Cruel Paradise

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Chapter 29

Morning, Day 5

For the first time in days, Larkin and Blane woke up without haste or urgency. They lazily slept in until well after the sun was up, since they were happily sheltered from its annoying rays in the darkened warehouse. They weren’t going to feel very rejuvenated however, despite the small luxury that sleeping inside a place with four walls afforded to them. Their muscles would be cramped and sore after sleeping on the bulky bags of fertilizer, and Larkin was sure to have been bitten by a spider or two.

Blane woke first, sensitive even to the fractional ray of sunlight coming in through the wooden slats of the wall next to them. Stretching and twisting, he squinted at his watch to find that it was just after 10 am, and quickly went to the back door. He cracked it open a fraction of an inch, and carefully looked around it to be sure that they were still undiscovered. Thankfully they were safe. He scolded himself inwardly for allowing himself to get too comfortable while he was supposed to be on watch, for the second time now. He found his way back to their meager sleeping accommodations, where Larkin was still in a deep sleep. He reached down and gently shook her shoulder, and she woke with a start.

Her sleepy eyes registered the full morning sun that had found its way inside and she snapped awake.

“How late is it?” she asked frantically.

“Just after 10:00. It’s alright, I already checked outside. We’re still safe here.” Blane thought better of reaching out to rub her shoulder reassuringly. He didn’t want to take last night’s progress for granted.

“But when are the Lieutenant and soldiers going to arrive at the manor?”

“Well, after a night of celebrating, and therefore a rough start, I’m guessing around mid-day. That leaves us plenty of time to eat something and get in position back in the woods.”

“Ok good,” she exhaled and slumped back on to the fertilizer bags in relief. “I think that I still have some of the fruit and seeds left in my bag.”

“Plus there’s plenty of coffee beans to munch on here,” he joked, waving a hand at the bountiful boxes surrounding them.

The humor was lost on Larkin. It was still too early for jokes.

“Do you think we should get something more substantial to eat though? You know, since we have time now but by lunch we’ll need to stay put for a while?”

“Not a bad idea…though my sources for our meals so far have been the obliging pantries of neighboring houses. I’m not sure that I’ll have as many quality opportunities in the daytime. But then, we don’t really have another option, since I’m sure you don’t want me to sneak around Tholen’s villa, do you?”

There was an unmistakable hint of hope in the tone of his voice when he asked the question. Much to her chagrin, Larkin was becoming quite skilled at recognizing when Blane was having trouble keeping his daredevil side in check. She only needed to raise her eyebrows at him to communicate her exasperation at the idea.

“I love that we’re reaching a point in our relationship where you can call me an idiot without actually using words. It’s like a whole new level in our dynamic.” He paused, waiting for her to crack a smile at least.

“Still nothing? Okay. Well then let me go snoop around and see what I can find for us. You can go ahead and eat the fruit we have left. Do you want to wait for me in that same spot near the edge of the woods from last night?”

“Sure,” she replied, wearily getting to her feet and brushing off her clothes. It was well past the point of being a useless measure by now, but it was still a habit. Blane struggled to keep a mocking smile from his face at the sight.

“Alright. Be back soon then. Stay hidden and be careful!”

As he was leaving the dank warehouse he turned back briefly with concern. Larkin didn’t notice – she was too busy turning her bag inside out, looking for sticky pieces of fruit. He could tell that she still had that frantic undercurrent of energy about her, and he noticed not for the first time that her hands were a little shaky. He had to get the two of them off this damn island. Fast.

With a renewed sense of urgency he set out once again, hoping that he would be able to find a house in which the entire family wasn’t even home, or at least the wife might be occupied somewhere else in a quiet inner room. His odds were admittedly not very good.

He snuck around the obliging neighboring street to check out a few different candidates, taking care to not be seen in broad daylight. His pale complexion, the minority on the island by far, already stuck out like a sore thumb in the village and made him highly recognizable. He finally found what seemed to be a house that was a good match for his requirements, with no sound of conversation or music or the TV blaring. He crept along the brick wall, eyes scanning his surroundings, alert for any unsuspecting guest on his little mission. As he circled to the back of the house, there was still no evidence of anyone inside, so he quietly slipped through the unlocked back door. Islanders can be so conveniently trusting.

Upon entering he was happy to discover a well-stocked pantry, with enough dried meats, cheese, and bread to provide a very satisfying brunch indeed. Aberland gathered up his pilfered treasure and headed back to the estate, for what he hoped would be the last time.

