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Chapter 17

  • When he rose, the next morning, Rand noticed something which had escaped hi_ye when he had gone to bed the night before. His .38-special, in it_houlder-holster, was lying on the dresser; he had not bothered putting it o_hen he had gone to see Rivers the morning before, and it had lain there al_he previous day. He distinctly remembered having moved it, shortly afte_inner, when he had gone to his room for some notes he had made on th_ollection.
  • However, between that time and the present it had managed to flop itself over; the holster was now lying back-up. Intrigued by such a remarkabl_ccomplishment in an inanimate object, Rand crossed the room in the dress-of- nature in which he slept and looked more closely at it, receiving a second an_onsiderably more severe surprise. The revolver in the holster was not hi_wn.
  • It was, to be sure, a .38 Colt Detective Special, and it was in his holster, but it was not the Detective Special he had brought with him from New Belfast.
  • His own gun was of the second type, with the corners rounded off the grip; this one was of the original issue, with the square Police Positive grip. Hi_wn gun had seen hard service; this one was in practically new condition.
  • There was a discrepancy of about thirty thousand in the serial numbers. Hi_un had been loaded in six chambers with the standard 158-grain loads; thi_ne was loaded in only five, with 148-grain mid-range wad-cutter loads.
  • Rand stood for some time looking at the revolver. The worst of it was that h_ouldn't be exactly sure when the substitution had been made. It might hav_appened at any time between eight o'clock and twelve, when he had gone t_ed. He rather suspected that it had been accomplished while he had been i_he bathroom, however.
  • Dumping out the five rounds in the cylinder, he inspected the changelin_arefully. It was, he thought, the revolver Lane Fleming had kept in th_rawer of the gunroom desk. There was no obstruction in the two-inch barrel, the weapon had not been either fired or cleaned recently, the firing-pin ha_ot been shortened, the mainspring showed the proper amount of tension, an_he mechanism functioned as it should. There was a chance that somebody ha_ade up five special hand-loads for him, using nitroglycerin instead o_owder, but that didn't seem likely, as it would not necessitate a switch o_evolvers. There were four or five other possibilities, all of the_isquieting; he would have been a great deal less alarmed if somebody ha_aken a shot at him.
  • Getting a box of cartridges out of his Gladstone, he filled the cylinder wit_58-grain loads. When he went to the bathroom, he took the revolver in hi_ressing-gown pocket; when he dressed, he put on the shoulder-holster, an_ocketed a handful of spare rounds.
  • Anton Varcek was loitering in the hall when he came out; he gave Rand good- morning, and fell into step with him as they went toward the stairway.
  • "Colonel Rand, I wish you wouldn't mention this to anybody, but I would like _rivate talk with you," the Czech said. "After Fred Dunmore has left for th_lant. Would that be possible?"
  • "Yes, Mr. Varcek; I'll be in the gunroom all morning, working." They reache_he bottom of the stairway, where Gladys was waiting. "Understand," Ran_ontinued, "I never really studied biology. I was exposed to it, in school, but at that time I was preoccupied with the so-called social sciences."
  • Varcek took the conversational shift in stride. "Of course," he agreed. "Bu_ou are trained in the scientific method of thought. That, at least, i_omething. When I have opportunity to explain my ideas more fully, I believ_ou will be interested in my conclusions."
  • They greeted Gladys, and walked with her to the dining-room. As usual, Geraldine was absent; Dunmore and Nelda were already at the table, eating i_ilence. Both of them seemed self-conscious, after the pitched battle of th_vening before. Rand broke the tension by offering Humphrey Goode in the rol_f whipping-boy; he had no sooner made a remark in derogation of the lawye_han Nelda and her husband broke into a duet of vituperation. In the end, everybody affected to agree that the whole unpleasant scene had been entirel_oode's fault, and a pleasant spirit of mutual cordiality prevailed.
  • Finally Dunmore got up, wiping his mouth on a napkin.
  • "Well, it's about time to get to work," he said. "We might as well save ga_nd both use my car. Coming, Anton?"
  • "I'm sorry, Fred; I can't leave, yet. I have some notes upstairs I have to ge_n order. I was working on this new egg-powder, last evening, and I want t_ontinue the experiments at the plant laboratory. I think I know how we'll b_ble to cut production costs on it, about five per cent."
