Chapter Thirteen

Chapter 13

When they finally arrive at the Montoya residence, Arnold is feeling nervous.  Luján opens the door to her house and invites them to come in.  Introductions are made and they sit down to a beautiful dinner.  The conversation is light and interesting and Juan Carlos tells them stories of his travels.  They even share some ideas for Arnold and Annie to think about for their next book about Paraguay.

When the meal is over and they are sitting in the living room with coffee and mate cocido steaming in their large mugs, Luján finally starts to talk about that day twenty years ago when Arnold and China has left Paraguay and never come back.

“I heard that you were dead,” Arnold says again.  “China was told by her contacts here that you and your whole family had died in the fighting.  I was so angry at her for not protecting you better.  I almost died thinking about what I could have done to save you if I had stayed.”

“It was Coronel Oviedo,” Luján says.  “He hated my father and once you were gone in the helicopter, he arrested my father and mother and put them in our car with an armed guard.”

Luján is talking quietly, remembering that day like it is yesterday.  “I had gone to the bathroom and he came looking for me there.  I was only sixteen, you remember, but I had some experience with brutes before.”  She looks at Arnold and he smiles weakly, remembering Wenceslao.

“I fought him and scratched his face and then ran out of the house and into the jungle as fast as I could go.  He was right behind me with his men but I lost them and then went to our cave with the toads.”  She takes a minute to explain about the caves and then continues with her story.  “I stayed in the caves for three days but finally came out because I was hungry.  I had lots of water but I couldn’t bring myself to eat the toads.”  She grimaces and they all nod their agreement.

“By the time I got back to the house, it was deserted.  My parents were gone and I was alone.  Later I found out that they had been murdered by Coronel Oviedo in the jungle but their bodies were never found.  Later, the Coronel was also killed in the fighting in the Capital.”

Luján is quiet for a long moment.

“What did you do?” Jane asks, enthralled with the story.

“My parents took her in,” Juan Carlos says.  “They lived in Bella Vista Norte at that time and I was living in Asuncion, going to the University to become a writer.”

“They treated me like a daughter,” Luján says, “and gave me their name as my own to keep me under the radar of the new government.  People called me Luján Montoya even though everyone in Bella Vista Norte knew my real name.”

“What was your real name?” Jeremy asks.

“Jeremy,” Annie says.  “That’s not polite.  Maybe she wants to keep that a secret still.”

“No, it’s all right,” Luján says.  “I want to tell you.  My real name is Stroessner, Luján Stroessner.”

“But isn’t that the name of that evil dictator you were telling me about, Dad?” Jeremy says.

“Jeremy!” Annie says.

“I’m just asking,” Jeremy says.

“Yes, it was, Jeremy,” Luján says.  “He was my uncle.  My Dad was his brother.  That’s why Coronel Oviedo hated him so much.”

“When I heard what was going on,” Juan Carlos says, “I came home from University to meet this “dangerous” girl and tell my parents not to take such chances.  But instead, I fell in love.”  He takes Luján’s hand in his.  “It took almost four years more but I finally won her hand in marriage and we have been happy ever since.”

“The numbers don’t add up,” Miguel Ángel says, confused.

But before he can ask any questions, Arnold gets up and walks over to the fireplace.

“I’m curious about the Simon Bertoni Foundation,” Arnold says.  “Why is it being run by the Benegas family?”

“What a mess,” Luján says.  “Do you remember the lawyer that your mother gave the money to?  He was killed in the fighting and his wife was given the job of setting up the foundation.  She was still quite young and Wenceslao decided to gain control of the foundation by marrying her.  It took him a couple of years but he did it and, by the time Maria found out what kind of person he was, it was too late.”

“Maria?”  Annie says.

“Yes, she is the one who warned me that Wenceslao was on his way to your house,” Luján says.  “I called you right away.”

“And just in time,” Arnold says.  Then he tells them what has happened at their house that evening and that leads to other questions and other stories until everyone is caught up to speed.

“Although, we are still worried about one thing”, Arnold says. “Wenceslao Benegas.  What do we do about him?”

“He’s dangerous,” Annie adds.

“Yes, he is,” Juan Carlos says.  “His family is still powerful here in Paraguay.  You need to be careful.”

“But I don’t understand why he is still looking for the treasure if he knows that it was used to set up the Foundation,” Jeremy says.

“I can answer that,” Miguel Ángel says.  “Alicia told me that there was very little money in the Foundation accounts when he married Maria and that he believes the bulk of the Treasure was hidden again somewhere on the property.”

“Where did the money go?”  Jane asks.

Everyone looks at Luján but she doesn’t say anything.  Then she sighs deeply.

“I guess it’s time to tell you something that I’ve kept secret all these years,” Luján says, looking around at them.  “When I saw that  Wenceslao was courting Maria, I realized right away what he was up to.  He knew that Arnold and I had found the treasure, I don’t know how, and that China had given it to her lawyer.  So I went to Maria and talked to her about it.  She liked Wenceslao and didn’t believe me but I convinced her to keep only a small portion of the money in the account and hide the rest, just in case.”  She pauses, smiling.  “Wenceslao was furious when he finally married Maria and found out but it was too late.  He now had control of the Foundation but there was no money in the accounts.”

