The Asian woman licked her lips, likely nervous from the way they’d all jumped out of their skivvies when he’d spoken. “I’m a captain.”
He chuckled. “Only got one cap’ain in Barbados, and you ain’t him. Besides, yew’ve got a lovely little lass wi’ ya that looks a bi’ out of place, doesn’t she?” He winked at the cute little Carib girl.
She seemed astonished at the size of his fat belly and wouldn’t stop staring at it, completely missing the wink.
He gave the Asian a sly look. “Unless yew’ve absconded with the lass from one of the local whorehouses, have ya?”
The four companions glanced at each other. Should they risk talking to him, or should they take him out like they had the guards?
The Asian seemed wary of him and spoke with suspicion in her voice, raising her chin in challenge. “Ok, we’re prisoners. Just like you?”
“I am, I am. Wha’ gave it away? The clothes or th’ chains?” He chuckled.
A brow arched over one eye. “Are we going to have a problem?” she asked him, steel in her voice.
He let his amusement run its course, an old man having a bit o’ fun by scaring them a bit. Obviously, the lot of them were up to no good and nervous as all hell of being discovered. He had no intention of ruining whatever they were up to, but there was no need to let them know that yet, was there? He had few enough joys in life.
“Problem?” He tugged his beard and narrowed his eyes at her. “We might not. Depending on yer intentions, o’ course.”
“We intend to set this place on fire,” the lanky white guy boldly told him.
He gave a slow nod in return. “Aye, that’s easy enough. Though I’d appreciate it if ya released me first. I’ve no desire to burn to death.”
The woman shuddered and seemed to come to some decision in her mind. “Absolutely. We’ll free you. I have no desire to wish that fate on anyone except my worst enemies. Armand?”
Armand, the black man, seemed wary but used the keys they’d taken to unlock the leg irons keeping Amos restricted.
Amos got to one knee and then stood with a grunt. He was a great bear of a man, taller than most men and twice as heavy. He had a lot of bulk to move, and it was getting harder and harder each year. He eased out of the teasing facade and relaxed to being his usual self. “Thanks, mate. And don’t worry. Yew won’t get no trouble from me now, ya hear?” He offered a hand.
Armand said nothing, just backed away without shaking hands.
Clapping his hands, Amos smiled. “Don’t blame ya. Trusting anyone in prison is hard, in’it?” He put his fists on his hips. “So, a fire, eh? What for?”
The woman answered. “We’re trying to create a distraction. A big distraction.”
His brows rose. How intriguing. “Oh? To what end?”
Reluctantly, she confided what was likely the truth. “We’re trying to draw attention and soldiers here so we can steal the ship in Bridgetown and escape the island.”
His smile widened, and he felt his hope rise. “Ah, I see! Ambitious. Reckless.” He ran a hand through his bushy beard in thought. “Don’t suppose there’s room for one more on this ship?”
Her eyes narrowed, and she seemed cautious again. “You want to join us?”
His face fell, and he grew more serious. His fun withered away as he recalled recent unfortunate events and the corruption of this place. “Seems my sentence has just been extended. Rotten bastards. So I wouldn’t mind spending my days somewhere a li’le more pleasant than chained up on a cold, stone floor every night.” There wasn’t much left for him in Speightstown anyway now.
“What happened?” the white man asked. “Why aren’t you locked up in a bunkhouse?”
Amos grunted and turned sour. “I took issue with the way I and others were being treated. I’m not normally a violent man. I behave. Been doing my time quiet like. Baker by trade, employing my skills ‘ere for the most part. I expected a certain foul level of treatment from the guards; I’m no fool. Took most of it in stride, I did. Or tried to. But the bullying and the abuse just kept gettin’ worse. It’s not just verbal harassment and the occasional beating. It’s broken bones. Even killing for sport.” He spat, disgusted by who so many people chose to be.
“And you did something about it,” the man guessed.
