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


Chapter XXXVI

Lucas held his left wrist in front of his face, trying to see the luminous dials of his watch in the darkness. It was his grandfather’s watch, still giving the correct hour after more than sixty years, the dim greenish outline of its face barely providing enough light to give him an educated guess of what the time was.

Jeannie, now lying on the bed next to him, had on various instances suggested that he get a more modern watch. But this was Don Jorge Pietri’s—his grandfather’s—watch. Lucas could never discard it.

From the faint glow of his ancient timepiece, he concluded that it was close to 5:20 in the morning. He had been awake for about three hours, his thoughts preoccupied with the various ways that the plans for next day’s…intervention would probably unfold.

He had never been a worrier when he had served in the Army. Mogadishu had surprised more than alarmed him, not because of the fighting that had occurred there, but because of how little human life had been valued there.

Shootings and murder occurred everywhere. When gunfire erupted, people scurried away more as if they were trying to get out of the rain than because of the horror of what they witnessed. Those killed or mortally wounded were often left on the street after the shooting had ceased, and the normal pace of those alive resumed.

At that stage of his life, he had quickly adapted to Somalia’s violent way of life. He had been trained to fight, and when the time came to do so, he had responded automatically, never considering or believing that he could really die. Not at the beginning, anyway.

His first real encounter with his own mortality had happened one afternoon, where he had sat outside of his barrack to read a letter he had just received from his mother Fannie. It had been a hot day, and Lucas had secured a small, shady spot under an extended tarp that covered his commander’s Humvee, sitting cross-legged on the cool sand next to the vehicle.

As he opened the letter—a thick yellow envelope sealed by wide transparent tape—an old watch protected by bubble wrap, with a real, brown leather wristband, had slipped out of it and fallen between his legs.

He had recognized it instantly, having seen it on his grandfather’s wrist on countless occasions, particularly when Don Jorge had worked with his thin blowtorch on a new piece of jewelry, or tried to repair a client’s heirloom.

With dread, he had pulled out the letter accompanying the watch. It was from his mother, Fannie. It read:

Dear Lucas:

I wanted to spare you as much as I could from the bad news, but it’s no longer possible. Your grandfather is very ill. It’s prostate cancer, and it’s metastasized. You know how much he hates doctors, he never bothered to check up. Apparently, he knew about the cancer for a long time, even before you enlisted. He kept it from all of us until he couldn’t hide it any more. The doctors give him no more than a couple of weeks.

A siren had begun to wail, and several soldiers had started to run towards a corrugated metal structure where they kept their weapons. Wiping away his tears with the back of his hand, Lucas had joined them.

That night, his platoon had been ambushed and three of his brothers-in-arms wounded, one of them fatally. Lucas had fought fueled by an unexplainable anger, as if the enemy had been responsible for his grandfather’s terminal illness. And for the first time, he had felt fear. Not fear of not surviving, but rather fear of not seeing his family again.

It was the same fear he had felt when the Macheteros were hunting him and Alfredo and the Governor in the tunnels under Old San Juan. The same fear he was feeling now.

Knowing him better than anyone, Jeannie had sensed it immediately after he had returned from Archie’s apartment.

“You’re late,” she had told him, reacting coldly when he had kissed her on the neck while she was washing the dishes.

“I was with Archie,” Lucas had answered truthfully, then lied. “He needed some help setting up some equipment for Michelle’s rehabilitation.”

“Oh?” Jeannie had directed a skeptical glance at her husband, then continued wiping a pan with detergent. “What did you install?” she had asked innocently.

“Oh, you know, the usual stuff,” he had replied as casually as he could manage.

“The usual? Like what?”

“Like…some parallel bars, so that she can practice walking while holding on to them, and some weights…”

“Weights? What weights?”

“Well, you know, like five and ten pound bars, that sort of thing,” he had answered, flustered.

“You must have worked a lot on those…’weights’, didn’t you? You and Archie.”

Jeannie had finished the dishes, and wiped her hands, looking directly at Lucas.

“You are such a terrible liar,” she had said, placing her hands on her hips.

Lucas had sighed. “Okay, you got me. I was with the Governor,” he had said, lying again. “And with Archie. Pietrantoni is negotiating Francisco’s release with the terrorists. He wanted my advice. I’m going to be there most of tomorrow’s night as well,” he had added. “That’s when Francisco is due to be released.”

