Cruel Paradise

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Chapter 18

The sun was setting in the distance, and Larkin had prettily arranged some nice makeshift pallets of grass on the cave floor, one closer to the back of the cave for her and one nearer to the front for him. She had noted the direction of the breeze (east-west) and set up the firewood in a neat pile with a little dried out grass for kindling underneath it near the mouth of the cave on the west side, so that the smoke wouldn’t get trapped in the cave as the evening drew on. She organized their weapons near Blane, and kept the fruit wrapped up in her bag so as to not attract any animals. She was pretty certain that they had no raccoons on Tortola, but they couldn’t afford to lose their meager food supply. She brushed off her hands and looked around her proudly. Maybe she wasn’t so bad at living in the wilderness. Though one couldn’t really call making a cave look homey a survival skill. She could instead be undeniably dubbed a great outdoors homemaker, she thought sarcastically. How lovely.

Finally there was nothing else for her to keep her busy, so she settled in to wait for her newfound comrade’s return. As she watched the sun inch lower and lower on the western horizon, her thoughts began to drift. It seemed to be taking him a long time, and she began to wonder whether something bad had happened to him. What if the guards or his fellow agents had captured him? He had said not to come after him, even if she heard gunfire, but he had also done an excellent job of demonstrating how escaping from the island would be much easier with his help. Without him, she was on her own again, left to her own devices.

‘So what?’ she challenged herself inwardly. ‘I can take care of myself.’ ‘Sure,’ came the response, ‘but I don’t want to live out my days in hiding on this stupid island, so I’ve got to do more than just survive. I have to leave this awful place, and that means evading Tholen and his men, and finding some way out of an area with limited transportation. So having a former Navy Seal along for the ride is pretty much a necessity. Otherwise why would I be spending the night a few feet away from a man that I just met, whom I’m still not sure won’t trick me and leave me for dead?’

It was really unappealing to have no choice but to rely on and trust a man like Bland Aberland. It was a huge risk, and it was infuriating to be forced to take it. It may be true that teenage and twenty-something girls are impetuous and temperamental, but the thing that made Larkin completely livid was being out of control and having no choice in the matter.

She began to contemplate the worst-case scenario, the way that her dad had taught her to, her analytical brain ticking away. It was the fact that she was this practical and rational that would make her a great doctor someday; her teachers had told her so back in Massachusetts. It was also this trait that prevented her from having many girlfriends back home. She kept her life as drama-free as a teenager was capable of, while the other girls reveled in letting their emotions sweep them away like a tidal wave. And as those other girls were busy obsessing over fashion and boys, she was calculating. She had changed in this way back when her father had told her that her mother had disappeared years ago, because her sudden absence was shrouded in mystery and her father refused to talk about it. It made her want to have control of something, anything, and decided from then on that she would regulate her own path by leaving little up to chance. And as she matured, she learned to always be cognizant of her next step in life. She had a plan for everything, and it had rarely failed her before.

So Larkin allowed her mind to go down that all-too-familiar path of reasoning and dissection. If Tholen’s soldiers had detained Blane, what would they do with him? Likely take him back to Tholen, to an uncertain fate. If the other agents caught him, they’d probably tie him up and leave him for the soldiers to deal with as they pleased. Killing him seemed unnecessary, but still remained a possibility. In either scenario, he was likely somewhere in the forest rather than back in Parham Town at the moment. Maybe that’s why he told her to stay put – searching for him in the woods would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack and she’d become ridiculously lost in the process. Never mind the task of actually rescuing him when it came down to it.

Her thoughts took an abrupt turn as she got sidetracked wondering whether he had a lovesick girl back in his hometown. Some pretty 20-something romantic waiting desperately for a letter or news that his assignment was complete and he could finally come back home to the mainland. Not very likely, she thought brusquely. But surely he was close to his mother, and she must feel that way every second. It must’ve been hard growing up with a dad who was rarely home. Was it worse than having a parent die or disappear, as she had? She mused on this a little while longer before it dawned on her – she was letting her guard down thinking about his personal troubles. Once she began to feel sorry for him, or relate to him, or both, it would be easy to fall in to the trap of blindly trusting him too. She couldn’t afford to become complacent and make that mistake. It was her freedom and her life on the line. She steeled her mind once again and settled in to wait patiently. He would be back any minute … right?

