New York City private eye John Milano’s new client is an old flame—and the fire is still burning in Miami Beach. It wasn’t too many years ago that superstar Sharon Bauer dumped John for an aged and infirm billionaire at the instruction of her very persuasive yogi, Kalos, renowned master of “The Path.” Following Kalos’s advice was practically a guarantee of enlightenment for his receptive disciple. But now, the only thing Sharon is feeling is terror.
It’s not until John arrives at Sharon’s lavish Florida compound that he realizes her fears aren’t just another performance. A fun weekend house party with Hollywood friends has turned into an intimate mystery: Kalos has received a series of unnerving and anonymous notes threatening his life. Though John can’t bear the sight of the influential mystic, he’s agreed to protect him, for Sharon’s sake. But he soon learns that Kalos isn’t the only target. Nor is he the only guest to harbor buried secrets and mortal enemies. In fact, Sharon’s past is littered with them. And when a sudden death shakes the well-guarded estate, John and Sharon know they’re about to follow a path that’s a lot more permanent than spiritual nirvana.
Star Light, Star Bright is a “richly entertaining” crime novel from an Edgar Award–winning master of suspense (Miami Herald).
About the Author
Stanley Ellin (1916–1986) was an American mystery writer known primarily for his short stories. After working a series of odd jobs including dairy farmer, salesman, steel worker, and teacher, and serving in the US Army, Ellin began writing full time in 1946. Two years later, his story “The Specialty of the House” won the Ellery Queen Award for Best First Story. He went on to win three Edgar Awards—two for short stories and one for his novel The Eighth Circle. In 1981, Ellin was honored with the Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master Award. He died of a heart attack in Brooklyn in 1986.
Read an Excerpt
Star Light, Star Bright
A John Milano Mystery
By Stanley Ellin
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1979 Stanley Ellin
All rights reserved.
Not Blue Monday, as it turned out. Deep Purple Monday.
For openers, there was this necessary meeting with an exceptionally prosperous and ratty fence named Hennig, and at six-thirty that morning, a freezing January wind whistling through the dark emptiness of Lower Manhattan, we finally got together at the corner of Broad and Wall. We were no strangers to each other. I climbed into his shiny this-year's Continental and sat for a minute thawing out. When I could uncurl my fingers I handed him his fifteen thousand in hundred-dollar bills as specified, and he counted it with the dexterity of a racetrack cashier.
"The stones," I said.
"Not yet, Milano. I hear tell the insurance company coughed up thirty thousand for this item."
"So I'm getting stiffed. Fifteen for your agency and fifteen for me is not how I see it." He neatly worked the packets of money into the depths of a brief case. "How I see it, there's another ten coming my way."
I said reproachfully, "Changing the rules in the middle of the game, Hennig? Do you know what that can do to your credibility?"
"You can knock off the funny talk, Milano." His hand slid out of the brief case with a gun in it, a snub-nosed, small-caliber piece. He held it low and aimed rather shakily in the general direction of my Jockey shorts. "No funny moves either."
A fence pulling this kind of strong-arm stuff? It was as much against nature as a cockroach suddenly rearing up and showing a mouthful of teeth. I said, "Talk sense. You know I'm not carting any extra ten grand around with me."
"No?" He pretended great surprise. "So you take care of that soon's your bank opens. Then you phone me and I'll tell you where we close the deal." He sounded peevish about it. "Now, get going."
A roach with teeth, I tried to convince myself, is still a roach. I chopped my left hand hard down on his wrist, and the gun hit the floor under the brake pedal. We banged heads going for it, but I beat him to it. I dug it into the side of his neck. "We will now close the deal, Mr. Hennig," I advised him, and Mr. Hennig, moving very carefully, worked the plastic bag out from under his shirt. The necklace was a diamond-and-emerald job insured for 120 thousand and even through the bag it was a pretty thing to see.
I dropped the gun into a convenient sewer on the way back to my car parked around the corner. As it hit bottom with a splash I realized that, arctic wind or no arctic wind, I was soaked with sweat.
At seven o'clock, on schedule; I handed over the necklace to Elphinstone, the insurance company's man, in the suite he had rented for this purpose at the Plaza. A snowy-haired Ivy League type outside, another Hennig inside, he laid the jewels on a square of black velvet and, loupe in eye, checked off each piece. "All present and accounted for," he said at last. He gave me a smiling once-over, obviously working up to something significant. "I'm sure you realize, Milano, that you've built up an exceptional record on my company's behalf the past couple of years."
