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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMurder In The Gunroom - Chapter 2
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Murder In The Gunroom - Chapter 2 Post by :cashdream Category :Long Stories Author :H. Beam Piper Date :May 2012 Read :2645

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Murder In The Gunroom - Chapter 2

After ushering his client out the hall door and closing it behind her, Rand turned and said:

"All right, Kathie, or Dave; whoever's out there. Come on in."

Then he went to his desk and reached under it, snapping off a switch. As he straightened, the door from the reception-office opened and his secretary, Kathie O'Grady, entered, loading a cigarette into an eight-inch amber holder. She was a handsome woman, built on the generous lines of a Renaissance goddess; none of the Renaissance masters, however, had ever employed a model so strikingly Hibernian. She had blue eyes, and a fair, highly-colored complexion; she wore green, which went well with her flaming red hair, and a good deal of gold costume-jewelry.

Behind her came Dave Ritter. He was Rand's assistant, and also Kathie's lover. He was five or six years older than his employer, and slightly built. His hair, fighting a stubborn rearguard action against baldness, was an indeterminate mousy gray-brown. It was one of his professional assets that nobody ever noticed him, not even in a crowd of one; when he wanted it to, his thin face could assume the weary, baffled expression of a middle-aged book-keeper with a wife and four children on fifty dollars a week. Actually, he drew three times that much, had no wife, admitted to no children. During the war, he and Kathie had kept the Tri-State Agency in something better than a state of suspended animation while Rand had been in the Army.

Ritter fumbled a Camel out of his shirt pocket and made a beeline for the desk, appropriating Rand's lighter and sharing the flame with Kathie.

"You know, Jeff," he said, "one of the reasons why this agency never made any money while you were away was that I never had the unadulterated insolence to ask the kind of fees you do. I was listening in on the extension in the file-room; I could hear Kathie damn near faint when you said five grand."

"Yes; five thousand dollars for appraising a collection they've been offered ten for, and she only has a third-interest," Kathie said, retracting herself into the chair lately vacated by Gladys Fleming. "If that makes sense, now ..."

"Ah, don't you get it, Kathleen Mavourneen?" Ritter asked. "She doesn't care about the pistols; she wants Jeff to find out who fixed up that accident for Fleming. You heard that big, long shaggy-dog story about exactly what happened and where everybody was supposed to have been at the time. I hope you got all that recorded; it was all told for a purpose."

Rand had picked up the outside phone and was dialing. In a moment, a girl's voice answered.

"Carter Tipton's law-office; good afternoon."

"Hello, Rheba; is Tip available?"

"Oh, hello, Jeff. Just a sec; I'll see." She buzzed another phone. "Jeff Rand on the line," she announced.

A clear, slightly Harvard-accented male voice took over.

"Hello, Jeff. Now what sort of malfeasance have you committed?"

"Nothing, so far--cross my fingers," Rand replied. "I just want a little information. Are you busy?... Okay, I'll be up directly."

He replaced the phone and turned to his disciples.

"Our client," he said, "wants two jobs done on one fee. Getting the pistol-collection sold is one job. Exploring the whys and wherefores of that quote accident unquote is the other. She has a hunch, and probably nothing much better, that there's something sour about the accident. She expects me to find evidence to that effect while I'm at Rosemont, going over the collection. I'm not excluding other possibilities, but I'll work on that line until and unless I find out differently. Five thousand should cover both jobs."

"You think that's how it is?" Kathie asked.

"Look, Kathie. I got just as far in Arithmetic, at school, as you did, and I suspect that Mrs. Fleming got at least as far as long division, herself. For reasons I stated, I simply couldn't have handled that collection business for anything like a reasonable fee, so I told her five thousand, thinking that would stop her. When it didn't, I knew she had something else in mind, and when she went into all that detail about the death of her husband, she as good as told me that was what it was. Now I'm sorry I didn't say ten thousand; I think she'd have bought it at that price just as cheerfully. She thinks Lane Fleming was murdered. Well, on the face of what she told me, so do I."

"All right, Professor; expound," Ritter said.

"You heard what he was supposed to have shot himself with," Rand began. "A Colt-type percussion revolver. You know what they're like. And I know enough about Lane Fleming to know how much experience he had with old arms. I can't believe that he'd buy a pistol without carefully examining it, and I can't believe that he'd bring that thing home and start working on it without seeing the caps on the nipples and the charges in the chambers, if it had been loaded. And if it had been, he would have first taken off the caps, and then taken it apart and drawn the charges. And she says he started working on it as soon as he got home--presumably around five--and then took time out for dinner, and then went back to work on it, and more than half an hour later, there was a shot and he was killed." Rand blew a Bronx cheer. "If that accident had been the McCoy, it would have happened in the first five minutes after he started working on that pistol. No, in the first thirty seconds. And then, when they found him, he had the revolver in his right hand, and an oily rag in his left. I hope both of you noticed that little touch."

