For decades, Pierre Chambrun has maintained the enormous mechanism that is the Beaumont Hotel. He breakfasts in his office at nine, and spends his days and nights ensuring that the various problems that inevitably occur in a large hotel do not disrupt its overall operation. But one morning, the suave old hotelier does not appear for breakfast. Panic sets quickly once it is clear that Pierre Chambrun is missing, and his staff must manage without him. The first crisis comes before lunch: A socialite has been murdered in her suite. Investigating the killing falls to Chambrun’s security chief, his secretary, and Mark Haskell, his indefatigable press man. Together they must find the assassin and search for Chambrun, all the while trying to keep the Beaumont on the rails. For whether their boss is dead or alive, nothing must bother the guests.
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Death After Breakfast
A Pierre Chambrun Mystery
By Hugh Pentecost
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1978 Judson Philips
All rights reserved.
Pierre Chambrun didn't turn up for breakfast that morning. That was no more unusual than to wake up at nine o'clock some day to find, on looking out the window, that the sun had chosen not to rise.
At precisely nine o'clock on every morning of the thirty years he had been manager of the Beaumont Hotel, Chambrun appeared in his office on the second floor. Waiting for him was the head chef, presiding over a sideboard of chafing dishes and hot plates. You may think that nine o'clock is late breakfast for a busy man, but activities in the hotel rarely allowed Chambrun to hit the sack until after two in the morning. He started the day, each day, with this gourmet breakfast. It ranged from fancy omelets to delicate filets mignons, from salmon steaks flown in from northwestern Canada to one of his special favorites, chicken hash. There was always bacon, cut thick to his special requirement, or a thinly sautéed ham steak. There was toast and sweet butter and wild strawberry jam imported from Devonshire in England. No juice, no fruit, you ask? That came later in the day, on the run, at no specified time. Chambrun did not eat a formal meal again until about nine in the evening.
Chambrun's routines were so exact that any of us on the staff, confronted with a variation, were instantly concerned. His failure to appear on this morning was doubly worrisome because he had done the unusual by inviting someone to breakfast with him. Normally he did not speak to me, or to Betsy Ruysdale, his fabulous secretary, or anyone else he may have encountered between the door of his private elevator and the office until after Jacques Fresney, the current chef, had presented him with the choices of the morning, he had savored them and had two cups of American coffee. After that he went to Turkish coffee which Miss Ruysdale had brewed for him in advance, lit his first Turkish cigarette, and was prepared to face the world. To be late for a guest was simply not in character, certainly not without any message of apology.
Making it more unlikely was the fact that his guest was a member of the press, a feature writer for Newsview magazine. As a rule Chambrun avoids the press like the plague. He hates anything sensational to be written about the Beaumont. It is my job, as public relations man for the hotel, to stand between Chambrun and the average inquiring reporters. But this was to be special, an article on Chambrun himself as the legendary manager of the world's top luxury hotel. Chambrun had agreed to receive Eliot Stevens, the writer, after persuasions from Frank Devery, the publisher and editor of Newsview and an old friend. A discourtesy to Stevens was unthinkable.
Stevens had arrived in the outer office on the stroke of nine. When Chambrun was three minutes late Ruysdale called his penthouse. Betsy Ruysdale is an extremely attractive woman in her mid-thirties, frighteningly efficient, and rumored to be something more than a secretary in Chambrun's private life. He neuters her by calling her "Ruysdale," never Betsy—in public.
"I'm sure he's between the penthouse and here," Ruysdale told Eliot Stevens. Chambrun hadn't answered his phone.
"No sweat," Stevens said.
Ruysdale excused herself and went into the private office. Chambrun's office is more like an elegant living room than a place of business. There is a thick Turkish rug on the floor. His desk is carved Florentine, always uncluttered. A Picasso, a blue-period gem, faces the desk from the far wall. It is a place to receive, with charm and elegance, the richest people in the world. They are the Beaumont's guests.
