Cruel Paradise

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Chapter 33

Larkin was hidden in the dark library as instructed, and heard Blane’s voice at the front door but couldn’t really make out what was going on. Then footsteps echoed as they ascended the marble staircase, with what seemed like no conversation to accompany them. A door slammed on the second floor, and after what sounded like some vehement words, the group of people went back downstairs, then faded away down the long hall opposite her side of the house with the click of a door closing in the distance. Outside, the very faint yet unmistakable roar of a car engine coming to life reverberated back to her, and she knew that somebody, presumably Tholen, had left the manor in a vehicle.

She didn’t dare leave her hiding place to look down the hallway and figure out whether Blane had actually gone with the other men. He had to have though; after all he said that he’d be gone for a little while and there was no indication of anyone walking back towards the library. But how long would it take before he’d be coming back for her? He wasn’t in that car that she heard leaving, was he? She glanced fearfully at the small clock placed on the mantel, noting that it was now 5:15. They had definitely missed overhearing the all-important phone call. Was this Blane’s plan all along? Or had something gone awry? If it had, what should she do, and how long would she wait before it was time to take whatever action that might be? Her nerves were so on edge as her thoughts raced along that she almost didn’t hear the new set of footsteps and faint singing in the hall. As they drew closer, she snapped out of her worrying, and realized that they’d gambled on no one else being in the house. Obviously someone was.

Larkin looked around the darkened room frantically for a better place to hide, but found only leather couches and side tables to shield her, like the one she was already crouching behind. The singing person’s footsteps were drawing closer, and she knew that she had no time to leave the room in search of a better way to conceal herself. She knelt as low as she could, terrified at the knowledge that if anyone walked in and turned on the lights, just moving around to peruse the books would cause them to trip right over her.

Larkin heard the faint humming grow louder, and peered just around her sofa to see the maid walk by with earphones in, dancing a little and humming to her music, with several dirty polishing cloths in hand. She listened as a door opened and closed farther down the hall, and wondered frantically what she should do. Would the maid come to clean the library next and discover her? It seemed practically inevitable. If she left to find a different place to hide, she’d have to locate a room that the maid had already cleaned right away. And how would Blane find her, if he was expecting her to be in the library?

She bit her lip and darted out from her refuge, just barely standing close enough to the open French doors to check both directions down the hallway. There was no sign of anyone. She bolted out of the library, down the hall, practically slid through the sitting room across the polished floor, and out on to the patio behind a chaise. She felt much safer there, and huddled in the corner trying to catch her breath.

§

Meanwhile, the guards and Governor Tholen had pulled up to the curb outside of Lieutenant Howell’s humble abode, just a couple of minutes away by car. The vehicle was parked abruptly and its passengers exited, Tholen striding purposefully across the lawn with the guards in tow. Aberland deliberately hung back a little, and after a few seconds had passed with all of their backs turned, he took the opportunity to silently cut through a neighboring yard and race back to the villa as fast as he could go.

Blane arrived, panting, and walked right in through the unlocked front door, heading straight for the library, when something caught his eye through the large glass doors lining the opposite wall. It was Larkin, jumping up and down on the patio and waving like an idiot. Great. He crossed the room and pulled her inside, and she whispered, “The maid is cleaning a room down the hall.” She stared up at him, alarmed at his urgent disregard for whoever might be left in the house. Had something gone very wrong just now?

“We don’t have a minute to spare,” he replied brusquely, grabbing her by the wrist and practically dragging her up the stairs behind him. They rushed to the guest room and found that fortunately, in his haste and surprise, Tholen had neglected to secure the door behind him. It wasn’t exactly an obstacle for Aberland, but it certainly saved him the tedious task of either picking the lock or attempting to quietly break the door down.

Blane crossed the room and took a seat at the simple desk in front of the bed while Larkin locked the door behind them. He picked up Tholen’s thin tablet PC; hoping that it hadn’t been powered off or locked, but found that it unfortunately had. His mind jumped back to the year before when he’d done some extracurricular snooping, just to have something to leverage against Tholen in case he needed it. He’d figured out one of the governor’s passwords, but he couldn’t quite remember it. Even then he hadn’t been able to verify whether Tholen used it universally or not. Blane racked his brain as the seconds ticked away. He was not about to let them get caught now over a stupid password.

§

Governor Rex Tholen entered Howell’s home in a rush, after the surprised lieutenant answered the door in his pajamas. He had admittedly had his fill of time with the governor that day, and was less than enthusiastic about seeing him again so soon, especially since Tholen seemed to be in an irritable mood already. He showed his governorship and the accompanying guards in to his simply furnished living area, trying not to appear too bewildered. Tholen had never come to his home before.

The governor did not take a seat as invited, but continued standing, the better to intimidate everyone, Howell guessed. His business was urgent and he had no time for formalities, and they could practically feel the tension rolling off of him. His timid employees lingered behind him, not wanting to call any attention to themselves.

“Well I’m very impressed, Howell. It appears that you have fulfilled both of the tasks that I gave you after all.”

Now Howell had a legitimate reason to look confused. “Sir?”

“Word has been sent that you did in fact find the girl. Well, where is she? Being detained somewhere around here perhaps? There’s no need to keep her here at your home Howell, for goodness’ sake.”

He paused, raising an eyebrow and eyeing Howell’s bathrobe.

“Unless you had another reason that is… Anyhow, you could have marched her up to the estate where we can deal with her properly.”

Howell shifted uncomfortably. Surely this was not another one of Tholen’s mind games. He seemed to genuinely believe that the girl had been found. He cleared his throat.

“Ah… well sir, I’m not certain who sent word of that, but I’m not aware that it took place. I haven’ seen her since she ran away from the estate days ago.”

The group watched fearfully as Tholen’s confused look turned in to fury, causing his face to become varying shades of red. He was furious. Today in particular his time was precious, and it had been squandered unnecessarily. He wheeled on the nervous guards behind him, and faltered for a moment. He counted only two, the two that had been stationed at the front door on duty that afternoon. The one that had delivered the message was nowhere to be found – what was his name? Jack something? Where was he?

Then it clicked. He’d practically forgotten that bastard Blane Aberland in all the hustle and bustle that day. It could be no one else behind this trick, and it meant that he probably knew about the scheduled phone call between military headquarters and the other agent. He’d naively walked right in to the double agent’s carefully devised diversion, who was now undoubtedly back at the manor trying to hack in to his computer and gain access to the message, or make contact with the US himself. His governorship gave an unintelligible yell, and ran out of the house leaving the door swinging open behind him.

Lieutenant Howell and the remaining two guards looked at each other in shock. “What the hell just happened??” yelled Howell.

§

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