"And Then They Came..." (Chapter XIV)
Lucas sat by Michelle’s hospital bed, holding on to her left hand, while Archie sat on the opposite side, resting his head on her other hand, pressing it against his cheek. Ojeda, Lucas’ bodyguard, stood quietly by the room’s door, next to the two policemen watching the entrance.
It was six-forty in the evening, and Lucas had barely arrived ten minutes before.
It had been a busy afternoon.
After leaving San Juan he had first visited the hospital, only to find that his sister was out of her room, getting a CAT scan. He had then decided to use the time by going to the Nuestra Señora de la Providencia’s parochial house in Miramar, to discuss the final details of his mother and aunts’ funeral mass the next day.
Driving there, he and Ojeda had both at different times sensed that they were being followed, but had been unable to detect who--if anyone--was following them.
He had nearly lost his patience with the main parish priest, Father Orlando, a Spaniard who seemed more interested in the financial aspect of the mass, and who had questioned the family’s decision to have the three women cremated and not to hold a separate funeral service.
The priest had further hinted that he would not be available to officiate the mass, since he was scheduled to meet in San Juan with a "prominent" local politician who would soon be enrolling his son in school. The meeting had been scheduled to take place half an hour before the mass.
“So you’re saying that you won’t make it in time for tomorrow’s mass?” Lucas had asked, barely containing his irritation, the back of his neck starting to feel hot. “I spoke to you about this mass two days ago. We have already notified all of our family and friends.”
Father Orlando had shrugged. A thin, balding man in his fifties, with sharp angular features, a long nose, and a deep, petulant voice, he looked unconcerned.
“I got the impression when we spoke two days ago that the date was…tentative. Not firm.”
He had shown his calendar to Lucas, where an annotation for the funeral mass appeared written in pencil, followed by the politician’s name heavily circled several times in blue ink.
“I don’t see anything tentative about the entry for my mom’s mass,” Lucas had replied, trying to remain calm but not succeeding entirely. “It’s annotated there, as plain as your nose.”
Father Orlando’s eyes had flickered briefly, as he digested Lucas’ veiled insult. He had pulled the calendar back towards him, and begun to erase the mass annotation with a large rubber eraser.
“I’m sorry, father,” Lucas had said as contritely as his anger allowed him. “I did not mean to be rude.”
The priest had smiled at him, his eyes enjoying Lucas’ discomfort. “Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ll be able to preside over that mass after all,” he had expressed in low, gleeful voice. “My interview with Representative Albelo is just half an hour before the time you wanted the mass…what was it, six in the afternoon?”
“Six thirty,” Lucas had responded.
“No matter, still too close. My interview with representative Albelo is at his office in the Capitol Building…” the priest had paused, to impress on his visitor the importance of the meeting, “…and you know politicians, they usually don’t keep to their appointed times. Too busy. No, I don’t think I’ll be able to do a mass at six thirty. I’m sorry, my son,” he had told Lucas in a sanctimonious tone, not really feeling sorry at all, “but sometimes we must all make sacrifices for the greater good. The parish will benefit from our political connections. You must understand that.”
The priest’s "for the greater good" reference had instantly taken him back to his last conversation with Angel San Miguel, on board the cruise ship Orion.
The terrorist had tried to justify planting a nuclear device under San Juan as a “necessary evil”. By wiping out the leaders of the G-20 countries who were meeting in the old city, San Miguel had argued, he was helping to liberate the downtrodden masses of the Third World countries from those who oppressed them. “I am a peaceful man in principle,” he had told Lucas as he held him at gunpoint, "doing what is strictly required of me." For the world's "greater good".
Father Orlando’s landline had begun to ring, but after staring at it briefly, the priest had pressed a switch to reject it.
Lucas had not been surprised to hear the “necessary evil” justification coming out from the mouth of a sociopath like San Miguel. He had never expected, though, to hear a similar argument from a priest.
Father Orlando had turned back to his calendar and finished erasing his entry for the mass, wordlessly signaling the dismissal of his visitor.
Lucas had sat quietly for a moment, afraid that if he spoke, he would insult the priest. Breathing in deeply, he had finally said, “If I get another priest to preside over the mass, will you make the church available?”
A thin, mocking smile had formed on Father Orlando’s lips even before he had looked up from his calendar. “I would,” he had answered, “but getting a priest on so short notice to hold a mass? Good luck with that.”
Lucas had held up his hand, indicating silently to the priest to wait while he fished out his cell phone from one of his jeans’ pockets.