Now he became rueful and sighed. “Aye. Twas one thing them coming after me, but I’m a bigger sort, and I got these arms to defend myself with.” Not all his bulk was fat; a lot of his upper body was muscle from his younger years and from forty years of working dough by hand. “Most of the guards ain’t so foolish as t’ be coming after me all that often. Then they clued in as they could come after my staff, folks I took under my wing, teachin’ ‘em the trade. Figured they could hurt me by hurtin’ them. They was right.”
“What did you do?” the woman asked.
He didn’t hesitate to tell them the truth. Let them judge him now rather than be surprised by anything later. To earn trust, you have to be open and honest to earn it.
“Took a rolling pin ter their skulls the same way they been pounding on my boys.” He huffed and looked down at the floor. “See how they liked being beaten instead. Sent three to th’ morgue before they filled me with bullets. Took my shop from me. Won’t even give me a proper bunk anymore. Put me in here. Go’a sleep on the floor where I work. One meal a day and nought but bread and water most of the time.”
The white man nodded like he understood. He’d probably seen the like happen himself. Things like this occurred often enough around here.
He took a step forward and offered his hand again, this time to the woman. “It’s Amos, by the way. English.”
She didn’t immediately reply, nor did she take his hand.
A slight smile took over his lips. “Ah. You really don’t trust easily, do you?”
She seemed a touch apologetic. “I’ve met some pretty awful people here, and we’re in a bit of a risky situation. Can you blame me?”
He took no offence. “Not at all. Even in the real world, it can be difficult to find people you can trust. Too many people now live their own lives, devoid of the community and common goals that should bind us. Regardless of others, we’re all carving out a path for ourselves rather than carve out a path together to the same place.”
She seemed to agree. “And in here…”
“And in here, where ya know there are more bad people than not, trust is even rarer. How can yew tell that someone is the kind of person yew can trust to have yer back, and how can yew tell that this is the type of person who will stab ya in it?”
His words and thoughts started to run away on the subject, as he’d noticed happening more often as he got older. He drifted back in time, looking backwards with rose-tinted glasses, perhaps. “It was easier in a time and place people lived more closely together and shared common goals. You couldn’t afford to act selfishly or you’d be shunned and suffer. Nowadays, everyone just does their own thing, and if they hurt someone else along the way, they don’t care. Plenty more people around the corner to fool into being friends with, eh?”
The woman bowed her head knowingly but didn’t reply.
He continued. “Well, for me, I can’t do anything about other people. All I can do is try to live up to the faith others have in me and do my best to recover from those who betray me. Above all, I cherish those who prove that they can be trusted. Of course, words like this are mostly meaningless, so I don’t expect you to be swayed by ’em. We take a gamble on everyone we meet. Some pay off, and others don’t.”
“What are you in for?” Armand asked.
“Violent offender,” he quickly answered, giving them more truth. “Crippled some young men whom I thought ‘ad it coming.”
“How’d that happen?” the woman asked with a frown. She had been relaxing, but his truth had raised her suspicions again.
He spread his big hands wide and told his tale. “I’m a simple man, a baker in a li’le town backside o’ nowhere. The first time I got robbed, I didn’t do a thing about it. Just made my report like a good citizen. Police didn’t do much. Not enough resources to bother.
“The second time, my insurance premiums went up significantly. But we endured, just cut back a little on expenses. Still, the police did nothing. Not a big enough crime. System was overwhelmed, they told me. They had to prioritize more serious crimes. As if there’s so much of it nowadays that they can’t handle it all.
He idly scratched his belly. “The third time, well, we’re not rich folk, and they were startin’ to make things very hard for us what with the insurance and the repairs and the time spent being closed. Police said they were sympathetic, but there was nothing they could do, especially since we didn’t live in the big city. Li’le station didn’t have the manpower to chase down thieves when there were murderers to be chased down.
“Fourth time, my wife discovered ‘em ransacking the place and tried to give ‘em a piece of her mind for which they thanked her by bloodying her well and good. And that’s when I came back from dropping the grandkids off after we’d been looking after ‘em all day. Took one look at my wife of thir’y-nine years lying on the floor, and that was the last straw.
