The CanopyThe Canopy
Angela Hunt
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Deep in Peru's steamy rain forests, Alexandra Pace desperately searches for a cure for a deadly disease that's ravaging her body and threatens her daughter. When British doctor Michael Kenway tells her of a mythical "healing tribe" in the Amazon jungle, she reluctantly trusts him. Can they find this indigenous group? Will they have the cure? 320 pages, softcover from W.
     

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1 April 2003
6:12 A.M.

Though his body sang with pain, the native kept running.

Struggling to move through thickened air that pressed upon his skin, he held one hand over the gaping wound in his gut and loped toward the spangled light dancing over the crude path gleaming in the jungle shadows.

His pursuers had come close last night. One of their spears had pierced him, pinning him to a tree, but he had found the strength to pull the weapon out and fling it away. After that, his blood left a trail even a child could follow, but the Spirit of keyba had blinded their eyes while sending a beacon for him to follow.

He paused, intensifying the pressure on his abdomen, and squinted at the dazzling light hovering twenty paces away. Despite the pain that ripped at his insides like a piranha, his feet had carried him far from his pursuers. The fiery ball had led him through the deepest part of the jungle under black night, and the man knew his enemies would not follow.

Though darkness filled their hearts, still the night frightened them. The jaguar's snarl, the anaconda's hiss, the carnivore ant's silent march . . . these things had frightened him, too, before he began to follow the Spirit of keyba.

The native leaned forward, bracing his free hand against his trembling knee. Air moved through his nostrils with a faint whistling sound as his jaw clamped against a spasm that sent a shaft of pure white pain ripping through his body. When he pried the stiff fingers of his right hand from the yawning hole in his gut, the brown skin parted like a pair of bloody lips.

He felt his mouth twist. He had seen wounds like this in other men, and not even the shaman could save them.

In the forest canopy, hundreds of macaws screamed and whistled as they fought each other for precious perches in the dappled rays of the rising sun. The man winced at the noise, then lifted his head and studied the trail ahead. How much farther would he have to go? He had traveled for two days before encountering warriors from the Angry People. The Spirit of keyba had not left him, but his strength would not last forever. And the barbed thorns, spiked leaves, and sharp-edged grasses of this brutal forest had sapped his power.

Blinking, he lifted his head and saw the light, still beckoning. Pressing his hand back over the wound, he straightened and stepped forward, moving with a slower gait. Breathing deeply, he inhaled the scents of orchids and mangoes, decaying vegetation, and the unmistakable acrid odor of snake.

Without pausing to investigate, he staggered toward the light, his chest burning with each breath. He had not gone far when a new sound reached his ears—the happy squeals of children. Another series of steps brought him to a fringe of forest overlooking the river. There young ones played in the shallows, splashing and laughing while their mother bent at the water's edge.

Looking up, he saw that the light had disappeared. Apparently he had reached his destination.

Calling on the last reserves of his strength, the native left the concealing jungle and stepped into a clearing. Lifting his left hand, he called out a greeting.

The children turned to look at him with dark forest eyes. The woman whirled, one hand extended toward her young, the other reaching for a shiny object that might serve as a weapon.

He took another step forward, lifting both hands this time, and to his greeting he added a plea for help. The boy's eyes went wide at the sight of the bloody wound, and the little girl screamed. Snatching the smallest child out of the water, the woman bared her teeth and yelled in a language he could not understand.

The native waved his hands to demonstrate that he had not come to make war. He took another step forward, then realized that the muscles of his legs had become as stiff as wood. Wasps of agony buzzed along the length of his arms and swarmed in his belly. Gray pain roared behind his eyes and in his ears, drowning out the frantic woman's voice and blocking the bright sun on the river.

He took another step, saw the woman screech and lift her weapon, then his legs crumpled and the soft shoulder of the riverbank rose up to meet him.

1 April 2003
8:43 A.M.

"You are doing fine, Dr. Pace. Keep going, but whatever you do, do not look down!"

Alexandra Pace gritted her teeth as Milos Olsson's patient voice floated up from the rainforest floor. The stocky Swedish botanist had probably been climbing trees and mountains since he was old enough to wear lederhosen, but the act of traveling upward via muscle and rope was still new to Alex . . . and more than a little unnerving.

"Just clip and pull." The new voice belonged to Deborah Simmons, the American entomologist who was clambering up the rope ten yards above Alex. The outdoorsy Texan had taken to the sport of tree climbing like a monkey. "Hey, if this gal can get the hang of it, anybody can."

Clip and pull? Closing her eyes, Alex dangled in space as the words brought back memories of hot Saturday afternoons sipping a Diet Coke beneath the hair dryer in her favorite salon. Now the nearest hair dryer was probably two hundred miles away, and few people in the Amazon jungle had even seen a Diet Coke . . . "Dr. Pace, you awake up there?" Someone beneath her jiggled the rope, snapping her out of her daydream even as the motion sent adrenaline spurting into her bloodstream.

