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Thursday, Oct. 2, 2003 02:20 pm

The highway side

art537

TWENTY

The truck Jesse Lopez had been driving was registered to West End Trucking on Blue Island Avenue in Chicago. But all I found at the address was a poor man's bank: a 24-hour currency exchange.

The woman behind the bulletproof glass said she'd never heard of the trucking company, Mr. Morales, Jesse Lopez, or Rudy Valdez.

"They must of just picked up the plates here," she said. This was one of their services: If you wanted to avoid the long line at the Secretary of State's office--or were afraid to venture out of the hood--you could pay a few dollars, and they'd help you fill out the paperwork and give you a license-applied-for sticker too.

"Aren't they supposed to have a real address?"

She shrugged and went back to filing her fingernails, which were very long and very purple.

Blue Island ran on a diagonal from Roosevelt Road down to 26th Street, connecting the city's two largest Mexican neighborhoods: Pilsen and Little Village. It was the direct route to the courthouse and the jail--if you could find your way through the maze south of 18th Street--and it was also the punch line of an old Chicago joke.

"I just got back from the islands," the gag goes.

"The Caribbean?"

"No. Goose Island. Stony Island. Blue Island."

I stood in front of the currency exchange for a while, smoking, watching the sun peek through gray clouds. This was an industrial stretch, just north of the Sanitary and Ship Canal, a long way from any sun-kissed island. Down the street a big sign with an arrow read "Chicago International Produce Market." A big silver trailer pulled by a shiny blue tractor turned my way, and even the streams of black smoke shooting from the exhaust stacks looked enticing. I couldn't see the driver when he passed, just an arm stretched out to the steering wheel. "Sammy's 4 Star Produce, Salinas, California," the truck door said.

The truck made the light at Damen Avenue, turned left, and headed for the interstate. Sammy was heading home for another load.

The woman with the long fingernails came out and lit a cigarette. "Pretty soon we'll have to go to a smokeasy," I said. She didn't say a word. After a few drags she dropped her cigarette to the sidewalk and went back inside. Maybe I should have tried the other joke.

The international produce market was new. It had been built to replace the South Water Market, which was also off Blue Island, on the other side of Pilsen. But some of the produce houses hadn't yet made the move. And I didn't know to which market Lopez had delivered the load of oranges, or where he'd been heading with the grapefruit. And it didn't really matter because I didn't know the name of the produce company either. It was one of several questions I'd neglected to ask.

Long ago, before refrigerated trucks, even before the railroads, the original South Water Market had been downtown on the river. The produce--and just about everything else--had come on ships and, for a time, Chicago had been the busiest seaport in the world.

What did they hide in the loads back then?

I got in my Olds and headed north. I picked up a donut and a coffee to go, went up to my office, and started flipping through the Yellow Pages. There were seven pages of grocers. Not a single one was named Morales.

I started going down the list, calling places in Mexican neighborhoods and asking for Mr. Morales. This got me nowhere and, after a few columns, I gave up. If Mr. Morales was using his grocery as a cover to run drugs, his workers weren't likely to give him up so easily, at least not to a gringo on the phone.

I called Shelly. "You think Sawyer County would have anything on Morales?"

"Dream on," she said. "If they were interested in going up the ladder, they would have already tried to cut a deal."

"In that case, I need to hire someone who speaks Spanish."

"Why?"

"Morales. I've talked to everyone and nobody's ever heard of him. Even the drug guys. Not a whisper. The trucking company's a dead-end. That leaves the grocery store. But I need somebody who looks like he belongs in the hood."

"How much?"

"Give me a couple of days. Stringfellow's got a guy he uses."

"Let's stay away from Frank for now. Find somebody else. And Nick?"

"Yeah?"

"Try to get somebody cheap, OK?"

"Don't say cheap, Shelly. Say reasonable."

"Whatever." She hung up, and then called right back. "How about Sylvia?"

"Who?"

"Jesse's wife."

"Will she do it?"

"I'll find out," she said, and a few minutes later the phone rang. "You can pick her up at 2:45. That's when the kids get home from school."

"Can we skip the kids?"

"Just put 'em in the back. I'll tell her to bring coloring books or something."

"I don't have car seats," I said. "How about tomorrow instead?"

"She works in the morning. She's a seamstress."

"Oh, well."

"You'll get to see all the beautiful things you're missing."

"Just like you," I said, but she had already gone.

 

NEXT WEEK: CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

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