Edgar Reyes was in his first year of med-school. Gentle, funny, and gay, he moonlighted as a paramedic for AmbuAir, which as its name implied, provided ambulance transportation to the airport, delivering and picking up patients traveling by air to or from the United States, and occasionally other countries.
Thin—not weighing more than 145 pounds—5’9”, with an abundant head of black wavy hair and a Custer-like goatee, with a knack for calming and empathizing with his usually anxious patients, the twenty-four year old was as well regarded by his fellow workers as by his employers.
It was therefore no surprise that, when La Fortaleza contacted AmbuAir with the confidential request to find two paramedics willing to pick up a patient that was possibly infected by the ebola virus and fly with him to Washington D.C., the company’s owners immediately approached Edgar.
It took him no time to accept.
AmbuAir was offering him a bonus of $1,000, plus what he thought would be a fascinating case that would definitely look good in his resumé. And when asked who he would recommend to accompany him, Edgar had at once suggested Gerry Montes, his usual companion in his regular ambulance runs.
Edgar and Gerry had struck a close friendship from the moment they had met each other. At thirty-eight years ol, talkative, heavyset, and witty, Gerry did not have any other ambition than to spend the rest of his life as a paramedic in an ambulance service, preferably AmbuAir. That, and to play softball in the intra-medical services league where, because of his batting prowess, he had been nicknamed “El Bambino”.
Funny and kind, he talked non-stop, and was an inveterate flirt who often muttered politically incorrect teasing remarks to his female friends and got away with it, probably because he was able to charm his way with most women without offending them (not an easy accomplishment in the era of the “Me Too” movement).
AmbuAir designated Fernando Santana as its ambulance driver. At fifty-two years old, Fernando had been employed by the company for thirty years, and was the grandfather of four. Good natured like Gerry, he constantly bragged about his grandchildren, and about the fact that he only had three more years to retire. Like the two ambulance paramedics, he would also be dressed in a biological hazard suit
Prematurely gray, with a broom-like silver mustache, a red beret that he never took off—Edgar and Gerry had never known for sure if there was hair under it—and bright blue eyes, he was the best driver in the company. Like Edgar, he had been approached by the owners of the business, and been asked if he was willing to drive the ambulance with the ebola-infected patient.
Knowing that he would be isolated from the patient in his driver’s cabin, and enthused by the $1,000 bonus offer, Fernando had accepted instantly, almost as if afraid that if he considered it too much, they would offer the lucrative task to another driver.
The three men had been brought the night before to the FBI offices in Hato Rey. There, they had met with FBI agents Parker and Guzmán.
“You should be aware that we have talked with your superiors, and that they are one hundred percent on board with what we are about to tell you,” Parker had said to them.
The three ambulance men had listened with uneasy attention. They did not like the preamble to their talk.
Parker had revealed to them that the person they would pick up was the Governor’s kidnapped son, Francisco, who had been infected with the ebola virus by the terrorists. The FBI had then sworn them to secrecy, and revealed to them that it had planted a GPS tracker in the ambulance, without telling them where the device had been hidden.
Edgar had been handed a tiny two-way radio, with which he was supposed to contact the FBI once the pickup had been effected. At that time, he would confirm through the radio that everything was in order by saying the dramatic phrase of: “The Hatchling is with us.”
Then, the ambulance would leave the scene as quickly as possible, and head toward the airport.
The AmbuAir crew had stared at each other, aware for the first time that they would be in direct contact with the terrorists, the same terrorists who had attacked the unveiling ceremony in front of the capitol and killed several of the attendees, including Police Superintendent Maldonado. Reading their faces, Parker had assured them that they would be perfectly safe, since the FBI and the police would be tracking their progress constantly. However, none of the three men had been reassured by Guzmán—Parker’s partner’s—who had kept staring at the floor while Parker spoke.
The next night had started inauspiciously. A truck had hit two cars in the expressway, about a quarter of a mile in front of the ambulance, and even though traffic had been light, it had piled up to a near standstill. Two police patrols had been dispatched to clear the way, and after heroic efforts on their part, had extricated the hospital vehicle from the snarled traffic.
