MURDER IN THE GUNROOM
By H. BEAM PIPER
NEW YORK Alfred A. Knopf 1953 FIRST EDITION
TO Colonel Henry W. Shoemaker an old and valued friend, who was promised this dedication, with an entirely different novel in mind, twenty-two years ago.
_The Lane Fleming collection of early pistols and revolvers was one of the best in the country. When Fleming was found dead on the floor of his locked gunroom, a Confederate-made Colt-type percussion .36 revolver in his hand, the coroner's verdict was "death by accident." But Gladys Fleming had her doubts. Enough at any rate to engage Colonel Jefferson Davis Rand—better known just as Jeff—private detective and a pistol-collector himself, to catalogue, appraise, and negotiate the sale of her late husband's collection.
There were a number of people who had wanted the collection. The question was: had anyone wanted it badly enough to kill Fleming? And if so, how had he done it? Here is a mystery, told against the fascinating background of old guns and gun-collecting, which is rapid-fire without being hysterical, exciting without losing its contact with reason, and which introduces a personable and intelligent new private detective. It is a story that will keep your nerves on a hair trigger even if you don't know the difference between a cased pair of Paterson .34's and a Texas .40 with a ramming-lever._
It was hard to judge Jeff Rand's age from his appearance; he was certainly over thirty and considerably under fifty. He looked hard and fit, like a man who could be a serviceable friend or a particularly unpleasant enemy. Women instinctively suspected that he would make a most satisfying lover. One might have taken him for a successful lawyer (he had studied law, years ago), or a military officer in mufti (he still had a Reserve colonelcy, and used the title occasionally, to impress people who he thought needed impressing), or a prosperous businessman, as he usually thought of himself. Most of all, he looked like King Charles II of England anachronistically clad in a Brooks Brothers suit.
At the moment, he was looking rather like King Charles II being bothered by one of his mistresses who wanted a peerage for her husband.
"But, Mrs. Fleming," he was expostulating. "There surely must be somebody else.... After all, you'll have to admit that this isn't the sort of work this agency handles."
The would-be client released a series of smoke-rings and watched them float up toward the air-outlet at the office ceiling. It spoke well for Rand's ability to subordinate esthetic to business considerations that he was trying to give her a courteous and humane brush-off. She made even the Petty and Varga girls seem credible. Her color-scheme was blue and gold; blue eyes, and a blue tailored outfit that would have looked severe on a less curvate figure, and a charmingly absurd little blue hat perched on a mass of golden hair. If Rand had been Charles II, she could have walked out of there with a duchess's coronet, and Nell Gwyn would have been back selling oranges.
"Why isn't it?" she countered. "Your door's marked Tri-State Detective Agency, Jefferson Davis Rand, Investigation and Protection. Well, I want to know how much the collection's worth, and who'll pay the closest to it. That's investigation, isn't it? And I want protection from being swindled. And don't tell me you can't do it. You're a pistol-collector, yourself; you have one of the best small collections in the state. And you're a recognized authority on early pistols; I've read some of your articles in the Rifleman. If you can't handle this, I don't know who can."
Rand's frown deepened. He wondered how much Gladys Fleming knew about the principles of General Semantics. Even if she didn't know anything, she was still edging him into an untenable position. He hastily shifted from the attempt to identify his business with the label, "private detective agency."
"Well, here, Mrs. Fleming," he explained. "My business, including armed-guard and protected-delivery service, and general investigation and protection work, requires some personal supervision, but none of it demands my exclusive attention. Now, if you wanted some routine investigation made, I could turn it over to my staff, maybe put two or three men to work on it. But there's nothing about this business of yours that I could delegate to anybody; I'd have to do it all myself, at the expense of neglecting the rest of my business. Now, I could do what you want done, but it would cost you three or four times what you'd gain by retaining me."
"Well, let me decide that, Colonel," she replied. "How much would you have to have?"
"Well, this collection of your late husband's consists of some twenty-five hundred pistols and revolvers, all types and periods," Rand said. "You want me to catalogue it, appraise each item, issue lists, and negotiate with prospective buyers. The cataloguing and appraisal alone would take from a week to ten days, and it would be a couple more weeks until a satisfactory sale could be arranged. Why, say five thousand dollars; a thousand as a retainer and the rest on completion."
That, he thought, would settle that. He was expecting an indignant outcry, and hardened his heart, like Pharaoh. Instead, Gladys Fleming nodded equably.
"That seems reasonable enough, Colonel Rand, considering that you'd have to be staying with us at Rosemont, away from your office," she agreed. "I'll give you a check for the thousand now, with a letter of authorization."
Rand nodded in return. Being thoroughly conscious of the fact that he could only know a thin film of the events on the surface of any situation, he was not easily surprised.
"Very well," he said. "You've hired an arms-expert. I'll be in Rosemont some time tomorrow afternoon. Now, who are these prospective purchasers you mentioned, and just how prospective, in terms of United States currency, are they?"
"Well, for one, there's Arnold Rivers; he's offering ten thousand for the collection. I suppose you know of him; he has an antique-arms business at Rosemont."
"I've done some business with him," Rand admitted. "Who else?"
"There's a commission-dealer named Carl Gwinnett, who wants to handle the collection for us, for twenty per cent. I'm told that that isn't an unusually exorbitant commission, but I'm not exactly crazy about the idea."
"You shouldn't be, if you want your money in a hurry," Rand told her. "He'd take at least five years to get everything sold. He wouldn't dump the whole collection on the market at once, upset prices, and spoil his future business. You know, two thousand five hundred pistols of the sort Mr. Fleming had, coming on the market in a lot, could do just that. The old-arms market isn't so large that it couldn't be easily saturated."
"That's what I'd been thinking.... And then, there are some private collectors, mostly friends of Lane's—Mr. Fleming's—who are talking about forming a pool to buy the collection for distribution among themselves," she continued.
"That's more like it," Rand approved. "If they can raise enough money among them, that is. They won't want the stuff for resale, and they may pay something resembling a decent price. Who are they?"
"Well, Stephen Gresham appears to be the leading spirit," she said. "The corporation lawyer, you know. Then, there is a Mr. Trehearne, and a Mr. MacBride, and Philip Cabot, and one or two others."
"I know Gresham and Cabot," Rand said. "They're both friends of mine, and I have an account with Cabot, Joyner & Teale, Cabot's brokerage firm. I've corresponded with MacBride; he specializes in Colts.... You're the sole owner, I take it?"
"Well, no." She paused, picking her words carefully. "We may just run into a little trouble, there. You see, the collection is part of the residue of the estate, left equally to myself and my two stepdaughters, Nelda Dunmore and Geraldine Varcek. You understand, Mr. Fleming and I were married in 1941; his first wife died fifteen years before."
"Well, your stepdaughters, now; would they also be my clients?"
"Good Lord, no!" That amused her considerably more than it did Rand. "Of course," she continued, "they're just as interested in selling the collection for the best possible price, but beyond that, there may be a slight divergence of opinion. For instance, Nelda's husband, Fred Dunmore, has been insisting that we let him handle the sale of the pistols, on the grounds that he is something he calls a businessman. Nelda supports him in this. It was Fred who got this ten-thousand-dollar offer from Rivers. Personally, I think Rivers is playing him for a sucker. Outside his own line, Fred is an awful innocent, and I've never trusted this man Rivers. Lane had some trouble with him, just before ..."
"Arnold Rivers," Rand said, when it was evident that she was not going to continue, "has the reputation, among collectors, of being the biggest crook in the old-gun racket, a reputation he seems determined to live up—or down—to. But here; if your stepdaughters are co-owners, what's my status? What authority, if any, have I to do any negotiating?"
Gladys Fleming laughed musically. "That, my dear Colonel, is where you earn your fee," she told him. "Actually, it won't be as hard as it looks. If Nelda gives you any argument, you can count on Geraldine to take your side as a matter of principle; if Geraldine objects first, Nelda will help you steam-roll her into line. Fred Dunmore is accustomed to dealing with a lot of yes-men at the plant; you shouldn't have any trouble shouting him down. Anton Varcek won't be interested, one way or another; he has what amounts to a pathological phobia about firearms of any sort. And Humphrey Goode, our attorney, who's executor of the estate, will welcome you with open arms, once he finds out what you want to do. That collection has him talking to himself, already. Look; if you come out to our happy home in the early afternoon, before Fred and Anton get back from the plant, we ought to ram through some sort of agreement with Geraldine and Nelda."
"You and whoever else sides with me will be a majority," Rand considered. "Of course, the other one may pull a Gromyko on us, but ... I think I'll talk to Goode, first."
"Yes. That would be smart," Gladys Fleming agreed. "After all, he's responsible for selling the collection." She crossed to the desk and sat down in Rand's chair while she wrote out the check and a short letter of authorization, then she returned to her own seat.