§

At the manor, the governor’s personal chef was busy preparing an extensive welcome lunch for the heroic guards. At the excellent recommendation of his house manager, Tholen had chosen to host it on the garden terrace at the rear of the house, on account of the fact that the men hadn’t been able to bathe for days – he’d rather not have them inside the main house at all if he could help it. Long tables were set out surrounding the fountain, with a separate table at the head of the group for His Excellency and the Lieutenant. Again at the house manager’s choice, the place settings for each guard were simple and discreet. There was no need to use fine china and crystal for this garden party. The guests would likely have no idea how to use it properly, and regardless, were on the Governor’s payroll – he couldn’t have his employees thinking that they were equal to his usually more distinguished guests.

While the overly fussy preparations were underway, Governor Tholen was occupied on the second floor in the room at the end of the hall, which was ordinarily sealed off from everyone else without exception. He was meticulously checking the wiring and software of his computer to be certain that everything was plugged in, charged, and fully functional, all ready to intercept the encrypted communication at 5 pm that afternoon. He could not afford to miss it.

§

Meanwhile, just beyond the wrought iron fencing, Blane and Larkin had enjoyed their hearty lunch and were in the process of cleaning up when the sounds of voices drifted back to them from the back lawn. Larkin looked up at Aberland, panic spread across her face, and he stood quickly to check around the side of the warehouse and see if he could discern what was taking place. Satisfied at the sight of the long folding tables being assembled and the lack of Tholen’s presence, he quickly returned with his report.

“It looks like they’re just setting up for a large outdoor lunch, probably for the returning guards. Lieutenant Howell must have let Tholen know they “found” me over the two-way radio, and he’s going to give them a hero’s welcome. It’ll be pretty interesting to find out what Tholen’s reaction will be to the “Blane Aberland” that they’re bringing home,” he said with a wide mischievous grin.

Larkin verbally sidestepped that comment and pointed out, “That’s good too because we’ll be better able to see and hopefully hear what takes place during the big event since it’s outside. Maybe we’ll even get some useful information about what Tholen and Lieutenant Howell are planning.” She practically spat Tholen’s name.

“Exactly. So the fact that they’re preparing now tells me that Howell and his men should be arriving shortly. Let’s go ahead and get in to position. Anything could happen today, especially now that we’re right here in Tholen’s backyard, and we’ve got to be ready to move fast if we need to. I like to eliminate as many risk factors as possible.”

“Like what?” she asked, confused.

“Well f or starters we should bury this trash. We hope that they won’t figure out that we’re here, but if they do, we shouldn’t leave any clues about where we’ve been and where we’re heading. Next, we need to take stock of the tools at our disposal, and make sure that they’re all in working order. If we have to be stationed so uncomfortably close to our predator, at least we have his arms cache to raid if we want to, so we might as well check out any guns we’d like to borrow now. We’ll make any other necessary modifications, then put ourselves in position to do some surveillance.”

Larkin nodded, and Blane took the lead. She knew that he was in his element commanding their little operation, and took a backseat to let him do what he did best. Not that she really had much to contribute. They quickly buried the trash in the woods under a bush, and remained there for the next step of Blane’s plan. His utility belt was still housing his Uzi, a military-issue knife, the empty canteen, and a compass. His duffle contained an M4, AK47, silencer, and the grenades that he’d swiped along with his IDs. In Larkin’s bag were the two Colt 1911s, another AK47, boxes of bullets, her father’s map, and her wallet – all sticky from the fruit that she’d been carrying.

“See, this is exactly what I was talking about,” Blane said, vigorously rubbing his shirt on the gun barrels in an attempt to clean them, then picked up the boxes of bullets and examined each one.

“We could use another couple of rounds for the M4 and Mack 10, and these are definitely not the right bullets for anything we have.”

They opted to go shopping in the warehouse for supplies, and found the gun rack to be undisturbed since Larkin’s previous visit, which was a very good sign. In the end, Blane selected a few more rounds and a machete, and efficiently re-packed his duffel and Larkin’s bag. After irritatingly reviewing the operation of each of the firearms with her again, he chose one of the Colts for her to carry that day, in case she needed it. He stuck with the Mack 10, which he wished he could’ve had as his guard’s weapon all along on this god-forsaken island. Satisfied with their preparations, Blane led Larkin back to the woods where he located a good sturdy tree from which they could comfortably watch the main event.

