Murder in the Gunroom
Chapter 19

 

There was less feuding at dinner that evening than at any previous meal Rand had eaten in the Fleming home. In the first place, everybody seemed a little awed in the presence of the new butler, who flitted in and out of the room like a ghost and, when spoken to, answered in a heavy B.B.C. accent. Then, the women, who carried on most of the hostilities, had re-erected their front populaire and were sharing a common pleasure in the recovery of the stolen pistols. And finally, there was a distinct possibility that the swift and dramatic justice that had overtaken Walters and Gwinnett at Rand's hands was having a sobering effect upon somebody at that table.

Dunmore, Nelda, Varcek, Geraldine and Gladys had been intending to go to a party that evening, but at the last minute Gladys had pleaded indisposition and telephoned regrets. The meal over, Rand had gone up to the gunroom, Gladys drifted into the small drawing-room off the dining-room, and the others had gone to their rooms to dress.

Rand was taking down the junk with which Walters had infiltrated the collection and was listing and hanging up the recovered items when Fred Dunmore, wearing a dressing-gown, strolled in.

"I can't get over the idea of Walters being a thief," he sorrowed. "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen his signed confession ... Well, it just goes to show you..."

"He took his medicine standing up," Rand said. "And he helped us recover the pistols. If I were you, I'd go easy with him."

Dunmore shook his head. "I'm not a revengeful man, Colonel Rand," he said, "but if there's one thing I can't forgive, it's a disloyal employee." His mouth closed sternly around his cigar. "He'll have to take what's coming to him." He stood by the desk for a moment, looking down at the recovered items and the pile of junk on the floor. "When did you first suspect him?"

"Almost from the first moment I saw this collection." Rand explained the reasoning which had led him to suspect Walters. "The real clincher, to my mind, was the fact that he knew this collection almost as well as Lane Fleming did, and wouldn't be likely to be deceived by these substitutions any more than Fleming would. Yet he said nothing to anybody; neither to Mrs. Fleming, nor Goode, nor myself. If he weren't guilty himself, I wanted to know his reason for keeping silent. So I put the pressure on him, and he cracked open."

"Well, I want you to know how grateful we all are," Dunmore said feelingly. "I'm kicking hell out of myself, now, about the way I objected when Gladys brought you in here. My God, suppose we'd tried to sell the collection ourselves! Anybody who'd have been interested in buying would have seen what you saw, and then they'd have claimed that we were trying to hold out on them." He hesitated. "You've seen how things are here," he continued ruefully. "And that's something else I have to thank you for; I mean, keeping your mouth shut till you got the pistols back. There'd have been a hell of a row; everybody would have blamed everybody else ... How did you get him to confess, though?"

Rand told him about the subterfuge of the trumped-up murder charge. Dunmore had evidently never thought of that hoary device; he chuckled appreciatively.

"Say, that was smart! No wonder he was so willing to admit everything and help you get them back." He looked at the pistols on the desk and moved one or two of them. "Did you get the one the coroner had? Goode said something--"

"Oh, yes; I got that yesterday." Rand turned and went to the workbench, bringing back the Leech & Rigdon, which he handed to Dunmore. "That's it. I fired out the other five charges, and cleaned it at the State Police substation." He watched Dunmore closely, but there seemed to be no reaction.

"So that's it." Dunmore looked at it with a show of interest and honest sorrow, and handed it back, then shifted his cigar across his mouth. "Look here, Colonel; I've been wanting to ask you something. Did Gladys just get you to come here to appraise and sell the collection, or are you investigating Lane's death, too?"

"Well, now, you're asking me to be disloyal to my employer," Rand objected. "Why don't you ask her that? If she wants you to know, she'll tell you."

"Dammit, I can't! Suppose she's satisfied that it really was an accident; would I want to start her worrying and imagining things?"

"No, I suppose you wouldn't," Rand conceded. "You're not at all satisfied on that point yourself, are you?"

"Well, are you?" Dunmore parried.