He spoke plainly. “They told me I broke a total of two hundred and twenty-one bones between the four lads. Two will never walk again. One is a vegetable. His honour asked me at my trial if I felt remorse for what I’d done. I told him that if the rest of society had held up its end of our social bargain better, then I wouldn’t have ‘ad to take matters into my own ‘ands.
“Besides, my darling Lizzy was laying in the hospital with blood clots threatening her heart and brain and any day she could die. I told him I shoulda killed the four louts for that, and I figured I was le’in’ ‘em off easy.
A rueful chuckle. “Judge didn’t think much of that answer. He sympathized but said I’d spend the rest of my life in ‘ere. And now there wouldn’t be anyone to look after my wife should she recover or to grieve her should she pass. I told him this is supposed to be a justice system. What I did to those men was just. If he insisted on pu’ing me away, even if he was following the le’ers of the law, then it certainly wouldn’t be following its spirit, and my incarceration wouldn’t be justice at all.
“He ‘eld me in contempt for that. Bastard. He’s right, though. Lizzy’s all alone now. If she’s even alive. Won’t tell me ’s long as I’m in ‘ere. I don’t feel remorse for how I hurt those crooks, but now I regret that I left her behind.” He bunched a ham-sized fist. Aye, he’d do it differently if he could go back in time. A moment’s justice wasn’t worth a day apart from his Lizzy. They’d been married thirty-seven glorious years, and he’d hoped they’d grow old and die in each other’s arms, there for each other until the last. Now he couldn’t help but feel he’d abandoned her to leave this world alone. He hated himself for that.
The woman didn’t look like she was sure if any of his story had been true or not, but she seemed willing to put some trust in him. “What’s your name again?” she asked, putting her own hand out this time.
He looked up in surprise, having become lost in his memories as he’d spoken. “Amos Brightside, at your service.” He reached out and swallowed her much smaller hand in his big mitt.
“I’m Mei.” She looked him right in the eye. “Amos, assuming the boat is big enough for all of us and can help us get to it, there’s a spot for you too.”
The others introduced themselves as well.
He grinned. As far as first impressions went, he liked the look of this Mei woman. She seemed tough. Smart maybe. “Excellent! So. How can I help? Yew want a fire? Ha! I can do yew one be’er. Have any of yew ever heard of a dust explosion?” He waggled his brows at them, which probably had quite an effect given how bushy they’d become. Aging gracefully, he wasn’t.
Mei glanced around along with the others, but all shook their heads.
Very carefully, Amos retrieved his lantern from the floor. Opening it a bit wider, he revealed the base of the mill to the others. He pointed upwards. “The blades outside turn those gears way up there, see? The gears turn the shaft, which powers the grinders, ‘ere.” A shaft descended from above and connected to more gears attached to several large, circular stones. “This is where they crush the sugarcane.”
“Sugarcane?” Mei asked, apparently surprised. “I thought this was a flour mill.”
“Same principle, but with sugar.” He bowed his head to her. “Sugar’s the lifeblood of Barbados. This is the main sugar mill for Speightstown and the cornerstone of the economy ‘ere.” Moving the lantern about and waving, he showed them some sugarcane leaves scattered in the corners of the floor and then led them into the larger warehouse. “And this is the sugar factory, where we turn sugarcane sap into processed sugar, just the kind you put into your tea.”
The vast, rectangular room had large stone and metal vats and multiple horse-powered conveyor belts that moved sugar about in various processing stages. A mountain of yellow crystals took up a quarter of the factory floor.
“Oh wow. Is that raw sugar?” Lance pointed.
The Carib girl, whose name was Lia, grew wide-eyed at the sight of the yellow crystals. When Lance scooped up a handful and licked it, she gingerly palmed a bit of it herself and tasted it with the very tip of her tongue. With a child’s glee, her face lit up and she turned to Mei the way a little girl turns to a mother or a big sister, holding her hands up and gasping. She spoke rapidly in her language.
The Asian woman threw back her head and laughed, though she was careful to keep the volume in check. She, too, took a pinch of sugar and tasted it. “Yum.”
