Ellie Stone is a professed modern girl in 1960s' New York City, playing by her own rules and breaking boundaries while searching for a killer among the renowned scholars in Columbia University's Italian Department. "If you were a man, you'd make a good detective." Ellie Stone is sure that Sgt. McKeever meant that as a compliment, but that identity-a girl wanting to do a man's job-has throttled her for too long. It's 1960, and Ellie doesn't want to blaze any trails for women; she just wants to be a reporter, one who doesn't need to swat hands off her behind at every turn. Adrift in her career, Ellie is back in New York City after receiving news that her estranged father, a renowned Dante scholar and distinguished professor, is near death after a savage bludgeoning in his home. The police suspect a routine burglary, but Ellie has her doubts. When a second attempt is made on her father's life, in the form of an "accident" in the hospital's ICU, Ellie's suspicions are confirmed. Then another professor turns up dead, and Ellie's investigation turns to her father's university colleagues, their ambitions, jealousies, and secret lives. Ellie embarks on a thorny journey of discovery and reconciliation, as she pursues an investigation that offers her both a chance at redemption in her father's eyes, and the risk of losing him forever.
About the Author
James W. Ziskin is the author of the Ellie Stone mysteries. Winner of the Anthony® Award for Best Paperback Original and the Macavity Award for Best Historical Novel (Sue Feder Memorial), his books have also been finalists for the Edgar®, Barry, and Lefty awards.
Read an Excerpt
STYX & STONE
An ELLIE STONE MYSTERY
By james w. ziskin
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2013 James W. Ziskin
All rights reserved.
SUNDAY, JANUARY 24, 1960
About halfway between New Holland and Schenectady, a narrow road cuts through a fault in the wooded hills above the Mohawk: Wolf Hollow Gorge. Local lore has it that Iroquois Indians, poised on the lip of the ravine, ambushed a party of Algonquin invaders early one morning in 1669. The attackers poured down the walls of the dark glen in waves, whooping like demons, and slaughtered the Algonquins trapped below.
One mild Sunday evening in January, I found myself in Wolf Hollow, a willing prisoner in the backseat of a black Chrysler 300. I'm what people call a modern girl. The kind who works for a living in a man's world. I can hold my drink and I'm a good sport. I'm the kind who has her own place and sometimes invites a gentleman in for a nightcap. The finer the gentleman, the faster he slides from his end of the sofa to mine, the more roughly he gropes me. But his lips are soft, his tie is loose, and his arms have me pinned anyway.
Steve Herbert, barracuda lawyer with a square jaw and sharp, white teeth, had been pursuing me—the object of his baser desires—with devoted attention for some time. In the absence of a more suitable escort, I had recently been spending the odd evening with Steve, who was divorced, morally bankrupt, but good-looking and a fun time. I was too old for sock hops and earnest teenage boys, and my romantic options were otherwise few. Over his warm, heavy breathing, I became aware of an approaching noise outside the car.
I lifted my head to investigate, but Steve wrapped his big hands around my hips and pulled me back down on the seat. He planted the sting of gin on my lips, and his prehensile tongue drew me inside his mouth in an oral tug of war.
Then a light flashed in the window, and someone began tapping on the glass. I shrieked and elbowed Steve in the eye as he scrambled to right himself in the seat. The pint of Gilbey's fell to the floor and emptied at my feet. My heart thumping in my chest, I squinted into the light at the large shape outside the fogged-up window, shielding my eyes with one hand while I wiped the glass with the other.
"What the hell?" bellowed Steve as he caught sight of the figure outside the car.
Once the window was clear and I could see the dullard's grin, I knew we were in no danger.
"It's all right, Steve," I panted. "It's just Stan Pulaski."
"Damn! The gin!"
"Don't worry," I said as I adjusted my brassiere and smoothed my hair—long, curly, and quite unruly in situations such as this. "He's not a real cop. It's Stan Pulaski."
I rolled down the window, and Stan stuck his melon head inside.
"Ellie? What are you doing in there?" He craned his neck to view Steve better. He pursed his lips then announced that the car smelled like a distillery.
"What can we do for you, officer?" asked Steve, barely concealing his annoyance.
