We’re pleased to announce the winner of the Suspense/Crime/Mystery/Thriller category of this year's Launch Pad Contest.
Passing the first stage of lift-off from the slush pile is Deborah S. Canon of San Antonio, Texas, with her novel Jade Sky. Next step: she’ll submit a proposal and the complete manuscript for the second-round judges.
The author has a good story and knows how to tell it. With an exciting opening, and action and intrigue throughout the submission, this entry has winning potential. We’re sure you’ll agree. Here’s the first 3300 words or so:
Deborah S. Canon
Balam stepped over the jaguar tracks on her way to the mine. No one else in her village dared use this path, but she was at home here under the jungle canopy. Howler monkeys bellowed, marking their territory and warning intruders. She was careful not to disturb a tiny highway of termite trails constructed from the powdery remnants of a fallen mahogany tree. Velvety white lichen clung to the bark with a single drop of dew suspended from its edge.
As she bent closer to inspect the lichen, the bellowing stopped.
The dewdrop fell.
Out of the stillness, she heard another sound—a terrifying sound—come from her jungle.
At first, she thought it was the sound of a predator besting its prey, but, no, it was not an animal. It was a man, no, men—screaming. She froze. Her pulse pounded in her neck. The hairs on her arms were erect. The screaming continued. She crouched low in the dense underbrush, invisible in the lush green womb.
She could see nothing; sounds were magnified. Her head snapped around. Something was crashing through the bushes and vines no more than fifty paces from her hiding place.
Peeking through a gap in the foliage, she saw two men running. One was her brother, Ahk: their most learned scribe, their shaman; he clasped a bundle wrapped in banana leaves. His youngest apprentice was several steps behind.
She dared not call out but moved to intercept them, emerging on the path a few feet in front of her brother. For a moment, he didn’t seem to recognize her. Ahk cried out, but when he realized who she was, he managed to skid to a stop before plowing over her. His companion, glazed eyes blinded by fear, lowered his head and charged. The apprentice was two steps from her when she saw the glint of an obsidian spike in his hand
“No, NO!” Ahk stayed the other man’s arm inches from her skull. His panicked student doubled over and collapsed in the ferns, gulping air.
Ahk turned toward her and dropped the package into her arms. He bent at the waist and propped his hands on his knees. His ribs heaved as he tried to suck in more air. “No time. Take this—hide it. The Ts’ul, invaders—found the mine.”
Balam’s stomach lurched; her skin was slick with cold sweat. The Ts’ul: the white warriors had come from the sea and destroyed countless villages in just two summers. Now, they had found her home. They must never learn the true treasure in the mine.
Ahk stood and looked down at the bundle as a man looks at his first-born son. “They will take me. They must not take Uay. There is no one left, no one else.”
The space around her seemed to contract, squeezing the air from her lungs. She thrust the package back toward her brother and tried to back away. “You are wrong. I have not been prepared.”
Ahk closed her arms around the bundle and tightened his grip. His face was inches away from her. “Listen! They are coming! It must be you!” As he spoke, his spray hit her face; she smelled the sour scent of fear. She winced and closed her eyes as if that could stop her rising terror. He relaxed his grip and sighed, “Balam, please…”
It was the sound of his voice that washed away her fear. When she opened her eyes and saw her brother’s sagging shoulders, she felt the enormous weight he carried. Her choice was clear. She tucked the bundle in her clothing and took a deep breath.
“Be sure it faces the mine entrance.” Ahk turned to leave.
“The blood sacrifice—has it been done?”
He stopped, and when he turned back, his eyes spoke for him. His face puckered for a moment before he squared his shoulders and nodded. She started toward him for one last embrace, but stopped short when Ahk’s head whipped around at the sound of distant shouts. He had no more time for talk. The soldiers of the Spanish Army were coming.
“RUN!” Without looking back, both men fled in different directions.
Balam ducked down and became invisible in the jungle. Behind her, she heard strange clanging noises and words in a language she couldn’t understand. Peering from her hiding place, she saw a dozen men running.
These men were huge. They must have been twice her height with bearded faces and fierce eyes. They wore shiny breastplates and headpieces made of a substance she’d never seen before.
They were getting closer.
She flattened her body and listened. Cutter ants crawled over her forearm: one or two scouts followed by a swarm, scurrying across her skin, stinging and biting. Some leaves fell across her legs, cut away as a soldier slashed through the underbrush. Something pointed grazed her thigh. She held her breath. Like the dewdrop, she waited, suspended.
More shouting. The men ran toward the path Ahk had taken. She had to see. Slowly, she lifted her head above the bushes.
Run, brother—run. Run straight and don’t turn back.
The soldiers were marching back and they had Ahk. She watched them fasten a wooden yoke around his neck. They bound his hands. He looked in her direction, and, for an instant, they locked eyes before Balam, once again, became part of the jungle.
(To continue, click here.)