Exchanging fire for several minutes, Gomez and Tavarez withdrew from their mound, taking advantage of the tropical forest’s deep darkness. As they ran downhill, a bullet struck a glancing blow at Tavarez’s back, sending him pitching headfirst into a clump of ferns.
Fortunately, the shot was deflected by the SWAT youngster’s bulletproof vest, but the noise of his fall drew a barrage of bullets that forced him and Gomez to crawl behind a large, fallen tree trunk. There, the two men lay in silence, and waited for the enemy to approach.
The loud, incessant noise generated by the rainforest’s countless night dwellers—from the powerful cries of the tiny coquí frogs to the thousands of chants from the endless insect population—quieted momentarily as the two men sought refuge. But a few seconds after they stopped moving, the noise returned with renewed vigor.
Gomez heard Lucas call him through his PTT’s earphone, but did not dare to answer, in order not to give away his position.
The first hint of the terrorists’ approach came after the forest’s sounds stopped abruptly again. Shortly afterward, the SWAT officers heard the painfully slow, nearly imperceptible noise of stealthy steps crushing the ground’s wet vegetation.
The two policemen detected the movement of several men, apparently spread out like a wide net, hoping to catch them within it. Gomez gently placed his Browning sniper rifle against the log behind which they were hiding, and slowly sat up, slipping off from his back harness the single barreled shotgun that he carried.
Despite his careful movements, his motion was detected by at least one of the searchers, who loudly yelled, “There!”, and provoked a rush of steps in their direction.
Gomez went up on his knees, and fired his shotgun into the darkness, shearing the vegetation directly in front of him, and briefly illuminating the enveloping night. He dropped down immediately, as his surroundings erupted in screams of pain and explosions of gunfire.
Tavarez also fired several shots, concentrating on the noise around him, but no cries of distress confirmed that he had hit any of his attackers.
“Hey!” a harsh voice shouted out from several yards away. “You missed me! You’ve shot some of our friends, though. Good friends! So you’re not getting out of here alive! But before we kill you, we plan to cut off your balls, and stuff them in your mouths, like we do in El Salvador! What do you think of that?”
Tavarez aimed his rifle in the direction of the voice, and angrily discharged several shots into the rainforest before Gomez grabbed his shirt and shook his head.
The rifle fire provoked another explosion of multiple shots that whizzed over the policemen like angry wasps, shredding the vegetation about them, thudding into the wet soil, or ricochetting off some of the half-buried rocks close to them.
The two friends clung to the ground, trying to avoid getting hit. Even so, a bullet grazed the back of Gomez’s bulletproof vest, and another nipped Tavarez’s right cheek.
“Hey assholes! You still alive?” the harsh-voiced man shouted when the firing tapered off. “I have some toilet paper here, in case you shit yourselves!”
Laughter followed the man’s remarks from several spots in front of them.
Tavarez reacted viscerally, raising his head and shouting, “Eat shit, mother fucker!”
His shout started yet another hail of gunfire, a couple of bullets passing so close to the young corporal’s ear that he cringed, instinctively waving his hand as if to ward off a wasp.
Gomez pulled him back to the ground, hissing to him angrily, “Stop it! You’re showing them where we are!”
“Those assholes! I’ll kill them all!”
“They’ll kill us first, unless you shut up!” Gomez retorted.
“Shut up! Now listen to me. I want you to take out your gun and cover your ears and eyes,” Gomez told him as he rummaged through his small backpack.
Tavarez heard the metallic sound of heavy cylinders, and recognized them as flashbang grenades. Technically known as the M84 stun grenades, the explosives emitted an incredibly sharp “bang” of 170 to 180 decibels of sound, and a flash of more than one million candela, designed to cause temporary and immediate blindness and deafness, and to disorient the enemy.
“After they go off, we step out and shoot them before they know what hit them. Understood?”
Tavarez nodded excitedly, his gesture invisible in the night shadows. Placing his hands over his ears and opening his mouth, he pressed his face into the ground and waited.
Gomez tossed the two flashbang grenades that he carried, one diagonally to the right, the other to the left, and like Tavarez, covered his ears.
Two ear-shattering explosions successively shook the ground around them. Dazzling white and intense light flooded the surrounding rainforest with such brilliance that for a moment everything else in the immediate wilderness was blurred into a blank, noiseless page.
The grenade blasts were so powerful that afterwards, the two SWAT officers could barely hear anything except a high pitched hum. However, knowing they had not a second to spare, they stood up and, with their ears still buzzing, ran towards the two areas where the grenades had detonated.
Holding his shotgun with his left hand and his Glock handgun in the other, Gomez moved at a brisk pace into the jungle ahead of him. Just a few yards away, he bumped into the first of his attackers, who was kneeling on the ground, covering his ears and blinking desperately. Not stopping to hesitate, he shot the man on the knee at point-blank range.