Jacques Fresney was standing by the sideboard, presiding over his silver-covered dishes. He was glancing at his watch. Chambrun was seven minutes late. Fresney asked his question by simply raising his Gallic eyebrows. Ruysdale shrugged and went over to the phone on Chambrun's desk and called me in my office down the hall.
"The Man hasn't shown up for breakfast," she told me, "and Eliot Stevens is waiting for him."
I glanced at my watch. "Eight minutes late. Does that constitute a federal case?"
"Can you remember any time—?"
"No," I said.
"He doesn't answer his phone in the penthouse."
"What do you want me to do?"
"Entertain Mr. Stevens while I do some scouting around."
"On the run," I said.
Eliot Stevens was a pleasant-looking young man, blond, Brooks Brothers dressed. He didn't seem to be disturbed by a ten-minute delay. Ruysdale was cool and outwardly unruffled.
"I'm sure Mr. Chambrun wouldn't want Mr. Stevens kept waiting for his morning coffee," she said, after she'd introduced us. "Do take him in and see that Fresney gives him what he'd like, Mark. I'll see what's holding up the boss."
Stevens and I went through the far door. He was duly impressed by the luxurious elegance of this non-office office. He protested that he was in no hurry for breakfast, but coffee would be nice. We had coffee, sitting in two comfortable armchairs by the windows which looked out onto Central Park. It was a beautiful day, children playing, equestrians on the bridle paths. All was right with the world, but, you might have said, God was not in his heaven.
"You've worked for Monsieur Chambrun for a long time?" Stevens asked.
"He doesn't like to be addressed as a Frenchman," I said. "He has been an American citizen for the last twenty-five years. He acts and thinks like an American."
"I understood from my boss, Frank Devery, that he was something of a hero in the Resistance in France during World War Two," Stevens said.
"The black days' he calls them. He was in this country, had just graduated from the Cornell School of Hotel Management when France fell to the Nazis. He went back, did his thing, and came back to take on his job here."
"Took on this job just out of college?"
I nodded. "In those days the Beaumont was owned by George Battles, perhaps the richest man in the world. He lived in southern France. Chambrun saved him from a kidnapping venture by the Nazis. Battles would have given Chambrun his left arm after that. What he did give him was the management of his hotel. He's had it ever since, even though we're now owned by a syndicate of stockholders. The Beaumont without Chambrun would be like—like a Rolls Royce without gasoline."
"He makes it run?"
"With frightening efficiency," I said. "He has a kind of personal radar that somehow keeps him aware of everything that's going on in this place every minute of the day."
Stevens grinned at me. "Then he knows I'm here?"
"Of course he knows," I said.
But Chambrun was now fifteen minutes late.
"I know about the new ownership," Stevens said. "It was George Mayberry—he's chairman of the board, isn't he?—who persuaded Frank Devery to assign me to this job."
"Don't tell Chambrun that," I said. "He and Mayberry, shall I say, don't hit it off. That's putting it mildly. If Chambrun thought he was doing Mayberry a favor, you'd have very slim pickings."
"Thanks for the tip." For the first time Stevens seemed a little uneasy as he twisted in his chair. "What do you suppose is keeping him?"
I wished I had an answer. Nothing less serious than a heart attack or a fall down the elevator shaft from the roof could account for Chambrun's absence. A rudeness was simply not in the cards. If he had been held up by some management emergency he would have phoned Ruysdale with an explanation.
Chef Fresney came over to where we were sitting. "Waiting would be less tedious, gentlemen, if you were to have breakfast. There are filets mignons, chicken hash, mushroom, cheese or tomato and bacon omelets which will take only moments to prepare. This morning there is also Philadelphia scrapple."
"I haven't had chicken hash since I was a kid," Stevens said.
"Ah, then this will bring back your youth, sir," Fresney said. "And you, Mr. Haskell?"
