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Thursday, July 10, 2003 02:20 pm

The highway side

The next installment of our central Illinois detective novel. Part eight: Jesse Lopez’s story

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What you missed:Private eye Nick Acropolis is sent to McKinley by attorney Shelly Michalowski to investigate the case of a trucker charged with smuggling cocaine. The trucker, Jesse Lopez, proclaims his innocence, but the judge seems to believe otherwise, warning Lopez that a guilty verdict would result in a sentence of 30 to 120 years. To read the past chapters, check out the Illinois Times Web site: www.illinoistimes.com.

EIGHT

"Thirty freaking years." We were back in the interview room, and all Lopez could think of was his possible sentence. "Is that some kind of joke?"

"You'd be out in 15," I said.

"So if the judge gives me 120, I'll only have to do 60?"

"Jesse, you're not going to prison," Shelly said. She was paging through the police reports, and then passing them on to me.

He lifted his cuffed hands. "I'm already there."

"Tell him, Nick, would you?"

"She's the best," I said.

"Let's start at the beginning, with your truck breaking down," Shelly said. "When was that?"

"Right after Thanksgiving."

"It says here you blew up the engine?"

"Blew the engine. . . . Might as well have blown it up."

"And you didn't have the money to fix it?"

"I didn't want to pay $12,000 for an engine, so I was looking around for a used one somewhere. You know, off some wreck or something."

"$12,000 for an engine? What kind of truck is this?"

"A big Pete."

"And you worked for who?"

"I'm self-employed, what they call an owner-operator. I work with certain companies, different companies. Picking up piggy-back trailers or overseas containers, that kind of stuff."

"How long have you been doing this?"

"Oh, about 20 years. Ever since I got out of the army."

"How did you end up driving the truck you were stopped in?"

"Well, I started going down to Cermak Road in the morning to pick up a little cash, you know, by the Steak N Egger."

"Huh?"

"See, a lot of contractors come by looking for help, like spot labor. They need a couple of guys for a day or two, to paint or hang drywall or something, and they don't want some wino from day labor. I'm a pretty decent carpenter, not finish work or anything like that, but I can frame if somebody lays it out, and I can hang drywall, and I got my own tools. I was going just about every morning, you know, have a cup of coffee, and most days I ended up with some kind of job.

"And then one day this guy comes by and asks, is there anybody can drive a truck? Me and a couple of other guys go up, but when he sees my license he gets real excited. The other guys, you know, they can drive school buses and little trucks, stuff like that. But I got the Class A. He asks me how long I've been driving semis. I tell him a long time, since I was in the army."

"What army was this?" I asked.

"What freaking army you think?"

"Sorry, I just meant . . . "

"You think I'm some wetback. I was born in Texas, man. Only time I been to Mexico is like all the other gringos--on vacation."

"Sorry," I said again.

"What kind of discharge?" Shelly asked.

"Honorable."

"Good. So when did you meet Rudy?"

"That's who I'm talking about," Lopez said. "Rudy, he's the guy looking for the truck driver."

"Then he hired you to drive out to California and bring grapefruits back."

"First time was oranges. We flew. The truck was already there."

"You flew?"

"Yeah, Southwest out of Midway. Went through Phoenix."

"And then you loaded oranges?"

"No, the truck was already loaded. We just got in and started driving. First he drove, then I drove. There's a sleeper in the back, so you can doze while the other guy's driving. We went straight through, 2,000 miles. Two days."

"Just one truck?"

"Right."

"And Rudy paid you how much?"

"$900."

"That's a lot of money for two days' work," Shelly said.

Lopez shrugged. "How much you make in two days?"

"Jesse, I'm on your side," Shelly said. "But if you get up on the witness stand and the state asks you that same question, you're gonna need a better answer than that."

"OK. First of all, it's four days: the day flying out, two days driving, and then the next day unloading the oranges. But it could have been five or six days--or even more. We could have broke down or the weather could have got bad. That's what I told Rudy. At first he offers me 500. I said, no way."

"Did you get paid with a check or . . . "

"Cash."

"Too bad. Where did you deliver the oranges?"

"The produce market, off Blue Island Avenue."

"Did you unload them yourself?"

"They take 'em off with a fork lift."

"Was Rudy with you?"

"No. I guess he wanted me to earn my money."

"Did you go in the trailer?"

"No."

"Never?"

"Why would I go in the trailer?"

"What happened after you unloaded the oranges?"

"I dropped the truck off at 47th and Western, and then I took the bus home."

"What's at 47th and Western?"

"Rudy told me just leave it on the street there. That's what I did."

"How about the keys?"

"In the ashtray."

"How about this second load, the grapefruits, did you go in that trailer?"

"No."

