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Thursday, June 19, 2003 02:20 pm

The Highway Side

The next installment of our central Illinois detective novel. Part five: Nick discovers he’s been caught snooping

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What you missed: Private eye Nick Acropolis is sent to McKinley to investigate the case of a trucker charged with smuggling cocaine. A truck stop waitress then hires him to look for her missing son. Nick examines his client's truck. A secret compartment is empty, but Nick finds four small bundles hidden within a pile of grapefruit. To read the past chapters, check out the Illinois Times Web site: www.illinoistimes.com.

FIVE

I checked in at the Comfort Inn, then called back to the truck stop and asked for Peggy Miller.

I was on hold for a few minutes before she came on the line. "Hi, it's Nick," I said. "Something came up. I didn't want you to think I'd run off."

"Well, if it isn't one of my favorite 6th graders."

"Can't talk?"

"Well, of course, I remember you, Robert. More coffee, Sheriff?"

"The sheriff. That have anything to do with me?"

"I don't know how much weight a 6th grade teacher pulls, but, yes, I would be happy to write a letter of recommendation. But you'll have to give me a few days."

"I'm at the Comfort Inn," I said.

"No, no, Robert, anytime," she said. The line went dead.

I took off my shoes and laid on top of the covers. I could hear a television in the distance. A snow plow was clearing the parking lot. Then I was relaxing in a hammock stretched over a snow-white beach.

"In your dreams," I said, and that woke me with a chuckle. Where the heck was I? Oh, yeah. The red letters on the nightstand clock read 10:15. "Dream on," I said, and then the phone was ringing.

"You were sleeping?" Peggy Miller asked. The clock was now at 10:48.

"Just daydreaming. So what's with the sheriff?"

"He was asking about the mysterious stranger I was seen talking to."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"I told him you were a private detective that I'd hired to search for Billy."

"You gave him my name, I presume."

"I showed him your card. I couldn't see any way around it."

"That's fine. Look, I'd like to come by and take a look at your son's room tomorrow. What's a good time?"

"I'm off, so anytime at all," she said. "Something else: The sheriff knows you were looking at those trucks."

"You sure?"

"It's on film. They have monitors. There are five cameras outside and three inside. I guess I should have thought of that earlier."

"Maybe I should have thought of it myself," I said. Every supermarket and drugstore in America had cameras. Of course a truck stop would have them. What had I been thinking?

"I'm sorry," she said.

"Don't worry about it," I said. "Did the sheriff say anything about the trucks?"

"No. He asked if you were in the restaurant when Donnie came in. I said I thought you might have been. He seemed to be mostly concerned about why I thought it necessary to bring in an outsider to look for Billy."

"This is going to be very interesting," I said.

"It's a small town."

"Let me ask you something," I said. "You think the sheriff is on the up and up?"

"Is he honest? Well, you have to realize, he's a politician. He's elected. Year after year after year he's elected. So he knows how to say what people want to hear. But as far as his duties as a police officer, yes, I'd have to say I think he's an honest man."

"What about Donnie?"

"As his former 6th grade teacher, I'd say if Donnie ever decided to be dishonest it wouldn't be a secret for very long."

"Speaking of secrets, does everybody in town know about those trucks?"

"Nick, everybody in town knows everything."

"I thought that was just an old gag."

"A few months back I got a flat tire two towns over, and my neighbor knew about it before I got home."

"How?"

"I didn't ask. Half the houses in town have police scanners."

"You're putting me on. Don't these people have jobs?"

"Sure. But when they get home they like to listen. There's so little going on that nobody wants to miss any of it."

"Can I trust this motel phone?"

"Oh, Amber would never listen in."

"Amber?"

"Girl with curly red hair. Isn't she the one who checked you in?"

"Peggy, this is way too small for me."

"Don't worry. She didn't recognize me. I talked like this when I called," she said in an exaggerated version of Amber's drawl.

"You loosen up a bit when you take that apron off."

"You should see me Saturday night at the Legion Hall."

"I might like that."

"I was kidding. Sweet dreams."

"They've been good so far."

Before I went back to my dreams, I put my shoes and galoshes on, and I made a quick trip out to the car.

NEXT WEEK: CHAPTER SIX

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