"I'm moving!" She slipped her foot into the prusik loop attached to the main line, then stood, the prusik holding her weight while her right hand nudged the mechanical ascender another twelve inches upward. The metal Jumar slid easily along the purple rope, its surface cool beneath her damp palm.

"One," she whispered, reciting the count she'd rehearsed a hundred times the day before. Olsson had the entire team practice climbing a tree in front of the lodge, and Alex had been surprised when most of her teammates took to climbing as enthusiastically as teenage boys took to diving. She had scaled the thirty-foot tree three times, gaining confidence in the technique, but today her muscles were stiff and complaining.

She squinted as she tipped her head back to see the purple line disappearing in a ceiling of green leaves. This was no thirty-foot tree. The strangler fig's uppermost branches filled the forest canopy over one hundred thirty feet above the ferns carpeting the jungle floor.

"Two." She sat back, leaning her weight on the carabiner linking her pelvic harness to the guide rope, then tugged the lower prusik upward with the toe of her sneaker.

"Consider Eupithecia orichloris," Deborah had explained yesterday. "Think of yourself as an inchworm moving steadily up the tree."

Alex was certain no worm had ever inched his way up this particular specimen of Ficus Americana. Too many hazards lay along the path of the trunk—ants and birds and wasps and snakes and even plants that would delight in snacking on any worm that happened by. The odds of an unperturbed passage weren't much better for human climbers, so she and her teammates were climbing this tree as if it were a mountain, with ropes, carabiners, and harnesses.

"It's simple, really," she muttered under her breath. "Just part of a day's work. And necessary for your research."

"Move along, will you, madame?"

Alex glanced down in time to see Louis Fortier, the French perfumer, jiggle the rope beneath her. "We are eager to climb, too."

"I'm moving!" Blowing out a breath, she stepped on the prusik again and slid the Jumar upward. Leaning back on the carabiner, she was about to lift the loop around her sneaker when her fingers spasmed, making her lose her grip on the line. The weight of her backpack pulled her backward, her unattached left leg flew upward, and for a horrifying instant fear froze her scalp to her skull. Then the carabiner snapped against her harness, preventing her fall, and the rope around her right shoe tightened.

Gasping, with both arms helplessly beating the air, she hung upside down like a pinioned parrot.

"You are all right, yes?" Olsson called.

Alex forced herself to draw a deep breath and calm her pounding heart. She was not all right. She was as far from all right as she had ever been in her life. But no one could know her secret.

Summoning what she hoped was a measure of dignity, she directed her gaze down to the place where a knot of researchers huddled around the rope. "I'm fine. My hand slipped." With an effort, she folded her arms around her head as an inquisitive wasp investigated her face. "I seem to be stuck, however."

"You are not stuck." Olsson's no-nonsense tone told her she would have to get herself out of this predicament. "Reach up from the waist, Dr. Pace, and catch the rope with your fingers."

She closed her eyes. Olsson spoke with the confidence of an athletic man who could still run and jump and bend without pain. He had never lived inside the body of a thirty-something-year-old woman for whom regular exercise consisted of frequent trips to the coffeemaker.

And he had no idea her central nervous system had begun to short-circuit.

Drawing in a breath, she lifted her head, then urged her arms and fingers to reach toward her toes.

She couldn't do it.

She fell back, squinching her eyes into knots while her brain railed against her situation. This was the result of a simple slip, perhaps one more related to exhaustion than to her condition. And though panic attacks were one of the symptoms of her illness, she would not panic here, not now, not today . . .

"Twinkle, twinkle, little star." She sang the old nursery rhyme under her breath. She'd loved the song as a child, and in medical school she'd discovered that singing it brought peace to her jittery nerves. The reason probably had something to do with the security of childhood and the resilience of embedded memories, but psychology had never particularly interested her.

Struggling against tears, she was calmly whispering the rest of the song when Valerik Baklanov, her research partner for this expedition, stepped up to the rope. "Momentum will help you counteract the gravity," he called, compassion streaming through his Russian accent. "Swing, Alex, like a child. Then you can reach the rope."

She nodded, not trusting her voice, and began to rock from side to side. While Deborah Simons squealed overhead, Alex swung herself forward, finally building enough momentum to reach upward, catch the rope, and pull herself upright.

Thank the stars, this time her fingers had obeyed. She clung to the guideline, closing her eyes as the walls of the jungle swayed around her, then forced herself to look up.

"Sorry," she called to Deborah, who had vanished into the canopy.

"Dr. Pace," Olsson called again. "We are waiting for you to ascend."

Of course they were. And while they waited, they were probably thinking she was the most uncoordinated American woman ever to step foot in the jungle, but that was okay. She'd rather they think her uncoordinated than know that her body had begun to weaken.

Determined to make up for lost time, Alex drew a deep breath and stood in the prusik, then slipped the ascender upward.


Excerpted from:
The Canopy by Angela Hunt, copyright 2003.
Used by permission. All rights reserved.