Sample Chapter Two
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Warning: This novel contains profanity and graphic violence.

Just another bucolic evening at Gro-Bain, the turkey processing plant on the outskirts of Medicine Creek, Kansas...

Willie Stott moved across the slick concrete floor, sweeping the hot mixture of bleach and water back and forth, propelling stray gizzards, heads, crests, guts, and all the other poultry effluvia— collectively known as "gibs" by the line workers— toward the huge stainless-steel sink in the center of the Evisceration Area floor. With the expertise of years, Stott flicked his hose hand left and right, sending additional strings of offal skidding away under the force of the cleanser, rolling them all up neatly together as they were forced toward the center. Stott worked the jet like an artist works a brush, teasing everything into a long bloody rope before giving it one final signature blast that propelled it down the drain with a wet swallow. He gave the Evisceration floor a once-over, snaking the jet here and there to catch a few stray strings and wattles, the odd beak, causing the stragglers to jump and dance under the play of the hose.

Stott had given up eating turkey within days of starting work at Gro-Bain, and after a few months had given up meat altogether. Most everybody else he knew who worked there were the same. At Thanksgiving, Gro-Bain gave free turkeys to all their employees, but Stott had yet to meet anyone who actually ate theirs.

Work complete, he switched off and racked the nozzle. It was ten fifteen and the last of the second shift had left hours before. In years past there would have been a third shift, from eight until four in the morning, but those days were gone.

He felt the comforting pressure in his back pocket from the pint bottle of Old Grand-Dad. As a reward for finishing, he slipped out the flask, unscrewed the cap, and took a pull. The whisky, warmed to body temperature, traced a nice warm tingling line right down to his belly and then, a few moments later, back up to his head.

Life wasn’t so bad.

He took a final pull and emptied the bottle, shoved it back into his pocket, and picked up the big squeegee that hung on the tiled wall. Back and forth, back and forth— in another five minutes the floor, worker’s platform, and conveyor belt overhead, were all so clean and dry you could eat off them. And the stench of turkey shit, fear, blood and sour guts had been replaced by the clean, astringent smell of bleach. Another job well done. Stott felt a small stab of pride.

He reached for the bottle, then remembered it was empty. He glanced at his watch. The Wagon Wheel would be open for another thirty minutes. If Jimmy, the night guard, arrived on schedule, he would make it with plenty of time to spare.

It was a wonderfully warming thought.

As he was racking up the last of the cleaning equipment, he heard Jimmy coming into the plant. The man was actually five minutes early— or, more likely, his own damn watch was running slow. He walked over to the docks to wait. In a minute he heard Jimmy approaching, jangling like an ice cream truck with his keys and all his other crap.

"Yo, Jimmy-boy," Stott said.

"Willie. Hey."

"All yours."

"Whatever."

Stott walked into the deserted employee parking lot, where his dusty car sat beneath a light at the far end, all alone. Since he arrived at the height of the second shift, his car was always the farthest away. The night was hot and silent. He walked through the pools of light toward his car. Beyond the lot, cornfields stretched into darkness. The nearest stalks— the ones he could make out— stood very still and straight. They seemed to be listening. The sky was overcast and it was impossible to tell where the corn stopped and night began. It was one huge black sinkhole. He quickened his pace. It wasn’t natural, to be surrounded by so much goddamn corn. It made people strange.

He unlocked the door and got in, slamming the door behind him. The violent motion sent the thin blanket of dust and corn pollen that had settled on the roof skittering down the windows. He locked the door, getting more dust on his hands. The shit was everywhere. Christ, he could already taste Swede’s whiskey, burning the back of his throat clean.

He started his car, an old AMC Hornet. The engine turned over, coughed, died.

He swore, looked out the windows. To his right, darkness. To his left, the empty parking lot with its regular intervals of light.

He waited, turned the key again. This time the engine caught. He gave the accelerator a few revs and then put the thing into drive. With its habitual clank of protesting metal, the car moved forward.

Wagon Wheel, here we come. A warm feeling invaded him as he thought of another pint, another pull, just something to see him back to Elmwood Acres, the sad little mini-development where he lived on the far end of town. Or maybe he’d make it two pints. It felt like that kind of a night.

The lights of the Gro-Bain plant flashed past, and then Stott was humming along in the darkness, two walls of corn blurring past on either side, his headlights illuminating a small section of the dusty road. Up ahead it curved, angling lazily toward Medicine Creek. The lights of town lay to the left, a glow in the sky above the corn.

As he rounded the curve the engine clanked again, more ominously than before. And then, with a wheeze and cough, it went dead.

"Shit," Willie Stott muttered.

The old Hornet glided to a stop along the road. Stott put it in park and turned the key, but there was nothing. The car was dead.

"Shit!" he cried again, slamming the wheel. "Shit, shit, shit!"

His voice died away in the confines of the car. Silence and darkness surrounded him. Whatever had happened in his car just now sounded pretty fucking final, and he didn’t even have a flashlight to look under the hood.

He pulled out his flask, opened it, tipped it up, drained the last fiery drop. He licked his lips, turning the bottle over in his hands, staring at it. He didn’t have any more at home.

He flung it out the window into the corn and checked his watch. Twenty minutes until the Wagon Wheel closed. It was about a mile. He could still make it on foot if he walked fast.

Then, hand on the door handle, he paused, thinking about the recent murder, about the unpleasant details the newspaper had hinted at.

Yeah, right. Five billion acres of corn and some nut-case is lying in wait, right between here and the Wagon Wheel.

Muggy night air flowed in as he opened the door. Christ, twenty minutes to eleven and it was still hot as bejesus. He could smell the corn, the moisture. Crickets chirped in the darkness. Heat lightning flickered on the distant horizon.

