Sample Chapter One
Print View

Special Agent Pendergast has decided to take a busman's holiday in Medicine Creek, Kansas, population 325 and dropping, where he plans to devote his vacation to the investigation of a most gruesome--and most interesting--murder: a body, battered and practically flayed, placed carefully at the center of a circle of dead crows, assorted figurines, and Indian artifacts in the midst of a remote cornfield.


 

Warning: This novel contains profanity and graphic violence.

 

Harry Hoch, the second-best-performing farm equipment salesman in Cry County, rarely picked up hitch-hikers any more, but in this case he thought heíd make an exception. After all, the gentleman dressed in mourning was standing so sadly by the side of the road. Hochís own mother had been taken just the year before and he knew what it was like.

He pulled his Ford Taurus into the gravel just beyond the man and gave a little toot. He lowered his window as the man strolled up.

"Where you headed, friend?" Hoch asked.

"To the hospital in Garden City, if it isnít too much trouble."

Harry winced. The poor guy. The county morgue was in the basement. Mustíve just happened. "No trouble at all. Get on in."

He cast a furtive glance as his passenger stepped into the car. With that pale skin, he was going to catch a wicked sunburn if he wasnít careful. And he sure wasnít from around these parts; not with that accent, he wasnít.

"My nameís Hoch. Harry Hoch." He held out his hand.

A cool, dry hand slipped into his. "Delighted to make your acquaintance. My name is Pendergast."

Hoch waited for the first name, but it never came. He released the hand and reached over to crank up the A/C. A frigid blast came from the vents. It was like hell out there. He put his car into gear and pressed the accelerator, shooting back onto the road and picking up speed.

"Hot enough for you, Pendergast?" said Hoch after a moment.

"To tell you the truth, Mr. Hoch, I find the heat agrees with me."

"Yeah, okay, but a hundred degrees with one hundred percent humidity?" Hoch laughed. "You could fry an egg right there on the hood of my car."

"I have no doubt of it."

There was a silence. Strange fellow, Hoch thought.

His passenger didnít seem inclined toward small talk, so Hoch just shut up and drove. The silver Taurus flew along the arrow-straight road at ninety, leaving a wake of swaying, trembling corn behind. One mile looked pretty much like the next and there were never any cops in this area. Harry liked to move fast on these lonely secondary roads. Besides, he felt good: he had just sold a Case 2388 Combine with a 6-row corn head and chaff-spreader bin extension for $120,000. That was his third for the season and it had earned him a trip to San Diego for a weekend of booze and bumping uglies at the Del Mar Blu. Hot damn.

At one point the road widened briefly, and the car shot past a group of shabby ruined houses; a row of two-story brick buildings, gaunt and roofless; and a grain silo, its upper half listing over a weed-choked railroad siding.

"What is this?" Pendergast asked.

"Crater, Kansas. Or I should say, was Crater, Kansas. Used to be a regular town thirty years back. But it just dried up, like so many others. Always happens the same way, too. First, the school goes. Then the grocerís. Then you lose the farmerís supply. Last thing you lose is your ZIP code. No, thatís not quite right: last to go is the saloon. Itís happening all over Cry County. Yesterday, Crater. Tomorrow, DePew. The day after that, who knows? Maybe Medicine Creek."

"The sociology of a dying town must be rather complex," said Pendergast.

Hoch wasnít sure what Pendergast was getting at and didnít risk a reply.

In less than an hour, the grain elevators of Garden City began rising over the horizon like bulbous skyscrapers, the town itself low and flat and invisible.

"Iíll drop you right off at the hospital, Mr. Pendergast," said Hoch. "And hey, Iím sorry about whoever it was that passed. I hope it wasnít an untimely death."

As the orange-brick hospital appeared, surrounded by a sea of shimmering cars, Pendergast replied: "Time is a storm in which we are all lost, Mr. Hoch."

It took Hoch another half an hour of fast driving, with the windows down, to get the creeps out of his system.

*

Sheriff Hazen, wearing a surgical smock that was two sizes too big and a paper hat that made him feel ridiculous, stood and looked down at the gurney. A toe-tag was dangling from the right foot, but he didnít need to read it. Mrs. Sheila Swegg, twice divorced, no children, thirty-two years of age, of number 40A Whispering Meadows Trailer Estate, Bromide, Oklahoma.

