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Thursday, Aug. 21, 2003 02:20 pm

The highway side

The next installment of our central Illinois detective novel. Part fourteen: “Way outwest”

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FOURTEEN

The Fairmont Hotel was at the very end of Wilshire Boulevard, high on a bluff above the coast highway. The woman behind the front desk said she'd be delighted to give me an ocean view. When the bellman parted the drapes a few minutes later, there it was, the biggest pond in the world, and I had my own balcony to boot.

"A little cool today," the bellman said as I slid the door open and stepped out.

The sun had been down for hours and there was a fine mist above the water, which was still quite a distance away. It was probably pushing 60, which was about 40 degrees warmer than it had been in Chicago. The muted roar and that fresh, raw, ocean smell was like something out of a dream.

"Feels like a heat wave," I said, or possibly a mirage. Had I really woken up in McKinley this morning? I handed the bellman a five. "How long would it take to get to Burns from here?"

"Burns," he said, "that's way out in the desert, 50, 60 miles. What time you thinking of going?"

"Tomorrow morning."

"Better give yourself an hour and a half, maybe two."

"Two hours?"

"Could be. Could be more."

"What if I went tonight?"

"Oh, you'd be there in no time. This time of night, freeway flying."

I sat on the balcony for a while, my shoes off and a miniature Makers Mark from the hotel mini-bar in hand. This was the new California drinking style, I decided.

Down the shore a bit, a Ferris wheel stood motionless on a pier decked out in carnival lights. A moment later, the pier went dark.

My Hertz map showed Burns way on the other side of the metro area, a bit shy of San Bernardino.

The Quick Pumper would be open 24 hours. The police station too, and sometimes the most helpful cops were hiding out on the night shift. And I'd be on my own time tonight, instead of stealing Frank Stringfellow's tomorrow. So I capped the bottle for later--California style--took a quick shower, and before long I was heading east on Interstate 10.

A sign said this was the Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway. But the sign didn't say where the road ended or if anyone had ever written a song about it.

I had my arm out the window, and it grew noticeably warmer as I headed inland, taking it easy in the second lane as the locals flew by doing 80 (90 if they were in the carpool lane).

You couldn't see anything from the highway, just an occasional gas station sign. And plenty of vegetation. Even at night it was truly green, instead of that Illinois-winter brown.

I found a fiery version of "Cherokee" on the radio, then Ray Charles and Betty Carter. When they faded, I found a woman breaking hearts in Spanish. I didn't understand a word but I knew exactly what she was saying. It was great late-night radio. It made me yearn for a traveling companion or maybe a warm cup of coffee. In no time at all, I was coming up the ramp at Burns.

I turned south and drove past a line of semis backed up at the entrance to a truck stop. I continued down the road a quarter mile or so, and it looked like nothing but desert from there on. I made a U-turn and headed back the way I'd come, and then over the highway where it could have been Any Suburb USA. Shopping centers and fast food joints, gas stations and chain restaurants. Everything but a Quick Pumper.

I pulled into a gas station and walked into the convenience store. The radio was too loud and tuned to the wrong station. The kid behind the counter had never heard of the Quick Pumper but he knew how to get to the police station.

I turned left at the light and there was a sign for Historic U.S. Route 66. Two thousand miles and I was back on that same lost highway.

The police station was a flat adobe structure. It could have been a survivor from the Old West, but someone had added floor-to-ceiling windows, and now it looked like the perfect spot for a used car lot.

The guy behind the desk had sergeant's stripes on his sleeve. He had a telephone to his ear, and a sour expression on his face. He didn't say a word.

I held out my PI license. He glanced at it and pointed down a hallway.

There was a water cooler at the end of the hall, and next to that an open office with a pair of shiny cowboy boots up on a desk. A newspaper was spread wide.

"Hello," I said, and the newspaper came down to reveal a big man in a white shirt and a string tie. He was 50, or a bit beyond, and well-fed. A smile started to spread across a wide face but then it changed its mind.

A single finger pointed my way. "You have the look of business, my friend." He pushed his chair back, swung his feet to the floor and stood up. "Maxwell Wade." he said. "But nobody calls me anything but Wade."

"Wade," I said. I told him my name and held out my PI license and then handed him a copy of Maddy Miller's flyer: "HAVE YOU SEEN MY SON?"

He dropped back into his seat, took his time reading the flyer, then looked up. "Yeah, the old Quick Pumper," he said. "Sorry to see it gone."

"Closed down?"

"Oh, yeah, they been closed, maybe six months. And let me tell you, they had the best damn cup of coffee around this patch of sand, and their Italian sub, mmmm, mmmm." He smacked his lips together.

"How about Billy Miller?"

He looked down at the flyer, then up at me. "Long time gone, wouldn't you say?"

"I thought you might have a file on him?"

"A file?"

"Yeah. I know Sheriff Archer was out here . . . "

His face broke into a quick smile. "You know Doug Archer?"

"Just talked to him the other day," I said.

"Fine, fine man," he said. "I've been trying to finagle some way out to old Ill-i-noise. Sawyer County, right? I hear it's quite a place."

"I've been having fun," I admitted.

"Yeah, Doug Archer."

"So about that file?"

"What file was that again?"

"Billy Miller."

"Oh, that's right, Billy Miller. And Doug Archer told you I'd have some kind of file on him, did he?"

"That's what I was led to believe."

"Well, now, as much as I like old Doug, I'd hate for my mayor to hear that some Ill-i-noise Sheriff was trying to run his po-lice department for him."

"I don't think . . ."

"And you're one of Doug's detectives, is that it?"

"Private," I said.

"Now since Doug didn't call, I figure he must have given you a letter of introduction, something like that."

I shook my head. "The truth is, I'm out here on another case. Two birds with one stone. That's what I was thinking."

"So that's how it works in old Ill-i-noise, is it? You just walk in the door, and I share the state secrets."

"Come on, Wade," I said. "We're talking about a missing persons case."

"And you're nothing but a keyhole peeper, right?"

"Oh, hell, never mind," I said and turned for the door.

"Not so fast, Sam," he said. He was back on his feet. "How about I take a peek at that license again."

I went back and laid my license on the desk. He looked at it and scribbled on a pad. "You can bet I'll be talking to old Doug pretty soon," he said, and he pushed the license back my way. "Don't be a stranger."

I went past the water cooler and down the hall. The sergeant was still listening on the phone. His expression hadn't changed.

"That the chief by any chance?" I whispered, pointing down the hall.

"It sure is, sweetie," he said into the phone. He winked and flashed a smile. "Why, I'm talking to you," he said as I headed for the door. "It's only you, sweetie, you know that, all night long."

NEXT WEEK: CHAPTER FIFTEEN

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