"An exceptional record." He turned up the condescension another notch. "It leads me to wonder how you'd feel about leaving your agency's payroll and coming on ours. With a healthy increase over your present pay check, of course."
I said, "Nice of you, but I'm not on the agency's payroll. I happen to be a full partner in Watrous Associates. I'm the Associates."
"Oh?" He looked blank. "Mr. Watrous never mentioned that." He instantly reverted to type. "Well, well. In that case I imagine you're doing very nicely for yourself as it is."
"Very. But even if I weren't, I wouldn't sign on with you, Mr. Elphinstone. You see, the man I just dealt with knew exactly what you were paying to reclaim this trinket. Including my agency's fee as go-between. Which means that you are extremely careless about how loud you swap company secrets with your buddies at the local saloon."
He poked a finger into my chest. "Now, look here, Milano — !"
I brushed the finger aside. "Careful, Mr. Elphinstone, I'm very touchy right now about anything being pointed my way, even fingers. And next time you call on me for one of these allegedly confidential jobs I may or may not answer, depending on my mood of the moment."
At nine-thirty, allowing time for bath, breakfast, and a too-brief nap at the apartment, I was behind my desk at the agency. I had come in through the private entrance, but Shirley Glass, office manager and Mother Carey to Watrous Associates since its birth ten years before, had her antennae tuned in to the least vibration within these walls. She walked in a minute later, dropped the weekend's collection of investigators' reports on my desk, and drew open the curtains exposing the floor-to-ceiling windows and a sky which, at least from East 60th Street northward, promised snow. She said, "How about Hennig?"
"All settled. Any calls?"
"Only two that count. One was your sister Angie. It seems you were supposed to be out in Brooklyn yesterday visiting your mama and her, but you never showed."
"Because Hennig kept me tied to the hot-line all day until he made up his mind when we'd meet. We didn't get together until a couple of hours ago."
"I thought as much. So will you please tell Angie to quit playing hotshot lawyer with me? And always making me stand witness for her worthless thirty-eight-year-old kid brother?"
"She is a hotshot lawyer," I pointed out. "Ask the Legal Aid Society. What was the other call?"
"Kind of interesting." Shirley gave me a slantwise look to make sure I was tuned in. "From Miami. From a Mrs. Andrew Quist."
"Sharon Bauer?" I said when I could bring myself to say it.
"Sharon Bauer Quist," said Shirley. "Don't forget the Quist."
"What'd she want?"
"What did she want last time around? Your professional services, so she said. It seems there's a murder in the making down there in Quist country. You're to come right down and stop it from happening. So she said."
"But you don't believe there is any murder in the making."
"Oh for God's sake, if there is, there's Miami agencies she could call in. And in case you forgot, she now happens to have a billionaire husband who could rent the whole FBI for her." Shirley snatched a cigarette from the pack on my desk. She scorched it halfway down its length lighting it. "That was at least three years ago, wasn't it, Johnny? I mean, you and her."
"Enough time to show you the way it really was, right? The hottest production of Romeo and Juliet ever put on, except in this one Juliet all of a sudden dumps Romeo. So for the next two months he's an emotional basket case."
"Don't push it," I said. "It was no two months."
"Two months by my calendar before you stopped crawling in here every morning half-stoned. When you did get yourself together I figured she was out of your system for good. When you sent back those letters of hers without reading them I was sure of it. You mean I was all wrong about that?"
"Then prove it. Tell me right out that when she calls again you want me to put her on hold permanently."
"Consider yourself told," I said. "Now, I've got work to do."
So there I was, plowing through a stack of reports, none of which made much sense to me because I was undergoing a Proustian effect in reverse. For my old buddie, Marcel Proust, a certain scent in the nostrils triggered vivid recollections of the past. Now I was vividly — too vividly — recollecting the past, and the recollections were sending up to my nostrils a certain perfume. The whole room was saturated with it.
Sharon Bauer Quist. Sharon Bauer. Her perfume — the only kind she used — was Fleurs de Rocaille, and her way of using it was simply to drench her underclothes with it. Nothing else, nowhere else — just a reckless dousing of it all over that minimum of brassiere and panties, take it and like it.
I was taking it in now with every breath. I hated it.
A few minutes after eleven the spell was broken when my partner strolled into the room, trim and beady-eyed as a winning gamecock. Crowding seventy, high-priced clients lining up at the door, a police lieutenant's fat pension for lagniappe, he had it made, had Willie Watrous, although he could never bring himself to really savor it. The compulsion to accumulate money made him mean-spirited.