§

Just as Larkin was considering legitimately starting to worry, Blane was making his return to their campgrounds, feeling proud of himself for not sloshing the stew or burning himself but still making decent time. The sun had almost set as his shadow neared the cave, and partially not to frighten Larkin but mostly not to get himself shot, he told her that he was back in a low voice. He entered the cave unceremoniously, and as he carefully set his trophies down on the ground, he caught her eye and was surprised to read relief in her face. She’d clearly been worried about him. But the tension and awkwardness between them immediately set in again, and she wasn’t exactly conversational. She sunk in to a moody silence, angry with herself for caring in spite of making a concerted effort not to. He saved them both some embarrassment and brusquely set about lighting the fire. It was easy work thanks to the good dry wood and kindling she’d found, which he thanked her for. She responded with a mumbled, “No big deal.”

Larkin didn’t bother questioning the origin of dinner; she was just happy for something more substantial than her scavenged fruit. She got up silently and left the safety of the cave, and found the pond in the remaining thin light to wash her hands as well as possible. Blane followed her protectively at a safe distance, and when she realized it with obvious displeasure he quickly complied with the pretense of washing his hands too. He wasn’t sure what to make of the silent treatment, but knew better than to break it and risk provocation. Upon returning to their humble abode, Larkin lifted the lid of the pot and inspected their dinner. She recognized that the chopped up pieces of fish floating in the thin broth were still raw, and scooped them out of the pot to cook on a thin rock over the fire instead. She settled in across from Blane, with the pot safely between them. They sat watching it in awkward silence. Neither had much desire for conversation.

The fish was soon deemed acceptable to eat, and the stew had been warming near the fire long enough to be palatable. As they took turns drinking it straight from the pot, Blane broke the silence.

“So this stew is what the locals call Callaloo. It’s kind of like a gumbo, with some native plant leaves, spices, onions, and okra.”

“It’s good,” Larkin offered weakly. She was enjoying the feeling of the warm soup spreading through her bones, restoring her from the inside out the way that only good home cooking can.

Blane picked up the bag of bread and offered some to her.

“They call these johnnycakes. It’s like a fried biscuit.” Larkin eagerly scooped up some stew with her johnnycake and topped it off with a piece of fish. She didn’t realize that she was still ravenous in spite of gorging herself on fruit that morning, and was grateful for an excuse to let the conversation lapse again while she ate.

He let Larkin eat as much as she wanted before breaking the silence again to ask if she wanted some fruit. She shook her head ‘no’, and Blane opted to save it for breakfast the next day. There was something about setting up house like that in the cave, hiding out on the island together, that seemed to make the uncanny incredulity of their situation resonate more. The fire was dying down a little, and as they sat watching it pensively, Larkin finally spoke up.

“So when I left the cave to look for firewood, I found something in the woods,” she began.

Blane looked up sharply, his brow furrowed with concern. “You found something? What?”

“A house. An old empty house in a clearing, not far from here. It was still filled with furniture and personal things, pictures and blankets – like the people that lived there just walked out the door one day and never came back. It was…spooky.”

“An abandoned house? Are you sure no one was there?”

“Yeah I’m sure. I walked around it and looked in the windows, there was no one there.”

Blane couldn’t help himself. She needed admonishing; it was really stupid for her to have gone poking around a place like that.

“Are you sure that was a good idea? I mean, I’m really glad that it turned out that way because it could’ve been much worse. That was a pretty risky move.”

Larkin bristled a little at the impending lecture. “I know. But if you would’ve seen it, you’d know that it really was abandoned. It wasn’t a big deal.”

“Okay… well I guess the next time that you feel inspired to do stuff like that, I hope I’m around to stop you.”

He got an eye roll in return. “Sorry, make that ‘strongly discourage’ you. Is that more appealing?” Larkin answered with silence.

After their awkward dinner, Blane got up to bury the pot amongst the brush surrounding the cave. After a few minutes of shoveling with the pot, he rearranged the dirt and camouflaged the disturbed area with some small pebbles and rocks. There weren’t many places to shelter there in the wooded areas of the island, and if the guards stumbled upon the cave, the Lieutenant would be intelligent enough to search it and the surrounding clearing for any indications of their presence and the direction that they might have headed. Hopefully they’d never even find their idyllic little campsite, but if they did, he couldn’t take any chances.

