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Authors: Loren D. Estleman

Red Highway

BOOK: Red Highway





Red Highway

A Crime Novel

Loren D. Estleman

To my mother and father,

to Yvonne MacManus,

and to the memory of Gaye Tardy.


First novels are the easiest to write and the hardest to forget. Easiest to write, because the writer with no track record has nothing to live up to and no reason to look back. Hardest to forget, because twenty books and a marriage or two later he will see copies of that debut (Is
cover illustration uglier than one's first, or any set of blurbs more moronic?) determinedly working their way up to the head of the autograph line, dog-eared and bearing the stamp of some defunct library and loaded with nifty imagery and enough stream of consciousness to choke a python. He dare not disown the thing, because his colleagues have long ears and fiendish natures and will scour the used-book emporia for copies with which to torment him every time he shows his face at the writers' conclave, of which there are rather more than there are successful writers. And so he is stuck with it.

There are two exceptions, both sad. One is the first novel that is also the best, and which must come to be despised by its creator as a singular freak of imagination. The other is the first novel that is also the last, from which the author must turn his head as does a fat forty-year-old from an album photo of himself in uniform as captain of his high school football squad. These are the works of the so-called one-book authors, the Margaret Mitchells, Emily Bröntes, and Ralph Ellisons who could never be made to understand that lightning need not be captured twice in the same bottle.

The book currently titled
Red Highway
could not be confused with
Gone With the Wind
Wuthering Heights
Invisible Man
. Based loosely upon the career of Wilbur Underhill, a Depression-era bandit nearly as obscure now as the book itself, it is the story of a fairly unpleasant young tough who charges through a number of banks and penitentiary walls throughout an impoverished Midwest, acquiring an underground legend, until his inevitably violent death. It is the product of a youthful fascination with the snap-brim desperadoes of the thirties gained during a childhood when old gangster movies dominated television. It says nothing new, lacks plot definition, and offers virtually nothing in the way of character, but there are some nice visuals—proving, perhaps, that twelve years of art training were not lost upon its twenty-two-year-old author. If memory serves, the bulk of it was written in longhand during my Elizabethan Poetry Class while I was attending Eastern Michigan University.

Eventually, having been turned down by editors at Dutton, Doubleday, Houghton Mifflin, Viking, and sundry other institutions, the book landed in the lap of someone in Zebra Books' California office, who duly shunted it across the hall to Yvonne MacManus at the now-defunct Major Books. I had submitted it to Zebra on 15 September 1975—my twenty-third birthday—and it was published in April 1976 by Major. (From that day to this I have never had one published as fast; yet that interval stretches ponderously long in my memory.) Because Major was unknown east of the Rockies, I became the book's chief distributor in my native Michigan. It was not reviewed, and until this year it never earned me more than the thousand-dollar advance I received for it originally, but it gave me one of the best of all my editors in Yvonne MacManus and, through her recommendation, my present agent, Ray Puechner. If anyone can be said to have discovered a writer, she did this one; and it is to her that this edition is dedicated, along with her then-assistant, the late Gaye Tardy, who died tragically a few years ago while preparing to take over as editor-in-chief, at Pinnacle Books, which folded soon afterward. It's my way of forgiving them both for retitling my firstborn
The Oklahoma Punk

Placed in context with my later work, Virgil Ballard is the first of a number of unlikable protagonists for whom human life holds the approximate market value of a bullet. This presumption never fails to galvanize critics, who cling to the hoary old truism that one's protagonist must be sympathetic for the reader to care what happens to him. (These are the same critics who have been sneering at the Western's good-versus-evil theme for decades.) My contention is that he need merely be interesting, and if one is to believe the most common remark I hear about these characters—“I hated your hero but I finished the book”—then I am right. On another level I seek to show that there is not a great deal of difference between the lawless and the law-abiding in our society, and that we are all killers who don't receive the same opportunities; a belief that one reviewer called “fatuous and evil.” I own up to the evil and envy him the shelter of his vocabulary.