"The sheriff wants us to shut down this lovers' lane, sir." Then he turned to me. "Where have you been, Ellie? Sheriff Olney's been looking all over the county for you."
Steve wasn't happy when I left him in the lurch for Stan Pulaski and his cruiser. Twenty minutes later, Stan roared into the parking lot of the Montgomery County Administration Building and pulled to a gentle stop before the door to let me out.
"You should steer clear of fellows like that, Ellie," he said. Stan was a little sweet on me. "There's no future there."
"I'm a big girl now, Stan," I said.
He nodded, then his eyes rather glazed over slowly. "Your hair sure is pretty," he said.
"Stan, tongue in mouth, please."
"Sorry," he said, taking up an official tone again. "Frank's waiting for you. You'd better hurry."
"Will you drop me home later? I lost my chauffeur."
He smiled. "Sure, Ellie. Anytime."
The outer office was empty except for Deputy Pat Halvey, who, bent at the waist, had thrust his head out the window and was looking at something across Route 40.
My voice surprised him and he jumped, whacking his crew-cut skull against the sash. The window, in turn, fell like a guillotine on his shoulders and pinned him to the sill.
"Darn it, Ellie," he said, rubbing his neck once I'd freed him. "Make some noise when you come into a room, will you?"
"Stan says Frank's looking for me."
"In there," he grumbled, throwing a thumb over his shoulder toward the sheriff 's office.
Frank Olney sat wedged between the arms of the swivel chair behind his desk, flipping through some papers. The chubby forefinger of his right hand was stuffed into the ringed handle of a mug of coffee, which he held aloft as if he had forgotten to drink once he had raised it. He struggled to his feet, managing to lift himself from his chair without resorting to the use of a derrick, and waved me inside with his left hand.
"Sit down, Eleonora," he said, motioning to the aluminum chair in front of his desk.
I hate that name. It was a cruel joke of some kind, intended to make me seem interesting, but it sounds like something pulled out of a dusty, old carpetbag instead. My father said I was named for Eleonora Duse, the great Italian stage actress, and Eleonora of Toledo, wife of Cosimo I de' Medici. I remember standing before a Bronzino painting in the Uffizi when I was ten, my father proudly pointing out my namesake. Eleonora was a beautiful, elegant lady with a fat little boy at her knee: her son Giovanni. Not far away, the same little boy, beaming from another Bronzino canvas, clutched a small, half-strangled bird in his chubby hand. I prefer to go by Ellie.
"Charlie Reese's been looking for you for two days," said the sheriff, retaking his seat. "Where do you disappear to?"
"I've been off since Thursday night," I protested. "And I'm always around."
He frowned. Frank was a prude who didn't quite approve. "Anyways, Charlie called me yesterday," he said, setting the coffee on the desk. "He needed to find you right away and thought maybe I could put out a goddamn APB on you." He pushed his coffee to one side, rearranged a paper, then fixed his eyes on mine. "I've got some bad news for you. Your old man called the paper Friday morning from New York to tell you your brother's grave was vandalized."
A rotten thing for someone to do, for sure, but hardly deserving a statewide manhunt. "I see."
"And they painted some swastikas on the stone."
Worse. No Jew, no matter how assimilated, no matter how secular, can escape the morbid awareness that, born at another time in another place, he could have been one of six million. It's a feeling of impotence in the face of a hatred you can do nothing to change. And while I had grown a thick skin about being Jewish in a Christian society, swastikas still stung me with waspish fury.
"Do they know who did it?" I asked.
The life drained from Frank's eyes, betraying the weight of another obligation to fulfill.
"What's this really about, Frank?"
The sheriff rocked nervously in his chair. "Charlie Reese says you got a wire from New York yesterday. Someone named Bernard Sanger. You know him?"
I shook my head.
Frank winced a bit, as if I were putting him out. "He said your father's in the hospital."
My father was an aggressive, dynamic man, impatient of the perceived failings of those around him. His frustration had always raised his hackles and his blood pressure, too. Had he finally blown his stack over some student's ignorance of the differences between a Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet? When I professed my indifference to those very distinctions one evening at dinner years before, he dismissed my argument with a wave of his hand.
"I know you relish the role of mock primitive, Ellie," he bristled. "But you're not as ignorant as you wish to make people believe."
