Murder in the Gunroom by Henry Beam Piper - HTML preview
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Mick McKenna had put his finger right on the sore spot. It did hurt Rand like hell; a nice, sensational murder and no money in it for the Tri-State Agency. Obviously, somebody would have to be persuaded to finance an investigation. Preferably some innocent victim of unjust suspicion; somebody who could best clear himself by unmasking the real villain.... For "villain," Rand mentally substituted "public benefactor."
He was running over a list of possible suspects as he entered Rosemont. Passing the little antique shop he slowed, backed, read the name "Karen Lawrence" on the window, and then pulled over to the curb and got out. Crossing the sidewalk, he went up the steps to the door, entering to the jangling of a spring-mounted cowbell.
The girl dealer was inside, with a visitor, a sallow-faced, untidy-looking man of indeterminate age who was opening newspaper-wrapped packages on a table-top. Karen greeted Rand by name and military rank; Rand told her he'd just look around till she was through. She tossed him a look of comic reproach, as though she had counted on him to rid her of the man with the packages.
"Now, just you look at this-here, Miss Lawrence," the man was enthusing, undoing another package. "Here's something I know you'll want; I think this-here is real quaint! Just look, now!" He displayed some long, narrow, dark object, holding it out to her. "Ain't this-here an interestin' item, now, Miss Lawrence?"
"Ooooooh! What in heaven's name is that thing?" she demanded.
"That-there's a sword. A real African native sword. Look at that scabbard, now; made out of real crocodile-skin. A whole young crocodile, head, feet, an' all. I tell you, Miss Lawrence, that-there item is unique!"
"It's revolting! It's the most repulsive object that's ever been brought into this shop, which is saying quite a lot. Colonel Rand! If you don't have a hangover this morning, will you please come here and look at this thing?"
Rand laid down the Merril carbine he had been examining and walked over beside Karen. The man—whom Rand judged to be some rural free-lance antique-prospector—extended the object of the girl's repugnance. It was an African sword, all right, with a plain iron hilt and cross-guard. The design looked Berber, but the workmanship was low-grade, and probably attributable to some even more barbarous people. The scabbard was what was really surprising, if you liked that kind of surprises. It was an infant crocodile, rather indifferently smoke-cured; the sword simply went in between the creature's jaws and extended the length of the body and into the tail. Either end of a moldy-green leather thong had been fastened to the two front paws for a shoulder-baldric. When new, Rand thought, it must have given its wearer a really distinctive aroma, even for Africa. He drew the blade gingerly, looked at it, and sheathed it with caution.
"East African; Danakil, or Somali, or something like that," he commented. "Be damn good and careful not to scratch yourself on that; if you do, you'll need about a gallon of anti-tetanus shots."
"Y'think it might be poisoned?" the man with the dirty neck and the month-old haircut inquired eagerly. "See, Miss Lawrence? What I told you; a real African native sword. I got that-there from Hen Sourbaw, over at Feltonville; his uncle, the Reverend Sourbaw, that used to preach at Hemlock Gap Church, brung it from Africa, himself, about fifty years ago. He used to be a missionary, in his younger days.... I can make you an awful good price on that-there item, Miss Lawrence."
"God forbid!" she exclaimed. "All my customers are heavy drinkers; I wouldn't want to answer for what might happen if some of them saw that thing, suddenly."
"Oh, well.... How about that-there little amethyst bottle, then?"
"Well ... I would give you seven dollars for that," she grudged.
"Y'would? Well, it's yours, then. An' how about them-there salt-cellars, an' that-there knife-box?"
Rand wandered back to examining firearms. Eventually, after buying the knife-box, Karen got rid of the man with the antiques. When he had gone, she found a pack of cigarettes, offered it to Rand and lit one for herself.
"Well, now you see why girls leave home and start antique shops," she said. "Never a dull moment.... Wasn't that sword the awfullest thing you ever saw, though?"
"Well, one of the ten awfullest," Rand conceded. "I just stopped in to give you some good news. You won't need to consider that offer of Arnold Rivers's, any more. He is no longer interested in the Fleming collection."
"He isn't?" An eager, happy light danced up in her eyes. "You saw him again this morning? What did he say?"
"He didn't say anything. He isn't talking any more, either. Fact is, he isn't even breathing any more."
