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Still Life with Crows
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Is it a serial killer, a man with the need to destroy?
Or is it a darker force, a curse upon the land?
Amid golden cornfields, FBI Special Agent Pendergast discovers evil in the blood of America’s heartland.
No one is safe.
About this Book
About the Author
About the Agent Pendergast Series
Also by Preston & Child
Table of Contents
Lincoln Child dedicates this book to his daughter, Veronica.
Douglas Preston dedicates this book to Mario Spezi.
Medicine Creek, Kansas. Early August. Sunset.
The great sea of yellow corn stretches from horizon to horizon under an angry sky. When the wind rises the corn stirs and rustles as if alive, and when the wind dies down again the corn falls silent. The heat wave is now in its third week, and dead air hovers over the corn in shimmering curtains.
One road cuts through the corn from north to south; another from east to west. Where the two roads cross lies the town. Sad gray buildings huddle together at the intersection, gradually thinning along both roads into separate houses, then scattered farms, and then nothing. A creek, edged by scraggly trees, wanders in from the northwest, loops lazily around the town, and disappears in the southeast. It is the only curved thing in this landscape of straight lines. To the northeast rises a cluster of mounds surrounded by trees.
A giant slaughterhouse stands south of the town, lost in the corn, its metal sides scoured by years of dust storms. The faint odor of blood and disinfectant drifts in a plume southward from the plant, riding the fitful currents of air. Beyond, just over the horizon, stand three gigantic grain silos, like a tall-masted ship lost at sea.
The temperature is exactly one hundred degrees. Heat lightning flickers silently along the distant northern horizon. The corn is seven feet high, the fat cobs clustered on the stalks. Harvest is two weeks away.
Twilight is falling over the landscape. The orange sky bleeds away into red. A handful of streetlights blink on in the town.
A black-and-white police cruiser passes along the main street, heading east into the great nothingness of corn, its headlights stabbing into the rising darkness. Some three miles ahead of the cruiser, a column of slow-circling turkey vultures rides a thermal above the corn. They wheel down, then rise up again, circling endlessly, uneasily, rising and falling in a regular cadence.
Sheriff Dent Hazen fiddled with the dashboard knobs and cursed at the tepid air that streamed from the vents. He felt the vent with the back of his hand but it wasn’t getting any cooler: the AC had finally bit the dust. He muttered another imprecation and cranked down the window, tossing out his cigarette butt. Furnacelike air boiled in, and the cruiser filled with the smell of late-summer Kansas: earth, cornstalks. He could see the circling turkey buzzards rise and dip, rise and dip above the dying smear of sunset along the horizon. One ugly motherfucker of a bird, thought Hazen, and he glanced over at the long-barreled Winchester Defender lying on the seat beside him. With any luck, he’d get close enough to assist two or three of them into the next world.
He slowed and glanced once again at the dark birds silhouetted against the sky. Why the hell aren’t any of them landing? Turning off the main road, he eased the cruiser onto one of the many rutted dirt lanes that cut their way through the thousand square miles of corn surrounding Medicine Creek. He moved forward, keeping a watch on the sky, until the birds were almost directly overhead. This was as close as he was going to get by car. From here, he’d have to walk.
He threw the cruiser into park and, more out of habit than necessity, snapped on the lightbar flashers. He eased his frame out of the cruiser and stood for a moment facing the wall of corn, drawing a rough hand across his stubbled chin. The rows went in the wrong direction and it was going to be a bitch getting through them. Just the thought of shouldering through all those rows made him weary, and for a moment he thought about putting the cruiser in reverse and getting the hell back to town. But it was too late for that now: the neighbor’s call had already been logged. Old Wilma Lowry had nothing better to do but look out her window and report the location of dead animals. But this was his last call of the day, and a few extra hours on Friday evening at least guaranteed him a long, lazy, boozy Sunday fishing at Hamilton Lake State Park.
