Authors: Hugh Pentecost
The Shape of Fear
Open Road Integrated Media
ICHAEL DIGBY SULLIVAN, KNOWN
to his friends and the general public as Digger, was born into a pattern of melodrama. He was twelve years old when his father, a barn-storming and test pilot in the thirties, was shot down over the Burma jungles flying for General Chennault’s Tigers. Five years later his mother, the lovely Laura Lewis who played opposite most of Hollywood’s top male stars in the thirties and early forties, was killed in a plane crash on her way to entertain troops in the Pacific theatre for the
. Her seventeen-year-old son, when questioned by some Hollywood sob sister, made a prophetic remark.
“I am going to die on solid ground,” Digger Sullivan said.
That seventeen-year-old boy was left very handsomely fixed for money by his glamorous mother. He was dark, with a Greek god profile—one of those almost Spanish-looking Irishmen. Louella Parsons announced her conviction that he would have a distinguished career as an actor. She has been wrong on occasion and she was wrong about Digger Sullivan. He never appeared before a camera except of the newsreel variety. He never stepped on a stage.
His formal education was sketchy, but he had inherited his father’s fascination for high-powered engines. Digger lived up to the statement he’d made at the time of his mother’s tragic death. He stayed on the ground. Racing cars were his hobby, and by the time he was in his mid twenties, he had won most of the big road races in France, Italy, Mexico, and America. He designed and built his own cars. He walked away from a dozen crack-ups. At thirty he was at the top of the heap, rated with Stirling Moss and other greats. He was a familiar figure in most of the smart watering places abroad, where road racing is much more of a national institution than it is in America. His name had been linked with a dozen famous beauties, movie stars, models, high society debutantes. Marriage was apparently not a part of Digger’s plan for himself.
Then, in 1960, when he was thirty-two years old, Digger Sullivan was arrested by the Paris police, charged with the murder of one Colonel Georges Valmont. The chief witness for the prosecution was Juliet Valmont, the dead man’s daughter. She had been photographed with Sullivan a half a dozen times at public gatherings, and it had been rumored that Digger Sullivan was finally hooked. Now she charged him with the murder of her father. At a preliminary hearing Sullivan presented the court with an unbreakable alibi. Juliet Valmont persisted to the end that her father had named Digger with his dying breath and that she had actually seen Digger escaping from the scene. Sullivan was released, but the rumor persisted that his alibi had been expensively faked.
Digger was thirty-five years old in 1963 when, on a crisp fall afternoon, a floor maid at the Beaumont, New York City’s top luxury hotel, discovered him in a suite where he didn’t belong, apparently in the act of committing a robbery. The Beaumont’s security officer—“house detective” is not a title used at the Beaumont—was summoned by the maid, and Sullivan, grimly silent, was marched down to the resident manager’s office on the fourth floor.
What I have told you about Digger Sullivan is all I knew about him when he was brought into Chambrun’s office that afternoon. He had registered at the Beaumont four days ago, and it was my job, as public relations director of the hotel, to keep society columnists and the Broadway boys posted on arrivals of any news value. It was not my job to remind the press of Sullivan’s past troubles, and I knew no more about the murder case than its bare outlines. The newspapers hadn’t dug into their own files, and all that had appeared was mention of his arrival in New York and a listing of some of his achievements in the racing field.
The two men who faced each other across the carved Florentine desk in the manager’s office were complete physical opposites. The word “beauty” is not generally applied to men, but Digger Sullivan earned it. He was all male, about six feet three, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist. The magnificent profile reminded me of pictures I’d seen of the late John Barrymore at that age. What he felt at being here, caught in the incredible act of a theft, was concealed by the dark glasses that hid his eyes. He stood absolutely motionless, the glasses fixed steadily on Chambrun’s face. His silence, his stillness, were so attention-grabbing that I had difficulty listening to what Chambrun was saying. There was something old-world-romantic about Michael Digby Sullivan.
Pierre Chambrun, resident manager of the Beaumont and my boss, is a small dark man, stocky in build, with heavy pouches under black eyes that can be hard as a hanging judge’s or can unexpectedly twinkle with humor. He is, as his name suggests, French by birth, but he came to this country as a small boy and he thinks like an American. His training in the hotel business, in which he has now been involved for thirty years, has often taken him to Europe; he speaks several languages fluently; he can put on a continental manner that would knock your eye out. And he is king of his domain—the Beaumont. He knows every nook and cranny of the place, every minutest detail of its operation. He’s feared and loved by his hundreds of employees. He has a genius for delegating authority, but everyone who works for him knows that, in a clutch, he will always be willing to take the responsibility for a touchy decision. He’s respected by real kings and tycoons and political powers, and by movie stars and great ladies in the social world, and by busboys and washroom attendants and call girls and head waiters, and by the most temperamental of all people, chefs. I think his genius lies in the ability to show deference to the important, the famous, and the very rich without being servile, and to be friendly to people in the lower social echelons without being patronizing. But beyond these talents is the suggestion in his dark, hooded eyes that he knows more about you than you think he does—or should.
Chambrun sat behind his desk, smoking one of his inevitable Egyptian cigarettes, squinting through the smoke at Digger Sullivan who stood erect and motionless just inside the office door.
“Thank you for coming, Mr. Sullivan,” Chambrun said.
“I had very little choice,” Sullivan said. His voice was husky, his speech cultivated.
Chambrun gestured toward me. “Do you know Mr. Haskell, our public relations director?”
“You propose to make a field day of this in the press?” Sullivan asked.
“On the contrary, Mr. Sullivan. It wouldn’t help the Beaumont’s reputation to publicize the fact that we have a sneak thief on our guest list.”
A nerve twitched high up on Sullivan’s cheek.
