They had watched the drone’s video twice, counting the terrorists guarding the property, although a significant portion of the overhead view was covered by the lush canopy of the trees and the vegetation growing in the area.
Two guards armed with AK-47’s were stationed at the gated entrance, two more walked along the terrace of the mansion’s second floor, and six other similarly armed men patrolled the perimeter of the property,
Bordered by tall, royal palm trees, a long alleyway extended from the gate to the house for the length of about a football field.
A high, mesh wire fence separated the outer fringes of the property from the public road outside, most of it overgrown with weeds and vines. However, apart from that, no other fence was visible, the house’s owner apparently content with letting the dense tropical foliage that surrounded the mansion to act as a natural barrier.
Further into the property, beyond two structures that seemed to be the garages or storage areas of the compound, a trail led to a tennis court where two large trailers had been parked, each at a wide angle from the other.
The drone had discovered four more men sitting around a table playing dominos by one of the recreational vehicles. A blue canopy, with what seemed to be a long wooden table and benches partially extended under it, stretched between the two closest ends of the trailers.
“That makes a total of fourteen men,” counted Archie.
He looked at his watch, and saw it was close to seven P.M.
“Plus what seems to be a foot sticking out from under the small roof of the larger garage building.” Correcaminos observed.
The sportscaster walked closer to the screen, hit the the rewind button of his portable control, and froze the image on a small roof connected to the side of the garage. As he had indicated, a boot and a portion of a military camouflaged pant leg clearly appeared on the screen.
“A guard of some sort,” he suggested.
“Why would they be guarding the garage? Isn’t that weird?” Doel asked, unconsciously stroking his mustache.
“Maybe they have Francisco in the garage,” Negrón surmised, the young police sergeant’s voice cracking with excitement.
Nobody spoke for several seconds, as they all observed the image on the television set.
Archie cleared his throat.
“Be that as it may, and adding Correcamino’s foot to the equation, that makes a total of fifteen men.”
“There’s ten of us here, including Lucas—a former Army Ranger—two security and former military men—Ojeda and…What’s your name?” he asked to the older of the two Americans.
“Myers,” Correcaminos responded before the bodyguard could answer.
“Myers,” Michael repeated. “We have the SWAT captain…” Michael again was at a loss for the name of the SWAT officer.
“Gomez,” Correcaminos helped him again.
“Yeah, Gomez,” Michael looked around the group, looking for those he had not yet mentioned. “Plus the the Governor’s bodyguard…”
“Hazard,” Correcaminos said even before Michael could hesitate.
“That’s right, Hazard. And Sergeant Negrón,” he added, as the gangly policeman was about to object to his omission from the roster of able-bodied men. “He’s a policeman and is familiar with the use of arms. As is Archie, a veteran from the Afghan War. He may be gimpy-legged, but he still can fire a gun.” Michael glanced at his red-headed brother-in-law. “Sorry, Archie, didn’t mean to offend you.”
“No offense taken,” Archie responded, raising an eyebrow resignedly. “I am gimpy-legged.”
Michael turned his attention to Correcaminos and Doel. “You seem fit,” he said to the sportscaster. “Are you familiar with the use of guns?”
“Not particularly, although I have fired a Glock a couple of times in a firing range,“ Correcaminos answered.
Michael shrugged. “At the very least, you’ll be able to make some noise and keep them busy while the rest of us take care of them. I’m sure you’ll be able to help.”
He looked at Doel more soberly.
“I’m not so sure about you. How old are you, sixty-something?”
Doel regarded him with an offended expression. “More or less.”
“Do you know how to handle a weapon?”
“I went to Vietnam,” Doel replied indignantly.
He did not mention that he had spent his entire time there as a public relations officer inside the army base in Da Nang.
Michael’s eyes lit up. “There you go, then. Another veteran! And I’m no slouch with weapons either. We can take fifteen of them. Easily.”
“Wait, Michael,” Archie said to his brother-in-law. “You’re not counting the men that may be inside the house, or in the the RV’s, or the garage.”
“At least expect double the men that we can see,” Myers observed. “At least. I suspect these men work in shifts, and may share the same bed during different times of the day. So expect at a minimum double, more like three times the men we can see.”
“And all of them are apparently well-armed,” Gomez, the SWAT captain, pointed out.“And there’s parts of the property that are covered with trees and we can’t see if there are more guards stationed there,” he added.