"There's another thing," she continued, lighting a fresh cigarette. "Because of the manner of Mr. Fleming's death, the girls have a horror of the collection almost—but not quite—as strong as their desire to get the best possible price for it."
"Yes. I'd heard that Mr. Fleming had been killed in a firearms accident, last November," Rand mentioned.
"It was with one of his collection-pieces," the widow replied. "One he'd bought just that day; a Confederate-made Colt-type percussion .36 revolver. He'd brought it home with him, simply delighted with it, and started cleaning it at once. He could hardly wait until dinner was over to get back to work on it.
"We'd finished dinner about seven, or a little after. At about half-past, Nelda went out somewhere in the coupe. Anton had gone up to his laboratory, in the attic—he's one of these fortunates whose work is also his hobby; he's a biochemist and dietitian—and Lane was in the gunroom, on the second floor, working on his new revolver. Fred Dunmore was having a bath, and Geraldine and I had taken our coffee into the east parlor. Geraldine put on the radio, and we were listening to it.
"It must have been about 7:47 or 7:48, because the program had changed and the first commercial was just over, when we heard a loud noise from somewhere upstairs. Neither of us thought of a shot; my own first idea was of a door slamming. Then, about five minutes later, we heard Anton, in the upstairs hall, pounding on a door, and shouting: 'Lane! Lane! Are you all right?' We ran up the front stairway, and found Anton, in his rubber lab-apron, and Fred, in a bathrobe, and barefooted, standing outside the gunroom door. The door was locked, and that in itself was unusual; there's a Yale lock on it, but nobody ever used it.
"For a minute or so, we just stood there. Anton was explaining that he had heard a shot and that nobody in the gunroom answered. Geraldine told him, rather impatiently, to go down to the library and up the spiral. You see," she explained, "the library is directly under the gunroom, and there's a spiral stairway connecting the two rooms. So Anton went downstairs and we stood waiting in the hall. Fred was shivering in his bathrobe; he said he'd just jumped out of the bathtub, and he had nothing on under it. After a while, Anton opened the gunroom door from the inside, and stood in the doorway, blocking it. He said: 'You'd better not come in. There's been an accident, but it's too late to do anything. Lane's shot himself with one of those damned pistols; I always knew something like this would happen.'
"Well, I simply elbowed him out of the way and went in, and the others followed me. By this time, the uproar had penetrated to the rear of the house, and the servants—Walters, the butler, and Mrs. Horder, the cook—had joined us. We found Lane inside, lying on the floor, shot through the forehead. Of course, he was dead. He'd been sitting on one of these old cobblers' benches of the sort that used to be all the thing for cocktail-tables; he had his tools and polish and oil and rags on it. He'd fallen off it to one side and was lying beside it. He had a revolver in his right hand, and an oily rag in his left."
"Was it the revolver he'd brought home with him?" Rand asked.
"I don't know," she replied. "He showed me this Confederate revolver when he came home, but it was dirty and dusty, and I didn't touch it. And I didn't look closely at the one he had in his hand when he was ... on the floor. It was about the same size and design; that's all I could swear to." She continued: "We had something of an argument about what to do. Walters, the butler, offered to call the police. He's English, and his mind seems to run naturally to due process of law. Fred and Anton both howled that proposal down; they wanted no part of the police. At the same time, Geraldine was going into hysterics, and I was trying to get her quieted down. I took her to her room and gave her a couple of sleeping-pills, and then went back to the gunroom. While I was gone, it seems that Anton had called our family doctor, Dr. Yardman, and then Fred called Humphrey Goode, our lawyer. Goode lives next door to us, about two hundred yards away, so he arrived almost at once. When the doctor came, he called the coroner, and when he arrived, about an hour later, they all went into a huddle and decided that it was an obvious accident and that no inquest would be necessary. Then somebody, I'm not sure who, called an undertaker. It was past eleven when he arrived, and for once, Nelda got home early. She was just coming in while they were carrying Lane out in a basket. You can imagine how horrible that was for her; it was days before she was over the shock. So she'll be just as glad as anybody to see the last of the pistol-collection."
Through the recital, Rand had sat silently, toying with the ivory-handled Italian Fascist dagger-of-honor that was doing duty as a letter-opener on his desk. Gladys Fleming wasn't, he was sure, indulging in any masochistic self-harrowing; neither, he thought, was she talking to relieve her mind. Once or twice there had been a small catch in her voice, but otherwise the narration had been a piece of straight reporting, neither callous nor emotional. Good reporting, too; carefully detailed. There had been one or two inclusions of inferential matter in the guise of description, but that was to be looked for and discounted. And she had remembered, at the end, to include her ostensible reason for telling the story.
"Yes, it must have been dreadful," he sympathized. "Odd, though, that an old hand with guns like Mr. Fleming would have an accident like that. I met him, once or twice, and was at your home to see his collection, a couple of years ago. He impressed me as knowing firearms pretty thoroughly.... Well, you can look for me tomorrow, say around two. In the meantime, I'll see Goode, and also Gresham and Arnold Rivers."
After ushering his client out the hall door and closing it behind her, Rand turned and said:
"All right, Kathie, or Dave; whoever's out there. Come on in."
Then he went to his desk and reached under it, snapping off a switch. As he straightened, the door from the reception-office opened and his secretary, Kathie O'Grady, entered, loading a cigarette into an eight-inch amber holder. She was a handsome woman, built on the generous lines of a Renaissance goddess; none of the Renaissance masters, however, had ever employed a model so strikingly Hibernian. She had blue eyes, and a fair, highly-colored complexion; she wore green, which went well with her flaming red hair, and a good deal of gold costume-jewelry.
Behind her came Dave Ritter. He was Rand's assistant, and also Kathie's lover. He was five or six years older than his employer, and slightly built. His hair, fighting a stubborn rearguard action against baldness, was an indeterminate mousy gray-brown. It was one of his professional assets that nobody ever noticed him, not even in a crowd of one; when he wanted it to, his thin face could assume the weary, baffled expression of a middle-aged book-keeper with a wife and four children on fifty dollars a week. Actually, he drew three times that much, had no wife, admitted to no children. During the war, he and Kathie had kept the Tri-State Agency in something better than a state of suspended animation while Rand had been in the Army.
Ritter fumbled a Camel out of his shirt pocket and made a beeline for the desk, appropriating Rand's lighter and sharing the flame with Kathie.
"You know, Jeff," he said, "one of the reasons why this agency never made any money while you were away was that I never had the unadulterated insolence to ask the kind of fees you do. I was listening in on the extension in the file-room; I could hear Kathie damn near faint when you said five grand."
"Yes; five thousand dollars for appraising a collection they've been offered ten for, and she only has a third-interest," Kathie said, retracting herself into the chair lately vacated by Gladys Fleming. "If that makes sense, now ..."
"Ah, don't you get it, Kathleen Mavourneen?" Ritter asked. "She doesn't care about the pistols; she wants Jeff to find out who fixed up that accident for Fleming. You heard that big, long shaggy-dog story about exactly what happened and where everybody was supposed to have been at the time. I hope you got all that recorded; it was all told for a purpose."
Rand had picked up the outside phone and was dialing. In a moment, a girl's voice answered.
"Carter Tipton's law-office; good afternoon."
"Hello, Rheba; is Tip available?"
"Oh, hello, Jeff. Just a sec; I'll see." She buzzed another phone. "Jeff Rand on the line," she announced.
A clear, slightly Harvard-accented male voice took over.
"Hello, Jeff. Now what sort of malfeasance have you committed?"
"Nothing, so far—cross my fingers," Rand replied. "I just want a little information. Are you busy?... Okay, I'll be up directly."
He replaced the phone and turned to his disciples.
"Our client," he said, "wants two jobs done on one fee. Getting the pistol-collection sold is one job. Exploring the whys and wherefores of that quote accident unquote is the other. She has a hunch, and probably nothing much better, that there's something sour about the accident. She expects me to find evidence to that effect while I'm at Rosemont, going over the collection. I'm not excluding other possibilities, but I'll work on that line until and unless I find out differently. Five thousand should cover both jobs."
"You think that's how it is?" Kathie asked.
"Look, Kathie. I got just as far in Arithmetic, at school, as you did, and I suspect that Mrs. Fleming got at least as far as long division, herself. For reasons I stated, I simply couldn't have handled that collection business for anything like a reasonable fee, so I told her five thousand, thinking that would stop her. When it didn't, I knew she had something else in mind, and when she went into all that detail about the death of her husband, she as good as told me that was what it was. Now I'm sorry I didn't say ten thousand; I think she'd have bought it at that price just as cheerfully. She thinks Lane Fleming was murdered. Well, on the face of what she told me, so do I."
"All right, Professor; expound," Ritter said.
