Cruel Paradise

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Chapter 1

SUMMER, 2057

It was a bright sunny day in Fall River, Massachusetts – the kind of rare, sun-drenched afternoon that everyone daydreamed about while confined to their classrooms and offices. Hadrian Bellamy was in his dining room, busy preparing crates of cigar boxes for a sales trip. He checked the clock on the wall and glanced out the front window, knowing that the Neighborhood Watch would be walking by in exactly 3 minutes. Anyone who paid attention could figure out their rotations, despite their best attempts at keeping their activities covert. Today it was John Hampton and Sarah Foster on duty, two particularly self-righteous neighbors who attacked their Watch responsibilities with zeal. That made it more risky, but this couldn’t be put off any longer.

He walked in to the living room, taking care to look casual. His daughter Larkin was lounging on the sofa, having neither work at the state hospital or sneaking around with her boyfriend to occupy her that day. He took a seat beside her and caught her attention with a brief glance, while making a show of relaxing on the sofa with her. Keeping his hands carefully out of sight, he subtly pointed towards the back door, then held out all five fingers. As in, ‘outside in five minutes?’ Larkin yawned and stretched, with the slightest of nods. ‘Ok.’

Hadrian watched the state news on TV disinterestedly for a moment, then seemed to think of a better use for his time.

“I’ll be in the garage, Larkin.”

“Ok dad, I’m going to water the plants out back in a minute.”

“Alright. Don’t forget to put away the dishes this afternoon.”

She lazily got up to collect her watering pail and walked out the back door, pausing at a few pots, weeding out the dead leaves and blooms and watering the healthy ones. As she meandered around the yard, she came shortly to the back of their lot, and stopped to tidy up the ivy edging that marked the beginning of the woods. In this old, sleepy part of New England, everyone had centuries-old property lines marked by bricks or stones embedded in the ground, not actual fences. It had been that way for as long as anyone could remember. They all had one or two acres, and at some point the backyards simply dissolved in to forest, with aged paths still just visible through the undergrowth.

It was along their own forest edge that Larkin paused, covertly glancing over her shoulder at her neighbors’ windows for nosy “well-intending” watchers, then quickly and quietly melted in to the woods.

Her father, having watched her disappear from their garage, exited with a pair of shears, apparently intending to do some yard work himself. He too discreetly found a path, and before long fell in step with Larkin as they silently strode away from their neighborhood.

It was rather unfortunate that in order to have a truly uncensored conversation, people were forced to take secretive walks away from the prying eyes and possibly [likely] bugged rooms in their homes. These treks were extremely risky and proper timing was essential in order to avoid raising suspicion, which left little room for much discussion on whatever was deemed important enough to chance being caught in a subversive act. Consequently, most of what should have been private family business was instead common knowledge. You could rest assured that the Neighborhood Watch group (if not all of your other neighbors too) were well aware of the state of your finances, what you and your family argued about, and even your love life.

The general impression was that about a third of US citizens were accepting of this ridiculous invasion of privacy, in the name of preventing the Socialists from invading America. These righteous few happily volunteered for the Neighborhood Watch groups, and if they did not directly serve on them, dutifully did some rogue investigating and reporting to further the cause.

The other two thirds found the egregious insertion of government in to their lives some level of repulsive. And naturally it was from amongst this group that candidates were often discovered for questioning.

Some might have considered Hadrian Bellamy lucky in that he had no significant household arguments or love life to be documented. This was for two reasons. One being that he was blessed with a daughter who had gone through her teenage years and come out on the other side without much rebelling or frequent screaming matches.

But it was mainly because his beautiful wife had mysteriously disappeared twelve years ago. On an ordinary day she vanished without a trace, with no clear cause, motive, or explanation. Friends and family of the Bellamys all easily knew that this was very much out of her character. She wasn’t depressed or crazy; her mental health wasn’t in question. And she wasn’t engaging in subversive behavior – there was no rebel plotting or covert activities occupying her days. One minute she was there with them, a loving mother and wife, and the next she was gone.

Hadrian was convinced that the state was to blame, but he didn’t have much more to go on than a hunch. His wife wasn’t exactly perpetrating terror plots or hawking firearms on the side. She had no diary hidden under the floorboards detailing an assassination plot for the president. But she also had no emotional reason to leave. She had been happy, damn it. He didn’t like to contemplate why the state might have wanted her, or what they had done to her. After years of guilt-racked sleepless nights, Hadrian had finally accepted that he was powerless to help her. But what hurt perhaps more than that was the thought that he just didn’t know what had happened. He could only wonder.

