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STAR LIGHT STAR BRIGHT

The John Milano Mysteries

Stanley Ellin

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for Sue, with love

Star light, star bright,

First star I see tonight,

I wish I may, I wish I might,

Have the wish I wish tonight.

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?”

“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.”

“Yes?”

“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.”

“About.”

“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?”

“No.”

“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.”

“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?”

It did.

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?

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.”

“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?”

“Very close.”

“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.”

“Private agency?”

“Before my employment by Mr. Quist, public service. In Cuba I was a security officer for the government.”

“Interesting. Fidel’s? Or Batista’s?”

“Many years for Batista, a few months for Fidel. Both could tell you I was expert in my duties.”

Araujo shrugged. “If you’re curious about my political opinions, I’m glad to offer them. Batista was totally corrupt, of course. But hand him a share of your take, and your life was your own. Fidel? A fanatic who really believes that for their own good every Cuban must become his personal slave.” He was warming up to his subject. “But when we replace him—”

“We?” I said jokingly. The joke went right past him. He said, “Believe me, there are plenty of us here in the States who still have the spirit to make a free Cuba again. And hundreds of thousands in Cuba only waiting for the chance to follow our banners.”

“Not this week, I hope. I’m sort of counting on your fulltime cooperation for the next couple of days.”

This seemed to haul him partway down from Cloud Nine. He said good-naturedly, “No problem there, I assure you. But in all seriousness, once the liberation is properly funded, who knows when the ax will fall? A question of money, right? And such questions have a way of providing their own answers, don’t they?”

“Not in this business of threatening letters,” I said, hauling him the rest of the way down to earth. “Two of them.”

“Three. It was after the third arrived that the firm decision was made to call on you.”

“Mrs. Quist’s decision?”

“With Mr. Quist’s agreement. Having checked you out, I thought it a sensible move.”

“And how about our friendly local police? Invited to the party, too?”

Araujo shook his head. “Not unless we want this unpleasantness leaked to the press. Which makes it absolutely out of the question.” He made a sweeping gesture with his hand, palm down, to indicate how absolutely.

“Mr. Quist’s policy?”

“Yes, Troublesome for me sometimes, but necessary. I’ve seen what newspaper and television people make of any personal stories about him that come their way. Understand me, Mr. Milano. He’s extremely well-balanced—tough but fair, isn’t that how they put it?—but naturally he’s highly sensitive to the way journalists choose to treat his private life.”

“Naturally,” I said. “I can remember those news stories about his marriage.”

Araujo froze momentarily. He gave me a quick hard look, and I gave him a full view of my sympathetic face. He thawed. “His marriage. Yes. But as to why I believe these murder threats are no joke, there have been incidents supporting my judgment.”

“Such as?”

“For one thing, the butchery of a dog. Mr. Quist’s pet. Its throat was slit. That was on Thursday after the receipt of the second letter. On Friday, a carving knife from the kitchen, its blade encrusted with dried blood—I’m sure it was the knife used to kill the dog—was found driven into the door of the intended victim named in the letters. Does this pattern suggest a joke?”

I said that, well, I wouldn’t want to bet on it either way, but it did smell of an inside job. Was it possible that among the staff serving the estate there was a psycho running loose? Had the staff been checked out one by one?

Araujo nodded emphatically. “Better than that. Friday afternoon, I gave every one of the staff—service people and Security—a week’s paid leave of absence. With Mr. Quist’s approval, of course. By Saturday noon, all were replaced by personnel I’d stake my life on. Then yesterday, despite these precautions, the third message appeared.”

“Yesterday? Sunday? Then it wasn’t sent through the post office?”

“Neither were the others. The daily mail is left at the gate-house and brought by the man there to the main house. The first two messages were among the letters left on the foyer table in the main house, but unstamped, obviously just dropped there. An inside job? No question. But at least it reduced my list of suspects to those guests resident on the estate yesterday morning.”

“How many does that make?”

“Seven in residence. Since one—a Mr. Daskalos—is marked as victim, that would leave us six suspects. He also stands apart in another regard. He is the only guest not in the movie business.”

“I see. So we have six guests under suspicion. And I’m supposed to gracefully mingle around and see if I can’t finger the menace. Is that it?”

“Yes. And remember this. You can be quite direct in your investigation.”

“No objections from the customers?”

“Movie people,” Araujo said. His tone made it plain what he thought of movie people. “They’re hoping Mr. Quist will invest in a production they plan. Knowing he requires their cooperation with you, they will at least make a pretense of cooperating. To put it plainly, Mr. Milano, they will eat shit for the sake of their precious movie.”

The Mercedes was traveling on an expressway eastward away from the airport. This section of Miami—low buildings bathed in pink sunset, palm trees—made a nice Chamber of Commerce picture.

Araujo said to me, “You’ve been here in Miami before?” and I said that, no, I had handled a case in Palm Beach long ago, but that was as near as I had gotten. Then I said, “Six suspects. Any of them deserve special consideration?”

He scratched his jaw thoughtfully. “Well, two of the guests are ladies. I’d say that the killing of the dog—a large and active animal—makes those two unlikely suspects.”

“What about a partnership? One of the gentlemen kills the dog as, let’s say, a favor to one of the ladies?”

Again Araujo gave me that quick hard look. “I didn’t think of that. It may be worth thinking about.”