"You heard what he was supposed to have shot himself with," Rand began. "A Colt-type percussion revolver. You know what they're like. And I know enough about Lane Fleming to know how much experience he had with old arms. I can't believe that he'd buy a pistol without carefully examining it, and I can't believe that he'd bring that thing home and start working on it without seeing the caps on the nipples and the charges in the chambers, if it had been loaded. And if it had been, he would have first taken off the caps, and then taken it apart and drawn the charges. And she says he started working on it as soon as he got home—presumably around five—and then took time out for dinner, and then went back to work on it, and more than half an hour later, there was a shot and he was killed." Rand blew a Bronx cheer. "If that accident had been the McCoy, it would have happened in the first five minutes after he started working on that pistol. No, in the first thirty seconds. And then, when they found him, he had the revolver in his right hand, and an oily rag in his left. I hope both of you noticed that little touch."
"Yeah. When I clean a gat, I generally have it in my left hand, and clean with my right," Ritter said.
"Exactly. And why do you use an oily rag?" Rand inquired.
Ritter looked at him blankly for a half-second, then grinned ruefully.
"Damn, I never thought of that," he admitted. "Okay, he was bumped off, all right."
"But you use oily rags on guns," Kathie objected. "I've seen both of you, often enough."
"When we're all through, honey," Ritter told her.
"Yes. When he brought home that revolver, it was in neglected condition," Rand said. "Either surface-rusted, or filthy with gummed oil and dirt. Even if Mrs. Fleming hadn't mentioned that point, the length of time he spent cleaning it would justify such an inference. He would have taken it apart, down to the smallest screw, and cleaned everything carefully, and then put it together again, and then, when he had finished, he would have gone over the surface with an oiled rag, before hanging it on the wall. He would certainly not have surface-oiled it before removing the charges, if there ever were any. I assume the revolver he was found holding, presumably the one with which he was killed, was another one. And I would further assume that the killer wasn't particularly familiar with the subject of firearms, antique, care and maintenance of."
"And with all the hollering and whooping and hysterics-throwing, nobody noticed the switch," Ritter finished. "Wonder what happened to the one he was really cleaning."
"That I may possibly find out," Rand said. "The general incompetence with which this murder was committed gives me plenty of room to hope that it may still be lying around somewhere."
"Well, have you thought that it might just be suicide?" Kathie asked.
"I have, very briefly; I dismissed the thought, almost at once," Rand told her. "For two reasons. One, that if it had been suicide, Mrs. Fleming wouldn't want it poked into; she'd be more than willing to let it ride as an accident. And, two, I doubt if a man who prided himself on his gun-knowledge, as Fleming did, would want his self-shooting to be taken for an accident. I'm damn sure I wouldn't want my friends to go around saying: 'What a dope; didn't know it was loaded!' I doubt if he'd even expect people to believe that it had been an accident." He shook his head. "No, the only inference I can draw is that somebody murdered Fleming, and then faked evidence intended to indicate an accident." He rose. "I'll be back, in a little; think it over, while I'm gone."
* * * * *
Carter Tipton had his law-office on the floor above the Tri-State Detective Agency. He handled all Rand's not infrequent legal involvements, and Rand did all his investigating and witness-chasing; annually, they compared books to see who owed whom how much. Tipton was about five years Rand's junior, and had been in the Navy during the war. He was frequently described as New Belfast's leading younger attorney and most eligible bachelor. His dark, conservatively cut clothes fitted him as though they had been sprayed on, he wore gold-rimmed glasses, and he was so freshly barbered, manicured, valeted and scrubbed as to give the impression that he had been born in cellophane and just unwrapped. He leaned back in his chair and waved his visitor to a seat.
"Tip, do you know anything about this Fleming family, out at Rosemont?" Rand began, getting out his pipe and tobacco.
"The Premix-Foods Flemings?" Tipton asked. "Yes, a little. Which one of them wants you to frame what on which other one?"
"That'll do for a good, simplified description, to start with," Rand commented. "Why, my client is Mrs. Gladys Fleming. As to what she wants...."
He told the young lawyer about his recent interview and subsequent conclusions.
"So you see," he finished, "she won't commit herself, even with me. Maybe she thinks I have more official status, and more obligations to the police, than I have. Maybe she isn't sure in her own mind, and wants me to see, independently, if there's any smell of something dead in the woodpile. Or, she may think that having a private detective called in may throw a scare into somebody. Or maybe she thinks somebody may be fixing up an accident for her, next, and she wants a pistol-totin' gent in the house for a while. Or any combination thereof. Personally, I deplore these clients who hire you to do one thing and expect you to do another, but with five grand for sweetening, I can take them."
"Yes. You know, I've heard rumors of suicide, but this is the first whiff of murder I've caught." He hesitated slightly. "I must say, I'm not greatly surprised. Lane Fleming's death was very convenient to a number of people. You know about this Premix Company, don't you?"
"Vaguely. They manufacture ready-mixed pancake flour, and ready-mixed ice-cream and pudding powders, and this dehydrated vegetable soup—pour on hot water, stir, and serve—don't they? My colored boy, Buck, got some of the soup, once, for an experiment. We unanimously voted not to try it again."
"They put out quite a line of such godsends to the neophyte in the kitchen, the popularity of which is reflected in a steadily rising divorce-rate," Tipton said. "They advertise very extensively, including half an hour of tear-jerking drama on a national hookup during soap-opera time. Your client, the former Gladys Farrand, was on the air for Premix for a couple of years; that's how Lane Fleming first met her."
"So you think some irate and dyspeptic husband went to the source of his woes?" Rand inquired.
"Well, not exactly. You see, Premix is only Little Business, as the foods industry goes, but they have something very sweet. So sweet, in fact, that one of the really big fellows, National Milling & Packaging, has been going to rather extreme lengths to effect a merger. Mill-Pack, par 100, is quoted at around 145, and Premix, par 50, is at 75 now, and Mill-Pack is offering a two-for-one-share exchange, which would be a little less than four-for-one in value. I might add, for what it's worth, that this Stephen Gresham you mentioned is Mill-Pack's attorney, negotiator, and general Mr. Fixit; he has been trying to put over this merger for Mill-Pack."
"I'll bear that in mind, too," Rand said.
"Naturally, all this is not being shouted from the housetops," Tipton continued. "Fact is, it's a minor infraction of ethics for me to mention it to you."
"I'll file it in the burn-box," Rand promised. "What was the matter; didn't Premix want to merge?"
"Lane Fleming didn't. And since he held fifty-two per cent of the common stock himself, try and do anything about it."
"Anything short of retiring Fleming to the graveyard, that is," Rand amended. "That would do for a murder-motive, very nicely.... What were Fleming's objections to the merger?"
"Mainly sentimental. Premix was his baby, or, at least, his kid brother. His father started mixing pancake flour back before the First World War, and Lane Fleming peddled it off a spring wagon. They worked up a nice little local trade, and finally a state-wide wholesale business. They incorporated in the early twenties, and then, after the old man died, Lane Fleming hired an advertising agency to promote his products, and built up a national distribution, and took on some sidelines. Then, during the late Mr. Chamberlain's 'Peace in our time,' he picked up a refugee Czech chemist and foods-expert named Anton Varcek, who whipped up a lot of new products. So business got better and better, and they made more money to spend on advertising to get more money to buy more advertising to make more money, like Bill Nye's Puritans digging clams in the winter to get strength to hoe corn in the summer to get strength to dig clams in the winter.
"So Premix became a sort of symbol of achievement to Fleming. Then, he was one of these old-model paternalistic employers, and he was afraid that if he relinquished control, a lot of his old retainers would be turned out to grass. And finally, he was opposed in principle to concentration of business ownership. He claimed it made business more vulnerable to government control and eventual socialization."
"I'm not sure he didn't have something there," Rand considered. "We get all our corporate eggs in a few baskets, and they're that much easier for the planned-economy boys to grab.... Just who, on the Premix side, was in favor of this merger?"
"Just about everybody but Fleming," Tipton replied. "His two sons-in-law, Fred Dunmore and Varcek, who are first and second vice presidents. Humphrey Goode, the company attorney, who doubles as board chairman. All the directors. All the New York banking crowd who are interested in Premix. And all the two-share tinymites. I don't know who inherits Fleming's voting interest, but I can find out for you by this time tomorrow."
"Do that, Tip, and bill me for what you think finding out is worth," Rand said. "It'll be a novel reversal of order for you to be billing me for an investigation.... Now, how about the family, as distinct from the company?"
"Well, there's your client, Gladys Fleming. She married Lane Fleming about ten years ago, when she was twenty-five and he was fifty-five. In spite of the age difference, I understand it was a fairly happy marriage. Then, there are two daughters by a previous marriage, Nelda Dunmore and Geraldine Varcek, and their respective husbands. They all live together, in a big house at Rosemont. In the company, Dunmore is Sales, and Varcek is Production. They each have a corner of the mantle of Lane Fleming in one hand and a dirk in the other. Nelda and Geraldine hate each other like Greeks and Trojans. Nelda is the nymphomaniac sister, and Geraldine is the dipsomaniac. From time to time, temporary alliances get formed, mainly against Gladys; all of them resent the way she married herself into a third-interest in the estate. You're going to have yourself a nice, pleasant little stay in the country."
