"And Then They Came..." (Chapter X)
After a quick breakfast, Lucas left with Ojeda for Superintendent Maldonado’s funeral. The security man spoke very little, satisfied with looking out of the window at the passing landscape.
“Ever been to Puerto Rico before?” Lucas asked him.
Ojeda nodded. “Twice. When I was seven years old, I came here with my mom and dad to visit my grandma and my aunt. They lived in Caguas, and that’s where I spent most of the time—almost an entire month in the summer—although I remember the day we went to the El Morro fort in Old San Juan. That was awesome. And then, about three years ago, I came back with my then wife for a couple of days, before a cruise. We walked through the old city—beautiful town—and drove to the El Yunque rainforest. I loved it”
Lucas nodded, looking through his rear view mirror to see if they were being followed. He noticed nothing unusual.
“I’ve been looking,” Ojeda assured him, as if reading his thoughts. “We’re good.”
“Sorry,” Lucas confessed. “I’m a bit paranoid.”
“Paranoid is good right now. Keep at it.”
Traffic had begun to slow down before they had reached the temporary bridge crossing from the Miramar area to San Juan, across the Condado Lagoon.
Ojeda had stared with undisguised curiosity at the remains of the San Juan Yacht Club, which had burned to the ground along with nearly a hundred luxury boats during the terrorist attack of the year before. There had been talk of rebuilding it, but as far as Lucas knew, no definitive plans had been drawn to start construction. Much of the debris had been bulldozed and removed, but the charred walls of the old club still remained as a stark reminder of what had happened.
The three main bridges in and out of the Island of San Juan, partially demolished by the terrorists’ explosives, were undergoing simultaneous repairs, a large crane and several pontoon platforms servicing them. No construction, however, was taking place that day, most of the activity in San Juan having been suspended due to the funeral.
It was only 9:00 A.M., and the ceremony was not scheduled to start until 11:00. Lucas had left early, correctly anticipating the traffic jam that the event would generate. Already hundreds of people were lining the streets through which the Superintendent would be taken from the Capitol to his native town in Fajardo, on the east coast of Puerto Rico, in order to pay their last respects.
Lucas drove towards the Doña Fela parking building, close to the docks, deciding it would be easier to leave his car in his monthly parking spot rather than to attempt to reach a space closer to the Capitol.
He had been informed that valet parking would be provided for those attending the funeral, but suspected that getting there, and later retrieving his car, would be a nightmare. The Doña Fela building was less than a half mile away from the Capitol. It would be easier to walk there from his usual parking spot.
On his way, he drove past the area where the Puerta de Tierra Police Station—attacked and destroyed by the terrorists—had stood. A total of twenty-nine policemen, both men and women, had died that terrible morning in the fighting. Unlike the San Juan Yacht Club, all of the debris had been cleared away, and only the facility’s concrete floor remained.
The Puerto Rican legislature had voted three months before to turn the empty lot into a park, honoring all of the victims who had been fallen there. Several designs for the park had been submitted just two weeks before, and were due to be considered by a panel of Puerto Rico’s most prestigious landscape architects sometime the following month.
As Lucas parked and turned off his car, the raw grief of his present situation had nearly overwhelmed him. The last time he had parked there, his mother and his aunts had been alive. His most pressing problems had been related to the work he had to finish that day, and at what time he’d be able to return home. Now, he had no workplace to go to, his family was being protected by the police, and his overall future looked very bleak.
He turned to Ojeda.
“I don't think they’re going to let you enter with me the grounds of the Capitol. There’s several restaurants across the street. Why don’t you have a coffee or something to eat, and wander around a bit. I’ll call you when the ceremony is over.”
Ojeda considered his ward’s words for a moment. “Tell you what. I’ll walk you over to the point where they don’t let me in, and that way I’ll be doing what I was hired to do. Even though personally, I think you don’t need any protection. Also, I’ll need the keys to your car. I figure that the best way of the terrorists getting you out of the way is planting a bomb in your PT Cruiser, so I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen. You have my cell phone number?”
“Myers gave it to me. The numbers for all three of you.”
“As soon as that ceremony’s over, you call me, right? No heroics now.”
“No heroics,” Lucas assured him, smiling despite himself. He really liked Ojeda.
The two men headed towards the Capitol, joining the growing flow of people heading in that direction. Most were ordinary citizens, trying to catch a glimpse of the celebrities attending the funeral, or say a last goodbye to the great man.
