Thunderhead

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By Douglas Preston

By Lincoln Child

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Archaeologist Nora Kelly is adrift in her career and her personal life when a violent, inexplicable incident leaves her in possession of a mysterious letter. Written by her father, who vanished sixteen years ago in the remote desert, the letter reveals the location of a legendary site hidden in the red rock canyon country of southern Utah: Quivira, the Anasazi Indians’ wondrous lost city of gold.–BOOK JACKET. “Convinced that her father truly had found Quivira, Nora puts together an expedition and takes a team up Lake Powell to the mouth of Serpentine Canyon. In the stark labyrinth of canyons and slickrock desert she will find the answer to both her greatest hopes and her deepest nightmare. For hidden in the shadows of the sunbaked cliffs are untold treasures, the solution to the greatest riddle of American archaeology – and implacable, suffocating death.”–BOOK JACKET.

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Lincoln Child dedicates this book to his daughter, Veronica, and to the Company of Nine.

Douglas Preston dedicates this book to Stuart Woods.




1

The freshly paved road left Santa Fe and arrowed west through piñon trees. An amber-colored sun was sinking into a scrim of dirty clouds behind the snowcapped Jemez Mountains, drawing a counterpane of shade across the landscape. Nora Kelly guided the rattletrap Ford pickup along the road, down chamisa-covered hills and across the beds of dry washes. It was the third time she had been out here in as many months.

As she came up from Buckman’s Wash into Jackrabbit Flats—what had once been Jackrabbit Flats—she saw a shining arc of light beyond the piñons. A moment later, her truck was speeding past manicured greens. A nearby sprinkler head winked and nodded in the sun, jetting water in a regular, palsied cadence. Beyond, on a rise, stood the new Fox Run clubhouse, a massive structure of fake adobe. Nora looked away.

The truck rattled over a cattle guard at the far end of Fox Run and suddenly, the road was washboard dirt. She bounced past a cluster of ancient mailboxes and the crude, weatherbeaten sign that read RANCHO DE LAS CABRILLAS. For a moment, the memory of a summer day twenty years before passed through her mind: once again she was standing in the heat, holding a bucket, helping her father paint the sign. Cabrillas, he’d said, was the Spanish word for waterbugs. But it was also their name for the constellation Pleiades, which he said looked like water skaters on the shining surface of a pond. “To hell with the cattle,” she remembered him saying, swabbing thick letters with the paintbrush. “I bought this place for its stars.”

The road turned to ascend a rise, and she slowed. The sun had now disappeared, and the light was draining fast out of the high desert sky. There in a grassy valley stood the old ranch house, windows boarded up. And beside it, the frowsy outlines of the barn and corrals that were once the Kelly family ranch. No one had lived here in five years. It was no great loss, Nora told herself: the house was a mid-fifties prefab, already falling apart when she was growing up. Her father had spent all his money on the land.

Pulling off the road just below the brow of the hill, she glanced toward the nearby arroyo. Somebody had surreptitiously dumped a load of broken cinderblocks. Maybe her brother was right and she should sell the place. Taxes were going up, and the house had long ago passed the point of no return. Why was she holding on to it? She couldn’t afford to build her own place there—not on an assistant professor’s salary, anyway.

She could see the lights coming on in the Gonzales ranch house, a quarter mile away. It was a real working ranch, not like her father’s hobby ranchito. Teresa Gonzales, a girl she’d grown up with, now ran the place by herself. A big, smart, fearless woman. In recent years, she’d taken it upon herself to look after the Kelly ranch, too. Every time kids came out to party, or drunken hunters decided to take potshots at the place, Teresa rousted them and left a message on the answering machine at Nora’s townhouse. This time, for the past three or four nights, Teresa had seen dim lights in and around the house just after sunset, and—she thought—large animals slinking about.

Nora waited a few minutes, looking for signs of life, but the ranch was quiet and empty. Perhaps Teresa had imagined the lights. In any case, whoever or whatever it was seemed to have left.

She eased the truck through the inner gate and down the last two hundred yards of road, parked around back, and killed the engine. Pulling a flashlight out of the glove compartment, she stepped lightly onto the dirt. The door of the house hung open, held precariously by a single hinge screw, its lock cut off long ago with bolt cutters. A gust swept through the yard, picking up skeins of dust and moving the door with a restless whisper.

