Cruel Paradise

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Chapter 10

As Smith and Martin cut through the thick forest, their last few backward glances afforded them the knowledge that the soldiers had pretty much split in to two rather disorganized groups – one headed south, the same direction as they were, and the other north. They had enough of a head start to keep them concealed from view for a while, but nonetheless they moved fast, ducking to avoid branches and picking their way around thorny bushes and trees as they ran. They changed courses and headed due east, soon emerging from the woods on to the old highway that followed the coast. Since the agents had no way of knowing how skilled the villagers were in tracking, the highway was an easy choice as it wouldn’t leave a trail. If they could just evade the guards and maintain their secrecy, they still had a shot at contacting the mainland and getting out of there unharmed. If Aberland didn’t catch up with them first, that is.

After some time spent hurriedly navigating the crumbling island road and stopping periodically to listen for signs of their pursuers, it became clear that the group of guards never made it out to the coast and had continued through the forest instead. The pair remained alert for signs that they’d changed route, but slowed their pace as the sun finished its descent on the rolling blue waves to their left. The light continued to fade, and eventually they came upon what appeared to be the old crumbling ruins of one of the original Dutch forts on a little hill. They opted to finally stop for a little while, and try to set up their equipment to make contact with the mainland.

They were now shrouded in complete darkness, but still managed to create a mobile hot spot signal booster with their tablet PC, and called in to their home base.

“Tango Victor 1825 calling Tango Charlie. 505-41-9023 and 159-04-2562 writing a postcard to mom. 626-41-3790 abandoned the family. When is dad coming home?”

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Night had fallen, and Blane was still perched on top of the old governor’s house, calculating his best course of action. He knew that the Lieutenant was an intelligent man. Rather than allowing his men to go home and wind down, he’d likely capitalize on their excitement by camping there overnight in order to continue the search immediately the following day. Blane also knew that these men were hardly professionals, barely trained, and immensely difficult to organize – just like a bunch of boys playing war games.

The group headed to the north wasn’t a concern for the double agent; they’d find nothing and have no way to communicate with the Lieutenant (who was with the other faction), and would probably not try to re-join him. They’d wander back to Parham Town to recount their captivating stories over drinks at the bar.

He knew from the general direction the southbound group was headed that there was a good chance they would catch up with Larkin Bellamy or discover whatever shelter she’d found for the night. Though they were unskilled, she was even more so and probably wouldn’t know how to conceal herself well.

This presented an interesting problem. On the one hand, she wasn’t his problem at all. He had no obligation to her, and had already helped her out by diverting the guards, which was arguably charitable enough. On the other, they were now in the same boat. They were both wanted dead or alive (more him than her at the moment) and they both needed to escape. Saving her ass now meant putting himself back in the line of fire when he currently had an excellent advantage. And it’s not like she could bring anything to the table to aid their mission. She’d basically be dead weight.

But hey, he had wanted a challenge, right? This sure was a good one. With a sigh, he rolled over to find his way down and start tracking her in the dark, knowing already that her trail would be muddled by clumsy soldiers. Definitely a challenge.

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Larkin cursed her short legs for the third time in two days. It seemed like she had been running for hours, but the reality was probably half that. It just felt like an eternity because she despised running. Especially running through uncharted territory, tripping over rocks and cutting up her feet.

It was dusk when she had entered the woods, and the light was fading fast. She opted to stick with what she did know about the island rather than forge on in to the wilderness, and located her original footpath. Thanks to her predicament, the once forgotten trail wouldn’t be disappearing in to the woods any time soon, she noted. She sprinted back up to the old abandoned road, reaching it just as the sun had fully set.

She tried to remain calm, but she couldn’t deny that she was lost in the wilderness of a place unknown to her and was terrified of what might be lurking in the dark around her. She longed to just lie down in a safe place and go back to sleep, she was so profoundly exhausted. But she pressed on, slowing to a walk to try not to lose the road, and hopefully not trip over or run smack in to anything.

Larkin squinted and listened as hard as she could; her heart pounding and every muscle tensed to break in to a run again. Her imagination ran wild, picturing cougars and jaguars stalking her and snakes hanging from the trees, poised to snap in her face. Little did she know, the biggest mammal she needed to worry about out there was a mongoose, which would even protect her from the rare aggressive snake, given the opportunity. She finally allowed herself to relax after a while with no signs of vicious animals tracking her movements, including the governor’s soldiers that she thought were hunting her too.

The path she was attempting to follow rose uphill almost immediately, and Larkin vaguely remembered that there was a mountain in the lower third of the island. She decided that it was good for her to be heading that way even if it was pretty difficult to climb in the dark; the rocks and craggy landscape surrounding the peak would undoubtedly offer plenty of good hiding places. If she could feel even a little safe she might not be as mentally fatigued. She might even be coherent enough to believe that she could somehow process this.

Navigating the treacherously decrepit path in the dark was proving to be very time consuming, but the slower pace that she was forced in to allowed Larkin to allay her fears. She felt as reassured as she was going to be capable of about any immediate concerns for danger, and her mind finally began to wander. It briefly lingered upon formulating some type of plan, but she abandoned it quickly. She was too exhausted to strategize. Instead reality cruelly took the opportunity to come crashing down on her, so hard that she felt as though she was suffocating, gasping for air like it was her last breath. It was crippling – she was physically unable to move, and it seemed that her body was forcing her to finally acknowledge, at least a little, the extreme stress she’d been under. Larkin sat down right where she was in the middle of the road, practically falling to her knees, floods of tears streaming down her cheeks and her body shaking with silent sobs.

