Cruel Paradise

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Chapter 19

Morning, Day 4

Unbeknownst to them, as Howell and his men were attempting to stealthily trek through the forest, their targets were making their escape just half a mile away. Had the two slept much longer, it would have been a very close call for Agent Aberland and his newly adopted charge. It turned out that the fortunate sound that woke Aberland was in fact the guards in the distance, and his instincts had served them well after all. Unfortunately the Lieutenant would become aware of the infuriating stroke of luck that had allowed the pair to slip through his fingers soon enough.

The troupe had only hiked about a mile inland when the Lieutenant heard his second-in-command cry out from the head of the line. Howell pushed his way up to investigate, and found that Dorian had just emerged in to a small field with a puzzling, unmistakable sound of trickling water and the faint scent of smoke lingering in the air. After silencing the guards behind them and ordering them to stay put, Howell and Dorian entered the clearing to explore, and had no choice but to use their flashlights in the darkness. They were well aware that it could give them away, unless they had the good fortune to come across a sleeping refugee, but it was a risk that they’d have to take. Realistically, Aberland would be long gone by now after their noisy entrance, so he was out of the picture, Howell theorized. An exhausted girl, however, could easily still be asleep in their vicinity.

The two flashlight beams bounced around as they attempted to evaluate the area, and could just make out a small rocky hill ahead. Walking towards it and squinting to make out more of its details, the Lieutenant had the misfortune of abruptly discovering the source of water in the form of a small pool surrounded by boulders, which emerged from the darkness without warning. He’d been peering at what seemed to be a cave that flanked it when the pool became visible, causing him to practically trip over the edge and narrowly avoid falling in with a muffled shout.

The Lieutenant recovered quickly to a chorus of stifled giggles behind him, and angrily delegated three men to search the surrounding area as best as they could. He cursed the uncooperative sun under his breath before turning to quell his soldiers’ requests to drink from the pool. It could wait until after the search. Not for the first time in their illustrious mission, he felt a deep resentment for the fact that his role was just as much playing the babysitter to a bunch of big kids as it was apprehending Tholen’s adversaries.

Meanwhile John Dorian had ventured closer to the cave, and after determining that it was unoccupied, softly called for his compatriots to rejoin them. Two more were designated to investigate the cave, while the rest meandered around the grassy clearing. A few minutes later the duo returned to Howell much too quickly with nothing conclusive to report. Trying not to lose his patience, the Lieutenant curtly demanded a more sincere effort, and they tromped back to search again, pouting at being scolded.

‘This guard job was easy,’ Howell thought to himself, ‘until we actually had to do something for Tholen besides stand around an’ secure the premises. Now I’m left questioning my fate. Tholen’s no ordinary employer, an’ if we can’t find this agent an’ girl that he’s after, I’m going to receive much more than a reprimand…’

The Lieutenant decided that he couldn’t trust the task to his half-awake guards. He entered the cave himself and meticulously swept the flashlight beam across the walls and floor. There wasn’t much conclusive evidence of a person having sheltered there. Thankfully it was a small cave, with no additional caverns or corridors that they’d have to risk exploring for due diligence. Its simple interior was littered with pebbles and a few dried grasses, but those could have drifted in with a strong wind. The faint traces of smoke had disappeared from the air, and Howell began to question whether it had been wishful thinking rather than reality. The cave was looking like another dead end.

As he was turning to leave with the light trailed idly beside him in disappointment, it happened to graze over a peculiar sediment at the mouth of the cave, one that almost blended with the stone floor but not quite. He knelt down closer and touched his finger to the grainy, black and gray-flecked debris, rubbing it in between his thumb and forefinger before drawing it to his nose. Ashes. Someone had built a fire there, and since the ashes hadn’t begun to be swept away by the island breezes, it most certainly built the night before. The guest could be none other than one of his two wanted people, he thought in a rush; and it really could have been either one.

It was the first legitimate lead that they’d had since Aberland had showed his true ex-Seal colors and kicked his guards around before disappearing in to the night like an assassin. Blood pumping, Howell seized a second flashlight from a guard standing dumbly nearby, who was still unsure about what conclusion there was to draw, if any. The Lieutenant methodically started pacing back and forth outside the cave, eyes picking the ground apart for any more clues. He quickly found more dried grass casually deposited outside, along with some crumbling remains of recently used firewood. This was definitive proof that they were on the right trail after all, though there was no further indication of which target they were now hunting.

