Cruel Paradise

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Chapter 14

By mid-morning agents Martin and Smith had successfully made their triumphant return to the old governor’s home without issue. They chose to track through the woods this time so that they could comb through the underbrush and pick up any trails that might be there, to determine where their newly declared large group of adversaries might be. They were instead relieved to find that there was no sign of the governor’s guards doubling back as of yet, which they felt meant that a second visit to the state home wasn’t likely at all. They guessed that the group must be working further inland toward Mount Sage and the opposite coast instead. Notably, there was no indication of any solitary visitors in the area either. But that didn’t really offer much comfort, as their now solo commanding officer was too skilled to leave a trail. They could only hope that the guards were keeping him busy.

As the pair entered the estate, they were greeted by a very different picture than when they left the day before. The home that had once been largely undisturbed in its state of decay was now anything but. The small rodents and insects that had been steadily moving in had clearly retreated to the forest, and in their place were reminders everywhere of the previous day’s invasion, from old sheets and blankets pillaged from the bedrooms, lying abandoned in the corners, to a broken vase lying crushed on the great room floor and a chair overturned in the hall. The once so carefully preserved dust was now scattered, and littered with haphazard footprints and handprints. They couldn’t have hoped for better camouflage for their return. It was more than ideal for the two fugitives, who now had no need to walk gingerly on the stairs and through the halls, but could come and go as they pleased. It would be impossible to distinguish their tracks from the myriad of others.

The next order of business after their tour of the first floor was to assess the new state of their little encampment upstairs. As they passed the first bedroom on their way to the master, they paused to close the window that Larkin left open. No sense in inviting the bats back inside. They entered their quarters and Smith found the remainder of their equipment under the bed undisturbed from where he’d frantically shoved it the day before, while Martin crossed the room and opened the closet, checking the shelves. Their basic food and water supplies were untouched. Both good signs.

He held his breath as he stepped forward and pressed gently on the interior wall, on what he knew was actually the far right edge of a secret door. A simple spring latch released to allow the panel to swing open, revealing a hidden, deeper extension of the closet. There the trio had taken advantage of unused space between the walls to store their personal trunks, a weapons cache, and backup equipment for their operations. Smith and Martin had taken their most valuable assets - the tablet and phone – with them in their escape, but knowing that the trunks containing their personal documents were safe meant that anyone coming after them couldn’t place a very specific bounty on their heads. By now they knew quite well that Tholen was no overlord to trifle with. However everything appeared to be in the same place as they’d left it, and their hidden valuables were undisturbed. While Smith went about reassembling the equipment, Martin continued in to the adjacent rooms out of curiosity to see whether the task force had bothered searching for anything at all. Somewhat predictably, they had not.

“Those lazy island guards couldn’t find treasure if it was tied to the end of their fishing poles!” he called out, making Smith laugh.

Now all they had to do was wait for their transport off the island. And hope that Aberland didn’t have the same idea that they did about returning to the manor.

§

As a matter of fact, Aberland did have basically the same idea. Well, he had the idea that his compatriots would rather return to the comfort of the house with their stockade of food than tough it out in the woods and attempt to hunt for their own meals.

After Larkin bitterly conceded that it would be best for them to stick together, they had first unpacked everything and taken stock of their supplies. Larkin had begrudgingly given her permission for him to search her things, and watched warily from the water, her chin resting on her arms on the sun-drenched rocks. Her handgun rested there too. Just in case.

Larkin had managed to stuff two bruised mangos, lots of little pulpy beans from the tamarind tree, a tattered map of Tortola, her travel documents, a second Colt 1911, an AK47, and a few random boxes of bullets in to her bag. Aberland carried a utility knife, flashlight, and canteen on his guard’s belt, and kept an unsanctioned Uzi with him. His other personal belongings were back at the command center, including his passport and military ID. He didn’t know whether either of them would even be able to use their passports to enter another country, but it was better to have them than no identification whatsoever. They could be useful enough to justify going back for, and there were other resources to exploit in the master bedroom to sweeten the deal.

Aberland stepped back and surveyed the bizarre collection of tools that they had to aid their survival, laid out in a neat little row on the stones surrounding the tranquil island pool.

