Part 11 – a good strategy

Thirty-five years ago, Isla Paradiso was a small community enjoying an existence free from major criminal activity.

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A lifetime served on the island’s small police force has given Brenda Dias a unique perspective into her native home. Until recently, she believed that every offense had a positive and amicable resolution. Adopting this approach for the larger part of her career has shaped her into more of an arbitrator than a disciplinarian. Finding ways to achieve harmony within the community has always been more important to her than filling prison cells. Much has changed, however – and most of it recently. The nature of law enforcement on the island, and her role specifically, has forcefully evolved to accommodate unprecedented shifts in both her culture and her community. As a result, her tenure as Isla Paradiso’s Chief Constable has not provided the same air of requiescence many of her predecessors had enjoyed at this stage in their careers.

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Self-destructive behaviors, often marked by deeply disturbing worldviews, impede her ability to connect with perpetrators and victims alike. Unfortunately, the supply of both has been plentiful. After the big resorts moved in, Isla Paradiso became (among other things) a staging area for human trafficking. Gullible girls and young women are easily lured to this tropical paradise with sensational, online promotions guaranteeing pornographic stardom. Many end up prostitutes. Some fall victim to drug abuse or foul play while others disappear completely.

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Almost two years have passed since Skyler Gilscarbo came to Isla Paradiso under these exact same pretenses. From the moment she arrived, she became hopelessly entangled in a corrupt web of prostitution and pornography. Skyler’s father is a well-respected police officer in Pleasantview. After having completely lost track of his daughter’s whereabouts, he called the precinct pleading for help. He was so desperate to “fix” the situation, that he jeopardized his career, his reputation, and quite possibly his own life, by dropping dangerous names and asserting publically that Skyler was being held against her will. Brenda already knew where to look for Skyler. A palatial compound located on a remote, private island had become a well-known playground for these kinds of activities. Offshore detectives observed the island for months from unmarked fishing boats, waiting to find any small misstep or breach of international law. Positive identification of a missing teen who had been kidnapped from her home provided that opportunity. The raid was executed jointly by the local military base and officers from the precinct. Though the teen had been secured safely, she was found drugged and performing in front of cameras. The raid turned up more missing young women, illicit drugs and weapons, and a myriad of other criminal activities.

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Skyler was among those young women who were found. She struggled for months afterwards, and eventually fell back into the company of adult filmmakers. After landing herself in jail on prostitution charges, Skyler’s father again asked for Brenda’s help. She had been poised to act in that capacity when, from out of nowhere, an unlikely sim turned Skyler’s world upside-down. The resulting transformation has been nothing short of remarkable. Skyler is still very young and is just now beginning to understand that her worth is measured by far more than just her reproductive assets.

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Coincidence, more than anything, brings Brenda to Van’s simple, beachfront home. Skyler had taken a job at the warehouse, seemingly unaware of the reputation it had procured. In her humble quest for work, Skyler was hired on without fully understanding the job she was expected to fulfill. Thankfully, she has inherited much of her father’s moxie. Not only had she recognized the situation for what it was, but she remained cool and casual while providing regular reports back to the precinct. As an inside informant, Skyler has proven invaluable. Brenda knew it would be only a matter of time before organization leaders discovered the source of the leak. Brenda knew immediately when the spigot of information had been turned off. She also knew that it was time to offer Skyler a job.

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Today’s visit has dispelled any prior suspicions Brenda had formed regarding intimacy between Skyler and Van Stacpoole inside their cozy living arrangement. She has known Van since he was a child and has been blessed to watch him and Benita travel through their young lives together. She has also watched how Van interacts with Skyler and is left with the sense that he is still very much in love with Benita – if not painfully so. Van is a breed from a bygone era; a man who not only stands by his ideals but also lives by them. Circumstance had united these two young people at exactly the right time; two hikers briefly sharing a difficult section of the trail together so that neither has to walk it alone. It is a compelling friendship not completely void of attraction, though tempered by clearly defined and respected boundaries. Brenda can’t help but wonder what will happen when the trail splits and their paths take them in different directions again. Will they recognize and be willing to accept it as such?

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With badge, uniform, and service weapon in-hand, Brenda welcomes Skyler to the precinct. Coupled with her newly ignited passion for exposing and dismantling those responsible for preying upon women, Skyler’s toughness will shape her into a formidable asset to any law enforcement agency. Obviously, Brenda would prefer she stay here. With retirement in easy view, Brenda can think of no stronger candidate to replace her. Skyler would be ideal. Instinct, however, suggests the scenario is unlikely to unfold in her favor.

