Read ELIXIR Online

Authors: Gary Braver

ELIXIR

For Kathleen, Nathan, and David as ever
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot,
And thereby hangs a tale.
—WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE,
AS YOU LIKE IT
A special thanks goes out to the following people for providing me with medical and other technical information.
From Northeastern University’s College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Profession: Robert F. Raffauf, Barbara L. Waszczak, Carol Warner, Robert N. Hanson, Richard C. Deth, Wendy Smith, and Susan Sexton. Also, William J. DeAngelis, Department of Philosophy, and James R. Stellar, Department of Psychology.
Thanks also to Dr. John Neumeyer and Dr. William White of Research Biochemicals International; Mark Froimowitz, Pharm-Eco Laboratories, Inc.; David Lee-Parritz, New England Regional Primate Research Center; Dr. Changiz Geula of Beth Israel Hospital, Laboratory for Neurodegenerative and Aging Research; Ellen Kearns, Special Agent, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Boston; David Sturges, Professor of Economics, Colgate College; and Kenneth Van Cott, Director of the Pharmacy, Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.
I am greatly indebted to
How and Why We Age
, by Leonard Hayflick, Ph.D. (Ballantine Books, NY, 1994) whose own research with human cell tissues has been incorporated into this story.
A special thanks to William Martin, Charles O’Neill, Barbara Shapiro, Christopher Keane, Kathryn Goodfellow, and Alice Janjigian for their good suggestions. Also, to my terrific editor at Tor Books, Natalia Aponte.
A final word of appreciation to Susan Crawford who has always been more than an agent and who stood by me all the way.
OCTOBER 1980
A RAINFOREST IN PAPUA NEW GUINEA
T
here’s no good way to die. But this was as bad as it gets.
Christopher Bacon raised the pistol at a spot in the bush, not certain if anybody was there or if it was all in his mind. What Iwati called “bush bugaboo”—when the tangle of green closed in, and shadows pulsed and shifted like some stalking beast. When mosquitoes buzzed to the core of your brain. And fatigue crossed with claustrophobia. And some damn juju flower filled the air with a cloying stench.
But Chris could sense movement—some rustling behind that black curtain of vines, whispers hovering at the threshold of awareness. He could see nothing in the dark—just shadows in the firelight. And the only sound was the electric buzz of insect and tree frogs—as if something was about to happen.
The rain had stopped, but the air was gluey. And he was wet—his shirt plastered to his chest, his pants chafing his legs, his toes gummy in his boots. Wet as he had been for two weeks even when it wasn’t raining. So wet that his face felt like an aspic and the soles of his feet were covered with dead white skin that he could scrape off with his fingernails. The ground was a ripe-rot mud. And everything dripped. The rainforest always dripped. A relentless green dripping. And it filled his head.
Maybe Iwati was right: Thirteen nights had unhinged him, reduced him to spikes of raw nerves, producing phantoms out of nothing.
Maybe.
But every instinct said he was not alone, that he was being watched—that just beyond those vines lurked a hungry presence that at any second would explode into the light and gut him.
For two days he had felt they were being stalked, ever since Iwati and five porters had led Chris into this remote region of the Sepik beyond the West Irian border—a
tabu
zone that even the Wanebabi tribe had warned them to avoid. But despite his porters’ protests, Iwati had insisted on this side trip. So they hacked their way through jungle as dense as fur to this lake under the ancient cone of the Omafeki volcano—and all for that juju flower, the one that stank of apples and rotten flesh. And ever since, they had been on alert, certain that every errant sound was the Okamolu—the elusive highland tribe who stalked intruders with spears and arrows and a craving for “long pig.”
But Iwati was unfazed, puffing his pipe and saying it was just tree kangaroos or bush rats. “Nothing to worry about, my friend. Nobody else here.” Chris took refuge in the fact that his old schoolboy chum was shaman of the Tifalmin people and knew these parts. Tree kangaroos, Chris told himself—and an active imagination.
And where the hell was Iwati? While Chris had made a fire, Iwati led his men to a clearing to set up camp. But that was just down the trail. He had been gone for more than half an hour.
Chris crouched behind a fallen tree, the pistol gripped in both hands ready to blast. Behind him the volcano brooded against the fiery sunset. It was nearly night.
“Iwati!”
No answer, but Chris’s voice passed through the bush like a gunshot, exciting critters to a razor-edged chitter.
