Cruel Paradise

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Chapter 39

It only took Aberland a few minutes to creep through the shadows of the warehouse and survey the area, which revealed no further clues. Only the two planes loomed in the darkness there – the American charter and Governor Tholen’s smaller private plane. With no evidence of personnel or other vehicles to be found, he circled back to the car, making his approach very obvious so that he didn’t startle Larkin. If she didn’t recognize him, there was a 50/50 chance that she might actually shoot him or miss. With her adrenaline probably at an all-time high, he couldn’t afford to risk it.

He walked up to the Mercedes, and she peeked out from the backseat. Opening the passenger door for her, he helped her out and led her around to the opposite side of the car. They sat down there together on the dusty ground, sheltered by the darkness.

“Anything?” Larkin whispered.

Blane shook his head, lost in thought. “No.”

“But I thought… there was supposed to be a pilot here, right? If not the entire airport staff of three people, the pilot at least should be waiting for Tholen.”

“That’s what Tholen said. The bastard could’ve set us up. But he’s not in a position to order an ambush from the linen closet. He couldn’t have possibly predicted this turn of events and have had a contingency plan in place. So that means that the pilot was never going to be here to begin with, or not at this time anyway. What could his plan really have been?”

Larkin had no response. She slumped against the car, out of words and out of hope. She was tired of complications and surprises, and she had a feeling that this detail would re-surface again soon. Next to her, Blane scratched the stubble on his chin thoughtfully, then glanced over at her dejected form.

“Well, here’s what we can do. We don’t know what’s going on with the pilot, but we should decide which plane to take. Hey, they might not even show up at all! Maybe something happened to keep them in Parham Town and we’ll finally have an aspect of the plan that can go smoothly, you know, how did they used to say it? ‘Without pulling teeth.’”

He earned a small smile, and Larkin seemed to perk up a bit. Blane took her hand to gently help her to her feet. Together they ventured further in to the darkness, and quickly encountered the charter plane from Massachusetts.

“So I was thinking that this one is definitely better for us to take. It’s newer, nicer, and most likely to have been recently inspected for safety, but mainly because it’s a registered American plane. Whether it’s gotten back to the TSA that this plane has been detained without response or not, it shouldn’t be as much of a red flag as a Caribbean plane. We can try to stay away from the mainland as we head north. What do you think?”

Larkin pulled out of her fog and blinked, looking back at him bleary-eyed. “North?”

“Well, we don’t have a lot of fuel. Our choices are pretty much South America, Central America, somewhere else in the Caribbean, or North America. I think our best option is probably Canada. Am I right?”

“I guess so. I was hoping for Europe, but it sounds like that’s pretty much impossible.”

“For now,” Blane pointed out.

Larkin nodded reluctantly. “Besides, do you even know how to fly one of these?”

“Well I watched the pilots during some training operations. Does that count?

“Wait… are you kidding?? We are going to die if that’s all you know! I probably know just as much as you do from watching movies!”

“Well then between the two of us, we’ve got the experience of one professional pilot,” Blane chuckled. She stared daggers at him, and he fought off the urge to tell her that if she kept glaring like that so much, her face might get stuck that way one day.

“Okay chill out, I’m just teasing. Trust me, I’ll figure it out.”

Larkin rolled her eyes. It felt like nothing surprised her any more. At this point she could pretty much get through anything that fate was going to throw at her, and fate seemed to want her really really dead.

“Alright I agree, both with Canada and this plane. So do we need to check this out more, or are we just going to roll with it?”

With a raised eyebrow, Blane replied, “I’ll just get on board and check the fuel quickly.”

He paused, and added, “Are you sure that you’ll be able to take this plane? You know, with the memories and all?”

Larkin swallowed hard. “Yeah, I’ll be okay.”

Blane looked her in the eye, assessing whether there was any truth behind that typical girl response. Satisfied, he looked down and realized that he’d been holding her hand ever since he helped her stand up, and gently let it go.

“Then I’ll just go check out the plane real quick. I honestly don’t know what to expect here. In case someone comes after us, we need to be ready. Wait for me by the car, where we sat before. Got it?”

“Sure.”

With that, Larkin made her way back to the Mercedes in the dim light, and Aberland paused as he reached up to grip the handle of the door to the fuselage, watching her walk away.