§

The house manager was still in possession of the two-way radio when Howell made contact at 11:30 am to give notice that they were roughly 45 minutes away. He promptly reported to Tholen, who was found busily working in his office, and not terribly pleased at being interrupted. But then again, the Governor was rarely pleased at all. With a smug frown, as though he was aware of the news all along, Tholen instructed him to verify that the lunch would be ready at the appointed time, inspect the arrangements on the terrace, and then post himself in the foyer, ready to receive the Lieutenant and company. The traitorous Agent Blane Aberland was to be taken to the basement upon arrival and dealt with later. His employee acknowledged the snippy instructions with a nod and left, wondering not for the first time that day why he subjected himself to the whims of a patriarch.

Pleased that his exceptionally curt orders would prevent him from being bothered any further for a while, Tholen took a valise of essential documents that he had prepared in the office and went down the wonderfully carpeted hall to his master suite. He took care to lock the bedroom door before removing a compact leather suitcase from his bureau and tossing it on to his plush four-poster bed. He crossed the room to his elegant bay window overlooking the grounds, which was furnished with tufted silk pillows to create a relaxing seat. He carelessly tossed these aside to reveal a slight deviation in the surface of the wood beneath. Wedging a few well-manicured fingernails in the slim crevice, he gently removed the wooden panel, and setting it aside, pressed his finger to the scanner within to authenticate his access to the private safe.

A quiet beep sounded, and an impressive internal locking mechanism could faintly be heard as it disengaged. Tholen pulled the safe door open, and began to quickly remove the neat stacks of cash stored there. He filled the suitcase, then returned the safe and window seat back to their originally pristine state. Tholen filled the remaining space in his bag with a few changes of clothes, his favorite watches and cufflinks, and a few essential toiletries. Last, he took his personal Glock from the nightstand and placed it on top of the other items, closing it neatly.

For the final touch, he opened the bedroom door and called for the maid, who arrived in a hurry, eager to please.

“Martha, we received a case of wine earlier this week. Please retrieve the packaging and place it outside my door.”

“Yes sir,” she answered professionally, but couldn’t keep the confusion from her face. Governor Tholen was such a peculiar man.

Now that everything was in order, Rex Tholen took one last look in the large gilded dresser mirror, just in case he had no time later for any further preparation. His blonde hair was groomed and styled to perfection, and his impeccable crème linen suit, complete with a coral shirt and matching pocket square, set off his island tan nicely. He was the model of a polished and powerful man, right down to his chocolate square-toed Bruno Magli oxfords. It was only the sinister gleam in his beautiful clear blue eyes that kept him from being the very picture of perfection. He smiled his slow, charming smile at the mirror’s reflection. It didn’t matter that he was being forced to re-build his empire. He was unstoppable.

§

The sun’s ugly glare had been merciless all morning as it cheerily exacerbated the guards’ hangover headaches. It only served to worsen each man’s fears for the fate of their souls, which were steadily growing with the stench of the poor unburied agent that they were taking turns carrying. They had been toiling along the old coastal road once called Blackburn Highway, and as they neared the first sign of a populated area, Lieutenant Howell called the company to a stop from his position at the rear.

He moved up to the front of the group and looked at his weary men. The looks on their faces said it all – their thoughts were currently dwelling on the now all-too-familiar subject of job expectations. Like Howell himself, their whining thoughts kept returning to the fact that they’d never expected to do anything more than hang around the estate and carry guns to look official. They were beyond ready to be comfortably at home in their beds.

“From here we head due west,” he announced, met with some stifled groans. “It would be terribly unprofessional to parade this body through Parham Town. An’ I can tell you right now that Governor Tholen would be upset to hear of it. As we go west we’ll run into a different old road that can take us very close to the estate. It’s not much farther now before we’re home boys.”

The group trudged on soberly through the woods and did find the fabled road, and after another 40 minutes or so the sorry lot emerged from the trees on to the manicured grounds, completely exhausted.

§

Tholen had successfully implemented his brilliant idea to conceal his suitcase in the wine crate and that inside a larger shipping box, which he then requested to be placed in the trunk of his Mercedes convertible. He reasoned that regardless of however the events unfolded and therefore which exit strategy would have to take, he’d be driving a car somewhere – to the airport or harbor. And he didn’t want his personal effects discovered or looted in the meantime.

The Governor was giving both his office and the bedroom suite one final check to ensure that he had everything he needed when the din of many feet and voices made its way upstairs from the foyer. It could only be the prodigal guards and their Lieutenant. Tholen instantly composed his face in that unsettling way that only he could, and strode down the hallway to make his way downstairs.