"Yeah. When I clean a gat, I generally have it in my left hand, and clean with my right," Ritter said.

"Exactly. And why do you use an oily rag?" Rand inquired.

Ritter looked at him blankly for a half-second, then grinned ruefully.

"Damn, I never thought of that," he admitted. "Okay, he was bumped off, all right."

"But you use oily rags on guns," Kathie objected. "I've seen both of you, often enough."

"When we're all through, honey," Ritter told her.

"Yes. When he brought home that revolver, it was in neglected condition," Rand said. "Either surface-rusted, or filthy with gummed oil and dirt. Even if Mrs. Fleming hadn't mentioned that point, the length of time he spent cleaning it would justify such an inference. He would have taken it apart, down to the smallest screw, and cleaned everything carefully, and then put it together again, and then, when he had finished, he would have gone over the surface with an oiled rag, before hanging it on the wall. He would certainly not have surface-oiled it before removing the charges, if there ever were any. I assume the revolver he was found holding, presumably the one with which he was killed, was another one. And I would further assume that the killer wasn't particularly familiar with the subject of firearms, antique, care and maintenance of."

"And with all the hollering and whooping and hysterics-throwing, nobody noticed the switch," Ritter finished. "Wonder what happened to the one he was really cleaning."

"That I may possibly find out," Rand said. "The general incompetence with which this murder was committed gives me plenty of room to hope that it may still be lying around somewhere."

"Well, have you thought that it might just be suicide?" Kathie asked.

"I have, very briefly; I dismissed the thought, almost at once," Rand told her. "For two reasons. One, that if it had been suicide, Mrs. Fleming wouldn't want it poked into; she'd be more than willing to let it ride as an accident. And, two, I doubt if a man who prided himself on his gun-knowledge, as Fleming did, would want his self-shooting to be taken for an accident. I'm damn sure I wouldn't want my friends to go around saying: 'What a dope; didn't know it was loaded!' I doubt if he'd even expect people to believe that it had been an accident." He shook his head. "No, the only inference I can draw is that somebody murdered Fleming, and then faked evidence intended to indicate an accident." He rose. "I'll be back, in a little; think it over, while I'm gone."

* * * * *

Carter Tipton had his law-office on the floor above the Tri-State Detective Agency. He handled all Rand's not infrequent legal involvements, and Rand did all his investigating and witness-chasing; annually, they compared books to see who owed whom how much. Tipton was about five years Rand's junior, and had been in the Navy during the war. He was frequently described as New Belfast's leading younger attorney and most eligible bachelor. His dark, conservatively cut clothes fitted him as though they had been sprayed on, he wore gold-rimmed glasses, and he was so freshly barbered, manicured, valeted and scrubbed as to give the impression that he had been born in cellophane and just unwrapped. He leaned back in his chair and waved his visitor to a seat.

"Tip, do you know anything about this Fleming family, out at Rosemont?" Rand began, getting out his pipe and tobacco.

"The Premix-Foods Flemings?" Tipton asked. "Yes, a little. Which one of them wants you to frame what on which other one?"

"That'll do for a good, simplified description, to start with," Rand commented. "Why, my client is Mrs. Gladys Fleming. As to what she wants...."

He told the young lawyer about his recent interview and subsequent conclusions.

"So you see," he finished, "she won't commit herself, even with me. Maybe she thinks I have more official status, and more obligations to the police, than I have. Maybe she isn't sure in her own mind, and wants me to see, independently, if there's any smell of something dead in the woodpile. Or, she may think that having a private detective called in may throw a scare into somebody. Or maybe she thinks somebody may be fixing up an accident for her, next, and she wants a pistol-totin' gent in the house for a while. Or any combination thereof. Personally, I deplore these clients who hire you to do one thing and expect you to do another, but with five grand for sweetening, I can take them."

"Yes. You know, I've heard rumors of suicide, but this is the first whiff of murder I've caught." He hesitated slightly. "I must say, I'm not greatly surprised. Lane Fleming's death was very convenient to a number of people. You know about this Premix Company, don't you?"

"Vaguely. They manufacture ready-mixed pancake flour, and ready-mixed ice-cream and pudding powders, and this dehydrated vegetable soup--pour on hot water, stir, and serve--don't they? My colored boy, Buck, got some of the soup, once, for an experiment. We unanimously voted not to try it again."

"They put out quite a line of such godsends to the neophyte in the kitchen, the popularity of which is reflected in a steadily rising divorce-rate," Tipton said. "They advertise very extensively, including half an hour of tear-jerking drama on a national hookup during soap-opera time. Your client, the former Gladys Farrand, was on the air for Premix for a couple of years; that's how Lane Fleming first met her."

"So you think some irate and dyspeptic husband went to the source of his woes?" Rand inquired.

