“I have the boy,” Nour announced triumphantly through her cell phone to Enrique.
The Homer Addams look-alike, standing on the second floor terrace of the terrorist hideout, continued staring at the green forest extending below him, and grinned happily.
“Great! Is he all right?”
“I had to tie his hands behind his back, and bind his ankles, because he wanted to escape, but he’s alive. Weak, but alive.”
“Perfect. Bring him in. Which car are you driving?”
“The black car. The black Suburban.”
“Okay, I’ll call back the other search parties. Rosario will be waiting here to spray your suit with disinfectant after you have taken the boy to his room.”
“Won’t he escape again?” Nour inquired, then answered her own question. “Not that he has much energy to do anything. He almost fell asleep instantly when I placed him in the back of the car.”
“No, we’ve sealed the hole. Besides, he’ll spend less than a day in the room before we return him to his father. How did you find him?”
“He left a track of footprints, trodden leaves and branches and dead plants that a herd of elephants would not leave behind! I just had to follow them, and let the Suburban track me through the nearest roads. We were lucky that we intercepted him just as he was about to contact one of the local mountain men… jíbaros, I think they call them. I had to kill him. But it was convenient, because the Suburban was able to drive up to the man’s house, and I didn’t have to carry the boy through the forest. That would have been hard.”
Enrique chuckled. Only a real killer would have thought as “convenient” having to kill a man in order to avoid carrying the boy through the forest.
“Well, hurry back. I’m going to call the Governor, and let him know we will be returning the boy to him soon.”
* * *
“It’s the kidnappers,” Arizmendi—Double A—informed the Governor, covering the mouthpiece.
Governor Pietrantoni had waited all morning long for the call, trying to concentrate on the emergency preparations for Hurricane Fay.
An interim NOAA bulletin had projected the path of the hurricane to graze the northern edge of Puerto Rico, placing the island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra within the hurricane’s force wind radius, and exposing the eastern coast to storm force winds and possible storm surges. The track could still fluctuate, with Fay turning a little bit more to the north and sparing Puerto Rico, or more to the west for a direct hit. Regardless of what happened, the government could not afford to wait; it had to start getting prepared now.
During the past hour, the Governor had met with his Cabinet in the main dining room of the Executive Mansion, to implement and coordinate with his various agency heads the government response to the impending emergency. Usually held in the Civil Defense bunker, the meeting had taken place in La Fortaleza, since Pietrantoni did not want to risk missing or being unable to receive the kidnappers’ call.
The noisy conversation in the dining room immediately petered out, as the Governor stood up and took the phone from his Secretary of State, all eyes riveted on the two men.
“This is the Governor. Did you see__”
“The Manifesto? I saw it. I also heard parts of it on the radio,” Enrique responded in an airy, happy voice. “Good stuff. Good stuff. By the way, tell the person who handed you the telephone to cover the receiver better. I heard everything he said. And I resent that he referred to us as ‘kidnappers’. As you read from our Manifesto, we are freedom fighters, helping those who are oppressed by the powerful__”
“Listen, just…cut the crap!”
This time, it was Pietrantoni who interrupted, completely losing his patience. He immediately bit his lip in frustration, knowing that his outburst could endanger the return of his son.
For a moment, the caller said nothing, making Pietrantoni think that his angry response had offended the kidnapper to the point that he had hung up. Then the man spoke again.
“You sound a bit irritated today. Although I can understand it, I would advise you, for the good of your son Francisco, not to insult or interrupt me again. Understood?”
Pietrantoni remained silent, knowing that the well-being of his son depended on his curbing his temper. He could not, at that moment, trust himself to speak.
“Understood?” Enrique repeated.
“Understood,” Pietrantoni responded, holding back on a much harsher response.
“Good!” Enrique said cheerfully. “Now listen carefully, because this pertains to the return of your boy. Tomorrow, you will send an ambulance to pick up your son at the location that we designate.”
“Where will that be?”
“If you think we will tell you as early as today where you can pick him up, you must be crazy! We will tell you tomorrow in the evening.”
“Why tomorrow evening? Why not return him to us today?” the Governor asked in an exasperated tone.
“Because we are not ready to return him to you today, and I don’t think you are ready to receive him. I mean, you are going to fly him to a specialized hospital in the States, are you not? Or have you decided to have untrained personnel treat him here, in Puerto Rico, that is if any hospital will take him in the first place.”
“I already have made arrangements to fly him out to the States, as soon as he is released. I can do it right now, if you release him,” Pietrantoni answered.
“A wise decision, making the arrangements. But we’re not ready to release him now. We’ll be ready tomorrow. Tomorrow will give you and us more time to prepare for what we have to do.”
“One word of caution. You will only send an ambulance to pick him up. No police cars, no policemen disguised as medical personnel, no helicopters or drones. Believe me, we will know. And if you do not follow our instructions, we will kill him. Understood?”
Pietrantoni took a deep breath. “Understood.”
“I suggest that the medical personnel wear protective suits. Your son is contagious.”
The Governor closed his eyes in despair, thinking about Francisco. With his left hand, he held on to the edge of the dining table, shaking so hard that he thought he would swoon and fall.
Enrique paused again, and then continued. “I will call you tomorrow at around 7:00 P.M. Goodbye.”
Pietrantoni continued to hold the cell phone close to his ear, almost if trying to squeeze more information out of the mobile device. His anguished thoughts swirled in his mind, fogging his concentration, hindering his efforts to focus on the matters at hand.