He had briefly searched in his phone’s “Contacts” list, then dialed a number. It had rung twice before being answered.
“This is Lucas Alfaro. Is His Eminence in?” The reference to “His Eminence” had prompted Father Orlando to look with curious attention at his visitor. “Yes,” Lucas had said into the phone, “I’ll wait.”
During the prior year’s terrorist attacks, Lucas and Governor Pietrantoni had sought refuge in Archbishop Garrido’s house in Old San Juan. Garrido was an old friend of the Governor.
That moment had later devolved into a good friendship between Lucas and Garrido, both ex-combat veterans. The Archbishop had later entertained Lucas and his family for dinner in his house, and Lucas had reciprocated twice with the young, charismatic Archbishop.
“Archbishop Garrido?” Lucas had said before the frowning father could utter another word. “It’s Lucas Alfaro. Yes, Lucas. How are…I’m fine, thanks you…No, no, I wasn’t injured in the attack. And you?”
Lucas had listened for several seconds. Then he had said, “Thank you. Thank you. It’s precisely because of my mother and aunts that I’m calling. I’m at the Nuestra Señora de la Providencia parish in Miramar, where I had reserved a mass for the day after tomorrow…Yes, yes, I think Jeannie called you to let you know, in case you could attend. I’m with Father Orlando, from the parish…”
Lucas had cast a casual glance at the priest, who had straightened up in his chair, and was staring anxiously at his visitor. “I reserved it two days ago, but Father Orlando later made an appointment at the Capitol with Representative Albelo, and says he won’t be able to officiate the mass. I’m calling to see if you know of any priest that__”
Lucas had stopped, as the Archbishop interrupted him. He had listened quietly for a couple of minutes, looking every so often at the priest sitting across him, whose face had grown pale.
“It will be an honor, Your Eminence. Thank you!”
Lucas had turned towards Father Orlando and extended him his cell phone. The priest had momentarily recoiled, as if Lucas had offered to him a snake, then gingerly taken the phone.
“This is Father Orlando,” he had said, clearing his throat. His face had reflected growing astonishment and mortification as he listened to his superior. After several minutes, he had whispered bleakly, “Yes, Your Eminence. It will be as you say. Goodbye.”
With a mortified expression, he had handed back to Lucas the phone.
“The Archbishop will officiate the mass himself,” he had whispered. “I…will assist him.”
Lucas had nodded. He had been tempted to say something sarcastic, but opted to remain silent.
“Thank you,” he just had said civilly, standing up and leaving the flustered priest behind him.
When he had emerged from the parish house, he had found Martí Street, half a block away from the La Providencia elementary school, in utter chaos. Several police cars had sealed the street, traffic into the school had been stopped, and hundreds of scared parents milled about the police barricades, anxiously waiting to hear about their children.
Lucas had walked to Ojeda, who had been waiting for him outside the parochial house.
“What’s happening?” he had asked him.
“There’s been a shootout at the school,” Ojeda had answered somberly. “The police and SWAT got there very quickly, but I think the school’s in lockdown, and they haven’t let anyone in or out until the school is cleared. It’s starting to come out in the news now. There’s about two hundred children locked inside the school right now.”
The news had shocked Lucas.
Alfredo, his godson, was a sixth grade student there. And Vanessa, his sister, would have been there to pick him up.
“Have any injuries been reported?” he had anxiously asked an onlooker who was standing in the balcony of one of the street’s houses.
The man had shaken his head. “There is no information on casualties...yet. Do you have any children there?” he had asked as an afterthought, but by that time Lucas had left, followed by Ojeda.
They had headed in the opposite direction of the blocked area.
Lucas had remembered that Alfredo was a “patrol boy” in one of the corners of McKinley Street, one block down and parallel to the street where parish house was located. With the police closing access to the school, there was no way he and Ojeda could get to the corner assigned to Alfredo. Instead, Lucas had opted to double back around the block, and approach the school through McKinley.
As they ran, Lucas had prayed that nothing had happened to Alfredo or Vanessa. Ojeda had not stopped him to ask what was happening, certain that Lucas knew what he was doing.
McKinley Street had seemed deserted at first, but as he had neared the school, a large crowd had blocked its access.
Lucas had found Vanessa’s car, a light blue 2016 Toyota Corolla, parked halfway down the street, but had not seen her anywhere. Then Ojeda had spotted Mark Flanigan somewhere at the forefront of the crowd--his nearly bald head towering over those of the other people gathered around him--and pointed him to Lucas.
