Cruel Paradise

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Chapter 20

It took Lieutenant Howell’s men a little over an hour to reach the coast after leaving their campsite at the abandoned rum distillery and stopping to investigate the cave, and the tired group emerged from the woods just as the sun was coming up. While the guards stared dreamily at the sun-soaked waves, Howell was all business. He glanced at his watch - 6:52 AM. Without a word he took off down the abandoned road that bordered the beautiful oceanscape, and his men reluctantly suppressed a groan or two and fell in line. They headed north to reach the few landmarks that were in the area, which would also be ideal places for their fugitives to hide.

The next phase of the Lieutenant’s basic plan was to take a quick inventory of the 19th century dungeon and the decrepit Dutch fort nearby, then move on to Road Town as efficiently as possible. They came to the ancient dungeon almost immediately, but a brief walk-through of the cramped, mossy quarters revealed that they themselves were likely the most recent visitors to the site just a few days before. They continued on, and Howell had every intention of pushing his men hard in the hopes of intercepting whoever had stayed at the cave and might (hopefully) be trying to lay low in Road Town now.

But the guards had other ideas as they trod along the broken road, their feet sore and muscles aching. The big motivational talk delivered by their fearless leader a few hours ago was now a distant memory. What had replaced it, in their minds, was the fact that sunrise meant breakfast time. They were looking at each other surreptitiously, mouthing “food?” and shrugging their shoulders at the Lieutenant’s back, who was trying to move the group along at a quick pace and keep them focused. Howell heard all the whispering behind him and knew exactly what it was. He stopped short to address the issue. The men had to catch themselves to keep from running in to each other.

“What is it?” he barked. “Breakfast, right?”

They nodded meekly. “Well what exactly did you have in mind?? Do you see your wives an’ kitchen tables here, ready to serve you a meal in the bushes?” (They shook their heads no.)

“So were you going to stop for an hour an’ catch a fish?” (Again, no.)

“There IS NO BREAKFAST!” he roared. “I would rather starve an’ catch those traitors than have Tholen personally shoot me in the head, wouldn’t you? So let’s get back to it!!”

The stunned group picked up the pace, silent as the grave now. Each was wondering to themselves why they hadn’t chosen another profession instead of being a guard. Fishing, albeit less glamorous, was sounding like an excellent new career path. Their present one hadn’t turned out to be as easy as it seemed.

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Blane knew that he had to move fast. The grunts would probably sleep in until at least 8 or 8:30, like they usually did, but he couldn’t afford to take that for granted today. ‘Just get in and get out,’ he was telling himself as he darted around the side of the house to the front entrance. He hoped that they weren’t already awake and in position to watch the surveillance video feed. If that were the case, they’d be ready and waiting for his ambush upstairs. He decided that regardless of the two potential outcomes, the only real option was the unspoken standard protocol – to be silent, quick, and lethal. That way if they were up and still half awake, shooting the feed a cursory glance every few minutes as they ate their breakfast, they might not notice him darting across the screen at all.

He managed to ease one of the heavy wooden double doors open without a sound, and opted to take a chance by leaving it open for his way out. He might need to exit in a hurry. Pausing just out of the range of the entryway camera, Aberland carefully slipped off his boots and deposited them near the door, then took off towards the stairs in his socks. His intention was not to leave any clues to his brief invasion, however a cursory glance at the recently invaded surroundings indicated that he had nothing to worry about.

As he rushed upstairs, he pictured the location of his target objects in the hidden room of the master closet. Unless they had moved his things, Aberland had a footlocker there containing his few possessions and clothes, just like they all did. The fact that his IDs would be going missing shortly didn’t constitute much of a risk since the other agents probably didn’t care enough to try to pry his trunk open. Or hadn’t thought of it yet. Then, if his luck held, he’d have time to steal some food to get them through the next few days, and maybe some more ammo. Those items would be more obvious clues to his having been there, he realized, but perhaps he could choose with some discretion. He knew that the agents didn’t exactly keep a running inventory.

As he stepped on to the landing, Aberland cautiously made his way down the hall, eyes scanning the surrounding rooms for the slightest movement. His progress was completely silent, for had learnt years ago exactly where to step on the creaky wooden floorboards to move undetected down the hall, mainly out of habit.