Chambrun went on smoothly. “Mr. Haskell’s job will be to prevent such publicity, not to promote it. I’ve asked him to be here because I want a witness to our conversation.”
Sullivan didn’t reply or in any way acknowledge the introduction to me. I felţ embarrassed, as though I were the thief, not he.
Chambrun glanced down at a slip of paper on his desk. “Michael Digby Sullivan,” he said slowly, reading from the paper. “Sports-car designer, builder, and racing driver. Credit-A One. Personal checking account in five figures at the Waltham Trust Owner of a villa in the south of France, a house and a small automotive plant near Great Salt Flats in Utah; assets fluid, unmortgaged, income-producing.” Chambrun glanced up at the opaque black glasses.
“Your Gestapo seems to be very thorough,” Sullivan said.
Chambrun picked up a large square file card from his desk. “We keep records on our guests over the years, Mr. Sullivan,” he said. “You have been a guest here twice before. We have a sort of secret language we use on these cards in addition to your permanent address, your credit ratings, the names of your family if any. We take note of any history of difficulty with the management or employees; of any personal eccentricities that need catering to. If the letter A was on your card, it would indicate you are an alcoholic; W on a man’s card means an undue interest in women, possibly the expensive call girls who appear from time to time in the Trapeze Bar; M on a woman’s card means a manhunter; O arbitrarily stands for ‘over his head,’ meaning that particular guest can’t properly afford the Beaumont’s prices and shouldn’t be allowed to get in too deep; in the case of married couples, the letters MX means that the man is double-crossing his wife with some other woman, and WX means that the wife is cheating. Your card, Mr. Sullivan, is virgin-clean except for your addresses, bank and credit rating. A model guest involving no problems for management.” Chambrun put out his cigarette and promptly lit a fresh one. “Of course, we don’t have a medical history,” he said.
“It’s nice to know we can have some secrets,” Sullivan said drily.
“I’ve run across cases among the very rich who suffer from psychic disturbances,” Chambrun said. “Kleptomania, particularly among women in this category, isn’t too rare.”
“Is that your diagnosis?” Sullivan asked, his voice flat.
“No,” Chambrun said. He leaned back in his chair. “Early this afternoon you wangled a pass key from a floor maid on the grounds that you’d locked your own key inside your room. Fifteen minutes later the maid noticed a
DO NOT DISTURB
sign on the door of the suite occupied by a Monsieur and Madame Charles Girard. It so happened that she had seen the Girards leave their suite not half an hour before. She assumed the sign had been left on the door by accident, took it down, and unlocked the door to put the sign inside. She found you there, Mr. Sullivan, going through the Girards’ luggage and bureau.”
“Open-and-shut case it would seem,” Sullivan said.
“I have learned from the Girards that nothing is missing from their room. Didn’t you have time to find what you were looking for, Mr. Sullivan?”
Sullivan ignored the question, “Have you told the Girards I was the would-be thief?” he asked.
“No,” Chambrun said.
I thought I detected a sudden relaxing of tensions in Sullivan. He reached in the pocket of his handsome sports jacket for a cigarette.
“What were you looking for, Mr. Sullivan?” Chambrun asked, his smooth voice hardening.
Sullivan held a gold lighter to his cigarette. “Do you remember a place in Egypt called El Alamein?” he asked, as if he was changing the subject “Montgomery and Rommel fought a key campaign of World War Two there. It was a long holding operation at first. Allied and German troops planted something like two million land mines in the desert there. The war has now been over for some eighteen years. But do you know that for some reasons of red tape and general official blundering the location of those mines has never been revealed by either side? For eighteen years, as regularly as the rising and setting of the sun, natives of that area are blown to pieces by these concealed destroyers. You ask why we don’t do something about it. We do. The United Nations and such organizations as
supply artificial arms and legs for those unfortunates who have limbs blown off. Meanwhile, the bureaucrats discuss the technicalities of revealing the maps of the mine fields. It’s a neat little horror story that’s never given any public mention.”
Sullivan stopped talking and the office was silent for a moment
“A blood-curdling anecdote, Mr. Sullivan, but I don’t quite see what it has to do with the price of eggs,” Chambrun said.
“You asked me what I was looking for,” Sullivan said.
“And I still do.”
That nerve twitched in Sullivan’s pale cheek again. “I was looking for land mines,” he said. “Old land mines.”
Chambrun’s dark, hooded eyes held Sullivan in a steady stare. “Speaking figuratively,” he said.
“The land mine I’m looking for won’t blow up your hotel, Chambrun,” Sullivan said. “Not, at any rate, its steel and bricks and mortar.” He took a deep drag on his cigarette. “Your next move, I take it, is the police.”
Chambrun’s reply was a sharp surprise to me. “I should like to think about it,” he said. His eyes never left Sullivan’s face. “Madame Girard is, I believe, the former Juliet Valmont.”
Juliet Valmont who, three years ago, had publicly accused Sullivan of murder!
For the first time Sullivan avoided Chambrun’s steady stare. He turned toward the windows overlooking Central Park. “She is,” he said.
Chambrun stood up, indicating that the interview was over. “I know you are well aware, Mr. Sullivan, of the arrival here tomorrow of Monsieur Paul Bernardel as a special French envoy to the International Trade Commission. I suspect that’s why you’re here. I know of your past association with Monsieur Bernardel, and also with Madame Girard, nee Juliet Valmont. It’s unimportant where my sympathies lie. Every guest in this hotel is entitled to the same services, the same protection, the same privacy. Take note of that last word, Mr. Sullivan. How you solve your problem is up to you. But the Girards, as long as they are guests of the Beaumont, will receive my protection. If this should require calling in the police, they will be called.”