"I'm looking forward to it." Rand grimaced. "You mentioned suicide rumors. Such as, and who's been spreading them?"
"Oh, they are the usual bodyless voices that float about," Tipton told him. "Emanating, I suspect, from sources interested in shaking out the less sophisticated small shareholders before the merger. The story is always approximately the same: That Lane Fleming saw his company drifting reefward, was unwilling to survive the shipwreck, and performed seppuku. The family are supposed to have faked up the accident afterward. I dismiss the whole thing as a rather less than subtle bit of market-manipulation chicanery."
"Or a smoke screen, to cover the defects in camouflaging a murder as an accident," Rand added.
Tipton nodded. "That could be so, too," he agreed. "Say somebody dislikes the looks of that accident, and starts investigating. Then he runs into all this miasma of suicide rumors, and promptly shrugs the whole thing off. Fleming killed himself, and the family made a few alterations and are passing it off as an accident. The families of suicides have been known to do that."
"Yes. Regular defense-in-depth system; if the accident line is penetrated, the suicide line is back of it," Rand said. "Well, in the last few years, we've seen defenses in depth penetrated with monotonous regularity. I've jeeped through a couple, myself, to interrogate the surviving ex-defenders. It's all in having the guns and armor to smash through with."
Humphrey Goode was sixty-ish, short and chunky, with a fringe of white hair around a bald crown. His brow was corrugated with wrinkles, and he peered suspiciously at Rand through a pair of thick-lensed, black-ribboned glasses. His wide mouth curved downward at the corners in an expression that was probably intended to be stern and succeeded only in being pompous. His office was dark, and smelled of dusty books.
"Mr. Rand," he began accusingly, "when your secretary called to make this appointment, she informed me that you had been retained by Mrs. Gladys Fleming."
"That's correct." Rand slowly packed tobacco into his pipe and lit it. "Mrs. Fleming wants me to look after some interests of hers, and as you're executor of her late husband's estate, I thought I ought to talk to you, first of all."
Goode's eyes narrowed behind the thick glasses.
"Mr. Rand, if you're investigating the death of Lane Fleming, you're wasting your time and Mrs. Fleming's money," he lectured. "There is nothing whatever for you to find out that is not already public knowledge. Mr. Fleming was accidentally killed by the discharge of an old revolver he was cleaning. I don't know what foolish feminine impulse led Mrs. Fleming to employ you, but you'll do nobody any good in this matter, and you may do a great deal of harm."
"Did my secretary tell you I was making an investigation?" Rand demanded incredulously. "She doesn't usually make mistakes of that sort."
The wrinkles moved up Goode's brow like a battalion advancing in platoon front. He looked even more narrowly at Rand, his suspicion compounded with bewilderment.
"Why should I investigate the death of Lane Fleming?" Rand continued. "As far as I know, Mrs. Fleming is satisfied that it was an accident. She never expressed any other belief to me. Do you think it was anything else?"
"Why, of course not!" Goode exclaimed. "That's just what I was telling you. I—" He took a fresh start. "There have been rumors—utterly without foundation, of course—that Mr. Fleming committed suicide. They are, I may say, nothing but malicious fabrications, circulated for the purpose of undermining public confidence in Premix Foods, Incorporated. I had thought that perhaps Mrs. Fleming might have heard them, and decided, on her own responsibility, to bring you in to scotch them; I was afraid that such a step might, by giving these rumors fresh currency, defeat its intended purpose."
"Oh, nothing of the sort!" Rand told him. "I'm not in the least interested in how Mr. Fleming was killed, and the question is simply not involved in what Mrs. Fleming wants me to do."
He stopped there. Goode was looking at him sideways, sucking in one corner of his mouth and pushing out the other. It was not a facial contortion that impressed Rand favorably; it was too reminiscent of a high-school principal under whom he had suffered, years ago, in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Rand began to suspect that Goode might be just another such self-righteous, opinionated, egotistical windbag. Such men could be dangerous, were usually quite unscrupulous, and were almost always unpleasant to deal with.
"Then why," the lawyer demanded, "did Mrs. Fleming employ you?"
"Well, as you know," Rand began, "the Fleming pistol-collection, now the joint property of Mrs. Fleming and her two stepdaughters, is an extremely valuable asset. Mr. Fleming spent the better part of his life gathering it. At one time or another, he must have owned between four and five thousand different pistols and revolvers. The twenty-five hundred left to his heirs represent the result of a systematic policy of discriminating purchase, replacement of inferior items, and general improvement. It's one of the largest and most famous collections of its kind in the country."
"Well?" Goode was completely out of his depth by now. "Surely Mrs. Fleming doesn't think...?"
"Mrs. Fleming thinks that expert advice is urgently needed in disposing of that collection," Rand replied, carefully picking his words to fit what he estimated to be Goode's probable semantic reactions. "She has the utmost confidence in your ability and integrity, as an attorney; however, she realized that you could hardly describe yourself as an antique-arms expert. It happens that I am an expert in antique firearms, particularly pistols. I have a collection of my own, I am the author of a number of articles on the subject, and I am recognized as something of an authority. I know arms-values, and understand market conditions. Furthermore, not being a dealer, or connected with any museum, I have no mercenary motive for undervaluing the collection. That's all there is to it; Mrs. Fleming has retained me as a firearms-expert, in connection with the collection."
Goode was looking at Rand as though the latter had just torn off a mask, revealing another and entirely different set of features underneath. The change seemed to be a welcome one, but he was evidently having trouble adjusting to it. Rand grinned inwardly; now he was going to have to find himself a new set of verbal labels and identifications.
"Well, Mr. Rand, that alters the situation considerably," he said, with noticeably less hostility. He was still a bit resentful; people had no right to confuse him by jumping about from one category to another, like that. "Now understand, I'm not trying to be offensive, but it seems a little unusual for a private detective also to be an authority on antique firearms."
"Mr. Fleming was an authority on antique firearms, and he was a manufacturer of foodstuffs," Rand parried, carefully staying inside Goode's Aristotelian system of categories and verbal identifications. "My own business does not occupy all my time, any more than his did, and I doubt if an interest in the history and development of deadly weapons is any more incongruous in a criminologist than in an industrialist. But if there's any doubt in your mind as to my qualifications, you can check with Colonel Taylor, at the State Museum, or with the editor of the American Rifleman."
"I see." Goode nodded. "And as you point out, being a sort of non-professional expert, you should be free from mercenary bias." He nodded again, taking off his glasses and polishing them on an outsize white handkerchief. "Frankly, now that I understand your purpose, Mr. Rand, I must say that I am quite glad that Mrs. Fleming took this step. I was perplexed about how to deal with that collection. I realized that it was worth a great deal of money, but I haven't the vaguest idea how much, or how it could be sold to the best advantage.... At a rough guess, Mr. Rand, how much do you think it ought to bring?"
Rand shook his head. "I only saw it twice, the last time two years ago. Ask me that after I've spent a day or so going over it, and I'll be able to give you an estimate. I will say this, though: It's probably worth a lot more than the ten thousand dollars Arnold Rivers has offered for it."
That produced an unexpected effect. Goode straightened in his chair, gobbling in surprised indignation.
"Arnold Rivers? Has he had the impudence to try to buy the collection?" he demanded. "Where did you hear that?"
"From Mrs. Fleming. I understand he made the offer to Fred Dunmore. That's his business, isn't it?"
"I believe the colloquial term is 'racket,'" Goode said. "Why, that man is a notorious swindler! Mr. Rand, do you know that only a week before his death, Mr. Fleming instructed me to bring suit against him, and also to secure his indictment on criminal charges of fraud?"
"I didn't know that, but I'm not surprised," Rand answered. "What did he burn Fleming with?"
"Here; I'll show you." Goode rose from his seat and went to a rank of steel filing-cabinets behind the desk. In a moment, he was back, with a large manila envelope under his arm, and a huge pistol in either hand. "Here, Mr. Rand," he chuckled. "We'll just test your firearms knowledge. What do you make of these?"
Rand took the pistols and looked at them. They were wheel locks, apparently sixteenth-century South German; they were a good two feet in over-all length, with ball-pommels the size of oranges, and long steel belt-hooks. The stocks were so covered with ivory inlay that the wood showed only in tiny interstices; the metal-work was lavishly engraved and gold-inlaid. To the trigger-guards were attached tags marked Fleming vs. Rivers.
Rand examined each pistol separately, then compared them. Finally, he took a six-inch rule from his pocket and made measurements, first with one edge and then with the other.
