“Before the Play” by Stephen King
Scene III: On the Night of the Grand Masquerade
(read Scene I here)
(read Scene II here)
Downstairs, upstairs, in corners and hallways, the party went on
and on. The music was louder, the laughter was louder, the shrieks
were louder and sounded less and less like cries of pleasure and
amusement to Lewis Toner’s ears and more like cries of agony, the
sound of death-throes. Perhaps they were. There was a monster in
the hotel. As a matter of fact, a monster owned the hotel now. His
name was Horace Derwent.
Lewis Toner, who had come to the ball as a dog (at Horace’s
request, of course), reached the second floor and began to walk
down the hall toward his room, his shoulders slumped inside the hot
costume. The dog’s head, its muzzle set in a snarling rictus, was
He turned a corner and there was a couple entwined by one of the
fire extinguisher hoses, one of the Derwent Enterprises secretaries -
Patty? Sherry? Merry? - and one of Derwent’s bright young
subalterns, a fellow named Norman something. At first he thought
the girl was wearing a skin-tight ballerina’s leotard and then he
realized it was skin - she was naked from the waist down. Norman
was wearing some sort of Arabian nights thing, complete with
slippers that came to upturned points. His little toothbrush
moustache, grown in imitation of the boss, looked ridiculous in
Patty-Sherry-Merry giggled when she saw him and made no
attempt to cover herself. She was openly caressing Norman. The
thing was turning into an orgy.
"It’s Lewis," she said. "Woof-woof, doggie."
"Do a trick," Norman said thickly, breathing scotch fumes into his
face “Up, boy, up! Roll over! Shake hands.”
Lewis broke into a run, chased by their drunken laughter. You’ll
find out, he thought. You’ll find out when he turns on you like he
turned on me tonight.
At first he couldn’t get into his room because the door was locked
and the key was in his pants pocket and his pants were under the
dog costume and the costume’s zipper was in the back. He reached
and clutched and got it started and finally managed to get it down,
knowing that he must look to them grotesquely like a woman
wriggling out of her evening dress, and at last the hot, wolly dog
costume slipped off his shoulders and pooled around his feet.
Behind him their laughter went on and on grinding and mechanical,
reminding him of a date he had gone on with his first lover, a career
sailor originally from San Diego. Ronnie his name had been, and he
always had been called San Diego Dago. Just Dago. They had gone
to a carnival, and there had been a funhouse, and to the left of the
stage out front, under a huge canvas sign that said House of a
Thousand Thrills, there had been a mechanical clown that laughed
on and on the way they were laughing at him now as he fumbled his
room key from his pocket, on and on the clown had laughed,
prisoner of some circulating tape loop in its guts, cackling into an
uneasy night of shrieking carnival rides and cruising men and beer
and unshaded bulbs. Its mechanical body had leaned back and forth
as it laughed, and it had seemed to Lewis then that it was laughing
at him, a slight boy of nineteen, wearing spectacles and walking
close enough to the heavy-set, thirtyish sailor so that their hips
brushed from time to time with some miserable electricity. The
clown shrieked hoarse laughter, laughing at him the way the halfnaked
couple down the hall was laughing, laughing the way all of
them had laughed downstairs in the ballroom when Horace Derwent
put him through his paces.
Woof-woof, do Roll over. Shake hands.
The key turned-in the lock, he was inside, it was locked behind
"Thank God," Lewis murmured, and put his forehead against the
door. He fumbled at the bolt and shot it. He put on the safety
chain. At last he sat on the floor and pulled off the dog costume,
pulled it all the way off. He threw the head onto the sofa, where it
snarled at itself in the dressing table mirror.
He had been Horace’s lover for how long? Since 1939. Could it
really be seven years now? It could. It was. People had told him that
Derwent could go both ways and Lewis hadn’t believed them. Hadn’t
believed, that wasn’t quite right.
It was immaterial to you, the room seemed to whisper to him.
He looked around gratefully. That was it, that was just it. He had
joined the Derwent organization as a bookkeeper ten years ago, in
1936, just after Derwent had picked up the movie studio on the
depression market. Derwent’s Folly, people had called it then. They
didn’t know Horace Derwent, Lewis reflected.
Horace wasn’t like the others, the quick fumbles in the park, the
sailors, the fat and sweaty high school boys who spent too much
time in the movie theater bathrooms.
