The two men lay on a rocky mound, behind the wide, fan-like fronds of a giant fern, and the fallen trunk of a tree already half-consumed by multi-layered, clam-like lichens.
They were some ten feet away from where a seven foot chain link fence that separated the lush tropical forest from the open, football field-sized grassy area in front of the terrorist compound. However, the mound rose some eight feet from the ground, giving SWAT Captain Camilo Gomez and Corporal Raymond Tavarez a clear view of the mansion beyond.
The terrorist villa was very well lit, flooded with the bright white glare of three giant floodlights. It had three floors, with a wide balcony surrounding most of its second story, part of it, on its right hand corner, interrupted by an infinity pool.
To the left of the large house were two squat, cinder block, garage-like structures, one twice the size of the other. From there, a trail partially illuminated by small footlights led to a high, cloth-covered enclosure, the tennis and basketball courts.
During the last five minutes, Gomez and Tavarez had been examining the area surrounding the compound through their binoculars, counting the men guarding and patrolling the area.
The two SWAT officers had traveled with the group led by Lucas, making their way through the dense, humid vegetation.
Gomez had been amazed by the former Army Ranger’s skill in finding his way through the nearly pitch black woods. Anybody else, Gomez was certain, would have gotten hopelessly lost. However, using a regular Army compass with luminous dials, Lucas had taken them directly to their objective.
They had caught a distant glimmer of the mansion’s spotlights about five minutes before they had reached their present position. Lucas had raised his hand to stop their advance, then squatted, motioning the others to approach him and do the same.
“This is where you set up your position,” he had said to the SWAT captain, pointing to the hill where Gomez and Tavarez were now. “The rest of us are going to circle to the left, and approach the compound from behind the trailers parked in the tennis courts. I imagine it should take us another fifteen to twenty minutes to get there.”
“I’ll wait for your signal,” Gomez had confirmed. Turning to his redheaded subordinate, he had added, “Tavarez, you stay here with me.”
So far, Gomez had counted two men with AK-47s guarding the second floor balcony, and two similarly armed men standing by the garages. Two patrols of four men each continuously walked—each in the opposite direction of the other—along the perimeter of the chain link fence that bordered that portion of the property.
There could be more, the SWAT captain thought. The property was so big that he calculated it would take some fifteen to twenty minutes for one of the patrols to walk around it.
Those were the “hostiles” he and Tavarez had to neutralize, while Lucas and his group took care of the larger contingent in the tennis and basketball courts, and Archie and his men eliminated the smaller force by the property’s gate.
Five minutes into his watch, Gomez had spotted a small man walking to the edge of the second floor balcony, and looking out into the night. He had stared straight at them, but not seen them.
Then, the small man had spoken with two other persons—both males— sending them away on unknown errands.
A short time later, a red CRV had honked its horn, and the man had descended from the balcony and climbed into the vehicle. The CRV had left in the direction of the gate.
A shame, Gomez thought. They are going to get away before we pull off the raid.
Tavarez seemed to read his mind.
“I can shoot at one of their tires,” he said, placing the front left tire of the CRV between the crosshairs of his telescopic sight. “Delay their departure.”
Gomez considered it.
The shot would be to a target some three hundred yards away, well within Tavarez’s Remington 700’s range, and the noise suppressor would reduce the din of the shot to a loud click, not audible to the men inside the vehicle.
But if Tavarez missed and hit the CRV, the shot would make a racket that any person familiar with firearms would recognize as a bullet strike. And even if Tavarez hit his target—as he probably would—some of the men in the vehicle would be able to recognize the devastation it would probably cause to the tire. And then, the element of surprise, the principal element going for them, would vanish.
It was too risky. They would have to let the men in the vehicle go.
“No,” Gomez said finally. “But try to get a read of their license plate. We can always alert the police and have them stop them.”
“Right,” Tavarez responded, tentatively withdrawing his finger from the rifle’s trigger.
* * *
Lucas, Michael, Ojeda, Doel and Correcaminos quietly approached the outer side of the tennis courts, taking advantage of the shrouding that the tall chain link fence—covered by a semitransparent green cloth—provided. On the opposite side of the fence lay two long trailers forming a wide fan-like angle between them, separated from each other by a gap of about ten feet.