That sort of fencing could go on indefinitely. Rand determined to stop it. After all, if Dunmore was the murderer of Lane Fleming, he would already know how little Rand was deceived by the fake accident; the Leech & Rigdon had told him that already. If he weren't, telling him would do no harm at this point, and might even do some good.

"Why, I think Fleming was murdered," Rand told him, as casually as though he were expressing an opinion on tomorrow's weather. "And I further believe that whoever killed Fleming also killed Arnold Rivers. That, by the way, is where I come in. Stephen Gresham has retained me to find the Rivers murderer; to do that, I must first learn who killed Lane Fleming. However, I was not retained to investigate the Fleming murder, and as far as I know from anything she has told me, Gladys Fleming is quite satisfied that her husband shot himself accidentally." In a universe of ordered abstractions and multiordinal meanings, the literal truth, on one order of abstraction, was often a black lie on another. "Does that answer your question?" he asked, with open-faced innocence.

Dunmore nodded. "Yes, I get it, now. Look here, do you think Anton Varcek could have done it? I know it's a horrible idea, and I want you to understand that I'm not making any accusations, but we always took it for granted that he'd been up in his lab, and had come downstairs when he heard the shot. But suppose he came down and shot Fleming, and then went out in the hall, and made that rumpus outside after locking the door behind him?"

"That's possible," Rand agreed. "You were taking a bath when you heard the shot, weren't you?"

Dunmore shook his head. "I suppose so. I didn't hear any shot, to tell the truth. All I heard was Anton pounding on the door and yelling. I suppose I had my head under the shower, and the noise of the water kept me from hearing the shot." He stopped short, taking his cigar from his mouth and pointing it at Rand. "And, by God, that would have been about five minutes before he started hammering on the door!" he exclaimed. "Time enough for him to have fixed things to look like an accident, set the deadlatch, and have gone out in the hall, and started making a noise. And another thing. You say that whoever killed Lane also killed this fellow Rivers. Well, on Thursday night, when Rivers was killed, Anton didn't get home till around twelve."

"Yes, I'd thought of that. You know, though, that the murderer doesn't have to be Varcek, or anybody else who was in the house at the time. The garage doors were open--I'm told that your wife was out at the time--and anybody could have sneaked in the back way, up through the library, and out the same way. There are one or two possibilities besides you and Anton Varcek."

Dunmore's eyes widened. "Yes, and I can think of one, without half trying, too!" He nodded once or twice. "For instance, the man who was afraid you were investigating Fleming's death; the man who started that suicide story!" He looked at Rand interrogatively. "Well, I got to go; Nelda'll be out of the bathroom by now. I want to talk to you about this some more, Colonel."

After Dunmore had gone out, Rand mopped his face. The room seemed insufferably hot. He found an electric fan over the workbench and plugged it in, but it made enough noise to cover any sounds of stealthy approach, and he shut it off. He had finished revising his list to include the recovered pistols for as far as it was completed, and was hanging them back on the wall when Ritter came in.

"House is clear, now," his assistant said, stepping out of his P. G. Wodehouse character. "Both pairs left in the Packard, Dunmore driving. Man, what a cat-and-dog show this place is! It's a wonder our client isn't nuts."

"You haven't seen anything; you ought to have been here last night ... Where is our client, by the way?"

"Downstairs." Ritter fished a cigarette out of his livery and appropriated Rand's lighter. "If we hear her coming, you can grab this." He brushed a couple of Paterson Colts to one side and sat down on the edge of the desk, taking a deep drag on the cigarette. "What's the regular law doing, now that young Jarrett is out?"

"I had a long talk with Mick McKenna," Rand said. "Fortunately, Mick and I have worked together before. I was able to tell him the facts of life, and he'll be a good boy now. When last heard from, Farnsworth was beginning to blow his hot breath on the back of Cecil Gillis's neck."