The terrorist fell to the ground, his mouth open in a scream that the policeman could barely hear. Better disabled than dead, Gomez thought, feeling no pity for him. After all, he had been one of the gunmen who had attacked and killed—or helped to attack and kill—countless innocent civilians during the ceremony at the capitol, barely a week before.
The SWAT captain continued to move at a fast pace, finding in the dim light of the returning night two more men, one holding on to the trunk of a tree, the second stumbling drunkenly over vegetation he could not see.
Like with the first of his enemies, Gomez shot them both in the knees.
He had to shoot twice the terrorist staggering through the forest, his first shot missing the man’s knee and hitting his upper thigh, his second finding its mark after the man had fallen to the ground.
The other terrorist had been easier to neutralize. The man had not even noticed Gomez’s approach until the SWAT captain had kneecapped him, less than three feet away. Like his associates, the terrorist guard had crumbled to the ground, producing a horrified howl of pain that Gomez’s partially deaf ears barely noticed.
Gomez did not pause to see the result of his work, but continued to advance, searching for more of his attackers. He found a fourth man further away. This one, however, heard his approach—apparently more removed and less affected from the flashbang grenade’s effects—and frantically searched for the rifle he had dropped on the ground. The policeman shot him twice on the chest before he could reach it.
As his hearing gradually began to improve, Gomez heard the distant shooting of a weapon—the short, staccato-like fire of a pistol—and prayed to God that Tavarez was faring well.
He began to move in the direction of the fighting, hoping to reach his companion before other terrorists intercepted him. He would have to take care, however, that his trigger-happy corporal would not confuse him with the enemy.
Crouching, he scampered toward the shooting, stopping periodically to get his bearings and scout his surroundings. He passed two bodies, one on the ground, the other leaning against a short palm tree, neither moving. Then the shooting stopped.
Gomez lay low, scanning the night, and called Tavarez through his PTT, but there was no response. Nevertheless, through his earpiece he heard Lucas say, “Coqui Two, Coqui Two, where are you?”
“Ten, maybe twenty yards south from where you dropped us off. Can’t find my teammate,” he responded softly.
‘Hang on. We’re coming for you,” Lucas responded.
“Hey, asshole!” the harsh voice who had spoken to them previously suddenly called out, from the direction of the fence between the rainforest and the mansion. “You still alive? We’ve got your friend here. We’re going to give you up to the count of ten, to speak up and surrender. If you don’t answer, we’ll cut his head off.”
Gomez cursed under his breath, then stood up. “I’m here!” he shouted. “But I won’t surrender unless I hear my friend’s voice.”
There was a pause and then, breathlessly, Tavarez shouted, “I’m here, boss!”
“So are you coming out, or do we start cutting?” the harsh-voiced terrorist shouted
Gomez pressed his PTT and whispered, “They have Tavarez and are forcing me to give up. They’re near the fence in front of the mansion. Please hurry!”
“Copy that,” Lucas answered simply.
Gomez grabbed his shotgun, and stood up. “I’m coming out!” he shouted back, beginning to walk in the direction of the mansion. Speaking softly into his PTT’s voice communicator, he said, “I have an idea.”
It took him less than two minutes to see the fence and the wide, semi-illuminated grassy area in front of the mansion. About twenty feet away from the other side of the fence stood five armed men, enclosing the kneeling figure of Tavarez in a semi-circle.
A heavily muscled man with a shaved head and a black, wife-beater pull-up shirt stood behind the youngster and held him by the hair, pulling back his head and pressing a large knife on his neck.
The other terrorists leveled their rifles at the SWAT captain as he emerged from the rainforest.
“I’m here!” Gomez shouted, pointing at the men with his shotgun, which he held at hip level.
“Walk out of the brush, so that we can see you better!” the man with the tattoos and the harsh voice shouted. “Use the opening to the right in the fence,” he added.
Gomez did as told, walking downhill from where he stood to the gap in the cyclone fence. Still pointing his shotgun at the group of men on the other side, he slipped through it. He continued to approach the terrorists, stopping in the open ground when he was about ten paces away, his back toward the rainforest.
The harsh-voiced man holding Tavarez smiled at him.
He was not the biggest in the group—the one standing to his left was half a head taller and much more heavier—but for some reason he seemed the most dangerous. Tattoos covered his neck—at least those parts not covered by several heavy golden chains—as well as both of his arms, all the way to his tight-fitting wife-beater shirt, and he wore several gaudy rings on a pair of massive hands.
It was his face, though, which most worried Gomez. It reflected savagery, from the man’s cold, amber eyes to a mocking, frog-like grin.
Tavarez was kneeling in front of him, his bulletproof jacket discarded on the side, most of his left face already starting to swell into a massive bruise.
“Aww!” the harsh-voiced terrorist said in an exaggerated disappointed tone, “you’re still holding on to your weapons. I thought we told you to get rid of them.”
The tattooed man turned to a smaller associate on his right, a paunchy man in his thirties with a substantial beer belly, small, shifty eyes, and a Popeye-like chin.
