T HE GUNS pointed in every direction. They were strewn under glass and Paul Benjamin went the length of the counter studying them.
"Interested in handguns?"
The proprietor was hopeful not so much for a sale as for conversation. Paul recognized the inquisitive tone-guns were objects of beauty, artifacts; give the proprietor encouragement and he'd wheel out his display of flintlocks from a back room.
The shop was heavy with oiled rifles and shotguns. Here and there a decorative sword; one corner grudgingly displayed fishing tackle; all the rest was guns.
The proprietor dragged a lame foot when he walked: perhaps his passion for firearms came from their lack of human imperfection. He had grey skin and little moist eyes and an apologetic smile. A recluse. If it weren't guns it would be a meticulous array of electric trains in his basement. Evidently he was Truett; that was the name painted on the front window.
Under the buzzing fluorescent tubes Paul's hand looked veined and pale. "Could I see that one?"
"The Webley?" Truett unlocked the back of the case.
"No-next to it. The .38?"
"This one you mean. The automatic."
"Smith and Wesson." Truett put it on top of the case. "You know the weapon?"
Truett slid a blotter cloth along the glass and overturned the pistol on it. "Takes your standard nine-millimeter round." He popped the magazine out of the handle and proffered the pistol.
Paul looked at it tentatively.
The ball of Truett's thumb massaged the side of the empty magazine. "A gun ought to be selected for its use. You mind if I ask what purpose you have in mind?"
Paul had the lie ready: it was glib on his tongue. "I've just moved out from New Jersey. My brother and I bought a radio and electronics shop down in Chicago. We're opening next week."
"You want the gun under the counter against holdups, then."
"We thought of buying two guns. A very small one that would fit in the back of the cash-register drawer, and a bigger one to keep under the counter."
"Makes sense. Crime what it is today..." Truett retrieved the pistol and slid the magazine into it. "You don't want this one."
"Maybe you'll have kids wandering around the shop. You'd have to leave the chamber empty and the safety engaged. By the time you got it loaded and off safety the holdup men could shoot you fourteen times. Look here."
Paul watched him grip the slide with his left hand.
"Assume that's a loaded magazine I just inserted. Here's what you've got to do before you can fire this thing. It takes two hands and it can't be done silently."
Truett pulled the slide back. There was a metallic racket when springs shot it home.
"Now you've loaded a cartridge into the chamber and you've cocked the weapon. But you've still got to push the safety off with your thumb, like so." Truett aimed the pistol at a wall. " Now you're ready to shoot."
He put it away under the glass. "Single-action automatic is not a good defense weapon. You want a good revolver, or a double-action automatic."
"Now here's a manstopper." Truett's voice was different. He lifted something from the case and held it flat on his palms like a reverential offering.
It had the beauty of extraordinary ugliness.
"Too bad it's got the same disadvantages as that other automatic. But this is a collector's item-I'll lay odds you've never seen a Luger like this one. They only made a handful of these in forty-five caliber."
Paul tried to put a polite show of interest on his face to mask his fascination. The .45 Luger had ugly lines: bulging tumors of dark steel. He felt mesmerized.
"A crook finds something like this pointed at his face, he might just faint from fear without you having to shoot at all." Truett smiled but the smi