§

Lieutenant Howell had fulfilled his preliminary orders, and now it was time to complete the job. He gave a congenial smile and a wave to those few drunken people that had noticed him get up, and leisurely walked away from the party, waiting to pick up the pace until he turned the corner. He reached his house quickly and strode in to the kitchen, where his attaché case was waiting for him ready to go, packed with his passport, documents, a change of clothes, and a few precious documents. He snatched it up and gave his surroundings one last cursory glance. It was the last time that he’d see his little island home. ‘On to the next gig,’ he thought.

Just a minute’s hurried walk took him up through the un-manned manor gates and the promenade to the detached garage. Immediately he could tell that something was amiss. The garage door was open, and the Mercedes was missing. Tholen couldn’t have left without him; he couldn’t do without a pilot. There was no reason for him to deviate from the plan at that juncture; though it was easy to imagine that he’d attempt to kill Howell off later on, once he was through with him. Howell removed his pistol from the interior jacket pocket, automatically flicking the safety off and holding it low with both hands, eyes scanning the exterior of the house suspiciously.

The garage was secure, and as his eyes adjusted to the dim light there, he recognized a healthy gash in each tire of the BMW. This had to be Aberland’s doing. That son of a bitch just kept coming back, complicating things. Howell kicked a tire in frustration as he weighed his options. The big question was, what had the agent done with Tholen? There were two clear choices. Either Aberland had taken Tholen by force to the airport as a hostage for insurance, or the governor was still here at the house, dead or alive. And most likely well hidden, since no frantic staff had shown up to ruin the party.

Howell debated with himself on the decision to be made. Alive or not, if Tholen was at the house he’d still be detained there for a while. Whether Aberland had taken Tholen with him to Beef Island or not, the ex-Seal was undoubtedly about to get away with one of the planes. His gut said to go after Aberland, end of story. But his gut didn’t have to answer to one of the most demanding drug lords that he’d ever known of. Tholen would likely expect that the priority should be to find him instead and consult with his governorship at the very least, if not save his life if need be.

With a groan, Howell opened the side door of the house and set about finding someone to help him as quickly as possible.

§

Blane had successfully boarded the plane and turned on the master switch, which was about all that he remembered for the preliminary portion of the process. Behind the co-pilot’s chair, Blane found what appeared to be a pretty thorough operation manual. He brought that with him as he did a quick walk-through of the cabin, and noted that all of the emergency equipment was still in place. He returned to the cockpit and powered the plane down for the time being, so that they could save as much fuel as possible for their trip.

Blane de-planed and checked his watch. It was 7:03 pm. The cover of nightfall would soon be theirs, and the sun could be glimpsed through the trees as it began to set in the distance. He quietly made his way back to Larkin’s side.

“It’s almost time to get on the plane. Are you ready for this?” Blane said with a reassuring smile, trying to cheer her up. She looked as though the sky was about to fall on her. But it was time to get motivated.

“Sure,” she answered reluctantly.

“Then the next thing that we should do is park the Mercedes back in the far corner. It will be pretty obvious that we’re here when we start taxiing down the runway, but until we do in about 45 minutes, we don’t need to advertise that we’re here, in case anyone comes looking for us.”

“That’s a good idea,” Larkin replied numbly as they both got back in to the sedan, which Blane quickly parked behind Tholen’s small plane.

“Time to check our luggage,” she tried to joke, and they each retrieved their roughened bags, guns, and Tholen’s tablet from the backseat.

“You know, we should see if Tholen kept anything else in this car. Shady types like him are always ready to make a getaway, and that means cash or guns are usually stored in some unconventional places.”

“I’m really glad that you’re so familiar with the habits of hardened criminals,” Larkin retorted sarcastically, and Blane suppressed a smile at her beginning to sound a little more like herself.

He slid back in to the passenger seat to check the glove box, the compartment between the seats, and of course under the seats themselves. It turned out to be a good idea – his search turned up a Glock in the glove compartment and $500.00 US dollars under the driver’s seat. Meanwhile Larkin had opened the trunk and discovered a large shipping box inside.

“Blane, come here and look at this,” she called. Blane pocketed the cash and walked around to the back of the Mercedes.

“Hmm, what have we here?” he said, pulling the box out of the trunk. The unsealed container opened easily to reveal an empty wine crate, which obviously had something heavier encased in it. Aberland lifted it gingerly and extracted a beautiful leather suitcase.

“Is that… Tholen’s suitcase?” Larkin asked incredulously.

“It must be, who else could it belong to?”

Blane opened it to find expensive clothes, watches, yet another gun, and below those, lots and lots of cash.