Edgar had continuously tracked their position through the GPS Google app installed in his cell phone. According to his readings, they were now less than five minutes away from the pickup spot.
“We will be there soon,” he said nervously to Gerry.
His companion pretended to adjust the neck of his biohazard hazmat suit.
“We need to create a good impression. This doesn’t make me look too fat, does it?”
Suddenly, the ambulance came to an abrupt halt. Edgar looked at his phone, and saw that they were still about a third of a mile from their final destination. He pressed the intercom button to the front cabin.
“Why are we stopping?” he asked.
“There’s a flare on the road,” Fernando answered, “and a man standing on the road is waiving us down.”
Gerry and Edgar exchanged a concerned look.
Just then, someone began banging on the back doors of the ambulance.
* * *
Hassam raised his hand, signaling the ambulance driver to stop. He carried no visible weapons, standing casually behind the pink flare, as if he had been expecting the vehicle’s driver to recognize him.
It was enough to keep Fernando distracted, while unbeknownst to him two armed men quickly approached each side of the ambulance. By the time the driver realized what was happening, the two men were pointing their AK-47s at him, and motioning him to step out.
The fifty-two year old man immediately did as he was ordered, putting the ambulance in “Park”, raising his hands, and exiting from the vehicle. The man nearest to him grabbed him roughly by the collar, and pushed him forward, making him kneel in front of the vehicle’s headlights.
At the same time, two other armed men began banging on the doors at the back of the hospital van. One of the doors opened slightly, and immediately the nearest of the two gunmen grabbed its edge and flung it open.
As the armed intruders pointed their rifles at them, the two paramedics inside reluctantly raised their arms, and stepped out onto the road. One of the gunmen tore off the captives’ protective headgear, and like the driver, the captured paramedics were herded to the front of the the ambulance.
Hassam glared at the three kneeling captives, his arms on his hips.
“I am only going to ask this question once, and I want you to answer truthfully, or we will execute you right here,” he told the three men.
They nodded emphatically.
“What are you supposed to do when you pick up the Governor’s son?” the short, wiry Arab asked.
There was a pause where nobody spoke.
Hassam took out his gun, a Beretta 92, and pointed it at Gerry, who closed his eyes and lowered his head.
“We’re supposed to call!” Edgar responded immediately. “Call when we pick up Francisco. Can I show you how? I need to take the device out of my pocket.”
Hassam nodded curtly.
Edgar unzipped a portion of his biohazard suit, and pushed his left hand into his pants pocket. However, the hand was shaking so much, and the pocket was so tight, that it took him a long time to pull out the small two-way radio that had been given to him by the FBI.
Hassam waited impatiently, shaking his head in frustration as he watched his prisoner fumble for the tiny communicator.
“Hurry!” he said to Edgar, slapping the back of his head. “We don’t have all night.”
Finally, the paramedic produced the radio, and held it up with his right hand.
Hassam grabbed it, and examined it with curiosity.
“How does this work?” he asked, even though he had already spotted the “Talk” button.
Edgar confirmed it for him. “Just press ‘Talk’,” he said.
“Any code words?”
“Oh! Yes! You have to say ‘The Hatchling is with us,’ ” the paramedic replied. He was so nervous, that he had forgotten about the code.
Hassam handed back the radio to the paramedic.
“Say it. Say it now. And be very careful. If you say anything else, if you warn them in any way, I will kill the three of you.”
* * *
Parker examined the map displayed in his digital GPS tracker screen with growing concern.
“Something’s fishy here. The ambulance has stopped for several minutes, and it’s still about a third of a mile away from the pickup spot,” he told Gumer.
The Agent-in-charge looked back at his two men from the front seat of the SUV.
“Maybe the terrorists lied about the pickup spot. Maybe they’re transferring the boy to the ambulance now.”
“How long should we w__” Parker asked, but just then, a voice crackled through the radio next to him.
"The Hatchling is with us,“” the voice on the radio announced. Another hand-sized machine connected to the radio identified the voiceprint of the caller as that of “Edgar Reyes”.
“It’s the paramedic, Reyes,” Guzmán confirmed.