No, Hadrian did not feel lucky to be without a personal life to attempt to keep private. After twelve years he still felt adrift, some days worse than others. But at least his sweet daughter Larkin gave him purpose.

And then there was that other aspect of his life that he did have to work hard to keep secret, even from her.

After his wife disappeared, there were more than a few weekends when Hadrian drove Larkin to his parents’ house so he could spend the time drowning his sorrows in a bar. They weren’t his proudest moments, looking back, but it was how he grieved. His parents had to have known on some level what he was spending his time doing, but Larkin never suspected a thing and he hadn’t put her in harm’s way. That’s all that mattered.

It was on one such alcoholic binge at his favorite watering hole (a sad little dive bar) that a nervous teenager wearing thick-rimmed glasses approached him. The kid looked so out of place there, he half-expected to see him carrying a pocket protector and calculator too. Hadrian wondered why the hell he would want to be in a bar, especially considering the amount of anxiety it seemed to be causing him. The kid was visibly shaking in his shoes as he nervously asked Hadrian for change for his $20, then turned and practically ran out of the joint. Puzzled, Hadrian was about to stuff the bill in his pocket when he noticed a small note attached that read “meet me out back.”

Following a very ill-disguised attempt at squinting his eyes to read the scribble, then looking around the room to see if it was some kind of a setup, Hadrian decided that it was the most legitimate excitement he’d had in the last few months. It was worth a shot. He made for the men’s room and instead of turning to enter, continued to stagger down the low-lit hall and out the back door.

A dark limo was waiting, engine running. Perhaps if he were a little more sober he would’ve heard and even heeded the warning bells going off in his head, but instead he was just drunkenly curious. What could all this secretive pomp and circumstance be about? He was just a regular guy. He owned a little cigar shop; he sold smokes and accessories for a living. Well, attempted to anyway; business wasn’t so great lately. But he managed to pay all his bills nonetheless, so he couldn’t have any debt collectors hunting him down, he reasoned. He attempted to steady himself, took a deep breath, and opened the passenger door.

What awaited him looked like a movie scene. Looking at him expectantly were a dark-haired Italian mob type and what appeared to be his lawyer, both dressed immaculately in expensive suits.

“Whasis all abou?” he slurred, looking from one face to the other.

The Italian looked annoyed, but the lawyer straightened up and leaned forward, trying to be polite.

“Hadrian Bellamy?”

“Yah.”

“My associate and I have a business proposition for you. Whether you accept or not, you can rest assured that this conversation remains in this vehicle. No wires, no taps. We don’t talk, you don’t talk. Is that understood?”

“Yashure.”

“We’ve been looking for someone who can help us with a particular need. You see, these days, as I’m sure you’ve heard from the State News Reports,” (he said with an eye roll), “people are mainly using pharmaceuticals for their recreational drugs of choice.” Naturally the police have been trying to crack down on it, which has forced my client here to get … creative. This is where you come in.” He paused, studying Hadrian for a reaction, but was only met with booze face.

“What we propose is a little arrangement. We need a good storefront to sell out of. We have a few doctors in our pocket that write the scrips we need, and we’ve got other ‘friends’ to pick them up. If you were to get deliveries of these meds, we could send our clients directly to your cigar shop and you would get a cut of the profits.”

Before Hadrian could react, the lawyer held his hands up in mock protest, and Hadrian could tell that the guy had never picked up a tool in his life.

“Now, before you get any ideas let me state that it won’t be any crazy half-baked drug addicts. Simply our most reputable dealers, classy types coming to your shop. They’ll probably want a few cigars while they’re at it! It could be a very mutually beneficial relationship, Hadrian. What do you think?”

Nothing like a situation like that to sober a guy up pretty quick. Hadrian mulled it around in his swimmy head. It was a tempting albeit dangerous idea, he had to admit. He could sure use the extra income, and all the traffic to the shop would be like free advertising. But there was the unavoidable drawback that the whole business was incredibly illegal …

Hadrian cleared his throat and tried to swallow. “We’d hafta arrange deliv’ries realla careful to avoid suspishn …”

“Well yes, the plan would be for someone to casually meet up with you in various public places while you’re running errands, make it look natural.”

“How will I find out abouthem withou a paper trail?”

“One of your customers at the shop will use some pre-determined code words to give you the location and time of your monthly meet-up. They will be words inherent to cigar shop conversation, naturally.”

Hadrian cleared his throat. “How mush is my cut?”

“45%.” His sloppy mind spun at the prospect of such a large pay out.

“And how do I get paid?”

