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Copyright © 2016 by H. Beam Piper
Interior design by Pronoun
Distribution by Pronoun
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 can.”
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 agency.”
“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 authorization.”
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 Rosemont.”
“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 idea.”
“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.”
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.”
HUMPHREY GOODE WAS SIXTY-ISH, SHORT and chunky, with a fringe of white hair around a bald crown. His brow was corrugated with wrinkles, and he peered suspiciously at Rand through a pair of thick-lensed, black-ribboned glasses. His wide mouth curved downward at the corners in an expression that was probably intended to be stern and succeeded only in being pompous. His office was dark, and smelled of dusty books.
“Mr. Rand,” he began accusingly, “when your secretary called to make this appointment, she informed me that you had been retained by Mrs. Gladys Fleming.”
“That’s correct.” Rand slowly packed tobacco into his pipe and lit it. “Mrs. Fleming wants me to look after some interests of hers, and as you’re executor of her late husband’s estate, I thought I ought to talk to you, first of all.”
Goode’s eyes narrowed behind the thick glasses.
“Mr. Rand, if you’re investigating the death of Lane Fleming, you’re wasting your time and Mrs. Fleming’s money,” he lectured. “There is nothing whatever for you to find out that is not already public knowledge. Mr. Fleming was accidentally killed by the discharge of an old revolver he was cleaning. I don’t know what foolish feminine impulse led Mrs. Fleming to employ you, but you’ll do nobody any good in this matter, and you may do a great deal of harm.”
“Did my secretary tell you I was making an investigation?” Rand demanded incredulously. “She doesn’t usually make mistakes of that sort.”
The wrinkles moved up Goode’s brow like a battalion advancing in platoon front. He looked even more narrowly at Rand, his suspicion compounded with bewilderment.
“Why should I investigate the death of Lane Fleming?” Rand continued. “As far as I know, Mrs. Fleming is satisfied that it was an accident. She never expressed any other belief to me. Do you think it was anything else?”
“Why, of course not!” Goode exclaimed. “That’s just what I was telling you. I—” He took a fresh start. “There have been rumors—utterly without foundation, of course—that Mr. Fleming committed suicide. They are, I may say, nothing but malicious fabrications, circulated for the purpose of undermining public confidence in Premix Foods, Incorporated. I had thought that perhaps Mrs. Fleming might have heard them, and decided, on her own responsibility, to bring you in to scotch them; I was afraid that such a step might, by giving these rumors fresh currency, defeat its intended purpose.”
“Oh, nothing of the sort!” Rand told him. “I’m not in the least interested in how Mr. Fleming was killed, and the question is simply not involved in what Mrs. Fleming wants me to do.”
He stopped there. Goode was looking at him sideways, sucking in one corner of his mouth and pushing out the other. It was not a facial contortion that impressed Rand favorably; it was too reminiscent of a high-school principal under whom he had suffered, years ago, in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Rand began to suspect that Goode might be just another such self-righteous, opinionated, egotistical windbag. Such men could be dangerous, were usually quite unscrupulous, and were almost always unpleasant to deal with.
“Then why,” the lawyer demanded, “did Mrs. Fleming employ you?”
“Well, as you know,” Rand began, “the Fleming pistol-collection, now the joint property of Mrs. Fleming and her two stepdaughters, is an extremely valuable asset. Mr. Fleming spent the better part of his life gathering it. At one time or another, he must have owned between four and five thousand different pistols and revolvers. The twenty-five hundred left to his heirs represent the result of a systematic policy of discriminating purchase, replacement of inferior items, and general improvement. It’s one of the largest and most famous collections of its kind in the country.”
“Well?” Goode was completely out of his depth by now. “Surely Mrs. Fleming doesn’t think...?”
“Mrs. Fleming thinks that expert advice is urgently needed in disposing of that collection,” Rand replied, carefully picking his words to fit what he estimated to be Goode’s probable semantic reactions. “She has the utmost confidence in your ability and integrity, as an attorney; however, she realized that you could hardly describe yourself as an antique-arms expert. It happens that I am an expert in antique firearms, particularly pistols. I have a collection of my own, I am the author of a number of articles on the subject, and I am recognized as something of an authority. I know arms-values, and understand market conditions. Furthermore, not being a dealer, or connected with any museum, I have no mercenary motive for undervaluing the collection. That’s all there is to it; Mrs. Fleming has retained me as a firearms-expert, in connection with the collection.”
Goode was looking at Rand as though the latter had just torn off a mask, revealing another and entirely different set of features underneath. The change seemed to be a welcome one, but he was evidently having trouble adjusting to it. Rand grinned inwardly; now he was going to have to find himself a new set of verbal labels and identifications.
“Well, Mr. Rand, that alters the situation considerably,” he said, with noticeably less hostility. He was still a bit resentful; people had no right to confuse him by jumping about from one category to another, like that. “Now understand, I’m not trying to be offensive, but it seems a little unusual for a private detective also to be an authority on antique firearms.”
“Mr. Fleming was an authority on antique firearms, and he was a manufacturer of foodstuffs,” Rand parried, carefully staying inside Goode’s Aristotelian system of categories and verbal identifications. “My own business does not occupy all my time, any more than his did, and I doubt if an interest in the history and development of deadly weapons is any more incongruous in a criminologist than in an industrialist. But if there’s any doubt in your mind as to my qualifications, you can check with Colonel Taylor, at the State Museum, or with the editor of the American Rifleman.”