"Well, I'm damned," he said, laying them on the desk. "These things are the most complete fakes I ever saw—locks, stocks, barrels and mountings. They're supposed to be late sixteenth-century; I doubt if they were made before 1920. As far as I can see or measure, there isn't the slightest difference between them, except on some of the decorative inlay. The whole job must have been miked in ten-thousandths, and what's more, whoever made them used metric measurements. You'll find pairs of English dueling pistols as early as 1775 that are almost indistinguishable, but in 1575, when these things were supposed to have been made, a gunsmith was working fine when he was working in sixteenth-inches. They just didn't have the measuring instruments, at that time, to do closer work. I won't bother taking these things apart, but if I did, I'd bet all Wall Street to Junior's piggy-bank that I'd find that the screws were machine-threaded and the working-parts interchanged. I've heard about fakes like these,"—he named a famous, recently liquidated West Coast collection—"but I'd never hoped to see an example like this."
Goode gave a hacking chuckle. "You'll do as an arms-expert, Mr. Rand," he said. "And you'd win the piggy-bank. It seems that after Mr. Fleming bought them, he took them apart, and found, just as you say, that the screw-threads had been machine-cut, and that the working-parts were interchangeable from one pistol to the other. There were a lot of papers accompanying them—I have them here—purporting to show that they had been sold by some Austrian nobleman, an anti-Nazi refugee, in whose family they had been since the reign of Maximilian II. They are, of course, fabrications. I looked up the family in the Almanach de Gotha; it simply never existed. At first, Mr. Fleming had been inclined to take the view that Rivers had been equally victimized with himself. However, when Rivers refused to take back the pistols and refund the purchase price, he altered his opinion. He placed them in my hands, instructing me to bring suit and also start criminal action; he was in a fearful rage about it, and swore that he'd drive Rivers out of business. However, before I could start action, Mr. Fleming was killed in that accident, and as he was the sole witness to the fact of the sale, and as none of the heirs was interested, I did nothing about it. In fact, I advised them that action against Rivers would cost the estate more than they could hope to recover in damages." He picked up one of the pistols and examined it. "Now, I don't know what to do about these."
"Take them home and hang them over the mantel," Rand advised. "If I'm going to have anything to do with selling the collection, I don't want anything to do with them."
Goode was peering at the ivory inlay on the underbelly of the stock.
"They are beautiful, and I don't care when they were made," he said. "I think, if nobody else wants them, I'll do just that.... Now, Mr. Rand, what had you intended doing about the collection?"
"Well, that's what I came to see you about, Mr. Goode. As I understand it, it is you who are officially responsible for selling the collection, and the proceeds would be turned over to you for distribution to Mrs. Fleming, Mrs. Dunmore and Mrs. Varcek. Is that correct?"
"Yes. The collection, although in the physical possession of Mrs. Fleming, is still an undistributed asset."
"I thought so." Rand got out Gladys Fleming's letter of authorization and handed it to Goode. "As you'll see by that, I was retained by, and only by, Mrs. Fleming," he said. "I am assuming that her interests are identical with those of the other heirs, but I realize that this is true only to a very limited extent. It's my understanding that relations between the three ladies are not the most pleasant."
Goode produced a short, croaking laugh. "Now there's a cautious understatement," he commented. "Mr. Rand, I feel that you should know that all three hate each other poisonously."
"That was rather my impression. Now, I expect some trouble, from Mrs. Dunmore and/or Mrs. Varcek, either or both of whom are sure to accuse me of having been brought into this by Mrs. Fleming to help her defraud the others. That, of course, is not the case; they will all profit equally by my participation in this. But I'm going to have trouble convincing them of that."
"Yes. You will," Goode agreed. "Would you rather carry my authorization than Mrs. Fleming's?"
"Yes, indeed, Mr. Goode. To tell the truth, that was why I came here, for one reason. You will not be obligated in any way by authorizing me to act as your agent—I'm getting my fee from Mrs. Fleming—but I would be obligated to represent her only as far as her interests did not improperly conflict with those of the other heirs, and that's what I want made clear."
Goode favored the detective with a saurian smile. "You're not a lawyer, too, Mr. Rand?" he asked.
"Well, I am a member of the Bar in the State of Mississippi, though I never practiced," Rand admitted. "Instead of opening a law-office, I went into the F.B.I., in 1935, and then opened a private agency a couple of years later. But if I had to, which God forbid, I could go home tomorrow and hang out my shingle."
"You seem to have had quite an eventful career," Goode remarked, with a queer combination of envy and disapproval. "I understand that, until recently, you were an officer in the Army Intelligence, too.... I'll have your authorization to act for me made out immediately; to list and appraise the collection, and to negotiate with prospective purchasers. And by the way," he continued, "did I understand you to say that you had heard some of these silly rumors to the effect that Lane Fleming had committed suicide?"
"Oh, that's what's always heard, under the circumstances," Rand shrugged. "A certain type of sensation-loving mind..."
"Mr. Rand, there is not one scintilla of truth in any of these scurrilous stories!" Goode declared, pumping up a fine show of indignation. "The Premix Company is in the best possible financial condition; a glance at its books, or at its last financial statement, would show that. I ought to know, I'm chairman of the board of directors. Just because there was some talk of retrenchment, shortly before Mr. Fleming's death ..."
"Oh, no responsible person pays any attention to that sort of talk," Rand comforted him. "My armed-guard and armored-car service brings me into contact with a lot of the local financial crowd. None of them is taking these rumors seriously."
"Well, of course, nobody wants the responsibility of starting a panic, even a minor one, but people are talking, and it's hurting Premix on the market," Goode gloomed. "And now, people will hear of Mrs. Fleming's having retained you, and will assume, just as I did at first, that you are making some kind of an investigation. I hope you will make a prompt denial, if you hear any talk like that." He pressed a button on his desk. "And now, I'll get a letter of authorization made out for you, Mr. Rand ..."
Stephen Gresham was in his early sixties, but he could have still worn his World War I uniform without anything giving at the seams, and buckled the old Sam Browne at the same hole. As Rand entered, he rose from behind his desk and advanced, smiling cordially.
"Why, hello, Jeff!" he greeted the detective, grasping his hand heartily. "You haven't been around for months. What have you been doing, and why don't you come out to Rosemont to see us? Dot and Irene were wondering what had become of you."
"I'm afraid I've been neglecting too many of my old friends lately," Rand admitted, sitting down and getting his pipe out. "Been busy as the devil. Fact is, it was business that finally brought me around here. I understand that you and some others are forming a pool to buy the Lane Fleming collection."
"Yes!" Gresham became enthusiastic. "Want in on it? I'm sure the others would be glad to have you in with us. We're going to need all the money we can scrape together, with this damned Rivers bidding against us."
"I'm afraid you will, at that, Stephen," Rand told him. "And not necessarily on account of Rivers. You see, the Fleming estate has just employed me to expertize the collection and handle the sale for them." Rand got his pipe lit and drawing properly. "I hate doing this to you, but you know how it is."
"Oh, of course. I should have known they'd get somebody like you in to sell the collection for them. Humphrey Goode isn't competent to handle that. What we were all afraid of was a public auction at some sales-gallery."
Rand shook his head. "Worst thing they could do; a collection like that would go for peanuts at auction. Remember the big sales in the twenties?... Why, here; I'm going to be in Rosemont, staying at the Fleming place, working on the collection, for the next week or so. I suppose your crowd wouldn't want to make an offer until I have everything listed, but I'd like to talk to your associates, in a group, as soon as possible."
"Well, we all know pretty much what's in the collection," Gresham said. "We were neighbors of his, and collectors are a gregarious lot. But we aren't anxious to make any premature offers. We don't want to offer more than we have to, and at the same time, we don't want to underbid and see the collection sold elsewhere."
"No, of course not." Rand thought for a moment. "Tell you what; I'll give you and your friends the best break I can in fairness to my clients. I'm not obliged to call for sealed bids, or anything like that, so when I've heard from everybody, I'll give you a chance to bid against the highest offer in hand. If you want to top it, you can have the collection for any kind of an overbid that doesn't look too suspiciously nominal."
"Why, Jeff, I appreciate that," Gresham said. "I think you're entirely within your rights, but naturally, we won't mention this outside. I can imagine Arnold Rivers, for instance, taking a very righteous view of such an arrangement."
"Yes, so can I. Of course, if he'd call me a crook, I'd take that as a compliment," Rand said. "I wonder if I could meet your group, say tomorrow evening? I want to be in a position to assure the Fleming family and Humphrey Goode that you're all serious and responsible."
