Authors: Jonathan Valin
IT was a brand new building, modern-looking in the style of contemporary day schools and community colleges -all glossy undulations and shining declivities, like a razor haircut in concrete and glass. But the old women behind the service desk hadn't changed a bit since the days when suburban libraries were just plaster walls, wood shelving, and "Quiet" signs. They were still little old ladies in floral print dresses and high-topped shoes, wearing too much lipstick or none at all. Wispy grayheads meant to lean together and gossip. Which is what two of them did when they saw me stride through the glass doors all six feet, three inches of me -with my busted statue's face gone civil in a smile. I figured that they knew every man, woman, and child in the neighborhood by sight. And not only by sight. By record and by reputation, too. By fines and by finitudes. Which, in itself, was probably enough to put the lemons in their looks. That and the fact that they didn't know me.
I asked one of them if she could show me to Leon Ringold's office, and she gave me her overdue frown and looked up coolly from behind rimless spectacles. She was a very little old lady, this one, with round stooped shoulders made for the red cardigan sweater she was wearing and the sharp, chinless head of a night owl.
"I'll see," she said, lingering over the "see" as if being shown to Leon Ringold's office were no sure thing. Then she asked me what she'd been wanting to ask since she and her cronies had seen me come through the door. She did it with a little sweetness in her voice, deliciously, as if she were sucking on a mint.
"May I say who's calling?"
"Harry Stoner," I said. "He's expecting me."
She toddled off to a door behind the desk and walked through it into what appeared to be a small, white-walled office. There was a two or three minute space, which the other old ladies pretended to fill by stamping overdue books and sorting through catalogue cards. Then the owl-eyed one came out the door and back to the desk. She looked, I thought, slightly disappointed. They all looked slightly disappointed. I began to wonder if they didn't know who I was, after all.
"You can go in," she said without enthusiasm.
I went in.
It was indeed a small office, bare except for a steel desk set opposite the door. Leon Ringold, or the man I took to be Leon Ringold, was standing behind that desk; and behind him, on the far wall, a muscular wooden Jesus was peering sadly over his shoulder. Ringold was a small man in his late thirties, with wavy, lead-colored hair and an incongruous little boy's face that made him look as swart and peevish as an elf. He held out his right hand as if it hurt him to move; and when I shook it, he swayed slightly at the shoulders.
"Your ladies don't seem to like my looks," I said, sitting across from him at the desk.
He made an exasperated face and said, "Ignore them. They don't want to see Ms. Davis lose her job, that's all. My God, I can't do anything around here without their butting in. It's just like living at home."
I smiled and Ringold blushed from forehead to chin. He had all the makings of a "tetchy" one, as my grandmother used to say. One of those angry little men who've never forgiven the rest of the world for looking down on them, as if a man's stature were purely a matter of height. It didn't take a detective to conclude that the best approach with Mr. Leon Ringold was to stick strictly to business and to save the banter for a client with a thicker hide.
"Ms. Davis is the lady you hired to recover the books?" I said in my best detective's manner.
He nodded and looked deeply moved. "It's unbelievable, isn't it, that a public library would be forced to hire a security guard? But book theft has become a regular epidemic in this country. Why the Hamilton County Library system has lost over a million dollars worth of property in the last three years alone. And do you know why?" He didn't wait for an answer. "I'll tell you why!" he said angrily
I leaned back in the chair and put on a polite face while Ringold gave me a civics lesson. When he came back to the part about hiring Ms. Davis, I tuned in again.
... so the Board of Directors hired her to trace books down and to keep an eye on the stacks. Replacement costs are so high that they felt the expense was justified, although I wish I'd been consulted on the choice." Ringold blushed again and I didn't smile. "I'll be honest with you, Stoner. Kate is a liberated young woman whose lifestyle does not suit our conservative clientele. It was a mistake to hire her for this branch. I think the Board can see that, now. She constantly exceeds her authority and has already caused any number of embarrassing incidents. And of course, I'm powerless to intervene."
"You could fire her."
He looked at me as if that was the stupidest thing he'd heard in seven years. "And have them all quit on me?"
"Every last one of them," he said grimly. "Ms. Davis keeps them in coffee and in small talk. And they've taken her under their wings. She's one of them." Ringold looked at his office door with disgust.
It was going to be hard to keep from smiling around Leon Ringold.
"For the salary they're paying her, we could have computerized our desk," he said and his little boy's face grew wistful. "You know Honeywell has a dandy two-disc mini, and it doesn't even require a dedicated line. Just a Mode-M and three terminals equipped with Ruby Wands. The darn thing inventories, fines, checks out. All by itself! Gee. .." He broke out of his trance with a start. "Well, it's too late for that. I'm stuck with the old ladies and Ms. Davis. I don't suppose it would be all that bad if it weren't for this Ripper thing. That's what they're calling it downtown, you know. The Ripper case! What I mean to say is that a number of important people are getting upset. Kate's had college training in criminology and in social work. But this. .."
Ringold pointed to a folio sitting on the comer of his desk. "Well, take a long look for yourself," he said.
It was an Abrams art book. Seventy-five bucks for six dozen handsome photographs and a few meager paragraphs of text. This particular volume was a collection of cinquecento art. Bramante, DaVinci. I skimmed through it, while Ringold whispered, "You see? You see what I mean?"
