"And Then They Came..." (Chapter LXIV)
José Ramón—Enrique’s computer expert—paced back and forth impatiently in his holding cell, feeling extremely angry with himself.
He had been supposed to leave at 9:35 A.M. for Barcelona, in a first class Iberia Airlines flight.
It had almost happened.
But then, he had screwed it up.
He had been so carelessly stupid!
Concentrating on finding out, before leaving for the airport, what had happened to the nuclear device they had sneaked into the air ambulance, he had completely forgotten about the gun in his handbag.
And the worst part was he didn’t even know how to use it!
He had placed it in his bag as an afterthought, as a tool of last resort. Placed it there, in its bottom, and then quickly lost track of it in his mind.
When the TSA agent had found it, José Ramón’s usually brilliant, analytical mind had gone blank. He could not come up with a reasonable explanation for it.
His Spanish passport had complicated matters even more. The date of entrance stamped on it showed he had flown into the island from London nearly two months before. But he had been unable to produce any permit for him to acquire, or to carry with him into Puerto Rico, any kind of weapon.
He had been sequestered to a small police station at the airport, where he had been photographed and then led to a minuscule side office containing a bare desk, two visitors’ chairs, and a third, plusher chair behind the desk. There, he had anxiously waited for someone to come in.
Finally, only twenty minutes before his his flight was due to leave, a local police lieutenant walked into room. He was about José Ramón’s height, in his mid-thirties, and sporting a neatly trimmed goatee.
He brought with him José Ramón’s passport, his wallet, his handbag, and his portable computer. Placing the objects in front of the Spaniard, the policeman walked around the room’s desk—an old bare gray metallic 1960’s relic from some surplus government agency—and sat behind it. From one of his pants back pockets, he fished out a small notepad.
“Good morning,” the lieutenant said in a casual, almost friendly tone. “I’m Lieutenant Ricardo López, of the Puerto Rico Police. I need to ask you a few questions about the gun you were carrying.”
During his wait, the Spaniard had decided to bluff his way out of his arrest.
When he had been detained by the TSA agents, he had seemed unusually meek and afraid, he now realized. That had been a mistake. He had decided to act with impatient indignation, as the victim of a prank, unreasonably detained.
“As long as the questions don’t last more than ten minutes, and I am able to get back into my plane before it leaves,” he responded, looking impatiently at his watch.
López nodded several times to himself, smiling and opening the Spaniard’s wallet.
“You’re flying out to Barcelona,” he said.
“Yes, my company, Empacadora Ballester, wanted to get me out of the island before the hurricane arrived,” the Spaniard replied, without batting an eye.
It had been a mistake to keep him waiting so long, he thought himself. It had given him the chance to make up a story.
The lieutenant pulled a pen from his shirt pocket, and began to write down the name the Spaniard had given him. “Empacadora…What was that last name again?”
“Ballester,” José Ramón responded in a peeved tone.
“Ba-lles-ter,” López slowly repeated, as he wrote the name down. “And what does Empacadora Ballester do?”
José Ramón looked at his watch again.
“It is an import-export business. A food import-export enterprise,” he responded. “What__”
“Is there a phone number where we can reach them?” López asked, ignoring the detained man’s last inquiry.
José Ramón paused. “What does that have to do with the gun in my bag?”
López shrugged. “You tell me.”
“Nothing. It has nothing to do with them,” the Spaniard angrily replied, then added in a more mollified tone, “Look, obviously I’ve been the object of a cruel joke. Somebody, I don’t know who, slipped that gun into my carry-on. I had never seen it before.”
The police lieutenant leaned forward and frowned sympathetically. “Who?”
“Who what?” asked the Spaniard impatiently.
“Who would slip a gun in your baggage? That’s an expensive joke, just giving you a gun—a Glock-19. I estimate it costs, in the legal market, about five hundred dollars. And this one had its serial numbers erased. Filed away. That in itself is a crime, here, in Puerto Rico, you know? Whoever placed that gun in your bag must have really hated you.”
José Ramón nodded emphatically. “Yes, yes. Like I said, I’ve been the object of a cruel joke.”
“I’m sure everything can be cleared up relatively quickly,” López assured him confidently.
“Yes, I must return to Barcelona by tomorrow,” José Ramón said with a mixture of hope and relief in his voice.
“Oh, I don’t think it can be cleared that quickly. It will take at least a couple of days…”
“But I will miss my plane!”
López nodded. “Most assuredly.”
“But the hurricane__”
“We will find a safe place where you can wait it out. Probably in our main state penitentiary, which is made up of solid concrete. Nothing can__”
“Of course, you will probably have to share your cell with some of the inmates, but they are generally harmless…”
“This is an outrage!” José Ramón exploded. “You can’t keep me here! I don’t know where that gun came from! Listen,” he added desperately. “I’m not bringing a gun into your island, I’m leaving it!”
The lieutenant lowered his voice conspiratorially.
“I know, that’s the worst part about this. I feel sorry for you. But I’m sure it will all be cleared up soon. Now, what is the phone number of Empacadora…Ballester?”
“What does the damned telephone number of Empacadora Ballester have to do with anything of this?” José Ramón asked exasperatedly.