She flicked on the flashlight and stepped onto the portal. The door moved aside at her push, then swung back stubbornly. She gave it an annoyed kick and it fell to the porch with a clatter, loud in the listening silence. She stepped inside.

The boarded windows made the interior difficult to make out, yet even so it was clearly a sad echo of her memory of the house she grew up in. Beer bottles and broken glass lay strewn across the floor, and some gang member had spray-painted a tagline on the wall. Some of the boards covering the windows had been pried away. The carpet had been ripped up, and sofa cushions sliced in half and tossed about the room. Holes had been kicked in the drywall, along with liberal pepperings from a .22.

Perhaps it wasn’t that much worse than the last time. The rips on the cushions were new, along with the ragged holes in the wall, but the rest she remembered from her previous visit. Her lawyer had warned her that in its present condition the place was a liability. If a city inspector ever managed to get out here, he would immediately condemn it. The only problem was, tearing the thing down would cost more than she had—unless, of course, she sold it.

She turned from the living room into the kitchen. Her flashlight beam swept over the old Frigidaire, still lying where it had been overturned. Drawers had recently been removed and strewn about the room. The linoleum was coming up in big curls, and someone had hastened the process, peeling off strips and even ripping up floorboards to expose the crawlspace underneath. Vandalism is hard work, she thought. As her eyes roved over the room again, something began to nag at the back of her mind. Something was different this time.

She left the kitchen and began to climb the stairs, kicking aside wads of mattress ticking, trying to bring the thought into focus. Sofa cushions sliced, holes punched in walls, carpeting and linoleum ripped up. Somehow, this fresh violence didn’t seem quite as random as it had in the past. It was almost as if someone was looking for something. Halfway up the darkness of the stairwell, she stopped.

Was that the crunch of glass underfoot?

She waited, motionless in the dim light. There was no sound but the faint susurrus of wind. If a car had driven up, she’d have heard it. She continued up the stairs.

It was even darker up here, all the windowboards still in place. She turned right on the landing and shone the flashlight into her old bedroom. Again she felt the familiar pang as her eyes moved over the pink wallpaper, now hanging in strips and stained like an old map. The mattress was one giant packrat’s nest, the music stand for her oboe broken and rusted, the floorboards sprung. A bat squeaked overhead, and Nora remembered the time she’d been caught trying to make a pet out of one of them. Her mother had never understood her childish fascination for the creatures.

She moved across the hall to her brother’s room, also a wreck. Not so different from his current place. But over the smell of ruin, she thought she detected the faintest scent of crushed flowers in the night air. Strange—the windows are all shuttered up here. She moved down the hall toward her parents’ bedroom.

This time, there was no mistaking it: the faint tinkle of broken glass from below. She stopped again. Was it a rat, scuttling across the living room floor?

She moved silently back to the top of the landing, then paused. There was another sound from below: a faint thud. As she waited in the darkness, she heard another crunch, sharper this time, as something heavy stepped on broken glass.

Nora exhaled slowly, a tight knot of muscle squeezing her chest. What had begun as an irritating errand now felt like something else entirely.

“Who is it?” she called out.

Only the wind answered.

She swung the flashlight beam into the empty stairwell. Usually, kids would run at the first sight of her truck. Not this time.

“This is private property!” she yelled in her steadiest voice. “And you’re trespassing. The police are on their way.”

In the ensuing silence, there came another footpad, closer to the stairwell.

“Teresa?” Nora called again, in a desperate hope.

And then she heard something else: a throaty, menacing sound that was almost a growl.

Dogs, she thought with a sudden flood of relief. There were feral dogs out there, and they’d been using the house as a shelter. She chose not to think about why this was somehow a comforting thought.

“Yah!” she cried, waving the light. “Get on out of here! Go home!”

Again, silence was the only reply.

Nora knew how to handle stray dogs. She stomped down the stairs, speaking loudly and firmly. Reaching the bottom, she swept the beam across the living room.

It was empty. The dogs must have run at the sound of her approach.

Nora took a deep breath. Even though she hadn’t inspected her parents’ bedroom, she decided it was time to go.

As she headed for the door, she heard another careful footstep, then another, excruciatingly slow and deliberate.

