Police Superintendent Montañez stepped out of his black Lexus—the same black Lexus that his predecessor had used—placed a map on the hood of the car, and spoke into the police radio’s hand microphone.
“This is Montañez to all units,” he said. “Please confirm your positions. I repeat, please confirm your positions, over.”
“Position one ready, over,” a gruff voice responded.
“Position three in place, over,” a higher pitched voice said after several seconds’ pause.
“Position four ready, over,” a female voice stated.
“Position five in place, over,” another male policeman announced.
“Position two, position two, where are you? Over?” Montañez inquired impatiently.
“Just made it,” someone answered a couple of seconds later in a harried tone. “Sorry for the delay. There’s a big traffic jam here, over”
“Be prepared for confirmation, over and out,” Montañez warned cryptically.
The five units were ready to block the only routes from which vehicles could access or leave the spot where Francisco was supposed to be picked up by an ambulance, within a radius of five miles. “Confirmation” would refer to the moment that the ambulance actually “confirmed” it had rescued Francisco and was heading toward the airport.
At that time, the five access routes would be closed, and all outgoing cars would be searched in the hope of intercepting the terrorists.
Montañez, parked about a hundred meters from “Position 1” on Route 186, would direct the search.
The Police Superntendent leaned into the Lexus’ passenger door, and said to the driver, “Rivera, please follow up on the present location of the ambulance.”
Behind the Lexus, an FBI black Lincoln SUV waited with its engine running. Inside it, agents Parker and Guzmán followed in a laptop the GPS tracker installed in the ambulance that would pick up Francisco.
At that moment, the ambulance was moving at a very slow pace, trying to pass a multiple vehicle crash—including an overturned van—that had snarled traffic fifteen miles away. Despite heroic efforts by the police to clear a route, the ambulance—inching its way among the bumper-to-bumper traffic—would take another forty minutes to reach the spot where Montañez was standing.
That would delay the pick up to 9:30-9:45 P.M.
“Where is that damned ambulance?” FBI agent-in-charge Mendez asked from the passenger seat up front.
Gumersindo Mendez—locally known as “Gomer” Mendez—was a man in his mid forties, almost as tall—but not as athletic—as Montañez, with black, closely coiffed hair surrounding the top of his bald head, massive hands with fingernails bitten to the quick, and small, fast moving, intelligent eyes. He had substituted the former head of the FBI in Puerto Rico, Mario Franceschini, after then Superintendent Maldonado had discovered that Franceschini was aiding the Medellín cartel to smuggle drugs into Puerto Rico.
Not the most fit or smarter of the local FBI agents, Gomer had nevertheless organized a sting operation where two large human trafficking rings had been dismantled, and more than thirty of its members jailed. Thus, when Franceschini had been arrested, he had been the natural choice to substitute him.
“It’s stuck in traffic,” Parker responded.
“But we’re tracking it?” Gomer inquired.
“Yes, of course.”
“All right. I’m going to talk to Montañez.”
The FBI agent stepped out of his SUV and approached the Police Superintendent, who was busy talking into his cell phone.
“I have to hang up now,” Montañez said, eyeing the approaching Gomer and nodding in his direction. “Mr. Mendez,” he said to the FBI agent.
“Superintendent Montañez,” Gomer acknowledged.
It was an open secret that the new Police Superintendent did not have a high opinion of the new FBI chief. In fact, Montañez thought he was an idiot, and had told the Governor so.
“But how do you explain his taking down the human trafficking rings?” Pietrantoni had asked him.
“He has good men working for him,” Montañez had retorted. “All he had to do was sit back and let them do their jobs.”
“Let’s hope he shows that same common sense now,” the Governor had said, thinking about Francisco.
That had been two days ago. So far, Mendez had let the rescue operation run without any of his input, which was perfect for Montañez.
The two men shook hands.
“Any further news?” Gomer asked his police counterpart.
“The ambulance is stuck in traffic.”
