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Thursday, June 5, 2003 02:20 pm

The highway side

A central Illinois detective novel

art292
Ginny Lee

ONE

Shelly Michalowski's eyes were a shimmering, contact-lens blue. Her hair was bleach blond, and she could flip it with near perfect control, wink, go from a smile to a leer--and never once stop talking.

She was a five-foot-two-inch perpetual-motion machine, and every bit of it was fake. I wasn't sure whether she knew this, whether she remembered her old self. But I did.

Old Shelly rarely smiled and, when she did, it was never for the world to see. Her eyes were a warm, inviting brown, generally hidden behind thick glasses. Her hair had been dark and usually tangled. She often looked like she'd slept in her clothes, and frequently had, with a pile of law books and legal pads at her side.

But that dark beautiful girl--so sad, so shy, so serious--had been gone for years. And I thought I knew why. Once she'd been a true believer, and I'd been one of her causes. Now she was just another lawyer with a job to do. I knew exactly how she felt, because I was just another detective. Worse, I was now a private one.

The new Shelly jabbered on and on, like one of those tiny, fluffy dogs whose insistent bark is more amusing than annoying. Sometimes I'd barely listen. I'd search her eyes for the woman I'd once known. But the old Shelly rarely looked back.

"My God," new Shelly was saying now, "look at this mess."

This mess was my office, a place she rarely visited. She dropped her slender briefcase on my scarred wooden desk, flicked the overhead lights on, walked across the room, and raised the blinds. A faint streak of February sunlight illuminated a stream of floating dust.

"Is this any way to run a business, Nick?"

"What?"

"I've been calling since nine," she said.

I shrugged. "I got in late. You should have called me at home." I hadn't heard from her there in years. We were all business now and nothing more.

She pushed her hands into the pockets of her snazzy blue business suit and made a big show of inspecting my office. She executed a quick, no-nonsense hair flip, loosened the straps on her briefcase, and pulled out a file folder. She brushed dust off one of the side chairs, and sat down.

"My new guy." She held up the folder.

I shook my head. "No more kinky cops," I said.

This was a game we played. Most of Shelly's practice was defending cops brought up on departmental charges. If they weren't kinky, they were petty or stupid or mean or just comical. I liked to pretend I was above it all. But we both knew I was part of it. This was how we'd met years ago.

She'd been fresh out of law school at the time, assigned to assist my primary attorney. I was on my way to being an ex-cop, I knew, and my lawyer didn't try to dissuade me from that conclusion. But Shelly refused to see it that way. She truly believed. And because she did, she was the one who argued my case before the Police Board.

I sat at the defense table with my attorney of record and watched as the rookie hit a home run her very first at bat. We silently applauded, smiled, nodded our heads in agreement, and gave her big hugs and handshakes when she returned to the table.

I think if the Police Board would have seen her that day, I'd still have the badge. Unfortunately, the Police Board rarely attended hearings, which were presided over by a hearing officer. The board made its decision after reading a very dry transcript.

Well, maybe they read the transcript; maybe they fed it to the nearest dog.

So I'd been Shelly's first real case, her first bitter defeat. Soon thereafter we'd had a bit of a fling.

There were those who thought I'd taken advantage of the situation and, in retrospect, they were probably right. She looked about 16 years old back then, and more than once we were mistaken for father and daughter.

Shelly eventually came to her senses, which was too bad as far as I was concerned. But when I'd found my new career in the private sector, she quickly became my number one client. And now here she was, with a brand-new case. And kinky cop or not, I'd be the one investigating it.

"Who'd this one kill?" I asked.

"Oh, Nick." She fluttered her eyelashes, and I thought I caught a glimpse of a real smile.

"He didn't shoot anybody?"

She shook her head.

"Assault? Armed robbery? Unlawful restraint?"

"Cold."

"Dereliction of duty?"

"He's not a cop."

"Next thing you're gonna tell me he's innocent."

"I'm not his priest." She quickly put that idea to rest.

"So?"

"Drugs."

"And here I was getting my hopes up."

"One thousand pounds of uncut cocaine."

I whistled.

"Street value, 75 million dollars. Hidden in a secret compartment in a truck full of grapefruits. This could be like winning the lottery."

"Unless he's just a mule."

She shrugged. "If they don't pay his legal bills, he flips, right?"

"I'd get money upfront, just in case."

"Arraignment's tomorrow morning. We can talk to him then. But I want you to get down there tonight. Sniff around a bit."

"Down where?"

"McKinley."

"That's gotta be two hundred miles."