"He.... You mean he's dead?" She was surprised, even shocked. The shock was probably a concession to good taste, but the surprise looked genuine. "When did he die? It must have been very sudden; I saw him a few days ago, and he looked all right. Of course, he's been having trouble with his lungs, but—"
"It was very sudden. Some time last night, some person or persons unknown gave him a butt-and-bayonet job with a German Mauser out of a rack in his shop. A most unpleasantly thorough job. I went to see him this morning, hoping to badger something out of him about those pistols that are missing from the Fleming collection, and found the body. I notified the State Police, and just came from there."
"For God's sake!" The shock was genuine, too, now. "Have the police any idea—?"
"Not the foggiest. If some of the Fleming pistols turn up at his place, I might think that had something to do with it. So far, though, they haven't. I gave the shop a once-over- lightly before the cops arrived, and couldn't find anything."
She tried to take a puff from her cigarette and found that she had broken it in her fingers. She lit a new one from the mangled butt.
"When did it happen?" She tried to make the question sound casual.
"That I couldn't say, either. Around midnight, would be my guess. They might be able to fix a no-earlier time." An idea occurred to him, and he smiled.
"But that's dreadful!" She really meant that. "It's a terrible thing to happen to anybody, being killed like that." She stopped just short of adding: "even Rivers." Instead, she continued: "But I can't say I'm really very sorry he's dead, Colonel."
"Outside of maybe his wife, and the gunsmith who made his fake Walker Colts and North & Cheney flintlocks, who is?" he countered. "Oh, yes; Cecil Gillis. He's about due for induction into the Army of the Unemployed, unless Mrs. Rivers intends carrying on the business."
Karen's eyes widened. "Cecil Gillis!" she exclaimed softly. "I wonder, now, if he has an alibi for last night!"
"Think he might need one?" Rand asked. "Of course I only saw him once, but he didn't strike me as a possible candidate. I can't seem to see young Gillis doing a messy job like this was, or going to all that manual labor when he could have used something neat, like a pistol or a dagger."
"Well, Cecil isn't quite the languishing flower he looks," Karen told him. "He does a lot of swimming, and he's one of the few people around here who can beat me at tennis. And he has a motive. Maybe two motives."
"Such as?" Rand prompted.
"Maybe you think Cecil is a—you know—one of those boys," she euphemized. "Well, he isn't. He takes a perfectly normal, and even slightly wolfish, interest in the female of his species. And while Arnold Rivers may have been a good provider from a financial standpoint, he wasn't quite up to his wife's requirements in another important respect. And Rivers was away a lot, on buying trips and so on, and when he was, nobody ever saw Cecil leave the Rivers place in the evenings. At least, that's the story; personally, I wouldn't know. Of course, where there's smoke, there may be nothing more than somebody with a stogie, but, then, there may be a regular conflagration."
"That would be a perfectly satisfactory motive, under some circumstances," Rand admitted. "And the other?”
"Cecil might have been doing funny things with the books, and Rivers might have caught him."
"That would also be a good enough motive." It would also, Rand thought, furnish an explanation for the burning of Rivers's record-cards. "I'll mention it to Mick McKenna; he's hard up for a good usable suspect. And by the way, the news of this killing will be out before evening, but in the meantime I wish you wouldn't mention it to anybody, or mention that I was in here to tell you about it."
"I won't. I'm glad you told me, though.... Do you think there may be a chance that we can get the collection, now?"
"I wouldn't know why not. Rivers's offer was pretty high; there aren't many other dealers who would be able to duplicate it.... Well, don't take any Czechoslovakian Stiegel."
He moved his car down the street to the Rosemont Inn, where he went into the combination bar and grill and had a Bourbon-and-water at the bar. Then he ordered lunch, and, while waiting for it, went into a phone-booth and dialed the number of Stephen Gresham's office in New Belfast.
"I'd hoped to catch you before you left for lunch," he said, when the lawyer answered. "There's been a new development in the Fleming business." He had decided to follow the same line as with Karen Lawrence. "You needn't worry about Arnold Rivers's offer, any more."
"Ha! So he backed out?"
"He was shoved out," Rand corrected. "On the sharp end of a Mauser bayonet, sometime last night. I found the body this morning, when I went to see him, and notified the State Police. They call it murder, but of course, they're just prejudiced. I'd call it a nuisance- abatement project."
