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Authors: Hugh Pentecost

Gilded Nightmare

BOOK: Gilded Nightmare
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The Gilded Nightmare
A Pierre Chambrun Mystery
Hugh Pentecost


Open Road Integrated Media



Part One




Part Two




Part Three




Part One

said, as casually as I could manage, “the Baroness Zetterstrom had one million dollars in cash deposited in a personal checking account in the Waltham Trust.”

Chambrun’s eyes twinkled at me from under their heavy lids. “You have some kind of prejudice against a million dollars, Mark?”

“But in a checking account!”

Chambrun looked down at a pink card on his desk. “Two four-room suites,” he said, “and three intervening single rooms with bath. The two suites go at three hundred dollars a day apiece, and the three single rooms at sixty-five dollars a day each. That comes to seven hundred and ninety-five dollars a day without tips, food, liquor, or any other pleasures. The reservations are for one month. You think she can make it on a million?”

Pierre Chambrun is a small, dark man, stockily built, with heavy pouches under bright black eyes that can turn as cold as a hanging judge’s when he’s displeased, or unexpectedly light up with humor. He’s been in the hotel business all his life, and has reached the pinnacle of that profession as resident manager of the Beaumont, New York’s top luxury hotel. He would, I think, be irritated at the suggestion that there might be a better hotel anywhere in the world. He might make a grudging concession to outer space, but he’d have to be shown. French by birth, he came to this country as a small boy, and he thinks now like an American. But his training in the hotel business has often taken him back to Europe, and he can adopt a Continental manner to please a queen. He’s a brilliant linguist. I’ve never counted the number of languages he can speak fluently. The Beaumont is his world. He often says it’s not a hotel but a way of life.

Somewhere in the distance, sunning himself on the Riviera, is Mr. George Battle, owner of the Beaumont, who presumably does nothing but count his money. He rarely interferes with Chambrun’s management of the Beaumont, and when he does it’s in the form of a humbly craved favor.

The Baroness Zetterstrom was one of those favors. “Anything you can do for Charmian Zetterstrom will be appreciated,” Battle had wired Chambrun.

The next day one Marcus Helwig, who described himself as the Baroness’ “steward,” called from London and made the somewhat fabulous reservations—two suites, three single rooms. Without being asked, he’d provided Chambrun with the Waltham Trust as a financial reference. It was routine to check out the reference and I’d produced the answer from the bank.

“Who in the hell is Charmian Zetterstrom?” I asked. A lady who tosses around that kind of money has to be someone.

Chambrun’s face had turned hard and cold, an expression I rarely saw there when I was alone with him. He flicked the ash from his Egyptian cigarette. He seemed to sink a little deeper in the heavy armchair behind his exquisitely carved Florentine desk. He reached for the demitasse at his elbow and found it empty. I carried it across the thick Oriental rug to the sideboard, where his Turkish coffee-maker is constantly in operation. I filled the small cup and brought it back. His eyes were almost hidden behind the deep pouches.

“Baron Conrad Zetterstrom belongs in the black part in time,” he said.

I knew what he meant by that. There had been four years out of his life when he’d fought in the French Resistance.

“A conniver, the king of the Nazi sadists, reported to have been a sexual deviate of the most extraordinary flamboyance. And rich. While Germany slowly lost its life, General Zetterstrom salted away a huge fortune in Swiss banks. After the war he escaped prosecution in the war crimes trials. Some kind of legal shenanigans. He bought himself an island in the Mediterranean and built what has been described as a Shangri-La that would have made the late William Randolph Hearst drool with envy. They say it was the Kingdom of Evil on earth. He died two years ago at the age of eighty-four. He left his entire empire to his widow, an American girl he married about twenty years ago. She was just out of her teens then—an unsuccessful film actress, rumored to be extravagantly beautiful, able to match the old man’s taste for sadistic debauchery. Now she is the widowed Baroness Zetterstrom, come away from her island fastness for the first time since her marriage. She is still said to be breathtakingly lovely.”

“What bothers you about her spending her money here?” I asked.

“That she may try to turn the Beaumont into a club for the international queer set.”

“And if she does try?” I asked.

He looked at me as if I’d asked a totally absurd question.

“Out on the sidewalk on her seductive bottom,” he said. …

On the eve of the arrival of the Baroness Zetterstrom I was in my third year as public relations director for the Beaumont. It says so on the door of my fourth-floor office—
. In the beginning I’d been feeling my way around in the job like an infant learning to walk, guided by Shelda Mason, my glamorous and agitating secretary, who’d worked for my predecessor and made me feel like anything but an infant. For two years now Shelda and I had been teetering on the brink of matrimony, but the life we live is so exciting, so full of change and crisis and engrossing problems, that somehow we haven’t taken the plunge. Actually, the hotel had become our life. Both she and I had what she calls “Chambrun fever.” We felt possessive about the Beaumont. It was our town, with its own mayor in the person of Chambrun, its own police force, its own public services, its cooperatively owned apartments, its facilities for transients, its nightclubs, its cafés, its restaurants, its quality shops opening off the lobby, it complex human relationships.

Like Chambrun, Shelda and I had become jealous of the Beaumont’s reputation. At the end of the official working day I found myself changing into a dinner jacket and spending the evening moving about from one bar to another—within the hotel—through the ballroom, the private dining rooms, the Blue Lagoon nightclub, the restaurants, making certain that the Swiss-watch efficiency of the place was in perfect order. Shelda says I’m like Marshal Dillon, checking out Dodge City every night. Sometimes she makes the rounds with me. Sometimes she goes to her little garden apartment a few blocks away and waits for me to join her. I live in the hotel myself, and Shelda’s place is the only “hideout” I have from the buzzing activity of the Beaumont’s world. Of course Chambrun knows where to find me; and Jerry Dodd, the hotel’s security officer. We don’t have anything so lowbrow as a “house detective” at the Beaumont.

