who were involved in last year’s terrorist operation.”
The President hung up before Lucas could thank him again. Jeannie looked at her husband, and raised her eyebrows, amazed by the man’s drive and energy.
“He really is something else, isn’t he?’ Lucas said to Jeannie.
“And so are you,” she replied proudly, meaning every word.
She was disheveled, not wearing any make-up, and dressed in a worn pajama top and a pair of old shorts she had put on to take care of the children, but she still looked beautiful. And he loved her passionately. If anything happened to her or his children, his life would lose all meaning.
Except to hunt down the people who had harmed them.
Lucas grabbed her hand and kissed it gently. “If I’m ‘something else’, as you say, it must be because of the woman I married,” he said.
“I have to get up,” he said, getting out of bed. It was seven forty A.M., way beyond his six o’clock wake up time, when he usually slipped out of bed to jog.
He felt sore, as if he had been in a fistfight. Sometimes, he thought, the emotional toll caused more damage than any physical blows could inflict.
The murder of his aunts and his mother and the serious injuries suffered by Michelle had stunned him. The prior day, he had walked in a semi-daze, unable to internalize or fully comprehend what had transpired. Today, the prior day’s dullness had given way to an intense, gut-wrenching pain, as the enormity of his loss had begun to sink in.
Without exchanging any words, Jeannie understood how he was feeling, and embraced him.
For several minutes they held each other, weeping. Then Lucas took a long breath, and nodding towards the stairs that led to the lower floor and their children said, “Keep them inside the house, okay?”
“That goes for you too. This will soon be over, but until then, we all have to be careful.”
Jeannie nodded again. “Oh, I almost forgot,” she said, “Governor Pietrantoni also called you.”
“And you didn’t wake me up?”
“I only wake you up for the President of the United States,” she replied innocently, trying to lighten the mood, but lacking her usual feisty edge.
In reality, the Governor had asked her not to wake him up. He had told her that a state funeral would be held in the Capitol’s rotunda the next day to honor Superintendent Maldonado, and that he would like Lucas to attend.
“You said yes, of course,” Lucas said.
“Of course,” Jeannie repeated, venturing a timid, sad smile.
They both stared at each other fondly.
Below, in the living room, Sophia shouted, “Mom! Gabriel is picking his nose!”
“No, I’m not! I’m not! I’m just…just… scratching it! From the inside!”