“Well that sets us up pretty nicely. We’ll be able to bribe our way out of some tough spots if we have to. And if we can’t, we sure have a lot of firepower,” Aberland was half-joking, but Larkin wasn’t laughing.

“Yeah, more danger and intrigue, awesome,” she answered.

“Alright don’t get too excited just yet. Let’s store all of this in the cabin and wait another 10 minutes or so. Do you want to stay up in the plane alone or down here with me? I want to review this manual without wasting power on the plane, so I’m going to use what little sunlight we’ve got left.”

“I’ll stay with you. I don’t want to be in there any longer than I have to.”

Larkin let Blane stow the bags in the cabin; she didn’t want to spend any more time there than she had to. Then they both settled in on the dirty ground at the opening to the hanger to wait for their moment.

Sunset, Day 5

Howell ran through the rooms on the main floor quickly with no luck and proceeded upstairs. He knew that the maid was instructed to only clean the basement before and after the infrequent guest’s stay, so she wouldn’t be down there. He also knew that Martha liked to take her time cleaning since she was paid hourly, and that the house manager didn’t seem to mind because he exploited his employer as well. Hopefully she hadn’t finished cleaning the entire house yet, and was just taking her time upstairs. The Lieutenant raced through the rooms on the second floor, and came to the very last place that she could be in – the master bathroom – hoping ardently that he’d find her there. He rushed through the double doors breathlessly and scanned the spacious area. Nothing. He exhaled, a little defeated. This was going to make the evening much more difficult.

Howell was still taking a moment to figure out his next move when he heard the toilet flush and saw Martha come bustling out of the bathroom, a nice bounce in her step with the end of her day’s work and the prospect of a good party in the square. She stopped in surprise to see the Lieutenant there. This was the third time today that she’d been required to speak to higher-ranking personnel than herself, to whom she was normally discouraged from addressing entirely.

Lieutenant Howell didn’t give her the opportunity for a timid hello. “Martha,” he all but shouted. “Governor Tholen is missing. He could be hurt or in very grave danger. I must go to Beef Island immediately to see if he was taken there. In the meantime, I need you to search the house as fast as you can. Look in the basement, in every closet, under every bed, anywhere that he could be hidden. An’ above all else, don’ alert the guards or tell them if they come to the house. Do not admit anyone. Lock all the doors. It is very important that you do exactly as I say. Do you understan’?”

She nodded meekly. “Good. Now take this radio an’ tell me if you find him. You press this button here to talk, see?” She nodded again.

“Remember, you don’ let anyone inside except for me, if I come back. I may check in with you on the radio, so be ready for that.”

Without another word, Howell raced down the hall and back downstairs, and exited the side entrance to the garage. Behind it and some strategically placed bushes he found the decidedly less luxurious old sedan hat they used to transport their occasional non-VIP arrivals from Beef Island, like the Bellamys. Though it was rare to have any new arrivals to transport anywhere, they really couldn’t do without it. Tholen was too protective of his personal vehicles to have them used for just anyone. He couldn’t be sure whether the governor would want to leave in the BMW, which would be much more obvious, or this one. But Tholen didn’t exactly have a choice in the matter.

Thankfully the sedan tires hadn’t fallen victim to Aberland’s Spyder knife. Howell took the keys from the glove compartment, and pulled out and down the drive at a normal ambling pace so as not to arouse any suspicion and cause the other guards to come running. Once he was around the corner, Howell floored it, pushing the aging car to its limit at 80 mpg.

§

Larkin gazed out across the narrow airstrip at the sun making its final descent below the trees on the horizon. In the distance a new sound perforated the peaceful silence, putting her on edge again. She’d just started to relax a little, which was clearly a stupid move. She looked at Blane questioningly, who’d perked up and was listening too.

“That would be our dear friend Private Martin’s ride home. We’d better get to the plane.”

Together they walked briskly back through the darkness of the hanger, when the sound of a car engine barreling toward them reverberated in the space all around them. Larkin looked terrified and turned desperately to Aberland, but he was just exasperated. He put his duffel bag down at his side and efficiently unzipped it, removing the semi-automatic and arranging the other weapons inside so that they could be grabbed easily if necessary.

“Larkin, get on the plane. Take this manual with you; there’s a pre-flight checklist that I want you to follow. Just do as much as you can figure out and then wait for me there. Don’t leave the cabin, alright?”