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Skyler and Van celebrate with an evening out together for dinner, music, and stargazing on the beach behind his house. Van has shattered every preconception Skyler had formed about the male species. Spending time with Van and his friends has provided her with the sense that the greater majority of men generally go about their lives not completely fixated on having sex with her. Men she knew at the warehouse, though driven by criminal greed, seemed fully capable of resisting (if not being completely put off by) her overt indiscriminations. As it turns out, there are more decent men, like Van and her father, than not.

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They sit together, much closer than typical, fascinated by the sky and marveling at the appearance of greenish ribbons of light illuminating nearby clouds; bathing the couple in a queer, unnatural luminescence. Their minds, being immersed in other thoughts, do not stop to wonder about the cause of this unusual display. Skyler’s epiphany about Van (and men, generally) is accompanied by a subtle change in the way she interacts with him. While not unwelcome, Van suspects that she may be warming to the idea of entering a committed relationship, rather than simply trolling for her next endorphin fix. The problem for Van is that the latter is simple enough to guard against. Combined with his own feelings of attraction toward Skyler, any reciprocation of the former on her part exponentially raises the likelihood that they will become romantic. The important question then becomes, are either of them ready for it?

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Conversations between young sims are often apt to meander toward plans for the future. It is still early when their conversation eventually does so. As though reading his thoughts under the odd, mint-colored sky, Skyler breathes a content and thoughtful sigh. It is unlike her to hesitate or stumble on any topic. Her current stream of consciousness appears to have given her some pause, however. After a moment, she asks Van what he is going to do now that he owns the property outright. Van is careful to consider the intent of her question before answering. The one benefit of talking with Benita was that he never had to worry about hidden meanings or wonder about implied context. Van has learned that conversations with Skyler often times require careful attention and consideration. Gauging her mood is a crucial indicator for success. More times than not, he responds with a question as a means of digging deeper into her thought process. This seems the prudent approach for the moment, so he gently wonders why she’s asking. It’s a good strategy, as it turns out.

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She voices her recollection about a conversation they’d once had about why he and Benita never married. With nowhere to live and lack of meaningful employment, they were both concerned about stability. Van nods. This was mostly correct, but Benita had been far more pragmatic about the subject than Van. He would have married her and lived in a straw hut for all he cared. Skyler’s next words uncover the intent of her original question, which Van identifies shortly before she speaks. She asks plainly whether he intends to share the news with Benita.

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Police sirens, which had begun wailing in the distance, are joined by the sudden and urgent ringing from both their phones. Van’s carefully constructed response is lost before he can speak it, evoking an exasperated grunt from Skyler. There is a much simpler answer to her question, however. Van pulls her close then kisses her tenderly. Kissing Skyler has become a very enjoyable distraction. Benita never cared much for kissing, and even when they did, he did not feel the same electric surge that accompanies the experience with Skyler. They continue like this for some time until reaching a sensual tipping point, which is signaled by Van’s heart racing and Skyler purring her quiet approval into his ear.

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Both phones, which had stopped, begin ringing again. Police sirens have also continued in the distance, though one sounds a bit closer now. Skyler’s unreadable expression gives no indication whether his unspoken response to her question struck any chord with her, good or bad. She smirks a half-smile then gestures toward their phones. Brenda is calling for Skyler. She answers while maintaining eye contact with Van, apologizing with her facial expression. Van smiles then nods and regards his own phone, which has started ringing a third time.

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Skyler dashes toward the house just as Van answers to the voice of a panicked woman on the other end of the call. After a few moments, he recognizes Luiza as the source of the hysterical tirade. Van is able to calm her down enough to understand that Natalia has vanished from the home. They’ve looked for an hour and nobody can find her. Van checks his watch and sees it is well after midnight. The fiery passion from moments ago is instantly doused. He thinks back to the night of Filipe’s party. Van casts his gaze upward to regard the bizarre aurora silently spilling across the evening sky, remembering Natalia’s odd remarks about “aliens”. Van offers to help Luiza look for Natalia. He slips on his shirt while racing toward the house, tracing Skyler’s footsteps from moments before.

