Murder in the Gunroom
Chapter 6

 

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."

"Is that all?" Nelda demanded angrily of Gladys. "Why Fred's done all that already!"

"Is that correct, Mrs. Fleming?" Rand asked, for the record.

"I told you, yesterday, what's been done," Gladys replied. "Fred has talked to one dealer, Arnold Rivers. There has been no inventory of any sort made."

"Mr. Rivers is offering us ten thousand dollars," Nelda retorted. "I don't see why you had to bring this Colonel What's-his-name into it, at all. You think he can get us a better offer? If you do, you're crazy!"

"Ten thousand dollars, for a collection that ought to sell for five times that, in Macy's basement!" Geraldine hooted. "How much is Rivers slipping Fred, on the side?"

"Oh, go back to your bottle!" Nelda cried. "You're too drunk to know what you're talking about!"

"They tell me Colonel Rand is a detective, too," Geraldine continued. "Maybe he can find out why Fred never talked to Stephen Gresham, or Carl Gwinnett, or anybody else except this Rivers. How much is Fred getting out of Rivers, anyhow?"

"My God, Geraldine, shut up!" Nelda howled. Then she decided to take direct notice of Rand's presence. "Colonel Rand, I'm sorry to say that, in her present condition, my sister doesn't know what she's saying. It's bad enough for my stepmother to bring an outsider into what's obviously a family matter, but when my sister begins making these ridiculous accusations..."

"What's ridiculous about them?" Geraldine demanded, dumping another two ounces of whiskey into her glass and freshening it with the siphon. "I think Rivers's offering ten thousand dollars for the collection, and Fred's thinking we'd accept it, are the only ridiculous things about it."

"That's rather what I told Rivers, this afternoon," Rand put in. "He seemed a bit upset about my being brought into this, too, but he finally admitted that he was willing to pay up to twenty-five thousand dollars for the collection, and if he buys it, that's exactly what it's going to cost him."

"What?" Nelda fairly screamed. Her hands opened and closed spasmodically: she was using a dark-red nail-tint that made Rand think of blood-dripping talons.

"Mr. Arnold Rivers told me, this afternoon, and I quote: I'm willing to pay up to twenty-five thousand dollars for that collection, unquote," Rand said. "And I can tell you now that twenty-five thousand dollars is just what he will pay for it, unless I can find somebody who's willing to pay more, which is not at all improbable."

"H'ray!" Geraldine waved her glass and toasted Rand with it. "And twenty-five G ain't hay, brother!"

Gladys smiled quickly at Rand, then turned to Nelda. "Now I hope you see why I thought it wise to bring in somebody who knows something about old arms," she said.

Nelda evidently saw; there was apparently nothing stupid about her. "And Fred was going to take a miserable ten thousand dollars!" The way she said it, ten thousand sounded like a fairly generous headwaiter's tip. "Did Rivers actually tell you he'd pay twenty-five?"

Rand gave, as nearly verbatim as possible, his conversation with the dealer. "And he can afford it, too," he finished. "He can make a nice profit on the collection, at that figure."

"My God, do you mean the pistols are worth more than that, even?" she wanted to know, aghast.

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