She flashed her light toward the sounds as something else registered: a faint, breathy wheeze, a low, monotonous purring mutter. That same scent of flowers wafted through the heavy air, this time stronger.

She stood motionless, paralyzed by the unfamiliar feeling of menace, wondering if she should switch off the flashlight and hide herself or simply make a run for it.

And then out of the corner of her eye she saw a huge, pelted form racing along the wall. She turned to confront it as a stunning blow landed across her back.

She fell sprawling, feeling coarse fur at the nape of her neck. There was a maniacal wet growling, like the slavered fighting of rabid hounds. She lashed into the figure with a vicious kick. The figure snarled but relaxed its grip slightly, giving Nora a moment to wrench free. Just as she jumped up, a second figure slammed into her and threw her to the ground, landing atop her. Nora twisted, feeling broken glass digging into her skin as the dark form pinned her to the ground. She glimpsed a naked belly, covered with glowing spots; jaguar stripes; claws of horn and hair; a midriff, dank and matted—wearing a belt of silver conchos. Narrow eyes, terrifyingly red and bright, stared at her from grimy slits in a buckskin mask.

“Where is it?” a voice rasped in her face, washing her in the cloyingly sweet stench of rotten meat.

She could not find the voice to reply.

“Where is it?” the voice repeated, crude, imperfect, like a beast aping human speech. Vicelike claws grasped her roughly around the neck and right arm.

“What—” she croaked.

“The letter,” it said, claws tightening. “Or we rip your head off.”

She jerked in sudden fevered struggle, but the grip on her neck grew stronger. She began to choke in pain and terror.

Suddenly, a flash of light and a deafening blast cut through the darkness. She felt the grip slacken, and in a frenzy she twisted free of the claws. She rolled over as a second blast ripped a hole in the ceiling overhead, showering her with bits of lathe and plaster. She scrambled desperately to her feet, shards of glass skittering across the floor. Her flashlight had rolled away, and she spun around, disoriented.

“Nora?” she heard. “That you, Nora?” Framed in the dim light of the front door, a plump figure was standing, shotgun hanging forward.

“Teresa!” Nora sobbed. She stumbled toward the light.

“You okay?” Teresa asked, grabbing Nora’s arm, steadying her.

“I don’t know.”

“Let’s get the hell out of here.”

Outside, Nora sank to the ground, gulping the cool twilight air and fighting down her pounding heart. “What happened?” she heard Teresa ask. “I heard noises, some kind of scuffle, saw your light.”

Nora simply shook her head, gasping.

“Those were some hellacious-looking wild dogs. Big as wolves, almost.”

Nora shook her head again. “No. Not dogs. One of them spoke to me.”

Teresa peered at her more closely. “Hey, your arm looks bitten. Maybe you’d better let me drive you to the hospital.”

“Absolutely not.”

But Teresa was scanning the dim outlines of the house, eyebrows knitted. “They sure did leave in a hurry. First kids, now wild dogs. But what kind of dogs could vanish so—”

“Teresa, one of them spoke to me.”

Teresa looked at her, more searchingly this time, a skeptical look creeping into her eyes. “Must’ve been pretty terrifying,” she said at last. “You should’ve told me you were coming out. I’d have met you down here with Señor Winchester.” She patted the gun fondly.

Nora looked at her solid figure, her rattled but capable face. She knew the woman didn’t believe her, but she didn’t have the energy to argue. “Next time I will,” she said.

“I hope there won’t be a next time,” said Teresa gently. “You need to either tear this place down, or sell it and let someone else tear it down for you. It’s becoming a problem, and not just for you.”

“I know it’s an eyesore. But I just hate to think of letting it go. I’m sorry it’s caused trouble for you.”

“I would’ve thought this might change your mind. Want to come in for a bite of something?”

“No thanks, Teresa,” Nora said as firmly as she could. “I’m all right.”

“Maybe,” came the reply. “But you better get a rabies shot anyway.”

Nora watched as her neighbor turned onto the narrow trail that headed back up the hill. Then she eased into the driver’s seat of her truck and locked all the doors with a shaking hand. She sat quietly, feeling the air move in and out of her lungs, watching Teresa’s dim form merge slowly with the dark bulk of the hillside. When at last she felt in full control of her limbs, she reached for the ignition, wincing at a sudden stab of pain in her neck.