Lia’s tongue dove back into the raw sweets. She giggled and danced and scarfed the entire handful before going for another.
Amos chuckled. The Carib girl might have chewed sugar cane as the occasional treat, but this was likely the first time she’d ever had pure sugar.
Lance gave the others an evil look. He spoke with a thick Cuban accent. “First you get de sugar…”
Armand smiled and continued the quote. “Then you get de power…”
Mei steepled her fingers and cut in before Lance could finish it. “And then you get de women.”
Lance and Armand both turned on her in surprise.
“You know it?” Lance gasped.
“Of course.” Mei acted like it was nothing, though her shy grin gave her pride away. She gestured to the equipment and asked Amos about it. “So, how does the process all work?”
He was happy to explain to his new comrades, whom he might be sailing away with soon enough if all went well. “We start with crushing the cane for its juice and then turn it into syrup to clean it of impurities. Then it’s concentrated and turned into raw crystals, which you see here. And then, to produce granulated sugar…it’s dried. Which is where the danger comes in.”
“What danger?” Armand asked, clearly fascinated by the whole process. He poked around, looking at the vats and machines.
“Drying it turns it into a uniform powder, the sugar you’d recognize and a bit of dust which just so happens to be ‘ighly flammable. Saturate the air with it, add a spark of flame and—boom.” He mimed an explosion.
Lia dove into the sugar like she was diving into the ocean and swam in the crystals, bathing her whole body and laughing wildly.
“Seriously?” Lance looked highly skeptical. “Explosive sugar?”
Amos was used to that reaction, most people never having worked around flour and sugar the way he had. “That’s right, mate. Same principle used in thermobaric weapons, the most powerful non-nuclear bombs in the world.”
“Then…” Lance shook his head and nervously waved his arms around. “Shouldn’t they have safety precautions or something?”
“Ha!” Amos barked a laugh. “They should. But they don’t do nearly enough. Only a ma’er of time before this place goes up. You might not have heard, but it happens pretty regular. Flour mills, sugar refineries. Vaporizes entire buildings. Have killed a lot of people over the years.”
Mei involuntarily backed up a step. “So we’re standing inside a giant bomb.”
“We are,” Amos happily agreed. “What’s say we blow the whole thing to smithereens and see what they make of that, eh?” He slapped his big belly and laughed. He knew that his low voice, alongside his looks, made him appear a lot like Santa Claus, and he was gracious enough to go along with it.
“How do we do it?” Mei asked, her worry turning to excitement.
“Without getting ourselves killed?” Lance added wryly.
“Carefully,” he assured them. “We’ll set it up and then set it off from very far away and under cover.”
They opened the rotary driers used to dry the sugar and the silos used to store the finished product. With wood-bladed shovels that wouldn’t spark, they threw sugar everywhere, coating the ground and the machines and letting the dust fill the air. They did this to the whole factory, coating it all in a layer of white, like sweetened snow.
Amos made sure to keep the lantern far away from the activity, even though the flame was protected by glass. There were still air vents.
“Now,” Amos led them to some packaged sugar waiting in sacks. “Let’s carry some of these up to the rafters of the mill. That’ll let us get high up and really fill the air with this stuff.” He hefted a fifty-kilo bag up into his arms like it was nothing and slung it over one shoulder. Then grabbed the lantern in the other hand.
Lance tried to emulate Amos and winced, almost falling over. Blushing at how the others laughed, he picked up a twenty-five-kilo bag instead. Armand, Mei, and Lia did the same, the more petite girl surprisingly strong for her size. Probably due to all the natural exercise she got from living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
They climbed the stairs spiralling up the inside of the mill wall until they reached the platform around the gears connected to the blades outside.
“‘Ere. This is ‘ow we’ll escape.” Amos put his bag down and opened the rear window. Unlike those on the ground floor, it wasn’t barred, with only wooden shutters on the outside. Quietly opening them, he peeked outside.
The rear of the mill and factory were quiet. There were warehouses and sheds and several wagons, some empty, others filled with fresh sugarcane or with used castoff waiting to be disposed of. As the guards who normally patrolled were all dead and lying inside at the moment, the grounds were quiet.
