Cruel Paradise

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Chapter 5

A storm was brewing on the horizon as Larkin flew across the courtyard, her thoughts racing as she attempted to formulate a plan. The estate abutted the vast forest that covered most of the island, and between it and the governor’s house was a long low barn-like structure. One large unsecured door was swaying in the wind against the backdrop of the darkening sky. She could see why it was hidden back here beyond the well-manicured gardens. Appearance seemed so very important to the estate’s vile owner, and it looked like an unsightly storage shed, probably full of lawn equipment. Knowing that she needed to get out of sight as soon as possible, she ducked in to the building, pulling the heavy door closed behind her.

Larkin stood still near the entrance, allowing her eyes to adjust to the dark. Shapes began to materialize, and she realized that this building must be used as some sort of a storeroom instead. Crates upon crates reminiscent of her fathers were stacked everywhere, seemingly filling the large space from what she could see in the dim light. She could just make out some firearms along one wall. What the hell was all this? She peered in to one crate whose lid was askew, and was immediately hit with the strong unmistakable odor of coffee beans. Sifting through them gingerly, she found the corner of a plastic envelope protruding from the fragrant beans, and she carefully lifted it out, holding it up to see better in the low light.

It was pills. She couldn’t tell what type, but based on the creative packaging, there was no doubt that they were illegal. The coffee beans also meant that there was a good chance that the governor was dealing in more than one type of drug – pills didn’t need something pungent like coffee beans to mask their smell, but other drugs did. That explained everything. Drug money had bought all the finery that had seemed so intensely out of place, and justified his need for several soldiers and the stockade of guns and ammo. Was this what her dad had gotten mixed up in? It had to be.

The thought of him brought a tidal wave of emotions over her. She shook her head, trying to push the overwhelming grief back in to the corners of her mind. She couldn’t acknowledge it now; if she gave in, it would consume her, incapacitate her. She had to run first. She’d stayed still for far too long anyway.

Impatiently wiping away the tears that threatened to spill, she stumbled toward the opposite wall, scrutinizing the collection of guns more closely in the dark. It would be wise to take a couple of them, but she had no idea what she was looking at, or even what she would need. She’d never fired a gun before or even seen one up close. Larkin decided to take one of everything – a handgun, another that she thought was probably a semi-automatic, and one of the bigger rifle-looking ones. She picked up the latter and decided against it, it was way too bulky and heavy. She’d keep the first two. She wasn’t sure how to find out whether they were loaded, but she hoped they were. Just in case she tossed a few boxes of bullets in to her bag too, praying that they corresponded to the weapons she’d chosen.

That was it. She needed to get away from the estate now, and fast. They’d find her any minute. She opened the back door a fraction of an inch and peered out at the woods. The coast seemed to be clear. She quickly exited the building and kept close to it, running along the edge of the exterior in the shadows and checking around each side. She saw no evidence of guards in the rear of the great house at all. They must have thought she went out the front or a side door perhaps, which would’ve been the most obvious exit ever. She was blonde but she wasn’t that dumb, she fumed.

It didn’t matter what stupid lead they thought they were following. It was exactly the opportunity that she needed. She tried to picture the vantage point of someone observing her from the second or third floor, and crouched low, hoping that the building would shield her somewhat until she crossed the last few yards to the forest.

§

The soldier watched Larkin Bellamy with a smirk as she attempted to stealthily disappear in to the foliage. He couldn’t put his finger on what compelled him to cover for her. He’d even sent his fellow guards in the wrong direction, shouting that he saw her run down the side corridor and out to the private drive. As everyone hurried out to search, he watched her from the rear of the house to be sure that she safely made it to the woods. The whole thing was idiotic and it jeopardized him, but the words were out of his mouth before he even realized what he was doing.

Now he turned away, feeling satisfied and again confused. Why was he so invested in the stupid girl? She would probably die in the forest if the men didn’t find her first. He knew from the report he’d read that she didn’t have a clue about wilderness training, besides the occasional kayaking trip back in Massachusetts.

Wait, was he actually worrying about her? This was getting ridiculous. He told himself to snap out of it and turned away, going to find his comrades and join the search.

§

Larkin stumbled through the thick undergrowth, well aware that she was leaving a pretty obvious trail, but she didn’t care. The priority right then was to put some distance between herself and all of those soldiers on an adrenaline high, by whatever means possible.

