Cruel Paradise

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Chapter 24

Sending the men away gave Lieutenant Howell time to accomplish a few key tasks. First, he needed to begin the grisly work of beating this new agent so badly that his face wouldn’t be terribly recognizable. He didn’t want to assign this to anyone but himself, since it was exactly the type of bad karma that his fellow islanders wouldn’t dare bring upon themselves, and the kind he’d happily take on to save his own hide. It didn’t take Howell very long to locate a heavy, blunt object from a side room to do the job, and after 20 minutes’ hard work, Howell carefully laid his bloodied instrument on the man’s chest and quickly went upstairs to find something that he could use as a tarp.

He entered the first bedroom that he came to, an awful faded gilt paisley room, and pulled the dusty comforter from the bed. He carried it back downstairs, wiping his bloodied fists as he descended. He briskly crossed the room cleaned the blood from the instrument as well, turning the once fashionable old fabric an ugly rusty red. He faced his unfortunate victim, and avoided looking at his handiwork by covering the body as quickly as possible. It had already taken on the exceptional weight of unconsciousness and the beginning stages of rigor mortis, and Howell struggled with wrapping “Aberland” sufficiently before finally sitting back on his heels to wipe the sweat from his brow.

‘The men had better rest up tonight,’ he thought. ‘It will take quite a few of them to carry this unfortunate man back to Parham Town in the morning.’

His job complete, the Lieutenant returned to the second floor for his other errand, which had been weighing on him ever since he processed the idea that an additional agent had been hiding out here at the old abandoned estate.

His mind was pretty much made up that he wouldn’t be revealing this significant piece of information to Governor Tholen at all, since his men wouldn’t be talking. But there was always a chance that not fully disclosing every detail could come back to haunt him later. Howell’s hope was that Tholen would receive the news about Aberland favorably, not give the girl a second thought, and move on to focusing on the next aspect of his nefarious plan. It was quite a tall order. But for now Howell knew that he needed to find out as much as he could about the spies, even if the information might never become of use to him. He desperately hoped to find something big – some explosive detail to keep tucked away in his mind and reveal in a pinch.

He had to move quickly, not wanting any of the men to come back early and discover him in the middle of searching the house. If there was any incriminating evidence to be found there (there had to be, he insisted to himself), he’d have to hide it or destroy it. He couldn’t have his guards’ uncomplicated thoughts diverted by stumbling upon some evidence. He needed them focused on the forgetting about the truth.

So Howell had methodically searched each room, efficiently tapped on walls and dresser drawers, peered underneath and behind relics of rotting furniture, even inhaled dust clouds while searching moth-eaten curtains and bed linens, all with no result. Only two rooms remained – the master bedroom suite at the end of the hall and the little bedroom where the now deceased agent had been shot. It seemed as though the room could have held some significance for him if he’d chosen it. Maybe he’d even thought he had enough time to dispose of some top-secret materials before they’d cornered him.

However its steadily decaying furniture yielded no clues. He’d been so certain that something would be here, waiting for him to uncover. Opening the closet door a little too forcefully in frustration, his eyes combed the empty shelves and racks desperately.

Had they not been operating out of this building after all? But just happened to be there at the same time as the guards? Surely not. He explored this theory just in case, further analyzing the details of the possibility. They had to have a little home base somewhere on Tortola, because they needed to be set up to radio back to the United States with reports. So if it wasn’t the former governor’s house, which was an extremely good candidate, where could it be? Road Town itself, the abandoned forts and prison, the crumbling rum distillery on the opposite coast – these were all far too decrepit to be a center of operations. He reasoned that they could have built a small structure anywhere on the island, as so much of it was unpopulated and not traversed by islanders. If that were the case, it was just as unlikely that he and his men would find it as it was that they’d find Aberland himself.

However the thought of Aberland triggered a realization. Just a few days ago, when his men were at this same site the first time, Aberland had been there too. He had narrowly escaped some guards from a specific location on the second floor … he thought hard, trying to remember what he’d decided what that crucial detail of their over-exaggerated report was – it had been on the balcony of the master bedroom!

He turned on his heel quickly and strode down the hall, sincerely hoping that it would be the jackpot he’d been digging for, or at least a firm indication that their operation was based not only in the mansion, but only confined to that room. He didn’t think that his lungs could tolerate more abuse if he were forced to comb the rooms downstairs as well.