Slowly, they had made their way towards him.
“Flanigan!” Lucas had shouted, as he inched through the packed mass of parents and bystanders.
“Let him through,” the tall security agent had growled to those close to him, and the crowd had parted as if by magic.
“Your sister is inside. They let her through after I told the police she was Alfredo’s mother,” he had informed Lucas as they shook hands. “Alfredo is a little banged up, but I think he’s okay.”
In the meantime, Ojeda had approached one of the policemen cordoning off the area, and after a brief conversation motioned towards Lucas to approach him.
“This is the boy’s father,“ Lucas overheard Ojeda tell the police officer.
The policeman had nodded, and begun to make space to allow Lucas to slip through the police barrier.
“Let this man through! Let this man through!” he had said to those around him.
“The boy’s father?” Lucas had whispered to Ojeda, as he passed by him.
Ojeda had shrugged. “Hey, if it worked for Flanigan, why not for me? Godfather, father, almost the same thing.”
Lucas had walked quickly to an ambulance parked by the school, guessing that Alfredo and Vanessa would be there. The boy was sitting quietly inside, holding on to his mother’s hand, as a paramedic finished closing a wound on his brow. When he saw his uncle, he had tried to jump off the stretcher, but the paramedic had still been holding on to the stitching thread.
“Hold still!” Vanessa had told him sternly. “The doctor hasn’t finished with you.”
“Ow, ow, ow!” Alfredo complained as his head had been pulled back by the thread.
The paramedic had smiled and cut off the offending black strand. “One more second,” he had told Alfredo gently, applying some antiseptic cream and then a cotton gauze, and afterwards holding it in place with some white tape. “There,” he had said, looking at Vanessa. “Take him to his pediatrician in a couple of days, and have him take a look at the stitches. He’ll be fine.”
Alfredo had embraced his godfather with all his strength, and begun to cry.
“Padrino! They took Francisco. I tried to stop them, but I couldn’t. If only you had been there!”
The boy had bawled unashamedly, burying his face in his uncle’s shirt.
Lucas had stared at his godson with undisguised shock.
“Who? Who took him?” he had asked, but he had already known.
Two men who had been standing at a respectful distance while Alfredo was being treated for his wounds had approached them.
The shorter of the two, a man with Mongolian features, had flashed a badge of the Puerto Rico Police Department at Vanessa and Lucas, his taller companion remaining a few steps behind.
“Detective Flores,” the man had said in a hoarse voice, sniffling. “Please forgive me. I have a terrible cold.” Flores had sniffled into a crumpled tissue. Vanessa had instinctively recoiled, unconsciously covering her mouth and nose with a hand.
“I need to talk to your son. He’s one of the few persons who saw the shooters,” he had said, turning towards Vanessa.
“Are you up to talking now?” Lucas had asked his godson.
Alfredo had nodded.
“Good,” Flores had said, wiping his nose on his tissue.
The other detective had produced a portable a tape recorder, and turned it on. “Do you mind if we record the boy?” he had asked Vanessa, after the fact.
She had looked at Lucas for reassurance, and he had nodded.
“How many persons would you say were involved?” Flores had asked.
“I only saw four, three men and a woman,” Alfredo had answered without any hesitation.
“A woman?” Flores had repeated in a surprised tone.
“Yes. She had short, brown, straight hair, must have been in her twenties, and she was wearing a set of flowery yoga pants and a fluffy white shirt, with red tennis shoes. She took out her gun from under the shirt.”
The detective had stared at Alfredo with surprise and admiration. “You wouldn’t know how tall she was?” he had said half jokingly, smiling.
“I would say…” Alfredo had paused briefly, as if calculating, “about five feet, five feet one at most. She must have weighed about one hundred and fifteen pounds. I think she was the one who started the shooting,” he had added, shaking briefly as he remembered the moment.
Flores had looked with astonishment at the ten year old, then raised his eyes to Lucas, standing behind him. Lucas had nodded, silently reassuring the detective that the boy’s testimony should be taken as good.
“My nephew is very smart and observant,” he had said. “You can rely completely on what he tells you.”
Flores had nodded. “You say you think she started the shooting. You’re not certain?”
“I wasn’t looking when the first three shots were fired,” Alfredo had answered. “When I turned to see what was happening, I think she was looking down at the new bodyguard that had been assigned to Francisco, because he had been standing behind a car and I couldn’t see him any more. Then she fired two more shots…down into the sidewalk.”
