Ryder walked into the foyer and opened the mini refrigerator standing against the recessed wall. He stared at the cold beverages. Choosing between Avian and Heineken seemed like a hard decision to make. He picked the Dutch beer to calm down his nerves. His thirst was evident when he drank the contents in two gulps.
He went back to the bed while his hands pressed hard against his head. The ringing-like sound inside his ears made him winced. While lying down on his stomach, his thoughts went back to the Manila Hotel. It was a near-death experience for him, and although he’d been in similar situations before, the one at the hotel had topped everything. This kind of near-miss incident always made him think of life after death.
Ryder wasn’t a religious person, and he laughed off the idea of divine intervention. If there were such things as miracles, should he consider his survival from the bombing as one? He didn’t think so because this type of encounter only happened to spiritual people. He wasn’t even close to being one, and he knew it without pretense. So, he thought, Is God telling me something?
Well, miracle or not, it was undeniably an experience he would never forget for the rest of his life. If not for the backup car and the two security details that shielded him from the direct blast, he could’ve been one of the victims on the ground. For a moment, he laid motionless next to the damaged vehicle with blood all over his shirt and pants.
Ryder was so lucky because he only got minor cuts. Luck? Those people in front of him weren’t fortunate at all. The scattered bodies in the driveway, which looked like some ripped rag dolls, were testaments of the unlucky night for many.
So, after spending another hour at Rizal Park after the carnage, he took some more pictures of the mayhem, then decided to call it a night.
It was a crunching day for Ryder, and he went back to Somerset hotel dead tired. His body pains were bearable. But not the irritating sound in his ears. He pressed his head harder, hoping the pulsating tone would go away. It had stopped earlier, but the ringing came back much louder. While reaching for a pillow on the headboard, he saw the hotel phone’s crystal button blinking nonstop. So, the ringing was real after all. He grabbed the phone from the bedside stand, then answered the call.
“Is this Ryder?” asked the caller, his deep voice sounded so authoritative.
“Who wants to know?”
“This is Smith.”
“Smith from the company.”
“Doug Smith?” Ryder said.
“Douglas Smith, the pushy copyeditor?”
“That’s me, Bud. Thanks for the compliment.”
“Not expecting a phone call from you.” He supported Smith two years ago, while on a special assignment in Europe. “I’m waiting for Jerry to call me.”
“Jerry is on emergency leave.”
“He went back to the States to attend to his mother. I heard she’s gravely ill.”
“Montana?” Ryder asked.
“When is he coming back to work?”
“In two weeks. He’ll call you when he’s back in town.”
“I’m sorry about Jerry. Anyway, it’s good to hear from you.”
“Nice to hear you’re okay.”
“Well, it was a long time.”
“I saw you last in Kosovo. Yeah, it was three years ago.”
“Bosnia. Two years ago. At Ali-Baba’s.”
Ryder smiled. It was a correct answer. Bona fides exchanged, authentication made. Ryder knew Smith couldn’t stay long on the hotel phone.
“What’s up calling me on the public line?”
“You’re not answering your sat-phone!”
“Okay, call me,” Ryder said.
Ryder pressed the green button when his satellite phone rang. “All right, tell me, why it’s you and not someone else?”
“Why are you shouting at me?”
“You’re the one shouting at me!”
Ryder realized how bad the bomb explosion did to his ears. “Sorry, I can’t hear you well. Why did you call, not someone from the company?”
“Pictures and first-hand info. I’m working on a special report for tomorrow’s issue.”
“I’ll e-mail the photos,” Ryder said. “That’s the arrangement I have all the time. I don’t intend to change it. It’s safer that way.”
“No, the procedure has been modified. You’ll deliver the memory stick to me in person. Tonight. There’s a deadline to beat. We got a big story that could change the world.”
Ryder became suspicious about the emergency meeting. The fastest way to send the pictures was through his secure laptop. It would save the company’s support team some precious time. But Smith insisted on seeing him in person. Why?
“I need time to prepare myself and the goodies.”
“I need an hour, Smith.”
Smith gave Ryder the directions on how to meet him near Shangri-La Hotel Manila.
“We’ll follow the same security protocols we used in Bosnia. Clear?”
“Got it,” Ryder replied.
“See you later, Bud.”
Ryder turned off his sat-phone and laid immobile on the bed. His mind raced back again to the Manila Hotel. He analyzed what went wrong on the grounds—how the terrorists penetrated the DSS security rings—and what he’d missed before the bombings.
He thought the bombers had chosen their kill zone perfectly. Berzowski was most vulnerable near the Press Pen. Clearly, they studied how the State Secretary conducted his business outside the confines of his office. They plotted his movements in a precise manner to diagram a pattern. No doubt the bombers conducted an elaborate intelligence gathering on him. It could be weeks or months of probing and plotting. It was an indicator on what kind of terrorist group the US government was up against, and the members weren’t amateurs for sure.
After screening the pictures on his computer, Ryder undressed and went to the bathroom. The pain on his back and legs made him grind his teeth, but the hot shower soothed his aching body. After drying himself, he applied some Neosporin ointment on his wounds and covered them with Band-Aids. Two 500mg Tylenol tablets would ease the discomfort for the next four hours. He dressed up, left the hotel, and hailed a taxicab on the street.
Shangri-La Hotel Manila wasn’t far from the hotel where he was billeted. It took him about fifteen minutes to reach the meeting area. He tweaked the directions that Smith had given him and told the cabbie to drop him off near the InterContinental. From the hotel parking lot, he walked down on Ayala Avenue and proceeded westward towards Rustan’s. A shortcut around the upscale supermarket led him to the pick-up point.