"Look here, are you kidding?" Gresham demanded.
"I never kid about Those Who Have Passed On," Rand denied piously. Then he recited the already hackneyed description of what had happened to Rivers, with careful attention to all the gruesome details. "So I called copper, directly. Sergeant McKenna's up a stump about it, and looking in all directions for a suspect."
Gresham was silent for a moment, then swore softly.
"My God, Jeff! This is going to raise all kinds of hell!" He was silent for a moment. "Look here, can you see me, at my home, about two thirty this afternoon? I want to talk to you about this."
Rand smiled happily. This looked like what he had been angling for. Maybe Arnold Rivers hadn't died in vain, after all.
"Why, yes; I can make it," he replied. "Good. See you there, then.”
Rand assured him that he would be on hand. When he returned to his table, he found his lunch waiting for him. He sat down and ate with a good appetite. After finishing, he had another drink, and sat sipping it slowly and smoking his pipe; going over the story Gladys Fleming had told him, and the gossip he had gotten from Carter Tipton, and the other statements which had been made to him by different people about the death of Lane Fleming, and the conclusions he had reached about the theft of the pistols, and the killing of Arnold Rivers; sorting out the inferences from the descriptions, and the descriptive statements of others from the things he himself had observed. When his glass was empty and his pipe burned out, he left a tip beside the ashtray, paid his check and went out.
He had two hours until his meeting with Stephen Gresham; he knew exactly where to spend them. The county seat was a normal twenty minutes' drive from Rosemont, but with the road relatively free from traffic he was able to cut that to fifteen. Parking his car in front of the courthouse, he went inside.
The coroner, one Jason Kirchner, was an inoffensive-looking little fellow with a Caspar Milquetoast mustache and an underslung jaw. He wore an Elks watchcharm, an Odd Fellows ring, and a Knights of Pythias lapel-pin. He looked at Rand's credentials, including the letter Humphrey Goode had given him, with some bewilderment.
"You're working for Mr. Goode?" he asked, rather needlessly. "Yes, I see; handling the sale of Mr. Fleming's pistols, for the estate. Yes. That must be interesting work, Mr. Rand. Now, what can I do for you?"
"Why, I understand you have an item from that collection, here in your office," Rand said. "The pistol with which Mr. Fleming shot himself. Regardless of its unpleasant associations, that pistol is a valuable collector's item, and one of the assets of the estate. If I'm to get full value for the collection, for the heirs, I'll have to have that, to sell with the rest of the weapons."
"Well, now, look here, Mr. Rand," Kirchner started to argue, "that revolver's a dangerous weapon. It's killed one man, already. I don't know as I ought to let it get out, where it might kill somebody else.”
Rand estimated that this situation called for a modified version of his hard-boiled act. "You think you can show cause why that revolver shouldn't be turned over to the Fleming estate?" he demanded. "Well, if I don't get it, right away, Mr. Goode will get a court order for it. You had no right to impound that revolver, in the first place; you removed it from the Fleming home illegally in the second place, since you had no intention of holding any formal inquest, and you're holding it illegally now. A court order might not be all we could get, either," he added menacingly. "Now, if you have any reason to suspect that Mr. Fleming committed suicide ... or was murdered, for instance ...”
"Oh, my heavens, no!" Kirchner cried, horrified. "It was an accident, pure and simple; I so certified it. Death by accident, due to inadvertence of the deceased."
"Well, then," Rand said, "you have no right to hold that revolver, and I want it, right now. As Mr. Goode's agent, I'm responsible for that collection, of which the revolver you're holding is a part. That revolver is too valuable an asset to ignore. You certainly realize that."
"Well, I don't have any intention of exceeding my authority, of course," Kirchner disclaimed hastily. "And I certainly wouldn't want to go against Mr. Goode's wishes." Humphrey Goode must pull considerable weight around the courthouse, Rand surmised. "But you realize, that revolver's still loaded...."
"Oh, that's not your worry. I'll draw the charges, or, better, fire them out. It stood one shot, it can stand the other five."
"Well, would you mind if I called Mr. Goode on the phone?" Rand did, decidedly. However, he shook his head negligently. "Certainly not; go ahead and call him, by all means.”