On that night before the arrival of the Baroness, things were so orderly at the Beaumont I should have been forewarned that it was some kind of lull before a storm. I wasn’t. I was particularly hungry for Shelda that night and I took off for her place shortly after eleven o’clock. The golden-blond love-of-my-life was wearing an enticing, pale-blue negligee, under which was only Shelda. She was poring over a collection of fashion designs which were part of the plan for a couturier’s show she was running for me the next day. A pair of shell-rimmed glasses were perched on the end of her nose. I am the only person who’s ever seen her wearing glasses. Woman, thy name is Vanity.

She waved toward the kitchenette and said: “On the rocks for me.”

I went, and came back with two double Scotches. She pointed to a little package, gift-wrapped, on the edge of her work table.

“For you,” she said.

The presents we give each other, except on major occasions like Christmas, or any day I’m particularly in love, or vice versa, are usually jokes. I opened the package and found in it, folded in tissue paper, a pair of the black eye-patches that people sometimes wear to keep out the light when they’re trying to sleep.

“How come?” I said, preparing for the joke. “I only have insomnia when I’m lying very close to you, angel, and then I like it.”

“They are for you to wear when the Baroness Zetterstrom appears on the scene.”

I grinned at her. “She’s that torrid?”

Shelda scattered the drawings on her desk and produced some newspaper clippings. They were from the London
There was a photograph of the Baroness arriving at Shannon Airport about ten days earlier. The picture showed a small, dark, svelte woman surrounded by an army of retainers. She couldn’t possibly be forty. I said that.

“The photograph doesn’t show the wrinkles that must exist at the corners of her eyes and around her neck,” Shelda said. “Why do you suppose she wears black glasses?”

“Bright sunshine.”

“To hide the truth about her age,” Shelda said. “You notice the young man standing just to her left? The one with the long hairdo? She pays him to service her—as we used to say down on the farm.”

“How do you know?”

“Read the clippings,” Shelda said.

According to the clipping, the young man was Peter Wynn, the Baroness’ “secretary-companion.” I guess that was polite-British for gigolo. The whole retinue wore black glasses. There was a tall, slightly gray-haired man with a thin, hard mouth that looked as if it had been sliced into his face, who was identified as “Marcus Helwig, legal adviser to the Baroness”; a short fat man called Dr. Malinkov, her medical resident; a blond Brunhilde called Mme. Brunner, personal masseuse to the lady, Heidi, a pretty German-looking girl who was described as “personal maid,” and in the background a lean, tweedy man with a kind of tense look to him, who was described as John Masters, bodyguard.

“I wish they weren’t coming,” Shelda said.


A little shudder happened under the blue negligee. “Woman’s intuition,” she said. “That bitch spells trouble.”

I quoted Chambrun on what would happen to the lady if there was any trouble.

“Why does he wait till after the fact?” Shelda said. She got up and went away into the bedroom.

“Perhaps because she has a million bucks to spend,” I said. “That’s the first entry on her personal file card. Deposited yesterday in the Waltham Trust.”

No answer.

“To hell with the Baroness,” I said.

“I’m way ahead of you,” Shelda called to me.

There is a secret card-index file at the Beaumont that would drive a professional blackmailer out of his greedy mind. Every client, past or present, is recorded in that file, and most of them wouldn’t have been pleased at how much the Beaumont knew about them or how they were evaluated by the staff. There is a code system used on the cards that tells a great deal more than the name, address, and marital status of the customer. Under “financial” there are three ratings—I, 2, and o. The o arbitrarily stands for “over his head,” meaning that that particular guest can’t afford the Beaumont’s prices and shouldn’t be allowed to get in too deep; I is for millionaire and
for the just very rich. The code-letter
means the subject is an alcoholic;
on a man’s card means he’s a woman-chaser, possibly a customer for the expensive call girls who appear from time to time, despite our efforts, in the Trapeze Bar;
on a woman’s card means a man-hunter.
on a man’s card means he’s double-crossing his wife, and
means the woman is playing around. The small letter
means diplomatic connections. A lot of U.N. people make the Beaumont their headquarters. Governments can afford our prices where individuals often can’t. If there is special information about a guest it is noted on the card. If that information isn’t meant to be public knowledge in the front office, the letter C indicates there is information in Chambrun’s private files.

On the morning of B day, which was how the day of the Baroness’ coming was described by the staff, I took a look at the file cards covering the lady and her retinue. On the Baroness’ card was simply the indication that she was a number-one credit risk and the letter C, meaning Chambrun had further information. The others were equally bare. The credit portion simply indicated that Charmian Zetterstrom was responsible for the lot of them. The sky was the limit.

“One million bucks worth of hell-raising,” Mr. Atterbury said to me. He’s the day reservation clerk who never refers to the card file because it is all computerized in his head. “If it wasn’t for Battle’s cable I don’t think the boss would take them in.” His smile was thin. “All connecting doors between the two suites and the three single rooms are to be unlocked. They’ll be able to play musical beds in there without attracting attention.”

“Do you care?” I asked.

Atterbury shrugged. “The rooms are soundproofed,” he said.

You develop habits in my kind of job. At a quarter to one each day I go up to the Trapeze Bar for one very strong, very dry vodka martini on the rocks. One sets me up for what is apt to be the busiest part of the day for me; two make me sleepy. I don’t go there just for the drink, but to see if there are any luncheon guests of special importance to the hotel’s public relations—big-time politicos, movie stars, or someone newsworthy in the social swim.

BOOK: Gilded Nightmare
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