Once the car was out of sight for the villagers, the drive was a short one with Blane at the wheel, speeding down the road like a bat out of hell. The palm trees whipped by as Larkin looked out the window in a daze, and Blane kept an eye on her in the rearview mirror. By the clock in the Mercedes’ wood grain inlay, it was 6:17 pm when they approached the Beef Island airport’s only hanger. It was perfect – they had plenty of time to prepare the plane, check fuel levels, and get ready for departure.
Blane slowed down as they drove up the gravel service road leading behind the tiny airport, not completely sure what they would find waiting for them. As they crept closer, they could tell that no lights were on inside the adjoining building or hanger. The charter plane that had transported Larkin and her father from Massachusetts was visible in the fading daylight, sitting closest to the entrance.
Larkin exhaled audibly and Blane looked back at her, her anxiety drawing lines of concern on his forehead. He turned back to face their destination. At this point, they were pretty much expecting anything. Even with their careful planning, there could still be an ambush, or the plane could have been intentionally disabled in some way. She sat up in the floorboard to look around as they slowly pulled in to the hanger, and the two of them suspiciously scanned the large darkened expansive space, which was basically no more than a very high warehouse with a rusted out tin roof. There was no sign of anyone.
“Tholen said that he’d have a pilot here, no guards though,” Blane remarked.
“I don’t see anyone here at all – pilot, guards, or gaping villagers.”
“Yeah…me neither. All right, well stay here, and get back down! I’ll check it out. Have your gun ready just in case. And whatever you do –”
“Don’t come after you. I remember.”
Blane eyed her for a moment, and saw that for once she wasn’t being sarcastic.
Aberland exited the vehicle, pushing the door just barely closed instead of loudly slamming it, as though their entrance hadn’t already reverberated in the deserted hanger, and this measure was necessary to disguise him still. Larkin stayed low in the backseat so that she could just barely see out of the window and watched Aberland’s now all too familiar protocol of silently skirting the perimeter of the structure, gun drawn. She watched until his form melted in to the shadows. Then she listened intently, checked to make sure that the safety was off on her pistol, and placed it within arm’s reach on the seat next to her.
Back in Parham Town, the celebration was already in full swing. The sun wasn’t quite setting yet, but vibrant colored lights glimmered from their strings in the trees nonetheless. Governor Tholen’s personal chef had set up an impressive spread for everyone, and many of Tortola’s citizens could safely say that they had never eaten so well in their lives. The rum was already flowing freely when Howell walked up, and his guards were the center of attention, already re-telling tales of their bravado and exaggerating them accordingly.
He interrupted them with a good-natured smile, holding his hands up as he shouted, “Alright, alright! I’m sure everyone’s already heard the same story at least three times now, am I right?” They all laughed and cheered.
“But we all tell it differently!” one guard protested, half-drunk already.
“Yes, I’m sure you do,” Howell replied, winking at the onlookers. “Well I can see that I definitely missed the first drink, so I’d better make a toast while you can still remember it.” Another chorus of cheers went up.
A bottle of rum was passed down the table, and Howell filled his glass, and held it high in the air as he made his way to the front.
“Now listen everyone, quiet down. I bet that Samuel here has been bragging about fighting a man twice his size off, an’ John has told you all that carried five packs through the forest by himself for days, or something like that, yes?” He got a mixed response of laughter and protests.
“So let me share the true story with you all.” Howell paused for effect, looking each of them in the eye as a hush come over the group.
“The truth is that these men were hired to protect Governor Rex Tholen an’ his home, an’ have always done that admirably. But there was another man in Tholen’s employ that proved to be a traitor. His Excellency learned that the American Blane Aberland was spying on us. He was even reporting back to the United States, who never really trusted us, even after many of our fellow islands an’ ourselves repeatedly swore peace and neutrality.” Though many in the crowd already knew the story by now, they gave a collective gasp at hearing it clearly summarized without the distortion of a drunken re-telling or a covert whisper.