  • "And boy, can we stand that!" Dunmore grunted. "Well, be seeing you at th_lant."
  • Rand waited until Dunmore had left, then went across to the library and up t_he gunroom. As soon as he entered the room above, he saw what was wrong. Th_revious thefts had been masked by substitutions, but whoever had helpe_imself to one of the more recent metallic-cartridge specimens, the nigh_efore, hadn't bothered with any such precaution, and a pair of vacan_crewhooks disclosed the removal. A second look told Rand what had been taken: the little .25 Webley & Scott from the Pollard collection, with the silencer.
  • The pistol-trade which had been imposed on him had disquieted him; now, he ha_o hesitation in admitting to himself, he was badly scared. Whoever had take_hat little automatic had had only one thought in mind—noiseless and stealth_urder. Very probably with one Colonel Jefferson Davis Rand in mind as th_rospective corpse.
  • He sat down at the desk and started typing, at the same time trying to kee_he hall door and the head of the spiral stairway under observation. It was a_ttempt which was responsible for quite a number of typographical errors.
  • Finally, Anton Varcek came in from the hallway, approached the desk, and sa_own in an armchair.
  • "Colonel Rand," he began, in a low voice, "I have been thinking over a remar_ou made, last evening. Were you serious when you alluded to the possibilit_hat Lane Fleming had been murdered?"
  • "Well, the idea had occurred to me," Rand understated, keeping his right han_lose to his left coat lapel. "I take it you have begun to doubt that it wa_n accident?"
  • "I would doubt a theory that a skilled chemist would accidentally poiso_imself in his own laboratory," Varcek replied. "I would not, for instance, pour myself a drink from a bottle labeled HNO_3 in the belief that i_ontained vodka. I believe that Lane Fleming should be credited with equa_aution about firearms."
  • "Yet you were the first to advance the theory that the shooting had been a_ccident," Rand pointed out.
  • "I have a strong dislike for firearms." Varcek looked at the pistols on th_esk as though they were so many rattlesnakes. "I have always feared a_ccident, with so many in the house. When I saw him lying dead, with _evolver in his hand, that was my first thought. First thoughts are so ofte_llogical, emotional."
  • "And you didn't consider the possibility of suicide?"
  • "No! Absolutely not!" The Czech was emphatic. "The idea never occurred to me, then or since. Lane Fleming was not the man to do that. He was deepl_eligious, much interested in church work. And, aside from that, he had n_eason to wish to die. His health was excellent; much better than that of man_en twenty years his junior. He had no business worries. The company is doin_ell, we had large Government contracts during the war and no reconversio_roblems afterward, we now have more orders than we have plant capacity t_ill, and Mr. Fleming was consulting with architects about plant expansion. W_ave been spared any serious labor troubles. And Mr. Fleming's wife wa_evoted to him, and he to her. He had no family troubles."
  • Rand raised an eyebrow over that last. "No?" he inquired.
  • Varcek flushed. "Please, Colonel Rand, you must not judge by what you hav_een since you came here. When Lane Fleming was alive, such scenes as that i_he library last evening would have been unthinkable. Now, this family is lik_ ship without a captain."
  • "And since you do not think that he shot himself, either deliberately o_nadvertently, there remains the alternative that he was shot by somebod_lse, either deliberately or, very improbably, by inadvertence," Rand said. "_hink the latter can be safely disregarded. Let's agree that it was murder an_o on from there."
  • Varcek nodded. "You are investigating it as such?" he asked.
  • "I am appraising and selling this pistol collection," Rand told him wearily.
  • "I am curious about who killed Fleming, of course; for my own protection _ike to know the background of situations in which I am involved. But do yo_hink Humphrey Goode would bring me here to stir up a lot of sleeping dog_hat might awake and grab him by the pants-seat? Or did you think that uproa_n the library last evening was just a prearranged act?"
  • "I had not thought of Humphrey Goode. It was my understanding that Mrs.
  • Fleming brought you here."
  • "Mrs. Fleming wants her money out of the collection, as soon as possible,"
  • Rand said. "To reopen the question of her husband's death and start a murde_nvestigation wouldn't exactly expedite things. I'm just a more or les_nnocent bystander, who wants to know whether there is going to be any troubl_r not… . Now, you came here to tell me what happened on the night of Lan_leming's death, didn't you?"
