"And Then They Came..." (Chapter LIII)
Governor Pietrantoni looked at Francisco in his stretcher, and wondered what he was feeling.
Trying to see him through the plastic cover visor of his hazmat suit headgear and through the plastic covering that encased Francisco was hard. The ten year old was deeply asleep. Knocked out by some sort of sedative, he had not opened his eyes during the entire time since he had been wheeled out of the ambulance; not during the wait for the jet’s maintenance to be finished, and not during the hour that had transpired since the jet had taken off toward Washington.
Francisco was so still, that twice Pietrantoni had stared intently at him to detect movement in his chest and stomach, and verify if he was actually breathing.
The Governor had tried to strike a conversation with the two paramedics that were flying with him, asking their names and inquiring about his son’s health, but his attempts had been mostly unsuccessful.
One of the men had sat throughout most of the flight so far, maintaining almost absolute silence and only speaking in whispers to his partner. The other, a little shorter and thinner than his companion, had answered the Governor in English, his words heavily marked by an unidentifiable foreign accent.
“My name is…Pancho,” he had replied to the Governor’s query. “I was born in the Dominican Republic,” he had said, not sounding like a Dominican at all.
“Oh?” Pietrantoni had observed. “I love the Dominican Republic. Where in the Republic?”
The man, only his eyes and nose visible through his mask, had hesitated noticeably. “Ah…the capital city.”
“But you don’t speak Spanish?” the Governor asked in a surprised tone.
“My family moved to the States when I was a baby,” the man explained in a flustered voice, casting his eyes down.
Pietrantoni had nodded twice slowly, moving away from “Pancho” in order not to show, even through his visor, his worried expression.
It was plainly evident that something was wrong. Maybe the man was an illegal immigrant. Maybe both of them were. Whatever it was, he would not feel at ease until the plane landed in Washington.
About a half hour later, Francisco had stirred in his stretcher.
Pietrantoni had rushed to his side, and watched how his son, still unconscious, strained against the bindings that kept him immobile. Drenched in sweat, the ten year old had mumbled some unintelligible words. Then, after about half a minute, he had fallen back into profound sleep.
Pancho had wandered slowly, almost hesitantly, to the Governor’s side, while the other man concentrated—a little too much, in the Governor’s opinion—on a Time magazine he had found in the plane.
“What is happening?” Pietrantoni asked Pancho. “Is he okay?”
The paramedic nodded. “It is just a nightmare. He is okay.”
“Don’t you have to take his pulse or something?” the Governor asked anxiously.
Pancho looked at him, and then slipped his arms through two holes in the plastic bubble that were connected to a set of rubber gloves. Inserting his hands into the gloves, he placed one on the boy’s neck, and kept it there for a few seconds.
“His pulse is strong,” he assured Pietrantoni as he withdrew his arms from the plastic tent. “He must have been having a nightmare,” he repeated.
The Governor looked at the other paramedic. He seemed glued to the magazine he had been examining since shortly after takeoff.
“Your friend doesn’t seem too interested,” Pietrantoni said, unable to hide the bitterness in his voice.
“He is very shy,” Pancho replied, clenching and unclenching his hands nervously. “But don’t worry. Your son is stable, and there is very little more that we can do for him now. We are here just for…in case of an emergency.”
For a moment, Pietrantoni and the medical assistant stared at each other, the Governor conveying his silent displeasure, Pancho unconsciously inching a hand to where he carried a gun under his suit. Then the pilot’s voice came on in the cabin’s speaker.
“Governor Pietrantoni, Governor Pietrantoni, please come to the cockpit.”
Pietrantoni hesitated a moment more, and then turned and walked toward the front part of the plane.
He knocked on the pilot’s door, and a muted voice inside said, “Come in!” The Governor disappeared into the cockpit.
* * *
“I was about to shoot the son of a bitch,” said Yousef, still holding the magazine.
“You must be patient,” Sami replied.
“Patient?! We are airborne, aren’t we? Let’s get rid of this man at least. I have no patience for him.” Yousef said, tossing away his magazine and patting his hip, to find his gun. “Unzip me back here, so I may take out my pistol before he returns.”
“Leave well enough alone! Any shooting will make too much noise and alert the others!” Sami warned him. “And if you miss, you may puncture a wall of the plane, and cause the air to escape!”
“I will not shoot him. I will point my pistol at him, and then you will tie him up, and strangle him.”
“I will not strangle him. If you are so enthused about killing him, you do it!” Sami protested forcefully.
“Alright. I will do it, you think I won’t? Unzip my protective gear, so that I may take my gun out before he comes back from the cockpit. In fact, after we kill him, we wont need the protective gear to pretend we are worried about catching the ebola, since we will be detonating the nuclear device in less than a couple of hours.”
“But the pilot!” Sami insisted, getting more upset by the moment.
“The pilot and the copilot will be in their cockpit. If__”
“What if they have to go to the water closet?”
“I doubt it, in this short flight. But if it happens, we’ll point our guns at them and force them to continue to fly to Washington.”
Unconvinced, Sami helped Yousef remove his hazmat suit.
* * *
“You have an urgent call from a certain Montañez”, Emmanuel, the copilot, told him, extending distractedly to him his pair of earphones with a microphone.