Hazen lit another cigarette, coughed, and scratched himself, looking at the dry ranks of corn. He wondered if it was somebody’s cow who’d wandered into the corn and was now dead of bloat and greed. Since when was it a sheriff’s responsibility to check on dead livestock? But he already knew the answer: ever since the livestock inspector retired. There was nobody to take his place and no longer a need for one. Every year there were fewer family farms, fewer livestock, fewer people. Most people only kept cows and horses for nostalgic reasons. The whole county was going to hell.
Realizing he’d put off the task long enough, Hazen sighed, hiked up his jangling service belt, slipped his flashlight out of its scabbard, shouldered the shotgun, and pushed his way into the corn.
Despite the lateness of the hour, the sultry air refused to lift. The beam of his light flashed through the cornstalks stretching before him like endless rows of prison bars. His nose filled with the smell of dry stalks, that peculiar rusty smell so familiar it was part of his very being. His feet crunched dry clods of earth, kicking up dust. It had been a wet spring, and until the heat wave kicked in a few weeks back the summer sun had been benevolent. The stalks were as high as Hazen could ever remember, at least a foot or more over his head. Amazing how fast the black earth could turn to dust without rain. Once, as a kid, he’d run into a cornfield to escape his older brother and gotten lost. For two hours. The disorientation he’d felt then came back to him now. Inside the corn rows, the air felt trapped: hot, fetid, itchy.
Hazen took a deep drag on the cigarette and continued forward, knocking the fat cobs aside with irritation. The field belonged to Buswell Agricon of Atlanta, and Sheriff Hazen could not have cared less if they lost a few ears because of his rough passage. Within two weeks Agricon’s huge combine harvesters would appear on the horizon, mowing down the corn, each feeding half a dozen streams of kernels into their hoppers. The corn would be trucked to the cluster of huge grain silos just over the northern horizon and from there railed to feed lots from Nebraska to Missouri, to disappear down the throats of mindless castrated cattle, which would in turn be transformed into big fat marbled sirloins for rich assholes in New York and Tokyo. Or maybe this was one of those gasohol fields, where the corn wasn’t eaten by man or even beast but burned up in the engines of cars instead. What a world.
Hazen bullied his way through row after row. Already his nose was running. He tossed his cigarette away, then realized he should probably have pinched it off first. Hell with it. A thousand acres of the damn corn could burn and Buswell Agricon wouldn’t even notice. They should take care of their own fields, pick up their own dead animals. Of course, the executives had probably never set foot in a real cornfield in their lives.
Like almost everyone else in Medicine Creek, Hazen came from a farming family that no longer farmed. They had sold their land to companies like Buswell Agricon. The population of Medicine Creek had been dropping for more than half a century and the great industrial cornfields were now dotted with abandoned houses, their empty window frames staring like dead eyes over the billowy main of crops. But Hazen had stayed. Not that he liked Medicine Creek particularly; what he liked was wearing a uniform and being respected. He liked the town because he knew the town, every last person, every dark corner, every nasty secret. Truth was, he simply couldn’t imagine himself anywhere else. He was as much a part of Medicine Creek as Medicine Creek was a part of him.
Hazen stopped suddenly. He swept his beam through the stalks ahead. The air, full of dust, now carried another smell: the perfume of decay. He glanced up. The buzzards were far above now, directly over his head. Another fifty yards and he would be there. The air was still, the silence complete. He unshouldered his shotgun and moved forward more cautiously.
The smell of decay drifted through the rows, sweeter by the moment. Now Hazen could make out a gap in the corn, a clearing directly ahead of him. Odd. The sky had flamed its red farewell and was now dark.
The sheriff raised his gun, eased off the safety with his thumb, and broke through the last corn row into the clearing. For a moment he looked around in wild incomprehension. And then, rather suddenly, he realized what he was looking at.
The gun went off when it hit the ground and the load of double-ought buckshot blew by Hazen’s ear. But the sheriff barely noticed.