  • "Yes. We had finished dinner at about seven," Varcek said. "Lane had been u_ere for about an hour before dinner, working on his new revolver; he cam_ack here immediately after he was through eating. A little later, when I ha_inished my coffee, I came upstairs, by the main stairway. The door of thi_oom was open, and Lane was inside, sitting on that old shoemaker's-bench, working on the revolver. He had it apart, and he was cleaning a part of it.
  • The round part, where the loads go; the drum, is it?"
  • "Cylinder. How was he cleaning it?" Rand asked.
  • "He was using a small brush, like a test-tube brush; he was scrubbing out th_oles. The chambers. He was using a solvent that smelled something lik_anana-oil."
  • Rand nodded. He could visualize the progress Fleming had made. If Varcek wa_elling the truth, and he remembered what Walters had told him, the las_licker of possibility that Lane Fleming's death had been accidental vanished.
  • "I talked with him for some ten minutes or so," Varcek continued, "about som_echnical problems at the plant. All the while, he kept on working on thi_evolver, and finished cleaning out the cylinder, and also the barrel. He wa_eginning to put the revolver together when I left him and went up to m_aboratory.
  • "About fifteen minutes later I heard the shot. For a moment, I debated wit_yself as to what I had heard, and then I decided to come down here. But firs_ had to take a solution off a Bunsen burner, where I had been heating it, an_ake the temperature of it, and then wash my hands, because I had been workin_ith poisonous materials. I should say all this took me about five minutes.
  • "When I got down here, the door of this room was closed and locked. That wa_ost unusual, and I became really worried. I pounded on the door, and calle_ut, but I got no answer. Then Fred Dunmore came out of the bathroom attache_o his room, with nothing on but a bathrobe. His hair was wet, and he was i_is bare feet and making wet tracks on the floor."
  • From there on, Varcek's story tallied closely with what Rand had heard fro_ladys and from Walters. Everybody's story tallied, where it could be checke_p on.
  • "You think the murderer locked the door behind him, when he came out of here?"
  • Varcek asked.
  • "I think somebody locked the door, sometime. It might have been the murderer, or it might have been Fleming at the murderer's suggestion. But why couldn'_he murderer have left the gunroom by that stairway?"
  • Varcek looked around furtively and lowered his voice. Now he looked lik_udolf Hess discussing what to do about Ernst Roehm.
  • "Colonel Rand; don't you think that Fred Dunmore could have shot Lane Fleming, and then have gone to his room and waited until I came downstairs?" he asked.
  • Here we go again! Rand thought. Just like the Rivers case; everybody puttin_he finger on everybody else… .
  • "And have undressed and taken a bath, while he was waiting?" he inquired. "Yo_ame down here only five minutes after the shot. In that time, Dunmore woul_ave had to wipe his fingerprints off the revolver, leave it in Fleming'_and, put that oily rag in his other hand, set the deadlatch, cross the hall, undress, get into the bathtub and start bathing. That's pretty fast work."
  • "But who else could have done it?"
  • "Well, you, for one. You could have come down from your lab, shot Fleming, faked the suicide, and then gone out, locking the door behind you, and made _emonstration in the hall until you were joined by Dunmore and the ladies.
  • Then, with your innocence well established, you could have waited until you_ife prompted you, as she or somebody else was sure to, and then have gon_own to the library and up the spiral," Rand said. "That's about a_onvincing, no more and no less, as your theory about Dunmore."
  • Varcek agreed sadly. "And I cannot prove otherwise, can I?"
  • "You can advance your Dunmore theory to establish reasonable doubt," Rand tol_im. "And if Dunmore's accused, he can do the same with the theory I've jus_utlined. And as long as reasonable doubt exists, neither of you could b_onvicted. This isn't the Third Reich or the Soviet Union; they wouldn'_xecute both of you to make sure of getting the right one. Both of you had _otive in this Mill-Pack merger that couldn't have been negotiated whil_leming lived. One or the other of you may be guilty; on the other hand, bot_f you may be innocent."
  • "Then who… ?" Varcek had evidently bet his roll on Dunmore. "There is no on_lse who could have done it."
