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

Chapter XXVII

At 8:15 A.M., the Government of Puerto Rico posted the following Manifesto on its Facebook page, which was subsequently reproduced and re-printed by every news media outfits in the island as well as several national and international news organizations:

“To all the people of this world:

We are a group of international freedom fighters that have dedicated our lives to righting the terrible wrongs inflicted upon the poor, defenseless, and powerless peoples of the Third World by that most aggressive and immoral of all world powers, the United States.

For more than a century, since the Spanish American War, the United States has, by the force of its weapons and money, abused and subjugated countless peace-loving, defenseless countries, many times--as in South and Central America and Puerto Rico--appropriating their choicest lands, promoting dictators friendly to its underhanded, capitalist tactics, and forcing their inhabitants, including their women and children, to work for slave wages in the most abusive of work conditions, both in their factories and their vast landholding agricultural estates.

Invoking ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’, they have fomented, sometimes through their puppet dictators and sometimes by the direct use of force, the elimination of any persons who stand in the way of their abuses and commercial exploitations, and who try to bring social justice to the innocent masses that they so oppress. Their capitalistic philosophy places profit before the well-being of their enslaved employees, a healthy balance sheet before the establishment of basic human rights, and an absolute free commercial hand before the consideration of their unfettered pollution on our planet.

Those who seek social justice are automatically labeled as ‘communists’, ‘anarchists’, and ‘free-loaders’, supposedly living off those entrepreneurs who describe themselves as ‘hard-working’ but who in reality profit from the sweat and blood of the common man, denying us a decent wage, and depriving us from our most basic needs.

Many have tried to reform these injustices by resorting to the so-called ‘democratic systems’ established under the American model of government, but these movements have failed, and are doomed to continue to fail from the outset, because they are systems established by the same people who oppress us, the same capitalist entrepreneurs who only think about the bottom line of their enterprises, and little else. And in the meantime, the United States, by the force of its arms and its economic power, continues to pursue policies that result in the deaths of millions in the world’s less fortunate countries.

To our American oppressors we say, ‘Enough!’ Enough of playing by your rigged rules. We will never win through a ‘democratic’ vote, because the systems you have forced upon us do not represent the bulk of the working class. Enough of bowing to your economic bullying, where you threaten to block our trade or close our factories unless we do your bidding, where you bribe or blackmail our leaders to adopt policies that harm our citizens, where you steal our resources for measly pennies, and then sell them back to us at a hundred-fold profit.

Like locusts, your businesspeople have devastated many of our countries, caused war and destruction, locked millions in refugee camps, caused massive migrations, defiled our religions, and starved our populations, including the most precious of all our resources, our children.

We will not stand for it any longer. We will not play by your rigged rules, now or ever again.

We have declared a Holy War against you, where we will fight fire with fire. We will no longer tolerate the persecution and the extermination of our people. We will unleash war and destruction upon those who bring war to us, especially the United States, on the same scale and with the same zeal it has been brought upon us. We will destroy their interests wherever they are found, abroad and in America itself, by any means or any way possible. We will kill its armed forces wherever they are, as well as those of any of their surrogates. We will uproot any of their puppets, and establish governments that truly represent their people.

And we will not rest until we win, until our enemies are brought to their knees, and they sue for peace. And even then, we will not rest until we have been made whole, until the terrible injuries that for more than a century have been inflicted upon us are repaid in full.

Many innocents will die in our righteous struggle. Casualties in armed conflicts are always inevitable. But in the end, we will win. We are legion. And whatever innocent deaths occur in our fight for freedom will be more than justified.

Our struggle starts here, in Puerto Rico. It started a year ago, when we took over San Juan, even if for a brief time, and showed how weak and vulnerable your puppet government is. It will continue until the American abuse inflicted upon your country stops, and its oppressive regime is completely eradicated.

As the world can see, we have forced the Governor of Puerto Rico to print this Manifesto by kidnapping his son. We have promised to release him when the Manifesto is published, and we will keep our word.

However, do not mistake this Manifesto for the ravings of a few helpless fanatics. We are limitless, and our struggle will never end.

On that you have our word too.”

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 will have no value, and should not be taken seriously.

* * *

Fernández got to the retirement centre in the Bartolo community by 9:00 A.M., and found Aarón already there, waiting for him in a state of excited agitation. As the WKPA drone operator drove his van into the parking lot, the bolita salesman waved at him excitedly as he cantered in his direction.

“You’ve been here long?” Fernández asked him, as he stepped off the van.

“I saw them!” Aarón exclaimed, running toward the hippie-like drone operator. “They were here!”

Fernández paused, chewing rapidly on his gum, his brown Fu Manchu mustache highlighted by the morning sun. He directed a curious stare at the plump, usually soft-spoken man.

“What do you mean they were here?” he asked.

Aarón paused, raising a hand to indicate he needed to catch his breath.

“I was sitting over there,” he pointed to a bench near the community centre’s main building. “I was waiting for you, when the red CRV drove into the parking lot and circled around it slowly. There were two men inside, but none of them was the man in the picture that El Chino sent.”

“You’re sure it was the same vehicle?” Fernández asked, his tone reflecting his skepticism.

“I looked at the license plate. It was JFF-16B, the same one I saw before!”

Fernández considered the news quietly. “When did this happen?”

“That’s the thing!” Aarón responded enthusiastically. “This was less than ten minutes ago, and they headed into town! Didn’t you see them?”

“I don’t recall seeing them,” Fernández said. “But I can’t say I was paying a lot of attention. Will they have to come back through this same road?”

“Yes!” Aarón responded, barely able to contain his excitement.