The members of his Cabinet watched him with genuine concern, all of them aware of his internal struggle and his conflicting emotions. He swept a distressed glance over the men and women sitting around him.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t,” he said apologetically. “I can’t focus on what I’m doing. It would be a disservice to our people if I try to deal with the hurricane while thinking exclusively about my son.”
“We understand completely,” said Rosa González, the Secretary of the Treasury and one of Pietrantoni’s staunchest supporters.
During the prior year, when the terrorists had attacked La Fortaleza, and captured the Governor and Secretary of State Arizmendi, she had for one day become the Interim Governor of Puerto Rico.
“Your son comes first, Roberto. Arizmendi and the rest of us will deal with what’s happening while you deal with Francisco.”
All eyes turned to the Secretary of State.
It was true, Double A thought, but there would be political fallout.
He could already see Pietrantoni’s fiercest political rival, ex-Secretary of Justice Rovira Meléndez, accusing the Governor of abandoning the people of Puerto Rico in their greatest moment of need, as a hurricane approached their island.
But it did not matter, he concluded quickly. At that moment, Francisco did come first.
The shorty, chubby, balding Secretary of State turned to his friend and shrugged good-naturedly.
“It’s okay, Roberto,” he said. “Puerto Rico will manage to survive without you for a couple of days. You’re always assigning me with all of these impossible tasks, and I’ve always come through, like when I saved you from El Alacrán.”
Everybody smiled. It was common knowledge that it had been Lucas who had saved the Governor, his family, and his staff from being executed by the Macheteros in the prior year’s terrorist attack. However, it had been Double A who, stumbling while he held a sword, had accidentally skewered the notorious terrorist.
“And it was you who tasked me with winning the plebiscite last summer, even though Rovira Meléndez tried to take away a large chunk of the pro-statehood vote,” he added, this time in a more serious tone.
“And he delivered,” Rosa pointed out.
“Yeah, I did, didn’t I? Whatever good that did to us.” Arizmendi said proudly. “So covering you during a hurricane should be a walk in the park.”
“I think you can count on all of us, Mr. Governor,” Police Superintendent Montañez added. “We will all shoulder the responsibility, and consider Arizmendi as your surrogate while you’re gone. The people of Puerto Rico have a good heart. They will understand what you’re doing.”
“Go focus on Francisco,” Double A said. “We’ll handle the rest.”
Pietrantoni searched the faces of the men and women sitting at the table, and saw by their expressions that they all supported Double A’s proposal.
His eyes clouded with tears.
“Thank you, my friends. I will never forget this.” He turned to Arizmendi, and smiled resignedly. “So it’s your show now. Please make sure the island is here when I return from Washington.”
Double A laughed softly. Then, as the Governor walked out of the room, he whispered, “Shit.”
* * *
Enrique switched off the cell phone and placed it back on the table by the computers. It would remain there until the next day, when he called the Governor to tell him Francisco's pickup spot.
“I am going to the garage,” he said to José Ramón, who nodded.
He exited the computer room, and headed toward the second floor stairs. He felt extremely happy, but also extremely excited. Everything was progressing according to plan, but they were entering the most critical phase of their operation. He had to make certain that every detail, no matter how small, was taken care of, that nothing was left to chance. And that meant checking and double checking everything until the very last moment.
He walked down to the first floor terrace, and from there continued to the parking area. As he approached toward the three car garage, he passed the smaller structure where they had kept the big American bodyguard tied up, and he could not help thinking about how that episode had ended up.
He had intended in delivering his Manifesto tied around the dead American's neck, to make their message sound more ominous. Not that the Manifesto mattered anything to him. It had been drafted mostly by Angel San Miguel prior to the first mission, while San Miguel was alive.
Enrique didn’t really care about the plight of the downtrodden, as San Miguel had. He knew there would always be a dominant ruling autocracy, and he planned to be part of it. His game was the attainment of power for power’s sake, his power in particular.
From the outset, when both he and San Miguel had joined The Movement, designed to defeat the world’s major governments and establish a religious state, he had viewed his organization as a stepping stone, a vehicle to achieve the type of sweeping control and fear on which he would base his eventually absolute authority. Once his present plan was executed, he would be well on his way of achieving his ultimate goal.
However, the American agent’s unexpected survival had tarnished the image he had so carefully tried to create. Instead of punctuating his Manifesto with the American’s corpse, the man had somehow killed his would be executioner and escaped with his life.
Enrique did not like that. It took away from the appearance of ruthless inevitability that he wanted to imprint on each of his acts.
It made him look bad.
At least, it had shaken him out of his complacency, buoyed up by the string of successes he had had, and made him focus more intensely on the problems at hand.
He would not fail again, he promised himself. He would consider every detail, every possible contingency, and plan for it.
Unlocking the side door of the larger garage with a key, he stepped inside and flicked on a light switch.
The transformation of the white van into an ambulance had been completed. He did not know how similar to the ambulance sent to pick up Francisco looked, but it did not matter much. He doubted that anyone would notice the difference.
Placed parallel to the van was an ambulance stretcher. It was covered by a transparent, plastic tent. A hose on its lower back corner connected the tent to an oxygen tank below it, to provide the patient with oxygen while keeping the bio-contaminants contained.
Enrique squatted next to the stretcher, and looked at its underside. There was an empty space next to the tank, about the size of a small photocopier, that would hold the device.
Satisfied, he stood up, stared for a moment longer at the fake ambulance and the stretcher, and then left.
(Chapter XXIX will be posted on Thursday, July 30)