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Thursday, July 24, 2003 02:20 pm

The highway side

The next installment of our central Illinois detective novel. Part ten: Pictures worth a thousand words

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What you missed:Private eye Nick Acropolis finally meets Sheriff Archer outside of the Sawyer County Courthouse in McKinley. Archer asks for the pictures Nick took in the impounded semi trailer. Nick hands over a roll of film, and the sheriff says he's also heard the investigator is looking for the missing son of Maddy Miller, the truck stop waitress Nick knows as Peggy. To read the past chapters, check out the Illinois Times Web site: www.illinoistimes.com.

TEN

The Miller house--a two-story frame with a slight peak to the roof--was a few blocks from the square. It was boxy, with four large windows on each side, and a porch three steps up from the sidewalk. The yellow paint looked fairly new.

Peggy Miller opened the door. "You're in time for lunch," she said. "How hungry are you?"

"Not really," I replied.

"That sounds hungry enough," she said.

She was wearing blue jeans and a black sweater over a white turtleneck. She wore her hair down. She seemed more like the woman I'd talked to on the phone last night, and less like the one I'd seen earlier at the truck stop. Her eyes sparkled. There was a spring in her step.

She pointed to the staircase. "You can snoop around while I start lunch." She led me upstairs to a door at the end of a small hallway, pushed it open, but didn't go in.

"I used to spend hours in here," she said.

"I'll put everything back where I find it," I said.

"Whatever you need to do."

There were two windows, one faced east, the other south. A single bed, a nightstand, a chest of drawers with a small television on top, an old wooden office desk, a computer, a beat-up upholstered chair with a mismatched ottoman, a bookcase with paperbacks, videos, CDs, and a CD player.

Posters: Batman. Reservoir Dogs. Kurt Cobain.

Books: Catch-22. The Hobbit. The Forever War. Of Mice and Men. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Kiss Me Deadly. The Big Sleep. Romeo and Juliet. The Stranger.

CDs: Weezer. George Benson. Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. Pearl Jam. Kind of Blue. Tom Waits.

Videos: Taxi Driver. Clerks. The Magnificent Seven. Being There. Chinatown.

Musical instruments: One acoustic guitar with three strings missing. One electric guitar plugged into a small amplifier. One electric bass guitar, one string missing. One French horn, rusted.

Dolls: Pee-Wee Herman.

Side-view mirrors: Three, each from a different car.

Trunk lids: One, with a 1999 Michigan license plate attached.

School-related items: None, unless you count the books.

Sports-related items: None, unless you count the bent bicycle wheel hanging from the ceiling.

I started going through the desk drawers. Paper clips, pens and assorted office supplies. Cassette tapes. Ticket stubs from movies and concerts. A menu from a restaurant in Peoria. A small jewelry box half full of old coins--wheat pennies, silver dimes and quarters, and two Indian head nickles. An ashtray tucked inside a sandwich bag, along with a pack of rolling papers. A bunch of letters rubber-banded together, all postmarked Ann Arbor, Michigan. I flipped through, looking at the dates. The last said April 23 2001. Billy had gone away in August. I slid an envelope out and unfolded the letter inside. "Dear Billy," it started. I skipped to "Love, Ann," then read the postscript: "Hope you get here before I graduate!"

I pulled the drawer all the way out and looked behind it. Nothing.

The next drawer revealed a stack of short stories. "The Spanish Rice Incident," the first one read. "By William A. Miller." First sentence: "It all started when I met Linda."

The next story was "The Bank Job, By Billy Miller." First sentence: "The car moved north through the blowing snow."

Third story: "Occurrence at Oldsville, By W.A. Miller."

"Anything interesting?"

I looked up. Peggy was leaning in the doorway. "I didn't hear you coming," I said.

"Billy used to say I came up the stairs like a ghost."

I held up the stories. "He's a writer," I said.

"That's the dream," she said.

"I like the titles."

"According to Billy, you don't need college. All you have to do is write."

"I met Sheriff Archer this morning."

"Oh, really. I'm sure that was exciting."

"He said he'd heard I was working for Maddy Miller," I said. "I'm guessing Madeline."

"Very good," she said. "We're going to put a gold star on your paper, Nick."

"I like it," I said. "You don't really look like a Peggy."

"That's funny, one of the drivers told me that not too long ago. But if I used Maddy at work, I'd be explaining it 20 times a day. And then I'd have to explain Madeline too."

"In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines." I remembered the beginning of the rhyme.

"How do you know that?" She sounded amazed.

"Come on, everybody knows that one."

"Not in McKinley." She shook her head. "Would you like coffee, tea, or soda? Or I could fix you a real drink, if you like."

"Whatever you're having."

"Tea," she said.

"Fine."

"Be back in a jiffy."

I put the stories away, then looked through the rest of the desk, and behind all the drawers. Next I went through the chest and the nightstand. I checked under the pillow, under the mattress, and under the bed where there were several pairs of shoes and one misfit with a sock stuffed in the toe. I pulled the sock out and a bundle of U.S. currency came out behind it. I gave it a quick count and tossed it on the bed.

The top of the nightstand had several scars from the base of the lamp. I picked up the lamp. Somebody had pulled the felt off the bottom. A piece of cardboard had been fitted into the opening. I pulled it out and reached inside.

One plastic bag full of something that looked like marijuana. One letter with Ann's handwriting on the front. The postmark was August 2 2001. It had been mailed from Pontiac, Illinois.

There was another envelope, unmarked. I opened it and found Polaroids. Every house used to have them before video and web cams. Six photographs, all of the same woman. It was clear she'd been ambushed by the photographer. But she'd soon gotten into the swing. In the best shot she was facing a full-length mirror.

As I looked closer, I realized it was Peggy Miller. A much younger Peggy. A very beautiful Peggy.

I heard the teacups rattling on the way up the stairs and slid the pictures back in the envelope.

"You found something," she said as she set the tray on the desk.

"I'm surprised the sheriff never looked inside this lamp."

"He never came in here at all."

"You're kidding?"

"No."

"He went all the way out to California and never looked in the kid's room?"

"That does seem odd, doesn't it? What'd you find? Or do I not want to know?"

"About three hundred in cash, a little marijuana, a letter from Ann, this." I handed her the envelope, then picked up the money and counted it again.

She caught her breath. "Oh," she said softly, "I've often wondered where these had gone."

I looked up. Her face was dark. She looked down.

"Peggy, I just changed my mind," I said. "If it's not too much bother, I'd rather have that real drink you were talking about."

"No bother at all." She held my gaze for a moment. "And please call me Maddy, Nick."

"Maddy," I said.

"That's nice," she said. "I could use a real drink myself."

I never called her Peggy again.

NEXT WEEK: CHAPTER ELEVEN

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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