Cruel Paradise

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Chapter 21

Inside the grand old house, Smith and Martin were just exiting the master bedroom to go outside for their morning patrol and bathroom break when they heard another loud crash downstairs. They looked at each other nervously. “Aberland,” Martin growled, narrowing his eyes.

They each reached for their handguns and Smith took the lead, walking stealthily down the hall while Martin covered him as his eyes scoured all angles of possible attack. It was all clear so far and after each pause, the lead agent motioned for Martin to follow. Smith was near the top of the staircase when he realized that he hadn’t heard Martin’s not-so-light steps continuing to follow and back him up as he should have been. He stopped in his tracks in disbelief. He couldn’t help but allow his focus to falter as a backward glance down the hall told him all that he needed to know. He had turned just in time to see Martin’s back disappearing in to a side room, presumably to escape via the balcony.

Smith had imagined his fair share of glorified firefights and skirmishes during their island mission, and naturally the currently precarious situation with Aberland wasn’t one of the movie scenes that he’d ever acted out in his head. But that aside, in all hostile conflicts, real or imagined, the last thing he would have ever expected was for Martin to bail on him. Martin was the biggest guy that he knew. He apparently was the biggest wuss that he knew too. Smith hadn’t moved from where he stood frozen in shock for a good thirty seconds, but in that moment of revelation his eye registered the slightest movement on the staircase. Snapping back to attention, he squared his shoulders, and gripped his gun more tightly to keep it steady, despite his nerves making it more difficult with each passing second. He had no choice but to force his lead feet to move forward. If it was Aberland, there would be no running away from him now anyway. He had better face the music.

Smith crouched on the first couple of stairs at the top of the staircase and lowered his head slowly to get a glimpse of the foyer, fully prepared to see Aberland taking the stairs two by two to come kick his ass, or worse. Smith reeled, shocked for the second time in the last minute. What he saw waiting for him was not Aberland, but a little trio of island guards standing there in a row, guns aimed at him, ready to fire.

Lieutenant Howell appeared to be in a similar state of disbelief. Here was a different American man than Agent Blane Aberland. Was it possible that there were other agents here working with him? His guards were equally surprised, and were looking at him questioningly, waiting for their orders. He quickly regained his composure.

“Catch that man,” he said in a menacing low undertone.

Smith practically threw himself back up the stairs, running for his life, and cussing Martin out with every step. The guards and Lieutenant launched themselves at the staircase, all rushing up as fast as they could, practically tripping over each other. A slim, long-legged guard was luckily at the front of the group, and he gained on Smith with ease. Smith reached for the banister at top of the stairs and used it to propel himself across the landing, bolting for the nearest bedroom and slamming the door behind him. He did a quick evaluation, hoping to be able to scramble for the balcony, but there was no time. He dove for cover under the bed instead just as the lanky guard burst through the door with his fellow soldiers close on his heels.

Smith was rattled. He wasn’t thinking completely clearly. Otherwise he might have surmised that the island guards were likely not very skilled with guns (and would have been correct), and would’ve been much more cool under pressure. But being surprised by three men hunting him down instead of Aberland was too much for him.

Smith started firing haphazardly in the direction of the door, trying to force their retreat and avoid being surrounded. He succeeded to a small degree – they backed up to the doorway and leaned out to take turns shooting at the bed. Smith managed to slide out from underneath it and hide on the other side, returning fire by shifting in his position to give the illusion that he was still stuck under the bed. It seemed to work in his favor at first. After a few minutes there came a slight lull in the enemy fire, and he decided to try to make a break for it and rushed for the balcony door. But the Lieutenant anticipated the move, and was already seconds ahead of him. He didn’t bother to shield himself behind the doorframe, but marched forward in to the room, his boots tromping confidently across the wooden floor. The sound resonated in Smith’s head, and in that moment he already knew the outcome. The Lieutenant shot him in the back at deadly close range, with the precise aim and unflinching calm of a man who’d won plenty of standoffs before.

Smith staggered and fell, dead on the spot. Both guards gaped, disbelieving even as a pool of dark red blood began to creep across the floorboards. None of them had ever actually killed a man or seen a man killed, except for in the movies of course. Their simple life didn’t include violence on that level.

“Was … that Aberland?” one stammered out.

“No,” Howell returned, his voice as hard as steel. “It was another traitor. But it may be jus’ what we need.”

Martin heard all the gunfire from the woods and realized that it couldn’t be just Aberland and Smith dueling with that many guns involved. He felt a stab of guilt as he heard the battle come to an end with a delayed muffled cheer from inside the house. Abandoning Smith to Aberland’s wrath was an unfair fight to begin with, but to a group of men … he never had a chance. But it also meant that Martin was the only one of the three of them that was going to make it off the island, dead or alive, he realized. There would be no one to refute his story to his commanding officer back on base. Taking comfort in that, he lumbered off in to the woods, all the more glad that he’d snatched up the secure cell phone on his way out.

§

Up on the roof, Larkin and Blane listened to the firefight, straining their ears to try to figure out what was going on. Just moments after the shots started to ring out, Blane spotted some movement on the side of the house, and pointed out a larger figure lowering himself from the second story promenade to jump down and run off in to the woods. Larkin looked at Blane questioningly, and he let out a low whistle of disbelief.

“That was one of the other two agents, Martin is his name. I can’t believe he ditched Smith like that; what a colossal ass. He must’ve thought it was me sneaking around downstairs, coming back to get my revenge, and sacrificed Smith to get away.”