This time Jeannie had hesitated, uncertain about the truth, trying to read her husband’s expression.

“There’s something you’re not telling me,” she had said worriedly.

“I can’t tell you everything the Governor revealed to me,” he had answered, this time truthfully.

Jeannie had continued to stare at Lucas, then nodded resignedly. “Okay. But it better be that you and Archie are not concocting some sort of crazy plan to look for the terrorists,” she had said, hitting the mark squarely on the head.

It had been close, Lucas thought, lying on his bed, seeing his wife sleeping peacefully next to him.

He loved her beyond life. He did not want to lose her by getting killed.

But it was for that same reason that he was resolved, more than ever, to track down the terrorists the next day.

And make certain they never bothered Jeannie or his family again.

* * *

Enrique stood behind the rectangular metal box that had been brought to the garage, waiting for Yousef, Da’ud, and Sami to attach it to the underside of the stretcher where Francisco would be carried. A metal frame had been built to hold it horizontally, so that the box would hardly be visible unless someone expressly squatted next to the stretcher and searched for it.

Even then, there would be no telltale marks that would identify it as a nuclear bomb. It would simply look, to the untrained eye, as a bulky part of the stretcher.

The bomb’s core and firing mechanism had been originally preset to fit into the aluminum box. The container where the lead-shielded plutonium core had originally been carried, bearing the fan-like, three-bladed yellow and three-bladed black sign for radioactive material, had been placed on one of the garage’s counters, a grim reminder of what the stretcher was carrying.

The very compact bomb was attached to the metal frame by eight clamps that would be welded to the stretcher. It would be set off by a small, palm-sized remote control that Yousef would carry. All that the morose Palestinian had to do was to open a hard plastic cover that protected the firing mechanism from being activated by accident, and flip a small switch forward from its resting position.

Each of the two fake paramedics would be armed with a Glock pistol, which they would hide under their protective hazmat suits.

After the men finished attaching the nuclear device, Enrique moved and shook the stretcher, making certain that the metallic rectangle would not fall off. Satisfied, he turned to his men, clapped his hands together, and grinned.

“We are set,” he said with morbid satisfaction. He looked at Yousef. “You know what to do.”

Brimming with pride, the Palestinian nodded.

“As we approach Washington to land, I will set off the device.”

“Right!” Enrique confirmed enthusiastically. “We don’t know who else is going to be with you in that plane. If you can avoid a fight, do so. But if you can’t, kill whomever stands in your way. Detonated above the airport, the blast will be significantly more destructive. Sami, you have the portable altimeter with you, right?”

“It will be hanging from my neck,” the young terrorist confirmed.

“You will let Yousef know when the plane has descended to three thousand feet. At that height, the bomb’s shock wave will bounce off the ground and into itself, creating a much more powerful explosion than if we set off the bomb from the ground, understood?”

“I will not fail Yousef,” Sami assured Enrique enthusiastically.

The terrorist leader regarded his two men with quiet satisfaction, tipping his head slightly backwards as if to see them better.

“I know you won’t,” he replied. “God will be with you.”

Da’ud stared at the stretcher in order not to show his emotions. He was not a devout man, but he believed in God. Enrique only believed that the two Palestinians would cease to exist—either in their human form or in any spiritual plane—after they detonated the bomb. It was evident that when he was making a reference to God, he was merely doing it to egg them on.

It was not right, Da’ud thought. San Miguel would never have lied to his men.

Da’ud did not trust Enrique, and would watch him closely until they left the cursed island on which they were.

* * *

Lucas opened the door to Archie’s apartment with the key that his brother-in-law had provided him. It was past 1:20 P.M., and he had slipped into the building unseen, after Ojeda had scouted the area ahead of him.

The Puerto Rican had spent the entire morning—from six thirty in the morning on—getting his house ready for the approaching hurricane, carrying the terrace furniture into the house, placing the metal storm shutters on all of its windows, tying into tight bundles the canvas awnings at the back of his house, and eliminating as much as he could every loose object in the back and front yards that could become a projectile with the hurricane force winds.

Jeannie had helped him, gathering as many candles and matches, batteries and flashlights as she could find, making sure their portable gas oven worked properly, locating three kerosene lamps that had been gathering dust for several years in the garage, filling various receptacles and the house’s two tubs with water, making certain that their two portable radios worked, and washing any clothes that needed to be washed, among many, many other chores.

