Authors: Hugh Pentecost
Walking Dead Man
Open Road Integrated Media
T STARTED OUT LIKE
a comedy. It didn’t end that way.
Both groups arrived in the late afternoon of the same day, like rival traveling circuses, each trumpeting its presence. Part of the comedy was that I had been warned, as public relations man for the Hotel Beaumont, that neither group wanted its presence known. They were to be gotten, unnoticed and unsung, to their various suites. There would be no stopping at the main desk to register. They were to be anonymous. I had no reason to believe that the two groups were in any way connected. It developed that they were connected by about seven million dollars which, as the fellow said, ain’t hay.
The first group, the one that concerned me most, was symbolic of money, huge quantities of money. Mr. George Battle, owner of the Hotel Beaumont, who hadn’t been in the United States for seventeen years, claimed, modestly, that he was only the second richest man in the world. The second group was symbolic of romance, which is a polite word for sex. David Loring, the film star, also modest, admitted that a great many women said he was the greatest lover of all time, but that he laid claim to no title, since in thirty-five years of living and loving he hadn’t been able to cover the entire field. He said, smiling that devastatingly slow smile of his, that he needed a little more time before he could conscientiously accept the championship. Those women who do not resent being considered sex objects were willing to crown him king without waiting for any more field work. One of them fainted dead away at the mere sight of David when he stepped out of a cream-colored Continental limousine at ten minutes to four that afternoon. He was preceded into the Beaumont’s lobby by a dwarf. This one had a large and strangely beautiful head. He had dark hair, worn rather long, limpid brown eyes wide with mischief, and a neatly trimmed Vandyke beard and mustache. That head belonged to a laughing Mephistopheles. The body was the cruelly twisted frame of a crippled child. He was not quite four feet tall. He skipped and danced ahead of the golden sex king, who followed, modestly, a gorgeous brunette in a black see-through dress clinging to his arm. Following them were thirty-six suitcases and attache cases carried by the Beaumont’s bell corps. Bringing up the rear were two men completely overlooked by the panting ladies in the lobby. One of them was the slim, dark, intense Maxie Zorn, who had made it from the garment district to top independent film producer in Hollywood in the first forty years of his life. He is now Maxwell Zorn on the theater marquees. The second man was a blond, almost crew cut, which is out of style these days, wearing a gray herringbone tweed jacket on a football player’s back and shoulders. He had a tight, hard mouth and his face was made expressionless by wire-rimmed black glasses. I found out later he was Richard Cleaves, novelist and writer of David Loring’s upcoming epic. The “epic” was getting a lot of press coverage because Maxie Zorn had shrewdly announced that he was still searching for just the right girl to appear in a seven-minute segment of the film in bed with David, both stark naked. Naturally the “epic” would be X-rated. Unnoticed, unsung? Brother! Women seemed to have appeared out of the woodwork, and David stood in the center of a panting mob, looking boyish, helpless, and oh so male.
It was a fascinating spectacle and I could have watched it forever, but I was ripped away from it by Johnny Thacker, the day bell captain.
“The Man,” he told me, “is just arriving at the side entrance.”
Mr. George Battle was my job, and I elbowed my way through the crowd and headed for the side entrance. Unnoticed and unsung? There were two huge black Cadillacs at the door. The second one was empty except for the chauffeur. There seemed to be a great many people trying to get out of the first one. There was a dark young man with bulging muscles wearing a tight-fitting jacket that wasn’t tailored to hide the gun he was carrying in a shoulder holster. He was followed by a monstrously fat old man, wheezing and gasping for breath, a cigarette dangling from flabby lips, his watery eyes narrowed against the late afternoon sun. Then came a man in a black suit and wearing a black bowler who had “manservant” written all over him. He looked like a middle-aged Melville Cooper. The three men looked at the outer facade of the Beaumont as though they had all arrived at the wrong place.
And then Shelda came out of the car.
Shelda Mason is a long story which will get gradually told, but let me say here that I had been so much in love with her and so close to her that I could feel my gut ache just looking at her. I hadn’t seen her for a year. I knew she was coming with Battle. I thought I was prepared. It was all over between us and it would be no problem to say a casual hello. I was wrong. It was a problem. My mouth felt full of dust.
“Hello, Mark,” she said in her low, throaty voice.
“Hi,” I said.
She turned to the manservant. “Allerton, this is Mr. Haskell, the public relations man for the hotel.”
“Howjudoo,” Allerton said, very British.
“Where’s Chambrun?” the guntoter asked.
“This is Ed Butler, Mr. Battle’s bodyguard,” Shelda said. “And Dr. Cobb, Mr. Battle’s personal physician.” I could have sworn she was fighting a little twitch at the corner of her mouth. She wanted to laugh.
“Mr. Chambrun is waiting for you in the penthouse,” I said. “I’m to take you all there.”
Butler turned to the car and opened the rear door. What came out was a tall, very thin man completely hidden inside a loose-fitting black overcoat with a mink collar. The collar was turned up and the brim of a black fedora was pulled down so that all I could see of his face were two very bright blue eyes. He looked furtively up and down the sidewalk.
“Okay, Buster, lead the way,” the bodyguard said.
We went through the revolving door and were instantly inundated by the clammering and yammering from the main lobby.
“Oh, God!” I heard a voice say. It was Battle’s.
“What the hell’s going on in there?” the bodyguard asked. A brown hand caressed the bulge in his jacket as though, I thought, he had hopes of using the gun.
“David Loring and a bevy of admirers,” I said.
“How do we get through them without being seen?”
“You don’t,” I said.
“You better effing well find a way,” he said.
