Read an Excerpt
To Wake the Dead
A Dr. Gideon Fell Mystery
By John Dickson Carr
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1966 John Dickson Carr
All rights reserved.
The Crime of Having Breakfast
At just after daybreak on that raw January morning, Christopher Kent stood in Piccadilly and shivered. The air seemed painted grey as though with a brush. He was only a dozen yards from Piccadilly Circus, and the Guinness clock told him that it was twenty minutes past seven. The only thing moving in the Circus was a taxi whose motor clanked with great distinctness; it circled Ares's island and throbbed away down a quiet Regent Street. A wind had begun to blow from the east, shaking the bitter air as you might shake a carpet. Christopher Kent noticed a flake of snow, and then another, blown suddenly past him. He eyed them without animosity, but he was not amused.
At the bank round the corner, he could draw a cheque for whatever he liked. But he had not a penny in his pocket, nor was it likely that he would have one for twenty-four hours more. That was the trouble. He had not eaten since yesterday's breakfast, and he was so hungry that it was beginning to cramp him.
As though by instinct he was almost at the doors of the Royal Scarlet Hotel. It fascinated him. One day later—to be exact at ten o'clock on the morning of February 1st—he would walk into that hotel and meet Dan Reaper, as had been arranged. Then the whole matter under debate would be over. There would be satisfaction in winning from Dan; but, at the moment, hunger and lightheadedness were turning his earlier amusement to a mood of sullen anger.
As usual, the events leading to that meeting of the ways were unreasonable. He was the son of the late Kent's South African Ales. South African by bringing-up, he had lived in nearly every country except his own; and he had not seen England since they had taken him away at the age of two. Something had always happened to prevent it. Kent's Ales required attention, though he was nowadays too lazy to pay much attention to them beyond the drinking. He had other views. Having been brought up on sound principles by his father, with whose judgments he agreed on everything except the fascination of business, he had early acquired a liking for sensational fiction. In the middle twenties he began to write it, and at that trade he worked like a Kaffir to make the stuff good. But Dan Reaper was not pleased.
Standing on the more-than-hard London pavement, he remembered a more pleasant day three months ago, with iced drinks at hand, and the noise of the surf coming up from Durban beach. He was arguing, as usual, with Dan. He remembered Dan's heavy red-brown complexion, his crisp-moving gestures, his flat positiveness. At fifty Dan had prospered in a young man's country, and was one of those who have made Johannesburg a new Chicago. Though Dan was nearly twenty years older than Kent, they had been friends for a long time, and enjoyed arguing the worth or trash of all created things. Dan was a Member of the Assembly, and was working his way towards becoming an important man politically. And (again as usual) he was laying down the law.
"I haven't got time to read novels," Dan said as usual. "Biographies, histories: yes. That's my line. It's real. I want something that Repays Study. About the other stuff, I feel like old Mrs. Patterson: 'What's the use? It's all a pack of lies.' But if people must turn out novels, at least they ought to write out of experience—out of a full knowledge of life—like mine, for in stance. I sometimes think I could—"
"Yes," said Kent. "I know. I seem to have heard all this somewhere else. Nonsense. The job's a trade, like any other good trade; and it's got to be learned. As for your cursed experience—"
"You don't deny it's necessary?"
"I don't know," Kent had admitted honestly. He remembered studying the colours of blue water and sky through his glass. "One thing has always struck me, when I've read the brief biographical notices of writers tucked away on the back flap of the book. It's astonishing how alike they all are. In nine cases out of ten you'll read, 'Mr. Blank has been lumberman, rancher, newspaperman, miner, and barman in the course of an adventurous life; has travelled through Canada; was for a time—' and so on. The number of writers who have been ranchers in Canada must be overwhelming. One day when I'm asked for a biographical note, I am going to break this tyranny. I am going to write, 'I have not been lumberman, rancher, newspaperman, miner, or barman; and, in fact, I never did an honest day's work in my life until I took up writing.'"
This stung Dan on the raw.
"I know you didn't," he retorted grimly. "You've always had all the money you wanted. But you couldn't do an honest day's work. It would kill you."
From there the argument, stimulated by a John Collins or two had taken a sharper and more businesslike turn, while Dan grew still more heated.
"I'll bet you a thousand pounds," cried Dan, who had a romantic imagination, "that you couldn't stand up to a test that I've been through myself. Look here, it's an idea. You couldn't start at Johannesburg without a penny in your pocket, say; you couldn't work or beat your way to the coast—Durban, Capetown, Port Elizabeth, anywhere you like—you couldn't work your way to England aboard ship, and turn up to meet me there at a given rendezvous on a date, say, ten weeks from now. I mean, you couldn't do it without cashing a cheque or using your own name to be helped along. Bah!"
Kent did not tell him that the idea, in fiction, was not original. But it interested him.
