Murder in the Gunroom
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."