Two hours later, Sheriff Dent Hazen stood in approximately the same spot. But now, the cornfield had been transformed into a gigantic crime scene. The clearing was ringed with portable sodium vapor lights that bathed the scene in a harsh white glow, and a generator growled somewhere out in the corn. The Staties had bulldozed an access road in to the site, and now almost a dozen state cruisers, SOC trucks, ambulances, and other vehicles sat in an instant parking lot carved out of the corn. Two photographers were taking pictures, their flashes punctuating the night, while a lone evidence gatherer crouched nearby, picking at the ground with a pair of tweezers.
Hazen stared at the victim, sickness rising in his gut. This was the first homicide in Medicine Creek in his lifetime. The last killing had been during Prohibition, when Rocker Manning had been shot at by the creek while buying a load of moonshine… that was back in, when, ’31? His granddaddy had handled the case, made the arrest. But that was nothing like this. This was something else entirely. This was fucking madness.
Hazen turned from the corpse and stared at the makeshift road through the corn, cut to save the troopers a quarter-mile hike. There was a good possibility the road had destroyed evidence. He wondered if it was standard Statie procedure, or if they even had a procedure for this kind of situation. All the activity had an ad hoc air about it, as if the troopers were so shocked by the crime that they were just making it up as they went along.
Sheriff Hazen didn’t hold Staties in particularly high regard. When you got down to it they were basically a bunch of tight-jawed assholes in shiny boots. But he could sympathize. This was something beyond anyone’s experience. He lit a fresh Camel off the stub of his last one and reminded himself that it wasn’t really his first homicide. It wasn’t his case at all. He may have found the body, but it was outside the township and therefore outside his jurisdiction. This was a Statie job, and thank the risen Lord for that.
“Sheriff Hazen?” The towering Kansas state trooper captain came crunching over the corn stubble, his black boots shining, his hand outstretched, mouth tensed in what was supposed to pass for a smile. Hazen took the hand and shook it, annoyed by the man’s height. It was the third time the captain had offered him his hand. Hazen wondered if the man had a bad memory or if he was just so agitated that the handshaking was a nervous reaction. Probably the latter.
“The M.E.’s coming down from Garden City,” the captain said. “Should be here in ten minutes.”
Sheriff Hazen wished to hell he’d sent Tad out on this one. He would’ve gladly given up his weekend fishing—Christ, he would’ve even stayed sober—to miss this. On the other hand, he thought, perhaps this would have been too much for Tad. In so many ways he was still only a kid.
“We’ve got ourselves an artist here,” said the trooper, shaking his head. “A real artist. You think this’ll make the Kansas City Star?”
Hazen didn’t reply. This was a new thought to him. He thought of his picture in the paper and found the idea displeasing. Someone walking past with a fluoroscope bumped into him. Christ, the crime scene was getting to be more crowded than a Baptist wedding.
He filled his lungs with tobacco, then forced himself to look out over the scene yet again. It seemed important that he should see it one more time, before it was all disassembled and put into bags and taken away. His eyes played over it, automatically committing every hideous little detail to memory.
It had been set up almost like a scene in a play. A circular clearing had been made in the heart of the cornfield, the broken stalks carefully stacked to one side, leaving an area of dirt clods and stubble perhaps forty feet in diameter. Even in the terrible unreality of the moment, Hazen found himself marveling at the geometrical precision with which the circle had been formed. At one end of the clearing stood a miniature forest of sharpened sticks, two to three feet high, pushed into the earth, their cruel-looking ends pointing upward. At the precise middle of the clearing stood a circle of dead crows spitted on stakes. Only they weren’t stakes but Indian arrows, each topped by a flaked point. There were at least a couple dozen of the birds, maybe more, their vacant eyes staring, yellow beaks pointing inward.
And in the center of this circle of crows lay the corpse of a woman.
At least Sheriff Hazen thought it was a woman: her lips, nose, and ears were missing.
