It was two weeks before Christmas and Forest Park Private Detective Sam Diamond hadn’t started his shopping. There was only one person on his list, his longtime fiancé, Pickles. Diamond could put off buying her a ring for another year by going with his old standby. Pickles was crazy about romance novels.
Diamond headed to Recycled Reading on Circle — no way was he paying full price. As he walked into the cluttered used bookstore, the owner, Ned Carruthers, greeted him like a long-lost relative.
“Diamond, am I glad to see you,” he said excitedly. “I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I’m telling you, Diamond, I’m going nuts.”
Diamond interrupted, “Ned, do you have any of those books where the guy on the cover has really great hair?” Too distracted to answer he waved Diamond into his office.
“Diamond, I never told anyone this but I had an original Hemingway manuscript and now it’s been stolen.”
Diamond reeled at the news. Hemingway had been one of the finest ambulance drivers Oak Park ever produced. “How did you ever get your hands on it?”
“It was the summer of ’60. Hemingway must have been down on his luck. He stopped in and said he wanted to sell me a book. I was surprised to see him pull out a manuscript. He said he couldn’t wait till it was published. He needed the money fast.”
“Did he say why?”
“I’ll never forget: he said, ‘I need the cash to fill a prescription for happiness.’ So, I paid him 10 bucks — my unpublished book rate. He took the money and headed for Madison Street.”
“Too bad he didn’t look at the label on that prescription,” Diamond said. “There are no refills for happiness. So where’d you keep the manuscript?”
“In the paperback section under ‘S.’ Should have been more careful.”
“What’s title?” Diamond asked.
“Squirrels of the Serengeti, probably inspired by one of his safaris. I didn’t notice it was missing until I got these,” Carruthers said, taking two sheets from his pocket.
Diamond read the ransom note. It was written with letters cut from a magazine. “$50,000 in medium bills delivered to the War Memorial in Scoville Park at midnight, or you’ll never see the manuscript again. Oh and no cops!”
“What’s this?” Diamond asked, as he unfolded the second paper.
“It’s Page 25, just so I’d know he means business.”
Diamond glanced at the muscular prose: “The squirrels stampeded right for our Land Rover. I gripped the elephant gun and aimed at the lead squirrel. I hit him twice but he kept charging. …”
“All right,” Diamond said handing back the papers, “so you want me to make the buy?”
“Yes, but where am I going to get $50,000?” Carruthers sighed. “Well, might as well start with the register.” Diamond watched while Carruthers grabbed the 20s and 10s and counted out $50,000.
“I must be in the wrong line of work,” Diamond said, as he stuffed the money into a paper bag.
“Low overhead,” Carruthers confided.
At midnight, Diamond climbed the snowy path toward the Soldier, Sailor and Airman memorial. He could make out something white on the plaque where the names were engraved. He found a note taped with bitter irony to the name “E.M. Hemingway.” Diamond ripped off the bitter irony and read the note: “When I said no cops, I meant you too, Diamond. The deal’s off.” It was written with cut-out letters but Diamond doubted a handwriting expert could match it to the ransom note.
Diamond was back at Recycled Reading the next morning.
“We tried it your way, Ned. Now we’re going to do it my way. I’m going to run your shop. This joker is certain to come back looking for another priceless manuscript.”
Diamond’s first customer was a young mother pushing a stroller. “Can I help you?” Diamond asked politely.
“No, I’m just looking,” she answered with a faint smile.
“Well, the library’s down the block, lady,” Diamond snarled, “Either buy or get out.” The woman hurried out the door.
His second customer was a businessman with a briefcase. “Gotta check the case, mister, before you look at the merchandise.” The man wore a quizzical expression as he handed it over. Diamond opened it. “Probably could fit a manuscript in here, huh, pal? I don’t suppose you have a scissors on you. We have plenty of magazines if you’re in the mood for writing.” The man snapped his case shut and stormed out.
The third customer of the day was a teenage boy with a nervous manner.
“Anything I can help you with, Sonny?”
“Yeah, I gotta do a term paper on Hemingway. Got any of his books?”
“Sure, kid, we’ve got For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun also Rises, but wouldn’t you rather read an original manuscript?”
“A manu-what?” the young man retorted, “I just don’t want to pay full price.” After that, no customers came into Recycled Reading.
“OK, Ned, I admit I roughed up your customers a bit. But I’ve got another idea how to crack this case.”
Diamond headed to the library and walked up to the reference desk. “Young lady,” Diamond began, “I need to know who has the most overdue library fines?”
“Why, that’s you, Mr. Diamond. You’ve had The Fountainhead since 2004.”
“It’s a tough read — didn’t know it was about an architect. So who has the most fines besides me?”
The young woman looked at her computer. “That would be Thaddeus Thompson III, he’s got The Old Man and the Sea, To Have and Have Not and the complete letters of Hemingway’s next door neighbor.”
Diamond got the address and headed out. He tried to interest the police in making a raid but overdue library books didn’t fit the SWAT team’s protocol. He would have to face Thompson alone. Thompson rented a room above a tavern called Barfy’s. Diamond knocked on the door.
“Who is it?” came the reedy voice from inside.
“Open up, Thompson,” Diamond growled. “It’s the library. We know you have books in there.” Thompson unlocked the door and Diamond pushed past him. Everywhere Diamond looked there were books. They covered the couch and were stacked on tables. Diamond glanced in the bathroom and confirmed that Thompson did not bathe very often.
Thompson motioned Diamond to sit down. Diamond first cleared off the cut-out magazines. Then he held up a gleaming pair of scissors. “What’s this, Thompson, a penmanship award?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. And since when are you a librarian?”
“I’m working for Carruthers. I believe you have something of his?”
“It doesn’t belong to him, Diamond,” Thompson snapped. “It belongs to the whole world.”
“I see. You needed the $50,000 so you could publish it yourself.”
“That’s right,” Thompson said with a strange gleam in his eyes. “I was going to edit it, too. The chapter that was narrated by the squirrels, I was going to cut it. I mean who can read squirrel?”
“I’m not here to discuss literature, Thompson,” Diamond said. “I’m here to offer you a deal.”
“What kind of deal?” Thompson asked suspiciously.
“You plead guilty to grand theft, extortion and endangering a manuscript and I’ll get your library fines cut in half.”
“Gee, Diamond, I’ll never get a better deal than that. Here’s the manuscript.”
The next morning, Diamond brought the manuscript to Recycled Reading.
“Diamond, how can I thank you?” Carruthers gushed.
“I’ll just take this for Pickles,” Diamond said, lifting a copy of The Duke & the Damsel. As Diamond gazed at the cover, he wondered which one had used more conditioner.
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.