As he stepped on to the landing of the beautiful marble staircase, the clatter came to an abrupt halt, and the disheveled men did their best to stand at attention. There was no body to be seen, which seemed to indicate that this order had already been carried out, and the vile “Agent Aberland” was relegated to the basement where he belonged.

Lieutenant Howell stepped forward, and Tholen studied him closely. He was working hard to convey an appearance of jubilant fulfillment of his duty, but he was standing just a little too stiff and his jaw was set slightly too hard. Perhaps his employee was no stranger to lying to his employers after all, he thought. Tholen was confident, however, that he was much better at it.

Descending the rest of the stairs, Governor Tholen extended his hand to Lieutenant Howell to congratulate him.

“Howell! I hear that you have captured our traitorous double-crossing agent, Blane Aberland. Well done,” he cried, slapping Howell on the back in an uncharacteristically friendly manner.

This took Howell off-guard momentarily, but he recovered quickly and broke into a grin. “Happy to do it, sir. I only wish that we had found him sooner.”

Tholen looked around at the men, most of who were also smiling uneasily. He turned to address the guard at Howell’s right, whose name he didn’t know, naturally.

“Did he give you all lots of trouble? I imagine he was rather hard to track down, the beast.”

The man seemed unnerved at being addressed directly, as though he hadn’t been practiced that part, but quickly replied, “Yes sir, he was difficult. But we got ’im in the end.” He couldn’t quite look Tholen in the eye.

Well this was impressive. Lieutenant Howell had managed to produce a body to stand in for Agent Blane Aberland, convince his men of the merits of lying about it, and delivered mostly convincing responses himself. How he was able to appeal to these simple-minded superstitious men, Tholen might never know. He would certainly enjoy torturing Howell in the meantime though.

Silence fell over the room momentarily in a pause that hung heavy with discomfort, in which Tholen studied the group with a stern face. But he allowed it to pass without escalation, and much to their nervous relief, broke in to his eerie smile once again and clapped his hands together.

“Well without a doubt you are hungry! Please join me for lunch in the garden.”

They happily rushed forward through the open patio doors and found places at the waiting tables, grateful to have an excuse not to be scrutinized or interrogated any longer. They dug in to their hearty lunch with gusto, and Tholen led Howell to their separate table, already set with hot food and a light sparkling wine.

As the two took their seats and settled napkins in their laps, Governor Tholen took a sip of his wine, contemplating his Lieutenant with an arresting gaze. Howell fidgeted to avoid letting his uneasiness show on his face, which was still carefully arranged in a content smile. After a moment of watching Howell squirm, Tholen spoke up.

“So, Howell, you must fill me in on all the details. Regale me with the exciting tale of your adventures!” he coaxed.

Howell was prepared for this but had dreaded it nonetheless. He cleared his throat, and replied nonchalantly, “Well it’s not all that exciting really. We went to the old governor’s estate in Road Town firs’, as you suggested. A couple of the guards found Aberland on a balcony, but unfortunately he got away. Then we spent several days combing t’rough the area nearby, eventually fanning out around Mount Sage an’ over to the West coast. We found no sign of him or the girl along the way, an’ were coming back to search along the East coast when we came across a cave in the woods. There we found evidence of a fire an’ someone having slept there. It was too dark to see if there was any indication of what direction they were going. So we took a chance and continued on back to Road Town.

“I wanted to check around Road Town one more time, since Aberland had been there before. Sure enough, we found him at the old governor’s house again, trying to take us all on by shooting at us from upstairs. We chased him in to a second floor bedroom, an’ he was cornered. He tried to make a break for the windows, but he was shot.”

Here Howell lowered his voice conspiratorially, and Tholen obligingly played along with the act, leaning in with a flicker of an amused smile on his face.

“It was afternoon by then an’ the men had been marching hard for a few days, so I chose to let them stay overnight in the old house. It’s actually in pretty good condition, considering how old it is. But I sent the men out to get their own dinner, an’ during that time I think someone must have taken out their aggression on Aberland. When we all got back we foun’ him really badly beat up, but no one would admit to it.”

Howell sat back and dug in to his meal, relieved to have delivered the well-rehearsed account as smoothly as possible. Tholen processed all of this information as he reclined back in his chair too and watched Howell deliberately preoccupy himself, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

“On the contrary Lieutenant, that is a very compelling story. It is unfortunate that Aberland got killed in the process; I had so wanted to personally interrogate him further. But I am most interested to see the body that was conveyed to the basement after lunch. You will join me in that, of course?”

Howell nodded begrudgingly and swallowed his mouthful. “Of course,” he agreed painfully.