Aside from the new footprints and fingerprints littering the second floor, nothing seemed to have changed during his brief absence. The baseboards were still in their aged state of sad dust-coated grey, the adjacent floorboards warped and worn. The paint on the walls had faded and cracked long ago, and the portraits were lying broken and undisturbed on the floor from where they’d fallen off their nails years before.

The master bedroom was the very last room he’d come to at the long end of the hall. Now just a few feet away from the closed door, the agent knelt instinctively to avoid any attack possibly waiting for him on the other side. He reached up and gently turned the handle, applying just the right amount of pressure to keep it from squeaking. As the door inched open slowly, he exhaled silently. No one was waiting to ambush him.

He crept in and immediately saw the familiar faces of his cohorts, still sound asleep in their military cots in the far corner of the room. The solitary unoccupied cot – presumably his own – had been relieved of its blankets and pillow. He quickly surveyed the rest of the all-too-familiar surroundings. To the left was the side table that the team had repurposed to be a home for their equipment. It had been set up to hold a single flat screen computer monitor, which was shuffling between different views of the interior and entry, and the secure line cell phone and charger that they used to contact the command center. A small card table sat against the opposite wall, next to a trash can overflowing with empty beer bottles.

Aberland wasted no time with his brief assessment and stealthily crossed the room to the closet, practically tip-toeing across the few feet that separated him from his destination, all the while watching the sleeping Marines closely. He eased the closet door open and scanned the shelves, which were crowded with imported packaged food that he’d purchased for them in Parham Town weeks ago. He then quickly stepped inside the closet and knelt at the base of the right interior sidewall, visually marking a barely visible, yet all too familiar faint edge etched in to the drywall there. He pushed gently on it, releasing the spring latch of the false wall panel. There inside the deep unused cavity between the closet and exterior wall they housed their footlockers and weapons, in case the villa was raided and their location compromised by their enemies. Which now included him, he realized.

A musty dank smell filled his nostrils as he entered the cramped space, navigating to his trunk by memory in the dark, since he wasn’t going to take the risk of using his flashlight. In a few seconds he’d quietly unlocked the padlock and eased the lid back on its lubricated hinges. Removing an empty duffel bag from it, he made quick work of filling it with his IDs, wallet, a spare utility knife, and a few changes of clothes. His fingers paused ever so slightly over the picture of his love and their letters to each other from South America, before dropping them in the bag too. He looked over the shadowed remaining contents of the locker and closed it, securing the padlock back in place with a barely audible click.

Another shelf just inside the door contained their weapons – a collection of handguns, a few grenades, and a couple of AKs. He still didn’t know why it had been deemed necessary to include grenades in their weapons cache for the secret operation, but it certainly couldn’t hurt to swipe one or two and borrow a couple of guns, plus a silencer for the AK47. Aberland was awkwardly trying to stuff these acquisitions in to the already-full duffel bag without making the metal parts clink against each other when he heard a sound that sent even more adrenaline coursing through his veins. One of his ex-compatriots seemed to be moving around in the main room. He sincerely hoped that they weren’t actually waking up yet, their bleary eyes just beginning to come in to focus at the strange sight of the open closet and suspicious sounds. Maybe they were just rolling over in their sleep.

The double agent gently set the duffle bag down next to him and drew his AK as he deftly stepped back over the secret partition and knelt behind the half open closet door, prepared for the worst. This wouldn’t be a very easy spot to get out of if the pair was now alert enough to be ready for him. From his position close to the ground, Aberland knew that his view would be obstructed by the bed, so he chose to capitalize upon the element of surprise and quickly emerged from his shelter, gun aimed at the cots in the corner.