“Marcial, take way his weapons.”
“Marcial, don’t,” Gomez said, aiming his shotgun at the man’s groin as the latter took his first step toward him.
The man with the knife barked a sharp laugh.
“He’s got balls, this one,” he said in a mirthful voice to his companions. “Not for long, though,” he added, lowering his voice to a menacing growl.
He shifted his knife slightly, nicking his captive’s neck and causing a small trickle of blood to slowly begin to roll down his exposed throat. “I will kill him if you don’t do as I say.”
“Then I will kill you,” Gomez replied calmly.
“You have no chance of winning. My men will kill you,” the man holding Tavarez answered, still grinning. However, Gomez detected a hint of fear in his eyes.
“Not before I kill you.”
A long silence followed.
“So,” the tattooed man with the knife finally said, spitting on the ground, “it seems that we are at a standoff.”
“So what do we do?” the terrorist asked.
“You let my man go, and I will give up.”
“Give up?” the terrorist asked doubtfully.
“I will lay my weapons on the ground, and let you take me prisoner.”
The tattooed man stared at the SWAT captain skeptically.
“If I let your man go before you lay down your weapons, we will still be in the same situation we are now, except I will have less leverage over you. Do you think I’m an idiot?”
“No, just an asshole,” Gomez replied, without any trace of humor. “So listen to what we’re going to do. You release him and he walks to me. When he reaches me, he will run away while I lay down my weapons. If I don’t do as I promised, your men will end up killing both of us anyway. But while I lay down my weapons, he gets a chance to run away, and in exchange, I don’t kill you. Not outright, anyway.”
The man with the knife considered the offer, and then shrugged. “So we kill you first, and then get the chance to hunt down your friend, is that it?”
Gomez breathed in deeply. “Something like that.”
“Don’t do it, captain,” Tavarez shouted.
“Be quiet,” Gomez responded. “You don’t have a say on this.”
The tattooed man withdrew his knife from his captive’s neck, and pushed the young SWAT corporal forward.
“Go!” he said to him.
Tavarez stood up and walked quickly toward Gomez.
“Don’t do it, captain,” he said.
Gomez laid down his shotgun, and began to take out of his holster his Glock pistol, holding it between two of his fingers.
“Shoot them!” the tattooed man shouted.
Gomez jumped on Tavarez and tackled him to the ground as the area erupted with gunfire.
The five terrorists were struck by a devastating round of bullets coming from behind them and from their right side. The surprised men tried to fight back, some of them firing blindly into the surrounding brush. However, in a matter of seconds, they had all been hit by the barrage of gunfire discharged by the invisible gunmen hiding in the rainforest.
The man with the tattoos also tried to turn to stare at the source of the crossfire, but by then, four bullets struck him, one in the neck, two in his ribs and one in his stomach. The man collapsed with a gurgling noise, shaking briefly on the ground and then laying still.
“Run!” Gomez told his young, surprised corporal, grabbing him by an arm and dragging him back to the opening in the fence. As they neared it, Michael—standing on the other side—separated it to make it wider for them.
“Hurry,” he shouted to the two SWAT officers.
To the left, hiding in the surrounding vegetation, Lucas, Correcaminos, Ojeda, and Doel kept watch on the open field and the mansion, but nobody tried to shoot at the fleeing policemen.
Further to the opposite side, Gomez saw Myers and Hazard crouching near the fence, also scoping the area.
Lucas approached Gomez and shook his hand. “Your idea worked,” he said happily. “Glad to see both of you are okay.”
Before coming out of the fence, Gomez had outlined to Lucas through his PTT his plan to rescue Tavarez.
Gomez would pretend to give up, while Lucas and Myer's groups silently approached the gunmen from both flanks. Then—the SWAT captain wasn’t exactly sure how yet—Gomez would separate Tavarez from his captor. Once the young corporal was away from the gunmen, the terrorists would be fair game for the two surrounding Coquí teams.
It had been a desperate ploy, one which should not have worked. But against all improbable odds, somehow it had.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Tavarez said to his captain, while gingerly touching the nick in his throat. “He surprised me. Came at me from behind, I didn’t even see him until he hit me on the face with the butt of his rifle. I guess I was too anxious trying to find the terrorists before the flashbang grenades' effect wore off.”
“That’s okay, Tavarez. I was doing the same thing,” Gomez replied, slapping the youngster on the shoulder, still feeling elated from their narrow escape. “We were almost as blind and deafened as our enemies.”
While his friends celebrated, Lucas communicated with Myers through his PTT.
“Coquí One, are you okay?”
“Negrón was hit by a bullet in the leg,” Myers reported. “It’s not a serious wound, but he’s in pain and has difficulty walking. We left Archie with him, about midway through the alleyway into the compound.”
Lucas grimaced and nodded to himself. “Copy that. We still have to sweep the house, and there’s probably about a dozen strays in the property. Let’s get organized, and finish this.”