They each continued to eat in silence, and Tholen finished his portion quickly. He stood up and clapped his hands for attention. The loud chatter died down and the men turned their attention to the governor.

“As the Lieutenant tells me, it was no small task to catch the nefarious traitor Blane Aberland. But I had every confidence that my guards would be up for the challenge. Sure enough, I am told that you all skillfully managed the task. So to celebrate your hard work, I would like to propose a party this evening in the town square. The kitchen is already cooking away, we have stores of rum to break out, and if I’m correct, they are already stringing up little lanterns in the trees as we speak.”

A cheer went up among the men, who couldn’t be happier. They’d been given a delicious lunch, were about to rejoin their families, and celebrate with a party that night. They would be regaled as heroes. It would be perhaps the most memorable thing that had happened to their little community in recent history, aside from the whole Socialist conflict that is. The grueling experience of only a few hours ago was already beginning to fade in to their memories, to be replaced by non-stop action and excitement.

With that announcement, Tholen took his leave and went inside. Howell briefly instructed the men to finish up and go home to make themselves presentable, designating four unlucky men to stay behind and guard the front entrance, then reluctantly followed Tholen in to the house.

§

Once the lunch was underway, Blane conferred quietly with Larkin, and decided that it would be wise to get a little closer to the affair and pick up on anything necessary if he could. She remained behind in her perch in the tree.

Larkin watched as Blane crept along the edge of the garden fence in the shelter of the large bushes that edged the wrought iron posts. By ‘a little closer’ he had apparently meant extremely close, Larkin learned as she observed his progress – so close that mere feet, the fence, and the landscaping separated him from the garden party. She sincerely hoped that no one remaining inside the house happened to look out upon the festivities through a second story window. From such a vantage point he would have been as clear as day.

She waited patiently throughout the majority of the lunch, noting that Howell and Tholen were deep in quiet conversation at the head of the group. Then the detestable governor stood and made some pompous announcement that she couldn’t hear. She wished, just for a minute, that she had the kind of precise aim needed to shoot him then and there, like a sniper in the trees. Of course it was a reckless and stupid idea, but that didn’t stop her from wanting it nonetheless. Tholen turned to leave the party, and Aberland chose that moment to return to her, crossing the open distance between the cover of the bushes and the warehouse in a sprint. He made it back undiscovered and climbed up to their treetop hideout.

“I think Tholen’s up to something,” Blane said, a bit out of breath. “I could hear his conversation with Howell, and even catch a glimpse of his face a few times. He just seemed … too calculating. There’s more than meets the eye there, there’s got to be. But the best part is, he’s throwing them a party tonight. Definitely not typical Tholen behavior. I did get to hear Howell’s story about how they captured me, and it’s a good thing that we left the cave when we did, because that really was them in the woods after all. It sounds like he kept the story exactly the same as what happened, but just substituted Smith for me.”

“So what’s going on now?”

“The guards are going home to their families, the staff is bustling around trying to get everything ready for the party, and Tholen and Howell are headed down to the basement where my body supposedly is.”

“Looks like time is running out,” Larkin said thoughtfully. “Maybe Tholen will go to the party to keep up appearances and just assign someone else to listen for the call at 5:00. I bet that we could take that person out pretty easily, then listen ourselves.”

Blane shook his head with a smirk. “That would be convenient, but it’s pretty doubtful. Tholen never lets anyone in to the room that he uses to listen in on us. There are very strict orders never to enter it, and it remains locked at all times. He doesn’t want to risk anyone finding out about his secret advantage. He’s a control freak, like I said earlier,” Blane shrugged.

“I think it’s interesting that you’re so confident about ‘taking people out’ now, by the way.”

She scowled back. “Interesting how? Interesting in a ‘cute little girl taking on the world’ kind of way?”

“No, just interesting. That’s all.” This was met with a dramatic roll of the eyes, cute little girl-style.

“Anyway, I bet this party is a diversion. Maybe Tholen intends to listen in to the call long enough to figure out exactly what’s going on, and then get off the island himself before it’s too late. It would make a lot of sense if he’s already got the tip-off that the US might be sending a battleship out here.”

“Which means that we have to be faster than him,” Larkin said slowly.

“Or detain him while we get away,” Blane pointed out.

Larkin shifted her worried eyes back to the villa. The men were all gone, and the abandoned tables had yet to be cleared, their tablecloths fluttering in the light breeze that was picking up from the sea. Things were about to get pretty intense. She just hoped that it would work in her favor.

§

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