But they were still asleep. Martin let out a stifled snore and Aberland relaxed a little, but decided that it was time to wrap up his little mission. He retreated back inside the closet for a moment, closing the hidden panel softly as he glanced up at their makeshift pantry shelves, constructed on top of the garment racks where suits and dresses once hung. He took one of the many boxes of crackers stacked there and hoped that it wouldn’t be too obvious; he didn’t have room to carry more than that anyway. Blane turned to examine the room one last time before leaving when a piece of paper wedged under the cell phone on the side table caught his eye. He hadn’t noticed it before. Glancing over his shoulder to make sure that Idiots #1 and 2 were still out, he rushed over to examine it more closely. In sloppily scribbled pencil, it read:

VY sending transport for 2

Black Hawk / Warship TBD

Radio back 7/22 19:00

Blane did a double take, his mind racing. The note had to mean several things. First, that the two agents had obviously called in to mainland control (Victor Yankee) to terminate the mission and leave the island, likely using the excuse that he had “deserted”, the weasels. They’d been hoping for a way out for a while now. But second, and much more importantly, there was a chance that the military would be sending a warship? Were political relations getting that tense again down here? He hoped that he’d have a chance to learn more. It could be pivotal in how he and Larkin escaped. In the meantime, he couldn’t afford to hang around any longer and strategize – he was pressing his luck already.

After one last check on the boys (still asleep), he exited the room and closed the door as gingerly as he’d opened it before, then practically sprinted down the stairs in his socks. He stopped long enough to grab his boots and slipped out the front door that he’d left ajar, easing it closed with a shuddering creak, and put on his boots in the front drive as he headed back to the garage. Blane was preoccupied as he snuck from shadow to shadow, thinking over this new development and what implications it could have for their plans.

In fact, he was so distracted that he almost didn’t see it. Maybe it was a shift in the light or a slight movement in the trees, but something snapped his focus back to the present, and what met his eyes was the last thing he’d been expecting. He had just reached the garage, and quickly flattened himself against its crumbling stucco exterior to conceal himself as he peered around the side. There, in the distance, he saw the guards’ search party “covertly” tromping through the woods. He recognized the Lieutenant leading the pack, and had to squint to make sure he was seeing it right – there were more like 10 guards, not the 5 that he’d been counting on. Thinking back to a few days ago when the guards had been at this same location and split in to two groups, he realized that the northbound faction must have reported to Tholen and been sent back out on the hunt. That was interesting.

He glanced over to the side window of the garage, and saw Larkin’s face there, eyes wide and terrified. As Blane quickly turned and entered the garage, he realized that he’d stayed visible and exposed to the house behind him and anyone that might be watching there for several minutes. Damn, he really was getting rusty. He calmly closed the door behind him, and turned to find a very frightened Larkin rushing up to greet him. He held a finger to his lips and made his way through the tall shelves with their rusted out tools on display, back to the grimy window for a closer look. He watched as the men moved out of his line of vision and was thankful that none of them had happened to glance over and see him while he was being so stupidly vulnerable.

“We need a better view of which direction they’re going so we can try to figure out what they’re up to. Do you want to climb up on the roof of the main house with me?”

She looked at him like he was an idiot. “Are you serious? Why should we traipse out of our currently secure hiding place and climb the side of the house where anyone within half a mile could see us? Besides, it’s more than a little time-consuming to climb up on to the roof of a decaying two story building – at least for me,” she quipped with more of her characteristic sarcasm. What if one of the agents notices, or some of the guards come back and spot us? We’d be like sitting ducks!”

“Trust me,” he said nonchalantly. “It’s not as dangerous as you think. I know the blind spots in the video surveillance system, and the guards shouldn’t be coming back that quickly. It won’t take us that long.” Without looking up for her reaction, he casually knelt to stow the AK47 in his duffel bag and pulled out a Mack 10 with a silencer on it, grateful to have a decent handgun to carry.

Larkin continued to look at him incredulously, wondering if he was crazy or at least severely dehydrated while he zipped up his duffel bag and slung it over his shoulder.

“So are you coming or do you want to stay and hide out here?”

“…I guess I’m coming,” she muttered begrudgingly. “But you’d better not make me regret this!”

Aberland couldn’t help but default to the old protocol that he’d used in military operations a thousand times. He left first, gun drawn, checking the sides of the building before motioning for her to follow. There was still no sign of the guards, so they snuck over to the rear of the house, where they knelt in the shadows under one of the center windows. They were just close enough for the pungent odors wafting from the old decrepit pool to reach their noses, and it made Larkin’s stomach turn.