"I made you a reservation at the Comfort Inn. See what you can turn up. You know how incestuous these small towns can be."

"Isn't there a prison there?"

She shook her head. "Probably. Arresting officer is Sheriff Archer. See what you can find out about him." She slid the folder toward me. "Whatever I've got is in here. It's not much. I haven't seen the police report yet."

"Why don't you come down with me?"

She stood up. "Meet me at the courthouse at nine."

"We could have a couple of pops at the hotel bar. Be like old times."

"Remember my wedding, Nick?" She waved a hand at me, the one with the wedding band, and opened the door.

"I was married," I reminded her.

She fixed me with the saddest of smiles. For one long moment, old Shelly was back. "You'll never believe how much I regret that," she said; then she turned and walked away.

Her heels echoed down the hallway. Across the hall, a dentist's drill began to whine.

"Sorry I brought it up," I whispered and reached for my road atlas.

TWO

I fought my way out of town on Interstate 55, enjoying the sights: The church steeples and the railroad and truck yards, the old bridge with a bridge tender's house on top--now there's a room with a view--and the factory smokestacks blowing lazy smoke rings into the air.

Every so often a sign would remind me that this was the old Historic Route U.S. 66. As in, "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66."

But you wouldn't find that song on the radio. Not past Joliet, which is where Chicago FM played out. I set the radio on scan and it went from bad country to Christian talk to halfway decent country, rock 'n' roll oldies to canned talk, rap to Christian rock. All that was missing was the Farm Report.

The view was typical February in Illinois. Patches of snow in the fields, flurries sailing across a gray sky, and just about every truck in America heading in or out of Chicago.

What were they hauling? Just about anything you could imagine: All the supplies and products of a big city. There'd have to be grapefruits. You couldn't get through the long leaden winter without grapefruit.

But where would you hide 1,000 pounds of cocaine?

The trucks were huge--that stuff could be almost anywhere: In the cargo. In a compartment built inside the fuel tank. Under the bunk in the sleeper. In the spare tire. You'd have to get awfully lucky to find it.

On an open road like this, a cop could run up on a car and gauge the reaction of the people inside. He might actually catch a physical response, a head jerk or an aversion of the eyes. Other times he could feel the nervousness, almost hear that please-don't-stop-me prayer.

But it would be much harder to measure a truck driver sitting ten feet in the air. What would you have besides a reflection in a mirror? You'd have to get the trucker down to ground level, but by then he'd have time to prepare.

The landscape had few colors: Silver silos, white farm houses, brown fields, brand-new brown barns sitting next to dilapidated gray ones. A few truckloads of paint might help. Something bright. Yellow. Orange. Maybe some shocking pink. A row of evergreens lined the shoulder, but even their green branches seemed brown. They needed lights and ornaments. They were perfect Christmas-tree height, and I couldn't see them lasting much past December 18th back home. Honey, look what I found.

Every so often, there'd be a billboard with a bit of color. Or a fancy looking truck would come along, like the huge Allied Van Lines rig--all silver and orange--that almost blew me off the road near Dwight. Household goods must go through. Dwight. Wasn't there a prison here?

I topped a rise near Pontiac--one of the biggest prison towns in the state--and the flurries turned to real snow. I turned the wipers on, the cruise control off, and dropped down to about 60, five miles under the limit.

One thousand pounds of cocaine, that would get you some real time. Why was prison suddenly on my mind? It must come with the geography.

Before long, I was sloshing through thick snow in a long line of cars and trucks, everybody taking it easy in the right lane. Then we all pulled out to pass a bus that was creeping along. All the windows were covered with metal screens. "D.O.C." was stenciled under the driver's window. Department of Corrections.

Prisons, the one continuing boom in central Illinois. Nobody would want that bus to roll off the road. Except maybe the prisoners inside.

I pushed the scan button again. Still no kicks on Route 66, just the same bad mix. I tried to remember the words to the song. But all I could come up with was the names of some towns: Barstow. San Bernardino. St. Louis, wasn't that in there somewhere? And Gallup, New Mexico. How about Albuquerque and Tucumcari? Probably too hard to rhyme. I'm just a turkey from Albuquerque.

I remembered a story I'd once heard about Bobby Troup. Supposedly he'd written the song during a nightmare trip from Chicago to L.A. I don't remember the details. It rained the whole way, or his wife was giving him a hard time, so to pass the time he wrote this wonderful upbeat song that every singer in America had to try at least once.

