"And Then They Came..." (Chapter XVI)
Lucas was met by Governor Pietrantoni at the bottom of the stairs that led to La Fortaleza’s second floor. It was five minutes past six o’clock in the morning, and only now the rising sun was lightening the dark night sky into a deeper glowing blue that hinted of the approaching day.
Pietrantoni looked haggard and exhausted, as if he had not slept throughout the night. He was wearing an old gray sweater and faded jeans, his usual garb when he was not engaged in official business or more formal activities.
Arizmendi, his short, balding Secretary of State, stood next to him, a subdued version of his usually exuberant self that had earned him the nickname of “Double A”, after the Energizer Bunny.
“Lucas,” Pietrantoni said simply, shaking his hand warmly, trying to smile but failing miserably. “Thank you for coming on so short notice.”
“It’s the least I can do,” Lucas replied, as he next shook Double A’s hand. “It’s been a rough week for all of us.”
The Governor had called Lucas close to midnight of the prior day, asking him if they could meet early in the morning.
“I know it’s asking a lot with everything you’ve gone through,” Pietrantoni had said, “and I know that there’s not much more that you can do, but miracles tend to happen when you’re around, and I desperately need a miracle now.”
“I’ll be there, Mr. Governor,” Lucas had responded automatically, although he seriously doubted that he would be able to help the Governor.
He had spent most of the night thinking about his conversation with Archie. He still had no answer to his suggestion.
“Let’s go upstairs,” Pietrantoni told Lucas. “I have some coffee and pastries in the terrace, and we can have some breakfast there.”
Lucas had been in La Fortaleza half a dozen times before, but had never gotten used to the opulence of the place. The steps of the stairs were of marble interspersed with porcelain tiles, the ceiling arched and ornate, and the walls decorated with statues and additional tiles.
He remembered the first time he had climbed the stairs, when the Macheteros had captured the Governor and his staff. Alfredo, staying in the Governor’s mansion with his pal Francisco, had been among those held captive.
Posing as a Venezuelan militia man, Lucas had infiltrated La Fortaleza, but quickly been unmasked by George, one of San Miguel’s men. It had been the start of the life-and-death struggle where he had helped Pietrantoni and the other hostages escape.
It had all seemed so unreal and distant afterwards, until the recent events.
At the second floor they turned right, passing by various darkened offices, and then entered the large “informal” room, which faced the courtyard with a series of long, multiple-colored glass windows.
The Governor walked to the central area containing two plushly padded sofas and three mahogany rocking chairs, where a butler was wheeling in a table with porcelain cups and saucers, a silver coffee pot, and a plate full of croissants and other pastries.
The Governor perched on a rocking chair, urging Lucas and Arizmendi to follow suit. Double A waited until Lucas occupied the corner of the sofa closest to Pietrantoni, and then sat next to him.
“I’m sorry about Francisco,” Lucas said, as the Governor poured him some coffee. “Have you heard anything from the kidnappers?”
Pietrantoni shook his head. “Nothing. We’ve been waiting all night long to hear from them, but so far, nothing,” he replied, barely able to contain his despair. Then, taking a deep breath, he asked softly, “Some milk? Sugar?”
“A little milk, thank you. I’ll get the sugar,” Lucas replied, extending his arm to receive the coffee.
He stood up, and served himself three spoonfuls of sugar. It was one of Jeannie’s pet peeves (“You’re going to end up as a diabetic!”) But he had learned to drink the coffee the Cuban way, strong and sweet.
“I understand Alfredo tried to help Francisco, that he got hurt fighting the people who took him,“ Pietrantoni said. “I hope he is well.”
“He got a bump on his head that looks nastier than it is, but he’ll be okay.”
“He has a thick skull, like his uncle,” Arizmendi joked, trying to lighten the mood, but his remark immediately fell flat, and he sank deeper into the sofa.
“He is such an extraordinary boy,” Pietrantoni said, directing a half reproving, half humorous look at his Secretary of State. “Francisco is very fortunate to be his friend.”
Arizmendi nodded vigorously.
“Thank you, Mr. Governor. I think it works both ways. Alfredo feels very lucky to be Francisco’s friend,” Lucas said. “He is very affected by Francisco’s abduction.”
An awkward silence followed. Lucas was still uncertain why the Governor had called him,
“President Powell called me, told me he has hired three security men for you and your family’s protection.”