“Once a month you and my associate will meet to discuss how business is progressing. We have to protect our investment, after all. You’ll turn over the earnings for the month, and so that everything looks legitimate, a check for your portion will be mailed to the cigar shop from a dummy company that we’ll set up, Prima Cigars International. We’ll have some signage and giveaways like lighters made for you to put out at the shop, which will justify the checks that we’re sending you for allowing us to advertise there. That way it all checks out with the authorities.”

Hadrian was quiet for a few moments, suddenly completely cold sober at the realization that he was actually entertaining this offer. It didn’t seem half bad. He tried his best to have an edge to his voice and speak clearly for his final question.

“How do I know you’re not going to stiff me?”

At this the Italian finally spoke up with a slow smile.

“We thought you might be up for it. Tomorrow night come for dinner to one of the family restaurants, Vespucci’s. You’ll have more time to think it over, and you can see how we treat one of our own. D’you know the place?”

Know the place? He knew it alright. It was only the most upscale Italian restaurant outside of Boston proper. He’d have to dig his suit out of the back of a closet somewhere. Anyway, it seemed innocent enough. And he could always say no.

“That sounds good to me ah … I don’t have your names.”

“You can call me Joe,” said the recently talkative Italian. “Your new potential advertising partners will send a car for you at 7:00. Now,” he said, gesturing to another town car, which had silently pulled up beside them, “your ride home.”

The next day while wading through a nasty hangover, he inwardly berated himself for being so ridiculous. It was too great a risk – it was a stupid idea! Now he had to squeeze in to a slightly-too-tight old suit and pretend to be interested in the mechanics of the job, appear to consider it, and politely decline. And hope that they didn’t force him into it at gunpoint or some crazy mob bullshit.

Hadrian was just explaining Larkin’s routine for the night to her babysitter Amy, a teenager from down the street, when he saw the town car glide to a stop in front of his house. He glanced at his watch. 7:00 sharp, as planned. He tousled Larkin’s hair affectionately and kissed her on the head.

“I’ll be back soon sweetheart. It’s just a business dinner.” The girls (and likely several neighbors as well) gaped through the blinds as he exited the house and opened the door to the waiting car. He turned back and waved to them, then got in and drove off.

Twenty minutes later, he was nervously tightening and loosening his tie as he followed the hostess to a private table in the back. He hadn’t even needed to give his name. “Hadrian Bellamy?” she said when he walked in the door. “If you’ll come with me please, sir.” Not a good sign. He half-expected to see a group of rough looking guys waiting there with his host, like some kind of tribunal, but as he rounded the corner he found that it was just Joe there to meet him. He was greeted warmly, and large glasses of wine and hot antipasti were immediately placed in front of them.

Throughout the delicious dinner Joe was very warm and gracious, and candid about the way ‘they’ did things. To his surprise, Hadrian once again found himself seriously considering this offer. Sure, Joe had been charming, and he had been completely honest (it seemed) about how their relationship would work. The organization had modernized significantly since the old mob movies. Nobody really got “whacked” anymore, and they generally tried to lay low. But they still maintained all the necessary connections to keep business running smoothly and profitably. Joe knew that he had misgivings. He had guaranteed that Hadrian could get out whenever he wanted, risk-free, as long as nothing was owed to either party. In the end, Hadrian battled and acquiesced with his inner self. They shook hands over cigars. The deal was done.

§

That was eight years ago that Hadrian Bellamy had gotten in to bed with the mob. It had actually gone pretty well. They set everything up to be a believable front. As promised, only “clean and classy” types came in for special orders, so no suspicion was aroused there. And he did end up selling more cigars, which made it all the more convincing. The deliveries were well managed and he’d never had one go wrong. Sure, some nosy people came to the shop every now and then that could have easily been in the government’s employ, but everything always went smoothly. Nonetheless, Hadrian bought a handgun and practiced at a firing range every so often. Just in case. Plus his more conservative neighbors loved it, which couldn’t hurt.

He made sure to mention in passing to his most gossipy neighbors how business seemed to be picking up because of his new advertising deal. That way anyone listening in or watching his bank accounts would find it plausible rather than suspicious. And in the event that the shop was ever searched, Joe had even arranged for a secret hidden compartment to be built to store his stash and earnings, and the workers came quietly in the middle of the night to skillfully craft it without a trace.

Hadrian was amazed. The mob had their cash cow of a drug trade down to an art. It really was practically risk-free for him, and it bought a lot of financial security for his daughter Larkin. She could go to any college she wanted and have a huge wedding too; he had the cash for it all now. As the owner of the only cigar shop in 25 miles, Hadrian’s corner on the market was finally paying off with the legitimate side of his business too.