It was just a little ribbon of a road back then--much of it two lanes, and there were plenty of stoplights. But there were all those roadside attractions. World's Largest Gopher Hole, 2 Miles. Now you could go coast to coast without a stop and never see a thing.

You couldn't imagine a song about Interstate 55, I thought, and moments later the radio stopped on a country voice singing:

Interstate 80, now that's a very long road and it's longer still, heading away from home

And then the scan moved on. "Are you sick of your job?"

"Amen, brother," I answered right back.

"Are you tired of seeing the same place, day after day after day. Do you like to travel? Like to see the country?"

"You're preaching to the choir."

"Learn to drive the big rigs! Call 1-800-"

Before I could get the number, the radio moved on.

I'd been planning to go nonstop to McKinley, but a few miles short the snow suddenly got much thicker and the wind picked up and blew me right down an exit ramp, where a truck stop sign promised "Fresh pecan pie."

I brushed snow off my jacket, then picked a stool at the first of two horseshoe counters. A waitress came by and handed me a menu. She was sturdy and trim, somewhere around 40, I guessed. She was in a brown-and-white waitress get-up. Her dark hair was tied in back. She looked at me suspiciously and cocked her head at a sign hanging from the Ceiling:

"TRUCKERS ONLY. Our Drivers are on a schedule. This section is RESERVED especially for them."

"Hell, I'm on a schedule too," I said.

"What you hauling, bub?" Her accent was as phony as her smile.

"Suits and ties."

That got me a real smile and a cup of coffee. "About that pecan pie?" I asked.

"Made fresh every day," she said, and she ran her tongue along her upper lip. The accent was gone.

"Sold."

I took a look around. There were still Christmas cards taped to the pie case. A deflated Santa was propped behind the wheel of a tiny toy truck.

Several obvious truck drivers were sprinkled about. These guys could sit very, very still, and not look a bit bored staring at nothing at all. They'd be naturals at surveillance work. Wouldn't need a lot of bathroom breaks either.

A guy a few stools down was wearing a hooded sweatshirt with a company logo on the front. The hood was down, and some snow was melting in the pouch.

There were three women, all in the Truckers Only section. Two of them sat together in a booth--they might have been fakes like me. But the other was a trucker for sure. She was a beauty, tall and blonde. She and her co-driver--a thin guy in a cowboy hat--were wearing matching company jackets. He was shoveling in the food while she talked into a cell phone.

"Hell, it's only snow," I heard her say, just before she broke the connection. "We'll be there in the morning."

I was corralling the last of my pie crumbs when a uniformed cop came in carrying a thermos. He looked about 14 years old, but the star meant he was at least 21.

"Donnie, you're gonna freeze to death out there," the waitress said as she took the thermos. "When are they going to tow those trucks?"

"Sheriff says it'll be a while yet. What with this snow, I might be here all night. But don't worry about me, Mrs. Miller. The heater works fine."

The waitress rinsed out the thermos and filled it with fresh coffee. After Donnie left, she carried the same pot down my way.

"What's this about the Sheriff towing trucks?"

"Long story," she said.

"That Sheriff Archer, by any chance?"

"Only one we got."

"One of those trucks full of grapefruits?"

"For a man who knows all the answers, you sure ask a lot of questions."

I slipped a business card out and pushed it along the counter top.

She looked at the card then set the coffeepot down gently. Her smile disappeared and her expression grew very still. She picked up the card and turned it this way and that, as if she might spot a message written in invisible ink.

"A private detective," she said in a very serious voice. "I've been waiting for someone like you."

"Really?"

"Yes, I have," she nodded her head and then she seemed to relax. "Why are you so interested in those trucks?"

"Just one truck," I said, "the one with the secret compartment."

"We've got two that fit that exact description."

"Two? Are you sure?"

She nodded.

"What are they doing here?"

"Well, we had to get the grapefruits off, didn't we?" She pointed to a handwritten sign: "Special! Fresh California Grapefruit 50 cents or take 'em home $2 a bag."

"What a deal."

"Last year we had the most wonderful strawberries."

"So what's Donnie doing?"

"Guarding the trucks, I believe."

"From who?"

"People like you, I presume."

"I just want to take a couple of pictures."

"Well, I'm sure he'll let you. Tell him you'll be bidding at the auction."

"What auction?"

"After the trials, they auction the trucks off. Or you can wait until Donnie comes back for his seven o'clock coffee."

"Seven o'clock, you sure?"

"Just like a coo-coo clock."

THREE

I carried my coffee cup to a back booth. The waitress followed a few second later carrying a leather briefcase. She extended her hand. "Peggy Miller."