It was agonizing to face the truth. To fully wrap her mind around the fact that just over 3 days ago, she was at home lying on the sofa, bored. Taking her life and everything that she held dear for granted. And then fate dropped a nuclear bomb on to it. She’d found herself on an island that was largely unheard of, her father had been shot, and she’d been running for her life practically ever since. At every turn they were out to kill her, and if she survived that, she still had to somehow get out of this stupid place. She was living a nightmare, and she fervently hoped that it wouldn’t take the gruesome turn of a horror movie and end in her brutal torture and death.

But she allowed herself a brief moment of pointless optimism, assuming that she managed to overcome these endless obstacles, what would become of her then? She could never return to the US again; she’d have to disappear somewhere. Where? How would she ever manage it? It seemed completely impossible, insurmountable. The grief and anguish and fatigue welled up again like a tidal wave and threatened to suck her down in to its treacherous current. She wanted to give up. She wanted to die. It seemed stupid to even try to fight that inevitability. And now here she was, hopelessly alone and lost in the middle of the woods at night, without a soul to care for her. The nighttime swallowed her up and she succumbed to it, she was too weary to care. She fell in to a deep dark sleep right there in the middle of the road.

Morning, Day 3

Dawn broke but the unforgiving sun did not wake her. After flies and mosquitoes had plagued her unconscious body for hours, she finally stirred around mid-day, and only because of a terrible gnawing pain in her stomach. Larkin groggily realized that she hadn’t eaten since they’d had breakfast on the plane, days ago. Her eyes were terribly swollen and dry from crying, but she managed to stumble to the other side of the path to a tall tree with feathery leaves bearing some type of fruit. It had fat pods that looked like beans, and she wondered vaguely if it was poisonous. There was no way to know for sure. She felt a sharp pain in her foot and looked down blearily to find ants were making their way up the tree, and were clearly annoyed with having the obstacle of a half-dead human disrupting their progress. She watched as they crowded the lowest over-ripe pod, each one vying to get a taste, and thought that perhaps they’d avoid the fruit if it were lethal.

Still feeling fatalistic, Larkin decided that she didn’t really care one way or the other and popped one in her mouth. It was both sweet and sour, and pretty tart. But she was so famished that she would’ve eaten just about anything, even if it had tasted disgusting. Not bothering to wait for evidence of any danger, she ripped more beans from the tree and stuffed them in her mouth, juice running down her chin. Just a few feet away she glimpsed a squat, wide, shady tree with what she thought might be mangos hanging low to the ground. She crawled over and snatched one off of an obliging branch, and beat it with a rock until it cracked open. She shoved her dirty fingers in to the meat of the fruit, eating the seeds and all. It certainly seemed like a mango, at least the way she remembered them. It didn’t matter, it was food.

After gorging herself on tropical fruit for a while, her stomach hurt again, but this time from eating so much after starving for days. If anything she’d ravenously inhaled was poisonous, it was slow-acting poison. She’d know for sure soon enough. She groaned, realizing that she needed to force herself to keep moving; she’d stayed in one place far too long. She picked as much fruit as she dared to put in to her already strained bag without breaking it, and set off again. She didn’t know why, but somehow she felt compelled to keep going. She’d been ready to give up the night before. But something in her broken spirit wanted to keep fighting, just a little while longer anyway.

Now that it was broad daylight, Larkin could clearly see the path that she’d been travelling in the dark and was very proud of herself for not falling on her face. The old asphalt was crumbling and broken in to large chunks, and in between these were little rivulets occupied by huge millipedes. She shuddered, hoping no that insects had crawled on her during the night and nervously shook her tattered skirt and dirty blouse, in case some had decided to stay with her.

The silence on her rising mountain trek was occasionally punctuated by the cry of birds, but also the very distant and unmistakable shout of a man. It was a terrifyingly poignant reminder that she was still being hunted, and she tried to urge her aching muscles to move on a little faster. After a couple of sweaty hours, she’d reached the western side of Mount Sage, according to her map, and left the main thoroughfare to begin wandering for a little while off the beaten path to see if the surrounding wilderness could offer her anything of use. She needed a decent shelter, a place to re-group and attempt to decide what to do next. Wading through the tall grasses in the shade of the swaying trees, the soothing surroundings were helping her relax a little, against her better instincts, when she stumbled upon a pretty secluded little pool sheltered by large rocks.

She blinked a few times, not daring to believe her good luck. It was real, and it was a sweet sight. She didn’t waste any time doing sensible things that a wary explorer might do, like wondering about how it might’ve sprung up there or investigating what the water source might be, or even checking the area around it for danger. Larkin just threw her pack on the ground and rushed over to soak her feet in the cool water. The sandals she was wearing hardly protected her feet at all, and she gently washed the sores, blisters, and lashes on her calves too, cleaning away the dirt. After a few minutes it occurred to her to scan the rocky bottom of the pool for water snakes as an afterthought, and relieved to find nothing suspicious about the beautiful clear water, she flopped in to the pool unceremoniously and happily let her hair be rinsed clean again in the clear water. She closed her eyes, enjoying the peaceful quiet and the gentle lapping of the water, the sun warming her face and the island breeze kissing her skin.

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