He soon found that he didn’t need to escape to the bar so often. He had realized the somewhat depressing truth that his illegal dealings (not his daughter, or a more honest hobby) had fulfilled him and inspired the change. But to this thought he always felt indignant. He was entitled to a successful business and the ability to provide for his family, and if the government’s restrictions forced him to do it illegally, so be it!

Again, that was eight years ago. In recent months, Hadrian’s naïveté had waned a bit. He had begun to notice a few disconcerting things. The Neighborhood Watch seemed to pay more attention to his house in particular, and the number of nosy visitors to his shop seemed to have increased lately. At first he dismissed it as paranoia, but now his bad feeling was growing stronger and stronger. Even his partners had observed the subtle changes in activity.

He and Joe had discussed the matter at great length during the previous month’s business dinner at Vespucci’s. Joe had already been contemplating their situation, and came to the table with an excellent solution. His business deal with Hadrian had become one of his most successful ventures, and he wanted to attempt to keep it intact. He proposed a trip overseas, which would get Hadrian out of the government’s watchful eye while pursuing a very profitable business deal.

The Caribbean Islands had been overrun by the Socialistas years ago and then abandoned as they fled back to the mainland in fear of American retaliation. Over the past ten years, islanders had begun to move back home without their Socialist friends, and in an attempt to mend their relationship with the US and avoid any conflict, several peaceful Caribbean nations had declared neutrality. The United States continued to monitor the situation closely, but for the time being the countries’ relationships weren’t strained. It was an ideal destination – in neutral territory, a very plausible market, and not suspiciously too far away, as though he was fleeing the country.

But more importantly for Joe and Hadrian, the recently re-inhabited islands had no access to popular recreational drugs, as well as the medically necessary ones such as Penicillin, Aralen to treat malaria, and HIX (the latter being a highly in-demand preventative measure for HIV). It was practically a certainty that they’d make a fortune in the Caribbean.

Nonetheless one still had to apply to the state for authorization to make the trip, which was very sparingly given. However Joe’s “associates” had a contact that could get it approved. He proposed that under the guise of selling his cigars and acquiring more exotic varieties in the islands, his cover story would be practically infallible.

Hadrian was excited for the opportunity to safely lay low for a while and stay out of the line of fire, but still wary. With only a matter of weeks to arrange the trip, one major question loomed over him. How would they get the pharmaceuticals through airport security? Joe was exploring a few options for that crucial detail. A week later they ‘happened’ to run in to each other at the butcher’s, where each of their orders were taking longer than usual for some unknown reason, even though conveniently, no one else was there. While they waited, Joe reported in low undertones that he ‘had a guy’ who’d designed special crates for the cigar boxes with small false compartments in the framework. The thin compartments were lined with lead sheets, rendering them undetectable to the X-Ray monitors. It seemed pretty ingenious, but it was essential that they find a way to make sure it would really work. It was virtually impossible to do an actual trial run at the airport, regardless of how powerful Joe’s connections were, and they were running short on time.

Instead Joe planned an alternative method and handed him a slip of paper, a confirmation at a local dentist’s office for an appointment that he had the next day.

Hadrian was taken to the Radiology room upon arrival, and found that little to his surprise, a cigar case was prepped to get some dental X-Ray imaging done. Apparently Joe’s personal dentist owed him one. Hadrian didn’t ask; he was used to it by now. After taking extensive shots at all angles, the film was processed and upon inspection, it seemed to be pretty foolproof. There was no trace of the pills concealed inside, and instead there appeared to be no interruption in the framework of the box.

Even still, it was a tough decision, one that Hadrian wrestled with extensively day and night. It would surely mean life in prison if he was discovered, but it was quite possibly his only escape from the government’s watchful eye, growing more oppressive each day. He might end up in prison regardless if he didn’t find a way out of there. And he knew that even Joe’s people couldn’t secure a location within the United States where he would be safe for very long. Sooner or later the attack dogs would discover his trail, especially if they were as intent as they’d already begun to demonstrate.

He finally agreed, but not without plenty of misgiving. His only stipulation was that they also push some paperwork through for Larkin. He wasn’t certain yet whether he really wanted her to come, but abandoning her in the US wasn’t something he could live with either. After not returning for several months, the authorities would quickly realize that the suspicions harbored against him were confirmed, and that would all come down on her. Hard. He shuddered to imagine what became of those who didn’t return from questioning. People like his wife. It was absolutely not an option.

For the first time Hadrian began to seriously regret the miserable black market trade that he’d become mixed up in. He inwardly admonished himself for what seemed like the millionth time. It’s the mob, he said to himself. Of course it was going to turn sour, sooner or later. But hindsight is 20/20, and his formerly simple life was now too far out of reach.