The car looped south onto a fairly narrow road. The subtropics, lush but seemingly well-tended, pressed close on both sides here. Old Cutler Road, according to a street sign that flashed by. Across the road the sub-tropics became a long high fieldstone wall which seemed to go on endlessly.

Araujo gestured at it. “Hesperides. Some years ago an association of very rich gentlemen built it as a—what would you call it?—a private club, I suppose. When the venture failed it was put up for sale. Mrs. Quist liked it, so Mr. Quist bought it for her.”

We pulled through wrought-iron gates and stopped beside a gatehouse. A guard gave Araujo a respectful hello, then took the key the chauffeur handed him and lifted the trunk lid for a quick inspection. From where I sat I had a view of rolling lawns, flowerbeds, avenues bordered by royal palms, and in the distance, a complex of fieldstone buildings which gave the impression of a blueblooded New England college transplanted all of a piece to this humid and garishly sunlit clime.

“Well,” Araujo said, “what do you think of it?”

“Mr. Quist certainly bought Mrs. Quist a nice present,” I said.

It could have been the lobby of an old-fashioned grand hotel minus registration desk. An abandoned hotel, not a soul in sight. Then a lithe young man appeared, dressed in what would seem to be the house uniform: white shirt, black bowtie, gray corduroy vest with scarlet piping and matching slacks. Vest and slacks were tight enough to make the most of what was unquestionably a very pretty young man. He smiled engagingly at Araujo, ducked his head at me. “Mr. Milano?”

“Who the devil do you think it is?” Araujo said. “And don’t tell me you didn’t hear the car outside.”

“Sure,” the young man said cheerfully. “But I was with Mrs. Quist getting told what to do about Mr. Milano. I’m supposed to fix him up in his rooms.”

“Pablo,” said Araujo dangerously, “you don’t fix people up in their rooms, you show them to their apartments.” He said to me apologetically, “With the regular staff gone for the week, you understand, the quality of the service—”

I told him I was sure it would do fine, and he said he hoped so, and that we’d get together later in the evening. I traveled up one flight with Pablo and my luggage by elevator. On the way, I said to him, “Ever hold down this kind of job before?”

He grinned at me. “Nope. But you got to start somewhere.”

“That’s what they tell me.” The long, wide, deeply carpeted corridor one flight up showed no more life than I had met downstairs. “Where is everybody?”

“The help?” Pablo said. “Here and there. Kitchen, dining room—”

“The guests?”

“Oh, them. Probably getting ready for prayer meeting down on the beach.”

“Prayer meeting?”

“Sunrise and sunset every day near the boathouse. Mr. Daskalos runs it.”

“He’s a minister?”

Pablo said cagily, “You better ask him.” Alternate doors along the corridor were numbered. Pablo pulled up before number 28, pushed it open with his foot. “This is it.”

It was a sitting room, and as soon as I walked into it I had a powerful sense of déjà vu. Then I caught on. The room, spacious and high-ceilinged, could have been the one at the Plaza where just twelve hours before I had dealt with Elphinstone, the insurance company’s pet fixer. Luxuriously furnished in what might be called streamlined baroque, here were the same crystal chandelier, the same sweeping drapes at the windows, the same tiled fireplace. One difference. This was obviously a working fireplace with kindling and logs stacked beside it.

The bedroom continued the motif but provided among the pieces a glossy TV console, and on the bedside table, a telephone. Pablo opened doors to offer a view of bathroom, dressing room, and walk-in closet, all on Brobdingnagian scale. “That’s it,” he said. “You want anything, just phone.” He picked up a typed sheet of paper from the bedside table. “It’s all down here. Room service, garage, whatever.” He pointed at a folder on the desk. “Everything else is in there. Like the guest list and their rooms and phone numbers.”

“And Mr. and Mrs. Quist’s number?”

“Private. But you call their secretary, she’ll connect you. That’s Miss Riley.” He reached for the phone. “Want me to put a call through?”

“Don’t bother. Do you know where Mrs. Quist is right now?”

“Getting ready for prayer meeting, I guess.”

“Well, whatever you guess, you find her and tell her that Mr. Milano has been on the move for the last forty-eight hours. And if she wants to get a look at him while he’s still awake, she’d better do it right now. Read me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then take off,” I said, and he took off.

I looked through the bulky folder on the desk. An automobile map of the Miami area. A handsomely detailed map of the estate. A room plan of the building I was now in, appropriately titled Main Building. A Xeroxed guest list. The list already had its eighth name added to it: Mr. John A. Milano, Main Building, 28. Most likely the work of the very efficient Miss Riley.

According to Araujo, six of the guests were movie people, but with one exception they weren’t movie people whose names I recognized. The exception was Michael Calderon, Main Building, 24, which placed him right down the corridor outside. Calderon, that aging stud with the mandarin mustache and an acting range limited to sullen or more sullen, was, in fact, about as recognizable as you could be, right up there on the superstar level. And he had been leading man in the last Sharon Bauer film.

I examined the list more closely. Only one other guest was quartered in this building, a Mr. Sidney Kightlinger, Room 20. But Mr. and Mrs. Scott Rountree were stationed someplace called Cottage D. Mr. Lou Hoffman and Miss Holly Lee Otis shared Cottage C. Mr. Kalos Daskalos occupied Cottage A.