But which direction did their prey go? The Lieutenant’s thorough search revealed that the brush and undergrowth disguised any footprints that they might have left, and even their flashlights wouldn’t provide enough light to elucidate the very slight trampling of a trail that they must have made in the grass. Who could say where the fugitive had chosen to gos, and why? He hoped that they’d try to reason out where his search party was on the island (if they even knew about it at all, that is) and go the opposite direction. And then he could hope that they were wrong and walk right in to his grasp. But even then, it was dark, and with their head start they could have slipped past the entire company without much effort. Especially if it was Aberland’s trail that they’d stumbled upon.

In any case, he was resigned to a whole lot of wishing and not much of a concrete plan. Howell sighed. One step forward, two steps back. He pulled a compass from his pocket, and determined that the troupe was still more or less on course, heading due east. With no definitive indication of the traitor’s plan, he had no choice but to proceed with his own. Kicking the discarded firewood aside in frustration, he motioned to the group to continue their march.

§

It was a little over two miles back to the old governor’s house from there, but at their brisk pace Larkin and Blane made it in about 45 minutes through the unforgiving terrain. There on the eastern beaches, the sun had already begun to illuminate the surrounding landscape before really beginning to touch the rest of the island. Fortunately, it hadn’t become bright enough yet to prevent the pair from using the dimmed light of dawn to their advantage as they emerged from the swaying trees gracing the estate.

They scurried in to the garage, heading straight for the back room, which was ideal for their temporary base of operations.

Panting, Larkin collapsed on the dusty floor to catch her breath and choked out, “So how far behind us are they? How long are we going to be safe here?”

Blane turned, confused. Then he put it together. “Well uh, they weren’t actually following us back there. Not close enough on our heels to capture us, that is. I guess they may’ve been accidentally wandering in our direction,” he offered feebly, knowing that he had capitalized on her drawing that assumption to get her to cooperate easily. Justifiably so.

“I couldn’t talk while we were still inside the cave because I wanted us to keep quiet. I thought I heard a noise and went to investigate, but there was nothing. I’m not sure where the Lieutenant and his men are, but I chose to have us clear out fast just in case that noise did turn out to be something, and also so that we’d get here before sunrise. Right now I can’t say for certain that the guards aren’t on their way, so I want to make sure that I have the chance to sneak in and collect what I need from the hideout before they arrive, just in case.”

Larkin fought down the urge to get angry and start an argument. “I thought I was running for my life,” she said flatly. “But I understand that you couldn’t exactly tell me otherwise. So I guess I can stop having a heart attack now.”

Blane tried not to roll his eyes. So dramatic. “Okay, well I don’t want to waste any more time. So you rest here and have some fruit for breakfast. After that you should position yourself where you can see both the house and the woods, in case anything happens and you need to get out of here on your own.”

Larkin nodded her assent. “If I do have to run, how will you find me again?” A trace of fear hung in her words.

“Well it wasn’t too hard for me to find you the first time …” Blane started teasingly, but he could tell that it wasn’t going to comfort her much. He thought for a minute. “Can you climb a tree?”

“I think I still can… I haven’t tried in a few years, but I don’t see why not. Especially with my adrenaline pumping if I have to escape.”

“Then if you hear any loud sounds coming from the house, or if you see any men coming through the woods, sneak out of here as quietly as you can and run far enough away to buy yourself some time. Climb a good, sturdy tree. No one will be looking for you there but me. But be careful of your feet when you climb; with those sandals on you might as well not be wearing any shoes at all, and the last thing that we need is an injury to slow you down later. And whatever you see or hear, Don’t. Come. After. Me. I’ll be alright.”

She looked him straight in the eye for a minute, as though she were trying to read his thoughts. He’d caught her off guard with that paternal speech full of instructions. It was as if he cared about her or something. He flinched under her unwavering stare, realizing his mistake. He’d let the charade drop. He’d revealed his true feelings to her. To himself.

Just for good measure, he added brusquely, “And if you get yourself captured, I can’t guarantee that I’ll come save you. It may not be worth the risk. I’ll have to decide in that moment; it will all depend on the circumstances.”

That was a little more like it. “Got it,” Larkin responded, trying to keep a half-smile off of her face. Blane turned to leave without another word, hoping to be in and out before the knuckleheads upstairs woke up for their morning piss.

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