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Thursday, June 12, 2003 02:20 pm

The Highway Side

The next installment of our central Illinois detective novel. Part four: Nick discovers blow in the snow.

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Ginny Lee

FOUR

I started out on foot, me and my trusty galoshes, but I soon went back for my Oldsmobile.

The place was huge; trucks were everywhere, acres of trucks. Trucks fueling up, trucks waiting in line to fuel up, trucks pulling up to the scales. Trucks backing into parking spots, making wide turns, row after row after row of snow-covered trucks. There was even a truck waiting at the "Truck Wash," which was clearly closed. Trucks kept coming off the highway every minute, and hardly any were going out.

The snow was coming down, a steady couple-of-inches-an-hour, blowing and swirling under the huge parking lot lights. Millions of quarter- and half-dollar-sized flakes seemed to muffle the rumble of all those idling diesels.

But where were the two grapefruit trucks? I took a tour, and nothing looked promising. Mine was the only car around. Where the hell was Donnie's?

The truck drivers were sitting behind their oversized steering wheels, doing paperwork or watching TV or talking on cell phones or just staring straight ahead, waiting out the snow. Almost all the trucks had their engines running, and many had their windshield wipers going back and forth.

I was sitting behind a truck maneuvering into a parking space when I saw the sheriff's car pass in front, heading toward the restaurant.

When the truck finally got out of my way, I followed the tracks of the sheriff's car back out to a small road that ran behind the truck stop.

Two semis were backed up to a fence where the road ended. I reversed and slipped between them, into the outline in the snow left by the sheriff's car.

Back at the truck stop, a line of trucks faced the street. One driver had his wipers set so slow the snow would completely cover his windshield before they made a single pass. And there he'd be again, sitting in the dark looking into the snow.

I waited until he was hidden, then got out, popped the trunk, and grabbed my camera. I didn't know which truck was Shelly's, so I snapped quick shots of both tractors. One said, "West End Trucking, Chicago, Illinois." The other, "Main Street Transportation, Gary, Indiana."

I didn't know what I was looking for. But what were the trucks doing here? Weren't they evidence? Shouldn't they be locked up where a passing private eye couldn't get to them so easily? And why did a truck stop waitress know all about them? Did the whole county know?

There was an old trail in the snow, a trail almost hidden by new snow. I followed it around to the back of the West End trailer to a big roll-up door. The latch unhooked easily enough. I climbed up onto a strut hanging under the trailer, grabbed a handle, and slowly pulled up the door.

I pointed my penlight inside the trailer. There was a pile of grapefruits on my left. Four or five bags leaning into each other. Beyond the bags, the trailer appeared empty. Way in front something was shining back.

I climbed up, then followed the beam of light to the nose of the trailer. A steel plate was leaning against a side wall.

There were marks on the floor where the plate had been dragged from the front of the trailer. There were fresh two-by-fours that ran from side to side, and I could see the holes where the plate had been screwed into them. With the plate in place, you'd have a hollow space. It was only a few inches deep. But it was about eight feet across and five feet high. Plenty of room for a thousand pounds of cocaine.

I snapped a bunch of photos, then started back for the door. A gust of wind rattled the trailer walls. Something was sticking out from the pile of grapefruits. I pushed a bag with my foot and it toppled over, exposing four small bundles.

I crouched down and picked up a bundle in white plastic wrap. Oh, yeah, it would fit beautifully behind the metal plate. I hefted it in my hand: it could have been a small bag of flour, say two pounds, maybe a bit more. Let's call it 2.2 pounds. One kilo. Four bundles, not quite nine pounds. A little present for the tow truck driver. If a thousand pounds were worth $70 million, this little pile would be worth, what, more than half a million dollars.

I dropped the bag and reached for the gun I hadn't bothered to bring along. I wiped the bundle with my sleeve. It wouldn't do to have your fingerprints found on a kilo of cocaine. It wouldn't do to be found here, either, if someone came to make the pickup. As someone certainly would. Nobody would leave this kind of money laying around for long.

I snapped three quick pictures inside the trailer, then put the grapefruits back in position. I took another photo, and a last one from outside just before I closed the door.

I decided to skip the second trailer. I didn't want to know what was behind door number two. Probably nothing. The trail had ended here. I wanted to get the hell out before someone came along, before Donnie got back, before I changed my mind completely.

I was almost to the Olds when I slipped. I staggered a few steps then steadied myself against the trailer. The trucker with the extra-slow windshield wipers looked up, and then the snow started to hide him again.

I fishtailed a bit on the way out. Donnie would know somebody had been there--that was certain. But he might not want to admit it. He'd left his post. He might let the snow bury the tracks and pretend he'd never seen them.

I'd told Peggy Miller I would stop by before leaving. But the Olds had a mind of its own. It found the ramp to I-55 South. I was almost to the top when I realized my lights were off. I hit the switch. A plow had been by not that long before.

A few miles down the road, I could feel my body relax in the seat. It was too late to go back now, too late to grab the bundles and speed north to Chicago, too late to live the dream.

It was an old and very common daydream, a pile of untraceable cash or something that could quickly be turned into it. More than half a million bucks--that was the street price. I'd never get that much. But the stuff would be easy to unload if you set a fire-sale price, say, $50,000. And then take a lazy trip around the world, or lie on a beach until every dirty penny was gone.

NEXT WEEK: CHAPTER FIVE

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