Lucas’ PT Cruiser turned off its lights as soon as it reached the ‘El Guaraguao’s’ parking area, and the two cars following it—a dark gray 2020 Jeep Cherokee and a metallic blue Toyota Prius—immediately followed suit.
The bar, usually bustling with at least a dozen clients during the night, and blaring music from a coin operated jukebox, was closed down and boarded up, already prepared for the arrival of Hurricane Fay.
One of the plywood boards nailed over the establishment’s entrance read in green, luminous, spray-painted letters: “MALDITA SEA LA MADRE QUE TE PARIÓ, FAY” (“Damn be the mother that borne you, Fay”), and under it, in English, “FAY, FAY, STAY AWAY”.
The drive to ‘El Guaraguao’ had been eerily quiet, as if most people had already withdrawn to their houses and were waiting for the impending storm.
Even the local roads that they had taken to avoid the expressway cameras had been unusually empty, not more than a couple of cars moving at a cautious speed through them at any time. Only the gas stations—those that had not run out of gas and been already shut down—the supermarkets, and the large hardware and retail stores along the way had shown any kind of significant activity, and even there, there had been noticeably less movement than during the morning and early afternoon hours.
Puerto Ricans had become experts in hurricane preparations. They had learned to take the storms seriously, and to dread the long term effects they brought with them. They were taking no chances, and preparing for the worst.
One other vehicle, partially hidden by the dark shadows of the surrounding vegetation, was already waiting next to the boarded-up liquor establishment: a shuttle that could carry up to twenty passengers.
Lucas parked his car next to the shuttle, and stepped out. Michael exited from the other front passenger door, and Archie and Ojeda from the backseats.
The Jeep and the Prius parked next to them, bringing with them the rest of the “Mission Impossible Gang”, as Negrón had dubbed them. The door to the shuttle was open, and Lucas walked directly toward it. It was freezer-cold inside, and smelling strongly of strawberry-scented car deodorant.
“You must be Michelle’s brother,” a man hidden by the shadows inside said from the front passenger’s seat. Despite the darkness, it seemed to Lucas he was a man of considerable bulk. A smaller man, plump but never as obese as his companion, with a round face, shy friendly eyes, and a tiny mustache, sat on the shuttle’s driver seat.
“Chino!” Archie said from behind Lucas with a surprised tone. “You’re here!”
“Do you think I would miss this, Colorao?” Archie’s former bolita boss said, his eyes gleaming as if with their own internal energy. “Like Sherlock Holmes would say, ‘The game is afoot!’ This is personal to me too. They harmed your little sister, El Colorao’s wife,” he told Lucas in a sad, indignant, lower voice. “They have to pay for that.”
The previous night, El Chino had called Archie. He had found out, he said, through his bolita salesman Aarón, that they had found the terrorists, and wondered what they planned to do about it.
At first, Archie had been evasive, but after El Chino had prodded him further and offered to help however he could, Archie—El Colorao, as El Chino called him—had had an idea. He had promised to call his former boss back, and then spoken with Lucas.
“We can’t walk to the terrorist compound, it’s too far away from El Guaraguao, and we can’t leave our cars on the side of the road. They may be discovered by the wrong people,” he had told his brother-in-law. “We will need transportation that can drop us closer to our target area.”
Lucas had reluctantly agreed, and El Chino had promised to get them a shuttle that would bring them within a half mile from the terrorist compound. He had never told Archie, though, that he would be waiting for them inside the shuttle.
“Lucas Alfaro.” Lucas extended his hand as he walked into the shuttle, and it was immediately enveloped by El Chino’s fleshy paw. “We appreciate all of the help you have given us.”
Lucas examined with curiosity the bolita boss’s features, still partially hidden by the shadows. Heavy jowls folded over the edges of his mouth, and a double chin and tiny nose gave him the appearance of a hog. His black, shiny hair was straight and even, as if a kettle had been placed around his head during his last haircut.
But there was no mistaking the intelligence reflected in his eyes. They seemed to have an existence independent from the rest of his face, taking in and absorbing everything they touched upon.
