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Thursday, Oct. 16, 2003 02:20 pm

The highway side

art553

There's never a cab when you want one but there it was, a Sky Blue Taxi sitting in front of the courthouse at 26th and California. I parked in a metered spot, walked back, and pointed at the white guy behind the wheel. "You waiting for somebody?"

"I've been waiting for you." He waved me into the cab. "I was beginning to worry."

"Head over to Blue Island Avenue," I said. "I'll show you where to turn."

"Gotta know where I'm going, pal," he said. "That's rule number one."

"And I was so happy to get an American," I said, and dropped a twenty over the back of his seat. "Humor me a little, okay?"

He picked it up and tucked it away. "Rule number two," he said and before long, we were sitting at the light at Blue Island and Western.

"There's a currency exchange a couple blocks past Damen," I said. "Turn left on the street just before it."

"Winchester Avenue," he said.

"There's a grocery store on the first corner."

"23rd Place," he said.

"You sure?"

"This is what I do for a living, pal."

"Good. Look, when we go by the store. Don't stop or slow down. But keep your eyes open, okay?"

"You some kind of cop?"

"Something like that."

"Just so you know, bullet holes are extra."

"Don't tell me," I said. "Rule number three."

The cab glided around the turn and the headlights lit up the CLOSED sign on the front door of the store and the street sign which said, "23rd Place."

I couldn't see anything beyond the door or anything unusual in the area. No men sitting in parked cars. No trucks in the alley. It had taken less than an hour for everybody to clear out. "You see anything?" I asked once we were past.

"Closed grocery store."

"Go down a couple of blocks and pull over like you're dropping me off, then head back."

The Marquette District police station was just to the left at 23rd and Damen. I could never pass it without thinking of Shelly and her father. He'd been a lieutenant when he got caught up in a huge corruption scandal. Shelly was still in high school when he'd gone down for a very long count. He was still inside.

Two blocks up the cab angled into a corner. "Open your door a minute, you want it to look good," the driver said.

I opened the door and the inside light came on.

"If you want, I'll turn the meter off," he said as he made a U-turn. "That'll put my top light on."

"Keep your eyes open," I said, as we got close, and I slipped lower in the seat. "Look for anything unusual. Anybody watching the store."

I didn't see anything but the driver said, "On the porch."

"Where?"

"Back porch." He gestured to his left. "About the third building down. A guy was sitting near the top."

The third building down was just about where the currency exchange would be. I suddenly remembered the woman with the long fingernails coming out to have a smoke with me. How had I missed that?

"You're the best," I said. "Back to the courthouse."

"Say it with money, pal," he said. "Say it with money."

That must have been rule four. I looked out the rear window. The lights at the 24-hour currency exchange were now as dark as the grocery store.

When we stopped behind my car, I handed up two twenties. "How's that?"

"You are a true gentleman, sir."

"How long you been pushing a hack?"

"Long enough to know better," he said.

________

On the way north, I dialed Maddy's cell phone.

"I just passed Dwight," she said. "Probably another hour and a half."

"Why don't you meet me at my office. We can go up on the roof, a great view of the city."

"Is it heated?"

"No. Which will make the office seem that much toastier when we come down."

"I can hardly wait."

I gave her directions. "Call me when you're getting off the highway. It gets a little tricky."

I grabbed a cup of coffee at the taco joint under my office, then unlocked the street door.

The place was loaded with dentists. A medicinal, metallic smell lingered in the air. During office hours you could almost taste the pain.

I locked the door behind me and took the elevator to the top floor. My office was all the way down, just before the fire door.

I was almost to the bend in the hallway when a whistle came from behind me. I turned and two guys I didn't know were walking towards me. They weren't very big, 5'8" or so, and both were on the skinny side. They were dressed all in black, boots and jeans and jackets. But it wasn't the trendy black you tended to find here on the North Side. It was more that south-of-the-border black you saw along Blue Island Avenue and 26th Street. Thug black.

"Do not be afraid," the guy on the right said.

I almost never carried a gun but I'd brought my .38 tonight for the sake of Sylvia and the kids. I slid it out and held it at my side. "I'm not afraid," I said.

"That is good," the same guy said.

The gun didn't slow them a bit. They kept coming, not a care in the world, and too late I heard something moving behind me. I whirled right into whatever it was, something heavy, hard and cold, that caught me in the side of the head. But it didn't stop the movement of my turn. The marble wall did that. I slid down to the very hard tile floor which was already covered with lots of very warm coffee.

__________

When I came to I was face up on the floor in my office. My suit was wet. The coffee had long since turned cold. A side chair was at my head, the door at my feet, the desk to my right. There were fancy cowboy boots in the kneehole. I watched until one of them moved, a quick tap, then I went back to sleep.

When I came to again, people were talking softly in Spanish. "Open your eyes," someone said. I followed instructions. The guy who had told me not to be afraid was standing over me. "Sit," he said, and he held a hand out.

His partner was leaning against the door.

I took the hand, used the other to push myself up, and before long I was sitting in the side chair on the customer side of my desk.

There was a man sitting behind my desk. He was wearing a brown suit with fancy stitching on the lapels and plenty of sparkling jewelry. His face was a light tan and there was an occasional freckle. (How had Jesse Lopez missed those?) His hair was the color of silver.

"So, Mr. Acropolis," he said, "it seems you have found me."

"Señor Morales," I said, and he smiled.

Our serialization of The Highway Side ends with this issue. Look for the book in stores in 2004.

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