Governor Pietrantoni and his wife, Nereida sat at the informal dining room in La Fortaleza, quietly eating a late lunch. Neither spoke or ate much, their mood bordering on despair since Francisco had been abducted.
Even though not his natural mother, Nereida had raised Francisco as her own, first as his governess—after Pietrantoni’s first wife had died in an automobile accident six years before—then as his stepmother—when the Governor had realized that he loved her and married her a scant six months before.
A beautiful woman in her thirties, she had at first generated a lot of rumors about having an affair with Pietrantoni, after she had moved into the Governor’s mansion to work as Francisco’s live-in nanny. However, she had quickly gained the love and respect of most Puerto Ricans with her natural charm and her genuine, down-to-earth personality.
The kidnapping of her stepson had devastated her. Knowing the pressure her husband was under, she had attempted to maintain a brave front, trying not to cry, and even confidently assuring the Governor that their son would be found and rescued.
But her façade had crumbled the prior night, when she had visited Francisco’s room, still undisturbed as he had left it on the morning when he had last attended the Nuestra Señora de la Providencia school.
Pietrantoni had found her lying on the boy’s bed, sobbing disconsolately. He had tried to console her, lying next to her, until both had fallen asleep. But the next day had been as painful and emotionally draining as the prior day, receiving no word from Francisco’s kidnappers.
Patria, the head housekeeper of La Fortaleza, sauntered into the dining room and furtively looked from a few steps away at the two plates of food on the table. She had ordered María, the mansion’s chief cook, to prepare one of the Governor’s favorite dishes, mushroom risotto, hoping that he would eat more.
In the past two days, he and Nereida had hardly touched their food, their appetites gone with Francisco’s disappearance. But even the risotto had not produced the desired effect. The Governor moved his fork despondently over his plate, while Nereida bit one of her fingernails, making no attempt to eat.
Patria moved next to the First Lady, leaned close, and whispered in her ear.
“You must eat some of your food, Miss Nereida. Even if you’re not hungry. It’s no good starving yourself when evil people are trying to hurt you, my mother used to say. You’re only speeding up those people’s evil work!”
Nereida smiled sadly and nodded. She picked up her fork, pinched a piece of grilled asparagus, and began to chew on it half-heartedly.
Patria straightened up, all four feet and ten inches of her, and placing her hands on her hips, looked at the Governor.
Stout, dark skinned, short, and pleasant, she nevertheless ran La Fortaleza with ruthless pride and efficiency. Having lived through seven prior administrations, she no longer hesitated in speaking plainly to her main employers.
In this case, however, her concerns extended beyond her caretaking duties. She genuinely loved the present occupants of La Fortaleza, and worried deeply for their well-being.
“Please forgive me if I overstep my boundaries, Mr. Governor, but you too are not eating well. We all depend on you, sir. You got us all through the last terrorist attack, and I firmly believe you will get us through this one. You have got to stay healthy and strong, sir. And you won’t stay healthy and strong unless you eat your food.”
Pietrantoni sighed. “I’m sorry, Patria, I’m just not hungry.”
Patria fished a small handkerchief from her skirt, and dabbed a tear from one of her eyes.
“I miss him too, sir. Francisco, I mean,” she said, her voice cracking. “He’s such a good__”
Orlando Picón, Pietrantoni’s chief bodyguard, barged into the room, carrying a cell phone in his extended right hand, his palm covering the speaker. Wounded on the left shoulder during the attack on the capitol, he had insisted on returning to his job, and had done so the next day, with his left arm immobilized by a cast.
“Sir! It’s the kidnappers! They called directly to our switchboard, said they would only talk to you. I have them on mute.”
Pietrantoni sprang out of his chair and took the phone.
“Is the FBI tracing the call?” he asked his bodyguard.
Picón nodded. “They’re downstairs, tracing it. They should have their location by now.”
“How do I unmute this?” Pietrantoni asked urgently, in his nervousness unable to find the “unmute” feature.
Picón took the phone back, tapped its screen three times, and handed it back to the Governor.
“Hello?” the Governor blurted out, unable to conceal his anxiousness. “Are you there? This is Governor Pietrantoni.”
“Governor Pietrantoni? Is it really you?” asked a male voice.
“Yes,” Pietrantoni replied impatiently. “Who is this?”
“Does it matter? Just call me Enrique.”
“How is my son? Is he alright?”
A short, nerve-wracking pause followed. Pietrantoni was about to ask the question again, when Enrique answered.
“All right? Well...we have not harmed him, if that’s what you’re asking,” Enrique replied with a tinge of what seemed to be humor in his voice.
“Can I talk to him?”
“In due time, Mr. Governor, in due time. By the way, you’re not trying to trace this call, are you?”
Pietrantoni looked at Picón, who was leaning his head close to the telephone. The bodyguard looked at his boss and shook his head.