As he leaned back, satisfied, Mei leaned out the window to see for herself. “How do we get down?” she asked.
He wasn’t looking forward to that part as his old bones would not be very forgiving. “We’ll ‘ave t’ jump.”
She looked down. “From this height?”
“Aim for that wagon of used sugarcane. Not exactly soft, but it’ll break our fall. Probably.” Luckily, there were two wagons close by under the window. He shuttered and placed the lantern on the windowsill to keep it as far as possible from the sugar they were about to release. Wouldn’t want to blow themselves up during the job, right?
She looked worried. “Can’t we just go out the door?”
He shook his head. “Shouldn’t. Need to build up a good cloud of sugar dust and keep it contained. We’ll jump from here, then toss the lantern back through the window.”
“Ok…” She didn’t look entirely convinced.
Lance shoved her aside and looked for himself. “You’re both mad. Jump from here?”
Armand punched him in the shoulder. “Stop being a baby. A little fall never killed anyone.”
Lance looked at him like he was daft. “That’s absurd! People die from falling all the time!”
Two stories off the ground, they opened the bags of sugar and chaotically poured it out, spraying it in all directions.
The inside of the milled became a sparkling white cloud lit by moonlight. It was beautiful and magical, and the smell of candy made them all laugh like children.
Lia looked like a brown fairy, delight all over her face as she threw dusty sugar high in the air and watched it fall.
Mei giggled. “I feel like I’m in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or maybe a bakery in the North Pole.”
“Ho ho ho!” Amos obliged, playing Santa. “Sweet Christmas!”
The door in the factory section of the sugar mill swung open, and a soldier walked in with a puzzled expression. He stepped in the sugar they’d spread. “What the—?” he stumbled backwards.
Amos felt stricken. “Guards!” he whispered. Whirling, he dropped his sack of sugar to the floor and whispered. “Out with you. Go!” He hustled the others towards the window.
Armand climbed up into the window. He hesitated only a moment, took a deep breath and jumped.
Lia bounced up into the window behind him and leapt without any hesitation whatsoever.
Lance put both hands on the sides of the window and groaned. “I can’t.”
Mei pushed him.
To his credit, he didn’t scream on the way down.
Mei climbed up next.
Amos sighed internally and grabbed the lantern. He patted her on the back. “Safe journey, Mei.”
She looked back, confused. “What?”
The voices of soldiers sounded from below, filled with surprise and anger.
He was crestfallen. He knew he wouldn’t be escaping this night after all. “Go. I’ll set the explosion off.” He gently pushed her on the back.
She resisted, panicking. “But what about you?”
“Bah,” he pretended to be okay with it. “I’m too old to be running for my life. Don’t worry about me. Get those others to safety. And think of me when you’re on the high seas.” He winked and pushed her again, ignoring the twinge of sadness in his old heart. He’d be in for hell after this when he respawned and they looked for someone to punish. But he’d make sure they thought he was the only one responsible, not Mei and her friends.
She hesitated, visibly conflicted. “Wait—“
“Go!” Stepping to the edge of the walkway, Amos ignored her. He looked down at the soldiers below, sugar and sugar dust wafting from his massive body like a cloud of sparkling snow and cold, a vengeful Santa about to deliver magical justice. He dumped the last of his sugar into the air.
Opening the shutters on the lantern, his voice boomed as loudly as any preacher from atop his podium, drawing the eyes of the soldiers below.
“In nomine pistoris et cibi amantis, divinae substantiae id est saccharo, ex cannula sacchari et saccharo beta, sanctificatur dulcedo, regnum demerita aedificat, et gustat sicut coelum facit. Gustas CREPIIITUS!” In the name of the baker and the food lover, of the divine substance that is sugar, from sugarcane and sugar beet, hallowed is its sweetness, a kingdom of desserts it does build, and makes our tea taste like heaven. Taste EXPLOOOSION!
He mightily cast the lantern down into the powdery bowels of the sugar-filled mill.