‘Highway 20’ Michael J Moore
$14.99 paperback, $4.99 eBook
‘Highway 20’ reached the Primary Ballot of the Bram Stoker Awards in 2019 and its publication is timely given its topic of a plague and quarantine, although it was written before the current pandemic.
Highway 20 is a stretch of road where Motel 6 is based in the small town of Sedrow Woolley, WA in America set in woodland. Motel 6 is where remote working IT technician Daryle Colombo is based on his current assignment. He drives off in search of a prostitute, not for the services she is usually booked for, but to use his hunting knife on. He finds a small boy, Andy, instead and pulls in near the woods where he plans to bury Andy’s body.
Next morning, Conor Mitchell wakes up next to girlfriend Shelby Metcalf. He has to go to work, where he half-listens to gossip about a missing man, but he’s largely preoccupied with whether he and Shelby are actually dating or he’s just keeping her warm at night. She’s out of his league and he’s desperate not to lose her.
While Conor’s at work, Percly, the only homeless guy in town, sleeps in a disused train carriage. He spots what he thinks is a dog digging in the woods, but the dog’s legs don’t look right. However, since Percly only has one functional eye and the weather’s foggy, he shrugs it off.
After work, Conor comes home to discover Shelby’s picked up a stray dog and spent the money she would have bought vodka with on dog food. Reluctantly, Conor agrees it can stay and suggests they call it Benji. On the news is an item about an IT technician, Daryle Colombo, going missing from Motel 6 with a local boy, who is not named. Shelby frantically makes a call to an aunt, having recognised what looks like her cousin, Andy, but it turns out that Andy’s safe at home.
Driving to work next morning in fog, very low visibility, Conor hits a girl. Percly turns up with a rifle, tells Conor to get the hell out of there and shoots the girl. Conor calls the police. When they turn up, there’s no sign of the girl, blood or anything other than a scratch of paint on the curb to indicate anything happened. Police reckon he was seeing things in the fog but take a statement anyway. Conor drives home, still shaken and checks car for signs of blood: none. No sign of Shelby either. A policeman Conor recognises as Phil Harris, turns up to ask a few more questions relating to Conor’s statement.
After Harris leaves, Conor thinks there was something off about the conversation but can’t pinpoint it. Shelby hasn’t returned. Benji wants to go out so Conor lets him. After a while, Conor realises the dog’s gone from his yard. He reports Shelby missing. She’s left her cellphone behind, which is out of character. While he’s mulling over Shelby missing, the odd conversation with Harris and the dog’s strange behaviour, the dog returns. As soon as he’s let it in, Conor realises his mistake and the dog attacks him. Conor fights back and manages to trap the dog under a heavy car battery he’d been working on. Conor was bitten in the fight and finds himself paralysed. Stuck, he watches the dog change into the being it was. As soon as the paralysis wears off, Conor runs, gets in his car and drives. Initially he goes to check on his father.
While driving he collects what he knows so far and figures out why the conversation with Harris was off: Harris isn’t Harris. These parasitic beings can shape-shift into the bodies of whatever they eat. He now understands why there was no evidence of him running over the girl that morning: the being that has become Harris covered-up. But Percly shot at the girl so he must be able to recognise these creatures too. Sensibly, he and Percly team up.
But the odds are against two men, particularly as the local police have already being infiltrated. Until Conor makes a discovery which might give them the upper hand, if only he could figure out how to use it.
Michael Moore has created a credible small town scenario with believable characters. Conor’s a blue collar car mechanic, strong through manual work and desperate to keep Shelby. Shelby could have any man she wants but recognises that Conor doesn’t want her as a trophy which makes him different. Percly is perfectly set up as the outsider, mostly left alone, who observes and knows when something strange is going on, but no one’s going to listen to a homeless, black man. The most chilling thing about the parasites isn’t their treatment of humans, but that they set neighbour against neighbour. How do you trust loved ones or people in authority if they may not be who they present as. One solution is quarantine and lockdown, but humans aren’t too good at that. The twists and turns as Conor has to think on his feet, learn fast and outmanoeuvre the parasites, make for a compelling read.