Cruel Paradise

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Chapter 30

The finality of these last days was weighing on Tholen as he crossed the threshold in to his beautiful villa. He looked around with a touch of regret, admiring the regally appointed interior and the exquisite gardens outside. The estate was his masterpiece, built from the ground up with his rapidly amassed wealth. He had created an island paradise here and built a small empire on the back of his drug trade with ease. Having no major competitors this far from the eastern coast of Central America and a convenient connection to Miami made for an excellent business plan. Still, he couldn’t prevent the paranoid American officials from getting their claws in to his island. They had already stationed three secret agents to spy on him years ago, and luckily their commanding officer had chosen to broker a secret deal with Tholen. But he knew from that moment forward that the clock was ticking. It would only be a matter of time, and now he feared that if the United States military planned to be in the neighborhood already, they’d go ahead and arrest him while they were at it.

It wasn’t going to be as simple to start over, and he bristled at being forced in to it. He would likely be unable to retain his contacts and business in that region, and he would need to put ample distance between himself and the United States. Which inherently meant that he’d be muscling his way in to someone else’s turf farther south. There was no doubt that he’d be stepping on a lot of toes to re-build his business.

Tholen had considered his relocation options carefully and decided to lay low in Mendoza, Argentina at an old friend’s vineyard for a little while. He wanted to be as landlocked as possible and deep in to South America in case the escalation of conflict with the US turned in to more than a little skirmish. He’d certainly enjoy spending some down time in wine country, and once it was less volatile, he’d begin scouting out a new location. The lower Caribbean islands, perhaps.

Tholen’s reverie was interrupted by Howell’s footsteps sounding on the travertine floor. He looked up to meet the Lieutenant’s anxious eyes with a charming smile.

“It is terribly unfortunate that the bastard had to die before we could cross-examine him here, but nonetheless I’m glad to have this little problem taken care of. I’m very interested to see living proof of just how you manage that lazy troupe of men, and how reliable their skills are in conflicts.”

Howell cleared his throat. He’d been afraid of this. “Yes sir,” he replied as the Governor opened a door at the end of the hall and led him down some poky stairs to the basement. His heart sank, dreading Tholen’s meticulous scrutiny with each step.

They entered the expansive basement, which almost ran the length of the entire manor. The air was dank and moist, trapped as it was below ground level in a subtropical climate. Looking around, Howell saw that it appeared mostly unchanged from the first time he’d toured it, when he was assessing the security needs of the property as the newly appointed Lieutenant. The space was minimized by lengthy storage closets along the entire eastern wall and a large private guest suite, built for the occasional visitor in need of more secluded accommodations. The rest of the basement was a large unused open area, sparsely populated with sofas and shelves with no particular designated purpose.

Without a word, Tholen led Howell through the shadowy space to one of the large storage rooms. Howell felt a growing sensation of dread in the pit of his stomach, which only intensified when he remembered that the storage rooms were not covered in the same utilitarian, tightly woven carpet that they were treading on, but were solid concrete. The rooms were all fairly soundproof by design, based on their location relative to the frequently traversed areas of the main house. He’d wondered vaguely what Tholen had in mind when he designed so many seemingly unnecessarily large storage rooms on his first visit to the basement, and now he was beginning to get an idea. Howell took care not to follow to closely behind Tholen and quietly unsnapped the top of the leather gun holster on his belt and released the safety latch as he walked.

The governor entered the room first and flicked the light switch on, and a single large overhead lamp flooded the room with a harshly bright light, reminiscent of an operating room. Howell followed tensely. He blinked a little as his eyes adjusted to the glare and looked at Tholen, who was standing at his side, looking him with a wide smile. There was something a little off about it, a slight curl of the lips that distorted his normal ingratiating grin. Howell realized, not for the first time, that Rex Tholen truly was an evil man at his core. The sick joy that he was taking in this part of his master plan was practically palpable, and it was a poignant reminder that he would stop at nothing to achieve what he wanted, become as powerful as he wanted – and he would kill anyone that got in his way. It was just that his authentic charm was so disarming; it was easy to forget exactly how dangerous the man could be. Here he was in his element, with Howell genuinely cornered and afraid for his life, while he was completely in control.

Howell instinctively drew back a step, fighting the urge to grasp at the gun in his holster. He had to stay calm, or at least appear to be cool and collected. Tholen continued to leer at him silently for another second, then flicked his eyes forward to the rest of the room. Howell was compelled to do the same, and the scene that met his eyes forced a sharp intake of breath. He couldn’t help it.

A long metal table was situated in the center of the room, likely brought in from the garage (and hopefully not a macabrely permanent fixture there instead). Lying on it like a cadaver in the morgue was his Aberland impersonator, but the sheets and comforter that he’d been swaddled in for transport were gone. There was nothing shielding his grotesquely mutilated form from view, and thick, sticky blood had pooled slightly on to the table, where it continued to congeal further. Meanwhile little flies that had hitched a ride with the corpse were buzzing around incessantly.