The coroner went away. In a few minutes he was back, carrying a revolver in both hands. Evidently Goode had given him the green light. He approached, handling the weapon with a caution that would have been excessive for a Mills grenade; after warning Rand again that it was loaded, he laid it gently on his desk.
It was a .36 Colt, one of the 1860 series, with the round barrel and the so-called "creeping" ramming-lever. Somebody had wound a piece of wire around it, back of the hammer and through the loading-aperture in front of the cylinder; as the hammer was down on a fired chamber, there was no way in God's world, short of throwing the thing into a furnace, in which it could be discharged, but Kirchner was shrinking away from it as though it might jump at his throat.
"I put the wire on," the coroner said. "I thought it might be safer that way."
"It'll be a lot safer after I've emptied it into the first claybank, outside town," Rand told him. "Sorry I had to be a little short with you, Mr. Kirchner, but you know how it is. I'm responsible to Mr. Goode for the collection, and this gun's part of it."
"Oh, that's all right; I really shouldn't have taken the attitude I did," Kirchner met him halfway. "After I talked to Mr. Goode, of course, I knew it was all right, but ... You see, I've been bothered a lot about that pistol, lately."
"Yes?" Rand succeeded in being negligent about it.
"Oh my, yes! The newspaper people wanted to take pictures of me holding it, and then, there was an antique-dealer who was here trying to buy it."
"Who was that—Arnold Rivers?"
"Why yes! Do you know him? He has an antique-shop on the other side of Rosemont; he doesn't sell anything but guns and swords and that sort of thing," Kirchner said. "He was here, making inquiries about it, and my clerk showed it to him, and then he started making offers for it—first ten dollars, and then fifteen, and then twenty; he got up as high as sixty dollars. I suppose it's worth a couple of hundred."
It was probably worth about thirty-five. Rand was intrigued by this second instance of an un-Rivers-like willingness to spare no expense to get possession of a .36-caliber percussion revolver.
"Did he have it in his hands?" he asked.
"Oh, yes; he looked it over carefully. I suppose he thought he could get a lot of money for it, because of the accident, and Mr. Fleming being such a prominent man," Kirchner suggested.
Rand allowed himself to be struck by an idea.
"Say, you know, that would make it worth more, at that!" he exclaimed. "What do you know! I never thought of that.... Look, Mr. Kirchner; I'm supposed to get as much money for these pistols, for the heirs, as I can. How would you like to give me a letter, vouching for this as the pistol Mr. Fleming killed himself with? Put in how you found it in his hand, and mention the serial numbers, so that whoever buys it will know it's the same revolver." He picked up the Colt and showed Kirchner the serials, on the butt, and in front of the trigger-guard. "See, here it is: 2444."
Kirchner would be more than willing to oblige Mr. Goode's agent; he typed out the letter himself, looked twice at the revolver to make sure of the number, took Rand's word for the make, model, and caliber, signed it, and even slammed his seal down on it. Rand thanked him profusely, put the letter in his pocket, and stuck the Colt down his pants-leg.
About two miles from the county seat Rand stopped his car on a deserted stretch of road and got out. Unwinding the wire Kirchner had wrapped around the revolver, he picked up an empty beer-can from the ditch, set it against an embankment, stepped back about thirty feet and began firing. The first shot kicked up dirt a little over the can—Rand never could be sure just how high any percussion Colt was sighted—and the other four hit the can. He carried the revolver back to the car and put it into the glove-box with the Leech & Rigdon.
After starting the car, he snapped on the radio, in time for the two fifteen news-broadcast from the New Belfast station. As he had expected, the murder was out; the daily budget of strikes and Congressional investigations and international turmoil was enlivened by a more or less imaginative account of what had already been christened the "Rosemont Bayonet Murder." Rand resigned himself to the inevitable influx of reporters. Then he swore, as the newscaster continued:
"District Attorney Charles P. Farnsworth, of Scott County, who has taken charge of the investigation, says, and we quote: 'There is strong evidence implicating certain prominent persons, whom we are not, as yet, prepared to name, and if the investigation, now under way and making excellent progress, justifies, they will be apprehended and formally charged. No effort will be spared, and no consideration of personal prominence will be allowed to deter us from clearing up this dastardly crime....'"
Rand swore again, with weary bitterness, wondering how much trouble he was going to have with District Attorney Charles P. Farnsworth, as he pulled to a stop in Stephen Gresham's driveway.