Flores had nodded to himself, unconsciously glancing at the area cordoned off by yellow tape, just a dozen yards away, where several other policemen where examining the scene of the shootout. “That would have been Ramírez.”
From the tone used by the detective, it had immediately become clear to Lucas that the bodyguard had not survived the attack.
“Then Vicente, the other bodyguard, he ran towards the lady, but that’s when a man dressed in a UPS uniform shot him,” Alfredo had continued, his eyes closing as if to ward off the images conjured by his words. Lucas had pulled him closer to him, holding him by the shoulders. Flores had blown his nose loudly.
For the next hour and a half, Alfredo had described what had transpired in the less than five minutes of real time, how his friend had been abducted, how he had failed to stop the kidnappers, and how they had driven away in a scooter. He had been even able to provide rough sketches of the shooters.
Lucas had listened with growing concern, a thousand thoughts flooding his head. He had been careless, he told himself. Alfredo should never have gone to school. The ease with which the terrorists had kidnapped Francisco, protected by two bodyguards, showed how dangerous these people were. There would be no peace until they were found…and neutralized. But why Francisco? Why not Alfredo, if they were so hellbent on revenge?
Francisco was being taken as a hostage, he had concluded. The terrorists would be making demands from the Governor. Alfredo had been an innocent bystander, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The terrorists had not been looking for him, probably had not even recognized him, or they would have killed him or at the very least kidnapped him as well. His heart went out to the Governor and his young son.
Lucas had walked to his sister, and spoken to her quietly, while Alfredo was finishing the third of the police drawings.
“Listen, when you're through here, head straight for home, do you understand?”
Vanessa had nodded, looking very scared.
“Don’t worry,” he had told her. “Flanigan is a good man, and he’ll take good care of you and Alfredo. Besides, I think the terrorists are done for the day. But we must be very careful until they are caught.”
“Will this ever end?” Vanessa had asked, obviously shaken by the events of the day.
“Of course it will end,” Lucas had replied with a confidence that surprised even him. He had kissed her on the forehead. “It will end. Soon. I promise.”
Vanessa had stared at his older brother, desperately wanting to believe him, then returned to her son.
It had been ten past five in the afternoon when the police had finished interviewing Alfredo. By that time, the crowd had mostly dispersed.
Lucas had returned to Ojeda and Flanigan, who were standing next to the yellow tape barrier, conversing and glancing occasionally at the area where Francisco's two bodyguards had been shot, still buzzing with police activity.
“Where to now, boss?” Ojeda had asked him as he approached.
“Did you find out what happened to the two bodyguards?” Lucas had asked in return, before responding.
“One of them is dead, shot five times,” Flanigan had replied, frowning. He did look like the Rock, Lucas had thought to himself. “The other one was still alive when the ambulance…Ambulancia?…The ambulance took him away.”
“Let’s pray that he survives.”
Lucas had stared for a moment at the crime scene. The street was stained by the blood of the two downed bodyguards.
“Let’s go,” he had said to Ojeda.
It was rush hour, and had taken him nearly an hour to reach Michelle’s hospital. He had found Archie sitting next to his wife, looking miserable.
“Any news?” he had asked his brother-in-law.
“The doctor just left,” Archie replied. “They took another CAT scan early this afternoon. The swelling in her brain has continued to subside. They will try to take her out of her induced coma soon, probably tomorrow.”
“Those are good news! So why the long face?”
“It’s still up in the air if she will recover consciousness. And even if she does, it’s still a tossup if she will ever walk again. I’ve been here for two hours, Lucas. She hasn’t moved her legs or her feet once.”
Lucas sat next to his sister. He grabbed her hand between both of his. He noticed how cold her fingers were, and felt scared. He took a deep breath, and sighed.
“I would not worry too much if I were you,” he assured Archie half-heartedly. “Michelle is a fighter, and she’s…she’s so strong, strong-willed too. She will overcome this, you’ll see.”
The two men remained silent for a long time.
Even with the breathing tube inserted through her nose, her dry cracked lips, and the few cuts on her face and arms, she seemed peacefully asleep. Her long auburn hair, spread over her pillow, and the few freckles sprinkled over her cheeks, made her look like a young girl. He loved her intensely, and the thought that she would never wake up, that he would never be able to talk to her again, kept him in a constant, mind-numbing panic.
Much as Archie probably felt.
Focus on the solutions, rather than the problems, Alfaro! his Ranger instructor had drilled into his mind, time and time again. You won't achieve anything by moping around and thinking how difficult your situation is! It had become the mantra of his adult life, and helped him overcome nearly impossible odds, time and again.