“Ok,” Blane was whispering. “Here’s what we’ll do. I’ll stand on the railing here and climb up the pillar to the second floor. Then you do the same, and I’ll help you up.”

She nodded, thinking sardonically, ‘Sure, simple as that.’ She continued to stay low and scan the surrounding area for any unwanted visitors, while Aberland hoisted himself up on to the wrought iron railing above, not without a little trepidation, though he’d never admit it out loud. It was old but thankfully turned out to still be stable enough to hold his 180 lbs. The pillars would be too, in theory; they appeared to be solid concrete, and led up to arches with a broad band of brick and mortar to reinforce the whole structure. The pillars, like the rest of the sadly abandoned complex, had long lost their once pristine whitewashed state and were now home to moss, vines, and assorted iguanas and lizards. Aberland tested one such vine that was still resiliently clinging to the column. It seemed secure enough. Pulling on it heavily, he reached up and tugged on the bricks above to make sure that they were still as sturdy as the columns. It was firm enough to find a handhold at the base of the second floor stone railing, and he swung up and over it in one fluid motion. He stood up with ease, and dusting off his hands on his shorts, looked down at her with that infuriating grin of his.

Larkin gaped up at him, pretty certain that she was going to look like a ridiculous mess trying to do what he just made look so simple. If she managed it at all. She had visions of falling with a crash and guards swarming to capture her immediately. Meanwhile Aberland didn’t seem to notice that she was nervous, and turned to briefly scout out the promenade and verify that they were indeed alone. The coast was still clear, and there were no sounds inside the house that suggested that his former comrades were on to them, or the guards that had just passed through for that matter, and were warming up for a fight. He came back to her quickly and knelt to lower his arms through the rails, ready to help. “Ok, your turn.”

She swallowed heavily. They definitely didn’t teach anything like this in gym class back home. Nimbly perching on the railing, she managed to inch over and hug the pillar, handing her bag up to Blane.

“Ok, now grab the vine up there to your left as you move your feet up.”

“I don’t need any coaching from you,” she glowered up at him, trying to hide her fear.

Blane rolled his eyes; he should have known not to say anything. He watched as she made an awkward attempt at following his advice in spite of her cocky comment. She managed to hoist herself up and was reaching for Blane’s outstretched hand when he spotted a tree snake slithering around the side of the column near her elbow. She hadn’t noticed it yet, and though it was harmless, Blane tried to keep her distracted, nodding and smiling encouragingly as he whispered “you’re doing great.” She shot him a death glare, not just because she was feeling completely ridiculous, but also because she wasn’t entirely sure that there wasn’t a touch of mocking to all of that cheerleading. She managed to pull herself up to grasp the rusty railing with Blane’s help, narrowly avoiding a brush with the meandering reptile. Blane decided not to point this out until later, if at all. Maybe he could throw it in her face after another snarky comment – those were getting really old and all too frequent.

“Ready to do it again?” he asked, noticing that she was trying to restrain her heavy breathing. “We have to be really careful this time, since we’re up so high.”

“Wait –” she said, just as he was putting a foot up to scale the railing again. “What – what if we were to use the big private balcony on the front of the house instead? I know that it’s risky, being so close to the agents and more visible to anyone on the grounds, but it would be so much faster and easier to safely get up on to the roof that way.”

Blane rubbed his chin, thinking it over. “That’s actually a good idea, Larkin. It’s worth a shot. And it shouldn’t be that dangerous if we’re careful.”

With that they quickly made their way around the second floor promenade that circled the two eastern-most walls of the master bedroom and around to the front of the villa. They took their chances with being spotted by the agents rather than any returning guards, which seemed the safer bet for the time being. They were nearing the master bedroom windows when Blane held up a hand to stop Larkin and crept forward alone to spy on the agents. He peered through one of the dirty windows and found Smith lying on his cot reading a book and Martin taking yet another nap – a good sign. The two of them would probably be too drowsy to notice anything going on at all. They were sure going to struggle with life back in the US and a normal assignment, where sleeping and playing cards all day were definitely not part of any agenda. As they proceeded around to the front of the house, Larkin hung back again as Aberland took advantage of the sweeping view of the grounds there and examined the landscape below for any guards on the premises.