López’s expression changed to one of patient sympathy. “It will help all of us if your employer can vouch for you. It will get you out more quickly from your predicament. Also, I wanted to ask you…”
“Yes?” José Ramón asked, a little too impatiently.
“What about it?”
“It contained very little in it. No driver’s license, no photographs, no business cards, only one credit card and five hundred dollars in small denominations, plus about the same amount in euros. Do you always travel with so little ID? It kind of raises all sort of__”
López stopped, as another officer walked into the room and whispered something in his ear.
“Excuse me,” he said, and exited the small office.
* * *
Police Superintendent Montañez had been watching the interview through a closed circuit television screen, from a hidden camera installed in one of the two wall lamps in José Ramón’s holding cell.
“Good interview, Ricardo,” Montañez said to López as he walked into the room.
“Thank you, sir,” López replied in an amused tone.
“You instilled the fear of God in him in a very nice, friendly way,” the Superintendent told him, not taking his eyes from the screen. “Look at his hands. They’re shaking.”
“Thank you, sir. I learned from the best.”
López had worked in Montañez’s anti-drug outfit—dubbed by the locals as “The Untouchables”—for eleven years. After the attack conducted by San Miguel on San Juan the previous year, he had been inducted into Maldonado’s newly created “Anti-terrorist Unit.”
Tipped by Lucas’ group about a car that had left the El Yunque terrorist hideout before it could be stopped, the police had established a heavy police presence in the island's airports, assuming—apparently correctly—that the men inside the vehicle would attempt to flee Puerto Rico.
Several police forensic teams, as well as the FBI, had been working non-stop in the captured El Yunque hideout, lifting any fingerprints that they found, feeding their images into a portable scanner, and sending the images to the TSA, police, and Customs systems at the airport. The unidentified fingerprints probably belonged to men ranging in age from the mid-forties to their twenties—the police profiler had suggested—traveling alone or with other similarly aged men.
Those men fitting the profile had been quietly taken out of the security lines at the airport and their fingerprints scanned, to see if they matched any of the ones continuously being fed into the system.
Even so, the Spaniard would have slipped through the airport’s police net. Being sixty-four years old, he had not fallen into the suspected age group being scrutinized by the police.
And even had he been pulled out and interrogated, his fingerprints had not been incorporated into the TSA’s computer bank until after he had been detained. At the very least, he would have been able to board the plane, and possibly fly out of Puerto Rico.
And yet—stupidly and inexplicably—he had been carrying a gun in his handbag.
“We just got a positive hit with his fingerprints. Two positive hits,” Montañez informed his lieutenant. “One ten minutes ago, from a new feed we got from the El Yunque site. The terrorists had a room filled with computers there. The computers were littered with his fingerprints. It seems your detainee worked a lot with them.”
“And the second hit?” López inquired.
“Interpol identified the fingerprints we took when he was detained and photographed. They belong to a man named José Manuel Andújar, who participated ten years ago in the bombing of the Spanish train station in Madrid.”
“Okay,“ López said cheerfully. “I can work with that.”
“Not yet,” Montañez muttered. “Wait another fifteen minutes. Let the man stew in his own juices.
* * *
By half after two in the afternoon, José Ramón had confessed.
The straw that had broken the camel’s back had been when, about an hour before that, he had been taken, handcuffed, to a police van where two other unsavory looking characters had been waiting to be transported to jail.
The other two prisoners had really been two of Montañez’s undercover policemen, one dressed in a purple, sleeveless wife-beater shirt, short baggy pants, and sandals, the second wearing a tight red T-shirt with heavy gold chains and a cap bearing the Puerto Rican flag, sporting a tattoo in his right arm of a bleeding dagger, and missing three of his upper front teeth. The two “prisoners” had eyed the Spaniard with lascivious glee, making him cringe.
“Where are you taking me?” José Ramón asked in an alarmed tone.
“To the state penitentiary,” López replied. “Don’t worry,” he added reassuringly. “We’re keeping you and these two murder suspects in a holding cell. It should keep all of you safe during the hurricane.”
José Ramón—who up to that moment had refused to even provide the phone number of his employer, Empacadora Ballester—asked to speak privately with his interviewer, promising him to provide very important information in exchange for his protection.
“What kind of information?” López asked, in an innocent tone, when the Spaniard was brought to him.
José Ramón had hesitated, knowing once he took the plunge, there would be no turning back.
“What will you give me in return?” he asked to gain some time.
“Listen,” López told him, deciding to press him with all of the information that he already had available. “I’m tired of playing games with you. We know you worked with the computers in the terrorist base in El Yunque. We also know that you participated in the bombing of the Madrid train station, and have been involved in other terrorist acts. The most I can do for you is to try to mitigate the charges to which you will be subjected for being part of the terrorist attack on the Capitol, for helping to kidnap the Governor’s son, and for attempting to sabotage the Governor’s son’s flight to Washington.”
José Ramón cringed as if physically struck, his face growing deathly pale.
“So depending on the information you can give us, we can try to convince the prosecutors of giving you a lighter sentence,” Lopez continued saying.
Although after they got through with him, they would give him to the Spanish government, he thought.
José Ramón nodded defeatedly.
“I know where the man who planned the entire terrorist operation and his most trusted associates are hiding,” he said in a shaky voice.
(Chapter LXV will posted on Thursday, December 3)