The crowd thickened considerably after Lucas and Ojeda walked past the Treasury Department building, and turned left to climb towards Constitution Avenue and the Capitol.
Several layers of spectators, up to five or six persons thick, lined the side of the avenue opposite to the Capitol as far as the eye could see. Many sat on the curbside, while others had brought portable chairs, coolers, picnic baskets, umbrellas, and even a few small tents, willing to wait for hours in order to secure a good view.
On the other side of the four lane street, more than a dozen news media vans—some of them from the big stateside networks—had been allowed to park about fifty yards away from each end of the domed marbled building.
Acting Police Superintendent Montañez had left nothing to chance. Wooden barriers separated the gathering crowd from the avenue, with policemen standing in front of them every eight to ten feet. Two alleyways had been cleared through the crowd, so that those attending the funeral could reach unhindered the security checkpoints verifying their attendance.
On the opposite side of the street, policemen in riot gear scanned passively the growing public before them, while from the roof of the Capitol and the surrounding buildings, members from the SWAT squad kept a separate watch.
Lucas had only been inside the legislative building on one other occasion, and that had been during the State of the Island Address, given the day after the terrorist attack had been thwarted. He had been personally invited by Governor Pietrantoni, who during his speech had singled him out as the person who had saved his life. It had turned him into a celebrity of sorts, but it had also made him a more identifiable target to those seeking revenge.
Ojeda and Lucas stopped at the entrance of one of the two artificial alleyways created to filter those attending the funeral.
“I’ll see you after the ceremony,” Lucas said to his companion.
Ojeda nodded. “See you in a while,” he confirmed, and melted into the surrounding crowd.
One of the three policemen checking the invitees took a hard look at Lucas, then a token glance at his driver’s license, and waved him through.
“You’re Lucas Alfaro,” he said with a tinge of surprised admiration. “We were told to direct you to the left of the steps of the Capitol if you came through our checkpoint.”
The policeman pointed to a point across the street where a petite, shapely young woman holding a clipboard and a tall guard were conversing with each other. It was a different access point from those used by most of the other attendees, who were being directed to three busier entrances closer to the center of the Capitol’s steps.
As Lucas approached the separate entrance, the woman saw him and waved at him happily. Even though he had only seen her once before, Lucas recognized her instantly. She was Maggie Guillermetti, the Governor’s legislative liaison, who had received him and his family during the prior year’s State of the Island Address.
Lucas smiled. Even though she had later denied it, Jeannie had barely been able to suppress her instant dislike for the pretty, dark-haired assistant, and both his brother-in-law Michael and his nine year old godson Alfredo had been dumbstruck by her looks and personality.
“You’re…Maggie, right?” Lucas said to her as he approached her, shaking her extended hand.
“You have a good memory,” she responded, smiling. “Not only handsome and brave, but smart!” she said in a distinctly flirtatious tone.
Lucas made a mental note not to tell Jeannie that he had seen or spoken to her.
“Governor Pietrantoni sent me to take you to your seat at the rotunda. He said you’d probably get here early, and he was right. He seems to know you pretty well. Welcome! The Governor won’t be able to see you today,”
Maggie arched one of her eyebrows, not verbalizing what she thought, but conveying her opinion silently.
“He’s busy dealing with our…Speaker of the House, who wants to give an eulogy of her own, even though she’s not scheduled to do so…But he’s asked me to see if you can meet with him this coming Saturday morning in La Fortaleza.”
“Of course,” Lucas answered, wondering what the Governor wanted to see him about, and nearly asking Maggie if she knew. He opted to be discrete, however.
Maggie guided Lucas through one of the legislative annex buildings, and then into one of the lower wings of the Capitol.
“I am so sorry about your mother and your aunts and the jewelry store,” Maggie told him as they walked past the silent busts of prior prominent legislators that Lucas did not recognize and began to climb a wide, white marble staircase flanked by two darker colored columns. “Did I ever tell you that I shopped for most of my jewelry there, and that I met your mother? She was such a petite, cute, gentle woman. I met your aunts as well. Such nice people.”
“Thank you,” Lucas said, in a distracted voice.
Maggie cast him a side glance and grimaced nervously. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Sometimes I just chatter too much. It must hurt so much to talk about them.”
“No,” Lucas said eyeing her with a sad smile. “You are very kind. I know my mom would appreciate everything you’ve said about her.”
