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Thursday, Aug. 28, 2003 02:20 pm

The highway side

The next installment of our central Illinois detective novel. Part fifteen: “Last seen at the quick pumper”

art445

FIFTEEN

I went back the way I'd come, over the highway, and then pulled into the truck stop. There was a restaurant inside and a "travel store." But the place was quieter than I'd expected at that time of night. It was a bit past 11.

I found an empty game room along a hallway in back; beyond that was a small laundromat. A couple of washing machines were going, but no one was in sight. The next room had a half-dozen pay phones, but only one was in use. A booth offered phone cards and cells phones-- "No roaming charges," the sign promised--but it was closed.

"Will the driver for Hebard Storage please report to the shop?" asked a voice on the public-address system.

I went back to the travel store. The girl behind the counter was reading a paperback. She had freckles and a sleepy look on her face.

I showed her a copy of the flyer: "HAVE YOU SEEN MY SON?"

"Is there anywhere I can post this?" I asked.

She shrugged. "I don't really know." Then she looked closely at the picture. "He's cute."

"A bulletin board, something like that?"

She shrugged. "I just started last night."

"Is there a manager around?"

She pointed. "You go down that hallway, out the door, and past all the trucks. Way in the back, there's another building that looks just like this one. Go in there and next to the fuel desk you'll see this little stairway. You go up that, and there's the managers office."

"Thanks."

"You're not from around here, are you?"

"Chicago," I said.

She nodded. "We just moved from Iowa a few months ago. I haven't even been in the ocean yet."

"It's big."

"You know what's freaky?"

"What?"

"I mean, it never snows here, right?"

"Right."

"And that's nice. But it never rains either, and when it does, it rains for five minutes and then stops. I mean, how do they sustain all this without water?"

"I don't know," I admitted.

"It's freaky," she said and went back to her book.

I followed her directions out the back door and past the row after row after row of trucks. Even with the warm weather, most of them had their engines rumbling. A cloud of diesel exhaust hung in the air, getting thicker by the second.

The very first truck was missing its tractor. A stairway led to a stained-glass trailer door. "FOLLOW THE ROAD TO JESUS," a large sign proclaimed. A smaller one said, "CLOSED."

I walked between two rows. There were TVs on in a few of the tractors, but most were dark. I was reading the truck doors as I passed: Boise, Albuquerque, Hammond--hey, that's close to home--Lubbock, Jacksonville, Black River Falls, Toledo, Tuscaloosa, Omaha. This place was ten times as big as McKinley.

A blond in red shorts was poised on the chrome ladder of a fancy-looking tractor. She was level with the driver's window and I could hear their voices, a bit of a teasing tone. The driver touched the woman's arm. She looked at me and tensed.

"Busted," I said, waved, and kept walking.

Traffic was heavier down at this end, the real truck stop. There were trucks at the fuel islands. Several drivers stood around talking. A woman in sweats was walking a small white poodle. I got a few odd looks. The girl up front had clocked me as a tourist: I wasn't from California, but I wasn't a trucker either. I needed a baseball cap and boots, or running shoes, or maybe a poodle of my own.

Inside the next building, there was a smaller restaurant and another travel store. A guy behind the fuel desk picked up a microphone and spoke into it: "One-seventy-two, your shower is now ready. That's one-seven-two; please report to the fuel desk for your shower."

I went up a short flight of stairs, making a turn at the landing, and then up a couple of more steps. Then I stopped. It was dark above me. I turned and started back down.

"Who's that?" a voice called.

"Sorry," I said. "Nobody you know."

Fluorescent lights flickered on. "Who?"

"Nobody," I said again and went up.

"Well, Mr. Nobody, looks like you caught me napping. I hope you're not from the home office." He was standing between a desk and a sofa.

"Detective from Chicago," I said, and he came forward and stuck out his hand.

He was a big guy, a bit rugged looking, even while wiping sleep from his eyes. "What can I do you for, Detective Nobody. I'm Bruce Wilson."

"Acropolis," I said as we shook. "Nick." And I handed him the flyer.

He turned on a desk lamp, then sat down in the desk chair and looked at the flyer.

"Oh, the Quick Pumper. I thought we'd really pick up volume when they closed. But it's barely noticeable."

"Where were they?"

He pointed. "Right across the highway. Replaced by a shopping center. It's the California way, either that or a subdivision."

"That kid look familiar?"

He shook his head. "You talk to the sheriff's office?"

"I talked to Chief Wade at Burns P.D., but he wasn't much help."

"He wouldn't know anything about this," he said.

"Isn't this Burns?"

"Yeah, but they let the sheriff's office do all the heavy lifting. Let me make a call. I keep on pretty good terms. I have to, unfortunately. We're one of their biggest customers."

He picked up the phone and dialed. He asked for a lieutenant first, then settled for a sergeant.

"I've got a detective from Chicago in here looking for a missing kid, last seen at the Quick Pumper in August 2001. . . . Billy Miller. . . . It says here he's 20."

"Nineteen when he disappeared," I said.

He repeated that into the phone, then twiddled his thumbs for a while.

The public-address system spoke: "Will the driver for Hebard Storage please report to the shop? Your truck is ready, and we need the bay. Driver for Hebard Storage."

"Nothing?" Wilson said into the receiver. "Yeah, hold on." He handed me the phone.

"I'm Sergeant Sanders," a voice said on the other end. "Now what's your interest in this?"

I told him my name and occupation.

"We have no case number on a Billy or William Miller anywhere near that age," he said. "Now, that doesn't mean we didn't get a missing report. But it means we never started an actual investigation, and I assume that would have been because of the age."

"Thanks for looking, Sergeant," I said.

"Sounds like you got a bit of a late start here," he said.

"It's really just a favor for a friend. I'm in the area on something else. Let me ask you something: Is there any way that the Burns P.D. would have looked at this?"

"With what? Their entire force is about six guys, and half of 'em are part-time."

"Really?"

"California's a little odd in some regards," he said. "By law the county has to supply police services to any area that doesn't have its own force. Of course, we get paid for that. But, in addition to that, any force in the county can use our investigative services or our crime lab, and that doesn't cost them a thing. So just about everybody uses our lab, and quite a few towns use us for homicides, anything really major, and then we've got a couple of freeloaders like Burns, and they use us for everything."

"For free?"

"Hard to believe isn't it?"

"Hey, one other thing. You didn't happen to hear about a Sheriff Archer from Sawyer County, Illinois, out in this area about a year and a half ago."

"What was he doing?"

"Looking for Billy Miller, I believe."

"Really? The sheriff himself, all the way from Illinois?"

"That's what I was told."

"That's something I would have remembered. If you want, I'll ask around."

"I'd appreciate it," I said. I wrote his number down and promised to call. I handed the phone back to Bruce Wilson.

"You know, I was thinking," Wilson said. "If this boy really was lumping around here, I got somebody probably knew him. You want me to see if he's around?" I nodded my head as he picked up the phone and thanked the sergeant. A moment later the public address system came on. "Will Lonnie the lumper please report to the manager's office? Lonnie the lumper to Mr. Wilson's office."

"That's a Cab Calloway song if I ever heard one," I said.

NEXT WEEK: CHAPTER SIXTEEN

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