Invisible winged things were eating him alive. His eyes, ears, and lips were swollen, and some tiny boring beetles had gotten inside his boots and filled his feet with poison. During the day he had slathered himself with a repellent Iwati concocted of justica root and pigfat. But his face had been wiped clean, and the stuff was in Iwati’s bag. Dozens of creatures in the Papuan bush were capable of killing a man—from black mambas to wild boars to eighteen-foot crocodiles. But it was the goddamn bugs that reduced you to lunacy. Unseen things that ate your blood and flesh. And that syrupy stench clogging his throat.
Suddenly a nasty thought rose up: What if Okamolus had killed Iwati? A sudden blitz of arrows, and Iwati and his men would be dead without commotion.
Or what if the porters had mutinied? They had been jumpy since leaving Wanebabi. What if they had put a knife in Iwati’s back and fled for the river? Why not? The Okamolu’s reputation for savagery was legendary.
Chris remembered the war story of a Japanese patrol that had hacked its way out here to coerce locals into building an airstrip and had found themselves surrounded by Okamolu warriors. After a standoff of spears and automatic rifles, the Japanese commander in a gesture of truce dropped his rifle. Following cue, the Okamolu leader stuck his spear into the ground. The crisis was over, so it seemed. That night all but one of the nine men had their throats cut in their sleep and ended up the next day headless and laid out like pigs on mumu fires with yams and tubers. The final memory of the sole survivor was of children gnawing on a charred leg.
“Iwati!”
Still nothing.
Chris pressed himself against the tree, certain that if he survived the night he’d be feverish with malaria by dawn.
Bastards!
He wished they’d break the spell and get it over with. He had brought the gun for crocs, not a shootout with cannibals. Even if he could blast his way out, he’d never make it to the river on his own. Either he’d get lost or stumble into a pool of quick mud.
Then it happened. The tangle of vines slowly parted.
Chris’s finger hummed on the trigger. Somebody was moving toward him. No trick of light. No insulin low. No hallucination. The vines were parting. The standoff was about to break. Showdown.
At the last moment, the image of Wendy rocking their baby son Ricky filled Chris Bacon’s mind. And the thought:
This is my death
.
It had begun thirteen days ago. They had trekked out from the Tifalmin village gathering flora samples to take back to the States. Chris was a medicinal chemist working for Darby Pharmaceuticals, a Boston laboratory pioneering the synthesis of folk medicines. With the discovery that alkaloids from
Catharantus roseus
shrunk tumors from Hodgkin’s disease, Darby had entered a race with other commercial labs, convinced that miracle drugs grew on trees. Specifically, Chris was testing for plant steroids capable of conversion to animal steroids for contraceptive purposes. Darby’s goal was to produce the world’s first male birth-control pill—a goal that would rocket company stock to high heaven.
Chris Bacon was the Darby point man because he was their premier researcher and because he knew the Papuan bush. The son of the American ambassador to Australia in the late 1950s, Chris had attended Boys’ Royal Academy in Port Moresby where at age fourteen he met Iwati, one of the
few highland youths to attend the Academy. In 1943, Iwati’s village had helped Australian-American forces build the airstrip near Tifalmin village, giving the Allies an interior foothold and access to the
chincona
tree whose bark was used to produce quinine, the most effective treatment for malaria. It was the Tifalmin’s first contact with men with white skin and steel—a contact that resulted in Iwati growing up speaking English. And because he was bright, an Australian missionary group sponsored his education. A diabetic like Chris, they met at the school’s infirmary to have their blood sugar monitored and to receive insulin. Over the four years Chris and Iwati became friends—a relationship cemented forever during their last summer when Chris saved Iwati’s life. Ironically the boy was raised on the banks of the Sepik River but had never learned to swim—a fact Chris discovered when another boy pushed him off the deep end of a pool. Iwati went down like a rock and would have drowned had it not been for Chris.
Like his father before him, Iwati was the Tifalmin medicine man. In spite of the juju trinkets and mumbo-jumbo, he was thoroughly westernized, wearing Bermuda shorts, a Harvard T-shirt, and a new Bulova watch Chris had brought, while his men trudged through the bush naked but for penis gourds. Like his father, Iwati had a genius for telling which plants healed and which killed—a genius that brought Chris halfway around the globe. Iwati had a plant for every ailment—fevers, toothaches, ulcers, snakebites, lesions, malaria, and syphilis. And they pointed to the future of western world medicine.
For the third time in two years, Darby had sent Chris packing. But this time he managed to bring company money to build a school in the Tifalmin village. A long-term investment in shaman magic. And now it was to end in spears and arrows.