He said “effing.” I didn’t clean it up.
“Language, Edward, language!” Dr. Cobb wheezed, and then indulged in a kind of shuddering, noiseless laughter.
“The service elevator from the ballroom?” Shelda suggested. She was thinking, bless her. She had once been my secretary. She knew the hotel as well as I did.
The bodyguard looked at Dr. Cobb as if he was measuring him for a coffin. Then he said to me: “So move!”
The side entrance to the ballroom was only a couple of yards away and I led the parade into the great, empty elegance, through a service pantry, and to the undecorated service elevator. We could all get in it without any problem. Mr. Battle stayed hidden behind his mink collar and his hat. We started up.
I glanced at Shelda. She was looking demurely down at the toe of a calfskin pump. I wondered whose bed she’d been sharing for the last year. I wondered if she was wondering the same thing about me.
One thing that puzzled me about Mr. Battle’s visit to the Beaumont was what had been arranged to accommodate him and his staff for a week’s stay. The Beaumont is the world’s top luxury hotel. It contains a dozen of the world’s most elegant suites. There are two fancy duplexes. In addition to its hundreds of rooms and suites for transient guests there are ten cooperatively owned apartments on the top two floors and three cooperatively owned penthouses on the roof. These apartments and penthouses were serviced by the hotel but owned by the tenants. One of these penthouses belongs to Pierre Chambrun, the legendary manager of the Beaumont. Since these penthouses cost about a quarter of a million dollars on the open markets you would have to guess that Chambrun was a very wealthy man. I happen to know that his salary is in the neighborhood of $50,000 a year, but that he came to this country, penniless, after World War II. It would have been difficult for him to accumulate the kind of capital that would buy him the penthouse. The fact of the matter was that it had been a gift from the owner, Mr. George Battle. At some point in their relationship Chambrun, who was indispensable to the operation of the hotel, had threatened to quit. What the quarrel was about I don’t know, but in the end Battle deeded over the penthouse to his indispensable man. Chambrun stayed on, and someone had remarked that if Battle ever decided to fire him, Chambrun would still be there, pouring sand in the machinery if anyone dared to take over from him.
Chambrun is a short, dark, square little man with black eyes buried in deep pouches. Those eyes can be compassionately warm or cold as a hanging judge’s. The hotel is like a small city, with its own shops, its own restaurants and bars, its own hospital, gymnasium, bank stores. It has its own police department. It is the home-away-from-home for scores of foreign diplomats in New York on United Nations business. The staff, in every department, is expert and trained by Chambrun himself. He presides over the entire operation with some kind of psychic radar awareness of everything that is going on in every nook and cranny of the enterprise. Over the years one or two new employees have imagined that they could get away with something behind Chambrun’s back. The speed with which the boom was lowered in those cases was a lesson to all of us. Loyalty is the key to Chambrun’s success—loyalty out of love and regard for him or fear of him. Either way it works. You can reach him at any time, day or night, if you have a problem, and if you try to solve the problems without him, he somehow knows about it and comes to you.
I have been working for Chambrun for about eight years and I have only been in the penthouse twice. It is the place to which he retreats; where he lives whatever his private life may be. That is why we all wondered why Chambrun had evacuated his penthouse so that Mr. George Battle could live there during his stay. I had asked Miss Ruysdale, Chambrun’s fabulous secretary, about it. Miss Ruysdale is a handsome, beautifully turned-out woman in her mid-thirties. She has her own office just outside Chambrun’s on the second floor. She protects him from unnecessary irritations, appears to read his mind, and there is gossip that she may very well take care of much more personal needs. She’s very special, an original. He calls her Ruysdale—never Betsy or Miss Ruysdale. Only once, when he thought she was in danger, have I seen him be anything but impersonal about her. And yet we wondered about them.
“What do you know about Mr. Battle?” Miss Ruysdale asked when I questioned her about the penthouse arrangement.
“That he lives on the French Riviera, counting his money,” I said.
“In a chateau surrounded by a high wall with an electrified fence.”
“Because he is afraid of being kidnaped,” Miss Ruysdale said. “He is also afraid of being poisoned. He is also afraid of accidental death. Do you know why he hasn’t been back to this country for seventeen years? Because he’s afraid to fly and he’s afraid to travel on any public carrier, including an ocean liner.”
“How is he coming?” I asked.
Miss Ruysdale gave me her Mona Lisa smile. “In two ocean-going yachts,” she said.
“He owns them both. He travels in one and the other follows in case something happens to the first one.”
“He has two private chefs. One cooks his meals and the other—”
“—is there in case something happens to the first one? Right?”
“Right. He has his personal doctor within calling distance day and night. His man, Allerton, tastes all his food before he eats anything. He has two personal armed bodyguards, one for the daytime and one for the nights.” Miss Ruysdale’s smile widened. “And he has two secretaries, one for the daytime—”
“—and one for the nights. Which one is Shelda?”
“Whenever he has a thought worth preserving, he needs someone there to take it down—day or night.”
“And the boss has turned over his penthouse because—”
“Because he has sympathy for anyone who lives in such mortal terror.”
In the elevator I glanced at the figure hidden from me by the mink collar and the hat brim. I understood the two Cadillacs. The second one was in case something happened to the first one. I wondered what the night secretary really did. Shelda was still looking at the toe of her shoe.
Chambrun was standing with his back to the fireplace in the large living room of the penthouse, smoking one of his flat-shaped Egyptian cigarettes. He watched the procession come in, his eyes hooded. He watched Ed Butler, the bodyguard, move swiftly through the living room into the rest of the apartment. Evidently he was making sure that no one was hidden under a bed.