She turned over the engine, unsuccessfully, and cursed. She needed a new vehicle, along with a new everything else in her life.

She tried it again, and after a sputtering protest the engine coughed into life. She punched off the headlights to conserve the battery and, slouching back against the seat, gently pumped the accelerator, waiting for the engine to clear.

To one side, a flash of silver winked briefly. She turned to see a huge shape, black and furred, bounding toward her against the last twilight in the western sky.

Nora slammed the old truck into gear, punched on the headlights, and gunned the engine. It roared in response and she went fishtailing out of the yard. As she careened through the inside gate, she saw with consummate horror that the thing was racing alongside her.

She jammed the accelerator to the floor as the truck slewed across the ranch road, spraying mad patterns of dirt, whacking a cholla. And then, the thing was gone. But she continued to accelerate down the road to the outer gate, wheels pounding the washboard. After an unbearably long moment, her headlights finally picked up the outer cattle guard looming from the darkness ahead, the row of old mailboxes nailed to a long horizontal board beside it. Too late, Nora jammed on the brakes; the truck struck the cattle guard and was airborne. She landed heavily and skidded in the sand, striking the old board. There was the crunch of splintering wood and the boxes were flung to the ground.

She sat in the truck, breathing hard, dust smoking up around her lights. She dropped into reverse and gunned the engine, feeling panic as the wheels dug into the deep sand. She rocked twice before the truck stalled.

In the glow of the headlights, she could see the damage. The row of ranch mailboxes had been a rickety affair to begin with, and they had recently been supplanted by a shiny new set of post office boxes that stood nearby. But she could not back up: there was no choice but to go forward.

She jumped out and, glancing around for any sign of the figure, moved around to the front of the truck, picked up the rotten, abandoned mailboxes, and dragged them aside into the brush. An envelope lay in the dirt, and she grabbed it. As she turned to step back into the truck, the headlights caught the front of the envelope. Nora froze for a moment, gasping in surprise.

Then she shoved it in her shirt pocket, jumped into the truck, and peeled back onto the road, careening toward the distant, welcoming lights of town.




2

The Santa Fe Archaeological Institute stood on a low mesa between the Sangre de Cristo foothills and the town of Santa Fe itself. No affiliated museum opened its doors to the public, and classes were limited to invitation-only graduate seminars and faculty colloquiums. Visiting scholars and resident professors outnumbered students. The campus sprawled across thirty acres, its low adobe buildings almost invisible among the walled gardens, apricot trees, tulip beds, and rows of ancient, blossom-heavy lilacs.

The Institute was devoted almost exclusively to research, excavation, and preservation, and it housed one of the finest prehistoric southwestern Indian collections in the world. Wealthy, reserved, and much wedded to its traditions, it was looked on with both awe and envy by professional archaeologists across the country.

Nora watched the last of her students leave the low-ceilinged adobe classroom, then gathered her notes and slotted them into an oversized leather portfolio. It was the final class of her seminar, “The Chaco Abandonment: Causes and Conditions.” Once again, she was struck by the unusual attitude of students at the Institute: quiet, respectful, as if unable to believe their good fortune in being granted a ten-week resident scholarship.

Stepping out of the cool darkness into the sunlight, she walked slowly along the graveled path. The Pueblo Revival buildings of the campus, with their organic sloping walls and projecting vigas, were painted a warm rust color by the morning light. A thunderhead was developing over the mountains, dark beneath but topped with a spreading crown of brilliant white. As she glanced up to look at it, a sharp pain lanced one side of her bruised neck. She reached to massage it as a dark shadow seemed to come across the sun.

Passing the parking lot, she traced a circuitous route toward the rear of the campus, turning at last down a flagstone walk columned with lombardy poplars and old Chinese elms. The walkway ended at a nondescript building whose small wooden sign read simply RECORDS.

Nora showed her badge to the guard, signed in, and went down the hall to a low doorway, stopping at the cement steps that led down into the gloom. Down to the Map Vault.

She tensed for a moment, the darkness of the stairs bringing back another unwanted memory of the evening before. Again, she felt the broken glass stabbing into her skin, the tightening claws, the sickly sweet smell …

She shook the memory away and started down the narrow steps.