“Yes, sir. They’re good men. One of them is here with me now, waiting downstairs. Ojeda, from New York. He has Puerto Rican family connections here.”
“That’s good. I don’t know who these criminals are yet, but they seem to have it in for you and your family,” Pietrantoni said, and then added, “And mine.”
“And Puerto Rico,” Arizmendi ventured.
The Governor sighed. “And Puerto Rico.”
He paused, hesitating.
“Lucas…I’ve come to know you very well this past year. I know you will not sit idly on your hands while the regular law and order forces search for these evil people.”
The Governor’s statement surprised Lucas. Had he been overhearing him and Archie in the hospital?
“I…” he began to answer, but Pietrantoni interrupted him.
“You don’t have to say anything. Just know this. Any help that you may need. Anything. You just let me know.”
It was the second offer of help of that nature that he had received, first from Bobby Maldonado, the Superintendent’s son, and now from the Governor of Puerto Rico.
“Thank you, Mr Governor.”
“I want to show you something.”
Pietrantoni leaned forward, and grabbed a folder from a lower shelf in the coffee table. He took out a set of photographs, handing the first one to his friend.
“President Powell sent these to me yesterday.”
Lucas looked at the photograph. It was grainy, but still sufficiently detailed to show a small man with a bushy mustache and a sharp, aquiline nose coming out of a room in a narrow corridor. There was something familiar about the man’s surroundings, but Lucas could not identify where it was.
“After San Miguel’s death, the FBI examined every bit of that night’s recorded video on board the Orion.”
The mention of the cruise ship’s name jolted Lucas’ memory.
“Is that the cabin__”
The Governor nodded. “Where San Miguel was going to travel on the Orion, where you shot him.”
“How come this man wasn’t stopped by the police when he entered the cabin? It was crawling with policemen, detectives, ship security people, and later with federal agents.”
“That photograph was taken before we discovered where San Miguel was hiding. Here is a photograph taken barely two minutes later, when San Miguel left the room and went to the fifteenth deck, to smoke and wait for his associates.”
“So this man was there with San Miguel,” Lucas said, staring hard at the first photo. Even though partly blurred, a smile was clearly visible on the stranger’s face.
The Governor handed to Lucas the last photograph. It showed a stretcher carrying San Miguel’s body as it was wheeled out of the ship. Several passengers formed a crowded human corridor to catch a glimpse of the sheeted corpse. Among the curious faces, Lucas immediately recognized the same short, mustachioed man, this time his face more clear, his bushy eyebrows raised in a puzzled expression.
“There were more of them than we knew,” the Governor told Lucas, as the latter continued to stare at the stranger’s face. “He probably knows you were involved in his associate’s death, and now he is seeking revenge.”
“And you? Why is he tormenting you?”
Pietrantoni considered Lucas’ question. “I don’t know yet. I’m the Governor, so they may try to use my son as leverage to get to you, or to get some concession out of me, I don’t know yet,” he repeated, adding in a bitter tone, “We’ll know soon enough.”
The three men remained silent for a long time. Arizmendi briefly took the photographs, stared briskly at them, and returned them to Lucas.
“May I keep these?’ Lucas asked the Governor.
“They’re yours. I prepared them for you,” Pietrantoni replied. “I have to go,” he added, standing up, making the two other men stand up as well. “There’s a storm brewing in the Atlantic, and we must be prepared in case it turns this way,” he said, looking extremely tired and miserable. “Some things can’t wait, no matter what is happening in your life. The safety of your country comes first.”
Coming from any other official, his words would have sounded hollow. But Lucas had come to know the Governor well, had seen him risk his life to save his son and his staff without a moment’s hesitation or doubt. He was a good and honorable man, who deserved much better.
Arizmendi, Pietrantoni’s closest friend, came to Lucas' side and shook his hand.
“Don’t worry,” Arizmendi whispered. “I’ll try to take as much of the load off him as I can.”
“I know you will,” Lucas responded.
He liked the rolly-polly man. Despite his harmless outward appearance, Lucas knew that the Secretary of State possessed a privileged mind, and that he would be a priceless asset to the Governor during the coming days.
“We are dealing with very dangerous people. Take care of yourself, Lucas,” Pietrantoni said, managing a weak smile. “Although I suspect, knowing you, that it’s the other people who are going to be constantly looking over their shoulders.”
