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About the Author
National bestselling author Charles Wilson has become known for edge-of-your-seat tension and fast-paced action in his novels. His first work, Nightwatcher, a psychological thriller, was called "splendid" by John Grisham and "quite an achievement" by the Los Angeles Times. Ed Gorman, publisher of Mystery Scene magazine says, "Wilson might flat-out be the best plotter of our generation." Wilson's Direct Descendant and Extinct, novels exploring the chilling consequences of so-called scientific advances, have been optioned by Hollywood filmmakers. Other Wilson novels are Game Plan, Fertile Ground and Embryo; three suspense novels, When First We Deceive, Silent Witness and The Cassandra Prophecy; and Deep Sleep-- a psychological thriller set in a Voodoo-influenced swampy parish in South Louisiana. Charles Wilson currently lives with his wife and three children in Brandon, Mississippi, where he is at work on his next novel.
Read an Excerpt
By Charles Wilson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1996 Charles Wilson
All rights reserved.
The boxy gray helicopter, its long rotor blades thumping rhythmically, slowly descended toward the top of the rain forest. Delaney Jeffries stood in the big door at the craft's side and looked down at the mist shrouding the trees. The morning sun would soon finish burning the vapor away, but then the rains would come that afternoon and the condensation would be back again. It was a constant cycle, tropical downpours followed by a blazing sun, over and over again, creating a never-ending, sweltering dampness. He could feel it even now, the damp warmth mixed in the buffeting wash from the rotor blades whipping at his khakis.
Three weeks of it. Three weeks of his group and the groups from the other universities boating in and out of swamps and tidal flats and helicoptering into the interior of the forest. There had never before been so many Ph.D.s and top graduate assistants teamed in such a massive gathering of exotic plants. And there had never been so many people grown tired of it.
And after all the effort, had they found a specimen that might later yield a new medicine? Frankly he had reached the point of not really caring. Just let him get back home to a decent bed and air conditioner.
And then the helicopter stopped its descent and hovered.
"Ready when you are, Delaney," came the voice through his helmet's earphones.
He pulled the visor down across his face, buckled the chin strap under his firm jaw, slipped on his gloves, and moved to the very edge of the doorway. A hand reached out from behind him and checked the cable running from his upper body harness to an extension on the helicopter's roof. He felt a pat on his shoulder. He clasped the edges of the doorway, looked down at the trees for a moment, and then swung out into the bright sunlight.
In seconds he was lowered into leaves whipping wildly in the wash of the rotor blades. Twigs jabbed and pulled at his shirt and pants. Branches laden with dark growth slid across the visor. He glimpsed a wide tree limb coming up toward him, kicked out around it, and broke through the canopy into a dim twilight stretching to the ground a hundred feet below.
"I'm through," he said, and the cable increased its rate of descent.
In moments he had touched down. He quickly unsnapped the cable and raised his visor. "Take it away," he said, and the cable started back up.
"Here I come," said a feminine voice though his earphones. "Catch me if I fall."
He smiled and looked up toward the tree tops. A few feet off to the side of his ascending cable, a pair of boots kicked through the leaves and a pair of slim, khaki-clad legs followed. Then Jordan was through and, hanging forward in her harness suspended by a second cable, smiled down at him.
"It's beautiful," she shouted into her mike.
In seconds she was on the ground. She unsnapped the cable from her harness, slipped off her helmet and shook out her long brown hair, then walked toward a clump of tall, shimmering blue ferns growing at the base of a massive tree trunk at least twenty feet in circumference.
"Look, they're almost iridescent," she said back across her shoulder as she reached out to touch the narrow, featherlike fronds of one of the plants. Then she looked up at a shower of twigs and leaves coming from above.
Paul's muscular figure broke through the canopy. In addition to the revolvers they all wore, he carried a rifle slung across his wide shoulder and had a machete strapped to his waist.
Jordan walked toward him as he touched down and his cable went back into the air. The next time a cable came through the treetops, it had a bundle of small, shoe-box–sized specimen boxes and a radio directional beacon tethered at its end.
When the bundle was on the ground and the cable ascending again, Delaney looked up toward the helicopter. "See you in a few hours, Alex."
"Want to check the beacon, first?" the voice came back. "It's a long walk out of here if we can't find you."
Jordan set her helmet on top of the bundle, lifted the small walkie-talkie–shaped directional beacon, and flicked a switch on its side.
"Read it loud and clear," Alex said. Then he said something unintelligible to the helicopter pilot. The branches at the top of the trees swayed at a sudden increase in the craft's rotor wash as it turned and moved away. Jordan lifted one of the specimen boxes from the bundle and walked toward the ferns. Delaney looked past her through the massive, widely spaced brown trunks. Even with the distance between the trees, the cover of their intermingled, vine-matted tops virtually blanked out the sunlight. And the farther he looked the dimmer it was. Only a few hundred feet beyond the ferns it looked as if someone had turned off a light switch — only a deep darkness beyond that point. Paul caught a handful of the dirt at his feet and squeezed it into a mud ball in his big hand. "I doubt it ever dries out with the cover this thick," he said.