He returned to the cave, brushing the dirt off of his hands as he took up his former seat across from Larkin. She seemed miles away now, watching the feeble flames flicker on the rough walls around them and staring deep in to the embers.

She finally gave up her brooding silence to wonder aloud, “What kind of life will I be able to make for myself in another country? Will I always be on the run?”

Blane turned his thoughtful gaze to look at her, surprised at this sudden vulnerability from her after so much bravado earlier that day. She was still staring off in to space, and Blane could tell by the wistful look in her eyes that what she needed right now was comfort and reassurance, not concrete details or logistics. He could help her with that later, if she was willing.

“I don’t think you’ll have to hide out forever, Larkin. There are still places, far from the States, untouched by all the paranoia and spying. You may have to change your name, but the thing about that is you get to make a whole new life for yourself, be whoever you want to be. You can make it exciting if you try; use a little imagination, you know?”

She looked up, startled, perhaps not having fully realized that she had asked her questions out loud. She steeled herself defensively and turned away, busying herself with pushing pebbles around the dusty cave floor. “Not that I need your help …” she muttered.

He decided not to provoke her anger any further as she got up in a huff and went to the back of the cave to lie down on the makeshift bed that she’d created, her back to him. Blane shrugged and ambled over to their firearm display on the cave floor, and selected the AK47, grateful to have a decently accurate gun to use now instead of the sloppy guards-issue Uzi he’d been toting for years. He settled in on his grass pallet also, preparing to fall in to the half-sleep of keeping watch and resting throughout the night.

§

Nightfall found Lieutenant Howell and his men making camp at the abandoned rum distillery on the balmy beaches of the west coast. They had made a large sweeping circle of Mount Sage that day, marching briskly up the coast in a large horseshoe-shaped trek. Howell reasoned that Blane Aberland was too intelligent to stay overnight on the open beach, completely unprotected. The agent surely would not make such a stupid mistake. However, as this was the only location on the beach to the west that actually served as a decent shelter, it was all that really merited searching, just to cover their bases. Somewhat predictably, there was no evidence that anyone had been there for years, so the area instead served as their own campgrounds for the night.

As the guards laughed and joked around the fire, the Lieutenant pondered his next move. They had found no evidence of Aberland or the girl at all that day, though it was unlikely that Aberland would ever leave them any clues. They were basically going to have to catch him by surprise if they hoped to capture him at all, since taking the passive approach of waiting around for him to show up in Parham Town looking for a boat or plane wasn’t an option with Tholen. Howell decided to turn his attention to the easier target – the girl – and hope that in pursuing her, an opportunity would present itself to find the other fugitive as well. So while his comrades were passing around a few flasks, telling dirty jokes, and lustily singing raunchy songs, the Lieutenant was trying to put himself in the frame of mind of a teenage girl. Not an easy task.

She would be terrified and grief-stricken, no doubt. She had not proven stupid enough to return to town or the airport and take her chances with Tholen (yet). In all likelihood, a delicate teenage girl such as Miss Bellamy would rather find some form of shelter than tough it out alone in the woods, at least until she could determine her next move, he theorized. There were plenty of nice options for a scared refugee back in the direction that they’d come from, in and around Road Town, Howell realized. There were several ruined forts, an old stone dungeon, the old governor’s estate, the town itself… she had to be there. It was relatively close to Parham Town, and she’d never pass it up in favor of travelling further in to the unknown. That had to be it! They would have to double back and set out early and try to catch her still asleep. It was only a couple of miles from one side of the island to the other, and they could easily walk it in an hour or less. If the men could be motivated to hustle, that is. He groaned inwardly at the thought of attempting to motivate them in the morning, half hung over. Best to start now.

Lieutenant Howell stood up, clapping his hands for silence, and the raucous group quieted down, mostly.

“Alrigh’, alrigh’. Listen here. Party’s over. We wake before sunrise an’ go to Road Town to search for the girl, so you all better get some rest now or you’ll be payin’ for it in the morning.”

Suppressed moans and groans echoed through the group, and someone complained, “But we just came from Road Town!”

From their vantage point, the bonfire’s flames were reflected upon Howell’s face, and they seemed to blaze up in his eyes with exasperation.

“Are you all stupid??” he demanded. “Did you forget? Tholen wants these people dead or alive! Or it’s MY ASS on the spit! We are going to comb every inch of Road Town for the girl in the morning – an’ we will find her.”

