The Seagull Operation

seagulls on beach. code name military operation

Chapter 1

Saturday, January 3, 199—, 8:08 p.m.

Restaurant La Casona, Downtown Santiago, Chile

            I was bursting to announce the secret of my engagement to the world, but the man I planned to marry shouldn’t be the last to find out.

            How was I supposed to sit in this restaurant and carry on a leisurely conversation with my parents? All I could really think of—while they discussed dinner options and flight schedules and the day’s sightseeing—was that pressing overdue phone call. I needed to talk to Nicolás soon, before the tightly coiled ball of nerves inside me sprang apart.

            Only my affection for my mom and dad kept me at the damask-covered table in downtown Santiago, instead of bolting as fast as I could to the privacy of the mission guest apartment where I could phone Nicolás. My parents were in on my secret—the only ones so far—and though maybe they couldn’t tell to look at me, poor Mom and Dad probably suspected that my Chile tour-guide pose camouflaged a distracted mind.

            How could it be otherwise? A personal seismic upheaval around the magnitude of a ten on the Richter scale had occurred the night before last, and my entire center of gravity shifted. My whole world slid towards Nicolás Serrano.

            Nicolás had been asking—no, begging—me to marry him for months. Finally I had an answer for him: Yes! Yes, God had granted my zarpe, His confirmation, and I’d follow Nicolás wherever he went. Yes, loving God and loving Nicolás weren’t mutually exclusive. Everything had turned upside down.

            Upside right, rather.

            An unexpected shake-up, though. Beneath my surface calm, I was still adjusting to the changes, redrawing the old shape of my life, gauging the rearrangements to my plans. I still trembled with something between terror and ecstasy.

            I couldn’t settle my churning thoughts. Because as fate—or the devil—would have it, I’d been unable to contact Nicolás thus far. Not at his home in Mellehue on the island of Grand Chiloé, not at his work in the port captain’s office there, nor even through his personal cell. Frustrating. Finally, yesterday morning, I’d put part of what I was dying to tell him into a discreet telegram. But we needed to talk.

            “Lovely restaurant,” my mother, Susanne, said. “Spanish colonial, isn’t it? Quaint.”

            “It’s a Chilean tradition, they tell me. Linda brought me here to celebrate my fifteenth birthday.” Nine years, give or take a few weeks, had passed since then. Aside from the venue and the menu and the vistas of a sultry modern city, everything else in my life was different. “I came here once with Nicolás and his grandparents too.”

            “Bet you thought you were still back home in Baltimore.” My father, Edward, nodded toward the forest of high-rise condos and office buildings that hedged the restaurant patio. No cool green woods here.

            I laughed. “Not really. I’d already had that illusion shattered in Chiloé.”

            But the hub of this great metropolis was nothing like the Chiloé Islands, where I longed to be with every fiber of my being now. Here the only sea that roared was the omnipresent undercurrent of voices. Traffic hummed in the background. Footsteps bustled down the sidewalk just beyond the open-air courtyard of La Casona.

            Early evening sunlight pooled on the cobblestones through the airy branches of the poplar trees. The sky here radiated a brazen unvarying blue. In Chiloé it would be variegated from indigo and storm-gray to periwinkle and lavender and mist. Weather brewed in the sullen clouds we’d left behind in southern Chile this morning—was it raining down there yet?

            “And now you want to spend the rest of your life there?” My mother gave me a gentle smile.

            I felt a blush steal across my cheeks. “I want to spend the rest of my life with Nicolás. I think Chiloé will always be home to me, like it is to him, and I hope we’re there for a long time. But you know, these last couple of days, my commitment seems to have changed from a place to a person.”

            “That’s right, honey,” my father said. “You should be with your man whether he stays in Chiloé, or gets transferred to the Antarctic or the Atacama.”

“The desert? In the Navy? How about Easter Island.” I grinned and reached for one of the crusty homemade rolls in the center basket. “You two ready to order yet? I’m starved.”

            “Almost twelve hours on the road today,” Dad said. “It’s a long trip from the camp, and you did most of the driving.”

            “I was the one in a rush. Sorry about the hot dog stand at Laja Falls.” I slathered the roll with butter and pebre salsa and leaned back in my chair while I savored the first big bite. As always, it almost melted in my mouth. A couple of plump pigeons left pecking at the fallen French fries under a nearby table and scurried my way, hoping for scraps.

            Mom clapped the menu folder shut. “I think you’d better order for us.”

            “I recommend the pastel de choclo.”

            “And that is…?”

            “Oh, you wait and see. A good farewell meal, you won’t need to eat again til you get home to Maryland.”

            “You’ve done your duty by your folks, Meli,” Dad said, “but we’ll be off on the plane tomorrow evening and you can get back to normal life.”