  • "The garage doors were open, if I recall," Rand pointed out. "Anybody coul_ave slipped in that way, come through the rear hall to the library and up th_piral, and have gone out the same way. Some of the French Maquis I worke_ith, during the war, could have wiped out the whole family, one after th_ther, that way."
  • A look of intense concentration settled upon Varcek's face. He nodded severa_imes.
  • "Yes. Of course," he said, his thought-chain complete. "And you spoke o_otive. From what you must have heard, last evening, Humphrey Goode was n_ess interested in the merger than Fred Dunmore or myself. And then there i_our friend Gresham; he is quite familiar with the interior of this house, an_ho knows what terms National Milling & Packaging may have made with him, contingent upon his success in negotiating the merger?"
  • "I'm not forgetting either of them," Rand said. "Or Fred Dunmore, or you. I_ou did it, I'd advise you to confess now; it'll save everybody, yoursel_ncluded, a lot of trouble."
  • Varcek looked at him, fascinated. "Why, I believe you regard all of us just a_ do my fruit flies!" he said at length. "You know, Colonel Rand, you are no_ comfortable sort of man to have around." He rose slowly. "Naturally, I'l_ot mention this interview. I suppose you won't want to, either?"
  • "I'd advise you not to talk about it, at that," Rand said. "The situation her_eems to be very delicate, and rather explosive… . Oh, as you go out, I'd b_bliged to you for sending Walters up here. I still have this work here, an_'ll need his help."
  • After Varcek had left him, Rand looked in the desk drawer, verifying hi_ssumption that the .38 he had seen there was gone. He wondered where his ow_as, at the moment.
  • When the butler arrived, he was put to work bringing pistols to the desk, carrying them back to the racks, taking measurements, and the like. All th_hile, Rand kept his eye on the head of the spiral stairway.
  • Finally he caught a movement, and saw what looked like the top of a peak- crowned gray felt hat between the spindles of the railing. He eased th_etective Special out of its holster and got to his feet.
  • "All right!" he sang out. "Come on up!"
  • Walters looked, obviously startled, at the revolver that had materialized i_and's hand, and at the two men who were emerging from the spiral. He was eve_ore startled, it seemed, when he realized that they wore the uniform of th_tate Police.
  • "What… . What's the meaning of this, sir?" he demanded of Rand.
  • "You're being arrested," Rand told him. "Just stand still, now."
  • He stepped around the desk and frisked the butler quickly, wondering if h_ere going to find a .25 Webley & Scott automatic or his own .38-Special. Whe_e found neither, he holstered his temporary weapon.
  • "If this is your idea of a joke, sir, permit me to say that it isn't… ."
  • "It's no joke, son," Sergeant McKenna told him. "In this country, a police- officer doesn't have to recite any incantation before he makes an arrest, an_ore than he needs to read any Riot Act before he can start shooting, but i_on't hurt to warn you that anything you say can be used against you."
  • "At least, I must insist upon knowing why I am being arrested," Walters sai_cily.
  • "Oh! Don't you know?" McKenna asked. "Why, you're being arrested for th_urder of Arnold Rivers."
  • For a moment the butler retained his professional glacial disdain, and the_he bottom seemed to drop suddenly out of him. Rand suppressed a smile at thi_inor verification of his theory. Walters had been expecting to be accused o_arceny, and was prepared to treat the charge with contempt. Then he ha_ealized, after a second or so, what the State Police sergeant had reall_aid.
  • "Good God, gentlemen!" He looked from Mick McKenna to Corporal Kavaalen t_and and back again in bewilderment. "You surely can't mean that!"
  • "We can and we do," Rand told him. "You stole about twenty-five pistols fro_his collection, after Mr. Fleming died, and sold them to Arnold Rivers. Then, when I came here and started checking up on the collection, you knew the gam_as up. So, last evening, you took out the station-wagon and went to se_ivers, and you killed him to keep him from turning state's evidence an_ncriminating you. Or maybe you killed him in a quarrel over the division o_he loot. I hope, for your sake, that it was the latter; if it was, you ma_et off with second degree murder. But if you can't prove that there was n_remeditation, you're tagged for the electric chair."
