Check out Seeders, a feast of horror and suspense from author A.J. Colucci, available July 15th from Thomas Dunne.
George Brookes is a brilliant but reclusive plant biologist living on a remote Canadian island. After his mysterious death, the heirs to his estate arrive on the island, including his daughter Isabelle, her teenage children, and Jules Beecher, a friend and pioneer in plant neurobiology. They will be isolated on the frigid island for two weeks, until the next supply boat arrives.
As Jules begins investigating the laboratory and scientific papers left by George, he comes to realize that his mentor may have achieved a monumental scientific breakthrough: communication between plants and humans. Within days, the island begins to have strange and violent effects on the group… It doesn’t take long for Isabelle to realize that her father may have unleashed something sinister on the island, a malignant force that’s far more deadly than any human. As a fierce storm hits and the power goes out, she knows they’ll be lucky to make it out alive.
Sparrow Island lies fifty miles off the coast of Nova Scotia, where icy winters and frequent storms make it a brutal spot for life to survive. On one side, soaring cliffs act as a natural barrier against the Atlantic, protecting the rest of the island from invading winds and pounding surf. Along these scabrous cliffs, only the hardiest plants take root. Winter creepers, juniper, and heather cling stubbornly low to the ground, pugnacious against the elements. The other side of the island is flat with dense woods, sixty acres of knobby pines and twisted deciduous trees that huddle together like souls on a life raft.
Seventy-two-year-old George Brookes, the only resident of the island, seemed remarkably fit for such a harsh place. He ran fiercely through the frigid woods, dodging fallen branches as his bare feet pounded the brittle path. Despite the arctic temperature, his bronze body was soaked in sweat. George clung tight to an old rifle, shifting his wild eyes and jerking the barrel between the trees, as if something sinister were hunting him down. In cutoff shorts and long, gray hair, he looked like a castaway gone mad.
It was the last place he wanted to be, the woods, but it was the only way to the beach, and he had to get there quick. The drone of a boat engine spurred him on, making his legs pump faster and focusing his mind on one thought: Keep them away.
The engine grew loud as a chainsaw as George broke through the trees and scrambled down the beach like a savage, brandishing the rifle and charging across the black sand toward a fishing boat headed for the dock. The Acadia was an old vessel, but moved at a good clip. On board were three men, including the captain and steward. The third was George’s lawyer, Nicholas Bonacelli, a small man whose rigid stance and business attire were both distinct and out of place on the sea.
Bonacelli could hardly believe his eyes. He stepped back with a deeply troubled face and whispered, “He’s done it—he’s finally gone mad.”
George raised the gun and stopped at the edge of the surf.
“What is he doing?” the lawyer said from the bridge and waved his hands, Don’t shoot.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” the captain muttered in something like an Irish brogue.
George aimed the barrel.
The captain cut the motor and the boat drifted silently on the wave. “ ’E won’t do it.”
George fired a shot. The men hit the deck. It missed.
Through the crosshairs, George set his bloodshot eyes on the bobbing target. He fired another round that shattered the window of the bridge. The captain staggered to his knees on bits of glass and gunned the engine, turning the vessel in a hasty retreat back to sea.
George nodded and watched the boat for a while, until it was a speck of black on the calm blue sea. The afternoon sky was silvery white and the only sound was the hiss of foamy waves lapping at the beach. George scratched his cheek and the black, threadlike protrusions that covered his face like tiny worms. They had appeared on his forehead months ago, growing larger and spreading, becoming puckered and itchy and a constant source of irritation.
The wind was bitterly cold on the beach and for a while he stood motionless, fighting the feeling of dread. He looked at the sky and shut his eyes, letting the sun warm his face. His mind settled clear and sharp, but it wouldn’t be for long. If only he’d made the discovery before things had gone so far. Now, it was too late. At least for George.
He turned his head and gazed at the canopy of branches behind him.
“They’ve got you surrounded,” he whispered and turned back to the sea. No doubt the men would return in the evening or first light of day. There would be police, and a shootout, and then it would all be over.
But it will never be over.
