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"And Then They Came..." (Chapter LVII)

Chapter LVII

Enrique looked at his watch, noting it was fifteen minutes past three in the morning.

Something was wrong.

The Learjet should have reached Washington D.C. by now, and destroyed the American capital. And yet, there had been no reports of a nuclear explosion over the city. The internet should have been buzzing by now. Instead, everything seemed business as usual.

For the first time since he had set foot on Puerto Rico, the terrorist leader was assailed with real doubts about the fate of his operation. The television set in his room where all had gathered was on, most of the time set on CNN, but as it continued to repeat its nighttime cycle without any breaking news, the mood of the group grew progressively somber.

José Ramón, the computer expert, had programmed his laptop to alert him about any nuclear blasts, but no alerts had come. At one in the morning he had called AmbuAir’s airport office, routing his call through La Fortaleza’s call board, but there had been no answer. The Spaniard had lain in bed, watching the television, and promptly fallen asleep holding on to his laptop.

At midnight, the lower right hand corner of CNN’s screen had started to show an infrared satellite image of Hurricane Fay. Its maximum sustained winds had increased to 165 miles per hour, and the hurricane was expected to be felt in Puerto Rico sometime in the early evening. The small image covered a surprisingly large area of the Caribbean, when overlaid over the outline of the islands it was presently devastating.

Da’ud and Hassam had also, at the beginning at least, watched the news, periodically switching channels, but every time returning to CNN, as if afraid that they would miss a last moment report.

However, every station had continued to broadcast a rehash of that day’s news, with a sprinkling of expert opinions on the main daily occurrences. By two in the morning, the two men had begun a dejected game of cards.

Nour had been her usual silent self, sitting in one of the room’s overstuffed, floral-printed chairs and reading “The Art of War,” by Sun Tzu, for the third time. Every now and then, she would pause and stare at her watch, then cast a surreptitious glance at her boss. Her actions did not go unnoticed by Enrique.

Rosario, on the other hand, seemed unconcerned by the delay.

After all, he thought to himself, it had not been his plan. If it failed, the ball would fall on Enrique’s court. Maybe Rosario would wind up running their present cadre, which was not a bad thing.

Rosario had eventually withdrawn to his room, content to find out the next day if their ploy had worked.

Enrique, however, was having increasing problems controlling his impatience.

More and more, Nabil’s call about the attack on their compound worked in his mind.

“Alfaro!” he muttered to himself.

The men had been positive that he had been involved in it.

How had he found out? And if he had discovered their hideout, had he also discovered their plan to set off a nuclear device over Washington, and somehow been able to prevent it?

It seemed impossible.

Once Yousef and Sami boarded the plane, they would have an overwhelming tactical advantage over the crew in it. Posing as the paramedics arriving in the ambulance with the infected boy, they would never be suspected. And if they were suspected, they were armed, and would still be able to force the pilot to deliver them to the American capital.

The failure to hear about the explosion was probably due to a delay in the departure of the flight.

He should have instructed Da’ud to make certain that the plane had taken off, he told himself. That was probably it. And yet…

By 3:40 AM, Enrique had decided to call back Nabil. He would still be inside the ambulance, waiting to move it in front of the police station. However, after three unsuccessful attempts, nobody had answered.

Enrique’s growing concern increased a thousand-fold.

Damn! Had Alfaro gotten to them too?

His organization had spent vast resources in securing enough nuclear material to manufacture two atomic bombs. They had been small, low yielding nuclear devices, but powerful enough to alter modern history. San Miguel’s first attempt had been thwarted the year before, probably due to Alfaro’s meddling. Now, his backup plan was in danger of also failing.

He looked at Nour, and beckoned her to him with a hand gesture.

“Where is Rosario?” he asked her.

“He went to sleep,” she responded in a tone that, even though not reproachful, showed her disdain for him.

“Wake him up. Tell him that if we have not heard back from the plane by 6:00 AM, he should change his airplane ticket to a later date.”

Enrique looked up, and saw that Hassam and Da’ud had stopped their card game and were listening.

“You too,” he said to the two of them. “We’ll let José Ramón go. He’s useless to us now.”

“Change it to when?” Da’ud asked, his face expressing surprise and skepticism.

“Until after the hurricane. Until the time when the airport opens up again. If we don’t hear from the plane…or Washington by six A.M., I want you, Da’ud, to go with Hassam to the airport, and visit the AmbuAir office. Find out what happened to the boy’s flight. If you have to torture or kill the people in the office in order to get an answer, so be it.”