"Well, we're very serious about it," Gresham replied, "and I think we're all responsible. You can look us up, if you wish. Besides myself, there is Philip Cabot, of Cabot, Joyner & Teale, whom you know, and Adam Trehearne, who's worth about a half-million in industrial shares, and Colin MacBride, who's vice president in charge of construction and maintenance for Edison-Public Power & Light, at about twenty thousand a year, and Pierre Jarrett and his fiancee, Karen Lawrence. Pierre was a Marine captain, invalided home after being wounded on Peleliu; he writes science-fiction for the pulps. Karen has a little general-antique business in Rosemont. They intend using their share of the collection, plus such culls and duplicates as the rest of us can consign to them, to go into the arms business, with a general-antique sideline, which Karen can manage while Pierre's writing.... Tell you what; I'll call a meeting at my place tomorrow evening, say at eight thirty. That suit you?"
That, Rand agreed, would be all right. Gresham asked him how recently he had seen the Fleming collection.
"About two years ago; right after I got back from Germany. You remember, we went there together, one evening in March."
"Yes, that's right. We didn't have time to see everything," Gresham said. "My God, Jeff! Twenty-five wheel locks! Ten snaphaunces. And every imaginable kind of flintlock—over a hundred U.S. Martials, including the 1818 Springfield, all the S. North types, a couple of Virginia Manufactory models, and—he got this since the last time you saw the collection—a real Rappahannock Forge flintlock. And about a hundred and fifty Colts, all models and most variants. Remember that big Whitneyville Walker, in original condition? He got that one in 1924, at the Fred Hines sale, at the old Walpole Galleries. And seven Paterson Colts, including a couple of cased sets. And anything else you can think of. A Hall flintlock breech-loader; an Elisha Collier flintlock revolver; a pair of Forsythe detonator-lock pistols.... Oh, that's a collection to end collections."
"By the way, Humphrey Goode showed me a pair of big ball-butt wheel locks, all covered with ivory inlay," Rand mentioned.
Gresham laughed heartily. "Aren't they the damnedest ever seen, though?" he asked. "Made in Germany, about 1870 or '80, about the time arms-collecting was just getting out of the family-heirloom stage, wouldn't you say?"
"I'd say made in Japan, about 1920," Rand replied. "Remember, there were a couple of small human figures on each pistol, a knight and a huntsman? Did you notice that they had slant eyes?" He stopped laughing, and looked at Gresham seriously. "Just how much more of that sort of thing do you think I'm going to have to weed out of the collection, before I can offer it for sale?" he asked.
Gresham shook his head. "They're all. They were Lane Fleming's one false step. Ordinarily, Lane was a careful buyer; he must have let himself get hypnotized by all that ivory and gold, and all that documentation on crested notepaper. You know, Fleming's death was an undeserved stroke of luck for Arnold Rivers. If he hadn't been killed just when he was, he'd have run Rivers out of the old-arms business."
"I notice that Rivers isn't advertising in the American Rifleman any more," Rand observed.
"No; the National Rifle Association stopped his ad, and lifted his membership card for good measure," Gresham said. "Rivers sold a rifle to a collector down in Virginia, about three years ago, while you were still occupying Germany. A fine, early flintlock Kentuck, that had been made out of a fine, late percussion Kentuck by sawing off the breech-end of the barrel, rethreading it for the breech-plug, drilling a new vent, and fitting the lock with a flint hammer and a pan-and-frizzen assembly, and shortening the fore-end to fit. Rivers has a gunsmith over at Kingsville, one Elmer Umholtz, who does all his fraudulent conversions for him. I have an example of Umholtz's craftsmanship, myself. The collector who bought this spurious flintlock spotted what had been done, and squawked to the Rifle Association, and to the postal authorities."
"Rivers claimed, I suppose, that he had gotten it from a family that had owned it ever since it was made, and showed letters signed 'D. Boone' and 'Davy Crockett' to prove it?"
"No, he claimed to have gotten it in trade from some wayfaring collector," Gresham replied. "He convinced Uncle Whiskers, but the N.R.A. took a slightly dimmer view of the transaction, so Rivers doesn't advertise in the Rifleman any more."
"Wasn't there some talk about Whitneyville Walker Colts that had been made out of 1848 Model Colt Dragoons?" Rand asked.
"Oh Lord, yes! This fellow Umholtz was practically turning them out on an assembly-line, for a while. Rivers must have sold about ten of them. You know, Umholtz is a really fine gunsmith; I had him build a deer-rifle for Dot, a couple of years ago—Mexican-Mauser action, Johnson barrel, chambered for .300 Savage; Umholtz made the stock and fitted a scope-sight—it's a beautiful little rifle. I hate to see him prostitute his talents the way he does by making these fake antiques for Rivers. You know, he made one of these mythical heavy .44 six-shooters of the sort Colt was supposed to have turned out at Paterson in 1839 for Colonel Walker's Texas Rangers—you know, the model he couldn't find any of in 1847, when he made the real Walker Colt. That story you find in Sawyer's book."
"Why, that story's been absolutely disproved," Rand said. "There never was any such revolver."
"Not till Umholtz made one," Gresham replied. "Rivers sold it to,"—he named a moving-picture bigshot—"for twenty-five hundred dollars. His story was that he picked it up in Mexico, in 1938; traded a .38-special to some halfbreed goat-herder for it."
"This fellow who bought it, now; did he see Belden and Haven's Colt book, when it came out in 1940?"
"Yes, and he was plenty burned up, but what could he do? Rivers was dug in behind this innocent-purchase-and-sale-in-good-faith Maginot Line of his. You know, that bastard took me, once, just one-tenth as badly, with a fake U.S. North & Cheney Navy flintlock 1799 Model that had been made out of a French 1777 Model." The lawyer muttered obscenely.
"Why didn't you sue hell out of him?" Rand asked. "You might not have gotten anything, but you'd have given him a lot of dirty publicity. That's all Fleming was expecting to do about those wheel locks."
"I'm not Fleming. He could afford litigation like that; I can't. I want my money, and if I don't get it in cash, I'm going to beat it out of that dirty little swindler's hide," Gresham replied, an ugly look appearing on his face.
"I wouldn't blame you. You could find plenty of other collectors who'd hold your coat while you were doing it," Rand told him. Then he inquired, idly: "What sort of a pistol was it that Lane Fleming is supposed to have shot himself with?"
Gresham frowned. "I really don't know; I didn't see it. It's supposed to have been a Confederate Leech & Rigdon .36; you know, one of those imitation Colt Navy Models that were made in the South during the Civil War."
Rand nodded. He was familiar with the type.
"The story is that Fleming found it hanging back of the counter at some roadside lunch-stand, along with a lot of other old pistols, and talked the proprietor into letting it go for a few dollars," Gresham continued. "It was supposed to have been loaded at the time, and went off while Fleming was working on it, at home." He shook his head. "I can't believe that, Jeff. Lane Fleming would know a loaded revolver when he saw one. I believe he deliberately shot himself, and the family faked the accident and fixed the authorities. The police never made any investigation; it was handled by the coroner alone. And our coroner, out in Scott County, is eminently fixable, if you go about it right; a pitiful little nonentity with a tremendous inferiority complex."
"But good Lord, why?" Rand demanded. "I never heard of Fleming having any troubles worth killing himself over."
Gresham lowered his voice. "Jeff, I'm not supposed to talk about this, but the fact is that I believe Fleming was about to lose control of the Premix Company," he said. "I have, well, sources of inside information. This is in confidence, so don't quote me, but certain influences were at work, inside the company, toward that end." He inspected the tip of his cigar and knocked off the ash into the tray at his elbow. "Lane Fleming's death is on record as accidental, Jeff. It's been written off as such. It would be a great deal better for all concerned if it were left at that."
Rand drove slowly through Rosemont, the next day, refreshing his memory of the place. It was one of the many commuters' villages strung out for fifty miles along the railroad lines radiating from New Belfast, and depended for its support upon a population scattered over a five-mile radius at estates and country homes. Obviously a planned community, it was dominated by a gray-walled, green-roofed railroad station which stood on its passenger-platform like a captain in front of four platoons of gray-walled, green-roofed houses and stores aligned along as many converging roads. There was a post office, uniform with the rest of the buildings; an excessive quantity of aluminum trimming dated it somewhere in the middle Andrew W. Mellon period. There were four gas stations, a movie theater, and a Woolworth store with a red front that made it look like some painted hussy who had wandered into a Quaker Meeting.
Over the door of one of the smaller stores, Rand saw a black-lettered white sign: Antiques. There was a smoke-gray Plymouth coupe parked in front of it.
Instead of turning onto the road to the Fleming estate, he continued along Route 19 for a mile or so beyond the village, until he came to a red brick pseudo-Colonial house on the right. He pulled to the side of the road and got out, turning up the collar of his trench coat. The air was raw and damp, doubly unpleasant after the recent unseasonable warmth. An apathetically persistent rain sogged the seedling-dotted old fields on either side, and the pine-woods beyond, and a high ceiling of unbroken dirty gray gave no promise of clearing. The mournful hoot of a distant locomotive whistle was the only sound to pierce the silence. For a moment, Rand stood with his back to the car, looking at the gallows-like sign that proclaimed this to be the business-place of Arnold Rivers, Fine Antique and Modern Firearms for the Discriminating Collector.
