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


(Happy Thanksgiving!)

Chapter LXIII

Lucas was in the yard, trying to remove any loose objects that could be picked up by the hurricane’s wind and turned into projectiles.

Not that the weather reflected the impending arrival of any storm. On the contrary, it was a beautiful, warm afternoon, with only a few small clouds scattered in an otherwise blue sky, as if the warnings broadcast over the past few days were nothing more than fake news.

He wiped the sweat off his brow with the back of his hand, and looking over his shoulder, saw the outline of his wife through the kitchen windows. They were the only windows that he had not covered with the corrugated metal hurricane shutters yet, to allow Jeannie to work without shutting out the soft afternoon breeze and the day’s natural light.

Lucas looked at his watch and saw it was fifteen minutes past two in the afternoon. His throat felt parched, and his body ached from the combined effort of the prior night, the lack of rest, and that day’s tough physical work.

“Hey Jeannie!” he called out. “You make any of your special lemonade yet?”

“I think I can spare a little,” she answered coyly. “You may have earned it.”

Two minutes later she exited the kitchen through the short stairs that led down to the yard, and handed a tall glass of ice lemonade to Lucas, which he gulped down gratefully.

Jeannie was famous for making the “most delicious of all lemonades”—as Vanessa, her sister-in-law had dubbed it—from a lime tree in the back of the yard. Also, opposite to the lime tree, grew about a half dozen, tall, broad-leafed “guineitos manzanos" plants—which produced very savory miniature banana-apple tasting bananas. The “manzano” bananas grew in huge bunches of thirty-six or more.

Jeannie had collected more than three dozen limes from their tree with the help—some would call it hindrance—of the children, who walked behind her with their Easter baskets, depositing the limes that their mother had plucked off the branches, while quarreling about who should get the next one. At the same time, Lucas had cut off a huge cluster of the manzano bananas, which he had hung inside the kitchen from one of the window’s iron railings.

Since the prior night, Lucas had slept a total of two hours, and then gotten out of bed to prepare for the approaching hurricane. After a short breakfast, he and Jeannie had spent the rest of the morning and the early afternoon preparing the house as best they could.

With Sophia and Gabriel mainly watching and giving instructions, they had moved into the house most of the potted plants and furniture in the balcony, the back terrace, and the yard; filled the house’s bathtubs, as well as several pots and pans with water; pulled up and tied the canvas canopies of the balcony and the terrace; placed a couple of water-filled containers in the freezer to create ice; secured most of the outside doors; taken down the paintings and other decorations that could be affected by the wind; taken stock of the food and perishables they had in store; and gathered alternative means of illumination—five flashlights, two gas lamps, and two dozen candles of various kinds and sizes

Vanessa—Lucas’ sister and next door neighbor—and her husband Michael had worked on preparing their own home. With the terrorists destroyed and disbanded, Michael had decided it was safe to return to their house and pass the hurricane there.

Their son, Alfredo, had opted to stay with Lucas—Alfredo’s godfather and best adult friend—at least until the first rains of the hurricane arrived.

Close to lunchtime, Lucas and Alfredo had walked out to the storm sewer, located two houses downhill. During some of the previous heavy rains, the sewer had been clogged with vegetation, and had overflowed. The water had never risen all the way to Lucas’ house, but Hurricane Fay would bring a lot of rain, so it was better to make certain that the storm sewer would be clear of any debris.

He had found his next door neighbor, Paco Novas, already at work removing the leaves, garbage, and other rubbish in the area. A robust septuagenarian, he was clad only in large, white shorts that looked suspiciously like boxer underwear, and flip-flops. He was working with his son-in-law, a dour looking man who appeared to have been forced to join him.

“Hey, Lucas,” Novas had said cheerfully, when he saw his neighbor approaching. “You’re late! I’ve already cleared the culvert.”

He directed a quick glance at Alfredo, with whom he had established a close bond. Already retired, Novas would sit in front of his house and greet the passersby, most of which knew him personally and considered him the second major of the town.

Alfredo—a ten year old going on twenty—would often spend several hours discussing politics, world affairs, and sports with him, and the old man enjoyed his company immensely.

“So what do you think the storm will do, Alfredo?” Novas asked him.

“I don’t know. I would be happy if it just demolishes my school, though.”

Novas guffawed.

“That would be a fantastic hurricane,” he said. “Some of the hurricanes—before my time—have been terrible to Puerto Rico, and at that time we had no early warning satellite system. San Felipe—they used to name hurricanes after saints then, can you believe that?—It killed thousands of people, and left 500,000 residents in the island homeless. So we have to take this stuff seriously.”