Chris cocked the gun and held his breath.
No trick of the light. No paranoid delusion. A figure took form out of the clotted shadows in the vines.
“Come out, you son-of-a-bitch!” Chris said.
The figure stopped, and for a moment the jungle turned to still life.
Suddenly the silence shattered in shrieks from all directions as the figure came rushing down on Chris. On reflex he shot and didn’t stop until all six chambers of the Colt were empty and he was clicking at a naked body tied at the feet by vines and twisting in the air.
From the shoulder scarification marks, he recognized Maku, one of the porters. His chest had been shot open by the bullets, but he was already dead. His head was missing.
In horror Chris watched the body swing until it came to rest just feet away. He tore bullets off his belt to reload when a dozen Okamolu warriors materialized from the shadows, forming a circle around him, and jabbing the air with spears. Before Chris could reload, a little wrinkled man came up to him. He was naked like the rest but for a long white plume through his nose, a neckband crescent, and a headdress of feathers. His face was striped with white paint. The juju man.
In his hand was a spear with Maku’s head still dripping blood. He approached Chris, jabbering in a tongue he didn’t recognize. Chris tried to concentrate on slipping rounds into the chambers, but the juju man pushed Maku’s head into his face. Black flies swarmed around it. He could smell the blood. Dark warm fluids dripped onto his shoes, making his gorge rise.
The juju man’s eyes were wild and his mouth was bright red from chewing betel nuts. Every few seconds he would spit thick wads of red, as if he’d removed the head with his teeth. With his free hand he touched Chris’s face and arms as if testing for paint. He yelled something, and his men mumbled back like a chorus. One of them shouted something angry, and the others agreed. It sounded like a death warrant. At once they began to chant and jab the air with their weapons again. As the old man backed away for clear shots, a ululating howl stunned the spears in place.
From the bush stepped a large man wearing a skirt of laplap grass and an elaborate bird-of-paradise headdress. What gave him a particularly fearsome appearance was the bright yellow face paint and red circled eyes. Instead of the shaman necklace of shells he wore a cord studded with crocodile teeth and weighted by a shrunken human head.
In perfect English he said, “They won’t harm you.”
Iwati.
He walked past Chris to the juju man and said something in a clear, even voice. Chris didn’t understand a word, but the effect was immediate. The old man mumbled something, and the warriors lowered their weapons. Then, incredibly, they bobbed their heads in supplication.
Chris quickly loaded his gun. “You won’t need that,” Iwati said.
“Christ, man, look what they did.” Maku’s carcass dangled just feet away, blood still pouring from the neck hole.
Iwati nodded. “They won’t harm you.”
It wasn’t just his appearance that held Chris. It was the Okamolu’s reaction. They looked more like frightened schoolboys than notorious flesh-eaters.
“How come they’re so scared? They’ve seen white men before.”
Iwati did not answer.
“What do they want?”
“Just curious.” Then Iwati said something in bush tongue.
The juju man muttered something to his men. He was dismissing them, and they looked grateful to leave. They turned around, then filed back into the black tangle the way they came. Before disappearing, each one looked back. And Chris could swear that what he saw in their faces was raw fear.
They buried the remains of Maku in a clearing and built a fire on the site to keep away scavengers. While the porters were back at camp, Iwati led Chris to the lake. The water looked like black glass. Silhouetted against the afterglow of the sun was the ancient Omafeki cone. A refreshing breeze had picked up, relieving the air of nauseating sweetness. From under some mats of palms Iwati pushed out a small log canoe.
“Where’re we going?”
Iwati pointed over the water. In the dim light, Chris could see a small island, maybe a quarter mile off shore. “What’s out there?” he asked. Iwati didn’t answer.
Chris squatted in front while Iwati paddled toward the island, guided by the moonlight. The closer they got, the more intense the sickening odor became. They pulled up at a small clearing surrounded by trees festooned with long vines. Chris made a move to get out when Iwati stopped him. From his sack he removed the carcass of a small tree kangaroo and hurled it high toward shore. In the moonlight Chris watched it arch to where the flowers hung. A split second before splashing down, something huge exploded from the depths and caught it. Some violent thrashing and the rolling flash of underbelly; then it disappeared into the black. A massive crocodile.
“He waits for birds,” Iwati said.
The animal surfaced in the distance, its tail etching a sinuous wake in the moonlight as it glided away like some ancient sentinel having collected his fee.

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