My mother scolded us for baiting each other.
"What was it, a stroke?" I asked the sheriff, who shook his head. "Did Charlie give you any details?"
Frank drew a deep breath, swiveled in his chair a bit, then explained in his typically delicate fashion that someone had broken into my father's apartment and clubbed him on the head.
"The cleaning lady found him unconscious yesterday morning. This Sanger fellow says he's at Saint Vincent's Hospital." He paused. "Critical condition."
I stared dumbly at the sheriff for several seconds, struggling to reconcile his words with a reality I could accept. Finally Frank spoke.
"Can I get you some water, Ellie?"
* * *
My head was a muddle when I left the sheriff 's office a few minutes later. How was I supposed to feel about my father? We weren't close, we certainly didn't speak often, and then only to make perfunctory inquiries into the other's health. We'd exchange lukewarm platitudes about the weather, the Giants, or the Yankees—yes, I follow sports, part of my one-of-the-boys charm—but there was a mountain of distrust and disquiet between us. He never asked me about my work, of which he had never approved, and he could barely disguise the churning resentment he bore me for the disappointment I had caused him on so many occasions. Newspaper scribbling did not conform to his idea of a noble and useful endeavor. The world needed journalists, to be sure, but Abraham Stone's surviving progeny—local reporter and hack photographer for a small upstate daily—had fallen short of the promise of the Stones who had rolled before.
When I landed in New Holland about six months after Mom had passed away, I welcomed the distraction it provided. I had tried to stick it out in New York, living at home with my grieving father after the terrible year of 1957, but it wasn't the moment to repair our relationship. He was adrift, and the only thing he knew for sure was that I displeased him. Finally, a college professor of mine steered me toward her old friend Charlie Reese and a job at the New Holland Republic. What harm was there in chancing it, she asked. For my part, I was happy to have found a job that didn't involve shorthand and fetching coffee. New Holland may not have been everything I had hoped for, but a girl can't be picky when it comes to careers. I considered myself lucky, but my father was ashamed of my choice. Our family's is a legacy of erudition and the arts, and I was not holding up my end. Although to his mind, my choice of career was the least of my offenses.
The chill in our relationship mellowed somewhat once I left home. Absence makes the heart grow fonder for some, but with us it was more out of sight, out of mind. Though our differences troubled me from time to time, the wound had calloused over and had become an ordinary bother, like arthritis or tennis elbow. Under the present circumstances, however, it merited my immediate attention; my father might expire at any moment, alone in a hospital bed two hundred miles away.
I called my editor, Charlie Reese, and told him my plans. He understood, said not to worry about work, and wished me well.
Before setting out for New York, I stopped at Fiorello's, the soda shop opposite my apartment on Lincoln Avenue. Over a coffee, I discussed the situation with the proprietor, Ron Fiorello, known to the locals as Fadge. He was a big man—six foot two and over three hundred pounds—a few years older than I was (twenty-three), and the closest thing I had to a friend in New Holland. We spent long hours sitting at the counter in his shop, talking late into the night. I enjoyed his wit and salty humor. He liked having a girl around.
I remembered the first time I realized we would get on. Having recently moved to New Holland, I had been frequenting the shop for a few weeks, enjoying the occasional cup of coffee over a newspaper, which I liked to read in a booth near the back. On that day, I arrived just before lunch, and Fadge greeted me at the door, a magazine tucked under his arm.
"Hi," he said. He looked distressed. "You're Ellie, right?"
"Yes," I said.
"Watch the store for a few minutes. I'll be right back."
He rushed to the back room and disappeared into the toilet, where he remained for nearly forty-five minutes. When he finally emerged, looking relieved and not the least bit embarrassed, he thanked me and asked me how I'd fared.
"Not a soul came in, so I read the dirty books," I said, motioning to the magazine rack against the wall.
"Didn't I see your picture in one of them?" he asked, so sweetly that I fell in love with him on the spot.
"That's terrible news about your dad, Ellie," he said, staring at me with his bulging brown eyes—he suffered from a thyroid condition. "Maybe it'll turn out all right, but just in case, don't let him leave you feeling guilty; that lasts forever."