“So here’s what I think. My lazy comrades have probably returned to the old governor’s house, where they can stay nice and comfortable instead of toughing it out in the woods. If I want to have a shot at getting in to another country, it would be pretty useful to have my passport and ID, but they’re locked up in a trunk in the bedroom closet. We could go back there and lay low in the trees nearby until the agents leave or go to sleep. I can sneak in and get my things, plus try to snag anything else that might be helpful to us – more ammo (the right kind), food, whatever. Then we can book it back this way and head over to the West coast of the island. There’s an old rum distillery that we could shelter in while we figure out our next step. Or who knows, maybe we’ll stumble across a solution to our little problem.”

Larkin considered this. They weren’t taking a certain group of soldiers hunting for them both in to account. And what the hell did that mean – they might stumble across a solution? Did he know something she didn’t? She’d have to speculate more on his motives later.

“What about the Lieutenant’s next move? You said that you had a good idea of it earlier?”

“Right. Based on the direction they were taking, I’m almost positive that they’re going farther south and closer to the center of the island.”

“What about the other half that split off and went north?”

“Oh they probably headed back to Parham Town, to share their exaggerated stories over beers and brag to their wives and children. They’d rather bask in the glory and be the center of attention, and especially eat well and sleep in their warm beds than come back out in to the humid jungle. This is the most exciting thing to hit this island since the Socialists. Besides, these island guards are all soft and easy going. They lose steam fast on the job and they like long breaks.”

“But wouldn’t they have to check in with Tholen in Parham Town? Could he order them back on the search again?”

“Sure, but he also needs them around to keep an eye on the estate. He wouldn’t want to be there totally defenseless, though they admittedly don’t offer the best protection. He’d still rather have them there; I guess something’s better than nothing. My money’s on them staying in town.”

Well, that addressed the soldiers. She’d have to trust his judgment on that. It wasn’t very tempting to go back to the manor again without knowing their location for certain, but the two of them weren’t going to get off the island by staying in one place. She would just have to stay on her guard at all times. Agent Aberland was still going to be counted as an enemy until proven otherwise.

“Alright, let’s go. We can stay in the old carport for now; there weren’t many bugs or animals in there, and it’s on the same side of the governor’s house as the master bedroom, isn’t it? You’ll be able to watch them better that way.”

Blane was surprised but pleased. At least the girl was smart. Hopefully that meant he’d be spared the hysterics from bugs and other “gross” stuff that they might have to eat if it came down to it. He walked over to a nearby tree with huge blood orange flowers and pulled a fuzzy leaf off of a branch, bringing it back to Larkin.

“Before you get out of the water, try using this as a washcloth. You’ll have better luck getting the dirt off.”

Blane circled to the other side of the pool and refilled his canteen with water, taking time to splash some on his face and give her a little privacy. Larkin was grateful for the chance to feel like she looked a little more clean, and finished washing up quickly. She pulled herself out of the pool and sat on the warm rocks to compose herself, keeping Blane in sight out of the corner of her eye as she tried to wring out her clothes as best she could. She looked down regretfully at her flimsy sandals. They were better than nothing, but just barely. As she fastened them back on to her battered feet, she listened to the woods around them. It was pretty quiet, the silence only occasionally punctured by a bird calling in the distance. She sighed, willing herself to get motivated to leave the comfort of the warm rocks and her peaceful clearing.

“So do we just start heading back or should we try to get a better idea of where the Lieutenant and his troops are exactly? Is that even possible?”

Blane looked his new charge over. Her haggard appearance told the story of the harrowing past 72 hours – she was hungry and still exhausted in spite of her much extended nap. The distance back to the estate wasn’t exactly far, but she could still use some serious rest and nourishment, especially because they couldn’t predict what they’d be coming up against over the next 24 hours and even days with Tholen, his men, and the agents. His eyes flitted to the mound of rocks that continued around the side of the hill. Perhaps there was a place to shelter there for the night instead.

“Stay here for a minute and let me check out the area a little further.” Larkin might have been tired, but her swim had refreshed her enough to speak her mind.

“I don’t need to ‘stay here,’ she mocked indignantly, leaping to her feet, sending a spray of water everywhere. “You may be a former Seal but that doesn’t mean you know everything, and you don’t get to make unilateral decisions for both of us.” She tromped past him in a huff, and he rolled his eyes at the back of her head but kept quiet. Great. Smart but headstrong. He was going to have to choose his battles, and he was reminded of why he hadn’t missed the company of a woman all that much during his tenure on the island.