“No,” the Governor replied.
“It doesn’t really matter. You won’t be able to find us,” the terrorist said calmly. “So let your people trace us, if that’s what makes them happy.”
Picón stopped listening and walked out of the room.
Nereida and Patria watched with apprehension, not knowing what was happening.
“What is it that you want?” Pietrantoni asked, barely keeping his temper under check.
“Your son is ill. We think he has ebola.”
Enrique’s assertion struck the Governor like a slap to the face. Pietrantoni gripped the cell phone so hard that his knuckles turned white. He closed his eyes in despair, and tried to collect his thoughts.
Seeing his reaction, Nereida approached him with a frightened expression.
“What is it?” she asked desperately. “Is Francisco hurt?”
Pietrantoni shook his head, and signaled her with his free hand to stay where she was.
“There is no ebola in Puerto Rico,” he said as quietly as he could, hoping unsuccessfully that his wife would not hear.
Horrified, Nereida covered her mouth with a hand and began to sob.
“We injected him with the virus,” Enrique stated flatly.
Pietrantoni felt the room whirl around him, and he held to the back of his chair. He lost control.
“You incredible piece of shit! You worthless coward! Why would you do that to a small, innocent boy? I will find you and I will kill__”
“Yes, yes, I know. You will find me and you will kill me, wherever I hide,” Enrique said in a bored voice. “Listen, the more time you waste, the less chances your son will have of surviving. I will return the boy to you as soon as you publish a manifesto that I will give to you tomorrow. Once our manifesto is published by all of the local television stations, in all of your agencies’ websites, and in the most popular social media--Facebook, Twitter, etcetera--I will tell you where you can pick him up.”
Pietrantoni struggled to calm down. His hands shook so much that he could barely hold his cell phone.
“What does that have to do with infecting Francisco with ebola?” he asked hoarsely.
“It will induce you to do it, and to act quickly,” the terrorist responded, as if explaining to a five year old that two plus two equaled four.
Pietrantoni strained to keep his thoughts coherent. It made no sense! he told himself. Why infect his son with ebola just to publish a stupid manifesto? It made no sense!
“Dictate it to me over the phone! I’ll publish it more quickly that way,” he suggested desperately.
“Why…no! I still haven’t finished preparing it. I will have a finalized text tomorrow, and I will let you know where you can pick it up. We want you to be able to show the original document to the press. Nothing impersonal, like an email or text transcribed from a conversation. Besides, your people should be reaching the place where this call originates at any moment now. I don’t want to get traced.”
“I thought you said you couldn’t get traced.”
“You will know what I mean when your people get there,” Enrique replied cryptically.
“When tomorrow will you call us?”
“When I am ready. Now listen to me if you value your boy’s life, and don’t interrupt me any more. The ebola symptoms take from two to twenty one days to show up. Our injection apparently was more powerful than we expected, since he already is showing a fever and has a slight headache. If I were you, I’d start looking for the best specialized clinic in the States that will take your son in, because I think he really is infected by ebola. I don’t think anybody in Puerto Rico will accept him, but I am informed that there are some hospitals in the United States, like the Children’s hospital in Minnesota, and the Children’s Hospital in Washington D.C., that are equipped to handle these types of cases. And the earlier you get the boy there, the more chances he will have to survive. So tomorrow, when we provide you with our manifesto, publish it quickly. Your son’s chances of survival depend on it. Understood?”
Enrique paused, waiting for a reply.
“I can’t hear you, Mr. Governor. Are you still there?”
“Yes,” Pietrantoni responded, his answer barely audible.
“Good. I must leave you now. I will talk to you tomorrow.”
“Wait! I need proof that my son is still alive. Otherwise, I won’t publish anything.”
All noise ceased momentarily, as if Enrique’s mouthpiece had been covered. Then the kidnapper spoke again.
“Hold on for a moment,” he said. “I am walking to your son’s room.”
Pietrantoni heard the sound of steps, then to a key unlocking a door.
“Stay where you are,” Enrique said to someone. “Your father wants to say hello. You can talk now, Mr. Governor.”
“Francisco?” Pietrantoni said in a wretched, loud voice. Next to him, Nereida stirred and listened anxiously. “Are you there?”
“Dad!” Francisco’s voice answered. “Dad! I’m in a house__”
Pietrantoni heard a door slam, and the muted unintelligible shouts of his son behind it. Nereida hid her face in her hands and wept bitterly.
“Please, let me talk to him!” the Governor pleaded.
“After you publish the manifesto.”
“Please! Just for one moment!”
“Goodbye. Have a good day… And, oh! Tell Lucas Alfaro that we’ll be coming for him next.”
Enrique cut off the conversation.
Pietrantoni shakily placed the phone on the table, walked to Nereida, and embraced her. They both began to cry.
