"And Then They Came..." (Epilogue, Chapter II)
“How is Francisco doing?” President Powell asked Governor Pietrantoni.
It was 7:00 in the morning, and they were having breakfast in La Fortaleza’s dining room.
The prior day had been a busy one, as both men had visited several of the worst areas affected by Hurricane Fay.
“I spoke with Nereida last night. She told me that he’s having a tough time with the virus, but that he’s stable, and that the doctors are very hopeful that he’ll pull through.”
“Thank God,” the President said, attacking with gusto the scrambled eggs and bacon before him.
María, the Executive Mansion’s main cook, had also brought him warm croissants and mallorcas, the fluffy, bread-like confection sprinkled with powdered sugar that Powell had learned to love during his prior visit to Puerto Rico. He had compared them to the New Orleans beignets.
“Only better,” he had added.
Unknown to him, the Governor had packed a box with a dozen of the mallorcas, to take with him when he flew back to Washington later that morning.
“Any word on Lucas?” Powell asked between bites.
“Still in the hospital, but improving,” Pietrantoni answered.
The President sighed.
“His whole world has been turned upside down. His mother and aunts killed, his workplace destroyed, his house attacked, even his minivan was swept away by a flash flood, you said….”
The President had hinted, before Hurricane Fay had struck Puerto Rico, that he had been considering a solution for his Puerto Rican friend's plight. Still, Powell had not discussed any plans for Lucas with Pietrantoni during his present visit to the island.
The Governor poured himself some more coffee—espresso coffee—and added to it a dab of creamy, warm milk. Then he poured some more coffee into the President’s cup.
“Milk? Sugar?” Pietrantoni asked the President.
“You know, I usually just drink it black,” Powell replied, looking over his shoulder at where María and Patria were standing by the kitchen’s door. “But this coffee and milk is so good, that it’s almost like drinking a specialty coffee drink. So I’ll take an espresso with a dollop of that creamy milk, if you don’t mind. Oh! And one spoonful of sugar, to increase my girth.”
Powell patted his stomach with apparent satisfaction, and looked at María and Patria again, causing both of them to smile and blush. It was an exaggeration on his part. A George Clooney look-alike, the President kept himself in top physical form.
Powell looked at his watch.
“Seven-o-five already! I’ve abused enough of your hospitality, Roberto. It’s time to get back to work.”
“On the contrary, Mr. President,” Pietrantoni replied sincerely. “I don’t know what we would have done without your help. Including the lift back to the island in Air Force One.”
The two men continued to consume their breakfast in silence for a few more minutes. Finally, President Powell placed his napkin on the table, and stretched contentedly.
“Well, María, Patria, that was a wonderful breakfast. Thank you!”
Patria and another female employee who appeared almost magically from the kitchen door began to collect the breakfast plates.
“I would like to do one more thing before I leave, and that is to visit Lucas,” he said, as Patria picked up his dish. He looked at her.
“You got to know him, Lucas. Didn’t you, Patria?”
The President had followed very closely the terrorist attack of the previous year, and enjoyed talking to those who had been involved in it.
The main housekeeper of La Fortaleza turned to him, her round cheeks expanding into a wide grin.
“Oh, I had the pleasure of meeting him, yes, Mr. President,” she replied. “He’s a hero in the flesh, if you’ve ever seen one. And a perfect gentleman too. He saved all of us.”
“That’s what I heard. That’s what I think too. I’d like to see him before I leave.”
“Are you thinking of making him an offer he can’t refuse?” Pietrantoni asked him directly.
“I’m thinking of…giving him a choice. I know you’re very busy, but do you want to come with me?”
“I was hoping you’d ask,” the Governor answered.
He was curious, and more than a little afraid of what the President would do.
He did not want to lose Lucas.
* * *
The Secret Service arrived first, close to 8:15 in the morning.
Lucas was asleep, having spent a portion of the early hours of that morning awake. Jeannie—staying with Lucas—had taken the opportunity to have breakfast at the hospital cafeteria.
It was the noise of the dozens of reporters and photographers who followed the President and the Governor to his room that had finally awakened him.
A nervous nurse ushered the two men into the room, staying by the entrance, while the Secret Service blocked access to all of the others behind them.
Powell nodded to one of his security men, who gently closed the door of the room.
Still half asleep, Lucas stirred, and when he realized who his visitors were, tried to get out of the bed and stand up.