“We can take them,” Michael repeated. “We can surprise them and take them.”
“Then there’s also the question of the weapons,” Gomez said. “All of these people have AK-47s, it seems. What have we got?”
His question seemed to catch everyone unaware.
“I own two Glocks and a .45 Automatic, as well as a shotgun,” indicated Michael. “That can arm four of us. Archie?”
The redhead shook his head. “I don’t own any guns.”
“Nor me,” stated Correcaminos. “Like I said before, I’ve only fired a gun a couple of times. And those were borrowed guns, to see how it felt.”
Michael looked at Lucas, standing behind the living room’s sofa with his arms crossed.
“I know you don’t own any guns,” he said to his brother-in-law in a reproachful tone. “I mean, really, who’s ever heard of a former Army Ranger who doesn’t own a gun?” he added rhetorically, shaking his head with disapproval bordering on disgust.
“I know a couple who don’t,” Myers said.
“I own a .45 Automatic that I haven’t used for years,” Doel said. “I keep it in a box in my bedroom’s closet, gathering dust somewhere. I don’t know how many bullets I have.”
“I have Sally,” Negrón volunteered, his high pitched voice crackling with pride. “My Smith & Wesson. I call her Sally. We’ve been through a lot together, including last year's shootout with the terrorists in the Grand Laguna Hotel.”
Archie smiled, having by then heard Negrón’s exuberant description about Sally on dozens of prior occasions.
“I have a couple of Glocks I own personally. Plus an X Bolt Browning rifle with a telescopic sight and a single-barreled pump action shotgun—a Remington,” Gomez said, adding some more firepower to their small arsenal.
“Now we’re talking,” Michael said with enthusiasm, but quickly quieted down after Lucas directed him a reproving glance.
“We both have Sig Sauers P229’s,” Myers said last, opening his jacket and showing his holster below it, at chest height, close to his left arm. “They’re standard in our security outfit.”
“So we have enough weapons,” Archie concluded. “But not their kind of firepower.”
“Which is a big problem,” Gomez said.
“I’ll tell you what our biggest problem is,” Doel interjected. “Even if we come out okay from what is surely going to be a heavy gun battle at the very least, what we’re doing is illegal, and if we’re not killed we may all end up in jail. Some of us could be automatically fired from our jobs. And that’s the best case scenario. Because if we lose the fight, we may all die.”
Doel’s somber assessment was greeted in silence.
“So…we just call the police? Let them handle it? That’s it?” Negrón asked in a plaintive voice, his question sounding unreal, since he was, after all, still wearing his police sergeant uniform.
Michael walked to Archie’s kitchen and served himself a glass of water.
“If we capture these guys, we’ll be heroes. I don’t think they’ll punish us for killing the guys who murdered Maldonado and massacred the crowds in last week’s ceremony. Not to say anything about the bomb they planted in the jewelry store…and how they tortured your man and almost killed him,” he said, pointing at Myers.
“They’re still going to__” Gomez began to say, but Doel cut him off.
“No, no, wait, captain. Michael has a point. We are dealing with a bunch of cold-blooded murderers. If we capture them, we will be heroes. Well, some of us. I would suggest that the police people, Negrón, Gomez, Hazard, even Myers, and Ojeda,…If they’re not wounded, that they leave the scene before the police gets there.”
“And if they are wounded? What do we do?” Archie asked.
“We need a cover story,” Correcaminos suggested. “Something like the terrorists kidnapped one of us, but we managed to follow them. We’re all friends here, so we called one another.”
“So why didn’t we call the police then?” Doel, the most practical in the group, queried.
Stumped for an answer, the men considered the question.
“So…” Correcaminos said after a pause, expanding on his suggestion, “the terrorists, they are bent on revenge, and they kidnap Lucas. Then, they call Archie, and tell him that they have Lucas. They tell Archie that unless he and Negrón go to their place and turn themselves over to the terrorists—without alerting the police—they will torture Lucas to death.”
“Why do they want us? Me and Archie?” Negrón asked in a horrified tone.
“They know you were directly involved in the fight against the terrorists last year. Also, you were on board the cruise ship where they killed San Miguel, for Christ’s sake,” Correcaminos said to the young police sergeant. “So they know you were somehow involved with San Miguel's death. They tell Archie that they want to find out what happened to their associates. But you suspect that what they really want is to avenge what happened to their comrades. The terrorists promise that they will release all of you, let your families live in exchange for the information Negrón, Lucas, and Archie provide.”
