"And Then They Came..." (Chapter XXXII)
At 5’5”, Enrique was the smallest man in the group that had gathered in the living room of the rented mansion. Of the over three dozen men guarding the compound, only six people had been invited.
He stood in front of the television set, a diminutive figure that looked more like the cartoon of a villain—like Boris, from the Boris and Natasha Show in the Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle—than a real person. Except there was nothing funny about him.
He had always been small, a physical trait that had exposed him to a lot of bullying in Bosnia when he had been a young child. The abuse had taught him to keep his emotions in check, and to use his wits and innate intelligence to survive, often planting seeds of discord among his most powerful rivals, and pitting them each against the other for his own personal gain.
By fourteen, he ran a gang of young thugs that terrorized his native town of Gornji Vakuf.
It was the time when the Balkan states were breaking away from Yugoslavia, and the war between Croatia and Bosnia had proved to be a profitable time for Enrique’s organization. Muslim volunteers had poured into the country, and joined the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina (the ARBiH). The arriving fighters had needed weapons, and Enrique’s gang had been more than happy to smuggle and sell them to the newcomers.
Among the the fighters, Enrique had met a young Angel San Miguel, who then had gone by the name of Cazim. San Miguel had been a deeply religious Muslim man, and Enrique had not, but both men had quickly recognized the potential in each other. They had developed a close friendship, and subsequently created between them an elite terrorist organization.
By the year 2000, they had joined Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, San Miguel motivated by its jihadist struggle to dominate the world, Enrique by the immense profit that such a struggle generated.
However, when Bin Laden had been forced to go underground after 9/11, the pair had grown increasingly disillusioned with the Al Qaeda movement, and in 2005 abandoned it altogether, after being contacted by an international underground, Saudi based conglomerate simply known as “The Movement”.
Like Al Qaeda, and later ISIS, The Movement—The “Madhab” in Arabic—had operated mainly for the establishment of a Muslim-led religious world order. Unlike the other terrorist groups, The Madhab operated anonymously, quietly working behind the scenes to destabilize the world’s major governments, constantly expanding its influence through the use of terror.
Its most ambitious operation had taken place a year before, when San Miguel—under the guise of supporting the Puerto Rican independence movement—had literally severed the island of San Juan from the rest of Puerto Rico.
In the ensuing confusion, San Miguel’s men had planted a small atomic device in one of the tunnels of the old city, and then quietly left the island and allowed the “revolt” to collapse.
The nuclear device had been programed to detonate several months later, when the leaders of the world’s greatest economies were attending a G-20 Conference in Old San Juan. However, for reasons as of yet unknown to Enrique, the device had failed to detonate, and San Miguel and two of his most dangerous lieutenants, Czecka and Daniel, had been killed.
Enrique was there to correct that mistake.
In front of him, scattered around the living room, sat the closest in his team, the four people that of the nearly forty plus men stationed in the compound he would regret the most losing, plus the two men who—at the cost of their own lives—would execute the last phase of his plan.
Da’ud, the chubby, bearded, balding terrorist who had formed part of San Miguel’s original team, and who was prized for his extraordinary driving skills, sat closest to where Enrique stood, on one of the two oversized white vinyl chairs that flanked the room’s central sofa.
Da’ud had been one of the people who had helped San Miguel’s Hulk-like henchman, Czecka, plant the nuclear device in one of the tunnels of Old San Juan. He had also been the person who had placed the explosive in front of the jewelry store that had killed Alfaro’s mother.
On the other chair, at the opposite side of the sofa, rested Hassam, a wiry, thin, intense fighter that San Miguel had originally recruited from a Syrian refugee camp.
Like Da’ud, Hassam had been part of the original team that had participated in the previous year’s operation, leading the group of men that had infiltrated La Fortaleza, and captured the Governor, his family, and his staff. Also like Da’ud, he was one of the few fortunate men who had escaped from San Miguel’s prior excursion with his life.
Rosario, Enrique’s second-in-command, stood behind the sofa. The handsome, six-foot man had been constantly badgering his boss for more information, and showed more and more resentment over the fact that Nour, the only female in the terrorist group, knew more about the operation than him.
Rosario was also itching to kill Lucas face to face, questioning Enrique’s grudging respect for the Puerto Rican’s fighting skills.