“Please, Lucas, no!” the President said to him, approaching him and placing a hand on his shoulder. “I just wanted to see how you were doing.”
“I’m fine, thank you, sir,” Lucas replied, shaking Powell’s hand, and then Pietrantoni’s. “This is a surprise!”
He looked at the Governor.
“How is Francisco? he asked him.
“He’s doing okay,” Pietrantoni replied, gratefully. “The doctors all expect him to pul through.”
“Where’s Jeannie?” the President inquired.
Lucas searched for her, surprised by her absence.
“She must be having something to eat downstairs,” he said at last. “She’s been staying with me all of these days…”
The President walked to the door and opened it a crack.
“Mark,” he said to the Secret Service man standing by the entrance. “Ms. Alfaro, Jeannie, may be trying to come into this room sometime soon. Let her in when she gets here, will you?”
Powell’s instructions were acknowledged by a muffled reply. The President then closed the door and returned to the side of the bed.
“I learned about your raid on the terrorist compound,” he said to Lucas. “Quite a fight.”
Lucas’ face reddened. Powell’s more accurate version of what had happened varied significantly from the official version that he and his associates had given, claiming he had been “kidnapped”. However, he said nothing to dispute the President’s statement.
Pietrantoni smiled knowingly.
“They had it coming to them,” Powell added, ignoring Lucas’ apparent discomfort. “And I also heard about the attempt on your family. That wife of yours is a fierce warrior. Not that I ever doubted it. You two make a great pair.”
“Thank you, Mr. President. Although we wouldn’t have made it without Ojeda’s help.”
“Ojeda,” the President’s expression sobered. “We will all miss him.”
There was a soft knock on the door, and a flustered Jeannie entered the room.
“President Powell, Governor Pietrantoni!” she said, turning a reproachful eye on her husband. “You should have warned me they were coming! I’m such a mess!”
“I didn’t know they were coming,” Lucas protested, but his words were drowned by Pietrantoni and Powell’s greetings.
Jeannie unconsciously wiped her hands over her pants, then tugged at the ends of the sweater that covered her sleeveless shirt. Her hair was uncombed, and she wore no makeup.
“You look beautiful,” Pietrantoni said, approaching her and kissing her on the cheek.
“A natural beauty,” Powell added sincerely, following suit and beaming at her. “We were just talking about you.”
Jeannie nodded breathlessly, not certain about what had been said, directing a suspicious glance at her husband.
“Well, Lucas always says the most embarrassing__”
“Oh no, it wasn’t him!” Powell said with a chuckle. “I was saying how brave you had been__”
“I was terrified!” she blustered before she could consider what he was saying.
“The best kind of brave,” Powell responded. “Fighting back while terrified.”
“I wish she was less brave with me,” Lucas whispered mischievously, earning a withering stare from his wife.
“That’s because you constantly need to be put in your place,” she answered in an unsympathetic tone.
Powell and Pietrantoni laughed.
“Anyway, I wanted to say hi to the both of you…” he hesitated momentarily. “And broach a somewhat delicate subject with the both of you, especially now that I’m here. So I’m glad you’re both here,” he said to Jeannie, who moved next to her husband and sat on the side of the bed, grabbing his hand.
Pietrantoni crossed his arms and listened quietly, not certain that he would like what would come next.
“As you probably know, my wife, María Luisa, and I are both independently wealthy,” he said, without any apparent hint of boasting.
It was true. Between his various retail and transportation enterprises, and the First Lady’s partially inherited, mostly earned fortune as a professional model, they were worth in excess of 600 million dollars.
“Of course, most of our assets are presently in a blind trust being handled by Mike O’Keefe, over which I have no control.”
O’Keefe had served as Secretary of the Treasury for the prior administration, and was very well regarded in the financial circles.
“Which means I have absolutely no say, while I am President, about how my businesses are run. However, I imagine that if I recommend to O’Keefe anyone for employment, my recommendation will carry some weight.”
What Powell was saying was correct, at least while his communications with O’Keefe had no perceived financial benefit for the President. However, if information about what he suspected the President was going to suggest filtered out to his political enemies, it was certain that they would cry foul and allege some sort of conflict of interest.
Powell stopped, as if uncertain on how to proceed.
“You and your family have gone through hell, and that is an understatement,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair, and I’d like to help you, if you don’t object to it.”
“We’ll find a way__” Lucas began to say, but the President raised a hand, pleading to him to hear him out.