As they rounded the side of the hill, they found an opening among the heavy rocks piled on top of each other. It was a cave, small and dark, and a closer look showed that the floor was littered with pebbles and little rocks that had settled there long ago. It wasn’t a particularly interesting or even spooky place. No stalactites or stalagmites adorned the interior, at least at first glance, and there wasn’t much evidence of occupation by wildlife.

Larkin had come to a stop at the mouth of the cave, faltering in her bravado. Blane silently pushed past her and she reluctantly followed him inside. It wasn’t one of those deceptively small caves that people always seem to be getting lost in in the movies – the kind that has further caverns to be found tunneling deeper in to a mountain and plenty of mysterious noises to go along with it. It appeared to be a little anomaly in the rising terrain, nothing more. Blane knew that they didn’t have to worry about large mammals surprising them later in the night, and that the snakes would leave them alone if they kept a good fire going. All in all, it seemed to be a perfect place to stay in overnight. Until he looked up at the ceiling and saw all the bats, that is. He’d been afraid of that. He turned to face Larkin again.

“It looks pretty good to me. What do you say you stay here and let your clothes dry in the sun while I go scope out where the soldiers are? I’d bring you along but you look like you could use a rest, and as skilled as I’m sure you are at being stealthy…” he said with a hint of sarcasm and a raised eyebrow, “I think I might be somewhat better at it. I can try to get us some dinner in the process. Does that sound ‘acceptable’ to you?”

Bristling at the insinuation but knowing deep down that he was right, and that she was so fatigued that she was barely functional, she sighed and conceded with a nod.

“Then let me make it a little more homey for you in here. Would you care to step outside for a minute?”

“Why?” she countered defensively. “I can take care of it, whatever it is you’re going to do.”

This stubborn teenager bit was getting pretty annoying. Biting his tongue, he frowned at her and pointed up at the bats nesting overhead. Her eyes followed his extended finger and widened. After her last brush with bats on the island she was not about to voluntarily handle them by herself again. She muttered a “thanks” and tried to restrain herself to keep from bolting out of the cave, or sending some rocks scattering and disturbing the vile creatures. Blane waited until she was well clear of the mouth of the cave, where she was casually trying not to look like she was hiding behind a tree. He went to the back of the cave with a smirk and knelt down to select a good-sized rock from the floor. He threw it at the roof of the cave, and watched the bats scatter angrily around the ceiling before leaving. After a few minutes, Larkin sheepishly rejoined him.

“If you want, you can gather some long grasses and leaves to make a more comfortable place to lie down for yourself. I’ll be gone for a few hours, but I should be back before sunset. Don’t come looking for me though, regardless.”

“Should you have a signal that you give as you’re coming back, so I know it’s you?”

Blane made a face. “This isn’t a spy movie you know. The guards aren’t smart enough to have a few men fanning out from the main group to search surrounding areas while they’re on the move. So chances are, a single man entering our camp will be me. You’ll hear the Lieutenant’s men coming before they get here – there should be about five of them, since half went home – talking loudly, not even legitimately tracking any trails, and not trying to disguise themselves at all. They’ll come tramping like a pack of elephants through the woods or down the road back there and you should have plenty of time to hide. If you want to scope out a good hiding place to retreat to just in case, you can. But that’s about all the preparation you need.”

After a pause he remembered her previous objections to unilateral decisions and added matter-of-factly, “What do you think.”

“Sure,” she murmured distractedly, giving up her fight from obvious fatigue.

Blane’s momentary annoyance turned to concern. “Well you take it easy. Rest, drink plenty of water, eat some of the fruit if you want. You should be safe enough to take another nap if you need to. I’m going to take the semi-automatic with me; I might need it. If you hear gunfire, stay put.”

Larkin nodded weakly, and watched as he disappeared around the boulders back to the path. She waited what seemed like half an hour to be sure that he was well out of the way and not coming back before taking off her clothes and laying them out to dry on the hot rocks. She reclined on a large flat stone next to the pool and munched on the long sweet and sour beans, making a cup with her hands to drink some water periodically. The warm sun, a gentle breeze, and the softly rippling water soon lulled her to sleep.

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