Nour, the object of Rosario’s envy, sat in front of him, in the center of the sofa. Since Francisco’s escape attempt, the female terrorist’s attitude toward the boy had hardened. Before, she had felt indifferent about his fate. Now, she was glad that he was destined to die.
Of all the team members, the sultry Egyptian had been the greatest mystery to Enrique, having spent most of her previous time with San Miguel. Some said that she had been Daniel’s—San Miguel’s right hand man—lover; some had even hinted that she had been San Miguel’s secret love interest. Nobody had known for sure, and nobody had dared to ask her.
Enrique had come to know her better during the present operation, and had been impressed by her ruthless efficiency. Rosario was right to feel wary about her.
To Nour’s right sat Yousef, the young, morose Palestinian with dark, burning eyes, a narrow pock-marked face, and a sour expression, who would be in charge of culminating Enrique's master plan.
To her left sat Sami Masalha, another Palestinian who, of lighter skin coloration than Yousef, brown short hair, and a fashionable unshaven beard, looked more like a recently graduated Puerto Rican University student from a high middle-class family than a fanatical terrorist.
Both men had lost loved ones from Israeli military reprisals, Yousef his mother, Sami his wife and his two-year old daughter. Both men had received medical training, and both men spoke perfect English, although none spoke Spanish.
And both men had volunteered to sacrifice their lives for the success of the operation.
Enrique looked at his watch. It was 6:25 P.M.
“I have gathered you here to review tomorrow’s events, and to fill you in on what is about to happen,” the Homer Addams doppelgänger stated. “Up to this moment, for security reasons, I have kept most of you only marginally informed of those parts of the plan which pertain to you. Tomorrow, it all gels together.”
Rosario stopped biting one of his fingernails, and placing both of his hands on the back of the sofa, leaned forward, paying closer attention.
“I guess I must begin with what is now ancient history,” Enrique continued. “Two years ago, my friend Angel San Miguel and his team had a secret rendezvous with a Venezuelan submarine, off the east coast of Puerto Rico.”
“Wait, is that the time when the submarine fired a specially fitted torpedo at the coast? The one we picked up with a tow truck?”
Enrique nodded. “I believe you and Hassam were there at the time.”
“No,” Hassam said. “I stayed in the Naguabo farm, along with about ten others. Da’ud was there, though.”
“That’s right,” Da’ud confirmed. “Czecka was there too, and George, and San Miguel, of course. And I believe that Fabergé was also there. A police car intercepted us at the beach, but Czecka and George made short work of the two policemen in it. Czecka nearly cut off the head of one of them.”
Rosario grinned, Nour’s expression remained impassive.
“That torpedo carried a precious load,” Enrique continued. “From it, San Miguel assembled a small atomic bomb, which he later placed in a tunnel in Old San Juan. The bomb was destined to go off a few months later, when the leaders of the G-20 Conference nations met in San Juan to discuss the economic health of their countries.”
“Yes,” Da’ud said, “I helped carry the nuclear bomb into the tunnel with Czecka and a few others. But the bomb never went off.”
“We believe it was discovered before it detonated, and disarmed or disposed of,” Enrique stated. “We also know that San Miguel was followed by the police to the cruise ship Orion, which he was going to use to escape before the device exploded, and that Lucas Alfaro was with the police.”
“Alfaro?” Rosario said, speaking for the first time. “That guy seems to appear everywhere. I find that hard to believe.”
“Believe it,” Enrique replied. “I was on board the Orion at the time. I spoke to San Miguel just after he boarded, and before he was discovered. I took his lap top, where he describes all of the details of his operation. And I personally saw Alfaro disembark from the ship, after San Miguel’s body was wheeled out on a stretcher. Alfaro was there, even though no mention was ever made by the authorities or the news media about his presence.”
Rosario bit the bottom of his lip, tempted to continue questioning Alfaro’s participation in the capture and death of San Miguel, yet knowing that to question Enrique’s veracity could provoke his boss’s anger.
“The lack of mention of Alfaro’s presence tends to point to me,” Nour said quietly, “that he had a prominent role in San Miguel’s death, and that the authorities were trying to protect him.” “Precisely,” Enrique said, his eyes flashing with approval.
