Looking through his grimy window out onto Madison Street, private detective Sam Diamond watched another CTA bus crawl past. Another slow minute during a very slow day. The phone hadn’t rung once; there had been no mail and no walk-in clients. Diamond flipped the page on his desk calendar. No wonder it was slow, it was Christmas Eve. To celebrate the holiday, Diamond reached in his drawer and took a snort from a bottle of Wild Turkey. He was thinking about going home, when his outer door opened. Through the frosted glass, he could see it was a woman, wearing a fedora and trench coat.
She knocked. “Come in,” Diamond said wearily. “It’s open.”
“Hi, I’m Sandy,” she said breathlessly. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I need your help right away.”
“Make yourself comfortable,” Diamond replied, “I’ve already had my Christmas party.”
She removed her hat and coat to reveal a stunning red and white outfit. She looked like a candy cane after hormone treatments.
“Now, how can I help you?” Diamond began.
“It’s my husband,” she sobbed, snatching a handkerchief out of her black purse, “He’s missing.”
“Now, now, Sandy,” Diamond said soothingly. “A lot of husbands are missing on Christmas Eve. My third wife said I was never home.”
“I got this from him,” she said drawing a folded paper from her purse.
It was a printed e-mail. “Have developed sleigh trouble, making emergency landing in Forest Park, love S.C.”
Diamond read it over several times. “I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you Mrs. Claus, I expected a much older woman.”
“Oh, it happens all the time. I’m his second wife. His first wife left him when he refused to retire to Florida. He met me when I was working in the Barbie modeling shop.”
Diamond took a close look at her. He knew he’d seen that face before, but she’d always been wearing tiny plastic high heels.
“Do you have a recent picture of your husband?”
“Here,” she said, pulling an envelope from her purse. “I just bought this at Walgreens.”
Diamond studied the Christmas card. Santa was waving from his sleigh. He looked tired and overweight, but there was a cheerful smile on his face.
“OK, I’ll dispense with the height, weight and facial hair questions,” Diamond said. “And I assume he was wearing a red suit. But how do you know he disappeared? Isn’t he always gone on Christmas Eve?”
“Mr. Diamond,” she said, her voice trembling, “I’m afraid he’s in some kind of trouble.”
“I’ll tell you what: I have a few leads to follow up. In the meantime, you better stay out of sight. Here’s the key to Room 203 at the Plaza Hotel. There’s some Spam and a hot plate if you get hungry.”
“Oh, thank you, Mr. Diamond,” she said, impulsively kissing him on his rough, unshaven cheek.
After she left, Diamond pulled on his London Fog with the zip-in lining and trudged out into the streets. He knew exactly where he was headed. Just a few blocks away, he saw the neon sign for Stanley’s Sleigh Repair and a blinking sign underneath that flashed “OPEN.” Diamond walked into the shop and leaned on the counter. Stanley’s masqueraded as a repair shop, but was nothing more than a chop shop for hot sleds. Diamond could hear the jingle of sleigh bells as the boys in the back dismantled another one-horse sleigh. Stanley, a thin, disheveled man, who always wore hockey skates, greeted Diamond.
“I told you I was a legitimate business man, Diamond. Why are you always bothering me?”
“The last legitimate thing about you, Stanley, was your birth.” Diamond produced the Christmas card. “Seen this guy around here lately?”
“Never seen him before in my life.”
“Oh, I forgot, Stanley, you never were a good boy. Anyway, he’s missing. His sleigh broke down near here.”
“Oh, well, we did happen to find an abandoned sleigh a couple of hours ago. It was loaded, I mean, loaded.”
“Where’s the sleigh now?”
“Well, me and the boys, we fixed it up right away, and I had this customer who was looking for a sleigh full of presents.”
“What was wrong with the sleigh?”
“The flying buttress on the left runner… looked like someone loosened it. Must have been a real pro. Know what it takes to loosen one of those things?”
“A Philips screwdriver.”
“So, who’s this friend you sold it to?”
“I ain’t saying.”
“OK, pretend I’ve grabbed you by the shirt and told you I’m going to have to beat it out of you.”
“Oh, in that case, it was Bill Curley.”
“Just one more question. Did you notice any tiny reindeer?”
“I ain’t answering no more questions, Diamond.”
“Your grammar’s not legitimate, either.”
Diamond headed for the waterfront. Curley owned a resale shop along the Des Plaines River. When Diamond entered the shop, he was surprised to see Curley wearing three Rolex watches and a woman’s fur cape.
“Business has been good, I see,” Diamond began.
“What’s it to you, Diamond? I run a legitimate business here.”
“Someone should teach you guys some new lines,” Diamond replied. “That fur goes nicely with your cigar. Where’d you get it?”
“Let’s just say some new inventory came in.”
“What if I told you that inventory doesn’t belong to you? It belongs to all the people in this miserable, crummy world, who wait all year for the one night somebody gives them something they want for free. And the only strings attached are the ones they wrap the presents with. What if I told you there’ll be kids crying tomorrow, if this stuff doesn’t get delivered?”
“I told you, Diamond, I ain’t talking.”
“What if I stood up and looked at you real hard and made my voice very firm and menacing and told you I’d shut your place down?”
“Hey, you don’t have to play rough. The stuff’s in back. Besides, those reindeer are making a mess.”
Diamond walked into the back of Curley’s store and found Santa bound and gagged, but with a little twinkle in his eye. “Little Sammy Diamond,” Santa said, after his hands were untied, “I remember getting your letter when you were 8 years old. What did you ever do with that tiny microphone?”
“I’m afraid I had to send Mom to prison, Santa.”
“I can’t thank you enough for freeing me. Isn’t there anything I can give you for Christmas?”
“I haven’t been a very good boy, Santa, but I could use a watch, so that I could watch time drag by in my office.” Diamond walked out with a Timex, and Santa took off for Sioux City.
Diamond had only one stop left. He turned the key in Room 203. She was there, still wearing her candy-striped outfit. “Did you find out anything?” she asked hesitantly.
“Not everything.” Diamond looked down at his new watch and shook his wrist. “My watch has stopped. You wouldn’t happen to have a Philips screwdriver?” She pulled one from her purse, but before she could hand it over, his hand closed on her wrist. “So, it was you,” he breathed.
“Yes, yes, it was me. Please don’t look at me that way.” Diamond looked at her that way anyway. He saw her hair was the color of strong coffee, her lips like the strawberry filling in a Pop Tart, her skin as smooth as cream cheese on a bagel. He suddenly felt like going to Louie’s for breakfast.
“I only have one question,” Diamond began. “If you sabotaged his sled, why did you hire me to find him?”
She said nothing.
“So, you played the concerned wife to avoid being a suspect?”
She nodded, her lips quivering.
It was Christmas. The season for forgiveness. Diamond let her go. But warned her if she tried to hurt Santa again, her only Christmas present would be a matching pair of bracelets.
After she had gone, Diamond flipped on his hot plate. It was going to be another long night, he thought, as he looked at his Timex and watched the second hand ticking away the rest of his life.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.