Murder in the Gunroom
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.