Desolation Flats: New Excerpt

Desolation Flats by Andrew Hunt
Desolation Flats by Andrew Hunt
Desolation Flats by Andrew Hunt is book #3 in the Art Oveson Mystery series (Available November 15, 2016).

In the summer of 1938, as war clouds loom overseas, auto racers from around the world gather at the Bonneville Salt Flats west of Salt Lake City, intent on breaking the land-speed record. But when Clive Underhill, a wealthy English motorist, mysteriously disappears and his younger brother, Nigel, is found dead, Art Oveson of the Salt Lake City Missing Persons Bureau is called to investigate.

Suddenly, Art’s best friend and former partner, Roscoe Lund, becomes the number-one suspect in Nigel’s murder, prompting Art to follow a murky trail involving homegrown fascists, bigoted ex-cops, a string of homicides, and a German auto racer with a mysterious past. And, through it all, FBI Agent Frank Oveson tries to prevent his “kid brother” Art from discovering dark truths that may threaten his life.

One

ONNEVILLE SPEEDWAY, UTAH

ATURDAY, AUGUST 6, 1938

The Silver Arrow, a speck on the crystal horizon, streaked across the desert under a cloudless sky. I braved the sparkling salt pan, walking on ground so hot it penetrated my shoe soles and cooked my feet. I approached one of the newly installed photoelectric devices, complete with a flip-clock timer, speed sensor, and a blinking red bulb to let you know the event was under way. In my left hand, I clutched a clipboard with a pink timing record form and a stubby No. 2 pencil. I halted at an orange cone that served as my marker and peered off into the distance. The shiny racer rose out of the shimmering earth like a phoenix bursting out of the desert floor. Moments later, a metallic streak thundered past me, its horsepower stabbing my eardrums, its wheels spreading a dust cloud that engulfed me. The flip numbers on the timing station began flapping away, until 238 MPH appeared, along with the timing. I tasted salt on my tongue as I jotted 1:12.5 at the appropriate place on the clipboard form.

Outside of the tent, a banner announced our new sponsor—PERFECT CIRCLE PISTON RINGS, HAGERSTOWN, INDIANA with the company logo in front of a black-and-white checkered flag. The banner ballooned outward like a sail in a gust of wind. Murray Jensen bowed as he passed through the tent’s open flap door. He had a bottle of ice-cold soda pop with condensation drops forming on the glass. Pudgy and short, with tinted sunglasses, a blue short-sleeved shirt, and khaki shorts that fell to his knees, Murray was the younger brother of Hank Jensen, driver of the Silver Arrow. The two men were my first cousins from my mother’s side, and their younger brothers, Gordon and Kenneth, assisted as mechanics on our volunteer racing team out here in the West Desert.

For years, all of the brothers had gravitated around Hank, a brilliant inventor featured on the covers of Life and Popular Mechanics. He’d made a small fortune from his patents, nearly all of which had to do with automobiles, including a revolutionary anti-backfire device used by all of the big Detroit car companies. Each time he cooked up an invention—from his Starterator Coincidental Starter, which greatly enhanced engine-starting performance, to his Universal Synchronizing Distributor, an item that improved the flow of the current between the ignition and the combustion chamber—he’d return from Detroit a million or so dollars richer.

Hank kept busy throughout the summers, trying to break his old distance and speed records. He had been coming out here to the Salt Flats since 1912, when he first started racing cars while still a teenager. Most observers agree that he was the man who made this stretch of salty desert the world’s preeminent destination for land speed racing. And, being the ever-dutiful cousin, I volunteered, along with his brothers, to assist him in his endeavors.

As I stepped under the shade of the striped canvas awning, Murray polished off his Coca-Cola, placed the empty in a wooden bottle crate, and raised the binoculars draped around his neck to get a better look.

“How’d he do?”

“Two thirty-eight, at one twelve,” I said. “And a half.”

He lowered the binoculars, grimacing. “Any way we can erase that half?”

I leaned in the tent, tossed the clipboard on a folding card table, and popped back out, staying under the awning to avoid the sun. “He’s got two more markers to pick up speed. Let’s wait to hear back from Gordy and Ken.”

“You know what your problem is, Art?”

“No, but I’m sure you’re about to tell me, Murr.”

“You’re too honest,” he said. He laughed and gave my shoulder a squeeze as he walked past. “Oh well. It’s only the trials. He’s just gotta get a faster start, that’s all.”