“Why didn’t Maria just tell him where the rest of the money was?” Annie says.

“Yes, she finally gave in and told him where she had hidden it,” Luján says, with a twinkle in her eyes.

“And?” Juan Carlos, her husband, says.  He looks around at the others.  “Even I don’t know what she’s talking about.  What happened to the money?”

Luján says nothing for a long moment and then makes a decision.  “I have never told anyone this before, and I am a little bit ashamed of myself…. because I broke the law….”

“What is it, mother?” Miguel Ángel says.  “What did you do?”

“Well, when Maria agreed to hide the rest of the money, she also agreed to tell one other person where she was going to hide it, and that person was me.  After all, I was one of the people who found it in the first place and she knew that I loved Arnold.”

“So, you broke into her house when she was away and stole the money from her,” Arnold says quietly.

Luján is surprised.  “How did you know?”

“It’s what I would have done,” Arnold says simply.  “Smart…”

“But illegal….” Juan Carlos says.  “If Benegas ever finds out, he will come after you as well.  He will be furious.”

“So, we don’t tell him,” Annie says.  “Ever…”

“Where did you hide the money?” Jane asks.  “Do you still have it?”

“I put it back where we found it…” Luján starts to say.

“….under the slab of stone on the ledge behind the wall in the cold cellar at the back of the property,” Arnold finishes.  “Like I said, smart…”

“Then I hid the key and my diary in your secret compartment under your bed, under the carpet…”

“But who was living in the house at the time?” Jane asks.

They were…” Luján says.  “The only real benefit that Wenceslao every got from the treasure was the use of that beautiful old house.”  She laughs delightedly.  “He hated living here because it reminded him constantly of you.”  She looks at Arnold.  “He never went into your old room and used it as a storage room for years.  It was the best place I could think of to hide the key.”

“They still must have found the old cellar and got the door opened somehow,” Arnold says.  “They would have checked everywhere.”

“Unless you knew exactly where to look, it was very unlikely they would ever find it,” Luján says, smiling.  “Apparently they’re still looking.

“So why did they invite us to come to Paraguay and write a book and live in the house,” Annie asks.

“I can only guess,” Luján says.  “But I think he was trying to get you back here so that you could find the treasure for him.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Arnold says quietly.  “But I still don’t know what to do about him.”

“I do,” Miguel Ángel says.  Everyone turns to look at him.  He looks embarrassed.  “It’s simple, really,” he says.  “Just expose him.  Write your book about him, and the Foundation and what he is trying to do and the whole story up to today.”  He pauses.  “You’re back now and you’re living in the house.  They had to move out and are living in an apartment downtown and they don’t have any money left.  This is his last shot to get his hands on the treasure.”

“Still, his family….” Juan Carlos says.

“His family has practically disowned him,” Miguel Ángel says.  “That’s why he’s broke.  They are all sick and tired of him and his talk about the treasure.  Alicia told me the whole story.  He has no more power anymore.”

“Even if he tries to sue us in court for defamation of character,” Arnold says, “it’s still his word against ours.”

“Yes, but you live in the house and you have the treasure,” Juan Carlos says.  “You can just open up another Foundation with another bank account and nobody can touch the money except you.”

Arnold looks at Annie.

“It might work, Arni,” she says.  “It’s worth a try.”

“But that might just make him more angry,” Arnold says, looking at Luján and then Juan Carlos.  “What if he decides to come after me or my family.  He broke into our house tonight and he almost ran down my son this afternoon with his car.  He’s dangerous.”

“I’ve been thinking about that,” Juan Carlos says.  “I was planning to talk to you later about that, Arni.  But I will say it now.  I think you need to press charges for both the attempted murder of your son and the breaking into your house.”

“I agree,” Luján says quickly.

“It may be circumstantial evidence but anyone who knows Benegas, wouldn’t be surprised,” Juan Carlos says.  “Besides, I have a contact or two that may want to help us out with this.  Wenceslao Benegas doesn’t have many friends in this city, at least, not anymore.”

Miguel Ángel stands up and walks behind the sofa, thinking.  “We need to talk to his uncle.  He’s the head of the family now.  If we tell him what Wenceslao tried to do to Jeremy today, it might get him to take some drastic action.  He has a boy of his own, about his age.”

“It’s worth a try,” Arnold says.  “I just don’t want to put my family in any danger.”

“Let me make a few phone calls,” Juan Carlos says.  “Being famous has some benefits, you know.”

“I know the son of the attorney general,” Miguel Ángel says.  “He goes to my school.  Maybe I can talk to him.”

“How will that help,” Jane asks.

Miguel Ángel smiles brightly.  “Maybe we don’t have to press charges.  Maybe we just have to threaten to press charges and suggest that we might go to the media and expose him and the whole family.”

“Good thinking, son,” Juan Carlos says.  “The attorney general might be able to persuade the Benegas family to send Wenceslao to Argentina to take care of their business there…. permanently, instead of facing potential charges, and embarrassment for the family, here in Paraguay.”

“So what you’re saying is,” Jeremy says, “that I’m the hero here ´cause I recorded his threats, then let him try to kill me and made sure that  it all got videotaped and put on TV?”

“Oh, Jeremy…” Annie says and they all laugh.

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