A deliberate man, he settled himself in the chair across the desk, relit the stump of fifteen-cent cigar in his jaw, brushed ashes from the lapels of his synthetic tweed jacket. He said, "Shirl tells me it went all right with Hennig."
"It did. After I took a gun away from him."
Willie looked mildly surprised. "He pulled a gun on you? Why would he do a stupid thing like that?"
I told him why. Then I said, "Now that you're here, Willie, I'm unloading these reports on you. I can't focus on them with that gun on my mind. Better if I just take the afternoon off."
Instead of going into his Edgar Kennedy slow burn at this he nodded sympathetically. "Having a gun aimed at you can do that, Johnny Boy. But why only this afternoon? How about a couple of days tanning up in some nice tropical sunshine? First class all the way, and everything on the house."
The usual sarcasm, of course. Then a light dawned. "By any chance, Willie, did you just get a call from Miami? From an old girl friend of mine?"
"Not exactly." He slid an envelope across the desk. "Take a look."
I took a look. In the envelope was a cashier's check for twenty thousand dollars issued by the Central Manhattan Trust Company. I looked closer to make sure. The check was still for twenty thousand dollars.
Willie said, "A bank messenger showed up half an hour ago with that hunk of paper. Also with a Miami number to call. So I called. It was Mr. Andrew Quist, the big man himself. It seems his wife's been trying to contact you, but no dice. So now he was depending on me to deliver the goods."
"And I'm the goods."
"You are. There's trouble down there, Quist said. Letters threatening a murder. So you — nobody but the champ himself — are invited to go down for a couple of days and clear things up. Just two days, and that's it."
"At ten thousand a day? And why just two days?"
"Because those letters pinpointed the time the killing is set for. This Wednesday midnight. Just make sure there is no killing, Johnny Boy, and Thursday noon you're back in your own little nest on Central Park South."
"And who's supposed to be the victim in this thrilling drama? Mr. Quist or Mrs. Quist?"
"Neither. He has this estate down there — Hesperides, it's called — with a houseful of company in it, and it's one of them got the black spot. Anyhow, he'll explain it all when you get there. That means today. There'll be a limousine waiting outside your apartment at two o'clock, then his private jet, then his car at the other end. First class all the way."
I said, "First-class travel is one thing. Twenty thousand cash for two days is another. It's way too much, Willie. It's panic money. I can't see a man like Quist going into any panic about the kind of foolish situation he described."
"So you say. But from what he said, his wife is sure as hell in a panic. And I got the idea that anything the lady wants, the lady gets."
"Is that his picture of her or yours?"
Willie snorted. "Ah, come on, Johnny Boy, why do you think she ditched you and wound up married to Daddy Warbucks? A sixty-year-old wheelchair case like that."
An honest, if painful, question. After three years, it deserved an honest answer.
"Why?" I said. "Because her astrologer told her to."
Willie's lip started to curl. Then, taking in my face, he uncurled it. "Her astrologer?"
"A hustler named Kondracki who started off by reading horoscopes for a lot of show biz people like her. Along the way he lined up his favorite pigeons in some kind of mystic cult where he was really in control. Get it straight, Willie. She didn't just wave goodby and walk out on me that day. She cried a bucketful and puked up her breakfast and then told me the Master had given her marching orders. So she marched."
"Jesus," said Willie, "you never let me in on that part of it."
"I'm doing it now so you can appreciate the kind of screwball she is. And why I've had this feeling she never really wrote me off." I waved the check in front of him. "Right this minute I have that feeling full voltage."
"Ah, now you're talking like a screwball yourself, Johnny."
"She has that effect on people."
"Not on me." Willie shook his head grimly. "You might be ready to kiss off this twenty grand, but half of it happens to be mine, partner. You want to give charity? Fine. Just give out of your own pocket."
"It's not a matter of charity, Willie."
"Oh yes it is." His face was reddening. "It's the same as those lousy I.D.C.'s you're so big on. We got a dozen investigators getting fat off our payroll, and two or three of them are always on that kind of useless job. You want me to keep playing along with any such bleeding-heart, red-ink operation? All right, you get ready for a quick trip to Miami, and I'll figure we're all even."