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He finds Skyler skipping down the stairs as he enters. She has changed into her new police uniform, which perfectly accentuates her already perfect figure. Van’s gawking evokes a mischievous smile from Skyler. She raises an eyebrow then mumbles something about a better use for the uniform, later. She floats toward Van, as if drawn by a magnet, then kisses him firmly on the lips. A squad car arrives outside and she leaves quickly, saying that they still have a lot to talk about.

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The unprecedented aurora has drawn just about every resident of Isla Paradiso out of bed and into the streets. Skyler was called to help restore calm and get everybody back inside their homes. Van had learned about the Aurora Borealis at school, though never had the opportunity to actually experience one. Wondering why it would be visible so far as the equator boggles his mind. For a little girl fixated on aliens, the event may seem like some very special visitation.

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Van is relying heavily on gut instinct formed by the conversation he had with Natalia the night of Filipe’s birthday. The distance between Van’s house and the basilica is comparatively trivial, considering how far away it is from the Gonçalves household. The Basilica itself is hundreds of years old but has been very well maintained. Van walks around the outside of the building looking for an unlocked door. Toward the back of the massive structure, Van finds a section where two walls overlap almost invisibly, with a very narrow gap and a neatly concealed staircase between them.

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The stairs are steep, even for Van. He finds narrow doorway standing slightly ajar at the threshold of the stairs. Van is forced to slide sideways through the tiny door frame into a very cramped apartment. He activates the flashlight on his phone and bathes the space in naked, white light. With the exception of a desk and chair and a hand-crafted shelf filled with books, the place is empty. A small ladder leading to the roof catches his attention just as he hears a very odd electronic, mechanical whirring sound above his head. It is no more than five steps to the ladder and perhaps five steps up to the unlocked hatch above it.

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A figure silhouetted by the green tinted sky gently sets a smaller sim down onto the rooftop just as Van pokes his head through the hatch. He pulls himself up out of the hole using his upper body strength and gains a toehold on the ledge. When he is fully standing, Van announces himself by warning the figure away from the smaller sim, whom he subconsciously refers to as “Natalia…”

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Van is unable to see any detail through the darkness but is able to discern that the figure is attending to the smaller sim. Whether it is Natalia or not, Van feels the immediate urge to act.  The silhouetted figure, which Van can now identify as a slender, adult female, turns to him with alarm and fear.

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Her verbal outburst is unlike anything Van has ever heard before. He cocks his head inquisitively looking for facial features, but his attention is drawn instead to black, opalescent voids where her eyes should be. Before Van is able to react, the “woman” dissolves into a glowing mist of green and yellow sparks.

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Van rushes to the smaller sim, whom he quickly identifies as Natalia. She is groggy and barely awake, but seemingly unharmed. She stirs and opens her eyes and smiles sweetly upon seeing Van. She asks sleepily if he saw them. Van picks her up then carefully considers how to safely get her down the ladder and steps to the ground. He asks if she is able to walk. Natalia rubs her eyes and nods, then stands unsteadily. Van looks into her wandering and dilated eyes. What happened to her? Van calls for an ambulance, then carefully assists Natalia through a potentially dangerous series of obstacles.

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Police and emergency medical responders meet Van on the lawn of the Basilica. Skyler is first among them. She runs toward him wearing an unsettling expression. She tentatively places her hand on his chest and explains that she just finished taking a statement from Natalia’s mother. The home was broken into. When the family awoke both the perpetrator and Natalia were gone. Van casts his eyes to the ground in resentment. After a moment, Skyler touches his chin to regain his attention. She finds Van’s intense and hostile eyes. She has never seen him like this and it causes her to hesitate.

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She swallows hard, then continues. Something equally troubling happened a few hours ago. A wealthy woman with ties to Isla Paradiso was found dead in her hotel room from an apparent overdose. What’s troubling, is that she and Benita had attended a political fundraiser together a few hours beforehand. They dined and sat together during the banquet, but there had been some shouting after the event. Benita remained on site alone for quite some time after the deceased left; though she was not home when investigators arrived to ask questions early the next morning. Skyler’s gut tells her that the two events are almost certainly connected. She feels like something weird is going on, and whatever it is – Benita is caught in the middle of it.

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Van looks upward to see a black sky filled with stars. There is no sign of the aurora or any trace that it had ever happened at all. Skyler’s voice cracks slightly asking him what he saw up in the steeple. Van presses his lips together and shakes his head with frustration,

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I don’t know.

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