George started back through the woods, barely able to fight them anymore. He could feel their probes creeping back into his brain and he searched the treetops for bits of sunlight. It was the longest mile he ever ran, and somewhere along the way, George dropped the rifle.
The woods ended and he staggered up the path toward his house. He was soon engulfed by smoke from a roaring bonfire. Wooden pallets burned in billowy clouds that stung his eyes as he drew closer to the patio. Plants smoldered and withered in their pouches of dirt and he could hear the seeds popping from the heat.
Coughing and sputtering, he entered the kitchen and collapsed in a chair. His head fell back and his eyes closed, mouth gaping as though he were asleep. Along with smoke and ash, there was a stream of purple dust blowing through an open window, making the lace curtains sway. George could see bits of blue sky through the slits of his eyes. He shut them again and the world stopped moving. He took deep breaths into his lungs and his mind fell freely.
It was a long while before he was aware of time again. The kitchen was aglow with bright orange rays of a sunset over Sparrow Island, and the only sound was George screaming in guttural agony. He lay on the kitchen floor, his body pale as snow and dripping with blood. Knives, forks, scissors, and other sharp things protruded from his arms and legs. The word traitor was carved upside down on his chest. His trembling hand picked up the last instrument of torture, a letter opener, and held the rounded tip inches from his abdomen.
“Help me, God,” he whispered, with the last bit of voice he had left.
There was only silence. He pressed the blade to his skin and bore down heavily, raising his body off the floor. The point was dull and he had to tighten his muscles to get it to pierce the flesh. There was a loud pop and the metal slid into him with a crunching sound. Blood dribbled like a fountain from the tattered hole. The pain was unbearable. George opened his mouth to scream but released only a gush of air. He laid his head back gently and stared up at the ceiling with a terrifying realization that it would take hours to die; if they let him die at all.
George was broken. His lips silently begged for mercy.
Let go, George.
And he did.
They were back now, in control. George slowly sat up holding a hand against the rush of blood. He staggered to his feet, lifting himself off the sticky red floor and walking a few paces on wobbly legs. He gripped the wall for support and his fingers painted a crimson trail to a photograph taped to the wall: a faded Polaroid of a little girl in a red dress and straggly braids, next to a cardboard blue ribbon with Father of the Year scrawled in a child’s handwriting. George was only semiconscious of tugging the photo loose. It was held tightly in his fist.
Outside, the first evening stars poked through a dark blue canvas. Sounds of crashing waves were carried by a northerly wind that drifted over the island. George stumbled across the patio, past a cooling skeleton of ash remains, where flames had devoured layers of the plant specimens he’d collected over a year, along with all his personal files and notes.
George headed uphill against the gale, toward the cliffs known as High Peak. Some of the sharp things sticking out of his flesh became loose and fell to the ground, but the letter opener held firm in his gut, its handle whipping back and forth. The photo of the little girl curled inside his grip.
As he reached the summit, the wind became fierce, but the frigid cold did not register. Standing unsteadily, he looked down at the waves beating ferociously against the rocks. George knew at that moment, seven billion people were going to die, but he no longer cared. In fact, it all made sense now; everything was as it should be.
He opened his fist and the photo of the girl blew into the sea. George smiled peacefully. Arms spread-eagled, he leaned over the edge and dropped silently off the cliff. His head slammed against the jagged boulders, splitting his skull. His broken body tumbled in the waves.
Isabelle Maguire looked up from a potted begonia with a tiny gasp. The muscles in her body stiffened and her skin turned cold and clammy. It was the feeling a mother might get when a child goes missing at the mall. Across the room, twelveyear-old Sean was on the couch with his face in a book. His older brother, Luke, was in his bedroom with the door closed, radio blasting.
She clicked her tongue, shook off the feeling, and continued watering the plants; twenty-two species that covered every surface of her Brooklyn apartment. It was the third time this month Isabelle had one of these premonitions and the feeling lingered. She forced it from her mind and maneuvered around the stuffy living room, an obstacle course of potted ferns and rubber trees.