I hated to tell him I'd already had breakfast. I thought I could manage a bacon and tomato omelet.
As Fresney was serving us, Ruysdale came in from the outer office. A tight look around her ordinarily generous mouth told me, without asking, that she had no answers.
"I'm glad to see you decided not to wait for breakfast," she said. "I came in to suggest it."
"No word from him?" Stevens asked.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Stevens," she said. "It's unprecedented, and I can't explain it."
"Perhaps he's ill."
"We've been up to his penthouse. He's not there," Ruysdale said.
"Nice morning for a walk," Stevens said. "Perhaps he lost track of time."
"Mr. Chambrun never loses track of time," Ruysdale said. It was a simple fact. Ask Chambrun what time it is and he would tell you it was fourteen and a half minutes past whatever. Dreaming and losing track of time was not a recreation of his.
Short, stocky, black-haired, and with bright black eyes buried in deep pouches, eyes that could warm with compassion or turn cold as a hanging judge's, Pierre Chambrun is king of an empire that is bounded by the four walls of the Beaumont Hotel. It is like a small city with its own restaurants, bars, shops, a small hospital, an exercise club and squash courts, a heated swimming pool. You can transact your banking business there, make your travel arrangements. It is equipped to handle conventions, fashion shows, balls for charity and for rich little girls' "coming out." There are private dining rooms and private meeting rooms for the boards of directors of big corporations. It has its own police force, presided over by Jerry Dodd, a sharp little man who was almost as sensitive to this private climate as Chambrun himself. I suspect that Ruysdale, Jerry Dodd, and I come closest to knowing Chambrun well of all the large staff. We, by the nature of our jobs, saw it all working at once, whereas many others knew and were responsible only for their own departments. But every one of them knew that Chambrun knew all there was to know about any job, from the lowliest dishwasher to Mr. Cardoza, captain in the Blue Lagoon, the swankest nightclub in the city; from Walters, the Fifth Avenue doorman, to Mr. Atterbury the credit manager; from Mrs. Kniffin, the head housekeeper, to Jacques Fresney, the chef, who drove a Cadillac to work. They all knew the first rule of operating for Chambrun in his hotel: If you don't know the answer to a problem, don't improvise, ask the boss. And they all knew that Chambrun would back them to the limit provided that rule was followed. "If mistakes are to be made, I will make them," Chambrun was known to say. It is only a mild overstatement to say that the people who worked for Chambrun would die for him.
What goes wrong in the Beaumont comes from the outside. It is the home-away-from-home for dozens of United Nations diplomats. People from all corners of the earth bring their problems, their hates, their political warfare to the Beaumont. There have been murders in the hotel as in any small city. There have been suicides. Old men die of heart attacks in the beds of young women they aren't supposed to know. Deals involving millions of dollars are made through our switchboard. Chambrun presides over this swirling little world, always available, day or night, if there is a problem. The chief operator on the switchboard always knows where he is. When he leaves his penthouse in the morning he calls Mrs. Veach, the chief operator on day duty, and tells her he's on his way to his office. When he arrives there he or Ruysdale lets Mrs. Veach know he has arrived. He never goes anywhere in the hotel during the day without the switchboard knowing where. The essence of this is that he is always at the other end of the line for anyone who needs him.
But not this morning.
He had not notified Mrs. Veach that he was on his way downstairs. It turned out that the last person who had talked to him on the phone was Miss Kiley, the night chief. At quarter past two in the morning he had made what was a routine call to Miss Kiley. "No more calls, Miss Kiley, unless there is an emergency." That was standard, whenever he was ready to sleep. Everyone knew that he was not to be interrupted after that except for an emergency, and if an emergency was claimed and it turned out it could have waited till morning the boom was likely to be painfully lowered. Miss Kiley wouldn't have connected anyone from the outside, except perhaps the President of the United States—and he would have to give a reason.