“So we’ve come back to avenge San Miguel and his men,” Rosario immediately surmised. “And you’ve started everything by torturing him, eliminating those closest to him.”
Enrique smiled, staring at his subordinate with disappointment.
“No, Rosario. Nothing as superficial as that.”
Silence greeted the small man’s statement. Rosario stared at his boss with genuine curiosity.
“The Madhab does not waste its considerable resources going after small prey like Alfaro. And I did not disclose to you just now how the radioactive materials got to Puerto Rico, just to tell you a story.”
“All of what we have done is just a distraction. A trick of misdirection, while we implement our real plan.”
Everybody listened quietly, now too curious to interrupt.
“We, San Miguel and I, always contemplated the possibility that our first plan would fail. Therefore, we made provisions for a Plan B. You see, the torpedo fired by the Venezuelans carried enough plutonium to build not one but two rudimentary atomic bombs. Each of with a capacity to yield a blast of between ten to twenty kilotons. Enough to create an explosion along the lines of that in Hiroshima.”
Rosario whistled admiringly. Da’ud crossed his arms, while the two Palestinians listened with unsurprised expressions.
Watching the latters’ reactions, Hassam concluded that the two men, the latest to join Enrique’s group, had already known about the bomb. Nour’s gaze shifted to the floor, as she digested the information that had just been shared.
“But the Manifesto…” Rosario interjected.
“Smoke and mirrors. Part of our ruse to misdirect the American and Puerto Rican authorities’ attention from our true plans.”
“And the ebola-infected boy?” Da’ud asked. “Another ploy?”
Ever since Francisco had escaped, and a few of the searchers had donned biological hazard suits to handle him, the truth about the boy’s condition had been discovered, and the news had spread like wildfire throughout the compound.
Except for Nour, most of the men were afraid of even getting near to Francisco’s room, and his food was served on paper plates with plastic utensils that were later incinerated.
“No, the ebola virus infection is critical to the final outcome of our plan,” Enrique answered categorically.
“You want to infect the Governor, maybe some of his Cabinet members, and strike fear in the Puerto Rican society,” Rosario suggested.
“Nothing of the sort,” Enrique replied. “I warned the Governor that his son has ebola. Infecting the Governor is not part of our plan.”
Nour shifted her gaze from Enrique to the others.
“You’re all missing the point. Enrique’s Plan B has to do with the second nuclear device. There’s a second nuclear device here, in the island, somewhere, isn’t there? And you plan to use it.”
The Homer Addams look-alike grinned delightedly.
“Bingo!” he said.
“And where did you keep it? After the first one failed?”
“Buried, in the farm, of course,” Enrique responded. “You said where did we keep it, right? Not where it is presently located.”
“It’s here now, isn’t it?” Nour asked, her eyes gleaming with excitement.
“It is,” Enrique confirmed, barely containing his exhilaration, beaming at the others. He was truly enjoying their bewilderment.
“So what is our plan?” Nour inquired.
“Each of you has been exposed to different parts of the plan. Now I will put them all together for you.”
The small man with the crooked nose and the bushy mustache turned his attention to Yousef and Sami Masalha.
“You two, together with Nabil and Da’ud, have been working on transforming a van into an ambulance.”
The two men nodded, Yousef with great pride, Sami with a more subdued reaction.
“Tomorrow evening we will tell the Governor where to send an ambulance to pick up his son. The Governor will then take him to an airjet at the airport, to transport him to a hospital equipped to handle ebola cases in the States. However, the Governor’s ambulance will never make it to the airport. Instead, our bogus ambulance will take him there, with Yousef and Sami taking the places of the paramedics in the real ambulance, and Da’ud driving it. The bomb will be inside.”
Rosario instantly knotted his eyebrows, evidencing his serious doubts about what he had just heard.
“Wait, wait, wait a minute. I can think of several serious flaws with that plan. First, we don’t even know what the real ambulance will look like. Secondly, assuming our ambulance makes it to the airport, they will realize that the paramedics that were sent to pick up the boy are not the same people coming back. They will arrest Yousef and Sami.”
Enrique shook his head, immediately disregarding his associate’s misgivings with a dismissive grin.