The Institute’s collections contained innumerable priceless artifacts. Yet nothing on campus, or in its extensive collections, was as valuable, or as guarded, as the contents of the Map Vault. Although the vault contained no treasure, it housed something far more valuable: the location of every known archaeological site in the Southwest. There were more than three hundred thousand such sites, from the most insignificant lithic scatter to huge ruins containing hundreds of rooms, all carefully marked on the Institute’s U.S.G.S. topographical map collection. Nora knew that only the tiniest fraction of these sites had ever been excavated; the rest lay slumbering under the sand or hidden in caves. Each site number corresponded to an entry in the Institute’s secure database, containing everything from detailed inventories to surveys to digitized sketches and letters—electronic treasure maps leading to millions of dollars worth of prehistoric artifacts.

How strange, Nora had always thought, that such a place would be guarded by Owen Smalls. Resplendent in beat-up leathers, heavily muscled, Smalls always looked like he had just returned from a harrowing expedition to the farthest corners of the earth. Very few who met the man realized he was an Eastern boy from a wealthy family, a summa cum laude graduate of Brown University, who if placed out in the desert would be dead or lost—or both—within the hour.

The steps ended at a metal door with a small casement window, a red light glowing above it. Nora dug into her bag, extracted her security card, and inserted it into the slot. When the light turned green, she heaved the door open and stepped inside.

Smalls occupied a fanatically neat little office outside the vault itself, overlooking the reading area. He rose as he saw her enter, placing a book carefully on his desk.

“Dr. Kelly,” he said. “Nora, right?”

“Morning,” Nora said as casually as possible.

“Haven’t seen you around for a while,” Smalls replied. “Too bad. Hey, what’d you do to your arm?”

Nora glanced briefly at the bandage. “Just a scratch. Owen, I need to look at a couple of maps.”

Smalls squinted back. “Yeah?”

“In the C-3 and C-4 quadrants of Utah. Kaiparowits Plateau.”

Smalls continued scrutinizing her, shifting his weight, sending a creak of leather echoing through the room. “Project number?”

“We don’t have a project number yet. It’s just a preliminary survey.”

Smalls placed two giant, hairy hands on the desk and leaned over them, looking at her more intently. “Sorry, Dr. Kelly. You need an approved project number to look at anything.”

“But it’s just a preliminary survey.”

“You know the rules,” Smalls replied, with a disparaging grin.

Nora thought fast. There was no way that Blakewood, the Institute’s president and her boss, would assign a project number based on the meager information she could give him. But she remembered working on a project in a different part of Utah, two years before. The project was still current, if a bit moribund—she had a bad habit of not finishing things up. What was the damn project number?

“It’s J-40012,” she said.

Small’s bushy eyebrows raised.

“Sorry, I forgot it was just assigned. Look, if you don’t believe me, call Professor Blakewood.” She knew her boss was at a conference in Window Rock.

Smalls turned to the computer on his desk and rapped at the keys. After a moment, he looked up at Nora. “Seems to be approved. C-3 and C-4, you said?” He resumed his typing, the keys ludicrously small in his hands. Then he cleared the screen and stepped away from the desk.

Nora followed as he stepped up to the vault and swung the door open. “Wait here,” he said.

“I know the routine.” Nora watched as he stepped into the vault. Inside, bathed in pitiless fluorescent light, lay two rows of metal safes, locked doors across their tops. Smalls approached one, punched in a code, and lifted its door. Hanging within the safe were countless maps, sandwiched in layers of protective plastic.

“There are sixteen maps in those quadrants,” Smalls called out. “Which ones do you want to see?”

“All of them, please.”

Smalls paused. “All sixteen? That’s eight hundred eighty square miles.”

“As I said, it’s a survey. You can always call Professor—”

“Okay, okay.” Holding the maps by the edges of their metal rails, Smalls stepped out of the vault, nodding Nora toward the reading area. He waited until she sat down, then gently placed the maps on the scarred surface of the Formica table. “Use those,” he said, indicating a box of disposable cotton gloves. “You’ve got two hours to complete your study. When you’re done, let me know and I’ll replace the maps and let you out.” He waited while she donned a pair of gloves, then grinned and returned to the vault.