Isabelle returned to the kitchen, stifling hot from a roast in the oven, and blotted a towel across her forehead. She threw open the window and felt a cool breeze on her cheeks. It was dark outside and the lights of Montague Street were as bright and cheer y as the sounds of laughter; couples strolling, families headed out for dinner, young people hitting the bars.
Isabelle tried not to look, listen, or even think about the streets below. Instead she drew her attention to the window box, where tiny green leaves were beginning to sprout, newly planted dill, basil, and parsley. She sprinkled the last drops of water on the dirt, closed the window, and locked it tight.
A bird trapped in a cage.
Dark, somber eyes stared back from the glass. Lack of sunshine had given her a milk-white complexion, but her dress was pressed, her makeup perfectly applied, and her long, black hair neatly coiffed. Not a strand out of place.
Hazy-eyed, she unconsciously wiped off the lipstick with the back of her hand.
The kitchen timer buzzed and Isabelle startled, checking her watch. It was nearly six o’clock and Colin liked dinner as soon as he came home. She removed the roast from the oven and filled the pitcher, rinsing the lipstick from her skin.
“Sean, come water your plants,” she called out gently.
Although only twelve, Sean was nearly as tall as his mother, with the same dark hair and alabaster skin. He shuffled through the kitchen and took the pitcher without a word. Sean had not spoken since he was eight, the day he fell out of a tree. He had been such a terrific kid, smart and funny, incessantly talking. He knew Latin and played the violin in preschool, and at the age of six he could recite Shakespeare and pi to the thousandth digit. Like Isabelle, he had a passion for botany. He would spend hours a day collecting plants in the park, squishing them under newspaper and drying them between blotting paper. By the age of seven his collection contained half the native plant species found in New York City.
Then one day Sean was climbing a tree in Central Park, while Isabelle watched him, lost in thought. It was hard enough keeping an eye on Sean. The kid was so energetic, running from swings to monkey bars to treetops. But that particular morning, Isabelle had had a fight with her husband and didn’t hear her son’s cry for help. It was a mistake she would regret the rest of her life. Sean fell twenty feet to the ground. He awoke from a coma a completely different person. For the past three years, he went to special schools, grunted out frustrations, and used his own form of sign language. He sat in waiting rooms with vacant eyes and half-closed lids that gave him a sleepy, dim-witted expression, as he was paraded before an endless list of specialists.
Still, no one could tell Isabelle why her son was mute or why his IQ had sunk forty points. Tests showed he had made a complete recovery with no damage to the brain. Physically, there was no explanation for his condition.
Sean plodded around the living room, watering all the floor plants and his favorite, a holly bush. It had stayed colorful all winter, but now it was spring and the red berries had fallen off. Isabelle watched her son with both affection and remorse as she remembered the laughing, inquisitive boy who had been so small and agile. Now he was tall and plump, silent and somber. It seemed as if Sean had to concentrate on even small tasks like walking and breathing.
Soft. That’s how Colin described him. Isabelle’s husband didn’t like anything out of the ordinary and that included his children. A key fiddled in the door and she looked at the clock and frowned.
Colin strolled into the apartment, threw his jacket over a coat hook, and carefully unbuckled his holster. He slipped a Glock pistol and his police badge into a bureau drawer, locked it with a key, and went to the living room. He took off his shoes and sat down in an armchair, folding the evening paper and brushing his fingers down his tie to remove any sign of lint. It was an obsessive habit, a mark of fastidiousness.
As he opened the paper and flicked away invisible crumbs from his shoulder, his eyes lingered on Sean reading a book on wildflowers.
Isabelle thought she saw a look of disgust.
“So when’s his next appointment?” Colin asked her.
“I’m done with doctors. He’s been to dozens and there’s no consensus. I think he’s fine. He just needs—”
“Fine? He’s not fine.”
She leaned out of the kitchen doorway, clutching a spoon. “Could we not talk about this right now?”
Colin snapped open the newspaper and it swallowed him from view. “Did you get a box of cigars for the captain?”
She didn’t answer.
“Come on, Isabelle, get some freaking air.”
“I’m just busy.”