“You are last year’s hero, the person who saved the Governor from the terrorists,” El Chino said noncommittally, as if he was not particularly fond of Governor Pietrantoni. “You, Michelle, you all seem to be an extraordinary family. I am very sorry about your mother. How is Michelle doing?”
“She’s improving, thank you,” Lucas responded to the bolita boss.
“That’s good to hear. I hope you don’t mind I brought Aarón with me to drive the shuttle. He’s already aware of what’s happening, and he’s completely loyal to me.”
Aarón smiled weakly from the driver’s seat. It was evident to Lucas that the small man would have much preferred not to be there. Lucas did worry. The secret circle of men who were going to take on the terrorists kept constantly expanding. But he had no choice on the matter, so he responded with a diplomatic shrug.
“El Colorao,” El Chino whispered in a confidential tone to Lucas, his small, intelligent eyes twinkling with mischief, “is he a good brother-in-law?”
It took a second for Lucas to register that the man El Chino was referring to was Archie. He chuckled despite himself.
“Well, sometimes you don’t get to choose. But he’s okay, I guess,” he answered.
El Chino guffawed, still not releasing Lucas’ hand.
“I like you,” he said, slapping Lucas on the shoulder. “Sorry I didn’t get to know you sooner. Listen, I have a plan to get in.”
Lucas nodded, inwardly cringing from El Chino’s enthusiasm.
However, he resignedly decided to humor and listen to him while the others in his party climbed into the shuttle and filed past him. Archie stayed next to Lucas, being the person who best knew the obese man.
“You need someone to get you past the gate. Who better than me?” El Chino began saying.
Lucas hesitated, and opened his mouth to reply, but at that moment Doel climbed into the minibus, and El Chino greeted him effusively.
“Hello there! You are Michelle’s editor. Remember me? We met about a year ago, in the Son of Renzo telenovela set in WKPA. You’re…Doel, right?”
“Mr.Chino!” Doel replied with a surprised voice, his eyes alternating between the portly bolitero and Lucas, as if expecting the latter to explain the former’s presence. “How could I forget you! You got me in touch with Michelle when I thought I had lost her. What are you doing here?”
“I was telling Lucas that I have a plan to get you past the gate of the terrorist rented property,” he replied enthusiastically. “I imagine that you plan to enter through there.”
“Well, it’s one of the places we intend to capture,” Lucas said hesitantly, not wanting to reveal much of their plan.
“Approach them quietly, and hope you can take them before they raise the alarm, eh?”
Lucas and Doel exchanged a quiet look.
“It might work, but it might not. But if you use me, it will work. I guarantee it. No one would suspect that a fat man like me would dare to attack them. Do you want to hear my plan?”
“Go ahead,” Lucas said, still listening to him more as a courtesy than taking him seriously. After all, the man had secured their transportation to the terrorist compound.
However, as El Chino disclosed his plan, both he, Archie, and even Doel began to listen with increasing attention.
* * *
Governor Pietrantoni stood on the airport tarmac, next to the extended stairway to the Learjet. He was wearing a tan biohazard, hazmat suit without the hood. Arizmendi, his Secretary of State, stood beside him.
“The ambulance has just cleared the accident site,” Double A informed his boss. “It should be picking up Francisco at any moment now.”
“Good,” the Governor said. “I’ll be waiting inside the jet. Let me know when they have him.”
“I will,” Arizmendi answered, extending his hand and shaking Pietrantoni’s warmly.
“Take care of my island,” the Governor said, pulling his friend towards him and embracing him.
“Hmmph! You don’t have to be so dramatic about it, you know? You nearly squeezed me to death. And besides, it’s not really your island.”
Pietrantoni smiled, a sad, resigned smile. “No, it’s not, is it? But I love it as if it belonged to me. And it breaks my heart to leave it at this terrible moment. So take care of it, okay?”
“Don’t worry about it. It’ll still be here when you get back.”
“If only the hurricane would wipe away the scum that kidnapped my son.”
“You never know,” Double A replied. “Your wish may come true.”
(Chapter XLI will be posted on Thursday, September 10)