Ritter picked up the big .44 Colt Walker and tried the balance. "Man, this even makes that Colt Magnum of mine feel light!" he said. "Say, Jeff, if Farnsworth's going after Gillis, it's probably on account of those stories about him and Mrs. Rivers. At least, all that stuff would come out if he arrested him. Maybe we could get a fee out of Mrs. Rivers."

"I'd thought of that. Unfortunately, Mrs. Rivers had a very convenient breakdown, when she heard the news; she is now in a hospital in New York, and won't be back until after the funeral. Prostrated with grief. Or something. And this case is due to blow up like Hiroshima before then. Well, we can't get fees from everybody." That, of course, was one of the sad things of life to which one must reconcile oneself. "I got a call from Pierre Jarrett; Tip's staying at the Jarrett place tonight. I thought it would be a good idea to have him within reach for a while."

The private outside phone rang shrilly. Ritter let it go for several rings, then picked it up.

"This is the Fleming residence," he stated, putting on his character again. "Oh, yes indeed, sir. Colonel Rand is right here, sir; I'll tell him you're calling." He put a hand over the mouthpiece. "Humphrey Goode."

Rand took the phone and named himself into it.

"I would like to talk to you privately, Colonel Rand," the lawyer said. "On a subject of considerable importance to our, shall I say, mutual clients. Could you find time to drop over, sometime this evening?"

"Well, I'm very busy, at the moment, Mr. Goode," Rand regretted. "There have been some rather deplorable developments here, lately. The butler, Walters, has been arrested for larceny. It seems that since Mr. Fleming's death, he has been systematically looting the pistol-collection. I'm trying to get things straightened out, now."

"Good heavens!" Goode was considerably shaken. "When did you discover this, Colonel Rand? And why wasn't I notified before? And are there many valuable items missing?"

"I discovered it as soon as I saw the collection," Rand began answering his questions in order. "Neither you, nor anybody else was notified, because I wanted to get evidence to justify an arrest first. And nothing is missing; everything has been recovered," he finished. "That's what I'm so busy about, now; getting my list revised, and straightening out the collection."

"Oh, fine!" Goode was delighted. "I hope everything was handled quietly, without any unnecessary publicity? But this other matter; I don't care to go into it over the phone, and it's imperative that we discuss it privately, at once."

"Well, suppose you come over here, Mr. Goode," Rand suggested. "That way, I won't have to interrupt my work so much. There's nobody at home now but Mrs. Fleming, and as she's indisposed, we'll be quite alone."

"Oh; very well. I think that's really a good idea; much better than your coming over here. I'll see you directly."

Ritter was grinning as Rand hung up. "That's the stuff," he approved. "The old Hitler technique; make them come to you, and then you can pound the table and yell at them all you want to."

"You go let him in," Rand directed. "Show him up here, and then take a plant on that spiral stairway out of the library, just out of sight. I don't think this it, but there's no use taking chances." He mopped his face again. "Damn, it's hot in here!"

Ten minutes later, Ritter ushered in Humphrey Goode, and inquired if there would be anything further, sir? When Rand said there wouldn't, he went down the spiral. Just as Rand had expected, Goode began peddling the same line as Varcek and Dunmore before him. They all came to see him in the gunroom with a common purpose. After easing himself into a chair, and going through some prefatory huffing and puffing, Goode came out with it. Did Rand believe that Lane Fleming had really been murdered, and was he investigating Fleming's death, after all?

"I have always believed that Lane Fleming was murdered," Rand replied. "I also believe that his murderer killed Arnold Rivers, as well. I am investigating the Rivers murder, and the Fleming murder may be considered as a part thereof. But what brings you around to discuss that, now? Did you learn something, since last evening, that leads you to suspect the same thing?"

"Well, not exactly. But this afternoon, Fred Dunmore and Anton Varcek came to my office, separately, of course, and each of them wanted to know if I had any reason to suspect that the, uh, tragedy, was actually a case of murder. Both had the impression that you were conducting an investigation under cover of your work on the pistol collection, and wanted to know whether Mrs. Fleming or I had employed you to do so."

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