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Thursday, June 26, 2003 02:20 pm

The Highway Side

The next installment of our central Illinois detective novel. Part six: Nick and Shelly meet their client

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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, Billy. Nick stumbles upon his original client's truck. The police have emptied a secret compartment, but Nick finds four small bundles hidden within a pile of grapefruit. To read the past chapters, check out the Illinois Times Web site at www.illinoistimes.com.

SIX

The courthouse was in the middle of McKinley's town square, the seat of Sawyer County. It was a large brick place, with a trumpeter at the summit. Under the statue--which might have been Gabriel--was a belfry, and under that a dome. The dome was supported by columns, and behind the columns was a series of barred windows: The jail.

The building was surrounded by a snow-covered lawn--or that was my guess--and there were plenty of snow-covered benches scattered around. It looked like the perfect place for the scores of lawn ornaments that Billy Miller had stolen. The Santas and all the reindeer could go up on the peaked roof adjacent to the dome where there were numerous chimneys. There were several outside stairways, a great spot for those huge plastic candles, and enough nooks and crannies for all the elves and maybe a stray gargoyle or two.

Shelly was waiting for me in the lobby. She was the picture of a hard-working attorney: laptop, briefcase, trench coat open over a conservative navy blue suit.

"They tell me Lincoln used to try cases here," she said and looked up.

I followed her eyes to a faded gold leaf ceiling. Lincoln. Now there was a ghost I didn't mind being around.

"Hey, I'm proud of you, Nick."

"What?"

"No Lincoln jokes."

"I got Lincoln jokes."

"Please don't."

The elevator was not as old as Lincoln, but it was a fairly tight fit and a slow ride. I took the time to tell Shelly about the four bundles I'd found the night before.

"You sure it's . . . "

"No. And I'm not sure those were grapefruits, but that's my best guess."

"What if we tried to trade those pictures for a plea?"

"You think the state's attorney is in on it?"

That got me a quick hair flip. "Smells just like home, doesn't it?"

"Worse," I said. The place was too small for this kind of corruption.

"Four kilos? They're pikers."

"Four that we know about," I corrected her.

"Well, at least we know the kind of people we're dealing with."

"Like you said, just like home."

"Where's Honest Abe when we need him?"

"Hey, how come you didn't tell me there were two trucks?"

"I wonder who's got the other driver," she said.

The interview room would have had Lincoln ducking his head. It was cramped and dreary, no windows, a single door.

Jesse Lopez was escorted in by two deputies. He was a burly guy wearing a red jumpsuit with PRISONER stenciled on the back in yellow. His hands were cuffed in front and he moved with his head down. One of the deputies put a hand on Lopez's back and guided him into a chair on the far side of a gray library table. Lopez had jet-black hair, his skin was dark. His gaze stayed down.

"Officer, would you take those handcuffs off, please?" Shelly asked.

"Sorry, ma'am," the deputy bowed. "Sheriff's orders."

"I'd like to speak with the sheriff, please."

"He's out of the building," the deputy said. "When he gets back, I'll tell him you were asking." The deputies headed for the door. "You have any problems," one of them said, "or you're done, just knock. We're right outside."

Shelly patted Lopez's cuffed hands. "Jesse, I'm sorry I can't give you a proper handshake. My name's Shelly Micholowski. I'm your attorney. This is Nick Acropolis, he's an investigator. He'll be helping to prepare your defense.

"First, let me ask you, how are you doing? Are they treating you OK?"

He held up his bound hands. "They haven't beat me or anything like that, if that's what you're asking."

She nodded. "Good. Now why don't you tell me exactly what happened."

He held up his hands again. "This is what happened. They got me locked me up in here like some kind of animal."

Shelly raised both hands, a couple of stop signs. "Why don't you take us through the stop and arrest? Could we start there?"

Lopez looked down at his hands for a moment. "Yeah, sure," he said. "They pull us over and ask can they search the trucks, then the dog goes in and the next thing I know they're putting me in the back of the squad car and I'm under arrest."

"Why did they pull you over?"

"We were trying to get back to the highway . . . "

"Why did you get off the highway?" I asked.

"See, that's the thing. I don't know. Rudy he gets very excited on the CB, 'Get off. Take the exit.' And so I got off and he was waiting for me at the bottom."

"Now Rudy was driving the other truck, is that correct?" Shelly asked. "Rudy Valdez?"

Lopez nodded.

"So you followed him off the highway and then what?"

"I didn't follow him. We was two, three miles apart. But we could talk on the CB, back and forth, you know. And so that's what happened, he told me, get off at the exit. He was real excited. See, he must have known."

"Known what?"

"He must have known about the drugs. That's the only thing I can think of. He knew the drugs were there. That's why he didn't want us running together."

"But you were running together."

"No, no, no, I told you. We were like two, three miles apart."

"OK, but why does that lead you to believe that he knew about the drugs?"

"See, because I was wondering why we were doing it that way. If you're with another truck, usually you stay together. It's better. You know, if something happens to one of you, the other's right there to help out."

"So what happened when you got off the highway?"

"Rudy was at the bottom of the ramp, and I said, what are we doing, you know, on the CB, why did we get off? So now he starts whispering, did I see the sign."

"What sign?"

"I don't know. That's what I keep telling him. I don't know what sign he's talking about."

"Did he tell you what the sign said?" I asked.

"No." Lopez shook his head. "He says he must be seeing things, 'let's get back on the highway.' "

"And when did the police stop you?" Shelly asked.

"Right then. When we tried to get back on the highway."

"And they said what?"

"They said we didn't stop at the stop sign."

"Did you?"

He shrugged. "Probably not. But we were going real slow."

"So the police wrote you a ticket?"

"And then they ask can they search the truck."

"And you said . . . "

"I said, sure, go ahead. It's full of grapefruits, what do I care?"

"Did you sign anything?"

"Yeah, I signed some paper he gave me."

"Sheriff Archer?"

"I don't know his name. Big cop. He's the one gave me the paper to sign."

"And then what?"

"And then they brought the dog and sent him into the trailer. And I was making a joke, don't let that dog pee all over the grapefruits. But then when the dog came out, that's when they locked me up."

There was a knock on the door and then a deputy stuck a head in. "Five to," he said.

Shelly waved him in. The second deputy followed.

Shelly patted Lopez's hands. "We're going to plead not guilty," she said.

"I am not guilty," Lopez said, sounding like a true believer.

"Say it just like that to the judge." Shelly stood up.

"Man, where have I heard that before?" one of the deputies asked.

NEXT WEEK: CHAPTER SEVEN

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