“It’s six seconds better than he did in June,” I said. “I’m sure he’ll best his old record soon.”

“It isn’t his old record he has to beat,” said Murray. “All these young Turks are leaving him in the dust, taking away sponsorships. We’ve even been dropped by Barr’s Auto Supply, and they stopped paying us long ago.”

“Well, he’ll always be the first to race these flats,” I said. “Nobody can take that away from him.” I paused a second and looked around. “Where is everybody?”

“Ain’tcha heard?”

“No. What?”

He took a shot at his best British accent. “I say old bean, the good chap shall be here shortly, and after a spot of tea, I hear he’ll go out motoring.”

I glanced down at today’s Salt Lake Examiner, held down on the table with a big, heavy rock to prevent the wind from blowing it away. A picture gracing A-1 showed a smartly dressed, aristocratic Englishman arriving at the Salt Lake municipal airport. He boasted a mop of curly hair, dark little round eyes, and an angular face. Perhaps the fact that he could rightly claim to be a distant relative of the royal family accounted for all the press fanfare. Or maybe it had something to do with his celebrity status in Great Britain as the nation’s top racer.

Whatever the reason, the headline above his photo said it all:

BRIT SEEKING TO BREAK OLD RECORD CAUSES STIR

“Don’t look now,” said Murray. “His majesty has arrived.”

A convoy of vehicles swept across the flats, zooming past rows of tents and grease monkeys adjusting race cars. They slowed to a halt at a circus-type tent printed with a giant Union Jack. Murray watched through binoculars, chewing Black Jack gum and offering me a stick. I shook my head and told him I’d be back. I set off west, in the direction of the encampment, to get a better look at what appeared to be a bona fide brouhaha. Along the way, I passed colorful metal signs, thrown up in haste, wired to poles in the ground. CHAMPION SPARK PLUGS, SINCLAIR MOTOR OIL, GOODRICH SAFETY SILVERTOWN TIRES, 100% PENNSYVANIA VALVOLINE MOTOR OILS.

In the distance, a huge speaker perched atop a steel tower called out announcements that echoed for miles: “… timed trials … drivers Larrabee, Gomez, Napier, Mandell, and Lindquist … all assisting vehicles please report to the starting line … next qualifying runs begin in five minutes, five minutes.…”

A hundred or so people gathered around the Union Jack tents as the motorist’s entourage got out of their cars and trucks. Atop a long trailer pulled by a pickup, the speed demon’s auto was kept a closely guarded secret by a tarp clamped down by metal fasteners. People clapped, and I worked my way to the front of the gathering to see if I could get a better view of what was happening. A British Pathé newsreel camera, emblazoned with a crowing rooster on the side, whirred away as a mustachioed British interviewer quizzed Clive Underhill, who looked every bit as debonair as he did in the papers and the Saturday afternoon news shorts.

“This is quite the welcome … Could you step closer to the microphone? Yes, thank you. As I was saying, this is quite the welcome, Mr. Underhill. Does this mark your debut at Bonneville?”

Mustache man tilted the microphone toward Underhill.

“No. I took part in my first run here in 1935, under the auspices of the Wembley Motor Club. Back then I came all the way out here to witness Sir Malcolm Campbell’s land speed record in the Bluebird. Now, with three years behind me, I am ready to best Campbell’s old record, and all subsequent ones.”

The crowd laughed and light applause crackled, prompting a smile and nod from Underhill.

“Do you anticipate breaking any land speed records today, Mr. Underhill?”

“Not today. That will likely occur next week. Today is a test run using the Desert Lightning prototype, so that I can ascertain driving conditions. It’s, uh, quite different here than it is at Daytona. Today’s run will help me understand what modifications, if any, need to be made on the Spectre, which I’ll unveil next week.”

“Ah yes, splendid, Mr. Underhill,” said the interviewer. “You are a long way from home. How do you find conditions here in the Utah desert?”

“Bloody hot. Dry as a bone. It’s quite desolate. White crystals for as far as the eye can see, almost as blinding as snow. It always takes me a while to get used to the heat out here. The mercury never climbs this high back home. Right now, we’re a hundred and twenty-five miles from Salt Lake City, so we’re far from the amenities of civilization. We stand here on this rather stunning plateau, a hundred miles long, twenty miles wide, surrounded by distant mountains, to engage in friendly competition to see who can be the fastest man on earth. It is remarkable, this day and age we live in.”