I know what I am, he had told Lewis, and locks and chains of fear,
long rusted, had fallen from Lewis’s heart, as if Horace had touched
some secret place in him with a magic wand. I choose to accept
what I am. Life is too short to let the world tell a man what he
should do and what he shouldn’t.
Lewis had been the head accountant of Derwent Enterprises since
early 1940. He had an apartment on the East Side of New York City,
and a bungalow in Hollywood. Horace Derwent had a key to each.
And some nights he would lie awake beside the big man (Lewis
weighed 135, and Horace Derwent lacked eleven pounds of weighing
twice that) until gray dawn was prying at the curtains, listening as
Derwent poured out everything … his plans to become the richest
individual on planet Earth.
The war is coming, Derwent said. We’ll be in it by April of 1942
and if we’re lucky it will go on until 1948. Derwent Enterprises can
plan on making three million dollars a year on the aircraft side
alone. You figure it out, Lew. When the war ends, Derwent is going
to be the biggest company in America.
It was not always business. It was a hundred other things. Derwent
speculating on how much could be made on a World Series if you
could pocket two of the umpires. Derwent talking about Las Vegas
and the plans he and some of his business associates had for it -
Vegas will be the playground of America in the 1960s if things go
right, Lew. His obsessional fear of cancer, which had killed his
mother at forty-six and all four of his grandparents. His interest in
geology, in long-range weather prediction, photo-copying machines,
and a possible something called 3-D movies. Lewis had listened to
these long rambling monologues enthralled, rarely speaking,
thinking: He tells me these things. Only me.
And so when people told him that Horace made it a practice to lay
any new female studio acquisitions before signing them, when they
told him that he kept a woman who was the current toast of
Broadway in a 5th Avenue penthouse apartment, when they told
him that Horace was a perfect study in amorality, a man who
honestly thought himself the only totally alive being in the world,
Lewis laughed them off. They didn’t know the man the way he did,
they had not listened to him talk the night away, leaping from
subject to subject like a ballet dancer … or like something rather
more deadly, a fencer perhaps, the greatest natural fencer of his
He dragged himself to his feet and went into the bathroom to
draw a tub of hot water. His body was slicked with sour sweat. His
head ached. His stomach was upset. And he knew that even with a
hot tub there would be no sleep for him tonight. And he hadn’t
brought his sleeping pills. He had even been lucky to get a seat on a
connecting flight from New York to Denver. He hadn’t been invited
on Horace’s chartered planeload of revellers. Even his invitation had
arrived late. Another studied insult.
The bathroom was spare white tile, old fashioned, hopeless. Lewis
put the plug in the tub and turned it on. He would lie sleepless in
his bed all night, listening to the shrieks of merriment from below,
playing the evening’s waking nightmare over again and again … why
had he forgotten his pills?
Roll over, doggie. Play dead. Woof-woof.
Horace had put on the golden chain in 1939, and when it served
his purpose he had knocked it off. That had happened tonight.
Lewis had been savaged in front of the whole crowd.
But didn’t you know it was coming? He asked himself wretchedly as
the water roared into the tub, smoking. The keys to the apartment
and the bungalow had come back to him in a Derwent Enterprises
envelope with an impersonal note from Horace’s personal secretary
saying that Lewis must have misplaced these. It suddenly became
very difficult to see the boss, who was often tied up. Lewis was
passed over for the board position that opened up when old
Hanneman had a heart attack … a board position that Horace had
practically promised him in the spring of 1943. Horace had been
seen around New York squiring the Broadway actress, which did not
bother Lewis, and also with his new social secretary, which
definitely did. The new social secretary was British, a small
compact man who was ten years younger than Lewis. And of course
Lewis had never been that handsome. Worst, Horace had purchased
the Overlook without even telling him, his own head accountant. It
had been Burrey, one of the execs in the aircraft division, who had
taken enough pity on Lewis to tell him that he was head accountant
now in name only, by contract only.
"He’s out to get you, boyo," Burrey said. "He’s got a sharp stick
with your name on it. He won’t fire you or demote you, it’s not his
style. That’s not how our Fearless Leader has his fun. Hell poke you
with that sharp stick. In the legs, in the belly, in the neck, in the
balls. Hell poke you and poke you until you run away. And if you
stay on after he’s gotten tired of the game, hell poke your eyes out
with his stick.”