"I might take you up on that," he said.
Dan regarded him suspiciously; Dan looked for a catch in everything.
"Are you serious? Mind, if you did a thing like that—or tried to do it—it would do you all the good in the world. Teach you what Life is like. And you'd get material for some real books instead of these footling stories about master-spies and murders. But you don't mean it. You'll think better of it to-morrow morning."
"Damn your hide, I believe I do mean it."
"Ho ho!" said Dan, and gurgled into his glass. "All right!" He pointed a heavy finger. "At the beginning of January I've got to go to England on business. Melitta's going with me, and your cousin Rod, and Jenny; and probably Francine and Harvey as well." Dan always travelled like an emperor, with a suite of friends. "I've got to go down to Gay's place in Sussex when we first get there. But on the morning of February 1st, sharp, we're to be in London. Do you think you could make that trip and meet me in my suite at the Royal Scarlet Hotel at ten o'clock on the morning of the first? Think it over, my lad. A thousand pounds you can't—no cheating, mind."
Two more snowflakes curled over in the air and were blown wide by that bitter wind. Kent looked up Piccadilly, figuratively tightening his belt. Well, he had done it. Here he was; or, at least, he would have done it in twenty-four hours more if he could hold out until then. And his chief impression now was that nearly everything Dan had so confidently predicted was wrong.
Experience? Material for books? At the moment he did not know whether to laugh or swear. None of these things had come on adventurous wings. To Dan himself, going out to South Africa in a cattle-boat after the War, there might have come some vision of high adventure or mystic twilights: though Kent doubted this. Exhilaration be hanged. It had been nothing but monotony and work; bone-cracking work, which—if he had not been solidly put together—would have broken him in the first two weeks. His own stubbornness had carried him through. He could have learned as much about human nature from a boarding-house in Johannesburg, and nearly as much about adventure.
But here he was. Nearly a week ago he had landed from the Volpar at Tilbury, with a trimmer's pay in his pocket; and had spent most of it in one glorious bust with a couple of messmates. Possibly, with time to lend joke and point, a sense of adventure on the high seas would come in retrospect. At the moment he knew only that he was devilish hungry.
He moved a little closer to the great revolving doors of the Royal Scarlet Hotel, which towered up in white stone over Piccadilly. Inside he could see charwomen finishing their work on the marble floors; carpets were being put down again, silently; and the hush of early morning was disturbed only by the echo of footsteps.
The Royal Scarlet was an imposing but not expensive place. Dan Reaper always preferred to go there, though as a rule he hired half a floor and in the end paid nearly as much as he might have paid at the Savoy. It was the principle of the thing, Dan said, never to let high-priced hotels make you pay for a name. Besides, the manager was a fellow South-African and a friend of his. For Coronation year they were building a top-floor annex which was predicted to be something new in the way of luxury rooms, and which had also attracted Dan.
Christopher Kent moved closer. It was warm inside those glass doors; warm and drowsy; and you might rest even hungry innards in a comfortable chair. Looking through into the lobby, he was conscious of an irrational resentment against Dan—Dan, expansive père de famille without any family, Dan, who exulted in going to all kinds of trouble if he could get a ten-shilling article for nine and elevenpence three farthings. At this moment Dan would still be at Gay's house in Sussex, snugly tucked into bed. But he would be here presently, with his suite of friends and employees. Kent ran them over in his mind. Melitta, Dan's wife. Francine Forbes, his niece. Rodney Kent, Christopher's cousin, and Rodney's wife Jenny: Rodney was Dan's political secretary. Harvey Wrayburn, a great friend of the family, would probably have made the trip too. And in another day they would be descending on London....
That was a real cramp in the stomach this time. He would not have thought it possible to be so hungry.
Something white, something that was too large to be a snowflake, caught the corner of his eye. It was drifting down from the sky; it slipped past his shoulder; and automatically he put out his hand for it. It was a little folded card, of the sort they gave you when you were assigned to a room. It said in red letters:
THE ROYAL SCARLET HOTEL
Charge: 21/6 (Double).
The charge includes room, bath, and breakfast. No responsibility can be accepted for valuable unless they are placed in the manager's safe.
"Room, bath, and breakfast—" Kent stared at the card; first the idea occurred to him as a good thing for a story, and then with a rush of hesitant surprise he realised that it might be practical.
He remembered how these things were done. You walked into the dining-room and gave your room-number either to the waiter or to someone sitting at the entrance with a book. Then you were served with breakfast. If he walked in boldly and gave the number of a room certain to be occupied, he could breakfast well—and then walk out again into the void. Why not? How were they to know he wasn't the occupier of the room? It was now barely seven-thirty. The chances were slight that the real occupant of the room would be down so early; and, in any case, it was something that would have to be risked.
