For the twelfth time that day, Nick Dixon cursed his stupidity. Cursing was for the uneducated, but if conditions warranted, he could blister the circumstances in Turkish, Polish, or Russian. Give him three months, and he’d be able to question a moron’s ancestry in Mandarin.
He pushed through the dense rain forest, shirt open, body awash in perspiration from the withering heat. The thick damp clogged his lungs and made breathing difficult. The air stank of rotting vegetation. The ground scuttled with creeping things. Nick struggled to find a vantage point, a clear lookout from which he could find his bearings.
He prayed to God he didn’t come nose-to-nose with a Komodo dragon.
Overhead a disgruntled Malaysian giant squirrel, dressed in creamy brown, leapt the impossible gap between two trees and fell four stories before thudding onto a branch that held. An orchestra of oddly harmonious twitters, chirps, whistles, and screeches erupted from the forest canopy.
Nick felt the patter of lightly falling objects on his battered Aussie hat. Insects. Dropping from the leafy heights in a rain of life as ancient as earth itself. More than half the known life forms on the planet crept and crawled, bloomed and died, within the humid boundaries of the world’s rain forests.
And thirty million of them were insect species. Too many of these insects, for Nick’s liking, were predators. Fist-sized spiders. Beetles and bugs and grotesque horned things. Poisonous, bloodsucking . . .
But these were not what drove him to flail at the air, to harbor the heart-thumping, stomach-churning suspicion that he and Cassie and everything they had built together hung by a slender thread. No, it was the feverish heat, the cloth-rotting humidity, the aching loneliness, the yawning distance between Nick and — and what? His daily jogs through the streets of San Francisco? Lombardi’s chicken alfredo? The soft curve of Cassie’s beautiful neck?
He sat on a log and held his head, the swamp-green army surplus pack shifting under its load. He twisted the hastily scribbled map in shaking fingers. It might help him find his way back, but sure as flies in a barnyard, it had little to say about what lay forward.
He removed the hat, swiped at his brow with a grimy forearm, and scanned the forest lid for answers. No doubt this time.
He was lost.
Not little-boy lost like temporary separation from his mother in Golden Gate Park. Not lost like in-over-his-head lost in the ruthless, take-no-prisoners world of perfume and cosmetics.
Lost like Hansel and Gretel standing at the door to the witch’s oven. Flames ahead. Witch behind.
A wave of flycatchers and cuckoo-shrikes spread through the branches overhead. Insects camouflaged like bird dung remained rock-still to avoid detection. A flying tree snake launched into space, flattened its ribs up and outward, and with a rapid lateral writhing, hooked a safe landing on a branch twenty feet away.
Nick laughed — a high, reedy sound — and patted a damp pocket. Sure he was rattled. Here he sat astride a fallen tree somewhere in the steamy jungles of Papua New Guinea, incubator of the world’s rarest disease, Kuru syndrome. Those afflicted with Kuru slowly go mad, then die in a burst of convulsions. The madness was contracted by eating the brains of another human being.
And here was one of the two executive officers of Azure World stuck on a log with a smudged paper covered with hasty ballpoint pen scratchings.
Nick bent over, elbows on knees, and ran his fingers through a sweaty thatch of hair. He wiped a clammy palm over three days’ stubble, increasingly difficult to tell from a thick caterpillar of a mustache. Oh, he was a piece of work, all right. Lost among cannibals, with thick, pasty tuna military rations, a dozen granola bars, and — he patted his pocket again — one Gold Card good at more than six thousand locations worldwide.
He’d had to come alone. The jungle people no longer trusted expeditions of outsiders. A lone explorer would appear less likely to represent exploitive, corporate foreign interests. No elaborate encampments, no loud noxious equipment, no mass slaughter of the local food supply. One man, one trust. Nor could Nick risk attracting undue attention from governments or the astoundingly acute ears of the perfume barons. For this to work, he needed secrecy, privacy, the fewest and mutest of confidants.