A large blue, plastic tarp covered the space between the two trailers, and under it were two wooden tables with integrated wooden benches, the type universally used in parks for picnics. Illuminated by a portable LED lantern, the shadows of at least four men were projected through the green cloth, sitting at one of the tables playing some sort of game. Their loud laughter and coarse remarks filtered every so often into the dark brush growing beyond the fence.
Staying under the cover of the surrounding vegetation, Lucas and his group slowly headed toward the courts’ left end, moving with extreme caution to avoid stepping on dead branches or crushing some of the dry leaves that littered the floor. However, despite all of their precautions, Doel tripped on a vine and crashed head-first onto a small palm tree and several ferns below it, just as he was ambling past the gambling group of terrorists.
For a terrifying moment, the loud banter of the men at the table stopped abruptly, and the players seemed to focus their attention on the sudden commotion on the other side of the fence.
Doel lay still, while his companions turned toward where the terrorists were sitting, aiming their weapons in their direction.
Lucas placed a hand on his shoulder, and signaled him to be quiet, placing a finger over his lips. Then, after a long wait, they heard what seemed to be one of the players slamming his hand on the table, followed by a chorus of uproarious laughter, and the Puerto Ricans breathed more easily.
With wary care, aided by Lucas, Doel stood up again. The group continued to move toward the end of the courts, where the men would be the furthest from their gambling enemies.
Ojeda was carrying with him a pair of wire cutters, ready to open a hole through the high chainlink fence. However, about ten feet from the tennis court’s corner, they discovered that a portion of the fence overlapped vertically, from the top to the bottom, another part of the metallic enclosure, both sides secured by plastic ties.
The group stopped there, and after snipping off ten of the lower plastic ties, Ojeda opened a breach between the two overlaid layers of the chainlink fence, creating a triangular five-foot gap between the two layers. Michael took out an enormous Bowie knife that he carried tucked inside his belt buckle, and cut through the green fabric covering the fence.
“Go!” Lucas whispered to Ojeda, while he and Michael kept a watch through the edges of the opened slit. The Neoyorican bodyguard slipped through the gap, and scurried to the furthest corner of the trailer in front of them.
“You go next,” Lucas said to Correcaminos.
The sportscaster ducked, and ran through the rift in the fence, quickly joining Ojeda. Holding on to his shotgun, he walked along the short side of the trailer to its opposite corner, and carefully took a peek toward the tennis and basketball courts.
The spotlights of the two courts were off. Only the yellow glow coming from the space between the two trailers spilled a few feet onto the tennis court’s playing surface, casting the elongated shadows of a table and some of the players using it. Otherwise, the two, parallel courts were deserted.
“Do you see anyone?” a voice whispered behind Correcaminos, making him jump.
“Jesus!” the sportscaster said angrily to Doel. “You almost made me fire my gun! Don’t sneak up on me like that!”
Doel smiled, not a totally innocent smile, thoroughly enjoying Correcamino’s startled reaction.
Michael came in next, holding a Glock 19 in his right hand, and a .45 Automatic Colt pistol in the other, looking wildly exhilarated.
“You guys okay?” he asked the two television executives. Doel and Correcaminos assented.
Lucas swiftly joined the others. He leaned against the wall of the trailer, and pressed the “SPEAK” button of his Push To Talk (“PTT”) device, speaking softly into the tiny microphone attached to his neck.
“CoquÍ One and Two, this is CoquÍ Three. We’re ready.”
* * *
Myers and Hazard crouched behind some thick bushes, a scant, few yards from the compound’s main gate. They had made their way along the forest bordering the road, until they had seen the spotlight that illuminated the entrance. Then, the security man and the Governor’s bodyguard had slowly approached the guarded portal, stopping within a couple of yards from the gate.
They had spotted three men, two inside the closed, iron-barred gateway, the third outside, all of them armed.
The guard standing outside was a man in his early twenties with a pockmarked face, who sported a bleached white mohawk with black tips, several days of unshaved facial hair, and a large tattoo of a snake coiled around a dagger on his left forearm. He was smoking, the pungent smell of his cigarette wafting through the vegetation between him and his two stalkers with surprising intensity.