Picón returned a minute later.
“We traced their location, sir. SWAT should be there within the next five minutes.”
Pietrantoni gently drew away from Nereida, and signaled Patria with his head to take care of her.
“Come, my child,” the old housekeeper said in a loving tone, placing her arms around Nereida’s shoulders. “Let me make you some tea.”
Slowly, Patria led the First Lady away.
Pietrantoni turned to his bodyguard.
“I smell a trap. Call SWAT and tell them to be careful. Also, send the bomb squad, in case the site is boobytrapped.”
“Yes, sir.” Picón quickly left the room.
Pietrantoni slumped back into his chair.
“Hold on, my son. Hold on,” he whispered. “We’re coming to get you.”
* * *
Captain Camilo Gomez had led the SWAT team of the Puerto Rico Police Department for a period of not more than two and a half years. However, during that time he had whipped his outfit into an effective fighting and rescue force.
Then, the year before, SWAT had been sent to rescue the hostages captured by Angel San Miguel in the Grand Laguna Hotel, and been massacred in an ambush as they attempted to cross the Condado Lagoon.
Gomez had lost almost half of his force that day, and would have been killed himself in the assault had it not been for the heroics of his sergeant, Abraham Cordero. Later that night, the two men had helped capture from the terrorists the ballroom where the hostages were being held, and then, with the assistance of Negrón and a few other guests with military experience, they had managed to hold off repeated attempts by the terrorists to recapture the hostages. In the process, Sergeant Cordero had lost his life.
He had thought that the nightmare of a terrorist attack had ended then, when the terrorist forces that had taken over the island of San Juan had been surrounded and wiped out. But with the recent massacre in the capitol, and the killing of Superintendent Maldonado, all of his fears had returned.
Why them? Why Puerto Rico? he asked himself. What had his country done to provoke such people?
As the armored van approached the old market in Río Piedras, in the outskirts of San Juan, he looked at the other eight men sitting on the two benches of the van.
“Be ready,” he told them. “We should be at the spot where the call to La Fortaleza originated at any moment. Word from La Fortaleza is that the caller was not concerned about being traced. There are already three police cars surrounding the spot, but they have been told to stay away, in case the location is rigged with explosives.”
Just then, the van stopped and the driver in front shouted, “We’re here!”
The officer sitting closest to the van’s twin doors opened them, and the men quickly poured out of the vehicle.
About a block away, they saw the police cars, their blue lights flashing, surrounding what looked like a small, dilapidated concrete storage bin situated next to a run-down, one story house.
A balding man in his fifties, wearing slippers and a sleeveless wife-beater T-shirt from which a volleyball-sized paunch protruded, stood with a couple of policemen looking in the direction of the surrounded structure.
“Spread,” Gomez simply told his men, and they ran to establish an encircling perimeter around the small structure.
Gomez, holding on to an MP-5K compact submachine-gun, walked toward the police car. Several other policemen stood behind their vehicles, pointing their guns and a couple of shotguns at the concrete shed.
Gomez nodded curtly to the police sergeant standing next to the T-shirted civilian.
“Martínez,” he said, reading the sergeant’s name tag. “Any movement inside?”
The sergeant, a man in his forties with salt and pepper hair, recognized the SWAT captain and shook his hand.
“Glad to have you and your men here, sir,” he said. “There’s been no movement since we arrived…” he looked at his watch, "…about fifteen minutes ago. And frankly, I don’t think there’s anybody inside.”
“Are you the owner of that shed?” Gomez asked the civilian with the paunch.
“Abimael Villanueva,” the man responded in a thick, undeterminable accent. “I hope you don’t think I had anything to do with this.”
Gomez shook his head. “No. Have you seen anyone approach your shed during the day?”
“Chico, no. I’ve been working inside the house. Had to do some…work in my computer.”
“Anyone else in your house?”
“No, my wife is shopping.”
A bomb squad van stopped next to the SWAT van, and a man, wearing what looked like a green, obese astronaut uniform with a large helmet padded on the sides, stepped out from its back. A name tag on his uniform read “GODOY”.
A smaller, mousy looking man with a few strands of hair plastered across his scalp and a large round nose, walked next to him. In his hand, he carried a device that looked like a small walkie-talkie.
The two bomb squad members joined the others, addressing them without any introduction.
“Is that the place we have to check?” the smaller man asked.
“That’s it,” Gomez responded.
“You hear that, Godoy?” the man asked his partner.
Godoy nodded cumbersomely.
“I’ll take a quick look around the shed first. I suggest that you move everyone back,” said the man with the walkie talkie. Not waiting for confirmation, he scurried away into the T-shirted man’s backyard.