Her instincts took over and her body shifted in to overdrive as her feet pounded the pavement and her mind rapidly calculated her next move. She remembered the topography that her dad had explained to her, and hurried south towards what she hoped was the more mountainous region. She was running as fast as she could, and the long skirt that she had chosen to wear for her father’s important meeting was catching on everything and tearing, hardly protecting her ankles and calves from the thick brush and slowing her down instead.

She was so focused on not tripping over branches and vines that she almost missed an old, partially overgrown road as she ran across it. She slowed up with some effort and walked back to it, breathing hard. It looked as though it hadn’t been traversed in years and years – the strong jungle vines were breaking the weathered asphalt in to large chunks and beginning to work their tendrils across the road. Another 10 years and it would surely be reclaimed by the island entirely.

Larkin looked cautiously in both directions. Not a soul in sight. The little road appeared to run north-south, though she couldn’t see very far as the way was obscured by younger sapling trees that had taken root along the edges. Larkin considered. On the one hand it would eliminate the trail that she’d been leaving; on the other, it would be obvious that she took the road when her trail dead-ended in to it. Still, they wouldn’t know which way she went and would have to split their forces in half. Plus it would be easier going for her. All that she could do was hope that it was the right move and try to put more distance between herself and the troupe.

Resolved, she summoned her energy and swallowed a ragged breath, turning south and breaking in to a run again down the path. Overhead, a crack of lightning split through the sky with the accompanying heavy rumble of thunder and the rain clouds finally released their downpour. It was one of the frequent summer afternoon storms so common to the tropics, and Larkin was grateful for the rain as it washed her face, running in little rivulets down her back and easing her aching muscles. That blessing of rain would also help to camouflage her trail somewhat.

Larkin had been running for miles and found that the broken road did seem to continue due south, although she had no idea how far she had travelled or how much time had passed. Thankfully neither man nor beast had disturbed her journey so far. She finally slowed to a brisk walk, giving her burning lungs a reprieve. The forest was quiet around her except for the distant call of birds, and her heavy breathing now seemed to be amplified in the silence. The path was winding along a ridge now, and as she came upon a small clearing to her left, she stopped to look down on the land below.

The view was startling, not just due to the island’s natural beauty, but because of the discovery of another town, situated around a large cove. It appeared to be completely abandoned; she could see even from up there that the houses were dilapidated, their shingled or tiled roofs caving in and stucco-covered wooden walls sagging under the weight. It must be Road Town, she realized, remembering that it had been the larger settlement until the islanders returned and chose to concentrate on Parham Town. Larkin turned her attention to the harbor. She could tell by its shape that she was facing the southern-most part of town, and any piers that had been in use at one time were now rotting and sliding in to the bay.

As she peered down, squinting to see as closely as possible, there were no signs of inhabitants. There weren’t even any stray dogs roving around. It made sense – the homeless would surely stay near Parham Town where they could beg for money or table scraps, she reasoned. It was a completely abandoned town, and a tempting choice.

Larkin weighed her options. She could easily take shelter in one of the many derelict homes without much fear of discovery. Or she could keep to the wilderness and take her chances there. She wondered what the soldiers expected her to do. Obviously, they thought that she was an idiot since they assumed she ran right out the front door. So … they might think that she’d head for the airport? Where she would be naïve enough to assume that she could convince the pilot to take her home, and steal the plane?? It seemed as though that was their frame of mind about her. Regardless of their ridiculous reasoning, by now they would have made it to the airport and found her still missing. They had likely begun fanning out over Beef Island and Tortola, canvassing Tortola from the North down and Beef Island from the South up. Assuming they cared enough to waste so much energy on finding her, that is.

Larkin figured that they wouldn’t want to sacrifice personal comfort to go on a full-fledged mission, camping out in the forest overnight trying to hunt her down. After all, they were islanders and enjoyed a mostly easy, stress-free life. Likely they’d go home to their families and hot dinners, then venture out again in the morning. So she would be safe in Road Town for the night at least.

The decision made, she left the comfort of the path and plunged back in to the underbrush to work her way down to the coast. Relieved for the excuse to move slowly as she picked her way through the foliage, Larkin hoped that she could be more leisurely the following day. Her petite frame and short legs were not made for running at all and she hated it.

The rain was slowing to a sprinkle, a sure sign that the afternoon storm was drawing to a close. She was now able to see the ground more clearly without little floods of rainwater obscuring everything. She found that she was walking along the edge a very old, barely visible foot trail that seemed to lead down to Road Town. She followed it, glad to be able to conceal her tracks once again.

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