He entered brusquely and paused to survey the surroundings. A rickety old folding table and chairs stood in one corner, still strewn with hastily abandoned cards. A wastebasket overflowing with beer bottles and food wrappers accompanied it. In the opposite corner … Howell’s breath caught in his throat. Three military cots. Three. But there had been only Blane Aberland and the unfortunate soul that he’d shot! Where was this third American now? And more importantly, did they know what had happened to the other two agents? If they did, there was no knowing what they’d do next, and what impact it might have on his carefully arranged plans.

It was just what he needed – another wild card added to the deck. He tried to shake off the niggling feeling of imminent defeat and the pesky little warning that it generated in the back of his head.

He strode over to a side table, where several electronic device charging cables were still lying unused and plugged in to a rudimentary wall outlet. Next to them sat two small computer monitors side by side, displaying a live video feed of the estate grounds from different angles. A surveillance system, he realized instantly. They must have become pretty lazy not to react more quickly to the arrival of the guards, or were too lazy to notice until it was too late. Piecing the scene together in his mind brought that pesky little thought back to the surface again. The third agent was only going to complicate things even further.

He sighed and turned halfheartedly to open the closet door. The ugly old shelves inside were lined with imported packaged food, and a few local products that Howell recognized. Aberland must have been responsible for procuring those. However the makeshift pantry was lacking in a few essentials. Where were their supplies? They had to have weapons, personal things, military papers, a computer, a phone or two – innumerable other things that weren’t there. He groaned at the thought of searching yet another dust-laden room. Where were they??

Howell turned back to face the room, and his eyes drifted to the balcony, imagining the notorious encounter with Aberland once again. As he walked toward it, he examined the footprints on the floor, noting how the firm-set ones were juxtaposed by long curved swipes in the dirt, obviously made by someone’s feet dragging across the surface. He slid one of the dingy glass doors open with a shudder, and stepped out in to the heavy afternoon air where the struggle had undoubtedly occurred, scrutinizing every surface as he moved. It wasn’t a large Romeo and Juliet style balcony, and there wasn’t anything terribly remarkable about it – just more faded and chipped stucco. But one thing caused his pulse to quicken. He spotted an electrical cord that had been discarded in the corner and snatched it up, studying it carefully, and quickly found the points where it had been cut and pulled apart. It also had a few knots in it, and they were no ordinary ones. Not many people had been trained on making these stronger knots, except sailors perhaps.

So from the looks of it, someone had been very skillfully tied up on this balcony, managed somehow to cut through their restrictions, though not without some difficulty, and get away. His men said that Aberland had attacked them quickly and escaped on to the roof, but there hadn’t been anyone else there. What if it was agent #3 tied up instead?

According to the timeline that he’d been supplied with, this mysterious bound agent would’ve had to disappear from the balcony just seconds before Aberland was spotted there, which meant that Aberland must have been there to help this third agent get free. That would be awfully serendipitous timing for the agents. No, it was just as likely for Aberland to be the one that was tied up, and have gotten loose just in time to address the guards bursting on to the balcony. They weren’t super human after all. Though the islanders’ superstitions might indicate otherwise.

Howell delved in to his original theory further. Why was Aberland bound and left to be captured by the guards? Had his own fellow agents betrayed him? It didn’t seem very likely, but it was also the only explanation that made sense. He knew from experience that coups were born from both idle and deliberate minds alike. Besides, there was no one else around to tie him up, especially with advanced knots such as those. Howell sighed in frustration. There was only one certainty in this scenario. Regardless of the circumstances, both Aberland and the other two agents had been in this very place a few days ago, and the agents were back here again today.

Howell paced back in to the master bedroom, lost in thought. He still needed to recover something useful. There had to be something worth finding! They hadn’t had any time to conceal or dispose of top-secret documents or equipment, so surely something noteworthy was still lying around. Was it one of the other buildings in the complex that they were using as a secondary command center? And perhaps just using this one as their sleeping quarters? If so, why would they all be crowded in to one room? The fact that they were bunking together indicated that they’d found it necessary to keep everyone and (hopefully) everything pertaining to their mission confined to one central location, despite the space that they could have spread out in. They wanted to keep it neat and efficient, not extravagant. They wanted to be able to pack up in a minute and be gone.