There was a gleam in Tholen’s eye that bordered on insidious as he strode forward, placing both hands possessively on the cold metal table, and looking expectantly back at Howell.

“So here we have our hated double agent, Mr. Blane Aberland,” he declared, giving the grisly scene at his fingertips a cursory glance.

“You know, I thought that I recalled Aberland being more tan than this, with all his time spent outdoors,” Tholen continued, pausing as he coolly evaluated Howell. Howell’s mind raced frantically in search of an excuse, but Tholen cut in, toying with his nerves and conscience.

“But no matter. Take me through the riveting events once again, if you will Lieutenant Howell. I would like to understand precisely what transpired.”

Howell tried not to visibly squirm as he crossed the room to stand on the opposite side of the table from Tholen.

“Well, as I said before, we got him cornered in an upstairs bedroom behin’ a bed. He tried to run for the window to escape but one of the men shot him, here,” Howell explained, pointing to the obvious bullet wound in the chest, just above the heart.

“Interesting,” Tholen replied, thoughtfully rubbing his chin. “That is a very precise shot. Who is credited with the kill?”

Once again he leveled his cold piercing gaze on the Lieutenant. Howell thought fast and selected his most skilled guard, secretly hoping that he could be convinced to take the credit later.

“That would be John Dorian, sir.”

Tholen’s blue eyes lingered a second too long on Howell, then turned back to the unfortunate man on the slab, deliberately making his way around to the head of the table.

“Well, he deserves my thanks then, for preventing this coward from escaping for good…”

After a pause, he continued coldly, “…which would have been most unfortunate for you, Lieutenant Howell.”

Howell shifted under the weight of Tholen’s intimidating stare and continued to circle around the table closer to “Aberland’s” feet, trying to keep the same measure of distance between them.

“True, we were lucky to have his skill in that moment. But unfortunately, as I was sayin’, someone seemed to have had a lot of pent up rage that they needed to get out while we were all findin’ dinner, which resulted in this…disfiguration.”

“Hmm, and no one would admit to it?”

“No, but I didn’t press it very much, he was already dead after all. That’s all that you an’ I really care about,” Howell countered with a forced congenial grin.

“Yes…but still, I am curious. There was no one in particular that stood out as the likely culprit? No one that acted suspicious or uncomfortable when you questioned them?”

Howell got the distinct feeling that Tholen was in fact referring to him, not his men. He set his jaw and squared his shoulders, looking the governor firmly in the eye. “No sir,” he intoned.

Tholen watched him in that unsettling way for a minute more, then turned on his heel, absent-mindedly fiddling with his rings and wrist watch as he paced back around to the side of the table he’d originally occupied, appearing to mull it all over.

Then he turned back to Howell and smiled. The malice was gone, the all-knowing attitude was not.

“I suppose that’s all there is to it, then. As you said, what’s done is done. The fool is dead. I’m sure that you didn’t expect me to forget about the other part of your assignment, but that silly girl will come to her own end out there, if she hasn’t already. I wish you could have delivered both to me, but you didn’t have the best resources at your disposal that you’re normally accustomed to in these situations. So I will settle for just Aberland.”

With that, he circled quickly to stand face-to-face with Howell, and thrust his hand forward sharply. Howell was thrown off his guard and quickly stepped back, fearing the worst. He couldn’t keep himself from instinctively reaching for his gun this time. But Tholen just stood there waiting, with that unsettling grin plastered on his face again. It was a simple handshake that he wanted, nothing more.

Howell’s nerves were completely shot from the entire interaction, and he tried to avoid visibly shaking as he extended a clammy hand to return the gesture. Tholen turned wordlessly and led him out of the room that was so reminiscent of a horror movie and back up the stairs. As he closed the basement door firmly, he said brightly, “You should go home and get ready for the party tonight! We’ll be fine without all of the guards for the rest of the afternoon, and you must be very weary from the recent events.”

Now it was the lieutenant’s turn to be suspicious. Tholen had just played an intense cat and mouse game with him downstairs, sending the message loud and clear that he had guessed or even knew for certain that the man before them wasn’t Aberland at all. Then he’d graciously acquiesced, forgiving the oversight of the girl and was now encouraging him to relax. Something was clearly amiss there, but what he could not say. Was it an extension of the mind games? Was he being lulled in to a false sense of security? Howell’s head pounded, too exhausted to make an attempt at guessing Tholen’s latest motive and strategy.

“Yes sir,” he said wearily, and turned to leave. Tholen nodded and stood there, still as a statue in the foyer, watching him go.

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