“That’s bullshit!” Negrón exclaimed.
“Of course it is, and you and Archie suspect as much,” Correcaminos answered. “But the terrorists tell Archie that if he calls the police, they will know about it, because they have a mole in the police force, and that they will execute Lucas in the most painful way possible. Negrón and Archie are to meet the terrorists at a designated spot, which we can decide on later, but one that’s close to where the terrorists keep their compound.”
“Oh my God, that’s terrible! It’s a trap!” Negrón said, genuinely stressed, forcing some of the others to smile.
Correcaminos continued elaborating his cover story.
“In view of their threats, and the possibility that there really is a mole in the police force, Archie, who is definitely not the suicidal type and hopes he can save Lucas, calls the only people he can trust: Myers, Ojeda, Gomez, Hazard, Doel, Michael, and I. After Negrón and Archie are picked up by the terrorists, the rest of us covertly follow them, and then surround the place.”
“And then the shooting begins!” Negrón said, rubbing his hands with glee.
“I would change one part of the story,” Lucas interjected.
“What?” Correcaminos asked defensively.
“I would not involve Negrón as one of the people the terrorists demand to surrender, only Archie.”
“But why?” Negrón asked in an offended tone. “They would hate me as much as Archie. Probably more, since Archie was wounded during most of the fighting in the Grand Laguna Hotel!”
“Yes,” Lucas replied. “But if the Superintendent finds out that you, a policeman, planned with Archie a rescue operation that did not involve the police, he will be forced to fire you.”
“But…but Archie works for the police!” Negrón protested with indignation.
“Yes, but he is not a law and order officer. He is a civilian liaison with the press, and therefore it could be argued that he is not as duty bound as you are to notify the Superintendent about any threats made by the terrorists. Also, he is my brother-in-law, and therefore has a bigger excuse for following the terrorists’ instructions than you do.”
“And I’m your friend! And I am…” he was going to add that he was in love with Michelle, Lucas’ sister, but stopped himself in time.
“And you’ll always be my friend, Edgardo,” Lucas replied. “But you swore that you would be faithful to your department. If you decide to participate in a rescue mission where the police, the outfit for which you work, was kept in the dark, you’ll probably be fired.”
There was a contemplative lull in the conversation, as the group considered Correcamino’s made-up story, and Lucas’ observations.
“Lucas is right,” Archie said at last. “Our story must be that the terrorists demanded that I give up… And that I organized the rescue mission because they said there was a mole in the Police Department.”
“You know, any good district attorney will shoot down the story with more holes than the ones Lucas would get if he’s captured by the terrorists,” Doel said. “But…it’s so absurd, it might just work.”
“You should be writing novels! Or movies!” exclaimed Negrón in an excited tone, slapping his knees. “Holy cow! The Avengers has nothing to envy this!”
“I am writing a novel,” Correcaminos replied, grinning.
“Yeah, but it’s a romance novel, isn’t it?” Doel said, provoking several guffaws among the others.
Correcaminos grinned sheepishly. “It takes a man of rare sensibility and who is completely sure of himself to write a romantic novel,” he replied in his most manly, sportscaster-like voice.
More laughter followed.
“When the police investigates this later, they will try to locate the call that Archie allegedly received in his cell phone from the terrorists, in order to corroborate his story,” Myers observed dryly.
“That can be easily arranged. I’ll buy one of those disposable cell phones, and call Archie from the vicinity,” Michael said. "The call will appear in Archie's cell phone, but they'll never know I made it."
“The terrorists will deny the kidnapping story, those who survive our raid, I mean,” Gomez warned.
“So? It’s their word against ours. Who do you think they’re going to believe?” Archie said, warming up to Correcaminos’ idea.
Another silence followed, as the gravity of what they were about to do slowly dawned on the assembled group.
Lucas, standing behind the sofa, cleared his throat.
“It seems, from the way all of us are talking, that we’re going through with this.”
Most of the men nodded.
“Then, before we start any raid, we must be certain of one thing. Whatever we do, we have to wait for Francisco to be released, so that he doesn’t get caught in the cross-fire if a shootout begins. We can’t place him in any danger,” Lucas said. “Anybody have any way of knowing when that will happen?”
“The police has been placed on high alert for tomorrow night,” Negrón said, raising one hand. “The rumor mill is that it’s because Francisco is going to be released at that time.”
