Skip to main content



Still Life With Crows


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

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. One.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

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 neigh-bor'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

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

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

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

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

Excerpted from STILL LIFE WITH CROWS © Copyright 2003 by
Lincoln Child and Splendide Mendax, Inc. Reprinted with permission
by Warner Books. All rights reserved.


Still Life With Crows
by by Douglas Preston

  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Mass Market Paperback: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 0446612766
  • ISBN-13: 9780446612760