“Those terrible criminals. I know it’s no consolation to you and your family, but I’m sure they’ll be brought to justice.”
“They will,” Lucas answered softly, but with such finality that for a moment, Maggie searched his face to see if he knew something that she didn’t.
Finally, they exited the stairs and entered a huge hall, topped several stories up by large dome. Directly under it, in four curved display cases rimmed in gold that formed a disjointed circle, were the pages of the Constitution of Puerto Rico. The display cases rested on an eight-point multi-colored marble star on the floor, which in turn was surrounded by a green, circular marble fringe.
Facing the exit of the rotunda towards Constitution Avenue was a draped platform where Maldonado’s coffin would rest. A podium with a microphone, bearing the shield of Puerto Rico, stood a few feet away from the coffin’s site. Four rows of white plastic chairs had been placed around the Constitutional display, turned towards draped platform and the podium.
About a dozen other persons, none of them known to Lucas, were already sitting in their assigned places. About five television cameras, two of them perched on one of the high balconies above, stood on their tripods, their operators nowhere to be seen.
Maggie led Lucas to one of the chairs closest to the coffin, prompting some curious stares from the other less privileged occupants of the rotunda.
“Well, here we are,” Maggie said to her companion. “The ceremony is not due to start for another…” she looked at her watch, “…forty minutes. Would you like me to get you some coffee or pastries?”
“I’ll be fine, thank you for everything.”
“Here’s my cell phone number,” she said, giving him a card. “If you need anything, call me.”
Maggie smiled and left, her high heels echoing in the wide, round hall.
Lucas unconsciously placed the card in his wallet, and turned his attention to the rotunda’s ceiling. He was fascinated by the figures portrayed above, all made of beautiful mosaics.
In the dome itself were the figures of eight women draped in ancient robes and separated from each other by identical drawings of long vases. At first he thought they were some of the principal saints of Puerto Rico, but then he noticed that a couple of them were in various states of undress—not the proper attire of any saint—that one of them was holding a harp and a second a small, naked sculpture, and that another seemed to be partially enveloped by what appeared to be the orbits of an atom. He concluded that the women must represent the arts and sciences.
The most prominent and larger mosaics, however, were located on the four triangularly-shaped corners framing the dome of the rotunda.
The first one showed a stern-looking Cristopher Columbus as he presumably stepped for the first time on the shores of Puerto Rico, flanked by a Spanish conquistador and a priest carrying a cross.
The second mosaic seemed to show the colonization of Puerto Rico, showing the three races—the original Taíno natives or “Indians”, the slaves, and the Spaniards—that melded during the subsequent centuries to form the modern Puerto Rican society. It brought to mind the story—whether a legend or historical fact, he was not certain—of the Taíno revolt against the Spaniards.
The natives in the island had initially considered the arriving bearded Spaniards as “gods”, and promptly been enslaved by them. Beginning to doubt their divinity, the Taínos had lured one of the conquistadores (Was his name Salcedo?) to a brook, grabbed him by the hair, and held his head underwater to see if he survived. When the Spaniard drowned, they had come to the realization that their white masters were nothing more than pale, hairy versions of themselves. The natives revolted against them, burning the Spanish colony of Caparra to the ground, and massacring most of its settlers.
The technologically superior Europeans had eventually wiped out the Taínos, a few of the natives escaping into the mountains. Surprisingly, modern testing had discovered that nearly every present day Puerto Rican carried traces of the Taínos in their genetic makeup.
The third mosaic showed the freeing of the slaves, which took place a few years after the end of the American Civil War. The mosaic was dominated by a black man raising his arms in triumph, his broken chains dangling from his wrists, while in the forefront several white men—Abolitionists?—signed a decree officially ending slavery.
Lucas was not certain what the last of the four mosaics showed. It seemed to portray several men, garbed in 19th century clothes, including Luis Muñoz Rivera, a famous leader who sought autonomy from Spain for Puerto Rico. It was a major irony that Spain had finally granted autonomy to the Puerto Ricans on the year that the United States had invaded the island during the Spanish American War and converted it into an American colony. That had ended Puerto Rico’s brief stint with self-rule.
A hand on Lucas’ shoulder shook him out of his reverie. He looked back and saw it was Archie, his redheaded brother-in-law. He was wearing a dark gray suit and a blue tie, which highlighted the intense color of his hair and the paleness of his skin.
