Francisco awoke slowly, looking confusedly around him at his unfamiliar surroundings. It was some sort of dark, air conditioned room, with a bed, a desk with a small television set, and a chair. Even though its windows were closed, light filtered from the outside.
Weakened from the powerful anesthetic he had been injected, he stumbled out of his bed onto the grayish tiled floor, struggling to his feet.
He walked straight to the door, and attempted to turn its handle, but it was locked. Frantically, he continued to try, with no success.
“Help!” he screamed in near panic, his throat hurting from the effort. “Help me!” He waited for a moment, and when the door failed to open, began to pound it with his fists. “Please, help me!”
He continued to beat on the door, but no one responded. Completely frustrated, he retreated several steps backwards, nearly hitting the bed.
Looking around him, he saw another door next to the desk. He opened it, discovering it was a bathroom with a toilet and a small shower. A high window of aluminum “Miami”-type panels, located over the toilet, was partially open, filling the small, blue-tiled room with more light than that in the bedroom. A metal screen covered the window, and a lizard rested on one of its corners, waiting for an unsuspecting meal to wander in.
Francisco walked back to his bed, and sat on it despondently.
“Help!” he cried again. “Let me out of here!”
The door to the room suddenly separated and opened partially, a head popping through the opening.
“You’re dark in here,” said a pleasant woman’s voice. “Let me turn the light on.”
A hand moved to a barely visible switch on the wall next to the door, and with a slight, clicking sound, the grayish dark room became flooded with a white, humming neon light.
Francisco regarded a young woman with short, black hair, carrying a tray with a plastic cup and and two covered plates. She was wearing shorts and flip flops, and was smiling at him.
“Hi, Francisco,” she said in a gentle voice. “I thought you might be hungry. I’ve brought you some food.”
The ten year old regarded her with dread.
“I want to go home,” he said, tears forming in his eyes. “Please take me home!”
The young woman continued to smile as she approached him. “Let’s talk about it while you eat,” she told him.
Francisco shook his head slowly. “I need to go home now. My dad is waiting fo me.”
“Yes, he is,” the woman agreed affably, “and you’ll get to see him again, soon. That I promise you. But for now, until we can return you to your father, you’re our guest. And I know you must be hungry. You haven’t eaten for nearly a day, since yesterday afternoon. You must be famished.”
The woman placed the tray on the desk, then squatted in front of him.
There was something about her that Francisco didn’t like. She was talking to him as if he was a baby, and he was used to being addressed as an adult. Some inner voice in him warned him not to try to correct her, however. It was better that she underestimate him than mistrust him.
Wiping away with the back of his hands the tears from his cheeks, he told her, “I want to go home now.”
Something in the woman’s eyes hardened momentarily, as if peeved by the boy’s stubbornness. But she never lost her fixed grin, even though it became more strained.
“Soon, my love,” she promised. “Just wait a little.”
She pressed her hand on his forehead.
“No fever. Good. I don’t want you to get sick. Do you feel alright?”
Francisco nodded. “I want my dad,” he pleaded, his eyes filling with tears again.
“I told you,” the young woman replied, momentarily losing her smile. “Soon. I promise. Now eat.”
She pointed at a television remote control.
“If you’re bored, you can turn on the TV and watch cartoons. I will come back in a while to see how you are doing. Now, please. Eat.”
As soon as the woman left the room, Francisco walked to the windows, and rolled one of its handles, opening up one row of its panes.
Iron bars had been installed on its outside frames, so that he could not escape, the black streaks of the torch that had been used to install them still streaking the window’s lower and upper edges like long exclamation marks. He grabbed one of the bars and tried to shake it loose, but it would not budge.
He stared at the outside, and saw that a thick forest, full of ferns, bamboo trees, and other tropical vegetation surrounded the house where he was being held.
As a cub scout, he had camped in places like that, near the El Yunque rain forest, and in the Guajataca reserve. If he could get out of the house, it would be easy to hide and lose his captors.
The memories of his prior campouts made him terribly homesick, and he felt a knot of fear well up from his stomach to his throat. As panic nearly overwhelmed him, he closed his eyes, and through his tears, told himself to calm down.
He had to be brave, like his best friend Alfredo.
He had to be brave.
Leaving the window open, he walked back to the desk and uncovered the two plates the woman had left. One contained three slices of cheese pizza, the other was a small round bowl with two scoops of chocolate ice cream that was already beginning to melt.
Francisco grabbed a slice, smelled it, and began to eat.
