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"And Then They Came..." (Chapter XVII)

Chapter XVII

The Church of Nuestra Señora de la Providencia was packed with mourners. Not only had the three Pietri sisters—Fanny, Evelyn, and María—been beloved members of the community for more than a half a century, but their jewelry store, El Joyero de San Juan, had been a centenary institution in Old San Juan, where various generations, besides shopping, had met, gossiped, lamented, celebrated, and laughed about countless moments in their lives.

As Lucas, Vanessa, and Jeannie stepped into the church, they were enveloped by a crowd of well-wishers who came to express their intense grief—and many their anger—for the premature, vicious deaths of the three sisters. Secretary of State Arizmendi and Nereida—the Governor’s beautiful wife—were there representing the Governor, as were the Police Superintendent Maldonado’s son Bobby, and his widow Doña Crucita.

Several other politicians and members of the judiciary had also deemed it proper to attend, including an envoy from the Speaker of the House, Marisel Delgado, and Alejo Montañez, the new Police Superintendent. Some, more than Lucas had imagined, had been clients and personal friends of the Pietri sisters.

The octogenarian taxi driver who for decades had driven María and Fanny from their Miramar home to the jewelry store had also come to pay his last respects, removing his trademark, immaculate white Panama hat to reveal the few strands of hair that he plastered to his mostly bald pate. He had mumbled a few unintelligible words to Lucas and Vanessa, then his voice had failed him completely and, placing briefly a hand on Lucas' shoulder, he had wandered away weeping.

Francesca, the optometrist who had sheltered the Pietri sisters during the original terrorist attack, had shaken her head in silent despair.

“Those vicious, cowardly criminals, may they rot in hell,” she had said bitterly.

She was a tough, no-nonsense woman in her seventies who had lived alone all of her life. Nevertheless, her voice faltered and tears brimmed from her eyes.

“I’m going to miss your mom and your aunts. They were such wonderful, incredible women.”

Doel, Michelle’s television newscast editor, Correcaminos, her closest friend and fellow sportscaster, and the rest of her newscast crew and other competing news organizations had gathered in two pews, while a sea of faces—some familiar, many unknown to Lucas—filled every available seat in the church, and spilled to the outside from its open doors.

There were scores of neighbors, as well as many of the El Joyero’s clients; attendants and owners from other competing jewelry stores; cashiers and baggers from the local supermarket; salespeople from several of the neighboring retail establishments; and waiters and owners from the eateries that the sisters had routinely frequented. Even Javier, the gaunt waiter from La Bombonera and an ardent admirer of Michelle, had taken the time to attend.

Negrón sat next to Archie in the church’s second row, both looking somber and thoughtful. Both had visited the jewelry store often, and had grown to love the store’s three female owners and enjoy their constant banter.

As Lucas, Vanessa and Jeannie moved into their reserved seats in the front row, Archie leaned forward and whispered to Lucas, “I spoke with El Chino. He will help us.”

Lucas nodded absently.

Archie’s words momentarily snapped him from his thoughts, and returned him to his family’s dire situation. The church services were an ideal target for any terrorists bent on creating any additional chaos. Concentrated in one building were most of Lucas’ friends and family. A concerted attack on the church would cause unimaginable grief and havoc.

It would have been surprising if the terrorists knew about the funeral services that had been communicated to a few close friends and relatives, but from the attendance there that night it was evident that word about the mass had spread rapidly in San Juan. Also, Lucas could not underestimate his enemies’ capability to find out where he would be, and how his life could be further disrupted.

Because of that, the family bodyguards, Myers and Ojeda, had searched the church an hour before the activity, to ensure no hidden explosives had been placed there, and had installed half a dozen security cameras at the main and side doors and at various angles inside. They were keeping watch outside, while Flanigan—the "The Rock" lookalike—and Michael, Vanessa’s husband, had stayed with the children at home under further police protection.

Two patrol cars with a dozen policemen had been assigned to guard the perimeter of the church, and Camilo Gomez, head of SWAT in the island and a close friend of Michelle, had volunteered to patrol the immediate area with about the same number of men. Also, Police Superintendent Montañez, attending the services, was flanked by two of his biggest men—dubbed The Untouchables by the public—so tall in fact that they surpassed their bear-like boss in height by a couple of inches.

It was a good, protective setup, Lucas thought, but in his bones he felt that it would not be enough to stop a determined terrorist attack. Half of him prayed the attack would not happen, but a darker side of him hoped that it did, so that he could face and fight his invisible enemies.

Archbishop Garrido peeked out of the sacristy’s door, already wearing his vestments, and confirmed that the family of the Pietri sisters had arrived, nodding in Lucas’ direction. A couple of seconds later he emerged into the altar, followed by a harried Father Orlando, and began to officiate the mass.

At the end of the service, the Archbishop approached the podium.

“Before I end the mass,” he said, “I would like to say a few words about the three women we are honoring here tonight, and then allow Lucas to say the final farewell.”

Garrido paused briefly, to gather his thoughts.

“I knew the Pietri sisters well. I knew them, particularly Fanny, Lucas’ mother, long before I met him. There were times when I visited their jewelry store, and asked for a contribution for an activity, a raffle, an auction. They always gave, even during the hard times when they had not that much to give. They contributed cheerfully and without hesitation. They were good Christians, who genuinely cared about others.”

Garrido looked at Lucas, and smiled mischievously.