She nodded uncertainly, pausing on the stairs until the car roared up and sent her scurrying inside. She recognized it through the thick cabin windows from her first memories on Tortola, which were her last moments with her father. She choked back the tears as she watched Blane take cover behind the on-boarding stairs and open fire on the vehicle, just as it swerved to a stop in the corner. The unidentified driver slid across the passenger seat and jump out to take cover on the other side of the car. Larkin rushed in to the cockpit to get a better view. Could it be Tholen that had come after them? Hadn’t they left him gravely injured? She’d assumed that’s what Blane meant by ‘taken care of.’

Aberland switched to the Mack 10 and was trading shots with their villain, each of them leaving their shelter for just a moment to return fire. Larkin crouched in the pilot’s chair, watching breathlessly as they traded shots back and forth. She couldn’t see Aberland very well from her vantage point, but she could catch a glimpse of his hand reaching out to fire bullets intermittently.

From the way this little shootout was going, Aberland was pretty sure that his adversary was his former Lieutenant commander. Old Rex enjoyed some proficiency with a firearm, but he didn’t like to get his hands dirty – that’s why he employed his guards, naturally. Besides, Aberland had a hard time believing that Tholen had escaped so quickly and driven to the airport like a bat out of hell with an injured leg. There had obviously been only one person in the vehicle, so he hadn’t commandeered a driver either. No, the aim of the return fire was too accurate. It had to be Howell. And he’d be damned if that glorified ex-cartel gun for hire was going to stop them.

Aberland had been checking the undercarriage of the car every time he ducked behind the stairs to see if Howell was still in the same position. If his opponent wasn’t careful, and moved even an inch away from the tire, he’d leave his legs unprotected and become an easy target.

And this was just such a moment, Aberland noted, as he dropped to the ground and slid across the warehouse floor to fire several shots under the car. It put him in a pretty vulnerable position himself, but that was the gamble you had to take with a kill shot sometimes.

Larkin watched this daredevil move from the cockpit in horror. “Who the hell do you think you are, James Bond??” she yelled, beating the glass with her fist, though it was obviously pointless.

Lying on the ground with dust swirling in the air, Aberland locked eyes with his assailant on the opposite side of the car for a second. It was Lieutenant Howell, as predicted, and though the Lieutenant knew Blane Aberland was his target, his eyes still widened in alarm.

Time stood still for those few seconds, and the only sound either adversary heard was the pinging ricochet of bullets still bouncing around the undercarriage of the car and the floor. Howell’s face registered a similar look of shock now, which quickly morphed in to pain, and Aberland knew that at least one of his bullets had reached their mark.

Time sped back up now as Howell hit the ground, and Aberland was on his feet in an instant, running straight for the car. The last thing he wanted was to give Howell the opportunity to return the favor from his newly ideal position on the ground.

Inside the plane, Larkin was cheering and jumping up and down like she was watching the last inning of a Red Sox game. In her silly celebration she hit her wrist on the interior wall where some of the control switches were, and as she rubbed it with a wince, it jogged her memory. She had been given one job – to complete the pre-flight checklist.

She stared down at Aberland in horror. It had been at least 10 minutes since she should have started it, how long would it take to go through the list? Had she caused them to delay even longer? She didn’t know anything about flying planes, but she was pretty sure that they couldn’t just skip over making sure that the plane was ready to fly. If she couldn’t get to all of the steps on the checklist in time, there would be no narrow escape for Blane – no quick dive to the stairs, leaving his opponent in the dust as they drove down the runway. He’d have no choice but to dispose of the man who’d pursued them in order for them to leave. Blane was definitely up to the task, but it undeniably added another challenge to the perpetually growing list.

Larkin’s heart was racing as she hurriedly thumbed through the first pages in the manual and came to the checklist. She scanned through the detailed instructions quickly and figured that a few things didn’t seem so necessary. Turning the page, she found the main points nicely summarized, and isolated what she decided were the important ones.

·Flip master switch on; ascertain that altimeter and directional gyro are set.

·Check fuel gauges.

·Turn engine on with the throttle and allow to idle.

·Check flight controls, engine instruments, verify mixture control full rich.

·Turn landing, taxi, and strobe lights on.

·Prime the engine and remove parking brake to begin taxi.

‘That’s so convenient. When it’s listed out so simply with bullet points and everything, it must be really easy,’ she thought sarcastically.

Taking a deep breath, she sat down in the pilot’s chair and stared in shock at the maze of buttons and gauges on the digital screen, and more buttons and levers on her left. How were they ever going to get this plane off the ground?

§

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