"Were you there when that trailer was loaded?"

"Yeah. They put 'em on with a forklift."

"Did you drive out this time or fly?"

"We drove out, two separate trucks, but then I flew home."

Shelly waved her finger back and forth a couple of times. "So what are you doing here?"

"'Cause then I flew back when the grapefruits were ready."

"You better start over."

"See, what happened, when we got there, the grapefruits weren't ready, and we were gonna have to wait a week."

"The grapefruit weren't ready?"

"Yeah, they were waiting to pick 'em or something. That's what they said, anyway. And Rudy tells me we got to wait a week. And I said there's no way I'm gonna do that, you know."

"Why not?"

"Because I go crazy just laying around with nothing to do. I can't do that. That's why this whole thing. . . . " He lifted his hands. "I can't even think about it--30 freaking years! No way, man. No way." He shook his head and looked down at his hands.

"So Rudy said, it's alright, go home?"

"Rudy's a lowlife. He's drinking and chasing after the women. I'm trying to sleep, he's bringing these whores to the motel. So after two days of this, I told him I was going. And he called Mr. Morales, and he said . . . "

"Who's Mr. Morales?"

"He's the big boss. He's the one owns the trucks."

"He have a first name."

"All I know is Morales."

"Did you ever meet him?"

"Yeah, one time. Rudy took me to meet him. We had dinner downtown someplace."

"Downtown Chicago."

"Right. Real fancy steak house. Thirty-forty dollars for one steak."

"When was this?"

"Before the first trip, before we flew out. I think he wanted to get a look at me, make sure I wasn't going to drive his truck into a ditch or something."

"And you never met him again?"

"Just the one time."

"Do you know where he lives?"

"No."

"You know where his office is?"

Lopez shook his head.

"His phone number?"

"No."

"You don't know anything but his last name."

"I know he owns grocery stores."

"Where?"

"I don't know. Rudy told me he owns the trucks and he owns grocery stores too."

"Have you talked to Rudy since you've been in here?"

"No. But I hear he don't speak English no more."

"Really?"

"Yeah, he tells the guards he don't speak English so they have to bring in a translator . . . "

"An interpreter," Shelly said.

"Right, and then he tells the translator he wants a lawyer."

"The perfect client," Shelly said.

"Hey, I got nothing to hide. Why shouldn't I talk to them?"

"Because they'll use it against you, Jesse," Shelly said. "Look at your hands. These people are not your friends."

"I was always taught, you get in trouble, you should tell the truth."

"To your lawyer," Shelly said. "That's what you tell the police: 'I'll talk to my lawyer.' "

"Sound advice," I said.

"So what happened when Rudy called Mr. Morales?" Shelly asked.

"Mr. Morales, he asked me what the problem is, and I tell him, you know, how I can't just sit around and that I miss my wife and my kids. And he says, OK, he'll fly me home and then fly me back when the grapefruits are ready. And that's what we did."

"Who paid the airfare?"

"Mr. Morales. The ticket was waiting at the airport."

"Was this Southwest again?"

"No. United, non-stop to O'Hare."

"Tell us more about this Morales," I said.

He shrugged. "That's really all I know."

"Is he Mexican?"

"Oh, yeah, sure."

"Born here or there?"

"Oh, no, he's from there. He asked me where I was from and I told him Texas and he said he knew I was born here because I reminded him of his son."

"Who's his son?"

"I don't know."

"What's he look like?" I asked.

"I just told you I don't know."

"No, Mr. Morales, what's he look like?"

"Oh, very distinguished looking," Lopez said. "You know, expensive suit, jewelry, rings. Even his hair was silver, man."

"How old?"

"Maybe 60, 65. Very soft spoken--you gotta kind of lean forward to hear him. But he looks you right in the eye when he talks, And when you talk, you can tell he's really listening. I mean, I guess he must be a dope dealer, but I gotta say he treated me right. You know, when I had the problem with Rudy, he could have just told me adios. But instead . . . "

"Instead," Shelly said, "you're in here."

"Yeah." Lopez smiled for the first time that day. "But he sent you to get me out."

"Jesse, your wife sent us," Shelly said.

He dropped his head into his hands, then lifted it toward the sky before dropping it again. He stayed down for a while, shaking his head. When he looked up, his smile was gone. "How much is this costing me?"

Shelly shook her head. "I don't know yet."

"How much did she give you?"

"Nothing so far."

He shook his head. "I know my wife. She would not hire you without getting a price. What did you tell her?"

It took Shelly a while to get the words out, and when she did they came in a whisper. "Fifty thousand."

"Where would she get . . . Lopez stopped and then answered his own question. "The house" he said softly. "She's gonna sell my beautiful house."

NEXT WEEK: CHAPTER NINE

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