His future prospects didn’t look much better. The islands were known to be inhabited now by roguish outlaws, practically pirates. Best-case scenario - he’d befriend one of the islands’ governors and settle there, start a new business of his own, without the mob ties. The worst-case scenario: he’d have to try to find a way to Canada or Europe.

Joe didn’t officially know that Hadrian didn’t plan to return, though if he were smart, he would’ve suspected it. Of course Hadrian intended to send Joe’s cut of the profits and any unsold goods covertly back to the US (but who was he kidding, it would all sell). He’d write a formal letter to Prima Cigars International stating that he wanted to end the favorable business relationship they had enjoyed; he was seeking a new career path. They’d get the message.

That was the plan anyway. During the past 3 weeks, the requests had both been approved, with Larkin’s authorization following shortly behind his. Passports and a slew of other state-sanctioned citizenship verification documents were prepared. Suitcases were packed, cases of cigars ready to go. The flight departure was scheduled for the following morning from a private hanger, so that they could take advantage of fewer security measures.

Unfortunately Hadrian had been avoiding one of the most crucial aspects of the arrangement until the last possible minute. How does one convince their 20-year-old daughter to leave everything and move to the Caribbean on a moment’s notice? Maybe it would sound very glamorous and exciting to her, he told himself. Maybe those minor details like saying goodbye to her friends and lifelong home wouldn’t seem so significant. But it was much more likely that she’d just think he was wrecking her world. It was no surprise that he’d been putting it off.

So there they were on that gorgeous sunny day, on a hurried clandestine walk through the woods, so that they could have a candid conversation that Hadrian was dreading with every fiber of his being.

With the final house in their neighborhood well behind them, the pair came to a stop at last. Their feet crunching through the dry leaves seemed to echo all around them, and it only made Hadrian more nervous. He checked his watch. They had 12 minutes. At least where the duration of their discussion was concerned, time was on his side – she wouldn’t be able to argue much. Hopefully it wouldn’t be too difficult to persuade her. In as low a tone as he could manage, he began.

“I’m really sorry that I have to tell you all of this out of the blue. But you’ve probably noticed me packing. I’m going to the Caribbean for business; it got approved just a few days ago.” Larkin’s eyes widened. He hurried on.

“My business is … delicate. I don’t want to tell you too much; you don’t need to get mixed up in it. But the point is that it’s not safe for us here anymore. I know it’s sudden, but it’s best that you come with me when I leave.”

Well that was just about the last thing she was expecting to hear. It jumbled her thoughts in to a tangle of questions. Leave her friends, her boyfriend? The home she had grown up in? I mean sure, as a teenager she’d dreamed of a different life, but not this different. She blinked back her tears and swallowed hard, her anger welling up. This had to be the most ridiculous idea ever! Why was he doing this to her? What was so important that he had to leave?

She had to make a big effort to slow down and think clearly. This was the only opportunity that she was going to get to discuss it, and she’d better make the most of it. So apparently for some stupid reason, it had become really risky for them to stay in the US, which meant that her dad was right – moving was more of a certainty, not a choice. She’d have to make peace with that later. But to the Caribbean of all places? Beautiful, exotic, dangerous, in-the-crosshairs-of-US-missiles Caribbean?

Larkin narrowed her eyes. “Wouldn’t it be equally bad to go to the Caribbean? What about Europe?” She tried to whisper.

“I know it’s not ideal but I don’t have a choice right now,” he pleaded quietly. “I only plan to go to two or three islands, just until I’ve sold all my stock, and then we can go anywhere that you want, anywhere in the world! Except back here,” he added with a sad smile. “I know it’s short notice, but I couldn’t risk telling you sooner and being found out. Of course you’ll miss our house, your friends …”

She was already three steps ahead of him in her mind, her father’s urgent whisper fading out against the crush of her thoughts. Leaving basically now. She wasn’t terribly invested in her boyfriend; they’d just been fooling around. She hadn’t made any very close friends since she started college, and she could always continue studying to be a doctor in Europe. What would be the most difficult was transplanting her entire life, leaving everything familiar behind. She sighed. It was basically the end of her world as she knew it, and in spite of all her efforts to be mature and grown up, small tears began to fill the corners of her eyes.

“… think of it as an adventure, a brand new life,” her father was intoning, starting to guide them back towards the house. He knew that he was asking a lot. He also knew that he wasn’t really asking. They had to go, they had no choice. From the look in his eyes and his hard-set jaw, she knew it too.

§

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