* * *
Archie finished walking up the four flights of stairs, and reached penthouse 4A. The number was deceiving, since there was only one resident in the entire floor, El Chino having purchased the other two penthouse apartments and consolidated them with his.
Breathing hard from the climb—how El Chino, with his three hundred plus pounds managed to climb to his elevator-less residence on those rare occasions when he went out—he rapped sharply on the door. After a long wait, just as Archie was about to knock again, he heard the “swish swish” sound of slippers approaching, and waited.
“Yes?” an old, gravelly, barely-recognizable-as-a-female-voice asked from behind the apartment’s entrance in a far from friendly tone.
“It’s Archie, El Colorao. I need to talk to__”
“He’s not here,” the woman interrupted in a voice that admitted no contradiction.
“Look,” Archie replied urgently, before she could leave. “I know he’s there. I spoke to him over the phone. He’s expecting me.”
A long pause followed.
“Go check with him,” Archie urged her, after she failed to give a reply.
The door opened tentatively, access to the apartment hindered by a chain between the door and its frame.
A bloodshot eye, framed by some disheveled gray hairs, stared at the newcomer with distrust. Then the door shut briefly and, after the chain had been dislodged, it swung open.
An old woman, barely four and a half feet tall and looking not one day younger than eighty years old, stared at the redhead with unconcealed hostility. She was wearing an oversized, flowery mumu dress, which dropped all the way to her very thin calves, making her look like an overdressed chicken. Her strange appearance was enhanced by her bluish-white hair, which extended uncombed from her head, like an uncontrolled explosion, all the way down to her shoulders.
“Wait here,” she instructed Archie, and padded away with her distinctive “swish swish” walk.
Archie looked around him, quickly confirming that nothing had changed since his last visit. The two small tables opposite to the entrance still held two huge, medieval-looking candelabra, their bases festooned with various framed black and white photos of Hollywood actresses—Ava Gardner, Greta Garbo, Marylin Monroe, and Sophia Loren, among others—at the height of their beauty. To his left extended a wide living room, decorated with Roman-style columns, glass tables supported by fanciful porcelain figures—two slaves with their hands upraised, an elephant, and shorter Roman columns—oversized red sofas with similarly colored, deeply padded chairs, and three crystal chandeliers.
It was El Chino’s showcase area, although he barely used it, preferring to watch TV in his roofed penthouse terrace.
“Colorao!” Archie heard a voice less deep than the old lady’s shout from a distance. “Come in! Come in!”
Archie walked through the living room, crossing paths with the old lady, who directed a decidedly disgusted stare in his direction. He found his old employer sitting on an enormous rocking chair, watching intently an equally large television set.
“Chino,” he said to the huge man, “I haven’t__”
“Shh!” El Chino raised one of his arms, signaling his visitor with a fat, babyish looking hand to be quiet. “Don Ronaldo is about to reveal to María Elena that she’s not his daughter. Although she might as well be! His real daughter, Josefina, is an evil bitch that’s only after the old man’s inheritance.”
Archie remained silent, sitting on an old folding chair of orange interweaving plastic strips that shifted dangerously under his weight.
The redhead pretended to watch the telenovela, while casting sideways glances at his host.
Like his living room, El Chino had not changed much since the last time Archie had seen him. His round, double jowled chin concealed a great part of his mouth and neck, and in conjunction with his button-like nose, gave him a decidedly piggish look. His hair, very dark and cut in a roundabout, Moe-of-the-Three-Stooges fashion, further enhanced his pork-like appearance.
However, it was his eyes, dark, restless, and brimming with intelligence, which defined his character. Nothing within the radius of El Chino’s vision, not even while Don Ronaldo was tearfully revealing his dark secret, escaped his attention. Everything was noted, briefly analyzed, and stored for future reference.
A man addressing a distressed housewife who was trying to clean some “tough” stains from her laundry suddenly interrupted the telenovela, just as Don Ronaldo and María Elena exchanged long, distressed, mournful glances.
El Chino looked directly at Archie, joined his pudgy fingers together, and smiled sympathetically.
“I hear you’re sort of a celebrity nowadays. Liaison between the Police Department and the press. Married to the most beautiful woman in Puerto Rico, Michelle Alfaro.” His face sobered at the mention of her name. “How is she, by the way?”
“Not very well,” Archie responded bleakly. “She’s unconscious, and may not be able to walk again.