No one had called from inside or outside the hotel. No one had heard from Chambrun after that goodnight shutoff. He wasn't in his penthouse. So far no one had been able to locate him anywhere else in the hotel. It was the first time in all my years at the Beaumont that I had no way to locate him.
As I watched Mr. Stevens enjoy his chicken hash I could feel a lump, like a hard fist, forming in my gut I was suddenly scared. Chambrun was now forty-five minutes late.
Ruysdale reappeared. She entered behind Stevens and gave me a little negative shake of her head. Nothing—or, it turned out, nothing that did anything but increase anxiety.
"Mr. Stevens, I'm dreadfully sorry," Ruysdale said, "but I just don't know what can have happened to delay Mr. Chambrun. I know when he does come he will have an explanation and a humble apology for you."
"Tell him all is forgiven if he'll invite me to breakfast again and have chicken hash. My God, that was wonderful," Stevens said.
I don't think he was aware of the tensions around him. He went off cheerfully after giving Ruysdale a private number where he could be reached. He didn't seem to notice the little man standing by the windows in Ruysdale's office.
It was Jerry Dodd, our security officer. The minute he was alone with Ruysdale and me, he turned from the windows. I don't think I had ever seen him so tense. Tense and coldly angry.
"Mrs. Kniffin has just reported," he said. Mrs. Kniffin is the hotel's head housekeeper. "It's routine for maid service to go into the boss's penthouse about ten o'clock in the evening, turn down his bed, and put out clean pajamas for him. That's if he isn't there. They went in last night, did their job. Mrs. K. reports now that his bed was never slept in, pajamas not used."
"But he called Miss Kiley on the switchboard at two fifteen?" Ruysdale asked.
"So whatever happened, happened after that," Jerry said.
"What happened? What do you mean 'whatever happened'?" I asked.
"I don't know what I mean," Jerry said. "You got any bright ideas, Mark?"
"First time in the ten years I've known him he hasn't followed routine."
"Hell man, I know that!" Jerry said, as if he hated me for reminding him.
"So what explanation can there be?" Ruysdale asked, still cool, still outwardly unmoved. But I knew her heart must have felt cold behind her handsome bosom. She loved the man, whether or not there was a special physical intimacy between them.
"A man in his fifties," Jerry said, "working round the clock at high pressures, could be subject to a heart attack. But he has to have it somewhere! I've alerted every place from the roof to the sub-cellars. Nothing. There are, of course, eight hundred and twenty rooms, all occupied by someone. And there are hundreds of offices, closets, storage places to be checked."
Ruysdale's tapering fingers gripped the edge of her desk. "You have to begin at the beginning, Jerry," she said. "He didn't check with the switchboard when he left his penthouse. First time ever. Why? He didn't have a heart attack or an accident in the penthouse or you would have found him there."
"We have to go back to two fifteen A.M.," Jerry said. "He was okay then. He called Kiley in the usual fashion.
"We don't know he was all right then," Ruysdale said. "If someone was with him. If he—if—"
Ruysdale looked at Jerry and then me. Fear had darkened her eyes. "He wouldn't leave the hotel voluntarily without checking with the switchboard. He wouldn't voluntarily change his routines without explaining in advance."
"You keep saying 'voluntarily,'" I said, knowing damn well what she meant. Only a crippling health seizure or a violence could account for his behavior. Since a preliminary search had failed to locate him, the health theory was doubtful. Violence, then. What kind of violence?
Jerry Dodd was thinking right along with me. "Let's take the grimmest possible view of it," he said. "Somebody out to get him."
"Why?" Ruysdale asked.
"Never mind 'why' for the moment," Jerry said. "Let's suppose someone was holding a gun on him when he checked out with Miss Kiley at two fifteen this morning. There would then be no calls, no interference. So, some maniac kills him."
"No!" It was a whisper from Ruysdale. Her lovely face had turned a sort of chalk white.
Excerpted from Death After Breakfast by Hugh Pentecost. Copyright © 1978 Judson Philips. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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