Cruel Paradise

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Chapter 25

As he watched the older man’s form make his way upstairs, Aberland considered taking his chances with the Lieutenant. He pictured himself launching through the window and across the landing at him, maybe even kicking him in the chest down the stairs. With that kind of advantage, he’d have a pretty good likelihood of disabling him quickly. Exciting though it would be, he decided against it. The other guards might be unskilled and barely trained, but Howell was a different animal. Tholen had selected him specifically for a reason, and it was because he had a history in the drug business, and he knew how to dispose of threats. He was not to be trifled with without a very good reason, which meant that dealing with him would never be as simple as it seemed. Besides, Aberland didn’t even know for certain that the cell phone was still there, and that’s the only thing that would make the encounter truly worthwhile.

Instead the former Seal crouched low to remain out of sight and crept to the left a little farther under the decrepit window to gain a view of the top of the stairs just outside the bedroom. Sure enough, Howell quickly arrived on the second floor. The Lieutenant could have easily been 40 or 50, with his vigor and still-fit physique. Anyone could tell that in his youth he had been very muscular, and it was clear now that he’d both maintained his fitness to some degree but had also allowed the slower island life to take a small toll on his midsection. Nonetheless, he was a tall and unforgiving man who might have even been cruelly handsome if he abandoned the attitude of a caged dog that he carried with him. He was constantly calculating, evaluating the state of the governor’s business and affairs, trying to stay ahead of the game – an old habit from his days with a much higher profile operation.

In fact, Lieutenant Howell had just begun to think that he could work another 20 years for Tholen and hardly see any action, then retire peacefully, when this whole situation had blown up in his face. First Hadrian Bellamy killed a guard, then his daughter escaped, then agent Blane Aberland surfaced, and now two other agents … the job had turned out to be much more involved than anticipated. Nonetheless, Howell knew now that there was still a small chance of making it go away, if everything went according to plan.

Aberland had surreptitiously followed his ex-commander from room to room outside on the promenade as he methodically combed every inch of the second level, and waited to see if he’d discover the hidden room. He watched, out of sight in the shadow of the side windows, as Howell’s face registered shock in the master bedroom when he discovered evidence of Martin’s existence. The agent could practically see the wheels in his head spinning precariously as he wandered out to the patio, meandered back in, and then finally disappeared in to the closet for a while. Great. He had found it. Aberland hoped desperately that neither the cell phone nor laptop had been stashed there at the last minute. If he couldn’t have them, the last thing he wanted was for Howell to get his hands on them instead.

Howell emerged, befuddled and thankfully empty-handed. Aberland breathed a sigh of relief and took that opportunity to quickly return to the rear of the house, where he climbed back up on to the roof before Howell or any of the guards were in position again to spot him.

“So what happened?” Larkin exclaimed breathlessly when she saw him emerge on to the rooftop to rejoin her.

“A lot,” he said grimly. “First of all, they plan to stay here tonight and go back to Parham Town tomorrow. They are returning because – and this is pretty crazy – the Lieutenant has convinced them to pass the agent that they killed off as me, and carry him to Governor Tholen as the trophy.”

Larkin stared, wide-eyed in disbelief. “But … how?” she managed to murmur.

“Well, pretty much they have to beat up his face so badly that you can’t really tell who he was. As far as his build and stature, he’s similar enough to me that it could work.”

She shuddered at the macabre task. “Do you think they’ll actually be able to trick Tholen? That’s a lot of men to keep from telling the truth … I’m sure at this point the soldiers just want to go home but it seems like a risky move to make against someone so.. ruthless,” she said thoughtfully, trailing off at the end because acknowledging one of many of that man’s disgusting traits reminded her of the first time that she’d witnessed it in action – the terrible day that she watched her father die.

Her enormous grief was spelled out on her face in that moment, and Blane wanted to reach out and take her hand, or rub her arm to comfort her a little, or do anything to make her feel safe, if only for a little while. But he stopped himself. Something about her was still very guarded towards him. He still needed to earn her trust and he knew it. He struggled to remember his early 20s and what it took to get through to girls back then. They were so needlessly complicated. Vulnerability, he decided. He’d have to open up more to her, but now was not the time. Her pale blue eyes were staring at him now through her tears, waiting for him to answer her question, and he realized that he’d paused too long.

Embarrassed, he ran a hand through his hair and cleared his throat. “It is risky, no doubt. I can’t be sure whether it will fool Tholen or not, we’ll have to see about that. But that’s not all that happened. When Lieutenant Howell sent everyone out to look for dinner, he searched the house to try to learn as much as he could about our mission here, and I’m pretty sure that he has plenty to occupy his thoughts for a while now. But the one thing that he didn’t seem to find was the cell phone or tablet that we’re after too. He’s so intensely thorough that short of tearing in to the walls, he would’ve seen it if it was there to be found. Which means that even if there was a cell phone left behind that we could have used, it probably isn’t there now.”