“You’re not busy. Tomorrow I want you to go to the cigar store on Bedford and pick out the expensive kind. The online stuff is crap. Do you hear me?”
He put down the paper with a crunch, gazing around the room. “Jesus, why don’t we just grow our own tobacco? We’ve got every other plant. It’s like a jungle in here. Are you listening?”
“I want you to start thinking about getting rid of half of these pots. You hear me?”
“Especially these monsters on the floor.”
She poked her head from the doorway. “Those belong to Sean.”
Colin looked at his son and started to speak, but reconsidered.
Isabelle returned to the kitchen and scooped the string beans into a bowl and wondered, as always, how she had missed all the warning signs.
Colin was a rookie police officer when they met. To Isabelle he was the knight in shining armor she’d been waiting for, a ticket out of her mother’s house and away from a future going nowhere. The job became his life, and Colin steadily rose in rank to become the youngest detective on the force. Isabelle knew she would always come second to his career, but she never imagined he would bring the job home with him. Colin approached the marriage as though it were a homicide investigation. He scrutinized every problem, overexamined details, and spoke to his wife as if interrogating a witness. He instructed her on how to clean the house, raise the children, answer the phone, and even how to dress—in stylish skirts and high-heeled shoes.
While Isabelle could cope with his dictatorship, she couldn’t stand his suspicion and jealousy, the endless middle-of-the-day phone calls. Lately, she stopped going out altogether.
“What did you do today?” he asked.
“Remember you told me you wanted to travel the world?” He chuckled.
“Things change.” She sharpened a knife over the roast.
Colin listened to the quiet. “Where’s Monica?”
He craned his neck toward the hallway. The door to his fifteen-year-old son’s room was closed and he chuckled again. “Maybe he finally nailed her.”
Isabelle bristled at the comment. Colin had brought Monica home two months ago, after her mother was thrown in jail for prostitution. Not that he was such a caring man, to take pity on a troubled teen, but Monica was the latest in a series of charitable projects to make him look good to the department. Isabelle didn’t really mind. The girl was all right, not too difficult so far, but quite distracting for her older son, Luke. Like Colin, Isabelle knew that it was unlikely anything was going on inside the bedroom. Monica showed zero interest in the boy. But she was hardly a good influence with her street smarts, provocative clothing, tattoos, and black makeup.
Colin was already at the table when she carried the sliced roast and vegetables into the dining room.
“I’ve got big news,” he said. “I’ve been promoted to lieutenant.”
She set the platter on the table with a thud. “That’s wonderful.”
“They put me in charge of the Park Slope murders.”
“The serial killer?”
“The case will be my life until we nail the fucker. This is probably my last family dinner for months.”
Isabelle feigned a look of disappointment and watched her husband line up a uniform row of string beans on his plate. She was about to call the children to dinner when the doorbell rang, and she turned with a gasp. The same cold premonition swept over her again and she looked at the door without moving.
Colin speared a piece of meat. “You gonna get it or what?”
Isabelle swallowed hard, went to the door, and slid the lock. Standing in the hallway was a short but elegant man in a European suit. His large, dark eyes were set against a tan face. He had a thin mustache and his black hair was combed back neatly. He looked Italian, but his accent was British.
“Isabelle Brookes?” he said. She nodded hesitantly.
“Daughter of Professor George Brookes?”
For a moment she couldn’t breathe. “Who are you?”
“I’m your father’s lawyer. Nicholas Bonacelli. May I come in?”
She stepped aside.
Colin scrutinized the man walking into his dining room. He asked, “What’s this about?”
Bonacelli spoke only to Isabelle. “I’m sorry to bring such troubling news. Your father died two months ago.”
She was stunned.
“You’re the heir to his estate.”
“Estate?” She was still piecing his words together. “You mean the island?”
“That’s right. The reading of the will is to take place tomorrow. It was your father’s request that you be present.”
“Oh… I don’t know.”
“I’ve made travel arrangements for you and your family.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Colin said with an angry grin. “Tomorrow? There’s no way.”
“It was his last request.”
“Excuse me,” Isabelle said. “I think something is burning.”
