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Murder in the Gunroom

Murder in the Gunroom

Author:H. Beam Piper


It was hard to judge Jeff Rand's age from his appearance; he was certainly over thirty and considerably under fifty. He looked hard and fit, like a man who could be a serviceable friend or a particularly unpleasant enemy. Women instinctively suspected that he would make a most satisfying lover.
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 It was hard to judge Jeff Rand's age from his appearance; he was

certainly over thirty and considerably under fifty. He looked hard and

fit, like a man who could be a serviceable friend or a particularly

unpleasant enemy. Women instinctively suspected that he would make a

most satisfying lover. One might have taken him for a successful lawyer

he had studied law, years ago

, or a military officer in mufti

he still

had a Reserve colonelcy, and used the title occasionally, to impress

people who he thought needed impressing

, or a prosperous businessman,

as he usually thought of himself. Most of all, he looked like King

Charles II of England anachronistically clad in a Brooks Brothers suit.

At the moment, he was looking rather like King Charles II being bothered

by one of his mistresses who wanted a peerage for her husband.

"But, Mrs. Fleming," he was expostulating. "There surely must be somebody

else.... After all, you'll have to admit that this isn't the sort of work

this agency handles."

The would-be client released a series of smoke-rings and watched them

float up toward the air-outlet at the office ceiling. It spoke well for

Rand's ability to subordinate esthetic to business considerations that he

was trying to give her a courteous and humane brush-off. She made even

the Petty and Varga girls seem credible. Her color-scheme was blue and

gold; blue eyes, and a blue tailored outfit that would have looked severe

on a less curvate figure, and a charmingly absurd little blue hat perched

on a mass of golden hair. If Rand had been Charles II, she could have

walked out of there with a duchess's coronet, and Nell Gwyn would have

been back selling oranges.

"Why isn't it?" she countered. "Your door's marked _Tri-State Detective

Agency, Jefferson Davis Rand, Investigation and Protection_. Well, I want

to know how much the collection's worth, and who'll pay the closest to

it. That's investigation, isn't it? And I want protection from being

swindled. And don't tell me you can't do it. You're a pistol-collector,

yourself; you have one of the best small collections in the state. And

you're a recognized authority on early pistols; I've read some of your

articles in the _Rifleman_. If you can't handle this, I don't know who


Rand's frown deepened. He wondered how much Gladys Fleming knew about the

principles of General Semantics. Even if she didn't know anything, she

was still edging him into an untenable position. He hastily shifted from

the attempt to identify his business with the label, "private detective


"Well, here, Mrs. Fleming," he explained. "My business, including

armed-guard and protected-delivery service, and general investigation

and protection work, requires some personal supervision, but none of

it demands my exclusive attention. Now, if you wanted some routine

investigation made, I could turn it over to my staff, maybe put two or

three men to work on it. But there's nothing about this business of yours

that I could delegate to anybody; I'd have to do it all myself, at the

expense of neglecting the rest of my business. Now, I could do what you

want done, but it would cost you three or four times what you'd gain by

retaining me."

"Well, let me decide that, Colonel," she replied. "How much would you

have to have?"

"Well, this collection of your late husband's consists of some

twenty-five hundred pistols and revolvers, all types and periods," Rand

said. "You want me to catalogue it, appraise each item, issue lists, and

negotiate with prospective buyers. The cataloguing and appraisal alone

would take from a week to ten days, and it would be a couple more weeks

until a satisfactory sale could be arranged. Why, say five thousand

dollars; a thousand as a retainer and the rest on completion."

That, he thought, would settle that. He was expecting an indignant

outcry, and hardened his heart, like Pharaoh. Instead, Gladys Fleming

nodded equably.

"That seems reasonable enough, Colonel Rand, considering that you'd have

to be staying with us at Rosemont, away from your office," she agreed.

"I'll give you a check for the thousand now, with a letter of


Rand nodded in return. Being thoroughly conscious of the fact that

he could only know a thin film of the events on the surface of any

situation, he was not easily surprised.

"Very well," he said. "You've hired an arms-expert. I'll be in Rosemont

some time tomorrow afternoon. Now, who are these prospective purchasers

you mentioned, and just how prospective, in terms of United States

currency, are they?"

"Well, for one, there's Arnold Rivers; he's offering ten thousand for the

collection. I suppose you know of him; he has an antique-arms business at


"I've done some business with him," Rand admitted. "Who else?"