El Chino frowned, as much as his sunken, dark eyes permitted him to do so. “I am very sorry to hear that, Colorao. She is such a lovely woman.”
“That’s why I am here,” Archie said. “I need your help.”
El Chino’s eyes hardened to a non-committal glaze.
“Yes?” he asked in a neutral tone.
“We are trying to__”
“We? Who is we?”
Archie paused. He would have to tread carefully if he was to obtain El Chino’s help.
“My brother-in-law Lucas, Lucas Alfaro, and me.”
El Chino nodded, his cheeks rippling with his head’s movement.
The swish swishing noise of the old lady’s slippers announced her approach. She was carrying a large plate with fried turnovers, their grease being absorbed by a paper towel.
“Ah! The pizza and cheese turnovers are here. Gracias, Modesta.”
The old lady roughly placed the plate on a tin folding table located between the chairs of the two men, and without mouthing a word, turned and padded away.
“Take one, Archie,” El Chino urged his visitor, clearly hinting that the rest of the turnovers were his.
Archie obliged, and took one of the fried turnovers, still steaming from the heat. He took a careful bite, and pizza-like cheese spilled out of the pastry, nearly dripping onto his lap. It was delicious.
“Good, eh?” El Chino said, consuming nearly half of a turnover from one bite, despite the nearly volcanic-hot steam spewing out of the mutilated delicacy.
“Like I was saying, we need__”
Archie stopped again, as the telenovela resumed and El Chino focused his entire attention on Don Ronaldo’s confession.
For the next ten minutes, the redhead waited patiently for the following set of commercials to intervene, watching with amused fascination as his host repeatedly slapped his knees, hooted with glee and, close to the end of that day’s episode, gasped when the evil Josefina unexpectedly barged into the scene and interrupted Don Ronaldo and María Elena’s heartfelt conversation.
As the credits for the day’s episode appeared on the screen, El Chino once again turned to Archie.
“What kind of help?” he asked without any preamble, reassuming his businesslike tone.
“We need to find the people who harmed Michelle. You have a vast network of people all over the island that sell the bolita numbers. I would like your people to become our eyes out there, to report anything suspicious that they see. Or hear.”
“Suspicious? How will they know what is suspicious?”
“These are foreign terrorists. Sooner or later, they will do or say something that will stand out, that will look like…not from here.”
El Chino grimaced, his upturned mouth disappearing into the folds of his face. “Colorao, that’s a pretty vague request…”
“I can make it more specific,” Archie said, bringing out of his shirt’s pocket a folded piece of paper.
It was a photocopy of the clearest of the three pictures that the Governor had given to Lucas earlier that day. The face of the man with the mustache was circled in red.
“We believe that this man is one of the people who harmed Michelle.”
El Chino stared intently at the photocopy.
“Bastard,” he muttered under his breath. “Do me a favor, won’t you, Colorao? Open that drawer,” he pointed to a table next to the TV set, “and get me my cell phone.”
The fat man took several photographs of Archie's photocopy with his phone.
“Before I do anything else, I need you to give me your word that in no way or fashion you will let the police know that I am helping you, and that if I find out anything, you will not tell the police where you got it from.”
“You have my word,” Archie replied, his words nearly choked with grateful emotion.
“And your brother-in-law’s word.”
“And Lucas’ word.”
El Chino carefully considered his next statement. “This is what I’ll do. I’ll spread the image of this man among my people. I’ll also ask them to report any strange conversations that they may overhear, or any suspicious activity or movements that they see. Anything I find out, I’ll report directly to you. I have your phone number, from your last call. Is that still good?”
“You are a prince among men, Chino,” Archie told him, nodding. “And you have a good heart.”
El Chino stirred, seeming almost uncomfortable with his visitor’s praise. “This has nothing to do with being nice,” he responded, “And I’ll kill you if you start spreading that kind of rumor among my people. Next thing they’ll think that I’m a softy. Also, I’ll…I’ll expect something in return,” he added as an afterthought.
“Whatever you say, Chino,” Archie said, trying not to respond too enthusiastically.
“Son of Renzo is in its final weeks. If I find out anything that can help you, I’ll expect access to the filming of its final chapters in WKPA.”
Archie nodded. “It’s not my call, but I don’t think that Doel, Michelle’s editor, will object to it.”
El Chino’s eyes gleamed with pleasure.
“I will keep you posted.”
(Chapter XVII will be posted on Thursday, June 18)