I had been waiting for him to sooner or later cut loose about those I.D.C.'s. They were the Indigent Defense Cases — the criminal investigation cases for the down-and-out suspect — which the courts would toss a hungry agency for a maximum three-hundred-dollar fee. Somehow, my sister Angie by woefully appealing to my tattered conscience had gotten me to take on a steady stream of her Legal Aid cases for Watrous Associates, a distinctly unhungry agency. And every I.D.C. client, considering the agency's quality work and high fees, meant a dead loss on the books.
My partner gnawed on the remnant of his cigar, watching me weigh the undeniable justice of his ultimatum. Then he said explosively, "What is this? Are you really scared to meet up with that dame again? Even with twenty thousand bucks riding on it?"
"Maybe. Does that mean maybe you're scared you'll wind up in bed with her again? Or maybe you'll be tempted to beat the bejesus out of her?"
"Maybe both," I said. "Not necessarily in that order."
"Well, it won't be either one of them, partner. That check goes into the bank. And you'll go down to Miami. And when you're around Mrs. Andrew Quist you can keep your fists tight in your pockets and your fly zipped up. It's that simple."
"For you, Willie. Not for me."
"No? Then pay me off for my half of this check. And once and for all get off my back with those I.D.C.'s. Does that make it any simpler?"
Besides, how would I know if Mrs. Quist was still addicted to Fleurs de Rocaille if I didn't get close up to her one more time, even with fists tight in pockets and fly zipped up?CHAPTER 2
At Miami International the pilot of the Quistco II himself, the plane's steward trailing after us with my bags, led me outside the terminal building to a Mercedes limousine parked in the middle of a No Parking area and introduced me to Quist's emissary. This was a swarthy, grayhaired Hispanic gent, Virgilio Araujo, built low to the ground and wide like one of those pro ball carriers who can always be counted on for short yardage when needed.
Araujo saw me into the car as the chauffeur stowed away my luggage. When he got in beside me I said, "You're Security, right?"
"What gave you that idea?" The colloquial English was pleasantly Spanish-flavored.
"Shoulder holster," I said. "A nice fit, but it shows."
He smiled broadly. "Security, right. Chief of security for Mr. Quist in this area."
"The estate itself. Hesperides, that is. The duplex in town. The Quist Collection. Some commercial buildings. Some undeveloped properties to the south."
I remarked that this sounded like a large order, and he acknowledged that it was, what with well over a hundred personnel in his charge. What made it a little easier was that he signed on only high-quality stuff, no beach bums. He pronounced bums as bombs.
I said, "And I'm sure you have close connections with the local police?"
"Which leaves only one question. Considering the security you can provide, what am I doing down here?"
"You haven't been told that?"
"I've been told about some threatening letters. But to someone like your boss crank letters are a way of life. I'm sure there's procedures you've worked out for handling them."
"Naturally. But these aren't your usual crank letters."
"How about a practical joke?"
"I don't think so."
"Let me explain something," I said, and the look of amusement on Araujo's face stopped me right there.
"Let me explain something, Mr. Milano. The first letter appeared Monday, a week ago. When the second appeared on Thursday, and Mrs. Quist suggested calling on your services, I had you and your agency checked out."
"Obviously we passed the test."
"With high marks. But that means I know much about you, while you know nothing about me. For one thing, that I've had long experience in this kind of work."
"Before my employment by Mr. Quist, public service. In Cuba I was a security officer for the government."
Excerpted from Star Light, Star Bright by Stanley Ellin. Copyright © 1979 Stanley Ellin. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
John Milano is private eye in New York City. He has a new client ... an old flame now married to a very, very rich man. Someone has threatened to kill her personal guru .. a man that Milano knows all too well. He flies to Florida where Sharon, his old flame, and her husband are hosting some Hollywood types. All of them have motive, but who has been sending the threatening notes? Milano finds out that everyone is suspect and trying to stay out of the clutches of Sharon while working for husband is more troublesome than you would expect. The threatened guru refuses to leave and seems to welcome whatever is coming his way. Is he sending notes to himself? All the guests seem to have secrets and sorting out all the lies is leading him all over the place. This one is a little outdated .. written in 1979, for example ... the use of private eye rather than private investigator. No cell phones, no pagers, even. But it was well-written, story premise was good. Characters are fully defined. I like Milano... he has a sense of humor, as well as a sense of honor. The Hollywood people were well typed to the beautiful people years ago. There are lots of suspects .. and it was fun watching Milano catch them all in their lies. Many thanks to Open Road Integrated Media / Netgalley for the digital copy of this book. Opinions expressed here are unbiased and entirely my own.