Then it dawned on him. What if they had a secret room? His mind raced, exploring this possibility. It wasn’t unheard of; plenty of drug czars had them, why not a covert military operation? That would explain so many unanswered questions. The Lieutenant glanced at his watch. He didn’t have much time left to search, and the possibility of a hidden room opened up many more variables to think through to decide where they would have installed it. His mind jumped to scenes from the old Batman movies – a cave with dozens of gadgets, ammo, and vehicles hidden in encoded walls and even underground. Then again, they were only three agents sent by the US, not even to a terribly exciting or pivotal part of the Caribbean for American interests. They probably didn’t have much funding at their disposal as a result, and all of this meant that the hidden room (if there was one) wouldn’t be very sophisticated.

Howell pictured the blueprints of houses, trying to determine where the most wasted (and therefore empty) space was in the majority of models, and it immediately occurred to him that closets were the most typical of culprits. In more modernly utilitarian places like the United States, builders had modified their habits long ago to exploit every inch of space that they could. But back when the manor was built they would have been far more inefficient and less conscious of such things. It could be any closet, but considering his theory about the consolidated nature of their operation and the fact that Aberland had been found so close by… He flew back to the closet again, stepping inside this time and tapping the walls.

It took Howell just a few minutes to work his way around to the right-most wall, which gave a reassuringly hollow sound at the probing of his fingers. He could hardly believe his luck. It would be almost worth it to risk Tholen’s wrath, garnered from the knowledge of yet another escaped agent to be able to divulge the tale of his brilliant deduction and discovery. But he’d have to revel in the glory privately instead; he’d be telling no such story if he could help it.

Pressing gently on different places on the thin wall, he finally heard a satisfying little click as the door released from a catch on the other side and opened just an inch. Howell pulled it farther open and stepped inside a tiny space, and could scarcely believe what he found there in the dark.

It was an arsenal, with at least a dozen guns from small handhelds to semi-automatics. There were a couple of hand grenades, and even machetes and some nasty looking short blades. Neatly pushed up against the moist wall were 3 military-issue footlockers, consisting of the agents’ personal effects no doubt. There were power cords and few other miscellaneous necessities, but still no computers, hard drives, cameras – anything legitimately useful. He gave the little room another frustrated cursory glance, then stepped back through the false door and closed it behind him.

Howell stood there in the repurposed former closet, looking out in to the bedroom in disbelief. The scene was unreal. A once regal four-poster bed and furnishings, now faded, threadbare, and tarnished like the rest of the historical estate. And there amongst the paintings and tapestries was a small military operation, complete with a surveillance system, sleeping quarters, and enough ammo to inflict some serious damage on the power-hungry governor’s strong house.

He wondered how long these agents had been holed up spying on everyone. It must have been about as long as Aberland had been with the guards, which was four or five years now, he realized. The Lieutenant questioned just how much they could have discovered about Tholen and his operations, and anything else that might be going on outside of Tortola. They might even know more about Tholen than he did, he realized, thinking back to the one room that no one was granted admittance to except Tholen. He shuddered, wondering what secrets were there, and wished once more that he could interrogate Aberland.

Howell resigned himself to the possibility that in spite of discovering the existence of a third agent, the severed cord outside, and the secret room, there wasn’t anything tangible for him to smuggle back to Parham Town. It wasn’t as if he was walking away with nothing, he reminded himself. He’d gotten every secret that there was to discover out of the old mansion, and now it was time to shift gears. The question now was what to do with this place. The place would be crawling with curious guards shortly, and he couldn’t have them stumbling upon the same intelligence that he’d just gathered.

He assessed his surroundings with a different goal now. The hidden room was locked and concealed once again, and there weren’t exactly piles of papers to burn or lots of equipment to surreptitiously drop in to the pool behind the house. It was mainly just the evidence of their having been there at all to be discovered – the room itself and furniture. At this point he could expect the men back at any minute, so he decided to tidy up what he could. He quickly collapsed the cots and shoved them under the bed. He deconstructed the little folding table and deposited it and its accompanying chairs, the trashcan, and cards in a corner of the former closet. In the midst of rushing across the room to dispose of the monitors and cords, the gleam of a little white square of paper caught his eye from the floor, half pushed under a table leg. He bent to pick it up and smoothed out the creases and brushed off the dirt.

VY sending transport for 2

Black Hawk / Warship TBD

Radio back 7/22 19:00

That was tomorrow, he realized. He scanned the room again a third time just to be certain that he wasn’t overlooking anything, even peering under and behind all the furniture, but there was most assuredly nothing to be found. That meant someone – either Aberland or the agent that got away – had taken their means of contacting the mainland with them. Whoever that was had a way off the island, and Howell’s eyes widened at the realization that one of their options was a warship.

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