Murder in the Gunroom
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.