* * *
Normally, I take the train to New York. You have to be sure to reserve a seat on the right-hand side of the car, though, or you'll have nothing to see but trees and embankments rushing by for four hours. That gives me motion sickness. On the right side of the car, you can stare lazily at the Hudson, broad and majestic, and admire the Catskills and Palisades, the flinty rocks and green hills, and wonder if you've just passed the tree where Rip Van Winkle slept for all those years. But there was no train to anywhere at this hour, so I got onto the Thruway at New Holland around ten o'clock, hoping my '51 Plymouth Belvedere would get me to New York. Charlie Reese had pulled some strings to get me the company car in early December. I suspected it was a lemon—old-fashioned and round and, yes, a shade of yellow—they had no other use for, but I was grateful to have it anyway. It meant I could cover high school basketball games without having to take taxis or beg rides on the team bus. The teenage boys always stared slack-jawed at my legs.
Four hours later, I was bouncing down the Henry Hudson Parkway, under the George Washington Bridge and past the piers, arriving at Saint Vincent's Hospital in the West Village around two thirty.
I had phoned the hospital before leaving New Holland to arrange a quick visit, since I would be arriving long after visiting hours had ended. They agreed to accommodate me. A short nurse with a pleasant smile identified herself as Mrs. Buehler. She showed me to my father's bed in the Intensive Care Unit. I never would have found him otherwise; the long, snaking tubes of a breathing apparatus obscured his bandaged head. His skin, normally a robust tan, was a waxen gray. Liver spots I had never noticed before spread over his forehead, cheeks, and hands. He looked like a corpse. I stood over the bed for a few minutes, unsure of what to do. Then the nurse spoke.
"Why don't you go home and get some sleep, Miss Stone?" she said. "He's stable, and you can speak to the doctor in the morning."
Feeling vaguely guilty for abandoning the vigil, I left the hospital and drove over to University Place and Tenth Street, where I parked my Plymouth. I grabbed my bag, walked across Tenth and down Fifth Avenue, and paused at the door of my father's apartment building. The neighborhood hadn't changed. I peered through the cold darkness at the most familiar landmark of my youth: Washington Arch. A grayish shadow in the night, it loomed an eerie portal. An icy breeze ruffled the collar of my coat, and I ducked inside 26 Fifth Avenue.
"Miss Eleonora?" called a voice from a chair across the lobby.
Rodney. He used to watch out for me like a mother hen, tie my shoes, and adjust my book strap when it was loose. And I used to tell him stories of my day as we rode the elevator to the fifteenth floor. He was a kind man who liked little children, perhaps because they treated him like a whole person, not a cripple with black skin. I crossed the polished marble floor, dropped my bag, and extended a gloved hand to the aging elevator operator. He pushed himself off the chair and stood lopsided but sturdy on his right leg, bent since birth. His tired face smiled sadly as he clasped my hand.
"I'm just sick about what happened to Professor Stone," he said, shaking his head. "Can't figure how someone got in here. I was on duty that night, and not a soul came through that door I didn't know."
"What time did my father come home that night?"
Rodney's face twisted in thought. "I remember seeing him come in, and I wasn't sleeping." This last observation seemed to be germane in fixing the approximate time. "Let's see, I came on at six, got off at two ..."
"Never mind, Rodney," I said. "I'll talk to you again tomorrow. Try to remember when he came home."
"I know who'll remember," he said. "That young man who works with Professor Stone."
"Who's that? Someone named Sanger, perhaps?"
"I don't know his name, but he comes around here all the time. He'll know; he was with him."
"Could he be the one?" I asked, but Rodney shook his head.
"No, miss. They went upstairs together, then the young man buzzed the elevator about twenty minutes later. While I was bringing him down to the lobby, he said he forgot something upstairs. I called Professor Stone on the intercom right then and there from the elevator, and he answered. So, I handed the receiver to the young man, and they settled it between themselves."
Excerpted from STYX & STONE by james w. ziskin. Copyright © 2013 James W. Ziskin. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
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
A fascinating mystery that will whisk you back to 1960 Manhattan. Ellie Stone is a wonderfully engaging character, and the story is gripping until the very last sentence.
Smart mystery that will keep you guessing, and smart but fallible female character. Ellie Stone is a crush-worthy protagonist!