* * *
Enrique leaned over José Ramón’s shoulder, watching the boy eat.
Nour, smiling some distance away, seemed more interested in watching his boss’s ecstatic expression.
It was true, she thought to herself. He looked like a comic book villain. Rosario had made that observation to her several weeks ago, while Enrique inspected the house they had rented, his dark, expressive eyes taking in every detail in it, already planning where each person and piece of equipment would go.
She enjoyed working with the small, intense man. Like her, emotions played no part in his life.
“And you say he had no fever?” he asked Nour, turning his gaze toward her.
“No fever,” she replied. She spoke freely, knowing that José Ramón was one of the few men in their group that had been let into their secret. The Spaniard continued to stare into the screen with detached curiosity.
“How do you know the virus was alive when we injected it to him?” Nour asked.
“The available research seems to support the proposition that extreme cold will keep the virus alive,” Enrique responded.
“If you believe the conspiracy blogs,” José Ramón interjected, in a mocking voice. “The real facts are that nobody is certain. And preserving the ebola virus in cold, magic marker containers with dry ice…”
“It doesn’t really matter if the virus is still alive or not,” Enrique said, raising his thick eyebrows with amusement. “If it is alive, it will spread in the boy’s blood in a matter of days. If not, the dead virus will show up, and create enough doubt to have him treated, if he is in fact tested for the virus. Either way, the point is moot. The boy won’t be alive for long.”
José Ramón looked away from the computer screen, and regarded his boss with resigned disapproval.
“What?” Enrique asked in an unrepentant tone. “You don’t seem to like the plan.”
“I don’t like to kill little boys,” the Spaniard replied tartly.
From a corner of the room, Nour stared at the computer expert with curiosity. José Ramón was the second member of the team who had expressed reservations to Enrique about killing a child in order to further their cause. She wondered how many of those same people would have questioned the plan had it been San Miguel who proposed it and directed the operation.
She did not like it.
“I see," Enrique responded. "But the hundreds of thousands of little boys and girls killed every day by the American corporate conglomerate, those don’t bother you. Or those interned in concentration camps all over the world, unable to leave or move freely to safer places. those don’t bother you either? How do they work into your equation?”
José Ramón shook his head. “Don’t put words in my mouth, that’s not what I am saying. What I mean is that there must be another way… A less cruel way. A way not involving children.”
Enrique exchanged a silent look with Nour, his hooked nose making him look like a sinister Toucan.
“Are you having second thoughts, José Ramón?” he asked the Spaniard. “You seemed pretty enthusiastic when you designed the surveillance system that Hassam and Javid set up around the boy’s school.”
Nour laughed, making José Ramón bristle.
“Are you a religious man?” Enrique inquired, already knowing the answer.
“God does not exit,” the Spaniard replied in a peeved tone. “He is a myth, invented by hypocrites who wanted to make money living from the superstition of others.”
Enrique nodded in agreement. “And yet, you object to the sacrifice of that child for the good of millions of others.”
“I have always fought for the good of the oppressed masses, you know that,” he replied heatedly, his Spanish accent becoming more and more evident as he got angrier.
“I honestly cannot understand you,” Enrique said to the computer expert, all the while looking at Nour with a humorous, ironic expression, and making her smile. “San Miguel was a deeply religious man. Deeply religious. And yet he was willing to set off a nuclear device under the city of San Juan in order to destroy the world leaders meeting in a G-20 Conference, even though thousands of children would die in the process. He called it a justifiable evil, a necessary action to destabilize the world powers, to stop their genocidal abuse of our people. And yet, here you are, an atheist, struggling with your conscience. All because one boy. One boy! To be sacrificed for our cause.”
Enrique’s expression hardened.
“Are you certain you can go on with our plan?” he asked in a dry tone.
Nour quietly placed a hand on the Glock pistol she had left on top of one of the room’s desks when she had visited Francisco. Her gesture did not pass unnoticed by Enrique, who shook his head imperceptibly.
José Ramón shrugged, looking very frustrated.
“Just because I am an atheist does not mean that I don’t have a conscience. Or that I have to enjoy what we are doing, for that matter, particularly when it involves killing a child. But don’t fear, I will do what is required of me, as I always have, so far.”
Enrique stared at the Spaniard for a long time, as if gauging his sincerity. He did not like the “so far” that José Ramón had added at the end of his last statement.
Finally, he nodded.
“I believe you,” he said, as he began to walk out of the room. Then, he added to Nour, “Come, we need to plan our next move.”
The Egyptian female picked up her gun and quickly followed her boss.