She fled to the kitchen and stood motionless by the stove with her body doubled over as though she’d been kicked. Her palm pressed firmly against her lips as she tried to suppress a cry. She attempted to recall George’s face, voice, or expression, but couldn’t focus on a single image. They were all blurr y snapshots; a barefoot man in a white jacket twirling a yellow flower, instructing her on species identification, reading her books, and challenging her with riddles. They were faded memories, but exceptionally happy ones, and every moment took place on Sparrow Island, the only place that had ever felt like home.
So why had she never returned? Disappearing from her father’s life had been so difficult at ten years old, but she had had no problem staying away for thirty more. Now it seemed strange and wrong. She cringed, knowing it was fear that kept her from returning, the shame of her father’s legacy and the ugly rumors that surrounded him. She could feel tears forming, but then squared her shoulders. No, she wasn’t going to cry. The past was gone and there would be no reconciliation. Yet, this was a chance to return to the island she loved, put her feelings in order and try to forgive. The pain began to subside.
The thought of leaving her husband was strangely pleasant.
In the dining room, Colin was asking Bonacelli how much the island was worth.
“It’s irrelevant, since it cannot be sold. Sparrow Island was leased to Professor Brookes by the Canadian government. It’s paid up for the next seventy-five years.”
“Then there’s no need to fly out there. I know my rights. She doesn’t have to go to any reading.”
Isabelle marched into the room. “Mr. Bonacelli, I’d like to leave as soon as possible.”
“Splendid.” He opened his briefcase on the table next to the roast.
“Hold on a minute,” Colin said hotly.
“It will just be a couple of weeks,” she told him. “Summer break just started and we have no plans.” She turned to the lawyer. “Is the house still livable?”
“Certainly, but it’s in bad disrepair.”
“It has running water? Electricity?”
“A supply boat comes twice a month. There’s no phone, but a two-way radio works most of the time.” He picked up a large envelope. “There is a private plane leaving for Halifax in the morning. You can bring up to four people. A boat will take you to the island as soon as you land, and we can go over the details of the will.”
“You can do that right now,” Colin said, his face mottled red.
“That was not her father’s wishes. I don’t even have the documents with me.”
“Isabelle!” Colin held up a hand and spoke loudly. “This is much too short…We need time… I’ve got a big case now.”
“That’s exactly why it’s a good time to go. You’re busy hunting down a serial killer. Really, you don’t have to come, Colin.”
“Of course I do. You can’t possibly handle this yourself. Besides, who will take care of the kids?”
“They’re coming with me.”
“No way.” Colin shook his head and pointed his finger at the lawyer. “We have a right to see that will and there’s nothing that says we have to go to any island. I’m in law enforcement and I know property rights pretty damn well.”
“You can take it up with the Canadian consulate,” Bonacelli said, thrusting the envelope toward Isabelle. “Now, I have a taxi waiting and I’m late for an appointment. Here are all the papers instructing you where to go. Reservation numbers, directions, and my personal cell phone number. I’m terribly sorry to meet under such an unfortunate circumstance. I knew your father for some years and he spoke of you with great affection.”
Isabelle found comfort in his words, but couldn’t help feeling a pang of guilt. “You didn’t tell me how he died.”
“It was an accident.” No one spoke and he did not elaborate. Then Bonacelli started for the door. “Well, good-bye, Mrs. Maguire… Mr. Maguire.”
The lawyer gave an odd smile and left.
When the door shut, Colin glowered at Isabelle. “So what was he worth? Your father—did he have any money?” He went back to the living room, jittery and grim.
“Just the island. He lost the family fortune years ago, trying to finance his research.”
“Maybe he had money you didn’t know about. Stocks. Jewelry.”
She squinted. “There was a very expensive diamond, but I’m sure he’d have sold it by now.”
“Well, I’m making some calls tomorrow. I’ll get to the bottom of this.”
“Don’t bother. I’m going.”
He took a threatening step toward her. “You’re not going. End of discussion.”
“Isabelle, I said no!”
Seeders © A.J. Colucci, 2014