"Well, not exactly. You see, Premix is only Little Business, as the foods industry goes, but they have something very sweet. So sweet, in fact, that one of the really big fellows, National Milling & Packaging, has been going to rather extreme lengths to effect a merger. Mill-Pack, par 100, is quoted at around 145, and Premix, par 50, is at 75 now, and Mill-Pack is offering a two-for-one-share exchange, which would be a little less than four-for-one in value. I might add, for what it's worth, that this Stephen Gresham you mentioned is Mill-Pack's attorney, negotiator, and general Mr. Fixit; he has been trying to put over this merger for Mill-Pack."

"I'll bear that in mind, too," Rand said.

"Naturally, all this is not being shouted from the housetops," Tipton continued. "Fact is, it's a minor infraction of ethics for me to mention it to you."

"I'll file it in the burn-box," Rand promised. "What was the matter; didn't Premix want to merge?"

"Lane Fleming didn't. And since he held fifty-two per cent of the common stock himself, try and do anything about it."

"Anything short of retiring Fleming to the graveyard, that is," Rand amended. "That would do for a murder-motive, very nicely.... What were Fleming's objections to the merger?"

"Mainly sentimental. Premix was his baby, or, at least, his kid brother. His father started mixing pancake flour back before the First World War, and Lane Fleming peddled it off a spring wagon. They worked up a nice little local trade, and finally a state-wide wholesale business. They incorporated in the early twenties, and then, after the old man died, Lane Fleming hired an advertising agency to promote his products, and built up a national distribution, and took on some sidelines. Then, during the late Mr. Chamberlain's 'Peace in our time,' he picked up a refugee Czech chemist and foods-expert named Anton Varcek, who whipped up a lot of new products. So business got better and better, and they made more money to spend on advertising to get more money to buy more advertising to make more money, like Bill Nye's Puritans digging clams in the winter to get strength to hoe corn in the summer to get strength to dig clams in the winter.

"So Premix became a sort of symbol of achievement to Fleming. Then, he was one of these old-model paternalistic employers, and he was afraid that if he relinquished control, a lot of his old retainers would be turned out to grass. And finally, he was opposed in principle to concentration of business ownership. He claimed it made business more vulnerable to government control and eventual socialization."

"I'm not sure he didn't have something there," Rand considered. "We get all our corporate eggs in a few baskets, and they're that much easier for the planned-economy boys to grab.... Just who, on the Premix side, was in favor of this merger?"

"Just about everybody but Fleming," Tipton replied. "His two sons-in-law, Fred Dunmore and Varcek, who are first and second vice presidents. Humphrey Goode, the company attorney, who doubles as board chairman. All the directors. All the New York banking crowd who are interested in Premix. And all the two-share tinymites. I don't know who inherits Fleming's voting interest, but I can find out for you by this time tomorrow."

"Do that, Tip, and bill me for what you think finding out is worth," Rand said. "It'll be a novel reversal of order for you to be billing me for an investigation.... Now, how about the family, as distinct from the company?"

"Well, there's your client, Gladys Fleming. She married Lane Fleming about ten years ago, when she was twenty-five and he was fifty-five. In spite of the age difference, I understand it was a fairly happy marriage. Then, there are two daughters by a previous marriage, Nelda Dunmore and Geraldine Varcek, and their respective husbands. They all live together, in a big house at Rosemont. In the company, Dunmore is Sales, and Varcek is Production. They each have a corner of the mantle of Lane Fleming in one hand and a dirk in the other. Nelda and Geraldine hate each other like Greeks and Trojans. Nelda is the nymphomaniac sister, and Geraldine is the dipsomaniac. From time to time, temporary alliances get formed, mainly against Gladys; all of them resent the way she married herself into a third-interest in the estate. You're going to have yourself a nice, pleasant little stay in the country."

"I'm looking forward to it." Rand grimaced. "You mentioned suicide rumors. Such as, and who's been spreading them?"

"Oh, they are the usual bodyless voices that float about," Tipton told him. "Emanating, I suspect, from sources interested in shaking out the less sophisticated small shareholders before the merger. The story is always approximately the same: That Lane Fleming saw his company drifting reefward, was unwilling to survive the shipwreck, and performed _seppuku_. The family are supposed to have faked up the accident afterward. I dismiss the whole thing as a rather less than subtle bit of market-manipulation chicanery."

"Or a smoke screen, to cover the defects in camouflaging a murder as an accident," Rand added.

Tipton nodded. "That could be so, too," he agreed. "Say somebody dislikes the looks of that accident, and starts investigating. Then he runs into all this miasma of suicide rumors, and promptly shrugs the whole thing off. Fleming killed himself, and the family made a few alterations and are passing it off as an accident. The families of suicides have been known to do that."

"Yes. Regular defense-in-depth system; if the accident line is penetrated, the suicide line is back of it," Rand said. "Well, in the last few years, we've seen defenses in depth penetrated with monotonous regularity. I've jeeped through a couple, myself, to interrogate the surviving ex-defenders. It's all in having the guns and armor to smash through with."

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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
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