Cruel Paradise

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Chapter 40

Howell lay on the ground, cursing his stupidity and wincing from the searing pain of the bullet that was now buried deep in the base of his calf. He searched desperately for his gun on the dark dusty floor, his fingers raking the cement, knowing that in any second that devil Aberland would be on him. In that tense moment, his two-way radio squawked and Martha’s voice resounded in his pocket.

“Lieutenant Howell, sir?”

It was just enough of a distraction to cause Howell to wonder what the news of Tholen might be. Enough to distract him, that is, until he heard the sound of Aberland sliding across the hood of the old sedan seconds later. Howell’s breath caught in his throat and he rolled away as quickly as he could. The last time that he’d been grappling with a killer, staring death down like this, he’d been much younger, more capable, and hadn’t yet become too comfortable with an easy island job. His odds were not good.

In that moment, the cartel wars vet realized that he wasn’t going to walk away from this one. Aberland might have the mercy to tie him up and leave him there, but he couldn’t count on it. He might die here, and that bastard Rex Tholen (if he was still alive himself) would have him buried in the woods somewhere on the island without a second thought, dead or alive. After living through crazy gunfights, ambushes, and guerilla warfare, this was the way it would end. It sickened him.

These thoughts had raced through Howell’s mind like a flash of lightening. Rolling away a few feet only bought him seconds, and he managed to reach down to his belt and pull out his knife in as smooth a motion as he could manage, bringing it up to strike. “I don’t have to give up yet. I’ve still got some old skills that I can use,” he thought.

Aberland saw the glint of the blade just in time and used the muzzle of his gun to bat Howell’s hand away. His aged fingers couldn’t hold their grip against the blow and the knife bounced off in to the darkness.

Aberland pinned his arms and legs down, his face inches from Howell, adrenaline coursing stronger than ever in his veins. This was the kill. This is what he thrived on, lived for, relished about his chosen profession. Immediately the best way to execute a nice clean ending for Howell consumed his thoughts – strangulation or snap the neck? The neck was always more fun, and the sound was so satisfying. With his hands on Howell’s chin and base of the skull, Aberland was about deal the final blow when … Larkin pierced though his sinister thoughts.

She couldn’t see the grisly scene from her vantage point. She couldn’t know what he would do with Howell, he could lie about it all. He couldn’t let her make him soft.

But he could let her make him human again. Howell didn’t have to die, or even suffer like Tholen. He’d only been a complication. A complication that needed to be neutralized, nothing more.

Howell stared up at Aberland’s face, which was twisted with cruel pleasure. He watched him pause, and felt a glimmer of hope as he could practically see the internal struggle. Aberland exhaled, and the malice disappeared.

“Lieutenant Howell sir? Governor Tholen is alive, but jus’ barely. He needs help verah bad. What should I do sir?” squawked the radio.

Aberland grinned as he looked Howell in the face. “The reason that I’m not killing you right now, Lieutenant Charles Howell, is because of that girl up there in the plane that you’ve been hunting. So you’re very lucky. If it had been just me this whole thing would’ve gone down very differently. But that doesn’t matter. What’s important now is to make sure that you’re not going to get in my way ever again.”

Aberland searched Howell’s belt, pockets, and legs briefly to verify that he didn’t have any other weapons, then pushed him to his feet brusquely. Howell didn’t say a word, not wanting to compromise his seemingly good fortune at not being brutally killed, at least for the moment.

Aberland hoisted Howell up, and helped him hobble all the way to the rear of the hanger, where he instructed the captive to take off his belt and sit with his back to the agent. Keeping his gun trained on Howell, the agent quickly took any removable holsters off of the belt, and used it to bind the Lieutenant’s forearms and wrists behind him. After making sure that Howell’s bonds were secure, he knelt down in the dust at his side.

“I didn’t kill you not because I don’t want to, but because I don’t have to. Likewise, you don’t have to be Tholen’s bitch and tell him the whole story of what happened here. It’s your decision, but you’d better not make me regret it, old dog. I think we both know what will happen then,” he paused, searching Howell’s face for any reaction.

“It’s been an honor working with you,” Aberland continued with a touch of sarcasm. “But seriously, you were clearly not someone people wanted to have to come up against in your day. Do yourself a favor and get far away from that lunatic Tholen.”

Howell nodded again, and Aberland walked away without a second backward glance. The ex-Seal stopped by the abandoned sedan on his way to the plane, its interior lights now the only thing illuminating the pitch-black hanger. He opened the car door and took the keys from the ignition, and closing it, looked up to the cockpit. Larkin was standing there (not taking cover as instructed) with mixed feelings of fear and anger on her face, or so it appeared to him from the ground. Not a total surprise there. He checked the sky, which was not completely dark yet, and made his way to the boarding stairs of the plane.

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