“We have done our research,” he answered in an unworried, lighthearted tone. “Well, José Ramón did the research, and informed me. There are only three companies that provide the type of air ambulance service between Puerto Rico and the States that the Governor’s son needs. None of them own ambulances in Puerto Rico, which means that whoever is flying the boy to the States, will never wonder why the ambulance driving him to the airport looks one way or the other. Besides, that’s why we’re scheduling the transfer at nighttime, when the darkness will help camouflage our vehicle. There’s a saying in Spanish: ‘De noche, todos los gatos son pardos’—‘At night, all cats look dark’. Believe me, when the land ambulance reaches the airport, the last thing they’ll be looking for is the ambulance’s appearance.”
“But wait, there’s more!” Enrique interrupted, his cheerful mood enhanced by his ability to answer all of Rosario’s questions. “When we were getting ready for this operation, we tapped the phone lines of two of the three flying ambulance services.”
Enrique directed a mocking glance at Rosario.
“Do you remember that? About a month and a half ago? When you rigged several telephone lines from a box near one of the rear entrances of the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport? That’s where two of the air ambulance services operate and keep their offices and air transports.”
Rosario said nothing, as his thoughts went back to the work that Enrique was describing.
About two moths before, Rosario and Hassam, wearing Verizon uniforms and fake credentials, had “worked” on a phone box on a lamppost, tapping a couple of lines near the airport. A police car had stopped and glanced briefly at them, but then, without saying anything, had driven away.
Rosario had told Enrique about the incident, saying that he hoped the risk they had taken had been worth it. He had forgotten about it since.
“What about the third air ambulance company?” Hassam asked.
“What about it?” Enrique repeated innocently, trying not to smile but failing miserably. “It’s a stateside company, so we couldn’t tap it. Not without conducting a major operation, anyway.”
“It was simple. We knew the Governor had to call one of the three companies to hire the services of an air ambulance. We had tapped two of them. If neither of those two was contacted, by elimination it would have to be the the third, the stateside company. However, it was one of the companies we tapped. It’s named ‘Puerto Rico AmbuAir’. We know where they are, and we know what they intend to do. We recorded the conversation between one of its executives and the Governor’s personal secretary, a certain Flor Ocasio.”
Enrique swept a triumphant look over his team.
“From Mrs. Ocasio’s telephone conversation, we know that the land ambulance will originate from the Río Piedras Medical Center. Two paramedics, both male, have volunteered to fly with the boy in the air ambulance to the National Children’s Hospital, or something like that, in Washington D.C. They’ll be the ones traveling with the land ambulance to pick up the boy...what's his name, Francisco?" he asked Nour, who nodded. "Francisco, at the spot that we designate. After we intercept them, Yousef and Sami will be taking their places, and climbing into the plane with Francisco.”
“How do you intend to substitute them?” Rosario inquired, still very doubtful about Enrique’s plan. “Won’t we run the risk that somebody, at the airport or inside the plane, will see Yousef and Sami and say, ‘These are not the people who’re supposed to be here!’ What do we do then?”
“Ah, but you forget that they, as well as Da’ud, will be wearing biohazard suits covering them from head to toes, with hoods, and with plastic visors, which by, the way, will be darkened and at the most show only their eyes,” Enrique answered with a sneer-like smile.
His last smirk had been a warning to Rosario. The kind of smile that said: You’re asking too many questions, and beginning to try my patience.
“That is part of the reason why we infected the boy with ebola. Whoever transports or accompanies him will have to wear a biohazard suit, and nobody will dare to question who they are, or check who is under that suit. After all, an ebola infection is a very scary thing," Enrique said.
“What I don’t understand,” said Nour, probably the only one already anticipating her boss’s plan, “is why substitute the ambulance at all? Why not take their ambulance, and take out the paramedics and the driver, and put in Yousef and Sami? And Da’ud as their driver, of course.”
“I will tell you in a moment," Enrique promised. "We may yet have to do that, depending on how everything develops. However, I have other plans for the remaining ambulance,” he added cryptically.
“But…” Rosario insisted, knowing he was risking his boss’s wrath. “What does all of this have to do with the second nuclear bomb?”
“Everything. Be patient,” Enrique responded, looking around him. “I’ll get to that shortly.”
Everything would revolve around the stretcher where the boy would be transported, he thought to himself. And the nuclear bomb under it.
( Chapter XXXIII will be posted on Thursday, August 13 )