Da’ud guided the fake ambulance into the narrow, weed-filled entrance, and drove it through the tree-lined, sandy alleyway of the abandoned estate.
Only the front façade and parts of two side walls of what must have been in its heyday a grand plantation house remained. A wide set of tiled stairs with a flowery design, stained by more than a century of use and dust, led to a large porch that encircled the ruins of the house. A doorless entrance on the porch, at the end of the stairs, showed through its empty frame the sky beyond.
The ambulance turned on the wide circle in front of the house, originally used by the coaches that had traveled there from the distant cities of San Juan or Ponce, and headed back toward the entrance to the narrow alley, at the edge of the abandoned property. It stopped where it could not be seen from the outside road. A red Honda CRV trailed it, parking behind it.
Five armed men, led by Hassam, spilled from the back of the ambulance, and hid in their predetermined positions along the road.
They had chosen their spot well. It was approximately two hundred yards from the location where they would tell the Governor to pick up Francisco at a dead end street where two other more modern houses—also abandoned—stood.
The two houses had been casualties of the 2008 Great Recession. Unable to pay their heavy mortgages, their owners had boarded them up, and driven away.
In order for the real ambulance to get there, it would have to drive first through a hairpin curve bordered by heavy foliage, which would force it to slow down. At that moment, Enrique’s men would intercept it.
In the unlikely event that the ambulance refused to halt, they would stop it with a barrage of bullets.
Hassam ran across the road and hid behind a tree. He took off his biohazard hood and checked for the other four men—none of them Yousef or Sami—noting with satisfaction that they had all assumed their places. Taking his cell phone out, he called Enrique.
* * *
“We’re ready,” Hassam said without any preamble, before Enrique could answer.
“Good. We’ll warn you before the ambulance gets there,” the small, intense man answered.
He turned to Rosario.
“Get me the Governor.”
* * *
Governor Pietrantoni had been waiting since six in the evening—more than an hour—for the call to come through. Even so, he jumped when his cell phone began to ring.
It was 7:30 in the evening.
He was inside the Learjet that would transport him, Francisco, and the medical personnel to Washington D.C. He was wearing a yellow plastic biohazard suit, but not yet its protective headgear.
“It’s the kidnappers,” Double A announced tersely. “Shall I connect you?”
“Please,” Pietrantoni answered, unable to hide his anxiety.
“Good luck,” the Secretary of State said, and then, after a “beep”, added, “I have the Governor. Are you there?”
Another, higher pitched voice responded. “Yes, I am here! This is Enrique! Good evening, Mr. Governor, how are you?”
“I am here,” Pietrantoni answered in a neutral tone, ignoring Enrique’s pleasantries. However, he was grasping his cell phone so tightly that his fingers hurt.
“We are ready to return Francisco to you,” Enrique's high pitched voice said cheerfully.
Pietrantoni maintained a tense silence.
“Hello, are you there?” Enrique said after receiving no response.
“I am here. Go ahead.”
“First, for the terms and conditions,” Enrique announced.”You__”
“What terms and conditions?” Pietrantoni said, barely able to contain his anger. “I’ve already complied with all of your terms and conditions!”
“Relax, M. Governor, relax. These are just the terms and conditions for Francisco’s pick up, so that the exchange transpires smoothly and without a hitch. So let me just tell them to you.”
Pietrantoni took a deep breath. “Go ahead.”
“First, only the driver of the ambulance and its medical personnel must be in that vehicle. Do you know how many medical people will be inside?”
Pietrantoni hesitated. Arizmendi had made the arrangements for the ambulance. He had no idea of how many people would be in it.
“I don’t know. Do you know, Alberto?” he asked Double A, who was listening to the conversation.
“Who’s Alberto?” Enrique asked.
“Alberto Arizmendi, my Secretary of State.”
“He’s listening in? That’s the kind of surprise that might jeopardize this exchange.”
“He made the arrangements for the transportation, and he’s the one who is going to tell the ambulance where to go, so he has to listen to the conversation,” the Governor answered testily.
There was a pause in the conversation.
“Okay,” the high pitched voice said. “But no more surprises. As you may suspect, you won’t be able to trace the origin of this call.”
“I am not trying to. Alberto, do you know how many people are traveling with the ambulance?”
“I’m not sure, but I presume that it’s the driver and two paramedics,” Double A responded.
“Good. Make certain that it’s not more than those. We don’t like surprises, and Francisco could suffer serious consequences if there are any ‘hidden’ passengers in that ambulance. Do you understand, Alberto?”