“Ask him if the boy is alright,” Gomer instructed Guzmán. “Oh, and ask him why they stopped before they got to the pickup spot.”
The two FBI agents at the back of the SUV stared at his boss with restless resignation. Of course the boy wasn’t alright, their expressions seemed to say, the child is infected with ebola!
Nevertheless, Guzmán conveyed his boss’s questions.
* * *
“Is the boy alright?”
Hassam arched one of his eyebrows. Morons!
“Assure them that the boy is alive,” he told his paramedic captive. “Tell them you’re getting him into the ambulance now, and that you will be heading back to the airport in a few minutes.”
“The boy is alive,” Edgar repeated. “We’re transferring him into the ambulance right now.”
“We have indications that you’re still some distance away from the pickup spot,” the radio said. “How come?”
Edgar looked at Hassam, who whispered, “Tell them the terrorists stopped you here. Tell them we left the stretcher on the road, and that we are gone already.”
The young paramedic repeated Hassam’s words to the FBI.
As he finished speaking, one of Hassam’s men, a tall, heavily muscled man with a dark walrus mustache and thick eyebrows, approached his boss at a brisk pace. He was holding a very small device between his right thumb and index fingers.
“We found this GPS tracker under the front bumper.” he told Hassam. “It was attached to the inside of the front bumper.”
Hassam nodded. The information confirmed what the FBI had just told the paramedic by radio.
The tall terrorist gave his boss a pair of headphone. Hassam placed them over his ears, and waved a black box with several colored lights over the tracker. The lights in the box began to blink, and through the headphones, the Arab heard an electronic squeal.
“Is that the only one?” Hassam asked his associate calmly, as he returned the headset to his associate.
The tall terrorist nodded.
“The authorities were not supposed to install any tracking devices in the ambulance. Can you confirm that this is the only one?” he asked the driver, his voice dripping with barely suppressed anger.
“I don’t know,” Fernando, the ambulance driver, replied worriedly. “They told us they would track us, but didn’t say how.”
“Who is they?”
“The FBI,” Fernando answered. He was still holding up his hands, and they were quivering noticeably.
“Does the boy’s gurney fit in the ambulance?” Hassam asked his associate.
The tall terrorist shook his head.
“So we’ll have to use our 'modified' ambulance…” Hassam said to himself, staring at the vehicle they had just stopped.
The shape of the hijacked ambulance and of the fake one were roughly similar, and their markings were identical. Anyone familiar with the real ambulance would spot the differences if they took a hard look at the latter, but there was no real choice; the stretcher was an integral part of their plan, and would only fit in the fake hospital vehicle.
“Transfer the tracker to our ambulance,” Hassam said to his man, who nodded and left quickly.
As his associate left, the Arab stared at his three prisoners.
They had seen and heard too much, and the success of the plan hinged on keeping secret what the terrorists were really doing.
Enrique had been clear with Hassam. “After you’re done with them, kill them,” he had said to his gunman.
“Stand up and come with me,” Hassam said to the two paramedics and the driver. “Head toward that alley,” he added, pointing at the tree-lined alleyway that led to the old ruined mansion.
Presaging their executions, the prisoners shakily stood up and trudged toward the dark corridor where Hassam was pointing. Fernando, the fifty-two year old grandfather, wept openly, while Gerry brought a trembling hand to his face and quietly wiped his tears. Only Edgar kept his composure, silently mouthing a prayer.
As the three men began to move, a pair of headlights suddenly lit up the alleyway, casting on the uneven ground the long, ghostly shadows from the surrounding vegetation.
An ambulance very similar to the one that had been stopped on the road, swiftly sped out of the abandoned property, heading in the opposite direction that its counterpart had been traveling. Then, with only its lower lights turned on, the real ambulance rolled into the alleyway, bathing in yellow the earthen path underneath it as it headed toward the roundabout of the ruined house.
* * *
“The ambulance is heading this way,” Parker informed his superior.
“Good!” Gomer responded triumphantly. “I will let Montañez know,” he said. And he will have to eat his words, questioning my judgment for placing a GPS tracker in the ambulance.
(Chapter XLII will be posted on Monday, September 14)