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Thursday, July 17, 2003 02:20 pm

The highway side

The next installment of our central Illinois detective novel. Part nine: Nick discovers one stereotype contains a grain of truth

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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. Nick meets a truck stop waitress, Peggy Miller, who hires him to look for her missing son, Billy. Nick then stumbles upon the trucker's semi trailer. The police have emptied a secret compartment, but Nick finds four small bundles hidden within a pile of grapefruit. When the trucker, Jesse Lopez, meets Shelly and Nick at the Sawyer County Courthouse, he proclaims his innocence. 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.

NINE

"Why can't anything be simple?" Shelly asked, as we got in the elevator.

"This could be like hitting the lottery, remember?"

"You know what they're gonna use? That plane trip: United to O'Hare and then back. Why would Morales lay out a couple of grand so some truck driver he barely knows can spend a few days with his wife and kids?"

"Mr. Morales, he's a very good man." I tried to imitate Lopez.

"What'd you think of Jesse?"

"The classic mope," I said.

"I can't really charge 'em 50, can I?"

"If I were facing 30 to 120, you better believe I'd let my wife sell the damn house."

"Why couldn't I get Rudy Valdez instead?"

We were halfway down the outside stairs when I looked over and saw my Olds blocked in by two squad cars.

"Here it comes," I said. We stopped on the landing.

"What?"

"I believe you're about to meet Sheriff Archer. Skinny one's Donnie; he was guarding those trucks last night."

"Don't be dilly-dallying, boy," the sheriff called.

"Boy?" Shelly asked. "Did he just call you 'boy'?"

"It's OK, Shelly. Relax."

"Boy?"

"'Young lady. I didn't hear you complaining to the judge."

"I do prefer 'counselor.' "

"Remember, you're my lawyer too." We started down the stairs.

The sheriff held out his hand. He looked like a desk sergeant. His glasses were down on his nose. His gut hung over his waist. His hat was cocked to one side. "Alright, Mr. Acropolis, I want the film."

"Under what legal authority?" Shelly asked.

"And this must be the little lawyer down from the big city." He pushed the glasses back up for a better look. "Well, ain't you a pretty thing?"

"There's certainly nothing little or pretty about you," Shelly said, as she gave him a full-frontal hair flip, then stood with her free hand on her hip.

"OK," the sheriff said. "Now we're even, so let's start over. The easy way, you voluntarily give it up. The hard way, I leave my deputy here while I go upstairs and get a search warrant."

"Sheriff, you have no right . . . " Shelly started.

He pointed a stubby finger. "Young lady, if you want me to arrest him, I'll be happy to oblige."

"Under what . . . "

"We'll start with obstruction of justice, and then there's criminal trespass, and I think we can add disturbing a crime scene, or does that come under obstruction too?"

"Sheriff, I . . . "

"Shelly." I waved my keys at her. "Why don't I just . . . "

"Nick, he has no right . . . "

I pulled her away. "Sheriff, just give us a second here."

"We can't give up that film," Shelly whispered.

"It doesn't prove a damn thing, and I'd just as soon not spend the night in jail."

"I'll have you out in an hour."

"With that judge? You won't even get a hearing 'til morning."

"This isn't like you," Shelly said. "This isn't like you at all."

"We don't have the cards," I said, walking over to open the trunk.

"Got yourself a grapefruit, did ya?" the sheriff said.

A grapefruit was sitting on my briefcase, flat in the center of the trunk. I brushed it off, opened the case, and took out my camera, which I handed over to Archer.

"You wouldn't have any other film in there, would you?" the sheriff asked.

I reached back in and brought out a spare roll. The sheriff grabbed an end and unspooled it, exposing the film to the light. He dropped the unraveled mess to the ground. Then he opened the camera, took out the film, and repeated the process.

"I understand you're looking for Maddy Miller's boy," he said, handing the camera back to me.

I realized he was talking about Peggy Miller. "I'm gonna do what I can," I said. "It's pretty late in the game."

"Well, you need any help, don't be afraid to ask. She's a fine, fine lady. And Billy's a good boy." He tipped the bill of his cap a bit. "Now don't leave your trash laying around." He went toward his car. I stooped to pick up the film.

"Sheriff?" Shelly called. Archer turned. "I was wondering if you found Mr. Morales yet?"

"Who?"

"The owner of the trucks."

"Oh, yeah, Mr. No First Name, No Address, No Phone. I got my deputies cruising up and down the streets of that old Windy City stopping every well-dressed Mexican they see. Shouldn't be long." He walked away.

"That leaves you," Shelly said.

"What?"

"Morales."

"Even if I could find him, then what?"

"Get a statement."

"Be serious."

"It never hurts to try," she said. "Then on cross, Archer's gonna look like the fat fool he is--especially if you find Morales."

"Sheriff's got a point, Shelly--no first name, no address, no phone."

"He owns a grocery store," she said. "And those trucks have to be registered somewhere."

"We'll see."

"I can't believe you gave him the film."

I pulled her close and whispered. "I mailed it to my office last night."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"It still doesn't prove anything."

"Nick, we can nail that jerk."

"Shelly . . . "

"If I put you on the stand . . . "

"Did you catch the grapefruit?"

"Yeah, where'd you get that?"

"I didn't get it," I said. "Somebody put it there."

"So why didn't they just take the film?"

"Because they wanted to send me a little message."

"Meaning, he'll set you up if he has to."

I nodded. "That didn't have to be a grapefruit. That could have been cocaine. And he won't have any problem getting away with it."

"Nick, I would never let you go down on something like that."

"With that judge?"

"I'll get a jury."

"A Sawyer County jury. What's that? Twelve farmers with pitchforks." u

NEXT WEEK:

CHAPTER TEN

Jack Clark's first Nick Acropolis novel, Westerfield's Chain (St. Martin's Press), has just been named a finalist for a Shamus Award by the Private Eye Writers of America.

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