Novelists in general are granted plenty of poetic license. But crime writers? Not so much. Our readers are grounded in cold, hard facts. They balk at anything too farfetched, thanks to the popularity of televised investigations, and have come to expect so much veracity that writing a crime novel is akin to writing nonfiction.
Sometimes, however, real-life events intersect with fiction. For instance, two murderers recently broke out of a New York prison, and the ensuing manhunt put all of the Northeast on high alert. Coincidentally, my new novel, What Doesn’t Kill Her, starts with a violent criminal’s escape. So, with the real-life escape of two convicts scarcely out of the headlines, I hope crime fiction fans might enjoy this excerpt:
[ 1 ] OLSHAKER PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITAL, SOUTH TURVEY, WASHINGTON
Most of the men incarcerated in the Forensic Unit of Washington State’s largest psychiatric hospital play basketball or cards during rec time. The more delusional converse with imaginary friends. A few spend time exploring their private parts.
As Daryl Wayne Flint steps into the rec yard, he hears an older guard say to a rookie, “See that longhaired guy with the wild beard? The one that looks like Charles Manson? Watch what he does.”
Flint ignores the comment and struts across the damp grass toward the asphalt basketball court. Exactly at center court, he stops, opens his arms wide, and starts a slow spin.
The familiar scenes flash past: the parking lot, the cafeteria windows, the blank wall, the iron-girded windows of the warden’s corner office, the lawn extending to the fence, the woods beyond, and—what’s this?—a wink of light from between the trees.
He wishes he could stop and study but must continue his rotations.
A huge patient named Galt dribbles the basketball toward him. “Hurry up, man.”
Flint sticks to his routine. Again: the cafeteria windows, the bare wall, the warden’s office, the hospital grounds… and then, yes, he sees it distinctly: A car is coming down the road, sunlight splashing off its windshield.
“Move your ass, man!” Galt circles Flint, bouncing the ball hard and grunting obscenities. A group of men toeing the asphalt call for the game to begin.
Galt dribbles in a tight pattern, crowding so close that Flint’s fingertips brush his T-shirt. The other men yap and holler. But Flint continues spinning and does not hurry.
He glimpses the car again. White, it comes winding out of the trees. Then, with his third rotation complete, he drops his arms.
The ball smacks the asphalt and the basketball game starts behind him as Flint strolls off the court. He steps onto the grass, where he always turns left. Always counterclockwise.
Now he sees the car approach the gate, but then it moves beyond his peripheral vision. He cannot stop and gawk. He continues walking around the court, looking straight ahead, but when at last he makes a turn and has a clear view of the white car, his pulse quickens. He need barely move his eyes to watch it turn into the parking lot.
He calculates: an unfamiliar car, arriving at this particular hour, on this particular day… It can only be the new barber.
This might be the perfect day for a haircut.
Keeping the smile off his face, he watches the car cruise past. The driver is a white male, wearing some type of hat. A beret? The guy must think he’s some kind of artist.
Flint aches to turn his head and study the driver as the car continues in search of a place to park, but now his feet have arrived at the next corner. He must turn south. He keeps a steady pace as he walks past the cafeteria, past the long blank wall, past the warden’s ironclad windows. All the while, he’s straining to hear any sound from the new arrival. The car door slamming shut? A cell phone conversation as the driver crosses the parking lot?
But he hears only the trash talk of the basketball game, the ball slapping asphalt, thwacking the backboard, rattling around the rim.
He swallows his disappointment.
At the next corner, he turns east, heading toward the guard tower that overlooks the nine-foot fence and the deep woods beyond. He has no interest today in the colors of the leaves or the shapes of the clouds. Instead, he’s weighing risk vs. opportunity.
And he’s wondering just how much he can trust his mother.
Has she done everything needed? It’s hard to know.
Visiting hours aren’t so lax in the medium-security wing that inmates can speak freely, no matter what their status. No matter how addled they might be. No matter what meds might be flooding their brains. People are always listening. So, of necessity, most of their conversations have been in code.
During their most recent visit, his mother had said, “I’ve been thinking about your dear, departed father.”
He’d nearly choked.
“Thinking about our wedding day,” she said, widening her eyes at him. “You remember the date, don’t you?”
He shifted uncomfortably, wondering where this was headed.
“Don’t you remember? It was April.”
“Shush. April 5th, 1968. Repeat it back to me.”
Perplexed, he recited, “April 5th, 1968.”
“That’s exactly right. The fourth month, the fifth day. The fourth month, the fifth day.”
That’s when he realized she was speaking in code….
Flint replays this conversation as he reaches the corner and turns again toward the parking lot. He scans for the white car, quickly locates where it is parked, and studies it as he marches forward. A Honda. Compact and nondescript. Washington plates.
The sun disappears behind the clouds and a cold wind whips Flint’s hair across his face as he continues his walk. No one pays any attention. He’s the repetitive inmate with post-concussive syndrome who never causes problems.
“Mentally disordered, with frontal lobe dysfunction, obsessive tendencies… antisocial behavioral problems that render him unsuitable for incarceration in the state penitentiary,” his psychiatrist had said.
Sure, let them think that.
Let them think that.
Let them think that.
Because every crazy thing he does is useful. And each day brings him closer to Plan B, closer to recapturing his favorite girl.
What Doesn’t Kill Her Book Launch Event
Tuesday, July 7 at 7:00 p.m.
Books & Authors interview, signing to follow
Book Culture, 450 Columbus Ave., New York, NY 10024
Carla Norton is a novelist, journalist, and true crime writer. Her debut fiction, THE EDGE OF NORMAL, was a Thriller Award finalist and a Royal Palm Literary Award winner. The sequel, WHAT DOESN’T KILL HER (titled HUNTED in the UK), is out now. Her true crime books include PERFECT VICTIM, which was put on the reading list for the FBI Behavioral Sciences Unit and became a #1 New York Times bestseller. For more information, visit CarlaNorton.com, or find her on Facebook, Goodreads and Twitter.