“They were good Christians,” he repeated, “even though of the three, I only saw Evelyn attending mass regularly at the cathedral. Several were the times when after mass Evelyn would approach me, and assure me that even though her sisters were not there, they were devout catholics, and that she was working on them so that they would come to mass more often.”

There was general laughter. It was common knowledge that neither Fannie nor María were great fans of the church’s more formal ceremonies.

“I always came out of El Joyero feeling good, and it was not because of their donations, as much as for the kind of love you felt in that store. It was palpable. Which is funny, because they always seemed to be bickering with each other. But through their bickering, there was never any doubt that they were expressing their unconditional love to each other. There was never any doubt about that.”

Garrido sighed deeply.

“I will miss them. We, all of us here, will miss them. It is very hard to understand why things like this happen to good people, and even harder to comfort those left behind, except that God wanted them to join Him. So I leave you with these parting words from Revelation 24:4: ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things will pass away.’”

The young, tall archbishop looked around him. “Fannie, Evelyn, and María are in a place where death no longer exists, where they will experience grief and crying no longer. So let us celebrate their lives, even when we lament their passing, and let us know that some day we will see them again.”

He stopped, while everyone in the church muttered a loud “Amen”.

“And now Lucas will say the final farewell.”

Lucas walked up to the podium, and shakily brought out of his shirt pocket one index card where he had scribbled some thoughts. Like the Archbishop, he stared at the sea of faces in front of him, many of which triggered memories of his mother and his aunts.

“On behalf of our entire family, I want to thank Archbishop Garrido for his beautiful words, and each and every one of you for being here today. I am not, as most of you know, a person of many words, and I definitely lack the eloquence of Father Garrido. So…let me also be brief.”

Lucas stared at Jeannie, who smiled at him for reassurance.

“It is difficult…very difficult, to stand before you to say goodbye to my mom—Fannie—and to my two beloved aunts, María and Evelyn. Particularly hard because when I see you, you bring back so many of the happy moments that they shared with all of you and me, moments that play back in my mind like…like scenes from some beautiful movie. And then, I inevitably think of the way some criminals who did not even know my mom or my aunts ended their lives the way they did, and…” Lucas shook his head, overcome with emotion.

“But then, my thoughts turn back to them. They would never want us to remember them by how their lives ended, but by how the three of them lived. And such a joyful life it was! Evelyn, with her constant plans to promote the business and her conspiracy theories; María, constantly contradicting her sisters just to argue for the sake of argument, even though the three sisters loved each other dearly; and mom, baiting her two sisters, then trying to bring order to their bickering while secretly enjoying their back and forths.”

Lucas saw several smiles among the crowd, and Francesca, the optometrist, nodding to herself.

“These were three…wonderful women, women who were unafraid of life and its challenges…well, not unafraid, but brave enough to face life’s challenges while being afraid, despite the odds. These were women who never hesitated to help anyone in need, in whatever way they could, and to offer to all—without exception—their unconditional friendship, despite the disappointment that some of those friends occasionally caused them.”

Lucas nodded at his friend, the Archbishop.

“You hit the nail right on the head when you described how you felt during your visits to the jewelry store. The Pietri sisters—as I called them—had an extraordinary and infectious sense of humor, capable of finding the bright side in nearly any situation, and refusing to give up in those cases where no bright side could be found. They were stubborn, yes, and opinionated, and sometimes could even be a little exasperating…”

The smiles in the crowd increased.

“But…that was who they were. And that is why we them.”

Lucas’ hands were shaking, and he hid them behind the podium.

“Some soulless, cowardly thugs decided to terrorize us, and remove my mom and my aunts abruptly from our daily lives. And we are all…” he shook his head, “heartbroken. But if we remember them by their end, and not by the way they lived, then those terrorists win.”

Lucas looked down, pausing momentarily to fight off his emotions.

“The terrorists will never win,” he promised darkly, earning several nods of approval. “I will make certain of that.”

Sitting on one of the chairs next to the altar, Archbishop Garrido frowned and looked up quizzically at Lucas.

“And you can make certain of that too, by keeping their beautiful memories alive,” Lucas added, trying to ease the anger in his voice. However, Garrido continued to look at him with a concerned expression.

“Today, the world is a little bit darker and sadder, with the absence of Fannie, Evelyn, and María. But Heaven is a happier place. It is okay to grieve, but we must be consoled by the thought that some day we will meet them again. God bless them, and God bless you for sharing this moment of grief with us.”

Lucas walked away from the podium, and Garrido signaled to the choir on the church’s balcony to begin to sing Fannie’s favorite song, Remember Me, from the animated film Coco.

Jeannie, tears still streaming from her eyes, placed a hand on his arm and kissed him on the cheek. Then they were enveloped by well wishers.

Sometime during the next twenty minutes, someone placed an envelope on the bench, next to Jeannie, directed to “Lucas Alfaro”. Archie found it, and gave it unopened to his brother-in-law.

It read, in beautiful, black cursive letters:

“Enjoy the moment. We will kill you and your family in due time.”

Lucas folded it carefully, and placed it in one of his pockets before Jeannie, conversing with a neighbor of Fannie, noticed it.

Archie stared at him expectantly. “The terrorists?” he whispered.

Lucas nodded.

“I’ll give you the note later, for further analysis. Talk to Ojeda and Myers. They placed some cameras inside. They may have picked up something.”

Looking very worried, the redhead left.

(Chapter XVIII will be posted on Monday, June 22)

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