Larkin’s eyebrows were raised in surprise and confusion – she was hardly caught up on the past four years of Blane’s covert island mission politics, and the quizzical look on her face reminded Blane that he hadn’t totally filled her in on why he’d become an outlaw on the island, and rushed to explain.

“When Lieutenant Howell and his men came here the first time – a few days ago, remember?” She nodded. “The three of us agents thought he was looking for you. We’d seen you enter the main house here and fall asleep in the room upstairs, but left you alone while we figured out what to do with you. You weren’t hurting anything and we never expected them to be smart enough to track you here. Well, it turns out that the guards had actually come for me instead. Like I told you before, Tholen ratted me out and sent his men after me, and he knew where our operation was based. When Howell told his men downstairs to comb every inch of the place and find me, Smith and Martin took one look at each other and decided to give me up as bait. They tried to tie me up and leave me on the balcony for Howell to find while they snuck out. I guess based on that alone, it was stupid for Smith not to expect Martin to betray him too. But anyway, you were making your escape at the same time as I was fighting off those lackeys on the other side of the house, and in the end I managed to get away without a trace by hiding on this roof, while those two bitches ran off in to the woods.” He paused, stroking his stubbly chin thoughtfully, then seemed to realize the shooting had stopped. Larkin had noticed too.

“What do you think happened in there?” she asked softly, her expression saddened, as though she already knew the answer.

“Well we didn’t see Smith escape, unless he’s still in the house somewhere – but he should’ve gotten out by now. He’s smart enough to know that he should never take a chance by trying to hide with the Lieutenant after him. Survival rule #1 Larkin: always stay on the move. Maybe it’s more scary, but the odds are way better. There’s no commotion or uproar now, so I bet Smith is dead and no one else got injured. If it had been one of the guards hurt or killed, we’d hear a lot of panicked yelling. Now they’re probably trying to decide what to do with him. They didn’t know that there were two other agents besides me, so consequently they aren’t aware that they’re missing out on tracking Martin down too.”

A muffled cheer went up in one of the upstairs bedrooms, and Blane nodded. “Yeah, Smith’s dead alright.” Larkin wasn’t able to be so casual about death yet, even for someone that she didn’t know at all. She was upset, but Blane was practically unaffected, and didn’t need to pause in telling his story.

“There’s more to what happened a few days ago though,” he continued thoughtfully. “I figured this out when I was in our humble little command center this morning. I saw a piece of paper near the secured-line cell phone – we use that to check in with the military headquarters on the mainland, you know.” Larkin nodded, despite not having had any idea that such a thing existed.

The paper read:

VY sending transport for 2

Black Hawk / Warship TBD

Radio back 7/22 19:00

She stared at him, her mouth hanging open in disbelief. She didn’t care what he’d said back at the cave, this was turning out to be exactly like a spy movie.

“What does it mean?” she asked breathlessly.

“It means that the mainland command base – that’s the VY code – was planning to lift Martin and Smith out,” he explained. “But the next part is interesting. It said ‘Black Hawk or warship TBD.’ A Black Hawk is basically a military helicopter; that would be standard protocol for an extraction. But possibly sending a warship (To Be Determined) … well they would never go to all that trouble for two lowly grunts. It means that they may already be putting a warship in the area for other reasons, and if they are, it would be easier to pick up these two guys on the way, especially if they could benefit immediately from some insight from their time in the field.

“Now the question becomes why would a warship be headed to the Caribbean? And the only possible answer is that something has happened to strain things between the US and the ESU, or that they have decided to take action against the ESU for another reason. We have no way of knowing what’s really going on. Even if we were back in the US, it’s probably not even anything the mainstream media or average citizens know about, but one of many maneuvers taking place behind the scenes based on military intelligence alone.

And then the last part is probably the whole reason that he took the risk to write the information down in the first place – it’s a reminder that they’re supposed to call back in to Command on 7/22 at 1900 hours.”

The two fugitives sat there on their rooftop perch, processing the most recent in a slew of possible obstacles to their escape.

Larkin spoke up after a few minutes. “How did Command know that they only needed to lift Martin and Smith out, and not you too?”

Blane grinned. “Good observation. The “transport for 2” note means that Martin and Smith purposefully initiated a request to leave, and they probably did it on the grounds that I ‘have gone rogue and jeopardized the mission as well as our secure position on the island,’ or some bullshit like that, if I had to guess,” he replied sardonically.

“So… basically your situation just got more precarious. Now you’re on the run from Tholen, but you also won’t be able to walk back in to the US. They’ll have it noted on your military ID to stop you in Customs by now, right?”

“Exactly, I’m sure they do. And with my previous track record, I’d have a hard time proving otherwise. So just like you, I can’t go back.”

The game was certainly growing more complicated by the minute.

“So what I’m wondering now,” Blane continued, “is whether the guards have found the all of our top secret gear in that master bedroom, namely the laptop and the secure cell phone. Because if they haven’t, we could always swipe it and pretend to be Smith calling in at the designated time. It would be pivotal to know whether they’re sending a Black Hawk or a warship, and at what time and location. The reason being that the Black Hawk would move in and out discreetly in a matter of 15 minutes or less. No one in Parham Town would even have a clue that it had come and gone by the time it’s over, and that’s not much help to us. But Tholen’s network would certainly inform him about a warship floating in his vicinity, and that would supply us with a very nice diversion to distract him with.”

Larkin thought this over. “Then I guess we need to wait for the Lieutenant to leave.”

§

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