White fucking trash.

There she was lying on the steel table, butterflied like a pork chop, organs neatly stacked beside her. The top of her head was off and her brain sat in a nearby pan. The smell of putrefaction was overwhelming: sheíd been lying in that hot cornfield for a good twenty four hours before heíd gotten there. The M.E., a bright, bushy-tailed young fellow named McHyde, was bent over her, cheerfully slicing and dicing away and talking up a storm of medical jargon into an overhanging mike. Give him five more years, thought Hazen, and the biting acids of reality will strip off some of that cheerful polish.

McHyde had moved from her torso up to her throat and was cutting away with little zipping motions of his right hand. Some of the cuts made a crackling sound that Hazen did not like at all. He fished in his pocket for a cigarette, remembered the no smoking sign, grabbed a nearby jar of Mentholatum instead and dabbed some beneath each nostril, and focused his mind elsewhere: Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Canít Help It, polka night at the Deeper Elks Lodge, Sundays with a sixpack fishing at Hamilton Lake State Park. Anything but the remains of Sheila Swegg.

"Hmm," said the M.E. "Will you look at that."

As quickly as they had come, the pleasant thoughts went away. "What?" Hazen asked.

"As I suspected. Broken hyoid bone. Make that shattered hyoid bone. There were very faint bruises on her neck and this confirms it."

"Strangled?"

"Not exactly. Neck grasped and broken with a single twist. She died of a severed spinal column before she could strangle."

Cut, cut, cut.

"The force was tremendous. Look at this. The cricoid cartilage is completely separated from both the thyroid cartilage and the lamina. Iíve never seen anything like it. The tracheal rings are crushed. The cervical vertebrae are broken in, let me see, four places. Five places."

"I believe you, doc," Hazen said, his eyes averted.

The doctor looked up, smiled. "First autopsy, eh?"

Hazen felt a swell of irritation. "Of course not," he lied.

"Hard to get used to, I know. Especially when they start to get a little ripe. Summertimeís not good. Not good at all."

As the doctor returned to his work, Hazen became aware of a presence behind him. He turned and jumped: there was Pendergast, materialized out of nowhere.

The doctor looked up, surprised. "Sir? Excuse me, weíreó"

"Heís okay," said Hazen. "Heís FBI, working on the case under me. Special Agent Pendergast."

"Special Agent Pendergast," the M. E. said, with a new edge to his voice, "would you mind identifying yourself for the tape recorder? And throw on some scrubs and a mask, if you donít mind. You can find them over there."

"Of course."

Hazen wondered how the hell Pendergast had managed it, without a car and all. But he wasnít sorry to see him. It occurred to Sheriff Hazen, not for the first time, that having Pendergast on the case could be useful. As long as the man kept with the program.

Pendergast returned a moment later, having expertly slid into the scrubs. The doctor was now working on the victimís face, peeling it away in thick rubbery flaps and clamping them back. It had been bad enough before, when just the nose, lips, and ears had been missing. Hazen stared at the bands of muscle, the white of the ligaments, the slender yellow lines of fat. God, it was gruesome.

"May I?" Pendergast asked.

The doctor stepped back and Pendergast leaned over, not three inches from the stinking, swollen, featureless, face. He stared at the places, torn and bloody, where the nose and lips had once been. The scalp had been peeled back but Hazen could still see the bleach blond hair with its black roots. Then Pendergast stepped back. "The amputations appear to have been performed with a crude implement."

The doctor raised his eyebrows. "A crude implement?"

"I would suggest a superficial microscopic examination with a comprehensive series of photos. And part of the scalp has been ripped off, as you no doubt have noted."

"Right. Good." The doctor sounded irritated at the advice.

Hazen had to smile. The Agent was showing up the Doc. But if Pendergast were right about this... He stopped himself from asking just what kind of Ďcrude implementí Pendergast had in mind. He felt his gorge rising and immediately turned his mind back to Jayne Mansfield.

"Any sign of the lips, ears, and nose?" Pendergast asked.

"The police couldnít find them," said the M.E.

