Arts and Culture

Author Linda Atkins will be in Frankfort on Saturday for the Kentucky Book Fair. She recently sat down with WFPL’s Rick Howlett to discuss her latest crime novel, “Deadline for Murder.” You can find the interview here. And here’s an excerpt:

Chapter One

Tuesday, May 20

“Where in the hell am I?” A simple question. But to Blake Hunter, who was never known to be at a loss for words, the answer remained strangely elusive. Feeling weak and aching all over, as if he had been clobbered by a bad case of the flu, he cautiously pulled himself upright in the chair. Inadvertently, his hands brushed up against spools of yellowed stuffing escaping from beneath strips of rotted fabric that, at one time, must have been wrapped snugly around each of the now fractured armrests. The interaction made his hands feel uncomfortably gritty and sticky with some kind of residue. He jerked them away and then wiped both right and left palms against his thighs. But whatever it was still clung to his hands like skin on a snake.

Trying hard to overcome his growing sense of panic, even though a cold chill was inching its way up his spine, he glanced around, taking stock of his surroundings. The effort, however, immediately caused sharp pains to shoot through the left side of his head, making any further such exertion much too ambitious. Debilitating dizziness, disorientation and an overwhelming need to give in to sleep became overpowering sensations. Exhausted, Blake slumped back in the chair before trying once more to get his bearings. Seconds ticked away. It was so tempting just to remain sitting limp, like a rag doll. But instinctively, he knew he had to get up and keep moving.

Easing around an exposed coil sprouting like a prickly weed from the seat cushion, which he quickly realized felt alarmingly damp to the touch, he managed to stand up, but just barely. Shivering, he knew that whatever had dampened the chair had now transferred itself to the back of his trousers. And since the room temperature was somewhere close to frigid, he knew it wasn’t sweat. And that realization was all the incentive he needed to remain upright. Tentatively, with one hand still planted firmly on the back of the chair and the other splayed on the wall behind it for added support, he fought back the vertigo, and then the nausea, all of which seemed to roll over him in waves of varying intensity.

Taking a deep breath, he slowly inched his way forward by placing one hand, then the other against the wall’s cold surface. His objective was simple. Head in the direction of the only window in the room. He staggered forward. Out of breath and still reeling from the throbbing pain in his head, he reached out and, hoping to regain his balance, clutched at the short drapery panel that covered the window. The action, however, prompted a plume of accumulated dust to waft through the air and, like lint on a black suit, promptly deposit itself on his face and fingers. Again, Blake attempted to wipe off the grime on his dampened gray flannel slacks but succeeded only in making himself cough, which resulted in his head hurting more, if that was even possible.

Cautiously lifting the hem of the drapery to eye level, he could see that just outside the three-by- five-foot window was a large metal pole capped twelve feet above with a rectangular neon sign in Pepto- Bismol pink letters that blinked “Vacancy” in rhythmic unison to an incessant buzzing sound. Taking advantage of the blinking light, which illuminated the room every two seconds, he studied his watch. Exactly 5:12 a.m. The first blush of color heralding a late spring sunrise was just beginning to spread across the early morning sky. Looking past the Vacancy sign, he searched for the name of the motel, but no name was visible from his rather limited vantage point. Peering around to the left and then to the right, he saw nothing that looked even vaguely familiar except for his Jeep parked three spaces down from the exterior door. Frustrated, he tried but couldn’t remember driving here, wherever here was. Dropping the corner of the drapery, Blake turned to take a quick inventory of the room, which had only one low wattage bulb in a floor lamp anchored near one of two twin beds pushed together, but not quite all the way. Both coverlets looked to be pulled back in muddled disarray as if each bed had been slept in. In the area between the beds, he could make out a small pie-shaped section of well-worn shag carpeting. Not surprisingly, even from a distance and with limited light, he could tell that this too was stained. With what, he didn’t want to hazard a guess.

Not knowing who, or what, had brought him there, Blake tried once more to think. But his only recollection of recent events seemed trapped in a mass of jumbled, disjointed conversations with people he couldn’t identify—people whose distorted faces seemed to puddle together like wax melting from a hot flame. Nothing was making any sense. And the more he tried to recapture the memories, the more they seemed to fade into nothingness like wisps of smoke.