“Will you be kind enough to reveal any details about your racing machine to the ladies and gentlemen back home in England?”

“I’ve brought two versions of it with me to Utah,” he said. “The prototype under the cover there is what I will be driving this afternoon. Next week, I will introduce Spectre, a bold new speeder that has been two years in the making.”

“Will you be looking to break the last record set by Sir Malcolm Campbell?” asked the interviewer.

“No, as a matter of fact, Campbell’s record of 301.129 miles per hour from the third of September, 1935, was beaten two months later, on the nineteenth of November, by British racer George Eyston, who reached a top speed of 311.42 miles per hour in his Thunderbolt. I understand Eyston has modified the car by narrowing the front-end intake and adding a new grille, and he’ll make an attempt at the end of this month to break his record from last year. However, it is my goal to set a record next week that not even the talented Mr. Eyston can touch.”

Underhill’s remarks triggered light laughter and clapping, and he shaded his eyes with his hand to survey the scene. He noticed people growing restless in the terrible heat, and he faced the interviewer.

“Unfortunately, I must be saying farewell,” he said. “My timed prototype trials are coming up shortly and I must confer with my crew.”

“Thank you, Mr. Underhill, and I think I speak for all of England when I wish you the very best of luck.”

The camera kept rolling as the audience swarmed Underhill while he was stepping down from the makeshift platform. I watched him shake hands with the adoring masses, pose for photographs, and laugh at jokes I am certain were stale. The man had charm to spare, no question about it. He struck me as the sort of fellow who, if he played his cards right, might very well wind up a movie star.

I set off back to base camp when I literally bumped into Roscoe Lund, the man who’d been my partner in the Salt Lake City Police Department for four years and, before that, in the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s office. His eyes turned to saucers when he saw me, and his smile showed off the gap between his front teeth.

“Arthur Oveson, as I live and breathe! Get over here!”

He bypassed the handshake and went straight for the hug, squeezing tight, with plenty of backslapping. He smelled of Aqua Velva, but I also caught a faint whiff of his favorite chewing tobacco, Red Man. He backed away and gave me the eyes up-and-down treatment, with a nod of approval. Roscoe had put on a few pounds over the years, and while I definitely would not call him fat, I don’t think beefy would be inaccurate. He still wore the same linty tweed sport coat and baggy green trousers that he wore back when he worked with me in the detective bureau.

“How the hell are you, Art?”

“I can’t complain,” I said. “And you?”

“Me? I’m on top of the world!”

“No kidding? Private investigating business treating you well?”

“Never better.”

I smiled warmly at my old friend. “Good. I’m happy to hear. Hey, we need to catch up with each other. It’s been, what, since Christmas when we last saw you? My kids keep asking, ‘Where’s Uncle Roscoe?’ You’ve got to put in an appearance. The natives are getting restless.”

“I’d like that, a whole hell of a lot,” said Roscoe. “Hey, I wish I could stick around and talk for a while, but I’m on a choice detail.”

“Oh yeah? Do tell.”

“I’m working security for the Englishman,” he said.

I’m sure my face went as long as the Salt Flats. “No kidding? You mean…”

“The top dog himself. Clive Underhill. He needs extra muscle, beyond what he’s already got. Somebody who knows the lay of the land, I guess. If I had my druthers, I’d prefer to stand around and chew the cud with you, Art. But duty calls, I’m afraid. I don’t want to lose this job the day after I landed it.” His face lit up and that big smile came back. “Hey, come with me.”

“What do you mean?”

“Underhill will be testing his prototype in a half hour,” said Roscoe. “Keep me company. I got the best seat in the house.”

“Sure,” I said. “Let’s see for ourselves what all the hubbub is about.”

***

Copyright © 2016 Andrew Hunt.

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Andrew Hunt is a professor of history in Waterloo, Ontario. His areas of study include post-1945 U.S. History, the civil rights move ment, the Vietnam War, and the American West. He has written reviews for The Globe and Mail and The National Post, authored two works of nonfiction, The Turning and David Dellinger, and is coauthor of The 1980s. His first novel in the Art  Oveson series, City of Saints, was the winner of the Tony Hillerman Prize, and was followed by its sequel, A Killing in Zion. He grew up in Salt Lake City and lives in Canada.

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