The house, all three floors and five rooms in it, was a 1950’s structure built of armored concrete, which Lucas was convinced could withstand a nuclear blast. He knew, from prior experience, that he did not have to worry about its structural stability. It’s windows were its most vulnerable feature, and they would be covered by the metal storm shutters.

It was the lack of power and water after the storm, which could last for several weeks, for which they had to prepare the most. They had to be certain to have enough food and water to last them for at least a week.

It was already too late to try to purchase food in any store or supermarket. Like a plague of locusts, thousands of concerned Puerto Ricans had flooded every retail establishment in the island, and stripped them of anything that could be used as a source of nourishment—particularly canned items—or as a source of light during the long nights that followed. All hardware stores had already run out of wood and plywood. Even the portable power generators, in stores like Costco and Sam’s Club, had sold out in slightly more than an hour.

Around 11:30 in the morning, Lucas had stopped and taken a quick shower, while Jeannie cooked lunch for him, the children, and Ojeda, who had helped with the preparations. Lucas had dressed in dark jeans and a black, long-sleeved pullover, which had earned a curious look from Jeannie.

“You can’t go to La Fortaleza to see the Governor that way,” she had told him. “You look like a plumber.”

“We may have to go to the field when Francisco is released,” Lucas answered. “I’d better err on the cautious side.”

Ojeda had nodded in support.

Jeannie had stared at the two men with apparent distrust, and said, “I hope you two are not planning to do anything foolish.”

Lucas had laughed dismissively. “Have you ever seen me do anything foolish?” he had said In a light tone.

“Oh God,” Jeannie had muttered, shaking her head in disgust and returning her attention to the hamburgers she was cooking.

Like thousands of other housewives in the island, she was getting rid of as much of the refrigerated food as she could, before the power failed and the food had to be thrown away.

“Good hamburgers,” Ojeda had told her as he consumed his second serving with several vicious bites. For desert, they had had ice cream.

Before leaving, Lucas had embraced Jeannie, and kissed her passionately.

“Don’t run away with the gardener,” he had said to her, trying to lighten the mood with their favorite joke, but failing miserably. Jeannie had not even cracked a smile.

She had watched them leave from the front porch, her face a mixture of love and concern, waving at Lucas’ PT Cruiser even after it had sped away and he could not possibly see her.

Archie’s apartment was deserted, Archie still being at work. Lucas and Ojeda would wait there until Negrón had confirmed that Francisco had been freed, or until 11:00 P.M., whichever came first. Then, with the rest of their fellow conspirators, they would leave toward the terrorists’ compound.

“I’m going to take a shower and change my clothes,” Ojeda told Lucas.

The Puerto Rican nodded. Grabbing the television control, he turned on The Weather Channel.

* * *

Michael headed in his car towards the El Yunque rain forest, zig zagging through a narrow road surrounded by thick, tropical vegetation. Just ten minutes before, he had driven past the entrance to the mansion where the drone had shown that the terrorists were presumably hiding. He had slowed down and gazed at the gate, and would have stopped had Myers, seating in the passenger seat next to him, had not urged him to drive on.

“Do you want to spook them?” the security man had whispered in an irritated tone to his companion.

“Relax,” Michael had said confidently. “Nobody was looking.”

“Let’s hope so,” Myers had responded, still upset. “But if you pull a stunt like that again, I’ll tell Lucas to exclude you from tonight’s activity, do you understand?”

Raising an eyebrow, Michael had nodded.

They stopped in the gravel parking area of a bar called “El Guaraguao”, located about five miles from the gate, where two other cars were parked. A man inside had briefly glanced from one of its two open doors, and disappeared into the darkness inside.

Myers handed to Michael a prepaid cell phone he had purchased in Walmart—an Alcatel TCL LX model for which he had paid in cash $44.99, and told him, “Make the call.”

Michael dialed Archie’s work number, and his redheaded brother-in-law answered on the second ring. Michael stuck to the dialogue they had rehearsed the previous night. They doubted that their conversation would be recorded, but the call had to last more or less the time that the terrorists would have taken to deliver their message, so he tried to mimic a terrorist as much as he could.

“Is this Archie Román?” Michael said in a hoarse, Batman-like tone.

“Yes, who is this?”

“Your worst enemy,” Michael responded dramatically. Next to him, Myers groaned.