I saw, all right. Perhaps a little more than Ringold himself saw. Because this wasn't the work of a high school prankster, scribbling scars on the Mona Lisa's forehead like the crosshatching on a road map. No, some puny soul had taken his time, with an Exacto knife and a ruler, and meticulously cut away the genitals, the breasts, the mouths and the eyes of all the delicate looking Italian ladies in the book. Cut them away with a fanatic precision, as if he were carefully excising every source and brand of sexual appeal. Those missing mouths and eyes shook me a little bit. And after a decade or so in this business, I'm not easily shaken.
"How many more of these books are we talking about?" I asked Ringold.
"Over two dozen. About three thousand dollars worth."
I let out a low whistle and he nodded.
"It appears that a majority of them were mutilated in the library itself. Perhaps over a period of months. The art collection is housed on the second floor in a relatively isolated spot. It wouldn't have been difficult for the perpetrator to hide himself away, in the lavatory or in one of the typing carrels. Before we hired Ms. Davis in July, the desk librarian on the second floor was the only supervisor, and she generally had her hands full with the juvies. I do have a list of patrons, some thirty names, who have withdrawn art books over the past two years. You may check them out if you see fit, but my own feeling is that this is the work of an outsider and not a library member. We are a relatively large branch, Stoner. But our budget for purchases and replacements is shockingly small. This," he said, pointing to the folio on his desk, "has got to stop. We simply can't afford to post a permanent guard in front of one shelf of books. Especially a guard with as little experience as Ms. Davis.,,.
He lowered his eyes to indicate just how much was involved. And for some reason that look set off something like a warning bell in my head.
"Why did the Board hire a novice like Ms. Davis in the first place?" I asked him.
"Affirmative action," he said, the way some people say "forced busing."
"To tell the truth, she's the protege of Roscoe Joffrey, my immediate superior." '
The warning bell stopped ringing and I looked at Ringold with fresh interest.
"Who's hiring me, Mr. Ringold? Who's paying my salary?"
He sat back slowly in his chair and covered his mouth with his right hand. "I am," he said.
"You needn't worry about the money. I have it. I mean, within reason, I have the funds."
I didn't say anything. Despite his boyish looks, Leon Ringold was shaping up as a clever operator. If I nailed his vandal for him, Joffrey's protege would be discredited and Leon would get his two-disc mini and, maybe, a job downtown. I guess I didn't hold his ambition against him, although I resented the fact that he didn't want me to know what he was up to. Which is a queer kind of vanity for a private detective, Harry, I said to myself.
"Well?" Ringold said impatiently. "Do we have a deal?"
"I'll want to talk to Ms. Davis first. To find out how much work she's already done."
Ringold squirmed in his chair. "You don't seem to understand. I want this investigation handled discreetly. Tact, Stoner. That's what's needed here."
"Tact meaning Ms. Davis isn't supposed to know I'm on the job?"
"That's the general idea, yes."
"I don't do industrial espionage, Mr. Ringold," I said coolly.
He tapped himself on the cheek with a forefinger and looked aghast. "Espionage? I simply want this matter handled confidentially." He tapped his cheek again, rubbed his chin, coughed politely, stared at the markings on a number two pencil, and said: "Well, I don't suppose there would be any harm in consulting with the girl. But, remember, Stoner, this was your idea."
SHE WAS sitting on a tall wooden stool beside the art collection, reading a worn paperback copy of The Women's Room. From where I was standing in the stairwell, she looked very young and a bit studious in her round turtle-shell glasses. Quite pretty, nevertheless. Round, milk-white face. Small nose. Blue eyes. Her blonde hair cut short and set in a tangle of curls that glowed like a cluster of Malaga grapes on a white china plate. I stared at her for a moment before climbing the last stair to the second floor. The way she was perched there, out in the open, she certainly wasn't going to surprise anyone. At least, not anyone with half a brain in his head. And then I wondered just what the hell she planned to do if she did manage to catch Hyde Park's version of Jack the Ripper. She didn't have the big, sinewy muscles you sometimes see on beach girls and on lady jocks, although her shoulders were firm and square and her legs plenty long. Nice legs. What promised to be a nice figure, too.
I walked up to where she was sitting and told her who I was, and she wrinkled her pretty nose as if she'd read something unpleasant in her book.
"Could I talk to you for a few minutes, Ms. Davis?"
She put the book down, slapped her hands on top of it, as if it were a jack-in-the-box with a broken catch, and said, "What do you want?" in a husky voice.
I saw at once that she knew exactly what I wanted, that one of those little old ladies had told her why I was there. I went ahead with the charade anyway, explaining politely that I was a private detective hired by Leon Ringold to act as a security consultant to the library.
That seemed to amuse her, the security consultant part. She plucked off her glasses and said, "Security consultant? Is that the new word for spy?"
Then she put her glasses back on and reopened the book. Under different circumstances, I might have walked away. But she was young and pretty, and it wasn't hard to see how someone like her could work up a grudge against someone like Leon Ringold. I decided to give her one more try. I cleared my throat noisily and said, "Couldn't we start over again?"
"After all we've been through?" she said without looking up. "Let's stop kidding around. I know precisely why you're here. To spy for Ringold. And if you think I'm going to help you cut my own throat, you'd better think again. Anyway, I don't like your looks. We'd never get along."