With care, he angled his way toward the beds with an overwhelming desire, in spite of the filth, to plop down and sleep off whatever it was that had caused his loss of memory, lack of coordination, and this mother of all headaches. He was in no condition to drive, so sleep, he convinced himself, was the best, if not the only, option he had at the moment. With that goal in mind, he again stumbled forward, his hands involuntarily fluttering around in a useless effort to try to remain standing. Silently, he urged himself on—you’re almost there—just two more steps to go before you can lie down and sink back into oblivion. But then, all of a sudden, his knees buckled, and he once more lost control of his movements. Just in time, before falling face down on the floor, he reached out and managed to grab hold of the corner of one of the mattresses. Using all the strength he had left, he pulled himself up and, maneuvering his body as best he could, crawled onto the edge of the bed closest to where he had been standing, slid slowly across it on his belly, cautiously straddling the two mattresses where they remained joined at their shared headboard. But once there, something stopped him cold. What was it he had just touched? He rose up, steadied himself on both elbows, and dared to look. It was a hand. He shifted his weight, and with one arm now free, he pulled back the bedspread. In spite of his fuzzy headedness and overwhelming sense of fatigue, what he saw caused him, without thought as to his present condition, to rear back and jump off the beds.

Trying to steady himself on still-wobbly legs, he stepped backward, falling against the nearby wall. Leaning on it for support, he stared, transfixed at what had been rolled up, cocoon-like, in the bed covers. A woman’s body. And from the coldness of the hand he had touched, he was pretty damn sure she was dead. Stone cold dead.

Still shaking, now almost uncontrollably, he willed his well-muscled body to circle the perimeter of the beds, trying to take it all in from every angle. Since it wasn’t the first time he had been to a crime scene, he knew exactly how to handle himself. He needed to concentrate. Take precautions. Leave nothing behind. Focus on details.

Glancing around once more, he saw that the common headboard for each twin mattress had been nailed flush against a wall covered with what appeared to be dingy yellow-and-pink-flowered wallpaper, peeled off every foot or so into jagged strips from top to bottom. Peeking through the disintegrating paper was a wall pockmarked with nail holes and, in some places, flaking drywall held together with snippets of drooping masking tape.

Directly above the headboard, Blake could see, in spite of the dim light, that something had been scrawled across the wall. And from the primitive look of it, hastily scrawled in oversized capital letters. But with eyes still blurry from whatever he had drunk, eaten, or been hit over the head with, it was impossible to make out what that something was without getting almost on top of it. Curiosity getting the better of him, he shuffled closer, and then closer still, his legs unsteady, until not only could he see it, he could smell it. He shivered. The hair stood up on the back of his neck. His stomach churned. Three words were written in blood. “I WARNED YOU!” Where had he seen those three words before? He closed his eyes trying to think, but given his current mental and physical limitations, the answer escaped him.

He turned away. His eyes, now wide-open, once again swept the room, forcing him to take in more snapshots of his surroundings—beds with no sheets, just bare mattresses; coverlets threadbare and used as convenient shrouds for the body; arc-like blood splatters on the wall above the beds; the room itself unremarkable, except for the filth; the bathroom door ajar; a water glass half-full on the edge of the vanity; the toilet seat still encased with sanitary paper wrapping; and finally, a pile of neatly folded clothing and a handbag on the floor next to the chair that just minutes before he had been sitting in.

Compelling himself to calm down and concentrate, he began to feel more in control. With his adrenaline now pumping, he bent over the beds and using his right elbow, coaxed back the bedspread still encircling part of the body. Inside the coverlet, he saw she was naked, save for one black high-heeled shoe, half on, half off her right foot. Even in the limited light, she looked small—no more than five-two, one hundred pounds, if that. And she looked young. Twenty something, at most. He didn’t recognize her, but then, her face was so battered it would have been hard for her own mother to make a positive ID. He held his breath, being ever so careful not to leave behind trace evidence that could identify him. From what he could tell from his initial, very quick inspection of the body, not only had she been beaten, it looked as though she had been strangled, as evidenced by the severe bruising and swelling to her neck. Her eyes were open and blood red due to petechial hemorrhaging. And if these injuries weren’t bad enough, visible on her chest was a deep stab wound about two inches in length. He was tempted but didn’t dare touch the shoulder-length blond hair. Nor did he, at first, lift up her left hand still clenched in a tight fist, as if she had been sparring with her attacker before her attacker got the best of her. But that was before he saw a small piece of fabric tucked under the knuckle of her index finger—blue-striped fabric, which he recognized without a moment’s hesitation. He could feel the beads of sweat forming on his forehead, threatening at any moment to drip onto the bedspread. He lowered his eyes and looked down at his shirt—a blue-striped shirt. The pocket was torn, the front of the pocket missing. Using his thumb and forefinger, he teased the fabric from her grasp. Rigor had not yet set in, so the task was easier than he had anticipated, in spite of the fact that, try as he might, he couldn’t stop his hands from shaking in a palsy- like rhythm. As best he could, he checked for threads left behind but was satisfied none remained. With care, he crawled backward off the bed, while trying to maintain his precarious balance.