“Were you in San Felipe?” Alfredo asked.

“No, that was in the 1920’s, before I was born. But I did go through Hurricane Santa Clara—another saint! A female saint this time!—while I lived in a farm. I was about your age then, in 1956. We lived in a two-story cement house, with a corrugated zinc roof. We were close to a river, and as the hurricane gathered strength, the current began to swell. So just in case, we all moved to the second floor of the house. But the wind had been terrible. So strong that it blew half of the roof away, and collapsed the rest.”

Alfredo listened to his old friend with a transfixed expression, as Novas relived his prior encounter with the hurricane.

“We were fortunate that nobody got seriously hurt, but we were being buffeted by the strong winds. And the rain fell so hard that it hurt us, stinging our faces and arms like angry wasps. We tried to go down to the first floor, but a portion of the fallen roof blocked the stairs, and we couldn’t go down. One of my uncles made a hole in the wooden floor, and through it, he lowered the rest of us. Except his wife. She was a…How shall I put it?…She was a…’robust’ lady. Very ‘robust’. And she got stuck in the hole.”

Novas smiled.

“I remember seeing her short, fat legs, from the floor below, moving back and forth as if she was swimming. She was, sort of, because she was getting soaked by the solid sheets of water blown by the wind. And she was screaming to my Uncle Gervasio to free her, cursing like an old sailor, she was. Never heard such language before...or since, for that matter…”

He shook his head in amused wonderment.

“We used to laugh so hard when we remembered it, a few years later…”

“So what happened?” Alfredo asked.

“Oh, my uncle eventually widened the hole and we were able to lower her to safety. Thankfully, the river never rose all the way to our house. I do remember a cow cloven nearly in half by a flying sheet of metal, though. All of its guts hanging out of the poor animal. I’ll never forget that image. And that storm was not as strong as this Hurricane Fay is supposed to be.”

“God help us with this one,” Lucas muttered.

As he spoke, he watched the sergeant in charge of the police detail guarding his house approach him.

“Sergeant Agüero,” he said to the policeman, an affable, quiet man who during the prior days had covered the night shift.

“Mr. Lucas!” the sergeant said brightly. “Just wanted to say goodbye, and wish you luck during the hurricane.”

“Thank you, Agüero,” Lucas shook the sergeant’s hand. “Thank you for everything. It’s been great knowing that you and your men were out there, taking care of our family.”

“Are you sure you’ll be okay on your own?” Agüero asked, looking worriedly at Lucas.

“You can’t stay here during the hurricane,” Lucas responded. “And we can’t really justify any additional protection, since the terrorists have been taken down. It’s time to go.”

Earlier during the day, Secretary of State Arizmendi had called Lucas. They had both agreed that it was time to remove the police detail.

Sergeant Agüero had assented slowly, looking unconvinced. “I don’t know…There may be others…” he said.

It was true, thought Lucas.

During the prior night’s incursion into the terrorist hideout, Gomez and later Aarón—their shuttle’s driver—had seen a red CRV drive out of the compound. And Aarón was certain that one of the CRV’s passengers had been the small man with the mustache in the photo circulated by El Chino. So some of the terrorists were still on the loose.

Or hopefully, they had flown out of Puerto Rico during the night or in the morning, fleeing the hurricane.

It probably was the latter, Lucas and Arizmendi had concluded, although no one fitting the description of the photographed man had been seen or detained at the airport. Anyway, the police could not keep watch during the hurricane, and no terrorist would be crazy enough to attack them during that time.

And just in case, Ojeda would be staying with them.

“We’ll be okay,” Lucas responded. “Go home. Take care of your families.”

“God be with you,” Agüero told Lucas. “It has been a real honor.”

He began to walk away.

* * *

From five houses away, Hassam watched with a pair of binoculars through the back window of his rented vehicle as the police detail withdrew from Lucas’ housein their two police cars.

He picked up his cell phone and dialed Enrique.

“The police guarding the house have left,” he said, when his boss answered.

“Excellent!” Enrique answered.

Hassam could imagine him grinning gleefully, while his dark eyes shone much like a hungry cat watching a mouse unwittingly stumble his way.

“Wait for us there. We’ll be in the house before the hurricane gets there.”

“Are we spending the hurricane__” Hassam began to ask, but Enrique interrupted him.

“Somebody is knocking at the door. I have to go,” Enrique said, and ended the call.

(Chapter LXIV will be posted on Monday, November 30)

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