Cruel Paradise

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Chapter 26

Howell heard footsteps echo in the dusty hall downstairs and quickly exited the bedroom, where he’d been pondering the significance of the perplexing note that he’d stumbled upon. He closed the door firmly behind him and strode down the hall to welcome the first of the guards back. He’d save this interesting news for Tholen’s eyes only, he thought, tucking the scrap of paper safely inside his pocket. It was going to be his lucky charm, and would prove to be advantageous and even redemptive to have some important information to offer in case Tholen didn’t believe the agent’s identity. It might just tip the scale in his favor, regardless of the consequences of bringing a replacement “Aberland” back to Parham Town.

A small group had gathered downstairs with a little feast that they’d brought back from their obliging wives in town, along with several bottles of rum, naturally. Someone had already constructed a fire and a rudimentary spit behind the house, and the delicious aroma of freshly caught fish roasting in its tall flames was wafting indoors. Howell couldn’t deny that he’d been missing good food too, and rubbed his hands together hungrily. More and more joined their number, laughing and digging in to the food, passing bottles and telling lewd jokes. It was shaping up to be the perfect atmosphere for bonding and comradery among the men, exactly as Howell had hoped. He knew that much later he would pretend to have had as much rum as the others, and stand up to give a drunken speech pledging his love, gratitude, and devotion to his men. They would swear never to tell the truth about Aberland, and fall asleep in a drunken stupor. He was rehearsing it in his head already.

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Blane and Larkin watched the guards return, and though there were one or two stragglers that had yet to arrive, the exhausted pair was eager to get on the road. Blane figured that as long as they could successfully make their way up the ridge and back to the little road without being spotted, they would be safe from that point forward. The guards that weren’t back at the house yet had to be coming along the coastal road from Parham Town to Road Town, or near the harbor trying to catch fish. No one would have any reason to be up near the mountain, and they would be able to travel in peace with the road to guide them through the deepening shadows and in to the dark.

At his signal, they slowly crept to the back-most corner of the roof, carefully shifting their weight with each movement with almost excessive caution. The last thing that they needed was to be discovered now, stranded on the roof just waiting to be captured. Upon reaching their destination on the other side, the ex-Seal directed them to pause at the roof’s edge, listening closely to see if anyone seemed to have heard their movements downstairs. Loud laughter and yelling drifted up to their ears from the first floor.

Blane saw the faint tendrils of smoke rising up to them and peered just over the crumbling roof’s edge to see embers smoldering in a fire down in the backyard, with an empty spit neglected above it. He surveyed the back patio, and found that for the time being, everyone with fish to prepare for dinner seemed to have already done so and was inside enjoying their delicious meal. Then his eyes scoured the tree line behind the five building complex for a minute, and feeling secure, he turned back to Larkin.

“We need to make this fast. Anyone could come in to the backyard to stoke the fire or cook more fish and catch us trying to get away. So I’m going to go down first, and then help you down. We’ll need to do that again to get to the ground level and get out of here. Once we’re on the ground, no talking until we get back up to the road on the ridge. Got it?” he whispered. She nodded.

Blane stuck his head down again to check out the promenade before he began his descent, and saw no evidence of anyone on the second floor, inside or out. He slung his duffel over his shoulder once more, and lightly dropped down to balance on the wrought iron railing just for a moment, then quickly dismounted and knelt down on the other side, ready to assist her. It took him no time at all to complete the task without a sound or a misstep.

‘He must be solid muscle to do all that,’ Larkin thought with a mixture of marvel and disgust, gingerly leaning her head over the edge as he had done to look for his signal. He held up a finger – ‘wait a second’ and walked the rear promenade end to end, glancing around each corner and then scrutinizing the tree line once more to be certain that the coast was still clear. He gave her a thumbs up.

She carefully lowered her bag down to him first, which he took impatiently and set aside. Then it was her turn, and she tried not to think about how dangerous it was to be hanging from the roof, how many bones she might break if she fell, and how much upper body strength that she didn’t have that would be required for this feat. She squeezed her eyes tight then opened them again, trying to force the negative thoughts away. She nervously looked over the edge of the roof once more for Aberland’s signal, and got another more urgent thumbs up. With a gulp she turned around, lowering herself until she couldn’t stretch any further and her legs were dangling there. Larkin gasped audibly – her feet couldn’t reach the rail! She was too short! She strained one tiptoe downward, trying to find it, while her fingers threatened to slip from the edge completely. In that moment she thought that she was legitimately going to fall to her death and stars started popping in and out of her field of vision as the panic took over. But Aberland reached up and grabbed her hips, pulling her down securely behind the railing in one quick motion, like it was nothing and she’d never been in any danger to begin with.

“You ok?” he mouthed as she shook in his arms, blinking back tears as the color returned to her white face. She had clearly not realized that she couldn’t do that part all by herself and was in shock. She nodded meekly.

“We have to go now. Ready?” he mouthed again. She swallowed thickly and nodded once more, though she looked like she was about to pass out.

“Ok. Remember, I’ve got you.”

She nodded again, though he didn’t see. He was already conducting a thorough check of the first floor, making sure that no one was in the back rooms or the gardens to see them. After another visual dissection of the surrounding forest, he stood quickly and threw his legs over the railing, then dropped down to the first floor out of sight.

Larkin leaned her clammy face against the cold metal rungs, heart hammering in her chest. After a minute had passed she stood and leaned over the rail to see Blane’s outstretched thumbs up waiting there for her. Nervously glancing at the trees, she heaved her petite frame up to sit on the railing and slid her legs down to stand precariously on the edge. She wiped her sweaty palms on her shirt, and lowered first one leg, then the other, and Aberland swiftly pulled her down again. That time was a lot easier, but it didn’t ease her anxiety much. She struggled to steady her breathing as they both crouched at the base of the house in the bushes, watching silently.

Aberland held up a finger again for her to wait, and stealthily lurked around the back perimeter of the house, ensuring for the final time that no one would intercept them. Upon his return, he pointed towards the old garage, indicating their next destination. She nodded, and he counted off 1, 2, 3 on his fingers before they both tore across the lawn, Larkin silently praying that she wouldn’t trip over her own feet on the way.

They circled to the back of the garage, still alert for any movement among the trees. After another moment, they crossed the short distance to the woods, gratefully plunging past the tree line and moving fast to find the footpath that they could use to disguise their trail as before. After another 30 minutes’ worth of vigorous walking uphill, they made it to the crumbling old road, with Larkin panting and out of breath.

Blane broke their silence first with a grin. “So you got a little shaken up back there, huh?”

“Well I couldn’t reach the railing – I thought I was going to die!” she protested.

“Come on, don’t you think that’s a little dramatic? Besides, I wasn’t going to let you die,” he said dubiously. She glared, trying to avoid pouting like a teenage girl.

“Well it sure felt like it during the eternity that you took to help me down,” she countered.

Blane ignored this comment, instead marking the sun’s position in the sky mentally. It was starting to set now. “We have another 3 miles or so to go,” he said, turning back to her.

“Ok let’s get moving,” she replied, having mostly stopped panicking from their harrowing escape.

She was ready to run even though her mouth was dry and she desperately wanted water. It was time to get this last ugly little part of their perilous adventures on Tortola over with. Without a word, she set off at a jog towards their destination, and Blane caught up after a second or two and fell in to pace with her. There wasn’t a sound to be heard now except the rhythmic echo of their feet pounding the cracked pavement.

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