“You are as stiffed-necked as you are brave,” he said to the Puerto Rican, smiling. “So just…listen to me for a moment.”
Jeannie stared at Powell, nodding hopefully.
“My businesses, whatever shape they’re in, can use a good security chief. When I placed them in a blind trust, they employed roughly twenty thousand people, nothing like the hundreds of thousands of Amazon employees, but still a considerable amount of employees.”
“You need good cybersecurity people,” Lucas replied, shaking his head. “I know very little about cybersecurity.”
“I have cybersecurity people. Good cybersecurity people. And also various security companies, to protect not just my businesses but my employees. That’s not what I’m talking about.”
“I need somebody that can oversee the entire security operation. Somebody with good common sense, a fighter who doesn’t quit, but who has enough sense to know when he should not get into a fight. Most of all, I need someone honest with a good heart.”
“He’s honest and has a good heart,” Jeannie muttered softly. Then, raising her voice, she added, “But he’s very pig-headed.”
“A trait that seems to run in the family,” the President said, smiling at her. “I heard how you wouldn’t abandon Ojeda when you were about to be swept away by a flood…”
Jeannie stared at him with surprise.
“I have my sources,” Powell said, chuckling.
In reality, the story had reached the President through Pietrantoni, who had spoken with Michael two days before.
“Look, I’ll be honest with you,” he said directly to Lucas. “I don’t see you spending the rest of your life in the basement of a jewelry store, manufacturing or repairing jewels. It’s…It’s too dull of a life for somebody like you. I would have asked you to join my Secret Service detail, because that would keep you closer to me than handling security in a blind trust. But getting admitted into the Secret Service is a complicated process. I think you even have to have some degree in criminal law, and that sort of stuff.”
“I know that if I insist, as President, they would find a way of cutting corners and getting you into the Service, but that would not be right, and sooner or later a reporter would find out and bring it up. And that would be entirely justified, mind you. So at least, until I cease to be President, I would put that alternative out of the question. I mean, we could get you to take the necessary courses to get you qualified. I’ve got two more years to serve as President, and four more if I get re-elected,” he said, almost as an afterthought. “But that’s another matter altogether…We’ll have to think about that.”
The President stared at Lucas, his amused expression sobering.
“I’m not going to ask you to give me an answer now,” he said. “I’m sure O’Keefe can offer you a decent, six-figure salary to head the security of the businesses he’s handling. You won’t get rich, but you’ll live well. Of course, it would involve moving to New Mexico, where the headquarters of my businesses are. They call New Mexico “The Land of Enchantment”, so you’d be moving from “The Island of Enchantment” to “The Land of Enchantment”. That may be an omen. Think about it, that’s all I ask. I’m sure Pietrantoni would rather have you here, but it’s an idea.”
Pietrantoni arched an eyebrow and opened his mouth as if to speak, but at the last moment opted to stay silent. The President noticed his expression, and nodded slightly in his direction.
“There is another alternative…” Powell continued. “Not as attractive to me, but you may prefer it.”
He paused, as if considering to go on.
“I can lend to you the money to rebuild the jewelry store, with no interest or time limit for you to pay me back.”
Jeannie moved one of her hands to her mouth, unaware that she was doing it, and bit one of her fingernails.
“That is very generous on your part, Mr. President, but I wouldn’t accept a loan without paying you some kind of interest,” Lucas said. Powell dismissed his friend’s statement with a wave of his hand.
“I knew you’d say something like that, from somebody as stiff-necked as you, but it’s not going to happen. Anyway, I’m hoping you’ll take the New Mexico position. For the life of me, I can’t see you spending the rest of your life in a cellar repairing jewels. But I leave it up to you.”
The President looked at his watch.
“I have to go. Think about it, please. I would enjoy having you by my side, in the Secret Service, although I don’t see that happening for a while.”
He extended his hand to Lucas, and shook it warmly.
“Get well soon, Lucas. And God bless you for all you have done. We’ll be in touch.”
The President kissed Jeannie on the cheek, and walked out of the room.
Hesitating, Pietrantoni approached Lucas and shook his hand.
“I guess you have a lot to consider. Please let me know what you decide,” the Governor said to his friend, and then followed Powell out of the room.
Overwhelmed, Jeannie walked to her husband and looked at him anxiously.
“So what do you think?” she asked him.
(Chapter III of the Epilogue will be posted on Monday, February 1)