The corpse lay on its back, its mouth wide open, looking like the entrance to a pink cave. It had bleached-blonde hair, a clump of it ripped away and missing; the clothes had been shredded in countless small, neat, parallel lines. There was no sense of disorder. The relationship between the head and the shoulders looked wrong: Hazen thought her neck was probably broken. But there was no bruising on the neck indicating strangulation. If it had been broken, the act had been done by a single hard twist.
The killing, Hazen concluded, had taken place elsewhere. He could see marks in the earth going back not quite to the edge of the clearing, indicating the body had been dragged; extrapolating the line, he saw a gap in the corn rows where a stalk had been broken off. The troopers hadn’t seen it. In fact, some of the marks were being obscured by the comings and goings of the Staties themselves. He turned toward the captain to point this out. Then he stopped himself. What was wrong with him? This was not his case. Not his responsibility. When the shit hit, the fan would be blowing in someone else’s direction. The minute he opened his mouth the wind would shift his way. If he said, “Captain, you’ve destroyed evidence,” on the witness stand two months from now he’d be forced to repeat it to some asshole of a defense lawyer. Because whatever he said now would come up at the trial of the maniac who did this. And there would be a trial. A guy this crazy couldn’t get away with it for long.
He inhaled a lungful of acrid smoke. Keep it zipped. Let them make the mistakes. It’s not your case.
He dropped the butt, ground it beneath one foot. Yet another car was now bumping carefully along the access road, its headlights stabbing up and down through the corn. It came to a stop in the makeshift lot and a man in white got out, carrying a black bag. McHyde, the M.E.
Sheriff Hazen watched as the man gingerly picked his way among the dry clods, not wanting to soil his wingtips. He spoke to the captain and then went over to the body. He stared at it for a moment from this angle and that, then knelt and carefully tied plastic bags around the hands and feet of the victim. Then he drew some kind of device out of his black bag—it was called an anal probe, Sheriff Hazen remembered abruptly. And now the M.E. was doing something intimate to the corpse. Measuring its temperature. Jesus. Now there was a job for you.
Sheriff Hazen glanced up into the dark sky, but the turkey vultures were long gone. They, at least, knew when to leave well enough alone.
The M.E. and the paramedics now began packing up the corpse for removal. A Statie was pulling up the arrows with the crows, labeling them, and packing them into refrigerated evidence lockers. And Sheriff Hazen realized he had to take a leak. All that damn coffee. But it wasn’t just that; acid was starting to boil up from his stomach. He hoped to hell his ulcer wasn’t coming back. He sure didn’t want to toss his cookies in front of these characters.
He glanced around, made sure he was not being noticed, and slipped into the dark corn. He walked down a row, inhaling deeply, trying to get far enough away that his own piss wouldn’t be found and marked as evidence. He wouldn’t have to go far; these Staties were not showing much curiosity about anything beyond the immediate crime scene.
He stopped just outside the circle of lights. Here, buried in the sea of corn, the murmur of the voices, the faint hum of the generator, and the bizarre violence of the crime scene seemed far away. A breeze came drifting past, only a slight movement of the muggy air, but it set the corn around him swaying and rustling. Hazen paused a minute, filling his nostrils. Then he unzipped, grunted, and urinated loudly on the dry ground. Finally, with a big noisy shake that set his gun, cuffs, club, and keys rattling, he put everything back in and patted it into place.
As he turned, he saw something in the reflected glow of the lights. He stopped, shining his flashlight across the corn rows. There it was, in the next row over. He looked more closely. A piece of cloth, caught high up on one of the dry husks. It appeared to be the same as the material the victim was wearing. He shone his light up and down the row, but he saw nothing else.
He straightened up. He was doing it again. This wasn’t his case. Maybe he’d mention it; maybe he’d let the Staties find it on their own. If it really meant anything, anyway.
When he pushed his way back into the clearing, the trooper captain came forward at once. “Sheriff Hazen, I was just looking for you,” he said. He was carrying a handheld GPS unit in one hand and a USGS topographical map in the other, and his face was wearing a very different expression than it had just moments before. “Congratulations.”
“What’s that?” asked Hazen.