The idea appealed to him enormously. Though he had pawned most of his possessions, and needed a haircut, still his suit was presentable; and he had shaved the night before. He pushed through the revolving doors into the foyer, removing his hat and overcoat.
It was a mild enough form of swindle; but Kent suddenly realised that he had never felt so guilty in his life. An empty stomach gives very little assurance; still, he wondered whether they were all looking at him hard or peering at the thoughts in his head. He had to get a grip on himself to prevent himself from hurrying across the foyer as though he were pursued. Only a hall-porter—in the neat dark-blue uniform naturally adopted by any hotel calling itself the Royal Scarlet—seemed to be looking at him. He strolled casually through the foyer, then through a palm-lounge, and into a big dining-room which seemed to be just waking up from sleep.
There were, he was relieved to see, already several people at the tables. If he had been the first there, and a swindler at that, he might have bolted. He almost did bolt at the sight of so many waiters. But he tried to walk with cool assurance, like a man carrying a morning paper. Then a head waiter bowed to him; and the thing was done.
He has afterwards admitted that his heart was in his mouth when the waiter drew out a chair for him at an isolated table.
"Bacon and eggs, toast, and coffee. Lots of bacon and eggs."
"Yes, sir," said the waiter briskly, and whipped out a pad. "And the number of your room?"
It seemed to excite no surprise. The waiter noted it down, tore out a duplicate slip made on carbon-paper underneath, and hurried away. Kent sat back. It was pleasantly warm; the scent of coffee in the air made him a little more light-headed; but he felt like a man unsteadily getting his grip at last. Before he had time to wonder whether it might be snatched away from him, there was put before him a plate of what seemed the finest eggs and the most succulent bacon he had ever seen. A rack of toast and a coffee-service of polished pewter added silver to the already bright colours of the table; the yellow and red-brown of bacon and eggs, against shining white china and cloth, might make a painting of rare quality.
"Banners," he thought, looking at the eggs, '"banners yellow, glorious, golden, From its roof did float and flow—'"
"Sir?" said the waiter.
"'We fight to the finish, we drink to the dregs,'" quoted Kent recklessly, "'And dare to be Daniels on bacon and eggs.' That's all, thanks."
Then he dug in. It was difficult at first, for his insides appeared to be opening and shutting like a concertina; but presently a soothing sense of wellbeing began to creep into him. He sat back drowsily, feeling at peace with the world, and wished for something to smoke. But that would not do. He had had his meal; now he must get out of here before—
Then he noticed the two waiters. One had just come into the dining-room; they were looking towards his table and conferring.
"That's done it," he thought. But he felt almost cheerful.
Getting to his feet with as much dignity as he could, he started to walk out of the room. Behind the waiters, he noticed, was a hotel-attendant of some sort, wearing the dark-blue uniform. He could guess what that meant even before the attendant stepped out and spoke to him.
"Will you come this way, sir, please?" asked the man, with what seemed a very sinister inflection.
Kent drew a deep breath. That was that, then. He wondered if they put you in jail for this sort of thing. He could imagine Dan Reaper's roars of laughter (and the laughter of everyone else) if they arrived next day and found him in clink for cadging a breakfast; or washing dishes to pay it off. It made him furious, but there was no way out unless he ran for it; and he was not going to do that. He walked as sedately as he could beside the attendant, who led him through the palm-lounge, and then to the lodge of the hall-porter. That dignitary, a burly man with a sergeant-major's moustache and bearing, did not look sinister; he looked polite and disturbed. After glancing round as though he suspected the presence of enemy spies, he addressed Kent with confidential heartiness.
"I'm very sorry to trouble you, sir," he said; "but I wonder if you'd be good enough to help us out of a difficulty? You're the gentleman in 707?"
"Yes, that's right."
"Ah! Well, sir, it's like this. The room you're in—707—was occupied up to yesterday afternoon," again the sergeant-major looked around, "by an American lady who's sailing home in the Directoire late today. She rang us up late last night; but of course we didn't like to disturb you until you were up and about. The fact is, sir, that when she left here she forgot a very valuable bracelet; pushed it down in the drawer of the bureau, it seems, inside the paper lining, and clean forgot about it. The lady prizes it very highly, she tells us, and doesn't want to go home without it. It's too bad the chambermaid didn't spot it when the room was made up yesterday before you came in; but you know how these things happen. Now, sir, I know it's an imposition on you; but if we found that bracelet right now, we could get it to Southampton in time to catch her boat. I wonder if you'd mind just stepping upstairs with me, and looking in that drawer?"
Kent had begun to feel a trifle ill.
"I'm afraid I have to go out," he said slowly. "But there's no reason why you shouldn't go upstairs and look—or the maid, or whoever wants to. You have my full permission, and you could get in with a pass-key."
Excerpted from To Wake the Dead by John Dickson Carr. Copyright © 1966 John Dickson Carr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.