The house faced the road with a long side; at the left, a porch formed a continuation under a deck roof, and on the right, an ell had been built at right angles, extending thirty feet toward the road. Although connected to the house by a shed roof, which acquired a double pitch and became a gable roof where the ell projected forward, it was, in effect, a separate building, with its own front door and its own door-path. Its floor-level was about four feet lower than that of the parent structure.
A Fibber McGee door-chime clanged as Rand entered. Closing the door behind him, he looked around. The room, some twenty feet wide and fifty long, was lighted by an almost continuous row of casement windows on the right, and another on the left for as far as the ell extended beyond the house. They were set high, a good five feet from lower sill to floor, and there was no ceiling; the sloping roof was supported by bare timber rafters. Racks lined the walls, under the windows, holding long-guns and swords; the pistols and daggers and other small items were displayed on a number of long tables. In the middle of the room, glaring at the front door, was a brass four-pounder on a ship's carriage; a Philippine latanka, muzzle tilted upward, stood beside it. Where the ell joined the house under the shed roof, there was a fireplace, and a short flight of steps to a landing and a door out of the dwelling, and some furniture—a davenport, three or four deep chairs facing the fire, a low cocktail-table, a cellarette, and, in the far corner, a big desk.
As Rand went toward the rear, a young man rose from one of the chairs, laid aside a magazine, and advanced to meet him. He didn't exactly harmonize with all the lethal array around him; he would have looked more at home presiding over an establishment devoted to ladies' items. His costume ran to pastel shades, he had large and soulful blue eyes and prettily dimpled cheeks, and his longish blond hair was carefully disordered into a windblown effect.
"Oh, good afternoon," he greeted. "Is there anything in particular you're interested in, or would you like to just look about?"
"Mostly look about," Rand said. "Is Mr. Rivers in?"
"Mr. Rivers is having luncheon. He'll be finished before long, if you care to wait.... Have you ever been here before?"
"Not for some time," Rand said. "When I was here last, there was a young fellow named Jordan, or Gordon, or something like that."
"Oh. He was before my time." The present functionary introduced himself as Cecil Gillis. Rand gave his name and shook hands with him. Young Gillis wanted to know if Rand was a collector.
"In a small way. General-pistol collector," Rand told him. "Have you many Colts, now?"
There was a whole table devoted to Colts. No spurious Whitneyville Walkers; after all, a dealer can sell just so many of such top-drawer rarities before the finger of suspicion begins leveling itself in his direction, and Arnold Rivers had long ago passed that point. There were several of the commoner percussion models, however, with lovely, perfect bluing that was considerably darker than that applied at the Colt factory during the 'fifties and 'sixties of the last century. The silver plating on backstraps and trigger-guards was perfect, too, but the naval-battle and stagecoach-holdup engravings on the cylinders were far from clear—in one case, completely obliterated. The cylinder of one 1851 Navy bore serial numbers that looked as though they had been altered to conform to the numbers on other parts of the weapon. Many of the Colts, however, were entirely correct, and all were in reasonably good condition.
Rand saw something that interested him, and picked it up.
"That isn't a real Colt," the exquisite Mr. Gillis told him. "It's a Confederate copy; a Leech & Rigdon."
"So I see. I have a Griswold & Grier, but no Leech & Rigdon."
"The Griswold & Grier; that's the one with the brass frame," Cecil Gillis said. "Surprising how many collectors think all Confederate revolvers had brass frames, because of the Griswold & Grier, and the Spiller & Burr.... That's an unusually fine specimen, Mr. Rand. Mr. Rivers got it sometime in late December or early January; from a gentleman in Charleston, I understand. I believe it had been carried during the Civil War by a member of the former owner's family."
Rand looked at the tag tied to the trigger-guard; it was marked, in letter-code, with three different prices. That was characteristic of Arnold Rivers's business methods.
"How much does Mr. Rivers want for this?" he asked, handing the revolver to young Gillis.
The clerk mentally decoded the three prices and vacillated for a moment over them. He had already appraised Rand, from his twenty-dollar Stetson past his Burberry trench coat to his English hand-sewn shoes, and placed him in the pay-dirt bracket; however, from some remarks Rand had let drop, he decided that this customer knew pistols, and probably knew values.
"Why, that is sixty dollars, Mr. Rand," he said, with the air of one conferring a benefaction. Maybe he was, at that, Rand decided; prices had jumped like the very devil since the war.
"I'll take it." He dug out his billfold and extracted three twenties. "Nice clean condition; clean it up yourself?"
"Why, no. Mr. Rivers got it like this. As I said, it's supposed to have been a family heirloom, but from the way it's been cared for, I would have thought it had been in a collection," the clerk replied. "Shall I wrap it for you?"
"Yes, if you please." Rand followed him to the rear, laying aside his coat and hat. Gillis got some heavy paper out of a closet and packaged it, then hunted through a card-file in the top drawer of the desk, until he found the card he wanted. He made a few notes on it, and was still holding it and the sixty dollars when he rejoined Rand by the fire.
In spite of his effeminate appearance and over-refined manner, the young fellow really knew arms. The conversation passed from Confederate revolvers to the arms of the Civil War in general, and they were discussing the changes in tactics occasioned by the introduction of the revolver and the repeating carbine when the door from the house opened and Arnold Rivers appeared on the landing.
He looked older than when Rand had last seen him. His hair was thinner on top and grayer at the temples. Never particularly robust, he had lost weight, and his face was thinner and more hollow-cheeked. His mouth still had the old curve of supercilious insolence, and he was still smoking with the six-inch carved ivory cigarette-holder which Rand remembered.
He looked his visitor over carefully from the doorway, decided that he was not soliciting magazine subscriptions or selling Fuller brushes, and came down the steps. As he did, he must have recognized Rand; he shifted the cigarette-holder to his left hand and extended his right.
"Mr. Rand, isn't it?" he asked. "I thought I knew you. It's been some years since you've been around here."
"I've been a lot of places in the meantime," Rand said.
"You were here last in October, '41, weren't you?" Rivers thought for a moment. "You bought a Highlander, then. By Alexander Murdoch, of Doune, wasn't it?"
"No; Andrew Strahan, of Edzel," Rand replied.
Rivers snapped his fingers. "That's right! I sold both of those pistols at about the same time; a gentleman in Chicago got the Murdoch. The Strahan had a star-pierced lobe on the hammer. Did you ever get anybody to translate the Gaelic inscription on the barrel?"
"You've a memory like Jim Farley," Rand flattered. "The inscription was the clan slogan of the Camerons; something like: Sons of the hound, come and get flesh! I won't attempt the original."
"Mr. Rand just bought 6524, the Leech & Rigdon .36," Gillis interjected, handing Rivers the card and the money. Rivers looked at both, saw how much Rand had been taken for, and nodded.
"A nice item," he faintly praised, as though anything selling for less than a hundred dollars was so much garbage. "Considering the condition in which Confederate arms are usually found, it's really first-rate. I think you'll like it, Mr. Rand."
The telephone rang, Cecil Gillis answered it, listened for a moment, and then said: "For you, Mr. Rivers; long distance from Milwaukee."
Rivers's face lit with the beatific smile of a cat at a promising mouse-hole. "Ah, excuse me, Mr. Rand." He crossed to the desk, picked up the phone and spoke into it. "This is Arnold Rivers," he said, much as Edward Murrow used to say, This—is London! The telephone sputtered for a moment. "Ah, yes indeed, Mr. Verral. Quite well, I thank you. And you?... No, it hasn't been sold yet. Do you wish me to ship it to you?... On approval; certainly.... Of course it's an original flintlock; I didn't list it as re-altered, did I?... No, not at all; the only replacement is the small spring inside the patchbox.... Yes, the rifling is excellent.... Of course; I'll ship it at once.... Good-by, Mr. Verral."
He hung up and turned to his hireling, fairly licking his chops.
"Cecil, Mr. Verral, in Milwaukee, whose address we have, has just ordered 6288, the F. Zorger flintlock Kentuck. Will you please attend to it?"
"Right away, Mr. Rivers." Gillis went to one of the racks under the windows and selected a long flintlock rifle, carrying it out the door at the rear.
"I issued a list, a few days ago," Rivers told Rand. "When Cecil comes back, I'll have him get you a copy. I've been receiving calls ever since; this is the twelfth long-distance call since Tuesday."
"Business must be good," Rand commented. "I understand you've offered to buy the Lane Fleming collection. For ten thousand dollars."
"Where did you hear that?" Rivers demanded, looking up from the drawer in which he was filing the card on the Leech & Rigdon.