Nick had taken precautions. Only one man knew of his location. The closest secure emergency contact point for Cassie was the mission hospital at Wewak, a hundred air miles from where he’d been dropped off. The same bush plane would pick him up again in five days.
He couldn’t tell her more. The competition came after that kind of truth. Word had already leaked out about his expedition. Probably someone at Azure World working both sides of the fence. But that alone wasn’t enough for the competitors to act on. Everyone had senior researchers out looking for a bonanza. His past hunts had taken him to Puerto Armuelles, Costa Rica; Monte Alegre, Brazil; and Kinshasha in the Congo. He had returned from each with fresh fragrances, but every one only a variation on something already in mass production.
He needed a scent that would take the cosmetics world by storm, and his bones told him he was close to finding it.
Gerald Ruggers had paid a debt he felt he owed from the days they were roommates at Cal Tech. They’d spent summers mountain climbing, extreme kayaking, spelunking, and rappelling into and out of otherwise inaccessible canyons. Nick was still that way. He loved tight spots and difficult terrain, whether the raw wilderness or the uncharted regions of the business world.
Nick spent an extra semester after graduation coaching Ruggers in rain forest taxonomy and human anatomy until he passed the courses with sterling grades and eventually became a medical assistant certified in tropical diseases.
Fifteen years later Ruggers repaid his college tutor. When he was sent to Wewak and fifty thousand square miles of human suffering along the Sepik River, he kept his eyes and ears open. One day, among the Waronai tree people, he heard of a sacred plant of great mystical powers, so beautiful in appearance that the world was worthy to see it only twelve days each year. But by far the most distinctive feature of the great flower was its potent and beguiling fragrance.
“It has to be the celerides,” Nick breathed, remembering the barely coherent transcontinental conversation. Rugs had been a babbling mess. Jasmine, lavender, cinnamon, powdered babies! The scent of a woman! A whole grove of lemons! That had been the beginning of a ten-minute tirade of aromatic imagery.
A week had vanished while Nick verified that the orchid was in its annual flowering cycle and then made travel arrangements. And now five days remained of the cycle.
Without the new scent, Azure World wouldn’t last another year.
The shadows lengthened, closing down the jungle domain beneath an unseen hand. The sun was fading fast in the twilight world of vegetation. He was about to spend another sleepless night, but this time with the curdling certainty he was unable to find his way — or to be found.
He shook off the descending doubts. Tough this one out. Be right. And Giorgio and Karl Lagerfeld would lose shelf space to Cream Base #6 by Azure World. The dark horse wins.
Gone overnight would be the condescending gossip, the snide comments about soda pop fragrances and variety store positioning that too long had undermined Azure World.
With a hideous scream, a cockatoo flew at a monkey. Nick’s heart jumped. When he could breathe again, he lay back against the fallen tree . . . and smelled water. Just like that. And heard it. Running water.
What direction was the sound coming from? He had climbed a couple thousand feet as the map indicated, but fresh water was abundant here, and only major rivers were marked on the makeshift map.
Nick cocked his head and closed his eyes, concentrating on the rush of the distant stream.
He turned, squinting into the dark jungle. No good. Everything ahead looked identical to everything behind. No change in light to indicate a nearby riverbank. Tall, buttressed trunks festooned with vines diffused light and sound. Noise bounced off the trees so that the monkeys he thought were ahead were really the monkeys at his back.
Cassie would leave a trail. That quickly it came to him. She would park the backpack right there with a piece of yellow surveyor’s ribbon tied to the top, then walk in whatever direction she elected, playing out the ribbon as she went. If it proved the wrong way, she would simply follow the tape back to the pack before striking out again.
Nick’s first two attempts ended in futility, the sound of the water rapidly disappearing. On the third try the sound intensified, and instead of coming at him from all directions, settled into one. With each new step the volume grew.