"Nick Acropolis," I said, and we shook.

She didn't look like a Peggy to me. But who was I to complain about people's names? And what was a Peggy supposed to look like anyway? A bit more energetic probably, but, on the other hand, a whole lot more relaxed. If this Peggy went dancing, she'd get every step absolutely right without having a damn bit of fun. She was a long way from the Peg of my heart.

She didn't sit down. She opened the briefcase. "It might be easier if I gave you some papers to read."

She handed me a flyer. "HAVE YOU SEEN MY SON?" was written across the top. Underneath was a picture of a young man with just a touch of a smile on his face. "My son, Billy Miller, left McKinley Truck Plaza in McKinley, Illinois, with an unknown trucker August 19, 2001.

"Billy was seen again on August 26, at the Quick Pumper in Burns, California. According to a trucker who hired him in California, Billy planned to spend a few days sightseeing in the Los Angeles area and then try to find a trucker heading east. He has not been heard from since. Billy is 20 years old, 6' 1", 170 lbs., brown eyes and sandy brown hair. If you've seen my son, or if you think you might have seen him, if he approached you looking for a ride or looking for work as a lumper, please CALL COLLECT DAY OR NIGHT."

I looked up. She handed me a sheet of notebook paper.

"Neal Stanley" was written at the top, then a summary of a phone conversation. Stanley was "positive" that he'd met Billy in Burns, California, on August 24, and hired him to help unload his truck that day in the Los Angeles area and the next day in Modesto and Stockton. They returned to Los Angeles on August 26, and he dropped Billy at the Quick Pumper in Burns. Stanley said he paid Billy approximately $160 dollars for the two days work.

"But you don't know how he got to California?" I asked.

"No idea."

"What's a Quick Pumper?"

"It's a very small truck stop. There's no parking, no restaurant, no garage. It has fuel and a convenience store and that's it. But if you're in a hurry it's much faster than a full-service stop."

"How about 'lumper?'"

She smiled. "That's my son. It's what they call the guys who hang around the truck stops looking for work helping the drivers unload. Lumping. It's a disgusting term, but Billy really loved doing it." She handed me a three-ring binder. "Why don't you look through this while I make myself a cup of tea, and then I'll tell you a bit about my son."

I flipped through the pages. There'd been sightings all over the country, but primarily on the West Coast, where they went from San Diego to Seattle. At the bottom of each sheet someone--I assumed it was Peggy Miller--had added an evaluation."

"Sounds nuts," one read.

"Kept changing physical description," another said.

"Lonely" had been written on more than one.

"Wanted to talk about own missing child," another read.

One trucker said Billy helped him drive from Los Angeles to Miami, where Billy had a job waiting on a ship to South America. "He sounded sure," she'd written under this one. "But where on earth did Billy learn to drive trucks?"

Someone called to say he'd seen Billy hitchhiking on a bridge in Oil City, Pennsylvania. "Where the heck is Oil City?" was written underneath. And under that was the answer: "Southeast of Erie."

There was no rhyme or rhythm to the sightings. No patterns. One never led to another. And none could really be checked out. At the end of each Billy disappeared again.

Peggy Miller came back with the coffeepot, and then with her cup of tea. "OK, I can relax," she said as she sat down. "I'm taking my break early. What did you think?"

I shrugged. "Except for the first one . . ."

"I know."

"How many of these flyers did you get out?"

"Thousands," she said. "I have some drivers who take a batch every time they come through. And they put them up everywhere they stop, all over the country."

"How about the police?"

"Well, Sheriff Archer went out to California for a few days. He's also checked with Social Security and nobody's used Billy's number."

"He went to California?"

"Sheriff Archer did, yes."

"Really?"

"You find that unusual?"

Unheard of, that's what I was thinking. But what did I know about small-town law enforcement? "They wouldn't do it in Chicago, I'll tell you that. Especially not when you're dealing with an adult who left under his own power. And, unless I'm missing something, that's what we're dealing with, right?"

"Yes. I didn't really believe so at first. But now I do."

"What changed your mind?"

"I was afraid to believe it before."

"Oh."

"We'd had a fight that morning. Billy was supposed to register for college but he hadn't. I didn't want to think our fight had anything to do with his leaving."

"You know, that truck driver in California could be mistaken. Happens all the time with eyewitnesses."

"Oh, no, I'm sorry. He mailed me a copy of a receipt that Billy had signed for the money he was paid. It's his handwriting and his Social Security Number."