The once manicured lawn was now completely overgrown and in the process of forcibly being taken back by the jungle, and what he could only assume was once a tennis court had now become a strange disjointed lump of concrete with vines breaking through its surface. Somehow his short time as a fugitive had rendered the view that had greeted him every morning for years now as unsettling as it was for every new visitor. Still, for all its reminders of a time long forgotten, the vantage point from the second floor revealed no guards in the area. He turned back and looked through another grimy bedroom window, this time directly behind his comrades, and found each of them in the same unsuspecting positions. Satisfied, he waved her on, motioning for her to climb on to the private balcony as he remained behind to cover her, gun at the ready.

It would be easy to clamber on to the regal Romeo and Juliet balcony from the main walkway, Larkin thought, reassuring herself. It seemed close enough to be able to stand on the wrought iron railing and step across to the balcony’s edge, then just swing your legs over the top. After a nervous look around, Larkin managed to accomplish it without a sound and was feeling very proud of herself, basking in her little triumph. She was just thinking that she wasn’t so bad at this tactical stuff after all when Aberland dropped beside her and she jumped, stifling a yell. As she recovered, it occurred to her to make a mental note – Aberland hadn’t lost his old Seal stealth and prowess. If he didn’t want to be heard, he wouldn’t be. She hoped that the trait wouldn’t be used against her later on.

Blane had taken no notice of Larkin’s jumpiness as he moved to the glass doors the instant that he landed, carefully checking the interior once again. Apparently there were no new developments, because he was already perched on the edge of the stucco balcony, ready to climb up on to the old sloping roof with unquestionable ease. Having stabilized himself, Blane reached down to pull Larkin on to the roof as well. She was a little worried that the agents would realize that someone was up there once they started walking around overhead, especially because she might not be very graceful and stumble some. But she realized that Blane had chosen that side of the roof for them because it wasn’t above the master bedroom. The only way that they’d figure it out is if one of them decided to take a walk through the other bedrooms, which wasn’t very likely.

A more perfect place for their little spying expedition couldn’t have been built. The roof had a low, gentle slope to it, which made it much easier to walk on steadily, despite the brittle tiles that demanded close attention if either wanted to avoid catapulting over the side. Even better, it was advantageously bordered by a tall ledge that would not only disguise them from anyone on the ground below, but also prevent them from sliding off should they lose their balance.

Blane led Larkin to the roof’s northeast ridge, where the view would be the most ideal. Larkin reclined on the hard surface and settled in to watch, grateful for every opportunity to rest, however hard-won or uncomfortable. Blane was busy scanning the horizon and scrutinizing the trees. After a few minutes he spotted the troupe moving through the woods in the distance, with the Lieutenant gesturing theatrically along the way. It was too far away for him to hear what Howell was shouting about, but after a moment more, the group appeared to split in half. Larkin had perked up, following Blane’s eyes to the scene.

“What are they doing?” she whispered. He held up a hand to signal for her to wait and watch further. It appeared that one half was heading towards Road Town and the other half, led by the Lieutenant, was starting to march in a direction that became unmistakable after a moment. They were headed straight for the house.

Aberland let out a low whistle and leaned back on to the shingles next to Larkin.

“Well it looks like they’ve decided to come back for another visit and search this area for each of us. Obviously his hunch was right, though we’ll never give him the satisfaction of knowing it. It’s a good thing we left the cave when we did – they probably passed right by it on their way. Maybe there was something to that noise I heard earlier after all,” he whispered back, rubbing his chin. He seemed amused at the idea that the Lieutenant was actually on their trail now, whether he realized it or not. It was almost like a game to him. Which was exactly the opposite of how Larkin felt that their predicament should be approached.

“See this is exactly what I was afraid of – we’ll be trapped if we don’t leave right now!” she hissed, trying to keep quiet in spite of the panic filling her voice.

