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Thursday, Aug. 7, 2003 02:20 pm

The highway side

The next installment of our central Illinois detective novel. Part twelve: “Justice costs money”

TWELVE

It was a smooth ride back home. The sun peeked out from behind the clouds and brightened the snow-covered fields. The mileposts clicked by in a steady beat.

There were plenty of reasons to stay in McKinley, not the least being Maddy Miller. I also wanted to talk to Adam Prokop, who was Billy's truck-stop friend and fellow lumper; to Ann, the girl who'd sent Billy the Dear John letter; and to Bobby Cobb, the kid who'd helped Billy steal all those lawn ornaments. How did Sheriff Archer treat them back then?

I wanted to find out anything I could about the sheriff, about Judge Watrous, about justice in McKinley. What would a Sawyer County jury really look like?

But I was heading home instead. Back in Chicago, I'd have room to breathe. I could take my time looking for Mr. Morales and for Billy Miller--maybe even do some long-distance research on Sheriff Archer--without being under the Sawyer County looking glass.

And there was a third side to the triangle.

Maddy had several newspaper clippings in her file on Billy. One had a nice picture of the sheriff on his return from California in November of 2001. He'd spent five days there. Five days on a Missing Persons case. Five days looking for an adult who'd gone away voluntarily.

That's where I wanted to be. The place where Billy's trail ended and Jesse Lopez's began. Was that just a fluke of geography?

North of Interstate 80 all signs of the snowstorm disappeared. A few miles later, Shelly called.

"You getting anywhere on that sheriff?"

"I sort of got sidetracked."

"The truck stop waitress, right?"

"You know, I've been thinking maybe I should go out to California, take a look at that produce company, talk to some people at that motel."

"Why don't you find Mr. Morales? I can't afford California right now."

"I'm on my way back," I said. "I'm almost to the Tri-State."

"Jesse was right, by the way. His wife was trying to sell the house."

"And you told her not to."

"Nick, I just couldn't."

"What's the rent on LaSalle Street nowadays?"

"Hey, it's sort of on your way, you want to stop and pick up a check? I told her I had to have something." She gave me an address on 28th Street. "I'll call and tell her you're coming. Oh, guess who Rudy hired?"

"Bradley?"

"Bigger."

"Come on. I was kidding."

"Kilpatrick."

"Really? Well, that answers some questions."

Ross Kilpatrick was in the very top tier of criminal attorneys.

He'd defended the mob, ax murderers, and kinky politicians--anyone who could pay the bill. And he'd gotten a lot of them off. That's why his phone kept ringing.

"Yeah," Shelly said, "like where does a truck driver come up with a $100,000 retainer?"

"His wife probably sold the house," I said. The phone went dead in my ear.

I had a quick lunch at an Italian beef stand on Pulaski Road, and then drove up to 26th Street and turned east. This was the heart of the neighborhood known as Little Village. It might as well have been in Mexico. You couldn't go a block without seeing Our Lady of Guadalupe. All the signs were in Spanish, and there were plenty of cowboy hats. Immigration could fill up a southbound bus in about five minutes, but for some reason they rarely did.

The street had a festive air, plenty of restaurants offering cervesa fria. But the party ended suddenly on the other side of Sacramento Avenue, where the Cook County Jail stood.

The jail is huge--more than 10,000 inmates, bigger than most prisons--but it's never quite big enough. Construction has rarely kept up with the continuous flow of new prisoners. There were watchtowers and plenty of barbed wire. Across from the employees' gate sat a small tavern where the guards could wash away the jailhouse stink with their favorite bottled poison.

I turned right. The Lopez house was easy to spot. It was in a row of small red brick bungalows, but it was the pride of the block. Someone had taken the time to paint every other corner brick a shiny white, and the effect gave the building the look of a miniature castle.

I climbed the steps to a sturdy porch, rang the bell, and waited by a wrought iron security door. Wrought iron also protected the windows. Empty wooden flower boxes sat on the painted sills.

The inside door opened, and a woman appeared. She was a bit younger than her husband, maybe 35, small and trim. Her accent was definitely south of the border.

"You are Mr. Nick?" She unlocked the storm door and handed me an envelope. "Will you please tell Miss Shelly I will have more next week."

"Sure," I said, taking the envelope.

"Miss Shelly, she said you talked to my Jesse."

"Yeah."

"He is OK? No, I know, he's half-crazy in there. But you and Miss Shelly, you will get him out?"

"We'll get him out," I said, "but it's gonna take money."

"Yes, I know," she said and glanced down. "I will get more."

As she closed the door, I noticed a boy and a girl standing on either side of her. They were holding on to her skirt, but their dark eyes were looking up at me. I was trying to read their expressions when the door shut.

Hope, I decided on my way down the stairs. That was the little boy. He was nine or ten.

Disgust, that was the girl. She was a few years older.

"Justice costs money," I said in my defense. I could almost hear my words echoing off the jailhouse walls a few blocks away.

I started the Olds, and then opened the envelope. The phone rang. Shelly, with perfect timing, I decided, as I punched the button. "Twenty-five hundred," I said, "What's that, five percent?"

"If that's your new day rate, I got the wrong number," said Frank Stringfellow.

"Sorry, Frank, thought you were my bookie. What's up?"

Stringfellow ran a small detective agency in Oak Brook. Occasionally he threw a bone my way. "How'd you like to spend a couple days in sunny California?"

"You're kidding?"

"Little gravy," he said. "Take a couple of statements. Wish I could go myself."

"What's the case?"

"The old truck-driving-running-drugs routine."

"This isn't Kilpatrick's case in Sawyer County?"

"Hey, word travels, huh?"

"When'd you start working for the big guy?"

"Oh, you know, every once in a while I pick up something."

"Let me call you right back," I said, and I dialed Shelly's number. "You're not gonna believe this--Frank Stringfellow just called."

"Good old Frank," she said. For some reason they'd never gotten along.

"Yeah, but listen to this: He wants me to fly out to California, take a couple of statements."

"That's perfect," she said.

"Guess who he's working for?"

I counted to myself. At three, she said, "Kilpatrick."

"Some coincidence, huh?"

"So when are you leaving?"

NEXT WEEK: CHAPTER THIRTEEN

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