"There's a commission-dealer named Carl Gwinnett, who wants to handle

the collection for us, for twenty per cent. I'm told that that isn't an

unusually exorbitant commission, but I'm not exactly crazy about the


"You shouldn't be, if you want your money in a hurry," Rand told her.

"He'd take at least five years to get everything sold. He wouldn't dump

the whole collection on the market at once, upset prices, and spoil his

future business. You know, two thousand five hundred pistols of the sort

Mr. Fleming had, coming on the market in a lot, could do just that. The

old-arms market isn't so large that it couldn't be easily saturated."

"That's what I'd been thinking.... And then, there are some private

collectors, mostly friends of Lane's--Mr. Fleming's--who are talking

about forming a pool to buy the collection for distribution among

themselves," she continued.

"That's more like it," Rand approved. "If they can raise enough money

among them, that is. They won't want the stuff for resale, and they may

pay something resembling a decent price. Who are they?"

"Well, Stephen Gresham appears to be the leading spirit," she said. "The

corporation lawyer, you know. Then, there is a Mr. Trehearne, and a Mr.

MacBride, and Philip Cabot, and one or two others."

"I know Gresham and Cabot," Rand said. "They're both friends of mine, and

I have an account with Cabot, Joyner & Teale, Cabot's brokerage firm.

I've corresponded with MacBride; he specializes in Colts.... You're the

sole owner, I take it?"

"Well, no." She paused, picking her words carefully. "We may just run

into a little trouble, there. You see, the collection is part of the

residue of the estate, left equally to myself and my two stepdaughters,

Nelda Dunmore and Geraldine Varcek. You understand, Mr. Fleming and I

were married in 1941; his first wife died fifteen years before."

"Well, your stepdaughters, now; would they also be my clients?"

"Good Lord, no!" That amused her considerably more than it did Rand.

"Of course," she continued, "they're just as interested in selling the

collection for the best possible price, but beyond that, there may be a

slight divergence of opinion. For instance, Nelda's husband, Fred

Dunmore, has been insisting that we let him handle the sale of the

pistols, on the grounds that he is something he calls a businessman.

Nelda supports him in this. It was Fred who got this ten-thousand-dollar

offer from Rivers. Personally, I think Rivers is playing him for a

sucker. Outside his own line, Fred is an awful innocent, and I've never

trusted this man Rivers. Lane had some trouble with him, just before ..."

"Arnold Rivers," Rand said, when it was evident that she was not going

to continue, "has the reputation, among collectors, of being the biggest

crook in the old-gun racket, a reputation he seems determined to live

up--or down--to. But here; if your stepdaughters are co-owners, what's

my status? What authority, if any, have I to do any negotiating?"

Gladys Fleming laughed musically. "That, my dear Colonel, is where you

earn your fee," she told him. "Actually, it won't be as hard as it looks.

If Nelda gives you any argument, you can count on Geraldine to take your

side as a matter of principle; if Geraldine objects first, Nelda will

help you steam-roll her into line. Fred Dunmore is accustomed to dealing

with a lot of yes-men at the plant; you shouldn't have any trouble

shouting him down. Anton Varcek won't be interested, one way or another;

he has what amounts to a pathological phobia about firearms of any sort.

And Humphrey Goode, our attorney, who's executor of the estate, will

welcome you with open arms, once he finds out what you want to do. That

collection has him talking to himself, already. Look; if you come out

to our happy home in the early afternoon, before Fred and Anton get back

from the plant, we ought to ram through some sort of agreement with

Geraldine and Nelda."

"You and whoever else sides with me will be a majority," Rand considered.

"Of course, the other one may pull a Gromyko on us, but ... I think I'll

talk to Goode, first."

"Yes. That would be smart," Gladys Fleming agreed. "After all, he's

responsible for selling the collection." She crossed to the desk and sat

down in Rand's chair while she wrote out the check and a short letter of

authorization, then she returned to her own seat.

"There's another thing," she continued, lighting a fresh cigarette.

"Because of the manner of Mr. Fleming's death, the girls have a horror of

the collection almost--but not quite--as strong as their desire to get

the best possible price for it."

"Yes. I'd heard that Mr. Fleming had been killed in a firearms accident,

last November," Rand mentioned.

"It was with one of his collection-pieces," the widow replied. "One

he'd bought just that day; a Confederate-made Colt-type percussion .36

revolver. He'd brought it home with him, simply delighted with it, and

started cleaning it at once. He could hardly wait until dinner was over

to get back to work on it.