"Did your son have a driver's license?"

She nodded. "Sheriff keeps checking, but there's never been a ticket."

"Credit card."

She nodded again. "It's never been used."

"Well, if he were still hanging around truck stops there should have been some decent sightings by now. So he's either changed careers or something's happened to him."

"Something happened," she said.

"It's been so long," I said.

She nodded again. "A year and a half."

"That's an awfully long time."

"I don't expect miracles," she said.

"I wouldn't even know where to start. All the logical stuff has already been done. Was your son ever fingerprinted?"

She shook her head. "He could be dead," she said.

"Hell, maybe he did go to South America. I mean, how hard could it be to learn to drive a truck? Look at some of these yokels who do."

"Better not say that too loud," she said and smiled. "But I talked to Neal Stanley and he said Billy never expressed an interest in learning to drive."

"Who's Stanley again?"

"He's the bed bugger that Billy worked for in California."

"Bed bugger. What the hell's that?"

Her face flushed. "Did I actually say that?"

I nodded. "Now I really want to know."

"Oh, it's nothing," she said. "It's what the truckers call the furniture movers. Bed-bug haulers. I just can't believe I said it and didn't even know. I sound like a . . ."

"Like a truck stop waitress?"

"Probably," she said. "How much do you charge?"

"Seventy-five an hour, plus expenses." I quoted my top rate. "You could probably get someone much cheaper local--Peoria or maybe Springfield. I'll ask around, if you like."

"So four hours a week would be $300, about $1,200 a month. I think I could afford that for a while. Would you be willing to put four hours a week into looking for Billy?"

"Peggy, you might as well flush your money down a toilet."

"Nick, maybe you should let me decide what to do with my own money."

"The odds of me finding him . . . "

She shook her head. "I don't want to keep blaming myself," she said. "But if it was my fault, I want to know. I'd like to know why he left, why he hasn't called me. I just can't stand the thought."

"What thought?"

"That I'll spend my life like this, wondering what happened to him. Never knowing. Now let me tell you a little something about Billy, so you'll have some idea of who you're looking for."

"Sure."

"Billy was quite a handful growing up. Not at first, but more after his father left."

"Divorce?"

"Eventually. And it's not easy being from a broken home in a small town. But Billy got good grades for the most part. He even made student council one year. But a boy needs a father."

"Any idea where your ex-husband is now?"

She nodded. "Sheriff found him. He's living up your way, in Cicero. He's a police officer."

"Have you talked to him?"

"No. But he told the Sheriff he hasn't seen or heard from Billy in ten years, which is when . . . " Her fingers walked along the countertop.

"OK. You were telling me about Billy."

"Yes. Billy. A good boy. Smart. Friendly. A good heart. But he turned into a bit of a prankster lately and that got him into trouble."

"Like what?"

"Well, he and a friend went on a spree where they stole just about every lawn ornament in town--flamingos and penguins and deer. Then the Christmas season rolled around and they started on the Santas and the reindeers and angels, and that's when they were caught. It turns out they'd been hiding them out in my old shed. Their plan was to set them all up on the town square New Year's morning. This was Y2K, when everyone thought the world would end. They called it their alternate universe: The lawn ornaments return.

"But then one of the newspapers picked it up, and put them in their Stupid Crooks column. They probably deserved it."

"Why?"

"It had snowed," she said. "That's how they were caught, footprints in the snow."

"You sure he wasn't fingerprinted?"

"Children can be so cruel and so easily shamed. It's one thing to be a thief, that might even get you some respect in certain circles. But a stupid crook, there was no recovering from that, at least not for Billy. So he quit going to school. And that's when he came out here and started working the trucks.

"I was against it, of course. I wanted him back in school, even if it meant going out of town to do it. I wanted him to stay away from this place. But Billy loved it here. He really liked the truckers and they liked him. They didn't care how many tacky lawn ornaments he'd stolen. If he got the freight off the truck in a hurry, they were happy. And sometimes they aren't even in a hurry.

"You know, it's hard to escape in a small town. But here he met people from everywhere. All sorts of people. Good people for the most part. They didn't care about his past."

"Were you here the day he left?"

"Oh, no." She looked up with a smile. "I was one of them back then."

"Them?"

"Townsfolk. I was a teacher, sixth grade. I started coming out to put up flyers. And the more I came here, the more I liked it. I started working as a waitress on my summer break and I never went back. I came over to the other side."

"The other side?"

"The truck stop," she said. "The highway. Billy's side."

Next week: Chapter Four

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