Hazen felt a surge of annoyance at this implied criticism. The M.E. had been at it all afternoon, making one snide comment after another about the shortcomings of Hazenís report and, by extension, his police work. Fact was, by the time he stepped in the State Police had already royally fucked it up.

The doctor resumed cutting away at the earthly remains of Sheila Swegg. Pendergast began to circle the table, looking first at one organ and then at another, hands behind his back, like he was looking at sculpture in a museum. He got to the toe tag.

"I see you have an I.D."

"Yeah," said Hazen with a cough. "Some cracker from the Oklahoma panhandle. We found her car, one of those Korean rice-burners, hidden in the corn five miles the other side of Medicine Creek."

"Any idea what she was doing there?"

"We found a bunch of shovels and picks in the trunk. A relic hunter, theyíre always sneaking around the Mounds, digging for old Indian artifacts."

"This is a common occurrence, then?"

"Not around here so much, but yeah, some people make a living at it, driving from state to state looting old sites for stuff to sell at flea markets. Every mound, battleground and boot hill from Dodge City to Californiaís been hit by them. They got no shame."

"Does she have a record?"

"Petty shit. Credit card fraud, selling phony crap on eBay, nickel and dime insurance scams."

"Youíve made excellent progress, Sheriff."

Hazen nodded curtly.

"Well," said the doctor. "Weíre just about done here. Do either of you have any questions or special requests?"

"Yes," said Pendergast. "The birds and the arrows."

"In the fridge. You want to see them?"

"If you please."

The doctor disappeared and came back a moment later wheeling another gurney, on which the crows had been neatly laid out in rows, each with its own toe tag. Or claw tag, maybe, Hazen thought. Next to them was a pile of arrows on which the birds had been skewered.

Pendergast bent over them, reached out, paused. "May I?"

"Be my guest."

He picked up an arrow in a latex-gloved hand, turning it around slowly.

"You can pick those replicas up at almost any gas station between here and Denver," said McHyde.

Pendergast continued turning it in the light. Then he said: "This is no replica, Doctor. This is a genuine Southern Cheyenne cane arrow, feathered with a bald eagle primary and tipped with a type II Plains Cimarron point in Alibates chert. Iíd date it between 1850 and 1870."

Hazen stared at Pendergast as he placed the arrow back down. "All of them?" he said.

"All of them. It was evidently a matched set. A collection of original arrows like this, in this superb condition would fetch at least ten thousand dollars at Sothebyís."

In the ensuing silence, Pendergast picked up a bird and turned it gently around, palpitating it. "Completely crushed, it seems."

"That right?" The doctorís voice had grown wary, irritated.

"Yes. Every bone broken. Itís a sack of mush." He glanced up. "You are planning to autopsy the birds, are you not, doctor?"

The doctor gave a snort. "All two dozen of them? Weíll do one or two."

"I would strongly recommend doing them all."

The doctor stepped back from the gurney. "Agent Pendergast, I fail to see what purpose that would serve, except to waste my time and the taxpayerís money. As I said, we will do one or two."

In the ensuing silence, Pendergast laid the bird back on the tray and picked up another, palpated it, and then another, before finally selecting one. Then, before the doctor could object, Pendergast plucked a scalpel from the surgical tray and made a long, deliberate stroke across the birdís underside.

The doctor found his voice. "Just a minute! Youíre not authorizedó"

Hazen watched as Pendergast exposed the crowís stomach. The agent paused briefly, scalpel poised.

"Put that bird down this instant," said the doctor angrily.

With one swift stroke, Pendergast opened the birdís stomach. There, pushing out from among rotting kernels of corn, was a misshapen, pinkish thing that Hazen abruptly realized was a human nose. His stomach lurched again.

Pendergast laid the crow back down on the tray. "I will leave the finding of the lips and ears in your capable hands, doctor," he said, pulling off the gloves, mask, and scrubs. "Please send a copy of your final report to me, care of Sheriff Hazen."

And he walked out of the room without a backwards glance.

 


STILL LIFE WITH CROWS is copyright © 2003 by Lincoln Child and Splendide Mendax, Inc. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this text, or any portion thereof, in any form.
STILL LIFE WITH CROWS is available in paperback from Grand Central Publishing, www.HachetteBookGroup.com.


© 2019 Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child