"Look," Jordan said. She pointed past the ferns to a thick vine covered with orange flowers as it ran up the side of a tree trunk.
She was still in that position, her arm lifted in front of her, when a small dart thudded into the side of her neck.
She didn't fall. She didn't even jerk from the impact. Just a flinch, and her hand grabbing at her neck as if a bee had stung her. Her eyes widened at the feel of the feathery stub of the shaft, and she yanked it from her neck.
Delaney sprinted toward her. He and Paul reached her together. The color gone from her face, she stared at the three-inch dart lying at her feet. She tried to say something, but was in such shock her lips only moved without any sound coming forth. Paul raised his rifle toward the trees off to her side. Delaney grabbed Jordan's arm. The barely perceptible sound of a dart in flight whisked by his head. Paul's rifle fired loudly. Delaney pulled Jordan toward the cover of a wide tree trunk. "Alex!" he yelled into his mike.
Paul fired again.
Delaney pushed Jordan behind the trunk. Her face completely pale now, she held the side of her neck. A trickle of blood ran between her fingers. He pulled her to him and held her tightly. "Alex, Damnit!"
Paul slammed into the trunk beside them. He stared at Jordan, then looked around the trunk. A dart whizzed by the tree. He raised his rifle and fired it rapidly three times.
"Alex!" Delaney said, still speaking loudly, still hoping to make himself heard, but with his stomach twisting with the knowledge the helicopter was probably too far away for the weak helmet radio.
"Read, you, Delaney, faint. What do —"
"Get back here quick! Jordan's been hit with a dart!"
Alex didn't say anything in response. But Delaney knew he had been understood. Alex would have the pilot wheel the helicopter around in as short a turn as possible and come back to them with the craft's throttles open wide. But Alex would also know there was no use. Delaney caught Paul's glance. Paul knew, too. They all knew. Jordan knew.
It should have started already. The poison should have begun its spread within seconds of the dart hitting. He couldn't help but look down at Jordan's hands. That's how curare worked, paralyzing the extremities first, then spreading through the body, finally paralyzing the lungs, killing its victim by horrible suffocation. God, please, no, he thought, and he felt like he was going to vomit.
The sound of the helicopter reached them.
Jordan spoke in a voice so low he could barely hear it. "I should be feeling it," she began. "I ..." He felt her shiver against him. "But I don't feel anything."
There was a sound of hope in her tone, beyond hope, pleading. She was trying to convince herself. Then the tops of the trees swayed a couple of hundred feet from them.
"Delaney," came Alex's voice.
"South!" Delaney shouted into his mike. "Come south!"
The swaying leaves moved toward them. The helicopter stopped while still at least seventy feet away. They didn't have time to direct it any closer. "Let the cables down." He caught Jordan's arm. Paul looked around the tree trunk.
Alex's thick shape broke through the matted cover above. He must have been coming down while the helicopter was still moving. He came down rapidly. He held the end of the second cable in his hand. Paul sprinted out into the open. Delaney urged Jordan after him.
Paul went on between the cables, past Alex. He fired his rifle repeatedly from his hip while still running, tripped on a vine, stumbled, sprawled forward to the ground, rolled, and came to his knees. He fired again, and then the rifle clicked empty. Delaney hooked the end of the cable to Jordan's harness. "Take us up!" he yelled, and grabbed for a spot on the cable above Jordan's head. It tightened. Paul dropped his rifle and sprinted toward them. Alex started up. Paul jumped and caught the cable behind Alex's neck. They started revolving. Delaney and Jordan went up straight. Paul tried to twist to look in the direction from where the darts had been fired. He had his revolver out and swept its barrel back and forth toward the ground. Delaney looked above them at the approaching canopy. Seventy-five feet to its cover. Fifty feet. Twenty-five feet. The pilot was pulling them up as fast as the winch would wind. Another few seconds without a dart finding them and ...
Their heads and shoulders slammed into the first branches. Delaney tried to protect Jordan's face from the jabbing twigs with his gloved hand. Paul grunted. Alex grabbed him. But Paul hadn't been hit by a dart. A jagged branch had torn into his arm.
In a moment they were above the trees.
Even before they reached the helicopter it started moving slowly away. Delaney caught the edges of the wide doorway, pulled himself and Jordan inside, unsnapped her cable, and reached back for Paul and Alex. Catching Paul by the shoulder he pulled him toward the opening. Paul grabbed an edge of the doorway and swung his legs into the compartment. Alex came in and went to his knees. Delaney looked across his shoulder.
Jordan had scooted back against the far bulkhead. She was looking at her hand, raised in front of her. As he stared at her, her lip trembled, and he felt his heart twist.
Please, God, he prayed, please.CHAPTER 2
The treetops flew past beneath the helicopter's open doorway. Delaney slipped a folded blanket under the back of Jordan's head. Her eyes came up to his.
"My hand," she said in a low voice. "It's ..." Her lip trembled. She tried to flex her fingers, and grimaced. He felt his heart twist. He looked toward the pilot's compartment.
"Can't you get somebody on the damn radio?"