"But why?" Lewis cried. "What did I do? My work has been perfect,
my … my …” But there was no way to talk about that to Burrey.
"You didn’t do anything," Burrey said patiently. "He’s not like other
people, Lew. He’s like a big, smart bab with a lot of pretty toys. He
plays with one until he gets tired of it, then he throws it away and
plays with a new one. That limey Hart is the new one. You got the
toss. And I in warning you. Don’t push it. He’ll make you the sorriest
man alive if you do.”
"Has he talked to you? Is that it?"
"No. And I’m not going to talk to you anymore. Because the walls
around here have ears and I like my job. I like to eat even better.
Good morning, Lew.”
But he hadn’t been able to leave it alone. Even when the invitation
to the masked ball had arrived late (with no accompanying letter
about the Derwent charter flight from New York to Colorado) he
hadn’t been able to leave it alone. He had been invited by Horace’s
commanding scrawl across the bottom of the invitation, written in
draftsman’s pencil as so much of his personal and inter-office
correspondence was: If you come, come as a dog.
Even then, even though the truth of everything Burrey had said
was borne out in that one scrawled sentence, he had not been able
to let go of it. He had preferred to see it as Horace’s own personal
request, albeit brusque, that he attend. He had gone to the most
expensive costumer in New York and even as he walked out with it
wrapped in brown paper under his arm, he had refused to see it the
other way. He had wanted to see it as Come home, Hon, all is
forgiven and not If you come, I’ll poke your eyes out, Lewis - this is
your only warning.
And now he knew. Oh yes, he knew. Everything.
The tub was full. Lewis turned off the water and slowly stripped
off his clothes. A hot tub was supposed to relax you, they said. Help
you to sleep. But nothing would help him tonight except his pills.
Which were in the medicine cabinet of his apartment, two thousand
miles east of here.
He turned his eyes to the bathroom medicine cabinet without
much hope. There was never anything in a hotel medicine cabinet
except maybe a box of tissues. Nevertheless he opened it and
stared in, hardly believing it. There was a hotel-sized box of
Kleenex, a water glass wrapped in waxed paper, and a small bottle
labelled simply Seconal. He took the bottle out and opened it. The
pills inside were large and pink. They looked like no Seconals Lewis
had ever seen before.
I’ll only take one, he thought. Stupid to take someone else’s
medicine anyway. Stupid and dangerous. And the hotel had stood
vacant since 1936, he reminded himself, when the last owner had
gone broke and shot himself. Surely those pills couldn’t have been
there since 1936? An uncomfortable thought. Maybe he’d better not
Up, boy, up! Woof- Woof! Good doggy … here’s a bone, doggy.
Well , just one then. And a hot tub. Maybe I will sleep.
But it was two of the pills he shook out into his hand, and after he
had unwrap d the water glass and taken them, he decided to take a
third. Then into the bathtub. A quick soak. Things would look better
in the morning
They found him at just past three o’clock the next afternoon. He
had apparently fallen asleep in the tub and drowned, although the
coroner, who was from Sidewinder, wasn’t exactly sure how an
accident like that could have happened, unless the man had been
drunk or drugged. The postmortem showed no sign of either. The
coroner asked for a private audience with Horace Derwent, and the
audience was granted.
"Listen here," the coroner said. "You said on the stand that there
was quite a party going on that night.”
Horace Derwent agreed that that was so.
"Could it have been that somebody might have gone up to this
fella Toner’s room and sort of held his head underwater? For a joke,
I mean. The kind of joke that sometimes can go too far.”
Derwent demurred strongly.
"Well, I know you are a busy man," the coroner said, "and the last I
want to do is to cause any trouble for a man who helped us to win
the war or the man who is planning to reopen the Overlook Hotel …
the Overlook always drew a lot of its chambermaids and busboys
and so on from right here in Sidewinder, you know …”
Derwent thanked him for the compliment and assured him that the
Overlook would continue to make use of the Sidewinder work force.
"But," the coroner said, "you have to understand the position I am
Derwent said he would do his best.
"With the water in Toner’s lungs, the county pathologist says
drowning was the cause of death. But a man don’t just drown in the
bathtub. If he falls asleep and his mouth and nose slip under, he
will wake up unless his reflexes are severely depressed. But this
man had only a trace of alcohol in him, no barbituates, no nothing.