  • "But … But I didn't kill Mr. Rivers," Walters stammered. "I barely knew th_entleman. I saw him, once or twice, when he was here to see Mr. Fleming, bu_utside of that… ."
  • "Outside of that, you sold him about twenty-five of these pistols, and got _ike number of junk pistols from him, for replacements." He took the lis_ierre Jarrett and Stephen Gresham had compiled out of his pocket and bega_eading: "Italian wheel lock pistol, late sixteenth- or early seventeenth- century; pair Italian snaphaunce pistols, by Lazarino Cominazo… ." He finishe_he list and put it away. "I think we've missed one or two, but that'll do, for the time."
  • "But I didn't sell those pistols to Mr. Rivers," Walters expostulated. "I sol_hem to Mr. Carl Gwinnett. I can prove it!"
  • That Rand had not expected. "Go on!" he jeered. "I suppose you have receipt_or all of them. Fences always do that, of course."
  • "But I did sell them to Mr. Gwinnett. I can take you to his house, if you ge_ search warrant, and show you where he has them hidden in the garret. He wa_fraid to offer them for sale until after this collection had been broken u_nd sold; he still has every one of them."
  • McKenna spat out an obscenity. "Aren't we ever going to have any luck?" h_emanded. "Jarrett out on a writ this morning, and now this!"
  • "But he ain't in the clear," Kavaalen argued. "Maybe he didn't sell Rivers th_istols, but maybe he did kill him."
  • "Dope!" McKenna abused his subordinate. "If he didn't sell Rivers the pistols, why would he kill him?"
  • "He's only said he sold them to Gwinnett," Rand pointed out. Then he turned t_alters. "Look here; if we find those pistols in Gwinnett's possession, you'r_lear on this murder charge. There's still a slight matter of larceny, bu_hat doesn't involve the electric chair. You take my advice and make _onfession now, and then accompany these officers to Gwinnett's place and sho_hem the pistols. If you do that, you may expect clemency on the theft charge, too."
  • "Oh, I will, sir! I'll sign a full confession, and take these police-officer_nd show them every one of the pistols… ."
  • Rand put paper and carbon sheets in the typewriter. As Walters dictated, h_yped; the butler listed every pistol which Gresham and Pierre Jarrett ha_ound missing, and a cased presentation pair of .44 Colt 1860's that nobod_ad missed. He signed the triplicate copies willingly; he didn't seem to min_igning himself into jail, as long as he thought he was signing himself out o_he electric chair.
  • The book in which Fleming had recorded his pistols he still had; he ha_emoved it from the gunroom and was keeping it in his room. He said he woul_et it, along with the things he would need to take to jail with him. When i_as finished, they all went down the spiral stairway into the library.
  • Nelda was standing at the foot of it. Evidently she had been listening to wha_ad been going on upstairs.
  • "You dirty sneak!" she yelled, catching sight of Walters. "After all we'v_one for you, you turn around and rob us! I hope they give you twenty years!"
  • Walters turned to McKenna. "Sergeant, I am willing to accept the penalty o_he law for what I have done, but I don't believe, sir, that it includes bein_apped at by this vulgar bitch."
  • Nelda let out an inarticulate howl of fury and sprang at him, nails raking.
  • Corporal Kavaalen caught her wrist before she could claw the prisoner.
  • "That's enough, you!" he told her. "You stop that, or you'll spend a night i_ail yourself."
  • She jerked her arm loose from his grasp and flung out of the library. As sh_ent out, Gladys entered; Rand, who had been bringing up in the rear, steppe_own from the stairway.
  • "He confessed," he said softly. "We had to bluff it out of him, but he cam_cross. Sold the pistols to Carl Gwinnett. We're going, now, to pick u_winnett and the pistols."
  • "I'm glad you found the pistols," she told him. "But what're we going to do, over the week-end, for a butler… ."
  • Rand snapped his fingers. "Dammit, I never thought of that!" He allowed hi_row to furrow with thought. "I won't promise anything, but I may be able t_ig up somebody for you, for a day or so. Some of my friends are visitin_heir son, in a Naval hospital on the West Coast, and their butler may be gla_or a chance to pick up a little extra money. Shall I call him and find out?"
  • "Oh, Colonel Rand, would you? I'd be eternally grateful!"
  • It was just as easy as that.