On the other side of the gate, another guard—a clean-shaven man with a bored, soured expression—was lackadaisically touching the screen of his cell phone, apparently playing some electronic game. The third—a swarthy man with a long, Civil War general-type-of-beard, a partially scarred nose and a red and white bandana tied to his head—was sitting on a small, round, three legged stool, furiously trying to drag a last puff out of his cigarette butt.
“Are you planning to burn up your lip?” the man smoking outside of the gate said to him, laughing at his own joke.
The sitting man looked up at his companion, flashed him a partially toothless smile, and blew a cloud of smoke in his direction. Then he farted, a loud, prolonged, deep fart, which made the man playing with the phone take two steps back and stare at him with an expression of revulsion.
“You are such a pig, Fonso,” the thin, sour man said with evident disgust. “I hope the smoke disguises the smell.”
Fonso did not respond, but instead stood up, turned his back on his companion, and let out another ripping fart. The offended man retreated even further, coming within three feet of where Myers was hiding.
The man on the other side of the gate laughed uproariously.
“Be careful, Andrés! Fonso has a lot more ammunition!”
Andrés stared at the two other men with undisguised aversion, but said nothing. Just then, the alleyway leading from the house to the gate became illuminated by incoming headlights, and Fonso began to unlock the gate.
A red CRV stopped briefly at the entrance, crammed with six people inside. Through the undergrowth, Myers observed a man with a thick mustache and a crooked nose look casually out of the front passenger’s window and grin at the guards.
“We’re going to be out for some time,” he told Fonso, who approached the window. “Nabil is in charge until we return.”
“Yes, sir,” Fonso responded in a respectful tone and a deeper voice.
The red CRV accelerated and turned left, heading toward the coast.
Five minutes later, Myers’ PTT earpiece crackled into life.
“Coquí One and Two, this is Coquí Three. We’re ready.”
“Coquí Two ready,” Myers heard Gomez respond from his position.
Too near to the guards to answer verbally, Myers pressed his PTT speaker button one time, causing a soft static noise, waited a few seconds, and pressed it again.
It had been agreed that if any of the teams was so close to the terrorists that they could not speak, they would confirm their readiness by pressing their “SPEAK” button the number of times similar to the designation of their team.
Just in case, Lucas said, “If you’re ready, beep once, Coquí One.”
Myers repeated his response.
“I’m calling Archie,” Lucas informed the others. “Get ready to move in about fifteen minutes.”
* * *
The shuttle screeched though a hairpin curve, making everyone inside lean to the left. El Chino cast a reproving glance at Aarón, the vehicle’s driver.
“Be careful!” he said to him sternly. “We don’t want to die before we get there!”
Which should be soon,” Archie added. Lucas had called ten minutes before, letting him know that the three teams were in position.
The shuttle had driven out of the retirement center’s parking area, and continued at such speed that a few minutes later, in a narrow curve, it had almost collided with a red CRV heading in the opposite direction.
Aarón had almost fainted from the surprise, recognizing the Honda as the same vehicle he had seen a few days before, the one that had initially prompted the search for the terrorists.
The plump bolita salesman had grown pale, and slowed down his vehicle so much that Archie had been forced to urge him to go on, looking through the shuttle’s back window to see if the men in the red vehicle had noticed the abrupt change in speed. But the CRV had continued to recede, heading towards the coast.
“What was that all about?” Negrón asked Aarón.
“It was them,” the plump illegal numbers vendor replied in a scared voice.
“The terrorists. I recognized the car. It’s the same car that the man I saw a few days ago was driving.”
“The man on the photocopy I circulated?” El Chino asked casually, barely able to turn his neck enough to see his associate.
“You are sure?”
“Damn, some of them are already getting away,” Archie said. “We’d better hurry.”
Aarón had taken Archie’s comment literally, and accelerated to over fifty miles an hour, which in the narrow, wet, and highly sinuous road that headed up to the El Yunque National Rain Forest area, was an almost certain recipe for disaster. It had taken El Chino to calm Aarón down.
“We’re almost there,” Archie warned the others. “Get ready.”
(Chapter XLVI will be posted on Monday, September 28)