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?"
"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!"