“Then let’s get the drone ready, and we’ll follow them,” Fernández said, getting caught up in the other man’s animated enthusiasm.

He opened the back hatch of his vehicle and began to unload it. “Do you have any idea what they were doing here?”

Aarón shook his head. “It was all very strange,” he said.

“Why strange?” Fernández asked as he carefully pulled out the drone from his van.

“They seemed to be looking for something…or somebody. But they were not looking for something in the parking area or the centre. They were mostly looking toward the outside, toward the vegetation bordering the parking area.”

“Huh! That’s weird. What do you think they were looking for?”

* * *

Francisco stumbled over several rocks covered with green moss that edged the small river he was following, nearly losing a shoe in the mud. He was lost and exhausted, having traveled most of the night, struggling through the dense, sometimes thorny shrubs and vegetation that surrounded him.

The tropical forest that bordered the house where he had been imprisoned had turned out to be thicker and darker than he had ever imagined it to be. Tall ferns and palms, interspersed with large, white-on-the-top-and-green-on-the-bottom leaved yagrumo trees, and several other types of plants, bushes, and vines, had obscured the night sky overhead.

Rain had fallen in periodic surges that had lasted between ten to fifteen minutes. Most of the rainfall, stopped by the dense canopy above him, had been turned into millions of water drops that constantly bombarded the ground below, even after it had stopped raining.

Hundreds of tiny coquí frogs, joined by crickets and other insects, produced an almost solid, pulsing wave of sound, quieting when the hiss or roar of the rain above announced another round of precipitation, or when the boy approached them.

Francisco, his head throbbing painfully in tandem with his racing pulse, had quickly discovered that what seemed to slope down many times went up again, and that following a descending route would not necessarily lead him to safety.

In fact, once he had stumbled down a steep, muddy ravine that the blackness of the forest had rendered invisible, scraping his ribs and left arm and getting covered in mud. In no time, his clothes had become drenched, his shoes and socks squishing every time he took a step.

Miserable, shaking and sick, Francisco had finally curled up underneath a large tree trunk, and decided to wait until morning.

He had no watch, so there was no way of telling when the night would turn into day. The boy had waited quietly, and through the lingering darkness, had wondered if the sun would ever come up again, or whether it had just flamed out, dooming the world to live in eternal gloom.

When the first rays had finally broken through the foliage, they had found him fast asleep.

Francisco had awakened around eight in the morning, surrounded by what seemed to be an infinitely green world. He had trouble moving, feeling pain in his joints, riddled by scores of insect bites, and plagued by his relentless, throbbing headache.

He knew he was lost, and thirsted for water more than hungering for sustenance. He decided to look for a river, reasoning that if he followed its course, it would eventually lead him to the coast and civilization.

Getting up, he had wandered for more than an hour before he heard what seemed to be the cheerful sound of moving water. Slowly, he had made progress toward the noise, until quite suddenly, almost theatrically, the rushing stream of a small river had appeared in front of him.

He had scrambled towards the river and drunk from its cool, crisp, clear water greedily, until his thirst had been partially quenched. Then he had decided to follow its course.

It had been very rough going. Large, smooth boulders and mossy stones bordered the flowing current, which the boulders sometimes seemed to funnel into a foaming, dangerous-looking torrent, forcing him to climb down some of their steep, slippery sides, or to trudge through extensions of the mud and mosquito-filled stagnant water bordering the river’s banks.

After about two hours of walking, he came upon what seemed to be a narrow trail, and decided to follow it. Then, a half -hour later, he stumbled onto a football field-sized clearing between the lush tropical hills.

His heart leapt as he saw what seemed to be a distant wooden hut, with the figure of a man sitting on its narrow porch.

“Hey!” he shouted desperately. “Heyyyy!”

He began to amble toward the house, trying to move as fast as his legs would carry him, most of his strength gone.

At first, the man did not seem to notice him. But then, he looked up, placed down the object he held in his hands, and waved at the approaching boy.

“Help me!” Francisco pleaded, his voice hoarse from exhaustion.

The man stood up, walked down the steps of his porch, and began to run toward Francisco.

He must have been two dozen yards away from the boy, when a sharp “pop” rang out from the surrounding forest, echoing through the hills, and the back half of the man’s skull dissolved in a small red puff.

The man instantly fell to the ground, and stopped moving.

Francisco screamed in terror and frustration, and then he saw a small man wearing what appeared to be a yellow, plastic suit covering him from head to toes, emerge out of the vegetation to his left. He was holding a rifle with a telescopic sight.

Two other men, dressed in normal clothes, followed him.

The man in the plastic suit dropped his rifle and sprinted clumsily toward Francisco.

The panic-stricken boy began to run toward the opposite side of the clearing, but his legs failed him and he fell hard.

The man got to him before he could stand up.

“You little weasel!” a feminine voice said to him in a teasing, reproachful tone from inside the suit. “Look what you've made me do!”

“Nour, please!” Francisco pleaded, sobbing.

“Do not despair, my little boy. We’re returning you to your father. Isn’t that what you wanted? Why didn’t you trust me? I told you that I was your friend.”

“But why did you kill that poor man? Why are you dressed like that?” Francisco asked, sobbing disconsolately.

“Hush, you little weasel. You ask too many questions. Just come with me, if you want to see your father again, and everything will eventually be explained.”

Nour grabbed the boy and hoisted him over her shoulder.

“I’m taking him in the vehicle,” she said into a small hand-held communicator. “You two check out the hut, and kill anybody else that you find inside. Then dispose of the bodies, and walk back to the compound. I don’t want any signs of anyone to be left behind, understand?”

(Chapter XXVIII will be posted on Monday, July 27)

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