Alex was trying frantically.
* * *
Back on the ground in the dimness under the thick canopy, the bundle of specimen boxes, Jordan's helmet sitting atop it, was framed in a single ray of sunlight. Paul's rifle lay a few feet away.
A sound, faint in the distance, wafted softly through the tree trunks. A chant.
In the rhythmic tempo of a single stick sounding slowly against a drum, the words rose and fell.
A couple of hundred feet away from the specimen boxes and walking in a direction leading away from them, a short, muscular Indian, carrying a long blowgun and naked except for a thin loincloth, tightly girded, with long strips of cloth hanging down its front and back, moved slowly through the trees. His light brown arms and legs were streaked with narrow stripes of white paint. A wider band of white crossed his forehead and curved down in front of his ears, continuing around the back of his neck and bordering his short, thick black hair. In front of him, a wall of wild thorns grew tall on the near bank of a stream.
A break in the wall created a passageway not much wider than a doorway and led through the thorns to the yellow-brown, slowly moving stream. He entered the water without slowing.
On his first step it came up to his knees. On his second, it rose to his waist. Fifty feet downstream, a twenty-foot-long crocodile lay in front of a similar tall growth of thorns on the opposite bank. The reptile's broad head rose sharply. The creature arched its upper body up on its stubby forepaws. Its long, sharply tapering mouth gaped. It moved with startling quickness down the bank into the water, and slid under the surface.
The Indian was up to his chest. He moved steadily but slowly, the water rippling gently around his broad shoulders and spreading out in wide circles toward the banks.
Two more steps, three, and the water shallowed. His body began to emerge once again. Ten feet from the bank he stopped.
The chant began again, muted now, much lower than before, almost reverent sounding. He took a step forward, the water dropping back to his knees, a second step, a third, and stepped up onto the sandy bank, stopping there, his heels only a few inches from the water. He waited.
A ripple behind him in the water.
"Carbo veen craa."
The words came from behind a vine-matted growth of leafy cane fifty feet in front of him. He walked forward.
A tall Indian, the same white streaks painted across his long arms and legs and wearing a headdress of colorful bird feathers, stepped out from behind the cane. In his hands he held a narrow rock, nearly three feet in length and tapered to a fine point.
He waited until the squat Indian was nearly to him and then extended the rock rapidly out between them, holding it at the full length of his arms.
The squat Indian stopped.
As he did, two other Indians, similarly painted, sprang from their concealment to his sides. They had long blowguns in their hands and had them raised to their mouths, their cheeks puffed behind their hollow ends.
The squat Indian dropped to his knees, but his upper body remained erect, his gaze locking on the rock.
The tall Indian pulled it back to his own narrow chest and thrust it forward again. He began repeating the movement, over and over, in a pulsating motion, slowly at first, and then more rapidly. Then he suddenly stepped forward and raised the rock high over his head. The Indian on his knees threw back his head, arched his bare chest forward, exposing it, and threw his arms out to his sides.
The rock came down swiftly. Its chipped point, honed to a razor sharpness, stopped only an inch from the man's chest.
His face remained expressionless. He hadn't flinched. The only sign of fear were droplets of sweat that formed on his forehead. But they might have been from the oppressive humidity and heat.
The tall Indian stared hard at the kneeling one's face, continued to stare carefully at it for several seconds, then slowly pulled the rock back.
As he did, one of the Indians off to the side lowered his blowgun and, holding it out ahead of him like a long pole, moved toward the kneeling man.
The blowgun then came forward, jabbing the man in his chest. It was thrust forward again, digging into his neck. A third thrust went against his ribs, hard. The blowgun came forward still once more, twisting into the kneeling Indian's thick, dark hair, digging cruelly.
"Forando bon," the tall Indian said.
The torment stopped.
The kneeling Indian rose. The tall Indian stared at him for a long moment, then turned and walked silently toward the dark trees in the distance, the others following him.
The chant started again.
* * *
Delaney plugged the headset's cord into the socket in the bulkhead close to Jordan's head.
The Brazilian doctor was already speaking over the radio to Alex. "How long since she was hit?" he was asking.
Delaney answered. "Ten to fifteen minutes."
The doctor didn't respond immediately.
"Ten to fifteen minutes," Delaney repeated. "Her hands are tingling."
"Calm, yourself, senhor," the doctor said in a measured tone. "The dart was not tipped with curare or she would not be conscious after this amount of time. But don't move her until I see her. She could have some cervical damage."
Delaney looked down at Jordan. She had lifted her hand in front of her and was slowly clasping it and unclasping it. He caught it in his hand and laid it back at her side.
"The doctor says you're going to be all right. But he wants you to lie still until we get to the clinic."
* * *
An hour later, the coastline appeared through the open doorway. Delaney could see the small town in the distance. Its few, mostly wooden buildings sat along a ridge running above the ocean. The pilot flew toward the landing pad near the concrete docks.
"No," Delaney said. He pointed toward the square, one-story, tin-roofed medical clinic at the far end of the town.
Excerpted from Fertile Ground by Charles Wilson. Copyright © 1996 Charles Wilson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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