In drought-ridden New Zealand, Detective Ashley North finds herself in a race against time when she investigates an unexplained death in a small rural town. The corpse’s internal organs have been ravaged and a new virus is suspected. To avoid panic, the decision is made to keep the news of the virus from the public, but investigative journalist Mike Donovan has other ideas.
Ashley’s workload increases and things go from bad to worse as more victims are discovered. To find the source before New Zealand’s population is decimated she and Donovan must join forces.
Targeted Age Group: Adult
The Book Excerpt:
Celine had no idea where she was going, but had to escape. Through the rear view mirror she glimpsed the Land Rover still behind her as she entered a series of sharp bends that followed the path of the river through the gorge. When she spotted the rough track between the trees, she spun the wheel of the BMW—her one vanity. With any luck they wouldn’t see her turn. The back wheels slewed sickeningly then finding purchase righted themselves, leaving a wake of scattered stones. Twin clouds of pale grey dust rose behind her, gravel spattered and she cringed to think of the scratches to the bodywork, but still she increased the pressure on the accelerator. As she raced around more bends she was grateful to the engineers for creating a car that clung to the road at speed.
Without warning the track widened into a turning circle surrounded by trees. It didn’t go anywhere; the only way out was back the way she’d come. She slammed her foot on the brake and scanned the area. Two decaying wooden picnic tables flanked a graffitied notice board showing a map of a circular walk. She pressed the button to lower the window and switched off the engine, listening to the sounds of the forest. Birdsong, cicadas, the slightest breeze rustling the branches. Normal sounds. She sucked in a deep breath of warm evening air trying to calm her jittering nerves, slow her racing heart. She patted the pocket of her shorts, feeling the solid presence beneath her shaking fingers.
She heard it then. Her heart skipped a beat and her mouth went dry. The deep rumble of an engine. Unmistakeable. Heading along the track towards her. Growing louder by the second. No way out. Trapped.
Celine opened the door and made to dash from the car but the restraining seat belt jerked her back. With clumsy fingers she pressed the release and almost tumbled to the ground in her haste to leave the vehicle. Leaving the door wide open, she ran to the gap in the trees that led to the narrow path that threaded up the side of the gorge. The sound of crunching gravel filled her ears as the Land Rover ground to a halt in the clearing. She heard doors slamming and a deep voice cursing carried on the evening air, her legs pumped faster as she forced herself up the slope.
“Get after her,” the voice growled, turning her blood icy in spite of her exertion.
Their heavy boots drummed on the path and Celine ran faster, gasping for breath as her body cried out for more and more oxygen. She stumbled over one of the many tree roots that crossed the uneven track, landing on her knees. Her sunglasses fell from her face and slipped out of reach. No time to grab them. She forced herself upright, impervious to the blood wending its way down her leg, leaving a trail of drips on the hard packed earth. Panic coursed through her veins, fuelling her muscles as she climbed higher and higher. Her feet, clad in footwear inadequate for the challenging terrain, struggled to grip on a long stretch of scree. She slid towards the edge, stomach lurching, catching a glimpse of the rocky riverbed already far below. Her hands grabbed wildly at the tree branches, the first was dead and broke off in her hand, hardly slowing her progress towards the dangerous bluff. The second held fast, wrenching her shoulder, but she managed to steady herself.
As she caught her breath she heard the men’s progress as they charged up the slope. They were stronger and fitter than she, gaining on her with every step. Unless she could find a way to evade them they’d catch her soon.
Celine scanned the vegetation, where exposed tree roots twisted and turned in a bid for stability. There had to be a way out. She grasped at a gnarled root almost at shoulder height and hoisted herself from the path into the undergrowth. Practically on hands and knees she sought ever-higher roots and rocks to facilitate her ascent. Loose stones scuttled downwards, and brittle twigs snapped beneath her weight, while thorns tore at her clothes and skin. Up and up she went, panting, sweat running down her forehead, stinging her eyes and blurring her vision. But still the men followed.
As her hand clutched at thin air she realised she’d reached the top. Dragging herself onto the ridge she looked back and could see the trees trembling below as her pursuers followed where she led.
Celine spun around, assessing her options. There was nowhere to hide. The ground had levelled, night was falling, she had no option but to keep going a little longer, and then she might be able to evade them in the darkness. Muscles tiring, her legs wobbled beneath her, but she forced them to keep moving over the parched earth.
“Stop running. You can’t escape.” A man’s voice bellowed.
A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed they’d already reached the top. Celine ignored his command running blindly across the uneven surface, tripping over protruding rocks yet somehow managing to stay upright.
“There’s nowhere to go. Give up now.”
He was right. There was no place of safety up here, just another cliff extending to the heavens on her left, its barren surface even more rugged than the first. But she didn’t give up. Wouldn’t give up. Ignoring her ragged breath she pushed herself to her limits. Blood still dripped from her leg, and her weakened calves threatened to give way as she reached the edge of the precipice. She teetered on the edge, her head swimming as she glimpsed the trickling silver thread of river hundreds of metres below.
She’d exhausted all her options.
Her body slumped and she turned to face the three men. The hunters spread out and approached her with stealth, as though tracking a wild animal. A dangerous creature.
“Give up, girlie,” the leader addressed her, his voice harsh. “Don’t make this harder than it has to be.”
Her body shook, icy sweat trickled down her back, betraying her fear, her throat burned desperate for water. It had all been for nothing. She’d risked everything. Tried everything, and at the end of the day her efforts were worthless. The men moved closer, now only feet away, their faces menacing.
“Let’s go, girlie. We’ve wasted enough bloody time on you.” She’d led them quite a dance, but it was over now. An amateur like her had never stood a chance against him and his men, but nobody had got this far before, he admitted grudgingly.
She shook her head, dark panic-filled eyes darting from side to side. He could see she was calculating if she could get past them. Not a chance. They were big, fit and agile, she barely reached their shoulders. A tiny scrap of a woman, dusty and bleeding, her energy reserves must be depleted after the arduous climb. He spat on the ground.
“Stop messing about. We’re going. Now.”
She didn’t move.
“Come on, you stupid bitch. It’ll be dangerous if we don’t get down from here before dark.”
As he closed in on her she stepped back, her eyes widening in horror, a strangled scream erupting from her parched mouth when her foot failed to make contact with solid ground. Her arms flailed in vain trying to right her balance. He snatched for her as the other two men lurched forward, but he was a split second too late. She flipped into the ravine, her body careening off rocks and trees.
“Fuck! Stupid fucking bitch!” The hunters looked over the edge of the cliff at where their quarry had landed, her inert twisted body grotesquely splayed over rocks not far from the river bed.
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