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


Chapter XXIV

Da’ud stopped the van in front of what seemed to be a rural abandoned commercial property, walked to its entrance—kept closed by a thick, padlocked chain—and unlocked the chain’s padlock. He pushed open the wire fenced gate and, getting back into the van, drove through a narrow, weed-filled driveway to a warehouse situated about two dozen yards away. He was followed by Fillo on a scooter.

The Great Recession had hit Puerto Rico harder than any other U.S. jurisdiction.

Unable to travel to the rest of the United States except by ship, and forced—under the Jones Act—to import all of their goods by using the much more expensive U.S Merchant Marine, Puerto Ricans had to pay substantially more than any other American citizen for any item brought into their island.

That, coupled with the elimination by Congress of the incentives to American companies to do business in Puerto Rico, had crippled the island’s economy.

As a result, thousands of warehouses, factories, and retail businesses had closed across Puerto Rico, leaving hundreds of thousands unemployed, forcing a large portion of its population—particularly its educated class—to seek a better life in mainland U.S.A.

The property where the van stopped had been one of the factories abandoned during the recession. A squat, one-story, square, concrete structure, it had housed a small uniform-manufacturing business whose two dozen jobs had hemorrhaged away and dried up with the economic crisis.

Da’ud walked to the dilapidated building, and unlocked another brand new padlock barring its door. It was semi-dark inside, with pieces of unidentifiable debris, and large water puddles due to leakages from the roof, spread throughout the floor.

The four armed men following him carried Flanigan in his chair to the center of the structure, and deposited him there, sitting upright.

“Give me the Manifesto,” Da’ud said.

From his back pocket, Fillo took out a transparent plastic bag with a folded document inside that read in wide, black magic-marker letters, the word “Manifesto”. Fillo raised a long chord attached to both ends of the bag over Flanigan’s head and, tapping the bag with mock affection, let it dangle from his neck.

“Enjoy it,” he said with a derisory chuckle.

Da’ud extracted out of his pants a cell phone, looked at the time—9:36 A.M.—and pressed on the screen a pre-programed number.

Enrique answered on the second ring.

“The package has been delivered,” Da’ud said.

“Excellent. Now do what you’re supposed to do, and head back here,” Enrique replied.

Da’ud ended the call without saying anything else.

He turned to his men.

“We’re leaving,” he said, starting to walk toward the structure’s exit, followed by the sparsely mustached youth and the taller bearded terrorist.

Fillo stayed behind.

“You can kill him now!” Da’ud shouted to the tattooed terrorist, as the others left the building.

* * *

“This is the Governor,” Pietrantoni answered, the anguish in his voice too apparent.

Enrique looked at Nour and Rosario, and smiled.

“Good morning, Mr. Governor,” Enrique said in a jovial tone. “It is now…” he looked at José Ramón’s computer screen, “…exactly 8:44 A.M., and as I promised, I am calling to let you know where you can pick up our Manifesto.”

He paused, savoring the moment.

“I have left it with with a bulky package, a rather large package, so you don’t miss it. The package is a gift to Lucas Alfaro. Are you ready to take directions?”

“Please go ahead,” the Governor said tersely.

Enrique turned to the map showing on one of the computers in the room, and stared at it fixedly.

“Tell your men to take…PR 985 in Fajardo, until they get to the Sector Goyo Flores Street. Follow it until you reach…Ca-pras…Caprasco Street. At the end of Caprasco Street, you will get to the open gate of an abandoned warehouse. Inside you will find our package with the Manifesto.”

There was a pause, as Pietrantoni took in the information.

“Why should I trust you? How do I know this is not a trap, ready to be set off when my people get there?” he finally asked.

“Why should you trust me?” Enrique repeated, directing a humorous sideways glance at the other people listening to the call.

Nour, leaning forward to hear better, grinned. Rosario, in the meantime, continued cleaning his fingernails disinterestedly in a corner of the room, while José Ramón, sitting in front his main computer, listened with a grave expression.

“You should not trust me at all!” Enrique gleefully responded. “Take as long as you want. Make sure there are no explosives or people waiting to harm your people. The only two things that I can assure you is that: (A) I want our Manifesto to become public, and a trap will not achieve that goal, and (B) the longer you take to publish the Manifesto, the longer it will be before your son gets treated for ebola.”

Another pause followed.

“How can I trust that you will let my son go after I publish your Manifesto?”