Could I have done this? He looked down and studied his hands. Large scratches were visible on each. Were they fingernail scratches, or had he too been cut with a knife by the same person who had stabbed the girl? In the semi-darkened room, he couldn’t tell, or maybe, he just didn’t really want to know. His only concern was whether his DNA was somewhere in the room or on the body. But that was impossible to know with any degree of certainty.

He dropped to his knees and carefully felt under the bed. It must be here somewhere, he thought. Why else would the beds have been partially separated? Seconds passed. All efforts to quickly find what he was looking for were frustrated not only by his inability to stop swaying from side to side, but from the pain and vertigo, both of which were on the up-tick. His thinking, however, had cleared up enough to realize he might be in danger himself. Whoever had done this to whomever was lying dead on the bed might be back to finish him off too. God only knew how long he had been here. He had to get out of this dump, and get out fast, so why was he diddle-dicking around trying to be some kind of super sleuth? With that thought in mind, he was about to get back up, one leg at a time, and had actually succeeded in hoisting himself up on one knee, when something niggled at his brain, prodding him to try and reach farther under the bed, just one last time. He tried again, and this time the tip of his right index finger touched something. And that something he touched was sharp. Quickly pulling back, he sat down on the floor, hard. Thinking how best to retrieve whatever it was without risking injury to himself, Blake cautiously thrust his right foot under the bed and extended it as far as he could, making wide crescent- shaped rotational patterns with his shoe until the object was nudged from its hiding place. A knife. From the looks of it, a hunting knife, large, serrated, with a wooden handle and brass guard and butt. Even in the dim light, it was obvious—it was covered with blood, still tacky, but starting to harden and flake off. Without thinking, he picked it up. Now, why in the hell did I do that? Dropping it on the floor as if burned, and now in a full-blown panic, he began tugging at the corner of the bedspread, pulling it toward him, trying to steady himself. But in the process, he inadvertently pulled the body forward as well, causing one of her legs to jut straight out from beneath the bedcover and flop down over the side. He closed his eyes and shivered, and then turned to do what he had to do because of his own inexplicable stupidity.

Slowly, painstakingly, with a handkerchief he retrieved from his side pocket, he leaned over on his side and brushed the knife back and forth across the threadbare carpeting, and then in an up and down motion in an attempt to wipe it clean of fingerprints. When finished, he studied the blade and handle until he was satisfied that what little residue might be left would be so smudged, any prints would be rendered unidentifiable. He knew he was tampering with physical evidence, but he also knew he had no choice. Maintaining anonymity trumped everything. How could he possibly explain his prints or his DNA turning up at a crime scene? And, more particularly, how could he explain to the cops he just happened to know where to look for the murder weapon, when he couldn’t explain that discovery even to himself? With the tip of his shoe, he shoved the knife back under the bed as far as it could be pushed. Half standing, using his knee for leverage, he then lowered the corner of the bloodied bedspread and shoved the handkerchief back into his pocket.

Feeling as though he was moving in slow motion, he slipped his hand into his left rear pocket and pulled out his wallet. From the feel of it, without taking the time to count, all one hundred-and-fifty or so bucks he generally carried on him at all times were still accounted for. Grateful for just this much, he then thrust his hand once more into a side pocket, moved past jangling keys, and withdrew the handkerchief that at one time had been bleached white and freshly starched. Now, it was damp with blood. Examining it as carefully as he could, he found, that miraculously, one corner had remained devoid of blood and was therefore usable. He pinched the corner of the handkerchief over a small enamel knob located on the drawer front of the bedside table and pulled. He peered inside, looking for anything that would identify the motel and its location. Under an upside down, well-worn Gideon Bible, which was missing the gold embossed letter G so only the letters i-d-e-o-n remained, he finally found what he was looking for—a writing tablet embellished with nonsensical scribbles, apparently left behind by a bored former guest. The words “Riverside Motel, Louisville, Kentucky—Land of Fast Horses and Beautiful Women” were stretched across the top in bright green block letters. So that’s where I am. Strangely, however, he could find no street address, no telephone number.

With his eyes still trained on the body, as if watching expectantly for signs of life even though he knew she was long gone, he reached once more into his pants pocket and pulled out his cell phone, its black leather case worn with age and way too much usage. Cupping it in his right hand, he began turning it over and over while slowly pacing back and forth across a ten-square-foot area of space while wondering out loud whom to call first—911, or his lawyer and friend, Winfield Bennett.

It wasn’t a tough choice. He punched in two digits on speed dial, his sweaty forefinger barely able to press down on the keypad without sliding off prematurely. From experience, he knew Win would take his call. Today would be no exception.