“So tell me,” he said, addressing his brother-in-law, trying to reset his frame of mind. "That idea that you told me about…the alternative course of action, that you mentioned in Maldonado’s funeral. What is it?”
Archie placed a finger over his lips, looking at the door of the room, and signaled Lucas to approach him.
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I think that we should try to use our own sources to conduct our own investigation,” the redheaded police liaison man said cryptically.
Lucas waited for him to continue.
“You remember that before Maldonado got me a job in the Police Department, I supplemented my income by selling la bolita, the illegal lottery numbers.”
Lucas nodded. “I remember. It was the main reason why for a long time I objected to your dating my sister.”
Archie shrugged, smirking. “Yeah, well that’s well behind us now. But what’s important is that during that time, I used to work for El Chino. You may have heard of him.”
“Michelle never told you about him?”
“Not that I recall.”
“So let me tell you about him. El Chino is a very fat man who lives in a penthouse apartment in this very old building in Miramar, and who hardly ever goes out. But,” Archie raised a finger, to stress the point, “he has dozens of people who work for him all over the island, selling bolita numbers.”
“Okay…” Lucas said in a tentative tone, not certain of where the conversation was heading.
"These people, the people that work for him, they don’t just sell the bolita numbers, but they gather all sorts of information for him, information that he rewards generously, depending on how important it is. And that is his main business: not the illegal numbers racket, but the bits of intelligence that he gathers and sells to the right people at the right time. Picture, if you will, this fat spider with a giant web spread over most of the island, growing ever fatter from all of the plum pickings that get trapped in his net.”
Lucas began to get a notion of where his brother-in-law was heading.
“And you think this…Chino character will gather information for us? Why would he do that?”
“He likes me,” Archie instantly responded. “He used to call me El Colorao, the Red-Headed One. But more importantly, he idolizes Michelle.”
“El Chino is an avid fan of television shows, particularly telenovelas and crime shows. And he is a huge, and I mean huge fan of Michelle. So much so that during last year’s terrorist attack—when the phone services were down—he actually came out of his penthouse, got into the tremendous traffic jam that affected San Juan that day, and drove to WKPA studios in Guaynabo, to personally give to Doel at the news center his satellite phone, so that Doel could communicate directly with Michelle. I never saw him do that for anybody else.”
Lucas considered Archie’s proposal. “We can use any help we can get, so if El Chino is willing to do so, the more the merrier. But that's only the first part of the equation. If he does find out something, what do you intend to do about it?”
“What do you mean?”
“You can’t go to the police, and tell them a bolitero got some information about the people involved in the terrorist attacks.”
“I don’t intend to go to the police if we find out anything,” the redhead finally replied, looking towards the room entrance and lowering his voice. “If we find out who and where these people are, I intend to go and kill those bastards. Just like they tried to do with our family. I know Michael is willing to join me, and so seems to be Negrón. “
“Negrón?” Lucas asked in a surprised tone.
“I’ve sort of sounded him out on this," Archie confessed, "and he seems to be interested in personally going after these guys.”
“But he’s police!”
Archie shrugged. “So? You can join us if you want.”
It was a crazy, risky proposition. Archie, having fought in Afghanistan, had combat training and experience. Negrón was a policeman trained in the Police Academy. Michael, Alfredo’s father and Lucas’ other brother-in-law, was familiar with the use of weapons, but had no combat or police work experience. Furthermore, he was a hothead who would have to be kept under a tight leash. Pitting them against a group of highly trained, well-armed terrorists was at best an iffy proposition that could easily end up with all of them getting killed.
And even if they managed to win, to wipe out the terrorists, who seemed to outnumber them at least four or five to one, how could they justify taking the law into their own hands? They could end up being accused of murder, and at the very least, Archie and Negrón would probably lose their jobs.
So the odds were heavily against them. And yet…
Nothing would give him more satisfaction than to find the people who had killed his mother and his aunts, the people who had crippled and nearly killed his sister and had murdered countless others, and wipe them off the face of the earth.
Lucas looked at his brother-in-law. He had come to love and respect him, as the redhead’s love for his sister and the intense dedication to his work had become apparent.
“Let’s see what we find out first,” he said. “Then let’s regroup and see where it leads us to. But don’t do anything without me, okay?”
“I won’t. You will be fully informed before we move, I promise.”
That was precisely what Lucas was afraid of.
(Chapter XV will be posted on Thursday, June10)