“We were charged with hunting this man down, an’ this involved much more tactical an’ field skills than was ever required before. I have to say that these men were forced to spend days marching through the forest on little sleep an’ empty stomachs in pursuit of a treacherous traitor, an’ despite all that, they excelled at every turn. They overcame every hardship and obstacle, an’ took down Aberland like it was as easy as catching a fish.” Another cheer went up.
“I could not be more proud of these men. So please join me as I drink to their bravery, heroism, an’ above all, their health.” Howell raised his glass high and the crowd did the same. He downed his rum like it was water, eliciting another cheer, and sat down without drawing any further attention to himself.
The excitement of everyone in attendance seemed to have escalated, and Howell watched his second-in-command a few seats away contemplatively as he sipped on the rum that a happily stumbling woman refilled his glass with. The man seemed to be inherently responsible, and wasn’t really participating in the debauchery as ardently as his comrades. He would laugh occasionally and share a joke, drink to every toast, and generally enjoy himself, but didn’t seem as hell-bent on getting drunk on the free rum as the rest.
The Lieutenant knew that he needed gossipy, careless guards to comprise the mission of his task force and let the secret out to all of Parham Town. But he also needed them to actually get to Fort Charlotte and disrupt the American attempt to extract the last remaining agent. The ambush wasn’t completely necessary, but it could only be helpful to have their attention focused elsewhere while he and Tholen took off. It was intended to be a diversion for both the villagers and the Americans. And John Dorian was just the man to ensure that they’d be in position in time. Whether they’d be successful was highly questionable. Besides, his second-in-command was no idiot, and it would be better to have him distracted as well.
At that moment, Dorian seemed to sense that someone was watching him, and met his lieutenant’s eyes questioningly. Howell’s end of the table had become sparse as the celebrating party drifted towards the open area in the square and some began to dance. Howell gestured to the empty chair on his left, and Dorian obligingly stood up and came to take a seat.
“Something on your mind, Lieutenant?”
“Yes actually. Remember the American agent that got away during our brief confrontation at the old governor’s house?”
“Yes sir…” Dorian said warily, recalling that they were told to forget any and all details of the events other than the story Lieutenant Howell himself had schooled them on. The truth of this matter was never supposed to be spoken of again. That is, until now apparently.
“Here’s the thing. Just before arriving here, I learned that not only was there a second agent working with him, but that the United States military is planning to send a helicopter in an’ rescue the stray agent tonight at 20.00 hours, over at Fort Charlotte.”
Dorian’s mouth hung open in shock. “Realla? Can they do that? I mean ah, legally an’ all?”
“Yes, they can come an’ get their soldier from anywhere. The helicopter will be landin’ on that little hill just behind the old fort, nestled in the trees. Do you know it?”
“Yes, I do,” Dorian stammered a little.
“Governor Tholen has already enlisted my services for another project tonight, an’ didn’t want to give me up for this job. He sent me to give you an’ a team of three others this opportunity instead. The intention of this mission is only to try to capture or injure the agent, but Tholen has stressed that he doesn’ want any of the guards to get hurt in the process. Just see what you can do, an’ make every effort to detain that spy. Do you understand?”
John Dorian was stunned. “Yes sir.
“It’s about 6:09 now, so you all will need to hurry. I’m going to inform the other members of your team, an’ you’ll need to leave immediately.”
The guard nodded numbly.
“An’ Dorian? Good luck. You all may just achieve hero status a second time aroun’ here,” Howell added with an uncharacteristic smile.
He proceeded over to his next selection, who was already pretty inebriated. Perfect. He leaned over the guard’s shoulder, and gave him the shortened version in a low voice, doing the same with the other two. Two out of three registered so much surprise on their faces that their drinking buddies and women demanded an explanation, which they indulged in hushed voices, and Howell noted with satisfaction as he left the party that the information was being passed from mouth to ear around the group pretty rapidly. His eyes met Dorian’s again, and it was clear that he was perplexed and even suspicious regarding Howell’s choices. It didn’t matter though.
The plan was in motion.