Police Superintendent Maldonado had taken the ex-Afghanistan veteran and former illegal lottery (“la bolita”) vendor under his wing, after Archie had nearly died trying to rescue the hostages in the Grand Laguna Hotel. Archie had first been hired as Maldonado’s informal contact with the press, and later been named the Police Department’s official Press Secretary. He had become devoted to the veteran police chief, getting to love him like the father he had never known.
“Hey!” Archie said, circling around the aisle and sitting next to Lucas. “How’s everything?”
Lucas shrugged. “We’re holding up. How about you? How’s Michelle?”
“The swelling in the brain and at the base of her spine has diminished a little…The doctors are…hopeful…” he replied, not answering all of Lucas' questions.
Lucas nodded dejectedly. It was still too early to tell if his little sister would ever walk again. He realized his brother-in-law, deeply in love with his sister, was barely holding it together, and opted not to ask him any other questions about her.
He noticed for the first time that during the last five minutes, most of the seats in the rotunda had been occupied. He recognized the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico, Lily Ordoñez, sitting at the opposite side of the circle, and two other male justices next to her. And in the row behind, he recognized the faces of several House representatives whose names he could not recall. The subdued hum of the arriving crowd’s conversations started to fill the circular hall.
“We need to talk,” Archie whispered to him. “The police have been questioning the terrorists that were captured in the attack, as well as trying to identify those that were killed.”
Lucas turned and looked directly at his brother-in-law, “Any results?”
“No information or ID’s so far. We’re trying to see if we spot any of the vehicles that brought them to the ceremony in any of the security cameras in the area, but no luck neither. We captured three of the attackers alive. Two others taken to the hospital didn’t survive their injuries. They’re foreigners, from Central America. They’ve refused to say anything, and I suspect that’s the way it’s going to stay. We’re checking their photos and fingerprints—as well as those of the people who were killed—with the Interpol and other police departments in friendly countries. Somehow, I suspect we won’t find anything either. We'll have to see.”
Archie seemed to hesitate. Then he added. “I have another idea, though.”
Lucas stared at him, waiting for him to continue. Just then, the room went silent as a woman in her late fifties, accompanied by a younger man, walked into the rotunda. She seemed to move in a haze, while her companion held her by her left arm and led her to the seat closest to where the coffin would rest.
Most of the people in the hall got on their feet.
“Maldonado’s widow and his son,” Archie whispered. “I have to give them my condolences. We’ll talk later.”
The redhead stood up and walked towards Maldonado’s wife, engaging in a hushed conversation.
Lucas watched them from a distance, trying to pick up the resemblance between Maldonado and his offspring. Bobby, as Maldonado’s son was known, had become a lawyer, and joined the district attorney’s office, earning the reputation of a tough prosecutor. Although tall like his dad, he looked more like his mother: fair skinned, lean, and with a straight nose rather than his father’s bulbous schnozzle. His expression at that moment was unreadable. He seemed to be trying to hold his emotions in check for the benefit of his mother.
Other notables began to arrive. Acting Police Superintendent Montañez walked in, spoke briefly to Archie and Maldonado’s widow, and then occupied his assigned seat.
And less than a minute later, the Speaker of the House Marisel Delgado arrived, followed by two of her assistants, her left arm in a cast and hanging from a sling. She slowly made progress toward her chair, greeting everyone along the way, constantly grimacing in pain, particularly when speaking with others. The portly legislator even nodded at Lucas, though he doubted she remembered who he was.
Secretary of State Arizmendi also walked in, and as was his custom, walked straight to his chair, next to Lucas’. He briefly placed a hand on Lucas’ shoulder, silently acknowledging his presence, and sat down without uttering a word.
Suddenly, the hall was flooded with the light of the television cameras and all the conversation stopped. The crowd went back on its feet as the coffin, carried by eight male and female members of the Police Department, finished its climb into the rotunda.
They paused at the entrance, preceded by Governor Pietrantoni and two other policemen carrying the flags of Puerto Rico and the United States. A Puerto Rican flag draped the casket.
Archie hurried back to his seat, on Lucas’ other side.
Quietly, pausing in unison after every step, the white gloved policemen walked to the platform and deposited the coffin on it, saluting it and marching out of the rotunda.
The Governor walked to the podium.
(Chapter XI of "And Then They Came..." will be posted on Thursday, May 28)