“Really?” Lucas said in a surprised tone. “That soon?”
“That’s what the rumors say,” Negrón replied.
“Remember their Manifesto,” Archie said to the others. “They promised publicly to release Francisco after the Manifesto was published, and it has.”
“I don’t know,” Doel said doubtfully. “I think we need to base our actions on something more concrete than the police rumor mill. I’ll try to find out what’s happening from my government sources.”
“And I’ll call the Governor and ask him point blank,” Lucas added.
“Really? You have that kind of a relationship with him?” Doel asked with a surprised look.
“The Governor and Lucas are very close friends,” Michael stated proudly. “They’re as close as ‘uña y carne’—‘flesh and fingernail’ ”, he translated for the benefit of the American bodyguards.
Lucas sighed, embarrassed by his brother-in-law’s brash statement. “I’ll try to get through to him,” he assured the others.
“It makes sense that Francisco is released soon,” Gomez said. “With that hurricane due to get here in a couple of days, the quicker the terrorists get rid of their hostage, the less they have to worry about him afterwards. Remember, communications will probably be down after the hurricane. Most of them, anyway. If they really want to keep their promise, it’s better for them to do it before the storm gets here.”
Lucas walked around the sofa, and stood in front of the others.
“I have mostly kept out of the initial discussion, because I didn’t want to influence anyone about what they decide to do. But personally, I know what I am going to do. Those people murdered my mom. They murdered my aunts. They severely injured my kid sister, and they have terrorized the rest of my family. Even during the memorial service of my mother, they left a note threatening to kill my family. They have kidnapped the Governor’s son, they murdered Police Superintendent Maldonado, and they shot scores of unarmed Puerto Ricans attending the ceremony that precisely commemorated the people who had sacrificed their lives during their last attack, a year ago. I intend to go after them, with or without your help.”
He paused, examining the faces of the men in front of him.
“If anyone here feels uncomfortable with what I intend to do, this is the moment to back out of this. Nobody will think ill about you if you do so. This is clearly my fight, and Archie’s, and Michael’s, but that’s about it. Please think about the risks you’ll be taking, before deciding what you're going to do. You don’t have to risk your lives for us.”
Correcaminos regarded Lucas with defiant stare, while Doel crossed his arms and looked at the floor. Negrón shook his head vehemently, leaving no doubt that he would participate, while Gomez just smiled. Hazard remained impassive, watching Lucas. Myers and Ojeda exchanged a glance, and then Myers spoke.
“You keep referring to this as ‘your fight’. It’s not. We want to find the men who beat up our friend to a pulp. So we’re staying.”
“Also,” Ojeda added with a sly grin, “we genuinely like you. We’re not going to let you fight alone.”
“Hey!” Michael protested.
“Well, nearly alone,” Ojeda said, laughing.
"Michelle is like a daughter to me," Doel said. "I'm going after the people that hurt her."
"So am I," Correcaminos interjected. "I mean, I'm not as old as Doel--few people are--but I love your sister as much as he does, maybe more.
Negrón sighed. "I am offended that you would even think of excluding me."
"Hazard and I also have scores to settle, " Gomez said, looking briefly at the Governor's bodyguard. "We both lost good friends during the terrorists' last attack. These people are scum. We're not going to let you fight them alone."
Lucas stared at all of his friends. “Thank you,” he said, genuinely moved by their support.
He paused to gather his thoughts.
“Although I will be calling the Governor tomorrow to make certain of the time that Francisco will be freed, we can’t wait until then to get ready. We need to get ready now. Those who have people waiting for you, you should make up some sort of an excuse for getting back late, and call them now. Also, even though this goes without saying, nobody outside of this room can know about what we’re doing, understood?”
Several in the group assented, while Correcaminos, Gomez, and Michael took out their cell phones, pausing to think on an excuse for their lateness.
Lucas walked to the corner of the living room from where Michelle boasted that she could see the ocean, and felt a lump form in his throat as he thought about her. She was in the hospital, her ability to walk again in doubt, her capacity to ever stand in that corner and “look out at the sea” questionable at best.
"I think we should order pizza for all of us, don't you agree?" Archie asked him.
He would find the men who had hurt her. He would find them and kill them, or die trying.
The dice were cast.
The time of reckoning was coming.
Quietly, he took out his cell phone and called Jeannie.
(Chapter XXXV will be posted on Thursday, August 20)