He turned back toward the car, wondering if he should put on the emergency blinkers. Then he decided against it. That would just add a dead battery to his problems. Besides, nobody would come along the road until the pre-shift, at seven.

If he was going to get to the Wagon Wheel in time, he’d better get moving.

He walked fast, lanky legs eating up the road. His job at the plant paid seven fifty an hour. How the hell was he supposed to fix his car on seven fifty an hour? Ernie would give him a break, but parts cost a fortune. A new starter might be three fifty, four hundred. Two weeks of work. He could hitch a ride to work with Rip. Like last time, he’d have to borrow Jimmy’s car to get home, and then come back at seven to pick him up. Problem was, Jimmy expected him to pay for all the gas during the arrangement, and gas cost a fucking fortune these days.

It wasn’t fair. He was a good worker. He should be paid more. Nine bucks an hour, eight fifty, at least.

He walked even faster. The warm glow of yellow light in the Wagon Wheel, the long wooden counter, the plaintive jukebox, the bottles and glasses glistening on their shelves before the mirror— the images filled his heart and propelled his legs.

Suddenly he stopped. He thought he’d heard a rustling, in the corn to his right.

He waited a moment, listening, but all was silent. The air was dead still. The heat lightning flickered, then flickered again.

He resumed walking, this time moving to the center of the road. All was silent. Some animal, coon probably. Or maybe his imagination.

Again his thoughts turned to the Wagon Wheel. He could see the big friendly form of Swede with his red cheeks and handlebar mustache moving behind the counter: good old Swede, who always had a friendly word for everyone. He imagined Swede setting the little shot glass down in front of him, the generously poured whisky slopping over the side; he imagined raising it to his lips; he imagined the golden fire making its way down his gullet. Instead of a pint, he’d pay a little more and drink at the bar. Swede would give him a ride home, he was good to his customers. Or maybe he could just rack out in the back room, go on over to Ernie’s first thing in the morning. Wouldn’t be the first time he’d slept one off in the Wagon Wheel. Beat going home to the ball and chain, anyway. He could call her from the bar, make some excuse—

There was that sound in the corn again.

He hesitated only for a moment, then continued walking, his work shoes soft on the warm asphalt. And then he heard the sound again, closer now, close enough to be recognized.

It was the rustle of someone brushing through the dry corn.

He peered to his right, trying to see. But he could only see the tops of the corn against the faint sky. The rest was a wall of darkness.

Then, as he stared, he saw a single cornstalk tremble against the sky.

What was it? Deer? Coyote?

"Hah!" He cried, shooing his hands in the direction of the sound.

His blood froze at the reply. It was a grunt, human yet not human.

Muh, came the sound.

"Who the hell is that?"

No sound now.

"Fuck you," said Stott, quickening his pace and veering to the far side of the road. "I don’t know who the hell you are, but fuck you."

There was a rustling sound, of someone moving through the corn, faster now, keeping pace with him.

Muh.

Stott began to jog along the far side of the road.

The rustling in the corn kept pace. The voice, the strange gasping voice, rose in volume and insistence. Muh! Muh!

Now Stott broke into a run. There was a corresponding crashing in the corn to his right. He could see, against the faintest sky, the tops of the corn alongside the road thrashing and snapping. More crashing, and then he saw what he thought was a dark shape coming out of the corn, very fast, first moving parallel to him, then angling closer.

In a second, some atavistic instinct drove Willie Stott to jump the ditch on the left side of the road and crash headlong into the corn. As the tall ears swallowed him up, he glanced back for only a second. As he did so he saw a large, dark shape scuttling across the road behind him at a terrible speed.

Stott crashed through the next row, and the next, forcing himself as deeply as possible into the dark, suffocating corn, gasping out loud. But always he heard the crash of dry ears being trampled behind him.

He took a ninety degree angle and ran down a row. Behind, the crashing stopped.

Stott ran. He had long legs and in high school he’d been on the track team. That had been years ago, but he still knew how to run. And so he ran, thinking of nothing else except planting one foot before the other, outrunning whatever it was behind him.

Despite the encircling corn, he was not yet fully disoriented. Medicine Creek lay ahead of him, just over a mile away. He could still make it...

Behind him now, he could hear the loud slapping of feet against earth. And with each step, a rhythmic grunt.

Muh. Muh. Muh.

The long row of corn made a slow curve along the topography of the land, and he flew along it, running with a speed borne of sheer terror.

Muh. Muh. Muh.

Christ, it was getting closer. He swerved, desperately crashing through another row, still running.

He heard an echoing crash behind him as the pursuer broke through the row, following him, closing in.

Muh. Muh. Muh. Muh.

"Leave me alone!" he screamed.

Muh. Muh. Muh. Muh.

It was getting closer, so close he almost imagined he could feel puffs of hot breath on his neck, keeping time with the thudding feet. A sudden wet warmth flooded his thighs as his bladder let go. He swerved, crashed through yet another row, swerved, veered back. The thing kept right behind him, closer, ever closer. Muh! Muh! Muh! Muh! It was still gaining, and gaining fast.

Stott felt something grab his hair, something horribly strong. He tried to jerk his head away, the sudden pain awful, but the grip held fast. His lungs were on fire. He could feel his legs slackening with terror.

"Somebody, help me!" he screamed, diving to one side, jerking and thrashing his head so violently he could feel his scalp begin to separate from his skull. The thing was now almost on top of him. And then he felt a sudden, vice-like grip on the back of his neck, a brutal twist and snap, and suddenly it seemed as if he had left the ground and was flying, flying, up into the dark sky, while a triumphant voice screamed:

Muuuuuuuuuuuuuuuhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!

 


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