The captain pointed to the GPS device. “According to this reading, we’re inside the boundary of the township of Medicine Creek. Twelve feet inside the boundary, to be exact. Which means it’s your case, Sheriff. We’re here to help, of course, but it’s your case. So let me be the first to offer my congratulations.”
He beamed and held out his hand.
Sheriff Dent Hazen ignored the hand. Instead he plucked the pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket, shook one out, pushed it between his lips, and lit it. He inhaled and then spoke, the smoke puffing out with his words. “Twelve feet?” he repeated. “Jesus Christ.”
The captain let his hand fall to his side.
Hazen began to talk. “The victim was murdered somewhere else and carried here. The murderer came through the corn over there, dragged her the last twenty feet or so. If you follow the row backwards from that broken stalk, you’ll come to a piece of caught fabric. The fabric matches that of the victim, but it’s caught too high on the stalk for her to have been walking, so he must’ve been lugging her on his back. You may see my footprints and the place where I took a piss in the adjoining row; don’t bother with that. And for God’s sake, Captain, do we really need all these people? This is a crime scene, not a Wal-Mart parking lot. I want only the M.E., the photographer, and the evidence gatherer on site. Tell the rest to back off.”
“Sheriff, we do have our procedures to follow—”
“My procedures are now your procedures.”
The captain swallowed.
“I want a pair of certified, trained AKC police bloodhounds here ASAP to get on the trail. And I want you to get the forensic evidence team down from Dodge.”
“And one other thing.”
“I want your boys to pull over any arriving press. Especially television trucks. Tie them up while we complete work here.”
“Pull them over for what?”
“Give ’em all speeding tickets. That’s what you boys are good at, right?”
The captain’s tight jaw grew even tighter. “And if they’re not speeding?”
Sheriff Hazen grinned. “Oh, they’ll be speeding, all right. You can bet your ass on it.”
Deputy Sheriff Tad Franklin sat hunched over his desk, filling out reams of unfamiliar paperwork and trying to pretend that the unruly knot of television and newspaper reporters just outside the plate glass window of the Medicine Creek Sheriff’s Department didn’t exist. Tad had always liked the fact that the sheriff’s HQ was located in a former five-and-ten-cent storefront, where he could wave to passersby, chat with friends, keep tabs on who was coming or going. But now the disadvantages of the office had suddenly become obvious.
The fiery light of yet another hot August sunrise had begun spilling down the street, stretching long shadows from the news trucks and gilding the unhappy faces of the reporters. They had been up all night and things were beginning to look ugly. A steady stream came and went from Maisie’s Diner across the street, but the plain food only seemed to make them grumpier.
Tad Franklin tried to concentrate on the paperwork, but he found himself unable to ignore the tapping on the window, the questions, the occasional shouted vulgarity. This was getting intolerable. If they woke Sheriff Hazen, who was grabbing a few winks in the back cell, things might get even uglier. Tad rose, tried to put on as stern a look as possible, and cracked open a window.
“I’ll ask you once again to step back from the glass,” he said.
This was greeted with a muffled chorus of disrespectful comments, shouted questions, a general undercurrent of irritation. Tad knew from the call letters on the vans that the reporters weren’t local; they were from Topeka, Kansas City, Tulsa, Amarillo, and Denver. Well, they could just ride on back home and—
Behind him, Tad heard a door thump, a cough. He turned to see Sheriff Hazen, yawning and rubbing his stubbly chin, the hair on one side of his head sticking out horizontally. The sheriff smoothed it down, then fitted on his hat with both hands.
Tad closed the window. “Sorry, Sheriff, but these people just won’t go away—”
The sheriff yawned, waved his hand casually, turned his back on the crowd. A particularly angry reporter in the rear of the crowd shouted out a stream of invective, in which the words “redneck in miniature” could be heard. Hazen went to the coffee pot, poured a cup. He sipped it, made a face, spat the coffee back into the cup, hawked up a loogie, deposited it in the cup as well, and then poured everything back into the pot.
