“Governor Pietrantoni,” the President of the United States replied. “How are you holding up?”
“Well, to be honest, it could be a lot better,” Pietrantoni replied.
He was speaking to the President through a private, encrypted line.
“My people in NOAA say that the probabilities of a direct hit by Fay have increased substantially. I pray that they’re wrong.”
Pietrantoni looked at the clock on his desk, where two figures, holding the flags of Spain and Puerto Rico, showed it was 6:50 P.M.
“I’m waiting for the official 8:00 o’clock bulletin, but yes, things right now don’t look very good.”
“I will be watching as well. I have asked my people to prepare a Disaster Declaration for the Island of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and I intend to sign it later tonight, unless something very dramatic and unexpected occurs. Also, we are sending the hospital ship USNS Comfort to San Juan, and we have asked FEMA to prepare several emergency shipments of water, medicines and food to the island, starting tomorrow very early in the morning.”
“Thank you, Mr President. Anything you can send our way will be well received.”
President Powell lowered his voice to a confidential tone.
“Now for the main reason that I’m calling. Your son. I have made arrangements for an ambulance to pick him up at Andrews Air Force Base as soon as his plane lands. It’s farther away from the hospital than the Reagan Airport, but it’s more private, and more easy to control and keep from the crowds of passengers. The ambulance will take him directly to the Children’s National Medical Center.”
“I intend to fly out with my son,” Pietrantoni informed the President. “The kidnappers have told us that they won’t return Francisco to us until tomorrow evening. Apparently, they want to be certain that they are not caught, and are undertaking elaborate preparations even as we speak. They will notify us the place where the ambulance must pick him up later today. If everything goes well, I will be waiting in the ambulance plane to transfer Francisco to Washington.”
“I would do the same thing, if it was my son,” the President replied. “I have notified the CDC, as well as the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House, and a few other key members of my administration, but we’re keeping this private for the time being. I know that sooner or later it will leak out, and that it will become a public issue and that I’ll take some crap, maybe a lot of crap for it, but by that time this matter will hopefully be a non-issue, or be overshadowed by other news. Good news, I sincerely hope.”
“I truly appreciate everything you are doing for us,” the Governor said.
It was not the first time that President Powell had taken a risk to help the Puerto Rican Governor. In the terrorist attack of the previous year, he had authorized the release of Adalberto Cacho, the leader of the dreaded Machetero terrorist group, in exchange for the life of Pietrantoni.
His gamble at that time had paid off after Cacho, who had taken over the revolt from San Miguel, had been strangled by Czecka.
“Nonsense, it’s the least I can do for you," he said "I don’t mind taking a little heat to help your son. Do you intend to track the kidnappers?”
“As soon as we know that my son is safe, we will send the police to the designated pickup spot and try to block off the area. But to be honest, I think they will be gone by then,” Pietrantoni responded. “Locating them becomes even more urgent because of the hurricane. If it hits Puerto Rico within the next two days, as seems to be the case, it will become a lot harder to find them afterwards. A forensic team will be searching the place where we pick up Francisco, even though first, we may have to disinfect the area.”
There was a pause, as the President considered the logistics of what the Governor was saying.
“I see,” he said in a thoughtful tone. “It’s all complicated by the ebola virus and the hurricane. I’ll ask the local FBI to help you.”
“Our Superintendent of the Police, Montañez, has already contacted the FBI. They will be part of our forensic crew.”
“Montañez?” Powell asked. “I seem to recall the name. He participated in last year’s rescue efforts, didn’t he?”
The President was famous for his prodigious memory, recalling the names and details, no matter how small or insignificant, of every event that came to his attention.
“Well, Montañez is a good man. It sounds that you have all of the bases covered.”
“Only as much as they can be covered. I wish there was a lot more that we could do,” Pietrantoni replied.
“So do I, Roberto, so do I,” the President said, addressing the Governor by his first name. “Just hang in there. I know it’s not much to say, but Francisco will be taken care of by the best that we can offer here. The Children’s National Pediatric Center ranks among the best medical facilities in the world to deal with this. They also have vaccines designed to attack the ebola virus. I know it’s hard, but have faith, your son will pull through. I guarantee it.”
The President was in no position of guaranteeing the recovery of Francisco, but his words comforted Pietrantoni.
“Thank you, sir. I will never forget this.”
“Changing the subject, have you heard anything from Lucas?” Powell asked.
“I haven’t been able to talk to him for the last couple of days. I heard about the security man you assigned to Lucas. I’m so sorry he got hurt.”
“Flanigan is a great guy. I know him personally, and he’s as strong as an ox. I’m also sorry he got hurt, but happy and relieved it wasn’t worse. He could have gotten killed, not that it would have been easy to do so, as those terrorists found out.”
The President chuckled softly.
“I’m so glad I wasn’t the guy who tried to kill him.”
Pietrantoni smiled half-heartedly.
“Okay,” the President continued, “so I guess that’s all for now. From what you’re saying, you’ll probably fly out of Puerto Rico around…this time tomorrow?”
“More or less.” Pietrantoni nodded, even though the President could not see him.
“Good. Just concentrate on doing what you have to do, and forget about everything else. In the meantime, I’ll keep an eye on your beautiful island.”
“Thank you, Mr. President,” Pietrantoni said, thanking Powell for the fourth consecutive time. “By the way, my Secretary of State Alberto Arizmendi will be in charge while I am away.”
“Arizmendi? Is that the one they call ‘Double A’? The one who shish kebab-bed with a rusty sword the guy that was trying to kill you…What was his name…El Alacrán, was it?” he asked, pronouncing the Spanish name with the correct accent. “The Scorpion, in English, if I’m not mistaken.”
Pietrantoni was forced to smile.
Powell had followed with great interest the events surrounding the prior the terrorist attack, and had been moved by the dozens of tales of heroism and individual sacrifice that had arisen from that brief, two-day incident.
“That’s the one, Mr. President.”
“I’ll have to meet Arizmendi some day.”
“He will be thrilled.”
“As will I.”
The President sighed loud enough to be heard through the phone.
“So listen, take good care of yourself. Everything will be all right. And Roberto?”
“Don’t you hesitate to call me for anything you may need. Anything. I’ll be here for you, as long as it’s legal. I truly value your friendship.”
Once again Pietrantoni nodded, this time because his words got choked in his throat.
“Not as much as I value yours, sir,” he finally managed to say.
“I look forward to having a scotch with you later this week. And when Francisco gets well, we’ll all have dinner here in the White House, you, Francisco and Nereida, as well as Lucas and Jeannie. I have a business proposition for him, now that his jewelry store has been destroyed.”
“I hope it doesn’t involve moving him out of Puerto Rico,” the Governor said, joking only half-heartedly. “I’d hate to lose him.”
“We’ll talk about it later. After all of this is over, we’ll talk about it,” the President said noncommittally. “A lot may and will happen between now and then.”
Pietrantoni hesitated, almost asking Powell what he had in mind. He truly would hate to lose Lucas. But at the last moment, he decided to save that conversation for later.
“Take care, sir,” he said. “Give my regards to the First Lady.”
“I will,” the President replied. “See you soon. MarÍa Luisa sends her love. She, Nereida, and Jeannie got along famously during their visit earlier this year.”
María Luisa was Powell’s wife, a former Miss USA and a Spanish-speaking New Mexican with close family ties to Mexico. Powell himself spoke excellent Spanish.
“Our prayers are with you and your loved ones.”
(Chapter XXXIV will be posted on Monday, August 17)