“I know. Our tracker shows it will be at least a half hour before it gets here,” Mendez said without realizing what he was revealing until the last of his words had left his mouth.
“Wait. What GPS tracker?” Montañez asked him worriedly.
“You left the tracker in the ambulance?” Montañez asked incredulously. “After the Governor expressly asked you to take it out?”
“No, no,” Gomer lied half heartedly. “We should have, but we didn’t.”
Montañez faced his counterpart directly. Even though only a couple of inches bigger than the FBI chief agent, he looked like a grizzly bear about to tear a deer apart.
“Then why did you talk about ‘your tracker’? You’re lying to me, aren’t you?”
“We have an FBI car tracking the ambulance. Just in case anything happens,” Gomer replied, making it up as he spoke, although the FBI did have one of their vehicles also shadowing the ambulance.
“You know that is contrary to the express instructions of the kidnappers, don’t you?” Montañez said furiously.
“It’s just…while it gets here, to the perimeter. Then, they’re supposed to…join us and wait…”
“Now listen to me, Mendez, I don’t believe one word of what you’re saying. You are going to phone your so called…’tracker’ right now, and tell them to disengage,” Montañez said to the FBI agent. “We can’t place Francisco’s life in jeopardy. And Heaven help you if you have left a GPS tracker in the ambulance. If that’s the case, and anything happens to Francisco, I swear to God I will look for you and pound you into the ground, do you understand that?”
“There is no GPS tracker in the ambulance,” Gomer said weakly, lying again.
Montañez regarded him with extreme distrust. “For your sake, if not for Francisco’s, I hope you’re telling the truth.”
“I am, believe me,” Mendez answered with as much sincerity as he could muster.
As he headed back to his SUV, his legs were noticeably shaking.
He opened his SUV’s back door, where Parker and Guzmán kept watch over the ambulance’s progress in their computer.
“The ambulance__” Parker began to say, but Gomer cut him off.
“Call off the vehicle tailing the ambulance. Montañez knows about it, and was very angry that we were tracking the ambulance.”
“How did he find out?” Parker asked him.
“I don’t know,” he lied. “They were probably noticed by one of their police units, and they recognized our SUV.”
“I’ll call them right away,” Guzmán said, picking up his cell phone.
“What about the GPS tracker?” Parker asked.
Gomer considered briefly his question, shaking his head.
“It’s there already. There’s nothing we can do about it.”
* * *
The ambulance at last cleared the accident scene and sped toward the rendezvous point. With its lights flashing and its siren at full blast, it whizzed past Montañez and the FBI parked vehicles at precisely 9:31 P.M.
The Superintendent watched it drive by with concerned resignation, then climbed into his parked Lexus.
“May God be with them and Francisco,” he whispered to himself.
* * *
Rosario sat inside his parked beat up Sentra, on Ceiba Street, apparently reading a newspaper. He was about three miles away from the spot where Francisco was supposed to be picked up, a little less than that from where Hassam would intercept the ambulance.
The digital clock in his car showed 9:34 P.M. when the ambulance finally rushed past him. He picked up his phone, pressed the #3 button, and then“Call”.
Hassam answered after the second ring.
“Felipe’s Towing Service,” Hassam said.
“The tow truck is heading in your direction,” Rosario said, chuckling inwardly at Hassam’s code name. “It should be there in two or three minutes.”
“Thank you,” Hassam said, terminating the call.
* * *
“Get ready!” Hassam hissed loudly, warning the men around him. “The ambulance is coming.”
He stood up, walked to the middle of the dark road, and pulled out of his back pocket a roadside safety flare. He took off the flare’s plastic cap, pulled out a ring, and a pink flame shot out of its tip. The flare would remain lit for thirty minutes, long enough for the ambulance to get to the dark curve where they were waiting.
Placing the flare on the road, he stood behind it, his face and dark clothes illuminated from below, giving him a ghoulish, pinkish glow.
Patiently, he waited.
(Chapter XL will be posted on Monday, September 7)