He turned his laughing eyes to her. “Go? We don’t need to go. The last thing they’re going to do is search the roof. I bet it won’t even occur to them. Besides – they’ll run in to a pretty nice diversion in the house with Smith and Martin still there. I think we’re about to have a pretty good show actually, and I don’t want to miss it,” he said with a chuckle.

Larkin was far from amused. “And what if I think that’s a bad idea? You’re not the only one with decision-making power here, you know. You don’t speak for me! Shouldn’t you be asking if I’m okay with that?”

Blane grinned a slow, easy smile, reclining back lazily with his hands behind his head, like he was lying in a sunny field somewhere and didn’t have a care in the world. He seemed to be more in his element now than ever.

“So what’s your big plan exactly? Climb down to the balcony on the front of the house for everyone to see? You might as well have a giant arrow over your head that says, ‘I’m that dumb American girl you’ve been looking for! Come and get me!’ Or maybe instead you’re thinking that you’re smarter than that, and you were going to attempt to climb down the back or sides of the house, which takes much longer by the way, as you noted earlier, and risk them walking up to find you hanging there? I’m happy to help you if that’s what you want, but I don’t really know what the point of all that running and hiding was if you just wanted to be taken prisoner all along.”

Larkin was so furious that she could have punched him in the face. She never should’ve come on this fool’s errand in the first place. She felt like an idiot for following this man that she hardly knew around in the woods, going along with his ideas and not speaking up more. Now she was stuck with him, for the time being any way. But like it or not, she was far safer with him regardless of whatever mess they were in and she knew it. He laid there looking up at her with a self-important smirk on his face, and she forced herself to roll over instead of shoving him off the roof, cocky grin and all.

“You don’t have to be such a smartass about it,” she seethed, and had to work hard to restrain herself from cussing him out. She’d reserve the right to get fully pissed off at him later, when they didn’t have to worry about being discovered so easily.

Voices drifted up to them from the ground, forcing them to turn their attention back to the approaching guards. The Lieutenant was about 100 feet away now and appeared to be splitting the group up even further, sending one guard each to the three smaller buildings, one to the more derelict two story structure, then bringing the remaining two trailing obediently behind him to the old governor’s house.

“Geez, he must be really laying in to them. I can hear him shouting from up here,” Blane remarked bemusedly.

Larkin looked over at him and saw the unmistakable glint of pride in his eye and knew at once what was going on. This truly was a game to him. He had the upper hand, in spite of having the extra burden of looking after her to slow him down, and his opponent the Lieutenant was clearly growing desperate. And Blane was eating it all up, thriving on it even, as he reclined on his little throne watching the chess pieces move before his eyes, now comfortably one step ahead in the match.

But this observation had deeper implications. She realized that this made it even more dangerous for her. His ego was on the line and he’d clearly do anything to win, including making (somehow) even more risky moves than he already had. She was no longer a person, she was a pawn. She could even be considered collateral damage, if need be. Just when she was beginning to trust his ability to get the two of them out of this mess, he had singlehandedly turned it in to an even bigger one. She sighed. Complications at every turn. It was beginning to seem truly impossible to get off the island. It meant that she had to try to be one step ahead of everything too, but with Blane instead of the Lieutenant. She needed to get inside his head, try to see the conclusions that he was drawing and how they factored in to his escape plan as it was tweaked and honed with each new development. Larkin had to be prepared to go rogue herself if she needed to. She was not going to get caught up in Blane’s blaze of glory.

She warily turned her attention back to the soldiers below. The Lieutenant was striding confidently across the grounds as though he were leading a conquest, past the old tennis court, dragging his weary men up to the abandoned governor’s house. He may have meant to open the front doors surreptitiously to sneak in and catch his prey by surprise, but he must have been fired up because they slammed open instead. The crash echoed throughout the house and his guards streamed in behind him, summoning some energy to search the premises.

Blane just chuckled under his breath. “Well here we go. That should get the agents’ attention for sure. I just wish I had a better view of the action.” Larkin eyed him as he seemed to legitimately consider finding a way inside to watch the ensuing firefight, but apparently decided against it after a moment.

‘If I ever make it off this damn island,’ she thought, ‘I’m going to need a year-long vacation. My nerves are completely shot.’

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