Desert Places: a Novel of Terror

Acknowledgments

I’VE been in good hands from the start. Linda Allen came along with her faith and encouragement and found a home for this story. She’s an extraordinary agent and a wonderful friend. Marcia Markland made my first editing experience everything I’d hoped it would be, with grace, humor, and unfailing insight. Bland Simpson, greatest creative writing professor of all time, was the first to believe. His brilliance as a writer is matched only by the generosity he extends to his students. Mary Alice Kier and Anna Cottle have been amazing, and I’m grateful to have them in my corner. And Diana Szu is a superhero. Sam Stout, M.D., Ted Vance, M.D., Michael James, and Marianne Fuierer shared their medical and pharmacological acumen in answering a handful of creepy questions. Paul Lowry was my encyclopedia on firearms. Myrna Woirhaye told me all about ranching in Pinedale, and Sandra L. Mitchell, Ph.D., graciously lent her expertise on the high desert flora and fauna of Sublette County, Wyoming. Ritchie Kendall, Ph.D., another UNC great, helped me out with a Shakespeare question. All mistakes, exaggerations, and impossibilities are mine. In this moment of completion, the love and sacrifice of my parents, Clay and Susan Crouch, overwhelm me. My brother, Jordan, lets me bounce titles off him even though he never likes any of them. He’s a great guy, and he’s going to be a writer. In the wife department, I’m blessed beyond belief. Rebecca, your friendship and love guide me through. And finally, a nod to Pamela Bumgarner, who stoked the coals at a delicate time.

1

ON a lovely May evening, I sat on my deck, watching the sun descend upon Lake Norman. So far, it had been a perfect day. I’d risen at 5:00 a.m. as I always do, put on a pot of French roast, and prepared my usual breakfast of scrambled eggs and a bowl of fresh pineapple. By six o’clock, I was writing, and I didn’t stop until noon. I fried two white crappies I’d caught the night before, and the moment I sat down for lunch, my agent called. Cynthia fields my messages when I’m close to finishing a book, and she had several for me, the only one of real importance being that the movie deal for my latest novel, Blue Murder, had closed. It was good news of course, but two other movies had been made from my books, so I was used to it by now.

I worked in my study for the remainder of the afternoon and quit at 6:30. My final edits of the new as yet untitled manuscript would be finished tomorrow. I was tired, but my new thriller, The Scorcher, would be on bookshelves within the week. I savored the exhaustion that followed a full day of work. My hands sore from typing, eyes dry and strained, I shut down the computer and rolled back from the desk in my swivel chair.

I went outside and walked up the long gravel drive toward the mailbox. It was the first time I’d been out all day, and the sharp sunlight burned my eyes as it squeezed through the tall rows of loblollies that bordered both sides of the drive. It was so quiet here. Fifteen miles south, Charlotte was still gridlocked in rush-hour traffic, and I was grateful not to be a part of that madness. As the tiny rocks crunched beneath my feet, I pictured my best friend, Walter Lancing, fuming in his Cadillac. He’d be cursing the drone of horns and the profusion of taillights as he inched away from his suite in uptown Charlotte,