Of standard height and relatively fit, a full head of curly hair, and confident—some would say too confident—eyes, Emmanuel exuded an air of detached disinterest bordering on haughtiness. “He says it’s private. You can use this to talk to him. You can speak freely. I’ve placed you in a channel where only you and him will hear each other.”
“Thank you.” Pietrantoni placed the headphones over his head. “Montañez, is that you?”
“Governor Pietrantoni,” Montañez responded in what appeared to be a neutral tone, but Pietrantoni immediately picked up the distress in his voice. “Can you speak freely?”
“I can. Tell me what’s on your mind.”
“I just got a message from Lucas Alfaro__”
“Lucas? What about him?”
“He’s found the terrorists.”
“That’s not all. He found out that the terrorists kidnapped the paramedics that were in the ambulance and__”
“But they’re here!”
“And substituted them with their own people. And that’s not all…”
The Governor closed his eyes. “Go ahead,” he said.
“He has reason to believe that they smuggled a nuclear bomb in Francisco’s stretcher.”
The plane shook slightly, and Pietrantoni had to hold on to the backrest of the copilot’s seat. “Mother of God,” he whispered.
“I’ve been praying that Alfaro is wrong and that this is a false alarm. He thinks they may be planning to set it off when you get to Washington, in a suicide mission.”
It all made sense, Pietrantoni thought. The strange behavior of the paramedics, their quiet, almost hostile sense of detachment.
“Lucas is right,” Pietrantoni said to the Superintendent. “I noticed something very off about the paramedics.”
There was a pause on the other side. Then Montañez asked, “Can you trust the pilot and copilot?”
The Governor glanced at the men flying the plane. Even though they were wearing biohazard containment suits, they had removed their headgear.
The pilot was a grizzled veteran, the gray hair encircling his bald pate confirming his years of service. He was humming to himself the song “Despacito” in a distracted, almost inadvertent way. The song reassured him.
“Talk to you in a moment,” Pietrantoni cryptically said to Montañez. He addressed the pilot. “Captain Martínez, isn’t?” he said in Spanish.
Martínez assented, looking at the Governor and smiling.
“Superintendent Montañez, the man calling me, has placed me on hold,” Pietrantoni whispered, covering his mouthpiece with his hand. “You seem to be used flying to the States,” he added offhandedly.
“Been flying for the company for more than ten years,” Martínez responded.
“Wow! With the same copilot?”
“Emmanuel? No, he’s only been with me for the last three…almost four years.”
Pietrantoni held up his hand, as if signaling Martínez that Montañez had returned. He took a few steps to the back of the cockpit.
“Hello? Hello? Montañez? Yes, I think they can be trusted,” he said softly. “What do you recommend?”
“Let’s hope so,” Montañez replied cautiously. “Unfortunately, there is very little room for error. Those fake paramedics are probably armed, and they will not give up easily. Try to find out if the pilot or the copilot have any weapons. You’ll have to surprise the terrorists and hopefully neutralize them before you get to Washington.”
“We won’t go to Washington,” the Governor stated flatly. “I won’t fly into U.S. airspace with a nuclear device. Have you warned Washington?”
Montañez lowered his voice. “No. I suspect that if I tell Washington that you’re heading that way with…you know with what, they’ll shoot you down.”
It was probably true. President David McConnell was a good friend. But Pietrantoni was certain that he would not risk exposing Washington D.C., or any other city for that matter, to an atomic blast. He did not even know if shooting down the plane under such circumstances was the President's call.
“Right. So it’s up to us, here in the plane. I’ll talk to the pilot and the copilot__”
“Are you certain?”
“I have no choice,” Pietrantoni replied.
“But your son…”
“Overpowering the terrorists is my son's only hope. Otherwise, we’ll all die in the explosion.”
Montañez considered his boss’s statement.
“You’re right,” he conceded.
“I’ll talk to the pilot now.”
* * *
Gomer rapped on the closed window of Montañez’s Lexus, startling the Superintendent. The police chief opened the door and stepped outside.
“I hear you’ve located the terrorists’ hideout,” the FBI agent told the Superintendent in an almost accusatory tone. “When were you planning to tell me?”
Montañez directed him an angry look, but stopped himself as he was about tp snap back. “I just found out. They are holed up near El Yunque. I’m sending several patrols in that direction right now. Want to come?”
“Want to come? Of course I want to come! What do you know?” the FBI agent inquired.
Montañez considered the question. “I’m not sure. The information is very sketchy. There’s been some shooting__”
“Shooting!” Gomer said in a surprised tone. “By whom?”
Montañez began to climb back into his car. “I’m not sure,” he replied.
“Anything else you can tell me?” the FBI man asked as the Superintendent was about to close the door.
“Anything else?” Montañez repeated, pausing as if to think. “No, that’s it. So if you’ll excuse me, I have to go. You can follow me if you want.”
The Superintendent’s Lexus began to move, and Gomer hustled to get back to his vehicle, while he shouted at his men to follow Montañez’s black Lexus.
The Police Superintendent watched him through the rear view mirror, allowing himself a brief smile of intense satisfaction.
(Chapter LIV will be posted on Monday, October 26)