It was a pretty little chasm of orangey-pink rock, and a gash was rimmed in a profusion of brilliant heliconia flowers, long chains of blood red blooms with yellow-green tips. Startlingly blue hummingbirds flitted about them in iridescent majesty, injecting each blossom with a delicately curved beak perfectly suited for extracting nectar. A drowsy buzz caught Nick’s ear, and he saw that bees had made a home in an abandoned termite nest at the chasm’s edge. The dark-brown structure was wide at the top, narrower at the bottom, and only waist-high off the ground. Nick had heard that jungle bees could be aggressive and that the jaws of some species were powerfully designed for mining resin from tree bark or chewing through the tough material at the base of a flower to rob it of its nectar.
Honeybees with an attitude. He would give them a wide berth.
Nick felt easier. The chasm opened a slit through the forest canopy, admitting a bright stream of sunlight. The sound of cascading water brought welcome images of icy cold mountain streams. He went back and fetched the pack and prepared a small repast of tuna and noodles topped off by a chocolatecoated granola bar. The map made little more sense under the sun, but tomorrow looked as if it might come after all.
Thirsty, Nick thought of the canteen with its depleted contents, warm and brackish after riding about in the afternoon heat. Perhaps he could find a way down to the stream.
The ground was steep and slick with undergrowth. He didn’t have a clear view of the creek bed and looked around for a handhold. A sturdy vine hung from a branch of the bee tree. It seemed free of the main supports holding the termite nest, so Nick gave it a vigorous tug. It held nicely, and best of all, the fuzzy flying neighbors seemed not to notice. He grabbed on with both hands and leaned out over the chasm.
The soft dirt bank gave way and sheered off into the racing stream fifteen feet below. With a cry of alarm, Nick kicked the air and swung back for land. He made a lunging grab for the tree. Too late he realized his mistake.
He slammed into the termite nest. A white-hot pain seared his bare chest. He hugged the nest to keep from falling, his upper body blocking the bees’ exit. Their rage was immediate. Deadly.
Within seconds a swarm of angry black bees wanting back into the nest enveloped his face like a living hood. They bit his skin, crawled into his ears and hair, and tried to get at his eyes. Blinded by insect fury, he shoved back from the tree, hung suspended for a split second above the roaring chasm, and let go of the vine.
He hit the cool waters feetfirst and felt instant relief, even as he fought for air. Hurled downstream, free of his tormentors, he fought to keep his face above water to see, to stop before plunging off a waterfall or getting sucked under a log. He slammed into a boulder, arm pinned at his side, before swinging into the calm on the other side of the rock. His arm tingled and would not rise above his shoulder. His face ached and tightened with swelling. He looked down at his chest, red-raw with stinging welts, and was surprised it was still closed, considering how hard the bees had attacked.
He lay for a long time in the soothing shallows, allowing the water to reduce the swelling in his battered extremities. The light turned a gauzy gray, and Nick felt cold and alone.
The darkening forest grew eerily quiet, and had the water been a little warmer, he might have tried to sleep right there in the stream. The bank at that point was steeply sloped, but not the sheer drop it had been at the bee tree. He was about to rise and claw his way back to the pack and search for a safer place to make camp, when something deep in his nasal cavities began sending messages to the brain.
His nostrils twitched. Faintly . . . faintly . . . enticing, unlike anything else . . . the aroma intensified on the evening air. The fine hairs stiffened at the nape of his neck. He got to his feet, slowly, more from fear of losing the scent than from soreness, and sniffed the gases in the atmosphere. Expertly, automatically, his trained nose sorted and differentiated the smorgasbord of jungle smells. Strained at the one scent above all others. Strained to seek the direction of its source.
Intoxicating . . . here . . . at this distance . . . Dear God, what will it be at the source? Oh, Cass, if we can get this in a bottle, your fame is assured!
He lunged, slid, found traction, and crab-crawled up the slope toward the last of the light, ignoring insects and chameleons and sticky substances of unknown origin that shared the rain forest floor.
Near the top, a strange puff of cool air caught up with him and chilled him in his wet clothes. He stopped, turned, and watched the parted leaves of a monstrous fern close on the last of the fading light.