Enrique’s dark eyes flashed with pleasure.

“A fair question, and one that I anticipated. At the end of the Manifesto, you will find a sentence that says, in bold: ‘This Manifesto has been published under the understanding that we will release Francisco Pietrantoni once it has been published. Should we fail to release him, the representations we make herein should likewise be considered to be lies, and will have no value.’ In other words, Mr. Governor, we would be discrediting our own Manifesto if we do not follow up in our promise, and kill its words after it has been published. That should satisfy you. But there is another reason why you should trust us.”

“Which is?”

“The faster we get rid of your ebola-infected son, the less we risk being contaminated by him.”

Nour covered her mouth to stifle her laughter, while Rosario smiled and José Ramón stared with apparent distaste, shocked by his boss’s callous statement.

“May God have mercy on your soul,” the Governor said bitterly.

“I would take that mercy for sure, if I believed in God,” Enrique replied, “but I don’t. I will call you as soon as you publish the Manifesto, to let you know where you can pick up your son. Goodbye.”

* * *

Doel looked at his Apple watch, and saw that it was 9:38 A.M.

Lucas had called him around seven in the morning—more like a quarter to seven—and told him about his conversation with Archie.

Doel, whose several contacts had failed to come up with any solid leads up to that time, had enthusiastically agreed to explore the area with one of WKPA’s drones. He had lost no time heading toward El Yunque, with the drone operator, Rodolfo Fernández, following him in one of the station’s official vans.

Fernández, a tall, lanky, slightly stooped man with a small paunch and a Fu Manchu mustache, wore a tie-dye shirt of swirling green, yellow, and white colors, tight jeans, and leather sandals, the typical hippie-type apparel for which he had come to be known by his peers.

He had just finished setting up on a small table the color monitor that would follow the flight of the drone.

Doel and Aarón Otero, the bolita salesman who had spotted the terrorist the previous night, watched quietly from a few steps away.

They were on the outskirts of the tiny community of Bartolo, in a flat, grassy area close to the New Paradise retirement center.

“You say you last saw the Honda CRV heading up this road?” Doel asked the illegal lottery vendor.

“That’s right, this road over here,” Aarón replied, pointing at the two lane asphalt street that snaked toward the rainforest mountains.

“And you’re certain it was the man in the photograph?”

“As certain as I’m standing here right now, talking to you,” the illegal lottery vendor assured him.

Doel looked at him, as if determining his sincerity. Then he nodded.

“Okay,” he said to Fernández, who seemed more preoccupied with the song he was listening through his phone’s earbuds than with the conversation between Doel and Aarón. “I have to head back to the station now. Scour the area. You’re taping everything, right?”

“Uhum,” Fernández answered absently, while moving his head to the beat of whatever song he was listening though his earplugs.

Doel regarded him with quiet skepticism.

“Aarón is going to stay here with you, in case you see anything,” he said at last. In reality, he was not very impressed by his co-worker’s attitude. “You know what to look for, right?” he confirmed with Fernández.

“Huh?”

“You know what you’re looking for?” Doel repeated in an exasperated tone.

“A red Honda CRV, license plate JFF-16B,” Fernández answered in a distracted tone, his lips pulsing to the beat of the music.

Doel briefly closed his eyes in despair.

“Aarón, you will keep an eye on the screen?”

“Right I will, Mr. Reyes. Both eyes! I know what I saw, and I intend to recover my reward,” answered the plump bolita seller, his eyes widening for emphasis.

“And don’t let the people under surveillance see the drone,” Doel warned, his attention returning to Fernández.

The latter bristled at his colleague’s latest comment.

“Listen, this drone,” he said, pointing at the four foot wide, four-propellered machine lying on the ground, “is a state-of-the-art long-range surveillance drone, equipped with two long-range cameras, capable of staying airborne for an hour and a half before recharging or replacing its battery. It can fly up to a height of fifteen thousand feet, although I’ll keep it at a height of three to four thousand feet, in order to detect better what is on the ground, and read any license plates that need to be read. I know what I’m doing, so don’t lecture me about my job.”

Doel nodded resignedly. “Okay, just don’t get seen, please.”

The gaunt, hippie-looking drone operator raised one of his eyebrows in apparent disgust, and not saying another word, walked to the drone for a final checkup.

Trying to convince himself that everything would be okay, Doel got on his car and left.

(Chapter XXV will be posted on Thursday, July 16)

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