“Want me to get a fresh pot?” asked Tad.
“No thanks, Tad,” the sheriff replied, giving his deputy’s shoulder a gruff pat. Then he turned back to face the group through the glass once more. “These folks need something for the six o’clock news, don’t you think?” he said. “Time for a press conference.”
“A press conference?” Tad had never attended a press conference in his life, let alone been part of one. “How do you do that?”
Sheriff Hazen barked a laugh, briefly displaying a rack of yellow teeth. “We go outside and answer questions.” He went to the old glass door, unlocked it, and stuck his head out.
“How you folks all doing?”
This was greeted by a surge and an incomprehensible welter of shouted questions.
Sheriff Hazen held up an arm, palm toward the crowd. He was still wearing his short-sleeved uniform from the night before, and the gesture exposed a half-moon of sweat that reached halfway to his waist. He was short, but short like a bulldog, and there was something about him that commanded respect. Tad had seen the sheriff loosen the teeth of a suspect almost twice his size. Never get in a fight with anyone under five foot six, he told himself. The crowd fell silent.
The sheriff dropped his arm. “My deputy, Tad Franklin, and myself will give a statement and answer questions. Let’s all behave like civilized people. What say?”
The crowd shuffled in place. Lights went on, mikes were boomed forward; there was the clicking of cassette recorders, the fluttering of camera shutters.
“Tad, let’s give these good folks some fresh coffee.”
Tad looked at Hazen. Hazen winked.
Tad grabbed the pot, peered in, gave it a quick shake. Then he reached for a stack of styrofoam cups, stepped out the door, and began doling out the coffee. There were some sips, a few furtive sniffs.
“Drink up!” Hazen cried good-naturedly. “Never let it be said we’re not hospitable folks here in Medicine Creek!”
There was a general shuffling, more sipping, a few covert glances into the cups. The coffee seemed to have subdued, if not broken, the spirit of the group. Though it was barely dawn, the heat was already oppressive. There was no place to put down the cups, no trash can to drop them in. And a sign outside the door to the sheriff’s office read NO LITTERING: $100 FINE.
Hazen adjusted his hat, then stepped out onto the sidewalk. He looked around, his shoulders squared to the crowd as the cameras rolled. He then addressed the group. He told in dry police language of finding the body; he described the clearing, the body, and the spitted birds. It was pretty vivid stuff, but the sheriff managed to handle it matter-of-factly, throwing in a folksy comment here and there, in a way that neutralized most of the gruesome aspects. It amazed Tad how easygoing, even charming, his boss could be when he wanted to.
In the space of two minutes he was finished. A flurry of shouted questions followed Hazen’s speech.
“One at a time; raise your hands,” the sheriff said. “It’s just like in school. Anyone who shouts goes last. You begin.” And he pointed to a reporter in shirtsleeves who was enormously, spectacularly fat.
“Are there any leads or suspects?”
“We’ve got some very interesting things we’re following up. I can’t say any more than that.”
Tad looked at him with surprise. What things? So far, they had nothing.
“You,” said Hazen, pointing to another.
“Was the murder victim local?”
“No. We’re working on identification, but she wasn’t a local. I know everyone around these parts, I can vouch for that myself.”
“Do you know how the woman was killed?”
“Hopefully, the medical examiner will tell us that. The body was sent up to Garden City. When we get the autopsy results, you’ll be the first to know.”
- "Smart, skillful writers who have fun spinning their tall tale, and if you enjoy things-that-go-bump-in-the-night thrillers, you'll have fun reading it."—Washington Post Book World
- "From the first page, STILL LIFE WITH CROWS is creepy, disturbing, and altogether fascinating: Preston and Child at their best."—Salem Statesman Journal (OR)
- "Highly entertaining . . . a creepy, well-plotted novel . . . Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's trademark mix of mystery, suspense, horror, and history proves to be a combination that works."—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
- On Sale
- May 27, 2014
- Page Count
- 640 pages
- Grand Central Publishing