             “On the contrary. I’ll be sorry to see you leave, seriously. Two weeks is way too short, especially when Christmas and conference were part of the deal.” I met their eyes across the table. “But I admit I’ll be glad to get home. I’d much rather talk with Nicolás in person than over the phone. I’ve already waited so long—too long—that I don’t know why it seems so urgent now, but…”

            A friendly waiter took my order for the three of us.

            “You can call again as soon as we get back to the guest house, at least.” My mother took a sip of apricot juice and blotted her mouth with a napkin. “I’m sorry we dragged you out like this.”

            “Never mind, it’s probably working out better this way. The mission’s more comfortable than any phone cubicle. I really do need to get my own phone. And Nicolás will be off duty by now, too. We can take all the time we want without feeling in a rush to do something else.”

“Of course, sweetheart,” Mom said. “Maybe you can start to nail down some plans for the wedding.”

I smiled ruefully. “I’m sure Nicolás would like to know there’s even going to be a wedding before I send the invitations out.”

            “Cheer up, hon, you’ll soon be back in your island with your captain,” Dad said. “Isn’t there an overnight bus to Chiloé?”

            “It will already have left by the time your plane takes off.” I shrugged. “That’s  okay. The only thing I’m afraid of is that he might have to go on some trip with the Seahorse Patrol before I get back. But I probably don’t need to worry. Yesterday’s paper said those Cellulose Chiloé hearings could drag on into next week.”

            “You’ll find out more details when you call.” My father glanced at his watch. “We haven’t even seen a newspaper today, and it’ll be too late to catch the television news by the time we get back to the apartment. Wonder what happened at that trial yesterday. Hard to imagine two thousand people in the Castro plaza, like Friday’s paper said.”

            “It’s hard to imagine two thousand people anywhere in one place in Chiloé, Dad. And standing room only inside the Gobernación building. I bet it was pretty tense.”

            “Melissa…” My mother licked her lips and twisted a loose tendril of auburn hair. “Is it—is it possible this whole situation could ignite in some sort of civil uprising?”

            Could it? According to Nicolás, it most definitely could. Exactly what form such an upheaval might take was anybody’s guess at this point. But in one of our last conversations, he’d spoken in dead earnest of the critical state of island politics, the lurking specter of armed conflict. In a vague way, he’d tried to prepare me against the storm he saw hovering on the horizon.

            I didn’t want to deceive my parents, but I didn’t want to alarm them unnecessarily either. Along with my missionary advisors, they’d already registered qualms about my continuing ministry in the turbulent island province of Chiloé.

            “Frankly, anything’s possible, Mom. There have been some terrorist incidents. But it’s probably premature—even paranoid—to think it might escalate into some open general rebellion against the authorities. So, no need to get hysterical.”

            “Yet.” My mom spoke the word crisply, though the hint of a smile tugged at the corners of her lips. “Just be sure to let me know when it’s time to worry, okay?”

            I shoved my chair back and hopped up, startling the pigeons. “I saw a kiosk just down the street here. I’m gonna run out and pick up a paper while we’re waiting for the food.”

            Something to do, anyway.

            As I neared the corner news stand, the headlines of all three major newspapers screeched ‘CHILOÉ ENVIRONMENTAL TRIAL BLOWS UP IN CIVIL INSURRECTION.’ My heartbeat accelerated. Mouth as dry as cotton, I leaned into the dusty window of the booth. “La—La Tercera, por favor.

            Without waiting for the change, I slumped against a lamp post, shook the paper open, and read the subtitle: ‘Guard troops called in to subdue armed separatist uprising following Friday dawn bombing and seizure of Gobernación.’

            My thoughts reeled. Friday—yesterday! Conference and travel aside, how could nearly two days have slipped by without my catching a whisper of these staggering occurrences?

            A full military alert in the islands! The government building in the provincial capital of Castro attacked and commandeered by terrorist forces—unthinkable, almost unbelievable. And it had all begun early Friday morning, before I’d even attempted to call Nicolás. No wonder I’d been unable to get through to him. As one of the chief witnesses for the prosecution, only God in heaven knew where he was or what he might’ve been doing then. It was also perfectly clear now why his junior officer in the port office had sounded so vague when I spoke with him on the phone. Courteous as ever, the young lieutenant had insisted I would not be able to connect with Captain Serrano in Mellehue that day.

            Of course he had known.

            The crisis we’d dreaded for months, and prayed would never come, pounced on me now with mind-numbing abruptness. Despite my familiarity with the volatile situation in Chiloé, this moment struck me off guard.

            Pierced to the core, I stumbled back toward La Casona. Suddenly limp as seaweed, I clutched the edge of the open courtyard doorway, the newspaper dangling from my other hand. “Mom! Dad!”

My strangled croak brought both my parents rushing at once…