That seemed to get through alright. The soldiers began to find places to lie down and get a little sleep, staying quiet like scolded children so they wouldn’t get yelled at again. The Lieutenant walked down the beach, his angry steps delving deep in to the sand. He decided to call in to Tholen at least to give his report, though not without some reservation.

“Yes?” came the Governor’s all-too-familiar bark of a question.

“Still no sign of either target. We’ve canvassed the center of the island, around Mount Sage, an’ now the west coast. I have a hunch that we need to check out Road Town again. After that if we have no luck, we’ll head south.”

There was a crackle on the line and then silence. Tholen’s favorite intimidation tactic was to freeze people out with silence, which usually made them begin to desperately babble excuses and apologies. Not so with Howell though.

“Fine,” he responded at last. “You’d better find something of consequence soon. I’m growing impatient.”

“Yes sir,” the Lieutenant begrudgingly replied. His employer’s ego trip had been much easier to tolerate when his job was just a formality, nothing more.

Howell trudged back to the group and settled in for the night on an old wooden pallet that the guards had reserved for him. He put the self-important Tholen out of his mind and instead thought on his little motivational tirade with some satisfaction, trying not to give rise to the desperate fear growing in the back of his mind that their search would turn out to be completely fruitless.

§

When Blane woke with a start it was still pitch black outside, with a faint rim of dark blue kissing the horizon. He had fallen too deeply asleep and let the fire burn out. He squinted at his watch and found it to be just past 5 am, and turned to check on Larkin. She hadn’t moved an inch since she had turned in for the night, and still appeared to be sound sleep with her back to him. Satisfied at this, Blane turned his attention back to the forest surrounding their cave, listening intently as his fingers reflexively found the handle of the AK and flicked the safety catch off. He could have sworn that he heard a faint rustle in the distance, but now the woods were quiet again. The likelihood that it was an animal stirring nearby at that early morning hour could have easily explained it away, but he stayed tense, waiting for some indication of its origin anyway. He patiently scanned the trees and brush nearby, but there were no more clues. He knew beyond a doubt that he hadn’t imagined it. Just to be safe, Blane decided to investigate, and he cautiously emerged from the cave, everything in him intensely alert now and ready to take action if he needed to. It reminded him of the days when his life had been more exciting, and he realized just how much he missed the animalistic thrill of the hunt and self-defense.

He slowly began to skirt the perimeter of the clearing, pausing briefly by each tree as he passed, in case he needed to suddenly duck behind one and take cover. He circled around to the northern side of the grassy field, and still couldn’t detect any further noise or movement in the woods. After waiting a few minutes longer, he decided that there was no further cause for concern. Blane closed the circle, returning to the cave’s entrance and slowly crept inside, not wanting to scatter any rocks and alarm Larkin. He extended a hand to gently wake her when his eyes adjusted to the deeper darkness inside and he realized that she was already sitting up, now keenly aware of his absence. He must have disturbed her when he left, and he was grateful that she was smart enough not to come running after him or frantically start calling his name. Blane gestured out of the cave – they needed to leave. She was spry for a petite girl and quickly got to her feet and silently snatched up her bag and the fruit. Blane scooped up the grass that had been their beds, depositing it outside the cave along with the remains of the firewood and kicking everything around a little. If anyone was really out there, they wouldn’t be able to distinguish it from the undergrowth in the dark. Hopefully. Larkin had also collected the guns that she’d laid out the night before, and now soundlessly followed him out and around the southernmost side of the cave, where he’d chosen to position them to be farthest away from any potential danger. Then they were off, moving as fast as they could while keeping quiet, hoping that they could escape without advertising their presence or position.

Blane thought it over as they ran and decided to double back north so that they could take the dirt path down to the old governor’s house. If Howell’s men were on their trail, they might discover the cave and would probably spend a little time there poring over the site instead of moving on and intercepting them. Larkin realized what he was doing and hoped that it was worth the risk, knowing that at least it provided the advantage of being able to move faster on the trails. She held her breath as they rushed along, focused on not catching her sandals on the ruts in the road. Now was not the time to fall on her face and launch their possessions in the air, which would result in an undeniably loud indication of fugitives in the area. They soon reached the path without issue however, and flew down the road, hoping to make it to their intended destination before sunrise.

§

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