Da’ud nodded uncertainly, while Hassam remained silent.

“We won’t lose our last nuclear bomb without finding out what happened to it. Or without taking revenge on those who interfered with our plans.”

* * *

Governor Pietrantoni held what he was convinced was the detonating device of the nuclear bomb. He had found it inside one of the pockets of the fake dead paramedic, along with a fake medical ID.

The “firing mechanism”—if that was what he was holding—was small and rectangular, covered by a transparent plastic top that protected a small red switch below it from flipping upwards.

Martínez—the pilot—had tended and dressed his copilot’s back stab wound as best he could. Fortunately for Emmanuel the wound, though painful and bloody, did not seem to be serious or to have caused any acute physical damage.

Setting the plane on automatic pilot, Martínez had joined Pietrantoni in his search for the nuclear device. He had spotted it almost immediately, being familiar with the operation and appearance of the gurneys usually used in his flights. The rectangular, suitcase-sized metallic box embedded under the stretcher was something he had never seen before, and for which there seemed to be no practical use.

For about a half hour, the Governor and Martínez had tried to separate the metallic box from the stretcher, but it had been of no use; the box had been fitted tightly into the gurney, and welded to its frame. It could not be separated.

“I think it will be safe to land in Washington and let the feds handle the explosive,” Martínez said to the Governor. “After all, you have the detonating control with you, so it won’t go off.”

Pietrantoni shook his head. “No. The risk is too big. We are assuming that this,” he said, showing the small control he held in his hand, “is the firing mechanism, but we have no certainty about it. And even if it is, there could be a secondary triggering mechanism to set off the device.”

“What do you mean?”

“There can be a secondary automatic firing mechanism, attached to an altimeter, so that when the plane descends to a certain height, closer to the ground, like when it is landing, the bomb will go off,” Pietrantoni said. “I don’t know if it’s possible, but I don’t see why not.”

The flight captain considered the Governor’s objection.

“It is possible,” he acknowledged after a long pause. “It’s not probable, but it is possible,” he repeated, nodding. “So…”

“So we can’t risk having that thing explode over Washington,” Pietrantoni concluded. “We have to get rid of it, somehow, soon, over the ocean, before we get there.”

“Right. If we are correct, and that box attached to the stretcher is the explosive device,” Martínez ruminated.

“Could they have smuggled a bomb any other way?”

Again, Martínez carefully considered the question.

“Did they bring any luggage with them?” Pietrantoni prompted.

“No,” Martínez responded. “I was watching them from my cockpit when they brought in your son. They carried no luggage with them. Only the stretcher. You were also watching them.”

“From what I saw, it was just them and the stretcher,” the Governor responded. “But I must confess that I was mostly paying attention to my son.”

“Well, I’m sure they didn’t bring anything else with them, unless they were wearing it under their suits, and we’ve searched them already.”

Pietrantoni nodded slowly.

“Could one of their associates planted something in the plane ahead of time?” he asked almost as an afterthought.

“Unlikely. I know all of our maintenance crew. They’re all locals and have been with us for years. Also, the company owns three jets. Anyone trying to sneak a nuclear bomb from the outside would not be certain of which of the three planes we were going to use.”

“You vouch for the maintenance employees?” Pietrantoni asked him.

Martínez shrugged, and breathed in deeply. “These people, they’re like family,” he said. “I certainly vouch for them.”

Besides, he thought, if he was wrong, nobody would never know. If indeed, the bomb had been hidden anywhere else in the plane, what would they do? Crash the plane and sacrifice their lives in order to spare Washington D.C. from the risk of a device that probably would not go off unless the trigger in the Governor’s hand was used?

“Okay,” Martínez finally said. “So we have to get rid of the bomb now. Without telling the Americans beforehand because, like you said before, if the feds find out about it, they may shoot us down to avoid any risk of a nuclear explosion happening anywhere close to or in their territory.”

Pietrantoni nodded. “Right,” he said, confirming the pilot’s conclusion. “So how do we get rid of this thing, then?”

Martínez looked at him with a resigned expression.

“Well…since we can’t separate the bomb from the stretcher…” Martínez stated to himself.

“No,” Pietrantoni affirmed.

“…we’ll have to take your son out of the stretcher, and dump the damned thing into the sea.”

(Chapter LVIII will be posted on Monday, November 9)

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