Murder in the Gunroom by Henry Beam Piper - HTML preview

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Chapter 5


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 coupé 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."