"We'd finished dinner about seven, or a little after. At about half-past,

Nelda went out somewhere in the coupé. Anton had gone up to his

laboratory, in the attic--he's one of these fortunates whose work is also

his hobby; he's a biochemist and dietitian--and Lane was in the gunroom,

on the second floor, working on his new revolver. Fred Dunmore was having

a bath, and Geraldine and I had taken our coffee into the east parlor.

Geraldine put on the radio, and we were listening to it.

"It must have been about 7:47 or 7:48, because the program had changed

and the first commercial was just over, when we heard a loud noise from

somewhere upstairs. Neither of us thought of a shot; my own first idea

was of a door slamming. Then, about five minutes later, we heard Anton,

in the upstairs hall, pounding on a door, and shouting: 'Lane! Lane! Are

you all right?' We ran up the front stairway, and found Anton, in his

rubber lab-apron, and Fred, in a bathrobe, and barefooted, standing

outside the gunroom door. The door was locked, and that in itself was

unusual; there's a Yale lock on it, but nobody ever used it.

"For a minute or so, we just stood there. Anton was explaining that he

had heard a shot and that nobody in the gunroom answered. Geraldine told

him, rather impatiently, to go down to the library and up the spiral. You

see," she explained, "the library is directly under the gunroom, and

there's a spiral stairway connecting the two rooms. So Anton went

downstairs and we stood waiting in the hall. Fred was shivering in his

bathrobe; he said he'd just jumped out of the bathtub, and he had

nothing on under it. After a while, Anton opened the gunroom door from

the inside, and stood in the doorway, blocking it. He said: 'You'd better

not come in. There's been an accident, but it's too late to do anything.

Lane's shot himself with one of those damned pistols; I always knew

something like this would happen.'

"Well, I simply elbowed him out of the way and went in, and the others

followed me. By this time, the uproar had penetrated to the rear of the

house, and the servants--Walters, the butler, and Mrs. Horder, the

cook--had joined us. We found Lane inside, lying on the floor, shot

through the forehead. Of course, he was dead. He'd been sitting on one of

these old cobblers' benches of the sort that used to be all the thing for

cocktail-tables; he had his tools and polish and oil and rags on it. He'd

fallen off it to one side and was lying beside it. He had a revolver in

his right hand, and an oily rag in his left."

"Was it the revolver he'd brought home with him?" Rand asked.

"I don't know," she replied. "He showed me this Confederate revolver when

he came home, but it was dirty and dusty, and I didn't touch it. And I

didn't look closely at the one he had in his hand when he was ... on the

floor. It was about the same size and design; that's all I could swear

to." She continued: "We had something of an argument about what to do.

Walters, the butler, offered to call the police. He's English, and his

mind seems to run naturally to due process of law. Fred and Anton both

howled that proposal down; they wanted no part of the police. At the

same time, Geraldine was going into hysterics, and I was trying to get

her quieted down. I took her to her room and gave her a couple of

sleeping-pills, and then went back to the gunroom. While I was gone, it

seems that Anton had called our family doctor, Dr. Yardman, and then Fred

called Humphrey Goode, our lawyer. Goode lives next door to us, about two

hundred yards away, so he arrived almost at once. When the doctor came,

he called the coroner, and when he arrived, about an hour later, they all

went into a huddle and decided that it was an obvious accident and that

no inquest would be necessary. Then somebody, I'm not sure who, called an

undertaker. It was past eleven when he arrived, and for once, Nelda got

home early. She was just coming in while they were carrying Lane out in a

basket. You can imagine how horrible that was for her; it was days before

she was over the shock. So she'll be just as glad as anybody to see the

last of the pistol-collection."

Through the recital, Rand had sat silently, toying with the ivory-handled

Italian Fascist dagger-of-honor that was doing duty as a letter-opener on

his desk. Gladys Fleming wasn't, he was sure, indulging in any

masochistic self-harrowing; neither, he thought, was she talking to

relieve her mind. Once or twice there had been a small catch in her

voice, but otherwise the narration had been a piece of straight

reporting, neither callous nor emotional. Good reporting, too; carefully

detailed. There had been one or two inclusions of inferential matter in

the guise of description, but that was to be looked for and discounted.

And she had remembered, at the end, to include her ostensible reason for

telling the story.

"Yes, it must have been dreadful," he sympathized. "Odd, though, that an

old hand with guns like Mr. Fleming would have an accident like that. I

met him, once or twice, and was at your home to see his collection, a

couple of years ago. He impressed me as knowing firearms pretty

thoroughly.... Well, you can look for me tomorrow, say around two. In

the meantime, I'll see Goode, and also Gresham and Arnold Rivers."