Larkin groaned. “So what should we do next? Just try to make a break for it and hope that the US happens to give us a convenient diversion?”

“Well, we do have another option. You see, Tholen has his own equipment that he spies on us with. The other agents didn’t know, but part of the deal that I worked out with him as a double agent – you know, that means that I tell him I’m an agent, upfront,” he paused, and she nodded impatiently.

“Anyway, part of the deal was that he’d be listening to our reports back to VY – to the mainland command center. I agreed to give him fair warning in case anything serious were to happen, like the US sending a warship for example, but he wanted the insurance. He bought some bootleg software to intercept our conversations on the encrypted line and had to pay a pretty penny for it. But that’s Tholen, he always has to be in control.

“I figure since the end game is to get to the airport so that we can get out of here, we need to head back to town anyway. Now I’m sure that Tholen has guards watching the two planes in case we try to escape. I’ll do my best, but I can only take on so many guys myself… I mean with a little help from you that is,” he said with a nod to her, the comment garnering a scowl.

He tried to cover quickly. “We’ll need all the help we can get, so it would be really good to know what’s going on in Parham Town and how Tholen reacts to Howell’s big news.

“So what I’m thinking is that we go to Parham Town tonight after dark to get a head start on Howell and the guards. We can hide near Tholen’s main house and watch to see what happens when they make their big victorious return. If there’s a good opportunity, I might even be able to sneak in and listen via Tholen’s software for Martin to call VY late tomorrow afternoon. That way we hold all the cards, or most of them, and we can decide together what we do next.”

Larkin looked pretty perturbed. It sounded like an awful idea not only to go back to Parham Town, but to hang around Tholen’s estate, just hoping not to get caught. She opened her mouth in protest, but Blane cut her off.

“Before you tell me what an idiot I am, bear this in mind. I know how many guards Tholen employs, and every last one of them is here in the forest right now, except any of the airport employees that might have been forced to act as guards, of course. That means that between now and when they get in to town late tomorrow morning, no one will be patrolling the estate. Then when they do arrive, we can count on one of two outcomes. 1) Either Tholen will be happy with them, and let them spend a little time with their families, or he’ll make them work. But even then they’ll be extremely distracted and lazy after their adventures. 2) Tholen will realize that they were trying to fool them and send them back out after us again, or punish them and make them miserable. In either case, if they are even on the grounds at the same time as we are, they definitely won’t be paying attention to their surroundings, for one reason or another.”

He sat back, folding his arms over his chest, clearly satisfied with himself. Larkin was getting really tired of her disadvantage in this situation. She hardly had any information of her own to work in her favor, so she was forced to blindly trust whatever Blane told her and consequently his instincts instead of her own. But as much as she inwardly rebelled against this concept, she had to remind herself that having a man that was employed as one of Tholen’s soldiers, was a former Navy Seal and had also been a spy, was itself an advantage. If anyone could make a good assessment or come up with a feasible action plan, it was him. Besides, without his help, she would still be starving, desperate, and clueless, if not also captured and/or dead. She looked him in his kind eyes and realized that in spite of being trained to deceive and convince people of his authenticity, and seeming to only have his own interests at heart for taking such dangerous risks, he had genuinely come to care about her.

She shook her head as if to physically clear this thought away, and decided that it was in her best interest to be really forthcoming with him this time.

“I’m nervous about hanging out in Tholen’s backyard, but it seems like the option we have. And I know that you’ve got both of our best interests at heart,” she said firmly, trying to let her emphasis do the talking as she looked seriously at him.

The point was not lost, and Blane answered firmly, “Yes, I do.”

He turned his sober glance away to check his watch. It was just after 6:00 pm, and while they’d been talking in low murmurs on the rooftop, a couple of the guards had begun drifting back to the house with their assorted dinner contributions.

“Let’s wait for all of them to get back and then we can leave at dusk,” he continued. “We’ll be able to scrounge up some dinner near the outskirts of Parham Town, and as long as I’m right about no one being on patrol at the estate, we can even sleep in that warehouse behind Tholen’s property. No one would disturb us.”

“That may be a little too close for comfort for me, but we’ll see,” Larkin replied warily.

It would be another hour or so before they could set out on the 4-½ mile hike. She shifted painfully on the roof’s unforgiving surface and tried to settle in and wait some more. Her muscles were stiff and sore from the grueling pace of the past few days – alternately running for her life then sleeping for hours on end in rough places. She wished that they could just leave now; she could actually use a good stretch after being stuck on the rooftop for hours.

Blane watched her fidget and try to get comfortable without much success. He felt similarly. The one thing that kept them both going was that it seemed like they were in the home stretch now, so close to being able to get off the island that they could taste it. He just wanted to get it over with, but knew from experience that patience would serve them well in the end. Even if everything went perfectly, there were plenty of details that could (and probably would) go wrong at a moment’s notice.

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