There was no bump on his head to indicate he might have slipped
getting out. You see what a cat’s cradle I am in?”
Derwent agreed it was purely a puzzle.
"Now I have to at least think someone might have murdered him,"
the coroner went on. “Suicide’s out. You can kill yourself by
drowning, but I just don’t think you can do it in your bathtub. But
Derwent enquired about fingerprints.
"Now that’s sharp," the coroner said admiringly. "You’re probably
thinking of the cleaning that place took in the month before you
had your party. The chief of police, he thought of that too, since his
sister was one of the girls from Sidewinder that helped to do the
job. Why, there was thirty of them up there if there was one,
scrubbing that place from stem to stem. And since there was no
other help there when your party was held, our chief had a man
from the State Police come up and dust the whole room. They only
found Toner’s fingerprints.”
Derwent suggested that went a long way toward disproving the
"Oh, but it don’t," the coroner said, fetching a deep sigh from the
foundations of his large belly. “It might, if you folks had been having
any sort of a regular party. But it wasn’t a regular party; it was a
costume party. And God knows how many people were wearing
gloves or false hands as part of their outfits. You know that fella
Hart? The limey?”
Derwent admitted knowing his social secretary.
"That guy said he came as a devil and you came as a circus
ringmaster. So you were both wearing gloves. In a manner of
speaking, Toner himself was wearing gloves, when you think of his
dog costume. So you see the bind we’re in?”
Derwent said he saw.
"It don’t make me happy to have to instruct that jury to bring in an
'unknown causes' verdict. That will make every goddam paper in the
country. Millionaire Industrialist. Mysterious Death. All-Night Orgy
in Mountain Resort.”
Derwent protested with some asperity that it had been a party,
not an orgy.
"Oh, but it’s all the same to those guys on the yellow sheets," the
coroner said. “They could find a do turd in a basket of easter lillies.
It puts a black mark beside your name before you even get the
place opened up again. It makes it so you have to start out under a
cloud. What a bitter bitch.”
Horace Derwent leaned forward and began to talk. He discussed a
great many aspects of life and finance in the small mountain
community of Sidewinder, Colorado. He discussed various contracts
that might be drawn between the Overlook Hotel and the Municipal
Board of Sidewinder. He discussed the town’s need for a library and
for a school addition. He commiserated with the coroner on the
coroner’s own salary, so inadequate for a retired G.P. The coroner
began to smile and nod. And when Horace Derwent stood up,
looking a little paler than usual, the coroner stood with him.
"I believe it might have been some sort of seizure," the coroner
said. “Accidental death. Unfortunate.”
The story made no more than page two, even in the Colorado
papers. The Overlook opened on schedule, and nearly fifty percent
of the staff came from Sidewinder. It was good for the town. The
new library, donated by the Automatic Service Company of Colorado
(which was in turn owned by the Automatic Service Company of
America, which was in turn owned by Derwent Enterprises), was
good for the town. The police chief got a new cruiser and was able
to buy a ski-lodge in Aspen two years later. And the coroner retired
to St. Petersburg.
The Overlook eventually proved too much for Horace Derwent,
too, although it was never able to bankrupt him. But he had
conceived it as a glorious sort of toy for him to play with, and the
toy had gone sour for him when Lewis had, in a way, turned the
tables on Derwent’s revenge by dying so inexplicably in the bathtub.
He had been forced to buy a whole town to even commence
operations at his hotel, but that was not the humiliation, that was
not what made him hate Lewis for the way he had died. It was
being held up for common blackmail by a grinning small-town
coroner and having to give in. Years later, long after he had washed
his hands of the Overlook, Derwent would wake up the night from a
dream of that coroner’s voice as he slowly and efficiently beat him
into a corner that he would have to pay to get out of.
He would lie in the dark aftermath of the dream thinking: Cancer.
My mother was dead of cancer at my age.
And of course, he had never really been able to wash his hands of
the Overlook, not entirely. His relationship with it ceased, but not
its relationship with him. It only went underground. It existed in
secret books kept behind vault doors in places like Las Vegas and
Reno. It belonged to people who had done him favors, to whom he
owed favors in return. The kind of people that sometimes surfaced
in the bright are of some Senate subcommittee’s publicity.
Ownership shuffles. Laundered money. Hiding places and secret
sex. No, he had never really gotten shut of the Overlook. Murder
had been done there - somehow - and would be done there again.