From a distance of about a dozen yards—not enough to protect him if a powerful explosive went off—he examined the surrounding area, noting a couple of paint cans piled against the yard’s back fence, a plastic trunk partially covered with green moss near the house’s back entrance, and some recently cut fronds from a palm tree growing at the opposite side of the shed.
Several times, he spoke quietly into his communications device, provoking a muted response from the man in the suit. Then he ran back to where the others had withdrawn.
Slowly, looking like a green-colored Michelin man, Godoy approached the cordoned off area.
“Don’t you have a robot that can approach the shed?” Gomez asked the bulbous-nosed man.
“Yeah,” he responded, watching his partner with intense concentration. “It broke down two weeks ago. I didn’t see any boobytraps. Any apparent boobytraps, anyway.”
“Great,” Gomez muttered under his breath.
It took Godoy some ten minutes to make certain no explosive devices had been hidden in the yard. Then he approached the door of the shed, examined its handle, and prepared to open it.
“I suggest that we all take cover,” the unprotected bomb expert said to the others, and then he jogged to a concrete fence, and ducked behind it. The others quickly followed his example.
“Going in,” Godoy said through his intercom system.
He slowly turned the handle, and gingerly stared inside with the aid of a flashlight.
“So far so good,” he said in a cheery, business-as-usual voice.
“Prepare to take out anyone who threatens the bomb expert,” Gomez said quietly through his neck’s communications device.
Taking a couple of minutes, Godoy opened the door completely, and walked inside.
“There’s a lot of worthless stuff in here. Tools that haven’t been used in years. Looking through it now…”
Godoy began to hum the song “Despacito”, as he went through the objects stored in the shed. He stopped suddenly, and said, “Well I’ll be__”.
A few seconds later he reappeared, holding in his hand what appeared to be a duct-taped rectangle. Wobbling back to where the others were waiting, he handed it to Gomez.
It was two cell phones taped together, each facing the other in opposite directions.
The terrorists had contacted La Fortaleza from one of them, and Enrique had called the second phone from another location. Then the two phones had been taped together, the one in the shed retransmitting Enrique’s call from a different location.
The FBI had traced the wrong phone. Enrique’s call had originated elsewhere.
* * *
Enrique walked into the market located in the cluster of houses and businesses that constituted the community of Bartolo, at the foot of the El Yunque rain forest. It was a small establishment, just big enough to hold some cans of beans, soup and—curious for him—two brands of corned beef, plus some refrigerated food—including milk—various vegetables, and bread.
He was not there for food, though, but to purchase cigarettes, his only real addiction. He asked for an entire carton of Winstons, which earned him a curious look from the man behind the cash register, and waited for the man to unlock the large glass case behind him.
Looking at his watch, Enrique noticed that it was nearly 7:30 P.M., later than he had thought. It had been a long day, but a productive one, and he felt satisfied, which made him crave for a smoke.
Normally, he would have sent one of his men to purchase the cigarettes for him, but that day he felt elated, as his plan continued to unfold without a hitch. He had decided to take a short drive into town—a sort of celebratory lap—to take a break from his nearly monk-like seclusion.
The man at the cash register plopped the carton of Winstons on the counter and said, “That will be forty-five dollars.”
Enrique paid with a fifty dollar bill which the clerk examined carefully in the light, before opening the register and returning a five dollar bill.
Without uttering another word, Enrique left the store.
* * *
Aarón Otero watched the stranger exit the market, and then looked once more at the photograph of the man that had been sent by El Chino to all of his associates.
It was undoubtedly him, he thought, hurrying to follow the stranger out of the store.
The rotund, round-faced man with a small mustache had been delivering to the store owner the usual five numbers of the bolita—the illegal numbers racket—that the owner purchased twice weekly.
From the moment that he had gazed at Enrique’s face, he had known that it was the man that El Chino was searching for. Aarón had pretended to be looking at the market’s canned goods, and then verified his sighting with the photo in his phone.
“I’ll be right back,” he had told the store owner, exiting the market about ten seconds after the stranger in the photograph had left.
It was already dark outside, and for a nervous moment Aarón could not find him. But then a car at the end of the block beeped as it was unlocked, and Aarón saw the man climb into it.
The car’s headlights went on, and it began to drive in Aarón’s direction. The illegal lottery vendor moved casually through the sidewalk, as if heading in the opposite way. As the car passed him, he stopped and leaned as if to tie his shoe, reading the car’s license plate and making out its color, make, and model. It was a cobalt red Honda CRV, license plate JFF-16B.
The car turned left at the end of the block, heading in the direction of El Yunque and El Verde. Aarón ran to the corner, and saw its red tail-lights moving toward the mountains.
Pulling out his cell phone, he dialed El Chino’s telephone number.
El Chino had offered a reward of $500 to anyone who could provide any information on the man in the photograph.
Aarón was not about to lose that money.
(Chapter XXIII will be posted on Thursday, July 9)