“Yes,” Arizmendi said nervously.
“Yes,” the Governor answered at the same time.
“Under no circumstances must those men be armed.”
“They won’t be.”
“And no police may follow them. In fact, no police may be within a radius of five miles of the transfer location. No drones either. We have the means of detecting them. And no tracking devices. We also have the means of detecting those. I know the FBI will try to convince you to install some of these devices or try to follow you, but there will be fatal consequences if you cave in to their pressure.”
Pietrantoni nodded, then said. “We will comply with your terms.”
The FBI had indeed insisted in placing a GPS tracking device in the ambulance, as an additional method of protection, and the Governor had reluctantly agreed. He would ask Arizmendi to make certain it was removed.
“That’s it, then. Those are our terms. See how simple they are?”
Pietrantoni failed to reply.
“So are you ready for the pickup location? Arizmendi, are you ready?”
“Tell the ambulance to follow Highway 186 all the way into the mountains, until it reaches Ceiba Street. There, it must turn left until it gets to Yagrumo Street. This is a dead end street. There are two abandoned houses there, at the end of the street. Francisco will be in the second house, from left to right, as the ambulance approaches the houses. Enter the house through its garage door, where the plywood covering it was torn off. Francisco will be inside, lying on a blanket on the ground. He’s been anesthetized and tied up, so he won’t wander around, once we leave him there.” Enrique chuckled. “We don’t want him spreading the ebola virus throughout the neighborhood, do we? There, your medical personnel can transfer the boy to their stretcher, and take him away. Any questions?”
Pietrantoni sighed with relief. If Francisco could “wander away”, then there was a good possibility that the infection had not progressed too much.
“Alberto, did you catch the address?” he asked.
“Yes, Alberto, did you pay attention?” Enrique asked in a mocking tone.
“I have it,” Double A replied.
“Good. You may come at any time you deem convenient. Goodbye.”
* * *
Arizmendi walked to the room in the first floor of La Fortaleza, where two FBI agents had listened to the telephone conversation.
“The Governor has asked me to tell you that you should remove any tracking devices that you have in the ambulance,” he told the agents.
“That is not a very wise decision,” Guzmán, a tall man with a carefully clipped mustache, a squeaky voice, and an unusually thin face said. “We will lose contact with the ambulance and not know what is happening.”
“We have no choice,” Double A quickly answered. “The terrorists say that they have the means to detect any GPS tracking device that we have installed in the vehicle. Can they do that?”
Guzmán and his partner, Bill Parker, exchanged a look of uncertainty. Of the two men, Parker, a native Arkansan who had worked with the FBI in Puerto Rico for decades, and become more of a Puerto Rican than many of the island’s inhabitants, was the agent with the most seniority.
“There are some devices that can pick up most GPS trackers,” Parker responded.
“The one you installed?”
Parker hesitated. “Possibly,” he answered truthfully, not fully sure.
“So take it out,”Double A told him. “We can’t risk Francisco’s life.”
“I’m sorry, guys, but this is non-negotiable. Do the people in the ambulance know where the tracker is?”
“Yes, it’s under the steering wheel,” Guzmán answered.
“Call them, and tell them to take it out.”
Arizmendi turned around and walked out of the room.
The two agents stared at each other.
“Do you have the cell phone number of the driver?” Parker asked Guzmán.
“Of course. He's waiting for us to give him the address where he has to go.”
“Okay. Call him and…” Parker hesitated. “It’s so important to find these people…We need to call the police too.”
“But we can’t tell the police to follow the ambulance,” Guzmán said.
“No. What we can tell them is to close every road within a radius of five miles from the spot where the boy is, and check every car. After the ambulance picks up the boy, that is.”
“They’ll be long gone before then,” Guzmán said. “These people are professionals.”
Parker considered his partners’ statement for a moment. “Fuck it,” he said at last. “The tracker stays. I doubt those people will really be able to find it.”
“But, it’s a big risk,” Guzmán expressed, reflecting deep uncertainty.
“These people are criminals, Raul,” Parker responded, casting his gaze downward, as if afraid of looking at his partner’s expression. “If we let them go, they will kill more people…”
The Arkansan’s message was clear: as federal agents, they had to weigh what was more convenient for the common good, even if it meant placing the life of the Governor’s son in jeopardy.
“The GPS tracker stays,” he repeated, as if trying to convince himself.
Guzmán said nothing. Parker outranked him. If anything happened, it would be on his head.
(Chapter XXXVIII will be posted on Monday, August 31)