Nora sat at the table as he shut first the safe, then the vault, and returned to his office. You’ll know when I’m done, she thought to herself. The “reading area” consisted of a large table with a single chair, placed in clear view of Smalls’s glass-windowed office. It was a cramped, exposed space. Not at all suitable for what she had in mind.

She took a deep breath, flexed her white-gloved fingers. Then, carefully, she spread the maps out on the table, the plastic crackling as she aligned them along their edges. The sequence of 7.5-minute maps—the most detailed U.S. Geological Survey maps made—covered an exceedingly remote area of southern Utah, framed by Lake Powell to the south and east and Bryce Canyon to the west. It was almost entirely Bureau of Land Management country: federal land that, in effect, nobody had any use for. Nora had a good idea of what the area was like: slickrock sandstone country, bisected by a diagonal—trending maze of deep canyons and escarpments, sheer walls, and barren scabland.

It was into this desolate triangle, sixteen years before, that her father had disappeared.

She remembered with painful vividness how, as a twelve-year-old, she had pleaded to go along with the searchers. But her mother had given a brusque, dry-eyed refusal. And so she spent two tormented weeks, listening for news on the radio and poring over topographical maps. Maps just like this one. But no trace was ever found. Then her mother instituted proceedings to have him declared legally dead. And Nora had never looked at a map of the area since.

Another deep breath. This would be the hard part. Making sure her back was to Owen Smalls, Nora slid two fingers into her jacket and removed the letter—the letter she had never allowed from her person since she found it, just nightmarish hours before.

The envelope was discolored and brittle, addressed faintly in pencil. And there, as she had in the glow of the headlights the previous night, she read the name of her mother, dead six months, and the address of the ranch that had been abandoned for five years. Slowly, almost unwillingly, she moved her gaze to the return address. PADRAIC KELLY, it confirmed in the generous, loopy hand she remembered so well. Somewhere west of the Kaiparowits.

A letter from her dead father to her dead mother, written and stamped sixteen years ago.

Slowly and carefully, in the fluorescent silence of the Map Vault, she removed the three sheets of yellowed paper from the envelope and smoothed them beside the maps, shielding them from Small’s view with her body. Again, she glanced at the strangest things of all: the fresh postmark and POSTAGE DUE stamp, showing the letter had been mailed from Escalante, Utah, only five weeks before.

Genre:

On Sale
Jul 1, 1999
Page Count
496 pages
ISBN-13
9780446523370

Douglas Preston

About the Author

Douglas Preston is the author of thirty-six books, both fiction and nonfiction, twenty-nine of which have been New York Times bestsellers, with several reaching the number 1 position. He has worked as an editor at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and taught nonfiction writing at Princeton University. His first novel, RELIC, co-authored with Lincoln Child, was made into a movie by Paramount Pictures, which launched the famed Pendergast series of novels. His recent nonfiction book, THE MONSTER OF FLORENCE, is also in production as a film. His latest book, THE LOST CITY OF THE MONKEY GOD, tells the true story of the discovery of a prehistoric city in an unexplored valley deep in the Honduran jungle. In addition to books, Preston writes about archaeology and paleontology for the New Yorker, National Geographic, and Smithsonian. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards in the US and Europe, including an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Pomona College. He currently serves as president of the Authors Guild, the nation’s oldest and largest association of authors and journalists.

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Lincoln Child

About the Author

The thrillers of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child “stand head and shoulders above their rivals” (Publishers Weekly). Preston and Child’s Relic and The Cabinet of Curiosities were chosen by readers in a National Public Radio poll as being among the one hundred greatest thrillers ever written, and Relic was made into a number-one box office hit movie. They are coauthors of the famed Pendergast series and their recent novels include Crooked River, Old Bones, Verses for the Dead, and City of Endless Night.

In addition to his novels, Douglas Preston writes about archaeology for The New Yorker and National Geographic magazines. Lincoln Child is a Florida resident and former book editor who has published seven novels of his own, including bestsellers such as Full Wolf Moon and Deep Storm.
Readers can sign up for The Pendergast File, a monthly “strangely entertaining note” from the authors, at their website, http://www.PrestonChild.com. The authors welcome visitors to their alarmingly active Facebook page, where they post regularly.

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