At first, in the weak light, he thought he saw the body. But the drawer was empty!
“Thank you,” January Stevens said, his voice drowned out by the applause of the audience in the small lecture hall. He turned to leave the platform.
The hall was filled almost to capacity with an audience of quietly dressed men and women. They had come to hear a world-famous author speak on his most recent book, and the attention they had given his words was complete and sincere during the entire two hours.
“Just a moment, Mr. Stevens,” the lady chairman said, standing up. The applause stilled. “Perhaps the audience has a few questions to ask. I myself have one.” She paused while Jan turned to face her. “What is your next book about? You are writing another, aren’t you?”
“No, I’m not,” Jan said. “Of course I might write another sometime; but right now I have no plans in that direction.”
“What!” the chairwoman said, smiling. “You write a best seller and aren’t making plans to reap the benefits of your fame?” When Jan only smiled she turned to the audience. Any questions? Ah. There’s a hand. Yes?”
“Where did you get the idea for your book ‘Me and My Robot’, Mr. Stevens?” the owner of the hand asked, rising.
“Well, that’s hard to say,” Jan said. He darted a glance at Paula Morris sitting at the side in the front row, then turned his eyes back to the man. He seemed just an innocent spectator with a vacuous face. “Where do ideas come from?” He grinned. There was a ripple of laughter in the audience.
“What I mean is,” the man persisted, “did it come from any research work being done at present, by you or by someone you know?”
Jan glanced toward Paula again, frowning uneasily. While his eyes were on her a shot shattered the silence of the auditorium. Jan’s eyes swung up in time to see the man who had asked him the questions stiffen, then sag down, dropping out of sight behind a row of chairs.
In the stunned hush that followed a chair overturned at the rear of the hall.
“He did it!” a woman’s voice shouted, clutching at a man. The man struck at her with a hand containing a gun. Free of the clutching fingers, he ran to the exit and vanished.
Jan was already off the platform running up the aisle. He reached the exit seconds behind the fleeing gun-man. The doorman was coming toward him.
“What happened in there?” the doorman asked. “I thought I heard a shot.”
“Did a man just run out this door?” Jan asked hurriedly.
“No,” the doorman said.
“He must have,” Jan said. “Which way did he go?”
“Nobody came out any doors,” the man insisted. “I ought to know. I’ve been out here all the time.”
Jan turned back into the auditorium. A crowd had gathered about the spot where lay the man who had been shot. Jan pushed through and saw Paula bending over him in a hastily cleared area.
“How is he, Paula?” he asked, stooping down beside her.
The man on the floor looked up at Jan, then smiled painfully. “I should have waited to hear what you wanted to tell me,” he said, smiling ruefully.
“But you were shot!” Jan said. “How could you–?”
“I didn’t mean just now,” the man said. “I meant–”
A shudder shook his body. He became still.
“He’s dead,” Paula whispered, drawing away from the man, her eyes wide.
“Dead?” a scared voice came from the crowd. “Let’s get out of here, Emma. I don’t want to get mixed up in a murder.”