The student of writing may detect the influences of Elmore Leonard upon the dialogue, Edward Anderson upon the style, and W. R. Burnett upon its dark view; influences that are still with me, although mostly unconscious now, and I hope more smoothly digested into my own method. The student of art may detect the painterly detail of the new and old masters whose visual techniques I attempted to imitate on canvas in an earlier incarnation. What a psychoanalyst may detect I'd rather not know. They are always rooting around in writers' ids and stopping as soon as they find what they are looking for.

I wish the book were better. Going through it, correcting the excesses of Major's assembly-line editing, I was tempted to force the lessons learned in twelve years and twenty-two books into that old frame, but I know without trying that whatever the book may gain in technique it would lose in animal energy. Walt Whitman could spend his life revising and republishing his masterpiece. I am not of that temperament, and in any case
Red Highway
is not
Leaves of Grass
any more than I am Walt Whitman, or even Whitman Mayo. It is, however, as good as I was capable of at the time. The fact that I use the same yardstick today proves there is still something I can learn from that twenty-two-year-old tyro.

Whitmore Lake, Michigan

September 15, 1986

Part I

Trifling Circumstances

Shawnee, Oklahoma.

The cold rain drizzles down special agent William Farnum's neck and soaks into the heavy woolen material of his topcoat. He blinks the drops from his eyes, sniffs loudly. A sharp, acrid smell, like burned-out matches. Smokeless powder.

The white frame house looms dark and gloomy in the predawn mist, its slate roof shining with moisture. A hinge squeaks beneath the weight of a bullet-smashed shutter. A shard of glass drops from a shattered window frame, hits the sill, and disintegrates into a dozen pieces. Then silence.

Across the street a youthful deputy sheriff releases his grip on the hair of a prostrate figure, letting the face flop forward into a puddle. He straightens and strides toward Farnum. A loose, swinging gait, jaw working languidly at a wad of stale gum. A pump shotgun dangles at his side.

“Dead?” Farnum's voice is hoarse from shouting.

The man in uniform nods. “Straight through the left eye and out the back of his head. Single-shot, too.” He eyes the homely machine gun enviously. In the government man's frail hands, it looks extremely wicked. Which it is. “Them .45s'd stop an elephant.”

“Yeah.” Farnum turns to look at the house once again. A young woman is seated on the front stoop, face red from weeping. Another one, smaller and more gaunt, stands idly in the doorway, stroking her right arm absentmindedly. She is the widow of the man with his face in the puddle. Around them is clustered a group of men bundled up against the December cold. Some of them are in uniform. These are armed with shotguns and tear-gas rifles. Only the trench-coated figures, the special agents, have been issued submachine guns. All are quiet, awaiting further developments.

The garage door is wrenched outward, and two men in raincoats and shining wet snap-brim hats come out into the open, heading for the spot where Farnum is waiting. Behind them, in the garage, a brand-new 1933 Pontiac sedan sits in the middle of a slowly spreading pool of oil and gas, its big headlights smashed and its windshield shot away. All four of its tires have been shot to ribbons.

“Nobody in there, Chief,” reports the first man, resting the butt of his machine gun on the toe of his shoe.

“What about the car?”

The man shakes his head. “Nothing alive, if that's what you mean. The back seat's an arsenal; tommy guns, pistols, Lugers, shotguns—it looks like the weapons storehouse in Oklahoma City. Where do these people get stuff like that, anyway?”

The leader of the special agents disregards the question. He applies a match to an oversize cigar, flips the tiny flaming stick into a puddle. “What about the other one?”

“You mean Ballard?” A high, nasal twang. Okie. The lanky deputy snorts. “Hell, there's no bother about him. He's dead.”

“I don't see any body.”

“We musta hit him a dozen times. He went down twice.”

“Even so.” Farnum signals to the rest of his men, who leave the stoop and gather around their leader. The uniformed deputies remain behind, silent and brooding. They resent the way the federal cop has taken over. Farnum gestures broadly. “Fan out. He didn't get far.”

The lawmen begin moving, spreading out to cover the broad residential street. The government men are eager, the sheriff's deputies reluctant. But all follow the trail of brown stains on the pavement.

Chapter One

May 5, 1922.

McNeal double-clutched the big truck and slammed it into second. The transmission groaned, the chassis shuddered, and the truck lurched into its newfound freedom. On the flatbed behind him, the squat earthen jugs he was carrying rattled and strained against the stout rope that held them.

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