“Who is this?” Archie insisted, knowing fully well who it was.

“It doesn’t matter who it is. We have captured your brother-in-law, Lucas Alfaro, and his bodyguard,” Michael said. “If you don’t want us to kill them, meet us tonight at seven in the parking area of the El Guaraguao bar, on the road to El Yunque. But do not alert anyone, understood? If you do, you must say goodbye to Alfaro and his friend, permanently. We have contacts inside the police who will let us know that you betrayed us.”

“You must be crazy. Why would I surrender to you?”

“I already told you, dummy. Because if not, we will torture and kill your brother-in-law,” replied Michael, in his worst Batman-like voice imitation. “If you don’t believe me, call him. He will not answer. We have turned off his phone so that he can’t be located.”

“I will call him, you asshole,” Archie said in a loud voice. He was in his office, and its door was open, so that anyone outside could overhear him when he raised his voice.

Michael hung up. He verified that Lucas’ phone, which he had taken with him, was switched off.

* * *

Archie dialed Lucas’ number. As expected, Lucas’ voicemail answered.

“Hi, I am not available right now. But if you leave a brief message, I will call you back as soon as I can.”

“Lucas,” Archie said, trying to sound as anxious as possible. “It’s me, Archie. Please call me as soon as you can. Bye.”

Archie waited several minutes, as if he was considering what to do. He then looked up Negrón’s phone number, and “relayed” to him the message he had received from "the terrorists".

Negrón, following the script agreed upon during the previous night's meeting, and sounding like a bad high school actor, reacted dramatically and agreed to meet with his redheaded friend. Then Archie called Doel and Correcaminos, while Negrón contacted SWAT Captain Camilo Gomez, and the Governor’s bodyguard, Billy Hazard.

Archie would call Michael and Myers later, to give them time to return to the metropolitan area of San Juan.

Walking briskly out of his office, he told his secretary, “I have to go, Milagros. Hold any calls to me until tomorrow, okay?”

Milagros, a tiny woman in her forties, looked at him with concern. “Is everything all right?” she asked.

“Not really,” her red-headed boss replied, and left.

The plan to intercept the terrorists had been set into motion.

* * *

The door to Francisco’s room opened abruptly, and two persons dressed in yellow plastic biohazard suits walked in. Francisco, who had been lying on his bed facing the outside wall, turned and stared with a terrified expression at the two unrecognizable figures.

“It’s me, Francisco,” Nour’s voice said from underneath the mask, not even her eyes visible through the dark transparent material covering her face. “We’re coming to take you home.”

“Home?” Francisco repeated confusedly, his head swimming with a massive headache.

“Yes,” Nour confirmed. “You’re going home.”

Francisco stumbled to his feet, and stood in front of his bed, staring at the uniformed intruders with open distrust.

It was warm inside the room. No new air conditioner unit had been installed after Francisco had pushed out the old unit; his punishment for trying to escape. A wooden board had been nailed to the wall, to cover the hole where the unit had been. Even so, Francisco suffered intermittently from chills that made him shiver and cover himself with a blanket.

“But first, we need to inject you with this,” Nour showed him an injection.

Francisco automatically stepped back, tripping with the edge of the bed and almost falling backwards.

“No! I don’t want you to inject me with anything. I’m fine,” he said angrily, trying to block Nour with his hands.

“Listen, you little weasel, this is for your own good,” Nour told the scared boy, as he grabbed her arm. She was beginning to lose her patience.“It will make you sleep, and when you wake up, your father will be with you.”

“No!” Francisco screamed.

“Yousef, help me,” Nour whispered, unable to mask her irritation.

The other person in a biohazard hazmat suit rushed toward Francisco and pushed him, causing him to fall on the bed behind him. Yousef pinned both of the boy’s arms by his sides, holding him by his wrists.

“No!” Francisco screamed at the top of his lungs, thrashing his legs and making it difficult for Nour to reach him. “No!”

Nour cursed an unintelligible word, as she received a kick to the stomach, and then roughly inserted the injection’s needle into Francisco’s right arm.

The boy continued to struggle for a few seconds, and then began to weaken until he lost consciousness.

From behind her plastic shroud, Nour regarded him with distaste. “Carry him to the stretcher,” she told Yousef. “We need to go.”

(Chapter XXXVII will be posted on Thursday, August 27)

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