"From Mrs. Fleming." Rand released a puff of pipe smoke and watched it draw downward into the fireplace. "I've been retained to handle the sale of that collection; naturally, I'd know who was offering how much."
Rivers's eyes narrowed. He came around the desk, loading another cigarette into his holder.
"And just why, might I ask, did Mrs. Fleming think it in order to employ a detective in a matter like that?" he wanted to know.
Rand let out more smoke. "She didn't. She employed an arms-expert, a Colonel Jefferson Davis Rand, U.S.A., O.R.C., who is a well-known contributor to the American Rifleman and the Infantry Journal and Antiques and the old Gun Report. You've read some of his articles, I believe?"
"Then you're not making an investigation?"
"What in the world is there to investigate?" Rand asked. "I'm just selling a lot of old pistols for the Fleming estate."
"I thought Fred Dunmore was doing that."
"So did Fred. You're both wrong, though. I am." He got out Goode's letter of authorization and handed it to Rivers, who read it through twice before handing it back. "You see anything in that about Fred Dunmore, or any of the other relatives-in-law?" he asked.
"Well, I didn't understand; I'm glad to know what the situation really is." Rivers frowned. "I thought you were making some kind of an investigation, and as I'm the only party making any serious offer to buy those pistols, I wanted to know what there was to investigate."
"Do you consider ten thousand dollars to be a serious offer?" Rand asked. "And aren't you forgetting Stephen Gresham and his friends?"
"Oh, those people!" Rivers scoffed. "Mr. Rand, you certainly don't expect them to be able to handle anything like this, do you?"
"Well, the banks speak well of them," Rand replied. "Some of them have good listings in Dun & Bradstreet's, too."
"Well, so do I," Rivers reported. "I can top any offer that crowd makes. What do you expect to get out of them, anyhow?"
"I haven't talked price with them, yet. A lot more than ten thousand dollars, anyhow."
Rivers forced a laugh. "Now, Mr. Rand! That was just an opening offer. I thought Fred Dunmore was handling the collection." He grimaced. "What do you think it's really worth?"
Rand shrugged. "It probably has a dealer's piece-by-piece list-value of around seventy thousand. I'm not nuts enough to expect anything like that in a lump sum, but please, let's not mention ten thousand dollars in this connection any more. That's on the order of Lawyer Marks bidding seventy-five cents for Uncle Tom; it's only good for laughs."
"Well, how much more than that do you think Gresham and his crowd will offer?"
"I haven't talked price with them, yet," Rand repeated. "I mean to, as soon as I can."
"Well, you get their offer, and I'll top it," Rivers declared. "I'm willing to go as high as twenty-five thousand for that collection; they won't go that high."
Although he just managed not to show it, Rand was really surprised. Even a consciousness of abstracting had not prepared him for the shock of hearing Arnold Rivers raise his own offer to something resembling an acceptable figure. A good case, he reflected, could be made of that for the actuality of miracles.
He rose, picking up his trench coat.
"Well! That's something like it, now," he said. "I'll see you later; I don't know how long it's going to take me to get a list prepared, and circularize the old-arms trade. I should hear from everybody who's interested in a few weeks. You can be sure I'll keep your offer in mind."
He slipped into the coat and put on his hat, and then picked up the package containing the Confederate revolver. Rivers had risen, too; he was watching Rand nervously. When Rand tucked the package under his arm and began drawing on his gloves, Rivers cleared his throat.
"Mr. Rand, I'm dreadfully sorry," he began, "but I'll have to return your money and take back that revolver. It should not have been sold." He got Rand's sixty dollars out of his pocket as though he expected it to catch fire, and held it out.
Rand favored him with a display of pained surprise.
"Why, I can't do that," he replied. "I bought this revolver in good faith, and you accepted payment and were satisfied with the transaction. The sale's been made, now."
Rivers seemed distressed. It was probably the first time he had ever been on the receiving end of that routine, and he didn't like it.
"Now you're being unreasonable, Mr. Rand," he protested. "Look here; I'll give you seventy-five dollars' credit on anything else in the shop. You certainly can't find fault with an offer like that."
"I don't want anything else in the shop; I want this revolver you sold me." Rand gave him a look of supercilious insolence that was at least a two hundred per cent improvement on Rivers at his most insolent. "You know, I'll begin to acquire a poor idea of your business methods before long," he added.
Rivers laughed ruefully. "Well, to tell the truth, I just remembered a customer of mine who specializes in Confederate arms, who would pay me at least eighty for that item," he admitted. "I thought..."
Rand shook his head. "I have a special fondness for Confederate arms, myself. One of my grandfathers was in Mosby's Rangers, and the other was with Barksdale, to say nothing of about a dozen great-uncles and so on."
"Well, you're entirely within your rights, Mr. Rand," Rivers conceded. "I should apologize for trying to renege on a sale, but.... Well, I hope to see you again, soon." He followed Rand to the door, shaking hands with him. "Don't forget; I'm willing to pay anything up to twenty-five thousand for the Fleming collection."
The Fleming butler—Walters, Rand remembered Gladys Fleming having called him—became apologetic upon learning who the visitor was.
"Forgive me, Colonel Rand, but I'm afraid I must put you to some inconvenience, sir," he said. "You see, we have no chauffeur, at present, and I don't drive very well, myself. Would you object to putting up your own car, sir? The garage is under the house, at the rear; just follow the driveway around. I'll go through the house and meet you there for the luggage. I'm dreadfully sorry to put you to the trouble, but...."
"Oh, that's all right," Rand comforted him. "Just as soon do it, myself, now, anyhow. I expect to be in and out with the car while I'm here, and I'd better learn the layout of the garage now."
"You may back in, sir, or drive straight in and back out," the butler told him. "One way's about as easy as the other."
Rand returned to his car, driving around the house. A row of doors opened out of the basement garage; Walters, who must have gone through the house on the double, was waiting for him. Having what amounted to a conditioned reflex to park his car so that he could get it out as fast as possible, he cut over to the right, jockeyed a little, and backed in. There were already two cars in the garage; a big maroon Packard sedan, and a sand-colored Packard station-wagon, standing side by side. Rand put his Lincoln in on the left of the sedan.
"Bags in the luggage-compartment; it isn't locked," he told the butler, making sure that the glove-compartment, where he had placed the Leech & Rigdon revolver, was locked. As he got out, the servant went to the rear of the car and took out the Gladstone and the B-4 bag Rand had brought with him.
"If you don't mind entering the house from the rear, sir, we can go up those steps, there, and through the rear hall," the butler suggested, almost as though he were making some indecent and criminal proposal.
Rand told him to forget the protocol and lead the way. The butler picked up the bags and conducted him up a short flight of concrete steps to a landing and a door opening into a short hall above. An open door from this gave access to a longer hall, stretching to the front of the house, and there was a third door, closed, which probably led to the servants' domain.
Rand followed his guide through the open door and into the long hall, which passed under an arch to extend to the front door. There was a door on either side, about midway to the arch under the front stairway; the one on the right was the dining-room, Walters explained, and the one on the left was the library. He seemed to be still suffering from the ignominy of admitting a house-guest through any but the main portal.
Emerging into the front hallway, he put down the bags, took Rand's hat and coat and laid them on top of the luggage, and then went to an open doorway on the right, standing in it and coughing delicately, before announcing that Colonel Rand was here.
Gladys Fleming, wearing a pale blue frock, came forward as Rand entered the parlor, her hand extended. The two other women in the big parlor remained motionless. They would be the sisters, Geraldine Varcek and Nelda Dunmore. Rand didn't wonder that they resented Gladys so bitterly; economic considerations aside, girls seldom enthuse over a stepmother so near their own age who is so much more beautiful.
"Good afternoon, Colonel Rand," Gladys said. "This is Mrs. Varcek." She indicated a very pale blonde who sat slumped in a deep chair beside a low cocktail-table, a highball in her hand. "And Mrs. Dunmore." She was the brunette with the full bust and hips, in the short black skirt and the tight white sweater, who was standing by the fireplace.
"H'lo." The blonde—Geraldine—smiled shyly at him. She had big blue eyes, and delicately tinted rose-petal lips that seemed to be trying not to laugh at some private joke. She wasn't exactly blotto, but she had evidently laid a good foundation for a first-class jag. After all, it was only two thirty in the afternoon.
The other sister—Nelda—didn't say anything. She merely stood and stared at Rand distrustfully. Rand doubted that she ordinarily gave men the hostile eye. The full, dark-red lips; the lush figure; the way she draped it against the side of the fireplace, to catch the ruddy light on her more interesting curves and bulges—there was a bimbo just made to be leered at, and she probably resented it like hell if she weren't.
Rand gave them a general good-afternoon, then turned to Gladys. "I had a talk with Goode, yesterday afternoon," he said. "I have his authorization to handle all the details. As soon as I get an itemized list, I'll circularize dealers and other possible buyers and ask for offers."